by Fred Warren -
The corridors reeked of smoke and pesticide as they neared the marketplace. Smith and Kate paused to soak kerchiefs at a water tap and wrapped them around their faces to block the noxious vapor.
They found Charlie’s undelivered parcel—and the horrors writhing feebly within it.
Kate wiped her fingers convulsively on her skirts. “Augh. Fertilized spider eggs, much too close to hatching. What manner of fools has Beadle taken up with?”
Smith crushed the parcel under his boot heel. It made a sickening wet crunch. “Fools or lunatics. Maybe the Peacekeepers are trying out a new weapon they couldn’t test openly.”
“You think they’d turn these things against the very people they’re sworn to protect?”
“I don’t know anything anymore, Kate. The world’s turned upside-down and sideways. Nothing’s impossible.”
They entered the marketplace and found it empty of customers, merchants, and wares. Most of the stalls were overturned and broken. Spiders skittered here and there, and Smith dispatched the few that seemed aggressive. What the pesticide hadn’t killed, it pacified.
Their search revealed nothing. No children hidden beneath the wreckage, no trail, no evidence they’d ever been there. Smith slumped against a wall and slid down until he was sitting on the floor, head bowed on his knees. It was as if someone had drained all the air from his body.
Kate knelt down and stroked his cheek. “Don’t give up hope. Moving a dozen orphans is no easy feat, whether or not they’re cooperating.”
Her gentle caress flashed into a stinging slap. “If that word passes your lips again, it’ll be you in need of a proper burial. Think, man. Which route out of here would Beadle and his henchmen take?”
Smith scowled and rubbed his jaw. “It’s pointless.”
He stood up and scanned the market bay, pausing a moment to consider each exit. “The service corridor,” he said at last. “Over there. Nobody but suppliers uses it…and us, now and again.”
“Sounds like a good place to begin. Lead on.”
They’d only walked a few dozen paces before they found a skid loaded with motionless children, and two burly men in Enforcer uniforms sprawled on the floor nearby.
Kate sprinted to the skid and began pressing on necks and wrists for warmth and pulse, bending down in search of a soft whisper of air against her cheek. She smiled and waved at Smith. “They’re all here! All breathing, all safe! Let’s get them back to the nest.”
He just stood there, staring at her, eyes blank.
She trotted back to him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and shook him. “Aren’t you happy? It’s a miracle they weren’t lost to us forever!”
He pushed her away—gently, but firmly. “I’m angry, Kate. Angry at myself for thinking I could trust Beadle. Angry for letting the sight of a Peacekeeper uniform terrify me into witlessness.”
“You meant well. Don’t torture yourself. God’s mercy provides for those whose hearts are true. They’re safe. Be content with that.”
“God’s mercy indeed, despite thinking myself too clever by half. Things have to change. It’s not enough anymore to keep to ourselves, pretending that no one will notice, or that we’ll be able to dodge anybody who does. We can’t defend ourselves. We need help. We need allies.”
She wasn’t in a mood to argue. “First, we need to get these wee ones onto their feet and back home. Pull them out of this meat wagon, and I’ll find some water to help rouse them.”
Smith nodded and began hoisting the children from the skid and propping them against the wall of the corridor. A few were already beginning to stir and moan.
Kate knelt down to examine one of the prone Enforcers. It was odd…there wasn’t a mark on him. No bloodstains, no sign of a scuffle.
Then she saw it, and she checked the other corpse to be sure. A single, perfectly round hole was drilled into each forehead, about the diameter of a piece of stout packaging cord, the flesh at its edge neatly cauterized.
A soft whirring sound came from above.
Kate froze. Moving only her eyes, she surveyed the corridor’s ceiling as gooseflesh prickled along her forearms. Nothing was there.
So, it’s allies he wants? Seems he has one already.
And there were some allies it might be better to do without.