FFFF #14: Dangerous Thoughts 2.3

Yes, I am quite aware it’s not Friday. And, yes, I am quite aware that my schedule is about as regular as a ferret’s train of thought. Thanks for pointing that out.

What follows is Chapter 3 of Episode 2: Street. If you haven’t read all of the chapters from Episode 1: Hive, you need to go here and do that now or you’ll be totally confused. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I’m going to stop serializing when I’m done putting Episode 2 up. If you want to read the whole story, go here and roll me some gold to buy the books.

As usual, all of this is my intellectual property so don’t reproduce this without attribution.

Text Copyright © 2015 Jake MacMillan

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 3.

 

1. They inched down the frozen escalator, one ridged step at a time, until they reached the bottom where a pair of Nation Men in tweed suits and red bowties waited to greet them with hostile indifference. Izumi shook the proffered hand three times and then told the neatly dressed man that she was also paying for her brother. Paul held up his bandaged hand as proof and they then went through the three shake ritual a second time.

Free to go, they wandered over to the back of the line queued up at the ticket booth. Paul relaxed, letting out the breath he had been holding for the last few minutes, and said, “Wow, I guess that wasn’t so bad. I was sort of keyed up about it but, you know, not too bad.”

Izumi wasn’t so easily reassured, her attention roving constantly over the various Nation Men stationed around the platform. When Paul followed her gaze, he realized they were all, one by one, turning to stare at Izumi. Then, as this group of nattily dressed men seemed to reach a silent consensus, three of them began to converge on the ticket line.

“Bad,” Izumi murmured to him. “You’re going to have to back my play. Okay?”

“Sure,” Paul said, having no idea what she meant by that.

She slapped her pistol into his hand and then turned to put herself between Paul and the men coming their way.  Her eyes flicked from one face and to another, scanning their expressions, reading their intentions. They had the look of men who could commit murder with the calm deliberateness of a craftsman sanding down a rough edge.

The three Nation Men came to a stop in a diamond formation, the lead man flanked by cronies who remained one step behind him and to his sides. The leader slipped an anodized aluminum tube from his pocket and held it up to her. When he thumbed a button on the side, an arm swung out to form a 90 degree angle to the body. Projected in the space between was a full color 3D image of the pregnant girl Izumi had smuggled into the DC heart.

“Seen this woman?” the Nation Man asked.

Izumi shook her head slowly, casually as if she couldn’t have been less interested.

“That’s interesting,” the Nation man said, his red bowtie bobbing with his Adam’s apple when he spoke. The image projected by the device in his hand changed to one of the girl and Izumi together. “Because she’s been seen with you.”

Izumi was unfazed. “It’s a ‘shop. I can tell from the pixels.”

The Nation Man slapped the device shut and returned it to his dapper sport coat. Then he reached over his shoulder and one of his cohorts slipped the handle of a baseball bat into his palm. He brought the bat forward so he could show it to Izumi, saying, “Being a smart devil, you know how we work. Is some random girl you don’t even know or care about worth a broken head? You’ve got your blood money. Just tell us where you put her.”

Indicating the bat, Izumi said, “I’m glad to see you’re using wood. Aluminum just doesn’t make the same sound.”

“No, it does not,” the Nation Man agreed.

Paul noticed something strange pass between them after that exchange. For whatever reason, and whatever was meant by it, the two of them seemed to relax a little. The Nation Man quit tapping his palm with the bat and Izumi opened her stance slightly. She asked, “What do you want with the girl?”

“She’s one of ours,” the Nation Man said. “If one of our people is going to give birth to a child then that child will be raised by us.”

“You’re going to have to forget her,” Izumi said. “She’s behind a wall now.”

Whatever killer’s détente had been established by their brief exchange about the merits of wood over aluminum bats for the breaking of heads disappeared in an instant. The Nation Man began tapping the bat against his palm again, alternately making quick feints as if he were going to suddenly crack Izumi across the face with it. His smile, which had been cruel and merciless to begin with, hardened into a series of angry slits. “Our sister should be in the comfort of her brothers.”

Izumi responded to this resumed aggression by showing him her Bowie knife, seeming to have produced it from thin air. “What if she paid me to get her away from all the crazy murder-happy racists in the world? What if she mentioned you specifically?”

The Nation Man’s cruel smile faded then and his face became a death mask. “Then it comes down to a simple mathematical equation: can you stab the three of us with your knife before we can break your head with our bats? What do you think, devil girl? How good are you with that thing?”

“Actually, the equation is a little more complicated than you’re making it out to be,” she said. Then she kicked Paul lightly in the shins and said, “Show him the new variable.”

Paul knew about guns. He had seen them in a thousand newsfeeds and there didn’t seem to be an old movie made without one being used in anger but he had never actually held one before. His first thought was how heavy it was. The way people flung them around in the movies, they appeared to weigh about as much as an orange. His second thought was how complicated a device it was. He understood the basics – it was really just a point-and-click device, the trigger and the aiming and that stuff – but there appeared to be all sorts of electronics on this one, as well. He had no idea what these things did or what they could even be used for in a device that very simply caused a gas to expand in order to force a piece of metal down a tube at a high rate of speed.

When she kicked him, he raised the gun as he had seen in the movies: one hand around the grip, his index finger through the trigger guard, and the other hand supporting the grip from the bottom. He was oddly calm. His hands didn’t shake. He didn’t break out in a sweat. Just pointing the thing gave him an odd exhilaration of powerfulness.

The test phrase ran through his head quickly and then was gone. Absolute power corrupts.

Without looking, Izumi pointed over her shoulder and said, “Nation Men, Bertha. Bertha, Nation Men.”

The Nation Man took a moment to assess Paul. He wasn’t impressed. “Does he even know what he’s doing?”

“No,” Izumi said, “but he doesn’t have to. You see, Bertha is a Smart Arms model 500 fully automatic, auto-targeting system with wireless control from my earpiece. It’s got a 12 shot mag loaded with .50 caliber shredder rounds.” She tilted her head slightly to speak to Paul, “New friend Paul, slowly pull the trigger back until you feel resistance, about half way.”

“Really?” he whispered.

“Really,” she said.

Paul squeezed his index finger against the trigger. It moved easily for the first half of the pull, but he stopped when it suddenly stiffened with greater resistance exactly where she had said it would. He looked up at the three Nation Men and said, “Oh.”

The Nation Men looked down at their chests and saw that numbers had been drawn on their chests with a red laser. Currently, they went from left to right, left wing being #1, lead man #2 and right wing painted with a digital #3.

“No, you know what,” Izumi said, “I want you to go first.”

The numbers suddenly changed so that the lead man now had the #1 drawn on his chest.

Izumi smiled and said, “Remember, these are fifty-cal shredders. Even if you only take a shoulder wound, it’ll be a race to see if you die from shock before you bleed out.”

The line had moved forward a few steps while Izumi and Paul dealt with the Nation Men. The people behind them, ever hesitant to get caught up in something that didn’t involve them, stayed where they were. This caused a rare gap to form in the line.

Izumi said, “I’m going to go buy our tickets now. My friend Paul is going to keep you covered. Try to remember that he doesn’t even have to pull the trigger. I can do it remotely.” Then she ducked under Paul’s outstretched arms and cut in line at the ticket booth to buy their tickets.

The Nation Men made subtle movements left and right, testing the targeting system’s ability to track them. The numbers never left their chests. No matter where they moved, a heart shot from an exploding shrapnel bullet followed them. Eventually, they decided to remain very still.

Izumi returned and said, “Okay, we’re going to get on the train now. Any problem with that?”

The lead Nation Man seemed to struggle with his answer. Finally, he said, “We are everywhere, devil girl. Your picture will be known to all our members.”

“Uh huh,” she said, unimpressed. “Do I have to repeat my question?”

“No,” the Nation Man said. “You are free to ride the train for now. But no matter how far you run, we will…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She slipped the gun out of Paul’s hands and began backing toward the automatic turnstiles. Once there, she cut in line again and waved her hand over a reader set in the turnstile. Small doors blocking the lane slid open to allow Paul through. Then she repeated the process for herself, while never taking her eyes off the Nation Men.

Once they were through and headed to the next escalator, she holstered her gun. “Okay, now all we have to do is survive the trip to Silver Spring.”

That was when Paul began to shake.

 

2. The Metro station was a cavernous underground structure with an arched ceiling covered in geometric shapes formed from curving cement beams. Different train lines stopped at different subterranean levels, filling the whole place with the constant sound of thunder as trains rumbled through it.

Izumi took his hands to stop them from shaking. “It’s just an adrenaline hangover,” she said, smiling up at him. “You get used to it after a while.”

“So it’s not terror that’s making me shake?”

She laughed and shook her head. “No, you did real good back there. It’s just, you know, your body ramped up for a big fight and when that didn’t happen all that juice got loose in your system for no reason. Now you’re burning it off.” She held up her hand. It was shaking as well. “Hazard of the occupation.”

“Exactly what is your occupation?” he asked.

“Mostly smuggler,” she said, “but, you know, basically I’m muscle for hire.”

“You don’t look very muscular.”

“That’s what makes me so good at it,” she said. She touched his chest again and said, “Although, I could use a strapper like you.”

“Is that a job offer?”

She considered it for a moment. “I don’t know. I’d have to see you get physical. I can’t imagine tempers like you have much use for fighting up there in the clouds.”

“No, I guess not,” he said, still in the dark about what a temper was or what they were doing up in the clouds.

They made their way down another dead escalator to the first platform and waited there while trains from other lines rumbled through the station below them. Some stopped to engorge and disgorge their stinking human cargo while others just blew on through.

Paul and Izumi moved with the swell of the human tide, an ebb and flow that seemed to respond to some far off heavenly body they couldn’t see. Those deluded enough to believe they might catch a train if they only hurried practically climbed over those who knew with dread certainty they would be waiting in the line as the next three trains came and went.

She led him to the back of a crowd clustered around the tracks for the Red Line and said, “Okay, we wait here until we get close enough to actually get into a car. When that happens, you got to stay with me, bwana, okay?”

“Of course,” Paul said.

“Really? Because if we get separated I got no way of finding you. You got no chip. You got no PDA. You’re right downtown and you’re still more off the grid than anybody I ever seen.”

“What’s a PDA?” Paul asked.

Breaking the protocol of sustained centrifugal ignorance, several nearby zombies turned their heads to openly stare at him. Izumi said, “That device the Nation Man used to show us the picture of me and the package? That’s a PDA. Everyone has one.” She slipped a similar looking anodized aluminum tube from one of her many hidden pockets and showed it to him. “It’s your computer, your game console, your phone, your everything. We used to use them to buy stuff, too, but the church didn’t like it because you could spoof a PDA so they wouldn’t know what you were doing. Hence the chip.”

“Hence the chip,” he repeated, though he didn’t really understand.

“Well, the way it’s supposed to work is you’re supposed to wave your chip over a reader that encodes the transaction with your DNA – like I did with the turnstile – but the system got hacked so we can do chip-to-chip transactions…”

“Shaking hands,” Paul said.

“Bingo, new friend Paul gets it,” she said. “So now we just use our PDAs for everything other than buying stuff.”

“Can I ask a question?”

She turned to look up at him expectantly. With her big eyes and long lashes and small, elegant features and the way her short hair emphasized her face, he felt a surge of unfamiliar but intense emotion run through him. It wasn’t the same sexual urge he had felt before, though that was mixed in with it. As best he could make out, he suddenly and desperately wanted her to love him.

“You okay, new friend Paul?”

He closed his eyes and turned his head away until the feeling was gone. “Yes. I’m fine, thank you. I just… adrenaline hangover, you know?”

“I do know,” she said. “What’s the question?”

“Why does a pregnant lady need to be smuggled from Baltimore to DC?”

“Look around. See any kids? Out on the street, remember seeing any kids? Anybody under fourteen?”

“In the shelter,” he said.

“Yep. And that’s the only place you will see them.”

“Why?”

“Lots of reasons,” she said, “but I guess it really comes down to two big ones. First, does it look like we need more people in the world? A lot of folks look unkindly on breeders. They feel like they’re just actively making the world a worse place. Others feel like the only way to beat the tempers is to starve them of their workforce. If the population down here dried up and died out, the tempers wouldn’t have anyone for their factories and whorehouses. See? The other big reason is what the Nation Man said. Boyee bands feel the same way. They see kids as future competition. They either want to raise them up in their own crew or kill them before they get strong.”

Paul was beginning to understand that he had escaped one awful place for another. The world outside the hive was an unrelentingly ugly place. Was there a point to this adventure? Would he save his sister from the hive just to lead her into a society that was even more evil than the one in which they had been raised? “Is the whole world like this?”

“Oh, hell no,” she said, barking out a surprised laugh. “Asia is in worse shape, but the west – all except good old ‘Merica – implemented population control a long time ago. Why do you think the Reformation even happened?”

Paul looked around at the gray waves of commuters. “But, why…”

“Cheap labor,” Izumi said. “You, of all people, should know that.”

“Because I’m a temper from the clouds?”

She nodded. He didn’t like the way she looked at him when she thought about him being a temper – whatever that was.

A train came and went. The crowd surged forward a few feet. Another crowd came to fill in the space behind them. She reconsidered him and said, “But, I guess, you know, you’re not one anymore, right? I mean, it’s kind of poetic justice that when you guys screw up, you get kicked out of heaven to live in the world you made. Maybe you should all have to spend a year on the street.”

“Remember I’m only seventeen,” he said.

She laughed and shook her head. “Sorry, get me off my soapbox, right?” She put her hands on his arms and leaned in and looked up at him and said, “You’re not a temper. You’re my new friend Paul.”

“That’s me,” he said, trying not to look into her eyes, afraid he would be caught up in the swirl of emotion again. “Your new friend Paul.”

“Hey, you want to see how we keep our stuff from getting stolen in a crowd like this?” She wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled him into a hug. “Put your arms around me. Yeah, now put your hands on my back.”

She dropped her hands down his back and put them on his buttocks.

“That’s not my back,” he said.

“I’m protecting your wallet.”

“I don’t have a wallet.”

“It’s the thought that counts,” she said with a smile. A moment passed between them, something serious and tender, one that caused her smile to fade a little. She put her chin on his chest and said, “You’re just a package to me.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “I’m a five hundred dollar payday.”

“Yes.” She stood on her tiptoes and pressed her lips against his. When he pulled his head back, she said, “Oh, sorry, I just…”

“No,” he said hurriedly. “It’s… I don’t know what to do.”

“Kissing? It’s easy,” she said. “Do what I do. Just push back with your lips a little.”

“That’s all there is to it?”

“That’s all there is to a friendly little kiss,” she said with an eager, happy smile. “There’s a lot more other stuff that comes later.” She stood on tiptoe again and kissed him. This time he closed his eyes and kissed her back. It took a moment but he started to feel like he might be doing it right.

A train came and went. The crowd surged forward. They moved with it, their arms still wrapped around each other.

 

3. Eventually, they were swept into a train. It was nothing like the images he had seen from his Trinity searches. There were no seats, no benches. It was all standing room only and every available inch was occupied. As the crowd compacted around them, they were pressed ever closer together. Neither seemed to mind.

“Can I ask a question?” Paul asked.

“Why do you always ask if you can ask a question? It’s like an extra question for no reason.”

“It’s polite,” he said with a shrug.

“Okay, yes, you can ask me a question. Go for it.”

“What was your first… I don’t know what to call it… job?”

“Kitty Von Steppe, HB of the Kit-Kat Krew. Her girls really didn’t like her so they saved up their tips and paid me to get rid of her.”

“Tips?” he said. “Were they waitresses? Was it a restaurant?”

She just stared up at him until he got it.

“Oh, prostitutes. Right. What’s HB?”

“Head Bitch,” she said. “Actually, it’s Head Bitch In Charge but no one adds the IC. I mean, if you’re the head bitch you’re automatically in charge, right?”

“So, you used Bertha to…”

She laughed. “When you get your start in this business you use whatever you have lying around. I used a broken bottle on Kitty. That’s how I got my knife Betty.”

“Then where did you get that gun?”

“It’s like anything. You start at the bottom and you work your way up. I used the bottle to get Kitty’s knife. I used the knife to get a machete. I used the machete to get a shotgun. I used the shotgun to get Bertha.”

It sounded very much like Demon Hunter to Paul. He had started off with a wooden club and leather armor and had to kill his way up the armament ladder. Except for the obvious difference: He had been fighting brainless NPC drones in order to ramp up his experience points while she had been fighting for her life. “How could someone who had such an incredible weapon like Bertha get taken down by someone with a shotgun? It seems like they would be invulnerable.”

“The moment you start thinking your weapons make you dangerous is the moment someone comes up behind you with a shotgun and educates you all about that misconception,” she said, smiling but deadly serious. “The one thing I tell myself every day is that I’m the one who’s dangerous. Bertha and Betty are just tools. In the hands of an idiot they wouldn’t be dangerous at all, but in my hands they are super-murder-kill-spree dangerous.”

“Super-murder-kill-spree,” he said. “That’s a new adjective for me.”

She shifted uncomfortably and rolled her eyes as if something was bothering her. Then her smile returned as she rejoined the conversation. “You could make a note of it, except you can’t. You don’t have a PDA.”

“I have my brain,” he replied. “You’d be surprised what you can remember when you don’t have a place to write things down.”

She moved again, twisting her hips, and threw an exasperated glance behind her. “Yeah, well, I have a PDA so I don’t need a brain.”

“Are you okay? You seem uncomfortable.”

She raised her voice loud enough that the whole car could hear her over the noise of the rattling train wheels. “This pervert behind me has a big old stiffy and he’s grinding it between my butt cheeks like his life depends on rubbing one out before the next stop.”

For a moment, Paul didn’t comprehend what she was saying. As usual, he heard the words but nothing in his life experience allowed him to put them into a form he could make sense of. Finally, he raised his eye line above Izumi’s head to the face that hovered behind hers. It belonged to a middle-aged man with a greasy, pockmarked face. He had a scruffy beard that was thin but very black. His eyes were closed in what appeared to be something close to ecstasy as he bobbed his head up and down, completely unaware that Izumi had just called him out for what he was doing.

Once more, the rage that Paul had fought to keep down his whole life jetted through his body and stung his every nerve ending until it sang out in righteous fury. Had he not been so compressed by the crowd of commuters he would have happily ripped the limbs from this man and celebrated the achievement with a howl at the moon sailing in the invisible sky overhead. But, seeing as he only had the use of his right arm, the rest of him being trapped by the human crush around him, he was reduced to something his father had done when Paul had been little. Like all of his father’s methods, it was a form of correction that required little effort, no forethought and wasn’t medically proven to be permanently damaging.

He slipped his right hand free of Izumi’s waist and worked it back and forth until it was free so he could grab the grinder by the ear. When he had the man’s attention, he pulled down just hard enough for it to feel like that ear might just come loose with another ounce of force. When the man’s eyes flew open wide, Paul leaned over Izumi’s shoulder to make eye contact and said, “Turn around or I will tear it off and shove it in your mouth.”

The man began a series of micro-motions that eventually turned his back to Izumi. Paul then punched him hard in the back of the head just to remind him that God was watching. The sucker punch being another of his father’s highly effective instruction techniques.

“Wow, my hero,” Izumi said. “If only I had known ear pulling would fix the problem, I could have removed a hundred dicks from my ass crack by now.”

“It doesn’t sound romantic when you say it like that.”

“That’s because I don’t need you to fight my battles for me,” she said. “This is my life. I deal with the parts I can’t overcome.”

“Gotcha,” Paul said. “But do you mind if I do what I can so I don’t have to watch it?”

She started to get angry but stopped when she got that he was trying to tell her he cared about her. That was something new and strange and she wasn’t sure how to feel about it. “Okay, sure. Act out all you want. Just don’t get us killed.”

“I promise.”

She marveled at him for a moment as if trying to place a stranger’s face. “You’re different. I’ve only known you for two days but you’ve already changed. Or at least it seems like you’re changing. Maybe I’m just seeing you different.”

He smiled. “I’m just a package.”

“Yeah,” she said. “You’re just a package. A payday.”

He wrapped his free arm around her shoulders. “To be honest, I actually feel kind of different.”

“Yeah? How?”

He shook his head. It was confusing. His emotions didn’t seem as easy to tamp down. His mood shifted more easily and in more violent arcs. Of course, he was a stranger in a strange land. “More in charge but more out of control. Does that make sense?”

“No,” she said. “But that just means you’re normal. Or, as normal as the rest of us down here. Up there in the clouds, you’re probably a total weirdo.”

“Probably,” he said.

She reconsidered her rebuke, not something she did often. “Okay, thank you for that, by the way. I can box my own shit but it was nice of you to help out in that situation.”

“You’re welcome,” he said. “So, can I ask you a question?”

She shook her head. “Really? Again with the extra question?”

“Where’d you get Bertha?”

“A cop,” she said. “Who else would have hardware like that?”

“A police officer?”

She nodded. “Remember when Goop first came out?”

Paul shook his head. “What’s Goop?”

“Yeah, I forgot you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. It’s a craft chemical. You give your dealer a blood sample so he can code the Goop to your DNA and you tell him what you want to do when you’re high. No matter what it is, Goop gives you 24 to 48 hours of doing that thing.”

“Like what?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, I never done it, but I heard about guys who wanted to be a kid in the old days. You know, what I mean? White picket fence days? Mommy at home and Daddy working 9-to-5? No? TV Land stuff.”

“Like Ozzie and Harriet?” he said. Ozzie and Harriet was an ancient sitcom from a time in America’s past that most people no longer believed had actually existed. Its perpetual reruns were available on Trinity but he had never heard anyone suggest it didn’t accurately depict America’s brilliant past.

“Yeah, exactly! That’s what they call it. They call it doing an Ozzie and Harriet. They get Gooped up and spend a whole weekend doing the O&H.”

“And this still goes on?”

“Sure,” she said. “It’s the most popular recreational choice on the street, but back when it first came out and it was hard to get there was this dick cop who was trying to control the flow to make himself rich. Some of the artisans got tired of his dipping into their profits and one of them hit me up.”

“Hit you up? To kill a policeman?” He said this with the same astonishment he would have had he been asking someone if they had truly grown a third arm out of their forehead. For a blackleg, the police were second only to the Missionary on the hierarchy of supreme authority. When they came spilling out of the hive, looking for a rebellion to crush, the police showed them the way, pointed out their targets, and kept innocent citizens from getting involved.

“Not to kill him,” she said, scoffing at the idea. “They just wanted him to quit stealing so much from their revenue stream. I was the one who decided the best way to do that was to kill him. True, I decided that when I saw Bertha riding on his hip, but I was still right in the end. He stopped stealing and the rest of the cops on his crew made a note of what went down. All’s well that ends in a well.”

“You murdered a policeman and yet you’re still walking around out in the open?” In his imagination, the police would mobilize special forces to respond to such a situation, wiping out all resistance and paving over innocents in the process. They were known to be fiercely loyal to their own.

“The cops are just another boyee band,” she said. “You pay your tribute and you get by. They take their piece of the action and you go about your business. When one of them gets greedy, you just have to buy a dispensation before you can make a fix. That’s what I did. I mean, I charged the dispensation off as an expense, but it was all fair and above board.”

This news made Paul want to sit down but he was physically prevented from doing so by the crowd of zombie commuters pressing against him. “The police are corrupt?”

“No,” Izumi said, giving his body a reassuring squeeze with her pinned arms, “the world is corrupt. The cops are just part of the world. It’s a perfect Libertarian paradise. It’s everyone for themselves.”

The energy went out of him in one long sigh. Everything he had believed about the world outside the hive had soured into a poisonous nightmare. He had invested his hopes in a world beyond the hive’s smothering walls only to find it was just as diseased and evil as the place he had just escaped. But, it occurred to him, he had also found Izumi out there. “So… go on. You got Bertha from where?”

“Right,” she said. “So I got the contract to take out a cop and I knew it was going to be nimble so I went to the guy’s rabbi and told him what I had been hired to do. Apparently, this officer wasn’t high on the totem because I only had to make a fealty payment of a hundred geld to get a clear conscience for the work. Needless to say, I was thrilled because the guy was walking around with a Smart Arms 500 on his hip and I wanted it so bad. So, so bad. But just having a gun like that made him super dangerous and I think even his rabbi thought I was going end up with a sucking chest wound but when I moved on him, he made the third most classic mistake: He believed his weapon made him indestructible. My shotgun convinced him otherwise.”

“What are the other two?” Paul asked.

“Huh?”

“What are the other two classic mistakes?”

“Oh,” she said, remembering he didn’t know anything about anything. “Never take a short con long and never do for love what you wouldn’t do for money.”

“Good to know,” Paul said. “What’s a short con?”

She tilted her head back and laughed out loud.

 

4. They rode on through the underground pressed against each other for the next two hours as the train jostled and bumped over poorly maintained tracks, stopping every ten minutes to once again exchange passengers. Finally, they allowed the crowd to sweep them out onto the platform at the Silver Spring station. They broke free of each other then, reluctantly, and pushed through the crowd of boarding commuters to the rear of the platform.

Paul’s feelings for Izumi had only grown stranger and more powerful over the course of the ride. As a Primitive, he had never been taught about romantic love. Couples were joined in arranged marriages in order to produce children to perpetuate the hive. No one fell in love. No one wrote love songs and got on one knee to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage. They were introduced to their future spouse at the betrothal ceremony once the fathers had agreed on a deal.

What he knew about love he had gathered from reading stories and watching old shows on Trinity. But those old shows weren’t interactive. They were flat and sometimes monochrome. He didn’t feel anything when he watched them, he just saw two people acting strangely toward one another. Now he was beginning to wonder if he was experiencing the feelings that passed between those boys and girls in the movies.

On the one hand, he felt invigorated and his general attitude about everything was more positive. He looked around now and saw people living their lives, trying to do the best they could, rather than soulless zombies struggling to make it from cradle to grave without surrendering all of their dignity. On the other hand, he was possessed by a weird energy that made him feel strong and reckless, like a train that was about to jump the tracks.

Izumi took his hand and said, “Okay, up these escalators and we’ll be on the street. All we have to do then is walk to the depot where our transportation to Baltimore will be waiting for us.”

Paul listened to her but his attention was focused on four teenage urchins moving around the edge of the crowd in a particularly predatory fashion. They reminded him of the videos he had seen of packs of feral dogs on the hunt; coordinated, highly energized and fueled by the greedy anticipation of violence.

“Yeah,” he said, “Baltimore.”

“Well, close to Baltimore,” she responded, following his gaze to the four boys picking through the edge of the crowd like hyenas shopping for the victim they would split off from the herd. The commuters simply closed ranks and bunched together. “Forget about them,” she said. “They’re wannabes. Basically, they’re out making audition videos to better their chances at being drafted into one of the boyee bands.”

“Okay,” he said, but he couldn’t stop watching them. Their tactics reminded him of the bully techniques his father and the other blacklegs used. The baiting, the picking, the attempts to isolate a target. As he watched, they grabbed some middle-aged gray face from the crowd and spun him around. “We should go.”

“Yeah,” she said, not liking the interest he was taking in the wannabes. “Let’s get out of here.”

Paul allowed himself to be led toward the escalators but he refused to stop tracking the urchins. Once they separated the man, one of the boys, a muscular blond with bright blue eyes and an overbearing forehead, grabbed him by the lapels of his suit jacket and punched him hard in the side of the head while the other urchins flipped open their PDAs and started recording the whole thing.

“They should stop,” Paul said mindlessly. “It’s wrong.”

“It’s not our problem,” Izumi said, now dragging him by the hand toward the escalators.

With a second punch, their victim collapsed to the platform unconscious. This seemed to be a signal for the teens to switch partners. The blond boy opened his PDA to start filming as a black haired boy, not as muscular but with the sprouts of a nascent goatee adorning his mouth, grabbed a woman by her hair and dragged her away from the crowd. As Paul watched, the boy ripped open her jacket and blouse to expose breasts nestled in a matronly brassiere.

Paul slipped his hand free of Izumi’s grip and bolted over to where the action was taking place. At first he was just walking but as he closed in on the boyees, he became energized. Without thinking, without planning, he grabbed the boyee nearest him by the hair, yanked back on his head, and drove him face first into the concrete. The boyee’s face struck the station floor with a wet crunching noise that caused everyone nearby to shudder. Paul then stalked over to the blond boy and simultaneously snatched the PDA from his hand while kicking him in the kneecap. He tossed the PDA onto the tracks and then kicked the boy in the jaw just as he was trying to rise from his knees.

The boy ripping at the woman’s clothes tried to flee but he had been too engrossed in his invasion of her privacy to realize what was happening. Paul grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved his own forehead into the boy’s nose, crushing it flat to his face. Then he brought a knee up into the boy’s solar plexus, driving the air from his lungs, and punched him so hard on the jaw that he was out cold before his chin collided with the concrete.

The next part he didn’t remember very clearly. The whole thing was recorded haphazardly in his brain as a blur of activity and a lot of noise that ended with him kicking the would–be rapist in the ribs while shouting a steady stream of epithets that could have come from his own father’s mouth: “…dirty redleg insect! You think this is what God had in mind when he breathed life into your worthless carcass? I will kick the evil right out of your sorry redleg corpse.”

This went on until he heard a voice calling his name. “Paul! Paul! Paul! No! Paul, no!”

He stopped long enough to realize someone was tugging on his hand. Turning toward the voice yelling at him, he saw Izumi had hold of him and was trying to drag him away from the struggle. Unfortunately, he hadn’t yet finished his work and the madness in his eyes struck her like a percussive wall. She dropped his hand and backed away, saying in a small voice, “He’s done. It’s over.”

He came back to himself then, panting and out of breath, his knuckles bloody and sore, his head aching. Looking around, he noticed the crowd of commuters had cleared a wide berth for him. Inside that circle, three urchins lay in bloody pulps, those who weren’t already dead quivering on the edge of death.

Then he was sane again. He looked around, having been so out of his mind during the fight that he was completely unaware of what he would see. It was as if a monster had temporarily possessed him and then fled leaving him to deal with the aftermath. He looked over to make eye contact with Izumi. Confused, he said, “What…”

She ran forward and grabbed him by the hand and dragged him to the escalators, running as fast as she could toward the street. A gang of Asians in Kung Fu attire started to challenge them but one look at Paul’s bloody knuckles and crazed eyes persuaded them to let these two pass without collecting their fare.

She didn’t stop running when they reached street level. Instead, she dragged him down the wide sidewalk in a panicked gallop, pushing through the clutches of zombie workers until they reached the mouth of an alley. She pulled him down this stretch of wet asphalt to a spot where they were hidden by a series of decrepit dumpsters overflowing with forgotten refuse.

Only then, when she stopped running, did she burst into angry tears. “What was that? Paul, what happened back there?”

He wanted to claim ignorance, was desperate to tell her that he had no idea what had happened, but was all too aware of what he’d done. His spirit collapsed in on itself, sucking him down to a sitting position. “I thought I was free. All the beatings I took. All the abuse. All the hatred. I thought I could be free in my mind, but I was wrong. It’s in my soul.”

“What is?” she asked, pointedly remaining just beyond his reach. “What’s in you?”

“My father’s evil,” he said. “I’m as much a monster as he is.” He said this marveling at the truth of it. All these years, his whole worthless life, he had imagined that he had been immunizing himself against the hive’s disease but all that time had been steadily and inexorably contaminating his soul.

“Your father? The temper?”

He looked up at her, stunned stupid by the awful realization of what he was about to say. “I’m not a temper, whatever that is. I’m… I’m a Primitive.”

Izumi withdrew two steps and reached inside her vest to put her hand on Bertha’s grip, not drawing it just yet, but ready to do so if the situation escalated. “You’re a goddamn blackleg?”

“I thought I was free,” he said. “I thought when I left the hive that I could be my own person. I repeated the words but never believed in them. The message got through anyway, obviously.”

Izumi’s hard expression relaxed a little and a nervous smile began to break at the corners of her mouth. “Yeah, damn, I should have known. Those clothes. The fact that you don’t know anything about anything.” She shook her head, the smile coming into its own now. “Of course you’re from a hive.” She laughed and slapped her leg. “God, I’m so stupid!” Then she settled onto the ground next to him, her back against the brick wall, and said, “Hey, dummy, you know what you don’t got? Evil.”

Her attitude snapped him from his spiral into misery. “Excuse me?”

“What you got is unresolved parental issues, dude-bro,” she said, laughing. “Your daddy kicked you around and made you feel small your whole life? My mother sold me to a whorehouse when I was twelve.” She leaned her head on his shoulder and heaved a tired but happy sigh. “Thank God. For a second there, I thought you were a monster.”

“I am a monster.”

She laughed. “No you’re not. You got roiling, boiling, hop-on-pop daddy issues, yes, but if that’s your only hang-up, you could run for mayor of this fucking zone. All parents fuck up, some more than others, a kid’s life is just about dealing with the fallout of their parents’ bad decisions.”

A calmness began to seep into him, chasing away the out-of-control feeling that had so terrified him back at the station. “Kitty von Steppe?”

“You know, it wasn’t just that she was a terrible HB, it was that she just sucked as a human,” Izumi said. “I made the girls an offer and they jumped on it.” She spread her arms like a magician’s assistant and said, “And here I am.”

“That’s good for you,” Paul said. “You have your parental issue worked out but I still have to worry about doing what I just did ever again.”

“What did you do?” she asked. “You got rid of a bunch of future thugs with extreme prejudice. I mean, really, the only thing you did wrong, when you think about it, is you let one of them get away.”

Paul frowned and mulled this over. “What?”

“I don’t care if you get righteous on some urchins, new friend Paul, get righteous all you want, just don’t put us in danger when you do it.”

“How did I…”

“You missed one,” she said. “The fourth urchin ran away while you were clobbering his pals even though they were already completely seen to.” She couldn’t help herself, she had to laugh. “He was so scared he ran into the tunnel filming the whole way. If we check later, the video of him being squished by a train will probably be trending.”

Paul was confused, a feeling that was becoming familiar to him now that he was outside the cocoon of his old world. “Why are you being nice to me? I’m a blackleg. I’m a Primitive. I just lost my temper a little bit and three people died.”

She shrugged. “Eh, three bad people. And I don’t think you are a blackleg. I think that, apart from what happened in the station, you’re sweet and noble and incredibly naive. I mean, you’re like a puppy… except when you bite it can get ugly. So you need to keep that shit under control, right?”

He shook his head and closed his eyes. The headache now throbbing behind his eyes. “You’re not dumping me?”

“Dump you? My $500 payday? Why would I do that?” She took his hand and squeezed it hard. “You’re just a fellow traveler, new friend Paul. You got to figure out your destiny just like the rest of us.”

He looked down at her hands clasping his and felt anchored to the world for the first time. His father’s evil was in him, yes, but if this girl liked him and held onto him even when he was falling then he was able to believe that it might be possible to resist the urge to open the monster’s cage ever again. He had a feeling that particular beast would always be locked up in the basement of his soul, but with her help the lock on the door just might hold. “Okay, but I’m never going to let the monster loose again.”

“Monsters can be useful,” she said. “Just keep it on a leash.”

A leash? Was that even possible? The beast that had murdered three urchins in a fit of pure agape joy didn’t seem like something that could be restricted by arbitrary limits. It was more a weapon of last resort that leveled everything, maybe even the people you loved, when you let it loose on the world.

“I’ll try,” he said. He experimented with a smile. It came out awkward and tired. “Maybe if we kissed again?”

She laughed and took his hand. “C’mon, Romeo, we got miles to go.” As she pulled him to his feet, she realized he had split the skin on the knuckles of both hands. The skin around the wounds was dirty and smudged, a good way to pick up a pernicious infection down there on the street. “Hey, feel like a shower?”

A shower would be nice. The grime of being on the street for just 24 hours had already managed to get to every square inch of him. Maybe a shower would even wash some of what he was feeling away in the process. “Sure. No shelters, though. If I see someone like that preacher again… the monster will definitely get out.”

She laughed. It was a happy sound. “C’mon, this is going to be fun.”

 

5. They emerged from the alley hand in hand, Izumi leading him to the right, heading north. It was late morning, just after the rush, and the crowds were beginning to thin. Though packed as ever, the air-buses came less frequently. The daylight, such as it was, made no tangible difference in the quality of the ambience. Everything remained bathed in that dirty mustard stain of diffuse light that wasn’t quite dusk and would never quite manage to be dawn either.

Two blocks up they came upon something that looked like an oversized phone booth made from very thick glass. A young urchin from the Dead Rabbits, a ginger like the one Paul had spoken with when he first escaped the hive, leaned against the booth cleaning his nails with a small knife. When they approached, a toothpick slid out between his lips and twirled from one corner of his mouth to the other.  “Gotta pay your way,” he said without looking up at them. “This box belongs to the Rabbits.”

Izumi had apparently had her fill of dealing with pipsqueak boyee bands nickel and diming her to death. She slapped the boyee hard across the face, surprising the hell out of him, and pointed at Paul. “Look at him. Look at how he’s dressed. Look at his knuckles. Look at the toe of his right shoe.”

The boyee did as told and became considerably shaken by what he saw.

“Do you really want to try to cough a bit from a blackleg? Because, I would actually pay two bits to see that.”

Paul blanched. He had just promised himself he would never deploy the caged beast again and yet here was Izumi setting him up for another fight even before his knuckles had stopped bleeding from the last one.

The Rabbit stood up straight, pressed his back against the booth, and yelled loud enough for every passerby to hear. “The Rabbits do not charge the High Water Brawler! The High Water Brawler rides for free everywhere he goes as far as the Rabbits are concerned!” He then opened the glass folding door to the booth and waved them inside like a doorman at a fancy high-rise of yore.

Izumi was delighted. She took Paul by the hand and led him into the glass box and waited until the doors closed behind them. The she stood on tiptoe and kissed him. “This is a timeout box. It’s made from ballistic q-glass and once you lock yourself in, it can’t be opened from the outside unless a cop is present. They’re old and pointless now, the cops never come, but the way-back idea was to provide a place for citizens to be safe while they called for help.”

“Okay,” Paul said. The size of the place allowed them to move around a little but not much. It was about the size of a single tube back in the hive. “Why are we here?”

“Because when they put these things in, like, a million years ago, it didn’t take long for people to start fucking in them.”

“Is this glass one way?” he asked, looking around nervously.

“No!” she said, smiling excitedly. “So they got smart and installed a device that would recognize when people were getting it on and use a special method to get them to stop.”

“What method?” Paul asked, imagining a storm of electrical shocks or tongues of flame shooting down from the ceiling.

“Kiss me and find out.”

“Oh,” he said, immediately forgetting the dangers he had just imagined. He grabbed her by the biceps and pulled her up into his embrace. She wrapped her legs around his hips and shoved her mouth onto his and the kissing quickly became something else. She opened her mouth and drew out his tongue. Then they were kissing in a whole new way. She unbuttoned her shirt and slid his hand inside her bra. It was the first time he had ever felt a woman’s breast…

And that was when the streams of cold water began jetting down from the ceiling. Izumi pulled away from him and drew a tube of liquid soap from inside her magic vest of holding. She squeezed some soap into Paul’s hands and began stripping out of her clothes. When she was naked, she squeezed some soap into her own hands and began running them all over her body while urging him to get out of his clothes and do the same. He did as she asked, every fiber of his being crying out for him to stop, but he couldn’t make himself shed his underwear.

Outside the safety box, the walking dead ground their way between Metro stations on the endless treadmill of their lives while the Rabbit boyee tried to block them from seeing what was going on inside. “Nothing to see here, bitches. Eyes down and keep walking unless you want trouble with the Rabbits.”

Once done, Paul and Izumi piled out of the box in a gale of sopping wet laughter, pulling on their soaked clothes as they ran up the street cackling like mad children.

“We’re really wet,” Paul said.

“It’s 90 degrees every minute of the day,” Izumi replied. “We’ll dry before we get to the depot. But you feel better, right?”

“I do,” he said.

“I have to admit. I thought for sure you’d punk out on taking off your clothes.”

“You forget I grew up in a hive. We have no privacy there.”

“You didn’t take off your TWs.”

“My what?”

“Underwear.”

He shrugged. “So we had a little bit of privacy.”

“And you didn’t totally rape the shit out of me when you saw I was naked right there in front of you. You’re like a hero. Or a knight. One of those roundtable knights from days of yore and shit.”

“Yeah, I guess, but you probably shouldn’t do that again.”

“Huh?”

He thought about it, considered it, ruminated over it. What was wrong with him? He had never felt like this before. It was like riding a rollercoaster blindfolded. He had no idea how he was going to feel from one moment to the next. “I don’t trust myself anymore.”

“I trust you,” she said. “You’re the noblest boy I’ve ever met, in fact. Noblest? Most noble?”

“Super-fun-kill-spree noble?” he offered.

She laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck with a wet slap and kissed him. “God, you’re so stupid! You’re the stupidest boy ever!” She laughed and kissed him again.

“Hey, are we going to Baltimore or not?” he asked, peeling her off of him.

“We are. Of course, we are. Killjoy,” she said. “Okay, so we have to go six blocks east to get to the depot. If you can keep your hands off me and not kill any urchins on the way, we should be good to go and be right on time.”

“I’ll try to behave myself,” he said.

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