Life is full of games. Some are fun, some are exciting, and some you damn sure better win. Doc had been rolling his dice on one such game, playing against a hardcore opponent who didn’t play nice. When Doc’s dice came up snake-eyes, the results weren’t pretty.
THAT’LL LEAVE A MARK
A Nameless Back Alley, Brimstone
Cold dark. Stars. Specks of light on black space. Wobbling, night sky underwater, wavering, blurred. Floating up— pain, no no no. Dark, crawl back into dark. Still. Don’t move. Just stop breathing.
Voices echoed in the darkness, angry curses that slowed the rate at which the blows fell. Blurred faces, just fragments now, like broken teeth.
“—ow who you’re fuckin with?” THUD.
“—what was in the brain, Doc?“ CRACK.
That was ribs. Can’t breathe, air knocked out, sides full of splinters. Ribs, yeah ribs.
Then alone, drifting in and out of oblivion. Doc felt the cold suck the life from him, drain the feeling from his limbs; from his core. Cramps tore through his thighs. Sinking through an endless black expanse of frozen glass, he felt — sensed — something beyond the numbness. Something warm, pressed against him. Soft. No words, just the dull steady throb of another heart. He leaned into the warm.
“Wha—?” I spluttered, light stabbing into my eye. Nausea, headache, everything-ache. It hurt to move, hurt to breathe.
But I wasn’t frozen, not that gut-cramping cold like before. My fingers twitched through a curve of fur. Through warm. It took forever for my vision to clear.
Brown eyes, two circles of mahogany that stared at me with an unspoken sadness. The big ears drooped to either side, framing a snout criss-crossed with scars. The dog was sprawled flat on the pavement.
That’s when it hit me: so was I.
“Hey.” I muttered, “Issh you.” My words slurred, a fat lip and missing teeth conspiring to give me a thick, wet lisp. I ran my tongue across the jagged remnants of dental work. “Aw, thit.”
The dog looked like I felt. My fingertips began to wander across her side where ribs were easy to find under skin that hung slack. Ridges stretched beneath the fur, rows of old bite wounds or beatings left to heal on their own. She took a deep breath and sighed. The sound carried the weight of a weary, lonely soul.
I tugged gently and she rolled onto one side where her head could rest in the hollow between my chest and tricep. I softly scratched behind her ear, her wounds so numerous that I didn’t want to tear something open. She sighed again, a grunty sound. A wide wet tongue slid out and rolled across her nose. She was missing teeth as well.
I don’t know how long we lay there, two punching bags sprawled in the garbage. At some point it became clear that help wasn’t coming. If anyone had seen either of us, we’d likely have been discounted as among the dead.
It took a long time to drag myself upright, discovering along the way that several fingers on my left hand were broken. I couldn’t guess how many ribs were cracked and hoped that no jagged ends were sawing their way into my lungs. I vomited once on my trek to sitting upright, rolling my head away from the dog as my guts heaved.
If she smelled it, among the collective stench of garbage, piss and Brimstone, she didn’t let on.
The drainpipe helped me cover the last move to standing up. Neither of my legs seemed broken, but a screaming pain in my back warned of a bruised, if not ruptured kidney. Sure enough, the red stain that ran down my pantsleg suggested I’d been pissing blood while unconscious.
I braced myself between the dumpster and the pipe, waiting for the world to stop swaying. The memories of last night were still muddy, but the pieces had already begun to fall into place.
Lazlo, that fucking little bastard.
I chided myself for blowing him off to the extent that I had, for getting lost in Ed’s science fair experiment. I should have known Lazlo’s patience would run out, and that the repercussions would be awful. He’d stuck that little ratfuck Benny on my tail, one of the tweakers that ran with Digby, Welker and Carl.
Hm, I grunted. Should’a hit Carl harder.
Terrified that a facelong fall would put me back at square one, I hand-walked along the alley wall, matching each shuffled step with a right-hand grip on something. Step, grab. Lean, shuffle. One more brief round with the dry heaves and I reached the mouth of the alley. I paused, breathing in air that at least was moving. I looked down, then turned back.
The dog remained on the ground. I would have thought those eyes were as sad as they could be before, until I saw in them the onset of yet another abandonment. Her ears, her very frame seemed to sag further into the pavement.
“Whar’re you waiting for,” I slurred. Her ears picked up as I beckoned with my busted flipper. “C’mon. Lesh go home.”
With a groan of her own the dog rose, limping badly on one mangled foreleg. She walked up to me, her face a mix of fear and hope. We plodded off towards my HAB, two beaten, bloody souls without a full set of teeth between us.
The hike took a couple hours; it felt like a couple days. Of all the people I know, of all the people I’ve stitched together, not a one crossed our path.
I get it. Lazlo puts the blackball on me and anybody offering a hand is likely to end up in the same alley. I made it a point to avoid Fitz’s pub, knowing damn well the guys in there would come out no matter who they pissed off. But they didn’t need this shit, this was my problem to resolve.
I reached my front door and it slid open, proof that the RFID in my arm really can take a licking and keep on ticking. I looked down at the dog who stood shivering as she peered inside.
“You’re home,” I mumbled and she responded with a faint wag of her tail, then stepped cautiously inside.
I plodded to my office, at least that’s what I called the unofficial little clinic where I routinely patch up the odd bullet hole, knife wound, whatever mangling was inflicted on the local criminal element. I loaded up two infusers, a general low-grade anesthetic and a metabolic accelerator. One to kill pain, the other to speed up healing. Then I turned and looked for the dog; as much as I wanted to feel that blanket-warmth of a ketamine haze, I had a debt to repay.
“Pfffsst.” I tried to whistle but only managed to bubble spit between puffy lips. I headed back towards the front room, passing a mirror on the way. I looked; that wasn’t a good idea. The face that gaped back was misshapen, one eye swollen shut. My skin was a patchwork of color, angry reds and purples giving way in places to that sickly yellow-green. I drew back my lips, split as well as fat, and counted the missing teeth.
Fuck, I thought wearily. Those’ll need replacing. There was a lot I could do with accelerated healing but some parts just didn’t grow back. I’d have another new set of aftermarket parts to add to my collection by the time this was over. Petrovich had a slew of 3D printers at the fab shop; he could run out dental ceramic as easily as metal and stone. Looks like I’ll be bringing him some more business. I thought about the dog and the new teeth she’d need as well.
At least we’ll match.
I went into the front room, grabbing a bottle of single malt as I went by the cabinet. If the dog gets first shot at the drugs, I muttered, I’m calling dibbs on the alcohol. I clamped the bottle against my body with my gimped left arm, using my right hand to pry off the cork. I knew that the scotch would feel like jet fuel in a busted mouth, I just never thought it would be flaming jet fuel. Part of me wanted to scream but the other part sucked down a long gulp.
“Hey, dog.” There was no response, although I wasn’t sure what I expected. I looked under the tables, under the desk, figuring she’d picked some dark corner to hide. Thats when I heard the sound. Snoring, a low rumble that rose and fell. I followed the sleep-sounds to find the dog was sprawled across my bed in all her muddy, bloody, shit-stained glory. Her muzzle lay square across my pillow.
I shook my head, wincing as the involuntary grin cracked open split lips.
You did make yourself at home, didn’t you?
I leaned over, stroked her fur, felt her body unconsciously lean into my touch. She didn’t budge as the infusers hissed, first one and then the second. She would sleep now, a deep healing sleep. I pulled the side of the blanket up and over her and crept out of the room.
Alone, I tended to my own wounds. Re-setting broken fingers did nothing for my mood. Against all printed labels and manufacturer warnings, I mixed prescriptions and alcohol until the bottle ran dry.
As dawn’s faint glow crept through the skylight I sat back on the couch, a Frankenstein patchwork of bandages, staples, dermaglue and tape. I closed my eyes, left hand shoved into the portable AUGMED, and sighed, feeling the slow steady throb of healing energy.
There were few things in life I would have told you I knew for a fact. The events in the mineshaft, the idea of artificial wormholes, those things threatened some of the basic science I’d believed since high school.
But there was one thing I knew, as certain as night follows day.
I was going to kill Lazlo.