tumblr_nuiz7oeHEc1s0d166o1_540.jpgWriter: Orion159
Redirected from an earlier draft, Audible Hope. Sorry about that. It was the cleanest way I could think of.
Word count: 1377


In the room over from where Ali lay resting on her cot, she could hear a knife rapping out a steady beat against the contract table. It was an odd sound, with the metallic ringing of the blade combining with the muted wooden 'thunk' of the table to produce a steady note, punctuated by the strikes. The whole thing was a beautiful example of contrasting tones that combined together to form a greater harmony. To her, it was even more beautiful for the fact that the drummer himself wasn't aware of these things, and was only doing it out of boredom.

It was a slow, summer evening in the Outback. Two of its members were out fulfilling the latest contract that had been sent their way, another three were out making their “quick-hire” rounds in the Slums and Industrial district, and the final three were here in the house, recovering from a previous job.

A knock came at the door, two quick taps, followed by a space, then three more. Ali heard the one who had been tapping the knife get up and unlock the door. A few mutterings were exchanged at the entrance, then the group came in. As she listened, she noticed that she didn’t hear the door close, and recognized Jet’s signature entrance. Knowing that she would soon be called, Ali stretched her legs and began to get up. Halfway through her rise, a hard voice called out from beyond the door.

“Kid! Get out here!” The clinking of knives and emptied guns being discarded in a pile could be heard. The girl got up and went into the central room, where three people, two of which were covered in fresh speckles of blood, were bent over the paper-covered contract table. The man she knew to be Jet glanced over at her and waved his hand.

“Get the gear clean before the stains set in. Then pull some drinks from the tankard.” He winced and gingery rubbed a red stain on his forearm that looked like it had been hastily bandaged. “Actually,” he amended, “get some gauze out of storage before you get those drinks.” His bloody partner, a hard woman in her upper thirties known as Jess, looked at him reproachfully. Ali collected the weapons and brought them over to the cleaning station in the far corner. While she was busy, the three passed the time scanning the jobs lying on the table.

Jess pointed to paper on the pile, “Some Uppers need a few bodyguards for help with ‘business’ over at Garaway’s tomorrow.”

Jet glanced over at it, “What are they paying?”

“20 Nazodones per guard.”

Gibs let out a low whistle, “they expecting a gang war to break out or something?” Jet stared at the distant wall pensively. After a bit, he called to the girl, “Kid, did you see who dropped this notice off?” She nodded.

“Yes sir. A small man in a grey trench coat that came by early in the morning. His hat had a red feather in it.”

“And he didn’t see you?”

“No sir, he slide the contract under the door instead of pinning it up on the board, and then causally walked away as fast as he could.”

Jet looked to Jess, then pointed Gibs towards the filing cabinet where the finished jobs were stored. “What does that tell you?” He asked her.

The older woman scratched her chin and looked over the contract again. “If it was a red feather, then it’s the Hawkensens, same family who’d be hiring us in the contract. Doesn’t feel like a set-up to me.”

Jet’s eyes were back on the table, “No one on this team has carried out a hit on one of theirs, have we?”

This time it was Gibs who answered, shaking his head as he came back from the cabinet, “Nothing’s on record, and none of us are stupid enough to try and pull off a hit on an Upper unless the pay’s enough to retire on, which it never is.” The other man nodded, mostly to himself, then took the contract and set it on the section of table reserved for current jobs.

“I'm putting the whole team on this, so rest up and be ready when tomorrow comes. No one offers that much for bodyguards without having a damn good reason, and I have a feeling we'll find out that reason tomorrow.”

Ali kept scrubbing.

Jess got up and walked over to the far corner, eying the weapons and gear that had been already been cleaned, then proceeded to slap Ali in the back of the head.

“That gun's been clean for while now.” She growled into the girl's ear, “Why don't we get those bandages now, eh?”

Startled, Ali dropped the gun, but managed to catch it before it clattered on the ground.

“Y-y-yes'm”, she squeaked out, carefully laying the gun and bloodstained cloth down before scurrying off to her room to get the gauze roll off the shelf above her bed.

After everyone had been bandaged up, and the drinks had been poured, talk became less formal. Ali was back in her corner, her wrinkled hands doing their best to wash out blood from cloth and leather.

“Stopped by Doses earlier this morning, before the job.” Jess said after a few gulps, “Chatted with Warner for a few.”

Gibs snorted, “Didn't think she came down this far for anything other than a lay.”

“I don't pretend to know that woman” laughed Jess, “but she did mention something I want to check out after the job. She told me that Garaway's got their hands on a working music box. They apparently take it out and let it run during the dinner rounds.”

Now it was Jet who snorted, “That's all people do nowadays. Waste time and energy looking for old shit that doesn't do the rest of us a lick of good.”

Jess then retorted with a sneer, but Ali had stopped listening. A music box! Agnes had told her about them! One of the most pure and beautiful things man had ever made, according to her. Then and there, Ali made her mind up. No matter the risks, and they were even greater than Jet knew, no matter the obstacles, Ali would make sure she got taken to Garaway's.

...

There was regret, and then there was what Ali felt.

But still, here was the music box, tucked away in the same storage closet that she had crawled into, shaken and bleeding from several gashes across her body. She knew that another Outback merc had secretly taken an Upper target hit job a week back. She knew what would happen here. She thought the years of abuse would prepare her for the bloodshed.

But still, here was the music box. With trembling hands, she carefully took it into her arms, feeling its dusty wooden surface to find the wind-up knob that Agnes had described to her all those months ago, and turned it until it would turn no more. Slowly, ever so slowly, she opened the lid.

Once it was halfway up, the tinkling music came pouring out, like a breath held in for too long. She didn't worry about attracting attention from the outside. There was no one left to hear it. As the tune flowed over her torn and frayed mind, Ali felt the notes, the ones that had been pushed back down time and again by her captors with beatings and knives, rising up through her throat.

They were uncertain, timid things. Trembling notes that seemed to cling to the clear chimes of the box. She tried to make them swell, give them strength, but she had none left to give. Gradually, the carpeted floor of the storage room rose to meet her, and eventually, the music box ceased its melody. But Ali continued with her own. Even as she lay shattered on the floor, her voice wove through the air; sounding out songs she had only dared whisper to herself in the dead of night. At least she was free, she thought to herself.

And for that moment, hers was the only voice that sounded in the graveyard that was Garaway's.