As far as Velvet could tell, there wasn’t a single petrol station between Arizona and Oregon. The truck would only hold out for as long as the gas did. Hopefully that would be long enough to reach Sacramento. According to the news ticker in a Fresno convenience store, the city had rain scheduled for the next three days. Water was being distilled over from the Pacific to feed almond farms.
Artificial storms were pretty heavy. Velvet had seen one in Arizona when she was little. The Iota handlers had taken her and her step-siblings to do survival exercises in the storm. It was the first time Velvet had ever seen rain; she’d thought they were drowning her as punishment for chasing lizards during shooting practice. Hadn’t been a big fan of rain ever since.
But a downpour like that would virtually cut off her scent trail. If Velvet could disappear for even a few days, she might be able to lose the Kappa completely. She couldn’t afford to pass that up.
Unfortunately, the truck wasn’t as practical-minded. It died a few miles short of the city limits. Beating the hood didn’t help, so Velvet jogged the rest of the way.
For legal reasons, the rainclouds had been generated within a certain area. Velvet could see the borders of Sacramento proper outlined in billowing silver-grey. She stood at the edge of the storm, working herself up to it; then, in a single step, she went from humid sidewalk to amazingly fat raindrops.
A few minutes later she tagged the base of the first skyscraper.
“Made it!” Velvet gasped against the wall. She was already splattered in mud. The rain was cold and obnoxious, but it meant safety. Relatively speaking. So she let it hose her down.
“Okay. What now? Plan, what’s the plan…shit. The plan is shit.”
Flattened against the concrete, she chewed on her soggy lip. “They burnt us. That means Generation Kappa’s going to go live. There’s going to be hundreds of those things. They’ll destroy everything.”
Her arms formed little gutters as she held still to think. “Uh…I can deal with this. There’s got to be something I can do about that. Yeah. Yeah, I can stop this. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Blow up Project Sunset. Fight the…combined forces of the federal government. Save America. Kay, no problem. Good plan.”
With a quick grunt, Velvet startled walking into town.
Then she stumbled to a stop and threw back her head.
“Nah, that’s too much work. Fuck America. I’m just going to Canada.”
When she opened her eyes, she groaned a second time. Downtown was still ahead of her—or rather, above her. The clouds reduced every tower to a stunted shadow, so she couldn’t even see what would properly count as the city center. But it was up there.
Velvet had never been to a city this big, but she’d seen movies. She’d have to go up half a skyscraper before she was really in town.
And she was in no fit state to infiltrate a crowd. During the long drive, she’d been so stressed about running away from the Kappa that she lapsed in keeping a firm hold on her biological processes. Her body hair was growing out again. It gushed velvety red from every pore. And being in this rain didn’t help. She could feel it trying to protect her, trying to grow thick so it could wick the water away.
But she never let her body hair grow. It made her look like an ape. Given a few dry hours to concentrate, she could get it to fall out. Then she’d pass for a human again. A human with dyed hair, yellow contacts, and filed teeth, but still. She should keep an eye out for shelter. Until then she’d just have to deal with being disgusting.
There was a public elevator at the center of a round white plaza. But the line was long and full of faces that scowled if Velvet got too close. She probably wouldn’t have been able to ride without a photo ID anyways.
After a few tries she managed to tailgate into a hotel, and just rode that elevator as high as it would go. It took her to the fiftieth floor. There was a skywalk coming out of the forty-ninth, so she went down a flight of stairs and into town.
She didn’t seem to be coming at it from the ritzy angle. Paper cups and black mold filled the seams in the skywalk. Probably for the best. There was no sense going out of her way to be seen right now.
An open-air food court sat under a glassy retractable awning. Velvet strolled past a table stacked with freshly-abandoned fries, and slid a mislaid phone into her pocket.
Once she was tucked into a dim corner, she had a look at her prize. It had a pink case and a stylized foam heart glued onto the back. Drawing the heart on the password screen unlocked the phone.
Velvet dialed a number with a long extension. She could stand to hear a friendly voice about now.
The voice that picked up was punctuated by phlegm, like dark chocolate with crunchy little bits of peanut stirred into it. “Gahanna Doorknob Services. May I ask who’s calling?”
“A cold day.” Normally, Velvet rattled off the password without any patience. But this time she waited a deep breath before adding, “It’s me, Don.”
The voice became instantly milkier. “Dread Velvet. The last lady I expected to call from a listed number. It’s been too long.”
Velvet smiled and let the phone nestle into her shoulder. “Right back at you, old rascal. Listen, I need a—”
“Business is fine, thank you for asking. We’re still working hard and still getting a fair shake. You remember that patent infringement work I was telling you about? That really took off. How about you? How are the step-brothers?”
A lump stuck in Velvet’s throat. “Uh…they’re as well as can be expected. Say, Don. You remember how you still owe me for Texas?”
“How could I forget? The Ninth Circle is in your debt. I still can’t imagine what foresight the good Doctor Smith must have had to provide you with such a sensitive nose.”
She grinned, after glancing down an alleyway formed by the chain-link safety fence which bordered the skyways. There had been a shout and some footsteps; she made sure no one was coming this way.
“Well, at the time, they thought the Russians had their own bio-forces program. They definitely had that in mind when they were drawing us up. I guess you could say I’m kind of a counter-bioweapon. Now about—”
“Alright, alright. What can I do for you? If you’re only looking for trouble, there’s a hornet’s nest brewing in Flagstaff. Real low-rent business. Some sort of deportation affair.”
Velvet pulled dripping bangs out of her eyes. “Actually…this isn’t a training exercise. Do you know any way to get a GMO across the border to Canada?”
“Does your doctor know about this?”
“Doctor Smith doesn’t care,” she hissed. “They threw us out, Don. Pitched us. I’d be incinerated evidence right now if I wasn’t smarter than they are. Can you help me get away?”
Eventually, when the chocolate voice responded, it was darker.
“It seems I’ve misunderstood. Your handlers are no longer part of the arrangement.”
Velvet held the phone in both hands. “What? No, of course not.”
“It took quite a bit of remuneration to grease over your youthful indiscretions, and I should say just for your benefit, Dread Velvet, I find it quite unprofessional for you to come forward without proper financial backing.”
Velvet spat out rain that tasted of stainless steel. “You’re joking right? Don! Cut it out!”
A sharp sigh from the other end. “Damnit, Velvet. Did you really think the Ninth Circle was going to take you to Canada as a favor? I’d be lucky to survive making that suggestion. The only reason the Texas branch put up with you is because your government paid hand over fist.”
She opened and closer her mouth a few times, filling up the bottom of her chin with water.
The voice resumed its chocolate tone. “We can do the border run. Just. But it’ll cost you the going rate.”
“Normally I’d say I look forward to doing business with you. But seeing as I can’t imagine the biggest joke in Project Sunset hustling up the cash…”
He hung up. He just—hung up on her.
Velvet yanked the phone away from her cheek. She felt soggier than ever. In fact, she was just about ready to toss this stupid thing through the fence. Her arm was winding back when she heard a sudden yell.
The person pointing at Velvet stood in a row of heavyset men in rainbow-flashing trench coats and glowing earrings. “It has my phone!” he sputtered.
Velvet’s arm came down. By grinning, she managed to freeze the situation for just a couple seconds. It was long enough to back away slowly, set the phone down on a food court table and pat it twice.
On the plus side, she suddenly remembered how people dressed in cities. Maybe she wouldn’t stand out so badly here.
Velvet was sure she’d be faster than the men, but didn’t count on how slippery the burnished tiles would be on a wet skyscraper balcony. It took forever to lose them. Eventually she dove to the other side of a tram stop just before the crossing gate came down. They didn’t seem interested enough to chase her after that.
Velvet decided to drop a few stories down. Maybe around floor thirty, where there’d be fewer people and longer shadows. All she wanted now was a place to curl up out of the rain and get some rest. She’d think about her next move later.
Her chances of getting a room weren’t very good. In fact, there was a lot she couldn’t do. It was amazing how much she’d taken cash and a fake ID for granted. She’d be able to steal a few things, and Sacramento had to have an underground which might let her out some credit. But Velvet was in no position to push her luck. Helicopters wouldn’t be coming to bail her out this time.
Whatever. This was a survival situation; Velvet didn’t really care where she lay down as long as it was dry. The least likely spot for someone to stumble over her would be outside, somewhere down here on the lower levels. It was easy to find a garbage tank, if nothing else. They were built into the edge of the balcony for easy access by trash collectors, and thus a little tunnel-shaped shelter was formed between the tank, the tower, and the wide chute which connected the two. Under this one, there was some cardboard that made for a dry floor. Sort of a dry floor, she corrected, as it squelched under the weight of her back.
Velvet tucked her knees so they wouldn’t stick out into the rain. Once her eyes closed, she noticed that her thin trash chute was rattling like a jet engine. The rain was loud. But not too loud for her to fall asleep. Not at this point.
She didn’t get much sleeping done anyway. For half an hour, she mostly just lay there with her head spinning. And just when she was nearly dozing off, someone started yelling again. When she sat bolt upright, two people with cigarette-pockmarked faces were standing over her. One was poking her with a rake. Through the grogginess, she could barely hear them yelling at her the way one would yell at a stray cat.
Velvet gave herself a moment to groan before bolting out the other end of the tank.
After leaving them behind, she paced through the rain hugging herself. Half an hour of almost-rest had left her worse off than before. Now it was hard to ignore her stomach. Just remembering the smell of simple cheeseburgers called to mind how long it had been since she’d eaten. All she had were two dollars in quarters from the armrest of the pickup truck. None of those places at the food court took cash. She should have stolen the fries.
For the third time today, she hung around random doorways until she could sneak in behind someone. Velvet didn’t know if she would go up, or down, or whether it would help. Maybe she would just slump behind this ice machine and hope no one needed to fill a cooler until tomorrow.
Then she spotted a barely-open door.
Velvet glanced over her shoulder; she was in an apartment building, judging by the grim row of fake potted plants. One of the infinite number of doors hadn’t closed. It was almost shut, but not quite all the way, so it hadn’t automatically locked. Almost impossible to notice unless you were walking slowly.
There was no one watching Velvet. No visible cameras. Just a thin carpet. She pushed the door a couple inches, and no one jumped at her from the other side. Then she pushed it far enough to peek through. Didn’t see anyone. She stepped inside.
It was small and sparsely furnished. There were no immediate clues about who lived here besides an expensive-looking coffee machine on the kitchen counter. A nice TV, but no couch, only beanbag chairs.
Velvet poked her head into every room. The cleanliness of the carpet proved that someone definitely used this place. The closet was full of books on paper, boxes of machine parts, and other junk. In the bedroom she found the only person home—a man, somewhat younger than her, sleeping like a log. She stood over him for a while, expecting to get chased out with a tower fan any moment. But he didn’t wake.
He looked unremarkable. A bit thin in the cheeks, a little tight around the cuffs of his LED jacket. If there was any way to tell him apart from the billions of humans outside, Velvet couldn’t see it.
She had been about to raid the fridge and bolt. But now a bigger idea formed. Hotels would get swept the minute Sunset Laboratory knew she was here. Seedy places on the tenth story—that’s where they’d expect her to hide. But this was an ordinary apartment on floor forty-something. Not too high, not too low. The last place anyone would think to look for a fugitive. From inside a room like this, she’d be practically off the grid. If it were under a real person’s name—
She could hide for months.
That’s when the evil smile started coming together. Maybe it was time she gave the city a taste of its own manners.
She was sitting by the bed when he woke up.
“Good morning, sunshine,” she said in her dangerous voice. Velvet was looking more or less human again, but the pistol was out on her knee so there’d be confusion.
He didn’t say anything right away. His hands were still rubbing crust out of his eyes. Even when he did squint in her direction, there was no scream, despite him looking like the jumpy sort.
“Is this a burglary?” He sounded idly curious. Maybe he still regarded her as a dream.
“Not quite. I’m your new roommate.”
She toyed the pistol around in case he hadn’t seen it. It was just for show, in this case. She had to avoid killing him. Otherwise she’d only stand a mediocre chance of keeping hidden. Half the people in a city like this had heart monitors and fitness bands. If he died, police would poke around, and the building would put in a new tenant before the day was out.
“I don’t get it,” he moaned, making the first slow twitch towards getting out of bed. He was tired for someone who’d been asleep all day.
Velvet patted his foot. “All you need to know is that I’m not on speaking terms with your Uncle Sam. You’re going to help me lay low for a while, okay?”
“Before you get any ideas, let’s make it clear where you stand.” Velvet flicked open the tip of a small silver canister. Inside was a red button. “Take a look in the mirror. That collar around your neck is lined with plastic explosives. The minute you—wait. What do you mean, ‘okay’?”
He patted his neck, feeling the seamless metal ring now clamped around it.
“I mean okay.” He slouched to the living room, which put her in the awkward position of having to follow.
“But I broke into your home.”
“Oh, that’s how you got in.”
“I’m threatening to kill you, if you’d let me finish!”
He nodded drowsily just before sticking his head into the refrigerator. “You probably shouldn’t have eaten those sausages,” he said after a minute. “They were a little old. Thanks for washing the pan.”
Velvet’s cheeks tightened. She glared at the device in her hand.
“Do you have any idea how much work I did last night? Fitting a detonator inside that thing took hours.”
The whole time, he was still wearing that jacket. And that made him even more annoying. It flashed at seizure-inducing speeds while he rummaged around at the pace of a sloth.
“You sure you don’t want to hear about the detonator?”
“You can tell me about it if you want.” He pulled an orange out of the fridge, then a slice of bread. Then he left them on the counter and shuffled to the coffee machine.
“If I catch you anywhere near the police, they’ll spend more time cleaning up the pieces than they do talking to you. You understand?”
“Got it,” he said in the most cogent voice she’d heard out of him yet.
Curling her lips inward, Velvet placed herself in a commanding position at the center of the grey TV-room floor. “You don’t leave without my permission. You don’t make any phone calls without my permission. I can get rid of you any time I feel like it.”
He gave a thumbs-up over his shoulder.
“Well—” She flung open the bathroom door. “I’m using your shower, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
“Towels are under the sink,” he called after it slammed behind her.
Velvet stood against the door with her arms crossed. “Whatever you think you’re doing, it won’t work! I don’t want to die, and I’m not about to let someone like you mess that up.”
Then, deciding she really did need a shower, she found towels right where he’d said they would be.
The shower was really nice. Velvet was used to a concrete bunker with twenty-two spouts, but this was a small bathroom, luxuriously private. She couldn’t think of any reason the shower would need two curtains. Nor why the outer curtain had a spaceship pattern on it. Instead of a faucet handle, she found a touchpad that controlled the angle of the showerhead, temperature, and half a dozen other settings she couldn’t guess at. It took a couple tries to get it started. But once the water hit her, it was so warm she shivered in delight.
Mud came off. Velvet had a chance to see how banged up she was. Considering how much she must have been tossed around while lying unconscious in the transport, her bruises weren’t bad. It still felt good to massage them with soap—this soap especially. It was so soft. Velvet held the bar between her fingers and squished it until the logo mangled away, turning into squishy pulp.
The human was probably halfway to the police station by now. Whatever. She already felt better, good enough to keep running. Good enough to quit whining. She could get to Canada without Don and his stupid thugs. There had to be another way. She’d find it.
After taking her sweet time drying off, Velvet decided against the jumpsuit. It was considerably worse off than she was. And seeing as she had the place to herself now, she could just throw on a towel.
But he was there. He’d changed out of the jacket, but it didn’t look like he’d been preparing to run anywhere. He was at his tiny kitchen table, drinking coffee. A second green mug was set at the opposite end.
He turned red when he saw her.
As she stared him down, he lowered his head and pointed towards the second cup. “I made you coffee.”
This was new. She stepped over to the kitchen tile.
“I wasn’t going to,” he stammered, “but I was drinking coffee, so I thought you might want coffee if I was drinking coffee. I know I want coffee when I see someone else drinking coffee.”
Her mug was still breathing steam, so the smell hit her as soon as she looked down.
“Wow,” Velvet grunted, “you really are spineless.” She pulled a chair back slowly and dropped into it.
“Mine has caramel swirls in it,” he blurted the second she might have been glancing in his direction. For the first time he actually looked nervous, with his arms crunched round the mug. “I—I can put caramel swirls in yours. If you want. But I didn’t know if you liked caramel, and you were in the shower. I tried to make something you’d like. I thought maybe people who broke into other people’s apartments would like dark coffee. That’s—probably mean and I’m sorry. Caramel swirls are really good. I can still put some in yours. Your coffee. If you want caramel swirls.”
He chimed his fingernails on the ceramic mug.
Velvet kept looking off at where the steam disappeared.
Then she took a big breath and lounged one arm over the chair.
“I’d like that,” she muttered.
They drank cups of coffee as the windows were buried in rain.