viernes, 2 de febrero de 2018

SIX END


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THE CAR CAREENED WILDLY TOWARD Simon. At that speed, there would be no turning back. Simon stopped laughing and shot into the oncoming car. The windshield exploded and the old man slumped on the steering wheel. The front tires wobbled but kept course. Simon jumped back into the darkness a second before the car slammed into the back of the vans. The car exploded into a large fireball, sending a black cloud up the side of the building, over the parking garage.
No,” Almadon cried, running toward the parking garage, holding out a hand.
The flames engulfed the entire ramp with black smoke trailing high into the sky. The car melted in with the two vans, popping and cracking under the extreme heat. There was no way a person or Arrack could make it past the blaze. Whoever the old man was, he thanked him for his sacrifice.
Joey didn’t move at first and something tugged hard at his arm. Glancing down, he saw Poly’s hand pulling him away. He tore his eyes from the carnage and moved with her, and everyone else, to the edge of the parking lot.
Harris stood, shaking his head. He held out a hand and pulled Compry to her feet. She brushed the bits of asphalt off her clothes as she stared at the parking garage. Whatever Almadon did, it appeared to be working.
“We need to get away from here. That fire won’t hold back Simon for long,” Harris said as a black aircraft flew by, high overhead. Joey made out the MM logo on its wing.
Across the street, people stepped out of the stores and offices to witness the chaos at the hospital garage. They pointed at the strange group of people in the parking lot and the fire. A shift in the wind brought the rancid smell of burning rubber and they grabbed for their noses.
“Where do we go?” Joey looked into the surrounding area of tall buildings.
“There’s a safe house not far,” Harris said. “Hank, can you help Compry?”
“Just give me a shoulder to lean on, honey,” Compry said.
Hank obliged and put his arm around her back. They all ran past the parked cars in the street. People stood next to their cars with Panavices in their hands, taking pictures or videos. Joey ran by a man with an orange suit saying this was going to get him in the top ten on Glow Net tonight. Joey tried to keep his head down and his face covered as he ran. He rounded the corner behind Poly, and looked to the sky—no sign of the aircraft.
Julie and Almadon huddled next to each other as they ran. Joey caught parts of their conversation, mostly bits and pieces about breaking down Simon’s shield. Almadon pointed to her Panavice, but as the conversation turned to technical jargon, Joey stopped trying to follow. He only hoped they were finding a way to get the bastards shield down so he could get one good shot on him.
Fewer cars filled the next street. Harris kept the pace at a run, ignoring any protests. They shuffled into a small alleyway between two buildings, wide enough for them all, single file. Joey jogged behind Lucas through the alley, pushing Lucas through to the next street over.
Harris made several more turns and the bright, clean buildings turned into run-down, rusty-orange buildings with broken windows. Harris stopped next to a pair of large steel doors, opened them and motioned them to enter. Joey glanced to the sky—no aircraft.
They all went into the building and Harris pulled the doors closed behind him. The steel doors clanged as he closed the latch. The building looked like an abandoned warehouse. Joey felt the dirt under his feet and smelled oil. Yellow light filtered through the grimy windows.
Julie poured over her Panavice, while Lucas and Poly breathed hard but stayed alert, looking around with weapons in hand. It appeared Harris brought toys for each for them.
Hank came through the door last, dragging Compry along.
“Let’s get her on this table.” Almadon motioned to Hank. He carried her to the steel table and laid her down gently.
“She’s losing blood. I can do a few more things now, but it won’t be a fix.” Almadon reached into her bag and pulled out a small white kit. Harris paced near the table. Joey studied his worried face, trying to think of what to ask or what to say.
“Was that your plan?” Nathen said with his hand on his head, pacing.
Harris stopped walking and looked at Nathen. There was no emotion in the look, but Nathen looked away first. Compry moaned as Almadon touched her. Harris rushed to her side, his face contorted with anger and guilt.
“We should take her to Sanct. Her dad can take her in,” Harris pleaded with Almadon.
“That’s hours away, even by flight, but I think she can make it—if we hurry.”
“I know of a place we can get a craft.”
The second-story window smashed into the warehouse and Simon floated through the space, holding a gun. Joey stumbled back, grabbed his gun, and shot, but the bullets bounced off his personal shield. Simon fired a single shot and Almadon screamed, dropping her Panavice to the floor. Julie rushed to Almadon and grabbed her shoulders.
“You bastard!” Julie screamed as she held Almadon’s motionless body. Joey stared at Almadon and rage filled him.
Poly threw knives at Simon, and they too flew off his shield. Hank moved forward, but Simon flicked his wrist to send an electrical bolt at him. It hit Hank in the chest, sending him flying ten feet back. He rolled on the ground, grabbing at his chest.
“Are we done with this?” Simon said before jumping off the rope at the last couple of feet.
“I’m going to—” Poly said.
“Kill me?” Simon interjected, throwing up his arms. “I know. You all want to kill me. But that’s not going to happen, even with your shepherd here.”
“You’re not leaving this room alive,” Lucas threatened.
“I’ll skip the banter and get to the point. I need these kids, Harris. The bounty on you is so huge it’s tempting, but I’ll let you and your friends go if you walk away now.”
“So they can live in suspended animation for centuries, feeding your demented boss?”
Simon laughed. “I don’t care what he does, as long as I can stop looking for them.”
Joey saw Julie using Almadon’s Panavice, pretending to hunch over Almadon. What was she doing? He looked away, not wanting to draw any attention to her. He kept his gaze on Hank, who moved to a sitting position.
“If you want me, then take me and let them go,” Joey said. He stepped forward, offering himself. Simon smiled and pulled out his second gun.
“Joey, you could’ve made R7. I would’ve taken on a kid like you, to see you become great, like myself,” Simon said. “But no deal. You all have given me too much trouble. There’s a craft above us and it has room for everyone. If you refuse, I’ll see to it personally that each of your parents are dead. Your town and all the people in it, dead. If you come now, willing, I’ll spare their lives.”
Joey heard Hank stirring behind him and fidgeted with his feet on the dusty floor. He never thought of his actions hurting his parents, or Preston. He looked to Poly for a reaction. She looked at the ground, knife lowered. Joey knew he saw the answers to his question across all their faces.
A grim smile spread across Simon’s face. Through the dirty windows above, a black aircraft hovered in the sky.
“Fine, but we want—” Joey stopped when he heard a loud crackling sound and the humming of electricity winded down to silence.
“What the hell?” Simon patted his body as if searching for something in his pockets.
“I took down his shield!” Julie screamed.
Harris was the first to shoot, but Simon was incredibly fast. He ran across the room, Harris trailing him with bullets. Simon grabbed Julie and with his sword on her neck, used her as a shield. They all had their weapons out, pointed at Simon. With his other hand, he pointed his gun at Harris.
“You’re my new shield.” Simon shook Julie around.
“Kill him! Don’t worry about me!” she pleaded.
“Let her go,” Joey said. He kept looking for a shot, but Simon moved behind Julie, making sure they didn’t have an opening.
Sweat formed on Simon’s forehead as he stepped backward toward the door. He kept glancing above to the aircraft. Shaking Julie again, he stuffed the knife against her neck. “If any of you move, I’ll take her head off.”
Julie, wide eyed, shook her head.
Joey tried to slow things down, but nothing happened. He concentrated on the sword Simon held but still—nothing. Simon was almost to the door. Joey continued to put all of his concentration on his anger and his fear.
Poly stood to his left, her knife gripped loosely in her hands. She looked calm and determined. Hank, his face contorted with anger, walked next to Joey and shook. Joey nodded to them as they pointed their weapons at Julie. They would only have one shot at this.
“What are you doing? I’ll kill her!” Simon yelled.
Joey whispered a countdown as he aimed at the tiny spot on Simon’s shoulder, a muscle that would force his hand to drop the sword. A little low and he’d hit Julie, high and he’d miss entirely, giving Simon a reason to hurt her.
He couldn’t miss. “Three, two, one.”
Squeezing the trigger, he felt the recoil as the bullet left the chamber. Simon’s hand opened, dropping the sword. His expression changed from shock to confusion as he stared at the gaping wound in his shoulder.
Julie pushed Simon’s arm off her and dropped to the ground as a knife flew by her hair and into Simon’s other arm. Lucas’s arrow whizzed by Julie and grazed Simon’s neck. He reached for his neck, his fingers turning red. Stumbling back, he grabbed for his gun but his arm didn’t work properly and the gun fumbled out of his hand.
Hank ran at Simon and hammer-fisted him in the head, grabbed his neck, and spun it with a cracking sound. Simon collapsed to the ground.


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JOEY PICTURED THIS MOMENT ALL through his training, but as Simon lay dead on the ground, bleeding from his mouth in a dusty old warehouse, the magic evaporated. He saw him for what he was, a pawn. He was doing a job for a man, collecting a prize for someone else.
Outside, a loud alarm sounded.
“It’s the craft. They’re coming,” Harris said. “Quick, there’s a tunnel in the back room.”
“What about Almadon and Compry?” Julie whimpered.
“Hank, can you carry Almadon?” Harris asked.
Hank nodded and picked up Almadon’s lifeless body.
Compry sat on the table. Her head swayed as she balanced herself.
“You think you can walk?” Harris asked her gently.
“If I can hold on to you,” she said softly. “Did you guys kill Simon?”
“Yes,” Harris said.
“Good, the kids will be safer now,” she mumbled as he helped her off the table.
“Come on.” Harris rushed them to the entrance.
Joey couldn’t stop staring at Simon’s body. They’d actually killed him; each took a part in it. Lucas and Julie were in the same trance, staring as he bled onto the dusty floor. Through the windows, Joey saw black ropes dangling into the alley.
“We’ve got to go, guys,” Joey called out, being the first to move.
Lucas was next, and the rest followed as they made their way to the back room. Harris dusted off part of the floor, revealing a steel door much like the one in Ferrell’s convenience store.
“Lock it.” Harris pointed at the door they had walked through.
Joey pushed a large steel bar over the door, just as the sound of glass breaking sounded in the next room. He flinched and some of his memories creeped into his mind. Zombies crashing the glass at the store, Unitas’s face close to his. He shook his head in an attempt to shake the memories loose. The old man, the hero, who saved them all in his beat-up car full of explosives. That’s whom he wanted to think of.
“Come help me lift this, Lucas,” Harris said.
The steel door creaked and groaned as Lucas and Harris pulled on the door. A layer of dust slid off the door as they lifted it to a ninety-degree angle. Under the door, a wheel stuck out of the bottom side. The rusty underside looked ancient and dripped with moisture. Harris motioned for them to go in.
An explosion in the next room rattled the windows above.
“They breached the first door. Hurry up,” Harris ordered.
The sound of feet shifting in dirt filled the room next to them. The pounding echoed on the steel door, but the latch held.
“They’re going to blow up the second door,” Julie warned.
Joey stared down the dark staircase under the hatch—the last place he wanted to go. He took out his gun and made the first step down the concrete stairs leading into darkness. The damp smell intensified as he made his way to the bottom step.
Stepping off the last step, his foot landed in a small puddle, splashing the water. He turned around to tell them to come down, but Lucas was directly behind him on the stairs. They all were. Hank carried Almadon on his shoulder. Compry touched her limp hand, crying as Hank moved down the stairs.
“Keep moving. I’ll close the door,” Harris said.
Another death. Seeing Compry mourn her friend weighed on Joey. He couldn’t help but feel responsible. She would never have been there if not for them. How many more people would die for them before someone said enough? He pulled his attention away from Compry and stared at the blackness of the tunnel ahead. It seemed brighter than what was behind him.
Water splashed around Joey as he strode down the tunnel. He felt wetness intruding his shoe and hoped it was water. A glow from Julie’s Panavice filled the tunnel and allowed him to spot a ladder with a faint, white number seventeen behind it.
The sound of an explosion echoed through the tunnel.
“They blew through the second door. We had better hope the hatch gives them more trouble. What is this, a storm drain?” Julie asked.
“Yeah, it’s the old drainage system,” Harris answered. Compry held on to his shoulder and gazed at the floor. Joey saw tears flowing down her face. Harris placed a hand on her shoulder and they stared into each other’s eyes. “We need to keep moving.” Compry sniffed and nodded her head.
Joey turned and jogged at a slow pace down the pipe. The ladders passed at steady intervals. He wanted to get out of this tunnel and off this whole planet. He hadn’t wanted to be home this bad in a long time.
Hank’s heavy breathing filled the tunnel. After a few minutes, he no longer heard Hank’s breathing and turned to see he had lost the group. He slowed down with Julie and Poly right behind him and waited until a light from Harris appeared. Hank adjusted Almadon on his shoulder. Blood covered his shirt and a grim look spread across his sweaty face.
Muffled sounds of banging steel followed with the sharp sound of bullets striking metal. Joey peered past Harris into the dark tunnel.
“It’ll hold for a while,” Harris said. “Not much farther. Ladder thirty-two is the one we want.”
Joey watched the ladders as he ran by them in regular intervals. He slowed down at the next one, 31 displayed behind it. One more to go.
Joey stopped at the next ladder with a faded 32. The rest stopped next to Joey, with Hank coming in last. Compry took her grip off Harris and leaned against the wall, breathing heavy and holding her bleeding stomach.
The ladder led up to a small, round tube jutting above the tunnel.
“Lucas, go up first and open the door. Don’t leave the room up there,” Harris said.
Lucas nodded, adjusted the bow on his back, grabbed the first rung of the steel ladder and climbed into the dark tunnel above. There was the sound of steel sliding on concrete and a faint light illuminated the hole above.
“All clear,” Lucas called down.
Julie climbed out of the tunnel.
Harris met eyes with Hank and then looked up the ladder and the small shaft. “I don’t want to do this, but we can’t take Almadon with us. It would cause a scene and we would be given up instantly.” He looked at the damp floor and rubbed his eyes.
“We can’t leave her in this sewer,” Hank said, adjusting her on his shoulder.
“She gave her life to save you guys. She wouldn’t want it wasted on traditions,” Harris said.
“We’re not animals, Harris.” Compry’s tears flowed. “We can cremate her here,” she said as she leaned against the wall, holding her stomach.
He nodded. “The rest of you go up. Hank, lay Almadon here.”
Hank carefully laid Almadon on the concrete floor. Joey stared at her dead face. He didn’t get to know her well, but after the time he spent with her, he knew she was someone special. Joey fought back tears, more from seeing how much Almadon’s death was affecting Compry, Nathen, and Harris. They loved her and now she was gone. He clenched his teeth and felt a tear fall on his cheek.
Harris pulled a small bag from his pocket and sprinkled its contents around Almadon’s body.
“Get up the ladder, guys,” Harris whispered.
Joey followed Hank up the ladder. He heard Compry and Harris whispering below, but couldn’t make out the words. He climbed through the hole at the top and into the room above.
A dim bulb flickered, bouncing light over the carpeted walls and floor of the small room. The light stopped flickering and stabilized, giving him a view of Julie and Poly. They scowled at Lucas, while he faced a large window, looking into another room.
Nathen and Compry climbed through the hatch and slumped against the door. Nathen grabbed hold of Compry and held her as she sobbed.
He looked down the hole and watched Harris climb out of the hatch. Harris slid the steel lid to an inch of closing, held out a Zippo-style lighter, lit it, and dropped it into the tunnel. He closed the lid and placed his hands on the steel, staring at it for a moment. Bright light beamed out of the holes in the lid. Compry let out a cry.
“I’m sorry,” Joey whispered, placing a hand on Harris’s shoulder as he stood. Harris nodded and dusted off his jacket.
“Where’s Almadon?” Julie asked.
Harris walked to Julie, put an arm around her, and whispered to her. He couldn’t hear said the words, but he got the gist.
Harris let go of Julie as she covered her mouth as her eyes welled.
“Almadon would want us to move on. She would want us to make it,” Harris stated to the group. “Save your mourning for when we have the time. Pretend she’s alive for one more hour.” He looked at the round, steel lid on the floor.
“He’s right,” Compry said, wiping tears from her face and pushing away from Nathen. “She’d kick our asses right now, knowing we’re wasting time over her.”
Lucas turned to face them and a smile disappeared from his face. “What’s going on?” he said.
Joey looked to see what Lucas was smiling about and he stumbled backward against the wall. A woman in skimpy lingerie looked at them, smiling, turning her body from side to side and looking up and down. What the heck is she doing?
“Dude, it’s a two-way mirror,” Lucas said and rubbed his hands together.
The woman posed in the mirror and then turned to the dressing room door as another woman dressed in red panties and bra opened a door.
Joey stared at the exhibition at first, but averted his eyes as the two women held hands, laughing at their mirror. It didn’t feel right. Some pervert probably set up a webcam down there and took advantage of unsuspecting women. Lucas didn’t seem to have a problem with the voyeurism as he smiled and waved at them.
“You’re sick, Lucas,” Poly said.
“What? They can’t see me.” He shrugged.
Joey glanced at Poly. It felt awkward being in the room with her while women in revealing lingerie put on a fashion show.
“I don’t know what’s grosser, the fact that Lucas is getting off on this, or the fact these women are trying on lingerie at a store,” Julie said, wiping her eyes.
“It’s not really a store,” Harris said. He looked miserable and maybe it was a reflection off the light, but Joey thought he saw tears in his eyes.
“What do you mean this isn’t a store?” Lucas asked.
The two women giggled at each other and one slapped the other’s butt.
“They’re putting on a show for whoever is in this room. Once you entered here, their light went on and they come out,” Harris said.
“Wait, so this is some Peeping Tom show?” Lucas appeared enthusiastic about the idea.
“Whatever Peeping Tom is, but sure, it’s just a show. One of many here. This is the red part of Capital. No one wants to be noticed here, we should be good to go. Besides, I know the Madame.”
Harris opened the door out of the room and leaned into the doorway, looking both ways. He motioned for them. A long, dark hallway with doors on each side and windows near each door, stretched out in front. Joey stepped onto the soft-carpeted hallway, resisting the urge to grip his gun as a few people mingled nearby. They kept their eyes forward, looking into windows. He relaxed and stepped forward, allowing Poly and the others to come out.
Harris walked down the hallway and waved his hand for them to follow.
The first window showed the two dressing women in lingerie hugging each other and laughing, and then they started bouncing up and down, holding hands.
The next window had a woman in a soapy bathtub shaving her legs. The next window was the last one Joey would look at. A large woman wearing a diaper and bonnet, riding a tricycle in circles while sucking on a Popsicle. She winked at him as he walked by.
Lucas looked at the woman on her bike, shaking his head in awe. “That must be the best-built tricycle in the whole world.”
Joey moved next to Poly and Julie and followed their lead of looking at the floor.
“I think I’d rather be strapped back in that chair than be here,” Poly said.
He laughed, but thinking of that chair and not being able to move while Unitas tortured him, made his stomach queasy. Keeping a smile on his face, he kept the thoughts from overtaking him.
Poly kept her eyes on him and he matched her, watching her face as they walked down the hall. He saw the words mounting on her lips, but she pursed them and looked ahead. They would have to wait for another time to have a talk. He had so much he wanted to tell her, and seeing death made the matter even more urgent. He wondered what she was thinking.
“This place is foul,” she leaned over and whispered.
“They do anything to you back at the hospital?” Joey whispered thinking of the threats laid out by Unitas.
“No, they kept me under for most of the time. I’m not even sure what day it is.”
Joey got a glimpse of a set of twins, in what appeared to be a pie fight.
Poly shot a glance at him and looked to the floor. “I heard you screaming. They told us you were dead.” Even in the dimly lit hall, he saw the tears welling in her eyes and her voice cracking.
“I’m here and we’re going to make it, Poly.”
“I know and the sooner we can get out of this place,” she glanced at a muscular, oiled up man doing laundry and took a deep breath of disgust, “the better.”
Harris stopped in front of a pair of doors and turned to face them. “Before we go up, we’ve got to cover up Hank and Compry.” Harris took off his jacket, holsters and his guns and placed them on Compry. She pulled the jacket around her body to conceal the bloodstains on her shirt. Joey copied him and handed his jacket and guns to Hank. The jacket was small on Hank, but it was enough to cover the gore.
“We look rough, but this is a rough place. Keep your head down, don’t look at anybody, and follow me,” Harris instructed quietly.
“Where are we going?” Julie asked.
“To see the Madame.”
“Who’s that?”
“She’s the one who’s getting us out of here.”


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SHE’D NEVER BEEN IN A more disgusting place . . . and she just came out of a sewer tunnel. Poly didn’t even want her feet touching the soft carpet, and made a mental note to replace her shoes. Better yet, just burn them.
She kept close to Joey, watching his eyes to see if they would wander to the peep shows. He slipped a couple times, but mostly he kept them pointed at the floor. Oh, how he tried to be the good guy.
Thankfully, the soft carpet ended at the steel staircase. Steel felt more sanitary; she could only imagine what lurked in the confines of that carpeting. The clanking sound of their steps on the stairs filled the crowded space. A few flights of stairs and they came to a door marked 3b.
Considering what had happened over the last few days, she wasn’t a fan of opening doors when she didn’t know what was behind them. She felt the seven-inch, weighted, throwing knife at her leg—one of the few blades left after the parking garage, a gift from Compry. Feeling the steel on her fingertips comforted her.
Compry fell to one knee. Poly gasped and moved to help her, but Harris clutched her arm and got her back on her feet. Seeing her in a weakened state shocked Poly. Compry was the blademaster, a person she could only hope to become. There was no way that gunshot was going to stop her.
“You doing okay?” Harris asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Compry gave Harris a weak smile.
Maybe this Madame has knives. Poly tried to think positive. A sturdy kitchen knife would work in a pinch.
Harris opened the door and walked past it. Joey stepped a few feet past the door, frantically looking around. Poly waited a few seconds before pushing past Joey. She let her arm graze his body and looked ahead into the hallway, hoping it wasn’t another peep show for creepers. Compry had trained her to see the whole room, and now she wished she could un-see the whole room.
This hallway, thankfully, was windowless and void of any creepers, but it did have the awful soft, squishy carpet, like the back room at the movie rental place in Preston. Harris stopped at an arched doorway adorned with draping tapestries.
“Let me do the talking,” Harris whispered.
Poly peered past the fancy entrance and inside the room. An assortment of high-tech computer monitors and a mix of old trinkets, glass globes, and brass figures spread across the large room. Not a knife in sight. It was like the home of the nerdy-psychic-grandma she’d never had. She liked this Madame and hadn’t even seen her yet.
At the end of the room stood an older woman dressed in a large, gaudy dress that looked as if it was from the 1500s. She had on a round velvet hat that seemed to throw off the whole look with its modern curves. She looked up from her table with a shocked look that quickly turned to a wide smile as she stood.
“Oh my, is that you?” she said and paraded around her desk. She moved and spoke with her hands flowing around as if she were composing an orchestra.
“Yes, Veronica, good to see you again,” Harris greeted.
“It’s been a long time,” Veronica replied, as she hugged him. “And everyone here calls me Madame V.” She smiled and bowed.
Harris bowed in return. “I’m sorry to put this burden on you, but we need a ship and a way out of Capital.”
“Dispensing with pleasantries? You must be in real trouble. I see you brought a rag tag group along to put your burdens on. When will you ever learn, Harris?”
“Never. The ship, do you have one?”
She eyed Harris and cocked her head to the side as if trying to see him from a different angle. “I owe you one, Harris.”
He nodded once.
“I don’t like debts and will be happy to be rid of this one. I have a private escort ship for special clients on the roof. You are free to use it.”
“Thank you, Veron—Madame V,” Harris said and turned. Madame V grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“Death surrounds you, Harris. These kids look fresh. You leave them with me and I can see to it they get out safely.”
“No, just a ship out of here will do.”
Poly saw the crease in Madame V’s eyes when she offered the help. She didn’t want to oblige, but Harris had something on her that made her accept his request. Poly narrowed her eyes as Madame V glanced at her. “Hi, I’m Poly.” Poly found it helpful to make sure acquaintances saw you as a person; giving a face a name makes them less likely to stab you in the back.
“Enchanted.” She made the slightest roll of her eyes. “Brucius, would you please take our special clients here to the escort ship?”
Poly hadn’t noticed the man standing at the archway. She hated being snuck up on. The large man’s no-nonsense face surveyed them. He grunted and left the room.
“Thank you,” Harris said and bowed.
“Yes. Are your friends okay? I have a doctor on staff,” Madame V offered.
“No, we must be going,” Harris said, walking backward out of the room. “Thank you again.”
Poly followed Harris as they caught up to Brucius standing at the stairway. He didn’t say anything as they grouped up at the bottom of the stairs. After climbing a few floors, they were on the roof. A large, flat roof with a great view of the city and the setting sun.
She wondered how long they had been in that tunnel of debauchery. Her brow lowered as she tried to think of what day it was. She opened her mouth to ask when someone interrupted her.
“Fine evening we’re having,” the loud voice said.
Poly took her knife out in an instant and looked for the person. A man dressed in a black suit stepped out from behind a metal box attached to the roof. His shirt had a mark of R8 on his right chest and MM on the other.
“Max,” she said. Remembering the man pushing Simon around next to the elevator. She closed her eyes and shook her head. Would they ever be rid of these bastards?
Harris, in one quick motion, grabbed Hank’s jacket, pulled out Joey’s gun and fired three quick shots. Max didn’t jump out of the way, and as far as Poly could tell, he didn’t flinch. The bullets bounced off him in small sparks. He had some kind of shield like Simon’s.
Those dang cowards and their shields.
She looked to Julie to tell her, but she was already on her Panavice, sliding her fingers across the screen. She gripped her knife in her better throwing hand and waited for the word from Julie.
“I don’t know. It’s not like Simon’s—it’s so complex.” Julie shook her head as her fingers skimmed around the screen.
“Ah yes, Simon,” Max drawled. “It’s a shame you killed him. Hello, Harris.”
“You can go to hell, Max!” Harris hollered.
“It’s been a long time, brother,” Max said with a partial nod of his head.
Poly turned to Harris with her knife in hand. This was his brother? How could he keep something like that from them? Joey adored Harris, but she’d kept a skeptical eye on him from day one. Even Julie’s attempts to find out about him led to dead ends. Julie said he was a ghost. Any record or mention of him online was always immediately deleted.
“Just let us go, Max, and there won’t be any losses,” Harris said.
“Oh no, I can’t do that. He wants him . . . needs him.” Max pointed to Joey. “And the others, too, for backups.” He stepped closer. “Come on, Harris. You can’t really think you can win here. We had trackers implanted on these kids at the hospital. You can’t go anywhere without us finding them.”
“I won’t let you take them.”
Damn right, you’re not taking us. Poly nodded and glanced at Julie, waiting for that moment when she could send a knife in between the R and 8 on his chest.
Max pulled out his gun and shot twice. The shots were so close that they sounded as one. Poly didn’t have the time to react before she watched Compry and Nathen collapse to the ground with a hole through each of their hearts.
She moved to attack Max with her knife, but Hank was ahead of her, running at Max. Three feet before reaching him, Hank hit something unseen and fell to the ground. Max looked annoyed. Hank shook on the ground, face straining under great pain.
“Please, Harris, can you control them before I start killing more?” Max said.
“Stay back, everyone,” Harris seethed through gritted teeth.
Mouth agape, Poly stared unblinking at Compry’s dead body. This man killed her in cold blood and she couldn’t get within stabbing distance. Her blood boiled and she roared at Max, lunging at him with knife in hand.
Her arm stopped its forward motion and she looked at the fingers grasping her wrist. Joey’s tight grip gave no room for her to pull away. He shook his head as she tried. Damned Joey. His soft blue eyes stared into her soul. Poly’s eyes filled with tears and she collapsed into his arms, laying her face on his chest. She felt Joey’s strong arms around her body. Why couldn’t they just float away together, go somewhere away from all the pain, death, and danger?
Poly glanced at Compry on the ground, motionless.
No.
She pushed away from Joey and darted to Compry’s body. Taking her jacket off, she draped it over her face. She couldn’t hide from what happened. She wanted to face it head on. This woman had showed her so many things, and taught her in more ways than she could recall. She placed her hand on Compry’s side and pulled out her knife. The shiny eight-inch blade with etched green dragons at the hilt. She never got the story behind the blade, but it meant the world to Compry. She slid the blade into her sheath at her waist.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into Compry’s ear.
Poly stood and glared at Max.
“Julie, check to see what they’ve deployed around us,” Harris said.
The soft glow of the screen on her face in the dimming daylight exaggerated her expression of concentration.
“Do you really think she can break into my team’s network?” Max asked.
“There are four gunships surrounding us, and a small team of men are on their way up the stairs, and a dozen or so transport cars on the surrounding streets,” Julie reported.
Max’s smile left his face. Poly loved that Julie disrupted his confidence. He wasn’t some infallible being.
“Now you know the situation. You realize there’s no escape this time, no tunnels or Alius stones to use. Surrender and I’ll keep their Earth safe. Fight us and I will turn their Earth into a Ryjack, starting with their families.”
Poly gripped Compry’s knife hard, her nails digging into her hands. She picked the spot on Max’s neck. She would even use Compry’s knife to do it.
Harris stepped closer to Max, his face contorted with frustration. “Just as you have implanted trackers on them, we have also implanted something.” He looked to them, apologetic. “We knew there was a good chance you’d take them and we couldn’t let it happen. So we implanted a small explosive in each of them.”
Max smiled. “You’re a devious one. I can tell from their faces, they weren’t aware of this little gift. What else have you kept from them?”
“Listen. I could blow them all up right now and I don’t think he would be happy when you returned with corpses.”
Max paced back and forth, and even in the fading light, Poly saw his face red with anger. Was Harris bluffing? There was no way he put bombs in them. She tried to think of when they would’ve had time to implant something—the only time would have been when they first arrived in the bunker and into the medical wing.
She felt the blood in her face rising and touched the spot on her neck where they’d received their “vaccine.” It did feel weird when the shot went in. How could he have placed bombs in them? Her nostrils flared and she turned to Harris.
“What are we to do then?” Max asked.
“You only really want one of them—Joey. You can have him in return for a transport ship for the rest of us and a guaranteed safe route to the Marshall Islands.”
Max laughed, but Poly’s heart sank deep in her chest. She wouldn’t let Harris bargain away Joey. She met eyes with Joey, seeing that he was okay with the trade. He was just noble enough to go through with the deal. He’d sacrifice himself for them. The damned fool. Facing him, she took in a deep breath, hoping he would say the words of rejection.
“Don’t listen to this, Joey.” She punched at his chest. She closed her eyes and felt a tear fall down her cheek. His finger caught the tear. She smelled the gunpowder on his hand and opened her eyes.
“Fine, we’ll collect the rest in due time though. I’ll personally see to it.” Max took a step forward.
“No!” Poly screamed. Was she the only one to say something against it? “You can’t give him Joey!” She rushed to Harris with her knife. Harris didn’t move to defend himself. He looked defeated as she raised her knife, intending on bringing it across his neck. He stared forward, unblinking as she stopped the blade an inch from his neck. Holding it there, she shook with anger and disbelief. Joey tugged on her shoulder and she turned to face him, dropping the knife down to her side.
“The transports will be here in a minute for you, Joey,” Max said. “Say your goodbyes, kid.” He crossed his arms and watched on, as if amused by their suffering.
Joey looked at her with hurt eyes. She fought the tears.
“Poly, I have to do this. If going with them gives you another day, then it’s worth it,” Joey said.
“But . . . no!” Tears filled her eyes and she hugged him tightly. It felt right being with him and for a second, she got lost in him, forgetting the horrible situation around her. She held him with her eyes closed, head against his chest. He released her and held onto her shoulders, pushing her back and staring at her. She couldn’t bring herself to look at his face.
He gently placed his hand under her chin and lifted her head. “If we only had more time,” Joey whispered, brushing her hair back.
Tears fell down her cheeks and she didn’t care if the others saw.
A ship floated over the roof and landed nearby. Dust flew up in a cloud on the roof and Joey, standing in front of her, disappeared for a second. She thought she felt a soft kiss on her cheek before he reappeared in the same spot in front of her. He had done his Speedy Gonejoey trick. The others hadn’t seemed to notice.
Hank walked to Joey and hugged him, whispering something in his ear that she couldn’t hear and Joey nodded.
Lucas dragged his feet to Joey. “This sucks.” They shook hands and pulled it in for a hug. “I don’t know what to say, man. Thanks.”
Julie marched up and whispered in his ear as she hugged him. Poly caught the whisper in the air. “I can trace the tracker on you. We’ll come back for you.”
Joey nodded and Harris walked up. He didn’t say anything as he simply placed a hand on his shoulder, met his eyes, and then walked away.
Poly stood there, not wanting to leave his side, not wanting to say good-bye. She always figured they would face whatever came at them, together. She could not deal with the world without him. He locked eyes with her.
She wanted to say something profound that would encapsulate all the feelings she had, but he broke the silence first.
“Promise me, you won’t come after me.”
Her heart sank for a second. His last words to her were about her giving up on him?
“I can’t leave you with them.” She glared at Max as the transport ship hovered above, sending gusts of wind toward them.
“Please, you have to. You can’t live your life trying to save me, but you can remember me.”
The fool boy. She wanted to punch the stupid out of him. It wasn’t some simple switch she could turn off. She’d never give up on him and she knew he’d do the same for her.
“I’ll find you again,” was all she could get out. She wouldn’t accept this as goodbye forever.
“Time’s up.” Max walked toward them.
Joey gave quick glances from Max to Poly.
“Promise me! I can’t make it knowing you’re not living your life out there. If you come after me, then we both are in a prison.”
Poly felt another tear streak down her face. She wanted to explain so much to him, but Max approached and she lied to Joey. “I promise.”
Getting on her tiptoes, she grabbed the back of his neck and kissed him on his lips. His hand came up to the side of her face, his thumb stroking her cheek. She felt the heat in her body build as he deepened the kiss.
“That’s enough. Time to go,” Max said, pulling Joey from her embrace.
She scowled at Max.
“Poly, I’m sorry,” Joey said.
The aircraft blew the air around, making her hair stick to her wet cheeks. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t step away from him.
A ramp lowered from the ship and a few soldiers in black ran off the ramp, stopping next to Max. Julie, Hank, and Lucas ran up the ramp into the ship. Harris stood at the bottom of the ramp, looking at her. She would deal with his betrayal later.
“Please, Poly, go!” Joey pleaded.
She took a deep breath, then turned and ran to the ramp. Her mind screamed at her with every step she took. If she’d hesitated even one second, she would have never made it. She ran past Harris and into the ship.
The ship had chairs on each side, like an airplane, but everything was military gray. All she wanted was a window. She jumped over a row of chairs and stared out the portal window.
She looked out just in time to see Max shoot an electrical bolt into Joey’s neck. Poly slapped the window with her palm and moved her face close against the glass, screaming his name.
Joey collapsed and Max threw a blanket over him. The blanket wrapped around him, leaving nothing but his head sticking out the end, and lifted off the ground. Joey, wrapped in a blanket, floated next to Max.
She wanted to turn away from it, but she felt like she owed it to Joey to watch. Max leaned over him, probably gloating about his fantastic victory. Poly slapped the window with her hand. The pain felt good, and she hit it again. She had made Joey a promise, but not the promise he thought. She made a promise to herself. She’d never stop, until Marcus and Max were dead, and Joey was back in her arms.


THE CARNIVAL STYLE MUSIC WOKE him up. Gears squeaked and he swayed. Sitting up, Joey put his hand on the wooden bench beneath. The sun light shone through the metal mesh surrounding him. Large metal bars wrapped around his cage and held him high in the air. Looking around, he saw cages above and below him, and they swayed as the metal structure moved in a circle.
“Hello,” he called out, searching the other cages for another person. His cage descended in its circular path and when it reached the bottom, it stopped.
The metal door clicked and he pushed it open. Joey surveyed the small boardwalk full of carnival games as it came into view. He looked back at his cage and the giant Ferris wheel moved in its circular path. A large cartoon head adorned the center of the Ferris wheel. It was of a smiling girl with pigtails and large eyes—Mindyland written underneath her face.
“Hello?” He called out again.
Electronic music played through speakers, but he was the only one there to hear it. He felt weak and rubbed his eyes. When he felt something hard and clunky, he stopped and looked at his wrist. Each had a metal bracelet on.
Blinking and rubbing the top of his head, he tried to remember how he got there. Max had been laughing when they put the bracelets on—they blocked him from speeding up. However, that wasn’t why he was laughing.
Joey fell to his knees and put both hands over his face.
“No!” He screamed at the sky. Now he remembered it all.
“We shot them down,” Max said and then laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it was a quick death.” He laughed again.
Joey buried his face in his hands and wept for them. He was alone. He thought he remembered seeing Poly’s face looking through the porthole right before he’d been shot with the bolt of electricity.
They couldn’t be dead. But the vivid memory of Max making him watch the missile streak through the clouds and strike the aircraft hit him hard. After everything they’d been through . . . for them to die like that was incomprehensible.
He grimaced at the thought and gritted his teeth as tears flowed down his face. What did he have to live for now? How could he go on knowing what happened to his friends?
He glanced back at the rotating wheel behind him and contemplated going into one of the cages, closing the door and never leaving. The world must want him dead, but not before it could drain him of his will to live.
“Joey?”
Startled at the noise, he pulled his hands away from his face. That voice . . .
“Joey, is it you?” she asked, but didn’t wait for his response. Running into his arms, she hugged him.
She felt real, but how—?

“Samantha?”

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