The moon hung bright and full above the Veragreen warehouse. There was the distant hum of music from somewhere in the city and the air carried the subtle scent of sea salt. It was a beautiful night. So beautiful that Lev almost forgot the Soviet sniper rifle Astri carried.
“You want a cookie?” she asked.
Astri shook the tin box at him, still warm with the smell of baked goods. “I made too much. Arc loves them, but even she couldn’t eat this many.”
They were camped out here– a place someone envisioned would become an apartment complex. Like most of the buildings in the Projects, it went nowhere. All that remained of the dream was a fortress of scaffolds and concrete.
Lev popped another painkiller. “Do you know how to use that thing?”
“It’s a family recipe. I promise they’re as good as anything you’d find in a bakery.”
“I meant the gun.”
“Ah.” A cookie hung between her teeth as she pulled up the leg of her pants. There was a vulture tattoo perched on her calf, its neck twisted into a mangled spring. It looked like something out of an old black and white cartoon. “Here.”
“Am I supposed to know what that means?”
“It means I’m a trained sniper.” She stripped off her jacket. Her bare arms, thick with muscle, held another tattoo: a four-fingered fist. “You’ll never guess what this one means.”
“You can punch well.”
“I can punch really well,” said Astri. “I’m in the Clarkson Cage’s hall of fame.”
One by one, she listed off her tattoos like boy scout badges. This meant she was good with a gun, that meant she spent time in juvie.
Her finger landed on a vaguely ball-shaped image, made entirely from intestines. “This means I’ve earned a Cerafex.”
She saw his confusion and gestured her arm at him. “My gauntlet.”
The way it pulsated reminded him of Pierce’s mace. “Is that what Pierce used?”
“Talos,” she said. “Yea. They’re experimental tech. Mostly from Marinton Industries.”
“So that’s why Quill accepted the deal. To get more of them.”
“Not the full reason, but more or less. The more Cerafex, the stronger the gang.”
Lev nodded. He pointed to another tattoo: a four-pointed crown, inked in crimson. “What about that one?”
“Ah. This one.” Astri was quiet as she ran her fingers over it. “It says I’ve killed one of the King’s men.”
“No. The ones before us. It happened a long time ago.”
He watched her, deep in recollection; the memories, woven like cloth, began to untangle. Her smile was softer now, more melancholic.
“Do you regret it?” he asked.
“I think it’s dumb to regret. What happens is what happens.”
“But do you think about it often?”
“Every day. In one way or another.” The words came to her easily and they felt comfortable from her lips. She was used to thinking about this.
What would you say Nabi did? Pierce’s voice rang in his head. He killed dozens for every one that deserved it.
“You’ve done terrible things.” He spoke it half like a question.
“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.”
“Sehyun took me camping once,” Lev started. The memory came flooding back to him. He could see the lush mountainside and hear the crushed leaves underfoot. “That night, he shot a rabbit for dinner. I was younger then and as he skinned the rabbit, I told him I thought it was cruel. That rabbit had a life. Why did we have to kill it?”
“He said that doing cruel things is just part of living,” he continued. “The rabbit doesn’t forgive us, but we can find forgiveness in a lot of different ways. Sehyun said he finds forgiveness in doing good and helping people.”
“So who forgives you?” Lev asked.
Astri peered out the window at the warehouse. It was less of a window and more of a rectangular hole in the wall. She returned to him. “Who said I need to be forgiven?”
Lev was about to reply when Astri’s hands blurred. She spun around, rifle aimed into the darkness.
“Get up kid,” she said. “Something’s there.”
Lev stood, unsheathing his weapons. He couldn’t see nor hear anything, but he trusted Astri. They waited in silence, her finger on the trigger and his around the knife, ready to throw it. Eyes stared back at them.
Then, the creature stepped out. A cat, its fur camouflaged in the shadows. They had waited for an army, only to find a kitten.
Astri lowered the gun, sighing. “I got all worked up for nothing.”
She reached her hand out. “Here, kitty kitty.”
The cat came closer, meowing as if it understood them. There was something attached to its neck and as it approached the moonlight from the window, light reflected back.
Lens. A camera.
“Astri!” The knife left his fingers, landing near the cat. It hissed and returned to the dark. “They know we’re here!”
Astri slid her rifle over the window sill. She fired. Down below, wheels screeched against pavement and metal hit metal. She drew the weapon back. “Shit, they’re running!”
Lev raced downstairs. He heard her fire twice more, then her rapid footsteps as she followed him. On the first floor, they got on the motorcycle. He grabbed her waist as she revved the engine.
They lurched out, zipping down a side street. Lev whipped his head around. There. A black van, just disappearing around the corner.
“I know!” She pumped on the throttle and they sped up. Instead of the corner, she took a sharp left, into an alleyway. Bits of trash flew up in their faces as they rode.
“Where are you going?!” he yelled. “The van went the other way!”
“It’s a shortcut!”
They burst out onto a main road, just missing the van. Lev held tight, Astri’s rifle pressed against his chest. The wind was pulling at his hair, trying to rip it from his scalp.
“Bust a tyre!” she shouted.
“The wind’s too strong!”
“Use my pistol!”
“No!” They hit a bump and he jolted. “The van will swerve and crash!”
“That’s what we want!”
“If she goes, she goes quietly!”
Astri muttered something, too low to hear over the wind. Cursing, probably.
The van had turned another corner.
Astri leaned forward. They were even faster now, the street lamps turning into scribbles of yellow. The wind rose to a howl. As they came up to the corner, she thrust the handlebar. Without slowing, they turned.
He felt the bike tilt and squeezed Astri tight. They went almost parallel to the road, his loose jacket just touching the ground. Lev’s heart dropped. The bike was falling.
Astri threw back one arm and brought it down on the asphalt. Pebbles shot up, clinking against the metal of the motorcycle. He felt the recoil; a hurricane crashing into them, throwing them off the ground and back upright. They wobbled for a few seconds but by the time they stabilised, the corner was past them and the van was within reach.
Astri drove them closer. They were an arm’s length away now.
“I need you to take the wheel!” she yelled.
“What?!” Lev felt her straighten. He bent back to avoid the barrel of her rifle hitting his face. “Wait, I can’t drive a motor-”
She freed her hands and in one swift motion, jumped onto her seat and pushed off it. She lunged. Lev rushed for the handlebars and they struggled in his grasp, flailing like a live fish. The vehicle buckled under him, zig-zagging along the road as he tried to control it.
Astri was on the back of the van, pressed tight against the door. With a single punch, she tore through it, scrunching the metal in her fist. Half the door came flying off.
Lev wrenched the handlebar. The motorcycle skidded aside, just barely avoiding the debris as it soared past. “Watch it!”
Astri stepped into the van. Inside, a figure separated from the shadows of the vehicle. From Lev’s angle, most of the man was wrapped in darkness, but his silhouette loomed wide. He was waiting for her.
Immediately, she clenched her arm and the gauntlet hummed. “You’re the last person I expected here.”
They drove past a streetlamp and the shadows vanished. For a moment, he stood illuminated– his delicate features clear to the world. All except for his eyes. His eyes were a void, black as tar. They reflected no light.
“Vynn,” said Astri coldly. She never sounded so serious. “Get out of my way.”
He smiled, turning his baseball cap backwards.
There was a blur of blue flying past. Lev jerked his head back. Astri and Vynn were tumbling on the street, already growing small in the distance. What just happened?
Lev prepared to turn the bike back, but he saw her, hand outstretched. His last glimpse of Astri was with her finger pointed at the van.
“Go!” she shouted. It was just a faint echo when the word reached him.
To hell with it. Lev clutched the throttle. He tried to remember how she did it. How her limbs moved. Her motion through the air- the swiftness and grace of it all. He tried to remember every detail as he copied them.
Squatting unsteadily on the seat, he launched himself, the leather beneath his feet becoming air. His body felt slow. Vulnerable, as the wind gushed past him. Somehow, his hand caught on the remaining door, swinging wildly at its hinge. He leveraged it and flung himself into the van.
A sledgehammer jutted at his face. His body ducked instinctively, his mind a second behind. The hammer came so close, he could smell its metallic odour. Hopefully, it was only rust.
The assailant who swung it was young. Not young enough to be wearing that knitted dinosaur hat, but too young to be killing anyone. She swung again and Lev craned back. Momentum pushed the hammer into the wall of the van, scarring it with a huge dent.
Before she could pull it back, Lev sprang forward, his fist flashing out. It connected with her cheek. She wobbled, off-balance, and her weapon did the rest, anchoring her down. He kicked her in the stomach, ending the fight.
In the van, there was someone bound, almost hidden in the corner. She was blindfolded and gagged, with her arms behind her, likely tied. She remained motionless. Priscilla.
She can wait. Lev stepped forward and drew a blade to the driver’s neck. “Stop the van!”
Panicked eyes dashed to his, then back to the wheel.
“I said stop the van!”
The driver stomped hard and the world whirled. The van went dead, tires screeching, and Lev barely caught himself between the seats. A millisecond too slow and he would have crashed into the window. He found his hand empty, his knife dropped in the chaos.
By the time he got his footing, the driver wasn’t in his seat and the door hung open. He glanced back at Priscilla. This whole time, amidst the struggle, she hadn’t moved or even made a sound. She was so still, he thought she might be dead already.
For somebody kidnapped for days, she seemed healthy. No signs of bruises or cuts and her shoulder-length hair was well maintained.
She tipped her head up. If she didn’t have the blindfold on, she would’ve been staring right at her assassin.
Lev curled his finger around the knife on his belt, feeling the ridges of its handle against his palm. He could imagine it in her heart, her body turning cold.
No, he thought, taking his hand off. This is Astri’s job.
It was getting harder and harder to raise her fists, let alone throw them. It felt like Honeybadger was gnawing on her arm, growing hungrier the longer she kept it on. Using the Cerafex’s ability only made it worse. A few more times today and her arms would probably be crushed.
Vynn stood en-garde, whistling at her. Every time they met gazes, she could feel his eyes searching hers. That dark void seemed endless. “Tired already?”
“I don’t even know why you’re here.” She spat on the ground. There was blood mixed with her spit. “Aren’t you with Brontes?”
“Khan rented me out.”
“And Zek agreed to that?”
He ran a finger over the rim of his baseball cap. “Interest was high. Quill’s not the only one who can do business.”
Astri stood forward and swung at him, again and again. Each time, he parried the blows with his rapier, his feet moving swiftly from one position to another, as if he was dancing to his own silent rhythm. One foot here, another foot there, on and on the dance went.
Yet, when Vynn attacked, his jabs were quick. If Astri even blinked, she would miss the strike and the blade would connect. She realised this too late. Vynn had already stabbed her four times. Each time, the wound was shallow but enough to draw blood. Enough to hurt.
Worse yet, Vynn always kept his distance. For each step Astri took, he would take two back, always careful to use his weapon’s reach to his advantage.
Astri leapt in, fist raised. Vynn stepped back, as she expected him to. She dropped, directing her punch to the ground. Honeybadger activated, and the road split like a ravine. With her hand still in the ground, Astri gripped tight and heaved, flinging up a slab of stone as big as she was. With all her strength, she directed it at him.
Vynn’s eyes shifted from her to the stone. That was his mistake. She dashed around the stone, crossing the space between them. At last, Astri was within range.
She threw out a half punch with her left arm. Vynn turned his rapier towards it, realising too late that it was a feint. With her right arm, she touched his chest, unobstructed. Her Honeybadger fired.
Vynn blew back, force ripping into him. He flew across the road and crashed into an empty storefront. Where the punch landed, his clothes were completely torn, revealing flesh bruised purple. His breathing was hollow like air blowing through a cardboard tube and came in explosive pants.
Astri clenched her arm. Pain spiked through it, a million teeth biting down at once. She kept her face still.
“Not gonna lie,” said Vynn, half his body smothered in cereal boxes. “I think I just fell in love with you.”
“Don’t get up.” She kept her words short. Any longer and a gasp of pain would inevitably slip through. “Turn around. Go back to Brontes.”
Vynn patted his hair, blood dribbling down the sides of his mouth. His hat was missing. “It’s either the blue hair or the mean right hook.”
Neither of them moved; time seemed to stand still.
“Are you actually not getting up?” asked Astri.
“I know you can take more. A lot more. You haven’t even used your Cerafex yet.”
“What’s the point? My job here’s done,” said Vynn. He dug out his cap from beneath the boxes and slapped it on. He looked almost comfortable lying there. “Go bring the princess home. The lassie’s gonna grow up a real looker. I’d hate for all that beauty to be wasted.”
Astri was too tired to thank him, so she only nodded.
“Wait.” She froze. “What do you mean your job’s done?”
“Khan only hired me to take you two on a bit of a chase.”
Chase. Her eyes went wide. How could she be so stupid? She was so distracted following the van, she didn’t even notice they were on Veragreen turf.
“I’m surprised you didn’t realise sooner. It was pretty obvious,” said Vynn. “This is a trap, dipshit.”