THE LAST HALF HOUR passed slowly, and despite feeling that they’d been moving nonstop, the trio hadn’t travelled overly far. They were off of the ground now, though, and the chance of being found atop this roof by anyone other than a resident was slim. Boss collapsed back against an air vent, gasping for breath. Cookie fell beside him and lay flat on his back, panting like a dog. Marbles just huffed and took a seat on a chair that someone had left out.

Getting bored waiting for the other two to catch their breath enough to talk, Marbles turned his chair towards the edge of the rooftop and looked out over the city. They weren’t too high up, but high enough for Marbles to appreciate the size of the city. Even Marbles was rarely on a building of this height, as he preferred the smaller ones he could scale and launch himself from more easily.

Cookie finally felt he had enough strength to lift his head. It was still a bit hazy, but his eyes gradually adjusted, and he looked over at Boss. Boss was breathing hard, as if he had just run a marathon.

“Since when did we get so unfit, Boss?” Cookie laughed tiredly, unable to believe that only half an hour of exercise had drained him so much.

“Since cars got me places faster,” Boss managed to mumble between breaths.

Marbles sat by the ledge, hunched over something indiscernible in the moon’s glow. A burning sensation grew across his neck, and he turned to meet Cookie’s eyes, who stared intently into his own. With fumbling fingers, Marbles tried to hide what he was holding. Cookie was on his feet and ran over in two large bounds, then slammed Marbles down against the ledge. His eyes beamed, soaking up the intimidation and fear coming from Marbles. The updraft caught Marbles’s hair, making him look even more fragile in the twilit glow. Cookie played on this weakness and tightened his grip on Marbles’s jacket, forcing him further over the edge.

“What have you got?” he screamed at Marbles, face twisting into hatred. “I saw you. What did you do?”

Marbles was in shock, his mouth barely moving, and he couldn’t form words.

“Either you show me or I remove it myself. If I do that, I will need to let go of you first.”

Marbles let out a sound then, which might have been a no. Cookie wasn’t sure. He let go with one hand and Marbles slipped further. With that hand he felt around in Marbles’s jacket pockets. Marbles squirmed, gripping at the ledge and trying to pull himself back to safety. He managed to wriggle free of Cookie’s grip as Cookie pulled a bag from his pocket. It flew from Cookie’s fingers and he watched helplessly as it plummeted to the street below.

Cookie stared over the edge for a long moment, though whatever was in the bag had collided with the pavement, its splattered contents too far away to see. The remainder of what he held was a small slice of pizza he recognised as one of Boss’s. He looked down at Marbles shaking on the ground.

“What was it?”

Marbles hesitated. “I’m sorry… I know… I shouldn’t…”

“What did you do? What was it?”

“Margarita with extra mushrooms.”

Cookie looked at the crust in his hand, wondering if Marbles had in fact only ever had a pizza. He threw it over to Boss, who picked it up feebly and inspected the contents.

Cookie continued his bluff. “I know you’re hiding something! What else was in the bag?” He took a large step towards Marbles, towering over him with his chest puffed. If Marbles wouldn’t tell the truth, then he would beat it out of him. Marbles had never felt so trapped. He tried to get up and run, but his legs were disobeying his orders. Cookie readied to deliver a pummelling with the works. Marbles closed his eyes. He was a runner and couldn’t deal with being confined. He pissed himself.

As Cookie wound back his fist, a wide beam of light washed over the rooftop. Cookie stopped and looked upwards. Boss tuned back into the present, and he too tilted his eyes to the sky, jaw going slack. Above them hovered a scanner-craft which had made its way down from the edge of space. Boss’s eyes began to water. He had never seen one so close. He doubted many people had. It stayed at altitude as taller buildings stopped it from descending further, but from one end to the other, the craft took up the entire width of his vision. It was the aircraft carrier of scanner-crafts. The mothership.

Two large glass domes protruded from its bottom. From both of those, three DNA beams glared downwards, licking the rooftops. The six beams quickly conjoined on the roof where the trio resided. Boss looked over to Cookie, who looked back, seemingly just as blown away by the sight. He would have loved to just sit there and admire the spaceship-esque creation hanging above, if only it weren’t trying to find them.

Cookie ran to Boss’s side and helped him to his feet.

“We’ve got less than a minute before it locks on to us. Another couple of minutes before anyone gets up here. Maybe longer if they send ground scanners — can those things even climb? Anyway, we need to ghost before then.”

Boss nodded and looked over Cookie’s shoulder to see Marbles dancing about, trying to lose the beam that was locked solidly on to his sodden shorts. He felt their eyes on him and yelled, “Can we go yet?”

Boss nodded and started running on tortured legs. Cookie pulled at his shoulder and spun Boss around.

“Look, they’re locked on. They are clearly after him. Let’s leave him here.”

Another beam locked on to Marbles — his face this time. Boss flinched. He didn’t like leaving team members behind. He hesitated, not knowing what to do. Then instinct made his mind up for him. He ran back to Marbles and grabbed his wrist. He gave a daring look back to Cookie, who didn’t protest, but Boss explained himself anyway.

“If one is caught, we may as well all be caught. Everybody talks, eventually, and Marbles already knows more than I want to hand over.”

Boss wasn’t sure if Cookie understood or if he just didn’t want to waste more time on chatter, but he began fleeing alongside Boss and Marbles anyway. Pushing off Boss, Marbles launched himself ahead, scouting the surroundings and looking for the easiest way down. They climbed across to an adjacent building, only a couple of stories lower, and continued their sprint. They passed a few doors that Boss rugby-tackled, but when they hardly budged, he decided it would take too long to cave one in. He kept running.

Another beam washed itself over the building and followed closely behind Boss. Sweat poured from his head, and the low altitude of the scanner-craft meant the beams could pick up an otherwise diluted DNA trail.

“Shit.” Boss slowed to a jog.

“Don’t stop. They haven’t caught us yet,” Marbles screamed.

“No. But they will.”

Boss felt a stitch burning up in his side as exhaustion fought its way back. A string of crashing and shattering echoed from between the buildings ahead of them. Marbles reached the edge of the roof and peered over. What he saw threw him backwards, and he landed with a heavy thud, winding himself. A Neuro, climbing the side of the building, threw herself into the air and landed where Marbles crouched only a second before. The firearm at her side activated, no time wasted in beaming the scanner-craft for permission. A police-approved operator must have been in control this time. No autopilot. She snapped the orb-launcher in line with Boss’s head and took a stance.

Cookie was stunned by the machine, recognising it as the federal agent who had identified him while in jail. Despite Boss telling him that it was probably a Neuro, it was only now, when he saw it in action, that he completely appreciated what that entailed. In the split second that Cookie stood dumbfounded, gazing at the Neuro, she had readjusted the gun nozzle and fired two orbs into Cookie, tackling him to the ground as metal tentacles wrapped themselves around him. Boss dove aside, keeping his head down behind a satellite dish. Scrapes, bangs, and clunks compelled Boss to peek at what was going on behind him, and he saw that the Neuro was now fully concerned with Marbles.

Deciding it was now or never, Boss shuffled his way over to Cookie and began ripping the tenta-binds from the orb at Cookie’s chest. He had never before mustered so much strength, and by the time the last bind came free, his arms felt like trees rooted to the ground. Marbles was still hopping around the rooftop, a tentacle wrapped around one of his legs. Boss made to move in, but Cookie grabbed Boss’s shoulder and pulled him backwards. They both tumbled down an access stairway, rolling and clanging floor after floor. Boss growled and tried to stand up, ready to climb the stairs and help Marbles, but he couldn’t move. Cookie crawled to the edge, where a ladder led almost to the ground. “You tried, Boss, but there’s nothing you can do for him now. You can’t fight a Neuro. Not in this state.”

Boss pulled himself towards the ladder, aching all over. “We don’t leave men behind, Cookie. It’s never how we’ve done business.”

Cookie’s face turned solemn. “I’m sorry, Boss, but I can’t let you go back. You’ve never trusted me enough, but I’m telling you now that our best chance is to split up, and that’s what we’re gonna do.” With that, he kicked Boss over the edge. He watched the giant fall. The drop was significant, and Boss sunk deep into the heaping pile of trash bags below. Cookie waited, peering into the dark and straining his ears to detect any sound of movement as time slowed around him. A rustle washed up from the laneway floor, followed by a few clinks. One of the bags fell from the pile as Boss swam to the top. He was alive.

With no more time to waste, Cookie clambered down the ladder, sped off down the lane, and disappeared into the night.

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Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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Jonathon best

Jonathon best

Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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