Frank pressed his back to the wall, avoiding the sweep of the searchlight, and wished he could breathe. A heavy panting would not serve his present need for stealth, but the absence of any kind of intake/outtake was its own sort of liability.
The driver hesitated before peeling out. Perhaps on more pressing business. Perhaps to lull Frank into a false sense of security. He touched the knob of what passed for bone on his wrist, triggering the pale illumination of his system status. The time and a few bits of diagnostic information glowed through his dark skin. He had minutes before the rendezvous. The garage was still blocks away.
Moving further back into the alley, he crouched into stripes of shadow behind a pile of shipping pallets as cover. He pressed the base of his skull behind the ear and waited for the call to connect.
“You’re not following protocol, son,” a drawling voice said after a few rings.
“I just need you to know I’ll be a little late. Ten minutes, tops,” Frank whispered.
“Unacceptable. I’ll be there at the scheduled time. I will depart ninety seconds later, with or without the package.”
“No!” Frank hissed. “The red hands are everywhere. I need more time.”
“Then I suggest you stop wasting what little you have.” The line went dead.
Frank cursed softly. The distance was not the problem. He was capable of making it in seconds, but the exposure was too risky. He glanced toward the street to ensure there were no witnesses, and sunk into a tighter crouch. His eyes rolled backward, the iris disappearing upward. A silver line drew up from the bottom, revealing the metallic rear face of his orbs.
Accessing any of his higher functions required a mode shift resulting in the telltale metallic eyes, pinstriped by softly glowing circuitry. As always, Frank cursed the NCBS Corp designers. His creators. His tormentors.
Satellite uplink was not real-time, but the delay was only a few hours old. There shouldn’t be too many surprises. He selected an overlay for local police activity. He’d have to steer clear of the cops. But maybe he could map a path using the police like gravity wells, slingshotting himself between them, using the red hands’ disinclination to be exposed as a shield.
He settled on a circuitous route. It was a good plan, but the last hundred meters was rough. All open street, no police cover, very few available hiding places. His estimated arrival time was one and a quarter minutes late, only giving him a handful of seconds to hand over the package and flee.
His eyes rotated back, the silver rolling away like a mercury pool cue in favor of the brown irises that masked him in public.
A garbage bag slumped to the pavement and Frank blinked in confusion at the woman in the doorway across the alley. He hadn’t heard the door open. Hadn’t seen, obviously, how long she’d stood there. The expression on her face was plain enough to know she had noticed him, silver-eyed and crouching in the dark. Her hand was open, slack and unconcerned with the trash she’d dropped. Frank motioned to her, a steadying gesture.
“Hey,” he said, “it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“You’re a…” the woman trailed off. A thin, bony hand went to her lips, the side of one knuckle pressing into them like an urgent kiss or a suppressed scream.”Yes,” Frank said, “I am. But it’s all right. I’m not what you think.” Not one of the crazy ones.
She didn’t speak, make a move to run inside, pick up the dropped sack of waste, anything. Her hand pressed against her lips and her stare was wide.
“What’s your name?” Frank asked, afraid to move but acutely aware of his narrow window of opportunity.
“Tanya,” the woman said with very little hesitation. A good sign.
“Tanya, you don’t have any reason to trust me.” He softened his expression as much as he was able. In a gentle voice he said, “If you’re going to turn me in, please go do that now.”
Frank had broached the trust topic. It did not come readily to his lips, nor did the bluff. If he had any chance to succeed, to even survive, he’d have to start somewhere.
She lowered her head, uneasy. “I won’t.”
“Okay, good.” Frank calculated the time he was wasting. Another car engine revved at the far end of the alley, and Frank wished his programming included a shudder mechanism. “If you’re not going to turn me in, can I ask for a favor?”
After a beat, Tanya nodded.
“I just need to you hold my hand, and walk with me. Not far. Over to 62nd street. Once we get there, I’ll give you 40,000 ryaa for your trouble.”
Tanya squinted. “For walking with you? What kind of …” Frank nodded slowly, waiting for her to get there. “Oh,” Tanya said, realization dawning. “You need cover.”
He held out his hand. With only a moment’s pause, she took it. His associative memory access fired as their hands touched. Feeds and loops of another woman, pale where Tanya was swarthy, flooded.
That last moment, silver eyes collapsing beneath the industrial press, stinging as brutally as ever. He disabled the module and forced a smile at Tanya. She grinned back.
They emerged onto the street, directly into the path of a police cruiser. It rolled past. Paid them no mind.
Frank nodded once at her, then set the pace briskly, keeping in mind Tanya’s physical limitations. She staggered behind him a few times, boots flapping heavily against the pavement. At the last turn Frank stopped and peered around the corner of a shuttered grocer. The cross street was lined with tight-packed storefronts and floodlamps. A man walked with echoing footsteps, a bit too casually, along the avenue, right in front of the darkened garage.
“Red hand,” Frank muttered, lower than he thought Tanya’s human ears could detect.
“What’s a red hand?” she stage-whispered back. Frank lunged back to the safety of the dark corner just as the man pulled up short and turned toward the sound.
Frank pressed an arm across Tanya’s shoulders, his finger digging into her lips, more forceful than her own knuckle had. He shook his head sharply. “No sounds,” he mouthed.
They heard the footsteps resume. From the doppler shift it was clear the red hand was now approaching them. Frank looked into Tanya’s face, pleading an apology. She inclined her chin and pushed Frank off of her, gently, like a parent laying a child in bed. She took a confident step around the building’s corner.
“Oh! Hello,” Frank heard Tanya say a second later.
“Huh? What are you doing out here?”
“Hoping this grocery store is still open,” Tanya lied. “I need more trash bags.”
Frank couldn’t fathom why she’d risk herself for him this way, but he offered her all the silent gratitude he had and slipped to the cut-through alley at the back of the grocer’s. As fast as he could without sound he circumnavigated toward the garage. Tanya seemed to be leading the red hand across the street. Their backs melded into the null space between two streetlamps.
Hopefully she would return for her payment. If not, he’d have to delay his escape again. He checked his time. Only ten seconds remained. He let three more expire and then sprinted across and into the pitch blackness of the garage.
The world glowed into black and white hues as his night vision came up. The Contact leaned against a reserved parking sign. Somehow, even through the night vision, his face was obscured by shadow. Frank touched his coat pocket, reassured himself the package was safe.
The Contact spoke in a voice so soft only Frank’s internal microphones could have sensed it. “I’m surprised,” he said.
Frank stood still, alert as he could be without switching modes. The night and the garage’s darkness folded over them, oppressive and still.
“Okay, then,” The Contact said with a curled lip, “Let’s have it.”
Frank produced the package, a flat yellow envelope, whitish in the infrared filter. Frank held on a little tighter than necessary, wrestling with his unanswered questions, as The Contact yanked the package free and slid it open. He tipped it. A slim black rectangle with two small holes in its center fell into his thick palm. A tiny pull at the corners of his lips indicated his approval. “Okay, then. Thanks for your help,” he said. He turned to go.
“Wait,” Frank said. “My payment?” But The Contact was gone.
A hand touched his arm. He whirled and stared into a pair of silver eyes, glowing more brightly than usual in the infrared. A circuit pattern.
“Tanya?” Frank exclaimed. “You’re a red hand—?”
“NCBS Corp prefers the term Acquisitions Officer,” she replied. “I’ll need you to come with me.”
Paul Hamilton is a writer and technology worker living in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. His stories feature broken people, reassembled worlds, beautiful monsters, and hideous love. He gets his inspiration by impersonating an old-timey bartender, listening to stories told by lonely strangers. When not writing, he can be found reading, drawing, taking photographs, or riding roller coasters. More from him can be found at ironsoap.com, and on Twitter as @ironsoap.