Ignoring the pitter-patter of rain on both his own back and the railing of the fire escape he was perched on, he glanced up just in time to see an oblong shape, no bigger than a bike engine, flash by, the floodlight crudely attached to its front sweeping over the filthy rooftops surrounding the courtyard. His eyes tracked it until it vanished over the edge of the building opposite, and then he swung them down into the courtyard.
To the left wall, there was a narrow gap in the brick that was the alleyway connecting the courtyard to the road, and the barrel of a pistol was poking out, held in the trembling hands of a man in a red t-shirt as he slowly walked onto the grass, swinging his gun from side to side.
No, he thought. Not even a man.
Light from the ever-changing electronic billboards out on the street blasted through the alley, and he glimpsed the face of the figure far below him. The boy was barely over fifteen, his face still speckled with acne and his eyes wide open. Sucking in a deep breath, he almost felt sympathy for the boy.
Sooner or later, the boy was going to look up, and it didn't matter how naive he was, or what he'd been told; there was nowhere else to go, and he had to act fast.
He bent his legs as far as they would go, lowering himself as close to the railing as he could...and sprung. For a split-second, he was free falling in a controlled fashion, and then the boy turned around.
He didn't even have time to scream as he went tumbling, knees on his chest and fingers reaching for his throat.
"Sorry," he whispered, and sunk his teeth into the flesh of the boy's throat. He jerked his head back, and the boy's windpipe came with it, splattering crimson on the walls. And it was invigorating.
He'd promised her once that he would do this. Not ever again. But they hadn't given him a choice this time. And a cornered animal is a dangerous animal.
Looking down at the boy, whose mouth was open in a scream, albeit so unless due to the lack of a larynx and only managing spouts of blood from his ruptured carotid and jugular, he felt a deep pang of regret, deep inside his chest. Falling in with the wrong crowd wasn't exactly uncommon, especially not in a city like this. It wasn't his fault, he knew.
Regret immediately evaporated as a bullet tore its way through the fleshy part of his left arm, barely missing the bone, and sunk into his chest, destroying who knows how many nerves, and exiting through his back - but not before shattering the left side of his spinal chord.
Lying there in the grass, he looked up with watery eyes, as a figure in a hooded robe - redder than even the boy's arterial blood - towered over him. In its left hand was a pistol carved from grip to barrel with indecipherable writing, and an unmarked suppressor mounted on the end, looking almost out of place.
Not feeling his legs, he clawed at the dirt underneath the grass, dragging himself from the figure at an excruciatingly slow pace. The bastards had used the boy as bait, and he'd fallen like an idiot for it.
He looked back, and wished he hadn't.
Flanking the figure were more just like it, some with guns, some with sharp instruments he couldn't identify, and some with blades hanging from their waist, alongside pouches dripping with blood.
They had done this before.
The lead figure extended its right hand - a skeleton of an appendage - towards the wall, and a little to the back. A deep, guttural vocation of a single word came from underneath the hood, unisex, but audible enough for him to hear: "Axe."
He tried to scream, but only choked on his own blood.
Crazy, they called her. Insane, even. Not that she didn't realise that the two words were synonyms, but "insane" always had a little more impact, as if insanity was a sort of escape from reality. And escape was what Laura Escobar lived for.
It all began with a radio station. Sitting in her dormitory, papers strewn around her in preparation for the exam the very next day, she'd heard it. A lone transmission from a stringer, or at least a former one, describing his experiences on the planet of Turpentine.
Now that she thought about her situation at the time, she could see why it didn't take much to convince her that she wanted to be just like him. It all seemed so...surreal now, looking back, like a distant memory or a dream. Either way, she was no longer in Vanius.
It hadn't been the money, or the fame or the glory.
It was the escape.
Laura shifted uncomfortably in her moth-eaten armchair, glanced around the room and sighed for the hundredth time that night. It was no way to live, but it certainly wasn't a bad way to live either - the beggars she'd seen on the way from the spaceport that morning confirmed that.
Relief, and a bit of sinful pride welled up in her chest, as she realised that from certain standpoints, she was better off than a lot of people in Costown. Almost a third of the population didn't have a place to stay, and yet she had an apartment - which was a temporary label at most, until she decided whether a room barely larger than a closet with a metal-framed bed and rotting mattress plus one armchair and a desk with not enough surface to place her laptop on properly was called an apartment or not.
Then her phone on the floor beside her bed kicked up with a ring tone, and she almost jumped out of her skin. Dyrell. Slowly, she reached over to it, and tapped the button to pick up the call, and then the one to activate speakerphone.
"Is this Laura?" a smooth, masculine voice asked. In the background was the sound of engines, and the occasional blare of a horn. "Or did I get the number wrong again?"
"It's me," Laura said. "I almost thought you chickened out."
"If there's money, I never chicken out. I'll be there in five."
"That's what you said ten minutes ago."
"That was before someone decided to blow half the lane wide open," Dyrell said. There was shouting and more horns blaring. "This time it's five, I promise."
"It better be." She hit the red button to hang up, and climbed onto the bed. The fan in the ceiling spun idly above her, and for a second, she imagined it tearing loose from the ceiling mount, spinning down to decapitate her. It would be an even greater escape, but it was one she couldn't afford.
Sighing deeply, she rolled over the edge of the bed and unplugged the pedestal her phone was sitting on, before grabbing the device itself and slipping it into the pocket of her jeans. Then she rolled over to the other side and reached into the duffel bag full of clothes on the floor, taking out a digital camcorder with a black casing. She held a button its side, and a thin, clear glass screen slid out, displaying the words "Drive Empty" in its centre.
It was finally time.
Laura switched off the camcorder by holding the same button, and leapt off the bed. The backpack on the desk went on her back, and her thick-rimmed spectacles sat on her nose and ears. A blue display came on in the top right corner, telling her the time and the battery level.
Next came what she dreaded most: the way down. She hit the light switch to plunge the room into darkness, opened the steel door of her room and stepped outside into the rusted steel corridors that comprised many of the upper floors of the apartment building.
Instantly, the smell hit. It wasn't unpleasant, but it was overly fragrant, to the point of making her eyes water. It came from a herb shop a few doors from her room, but that was as much as the landlord had told her.
Two turns later, she came to a deep pit in the metal floor, separated from her by only a flimsy cage door. She hit the red plastic Purton coming out of the wall to her right in the same of a down symbol, and the cables coming up from the pit and disappearing into the ceiling began to move.
Laura looked behind her, and there was nobody. Typical.
When the elevator car finally arrived, Laura felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up again. It was a rectangular platform made of a similar metal, only more rusted and discoloured. Corrugated sheets made up its three walls, and one had holes punched in them, each with a plastic button poking out, and each button had a number crudely painted on it.
She cautiously opened the cage door, stepped inside, and closed the door. Her index finger hovered over the button with the number one on it, before depressing it.
The lift shook violently, making Laura Grab onto the cage outside. It began plodding downwards slowly towards the first floor, each spasm of movement it made creating a clattering noise that resonated through the walls.
On the eighteenth floor, the corridor was eerily silent and empty. The floor was slightly scorched, with a thin line of what looked like ash placed diagonally across the floor.
On the fifteenth floor, a man in baggy clothes was slumped against the corroded cage door, his body limp, and in his hand, an empty syringe tipped with blood. A musty smell came from his body, and Laura could tell that he'd been gone for quite some time.
On the eighth floor were three men: two bulky and bald, and one well-dressed, fetal on the floor, being kicked into the ground by the other two. As she passed the floor, one of the bald men turned to look at her go.
It took forever for the lift to finally stop shaking, even after it had reached the first floor, giving Laura enough courage to reach out and open the gleaming brass cage door. She slowly stepped out, and looked around the brightly-lit lobby, which was empty, including the wooden counter, which only had a steaming mug of coffee set on it.
She shook her head, and headed out the front door, where the rain poured around her, and cars whizzed by, illuminated by the LEDs of the billboard on the roofs of the buildings across the street.
Dyrell's car hugged the pavement, with its front left wheel coming up onto the sidewalk. It wasn't the one that had brought her from the spaceport, this car having thick metal plates welded to the doors, hood and roof. The window of the passenger seat was rolled down, and Dyrell smiled at her over his sunglasses.
"Told you it was five minutes," he said, grinning.
She ran over to the car, pulled the door open and stuffed herself inside. Dyrell rolled up the window, and the sound of rain was reduced to a soft drumming above them.
He stretched his arms in front of him, letting the sleeves of his shirt slide back along his pale skin. "Do you wanna use the scanner or just drive around?"
"Scanner," she said flatly. She pulled her wet blonde hair back and tied it in a ponytail. "Can't see anything through the rain."
"Oh, sorry." Dyrell reached behind the steering wheel and flicked a switch, and a low hum overtook them. The windows were suddenly clear as day. "This car is awesome."
She wiped the rainwater off her glasses with her shirt, put them back on and peered at the window. "How'd you do that?"
"The windows vibrate to shake off all the water," Dyrell said. "Impressive, eh?" He whipped off his sunglasses and tossed them on the dashboard.
"Are the windows bulletproof too?"
"Yup. You can film from inside here if you like. No need to risk getting shot."
Laura nodded. Maybe the clip wouldn't be as nice, and the pay wouldn't be as good, but at least she wasn't going to die getting it. "Turn the scanner on anyway."
Dyrell reached up and flicked a switch on the box attached to the top of his rear view mirror, and with a fizzle and a crackle, the voice of the police dispatcher came through, requesting officers dispatched to investigate a disturbance.
"That?" Dyrell asked.
Laura shook her head. "It's probably nothing. Drive around in case we find something."
He stepped on the accelerator and twisted the steering wheel, taking them onto the road. Two minutes down the road, the scanner went silent.
"So...you gonna tell me what a pretty girl like you is doing on this shithole of a planet?"
She crossed her arms, and stared out the side window.
"Come on, you gotta have something."
"And that something is none of your business."
"Look, you hired me, so you're stuck with me as long as you're in the city. Might as well tell me so we don't offend each other later."
"Later," she said through gritted teeth.
"Just keep driving."
Dyrell turned the car down a road, where the lights became progressively darker and the glare of the billboards gradually faded. Soon, the only light was from dim, yellow halogen street lamps hanging above them, and the powerful headlights from the car.
Laura stared out the window, trying to get indication of what was happening outside. A robbery was certainly possible. Even better, a shooting. Celestial would pay handsomely for that.
The scanner kicked back on, and the dispatcher's voice returned. "This is dispatch to any available officers; there's been reports of gunfire near the old refinery, does anyone copy?"
"Sweet," Dyrell said. "That's not too far from here. Hopefully there'll be no-"
"Dispatch, this is Evergloss," another voice said from the scanner. "I'm in the area - I'll check it out."
"Copy that, Evergloss," the dispatcher said.
"...officers." Dyrell sighed. "Why is it never easy?"
"It's kind of a good thing," Laura said, sitting up straight.
"How is getting a cop involved a good thing?"
"He might end up shooting at the criminals." She reached into her backpack and removed a rebreather from inside it. "Clips like that are worth a lot."
Dyrell made a face. "Just...stay in the car, okay?"
"Can you roll down the window?"
"When we get there, yeah." He twisted the steering wheel again, sending the car into a sharp turn. "If the car can't get in, we leave, alright?"
"I need the footage," she said sternly.
"And you'll get it. Just maybe not of this incident, and maybe not tonight."
"We'll get something."
Just over five minutes later, they rolled to a stop outside a low, dilapidated building that was just outside the fenced-off refinery, cold and silent beyond the perimeter. The main factory building looked almost like a statue in the distance, a towering sentinel over its grounds.
Dyrell pressed a button, and the tinted window slid down, the rain becoming audible again and and drops splashing onto Laura's face as she poked the lens of the camcorder out of the car, already recording.
A figure ran past the gate, arms pumping hard, but the rain obscured any and all features, leaving only a shape dashing across Laura's vision.
It wouldn't do.
"I'm going in," Laura said.
Dyrell grabbed the hem of her jacket. "We've to leave. This is a bad idea."
"Well, you can't drive in."
"And I can't let you die. You still have to pay me."
She opened the door. "Which is why you're going to be right here when I come back, understand?"
"Don't do this!"
"Don't worry about me."
She swung herself out of the car, her boots splashing in a particularly deep puddle. The wind tore at her, as she walked towards the entrance gate, comprised of a sliding chain-link fence and an empty gatehouse.
At the gatehouse she switched the flashlight on her camcorder on, and poked it inside. The chair and console inside were both rusted beyond repair, and the latter had wires poking out of its surface. If it worked, to try it would be suicide.
She decided on the classic way.
Laura stowed the camcorder by its safety cord on the carabiner attached to her backpack, and walked over to the closed gate. She crouched slightly, and launched herself towards the top of the gate, grasping the beta bar with her hands.
Then, she pulled herself up on, and over, the gate.