She hummed softly to herself while he held her. It was a quiet tune he had never heard her sing before. Each step he took rocked her thin frame, giving a rhythmic accent to the flowing notes. She was tucked away in the crook of his elbow, curled against his chest, head resting against his collar bone. Her wispy brown hair drifted in a small halo around her head, tickling the skin of his neck.
They passed dilapidated buildings, paint chipping from their once-grand facades to lay in shriveled curls on the concrete foundation. It was early, and the day had not truly begun for most, but that did not stop the occasional skeletal figure from stooping on a decrepit porch; clouded black eyes pushed far back into pronounced skulls, heads turning slowly, they tracked the pair through the streets like emaciated hawks. A few exited their homes to watch them walk by, the doors creaking with an eerie resonance in the street. He kept to the middle of the road, as far away from the trash-lined gutters and sidewalks as possible, and tugged at the hem of his sweatshirt, revealing the bright gleam of a pistol at his hip.
He placed a hand over the back of her head and hugged her more securely against his chest. Was she really that thin? A few blocks farther, and they would be there. She would be safe there. But not here. He needed to get her off the streets.
Her light hum slowly subsided until it no longer danced around the space that surrounded them.
“Where did you learn that?” he whispered as quietly as he could. She stirred and unburied her round, cherubic face from the base of his neck, looking at him with large blue eyes framed by thick lashes. Her hair sifted through his fingers like brittle straw.
“I made it myself. No one taught me,” she told him, her high voice barely carrying to his ears.
He lightly kissed her on the forehead. “It was lovely. Thank you for sharing it with me.” Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and her lips tugged upwards slightly. She buried her face once more into his neck, tucking herself under his chin. He gently stroked the back of her head while she began a new, softer hum. He smiled into her hair, letting her begin the first few verses that they both knew so well before joining his own low baritone with her light soprano. The counter melody was simple but beautiful. He couldn’t remember when he had sung the song to her first. Perhaps he had done it without thinking anything of it when she was a still a small child, but she had remembered every little change and twist to the delicate melody without the slightest bit of trouble. Sometimes she was too clever for her own good.
The building came up before them: one structure identical to those surrounding it, aside from the gold numbers, 1038, hanging above the door frame, now beginning to peel away. They both dropped their voices from the song, and he broke into a quick jog. He veered toward the tiny yard devoid of grass yet littered with trash. The discarded items crunched sickeningly beneath his shoes as he crossed to the front door. He entered through the embrasure into a small hallway. He squinted against the dark and crossed to a tall staircase across from the entrance. They made their way up three flights; on the third floor, they exited the stairwell and went to a door at the far end of another long hallway. The door was a bright red in color, though chips and slivers had been gouged into the surface.
He reached forward and rapped on the colorful door. Footsteps sounded on the opposite side before the door swung open. A woman stood in the doorway, short and thin. She wore a slight scowl of annoyance on her lips, but it soon faded at the sight of the two before her.
“I was wondering when I’d be expecting you again, Engle,” she told them, her voice raspy.
Engle untangled the girl from his arms and set her down beside him. “I’m sorry this is such short notice, Rona. I really am.” He drew a small pack from his shoulder and held it out to the woman.
“Don’t be. I always have time,” she replied, taking the drawstring pouch. “How long?”
“I don’t know. I’m hoping to be back by tomorrow. We’ll see what happens though.” He removed the pistol from his waistband and dug in his pocket, bringing out a small data chip. He handed both over to Rona. “That’s all that’s left. Use what you need. Keep what you don’t use.”
“It’s more than enough. Has the pay been improving? You handed me not even half what this is worth last we met,” she told him, squinting at the tiny object in her palm.
“No. We’ve just been more careful.” He knelt next to the girl and gathered her hands in his own, dwarfing them. He stared at her blue eyes, the objects that held so much but gave away so little. “Lyric, I need you to be good for me while I’m gone. I know you will be.” She nodded.
“Thank you.” He folded her in his arms, and kissed her once more on the forehead. “I won’t be long. I love you.” She nodded again against his chest before he released her, tears beginning to brim her large eyes. His heart twisted at the sight, and he wiped away the moisture before it could spill down her cheeks. He stood then and nudged her forward. She stepped through the doorway and sidled next to Rona, slipping her small hand into the woman’s larger one and keeping her eyes on the floor. “There are a few books in there to keep her busy. She’s taken a liking to chemistry but can’t read or understand everything written in the book.”
“And you think that I would?” Rona asked, one eyebrow crooked upward.
“No, but I’m asking that you at least look at the pictures with her. Keep up with her higher arithmetic as well. She’s been practicing,” he smiled at Lyric. She returned his smile, weakly.
“I swear, she looks more like you every time I see her,” Rona mused, glancing between the two of them. She gently squeezed the girl’s hand. “Let’s get you inside. I’ll make you something to eat.”
“Be safe,” he told them.
“We will be,” Rona replied. Her brows drew together. “Watch yourself, Engle.” He didn’t take his eyes off Lyric’s small face as it disappeared when the door frame closed. His heart already ached, but he forced himself to turn and descend the flights of stairs. He exited the tall building and made for the middle of the street once more, carrying on down the long twisting lane. He threw the hood of his sweatshirt up and broke into a jog, feet pounding against the cracked asphalt.
The building of the Transversal Intervention of Misconduct and Error rose before him, immaculate and gleaming among the many ruined buildings that surrounded it. It looked as out of place as anything could be; its high white walls rose perhaps five stories taller than the bordering buildings, and all of its windows were tinted darker than the overhanging sky. He strode to the tall front doors and placed his left hand in the center of the door. The black glass flashed a stark green.
“State your name, rank, and business,” a female voice intoned.
“Engle Rochlin. Hired bounty hunter. Responding to a request for deployment.”
The voice was quiet for a moment, and Engle shifted from foot to foot. Finally, it responded, “Proceed.” The doors clicked then and slid apart to rest flush within the walls. He walked through the entryway into the bright light that illuminated the inside of the building. He entered into a long, narrow hallway spanning the entire length of the structure. He strode past many metal doors lining the white-painted walls, knowing the way well. He stopped at a door, indiscernible from any of the other thousands, on the left-hand side of the hallway. Placing his palm to the door, a small 179 flashed onto the cold metal. It clicked open for him. He pushed the heavy door ajar then closed it behind himself with a heavy thud.
“Bounty Hunter, number 179, Engle Rochlin,” the voice came on through unseen speakers in the room. “The Transversal Intervention of Misconduct and Error has requested you for the elimination of a target deemed ‘High Risk.’ You have responded to this request and, therefore, agree to complete this task to the best of your abilities.”
Engle rolled his eyes. He’d been through this enough times to merit a break from the monologue. He pulled his sweatshirt off and tossed the tattered item into a corner of the empty room. The wall opposite the door slowly slid open, revealing his gear. He approached it, only half-listening to the voice filtering in through the ceiling.
“Your equipment has been restocked since last it has been used. All specified elements have been catalogued and accounted for. If, during this mission, you lose any piece of your equipment, it will be replaced when you return. However, if you so willingly choose to purposefully deface the property claimed by the Transversal Intervention of Misconduct and Error, you will be brought back and terminated from the roster.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, pulling items from the wall. He slipped off his shoes and stripped from his other tattered and dirt-caked clothing articles, throwing them to opposite corners as he had with the jacket. He stepped into a full-body suit that stuck to him like a second skin. Once the piece was on, he reached back into the wall, removing parts of ebony armor. He stooped and began with the legs. He took the calf and shin fragments and held them against the body-suit in their respective places. They whirred and thrummed in his hands, attaching to each other and to the black cloth underneath. He let them go and felt them tighten and bolt into place. Standing, he shook out his leg. The black and silver pieces shifted in response. He nodded to himself and continued bringing out more parts of the armor.
“Your target will be announced to you upon arrival to your destination. All information known about and relating to your target will also be delivered to you upon your arrival. We would like to advise you to interact as little as possible with any beings or creatures you may encounter, your target included. Do not speak to your target. Do not reason with your target. Do not spare your target. Your contract calls only for the elimination of your target.”
The armor was almost entirely on now and secured in place. The helmet, glinting black and silver, rested on the floor at his feet. He took a belt covered with many small pouches from the wall and cinched it around his waist. He checked a few of the pouches: first aid gel, spare ammunition and clips, grenades, a flashlight, and varying scopes lined the pockets. He strapped a combat knife to his thigh through the loops in the armor. Reaching once more into the wall, he grabbed his other weapons.
“Once your target has been dealt with, you will be retrieved and given payment. But remember: TIME will not retrieve you until you have completed your mission or the mission results in your own death. Then, and only then, will you be brought back from your destination. It should be noted that in the event of a hired bounty hunter’s death while on a mission, whether the mission was completed or not, the bounty hunter’s family will not be allowed to collect the hunter’s pay.”
All the more reason to come back alive and as soon as possible, Engle thought. If he died while away, Lyric wouldn’t even get the money he killed for. His life, he could care less for, but hers? Hers meant everything. He’d do anything for his baby girl. The thought of bringing nothing back for her was unacceptable.
“You will now be sent to your destination. Please step inside the chamber.”
He sighed and scooped up his helmet from the ground. As the wall before him closed, now hollow, the wall to his right slid open with a gentle hiss. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and holstered his pistol before stepping into the smaller adjoining room. It was empty, like the first. He stood at the center, the door closing behind him.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The air became warm and thick and began to thrum.
The chamber whined. The floor rumbled through his boots.
The hum rose to a deafening ring in his ears. There was pressure on his chest, and he couldn’t breathe.
He gasped as the floor fell away from beneath his feet.