V IS FOR VICE
“Well? You gonna buy that or not?”
The customer jolted, startled by the booming voice coming from just over his shoulder. Behind him, Vi squinted at the military-grade handheld cannon in his arms, one arm on her hip. “Good taste,” she praised, clapping him on the back and nearly knocking him over, before hefting a second cannon in one hand and offering it to him - though he balked at it, presumably due to the imposing shark’s head on the front. “Though, if you’re getting one, you gotta get the other, it’s a set deal, you know?”
“Uh, I think I’ll pass.” Glancing around surreptitiously, the other dragon leaned in close, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper. “Got any of the good stuff, Vi? I got someone looking to buy, real rich collector or some sort. Looks a little weird, but you ain’t scared of upgrades, are you?”
“Like hell I am. Just who do you take me for, some dainty maiden in distress?” She gave a hearty guffaw at that, slamming both gauntleted fists together. They hummed with a low, familiar pulse, glowing faintly yellow in the dim light of the backroom. Relaxing, the pearlcatcher chuckled to himself as he set the cannon back on its display.
“Who here doesn’t know of the Vi? Trader of parts, puncher of faces - I’m kidding, I’m kidding, don’t punch me!”
“Damn straight. Now, you gonna tell me who this mystery buyer is, or not?”
The young, freshly-promoted cop stared down at the gleaming barrel of the plasma pistol in his hands. Fresh off the production line, fully charged and ready to go. Just holding it in his hands made him feel invincible.
First day on the job, with a simple enough first task. Patrolling was routine by now, drilled into him after years of training that had led up to this very moment. Sliding the gun back into its holster, he set off towards the lower sectors, humming a cheerful tune.
So far, so good.
Thunder roared overhead, the skies leaden with grey storm clouds. The crowds below dispersed like so many rats as the rain began pouring down, slicking the asphalt streets and leaving behind reflective puddles of water. A flick of his wrist brought his visor up, rain streaking off its surface. With most of the evening crowd gone, all that remained were the glowing city lights, blurry through the visor’s protective screen. No one wanted to be out in miserable weather like this.
Still, he had a job to do. Wiping away the excess moisture from his visor, he made his way through the winding streets, splashing through puddles of rainwater with only his shadow to accompany him. The rain had tapered off to a lighter drizzle, though the skies were no less gloomy. Kicking aside a stray piece of litter, he glanced up at the dark clouds, snapping to attention as the hum of background electronics grew louder without warning.
Something bounced to a halt at his feet. Any law enforcement officer worth their salt would recognize a grenade when they saw one. He threw himself to the side milliseconds before it exploded, the force of its detonation launching it high into the air. It hit the ground and exploded a second time, sending bits of asphalt flying. From somewhere within the darkness of the shadows, a hollow, crackling laugh rang out.
The pistol in his hands shook. Those were Class 3 Prohibited explosives at the very least. This was no random troublemaker.
“Now, now. No need to get so fired up, rookie.” Another laugh, this one just as horribly jarring and broken as the last. Around him, the street lights began flickering out one by one. Something gave way with a sickening crunch, and he whipped around blindly, desperate eyes scanning the now-dim path. Suddenly the gun didn’t quite feel like enough protection anymore.
“Identify yourself at once, or-”
“Or what?” The unseen voice practically purred, a low rasping noise. “You’ll shoot me? You are quite welcome to try, puppet.”
From within the pitch blackness, twin pinpricks of crimson gleamed. A single step into what little light remained revealed sleek obsidian steel and a matted fur collar coiled tight around its neck like a slumbering beast. To his horror, it was only partially shaped like an Imperial dragon - bits and pieces of its body had been welded on in places, a grotesque patchwork of machinery - though the rest of its hulking silhouette remained obscured by shadow. Sensing his apprehension, its mouth split open in a grin that stretched unnaturally wide, baring fangs sharp enough to crush metal with. All these things and more, he shoved aside to process later in favor of taking cover as the distinct "chik" sound of a gun reloading reached his ears.
“Let’s see how well you dance.”
The body had been found facedown in the dirt, hands outstretched as if he'd been trying to claw his way forward. He'd been running from something - or someone, perhaps.
With a gentle nudge of her boot, Vi turned the corpse over onto its back, hands flopping uselessly to the sides. Dead eyes stared unseeingly back at her, mouth open in a silent, horrified scream. There wasn't any need to ask how he'd died. The hole that went through his head said it all.
Alex whistled. "Look at those," he breathed, pointing at the corpse's wings. Two more holes, not so much torn as they had melted cleanly through the plating of metal armor and bone. Another similar gap was visible, square in the center mass, barely a hair off the middle, the surrounding flesh singed and reeking of acridity. Whoever had done this was a professional. The shots were simply too clean, too precise to be the work of your average thug. The authorities weren’t exactly met with open arms here, but this was something else entirely ‐ murder committed in cold blood.
It wasn’t her business to know who had a grudge against who - the more fights, the more buyers would come looking to gear themselves up, after all - but she found herself unsettled nonetheless at just how clean the shots were, perfectly lined up with pinpoint accuracy. Plasma, that much was obvious from the way the flesh had been melted instead of punched through by brute force. Still, plasma guns were off-limits to most of the public, and the cop’s pistol was neatly tucked back into its holster, so for the shooter to have had such a weapon on them could only mean...
Something about the entire scenario rubbed her the wrong way, spine prickling uncomfortably. Whoever it had been had left the body out in the open on purpose, had wanted it to be found. Best not to get involved. With that thought in mind, she caught hold of Alex’s arm and hauled him back to the shop, where they could speak a little more freely. Corpses were bad news, and the last thing she needed was to be accused of murder or subjected to unnecessary investigation.
“Your man’s still coming to that meeting later, right?”
“Oh, him? Yes, he was quite interested in your wares. He’ll be here.”
She grunted briefly. “He’d better be. Did he tell you what he was looking for?”
Alex paused at that, a flicker of unease crossing his expression. “I don’t really know. He said something about upgrades, needing new parts to work with - I told you, he’s a weird one.”
Weird was nothing to worry about. Once you’d lived long enough in these parts, weird became the norm. With a nonchalant shrug, Vi began inspecting the polished barrel of the gun on display beside them. “Money is money, Alex. I'd go broke if I turned away every weirdo sniffing for upgrades,” she reminded him.
Alex sniffed somewhat disbelievingly, turning up his nose at the remark. "I doubt that. Come on, we need to get ready for the meeting."
It was dark.
Heaps of scrap metal and parts were piled high, teetering haphazardly on the brink of collapse, the air stagnant and stale. Glass crunched under her boots as she led the way, squinting into the dreary depths. Sector 11 was a dump, to say the least, but she'd conducted business here often enough to know her way around.
Something scurried above them in the ceiling, dust sifting down through the cracks in the concrete. "Must be the rats," Alex muttered, shuddering visibly. "I saw one heck of a chonker here the other day when I went past this place."
"Scared of a little rat?"
Vi cackled, slapping him on the back hard enough to make the smaller dragon stumble. "Maybe today's client will be scared enough of rats to clean out my whole stock, eh?" Chuckling to herself, she flicked at the light switch, only to grumble briefly when nothing happened. "Darn place has no power," she groused, thankful for the visor that at least granted her some form of vision in the dark. "Whatever, we better set up shop before he gets here. Can't keep our customers waitin'."
"On the contrary, my dear, I'm right here."
A pair of gleaming red eyes blinked to life from within the shadows as the stranger stepped forward, his hulking silhouette shrouded by a thick cloak. Vi swore, nearly punching the wall beside her, though she was quick to straighten herself. Alex hadn't been kidding about him being strange. No one around these parts talked like that - smooth and drawling, but with a strangely unnerving undertone to it. This wasn't your average black market buyer, that much was for sure.
"Bloody hell, you could've just said hello like a normal person," she joked, sticking out a hand to shake. "Name's Vi. You already know Alex. So, what'll it be? Firearms, upgrades, spare parts...you name it, we got it."
Those strangely piercing eyes blinked down at her for a moment, and she fought the urge to squirm under the scrutiny. Something about this one felt...off. Whether it was the unusual bulk - what was he even hiding beneath that cloak? - or how he'd somehow concealed himself before she'd even gotten here, nothing about this situation set her quite at ease. Then Jhin was turning, beckoning for her to follow - presumably to a more appropriate place to talk within the building, she assumed, most likely to one of the rooms that had actual seating in it. She'd been here often enough to know the layout, at least.
They came to a stop in one of the more intact rooms - here, the dust wasn't quite as thick as it was in the rest of the building, and it had less debris and mechanical refuse scattered about than the rest of the surroundings. A table and several old chairs awaited them, Jhin gesturing for them to sit.
Once they'd settled themselves - Alex by the doorway and Vi across from Jhin - Jhin leaned forward, arms crossed. "I believe you have what I seek," he began, "that is, mechanical parts and upgrades. The very finest from the Project line, or so I was told by your dear man here." He glanced sideways at Alex meaningfully, who quickly nodded. "I am more than willing to clear out your entire stock as of this moment, and this can be our little long-term arrangement, if you wish."
She squinted hard at him, trying to judge just how serious he was about the offer, but his eyes gave nothing away. Long-term meant a potential steady stream of good income, and with how chaotic things were in the lower sectors, regular customers were hard to find, much less keep for long. She'd be a fool not to at least consider it.
Some of her hesitance must've shown in her expression, for Jhin soon followed it up with, "price is not a problem, I assure you."
"That so? Well, I suppose we could cut a deal."
The back of her neck prickled uncomfortably. Vi reached up to swipe the sweat off her forehead with one hand, uncaring of the fact that said hand was very much encased in metal. The air itself was charged with tension, almost crackling with unseen energy. What was this feeling?
"Lovely," Jhin hummed, leaning back in his seat, the folds of his cloak shifting around an unusual bulk. "I don't suppose you'd have any of your wares on hand? Surely you wouldn't come empty-handed to a business meeting."
Shoot. Come on, Vi, think...
"Half now and half later, so you don't run off with the goods," she reasoned, holding a palm out expectantly. "You want the whole stock? That'll cost you."
Jhin's smile widened. Unnervingly so. No mouth should've been able to split quite that wide. "Those are some interesting terms you offer." The smile remained, but it was all teeth and no mirth. "But no dice. Your wares, please?"
"Hey, mister, that ain't how it -"
Something cracked, like a snapped twig.
She cut herself off mid-speech, rising abruptly from her seat to stare past Jhin. Something had moved. She'd been certain of it. A blink, and the air shifted, warping strangely as if from heat, only just distorted enough for her visor to detect. Activating her gauntlets, she held her breath as she squinted out at the dimly lit area beyond.
A sudden swirl of dust to the left, and she exploded into motion, swinging a metallic fist and connecting with something solid - her lips twitching into a grin as it was sent crashing backwards, hitting the wall opposite with a heavy thump.
For a moment, all was still. Vi relaxed, lowering her fist.
Movement from out of the corner caught her eye, Vi barely ducking aside as a bolt of plasma embedded itself in the wall just inches away from where she'd just been sitting earlier. A sleek figure materialized from thin air, tumbling forwards and coming up with crossbow levelled and nocked, the barrel pointed straight towards -
"Not another inch," the stranger gritted out, her voice a digitalized growl. Bewildered but wary, Vi kept her fists raised, ready to block - though she wasn't entirely sure how much damage her gauntlets could soak up, not from a plasma bolt at this distance. All polished black and sinuous steel, their would-be intruder circled them both, crossbow never once wavering from its target. For the most part, Jhin appeared amused by the interruption, but she had other concerns. Project's signature logo stood out against the smooth metallic plating. Had they been sent to tail her? Had they caught onto her ‘business’?
"What the hell do you think you're doing? Sneaking around, busting in uninvited -"
"I have no business with you," the stranger shot back tersely. She jerked her head to the side, indicating the still-smiling Jhin. "It's him I'm after." More machine than dragon, but the seething hatred in her voice was anything but synthetic.
Beside her, Jhin laughed - the sound broken and distorted beneath the robotic quality of his voice. It sent an uneasy chill up her spine.
"So good to see you again, Vayne," he purred, arms outstretched in a mockery of a welcome. "You look better than before I got my hands on you and your team. You've been putting my upgrades to good use, I hope?"
"Don't you dare talk to me like we're friends," Vayne spat. The hand holding the crossbow shook. Vi was fairly sure that attempting to run now would only result in getting shot. Besides, just what the hell was going on between these two? So many questions, so little time.
"Is anyone gonna tell me what's goin' on-"
"Puppets shouldn't speak," Jhin sang, still staring straight at Vayne. "This one happened to cut her strings loose after I was done prettying her up. How ungrateful." His jaw tightened, one hand reaching beneath the cloak to draw out a pistol. "You could've been my masterpiece, Vayne, but you chose to throw it all away for petty revenge."
Vayne growled, the sound guttural and oddly animalistic, for someone covered head to toe in jet black steel. "You call butchering others and stitching together assorted pieces art?" she hissed. "You disgust me, Jhin."
Jhin. As in, rogue Project android Jhin. Black market hacker gone mad turned serial killer obsessed, with a penchant for blood and expensive upgrades. Too many DIY upgrades and self-hacks with a taser had left his personality fragmented and distorted beyond repair, or so the rumours went. How the hell hadn't she realized it before? Damn that Alex for setting her up with this crazy bastard.
Speaking of which, where was Alex?
As if reading her thoughts, Jhin's grin only broadened. "Now now, no need to go around pointing fingers," he chided gently. "He was simply playing the part of the puppet that he is. It was a pity things had to end up this way, but it is of no consequence-" He raised a plasma pistol, aiming it towards Vi. Every muscle locked up even as her brain shrieked at her to move.
"The show must go on."
She followed his movements, eyes going wide a split second before Jhin squeezed the trigger.
A shrill whine pierced the air as a bolt of red plasma seared through the space between Vayne and herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a familiar figure slumping forwards. Smoke drifted from the fresh hole in his skull. There was no time to mourn, though.
"Stay out of my way," Vayne hissed sharply, before her outline vanished once more. Vi didn't need to be told twice.
She pushed off the table, rolling aside as arcs of plasma streaked across the space she'd occupied. Something metallic clattered to a halt beside her, hissing and spitting sparks - Vi kicked it aside. It skittered under the table before bursting into heavy black smoke. She pulled herself up into a crouch, throat stinging. Eyes watering, she swallowed the urge to cough. Didn't need to draw attention. Which way was the exit from here? She couldn't see it even with her visor up. Think. One wrong step would probably earn her at least one new hole.
"As feisty as you were back then, kitten. You'd do well not to forget who gave you those sharp claws." A maniacal cackle, bursts of violet lighting up the darkness of the room, accompanied by the occasional flash of red. Vi swore. Where was that damn exit? Behind her? She could've sworn this place wasn't that big. Maybe she'd make a break to the side, fumble her way from there. Still a bad plan but had the lowest chances of getting shot. Least bad plan. Fantastic. She turned.
"Ah, ah, ah, not so fast," Jhin tutted, his voice seeming to echo from the very corners of the room. "I still have need of you, puppet, and I'd hate to have to ruin a perfectly good work of art." She spun a hopeless circle amidst the smoke, before catching sight of a familiar pair of eyes leering at her from the shadows and launching a mechanically-powered punch - but her fist met only empty air.
"Screw off," Vi barked, attempting to wave the thick smoke aside. "You're sick. And a wanted criminal," she added, ducking aside as another explosion tore through the building, cracks spiderwebbing along the walls. His distorted laugh chased her as she dove through the doorway, with a silent prayer to good ol' Alex - he hadn't even known what had hit him, dead eyes still open in glassy disbelief.
Vayne's silhouette decloaked right next to Jhin, lips pulled back in a snarl as she smoothly unslung the heavy crossbow she'd had across her back. "And a twisted madman," she growled, pulling the trigger just as Jhin rolled aside and returned fire - his own shots were slower, but still punched through the concrete walls with devastating ease, forcing Vayne to tumble out of the way.
A tiny blinking red light caught her attention from out of the corner of her eye. Explosives. Had this whole place been rigged beforehand? A glance backwards showed that Vayne had Jhin pinned by the bolt. The same light winked in the rafters above her head.
"You broke us apart for your sick experiments," she spat.
"I will break your code."
Three forces. Three fates. Three endings, to a story that had only just begun unfolding.
She'd be damned if she wasn't going to choose her own ending.
Vi charged, crashing into Vayne just as the ceiling exploded. Jhin's maniacal laughter followed them as they burst out the other side of the wall and into the empty streets. Another explosion rocked the building they'd just tumbled out of, and another, until the whole thing was groaning under the weight of its weakened supports. Pillars sagged, concrete crumbling and struggling valiantly to keep from getting crushed, only to give way to gravity's inexorable pull and collapse with a shuddering sigh.
No sooner had she regained her feet did Vayne round on her, teeth bared and furious.
"That ain't no way to thank someone who just-"
Vayne's frustrated growl cut her off. Glaring first at the crumpled remains of the building they'd barely escaped, then back at Vi, she stood. The muscles in her jaw were tight with barely suppressed rage.
"You took what was mine." Acid dripped from every word, unmistakable even through the digitalized synthesis. Before Vi could retort, her silhouette vanished, leaving behind the distinct stench of ozone.
"Nothing will ever repay that debt."