The maintenance tunnel wasn’t the smallest I’d ever seen, but it was small enough to leave me a lingering specter of claustrophobia. It was certainly bigger than the narrow tunnel Retch had used to sneak into McCay’s secret room back in the Heavies. Beck led with a burning impatience, even though she couldn’t have known how dangerous Sam really was. Crawling through the narrow space with steel pipes jutting into my shoulder, I did my best to keep up with her, and after a few confusing turns, we were deposited out into a narrow alley with slick cobblestone covering the sloping street.
In the distance, the buzz of motors filled the air.
Beck liberated her scooter from a broad-leafed plant and waved me toward it. “You drive.”
“Why me?” She was a better driver.
“You know this town and I’m a pretty good shot.”
“You still have that gun?” I settled myself onto the scooter and refamiliarized myself with the controls. I switched it on and the headlamp flared to life. “How do you know that old thing still works?”
“Who says it’s old?” Beck landed on the seat behind me.
Lights flashed across the buildings.
I twisted the accelerator and the scooter’s back wheel spun on the slick cobbles.
“Ease off a little,” Beck said, gripping my coat.
When I eased off, the tire caught and the scooter lurched forward. We shot through the narrow alley, handlebars inches from the fiberstone walls on either side. The front wheel left the ground as we launched headfirst into the badly lit inner spiral.
Soon as we came out, they were on us. They swarmed from the alleys and buzzed along the spiral. Too many to count, and I didn’t take the time to try. I twisted hard and a burst of speed took us past several of them. They fell in and followed.
The crack of small firearms rang out behind us. Beck swore.
“You hit?” I asked.
“Shut up and drive.”
I banked us hard into a side street, running from light to light as fast as I dared. Ahead, the bulk of Onegee Nicodemia’s brutal citadel dominated the churning gray sky. Its spires were lit with a effervescent purple.
Then I turned again and the narrow streets swallowed us.
Behind, the high-pitched buzz of cycles spun onto our street. Beck shifted in her seat and fired a shot. There was no time to see if it hit because the street ended with a steep downward staircase and I yanked the bars to keep from careening down it. With a burst of acceleration, I ducked into a narrow alley.
And was confronted with the burning white of a cycle’s headlamp. The enormous mass of Sam’s ride hummed with power.
“No,” I whispered. “Wait.”
“It’s nothing personal,” said Sam. I couldn’t see his face, but I could imagine the rictus grin.
“Everything’s personal,” I said. “There isn’t anything else.”
He rolled slowly forward. Behind us, two more cycles moved to block off our escape. We were in a narrow alley, hardly wide enough for one cycle. Sam’s light shone narrow and straight, its white light piercing right into my skull. We couldn’t see any of the intervening alley, but there was nothing between us. Nothing to duck behind for cover. It wouldn’t matter anyway, trapped as we were.
Or were we?
I knew this neighborhood. At least, I knew the Heavy version of the same neighborhood. This was where Retch lived, in among the warehouses surrounding the great cathedral. I didn’t just know what these alleys were like. I knew this exact alley. It was where Retch’s hideout had a secret entrance.
My scooter edged forward at my command, rolling slowly, softly. “What is this about, Sam? I did everything Saint Jerome wanted.”
Sam made a choking laugh. “Oh, you still think Jerome’s still in charge? That old man is getting hunted down just like you.”
“What happened to loyalty?” Forward a little more.
“You know what loyalty got me?”
“Not one damn thing. Now I get my own district and I get my own people.” Two more cycles closed in around the alley behind him. More noise came from behind me, but I didn’t dare look. I was busy staring defiantly at the space where I figured Sam must be, trying my best not to show how terrified I was. I only needed a few more seconds.
“So how does this go down? When you kill, Trinity’s marks you as a murderer. You’ll have the police on you.”
“You and I both know that’s not how karma works.”
“Demarco,” Beck hissed. “What are you doing?” She was tense, and I saw she still held the crimson pistol in one hand, lowered to point at the ground.
“I’m interrogating,” I whispered.
“Usually that implies a different power differential.”
There. Right at the corner of my light I saw where the edge of fibersteel separated from the wall around it. It was narrower here, and better hidden, but it existed.
“Fine,” I said to Sam. “One thing before you do this, though.”
I hit the accelerator and yanked the bars. We hit the wall hard, pushing the sheet of metal inches, feet. Sam shouted. Cycles revved.
Gunshots. Beck laid down a covering fire.
With a scream like a wailing ghost, the metal tore. The hole widened and the scooter burst through into the warehouse. It really was like the one down in Heavy.
Only, this warehouse wasn’t empty.
The area around us was partially lit by the blinking lights of a robotic workforce. Shelves towered high up into the black above. All around, the sound of metal scraping and motors whirring filled the huge space. A robot arm swung our direction, and I punched forward to avoid its grasp. It clamped onto a crate near the hidden entrance and lifted it high into the darkness.
Behind us, Sam’s people wrenched at the wall where we had come through. Beck squeezed off two shots and they stopped. She gasped and shifted behind me.
“You all right?”
She squeezed me tighter.
I raised my voice so Sam could hear me behind the wall. “What’s Lauder paying you, Sam?”
“Frank Lauder on his way out the door.”
“Who’s the new boss, then? You?”
Sam didn’t answer that, but his goons pushed at the wall again. When it opened a crack, Beck fired another shot.
“If you’re in charge,” I yelled, “what do you have against me? Did I offend you when I kicked your ass the other day?”
“You didn’t kick my ass.”
Beck whispered in my ear. “Just drive.”
I didn’t. “A real leader’s got to earn the respect of his people, Sam.”
“I have plenty of respect.”
“You have power. If you look around, who of your goons would have your back if they knew how weak you were?”
“Look around? You want me to look around? I don’t see anyone out here, Demarco.”
It took a few seconds for me to figure what he was getting at. Beck got it first.
“Drive,” she said. “They’re circling around to the other entrance.”
I twisted the accelerator and the back wheel peeled out on the slick fiberstone floor. The rows of shelves were narrow, and the headlamp shone only a short distance ahead. As fast as I dared go, I couldn’t open up all the way. A robot blocked our path. I slammed on the breaks, and Beck pressed hard against my back. Behind us, the screech of metal told of Sam forcing his way into the warehouse.
Backing up, I found another side row and we were off again. Crates whipped past. The buzz of Sam’s cycle echoed off the high ceiling. Faster. Faster. Stop. Another robotic arm blocked the way. Its blue light shone in the darkness, but my headlight blinded me to its glow until we were almost on top of it. I backed up again. Found another row.
Speeding along, we passed an empty shelf. On the other side, Sam matched our speed. He grinned his evil, manic grin for several long seconds.
The big warehouse door was visible at the long end of the row. We had a straight shot to the exit.
The door was closing. Sam’s goons had made it around. The shapes of their shadows moved across the glow of their own headlights. We could make it, but we’d be an easy shot. All they had to do was shoot at our light and we’d go down hard.
On the other side of the shelf beside us, Sam drew a heavy pistol. Beck fired a shot, but the plasti-ceramic bullet shattered against the metal shelving. Sam aimed.
The shelves were full again. Crates blocked us from Sam, but he was still there. I cranked the accelerator.
I had seconds to make the call. Seconds to decide whether or not we could shoot the gap before the door slammed closed. Seconds to calculate if we could do that without getting shot. Seconds to guess the best way to get out without getting killed.
“You know your streets,” Beck said, her voice in my ear.
She was right. I knew these streets. These were the same streets I’d walked in Heavy Nicodemia. These same streets with lights that never lit for me, where I’d walked in the dark countless times looking for help. Looking for trouble. This was no different, only faster.
Nobody knows the streets quite like the man who walks in the dark. This was my territory.
This was my home.
I switched off the headlamp and cranked the accelerator. We burst from the shelving a cycle’s length ahead of Sam. His headlight flashed across us for a split second before Beck unleashed her last few bullets. This time, she hit. His light shattered and his cycle’s motor died.
Ahead, the door lowered. I gave the scooter everything and its little motor screamed in frustration. A split second is all it took to cross the space. There was a shout as they heard us approach, but they were too slow. We were too invisible. I yanked the scooter down and went into a hard skid with Beck clinging to my back. My boot grated against the wet fiberstone floor.
Then, the sound changed. We passed the door by inches. The air opened up. We were out.
And blind. I popped the scooter back up and twisted hard, aiming for where I hoped the alley was.
Behind us, Sam’s people mounted their cycles for pursuit.
From memory, I sped along the warehouse district streets, hoping against hope that no pavement would be broken and no litter cluttered the streets. As my eyes adjusted, the buildings around us were lumbering giants. My world was a thousand shades of gray. The deceptive dark wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
Left, then right. I sped at full speed through the shadowy streets. Soon, the noise of other cycles faded into the black. We were free.
I pulled to a stop in a nook at the base of Onegee Nicodemia’s monolithic cathedral.
Beck gave me a little squeeze from behind, holstered her pistol, and then slid off the bike, landing in a heap.
I rushed to her side and touched her waist. My hands came back sticky and wet and stank of blood. She’d been shot.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub