I didn't smell blood until I was in the room, staring at the silent shadows propped up like dolls in their chairs. Three men, seated at a table, a fourth sprawled against the wall with his feet angled out before him and his head lolling to one side. I knew each of them. I walked about in the darkness, sure of my footing, inspecting each body in turn with eyes that needed almost no light in order to pick up the details, to note the startled look on the faces, not quite slack with death yet, and the eyes staring stock-straight ahead. How there was only one mark on each – a bullet hole in the forehead – and none of the three at the table had drawn their own guns from their holsters. Nothing in the room had been taken. The money they were gambling with was still on the table and the door leading to the storage room beyond was unlocked and open, but a brief look confirmed that the contents were all still there. The fourth man, the one against the wall, had not been killed with a gun. I stooped by him, careful not to touch the body, and saw the imprints of hands around his neck, how the fingers dug in hard enough to separate the tendons from bone. I held up my own hand, hovered it just a centimeter away, and compared. A small grip. Almost as small as my own, but not quite. I exhaled, and stood.
Another mist-blood, then. Most likely a man. I'd no doubt that this scene would be repeated from room to room, across the length of the complex, each person inside found dead and with nothing taken. There was only one person I knew that could do something like this, and he was on their payroll. I stepped back, out into the hallway, my body cold, and with numb fingers I pulled my slate from the satchel at my waist. The pale blue glow was sharp against the guttering gleam of the backup lights overhead. The main power had been cut and now the building existed only on the generator, buried somewhere deep inside. It would last for a few more hours yet.
I pressed my thumb against the side, letting it read my bio signature, and then I tapped through the options on the unlocked device until I found Dav's contact point. There was a moment for it to connect, another moment for him to acknowledge the signal, then his image appeared on the screen. He was at home then, else I would only be seeing an avatar instead of his actual person.
"Voice," he said pleasantly, his words hushed, "What do you need?"
"I'm at the Tile Street warehouse," I said, "Everyone is dead. It looks like you did it."
I saw the shock in his eyes. He reeled back, as if struck, and then shook himself, eyes narrowed as he thought. Dav hadn't survived as an assassin for so long without being a quick thinker.
"I need to get out of the city then," he replied, "Are you going to stay?"
"I can. I didn't touch anything without my gloves on and the electricity is out, so there won't be any digital record. Do you need eyes on the inside?"
"I'd appreciate it, but get out if things get hot." He hesitated. His employers were ruthless. I was outside help, but I'd run enough contraband for them that they knew who I was and knew my lineage.
"I'll leave you some money," Dav said, "Are you staying somewhere?"
"I'm on the streets."
"Okay, I have a drop-spot then, it's-"
He cut off, standing from his chair and pivoting off to face something off the screen. His hand flickered to the console and my connection went blank.
"Dav," I hissed in the resulting silence, as if that would bring him back online, "Dav!"
I shoved the slate back into my satchel and cinched the strap up tighter. I'd need to move fast. His apartment was quite a few levels up. This particular drug ring was concentrated in the Sign District and Dav had opted to live close by as well. They paid him very well to do their work – and only their work – and he decided being fairly accessible was a slight courtesy he could return them. I could only hope it hadn't just gotten him killed. But then, if his employers did know it had been him, then why wasn't this complex swarming with their hired men? I broke into a run, back through the dark hallway, and back out into the alleyway through which I'd entered. It was deserted. The locals knew who this building belonged to and they stayed away.
Center was built in levels, each story of the buildings stacked one on top of each other, row upon disjointed row, connected by bridges with walkways spanning each level as sidewalks, lights hanging off the underside to light the level below. The further down the city went, the darker it was, and the city plunged further into the earth up to five sub-levels. I was on sub-level two. Dav lived on level three. There were stairs and lifts, but those were generally crowded with foot traffic and for a mist-blood like myself, it was faster to simply climb. I braced myself, inhaled, and then broke into a sprint. I hit the wall and ran up it for two paces, my gloved hands smacking against an outcropping of brick and I hoisted myself up, finding purchase through the thin fabric of my shoes, then propelled myself up to the next handhold. I'd had to learn to do this upon first arriving in Center. I was not born here, I was from one of the outer rings, but this city had quickly become my home. Dav had been my first contact, one mist-blood happy to help another, and he had hooked me into the right circles. For mist-bloods, that meant the criminal ones. By that point, I was already a thief, so I thought little of adding drug runner to my list of crimes. Years later, I would add murder, and Dav had been there to help clean up the mess and console me, whispering comfort as if I were his little sister. I'd no desire to repeat the experience, but I knew with a cold certainty as I climbed that if someone had hurt Dav, I would. I was mist-blooded, after all, and although I had resisted the whispers all my life I would give in this time and kill as many as it took.
I swung myself up onto the walkway of the second level and hardly anyone took notice. It wasn't uncommon for someone to bypass the standard routes and invent their own in Center. The buildings were so close together that it wasn't terribly hard to climb, and any falls were generally broken before they reached a fatal distance. Generally. Bodies were still found, from time to time. I ran, ducking in and around people, gathering a few curses thrown after me. Most would mistake me for some child, perhaps fourteen or fifteen. Some might catch sight of my angular face, the narrow eyes and know me for what I was. Mist-blood, a strange genetic subset of human that science could not quite explain. We'd always been around, just as the mist at our borders had always existed, and society progressed and couldn't quite seem to nail down the origins of either.
I let myself into Dav's apartment. It was keyed, but he had long since given me access, and I made my way down the hallway, listening intently, every muscle in me drawn tight. I could hear voices and one in particular was coming in my direction. I ducked into a side-hallway and watched as a man rounded a corner, his hand up near his temple. There was blood on him, I saw, across his chest and on his wrists and fingers. He did not move like it was his own. His hair was short, the color of wheat bread, and he probably averaged only a handful of inches above five feet in height. I slipped my hand in my satchel and wrapped my fingers around the gun I kept there. It was a silenced pistol – Dav had insisted – and I felt a brief pulse of warmth through the grip as it recognized my bio signature and released the safety.
Someone had sent a mist-blood to kill a mist-blood. It was about the only way to do it. The man appeared distracted and then he turned, looking back down the hallway where he had come, and I stepped out and fired.
The bullet went through his shoulder. He pitched back and fell and my next shot went over his head into the wall. I redirected my aim, walking steadily forwards, both hands even on the grip of the gun. There was hardly any recoil. It was designed for subtlety, not brute force. The man moved and I saw a flash of black, sleek and small, then agony shot through my arm. My gun tumbled from my hands, my fingers suddenly numb and unresponsive. The hilt of a knife jutted from my arm, blood racing down to my elbow and dripping down onto the floor. I wrapped my fingers around it with my off-hand and pulled it free, gasping at the pain, and for a moment blackness closed in.
The man hit me around the waist, bearing me to the ground, and we both hit hard. He was on top of me, one hand snatching at my left wrist and pinning it to the ground, the other arm was across my neck. I smelled the stink of blood from him and I coughed, trying to inhale despite the pressure against my throat. He leaned into it, using his body weight to compensate for his injured shoulder. There were more voices now and I could see a number of people rounding the corner, all dressed identically. Black fatigues. Assault rifles. The insignia of Center Special Forces on one arm of their uniforms. The mist-blood holding me down just stared impassively at my face and I closed my eyes and stopped struggling.
I did not open them, not even when two men took hold of my arms and hauled me up, pulling my wrists behind me and handcuffing them there. Someone tied off a bandage on my injured arm, pulling it tight to staunch the flow of blood, and my knees went weak at that. They didn't let me fall, a hand on either arm holding me up. I could hear the mist-blood talking now and I heard pain in his voice. I opened my eyes for just a moment and saw he had his back to me, one hand pressed tight to the hole in his shoulder, reluctantly allowing another one of the soldiers to lead him off down the hallway.
"I want her identified and tagged," he said, "Then hand her over to my division."
I was a mist-blood who had just attacked a governmental agent. I'd be reunited with Dav soon enough.
They stitched up my arm and tagged me. It was an implant, on the back of the neck, that would allow them to track my location. They took a blood sample with which to find my id. My file would turn up some minor crimes, mostly when I was younger and wasn't good enough to not get caught. It wouldn't be enough to save me. The assumption was that a mist-blood without a criminal record only meant the person in question was extremely good at what they did, and therefore even more dangerous. People called us wild animals, fit to be put down and little more. Then they wondered why we turned to the underworld. It was the only place that would take us in, and the criminals loved our mist-blood. We were faster, stronger, and our senses were far superior to that of a normal human.
My parents were both plain blood. I was a throwback, as most mist-bloods are, to some dormant genetic strain that every human carried. Further out, in the far rings, they would expose mist-blooded newborns, if they could be identified as one accurately. I was lucky enough to be born to parents that didn't mind and even viewed my talents as an attribute. Their care hadn't been enough to keep me from leaving home when I was thirteen, however, and I'd wandered ever since then, driven by the classic mist-blood wanderlust. Center was just the latest and it was the size of the city that kept me from leaving, as there was no lack of places to go that I had not been before.
The soldiers and associated medical staff were supremely professional. There were no comments and no threats. They left me in the handcuffs but the doctor was careful as he cleaned and repaired the damage to my arm. He gave me an injection that numbed the entire area and then warned me to be careful with using the arm for at least a week. I had not said a word since my capture and I said nothing then. I doubted I'd have a week left. Center was notoriously quick in carrying out judgment, and assault of one of their agents was a capital offense. When I was done, they moved me from one part of the facility to another, and I noticed how the security grew tighter and how the soldiers suddenly had no insignia on their uniforms. I wasn't certain what that meant.
They put me in a room consisting only of a table and two chairs. I sat in one and waited, staring at the sleek surface of the imitation wood, keenly aware that there were certainly recording devices hidden in the corners, watching everything I did. I was left there for some time, perhaps an hour. When the door finally opened, my body went tight and I inhaled sharply, staring at the man who entered. He had changed his clothes, ridding himself of both Dav's blood and his own, and he moved carefully as he sat down, favoring his right side. He had a slate and he set this down in front of him. I saw an image of my face on it – pale and drawn, thin from hunger with wide eyes and dirty brown hair. It had been taken three years ago, when I was added to the Center records as part of the entry process to the city.
"Just to confirm," the man murmured, "I am speaking with Voice, no family name, aged approximately twenty-five, no exact birthdate known."
"Yes," I whispered.
"Is the information in this file correct or can we update some of the fields?"
"I'm from the outer rings."
The man left it at that. He knew what it meant. They weren't as careful with these things out there, where life was shorter and technology dwindled the further away from Center the rings grew, until even electricity vanished.
"Is Dav..?" I couldn't bring myself to finish the question. The man looked up from the slate, gauging me as he weighed his words.
"Yes," he finally said, "We killed him."
My only response was an interrupted sob, caught in my throat, more of a hiccup. I fell silent after that.
"Tell me what your involvement with the Tarine ring was."
Tarine was the name of the man who held control of the entire organization. I was surprised Center knew it. He'd been supremely careful to lay low on the radar.
"I was sometimes outside help, when I was desperate for money. I tried to get legit jobs, but if I couldn't, Dav would bring me in for assorted things. Lookout for hits, guard for large shipments, independent drug runner. He – took care of me."
Surely, if this man was a mist-blood, he'd understand. He leaned back in his chair and seemed to be thinking.
"They've got a team going through Dav's files," he said, "I'll know if his communications match what you say soon enough. What else have you done?"
I remained silent. The man leaned forwards, resting his arms on the table, trying to catch my eyes. I studiously avoided his.
"Voice. Listen to me. I control what happens to you. My division is above Center's officials, outside of their reach. If I want to let you live, then you live. If I say you die, then you die. So tell me the worst thing you've done, and we'll go from there. I'm a mist-blood too, I was on the streets until I was twenty-two. I've got a history, just the same as yours, no doubt."
"I killed someone," I whispered, "It wasn't... for a good reason. I was angry, so I hunted him down and stabbed him to death in an alleyway. Dav helped me get rid of the body."
"That's the worst?"
He was quiet for a long moment and then he sighed, rubbed at his temples with his fingers.
"Okay. I can work with that. My name is Roman. I'm recruiting mist-bloods for an on-going project, and since I couldn't convince Dav, I'd like to offer his position to you instead."
My gaze snapped up, startled. This was not what I had expected. I had resigned myself to die the moment I saw the insignia of Center on the uniforms and now, Roman had offered me a glimmer of hope. I dared not accept it. It would be easier that way, when this finished playing itself out. I could not dare to hope.
Still, it lodged itself in my chest, and it made my breath come tight.
"But – you killed him," I whispered.
"Yes, well," Roman replied slowly, looking off past me at the wall, "I'd hoped eliminating one of the Tarine's drug stockpiles and letting it point to him would be incentive for a career change, but he was a bit more resistant to the idea of working for my agency than I'd hoped. It turned violent and yes, I killed him. He was an assassin, after all, and some of his hits have included Center officials and members of the police force. But you? If we can't dig up anything worse than murder on you, than I must say you're a much better candidate, even if you don't have as extensive experience as Dav did. You're mist-blood, you'll learn quick enough. I'll teach you myself, if need be."
He stood. I watched him, unsure of what to say.
"We're done here for now," he said, "One of our professional interrogators is going to talk to you now, as I'm not really trained for this sort of thing. Just wanted to meet you when you weren't trying to kill me. If he's satisfied and we don't find anything in Dav's records or anywhere else, the offer will stand."
"What is it you do?" I whispered. I could not allow myself to hope, not yet. I wasn't even certain I could work with him, this man who had murdered the only person I really trusted in this city. The alternative, however, didn't seem to be good.
"I'm leading a team into the mist-barrier," he said and my blood went cold, "We're going to find out what lives inside it. And for that, I need mist-bloods."
"It was good meeting you, Voice."
He left me there and after a few minutes another man came in and I didn't quite hear his name when he introduced himself. I was no longer listening. Roman's words had drawn me elsewhere, into a private world of fear. I'd been born in the outer rings. I had grown up hearing the stories and I knew what happened when the mist encroached. How it swallowed people whole, leaving only the faintest signs of a struggle – a hand-print here, a bloodstain there – in the morning when it receded back to where it had come. Our world was constrained, trapped inside a perfect circle of land and so Center built up and the inner ring cities did the same, for we could no longer build out.
The mist-barrier had always been there. It kept us hedged in and it killed us, silently, without reason or provocation. It seemed, regardless of what my choice ended up being, I was going to die.