Zina: An Incendiary Matter [4.2k words; sci-fi/mature content]


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    Zina: An Incendiary Matter [4.2k words; sci-fi/mature content]

    (AUTHOR NOTE: If you find yourself at any point confused as to the context behind this story, you will want to read the story that precedes it in this conveniently-placed hyperlink.)

    ~

    I like to think I'm pretty nifty with computers. After all, I put together a pretty decent gaming rig in my backyard – in other words, not one of those lame-ass, third-hand potatoes with a pathetic eight-gigabyte GPU and 32 gigabytes of RAM. This is the real deal – a 256-bit operating system, one-point-two terabytes of random-access memory, a twenty-core central processor, a 200-terabyte graphics processing unit, independent coolant, an ultra-high definition 32K monitor and a solid-state drive with four-point-five petabytes of hard drive disk storage.

    Okay, I'll admit it. Most of that prior sentence makes no sense whatsoever to me. I'm repeating almost verbatim what I was told about it by my far more IT-orientated buddy when she handed me the parts as a Winter Solstice present and helped me put it together. Especially the part about potatoes. But hey, my deck works like a dream, even if it's about the size of a file cabinet and takes up the better part of under my bedroom desk. The various virtual characters that have had the honour of receiving a lead enema from none other than IppolytaManreaper in all her pixelated glory can attest to that.

    The buddy in question is Zinoviya Kravets. So far, you've only met two of my friends and myself, only two of whom ever did well in school – that being myself and Tanya, who got an A in biology and A-plus in business studies respectively. But comparing us to Zina is like comparing a pisshead trying to change a lightbulb to Nikola Tesla.

    I met Zina through Johan about three years ago, when he horned into the joywiring business. For those of you who don't know what a 'joywire' is, it's the natural result of evolving into a society of modular cyborgs. Similar in dimensions to a pocket watch, it locks into a pre-installed socket on the side of your head, or on the back of your neck – the joywire socket, as it happens to be called – and directly stimulates the nervous system to produce dopamine, serotonin and other neurochemicals that make you feel happy. They were first made in the Old World as cybernetics began to take off, and became really popular as a recreational item. Wiring is nothing short of amazing, and especially once you realise that joywires and sex mix like chocolate and ice cream. But a little word of caution: if you ever plan to wire, do so with friends, and have one joywire per party. That way, you take turns with it and get the very damn best of it.

    Why? Because joywires are addictive. Really addictive. Or, rather, it's the sensations they cause that are addictive. While wired, you forget about the whole world around you, which includes your basic bodily needs. So you neglect them, unwilling to relieve yourself of the joywire's euphoria – mainly because of the insane comedown you get to play with afterward. As soon as their popularity peaked, they started finding people in their homes, lying in a pool of their own piss and shit, having expired long beforehand of thirst and/or exhaustion ... with the joywires still hooked up to their brains.

    Anyway, Zina helped out with programming these nifty little buggers, while I helped install the joywire sockets into patients looking for a fix. At first our conversations began with sharing trade tips: Zina, for example, told me that the most profitable way to run a joywiring business is to use planned obsolescence. Basically, the joywires are rigged to jolt the user really painfully after a certain amount of time, which is enough to get them to turn off the wire and tend to their bare essentials. Then they do one of two things: they either buy a replacement from the original joywirer, or they get their current one fixed – which obviously incurs a liability surcharge.

    After that, we realised we both had a lot in common. We love videogames, we're metalheads, and we can't stand the world we live in. But one of the things that really made me like her was that she doesn't take crap from anyone, and has a penchant for devising especially nasty revenge schemes to use on those who try her. To be fair to her, she doesn't specifically go out of her way to harm people. Unless you cheese her off. At which point you may discover what chemistry taught her to make from recycled plastic, some soap and a few cans of leftover biofuel...

    I found THAT out when Zina started scheming for a Halloween prank. She spent about a week with her little 'project' before taking me into an old abandoned warehouse outside of town to show me herself. What did I see upon entering but a dumpster filled with styrofoam, an improvised furnace made from a beer keg, some empty fuel cans and an old metal bathtub filled with an opaque piss-yellow fluid – which turned out to be improvised napalm. Over this bath was Zina herself stirring this insidious creation with a rebar like some kind of crazed junkyard witch.

    Before you ask – no, she didn't burn anybody to death. She's more than a bit mad, but she's no Yelena Trotskaya. Instead we brought about three gas cans full of this napalm, along with a few tin cans of home-made thermite paste, to a Halloween party going on in Kuntsevo district. The dacha in question belonged to a girl Zina used to hate, especially after this other girl sabotaged her history diorama project. Zina's revenge came in the form of the greenhouse in the dacha's back garden having a perfect hole burned through its glass roof and a blaze in the process of toasting this girl's prized flower collection ... along with the better part of the rest of the garden. Zina made the napalm mix a bit too powerful.

    To the surprise of exactly nobody, the cops got called. What followed was a spectacular chase through that neighbourhood, with them hot on our heels at times – on one occasion I had to do a powerslide over a cop car's bonnet after it parked in front of us. After a mad scramble that lasted for half an hour, pursued as we were by a squadron of pissed off, baton-swinging politsiyoners, we finally lost them after a spectacular leap of faith into a passing pillow truck from a highway bridge.

    ...Alright, that's a bit of an exaggeration. There wasn't much of a chase, really: we just hid in a dark alley dumpster and waited a few hours for the fuzz to move on.

    Nobody saw our faces because we were both wearing balaklavas, but everybody figured that Zina might have been involved because of her ongoing feud with this girl. A girl who had just lost her entire back garden to an artificial volcano spewing flaming plant matter and fireballs of napalm, I might add. Still, thanks to her impeccable ability to cover her tracks (most likely aided by a very deep wallet), nobody could pin anything on her beyond suspicion. Even in a shithole where corrupt cops are the rule, you can't get charged if there's no evidence against you.

    Either way, Zina's homework never got sabotaged again after that.

    ~

    The Kravets residence is fairly bog-standard for a middle-class townhouse in Sokolniki District. A two-storey edifice with a sizeable front and back garden sits just opposite a gym on Gastello Street. From what I know of the area from old textbooks, Sokolniki District used to be full of tenement blocks before the war, housing workmen for the factories to the east since Soviet times. When the nukes hit, most of the towers survived the initial bursts and were even evacuated in timely fashion, clearly being designed for this during the Cold War. But once the Long Night rolled in, they were abandoned and left to rot for the coming decades. Consequently, when the factories were restored and the cleanup of Moscow commenced in earnest, the rest were knocked down, the authorities intending to replace them with more up-to-date blocks. In the end, they didn't even need them, since they ended up having to automate the factories anyway since there just weren't enough workers still alive to staff them with any greater numbers than a skeleton crew. So Sokolniki District came to house the better-off of the town instead.

    Zina and her old man live here because the latter was a professor of nanometallurgy who taught in a school in Ufa, far to the east of here in the Urals. Why he would give that up to come to a cesspit like Moscow of all places befuddled all of us at first, but Zina told us it was because of a student. Considering he still teaches at a nearby college, it's safe to presume no kiddies were diddled. Or if they were, he's so good at his job that the government shuffled him out of the spotlight, kinda like how they get rid of fuckups in the military by shipping them off to some remote meteorological outpost in Siberia.

    Whatever the case for the Kravets clan being here, I wouldn't have met Zina without such circumstances.

    ~

    "Zina!" Sveta calls out as we pass through the front gate, turning her head to the left. "Zina, you ab- OH FUCK ME!"

    She budges into me as she jumps back with fright, prompting me to look in the same direction. I'm at once greeted with the sight of a huge, tan-coloured robotic predatory cat, lounging on a pile of junk like a lion basking in the sun. The single optic in its head glows a light amber as it examines us with what might be curiosity.

    "It's just Xanthos, you idiot!" I state to Sveta as I begin to approach the robot. "Hey there, big guy. No treats on me today, I'm afraid."

    I hold out my hand to the droid, which tilts its head as it leans in with caution. Then, after a sniff of my hand, the machine's eye turns bright green as it recognises us for who we are. Friends.

    Which is just as well, because I've had the questionable pleasure of witnessing this thing and its brother tear a hapless robber to pieces in its hydraulic claws and knife-sharp teeth. Zina told us cleaning up the mess afterward wasn't fun, but at least she found a tube of nutripaste in his coat pocket.

    Speaking of whom, Zina is – if the light from under the metal door ahead is any measure – in her shed, a windowless mooncrete construct with solar panels and a reinforced antenna on the roof. We push the door open and are immediately buffeted by a blast of cold air from within. She must be downloading something, since she's got her computer's cooling fans on at max. The floors are covered in clean blue carpet, proving that she vacuums this place at least once every week. The desks ringing this room, however, can't say the same. One desk has boxes from the Shash, Katya's and the nearby Chinese takeaway stacked high above. Another has lines of box sets from Zina's favourite movies and HV series on a triple shelf, while a corkboard to my left is overloaded with hastily scrawled post-it notes pinned onto it. These notes describe everything from shopping lists and chemistry recipes all the way to 'world domination schemes'.

    And then there's Zina herself. Despite the cooling fans whirring at full pelt, she's dressed in nothing but a white tank top, red briefs, and a pair of slippers over her feet – she's never minded the cold much, and it ain't hard to see why. A can of coke sits close by snapped open, while she scratches the bun of brown hair tied at the back of her head. Before her sit three monitors hooked up to an absolute beast of a computer on the right side, as tall as a man and twice as broad. This monstrous machine is even bigger than my gaming rig, and Zina often brags that this thing can give even government AIs a run for their money in terms of raw processing power.

    "Whoever it is, beat it!" the mistress of the office doesn't dignify our presence, her face glued to the centremost screen as she types something into the keyboard. "I'm very busy right now!"

    "That's no way to greet your best buddies, Zinochka!" I protest with folded arms.

    "Don't call me that," Zina seethes like a viper. "Only Dad gets to call me that."

    "Where is your old man, anyhow?" Sveta enquires. "I'm pretty sure he wouldn't just leave one of his bots out there."

    "Business trip," Zina announces, a malefic grin fused to her face. "You've picked a bad time to drop in, I'm afraid. Some dick-weasel has been trying to brute-force their way onto my servers. Somehow the perp's got my IP! It's probably that sand-nigger cunt who spoiled season six of Echo Charlie! Reveal Beast's fate, will you? Well joke's on your goat-fucking brown ass, 'coz I've pinned you down to Abu Dhabi! We'll see if you get your seventy-two virgins after I worm you a whole fuckload of child porn! Twenty-six tees of lumbricine fury coming your way, you backstabbing rag-head!"

    "Uh ... why do you have twenty-six terabytes of child porn on your computer?" Sveta asks.

    "The same reason nations of old kept nuclear arsenals," Zina explains herself. "Deterrence."

    "Remind me how that worked out again!" I protest.

    "Worked out quite well, I'd say. When was the last time we saw an American? Never. That's when. We threatened to wipe 'em off the face of the Earth if they launched. They launched. Russia still stands. America is dead."

    "How do you explain Luna, then?" Sveta gesticulates out the door and into the sky. The moon is in waxing phase.

    "Moonies don't count as Americans," Zina speaks ante-laugh. "They got founded by the American provisional government, but that's it."

    "What about the Frenks?" ask I.

    "Frenks count even less!" Zina's voice brims with indignation. "What, you seriously think a bunch of dirty commies have anything in common at all with the America of old?"

    "Both were founded by terrorists for terrorists!" Sveta announces with pride. "What do you think the revolutionary war was all about?"

    "I honestly don't know what part of that is worse," I state mid-laugh. "The fact you actually said it, or that you're right!"

    "Alright, you've convinced me to lay off Mohammed bin Asshat over there for a minute," Zina revolves in her chair towards us with a smirk on her face. "How can I help you?"

    "We were wondering if you wanted to join us for luncheon," I propose in my poshest voice, part of one of our in-jokes, before reverting to my usual tone. "We're gonna pick up Yevtaliya and head over to Katya's."

    "I would-" Zina is about to refuse us, when an alarm on her computer sounds off. She jerks herself around to face the screen, which has presented a satellite map. In an instant I recognise the street layout as somewhere in Kuntsevo.

    "Oh, you bunch of fuckheads..." Zina announces with a malevolent tone. "You crafty sons of bitches! Oh-ho-ho, you've had it now! When I get there I'm gonna shit fire on each and every-"

    She pauses for a second as she rotates her head to look at us over her shoulder. A hideous grin is on her face as she leers at us like a serial killer.

    "Why yes, I would love to join you for tea and biscuits. But d'you mind if we make a quick stop first?"

    ~

    "So, uh..." asks Sveta as we're on the move in her Kyton once more. "Do you never worry about the cops finding out about your, uh ... 'nuclear deterrent'?"

    "Maybe if I was some pathetic ignoramus who's only heard of a VPN in passing," Zina informs us from the back seat, fiddling through the duffel bag she's brought with her. "But the mongs on cybsec around here OBVIOUSLY can't tell a motherboard from a trojan. Sure, if the VBU discover my stash, I'm fucked – literally if they send me to jail. But that's quite a big if. What's my number-one rule of strategy?"

    "Always assume inferiority towards an enemy," I begrudgingly inform her from the shotgun seat. "Plan for every plausible eventuality, assume the enemy knows those plans to the letter, then work around that knowledge so that any advantage they might possess is eliminated, or at least mitigated. Or to put it more tersely, plan for your own plans."

    "Impressive..." Zina nods her head slowly.

    "I play Castle Wars too, dumbass!" I snap back at her, more in jest than anything. "I've lost enough battles against you to work out your strategy!"

    "And yet you still keep losing! One day, Sonya, you'll remember to pave your base!"

    "And thereby waste precious stone that would otherwise go into upgrading my walls to protect against catapults. Or better yet, upgrade my keep to guard against your fucking spies!"

    "What's the most pertinent threat you'd be dealing with?"

    "It could be anything with you. If I do the walls to protect against catapults, it's spies. If my keep, it's your death worms. If I pave the base with cobblestones, I've got your dragon to deal with!"

    Zina's about to make another smarmy comment giving me more strategic advice as she rummages through her bag for something, only for her face to turn with frustration.

    "Aw, you're kidding me..." she seethes to herself before turning to me. "Hey Sonya, can you bum me a lighter?"

    "Sure... Wait, why?" I first take her up on her offer before recoiling with suspicion. She doesn't smoke, so there aren't many reasons I can think of why she'd even need one.

    "I need it for a gift," she explains.

    "Gift?" I ask, knowing that the nearest birthday (Tanya's) is at least three months away. "Who's getting a gift?"

    "Friend of a friend."

    The most I dignify Zina's answer with is a shrug. As I hand her the lighter though, I get just enough of a peek into her bag to find a roll of bandages, a tin can and a vodka bottle filled to the cap with an unsettlingly familiar-looking opaque piss-yellow fluid.

    "Ah, here we are!" Zina announces. "Pull the car over here, and keep the back window down."

    Sveta complies, parking onto the right side of the road just behind a black estate car. She is careful not to put the machine onto a pair of double yellow lines by mistake. It shouldn't be a surprise to figure out that the traffic wardens around here are remarkably diligent...

    Zina jumps out of the back and starts walking down the street, passing my window. She's had the mind to put on a pair of black jeans at least, though she's still in her slippers and coke-stained tank top. Out of everyone among our friendship group, Zina is just about the laziest when it comes to sartorial matters. More than once has she come out with us to a restaurant, a bar or some other public place, only to realise she's still in her underpants, much to her embarrassment and our amusement.

    "So whaddya think she's up to now?" Sveta asks of me.

    "Fucked if I know," I shrug. "Though considering what may be in her bag, it won't be pleasant for her 'friend of a friend'."

    "Oh Jesus, don't tell me she's got another home-made EMP!" A frown of apprehension covers Sveta's face. "Last time she set off one of those, she overclocked it and I had to ditch the car on the road!"

    "I don't think it's gonna be an EMP," say I with a hint of dread in my voice.

    "Good!" Sveta smiles. "Because next time she gets my ride impounded, she'll be paying the towing fee! Anyway, you up for D&D later tonight?"

    "I'm up for whatever!" I tell her. "Like I said, our biggest problem's going to be getting enough people to make it work."

    "Hey, I'll make it work somehow. I even put together an adventure. Well, actually I just picked it up from online, but I did do the work of downgrading it from eighth edition to fifth edition, so gimme credit for that at le-"

    The sharp clap of an explosion rolls through the air to interrupt our conversation. Hearing dictates that the explosion's source was near where Zina just went as we turn our heads to investigate.

    "What the hell..." Sveta mutters aloud.

    Next thing we know, Zina rounds the corner, sprinting back to the car with a face like a deer caught in headlights. It's when she literally dives into the back of the car that we figure out why she asked Sveta to leave the window open.

    "FLOOR IT!!!" Zina shrieks like a siren, landing prone on the seat as she struggles to get her feet in.

    Sveta asks nothing and slams her boot on the accelerator; the car shoots backward as she jerks the wheel contraclockwise, spinning around in a j-turn. As she shifts back into gear, the Kyton takes off like a rocket, spinning up a cloud of burnt rubber. The cloud dissipates enough that I can see a group of furious individuals rounding the corner, waving a bat, a crowbar and a knife between the trio. What really catches my attention, though, is the billowing tendril of thick black smoke rising into the sky.

    "What have you done now?!" Sveta demands to know of Zina.

    "Firebombed the bunch of shitbags who've been slicing my joywires," she explains herself as she winds the window back up. "What's it look like?"

    "Crazy fucking bitch..." Sveta grumbles as she navigates the maze of back roads. "You realise if the fuzz twig it was you who did that, there won't be enough of your ass left for the meat market after prison!"

    "IF the fuzz twig it was me who did that," Zina assures us with a confident smirk. "And that's quite a big if, as I've already explained. Now are we gonna go pick up Talya or what?!"

    ~

    And now for some context behind what just happened. Because they're so addictive, joywires have been classified in Mecharussia as 'e-narcotics'. Owning one is illegal, and manufacturing them earns you a fifteen-year vacation to Siberia. Officially. But as with chemical drugs and prostitution rings, the law's never stopped the stupid, the brazen or the seriously desperate from taking action before. Or the ruthless entrepreneur for that matter.

    The grey and black markets are rife with joywires, and you can pick one up on the streets for as little as twenty rubles. But the smarter ones take their wares abroad – Zina, for example, has employed a chain of smugglers, fencers and merchants who get her joywires out of the country and sold on the streets of Dubai, where I'm told they're like electronic gold. The ring splits the profits among themselves at the end of each month, with each one taking home about two and a half thousand rubles. Others sell them in the Frenkish Empire, the Old Nations, the Commonwealth – pretty much everywhere on Earth and probably beyond too.

    Of course the Westerners and their 'weaponised bureaucracy' don't like this practice, but the government doesn't give a fuck what they think. As long as he doesn't sell on native soil, a caught joywirer will get a slap on the wrist, possibly even having to pay a fine at most, but it's pure symbolism. After all, those same joywirers make a point of handing over part of their gains as tax...

    So, obviously, joywiring is big business for what we in Russia call the Empire Below the Belt, the criminal underworld that seethes beneath the veneer of respectable society like an overloaded sewer. And as with all other underground businesses, competition is cutthroat, as Zina's firebombing stunt just aptly demonstrated.

    I don't doubt that Zina has about a million tricks up her sleeve for evading police reprisal, assuming they even bother. But it doesn't change the fact she makes a fucking terrifying foe. For their sake, I hope those competitors of hers get the memo.

    ~

    "You enter the room, and perched upon a crude throne of skulls you see another goblin. This one is wearing a hastily-crafted golden crown on his head, and-"

    "I roll to seduce the goblin king."

    "...Huh?!"

    "You heard me, Svetlana Ivankova! I. Roll. To seduce. The goblin king."

    "For the love of God, you can't seduce every boss we go to fight!"

    "I have a plus-five charisma bonus, proficiency in persuasion and I can impose disadvantage on Wisdom saves! To put it tersely – YES I DAMN WELL CAN!"

    "Zina, the dashing prince and the exotic weapons merchant are somewhat understandable, but the goblin is a bit far!"

    "You should be the last human being to be giving me a hard time for boning anyone and everything! Now are we getting this party started or what?!"

    A sigh from Sveta. "Alright, fine. Roll for persuasion."

    "Meheheheheh! Ever prepared with my sexy dance, I open up my robe and ... FUUUCK!!!"

    Nat one.

    "You open up your robe and the goblin king bursts out laughing! He's seen better puppies in the kennels, and just to demonstrate, he's given the order to release the hounds! Now roll initiative, bitch!"

    ~

    Zina soon discovered that slutty bards and starving dogs do not mix. A short epitaph, but a fitting one.

    ~
    Last edited by The Carcosan Herald; May 10th, 2020 at 04:39 PM.

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