Bodies shifted in the darkness. Townies. Along with cannibals and somatics, necrophiles and flesh traders, townies made up the nightmares that residents of Rust told their children to keep them home at night. People of the dark, devolved humans, they’d lived generations in the deep parts of Rust, living on fish and garbage, stealing children and food from those who lived above the water level. Every child of Rust knew the stories.
Boss had told him the worst of them. She relished in describing the long grasping fingers, slicing claws, lank hair twined with moss and garbage. The townies that surrounded Zee and Ben remained just beyond the tab light, whispering. Disjointed words wafted through the dark.
“What should we do?” Zee asked.
“We need more light,” Ben said, breathless with fear. His eyes shined in the tab light, wide and darting. His hand shook on the gun.
“Stay calm,” Zee said, voice soft. The pain in her head dulled, becoming a low ache. The millites began healing her wounds, tingling in her arm. She placed her fingers on the gun in Ben’s hand, touching his cold skin. He blinked and half turned towards her.
“Stay calm,” she repeated with an evenness she didn’t feel. Something shifted in his eyes, and he stopped trembling. She took the gun from him and held it pointed towards the darkness, forcing her hands steady. “Besides they haven’t attacked us. Maybe they won’t.”
Wincing through the pain still pulsing in her arm, Zee pushed herself in front of Ben. Though a thin defense, her lease agreement required her to protect his wellbeing with her own body if required. The pain and the fear made stepping forward difficult. When he stood in front of her, even while scared, she felt safer, protected. In her head, she knew he should not have come down here to help her, but she also felt glad that he had.
Zee sighed. “Use the nanoblade. Go back to the upper floors,” she said.
“Don’t argue with me, Ben. Your safety is more important than mine.”
“No,” Ben said. “I mean I can’t go back up that way.”
“You flew down here, but you can’t fly back up?”
Ben shook his head. “I can only slow my fall,” he said. “Would probably have to OD on soma to go back up. The nanoblade can’t lift.”
Zee sighed in frustration. “How are we supposed to get out of here?”
“The stairs you fell through also went down,” Ben said. He nodded into the darkness. “There should be a stairway over on that wall.”
Staring at him, Zee said, “If there were stairs leading down here, why didn’t you take them?”
“Falling straight down was faster,” Ben said. “Plus the stairs probably would have fallen apart.” As they argued the townies had inched closer until Ben and Zee could hear their breathing. Ben shuffled closer to her and the gun. He gulped. “You don’t really want me to leave, do you?”
Zee edged closer to him. “Well no,” she said, a tremble in her voice. “I guess not.”
One of the townies made a louder noise, somewhere between a grunt and a word, making both of them jump. Zee’s hand tensed on the gun. “Should I shoot?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” Ben said. “Maybe a warning shot over their heads.”
Zee angled the gun upwards. The same townie made another grunting noise and shuffled forward into the light. Rags barely covered the muscular body of the male townie that appeared from the darkness. Dark hair hung lank and tangled on skeletal shoulders. Grasping fingers swept the floor dragging from a hunched back. Zee tensed. “What?” she whispered.
“They can’t talk,” Ben said through chattering teeth.
“No, he said something,” she said. She turned to the townie, still a few arm-lengths away from them. She lowered the gun and stepped toward him.
“Wait, Zee,” Ben said.
“It’s fine,” she said. Ben tensed, his pupils constricting. He watched the townie warily as Zee moved forward.
“We won’t hurt you,” Zee said, her voice clear and even. “Please let us go.” The man grunted again, but Zee couldn’t understand. “What?” she asked.
“Hep,” the man said. He paused, biting his lips. “Help,” he said, ending the word in a grunting growl.
“Help with what?” Zee asked. The man waved for them to follow. He turned and spoke gibberish into the darkness. Bodies moved, feet squelching on garbage. Ben tensed, but then relaxed. “What happened?” Zee asked him.
“The others moved away,” he said. He nodded towards the townie who had moved outside the light created by the tabs. “I think he wants us to follow him.”
“Maybe he knows where the drone is,” Zee said.
Ben winced. “I forgot about the drone.”
Zee glanced at her tab. “We’re running out of time.” Ahead of them, the townie grunted in the darkness. “But he might be leading us to exactly what we came for.”
“Or something way, way worse,” Ben said.
“He didn’t look like he had any weapons,” Zee said. “And we have a gun.” She began following after the townie, the light of her tab moving slowly away from Ben. As their two lights separated, the darkness grew darker. Ben hurried to catch up to her.
They followed the townie past piles of trash invisible in the dark. Water slithered all around them as the rain infiltrated the building. The sound muffled the stealthy movements of the other townies, who remained out of sight beyond their lights. The ceiling dipped downward, either because the roof was collapsing or because they had entered a smaller hallway.
The townie became visible ahead of them, his dark silhouette outlined by a slightly lighter gray. They neared a space where the roof and wall had collapsed completely. A diffuse gray light filtered inside and a curtain of water fell and puddled on the floor before plummeting into the dark depths of the building. The townie stopped and raised a long fingered hand. He pointed at a small pile of clothes.
“Is it the drone?” Zee asked craning her neck to peer over the stooped man. He stepped aside to let her and Ben pass. They approached the pile of garbage carefully. Ben froze and put his hand out to stop Zee.
“No,” he whispered. “It’s a person.” The young man slept in a small pile of clothes, his limbs curled up to his chest. The clothes and his hair steamed in the damp air. Ben looked back at Zee. She stared at the tab on her wrist. “What?” he asked.
“The drone signal is emanating most strongly from the same spot,” she said. She looked back at the young man and took a step towards him. The townie put a claw on her arm. Zee gasped and Ben tensed, but the townie didn’t move to harm her.
“D-dane,” he said. “Danger.” He held up his other hand. Ben and Zee stared. The skin had been seared, curled away and bubbled from heat, nails blackened. Together, Ben and Zee both looked back at the young man. He had awakened and stared at them, dark eyes intense, from beneath the heap of clothes.
Zee felt a heat on her face. Despite the cold air, sweat gathered at her neck line. She blinked and reached up to touch her cheek, but she stopped and stared at her hand. Gasped as a flame licked her fingers. Knife hot pain. She stumbled back, too shocked to scream. Ben turned towards her, confusion on his face. The townie fled.
“I told you to stay away from me,” the young man shouted.
The flames engulfed her entire hand. Zee screamed.
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