Kerra sat on the floor of her living room, trying to will her heartbeat to decrease.
“Want me to make you something to eat?” No Name asked.
“No,” Kerra said. “I don’t think I could eat anything right now. And I don’t want to see anyone in the kitchen.” She eyed the knife that’d been kicked into the corner.
“Understandable. Let me know if you need anything. I’m here for you, and I’ll stay as long as you need.”
“Thanks No Name. I think for now let’s just talk, okay?” Kerra tried not to sound as scared as she felt. The danger was over. She should be calm now, right? She took a steadying breath. Then another.
No Name seemed to be struggling to come up with something to say. Kerra knew that small talk was one of their weaknesses, but normal conversation was what she needed right now.
Maru shifted her shoulders awkwardly. “I don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry. Hirschel wasn’t- I mean, I didn’t-”
Kerra squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her hands on her forehead. “It’s not your fault. That was… completely unexpected. I still don’t understand what happened. Or why.”
“I don’t think any of us do,” said No Name. They sat on the floor near Kerra, close but not too close.
There was another period of silence.
“So, forgive me,” Maru started, “but I don’t believe I have met these friends of yours, Kerra.”
“Oh! This is No Name. They and the rest of those guys are in the gang that Shandi was in. I’ve probably mentioned the gang at some point.” It felt good to be doing something as normal as an introduction. It was as if she could just forget that what brought these two to meet in the first place was her life being threatened.
“I see,” Maru said, nodding. “It’s nice to meet you, No Name.”
“Likewise, um… Maru, was it?”
“Indeed. I run Dark Lake Books.” Maru pulled out a business card from somewhere and handed it down to No Name.
“Gotcha. I don’t read old books a lot so I’ve never been in, but I’ve passed the place a few times.” They tilted the business card in the light so the glossy black lettering shined.
“Glad we made an impression at least,” Maru said with a smile. “You’re welcome any time, even if you aren’t interested in books. Any friend of Kerra’s is a friend of mine. And,” Maru shot a surreptitious look around the room as if someone might be listening in, “our lines of work might intersect more than you might think. Stop by sometime and I’ll tell you more.”
No Name raised an eyebrow. “I’ll take you up on that.”
They continued with introductions and small talk until, just as Maru was describing Drigg’s love of underground bot racing, Kerra’s communicator went off.
It was The Grin. Kerra quickly answered, pulling The Grin’s holovid up so No Name and Maru could see too.
“Hey Kerra,” The Grin said. “We’ve got that guy locked up. I don’t think they should be a threat, but if you want to talk to them, I recommend you do it now while they’re still dealing with the aftereffects of Angelface’s little needle. Plus, we’ll all be here to keep an eye on you. What do you think?”
Kerra bit her bottom lip. She was scared. She didn’t want to see Hirschel again, but she knew she had to or she’d be left forever wondering. She nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be there soon.”
“Good. I’ll send you the address.”
Kerra walked into what appeared to be a regular, nondescript—if somewhat out of the way—apartment. But when she saw what was inside, it seemed anything but normal. Instead of furniture and household items, there were just boxes and crates stacked nearly to the ceiling. There was only a narrow walkway, and at the end of that walkway was Numbers, looking embarrassed.
“This place isn’t usually this tight, but we had to move all of the stuff in the holding cell out into the rest of the room. So be careful you don’t bump into anything. I didn’t spend much time making sure the stacks were stable.
Kerra gingerly walked down the aisle. “What is all this stuff anyway?”
Numbers grimaced. “Doesn’t matter.” He turned his head over his right shoulder and called, “Angelface?”
“Yeah?” Her higher, hoarse voice responded.
“Kerra’s here, is the guest ready?”
“As ready as they’ll ever be.”
Numbers turned back to Kerra. “Are you ready?”
“Ditto,” Kerra said.
“Then come with me, and remember, we’ve got your back.” Numbers led her down another narrow aisle that led to another doorway.
The room she came into, which must have, at one point, been a bedroom, was split in half. The half she was in was mostly open, with some boxes piled up at the far end. The other half was empty except for Hirschel, who was sitting on the ground, restrained with chains and manacles. Their milky blue eyes were half-lidded. It was a sight that shook Kerra. It felt wrong.
Separating the two sides of the room was a shimmering blue force field with iron bars on both sides. Angelface was standing next to a heavy-looking metal door that looked like the only way to get between the two halves of the room.
Not wanting to address Hirschel yet, Kerra asked, “Why do you have this place?”
Numbers shrugged. “I bought it like this. I don’t know what the previous owner used it for. She seemed like the kind of woman you don’t want to ask too many questions to. I thought the holding cell would be useful, but we’ve only used it a few times before today, and those times were a few years ago.”
“Kidnapping used to pay more,” Angelface said ruefully.
Kerra gave a surprised snort of laughter. Then her eyes focused on Hirschel again. They were looking at her. A shiver ran through her body. “Okay. To business. Who are you, and why did you try to kill me?”
Hirschel was silent.
“You better talk to her,” Angelface growled, “Or trust me, there will be consequences.” A knife flashed between her fingers.
Hirschel stared that half-lidded look at Angelface. Then they opened their mouth. Their teeth looked too big and too flat and their tongue was short and seemed almost stuck to the bottom of their mouth. At first, no noise came out, but then a high keening wailed out from their throat before fading away. Hirschel snapped their mouth shut.
“What the hell was that?” Angelface asked, turning to Kerra.
Maru’s voice came from the doorway, “I’ve never seen them do something like that before.” She rolled further into the room. She looked just as shaken as Kerra had felt when she’d seen how Hirschel was chained up. “Also, I don’t think they can speak. It might not be physically possible.”
“That’s right,” Kerra said. “I don’t know why I forgot that. I think they can only speak over the connection.” She grimaced. “But I’m pretty sure they controlled me over the connection too.”
“We won’t let them do anything to hurt you,” Numbers said.
Kerra took a deep breath. She had to be brave. But she knew she could trust her friends. She opened the connection.
She had been expecting something. Like Hirschel’s laughter in her mind. Or their anger or pain or anything. But Hirschel was surprisingly silent. They just stared steadily.
Well? Kerra asked, trying to infuse the thought with more confidence and confrontation than she felt.
I have explained already. Tired. Bored. Defeated.
I still don’t understand. You tried to kill me. Why?
Impatient frustration. Humans never listen.
I’m listening now.
No. I could show you though. A curl of a smile appeared on Hirschel’s face.
Dread pooled in Kerra’s stomach. Show me?
If you insist.
Kerra’s vision started going black. She stumbled to the floor, and the last thing she felt was Numbers catching her before her head hit the ground.