“You want us to what?”
I’m standing before a semi-circle of the Raptors, with Daniel lurking somewhere behind me. Thomas still lies motionless on the floor where they’d laid him to recover from his burns. His hands, face, and most of his torso have been wrapped in gauze from Angelica’s med kit. I want to know why they haven’t given him any of the nanites yet, but there’s been no time to ask.
The first question out of Matthew’s mouth when we walked in the door was, “Where the hell have you been?”
I don’t think it meant he was worried about us. There was more suspicion than fear or relief in his voice. That’s when I blithely informed him that Daniel and I had some talking to do. “Besides,” I’d quipped, “he had to pee a lot.”
The joke didn’t go over like I’d hoped it would. Instead, Matthew folded his arms and asked me the next question—the one that led to this third inquiry. “Talk about what?”
That’s when I squared my shoulders and told them. Everything. “So far, you are the only ones who’ve told me the truth. You know things about me. Answers to questions I didn’t even have. And I want to know the rest of it. More than anything, I want to get my sister back, and I think you’re the only people who can help me. But I also want Becca to be safe. And there’s no way that’s gonna happen as long as REGA is still standing. I want to bring them down.”
Matthew pursed his lips then, nodding. That’s when I hit them with my condition. “But first, you gotta help me get Becca back.”
I repeat it now, just because he asked.
“I already told you. That place is impregnable. It can’t be done.”
“Daniel told me they move the Special Cases out on a train. They take them somewhere. Isn’t that right?” I turn and look for his support.
He clears his throat. “It’s true. Someplace called The Farm. They’ll move her soon, if they haven’t moved her already.”
“Where is this farm?” Matthew asks.
“Somewhere up north.”
“Ain’t been any trains through in the past week,” Maximus says.
Matthew shoots him a dark look.
“Wait a minute,” I say, “she’s coming here?”
“If she’s on a train, she is,” Maximus answers. “Track by the Hut ends a couple miles in the other direction. That whole line ain’t nothing much more than a siding anyway. All cars come into the Twenty-Seventh, and then either go east or south to collect scrap.”
“Or north,” Daniel finishes.
“Well that’s it then. We don’t have to break into the HUT. All we gotta do is hijack the train.” I can’t resist a nervous grin.
“All we gotta do,” Matthew repeats. “Hijack a train. That’s it. You make it sound so simple.”
“How hard can it be?”
“Op like that takes weeks to plan,” he says, running a hand through his hair. Both Maximus and Angelica frown, and I suspect he’s giving me a snow-job.
“We haven’t got weeks. We’ve only got days. Maybe hours. I’m not about to let my sister get carted off to this Farm and killed because you’re afraid to do something about it.”
He whirls on me. “What did you say?”
“You heard me. You’ve been part of this resistance for how long now? And what have you accomplished?” I turn to all of them. “What have any of you accomplished? REGA still stands, raids the Lower and sweeps people off at will. Nobody does anything about it. I thought this was your city. But everyone just drops their eyes, shrugs their shoulders and slinks off to the corner to hide, grateful it isn’t their turn yet. Thomas told me the resistance was dead. You told me he was wrong, that you were the resistance. I ask you now, who’s right?”
Matthew sneers at me. “Listen at you. All full of passion and vigor. Talking about taking down REGA like it’s something that we lazy schleps just ain’t thought of yet. May I humbly submit,” he gave me a mock bow, “that you don’t know what the HELL you’re talking about!”
My cheeks flush. I feel my jaw and fists clench. “Fine then,” I huff. “I’ll do it myself.”
I turn on my heel and stalk toward the door. One of the Raptors moves in front of me. I don’t hesitate. My foot catches him in the groin about the same time as my hand slams into his throat. I’m operating on pure adrenaline now. I sweep him behind me, throwing him to the floor. Two others came at me from the sides. I don’t think. Just react. Years of training with Mother take over. I grab the arm of one, twisting it into a lock even as I slip behind him and propel him into the other Raptor. The second man dodges his partner and looks up in time to see my foot wheeling toward his face. He barely has time to react, spinning away from me. Still, I feel my heel connect solidly with his cheekbone.
A gun slide ratcheting behind me brings me up short. Angelica points her side arm at me. “Don’t,” she warns. “There’s some things not even nanites can fix.”
She smirks. “Maybe not. But a busted kneecap will take weeks to heal.”
Abruptly, the two men I’d taken out grab my arms, pinning them behind me. The third one, the man I’d dropped with a groin kick, stands and backhands me across the face. I see stars. He’s about to hit me again when Matthew catches his arm. The man seethes, but wordlessly drops his fist and limps off to the corner.
Matthew faces me. “Like I said, you got mad skills, girl. But you lack experience.” He scratches his ear, as if thinking about something, then says, “Let’s talk in private.”
Reluctantly, I nod. The men holding me release my arms. Angelica holsters her weapon. I tuck my hair behind my ears and follow Matthew into an adjoining room.
He closes the door after me. A single, battery operated lamp glows from a nearby stand. A few chairs sit in the corners of the room, and a broad desk holding a collection of dusty, half-empty bottles stands against the far wall. Matthew picks up a glass, blows the dust out of it and examines it briefly in the light from the table, and then pours himself a shot.
“Would you like one?”
“You never drink with me.”
“I’ve no idea what you’re drinking.”
He snorts. “Neither do I.” He checks the bottle for a label, then puts it down, disappointed.
“Mother said I should stay away from spirits. Dulls the senses.”
“Huh. Always thought that was the idea.” He tips the glass back, tossing the liquid down his throat. “Mmm! These boys had good tastes. I’ll give ‘em that.” He pours himself another shot.
I shift my weight. “So is that your plan? Get drunk?”
“You don’t like me very much.” He swirls his drink and takes a seat in one of the chairs, motioning for me to do the same.
“What’s not to like? You’ve abducted me, beaten the people who were helping me—one of whom is your own father—and now you’re keeping me from saving my sister.”
“I’ve been keeping you from getting killed.”
“Thanks. I’d rather take my chances.”
He points at me. “That’s just it. You haven’t got a chance. Not against what’s out there. You never did.”
“So you’d rather just hide in the shadows.”
“No. Sit down already.”
I drop into a seat across from him and press my elbows onto my knees, propping my chin on my balled fists.
“I’d rather we work together, and actually plan and do something intelligent.”
“That’s what I’ve been—”
“No. You’ve been doing something half-cocked and stupid. You’ve been reacting to your environment, taking the choices that are handed to you instead of making your own decisions. You have no idea what you’re up against. These are people who execute ten-year plans and longer. They didn’t take over this country in a day, and it didn’t happen by accident. They were following a roadmap laid down a hundred and fifty years ago. Hell, this is all part of a struggle that’s been going on twice as long as that, maybe even longer. This is all about power and control. Creating the perfect system that perpetuates the reins of power and privilege from one generation to the next. Do you know your history?”
He smiles thinly. “It used to be this way for everybody. The world was ruled by kings who handed down power to their sons and expanded their territory by force of arms. And everyone else—the little people like you and me—we were just the peons they used to prop up their own over-inflated egos. They were the elites, and we were the great, unwashed masses. And then something happened. Something the powerful did not expect.”
As he speaks, his eyes take on a faraway look, as if he’s seeing something beyond the confines of the room. “I don’t know who did it first, or how it came about, but somewhere, someone rebelled. Someone resisted the powerful. They killed him. But his death inspired others to do the same. One became twelve. Twelve became a thousand. A thousand became a flood, and over a period of millennia, the powerful were unseated, and normal, everyday people were finally free to live their own lives.”
He tips his glass back and shoots the liquid down his throat. “A new world was born,” he gasps. “It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t equal, but it was free. You could stand or fall on your own merit, and you didn’t have to ask permission from nobody to do so.
“But those privileged souls, who suddenly found themselves on a level field with everyone else—they weren’t content to just roll over and give up. They hatched a plan, an insidious strategy to undermine the new world, just as they had been undermined. They created a new New World Order—only it wasn’t new at all. It was the same order of the world that had been in place before. They promised people peace and safety, food for everyone and endless pleasures if only the people would consent to being ruled once more.”
He took the last sip of his drink before continuing. “That’s what people have done. REGA is just the most current manifestation of it. And it won’t end until the thousands of people in this city wake up and reclaim what is rightfully theirs.”
“My mother told me a story once,” I reply, “about a hangman who comes to a town and builds his gallows. And everyone in the town is curious who he’s come to execute. But he assures them the gallows is just for the stranger in their midst. The next day he executes someone who objected. And no one stops him. Then he hangs a Jew, and a black man, and another and another. Till one day there’s no one left in the town but the storyteller himself. And the hangman comes to hang him. The narrator objects, but the hangman calls him a coward and says, ‘I did no more than you let me do.’ And there’s no one left to speak for him in the empty square.”
Matthew nods his head. “So you do understand.”
I meet his eyes, holding them steady with my own. “Right. And that’s why we have to save my sister. We can’t wait for everyone else to step up and rally to our cause, because by the time they do, there won’t be anyone left.”
He breathes out a heavy sigh, frowning, as if unsure exactly when he lost control of the conversation.
“Matthew,” I persist. “I get it now. I told you. I’m willing to fight. To become whatever this thing on my arm says that I am. But first, before anything else, we save Becca. I owe it to her, and to my mother, to do this.”
He rubs his index finger against the spot between his eyebrows, pursing his lips. “All right. We’ll do this. But once this is done, you gotta train properly, and you gotta follow orders like everyone else.”
I swallow, uncertain I can take him up on his deal. But I don’t see any other way. “Deal.”
I offer him my hand. We shake on it.
Matthew announces to the Raptors that we’re going after the train. I see questioning looks tossed his way, and not a few thrown my way as well. He pulls his lieutenants aside for a conclave, leaving me to face the rest of the Raptors alone. I swallow nervously and try to smile.
Daniel comes to my rescue, sort of. He pulls me to one side and collapses against the wall. He doesn’t look at me when he says, “You know he’s doing exactly what I said he would.”
“There’s no way this ends well.”
I want to lash out at him, remind him about Becca, about how important this is, but I bite back my retort. I know he’s only afraid for me. Instead, I bend down and kiss his cheek. “I know you’re worried.”
“Worried? This is suicide, Katherine. Nothing more.”
“Know what my mother says?”
“Something pithy, no doubt.”
“She says, ‘It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’”
“How noble. You’re still dead at the end of it, so what difference does it make?”
“I think it makes a lot of difference to those you leave behind. You’re not just fighting for yourself, you know. Besides, it’s not like you just sit there and wait for them to put a bullet in your head. You go down fighting. You know? Like a man.” The words are out before I can pull them back, or really think about what I just insinuated.
“What’s that supposed to mean? What? I’m not a man now, just ‘cause I won’t go charging off a cliff?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“So what did you mean?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I guess that’s what I always pictured men doing.”
“You know a lot of men who’ve done that, do you? Gone down fighting?”
“Well, no, but—”
“You know why you haven’t? ‘Cause it’s bullcrap. That’s why. Nobody wants to die unless they got a death wish.”
“I didn’t say you should want to do it. You know, sometimes we’ve all got to do things we don’t want to do.”
His words are ice. “Did you ever think that giving up on your sister might be one of them?”
“I thought not.”
I feel heat flush my cheeks. “What about you? Ever think of giving up on Gill?”
He drops his eyes now. “No.”
“Don’t you want to get him back?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then come with us. Fight them. Fight for your brother.”
He shakes his head. “You don’t get it. That’s just why I can’t. They’ll know. And they’ll kill him.”
“If they haven’t already.”
“What? What did you say?”
“I said, ‘if they haven’t already.’ Think about it. When’s the last time you saw him? Talked to him?”
“No.” He shook his head and pushes to his feet. “No, I can’t go there. No way. Not after everything.” With that, he turns and flees away from me, back toward the basement. I move to follow, but Matthew opens the door behind us and his lieutenants march out with him.
Maximus carries the broken comlink and a pencil thin projector. “Not sure this is gonna work,” he mutters. A moment later, a bright light flashes out from the projector against the wall. The image flickers, but a satellite overlay of the Twenty-Seventh is now visible on the plaster. I move around for a better look. I’ve never seen the city quite like this, and I’m a little surprised by how small it now seems.
Matthew stands by the side of the image. “Everybody listen up! This is going to be a talon formation, six people per team. Three couples each. Advance team will set up a mile away from the main switching yard and create a diversion that stops the train.” He shines a laser pointer on the image, showing us where he means. “Lateral teams will establish a coordinated perimeter here and here, eliminating any defense from the sides. Rear team will let us know when the train has left the yard and close in from behind, cutting off any escape back into the city. Both advance and rear teams keep a tight perimeter. Do not engage to support either side unless there is imminent danger of a breach. We do this right, there won’t be time for that anyway. We strike fast, and we strike hard. Any questions?”
I had a zillion, but thought it best to hold my tongue just yet. One of the other Raptors, a member of the advance team, I learned later, raised his hand. “How are we supposed to stop a train?”
Matthew shrugged. “Get creative. Put another railcar in the way. Blow up the track. Drop a tree on them if you have to. I don’t care. Just make sure that train doesn’t get through your position. Anything else?” When no additional questions were forthcoming, he announced, “Move out!”
More rapidly than I thought possible, the Raptors vacated the Wolfs’ Den, heading for the train yard. I fell into step beside Matthew. “And what about me? I’m not just going to sit there.”
“No you are not,” he agreed. “You are with me. You any good with a gun?”
“I suppose. I’ve shot my fair share of squirrel.”
He nodded. “That’ll have to do. Where’s your boyfriend?”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I blanch, my mind flashing to the kiss we shared. “He’s just a friend.” Matthew rolls his eyes. “He was here a minute ago.”
“Find him quick.”
“He’s coming with us?”
“As part of the operation? No. But we can’t afford to leave him behind now, can we? He’ll keep watch with Thomas until this mess is over.”
I feel like I should tell Matthew about what Daniel said, but there’s no time. Matthew has already moved on, assisting his lieutenants and other soldiers with gearing up. At a loss, I turn to go look for Daniel.
I finally find him sitting on the steps to the basement, elbows on his knees, his head propped on his hands.
“There you are,” I say.
“Here I am.”
“Come on, we gotta go.”
“I ain’t part of this,” he objects.
I put a hand on his shoulder. “Someone needs to keep an eye on Thomas, make sure he’s all right.”
“So I’m relegated to playing nurse.”
“Thomas really does need the help,” I explain, “and Matthew’s not going to leave you behind.”
He shakes his head ruefully. “You need to think about what that means.”
“I know what it means. I just—he doesn’t know you yet. He doesn’t trust you.”
“And you do?”
His question hangs heavy in the air for the moment it takes me to formulate a reply.
“I see,” he says, and starts to rise.
“Wait! Please. You haven’t done anything that I wouldn’t do in the same situation.”
He shakes his head, unsatisfied. “We’re in the same situation. You just don’t know it yet. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go see my patient.”
With that he leaves. Twenty minutes later, we all do.