Hex’s face reddened. He wiggled and struggled against Gunnar’s weight. The knife dug deeper into the wound on his chest. He thrashed ineffectually with his hands against the older boy. He bled, and he cried.
“Yeah, hurts, don’t it?” said Gunnar. “Oh, your eyes are watering. Lemme wipe your tears, little boy.” He backhanded Hex, and the boy’s eyes watered more. Gunnar brought the point of the blade back under his captive’s chin. “Now. You took sumthin’ belongs to the guv. Where is it?”
Gunnar frowned when Hex smiled in response. His teeth shone through the blood in his mouth. “Ain’t his. Don’t belong to nobody. Was in the dregs,” he said, trying and failing to spit a mouthful of blood at Gunnar.
“It’s the guv’s if he says it is! Now where is it!?” Gunnar pressed the knife into the soft spot under the boy’s chin. A bead of blood formed at the blade’s point. Hex craned his neck to get away from the pinprick of pain, but Gunnar only pressed harder. All of the fight went out of the little boy.
“Okay,” Hex grimaced. “Okay. It’s over there. Underneath.” He nodded in the direction of a broken wooden crate up against the neighborhood fence. He felt the knife in Gunnar’s hand relax a bit and all the crew boys looked at the crate. Hex saw the shard of glass was in the dirt right next to him. He slowly moved his hand toward it while Gunnar was distracted.
Liu Chen circled around from the back of the second dumpster toward the crate, steel pipe out in front of him, but his eyes didn’t stray far from checking the windows and doors that led out onto the alley. The other crew boys, sensing Liu’s unease, formed a defensive circle, turned to face outward, on guard. Everyone knew Chen could smell a trick, and he was smelling one now.
Gunnar Halpain’s impatience was showing. He glared down at Hex and then looked back up at the crate. He glanced around the alley, and at the other crew boys, and then back at the crate again. Hex felt the knife relax even more. He reached his hand out a little further toward the broken glass.
Liu had cautiously made it to the battered wooden box. He watched Hex. The moment hung in time as Liu tried to read the boy’s expression, a mix of pain and… what was that? Amusement? Smugness?
On the other side of the fence, life in the Undervilla went on uninterrupted. Merchants were calling out their wares. Children were chasing futbols – long deflated and repaired with thick bands of tape – through the dusty streets. Around the corner, the woman was still beating the dirt out of her rugs. No breeze blew in the stagnant, foul-smelling alley and Gunnar flinched at the smell. It seemed to be getting stronger.
Gunnar Halpain glared down at Hex again. The boy was watching Liu like everyone else. A drop of sweat rolled down Gunnar’s face and hung on the end of his nose, and then dropped off.
In one swift movement, Liu Chen swept his foot out and kicked the crate over, ducking and flinching for the booby trap.
But it never came. In fact, there was nothing inside. Just as Gunnar looked back at him, Hex’s fingers found the glass shard. He brought it up and stabbed the crew boy’s knife hand, making him scream in pain. He dropped the knife. Then Hex slashed back the other way with his glass shard, opening a bloody gash across Gunnar’s cheek. Gunnar instinctively covered his face with his hands and Hex rolled free.
“NOW!” he cried, scampering to a safe place behind one of the dumpsters.
A small girl erupted from the rubbish bin in a shower of garbage, a gleaming capsule held high over her head. Her bright eyes shone out from beneath a helmet that read “Jett”. She triggered a button on the side of the device and tossed it down into the center of the circle the crew boys now formed. Liu Chen had just enough time to scream, “Tayzorb!” Then, Jett ducked back inside the dumpster, the device hit the ground, and Hex shut his eyes tight.
Amid a loud, high pitched hum and the sound of crackling electricity, bolts of energy shot out in a circle around the Tayzorb’s metal surface. The plasma arced out from the shining device, each bolt conducting directly to one of the crew boys, lighting up the dark alley. They fell to the ground, shrieking and jerking, bristling with electricity.
After about a minute, the Tayzorb’s charge was spent. As suddenly as it had started, the hum and crackle stopped. Hex peered out from behind the dumpster. The crew boys writhed in agony on the ground.
He leaned back against the dumpster and closed his eyes. He breathed deep and started coughing. That hurt, and made him cough even harder, which hurt even more. The gashes in his stomach from Gunnar’s nail-embedded cricket bat felt like they were on fire, but they’d get better in a few days with rest and maybe some antibiox. But his ribs really hurt. He knew that if he was very lucky, he’d only bruised them and he didn’t feel very lucky. He slowly got up, one hand leaning hard against the rubbish bin, and grimaced as his gut was forced to accept his full weight. He spit out a mouthful of blood and one of his teeth came with it.
Jett Alexander rustled to the top of the dumpster trash like a rat in a nest of old papers. Trash fell down the side of the bin and onto the ground as she scrambled over the edge and dropped to her feet. The adult’s flight helmet was comically large on her tiny eleven-year-old frame, making her head appear larger and her thin limbs thinner by contrast.
“Hex!” she cried. She ran to him and put an arm around him to take some of his weight. What a figure the two of them cut. Her dark mahogany skin peeked out of many rips in her tattered shirt and pants where his skin was only deeply tanned. Her shoes looked new, as did Hex’s. Dirty, but new. Probably stolen, or as Hex would have it, stolen back. They both believed in running. Speed saved their lives. So, tattered clothes, new shoes. Priorities.
“I’m fi–” he started to say. I’m fine. I got this. But he began coughing, and that almost dropped him to his knees again. When the coughing fit was over, they walked toward the crew boys together.
They headed directly for Gunnar Halpain, who was central in the thrashing circle of tormented crew boys. Little sparks of energy flashed in his hair and along his fingers. His face was contorted into a mask of utter pain, teeth clenched, eyes squinted; his left cheek was completely red with blood from the deep cut Hex had given him, and his injured hand was curled into a bloody claw.
When Jett was sure Hex could stand on his own, she left him and started looting the crew boys as they flopped around on the ground. She’d step on their hands with her heavy boots partly to keep their arms from flailing, getting in the way while she took their weapons and valuables. Partly, she did it because she felt they deserved it.
Hex surveyed the crew boys. Their screams had become guttural moans. He looked down at Gunnar.
“Hurts, don’t it?” Hex groaned hoarsely. The crew boy’s eyes rolled wildly in their sockets.
“Yeah,” Hex said. He grunted like an overweight middle aged man as he knelt next to Gunnar, and almost lost his balance. He was having trouble breathing, and his shirt was soaked red with blood from Gunnar’s nail bat. He picked up Halpain’s massive knife off the rubbish-strewn hardpan and admired it. It flashed and reflected in the dim alleyway. “See. I told you,” and coughed. He steadied himself, and decided to whisper. “I told you. Ain’t got the ‘verter. Not yours anyway. Was in the dregs.” He paused for the objection he knew Gunnar was too pained to make. “Told you leave me ‘lone. You d–” and broke into another coughing fit.
At the sound, Jett looked up from emptying Liu Chen’s pockets. Liu grabbed at her with hands he couldn’t control, and she smacked them away. She pulled them together and pinned them to the ground with her left knee to keep him still as she filled her rucksack. He howled.
“You didn’t,” Hex continued. “And this what happen.” He gestured to the older boy’s ragged cheek. He gazed admiringly at the knife again, and held it up to Gunnar’s face, to give him a nice, close look. “This a nice knife. Shiny.”
Gunnar gritted his teeth harder and balled his fists, fighting with all his might to control them, to grab Hex’s neck and squeeze the life out of the boy. But he had no control and instead his fists flopped around on his chest as the residual effects of the Tayzorb continued to disrupt his neurons.
“A bad cut,” Hex said, indicating Gunnar’s face again. “Gon’ leave mark.” He then brought the point of the knife up under the older boy’s spastic chin. “You remember,” he said. He dug the knife until it drew a bead of blood. “You tried kill me. Could kill you. Now.”
Jett stopped looting, and stared at Hex. “Yo!” she called over.
Hex ignored her. “I want you remember,” he said, and gouged the sharp blade across Gunnar’s other cheek, opening up a nasty, bloody cut, giving a matching wound. The crew boy started thrashing even harder and screaming again. “R-remember,” Hex said. “Let you live.”
Jett hustled over to Hex. She knelt and picked up the Tayzorb. The dark skin of her hands stood out in strong contrast to the shiny chrome device. It was still a little warm to the touch.
“Yo,” she said to Hex, “You shouldn’a done that!”
Hex put an arm out and she helped haul him to his feet. When he was steady, he put Gunnar’s knife in his waistband. “Keeping th’ knife,” he said as much to himself as to Jett or Gunnar.
“He’s gonna be pissed when the zap wears off.”
“But iss a good knife.”
“Not that,” Jett said.
Hex grimaced. “Oh. The c-cutting.”
Hex Ramirez pointed down at Gunnar. “Let you live,” he said, and gestured around his own face, mimicking the scar the older boy would have for the rest of his life. He put his arm around Jett so she could help him out of the alley. “Remember,” he called back over his shoulder.
“Oh, that’s gonna square it, yeah?” Jett said.
“Works f-for me,” Hex said, hoping he sounded better than he felt.
The kids walked out into the fading afternoon light with the rucksack slung heavy over Jett Alexander’s shoulder.
* * *
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