Across the Dark Water

An uncontrollable plague has left the city in ruins and trapped in perpetual quarantine. A thief hires a guide to lead him safely through the city’s many dangers to the one person who can give him the travel papers he needs to escape.

 

 

It took him months to find the right guide. His search had cost him a small fortune so, as much as the thief hated it, he had to go back to his old ways in the plague-ruined city. The man who’d taught him the trade years and years before had handed him a shovel and taught him to rob graves. When he was older and out on his own, the thief swore he’d never grub in the dirt again. Yet now—because he could no longer bear to steal from the living—he was back on his knees, foregoing self-respect, and driven by a fear and an anger that felt like a stone in his chest.

Earlier, when the plague had receded, Mina left him. She said she wanted to see if her mother was still alive. The thief offered to go with her, but she said no. She said she’d return when she could. Later, he went to look for her mother and found the old woman easily. That’s when he knew Mina had lied to him. And in the ruined city with its ashen survivors, and in his pain and his loneliness, he hated her for it. He would do anything to leave.

 

The bar where he’d been told he’d find the guide was made up of three cargo containers laid out in a triangle. Sections were connected by flexible ribbed walkways looted from tram cars along the metro lines. The walls were red and gold gilt wallpaper, like some dream of a New Orleans bordello. Here and there were rips and bullet holes. Thick bundles of jasmine incense burned to hide the stink of cigarettes and sweat. It made the thief’s eyes water.

The man he took to be the guide looked as he’d been described. Thick muscles under a cowboy shirt with roses by each shoulder. He still wore the police badge from a force he’d abandoned during the plague. Guns on a thick belt around his waist. The guide looked healthy. Healthier than anyone the thief had seen in months, and the thief took that as a good sign.

He went to where the man stood at the bar and said, “Are you—?” and he said the guide’s name. The name he’d been told to use.

The man just looked at him. After an uncomfortable moment, the thief took a crumpled business card from his pocket and held it out. The man took it. Looked it over.

“The blind man sent you,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I want to hire you.”

“Gun or guide?”

“Guide.”

“Where are you looking to go?”

“I want to see the Turk.”

The guide smiled and put the card in the breast pocket of his shirt.

“Do you know him?”

“No.”

“What makes you think a man like the Turk will see you?”

“I can pay.”

“I knew you had money or the blind man wouldn’t have sent you. But do you really think the Turk will drop everything for money?”

The thief set his hand on the top of the bar. It was sticky, so he took his hand off and rubbed it on his leg.

“I don’t know if he’ll see me. But I have to try.”

The guide’s eyes widened a little.

“An optimist in times like these. Signs and wonders.”

“You’ll take me?”

The guide took the thief’s arm in a strong grip and led him to an exit that let out on the interior of the bar’s triangle. The ground was concrete with gravel at the edges. A few people were there smoking and drinking. They ignored him and the guide. The thief looked around. The space overhead was lined with razor wire. The only door led back into the bar. There was nowhere to run if things turned bad.

The guide shook his head. His gray hair was buzzed almost flat.

“Relax. No one is going to hurt you.”

“I just don’t like being closed in.”

“Tight spaces? Social proximity? Relax. The plague’s over.”

“That’s what they say.”

The guide gave him a look.

“So. You want me to take you to the Turk. That’s quite a trek.”

The guide then named a startling sum of money. The thief breathed in, not bothering to negotiate since both men knew he had nowhere else to go. They went to an empty corner of the triangle and the thief laid out gold, piles of cash, and four dense, semitransparent, emerald green plastic cards. The guide picked up a card. Held it to the light.

“Account IDs?”

“Yes. Each linked to a different offshore bank.”

“How much in all the accounts together?”

Now it was the thief’s turn to name a startling sum. Then, “I can show you if you don’t believe me. I have a reader in my bag.”

The guide held up a hand. “I believe you. You’re too anxious to lie.” He laughed once. “Too optimistic.”

The guide picked up the remaining cards.

“On the other hand, if these are so valuable, why don’t you keep them for yourself?”

“Fine,” said the thief. “Give them back and take the other stuff.”

The guide pressed the cards to his chest.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

The thief looked at him.

“When this is over I’ll be on the road. Gold is easier to trade.”

“Even these days, you think?”

The thief shrugged.

“In medieval times, people revert to medieval ways.”

The guide looked at him for a moment more.

“I’ll keep the cards.”

The thief relaxed a little.

“Then we can go?”

“Soon. There are details to sort out.”

The guide started back into the bar, but the thief stopped. A few men had been playing with remote control toys nearby. Little drones and kitten-sized military walkers. What stopped the thief was something on wheels. He couldn’t quite figure out what it was. The dried flesh of a skinned cat had been stretched over the body of a small rolling mech. The machine’s LED eyes lit up, making the cat’s head glow. It raised its arms and made a grinding sound like it was trying to talk to him. When the guide looked back and saw that the thief wasn’t with him, he went to the toy and kicked it across the concrete to the men. They moaned and cursed and he pulled the thief away with him.

The thief and guide walked a hundred yards down a long straightaway surrounded by immense parking lots full of dusty cars and empty trucks, the remains of a large homeless encampment. Sections of the lot had been cordoned off with biohazard warning tape. The vehicles in those areas were blackened husks, where the authorities had burned the dead in place. The guide noticed the thief staring.

He said, “It was better this way. Why risk a crew to move the bodies when fire did the job just as well?”

The thief had heard the jokes. “The gasoline vaccine.”

“Cheap and painless.”

“As long as you’re sure everybody is dead before you strike the match.”

“We were sure.”

“It must be nice to be so certain of things.”

The guide slowed his pace.

“You think I’m lying?”

The thief had to stop so as not to leave him behind.

“No,” he said. “It’s just that I’m not certain about anything these days, except that I want to leave.”

The guide pointed to the fairgrounds at the end of the long drive.

“Come up to my office.”

Inside, they went past the abandoned rides, many starting to show rust. Empty pens for animals. Dust and weeds everywhere. Food wrappers. Paper cups. The guide led the thief to a Ferris wheel near the center of the place. The thief was surprised by its size. The cars were large enough to hold a dozen adults. The guide went to the closest car and pulled the door open.

“We can talk here,” he said and went inside.

The thief followed him but, again, disturbed by the enclosed space, he remained by the open door. When they were inside, the guide took a metal box about the size of a cigarette pack from his bag and pushed a button. There was a metallic groan. The Ferris wheel jerked and the car rose into the air. The thief, caught off guard, slipped and would have fallen out if the guide hadn’t grabbed him and pulled him back into the car.

“Not everything thing in here is broken,” the guide said and laughed.

The thief sat on the floor, breathing hard until the car reached its apex. When it did, the guide pressed another button on the box and the Ferris wheel stopped. The thief gradually pulled himself to his feet and turned one hundred and eighty degrees. The city spread out for miles in all directions.

“The view,” he said.

The guide spit out the open door.

“Nothing can sneak up on you from up here. It’s a good place to get the lay of the land before going out.”

The center of the city and some of the outer suburbs were lighting up for the evening, but they were surrounded by vast stretches of darkness.

“I never realized how much of the city we’d lost. I’d heard the numbers, but seeing it—”

The guide lit a cigarette.

“It makes an impression.”

The thief turned to look at the guide in the doorway.

“Now that I was dumb enough to follow you, are we really here to talk or are you going to take my money and gold and throw me out?”

“I could, you know,” said the guide, looking down at the ground. “Take your shit and watch you fall.”

“I know.”

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

“Of course.”

The guide shook his head slightly.

“But I’m not going to. I just like the view and I like privacy when we’re working out details.”

The guide pulled a pint of bourbon from his pack, gulped a mouthful, and handed it to the thief, who took a good pull of the stuff and handed it back. The thief relaxed a little. Whatever was going to happen would happen. There was nothing he could do about it.

“You mentioned details,” said the thief.

The guide put the bottle back in his pack.

“I’ll take to you to the Turk, but I’m not going in. That means when you go inside, you’re not going to have any backup.”

“Do you have some kind of problem with him?”

“Of course I do. Warlords and power brokers—I don’t trust any of them. So when you go in, you’re on your own.”

The thief could tell there were things the guide wasn’t telling him, but he was grateful enough not to have been murdered that he let it go. “How long will it take to get there?”

The guide continued to smoke.

“Do you want to go fast or safe?”

“I don’t want to die in this city.”

“Safe it is, then.”

“How long will it take?”

“It depends on the road,” said the guide. “Two, maybe three days if the way is clear. If it’s not, it’s taken as long as five.”

“Five days?”

The guide gestured out into the dying light.

“You get pinned down somewhere by cops or a decon sweep, there’s nothing to do but sit tight.” He looked at the thief. “This isn’t sightseeing on a bus with lunch and pretty snapshots.”

“Still. Days.”

The guide tossed the cigarette out of the car.

“Take it or leave it. No refunds.”

The thief thought about it.

“How long is the fast route?”

“A couple days. If we make it at all. Of course for that, I’ll want your gold and cash, too.”

“No. Take me the way we agreed.”

Without a word, the guide pulled out a key and unlocked a compartment under the single chair in the car. He took out two neatly packed black bundles and tossed one to the thief. The thief unfolded it and found it to be a stiff bodysuit that seemed blacker than black.

“Light absorbent,” said the guide as he pulled on his suit over his clothes. “Put up the hood and the mesh over your face. You’ll sweat, but it’ll scramble facial recognition scans.”

The thief put his on and stood flexing, trying to work the stiffness out of the joints. The suit was indeed hot, and smelled faintly of mildew.

The guide continued to pull tools from the seat, some of which the thief recognized from his own work. Pitons. Breaching tools. A small cutting torch. A thin polymer climbing cord. The guide put it all into a larger pack that he also took from the seat. When he had everything he needed, he transferred the bourbon into the new pack and locked the seat.

“Can we leave now?” said the thief.

“When it’s darker and they’ve moved off across town.”

The guide pointed to pinpoints of light moving through the sky.

“Helicopters?” said the thief.

“Drones. As long as things stay quiet out here, they’ll soon move back to the center of town.”

So they sat and smoked and took occasional drinks from the bottle until it was night and the lights in the sky had gone. Then the guide took them back to the ground and they set out west into one of the blacked-out parts of the city.

They didn’t talk as they walked. There was a bright moon, so the sleeping city was illuminated all around them. Skyscrapers and apartment buildings. Restaurants that even the rats had deserted. The thief shook his head. He’d avoided areas like this because they’d been picked clean early in the epidemic. Ransacked cars dotted the wide thoroughfare. Broken shop windows. Sodden boxes for electronics or food. For the most part, though, the empty neighborhood was perfect. Frozen in time. Yet ruins all the same.

Finally, the thief spoke.

“Do think they’ll ever lift the quarantine?” he said.

The guide kept walking.

“We were the epicenter. What do you think?”

“I don’t think they’ll ever let us out.”

They walked for perhaps a half hour more before the guide said, “Shit.”

He raised his hand. Silent pinpoints of light, like shooting stars, swirled through the sky in their direction. He pulled the thief right and they ran down two blocks and waited behind the collapsed wall of a church. The side streets were much worse than the ones they’d been on earlier. More like war zones, thought the thief. There were bullet holes in the buildings and overturned police cars. Echoes of old riots.

The guide jacked into a spysat view of the area and said, “Sit tight.” An hour later, they headed west again, walking carefully. The guide remained jacked in and the thief suspected that the other man had been spooked after encountering a skyborne patrol this early in

the trip. He hoped he’d hired the right guide and not a fool who would lead him into a trap. There had been those in the past and he’d barely escaped.

They continued through the night, clambering over piles of bricks and barriers made from stacked cars meant to seal off the area from law enforcement. Near dawn, the men took shelter in the vault of an empty bank.

It was close to winter and the morning air was chill. Eventually it seeped into the thief’s bodysuit, mingling with his sweat and making him shiver. The guide saw it and set out an ingot of metal that grew hot but gave off no smoke. The thief warmed himself near it.

The adrenaline that had carried the thief through the night was ebbing now, and he felt ragged. As his eyes closed, he heard the guide say, “Why is it you’re willing to risk your neck to see the Turk?”

The thief kept his eyes closed for a moment, his mind racing through good and bad lies. Finally, he decided there was nothing wrong with the truth.

“Travel papers. It’s not enough to have a clean online health certificate. You need a physical, notarized form.”

“Sounds expensive,” said the guide. “Think you’ll have and cash or gold left after you pay for all that?”

“I don’t know. But I can always get more.”

The guide looked at him conspiratorially.

“Waylaying other sleeping travelers?”

The thief frowned.

“Not unless they try waylaying me first.”

“Then how?”

“Graves,” he said. “I rob graves.”

For the first time the thief saw the guide look troubled. He said, “Stop talking and get some sleep. We’ll move fast tonight.”

The thief settled down on the hard floor near the burning ingot and was quickly asleep. He dreamed of the day Mina left him and of finding her mother still alive. When he awoke in the later afternoon, he was in a foul mood. He ate a protein bar and kept to himself until it was time to leave.

Before they left the bank, the thief took a small amount of a clear solution from a plastic bottle and rubbed it on his hands. Then he dry-swallowed some pills.

“What’s in the bottle?” said the guide.

“Skin sealant. It helps with cuts.”

“And the pills?”

“Immunosuppressants. I have job-related implants. This helps keep my body from rejecting them.”

The guide, who’d been placing items in his pack, sat back on his haunches and laughed. “You’re taking immunosuppressants in the middle of a plague zone?”

“Now you know why I want to leave.”

“No. That’s not why you want to leave. Maybe part of it, but there’s more.”

“There’s always more to a story, that’s why we call them stories. Can we go soon?”

The guide gave him a look and poured water onto the heating ingot.

“It needs to cool a little more.”

 

In the evening, they passed a group of children picking through the remains of an automat that looked as if it hadn’t seen food in a year. There was a feral look to the pack, so the guide took out one of his pistols and held it to his side, making sure the children could see it. The men moved on and no one followed.

An hour or two later they came upon an old man pushing a shopping cart piled high with dirty clothes and cans of food, many without labels. The old man tried to run, but there were stones and one of his legs was bad and he fell. The thief started to help him up, but the old man pulled away. He waved at the cart.

“Take what you want, but don’t touch me.”

“I’m not sick,” said the thief, showing the man the QR code lasered onto his wrist. “I have antibodies.”

“I’ve seen men with a dozen of those. Talk to ’em and tomorrow you’re coughing up blood.”

“We don’t want your shit,” said the guide, and pulled the thief away roughly.

The old man stayed sprawled in the street. He shouted, “You’re going to die, you know. There’s nothing but death down there.” He pointed to his head. “I can see these things. You’re both going to die.”

The thief went back and threw a protein bar at the old man’s feet. He snatched it up and put it in his overcoat pocket.

“This doesn’t change anything,” he said and pointed to the guide. “Your death will be quick, though alone.” He looked at the thief. “But yours will linger and you’ll beg for it.” The old man began to weep quietly, so they left him to it.

The thief and the guide walked most of the night, until they saw the lights of a military APC in the distance. They went into a chain hotel and on the fifth floor found a room with comfortable beds and clean sheets. The guide jammed his breaching tool under the doorknob to block the entrance, and they moved a table and chairs against it for reinforcement.

The guide removed a small device from his pack, inserted needles into each of his arms, and lay back.

“What’s that?” said the thief.

“Blood scrubber. Clears out the toxins, bacteria, and what have you. With your idiot pills you could probably use a cleaning. I’ll let you have a turn for some of that gold.”

The thief considered it. He knew he could do with a cleaning, but losing more gold probably meant going back to cemeteries.

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Suit yourself. You feel like a million bucks after a round.”

The thief lay down. His body was stiff from sleeping on the floor of the vault and the bed helped ease the pain.

“I guess I won today,” said the guide quietly.

“How so?”

“I die quick and you die begging.”

“Yes. I’m sure that old man was psychic. Besides, he didn’t say begging for what. Maybe I’m having so much fun I beg for it to stop.”

“Right. That’s what he meant.”

“I’m tired and going to sleep.”

“Yeah. I won.”

The men closed their eyes, but neither slept soundly with the noise of patrols going by. There was gunfire in the distance at sundown.

 

The next morning there were still stars in the sky when the guide scanned the area on his spysat link. They headed out when there was just a sliver of light on the horizon.

A dog, large and brown, with wounds down its body that had torn away fur, eyed them as they came into the street. The guide shouted at it, but the dog didn’t move.

The thief said, “You’d think they’d be thinner. Strays, I mean, this far away from the inhabited neighborhoods.”

“He’s been eating all right. Maybe that old loudmouth from last night.”

The thief made a face at the idea.

Finally, the guide picked up a brick and threw it as hard as he could at the dog. It darted into a sunglasses store before the brick got near it. The two men headed out  and when the thief looked back, the dog was watching them from the door of the shop.

With no patrols in sight and the sky empty, the guide led them back to a main boulevard where they made good time, even in the areas where the streets were crowded with ghuls. They reminded the thief of zombies he’d seen in old movies as a child. For the most part, their skin was gray and, on some of the worst ones, it sloughed off. But they weren’t dead. The victims of quack cures and contaminated black market medications, they paced the streets in vast herds like the undead he remembered. But the ghuls only attacked each other and it was just the maddest of them that did it. They were oblivious to the thief and guide. At certain intersections, the crowd became so dense that pushing through it took all the men’s strength.

“Should we go back to the side streets?” said the thief once they made it through a particularly resistant mob.

The guide said, “Only if you want to lose another day.”

Ahead were some of the maddest of the ghuls. They were the most disturbing because they appeared utterly normal. Healthy skin. Clear eyes. On some, even their clothes were intact. But they couldn’t help gnawing on the flesh of the slower, gray ghuls. The stink of infection and creeping death was awful, and the men gave them a wide berth.

When the way was clear again, the guide lit a cigarette, taking long drags on it as he spoke.

“They say that sometimes the Turk moves around. What if he’s not there when we reach his place?”

The thief said, “Who says he moves?”

“It’s just what I’ve heard.”

“They were lying or joking. The Turk never leaves his compound. He might be sick himself or waiting for the all clear. Or maybe he just doesn’t care what it’s like out here.”

“Maybe,” said the guide. “So. You rob graves.”

The thief felt ashamed again.

“I didn’t always.”

“You want to go back to the ghuls and pick some pockets?”

“No thanks.”

“They won’t mind.”

“Stop it.”

The guide smoked and nodded his head.

“You like your dead less pushy.”

“They’re not dead. They’re insane.”

“Some are probably full of plague, so I hope that skin sealant is working for you.”

The thief cursed. “I should have brought gloves.”

“I have an extra pair. You can have them for a little gold.”

“Let me think about it.”

Soon they reached another of the mobs—the largest one yet. They cut to a side street, but it too was packed, so there was nothing to do but shoulder their way through. Deep in the sluggish sea of bodies, someone slammed into the thief and grabbed his arm. The mad ghul started to bite him, but stopped when it smelled his fresh skin. It stared at him for a moment before spinning around to bite one of the gray shamblers. As the ghul let go, the thief felt it scrape a little of the sealant off his hand. He called to the guide.

“I’ll take the gloves.”

The guide pulled them from his belt and slapped them into the thief’s chest.

“I’ll get the gold later.”

That night, there weren’t any intact buildings for them to bed down in, so the guide removed a fabric tube from his pack and tossed it on a flat spot between a garage and a sandwich shop. The tube unfolded into a small Fuller dome and the two men crawled inside. The guide sealed the door with a transparent gel that carried an electric charge to keep out intruders. The thief slid to the far side of the dome. The bottom had inflated enough that they were off the hard ground and relatively comfortable. Inside, it smelled of antiseptic and outgassing polymers. It reminded him of cheap toys from his childhood. He took a protein bar from his pack and the guide took jerky from his. The men traded the food and each ate quietly for a while.

When he was halfway through the meat the thief said, “It’s been a couple of days now. Will we reach the Turk tomorrow?”

“This isn’t bad,” said the guide chewing the protein bar. “Unlikely tomorrow. The day after if we’re lucky.”

“All right,” said the thief. He was disappointed by the answer and ate the rest of the jerky trying not to imagine where Mina was.

The guide took out the bourbon, but the thief said, “Do you have any water?”

He found water and handed the bottle to the thief. He drank deeply and when the thief realized how much he’d swallowed he felt guilty.

“I’m sorry. I drank too much.”

The guide waved it off. He opened his pack enough that the thief could see a little Maker inside.

“We can cook up anything. All the food or water we want.”

“Not meat,” said the thief. “Maker meat is always like rubber.”

The guide put the pack away. He laughed lightly.

“It is, isn’t it?”

The thief finished the water and when offered the bourbon again, he drank some.

The guide stared through the gel around the entrance and said, “I guess we’re all thieves in our own way. I quit the force when I got a better offer.”

“It wasn’t grave robbing, I know that much.”

“Distributor. Medicine for people who couldn’t get it any other away.”

The thief frowned.

“A lot of those bootleg meds didn’t work. Watered down. People died.”

“What people? People like the old man with the cart? The losers we burned in their cars? You saw the lights in the center of town. Plenty of good people made it through alive.”

“And you decide who the good people are?”

The guide slid closer to him.

“We didn’t force anyone to buy our shit, Mr. Corpse Fucker. They came to us begging.”

“And you sold them poison.”

The guide looked at the ceiling of the dome.

“The hospitals had all been bought up by the banks and techs by then. Concierge care. They wouldn’t take those kinds of people. At least my way, they died with a little hope.”

“That’s some twisted logic. Your garbage is partly responsible for those fucking zombies tonight. They didn’t die with hope.”

“They’re not dead. Besides, if I gave you a dollar for every corpse in every graveyard you ever stole from, would you really care how the dead got there? No. You’d say thanks and count your money.”

The thief balled up a fist.

“Friends of mine died from the bad medicine.”

The guide inched a little closer.

“I’m sorry for your friends, but like I said, I never forced anything on anyone.”

The guide was a much bigger man than the thief, and having him this close and clearly ready to charge made the thief nervous. He relaxed his fist and said, “Can we talk about something else?”

The guide slid back across the dome.

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk at all.”

“That’s fine by me.”

The guide put out his hand.

“But before you bed down, princess, I’ll take the gold for the gloves.”

The guide named an absurd amount and this time the thief haggled. When they reached half the original price the thief paid him and went to sleep.

He dreamed of Mina again. This time she wasn’t leaving him, but choking as she coughed up blood in their bed.

 

There were police patrols in the streets, so the guide took them onto the rooftops of a series of tower blocks. It was slow going, but the thief had spent hundreds of nights on similar roofs and felt at home crossing the tar paper walkways, stepping around and under air cleaners and dish antennae. However, an hour after sundown, the temperature plunged suddenly and a light snow began to fall. They had to stop frequently as drones passed overhead, silent as bats. Soon, the thief’s feet were numb in the snow.

He said, “Should we take shelter for a while? I can’t feel my hands or feet.”

The guide looked at the sky.

“We can, but the snow is just going to get worse. Stop now and we could lose another day.”

“I have gear for this kind of weather back home, but I wanted to travel light.”

“You should have come to me earlier and I would have told you what to bring.”

The thief cursed himself for all the equipment he’d left behind. The temperature continued to drop and he shivered as they crossed flat roofs that offered no protection from the wind. He said, “That ingot of yours will keep a room warm. Do you have anything that will work for us?”

The guide kept up a steady pace as he spoke.

“Sure. But it will cost you more gold.”

The thief didn’t hesitate. “I’ll pay. What do you have?”

The guide knelt by a large overturned satellite dish and took pills from a leather pouch on his belt. He gave the thief one pill and kept one for himself. They were small cubes without any markings that the thief could see.

“What is it?”

“It’s Swiss. Good stuff. It’ll jack your system into overdrive. Body temp. Strength. Endurance. Heightened senses.”

“Will they warm us for the night?”

“No,” said the guide. “They’re only good for about three hours. But we can cover a lot of ground before they wear off.”

The thief started to swallow the pill, but hesitated when he thought about the guide and the bad medicine he’d peddled.

The guide laughed at him and swallowed his pill.

“You think I’m dumb enough to take my own product?”

The thief swallowed his and they started out again. He was cold for a long time and the going was slow. He could tell that he was annoying the guide, who had to alter his pace. The thief felt weak and foolish when he thought of his brash thefts over the years. No fear at all back then. But something had broken in him when he’d discovered Mina’s lie, and he’d never quite put himself back together again. He pushed the memory of it out of his mind and settled into counting his steps, trying to keep up with the guide.

A few more minutes of shivering, then a sudden warmth spread throughout his body. The sensation was like strong coffee and the stimulants he took when he was working all night. It was as the guide had said. He felt stronger and it seemed to him that the night cleared considerably as his vision and hearing expanded. The guide flashed him a knowing look and began to trot through the thin layer of fresh snow. The thief kept up with him easily and they ran that way for another hour without slowing.

Finally, they stopped behind a billboard advertising tropical vacations. The guide checked the spysat and said, “Patrols have moved on. Let’s go down. We’ll make better time in the street.”

They went down four floors and had several more to go when the thief heard a guttural rumble. The guide put out his arm and abruptly stopped the thief. He’d clearly heard the sound too. The rumble came again and this time they understood it to be a growl. The thief thought about the dog that the guide had thrown a brick at and what he’d said about it: He’s been eating all right.

Little light came through the building’s dusty windows but with his heightened senses, the thief could see at least six large dogs waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs. There was something odd about them.

“What—?” the thief started to say.

The guide whispered, “Hush. Jadghunds.” He quietly slipped one of the pistols from its holster on his belt.

Jadghund. The thief had heard the term, but never seen one. Lab-grown for heavy muscle. He’d heard tales about some with plastique sewn in their gut that could stop a tank. Necrotizing toxins in their saliva. A single bite was death.

“What do we do?” whispered the thief. He was sure that with the drug in his system he could easily make it back to the roof.

The guide said, “Run. But not yet.” He bought the pistol up level as the alpha of the pack took a few slow steps up the stairs. The fur bristled along its back and there was something wrong with its eyes. They glowed silver in the dimness of the stairwell. “When I fire, go,” he said.

As the Jadghund readied to pounce, the guide fired off a volley of shots. There was little noise from the gun, but the dogs howled. The thief saw then that it wasn’t bullets that had hit the pack, but electrified hobbles that wrapped themselves around the animals’ legs and throats.

“Go,” shouted the guide, and he and the thief ran back up the stairs. The guide fired more rounds, but they must have gone wide because the thief could hear the Jadghunds closing on them. Instead of running all four floors back to the roof, the guide shoved the thief into an office and slammed the door shut. The men pushed a heavy metal desk against the door and went to the windows. Most were sealed shut, but one let out onto a fire escape. The window was jammed, however, and the thick glass wouldn’t break when the guide kicked it. He slid his pack off and took out the breach tool—a small axe head on one end and a crowbar on the other. He used the bar to pry up the window and shoved the thief out onto the fire escape. The cool air felt good for a moment until the thief heard the office door splinter open and ravenous barking as the Jadghunds charged inside.

The guide fired at the three dogs that burst into the room and two went down. But the alpha knocked him onto his back before he could do anything except grab his pack and hold it before him to keep the hound’s vicious jaws away.

The thief left his pack on the fire escape and climbed back through the window. The guide had dropped his breach tool and the thief grabbed it, slamming the axe end down again and again onto the alpha’s back and head. Blood, ink black in the moonlight, splattered the wall and his chest and arms. At first, the hound seemed oblivious to him, but after a few more blows it ceased its attack on the guide and turned on the thief. He never stopped striking the animal, even as it pivoted toward him. It seemed to him that there was nothing left of its head but bare skull and its silver eyes. The thief pressed against the wall before the Jadghund finally staggered and slumped onto the floor.

The thief went back to the guide and helped him to his feet. Once the man was upright, he jerked away and ran his hands over his arms and face. “Did it bite me?” he said. Then shouted, “Did it bite me? I don’t have antivenom.”

The thief looked him over. The alpha’s blood was splattered on the guide’s face and ran down his arms, but he didn’t see any puncture wounds. The guide relaxed a little and used his sleeve to wipe blood from his face.

“Good job with the breach. Bring it to me.”

The guide’s pack had been shredded in the attack and he was trying to patch it back together with a sealing foam when one of the other Jadghunds broke free. The men had to scramble onto the fire escape and down to the street. The climbing cord, small boxes, and tools tumbled from the guide’s torn pack as they went. They gathered up what they could when they reached the ground, but a ragged crowd was forming nearby, attracted by the sounds of the fight. Some of the gawkers held pipes and heavy clubs. The guide pulled a pistol and aimed it at them. It wasn’t necessary. The last of the Jadghunds had freed themselves, stumbled down the fire escape, and leapt the last two floors onto the street. The panicked crowd scattered and the pack ran for them as the thief and guide hid, then slipped quietly away.

 

The guide set up the dome again, this time in a parking garage just off the main street. The sounds of growls and screams had long since faded. Before they bedded down, the thief pointed to some ghuls outside. The mad, clear-skinned kind in business suits and expensive dresses. Inside the dome, the guide used several packets of antiseptic wipes to clean the last of the blood off himself.

“I lost my pack back there,” said the thief.

“Lost most of mine too,” the guide said, laying out the shredded pack’s remaining contents. It wasn’t much. Some ammunition. A change of clothes. A single square of jerky. A collapsible machete. But the Maker seemed to be intact. He kissed it. “We’ll be okay with this. There will be food and water to keep going.”

The thief felt a little better and was surprised when the guide put out his hand.

“You saved my ass back there,” said the big man.

The thief reached out his hand and they shook.

As the guide rummaged through the pack’s side pockets he said, “Keep your gold for the pills. I owe you that much.”

“Thank you.” Then, “Fuck.”

“What? You get bit?”

“No. I lost my immunosuppressants back there.”

“No matter,” said the guide. “The Turk will have all that when you get there.”

“Something else to pay for.”

The guide threw the torn pack to the side of the dome.

“There’s always something else. That and death are the only two things you can count on.”

After the run across the roofs and the fight, the effects of the pill were wearing off. The thief checked his pockets hoping for a protein bar, but came up with nothing.

“I’m hungry too,” said the guide. “You know how to set up a Maker?”

“Of course.”

“Get it fired up. I’ll be back in two shakes.”

The guide unfolded the machete and went into the street. The thief prepared the Maker and wondered what the guide would return with. Weeds? A rat? As long as it was organic, he didn’t really care. He just needed something in his belly and nourishment enough to keep moving. It amazed him when he thought about how, in just a few days, he’d moved so far from his old life. He was a thief and a good one, the opposite of a man of action like the guide. When he did his job well, there was no action at all. A concentrated calm, then in and out and back home. There was none of that left now. No subtlety and certainly no home. He rubbed his aching shoulder, wondering if he’d torn something in the fight with the hound.

The guide soon returned with something wrapped in blue fabric. He set it on the dome floor and said, “Is the Maker ready?”

The thief nodded.

“What is that?”

“About five pounds of protein. We can go for a week on this.”

The thief looked at him.

“It’s going to take another week to get there?”

The guide unfolded the fabric and said, “Relax. It’s just an expression. We’re nearly there.”

With the fabric unfolded, the thief saw a bloody lump of fresh meat. Several pounds of it at least. He wondered for a moment if the guide had gone back and taken a leg from the dead hound. But the thief looked more closely and recognized the fabric as blue pinstripe. He backed away from it all the way across the dome.

“You cut that off one of the ghuls.”

The guide took out a bowie knife and sliced the meat into pieces small enough to fit inside the Maker. “He won’t miss it,” he said.

“Did you kill him?”

The guide sighed. When he spoke he sounded weary.

“What do you want the Maker to cook up? You don’t like Maker meat. So, what? Those shitty bars you choke down?”

“I’m not eating that,” said the thief.

“That’s right. You’re not. Molecules are molecules. When the Maker is done you’ll forget all about where they came from.”

“No.”

The guide put the meat in the Maker and started it.

“Suit yourself, but you’re not going to make it to the Turk if you don’t eat. Especially after tonight. You think I don’t see you favoring that shoulder? You need protein for that to heal.”

“I can’t.”

The guide looked hard at him.

“You can and you will if I have to shove it down your throat.”

“Why do you care so much if I eat?”

“Because you think you’re better than me. People like you come to me all the time. Take me home. Take me somewhere better. Save me. But when they see the true cost of travel, they turn their back on the people who saved them. No, you’re going to eat. And tomorrow you’re going to walk. And that’s all there is to it.”

The thief lay down with his back to the guide until an hour later the Maker beeped. He listened as the guide slipped the tray of warm food from the device and set it down. To the thief’s horror, it smelled delicious.

“Dinner’s ready,” said the guide.

The thief didn’t reply.

After a moment, the guide said. “I know you can smell it and I know you’re hungry because I am. Let’s do this the simple way and you come over here because if I have to come over there it won’t be simple.”

The thief listened as the guide ate and it tormented him how much he wanted to eat too. Finally he sat up, hurting his injured shoulder in the process. He said, “I know that smell.”

“I made it just for you, princess. It smells and tastes just like corn bread,” said the guide. Then, mockingly, “Don’t worry. There’s no bones and it’s all protein.” He slid a slice of the loaf across the dome on a piece of the blue pinstripe fabric.

The thief knew the fabric was there so he wouldn’t forget the origin of the molecules. He sniffed the slice. His stomach knotted and he knew what was going to happen next. He reached out and pinched off a tiny corner of the slice between his thumb and forefinger. It tasted exactly like corn bread, though the texture was a little gummy.

“Good, huh?” said the guide.

The thief stared at the slice.

“It’s too late. You ate some and you want more,” the guide said. “You’re a monster like me. Now finish it.”

The thief knew that the guide’s threat to force the food on him wasn’t an idle one. And he was starving. He broke off another piece from the slice and put it in his mouth. Then another. And began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” said the guide.

“My wife used to make corn bread. Back when you could get things like corn meal.”

“Was it good?”

“Very.”

“Does this remind you of home?”

The thief laughed again.

“Not in the slightest.”

The guide shoook his head.

“Me neither.”

They ate in quiet until the guide said, “Did you kill her?”

The thief looked up from his food.

“My wife? Of course not.”

The guide cut another slice from the loaf and handed it to the thief, who accepted it.

“I was just curious. You seemed so hot to get out of town and I can’t help but notice you’re traveling alone.”

The thief picked at the food.

“She’s gone now. It hurts to stay.”

The guide leaned back a little.

“An optimist and a romantic. You’re a funny thief.”

“And you’re a chatty cop.”

The guide thought about it.

“I suppose I am. But I lost my cards so I can’t take your gold playing poker.”

“Good,” said the thief. “I cheat at cards and you’d just get mad.”

The guide wrapped the rest of the loaf in the pinstripe material and put it in the remains of his pack.

“Did you love her?” he said.

“Yes. I did.”

“The way you talk about her, though. She didn’t die. She left you.”

“So?”

“So, you loved her, but she didn’t love you.”

“She did. In her way.”

“But she still ran off,” said the guide. “Maybe with someone who didn’t fuck corpses?”

“I didn’t always steal from the dead. It’s just that I want to leave the living alone these days.”

“And now you ate one. How does that feel?”

The thief didn’t reply.

The guide lay back on the floor and said, “The Turk isn’t going to sell you anything. He’s going to take your shit and pluck your arms and legs like the wings off a fly. And don’t tell me that it’s okay because if it is, I’ll leave you right here and go home.”

“No,” said the thief. “Getting murdered by the Turk isn’t any better than dying from your poison medicine. But I have nowhere else to go for the papers.”

“Good luck. I’m not going in with you.”

“You said that.”

“Just so you understand.”

“Right.”

They went to sleep then. The thief didn’t dream, or if he did, he didn’t remember it and that was just as good.

 

The thief awoke, not quite sure where he was at first. The guide was outside, eating in the open air of the parking garage. The thief went and joined him, but refused more of the Maker loaf. It had snowed during the night and the streets were covered in two or more inches of a flat whiteness. When the guide saw him, he tossed the thief a small sealed pack. The thief opened it and shook out a sort of dull Mylar shawl with a hood.

“We’ll be easy drone targets in these dark clothes,” said the guide. “The hoodies will reflect the snow and make us harder to spot.”

They packed up the dome and their meager supplies in the guide’s crudely repaired pack and headed out as soon as the sun was gone. The thief was glad that he’d bought the gloves. They weren’t very thick, but they helped a little with the cold. After last night, he could no longer tell how many days they’d been camping.

“How much longer to the Turk’s?” he said.

“I’ll tell you later,” said the guide.

“Why later?”

“Because I said so. And because I want to get the lay of the land.”

“We’re not lost, are we?”

“Don’t insult me. It’s just that the snow changes things. I need all my eyes—the ones in my head and readings from the spysat. I can’t process it all with you chattering away.”

“All right, then. But tell me when you can.”

“Quiet.”

They walked west for several hours, sometimes on the thoroughfare and sometimes on the side streets, stumbling over bricks made slippery with ice. Once, the thief tripped over a body in the snow and almost fell. The guide kept walking and the thief had to trot a distance to catch up.

The road became stranger as they left the business district behind. What appeared to be people huddled together in a group was a collection of robotic and hologram greeters from local shops and hotels. Each lit up or gave them a mechanical smile as they passed. Some spoke to them in cheerful tones.

“Bonjour.”

“Hello.”

“Nǐ hǎo.”

“Zdravstvuj.”

Later, there was a charred apartment building festooned with torn biohazard tape, as if decorated for a party.

An hour on, a street sculpture of two people kissing that had been constructed from bricks and broken glass.

Then, a children’s playground full of naked mannequins.

At the very edge of the district were a dozen wooden poles with a human skull mounted on top of each. The guide took out the pistol, but if anyone was there, they didn’t show themselves.

Eventually, the thief and the guide came to a long suspension bridge covered in snow. The lights on top of the support towers shone, but the near end of the bridge had been blown up sometime during the pandemic to keep anyone from crossing. The thief’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of the dead end. The guide pointed out over the dark water.

“See that black hump on the hill on other side of the bridge? That’s the Turk’s bunker.”

“But how do we get there?”

“If things work out like tonight, we’ll be there by morning.”

“Do you have a boat?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

They turned north and went along the road facing the water. There was no sound except for their footfalls crunching in the dry snow. The breeze blowing in from the river was icy. The thief shivered, but didn’t feel bad about it because the guide shivered too.

“I don’t suppose you have any of those pills left?” said the thief.

The guide blew into his hands.

“Nope. Lost them all to the dogs.”

“Too bad. I would have paid a lot for one.”

“Me too.”

The thief looked back over the water.

“The Turk’s building looks odd.”

“It used to be a military bunker. Command and control. Fire center. Bang bang. Supposed to be roomy inside. A place to retreat to if things get too hot for the local powers that be.”

“Are they all in there with the Turk?”

“Maybe. But no one’s in there that the Turk doesn’t want.”

“Whoever’s there, it will be good to reach it soon,” said the thief.

“Just so you know, this is going to be the hardest part of the trip.”

“Why? How?”

“You don’t just stroll up to the Turk’s bunker. You’d get blown away by the cops, the national guard, or the Turk himself. There’s an old AI that runs the bunker. The Turk has most of the old systems online. Scout drones. Mines. Jadghunds. Romper Stompers.”

“What’s that?”

“Spooky perimeter mechs that almost look like people. You spot one, think you’re safe, then it takes your head off and skull-fucks you.”

“I’d rather not die this close to the end.”

“Smart man. That’s why we’re taking the safe route.”

The thief looked over at the guide.

“You’ve lost all your supplies. How will you make it back to the fairgrounds?”

“I’ve been in worse shape and even shittier situations. I’ll get back. I have your gold to spend and those cards to cash in.”

“What will you do with it? You have money now. Why don’t you ask the Turk for papers too?”

The guide gave him a dim smile.

“What’s out there for me? I’m at home here. With what you paid me, soon I’ll be a king.”

“You want to die in this city?”

“Why not? It’s as good as anywhere. But I won’t be doing it for a good long time.”

“Not according to the old man.”

“Fuck the old man.”

“Now who’s the optimist?”

As they went, the guide took out some of the Maker loaf. This time, in the cold, the thief ate with him.

The guide said, “Endings always make me happy. Don’t they make you happy?”

“It depends on the ending.”

“That’s your problem. You want things. People who want things are never happy.”

“If you don’t want anything, how about giving me my cards and gold back?”

The guide waved a finger at him.

“There’s a difference between wanting things and needing things. I need plenty. Your shit is going to get it for me.”

“What is it you need?”

“Don’t worry about it. Worry about getting in through that bunker without the Turk ripping out your organs to use for himself.”

“Is that why you’re afraid of the Turk?”

“I didn’t say I was afraid.”

The guide led them east, away from the water and back into the city. They walked for two blocks before the guide stopped.

The thief said, “How many times have you seen the Turk?”

“Who says I’ve seen him?”

“I just get the feeling that you went to see him and that something happened.”

The guide spit into the snow.

“I saw him once. And came out a rich man.”

“Was this before or after you peddled poison?”

“Before. I was still on the force. I quit after I’d made my fortune.”

“Money?”

“Plenty of it. More than on all your cards.”

“What happened to it?”

The guide looked away.

“Things didn’t work out.”

“What happened to the money? Did you lose it or did someone take it?”

The guide turned and gave him a sharp look.

“I’m not a cuck like you. No one takes from me.”

“So you lost it and sold snake oil.”

The guide got down on his knees in the street and wiped snow off a manhole cover.

“Forgive me if I don’t feel sorry for you,” said the thief.

The guide looked up. His face had turned hard.

“You know how the old man said you’d die begging? I hope I’m there to see it. We lost the crowbar to the dogs, so help me open this manhole.”

It took them several minutes to remove the heavy cover with their numb fingers. When they finally managed it, the guide stepped into the hole and climbed down a steel ladder set into the wall. The thief followed him and when he reached the bottom he looked up.

“Shouldn’t we close the cover?”

The guide looked around.

“They’ll do it later.”

“Who will?”

Pointing down one of the tunnels, the guide turned on a flashlight and said, “This way.” The thief was used to streets, and roofs, and the dark contours of other people’s rooms. He didn’t know what to make of this new world, so he followed the guide because the only other thing he could do was climb out of the hole and give up.

He quickly lost track of time in the sewers. The tunnels didn’t smell as awful as he thought they would. Maybe it was the cold. Maybe it was because there was no one left to flush anything into them. Whatever the reason, he was grateful. Still, there were standing puddles here and there and he cursed when the frigid, slimy water splashed his legs. Sometimes, rats walked along the walls, pacing them. But they seemed more curious than anything. At one turn, the thief saw a half-frozen waterfall of old sewage. He found it strangely beautiful in the bluish glow of the flashlight LEDs. The tunnel they stepped into after going through a cracked wall was much wider and cleaner and their passage, while not pleasant, wasn’t as difficult as it had been earlier.

There were moments when the thief wondered if the guide wasn’t leading him to a place where it would be easy to kill him and take the last of his belongings. But that made no sense. The guide could have killed him as far back as the Ferris wheel and a hundred times since. No. Whatever the reason for the sewer detour, it wasn’t an ambush.

Soon, though, the guide stopped. A tall woman stood in the tunnel ahead. Her black hair was tied back and she wore an expensive fur coat that stretched all the way down to her combat boots. Two other women stood behind her with rifles trained on the men.

“Hello, Maggie,” said the guide.

“Hello yourself.” She looked at the thief and said to the guide, “The blind man said you might be heading here. This your cargo?”

“He is indeed.”

“You’re really taking him to see the Turk?”

“It’s what he paid for.”

“Be careful. There’s something going on at the bunker.”

“What’s going on?” said the thief.

Maggie grinned at him.

“Look. It can talk.”

The women behind her laughed.

“I don’t know what’s going on exactly,” said Maggie. “Things are just different. The Turk has more patrols out. He’s cleared the countryside and shoots down anything in the sky that gets near him. It’s like he’s expecting something.”

The guide looked at the thief.

“You still want to go?”

“I don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice, shithead,” said Maggie.

The thief looked at her and the other women.

“Do you live down here in the sewers all the time?”

Maggie looked at the guide.

“Where did you get this idiot?” She turned to the thief. “You haven’t been in the sewers for miles. What, were you expecting to pop out of the Turk’s toilet?”

“Then where are we?” said the thief.

“The metro tunnel under the river. Army pulled up the rails when they blew the bridge, but it’ll take you right to the bunker.”

“Then you’re the toll takers.”

“Exactly.”

“So, pay the lady.”

“How much?”

She named a sum.

“Gold or cash?”

“Cash is fine.”

When he’d paid, Maggie and the other women stepped aside so that the guide and the thief could pass. As they went, Maggie called to the guide, “Be careful out there. I don’t want to have to drag you in pieces backto the blind man. If you end up in a wheelchair, he won’t be able to help you wipe your ass.”

The guide gave her the finger without turning and the thief heard the women laugh again. The sound was high and clear and reminded him of Mina. More than ever, he wanted to get to the Turk and out of the mad city.

The guide stopped a few yards on and pushed a button set into the grimy wall. Gears ground and something heavy moved in the wall next to them. A moment later, doors opened and the two men stepped into an unlit elevator. The guide pushed the top button and the car clattered upward. A moment later, the doors opened and the thief found himself standing in morning light in an enclosed glass atrium for the transit system. He pushed through the doors and back out into the cold. No more than a half mile off sat the Turk’s bunker, black and immense, outlined in white snow.

The thief felt happier than he had in months.

“You said this would be the hardest part of the trip. That wasn’t so bad.”

The guide took out a piece of the loaf and ate it without offering any to the thief. “We’re not at the hard part yet.”

 

They went north for an hour without getting any closer to the bunker. Then turned west, and the building finally grew larger in the thief’s vision.

“After what Maggie said, we’re going to circle the place before you even dream about going in,” said the guide.

By now the thief was impatient, but understood that the wisdom of the guide’s plan.

They walked uphill into a thin stand of trees above the bunker. Hunkering down behind a sickly pine, the guide pulled a handful of spiked red marbles from his bag and threw them in a sweeping motion down the hill before them. Rolling under their own power, the marbles bounced far out in all directions. A few stopped in place and pulsed red before going out.

“Mines,” the guide said. “Can’t go that way. We’ll have to try farther up.”

He had just reached into his pack for more marbles when the thief caught sight of figures around them. He touched the guide’s shoulder.

“There’s someone here.”

The guide didn’t make a sound. His gun fired twice at the figures advancing on them. The bullets’ hiss surprised the thief and he pressed himself down into the snow. These weren’t hobbling shells. They were Raufoss. Armor-piercing.

One of the figures fell at an angle that allowed the thief to see it clearly. Though it possessed arms and legs, its face was a parody of anything human. Crooked, uneven teeth in what looked like a broken jaw. Lumpy clots of skin on its skull, as if someone had taken a blowtorch to it. The eyes were clear, but the forehead was cracked. A Romper Stomper, he guessed. The guide continued firing and more fell. Each face was different, but no less horrific. The thief grew less shocked by it all. It was a joke. The ridiculous faces were war paint meant to scare fools. Like us, he thought.

More of them came and the guide didn’t stop firing until his pistol was empty. Yet the Stompers, mounted with rifles and grenade launchers, didn’t return fire. The thief remained still. The guide dropped his pistol to the ground and cursed frantically as the mechs surrounded them. Two reached down and pulled the thief and guide to their feet, marching them around the minefield and down the hill to the bunker.

They bought them in through the front gates. More Stompers filled sides of the concrete deck outside an enormous armor-plated doorway that slid up as they approached. There were gun emplacements along the roof and drones overhead, spinning and diving in complicated circles in the sky above them.

As they approached the armored doorway, the guide dug in his heels and shook his head. He said, “I’m not going in. Shoot me here, but I’m not going in.”

The Stomper escort stopped, but did nothing. The thief got the impression that they were communicating with whoever was controlling them from inside the bunker. A minute or so later, two Stompers pushed the guide away and escorted the thief inside.

The guide shouted after him, “If you make it out, I’ll take you to the border with your damn papers. I always finish a deal.”

 

Through the armored doorway was a large transport bay full of trucks and jeeps. They went through that area and continued deep inside the bunker complex. Down dozens of gray corridors, some leading off to side offices with dusty glass. The thief could tell they hadn’t been inhabited in years. He wondered if it was the military or the wealthy and politically connected who were bringing him so deep into the Turk’s lair, and for what purpose.

The Stomper led him into an elevator and they went down for a long time. There were no numbers on the panel. Just simple up and down buttons. The thief counted the seconds and when the doors opened, he figured that they’d been descending into the Earth for close to a minute.

There’s no escaping here, he thought. Even if I knew the way out. He took a breath and steadied himself for whatever awaited him.

To his surprise, when the elevator doors opened and he stepped out of the car, the Stomper didn’t follow him. The doors slid shut again and he was alone. The thief stood in what could have been some kind of laboratory or, he thought, the basement of an electric power plant. Large monitors ringed the room, showing views of the hillside and rooms within the bunker. The thief saw himself on video from different angles. What looked like motors hung overhead. Around them, smaller devices ran on little wheels along lubricated poles.

The thief looked around and said, “Hello?”

A PA system crackled and a voice said, “Hello,” and his name.

The thief turned just as something large swung down from the ceiling in his direction. He recognized it as some sort of particularly sophisticated mech. The central body was twenty feet tall and a dozen insectile arms with delicate titanium fingers hung in a ring from the thing’s body. It spoke again: “Hello” and his name. The sound frightened and then disgusted him.

“Stop that,” he said.

“Stop what?” said the mech.

“Stop using Mina’s voice.”

“You can’t imagine Mina in a place like this?”

“No.”

“Does that mean she should go away?”

That stopped the thief.

“Is she here? Show me. Let me see her.”

The mech slid closer and turned around. Mina’s face swung into view.

“Hello, baby. I’ve missed you.”

He wanted to run. He wanted to vomit. But instead, he went closer to the mech. Its insect limbs clicked and clacked.

It was Mina’s face he saw. In fact, her whole body. It looked as if the skin had been flensed from her body, stretched and intricately melded to the mech. The thief could see the profiles of other faces and skins beyond hers, wrapping around the bot’s entire torso.

The thief said, “How are you here?”

“They brought me here. The people who ran this place. I was almost dead. They experimented on me. When most of them were dead and there was no one to run the site, they gave me a second chance at life.”

“You’re the Turk,” said the thief.

Mina’s face grinned. It didn’t look quite right, but it wasn’t as bad as it might have been.

“If you mean the AI who runs the complex, no. There never was an AI. There was always a human behind the scenes. When the most intelligent parts of the system began to fail, it reasoned that it could survive with more human components.”

“Which means you are the Turk, except the Turk never existed.”

“No, silly,” said Mina. “The real Turk was an eighteenth-century automaton that could play chess and beat masters. Only there was no automaton. There was a man inside the box who made all the moves. The whole concept of the Turk is a joke.”

Suddenly exhausted, the thief looked for a chair and when he didn’t find one he sat on the floor.

“How is this possible? I’ve wanted to come here to see the Turk for months. What are the odds that the guide I hired would bring me to you?”

The Mina machine moved closer to him. It extended a metal hand and the thief touched it.

“There were no odds in this. Just me. I knew you were looking. I cleared a path for you to find me. Sent patrols to force you onto safer streets. Cleared buildings for you to bed in.”

“And the dogs?”

“Them too.”

“Why? They almost killed us.”

“Did they attack you?”

“They chased me.”

“But did they attack? I wanted to weaken your friend outside. Deprive him of some of his tools and throw him off balance so it would be harder for him to kill you.”

The thief made a face.

“He could have killed me a hundred times.”

“Yes, but he wants what you want.”

“Travel papers.”

“Yes. He’s been lying to you all along.”

The thief thought it over. It made a kind of sense.

“Why don’t you kill him?”

“Because I want you to do it for me.”

Like everything else since he’d arrived, that caught the thief off guard. He lay down on his back on the floor.

“You haven’t asked how I died,” said Mina.

“I was afraid.”

“It was medicine my mother gave me. His medicine.”

The thief sat up.

“Oh god. That’s why you led me to him.”

“I miss you. Do you miss me?”

“Every day.”

“We can be together. I’m not exactly who I once was, but I’m enough to still love you.”

“I love you too. I want to stay. But I want to make that fucker outside pay for what he did.”

Mina’s metal hand lay gently over the thief’s heart.

“To be with me, you’re going to have to give up your body. You’ll have to die.”

The old man’s words about his death came back to the thief: yours will linger and you’ll beg for it.

“Yes,” he said. “Please kill me.”

Mina’s arm retracted and another swung down. There was a sleek silver injector on the end.

“What’s that?” said the thief.

“The virus. A new strain. It works quickly and no one has immunity to it. I’ve been saving it for just this moment”

“That’s how I’ll kill the guide?”

“Yes. But it’s only transmissible through blood.”

The thief looked at her and finally understood. He pushed up his sleeve.

“Give it to me.”

The needle stung and the injection burned through his veins for a moment, but when it was over he felt as good and strong as ever.

After Mina gave him the travel papers, the Stomper took him through the building and out onto the bunker’s concrete deck, where the guide was waiting. The man opened his arms wide when he saw him.

“You did it, princess. The Turk let you go. With the papers?”

The thief pulled the papers from inside his black bodysuit and showed them to the guide.

“We should get going,” said the thief. “I’d like to make it to the border before dark.”

“Absolutely,” the guide said. He looked at the Stompers, but the mechs did nothing to stop them as he led the thief away. They headed back toward the transit tunnel. The guide talked amiably as they went.

“I don’t believe you fucking did it. I have to admit, this trip, I thought you were a complete asshole the whole way. But now? Now you’re my fucking hero.”

They were halfway to the atrium for the tunnel elevator when the guide said, “Tell me. What does the Turk look like?”

The thief stopped.

“I thought you said he gave you a fortune.”

The guide stopped too and looked around, uncomfortable.

“Shit. I did say that. No, I never saw the Turk, and he never gave me anything.”

Before the thief could speak, the guide had the knife in his hand and plunged it hilt deep into the thief’s gut. The man let out something that was half a groan and half simply a long exhalation of air. The thief fell forward against the guide’s chest.

“Don’t fight it,” said the guide. “Just relax and wait for Jesus.”

The thief looked at the guide, but his vision was collapsing to a long tunnel. He knew he would pass out in a moment, but before he did, he pulled off a glove with his teeth and raked his nails down, scratching the guide’s cheek. The man screamed and stepped back, pulling out the knife. The thief reflexively pressed his hands over the wound in his belly. It took just a few seconds for the guide to regain his senses and stab him again. This time, the thief brought up a hand and smeared his blood onto the guide’s wounded cheek. The guide shoved the thief to the ground and rifled through his bodysuit. When he found the travel papers he stood up.

The cold revived the thief enough that he could see the guide looking over the papers. He appeared elated as he tucked them into his own suit. Then he grimaced and put a hand to his cheek. “Fuck. It burns.” The guide pulled his hand away and the fingers came back black. “What the fuck did you do to me?”

The guide ran in the direction of the atrium. The thief watched him sprinting madly away, trying to put to put as much distance as he could between himself and the thief. In red-slimed snow, the thief was able to push himself up on one elbow. He watched the guide run a hundred or so steps, stumble once, and fall face-first to the ground. He didn’t get up.

Soon, a group of Stompers came from the bunker and the thief felt himself loaded onto a stretcher. He passed out and when he awakened, the wounds in his abdomen were healed with a cellular glue that left only vague scars. He had the impression that a long time had passed. Perhaps days.

When he finally sat up in bed, Mina’s face flashed on one of the monitors.

“How do you feel?” she said.

“All right. Good, in fact.”

“We’ve been feeding you supplements for days. You were quite malnourished.”

“I didn’t have any reason to eat.”

“Come to me,” Mina said. He went outside and a Stomper took him to the lab where Mina was waiting. “It’s so good to see you,” she said.

“And you.”

“I have one more thing I’d like you to do for me.”

“What?”

“It’s my mother. Will you bring her travel papers?”

The thief rubbed his wounds as he thought about it.

“How long until the virus kills me?”

“The supplements will slow it long enough for you to go there and come back to me.”

“But I want to stay now.”

Mina reached down and touched his shoulders with her metallic fingers.

“Please do this for me. I don’t want my mother dying in this city alone.”

“What do you want me to tell her about you?”

“The truth. I’m gone. I took the bank cards from the guide. Give her those.”

“The cash and gold too?”

“Yes. You won’t need them here.”

“Then I can come back?”

Mina looked down at him. “I’ll protect you on the journey there and during your return. With my help, you’ll be there and back in two days. And I’ll be waiting for you.”

The thief shook his head.

“I’m afraid.”

“Don’t be. You’ll soon be part of me. We’ll be together and you’ll never be alone again.”

The thief reached out to Mina.

“Can I touch you?”

“Of course.”

He laid his hands on her face. She closed her eyes and any lingering suspicions he had about the machine evaporated.

“The sooner I go, the sooner I’ll be back,” he said.

“Don’t be afraid. I’ll watch your every step from the sky.”

 

A Stomper took the thief back to the city in a zodiac so he wouldn’t have to go through the tunnels and lie to Maggie about what happened to the guide. After a day of walking, the thief found Mina’s mother as easily as the first time he’d looked for her. He gave her the papers, cards, gold, and cash. When he told the old woman that her daughter was dead she cried for hours. He slept on a battered green velveteen sofa so that she wouldn’t be alone on that first night, then he left early in the morning.

The thief watched the sky as he walked, following the path of the drones overhead, leading him left onto this street and right onto that. No one blocked his way or even approached him.

He reached the shore an hour after sundown. The thief was tired. More tired than he should be, he knew. He suspected that the virus was finally taking hold. A Stomper with a zodiac waited for him and he hurried on board. The air felt chilly, but when he touched his forehead he was sweating. It didn’t matter. The little craft sped away from the city, rocking over the waves to where Mina and home waited for him, out across the dark water.

 

“Across the Dark Water” copyright © 2021 by Richard Kadrey
Art copyright © 2021 by John Anthony Di Giovanni

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