Asp, by Sean T. M. Stiennon

SFReader 2004 Story Contest
Second Place Winner

In some ways, this tale seems like a “throwback” to the kind of SF story that was popular in the mid to late eighties.  In other ways, the story feels completely new.  And it is new, if only for the fact that the author, Mr. Stiennon, is quite new himself, having not yet quite attained the tender age of seventeen.  We hope to show our prescience about the future of spec-fiction by awarding young Sean Second Place in this year’s contest. – D.B.

Beam brought the news to Blademaster while he was sleeping on a pile of crates in the storeroom, a curved knife held in the palm of one hand.

“Alex, there’s a new Advan.”

Blademaster’s eyes snapped open and he flicked the knife away with a thought.  He faced the young man, putting his hood down and twisting his baseball cap around until the brim was parallel with his neck.

“Plenty of new Advans all the time.  Most can’t do more than lick things six feet away or something like that.  This one better?”

The gleam of white teeth lit up Beam’s Asian face.  “Sure.  This one’s got fangs.”

“So?”

“Three inches.  With venom glands.”

Blademaster let out his breath slowly.  “Alright.  Tell me who he is.”

“We don’t know the name or the address, but he’s about twenty-three.  He works at a restaurant on Kappa St.-Italian, I think.  Uses fake dental devices to disguise the teeth.”

Blademaster stood, throwing himself off the crates.  It was always unnerving looking into Beam’s eyes-he felt an urge to slip on his sunglasses.

“How did you find him?”

“Shag was eating out.  The metal-mouth junk didn’t fool him.  He got a good look into the guy’s mouth and saw the sacks.”

“Any other Advances I should know about?”

“Shag didn’t notice anything else.”

Blademaster rubbed at the dark stubble on his chin.  It had been a while since his last shave.  “Last question: Do the Whites know about him?”

“We don’t think so.”

“We?  You mean Shag and you?”

“No, I’ve already told Cloak.  He told me to get you on the job.”

Blademaster scrunched up one eye and twisted his lips.  “Did he say who’s coming with me?  I prefer to pick my own squad.”

“He knows that, but he suggested Shag and I.  We’re the Blademaster Crew, y’know.”

Blademaster nodded.  “Small enough not to attract immediate attention, but tough.  Sounds good.  You ready?”

“Shag isn’t.”

“Get him ready.  One hour.”

Beam nodded, still grinning, and ran off, leaving Blademaster standing in darkness.  He stayed there for a moment before going to the door, running over a mental catalog of his knives.

***

They left the base by a side door that no one used–openly.  Most of the surrounding buildings were abandoned like the base appeared to be, although street kids sometimes came down there for their pot parties and drinking.  No one was there to notice the three young men make their way through the alleys and gutters into the busier parts of town, shrouded by black night.

Blademaster walked behind the other two, even though he was their leader.  It was a habit.  The three had worked together before, and if they encountered anybody dangerous this way, Beam could flash them, Shag could bowl them over, and Blademaster could do a more thorough and deadly attack.  Although they carried no guns–not many did, with the city’s laws–they all knew that they had nothing to be afraid of unless the Whites showed up.

Kappa Street cut through the heart of the city’s downtown.  It was a place where people went to eat–Japanese, Chinese, Afghan, Russian, and, of course, Italian.  There was McDonald’s and KFC for less refined tastes, along with a TGIF for those in between.

The three slipped onto the sidewalk from an alley and blended with the pedestrians. A digital clock hanging from a street sign said 8:37.

“Where is it, Shag?” said Blademaster. “There’s at least four Italian places here.”

“A few blocks up the street.  I eat there sometimes.  He’s a new employee–that’s why I noticed him in the first place.”

Blademaster nodded.  “Lead on.”

As they walked, Beam said, grinning, “What are we going to call this one?  Big fangs like a snake, right, Shag?”

“Right.  At least, that’s what I think.  He had them well concealed.  But I could tell he was an Advan even apart from that–he didn’t look normal.  His eyes were a little too big.”

“Snakeman?” said Beam, then laughed. “Maybe he’ll have grown scales since you saw him.”

“Ask him what he wants,” said Blademaster. “Let him pick his own name.”

Beam turned to him, still grinning.  His teeth flashed bright in the street lights.  “Just like you, huh?”

“Yes.  Like me.”

They kept walking.  Blademaster struggled to keep his fingers from the side of his sweatshirt, feeling at the grip of the knife concealed there.  It wasn’t his only one–his pants were full of them.

Shag led them to a place that was large and darkly lit-good place for a fight, if it came to that.  A bright sign above the door, striped in red, green, and white read Mario Pasta’s All-Nite Italian.

Blademaster frowned, narrowing his eyes.  “All night.  We should have come later.”

“We can always wander around for a couple hours and then come back,” said Shag.

“Yeah,” said Beam, “get some drinks.  You just call Cloak on the cell and tell him we’ll be a bit late.”

Blademaster shook his head.  “No drinks.  And the longer we’re out here, the sooner the Whites or someone who knows them will recognize us.”

“Aw, Alex, you know that’s not going to happen,” moaned Beam. “There’s plenty of people like us.”

“Really?  Tall man, in his twenties, with a black hoodie, baseball cap, and heavy-looking cargo pants, in the company of an Asian wearing a white t-shirt and yellow jeans, along with a hillbilly?  How many groups like that are there?  They might not be confident enough to attack us, but they’d get suspicious.  I should have taken others.  Shiftslim and Lead, maybe.”

“Aren’t you proud of the fame?  We’re the Blademaster Crew!”

“We won’t be anymore if the Whites bring in a task force.  Maybe they’d put our ash boxes next to each other once they’d executed us.”

Beam frowned–a very rare sight, with him.  “You’re too afraid of them.  Last time we met Dervish, Spark, and Cube, we sent ’em back blinded and cut up.”

“Cloak was with us, then,”

“He’s an honorary member of the BC.  So is Spit.”

Blademaster clenched his teeth.  “Spit doesn’t need my help to get himself killed.”

Shag clapped a furry hand on each of their shoulders and rumbled, “We look more suspicious standing here debating.  Either we go in or we don’t.”

“We go in,” said Blademaster. “Beam, shut up or you’re out of the ‘BC’.”

“Aw, say it ain’t so, Alex,” he said, the grin returning in full force.

Blademaster pushed open the doors, and the three went in.  There were about twenty diners mulling over wine and pasta, tables lit by candlelight.  It took Blademaster a moment to notice that the candles were fake and the tablecloths were plastic.  The three of them were overdressed.

“Look, Alex, behind the counter,” said Shag.  He kept moving his head, as if looking for a table, while he spoke.

There were three people there, and two were women-one young, one older.  The third was a man who was long in every way–his neck seemed to extend a couple inches too far, and his arms were the same.  His face was long and dour, half covered by what looked like an extensive piece of orthodontic headgear.  His eyes were bright green.

“Do what you do best, Alex.  Tell me when to flash ’em,” whispered Beam.

“Not now,” snapped Blademaster. “We’ve got to catch him alone.”

Shag shrugged.  “We should have come back later.”

“No.  We need to know when his shift ends.  Do you know?”

Shag shook his head once in each direction.

Blademaster sighed.  “Let’s sit down, then.”

The chairs all had a strange bulge in the back, as if to discourage patrons from doing more than eating-quickly.  The table-plastic felt like it was coated with a thin layer of grease.

“Don’t stare,” Blademaster told Beam. “We’re just guys coming in off the street.”

“I’m not looking at him.  Back in moment.”

Blademaster didn’t have time to stop him.  It was too late to call him back without suspicion, and he didn’t turn around to see Blademaster’s angry expression.  He made a straight line to the counter and the young woman behind it, wearing his best smile.  She smiled shyly in return.

“Hey there, my friends and I would like a bottle of your finest red wine.  What would you recommend?”

She smiled shyly.  “Well, er… I don’t really know.  You’ll have to specify something.”

Blademaster heard Shag snort.  Beam didn’t know the first thing about wine.  He faked it.

“I’ll have the Morrazi ’98 then, if you please.”

She pursed her lips, looking at her screen.  “Erm… I don’t see anything like that here, sir.”

He could only be seen in profile, but it was enough for his widening grin to be visible.  “Maybe you’ve got something else I might like.”

He threw one of his elbows onto the counter and leaned forward.  Blademaster hung his head and gritted his teeth.

The woman took a step back from the counter, blushing.  “We’ve got other wine.  I see one ’98 that you can get for $20.”

Beam kept going.  “What time do you get off work?”

She frowned now.  “Sir, please make your order.  Then go away.”

“Alright.  But what time does he get off work?” said Beam, languidly aiming a thumb at the Advan who stood a few feet away.

That was too much.  Blademaster threw his chair back and came towards him, with Shag following a second behind.  He clapped a hand down on Beam’s shoulder, hard.  “I’m sorry, Miss.  My friend is drunk.”

“Hey!  That’s a lie, Bladeboy!”

It took Blademaster a little over a second to smash Beam’s head down into the counter, hard.  It left a bloodstain behind.

“I’m very sorry.  We’ll leave.”

“You’d better,” she spat.

“Alex, he’s gone!” said Shag, his voice grating.

Blademaster turned to see the Advan gone, and the door to the kitchen still swaying on its hinges.  He released Beam, slapped a palm down onto the counter, and vaulted over it.

“Hey!  What do you think you’re doing?” shouted the older lady.

He kept going, charging for the doors with his left fist held out like a battering ram.  His right hand went for a knife.  Behind, he heard Shag’s heavy boots hit the floor and come pounding after him.  There was a bright flash, like lightning, a scream from the young woman, and a jaunty “Sorry, baby,” from Beam before he followed.

The kitchen was obscured by steam from a dozen pots lined up along its stoves, but Blademaster saw the door at the other end of the room swung shut.  He ran for it, his right hand coming up with a four-inch switchblade extended.  It was a simple weapon–the kind that he kept a dozen of in his room–but the blade was sturdy and the construction was light enough for him to handle it easily.

He ducked the arm one of the cooks sent out to stop him, then heard Shag’s fist impact with the man’s face.  Hopefully, he hadn’t hit him too hard–Shag could easily break bones with his bare hands.  Shouts from the other cooks, and another impact, told him that Beam was following.

Blademaster went through the door into a dark room.  The illuminated space around the door was filled with crates.  He opened his hand so that the knife was on his palm, its blade stabbing out over his fingers.  “We know what you are,” he said to the darkness.

The attack came quickly.  A snarling face, green eyes opened wide and serpentine fangs gleaming, lunged out at him from the darkness.  Even the tongue was forked.

Blademaster connected his mind with the symbol he had scraped into the knife’s blade and launched it while bending his legs and ducking beneath the strike.  The man’s jaw had opened too wide for any normal human, and Blademaster saw that his neck had stretched out.  Then, just as Shag and Beam entered the room, it whipped back into the darkness.  Blademaster drew another knife, identical to the first, and threw it with his power.  He couldn’t tell whether it had hit, but he heard a hiss from the darkness and the sound of another door opening.

“Flash him first chance you get,” he told Beam.  “Shag, we’re going to try and take him alive, but break bones if you have to.”

Then he moved towards the slit of pale light that was the doorway, leaping over crates he could barely see.  Blademaster came into the moonlight with a third switchblade in one hand and three small triangular blades hovering above the palm of his other hand.

A motorcycle engine roared, and Blademaster could see headlights moving away down the alley towards the street.  Even though he almost never swore, the temptation was strong.  That Advan could move fast.

Blademaster launched a pair of his triangles, but neither of them seemed to hit anything.  He mentally pulled another two from the pouch on his waist and sprinted after the Advan.  As Blademaster watched, he pulled out onto the road and sped away.

“Move!  Move!” he shouted, clearing a garbage can in a single leap.

They were confronted by the steady flow of glaring lights and rushing sound as they hit the street.  Already, the motorcycle with the long-limbed Advan crouched on it was receding.  But, a second later, a silver Taurus sedan pulled up to the curb, and the driver unlocked the doors.  Shag had pulled one open, almost wrenching it off its hinges, before they could hit the lock button again.  He threw the passenger–a young man wearing an overblown anime t-shirt–to the sidewalk and then did the same for the driver.  He went for the wheel while Blademaster sat down next to him and Beam clambered into the back.

Shag didn’t need to wait for an order to slam the gas pedal into the floor and send them rocketing into the stream of traffic.  Horns honked.

“You’re good, Shag,” said Beam. “Not a cop in sight.”

Blademaster spent a few seconds replacing his hovering blades with balls of blunt steel-small enough to control easily, but heavy enough to do damage.  If he was going to take this Advan alive, he’d need them.

“Hey, guys, I’ve got a name for him,” said Beam, grinning. “Most guys would say ‘Viper’ or ‘Python’, but I’ve got a better one: Asp!”

“Asp it is.  Shut up,” said Blademaster, trying to see where the motorcycle had gone.

He almost put a blade in Beam’s head when he saw him popping off an old man in a red Corvette.  Someday, Beam would do something that would either kill him or put him in a 10×10 cell for the rest of his life.

There were two intersections ahead: One turned green just before Shag went through it, and the other turned red as the traffic river of Syster Avenue cut across it.  Blademaster thought he saw a tall neck in the back-up at the intersection.

“Faster,” he hissed.

Shag was swerving around other cars, dodging between lanes.  Now it was Beam who was getting the finger.  Speaking quickly, Blademaster told them his plan.  They came to the intersection before Beam had time to comment.

The brakes squealed as Shag slammed them down.  The car had been clocking at least eighty, and Blademaster almost hit his head on the dashboard.  He felt Beam slam into the back of his seat.

“Out!” he snapped.

He didn’t wait for his companions.  Blademaster threw his door open hard enough to rock the suspension, jumped out, and dashed between the parked cars.  The cross traffic hadn’t slowed a bit.  He had time.  The motorcycle was three cars back from the intersection.  Blademaster sent a ball straight at the scrawny chest of the man perched on top of it.

Asp heard Blademaster’s tennis shoes hammering against the asphalt before the ball could hit.  He twisted away from it and ended up on the roof of one of the parked cars.  His face turned towards Blademaster, jaw stretched wide and fangs showing.  Blademaster heard screams and terrified swearing from the occupants of the cars.  He pulled a knife-this one a six inch fixed blade-and jumped onto the rear hood of Asp’s perch.  He latched onto another pair of balls and threw them both, one a split-second after the other.  With impossible speed, Asp dodged both and sent a fist towards Blademaster.  The Advan’s wrist stretched.  Blademaster dodged, but the blow clipped his jaw and opened a stream of blood.

“Leave me alone!” Asp shrieked.

There was a flash, like the lights being turned on in a dark room, and Asp screamed and clutched at his eyes.  Blademaster heard Beam’s voice shout, “Get ‘im, Bladeboy!”

Blademaster came back from Asp’s blow and went up onto the car’s roof, but Asp was gone.  He had recovered from Beam’s flash long enough to see his way to jump to the next car over.

Another fist snapped out at Blademaster, the wrist stretching grotesquely.  Blademaster leapt too, going around it, and twisted past a second fist.  His knife shot toward Asp’s chest.  The Advan slid around it like his namesake and came at Blademaster with his fangs.  Blademaster leapt back off the car to dodge and watched the neck snap over him.  The spaces between the vertebrae were inches wide.

He turned and glanced over his shoulder to see Shag and Beam holding off a crowd of angry faced men and women, some of them holding tire irons, baseball bats, and small knives.  Shag shattered a man’s face with a blow from one hairy fist while Beam made eye contact with a young Latino and blinded him with a bright flash from his irises.

When Blademaster looked back at the roof of the car, Asp was gone.  He saw the Advan leap onto the sidewalk two lanes away and run into an alley.  Blademaster went after him, chest heaving from exhaustion.  Asp was a runner.  He had to have trained for it to go that fast.

The parked cars began to move as the light finally changed.  Blademaster went between the last two and avoided being run over by inches.  He hoped that Shag and Beam weren’t hurt, but he didn’t have time to check on them.  His sneakers ate up the ground as he went into the alley and drew a trio of balls and a combat dagger.  Asp was dangerous-the dagger was to kill him if he couldn’t be captured.

Blademaster was five yards into the alley, with a row of garbage cans on his left, when a sobbing moan echoed between the walls, coming from some place he couldn’t pinpoint.

“Please… leave me alone,” said Asp. “I wasn’t going to hurt any of you.”

Blademaster thought better of answering.  He took a couple steps backwards to get himself away from the garbage cans and scanned the darkness.  His eyes had been blinded by headlights-he could see very little.  Asp wouldn’t be any better, though, and he had gotten a flash from Beam.

Blademaster waited.  The three steel orbs moved in a slow circle above his hand, catching colored lights from the street in their polished surfaces.

“I’ll kill you if you keep chasing me!” Asp croaked.  He was crying.

“It’s either us or the Whites.  Advans can’t be neutral,” said Blademaster, voice even.

“Why not?”

“People try to kill us when they find us.  The police don’t like us.  We need to come together.”

“You and the Whites aren’t together!”

“Enough talk.  I leave that sort of thing to my master.”

Blademaster pulled a triangular blade and set it hovering behind his head, just in case.  It was one of his larger ones, big enough to penetrate ribs.

The attack came suddenly.  A garbage can emerged from the darkness just ahead of Blademaster, its contents spilling out behind it.  He dodged to the side, and it crashed to the ground a few feet away.  Then he rushed down the alley, hurling a couple balls in front of him.

One of them hit.  He heard the smack as clearly as it had come from a great bell, and then the thud of Asp hitting the pavement.  Before he could recover, Blademaster was on his chest, dagger held against his throat.

“I give you a choice,” said Blademaster. “Either join the Advance Legion, led by Cloak, or I kill you.”

The tears on the young man’s face sparkled in the light reflected by Blademaster’s dagger.  Now, the fangs bulging beneath his lips looked almost pitiful.  “Please… I don’t want to fight.  You’ll make me fight.  Your war with the Whites will just go on and on until half of you are dead and the other half are either killed by mobs or captured for… research.”

The last word sent a sob racking through his body, and it made a shiver run down Blademaster’s spine as well.  It was the fear of every Advan.  Worse than death.

“So you won’t join Cloak?”

“No!  He’ll make me chase after Advans like me, who want to be left alone and don’t want to fight and die.  I’ll have to kill them or die myself, and I don’t want to!”

Blademaster saw the hand begin to shift and slammed a ball into it.  Asp screamed, almost cutting his own throat against Blademaster’s dagger.

Blademaster’s mouth was dry.  “Your choice.”

Asp was heaving with uncontrollable sobs.  “N-n-o,” he croaked. “Kill.”

His arm tensed.  Suddenly, Blademaster was sharply aware of the cool wind that was blowing in the alley, of how it rattled the strings on his hood and brushed his hair.  His eyes locked with Asp’s serpentine gaze.  He was right -Cloak had been looking for another good hunter, and Asp was powerful enough for the job.

Blademaster hated killing people like this, when they were on their backs and helpless.  Usually it, happened while he was fighting them, with just a quick blade in the chest or the throat.  And Asp was too weak in mind for what Cloak would want him to do.  Especially if he cried when faced with death.

“Swear to me that you will never join the Whites.”

Asp’s tears seemed to dry up almost instantly from shock.  “What?”

“Swear you won’t join the White Alliance!”

“I-I swear it.”

“Then get up and go.  Be out of the city by dawn.”

Blademaster stood up, sweeping the steel ball up from Asp’s hand with a strand of his thought.  It had left a dark bruise, but nothing worse.

The other Advan was breathing heavily, chest heaving against his t-shirt.

“I haven’t got enough money for a plane….”

“Then take a bus.  Shut up and go.”

Blademaster left the alley without looking back and heard feet running away in the opposite direction.

***

He met Shag and Beam at the closest rendezvous, near a telephone booth that had been vandalized years ago and never repaired.  Both of them had cuts and bruises, and Beam was nursing one of his wrists, but they wouldn’t need more than showers and band-aids.

“I had to kill him.  He was desperate-and dangerous,” said Blademaster.

Shag nodded.  “I could have told you he’d be like that.”

Blademaster glared.  “Then why didn’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter.  You know Cloak’s orders.”

“Yes.”

Beam grinned.  “Oh, well.  I wouldn’t have wanted a human snake in the Legion anyway.”

It took a lot of effort not to stab him, and even more not to punch him, but Blademaster just gritted his teeth in the shadow of his hood.  “Let’s get back and make our report.”

The three moved off into the dark streets of the city.  This time, Blademaster hung back a little further than normal, his head bowed.

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