Grey light filtered through the noxious clouds that hung desolately in the Sub-Earth sky. If Nathan Bliqueman had owned a watch, he would have known that it was just past six a.m.; as it was, he owned no such possession. The stillness of the morning was abruptly interrupted by the sound of gunfire, and several rats scampered hastily out of sight as Nathan scrambled upright with a speed that was surprising in someone of his size. In the time it had taken him to achieve a vertical position, he'd drawn his firearm, loaded it, and clicked off the safety in three quick, deft movements.
It was not unusual for transients to own guns - this was the tail end of the twenty-first century for chrissakes - but it was unusual for a transient to own a working gun that had been out of formal circulation for some hundred odd years.
It was also debatable whether it was more odd or less odd that this particular transient owned the gun by virtue of being an ex-cop, even if he was years off the job.
Relative oddness aside, Nathan was the proud owner of an M1911 (one of the few things he could lay claim of his dubious pride to), and he gripped it with hands that only seemed to stop shaking when he was aiming or drinking. His bloodshot eyes narrowed as he approached the broken section of wall that overlooked the world outside. There was a gap several feet wide where time and abuse had eroded the brick, and he stood to one side of it as he surveyed the seemingly empty alleyway.
Anyone else might have chalked it up to realistic dreams and gone back to sleep, but Nathan was far too paranoid for that. He scowled and leaned forward, only now becoming aware of the cold air gusting lightly across the exposed skin of his arms. He'd used his battered Army jacket as a cover and, after dislodging it during his rude awakening, hadn't taken time to put it back on. He kicked himself mentally for it, but wasn't willing to go after it just yet.
Someone shot of another round, and the sound echoed through the alley. The bullet ricocheted off the brick wall of the next building over, and Nathan swore. Whoever was firing was taking potshots, probably at some mangy stray, and while he didn't feel particularly incensed on the animal's behalf, he was fairly livid at being woken in such a manner.
People like that didn't give a damn about the collateral damage - if they hit a person by accident with a ricocheting bullet, well, that just wasn't their problem. Nathan hated people like that. They were the kind of people he'd made a career of taking down - and ultimately the reason his career was taken down. Snorting a wad of mucus back up his nasal passages, he hawked and spat contemptuously. Police brutality... what a fucking joke. As if you'd survive any other way.
He waited, tensed for another shot. It didn't come. Instead, heavy footsteps preceeded the appearance of a man he didn't recognize, in a modern police uniform. The guy didn't look like any kind of cop, though; an observer would have placed him in his late fifties, but Nathan recognized the look of someone who had aged beyond his years. Probably an addict or a drunk. He was tall, easily clearing six feet, but stoop-shouldered and heavy, carrying a lot of weight around his torso that was probably once muscle mass, gone to seed.
Nathan took all of this in automatically, with a detached sort of half-interest. The man's physical attributes didn't concern him; the Ruger 44 carbine in the man's left hand did. A gun like that shouldn't have ricocheted, he thought wildly; it should have blasted a goddamn hole in the wall.
Then another set of footsteps alerted him to a second presence, and he felt a glimmer of fear. A younger man joined the first, and the glimmer turned into a chill as he oriented on the familiar psychopath: James Dekker. The redhead grinned maniacally, lifting a pistol to shoulder-height. That explained the ricochet. The next shot was deafening, but even the ringing in his ears couldn't quite drown out the redhead's demented laughter. The bigger man's expression arranged into something nearing disconcertion, but his gaze was oddly vacant - clearly under the influence of some manner of drug.
Nathan didn't have to look to know that something - or someone - would be splattered across the alley walls. James was a hunter in a city full of unwitting prey. Exhaling slowly, he eased back, away from the opening in the wall. If he'd been a few stories up, he would have simply turned and ran; on ground level, he didn't trust the psycho not to just duck in after him and start shooting.
A rat skittered across his foot and he hissed in surprise. James turned sharply, orienting on the sound, and his grin widened disturbingly far. "I can hear you in there." Broken glass crunched under the redhead's boots as he stepped toward the hole in the wall.
Nathan froze, then lifted his handgun, taking aim.
There was a moment of absolute stillness, then James backed away, clapping the big man with him roughly on the shoulder. "Your turn, Rickets. Go get 'im."
The big man stared, hefting his gun hesitantly. "...me?" He was not James's usual type of lackey, that much was clear. Whatever he was drugged with made him compliant, but not a complete puppet.
James sighed, producing a vial of reddish powder. Nathan recognized it vaguely; a synthetic blend known on the street as sex or, more frequently, dust. "Kill whoever the fuck's in there... and it's yours." He tilted the vial, eying it appraisingly. "That'd be, what, two or three days' worth for you? Huh, big guy?"
The older man sighed heavily and rubbed the back of his hand across his nose. "...right. Give it t' me now, an' I'll go in." Clearly, he knew better than to take the lunatic at his word.
Nathan cursed, silently this time, and took another couple of steps backward. They hadn't seen him yet, and that worked to his advantage. He also knew the layout of this building, as well as the surrounding area, and that worked to his advantage, too.
James and the big man - Rickets, the psycho had called him - fell into arguing, and Nathan took advantage of their distraction to retrieve his jacket and ease the rest of the way out of the room. Now he was faced with two choices: get out of the building, and risk facing both of them in exchange for more places to run; or stay inside, and focus solely on Rickets, limiting himself to the confines of the building and taking the chance that James would lose interest and not join the hunt himself.
Then the redhead made the choice for him. Handing over the vial, he shoved the big man inside the building with a snarl. "Just fuckin' find whoever the fuck's in there. I got bigger fish to fry out here."
Well, that just settled things then, didn't it. Throwing his coat over his arm, he made a beeline for the stairs. When he'd first found the place, on a cold night a few weeks back, he'd cursed the fool who'd ever thought it was a good idea to carpet the stairs, which were now warped and moldering, probably growing some kind of deadly mildew spores. Now he was glad for the carpeting, though; disgusting as it was, it muffled his footsteps. The wooden railing had long ago been destroyed by water and termites; it was amazing the steps themselves had lasted for so long. As it was, he had to be damn careful to avoid stepping through a rotten spot.
If his luck played out, the big man wouldn't do as well.
He picked his way across the landing, avoiding the spongy places and stacks of old newspapers, pulling his jacket on as he went. The two downstairs had finished arguing, and he could hear the big man - it was easier to think of him that way - making his way heavily across the damp, creaking hardwood. He moved on to the second flight of stairs and kept going, regulating his breathing. His pulse slowed, his skin temperature dropped, and his hearing and vision sharpened. He continued down the hallway, pressing close to the grimy walls, ignoring the charred and peeling paint that flaked and clung to his clothing and hair. Reaching the room at the end of the hall - the one he knew to have a window with access to the roof of the next building over - he pushed the door open, feeling the hairs on his neck stand on end as it creaked on ancient hinges.
The big man heard it too, and his footsteps quickened, lumbering up the first set of stairs now. Nathan could hear the man's heavy breathing, knew he was about to hit one of the -
- bad spots. Nathan smiled humorlessly as he listened to the stream of curses that followed. Some of it was in a language he didn't recognize, and he wondered, briefly, where the man was from. Then he shoved that thought aside. He didn't want to know anything about the big man. His pulse quickened, and he took a few deep breaths to slow it. Forcing himself to focus once more, he ran his thumb over the barrel of his M1911, took out the magazine, double-checked it, slid it back into place, cocked the hammer.
No mistakes, Bliqueman. He took another slow, deep breath and waited.
Just as he expected, the big man reacted like an injured, hungry animal: instead of turning around and giving up, he blundered forward in a blind rage, heedless of the noise he made as he crashed through into the hallway. Nathan recognized the effects of the drug now; remembering other users he'd encountered lent a certain amount of foresight. The man was going to walk in firing blindly, and keep on shooting until he ran out of bullets.
He ducked behind a dust-encrusted armoire and listened. The floorboards quivered and groaned in protest as the big man barged into the room. Nathan waited for him to start firing - and was greeted with silence. There was a shuffling instead, and he cursed, realizing what the man was likely to be seeing: he'd left footprints in the layer of dirt covering the floor.
He let out a yell, not a word, just a sound, and darted out from behind the wardrobe, both hands clutching the M1911, poised to fire.
There was a moment of utter stillness as the two men stared at one another. Except for a few slight differences in their facial features, they could have passed as brothers. Then the big man squeezed off a round, and Nathan fired three right into his chest. The big man stumbled backward, firing another bullet that flew wide, taking a chunk out of the crumbling plaster. Nathan braced himself for pain, only to realize vaguely that he felt none. Lowering his gun slowly, he ran his left hand down his torso, staring down at himself. Nothing. He didn't know where that first shot had gone, but it hadn't hit him. He felt a sense of relief so profound that it shocked him. Nathan Bliqueman, the man who swore he couldn't give a shit less whether he lived or died...
Giving himself a firm mental shake, he crossed the room to the dying man, pretending not to hear the hitching gasps of breath that faded to nothing. Twinges of guilt niggled at the periphery of his consciousness, and he shoved them down resolutely, reminding himself that it was kill or be killed. He was long ago inured to the savagery and violence of Sub-Earth living. Avoiding looking at the dead man's face, he fished out first a wallet, then the vial of dust. Popping the top open, he dipped a finger inside and cautiously placed a couple of grains on the tip of his tongue.
He paused, then tipped a little into the palm of his hand and licked it off.
Sugar. Colored sugar. The man had been convinced to kill - for a vial of colored sugar.
Disgust mingled with another feeling that Nathan couldn't quite identify. Or maybe he just didn't want to. He threw the vial aside and turned to the wallet instead. There was nothing in it to identify the man, which was hardly unexpected, and probably just as well. Unfortunately, there was no money, either. He picked up the Ruger and eased himself upward, mindful of the aching in his knees. He paused a moment, then dropped the empty wallet on the man's chest. No sense keeping something he'd never use.
Nathan walked to the window haltingly, testing each step and skirting weak spots in the floor, still unable to pinpoint that other feeling. As he clambered across the planks stretched across to the roof of the next building, he plunged his trembling left hand into the pocket of his jacket, fishing out an ill-used flask. Popping it open with his thumb, he took a long drink before lifting his head again for air. The alcohol suffused his body with warmth, and it was a familiar, comforting feeling. He paused on the roof, but only briefly, knowing that he had to keep moving. Heavy storm clouds were moving in, and he'd lost his latest shelter. There was a psychopath on the loose in the city, but Nathan was used to that; there were worse things than James out there. Sub-Earth rain was one of them.
He moved quickly down a dilapidated fire escape, taking another sip from his flask. Then his guts clenched violently, bringing him to an abrupt halt as he dropped to his knees, doubling over the broken pavement. His shoulders and sides heaved as he projectile vomited the contents of his stomach: mostly beer, mixed with chunks of a sandwich from the night before.
A few minutes later, he staggered to his feet once more, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Now he really wanted a beer, to wash the taste out of his mouth and the twinges in what passed for his conscience. There was a bar a few blocks away where he could get a few drinks and spend the night in a back room for a couple dollars more. It was better than nothing. Then he smiled, surprising himself with the unaccustomed expression. There was a sexy bartender who gave him free drinks when no one was looking. He had a few hours to kill, first. Plenty of time to look for a new place to live.
Nathan started down the road, feeling better already.