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Eye of the Beholder

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Eastwood

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« on: <05-22-15/1356:00> »
Eye of the Beholder 
 
“Hold on a minute, Kevin,” Gaby called ahead. She bent over, placing one hand on her knee and the other on the rough brick of the building they were walking beside. She took several measured breaths to keep herself from panting and then pushed herself back up to a fully standing position. It wouldn’t be good to let anyone see her acting weak.

“C’mon,” Kevin called back as he bounded down the street. Then he looked back at his older sister and using all the patience a ten year-old boy could muster he slowed his pace. However, his tone was still persistent as he urged her, “We gotta’ hurry. If we don’t get there in time it’ll all be gone.” 

“I know,” she replied. Her breathing was becoming more relaxed, but it still felt like she had to work just to keep up a conversation. “It’s just getting worse, I’m so sick today I can barely keep up.” 

She started to push herself off the wall but was overcome by a sudden wave of nausea and dizziness that caused her to fall back. This time she leaned with her back completely against the brick and clenched her eyes shut as she tried to focus on her breathing. She was sweating and shaking slightly, but after a moment the dizziness abated and she opened her eyes. 

She carefully scanned her surroundings. A few people moved about the street, heads down and coats pulled tight against the gray mist of winter rain that was Redmond’s continual companion this time of year. Luckily, no one had noticed her. During the day they were probably safe, the other people on the streets were out on their own business and had their own sorrows to focus on. The night, however, would be different. The people that moved about at night in the Barrens were predators in search of prey with the weak and the sick as the first to be claimed. 

Gaby steadied herself and then slowly stepped back out onto the street. Adjusting her small messenger bag she trudged forward only half listening as her brother alternated between encouragement and impatient pleadings with her to go faster. 

By the time they reached the back door of Murph’s Stuff and Grill she was exhausted. Murph was a burly ork who ran a small convenience store and eatery. He also gave back what he could to the local homeless kids by putting out the leftovers and scraps from the lunch rush. If they got there in time Gaby and Kevin could usually count on enough food to make a halfway decent meal. But there were enough homeless kids in the area that if you were even a few minutes late, there would be nothing left. 

When they arrived, Murph was at the back door gathering up the bins he used to distribute the food. He was dressed in his typical jeans and white t-shirt that was stretched a little too tight over the bulk of his stomach. A grease-stained apron hung from his waist and solid workman’s boots completed his outfit. He was getting old for an ork and his hair was grey and thinning, so when he shook his head and gave them a sad, tusk-filled smile it seemed almost fatherly. But it didn’t matter, they were too late. 

“Drek!” Kevin shouted as he kicked at a piece of trash lying in the back alley. 

“Watch your mouth,” Gaby tried to correct her brother, but she was breathing hard and there was no energy behind the reprimand. 

“Sorry, kids,” Murph’s voice was deep and had the scratchiness of years of hard living. But it was also kind and he had genuine empathy when he spoke to them. “I wondered where you guys were, but I can’t set any aside for anyone. Those are the rules. The other kids are all gone.” 

“I know, Murph,” Gaby wheezed, “I think we’ve got a couple of protein bars left that can get us through until tomorrow. But do you mind if we just hang out here for a moment while I catch my breath?” 

As she spoke the young girl stepped forward and sat down hard on the step. The shirt underneath her light coat was wet with perspiration and she was still breathing heavily. Murph looked down at her, pausing in thought. Gaby looked back up at him and tried to decipher what he was thinking. Was he worried about how sick she looked, that they were in more trouble than normal, or was he afraid that they would bring some kind of trouble back on him. Gaby felt the moment stretch on for what seemed like an eternity and then Murph’s gravel-filled voice broke the silence. 

“Sure, kid. But you better not hang around too long, it'll be dark soon.” 

He gave them one more of his sad smiles then finished bringing the bins inside and closed the door after him. A resounding series of clicks signaled the closing of several locks and bolts and echoed the finality of the old ork’s departure. 

“What now?” Kevin asked. His irritation about missing dinner was still obvious in his voice, but he would never say anything bad about Gaby or blame her. The young girl, only three years his senior had looked after Kevin since their mother disappeared a month ago. Their landlord had kicked them out the first week and Kevin knew that the only reason they were still alive was because of Gaby’s street smarts and perseverance. 

Gaby didn’t immediately respond but remained sitting with her arms on her knees. She was finally getting her breath back but wasn’t ready to talk yet. 

“We could go to the shelter?” Kevin suggested, anxious for conversation to fill the silence 

Gabby took a couple more deep breaths before responding, “No. Normally that would work, but I can’t hide that I’m so sick. They other patrons will roll us and take what little supplies we have left.”

“We could go to Father Patterson’s?” This time his voice was hopeful. Kevin liked the old priest that cared for the rundown Catholic Church over on 166th. The man took his religion seriously and tried to help people out when he could.

“We’re too far,” Gabby shook her head, “we’ll never make it there before dark.” 

"Sometimes I can feel a little signal next to Murph's," Kevin muttered and started to climb some of the refuse next to the wall. He reached out with his hand and began pawing at the air as if he was trying to catch some invisible strand of rope that floated above him. 

"No!" his sister blurted out. The command startled him and he hopped down to the ground, yanking his hand back like he'd been burned. 

"You know you can't do that in the open," she scolded him, "it's not safe."   

“So what do we do then?” The pitch of Kevin’s voice rose a quarter-octave, indicating his elevated nervousness. 

Gabby thought for a moment and then slowly pushed herself to her feet. “There’s some abandoned tenements a few blocks from here. We could probably sneak in and squat there tonight.” 
With a nod from her brother the two of them started working their way back out the alley and deeper into the Barrens. Their progress was slow. Gabby had to stop several times to rest so they took extra care to avoid attention. By the time they reached the old apartment building the sun had set and the streets were draped in twilight.   

The building had obviously been abandoned for some time. Most of the windows were broken and the walls were stained and crumbling from neglect. The main door hung partly open, sagging on its rusted hinges. It was heavy, but yielded to them with a groan when they pulled on it together.

Inside it was pitch black. They waited a few moments for their eyes to adjust, but after a full minute Kevin couldn't even make out the motion of his hand as he waved it in front of his face. Fumbling in her bag for a few moments Gaby produced a glow stick, which she bent to activate. With a few cracks and clicks it sprang to life in her hand, providing a dim glow that allowed them to see a few feet around them. "How many of those do we have left?" Kevin asked.

"There's one more," his sister answered, then continued in a comforting voice, "but this should last for over an hour, and it's not bright enough to get noticed from outside."

Kevin nodded and they started cautiously working their way into the building. The inside had not faired any better than the exterior. Trash and refuse littered the floors while graffiti covered the walls. Occasionally there were smears or stains that neither one of them wanted to identify.

Gaby's mood brightened when they found a stairwell leading to the floors above. "We should go up," she said while pointing, "it will be safer on the top floors."

They made it three floors to the top level, but by this time Gaby was so sick she had to spend nearly ten minutes resting on the last step while Kevin hovered about her worrying. The artificial light from the glow stick emphasized the gray pallor of her skin and seemed to distort her features. Finally, she signaled that she was ready to go, but Kevin had to help her stand up and she kept her arm around his shoulders for support as they checked the floor. 
A few doors in they were able to find a unit that wasn't locked so they entered and closed the door behind them.

"Hey," Kevin began smiling, "there's signal in here." Immediately his arms began darting back and forth, manipulating AROs and data feeds that only he could see. "It's faint. Must be the edges of an access point from a nearby building."

He sat down on the floor, his attention now fully taken up by his interactions with the Matrix. Meanwhile, Gabby raised the light and tried to take a quick assessment of the room. It looked like a one room apartment. A small living area made up the bulk of the space, empty except for a bit of trash on the floor. A sink and counter with an old burnt-out microwave were attached to the far wall and probably served as the unit's kitchen. A few feet from the sink the door was missing to a small room with a toilet and shower. Another open doorway lead to what was probably the bedroom.

Knowing it would be futile, Gabby tried the sink anyway. She sighed as no water came out. Utilities to the building had probably been cut long ago.

"I'm going to look up your symptoms and see if we can figure something out," Kevin called, his arms and hands never stopping.

"Ok, good idea," Gabby responded.

She didn't really think it would do much good. Even if her little brother could figure out how she was sick, they couldn't go to a doctor and didn't have any medicine. Between the two of them they barely had food and water for the next twenty-four hours.

Holding the light low so she wouldn't trip, Gabby made her way to the bedroom. She gave another sigh, but this time of pleasure. Resting against the far wall was an old mattress. It was torn, stained, and fairly dusty, but it would at least provide some comfort. With a shove that took almost the last of her energy she tipped the mattress onto the floor then sunk down on it and collapsed, her mind racing.

She was worried. She had never been this sick before. Her whole body was cramped and aching and she was sure she had a fairly high fever. She was worried that it was something serious, and if something happened to her she didn't know how Kevin would survive.

"He's a technomancer," she mouthed the words in a barely audible whisper. It was a great gift, being able to access the digital world of the matrix with nothing but your mind, but it was a gift that people feared. Especially in places like the Barrens, where anything that was different was considered a threat.

When Kevin first manifested the ability they thought it would help them. He tried to hack a delivery drone closer to the functional parts of the sprawl, and it worked. But it drew too much attention and a couple of the local squatters saw him do it. They broke in and stole the drone and tried to kill both of them. Luckily, they were able to slip away, but Gabby hadn't allowed Kevin to try anything like that since.

She was afraid of what would happen to Kevin without her. He was incredibly smart and obviously gifted, but he was young and relied on her too much. She knew he wouldn't survive without her.

Her fever amplified her anxieties rendering sleep fitful and plagued with strange and shifting dreams. At one point she was sure that the room was shrinking around her, pressing in and threatening to crush her. In the dream she was tied to the bed so that she couldn't escape and her body was being wracked with pain from being twisted and pulled by unseen forces. No matter what she did she couldn't get free and the room kept getting smaller...

Then a scream pierced the air and Gabby woke with a start.

"Kevin!" she shouted, and jumped to her feet.

She charged into the other room, ducking her head as she squeezed through the door. An unkempt human man had her brother by the arm and was attempting to push him to the floor. He was obviously another squatter with long stringy hair and a matted, filthy overcoat.

The man's unshaven face changed from a lewd half-smile to an expression of shock and then fear as Gabby entered the room. He released his hold on Kevin's arm and scrambled to get away, stumbling in his haste. Acting without thinking, Gabby rushed him, her constant fear from the past month turning to white hot rage. She swung a single back-handed fist that struck the invader on the shoulder and sent him sailing into the far wall. There was a sickening crunch as he hit and the bones of his arm and several ribs cracked and shattered. The man screamed in pain, but with the desperation of survival he did not pause or slow, but immediately began moving toward the door, scurrying to get to his feet while still howling over the agony of his injuries.

Gabby's voice boomed, "GET OUT! And don't come back or I'll kill you!" 

She stood there seething as the man fled, his cries growing fainter and fainter as he stumbled down the stairs and eventually exited the building into the early morning. It was only after the screams had grown too faint to hear that the adrenaline of the moment faded and Gabby sank to her knees weeping.

She remained that way for several minutes, letting the grief and fear of their lives since their mother's disappearance overwhelm her. Finally, through wiped tears she saw her brother's idiot smile and started to come back to herself and take stock of what had just happened. 

Gabby had just had the strength to knock a grown man across the room. She had also needed to duck and squeeze through the doorway to get into the room. She looked down at her hands and then to the rest of her naked body. A massive, powerful torso and limbs had replaced her petite feminine stature and small deposits of bone now poked from her pale, freckled skin at irregular intervals. She felt her head and face to find a pair of curled horns sprouting from her brow and small tusks jutted from her lower jaw. 

She had goblinized. She had never known her father, but it was obvious now that he had been a troll, and even though Gabby had been born human his genes had manifested in a condition that many humans feared.

"I'm sorry, Gabby," Kevin's voice pulled her away from staring at her new features, "I looked up your symptoms and once I figured out what was happening, I knew I'd have to break the rules. I hacked a drone to bring us some stuff, it was really hard and my head still kind of hurts, but I got it here. But it ran out of fuel, so I couldn't send it back. Then somebody noticed." 

At that moment he looked like a boy half his age who had just been caught stealing candy. He half winced, waiting for her reprimand, the intruder and fight from a few minutes ago forgotten.

"I got everything you need," he spoke up when Gabby didn't immediately respond, "there's flats for you to wear-sorry I had to undress you while you were asleep, but I didn't want any of your human-sized clothes to pinch. Oh! I knew you would be hungry so I got some soy burgers, too. They're a little cold now, but still good." 

Gabby looked around and saw the clothes and food all neatly arranged in one corner of the room. Then little drone was behind them, one of its forward lights turned on to provide some illumination. Suddenly, she burst out laughing. 

"Of course it's ok," she said with a new tusk-filled smile, "you were just trying to take care of me." 

She quickly put on the shapeless pants and shirt from the package of troll-sized flats, then very carefully reached over and wrapped her little brother in a gentle hug. He looked even smaller and more vulnerable now because of their size difference, but Gabby realized it didn't matter. She could protect him now. She had just proved it. 

Once it was light they could sell the drone to one of the local junk dealers. With that money they could get a real room somewhere, and then Gabby could start looking for work. The gangs or the syndicates could always use a little extra muscle and wouldn't turn down a troll,  even without any training. If need be she could pick up some labor jobs to fill the gaps. They could buy a fake comlink to hide Kevin's abilities and he could even help by doing some hacking or programming as he got older. 

Realizing that she really was hungry, Gabby released her brother and moved over to the food. Between bites she told him her plans. Life wasn't going to be easy, but for the first time in forever she felt like they had a chance. For the first time since her mother disappeared, she wasn't afraid.