It was unwise to walk the streets at nightfall, Emma knew that. The patrol guards who once swept between the high-rise buildings, enforcing order with fatal precision, had retreated to their watch towers, their weapons trained on the Colony's only exit. This was a city of criminals, and its quadrants had proven impossible to police. So now, all that was left was for the cancer to be contained. The sector was virtually lawless now, especially after dark.
Emma breathed deeply as she pulled open the main door, praying she would not be seen tonight. Once more she cursed herself for her arrogance; if only she could wait. If only she could abstain. But she had no choice. Information like this would not keep until morning, and information like this could be sold.
She had to go to him. And she had to go now.
She felt a familiar twist of pain as she stepped out into the night, a pain as deep and piercing as the bite of a blade through flesh. Even within the confines of the Colony, the bitterness of the season could still cut through the thickest of robes. The cold engulfed her in waves, as nausea and delirium might engulf a dying man.
Even after all these years of confinement, the shock of winters here still took her breath away.
The streets, as expected, were deserted. With the door locked behind her and no chance of return until morning, there was little to do now but continue onwards. Emma wrapped her dark travelling cloak tighter around her thin shoulders and pulled her head scarves down further across her brow, trying to protect her delicate flesh from the searing cold. With one more backwards glance at the closed door, she hoisted the heavy canvas bag onto her back, and headed out into the night.
She walked through the alleyways, the buildings loomed over her like silent black sentinels, monitoring her progress with blank windows like soulless eyes. The street lamps threw weak, watery light onto the ground in circles, and shattered glass of unknown origin crunched beneath her feet. The shadowy corners seemed to grow and undulate as she passed them, as if a nothingness had leaked out into the world and was slowly staining the city streets.
The scent of gasoline clung to the air, harsh and caustic on her tongue, and the silence of the night was punctuated by the unmistakable sound of screaming.
She walked as fast as she dared and turned each corner carefully, her back pressed again the alley walls. But, each time she turned onto a new path, she found herself alone. The screaming – though intermittent – did not stop.
It sounded as though it was getting closer.
She navigated those labyrinthine alleyways for hours, and with each new turn, a little more hope was sucked from her soul. The weight within the bag on her back pulled uncomfortably at her spine, while the boots she wore pinched and rubbed at the skin of her feet. 'That'll teach me,' she thought to herself as she stopped to rub her heel through the worn leather. 'That'll teach me not to borrow the boots from a corpse.'
At the next crossroads, the alleyway ahead of her widened into a vast open space skirted by low, windowless concrete buildings. Emma smiled; this amphitheatre was familiar to her.
She was almost there.
Away from the oppressive closeness of the tall buildings that made up this quadrant's living quarters, Emma was finally able to see the sky above her. The third moon had not yet risen, but the two smaller ones were visible now, hanging languidly in the gathering purple twilight. The thick glass of the Colony dome distorted the shapes of everything outside, and the two moons were elliptical, warped by the light refracted from the stars.
The amphitheatre had once been a holding bay for new arrivals, and Emma remembered well her own disembarkation. As the click of her heels echoed across the space, filling it with the sound of her footsteps, she recalled how they had shaved her head that day and stripped her of her clothing, there in the courtyard.
They tried to break her that day, but she had survived.
She walked across the stone square and drank in her surroundings. The uneven concrete felt strangely comforting beneath her feet, and the glow from the orange halogen lights seemed to make the harsh chill more bearable somehow. A sign on the wall close to her was illuminated by a single naked bulb:
Prisoners must report to the branding room upon arrival.
Emma pulled her scarves tighter about her face and hurried onwards. The open mouth of the subway stretched out before her, obscene and yawning in the red light of the emergency lamps. As she passed into the tunnel, one of the lights above her spat, fizzled and extinguished itself.
The shadows grew darker.
It was then that Emma realised that she was not alone in the tunnel. Her footsteps had been joined by others, heavier and more urgent, hurrying along the passageway towards her. There were four of them, she guessed. Men from the Gamma Quadrant, perhaps, armed with blades and pistols, and hungry. Their laboured breathing rang through the cavernous subway system, like the panting of wolves in pursuit. The echoes made Emma uncertain of the direction of their ambush. Unnerved, she stopped, just as the hand reached out and coiled itself around her throat. She felt the knife at her neck seconds later, pressing into the pulse behind her left ear.
'What do you want?'
One of the men stepped forward into the light. He was old, at least thirty, and had obviously escaped Rehabilitation many times before. But, like all of them, he had not escaped the Branding. The thick, dark skin of his forehead was marked with his crime: the letter 'T' branded into his flesh forever. 'T' for thief.
The two other men completed the circle around her, with the fourth still pressing himself against her from behind. The youngest one, half engulfed by shadows away to her right, was branded with an 'V'. The symbol reserved for those convicted of violent crime. His sharp, yellowing teeth were bared in a sick parody of a smile, and he held a crooked iron bar in his gloved hands. Every few seconds the muscles in his jaw would convulse horribly, pulling the skin back across the bones of his skull as if it were mottled leather.
But it was the man to her left for whom she reserved the deepest revulsion. The man with the lifeless grey eyes. The man wielding a length of chain as if it were silk. The man marked with the letter 'M'.
'What's in the bag, eh Gorgeous?' M leered, his hungry eyes moving from the sack at her feet, up the contours of her body, before resting on her pale face. 'Anything for us?'
Emma remained silent.
'C'mon girly,' said T, 'Ain't cha gunna chat with us?' The three of them laughed and Emma felt the squeeze of the knife at her throat as her captor sniggered in agreement. 'Don't cha wanna talk? C'mon, wha chu got hidin' in there?'
As he moved forward to pick up the bag, Emma saw her chance. She braced herself against the body of her captor and swung her legs round, hitting the thief hard in the jaw. She felt the crunch of breaking bones as her borrowed boot connected with his face. The man screamed, his hands shooting up towards his mouth, which was now covered with his own glistening blood.
''Uckin' 'itch!' he wailed through broken teeth.
The man behind her pressed his knife into her flesh and she felt the wetness of blood on her own skin. He twisted her around in his arms and forced her down against the wall of the chamber. The knife remained steady against her jugular vein.
'I think I'm gunna have fun with you, girly,' The man branded with the 'M' said, reaching out to touch the exposed skin at Emma's collar bone. Instinctively, she kicked again, and felt the blade at her neck bite just a little deeper, as M moved to avoid her bloody boots.
'We've got a live one here!' He laughed. 'Now, tell us what's in the bag, and maybe we'll let you go.'
Behind him in the darkness, the thief shouted out. 'Kill that 'itch! She 'roke my 'ucking jaw!'
'Nah, nah, not yet. I wanna have some fun with her first. Maudley, take the bag. Then you lot piss off to the courtyard. Me and girly here have got some catching up to do.'
Grudgingly, the other men did as they were bid. Emma felt her heartbeat quicken as their footsteps faded.
Soon, they were alone in the underpass.
M stood beside Emma's stooped form, and crouched down, so his face was level with her own. His breath stank of stale cigarettes and cheap whiskey, and his long hair hung limply across the scar on his forehead.
'I like the look of you.' He said. 'You've got some fight left in you too. Makes you more of a challenge.' He pulled at the edges of her scarves, revealing the pale skin beneath. 'Now then,' he growled, 'let's get a good look at you.'
He wrenched away the material, exposing her face to the cold air.
Immediately, his skin began to blanch and his eyes grew wide, swivelling manically in their sockets. His mouth opened and closed as he struggled to breathe and he shrank back from her, pushing his body away clumsily with the heels of his shoes. He hurried to his feet, his eyes still fixed upon Emma's face, then turned sharply and ran full pelt out of the tunnel, shouting at his colleagues as he did so.
The sounds of a struggle followed; shouts and screaming and the fading of footsteps. Dropped luggage and the metallic clank of discarded weapons.
Emma touched the skin of her forehead and felt the mark with which she had been Branded, all those years ago.