The street erupts in a blinding flash of light that dazzles my eyes. I hear the screams from the Wolfs as the fire lashes through them. Staccato gunfire lances the buildings around us. I cover my ears and duck. The Raptors return fire, easily dropping the few who still stand.
It’s a mercy killing.
The sound of gunfire dies away, but it is instantly replaced by a far more ominous sound. A high-pitched whine, building in intensity, comes from somewhere overhead. I glance up and see two tiny flames hurtling toward us.
“Incoming!” someone screams. It’s Angelica’s voice. A shape tackles me from the side and pins me to the earth.
The missiles scream overhead, striking the ground where the corpses of the Wolfs and their captives still burn. The explosion deafens. A vast pressure roars above me, crushing me into the pavement as searing flames wash through the street.
I raise my head. Thomas lies over me, motionless. The backs of his clothes have been singed by the heat. Tiny rivulets of smoke drift from his shoulders. I call his name, but I cannot even hear the sound of my own voice over the ringing in my ears. I roll out from under him, searching his face.
He winces and pushes up against the pavement. Abruptly, he falls again. I can see blisters on the backs of his hands. The air reeks with the smell of burned hair and flesh. I take a breath, and taste fumes that make my lungs burn.
I pull Thomas onto my lap as I look around. The place where the Wolfs died from Matthew’s grenades is nothing now but a smoldering crater. A dead animal lies beside me on the street. I glance at it a second time and realize it’s not an animal. It’s a charred, dismembered hand. I try to scream, but all that comes out of my mouth is a tiny screech. I grab Thomas’s arm and loop it over my neck, pulling him to his feet. Maximus comes over and takes him from me, hefting the Lyptic onto his back. Wordlessly, he trudges down the street.
I watch him go, and then I see Daniel sitting upright on the ground, pressing his palm against his forehead. Blood runs down one side of his face. Beside him, Matthew lies motionless.
I hurry over to his side. Daniel looks up at me, but I’m paying attention to Matthew. The Raptor leader appears to be unhurt, but he doesn’t respond when I call his name.
“Are you all right?” I say to Daniel. He doesn’t answer. My own voice sounds muffled in my ears, and I wonder if he can even hear me. I grab his shoulder. “Daniel?”
He nods after a moment, waving away my concern. I peel his hand away from his scalp. Already, the nanites do their job. The cut closes.
“Help me get him up,” I say, picking up Matthew’s arm. My hearing is returning. Or maybe I’m just shouting.
I don’t hear his response as much as read it on his lips, but it makes me angry. “‘Cause he just saved your life, now help me get him up!”
Daniel presses his lips together in a firm pout, but then reaches down and picks up Matthew’s other arm. Together, we drag the leader out of the street, following the last of the Raptors as they disappear back into the Wolfs’ den. Once inside, we prop Matthew against the wall. He groans, starting to come to.
I feel a pressure release in my ears, almost like a pair of hands that had been squeezing my head suddenly being taken away. My hearing abruptly returns to normal.
Angelica rushes forward with some liquid, pushing it against Matthew’s lips. I watch her with him a moment, then turn to Daniel. His eyes are filled with fear and doubt, and he’s fixated on Matthew. I touch his shoulder. “You need to tell me the truth. Right now.”
“About what?” he mumbles, still watching the Raptor.
“You know what. I watched you from the rooftop. I just want to know why.”
He swallows, finally giving me his attention. “They got Gill. If I do what they ask, they’ll let me see him again.”
“We got swept up about two years ago, taken to live with some family in the Upper. We ran off about a week after we got there, but Gill got caught. I went back for him, and that’s I met Dr. Chapin. She said I had to stay on the street. Do things for them. Keep tabs on people they wanted watched. Or I wouldn’t see Gill again. About six months ago they sent me to the HUT. Make me pass information to them. Whatever I hear or learn. The kind of stuff that don’t get picked up by the cameras or microphones.”
“So you’re an informant.”
“Is that why you helped me escape?”
“Tommy, too. He’s in on it. I think. They figured you were resistance. They wanted us to help you get out and go with you back to your unit or whatever. They must’ve changed their minds about Tommy. Anyway, it was the last thing I was supposed to do for them. Then I can see Gill.”
“And you believed them?”
“They promised. Gill’s sick. Plague.” He glares at me now, daring me to challenge him. “They said they’d cure him, but only if I agreed to help them. What else was I supposed to do? Let my little brother die?”
I’m still angry, but not so much at Daniel anymore. Daniel’s story could just as easily been mine. If they’d have held Becca out as a bargaining chip like they’ve held onto Gill, I’d have done exactly the same thing, and thought myself noble for doing it.
“You could’ve told me the truth.”
He curls his lip. “And then what?”
I don’t have an answer.
“Look,” he says, “they’re not after you. They’re after these guys. The big fish. You’re just the bait.” He looks down, the reality of what has just happened sinking in. “And I’m just the hook. Just as disposable.”
“They zeroed in on your radiation signature.”
I look down. Matthew still sits against the wall, but his eyes are open and attentive, and he’s staring at Daniel. “That’s how they found us.”
“Radiation?” Daniel says.
“But how did they know he was with us?” I protest.
Matthew’s eyes flicker toward mine. “Don’t know. Maybe they saw the grenades go off, and decided to take us all out. Leave it to REGA to swat a fly with a sledgehammer.”
“What radiation?” Daniel repeats.
“In the tracker implants,” I explain. “When we took them out, an isotope was injected into our bloodstream.”
“Speaking of which,” Matthew says.
Angelica shakes her head. “No. You need to—”
“Take care of him,” he insists, holding up his comlink. I notice that the screen is cracked, but the red dot still pulsates beneath the broken glass. “We can’t have them tracking us here.”
“It’s all we have,” she says. He presses his lips together, waiting. With a shake of her head, Angelica rises and shrugs the backpack she carries from her shoulder. She pulls out a steel canister and uncaps it, then hands it to me. “You know what to do?” she says.
I nod, taking the cocktail from her. She turns back to Matthew, inspecting his wounds.
“Drink this,” I tell Daniel.
“What is it?” He wrinkles his nose at the noxious liquid.
“It’s the same cocktail they gave me. It’ll wash the radiation out of your system, so they can’t track you anymore.”
Doubtfully, he raises the canister to his lips.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “It tastes like mint.”
Behind me, Angelica gives a snort of derision. Daniel tips the bottle back. I grab it and hold it to his face as he starts to gag.
“Gotta drink it all. Don’t spew, either, or I’ll have to make you lick it up.”
Daniel manages to choke the liquid down. When he’s done, he hands the canister back. “So that’s it then?”
From the floor, Angelica says, “Better take him out back.”
“No,” Matthew says. “Take him out front. He can use the crater.”
“What?” I say.
He presses his palms against the sides of his head, as if talking hurts. “The radiation’s got to be where they think he’s dead. He pisses out back, they’ll know he came this way.”
“What difference does that make? We’re not staying here, are we?”
“Got to,” he nods behind us. “Not everybody’s got the nanites.”
I turn and see a pair of Raptors in the next room, bandaging Thomas’s blistered hands, while a third uses a knife to cut the baked fabric off his back. “Thomas!”
Angelica puts herself between us. “Not now,” she says.
“Uh oh,” Daniel says.
Angelica spins me toward him. “Hurry.”
Reluctantly, I pull Daniel out the door. His face has gone white, and he’s crushing his hands against his bladder.
“Come on,” I insist. “It’s not far.”
“I ain’t gonna make it.”
“Yes you are.”
Daniel moans as we hurry to the scene of the missile attack. He’s doubled over now, and his face is a mask of concentrated pain. We reach the edge of the crater. I stare into it, stunned by the devastation. The explosion pulverized the road, opening a thirty foot hole in the street, exposing the sewer tunnels below. Ahead of us, the lone working streetlight in the lower has gone out. In the flicker of the dwindling flames I can see that the lamp was blown clear off its pole, and now lies mangled in the street several yards away.
Beside me, I hear the sound of liquid striking stone. “You ain’t gonna watch, are you?”
My cheeks flush as I turn away from Daniel. It takes him a few minutes to go, but once he’s done he comes back over to me, wiping his hands on his pants. He blows out a breath and smiles weakly. “That was unpleasant.”
“Everything come out all right?” I joke.
“Kinda burned, actually.”
“Sorry I asked.”
“So what now?”
My eyes dart upward. Even without the radiation, we’re probably exposed out here on the street. “Sweepers will be coming. We should probably get under cover.”
Together, we hurry off the street and duck into a nearby building. None of the doors are locked on this street. Makes it easier for the Sweepers to check them. A quick glance around assures me the building is empty. Debris is scattered across the floor, but the room lacks the graffiti that would mark it as a tribal hideout. A fine layer of dust covers the floor, with no prints in them but our own. The building must have been an eatery of some kind, because there are tables shoved to the walls and three stacks of chairs growing cobwebs in the corner. A pair of double doors leads to a kitchen area in the back, though it seems the appliances and countertops have long since been removed and turned to scrap. All that remains are the empty fittings in the ceiling, walls and floor, with tangled wires dangling from empty sockets. In the main room, the windows are boarded up with plywood, leaving the room ensconced in shadows. The only light comes from the crack in the door, where Daniel peers into the street outside.
“How many d’you think they’ll send?” he asks.
“All of them. Wouldn’t you?”
“Guess so.” He pulls away from the door and leans against the wall, running his hands through his hair. “Can’t be good they got two explosions in one night. They’re gonna want someone to string up. Parade before the cameras tomorrow.”
“They’ll have video of the missile strike. Maybe that’ll satisfy them.”
“Yeah. For the viewers at home. But not the uppity-ups. They’re gonna want to find us.”
“I’ve no doubt of it.”
“Which brings me back to my original question. So what now?” He folds his arms and looks expectantly at me.
Like I’m supposed to have an answer. “How should I know?”
“You want to just take off? I mean, they flushed out our system, right? Drones can’t track us no more.”
I shake my head, uncertain how to answer.
“You wanna go find your Mom?”
“No.” I turn away, pacing, trying to figure out what I should do. Finally, I square my shoulders. “I think we should go back.”
His eyes bulge. In the dim light from the crack in the door, I can barely read his expression. My imagination fills in the rest. “To that tribe? Those people are nuts, Kath! They’re trying to start a war. With what? A couple of hand grenades and pea-shooters? We just had a missile shot at us!”
“And let’s not forget the fact that they kidnapped us. I don’t know what your time with them was like, but mine?” His voice breaks.
“I know they hurt you.”
“No you don’t. I’ve been held prisoner by both REGA and those Raptors—and you don’t wanna know whose company I prefer.”
“I’m sorry they did that to you.”
“And let’s not forget Thomas—”
“Then why do you want to go back to them?”
His question hangs in the air, getting stale like the dusty furnishings that surround us. “Because they told me the truth, and I’m starting to think I’ve been lied to my whole life.”
“So what? Now you’re gonna join this resistance? Fight the tyranny? Get yourself killed? I don’t want that for you.”
“That makes two of us.”
“What about Becca?”
“This is about Becca.”
“Oh yeah? How?”
“Because I’m going to use the Raptors to get her back.”
He snorts. “Let me know how that works out for ya. Scratch that. I’ll tell you how it works out. It don’t. You think Matthew’s gonna want to mount up a rescue party and break into that place?”
I don’t answer. Matthew has already told me that he thinks the HUT is impregnable. But Daniel doesn’t know that.
“Let me tell you something about Matthew and his little tribe. They got their cause. Their supposed resistance. And that’s what they use. That’s the flag they rally around. Makes them feel better to think they’re part of something. But what have they done? Nothing. How long as REGA been in power? All our lives.
“And if that’s what they need to make themselves feel good. Fine. I’ve got no problem with that. They want to be a thorn in REGA’s side, I say, ‘Have at it.’ But don’t try dragging me in on it. ‘Cause that’s just suicide. So let me tell you what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna go back to them and join their resistance, and forget about your sister. Oh, you’ll still remember her, but it’ll just become part of the rallying cry. One more reason to stick it to the man and all stand together. But you won’t actually do anything about it, ‘cause there’s nothing they can do.
“Or, and this is worse, you’ll go back there and make them join you. You’ll point out that in twenty years or better, they ain’t done spit to take down REGA. And they’ll get embarrassed enough to actually take action—and REGA will crush them.”
He leans back against the wall, pressing his lips into a thin line. I can see it on his face now, what he’s not saying.
“So tell me the third option.”
“You’re a smart girl. You figure it out.”
He nods anyway. “Give REGA what they want, you’ll get your sister back.”
“It’s the only way. Trust me. I know.”
“Really? You know this? ‘Cause I don’t see Gill anywhere in this room. You got him hiding in your pocket or something? Wait. That’s right. They promised you. Like their promises mean anything. These people tracked you down through an isotope they put in your blood, and then shot a missile at you. You think they’re gonna keep their promises? You’re disposable to them. They’re using you, Daniel. And when they’re done using you, they’ll dispose of you. You’re not gonna get your brother back unless you take him back. Same as me.”
“This is crazy.”
“We have to do it, Daniel. We have to fight. For our families. And for our future.”
“You can’t fight them. They’re too powerful.”
“I believe we can. I know we can.” I move forward and take his hands.
“One step at a time. I can’t live with myself if I don’t try. And I won’t play by REGA’s rules. We’ll get them back, Daniel. And we won’t quit until we do.” I trace a finger across his cheek. “Fight with me.”
Finally, he nods. I squeeze his hands, and lead him out the door.