by Fred Warren
Smith’s escape route twisted through a maze of corridors, maintenance tunnels, and ventilation shafts—a jumble of vectors pointing, in their summation, downward and inward. Any pursuers not intimately familiar with the bowels of Avenir would become disoriented in short order.
…through this hatch, bypass that one, up the ladder here, onto the catwalk— nearly rusted out; it won’t take many more of these trips—there’s the gap in the deck, mind the edges, ease down and through the structure, hang on a moment, quick drop to the deck below, now move, move, move—don’t slow down, never look back…
Fifteen minutes later, confident he’d left any trailing Enforcers far behind and hopelessly confused, he staggered into a vacant utility alcove and slumped to the greasy floor. Cold, dry air flavored with oil and iron knifed into his lungs and returned to the surrounding atmosphere with an asthmatic wheeze. His temples throbbed, echoing the drumbeat of pain pounding in his chest. One hand brushed his knee, and came away wet and sticky. A shard of metal had slit his trouser leg somewhere along the way and bit into his flesh. He wiped the blood onto his coat-tail, then turned his hand back and forth in the dim light to inspect an angry red laceration on the wrist, left by the cyborg that had caught him picking its master’s pocket.
“You’re losing your touch, mate.”
Smith scrambled to his feet, only to be shoved down hard by a heavy hand on his shoulder. He didn’t need to see the face. The gravelly voice was enough. Wallace Beadle.
The thug bent close enough to reveal a gap-toothed grin with blistered lips framed by three-day’s growth of wiry black stubble. The nauseating odor of decayed insect flesh filled Smith’s nostrils. “Comes of too much time spent wet-nursing the wee foundlings and not enough keeping your edges honed. You never would have gotten pinched like that in the old days.”
“As soon as I catch my breath, Wallace, I’m going to twist your head off. I warned you to stay clear of my territory.”
“Out of shape, too. Tsk, tsk.”
“How did you find me?”
“Silly boy. Nobody knows you better than I do. Every single bolt-hole is a fond memory of our old partnership, those profitable, carefree days before you met dear Ave and went soft in the head. I’d rather focus on the future, though. Your blunder has become my opportunity. I have a proposition for you.”
Smith smiled up at him. “Eat grit.”
“Oh, that’s a fine attitude for a penniless sod who can’t protect himself, much less the dear little tots depending on him for their livelihood. Yes, I know where they’re hiding. And let’s not forget the winsome Miss Kate, all alone, so delicate and vulnerable…”
“You’ve made your point. What do you want?”
“I have a friend in need of your peculiar resources. He has a number of parcels that require, shall we say, discreet handling.”
“I’m no smuggler, Wallace. You should know at least that much about me. You want a delivery boy, press one of your own goons into service.”
“Ah, but there’s the rub. These items demand unobtrusive couriers with a delicate touch. Your poppets displayed remarkable skill in the marketplace today, despite the failings of their ham-handed tutor. We think they’ll do nicely.”
Smith spat at Wallace’s boots. “Never.”
Wallace chuckled and wiped the left boot, then the right, on Smith’s injured leg. “As I expected. Let me introduce my client, so you’ll know I’m in earnest.”
A second figure emerged from the shadows to stand behind Wallace. He was a giant of a man, with a swarthy, scarred face, crooked nose, and deep-set eyes, but Smith’s blood froze when he saw what the big man was wearing.