“Where’s the wagon?” Callie cried.
“It’s supposed to be here!” Mike sputtered, “It’s…It’s…”
“Stolen.” Rak said, “Or ‘pounded’ as we say around here. Not an unusual occurrence in Metromax.”
“But I locked it!”
“That’s not much of a deterrent.”
“All our stuff was in there!” Callie said, “What are we gonna do NOW?!”
“You can come with me.” Rak said, “I have friends; we have a place. You could stay the night at least. What do you say?”
“Are you sure your friends would take us in?” Callie asked.
“I’m pretty sure they would.” Rak said, “And some of them might even know who to ask about a pounded wagon.”
“Is this place far?” Mike asked.
“Well, yes.” Rak said, “But I know all the shortcuts.”
“We call ourselves the Dreadniks.” Rak said, as he led Mike and Callie out of the CityScape parking lot, and into the streets. All around them the city pulsed with furious noise, while buildings like dark monoliths reached for the sky. “We live in an abandoned building in the middle of the city’s old industrial center. The area is deserted now, just a lot of empty warehouses, manufacturing plants, and decrepit office buildings.”
He led them into an alleyway between two buildings; an unlit crevasse that extended some distance.
“This is my favorite shortcut, because it covers a lot of territory.” Rak said, “Though I usually don’t go through here at night.”
He picked up the pace, and Mike and Callie followed suit.
“What are those?” Callie asked, pointing to dark lumps that lined the sides of the alley.
“People.” Rak answered.
A hand shot out and grabbed at Callie’s ankle. She stifled a scream, and jumped over it. She looked back to see if the owner of the hand would get up and come after her, but he didn’t.
“Don’t get too close and you’ll be alright.” Rak said.
As their eyes acclimated to the dark, Mike and Callie began to see the bundles of humanity spread across the sides of the alley. Some were passed out, some shook in their sleep, a few were awake and stared at the wall across from them with blank faces. Not many registered their presence.
When Rak and the Longstreets at last reached the end of the alley, they were in another part of the city altogether. Bars, stores, ratty apartment buildings, greasy theaters selling questionable fare, and mean streets busy with human commerce surrounded them at every turn.
“At least we’re out of the alley.” Rak said.
He would meet an unfortunate fate in that alley…later.
“How much further?” Callie asked.
“Just a bit.”
He led them through this area using a variety of alleys smaller than the one they just passed. One of his shortcuts required them to enter the lobby of an old and crumbling hotel, through which they passed unremarked, and exit through an unattended door at the rear. This opened on a lonely street.
Rak pointed to a mass of darkened buildings in the distance.
“That’s where we’re going.” he said, “That’s where my friends are.”
“Crike, my feet are killing me.” said Callie.
“I take it you two aren’t walkers.”
“No, we’re not.” said Mike, “Do you always walk this much?”
“Sometimes more, sometimes less. I know certain shortcuts that are safe to use during the day; these can shorten my route by as much as a third. It depends where I’m headed, of course.”
“But you’re a thief, why don’t you just steal a car?” Callie asked.
“Cars are not my area of expertise.”
“But pick-pocketing is?”
“That and shoplifting.” Rak added.
When the road they were on eventually bifurcated, they took the right hand road, which ran past the area in question. At last they reached a side road which took them straight into the city’s old industrial district.
Empty buildings and silent warehouses, like the tombstones of giants, loomed large. There were no lights anywhere; no way to see where they were going. Rak led them through the dark streets on memory alone.
“This is kind of a scary place to be living in, isn’t it?” Callie asked.
“Well at first it was,” Rak said, “A lot of the buildings were overrun by drug people and the like; but the frain did a sweep of the place one night and cleaned this area out. They were, in fact, gunning for us; but we were the only group to escape unscathed.”
“How’d you pull that one off?” Mike asked.
“We have an ace in the hole; a friend of ours named Rynza Adreynac. She’s a psychic. She has spirit guides or something, and keeps an eye on Mallacharr; the frain crellat who ordered the sweep. We just cleared out our place before they came, and went back the next day! Shigging subzats never bothered to look over here again!”
“What’s this Mallacharr guy’s problem?” Callie asked, “Why does he have it in for you?”
“It’s Stromen Freath who has it in for us. The Vignach. The city’s head honcho, and Mallacharr’s boss. Another invidium, the Skegs, trashed his fancy-pants limo about three months back, and signed our name all over it with spraypaint and…umm…other things.”
“These Skegs your enemies?” Mike asked.
“They’re just jerks. Photes, dinks, and subzats all. But the Vignach’s been obsessed with finding and catching us since. Well, all of the inviduii, but us in particular. Mallacharr’s mandate is to get us soon, or get the sack. According to Rynza, his time is just about up.”
“How could he tell you apart from any other group anyway?” Callie asked.
“He knows some of us. There was this time when we---Oops! Here we are! Almost passed it!”
Rak stopped them in front of a three-story brick building that looked no different than the others around it. Its broken windows weren’t boarded up, but no light spilled out through them. It seemed empty.
“We call it the Wherehouse.” Rak said, “I’m gonna have to ask you to wait outside here, for a bit. They’re kinda picky about who they let in, and some are gonna be cranky when I wake them up.”
“NOW you tell us this?!” Mike asked, “Whadda WE do if they say no?!”
“Don’t worry! I’ll plead your case; they won’t say no.”
“I’m not as comforted by that as you think I should be.”
Rak walked to the door and gave it a series of rhythmic knocks. At this, the door opened a crack, and released a sliver of light from inside. A shadowy shape looked out, saw Rak; then opened the door further. The shape caught sight of Mike and Callie.
“Who’s that, Rak-man?” they heard the shape ask. The voice was that of a boy in his early teens.
Rak spoke to the shape in hushed tones the Longstreets couldn’t make out. The shape let Rak in, and closed the door. The light disappeared, and left Mike and Callie stranded in the dark.
“Could you make out what it looked like inside?” Mike asked.
“No, not at all.”
“What about the door guy?”
“Nope, but I can tell it was a kid from his voice. About your age.”
“Yeah, I figured that too.”
“What if they don’t let us in? What then?”
“Don’t know.” Mike replied.
“Thanks, that’s reassuring.”
The minutes ticked by; first five, then ten.
“This is taking too long.” Callie said, “I’m gonna knock.”
“Callie, no. Rak told us to wait. We don’t wanna piss ‘em off.”
She paid him no mind. She went up to the door and was about to knock, when it opened. It was Rak.
“Come in.” he said.
The Longstreets followed him inside.
They entered a large open area, illuminated by candles and battery-powered lanterns. Large work tables, well spaced and bolted to the floor, took up most of the room; many still with chairs. Heavy black cloth covered every window. Old posters, fading ads, and homemade artwork decorated the walls. Clothes and personal effects were piled here and there. Paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils littered the tables. Supper had been eaten here, not too long ago. This was a home.
“Welcome to the Wherehouse.” the kid who had opened the door for Rak said, as he now closed it. He turned the latch to lock it, then reached for a black cloth held aside on a big nail; he unhooked the cloth, and it fell into place over the door.
“This is Wes.” Rak said, “Wes, this is Mike and Callie.”
Wes gave them both an enthusiastic handshake. He was of about Mike’s size and age, with longish brown hair topped by a red baseball cap, worn backwards.
“Rak tells me you’re staying with us tonight.” he said.
“That remains to be seen.” a voice said.
The voice belonged to one of three teenagers who sat like judges, at a table near a staircase. Rak led Mike and Callie to the panel.
The one in the middle was the one who had spoken; a black girl of about sixteen. She was a touch on the heavy side, but her eyes were shrewd, and her face suggested a formidable personality.
“They call me Bear.” she said, “This one to my right is Dom.”
“Domino Hansen at your service!” he said cheerfully. He had short brown hair and a built-in smirk on his face that gave him a look of barely restrained frivolity.
But it was the one on the other side of Bear that Callie noticed right away, the one with the black tousled hair. He looked up at her at that moment, and his blue eyes met her green; then both flicked their eyes in another direction. So quick and subtle was the event (except to the two involved, to whom it had seemed as long and loud as a brass band performing a march) that no one saw it.
But the damage was done.
Bear continued: “And to my left, is the leader of this funny farm. Jonathon Grash: palabrin of our invidium.”
Fearless leader tried to remember his name.
“Call me…uhh…Jon? Yes! Jon.” he said, flustered and red-faced.
“Obviously, we consulted chicken entrails to determine our leadership structure.” Dom said.
“WE are the leaders of this group.” Jon said with an embarrassed grin, “We three. Me, Bear, and Dom.”
“Nah, he just says that.” Dom winked.
“Let’s get down to business.” Bear said, “Time was, we used to be open to any roundicant who needed a place to crash for the night. We ourselves are not far removed from the terror of being all alone on dark city streets, believe you me. However…we’ve had to be careful of late.”
“We understand.” Mike said, “What do you need from us?”
“Rak already told us about your run-in with the mall law, and that someone pounded your wheels.” Bear said, “Also that you are unfamiliar with verbex, thus obviously not from around here.”
“What we need from you is for you to tell us about yourselves.” Jon said, “Tell us the story of your lives.”
“The whole thing?” Mike asked.
“Just an overview.” Bear said.
“A really brief overview, if you don’t mind.” Dom added, “We don’t want to be here the rest of our lives.”
“Why?” Callie asked.
“To get a sense of who you are, where you came from, and if we can trust you.” Jon said.
He looked at Callie, she looked back. This time, they succeeded in holding each other’s gaze.
“There’s not much to tell.” Mike said, “I was born in 3637, Callie in 3639, in a big city somewhere. We don’t know where. Then sometime around 3642, for reasons never explained, our father took us from our mother, and drove us out of the city.”
Callie continued, “We ended up in New Heedol, where we have lived for the last eleven years.”
“Until five days ago, when Callie knocked our father out with a frying pan. We took the opportunity to run like hell.”
“We decided to search for our mother. We thought to look for her here first. We just got here tonight. The rest, you know.”
“Was your father abusive?” Jon asked. He hadn’t failed to notice the scar on Callie’s cheek.
“Yes.” Callie said.
“He didn’t start out that way.” Mike said, “I have early memories of him laughing and smiling, being gentle. But after he took us from our mother, he changed. He became angry, then violent. The abuse, when it started, was emotional; psychological. It progressed from there.”
The three leaders of the Dreadniks asked no more questions.
“I vote we let Mike and Callie stay the night with us.” Jon said.
“Agreed.” said Bear.
“Agreed.” said Dom.
“Moreover, I believe we should help them find their wagon, and that they can remain here as our guests until we do.” Jon said.
Dom looked to Bear for her decision. If she disagreed, he would be the deciding vote, either way. If not, he would not go against the other two.
Bear remained silent. Jon and the others in the room held their collective breath, as she thought it over.
“Agreed.” she said at last.
“Agreed.” said Dom.
“It’s decided then.” Jon said.