The fire is getting hot and Scout is close to touching the flames!

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Happy reading!

Will

Last week’s story fork…

CHOICES:

1. Take the gun and use it to get out of there.

2. Tell him to keep the gun and I’ll help him in the fight.

The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…

 

Chapter 23

I took the gun from him and held it aimed right between his eyes. A part of me, a not inconsequential part, wanted to put a bullet in his brain. I barely knew this character but I knew enough to understand that he was a master manipulator.

That the truth was wet clay in his expert hands.

He would shape and work and mold it into whatever form suited him.

The best lies always contain a measurable amount of truth. It’s the truth that gives the lie its sheen of authenticity.

While I agreed with the basic principles Crypto described as underpinning societal unrest, I didn’t know if I believed that those problems were happening here. And if they were, was the tipping point at hand?

Which brought me back to his predictably cryptic statement.

I’ve prepared for the inevitable. That’s all.

That could be taken as a statement made by a reasonable person who had taken precautions to prepare for potential calamity.

Or it could be taken as a proclamation made by a madmen that he’d done something to precipitate that tipping point. That maybe the point would’ve come sooner or later, but he’d taken action to ensure it would come sooner.

I had no evidence either way, but I was leaning toward the latter.

As much as Crypto professed to be fighting for the Lowsiders, plenty of clues suggested he’d be all too happy to take whatever power was ripped away from the current power structure.

And the vast majority of Lowsiders would probably cheer for the change. A different but equal misery is still often preferred to the known one. Besides, an incorruptible and benevolent dictator could do a lot of good for his people. The problem was that no one was impervious to corruption, to temptation, to betrayal.

From sinners to saints and everyone in between, the more power a person had, the more perverse it acted upon their personality. Some sage from long ago had taken it to the extreme to make a point.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Crypto already had a lot of power. If he were to fill the power vacuum created by winning a war, would the people be better off?

And so a part of me wanted to kill him now and end the possibility of such a future failure.

Martinez looked back and forth between us. “Shoot him already!”

Crypto’s eyes widened. Was there regret in them? Regret that he’d read the situation wrong? Regret that he’d read me wrong?

“You don’t trust him, do you?” she said. “He’ll shove a knife in your back the second he decides that’s better than keeping you alive.”

She reached for the gun. “Give it to me. I’ll do it!”

I batted her hand away. “Martinez, could you give me half a second?”

She kept reaching.

“Please?”

Her shoulders slumped and arm fell to her side.

I agreed with her wholeheartedly. This partnership, if indeed it became one, would be nothing more than a marriage of convenience. Including the “Til death do us part” part. Because as soon as the circumstances shifted, I had no doubt Crypto would happily kill me to part ways.

Which left the option of shooting him, dealing with these apes, and getting away. At least trying to.

But what if pulling the trigger only produced a hollow click?

What if there were no bullets?

How open would he be to me joining him after I’d just tried to kill him?

Probably not very.

In fact, there probably wouldn’t be time for the offer because his goon would shoot us dead.

I felt the heft of the gun in my hand, trying to judge if the magazine was empty or not. It was lighter than I would’ve expected with a full magazine. But it could’ve had one or two rounds without me being able to tell the difference.

Which meant it could very well be empty and all this was a charade to test me. And that Crypto was never in any real danger. He didn’t seem like the type that willingly gave other people control in any given situation. That felt more like a last resort for the personality profile that I was building of him.

So, the safest option was to accept. For now.

I turned the gun around and offered it back. “I’ll help you.”

A single bead of sweat welled up at his hairline and raced down his temple and cheek. He wiped it away before taking the gun. “Whoa! That was intense! Did you feel it?” He started laughing.

Now that the game was over, I wanted to see everyone’s cards. “Not that it mattered, but it wasn’t even loaded.”

Crypto’s maniacal cackling cut to silence. He raised the gun to the side and fired two rounds.

I winced at the deafening sound in the enclosed space.

It was loaded. What kind of crazy person would do that? He couldn’t have known if I would accept or not. Could he?

I didn’t know.

I’d have to adjust my growing personality profile.

Martinez snorted. “You should’ve shot him.”

Crypto turned to her with a dangerous glint in his eyes. “He is a valuable ally to have. You, on the other hand?”

Martinez’s lip twisted into a snarl.

“You are expendable. You bring nothing that someone else couldn’t do better.” He pointed the gun at her.

I stepped in front of her. “She’s with me. No deal without her.”

His gazed darted between us. He finally nodded and let the gun fall to his side. “It’s your funeral. I don’t trust her. She’s a career Gray. She’s an enforcer for the Upsiders.”

“She ignored orders to save my life. She’s one of us.”

Crypto laughed sardonically. “Us? We are not even us. Look at you and look at me. I am uniquely on my own in this world. Yes, I identify with Lowsiders because I’ve lived here all my life and I understand being an outcast. I understand oppression. But don’t mistake being allies against a common foe for being bosom buddies. That would require us to share more than a few bosoms first!”

I couldn’t have agreed more. About the allies part. Not the sharing of bosoms part.

“So, allies share information with each other, correct?”

He nodded.

“Good. Then what did you mean by saying you’ve prepared for the inevitable?”

He grinned.

A mischievous, lurid smile that made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle with tension.

 

Chapter 24

“Scout, do you enjoy a good surprise?” Crypto asked.

“No. I’m not a fan of surprises.”

He shook his head, pitying me. “Not even good ones?”

Maybe there had been good surprises in my life. I couldn’t remember. But starting with everything that I could remember, surprises had a distinctly terrible track record. Every surprise seemed to be worse than the last.

“I don’t like surprises on principle. They mean you were unprepared for a particular outcome.”

That was a little reductionistic, but I wanted nothing so much as to simplify right now.

“You’re a party pooper,” he said as he wagged an accusatory finger at me.

A party pooper?

Where did that phrase even come from?

Had someone been at a party one time and had a big accident in their pants? And everyone got so disgusted that the whole party shut down and everybody went home?

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever you want to call me, I’d like to know what you meant.”

He tapped his puckered lips with one hand and let the gun hang in the other. A chirp in the background and a DAP sitting in his chair blinked on. It was too far and the angle was too acute to see what it said.

Crypto extended his hand. “Business calls, my new friend. We’ll have to discuss this at a later time.”

I shook his hand, noting both the smaller size and the iron grip. His fingers felt like articulated bars of steel. “I want the answer.”

He pulled away with a smile. “And I want to be tall, but we don’t always get what we want, do we?” He dove off of his bodyguard’s back and was up on his feet in a flash, heading to check on whatever message had come in.

“Let’s go,” the lead ape said.

His dumber twin retrieved the submachine left behind by Crypto and stood. They herded us toward the exit. The lights dimmed to black as we went.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Crypto surrounded by darkness with only his face glowing from the illumination of the DAP’s screen.

We returned by the same path we’d arrived and I was pleased to discover that my memory of the route matched the reality. Maybe I was getting better.

Maybe more memories would begin to surface soon.

The main door scraped open and I noticed immediately that our rifles were missing. We’d left them right there.

I spun around and was immediately nose to nose with the smarter idiot.

His flat eyes didn’t blink as the corner of his mouth drifted up. His copy sidled up next to us, ready and anticipating the confrontation.

I could take one of them down.

But both?

In such tight quarters?

It wasn’t a sure thing.

I choked down my desire to flatten this meatbag and forced a smile. “We seem to be missing our rifles.”

The one staring at me shrugged. “That so?”

Martinez tried to step around to get into the mix, but I held her back. “Yeah, you brainless monkey! You said they’d be right here when we got back!” She pointed at the spot. “Are they there? I don’t see them. Maybe I’m crazy and not seeing things. Am I crazy, Scout?”

An honest answer would’ve been yes, but I didn’t say it.

“Where are the rifles?”

A squeaky voice came from behind the two boulders of bone and muscle. “Excuse me. Pardon me. Coming through!”

The two goons parted and Caleb squeezed through with our rifles in hand. “The boss said to make sure you get these back.” He shoved them into my hands as both of the guards glowered at him.

“Thanks, kid.” I said as I passed off one to Martinez.

She checked the chamber, the magazine, the sights and gave the weapon a thorough examination in the space of seconds.

Caleb’s chest puffed out. “I’m not a kid, man! I’m fourteen! I think. Anyway, I’m supposed to lead you back to Kat’s place.”

Thank goodness.

I wasn’t going to say anything, but as much I’d tried to memorize the circuitous path we’d taken to get here, odds were even that I’d get it wrong. I remembered the first quarter or so and then the last quarter or so, but the half in the middle was hazy at best. “Fine, if it’ll make your boss feel better.”

“It’ll make me feel better making sure I do what he says.” Caleb glanced at all four of us in turn. “Did I just interrupt something?”

The smarter ape grinned.

I was pretty sure he was trying to look menacing. Unfortunately, the briefest peek in a mirror would’ve told him it came off looking comical. His face wasn’t made for grinning.

He looked like he was in pain.

Like smiling hurt his cheeks.

“We’ll do it another time,” he said.

“Sure thing, big guy,” I replied with real enthusiasm. As much I considered myself a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from these two, I would’ve been lying if I said I didn’t want to go there, too.

Martinez forced her way into the center and shook her head. “Am I the only one having a hard time breathing with all the testosterone oozing out around here?”

Caleb’s chest puffed out again and he sniffed his armpits. “Really? Is it that bad?”

“Not you, kid.”

“Fourteen is not a kid!” He shoved by and started off down the corridor. After he went a ways and realized we hadn’t followed, he stopped and turned around. “Hello? Let’s go already! I’ve got stuff to do today. Adult stuff. Grown up type things. Ya know?”

 

Chapter 25

As hazy as the middle half of the journey was, I knew this wasn’t it. We’d diverged from the way back to Kat’s somewhere within the past few minutes. I didn’t say anything initially because I wasn’t sure.

But I was now.

That and Martinez was starting to look around. She was feeling it, too.

Where was Caleb taking us?

Was it still to Kat’s, but by a different short cut?

And if so, why take a different route?

To avoid being tracked. To avoid observation. To be unpredictable. They all seemed like plausible explanations.

But it still didn’t feel right.

Something was off.

Martinez caught my eyes and her expression communicated the same suspicion.

That did it. We both had twitching antennae.

Caleb was about to turn a corner, but I grabbed a handful of his jacket and yanked backward. Letting his momentum carry him backwards, I pivoted him around slammed him against the wall.

My forearm flowed over his shoulder and across his neck with fluid, practiced ease. I leaned into it just enough to let him know I was serious.

Not enough to crush his windpipe. But serious.

“Where are you taking us?”

He coughed and fought to push my arm away, with no success. “To Kat’s!”

Poor kid was way out of his depth. Wasn’t my problem though. I leaned in a little more.

He started choking and tried to snap a kick at my groin.

I checked his kick and landed a hard knee to his thigh. From experience of being on both ends of a strike like that, I knew it hurt. Bad. His leg was going to be numb for a few minutes and he’d wake up tomorrow walking like an old man. But there would be no permanent damage.

He screamed in pain and went limp, further choking himself on my arm. I let off a little when he tried to talk but couldn’t manage more than a gag.

“To the market!”

I eased off and held onto his shoulder to keep him from collapsing with only one leg holding him up.

Tear streamed down his cheeks. “I can’t move my leg, man! I can’t move it!” He continued groaning.

“I hit a nerve. You’ll be fine in a few minutes.”

That wasn’t strictly true. But he’d feel better than he did now.

Martinez pressed in from the side. “Why are you taking us to the market?”

“Why do I do anything that I do? Because the boss says so.”

“Why didn’t you tell us that up front?”

“Didn’t you just hear me? Because he said to tell you we were going to Kat’s rathole. I still can’t feel my leg, man!”

I ignored his whining. “Why are we going to the market?”

Caleb shot me a sarcastic, eat crap, look. “Because this little piggie needed to pick up bread and eggs and cheese and maybe some apples if they’re ripe and red.”

My jaw muscles quivered as I fought the urge to lay down another thigh strike and let him collapse into a puddle of squirming agony. “Why?”

“I don’t know, man! Do I look like an insane dwarf?” His eyes went wide with terror. “Don’t tell him I said that!” He glanced down the hallway in both directions.

A stooped man wearing patchwork faded blue overalls limped by. His eyes stayed fixed to the ground both in the coming and going. He clearly didn’t want to be any part of what was happening. He turned the corner and continued on with his life.

“If that geezer says something, I’m screwed,” Caleb said.

Martinez chuckled. “Crypto doesn’t like people making fun of his height, huh?”

Caleb looked at her like she was an idiot. “He doesn’t give two shakes of a rat’s tail about that.”

“What’s the problem then?” she asked.

“He hates when people bring his sanity into question. You’re not going to tell him I said anything, are you?” The poor kid’s face was pale and dead serious.

“No,” I said. “And good to know. Thanks for the tip. Back to the market. What do you know?”

He shrugged. “That’s it. I was supposed to take you to Grizelle’s stall and that’s it. I swear I don’t know anything else!”

“Who is he?”

“He’s a she.”

“Who is she?”

“She trades in old military surplus goods. Old DAPs, legacy tech, and other stuff. All black market and off the books.”

“Can you feel your leg yet?”

He rubbed at it and nodded. “A little.”

I let go of his shoulder and he stayed upright. I turned to Martinez to see if she had a preference, but she answered before I asked the question.

“Up to you.”

Why would Crypto send us to meet this woman? She traded in old military surplus gear. Was he looking to outfit us? Assuming that was the reason, I wouldn’t turn it down.

But that was a big assumption.

Who knew what his actual motive was. That and wandering through a place packed with people wasn’t the smartest idea for wanted fugitives. One call to the Grays and we could find ourselves pinned down in no time.

CHOICES

1. Continue to Grizelle’s to see what Crypto had lined up.

2. Forget Grizelle’s and force Caleb to take us back to Kat’s.

What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!