It seems because I delete some superfulous chapters, you aren't able to review the last chapter, and probably this one.
But that's totally fine! If you want to read, just read. There's no pressure for a review anyway.
Thank you Aleksy for reviewing anyway! Even when it was disabled. That was above and beyond! Love to you!
This chapter's tone is still in the serious category, but it does reveal the characters that are going to be really important later on. Again, I might have missed some errors and typos, I always do. It's something I'll have to edit and correct eventually.
Note that people have probably already realized: Taschi thinks waaaaay too much.
Thanks again! And enjoy!
I didn't exactly know where I was running, or how fast, but the scenery changed quickly.
First, it was just cement—a cement hallway that morphed into a smaller, roughly carved tunnel once I reached an opened metal vault door. That freakin' kid was still too fast though, and I only caught glimpses of him as he ran around corners.
My lungs burned—Why the hell had I taken up smoking? I had never been athletic, but it never hurt this much to run.
How deep the tunnel went down, I wasn't sure, but I kept after him in the negligible, murky light from the occasional wired bulb overhead. There were countless splits and forks in the winding hallway, and being the idiot that I am, I didn't think to count the lefts and rights that I hastily took.
It wasn't money, I'll have you know. At that point, I lacked cash altogether, and what was in the wallet was the only thing that tied me to my life in Saintfield. Even if I had money, I would have shrugged and gotten over it. This though—this was actually important.
It didn't take long for me to lose sight of him in the uncanny maze of cut stone. I heard water somewhere behind the walls, and I stopped running well after I had lost him, unwilling to run deeper and get myself somewhere beyond being found again.
It was less than five minutes of thinking before my ears adjusted to the quiet and they picked up the slight sound of metal against rock somewhere further down into the maze. I wasn't really comfortable with this—the light bulbs had gotten sparse and far between, and the tunnel wasn't even close to being straight or aligned and this left hard, inky patches of black ready to swallow me up around corners and bends.
It was also uncomfortable, being closer to seven feet in a hallway that changed between about six feet and twelve feet. In the dark, I was never sure if I was going to spontaneously smash my skull off the ceiling.
But, the tunnel was clearly some kind of maintenance shaft and the banging somewhere down the line sounded like a hammer. I ignored the unease I felt starting to build, getting the distinct impression that I was becoming more paranoid the longer I stayed in Gwenth.
I pushed away the thought of all the slasher movies I had watched, and how my predicament made me as stupid as everyone involved in those.
Don't go into the basement without a flashlight and a weapon to check the fuse box on the house that you and your adorably wholesome family just purchased very cheap from the sales agent who resembles the crypt keeper. Right, got it.
I took a deep breath and started jogging, which suddenly seemed very hard.
If your car runs out of gas, don't go see if the creepy mansion on the hill with no power lines leading to it has a phone you can use. Alright, I probably won't ever be in that situation. Not a problem.
The sound of the hammer grew louder.
When underground in a poorly lit tunnel, don't follow the off-putting, creepy sound that's echoing in the distance.
That being said, that's exactly what I was doing, ladies and gents.
The worst part of it all is the fact that I knew it was a really stupid idea, and I was doing it anyway. I had no weapon—there was that gun Cyrille had given to me, which had appeared in my top drawer a few days ago, but I couldn't even touch it, let alone walking around packing it. It had just remained there, hidden beneath my socks.
I searched blindly for a loose rock or an iron bar in the diffused light, but found nothing. I was completely ill-prepared for any violence that might have arisen. With my search coming up fruitless, I hesitantly returned to following the sound. My heart was pounding on the base of my tongue, but I pushed my fear back down into my gut. I turned the last corner, met with a curtain of darkness at the mouth of a tall oubliette where it seemed the sound was produced.
The hammering stopped.
The last bulb glowed a useless swell of gold before the light was eaten by the entrance into the large room. It was cold and damp here, and when I cautiously stepped in, my stomach jumped when I unexpectedly slipped on the step to the slightly lower floor. I wasn't sure whether or not to call out to whatever crackpot was doing construction in a pitch black room, and my actions made me a fence-sitter—I let out a weird, half-strangled wheeze when I only pronounced the 'h' in 'hello?'.
My attempt was only greeted by silence. Seconds were timed by the systematic clink of dripping water.
I squinted into the blackness, unable to make out any shapes when I was so close to the muted light of the tunnel. I needed my dark vision, but to get that, I needed to walk further into the chilly, blackened room. My heart pounded too fast for my motionless frame, and knowing that thinking too much would lead me to stay frozen, I took several steps into the dark.
Om Mani Padma Hum.
It didn't help; I was unable to stop my loud, shaking breath.
It seemed that walking into the room sapped all the warmth from me, and I hadn't noticed until then that the light bulbs along the passage were also supplying some much-needed heat. The clammy fingers of the cold moisture hanging in the air wracked my body with a harsh, sudden chill, making the hair on my skin rise.
Jesus, Allah, Buddha, I was psyching myself out.
The silence stretched out for a long moment, and I stood frozen, swallowed up in the dark.
Then, there was the sound of scraping metal on stone somewhere above me, and the sound travelled down the wall on my far right. I then figured out it was possible for my heartbeat to get faster, and I looked down to see my shadow stretched and distorted in front of me.
Whatever it was, it saw me standing there dumbly in the light of the tunnel.
Realizing this, I bolted to my left until I was out of the light, my arms out in front of me as I slowed, making sure my footsteps were quiet as I clambered for a wall to press my back to.
I stopped, rooted to the spot as I heard running footsteps before me.
I tried vainly to calm my breath, surprised that I managed to keep my mind at least steady enough to not start pleading or sprint for the tunnel. Both would give away my position, I reasoned, and the monkey in my brain screamed at me to find a solid wall to guard the back of my neck.
Mere feet in front of me, I heard the cocking of a shotgun.
Holy Christ. Holy Christ. Fucking God, what the fuck do I do? Why did I run after that kid?
As I cursed myself, I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't speak. One thought kept on playing over and over again; I'm going to get shot in the chest, and no one will know. I'm going to die in cold, dark room metres under the earth.
The monkey in my head told me to run, to curl up in a ball, to do anything be stand there like a deer in front of a truck.
And what did I do?
You guessed it. I stood there.
The footsteps started again, very confident, towards me.
I readied myself for a bullet. What would it feel like? Would I die instantly? Would I bleed out minute after agonizing minute, wishing for death?
Unexpectedly, I felt a hot wash of pain at my temple and cheekbone. The sensation almost felt like my eye exploded, and I wasn't sure if it had or not, considering my completely lack of eyesight in the dark.
I hadn't noticed I had hit the ground until my whole right side hurt. I felt a trickle of blood from my brow bone, which flowed over my eye, across my nose and down my left cheek.
I must've been stunned, because I couldn't think of anything as I was grabbed under my arms and dragged back to the entrance of the tunnel. I blinked up at the light bulb as I was placed against the wall there.
Spots ate up my vision for a long moment, and I was brought back to reality by a hard slap in the face.
"Wake up." A coarse growl demanded.
My eyesight returned, and I was sprawled against the cold stone in front of a dusty, oil-stained, malnourished and otherwise wretched-looking guy. His clothes hung on his skinny frame, worse than Caine…or Stripes? Whatever his name was.
He was pale, unnaturally pale, with sunken green eyes that bore into me with this weird, feral intensity.
"What the hell did you hit me with?" I grumbled after a moment, checking the wound on the side of my head. My fingertips obviously came away sticky with blood.
"The butt of my shotgun," He hissed back, with a softened accent I couldn't place. Whatever it had been, it was overpowered by living in Gwenth, but something about it was achingly familiar, "Dangerous down here, y' feckin' idiot. What were you doing sneakin'round? Did y'even think of sayin' anything? An' I didn't hit ye very hard, y'know. 'Must be a Miss Nancy for faintin' like that."
I stared, incredulous, my grogginess forgotten, "F-fainting? You hit me with a shotgun, you bastard. What were you expecting me to do? And I didn't say anything because I didn't know who you were! What if you were trying to kill me?"
Hobo-kid glared at me for a long moment, before he cracked a lopsided smirk, "I was tryin' to kill you, Miss Nancy. 'Least I was 'til you stopped movin'. 'Den I realized ye couldn' been one o' them slithery things."
…I winced as he butchered the English language. I had finally placed the accent—I remembered it from when I was little; when my mom actually had contact with the Irish side of our family. It was terribly lower-class farmer talk, from those white-trash backwater towns that still spoke mainly Gaelic and didn't understand the finer details of pronouncing English. This kid's speech was even more terrible though. It lacked a lot of the melody and lyrical cadence that those living in Ireland had. It was actually the most unfortunate mess of gutter-speak I'd ever heard.
I know it sounds terribly mean, but I've always been the most sensitive to sound, and his voice grated on my already frayed nerves.
After wincing, I finally caught what he had said, and I frowned, "'Slithery things'?"
"Yea," He nodded curtly, "Dan'no wha'ta call 'em. Agressif' as 'ell, an' spooky. These here tunnels be full 'o bodies o' their prey. Throats ripped ou' an such. But why're ye here?"
He hadn't explained anything at all, and had just put me further on edge. I tried to stand, and my head protested, throbbing like my brain was too big for my skull. Hobo-kid yanked me roughly to my feet, supporting me in a gruff kind of way.
He was taller than Stripes, average height, around five nine or ten, but exceptionally strong. His bony frame was deceptive—he could have easily carried me if he had wanted to.
"Well, uh, it's hard to explain."
He chuckled, but it turned into a harsh choking cough. I sure as hell didn't want to catch whatever it was he had, "'Lots o' time ta spare 'fore we ge' to th'top." He grabbed his shotgun and loaded it into a tool belt perched loosely on his hips, where a large maul and pick axe hung. He was the reason for the sound.
"I was running after a kid. He stole something of mine a while back, and well… he ran down here and I lost him."
"Aaah. 'Kay. Can ye stand?"
He loosened his grip as an experiment, and the full weight on my feet was hard to support, but not impossible. I nodded. He whacked me on the back in a puzzling, supportive way…I guess. It stung, but he didn't seem to notice, starting down the distorted hallway.
I tried to keep my balance as we walked, disoriented and completely lost. Hobo-kid seemed to know exactly where he was going though, and that provided the comfort I needed to just absent-mindedly follow him and focus mainly on my steps.
As we walked, we passed several intersections and splits in the tunnel. I counted them this time, getting a better picture of the labyrinthine layout. For instance, anything that veered right seemed to go further down to a level beneath that one. Anything veering left travelled down at a sharper angle or went up. The intersections kept us on this level, but in a north-south or east-west map of avenues.
After a few minutes of walking, the guy stopped, suddenly unsheathing his shotgun from the tool belt and cradling against his shoulder. He stepped against the wall, looking over at me and rolling his eyes before grabbing me roughly and yanking me against it as well. I landed like a rag doll, and his abrupt force knocked the wind out of me.
He shot a feral glare at me for my wheeze of reply.
For the longest moment, I heard nothing. Just as I was going to remark on the lack of sound and the potential that the shotgun-wielding-hobo was just shy a marble or two, I caught the sound of soft footsteps.
Hobo-guy closed his eyes and counted for a moment before rapidly pumping the weapon and sliding in silently to the intersecting corridor.
He held that position before sighing and sliding the shotgun back into the harness, "Oh, Go n-ithe an cat thu, is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat, ye bligh'er." I stared at him in confusion, but he deemed it a good idea to switch back to English, "What ye gettin' los' down 'ere fer?"
Not being able to see who he was talking to, I craned my head around, seeing that damned blond kid again, "Augh, you?"
His eyes widened and he took a few steps backwards. Hobo-kid's eyes suddenly narrowed and his hand shot out like a wild cat's, and he reeled the younger kid back in by his ratty coat front.
"Wha' ye do this time ta get th'locals pissed?"
"I-I just took he wallet a while ago. There wasn't even money in it!" The blond stammered.
I couldn't help but cut in, "I wasn't worried about the money!"
Hobo-kid let him go; keeping glaring eye contact as he yanked open the coat, thoroughly fucking over the zipper and pulling open the right hand side where countless pockets full of wallets and small purses seemed to be located. Obviously, I was quite surprised.
"Which one?" He barked at me. I jumped before quickly peering in.
"Uh…um. Oh! The one on the… the red one. No, the—yeah, that one."
Hobo-kid unceremoniously ripped it from the pocket, tossing it at me.
Off guard, I just barely caught it and started pawing through the slots as the blond was let go and roughly pushed backwards.
But after a moment of looking, I got a little panicked, "The photo. Where did you put it?"
The blond looked at me blankly, "I dunno. If it wasn't money, I usually just toss it."
I stared at him, feeling anger start to lick up my throat until I noticed my eye twitch, "You…you tossed it?" The only memory of my family, the bastard. Without that, I couldn't even half the time remember what everyone looked like.
Without thinking, I went at him.
Though before even getting in a satisfying strike, Hobo-kid yanked me backwards. My back hit the wall again hard, and I was left coughing and sputtering.
"Th' photo. I' was developed, aye?" He looked at me with all seriousness, pinning me against the wall even though I was over a foot taller than him.
I vainly squirmed, but got no leeway, "Y-yeah. Does that even matter?"
"Aye. I' does a lot. Anythin' developed can be found again in files. Jus' relax."
I frowned at him as if he was still speaking Gaelic. What files? How could it be found again? Why was it being a developed photograph even matter?
"Stripes is making him a profile." The blond explained hesitantly after a moment, and the weird Irish kid looked me over.
"You gonna be calm?"
I found I was still really angry, but was thinking a lot more rationally than before. Never the less, I was sceptical. This seemed too odd to me. I nodded at him, and he slowly let go, making no sudden moves as if they would provoke me otherwise.
I'd never met someone so freakin' animalistic; so out of touch with social situations that they had reverted back to the basic monkey reactions. Dirt and oil smudged most of his skin, but the abnormally white tone of what was apparent was also dotted with leopard-like freckles. I began to think he was a Ginge, but his hair was too matted and dirty to tell.
Hobo-kid and Blondie led my back up through the maze to the computer room again. The thief kept on looking at me over his shoulder and speeding up if my stride got too close to his—as if I was going to hit him in the head with a shovel or something.
Considering the Irish guy's undomesticated behaviour, I'd have my money on him getting randomly pissed off and strangling him to death. Maybe he was even a cannibal?
The brighter light from the monitors was jarring, and considering how gloomy I thought it was when I had first entered, it seemed kind of funny.
"Look who's back," Riin sighed, "Seriously, do I need to buy you a leash or a fishing rod?"
I ignored him as I had become accustomed to when Riin was being critical.
The angles on the tables and shelves were a messy mix of books, maps, unidentifiable computer gizmos and bottles of orange spray paint. My eyes widened.
"You guys were in New Sainte Pierre!"
Stripes looked at me in confusion before noticing the paint when I had pointed at it, "Ohh… Nono, we haven't ever travelled that far south. It's just a side project created by a group called Black Watch—a little side project to distract the authorities from other activities they're doing. It's amazing how much fire power they send in for vandalism. Do you know you can be black bagged for it if it's politically controversial? Either way, pretty much every big city in the C.I.C.S. has a Black Watch group lurking around somewhere."
I remembered watching the news a year earlier, with the special on the unknown terrorist group spreading 'messages of terror' on all Crown owned or operated buildings. There was a huge build-up expecting bombs or a hostage situation, but nothing ever followed it.
"Terrorists?" My mind automatically asked out loud.
Stripes and Riin exchanged glances, both having an expression of exhausted frustration.
"No, ye bligh'er..." Hobo-kid continued to talk, but it was so disjointed and messy that it was hardly English at all.
"…Could you like…repeat that at about an eighth of the speed and with more consonants?"
He rolled his eyes.
Stripes cut in after and awkward moment, "Sin here's remarking on the media coverage. The Crown basically owns the radio and news networks through grossly overpaid private donations, so what kind of 'news' do you suppose you'll get?"
"Never 'urtin' anyone, w'aren't." Hobo-kid… or uh, 'Sin', replied in agreement. I frowned.
"What's with the stupid name?" I blurted abruptly, instantly regretting it.
Stripes seemed a little more patient than Sin, who looked ready to beat me with the next thing he was able to pick up, and the wallet-thief held him back, "Original Sin here has had his profile deleted. Therefore, you don't use your previously given name. Unless you're out in the open, we don't really worry about giving you a basic, more socially acceptable name. Seeing that he's the one devout Catholic left in a four kilometre vicinity, it just seemed to work."
I hadn't really thought of naming someone that way, but then another questioned dawned on me, "Why are you called Stripes?"
The aforementioned looked very uncomfortable, and Sin glared at me like I had just insulted his mother.
"Mind yer own business, aye? Ye don' need ta know everythin'."
To give him credit, the wallet-thieving kid had at least a little bit of tact, and quickly changed the subject.
"Could you pull up a photo for printing?"
Stripes nodded, "What of?"
"Uh…" He looked at me expectantly.
I blinked before realizing he wasn't just staring at me weird, "Right. Um, it'll be in my file… so does that mean it's gone?"
"Did you yourself develop the photo in your own development account number?" Stripes asked swiftly in this all-business kind of way.
I shook my head.
"Then I need the name of who did."
Three minutes of poking through my Mom's profile and printing later, I was holding a very fresh, very glossy and very-much-not-folded-and-dog-eared familiar photo which was instead printed on what looked to be poster paper.
Though what bothered me most was the fact that it could be found, "That means… That means the Council has full access to even your personal photos?"
Riin nodded, "Yep. Photos can reveal a lot. From where you've been to who've you been with… all of that. As long as you've gotten them professionally developed at a photo lab, part of the machinery actually just scans a copy off the negative and is hooked up to the main data bank. Most of the time, the photos aren't actually viewed by the government unless they have a reason to. It's a lot of work otherwise."
"Though this means that in the process, I have to delete any photo that may have you directly in it," Stripes explained quietly as he went back to work, mostly ignoring everyone, "That could be one of the longer processes, so the overall change of profile is going to take several weeks. The things you'll need immediately will be done first, and the rest is house cleaning. You'll still get your profile late tomorrow."
I stared down at the photo, not really absorbing any information past what Riin had just told me. I didn't realize how far-reaching the lack of privacy was. I didn't know that they could actually invade every facet of your life—down to pictures of your family at Christmas.
"Thank you." I said mechanically, after a moment, not looking up from the page.
I saw Stripes nod out of the corner of my eye, and I looked up to Sin and the blond kid, "Thanks for bringing me back, and for the tip on the photo thing."
Sin garbled something, and the blond was too sheepish to even respond. He had quickly looked to the wall as soon as something that could be considered even a semblance of eye contact between us was witnessed.
The drive home was either gloomy or tense for a while, and I'm not sure which. The thing I found the most embarrassing was that Riin now knew there was a link between Earle and I. That I could have potentially killed a man. His opinion of me mattered more than I would have actually liked to admit, so it left me gnawing on my fingernails, staring at the photo of my family, even that brood of kids, on the front steps to the trailer—the only year Mom had not had a boyfriend, and the happiest year of my life.
"…Hey, Riin?" It took about five minutes to get the courage to prompt the question, but I needed to get the awkward dispelled as soon as possible.
"Huh?" He had been concentrating on driving, I guess.
I stared at my knees, noticing the unidentifiable stain on the top of my left one. Pasta sauce? "…You uh…Have you ever like…" I trailed off.
"Spit it out, Tasch. I never was really good at the whole reading minds thing." He took a tight turn without his turn indicator.
I swallowed, about to ask a terribly rude and personal question, "Have you ever killed anyone?" I blurted.
His eyes widened and he hit the brakes in a spectacular display of overactive surprise, "What?" He barked when we had come to that sudden, jolting stop, "What the fuck brought this on?"
"I just—Wondering?" I felt embarrassed as well as compressed by the child safety feature that locked the seatbelt against my chest after that stop.
Riin stared, dumbfounded for a long while before taking his foot gingerly off the pedal so I could move without the restraint from the seatbelt. He pulled up the emergency brake up from the middle console, keeping the car firmly in the middle of the lane. Ignoring the honking of horns from behind him, he flipped up the rear view mirror a bit so their lights stopped shining directly in his eyes. Eventually, the traffic just went around.
"That's quite the question. What answer would make you feel better?"
I shook my head, "I just want to know the answer."
He moistened his lips, idly tapping the steering wheel in a fidgety way, "Yes, I've killed someone, Taschi. I've killed lots of people because I was told to and I didn't question it. Why?"
I suppose that was really the answer that I had wanted, "Just wondering if you hated me about the… you know, the investigation on me?"
He frowned, before his face lightened considerably, "Ohh… so that's what this is about," With a snort, his pose relaxed, and he turned to look at me, "Whether or not you did it is not my concern. Why you did it, if you did, isn't my concern. It would be awfully dumb for some guy like me to judge you on something like that. You're a good kid, Taschi. You're not a psychopath, and here in Gwenth, that's really all that matters."
That… went far better than I thought it would have.
"Plus," He continued, completely ignoring the guy who was now banging on the driver's side window, yelling obscenities, "Your record's clean. If you're worried about potential charges, don't. It doesn't matter anymore."
I glanced over at the irate guy, and Riin's complete lack of interest seemed pretty amusing. I hadn't really been worried about getting in trouble, per se, I felt guiltier for doing it in the first place. But Riin's overall response really relaxed me a lot, and temporarily numbed some of the guilt.
"Just don't go around blaring to people that you killed a man." He grinned, taking off the brake and starting to drive again, leaving the pissed off driver alone beside the yellow line.
I could pretty safely say that I wouldn't.