THE TEAR CATCHERS

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Chapter 3: Aftermath

I feel free. Like I just squeezed my way through a portal, peeling off my old skin and leaving it at the manor gates. For this new creature, the world is infinite and nearly anything possible. Is this how the first drafts feel? It’s almost pitch black, but I see loops of yellow sound everywhere. The night tastes like a steely shade of blue and feels distinctly like the letter P, offering a world of potential outcomes to the ear, but showing up infrequently enough to carry weight when it gets there.

Running feels good. Not the sanctioned kind of running done in the corner of the fitness lounge wearing hover boots. The kind of running where your feet pound the earth and the cold air stings in your lungs. I don’t dare look behind me, because if there’s something reaching out to drag me back – the sweaty hands of a safety assurance tech or the cruel dawn of reason – I don’t want to see it.

The moment I slipped past the gate, I started running away from the main road and didn’t stop. An aluminum pod crashes to the dirt in front of me. A firefly drone hovers above, making no sound at all. It must have picked up warnings signs from my biosensors. Dehydration, malnourishment, elevated heart rate. I drop to my knees and open the capsule with my thumbprint. I chug protein water and pop some food cubes, then I’m back on feet and running again.

I stumble, through a field of mud and a salt marsh, stopping when I feel the wet sand beneath my feet. Dark waters slip over Tearcatcher Bay. The first drafts who live on the other side of the peninsula used to call it Rock-a-bye or Rockaway or something like that. There was an air field to the right, named after a president shot by one of his own marines. I close my eyes and try to picture it.

I kick off my shoes and let the cold water lap my toes, something the guards never let us do. They’re afraid of contaminates, but no one’s looking over my shoulder now, and I say it’s time to get a little dirty. Towers of steel and glass and polished stone loom on the horizon. Even at this hour, I still see their windows lit. The city of York – that’s where I need to go.

There isn’t much time. My suicide note will hit the shared network in a couple hours, and there’s no deleting it. I doubt many tears will be collected in the glass bottles my brothers and sisters keep. Not for me. Shortly after the note posts, safety assurance will check my biosensors and see that I’m still walking and breathing. They’ll come for me.

A dark spot appears on the horizon, drifting high above the water. Another drone? It wouldn’t be coming from that direction. As it passes the beach, I realize “it” is actually “they” – my bloodthirsty little babies. The bees won’t last long out here in the world, a few hours maybe. They were born and raised in a greenhouse perfectly suited to their genetic disposition. If I don’t wish to suffer the same fate, I’ll have to adapt.

I don’t know how to swim and I have no vehicle, so I start walking to the lower bay where the first drafts reside. There must be a way to the city from there. Will the first drafts know I’m different from them? A string of lampposts leads me to a walkway covered with wooden planks. Beyond an old pier lies a neighborhood lined with dark storefronts that carry markings like GROCER and PUB and COFFEE. If I had been born into a normal family, who might I be? A bar keep? An attorney? A mechanic? When your last name is Tearcatcher, the word “choice” is removed from your vocabulary.

The drone finds me two more times, dropping a fresh supply capsule each time and waiting for me to open it, but I refuse. If I make to the city, I won’t be able to rely on pods branded with the Tearcatcher crest. Adapt or die – this is the law of nature.

The storefronts thin into aisles of small houses nestled on cute little squares of grass. Logic-think, Tessa. They seem small to me, but maybe they are palaces in the world of first drafts. An odd sound gives me pause: the vocal chords of an animal, though one I don’t recognize.

What I remember after that is the emerald grass rushing up at me. Either emerald or spring green, it was right on the border. I remember two paws pinning me against it. And the foul breath blowing down in my face.

I have never met a dog before, but this one I find displeasing. When my eyes open again, I try to stand, but it snaps its incisors at me, pushing out its long neck and drawing back its big straight ears. My brain waves spike.

Someone tugs at the loop around the dog’s neck, allowing me to slide out from beneath it. A first draft runs her fingers through the dog’s fur, then gives it a gentle push, sending it off. The dog climbs a few steps, trots across a covered shelter at the front of the house, and finds refuge beneath a bench suspended by two chains.

“That’s odd, he’s usually much friendlier,” the first draft says as she hoists me to my feet. Short, dark hair pokes away from her scalp like thorns and metal spikes circle her black wrist bands. “Dainty little thing, aren’t you? You know, those shoes could pay my mortgage for a year.”

“I apologize for frightening your dog.”

“You sure you’re supposed to be out here?”

“Yes,” I say loudly, shaking the panic from my voice. I turn away from her, but she grabs me by the arm with a force I didn’t expect. “What are you doing? Let go!”

The first draft flips my hand over and studies the gashes covering my palms, before planting two fingers on my wrist. Coders have slower pulses than everyone else, our heart muscles more efficient. Luckily, my adrenal glands are still working overtime from the dog, so she probably won’t notice.

The first draft raises my hand to her mouth and runs her tongue along my cold skin. The odd sensation stills my trembling limbs. “You feel it all, don’t you? The turning of the ocean, the crabs screwing on the dunes, the earth spinning on its axis. What’s it like?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“So many ghosts out tonight. They’ll have to wait in line at the crossing tonight. I hope there’s room enough on the ferry.”

I pull away, and she finally releases her grip. PSYCHIC READINGS WITH GINA burns in the window behind her.

“Run, little ingénue,” she says, grinning. “Your new empire awaits.”

I run from the sidewalk. The street names flashing by mean nothing to me. Two rows of hovering markers light the road ahead with green circles. I position myself squarely in the middle and follow the path, trusting it will lead somewhere more desirable.

The markers on both sides begin to chirp. The lights warp from green smiley faces to red frowning faces. A breeze whips my hair all around me. I turn and see a mag train slinging straight at me. Tears blink down the cheeks of the frowning face sign as the wind blows me off my feet. The train gives me about a half second before it’s on top of me. I roll onto my side, covering my face and tucking my knees beneath my chin as the train hovers a few inches above me, the hum of the magnetic lift pads ricocheting through my ears.

A second later, it’s gone. I spit the dust from my mouth, stumble to my feet, and stare down the guideway, but the train has already faded into the blackness. The markers turn back to smiley faces, a thumbs-up now added to their displays.

Dog and train crossing. Two things I can strike from the list of sights I have never seen.

#

The city rushes past the window with such velocity that all I get is a fleeting impression. Drab grey buildings broken up by splashes of neon, thick crowds of first drafts, and traffic zipping between lane markers stacked three high. A thin pane of glass is all that separates me from the city of York now.

The train is cramped. I passed up a nearly empty car for a more populated one, hoping I would go unnoticed among the crowd. Clearly, it was a logic fail, because they are all staring at me. Like the dog, they know just what I am. I thought it would be easy to blend in, but every living creature is programmed to sense an outsider among them. There’s a man behind me who keeps sniffing me. Do I smell different to them? I shut my eyes and clutch the metal pole as the train sways.

“Achoo!”

The odd noise radiating from the woman sitting beside me is accompanied by an aerosol mist. Infectious particles float around me like a cloud of sour rain. I spin and cover my face. Perhaps I overreacted, judging by her expression, I must have, but there seems to be more to this puzzling ritual. Next, the woman removes a thin strip of fabric from her purse and empties the contents of her nasal cavity into it with a concentrated breath. It must a thing that first drafts do.

Above her, a holographic marketing message transmits snack food images. People of all ages and ethnicities remove crispy sticks of golden fat from aesthetically pleasing packages, teasing them into their mouths with much delight. It’s alluring in a way, but when I stare, a hidden image is revealed in the foreground: a nearly naked model folding her arms together, plumping out her breasts to accentuate her slender waist. And when the marketing copy is read vertically, a word appears every fourth column, forming the following sentence, “You’re too fat, visit Alabaster Cosmetic Adjustments to look like this.”

On the opposite wall, an athlete wearing heavy upper body armor gets tackled from behind by other men in body armor, while concealed beneath is the true message, “Real men watch Friday Night Smash.”

They’re everywhere: upgrade your antivirus bio-ware or the world will know your dirty little secret; vote for me or get murdered by insurgents; buy this gun so people will think you have a large sex organ. I glance around at the hypnotized faces of the passengers. Is this really how you get first drafts to buy things? Can they really not see an image programmed as a vector with four elements? When I realize I’m giggling, I stop reading and stare down at the floor.

An artificial voice announces our next stop. I don’t know what it means, but I’ve drawn enough attention, it’s time to make my exit. I wipe my fingerprints off the pole using the tail of my shirt as the train glides to a stop. The doors sling open, and I step out onto a platform marked Canal Street, only the C has been deliberately blotted out with a different color paint. The platform descends, depositing me to the street level.

I see the city’s veins branching in the roads and skyways, its blood churning in the footsteps of after-hours revelers. I hear its breath in the voices and feel its heartbeat in the rhythmic thumping echoing from the buildings.

A couple of first drafts make a commotion in the doorway ahead, the neon sign above bathing them in an otherworldly blue. The back and forth of their lips is clumsy at first, but they quickly find a proper rhythm. The girl swings her legs around his waist and locks her arms around his neck. Buttons pop. Clothes get torn off. There are angry kisses and hair-tugging and quick breaths. Her body burns at a different intensity than his. Hers is a slow, steady burn, the kind of fail-proof glow that keeps the lighthouse at the end of Tearcatcher Bay spinning, even in the dead of night. His is more like an argon flash, the heat rolling off in unpredictable bursts.

Her eyes find me staring, “What are you looking at, you red-headed freak?”

I pull my gaze away and rush off down the street. I walk the city blocks in a zigzag motion, trying not to look at the street signs. It’s difficult for someone who thinks the way I do to travel in a random pattern, but I have to make sure I’m good and lost. It won’t be long until my suicide note hits the shared network. They’ll access my biosensors to track me down. They’ll see what I see. Hear what I say. Know what I know. If I don’t remember where I am, neither will they. What I really need right now is to dull my senses.

I need to get intoxicated.

Across the street, a line of people stretches to a green door. Every few minutes, the green door opens and music filters out into the street. The first draft at the front of the line is granted entrance by a well-muscled gatekeeper wearing mirrored sunglasses and bright sneakers, before the door closes again. I wait for a string of anti-gravity cars to pass, and fall into the back of the line, careful not to make eye contact with the sign over the entryway. I have less than 30 minutes now, and at the rate the line is advancing, I’m not sure I’ll even make it inside.

The green door swings open again, only this time, the gatekeeper wanders down the sidewalk peering over the rims of his shades. The others in line seem to be prepping for a visual inspection: straightening their posture, smoothing their fabrics, and teasing out their hair. My stomach churns as he gets closer, shaking his head and delivering his judgment to each hopeful: “Hmm, that gap in your teeth should have its own zip code, better luck next time; Nah, stand a little closer to the razor next time, buddy; That facelift is on factory recall, denied.”

The dread overcomes me. I jump out of line and race back across the street.

“Where you rushing off to?”

I turn to see him staring right at me.

“No reason for you to be waiting out in the cold, pretty little thing, step on inside,” he says, smiling as he guides me to the front of the line.

Is he joking? How did I pass the inspection? I look no different than the others. I can feel their angry eyes roaming up and down my body. “Is it not customary to wait at the back of a line?”

“Baby gangster, you want inside, or not?

“Can I get intoxicated in there? I heard you can do that in places like this.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage.” He holds open the green door, ushering me into a long dark hallway. The music rolls over me in waves. Overlapping streams of urban consciousness, one defiant rhyme tripping over the next. Mostly about assassinating peacekeepers, doing violence to girls, and dragging the wealthiest one percent of society (a population I assume includes me) from our cozy mansions and scorching us in the streets. I should probably take offense, but there is a nice poetry to it.

I hesitate at the tunnel’s end. A harsh red light radiates from the doorway ahead. I feel a rush of high voltage slow-wave activity in my cerebral cortex. Heart fluttering. Palms sweating. Skin conductivity spiking. To my right, a stairway ascends to a second floor where the music is more dream-like, the colors a little softer. “Which way do I go?” I ask, turning back to the gatekeeper.

“Upstairs is palace synth. Downstairs is gutter.” He must be picking up on my confusion, because he goes on to explain, “Palace synth is like clouds of satin, angels whispering in your ear, silver gardens, sweet rain. Like climbing a ladder to paradise, PG-13 shit. Gutter synth – well, you never know what you’ll get with gutter synth. It’s raw, uncensored. Your choice, baby gangster, it all depends on what kind of trip you’re looking for.”

I stand there for an uncertain moment, before bypassing the stairway and edging into the red light. Palaces are overrated. They’re just prisons with fancier bars.

It’s wall to wall first drafts inside. I feel their bodies grinding up against me, but I can’t really see them. Every now and then, the darkness gets interrupted by a pulse of red light, igniting the room long enough to catch a glimpse of a tattoo or a pierced lip or a swathe of naked skin. The room tastes of sweat and industrial metal and aromatic compounds designed to attract the opposite sex. I fight through the instinct to hold my breath. This is the warm, wet center of the universe. Breathe it all in, Tessa.

The motion of bodies around me is all wrong. It’s rhythmic and machine-like, out of sync with the music pulsating from the walls. Wait, I’m doing it again. The first drafts are probably only hearing the surface lyrics, describing the proper way to dispose of a rival’s corpse, but if you slow it all down and alternate every other word of every second verse in the first and third raps, you get promotional Easter eggs. An offer for a music share subscription, a copyright infringement warning, and the release dates of upcoming music.

I try to block it out, but there’s something buried even deeper: directions to an encrypted link containing a crudely-designed VR game. I scan it, upload it to my neural network, and play a few levels, before quickly deleting it. Just some uninspired revenge fantasy involving the rappers torturing the music executives they believe are holding them back. An odd business that must be.

The crowd around me suddenly parts, giving considerable space to a man stumbling across the dance floor, both hands smothering his mouth. Since I’m the slowest to react, I am the one who gets soiled with his vomit. I stand there a moment, trying to keep it together, but the sound of foul microbes crawling across my skin is more than I can take.

The doors covering the wall beside me are branded with symbols of featureless people possessing no hands or feet, each with a geometrically distinct shape for a midsection. This must be where first drafts go to relieve themselves. Even in this world, I’m not sure where I fit in. I go down the line, tugging every handle, but they’re all locked.

Then I see the other coder.

Across the room, there’s a boy jiggling an imaginary door handle. I drop my hands to my sides, straighten myself, and look him square in the eyes. The boy mimics my precise movements. He’s an empathy mirror, it’s this weird thing that some coders do. I press my index finger to my lips, and like a reflex, the boy does the same.

He’s a coder, alright, I knew the moment I saw him. More specifically, he belongs to the house of Rivegan. The scent gives him away: the soap he uses is made from a microalgae patented and sold exclusively by the Rivegans. There’s the phosphorescent blue eyes. And that precise shade of ash-blond hair. Features typically seen only in eighth generation Rivegan boys, making him about 17 years old. Stars and planets have been sketched on his shoes, around the rims and toe caps. Not the stain-proof kind with auto-adjusting laces, the retro kind of shoes.

When he realizes he’s reflecting me, he quickly turns away, resuming his conversation with a younger boy I assume to be his brother, because they both carry the same scent. The younger one has a webbed neck, widely-spaced eyes, and an upturned nose. Alterations to the PTPN11, SOS1, RAF1, and KRAS genes. A G-10, probably 13 years old.

The Rivegans are one of the five biggest coder families in the area, and a serious economic rival to the Tearcatchers. We’re always competing with them for new gene acquisitions; they bid up the price so high for the Aramark merger that Atherton was ready to put a bounty on their CEO’s head.

The door with the square-shaped body opens, and I rush in, almost knocking the previous occupant to the ground. I lock the door and race to the sink, cleaning the filth from my neck and treating the mirror in my typical fashion. Like the sun, I steal a look here and there, but never stare at it.

A couple of dark drops fall to the drain below. I activate the faucet, turning the water black as it funnels away. The faucet cuts off, but the black stain still covers the sink, growing like a vein across the basin to the mirror above. The girl in the mirror blinks, and I realize the drops are coming from me – black tears fall down my cheeks. Fear impulses light up the pathways in my brain like runway lights, and it’s suddenly hard to breathe.

The vein stretches up the mirror, splitting into smaller branches that swallow the message sprayed-painted across the wall above: Tessa is a whore. I rub my eyes, smearing my palms and cheeks black, but the tears keep spilling. Another drop splashes the sink, spreading a new vein down through the pipes below, to the floor in front of me. I back away, bumping the door.

I rush out of the bathroom. The vein follows me into the crowd, again breaking off into two branches. One chases me across the dance floor; the other snakes its way up the wall, consuming the sound booth. The music dies, leaving only a soft, slow drumbeat.

Thump, thump. Thump, thump. It keeps the rhythm as the first drafts around me continue to sway, even without the music. I squeeze through the bodies, the vein just a few steps behind me. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Why is everyone still dancing?

I drop to my hands and knees, unable to find my breath at all now, but the noise I make sounds more like a hundred throats, all gasping in unison. The sound echoes through the room, but not a single soul notices.

“Help! Please, I can’t breathe,” I say, too softly for anyone to hear me.

Thump, thump. Thump, thump.

I scream, but no sound escapes my throat. Finally, a girl wearing a dress made of reflective beads turns and points at me, drawing the crowd’s attention. The first drafts all stop dancing. If I could code an emoji showing pity and disgust and amusement all at the same time (that would be a lot for one emoji to carry, I know), it would look a lot like the faces staring back at me. The girl in the reflective dress breaks down and chuckles.

“What?” I ask her, but it comes out a whisper. Only when I catch sight of my reflection in the mirrored beads of her dress do I understand – I’m naked before the crowd again. But this time, it’s not my dress that’s transparent, it’s my skin. My veins and my arteries and the fluttering lobes of my lungs. All of it on display for the whole room to see. Step right up, boys and girls, and have yourselves a look. Laughter ripples through the party.

I crash to the floor and roll onto my side, wheezing. But I’m not alone, the Rivegan boy is there, too, mirroring everything I do. Our breaths synch up as he lays down beside me, clutching his throat. Thump, thump. Thump, thump.

“You need some help down there?” a voice above me asks.

I glance up to see a guy holding out his hand to me. He has careless black hair and wears a shirt displaying a number I assume is assigned to an athlete he favors.

“What? Why are you laughing?” I blurt out, surprised to hear the sound of my own voice again. I suck in a deep breath and stare down at my arms – the veins are tucked neatly beneath my skin again.

“I’m not laughing,” the guy says, pulling me to my feet. Light glints off his sparkling teeth when he grins. “Let me guess – first time on gutter synth?”

“Oh, I haven’t taken any yet.”

“You took it as soon as you walked in the door,” he says, tilting his eyes up at the ovals embedded in the ceiling. “All of us did. Electromagnetic waves, from the pulsed energy system. You should be more careful. It hits women stronger than it does men.”

I study the room: the veins have disappeared from the floor and walls; the heartbeat has been replaced by music once again; and the crowd is still dancing. The tightness in my chest loosens. “Is that how you think of me?”

“What, as a woman? How else would I think of you?”

“I’m not really sure. The bathroom signs confuse me.”

“You’re funny,” he says, again with the smile. He believes me to be funny. Is this what it means to flirt? “What’s your name?”

“I’m Tessa.”

“I’m Zander. What do you, Tessa?”

“I’m… a waitress, at a coffee house.”

“Which one?”

“The one on Anal Street.”

“You’re too much. Your boyfriend, he must do a lot of laughing.”

“Oh, I have no boyfriend.” I catch the Rivegan boy nervously staring at me again with those electric eyes of his. He’s covered them with optical frames he surely doesn’t require, probably to blend in better, but there’s no hiding what’s behind them. Why is he looking at me? We’re both imposters here. He wouldn’t turn me in, would he?

“No boyfriend, huh?” Zander says, following my gaze to the Rivegan boy. “I say you trick speak. Didn’t your mother tell you it’s impolite to toy with people?”

“I have no mother, and subject boyfriend, I truth speak. There was this guy at the party, but then I was naked. They were all laughing, and I almost got stung by a hornet-bee-spider hybrid. Then this girl by the beach licked my hand, and the subway told me I was too fat. I feel like I’m talking really fast. Am I talking too fast? I don’t usually talk this fast. It’s hot in here. Don’t you think it’s hot?”

“That happens when you take gutter synth. Tell you what, there’s a chill room in the back where they keep it a few degrees cooler, whaddya say?”

The ripples of light start pulsing faster across the room. The music plays as if stuck on triple time, making the flurry of rhymes incomprehensible. The crush of bodies on the dance floor adjust their tempo to keep up. Hips sway, heads are thrown back, and arms splay at a dizzying speed.

I close my eyes in hopes of slowing it all down, but when I open them again, Zander is guiding me through a narrow passage, his arm slung around my shoulder. The music has dulled to a soft tap. We stagger from side to side, mostly because of me. My balance is off kilter. Zander’s touch feels like a thousand pin pricks. The alpha waves in my brain are slowing, becoming more synchronous. I would say I’m dreaming, but the theta waves aren’t spiking yet.

“I’m so thirsty,” I say, running my tongue over my lips.

“Just relax, and don’t fight it. We’re almost there,” he assures me.

The next time I open my eyes, I’m lying on a dingy floor surrounded by boxes and garbage canisters. I swivel my head and see Zander tying a rubber strap around my arm. “Ouch! What are you doing?”

“You’ll be alright, Tessa,” Zander says, nodding to a second man behind me who loads a fresh vial into an injector gun. This one is short with a clean-shaven scalp. “It’ll only hurt for a second, and this could mean a lot of credits for us.”

“Stop it! Help! Somebody help me!” The short man smothers my mouth. The circular QR code embedded across the back of his hand means he’s been to prison. I scan the code with my eyes and read his list of convictions: armed robbery, domestic violence, DNA trafficking. With his other hand, the short one jams the injector nozzle against my arm. I curse myself for not picking up on it sooner – they’re scavengers. Just one of a hundred reasons we don’t leave the Tearcatcher estate without a bodyguard. Zander has my other arm pinned behind me, so I use the only weapon available: my long straight G-12 teeth.

I bite down with all the force I can manage. The short man recoils, staring down at the rings of blood on his fingers. Seizing on the burst of momentum, I pry myself from Zander’s grip and bolt to the door. A hand grabs a fistful of my hair and shoves me into the wall. My brain crashes against the bones in my skull as my head whips back. There’s a dull halo around everything I see, then I’m back on the ground where I started.

“Let’s try this again,” the short man says, leaping on top of me and snapping the trigger of the injector gun before I can offer up any more fight. The needle pierces my skin, tainting the vial a deep red. My blood. My birthright. About to be studied, counterfeited, and peddled on the black market. The vial gets ripped from the injector, dropped in an airtight bag, and locked inside a steel canister. The short man slips a hoop of silica nanofibers around my wrists, and another around my ankles, pulling each of them tight.

“What are you doing?” Zander asks. “Hair and blood, those are the reqs, right?”

“Strategy think. I’m not giving up a live specimen,” the short one says, lifting me off the floor and draping me over his shoulder. “Nah, we’ll have ourselves a little auction on the dark share, sell her to an underground lab somewhere. A few weeks from now, we’ll be soaking up rays on the beaches of Langkawi, our heads buzzing with neural glitter 17. Bring the van around.”

“I don’t know, this doesn’t feel right to me,” Zander says, avoiding eye contact with the man.

“Stop acting like this is your first hunt. Get the van, or lose the biggest payday you’ll ever see!” the short man barks.

Zander hesitates, then flings open the door. The short man scoops the steel canister off the floor and follows him into an alleyway. The rush of cold air feels good on my skin, stirring me to life again. I squirm free of the short man’s grip, sliding off his shoulder and swallowing something sharp as I smack the pavement. Probably a first premolar, from the shape of it.

The short man produces a pocket rotary blade from his coat, sparks it to life with the strike of his thumb, and holds it close to my cheek. “The people I do business with, they take dead coders, too. Your choice.” I pinch my lips and spit the tooth back in his face. Don’t know why I did it. Maybe it’s the bitter thought of me being poked and prodded and stuck in a cage like some animal. Or maybe I’m just sick of doing what people expect.

The short man cocks the blade back. A hand locks around his wrist, yanking him backwards into the alley. Another figure wrestles with the short man. Sparks dance as the blade spins across a brick wall, chasing away the darkness long enough for me to see the Rivegan boy’s face. Why does a Rivegan care what happens to me? Tearcatchers and Rivegans, the bad blood stretches back for generations.

The short man head-butts the Rivegan boy, propelling him backwards between two discs of yellow light. “Behind you!” I scream. The Rivegan spins to see a van rushing along the alley, its headlights swallowing the distance between them. The van plows into him, flipping the Rivegan boy across the hood and turning the windshield into a jigsaw puzzle of glass. The van hovers to a stop, rolling the body at my feet. From the clouds of his breath, I can see he’s still alive.

Zander jumps out of the driver seat and stares down at the two of us. “What… what do we do?”

The short man staggers over, fishing a neuro scanner from his pocket. He flashes it in front of the Rivegan’s eye, grinning as he reads the result. “Would you look at that? Fortune’s our ally tonight, boy. Two for the price of one.” The short man grabs the Rivegan by his ankles, dragging him across the pavement until they both disappear behind the van.

“Hey, you sure about this? Two coders, a lot of people gonna be out looking for them. Maybe we should just go.” Zander glances at me, then creeps to the back of the van. “You hear what I said, man? Let’s get out of here.”

The short man reappears, a thin red line now stretched across his neck. He drops to his knees, twitching and holding his vagus nerve until his hand is stained red. The short man gurgles, then falls to the ground, blood pooling all around him. The other Rivegan boy, the younger one, steps from the back of the van and drops the rotary blade at Zander’s feet. This Rivegan seems more relaxed than his brother, yet ready to strike without warning, like the dog I met on the beach.

“Wait, I didn’t even want to do this, man, the guy just asked if he could borrow my –” a fist cracks Zander’s nose before he can finish. The younger Rivegan pummels him with his thick, blunt fists. The kind of merciless, scar-making, nightmare-inducing assault I have seen on news feeds, but never in real life. I want to look away, but I can’t.

Zander crawls off, reaching behind him to remove a gun from his waistband. The young Rivegan snatches the weapon and floats the barrel at Zander’s head.

“Please!” I thought I said the word in my head, but it must have been out loud, because the young Rivegan cranes his neck and stares at me as if he had never heard the word before. “Please don’t do that.”

By the time he turns back, Zander has already crawled behind the wheel of the van. The young Rivegan pulls the trigger over and over. I cover my ears as shards of glass bounce all around me. Zander grabs the wound on his shoulder, but manages to start the van. The young Rivegan jumps on the side runner, reaching through the hole where the passenger window used to be. He paws at Zander’s arm as the van speeds off. The van spins right at the end of the alley, tossing the kid to the curb, before vanishing around the corner.

Behind me, the older Rivegan stirs to life. He brushes glass shards off his coat and bounces to his feet. “Did he get anything from you? Blood? Hair? Hey, can you hear me?” He says more, but all I hear is the ringing in my ears. I try to stand, but everything dims.

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