Winterdim

Chris Howard

41

Promise, Trust, Friendship, and Love



The corridor is dark.

Brazley turns away from Thea, drops back, and the wall’s lined with the raised dead, twenty tall skinny human bodies with see-through oily skin and pale bones showing, some of the organs standing out in different shades of orange like an anatomical study.

Her fingers work automatically, sliding back the safety on her SIG. Looking up, the rest of the team, with Thea leading, walks on without noticing the new threat.

Brazley feels a stab of loneliness, a bad taste in her mouth, and lets them go, saying, “I will take these guys, and catch up in a minute.”

Shuffling footfalls of naked feet, the dry flesh of the dead on the stone floor.

She shoves the gun on its strap around her back, crouching to focus on the gathered source inside her. It isn’t difficult because Andreus taught her well. The next part is the most painful, and the dead draw nearer. Brazley squeezes out two rows of command needles up and down her arms.

And she screams, the tips of bone sliding through her skin, through her armor, an uneven ridge of standing needles, ready for her to draw. She ignores the warm seep of blood between her skin and the flexible armor sleeves.

Folding her arms across her chest, she rolls her knuckles over the needles, tightens her fists and slides eight of them out, snapping her arms open in one motion, throwing her weapons.

Eight of the dead tumble to the floor, knees buckling under them, and Brazley folds in for another needle array. She lets every dart fly, her aim flawless, and eighteen of the dead have dropped.

The gun’s swinging low on her back at her right hip, and she elbows it, grabs it coming around, and uses single round shots to drop the last two.

“Twenty.” The word gusts out of her.

Brazley looks around, but she’s moved with the combat and it’s so dark she can’t see which way the corridor leads, forward and back look the same. She whispers, “Thea?” hoping for answer, or at least an echo, some way to get her position.

A woman’s voice slides into her ears. Thea is gone.

Brazley turns, gun raised, trying to pin down its direction.

She left you alone, Brazley.

“Who are you?” Shame at the sound of fear in her voice.

Ask yourself, who is Thea? That’s the important questionAnother might be, why are you here?

The questions burn and Brazley’s legs feel weak, fold under her, and she drops to the floor.

You are alone.

The dead are piled around her, still moving, fingers clawing at the floor, finger bone pressure through her leggings, something holding her left boot, tugging at her.

“She promised me.” Brazley’s sobbing now.

What does her promise mean? Her promises are worth nothing. The voice is getting sneery, and there’s something familiar about it.

Why are you following her? You think she will keep her promises? You believe she will remain with you when she has what she wants? She has no feelings for anyoneShe cares less for you than any random weed she passesShe will leave you behind, and not look backShe will let you go, worthless, forgotten.

Brazley shakes her head. “She will not forget. Thea carried me into the wood when the poison from the OKF—

You think she can save you from them? Portland and the OKFIt hurts to hear those names, doesn’t it? And you better smile Brazley or I will hurt youYou are a broken toy to TheaYou cannot be fixedShe can’t make you whole, take away your painShe isn’t your sister, and she doesn’t want to beShe isn’t your family; she isn’t your friendShe isn’t here!

“I don’t want to be alone!” Brazley shrieks the words, her head bowed, the zip of the strap over her shoulder and the clatter of the gun on the floor.

You are alone, BrazleyYou think she can take away your loneliness? You think she cares?

Brazley holds back her tears, rising to her feet, throwing off the dead hands clawing at her. “Shut up! Thea is here. I know she is. I am not alone.” Brazley picks up the gun, grips it with shaking fingers. “You are wrong. Because of Thea, I am not alone, I know she cares. She created an oak tree for Andreus because she cares. She promised him and she promised me. I have seen what she can do—

You only see what you want to see.

“She has shown me her feelings. She cried, and she showed us her pain, and she told me she is my friend. Because of Thea... I am stronger, I have friends, I have family, I know what a garden is, and I have a birthday. Thea brought me a gift from another world. She will not leave me alone. I have her promise.”

Then I will ask you a last time. How much are her promises worth? I have a scale, and on one side I place your life. On the other, Thea’s promises. How do you think these will measure up?

Brazley stands up, looking for the source of the voice, swings her gun around, pins of bone sliding from her knuckles on her left hand, ready to be drawn. Through the shudder of pain, Brazley’s voice comes out steady. “They will not balance.”

No? The voice sounds a little surprised, and almost happy about it.

“Thea’s promises weigh a little more...than my life.”

* * *

Fritz turns, walking backward, plays a few notes, but he isn’t concerned until they don’t come back.

He wheels to tell someone...and they’re gone.

“Thea?” He doesn’t like the sound of the echoes of his voice.

Are you sure they’re not dead?

“Who are you?” Fritz wheels, plucks a few notes and something in the air damps the tones to nothing. He tries whistling a note and the air burns his lips.

Dead because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut?

Fritz tilts his head, to try to find the source of the voice, tries to keep it light, smiles. “I haven’t said anything yet.”

But you willYou’ll sing just like you did at the OaK leaFI’ll make you sing.

Fritz freezes, not because he’s afraid the woman’s going to follow through on the threat, but because he thinks he recognizes her voice. It’s familiar.

You don’t know me, Fritz.

“It’s not just your voice. Something about your use of words, inflection, something sounds familiar. Give me a minute. I’ll figure it out.”

Unfortunately, I don’t intend to give you that long.

“You sort of sound like Brazley.” Fritz smirks. “And fortunately, I’m quick.”

Maybe she’s betrayed you? How much do you trust her?

“I don’t think so. I trust Brazley.”

Maybe it’s not her?

“Now you sound like Reed.”

Reed Gossi will never trust youYou betrayed Thea.

“You’re full of shit. I have no problem with Reed’s trust. He knows we risked our lives to enter OKF to save him. We’re on the same side.”

You did move through OKF perimeter security without a problem.

The voice changes and it scares him. “You are not Carlos!”

Carlos steps out of the shadows, combat crouch, advancing on Fritz, eyes fixed on him. Fritz faces him, hesitant, his arms up, fingers poised, not certain what song he should play. “You’re a fake.”

Carlos attacks, a rigid hand stab below the ribcage catches Fritz, shoves the breath from his lungs. Carlos steps in, fist braced high, forearm blocking, then a leg sweep.

The earth slips under Fritz’s feet, and he hits the floor. Spread to pluck strings, his hands come up to break the fall, but not quick enough. Bones break.

His head feels like it’s in pieces, his cheekbone pressing into his eye, and cold smooth stone under broken hands.

Carlos holds his head against the floor, bones grinding together, a burst of pain in his temple and jaw. He kicks and Carlos jabs a fist behind the knee, locks out his legs.

Then he shoves the side of Fritz’s head against the floor and rams a slender metal spike through his ear, drives it through the eardrum, cutting through tissue and bone underneath.

Fritz screams and he feels it through the stone floor.

You can still hear me, FritzIt’s not too late.

“You’re not Carlos!”

Carlos vanishes in the shadows.

Of course I’m notI’m TheaTime to get even, Fritzy.

“No. This is a trick. You’re not Thea.” The pain is starting to make his voice sound sloppy. “Thea trusts me, she trusts me with her life. She told Andreus that in the forest up from OKF.”

Before you make that call, let me run something by you FritzyCarrying our lunch trays at the OaK leaF? Remember our language—our secret code— in the arrangement of the items on the tray? Three-quarter full vitamin juice upper right side? What did that mean?

“I never told the Berries that. Never. How do you know...”

I fucking rememberBecause I’m TheaIt meant that they’re on to usCancel the escape, we have to plan for another day.

Fritz is sobbing, tears running off his cheeks to the floor, mixing with the flow from a bloody nose. “But you can’t be Thea.”

Yeah? How do you know?

“Because I didn’t betray her and she knows it. I saw it in her eyes, heard the certainty in her voice when she told her story. Her story, it took away the last of my pain. You sound like Thea, but you’re not her.”

A fork tipped up on its side on the left ridge of the tray? It meant I can’t wait to hear a song from you on Friday, Fritzy.

Fritz holds up one broken hand. “Stop this. Please.”

A scraping sound across the floor, and a short barreled handgun slides into Fritz’s right arm.

Pick it upWeigh it in your handI haven’t broken the necessary fingers on your right hand.

“I don’t know how you know about our messages coded in the arrangement on our lunch trays...”

Pick up the gun!

Fritz curls his fingers around the grip, slides off the safety, and slips his forefinger over the trigger.

He tries to lift his head to find the voice. “But you’re not Thea.”

Yeah? Let’s play a game called How Strongly Do You Believe That? If you stick the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger, then I’m not Thea—and I’ll even go as far as stating that Thea trusts you. On the other hand, if you can’t pull the trigger, Fritzy, well then I guess you have doubts. Therefore, I am Thea, and I don’t trust you.

Strength slides into his body, and the pain fades as if it’s not really there—like it’s all some sort of illusion.

“No, this is simple. You’re not Thea.” Fritz smiles, blood running from his nose. “You know how I know?”

Put the fucking gun in your mouth and pull the trigger then!

“Sure.” Bleeding all over the floor, his hearing destroyed, half his fingers broken, Fritz sounds confident. “Thea wouldn’t have bothered with the safety.”

Click.

* * *

A tightening in his throat—he can’t breathe, and Carlos grabs his collar, rips it open, the feel of Thea’s vines crushing him, the nightmare of suffocation. His heart drums in his chest.

Is Thea your friend, Carlos?

He looks around the dark corridor, and he’s alone. He looks up and back, trying to figure out what just changed, how he could have taken a step and lost everyone else.

“Who’s asking?”

She nearly strangled you during the rescue at OKFShe’s no friend of yours.

“And why would I take your opinion on who is or isn’t my friend?” He looks along the ceiling, barely visible in the shadows. Then points at the floor. “Why don’t you come out in the open and we can talk about this?”

There’s no needI’m not your friend.

“Then I’m afraid we have nothing more to discuss. If you’ll just point me back toward me friends?”

You mean Thea? That’s what I’m telling youShe has no friends, she pretends, puts on a decent show for the dupes like you, but in the end, they mean nothing to herShe can’t be your friend—isn’t even capable of friendship.

An impatient prodding in his head to get moving, but he’s starting to warm to the discussion. He laughs. “You think you know Thea?”

Yes, very well.

Carlos waves his gun around, puts on a jovial smile. “Can’t be that well, can it? I mean you’re not even her friend.”

Some hesitation in the voice. And why do you think I am not—

“You’re not Thea’s friend because you said she has no friends—that includes you. No friends. It means you’re just another dupe of Thea’s, and that you mean nothing to her.”

I am the except—

“Don’t give me that exception crap. No means no. If it doesn’t then I’m also an exception—and a very close friend of Thea’s—probably a better friend than you are.” Carlos let the silence slip by another couple heartbeats. “Right?”

The voice comes back, clipped with finality. Would you bet your life on Thea’s friendship?

Carlos lowered his gun. The words come out easily. “Sure, I’ll take that bet.”

* * *

Reed Gossi?

Reed turns around, wonders why no one else hears the voice. “Yes?”

He turns back and doesn’t spend much time wondering where everyone else has gone. Doesn’t waste his breath calling them. The world shifts around him, similar to the corridor they’d all been walking, only darker, shadowy, and he’s alone...with a voice he recognizes.

Thea only has room in her heart for one, and that’s Thea.

The voice doesn’t sound that convincing.

Reed’s scowling now. “Shirley? What do you think you’re doing?”

Silence for one long moment, then a long sigh out of the dark.

Shit.

Clicking noises on the stone and Shirley walks into view on her sharp crab legs, wings bent in frustration. I’m trying to determine if one of you is going to betray my Thea.

Reed looks around. “Where are the others?”

Shirley flaps one wing. Oh, I’ve already been through themThey’re as solid as can be. None of them.

Reed relaxes. “Okay, come on. Let’s catch up.”

They start walking, Shirley pumps her wings to shoulder height, lands lightly, her breathing in his ear. He glances over, likes her weight on him.

“Shirley?”

The Bizhasen turns with a lifted wing.

“How do you know it’s not me?”

Oh, damn, because you are in love with TheaPlain as the dayI know exactly what she thinks of you and what you think of her—from the inside, so to speakI mean she has full detail plans for you, with you, doing some interesting things to you, both of you doing things she’s just beginning to dream aboutI’ll fill you in when we have more time.

“Do that.” Reed swallows hard, trying to keep the reaction out of his voice. “Then what’s this about?”

Just being careful Reed Gossi, that’s all. The end is on us, and I can’t afford to allow anyone to cross my valued-beyond-all-worlds TheaI wasn’t certain at first, but she trusts all of you—completely—blindly! She has changed —you and the others have changed her. I can’t let anyone stab her in the back at the moment she has the one chance to get it all.

“Where is she?”

Standing right in front of you.

Reed stops, still not seeing anyone. “What did you do with the others, Fritz and Carlos, Brazley?”

Oh, not much, just played a game, asked them some questions, wanted to see where each of them stoodThey’re here with us, tooSee?

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