AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Seven - "Chamber Music"

I thought I had already posted this but I guess not. 

Chapter Seven – Chamber Music

"Do you know how to use one of these things?" Holm tapped a button on the computer terminal; a blaring beep was its only response. He backed away from the machine like a frightened cat cracking a twig under its paw.

Like a child, Tad thought. She almost could forget what she'd seen him do. She had seen a lot she didn't understand. The globe of light that had surrounded the two when Darling did . . . whatever it was she did. The mysterious dagger. The dark journey and the parasite. How he could have survived was beyond her imagination; but here he was poking around a simple machine in complete ignorance.

I guess he couldn't have done it without me. The thought made her smile.

She wondered if he would ask where the new skin over his wound had come from. Her own belly burned where Darling had taken the swath of skin and fat. Darling had covered the surgical wound in a strange gel that manifested from her fingers. It stopped the bleeding but did nothing for the pain. She felt light headed and her eyes lost focus easily, as when she looked at the monitor and reached towards the console. She tapped at the keyboard without really doing anything. She adjusted the gun concealed under her jacket so that it did not scrape over the raw spot. She took a deep breath and caught herself wavering. 

"Not really," she said finally. She shook her head hoping Holm had not noticed her faint moment, "These are twenty years old." One of the men in the back coughed loudly, and she lowered her voice. "It doesn't matter though. I can pull up a map on my phone." 

"You can do that?"

"Oh man!"

"Guess I should take this?" He motioned toward the mem-stick perched in the disused port. He waited for her nod before yanking it out roughly. 

Her stomach growled audibly. She was hungry again which contributed to her suffering. The canned food in her bag did not appeal to her. Now that they were in the city and Darling was on the case maybe they could find some place to eat. She said as much to Holm. 

"You know, I'm famished too," he said, "There has to be something on the way to sector four." As if to emphasize this he rubbed his hand over his belly. 

"We'll take the elevated. And ride on the shuttle this time." She slung her duffel over her shoulder, and again the motion upset her balance. This time Holm had seen. He took her by the shoulders.

"Are you okay?" 

"God Holm, I'm sorry. I'm sure I'm just-"

He shushed her. His mouth was set in a grim line and his stony eyes transfixed on the window behind her. The she heard it: a tap at the window. And again, three times in quick succession. Again, louder. She craned her neck and saw the guards. 

Six in all. And more coming; the roaring sound of approaching engines and pavement crunching under tire treads echoed in the concrete valley between the spires. The Contractor's misshapen armor and their defensive crouch made them look like rock formations by a still river. The SS-Bots swooped in with punishing lights, reflecting off the soldiers' face plates. Holm's wrists were the whitest of white and Tad saw the blue veins beneath as his hands clenched down on her shoulders. The thick shape nearest the window, the one who was tapping with the butt of his assault rifle, now made a casual motion with his hand.

Come over here, friends! the lazy wave said. Tad reflexively moved in an incremental step towards the window and was almost twisted in two by Holm's grip. He pulled her tight against him. Too tight, jamming the butt of her gun into her bare wound. She hissed through clenched teeth. With her face against Holm's chest, one armed wrapped around his torso, she considered pulling her weapon. 

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," he said as he let her go and produced the athame from thin air.

Tad covered her mouth, "This could be bad. Really bad." 

"Sh!" said Holm as he held the knife high and a titanic weight fell on her. The room went dark like a cloud had moved over the lights, reduced to pinpoints. The guards moved in slow motion as the leader flung open the door, training their guns on them. A lissome scrawl of his blade in the air, swift and sure, left fiery symbols burning in the fabric of the cloth. Tad thought she had gone deaf when Holm's lips enunciated words yet she heard nothing.

Then the weight was suddenly gone. Her ears popped. Holm brought his arm and the knife down, slicing the air, and a wave of shimmering force shot out from him. Glass shattered as the Contractors crossed into the Autoterm. Their bodies flew backwards and slapped down on the hard tile floor. The leading guard dropped, his head twisted, his face plate broken in two down the center, grimacing with blood on his teeth. Tad could only stare agape as the spell passed into the street before crashing into an AV, leaving a crescent dent in the hull.

A heartbeat later the blanket of glass on the unconscious Contractors shook like froth in the wake of a boat. The pulse was rebounding towards Holm. A computer monitor burst into shards of plastic and yellow sparks. He only had time to put his arms up in front of his body before the wave struck him. He hit the back wall and collapsed, the knife skidding out of reach on the floor. He floundered for the weapon but already another team of guards descended on them through the remnants of the store front window, indomitable and hungry like wild dogs. Tad heard barking and slobbering but her senses were distorted as if her head was filled with fluid. 

Holm put his hand to his forehead where a fresh trickle of blood coursed down his scalp. He sat up, six weapons already trained on him, and he said to no one at all:

"That didn't work like I thought it would." His eyes glazed over as the guards grabbed him and pressed him against the wall. 

Tad didn't notice the pair of blue-armored guards coming towards her until their heavy boots crunched on the glass where she laid half-propped by a tipped chair, distracted and dumb. They lifted her by the elbows and thrust their heavy clubs in her armpits so that any independent movement was an agony. Her toes skipped off the ground once or twice as her legs flailed beneath her and the guards jerked her around. Then they sat her roughly on an empty table. The guards remained at her side like a vice. She looked wearily at each of them in turn. One was a middle aged black man with a thick mustache and a serene stare that wouldn't meet her eyes. But the other one, a young man, nearly a boy, had an angry furrow in his brow. He caught her looking at him and he jammed his club into her ribs. She grunted as the blow stole her breath and she doubled over. Tears came but she didn't make a sound. She straightened as soon as she could bear it.

Holm struggled with the guards but they kept him in place. One mashed a stick against his face, pushing his head back and flattening his cheek against the printer module. His neck tensed and relaxed and his hips wracked against the straddling legs of the Contractors. 

Outside at least a dozen SS-Bots converged outside the Autoterm. From behind the drove of machines three well-dressed men and two equally smart-looking women picked their way through the limp bodies and debris. The first one wore a silver suit with a periwinkle tie tight to his throat and had his hands thrust deep in his coat pockets. His face and frame were unremarkable, his voice reedy and impatient.

"This girl? I am not so sure." He leaned towards her and yanked her head back by the hair. She set her jaw hard as stone. "Though she seems to have the appropriate amount of hate in her . . . for a terrorist."

"Not true," she whispered to herself trying to blink away the tears.

"What's that? Not a terrorist? What's this mess then?" The man jerked his head indistinctly at the wreckage.

"No, that's not what I meant."

"So," he hissed, "I suppose you are prepared to confess to your illegal entry into Accelerated Cities?"

"That's a capital crime," said one of the women who came over to stand next to the silver-suited man.

"Yes," he said, "A capital crime."

Tad kept her mouth shut. The woman had shiny blond hair and blue eye shadow and her blouse was unbuttoned below the collar so that she appeared shirtless under her fitted jacket. The shadow of her breasts from the wavering lights made her cleavage look like a black hole. When the light fluctuated again they revealed the plasticity of her face, the emptiness of her eyes, the inhuman tranquility of her expression.

"Put this one in the box," she said. Her eyes never met Tad's, she was preoccupied with Holm and the effort of his captors. She stepped towards them. The two other men were already there, touching him, peering into his eyes with a tiny flashlight, small pads scribbled on intermittently as they reached some inscrutable conclusions. "And you," she said to him, "You look better. Much better than the tape."

Before Tad heard more they lifted her off the ground again. The guards followed the silver-suited man and the other woman, who wore a blue and white uniform with red stripes on her shoulders, out of the Autoterm. When Tad whipped around to see Holm the young guard struck her again; this time in the head. She bit her tongue from the force of her jaw hitting her chest. But she was not overcome. The bitter blood in her mouth clarified her mind and aligned the pain with her focus on her duty. To her brother, to the council, to Holm. It set her resolve.

She knew she would be interrogated.

To the south a cordon blocked traffic through the busy intersection, cars were jammed in like maggots on rotting meat, their operators hanging out of half open doors and shouting at each other, until the Bots homed in on them and they scurried back into their metal carapaces. They took her to a big truck that loomed over even the AVs. It was not unlike an old school bus, the kind that Agrats often found in the garbage fields of Idahome, which they used to store water and fuel. This one was black and had no windows and had an electrical tower rising from the center of the roof, for what purpose she refused to guess. She would find out soon enough, she was sure, but she would not be moved.

The military-woman and the silver-suited man took hold of each side of the double doors and swung them open. Inside was darkness. She thought she could see a glimmer of some metal or a plate of glass. They threw her in, and she hit the hard floor of the bus in a heap of exhausted limbs.


Water . . . the gleam she had seen in the bowels of the truck was water. In a long clear tub ringed by gray gun metal, tightly riveted along the edge, the water was slime green as if from some infestation. A single ferocious light at the bottom of the rectangular vessel was the only illumination. Tad sat against the wall until her eyes adjusted and other objects in the long compartment became clearer, quieting the stir of panic. There were no windows or they were painted shut. Her eyes were drawn to the area just around the vat. Two metal chairs were near her and beyond them, next to the opposing wall, was a gurney with a sheet hanging down from it in a wrinkled smile. A large screen dominated the front of the compartment stretching towards the steel wall of the cab. The screen was angled slightly away from the cart that held a projector bay.

She saw these things in passing; she thought they were insignificant. She shivered as she looked at the still water of the vat and dwelt on its purpose. She looked down at her hands and the light's reflection enveloping them in ripples. The palpitation of the light through the tank turned her stomach.

She couldn't guess how long she waited. Listening to the soft cycling of an unseen engine and the diluted whir of sirens outside she thought she might have been abandoned there to die. Her daze wore off eventually, and she felt strong enough to stand. Just as her feet were under her, hand on the wall with blood rushing to her head, the double door swung open. The silver-suited man and the woman in military dress stood on the street bathed in kaleidoscopic lights from the Contractor crews and the SS-Bots who record them – and the whole area where she and Holm were captured – with their unyielding cameras. Another man was with them.

He was older with a thin patch of hair on the back of an otherwise bald head and a writing tablet held close to his chest, round glasses slipping off his large nose, and white eyebrows straight and bushy like wings ruffled on his brow. He wrote something down in a short scrawl on the tablet and then squinted into the blackness of the compartment. He had to lean into the bus before he spotted Tad, leaning flatly against the wall.

"Ah. Hello," he said. He waited for a response. He received none.

The silver-suited man hopped into the compartment and lowered his hand to the older man. Tad shrank away from them towards the center of the room as the woman lifted herself effortlessly into the bus.

"Where's Holm?" demanded Tad. Her voice was small and brittle in the darkness. The old man looked right through her as if stumped by a foreign language or a new species of animal.

"Lieutenant Mazer," he said to the uniformed woman, "Do you think you could explain?" He paused and smirked at Tad in an attempt at reassuring her, "As delicately as possible." He backed moved away to the battered gurney as Mazer came forward. Her pointed boots scuffed the grated floor; the sharp lines of her lips were purple in the flow of dancing light.

"Your friend is being taken to an Advanced Reclamation Facility. Why do you think that is?" she said. Mazer turned her head sideways with hands grasped rigidly behind her back like she was testing a child. She moved closer. The soldier stood a solid head taller than Tad, and she did not stoop or bend to address her. She pressed Tad against the wall.

"I don't know," she lied.

"Are you positive?" Mazer asked patiently. Tad heard the crisp creak of the lieutenant's leather gloves as she squeezed her hands together.

"Did he do something wrong?" Tad said quietly. In a vain attempt at defiance she tried to meet Mazer's gaze. Her coldness was absolute, her pure white cheeks a fitting slope for their disdain. Tad turned away. Her eyes returned to the water. Mazer's voice became a disembodied whisper from outside Tad's periphery.

"He is known to us as an operative for Hundun. Have you heard of it?" She did not wait for Tad to answer, the manufactured civility of her voice creating a pang of dread in Tad's chest, continuing in a slow enunciation as if disciplining an animal, "He came to our attention some time ago. He engages in erratic behavior and extra-physical disturbances, tainting the purity of the source. Gradually we were able to document a series of his subversive activities. All of them, you'll note, are punishable by reclamation."

The older man sat down and crossed his legs. He read from his pad in a tired ramble:

"Minor vandalism, pirating branded signals, illegal broadcast, possession of banned transmitters SN 4324-32, 1128-90, tampering with Paternach Energy Grids, industrial espionage . . ." He went on and Tad tuned out his words. The easy lilt of his voice, the distracted tenor of a man bored with his job, eased her into a dreamy succor. At last he stopped and drummed his fingers on his pad absently. He turned to the silver-suited man and cleared his throat.

"I think that's enough. Steve, could you turn on the light please?" The older man opened the top button of his shirt while Steve moved towards the projector in a rhythmic gait as if he had a song in his head. He patted his hands softly on his thighs. As he passed Tad and Mazer, still tight against each other, he smiled with knowing eyes. Tad heard the woman's breath quicken and she stole a look. Her eyes were hungry and wild, her lips wet, a damp strand of hair on her brow.

"What are you going to do to me?" Tad said, to no one in particular, trembling.

Steve's arm disappeared behind the screen. He forced a long black cable with thick ridges out and turned it towards the women with considerable effort. The end of the hose shone in the spectral light from the vat, matched only by Steve's vacant smile. After a click an impossibly bright white light flared from the tip of the cable. Mazer forced her towards the light. Steve attached the light to the end of the vat, tilted up slightly and casting grotesque humanoid shadows on the ceiling. Mazer wrenched Tad's head towards the light. Then the light was extinguished.

"Here. Would you lie down, please?" The older man smoothed out the sheet on the gurney. He patted the surface and squeezed the mattress to demonstrate its pliancy. A crumpled hand print remained on the mattress. She was beginning to understand. The older man adjusted his glasses with his thumb and forefinger and she could see her face reflected in them, colorless except for the green glow that dressed the compartment like a morgue and behind them the man's unblinking paternal eyes. The light crackled back on as the older man unwrapped a set of leather straps from the side of the gurney. At the head of the mattress a pair of metal pieces lay flat and would secure her head when snapped into position.

"Go on," one of them said. She floated in their hands. She slipped onto the bed with her eyes closed. She tore at the sheet as tears started soaking into the bed. Mazer's crippling strength flipped her, and the older man bound her with the straps. Tight. Pinching. She felt a pressure on her temples as the metal clamps were affixed. The kind-looking bureaucrat pried her right eye open after drying its lid with a rough towel.

"We need you to stay awake now," he said with cold professionalism. His finger outstretched to her open eye, a flimsy lens perched on its tip. She blinked as the finger touched and the lens caught on her eyelashes. 

"Shoot," the man said as he searched his shirt pocket for a tweezers. Before he could extract the lens from where it had fallen in a tangle of her hair, while he was distracted digging in his pocket, Mazer brought her fist down into Tad's stomach. She shook. The points of metal at her temples dug into her and kept her still through the reeling wave of agony, her torso spasming, her mind warping into an overwhelming panic. As she screamed the older man was able to plant the lens, and she continued to scream as the light clicked off again and total darkness encompassed. They lifted her on the gurney. The world fell around her.


She woke up suspended in the air. She saw her reflection in the water - close enough that she could disturb the surface if she reached out. She tried this, but her arm would not respond. She felt the straps again and the bolts of metal that kept her skull firm against the inverted gurney. Around her strobe blasts of light. She saw two pairs of legs standing on opposite sides of the vat - one set booted and the other in soft brown leather loafers.

"We're going to ask you some questions," said the older man in a steady voice, like the captain of a ship approaching turbulent waters. His hands were on the lip of the vat in long black rubber gloves tapping on the heavy glass intermittently. She was about to ask if she could have a drink of something when the gurney lurched towards the water and the bolts tore into her temples. She yelped and flexed her muscles but the pain grew regardless. She saw herself clearly in the unbroken surface of the water. A patch of gauze kept her left eye closed. The other eye was numb and forced open by the lens. Her hair dripped with the sweat of fear and matted like wet weeds on her forehead. One droplet fell and shattered her image. The deformation of her face in the bent light through the surface of the water seemed to her a better picture. The minor turbulence of her sweat in the water was like the manic trajectory of her thoughts, and she tried to hold on to some coherent idea . . . but to no avail.

Then she wanted the water to settle because she felt seasick.

Again the gurney lowered. This time the descent was smooth and she heard Steve's exertion from behind her. When the gurney steadied again the water regained its flatness and wavering reflection. Her captors figures were obscured. All was green water and the decrepit girl suspended. The lights continued to dance around the compartment. The single long bulb at the bottom of the vat dominated the others in orbit around her. A rattle signaled the activation of the projector.

Why haven't they asked me anything?

She breathed deeply. She touched the tip of her tongue to the water. It was warm, with a bitter taste . . . and something burning the flesh of her mouth.

"Wha-" she choked and spit but she had already swallowed some, like fire burning down a match as it scoured her throat. She retched and tried to vomit. Someone tore fabric in three quick rips, the stress of the sound a monstrous echo in her skull. A hand, the old one's, brought a dry cloth to her mouth and she let it soak up the last of the water from her tongue. With her mouth dry and the burn subsiding she thought the water tasted like alcohol.

"That's enough," the old man said as he pulled the cloth away. Without a word, without the smallest noise, or her darkest dread, they submerged her in the vat.

She didn't realize she had inhaled a lung full of the water until her mind narrowed and popped with the lack of oxygen. And it was even a few moments more before she screamed the last shred of air, the claustrophobia of drowning and the searing acidic liquid a miserable mixture. Like a lump of clay eroding to silt in a torrential rain her body disconnected from her brain - one or the other collapsing, disintegrating totally. When they raised her a viscous spout of bile and water streamed from her mouth. Her open eye burned and her vision had altered so that the green water looked red. She coughed and wheezed, her face quivering uncontrollably, and she gasped in rage at her captors:

"Let me go!"

Steve snickered cruelly. The old one spoke in a soft, intimate whisper, "No. First I am going tell you a story."
"Please let me go," she said. This time there was no answer but hands shook the gurney and she feared she'd be dropped into the vat again. They tilted her away so that her feet were near the water. The snake light faced her and its incessant blinking obscured everything except the screen and the projected images. Steve stood near it and the right half of his body captured part of the light from the projector.

"Six or seven years ago," the old one intoned as the fire cooled on her skin, "A young girl lost a dog. It was a Sunday and the little girl's mother had given in to her pleading, despite her better judgment. The dog was really too large to let her daughter try to handle it all alone. But the girl, who we will call Claire, became so excited that she demonstrated her talent with the leash and the chain, making her mother watch. She made the dog sit. She made the dog stand on its hind legs. She made the dog beg. Finally the mother relented. A feeling of dread came over her heart as she watched the girl disappear around the corner of the street, behind the triple oak cluster by the neighbor's house."

"Why are you telling me this?"

Silence - and then Tad saw, was capable of seeing, the pictures slipping by her, the white and blue pattern on their dresses, a muddy brown boot and the thin leg bent disjointedly out of it, slatted doors and rags beyond it in a pile. She rolled her eyeball up, as far as she could, toward the dark canopy of the socket.

"What is your name?" Mazer put her hand to Tad's throat. At first she thought the head of the snake-light bit her neck - the lieutenant's grip like fangs pinching into her, poisoning her. She had to look.

The images were not rags but the bodies of children doused in gasoline.

"Abraham Lincoln," Tad managed to utter.

The woman released her and the old one cleared his throat to chastise their interruption. He continued: "But the girl was oblivious. She took the dog to the park to play with the other dogs and to practice her mastery over the simple beast that she loved. 'Sit!' Claire commanded. 'Shake hands!' She'd say, her chin thrust forward like she saw soldiers do in the brands. But, either because other dog-owners avoided her and Sparkles - that was the dog's name - or because the animal was too slow to respond to her reasonable demands, she became rough with it."

"Turn off the pictures. Turn off the pictures. Turn off the pictures."

Carcasses, some burned black or crumbling with the ashy residue of the plague, some just murdered with gaping impact craters from Contractor guns, had become too much for her. No image repeated but each a long dead Agrat face she recognized as surely as if they were her own family. Simple clothes and hair. Hardened hands of young women. Boy's grim foreheads. They couldn't be robbed of their beauty even in death.

"Where are you from?"

"Ten . . ." she faltered, Mazer at her throat again, "Ten thousand years in the future!"

"Sparkles would have none of it. When the girl came too close, had hit his nose too hard, when she had insisted too completely on keeping the choke tight," the old one swallowed, "It turned and bit her on the shoulder with its massive jaws."

"Can you identify these men?" Steve pointed at the screen as the stream of death slowed. She did know them. Like birds frozen in snow, beaten faces on cold slabs, one eye open and one shut as her's were. She answered fighting against sobs.

"The . . . they . . . they're the Philadelphia Eagles."

"You fucking sow, you'll answer!" Mazer said. She took her hand away. "We are the dog!" In a breath Tad was back in the vat. She did not know how long this time.

Later, risen again, the old one wiped her face.

"Alright child, that's enough for now. How about I tell you another story?"

She was too tired to cry. She was unsure if she was awake or dreaming. She would have preferred a dream, even a nightmare, as the old one said in a deliberate voice, "Six or seven years ago a young girl lost a dog . . ."


Sometime later it stopped. How long, it was impossible to tell, she lost consciousness too many times.

Someone pounded on the doors. Everything was in stasis as she dripped over the vat; the snake throwing its venomous light intermittently, the stream of color that could be flesh or blood or soil on the screen unaccompanied by the old man's words, her thoughts gouged out as if the bolts had been driven directly to her skull and through to her brain. The door opened and cast gray light from the Contractor's flashlights outside. She blinked and tried to focus, to remind herself of her name and her mission. She mouthed them silently to make them real again: Tad . . . the root. She had prayed for death, prayed to whatever power would hear her deep in the darkness of her dwindling will, and this brief respite seemed like an answer.

"Why are you interrupting the interrogation? What's going on?" Mazer commanded the unknown interloper.
The response was muffled, probably from behind a face shield.

"We had some trouble with the escort. We, ah, we seem to have lost radio contact?" The guard's voice trembled in uncertainty.

"Let's see if we can confirm that. Paternach Control has no compunctions about revoking the contract on this case if we determine you can't handle it," said the old one calmly, but he scribbled on his pad with harsh strokes that reverberated in the bus. Steve flattened the gurney, pulling it backwards brutally, and Tad's neck twinged in pain. He smoothed his glossy white and blue tie against his slim middle.

"Don't worry; I'll stay right here with you. I won't leave you alone," he said digging in his inner pocket for a new box of cigarettes. He opened the plastic wrapper methodically and out of the corner of her eye Tad saw he had tiny fingers. The cigarettes themselves were white and the smoke smelt like wood and cinnamon when he lit one. Mazer and the old one jumped out to handle the "trouble" and the doors to the compartment slammed shut.

"Want a drag of this? That's what they used to say, 'drag'," Steve said weakly. Torture must take something out of its instruments as well, she thought.

"Sure," Tad whispered and pursed her lips. She inhaled the smoke savoring the full feeling in her chest, and she took her time jettisoning the residual cloud from her lungs. "It's nice," she said trying to meet Steve's eyes. He wasn't looking at her. He puffed on the stick in erratic pulls, bringing it back before he had fully completed the circuit of the previous 'drag'. As the smoke filled the compartment the buzz of SS-Bots and the scattered smack of Contractor boots on pavement came through the walls. Steven listened intently, clearly believing something had gone terribly wrong. He clenched his teeth and ground his molars together. 

He shook his head and he snorted in frustration, Tad so inconsequential that he was totally comfortable revealing his attitude.

"This is really a shitty job," he said yanking on a stray thread from his otherwise immaculate blazer, "The bath isn't even the worst part." Without looking at her he held the nearly spent cigarette to her mouth again. She bit down on his thumb, way up near the base, deep into the fleshy part past the first knuckle. The cigarette dropped into her hair but it was snuffed fast in a moist sizzle. Blood followed coursing warm and sweet into her mouth and over her face. A droplet of it even landed on her wide-open eye.

Steve's scream almost made her smile around the digit clamped between her teeth.

"Jesus Christ! Let go of me!" he said in a hoarse whine. He raised his hand to strike her but she redoubled 
the strength of her bite and he screamed again, his voice breaking into a wheeze. His balled fist dropped and went limp. He fumbled for the strap on her wrist.

"I'll let you go! I swear!" The sweating and shaking fingers of his free hand groped for the binding nearest him. His skin was frigid and seized with panic. He grunted and his breath quickened. She realized her bite had weakened. She was almost free.

The clasp came undone. Steve tugged on the strap. Tad heard a strange ringing sound, a single note like two glasses struck together. As it receded Steve stopped - suspended for a fraction of a moment - then he continued unwrapping the long tight binding. Another three or four layers and it was done.

But something had changed . . . the air was thick with a strange current. A red mist like a mosquito net billowing in a breeze filled the compartment, seeping in from the unseen fissures and cracks of the cab, long dark hairs coiling out from behind the projector. The beginning of a shape, formed from the coalescing strands, puffed up and rippled towards Steve. But like the lifting of a curtain, or through a dark doorway and emerging into light beyond it, the vestiges of the mist disappeared, and a naked man stepped out of the shadows.

She knew him at once and she almost let Steve's hand go. She wanted to call out to him. Her tongue went dry under the salty warmness of the seeping wound.

Holm reached his arm around Steve's neck, blade in hand. With a single slice he opened his throat. Steve's free hand contracted and went white. Then it dropped, the strap slapping the floor. He held Steve up and turned him away from the gurney, letting a long arc of blood slop in irregular currents from the severance.
Tad stripped the tape from her shut eye and popped out the lens from the other before Holm laid the drained body out over an empty chair.
"Strange," he said, almost to himself.

"What's so strange?" she said releasing her other wrist and rubbing both vigorously. Hoe bent to help with her legs.

"It was easier than I'd imagined," he said. She looked down at her body and realized she was naked too. The interrogators must have stripped her. Red scorch marks ran up and down her skin.

"Did they hurt you?" Holm said, his eyes maintaining a forced focus on her ankles as he unbound them.

"No," she lied, "You?"

"I got out pretty quick. My knife here finds itself in my hands when I'm in trouble."


"I cast another spell. It was a very unusual experience."

"I bet." Tad smiled, her face and hair smeared in blood, some of which she wiped away from her lips. She stood slowly, as much for the weakness in her legs as for her modesty and hobbled to the corner where her clothes were piled. Even the gun was there. She almost fell as she stepped into her pants but Holm grabbed her around the waist.

"Thank you," he said.

"What for?"

Instead of answering he let his hands slip around to her stomach. He touched the blistering skin, tracing the rough outline of the transplant. Tad's breath caught. He let go of her. She fastened her pants and turned to him.

"We have to get out of here," she said as sirens blazed by outside.

"Okay," Holm said. He pointed at Steve's body, "But I'm taking the dead guy's clothes."

Tad laughed while squeezing a drizzle of blood out of her hair.

"Hey, why don't you wash off?" Holm gestured to the vat as he buckled the belt on Steve's silver slacks around his waist. The water was still. Like the blank screen.


Tad put her coat on over her bare chest, the blood chilly on her sores. And, zipping it, she let herself weep. Then Holm came to her. He put her head on his shoulder.


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