Issue #55 – Beer Money

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series The Descendants Vol 5: How the World Changes

Part 4

Superhuman psychology was a field of study still in its fledgling years and already there were volumes written on how people reacted on a mental level to having abilities outside of the norm. Some felt it shouldn’t be that vastly different from the effects of having a mundanely superior physique or intellect. Others pointed out that there was a difference between being able to jump higher and not having to jump at all because one can fly.

This too was fouled by the sheer variety of powers. Yes, there were categories: energy manipulation, telekinesis, protomorphism, et al; but even within these, there were dozens of subclasses, many of which had only one known example. The rise in the popularity of cybernetics and the advent of USE (uncategorized source entity) abilities had thrown the field into even more chaos.

But while there might not be any definitive case studies, it is universally agreed that except in the case of some USE’s, those with powers are still fundamentally human in mindset. And one very human fact is that when all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.

***

Reggie was hungry. Kevin had drawn the line at stealing food when they have plenty of cheap food at the house, but Reggie was already tied of ramen, tuna and all the combinations thereof.

Relax Five wasn’t doing him any favors either. There wasn’t much to offer at the bar besides six dollar protein bars and even more expensive packets of cookies or nuts. But as he prowled around the club, trying to catch the eye of a likely miss, his nostrils twitched at the smell of something good.

Catering good, not club chow good. It set his stomach growling. He looked around the see what it was, but nothing presented itself but the bar and the empty stage. And then it hit him: Sonja Remington was there. The big star in the not-big club. Of course they would try to suck up to her with a nice catered spread between sets. And there was probably enough food for that band she was there with too.

He’d already floated the idea of sneaking back stage to meet Sonja, only to be shot down by Kevin. But sating his hunger and meeting Sonja? Totally worth it. The problem would be the big bouncer standing next to the door leading to the back.

Reggie looked around to make sure Duncan and Kevin were occupied before first heading to the bathroom. There, he split into a trio, sending the copies out one at a time before leaving himself. By the time he got out, one of his copies was talking animatedly to the bouncer and pointing toward the stage. As instructed, he was trying to use the old I’m with the band’ line that had gotten Reggie kicked out of so many concerts in his life.

Sure enough, the bouncer quickly grew tired of the copy’s insistence and grabbed his arm to escort him out. And the minute he was gone, the second copy walked through the door and into the back. This one was the trap springer. There was usually someone watching the halls back stage, and sure enough, minutes later, another bouncer came through the doors with the second copy.

Now the way was clear, and Reggie sauntered casually through.

The smell was even better there. Definitely turkey and fresh baked bread. His mouth watered as he turned the corner and came face to face with the buffet of his dreams. There was a turkey breast, freshly carved, a thick, crusty loaf of sourdough, a platter of cheeses, and another of seafood; shrimp, scallops and crab. There was also a smaller platter set with banana slices with peanut butter on crackers.

“Dude, score!” He muttered, grabbing a plate and starting to construct a sandwich. Everything was going smoothly until he was just about to take a bite.

“Excuse me?” The voice was sweet, non-threatening, and had the slight quaver of the perpetually shy.

Reggie took the bite anyway before turning to see who it was. His gaze feel on a girl a little younger than him. Her hair was tied back from her face but allowed to fall freely down her back in beatific, brown waves. As she came nearer, her heavy, white boots clonked, the metal rings marching up her sleeves clinked, and her elaborate white and red layered skirts rustled. It was a wonder he hadn’t heard her earlier.

And it was a miracle that he remembered to swallow before speaking. “Hey there.” He grinned and leaned on the table, sandwich in hand. “Name’s Reggie.”

Juniper had too much on her mind to even notice the blatant come on. “The food is kind of for the band. And their friends.” According to the caterer, Sonja ordered it for them. It was an obvious gesture of friendship, but for Juniper, it represented yet another way in which Sonja was better for Snackrifice.

“That’s alright. I’m with the band.” He lied instantly.

For a moment, Juniper stared at him, not sure how he missed that she was backstage and in costume to perform. “No you’re not.” She tried to remain polite nonetheless.

“Sure I am.”

She tapped her finger too her lips. “No, see… because I’m in the band. And I don’t know you.” Keeping her voice soft and friendly was getting to be a problem, because she was getting the impression that he thought she was stupid.

Somewhere in Reggie’s brain, one lonely neuron found another and something clicked. For the first time, he added context to her outfit and what she was saying. “Oh. Whoa, dude. Um… really?” It came out of his mouth without permission and even he knew how dumb that sounded.

Juniper attempted an airy laugh, but it came out condescending. Any other time, keeping what her mother called her ‘sunshine’ going would have been a non-issue, but stress was making her feel far lass sunshiny than usual. “Yeah, I’m kind of the lead singer… for now.”

Being less than a scholar didn’t mean Reggie lacked empathy, and it was easy to hear the sad note in her voice. “For now?”

“After this, Sonja’s going to be the lead singer.” She sighed, actually happy to have someone to say that out loud to. “And I guess I’ll be nothing.”

Thoughts of food and girls faded when he heard that and saw her face. “Dude.” He said soulfully. “I’m really sorry to hear that.”

Juniper shook her head. “No, no. It’s a good thing. With Sonja, my friends can really go places. They’ll get tours and more people will buy our—their music and everyone will be happy, you know?”

“But what about you? Doesn’t look like you’re happy.”

Her eyes fixed on the food because she didn’t want to look at him. “You should go back into the club. You could get in trouble if someone catches you back here and I don’ want you to get in trouble. You can keep the sandwich.”

Reggie frowned at the sandwich. It didn’t look all the important anymore. “Yeah, okay.” It felt like he should say more and he hesitated, straining to figure out what it was he should add. “Yeah… so, good luck out there tonight. Can’t wait to hear you, I bet you’re awesome.”

With that left hanging in the air, and without a reply from Juniper, he trotted back the way he came.

***

Much like Juniper, Sonja wasn’t who she said she was. Juniper was to Willow Chamberlain what Sonja was to Consuela Gallegos. And where Juniper maintained a strong front of unflinching optimism and lackadaisical behavior, Sonja’s facade was that of a surprisingly on the ball young woman who maintained a very adult grip on her small personal empire.

With the door to her dressing room closed, she had Jailhouse Rock cranked and was practicing bad karate moves in front of her mirror.

Against her manager Mack’s better judgment, she eschewed a stylist and wardrobe for her debut. After all, the whole point of singing, as far as she was concerned, was to be herself. For once, she wasn’t doing it for the money, but for herself, for the sheer enjoyment.

So her costume consisted of a black silk camisole with black opera gloves that had their fingers and a panel on the back cut out, navy jeans with silver and red flowers patterned on, and her favorite sandals, which didn’t match anything, but were incredibly comfortable. Her hair resisted taming thanks to a consistency like wire (making her either a bane or boon to any hairdresser she met), and so was allowed to hang in its natural fanned shape about her shoulders.

Of course, she didn’t want to embarrass herself up there, and that’s why she was working with Snackrifice. When she heard them in Mayfield, she loved the music, but it was the lyrics that really caught her attention. It wasn’t lost on her that she didn’t have the spark for writing lyrics, no matter how Mack tried to obfuscate. It just took a rare abuse of her star-power and the promise of greater exposure to get them on board with writing for her.

“Wha-ha!” She threw a one-two punch at her reflection just as there was a knock at the door.

“Sonja, can I come in for a minute? I just heard something that got my attention and I need to ask you something.” It was Mack, his voice managing to be soft, yet carry clearly through the door at the same time. She waste no time inviting him in.

He slipped in and closed the door, concern painting his face. Before he spoke, he visibly gathered himself, running a hand over his bald pate in a way she’d seen a million times when she’d done something against his advice. Mack was something of a surrogate father to her; he wouldn’t be cruel to her, but he would let her know that he was Very Disappointed, which she felt was worse than being cruel.

“Connie,” In private, he wasn’t shy about her real name either, “I thought this was going to be a hobby. A few times a year between modeling jobs.”

Sonja continued to mug for her mirror. “It is. Huaaaa-ya!”

“Then why does Miss Taylor think you’re taking over lead singer duties?”

The words caught her in mid-kick and aborting that action in favor of turning to face him almost made her fall over. “Huh? When did that happen? Me, take over for her? That would kill the band. Even if I wanted to, they’re all friends, they would never do that to her.”

Mack made an expansive gesture. “Search me. That’s what I heard her say in the hall just now. She said that you were going to be lead singer.”

Sonja shook her head. “That’s not right at all.” Then a sudden horror entered her mind. “What does she thinks happens to her then?”

He told her.

“I’ve got to go talk to her.”

“It’s almost time for the curtain, she’s probably on stage even now.”

“I can’t let her do that. Can you imagine having to go up on stage thinking those things about yourself? And that your friends are letting it happen? This could be a disaster. This could kill her.”

***

Frank Rook slid a fresh magazine home into his pistol and pulled back the slide to chamber it. The thing was ancient, having been in his family for generations, all the way back to his grandfather’s days in the mob back at the turn of the century. It was still in perfect working condition thanks to diligent maintenance, and had racked up a kill count on par with a small war.

Anyone that asked why he was strapped with an antique got the same speech about how the lack of tech actually made it better for his line of work; far more untraceable, no biometric lock to slow him down, and he could make his own bullets. It was perfect for the man who had people to shoot.

But Frank was old fashioned beyond that. He paid in paper whenever possible, and laid out the money to get his morning news in print. He even swept and washed his floors himself; no robot ever set wheel, nor actuator into his home.

One concession was his palm-top, which he had out at the moment, committing the target’s face to memory from the image on the screen. His eyes traveled up to the screen that served as Relax Five’s sign. “Your guy sure he went in here?” He asked a spindly man in the driver’s seat next to him.

“Positive.” the driver replied. “Went in with two others, but he couldn’t get a clear picture. The bosses should be happy with just him though; send a message to the other gobheads that they ain’t welcome, right?”

Frank grunted and opened the door. “I’ll see if I can’t get the whole set.” In the mirror, he saw a van parked up the street. “I’m going in alone, see if I can’t pull him out by myself. If not, send all the boys in.”

“This is supposed to go down quiet.” the driver complained. The Syndicate could hush up small things, but they didn’t have enough cops on the payroll and none with rank high enough to make it go away if something big went down.

“Guy’s got powers. The way things are going, we can tell ’em we’re bounty hunters, like they got down south after these powered types.” Frank reasoned. He didn’t listen to another word from the driver, walking tall and proud toward the entrance, a tight roll of fifties in one hand to make sure the bouncer knew he was welcome.

***

The ring was warm on Kevin’s finger. He didn’t pay it any mind. The others had asked him to turn it on so they could still impress with their improved dexterity on the dance floor. He was comfortable just where he was; leaning on the bar with a rum and coke (minus the rum because he was on a strict budget) in his hand and a pretty Korean girl leaning on his arm in the most comfortable of ways.

“So your dad’s a cop, huh?” She was saying, “What about you? Thinking of joining the force yourself?” Leaning even closer, she let a seductive smile come across her face. “I think you’d look even hotter in uniform.”

“Maybe I can rent one to wear for you.” He said with his own seductive grin and a quirked eyebrow. “But no. I’m pre-med, actually.”

A short guy, a bit younger than Kevin came out of the crowd on the dance floor. His chaotic, black hair was matted with sweat, and he had a band T-shirt on for the group that was supposed to be playing, Snackrifice. Kevin judged him to be the tough guy type from the metal snakes up around what passed for his biceps, but he carried himself with the over caution and issued the requisite ‘excuse mes’ of someone used to attention ending badly for him; someone who was picked on in school.

The guy walked up to the bar right beside Kevin’s new friend and Kevin forgot all about him in favor of her almost instantly.

“So you want to be a…” Elanor, the girl at his side, faltered in her lines, which had been pretty standard flirting, and goggled at his hand. “What’s that?”

Kevin followed her gaze to find that the ring was alight. Not only that, but the clear gem he thought was a dud, shone brightly, shifting from clear to silver before his eyes. He had no idea what was happening, but he couldn’t Elanor know that. “Oh that? It’s… something a friend of mine in college cooked up. Ever heard of a mood ring? This thing’s like that, but a lot more accurate. Silver means I like you.”

He patted himself on the back for the quick thinking, but something didn’t feel right. If feel was even the right word. Looking at the ring, he was hyper-aware of the band around his finger, down to the impurities in the metal on a level that was beyond sight.

That wasn’t the only thing he was noticing for the first time either: the brass fittings that lined the bar, the aluminum in the bar stools, Elanor’s ear and eyebrow studs, and even the snakes around the short guy’s arms all leapt into supernatural clarity. And the thing that really worried him was that he knew instantly what all this new information meant, aside from the last one.

“Really? Cool. Can I try it?” Elanor asked excitedly.

No way was he taking that ring off until he figured out what was going on. “I’m… sorry. I can’t. It’s the only prototype he’s got, so I promised to be very careful.

And then something else entered that strange, new sense. Over by the door, he felt them: lead, copper, steel. And he knew as if he’d spent long hours studying that feeling: that combination in those proportions meant a gun.

Elanor was completely forgotten as he looked up and found a stern faced man in a gray suit pushing his way through the crowd. It took only moments to see that he was headed right for Duncan.

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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