Hanwi was a podunk little stopover moon in a nowhere system, which made one of its many towns great places to lie low.
Their group had been fracturing more and more the further they traveled, and now, the group was a group of two, hiding out in a bit of low-rent housing on the far outskirts of town that they couldn’t remember the name of.
One of this group was sitting quietly in this hideout and reading. Or at least, trying to read. The things that he was seeing made it difficult, but the effort had to be made. He looked up when he heard the door unlock.
“Who’s there?” he said, looking up. “B-22? Is that you?”
A figure pushed through the door, wearing a cheap but well-maintained dress shirt and slacks, and a pair of dark glasses.
“I keep telling you, A-40,” he said. “You have to call me Johnny now. And one of these days we’ve got to find you a better name.”
“W-Why do I need a name?” he asked, setting down the flight manual he’d been attempting to read. “A-40 is fine. It’s who I am, right?”
B-22–or Johnny, rather–sighed. “Nevermind,” he said, making his way inside, with a large box. “I brought dinner. You holding up okay in here?”
A-40 nodded. “It’s quiet in here. People don’t bother me. A-and, I’m pretty sure the only bugs here are the ones I can’t stop seeing,” he said. “Where have you been all day?”
He hesitated for only a moment. “Working,” he said. The two unpacked the takeout boxes in relative silence. Johnny ate neatly–he always had. Zane ate what he could .
“And, the work is good?”
He nodded, but was still wary. “It’s been going pretty well.”
A-40 thought about pressing this issue for a moment, but he didn’t want to make Johnny angry. He was always gone longer the next day when they got into a fight.
The two of them ate in relative silence, as they usually did. A-40 usually just spoke when he was spoken to.
“Have you been practicing like I told you?” said Johnny.
A-40 hesitated. “Johnny. I don’t want to be violent. C-42 said that I didn’t have to hurt anyone if I didn’t want to.”
Johnny sighed. “C-42 isn’t here,” he said, with a bit of an edge to his voice. “We’re on our own, and if we want to survive, we have to use every tool at our disposal.”
A-40’s shoulders slumped. “Okay. I-I understand. I did about an hour of practice today. But then I ran out of targets. The guns don’t feel right. Something’s wrong with them.”
“Bring ’em over, I’ll have a look,” said Johnny. A-40 did as instructed, and as Johnny looked them over, he sighed. “Here’s your problem,” he said. “These things haven’t been maintained.” He shrugged. “Just kinda figures, doesn’t it. Spend all that time teaching us how to shoot, don’t bother teaching us how to clean a gun. Shows you what kind of idiots made us.”
A-40 pulled out the targets. On each of them there were four clean shots, one in the head, one in the throat, one in the heart and one in the stomach. On the fourth target, he’d made a smiley face.
Johnny looked over at the target. Then he let out a chuckle. “Cute,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re so worried about, you’re a better shot than I am.”
From underneath the table, Johnny pulled out a case covered in cracking synth-leather.
“Because these are just made out of paper. I can’t shoot real people. At least, I’ve never tried to before.”
Johnny shrugged. “S’not as hard as you’d think,” he said. “People are just made of meat.” He popped the case open, revealing his cleaning kit, and began to meticulously disassemble the firearms.
A-40 sat down in front of the table, and watched as Johnny arranged every part of the gun neatly on the cloth.
“You don’t have to do this that often. If you do it too often, you’ll wear out the parts of the gun faster.” Johnny murmured.
The cleaning process didn’t take long, but Johnny was trying to go slow. “Don’t ever push the lubricant onto the gun directly. You have to apply it carefully.” he said, moving from one tool to the next as he went.
A-40 watched him wide-eyes. It was one of those looks where one had to wonder what it was that he was looking at. “You still with me?” he said. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
A-40 blinked. “Those are fingers?” he said, rubbing his eyes. Johnny sighed. He pushed one of the yet-to-be-cleaned handguns over to him.
“You try this one,” he said. “It helps me concentrate, maybe it’ll do you some good too.”
“Okay,” A-40 replied, and tried to mimic Johnny’s approach. The room again fell into a relative silence.
After he’d completed cleaning his gun, A-40 looked up. “Um. Johnny… when you go out… can you take me with you?”
“No,” he said, without hesitation. “The work I do is, it’s dangerous, alright? You couldn’t handle it. Not yet.”
“Are you killing people?” A-40 asked.
This time, Johnny did hesitate.
“Sometimes,” he said. “When I have to. When it’s needed.” He picked up a now-reassembled gun and aimed it at nothing. “It’s like I said. Our skills are all we have, and they’re gonna be our ticket out of here.”
A-40 settled back in his chair. “What’s wrong with here?”
“Here’s a shithole,” said Johnny. “Nothing planet in a nothing system,” He said with a chuckle. “We may be crazy, but we can do things that nobody else can do. And that’s why we’re gonna survive. We spent our whole lives as prisoners with nothing to our… names. And now we can have anything.”
A-40’s mind spun at the concept of anything. He put both of his hands to his head and nodded. “I think I need to go lay down.”
Johnny nodded. “Sounds about right,” he said. “I might be out when you wake up. There’ll be more food in the fridge if you want it.”
A-40 nodded, getting to his feet. “You won’t be here?”
“Maybe,” said Johnny. “I dunno. Night’s young.”
He nodded. “Okay. Maybe tomorrow I can go out with you? Not to work. But just out?”
“…Maybe,” repeated Johnny. “We’ll see where your head’s at.”
A-40 nodded. “I’m going to need you to pick me up a couple of my prescriptions too.” “Sure, whatever!” called back Johnny. “Leave ’em on the table!”
Before everything went sideways, A-40 made it back down the stairs to leave a note on Johnny’s tablet with the needed prescriptions. Johnny already seemed to be in another world, talking loudly with someone else on the phone, but he made an effort to nod to A-40 that he had seen it..
A-40 gave a wobbly smile back before he went up the stairs.
When A-40 woke up, Johnny wasn’t there. As promised.
Unfortunately, as he went downstairs, his medications were also not there.
A-40 sighed. This would make things… difficult. The meds didn’t help much, but they did help. They made it slightly easier to discern what was real from what was decidedly not.
A-40 closed his eyes, trying to remember the map. Johnny and him had walked the city when he’d touched down, so if they got split up, they had a number of rendezvous points.
Knowing that, it shouldn’t be that hard to extrapolate where he needed to go. It would be easy. Yeah. Easy.
Despite his misgivings, he grabbed his two practice guns and two clips of actual bullets and headed out into the daylight.
The place they were staying at was a bit of a ways away from the commercial district. It would be a walk, and the sun was unpleasantly bright today. But… it had to be done. A-40 steeled himself, and set out.
The path was winding. The heat wasn’t helping. And the longer he was out, the harder it was for him to keep things straight. The street seemed to glitch in and out of reality.
As he turned another corner, the horizon seemed to contort. That was probably a bad sign. A-40 started going off the steps for cleaning a firearm again. Maybe that would help.
It helped calm him a little. It did not help him not walk into a person.
“Hey, watch it, creep!” came a gruff voice.
“S-sorry,” he said, looking up and seeing a shadowy figure turning his direction. A-40 apologized to the empty air, and then kept moving.
A-40 had no idea where he was now. Was that the pharmacy? He wasn’t sure. He stumbled closer, feeling his head swim, when suddenly, he was pressed hard against a wall.
A-40 flailed as someone pressed something against the small of his back. “Wh… What’s happening!?” He said, voice cracking in panic.
“Your chitstick,” said a voice, and the figure it was coming from was indistinctly shaped. As were the ones approaching from behind it. “Hand it over.”
“I can’t give you that–I don’t even think I brought it,” he said, moving. “Please let me go! I-I’m not feeling well.”
“You’re gonna feel even worse when we get done with you!” came a warbling voice. A-40’s head hurt, and the pressure was getting worse. He couldn’t deal with this, and so, he let instincts take over.
A-40’s hand lashed out and jabbed the first figure square in the solar plexus.
The figure coughed, and three more shadows converged on him. A-40 then checked out completely.
When he came to again, he was surrounded by about six bodies with neat holes where there weren’t before.
The shadows were closing in around him, faster and faster, surrounding him, engulfing them. He put his hands over his ears, but he could still hear them howling. Finally, he couldn’t take anymore and collapsed, and everything went black.
A-40 regained consciousness some time later. He was in a bed, at least. A hard one, to be sure, but a bed nevertheless. He was faintly aware of voices in the background.
“…self-defense, to be sure, but did you see the state the guy was in? Has to be liquor or drugs or both involved.”
“We looked him up. There was an earlier citation for public intoxication on his record…”
“Well, we’ll have to see if Mr. Forde, the record says? See if he’s fit to stand trial when he wakes up. Until then…”
The voices faded out again, and so did A-40.
When he came to again, it was the middle of the night, and he was in…
…some kind of cell? Oh no…
He thought about his options, which were slim to none. He knew that they’d all decided to lose immediate contact with other groups–it would be too easy for people to piece things together if they were all connected..
Johnny had already told him a long time ago that if he ever got locked up again, that he’d leave him in prison. So… that was probably that.
He was pretty sure he could get in touch with A-13, but who knew how long it would take, or if she’d even come and help.
And he was pretty sure that he had no idea how to get in touch with C-42 yet. She said she’d get into contact once she’d gotten established somewhere, but that was only a couple of weeks ago.
There was a click, and A-40 looked up again. There was a figure, resplendent in white, looming over him, and for a moment, he thought it was another hallucination.
Then it coalesced into a familiar figure, albeit, one dressed a lot more nicely than the last time he saw them.
“B–Johnny?” said A-40.
“Keep it down,” said Johnny, handing a few sheets to A-40. The pristine white suit was unfamiliar. It was almost impeccably tailored. “Got your records right here, hold onto ’em. It’ll take them… maybe another ten minutes or so to realize the forms I gave them were bogus so we’d better get moving.”
A-40 nodded, getting up and following Johnny.
Johnny moved nonchalantly through the halls, flashing a badge of some sort when needed and nodding his way through until both he, and A-40 were clear of the building. Then he took off, sprinting towards the parking lot where a sleek black car was waiting.
A-40 was quickly shepherded into it, and Johnny took off into the night.
“Well,” he said. “You got yourself into quite a pickle. Luckily for you, I had some friends who owed me a favor.”
“Thank you,” he said, looking out as the world passed them by. “I don’t know what happened. I-I think I got mugged or something,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “I guess this location is burned. I can research a new place for us to live.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” said Johnny. He looked happy. Unusually so. “We’re on our way off this rock. My employers gave me a promotion. And y’know what? I bet I can put in a good word for you.” He looked over at A-40, taking his eyes off the road. “I saw what you did to those assholes who tried to mug you. I gotta say, I didn’t think you had it in you!”
A-40 blinked. “But I don’t have it in me. I-I just turned off.” he sputtered.
“Well, it’s a good start,” said Johnny, nodding. “Right now, I’ve got an in with some of the local syndicates, but soon, I’ll be able to break out and do some independent contract work.” He patted A-40 on the shoulder. “With your skills and my know-how, nobody’ll be able to stop us!”
A-40 couldn’t help but get frustrated. “But I don’t want to kill people. I want to do something that helps people,” Zane said.
The car skidded to a halt as Johnny slammed on the breaks. He heaved a heavy sigh.
“The universe doesn’t work like that, A-40,” he said. “We’re good at this. Look around you. Did you find anyone you could have helped? No, you found someone who tried to take your stuff and leave you for dead. Grow the fuck up.”
A-40 shook his head. “I don’t get it. I just… why did you escape if you just wanted to do what they wanted you to do. They… They wanted us to do this. This is what we were trained to do. And-and you just walked right back into it,” he said, feeling his voice rising in pitch.
Johnny glared daggers at A-40. He looked like he was about to yell, but… he took a deep breath and composed himself.
“You know what?” he said. “You’re right. If I’m going to go out there and make my own way and be free, truly free of all this… then I have to get away from it all. Everything that was a part of that place.”
With the press of a button, the passenger-side door opened, and before A-40 could ask why, he felt himself being shoved out of the car.
“I tried, I really did!” Johnny called after him, as he hit the ground and rolled into a nearby ditch. “But C-42 told us that we had to survive out here. And it’s become clear that it’ll never happen with you holding me back like this!”
With that, the door slammed shut, and he sped off.
Zane struggled to escape the mud, feeling the cold water slowly filling his shoes and weighing him down. “J… Johnny.”
Eventually, he just… settled down and stopped struggling. The shadows came for him once again, and this time, he embraced them.
“And that’s about all I remember until you guys found me,” said Zane, nibbling on another piece of popcorn. He looked up from his recollection. “I mean, my memory’s pretty spotty, but–are you guys okay?”
Jayna and Ash had downtrodden looks on their faces. Luisa had her hands clasped over her mouth. Mari was actually sniffling.
“Hey, it’s alright now!” said Zane, hurriedly. “It was a long time ago and I’m here now! I mean, you all know how the story turned out, right?”
Luisa looked at him for a moment. “Johnny’s a dick.”
“You have no idea,” Ash muttered. “Hopefully you’ll never meet him. If anything, he’s only gotten worse.”
Zane sighed. “I don’t hold any of this against him,” he said. “Johnny can’t help but be what he is any more than I can.”
“We’ll see.” Luisa said, leaning back in her seat. “So, you found this guy flopping around in the mud. And then he became the pilot of your ship, right?”
“Well, it was a little more complicated than that,” said Jayna, chuckling. “Here’s how it went down.”