Apocalypse World: The Watch

The Smoke Rises
Session One

The story starts in the early morning, when The Ascendant gathers the Loved to him for morning prayer. They’ve been in surplus and have been celebrating with their traditional fights and low-level rioting in the airfield, black eyes and broken teeth abound; but Preen is missing entirely.

The Ascendant asks what has happened, and Rum, a tall, rangy hick with an Adam’s Apple the size of his nose and a frayed leather cap, announces that he drowned the little fucker in the swamps last night. Felt good, too; about time someone put the twitchy bastard to rest, and he’s got a taste to see someone else turn blue this morning! He asks who oughtta get it, and Joseph suggests it ought to be Rum himself.

That divides the Loved, half of whom start chanting for Rum’s blood, the other half grab for rocks and make to stone Joseph; but he’s wearing his heavy trenchcoat even in the humid heat of the Watch and just gets knocked off his feet a while. The Ascendant steps in and asks Rum who should drown next – Rum suggests Hugo, a fellow with a squared-off, pockmarked face and a shock of black hair.

“Very well,” announces The Ascendant; “Hugo, choose a weapon. The two of you shall fight, and the loser shall be drowned.”

“What if I kill him in the fight?”

“Then you shall be drowned.”

Hugo thinks a second, then announces, “Guess it’s fists, then.”

Jonker comes to watch what’s happening, climbs the chain-link fence and perches on the corner of it like a fish-hawk, watching the fight and keeping his silenced Magnum handy. Rum wins it easily, though; and the Loved snatch up Hugo to parade him through the streets before taking him to be drowned.

Meanwhile, Absinthe and Dylan are meeting Jackabacka in the orange groves, trying to find vehicle parts. Jackabacks’a a little dude with olive skin, white hair. Jackabacka says it’ll cost them, but not so much if Absinthe’ll just lay down in the orange grove with him for an hour or so. S/he tries to manipulate him into deferring that to another day, but Jacakabacka gets pushy then, shoving hir around and lifting a hand for a good hard slap before s/he catches his eyes, and he freezes while Absinthe draws hir massive handgun from the small of hir back and trains it on Jackabacka’s head.

Dylan asks how this changes things, and tries to read him – but gets nowhere; in fact, Jackabacka realizes there’s no fucking way Dylan’s going to help him get back at this skinny bitch; so he slowly explains he doesn’t even have the parts, but knows a guy who can get them if he gets back to Cholo City. Absinthe tosses him an orange, and he backs into the pearl-grey pickup and tears away.

At the back of the parade, Joseph opens his brain to the Maelstrom – like opening to the shared consciousness of the entire world at a breakneck speed – and sees a duplicate of Jackabacka and Rum glance to each other and nod as Jackabacka drives past the Loved.

Headed to the swamps, The Ascendant sees a thick column of greasy, black smoke rising from the swamps and opens his own brain. (He BRICKS the roll and I reverse Augury on him, summoning up the ghost of Preen.) The maelstrom feels to the Ascendant like all the hate in the universe in concentrated into one point. The smoke turns into a totem pole of Preen’s face, and everyone can see that!

Jonker asks, “What the fuck is going on?”

“All the hatred of Preen was released in his death, proving he is … Unloved.”

So now Jonker watches the smoke instead of the Loved, and realizes that the shade of Preen stuck in the maelstrom wants the Ascendant “brought low.” Meanwhile, Joe watches Jonker carefully, and sees that the gunlugger feels digusted with the entire situation, intends to wait to learn more about the situation, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what Joe does right now.

Dylan and Absinthe come back toward the workshop, but seeing the plume, Dylan opens his mind to the maelstrom. He sees that for everyone the Loved kills from here on out, their victims’ face will appear beneath Preen’s, and if the pole hits the ground, they will all be released – and this would be a Very Bad Thing for the Watch. He establishes that the maelstrom is an invigorating, muddled clarity, like a good early-morning beer buzz.

Mice, a little fragile-looking kid, between 8 and 12 with Asian features, comes to ask Absinthe what they’re going to do to his daddy Hugo.

“Can you borrow me your gun?”

“What are you gonna do?”

“Dunno”

“Then no. But when you do, there are guns in the shed. Your daddy joined the Loved by choice. You got a momma?”

“No. But I’m a good climber. Daddy Hugo pays me to climb up the orange trees, and he keeps Pepper offa me.”

Pepper’s a bigger kid with movie-star looks in Hangar 2. “If Pepper bothers you, well. You’ll figure out what to do, but if you don’t stop him, he ain’t never gonna stop.”

“Then why don’t you stop the Ascendant?”

“He’s doing his job. Our job’s climbing trees. The Ascendant’s job is leading the Loved.”

Absinthe brings Mice to Jonker, still watching that smoke. “Do you love your daddy Hugo, Mice?”

“Moren’ anything. You love your daddy, Absinthe?”

“That piece of shit? No. Jonker?”

Jonker looks at them both and says, all seriousness; “My daddy’s my world, my momma’s my universe.”

Meanwhile, The Ascendant circles the Loved to put the pillar behind him. “This is an example of when one dies full of hate, unable to purge themselves and understand what it is to love your fellow man. Rum, do you feel hate? Did you feel hate when you killed Preen? Have you filled yourself with hatred?”

“Hell yes. Little fucker got what he deserved.”

The Ascendant sighs. “You have learned nothing of love. Everyone. Drown Rum.”

The Loved, like they’re on a switch, set Hugo down and seize Rum. One of them snatches his ballcap and sets it on Hugo’s head, and they start chanting for Hugo to do it, let Hugo do it, let him show them how a man can kill without hatred or vengeance in his heart.

Jonker steps forward then, cradling his rifle. “Hey. Hey, Ascendant! You don’t you let Rum walk through the swamp to meet Preen again. If Rum can make it back, he’ll be cured, won’t he?”

The Ascendant smiles ambiguously. “Jonker speaks wisely, my Loved. Rum, go forth and redeem yourself. Reflect upon your hate and anger. Shed yourself of them. When you return, I wish to hear your thoughts.”

Jonker starts moving the flock away from the swamp, looks at Rum: “Preen’s got something to say. Go.”

The Acendant turns to Hugo and says, “Hugo, you think on what happened today. Your strength will be needed, but also, understand what hate almost caused to happen today.”

Mice throws himself into Hugo’s arms: “I love my daddy,” he says, but he’s giving the Ascendant this stare while he says it, and he’s whispering into Hugo’s ear the whole time he carries him home.

Jonker walks to Absinthe. “Nice job, sweetheart. Wanna grab a beer at the canteena?”

“Why not? It’s nine AM.”

Joseph, though, has been turning the pairing of Jackabacka and Rum over and over in his mind. He’d heard tales of a place called The Ska, opposite side of the world from the Watch, where water actually turns solid and floats on water that hasn’t turned solid yet. Those stories say that you can just see the tip of that frozen water, and it’s what’s underwater that cuts people to shreds; and in the maelstrom he sees a berg like that with Jackabacka’s face on it, just like Preen’s on what I am henceforth calling “The Smoking Pole.”

He wants to go after Rum, and asks Dylan if he would mind coming along. He offers to help him with research later in return, and Dylan – those spooky, creepy eyes looking for any sign of tracks – heads into the swamp with his crowbar in his hand. They’ve almost lost him but then they hear the screams and find Rum, stuck in a gator’s death roll.

Joseph dives into the swamp with a big skinning knife he carries stuck in his belt and drives the gator off – but he can’t help feeling like he’s missing something important afterwards, something the gator or Rum left behind in that blood-soaked water.

Joseph tells Rum, “You’ve only got a few. Tell me what Jackbabacka wants you to want me to want him to know I know.”

Rum spits up blood and whispers, “Fuck you, creep. Fuck you and your family.”

At which point Joseph smiles and brings around his violation glove, rooting around in the dimming lights of Rum’s mind. He finds that Rum doesn’t want to turn Mice over to Jackabacka, and that his lowest moment was when Jackabacka made him watch all those little bodies in Cholo City, tied to clean, bright, steel operating tables, waiting for the scalpels to arrive.

Joseph lets him go, watching his body float away and slowly slide underwater, still unable to shake the feeling he’s missed seomthing important …

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The Fire and the Firefight
Session Two

In the pre-dawn hours, the sounds of crackling fire, screams and gunshots bring the Watch to one of its burning hangars. Eight members of the Loved (cult of the Ascendant) have set fire to an unLoved barracks, and two of them – TumTum and Prim – are using their rifles to shoot at the legs of anyone inside who tries to get out. Good clean fun for the savage bastards, and Joseph is right in among them, shouting them along.

Jonker enters the scene and approaches TumTum and Gnarly, a little person with a shaved head and a torch in his hand. First he tries to order them away, but gets nothing more than a couple derisive laughs. Then he makes as though he’s going to push his way through them, and Gnarly turns ugly, taking a swing with the torch. Jonker clubs him with the Magnum, the gunsight raking a gash in Gnarly’s scalp, painting it dark red in the firelight. At that, Clarion pulls Gnarly away, still swinging and cursing – TumTum takes off running, and Joseph tries to tackle her but gets a bullet in the bicep for his trouble, failing to stop her escape.

Jonker gets into the burning building and herds the five unLoved out – as she exits, Newton, a black-haired and dark-skinned woman in her late twenties, wraps her arms around him with a fierce kiss by way of thanks. Corbett and Pepper, two of the other escapees, lead the other two into a different hangar. Jonker puts her aside and goes to find the Ascendant, who has been watching with some concern.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s taken advantage of the chaos to bring his violation glove around on Fleece, one of the Loved who was part of the burning. He sees in Fleece’s mind an image of Fleece throttling the Ascendant, tears streaming down his face and apologizing for his lack of belief, how badly he wants to believe, but he can’t, just can’t any more. Joseph hauls him up by the collar and escorts him into the swamps …

The Ascendant gathers the Loved and asks Jonker to bring the victims forward. Jonker refuses, but says he’ll bear witness. Absinthe, too, is watching from the sidelines; quietly. The Ascendant orders those involved to step forward – Clarion, Gnarly, TumTum, Prim, Mill and Dog’s Head all come up, two remaining behind. The Ascendant tells them to point out the other two, and Pierre and Pellet, a 15-year old kid, come forward. Pellet volunteers , “The whole thing was Hugo’s idea.”

“Where is Hugo?”

Patch, another Loved, snorts, “Told me he was out. Just before the fires started.”

Absinthe, realizing that Pepper lived in the hangar and was an enemy of Mice (Hugo’s son), shakes hir head and peels off to go find Mice and Hugo. Meanwhile, the Ascendant asks Clarion how he felt in the burning.

“Good. Real good. But not like before,” he says. “I wasn’t angry. I mean, before, earlier in the night? Threw a couple punches but there was still these hot worms in my gut, in my heart. When I thought about the fire, though … it felt right. I mean, maybe somone was in the hanar and maybe not, you know? It wasn’t up to me. I didn’t know who they would be or when they’d be there or if they were there at all. It wasn’t up to me. It was just up to me to release that fire somehow, and up to something higher to decide what gets put in the way.”

The Ascendant smiles. “You’ve come the farthest of all, Clarion. You shall become my Most Beloved – but there is a lesson here. The emotional purge is followed by the physical.”

He pulls aside his robes to reveal that his chest and upper arms are covered in burn scars, then places a stick into a small fire left from the hangar, handing it to Clarion. “Purge yourself.”

Clarion calls to TumTum, who comes forward and tears away his shirt. He’s a hairy guy, covered in a thick mat of it, and the smell of burning hair and flesh as he brands himself is fierce. When he removes the brand, it looks like he’s about to toss it away, but instead presses it back again for a moment before thrusting the cool end toward the Ascendant.

The Ascendant takes it and presses it to his own flesh, but Clarion’s taken most of the real punishment and the Loved seem to know it. Clarion does, too. The Ascendant sets them loose and asks Jonker to come with him.

In the swamps, Joseph takes Fleece to the place where Rum died earlier, making as though he can commune with the dead. Fleece is babbling now, asking about the Ascendant, about the Loved, about Rum, and tells Jospeh he can drop the crazy act now that it’s just the two of them. They should talk about how they might be able to work together.

“Act?” Joseph brings out his knife, and terrifies Fleece into running further into the swamps before moving to slit his throat – then, either bored or experiencing a change of heart, he says, “Maybe you’re right,” and wanders back into the swamp. He’s lost, though, and only after an encounter with a copperhead snake does he find his way back to the Watch at the end of the day.

In the south hangar, Absinthe sends Mice outside while s/he talks to Hugo, sitting on the cot next to him – explaining how much Mice looks up to him, and explaining what he needs to do – “Go to Chola City. Get out of the Watch and take Mice with you. The Ascendant, he’s not going to be too happy, si?”

Hugo responds that he’ll go to Chola for a few days to let things cool down, but he’s coming back – and he’s not taking Mice with him. Can Dylan look after the boy? He’s got the booby trapped workshop where Mice could be safe, and Absinthe agrees – s/he’ll take him to Dylan.

Mice flinches from the doorway – “The Ascendant’s coming!” Hugo ducks out the back, Mice runs to the back, and the Ascendant appears.

“Where’s Hugo?”

Absinthe shrugs. “He just left.”

“Where did he go?”

“Here or there. He says one thing, he maybe means another.”

“Is Mice here?”

“Sure, in back.”

“Bring him to me.”

With another slight shrug, Absinthe goes out to Mice. “You coming in?”

“Not while he’s here. You promised to be my friend!”

“No, sweetheart. I didn’t promise anything.” S/he lunges like a cat and seizes Mice by the throat, the small boy struggling and scratching to no effect, and delivers him inside between the Ascendant and Jonker.

After some discussion, it’s agreed that the Ascendant will pay Jonker well to escort Mice to Chola City, find Hugo, and instruct them never to return. Absinthe agrees to keep an eye on the Watch for Jonker in his absence, and Jonker and Mice are left alone.

On the road, Jonker does what he can to show Mice a bit of self-defense – it’s only an hour’s walk, but every little bit helps. Approaching the Burn Zone of Chola, they get the traditional warning shot at their feet and a call. “Who you coming for?”

“Monk and Hugo. I’m bringing their boy.”

“Hugo’s the little one come by an hour ago.”

“He forgot this.”

A woman saunters forward in camo pants and goggles around her neck, a pistol drawn but not threatening. “You from the Watch, too?”

“Yep.”

“How are the freaks and the oranges?”

“Freaky and in season.” Jonker takes an orange from his satchel and flips it to her, getting a grin in return.

“All right, you go on in. Word of warning – if you see anyone in a surgical mask? Just shoot ‘em straight, they’re working to surround you.”

“Thanks.” Jonker lets Mice take the lead, into the residential zone of Chola. The doors are painted in various bright hues, usually three or four similar in a row; and Mice leads him to a bright yellow door. Monk’s a burly, bearded guy with two brothers his own size and Hugo on the floor between them, runt of the litter. They give Jonker some fresh water, he gives them some oranges, and leaves Mice and Hugo with the advice to get out of Chola before the Loved come looking.
Monk shakes his head, unafraid.

Back in the Watch, Absinthe is making hir rounds when s/he sees someone sneaking around the burned hangar. He tries to hide from hir, but when s/he whistles him out he stands, tucking something into his pocket.

“You’re not from around here.”

“Nope. My name’s Putrid.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re Absinthe. I’ve got a little offer for you.”

“Oh?”

A red sniper’s dot appears on hir chest. “Jackabacka would like to talk to you again, one on one.”

S/he rolls her eyes with a sigh. “Ay. Look, you tell him I said no, and you go on your way, huh?” Purtid pulls his own pistol, and the red dot traces up to hir left cheekbone, just below those flashing, slightly slanting eyes. Putrid follows the dot and gets caught, frozen by hir stare.

“That’s right,” s/he says, and slides to put him between hirself and the sniper as s/he draws hir own handgun. “Nice and easy. You’ll see your Jackabacka soon enough, I think.”

With that s/he blows a hole through his crotch, catching a sniper bullet in the chest as he falls. Hir armor helps some and she spins around into a run straight across the field, gun still drawn. The second bullet catches hir hard in the belly, checks hir momentum; but s/he manages to spring onto the hood of the truck – too close for a rifle any more. The sniper, wearing a blue surgical mask, turns the barrel and tires to club hir with it but it’s way too late, and he sprawls back into the truck with his face a ruined mess.

Holding hir stomach, Absinthe checks the body and finds nothing of importance, but the keys are in the truck and s/he’s able to start it up, then drives to the orange groves, looking for the Ascendant.

He’s with Clarion, giving him his next “test” – to take TumTum and Mill, the two who seemed most skeptical after the branding incident, and go to the Good Water Holds to look for converts. “Come back with ten new Loved, and you will have truly become the Most Beloved.” Clarion agrees, and the three cultists leave the orange groves to pack as Absinthe limps the truck along.

There’s no Angel in the Watch – any medical help comes out of Chola City or the Good Water Holds, and The Ascendant thinks Jonker might come in handy and should be heading back from Chola already. He helps Absinthe into the passenger seat, tells Pellet to get three of the heaviest hitters in the Loved, and takes the truck halfway up the A Highway to wait for the gunlugger …

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The Hospital and Joe's Girl
Session Three

Absinthe and the Ascendant are on their way to Chola City when a rainstorm hits – sheets of grey rain, thick, heavy and greasy. It almost obsures the traditional warning shot from the guards; but not quite. Amy, Winn and Barr (members of the Loved) are riding in the back, rifles ready, under a tarp to stay dry.

When Dustwich, leader of the guards, finds out they’re coming for medical attention, he gets twitchy. Says that he doesn’t like outsiders coming in and using narcos his men might need, and shakes the Ascendant down for a minute.

(The tithe for fortunes is to take all they have accumulated and, as a group, decide what to give to the Ascendant. A lot of it comes in the form of gold teeth, wedding rings, etc … which the Ascendant often wears to show his favor.)

Winn tells the Ascendant she’d trade the guards one of his necklaces for entrance (Insight) and is praised by the Ascendant for her take on it. Absinthe reads Dustwich and finds out that he’s in debt to someone – promises to take care of The Partridge within the next moon. They wave them through, though one of the guards tries to move on Absinthe and Winn hawks a loogie at his feet. He’ll remember that.

Hank finds Dylan, gives him some meat, tells him he’s been holed up for two days. Everyone’s gone, to Chola, and Hank’s worried – Prim is rationing food. Dylan asks if he can hold down the fort, and he says with guns, but Jonker’s locked the armory. Dylan says he can open it.

Joseph comes back and finds Prim divvying up the food. She suspects Gnarly of holding out and orders Joseph to find out. Joseph instead seizes Prim and kills her with his violation glove, then calls Gnarly to be his second in command and sends the others to the groves, but Gnarly suggests maybe they should go to the armory.

A strange standoff takes place between Dylan and Jospeh, ending with Jospeh and Gnarly leaving but Gnarly threatening Hank as they went. Dylan uses THINGS SPEAK on the door …

• Most recently, the door to the Armory was jimmied open.
• What’s wrong with it is that it’s not that hard to jimmy, which could be fixed by taking everything somewhere safer and leaving a note.
• Last words around it: “”/characters/mice-4" class=“wiki-content-link”>Mice got gone, but the others won’t."

Three guns are missing, but all the shotgun shells and a lot of ammunition are gone. Hank takes the vest and a submachine gun. Dylan decides to destroy the lock in such a way that you’d have to either break down the door or take an electric drill to it, and he’s pretty sure he has the only electric drill in town. He spray paints “J – see me – D.” in red across the door. Dylan and Hank decide to hunker down in the workshop, but Hank wants to bring in LaLa. Dylan takes a moment, then agrees.

Joseph sees a shuttle coming up the road and goes to meet it. There’s a feminine scream – the brakes hit – and a petite brunette jumps out and tackles him with kisses, shouting

“Joey, Baby, you waited for me! I’ve been driving all the way – I never doubted you baby – I always knew I’d find you!” The dude driving the shuttle seems less thrilled with the situation, but she tells Joe he needs to take her now. Joseph takes her to the Temple …

After some time, Jonker walks back into Chola and notices a few changes: The Loved are working, and there’s a new face furiously … chain-smoking outside the Loved’s compound. He approaches to talk to Sauna, the driver, who explains he’s carried Joe’s Girl here from the mountains without so much as a handjob for his trouble. Now she’s in the cinderblock shithouse fucking some guy eight ways to Sunday, and does Jonker know this Joseph?

There’s a bit of back and forth that boils down to Sauna asking if Jonker might be amenable to killing Joseph in return for some payment. Jonker says it depends on the Joseph, it’s a common name; but seeing as he’s the only one with any real authority in town, Jonker says Sauna can stay a few nights in the Watch, anyway. He thanks Jonker, says he’ll head up to Chola for gas, and then come back to take him up on the offer.

Jonker breaks in on Joe and his girl going at it, hot and heavy, and briefely interrogates the Brainer in his open trenchcoat and not much else while his girl makes with the backrubs and ear bites. Joseph spills about Dylan and Hank nosing around the armory, and Jonker tells Joseph to stay put. “No problem,” says Joe’s Girl.

Dylan’s apologetic to Jonker about what happened, but he’s going to make it right – fix the door up properly so that only he and Jonker should be able to get in. Jonker’s all right with this, but he’s more upset about the fact that he had some secret stashes in there, of grenades and other big items. Dylan says he didn’t see anything like that, which Jonker says is kinda the point; but he wants to get in and check ASAP.

Outside, Hank calls out – and Dylan sees he’s got both LaLa and Wisher, her older brother, with him. Both are memebrs of the Loved, and Dylan pitches a minor fit before deciding all three can some in – he’s got some questionsfor the Loved anyway, and he might as well ask them on his home turf.

In Chola City, Absinthe and the Ascendant make their way to the OP. Behind that big steel door there’s a cavernous reception area, lit only by two work lights dangling from black pythons of cable. They’re allowed to enter with Amy and his rifle only when a Hispanic nurse named Mimi in her blue surgical mask and nurse’s cap assists Absinthe – after showing Twice via camera that it’s Absinthe and the Ascendant – to the operating chamber, which is flooded in the whitest light and has four cameras the group can see. The route to the chamber is confusing – they’ve knocked holes in walls and hung operating drapes in all kinds of places, it’s hard to tell which way they came from and which way they’re going.

Twice enters the room followed by another male nurse in the same cap and mask, Barker, his name is. They turn on a kidvid from the Golden Age and get to work, narcostabbing Absinthe and sending hir into a sweet, spiralling dream. It takes a good two hours but in the end, Twice, Mimi and Barker have all left the group alone without another word.

The Ascendant waits another hour before picking Absinthe up and carrying hir out the door, but the warren’s hell to navigate, and Amy whispers, “These fuckers moved the cloth, boss. I know it. I can feel it.” They eventually make their way to the reception area, and halfway down the busted escalator a speaker chimes in with Twice’s soft voice:

“Nobody has paid.”

The Ascendant lays down 3-Barter (Two off of Absinthe’s body, one of his own) and a skinny, buck naked eight year old skitters out to collect it. He’s got a white scar running halfway down his body, and as he’s backing away he mouths “Help me” to the Ascendant.

“Amy,” The Ascendant whispers, and Amy goes to grab the kid but gets a bullet in the chest from a hidden sniper in the atrium! He falls back against the wall, reaching out to the Ascendant, coughing blood – there’s no way he can get both of them out alone, Winn and Barr are banging on the steel door and shouting, they’ve heard the shot.

“I’ll be back for my associate,” the Ascendant says, and the door starts opening slowly for him but Winn’s halfway through, shouting and screaming that they can take these fuckers, she’s dealt with their fucking kind before, just get out of the WAY, boss, and the door starts closing swiftly.

The Ascendant shouts to Barr, “Bring everyone! If Jonker comes, follow his lead until you hear from me!” He pulls Winn inside the OP with him, and then reaches into the psychic maelstrom to retrieve an artifact. He emerges with a shard of pure hatred.

“Absinthe,” he whispers, “Time to wake up.”

And he plunges it into hir chest.

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Cholo City Ressurection

We start the game in The Watch, where Dylan and Jonker are about to let Hank, La La, and Wisher through the maze of booby traps. Dylan hands Jonker a power drill and tells him, “I’m gonna need to find a shitload of electronica to make the armory locks work the way I want. It’s gonna take time. So if you want to check on your stash, take this and drill your way in. I’ve got some questions for the Loved. Here,” he says, flipping a switch, “the traps are off now. Do me a solid and just walk ten paces straight, then go northwest. That way if they’re watching, we can tell.”

Jonker heads to the armory and sees Fleece loitering nearby with a view of the armory door. He calls him over and tells him to get to the orange groves and find Furna, Jonker wants to talk to her. Fleece pauses a second, then whispers, “You do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor … I want out of the Loved. If you’ll watch my back to Cholo City, I’ll help you get into the armory.”

Jonker agrees, to which Fleece responds, “Hit me. Make it good.” Jonker lays him flat, and Fleece gets up screaming epithets and turns tail for the orange groves. Once he’s satisfied that Fleece is gone, Jonker breaks into the armory and is happy to find that most of the grenades are still in place.

He goes looking for Fleece and finds him up a ladder with Furna in the orange groves. Orders him to come down, and Fleece starts spitting bullshit threats, so Jonker turns and starts walking toward Chola City. When Fleece keeps shouting, Jonker turns and fires a warning shot right at Fleece’s feet. He then continues walking.

Fleece catches up to him on the road: “What the hell was that aabout?”

“You tell me,” says Jonker.

“Well, shit; I can’t get out looking like a pussy. This way you can follow through and lead me to Cholo. You go back and tell the Loved you shot me down when I tried to get the drop on you. They think I’m dead, you look hardass, everybody wins.”

“Fuck that,” says Jonker, “I’m not your patsy. Grow a pair. You walk your ass to Cholo alone.” He turns and starts back to the Watch, with Fleece screaming more epithets at his back before he kicks up the earth and does start toward Cholo alone. Seeing that, Jonker fades into the background and follows him anyway.

*

In the hospital, Absinthe – hir chest pierced by the obsidian dagger of the Maelstrom – well, s/he’s bent double over the Ascendant’s knee, only the balls of hir feet and crown of hir head touching the floor. The rest of hir is a bridge, being pulled upward by that blade from nowhere.

S/he hears the voice of Prim: “Joint them. Butcher them. Tear them in pieces. Make them bleed. Make them pay.”

S/he hears the voice of Rum: “Drown the fuckers. Drown them in blood and the tears of their kin. Drown them in the filth of this world.”

Smoke, like the smoke that makes up the death-totem of the swamps, starts seeping out of hir skin – out of every scar, everywhere s/he’s ever been wounded, starting just under hir left eye where hir father first landed a fist.

Hir wounds are threatening to open up again, but it’s black swampwater coming out of them, not blood.

As the smoke and swampwater seeps out of hir, the chain and leather armor begins to blacken, curl, and peel away. The once elegant green armor is now in shreds and patches.
And then, s’he hears the voice of hir father: “You’ve never been nothing anyway. Lay down and die. Lay down and die, you stupid little …”

S/he grips a shard of glass in hir hand.

The blood is pure. The blood is blood.

Her eyes snap open, but where they had been an arresting green, they are now flat and black.

Twice’s voice comes through the intercom: “You may return for your associate now.”

The Ascendant comes from behind the cover of the reception desk and pulls Amy back to safety. Winn starts covering his face with hot tears and kisses – a wrinkle the Ascendant hadn’t seen coming.

“Amy,” says the Ascendant, “what do you want?”

“I wanna not be fucking shot is mostly what I want.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah … guess I do.” He coughs up a good deal of blood. “I think I get it. I’m not mad. It was always gonna happen, right? That’s what you’ve been trying to tell us. It’s all so … quick. Spending our time fighting, kicking, busting balls … it’s pointless. I could have built something up instead of tearing it down …”

“Shut up, asshole,” Winn screams. “He wants to fucking live is what he fucking wants and you are gonna drop the jingle to make sure he does!”

“Shhh.” Amy wraps his beefy hand around Winn’s. “Stop being such a bitch. Stop being such a baby. Listen. The Ascendant’s right …”

That’s when his eyes roll back in his head.

Winn lets out this gutshot roar and grabs her hunting rifle, popping up to rain as much death on the hospital as she can, but The Ascendant jumps between her and the atrium. “Winn!”

It’s no use. She grabs him with every intention of using him as a meat shield, and he knows it. He looks down to Absinthe: “Absinthe. I need your help.”

It’s what s/he’s been waiting for. S/he reads the situation and realizes they’ve got a single sniper in the atrium – not the entire gang, not even any backup. S/he uncoils from behind the desk, levels hir submachine gun. “ONE? You send one person against me?”

You can smell the piss from the first floor as the sniper clatters to the ground and begins crawling away.

*

Jonker’s near the guardpost and son of a bitch if Fleece doesn’t start rooting around in his muscle tee as if he’s got a gun in a shoulder holster. Jonker can’t take it any more and calls out, “What the hell are you doing?”

“Oh, thank God,” Fleece says, and sinks to his knees. “You came back.”

“Yeah, I came back,” says Jonker, “You show me every piece you have on you, right now.”

Fleece pulls a knife out of his boot, a one-shot zip gun out of the shoulder holster, and a grenade – a fucking grenade – from the belt loop at the small of his back.

“What the fuck are you thinking?” Jonker asks.

“You don’t know, man.” Fleece shakes his head. “You don’t know how the Ascendant gets you. Listen … you watch them. Let me tell you. It’s like, you ever get so angry you just stop seeing anything but the red?”

Fleece sits down, hard, on the tarmac, weeping. “You can’t see anything but the red, and your head is pounding, and the only way to let it out is to make something bleed, and it’s either bloodlet yourself or stick it to someone else. And the Ascendant says he’ll cure you, and you come along, but in the end all he gives you is more targets. More targets. Each other …”

“Get off your ass,” says Jonker. “They’re coming.”

The guards are indeed coming, as is Barr, shouting, “Jonker! JONKER!” There’s a tense moment but in the end, Barr explains, “The freaks in the hospital shot someone. The Ascendant wants us all up there, but I’m supposed to follow your lead.”

Dustwich looks between them. “I have a Jeep. Who’s coming?”

Jonker looks at Fleece. “You get lost.”

Fleece, he gets lost. Everyone else piles in.

*

At the OP, The Ascendant decides to push the edges. He opens a portal into the Psychic Maelstrom and tries to make contact with Amy.

Amy comes in loud and clear, though the smoking totem is clear in the background. The edges of his form are being pulled backward toward the totem, and Amy smiles. “Listen, boss. It’s time for me to go. Trust me, you’re gonna want the last two on the totem to have been through the forgiveness. It doesn’t end well otherwise …”

Winn jumps to her feet, screaming, “You son of a bitch, don’t you go, don’t you go …”

She’s about to throw herself through the portal. Absinthe jumps up in between her and Amy, and goes all dangerous and sexy. S/he stops Winn from the leap, but what’s more, s/he beckons to the shade of Amy within the portal …

Amy’s corpse coughs. He tries to sit up.

Winn’s covering him in hot kisses and tears while the Ascendant and Absinthe trade glances. The voice comes over the intercom again: “Take your associate. We are repaid.”

The pressurized door begins to open, and the group bugs out of the hospital; right into the path of a parked limousine with five muscleheads packing submachineguns around it.

They take this in a moment – Absinthe’s wounds still smoking, Amy in dire need of treatment. That’s when the Jeep with Barr, Jonker, and Dustwich wheels around the corner.

The limo’s window rolls down, and a rangy, muscular Latino in a linen suit appears. “Hello, Ascendant. Let us talk, you and I.”

The Ascendant gives Absinthe a warning glance – s/he props up Amy on the other side of Winn. At the Jeep, the others pile out but hold at a signal from Dustwich.

The Ascendant goes to the window, where the limo rider exhales a bit of smoke. “My name is Rothschild. This is my corner of Cholo City. You’re the Ascendant. You look after the Watch?”

“That’s right,” the Ascendant says. “What’s this about?”

“I want you to ask yourself,” says Rothschild, “What’s the larger hold? A functioning hospital, with surgeons who know what they’re doing? Or a grove of oranges and a handful of psychopaths?” Rothschild blows another smoke ring. “You need to understand that I am going to keep this place operating, no matter what.”

He hands the cigar to the Ascendant, who takes it and puffs a moment. “There are other places to get work done?”

“Sure.”

“Will you see to my follower?” He looks back to Amy. “You don’t need to try too hard.”

Rothschild nods. “I can do that, if it keeps things quiet. I like things quiet.”

“Not a peep,” says the Ascendant, and hands the cigar back. Rothschild takes it and puffs again.

“Deal.”

The Ascendant motions for Amy, and Absinthe and Winn carry him to the limo. Winn asks, “Look, boss … I don’t … I mean, I don’t know what all’s gone on. But I wanna be with him. But he says to keep following you, it’ll be good for me … so can I go?”

“Rothschild?”

“She gives up her guns, I’m fine. And by guns, I mean everything.”

An exchange of glances. Then Winn hands all her weapons to Absinthe, even as Amy is focusing hungry eyes on Absinthe …. “I’ll give it up,” Winn says. “Someone’s got to look after him.”

The limo drives away – no faster than the five guards can walk, a show of power, not speed – and Jonker, Absinthe, the Ascendant and Dustwich are left in the streets of Cholo City.

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