His skin was tinged in the creases with an unhealthy yellow and his hair hung lank and grey about his face. Wide, almost lidless eyes flickered around the corridor. They did so in such a crazed and yet desperately alert manner that the two chattering maids had no choice but to scuttle away in silence. His suit was dusty and battered and at least two sizes too small. It pinched at his gaunt shoulders and the frayed cuffs showed several inches of forearm. He had carried a briefcase once upon a time, but he lost it when he stepped out of The Flow too early and it was confiscated by a first generation Hubbard Dragoon. He didn’t care. It had been empty anyway. Nothing more than a prop.
The apartment building was nothing like he had imagined. He was unprepared for how dirty everything was, especially at the edges where colour seemed to fade and darken under an encroaching carpet of virulent grey dust. He had dirtied his own clothes in accordance, but the locals remained untrusting. Some had even physically assaulted him, but when there were witnesses nearby he had no choice but to force restraint. Harrow’s Directive allowed no distractions.
At the end of the corridor was a familiar wooden door; the numbers one, zero, and four were rusted deep into its surface. He raised a fist and knocked three times. His wild eyes flickered across every contour; every speck of dirt; every patch of flaking paint that once might have been green.
He heard the sound of a bolt being drawn back and a borderline obese man with a heavy rust-red beard pulled the door open. Even the creak of the hinges sent nostalgia creeping up his spine.
‘What do you want?’ the bearded man asked after a few long moments of disquiet.
The yellow man remained still, his eyes the only source of movement.
The bearded man regarded the stranger with a blankness that could only be interpreted as unintelligence. He dug a filthy fingernail under the beard and scratched, letting out a long sigh that rattled in his throat and foamed spittle across his lips.
‘Goddammit what has she done this time? Was it another window?’
The yellow man regarded the bearded man with equal parts fascination and loathing. The creature was a disgrace; little more than a Farm Brute with clothes and a face. A third generation Hubbard Dragoon would have executed him on the spot.
The bearded man sighed again, and absentmindedly inserted the same fingernail up one nostril. When he was finished he stood to one side and the door swung all of the way open.
‘You’d better come in then. Let’s see what the silly little bitch has to say for herself. HILLARYYY!’
A small girl of no more than eleven or twelve timidly stepped into view. She would have been completely naked were it not for the huge t-shirt that hung down below her knees. The neck was far too large, displaying both clavicles and the tops of budding breasts.
‘I’m too late again,’ the man said matter-of-factly. The girl stared back with huge dark eyes, completely unfazed.
‘What are you talking abou-’ the bearded man began before a slender index finger crushed his windpipe closed against an equally slender thumb. He fumbled with bluing lips and lurched forwards inch by inch until his heaving upper body struck the edge of the tabletop and he fell to his knees. Pale, twitching, impossibly fleshy fingers fumbled with the telephone, but who was he going to call? Who could he call? Just to be on the safe side, that same yellowed finger and thumb plucked a white cable from its housing in the wall and left it draped across the carpet.
‘It’s cordless dummy,’ said the girl. ‘It’s an internet phone. Totally wireless.’
‘I’m too late again,’ he repeated.
‘You are,’ the girl confirmed. ‘You Progenitor’s never get anything right.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Somewhere safe where she can blossom unimpeded.’
‘Where is she?’ he repeated.
‘Even if I told you, you couldn’t reach her in time. You’ve been here longer than anyone. You’ve let this world poison you.’
The man nodded thoughtfully.
‘Do you know who sent me?’
‘No,’ the girl admitted. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
The man stepped towards the girl’s still struggling guardian and hefted him onto the table, before scraping a chair out from under it and jumping up into the seat where he could observe that pallid body a little more closely.
He pulled a peculiar looking instrument from one pocket. On one end was a bodkin, and on the other a greasy rubbery thing that looked like a long condom that had been opened at both ends. A silvery thread twenty or thirty centimetres long linked the two of them together.
‘What are you doing?’ the girl asked, an air of uncertainty creeping into that flat, meek voice.
The bearded man was only moments away from unconsciousness as the bodkin was rammed into place beneath an Adam’s apple that responded by spasmodically tensing and relaxing. He pushed the needle deep into the crushed airway until the tip was visible through that doughy open mouth. He reached in, grabbed the tip, and gently teased it out into the open until he was satisfied that the rubbery sleeve was in place. He thumbed a stud on the wider end of the bodkin and the sleeve expanded, allowing a whoosh of fresh air into the bearded man’s lungs.
‘Did you touch her?’ he asked, eyes jumping from bodkin to girl to bearded man and back to girl.
‘Let… go of… me,’ his prey wheezed. He struggled, attempting to roll from side-to-side though his captor wouldn’t allow it. Those piggy little eyes now rheumy and bloodshot were fixed absentmindedly on the unmoving ceiling fan.
‘Answer me, truthfully now, or I deflate the tube. Answer me truthfully and I will let you live. Did you touch her?’
‘I… I didn’t…’ his prey wheezed again, those pathetic attempts at instigating a barrel roll devolving into a kind of feeble and directionless yaw. ‘I never…’
‘Don’t lie to me.’
‘I didn’t… I swear… I…’
‘Did he touch you?’ he asked the girl. ‘Did he make advances?’
‘What do you hope to gain from this line of questioning?’
The girl watched him unflinchingly. Her face was round, almost cherubic, her nose gilded with a smattering of freckles. Her long brown hair was brushed just so and hung in a single sheet down the back of the t-shirt, tucked in on either side behind a pair of ears that were perhaps just a little too large for her head.
‘He has never tried to instigate sexual relations with me,’ the girl admitted.
‘Good,’ said the yellow man from where he stood perched on the seat of the chair.
He flicked a tiny red button at his belt and heard a whisper. An insignificant, almost inaudible buzzing sound whipped from left to right across the room. He launched himself at the girl as the legs of his chair slid apart and clattered onto the linoleum. The table splintered and fell under the weight of man that lay on top, and the girl felt that she too was falling though she didn’t know why. She raised her hands ready to adopt a defensive posture but the digits closest to her attacker were already spinning through the air on a bright contrail of blood, the hand still attached.
He had closed the gap at frightening speed and before she could retaliate he had already wrenched her other hand away from her body, this time at the elbow. She tried to kick out the instep of his leg but her feet were unresponsive. She looked down to see that they had been severed from her calves so cleanly that as of yet no blood had seen fit to flow.
‘How?’ she asked as he pinned her limbless torso to the wall with one hand.
‘Sometimes I am too late, sometimes I am too early,’ he revealed. She noticed that though the whites were speckled with a fine red mist his eyes continued to rove independently from the rest of his yellowing face. ‘Once when I was too early nobody was home. The pull of The Flow was too strong, but before I was recalled I managed to install a spool of spring-loaded nanowire behind the plug socket nearest your left ankle. I waited for the right moment; for the right time.’
‘But you are too late,’ the girl protested. ‘You said so yourself. Killing me changes nothing. The girl is still free to seed the Progenitors.’
‘Progenitors cannot lie.’
‘Harrow’s Directive allows me to lie. This time I am not too late.’
‘We have her,’ the girl went on, unable to accept what he was saying. ‘She is free to seed the Progenitors. You have changed nothing.’
‘It was childhood trauma that drove Hilary to seed my kind, childhood trauma that both the abuser and the Hubbard Dragoon masquerading as his victim have assured me has yet to happen.’
‘How could you know this?’
‘Because it was Hilary who sent me into The Flow.’
‘She wanted you to kill her as a child.’
‘Yes. But now I see that there is another way. She can be saved.’
The girl tried to make eye contact but his frenzied scan for danger was unrelenting. His mannerisms were too deeply ingrained. If any humanity remained in the Progenitor he hid it well.
‘What if you succeed and she creates the Progenitors anyway?’
‘Then I will be born again, and I will return again.’
The girl shook her head. It was about the only movement she was capable of mustering now that her limbs hung limp and bloodless from an all but fully haemorrhaged torso.
‘I cannot believe that you are right,’ she said simply. ‘She has been taken away. The abuse will never happen… and yet we are still here.’
He released his grip and she slid down the wall to slump awkwardly in an ever-growing lake of her own scarlet lifeblood. She watched as he stood over the prone form of Hilary Harrow’s father, Montgomery Harrow; the inspiration for future childhoods more bleak than anything the silly little girl could ever have imagined.
‘Why are we still here if she never creates us?’ the girl pressed.
The Progenitor turned to face the dismembered but fully conscious figure, and for the first time his eyes focused long enough for her to read his expression. It was a look of uncertainty; a look of resolution; a look of love.
‘As long as he lives, the threat will always be there. He must die.’
Montgomery Harrow shook his head slowly, nasty flares of purple bruising pulling tight and wrinkling loosely in alternating motions beneath spidery tendrils of unkempt beard. The Progenitor reached down, thumbed the stud on the bodkin, and watched that reinflated throat crumple shut under its own weight.
He left the apartment with the ghost of what could have been a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He left the nanowire, the bodkin, and the Dragoon’s body behind. Along with himself all would surely disappear when the heart of Hilary’s would-be-abuser beat its last beat.
He felt the gentle tug of The Flow, and he knew deep down that if he was written out of history he could never prevent Hilary from creating the Progenitors. He could never prevent Hilary from creating him, and when that happened he would be called upon to go back and stop it from happening all over again.
One of the chattering maids backed out of a closet without looking and almost careered right into him. She glanced over her shoulder, saw his crazed blood-speckled yellow-tinged grin out of the corner of one eye and promptly squealed like a stuck pig. An entire armful of thick, brightly coloured cleaning fluids fell to the ground and burst apart in what felt like slow-motion. She slammed her mouth and eyes shut against the inevitable plume of foul, acrid fumes.
When she opened them again the man was gone and every last bottle was nestled safely in the crook of one arm. She sighed, smacked her lips and looked at the clock on the far wall next to room 104. It read 4.56pm.
‘Only thirty-four minutes to go chickpea,’ Francesca said with a nudge and a wink.
The maid smiled and nodded but remained quiet. She didn’t like Francesca, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on the reason why. It was the little things, it had to be. It seemed strange to her that someone who outwardly enjoyed the job so much would spend half the day clock-watching, especially when that person was in ownership of what appeared to be a perfectly good wristwatch.
The maid cleared her head with a brisk shake and returned to work. What did it matter? Francesca wasn’t the only one. She never was. Only the previous week she had escorted a yellow-skinned, wild-eyed electrician around the building, an electrician that had done nothing more than fix a plug socket in apartment 104.
She avoided that apartment whenever she could. She had heard stories about the man that lived inside; horrible stories. Thankfully Francesca was more than happy to clean that side of the building.
It was the little things.