Good Cop Bad Cop

2088

Ray Nothnagel

"Hey, watch the hair!" I protested. It was mostly in jest; my wind-blown hair wouldn't actually be affected much by being brushed against the top of a patrol tank. The door slid shut behind me, locking me in. I looked around. Probably wouldn't be the last time I'm in one of these, I may as well get used to it.

The cop who'd shoved me into the car got in the passenger seat, as her partner drove. The car slowly built built up speed, bringing me straight back to the station. Like almost every car on Redland, it was a Bulwark, designed specifically for life on this planet. The car was heavy and low to the ground to resist the constant Redland winds, with heavily angled sides designed to keep the wind from imparting any upward force.

Though tempted to be my usual mouthy self, I couldn't quite muster up anything to say that would amuse me. I'd save it for the interrogation. Surely there would be one; they didn't know enough otherwise. I'd have to wait for someone in my crew to work out how to get me out. I stayed behind and took the fall to buy Grant and Larin time to get away; we had to look out for each other. I knew they'd be back for me in turn. Thick as thieves, you might say.

The cops were quiet for the entire ride to the station. I wonder if they were thinking the same thing as I was: Save it for the interrogation. They must have been.


The interrogation room was constructed of concrete, like most cheap buildings on Redland. The walls had the telltale horizontal striations of a 3D printed construction, and they hadn't even bothered to plaster over it and make it look at least a little bit like a nice building. It was cold and impersonal, with one chair smack in the middle with a hole in the middle of its back. The woman from the passenger's seat planted me in the chair, with my cuffed hands going into the hole.

She leaned over me, her breath warming my face in a highly unpleasant way. I recoiled. "Hey dirtbag, look at me." I gingerly looked at her with one eye. "I'm gonna nail you to the wall. That's my personal mission for today."

"Who the fuck pissed in your cereal this morning? 'Cause it's all up in your breath."

She did not like that one bit. "Fine. You don't take me seriously, maybe you'll take this seriously." She reached behind her back and pulled out a two-foot metal rod she must have had stuck in her belt, holding it like a bat above me. Holy shit, was she just gonna beat the brains out of my head right here? Do they do that? I stood up as quickly as I could, backing away from her and the chair. She followed, closing the distance

"Get the fuck back in that chair," she screamed in my face, chasing me in a circle. "Get back in the chair before I beat your skull in and make up the reason why." I tried to outmaneuver her, but she was much faster than I gave her credit for, and before I knew it, I was shoved back into the chair. With a smooth motion she slid the rod behind my back, somehow while still in front of me. By the time I realized what she was doing it was too late: the rod was holding my handcuffs in place, keeping me locked in place in the chair.

At this moment the door to the room opened, and the other one was standing there. "Cowell! Stand down!" he barked.

She didn't break her overpowering stare into my eyes. "You don't give me orders, rook."

"Sheriff told me to get you to back off," he replied, somewhat sheepishly. She softened for a moment, then finally broke the stare and looked back at him. A moment later, she finally got out of my face and left the room with him.

I don't know how long they left me there, wrists aching from the handcuffs and the chair, when the door finally opened. It was the male cop, the one that had been driving. He was young, about my age or maybe a little older, which meant he was born and raised here on Redland, just like me. The woman—Cowell, was it?—had been older, so she must have come here from Earth, may it rest in peace.

He stepped up towards me. "Sorry about earlier. We gotta keep her on a short leash sometimes."

"Can't see why," I said. "She's such a gentle soul."

"Alright, funny guy, you gonna behave if I take this thing out?"

"You worried I'm gonna beat you up? Don't worry, I'm not stupid enough to wail on someone in an interrogation room."

He walked behind me and slid the rod out from its place, finally allowing my wrists to free up slightly. I repositioned my aching arms, not to any particular position, but just to move them. "I feel like I should tell you that Cowell—you know, the warm and fluffy deputy from before?"

"Yeah, I got that."

"You should know that Cowell's sister is the owner of that store you were shaking down. This is pretty personal for her."

"Isn't that a, whatcha call, a conflict of interest? Having her on this case?"

"Limited resources," he sighed. "Everyone's related to someone, or friends with someone."

"Funny, I don't have any cop friends."

He smiled warmly. "Now you do. Hi, I'm Jorik." He extended a hand to shake mine; I awkwardly turned to the side and shook it with two fingers.

"Call me crazy, but somehow I'm not feeling the love," I said in reply. "I'm Gillum."

"I know your name. We've got that from the DNA registry," he said, holding a tablet in front of me with my own profile plastered on the screen. Octavian Gillum, age 19, born in the Redland colony on April 6, 2069. The image of my face was at least 4 years out of date, which I think was the last time I'd gotten my official ID card renewed.

"You could use a new picture, looks nothing like me," I said, getting my sarcasm face warmed up.

"Cute. Keep the whimsy," he said casually. "I'm just here to get some basics. We know who you are, what we don't know is really anything about you from the last 3 years. No work history, no official records, if I didn't have you here I'd start thinking you were off to the winds."

"Nope, alive and well, clearly," I said, as I turned so he could see my hands, mockingly taking my own pulse. "Be a little better if I didn't have this wrist jewelry."

"Can't be helped. So what have you been doing for 3 years? Working?"

"I work sometimes in my dad's shop," I lied. "Built my own place so I don't need to pay rent or anything, so I don't have a lot of bills."

"Yeah? Where's this place?"

"Out in the middle of nowhere. I value my privacy."

"Yeah, sure, that seems unlikely. Where do you live, really?"

"If I remember my civics vids correctly, don't I have the right to privacy?"

He sighed. Sucks when the perp has rights, right? "And how about work, you said you work for your dad?"

"Yeah."

"Got an address for that?"

I gave him the address. This, as far as it went, was true: I did sometimes help run my dad's shop. Sure, I mostly ran it at opportune moments when people would drop off or pick up whatever contraband they carried, but I was there, running the store.

He got up and grabbed the tablet without further inquisition. The room was quiet again. Able to get out of the chair this time, I stood and paced, trying to keep myself stretched and limber. I'm not sure how long it was before the woman entered the room.

"Sit," she ordered. I made a point to check to see if she'd brought the metal rod with her this time, but didn't see it on her belt. After ascertaining that, I followed the order, just slow enough to show I wasn't happy about it.

"Here's what you're going to do," she stood in front of me, perfectly still. "You're going to tell us nothing, Clam up, or better yet, mouth off. Give me every reason to beat your ass right here, right now. Then we're going to get you on everything. Extortion, racketeering, robbery. I might even make up some shit and see if the jury convicts just because they don't like you. You're gonna get put in the nerverack and then locked up for a decade. And me," she said, backing up slightly and smiling, "I'll just watch, and smile."

The threat of being locked up was empty, I was certain of it. The most well-known fact about Redland law enforcement was that they just didn't have a lot of manpower—a 20-year tradition of most people being too busy with the business of settling a new planet to worry about becoming prison guards and cops. Though every settlement's sheriff did have holding cells, there was only one long-term prison on the planet. That's why law enforcement here invented the nerverack. A few hours of zapping your neurons had been proven to reduce petty crime even more effectively than the prisons I'd always heard about on Earth, and then the sheriff could go off and do their own thing instead of watching over the prisoners for decades. Here, prison was only used if the offender had already demonstrated that the nerverack wouldn't work on them. I'd never been caught before, so they had no reason to proceed straight to the lockup. It was the nerverack for me, and I'd already made my peace with that.

She was pacing around me as she spoke. "We've got eyewitnesses for every charge, too. We really don't need to have you in here at all to convict you. My partner thinks that you can give us someone higher up in the chain. I don't think you will."

"Why's that?"

"I don't think you know anyone worth turning over. But that works for me. I'm gonna be the one to flip the switch when we throw you in the nerverack." She stopped pacing in front of me, then leaned in close again, and she whispered. "Please, do me a personal favor... don't tell us a thing."

The way she said it sent shivers down my spine. I thought I'd made peace with the nerverack, but somehow, having it be controlled by this psycho threw all my preparation out the window. I'd assumed it would be all computer-controlled and precise, not operated by a sadist.

She stared at me for a moment, giving me a chance to come out with something. The truth was, she was right: Even if I wanted to, I didn't have any information that would actually get me out of this. I knew a few people, but the crimes I would be able to testify to were minimal. I was just getting started in the organization.

Before I could finish pondering, she pulled back and left the room without another word. Without her nasty breath in my face, I had a chance to evaluate my options a little more clearly. The minimal information I could provide about a few of my associates would barely get them arrested, let alone charged. And if I did, the danger I would face from the Underground would dwarf anything the cops could do to me. Yeah, I wasn't saying anything.

A few minutes later, Jorik entered the room once again. "Alright, Gillum," he began. "I know my partner went over the charges. Any questions about those?"

"I don't know what either of you are talking about," I said, starting in on my plan to give them nothing.

"Yeah, of course. Even with the threat of jailtime, you've got nothing to say?" Silence from me. "Alright. But here's the thing," he leaned in close, closer than Cowell had gotten, and he started to whisper directly into my ear.

"The camera's microphone can't pick me up when I whisper like this. You've got clearance from Larin to turn her over, and tell us that she's your boss. She has a solid alibi for any crimes we can pin on her." He stood up straight again, as I processed what he'd just said.

The cops couldn't possibly know that Larin was involved in this; she'd been behind the tech side of the job, but hadn't shown her face at the scene. She'd also never had any run-ins with the police. There was only one way that Jorik could even know her name, and I decided that meant that I could almost certainly trust his instructions.

He returned to a normal speaking voice. "Now, I can keep Cowell out of here for the next while, but I can only do that if I start getting results." He looked at me expectantly, implicitly calling on me to play along.

I took a deep breath as if hesitating. "Her name is Larin," I gave my best confession face. "I've been working for her for a few months now." It'd actually been closer to 3 years I'd been working with her, but who was counting?"

"Good, good," he nodded, and looked towards the camera, through which the other cops were certainly watching. "So when you were shaking down the store today, that was under her orders?"

I nodded. "She was planning the whole thing from behind the scenes."

He stood there for a moment. "Alright, I'll be back." He left the room while I puzzled out exactly what the plan was. The sheriff didn't know who Larin was, I was certain of that. So Jorik was dirty, then. But why did Larin want me to give her up? That didn't make much sense. Even with an alibi, wouldn't it be better to stay off the sheriff's radar entirely?

I was wrestling with the game going on here when the door opened later. I expected Jorik to return, but was surprised to see Cowell. With the metal rod. Great.

"Alright, punk, we're going down to the nerverack."

"We're what?" I hadn't expected anything to happen this quickly.

"Your little confession might lead to something, so you're cleared of jailtime. That means we can go ahead with the punishment on our schedule. No tribunals needed for nerverack sessions."

She grabbed me by the scruff of my collar and shoved me towards the door. I reacted against her pull. This was suddenly becoming more real. The stories I'd heard about the nerverack took on a sudden immediacy. How it was designed to feel like the worst pain a Human could feel. How the needles it inserted would hit just the right spot to maximize the impact on the nervous system. How it used chemicals to turn off your brain's ability to cope.

She shoved harder as we left the room. I looked around the hallway as we exited, looking for the closest thing I had to a friendly face right now, but Jorik was nowhere to be found. I started to kick and push against her grip harder—not actually expecting results, just acting on instinct—which caused her to brandish the rod, then take a swing at my hipbone. I collapsed momentarily from the sting of metal on bone, but quickly got back on my feet. I closed my eyes, and forced myself to calm down. Slightly.

She led me down the hallway towards a doorframe painted in a deep red, then through it into a new room. Unlike the interrogation room, this one had an abundance of seats, set with with their backs against the two walls on either side. In the center, as if on a stage, was a large concrete throne. Straps and shackles were placed to hold down anyone sitting on it, and an assortment of needles and devices was concentrated around the area where the head, neck, and wrists would be. My calm eroded a little more, and I clenched my teeth and again began to struggle against Cowell's grip.

Two men stood on either side of the chair. One was dressed in medical scrubs, performing some kind of check on the devices on the chair. The other was a cop, and not one that I recognized. The cop stepped forward soon as we entered the room, grabbing my other arm.

As they dragged me to the chair, they released the cuffs, just in time to strap first one arm, then the other to the chair against my struggles. They did the same to my feet, then pulled a strap around my torso. Finally, the cop held my head firmly, causing me to strain a muscle in my neck resisting him in vain. A firm metal ring came down around the crown of my head, forcing it still. My jaw was still clenched, but I became aware that I had been making some kind of sound through it, who knows for how long. I forced myself to stop, and again brought myself to a certain level of calmness. The time for struggling was past; there was nothing to be done now.

"Change of plan," Cowell announced. "Turns out I'm not gonna be controlling the nerverack after all."

"What? Who?" I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.

The doctor turned to me and grinned a toothy, creepy grin. He was calmly stretching out some tubing, and then he attached some kind of syringe or needle to the end of it. I realized at this point that my arms had been strapped palms-up, too tightly to twist them the other way. With a practiced deftness, the doctor jabbed the needle into my wrist, and I could feel something cold seep its way into my arm and up towards my shoulder. I wasn't crazy about needles, and this wasn't going to help.

The doctor moved to stand in front of me. "I've been told that this is your first offense, that you've never experienced the nerverack before. Is that right?"

I remained silent.

"Well," he continued, "You don't need to be cooperative for this part. I just thought I'd warn you that the pain is going to start soon."

Almost the instant he said that, I suddenly lost all ability to control the creeping terror. I screamed and again struggled against the straps. Through my screams, I heard the doctor talking, saying something to Cowell; I could barely make out the words, "he's ready."

All I'd heard about this thing, it didn't prepare me for this. I'd thought the stories about the injections were exaggerated, that it didn't make any sense to suddenly be unable to push back your fear. That self-control was a part of your very soul; how the hell could it just go away? Until this moment, I hadn't thought it possible.

The chair was extending some needles from the area around my neck, and from where I was I could only barely see them moving in my peripheral vision. I felt the stings as they both pierced the soft skin on either side of the base of my neck, their cold metal seeming to reach deeper into my chest than I'd thought possible without killing me. Every touch, every prick, every beat of my own heart at this point was terrifying. I couldn't help but to scream, to beg for them to stop. My eyes burned, and I tasted salt; I hadn't even realized I'd been crying.

This wasn't me. I couldn't explain it. I won't say that I don't get scared, I'm a good old-fashioned Human, but this isn't what happens when I do. I fight and I rage against my fears. I've never in my life begged or cried out of fear. It was like I was inhabiting the brain of some other person.

And then the pain hit me. I convulsed against the unmoving shackles and entirely lost sight of everything. As if in another world, I heard the distant echoes of my own screaming voice. I vaguely knew that my clenched eyes were pouring out tears. This was the worst pain I'd ever felt, even worse than the worst pain I'd ever imagined. It flooded my body, starting from deep inside my chest and extending like tendrils out across my entire torso. It stabbed and burned and froze all at once, across the skin and deep in my bones simultaneously. As if a liquid of pain was filling my body, once it had shot across my torso it moved up my neck and into my head, drilling the pain directly into my skull.

It was a constant burn, so intense that I couldn't think, couldn't process, couldn't imagine anything other than this world of pain. I had no idea how long this lasted, but after an eternity, the pain subsided slightly. I was aware once again of the salty taste in my mouth, this time mixed with the taste of blood and copper. I was soaked with sweat everywhere I could feel, and my fingers felt like they were broken from gripping the armrests. I once again felt the ache of the strained neck muscle from when they'd put me into this godforsaken chair, eons ago. A smell hit my nostrils, something stinging and putrid that I couldn't indentify until I pieced together a wet, dripping sensation moving down my chin, along with a warm wetness in my crotch: the smell of piss and puke, combined into one.

I slowly forced myself to open my eyes, and was greeted by a blur of a world. I blinked repeatedly, slowly clearing out some portion of the tears from my eyes each time, still unable to move to wipe them dry. I slowly became aware of a single blob in front of me. Several more blinks resolved the blur into a person, then I finally recognized him as the doctor. He was sitting on a chair that he must have moved in front of me, watching me, waiting, grinning. His face had a hint of five-o-clock shadow which I couldn't remember whether he'd had before this nightmare started.

"Good," he said, seeing the recognition in my eyes. "I want you to be conscious of the pain, not to merely receive it."

My eyeballs darted around the room as it dawned on me that I couldn't see anyone else. "It's just me and you," he assured me, "And no one can hear you scream, either." My eyes settled on his hand, which I now saw held a device shaped like a shield—it strongly resembled the sheriff's and deputy's badges all the cops wore, except that it had a dial and some button on its surface.

"No," I pleaded, watching his finger move towards one of the buttons as if in slow motion. "No, no, no, nonono—" My begging turned in an instant to screaming as the pain started again. There was no spreading this time, no filling up—it was immediately everywhere, at its full intensity. And then, just as suddenly, it was gone again.

I began to open my eyes, but before I could resolve even the blob of that sick bastard with his had on the controls, it was on again. Then it subsided. After a few more cycles of this I started to become accustomed to the rhythm of the pain, to anticipate the next one, to attempt to brace against it. Each flood of pain made the futility of preparation evident, but during each lull I tried anyway. Then, in another cruel twist, the rhythm was broken. The pain came and went at random intervals. During each lull I failed to remember the intensity of the pain, and mistakenly believed that my anticipation of the pain was the worst part, until suddenly the pain hit me again and blinded me to every other possible thought or emotion.

Finally came a particularly long lull. I braced several times, wincing and waiting for the pain to return, but it refused to come each time. I became aware that my throat was dry, and I was mumbling something repeatedly—"Please, please, please." No appeal more complex than this single word allowed itself to form. Finally, I opened my eyes, again blinking back the tears. Again I saw the doctor there, standing this time, his chair gone. He still held the controller in his hand.

When he saw my eyes open, his smile widened. "We've reached my favorite part," he said, disgustingly gleefully. My eyes snapped wide with fear, horrified, imagining what he had in store, before I had to blink away the tears once again. He slowly turned and walked towards the door, letting the control slip bit by bit out of his loose hand. Finally, it clattered to the floor just next to the door, and he turned to face me. He extended one foot out slowly.

"Oh god," I mumbled, barely audible through my pained throat, as it slowly dawned on me what was about to happen. "Please no, please, please, please...."

His foot reached the remote, and pressed the button. The pain took just long enough to return that I was able to see him step outside the door and heard it close. He was gone, and then there was nothing but pain.

Now, unlike the first time, I was fully aware of the passage of time. However bad, however long, I thought it had been the first time the machine had activated, this was worse, and far longer. Rather than a single blurred eternity, each and every agonizing second became its own eternity. Though I didn't have the wherewithal to count them, I fully experienced every second, even as the seconds stretched into minutes and the minutes into hours. The world no longer existed, had never existed; there was nothing beyond the sea of pain.
By the time the pain stopped this time, I couldn't bring myself to open my eyes. I couldn't even remain conscious; for at least an hour or two in the final period, the only thing keeping my from passing out had been the endless barrage of pain. The sleep was tortured and surreal, but compared to what had just happened, utterly blissful. By the time I awoke, I was no longer in the chair. I could still feel the pain in my throat, and my fingers still felt as if I'd broken them through sheer force of will. Every joint ached from straining for god knows how long. I was suddenly aware that my lips were dry and cracked, and gingerly passed my tongue over them, which barely helped. As I carefully opened my eyes, I braced against the possibility that this was just an illusion, a dream I'd built for myself to escape the pain, and that as soon as I could see again, the sadist would press the button again.

But the sadist wasn't there. No one was. I was laying down in what was at this moment the most comfortable bed I could possibly imagine. The bed was in one corner of a small room with a closed metal door and single small window. Daylight, though without direct sun, streamed in gently from the window, lighting the room dimly. I laid still, fearful that any movement on my part might snap me out of this reality.

I have no idea how much time had passed before I finally mustered the strength to move. Every muscle ached, and I became aware that my fingers refuse to move at all, stuck in a claw-like position. I pushed myself with the heels of my palms into a sitting position. I looked around for a few moments, taking in my surroundings, until I finally just wept. This wasn't the uncontrolled wailing from before, just quiet, resigned weeping. Even so, my eyes burned from having yet more tears pushed across them, and I wiped my eyes the best I could with my clawed hands.

A knock at the door roused me from my dark reverie, and as I focused on the door, I realized that it had a small gap, a window through which objects could pass. It dawned on me that this was a holding cell. A figure outside the room moved, casting a shadow on the sill of the window.

"Now that you're awake, you need water," the man spoke gently, pitifully. He placed a plastic bottle on the sill. I rushed as fast as my limp body was able to grab it, and promptly dropped it with my useless hands.

"It's okay," the man said, "That's why we use bottles and not cups. Take your time." I scrambled on the floor, more carefully holding the bottle between my palms, and sucked. Sweet, cool water. I had never tasted anything so good. I finished it off, dropping the bottle to the floor.

"Don't try to talk just yet. It'll probably be a few hours until you do anything but hurt yourself." I finished the bottle off and looked up at the window, and finally saw his face—it was Jorik. "Get some rest. You didn't suffer any permanent physical damage, but it'll be a little while until you feel like yourself again. You've got the holding cell only as long as you want it."

I nodded, only half comprehending what he'd said. He produced a second water bottle. "Drink this one slower," he instructed. "Or you'll make yourself sick." I took it in my palms and sipped a little. I controlled myself, forcing myself to follow his instructions. That was good—it felt like the first impulse I'd managed to control since they shot me up with that....whatever that was. I slowly carried the bottle back over to the bed, and collapsed there.

"I'll check back on you in a few hours."
I just laid there on the cot for many hours, gently flexing every muscle I had over and over. Slowly, my fingers learned to bend once again. I rubbed my neck and discovered a pair of small bandages right where the needles had been. At some point I was able to open my eyes without the burning sensation of the leftover tears and salt. With a few more bottles of water, I slowly regained the use of my vocal cords. I tested the new found ability by calling out to the guard, saying I was ready to go. Jorik appeared at the door, opening it.

My muscles still ached as I stood up, as if on the day after hours of intense labor. As Jorik had said before, it didn't seem like any of the damage was permanent. I slowly tried to think of my next steps, to remember what my life was before the wall of pain that occupied the largest part of my memory right now. I became aware that my clothing was not my own—they must have taken mine away while I was unconscious.

Jorik led me down the hallway. As I slowly gained a measure of familiarity I suddenly noticed a deep-red-painted doorframe. I stumbled and backed against the opposite wall, unable to make myself go further. Jorik took my arm and dragged me along, assuring me that we were just walking past it. I learned later that the fact that the path from the cell to the processing area passed by the nerverack room was no accident; they used this exact moment to determine whether subjects were sufficiently traumatized by the thing for it to be an effective deterrent to future crime.

Finally, at the end of the hallway, we arrived at the processing area. Another deputy on duty reached under the desk and produced a plastic box to hand to me—my personal effects. He pointed at a side room where I was to go change. When I got into the privacy of the room, my first order of business was to check my comms core. I now saw the date—I had been in there for just under 30 hours. It had seemed like 30 weeks. I signed into my network accounts and immediately started getting notifications—flagged news stories the system was highlighting for my interest.

One story in particular caught my eye: Union Underground Crime Kingpin Killed in Raid. My hand shook as I opened the story. It confirmed my fears: Larin's home had been raided while I was being racked. I looked at the time of the event listed in the story, and it had happened just a few hours after Jorik had told me to give her up to him. I scanned the rest of the story to see if there was any hint about where the information had come from, but thankfully, it seemed the sheriff had opted not to disclose that to the press. Still, I felt a fair amount of panic as it dawned on me that the Underground would put two and two together and assume that I had ratted her out for the wrong reasons.

Jorik's voice called from the processing area. "Hey! Gillum! Don't take all day in there!" I didn't know how long I'd been staring at this story, but I quickly set down my core and started putting on my own clothes. I had a faint recollection that I had puked on them, but they were clean; must have been washed while I was out. That was nice of them, I guess.

I stepped out of the changing room, signed something indicating that I'd received my personal effects, and Jorik waved me towards the door to the outside. "Stay out of trouble," he called out from behind me. "Go grab some soy and relax for a while."

I squinted at the daylight outside. The red sun was hanging in the sky in exactly the same place it'd been when I had entered the building, the exact same place low in the sky where it had hung motionless for my entire life. The cool wind hit my face as I stepped out of the lee of the sheriff station, and I just stood there for a minute, soaking up the sweetness of the outside. As I began feeling more and more like a Human, it slowly dawned on me that I was famished. I must not have eaten the entire time I'd been there.

I looked around. The station was in the center of what amounted to downtown of the small settlement of Traverstown, one of the six settlements currently on the planet of Redland. A long, straight road ran alongside the sunward edge of town, where the constant winds were blocked by the town's buildings. Each building's nightward side sloped up from the ground, taking with it the bulk of the wind force. One block away from the station was a soyjoint, and I walked as fast as my aching muscles would take me towards it.
I wolfed down the first of my three wraps I had ordered. Each of these was intended to be a meal on its own, but I was making up for lost time. They tasted a little bit more bland than I remembered, but out of sheer hunger, they were still the best thing I'd ever eaten. I was just starting on the second wrap when I heard a voice at the next booth over.

"Don't turn around," she said. I froze in place, still chewing my last bite.

I swallowed. "Is that—"

"Yes, it's me," Larin confirmed, cutting off the question.

"But I thought you—"

"Yes, I know," she said, cutting me off again. "The sheriff was about two days from having me dead to rights. I made sure to pass along information to you that would lead them to someone they thought was me."

I tried my best to process all this information. "So who got shot in that raid?"

"Let's not dwell on minutia," Larin remarked. "I had considered not coming back, but I felt like you deserved to know the truth, at least part of it."

"So when I told the cops what I told them, that was what you wanted?"

"Yes. You did as instructed, and you've come out the other side."

A darkness fell over my voice as I considered the implications of this. "You got me tortured," I said coldly. "If I hadn't told them that—"

"They still would have put you in the nerverack anyway," she interrupted. "It had to happen one way or another. We've all been through it. The Underground couldn't fully trust anyone who hasn't."

"You haven't," I corrected her. "You've never even been suspected by the cops until yesterday."

"Larin Chambers has never been suspected," she said, putting particular emphasis on her name. "I've led a more interesting life than you know."

"And now the Underground thinks I'm the one that ended it," I said. I tried to remain calm, but I could sense my own anger and fear cracking into my voice as I said it.

"Don't worry—no one is going to think you ratted me out. I took care of that." A wave of relief washed over me. I slowly took another bite of my wrap. Larin continued. "You won't be seeing me for a while. When you're ready, go find Grant. He'll have your next instructions."

I finished the bite of my wrap and swallowed. "But what if I don't—" I turned around, but the booth behind me was now empty. I caught the barest glimpse of a hooded figure disappearing around the corner of the building. I stood up and tried to follow her, but by the time I rounded the corner, she had vanished entirely.

© 2019 by Afterverse Inc

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