The Neon Garden. The city where neon lights and neo-reality billboards drowned out the stars. The city where bright lights and sleek penthouses were so high up they couldn’t see down far enough to make out the blood, muck, and sludge of the streets below. The city where they built tenements with rickety framework and with a marked tendency to wobble in the wind, creating an underclass among the underclass. A city choked by the grip of billionaire-princes and their corporations, dangling things like human dignity and healthcare subscriptions over the masses to keep them under control.

The city wasn’t formally called the Neon Garden, but it might as well have been. There were as many neon lights and blindingly bright signs in it as there were leaves in a garden. And the billionaire-princes were keen on modeling and remodeling entire sections in service of a combination of aesthetic and financial goals. It was an ugly garden of concrete, steel, plastic, and advertising, but it was a garden. If the city was a garden, the blood of the people was the water that it relied on. Liu expected to water the garden soon.

Xiang caught up to him in the rain. Every drop was heavy with toxins and industrial chemicals. He ran just as much to find somewhere to hide from it as to get away from her. A futile effort in both cases. There was nowhere in the city where the toxicity of the rain didn’t reach and he gave Xiang and others like her plenty of reason to hunt him to the ends of the earth. But futility was no good reason not to try.

Liu wore his years on his face, the weight of time slumping his shoulders. There were streaks of white against the black. His suit was immaculate, but his movements didn’t flow.

She was younger by about a decade, far too wiry for her own good, but head held high. Her hair was dyed bright pink and turquoise blue. She dressed in traditional attire made of cheap synthetics instead of proper fabrics.

Both of them carried swords in the open; double-edged and meant for finesse and speed over cutting power.

No hint of chrome or augmentation on her. Rare. But he wasn’t sure if that meant she was overconfident or dangerous.

The neuro-circuitry in his right arm twitched, a thousand nano-computers firing off at once to calculate optimal efficiency for his reflexes. He hated it, hated how it made it so hard to trust his instincts. Hated to admit it made him a better fighter, even in his old age.

They approached each other, the only overt signs of hostility being their naked steel. He couldn’t gauge if she was better than him or the other way around, couldn’t get a sense of what she was capable of beyond what he already heard about her. They were both xia and adhered to the same oaths, moved in the same society hidden in plain sight against the corporate grind and intense glow of the Neon Garden and it’s floating, mundane world. There was just one very crucial distinction between them, and that distinction was what put him in her sights.

“Red Tiger Liu. There’s no use running.”

“No, I suppose there isn’t.” He tightened his grip on his sword. “Xi Xian Xiang. I know you by reputation.”

“You stand accused of being an oathbreaker.”

She was all business, then. “I won’t deny it.”

She approached, neon red and ultrabright orange lights reflecting off the polished blade. “You swore by all our brothers and sisters to abide by the Dragon’s Peace, to stand united with us against the people who own this city.”

“I know the oaths I swore.”

“And you know the penalty for breaking them.”

“Are you here to judge me, then? Because you posture more like an executioner.” He frowned. “Even an oathbreaker gets a chance to say his peace.”

She mirrored his expression. “Do I look like I care about that? I’m just here to kill you.”

“That’s not-”

“You broke your oaths. You sold yourself, your dignity, and your skills to a corporation.” She spat out the last word. “You made yourself a useful little attack dog for Victor Chen.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“You killed Sifu Mao.” Quick as lightning, she was on the attack. He barely had time to breathe. “You killed my master!”

His eyes widened in realization. That explained it. What student could bring themselves to shame their school and their master by not avenging their murder?

He pushed her back.

“Victor Chen wanted him dead.” She flowed from movement to attack unlike anyone she’d ever seen before. “And you gave him what he wanted.”

His next step was to repulse her. “I had my reasons for doing what I did!”

She changed her stance. Then a thrust. And another. And another. A dozen and more thrusts and stabs in the space between heartbeats. He parried all but the last. He sucked in his breath when he felt the steel cut into meat.

“Sifu Mao was like a father to me.”

He kicked the ground, pushed himself into the air to land atop a bamboo tree. It bent just a little under his weight. “He was a good man. I made sure the end was peaceful for him.”

She jumped after him. Steel sang for his soft neck.

“I didn’t want to do it.” He took the opening, cut a gash across her stomach. Shallow, but it would sting. “I did what I needed to do.”

Steel crossed steel. She angled her attack just enough that her blade flexed like a bamboo stalk and cut him on the arm. A dodge. A parry into another. And then she managed to cut his right arm, sending a wave of electrical pulses to go along with the pain. Damaged implant, he guessed.

Her sword came at him like an inkbrush in the hands of a master calligrapher. Each stroke was aimed at something vital or meant to cut away at his arms. He called on old lessons to defend himself. Point for point, move for move. He leapt away again, felt the hammering of the rain at his back and his shoulders.

He roared. Knocked her back. Swung wide, used momentum and reach to keep her on the backfoot as they danced. Where she thrust and stabbed, he spun and slashed, contesting her precision and finesse with momentum and aggression.

With one deft parry, she opened a cut across his cheek.

She retreated after, balancing herself on one foot atop a powerline. And then beckoned for him to come at her.

“It doesn’t end with me, Xiang. You know that,” he said as he leapt after her.

“You’re only my first step.”

“I don’t know why Chen Industries wanted him dead.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said as she took a step towards him. “I’ll kill my way up their corporate ladder until I get to the man on top of the chain. But I have to start with you. Your hands did the deed, and I need to return the favor.”

A part of him applauded her bloodthirsty determination. If it was his master who was killed at the behest of some CEO with more money than humanity because it pushed stock prices up by 1%, he’d have gone after the killer too. And then up the chain, until he was dead or thousands of others were. It was the right thing to do. But he did the right thing too, betraying his brothers and sisters, breaking his oaths as he did.

“Do you love your mother?” He bit his lip when her blade slapped and slashed his arm.

“What kind of absurd question is that?” The tip of the sword drew a sliver of blood, cutting a thread of skin.

Her next attack, he caught it with the flat of his sword. Then the dance. Then the lock. And with a surge of strength, he broke both their blades. “I love my mother, Xiang. She has been nothing but supportive and kind to me my whole life.”

“A pity she raised a dishonorable son.”

Her fists were faster than her sword. Every punch was a blur. The pain in his legs told him she threw in a kick or two along the way.

But there was an opening.

He opened himself up to a few more blows. Bit his lip to focus. And sent her reeling back and off-balance with a palm strike clean through her poor defense.

She stumbled back.

The kick to the head sent her to the ground with a wet, cracking thud.

He came down, hoping that the crash and whatever injuries she took would slow things down enough. He was sure she wasn’t dead. No xia at her level would die from a fall like that.

He sat on the pavement not far from where she was, crawling on one hand and scowling at him. Even her shadow seemed arched and angled like a cat ready to pounce at his throat. He didn’t move, just sat there and waited until whatever pain and anger was fueling her movements faded and she looked ready to listen. It wasn’t like he wanted to fight her. There was no good reason to, except perhaps to save his own worthless hide.

When she threw a broken sword blade at him, he was caught so off-guard that it sank into his left shoulder.

“You’re goddamn stubborn, you know that?” Best not to pull it out, no matter how much it hurt. He didn’t want to bleed out. “If it makes any difference at all, I didn’t do it for the money.”

Her glare spoke volumes of tacit profanities.

“My mother is dying. From conditions that have treatments I can’t afford. Not without breaking my oath about rejecting outside authority.”

Once upon a time, that oath meant rejecting governments and overlords. The xia fought for no agenda other than their own, acknowledged no authority other than their own, accepted no justice or laws other than their own. Those ideals still persisted, even in an age of neo-reality, near-constant advertising blaring from every direction, and a corporate flavor of feudalism enforced by algorithms, like/dislike ratios, and endless surveillance. The xia were still called to move outside society, no matter how all-encroaching that society became.

He swore an oath. And he’d broken that oath with no regrets.

“It’s the water, I think. There’s enough heavy metals, toxins, and who knows what else in it that everyone’s going to get sick, maybe die, sooner or later.” He sighed. Her glare was still intense, but she didn’t feel as hostile as before. “My mother is sick with about half a dozen conditions caused by it, and Chen Industries offered the best care.”

“So you sold yourself out.”

He frowned. “I acted as a good son should.”

That she was able to stand on her own power so soon left his spine feeling cold. “Your reasons don’t matter, Liu.”

He cracked his knuckles.

Her injuries slowed her down. What hits she landed hurt less than they should have.

Each time he landed a hit, she staggered back.

Every exchange ended that way, and she looked less stable on her feet each time.

And then it happened.

He’d never seen anyone burst into such speed before. He’d heard rumors about Xi Xian Xiang and her school, about the sudden flashes of speed and power that the Rising Phoenix were capable of. And Xiang was a master.

Liu didn’t recognize the move. Not from the way Xiang jumped and came at him from the air sideways. Not from how her feet struck, one kick after another. Each impact was followed by a crack and a flash of pain. Something inside him burst. Probably something important. The last kick battered him across the lip. He felt every tooth on one side of his mouth come loose.

Xiang drove the blade deeper into his shoulder. Pain flared like he’d never known before.

“Was that Climbing the Thousand Steps?” he asked.

“You’re better than I thought you were.” Confirmation enough for him. “But this is the end of the line for you, Red Tiger Liu.”

“I didn’t want to do it,” he said through the pain. “But I wanted to be a good son.”

“It doesn’t excuse your actions.”

“No. I imagine not.”

“But it does make them more understandable.” She put her fist into an open palm in salute. “I will ask our brothers and sisters to tend to your mother as if she was one of our own.”

“Thank you.”

He clenched his fists, even if he barely controlled his arms anymore. He focused, looked her right in the eye. He knew his end was coming the moment he signed the contract with Victor Chen. The fight with Xiang was just a formality.

He didn’t want to live. The contract made sure his mother was taken care of, even if he wasn’t around anymore. That was all he wanted. He didn’t want to fight Xiang.

The sound of a bullet shattered his world. From his position, he saw her move her arms. One, two, three, nine. She caught nine bullets before someone had the sense to shoot her from behind, her reflexes too slow to turn and catch it in time. The fall and the fight slowed her down. She fell on the street with a wet thud, and Liu felt sick to his stomach.

He didn’t have the strength to resist as medical personnel got him off the ground and hauled him into an ambulance. The ride alone cost more than a year of his wages at the docks, he guessed. The equipment inside looked expensive, cutting-edge. As one of them put a mask on his face loaded with anesthetic, he tried to resist. He didn’t want to go under, not when he knew he’d wake up again.

During the last moments of consciousness, he heard Victor Chen’s voice. “Oh Mr. Liu, I can’t have you dying yet. There’s still so much more work I need you to do.” He laughed. Mocking, hollow, and cruel. “I’m going to make sure you live long enough to do all of it.”

Oaths broken. A fight that left someone beaten to within an inch of his life and someone else a slump of dead bioreclamation material on the street. An honorable death denied. A rich man getting his way at someone else’s expense. It was just another night in the Neon Garden.

Stories set in the Neon Garden (of which there will be a few more eventually) can be found here.

This story was made possible by my Patreon backers. If you enjoyed this, consider supporting me on Patreon!

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