Their flag was silver, — a silver similar to the waxing-gibbous moon, hours early to its shift so it could catch the sky while ’twas still blue before the orange that was already creeping up from the horizon could steal it all, steering the purple tides — & emblazoned on that silver was a white snowflake with a golden crown on top.
This flag fluttered like a spring heron in the lite wind & ocean waves; but by this point those who ran the ship found themselves far stormier, for they had spied a ship following them for nearly an hour now, & had now realized that ’twas not only closing in on them, but was also armed with cannons & helmed by men holding assault rifles & wearing suspicious all-concealing red, blue, & green suits & face masks.
& @ the top o’ this ship’s mast was a flag that was nothing but black. But to any seagoer who knew the ropes round the Pacific Ocean nothing was mo’ threatening, for they now knew that these were seashinobi, brilliant pirates notorious for paralyzing a ship & robbing it o’ its goods, & then slipping ’way unidentified, like the snap o’ a finger — that is, when they weren’t hired as assassins ( as was their most common role during their heyday o’ 16th-century Japan, usually gainst political rivals o’ their patron ), which is when they would obliterate a ship & all its crew in 1 smooth stroke, like the slit o’ a throat.
Most o’ the crew scrambled below deck for protection, while the driver & her assistants worked to steer & speed the ship ’way & the security team stood in a line ’long the edge o’ the ship toward which the hostile ship was headed with their guns out.
With an edge o’ dread, the man handling the telescope said,
They already have their guns aimed @ us.
Security looked ’mong themselves with contorted frowns.
Their machine guns will shred us before our pitiful pistols have a chance to shove hardly a shot out, 1 said in a hushed tone.
But ’nother said,
There’s no use trying to hide below. It’d only delay them a li’l. Better die fighting than die hiding.
So they stood there staring straight @ their assailants like prisoners in front o’ a firing squad.
The cap’n stuck his head back up from below the deck.
There’s no way the sea police will be able to reach us before our stalkers.
Without turning back to the cap’n, the security lead said,
There’s no way we’ll be able to o’erpower them.
Put your weapons ’way, the cap’n said with a tinge o’ urgency.
You’re right: there’s no way we’ll be able to fight back, so we’d best surrender & hope they only take our goods.
The cap’n walked up to the flagpole & lowered their snowflake flag with a wary eye aimed @ the shinobi ship so close, knowing any second he could become a fleshy pincushion if they thought he was on a plot, or e’en if their temperament stirred them. Then he pulled out a white sheet, tied it round the pole, & began raising it, stumbling on the white string with his sweaty palms in his haste.
Howe’er, before it reached halfway up, his ears were rocked with the racket o’ gunshots, & in the corner o’ his eyes he saw his security team explode with orange light. Without thought, the cap’n dropped on his knees & positioned himself ’hind the pole. There he could see his security collapse in a pile o’ cries & a puddle o’ blood, ’long with the driver & her assistants. Bullets continued to zip by like furious wasps. The cap’n was breathing hard, as if the wind were clogging his throat & choking him, his face drowning in tears & sweat.
Then he heard a throaty boom, followed by an elongated screech, & crouched e’en lower when he saw a cannon fly toward the ship in an arc. His thoughts ’bout what would happen were cut short when it hit the ship, releasing a blast that spread its arms long past the cap’n, tossing his body @ the ship’s wall like common debris, sapping it o’ its sentience & sapience, as well as shreds o’ its face & skin.
The ship shattered into wooden shards & sank. From its dying heart spread a white liquid, foaming like cauldron water from the quakes round it. Then the other ship turned & disappeared in the distance & the fizz died down & the white liquid was devoured by the purple sea till there was no sight o’ it any longer.
Autumn gripped the arm o’ the couch like a lifeboat, squeezing her body into it, hoping hopelessly to concentrate while her eardrums itched with the words o’ all the others. E’ery few turns she’d fork a bite o’ her jelly-filled-donut cake & sip from her glass o’ cola so as not to be rude to Edgar’s exertions. She heard ’nough o’ the others’ discussion to ascertain ’nough that it wasn’t ’bout her & her incapability o’ coming up with heist ideas, toward which their distracting blabber offered great aid. After she fulfilled her greeting obligation, they thankfully forgot ’bout her.
Embedded within their discussion ’bout inane online playthings, the only thing Autumn recognized was their meaty praise for Edgar’s soda & their unquenchable solicitations for mo’ refills. Autumn herself had to admit that it tasted better than any other soda she’d e’er had, not being a soda person herself — tho she wouldn’t go so far as the others to say she’d ne’er tasted anything like it, as e’en her palate honed o’er her youth on ramen noodle found it faintly familiar, tho she couldn’t recall whence. But then, ’haps Edgar preferred unfiltered flattery greater than mild praise. She reminded herself that her mind was o’ an isolated kind.
After what must’ve been a dozen requests, Edgar said with a nervous laugh that they were out — o’ both the soda & the ingredients with which to make it, & was surprised when, after only a few minutes later, some o’ the guests offered to buy Edgar’s ingredients so he could make mo’.
As Dawn said,
Your soda’s a movie star ’mong them, Edgar, Autumn gazed @ the dregs o’ her own soda sliding clockwise & counter ’long the rim as she spun the glass back & forth.
Then Autumn roused herself & said,
I’ll get the ingredients if you want. I need to get some air.
We wouldn’t want to make you miss out on parts o’ our conversations, which I can tell you find absolutely riveting, said Dawn.
We all have sacrifices we have to make, Autumn said as she slipped on her jacket. She turned to Edgar.
¿You have a list on you?.
I can go, if you want… If that’s no problem. Edgar turned his head ’mong the guests. With no surprise to Autumn, they all assured him.
Perfect. Let’s go, Autumn said as she headed for the door.
After a drawn-out afternoon struggling gainst “burglar’s block” — & her motivation sapped e’en mo’ by Dawn’s ADD kicking in, making her evidently lose interest in the sewer she’d dragged Autumn back into, now that she’d finally grown up @ the tender age o’ 36 & returned to her business @ Boskeopolis University — Autumn felt a bit mo’ energized by the neon-lit night. She’d need it to kickstart the idea that had infected her brain.
So… ¿would you mind if I paid for some extra ingredients & paid you to make me a few bottles for myself?, asked Autumn.
You don’t need to pay me, said Edgar.
I’d be happy to make you mo’. I’m glad to see that e’en you like it.
A lot o’ people seem to like it…. Autumn looked ’way from Edgar & toward the highway next to them, crowded with sedans, vans, buses, & trucks, as it was 24/7. Autumn continued, trying to keep her voice as casual as she could,
…to the extent that they’re willing to pay.
Edgar turned to Autumn with surprise, but, to Autumn’s relief, a surprised filled not with unease but with curiosity.
My heart is just bursting thru my chest from my gladness @ your spontaneous desire to give ’way free soda to all these kids, Dawn said with the slow deliberation o’ an actor acting as an actor trying & failing to play an authentic actor.
Without looking ’way from the European football game in progress, Autumn said,
I take it Edgar ne’er told you my undisguised plot.
The coach walked up to them & said with a guilty face,
You wouldn’t mind… ¿just ’nother?.
No problem, Autumn said with a smile as she raised her pitcher o’ crystal-white liquid.
As Autumn poured the coach’s glass, the coach said,
¿Where’d you get this? It doesn’t taste like HeroHero.
You can order it from a website called ‘winters-cola.com’. She didn’t bother specifying the hyphen; she’d already registered the hyphenless version, as well.
Autumn forced her eyes straight & her mouth a neutral smile as she saw the coach pull out a notepad & write the URL down.
Once the coach had left hearing distance, Dawn said,
I must say, I find this new scheme o’ yours brilliant: make a product, & then sell it to others who want it for money. ¿Why sneak money out o’ their pockets when they can hand it right to you?.
I’m not the one making the product; Edgar is. I’m just profiting off it, said Autumn.
I must confess, I learned this brilliant thieving tactic from Chamsby. After all, I can’t fault his results.
So you’re saying you’re robbing Edgar.
Strangely, he was wholly willing, said Autumn.
He immediately acquiesced to the 1st deal I gave him. I told him he was a terrible communist.
¿What’d he say to that?.
He said my complaining ’bout such a great labor deal made me a terrible capitalist — which was not something I e’er doubted.
I dunno, you seem to have the marketing angle all sewed up, said Dawn. She lifted her glass.
I see you e’en colored the soda itself winter white. ¿You have a slogan yet?.
Autumn’s mouth pinched together in thought for a few moments before she replied,
I don’t know… ¿Something like, ‘The ice-cold quench o’ Winters in any season’? I s’pose that’ll have to do before I can hire a professional copywriter.
That 1 already sounds wondersome. You’d better trademark it ’fore the competition steals it.
I did trademark our brand name. Autumn frowned.
I also bought… a bunch o’ materials to make quite a lot o’ these, as well as packaging & the rest…. She turned to Dawn.
¿You like this plan?.
O yeah: sounds great.
Autumn turned ’way ’gain, staring up @ the clouds, which, so far, looked white & peaceful.
For once Dawn’s uncritical positivity benefits me.
Good. Edgar may need more o’ some o’ your chemicals. Admittedly, he was bummed out ’bout having to reveal which ones.
O yeah: he always likes to keep his recipes a surprise.
Yes, well, let’s all keep it that way ’mong us, a’least.
Right. Dawn winked.
It’ll be our own 7X. We’ll give e’en big-ol’ HeroHero a run.
Autumn’s mouth twisted back into a smile.
For once, you’re being mo’ conservative in your estimation than me.
¿What do you mean?.
¿Why stop @ HeroHero? It seems that most o’ the people who’ve tried it agree that our cola tastes better than ‘HeroHero’, ¿correct?.
Well, we all know what HeroHero truly is. Now, ¿am I to believe Boskeopoleon taste buds are significantly different from those in the rest o’ the world?.
HeroHero does use real sugar ’stead o’ that fructose crap the US has ’cause o’ their ban on Cuba.
& people prefer it, which only amplifies my point: ¿Why limit myself to Boskeopolis when Winters Cola could the biggest shark in Asia, in Europe, in the US.
Dawn’s smile weakened & was looking a bit uncomfortable; but Autumn straightened her back as she continued:
¿Why limit ourselves to the tadpole that is HeroHero when we could crush the giant stringing HeroHero by a fishing line?.
The 2 stared @ each other as if they were in a standoff, while the 3rd sat to the side o’ the table @ equal distance, trying not to eye either. 1 o’ the 2 wore a red business suit with swirly white lines all o’er it, while the other wore a blue suit & a red, white, & blue cap. The 3rd wore a magenta suit covered in bubbles & water drop designs.
Despite the tension hovering o’er this small boxy room, the 3 were, a’least now in this situation, allies: collective owners o’ a name that latched onto e’ery Boskeopoleon’s consciousness & onto the vast majority’s tongues: HeroHero, inc.
Well, gentlemen, the magenta’d man began with heavy breaths.
What do we do about this Winters Cola?.
The man in blue directed a sour smile @ the man in red.
There’s one option.
The man in red quipped,
That’s hardly a solution.
You never know until you try, said the man in blue.
You’ve seen the studies….
Yes, I’ve seen those studies of yours. And yet our product still does better….
Mere marketing — marketing that doesn’t work in this market.
Yes, you can thank those cronies in Parliament, still clinging to the superstition of ‘local culture’ held by the ignorant masses, even after all the money we poured, just to cling to their dusty seats for our need to jump through all these hoops — including having to make this idiotic product-sharing nonsense with you guys, like a bunch of communists. The other 2 held glazed faces @ what must’ve been the dozenth time he preached this kind o’ rant @ the choir. The man in red continued,
Though, I do wonder, if this has nothing to do with marketing, why are you so ardent to take on the burden of producing the soda?.
Boskeopolis is no different from any other market, said the man in blue.
We want to ensure our customers are satisfied with our product here as much as any other country.
The man in magenta broke in, turning to the man in blue.
Not to take sides, but I doubt either product will help us. It’s clear that there’s something very different about Winters that makes people prefer it over any other cola — to the point that we should question whether it’s really a ‘cola’ or not.
The man in red turned to him with a raised brow.
Is that your plan? Try playing semantics games with these people? I don’t see it working. I’m telling you, these people prefer themselves — they only tolerate HeroHero because it’s the superior product and because they can delude themselves into believing it’s Boskeopoleon due to the name slapped onto it; but given a legitimate Boskeopoleon product that they can fool themselves into thinking tastes better to their savage taste buds… There’s no way we can beat that on marketing.
Have you tasted Winters?, asked the man in blue.
The man in red shifted stiffly.
Was it, in your opinion, better than your own product?.
It was certainly a sharp competitor — better than your product.
We could run studies on that….
The man in red leaned forward o’er the table with a smile.
You sure you want to try that?.
The man in blue lowered his eyes.
We’re getting off topic.
The man in red swung his head back & forth ’tween the other 2.
Listen, there’s only two ways we can beat Winters before it gets too big to beat: we have to take it over or get rid of it. That’s that. And we need to do it while it’s still too young to struggle.
How much are you willing to pay?, asked the man in blue.
Whatever it costs.
Autumn, you’ll ne’er guess who you got a letter from, Dawn said as she stood in the doorway with a letter hanging in her hand.
Autumn held a limp wrist out without turning to look @ Dawn.
Howe’er, ’pon taking the letter & looking @ the top-left corner, Autumn felt her heart spike. She saw not the bold font o’ HeroHero, but the fancy, swirly font o’ the true giant — what seemed a random assortment o’ lines that, yet, due to mere history, had become a vision as threateningly familiarly exotic as seeing a T. rex in the skin.
To Autumn’s displeasure, Dawn hung ’hind her shoulder & said,
¿What’s it say?. Since Dawn’s chemicals made Dawn mo’ responsible for Winters Cola than Autumn was, Autumn didn’t dare point out Dawn’s intrusion on Autumn’s privacy. So she opened the envelope & let her eyes stumble o’er the letter inside, her brain much too shaky to read carefully. But she had no trouble receiving the message. Autumn’s blood itched with anticipation for what Dawn would say. But ’pon glancing upward she saw Dawn just as speechless, staring @ the letter as if ’twere a Script Genie.
We need to show Edgar this, said Dawn.
It’s his work, after all.
I have no choice. Just go forward & see what happens. There’s a good chance things will still go as I want them, knowing Edgar.
She followed Dawn back to her lab, where Autumn insisted Edgar do his cola-concocting due to its better protection. When she reached the door, she saw Edgar was already there, poking his head out.
Dawn nudged Autumn’s shoulder.
Show him the letter. She turned to Edgar. Almost choking on her words, she said,
You won’t believe it. It’s the craziest thing.
Autumn held the letter out to Edgar & watched his face as he read. In those black holes that formed his eyes she saw not only surprise, but fear.
A few minutes after, Edgar looked up & said,
¿What do you think, Autumn?.
Autumn took a deep breath.
This is your work.
No, cooking is my work; business is yours, replied Edgar.
Autumn frowned, feeling herself fill up with heat.
No, business is not my business. If ’twere, I would be jumping to make a decision, not shrinking from the giant target it makes me if I choose imprudently….
¿You absolutely sure?, said Autumn. She turned to Dawn.
¿You have any ideas?.
I want to hear yours 1st. I know you have 1, said Dawn.
Autumn took ’nother deep breath.
I think we should decline.
Edgar took a step back in shock. Dawn clapped Autumn’s shoulder & laughed.
I knew it.
Y-you’re not just doing this ’cause you think I want you to, ¿right? said Edgar.
’Cause I told you, anything you choose is fine….
No, this is definitely what Autumn wants, said Dawn.
Both Autumn & Edgar turned to Dawn, Edgar in confusion, Autumn with curiosity.
Dawn turned to Autumn.
You already told me what you truly want — & it wasn’t any money.
E’en if ’twere, I’d still say no, said Autumn.
Edgar tilted his head.
¿You think we could make mo’ than this on our own?.
I know we could, said Autumn.
Else, ¿why would they make the offer? Companies don’t pay money for things ’less they know it’ll pay them back mo’ — a’least not companies that’ve lasted this long. They’re not offering us this money to help us; they’re offering it to try taking our profits ’fore we realize they exist. They hope to make up for the inferiority o’ their product to ours with the superiority o’ business acumen they have to us.
Patting Autumn on the shoulder, Dawn said to Edgar,
This is the payback for all those economics books she read down in that storm drain.
Her mouth a mix o’ emotions, Autumn thought, I doubt half o’ those books had anything to say ’bout good business decisions… Well, mo’ like any o’ them.
¿Does e’eryone agree with this decision?, Autumn asked as she turned her head from Edgar to Dawn. Edgar nodded silently & Dawn shook her hands clasped together & said,
They nodded ’gain.
All right…. Autumn held up the contract & then methodically ripped it into shreds. After tossing the shreds into the recycling bin, she added,
Dawn laughed & said,
I could see the pain you were feeling as you did that — like dashing your own babes’ brains out.
A lesson I’ve learned years ago was that you have to be willing to throw ’way money if you want to make money, said Autumn.
Both Dawn & Edgar were surprised by how blasting with active passion Autumn had been the past days — a’least on the rare moments in which they did see her, when she wasn’t caged up in an office she had rented, speaking with mo’ people than the gregarious Dawn had met in her whole life. & if Autumn was energetic but still cool, Edgar was feverish with excitement, seemingly entranced as he spent hours per day cobbling together his ingredients, pumping out thousands o’ cans worth o’ cola per day.
Dawn couldn’t miss the temperamental switch that had flicked ’tween her & them. Ne’ertheless, she found their cheer so addictive that it wasn’t too hard to emulate, despite the other part o’ her brain yanking back.
¿Is this how Autumn feels — felt — ’bout e’erything? I can’t blame her for… ¿& do I have it in me to drag her back into that disappointment?.
Yes, but this is dire… we’re talking thousands o’ people… maybe e’en millions….
But whene’er she resolved to tell 1 o’ them, she felt the sunshine that emanated from them turn her to stone, heat-frozen.
But her fortitude grew cracks as the months passed & Autumn showed them the developments she was making: new, bigger warehouses; a new, bigger lab for Edgar to manage; & e’en ships that exported their cola to other countries.
The bigger lab jabbed @ Dawn the most: she’d expected Edgar to feel a bit down ’bout the inevitable change from personally baking e’ery cola to mass-manufacture, but ’stead found he warmly advised the workers under him, as if they were the children he oft read to or a personal instructor.
Dawn started by nudging the idea o’ replacing the formaldehyde with some other ingredient to Edgar, only to shrink back ’pon seeing Edgar become worried & say,
¿Why? ¿Is there something wrong with it?.
Dawn laughed & brushed ’way a bang.
Well… it’s just that it’s getting kinda hard to find….
You don’t think Autumn would care that much, ¿do you?.
I mean, she doesn’t e’en seem to care much ’bout the actual recipe — just the business. She doesn’t e’en know — .
She does know, said Edgar.
O… ¿Did she ask you or did she figure it out herself?.
She asked to watch me bake the cola a few times. Said ’twas important that she know all the vital aspects o’ her business. She already knows the cola uses formaldehyde. I could ask her to see if she could find some mo’ after she’s done with some international business she’s doing. She was good @ getting a lot o’ the coriander oil when ’twas sold out @ the nearest store.
& I guess you can’t pause your baking till then…, Dawn said with a withered look.
¿Why? ¿What’s wrong with the formaldehyde? ’Cause I still have plenty with me now, & it seems like it’s something else that’s the problem….
Dawn harshly brushed her hair & began hyperventilating.
¿Madame Springer? We have a problem.
Autumn’s stride stopped on a penny. The cigarette in her mouth drooped. Her serene eyes withered as they looked @ her Export Manager. Suddenly, it seemed as if the sun’s glare were becoming much harsher.
Autumn took the cigarette out o’ her mouth.
Our last ship was destroyed — no survivors.
Their radio messages tell us ’twas seashinobi — the most vicious & powerful pirate clan in the world.
Calming herself, Autumn said,
Forgive me for my ignorance, but I’m going to assume this doesn’t e’er happen to other exporters, ¿right?.
Not so ruthlessly to a ship that surrendered in e’ery way, the manager said with a slow shake o’ the head.
This was assassination.
The Export Manager leaned back ’pon seeing the concealed fury on Autumn’s face.
You, uh… realize we can’t just send out anymo’ ships like this — the lives we’ll — .
Put me on the next ship. I’ll keep e’eryone safe.
The Export Manager’s eyes ballooned.
Madame, I don’t think you understand how horrible seashinobi are. That ship that was destroyed had 7 trained security pers — .
& this next 1 will have me on.
The Export Manager stared @ her as if she transformed into a pelican before his eyes. Autumn stared into his eyes silently while taking a puff o’ her cigarette & turning to blow the smoke to the side o’ the air.
¿Is there some rare martial arts you’ve learned, Madame, that allows you to take on a huge ship full o’ ruthless terrorists?, asked the Export Manager.
Perhaps. I have learned quite a few tricks for taking on dangerous elements in my… past work. Autumn noticed the Export Manager raise a brow. Autumn continued,
& I have 1 strength that makes me particularly apt: I have a strong tolerance for the tightest o’ risks.
The watcher struggled to keep the telescope steady, his nerves itching in wait for the tame waves he’d seen for the past hours shattering into the sign o’ black death coming for them.
Down below, not in the deck, but in a specially-built hidden compartment on the side o’ the ship, sat Autumn hunched in her small space, taking shot after shot o’ vodka & licking her lips. She tried reading her copy o’ The Intelligent Investor, but found her attention strayed halfway thru the same paragraph she tried reading 30 times already.
Then she heard her communicator make the sound o’ a snapped-open pop can & heard the watcher say,
’K. Thanks, & then pocketed her communicator.
Then she took 1 swift chug o’ her vodka & began putting on her scuba gear.
On the deck o’ The Ship that Must Not Be Named, garbed in the same all-concealing suit as the rest & with an eye in a telescope, the cap’n rubbed her chin & said,
Something feels… strange….
¿What do you mean, cap’n?.
We’re getting close & they’re not surrendering. They’re just standing there. Last time they surrendered by now.
¿You think they may have weapons this time?.
They had weapons last time — they just didn’t use them, said the cap’n.
They know what happened last time. Something must be different this time — to make them try ’gain @ all.
¿Do they seem to be doing anything different?.
No. They’re just standing there calmly, the security straight with their arms crossed ’hind them. The watcher seems to have his telescope aimed right @ us. There’s no way they can’t know we’re here. The cap’n backed ’way from the telescope & looked all round their ship, only to see just sluggish clouds.
It… They must be plotting something — ¿but what? We’ve been checking for torpedoes, ¿no?.
1 o’ the other security personnel nodded.
Our equipment shows no signs o’ torpedoes, cap’n.
¿You want me to gear up & check e’erything down below, cap’n?, asked 1 o’ the security men.
After changing, the security watched the surface 1 quick route to make sure, & then dived in on the side toward their enemy ship, eyes sharp for any odd signs. So far, he saw nothing but fish & bubbles.
But as he began to swim round the ship, he saw movement thru the corner o’ his eye & saw an unfamiliar woman in scuba gear swim ’way.
He swam as quickly as he could back to the surface.
¡Cap’n! ¡I saw some stranger swim ’way from our ship!.
The cap’n paused, & then said,
Look round the area where you saw her leave.
But just as he dipped into the water, he felt & heard & saw a red fireball o’ explosion engulf him & e’erything else.
The watcher backed ’way from the telescope. With wide eyes, he said,
Tho the rest o’ the ship could see the fireball for themselves without a telescope, they all nodded silently.
A few minutes later, they jumped ’pon hearing the sound o’ splashing water, only to see Madame Springer climb up o’er the side, dripping all o’er from her hair to her rubber suit & panting, interspersed with wheezy coughs.
Her vision, clogged with the water drops on her glasses like a rainy windshield, slid ’cross e’eryone else on-deck, all staring @ her as if she were the abominable snowman.
Then she said,
My job’s fulfilled; now fulfill yours.
Before going in, Autumn stopped in front o’ her apartment to have a smoke, having gone hours without being able to on the S.S. Springs. She could only get 1 puff before hearing Dawn’s voice say,
Autumn… We need to talk…, coupled with the clomps o’ Dawn’s tennis shoes down the wooden stairs.
Without looking @ Dawn, Autumn sighed & said,
It’s ’bout the formaldehyde.
Dawn stopped, gripping the top o’ the handrail. With shock &, Autumn couldn’t help noticing, a hint o’ anger, Dawn said,
¿How long have you known?.
I’ve been watching Edgar carefully as he baked Winters.
I mean, ’bout what’s wrong with the formaldehyde.
That’s just basic chemistry.
¿& you’re still selling?.
I’ve got it covered. Come, look. Autumn pulled out o’ her pocket a bottle o’ Winters & tapped @ the bottom.
Dawn hurried down the steps & peered in to where Autumn’s finger was to see in small letters, “Warning: this product increases the chances o’ cancer & heart disease. Not to be sold or consumed by anyone under 18. Tested by BAFH”.
Dawn looked up @ Autumn & said,
¿You’re OK with selling this still?.
Autumn pulled her cigarette ’way from her mouth.
Well, @ 1st I was quite humbugged ’bout losing the lucrative teen demographic — tho there are always… underground ways o’ them becoming customers, ’course; but I tested alternatives, & it’s the formaldehyde that makes it so addictive. Makes sense.
It’s cause it’s pretty much a drug, said Dawn.
¿& you’re OK with selling this?, repeated Dawn.
Autumn began untwisting the cap on the Winters bottle.
Yes. Then she took a drink o’ it while staring Dawn directly in the eyes.
We’re… we’re killing people. You don’t deny that, ¿do you?.
Autumn lowered her bottle, causing a few white drops to fall from her chin.
With a raised pitch, Dawn repeated,
¿& you’re OK with this?.
Raising her own voice, Autumn said,
¿How many ways can I tell you “yes”? ¿“Sí, me siento bien con esto”? ¿“Sì, mi sento bene di questo”? ¿“Oui, je me sens bien de faire ça”? ¿Are those ’nough translations? ¿Need mo’? I could maybe try German: ¿“Jah, ich fühle gud…” something or other? You’re lucky I’ve been brushing up on all these languages when working on localization for other countries.
Dawn, who was not humored by Autumn’s questionable localization skills, said,
I refuse to believe you’re OK with poisoning people.
Autumn turned ’way back to the cigarette Dawn was interrupting. After what she’d gone thru on the S.S. Springs, this was the last thing she needed.
You can choose to believe whate’er you want to believe. I guessed that you’d be sentimentally depressed ’bout this, but I didn’t think you’d be this up in your ass ’bout it. You act as if I’m the 1st 1 to do such a thing. I mean, if you think that’s bad, look @ the other horrible things people go ’bout selling these days. ¿Can you believe the world these days?. Autumn held up her cigarette toward Dawn — uneasily, since the glare Dawn was giving her made her worry that she might slap it out o’ Autumn’s hand, which would be a waste o’ money.
But all Dawn did was respond,
I hope you’re not using cigarette companies as your framework for morality.
Business isn’t ’bout morality — that’s something all those economics textbooks I read made quite clear. She turned back to Dawn.
¿Who the fuck d’you think I am? I’m a criminal, for god’s sake.
Yeah, but your thefts weren’t harming their health this much….
Autumn’s face contorted in a dark glare.
O, ¿truly? ¿Is that what you imagine in your cute li’l head? ¿Did Edgar e’er tell you ’bout this 1 woman we saw many years ago who got the shit beat out o’ her ’cause her abusive boyfriend blamed her when we robbed them? You just like to tell yourself that my usual criminal activities are just cute li’l harmless fun so you can feel good ’bout joining in the fun, yourself. That’s fine, but don’t expect me to maintain such mirages.
Dawn, whose anger turned to horror @ this point — which Autumn hated mo’, since it only made her get less enjoyment out o’ popping the git’s delusion balloons — gazed in misery for a moment, before finally saying, shakily,
After all the years I’ve known you —.
You’ve ne’er known me for a second. You think you know me, but your beliefs are as real as flatearthers’.
Dawn continued steadily, tho Autumn could see from her twitching that something was boiling ’neath, — ¿had she finally become so pissed off that she was ready to blow up @ Autumn? That would be fun to see —
Well, those illusions that I have o’ who you are that you gave me, a’least before, when in my company, made it seem to me that you had a conscience that would find poisoning people to be… something you’d ne’er do. ¿Weren’t you the same person who gave Chamsby o’ all people food when he was homeless? ¿Are you telling me that you’d extend mercy to your greatest enemy mo’ than to the average citizen?.
Autumn felt the desire to throw up @ Dawn reminding her o’ such sanctimonious tripe.
Yeah, & then I robbed him after he got his riches back — something that would’ve been much harder if he’d starved to death. Autumn forced herself to laugh, which wasn’t all that hard, since she was nothing but nerves by this point.
¿You actually thought this whole time I cared whether that lunatic lived or died for humanistic reasons?.
¿So why did you help Felix then? ¿Some decades-long plot to exploit her in the future?.
It’s possible. That’s what I do — exploit people.
Dawn shook her head.
I ne’er thought someone as brutally honest as you would dive into such laughable lies just to fake some consistency ’tween your normal behavior & selling literal poison. You’re better than this.
Autumn’s pupils dilated so hard as if trying to harm themselves by squeezing themselves out o’ their eyeballs. She wanted to just say, “Sure, I’ll put magic juice to take ’way all the cancers in the soda & stop selling it” to shut her up or just to walk ’way. ¿Why should she care what Dawn had to say? ¿What need did Autumn have for Queen Dawn’s noble blessing?
¿So you’d be fine if she drank poison?.
Jesus Christ. ¿Would I be fine if she smoked cigarettes? ¿Should I spank her & send her to her room with no supper or treat her like a fucking adult? ¿Is it OK if I smoke cigarettes? ¿Should I feel bad for assaulting my own body? You act as if I’m treating all these poor drones so vulnerable as to be unable to read a warning label in basic English differently from how I treat myself.
Yeah, but you’re different. You’re — .
Autumn swung back to Dawn.
¿What? ¿What am I? ¿Some kind o’ retard that is possessed by these cigarettes or this alcohol to use them? ¿What, is it that ‘mental disease’ Violet said I had, that makes dumbass me be unable to comprehend the craftiness o’ such inanimate objects as well as world-genius, Dawn Summers?.
Dawn’s voice lowered to a mutter.
That’s not what I meant….
Autumn’s voice rose, causing Dawn to shrink back.
You don’t know what you fucking mean, ’cause you’re a fucking idiot. Autumn pointed @ Dawn.
I told you before & I’ll tell you ’gain: you’re wrong on 1 count — I know people better than you do. All these people who buy alcohol, cigarettes, our cola — hell, cola itself, which is full o’ diabetes-feeding sugar, as well as all the fatty food e’eryone eats while sitting round as drooling swine watching swirling colors or pushing buttons on their controllers — they’re slowly killing themselves ’cause they want to. ’Cause they know that life’s a fucking drag & don’t have the natural retardation that you have to trick their own minds into forgetting that, into believing in that babbling abstract bullshit you spew that crumbles to useless dust when subjected to the mind o’ someone with a single working brain cell. Autumn leaned forward, eyes screwing, causing Dawn to back ’way.
& the #s back me up: we’re the norm, you’re the outlier, the wrong mutation. & I can tell you what the vast majority o’ those ‘mentally-diseased’ slow suiciders would say if you tried hopping in front o’ them, telling them to stop, trying to stop them like a buzzing fucking wasp: ‘¡Fuck off!’.
Silence passed ’tween the 2, save for what sounded like a sniffle, possibly from Dawn. Autumn kept her eyes ’way from Dawn, staring @ the smoke that continued to waft from her cigarette like steam.
Finally Dawn said,
OK… ¿& do you expect retarded ol’ me to just be continuing to give you formaldehyde, to continue helping you to poison willing people, e’en tho that goes gainst my wrong mutation o’ a morality?, but it sounded mo’ like a weak plea than a threat.
Without looking @ Dawn, Autumn said casually,
If you want to stop supplying me, that’s fine. I have other means.
¿& does Edgar know? ¿Is he comfortable with this?.
If not, I know the recipe.
Autumn finally looked @ Dawn & smiled widely.
Yes, retarded ol’ me was always a step ’head, said Autumn.
I have no ill will toward you 2 — @ this Dawn gawked incredulously, which Autumn preferred o’er the sad mop o’ a face she seemed to have before —
& would love to have you be with me in this. But I don’t need you. So e’en if you both bail, there’s nothing you can do to stop me. With this Autumn turned ’way & blew out a puff o’ smoke as if ’twere the slamming o’ a gavel.
Autumn eyed Dawn as she stood there, gaping in horror & shaking. Then Dawn’s eyes cracked, she turned her head down & sniffed, & then she stumbled up the steps.
Due to Edgar both going & coming to work with Autumn, ’twas surprisingly difficult for Dawn to get him ’lone; but she managed to do so when Autumn went outside to smoke.
Edgar, ¿could you come with me to my lab?.
Edgar didn’t ask why; he just said,
’K, & followed her.
She stopped @ the door & motioned for Edgar to walk farther in. When he did, she closed the door ’hind her.
¿Did Autumn tell you ’bout the formaldehyde?.
Edgar wrung his hands together.
She said you’d tell me.
Dawn said in a flat tone,
She’s 1 step ’head o’ me.
You… You don’t think I should… not bake anymo’, ¿do you?.
¿What do you want?.
I mean… She’s just going to find someone else to do it.
Yeah, I’m still giving her the formaldehyde. Same reason.
Then Dawn rubbed her left eye, which was still red, & said,
That’s not why I asked you to come in here, tho. There’s something else that worries me ’bout Autumn….
I… I think something — probably all that alcohol, cigarettes, & who knows what else, in addition to the stress she’s taken on… She’s just super bitter & angry & paranoid recently. She went on this huge outburst ’bout me being ‘retarded’ & ’bout most people secretly being suicidal & said ditsy ‘happy’ people like me should fuck off.
Rather than look shocked, Edgar just looked down & muttered,
I’m sorry. I’ll talk to her.
I’m sure this is just the drugs & stress, but….
I don’t think it is.
Dawn’s brows fell.
Autumn’s been smoking & drinking for years & ne’er acted like this — tho the stress may be a cause, said Edgar.
¿You sure? I’ve seen her stressed… well, all the time, before, & I’ve ne’er seen her like this.
Autumn’s always been paranoid & edgy, & now she’s in her ‘upward climb’, where these become most potent.
For the past few years, she’d been depressed, willless, & hopeless; but now that she sees success on the tips o’ her fingers… any possible threat, real or imagined, sets off panic. She’s always been like this. ¿E’er seen her in the midst o’ danger on heists or adventures?.
But I’m not going to stop her….
She doesn’t know that. See… she thinks you, & e’eryone else, is a’least almost as crafty as she is, ’cause craftiness is all she knows. It’s the same with me. She’s always feared that I was only pretending to like her, having some complex goals & ways o’ carrying them out. See, she’s used to crafty. She’s used to thievery, which is all ’bout deception, manipulation, & complexity. She can’t understand anything else. So when someone says to her, ‘I want to help you’, her mind imagines a million different webs o’ manipulations the person might be planning.
Dawn’s expression became mo’ harried as Edgar spoke.
She… she hasn’t spoken to you this way, ¿has she?.
Edgar shook his head.
No, that’s why I’m surprised she’d say these things to you.
¿Then what do we do? I feel like Autumn’s become a different person. I’m ’fraid o’ e’en going near her. I’ve ne’er felt like this before.
Nothing, said Edgar.
She won’t do anything too bad, & she doesn’t mean most o’ the things she says — I’m sure she didn’t mean all that stuff she said to you, since I’ve ne’er heard her say anything bad gainst you before. As I said, she thinks we’re cleverer than we are, & — & I’m not blaming you @ all, since you didn’t imply anything o’ the sorts — but Autumn for some reason thinks you’re going to betray her or something. I don’t know. I can talk to her, but it’ll probably end ’ventually, anyway.
¿What do you mean? ¿Some kind o’ mood swing back to being depressed?.
I mean… Autumn’s right ’bout 1 thing: in the long term, her ventures ne’er succeed. & e’en I know that most small businesses fail. I can just imagine this cancer thing will cause some disaster & it’ll all fall apart, & Autumn will be back to being quiet & depressed.
¿You don’t believe she’ll succeed?, Dawn said, half gasping.
Edgar kept his face to the floor, unable to say what he thought next: Autumn was wrong ’bout 1 thing, tho: you were unable to make me as ‘ditsily’ positive or hopeful as she suspected.
The man in blue was surprised by the man in red’s high spirits.
If you’re trying to trick me, it won’t work, said the man in blue.
I’ve heard about the mishap of your pirates. Must be embarrassing to be the biggest cola company in the world and be unable to hire anything but the most incompetent goons beaten by a single woman with a bomb.
I’d say severing all evidence tied to us would be better, said the man in red.
But it doesn’t matter: Winters pretty much handed us a clean, easy way to bring them down. He reached into his suit, pulled out a bottle, & set it on the table.
Have you noticed the change in their product design?.
The men in blue & magenta leaned forward, peering into the bottle.
No, said the man in blue.
Look here. The man in red lifted the bottle & pointed @ the bottom edge.
The man in blue took the bottle & stared @ the bottom edge.
Now, why would such an addictive cola feel the need to add liability-increasing cancerous product to their recipe? — since, surely, they didn’t have these products in the months they were selling Winters cola before this warning appeared and before they bothered to get their product validated by the drug administrators for all the countries in which they sold these products. I bet there are many people who bought this cola within those six months who wouldn’t have had they known they were smoking cigarettes — certainly not the millions of children who drank this.
The man in blue smiled.
I told you we shouldn’t have worried. He lowered the bottle & looked up @ the man in red.
Such a small, sudden upstart by two working-class bums with only high-school educations… it was just time that’d tell before they fucked up so imperially.
As Autumn headed back to the apartment, her thoughts was preoccupied by the same repeated imploration:
You need to apologize to Dawn.
Autumn took ’nother drag o’ what must’ve been the 8th cigarette she had that day. That was the scam o’ drugs after all — the high just keeps wearing off sooner & sooner till it ne’er comes back.
These cheery thoughts were interrupted when Autumn heard her phone ring.
¿Yes?, Autumn said into it.
Autumn blinked once, but kept her face still.
’K… Uh huh… No, I understand. Yes, thank you.
Autumn clicked off her cell & stuffed it back into her pocket. Then she dropped her cigarette onto the concrete & stubbed it out with the heel o’ her shoe.
Well, now I have something a thousand times better than an apology to give Dawn.
But Autumn kept quiet ’bout the ordeal till she had the opportunity to discuss it with all the lawyers she could, all o’ which were nice ’nough to tell her she was utterly fucked.
So she returned to the apartment, only to find it empty ’pon entering.
’Haps this finally broke the thread & compelled them to do what they should’ve done years ago….
She curled her hand into a fist, ready to… No. She couldn’t e’en build up the fury to do anything to herself. She yawned. She scanned the room once mo’ to confirm that Dawn & Edgar were gone, & then decided she may as well take advantage o’ their absence & bent down toward her pack for her bottle o’ vodka — hopefully ’nough to drink herself into a coma.
¿What was I thinking? This tattered, aging backpack is me — ’twas all I could e’er be. & I thought I could ride the random o’ this recipe & that the cracks I saw wouldn’t ’ventually shatter it, as always happens. ¿What was I thinking?
She dug thru her pack, only to become limp in disgust @ the impotency o’ her vodka & cigarettes, when she needed something harder, stronger. Something that’d make her a vegetable. Her fingers twitched.
There’s still that bleach. She could imagine the taste she imagined it’d have: a thick sourness that later lit into an all-consuming fire spreading all ’cross her stomach & throat. If only that were the secret ingredient — Springer Cola, we’d call it. Better than some limp cigarette shit.
Her thoughts were interrupted by footsteps. She hastily zipped up her pack & looked up to see Edgar & Dawn walking inside.
O, hello, Autumn, said Edgar with a small wave while Dawn looked @ Autumn as if she wanted to say hello, but was ’fraid Autumn would punch her if she did. Then Edgar & Dawn looked @ her with concern.
¿What’s wrong?, they both said.
Autumn walked up to Edgar a put a hand on his shoulder with 1 hand while the other held its index finger out & made a slicing motion in front o’ Autumn’s neck.
It’s off. I’m sorry.
¿What?, asked Edgar.
I… I didn’t mean to guilt trip you that much, said Dawn.
Autumn turned to Dawn with an ugly eye.
You didn’t. You’ll be happy to know that ’twas lawsuits that did it.
Edgar gasped. Dawn shrunk back.
We’re — well, I’m — millions lost, & all dregs o’ solutions have fallen apart. E’ery lawyer I have & e’ery lawyer they know tells me it’d be pretty much impossible not to lose a’least a million — ’specially considering the legal power backing the opposition.
Dawn’s jaw opened wide.
If you can’t join them….
Crush them, said Autumn.
Autumn bent down in front o’ her pack & dug round for her bottle o’ vodka ’gain, deciding that Edgar & Dawn — or anyone — being round made her need it mo’.
I’m super sorry to hear ’bout this, Autumn, said Dawn.
Autumn laughed before taking a chug o’ her vodka.
¿You want to know the best part o’ this?.
¿What?, Dawn said with the wariness o’ one who might not want to know what.
I ne’er got round to incorporating.
O, I’m sorry….
Autumn looked up @ Dawn with dark eyes, but her mouth was still a smile — an unhappy smile, Dawn could see. One that repelled her mo’ than a sad frown.
I can see by your tone that you don’t quite understand what ‘incorporation’ means.
¿What does it mean?.
My funds aren’t separate from Winters Cola. There’s no ‘Winters Cola, inc.’ or whate’er to be held accountable for hundreds o’ millions. Only Autumn Springer.
Dawn’s pupils sunk in.
¿What happens if you can’t pay that?.
Bankruptcy. Shot credit. Possibly some o’ my stuff repossessed — tho since I have nothing valuable, I doubt that. We’re sure to lose the rights to Winter Cola, tho.
But nothing dire, ¿right?, said Dawn.
Autumn took ’nother chug o’ her vodka.
Not if you don’t count all o’ my savings I invested & the fact that now my chances o’ getting a job have narrowed e’en farther.
So nothing the fearless adventurer can’t survive, said Dawn, regaining her cheer.
Hey, if it makes you feel better, something similar happened to me with the restaurant I used to run — ¿remember? I’m sure that wasn’t ‘incorporated’ & I know I was barely able to make even on the bills I’d built up by selling the place. I’m sure we could do the same arrangement.
Right. Autumn took ’nother chug.
Nothing the “fearless” adventurer can’t survive — that’s the rub, innit.