Daniel is less than enthusiastic, and I’m still so mad at him that I can barely stand to look his way, but I’m hurting for him, too. None of my feelings make sense right now. I take them and stuff them down as far as they can go. The anger feels like acid burning a hole in my soul, and the further I shove it down, the deeper the hole gets. Right now it’s like it’s burrowed a shaft into an underground chamber, and something dark and hideous is lurking in the blackness, just waiting for a chance to escape.
I’ve emptied my gun and stowed the clip in a pouch on my belt, despite everything Mother taught me. The last thing I need right now is access to a hair trigger.
Willis has asked for a gun as well, assuring me he knows how to handle it. I’m loath to give him one, if only because I don’t want to see a kid go and do something so indelible as shoot someone. Not that I’d know better. But then I remember he’s got as much stake in this fight as I do, and just as much right to reclaim what’s been taken from him. I decide to test him when we go inside the Wolf’s den to stock up. Daniel gives me a sad look when I hand one of my pistols to Willis, saying, “Show me.”
Willis breaks the gun down in seconds, though, and reassembles it just as quickly. He hands it back to me, beaming. I shake my head. “Keep it.” He stuffs it behind his belt in the back and picks up a couple of knives as well. I nod approvingly and slip a bag of phosphorous grenades over my shoulder.
Daniel takes nothing, even refusing the revolver I offer him. “No thanks. I don’t know the first things about guns.”
“It’s not hard,” Willis chirps. “Just point the hole thingy at the other people and squeeze the trigger.”
We both stare at him, but he’s busily perusing the food stuffs the Raptors set aside in the cupboard. He shoves several energy bars into his pockets.
Daniel shakes his head, puts his hands in his pockets, and walks away from us, muttering, “Where did you find that kid?”
I want to answer, but it’s obvious he doesn’t care either way.
Once we’re loaded up, Willis and I come outside to where Daniel is leaning against the door post, his hands still in his pockets and his eyes closed.
“I never really noticed it before,” he says, “the feeling of a warm breeze on your face. It’s like the world is your mother, and she’s kissing you.”
I bite my lip. “We haven’t got much time.”
He nods, a sad smile toying with his cheeks. “I know. It’s just… I don’t wanna lose this feeling.” Finally, he pushes away from the wall and starts down the street.
Willis clutches my hand. “What’s wrong with him?”
I refuse to meet the child’s eyes, and keep my own fixed resolutely on Daniel’s back. “He’s dying.”
I can feel the questions through Willis’s fingers entwining my own, wanting to know why and how. But I shake my head firmly and quicken my pace. “Come on.”
Getting into the heart of the Twenty-seventh is more difficult than just walking down the street. Once we leave the Lower Quarter behind, we’ll be entering a more populated area—one where people don’t wander around fully armed.
The cloak will hide us from curious looks and concerned citizens, but it’s the check points that have me worried. I bring this up to Daniel as we near the first one. The check point is set up on a bridge. The fifty foot trench that runs beneath bridge used to hold train tracks, but the rails were torn out a long time ago, and now it’s become a repository for the Middle Quarter’s trash.
“How do we get by?”
“I’m working on it,” he mutters. “We can’t just walk down the street without being seen. Cloak or no cloak. Someone bumps into us and we’re done for.”
I study the check point. It’s got a double chain-link fence with a pair of full height turnstiles manned by a half dozen bored-looking guards in helmets and flak jackets. To one side of the turnstiles is a rolling gate that can be wheeled back for vehicular traffic.
“We need a diversion,” I say, and point to the traffic gate. “That’s our way in. All we need them to do is open the gate, and then we can sneak through under the cloak.”
“You two can,” Daniel points out. “There isn’t room under there for three.”
I frown, but he’s right. The three of us can’t fit under the blanket. “Is there any other way in?”
Daniel shakes his head and points to the . “Not unless you want to go over the wall. But scaling it is impossible. Especially with the razor wire on the other side.”
Willis looks at the trench and tugs my elbow. “Got any rope?”
“‘Bout a hundred feet of it.” I look at him quizzically. “Why?”
“I have an idea.”
It takes some convincing on his part, because I don’t want to let him do it. Somehow it feels wrong to me, like he’s taking all the risk. But I’m stymied by his retort. “Do you have a better idea?”
When I admit I don’t, he holds out his hands for the grenades. Daniel says, “There’s a spot about a hundred yards that way where the rains have washed away our side of the wall. You should be able to get into the trench from there. We’ll find you on the other side.”
He nods and starts to move off, but I grab his hand. “Willis! Listen to me. As soon as they open the gate, you run. Don’t look back and don’t hesitate. Just get the hell out of there.”
He grins and shakes his head. “I got this. You watch.”
With that, he tears free and hurries away. A heaviness grabs hold of my gut and pulls it down. I want to chase after him, and tell him no, we’ll come up with something else.
Something that doesn’t involve a ten year old boy taking on armed thugs.
Daniel pulls my shoulder, and I know it’s too late. Together, we drape ourselves in the cloak and hurry to the gate, taking care to stay out of the way of anyone near by.
The first explosion happens only seconds after we arrive. Willis has wasted no time in lobbing one of the grenades towards the check point. A flash dazzles my eyes and a blast of heat washes over me even through the cloak. I gasp and can’t help looking back through the afterimage, trying to get a fix on his position. The second explosion lands considerably nearer, followed immediately by a third. I whip my head around to see the guards taking up flanking positions, their weapons out and aiming in the general direction the grenades came from. A shot rings out, hitting almost two feet from a guard. The bullet ricochets off the fence with a ping and a brief spark. To his credit, the guard immediately flattens himself on the earth. Good thing. Willis’s second shot hits right where the guard’s head had been seconds before.
“Kid’s got a hell of an aim,” I mutter. Daniel shushes me with an elbow.
Two more shots ring out, and then one of the guards points his finger and yells, “There he is!” He immediately drops, a spray of red misting the air from his throat.
“Damn it, Willis!” I say. This time, there is no elbow from Daniel.
The guards are yelling now, even as one rushes to check on his fallen comrade. Abruptly, the gate screeches open, and I can see Willis burst into the opening, running flat out in the other direction. A pair of large vehicles surge through the gate in rapid pursuit. I stare as they rush toward the tiny gunman, and my heart rushes to my throat.
Daniel tugs on my arm, but I push him back. I need to be sure Willis gets away.
“The gate!” he whispers.
Gate? I look back and see it standing wide open, but already it’s begun rolling toward us. In seconds it will close.
I wrap one arm around Daniel and with my other hand clutch the fabric. Together we hurry around the edge of the building. We rear back a moment as a guard appears right in front of us. I almost cry out, but Daniel tugs me to one side. The guard isn’t looking at us. He’s looking through us.
Dodging around the guard, we pass through the gate just before it closes. I turn on the other side, anxious to see what’s happened to Willis. My foot scrapes on a stone, sending it skittering across the pavement. The guard jerks his head around, frowning. I hold my breath.
A moment later he shrugs and turns away. Daniel whispers into my ear. “Come on. We’ll meet him on the other side.”
Together, we hurry away from the checkpoint.
“I can’t believe he pulled it off,” Daniel says. He sounds alive again.
I shake my head. “The sooner we get him over the wall and away from those goons, the better I’ll feel.” We’re not wearing the cloak at the moment. It’s gotten too hot under its cover, and we’re on a deserted sidewalk, hurrying uphill toward our rendezvous point.
“Still, little guy can shoot.”
“He’s got reason. His Dad was a sniper before he escaped. That’s how Willis got hold of the cloak.”
“Makes sense. Apple don’t fall far, does it?”
“REGA took his family and left him to fend for himself.”
Daniel frowns. “Why didn’t they take him with them?”
“Because his parents hid him too well. That’s how he escaped the tribes that came after, picking over the leftovers. He was still in the building, hiding, when I found him.”
“How’d you find him when nobody else did?”
I shrug. “I think he wanted to be found by someone. By anyone who wasn’t REGA or tribe.”
“Yeah, but why that building?”
“What do you mean, ‘why that building?’ Because it was my building. That’s where we live. Or did. REGA took my mom, too. That’s what your friends do.”
“My friends? You mean the ones that have killed me?” He sighs. “I’m not surprised by what they did. Not really. But you’ve got to understand something. I’d do anything to get my brother back. Every compromise I made—and yes, they were compromises—but every single one of them I made toward that end.”
“You made a deal with the devil.”
“And I’d do it again, too! I don’t care that I’m dying. But they will keep their promise to me.”
“They can’t keep their promise to you! Your brother has the virus. He’s going to die from it. Everybody dies from it.”
He shakes his head. “No. Not everybody. There’s a cure. And if I helped them, they’d make sure he got it.”
“Daniel, I know you’re not stupid, but—”
“That’s right, I’m not! I know what I’m talking about, Kath! You’re the one who doesn’t understand. You’ve never understood. There is a cure.”
“Fine. Even if there is, how do you know he’s going to get it?”
“Because I got him on the list.”
“The test subjects. REGA knows the cure exists, but they don’t have it with them. Someone’s bringing it to them. Once they get it, they’ll test it on human subjects—especially those who’re in the last stages of the disease, like Gill. I had to agree to be a double-agent to get him on the list, but they’d have wanted him anyway. You see? Everything I’ve done has been about saving Gill’s life.”
As if it makes it all okay. I shove my balled fists resolutely in my pocket. “And what happens if this cure doesn’t work?”
I half-expect him to argue with me. Instead, he shrugs. “We’re all gonna die anyway. It’s the only shot I’ve got.”
We’ve reached the point by the ravine where Daniel thinks Willis will be able to climb down on the other side. There is no razor wire here, just a simple six foot fence over grown with weeds and brush on the other side. A sign warning of the extreme drop off dangles from one remaining bolt. The other bolt has rusted through.
I take out a pair of snips from the backpack and break through the fence beside one of the posts, and then pull it back to let Daniel in. I follow after.
There isn’t five feet of ground between the edge of the ravine and the fence, and what ground there is slick with weeds and mud. I creep behind Daniel until I can see over the lip into the trench below.
There is no sign of Willis.
“You don’t think he—” I start to say, but Daniel points.
“There he is.”
I follow the line of his finger until I spy a tiny figure making his way down the mound of rubble that’s cascaded on the other side. “Good boy,” I murmur.
“He isn’t alone, either.”
Daniel points across the ravine. I can see armed men moving around near the ledge, searching the area for any sign of Willis. It won’t take them long to figure out where he’s gone.
“He’s gonna get himself killed.”
“No he’s not.” I pull my gun and aim it.
“What are you doing? No!” Daniel reaches for the gun slide. I shove him off with my shoulder and take aim, squeezing the trigger.
It’s then that I remember: I’d unloaded the gun.
“You take that shot, you give away our position,” Daniel hisses. “His, too.”
“They’re gonna see him anyway.” I reach for the clip and shove it inside the gun.
“And what happens when the Sweepers show up here while we’re busy hauling him up the other side?”
“Come on, Kath! Think!”
“I am thinking,” I mutter. But I don’t see any options.
Willis is fleeing headlong across the bottom of the ravine now. One of the guards points and gives a cry. Gunshots ring out, but Willis has dodged, running in a serpentine fashion. He drops below a mound of garbage, out of sight of the guards.
I holster the gun as Daniel flings the coil of rope over the side. Willis glances up and sees me. His face brightens, and he gives me a thumbs-up. I put my palm out, telling him to wait.
The guards are lowering their own rope now, swinging their guns onto their backs as they prep to descend into the ravine. As soon as their backs are turned, I motion him forward.
Willis is on his feet, hurtling toward the rope. Daniel has taken the other end and wrapped it around the fence post, bracing it against his waist.
Willis grabs the rope and starts to climb. Daniel and I pull, hauling him up our side of the ledge.
A sudden cry from below is answered by gunshots peppering the brush around us. I reach for my gun to return fire, and the rope slips, pulling me forward toward the ledge. Daniel cries out as he slides suddenly forward, stopping our fall at the last second.
My head and shoulders dangle over the edge. I can see Willis clinging to the rope as he rebounds off the side of the ravine. His face is stricken with panic.
I raise my sidearm and fire, emptying the clip at the men rushing across the bottom of the ravine. They dive for cover.
“Come on!” I cry.
Daniel grimaces beside me. “I’m trying.”
Together, we haul Willis up the side of the ravine. I grab him as he nears the top and pull him into my embrace.
We lay there a moment, catching our breath, and then scramble backwards away from the ravine. Once on the other side, we take stock. Daniel’s hands are bloodied from the rope scorching his palms. My hands are too, but not from the rope.
“Told you I’d make it,” Willis says.
I stare at the blood, realizing there’s only one place it could have come from.
Willis’s eyes lose their focus, and he collapses against me.
He’s been shot.