The acid yellow headlights of a black limousine eased around the corner behind Old Mother. She slipped into a dark alley to her left, crouching behind an over flowing dumpster. She held her breath and lost count of the seconds that passed until the dark car cruised past without stopping.
Old Mother sucked her teeth as she stood, partly because her knees hurt and this alone reminded her that she was getting too old for cloak and dagger, partly because it had to be more than a coincidence that for the second time today there was a limo in End Row. She couldn’t say for certain if it had been Hashimoto’s limousine, but she suspected it was.
She didn’t let on at the time, but the impromptu visit from Hashimoto McKinley had unsettled her. It was certainly no surprise that he would be interested in Honor, but the level of his desperation was evident by the fact that he dared to come to her after all of this time. And Old Mother knew from experience that desperation made men dangerous.
So much time had passed since anyone had called her Zara that she had almost forgotten the name. But she had never forgotten Hashimoto. She had to marvel at how little he'd changed both physically and otherwise. He still feared her, she could tell, still revered her, “As it should be," she whispered to herself as she stepped back out onto the street. She glanced to her right and saw the shape of a man tall and thin easing down the street along the buildings’ shadows. Old mother turned left and moved as quickly as she could and her knees cracked in protest.
Long Lane dead ended at Highway 8. There, if she turned left a five minute walk would take her to the edge of the woods that lead to Middling Territory. It had been a long time since she had been in Midling Territory, but she had always been welcome by them when no one else was. She had sheltered too many of the Midlings as children for them to turn her away now, and considering the news she carried, that their leader Airun was still alive and well, she figured they should be rolling out the red carpet.
Old mother walked quickly, head down into the darkness.
Old mother walked quickly, head down into the darkness.
The pack she carried was light, she knew, for a sixteen year old boy, but for her it weighed heavily, felt almost as if it were pulling her backwards, unsteadying her. She was grateful for Cutter though because he had forgotten nothing when packing her bag. A blanket, leather gloves, a pouch of her Ginger tea to stave off the cold at night, a thermos of hot water, quarter pound of dried salted beef, a few dried berries from the stash they'd picked at the edge of the forest at the end of the summer, a sharp knife in a sheathed blade and extra socks. Old mother had not taught him how to pack or about contingency planning for long trips alone in the woods, or how to fight. He knew these things when she'd found him only a year ago. While he never wanted to speak about his past, he was always willing to use his knowledge for the good of her and the children. He had been a blessing to Old Mother, especially since Honor left them. He had adored Honor, his elder adopted sibling, and was eager to fill her shoes in her absence.
Old mother glanced up at sky, clear and black as a sheet. She could not see the stars. Segher, golden against the heavens hung in the sky and seemed almost close enough to touch. She had never been to Segher, and when the Scientists offered the new home to the Believers, she knew that it would not be the heaven they promised. She had known better. McKinley's face flashed into her mind from the day she had confronted him. He'd tried to deny it, but she had always known when he was lying.
Old mother stopped as her gaze locked onto to another dark figure just ahead. Tall and lithe, the figure was almost one with the shadows. She might not have seen it, had she not heard the crunch of shoes on the crumbling curb. She watched until the figure crossed to the other side of the street and entered an old apartment building. Only then did she breathe. She berated herself for making this trip on her own, as if she was still a young woman, as if she could defend herself against the physical pressure of a man who might want to do her harm. Fear or no, Old Mother knew that McKinley would do her harm if it meant getting to Honor. But she'd had little choice in this case. She couldn't send Cutter. While she had no doubt he could be a formidable enemy, he was only a child.
The day Old Mother confronted McKinley, she'd summoned him to her laboratory. He came alone, which she had not expected, but on better thought, he'd owed her at least that much. He'd looked her in the eyes and lied, "Segher is the heaven we have promised. No plans to poison to kill." And he'd said this to her with tears welling up in his eyes, the last of his humanity and conscience, she supposed. The last of him.
Old Mother glanced behind her, and thought that she saw the shadow that had been behind her ease into the alley she'd been in, but she couldn't be sure. They were old tired eyes, she thought, almost with the urge to laugh.
She'd showed McKinley the projections and plans she'd purged from his computer about how he and his Scientist following planned to commit genocide on a group of people simply for believing. He’d known her just as well as she’d known him and knowing that she would not be denied the truth, he told her the plans.
"There is no place in this world for the ignorance and disillusionment of religion," he'd said. He was proud of this and deeply believed what he was saying. The light that once brightened his face was gone and this scared her. She knew Hashimoto McKinley better than anyone else, but now she was sure she didn’t want to.
"What has a god ever done except confuse and mislead?" and he stood up, his face suddenly and inexplicably distorted with anger. "Man should be his own god."
Old Mother, then called Zara, backed away from McKinley, her brother by birth, and science, and until then even at heart, because she did not recognize him nor understand what had happened to him.
"That you believe as they do," she tried to reason, “matters little. But where is your respect for their right to believe? What about respecting the lives they possess."
McKinley shook his head, and she noted the look of disgust and pity in his eyes. "But don't you see, Zara? Any person willing to waste their life in the worship of a god they can not see-"
"-but they say they feel him. They say they can see him."
McKinley waved her words away like rubbish. "It is fantasy. I offer the truth of science. I offer the opportunity to live longer, healthier, with intelligence. That is virtue. I also offer them a better god, one that they can see."
"But they don't want it little brother."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Then, they shall die."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Then, they shall die."
Disrupted from her painful reverie, Old Mother spun around when she heard the crunch of gravel and glass and the grind of an engine. A filthy white delivery truck turned the corner onto Long Lane two blocks behind her. At almost midnight, it was too late for anyone to be making deliveries, especially in End Row where it wasn't altogether uncommon for delivery trucks to be robbed. The truck cruised slowly until it passed and turned at the next corner. Old Mother had been leaning against the wall of a crumbling brick storefront, stealing her breath for something bad to happen. When she started on her way again, there was a man, standing only yards away in the shadows. She knew right away who it was, but despite this, she reached behind and pulled the sheathed blade from the hidden under compartment of the back pack and held it out in front of her.
She almost laughed at herself, the absurdity of what she was doing. She was old and weak and the only thing that she should be doing with a knife is cutting sandwiches into triangles for her children or paring back the tender stalks of her herbs.
“What do you intend to do with that knife, Zara?” McKinley’s voice was light and lilted. He thought this was funny and she couldn’t blame him. She must’ve looked quite the fool. She remained silent.
“It’s late and too dangerous for you to be out of doors like this.”
“I didn’t know you cared,” she said. She heard her voice crack and she didn’t want him to think it was fear.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve always cared about you, sister.” He stepped closer out of the shadows and for a moment Old Mother believed him. “Where are you off to at this hour?”
Old Mother backed up a bit, hoping to put some distance between them, but he kept pace with her.
“Are you off to warn Honor? To tell her to move to a safe place?”
“I’ve already told you that I don’t know where she is.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“That’s a shame.”
“It’ll be even more of a shame if I am forced to hurt you, Zara, my beloved sister, but I will if I have to.”
Old Mother was still backing up, step by step and though she couldn’t see it, she knew by the smell of urine and garbage that she was now passing an alley. Quicker than her instincts could follow Cutter stepped out from the alley and took stance in front of her as casually as if he had been walking to the corner store. He gently lifted the knife from Old Mother’s hand. She shrieked, startled, and clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Shame on you,” said Cutter to McKinley, “picking on a harmless old woman.” Without facing Old Mother, he said, “Go on and get to Midling Territory. I’ve sent a message ahead and they will be waiting for you at the edge of woods.”
Forgetting herself, Old Mother said, “What about your siblings? You’ve left them alone?”
Cutter stepped toward McKinley, the blade glinting like a tongue of fire in the light of the blinking street lamp. “They will be fine, I promise. Now we have to take care of you. Please go, Old Mother. I will take care of this one.”
Old Mother hesitated and watched the retreating McKinley, his eyes bright and large, and Cutter whose boy’s face had transformed in the darkness to angles that appeared as hard and jagged as stone. She almost felt as if she had never known the child, as he hardly looked like a child now. Her heart suddenly felt as if it would split wide open as the brother she hated and loved was being advanced upon by this child that she nurtured like her own. But her head overruled her heart quickly. The news she needed to get to the Midlings was far greater than either herself, or McKinley, or Cutter. This news could be the very thing to change the tide of their struggle.
“Yes, you are right, Cutter.” Old Mother hitched the backpack higher on her shoulders and started across the street. The last thing she heard was the sound of shoes scuffling against the concrete of the sidewalk and the ching of Cutter’s blade as it struck brick, or maybe it was bone.