~~It was quiet, out here… I sat on the edge of the building, on top of an air-conditioning unit, a foot dangling carelessly off the side. It was easily a three-story drop, but tonight, I was feeling reckless… it’d been a long, hard week of checking dumpsters and trying not to get found and killed by the police. Ever since I’d been found out as an Unbounded, they’d started hunting me. Thankfully, I had plenty of friends, and most of them were willing to give me somewhere to sleep for the night. I tried to relax, just look over the city of Brisbane. It was a dangerous city when the sun went down. Free nightclubs and bars served patrons whatever they wanted until the sun came up. Being a Soul, I wasn’t Marked, which meant that I was pretty much free game for anyone – they could kill me and not even worry about having to pay for it. Deaths were pretty common around here, but usually it wasn’t killings – more like overdoses. Fights were common enough, but the Marks stopped people from outright killing each other. The hospital services were incredibly fast and efficient- I’d heard of guys getting their skulls shattered and walking out the next morning about as healthy as they’d been before the incident. Meant that the police didn’t really have to worry too much about breaking up fights – they could spend their time trying to track Souls or partying themselves. A breeze blew up, tugging at my ragged jacket and hair. I needed a haircut…
I turned and saw the diner owner, a guy called George Billings, walk over to me. He was Marked – I could see it carved into the skin of his hand – but, unlike most of them, he still tried his best to help people – he ran a diner, and runaways were given a decent feed, and he was fair. He’d been raised by an angry Italian guy, apparently, and Marked at birth for convenience, to make things less painful for his parents.
“Hey, George.” I twisted myself until I was facing him.
“You cold up here?” he asked, holding up a coat.
I grinned my thanks, and he tossed it to me. George looked out over the street, and shook his head. I knew what he was thinking – the diner was open until late at night, and that meant that he’d have all kinds of crackheads and drinkers filing through for a feed. I knew he didn’t like his work, but he had a family to support, and I could respect that. I pulled on the coat, surprised at how warm it was.
“Listen, something’s come up,” he said, his voice a little edgy.
“Yeah?” I slid off the metal unit. “What’s happened?”
“I had some coppers slip through a couple of minutes ago.”
Damn. They’d caught up faster than I’d realised. I smiled, trying to hide the disappointment in my eyes, and shook George’s hand warmly, trying to convey just how much gratitude I had for him through it. He shook his head dejectedly.
“Thanks for the coat,” I told him.
“I’m sorry, Pete…”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. They still around?”
“Yeah, probably poking around my kitchen.”
“Stay safe. Just tell them I headed towards the bus stop, yeah?”
“You got it.” George slapped my shoulder, and smiled at me.
I gave him a last grin, and then turned, running up to the edge of the building and jumping, propelling myself off the roof. It was a four metre-drop to the fire escape built onto the apartment beside George’s diner, but I landed it easily enough and rolled to break my fall, starting down the stairs as quickly and silently as I could. One of the tricks that I’d picked up as a Soul was how to move – how to run away, choose the best path and have no fear in taking it. I needed to put a couple of kilometres between myself and the diner – in the opposite direction to where I’d told George that I was going.
It was fifteen minutes before I ran into a pack of boys coming out of a bar. They were all dressed smartly – they’d probably come out of the office and decided to have a few drinks. A couple of them were staggering drunk. The others were a little sharper, but they still reeked of alcohol. I tried keeping my head down and just walking past them, but a hand shot out and caught me by the arm. I grimaced at his breath and forced a smile as I looked at him.
“Hey, man. Having a good night?”
“What’s the time, ----?” he demanded rudely.
I glanced at my G-Shock. “’Bout twenty past three.”
“Let me see,” the drunk slurred, pulling on my arm.
I twisted my hand and pulled myself out of grip, stepping away. He glared after me, and as I started to walk away, I saw another guy up ahead of me, settling into what looked like a martial arts stance. Dammit. Normally I could talk my way out of things like this, but these guys were beyond reasoning. They were crowding in, looking for a fight, for some entertainment. I shook my head, raising my hands in front of me.
“I’m not looking for any trouble, boys.”
“Don’t feel bad,” said the guy with his hands up told me. “I haven’t got into a fight at all tonight. Means that I’d break a streak of ten. You don’t want me to do that, do you?”
Rhetoric question. I kept my hands raised in a pleading gesture.
“Come on, fellahs. Just let me go.”
“Split him open, Jason,” one of the others encouraged.
“Freaking spill his brains on the road!” another laughed.
The guy called Jason closed in. I felt my misgivings turn into adrenalin and charge through my body like lighting. The guy led with a jab, throwing a hard left at my head. I used one of my hands to deflect his hit and then smashed my free hand into his face. I felt something give in his nose, and the next thing I knew, the guy was staggering backwards, blood all over his face and hands. I saw a blur of motion from my left, and felt something plough into my side. Pain shot through me, and I dropped my guard, turning just as another guy charged in with a huge superman punch. I managed to catch his fist on my arm, and then ram a knee straight into his crotch as he stumbled forwards, overbalanced. The guy crumpled up onto the ground, screaming.
Something caught hold of me from behind, pinning my arms by my sides, and I struggled, trying to get free. The guy holding me yelled encouragement at the others. I tried hitting him with a backwards headbutt, but he had his head tucked in… then something crashed into my stomach, driving all the air out of it and making me double over. I tried kicking out, but I missed and then felt a kick crash into my groin. Pain, paralysing, crippling pain, charged up my spine and spread the whole way through my body. I couldn’t help a hopeless moan escape from my gritted teeth, and I heard Jason laugh harshly.
“Sounds like he liked that…”
“Go again!” one of the others yelled.
“Let go of him,” a cold voice suddenly interrupted.
There was a blur of movement as one of my attackers ran past me. A moment later, there was a roar of pain, and suddenly the guy holding me released my arms and let me topple to the ground. I landed on my hands and knees, white-hot pain still blasting the whole way through my body. I glanced up, and out of the corner of my eye, saw a slim, dark-haired figure kick out, flattening one of the drunks. Another one with red all over his face – Jason, I realised – tried to slam in a kick, but my saviour caught it as easily as blinking and slammed a kick into his crotch, making him scream and drop to the ground next to his friends. I wiped my face, realising that there were tears racing from my eyes, and then tried to straighten up. My balance deserted me, and I staggered sideways…
Only to be caught by my mysterious saviour. Supporting me under the arm, they pulled me away from the street and towards an alley. I limped, trying not to make myself a burden, and realised after a second that the person I was leaning on was a girl, probably not much older than myself. Wrapped in a dark red hoodie and battered black jeans, she smelled faintly like petrol. After a few metres, the pain finally started to fade and I managed to straighten up, standing on my own two feet.
“You OK?” she asked me softly.
I glanced sideways at her. Her face was half-hidden by a hood, and in the dark, I couldn’t see much, but she had dark hair, and intense brown eyes that bored into mine. I had no idea who she was, but there was something vaguely familiar about her for some reason.
“I’ll be OK,” I muttered in a strained voice. ‘Thanks for that.”
“What were you doing? They were going to kill you!”
“Yeah, well…” I leaned against the brick wall of the alley. “Wasn’t my idea.”
She shook her head and caught hold of my arm. I felt a strange thrill run through me, cancelling out the pain, and saw her turn my hand over. It took me a second to realise that she was looking for a Mark. Was she a Soul?
“I’m not Marked,” I told her quietly.
The girl looked up at me.
“What’s your name?”
“Peter,” I answered. “Yours?”
“Jody,” she said. “C’mon.”
My saviour released my hand and started out of the alleyway. I followed her quickly, trying to keep up. My head was still spinning from leftover adrenalin and the fact that I’d just run into a fellow Soul. I hadn’t seen any of them since my family, which had been years ago… just the Marked. Was she on the run, too?
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere where they can’t find us,” Jody told me softly.
We headed through a backlot, climbed a chain-link fence, and passed through a couple of quiet backstreets, which smelled like old fuel and junk food, before finally reaching what looked like a school. Jody ducked, slipping snakelike under a gap in the fence. She stood up and gestured hurriedly for me to do the same. I pulled the wire up just a little higher before worming underneath the fence. Satisfied that I was clear of it, Jody started off again, running over the sports oval. I followed, surprised at her speed, until we finally reached the maintenance sheds. Jody circled around it until she found one of the windows, and then smashed through it with her elbow. I stared at her as she took off one of her trainers and used the sole of it to knock out stray shards of glass around the frame.
“Coming?” she asked, slipping her shoe back on and then jumping in.
I followed, vaulting easily through the space and landing on a shelf stacked with plastic cricket bats. Grimacing at the noise, I dropped to the concrete, and then sat down in the dark, letting myself relax and catching my breath. I could hear Jody beside me in the dark, her breathing shallow and even. She must’ve been in amazing shape.
“Thank you,” I said finally.
“You’re welcome,” she replied.
I felt her hand find my shoulder in the dark.
“Got a light?” Jody asked.
The coat had a few pockets, and as I searched them, I found a cigarette lighter, a cigar case complete with cigar, and a small bundle of cash wrapped with a rubber band. I wasn’t sure whether or not George had put it all in there for me, but I said a silent prayer of thanks and flicked at the lighter. A small flickering of flame lit up the entire shed.
It was stacked from floor to ceiling with sporting equipment. Jody moved over towards one of the shelves, stepping around a ride-on lawn mower and quickly pulling down a few of the cushioned mats used for gymnastics. She tossed them onto the floor, and then glanced around for anything else that might be useful. I pulled myself up, still holding up the lighter, and shook my head.
“Looks like that’s it.”
Jody shrugged. “Best we can do. Kill the light.”
I let the flame go out, plunging us back into darkness. Carefully, I made my way around the lawn mower to where the sports mats were, and lowered myself to the ground, dropping on to the cushion and finally letting all of the tension drain out of my body. I hadn’t slept for almost a day and a half now. I hadn’t even managed to catch a few hours at George’s – there’d been too many people. A primary school’s sports shed wasn’t exactly the weirdest place I’d hid before. But Jody had a point – they wouldn’t come looking for us here.
I heard her voice, soft, from right beside me.
“Tired?” Her voice was slightly muffled.
“You could say that,” I returned quietly.
I sat up after a moment and pulled off the coat that George had given me, getting my arms out of the sleeves and then dropping it beside me, near Jody. I felt her start a little on the makeshift mattress, until she realised what it was and wrapped it around herself like a blanket. I grinned in the darkness, glad she couldn’t see me. It got cold in winter here.
“Don’t mention it.”
“You’re a Soul, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Are you?”
Jody took a moment to answer. “I want to be. They Marked me a few years back, after my mother made me leave Dad behind. I’m not like the rest of them, though. I want to be one of you. That’s why… well, I’m doing this, I guess.” I heard her shift just a little.
“What, saving a random on the street?”
“I knew you were a Soul. You weren’t fighting them back.”
I chuckled quietly to myself. “You kidding? Were you there?”
“To begin with, I mean,” Jody explained. “You tried talking to them.”
“Mmm. Tried. And failed.”
“Makes no difference. Listen, I was sent here by some friends of yours. Other Souls, keeping an eye out for each other. They’ve got an entire network through the city, but they’ve been watching you for a while. I got sent in to pick you up, see if you’d be willing to join up with the others and help the cause.”
I was barely believing what I was hearing.
“You think I’d have heard about them before this.”
“Well, they do their best to keep it quiet. Are you in?”
“Absolutely,” I answered.
I could imagine her grinning beside me in the darkness.
“Good. First thing in the morning, we’ll go and find them.”
She rolled over, and I let my head fall back on the mattress, letting in the fatigue, the tiredness, letting it overtake me and lull me to sleep. I pulled my knees up to my chest, dropped to my side and felt my mind wander, far away from this shed, away from the city, into a world where the Prophet and the Marked no longer existed…