“This place is a dump,” Headley muttered, for what must have been the thousandth time. Foxworth rolled her eyes.

“Of course it’s a dump. It’s our job. If it wasn’t a dump, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah, I know,” Headley replied, “But look at this place. I mean, really look at it. One guy can’t make buildings rot like that, even if he is a zapper.”

Foxworth’s eyes took in the crumbling foundations, the sagging walls, the rust, the dirt, the mess. Her hand drifted to the triple-cycling proton gun in her side holster. It was there for her protection, but how could she protect herself against time?

“Well, this is a class 15 if I ever saw one. Definitely uninhabitable. No clue where anybody could be hiding in all this mess, though. Even zappers gotta eat.”

Foxworth nodded her silent agreement. Sometimes a mutant like this would turn tail and run off after it had killed so many people, attacked by some parody of conscience. They’d have to file a pink form, and while Foxworth hated that, it was better than sticking around this dump any longer.

“All right,” she said at last, turning towards Headley. “Let’s pack up and get out of—”

“What are you doing here?”

Both partners turned towards the new voice, wide-eyed. Foxworth’s hand went immediately to her gun, though she noticed that Headley’s did not. He frowned instead, kneeling down to speak to the boy, no more than seven or eight, who faced them solemnly from the rubble.

“We’re here to help,” Headley assured him. “Are you hurt? Did you lose your parents?”

A cat meowed and Foxworth jumped back, her hand clenching around her gun before she registered the source of the noise. The animal drifted out from behind the pile of debris, making it only the second living thing they’d seen today, and rubbed against the boy’s legs. He picked it up, still frowning at the two government workers.

“You shouldn’t be here. Go away.”

“We just want to make sure you’re okay,” Headley told the boy in that maddeningly reasonable tone, the one that adults used on children and men used on women when they were feeling particularly superior.

“Go away,” the boy repeated, holding the cat close to his chest.

“Look, kid, you’re gonna have to come with us.” Hadley was frowning now. He didn’t like being contradicted or disobeyed.

“I said go away!” The child’s face contorted at the same instant that the cat hissed, flattening its ears back against the top of its head. The veins in Headley’s forehead exploded like overripe grapes, spattering blood everywhere, just like the rest of the corpses they’d seen in this wreckage. He barely had time for a yell of pain before he collapsed, lifeless.

Foxworth was frozen solid. She knew she should be drawing her gun, yelling, crying, running away, doing anything but standing dumbly in the rubble, but she couldn’t bring herself to move.

“Come on, Bugaboo.” The child held out his arms and the cat, after a last look at Foxworth, ambled back and jumped into them. The child frowned at her. “Go away,” he repeated. “Don’t ever come back here again.” Then he turned away.

The cat’s green eyes were mesmerizing, and Foxworth caught her breath. For one irrational moment she thought she could get lost in those eyes, like a labyrinth, and never come out.

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The Past

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