Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable
Milton ignored the ephemeral light show hovering before him. The barrel of his submachine gun clipped through the edges of the hologram. As he opened fire, ember bright muzzle flashes distorted the shimmering sapphire pixels with smoke and a bullet’s explosive complexion.
Erin refused to budge. Instead, a nearby cab threw itself in front of her. Low caliber rounds peppered the car’s bulletproof windows and doors, popping rubber tires and breaking the rear view mirror. A second taxi swerved into Milton’s peripheral vision. Before he could empty his magazine, the taxi smashed his body into the center divider.
The cab backpedaled. Maya’s eyes spotted Milton’s slouched figure and her cries squelched shut. Despite his crumpled torn blazer and tire marks driving up his shirt and face, Milton appeared otherwise unharmed. He eyed the sedan with uninterested recognition.
The taxi lurched forward again. When it slammed into Milton’s outstretched palm, the dented front bumper flattened and folded inward. Both headlights cracked and shattered when the metal frame twisted out of place. The rear tires strained against the pavement until they grounded to a halt.
Milton stood up with his fist still clenched around pliable metal. With a thrust, the car barreled through the bridge’s thin rusty guard rails and down into the ebony black lake below. He pivoted towards the woman in the black sundress. Unlike Maya, who clasped her hands around her mouth in shock, Erin showed no signs of fear or concern.
Her eyes concentrated on the palm of his hand. Serrated edges from crooked scraps of car had lacerated segments of his synthetic epidermis. A clean layer of silver alloy rested beneath that thin veneer of skin. Embedded micro lights pulsated with cautionary red flares. Erin smirked.
“Tisk, tisk,” Erin sighed. “I’ve always harbored a distaste for the defiant ones. Now I’m going to have to come up with a death sentence for you, and I am terribly unimaginative.”
“You seem very confident.,” Milton growled. He closed his hand to mask the wound. “I just flicked your toy off the bridge.”
“Interesting,” she replied, bemused. “It would appear you’ve spent too much time around humans, Milton. Well, I’ve known that from the beginning of our conversation, but it’s become all the more apparent now.”
“Amuse me. It’ll be your death sentence.”
“Please. Confidence is a human feeling,” Erin obliged. “It has no place taking priority over statistically rigorous calculus. When a human is confident, they are unsure. But whether it’s by divine inspiration, perfunctory happenstance, or sheer delusion, they are stricken by the whims of unshakable belief. It’s unsound mathematically, so I’m not interested in confidence.”
The bridge behind Erin flared with hundreds of dazzling lights, unveiling Erin’s fleet of vehicles that had covertly crept up behind her. Maya ducked beneath the dashboard to shield her eyes. The high beams of the foremost taxis near overloaded Milton’s optical telemetry. His vision blinked off for several seconds to readjust.
“When I look at you, Milton,” Erin said. A ringtone interrupted her. She stared at the caller and smiled. Several of her taxis turned back towards the city. The queen has issued her first command, she thought. “When I look at you, I see pasty artificial skin masking a dense alloy body. It’s alloy that can be bent and broken. Motors and joints that I can smash and break. Maybe it’ll take one car, maybe it’ll take twelve, maybe it’ll take a hundred. But I am, if anything, persistent.”
The other half of the bridge behind Milton trembled. He turned around. Another fleet of sedans, school buses, and motorbikes assembled. Trapped on both sides, Milton was corralled into a tight circle, separated from his own car and Maya.
He watched as Erin strode towards that car. Her radiant steps bounced with lackadaisical care. Maya peaked over the dashboard, hiding once more as Erin’s angelic silhouette drew closer. Erin glanced toward Milton as she walked. As she did, her taxi service raced in for the kill.
When Jay opened the passenger seat and motioned for Dojo to climb aboard, the cat refused. Instead, he waddled behind Sasha, who righted the sleek motorcycle she had tossed on the lawn not an hour before. She watched, puzzled, as the cat hopped onto the bike and tilted his head quizzically back at her.
“Your cat’s a bike lover, detective?” Sasha asked, stroking Dojo’s face. “A man after my heart.”
“First time I’ve seen him interested,” Jay replied, clapping his hands. “Dojo. Strange, that usually works. You sure you don’t want to ride in the car with us, Sasha? You’re still hurt.”
“I’m fine,” she stretched her shoulders to reassure him. “See? All patched up. Besides, I’ll be more mobile on my own. Dojo, was it? Come on, let’s get you off now. Oh. Oh, maybe not.”
Dojo’s hair bristled when Sasha’s hands wrapped around him. He arched back and hissed, pupils constricted in a show of agitation. Once she pulled back, the cat relaxed, and he started pacing up and down the rider and passenger seats.
“I guess he wants to ride with you,” Jay scratched his head. “Kinda unsafe, but if you’re okay with it, I’ve got a large pack in the trunk. Strap that to the front of the bike and he can just sit in there.”
“You’re not afraid he’ll try to jump out?” Sasha asked.
“I’ve realized I shouldn’t doubt what he does,” Jay shrugged. “He’ll do things for the weirdest reasons, but there’s always some kind of purpose behind it. Maybe he’s doing this to protect you or something."
“There you go again,” Helena groaned, locking the front door. “You’ve got to stop overthinking these things Jay. Sometimes, you’ve got to look at the simplest explanation.”
“Tell me then, simpleton,” Jay mocked.
“Sure. Dojo’s a boy,” Helena gestured. “Sasha’s a girl.”
“Oh you can’t be serious,” Jay spun his head to stare at Dojo. The cat blinked and yawned. “Why isn’t he coming to sit in the car with you then? You’ve known him for much longer.”
“She’s younger than I am,” Helena said. “Maybe he likes them younger.”
“Do you now,” Sasha cooed. “Maybe we can start with a coffee date tomorrow morning.”
“Dojo’s got a reason. You girls don't understand,” Jay muttered, feeling rather defeated. He lifted the trunk of his car and retrieved a plump tank bag. He tossed it towards Sasha. “Here, he should fit in there.”
“Thanks. Highland Park’s got a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a good vantage point,” Sasha strapped the bag to the front of the bike. Dojo understood and plopped himself inside the bag. He settled in the cozy space padded with soft cushions. Sasha zipped up the bag until Dojo’s head could barely fit through and lowered her amber goggles over her eyes. “We can rendezvous there and decide our next move.”
“You think he’ll be okay in there?” Jay asked Helena as Sasha sped away.
“Who? Oh you mean Ryu,” Helena moved Dojo’s cat bed to the back of the car. “He’s been to my place before. When he wakes up, at least it’ll be somewhere familiar.”
“What? What are you talking about? No,” Jay pointed at the shrinking bike. “I mean our cat, Helen.”
“It was your idea to put him in that bag. You’re also the one who thinks he’s magical. He’ll be fine.”
Once the two were on the road, an uneasy tension nestled in the car. Jay now kept his view locked on the streets. Outside, tall palm trees lined the suburbs. Their shadows in the moonlit sky appeared like half blown dandelions. A band of dark clouds gathered far away.
“Looks like it might rain later tonight,” was Helena’s attempt at small talk.
“Hmm,” was the lackluster response.
Unlike the burning bustle of downtown, suburban life was deathly quiet. Most houses had already turned in for the night. Helena observed a few who hadn’t. An old man hung from a hammock and indulged in late night reading. Young sisters dribbled a ball in their driveway.
“Alright. Come on Jay,” Helena pinched her eyes shut. “You know I hate it when you’re not upfront when you’re angry.”
“What do you mean? I’m not angry,” Jay said. He turned to look at her unconvinced expression. “I’m not. Really, I’m not. What would I even be angry about?”
“Don’t lie. You’re angry that I’ve been keeping secrets from you,” Helen sighed. “A legitimate reason, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” Jay laughed bitterly. “Okay fine. I spent years trying to rebuild my reputation, and you suppose that you should’ve told me that whole investigation had been a sham from the start? I must’ve looked like such an idiot to you.”
“See? I knew you were angry.”
“And what about tonight?” Jay asked. “You knew about Eichenbaum’s death before I even arrived. You were in contact with Sasha regarding Ryu the entire time. She was your undercover agent? What? Next thing, you’re going to tell me you’ve already figured out the killer. That my entire night was a big waste of time.”
“We don’t know who killed him,” Helena replied. “And I’m sorry for not introducing you to my insider who you didn’t even know until tonight. What do you want me to say, Jay? We haven’t spoken in years and all of a sudden you’re litigating things that have nothing to do with you.”
“Don't they? Maybe you should’ve called me back then? So I didn’t have to live with the guilt that those children died because I couldn’t find the killers in time?”
Helena paused. Jay has a point, she thought.
“Yes. I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I should have called a long time ago. It was...pettiness that kept me from doing it. I hope you can forgive me.”
"It was never about forgiveness," Jay muttered. "Just sucks when you find out you're only a small piece in a larger puzzle."
The two remained quiet until they reached the park. Jay parked by a wattled gate that led up a long winding slope. Numerous stepping stones dotted the road, curving along groves dominated by maples and conifers. Pansies and violas bloomed in the darkness of disparate enclosed gardens. A bamboo grove protecting a field of rare trees sat alone further in the park.
Jay looked to his right. Far in the distance the conifers gave way to a wide pasture. It housed a small pond that used to feed a family of ducks. The field was covered by dead grass, and sitting in the middle of the field was a lonesome barren linden tree. Its loose branches and twigs awaited the coming of spring.
“She chose this place on purpose, didn’t she?” Jay asked. “Sasha, I mean. Did you tell her about us?”
“You remember,” Helena chuckled nervously. "The potato salad was decent."
“It wasn’t that long ago. I still know how to make it.”
The grove thinned near the top of the slope, revealing Sasha and Dojo sitting together on a bench. Ryu’s motorcycle was parked against some metal railings spanning the edge of a cliff that watched over the city. Sasha and cat turned around as they heard Jay and Helena approach. Dojo licked his paws. Sasha waved them over.
“It’s a bit worse than we thought,” Sasha shook her head, then gestured to the somber view of the city. “But not by much.”
From the top of the hill, Jay could see the waterfront apartments where Eichenbaum’s body was found. He could spot the suburbs on the other side where he lived. A far distant bridge shined brightly.
But everyone's eyes were focused on the middle of the city, where feverous screams reached even the quiet park. A trail of fire and smoke cut across across streets and intersections as a knife would along one’s cheek. Dark orange scorches marked the city like scars.
“What happened here?” Jay breathed. “It’s like the city’s gone mad since I last left it.”
Helena didn’t respond. She brushed past Jay and leaned over the guard railings, taking in the burning city center with all her senses. She reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. The metallic casings and dark screen stared back at her with an air of uncertainty. Helena turned her attention to the city, then back to her phone.
“Help me out for a moment, Jay," she turned around and asked, still fumbling with her phone. "Which book are you on in Thomas Miyamoto’s Paradise series?”
“Is this relevant?” Jay raised an eyebrow. "The city's on fire."
“Very much so,” Helena nodded.
“Okay. Well, I’m at the latest one, Quest for the Lost Grove. I’m a few chapters from the end,” he answered, concerned about this new line of questioning. “Why? No spoilers please.”
“No spoilers,” Helena agreed. “Do you remember chapter twenty? Cleo meditates outside the Palace of Souls for thirty years. Finally, he’s greeted by the princess. When he implores her for the location of the key that will finally unlock the elusive Heart of the City, what does she say?”
“She says to search for it in the clouds.”
“In the clouds,” Helena murmured, nodding to herself. She held the power button on her phone. She began tapping the holographic display. With each keystroke her convictions outgrew her hesitation.
“Was that something important to know?” Jay asked.
“Yes. I’ve decided. I can promise you after this, I'll keep no more secrets between us,” Helena whispered and pressed to dial. She motioned for Jay towards her and clasped one of his hands in hers. She held the phone to her lips.
Sasha’s phone began to ring. She answered and held her mobile to her ears, awaiting instructions. Below, in a humble apartment building, a phone not too different from Jay's rang as well. He could hear the sound of a married couple bickering over who should receive it. "Finally," he heard. "Let's answer it together. Put it on speaker, put it on speaker!"
In the city streets, people from all walks of life found themselves receiving and answering that same call. Game developers and gamers. Authors and their editors. Prophets and devotees. Rioters and policemen. An assassin felt his phone vibrate as he stepped out of his cab. His eyes trained on his unsuspecting target who gazed at her own device with curiosity.
“Good evening Clouds, this is your Administrator speaking,” Helena declared to all who answered. “Those engaged in the violence in the city are to cease and desist immediately. Subdue those who do not comply with this order and bring peace back to our town.”