A meaty hand clapped over Three’s face, so huge that having its palm on his chin didn’t prevent its fingernails from digging into his scalp just above his forehead. Before he even finished flinching, Three was hurtling headlong into the flexiglass room, crashing face down into a stack of aged and blinking hardware, which collapsed and buried his head and shoulders under a jagged heap. Behind him, the door slid shut, whirred, and clunked heavily, some kind of magnetic lock-and-seal dropping into place. Three lay still, mind scrambling. He’d barely survived his first encounter with Fedor, with three times the room to maneuver. Three felt Fedor prowl over him. A heavy boot stamped down on the back of his knee, grinding the kneecap into the granite floor.
“So,” Fedor growled. “You are not so much.”
He snorted, and spat on Three, then drew a breath to say something else.
Instead, an ear-shattering blast of white lightning erupted from the back of Three’s coat, slamming through Fedor, spattering him across the inside of the cube. Then, a weighty silence descended, no doubt magnified by Three’s self-inflicted deafness. He hoped it was temporary.
Three rolled slowly up on his elbow, shoved the broken hardware off himself, surveyed the scene. The wreckage that had been Fedor lay folded near the door. Three’s shot had caught him right through the middle. He wouldn’t be getting up again. Three checked himself, side aching from the blast he’d fired from his still-holstered pistol. His vest was scorched, and the hole through his coat smoked faintly, but he was glad to see he hadn’t shot off any of his own important bits.
He sat up, inhaled deeply, jammed his fingers in his ears to work out the heavy dullness, took stock of his surroundings. The flexiglass cube was frosted opaque from the impact of the round that had torn through Fedor, but the walls were otherwise intact. In one corner lay the agent, broken by Fedor some time before.
Unnecessary, Three thought. Excessive. A waste.
He fished around in one of his coat’s many pockets, and drew out his remaining stock of shells. Down to six. With practiced fluidity, he flipped open his pistol’s three-chambered cylinder, and replaced the spent shell with a fresh one. He dropped the empty in another pocket, where it jangled with others he’d fired before, each eagerly awaiting a refill, though chances for that were getting increasingly slim. A sharp flick of the wrist snapped the cylinder in place, and Three slid the pistol back into its now-charred holster.
He stood, shaking his head, and set to searching for a way to get out of the cube. None of the devices that still blinked or whirred seemed to have anything to do with the door. The agent’s cluttered desk was likewise no help. He flipped switches, pressed buttons, stomped, kicked. After twenty minutes of scouring to no avail, claustrophobia began to settle in. Three realized his breathing was short, his jaw clenched. He forced himself to sit. Propped up on the agent’s desk, he tried to relax, told himself he’d find what he was looking for, that he wasn’t going to die in a box. At least, not this one. He took a deep breath and held it.
That was when he heard the scratching.
It was quiet; rhythmical, methodical. Someone was working the other side of the door.
Three crept cat-like from the desk, half-crouched on the floor, eyes darting to reevaluate his options. For all the clutter, there was no real place to hide, no solid cover. He improvised.
As quietly as he was able, Three dragged Fedor to a corner, where he lay down and rolled the giant corpse on top of himself. He shoved his arm under Fedor, leveled his pistol at the door. Waited. The scratching continued, intermittent but determined. Minutes stretched.
Three’s fingers began to tingle, nerves revolting against Fedor’s dead-weight pressure crushing down into his bicep. He rested his head on the cool marble floor, chastised himself for choosing this corner of the small room, where eyes would undoubtedly fall first. The collapsed pile of hardware was the better option. The confusion of the electronic debris, coupled with Fedor’s ragged form, would’ve bought precious seconds of advantage. Too late now. Three hoped he’d outlive this mistake.
He’d know soon enough. Finally, the door whirred, thunked. Three raised his head, just so his left eye could see over Fedor, finger tightening on the trigger. The door slid open. A tiny figure stood silhouetted at the entrance and quietly gasped. Wren. Cass appeared, saw the carnage, reflexively slipped her hand over Wren’s eyes. Too late. The little boy wouldn’t sleep well that night.
Three was relieved. The shock of Fedor’s damage had bought him the advantage after all. Cass only just now noticed him. He pushed Fedor off and sat up, holstering his pistol and massaging his arm. Cass turned Wren around and pushed him gently outside the cube. She returned, locked eyes with Three. For a moment, neither spoke.
“How long…?” Cass started. She closed her eyes, swallowed, tried again. “How long have you been here?”
“Longer than I’d prefer,” Three answered. He got to his feet. “Sorry your boy had to see that.”
Cass opened her eyes and nodded, though what she meant to communicate with the gesture wasn’t clear. Three watched her for a moment, noted the throbbing vein in her slender neck, the fluttering eyelids in her too-often blink. Days-old weariness, offset by adrenaline. Or the quint. It was always tougher to read a Chemic. Three moved to the agent’s desk with a slight shrug.
“Where’s the agent?” she asked.
Three rummaged through the agent’s desk, and flicked his head to the corner where the agent lay. Cass glanced over, sighed heavily, disappointed.
Three shook his head.
“Your friend, Fedor. He was waiting when I got here.”
Now Cass shook her head.
“That isn’t Fedor. That’s Kostya.”
Three gave Kostya another look. Eyes, cheekbone, jawline… even the hair was the same.
“Clones?” asked Three.
“Worse,” Cass replied. “Brothers… twins.”
Three let out a deep breath, then went back to his work.
“What’re you looking for?”
Three held up his reply: the agent’s biometrically-sealed cashbox. Cass watched as he moved to the agent’s cool form, and swiped stiffening fingers across the panel. The box hissed open, and Three let out a low whistle. It was full of Hard.
He ran a quick estimate. Twenty-five thousand, at least. Maybe thirty. Three counted out the three thousand he was due, unbuckled his vest, and secured the Hard inside. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cass lower her gaze to the floor.
Three placed the cashbox on the little agent’s lap, and folded the old man’s hands over the top. He stood, and moved to the door. Cass didn’t look up.
“What about the rest?” she asked, quietly.
“This,” Three said, tapping his vest where the Hard was concealed, “is mine. And I’m no thief.”
After a thought, he added, “But he sure doesn’t need it anymore.”
Three saw her eyelids flutter, eyes darting quickly to the box and back. Yeah. She was thinking about it.
“Why’d you come here?” Three asked.
Cass looked up, bottom lip just barely catching her teeth again, almost too fast to notice.
“I didn’t know where else to go.”
Her eyes flicked to Kostya’s torn remains, then to the agent, then back to Three. He saw the despondency closing in now, the last traces of hope slipping away, the final slender thread of courage and will strained and twisting, just before surrender. Even with Fedor and Kostya no longer hounding her she had a hunted look, and trapped. Not the smoldering ferocity of a cornered animal, but the resignation of one wounded, seeing the way out, knowing it would never reach it.
Ah. Kostya had been waiting here for her, not for him. Three felt relief, without realizing he’d been concerned about it before. Still…
Three leaned his head outside the cube, checked on Wren where he sat cross-legged, pulling at a stray thread at the bottom of his too-thin jacket. He was going to need something warmer before much longer. Probably needed it now.
“How many more of them are there?” Three asked, looking back and catching Cass’s eye again. She shrugged slightly, shaking her head. Three nodded.
He stepped out of the cube, and walked the length of the hall to the glass entryway, footsteps dull echoes in the stone corridor. Three gazed westward. The sun was disappearing out there, beyond the wall. He judged the distance.
It would be close. But it was possible.
“Get what you need,” Three called back down the long hall, without turning. “Then let’s go.”
The trio pressed through the alleyways, Three leading the woman and child along with a barely restrained urgency, like a wolfhound straining at its leash. She’d given up asking for explanations, or plans, or even for hints of where Three was leading them. She was out of options now, and they all knew it.
Three hesitated at every corner, every intersection, every stretch of open and unprotected ground they had to cover, but never for long. Streets were emptying as residents headed indoors with the setting sun. The few that remained were quick to avert their gazes from his intensity.
Finally, they reached their destination. The wall. Specifically, the Wall, where a small side-entrance stood guarded by a squat toll-booth-sized shelter. Two night watchmen manned it, and one stepped out to halt them.
“Sorry, folks. Not enough time left for you to get out tonight,” said the watchman. He was tall. Tall, but young; lanky.
“There’s enough for us to get out,” Three answered. “We don’t need to get back in.”
The tall guard looked them up and down, suspiciously.
“Naw,” he replied, without warmth. “Like I said. Not enough time.”
“Trust me,” said Three. “There is.”
“You in some kind of trouble here, miss?” asked the other guard, now emerging from the shelter. Three checked him. Older, rounder, soft, but gritty.
“No, sir,” Cass answered, too quickly. “We’re fine.”
The older watchman’s eyes roved back and forth over Cass and Wren. Three sized up both guards. Tall one was eager: he’d be the first to try something. But it was the older one he had to watch.
The older one grunted, exchanged a look with the taller. Not a look. The look.
“OK, well,” said the older guard, turning back towards his shelter. “Why don’t you folks just—”
Before he could finish, Three smashed his forearm across the back of the older guard’s neck, slamming the watchman’s face hard into the wall of the shelter. In the impact, something flew from the guard’s hand: stunrod.
In the same instant, Three had his pistol jammed under the jaw of the taller guard, forcing the young watchman’s head up and backwards.
“Open it, and then close it behind us,” Three snarled, teeth gritting in the older guard’s ear. “Or I’ll do it, and leave it open. All. Night.”
The older watchman remained silent through the blood pouring from his nose. Three could feel the tension in the man, like a viper coiled. Half a slip, and the tables would turn. But the taller one made whimpering, agreeable noises. When Three lowered the gun off him, he quickly bustled to the door and opened it. The door led into a darkened chamber: a small airlock within the wall. Three pushed off the old watchman, floating his weapon fluidly between the two.
“Both doors,” Three growled.
The young watchman shook his head vigorously.
“It don’t work like that. You gotta get in, and shut this door. Then the other one can open, from the inside.”
Three started towards the guard, who stumbled backwards into the airlock, but there was no defiance there, only fear. Three knew he was telling the truth.
“Fine. Come on.”
Cass and Wren pushed into the chamber, and the watchman started to sidle out. Three flashed his gun, and teeth.
“No. You stay.”
The tall watchman looked to the old, color draining from his face. The older one paced closer; slow, determined, with barely restrained menace.
“Look. Whatever business you have leavin’ here at this time o’ day is your own,” said the older guard. “You leave him out of it.”
Three stared the man down, looked deep, and found steel. The old man had some bond with the taller guard. He wasn’t going to budge. Three ground his teeth. They were losing time.
A tense heartbeat, then another.
Finally, Three slid his gun back into its holster, gently, and motioned the young watchman out. Young slid behind old, wounded, frightened, sheltering behind the other’s strength. For a moment, Three wondered if they might be father and son.
“When this one shuts, it’ll take a minute,” said the old watchman, shutting the door before anyone could reply, and sealing the trio in complete darkness. Somewhere in the wall, gears ground, and a deep metallic thunk sounded; a heavy lock sliding into place.
Seconds became minutes. Still they sat. Trapped. Betrayed. Three reached for his pistol, not knowing what else to do.
Then, a hiss. A crack of ebbing light around the outer door. Three felt around, found a handle, pushed it down and outward, and the door swung open.
The dead city stretched out before them, as the last, dying rays of the sun deepened to red and purple.
“Stay with me,” Three said.
And he pushed out from the safety of the Wall, into the fast-approaching night.