Cass leaned hard against the wall of the narrow alley, trying to catch her breath.
“I don’t wanna go down there, Mama.”
She glanced towards the far end, where a single steel door, painted dull, flat black yawned like the mouth of a cavern.
“It’s alright, it’ll be fine.”
“I don’t wanna go.”
“We have to, baby. It won’t take long.”
“Wren, enough!” she cut him off, irritated. His spirit crumpled, and she took a breath, softened the best she could. “You can wait here if you want. I’ll just be a second.”
Wren stared at his shoes: cheap pull-on low-cut boots. There was a hole where his toes would be next year. He shook his head slightly.
“OK,” she said. “We’ll go together. Real fast.”
He didn’t look up, but pushed his small hand into hers. As Cass slid along the alley, tugging him behind, Wren wiped his eyes, hoping she didn’t notice. At the door, Cass straightened, ran her hands over her face, slapped her cheeks to color them. She exhaled, tried not to wince. When she pounded on the door, the dull thuds died off almost instantly inside. At first, nothing.
Then, just as she raised her fist to pound again, a heavy clank sounded from within, and the door cracked open. Cass pushed in warily, felt Wren’s fingernails dig into her palm. She squeezed back.
There was a soothing hum inside, a deep vibration like machinery running up against a wall, but no electric lights; the afternoon sunlight filtered in from a high slot-window, casting the dank interior in dusty gray. The walls were bare concrete; stagnant water pooled in one corner. A single stainless steel table lay in the middle of the room, with a pair of stools nearby.
“It smells,” Wren whispered.
A shuffling noise sounded from near the entry, and Cass spun around as the door clanged shut. A bent old man peered at them with pupil-less ice-blue eyes.
“Are you a doctor?” Cass asked.
“Depends on who’s asking, and whatfore,” the old man croaked.
“I need quint, three tabs. I’ve got fifty Hard.”
He sucked air in through his teeth, and shook his head slowly.
“I ain’t made no quint in months, darlin’. Can’t get the greeds for it anymore. Duff be alright?”
Cass shook her head.
“Gotta be quint.”
The doctor shrugged.
“’Fraid I can’t help ya with that,” he said. “Are you sick or somethin’? Hurt?”
Cass glanced down to Wren. His eyes were red, like he’d been crying. He wouldn’t look at her.
“You’re sure you don’t have any? Not even a couple?”
“Sweetheart, if I had ’em, I’d sure sell ’em to ya,” he said kindly. “Ya don’t look so good. Why don’t ya sit down? I’ll see if I can find something else for ya.”
With unfocused eyes, Cass gazed at the top of Wren’s head, his hair, his perfect, fragile features; he stared off to one side at the wall, the corner, nothing. The pain in her side burned like a firebrand through her liver.
“I know you’ve got ’em.”
She said it without looking up, felt the doctor tense, air suddenly electric.
“I’m not looking for trouble. I just need the quint. I can pay you fifty. That’s a good deal for you.”
She ran slender fingers through Wren’s hair, then down gently over his eyes, closing them. Hot tears dripped.
“But I already told ya—” the doctor started.
He didn’t finish.
Cass whipped her hand with inhuman speed, driving the edge into the right side of the doctor’s neck, crippling nerves, rupturing the carotid and jugular. The old man twisted, collapsed to the floor, a bag of meat and loose bones, neck bearing a spray of deep purple beneath the unbroken skin. Silently, Cass bent down, hooked the doctor under the arms, and dragged him towards the back of the small room. His head lolled awkwardly, unnaturally.
Wren stood still as a statue, eyes closed, tears streaking his face. Cass went to him, took a knee, placed her hands on his shoulders.
“We’re OK, Wren,” she whispered.
“You hurt him,” he answered.
Cass nodded. She squeezed his shoulders, and labored to her feet.
“I need to look for something. Want to help?”
He shook his head.
“OK, baby. OK.” Cass patted him gently, then staggered to the back corner, placing her hands on the wall. Her side crackled, pain radiating, organs and nerves alive with all-consuming fire. She squeezed her eyes, tried to force the ache to wash over her and away, tried to concentrate.
Breathe, Cass, she thought. Breathe.
Focus eluded her. Without it, she would never find what she was looking for; without it, she would die. And they would take Wren.
Something brushed against her leg. Cass opened her eyes, found Wren by her side, his tiny hands outstretched, spread on the wall.
“It’s OK, Mama. I’ll do it.”
He didn’t even shut his eyes, just stared ahead, seeing not what was in front of him, but rather the information stored around him, history embedded in the invisible electromagnetic swirl. There was a faint whir, and the deep hum grew louder. Across the room, a section of concrete wall withdrew, slid open, revealing an inner chamber, stocked with gear. Cass felt tears come to her eyes.
She bent down, kissed Wren on his head, raised his face so she could look in his eyes.
“I’m sorry I had to hurt that man, baby.”
“He was lying,” she explained. “He wanted to keep us here. We have to hurry.”
“I’m sorry I made you cry.”
He wiped his eyes.
“It’s not your fault, Mama,” he answered, brave, bottom lip quivering. She hugged him tightly.
They separated, and Cass half-stumbled her way into the hidden room, with Wren trailing close behind. Inside, the small interior space was packed with the delicate machinery of a chemist: vials, thin flexiglass tubes, pristine stainless surfaces. An overhead panel glowed a soft blue-white, bathing the room in a surgical sterility. The hum came from a centrifuge, spinning contentedly on one of the stainless steel tables. Next to it, placed against the wall, Cass spotted a silver floor cabinet, nearly Wren’s height. She moved to it, swung open the unlocked door. Tabs, vials of viscous fluids, injectors, powders. Chems. Lots and lots of chems.
She rifled through the case, searching with trembling hands for the little lavender tabs that she desperately needed. Black spots floated in her vision, a weakness seized her legs. Cass buckled to the floor, pulling shelves from the case, scattering a rainbow assortment of geometric shapes and vials across the glass-smooth floor. Wren stood in the doorway.
“Mama?” he called, hushed.
“I’m OK, baby. Just give me a minute,” she soothed, hoping she sounded calmer than she was.
“No,” his whisper was quieter, but more intense, urgent. “He’s here.”
As if on cue, thunder pounded the steel front door, three rolling booms. Cass pressed a single finger to her lips, motioned for Wren to step inside the room. He tiptoed in, careful not to step on any of the chems that covered the floor. Cass’s heart raced, she bent low, searching anywhere and everywhere for the lavender tabs. Her vision swam, colors confused. Again, three shuddering blows.
She glanced up, flicked her eyes from Wren to a translucent panel on the wall by the door. He nodded, crept to it, ran a small finger across it. The false concrete wall slid back into place with a whisper, as seamless inside as it was without. A pounding heartbeat later, the blue-white light switched itself off.
Cass could hear Wren’s rapid breathing. She opened her mouth to whisper to him, to calm him, when suddenly the air was rent with the shriek of steel exploding inwards.
Cass strained, tried to hear anything over the rush of blood in her own ears, the hammering of her heart. Nothing, but the happy whir of the centrifuge. Even little Wren must have been holding his breath. In the darkness and honeyed-buzz, Cass lost all orientation, felt herself spinning slowly in every direction at once, slipping across the frictionless floor without moving. Her forehead thunked hard against something. A wall? No, the floor. Or was it the ceiling? It was warm. Much too warm.
A spark of light. Something moving in the darkness. Piercing cold in her hand, tiny, a splinter of icicle thrust through her palm. Wren. Lips to her ear. Calling her.
“Take it, Mama,” his voice floated in nothingness. “Take it.”
Quint. In complete darkness, somehow, impossibly, miraculously, he’d found what she needed. Cass moved heavy arms, threw open her coat, raised her shirt. The device implanted in the right side of her abdomen snicked open, accepted the tab, sealed itself. It would metabolize soon.
Maybe soon enough. Maybe not.
Gradually, the room slowed its spin, and Cass could tell she was lying on the floor. It was a start. She felt Wren lie down, curl up next to her. Clammy, trembling. Her mothering instinct wanted to soothe him, but a more powerful instinct refused. Survival.
Outside, in the main room, the barest suggestion of sound: a light scuffling. Someone had found the doctor, shifted his corpse. It was then that the centrifuge completed its work, with a click that sounded like the racking of a shotgun, a beep like a klaxon. Reflexively, Cass squeezed Wren to her.
Silence. Nothing. Then dread. The false wall decompressed, unsealed, slid open. The blue-white light bore down, pinning them to the floor.
In the doorway stood the tall man.
Cass felt Wren bury his face; her side, where his small body pressed against hers, grew warm, wet. The tall man glared down upon them, silent, sharp features like a bird of prey before the kill. His eyes locked with Cass’s. Smoldering.
The pain was receding, but the quint hadn’t taken hold yet.
“Fedor,” she rasped. “You’re too late. Overtapped. Me and the boy.”
Fedor did not react.
“Go home. Let us die in peace.”
No reply, no hint that Fedor had heard her.
“We’ll die together,” she bluffed. “The way it should be.”
“Not yet,” Fedor replied, robotically. His eyes unfocused, stared through or beyond them.
“I’ve got them,” he said, pimming someone far removed. “Yes, and the boy.”
It was a one-sided conversation, but Cass knew to whom Fedor spoke.
“Da, OK, OK.”
His eyes refocused on Cass.
“He says I bring the boy,” Fedor said, with an Eastern European accent and a smile like a corpse with its lips stretched back over its teeth. “You? You may die.”
Cass tensed, willed the quint into her bloodstream, pleaded with her nerves to accept the chems. Fedor took a step into the room, and then stopped. Held, like a wolf catching an unfamiliar and unexpected scent.
“Everything alright in here?” came a voice from the main room.
Fedor turned slowly on one heel. Cass forced herself to an elbow, peered around Fedor’s legs to see who had spoken. He was just sitting there, on the steel table in the middle of the main room, like he’d been there all day, hands on his knees, feet dangling.
“Reckon not,” said Three, glancing to the crumpled remains of the doctor.
“Doctor’s closed, friend,” Fedor answered, emotionless. “Time you go somewhere else.”
“I’d rather not.”
Fedor advanced on him a few paces, drew up to his full height.
“Not a request, friend,” said Fedor. “There is private business here.”
“I’ve got some business with the two of ’em myself. Maybe you can wait outside.”
“I don’t think you understand, friend.”
“I don’t think you understand, friend.”
Three leaned slightly to one side, made eye contact with Cass.
“Hey kid,” he called.
Wren made no initial response, but Cass nudged, encouraging him. He peeked up, terrified. Three reached into his own left coat pocket, saw Fedor tense, pupils constricting, jaw tightening, readying himself. Three slowly withdrew his closed fist, turned it palm up, and opened it.
“You lose something?”
Wren scrunched up his face, then raised his head as recognition came. His shuttlecar, resting on Three’s palm. Wren nodded slightly, frightened, timid, unsure of what to do.
“Well, come get it,” Three said.
No one moved. Three looked Fedor dead in the eyes, saw them dancing frantically as Fedor internally searched for any kind of record or file on this stranger.
“You wanna let the kid by?”
Fedor hesitated, calculated. Then sidestepped slightly, and held out a hand, making space and gesturing for Wren to enter the main room. Three looked again to Cass, still outstretched on the floor, caught her eye; saw fear, desperation, but something else not there before.
She pushed Wren up, whispered to him. Wren nodded, clambered to his feet, shuffled through the door, wary of both men and obviously ashamed of the darkened wet spot trailing down one leg of his pants.
He stopped halfway between Three and Fedor, out of reach of either. Three didn’t get off the table. Just held out his left hand, where the shuttlecar waited.
“It’s yours, isn’t it?” he asked.
Wren shot a glance to Cass. She was sitting up now. She nodded. He looked back to Three, nodded.
“Well, come get it.”
Wren started to move, but Fedor stopped him.
“No!” he barked. “That is close enough, Spinner.”
Three eyed Fedor. Fedor glared back.
“Can you catch, kid?” Three asked, not taking his eyes off Fedor.
Wren didn’t respond. Just stared. Three turned to look him in the eye.
“Here. Soft pitch. Ready?”
Wren nodded slightly.
Three exaggerated the motion, down, up, launching the tiny model car in a high arc towards Wren. In the same instant, his right hand flashed, snatching his pistol from its holster, bringing it to bear on Fedor. Fluid, flawless, perfect.
Yet not fast enough.
Fedor seemed to teleport across the room, hammering his forearm into Three’s wrist, catapulting the weapon from Three’s grasp. It clattered against the wall about the same time Fedor buried his fist in the side of Three’s head, sending Three flailing backwards and sideways off the table.
Stunned, dizzy, Three managed to roll up just in time to see Fedor’s heavy boot hurtling towards his throat. He twisted, felt the wind of Fedor’s kick whistle by, not comprehending how a man that size had closed that distance so fast. No time to figure it out. Three rolled again, spun on his back, gained his feet just as Fedor’s fingers darted towards his eyes, seeking to pry them from their sockets. With his right hand, Three slapped downwards, caught Fedor’s fingers in an iron grip, sidestepped and twisted, cranking Fedor’s wrist and elbow into a locked position. Driving upwards, Three whipped his blade from its sheath with his off-hand and slashed deeply into Fedor’s exposed underarm, feeling the soft tissue and sinew sever and tear away in a gush.
Fedor spun from an impossible position, lifting Three off-balance, and then bashed Three with an elbow across the forehead, slamming him to the floor. Fedor’s right arm hung limply, his entire side darkly saturated, as he raised his boot to stomp Three’s crotch. A moment before impact, a streak shot over Three and caught Fedor in the throat, launching him backwards into the smaller interior room. He crashed heavily to the concrete floor headfirst with a wet crunch, where he lay still, rasping and struggling for breath.
Three raised his swirling head, saw Cass crouching at his feet, facing away, a single hand outstretched towards the back room. A moment later, with a barely audible whir, the door to the back room slid shut, and all was still.
Three slumped back to the floor, stared at the ceiling, wondered if it would ever stop its lazy spin. He felt robbed, having gone from sober to massive hangover without ever passing through pleasant drunkenness. Pressure from inside his head counterbalanced the throbbing from the outside in a low-intensity equilibrium of pain. His right ear rang. A tiny silhouette slid into periphery, towering above Three from his worm’s-eye view.
“Is he…?” a small voice whispered, trailing off.
“Yeah, baby,” Cass said, from somewhere. “I’m afraid he is—”
“I’ll be fine,” Three interrupted. “Eventually.”
Cass appeared, sidling next to Wren, kneeling, eyes bewildered or amazed.
“We should go,” she said, hushed. “Can you walk?”
“In a minute.”
“They’ll be here by then.”
“Then go on.”
The weakening sun left the room a murky brownish-gray, making features difficult to distinguish. Three thought he caught Cass biting her bottom lip again; might’ve imagined it. She stood, face enshrouded by shadow, took Wren’s hand, and left.
Three closed his eyes. Twice now. No “thank you”. At least his ear had stopped ringing.
A pitter-patter approached, and Wren called from the door.
“Thanks for my car.”
Three raised a hand in silent acknowledgement, and Wren was gone.
Three didn’t know who “they” were, but he’d lain on the floor five, maybe ten minutes, and no one else had shown up. After recovering his pistol, which was undamaged by the scuffle, he’d set out with the late afternoon sun towards the agent’s office. Three-thousand Hard waited for him. Tonight, he was going to get very, very drunk.
When he reached the agent’s office, the glass doors slid smoothly open to admit him, snicked closed behind. He ran his fingers absentmindedly over the goose-egg throbbing above his left eye, shook his head to clear it as he walked the long stone corridor. Three reached the agent’s cube, waited for the greeting.
“State your business,” the voice boomed.
“State your name,” said the voice. Almost familiar. Something different, maybe. Three was too hazy to be sure.
“We did this already. I’m just here for my money.”
The same slot opened in the cube, same metal case slid out, same rubberized interior.
“Deposit your weapons in the provided secure receptacle.”
“Please approach the door.”
Three stepped closer, sarcastic, nose almost touching the flexiglass door. It slid open. He looked down slightly, expecting to find the eyes of the diminutive agent. Instead, he found himself looking at a broad chest. Not the agent.