Author : A. Katherine Black

Green paint peeled uniformly across the surface of the only door in the dark hallway, revealing a dirty brown history. Bastian slowed as he neared it. His partner walked around him and opened the door, entering the room without hesitation.

Bastian held back, scanning the hallway, wondering where the medics hid after prepping the space. Then he stepped into the small room, stopping when he saw the figure lying on the table.

“Jesus, Stewart.” He closed his eyes for a long blink. “This is a kid.”

Scents of salt and burnt rubber filled the room and made him nauseous.

“Oh, come on, Bas. You know what this is.” Stewart’s head craned forward in exasperation. “Unofficial. Under the goddam table. We can’t use a regular for this.” He reached behind Bastian to shut the door and turn the lock.

Bastian exhaled deeply as he sat in one of the two chairs at the head of the table. “Have you ever seen one this young before? What, is he six or something? Is it safe at that age?” He silently thanked his bad luck he wasn’t a parent himself. He couldn’t stand the weight of this if he was.

Sickly yellow lights hummed above the peaceful slack face on the table. The boy’s body was thin, his legs withered. A red cap dotted with metal beads attached to his head like a giant suction cup. Multicolored wires sprouted from spaces between the beads like roots dangling from a roughly extracted plant. Bastian was glad the kid, however old he was, slept like a baby. Christ, a baby.

He turned to the equipment between the recliners, trying to refocus. Movement flashed in his peripheral vision, pulling his eyes back to the kid, who laid still as stone. He must’ve imagined it.

He rubbed sweaty palms on his jeans and reclined his chair, taking one of the headsets and strapping it on. The metal was cold on his forehead. He pulled the pad from his front pocket and prepared to take notes. Stewart was right. This damned dictator was guarded better than their own effing Minister. They’d need this space if they were going to map out a plan solid enough to take the guy down.

Stewart took the other chair and bounced on it a few times with a satisfied smile before reaching for his headset. His face soured when he regarded Bastian.

“The kid’s older than he looks,” Stewart said. “The crippled legs just make him look shorter.” He looked squarely at Bastian, daring him to disagree. “Man, you know we need this space.” He reclined his own chair. “Don’t worry, these undocumented jobs pay way better than licensed ones. We’re helping his family.” He squinted at moldy spots on the ceiling. “I mean, look at those legs. He needs the money for medical bills.”

Bastian looked toward the boy once more. From his reclined position, all he could see were wires. He almost said something else, but then Stewart pressed the button to activate the session. They both inhaled sharply.

Bastian’s mind was a cavern. So much space waiting to be filled. Suddenly everything was crisp and obvious, from the sound of air hissing through the vents to the metallic taste in his mouth. It all made sense.

They discussed assets, intel. They planned. Bastian’s hand danced over his pad as the path unfolded before them. He laughed at the simplicity, the clarity of it all.

Every now and then, he couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder. No one was there, of course, but the feeling of being watched lingered.

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