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Snake
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Mouse had just finished his last run of the day; at least, he hoped it was his last. He had been pulling extra duty since Johnny got himself arrested three days ago.

Johnny, like all of the other runners, was under fourteen, so he would be spending a bit of time at juvenile corrections before they let him go home with a parent or as a ward of the colony. Any kid over fourteen was considered an adult for legal purposes if they were caught in the employ of or even slightly connected to any form of a criminal syndicate.

For that reason, Zinner kept all of his runners younger than fourteen. If a kid was going to be treated as an adult and thrown in an adult jail or prison for their crimes, the kid was sure to crack and turn Zinner over in order to make a deal for themselves.

Zinner used his kids to run everything he needed: drugs, money, instructions, notes, questions—everything. Zinner didn’t use phones, the Net or terminals for any part of his business. Technology was too easy to get around, trace, undelete, or get a warrant for. A note written by a ten-year-old kid who took a dictation from a thirteen-year-old kid who was told what to say by another kid who was told by Zinner what to say, well, that was way too much hearsay for any court and none of that could be used as evidence. And Zinner made sure his kids got every last word right. Sometimes he spot-checked the notes to make sure nothing was lost in translation; if something was wrong, there was hell to pay. It’s amazing how the game of telephone doesn’t run into any problems down the wire when your fingers will get cut off if you pass the incorrect message along.

Mouse walked in to the hub, handed the coordinator a small wad of cash, and then sat down heavily into a fairly abused beanbag. The hub was where all of the runners got their orders and returned to after their assignment was complete or with return items from their assignment. The coordinator was the kid in charge of passing out assignments and keeping track of who was at the hub waiting for their next run or to be let off shift.

Today, an eight-year-old named Jenny was the coordinator. She was a bossy little thing, well suited for her current task. “Hey, booger head.” She addressed Mouse as he handed her the cash. “I have another run for you.”

“Jennnnnnnnyyyyyyy! I’ve been running all day!” Mouse pouted.

Jenny looked at him in a way that no eight-year-old child should ever be able to. Her face was a barely contained mask of rage and malice. “No one, NO ONE, argues with the coordinator.” Her words were punctuated with a stomp to the ground and her little hands balled into fists.

Mouse put his hands up in a supplicating gesture. “I wasn’t arguing, Jenny. I’m sorry. I was just, uh, whining a little bit. I’m tired and hungry, that’s all. What have you got for me?”

Jenny transformed back into an eight-year-old little girl and reached back into her pocket and pulled out a sticky roll of leathery pressed fruit. “Want my roll-o? It’s grape!”

“No, thanks. I’m just gonna sit here until you have my run ready.”

Mouse curled up into a little ball and tried to take a power nap before his next run. He had just turned thirteen. He only had one year of work left in him before Zinner gave him a wad of cash and threatened to kill him if he ever showed his face in or near the hub again. Zinner was much harder on the veterans with only a year left of service; he wasn’t losing much if he happened to disable or kill an almost retired runner.

Short of the never-ending threat of possible abuse, police raids, and all other sorts of potential violence, the hub was a pretty nice place to hang out, even on a runner’s day off. It had video games, TV, pool tables, a skateboard ramp, gymnastic equipment, and tons of toys. The hub was always stocked with food and drinks—never any candy, though. Zinner didn’t let his kids have candy; it wasn’t good for them. Not that he cared about their overall health or dental issues, but he found that feeding the kids healthy food and keeping them hydrated kept them from getting sick or tired too quickly. Keeping his runners healthy kept his business healthy and that’s all he cared about.

Mouse closed his eyes and let his mind drift away for a little bit. He was half tempted to go check in on his little brother before he made his next run but decided his current position was much more comfortable. Besides, Zach could take care of himself; he was almost nine, for God’s sake. Today was Zach’s day off but Mouse knew he would be skateboarding until late into the evening.

Too few moments had passed before Jenny unceremoniously dropped a small package on Mouse’s stomach. “Thanks, Jenny.”

“This one needs a receipt.” Jenny was back to business.

“Of course it does.” Mouse rolled out of the beanbag and stood. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

Receipts were a pain in the ass. The runner had to get the person receiving the package to lick a piece of paper. The runner brought that paper back and it was given to Zinner through a long line of intermediaries. Zinner would then run it through a stolen law-enforcement DNA scanner to determine whom the package was delivered to. There could never be any question or argument from these people whether they had received their package or not. That meant that whatever was in this three-inch square box was very important, expensive, or both.

Mouse left the hub after looking at the recipient’s name and location. He didn’t recognize either. Based on the numbers, the location had to be somewhere in the tool district but nowhere Mouse had ever been before. He scampered over to a bus terminal and used its mapping software to locate the address. Mouse knew that using any form of traceable technology to make a run was strictly forbidden but he was tired and didn’t feel like getting lost or taking an absurdly and unnecessarily long route to his destination.

When the map pulled up the location, Mouse knew exactly the best route to get there. He realized he had been in that area before; something seemed familiar but he couldn’t quite place it. It didn’t really matter. He now knew where to go and how to get there so he was off to get it done.

As Mouse trotted through the streets, he decided that he should’ve taken Jenny’s roll-o, even if it did have hair and pocket lint stuck to it. He was getting hungry and he wasn’t even halfway to his drop-off. He had a few dollars in cash, enough on him that he wouldn’t need to commit any crimes to get some food. He just needed to decide what he was in the mood for.

A quick detour and he stepped out of the alleyway and onto a market street that had dozens of food vendors. The first few he passed because the food they served was deadly to humans. No Trizite food today—he had shrimp yesterday. He passed a new booth he hadn’t seen before; it was run by an alien that he had also never seen before and couldn’t identify. The food actually smelled good and didn’t look horrible, but he didn’t want to take any chances with it.

When he ran into the tall and furry immovable object, Mouse was still concentrating on the alien he couldn’t identify. He turned to apologize to whomever he had run into and had to look up, and up some more to see the face of the angry Shirka whose leg he was now wrapped around. Shirkas kind of always looked mad but Mouse was pretty sure this one actually was.

“Get off me, you dirty cub!” Saliva dripped from the angry maw of teeth.

“I’m, uh, sorry, sir”, Mouse stammered and realized that maybe this was a female Shirka. He wasn’t good at telling the difference sometimes. When he saw the military uniform the Shirka was wearing, he figured it probably was a male.

Mouse was backing away and apologizing only so that he could now bump into another man that he wasn’t paying attention to. This startled him so much that he flipped around and ended up almost giving the man a hug. Luckily this being was human and of a much nicer disposition than the Shirka.

The man wearing a marine uniform with lieutenant bars and no name tag said, “Hey there, son, it’s okay. My friend here won’t eat you; he just likes to act tough.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I just, uh. I’m hungry, trying to find something to eat.”

The lieutenant started to reach into his pocket to fish out some money and Mouse realized what he was doing. “Oh, no, sir, I have money. I wasn’t trying to beg. I’m just hungry, just a little off my game, that’s all I meant.”

“You sure, son? I have plenty. The military gives us a pretty good per diem when we’re on a business trip.” The lieutenant started to reach again but Mouse actually physically stopped his hand from going into his pocket.

“No, sir. My father would be very mad at me if I took your money.” And with that, Mouse turned and walked away, forgetting that he needed to eat.

The real problem with the lieutenant offering him money was that Mouse had already stolen his wallet. When he accidentally bumped into him, his hand landed on the marine’s wallet. When Mouse felt the bulge of the wallet, his hand automatically did what years of training had taught it to do and it took the wallet from the pocket. Had the marine reached into his pocket to give Mouse some money, he would’ve realized what had happened.

As Mouse ducked down another alley, went through three yards, over two low roofs and back into another alley, he thought about how he had broken another of Zinner’s rules. Never commit a crime, no matter how small, while running a job. Damn. He had now committed two offenses that would get most runners caned badly, but a runner this close to retirement might get worse. He shuddered to think about what worse could be. He had seen worse and no one ever wanted worse.

Mouse made it to his target location and didn’t find anyone waiting for him. He looked at his watch and saw that he was within the fifteen-minute time period he was given for the exchange to take place. There was nothing unusual about having to wait a few minutes to pick up or drop something off, so Mouse wasn’t worried yet.

He was, however, careful, so he kept walking past the meeting place as though he had just stopped for a moment to check his watch. He then turned down another alley and circled around a large building and crept into the shadows overlooking the exchange location. His nickname was earned from years of sneaking through buildings, shadows, and deadly places without ever being seen or hurt. And though he was tired and hungry, once he found his hiding spot, he opened his senses to the world around him and focused as best he could.

It only took a moment for a man to show up, looking as though he were expecting to find someone waiting for him. Mouse was about to make contact when he realized that something just didn’t seem right. The man was waiting for someone, not something. Mouse had seen enough dirty deeds to know that this man was aiming to misbehave.

Mouse waited a few moments longer; he wanted to wait just past his scheduled delivery window to see what would happen. Almost on cue, the man looked at his watch and shook his head. Mouse knew the man was there for him, but he didn’t know why. It couldn’t be for his two transgressions on his way here; this hit was set up well in advance of those happening.

Mouse was close to retirement but he had never heard even rumors of Zinner taking out runners before or after retirement in order to keep them quiet. Mouse did have a little more knowledge of the business than other runners because his brother was a private runner for Zinner and Mouse’s girlfriend was one of the other coordinators. But still, was that enough to kill him?

Johnny. Johnny was the answer. Johnny and Mouse were pretty good friends. Maybe Johnny had given him up; accidentally or on purpose, it didn’t matter which. If the cops thought Mouse had information that could help take down Zinner, and one of Zinner’s paid cops told him that, Mouse was as good as dead. There would be no reasoning with Zinner, no plea-bargaining, nothing.

Mouse slowly removed the box from his pouch and opened it, revealing a wad of cash and a small photo of Mouse taped to the outside of the roll of cash. His fears and theory confirmed. He slowly slid the money back into his pouch and thought about what to do next.

On the positive side, because Zinner didn’t use any electronics at all, the hitman couldn’t just call him up and say that Mouse had gotten away. Also, the hitman wouldn’t have direct access to Zinner; he’d have to go find a runner to get a message to Zinner and that process wasn’t all that fast. The flow of information to Zinner was almost completely secure but the downside was that it was very slow.

The negative side was that Mouse couldn’t let Zinner know he was still alive. Once he got back to the hub, Jenny would want her receipt from the drop. Mouse smiled to himself. Zinner was pretty smart. You had to pass the coordinator in order to get in or out of the hub. If Mouse returned without a receipt or said the recipient didn’t show and that’s why he didn’t have a receipt, then Jenny would raise all holy hell and alert Zinner at once. And if Jenny was given a receipt, she would hand it to a personal runner who would take it directly to Zinner. Again, he would be alerted right away that Mouse was back, and worse, he would know the attempt failed and Mouse was on to him because he shouldn’t have a receipt in the first place.

Mouse wished that Shirka had eaten him; it would’ve been better than knowing death was coming for him. No sooner had that thought crossed his mind than he saw the two marines, human and Shirka, walk out of the alley Mouse had originally come through. Crap, was there a God, and was he actually delivering prayers today? Sending the Shirka to finish the job?

The human approached the hitman, who was already looking leery about the encounter. “Excuse me, sir”, the lieutenant began. “I’m looking for a young man who might have come through here a few moments ago.”

“I haven’t seen any kids”, came the terse reply.

The lieutenant smiled. “I haven’t even described him to you yet. How do you know you haven’t seen who I’m looking for?” He paused. “And I never said he was a kid.”

Mouse saw the hitman twitch a little. He was waiting for a young boy to kill. Now these two other men show up at the time and place the boy was supposed to be, asking about the kid. It was too much of a coincidence for him. He immediately thought these two marines weren’t real marines, just other hitmen in disguise waiting to take his mark.

No human liked taking on a Shirka but apparently this man thought something special of himself. “Look. I don’t know what Z-man is trying to pull here, but this is my job. Both of you fuck off before I make a throw rug out of you both!” He was now pointing back and forth between the two marines.

The lieutenant just smiled. “First off, I have no idea what you’re talking about or who this Z-man is. Second, that might have been funny if both of us were Shirkas but I’m not, so it just sounded dumb. Third, I don’t think you’re here for anything that’s good for anyone, so I’m going to ask you to leave. Now.” The hitman looked at the lieutenant in such a way that he decided he should add a threat to the end of his paragraph in order to be taken more seriously, just because that’s how it’s apparently done in these parts. “Or, I’ll take that gun from your waist that you think you’re hiding, and I’ll shoot you in the face with it.”

The lieutenant smiled, happy with his threat and ready to follow through as he knew he most likely would have to. The hitman twitched and started to go for his gun. The lieutenant moved in and slid off to the man’s right side, the side with the gun. The hitman smiled to himself. This dumb marine, or whoever he was, was too slow; the hitman already had his hand on the grip of his pistol.

As the gun came from the waistband, the hitman knew he needed to shoot the furbag first. He was surprised to see his intended target just standing there with his muzzle open and tongue hanging out, like a dog he remembered from his childhood, who looked the same way before they went for a car ride. Why was he happy? He was about to get shot and he wasn’t even moving.

As the gun cleared the jacket and started to press forward, the hitman felt another hand over his own, guiding the barrel of the gun back around and towards his own body. That wasn’t right, not at all. He realized that the lieutenant was now moving back in front of him and was the one controlling the hitman’s hand and the gun it held.

The gun was now fully and painfully pointed at the hitman’s own chest, with his hand still clasped to it, and the marine was looking square into the hitman’s eyes. The lieutenant slowly moved the barrel upward from the hitman’s chest and said, “I told you, in the face.”

The hitman’s eyes went wide as he realized the lieutenant was following through with every word of his threat. The gun spat lead and fire into the hitman’s face and in turn, he spit bone and brain matter out the back of his head.

The body slumped and the lieutenant looked to his companion. “I think that boy is in some trouble.”

“So?”

“So…I’ll let you kill the next guy if you help me find him.”

No response.

“The next three guys?”

“Okay, let’s go. I can still smell him—should be easy to track him to wherever he went.”

~

Mouse hadn’t seen the last exchange between the two marines; he was already heading away and barely saw the hitman’s death. The sound of the gun made Mouse run faster than he ever had before, hunger and fatigue be damned. He still had to think of a way to get into the hub and get his brother out before Zinner found him.

When Mouse reached the hub, he decided that a direct approach was the best way. He would hand Jenny a receipt and that would leave him free to roam the hub without anyone caring. It would take between five and ten minutes for the receipt to get to Zinner and then a few minutes for him to formulate a response and a few minutes to get it moving. Just to be on the safe side, Mouse would give himself ten minutes to grab his brother and get the hell out of the hub.

Between the money for the hitman and the money he found in the marine’s wallet, he should be able to get to another city and set up there with his brother. He was fairly certain he would make it out of the hub. He was more worried about getting to transportation. Zinner would send people to all of the public transport areas first. He would have to deal with that later.

Mouse entered the hub and tried to act calm, even bored if he could pull that off. “Hey, Jenny.”

She looked at him and just put her hand out. “Receipt.”

Someone missed naptime today, he thought. “Here you go. I’m gonna go find my brother. If you have anything else for me, let me know.”

Mouse started to walk away when Jenny said, “He’s not over there.”

“Huh?”

“He’s not at the skateboard ramp.”

“Okay, do you know where he is?”

“Yup.” Jenny rang the bell so one of Zinner’s private runners would come get the receipt from her. “He’s with Z-man. He was asked to run some sandwiches to him a while ago and he hasn’t come back yet.”

Mouse could feel his blood drain. Sweat popped out on his forehead. “Oh. Okay. Um, how about I take the receipt to Z-man? That way I can get my brother for dinner.” He stammered, “And, I, uh, haven’t seen the guy in a while. I wanted to talk to him about my retirement party.”

Jenny rolled her eyes and then clinched them shut before she opened her mouth as wide as it could go. “Nooooooooooo!” This was a girl destined to work in public service somewhere. “You know the rules! No one sees the Z-man unless he comes to you OR you’re one of his private runners. You. Are. Not. One. Of. His. Private. Runners. Go away, turd face.”

Oh crap. Mouse knew that this wasn’t by accident. Zinner had his brother, had planned to have his brother, just in case Mouse came back.

The apartment was at the back of the hub and had tons of security in place. All of the security was lo-tech but its strength lied in its simplicity and the overkill of redundancies that were in place. Everything was based on the idea that cops were coming for evidence or a rival bad guy was coming for Zinner and his money.

If the cops were coming, he just needed enough time to make sure there wasn’t any small bit of evidence he hadn’t accounted for and then just sit and wait to surrender.

If other bad guys were coming, he needed enough time to get his barricades in place to hold off the attack for eight minutes. Eight minutes was the average response time for the patrol officers in this area. He didn’t keep evidence in his apartment so why wouldn’t he call the police to come save him?

Mouse had to figure out how to get to the apartment undetected, get inside, get his brother out, and not get caught. Or, do all that and instead of getting out, kill Zinner himself to make sure he and his brother were safe. They didn’t call him Mouse for nothing; time to put the name to the test.

Mouse had already walked away from Jenny as he mulled all of this over in his head. He walked by a refrigerator and grabbed a sandwich without bothering to see what kind it was. He knew he needed fuel so he ate it as he walked towards the back of the hub. He had also grabbed a bottle of water for himself and threw two in his bag for later. If there was a later.

He would have to use Zinner’s own system against him. Take that healthy and well-spent paranoia and use it to Mouse’s advantage and not Zinner’s. But how?

If he called the cops, then Zinner would just open his apartment up and let them walk right in. Mouse didn’t think the cops would let him ride their coattails but his brother would be able to walk right out and then Mouse could snatch him up and tell him what was happening. But if that backfired, Zach would be trapped in the apartment with a very angry Zinner who might just do something to Zach out of spite. Mouse couldn’t risk that, even if it wasn’t a big risk.

If Mouse called in a rival gang, then Zinner would call the cops himself and wouldn’t hurt Zach. But a lot of people would get hurt in all the fighting and how in the hell would Mouse just “call in” a rival gang anyway? If only those two marines had followed him here, that might be enough of a distraction.

How did those guys find him in the first place? Mouse’s mind began to wander a bit. He knew he hadn’t left any tracks in the alley; it was cobblestone. He hadn’t been followed, not directly anyway—he would’ve spotted them. The Shirka, that had to be it. The Shirka scent tracked him. The way they walked out of the alley it was obvious they weren’t following ground clues; it had to be air scent. And that gave him an idea.

Mouse hadn’t seen Zinner’s personal runner with the receipt pass him yet so he just stopped and waited. Mouse saw the runner talk with Jenny, take the receipt, and then head in his direction.

Mouse called out, “Hey, Billy.”

“What’s up, Mouse?”

“Not much. Are you runnin’ to Z-man?”

“Yup. With your receipt, dude.”

“Cool, yeah, hey, would you mind taking my satchel to Zach? He’s with the Z-man right now. I guess he’s been there a while. I want to head out for the night but I don’t want to carry this thing around with me. Can you ask him to hold on to it for me until tomorrow?” Mouse was already draping the satchel over Billy’s head.

“Sure. Anything good in it?” Billy patted it jokingly. It was beyond taboo for a runner to go through another runner’s satchel.

“Only about twenty thousand credits.” Mouse wasn’t lying.

“Hah! You wish! See ya, buddy.” Billy was unknowingly off to do two things: one, to alert Zinner that Mouse hadn’t been killed yet, and two, to drag Mouse’s scent through the hub and lead the Shirka right to Zinner’s apartment.

Mouse tried not to run, tried not to catch anyone’s attention as he slid through the smattering of kids relaxing throughout the hub. He nodded a few times when he had to, waved to a few friends, said hi only when he couldn’t avoid it. Mouse was fairly popular and he tended to draw a crowd when he hung out, so he had to be careful not to let anyone glom on to him as he tried to get to his target.

Mouse finally made it to the bathrooms and walked in, hoping it would be empty. To his dismay, there were a few kids just hanging out and talking. They probably bumped into each other while they were washing their hands and just started talking and didn’t think to leave.

Without overthinking it, Mouse walked in holding his stomach with one hand while cupping the other over his mouth, all the while making horrible retching sounds. Heading to the garbage can, he began to dry heave into it, hoping he would be able to bring up some of his sandwich for added realism. He didn’t have to; the actions were enough to move the three kids along and they left the bathroom.

Mouse pulled his head out of the garbage can and thought about locking the door but decided not to. That might draw attention if someone found it locked. Instead, he focused on making his next move quickly so no one would walk in on him.

He crossed to the rear of the bathroom and pulled up a service grate that was in the floor. He slid himself down the shaft and pulled the grate back over his head after he was in. The smell was absolutely horrendous and he wasn’t sure how healthy the kids could be eating if they were the cause of what he smelled now.

The hub was actually an old school that had been abandoned many years before after a natural disaster made it unsafe for the students to continue going there. The irony was not lost on Mouse. He knew that this faculty bathroom actually connected to the boys’ locker room showers through this service tunnel. The locker room was Zinner’s private entertaining area because it had a hot tub and steam room. It wasn’t directly attached to Zinner’s apartment, but it got him much closer than he currently was.

 

The lieutenant approached the dilapidated security fence around the abandoned school and looked to his companion. He knew better than to ask his friend if he was sure this was where the boy had gone.

“Thoughts?”

The Shirka grunted, “A criminal syndicate hideout. No perimeter defenses, automated or living. A couple of cubs have walked by here recently, probably on watch. But it’s cold.”

“But it’s cold”, the lieutenant repeated. Even grown men who were guarding secret military installations tended to get tired and lazy when it was cold out. Why not go back into the base to the comfort of a heater? What’s the worst that could happen?

Feeling comfortable that the child-sentries had retreated to the warmth of the building, the two men simply pushed the gate aside and walked to the front door. Jenny was falling asleep and barely noticed the two as they approached her station; she really should have napped today. When she realized the men were there, she reached for her alarm bell but the Shirka gently picked her up with one of his massive hands and then licked the whole side of her head.

“Grape”, the Shirka said as he held her up to his nose and began to sniff. “A boy put something in your hand not too long ago. Where is he?”

“Du-nnnn-nnno,” Jenny barely squeaked.

He put her down and began to sniff the air. “That way.”

The lieutenant followed as he was led towards the back of the school. He had seen several of the kids running in haphazard directions but a few had run with purpose. He was sure at least one of the fleeing kids was sounding whatever alarm they had for intruders.

Both men were armed but neither felt the need to pull their weapons. Before their assignment on this planet began, they had been briefed on the local criminal element, including these mini-gangs that mostly used kids and non-violent means to run their games. The kids probably weren’t armed but they were prepared to deal with the adult they would eventually find who most certainly would be.

A few kids did try to block their progression, probably an immediate action drill put in place by their leader. A passive move to slow down the cops, or cannon fodder if the invaders happened to be a rival gang. The kids were easily moved by the men as they continued to follow the scent through the hallways.

As they were reaching a stairwell that led up, a loud noise could be heard from a few floors above them. The sound was unmistakable.

“Security door.” The lieutenant just shook his head. This was going to take a little more time.

~

Zinner sat at his desk and looked over at his two personal runners. “Don’t worry kids, we’ll be fine.”

In front of the desk, he had a platoon of kids waiting to fight for him if needed or greet the cops with smiles. It just depended on who was coming up the stairwell right now. The runner who brought the alarm wasn’t sure whether the two men were cops or other bad guys. And with a lack of cameras or other technology in the school, Zinner wouldn’t be able to tell what the two men were until they reached the door and made their intentions clear.

A loud knock announced their arrival at the security door.

Using a hardwired intercom, Zinner asked, “May I help you?”

“Yes, you may. I’m looking for a child. He stole my wallet.” The lieutenant waited for a response.

“I’m very sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, I don’t know whom you are speaking of. If I did, I would most definitely send them and your wallet out to you. I suggest you file a report with the police; they are an extremely helpful bunch.” Zinner was glaring at the kids, letting them know he would beat whichever of them had brought this problem back to the hub.

“I appreciate your very helpful attitude. However, I have a Shirka with me, and he’s telling me that the boy and my wallet are in fact in that room with you. Would you like to come out here and tell him he’s wrong?” The lieutenant was watching as his partner looked for weak points in the security door.

Zinner clenched his teeth. “A fucking Shirka?! Are you kidding me?!” Turning to the kids in his room, he exploded. “Which one of you little fucks is he talking about?! I swear, I will start breaking fingers and hands until one of you speaks up.”

Zinner was trying to decide which kid he was going to start with. He looked through the small group to see whether there was one in particular he didn’t like or whether he was just going to have to grab one of them at random. “Last chance, shit heads. Someone needs to start talking. Now.”

“It’s me. They’re looking for me.” Mouse stepped out from the shadows in the back of the room. “I think you are, too.”

Zinner turned away from the rest of the group to face the boy addressing him. “First off, if those men are looking for you, we can fix this. Give them the wallet back and whatever else you took. If we have to pay them off, it will just come out of your wages until you pay me back.” Taking a measured step towards Mouse, he added, “And second, why would I be looking for you? I didn’t even know you had gotten yourself in trouble.”

Mouse reflexively stepped away from Zinner’s slight advance towards him. As he listened to Zinner’s words, he wondered whether he was wrong about what happened earlier. He sounded so sincere when he spoke. No, he wasn’t wrong: he could see it in Zinner’s eyes, could see what couldn’t be heard in the words. And there was no mistaking the wad of money with his picture on it along with what took place in the tool district earlier. Zinner was just putting on this show for the other kids, to make them feel safe, to keep their faith in him as their protector.

“Bullshit.” What else could he say?

“I don’t follow.” Zinner was now slowly moving towards a pedestal against the wall.

Mouse waved his hand towards his brother. “Zach, get over here, by me, now.”

Zach wasn’t sure what was going on but he always trusted his brother so he did as he was told. Without even thinking about it, Zach gently grabbed the other runner who had brought in Mouse’s satchel with him earlier. The two private runners stood next to Mouse.

“Look, we really need to fix the issue with the two guys outside before it gets any worse.” Zinner was trying to be subtle, and maybe he would have succeeded if Mouse didn’t already know what he was doing.

Zinner was inwardly smiling to himself. This was going to play right into his hands. He could kill Mouse himself and the kids would see that he didn’t have any other choice. After all, Mouse brought trouble into the hub and the kids knew how severe a transgression that was. Then with Mouse dead, he could give the two men whatever they wanted to make them leave.

Zinner reached the pedestal and slid the top back to reveal the secret compartment. The empty secret compartment that wasn’t supposed to be empty.

“Looking for this?” Mouse was holding the gun in his hand that Zinner was hoping to find in the compartment. Mouse was glad his brother hadn’t kept quiet with the secrets he had learned as one of Zinner’s private runners. Mouse actually smiled. “I tried so hard to think of something else to say. I mean, that line is from like every movie ever. Right?”

“Now what? Are you going to shoot your way out of here?” Zinner wasn’t scared; he didn’t think Mouse would do anything drastic.

“No. You’re going to open the security door and my brother and I are walking out of here and you’re going to let us.” Mouse was walking backwards towards the door.

“You want to take your chances with those guys out there?” Zinner still hadn’t seen anything from inside his sequestered apartment; he had only heard the demands from the other side of the door. “You pissed off some guy who has a Shirka with him. Be my guest, leave.”

Mouse knew what was waiting for him on the other side of the door and he was ready to be taken into custody if that’s what the two marines wanted after the lieutenant got his wallet back. Zinner put his hands up in submission and moved to the button on his desk that would release the door.

“Whoever is outside the door,” Zinner began, “I have the kid who stole your wallet. I’m opening the door and sending him out. I apologize for any hardship this little event has put you through.”

The door unlocked and one of the men on the other side pulled it open. Zinner saw the two marines and immediately realized that he had been played by Mouse, but one thing still bugged him more than anything at this point. His security had been breached and he wanted to know how. “Before you go, tell me, how did you get in here without me seeing you?”

Mouse smiled. “Part of your protocol is to bring your hall monitors in the room with you, to use as a buffer. I had already made it past them through the service tunnel and I was waiting in the locker room. When the first few monitors were retreating back to the apartment, I just blended in with them and kept my head down. You weren’t paying attention to the kids coming in, so you never saw me.”

Zinner shook his head. “Mouse? More like RAT. A dirty, filthy rat.”

“Now, I may be new to this situation and not know everything that’s going on,” the lieutenant began, “but the kid is the one with the gun. You might want to watch what you’re saying.”

“Fuck you.” Zinner almost spat at the marines but thought better of it. “Take your wallet and that little shit if you want, I don’t care. But then get the hell out of my house. You’re not welcome.” Zinner sat heavily in his chair behind the perceived but unrealistic feeling of safety that his desk gave him.

Mouse stepped towards the lieutenant and handed him his wallet. “I’m sorry, sir. I honestly didn’t mean to put you through this kind of trouble.”

“No worries, kid. Let’s get you two out of here.”

Mouse turned to look at Zinner one last time. “Don’t ever come looking for us. If you do, I swear I’ll kill you.”

Zinner leaned forward with his elbows on his desk. “Oh, I’m coming for you, kid. If you’re anywhere on this planet after tonight, I will find you and kill you. Slowly.”

The lieutenant looked at the Shirka. “Well, I did promise you could kill the next three people.”

Zinner’s face changed from smug and predatory to scared and regretful. He had mistakenly thought the marine uniforms meant he was safe and the two men wouldn’t—couldn’t—hurt him. But as the Shirka’s face turned to an evil grin and he began to move towards Zinner, he knew he had been wrong. “Wait, no, you can’t. Please, you can’t. I won’t hurt them, I swear. I’m sorry. I won’t ever come after you. I swear!”

The living embodiment of so many human horror movies slowly walked to the desk and in one swift movement jumped on top of it and landed in a full squatting position. As Zinner wet himself, the Shirka sniffed the air and knew his prey was weak. The alien lifted one of his werewolf-like paws and stretched his fingers and claws out in front of Zinner’s face so he could see what was coming.

“Okay, he’s going to do this one slowly.” The lieutenant began to usher the kids out of the room. “Everyone out. There isn’t enough therapy in the galaxy to fix any of you if you stay to watch this.”

After the last kid was out, the lieutenant closed the door as he was saying, “I’ll wait for you out front. Me letting you do it this way counts as three, you know.”

The Shirka smiled as he tossed his prey a sharp knife. “At least put up a fight.”

~

Once they were in the hallway, the lieutenant looked at the boy who had stolen his wallet. “Mouse, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“After what I saw in there just now, I’d say Snake was a better name.”

“Sir?”

“A mouse sneaks and hides in the shadows and is weak. You are not weak. You used the shadows to hunt from, to attack from. You are a predator, not prey. You are a cunning snake, silent and deadly.”

“Snake. I like that, sir.” Snake looked directly into the man’s eyes. “If you want to turn me in, I’ll go with you to the police. I won’t try to run.”

“Oh my boy, I want to turn you in, all right.” He looked at his wallet and smiled from ear to ear. “I want to turn you into a marine. You’ve got skills we can use. With the right education and the right guidance, we can make you more than you ever thought possible.”

Snake thought for a moment. “I won’t go anywhere without my brother.”

“Of course not. I wouldn’t want to break up a family.” They stopped as they reached the front of the school, waiting for the Shirka to finish and come out to meet them. “Look, I’ll make some calls tonight and get you two enrolled in the school on base. I’m sure we can find a military family who would love to have two foster boys to raise. If worst comes to worst, I’ll pull some strings and get you two situated with a regular Colony foster home. Together, I promise.”

“Then what?” Snake hadn’t thought much past retirement so this new direction sounded like a good beginning.

“Then you go to school, be the young men you’re supposed to be.” The lieutenant looked up and saw the Shirka coming towards them. “I’ll check in on you from time to time and make sure you don’t need anything. When you graduate, we’ll talk some more and then go from there. How does that sound?”

Snake looked at his brother, who just nodded his approval. Snake put his hand out to the lieutenant. “Deal.” The two men shook hands.

The Shirka walked up and just snorted at the group, his way of saying, “Let’s go.”

The lieutenant reached up and pulled a piece of clothing and skin out of the larger alien’s fur. “How many times have I told you—don’t play with your food.”

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