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RiktheRed21

The Wretch

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The wretch’s ragged breaths came like waves pounding a rocky shore. He held the blade between his hands tremulously, still pointing at the motionless corpse on the ground before him. Blood dribbled down his knuckles where he’d beaten them against her face. The steady trickle intermixed with the pool at his feet. The corpse scarcely had a face left to speak of; really, it was only red flesh gashed open half a hundred times leaking grey matter on the carpet he’d cleaned just this morning.

It was peculiar; he felt as though his hands should hurt, but it was his heart that hurt more than anything. The way it pounded inside his chest, he was certain it would burst and add to the bloody mess on the floor. I’ll have to clean that up, too, he thought out of habit.

But he wouldn’t have to, would he? His mother, that sadistic whore, was dead at his feet. He had done it. He had killed her. He had freed himself, at long last. He made himself look at the corpse again. Her hand was still clutched tightly around his bare, hairy ankle. He flinched out of her grip and dropped the knife. The clatter could have awoken a sleeping god.

The wretch couldn’t hold back the tension in his chest any longer. He screamed. His throat was still dry and ragged from the shouting before, but he couldn’t stop himself. It was as if his soul had burst loose. His bloody, cracked fingernails dug into his scalp and ripped out hair by the fistful. He felt warm tears stream down his filthy cheeks and wondered if he had been stricken with grief or joy.

Air left his lungs in a storm and returned in minor puffs. Naturally, he fell to the ground, vision fuzzy and senses abandoning him. When he came to, he was on the floor beside her. Her face was inches from his own. It reminded him of a topographical map of the Searing Gorge from one of her books. A bit of brains slithered loose from what might have once been an eye socket. The wretch shivered and pulled himself to his feet.

He went into the kitchen and opened a cabinet door. He stood staring at the endless rows of jars and tin cans, his foot tapping restlessly. He closed the door, walked a circuit around the kitchen. “I can eat whatever I want,” he growled. “I can eat whenever I want. You can’t stop me. You can’t stop me!” He stopped at the border to the living room where she had died. Her corpse said nothing, so he returned to the cabinet and got himself a jar of pickles.

They tasted like vinegar and salt. The crunched like the sand he’d never seen under the shoes he’d never owned. Like the sound a lock makes when it clicks open, revealing…somewhere else. Anywhere else. He ate until the pickles ran out, then drank the juice, then vomited it all on the floor. He wiped his chin and laughed historically. “I ain’t cleaning that up! You can’t make me!”

He tried the beer next. She’d always told him he wasn’t allowed any, but he snuck them whenever she was out on a job anyway. This one tasted like his first all over again: a small rebellion. He managed to keep it down. His heart rate was slow enough by this point that he could see and hear and feel clearly. The pain in his fists crept up his arms like creepers consuming a tree.

He cracked open a second beer bottle as he walked into his mother’s room. Another rebellion. He kicked porno magazines aside on his way to her desk. The drawers were locked, and he didn’t know how to pick locks. I never learned. I only know what she wants me to know. He decided to start a list of things he wanted to learn, starting with picking locks. For now, a hammer sufficed to see the drawers open.

The first had fat black vibrators and nude sketches of the men she’s slept with. Some of them looked familiar. The wretch wondered if one of them was his father. He closed that drawer. The second held notes, all encrypted. He recognized her handwriting intermixed with other familiar sets. He’d worked on her cyphers since he was old enough to speak, so reading these was literal child’s play. They contained detailed accounts of contacts, jobs, assets, and locations for dead drops. The wretch found his mother’s bug-out bag under her heavily stained bed and added the notes to the survival equipment within.

The third drawer was full of coins. They were of various shapes, materials, and mints. He did a quick calculation and totaled over two hundred gold. He split the coinage in two and stored half in his bag and the other in a pouch he tied on the inside of his breeches.

He returned to the living room as he finished the second beer and stared at the front door on the other side of his mother’s corpse. Just a few steps away. It might as well have been on the other side of the Great Sea.

He’d never left. Not for one minute of his ten-year-old life. This cramped, filthy apartment had been his entire world for every conscious moment of those ten years. His only escapes had been his tiny rebellions against his whore mother’s rules. And the books. She’d taught him to read so he could be useful, but he’d learned quickly that he had more freedom in that knowledge than he could possibly have imagined. Her various boyfriends brought him books when he’d asked them in secret. He’d learned of the outside world and become enamored with the idea of seeing it. His mother had found out long ago, and the boyfriends stopped talking to him. His freedom had gone faster than it had arrived.

But freedom was no longer in her power to deny. She was a bloody mess on the floor. Yet his bare feet remained glued to the algae-colored, crimson-spotted carpet. The wretch glanced down the hallway he hadn’t dared go down. His room was back there. In truth, it was a cupboard, but he’d made it his personal space for his childhood imprisonment.

No, he thought as sweat trailed down his forehead. I can’t go back there. I won’t do it! Never again!

He leapt over her body, half expecting her to grab him and drag him down to some deep pit of hell. He ran face-first into the front door and fell hard on his rear end. He felt something squish underneath him and swore his heart stopped. He screamed again and charged the door. He fumbled with the lock and nearly ripped the door off its hinges – or so it seemed to him – and sprinted out into the world. He looked back as he thundered down the long hallway of the apartment complex’s negative seventh floor. He was leaving a trail of blood droplets behind him, he saw. The wretch snickered and coughed and cried all at once.

I’m not cleaning any of your messes ever again.

Edited by RiktheRed21

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Whap, whap.

He trembled under the whipping belt. He covered his stinging face with his hands and felt blood gush from a dozen wounds. “—a miserable little shit stain! I should have fucking swallowed you instead of letting you be born!”

Whap, whap, whap.

“What did I do?” he wailed. “What did I do? What did I do?”

“Shut up! Shut up, you waste of fucking space!” Her hand fell again and again. The belt ripped through the thin fabric of his tunic – the last piece of clothing that still fit.

Whap, whap, whap, whap.

“I’m sorry, mommy, I’m sorry! Don’t hit me again, please! Please!”

“Shut up!” Whap. “Shut up!” Whap. “You’re lucky to be alive! You’re lucky to be in here, where it’s safe!” Whap. “You’d be dead without me! You’d be nothing!” Whap, whap, whap. “Thank me, you little shit! Fucking thank me!”

“Th-thank you. Thank you, m-mommy.”

Whap! Whap! Whap!

The wretch woke screaming, his hands reaching for the knife he’d tucked in his pocket before lying down to sleep. He whirled to his feet, narrowly avoiding a low pipe running along the ceiling of the back-alley. A grizzled old gnome wheeling a cart ignored him as he walked on by. The wretch watched him closely, then lowered his knife when he could no longer hear the squeaking cart wheels.

That was when he noticed his bag was missing. He didn’t bother searching for it. Whoever had taken it would be long gone by now. He wandered out of the alley, flinching at the sudden rush of a mechnostrider and the throng of people moving down the walkway. He ducked and wove his way to the edge of the platform and leaned over the railing to look down. The Centrifuge glowed with life; the expansion to Gnomeregan had been built deep into the earth and was one of its most populated sectors. Each level held hundreds of residents, dozens of businesses, and miles of pipes running energy to power it all. Not to mention a million places to hide.

It had been three days since he’d gotten free. The wretch had been so overwhelmed by the liveliness of the platform outside the apartment complex that he’d nearly gone comatose with panic the first night. He’d found a back alley to hide in and eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion. The following day, he’d treated his wounded knuckles and wrapped them in gauze before exploring the endless alleyways.

Towards nighttime, when the lights of the platform were dimmed to simulate the setting sun, he’d slipped out of his hiding place to determine where exactly his home was. A book he’d once read had contained a detailed map of Gnomeregan. From memory and based off a sector map he found at a public directory screen, he discerned he was on the Centrifuge’s forty-fifth platform, nearly halfway from the bottom to the top. He recalled the book saying that the bottom ten levels had been sealed off due to flooding, and that every year engineers discovered the water level to be high than the last.

The third day was just beginning, and now that he had the courage enough to walk among the people, he had far less money with which to buy food or clean water. His stomach rumbled angrily at the thought.

He followed his nose to a stand at which a mustachioed man was selling hot kabobs. The wretch had never seen anything like it, though he identified it from a description in a cookbook he’d once read. He took a silver coin from his pocket and stepped nervously into the queue. When someone queued up behind him, he trembled until the coin fell from his hand and rolled off the edge of the platform. He ran, ignoring the strange looks from the people around him.

Back in the alleys, the wretch followed the pipes until he found a sizable niche to stuff himself into. The space was tight and warm: comforting. His heart rate slowed. But his stomach still rumbled.

It wasn’t long before a rat scurried past him. His mouth wetted at the thought of simmering meat. He lunged after the critter, but he was too slow to catch it. The rat escaped into a gap in the pipes too narrow for him to follow through. He curled in a ball on the filthy ground, shielding his eyes from the bright red light illuminating the passageway.

“You gotta be smarter than that, boy,” a voice called from above.

The wretch yelped and crawled away. He fumbled for his knife.

The stranger chuckled, coughing as he did. He shook a hand with stubs for fingers and shook his head. A grimy snow-white beard jiggled on his chin. “No need for violence, boy. Not against me anyway. Rat meat is much tastier.”

The wretch kept his hand in his pocket. The handle of the knife in his hand was comforting. He thought briefly of the ruins of his mother’s face. “I—I don’t have any money!” he lied splutteringly. It felt strange to speak after being speechless for nearly three days.

The old man flicked his patchwork hat and grinned. “Never said anything about money, boy. You want to catch rats, right? You gotta be quick and clever. It ain’t enough just to chase them when they’re out in the open. You gotta know when and where they’ll be before they get there.”

The wretch glanced at the rat’s hiding place. “How…how can you tell?”

The old man sauntered up to the wretch. He flinched and shied away, pulling his knife free of his pocket. The man simply chuckled and tapped a pipe with his knuckle. “These pipes are warm for a reason, boy. They carry energy. Life. The rats can feel it, just like we can. They use them to hide, and to keep warm. But they gotta leave the pipes for food. Find the food, and you’ll find the rats.”

“But…where…?”

The old man gestured back towards the alley exit. “Where there’s people, there’s food. But the rats know better not to risk the people. They lurk in the places where people have been, but don’t like to stick around. You know what I’m talking about, now?”

“The…garbage?”

He slapped the boy on the shoulder and hooted, causing the wretch to scream and retreat, slashing wildly. The old man dodged out of the way of the knife nimbly. “Atta boy! You’re smart and you’ve got good survival instincts! Take a lesson from the rats, though, don’t go poking in the business of the Mech-Makers. They won’t hesitate to squash our kind.”

The wretch took a moment to gather his wits and slow his breathing. Eventually, he said, “Our…kind?”

“Yeah, we Rats. The ones who lurk in the places no one else want to be.”

“Who says I’m l-lurking?”

The old man laughed raucously. “No one! It’s plain on your face! I know a Rat when I see one, boy. By the by, the name’s Tails. What’s yours?”

The wretch paused. My name? Not the one she gave me. That’s not me. I can be whoever I want now. “I’m…Cobra.”

The old man snorted. “A snake, eh? Well, you were trying to eat the rat, so it makes enough sense. Well, Cobra, I have a group of friends who could use someone of your temperament, if you’re keen on earning some bread n’ salt. Whaddya say?”

The wretch – Cobra, now – considered running then and there. But his grumbling stomach stopped him. He couldn’t face the throng of people just yet, but maybe with the Rats he could find a better way to earn his food.

He nodded and followed where Tails led. Never once did he take his hand off the handle of his knife.

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The target was clearly from out-of-town, just as Cobra liked them. The gnome had hair the color of an eggplant, styled with a slick flair that indicated a long time spent self-grooming. His shoes were clean despite the grimy floors of platform twenty-two, and his tailored suit reeked of money.

But it was his coin purse Cobra fixated on, and the sack of rolled-up papers on his shoulder. Like most smart rich folk, he travelled with an entourage of followers – mostly engineers – that walked together in a tight group. They had walked a nearly full circuit of the platform while Cobra tailed them. At various points they’d stopped to mark spots in need of repair or improvement, though Cobra couldn’t tell which was which. Another point of knowledge he’d added to his list in the last few months.

The group approached the elevators leading off the platform, just as Tails had told him they would. The engineering corps did these routine maintenance checks every fortnight to ensure the lower levels were operating at least at minimal capacity.

The Centrifuge, as Cobra had learned, did not divide its energy reserves evenly. The top ten floors all contained vital systems such as the expansion’s life-support and atmospheric controls. Beneath them were the middle platforms, which contained vast residential and mercantile districts that supported the entire expansion. The bottom thirty floors, however, were outdated and, according to Tops, close to being voted as abandoned in status by the Gnomeregan council.

It was down here that most of the repair work had to be done, and where the pickpockets thrived most. It took an ambitious thief to target a repair corps, but Cobra’s confidence had grown as his successes piled one after another. As it turned out, Tails had been right about his temperament.

He saw threats in every shadow, in every face. Few could sneak up on him, and he’d learned where to sleep in the back-alleys to avoid being disturbed. He could find food in the form of rats and fungi, both of which thrived in the humid lower levels. Many of the Rat Runner thieves stuck to the middle platforms where there were more targets, but Cobra and the other bold pickpockets saw the opportunity in the dingy low town.

The corps split up to take different elevators. It was simply a necessity. This part of the expansion hadn’t received upgraded lifts along with the middle and upper sections when the expansion had been built. Once, this area had been a mine dug by old dwarven prospectors, but the ore had long since been drowned. Now, there was little reason to come down here save to keep the geothermal harvesters operational.

Cobra slipped into an elevator with one of the small groups. He fit in fine, and he engineers simply cleared their throats and avoided eye contact. Some wrinkled their noses as if to say, You don’t belong here. Even your smell is wrong.

Cobra sniffled as if something was troubling him. Before long, he was balling his eyes out, fresh tears leaving clean streaks down his dirty cheeks. The engineers shifted uncomfortably, but the wealthy-looking man with the slick hair smiled at him sadly.

“Lost your folks, Sunny?” he asked in a friendly tone. The same tone he’d used for the little girl with the doll back on platform twenty-two. Cobra had noted that and developed his plan around it.

He nodded at the man, still sniffling. “Can’t find them,” he whined.

The slick man ruffled Cobra’s strawlike brown hair with a gloved hand. “Where did you see them last?” he asked.

“P-platform…um…thirty—forty—six?” he stammered. He mumbled a few more numbers in the mid-range to add further confusion.

“Well, we’ll just have to check a few levels until we find them, then!”

An engineer looked at the slick man dubiously. “Boss, is that really necessary? Doesn’t the Centrifuge have…people for that sort of thing?”

The slick man turned to the engineer and said, “Not enough, sadly. Poverty is rampant in this expansion, especially below level fifty.” While he looked away, Cobra flicked the hidden razor in his sleeve, which fell into his grasp unnoticeably. He eyed the strap on the man’s satchel and the string on his coin purse. Not enough time for both, he knew.

The engineer scratched his scalp anxiously. “Still, we’re supposed to report back to Central…we could get in trouble for making a detour.” Cobra eyed the floor indicator on the elevator wall. Five more levels…

The boss clapped the engineer on the shoulder. “We’ll tell them we got delayed fixing a leak. It’s a common enough problem, but not major enough to turn heads. Just look at the kid, Filbin! He needs our help!”

Now. Cobra swiped, ripping through the satchel strap with ease. He scooped up the bag and climbed out the elevator window. Before the engineers could reach for him, he flipped over the side and landed on a flat steel landing for the service stairwell. Without hesitation, he began his rapid descent. He took a turn off the stairwell at platform twenty-eight and ran along support beams for a while, then climbed along a support beam to the wall of the expansion. A gap in the pipes led to a back-alley marked with graffiti in the shape of a rat running on its hind legs.

He stopped to catch his breath and listened for the sound of pursuit. All he heard was the whirring of machinery behind the expansion wall. He grinned to himself and rifled through the satchel. The Runners would require the lion’s share of his get, but first pickings was a right granted to the thief. He could take whatever singular item he desired most, unless it was specifically requested by dispatch.

The satchel contained blueprints, as he’d expected. It also had the slick man’s spare parts for repairs, a cheat-sheet for parts’ order numbers, a small set of vital repair tools, and a set of notebooks and fountain pens. Cobra’s smile deepened as he took one of the pens.

With his loot in hand, Cobra followed the twisting, confusing tunnels back to the Rat’s Nest. The graffiti signs were few and far between, but he knew the way well enough by now. Mostly, the signs warned rival gangs to stay out of the tunnels or risk incurring the wrath of the Rats. Cobra had yet to come across any rival thieves, but he worried that was because they were better at hiding than he was.

One final turn led him to a large, sealed vault door marked with cheese-shaped graffiti. He knocked twice, three times, once, then four times. The door groaned, clicked, and swung open with a menacing metallic moan. Ogre towered over him, his face stuck in a permanent scowl.

“Hey, Cobra!” he greeted cheerfully. “You got something! Nice work!” The big gnome’s face barely moved as he spoke, giving no outward indication of his joy.

Cobra nodded and patted the satchel proudly. “Third time this week. A gullible repairman in some fancy clothes.”

“What’d you take for first pickings?”

Cobra showed him the pen, his smile wide and beaming.

Ogre clapped his meaty hands, his mouth twisting in the vague direction of a smile. “To match that ream of parchment from yesterday! Have you decided what to write yet?”

“No. I’m saving it until I come up with something. Is Tails in?”

Ogre stepped aside and waved Cobra in. “He’s in the Sink. Don’t forget to give that to the boss, though!” He indicated the satchel and Cobra waved him off dismissively.

“I want to show Tails first. Tops doesn’t need to know.” He gave Ogre an innocent look.

The big man shrugged. “None of my business. Just don’t do anything to hurt the Rats, and you’re fine with me.”

Cobra gave him a passing smile and jaunted in to the Nest. The reception area had a longue set around an old scrap metal coffee table. A few thieves were sharing a drink there while discussing some odd news of raids down south around Stormwind City. Bandits of some sort, Cobra guessed. Nothing to be concerned with.

A few hallways extended from the longue, each with its own vault door capable of sealing off the sections of the hideout. Cobra headed down the one marked with graffiti of a sink. At the end of the hallway he emerged in a cozily-lit pub full of thieves being as raucous as underworlders could be. It was quieter than most of the commercial platforms in the expansion, but spending any length of time in the Sink still made Cobra uncomfortable after all this time.

Tails sat at a table attended to by a pair of serving girls in skimpy dresses. Tails had one on his lap and was tickling her with his snowy beard. His younger, (though balding and old enough to be Cobra’s grandfather), protégée sat beside him, reclining casually as the other serving girl stuffed her hand down the front of his breeches. Socks regarded Cobra smugly as the young thief approached.

“Brought back some bits of paper for the Rats to chew on?” Socks asked, smirking.

“Blueprints,” Cobra corrected, “Useful paper. Tops says we need more info on equipment to make big jobs go smoother.”

The balding gnome snorted. “If you brought back more coin and less of this ‘useful paper,’ we could buy all the mechs we wanted, runt. Oi, Gretta Grabbyhands, not so tight!”

The serving girl shrugged her freckled shoulders. “Sorry, Sockers. I thought I was loosing your interest for a second there. You were goin’ all soft on me.” She winked at Cobra, who grimaced and took a step away.

Tails chuckled, still dandling the other girl on his lap. “Little Socks always did have a problem with focus! So, boy, you came by to show me your get, eh?”

Cobra nodded. “The job worked out just like you said it would. That tip about the stairwell was really helpful.”

Socks snorted and made a kissing face at Cobra. Tails didn’t seem to notice. He replied, “That’s good, boy. But y’know, you gotta make plans for yourself. Whenever you come to me for a job, you already got the ideas in your head, but you make it seem like I’m doing all the thinking. Are you afraid to do the jobs on your own?”

Cobra fidgeted with his bandaged knuckles. They’d long since healed, but he kept the bloody bandages on as a warning to others. He wasn’t afraid, not of anything. Healthfully cautious, but not afraid. “I just…wanted you to know I was doing well,” he mumbled.

Socks snickered. “Little baby, looking for his daddy’s approval. You never told me you had kids, Tails!”

Tails cackled as the woman on his lap left lipstick marks on his face. “Well, hell, I might! ‘Sides, all the Rats look at me like their grandpappy. I been here longer’n everyone else, ‘s only natural the kiddies want to make me proud!”

Cobra rubbed his arm, embarrassed. He took a few retreating steps before Tops’ voice halted him. “Cobra. My office. Now.” The bifocaled gnome regarded him with his beady eyes before walking back down the entry hall.

“Better skedaddle, boy,” Tails said. “Thanks for stopping by!”

Socks groaned as the woman’s hand in his breeches sped its rhythmic motion. “Yeah, yeah, now beat it kid. You’re in the splash zone!”

Cobra raced after Tops. He caught up to the boss at the security door to his office. The door was shut, as it always was when no one was moving in or out. Tops was called many things – and always behind his back – paranoid being a common one.

The door clicked and slid open. Tops returned his card key to his coat pocket and went inside. His office was cramped, though spacious compared with the thieves’ living quarters. Cobra never slept in the hideout, not after the debacle on his first night with the Rats. One thief’s snore had been enough to start a panic attack, and none of the crew members were pleased about losing sleep over a ten-year-old’s “bad dream.” Cobra left the hideout and found a cozy corner of the back-alleys every night. He had a few regular spots where he stored his personal loot, but he never slept in the same place twice in a row.

Tops plopped into his old rotating chair and flicked his gravity spheres, which clack-clack-clacked back and forth like a silvery, segmented seesaw. “Sit down, runt,” Tops said flatly. He poured himself a small portion of amber liquid from a large glass flask marked with measuring lines for alchemical use. He returned the flask to its set, most of which bubbled and sizzled over burners, filling the room with an odd amalgamation of aromas.

Cobra did as he was bid, taking a seat in one of the little Tinker’s School chairs. He set his looted satchel on the boss’s desk. “Taken off an engineer corps boss,” the young thief said proudly.

Tops regarded the satchel with a sleepy look. He adjusted his bifocals and pulled it closer. After laying the contents out on his desk in a methodical pattern, he nodded once. “Good. This earns you ten.”

Cobra felt the blood rush to his ears. A measly ten points? That wasn’t enough to buy a week’s worth of rations! “Oh,” he said, failing to hide the disappointment, “I—I’ll bring more tomorrow!”

“You won’t,” Tops replied. His tone wasn’t harsh or loud, but it cut deep regardless. “The engineers will be on alert for our thieves now. Your get will be a setback for the rest of the Runners, runt.”

Cobra fidgeted. “I—I wasn’t seen…”

“Don’t lie to me. You aren’t good enough at it yet.” He held the cut shoulder strap for Cobra to see. “People tend to notice when their bags are stolen off their bodies.”

“But—but you could use the plans and tools. You said you needed them…to keep up with the engineers’ upgrades.”

“One satchel of repair blueprints won’t help anything if we can’t get our hands on more.” Tops slid a piece of parchment out of a drawer and wrote on it in precise script. “You will hang this memorandum in the reception area.” He passed the paper to Cobra and began sorting the loot off his desk and onto several piles of similar supplies.

Cobra’s heart sank as he read the memo. No more jobs against the engineers! It’s taken me so long to pull a job on one, and all my effort is going to go to waste?

“Is there a problem, runt?” Tops asked, not sparing Cobra a look.

“N-no, boss.”

“Then get out. And don’t forget to hang the memo.” He drew out a logbook from another drawer. A glimpse at one of the pages caught Cobra’s attention. Code. I can read that code! He stored that information away for later use as he withdrew from the office.

The metal door slammed behind him, making him skip a step. Cobra’s head fell as he hung the memo in the reception area. The two thieves that had been merrily sharing a drink cursed him bitterly. He understood. The engineers were a ripe target for the Rat Runners. Losing them meant a loss of points for everyone. This loss hurt most because it set back the reputation he’d been building. Gang thieves respected ambition when it helped the whole gang. But when it hurt everyone else, an ambitious thief was nothing but a liability.

Cobra forced himself not to run as he made for the exit door. Ogre waved at him as he headed out into the back-alleys. The big man must have read the disappointment on his face, since he said, “Better luck next time, Cobra.” The young thief hunched, wishing he could disappear like a wizard from one of his story books. Word of his failure would spread like a grease fire. He knew by what Tails had taught him that the only cure for a damaged reputation was to lie low and do your fair share.

He didn’t relax until he made it back to one of his hideouts. He dug his ream of parchment free of some pipes and examined his looted fountain pen by the dull red alley light. The blank page was more intimidating than he expected. It had taken him a lot of work to get these items; he wanted them to be worth the effort.

Unlike my work for the engineers’ bag, he thought bitterly. Stupid rules! Stupid Tops! Stupid ten points! I earned more than that! He gripped the pen so tight his bandaged knuckles went numb. Why should I care what a bunch of Rats think about me? No one owns me!

He knew what to write now. It took him some time to remember one of his mother’s encryptions, which took one whole side of a piece of parchment. But after that, it was easy going. This, he thought triumphantly, a smile playing on his lips, is my new rebellion.

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Cobra sat on a barrel, wearing a blindfold over his eyes, and called out to strangers passing by, “A bit for a blind beggar? Just a bit, that’s all I’m asking.” Not being able to see the mass of people helped calm his anxious heart somewhat, but he still rankled under Tops’ restriction against pickpocketing engineers.

The crowds surged by, off to their boring lives of servitude to the institution. Cobra had learned about how society functioned in part from the books he read in secret as a youth and more recently from Tails and the other thieves. People slept, they woke, they ate and washed themselves. They went to their jobs and worked until the lights dimmed and then returned home, tired but a little wealthier. They ate and washed and went to sleep and the next day the cycle began anew. It wasn’t dissimilar to how his mother had enforced his own life, and due to that, Cobra cringed away from the idea of a “normal life.”

A coin clattered on his barrel-seat. “Thank you kindly, sir or madam,” he squeaked.

“You’re the one, right? The Snake?” the voice was unfamiliar, but what he asked was what Cobra had been waiting for. He wouldn’t have put himself on beggar duty for anything less than this. The blindfold had been part of the arrangement. No faces, no names. A blind meeting.

He nodded, taking the coin and chewing at it. “I left the notes,” he confirmed. “And that was only a little bit of what I know.”

“You’ll get us more, then. We Rumblers are tired of Rats stealing our prizes.”

An Earth Rumbler, Cobra thought. They were one of the many gangs that ran their operations behind a business front in the middle districts. Lately, they’d been toeing into Rat Runner territory down below, but then, the Rats had been moving further up the platforms the last few years, to hear Tails tell of it.

“I have a price,” Cobra reminded the Rumbler. “Half a gold hammering for each delivery.”

The Rumbler made a crude noise. “That price for this garbage? You’re out of your gourd, kid.”

“You wouldn’t be here if you thought it was garbage,” Cobra retorted, his irritation replacing nervousness. “You haven’t been able to get an informant inside the Rats, but you have tried. Every one of them was too stupid to cover their tracks, and they couldn’t read Tops’ code. I can.”

The Rumbler hesitated for a moment, then replied, “Even if you can read it, that four-eyed freak keeps his office locked up tighter than a dwarf priestess’ cunt. You won’t get in.”

Cobra bristled and sat up straighter. Massaging his bloody bandaged knuckles, he said, “I will. But until I do, you will pay my price or lose this opportunity.”

He waited. The Rumbler made no sound, so he could hear only the clanking of passersby across the metal platform. The pause went on so long that his proud confidence wavered. Nervousness seeped back in. He leaned forward, listening, then reached to remove his blindfold.

The sudden clank on his barrel made him jump backwards reflexively. He landed headfirst on the metal floor. He removed the blindfold, but if the Rumbler was in the crowd, Cobra couldn’t recognize him. He stood up and rubbed his sore head. The pain seemed trivial when he saw the pouch on the barrel.

His smile grew wider as he counted out the coins within. Forty-eight, forty-nine…fifty silver rams! I could live for a month off all this! And all it had costed was a measly scrap of paper and some ink.

And a rebellion. Here in the Centrifuge, it pays to rebel. Mother knew that. That’s why she hurt me. Why she whipped me and kept me locked up. She was afraid of what I could become. And she was right to be afraid.

He tied the purse to his belt and hid it within his breeches. Hastily, he returned to the back-alleys and to one of his hideouts. He sifted through the pipes and retrieved one of his emergency coin purses. He deposited most of the silver into the pouch, leaving an unsuspicious amount for himself. Beggar duty was an official responsibility for a Rat Runner; he would be expected to return his day’s earnings to the hideout. The last thing he needed was to be suspected of cheating the boss.

The hideout door opened after Cobra’s knock; Ogre’s expressionless face greeted him as ever. “Welcome back, Cobra!” he said cheerily. “Good haul today?”

Cobra smiled warmly. “Quite good, Og,” he said, skipping into the lounge, “Quite good, indeed.”

Edited by RiktheRed21

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The tightness increased around his neck and chest. He tried to wriggle free, but the restraints only seemed to tighten, digging bloody ruts below his armpits and jawline. She stood over him, weeping. Her tears fell from her cheeks onto his forehead.

“Why do you make me do this to you?” she asked, as though beseeching a merciless god. “I only want what’s best for you!”

“Mommy…please…” He croaked, unable to get enough air. His eyes felt likely to pop out of his head.

“You can’t go outside! I’ve told you again and again! Out there, there’s nothing but people who will rob you, cheat you, and hurt you! They take you for everything and leave you bleeding and broken and alone! Why would you ever want to leave? Why? Why!!”

“No! NO!! STOOOOOP!”

He flailed awake and pulled his knife. His hand went to his throat, but there was no strap there, nor around his chest. He sniffled, but the tears wouldn’t come. She can’t hurt me. I’m free. Thinking the words didn’t make them true, though.

---

He knocked at the hideout door, but for once there was no answer. He frowned and tried the knock again. I’m sure I did it right…

The door creaked open suddenly, making Cobra jump. He jumped back again when he saw what had unlocked the door: a mecha scorpid with pair of rat heads dangling from its tail.

“PASSWORD,” the scorpid’s grainy speakers demanded.

“Uuuhh,” Cobra said, staring with his mouth agape. His hand was on the folding knife in his pocket, but his instincts were conflicted over whether to run or not.

“PASSWORD NOT ACCEPTED. HAVE A GOOD DAY, MADAM.” The scorpid’s tail reached to pull the vault door closed.

“No, no, no! Not like that, Sting!” The scorpid paused as a blue-haired gnome in a badly burned lab coat stomped up in oversized black lab boots and waved downward at it. Cracked safety goggles rested on top of her head and her belt displayed a vast array of engineering equipment. “Sorry, young man. Sting is a rescue. I’m still working on recalibrating his processor.”

“Um, who are you?” Cobra asked.

The woman patted Sting, who backed up slowly from the door. Cobra hesitantly followed inside when the woman gestured for him to come. “Do shut the door, boy. I prefer not to speak of myself where unknown agents may be listening in.”

Cobra wasn’t eager to turn away from the mecha scorpid, but he did as he was told. Struggling with the weight, he swung the door slowly shut and spun the lock until it clicked. How does Ogre do that all day, every day? he wondered.

The blue-haired woman reclined on a couch and gestured for Cobra to do the same. He was about to, but the scorpid beat him to it. It snuggled up on a couch, the razor blades attached to its legs tearing into the cushions. The woman sighed. “Guess I’ll have to pay for that. Sorry, but Sting’s command recognition is in what we mechgineers call a ‘transitionary period.’ He’s supposed to respond only to my voice, but he seems to be stuck on hand gestures instead.”

“Ah,” Cobra grunted, as if that explained everything. “You’re…a mechgineer?”

She smiled, a brilliant expression that set his stomach to rumbling irritably. “Yep! My name’s Be—oh. Code names. I’m Blue! You know, because of the—”

“Blue hair, yeah,” Cobra finished for her. Not particularly clever, he noted. “Are you a friend of Tops’?” Sometimes the boss brought clients or business partners into the hideout, but they never spoke to the lesser thieves like him.

Blue brushed some goo off a sleeve, which took part of the sleeve with it. “Yeah, we go way back! About two weeks, anyway. His guys rescued me from a lab explosion. Which I definitely did not cause.” She stared at him with her intense orange eyes as if to say, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’

“Two weeks…that’s not long after Tops told us not to target engineers. That must have been a cover while he was planning a big job.” He looked at Blue, searching for confirmation of his guess.

Blue shrugged. “I don’t know about all that, but I’ve trading info to your boss anonymously for a while now. The heat on me was getting a little too heat-some, so I faked me own death a little. Maybe caused a few not so fake deaths along the way. You know, allegedly.”

She’s telling me way more than I should know, Cobra thought. Good. The Rumblers are gonna have to pay me extra for this. I wonder if I can press for more. He asked, “Mechgineers are real rich, though, right? Why’d you make friends with a gang?”

“Rich? Pff, I wish. Only the chief thinkers and royal tinkers are rich. They hog all the money while we do all the work, like some overeducated grease monkeys.” Blue crossed her arms and huffed. “Your boss, Tops, he offered me a chance to take my work to the next level. Next month, we’re gonna start by—”

“Five minutes, Blue! I left to take a five-minute bathroom break, and what the hell do I find when I come back?” Socks had already entered the room and was staring at the pair of gnomes in the lounge from the doorway to the bathroom. “What did you tell this snot-nose?”

The mechgineer stammered, “O-oh! You know, Socks, just the basics like my name and wh-whatnot. Definitely not anything important like, say—”

“She only told me she’s in it for the money,” Cobra interrupted, hoping that was all Socks had heard. Damn his soft little footsteps! “I couldn’t get her to tell me anything else.” He glanced at Blue, who smiled appreciatively. He felt an uncomfortable heat in his gut.

Socks rolled his eyes. “No more talking to the runts, ‘grease monkey.’ Especially not this one. He’s got some screws loose.”

Blue sighed and stood up. When she stretched her arms above her head, Sting jumped straight up and slammed into the metal panel ceiling with a clanging thud. “OW,” it said.

“Well, it was nice meeting and not talking about anything important with you, uh—”

“Cobra,” he answered. He blinked at her when she walked over. He cringed when she took his hand and shook it. “Oh. Uh, gah.”

Blue giggled. “You’re a funny boy. See ya around, Cobra!” She walked down the corridor to the workshop, where the craftier thieves put together equipment with their (mostly stolen) stash of materials.

Sock’s voice called from the reception desk, “Are you gonna stand there all day, or do you want your assignment, brat?”

Cobra flinched, realizing he’d been staring after Blue. He tripped on his way to the desk, where he stood at attention.

Socks flipped through some papers behind the desk’s privacy panel. “You’re on platform thirty-two for street sweeping. The quota is ten silver minimum. No first pickings permitted.” He shoved the papers aside and took a long drink from a bottle of beer. “That’s all, runt. Get the fuck going.”

“Where’s Ogre?” Cobra asked, against his better judgment.

Socks made an exasperated noise. “None of your fuckin’ business. All you need to know is I’m on door duty, so don’t expect Blue’s pretty face to greet you when you get back tonight. Oh, and you bring your get to me. Don’t bother Tops today unless you wanna get your ass thrown in a trash compacter.”

Cobra frowned but departed without further inquiry. If Ogre is out and Tops isn’t to be disturbed…maybe they’re all working a big score. Does it have to do with Blue and her lab?

He considered following her back to the workshop and grilling for more information, but with Socks on guard duty, that would be too suspicious. I’ll wait for now, but if I can talk to her in private again somehow, maybe I can find the answer and a solution to my other problem at the same time.

Before departing the hideout, he looked back at Tops’ office door, as solid as ever. If anyone could figure a way past a door like that, it was a mechgineer.

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((The Cast So Far...))

The Wretch / Cobra

Cobra.JPG.b32a7033b7e4dd4d2dbdde2940e5a6f7.JPG

 

Mother

Mother.JPG.ef213d8d6a91818097183bb2bd6700d4.JPG

 

Tails

Tails.JPG.909e5c99e05a99a45b506c03bf175245.JPG

 

Slick

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Ogre

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Socks

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Gretta Grabbyhands

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Tops

Tops.JPG.3fefcf2bf2f25ed87023bfa8cdc1f1eb.JPG

 

Blue

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Mute

Mute.JPG.01c71fc632383fff20bd6980651ab981.JPG

Edited by RiktheRed21

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Water gushed from a pipe somewhere under the foamy water, but it was too dark to see how far under it was. Cobra regarded the water cautiously. He’d never seen this much water in one place before.

“They say there’s no bottom,” Tails said as he pulled a luminous green stick from his pack. The light shone on a nearby pipe marked ‘Platform 1.’

Tails continued, “They say you can swim down and down and down for days and never find the end. I’ve dived hundreds of times, and I’ve never seen it. Think you’ll be the one to find it, boy?”

Cobra shrugged. “I just want to get my pay. I’m not risking my life to find some stupid floor.” He peered down into the water now that the light shined on it and flinched when a shadow floated down below.

Tails guffawed. “Not to worry, lad! It’s just a school of fish. They’ll get out of our way. I know this section better than most. I wouldn’t have picked it if there were dangerous critters down there.”

“D-dangerous critters?” Cobra said. He accepted a pair of goggles and a rebreather – both freshly repaired courtesy of Blue and paid for with Tails’ personal points. Cobra didn’t like the idea of taking something that might indebt him further to Tails, but the old man had never once asked for repayment after all his lessons and little gifts.

“Flesh eaters, gelatinous bioslime, haywire mechs, and deep-sea murlocs. Worse than any of them are the other divers. If they get ahold of you, they’ll slit your throat to steal your score. There’s no law enforcement below the platforms. A regular free-for-all.” He offered Cobra one of his glowsticks.

Cobra accepted it and tied it securely to his belt with a knot Tails had taught him for this occasion. “But if there’s a lawless place right underneath the Centrifuge, wouldn’t everyone come down here to commit crimes, like dumping bodies and evidence?”

Tails affixed his goggles and replied, “They would, and they do. But only through the back-alleys like the passage we used to get here. All official entrances to the Deeps have been sealed off for years. Only a few are openable in case the mechgineers decide to send an official dive or security team, and each one has a security system installed to chase off or disintegrate the curious. But they can’t secure all our avenues. The city is just too complex for that.”

The old man slipped into the water, exhaling in satisfaction. Cobra approached the water and dipped a toe. It was cold, but that wasn’t the part that worried him. “Tails, I don’t know how to swim,” he admitted.

Tails laughed. “Well, I’d be surprised if you did! Most gnomes your age have never left Gnomeregan, and there’s few enough reasons to go swimming in the city. But not to worry, lad; this is just a test run.”

The young thief took a deep breath and slipped tenderly into the water. Once it reached his pelvis he tensed and lost his footing, falling in flatly. The cold blasted through his body. Panic set in quickly and he flailed about, desperate to run to safety and unable to even move. He couldn’t tell which way was up for all the foam and shadows and unfamiliar landscape. Then a strong hand took hold of his shirt and he felt himself pulled above the water. He sputtered for air and grabbed at his rescuer relentlessly.

“Hey, now! I’m not the shore, boy! You’ll drag us both down like that!” He shoved Cobra to the edge of the water. The boy scrambled out and clung to the metal flooring with a desperate grip. Tails followed him out. “You’ve gotta get over this fear o’ yours, boy. Fear’s just another prison.”

Cobra trembled as water dripped off his body. “I can’t…I’m not in control down there. There’s no way out…”

Tails sat cross-legged beside Cobra and scratched his snowy beard. “You’ll feel out of control at the start. You gotta learn to swim before you can sneak. No babe learns to dash through cover before learning to take their first steps.”

“But—”

Tails lightly slapped the boy’s shoulder. “Nope! That’s all the pep talking I’ve got for you, lad. You either try again, or you won’t get put on diving duty, ever.” The old man stood, stretched, put his rebreather in his mouth, and leapt back into the water. He did not resurface.

Cobra took a deep breath and stood. He took up his own rebreather and examined it. He saw the slightly pulsing ice-blue stone within; the core of the rebreather was an elemental conversion stone that took in water and pushed out air, making it a perfect tool for long dives. It was also expensive – probably the most expensive thing Cobra had ever held. And that crazy old man just gave it to me!

He looked back at the unstill water and sighed. I can’t let that go to waste. Damn you, old timer! He bit down on the rebreather and tied the strap around his head. Then he ran and jumped into the water, extending his feet so he would hopefully know which way was down this time…

Being able to breathe helped, certainly, but mostly Cobra kept his panic down through sheer stubbornness. The old man had done this without problem, so he had to do it, too. He found it rather difficult to sink at first and realized that if he kept air in his lungs, he floated much as a balloon in the air. He breathed out and tested sinking down to where the pipes bent into a tunnel: effectively the bottom of the pool. He pushed himself down feet-first, and eventually he reached the bottom. Tails waited for him around the bend, giving Cobra a shock, but he kept his fear in check.

He tried to walk to the old man but found his movements both sluggish and abnormal. He quickly lost his footing and began flipping upside-down, which made his panic start to rise. Tails took hold of him and righted him again, shaking his head. The old man demonstrated how to move; he kept his body parallel to the floor and both kicked and pulled the water with his hands. His movements were rather agile despite the water’s resistance.

Cobra mimicked his movements but didn’t make much progress. Tails repeated the process a few times until the boy figured out how to move his limbs to propel him in the direction he wanted. Once he seemed satisfied, Tails showed him how to rise and sink in much the same fashion. Then, he led the way beyond their small pool into the corridors beyond.

The pair swam past a broken pipe. Cobra shivered at the tickle of the water spewing out and shied away from it. Tails led the pair through a series of twists and turns until they came to the exit of the underwater back-alleys. Cobra stifled a gasp lest he lose his rebreather. Out in front of him was a vast, empty space of pure water. Beyond was darkness, and anything could have lurked just out of view. Cobra froze in place. He felt the weight of that empty space crushing down on him. Desperately, he turned back around to retreat into the corridor.

I can’t do this! It’s too much! There’s nowhere to hide out there! He tried to recall all the turns they’d made to get here, but quickly found himself turned around in unfamiliar alleys. That was when he realized Tails was no longer in view.

Panic gripped him wholly then. He flailed, forgetting his lessons at once. His bandages fingers clawed at the walls. He pulled himself along, searching for…something. Air, maybe. Or just a place to hide.

Eventually, he found the former. He burst out of the water and clambered into a platform. He spat out his rebreather and gasped for air as his nose slowly expelled the water clogging it. He pulled the rebreather straps off his head and tossed it aside, not eager at all to use it again. As he caught his breath, he examined his surroundings. His breath completely stopped for a moment.

Above his head, a mass of dull green slime shifted and dribbled onto the floor below. The light from his glowstick seemed to fill it, making it glow brighter and act more animated. Suddenly, the whole of it massed together and fell to the floor below.

Cobra yelped and scrambled away from the creature. He considered the water but decided against it in favor of finding a back-alley first. The giant slime slowly slithered its way toward him, scooping up random debris as it did. Cobra noticed that its insides were rife with enough spare parts to build something big. He also noticed he’d left his rebreather on the floor, where it was swallowed up by the slime.

Heart pounding, the young thief rushed to search the walls. He found a corridor and took it, but it dead-ended at a huge, thick door. The edges had been sealed shut with a blowtorch. Cobra rushed back to the slime’s chamber and just narrowly avoided being trapped in the dead-end corridor. He continued scanning the wall as his light grew dimmer. He considered throwing it away, but without it he would be blind and vulnerable, a thought which filled him with even more dread.

His heart skipped a beat when his foot stuck in something squishy. He breathed relief when he realized it wasn’t the slime. But he screamed when he saw what it was. The skeleton’s internal organs were still intact, though its skin and muscle tissue had all been dissolved. A coating of slime covered what remained, except where his foot had smashed through the intestines. In a panic, he backed up until his head clanked against a low pipe. He fell to the ground, dizzy and in pain. The slime’s sickening sliding sound grew nearer.

Cobra almost hit his head again as he rushed to his feet. Which brought him face-to-face with a warning label on the pipe he’d struck. A snowflake – he’d seen the designs of such in his books. Which means…!

Cobra felt along the pipe as his light was nearly exhausted. He found the valve just as the slime tickled the edge of his foot. Cobra leapt onto the pipe, barely maintaining his balance as he unscrewed the valve. A jet of frigid air spewed from the pressure release faucet, straight at the slime. Cobra held on for dear life as the huge amorphous creature slowly grew still and stiff.

He closed the valve, huffing and puffing from the effort. His weary limbs held out no longer; he slipped from the pipe and grunted as he hit solid ice. His light was gone, but he could see enough to know the entire slime was frozen solid.

Using the butt his knife, Cobra hammered at a portion of the slime until he got a chunk loose. The interior was frozen through as well. With that in mind, he dug into the creature in the area where he thought his rebreather had disappeared. He found it, cold to the touch but no worse for wear. He hoped. He hung it around his neck for now as he dug out a few bits of scrap from the slime’s corpse.

A light grew behind him, inviting the panic back into Cobra’s heart. More looters? Or is it Tails? Not wanting to take the risk, he slid behind the slime’s body and waited until the light emerged from the pool on the other end of the chamber.

“Lad! Hey, Cobra!” Tail’s hushed voice echoed through the room. “Are you in here? Gears and oil, I hope not. We’ve had this place marked as a slime pit for years…”

Cobra climbed up to the top of the slime and called out, “Hey Tails! I found something pretty useful!”

The old man gasped at his voice but laughed soon after. “You crazy kid, I thought you’d gotten yourself drowned!” He sloshed out of the pool and approached Cobra. “Now what is this you found? We really shouldn’t hang around a slime pit for too—” His light shone on the slime’s frozen body. “—long.”

“So Tails,” Cobra said cockily, “How many points do you think this is worth?”

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The drink burned on the way down, but Cobra would be damned if he let it come back up. He gulped and displayed his tongue for the crowd to see.

“There’s a good lad!” Tails cried, slapping his back encouragingly. “The boy can hold his liquor!” The other thieves gathered clapped and cheered.

“I could drink as much as you, old man,” Cobra replied. The crowd hushed in awe of his challenge, but Cobra was too flush with pride to shrink away from their attention tonight.

Tails stroked his messy beard, a devilish grin on his face. “You challenging me, boy? That’s a mistake, but you’re free to make it if you wish.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to make me give up because you’re afraid I’ll embarrass you in front of everyone,” Cobra declared cockily. The crowd watched, awestruck.

Tails slapped his hand against the bar stand. “Gretta!” he grunted.

The glamourous “Grabbyhands” bar matron blinked at Tails’ sudden address. “Yeah?”

“Two Westfall Moonshines. And keep my tab open. We might be at this for a while.”

---

Cobra violently heaved the contents of his stomach into the toilet. Tails patted his back – not unkindly – and said, “First time’s always like this for kids like us. You enjoy yourself, lad?”

The young thief gasped for breath, choked by the sickening scent of his leavings. “Y-yeah. Of course.”

Tails bust out a laugh. “Of course you did! I’m sure the alcohol didn’t burn your taste buds until they didn’t work anymore. But trust me, kid, we don’t drink for the flavor or because it makes us feel good.” He waved his hand out at the festive gathering by the bar stand. Socks tried to out-chug Ogre and nearly choked. Blue was watching everyone closely and taking notes. Sting started climbing up a wall beside her before sliding back down, leaving several long gashes in the metal paneling. The mechgineer laughed and patted the metal bug affectionately.

“We drink to make the others feel good,” Tails explained. “That way, we’re all responsible for making each other happy. It’s how family works, kid.”

Cobra could only gape at him. Family? he thought as Tails stood up and stretched. Family never did anything for me. Why should I stick my neck out for them? He couldn’t help but think about the secrets he’d been selling. He still hadn’t seen the face of the man who came to buy his notes every other week, but he’d had plenty of time to imagine one. He saw a mean, mangled man with powerful hands. Often in his dreams he’d see those hands choke the life out of Blue or beat the brains out of Socks; sometimes even Ogre fell victim to those hands. The worst dreams claimed Tails as their victim. Cobra looked up at the old man now and felt a tremendous, absurd guilt.

“T-Tails, I—”

The old man patted the young thief’s messy brown hair. “Don’t worry, kid. You might not get it now, but you will. One day. For now, we’re celebrating. Take the time you need.” He walked back to the bar. The others cheered his return and with a start, Cobra realized some were asking Tails if Cobra himself was doing alright. When did this happen? he thought bitterly, When did I get caught in this trap?

---

Hours later, Cobra stumbled to the hideout’s front door, his headache pounding behind his eyes. He nearly walked face-first into Tops, who paced in the longue while reading a book. “Oh, s-sorry boss,” Cobra stammered.

Tops looked down on him over his spectacles. “Cobra,” he said, testing the name as one might a fine wine, “You did well in the Depths. And on your first dive, as well. Some might call that luck.”

Cobra felt his pride bristle. Who do you think you are, fancy man? Tails said my find was the biggest any diver’s had in half a decade! Yet his caution won out and he simply said, “What—what do you think, boss?”

“I don’t believe in luck.” He closed his book on a finger, marking his place. “I spent my entire life clawing and clambering to make it where I am now, runt. After everything I’ve had to do, I can’t believe luck was what did it for me. Talent maketh the thief, Cobra. And I believe we’ve found yours.”

“S-so I’ll be on dives more often?”

“Try exclusively. Unless it turns out this find was, in fact, a fluke. Tails is our best diver, so he can’t babysit you all the time. Once he says you’re ready, you’ll be assigned a partner. Keep up the good work and I’ll consider promoting you, runt.” With that, he continued reading and pacing.

Cobra rubbed his aching head. A partner? I don’t want anyone other than Tails! What if they turn out to be someone like Socks? Or worse, they could be clueless, like Blue…oh, dammit! I’ve lost beggar duty! How am I supposed to deliver the notes now?

As he stepped out into the back-alleys, the loud clang of the vault door closing behind him, Cobra fought through his headache, trying to think of a way to adjust his plans. He followed the winding passageways towards one of his nearby hiding holes. The quick route took him through town, but he needed to sleep off his hangover sooner rather than later.

The bustle of the city street took him off-guard. The dim night lights were on, yet the people milled by at an almost frantic pace. Cobra stuck to the edges of the crowd and listened to passersby talk as they rushed by.

“…news just got in. It’s Stormwind.”

“They got so far…?”

“…thought they were bandits…”

“…city’s been sacked…”

“How far north…?”

“If they can take a whole kingdom…”

Cobra’s heart beat faster. What kind of news was this? It seemed the whole platform was out to hear the news. He followed the crowd until they reached the market ring. Everyone was pushing to find a spot where they could see it clearly – a platform was lowering from the Manifold, high above. Cobra looked around at the uniform tenement buildings nearby and spotted a route onto the rooves. He clambered on barrels, window frames, and eventually into the lip of a flat rooftop. There were already other street urchins perched on top, but they ignored each other. Everyone had eyes on the descending platform.

A booming voice cut through the din of the crowd: “CITIZENS OF GNOMEREGAN, THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ANNOUNCEMENT! THE KINGDOM OF STORMWIND HAS FALLEN TO A HORDE OF UNKNOWN BEINGS! STORMWIND CITY HAS BEEN SACKED AND IT IS UNCLEAR JUST HOW FAR THIS NEW THREAT MAY REACH! THE SPEED AT WHICH THE HORDE HAS SPREAD IS UNPRECENDETED, BUT THE GNOMEREGAN ARMY IS TAKING STEPS TO ENSURE OUR SAFETY IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES! IF YOU WANT TO HELP SAFEGUARD YOUR CITY, GO TO YOUR LOCAL RECRUITER AND SIGN UP TODAY!”

The announcer continued giving details, but Cobra had heard all he needed to. Stormwind was a strong city, as far as surface cities go, he recalled from his books, If it could fall so suddenly, could we be next? Regardless of the answer, he knew one thing for sure: the city was about to get a lot busier. And a distracted populace was easily taken advantage of.

“Hey you kids! Get down from there!” A man in a mechgineer officer’s uniform commanded from below. Cobra grimaced. He’d been careless and let himself be seen. Now it was time to disappear. “Hey! I said down!” the officer called after the urchins as they scattered for nearby rooftops to run across. Cobra found himself alone with a young girl who kept pace with him along the rooftop pathways. She’s pretty good, he thought. I bet Tails would try to recruit her…

“Cut them off! Get up there!” Cobra gasped as the officer’s voice followed them from below. He was mounted on a mechanostrider and easily keeping pace as the throng of people split to give him room. A second officer sprang onto the rooftops up ahead, his strider’s spring coils giving him the lift he needed.

“Not one more step, you kids!” The officer commanded.

Cobra glanced at his escape route: an old tenement with a basement tunnel. Unfortunately, the guard was standing on its roof. The girl next to Cobra was hyperventilating. Not knowing exactly why, he grabbed the girl by the arm and led her back the way they’d came. “Keep moving your feet!” he yelled at her, “You wanna get busted?” She didn’t answer, but she did manage to keep up still.

The first officer sprang onto the roof to try and cut them off, but Cobra had expected that. He opened a hatch in his roof and sent the girl down the ladder first.

“Kid! Stop!” the first officer called after him. “I need to talk to you!”

I’m sure you do, Officer Friendly… He slid into the hatch and pulled it shut behind him, then fixed the padlock shut. Normally it was courtesy in the Rats to leave secret routes open for quick and quiet travel, but emergencies dispelled the need for politeness. He slid down the ladder as the officers struggled against the lock above him. The girl was already gone when he reached the bottom. So much for recuing the damsel. Well, she would have slowed me down, anyway.

He moved through the tenement quickly and quietly. There was another path to the back-alley entrance, but he had to get to the basement without being caught. He rushed down the stairwell, sliding along handrails and passed baffled tenants until he reached the basement door. He tried it, but it was locked. So much for courtesy, he thought bitterly. He whirled and made his way back to the ground floor, fast. He would have to risk making a break for it in the open.

The second officer was waiting for him at the front door. “I’ve got him!” the officer shouted.

No you don’t! Cobra spun and went back up the stairs. The officer’s boots thundered behind him, but the man was slowed down by all the gear he carried. And the young thief was accustomed to running from the law. He put some distance between himself and Officer Dipshit before exiting the stairwell and taking some corners. Then he found a familiar janitor’s closet and hid inside. He listened at the door, cupping a hand over his mouth to muffle his heavy breathing.

A door closed. Footsteps, but not the officer’s boots. Silence. Lost him, he thought, But they’re still in the building. Why the hell do they want me so badly? No one usually cares about some street kids on a rooftop enough to make a chase out of it.

As the adrenaline faded, Cobra’s headache returned with a vengeance. I need to get back to my hole and sleep this off. I’ll wind up crashing if I take too long…

First he looked around the closet for some supplies. He took a bottle of cleaning solution with a spray nozzle along with a broom handle he broke off to make a jagged wooden point. The handle was long enough to fend off an adult’s reach. He slipped the bottle into a deep pocket inside his outer breeches and strapped the stick to his belt, then decided he was as ready as he could be.

He exited the closet quietly and crept for the stairs. He reached the ground floor without difficulty, but as expected, an officer was at the front door. Cobra made his way, unseen, to a window facing the tenement he needed. The window was bolted shut, but he pried the bolt open with the jagged end of his broom handle, then slid the window open and climbed out to the tight alleyway between the two buildings. Garbage was piled just outside and crunched loudly when he stumbled onto it. He gritted his teeth, ready to bolt if someone came to investigate. He breathed a sigh of relief when after a moment, no one came.

Cobra sneaked around to the back of the building he needed and tried the door. Locked. I really need to get Tails to teach me lockpicking, he reminded himself. Before he could find another entrance, a clang startled him into whirling around, his broken stick in hand. The first officer had jumped down from the roof above. Idiot! Always check the rooftops before breaking from cover!

“Kid, lower the weapon,” the officer said, surprisingly gently. He looked familiar with his slicked eggplant-colored hair. Then it came back to him.

“You—you’re the guy…the one whose bag I took. I—is that what this is about?” He backed up slowly, still pointing his stick at the officer warningly. It wouldn’t do anything against a mechanostrider, but he would be damned if he followed the orders of a city guard.

“Sorta, yeah,” Slick said, looking a bit embarrassed. “Look, it’s personal. The bag you took, it belonged to my dad. I know you thieves learn not to feel empathy at a young age and all, but I was really hoping I could at least get the bag back.”

Cobra gaped at him. Is this a joke? A trick, maybe? I should be running right now… Instead he licked his dry lips and said, “I don’t have your stupid bag, so just leave me alone! I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Well, you did steal sensitive blueprints from an officer of the mechgineer corps…”

“You can’t prove that!”

Slick scoffed. “Right. Well, Seeing as I have a few buddies who won’t let me forget that I let it happen, I’d say I’ve got enough witnesses to put you in a juvenile detention facility until you’re old enough to shave, kid. So why don’t you just do me a favor and find that bag for me? I could make your life a whole lot worse if you don’t.”

Cobra blinked at a shadow moving behind the mechanostrider, then regained his composure. So, it’s going to be like that? Alright, I can play along. “You want your bag…it’ll cost you!”

The officer chuckled. “You’re not exactly in a bargaining position, kid. Besides, I don’t really want to do business with a thief. Nothing personal, but I’ve got my dad’s reputation to consider.”

“You like your dad a whole lot, but are you willing to prove it? If you want the bag, give me a gun!” It was a stupid, uneven trade, but Cobra didn’t expect any trade to work out, anyway. The shadowy figure was under the strider now. It had a screwdriver in its hand.

“A gun? Wow. That’s a hard ‘no,’ kid. Just bring the bag to headquarters up on platform four tomorrow. I promise I’ll give you lunch if you don’t make me wait.” He tapped his strider controls impatiently.

“I could steal your lunch without you even noticing. But you’ve got guns and I don’t. And I’ve got your bag. Seems fair to me.” It really didn’t. Bafflingly the officer almost seemed convinced by his argument.

“Still, a gun could get traced back to me. I’m not risking my career, even over sentimentality. Sorry pal, but you’ll have to stick to slingshots like the other kids your age.”

“And you’ll have to stick with walking,” Cobra said, smirking. The officer blinked, then cried out as his mechanostrider fell over. One of its legs had been detached, leaving it a useless pile of scrap. Cobra gave the shadowy figure a thumbs-up and dashed for the front of the building. The other officer, still on foot, was waiting to cut him off.

“You’re not getting away this t—OWWW!” Cobra sprayed the man in the eyes with his cleaning solution and kept running. He ducked between tenants returning to their apartments and made for the stairs. He sprinted to the basement door and crossed his fingers that this time the door would be unlocked.

He screeched to a halt when he found the urchin girl at the door already, fiddling with the lock. It clicked and she pushed it open. She blew a bit of strawlike hair out of her face and looked at him, her expression blank.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “I wouldn’t have gotten away without your help back there. You’re good with that screwdriver.”

She looked down at the tool in her hand and shrugged, pocketing it. Then she walked into the basement. Cobra followed along, shutting the door behind him. “Do you have a name?” he called after the girl. He almost lost track of her in the maze of pipes leading to the back-alley but caught up to her before too long. She glanced at him over her shoulder before sprinting away. Cursing, he ran after her. She was like a spirit of wind, racing through corridors and around corners, always just in sight as she rounded a turn. He kept pace with her for a while, calling out “Wait!” and “I’m not gonna hurt you!” until finally his headache grew too painful for him to focus on keeping up. He lost track of her. Her echoing footsteps slowly retreated until he was alone with the pipes and the rats.

Well, I suppose it’s only fair. She helped me. I may as well leave her be. Slowly, agonizingly, he made his way back to his nearest hiding place. He crawled into the tiny space and curled up with a blanket and a small bite of old bread. He took up some paper and his stolen pen and tried to put words to everything that had happened today. The Rumblers would be eager to know about the banter the other thieves had traded back at the Sink. But between his headache and his guilty thoughts, he couldn’t bring himself to write any of it.

Almost unconsciously he started drawing. It was a waste of paper, he told himself, but kept going until his piece was complete. It was a crude attempt at art, but it reminded him of his muse well enough. The girl’s face, her filthy straw-colored hair, and those blank eyes stared back at him. He wondered who she was. Where she’d come from. Who had raised her, if anyone. How long she’d been on the streets. If she was anything like him.

Mute, he thought as his eyelids fell heavily, I’ll call her Mute.

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“Begging your pardons, Miss Blue, but do you really have to come along on the dive with us?” Tails scratched his beard, looking the woman in the lab coat over skeptically.

Blue blew raspberries and waved dismissively. “Of course I do! Sting won’t function properly unless I’m there to direct him, and you need him to bring up the haul from the dead slime. Besides, I can’t pass up the opportunity to see the deep dig’s structure! It’s a historical treasure trove of civil engineering down there!”

Cobra glanced between the two, uncertain. “Uh, won’t Sting shock us? Water is a really strong conductor.”

Tails patted the youth’s shoulder. “What the kid said.”

“Oh, I’ve been outfitting him with waterproof circuitry. He’s perfectly safe!” She patted the machine’s frame. The mecha-scorpid made a loud whirring noise and fell limp on the floor. “Whoops. Sting, wake up! Ugh, I thought I had your voice commands fixed!”

Tails clicked his tongue. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not sure that thing is gonna make our jobs any easier. It’s been glitching constantly ever since you found it in that scrap heap.”

“Sting’s been through a lot, but I know he can do this! I’ve run tests and he’s been 85% successful!”

“Even if I thought that percentage was acceptable, I don’t think you’ve got the inclination for this type of work, Blue.”

The woman deflated like a pierced football. “Don’t want me around, huh? I see how it is. Well, good luck hauling the stuff without my mech.” She dramatically tossed her head and turned to exit.

Tails snorted out a chuckle. “Oh, come back now, lass. Tops gave us orders to bring you, so I’m not turning away your help. It’ll just be…difficult.”

She’ll put our lives at risk down there, Cobra thought grimly. Was this what it was like when he first brought me down here?

It had been a few weeks since the first dive, and every day since the announcement, they had headed back to the slime chamber and retrieved what they could of its horde. The parts were astoundingly expensive, but many were too heavy to haul up. Cobra had doubts about their usability, but Blue had assured them that after a long cleanse, they would be good as new.

Which had led them to yet another of her brilliant ideas. “Sting will impress you both, I guarantee it!” Blue cast off her lab coat, revealing a sporty one-piece diving suit and a rebreather to match the goggles she always wore. Without further delay, she dove into the water. Sting scuttled after her. Cobra winced as the mech flopped in, but Blue resurfaced a moment later, no worse for wear.

Tails tapped Cobra on the shoulder. “Good enough for me. What about you, kid?”

Cobra shrugged. “As long as it doesn’t mistake me for a deep-sea murloc and zap me.” He removed his outer layer of clothing and slipped into the water alongside Tails. With their rebreathers and goggles equipped, Tails led the way underwater. Blue knew how to swim, unlike Cobra on his first dive. She was pretty good at it, too, since Tails decided to set a fast pace and she never fell behind. Surprisingly, the scorpid kept pace with the trio just as well. It propelled itself through the water with little propellers on its backside.

They arrived at the chamber before long. Cobra tossed his glowstick towards the mess the frozen slime had made. The floor remained damp and slippery, though thankfully the slime didn’t seem capable of reconstituting itself. The metal gear was scattered about in a massive collection. Blue squealed in delight at the sight. “So much stuff! I could tinker with this for years!

Tails nudged her shoulder. “First we gotta get it home. Let’s see your bug work some magic.”

Blue nodded, then offered Sting a series of hand gestures. The metal creature replied, “INITIATING CLEANUP PROCEDURE.” Then, it crawled over to the pile and scooped up a big black box that might have belonged to a flying machine at some point. It lifted the box with ease and turned back towards the pool entrance.

Blue smiled triumphantly. “It’ll take a lot of trips, but he’ll run this sequence automatically. He knows the way back. All we need to do is make sure he doesn’t get taken by other divers.”

Cobra eyed the creature. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing a diver would want to risk himself to bring down. She’s awfully protective of that thing. Why do so many gnomes think of mechs like they’re the greatest thing in the world?

The rest of the shift was a series of back-and-forth dives. Cobra, Tails, and Blue each took turns diving in pairs while the third watched the Depths entrance to ensure they weren’t interrupted. There was less concern involving the slime pit since it was well-known to divers that it was a literal dead end.

The moment Cobra had been waiting for came when he and Blue were on a shift together. They emerged in the slime chamber and watched as Sting scuttled to the pile, choosing the next largest piece of scrap to carry.

“Blue,” Cobra said, “What did you do before you joined the crew? I know you were a mechgineer, but where did you work?”

The woman beamed at the opportunity to talk about herself. “A factory up in the Manifold! One of the most prestigious producers of mechs in all Gnomeregan. I was a factory supervisor, which basically means I walked the lines and made sure everyone knew what they were doing. I got that job after five years on the line, myself. No thanks to my big sister and her astonishing lack of nepotism.”

Cobra quirked an eyebrow at her. “Your sister?”

“Yeah, Barbara. She looks a lot like me, except older and dyes her hair red. She runs half a dozen factories up in the manifold.”

“She does? Doesn’t that make your family rich?”

She’s the rich one. Nobody else gets a copper penny unless they work for it. I don’t mind having to get hands-on with the mechs, of course, but working the factory line is artless. The moment we finish a product, it’s shipped out. I want to design and teach our mechs. Like Sting here.” She almost patted his head, then thought better of it. The scorpid continued into the water dutifully. The pair of gnomes prepared to follow.

“Blue,” Cobra said again, “Do you think you could help me with something? I need to make something that can get me through key card locks. It’ll come in handy with a lot of the old management buildings down in the Depths.”

She smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. “I think I know just the thing. Buuuuuut, it’ll cost you!” She stuck out her tongue and dove into the water.

Cobra couldn’t help but laugh. She’s a talker, but she still knows how valuable her skills are. And she’s pretty fun to be around, I guess. He dove in after her.

---

After a few more hours, Cobra and Tails followed the scorpid into the slime pit for what must have been the fiftieth time all day. Cobra yawned and rubbed oily water out of his eyes.

“Some job, eh kid?” Tails asked, wringing out his beard.

Cobra sighed. “It sucks. Playing babysitter to an overgrown metal bug…”

Tails laughed. “It’s better than having to risk life and limb for table scraps. This is what I call ‘easy money.’ Even if it’s a slog, it’ll be worth the return.”

“Is that the same reason you old folks brought Blue onto the crew?”

Tails frowned. “That’s a question for Tops, kid.”

“He wouldn’t answer if I asked him.”

“Fair point. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to say that she’s included in the deal we made for a big heist the boss is planning. Note that the boss makes lots of plans, not all of which work out. In the meantime, Blue is proving herself useful.”

“Barely. She’s a resource drain and she talks too much.”

“The resources are an investment on future gains, kid. Nothing pays better than being up-to-date on tech in Gnomeregan. ‘Sides, she’s brought us something even more valuable.”

Cobra raised an eyebrow at the old man. “Valuable? Like information? Gold?”

“Try optimism, kid,” Tails answered, patting the scorpid as it gathered scraps. “Our crew’s been running on competition, meager pay, and an open bar for years now. But we haven’t had a new member as full of passion and energy as Blue in all that time. Watching her work, you can’t help but smile. On the inside, at least. She reminds us of a thing the mechgineers up in the Manifold seem to forget: we’re still people.”

Cobra frowned. He wasn’t sure about all this touchy-feely stuff from Tails. His instincts told him that no good could come from people who operated on emotion. Not after what he’d gone through with Mother.

After the scorpid had its newest haul gathered, the pair followed it back into the water. They resurfaced and joined Blue on the floor outside the door to Platform 1. The scropid set its load down on the ever-growing pile of scrap, but before it could turn around and head back for another round, Blue clapped her hands, causing the thing to stop in its tracks.

“Sting, report power supply!” Blue commanded. After a moment, she remembered to add a hand gesture.

“OPERATING AT 15% POWER,” it said.

Blue turned to the divers and said, “I don’t have any spare batteries on me, so we’ll have to take Sting home to recharge. This experiment turned out to be a rousing success! Thank you both for keeping my precious Sting safe!” She hugged the metal bug, rubbing her cheek against it as though it were some adorable pooch.

Tails smiled as he tucked away his rebreather. “All in a day’s work, darling,” he said genially.

Cobra rolled his eyes, forcing down an unwelcome smile. It felt wrong to be happy like this. It felt fake, like the stories of happy families or happy endings in the books he once read. At any moment, this feeling could be snatched away as his mother had once taken the books.

But worse than that, he felt guilt. I’m betraying them, he realized. Selling away their secrets to an enemy gang. I don’t deserve to be one of them. He said nothing for the remainder of the job. A long, silent afternoon hauling scrap on carts back to the hideout gave him plenty of time to think.

Yet by the time he curled up in one of his nooks for the night, the feeling of guilt had not left him.

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“Aaaaaand, done!” Blue presented a key card, designed just the way Cobra had drawn on his note paper. “May it open a path to much happiness for you!”

Cobra dug his fingernails into his palms to painfully force down a smile. “It looks perfect, but I’ll let you know if it works.” He reached to take the card, but Blue pulled back.

“Unh-unh-uhh! You have to pay up, first! Basic rules of business! Tops has been teaching me.” She smiled proudly at what must have counted for tremendous insight in her mind.

Cobra glanced around nervously. The Rat’s Scrap Shop was nearly empty this time of day, as most of the talent was out on the streets already. Cobra had made certain to have as few eyes on this transaction as possible. But he still chafed at the idea of Blue’s form of ‘payment.’

“Do I really have to do it here? Now?” Blue nodded emphatically. Cobra sighed. “Alright, get your stupid mech out, then.”

Blue was so giddy at his consent that she overlooked his insult against the scorpid. After a quick hand motion from the woman, it scuttled its way out of the ‘den’ she’d built for it – shaped much like a human’s doghouse Cobra had once seen in a periodical illustration from Stormwind – and clanked to a stop beside a stool. Blue patted the stool top and said, “Have a seat, this will take some time. Oh, but the results will be worth the wait!”

Cobra, eye twitching, took a seat as bid. Blue handed him a cylindrical device topped with a rough spider-web pattern of small, slender tubes. The device had a few buttons on the side marked “REC,” “PAUSE,” and “STOP.” A long, curly wire connected it to a box on Sting’s back.

“You’ll speak into that,” Blue said, tapping the tubing on the top. She gathered a stack of papers from her workbench, knocking over some fly-swarmed tin cans in the process, and placed them in Cobra’s lap. “Normally, I would have a soundproof setup to maintain recording quality, but this will have to do for the short-term!”

Cobra flipped through the pages, eyes boggling at the sheer number of voice lines printed on them. He’d seen typewritten pages as part of blueprints he’d swiped before, but never had they been this chock-full of words. Trying to read them all gave him a headache. He looked incredulously at Blue. “You want me to say all of these?”

“Well, of course! I mean, we might not get to all of them today since it takes Sting a while to condense all the voice lines into smaller bit reference files--”

Cobra held up a hand to pause her speech. “I didn’t ask for the techno-babble, Blue. How long is this gonna take?”

Blue muttered to herself and moved her finger in the air as though drawing on a chalk board. After a moment she replied, “Ten hours, give or take fifteen minutes.”

“All that for just a key card?”

“Well, key cards are used for high security for a reason! They require lots of expensive materials and very minute but unique patternings to work just right. It takes special equipment and--”

“And for some reason you’d rather me pay with my voice than coin or points?”

Blue grinned. “You have the finest voice of all my available subjects! Plus not many of the other thieves are as good at reading as you are.”

“Oh,” Cobra said, suddenly wracked with guilt. “Thanks, Blue.”

The mechgineer nodded casually and pushed a few buttons on the scorpid’s back. “So,” she said, “Shall we begin?”

Cobra looked back down at the script, then at the key card in Blue’s coat pocket. Well, nothing for it but to get it over with. He pushed the REC button and said, “Hello, new user. Thank you for choosing me to be your companion. We are going to have such fun together.”

---

Blue finally gave Cobra a break nearly five hours later. By then, his throat was dry and sore, he was hungry and tired, and people had begun filtering back into the hideout for their nightly revels. Cobra sat in the reception room slurping noodles and chugging watered-down beer. The key card sat in his pocket.

Sorry, Blue, he thought regretfully, When I see an opportunity, I can’t afford not to take it. The mechgineer had removed her coat during the recording session and left it on her workbench when the two of them had split to get dinner. It had been a simple thing to pretend he’d forgotten something, send her ahead to the Sink, then slip back and take the card.

Now he had a new obstacle: he had no idea if Tops was in or not. Socks was working the desk again. The last thing Cobra wanted was to ask him and risk his plan being discovered. Cobra leaned back in the couch and slurped down the last of the noodles. I’ll need to get Socks away from the desk somehow, he knew, But how do I keep him distracted long enough to search Tops’ office?

His mind drifted to what little he really knew about Socks. The man was known for his boastful exaggerations and embellishments of his past deeds. Like most thieves in the Rat Runners, he didn’t even use his real name. Yet his behavior told more than words ever could. And nothing motivated Socks quite like the nymph of a gnome known as Gretta Grabbyhands.

Cobra slid off the couch and dumped his noodle cup into the trash, then made his way into the Sink. The atmosphere was more subdued than usual; even thieves were affected by the ever-present anxiety regarding the fall of Stormwind. No one knew exactly what the development would mean for the Rats’ future, and that made planning ahead impossible. Any thief’s worst nightmare.

Cobra went unnoticed easily. His brief fame had faded, and the thieves’ minds were far from present in the moment. He found his target moving between tables, delivering drinks and sultry comments. Cobra shadowed Gretta until she sashayed back to the bar for another set of orders. He slid into a stool near the flip-up countertop and slapped down a silver coin, loud enough to be heard over the bards performing on stage. Gretta stopped and smiled at him. Her elaborate pink updo swayed precariously.

“Well howdy, Short-Stack,” she said. “What can I get for you?” She leaned against the bar, her breasts squeezing against her skimpy bodice.

Cobra rolled his eyes at the display. How obvious can you be, woman? “I have a little job for you, if you want some silver.”

Gretta’s primly trimmed eyebrow rose. “A job, eh? Well, I’ve already got one of those right now. Unless you’re looking for a special service.

“No,” he replied flatly, “I just need you to get Socks’ attention for a few minutes.” Before she responded, Cobra added, “Actually, a special service might be in order. But for him, not me.”

“Oh-ho! Doing the ‘big man’ a favor? You keep this up, and you’ll be in his good graces before long. I’ve been upping the charge on him lately since he calls on me so often.”

Cobra spun the coin on the barstand. “How much?”

Gretta fluffed up her hair. “Fifteen bolts.”

Cobra’s nose twitched. Fifteen of my hard-earned silver bolts for that bastard! Reluctantly, he retrieved the remainder of his coins from the pouch in one of his hidden pockets. Just relax and get it over with. Make them count. He handed over the bolts, leaving only a handful of copper hexes in the pouch. He had a reserve of silver split between his various hiding holes, but this was a significant dip into his funds.

Gretta took the coins and secreted them away in a secret pocket of her own – in her bodice, of course. “Thank you kindly, young’in. I’ll let Maggie know to take over for me and get that slippery man in the back for a while. I’ll make sure to tell him who threw the favor his way.”

“Wait,” Cobra called as she turned to leave. “Just tell him it was a friend. No names.” Can’t afford to make him suspicious of me for no reason.

Gretta shrugged. “Weird way of making friends, but it’s your money, pal.”

“Thanks. Oh, and Gretta, have you seen Tops around tonight?”

“I have. He’s in his booth meeting with members from those Copperfingers, the gang from Platform Twenty-Five. He’ll be busy for a long while yet.”

Cobra nodded and slid out of his stool. Gretta took his departure as an invitation to depart herself. I should have located Tops first, but at least it’s working out in my favor. Still, no reason to start getting cocky.

A few minutes later, he watched Socks walk off with Gretta, leaving the front desk unattended. Typical. He’d rather leave his fellow thieves out in the back alleys all night than miss a chance for a free tumble. Once the coast was clear, Cobra stalked up to Tops’ office door and slipped Blue’s copy of the key card from his pocket. He slid it into the cypher lock and grinned when the light flashed green.

The door slid open, revealing Tops’ neatly organized desk and wall space. Cobra slipped in and let the door slide shut behind him. Warily, he scanned the room for sign of any guard mechs but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He crept further in and released a tense breath after a quiet, tense moment. Then he set to work.

He checked every set of information pinned on boards hung about the walls, scanned the papers left stacked on the desktop, and carefully opened the desk drawers to pour through their contents. He found nothing regarding any heist plans.

After checking everything in sight, Cobra was left with only one drawer unopened. It was locked. Damnation and obsolescence! Tails hadn’t had time to teach him the basics of lockpicking yet. Cobra hadn’t acquired the necessary tools, either. He tugged at the locked drawer angrily, venting his frustration. I can’t let all this preparation go to waste! I will find out what you’re hiding!

He took his razor from his pocket and slipped it into the crevice just beside the lock latch. He prodded and pulled and felt a slight give in the latch. I can do this! Straining with all his might, he forced the lock to bend out of shape. Tugging the drawer, he felt it pull more loosely than before. Another minute of prodding and he managed to pull the drawer open completely.

Yes! he exalted silently. He sifted through the contents, finding various sets of blueprints and dossiers on many of the high-ranking thieves in the Runners. Tails and Socks were included, as was -- to Cobra’s surprise -- Blue. The blueprints in question explained that tidbit.

A factory on the ninety-sixth platform. Almost as high as it gets in the Centrifuge. And these plans…signed by ‘Barbara Redwrench.’ Blue’s sister. It must be.

He memorized the factory’s location and returned the documents to the drawer. He forced the drawer shut and fiddled with the latch to get it back into place as though nothing had happened. In the process, his razor blade snapped off, still inside the drawer.

Shit. No way to get it back out…

Seething, Cobra withdrew from the desk and pocketed the hilt of his useless razor blade. He’ll see the blade next time he opens the drawer. Nothing I can do about that now. Nothing but hope I’m not implicated. He didn’t want to think about what sort of punishment Tops would deliver him should the truth come out.

Cobra slid out of the office, shiftily checking for witnesses. A pair of thieves wandered from the workshop to the Sink, but they didn’t look his way. Sweating, the young thief exited the office and let the door slide and lock behind him.

Well, tonight wasn’t an utter failure, he concluded. Now I suppose I’ll finish repaying Blue. I couldn’t have done with without her, after all. Somehow the thought of continuing to record her stupid voice lines didn’t seem so bad. He wasn’t sure why.

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