Agent Hammersmith walked into a mess.
The scene techs from NeoCorp trashed the apartment. They had pried open every loose floor board, searched every crevasse.
Agent Stamford stepped over a pile of kitchen utensils as he approached Hammersmith.
“There’s no sign of Michols or Weathers.”
“The apartment occupant.”
Stamford glanced down at the notes on his phone.
“Gertrude Weathers. Driver, Human Taxi Program.”
The taxi driver. How does she fit into this?
“Did Michols steal her vehicle?”
“Unsure. We’ve been tracking Weathers’ taxi for a week and didn’t notice anything unusual… until yesterday.”
Todd wrinkled his nose.
“A team is on its way to intercept?”
“You’ll be the first to know if we find them.”
“And we think they’re together?
“Possibly. Earlier canvassing reported a mysterious voice from the apartment this past week. They’re consistent with reports of a body falling in the nearby alley.”
Hammersmith looked out the kitchen window. The neighboring buildings stretched high above the clouds.
“How on Earth did he survive that fall?”
Stamford pointed to a medcuff sitting on a nearby recliner. Todd walked over and picked it up.
He glanced back towards Stamford.
“The cuff’s dosage history was consistent with someone recovering from mass bone trauma. Michols was also given a heavy sedative. He couldn’t have escaped on his own.”
Hammersmith tapped his phone on the medcuff, which initiated a download of the cuff’s history.
“Curious. Is it possible Weathers is taking Michols along, while she runs her fares?”
Stamford shook his head.
“Neighbors haven’t seen Weathers or her mystery guest for a few days. They’re in the wind.”
Todd focused on the cuff’s download progress instead of the other man’s scowl.
“We should have grabbed them at the apartment last week… before Michols recovered.”
There was an edge to Stamford’s voice. The younger agent did solid investigative work on the ground. The Old Man wasted it with his caution.
Todd shrugged towards his friend.
“Boss wanted full contamination protocol. We couldn’t risk exposure.”
Before Stamford could complain further, Todd’s phone chimed. The cuff download was complete. He stared at the data and swiped through several panels showing vitals, when one panel jumped out.
Elevated resting heart rate. Too high for someone on a heavy sedative. And his antibody count was off. Nothing that should cause alarm, unless his immune system was being attacked…
Hammersmith started to pace.
He thought back to his conversation in Trumble’s office. The Old Man had warned him about this specific scenario.
Our members mean everything to us… if we cannot protect one member, then none of them will trust us.
Stamford pulled him from his thoughts.
“Todd, what is it?”
Todd looked toward the medcuff, then back to Stamford. Pieces starting coming together in his mind.
“You believe Weathers helped him escape?”
“Could she know?”
The younger agent looked confused.
Todd gave him a knowing look. It took a few moments, then he saw Stamford’s face light up.
“We’re in deep shit, if she does.”
Hammersmith had a bad feeling. He was about to tell Stamford what Trumble told him, when the phone buzzed. He glanced at it, then immediately back to Stamford.
Todd held up his finger.
“Hold that thought. I need to take this.”
Gertrude hated driving in the rain.
The neon lights of the industrial zone. The headlamps of oncoming traffic. They all blurred through a windshield streaked with water. She flipped the wipers into auto mode.
Shit. We picked the wrong taxi to steal.
“Did we lose them?”
Gertrude glanced over at her passenger, then adjusted her rear mirror and shook her head.
“We have a tail. Right now we need to look like ordinary traffic, so we don’t tip them off.”
“Tip them off to what?”
“That we know they’re following us.”
Thad eyes raised in surprise.
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t your first time being chased?”
“I didn’t always drive a taxi.”
She gently eased the vehicle over into a passing lane. Just a simple cab, passing a slow driver.
She heard Thad swallow.
“So how many are following us?”
“Just two, as far as I can tell. They’re being cautious, keeping a few cars back. There were more, but they peeled away after we left the neighborhood.”
She squeezed Thad’s hand to reassure him.
“… I think they followed every taxi out of the garage. Whoever is chasing you knows what they’re doing. We need to throw them off our scent.”
The horn of a hover limo blared. It was racing straight towards them. Or so Gertrude wanted their pursuers to believe. She had nudged their vehicle into oncoming traffic.
Thad covered his eyes.
“Holy shit! What are you doing?”
Gertrude pulled the taxi back onto their side of the air lane, just in time to avoid a crash. As a result, the hover limo slammed into several vehicles behind them.
Including the two which were following them.
“I’m shaking our tail.”
She watched the collision unfold in her rear mirror, then slammed on the accelerator. Thad took several deep breathes.
“Please warn me next time. This is my first high speed chase.”
Gertrude grinned out of the side of her mouth.
“Well, you’re doing great.”
She twisted the switch to activate the livery computer, and scanned the list of calls.
“… Now that they’re gone, we should look like a working taxi. We need to take a few.”
“In a stolen taxi?”
“Central Dispatch tracks every taxi in the program... and it doesn’t know this one is stolen. If we look like we’re running fares, we won’t raise suspicion.”
Thad squirmed on the front bench. He found an empty bottle from in between two of the seat cushions. He tossed it into the back, where it clanked against several other empty bottles.
“We might want to clean this dumpster before we take any passengers.”
“That’s why I picked this one. Ol’ man Fickle is known for his wild benders. It’ll be a few days before he realizes his taxi is missing.”
“What happens when he reports it?”
“Won’t take long for your friends to figure out how we got out of the apartment.”
Thad shook his head.
This was some escape.
Gertrude’s mind was pre-occupied with immediate danger since they left the apartment. Now they had some breathing room, so she thought back to the garage and talking to Franklin. She remembered the look on his face—he was spooked.
And now they were looking for me, too.
She glanced down at her driving console. It had been a while since she had driven this fast. Leaving behind everything she had built since running away from her past.
Now she was back on the run.
No telling what would’ve happened to her or Thad if they were caught. She didn’t know him very well, but he deserved more than being a test subject in some flyer lab.
Can’t think about that now.
She cleared her mind, and focused on the open calls. They needed fares that would keep them going in circles. Away from her apartment, but not obviously away.
She kept them in the middle industrial zone. Plenty of cheap fares that other drivers wouldn’t want, and no questions asked.
Their first two pickups were factory workers looking to spend their last paycheck. The next few were delivery workers, who lost their operator’s license for one reason or another. They ran fares for most of the day, and never picked-up another tail.
Satisfied they had avoided suspicion, Gertrude considered their next move. Thad slept through most of it. He still wasn’t at full strength. She needed to find a place to lay low until while he recovered.
Gertrude reached into her pocket for a stim. Instead, her hand fingered the roll of credits from Franklin. Money that could buy Thad a ride home, and procure her a new identity.
As the row of hovercars turned toward the inner-city, she got an idea.
I didn’t always drive a taxi.
She guided the vehicle out of their lane, and turned towards Downtown. Towards the one place she never thought she’d return...
The taxi was sluggish to turn. When Gertrude forced the control, the rear exploded. The taxi rocked violently to the right, which stirred Thad awake.
“What was that?!”
Gertrude adjusted her grip on the car’s steering. After the explosion, the taxi pulled hard to the left. Dots of light became smears in the windows. She eased back on the throttle and steering became more responsive.
Thad jerked his head around, screaming as he stared out the back windshield.
“They found us... and they’re shooting!”
Gertrude shook her head, as she struggled to keep a steady grip on the controls.
“It’s the left engine. I think it misfired and blew.”
She twisted her rear mirror and saw a faint trail of smoke pouring out the left bumper. Her suspicion confirmed, she used their remaining momentum to gently aim the taxi towards the ground.
Thad was in full panic.
“What are you doing?!”
“Easy partner. We don’t have much of a choice. If we get to ground in one piece, the auto-mechanic can patch us up.”
Gertrude’s response did little to calm Thad.
“So we’re gonna crash?”
“Well. When you say like that…”
“The vehicle was smashed pretty bad when we arrived.”
Stamford’s team had caught up with Weathers’ taxi. He listened to his lead describe the scene.
“… clipped a building with a good amount of force. Pieces of the front-end are spread across two blocks.”
Stamford shook his head.
“Any sign of Michols or Weathers?”
“No, sir. Whoever was in the vehicle appeared to survive… and they didn’t stick around.”
“What about witnesses? Anyone actually see the crash?”
“A few grounders. Most of them too loaded to offer anything helpful.”
“Send me their ID scans.”
Stamford glanced at his phone, and highlighted one of the photos.
“You know him?”
Stamford sighed, “Unfortunately.”
He stared at the photo of Franklin for another moment. That could explain how they masked their escape.
“Should I bring him in?”
Stamford thought back to his earlier encounters with Franklin. He was paranoid, and obviously more clever than Stamford first realized.
“No. Offer him a ride home, then post an agent on his alley. If Michols and Weathers are on foot, he might lead us back to them.”
Stamford pocketed his phone, then approached Hammersmith who was still on his call.
“Of course… Sit tight. I can be there in an hour.”
Hammersmith looked suddenly self-conscious as Stamford approached. He terminated his call with a snap.
“What is it Stamford?”
Stamford raised his eyebrows at his friend’s tone.
“I hope your call went better than mine.”
Todd’s expression became grave.
“Wrecked on the far-end of town. No sign of Michols or Weathers.”
“Whoever they are, they fled the scene. No idea where they could be. Victoria identified a few witnesses. One was…”
He hesitated, which caused Hammersmith to raise his eyebrows.
“What is it?”
“Probably nothing. Just a familiar face from my canvassing.”
“The grounder who tipped you off about the building?”
Stamford appraised his friend. He was always amazed at Todd’s intuition. He flipped to the photo of Franklin and handed his phone to Hammersmith.
“The same… although I don’t think he meant to tip me off.”
Todd read the name below the photo.
“Franklin. You think he’s helping Michols?”
“I can’t say. But he was across town near the wreck. That’s an odd coincidence.”
Hammersmith handed the phone back. As he did, Stamford noticed him glance toward the pocket where he put his own phone. It was an unconscious tick. He was distracted by something.
“… like I said, it’s probably nothing. These gutter rats are known to move around.”
To Stamford’s surprise, this satisfied Todd’s curiosity.
The two continued their walkthrough of the apartment. As they finished, Stamford couldn’t shake the feeling his friend was anxious to leave. It wasn’t like him to ignore obvious leads. Hammersmith was too instinctive of an investigator.
Without a word, Hammersmith turned towards the door. Stamford placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Is everything alright?
Hammersmith froze, then spun around. Definitely distracted.
“I’m alright, just… “
Todd’s eyes wandered around the apartment, as though suddenly reminded of something he forgot to do. He put his hand on his head.
“—your team took pictures before trashing the place?”
“Good. Get this place put back together. The cleaners will be here soon.”
Stamford’s face twisted.
“The cleaners? A bit heavy-handed, don’t you think? Michols is already in the wind.”
Todd held up his phone.
“Orders from The Boss. He wants this one by the book. No loose ends.”
Hammersmith grabbed his cloak from a nearby counter, when Stamford cleared his throat.
Hammersmith tried to look nonchalant.
“… got a lead Downtown. Boss wants me to investigate and report back. Just another errand.”
Hammersmith smiled, then shook his head.
“I’ll call if I get myself into a pickle. In the meantime, hold down the fort.”
Todd gestured around the apartment, where techs were still sorting and cataloguing Gertrude’s meager possessions.
“… by the state of this place, Weathers doesn’t have much money. She isn’t gonna have a place to hide either. Sit tight, and keep eyes on the entire block.”
“Standing by is what I do.”
Todd placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe another canvass will turn up details about how they slipped our perimeter.”
Stamford called out, as Todd walked through the door.
“And if we find anything?”
Todd turned his head back.
“Don’t wait for me. If you get another chance, make the grab.”
“What about the old man’s protocols?”
Hammersmith smiled, then winked.
“He’s stalled us long enough, don’t you think?”
“Auto-mechanic should be here in a couple of minutes.”
Gertrude and Thad were standing away from the car, tucked out of sight. Apparently not far enough for Thad’s comfort.
“Aren’t you worried this thing will recognize us and report back?”
Gertrude patted his shoulder.
“It’s a robot. Repairs things… doesn’t much care about who or why.”
Thad shook his head, looking back towards the car.
“I don’t understand why we didn’t take your taxi, instead of this junker.”
“Told you already. Cabs are tracked by a central system. Kind of hard to run away in a marked vehicle.”
“Isn’t this one tracked?”
“Yes, but nobody is looking for it. My friend Franklin took mine for a joy ride. Left at the same time we did. That’s probably why we shook our tail so easily.”
Thad pointed back towards the line of hover cars passing above them.
“... that whole thing was easy?”
“We’ll be fine once we’re patched up. The auto-mechanics make short work of repairs.”
“How long before the folks chasing us figure out we’re not in your taxi?”
“A few hours, maybe. Franklin won’t get far without an operator credential.”
Gertrude tried to avoid thoughts of her taxi. It was painful to think about. That taxi represented everything. All of her hard work, when she had nothing. How was she going to get back on her feet after this?
Her concern about the future was replaced by a familiar smell. She glanced around the block, looking for the source.
“… knowing him, it’s probably in the side of a building.”
Gertrude found what she was looking for on the corner of the cross street. She looked back towards Thad, looking for a place to sit. She pointed towards a nearby bench.
“Stay here... I’m gonna get us something to eat.”
A few minutes later, she returned with a pair of foil-wrapped packages. Thad eagerly tore into his, before he realized it was more of the protein crap. Gertrude watched him swallow what was in his mouth, then set down the rest on the bench beside him.
“After the auto-whatever is done, where are we headed?”
She eyed his half-eaten meal, with a swallow of her own.
“Downtown. I know some people who can help. We’ll start that way after the cab is fixed. Hopefully we get there before dark.”
Thad wiped his mouth, then rubbed the excess food on his pants.
“That sounds… ominous.”
Gertrude smiled and shook her head.
“Eh, it’s not so bad. Mostly halfway houses and a few drug dens. Not many people there anymore. Just a few grounders who couldn’t get out after the Collapse.”
She eyed Thad’s half-eaten sandwich with a raised brow. Thad shook his head, and she gladly picked it up.
“… not everyone wanted to escape.”
Thad watched her eagerly dig into his remaining food.
“Is that what you did? Escape?”
Gertrude chewed a few extra times, then swallowed.
“Yeah… I escaped.”
“But you still have some friends there?”
She cocked her head to the side.
“A few. They should be able to remove the tracker from the taxi, and give us a place to crash for a little bit.”
Gertrude eyes moved across the street, towards an abandoned alley. There was a group of small kids playing. Poor kids, who would grow up poor and live hard lives just like hers. She gave a half-hearted smile. They were playing a game she remembered from her childhood.
Thad followed her gaze towards the children.
“You grew up downtown… so why escape?”
“I drove for one of the cartels. It was dangerous work, and Mom was worried I’d get killed. She made me promise I’d get out. So I ran away... not long after she died.”
Thad pointed back towards the cars overhead.
“That explains all of the fancy flying. But if you escaped a cartel, aren’t you worried about going back?”
“Probably should be. But I have a family connection.”
Gertrude shook her head, “He died before I was born. Drug deal gone bad.”
Thad looked nervous.
“Please tell me your plan isn’t getting help from drug dealers.”
Gertrude rolled the foil into a tight ball. She thought about what to say next, then threw the foil into the abandoned building behind the bench. She let out a breath.
“Yeah. My plan is to get help from drug dealers.”
Thad shook his head.
“I knew you were gonna say that.”
“Calm down, partner. My half-sister runs one of the big cartels downtown. She’s well stocked, and these fools tracking us will think twice before storming her compound.”
“So wait... you quit the family business?”
Gertrude let out another breath, and looked down.
“Not exactly. The cartel wasn’t always run by my family.”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t like this plan at all. I’m better off by myself, than with a bunch of drug dealers.”
Thad turned and started to walk away down the alley. Gertrude screamed back at him.
“Oh, so that’s it, then? I take you in... patch you up, but now that I used to run drugs, you’re better off without me?”
Thad stopped, but didn’t turn around when he spoke.
“You should’ve left me to die.”
“Maybe I should have.”
Gertrude stomped after Thad, and spun him around.
“Maybe. But I didn’t. You might think you’re better than me, now that you know my past. But my past is why I pulled you off the street that night.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My Mom sold herself to one of the drug lords.”
Thad opened his mouth, in surprise. Gertrude kept going.
“... yeah. After my Dad died. She did it to get us off the street and keep me safe. One of them took a liking to her... and Kinsley was born a year later.”
“My mom had nothing. Lived on the streets after her father died. They lost their farm and she had nothing. Then she meets my Dad, who turns out to be a worthless fool addicted to drugs.
“When he died, no one else took her in. No one helped her. They just left her... to die on the streets. So if you want to try and survive on your own, go right ahead. But someone did offer you help, and that’s more than my mother ever got.”
Thad hung his head.
“I had no idea. I’m sorry for judging you based on your past.”
He took a few moments, then walked back towards Gertrude.
“... your sister can help us?”
“Okay... you’ve done nothing but help me since we met. I’ll trust you.”
Gertrude let out a sigh of relief.
“Kinsley is her name? ... nice name.”
“Mom always liked the old fashioned ones.”
The two of them started walking back to where they left the auto-mechanic. Thad recapped the plan.
“So we’re gonna crash in a drug den. With your half-sister, the drug lord, who you haven’t seen for…?”
“Well I don’t know... it’s been a while. We didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms.”
“You’re really selling this plan.”
They both chuckled, then Gertrude put her arm around Thad.
“It’s the only plan we have.”
The auto-mechanic chirped, then flew off. Their stolen taxi was repaired.
It was time to move.
“There you are!”
The booming voice of Elijah Booker echoed through the lobby. Trumble resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
“… and looking as pale as ever. My god man, you work too much. Join us for a drink.”
Booker is a giant pain in the ass, but the dough-faced playboy is also one of the wealthiest in the city. His grandparents made their fortune as whiskey distillers. After the Collapse, water was scarce, and most of the stills went out of business. The Booker distillery appeared to foresee the downturn, and they stockpiled millions of barrels.
This allowed Booker’s father to maintain a healthy bootleg operation after manufacturing spirits was outlawed. Elijah’s father held lavish fundraisers for NeoCorps, after he converted in college.
Elijah was a boisterous man but a necessary evil. Both he and Trumble were sons of iconic businessmen who helped each other. While Trumble found Elijah’s events loathsome, he was happy the Booker fundraisers continued. His father founded an empire on the backs of them.
The old man took a sip from his glass. It was two hundred years old, some of the last to survive the Collapse.
That pig never missed an opportunity to show off.
Trumble removed a metal case from his pocket. He offered a cigarette to his host, before lighting his own. Though he lacked a rare whiskey collection, his club was one of the few places in the city where smoking was still permitted.
One of the advantages to living above the clouds.
Booker puffed on his cigarette, then leaned in close to Trumble.
“There’s buzz amongst the board. Some kind of large research project. Burning through a lot of cashflow.”
Elijah replaced his father as chairman of the NeoCorp board when the elder Booker past away. Trumble preferred the father’s approach, who was much more hands off.
“Nothing that should concern the board. My father had plenty of large capital projects, too.”
“Your father always delivered...”
Booker put his arm around Trumble.
“… help me calm the board’s nerves a little.”
Smug son-of-a-bitch. Who does he think owns this company?
Trumble smiled politely, then ducked out of Booker’s head lock.
“Patience, my friend.”
The smile left his face, replaced with something more severe. Trumble lowered his voice.
“… and the Board should remember their place.”
Booker smiled, and motioned around the room. Then the fat slob matched Trumble’s volume, the perfume of ancient whiskey on his breath.
“Why don’t you remember that I can turn this off with a snap of my finger.”
Booker straightened, then pulled his jacket taut.
Trumble remembered his own drink. Before he could change the subject, he was interrupted by his aide.
“Sorry to interrupt sir. You have an urgent call.”
Trumble took the phone, careful to cover the receiver as he turned back towards Booker.
Trumble walked to a nearby lounge chair, out of earshot. Satisfied that Booker couldn’t hear his conversation, he raised the phone. Smoke billowed from his mouth as he responded.
“It’s Stamford, sir.”
The old man glanced from side to side, confirming there was no one who could eavesdrop. He tapped a sequence onto the phone, then returned it to his ear.
“Okay, we’re secure.”
“As you anticipated, the apartment was empty.”
“No sign of Michols?”
“None. We believe the woman leasing the apartment aided his escape. The name is Ger—”
“I’m aware of the name.”
Trumble cursed under his breath. This operation has been compromised from the start. The mistakes were piling up.
“How did they get out?”
“We believe a taxi.”
“Uncertain. We found it smashed across town. No sign of Weathers or Michols.”
“So… they could be anywhere?”
He couldn’t contain his disgust. It caused Stamford to hesitate.
Trumble rubbed a sore spot on his shoulder where he received a daily injection. He winced from the discomfort. The old man couldn’t afford any more delays.
“Is Hammersmith with you?”
“No, sir. He just left.”
“I briefed him about the apartment and the crash. He got a call, then said he needed to follow-up on another lead.”
“Yes, sir... from you.”
Trumble paused to take a drag from the cigarette. He felt the heat on his finger as he neared the end of the cigarette. The old man looked up towards the ornate ceiling and slowly released the smoke. He watched as the cloud broke against the mosaics.
He moved too fast with Hammersmith. The agent wasn’t ready for the truth. He took too much of a risk when he let him in.
“Should I be concerned?”
More silence. Eventually, “No.”
Trumble smashed his cigarette into a nearby ashtray. He pulled another from his case, then continued.
“Do you have his location?”
“Yes sir. He disabled his phone’s beacon, but I planted a tracker on him before he left.”
A moment later, the display on Trumble’s phone flashed with a map location. He stared at it for a moment, racking his brain.
Where is he going?
Trumble motioned for his aide. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the attache under the aide’s arm. Inside the case was a dossier, which the aide opened for him. After scanning several pages, he clapped the folder shut.
Across the lobby, well-dressed social elite were still mingling. Booker’s voice could be heard clearly over the hum of small talk. Trumble watched the spectacle as his brain processed the information.
He returned the phone to his ear.
It was time to act.
“Gather a team, then wait for word from me. Only agents you can trust, understand?”
“Understood. But why wait?”
“Let’s see where this goes. Hammersmith might know what he’s doing... and need backup.”
“... or he might have gone rogue.”
“Only agents you can trust.”
Stamford hesitated, then acknowledged.
“Report back when your team is ready to move.”
The old man went to hand the phone back to his aide, when Stamford voiced a final question.
“Sir. What if he’s gone rogue?”
“I will kill him myself.”
Thad listened as Gertrude narrated their descent into hell.
“After the acid rains started, the inner city collapsed into chaos. Flyers moved out as society broke down. The factory jobs moved away with them, and riots destroyed most of the local businesses. If you couldn’t get out, gangs and cartels were your only options. They offered steady work and security.”
He looked out the window. The sleek towers of the city were replaced by rot and decay. All that remained of their splendor was twisted metal super-structures and broken glass.
There was something familiar about how the new buildings ringed the ruins of the old. It triggered an early memory.
“This reminds me of redwoods.”
He saw Gertrude’s eyes widen.
“Redwoods? You mean... like the ancient trees?”
“Yeah. I have this memory. It’s fuzzy, and I’m not sure how old… I remember walking through a forest. There’s someone ahead talking—maybe a guide. Talking about coastal redwoods and their communities.”
Gertrude’s face was blank as he continued.
“... new growth would crop up around the decay of a dying tree. The new trees would feed off the dead, until all that was left was a ring around the carcass.”
He was overwhelmed by the memory. It felt so… real. Gertrude, however, looked at him like he was abducted by aliens.
“You’re full of surprises.”
“You talk about trees, and farms. None of this is familiar to you. The city. Downtown... not even flyers and grounders.”
Thad shook his head. It was true. He’d known for a few days, and it scared him. What if his memory doesn’t come back?
“No. I don’t remember any of it.”
“What if your memory isn’t the problem?”
“What if you’re not from around here? That could explain why you don’t recognize anything.”
A pit formed in his stomach. Every direction he looked there were either buildings or ruins of buildings. If he wasn’t from around here, then where was he from?
The thought upset him.
“Most of my memories are of fields. Plants, vegetation… life. Not the metal and glass we see out there.”
Gertrude nodded, as though what he was saying made sense.
“You said you were kidnapped? And when you woke up, you didn’t know where you were?”
Thad concentrated, switching his focus between the slums in front of him, and the orange of the horizon.
“I …think so. It’s still a bit of a blur.”
“And before that, everything is green?”
“Yes… but those memories feel far away. Distant in a way I can’t describe.”
Thad saw Gertrude nod, then return her focus to the road. She knows something.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. Just a hunch.”
“I have an idea... about where you’re from.”
“Care to share with the group?”
“Not yet. If I’m right... well, you’ve long trip ahead of you.”
The thought of getting far away from here was a nice distraction. It settled his uneasiness, although not completely.
He still felt off. If he was honest with himself, he didn’t feel well at all. The pain killers made his heart race.
But it was more than the painkillers. He felt feverish, and there was an uncomfortable knot on his arm where the medcuff had been. He had risked a few glances when Gertrude was distracted by the road. It was swollen, and tender if he applied too much pressure.
Eventually I need to show her.
Fortunately the rest of the trip downtown was quiet. Thad tried to calm himself down, so he could close his eyes and rest.
Eventually he fell asleep. When he opened his eyes again, it was nearly dark. Gertrude had settled into the entrance of a compound. She set the parking brake, then leaned in towards him.
“Do you trust me?”
Thad rubbed the last of his nap from his eyes.
“I... think so?”
“Good. We’re going to be safe.”
The pit in his stomach came back.
“You’re scaring me.”
“Don’t be scared. Just follow my lead and do whatever I do. Everything...”
Gertrude sounded like was trying to convince herself. Didn’t sound like it was working.
“… everything will be fine. I promise.”
Four masked people ripped open the doors of the taxi. They yanked Gertrude and Thad from the vehicle, and fastened restraints around their wrists.
The last thing Thad saw was a blindfold pulled over his eyes.
Gertrude squinted as her eyes adjusted to the sudden change in light. Her captors had bound her hands behind a chair, where she was seated. On her right she found Thad, who was still blindfolded.
In front of her stood a tall woman, her bony face leaned in close towards Gertrude.
“Trudy. Never thought I’d see you again.”
Malnutrition and narcotics abuse had taken their toll. The woman paced in front of Gertrude, looking annoyed at her sister.
“… at least not here.”
Gertrude scanned the rest of the room.
“I’ve missed you too.”
Kinsley was surrounded by a collection of thugs. They stood along the opposite wall, heavily armed with a variety of implements: baseball bats, knives... and assault rifles.
“Missed me? Last time we spoke you were high and mighty, talking about ‘getting the hell outta here’. What made you come back? Out of money? Need a fix?”
Several of her goons smiled. A few of them laughed. Gertrude stayed focused on Kinsley.
“I was hoping we could speak in private. A business negotiation... amongst family.”
Kinsley shifted her weight.
“Business, eh? Fine... I’ll bite. But first you’re gonna tell me about this one. Who is he?”
She walked over and rubbed Thad on his head. Gertrude heard him struggle and test his restraints.
“He’s what I want to discuss. Alone.”
Gertrude raised her eyebrows at her sister, who returned the expression. Kinsley turned her head, like she was addressing the entire room.
“Okay. We’ll go in the other room and chat. But your friend stays here.”
Kinsley opened her arms wide.
“… with my friends.”
Several in the crowd behind Kinsley wet their lips and bared their teeth. They eyed Thad like a piece of meat. Gertrude didn’t want to leave him alone, but she nodded.
One of the thugs approached Gertrude and cut her restraints. Once free, she followed Kinsley into the next room.
When the door closed, Kinsley shoved her older sister.
“What the fuck are you doing here?!”
“I can explain—”
“Made a promise to Mom, Trudy! Told her I would get you out. You should’ve stayed away.”
Kinsley grabbed Gertrude by the shoulders and pulled her into a tight squeeze.
“I love you too, Kins.”
After a long embrace, Kinsley let go.
“So tell me about your boy out there. He’s fucked up, did you know he’s using?”
“Actually, that’s my fault. I doped him so he could recover. Was hoping you had some withdrawal meds…”
“Withdrawal meds? This ain’t no pharmacy.”
“I know you can get them from the local government center, no questions asked. If I do it, they be traced back to me.”
Kinsley shot a concerned look toward her sister.
“What kind of trouble are you in?”
Gertrude shook her head. The events of the past week came pouring out.
“I don’t know, yet. He... er, Thad, is being chased. Don’t know who.”
“So why are you helping him?”
“He landed on my cab. Took a swan dive off an upper floor. When he didn’t die...”
Gertrude’s voice trailed off.
“... well, I couldn’t just leave him there. Wouldn’t have been proper.”
Kinsley gave her sister an incredulous stare.
“Proper? Jeez, you sound like Mom.”
Gertrude rolled her eyes.
“He still can’t remember much. And the way he describes the people chasing him, they sound like flyers.”
Kinsley silently mouthed a “Wow”, then continued.
“So how can I help… besides withdrawal meds?”
“We need to get him home...”
“… and I need new ID papers. Whoever is chasing him surrounded my place. We barely got out before they ransacked the place.”
Kinsley’s eyes went wide for a moment.
“Okay. I can set you up. Especially if it’ll piss off a few flyers. But first things first, where is Mystery Man from?”
“Not entirely sure. He can’t remember, but from what he’s told me so far, I think he might be from the Outer Plains.”
Kinsley stepped back, looking shocked.
Gertrude thought it sounded crazy too, now that she said it out loud.
“Look, whatever. I just need to know he’s on his way home, then we can all move on.”
“You sure this isn’t something else?”
Kinsley glanced down her nose, and pursed her lips, making an obnoxious kissy face. Gertrude rolled her eyes.
“Shut up. I want a clean conscious, not a boyfriend... and I’m not sure he’s crazy. It’s like he doesn’t recognize anything. And earlier...”
Gertrude trailed off, but Kinsley’s interest was piqued.
“What happened earlier?”
“Earlier he was talking about... walking in a forest... of trees!”
“Trees?! No one has seen a tree around here in fifty years.”
“Right... maybe he is crazy. Just... can you help him out?”
Kinsley exhaled, and lowered her hands.
“Let’s hope he starts to remember things soon... but let’s say he is from the Outer Plains. How does he get out there?”
Gertrude raised her finger, as she remembered the money Franklin gave her.
“Ah... I’ve got enough to get him fuel cells for the journey out.”
Gertrude produced the roll of credits. Kinsley’s eyes went wide.
“Holy shit. Paper credits? Where did you get these?”
Kinsley unfolded the wad and started counting.
“... this is flyer money.”
“Should be enough for fuel cells and the new identity I need?”
“And then some. But what’s he gonna fly out there? That junker we pulled you from?”
“The only ride we brought.”
“Taxis are tracked…”
Gertrude smiled and nodded towards the credits. Kinsley kept counting through the stack, then nodded her acceptance.
“… and I think we can find someone to help take care of that problem as well.”
Gertrude opened her arms to embrace Kinsley. Her younger sister pocketed the cash, then leaned over to accept the hug.
“It’s gonna take me a few days.”
Gertrude nodded, and nosed towards the other room.
“Mind if we both crash here, while we wait? Give him some time to recover.”
Kinsley gave her a friendly squeeze, then came out of the hug to appraise her sister. Gertrude felt her judgement.
“I know, I know. This whole thing is out of control. Not quite sure how I got mixed up in this.”
Her sister smiled.
“You might be the better person after all... better than me, at least. Mom would be proud you’re helping this guy.”
Gertrude smiled back.
“Never thought I’d see this place again.”
Gertrude and Thad followed Kinsley down a narrow corridor. They passed several open rooms as they moved deeper into the compound. Most of the rooms were filled with bodies laid out, many too stoned to notice them as they passed.
At the end of the hallway was a larger room. The concrete walls were cracked, and blackened with mold. The floor looked even worse. Thankfully, unlike most of the other rooms, there was a cot and a pair of thermal blankets.
It reminded Gertrude of growing up. Kinsley slapped her on the back, then turned to Thad.
“Doesn’t look like much, but this is the most comfortable room in the compound. Trudy already knows this, but we run watch ‘round the clock. So sleep easy, you’re safe here.”
Thad took in the room, then gave a concerned look to Gertrude. She shot a glance back at him.
Beggars can’t be choosers, partner.
Thad got the message.
“Thanks Kinsley. This is great.”
Kinsley tossed Gertrude a rattling bottle.
“A few of the boys had these from their last attempt at sober. We’ll have more tomorrow.”
Gertrude thanked Kinsley, who closed the door on her way out. Gertrude look back to Thad, who was unfolding the blankets on the cot. She handed him a few pills from the bottle.
“Go ahead and take the cot. These will ease you off the pain meds.”
Thad started to protest, but she cut him off.
“Don’t give me the ‘aw shucks’ gentleman crap, you need the rest. Besides... I’ve slept in worse. The sooner you recover, the sooner we get you on your way.”
“And the sooner your life returns to normal.”
Gertrude gave a half smile, then rubbed the side of Thad’s right shoulder.
Observing his reaction, she rolled back his sleeve. There was large red bruise, raised above the skin. It felt warm when she touched it.
“Oh, it’s nothing... just a scratch.”
“A scratch? This is an infection. How long has it looked like this?”
Thad raised his arms to brush Gertrude’s hands from them.
“Just a day or two. I noticed it after you took off the medcuff.”
Gertrude narrowed her eyes at him. He threw up his hands.
“... right before we left the apartment.”
She pursed her lips.
This complicates things.
“We need to find you some antibiotics. Your body can’t fight an infection in your condition.”
“Where are you going?”
Gertrude squeezed Thad’s hand, then stood up.
“I need to find you something for your fever.”
It had been a few days, and Thad’s condition was worse. The fever started on the second day, then intensified each day that followed. Gertrude knew he needed something stronger than what Kinsley could offer.
Thad pulled back his blanket.
“Then I’ll go with you.”
She pulled the blanket back over him.
“Sshhh. You need to rest and stay put. The places I’m going take advantage of others’ desperation. It’ll be easier to negotiate if they don’t know you’re in bad shape.”
Gertrude finished pulling on her shoes, when Kinsley walked through the door. She glanced towards Thad, then lowered her voice towards Gertrude.
“Still getting worse?”
She handed Gertrude a steaming mug, who took a few sips before responding.
“Mm-hmm. I know a few people. Gonna see if they have something that will cut down this fever.”
Kinsley showed her teeth. The way she did when there was a problem. Gertrude sighed.
“Bad news on your taxi. My mechanic couldn’t remove the tracker. At least not without dismantling the whole vehicle. And that hunk-of-junk is so old, there’s no guarantee we could put it back together.”
Gertrude gnashed her teeth.
“Well. I guess he’s gonna need another ride.”
“And credits to pay for it...”
“But I gave you—”
“Enough to pay for the fuel cells and remove a tracker. Another vehicle isn’t in your budget.”
Gertrude sat down on the cot next to Thad.
They needed help. Someone wealthy.
Who could spare a vehicle, and have access to better medication? Gertrude pulled out her phone and searched past fares. Random faces rolled across the screen.
Someone wealthy… who wants to help people… wants to—
A polished face popped into her mind.
“… I know someone.”
Gertrude opened her contacts and zipped to the number. She felt a pang of guilt, as she went to start the call. This would bring yet another person into this mess.
Someone else to owe a favor.
She glanced at Thad. He was pale, and there were beads of sweat across his brow.
I don’t have a choice.
Kinsley glanced over Gertrude’s shoulder.
“Who’s... Todd Hammersmith?”
Todd’s trip into Downtown took just over an hour.
He didn’t see any updates from Stamford or the other agents. With luck, he’d get to Gertrude before anyone from NeoCorp started to suspect.
He reached the location she sent him, then scanned the compound. Only one vehicle entrance. It was well protected by adjacent towers, and spotters on the roof overlooking the courtyard. While the lines of fire were obvious, the gun placements were well concealed.
These aren’t amateurs.
Todd ditched his car a few blocks away, and searched on foot for a way inside. He walked the perimeter twice, observing the sentries and their positions.
Satisfied he found a hole in their search pattern, Todd slipped into the compound.
Once inside in the courtyard, he couldn’t avoid being exposed. Two thugs predictably jumped him from opposing sides. Todd grabbed the guard to his left, and used them to tackle the guard that approached from the right. He reached for his weapon, when a pistol was thrust into his back.
Hammersmith missed the third guard.
He let go of the two minions, and raised his hands in surrender. The pistol-bearing guard patted down his left side.
“Trudy didn’t tell me you could take care of yourself.”
A woman’s voice. Her search stopped after finding his holster, and she removed his sidearm.
“… this piece a standard issue for altar boys?”
Todd chuffed, then turned to face his captor.
“Trudy, eh? Is that what family calls her?”
“You’ve got a smart mouth, flyer. Might get you shot.”
“I’m not looking for trouble… Kinsley am I right?”
The woman nodded.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a friend, and Gertrude called me. So, can you take me to her?”
“Not a chance you’re getting into my compound. She’ll be along shortly, once I’m certain there’s no threat.”
Todd didn’t show any change in expression. He kept his voice even, and calm.
“Like I said, I’m not looking for trouble. I’m here to help.”
Kinsley raised her phone, but kept her weapon pointed at Todd.
“Send them out.”
After several minutes, two figures appeared from the opposite end of the courtyard. Todd recognized both.
Gertrude flashed a smile.
“Todd, I’m so glad you came. We really need—“
“No! No! Gertrude, stop!”
Kinsley’s eyes darted from Thad and Gertrude back to Todd. Thad was apoplectic.
“It’s him! It’s him!”
Kinsley looked toward Gertrude.
“What’s he on about, Trudy?”
Thad answered, and Gertrude’s eyes went wide.
“He’s the one I told you about... he’s the one who’s chasing me!”
Kinsley yanked Todd’s arms behind him, as another minion put him in restraints. Hammersmith didn’t resist. Instead he focused on Thad.
He’s running a fever.
There was a ring of sweat around Thad’s neck. When he grabbed Gertrude’s arm to protect her, he used his left hand—not his right.
That must be where the cuff had been…
Todd grimaced as realization struck him. Everything finally made sense. The detail he was missing, the one that Trumble hid from him. That son-of-a-bitch was pulling strings the entire time. Kept everyone in the dark as they cleaned up his mess.
And I’ve been his errand boy.
In that moment, Todd lost his faith.
Kinsley raised her eyebrows towards Todd.
“What’s so funny?”
Todd was shaking his head. He didn’t realize he laughed out loud.
“I’ve been such a fool. About everything…”
Kinsley pressed the barrel of her gun into his chest.
“Care to let us in on… everything?”
Todd tried to collect himself. He took a deep breath, then looked towards Kinsley and Gertrude.
“Thad’s right. I have been chasing him.”
He felt Kinsley’s grip tighten on her pistol. He glanced at the gun in his sternum, then back to the woman holding it.
“… I’m happy to tell you whatever you want. I really do want to help. But you’re gonna need to point that thing somewhere else.”
“Not used to having discussions with firearms?”
Hammersmith smirked back.
“I’m usually the one holding them.”
The two sisters were curious. After giving each other a knowing look, Kinsley holstered her pistol and gave Todd some space. But she didn’t remove the restraints.
Gertrude, Kinsley, and Thad all focused on him. The intensity of their gaze made his throat go dry. He decided to focus on Gertrude, who gestured towards him.
“Okay, Mr. Hammersmith. Talk.”
Just as he was about to start, Gertrude pulled a buzzing phone from her pocket. Todd didn’t know what it said. Once Kinsley saw it, her voice startled everyone.
“It’s a trap.”
Gertrude stared at the message from Franklin. It’s meaning was clear. She showed the message to Kinsley, whose crew were ready to shoot.
“He’s stalling to give his agents time. Let’s pop this bastard and get out of here.”
“WAIT! Please. I swear to you Gertrude, I came alone. Look…”
He waved his phone towards her, then offered it for her inspection.
“… I disabled the location beacon. They don’t know where I am, and have no way to track me.”
Gertrude glanced at Kinsley, who wasn’t convinced. Gertrude’s instincts agreed, but the look in Todd’s eyes told her a different story.
Something didn’t add up.
“How did you know Thad would be here... with me?”
Todd didn’t flinch.
“I had a hunch. We searched your apartment, after we suspected you were helping him.”
“You searched my apartment? Right. So why should we trust anything you say?”
Todd hesitated. No, Gertrude sensed he was struggling with something. There was more to this than he was saying.
“You shouldn’t. I’ve given you no reason. You’ll have to take it—”
Gertrude rolled her eyes. She couldn’t say why, but she wanted to believe his intentions were good.
He’s a true believer.
“I don’t take things on faith. I trust people.
“Then trust me when I say this... I want to help Thad.”
Gertrude looked at Kinsley (unconvinced), then back towards Thad who was still in shock. It was Gertrude’s fault that Todd found him.
Kinsley could take care of Todd. Make him disappear. Then she could help them escape... again. But Gertrude couldn’t shake the suspicion that Todd knew more than he was telling.
We need to know what he knows.
“Okay. Give me a reason to trust you... help me get Thad back home.”
Todd lowered his head, taking a moment to respond.
“That’s going to be a little difficult.”
“Why? You kidnapped Thad, you know where he needs to return.”
“I do. But it won’t be easy… it’s…”
Todd’s internal struggle increased. Gertrude sensed they were getting close to answers. He sighed.
“…you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Kinsley was tired of waiting for Todd’s crisis of conscious. She motioned towards her two guards.
“You two, take Thad and Trudy back inside. I’ll dump his body when I’m done.”
Gertrude raised her hand towards Kinsley. They were too close to turn back now.
“Hold on. We deserve some answers first.”
Kinsley gritted her teeth, but reluctantly nodded. Gertrude looked back towards Todd.
“Alright, last chance. Why are you chasing Thad?”
Todd stared at the ground, and shook his head. When he stopped, he looked back at Gertrude determined.
The struggle was gone.
“Because you asked us.”
She raised her eyebrows and pointed towards herself.
“… I’ve never met Thad before. He just fell onto my taxi. Why would I ask you to find—how did I ask you to find him?”
“I said you wouldn’t believe me. You and Thad meeting is a strange coincidence, indeed. It set into motion a series of events that impact you more than you realize.”
“A coincidence? Look, I called you because—”
“—Thad was sick.”
Everyone opened their eyes wide at his interruption. Todd continued.
“... he has a raised knot on his right arm, yes? And an elevated fever? Probably had that for... a few days, I’d guess.”
Gertrude’s face darkened. An uneasy feeling formed in her stomach. She was stumped.
“How did you know that?”
Todd motioned for his phone, still in Gertrude’s hand.
“I matched Thad’s readings from your medcuff to symptoms you described six months ago...”
The pit in Gertrude’s stomach tightened and work it’s way into her throat as Todd finished.
“... in your NeoCorps questionnaire.”
Tears formed as Gertrude remembered her desperation. All of the attempts to end her suffering, and the hope that someone would help. Her head throbbed as the responses from her questionnaire flooded through her brain.
She cleared her throat and projected the remaining dignity she could muster.
“What does… that... have to do with Thad’s symptoms?”
Gertrude couldn’t look back at Kinsley. Todd gathered a deep breath before he answered.
Realization struck her the moment he started.
“In it you told us we had to save—”
She clapped her hands to her cheeks. She glanced back towards Thad, then Todd, who lowered his head.
Geetrude’s eyes were wide with shock.
“Oh my god.”