It takes us a little over an hour to get to the dumpsters behind the Garment Redistribution Center, or GRC, as Daniel tells me it’s called. By the time we arrive night has fallen. On the one hand, this is a good thing, as the darkness hides our activity. On the other, this is a bad thing, as it means we’re now in violation of the curfew.
The GRC is housed in a two-story cinderblock building, with three bay doors on the back end where trucks might have pulled up at one time, though no trucks have run in this part of Region II in years. I only know this because Daniel tells me it’s so. From where we crouch, I can see nothing of the building itself. Everything is ensconced in shadows.
In the apartments around us, dim candlelight flickers, but none of it reaches to the level of the street. Above us, the pallid clouds glow with the reflected light of the solar-powered signs on the city’s skyscrapers, and in the north I can see the lights of the Upper Quarter, one of the few places of the twenty-seventh that actually has power throughout the night. But then again, the Upper is where REGA’s many bureaucrats scurry after their daily regimen of making life miserable for the rest of us. Of course they’d have power.
“There’s motion sensors above the doors,” Daniel says, “and floodlights in the corners.”
“Do they work?”
He shrugs. “More than likely. People round here are loyalists. It’s not like they’d steal the power.”
I look at the buildings around us with their dim candles glowing from the windows. “Even loyal people get desperate.” On this side of the GRC is a ladder that leads to the roof. It was probably meant as a fire escape at one time, because it doesn’t reach all the way to the ground. I pull my knife out, fingering the blade. “Of course, motion sensors and floodlights only work if they’ve got electricity.” It’s been a while since I Gerry-rigged a solar panel, but I’m pretty sure I remember the schematics.
Daniel glances at me. “What did you have in mind?”
I flash him a grin and slip the knife back in its sheath. “Wait here.” I steal across the street to the side of the building, and by springing off the side of the wall, I launch myself at the lowest rung. My fingers snag it as I pass, and with a sudden grinding of metal, the ladder swings downward. It hits the pavement with a loud clang.
I drop and roll clear, eyes scanning the apartments above us to see if anyone comes to the window to investigate.
No one does, at least as far as I can tell. I count to sixty, and then scurry back to the ladder. The steel rungs are cold when I grip them, and the ladder creaks against the wall as I climb. At the top, I pause long enough to peer onto the roof, then loop a leg over the ledge and drop onto the floor.
In the center of the roof, six solar panels stand in an angled array. Behind them, I can see a thick coil of wire running toward an enclosed box, and then out from this, more wire snakes across the ground toward the motion sensors. I follow this over to where it drops over the edge, descending to the sensors’ mounts on the wall. I pull out my knife to cut the wire, hoping I don’t get electrocuted in the process. That’s when I see it. The wires have already been cut. I pull the wire up and investigate. The edges of the cut are clean, and they glisten in the dim light from the clouds. A certainty grows in my gut.
These wires were cut recently. Perhaps even tonight.
I feel their presence on the roof even before I hear them. But I do hear them. Four figures closing in on me from the shadows. I turn, dropping into a fighting stance with the knife held at the ready. Someone pulls back on a gun slide.
In the dimness, I see one of them put his hand out toward the gunman. He moves a little closer to me, and his features come into focus.
“Well,” he drawls, “we meet again.”
I glance from his face to the other Raptors around him. Angelica is there. I now recognize her as the one holding the gun. I try to ignore the lump in my throat.
“What do you want?” My fingers flex on the knife. I’m no match for Angelica’s gun, and she’s probably mad enough to use it if I make a move, but I’m not about to go down without a fight.
Matthew pushes the hair out of his face. “You.”
“How’d you find me?”
He holds up a comlink. On the screen, a single red dot pulsates. “That was a pretty good trick, getting away from us. Locking Angelica in the med room and all. Rescuing your boyfriend. You very nearly got away with it, too. But you forgot something. See, the nanites repair the damage from the isotope, but they don’t remove the radiation. You need the rest of the cocktail for that. The diuretic is the key. Got to wash it out of you.”
It hits me then, what had been bothering me ever since fleeing with Daniel. I’d forgotten about the radiation. “You’ve been following us?”
“Right up until we figured out where you were headed. Then we thought we get there first and wait. Bit of a guess, but we were right.”
“What do you want?” I repeat.
He rubs his chin. “First of all, why don’t you put that knife down?”
“Nobody here’s gonna hurt you. Not even Angelica, and she’s got more cause than anyone.”
As if in reply, Angelica holsters her weapon, but she still glares at me, her lips set in an angry pout. After a moment, I slip the knife back into its sheath.
Matthew smiles. “Good. Now, I want you to go over there and signal your boyfriend that it’s safe.”
“Why would I do that?”
“‘Cause you need to see something.” He holds his hand out behind him, and one of the Raptors presses something into his palm. “Put these on.”
He hands me a pair of night vision goggles. I glance askance at them, but then slip them over my head with one hand. As soon as they cover my eyes, things around me flash into brilliant clarity. Now I can see all their faces lit green in the night time. Matthew puts on a second pair, points straight up, and says, “See that up there?”
I look up, but nothing is visible in the clouds. “Nothing.”
“Magnify times fifty.”
I shake my head, uncertain what he means. He reaches over and spins a dial on the side of the goggles. The clouds suddenly leap closer in my vision.
“Okay. See my finger? Where I’m pointing?”
I lift the goggles long enough to line up on his index finger, and then lower them down again. His finger is now a hazy blur, but in a second it vanishes away. I still see nothing. I’m about to say so when something dark flashes into view. I follow it, seeing the dim outline of a bulbous-nosed aircraft hovering high above.
“Is that a drone?”
“Give the lady a prize.”
I take the glasses off and hand them back. “Okay. So? There’s always drones up there.”
He smiles grimly and refuses the goggles. “But this one, baby girl, has been following you, ever since you two gave away our location by skipping out the back door. Still, that’s not what you need to see.”
He motions me over to the edge. “Better reset those to normal. Then take a gander down there.”
I put the goggles up to my face and then peer into the shadows. My breath catches in my throat. No less than a dozen men wait down below us, with machine guns ready at their hips. Matthew pulls me back onto the roof top.
“It’s a trap,” I say.
He nods. “And lover-boy was leading you right into it.”
“No.” I shake my head. “I don’t believe that.” Daniel wouldn’t do that to me. Would he?
“You got skills, girl.” He breathes out a long sigh. “No one disputes that. But what you lack is experience. Go signal the all clear, and then watch what happens. Keep the goggles on.”
My heart is in my throat, but I do as he says. Stealing over to the ledge, I signal Daniel below. He waves back, and I retreat from the edge. Just then, Angelica ducks over the ledge and starts descending the ladder.
“Watch,” Matthew instructs.
As soon as Angelica is halfway down, Daniel looks toward the alley and raises his hand, closing the fist. Matthew takes my chin and points it over the edge toward where the men await in the alley below. I see one of the men raise his fist in response, and then signal the men behind him.
“Seen enough yet?”
A hot mix of anger, pain, and shame wash over me. I tear myself out of Matthew’s grip, stalking across the roof top to hide on the far side of the solar panels. I sink to the floor, burying my face in my arms.
A moment later, someone comes and sits beside me. I look up, startled by who it is.
“What are you doing here?”
He pats my knee. “We have a lot to talk about. But not here.”
Just then, four explosions rupture the silence. I whirl around, spinning to my feet. Thomas tugs my arm, pulling me toward the far side of the roof. “This way.”
“What happened?” I can hear men screaming above the noise, and a flood of faces are rushing from the apartment buildings around us, filling the street and crying out in alarm.
“Quickly,” he urges.
Matthew and the others race across the building, and we fall into step behind them. Sirens blare from somewhere in the heart of the twenty-seventh, and what few buildings that have power light up suddenly, though most of the East Middle remains shrouded in darkness.
At the far side, we scamper over the roof, dropping to a lower building before reaching the street. In the alley behind, Thomas stands over a manhole cover that he’s lifted off the street. “Come on!”
Without stopping, we flee into the sewer, sliding down the rungs of the ladder to the tunnel below. At least a dozen more Raptors wait at the bottom. A moment later, Thomas comes after us, slipping the cover back in place with a metallic thunk! Wordlessly, he flicks on a light and leads us forward.
We slog for what feels like miles through a low river of muck, until at last we reach a ladder that Matthew ascends without a word. Each of the Raptors follow, with me and Thomas bringing up the rear. At the top, I realize we’re somewhere in the Lower, though how we managed to get this far so quickly escapes me.
Matthew has his gun out, and is busily checking the corners of the room we occupy. After a moment, he points at one of the Raptors and jerks his head. The man draws his sidearm and hurries into the darkness beyond.
“Where are we?” I say.
“Wolf’s den,” Matthew replies.
I swallow. The Wolfs are a dangerous tribe, prone to rape, robbery, and extortion. About the only redeeming quality they possess is an absolute loathing for REGA, and for Sweepers in particular. “Wolfs?” I blurt. “What on earth for?”
Thomas squeezes my shoulder even as Matthew puts his finger to his lips and the rest of the Raptors glare at me. Matthew glances down the corridor where his man disappeared moments before, then faces me. “Where else were we supposed to go? Our own nest is blown thanks to you. Sweepers are raiding it even as we speak.”
I lower my eyes, and decide to say nothing further for the time being. A few minutes after he left, the Raptor scout comes hurrying back through the corridor. “All clear,” he says.
“All right.” Matthew waves the rest of the group forward. “In pairs. Watch your back.”
The Raptors scurry through the corridor with their guns out and night vision goggles on, signaling each other at every doorway until we reach the bottom of the stairs. At the top of the steps, a door hangs open a crack. Beyond it, the dim glow of a streetlight outside frames the opening, a pale sliver of light against the surrounding darkness. Fresh air blows down in a gentle, inviting stream.
I frown, trying to get a handle on our position. There are no street lights in the Lower, save one that I know of. It works intermittently, at best. In the sudden explosion, REGA must have directed power to the entire city, hoping to find us by any and every means.
As silently as possible, we mount the stairs and pour onto the pavement outside. Just as the last of us clear the doorway we hear it. Laughter and jeers, coming from up the street. Against the stark glow of the single streetlamp, I see them approach.
A gang of thugs, armed with automatic rifles, hand-made machetes, and other ugly looking weapons, advances, making no attempt to hide their presence. Beside them, with their hands tied behind their backs and a single rope looped around each of their necks, march four Sweepers, blood seeping from their skulls. In the rear, tied to the same rope with his hands and neck trussed up the same way, walks Daniel.
I stare at his face, adjusting the zoom on the goggles a bit so I can read his expression. Fear is etched in his eyes. A filament of doubt tugs at the back of my mind. I push up to Matthew’s shoulder.
“What’s on your mind, girl?” he says without turning around.
“They’re going to kill them.”
“Not right away. They’ll probably have some fun first.”
“Daniel’s with them.”
“I want him.”
Now he turns, his eyebrows raised. A grin tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Whatever for?”
“I need to hear it from him. Why he did it.”
“He’ll just lie to you.”
“No he won’t.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Because I’ll kill him if he does.” I say the words without really thinking about them. I’ve said the same kind of thing a million times before, but I’ve never really meant it. I’m not entirely sure I mean it now. For all that I’ve done in trying to survive, I’ve never actually killed anyone.
But Matthew doesn’t know that. “Why not just kill him anyway? You know he betrayed you. How is knowing why gonna make any difference?”
I remember what Angelica said. “Maybe they’ve got something on him.”
“Maybe they do. Doesn’t change nothing. He’s still a liability.”
“I don’t care.”
“Listen, baby girl, you can’t save every stray dog that wanders into your life. Especially the ones that bite.”
I feel a hot flash of anger on my cheeks. I’ve heard words like these before. Whatever else he is, Daniel is not a dog. What is it about people, that they forget their fellow human beings are human? I snarl at him, “We’ll see about that,” and move directly for the Wolf pack. They’ve spotted me now, and are slowing down, bring their guns to bear. I hear Matthew swear behind me, then footsteps as the Raptors fan out, taking up positions on either side of the street. In their black garb, they must be all but invisible to the tribesmen that approach, standing now beneath the halo of the single streetlight by the corner.
Matthew passes me by, raising his hands and saying loudly, “Evening!”
One of the Wolfs nods in his direction. “Who the hell are you?”
“Me? No one. Just another loyal citizen such as yourself, out for his evening constitutional.”
“Consta-what?” one of them snickers.
The tribesman who accosted Matthew steps forward. “You’re trespassing. This block belongs to the Wolfs.”
“Yeah,” Matthew drawls, “I sorta thought it might.”
“You challenging us?” He aims his gun carelessly at the rest of the alley.
Matthew shakes his head. “Not remotely. I’m simply interested in offering a trade.”
“A trade.” It was more a statement than a question, but still filled with doubt.
Matthew points at the Sweepers. “That’s a considerable bounty you’ve acquired. My compliments.”
“Man, what is up wi’ dis fool?” one of them says.
The Wolf leader agrees. “You talk funny.”
“So I’m told.” Matthew smiles. “Civility is a lost art. Still, it seems important to be respectful.”
The Wolf considers this, stroking his chin. “All right. What do you want?”
“Him.” Matthew points at Daniel.
“Him? What for?”
Matthew smiles, but doesn’t answer. After a moment, the Wolf nods. “All right. What’s your offer?”
Matthew pulls a black object from his belt, and holds it up. “Phosphorous grenade. Pull the pin, five seconds later,” he makes an explosion sound with his lips. “Expect you’ve already seen their effects tonight.”
“So that was you?”
Matthew nods once.
He gives a half-laugh. “And now you want to plant the evidence with us. Maybe point REGA in our direction?”
“On the contrary. REGA’s already looking at you. Each of those men has a subcutaneous tracker implanted in his right shoulder—”
“We know ‘bout the chips, fool.”
“And that gentleman behind you is hotter than the fourth of July. He plucked his chip out a few days back. REGA’s been tracking him ever since.”
The Wolfs swear, aiming their weapons at the sky, except for the leader. “Damaged goods, huh?”
“In more ways than one.”
“All right. It’s gonna cost you more than one grenade, though.”
Matthew nods. “Four, then. Final offer. One for each of them. Imagine the fun you’ll have.”
The Wolf calls over his shoulder, “Cut him loose!” Matthew takes four grenades on a belt and hands it to the Wolf as Daniel is passed to the front.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” he says, and then hurries Daniel towards me. As he passes me by, he tosses something into my hand.
“Take them!” the Wolf leader cries. I stare in alarm as the Wolfs raise their guns. Just then, I realize what Matthew has handed me.
The pin to one of the grenades.