“Nate,” Eliza said as we walked through the bombed out buildings of Worcester, “You sure this is a good idea?”
Around us, dozens of people walked milled in an open-air market. A few of the reconstituted cops and Dragon’s Teeth soldiers walked around, making sure none of the stalls made out of rubble were being looted.
“You’re only saying that because you’ve only been in there a few days,” I said. “Trust me, voluntary confinement in a big building isn’t much better than involuntary confinement in a small room.”
I scanned a shop. The guy running it was extremely chubby, but that didn’t fool me. One of the few remaining reliable source of food was cake mix. If you ate nothing but birthday cake (minus the icing,) you would probably end up fat. Everyone was suffering from malnutrition, and judging by the man’s straw-like hair and flaking skin, he was no exception.
“I heard about you,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “I’m sorry, but my girlfriend just got out and is making me quit the booze.”
The man looked at me for a while, a cold expression on his face. I noticed he was staring at my hands. That’s how I realized they were shaking. “Not what I meant,” he said. He then looked behind me and nodded.
“Nate…” Eliza said. I turned. A small group of cops and better-fed civilians had surrounded us. It wasn’t surprising that the cops were armed, but underneath the weathered clothes, the civilians had bulges or clothes pulled down in odd ways. Behind them was a van with open doors.
“There’s a five-minute window,” one of the cops said, an elderly black man. “These ladies and gentlemen would like you to meet someone. Without the Dragon’s Teeth knowing.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Get in the van.” One of the people dressed like civilians said this. She was in her fifties and had an anarchist symbol tattooed on her chest right beneath her collar bone.
Eliza gave me a look that just screamed “this is not a good idea and you should feel stupid.” I shrugged.
“Get in the van,” the woman repeated. “They could be back any second.”
I began walking and Eliza grudgingly followed. It was set up for cargo, so there were no seats or windows and the view to the front was blocked off. Four of the civilians followed us in and shut the door. In front, I heard the driver’s door open, then slam shut. A few moments later, the engine started up and the van began moving.
“This is puttin’ me on edge,” Eliza said.
A burly white man who was about my age, maybe a little older, and sporting a buzz cut responded, “My plan was to shove a bag over your head and force you into the van, ma’am.”
I looked him over. “Let me guess: Marines? Law enforcement?” The man looked surprised for a second, then returned to his stony silence. “If it had just been me,” I said, “it would have worked.”
“But if we got caught,” a nerdy-looking black man said, “you would just say we kidnapped you. But now, if we get pulled over, we’ve got a bunch of witnesses saying got in willingly.”
I nodded. It was a fair point, especially how it was implying that I’d have to back them up on whatever story they made up or be in trouble. But I could always say they threatened me. Then it would basically be a game of chicken, seeing if they cared about the people fed by my (theoretical) ability to keep the factory running. It also depended on whether or not they thought they could capture May and Andy wherever they were or train a replacement.
“But you didn’t want us seeing where we’re going,” Eliza said.
No one responded to that, apart from a few looks of “what do you expect?” We drove the rest of the trip in silence. Eventually, we came to a stop and heard a garage door close. The driver got out, waited for a bit, then knocked on the door to the cargo area. One of our hosts opened the door, revealing a parking garage.
“Come with us,” the elderly anarchist said. We walked down a ramp, past several derelict wrecks. I had a hunch we were underground. Finally, sitting on the hood of a very scuffed-up Dodge Charger was the man himself.
“Agent Hicks,” I said. “I had a suspicion we’d meet.”
He smiled cynically. “Nate, you sound like a Godamn cape. I think we both know that you wanted this meeting. If you decided you didn’t want to talk me all you’d have to do is stay in that factory of yours and no one could touch you.”
So he hadn’t heard about Mayu. Eliza looked at me questioningly when he said that. I said, “Well, there are some exceptions.”
“And those exceptions would be very unhappy with you coming to me,” Hicks said. His tone was still conversational, but there was an edge. He was being cautious. He stood up, and walked over to me. Despite the fact that he was shorter than me, it was very intimidating. He then said, all the warmth in his voice gone, “I wonder why you’re doing this.”
“The truth?” I said. I began ticking off the reasons. “There’s boredom. That’s a big one. Almost killed myself because all there is to do in the factory is alcohol. Guilt. I mean, I basically talked people into coming into a death trap? And for what? Look at what’s happening. Plus I was released pretty early and am starving slower than most other people. And I’m still, y’know, under the delusion that you can change all this. Oh, and a bit of wounded American pride as well.”
“So,” the Marine said, “you’re going to do this partly because you’re bored?”
I turned around to face him. “Never been in solitary, have you?”
“How long did they put you in?” Hicks asked.
“A long time,” I said. “If they ever catch you, remember: they lie about how long you’ve been in.”
“So there’s an element of revenge?” Hicks asked.
“Not on my part,” I said. “I mean, I don’t owe them, I don’t like them, but I respect the fact they could have just murdered me.” I sighed. “I just want this to end, you know?” I composed myself. “Anyway, what do you want?”
“I don’t like the Dragon’s Teeth either,” Hicks said, “and I need your help.”
“As long as it doesn’t involve fucking with the food,” I said. Hicks raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t know?” I asked, surprised. “We’re producing medicine and food. If you’ve been eating from Dragon’s Teeth stuff, you may have come across some awful sludge.” I noticed that the people in plainclothes who didn’t look malnourished made some gagging noises in response to that. “You must be choking it down, Hicks. You don’t look like you’ve been eating bread and cake mix like the rest of us.”
“Is that really something you need to know?” Hicks asked. I suddenly realized that knowing that kind of information could get his location uncovered. If he was working for the Teeth and in my position, that would have been the first thing he’d ask. I also decided not to ask about his partner, Agent Barton.
“No,” I said. “Just some pride in my creation, that’s all.” I waited a few minutes. “Anything you want?”
“Information,” Hicks said. “We’re going to push, and I want to know if they’ll push back. Also, do you know where your friend Jennifer Kagemoto is?”
“No,” I said. “We convinced her to run rather than being captured.” Suddenly, a thought struck me. “Oh, and by the way, ask Mai Lau how the Dragon’s Teeth managed to open up a portal in her territory without her noticing.”
“First thing I did,” Hicks said. “She snuck me up into her penthouse to discuss her desire to be a double-agent. She also wants to know where Jen is.”
“If Jen is still around,” I said, “I would be very disappointed if you gave her up.”
“I want the option of having her rally the local criminal population instead of Lau,” Hicks said. “I trust her more.” He stood up. “In the meantime, write down everything you know about the Teeth, even the stuff you think I already know, and give it to… who’s their contact again?”
“He met him already,” the anarchist woman said. “Looked at his stall and everything.”
“Good,” Hicks said. Then he waved us off. “Go on, get outta here. I’ll be in touch.”