Nyuen Chun Ti trudged up the badly-lit stairwell, broad shoulders scraping the damp walls on either side, his awkward burden hampering his movement even further.
There were many days when he couldn't believe he lived in a dump like this, but he had no choice. With a wife and a daughter not yet old enough to go to school, he had to make do with what money he could find.
He banged his leg on the wall as he reached a landing and yelped as one of the many bruises he'd accumulated today ached sharply where he'd hit it.
Only a few more floors, he told himself, mentally pushing away the pangs of pain as he dragged his foot up to the next step. Only a few more floors, and then I can collapse on my couch. Kyu will have tea on, and Lialla will be ecstatic that her Papa's come home and you can cuddle her all you want.
He finally reached his floor and forced himself to walk down the hallway to the tiny apartment he shared with his wife and daughter.
The door was locked.
Nyuen tried to door again, but it wasn't an anomaly. The door was well and truly locked.
"Kyu?" he called. "Kyu?"
He pounded his fist once on the door, but there was still no sound.
Alarmed, he punched in the lock-code.
The door released, revealing a dark, silent front room.
He limped inside and flipped on the lights, pulling the door shut behind him.
"Lialla? Papa's home!"
More scared than alarmed now, he dropped his bundle on the small table they used for their meals and forced himself to walk into his and Kyu's bedroom.
It was a disaster.
All the clothes had been pulled out of the closet and small chest of drawers, flung about and laying draped over everything. The mattress and the sheets had been pulled off the bed, and the boxes stuffed underneath had been yanked out and dumped over the floor.
Forcing himself to move faster, Nyuen pushed open the door of Lialla's room.
It was more neat and orderly here- but the drawers were all askew, and the tiny closet door was still half-open, clothes hanging out of both. The bed was still intact, but the few toys he had scrounged together money for were gone.
Heart sinking, he went into the bathroom.
The door to the medicine cabinet had been flung open- all the bottles and small containers were gone; and the cabinet under the sink had been rooted through. A chemical cleaner had leaked all over the shoddy flooring, melting parts of it into brownish-gray sludge.
Nyuen turned back into the front room that served as the kitchen, living, and dining rooms.
Something under his bundle on the table caught his eye.
He shoved the package off the table, and the dull clattering sound it made as it hit the floor obscured any mournful noise he might have made.
It was a note; in his wife's handwriting.
I can't believe the man I knew barely five years ago could fall so hard or so fast. I've taken Lialla and we've gone. Don't come looking for us. I'm taking all the money out of our account- it's not like you're entitled to most of it anyway, you scum.
He sat down heavily, not caring if he missed the chair. He managed to hit his mark, but the flimsy fake wood creaked alarmingly when he collapsed on it.
Kyu was right.
Five years ago, he'd been a stevedore in the New Metropolis space docks- unloading cargo, hauling boxes and crates and packing them up on transports for the city businesses; or taking things off the transports and to the ships.
He'd dreamed of going to a vocational school, someday, maybe become a plumber or a transport technician.
And then Kyu had shown up at the docks one day and told him she was pregnant.
Immediately, his savings went into the wedding, the doctor's visits, and the apartment. Kyu worked at a resteraunt in a nicer area of town, but had to leave once Lialla had been born.
That was when he'd started taking contracts.
Oh, he'd always done a little illegal work on the side- small things, taking bribes, mostly, because he needed the extra money. He'd joined a small crime syndicate that operated locally just before he met Kyu; working as an enforcer and extortionist in his spare time. It wasn't much, but it helped.
Lialla was born and suddenly there was only one income, and the rent, and all the little things babies needed to stay healthy.
And then the docks had been bought out, and the new firm –richer and larger- had decided to cut costs and use robots instead of easily-broken humans to move things around.
Nyuen needed money. So he took up extortion full-time, and got better and better until he was taking a larger cut of the profits home than anyone besides the boss.
Kyu hadn't said anything, had just gone and gotten a new job once Lialla was old enough to stay quiet if ordered, but he knew she didn't like it.
And then they'd started fighting.
Nyuen hated the fighting. He loved Kyu, he really did; and he loved Lialla, and the Lord knew her life was stressful enough. But he saw Kyu growing more and more distant each day, and she started to try and keep his little daughter away from him.
And then, yesterday, the Dark Circle had come calling.
They'd dug up some old, ancient artifact- it was sitting on his floor right now, where he'd dumped it- and they were looking for someone to contract to do their extortion work. Apparently, he'd been selected.
It was a strange sort of honor, and Nyuen wouldn't have done it- but for hating to come home each night to see Lialla cry herself to sleep from hunger.
So he'd taken the job.
He'd told Kyu about it, naturally- and there had been another fight.
And now she was gone; and his little darling with her.
Nyuen sat on the chair for a good while, head in his hands; before the tears stopped coming.
Then he leaned over carefully and picked up the bundle that had taken him so much effort to transport.
He stuck it on the table and pulled off the cloth wrappings.
It was an axe- a giant axe, with an edge that looked too sharp to be real- and a skull mask.
He was past caring how silly he'd look. It was a job, and it offered money.
And now, he realized, a way to travel the galaxy, most likely expense-free, and find his wife and daughter.
He didn't waste any more time thinking about it.
He stood, put on the mask and shouldered the axe.
It was Nyuen Chun Ti who had entered the locked door not even fifteen minutes before, but it was the Persuader who left, leaving the door open behind him.