“Anything to trigger,” she whispered to herself, crouching deeper in the shadows as the guard drew nearer. “Anything.” She waited until he paced his predictable steps right in front of her, not even realizing she was there, and then sprang out, tackling him at the knees.
The pavement had been particularly gritty that morning, the ashes of the nearby factories belched out into the sky only to settle down into the cracks, the pores, the lungs below. Marya could hardly bear it some days. And so she had gone to see Grist.
He had leered at her, grinning crookedly. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. You just can’t afford it.”
“I can,” she had insisted grimly.
“No, doll, you can’t. Magic Pens ain’t cheap.”
“Give me a job.”
His smile widened, twenty-seven crooked teeth.
“Any job. Anything to pay for the trigger.”
“Alright, alright,” he chuckled. He pointed to her gloved hands and said, “Show me what you can do.”
They tumbled to the ground together, the impact passing through his armored hip and into her cheek. She sprang back to her feet and kicked him across the face as he labored upright. He fell over backwards and she leapt onto his chest, reaching for his exposed neck.
“I can’t let you do this,” Cobb had insisted quietly, his hands balled at his sides.
“You can’t stop me,” she had told him flatly, painting her nails steel gray. She had kept her eyes on her fingers. Brush, brush, building up the metal paint. “I’ve developed enough,” she had continued, still painting the nails out longer and longer. “All I need now is the trigger.”
He had sighed impatiently, knuckles clenched white. “Marya-”
“Don’t.” She had held up her fingernails, examining their length. Then she had taken up the file and started to sharpen them.
Her claws slashed at his neck, opening long scarlet lines. He cried out and the lines erupted into welted rashes, their borders racing across his skin. His back arched, his mouth opening silently.
Marya surged to her feet again, ripping the access badge off his arm, and darted for the door. Panting, she pressed the card against the pad with bloodied fingers and the door opened with a hiss.
“Alright, kid, this is everything you’re gonna need to get you in the door and up to the lab. After that, you’re on your own, got it? No onions in there.”
She had nodded silently, greedily staring at the bag that represented her future.
“You be careful with that stuff, alright? I want it in one piece, or the deal’s off.” He had helped her ease the strap over her slim shoulders, adjusting the bag and then clipping it in place over her hips. Her fingers had brushed his and he had jerked back angrily, spitting, “Watch the nails!” She had glared up at him for just a moment, hungry dark eyes in a pale face. He couldn’t help but smile a little at the predatory glint as she had looked away again. Oozing gutter charm once more, he had leaned close, brushing her hair back behind her ear, and whispered, “Remember me when you’re living uptown, alright, sweetheart?”
She had turned away wordlessly.
Marya sprinted to the far end of the narrow building and then climbed stairs, her damaged lungs burning in her chest. She paused briefly at the top landing and glanced down at a note scrawled on her hand. She jogged down the hall to the right door, eyes scanning the lock. She took the knob in her fingers, driving her nails into the metal, but the poisons did nothing. Swearing, she stepped back again, digging into her bag. She pulled out a box of onion bombs and opened it, glancing up at the door. She lifted out the smallest of the onions. Carefully holding the sticky little bulb up to the base of the knob, she let its roots take hold, and then yanked out the top and ran.
There was a loud pop and the knob spiraled wildly through the air, immediately followed by a jarring alarm that lit the halls in brilliant, flashing red. Still clutching the box, she rammed her shoulder against the door, spilling into the room. She vaulted over a couch and tripped on a potted plant. Rolling to her feet, she slammed into the far door and jammed a fat onion against the knob, immediately diving behind the couch again. The boom rocked the air, rattling her thoughts, and she staggered upright, stumbling toward the twisted door hanging loosely off its hinges.
The lab was a riot of red lights and smoke, a screeching siren bisecting her thoughts. She looked back down at the note on her hand, straining to see it in the flashing darkness. She scanned rows of files, desperately searching, getting closer. She yanked on the drawer, but it held fast, refusing to do more than rattle. She sobbed briefly as she heard yelling outside the building. She didn’t dare use another onion bomb. That only left one choice.
She pulled her sleeve up, grimacing at the criss-cross lattice of scars. She promised herself this would be the last time. Gritting her teeth, she brandished her augmented fingernails and tore her own wrist open.
Marya’s mother had been the first to realize, but she had kept the secret close, hiding her. The tiniest cuts had been matters of grave importance. Every edge in the apartment had been blunted. She didn’t keep so much as a sewing needle lying around. Marya hadn’t realized what she was for years. When her mother had finally told her, she was too closely sheltered to understand the significance of it. So she had told her friend. Who had told her father. Who had killed Marya’s mother and kidnapped her.
Hot blood spilled over her skin, hissing as it hit the floor. She pressed her arm against the lock, watching impatiently as the metal frothed and boiled. She kicked in the front of the drawer and wrenched the rest out. She found three neatly arrayed and stuffed them in her bag, staggering for the window. She ripped the laceration wider, pouring blood over the sill, then kicked out the metal frame and leapt as the first of the police came into the smoky room.
She didn’t bear the man any grudges. She had killed him, of course, but only as a matter of survival. That’s how things were in the slums. Now, uptown… that was the veritable fairy land she sought. Her mother used to tell her bedtime stories about it, a place where the special people lived, where the snow was white and the air was sweet. A place where there was work, and pay, and food. That was where she could go after she was triggered. If she could only stay free that long…
Cobb found her a few blocks away, treed like a cat on a second story window sill, police cruisers sliding up and down the midnight streets. He helped her down, the light-headed little criminal, and hoisted her onto his back. Weary, she whispered, “Thanks, Cobb. Soon. It’ll be done soon.”
He sighed. He hated when she talked about triggering. Something rattled in her bag and he asked, “What is it?”
“Dunno. A box.”
“It came loose.”
“What?” She kicked and he put her down. She ripped the bag open, breathing sharply through a tight throat. “No, no, no…” She lifted out a partially eroded box, its edge bloodstained and pockmarked. Something fell out of the hole and she choked on a sob.
Cobb froze, staring. “What is that?”
She looked down at the thing on the pavement, a long, slim tube. “No,” she whispered, shocked beyond tears. “No way.”
He snatched it up, demanding, “How many are there?”
He sat, thunderstruck. “You- you just stole three boxes of Magic Pens.”
She tore her jacket off, commanding, “Open it!”
He shook his head. “I don’t know how it works!”
“Just inject it!”
“Do it!” she screamed.
A door slammed and they both startled. Two uniforms walked toward them, their faces obscured. Marya grabbed Cobb’s arm, pulling him closer, and he cried out. She looked down, seeing the fine red lines her fingernails had left in his arm. She stared. “Cobb!”
He gasped and stumbled, sinking backward. She took his hand and felt the vial, watching as his eyes went wide, his muscles contorted.
Marya felt a hand on her shoulder, authoritative and cold. “It’s after curfew. What are-”
She cracked the vial open, felt the glass bite into her skin. Eyes on Cobb, she pressed the needle into her scarred arm, emptying the trigger into her toxic veins. The police didn’t matter now, nor Grist, nor anything in these hideous slums that had witnessed both her birth and her exaltation. She felt white hot divinity burning through her and whispered sadly to Cobb, “Anything to trigger.”