Chapter 13 - The Strays

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

Nike forced herself to release her biotics. Her heart still slammed against her chest, insisting there was danger. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she demanded, frowning.

She counted three heads, Tiny and two unfamiliar girls. The kids were leaning against the wall on the second level of the apartment block directly overlooking the basketball court turned training ground. Though Tiny was one of the latest among the many runts hanging out outside the base, he was the only familiar face among them. Scars and the others had no qualms using him as a runner. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a spy from some other enterprising gang looking for intel.

But he looks so damn young, no older than six. A spy at six? Still, it’s probably best to be safe than sorry.

Nike reached behind, her left hand seeking the pistol tucked into her waistband. Her eyes darted towards the two exits at both ends of the basket ball court. They were still clear.

“Why did you stop?” Tiny asked, his fingers clinging to the edges of the wall to keep himself propped on the half-wall.

The older Caucasian girl with dirty blonde hair swatted at Tiny. The boy lost his balance in his attempt to avoid it and disappeared out of view as he landed heavily on the ground. His dramatic moans were loud and long as it echoed across the empty apartment block.

“What the fuck are you all doing here?” she repeated, her tone harsher.

The older girl flinched and disappeared out of view. Nike’s grip on the pistol tightened. The South East Asian younger girl with black hair was tugged down out of view as well. With all three gone, she couldn’t help the tingle of danger crawling up her spine.

“Now what?” she muttered under her breath.

She couldn’t decide if they were a danger. Well, not physically but if they were spies, she shouldn’t leave them be. They were on Reds’ territory after all. But they were just kids, what could they possibly do? Her thoughts ran in circles inside her head. I didn’t come here to have another headache.

Tiny wasn't going anywhere without a fight. “No, I want to watch! I don’t want to go home. It is so boring!” His protests loud, but midway through his whining it was muffled as if someone had covered his mouth with a hand. “Stop it! I’m Tiny now. The Champion gave me a nickname. I’m cool, not like you!”

Nike sniggered. The boy was surely a handful. A scruff of shoe against concrete caught her attention. She twisted and drew her pistol. Nothing seemed amiss, but she knew what she heard. She didn’t become one of most feared member of the Reds for nothing.

“I know you’re there,” she shouted. “Come out.”

Nothing moved. Even Tiny’s voice was silenced. Her eyes narrowed. Being on bare feet enabled her to move quickly and, more importantly, quietly. One glance at the second level yielded nothing. There were only two ways out, barring going through the abandoned apartment building. She weighed her choices. It was a single scruff, unlikely to be a rival gang’s ambush, though that had happened before. It sounded more like a solitary scout at best.

Are Tiny and the girls in on it? Being kids didn’t mean they are not acting for a gang. I was dangerous enough on my own back then.

A growl rumbled low in her chest. Whoever it was probably came for the kids or were in cahoots with them. She would have better chances of holding them hostage than seeking out the hidden fourth person. Decision made, she moved quickly towards the apartment block. There was a couple of lift lobbies, but the elevators dimmed and rusty from disuse. This part of the Slums had no running electricity for years. There was no way they were in use, so the stairs it was. Likewise there were two sets on opposite ends of the rectangular building. She studied the one closest to her and bounded up it.

If this was an ambush she wanted bodies between her and the bullets, dressed in just a black sports bra and shorts wasn’t great for handling one. Teeth clenched, she took the stairs two at a time. As soon as she hit the second level, she couched. Pressing her back against the grimy wall, ignoring the way dust and dirt clung to her wet skin, she slid along it.

It didn’t mattered they were kids. An enemy was an enemy no matter how old they were. A bullet killed as easily no matter who pulled the trigger. It was ugly, but Nike held no illusions of the reality of her life on the streets. It was never as pretty and clean as the movies she enjoyed. Finding a man and falling in love wasn’t something she had seen happened in her reality. Take or be taken, eat or be eaten. Nike knew which she preferred. Life was a battlefield and it had taught her to be decisive. Inaction was worse than taking the wrong action.

She edged out. The corridor was empty. Litter lined the place. It wasn’t a large block, just six apartments on each level. Two were behind her. Both had boarded up doors and windows. There was no getting in or out of those. Four more possibilities. She had to act quickly. There was no telling where the fourth person was. She didn’t want to feel the barrel of a gun against her head.

A furtive peek revealed nothing. She stepped out careful into the corridor, ignoring the pricks from broken glass and debris against her soles. Pistol held low, safety off. She only had a single heat sink, she wasn’t expecting trouble, but here she was creeping along instead of retreating.

First door was boarded up, so was the second. That left two on the other end, nearest to the other staircase. She rushed the nearest one. Leaving partial bloody footprints as she went, she twisted to fit her body in the small opening of the thin slat that functioned as a door. Her back got caught along it, cutting a long line across her back. She barely felt it.

Inside wasn’t completely dark. Light streamed in from between the cracks of boarded up windows. One sleeping bag was spread across what used to be the living room. The other kids must occupy the rooms then. She took in the space, dead ahead was the kitchen. One glance told her it was empty. The left was a short corridor with three rooms and no doors. Logic dictated she checked the rooms first, but instinct was screaming for her to enter the kitchen.

She hovered at the crossroads. Inaction is worse.

She always listened to her gut. It had never failed her. Quick steps down the length of the kitchen, dim light cast odd shapes around her. For a split second, the smell of blood and a little girl sliced open flashed across her mind’s eye. She flinched, blinking rapidly to shove the image out of her head.

There was another small door right at the end. Her instincts crowed its victory as she stepped closer. Her left hand holding her pistol steady, her right palm reaching out to push the door open. She was swift. The sheet metal that functioned as a door slammed against the tiled wall. Screams filled the air as she stepped inside.

Three pairs of eyes were starring back at her. Nike took in the scene. Tiny and the two girls cowering, the oldest being the Caucasian girl covering the others with her body. She had to be no older than 12. “How many of you are there?” Nike growled, watching the awe in Tiny’s eyes turned to fear.

The sight made her guts churned. She hadn’t realised she never saw herself as the bad guy until this very moment. Her jaw tightened, she would not be swayed. “Up!”

“No, no, we meant you no harm. Please!” the older girl begged, tears streaming down her face.

Too soft. How did she survive? She have to be new to the streets.

Nike cast an evaluating gaze at the trio. They were clearly unrelated. Differing ages and races, they were a Snatcher’s wet dream. They were ripe for harvesting. “Up!” she repeated. “Don’t make me say this again.”

She gestured with her pistol. The younger girl got to her feet, her face pinched and a frown creasing her brow. Nike almost laughed, it was like looking at her younger self. So hot, so brash, but smart enough to know when she’s beat. “No, Alex!” Tiny wailed. “We’re safe. Here, Ross told us to hide here. We have to stay here!”

The fourth person.

The older girl hissed and pressed her hand over Tiny’s mouth, while Alex glared at him.

“Where is Ross?” Nike asked.

Before anyone could give her an answer, there was a roar. “Leave them alone!”

Nike stepped out and slammed the door shut behind her, effectively taking the three kids hostage. Ross turned out to be a kid closer to her in age, tall, gangly. A teenager fresh to his new found height and reach. He was quick as he crashed through the main door and rushed towards her, but he wasn’t faster than a bullet. Nike aimed at his chest. He jerked to a stop, sobering up immediately. His hands clenched into fists but he held them up.

Smart.

“What gang are you a part of? The Screamers? Wraiths? Or is it the Deathriders?” Nike went down the list of the Reds’ largest rivals.

“No! No!” Ross shook his head.

Nike tightened her grip on the pistol. “Keep those hands up. Explain, you have 60 seconds.”

Ross was flustered and apparently that made him stammer. “We are not affiliated to any gang. I swear! We… I… Just believe me!”

“Is that the best you can do?” she demanded.

Then came banging. “Let us out! Ross is telling the truth!”

By the pitch of the voice, Nike guessed that was Alex. In her distraction, Ross launched himself at her, covering half the distance between them.

Fuck.

She didn’t want to actually shoot him, not while the situation was completely unclear. The threat of her pistol made useless, she unleashed her biotics. Her amp was already running warm from her training, pushing it now was probably a bad idea, but she wasn’t going down without a fight.

One hand out, she Pulled Ross towards her, yanking him off balance. He came hurtling to meet her fist. Pain exploded up her arm. The banging inside turned frantic and without her holding the door shut, the trio burst out. Ross recovered quickly, jumping on her. His arms wrapped around her waist, pushing her off her feet. Nike fell heavily, cracking her head against the floor. Stars spun, but it was anything she wasn’t used to. She Pushed again, but his grip held, taking her with him as they slid across the floor. His face was red with exertion, he fought without thought for later. It was all or nothing. Fighters in the ring know they could live to fight again, but street fighting wasn’t the same.

It was life or death.

Nike twisted and forced him to take the burnt of the impact as they slammed to a stop against a wall. Her weight against his chest forced air from his lungs. As he laid on his side, coughing to catch his breath, she got to her feet and kicked him. There was a distinctive crunch against the flat of her foot. Ross yowled like she had stepped on his nuts. She hopped backwards on one foot, grimacing. Blood sprayed from his nose as he held his hands to it.

“Please!” he begged, it came out so nasally that she laughed.

A shriek came from behind her. Like a cat, Alex climbed onto the bones of a sofa and jumped. Her arms wrapped around Nike’s neck. The added weight made Nike gagged. Finger nails dug groves into her arms and small fists thumped against her face and chest.

Memories of her first raid came flashing into her head. The man that died under her blade flashed behind her squeezed shut eyes. Nike snarled and shook her head to shove the memories back behind locked doors.

She had been trying to incapacitate them all this time. But the girl was tenacious and wouldn’t fucking stop. Nike twisted and grabbed Alex by her neck. Her blood was up. There were cries for someone to stop, possibly she was the one who should stop. There was wailing and begging, but Nike heard none of it. Her focus was only Alex.

As she dislodged the girl from around her neck, Ross smashed a fist against her back. Nike staggered. Instincts, primal and feral, bared its fangs. Biotics flaring, a blue aurora burst around her. Her amp seared her flesh, for a moment Nike caught a whiff of burning meat. It was a familiar scent.

Alex was quickly dislodged with a harsh Push. Not bothering to see how the girl landed, she turned to Ross. He was the bigger threat and needed to be put into his place. A knee accelerated by biotics launched itself into his gut. As Ross fell to his knees gasping, he cried, “Run! Run!”

Blood was streaming down his face, his nose bent and obviously broken. Nike growled, turning to them. “You should run, now!”

Without waiting to see what they did, she turned back to Ross. Her pistol was in her hand before she realised she had drawn it. Her amp sent shooting pain up to her brain, but she fought through it, like every time she stepped onto the ring.

Ross stared at the barrel of the pistol then back at her. Tears were in his eyes. “Please, this wasn’t an ambush. This is our home!”

“Liar! I cleared this place out years ago, it was fucking empty.”

“Ross isn’t lying!” Tiny wailed. “You’re the Champion, who would lie to you?”

Everyone lies. The lines are supposed to be clear. If you’re not me or mine, you’re an enemy.

“We just found this space for ourselves three weeks ago!” Ross explained. “I am unaffiliated!”

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. His explanation was getting more and more believable as the fight went on. Ross had tried to protect the others. That was a key difference. He was acting like a big brother to the other three. Nobody did that on the street. If he had been part of a gang, he would have pulled a gun on her or even a knife. He had not. Judging from his clothes, he hadn’t had a shower for weeks, and probably not eating much. It wasn’t just Ross, the others looked to be in a similar situation.

The clincher came in form of a growl from the main entrance. She whirled, pistol tracking. It was a mongrel brown and white, with one floppy ear and one pointed one.

“Burger?”

He growled, teeth bared and spittle splattering. She frowned. Is this another dog?

He barked. It wasn’t vicious, just a warning before giving a tentatively wag of his tall. She must look terrifying, glowing blue, scratched bloody and bruised. This was Burger she was sure, he had never led her wrong before. He was the only living being she trusted implicitly.

Despite what her training and experience taught her, Nike took a deep breath and willed her biotics away. Wincing, she touched the back of her neck, her amp was unbearably hot. It was a tiny volcano erupting under her skin. Fear rushed her like a wave of cold water. She knew what that meant. She was going to glitch.

I have to get away. I have to get to some place safe! Burger trust them but I've hurt them they will—

She staggered towards the door, keeping a tight grip on her pistol just in case. Burger whined but followed. Her vision was tunnelling. All the aches and pains from the day before and the fight was making her move stiffly. Panic was rising in her chest.

Shit, shit, shit!

She tried to run, taking the stairs as quickly as her feet could manage. Her head was feeling hot, her body cold. Blood was rushing away from her head and she was getting dizzy. She stumbled, one foot hooking the other.

Oh fuck...

Pain flashed behind her squeezed shut eyes. It felt like she had crashed into every possible step on the way down. The pounding in her head was a booming bass line against her temple. As the darkening edges beckoned, she felt Burger’s wet nose poking at her.

Voices hovered over her as she tried valiantly to stand.

“What's wrong with her?” The voice was decidedly high but harsh. Alex.

“Is she dead?” Tiny asked, his voice shaky and small.

Nike groaned. She dragged herself forward, muscles straining against her fading consciousness. Burger growled, at who, she didn't know.

I’m not safe. Not safe!

“She's not dead, but I think something is wrong with her,” a nasally voice said. Ross. Oh fuck, get up! I’ve got to get up! It’s not fucking safe!

Hands on her, tugging and pulling. They rolled her on her back. Her vision swarm in and out as her eyelids fluttered. Burger had one paw on her chest as if claiming her. Then an unmistakable press of cold metal against her head. A chill ran through her as she forced her eyes open. Alex held the gun as she squatted next to Nike, her eyes angry and red.

“What are we going to do with her?”

Nike felt her grasp on her consciousness fading. Try as she wanted to summon the strength to run, to struggle, to not die like this, she couldn't find any. Her fingers curled over Burger’s fur as she succumbed to the darkness.