A/N: This story takes place in RadiantBeam's "Shadowverse" setting, a year or two before her fic "Shadow."
~X X X~
The man's face was long and thin, with a prominent nose, sharp chin, narrow mouth, and arched eyebrows that combined to give him a pronounced ratlike appearance that not even an afro-like cloud of reddish-brown curls could conceal. Despite the fact that she was only looking at him over a secure communications link, Enforcer Captain Valentine Yaris still imagined she could smell the stench coming off him. His greasy face, his stained, off-white, fringed canvas coat, these things hadn't changed in a dozen years.
"You're looking lovely, V-Val," he said.
Yaris felt a muscle near her left eye twitch.
"I hope this isn't some twisted version of a social call, Crawler."
He held up his hands.
"Hey, hey, Val, e-easy up, n-now! This i-is me here! I got the s-straight stuff, as always!"
Yaris sighed heavily.
"Crawler, I've been retired from fieldwork for six years now. If you're in the same business as always, you have a new handler."
"Y-yeah, I kn-know, but this is special. R-real hot stuff!"
Yaris sighed again. How had he gotten her contact information anyway? Weasels like him always found a way, she supposed. That was what made them valuable as informants, after all.
"Too h-hot to take to s-some street-level flunky." Crawler looked a little smug at that, proud that he'd come up with goods too important to trust to the rank and file, Yaris suppressed an urge to grit her teeth at Crawler's dismissal of a serving field Enforcer as a flunky, both because any Enforcer was an elite operative who'd passed rigorous testing, and because she herself had been a field investigator for over twenty years. There's that tact and self-control of a command staffer, she thought sarcastically.
"So because your old handler happened to have made it up out of 'flunky' status, you brought it to me?"
"Y-yeah, that's it. 'C-course, it ain't gonna b-be free." His ratlike features did do a good job of communicating his raw avarice.
"How much?" Yaris cut to the chase.
Crawler named a figure.
Yaris pressed her fingertips to her temples, feeling the beginning of a headache developing.
"Crawler, just because I'm an administrator now doesn't mean that I pay out more than the standard rates for tips, and that's five times more than what any handler would think of giving you. You've been in the game long enough to know that's not going to happen."
"N-not even for information on D-Durward Brantley the Fifth?"
Yaris's head shot upright.
"Talk fast, Crawler. Don't dick around with me, because if this is legitimate, you might just get what you're asking for."
~X X X~
They shouldn't have knocked.
It was an elementary mistake. When people meet up with a closed, locked room door, they knock. It's a reflex. Even thuggish gang members at a rented room in a flophouse can fall victim to it. Rapier grinned evilly and hammered at the thin panel with his fist, yelling, "Hey, kid, your wakeup call's here!" Then he and the two other gang members with him laughed. They ran the streets in this part of the sprawl, after all. There was no way anyone was going to stash valuable property here without them knowing.
But they shouldn't have knocked.
Three years ago, Ward Brantley V had been a pampered child, surrounded by the trappings of wealth. Pictures of him as a nine-year-old had shown a boy who was soft, self-satisfied, indolent.
That was three years ago.
That was before he'd been kidnapped from his family's stateroom on the dimensional liner Olympic. Before the kidnappers' escape shuttle had been hit by overzealous weapons fire from a pursuit craft. Before the crash that only Ward and two of his captors had survived. Before a month-long overland journey to reach a contact point. Before his life as a prisoner had begun. Before his desperation-fueled escape, his contacting of a black marketeer he'd seen with his captors. The old Ward wouldn't have realized that Conall Viper was the kind of greedy, venal man willing to sell out his contacts in exchange for the massive cash payment Ward's family would give for the missing heir's safe return.
The old Ward wouldn't have come bolt awake at the sound of a knock on the door.
He'd been sleeping on the floor, while the man sent by Conall to escort him had taken the bed. They'd figured a low-profile hideout to stash Ward would be best to keep him out of his former captors' eyes. As a strategy it wasn't bad; the new Ward recognized that the corporate black-ops division of Angharad Applied Technologies wasn't used to dipping its hands into the filth of the slums of Kyas, Administered World 51's capital city. But there were other hazards.
Ward shook the guard, who'd also been awakened but much more groggily.
"There's someone at the door!" he hissed.
For the three Night Breakers at the door, the urge to knock had been a momentary thing at best. Rapier turned to Ninja, who'd been named after the masters of stealth in the same way that the biggest guy in a group is inevitably called Tiny, and said, "Do your thing." The six-foot-six mass of muscle crashed the sole of his work boot into the door, smashing a large hole right through the center of it since the metal of the hinges and deadbolt were stronger than the cheap particleboard.
Conall's man had managed to get half out of the bed when the door burst apart and was bringing his mass driver up to fire. The gang members weren't having any of that, though; Rapier and Bandit both fired their own weapons and the guard fell back in bed, fatal wounds spouting blood.
Ward, however, had already squirmed out the room's only window. There was a grill over it to keep roomers in the flop from running out without paying the rent, but there was a ventilation gap and being thin and wiry from his years of captivity had been able to squeeze his way out where an adult couldn't have made it. There was no fire escape outside and he almost fell, but he caught himself by the grill. With no other way to go, he let himself hang to full extension, and dropped.
"Shit! The little punk's getting away!" Rapier yelped as he saw the boy's hands release their grip.
It was a ten-foot drop between the bottom of Ward's shoes and the pavement below. He landed cleanly, flexing his legs to take as much of the shock as he could. It would, he figured, take a couple of minutes for the gangers to run back out of the room, down the stairs, out the flophouse's front door, and around to the alley. Ward knew he had to get to a comm terminal and call Conall; if the gangers were after him it was because they knew he was worth money. Maybe they'd even been sent by Angharad! One thing Ward knew, he was not going back to those labs with their tests and their probes. He'd rather die.
"Get after him!"
Ninja stepped towards the wall, lifting his massive right hand. A gauntlet-like frame of blued steel was wrapped around it, with three flat discs an inch across in a row over his knuckles. One of the discs began to glow a dull orange, and he punched the window, hard. The blast triggered by the sharp contact exploded outward, obliterating the window, the grill, the frame, and a good chunk of the surrounding wall. The fleeing boy looked back over his shoulder in surprise and shock, and picked up the pace. Bandit shoved his head out the window to line up a shot but Rapier slapped his hand up.
"Stow it, dickweed; he ain't worth squat as a corpse."
Rapier yanked out his comm terminal and snapped a quick picture of the fleeing kid, then punched up the Night Breakers' war boss.
"Rapier here, Hayabusa. There was a kid here, but he rabbited. Had a watcher, too, packing an MDA-9." He bent over and swiped the dead man's mass driver, which was about three grades better than his own weapon.
The woman on the screen smiled thinly, making the diving falcons tattooed on her cheeks writhe.
"Don't worry," she said. "These streets are our turf, and this package won't get away."
She didn't have to tell Rapier to get after him. The boys were well-trained enough to know it.
~X X X~
Ward's shoes slapped off the pavement as he ran desperately. He'd opened up a good lead, but that didn't mean the three men were going to give up. He got out of the alley, down a side street, then started up another alley again, figuring that zigzagging as often as possible was the best way to cut off their line of sight and shake them off. Suddenly, though, he found himself facing another man who wore the same black vest with white sunbursts he'd seen on the three gangers leaning out the destroyed window.
"That's right," he said, grinning at Ward. "Come to poppa." He beckoned, arms outstretched.
Driven by instinct, Ward didn't pause or hesitate, but charged right at the young man. At the last instant, he dropped into a slide, just as the ganger made his move to seize him. The Night Breaker's arms closed on empty air as Ward skidded by, the rough pavement grinding at his pants and probably scuffing up his skin, but he barely noticed he pain and popped right back up to his feet to continue running.
He'd come out on a busier street this time, and while most of the businesses were closed in the pre-dawn he saw the bright logo of a convenience store on the corner. Lungs burning, Ward ran for it, yanked open the door, and flung himself in.
"Please! You gotta let me use your comm!" he shouted at the old man behind the corner. The man flinched away as if struck.
"N-no, you can't."
"Please! I can get you money..." Ward didn't have any, but he figured Conall could easily send a little to the guy.
"No! You...you get out! Get out now! I don't want trouble!"
Ward didn't get it, at first. Did the clerk just not want to get involved? Stick-ups were probably pretty common in this area; there was a reason he was behind a cage, after all. Then he figured it out. The guys after him were some kind of gang. Probably they exacted tribute from the shopkeepers on their "turf" in a protection racket. The guy in the alley proved that it wasn't just the three at the hotel who were after him.
They'd put the word out. This kid is ours. Don't touch him, or else.
Ward wasn't going to get any help from anyone who wasn't willing to buck the gang, someone like Conall who had a huge financial payoff on the line and the resources to back it up. Or in other words, nobody in this part of Kyas.
He felt like he'd been punched, an icy knot of fear in his gut. But he couldn't give in to it. He hadn't had help escaping from Angharad, and he could get away from the gangers, too, if he used the fear instead of being controlled by it.
He ran. Instinctively, he went for the back door, knowing the ganger from the alley might be following and doubling back would be a bad move. He rushed into the convenience store's little storeroom, then out the back door to the loading area where trucks dropped off supplies. An alarm siren went off when he shoved the door open, but he didn't care, running out into the alley and from there to a cross street.
Two more of the gang members were there, a bald man with tattoos on his shaved scalp and a pink-haired girl. The girl pointed at him and shouted, and they both took off running towards him. Ward veered to his right away from them, wondering as he did just how big their gang was and how much turf they controlled. How far did he have to run? And was he running away from trouble or towards the heart of their territory? He didn't know. All he could do was keep moving!
Ahead of him he saw another trio of gangers—the three from the flophouse! He took his only option, a hard left towards a narrow alley. One whipped up a mass driver and fired, so that he heard the shot strike off the pavement and the sharp crack of the metal slug accelerated to supersonic speeds by the magical fields within the driver.
~X X X~
"What are you doing?" Rapier snapped at Bandit.
"Can't kill him; doesn't mean we can't wing him."
"Just remember, you miss high and take him down, you explain it to Hayabusa."
Bandit gulped, but nodded as they charged off in pursuit.
~X X X~
Ward realized with a sharp stab of fresh fear that he'd run down a dead end; the alley widened into a parking lot between buildings surrounded by a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. There was no way out except through the gate where cars came and left, and it was chained and padlocked at this early hour. He could get into the lot because the back gate, only wide enough for a person, was open, but then he'd be trapped.
Not that he had any choice. The other way led to three armed men. Ward went forward. Maybe he could lose them among the cars and double back, or maybe the guard worked for an employer bigger and badder than the gang?
A tire exploded ahead of him as another shot just missed his leg.
"Hey, what the hell's—"
The rent-a-cop didn't even get the chance to finish his sentence; he got halfway out of his little box and three slugs cut him down, blowing holes in his chest. Ward dove behind a car and ducked low, starting to slip in between.
Rapier's group had been joined by the bald man and the pink-haired girl. With five people, he spread the group out, having them walk down the rows while others looked under the cars in case the kid tried to squirm under one.
Ward, for his part, held his breath. He was curled up on the back seat of one of the cars, knowing that they'd look between and under the vehicles. Luckily, he'd found one that was left unlocked. If he could just get lucky enough for them to walk past him, then he could slip out and bolt back the way he came...
His mind kept flashing back to the image of the parking lot guard's body jerking as the slugs hit him, blood staining his khaki uniform shirt. The man was dead, dead because of him. Then he thought of the cold white sterility of the Angharad lab rooms and he shuddered. He would not go back there. Not for anything.
Sweat trickled down his back as he waited, nervously, while time passed. He could hear the gangers shouting, calling to each other or to him, and gauged their progress by the sound. One at least seemed to have passed his position and others were driving nearer. It was working! Just a little longer...a little longer...
There! They were past!
He eased his head up to look.
A Night Breaker was peering in the window, grinning.
~X X X~
Bandit looked down at the kid, who stared up at him in terrified surprise.
"Got him!" he shouted, wrenching open the door and reaching for the boy.
Then all he felt was pain.
~X X X~
Ward didn't understand what had happened. One instant the gang member had been reaching for him, then something big and greenish-gray hit him from the side and knocked him away. It looked almost like...he didn't know what. An armored man? A giant bug?
In the next moment the man's place was filled by a woman, She looked to be a couple of years older than the ganger, maybe nineteen or twenty, with long violet hair, a black minidress, thigh-high boots, and past-the-elbow gloves, all with purple trim, and purple-hued over-gauntlets studded with large amethyst jewels on their backs. He got a good look at the gloves, because she extended a hand to him.
"Ward, quick, take my hand!"
"Who...who are you?" he stammered.
"I'm with the Time-Space Administration Bureau. We found out that Conall Viper had found you and was trying to barter a ransom to your family. We thought a rescue might be in order."
"What's your name?" he asked. TSAB! Could he believe her? Or was it just another trick? She wasn't one of the gang, and she obviously wasn't from Conall or she'd have said so, but was she really a TSAB mage? She might be an agent of Angharad sent to bring him back, just like they'd kidnapped him in the first place.
But if she was, wouldn't she take him by force? Why ask instead of just grabbing him? Why bother to explain at all?
He took her hand.
"Alphine," she told him. "Lutecia Alphine."