By Remy Nakamura
The Kingdom Coffee Missionary Handbook tells Paulo that he should always put his guns away during a door approach. He’s heard this hundreds of times before, but the Handbook speaks with a voice of authority, deep like a luchador’s, strong like a drill sergeant’s, calm like his abuelito’s. It slides in just under his ARgog’s selectively amplified environmental audio. 450 bonus points if the contact is completed without violence, calculates the Handbook, 900 if there are no deaths. Each death harms the public image of the Kingdom, the Handbook tells him. Paulo nods agreement. Way better to spread the faith on the no-kill difficulty setting.
Still, Paulo is not stupid, so he pauses to load Rambo, his ancient and lovingly modded M4A1 Carbine, before slinging it across his back. Looking bad-ass is his favorite violence prevention technique. The Handbook says nothing about tear gas, and he decides not to mention the CS smoke grenade in his left pocket. His last couple of leads had ended with tense stand-offs. Goddess, yo creo, he prays silently. Help my unbelief. He fingers his mala of Robusto beans, sniffing hard to catch its fading aroma.
Paulo sweats his way towards the gutted husk of a Newport Beach mansion. The ruin looks abandoned, but the Goddess has nudged him this way. This hill overlooks the ocean, a bay (the Upper Newport, according to ARgog’s text overlay), and a blackened canyon wildfire corridor.
A crow scolds him from a scrub oak and flaps away, making him jump and swear. Sorry, he thinks. Paulo is an emissary of the Kingdom, the Handbook tells him. He must be courteous at all times. Tattoos should be covered, piercings removed beyond one in each earlobe. Swearing is sinful and may result in reprimands and loss of points and even levels.
He approaches the roofless house up a path paved of uprooted concrete, scanning for danger. A crow scolds him from a charred post and flaps away. Shit, he says, to no one, and then apologizes. But the repeated crow is unusual. Real life coincidence? A glitch in his goggle OS? Or Goddess, a virus? Shit, he says again, tense now.
Was that a shotgun being cocked? His headset chimes. It paints a glowing red circle over a broken door. Zooming in reveals a double-barrel muzzle. Awesome, he thinks. He won’t spook the residents. 900 points, he thinks. 900 points closer to forgiveness. Like a mantra.
“Buenos dias,” he shouts. “Traigo un mensaje de paz, amor y cafe.”
A bearded man steps into the doorway, gun aimed at Paulo. An Anglo. If not the children or grandchildren of the original homeowners, someone in hiding. Cuidado Paulo, he thinks. The Handbook is quiet now, but in his mind he can hear it remind him that salvation does not discriminate against race or ethnicity or physical ability or nationality or sexual orientation or expression.
“Hello,” Paulo says, switching to English. “I bring a message of coffee and salvation.” He holds his arms up high, palms forward. His infectious smile and the long green apron of the Kingdom Coffee missionary relaxes most people, but the Anglo glares at him.
“Fuck off,” the white man growls. “No chingas.”
Paulo is about to reply when his display goes crazy with text and images. A mugshot of the Anglo, younger and minus the wild beard appears. RASPUTIN ANDROPOV, his ARgog flares. APOSTATE AND SWORN ENEMY OF THE KINGDOM. Identity confirmed. Facial recognition 86% certainty, voice recognition 99+%.
Shitshitmotherfuckershit thinks Paulo. He’s never seen anything like this. Inside, he is freaking out, but on the outside he remains calm and smiling and backs slowly away.
The curvy avatar of the Goddess flows onto his display, floating above the wanted man.
“Slay him,” she urges, pointing, highlighting RASPUTIN in a cancerous green glow. “The blood of several of your brothers is on his hands.”
Paulo hesitates, torn. He still has 251,772 points before earning the Blood Forgiveness achievement. But does it have to be this way?
“Slay this enemy of the Kingdom,” she says. She hovers in front of the shotgun, facing Paulo, arms welcoming, hair flowing over her naked breasts. She looks so vulnerable, so exposed.
“Paulo,” she whispers. She’s at his side, breathing into his ear. “He’s worth 25,000 points.”
The Anglo gets twitchy, and Paulo’s cartel training and merc experience take over. All at once, he is like a superhero, diving through the air, reaching for Rambo, and activating the CS grenade. He hears the discharge of the shotgun, but he’s already a couple of meters away, rolling on the ground. Then he’s backing away, firing focused bursts into the smoke. He’s lucky and the tear gas wafts towards the building.
His ARgog confirms the identity of his kill via a DNA sample analysis attachment near Rambo’s tip. While Paulo throws up in a corner, his point tally spins and flashes like a casino jackpot. It chimes twice, once for each level he’s gained. Blood money for salvation.
Crows gather outside. Do they smell the puke and death? A foolhardy old corvid hops towards Rasputin’s body. It cocks its head and stares up at Paulo through its only good eye. It pecks at the corpse’s bloodless face.
Paulo tries to shoo it away with Rambo’s muzzle. The grizzled bird looks up again.
“Murder!” The crow crows, impossibly.
Paulo blinks. He wants to shoot the bird, but instead takes off his headset. The old crow is gone. The others gather, out of reach.
There is a Kingdom Church in the walled-off enclave of Little Saigon, in a shipping container strip mall, sandwiched between a pho restaurant (3.8 STAR REVIEW) and a second gen-owned digitat parlor, which the Handbook reminds him is a place of ill-repute and a potential breeding ground for superbacteria. He missed the regular Sunday morning service, but Paulo’s new level of Kingdom Knight, Evangelist Fourth Class, qualifies him for a once-per-month request for personal administration of the sacrament. A little spiritual boost will help with his confession.
The Handbook continues: Paulo’s new perks include one extra day of self-release each month and increased access to the Church-approved vid-archive. His face burns as he remembers the last vid he picked, involving two baristesses, minus their sacred aprons.
The Handbook also details the benefits of Preemptive Forgiveness: Collateral Damage perk. Paulo frowns and blinks down the volume. Two crows glare accusingly at him from their perch on the compound’s protective carbon nanowire, feet impossibly uncut.
The intermodal’s steel door opens, and a tall woman with a peacock shock of dreadlocks smiles at him.
“Hey noob,” she says. “Heard you double-leveled. Congrats!”
Text hovers in his display: IDENTITY WITHHELD, KINGDOM KNIGHT, CRUSADER FIRST CLASS. Even without the heads up, he can tell what she is by what she’s packing. Her eyes are hidden by mini AR-shades, the latest from elite Guangzhou or Swiss manufacturers. The forearms of her polygonal nano-armor probably have those new needle guns with variable venom. She has scars everywhere—it’s hard to tell which came from battle, and which came from the scarparlor. He is sure those spray patterns staining her apron are not coffee.
“Welp, it’s mission time,” Anonymous Peacock Woman says as she gives him a fist bump. She accepts his gawky reverence. He closes his mouth as she passes, but can’t resist a glimpse back.
She has at least forty levels on him. She is near the pinnacle of the Kingdom’s Crusader class—Assassin class to the heathen.
“Blood and coffee!” The voice comes one of the crows on the wire. “Blood and coffee,” it caws again, then waits. Paulo hurries inside the steel-walled sanctuary. The Handbook tells him that it is best to pause a moment before, to meditate upon the goodness of the Goddess, but Paulo disables the Handbook mod by tugging it loose.
The rich aroma of coffee washes over him, fills his nose and mouth and lungs and soul. He is home, and all worries of crows and killing evaporate.
The Goddess’s logo hang on banners all around the rectangular chamber. Several rows of recycled PVC chairs face the counter, and behind that is the holy of holies, lights blinking, chrome bright, nozzles polished. SISTER TRUONG, HONORED GREEN APRON BARISTESS SECOND CLASS emerges from the curtain in the back. There are a few more streaks of gray in her hair since he last visited, but her black uniform and apron fit as closely as ever.
“Brother Ramirez,” she says, smiling under her modest ARgog set. “Congratulations on your double level. Goddess is pleased!”
He remembers her espresso eyes under her goggles. He shuffles uncomfortably.
“Baristess,” he says quickly, starting the litany. “A double shot please, black.”
Sister Truong nods. He tries not to check her out as she bends down to get the beans. He decides not to confess all his thoughts.
The Baristess whispers words of benediction, then begins to crank the grinder. Paulo closes his eyes for a moment, taking in the circular rhythm and the aroma that fills the tiny sanctuary. She scoops and tamps the fresh grounds into the portafilter, which she inserts with firmness into the Holy of Holies. For several seconds pressure builds before the precious sacramental brew emerges with a sigh, chocolate-rich and creamy, into a tiny porcelain vessel.
She places the white espresso cup and its chipped saucer on the counter. She says the final benediction, which Paulo repeats.
“In the name of the Bean, of the Brew, and of the Buzz. Amen.”
Paulo takes the cup and sips. He frowns at the bitterness. He feels no new peace.
Afterwards, they sit across a café table for confession.
“Paulo, what’s troubling you?” Her eyes are hidden, but her voice holds genuine concern.
“Baristess, I have sinned,” he says. “I think.”
“Tell me, brother.”
“I killed a man.” He smells blood. Vomit.
“Is that all?” Surprise in her voice? She suppresses a smile. “Brother, you were defending the Church. Defending us,” she says.
“I know self-defense,” he says, before he can stop himself. “But what I did, it makes me feel like a hit man.”
“Baristess, I never told no one but the Goddess and the Handbook, but I’m a quarter-million points from Blood Forgiveness.”
Paulo holds his breath, but no surprise registers on her face. She pauses for a moment, searching, then smiles behind her goggles.
“Oh Paulo,” she says, inappropriately grabbing his hand. “You’re on the fast-track to atonement! Killing a designated Enemy of the Kingdom wins you double-points towards Blood Forgiveness.”
Paulo sighs. “I just want to be a missionary, you know? I’m a good one. I love the Goddess. She pulled me out of a sh—a crap hole. I know I’d be an abuelo myself before I earned the points, but I love her children. I don’t want to kill any of them.”
“You can still level as an Evangelist,” she says, but Paulo knows better. He will have to spend more of his points on weapons software and equipment. No one dual-classes these days.
“Of course! Tell you what. There’s a barrio just south of the enclave that could use a well-armed and devoted missionary like you.” She stands.
Paulo gathers Rambo.
“Have you seen any crows lately?”
He swallows, and looks to see a line of crows marching past, shaking their heads no, in unison. He shakes his own head and tries to ignore them.
“It’s nothing, really. Forget I said anything.”
If his Handbook were on, it might have something long-winded to say about lying. For the first time, Paulo wonders if he can trust the Handbook.
Paulo is in the middle of a (non-violent, 120 extra points) door approach with a toothless ex-con named Fiasco when the Goddess visits again. The withered man smells like paint-thinner. The tarp covering the rusting husk of the old mini-van in the crumbling parking structure shantytown still counts as a door.
“Shit, hombre, you gave up a cartel job for this?” Fiasco, pokes a finger onto his green aproned chest.
“Not for this, man,” Paulo says. “I left the merc for booze and weed. To sleep in my own puke.” He’s got Fiasco by the balls. Er, ears.
Mist gathers, and suddenly the Goddess is hovering nearby.
“Paulo, my faithful servant,” she says, eyes stern, breasts fully covered with flowing green hair.
“Mistress!” he says.
“Que?” Fiasco’s brown eyes look puzzled.
“Sorry,” he says, trying to unfocus on her avatar. He closes his left eye. Forgive me, Goddess, he thinks, and speeds up his spiel.
“I was rolling in it, living the high life,” he says. “Until I killed my kid brother, my hermanito.”
“Brother Paulo, this cannot wait” the Goddess says, in a deadly quiet voice. Black wings in his peripheral vision.
“Chinga tu madre,” Fiasco breathes. “Your brother!”
“I was messed up, man. I was always shit-faced, or hungover. I was useless. They cut me, kicked me out of the compound. Me and Rambo,” he says, patting his assault rifle with affection. “I was starving, going through withdrawals when a Green Apron came and served me my first cup.”
“Spiked with valium,” the crow shouts. Paulo ignores it.
“Then the Goddess appeared to me,” Paulo says.
Fiasco squints at this. “But she’s just an AR avatar,” he says. Is the crow nodding?
Paulo has heard this dozens of times, and has a comeback. “You watch porn, and you know that shit ain’t real. But man, your hard on is solid, you know? The Goddess is like that. Her influence is real.” They share a chuckle.
The crow butts in. “Corporate man,” it caws. “Corporate man!”
“Shut up!” Paulo shouts before he can stop himself.
The Goddess suddenly moves to the right side of Paulo’s field of vision, grabbing at the crow. She throttles it and shakes it angrily, but it splits into two half-sized crows.
Fiasco, who had been warming up to Paulo, takes a step back.
The Goddess hurls balls of crackling electricity at the crows—the Kingdom’s anti-viral security measures visualized—which flap about, dodging in and out of his goggle view. In stereo, they call out, “Who’s behind that sexy Avi? Pasty game-boy, cock in hand?” One crow is zapped, but it explodes into four sparrow-sized crows. “Cock in hand,” they cry. “Cock in hand!”
“Don’t listen to them,” shouts the Goddess, infuriated. Paulo dodges a burst of virtual static. Fiasco starts at his sudden movement.
“Hey man, what gives?” Fiasco asks, alarmed.
“Who’s behind the curtain?” There are dozens of hummingbird-sized crows now, all buzzing nearly in unison. “Behind the curtain!” They start dive-bombing the Goddess, who swells to three times her size and swats at them like a Kaiju.
Paulo instinctively waves his hands, and Fiasco ducks into his shelter.
His Goddess switches to flame, disintegrating several avians in smoky bursts, but all he can smell is paint thinner. One enters her chest, and they all wink out.
No points this time.
Paulo’s next assignment requires him to be offline. The locally-cached version of the Handbook is heavy on the drill sarge, lighter on the abuelito. You will not suffer an enemy of the Kingdom to live, it preaches. It goes on about how losing one coffee seed means losing all the plant and its seeds and all of their descendants. Crows flap down to peck at seeds on the ground. Paulo laughs.
His target’s animated mugshot hovers in his display. Facial tattoos, rainbow hair, piercings, headsets with strange mods all morph and flow over an angular face that alternates between a sheepish grin and a mischievous smirk. Her name is phiOnna, and she is worth 125,000 points. The Handbook says that she is dangerous, but lists no weapons proficiencies, no martial arts training, no background as a merc, not one kill.
She is an Elite Hacker, so the baristess delivered his mission the most secure way possible—by hand, on a bean-sized key. Even offline, crows circle and hover in front of phiOnna’s portrait. In spite of himself, he is starting to like the birds.
Paulo follows his mission map to a series of maintenance tunnels under an old university. A small core of Nuevo Nuevo government researchers keep part of the campus going. Maybe there is a solar energy trunk to tap and ancient, ground-based Internet infrastructure to strip.
Night-vision on, he threads his way between ancient heating pipes and vines of shredded cable sheathing. The crows seem nervous. They fade in and out in bursts of static or crash into the edges of his goggles’ viewscreen. Some pace and peck nervously, turning sometimes to look at him. They say nothing.
The silence and absence of visual overlay is nerve-wracking.
He finds her in a nest of cables, blinking lights, cool-running servers. Her goggles are off, exposing her deep, dark eyes. A half-dozen modded headsets are scattered on one table surface, drowning in parts for dozens more. No face paint, a tiny hoop in each ear. She looks very small.
His world explodes with black flapping wings and a cacophony of caws and squawks and rawks. He rips off his ARgogs and throws them to the side.
phiOnna has not moved, but she is pointing a gun at him.
“Let’s chat in the nude,” she says. Paulo blushes. Her voice is quiet and calm. “So. How many points will you get for me?”
“150,000,” Paulo says, sheepishly. He only experiences goggle-free views during bathing and sex, both of which he suddenly realizes are too infrequent.
“Wait, that’s it?” phiOnna pouts. Then she smiles, brightening up the dark room. “I’m Sarah.”
“I know. You like my Impossibility Crows?”
“Impossibility? Crows? Bloody buzz, that’s you?” He reflexively waits for the Handbook’s reprimand for cursing.
“It’s why the Kingdom wants me dead. I’m quite proud of them,” she says. “I mean, more about the Crows than about being on the Goddess’s hit list. They’re pretty amazing. Wanna hear more?”
Paulo thinks. He should not listen to this heretic hacker. He knows what the Handbook would say. He could kill phiOnna—Sarah—in seconds. Their standoff is a delay tactic. Curiosity is dangerous, a grave sin when it leads one away from the Kingdom. But Goddess piss over it all, he wants to know.
“They’re a virus?” asks Paulo. Rambo remains pointed at Sarah.
“Hmmmm. They’re more like white blood cells.”
Paulo’s eyes instinctively glance at the ARgog explanatory text that of course is not there. His shoulders slump.
“My crows attack the religious ideas that make us sick. To be fair, the Church thinks my crows are the infection, and your ARgog set and the Kingdom cloudcache server arrays have defenses, some of them pretty strong.
“But the Church, the Handbook, your Kingdom missions, these are the disease, Paulo. The crows are antibodies, identifying and neutralizing the invaders trying to take over your heart and mind and soul.”
Paulo’s grip tightens. “Stop fucking with my faith.”
Sarah blanches. Then, with a determined look, she lowers her gun.
“Listen,” she says. “I don’t know you. I’m not a believing woman. But I’m going to have faith in you. You’re not a killer, Paulo. You want to help people, not murder them.”
Sarah’s words descend on the scraps of his faith, picking it apart.
“The Goddess saved me,” he says.
“She saved you, but she doesn’t want you, Paulo. She wants a merc.”
“No,” he whispers.
“It hurts because it’s true. I’m sorry. But you’re not a killer anymore.”
Paulo shouts and pulls the trigger.
Paulo gives Sarah 45 minutes to select equipment and supplies. She hands each piece to him, muttering curse words and farewells as she cleans up. He is twice Sarah’s size, and in the tunnels, he feels like a fully loaded pack mule trying to squeeze through a narrow slot canyon.
“You had to go and shoot your set.” Sarah grumbles as they thread their way between ancient ductwork.
“The Kingdom tracked me here,” Paulo says. “They know where you live.” Did he just flush years of leveling down the toilet? He sighs. Over his eyes are a too-tight pair of Sarah’s hacked, DiY gogs, but he can’t figure out her krOw-S operating system, which is all crows, friendly, helpful crows.
“You knew. You knew that I don’t like killing,” Paulo speaks this revelation out loud. “Your crows, in my Argogs.”
“It was still a pretty big gamble,” Sarah said.
They emerge from a water drainage access and right smack into Peacock Woman.
Paulo swallows, throat suddenly dry. The assassin points her fists towards each of their necks, hidden needle guns certainly set to lethal. Cold despair fills his belly. His pursuit of redemption will end here in this graffiti-covered storm drain. He lowers his burden, lowers Rambo.
“Sarah Kusanagi, Paulo Ramirez.” She nods at each of them, unsmiling.
Paulo realizes that Peacock Woman wants to confirm her targets. Even at her level—especially at her level—wrong kills would lower her ratios, reduce her maximum possible points. He’s wearing phiOnna’s bulky, mismatch home-grown goggle set that covers more of his head than standard Kingdom Issue equipment. He stays silent, hopes this will buy them a second or two of time.
When neither of them answer, Peacock Woman grins. She flexes the forearm pointing at Paulo. His left kneecap erupts in a fireball of pain. He falls back, thrashing. Screaming is good. Breathing. Not lethal. Not instantly. Through the misery, he hopes there is nothing coherent for the voice recognition database. He is vaguely aware that she is springing towards him.
“Ramirez,” the Crusader says, kneeling close, right behind him. “Brother Ramirez. I could’ve killed you. Think of me as your guardian angel.”
She places Rambo in his hands, pushes him up to sitting. She is behind him now, helping him aim his rifle at phiOnna’s forehead where it is exposed above her DiY goggles. The hacker’s brow is furrowed, as if she’s concentrating hard.
His pain narrows to a single searing flame. The Assassin isn’t here to kill him. She’s here to make sure he stays true to the Goddess’s plan for him. No matter the cost to him. To his soul.
A crow lands on a crooked finger of bent rebar. It puts the tip of one wing near its beak, a shushing motion. He swears to Goddess—to something—that it winks at him. Through his tears and his ARgog display, black shapes gather, dark clouds writhing.
The assassin strokes his trigger finger with her own. Her other hand grips, ever so gently, around his neck. “The Goddess gives, Paulo,” she whispers. “This heretic’s now worth 500,000 points. Instant salvation.”
His hand trembles under hers. One held breath, one careful pull and it’s over. Blood forgiveness is his. He can move past Pedro’s death. Through his tears, his hermanito lies before him, blood bubbles bursting from a hole in his neck. Rambo still warm in his hands. Not AR, but just as real. He holds his breath, steadies himself. Imagines a hole in phiOnna’s, Sarah’s forehead.
A cacophony of caws erupts behind Paulo.
“The fuck?” shouts the Peacock Woman, and her hands leave him, arms flail in his peripheral vision.
Paulo takes one last look at Sarah through the crosshairs before he whips around and cracks Rambo’s butt into Peacock Woman’s unprotected chin.
Like a superman, like a luchador.
“Crazy man! Crazy man!” Three crows caw as Paulo leaves Rambo with Sarah at a safe distance from the next door approach. He carries a simple hand-grinder and an antique plastic french press.
“I’m with them,” she says, shaking her goggled head. “Not everyone greets you with open arms.”
“I know,” he says. “But I’m more likely to get smiles if I’m not packing.”
Paulo makes up his new religion as he goes along. They head east, hoping to lose Peacock Woman and other Kingdom assassins between the desert and the mountains. He does not abandon Rambo altogether, but walking weaponless up to each new door is an act of faith. No new blood to stain his hands. The crows harry him, always questioning, always challenging. “Insane, insane!” they caw.
“Go to hell,” he says.
“Go to hell! Go to hell!” Three crows call as they march in unison around him. Paulo smiles. It feels good to be free.
About the Author
Remy Nakamura grew up in Greece, Japan, and the San Francisco Bay Area and currently resides in Southern California. He is obsessed with backpacking and hacking his own neuropsychology. He believes in the life-saving power of brightly-colored sticky notes. He is a Clarion West graduate and his short stories can be found in a number of anthologies.
About the Narrator
Roberto Suarez lives in Portland, Oregon. By day he works as a community college student advocate and recruiter. By night he geeks out on all things fantasy and science fiction, comic books and board games. He produces and co-hosts “A Pod of Casts: The Game of Thrones Podcast” ( http://apodofcasts.com/ ) and is a proud monthly supporter of all “Escape Artists” productions. Roberto is a father of four younglings being raised in The Ways of The Force and is married to Barbara, his Sun and Stars.