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 contempt for the flesh [18+], maxberg goes to vegas
bird
 Posted: Aug 21 2016, 03:04 AM
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There are three of them.

Big men, dressed too well for a bad neighbourhood, their jackets weighted tell-tale heavy to one side. They follow him up yucca-planted sidestreets and up heat-cracked pavements, pausing when he does, nonchalant if he glances at them, skirting past decrepit charging stations and neon cowgirl bars like shadows underfoot. In the army, in the old days, there would be eight pairs of eyes to reach to through the neural implant in the back of his skull, a kind of sight-without-seeing; there would be seventy kilograms of SN-46 body armour to hide behind, anchored to the magnetic tether points still in sitting in his bones.

Max has groceries in his hands now. Once, one of them almost meets his eyes in the reflective glass pane of an old storefront window: we see you. He lets them follow him to the no-name motel, pausing, just for a breath, with his key in the door and his knuckles whitening, still beneath a halo of moths beating themselves senseless against the light overhead. I know.

He isn’t a local. The final instructions, delivered a week ago, say wait here - here, in this rathole, seemingly for no reason in particular. He sticks around anyway. Wait here. Lay low. We’ll contact you first. Ahead, Mojave Road curls in onto itself in the shadow of the freeway, blistered by the desert heat. Residential neighbourhood, or something like it: motels like this one with only John and James on the register, empty concrete lots overtaken by weeds. The night is cooling, almost tepid now, stained sodium-yellow and hanging monsoon-heavy over the palm trees. A distant bassline oozes from across an empty lot and dies along the curb.

Minutes after he steps inside, the lock clicks open again.

He takes the first man out by the neck – dragging him in and throwing him down, and then it begins in earnest, knee to groin and elbow to throat. A nose shatters under his fist; a heavy blow catches him in the jaw, in the ribs. Fingernails dig into his neck and then release, a skull cracking into furniture. His hand closes on a wrist reaching for a gun and breaks it like a rabbit’s neck. A suppressed bullet whines into the dark, a puff of drywall kicking up.

Max pulls one of their own guns on them before they do. He steps towards the open door, and hears his own voice saying hands on your head, don’t fucking move. They put their hands on their head obligingly. They slide their weapons across the cheap linoleum when he asks. And when he steps back to lean the back of his head into the door frame, heart hammering in his ears, there is a black car in the lot waiting for him.

A man steps out of it, smiling, with his hands up. Max watches him over the pistol sights.

“Mr. Zaitsev, is it?” the man says. Another security contractor? A middleman? Floods of silver information scrolling across his corneas paint his eyes uncannily bright. “Please don’t shoot. Mr. Solberg is very eager to meet you.”

Seconds drag by, with only the cicadas singing in the dust. He breathes out softly.

Eventually, he lowers the gun.

*


This was always the plan. He knows that much, even before the dingy suburbs peel away and the night goes from faded yellow to shining neon, and the silver-eyed man ushers him past the fountains of the Bellagio. There, in shirtsleeves, he looks about as baseline as anybody might - tall and broad with muscle, dark blonde hair shorn close to the skull. There is still blood on his clothes and under his fingernails when he takes the elevator up to the penthouse, alone.

The rooftop lounge looks over a terrace, a long, still pool glowing impossibly blue between the palm trees. Far below, Las Vegas is a monster -- meadows and silver ingots traded for neon teeth and ruby eyes, the streets scored into the desert floor and filled with heavy golden filigree. The bar is curved glass and polished marble; a bottle of champagne more expensive than the clothes on Max’s back sweats in a silver bucket of ice. But the booths are almost empty, and the lounge is eerily quiet. The bartender watches and says nothing. Security staff cling sullenly to the walls.

Only one of the tables is occupied.

"Mr. Solberg?"

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XANDER
 Posted: Aug 25 2016, 10:39 AM
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He sits at the table like a coiled serpent.

Serpent. The word is a hiss, two syllables slithering tail to mouth on their bellies over a metallic double-meaning: a reptile, or, a treacherous man. Treacherous: characterized by readiness to betray trust. From 14th century Anglo-French trecher, deceiver, and French tricheur, trickster. Solberg, serpent. If Solberg is even his real name. If he even has a real name anymore.

He looks small from a distance, sipping his champagne. In all the emptiness and lights and glass, he could flicker and disappear in a flash of light, in the time it takes for the lights to shine too bright off the bar, and there would be nothing. This would all be a dream, a too-retro introduction of a watered-down supervillain, with the jazz lounge music turned down too low to enjoy it properly. The sound of the pool water lapping at the edges is drowned out by the horns of taxi cabs.

If Max has had a gun drawn on him - and he has, that is why he is here - he knows the feeling of that staggeringly long moment when his would-be killer reaches for his gun. He knows how the seconds drag out to hours when the lethal bullet misses, only clipping his shoulder. It is like that, when Vincenzo Solberg turns his head and looks at Max.

*


Blood is leaking through his fingers, his hand clenched over a wound on his arm. His palms are dirty and his shoes are scuffed and his heart is pounding in his chest. Once, trapped in first class with a Hollywood psychotherapist, Solberg was lectured on how the body's reactions to stress and one's personal consciousness of it are entirely separate things. It may well be that Solberg's heart is often racing, and he does not notice. This time, it is throbbing against his ribs with such fever that every pulse brings a twinge of pain. Cognitively, he would describe himself more as 'annoyed' than 'afraid'.

His mouth runs on a track separate from his thoughts. He thinks, No one should have known, and says, "We're leaving from a different airport." The driver asks, "Where?" and Solberg says, "Hai Phong to Wuhan to Los Angeles." He peels the rubbery prosthetics from his face with his free hand. He thinks, There's a rat.

Serpents swallow rats whole.

*


Solberg stands. He is tall and lean with auburn hair slicked back from the center. His eyes are the color of healthy, waxy Kapok leaves just before a logging company comes to cut down the rainforest. He has the perfect posture and easy smile of a hologram.

"You are Maksim Zhaitsev?" There is only a faint scar on his left arm from the injury five months ago. The wound in his mind never closed. It oozes with his infection.

He extends his hand, his palm up in welcome, then gestures to the chair across from him. "Please, sit."

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bird
 Posted: Sep 29 2016, 11:38 PM
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Max isn't sure what he expects. It isn't this. Business as usual is old senile money or corporate stooges, the kind of work that never looked for more than another dumb vaguely ex-military tough, the kind he is overqualified for, the kind that would never seek him out this personally. It is the first time that he hesitates this evening. Next to Solberg he is taller, broader, younger, meaner; his wounds are fresher. Long before this slow, trailing moment in the bar, watching each other, the fundamental wrongness of it all collects like blood beneath the skin.

But he takes Solberg's hand and shakes it curtly, settling into the seat offered to him. Below, the Vegas lights swim like a daydream. Holographic billboards the height of buildings smile and turn on loop.

"I could have killed them," he says; flatly, clarifying, "Your men." He isn't bragging. He isn't even surprised, not really; it's one way to vet a candidate, anyway, although the plan had likely been less slapdash before it was set into motion. The questions are in subtext and the dried blood on his knuckles, the dull ache of a rib or two for the autosurgeon to fix. Doesn't it bother you?

What for?
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XANDER
 Posted: Sep 30 2016, 12:07 PM
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"You could have," Solberg says. "But you didn't." He does not sound particularly interested in the possibility of it, or its consequences. He is one of those strange people who has succeeded in reducing human lives to chips on a board, or game pieces, or credits and debits. Max says, I could have killed them, and perhaps he thinks of the blood, and the lost time, and the hurt families. Solberg thinks of life insurance payouts and the irritation of the hiring process. He knows his men the way a child memorizes stats on baseball cards. Emil: batting average 0.309, likes sardines, has twin eight-year-old daughters. Carlo: runs batted in - 73, most likely to cry under stress, spills wine on himself. It is knowing without knowing, rote memorization without love.

"You don't seem like the talking type," he goes on congenially, "so I'll get straight to the point. I'd like to hire you." Solberg looks over his shoulder and gestures at the bartender, who pops the cap off the champagne bottle. Either acceptance of Solberg's offer is presumed, or he does not care enough to wait for Max to accept.

When the billboards flash and change colors, sometimes the light reaches far enough to cast eerie light on Solberg's face. He smiles the way people ride bikes with their hands in the air.
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bird
 Posted: Oct 23 2016, 03:14 AM
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Would he be in this room if he had killed them? Would it matter? It's not as though Max can afford his better instincts, which want nothing to do with Vegas or anything in it even as they look over the room and tally up weapons and exits and odds. But the champagne comes to the table in tall flutes, and the neon ghosts across Solberg's face like something almost living, and it is much too late for any of that. Everything in the lounge is too slick and too still, as though waiting for him to exhale.

"Alright," he says. "I'm listening." This doesn't matter either. Corpses with penthouse suites do their business in broad daylight, with delegates and contractor firms and security checks -- making Solberg mob, maybe, or something worse entirely.

Max doesn't touch his drink. "What do you need me to do?"
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XANDER
 Posted: Oct 24 2016, 05:27 PM
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Before technology was the great Satan of the world, people like Solberg were accused of being sorcerers, wizards, and werewolves. The inhumanity of them - their stillness, their watchfulness, the strangled nature of their hearts, like a bird throttled in a golden cage - has set others on edge for centuries. He sips his champagne and smiles brightly when Max asks what he's supposed to do, because that's basically a 'yes', and a 'yes' is all he is after. It is a bright, shimmering 'yes' to Solberg, a 'yes' that he hopes will extend his life, which he fears could be cut short.

(What's 'short' these days? Does Solberg plan to live forever?)

"Oh," he says, waving one hand, "Nothing exciting, right now. Just a little..." How does he say this? "...watching? Security." Solberg traffics in darkness because he is darkness, a man of wigs and facial prosthetics and manufactured accents and fake resumes and lies, lies and lies and lies, doing whatever is necessary to hustle up valuable corporate secrets. He is more easily forgotten at night, when people are high or drunk or tired or busy with dirty deeds of their own.

"Simple things for right now. I'm between jobs." But not between money.
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bird
 Posted: Jul 21 2017, 10:11 PM
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What Max knows about Solberg -- what he can guess at, between all the secrecy and the glitz and the champagne sweating in between them -- is nothing so fantastical. No evil sorcerers or monsters haunt his nightmares, and the slick neon unreality of Vegas itself feels like someone else's daydream. For him, Solberg instead belongs to a familiar, if more mundane species of creature: the minor oligarchs and their would-be Western echoes, the self-styled apparatchiki, the sly-mouthed FSB men wandering the military bases every now and then. He has stood in their shadows long enough to know that they pay well, that they cannot be trusted, and that he should choose his next words very carefully.

"Security," Max echoes. His eyes remain still, his face and voice studiously impassive, but some trick of the light or some edge of his accent must betray him then. because it sounds as much like of course as it does bullshit.

(There is no impulse to say, 49th Guards Army, mechanized infantry, 5th spetzgruppa, or don't you know what I am?, because, of course, this is not new information for either of them.)

He drinks some of the champagne. It is as light and insubstantial as seafoam.

"Fine, then. And what happens after that?"
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XANDER
 Posted: Aug 4 2017, 05:48 PM
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There is a key difference between Solberg and the oligarchs, Solberg and the apparatchiki: context. The FSB men operate within a network; they are a specific predator, with specific prey, in a specific environment. They belong to something - an organization, a purpose greater than themselves, a shared feeling or hunger. Solberg belongs to nothing: he is the same man in Dubai, in Hong Kong, in Prague. Just as the human eye will see patterns where the is only chaos, there is a natural instinct to draw an affiliation to Solberg and Las Vegas, to Solberg and men who may resemble him.

But he is not like them. He is alone.

"Security." He is still smiling. He either does not hear the disbelief in Max's voice, or does not care to. "And after that..." The smile stretches, tightening and thinning as it does. "More intense security." Does Max differentiate much between 'guard' and 'soldier', beyond pay grade?

"Do you have any preexisting obligations that you need to resolve?"
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bird
 Posted: Aug 14 2017, 06:44 PM
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"No."

Max is a ghost, after all. It might be the best thing to recommend him in a city with no shortage of hired muscle -- no immigration or medical records, no outstanding warrants or debts to pay, no special registration for the nanites in his blood or the forty pounds of milspec hardware reinforcing his bones; owing nothing, belonging to nothing. "Everything's been taken care of."

Maybe it's his own reflection setting his teeth on edge, but saying no stopped being an option long before he ever got in the car.
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XANDER
 Posted: Aug 18 2017, 09:02 PM
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Solberg has not yet asked a question that he does not know the answer to. Max's recommendation did not happen overnight: it was pieced together through hearsay, anecdotes and gossip, a fine blend of truth and lies that Solberg sorted out. There are things he will need to verify, such as how much of Max is still original organic material, how much of him is modified, and how much of him is machine. Do you have any preexisting obligations? They would not be having this conversation if Max did.

Solberg stands. "I have a floor at the Bellagio right now. That is where you will stay." His hands dips inside his suit jacket, from which he removes two latex gloves. Only after he slips those on does he remove something else - a thin black device, the size of a credit card and a few times thicker, in a plastic container. Solberg cracks the top half open, and holds it out to Max. "Thumb, please. Press and hold in the center." He goes on to explain, "The button for the twenty-seventh floor will only work when you use this thumb. Please don't lose your hand." It's happened before. The grid of the card, broken up into cells by the millimeters, glows around Max's thumb. When the grid goes dark, Solberg pulls the card away, claps the plastic top back on, and holds it out.

In the space between them, there is the card, the night air, and the devil's bargain. Solberg smiles again.

"I look forward to working with you."

*

The first two weeks are dull, as far as security work goes. Solberg appears to spend the majority of his day doing... very little. Often he remains holed up in his hotel suite, dead to the world, while his men patrol the hallway. Sometimes he meet other men and women at the casinos, at the bars, talking of this or that disaster or tragedy - an escalation from magenta to crimson on the pollution levels in Beijing, the hostage situation at the Fessenheim power plant - and sometimes lighter, sillier things that make no sense, like how many pine needles it takes to stuff a child's pillow. It must mean something, because Solberg comes away from these talks in a variety of moods - pensive, irate, content, grave.

Max is subject to various points of data collection, including a retinal scan, a blood draw, and an amusing episode with a handheld metal detector, which mostly serves to unnerve the other members of Solberg's goon squad. He is also gifted with a set of bespoke suits, where his only real choices are light gray, gray, or dark gray?

One night, after eleven, Solberg takes a call. He holds the phone to his ear so briefly that it seems like he made a mistake, that there was no call at all, that he holds it and finds it only silence. He has Carlo bring the cars around, a trio of black SUVs. They leave the twinkling, toxic lights of Vegas behind. They drive.

Two hours is spent in dull silence. The cars take an off ramp that seems to lead nowhere, where nowhere is a ghost town hosting the dying poor and the paranoid - the people who can only make rent in a town that offers a Super Walmart and a single gas station, and the people who wish to be forgotten. The former is where they stop, in a sprawling parking lot brightened with rows of towering stationary lights. It's a parody of Vegas, or maybe what Vegas really is, underneath the color and the sound and the opium of risk and gain.

Solberg leads the way, only going as far as the mini fridges in the front of the store, where he selects an energy drink at random. There is only one cashier, a white man with a cul-de-sac hairline and an unevenly trimmed mustache. His name tag says 'ROLLY :)'.

"Did you find everything all right?" ROLLY :) asks. The first half of the question comes out of his mouth, the second half out his nose.

"Actually," Solberg says, "I was looking for a birthday present, for my daughter, but it seems you're out of the girls Apple electric bike?"

ROLLY :) scans the sweating can as if Solberg had said 'Yes, thank you.'

"In chevron," Solberg specifies.

ROLLY :) stares at Solberg. Solberg, with over half a dozen men in suits hovering behind, stares back. Finally, he picks up the phone and announces via the intercom, 'Manager to the front, please, register seven.' He hangs up. "Come with me."

The only safe spaces now are corporate spaces, spaces where a single, profit-hungry force has dominion, where conspiracy is highly organized and difficult to audit. ROLLY :) marches them to the back of the store, past the 'EMPLOYEES ONLY' double doors, through an open warehouse floor, to a door demanding a key card and a thumb print. ROLLY :) opens the door, holds it for Solberg - and only Solberg - before turning away.

Solberg passes the energy drink to the man closest to him, who happens to be Max. "Hold this."

They go in.
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