Chapter 9: Alleyways


Stupid, the gryzzik said to himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Nevertheless, he kept walking toward Umrad Hill, his head down and his hands in his ratty overcoat’s pockets. He knew perfectly well that this was the wrong thing to do, that it went completely against both rationality and instinct, and yet he couldn’t ignore the call. Not a compulsion like before, no… he was fully in control now. He was sure of it… well, almost sure. This was all very new to him.

It’s not here anymore, he thought. You’re free. Why are you doing this? His feet kept plodding along the wet sidewalk, one step after the other. He tried not to think about where he was going, but there was no mistaking it. Was it curiosity? That couldn’t be all. He wasn’t really that curious… after all, he wouldn’t have survived the streets this long if he was. He knew when to leave well enough alone.

A security guard eyed him intently as he passed by an office building. Dykstri turned his eyes down and hurried his pace. On the one hand, he hated himself for having that conditioned reflex – like he was doing something wrong, just being a half-insectoid walking the “nice” part of town at night – but on the other, he’d been in trouble enough times in just this sort of situation to let his pride get the better of him. Self-important pricks, he sneered. I’m in the business district, alright. The wave of resentful hatred that welled up was quickly obfuscated by that strange feeling that was guiding him there. It was a bit like an itch, but in a deep, almost spiritual level. An inevitability. A sense of… purpose? Was that it?

He glanced up at the street sign as the end of the sidewalk approached. Kemish Avenue. For better or worse, this was it. He reached the crossroads, looked right, and there it was. There was no lettering, at least none visible from that corner, and he hadn’t bothered looking for the number, but he knew in his gut that the commanding black tower a couple blocks away was Karnati.

As he approached the building, he noticed a buzz of activity uncharacteristic of that hour of the night. Several security guards were out on the ground floor, going back and forth and talking to one another, as well as to a couple haggard-looking, business-suited people. A purple flash made the crowd run around faster and then converge on the enormous, bright-red-haired man that arrived with it, who started yelling at everyone. One of those transcendents from the Core Worlds, Dykstri recognized. And a really high-up one, if I’m not mistaken. His disgust at that ultimate representation of rich decadence came mixed with a sense of awe at the rare and powerful creature. He’d run across a few transcendents here and there, of course – always the worst snobs, in his experience – but never one so high-ranked.

A spotlight crossed the street just a couple paces away from his feet, snapping the gryzzik out of his near-trance. He opened his apple-sized eyes wide and instinctively cowered back, realizing he’d inched way too close to the Karnati building. Quickly looking around, he noticed a dark alley not far from the tower, and darted toward it, hoping everyone’s attention would be too focused on that bigwig to spot him.

He slinked deeper into the trash-filled alley, glancing up at the source of the spotlight – a small flightpod, probably a one-seater, hovering in circles around the building. These guys were taking the whole thing seriously.

As he looked for a hiding place between the trashcans, Dykstri’s antennae tingled at something odd in the air. The overpowering stench of garbage made it difficult to pick up, but he felt a hint of a familiar ferrous smell. Crouching down at a space he just noticed had been opened among the refuse, he ran his thick fingers across the sticky fluid on the ground and brought them up to his nose. Blood, he realized. Human, I’d guess.

That, of course, made matters a lot more complicated. He was standing right in the middle of a crime scene, and if that was a bad idea out in the slums, it was much more so in a well-policed place like that… even worse now, that they were actively looking. He backed up against the wall, considering his options. Looking back at Karnati, he saw flashlights moving around, and realized it would be a terrible idea to walk back out the alley. He really shouldn’t stay, though… but he saw no other way out. Not at ground floor, anyway. Stupid, stupid! he mentally yelled at himself. You knew nothing good could come out of this!

The wall at the back end of the alley was shorter than the rest, and seemed to lead into another darkened area, so he nervously made his way there. Trashcans clattered as he moved, and he heard a dog barking at a distance. Welp, no turning back now, he thought. He climbed on a trash container and leapt from there at the wall, grabbing its top and deftly bringing the rest of his body up as well. There were voices at his back. He considered the ground on the other side for a split-second – it was drenched in darkness so deep that even his highly sensitive eyes could not make out anything in there – and jumped down.

A streak of light flashed across the buildings on the sides of the alley he’d jumped into, just above the wall he came from. Ankle-high grass brushed his legs and hands, and he could feel some unknown objects – probably cans or bottles someone’d dumped there – touching his body. He made himself as still as possible. Did they spot me? The lights seemed to have cleared the wall just after he landed, but there was no way to be sure, so he waited, frozen in place. There was only a little bit of pain in his ankles and wrists; it’d been a clean landing, coming half from practice, half from ancestral instinct.

The voices came closer and closer. Lights flashed above the wall occasionally. Dykstri studied the alley ahead of him – it was much darker than the one behind the wall, due to the tall buildings on either side, but it appeared to be empty. Hard to know in this darkness, of course. It was only a quick dash to the street – unless he tripped on something – and then, well, he’d have to figure it out.

As he was preparing his legs to explode in a burst of movement like tightly-wound coils, he heard a hiss and then a loud clatter of empty trashcans behind him. “Goddamn cat,” someone in that alley said. “Spooked me half to death. Come on, we’re wasting our time here.” His pursuers sounded like they were walking back out the alley and toward Karnati, laughing. Dykstri exhaled in relief. After what seemed like a safe amount of time, the gryzzik got up, stretched his back, and slowly walked out, running his hand along a wall and feeling the ground ahead of him with his feet before proceeding.

As he reached the edge of the alley, Dykstri closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and collapsed with his back against the wall. He laughed for a while at his own silliness. “What on Earth was I expecting to find here?” he said, softly, to himself. “It’s done. It was weird, and creepy, but it’s over. Not my damn problem. Leave that thing in the past.”

He slowly got up, patted himself clean, cracked his neck, and walked out onto the street. Just as he took his first step into the light, however, a hand grabbed his arm like a vise. “Gotcha!” the man said, pressing a dagger to the gryzzik’s throat. He was clad in the uniformed armor of Karnati security. “Hey, guys!” he shouted. Steps came crashing down from just across the corner. “Caught ‘em!”

Continue reading in Chapter 10: Party of Five