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Shadowstream

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Run.

Sherry. Sherry said. Reminding himself of what he knows, like a narrative mantra as his arms pump and his bare feet slap against the concrete. Sherry. He knows her name when he doesn't know the names of any of the others; this is because she told him during one of the times they dragged him back to his room and stuck him with needles, shut him up in the dark. She was there. Kneeling, cool fingers on his brow, sweeping his hair back from his face. She had the needle. Sherry.

Said she was sorry. Said whatever they tell you to do, do it. Don't fight them. It'll be easier.

They might not hurt you as much next time.

Bullshit. Doesn't matter what he does or doesn't do. It always hurts.

But then there was her, and the needle again. And it wasn't thick sleep with wrenching nausea on the other end. It was something else, something like lightning shivering through him, and before he knew what was happening to him he was on his feet, shoving her aside, open door and bright clean corridor beyond except it wasn't bright but was instead all swirling red light, and his heart was beating so fucking fast and breath heaving and she was hissing run, the security grid is offline, run now or you'll never make it and he got the gist of that. Bet your ass.

So he ran. Is running.

Trace the path backward from here, might help him determine where he is: corridor, elevators out of service, and a voice talking overhead, female and completely flat; heard it before but not like this. Stairwell, more red light. Something about an emergency. Something about a code red. Rapid pounding of boots in the distance; he ducked under the stairs at the bottom of the well until they passed him by. Stupid. Also slow; he's much faster. He's much stronger.

He's much more everything.

He suspects he could kill a few of them before they took him down. But Christ, he doesn't want to put that little theory to the test.

More red corridor. People here, turning to watch him sprint past, gasping, calling out. That was when the first bullets whistled over his head but he didn't stop, didn't turn, and knew with a deep and irrational intuition that they weren't aiming kill shots. They don't want to kill him, oh no. He's much too valuable for that.

They want to take him back to the cell, and hurt him some more.

They're never going to stop.

Turning - sharp turn, and he leaped and banked off the wall, hit the floor on all fours, threw himself upward and kept running. Door ahead, EXIT, resisted him when he pushed against the handle and there were a few seconds of blind panic but then more bullets pocking the door, shouts closing in, and he hurled his entire weight against it and it crashed open. He fell, scraped his palms, found his feet again, and now he's running across a walkway along a rooftop, steel bar railing to his left and featureless concrete wall to his right, yells somewhere below him and behind, swinging beams of painful light and the blare of alarms, all around him brilliant glass towers rising hundreds of feet above. No clear way out.

No clear memory of when he wasn't here. And he has no fucking idea where he is.

Run.

Sherry said. And his thoughts can proceed along enough of a logical course to be fairly sure that Sherry will get into a lot of trouble for this. They might give Sherry a turn at being hurt, or two, or three, or a fuck of a lot more than that. He can't help her, but he can do what she told him, until he's safe and away from here or until he'll never run again.

He reaches the end of the walkway. Calls for him to stop, rough, trying to sound authoritative but underneath he can tell they're freaked out. They're scared. That's not much comfort, and he doesn't smile, but he slams into the glass in front of him, panicked people in white coats scrambling away from it, from him, bullets cracking it like frost - he remembers frost, he saw it once, he's certain he did - and he wants to smile. The urge is there. Fucking hell, can't recall when he last did.

He pushes off the window and, guided by split-second calculation of something in the left periphery of his vision, flings himself in that direction, through a narrow gap and onto another rooftop, this one tar and slippery with rain and he splashes and skids but doesn't fall.

Darker. Shadows along the side of the building, no close windows, giant vented metal boxes that might be ICC units. Good. They'll follow, but good. Better.

Run.

Alright, Sherry. Okay.

I'll run.

~

“Hope you're not expecting a whole lot of action, Greene.”

Beth starts slightly and glances up and over at the driver’s side of the cruiser. Grimes’s - Rick’s, he said to call him Rick - face is turned dead ahead of them, appearing focused on the road, but his cool blue eyes flick in her direction, and a little smile is tugging at the corner of his mouth. For a few seconds she's worried he might call her out for not focusing - and she would be guilty as charged - but he doesn't, even though he must have noticed. When she got paired up with him earlier and looked him over, she got the distinct sense that those cool blue eyes didn't miss very much.

She also liked him immediately, and since they started patrol that hasn't changed. He hasn't been talking a whole lot, and that suits her fine. She's aware that she comes off as friendly, and even sometimes brightly chatty - and she is in fact both of those things - but there's something about Atlanta at night that gets her in a meditative frame of mind, and the cruiser is a new model, a smooth and nearly silent ride, and it's far too easy to go gathering wool.

But even if that wasn't so, she would like the quiet. It rained heavily about an hour ago, and the cruiser hisses through the puddles and along the slick pavement. The wet reflects the lights of the buildings and the giant colorful corporate logos, some of them gracefully animated, and it's pretty.

Easy to think the whole city is like this. Even if she knows better.

She clears her throat, shifts in the seat. It's not entirely comfortable, which she chalks up to the newness. It hasn't been broken in. “What do you mean?”

“Seen too many trainees come on the job expecting action the first time out. You won't be getting that. Not this part of town, anyway.” He nods at the sleek glassy buildings - all recent construction - and the orderly lines of traffic, the broad but mostly deserted sidewalks, the overall cleanliness of the place. “You see all this? Each one of these corps has its own security force. Practically goddamn armies. They get to everything before we do. And there's hardly ever anything. Not for us.”

Beth arches a brow. “Seriously? They say crime rate’s been up the last few years.”

“Not here. All you'll get around here is white collar. Embezzlement, corporate espionage. We got nothing to do with any of that.” He shakes his head. “Not our turf. Thank Christ.”

She allows herself her own small smile. “Too boring for you?”

Rick does turn his head then, huffs a laugh. “Didn't say I didn't appreciate some action. Now and then.”

“Well, y’know what they say.” She gazes out at the gleaming night, drumming her fingers against the gently sloping inside of the passenger door. She doesn't actually want any action, any excitement. This is good. “About wishin’. And bein’ careful.”

~

The problem is that he's not sure when he was even last outside.

That's not quite accurate; it's not the problem. He has a lot of problems right now. Two more sharp turns, jump across a small gap, one more fall, and he's just about positive that his feet are cut. Not shot yet, small mercies, but not for lack of trying on their part. He's not tired, barely even winded, but he's running out of rooftop, and the glittering towers that surround him now aren't close. Unless there's something beneath the approaching edge that he can't see…

City. He knows. Familiar. There's so much he doesn't remember. They took from him, they stole, and a surge of rage transfers into a surge of speed as he rounds another corner, jumps another gap, makes his way as fast as he can along a narrower ledge, ducking to keep his head out of view through the windows just above. This is familiar. Atlanta? The name fits, then sticks, and he can't dislodge it, so that must be right.

He's been here. He's been out. Before the room and the corridor and the doctors and the needles and the pain, there was an out, and with the cool damp air rushing into his lungs, he's committed, committed to fucking death: he's never going back there. Never. He gets away now, or he dies.

Ugly memory, then, just as he comes to the end of the ledge and the roof should open up in front of him again, just as lights flare into blinding being in front of him and he cringes away, just as what sounds like a chorus of amplified voices orders him to stop right fucking there and bullets rattle into the concrete at his feet, and maybe they won't kill him but they will sure as shit blow his fucking feet off-

Because can't they just give him new ones?

-and it comes, a voice that isn't amplified, that's a low purr, all smooth self-satisfied menace. He was told this very early on: he has two choices. He can cooperate. He can fight them, and what they're going to do to him will happen anyway.

You should know, there is no door number three.

Oh yes there fucking is.

They can kill him. He can make them kill him. It'll betray whatever Sherry sacrificed for him, and that sucks, but he's not going back there. He can rush them now, charge forward into the lights and the gunfire, and if he's violent enough they'll basically have to use lethal force to take him down - or that's what he wants to believe, what he has to believe, because the alternative is unacceptable. Behind him he hears more boots, rattle of gear, another couple of voices. No way back. Not that there ever was.

He lowers his center of gravity. Drops his head like a bull. Inhales. Sherry. He's very sorry for that. Wishes he could tell her so. But it was too late for him a long damn time ago.

And his veins explode into flame, and he watches in utter shock as his right arm rises and holds itself outstretched, and falls apart.

~

“So why'd you wanna do this anyway?”

Not woolgathering this time, but Rick’s question is still unexpected. Beth glances up at him, and now he's not making a pretense of scanning the road. The cruiser can slip easily into autodrive when it senses any signs of flagging attention, and there's no danger. Ricks hands are still on the yoke, but he's studying her, and he's not trying to hide it. And while normally it might make her squirm, might make her a lot more uncomfortable than that, she doesn't detect anything untoward in that cool gaze.

He's doing exactly what he's supposed to be doing, aside from training her. He's evaluating her. Taking note of everything. And she remembers what one of her better academy instructors said, when she took her first course on crime scenes: You see everything. Most people just don't know how to retrieve the info. For them, it’s passive. You need to learn how to make it active. You need to learn how to look. Not just see.

So she bears up under the scrutiny, shrugs, gives him another faint smile. “The money’s good.”

“Mm, not that good. People don't do CAS because they want a good paycheck. Steady, sure, but.” Rick mimics her shrug. “Everyone I ever met on the force is either running from something or running to something. Which are you?”

Beth cocks her head. This is beginning to feel like a bit of a game - not one that she necessarily has to win; she isn't positive there is a way to win. Though there's very likely a way to lose. “Doesn't anyone just wanna help people anymore?”

Rick laughs again, turning back to the road and swinging left down a quieter, darker street. “You think people are like that?”

“There are still good people, Rick.”

“Yeah,” Rick says quietly, and his smile is lingering. “I guess there are, at that.” Pause. The radio crackles. “You didn't answer the question.”

Beth sighs. If she's being tested, she'll take the test. “I guess… I mean, I really do wanna help people. But also…” She worries at her lip for a few seconds. Then: “I grew up on a farm. Youngest, y’know? My big brother, my sister… My sister went off to college, my brother’s gonna take over the farm from Daddy when Daddy gets older, and I wanted to do somethin’ different. That's all. Just… Just different.”

“So you figured you'd be a cop, Greene?”

She gives him a little smirk. “Well, I wasn't gonna join the army or whatever. Wanted to be closer to home.”

“You're a country girl.”

“Yeah. But I like Atlanta.”

“You like what you've seen.” A grim edge has suddenly made its way into his voice, though there's no sign of it on his face. “You wait. Sooner or later it won't be so nice to you.”

“Yeah, people keep sayin’ stuff like that.” She turns slightly in the seat - her turn to study him. “What about you? Why did you-”

Rick cuts her off with a raised hand, leaning forward over the yoke, eyes narrowed. The street ahead of them is opening back up to three lanes, brighter and busier, but she can't see anything out of the ordinary. No one driving any way they shouldn't be. Only a couple of strolling pedestrians. The radio crackles again, mutters to itself, but it's a break-in on the other side of town. She frowns at him. “What?”

“You hear that?”

“Rick, what?”

“Are those gunshots?”

~

It doesn't actually fall apart. It's worse than that.

It unfolds.

He gapes at it as it does. His hand snaps up and out, unhinges, curls downward and flat against the inside of his arm as his flesh opens like wings, revealing glossy black bars that flick into a slender curve, a half-moon of inky metal. A series of clicks as it locks into place, another click as something slides out of his upper arm and into the center above where his knuckles used to be. Tipped sharp silver. It glistens.

Strapped to the table, lights searing his eyes even when he closes them. All searing. He's screaming, struggling, and they don't care. They don't give a shit. They're too busy ripping him apart. They're too busy lacing his muscles and bones with fire.

Fuck them.

He flexes something deep inside his shoulder, and that wicked silver tip flies.

There's a thunk, a yell, the lights flicker, and he sees that they're harder core than the ones who were chasing him to start with - they've got body armor, helmets, and the thing he just fired from his arm is protruding from the facemask of the one in front of him, the inside of the visor splattered red, all slow motion as the man slumps wordlessly to the ground.

Right about then is when he realizes that there is a door number three after all.

Take the shot!

And they do. The bullets rip through the air around him; doesn't matter because he's not there when they reach him. He's spinning, dropping to one hand and whipping his bare foot out, slamming it into the thigh of the one behind him; a panicked yelp as that one drops. Already his arm up again, already another one of those beautiful little things loading itself, twinkling like a star as it punches through the vest of the one beside the first. Can't see faces; probably better that way, because before, this wasn't personal, except now he hates them. He fucking hates them. They didn't do this to him, but they want to take him back where the people who did can do it more, and you know what? You know fucking what?

He doesn't want to die.

Took out three that he can count. Doesn't know how many of those bolts the ammunition pouch in his shoulder can hold. But unlike when this whole excursion started, he's more than willing to find out, and he lunges at the rest of them, ignoring the bullets, pulling his internal trigger over and over without bothering to aim. He watches bodies fall, can't count anymore and doesn't try, measures everything by air pressure, sound and light levels, calculations too rapid for him to comprehend. What he knows is that he breaks through into open space, darting forward and dodging into the shadows, tearing up to that edge and calmly noting the gap between him and the roof-ledge across the narrow street, blur of traffic below, and flinging himself across.

Hits. Rolls. Is on his feet, angry pained cries behind him.

Run.

~

The radio crackles, breaks into speech, and it's not a mutter.

187, fourth and Peachtree, multiple victims, suspect is fleeing on foot-”

Rick curses under his breath. “That’s… Shit, that’s two blocks over.” He touches the bud in his ear. “Control, this is 133 responding.” He's still speaking as he guns the engine and swings hard right across traffic - and up, the jets on the cruiser’s underside growling as it sends them into the air, sudden enough to make Beth gasp but fast enough and smooth enough that there's barely a hiccup in the traffic flow.

“-white male, assume armed and extremely dangerous.”

Rick shoots her a look as he engages the stabilizers. “You ever been airborne in one of these things?”

“These?” Beth coughs. It's not completely a laugh. She's abruptly very glad that she's strapped in. “Not like this.”

“Academy runs don't capture it, do they? And not this new.” He grimaces and reaches between them, pulls the gearshift all the way back, and the acceleration presses Beth into her seat and the air out of her lungs in a soft oof. “Looks like you're gonna get to see some action after all.”

~

Freedom. This is freedom. It’s exhilarating. It explodes through him, searing in a way those lights and that pain never did. It's what was in Sherry’s needle, what set him running, woke his whole body up, woke up something inside him, his arm that isn't his arm, moving faster than he should ever be able to move, taking a jump he never should have been able to take, because he retains no clear memory of a time before the room and the needles and the pain, but he knows what his body is capable of.

Thought he knew.

No sound anymore but the thunder of his heart, windstorm of his breath, the impact of his feet all the way up to his temples. He's a living orchestra of rhythm. He's a one-fucking-man-band.

They're behind him. He knows it. Glances back; they're scaling the walls, throwing tether-lines, swarming. He no longer believes that they won't shoot immediately to kill. Doesn't care; that's still a better door than one or two. Freedom or death, except before he didn't think so actively about spreading that death around.

He's killed people. He's killed a lot of people. He doesn't know how many.

He's totally willing to kill more.

He leaps up across a ledge to a higher one, runs up a window and hauls himself over the lip of the roof at the top. One getting too close; he whirls on his ass and puts a bolt through the prick’s unprotected throat.

At some point he runs out, right?

Right?

Fuck it. He really does want to laugh. No breath to spare for it, but it would feel so good, and if he does ever get his breath back, he will. He’ll laugh and laugh, and then he’ll run some more, not because he has to but because he can.

The night is made of pale jewels. Towers of windows, mirrored and un-mirrored, wonderful. It's beautiful out here. It's worth killing for.

A roar behind him - above him. He wheels, looks up. Blur of rotor blades and a spotlight pouring through the mist. Not the only one; another to his left. All black, with a logo on the side that he can't make out. Knows it, but it's useless information. It won't save him. It won't free him. Only one thing will do that.

Run. Sherry said. Sherry, only friend in the world Sherry, he knows what a friend is. A friend helps you even when they shouldn't. A friend gives something of themselves so you can have more. Except all he knows about her is her name, and all his laughter melts into tears that threaten to choke him.

He ducks through a bank of smaller ICC units; no cover. Nowhere to hide from those lights. He's running out of roof again. The chopper is hovering low, more lines unspooling from its insect-like body, figures sliding down. With guns. Not that way, then; he can kill people but there have to be at least ten over there. Other chopper to his right. Straight ahead, then. All he has. Can't see anything over that edge but air; saw it from a ways back and higher up, and it's a plaza full of benches and carefully trimmed trees. Nearest building after this one is hundreds of yards. He can jump but that would take wings. Pretty sure he doesn't have those. Pretty sure he would have noticed.

Though fuck, would he?

Only one way to know. Maybe he can fly. Maybe he can take the fall. He's not going back. He's not cooperating. He's not fighting, and then they get their way in spite of it. He's taking door number three, and what's behind that door is either the freedom he's been sucking into his lungs, or his mysterious body burst open on the pavement, and given the alternatives, either is perfectly acceptable.

It feels good to run. It might be okay to die like this. It might be fine.

Thanks, Sherry, he thinks, and through the chopper-thunder and the shouts and the gunfire his feet hit the edge of the roof, and then there's nothing under him but air.

And then there's a lot more under him than that.

~

“Choppers?” Beth leans forward, peers out the windshield as if they might disappear with closer examination. “Did Control-”

“Those aren't ours.” Rick’s voice is tight, tight as his hands - pale-knuckled on the yoke. He's calm, or he's keeping himself that way, but Beth isn't fooled, and doesn't suspect that she's meant to be so; this is a lot more than whatever Rick meant by action, and the presence of non-CAS choppers in what's supposed to be restricted airspace…

She remembers what he said. All these corp-sec outfits. Private armies.

“Rick? Should we-” What she's about to say is something she’ll never know. Later she won't have a clue. It also won't matter, but it'll eat away at her, at a tiny corner of her mind like a mouse gnawing away a wooden beam, because as it turns out, this moment is important.

As it turns out, this moment is everything.

The impact is so hard and so abrupt, slamming her against her harness and shocking a “Fuck!” out of Rick, that for a few dazed seconds she's sure they've hit the side of the building. But her vision clears, the stabilizers kick in, she sees the bright windows still yards away from them, and closer, between her and them…

A face. Inches away, half hidden by wild dark hair, eyes boring into hers. Filthy palms flat against the windshield. He jumped, she thinks. He jumped. And he's going to reach in and break my neck.

The cruiser tilts, dips sickeningly, blares an alarm that Rick punches off with another vicious curse, and the face is gone.

She's still trying to process as they spin into a fast descent - too fast, maybe, but she's only dimly aware of the lurch in her stomach. Rick is muttering a steady stream of obscenities under his breath as he wrestles the cruiser back under control, but Beth is staring out the window, watching the lone figure plunge to the street below.

Seventy feet down. At least. He's dead. No way he's not dead.

“You have a visual?”

She looks up, blinking. “I-”

Beth. You have a visual on the suspect? Confirm.” It comes out in a harsh snap, but she's not stung. Should be quicker. Should be a lot quicker. Shouldn't be just staring like she was. She looks down again, scans the street, the stopped traffic in both lanes, people getting out of their cars and gathering, and she can hear distant shouts of alarm. Sirens. Screams.

He's lying in the middle of the street.

“Yeah. I- He's down.”

It's going to be bloody. Gruesome is how one of her other instructors described it. Falls, jumpers. That kind of death is always uglier than you expect it to be. So far as aesthetics go, it's one of the worst ways to die. And for some reason she doesn't want to see that. She doesn't want to see the face she glimpsed broken and caved in, smeared across the pavement.

She bites her lip. This is the job. This is quite literally what she signed up for.

You don't always get to save people.

But then.

“Rick?” Her voice sounds so much more quavery than she would like. Disgust at herself: she sounds like a little girl, country girl, and Rick’s report is going to be that she can't hack it. Can't handle it when shit hits all manner of fans. Because wouldn't you believe it; the girl starts seeing things, actual goddamn hallucinations, and there's no way in hell someone who reacts to stress that way should ever be allowed to carry a Swiss Army knife, let alone a badge and a gun.

“What?”

“He's, uh.” Almost down. Any second now Rick will see him too - see the shattered body in the street that has to be there, instead of what she's seeing now. “He's gettin’ up.”

“He's-? No way in hell, he's gotta be-” But the street rises into view and Rick shuts up, bent over the column with his eyes wide and his lips parted, all slack shock, and she knows he sees it too. “No way. No fucking way.”

Drugs, she thinks as the cruiser settles gently onto the ground with a hiss of vapor. Has to be. Drugs can do crazy things these days. People don't feel pain. Don't slow down, don't care about any danger to themselves whatsoever. Get someone so high you could cut their leg off without anesthesia and they'll just pick it up and try to hit you with it, hop down the street after you waving it over their head.

Except that's beyond stupid. Drugs don't keep bones from breaking. Drugs don't keep your organs in your body when they should be strewn from sidewalk to sidewalk. At least no drug she's ever heard of.

But he's getting up. Slowly, moving like he's in pain, but he is.

Rick is shoving the door open and out of the cruiser without another word to her, gun drawn and aimed. “Hands up! Hear me? Hands the fuck up, I will shoot you in the goddamn head!”

You sure that would take care of it?

She can no longer remember her protocol. She can no longer remember whether or not she's meant to be staying in the cruiser and letting Rick handle it, or getting out and helping. She has a sidearm and now she's reaching for it, opening the door, drawing her gun as she climbs out into the cool wet night. The corp-sec choppers drone overhead, searchlights do-see-doing all over the plaza. As one, the gathered crowd seems to take a step back, raised voices anxious. More sirens, more cruisers pulling up closer to the intersection. Everywhere a blaze of light, enhanced buy a hundred thousand reflections. Dreamlike.

But this isn't a dream.

She aims alongside Rick. The man raises his arms - his arm, and the other thing he has where his arm should be. Armed and dangerous, and she wants to collapse into hysterical giggles. His arm is a goddamn crossbow. The skin on the inside of his other arm is torn away, and what's beneath it is black and slick. A gash across his forehead over his left brow, and that at least appears to be bleeding normally. She notes his torn clothes - hospital scrubs? Something like that - and bare bloody feet, because you need to learn how to look, not just see, but what she can't stop looking at is his eyes.  

He's not looking at the choppers. Not looking at the crowd. Not at Rick. He's looking right at her, and he's not looking away.

“Jesus Christ,” Rick says somewhere beside her. He sounds almost bewildered. “He's augmented.”

Yes, he is. But even that seems inconsequential. There are his eyes - and then there are his lips, and as the world shrieks chaos around them, he mouths two words at her, and actually, she doesn't know how anyone could ever be expected to knowingly sign up for something like this.

Help me.