The shout came through the door muffled but audible. Something thumped against the door, a hand or a lowered shoulder.
Again, with a dull thump.
Cole listened to two more before getting the timing down. He turned the handle the other direction, using the man’s pressure against him, and pulled the door open right before the next blow came.
A fur-clad man stumbled inside, waving his arms for balance. Cole kicked the side of one knee to help the figure go down faster. The man let out an agonized roar and fell, clutching his leg. Cole jumped on him immediately, the metallic taste of awful necessity rising up in his throat as he pictured himself killing this man with his bare hands.
He jumped for the guy’s back, hoping to strangle him from behind, but the man rolled out of the way and Cole ended up clutching his chest instead. He pulled himself on top of the figure; the man writhed in agony and kept trying to grab at the leg Cole had kicked.
Cole threw one of his own legs over the guy, straddling his waist. He kept his knees wide so the man on the bottom couldn’t buck him off, locked his heels under the figure’s legs to keep him from rolling over, and reached for his neck.
Ignoring the weak efforts to fend him off, Cole worked his hands past the fur, groping for raw flesh. The man’s goggles—his face swaddled and obscured—made the job easier. They allowed him to forget what he was trying to do; he could simply pretend there wasn’t a human inside.
Digging his thumbs into the soft depression below the Adam’s apple, Cole squeezed as hard as he could against the main arteries, pulling both hands toward each other with his thumbs.
He thought clinical thoughts. This was just a task. Something that needed doing.
The man grabbed Cole’s wrists, but he didn’t have the leverage to do anything about the stranglehold. His hands just remained encircled there, gloveless and young-looking.
A weak croak, muffled by the fur, escaped the man’s mouth. Cole turned away from the sight of what he was doing. The man tried to say something; Cole dug his thumbs into the trachea, not wanting to hear. It sounded like the man was going into shock, complaining about how cold he was even with all that fur around him.
Cole concentrated on nothing but the throbbing against his palm as he waited for the life to eke out of the man’s body. He focused on the pulse, distracting himself with something mechanical. As it became difficult to distinguish the man’s raging heartbeat from his own, Cole knew the end was coming. The man’s hands loosened their grip around his wrists and fell away, his elbows striking the metal decking. Both hands remained there for a moment—empty, but still shaped as if to grasp something. Finally, they too sagged to the floor, slowly like something inside still provided resistance.
Cole maintained a tight grip, knowing that he would pretend to go out in the same circumstance, lashing out as soon as his attacker pulled away. He waited until the muscles in his arms burned and his knuckles ached—only then did he take his hands away, his stomach churning with disgust.
A few flakes of snow drifted in through the open door behind him. Cole turned and realized how brazen and exhibitionist the murder had been. Reaching out, he threw the door shut with a metallic bang, dropping the room into complete darkness. He pushed his goggles up to his brow and surveyed his victim in the light filtered through the semi-transparent ceiling. He knew what he needed to do to delay his capture.
He pulled the boots off first, and then the man’s fur jacket. He hesi-tated a moment before stripping the jerkins from his legs—more out of respect than embarrassment—then proceeded to loosen them up and tug them off as well.
The man’s body offered quite a bit of resistance, the heaviness of death forcing Cole to struggle with the pants. As they came free, he noticed the legs were slathered in a purple mess, like a war-paint of some sort. Setting the clothing aside, he reached for the strips of fur around the man’s face, having saved that for last. He hated to look, but he needed to see what he was doing in order to untangle the covering.
He lifted the man’s head to unravel the continuous strip of fur. After the first wrap came away, he saw that the goggles were on top of the rest, the rubbery strap helping to hold it all in place. He pulled the goggles off and made the mistake of looking at the man’s eyes. They stood open, tear-tracks of pain running back from the corners.
Cole tucked the goggles into one of the jacket pockets and looked away from the accusatory glare. Even with nothing of the man’s face visible but those eyes, he couldn’t take the sight. He worked blindly, staring down the man’s body, gritting his teeth with the nastiness and intimacy of the task. As he untangled the head covering, he tried to lose himself in the bands of purple paint encircling the man’s thighs. He wondered what their significance was. He unraveled more fur, one hand looping behind the man’s neck, and he suddenly became even more fixated on the colorful bands of paint. There was a pink line wrapping around each, right above the man’s knees and barely visible through the purple stain.
Something stabbed Cole in the chest before he was fully aware of it on a conscious level—the primitive part of him outpacing his frontal lobe and reaching the awful truth first.
Flashes of terrible awareness strobed through his brain: an image of the man clutching at his leg; him thinking to look for Cole in that awful room; even what he had been trying to say right before he died. The man wasn’t complaining of the cold, he had been saying a name, over and over.
All these things occurred to Cole at once, jumbled and overlapping. In a split second, he knew. He knew before he looked back to the man’s face just why those frozen, tear-streaked eyes had bored into him so.
Holding the last of the rags, he turned to face the man he had just killed with his bare hands. He turned and begged the universe that he might be wrong. He didn’t want to be right. He could feel the world swallowing him up if he was . . .
And he was.
Walter snuck up behind the circle of men, stooping down to see between their legs. It was like an orchard of poorly dressed stumps shifting to and fro. He squeezed past the outer layer, trying his best to ignore the easy pickings in such a melee—wallets and jewelry ripe and ready for harvest, begging to be plucked.
He shook his head and waited for a shift in the crowd to create an opening, then he surged forward, getting out of the way again before they crashed back into each other. The rowdy men seemed to sway with the sounds of the beating ahead, loosening up as they groaned, their arms flying in the air, then packing back in as they waited for the next blow.
Taking his time, getting a sense of the flow of the action, Walter grad-ually made his way to the inner edge of the circle, nearly on his knees he was stooping so low. He finally got a good look at the participants, just as the fight seemed to reach its conclusion. The lady Callite from the bubble—the one who had made the flood-awful sounds—was lying on the floor, a bloody mess. A large man stood over her, waving his hands to the crowd.
“No more!” someone yelled.
“C’mon, she’s had enough!” screamed another.
The lady hollered something herself, flecks of blue foam spitting out of her mouth. Walter stared at her—amazed she was still conscious after bleeding so much—and tried to read her lips.
“More,” it looked like she was saying. She waved at the man above her and tried to sit up. “More!” she groaned.
The crowd quieted down, sensing the show was over. The man above her shook his head. “That’s plenty, Cat. You don’t pay me enough for this.”
Her head fell back to the floor as she struggled for something in her pocket. Walter watched intently, wanting to end the spectacle, wanting to help her, but not knowing why.
The man bent down and took something from her: a roll of money. He flicked through it, dropped a few pieces on her stomach, then stepped away. The lady curled her fist around the change and seemed to go limp.
The crowd dispersed—their tribal rumbles transforming into chairs scraping across the ground, hollered drink orders, and the crash of glass on glass in trashcans. Walter hurried over to the lady, compelled by the sight of her blood-covered form. He suddenly thought of his mother, but shook the memory away as he crept to the lady’s side.
Her face was a mess, covered in blood the color of deep water. One of her eyelids cracked open; a bright eye swiveled around to study him—
Walter ran off, dashing to one of the tables. He grabbed a fistful of paper napkins, ignoring the men yelling insults at him, telling him to just leave her alone. He hurried back, falling to his knees and reaching out to dab her wounds.
“Flank off!” she yelled at him, knocking him back with incredible force.
Walter hissed in alarm and felt the Wadi go nuts in the pocket by his stomach. He moved close enough to the woman to talk, but stayed out of arm’s reach.
“I’m Walter,” he said.
The lady looked at him, her brown, scaly face covered with a film of blood, both of her eyes nearly swollen shut. “You’re scrawny,” she said.
Walter looked down at himself. “Leasst I’m in one piecse.”
“If you’s bigger, I’d ask you ta kick me,” the woman said. She gave him one last appraising look, then allowed her battered head to settle back to the floor. She closed her eyes and ran a forked tongue over her busted lip.
“Leave her alone,” a guy behind Walter said. Walter turned around to find a table had been scooted nearby; several men lounged around it, working on fresh, foamy drinks. “She’ll be fine, little man. Best you can do is leave her be. Sammie will clean up the mess.”
Walter ignored the guy and turned back to Cat. “We’ve been looking for you for two weekss,” he told the lady.
“I’d congratulate ya, but I ain’t been hiding.” Her eyes remained closed as she spoke. “Now scram, or go buy me a beating.”
Walter felt for his wad of cash, all the money he’d lifted since they got to Bekkie. He unzipped his loot pocket, inserted his hand—and regretted it immediately. The Wadi inside bit him, sending toxins through his knuckles. He grabbed it around the belly, the sensation of its soft flesh between his fingers reminding him of the one he’d crushed on Drenard. He considered repeating that feat, becoming twice the Drenard he currently was, but remembered what he’d reached in his pocket for. He yanked his hand out and strips of confetti followed—all that was left of the bills he’d stolen from the locals.
“Sstupid lizsard!” he yelled, zipping his pocket closed. He sucked on his burning knuckle, which just made his tongue sting. He looked down at the lady, who had one eye as open as it could get.
Walter nodded. He pulled his finger out of his mouth. “And proud of it,” he boasted.
“Grab us some chairs,” the lady said. She grumbled to herself: “I hardly made enough tonight to feel it.”
Walter had to go almost to the other side of the bar to find two unoc-cupied seats. He dragged them back, drawing glares from other patrons as they screeched across the floor. He almost expected the woman to be gone by the time he returned, but she was just sitting up.
“You with a sadist club?” she asked Walter, as he helped her into a chair. “Cause I still do those meetings for a fee.”
“I don’t think sso,” Walter answered, picking up the napkins and holding them out to her. He felt happy when she accepted them. There was something about the woman he couldn’t quite place; he’d seen a lot of bizarre alien stuff in his time, but nothing quite like her. “Why do you do this?” he asked.
The Callite leaned back in her chair. She looked him up and down as she wiped two kinds of blood off her hands. Somehow, having sat up, the swelling around her eyes didn’t look quite as bad as it had before.
“You’re too young to get it,” she finally said. “Now, you wanting an autograph, or you got a paying gig?”
“I . . . we—” Walter looked around, expecting Molly to walk in at any moment; he wondered where in hyperspace she’d gone to. “My friend Molly hass been trying to find you. Ssomething about fussion fu—”
A sticky hand latched onto his mouth faster than a Wadi firing from a hole in a cliff. Walter looked down his nose at it; he peered across the brown arm it was attached to, tracing it up to the very stern and blood-streaked face. There was no doubt about it: the swelling around the lady’s eyes had gone down a lot. He watched them dart from side to side before boring right through his skull.
“Who’re you with?” she asked.
Walter mumbled into her palm.
“Softly, now,” Cat said, pulling her hand away.
“Molly Fyde,” he whispered, looking around.
“That’s crap,” the woman said. “How do you even know that name?”
Walter pointed to his flightsuit, at his name scrawled across his left breast. “I’m crew on the sstarsship Parssona,” he hissed. “I’m the ssupply officser!”
The hand returned, grabbing Walter’s collar and pulling him out of the seat, hauling him close to the lady’s face—which, now that he was up-close, really seemed to be in not that bad of shape, to be honest.
“Where’s the ship?” the lady demanded. “And where’s Molly?”
Walter swallowed. Or tried to.
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
Cole cradled Riggs in his arms and sobbed. He held his old friend’s neck, pressed Riggs’s face up against his own, and cried as hard as he ever had. His body shook from the effort. Snot, saliva, and salt mixed on his lips as his moans turned into screams—mad, inhuman sounds that barely registered in his ears as his own voice.READ MORE >>