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vol v, issue 3 < ToC
Boundless Vendettas
by
Michael Rook
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RegretLetter to a
Young Mathematician
Boundless Vendettas
by
Michael Rook
previous

Regret




next

Letter to a
Young Mathematician
Boundless Vendettas
by
Michael Rook
previous next

Regret Letter to a
Young Mathematician
previous

Regret




next

Letter to a
Young Mathematician
Boundless Vendettas  by Michael Rook
Boundless Vendettas
 by Michael Rook
Sentimentality aside, the vendetta—a vendetta—didn’t make sense. It was like a line of bad code. Isabella would have appreciated debating it, its illogic, but there was no one else in her condo. Her only option for talk would be virtual and that would be harder.

And virtual wasn’t the right word either, was it?

One of her silver hairs fell into her vision. She re-tucked it and again glared at her particle monitor. Sicily’s eastern coast glared back, glowing. To keep her promise, she’d have to travel to the island and that, thanks to the vendetta, would require a local escort. Someone who knew how to evade the Pellegrini family and their blood-sworn promise to kill any Adrano—Isabella included—with balls grandi enough to set foot back on the home island. Even after seventy years. And even if, one had to guess, all one came to do was to inter their grandmother’s remains.

But inter and remains weren’t quite right either, were they?

“Call Malik,” she said, anxiety prickling the long muscles hugging her spine, those once built for national-level swimming, but lost now to age and other choices.

The computer buzzed and she considered the map. The odd triangular country had slid from empire to empire, all the way back to the Phoenicians. Interesting as history, as she’d learned, but trouble for ancestry. A Sicilian, feeling Italian, or, more pretentiously, Roman, might as easily be Greek, Goth, Arabic, or Viking. The relative-finding algorithms struggled with the twisting family trees. Still, and having broken through more than one cold moment of wanting to just break her damned promise, she’d found a distant relative.

Malik.

But he wasn’t picking up.

Moisture built up under her big arms. Uncomfortable, she shrugged and flitted her eyes to one of the other particle monitors floating above her desk. On the second screen, she drummed out a few more lines of code. Then, stuck on a problem, she glanced at a third monitor and her credits ticker. The numbers rolled like a digital gas pump, if moving in reverse, gallons slowly vanishing. Meanwhile, the hysteria increased in the news broadcast spanning the fourth and final monitor. A second hurricane in as many weeks was really going to hit them and this time the follow-on erosion would really give D.C. some Atlantic coastline. Isabella glanced back to the ghost of Sicily.

She poked the energy field and drew a line from the island to D.C. Did the monitor’s electrons recognize her finger, she wondered, now wearing Nonna’s, Daniela’s, old ring?

Maybe Malik wouldn’t answer.

The digital business card of Boundless Inc. sparkled atop a new client’s offer sheet, nanocircuits firing every so many minutes.

Maybe Malik wouldn’t answer.

“Ms. Adrano,” Malik said.

PalPlace Augmented Reality (AR), the world’s largest social network, translated his Italian with scant delay. His 3D-rendered features wound into focus, filling a virtual oblong. He looked like a well-sunned version of some semi-famous actor, if glowing faintly blue. And he had been young. Or at least scanned young. Isabella glanced towards the Boundless card as the Sicilian’s visage sharpened. She tried to smile.

“Please. You’re Malik. I’m Isabella. We’re Adranos. We’re related.”

Isabella.” The AR wasn’t perfect, but it caught the constriction of his jaw.

“If I haven’t said it enough,” Isabella said rapidly, “thank you.” After weeks of searching Boundless’s DNA Connections, Malik had been the single Sicilian relative she’d be able to contact, so only when his expression loosened did she move to the question about it.

“Please, tell me: What did you find out about the vendetta?”

“She’ll kill you.”

As Malik’s response took the air from her throat, like a bad dive, Isabella’s gaze went rogue in her little office. Two physical Adrano Realty signs (Daniela’s First Sale, My First Sale!) gave way to a shelf of antique code books. On a higher shelf, she settled on a faded photo. Her grandmother, Daniela, posed stiffly with a hand laid on a wheelchair-bound man, her husband, Silvio. While Daniela smiled, Silvio grinned.

“She doesn’t even know me.” Isabella growled, yanking her gaze from her grandparents and back to Malik.

Her relative’s disembodied head jerked.

“I’m sorry,” Isabella whispered. “But she didn’t know my grandmother, let alone my grandfather. Her mother didn’t even know ... It’s been so long. How can she care?”

Malik sunk his head into a bow. His projection showed no sign of his fatal injury, but he’d told Isabella earlier that the accident had cracked his skull. “Blood still means something here.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

“It’s real then? The vendetta? Still?”

“Yes,” Malik said. “Yes. You can’t bring her here. Can’t bring it here. Anne-Marie Pellegrini has family too, including long-walkers. They, the dead ones, will find out who she is. Change her name, change her looks, it won’t matter. Everyone talks, living and dead. And besides, it’s growing all the time. How many of you want to come here? Why not stay? America’s so much bigger. With the signal, you can’t even go that far. My sister and I can’t even get to Italy. And who can afford backups or transfers—"

“Growing?” Isabella cut in. “Growing how much?”

“Why?”

“Never mind.” Isabella shook off her curiosity. She grabbed Boundless’s business card and lifted it. “I promised I’d bring her.”

Now Malik growled. “There’s no way. Do you know Anne-Marie’s family? I don’t know if I’m even safe. And they’re even starting to run that—'Boundless.’ Here.” He motioned to the glowing card.

Isabella closed her hand.

After a moment, Malik broke the silence. “And she uses a Benelli.”

“What?”

“They said it would make sense to an Adrano. ‘That old Benelli.’ Mean something?”

Isabella wanted to glance at the faded photo, but stopped herself. “Can you put me in touch with Anne-Marie?”

Malik’s upper-lip rose, nose crinkling. He nodded to the bottom of the monitor, where the PalPlace icon rotated. “She’s not hiding.”

His image began to break up.

“Goodbye—” Isabella rushed to say, but the connection closed.

It took an hour of failing to write code, downing coffee, and hate-watching the weather for her to finally call up the search. A headshot of a square-jawed woman in a beige suit appeared, her blond hair waving in a way that felt expensive.

Anne-Marie Pellegrini (Sicily). To see more, select Hi!

Isabella gave the command.

The acceptance message popped up in less than three minutes.

#

Isabella closed all her other monitors, tilted the camera to shoulders-up, and pulled her hair into a bun. Anne-Marie Pellegrini shaped.

A background emerged first, revealing a family den: wedding photos, a long, pillow-strewn couch, and curtains colored a simple gray. Nothing gilded or ... Mafioso.

“Anne-Marie,” Isabella said, with a deliberate raise of volume.

“I never expected you to call.” Translation again sounded without delay, but Anne-Marie’s lips fell a touch behind.

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Isabella continued. “We’ve never communicated ...”

Anne-Marie frowned. “Just tell me what you want.”

“First, about the ... the thing. It was seventy years ago.”

The Sicilian floating above the desk said nothing. A flicker of anger, like when Isabella had been considering how ... impractical ... the whole thing seemed, sent her rattling off more of what she’d been thinking. “Silvio wasn’t a good man. But he’s dead. And, before that, he was crippled. He spent most of his life like that, after your relative crushed his back—”

“For which he killed, killed, members of my family. And do you know how old they—”

“Yes, yes,” Isabella cut in. She fell silent.

Anne-Marie, or her projection, just glowered. Cleary, the dozens of years had not healed things on the Pellegrini side. Nor had the simple insanity of a vendetta in the first place. When the woman in Sicily continued her silence—but also didn’t end the connection—Isabella went on, softer, but also choosing to get right to it, just like the pitch of any business deal.

“My grandmother died. Do you know Boundless Inc.?”

The avatar in the oblong said nothing.

“Before she died ...” Isabella said, managing to keep the flickers of anger from taking over, “before she died, my grandmother paid Boundless to scan her. And she made me promise to install her in Sicily. She wants to go on the Long-Walk there, to walk her old home, with her old family and friends.”

“So? Why do you care?”

Isabella exhaled, tightening her old swimming muscles. “She raised me. My mother died young.”

Anne-Marie’s expression unwound a little. “We call it the Long-Walk too,” she said. And she started to say something else, but was interrupted by a screech.

“Mamma!”

As the Sicilian turned away, Isabella rose, trying to see over the woman and into the den. She strained to catch Italian spoken too far from the mic, just making out a child’s voice, a boy’s. Anne-Marie’s tone shifted when addressing the boy—sweet and caring. The boy’s voice faded from the room.

“Would,” Anne-Marie said, turning back, brushing away a blond wave, “you like my help?”

Isabella nearly stuttered What? She managed to halt herself, fingers clutching the desk’s edge. This woman, who ran a crime family, a family sworn to murder Isabella’s family, any of them visiting Sicily and breaking the line of the vendetta, and meaning it—what kind of cold bitch-ness that must require—offers help? On a dime? Only one reason made sense.

“How much?” Isabella said, careful to stay calm, thinking business deal.

“Who says I want money?”

Isabella couldn’t help the bite in her words. “Everyone does these days.”

Anne-Marie squinted, but typed on imaginary keys. “Here.”

The number wasn’t unreasonable.

“Okay,” Isabella said, calculating the dip to her credits. “How soon?”

“As soon as you send it, we can begin. We’ve started to do it more and more. Boundless.”

The revelation sent Isabella a touch backwards.

“Is there something wrong?”

“That’s it?” Isabella said, again burying any other curiosity.

“That’s it,” the Sicilian said flatly. “You’re right about money and ‘these days.’ And that’s where you and I live, right? In these kinds of days?”

Isabella hesitated for one more moment, but then poked virtual keys.

Anne-Marie glanced down, nodded, and started to dissolve.

Prego,” the Sicilian said.

Isabella didn’t need a translation; Daniela had said it all the time.

The woman in the Potomac condo began to book her trip. Her hands shook—if not unwelcomely so.

#

Malik ran like a loon. He hadn’t been an athlete before death, and the crossover hadn’t done anything to change that. His elbows jutted and his boots slapped like flippers. Still, he slashed through Palermo, shooting from park grass and onto cement. And that was it: even as a long-walker, even dead, he felt the change in surface.

That was Boundless’s magic, wasn’t it?

He hadn’t fully understood the pitch, an engineer muttering about advances in 3-D printing and radical holograms, but he’d sat up when the engineer herself had gotten animated, lit up really, when she reached the part about vacuums.

A Cal-Something experiment, she’d said, had shocked the physics community by finding little black holes, each maybe the size of a wagon wheel, all over the world. Millions. Billions. For decades, they’d all known a black hole was really just a fancy vacuum. And, more so, they’d known that the holes, the vacuums, weren’t really nothing, but rather a mix of matter and antimatter. What was so new, though, was finding them on Earth, instead of in space. On Earth. Everywhere.

And that wasn’t even the breakthrough.

At an old nuclear lab (naturally), an experimental particle something-or-other had unintentionally fired right into one of the mini black holes. And, right there, the molecules inside had rearranged. A new form of matter had materialized, something like an after-image, but which could be seen, and felt.

And so more particle something-or-others were blasted into more wagon-wheel vacuums, eventually beyond the lab, from the sides of highways to the basements of collapsed buildings to abandoned bedrooms. Locations and density were mapped. Papers published. Data open-sourced. Tech downsized. Demonstrations shown to important people. Patents filed and expired.

And then came Boundless.

What if something, they asked, intentional could be formed from those rearranged molecules? What if someone pumped in a different kind of map, a whole blueprint into the vacuum, one now so small as to be available for saving on chips indistinguishable under any microscope not powered by the sun. The first “digital humans”—interactive copies of your dead uncle, for instance, the interesting one—had been loaded onto smart assistants before the 21st century had been two decades old. Stories had appeared in the Washington Post. In the Valley, stem cells even learned to spell, if not to write. Immortality, the last frontier, had fallen before the mightiest of forces: the market.

But only Boundless, and some creator never named, had asked why anyone would want a true corporeal body anymore, one even manufactured with lines like a Ferrari. Meat bodies just run down. Worse yet, they’d be limited by the laws of thermodynamics and boring stuff like heat and gravity. Why not something more ... ethereal? Whatever the matter bouncing around those little vacuums, it was something new. That worked, that fired the imagination, and Boundless knew it. Living again, living on, with the pleasures, the feel of the flesh, but none of the downsides ...

But as the memory of sweat, cold and slick, ran down his cheeks, Malik wondered about those little black holes. Dr. Manhattan’s re-materialization had made more sense, contained less mystery, in an old copy of Watchmen translated fairly well into Italian. But, Boundless ...What if those engineers and that hidden creator had ripped into something other than mindless matter? If their tech was really more magic than they let on? What if those vacuums, those holes they’d ripped into, weren’t random matter, but the dead? The remnants of people who’d met their deaths by those highways or in those basements and bedrooms? What if he, now a Boundless long-walker, was just a recycled ghost?

Still, he’d never again know the pain of sprint-weary legs. As he ran, however, he was achingly aware that the tingle in his soles, that bit of feeling each time he hit the ground, was something he could still lose.

Boundless had stretched life beyond the wonder of man. But it hadn’t eradicated death.

The distant Adrano cousin cut into a narrow alley, all torque and breeze. Shouts came from behind, along with smacking boot heels—boots faster than his.

His drone kept pace above, little particle stream hopping from vacuum to vacuum effortlessly, as if tracing the stones in an endless garden path. But, below, the ghost-man remembered the panic of running while not looking. He glared up without slowing as a breath-memory swelled his throat.

And he screamed.

#

“What did you do?”

Isabella, half-asleep, stumbled to the monitor. “Malik? What is it?”

Malik’s face spun up, bobbing violently. Isabella gripped the table, realizing her relative was running. Why make them run? Why not teleport or something? But there were limits, always.

Malik’s mouth unhinged. “She knows about me!”

“Yes! We made a deal. But, wait ...” Isabella scanned the scenery beyond her relative, though only made out a building, then a doorway. “Where are you going?”

Something ugly suddenly occurred to her and her back tightened. “Your server? Can someone get your server?” The half-rhyme of server and inter played in her head much as she didn’t want it to.

Malik screamed.

His digital face swiveled, fast and mechanical—the drone, spinning. His eyes stretched and dilated. His mouth warbled into its own long oblong: “Nooo!”

Thunder crashed. Something boomed.

Malik dematerialized.

Isabella slipped, large forearms barking the desk’s edge. In the now-faceless virtual screen, diamonds sparkled on a muted canvas. Then the image jerked.

“This isn’t just a blood thing,” someone said through the speakers.

There was no pause for translation. Again, the drone zoomed closer, pushed almost, as if moved beyond its own means. The close-up it now provided revealed what Isabella had first taken to be a canvas as not fibrous, but cement. Diamonds became the sparking innards of server remains, chips and wire smoldering before petering out, semi-obscured by smoke.

A long gun barrel—round and wide, but also aged and scarred—pushed into the frame. A brownish pump-handle followed as the shotgun stirred embers.

“It’s because blood mixed with business. Don’t come here.”

The drone suddenly zipped forward, debris zooming up in size. The screen flashed zig-zags and popped jet black.

#

Isabella collapsed, slumping to her side, ending with gray hair draped over a naked arm, eye-level with a wall-attached power bar whose red eye blinked in rhythm. Call the cops? The Sicilian cops? And say what? In D.C. the crime would be “destruction of property,” maybe “unlawfully discharging a firearm.” It—long-walking, Boundless—was so new, the laws hadn’t caught up. So, tell the polizia ... what? Someone killed a server? On the island. Was it mi familia? Yeah. Close familia? Well ...

“Boundless Comms! Call Daniela!” Isabella suddenly voice-commanded.

The screen pulsed with cool violet as Isabella shoved herself upwards, as if springing from a pool with practiced memory. On screen, a new face appeared. It had once been pleasing, maybe even plump and pretty, but now so gaunt it could have been a mannequin. Eyes, slowly, teased apart, the pre-installation version of Boundless bringing Daniela, Isabella’s grandmother, her Nonna, to phantasmagoric life.

“Love,” Daniela said slowly, sleepily. “What is it?”

“She killed him,” Isabella yelled, leaning into the screen. “She just killed him!”

The avatar lost its waking expression. Thin eyebrows turned down, furious. “Who?”

“Malik. A cousin. You didn’t know him, but he was ... like you. He was helping.”

“Motherfucker,” The woman in the machine suddenly grunted, stretching a few cancer-lesions not yet deleted. “How could he be killed? What happened?”

“The server. She shot the server.”

“She ... Anne-Marie?

Isabella nodded sharply. “This far, Nonna? It goes this Christ-screwing far?

“Don’t swear!” the ghost-in-the-machine snapped. “I shouldn’t have asked you to do this. I shouldn’t have asked you. You can’t—”

“I wanted to do this,” Isabella cut in, though it felt like a plead more than a retort. Only Daniela could do that to her. “I agreed. I want this. I owe you.”

“Oh, Isabella, Love. Thank you. But you don’t—”

“She used a shotgun. A Benelli. Does that mean something?”

Love ...”

“Was that the gun? His?”

Daniela nodded. When she did, the violet of her face and background rippled.

“I don’t believe it,” Isabella muttered. She rose, unable not to. Her grandmother started to say something else, but Isabella shook her head.

“That’s how he did his ‘business,’ Nonna? Silvio? You even called it ‘the business.’”

“And what should I have called it? When talking with a child? You only wanted to know about my business—which became your businesses—after I left Silvio. Where did you think I got starting money? The family is always there. We should call them.”

“We will not. I will not.” Isabella stared out the window at the river cutting through the capital. Anne-Marie: The icy bitch had straight-up lied to her. Used the information she gave. And then ... Malik.

“Love,” Daniela said, breaking into her granddaughter’s thoughts as she had so often before. “If you don’t want to have anything to do with the family, if you still don’t, then don’t do this. I can just go. I never thought I’d have this chance, so I can just go ... on.”

Isabella shut her eyes. “I want to help. I promised I would.”

“Then you have to consider it. Calling them.”

Isabella rubbed her arms and her eyes drifted back to the office. They landed on her old code books.

“Maybe,” she said, hearing the sudden change in her own tone. “But not for what you think.”

#

The 22-foot runabout boat rattled over dark water, wave tips cotton in the moonlight. Slowed for the approach, the cousins kept video pouring back to Daniela and Isabella. Every now and then, Carlotta Adrano, the tallest, would glance back to the trailing drone. The motion turned her torso, a great V. A swimmer too? Sofia Adrano and Alice Adrano, the other “cousins” now living on mainland Italy, never looked back, but their tiny figures created familiar silhouettes. Not familiar—familial, for Christ-screwing sake. Across an ocean.

Isabella curled her fingers. Daniela’s ring felt cold against her digits.

Malik had been familial too.

“Does it make sense now, Love?” Daniela was looking over from her Boundless oblong, cheekbones straining too much against now violet-colored skin.

Isabella didn’t respond. Instead, she stared at the thing pinned to one of the boat’s chairs by the pressure of Carlotta’s hip. A black, boxy thing.

Sofia steered while Alice and Carlotta scanned the horizon, their guns moving in unison. They’d picked up their load from a hacker contact of Isabella’s and then smuggled it under darkness, because now, on Sicily’s coast, where there were lights, there were likely Pellegrinis.

Like those who had killed Malik.

No, worse: erased him.

If one could feel something inside themselves changing, Isabella might have admitted she felt that now. Something at least trying to change. And why not be able to feel that? She was sitting next to a living ghost. Trying to ship it to Sicily so it could walk around and pick up things.

“I’d never thought I’d feel like this.” The words just leaked out as she thought about things inside her.

“Family is family,” Daniela said.

In the video feed, the illumination suddenly changed, from moor-less stars to dock lights and warehouses. A little further in, within Pozallo, a hover-truck would be standing idle, manned by a friend of the cousins. From there, it would take a short hop to Mt. Etna, the volcano, and Boundless’s nearest facility to Adrano, their old town. If they could just get Daniela there, install her server, they could call on Boundless’s premium security and more cousins and connections. Change Daniela’s name and appearance totally. And be home free. Though they needed a little more insurance first.

The boat stalled. A tree-lined and rocky coast crowned a small beach just west of the docks. A splash spit up white dribble, chasing the anchor. Too much, Isabella thought, imagining a dive. She didn’t fight the mental wandering, though. It was better than the tension.

Alice entered the water, gun high. With the engine cut, the only sounds offered were waves, breeze, and the drone’s motor. Carlotta jumped in. She and Alice slung their weapons and offered open arms. Sofia folded over the side and handed the boxy thing to her sisters, who found sand, planted the box, and re-drew. Sofia joined moments later.

“I can’t believe this is really going to happen, Love.” Daniela tilted her head back, closing her eyes. “I know it may not make sense, but ...”

“I promised.” Isabella said, filling the silence.

The floating head turned, then nodded to the box. “What did you say that was?”

Isabella hesitated. “Something old. It’s called a logic bomb. It’s a ... cyber bomb. It’ll mess up their computers, their communications, and their— It’ll give us enough time to really get you there. Behind Boundless’s walls. Safe.”

The old woman frowned. “And you know about ‘cyber bombs’ because ..."

Before Isabella could think of an answer, the screen flashed. Cousins and bomb shrank at insane speeds, becoming insects and a trinket: The drone had jerked to a halt high above.

“What the hell is that?” Daniela said.

“Safety mode. It’s automatic. The drone must have perceived danger ...”

Through the feed, something cracked. Then again. And again. Sparks of gunfire appeared. They burst from where the beach disappeared into palm trees.

“They’re being shot at!” Daniela screamed.

Isabella reached for the imaginary keyboard, for the holo-mouse. But then retreated—because there was nothing to do. Except watch.

In moments, the tree-line continued to gush sparks, but the beach resistance cut down to a single flare.

They’re slaughtering them!” Daniela hollered. “Call them! Call help!” But her words were empty. There were only so many cousins these days. And none on the island. No reinforcements.

The beach gun flared. A synchronized tandem erupted from the tree-line. And something exploded on the beach with a brilliant glow.

“Turn me off,” Daniela said, drained and breaking up. “Love, please! Turn me off.”

Isabella pounded the holo-mouse. Daniela blinked away.

On screen, more insects—the murdering Pellegrinis—loosed themselves from the trees. Tears stinging, eyes watering as if within broken goggles, Isabella started to look away. But froze.

One, two, three, glowing blue like phosphorescent mantises, long-walker Pellegrinis, surely, emerged from the tree line. The dead family members followed their living brethren across the killing field.

Isabella again slapped the holo-mouse.

#

“It was the one who left the truck?” Daniela asked, hours later.

Isabella sat, gin in hand, shaking. She stared out the window. The Capitol, along with its several antennae, glistened in the rising sun.

“Yes. Who else?”

“Motherfucker,” Daniela grunted. “Though, it also could have been your contact—”

Nonna!

They sat in silence.

“Tell me about the piazza,” Isabella said after a few minutes. “Tell me again.”

Daniela sounded incredulous. “Love, why?”

Did Isabella need to say their names? Carlotta, Sofia, Alice ... Malik. Adranos. That thing, that changing thing inside, once again churned. “I want to remember. I want to remember how this started.”

“Love, I—"

“Tell me.”

Daniela sighed. “Lucho Pellegrini. The man that kicked Silvio in the back out of nowhere, who crippled him, he’d been banished to the mainland. So, everyone thought a truce was on. It was Ferragosto. After the bonfires, everyone was happy and drunk. The two families, they even danced together. But Silvio, he and his brothers ...”

#

The townspeople of Adrano danced on the piazza that fronted the old Norman castle. Electric lights, strung for tourists, had been doused. Lanterns burned in their places, lit by torches from the bonfires. Five boys, though, lingered by the castle’s edge, one wheelchair among them. The wheelchair-bound boy, no more than fifteen and topped by an uncut tuft of black hair, leaned forward violently, as if sprouted. At his shoulder, a taller boy shifted from foot to foot, his features similar. He glanced down at the wheelchair-bound boy. From the chair, his crippled brother, Silvio, responded with a sharp nod. Victor Adrano, the tall one, took off like a rabbit, sprinting into the revelers.

Lorenzo Pellegrini, elderly father to Lucho, was smashed backward into a wine barrel as Vic’s shoulder pounded into the older man’s ribs. Lorenzo’s brothers tossed their cups and rained blows onto Vic. “Vigliacchi!” one of their wives screamed. “Cowards!” Dancers scattered.

Still by the castle, Silvio increased his lean, pressing forward in his chair. He was hot. In the Sicilian summer, you grew accustomed to the sweat at the hems, folds, and waist of your pegged jeans. With a deep sting, though, he recalled his legs didn’t really feel sweaty—because he couldn’t feel a thing below his belt anymore. He scanned the crowd.

Pellegrini and Adrano women, even the elderly, joined the melee. Children cried. At the rumble’s edge, Silvio finally spied what he wanted, a group of children clustered under a palm tree. The largest wrapped his ten-year-old hands around his sister, while two smaller brothers stood behind.

Adiamo!” Silvio shouted. “Ora!

He lurched forward, nearly tumbling out of the chair as one of his brothers shoved him into motion. The others swatted open their path.

As he rattled, Silvio kept his eyes on the oldest boy under the tree. When they were thirty meters away, he pushed forward one last time, tensing every muscle that still worked. His right arm went over his shoulder and behind his back. He whipped forward the Benelli shotgun, cut off at its butt. He’d seen the Godfather movies, of course, they all had, all jockeying over who was Michael, who Sonny, and who Fredo. But who had Silvio turned out to be? Some mash-up of the cripples in wheelchairs. But this was no movie, and Silvio wouldn’t trust some little two-barreled, snub-nosed lupara shotgun. He pumped a shell into the throat of the Benelli. Tommasino had become a Don, hadn’t he? Even if he’d needed a wheelchair?

The ten-year-old Pellegrini boy finally looked over. Fifteen meters away, Silvio could see everything, from the indent of the boy’s collarbone to the part of his hair. And his sister’s dark braids below, two brothers behind.

Silvio fired.

Before the sound was gone, he fired again. He needed only to fire once more, the Benelli’s blast range true and wide. Especially for small targets.

Afterwards, someone—his brother Anthony, the smell of Marlboros heavy—yanked him to a shoulder and started to sprint. As they ran, Silvio kept his eyes on the shredded palm tree.

#

“Anne-Marie isn’t even direct line,” Daniela finished between breaths, or at least the memory of them. “She’s a cousin. Her family took it up, the vendetta, because of whom Silvio killed: four children, not one of them older than ten. Lucho’s children. A whole Pellegrini line.”

Isabella had closed her eyes. She rocked the glass, bringing cold into her fingers. She’d always tried to picture the four murdered Pellegrini children whenever Silvio had tried to win her. Faces came now, but only to twist into Carlotta and Malik and the other Adranos. Her family. It hurt her mind. It sped up the thing changing, transforming. She didn’t feel herself anymore.

She rose, weaving to the window. Slender boats cruised down the Potomac, propulsion so silent they might as well have been shark fins. On their tour, they would pass glass-and-gold office towers Daniela had sold in full, units Isabella had sold part-time, gigging between coding. And during all that, where was he? Silvio? His father killed by the banished brother, only to be killed by Vic, who’d die in in jail. But Silvio had escaped to America. D.C.—the business, all the rest, coming after. Until Daniela left him, left him shocked with only the misfits of the family that still worshipped his legend to see after his care. And even if Daniela had taken his start-up money, she’d left him, a Don, crippling him in a way no one could have expected.

“Love, are you listening?”

And from those ashes, Daniela had built a business and passed it to Isabella, along with all the years of love and knowledge after Isabella’s father and mother had died so young in that car crash. And what did the old woman ask in return? Just a chance to live on with her long-walker loved ones and friends in the ruins of Roman palaces, glowing softly above mosaic tiles. On Sicily.

“Leave me, Love. You tried. Mercy to you.”

And the price already paid. Four so-high prices.

“No,” Isabella said. “We’ll need to think of something else.”

“The only option I know is Silvio’s. ‘Murder’s never out of the question,’ he’d say. ‘And it shouldn’t be—’”

No. No. I talk. I make deals. I don’t shoot.”

“Well then, what?”

“I’ll talk to Anne-Marie. I’ll talk to her again—”

“Love, she doesn’t respect you—”

“Stop. Nonna, stop!” Isabella snapped, but her head dropped into her hands. Outside, a hover-taxi buzzed down to the roof, then skittered off.

After a moment, Daniela said something quiet. “I could talk to her.”

Isabella twisted to the monitor. “What?” Dizzy, she focused on the blinking power bar. “Who?”

“Anne-Marie.”

Anne-Marie? You?”

Daniela looked away, as far as her oblong allowed. “She did it once.”

Isabella shook, gin glass jittering.

“I waited ’til none of you would ask,” Daniela whispered. “After Silvio died, I snuck to the island. Anne-Marie was a teenager and her parents had just died. A different vendetta. But I’d kept tabs on her. I asked her blessing. And she let me. She let me. I spread his ashes by the volcano.”

Tendons in Isabella’s hands tightened. The glass cracked. “Then why kill Malik?” she screeched. “Why kill the rest? She knows you! And she’d already broken the vendetta!”

“I told her I’d never come back. I told her none of my family would either. She was afraid of us, even across the ocean. And a deal was better than always wondering, always looking over her shoulder.”

Isabella flung the glass to the carpet. “You let me—”

“I knew how you felt about Silvio! And I thought, since Anne-Marie let me, she’d certainly let you. You were just a child when ..."

The power bar blinked, a thought emerging with it.

Now Isabella whispered. It was the thing, the transformed thing in her, talking, she realized as she heard her own words. “She has a child.”

“What?” Daniela said.

“Anne-Marie has a son,” Isabella said, thinking at the same time. “And if she has a child ...”

“Love, please. What are you thinking?”

Isabella thought of glowing long-walker Pellegrinis on a dark Sicilian beach. “Maybe,” she said, “Silvio wasn’t totally wrong.”

#

The gnarled monk—looking a thousand years old, save for the sparkling nametag on his robe, Mi Chiamo Fratello Angelo!—led Isabella and her bag down the cramped hall. The hover-ride from the east side to Palermo hadn’t taken long, but had shown much: farms and their crooked stone houses, now B&Bs; cities in the distance, buildings pinched oppressively close; and the sun, the dryness, and the sense of the sea all around. Sicily.

The monk marched her through hanging corpses, mummified and dangling in coffins carefully organized by age, sex, and even occupation. A sign marked the last original resident, a two-year old girl entombed a hundred years before. Shrunken bodies cast eyeless glances as monk and woman passed. Finally, they turned into a new addition. The light there spread dimly, but not because of outdated illumination: Cool white oozed from the ceiling, while green, red, and blue blinked all around, as rows of black metal shelves, loaded with Boundless servers, stretched throughout the room.

The monk puttered down the center aisle. At the back of the room, he offered an antique desk, two ornate chairs, one of which was occupied, and a virtual laptop, from behind which rose a slightly less-gnarled monk in digital glasses. The new monk flashed a wide smile.

Before him, in one of the chairs, sat a young woman, back to Isabella. She glowed faintly.

Signora.” The desk-monk’s nametag read Mi Chiamo Padre Matteo! He pointed to the remaining chair. “Per favore. Benvenuti nelle Catacombe dei Cappuccini.

The woman turned at the words, looking more like Malik than Isabella had imagined possible. Ayda—Malik’s sister—looked up.

Ciao,” she said.

Only Ayda’s hair, the bit visible below her scarf, which also glowed, let Isabella shake the déjà vu. “Ciao,” Isabella said, and sat in the other chair.

Father Matteo began his pitch, how now, hundreds of years since the last entombment, God had seen fit that the catacombs should become home for the newly dead once again—

“For a price,” Isabella cut in.

The monk shot a glance.

“But,” Isabella continued, “there’s no shame in money earned for a last shelter for those the Lord’s taken. Someone must do it?”

Father Matteo studied her, glasses running a program with a sheen. After a wary glance to Ayda, he nodded.

“Thank you, Father,” Isabella said. “Will you leave us?”

Certo.” Matteo rose, signaling the other monk. They both left via a door in the back wall.

“They’re good men,” Ayda said. “If they’re making money, so what?”

“As I said.” Isabella searched Ayda’s arms, unable not to, looking for signs of her suicide. The woman pulled at her sleeves and Isabella looked up and continued. “As I said, somebody must look after the dead.”

Ayda gazed at her. She seemed anxious. “Are you ready?”

Isabella pulled the carry-on close. After a quick take of the room, she nodded.

Vieni qui,” Ayda said, voice suddenly raising. “Come join us.”

Glowing figures actualized in the aisles. Two men, one heavy and bald, the other taller with long hair, appeared. A sense of motion came from Isabella’s flank. She found a woman, broad-shouldered below an almost bird-like face, materializing too. The three long-walkers met on the desk’s other side, where they halted: three glowing long-walker Pellegrinis.

Isabella inhaled a deep-dive breath. “It’s done then?”

The bird-woman spoke.

“Did we have our family kill our cousin?” Her voice should have been a bird’s song, but it was all rasp and fury. “Did we have them hold down Anne-Marie until she admitted she’d let the wife of the murderer of four children—” the woman nodded at the carry-on, “—come to this island, come home, and let her bury that murderer here? Then let her walk away, alive, without telling the family?”

“Yes. Yes. And then?”

The men exchanged enraged looks. The tall one turned to Isabella.

“What do you want, puttana?” he said. “A picture?”

“I want proof.”

“We used a shotgun,” the bird-woman hissed. “We used her own gun. She begged for her child, really, really, thinking we’d go that far. But when we told her the family would care for the boy, she closed her eyes and pressed the barrel to her head. Proof enough?”

“Yes.” Isabella pushed her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Mi-i-i-... Mi dispiace. We’ve all suffered.”

“Has she?” The tall man growled. He sweat somehow, blue beads glistening. He pointed to the carry-on.

“It took her twenty years to leave Silvio,” Isabella said. “Twenty years with him.”

The tall man retracted his finger, but held his fist firm.

“And she had to live with that,” Isabella continued. “For thirty more years. Years where those who loved her also hated her. For loving him.”

The tall man looked at his family.

“What would be enough?” Isabella said and heaved the carry-on onto the desk. Daniela’s server came down hard.

The tall man lowered his fist.

“It’s enough,” the bald man said. Isabella jerked, not expecting his smooth voice. His eyes must have been light green or gray, now registering as pale, almost discolored absences.

“It’s done then?” Isabella said. “The vendetta?”

“It’s done.” The bald man said. “It’s over.”

He offered a glowing hand.

Isabella looked to Ayda. She leaked tears, but nodded. Isabella looked to the tall man and the bird-woman, who gave their own angry but curt approvals.

Isabella took the bald man’s hand—not hard, for fear of passing through—and shook it.

In the next moments, the Pellegrinis crept back down the aisles, extinguishing as they went, the ceiling projectors serving as their drones seemingly cutting out.

Father Matteo reappeared. “Signoras?

Isabella opened the case. “May we do it now?”

“Yes,” he said.

It took less than five minutes, including a trip down a nearby aisle. A drone rose from a shelf and floated to a place above them. Matteo looked to Isabella, finger poised above a key.

Cammina, Signora,” he said, pressing down.

Particles seemingly collected from nowhere, tightening and fusing.

“Are we here?” Daniela said, taking in the monk, Ayda, and finally Isabella. “Love, are we really here?”

“Yes, Nonna. Yes.”

The Father suddenly pounded the keyboard. His eyes went wide, lenses flashing. “What is this? Mio Dio, cosa!” He looked at Isabella. “What have you done?”

He spun for the rear door, but Daniela had quickly blocked his way. Matteo shuddered, but rather than steel himself to pass by, he cocked his head towards a new sound.

Footsteps pounded on the ancient floor, a dozen women and men suddenly filing down the rows. Isabella found Carlotta’s husband among them, who acknowledged her with his pistol, just before he and the others, over from Italy, pointed their weapons at Father Matteo. It seemed the contacts had been true this time.

Che cosa?” the monk said. He raised his hands. “What’s this?”

Isabella spun the virtual laptop in her direction. She clicked until she located a directory. With a glowing finger, Daniela pointed at three server icons, then a few more. Isabella swiped over each, turning them red.

“Is it in there?” Ayda said. “The virus?”

Isabella felt a sudden falter, like a missed reach for a timing plate, or a falter in a thing transforming within her. “We don’t have to ...”

Ayda’s eyes showed fury. “Malik.”

Isabella looked to Daniela, who touched her own chest, over her heart.

Isabella popped the holo-key.

On screen, red servers grew bright, then blacked out. In the room, many machines suddenly spun up, before whining into ugly and sputtering shutdowns.

Father Matteo grabbed the laptop and punched keys.

“No! You’ve killed them. The whole family. Who are you?”

Isabella answered. “We’re the new family.”

(previous)
Regret