3.02

By the time friday came around and JJ swung by to give me the A-OK, I was still floundering with my decision. Despite our childish bickering, Olivia had visited me every day, bringing games and videos and idle chit-chat, and for the first time in a long time, things felt like they were slowly settling into place. Maybe even becoming routine. I don’t know if Kiro was right, that there was some cosmic force at play here, but it was rare I felt so comfortable with people. That alone seemed worth preserving. At least for the time being.

And though my plans had been seriously derailed, my thoughts still looked Westward. I wanted to go back, needed to even, but for the time being that trip would have to take a back seat. It wouldn’t exactly be safe to travel, what with my new favorite psychopathic corporation trying to analyze my insides, and well, I didn’t have the money.

So without realizing, it seemed I had less “made” my decision than it had been made for me. Of course, if anyone asked, I’d stay because I wanted answers.

In truth, I think I simply wanted the company.

“Okay. On the count of three. Ready?”

I nodded and gritted my teeth.

“You don’t look ready.”

“Just do it already, JJ.”

“Oh, um, alright.”

A sharp pain tore at my side and I gasped, which of course only made things worse.

“Ow! What the hell!”

JJ stiffened. “You said just go ahead?”

“The countdown. I meant the countdown.”

“Oh. Well, hey!” He flashed me a toothy grin. “At least it’s done now.”

I tried to run my hand over the wound, but JJ shooed me away, muttering things under his breath that sounded suspiciously like “infection” and “sepsis” and “death.” He grabbed a sterile kit off the shelf behind him and set to work stitching me up. As he did, he explained my injuries. Apparently I’d been shot in the lung and apparently lungs didn’t like that. It had collapsed and filled with blood, but I was lucky; the bullet missed anything vital.

I told JJ that I didn’t find getting shot to be very lucky and he laughed.

“In your case, you’re lucky all you did was get shot.”

“So I’ve been told. You don’t have to lecture me. I know it was stupid.”

JJ gave me one of his patented half-smirks. “Lecture you? You kidding, girly? Who cares if it was crazy? You’re a badass now! You’ve even got the bullet in there to prove it.”

“Really?” I ran my hand over my chest. It felt weird, knowing something was in there that didn’t belong.

“You’re own little souvenir. We don’t take that kind of stuff out. Besides, it amps up your street cred. I bet everyone’s been coming around to tongue-clean your boot bottoms.”

Well that’s a new one. I imagined Kiro getting on his knees and actually licking the bottom of my shoes, all the while ranting about how his tongue must have been destined for the job. I started to laugh, but caught myself before it could hurt too badly.

JJ was right. The team was coming around. For the most part, at least.

“Not everyone sees it that way,” I said.

JJ looked up from his work. “Aiden?”

I nodded.

“You’ve got to give the kid some time. He doesn’t make things easy.”

“I guess.” I watched JJ put in the last few stitches. “How do you know all this stuff?”

“One of the perks of being ex-military.”

“You were in the army?”

“Something like that.” He sowed the last stitch, cut the tie and stepped back. “Seems like a lifetime ago now.”

He placed a layer of gauze over my stitches and secured it with tape. I sat up. “So what made you leave?”

“It turned me into something else. Something I didn’t like.”

Vague. I swung my feet over the bed’s edge. JJ snapped off his gloves. “Come on,” he said, before I could press him for more information. “Let’s get you over to see the boss.”

I grabbed Alice and JJ led the way through the labrynth-like hallways of the asylum. I did my best to focus on the nothing conversation we were having, but if anything was my Achilles heel, it was my stubbornness. And that, plus my unquenchable curiosity, was a terrible combination in a group like ROOT 4, where secrets were the name of the game. My mind kept settling back on JJ and his stint in the military. It was weird. He didn’t seem the type and there was something in his voice when he talked about it that made me pause.

I tried hard not to push him, but I found myself bringing it up over and over again, until JJ finally caught me by the arm and slowed us to a stop.

The hallway lights flickered overhead. Still, I caught glimpses of his eyes in the moments of brightness. They were narrowed, and though he wore a half-smirk, he didn’t look particularly charmed by my antics.

“Sorry,” I muttered. I let me eyes drop to my feet.

“It’s okay. Just – you know how things are, Rainey.” JJ frowned. “Look, around here the past is like an asshole. Everyone’s got one and they lug it around all day and everyone knows it’s there, but you just don’t bring it up in polite conversation. And you certainly don’t screw with it.” He shook his head. “I thought you, of all people, would get that?”

He had me there. I was the queen of repression. How could I fault them for something I’d been doing my whole life?

“Right. Assholes. Got it. Won’t bring it up again.” I shrugged and held up three fingers. “Scouts honor?”

JJ laughed. “Come on, loser. We’re gonna be late.”

We turned a few more corners and wove our way into the Hive. It was like I remembered, the flat screen monitors poised above the main room, flashing through various displays, and the massive CPUs in the corner. Olivia was in the back, working at one of the computer terminals, while Kiro sat at one of the long tables in the center, paging through some notebook or other. Aiden was nowhere to be seen.

Kiro motioned for us to join him.

“Rainey,” he said, as JJ and I sat down. “It’s good to see you back on your feet. How you feeling?”

“Better. Thanks.”

“Great. And have you come to a decision yet?”

I ran my fingernails along the tabletop. “Yes. I’ve decided to stay.” I paused. “For awhile at least.”

Kiro looked up from his notebook. If he seemed surprised, I didn’t catch it. “That’s excellent. Unfortunately, I won’t be around to help get you settled – JJ and I have some business to attend to – but I’ll have Olivia show you to your quarters.”

“You’re leaving?” I asked. I was looking at Kiro, but the question was for the both of them. JJ hadn’t mentioned he’d be away.

“For a few days,” Kiro said, “a week at most. Some leads have emerged that we have to follow-up.”

“Did something happen while I was out?”

JJ shook his head. “That’s the thing. Nothing’s happened. And yet the word is that Vert’s spreading faster than ever. There’s so much on the streets now that the dealers can’t even move it all.”

Weird. “I don’t know much about drug economics, but isn’t that counter productive? You know – the whole supply and demand thing?”

“Unless you’re goal isn’t to make money,” Kiro said, “but simply mass exposure.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” I said.

Kiro stood up and rummaged around the table. He found his flak vest and strapped it on. “No, it doesn’t. Which is why JJ and I need to find out as much as we can as soon as we can, before we’re all blindsided by whatever Valtronic’s planning. I’m sorry to take off on you like this, right when you’re getting back, but I’m afraid it can’t be helped.”

“No,” I said, “it’s okay, really. Go kick some ass.”

Kiro smiled, nodded and turned to JJ. “We’re all set. Pack what you need. We’ll leave within the hour.”

JJ nodded, then glanced at me. “Rainey – see you when we get back. Try not to burn the place down.”

“Sure, sure.”

As I watched them head off toward the garage, suddenly it hit me: I had no idea what I was supposed to do while they were away.

“Kiro,” I called out. He turned. “What do you want me working on? What can I help with?”

“I have you set up with Aiden. You’ll help him sift through all the data you were able to pull off the depot servers.”

I cringed. “Aiden? You sure?”

“Very.” He waved over his shoulder and pointed to the ceiling. “It’s out of my hands.”

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3.01

The first thing I noticed was the lights – bright, fluorescent bulbs burning holes through the back of my skull.

I cringed, gasped, and closed my eyes. I wanted to play it off as a bad dream, but just then, my dream spoke to me.

“Rainey?”

Chair legs squealed against the floor boards. I squeezed my eyes tighter, really working at it.

“Rainey, can you hear me?”

Someone nudged me. I faked being asleep. They nudged me again.

“Please stop,” I said. I barely recognized the sound of my own voice. It was dry and hoarse and my throat ached like a sonofabitch. “Didn’t they teach you not to shake people?”

The nudger laughed. A soft, singsong laugh that seemed vaguely familiar. “I think I missed that lesson.”

I opened my eyes, slowly this time, hoping to lessen the blow. The room spun slightly from the glare and as I took a deep, startled, pain-filled breath, the smell of bleach and disinfectant burned my nose. Only two places carried that stench like a calling card: the hospital and the morgue. And though I might have felt dead, lying there with leads hooked up to my chest and tubes sticking out of me like a human porcupine, I was pretty sure the pain marked me Alive.

So that left the hospital, or some makeshift infirmary.

I turned my head, doing my best to shield my eyes from the glare. Olivia sat beside me, eyes intent and heavy. She wore camo pants, army boots, and a thin white crop top. Her hair sported a new blue streak that dipped low over her eyes; the rest was tied up in a single plume. I couldn’t think of a less flattering look for anyone really, yet she still pulled it off. The bitch.

“Welcome back to the land of the living.”

I groaned and sat up. “Where..?”

“Back at the base.” She wagged her finger at me. “For awhile there you tried your best to die on us. Lucky for you, I know absolutely nothing about medicine.”

I had only brief flashes of memories: leaning out a window. Getting shot at. Olivia standing over me, screaming, arms covered in my blood. And Allie.

Allie, always with the blood.

Beside me, a monitor beeped. A squiggly line that I guessed was my heart rate quickened and a sequence of numbers blinked into existence: 100, 102, 108.

“Maybe I’m still drugged,” I said, as Olivia got up and silenced the monitor, “but why is that lucky for me?”

“The way I see it? Had I known even the slightest bit about medicine, I’d probably have tried something and I’d probably have killed you.” She laughed. She actually laughed. “Nothing’s more dangerous than a little bit of knowledge, Rainey.”

“You’re doing it again,” I said, and groaned.

“What’s that?”

“Being weirdly wise.”

“Ah. My bad.”

I tried to take a deep breath, but was cut short by a coughing spell. It vibrated my chest, making me distinctly aware of the large plastic tube jutting from my side. Mental note: being shot, plus coughing, equals no fun.

“I’m going to do you a solid and pretend that comment was comforting, O.”

Olivia gave me a wink and a thumbs-up and I had to seriously fight down the urge to laugh – knowing damn well that laughing would feel anything but good. Instead, I traced the tubing to the edge of my skin and found that someone had stitched it in place.

“So who do I have to thank for this?”

“JJ,” Olivia said. She shrugged. “He saved your life.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“Guess he felt indebted to you for, oh – I don’t know, saving all our asses with that crazy stunt of yours? Not to mention the greater part of Atlanta.”

I propped up my pillow and perked up. “So it worked?”

“It worked alright. Thanks to you.”

“Amazing.” I stared idly at my hands as I balled them into fists and released. “It was kind of crazy, wasn’t it?”

“That ain’t the half of it, kid. What happened to you out there?”

Even now, my memory was a little cloudy, but I could still remember the feeling that had coursed through my body – that feeling of knowledge and calm and control. Three things typically absent from my repertoire. And the way I had handled that handgun and the explosives! Even the mainframes, hacking – where had that come from? It wasn’t me. That’s all I knew.

It wasn’t me.

“I don’t know. I can’t explain it, O. It was like I was someone else… for a little bit at least.”

She chuckled and shook her head. “I still can’t believe you went into that depot. You – with no combat experience, no electronics experience, no hacking experience. Craziness.”

I stared at Olivia. “What are you talking about? You let me go! You even came up with the plan!”

“Well, yeah. You were persuasive. What can I say?”

“I asked for your gun,” I deadpanned.

“That’s persuasive!”

“Ugh…” I grabbed my head. It was beginning to ache and I was pretty sure it had nothing to do with my gunshot wound.

“Maybe I’ll just turn up your pain meds a little bit…”

“Olivia!”

“Fine, fine.”

Someone knocked on the door. Before I could pry my hands off my face and look up, I heard Kiro’s voice from the hallway: “Am I interrupting?”

Olivia stood on a dime. “Not at all. I’ll give you two some space.” She started to leave the room, but paused in the doorway.

“Careful with this one, Boss. She’s a bit feisty in the morning.”

“Olivia!” I shouted.

The raven-haired girl feigned a nervous glance back over her shoulder. “I fear I’ve said too much,” she whispered, then fled the room.

Kiro took Olivia’s seat and chuckled to himself. Yes, he actually laughed. Correction, was currently smiling. In my, admittedly limited time with the guy, I’d never once seen him shift from that serious scowl he always wore plastered across his face.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

I glanced toward the door Olivia had left through. “Beginning to think I might’ve been better off unconscious.”

“Yes,” Kiro said. He smiled deeper. “Olivia can have that effect on people.”

“It’s not that, it’s just… well, all the bickering… Hell, it reminds me of -”

I froze, the words dead on my tongue. It was stupid to think like that, careless. These people, ROOT4, they weren’t friends. I didn’t have friends – couldn’t have friends. And they certainly weren’t family.

“Allie?”

My head turned so fast, I nearly gave myself whiplash. “What did you say?”

“Allie,” Kiro repeated. “It reminds you of your sister?”

“How do you..?”

Kiro reached into his jacket and pulled out an old, familiar book. My book. Alice. He hesitated for a moment, then handed it to me.

“When you first arrived, this was the only item on you.”

I snatched the book out of his hands and hugged it to my chest. I closed my eyes, stiffened. “Did you read this?”

My words were barely a whisper, but the anger was there, seething underneath. Alice was more than just ink and paper. Hell, she was more than just me. Allie was there, too, tucked into the pages. To read it, to taint its memories, was the ultimate breach of trust. Something I could never forgive.

“Did you read this book!”

Kiro leaned forward in his chair. He rested his elbows on his thighs, his chin against his knuckles.

“What you did out there, Rainey… it was crazy and stupid and reckless. You could have been killed, or worse, captured. You know now what’s at stake if Valtronic gets ahold of you. There’s no telling what horrors they might unleash. So not only did you put our operation at further risk, but you may have just gambled with the fate of the entire country.”

I blinked back tears. “Did you read this fucking book?” I whispered.

Kiro let out a deep sigh.

In that moment, I didn’t care about ROOT4. I didn’t care about Valtronic, or their stupid drug, or their insane plan to dose the entire country. I didn’t care about what I’d done, or what I’d risked. None of it mattered. None of it. I just wanted my answer. And then I was done.

“No, Rainey. I did not read your book.”

I wiped my eyes on my palm and stared at Kiro. Stared him straight in the eyes, looking for any hints of deceit. But he was solid. He gave nothing away.

“Then how did -”

“You talk to her,” he said, “in your sleep. Olivia, JJ – they mentioned the girl as well. And the diary. I guessed, that’s all.”

I hugged Alice harder.

“What you did,” Kiro continued, “may have been stupid and it may have been reckless. But if there’s one thing I can’t argue with, it’s results. I may not understand how or why, but what I do know is that you saved us all. And more than that, you saved Atlanta from a terrible fate. For that, I and the rest of ROOT4 owe you an incredible debt.”

“But why didn’t you read it?” I whispered.

“Trust,” he said, as if it were the simplest explanation in the world. “ROOT4 functions and survives because of it. We all have our pasts, Rainey – experiences that have shaped us and driven us to this point in our lives. But those memories are ours and ours alone to share. I couldn’t read your diary any more than I could force the others to confess their pasts.”

I set Alice down on my lap and ran my hands across the ragged cover. I didn’t know what else to say, other than, “thank you.”

Kiro nodded. “You have earned my trust and the trust of my team. And for that -” He paused, kneaded his knuckles. “For that, you are free to go. If you so choose.”

I looked up. “What?”

“Once you’re better, I’ll have JJ get you settled and ready. If you choose to stay, know that you will have a place here with us for as long as you wish. If you leave, we will do our best to protect you on the outside.”

Kiro rested his hand on my covered leg and for the first time I noticed a small tattoo on the back of his palm. It was some type of chinese symbol and looked vaguely like a house, or at least a roof with two windows. Before I could get a better look, he stood and walked to the door.

“I fear,” he said, pausing briefly in the doorway, “that fate has interwoven our destinies. That no matter what, Rainey, we cannot escape the path our pasts have set for us. But then, what is fate without the illusion of choice?”

For a long time after Kiro left, I lay in my makeshift hospital bed, staring at the walls, wondering about my choice and fate and destiny and all the other hocus-pocus Kiro had talked about. In a way, I envied the way he saw the world. It seemed so easy, so comforting, to entrust your life into the hands of some cosmic force.

But me? I couldn’t believe in any of that crap. To do that, I needed faith, and my faith had died six years ago in a flash of gunfire and screams I’d long since tried to forget.

I looked at the ceiling, imagining the sky and the clouds beyond.

If this was my destiny, then I’d finally found someone who hated me more than I hated myself.

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Interlude

I don’t remember how long I was out. One minute, I was slumped in my seat, darkness consuming my vision, and the next, I was somewhere else entirely.

They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to snuff it. I always imagined that to be the good parts. You know, the parts of your life you’d want to relieve.

And maybe that was true for normal people. Maybe I was destined to be a weirdo. Hell, maybe I didn’t have enough good memories to fill my pre-death slide show, so my brain just worked with what it had.

Whatever the reason, as my vision faded, I could have sworn I heard her name on the night air…

“Allie!” I pounded on the bathroom door. “We’re gonna be late. What are you doing in ther -”

A squeak sounded beside me and before I could turn, someone covered their hand over my mouth and dragged me out of the hallway.

I tripped over my feet, but soft hands held me, familiar hands.

“Hey! What’s the big idea!”

Allie peered over my head, so that to me, she was upside down. A huge smile peppered her face. She was gorgeous, of course, in that unique, exotic sort of way. Her dirty-blonde curls bounced around her shoulders, and her eyes, one hazel, the other a dull green, stood out against her freakishly pale skin. For living in California, she never seemed to tan. Not ever.

She always used to say that she hated her eyes, that they freaked people out, but I loved them. I was always jealous of them.

Allie righted me and put a finger to my lips. “Shhhhhh,” she said.

I gave her a playful shove and sat on the bed. Her bedroom was tiny, like mine, with just enough room for a desk and a bed and a small dresser. The walls were baby blue (we’d painted them together last year) and the floors were old wood that creaked whenever you moved, making sneaking out nearly impossible. Clothes lay strewn across the ground, all old hand-me-downs and thrift shop gems.

“Dad and Mom are in there,” Allie whispered, as if to say it any louder might make it untrue. She joined me on the bed. “Together.”

“Oh,” I said, then, “oooooooooooh.” I threw my hands over my eyes, hoping to unrecord those last mental thoughts. “Ew.”

Allie flopped back on the bed. “Well, I think it’s romantic. Who knows, maybe they’ll really get back together this time. I’m tired of this separation crap.”

I didn’t join in her hopes. Allie was five years older. She was supposed to be the reasonable one and me, the dreamer. And yet, even I knew Mom and Dad would never work. They sucked together. “They’ll just fight more. Besides -” I stood up and walked to the door. I hesitated. “You won’t even be here. What do you care?”

“Aw, come on, Rainey. Don’t be like that. It’s college. I can’t help it.”

I turned and stared at her. “You can help where you go! New York? I’ll never see you!”

You’re abandoning me.

I didn’t say it, but I tried to put it into my voice, into my eyes.

It wasn’t fair of me. After all, she’d simply accomplished what everyone in this city only dreamed to do: escape. And once you did, you never looked back.

I wasn’t mad at her for leaving; I just didn’t want to be left behind.

Allie got up and wrapped her arms around me. I tried to fight her off, but she was bigger. Stupid age difference.

“I’ll come back,” she said in my ear. “For holidays and stuff.”

“With what money?”

“I’ll get a job. Don’t worry about it. Look, before you know it, you’ll leave this place too, Rainey. You’ll see.”

She let me go and started to walk to her dresser. I grabbed her arm.

“Take me with you. I’ll do home school or something, I don’t care.”

Allie half-smiled. “You know I would if I could, Sis.”

“Whatever.” I turned back to the door. “I have to get ready for school.”

“Fine,” Allie said, an amused lilt to her voice. “I guess you don’t want the presents I got you…”

I paused, my hand still on the doorknob. A huge smile spread across my face, and I took a moment for it to pass before I turned around. God knows, I couldn’t let Allie see she’d won.

“Bribing me?”

Allie shrugged, her curls bouncing off her shoulders, and pulled something out of her dresser. “I found this for you.” She sat on the bed and patted the space beside her. “At this cool yard sale on the other side of town.”

I faked a second of indecision – it was all I could stand – then joined her. She handed me the package.

“Wrapped it myself.”

Warmth burned my cheeks. I glanced at her, smiled, and tore off the old Christmas paper. Underneath lay a musty old book. The pages were worn and leathery, and it smelled faintly of cigar smoke, but I didn’t care. It was mine and Allie had given it to me. I stared at the front cover. A little blonde girl stood beneath a tree and above her, perched on a branch, was a large orange cat with a mischievous smile. I read the title.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?”

“It’s about this girl who gets tossed into a strange new world and has all kinds of crazy adventures.” Allie paused. “I thought that while I was off with my adventure, you could have your very own too, right here.”

I ran my hand over the cover.

“Are you…” Allie started. “Is it okay? I didn’t mean to -”

I threw my arms around her neck. “It’s wonderful. Thank you.”

She hugged me back, squeezing me into her body, and a second later she said, “hey! Wait, I almost forgot.” She pried me off and flipped open the cover of the book. There, taped to the inside, was a silver locket.

“Allie…” I whispered.

“Oh hush.” She peeled off the tape and held the necklace up. “Well, turn around, silly.”

I did and Allie reached over and draped the necklace across my chest. She secured the clasp and let it hang. “Well, what do you think?”

I palmed the locket, feeling the engraving – AJS – under my touch. It was Grandma’s, given to Allie because they shared the same namesake. I’d always wanted one of my own, but we couldn’t exactly afford something like that. This was an heirloom. Priceless.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “but it’s your’s…”

“I want you to have it. I want you to have it so that even when I’m off at college, you’ll always have a little piece of me with you.” She looked me in the eyes. “I love you, little Sis. Nothing will ever change that.”

My cheeks ran wet. I didn’t care. I clutched the book to my chest and felt the cold silver of the locket pressed firm against my heart. “I love you too, big Sis.”

I gurgled, tried to breathe and choked. Someone stood over me, their mouth moving, yelling at me. The moonlight threw shadows across their face.

“Allie..?”

“Rainey!” she shouted.

I blinked. No, not Allie. Black hair, sharp features. Olivia…

“Rainey!” Olivia repeated. She pressed her fingers against my neck and cursed. Her arms were covered in blood.

“Dammit, she’s in a real bad way, Kiro. You need to get back here, now. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

My vision darkened.

“Rainey, stay awake!”

I tasted blood.

“Rainey!”

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2.05

The device activated and spun, burning a circle into the wall.

I pulled back and pressed myself against the computer tower. How long had it taken Kiro to break through the train car? Two minutes? Three? I glanced at the machine and cursed; it had barely made its first loop. At that rate, the wall wouldn’t be the only thing getting ripped a new one. I needed more time, but that sure as hell wasn’t going to come easy.

I could already hear the guards closing in.

Another round of gunfire sparked off the tower beside me. I cringed, curling myself into a ball. The excitement, the adrenaline – it was all wearing off, and now I was left with that sinking feeling of absolute dread. How could I have ended up here? I thought about how confident I’d been, how I’d strolled up to Olivia and demanded her gun. Hell, how I made it this far without being captured or killed. Where had that come from? I was a drifter, a common thief, not a freaking super terrorist. I didn’t belong in a damn shootout!

Overhead, the red emergency lights flashed, adding a strobe-effect to the already smoke-filled room. It was like being back in UpBeat, only a mistake here would cost me more than a night’s work. Suddenly, I felt way out of my element. I slid down the tower and crumpled into a heap, whatever fake confidence I’d had before vanishing like my childhood dreams. I coughed, feeling my breath catch, and stared at the Glock, now limp in my hand. Fear paralyzed me.

“Get up, Rainey!” Olivia shouted.

The steady drum of boots sounded down the hall.

“Get up, dammit!”

I ran my hands through my hair, squeezed my palms against my forehead. I wished it would all stop. I was ready to let go, ready to give up, but then a glint caught my eye. The emergency lights flashed off my silver necklace. I grasped the locket and the engraving rolled beneath my fingers: AJS.

It was a sucker punch to the gut.

A tidal wave of guilt crashed into me, shattering my fear and stealing my breath.

How could I ever think to give up? I was a coward.

I grabbed a stun grenade, fumbled with the pin, and launched the canister down the hallway, blind.

A metallic clink echoed off the walls as it hit the ground and skidded. 3,2…

“Move!” a guard shouted.

I put my head between my legs and covered my ears. I had no idea why, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Still, even muffled by my thighs, the blast set the world ringing. Guards’ screams rose over the alarm and I took them to mean I’d bought some time.

I lunged toward the computer terminal, slightly dazed from the blast, pack flapping over my shoulder. The flash drive still sat in the CPU and I snatched it out and then threw my weight into the burned out circle along the wall. No matter what they tell you, a burned out concrete wall still hits like a concrete wall. My shoulder cracked, went numb underneath my weight, but I ignored the pain – another tasty benefit of being hopped up on Vert – and a split second later, the wall gave way. I fell through the hole and out into the open air.

After being suffocated inside by smoke, the night breeze was like the return of a good friend – or what I imagined that must be like. It struck me in the face, carrying the scent of the trees and the wilderness, refreshing yet simple. Terror still raced through my body, but I used it, channeled it toward my new goal of getting the fuck out of dodge.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t exactly thought much further than burning a hole through the wall. And let me tell you, lasering your way through a building isn’t the subtlest of escape plans. As I rose to my feet, I spotted guards sprinting across the grounds. Some were heading to the Southeast wing of the complex, where I’d set the second base charge. But a few others, well, they were heading right for me.

I got my legs working beneath me and sprinted toward the fence line.

“O,” I shouted. “I’m not gonna make it.”

“Hang on. Help’s on the way.”

“Help?”

Three more guards barreled out of a doorway beside me. One raised his rifle and aimed for my chest.

“Stop. Or I’ll put you down.”

He was maybe twenty yards away. Too close to miss with that thing. I slowed to a stop and raised my hands. As I did, I slid the flash drive into my pocket.

“Drop the gun,” the guard said, approaching me. He wore a camo vest and pants to match. The tag across his chest read: Jamison. I looked him up and down. He didn’t match the other rent-a-guards. In fact, he almost looked military.

“The gun,” he repeated.

I hadn’t realized I was still holding the Glock. I gave it a hesitant look before tossing it aside. It couldn’t help me now.

“Any day now, girly,” I whispered over the comLink.

Jamison stepped closer. He kicked the handgun further away and motioned toward my shoulder. “Now the bag.”

I set the pack down.

“You’re in a lot of shit, little girl,” he said. “You and your friends.”

I tried to act tough, but my voice shook. “That so?”

“Oh yeah.” He laughed. “Down on your knees. Hands over your – what the hell?”

I followed Jamison’s stare and squinted. In the darkness, I could just make out a light bearing down on us.

As it pulled closer, I realized it wasn’t one light, but two – headlights. Headlights belonging to a military Humvee, a military Humvee currently barreling toward us, engine screaming.

And from the look of it, it had no intention of stopping.

The guards glanced amongst each other, then to me. Two dove out of the way as the vehicle charged our position, but Jamison wasn’t giving up. He moved to restrain me. At the same time, the vehicle turned abruptly, the back half skidding up to become level with the front. It slid across the wet ground and I snatched my pack and dove out of the way. Jamison froze, caught dead in line with the car.

The passenger door slammed into him. With a sickening crush, he was thrown backwards onto the ground, blood leaking from his mouth.

I hoped he wasn’t dead. But right then, I didn’t have much time to worry. The other two guards were getting to their feet and each eyed me with a look of anger mixed with hatred.

I ran to the Humvee and flung open the passenger door. I guess I expected to see Olivia sitting in the driver’s seat, but it wasn’t her. Actually, it wasn’t anyone.

The car was completely empty.

What the –

“Get in, dummy.”

It was Olivia’s voice, but it wasn’t coming through the comLink. It was coming from the car’s radio.

“Now would be preferable,” she pressed.

I glanced back at Jamison. He lay sprawled out of the ground, still not moving. I  jumped into the passenger seat and slammed the door.

“How the hell did you -”

“Buckle up.”

It was as if someone slammed the gas. The car lurched forward and I had to press my hands against the dash to keep my face from cracking the windshield. The wheel turned, as if by magic, and we changed directions, heading for the nearest fence line.

Guards dove out of the way; others opened fire.

I flinched and ducked behind the dash, but I shouldn’t have worried. The bullets struck harmlessly against the Humvee. One of the benefits of stealing a military vehicle.

I looked ahead. We were closing in on the fence, and fast.

“O, are we..?”

“Ramming it? Yeah.”

“Joy.”

I buckled my seatbelt and braced myself.

One minute we were speeding ahead, the next, we crashed headlong into the fence. Sparks cascaded over the front windshield, along with a large chunk of metal meshwork. Two long poles flipped up onto the hood and for a second I worried they might pierce through the windshield and impale me. But the windshield deflected the poles with ease. Apparently, it was built of sturdier stuff than my nerves.

“A little heads up next time, O.”

We were outside the depot, careening down a dirt road in the general direction of the hill.

“Did I, or did I not, just save your life?” Olivia said.

“Sure, sure.”

I glanced into the rearview to check the damage we’d caused. That’s when I spotted them – two more sets of headlights, each belonging to a nice, hefty SUV.

“Damn,” I said. “We’ve got a problem.”

They were gaining on us.

“I see them.” I heard typing through the connection. “Oh shit.”

“What?”

“Where in the hell did they get Ghost Lines? That’s military tech.”

“I’m not following,” I said.

“Look at the Grid lines.”

As the SUVs drew closer, I saw what O meant. A web of blue lines jutted out from each car like a porcupine. There must have been hundreds, thousands. All fake connections. Decoys.

If Olivia was going to gain control of the vehicles, she’d have to find the true Grid link. And since the ghost lines were projected from the cars themselves, it wouldn’t matter that she had direct access to the Depot. She’d still have to individually assess each connection.

“Can you narrow it down?” I asked.

“Yes. But not enough to be helpful. We’re going to have to handle this the more direct way.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Which is?”

“Well… how many more of those grenades do you have?”

Oh boy.

I rifled through my pack and pulled out the remaining canisters. In total, I had two smoke grenades and two old school, blow-shit-up grenades. Not a whole lot to work with, especially now that I was back to being good old fashion me, a chick with absolutely zero experience with explosives, high speed car chases, or getting shot at. In short, I had no idea what I was doing and it terrified me. And there wasn’t a whole lot of room for error to begin with.

I opened the window and leaned out, only to duck back inside, narrowly avoiding a bullet to the face.

My heart felt like it might explode from my chest.

Little room for error was correct.

I looked through the back window, figuring this was safer, and tried my best to judge distance and speed. How long was the timer once the pin was pulled? Ten seconds? Two? How fast were we going?

Ugh. Screw it.

I pulled the pin and held it. I had no idea why, but I did. It was instinct. A second later I tossed it out the window and watched it skip in the mud.

The SUV behind us swerved to the right just as the grenade went off. A large patch of dirt blew into the air, but the car remained intact. Worse yet, it was still gaining ground.

“O,” I said, grabbing the two smoke grenades. “I hope you have a backup plan.”

I pulled the pin on the canisters and dropped them out the window. Immediately, smoke burst forth, forming a thick haze behind the Humvee. Without an extra thought, I pulled the pin out of the last remaining grenade and leaned out the window. This was for all the marbles.

1.. Gunfire pierced the air, but I didn’t sway. I lined up the drop – aiming right where the SUVs barreled through the smoke and released. 2…

I’d held on a bit longer, and that combined with the decreased visibility, was enough. The grenade bounced once, before skidding under the carriage of the leading car.

3…

The explosion tore through the backside of the vehicle, flipping it into the air. The second SUV didn’t have time to swerve out of the way. They clipped each other head on, the half-destroyed car landing on the hood of the other.

And then it was done.

I could hardly breath.

“Rainey!” Olivia shouted. “Nice shooting, girl.”

I leaned back in my seat. Excitement, adrenaline – it was all there in spades again, so intense it almost hurt.

“Rainey?”

My breath caught in my chest. A dull twinge dug through my Vert haze.

What…

I ran my hands over my chest, looked at my palms.

They were covered in blood.

I thought of Alice.

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2.04

The pounding continued, a staccato baseline to the siren blaring in the background.

Whoever was out there, on the other side of the door, clearly wasn’t dissuaded by something as little as three inches of thick hard steel and a shot-to-hell access pad.

They’d find a way in, eventually.

The only question was how long?

How long before they barged in and ended my little charade of playing hero? How long before time ran dry and Kiro, Aiden, and JJ – along with half a million people – went up in a blaze of death?

The answer? Not too fucking long.

I ducked behind a row of giant computer towers, kneeled and tipped my pack upside down. Magazines, grenades, and all sorts of weapons I’d never seen before spilled onto the floor. Helpful, if I needed to murder a small village. But that wasn’t exactly the point of all this, was it… Olivia.

I cursed and sifted through the contents. Buried amidst the weapons were flash drives, wire clippers, a pair of quarter-sized circuitry and a laser device like the one I’d seen Kiro use to board the train. I’d hoped something would stick out – that’d I know what I needed once I saw it – but it was all a jumbled mess.

I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it.

My heart skipped into overdrive. Each shout from the hallway, each cry for backup, slicked my palms with sweat.

I stared at the objects, trying to make sense of them. Computers. Electronics. What did I know about any of this? And how the hell was I supposed to think over that fucking security alarm? The plan had been simple: I’d bring the pack and Olivia would walk me through it. There hadn’t been much time to discuss more than that. What we certainly hadn’t planned on was me being electrocuted and –

Unbelievable. How could I be so stupid?

I reached into my pocket and cursed. It was right where I’d left it. The vial of Vert. And I’d only used three beads earlier; there’d be two left.

It was false hope, but I popped open the cap regardless.

I knew the truth. If I swallowed the beads, it’d be ten to fifteen minutes before I could jack into the Grid. Chewing, maybe five to ten?

Either way, I didn’t have that kind of time.  The Vert couldn’t help me now.

Still, I chewed until my jaw hurt, before parking the glob in my cheek. After all, if by some miracle I escaped this damn place, I’d need the Grid access to get ahold of the others.

I turned my attention back to the electronics.

They had to fit together somehow. It was a puzzle. I just needed to find the right arrangement.

Think, damn it. Think.

I wiped my forehead and sweat came off me in torrents. I almost chalked it up to nerves before I felt the heat flush against my face. It was radiating from the doorway. I turned and cursed. The door glowed bright red, the edges traced by a thin red beam. A laser.

The guards were making their push; I ‘d just run out of time.

I grabbed a quarter-sized circuit board, threw everything else back in the pack, and sprinted down one of the aisles. Massive CPUs formed a labyrinth of computers, with towers so tall they crested the ceiling. I traced my hand along the units, trying desperately to block out the shouts coming from the doorway, the blaring alarm, and the blistering heat overtaking the room.

I closed my eyes, then opened them, hoping to see the Grid materialize. It was wishful thinking. Instead, I was met with only the truth. I was all alone and SOL.

The room grew warmer. Sweat dripped into my eyes, burning them and causing them to tear. My hands itched terribly. I couldn’t take it anymore. I stripped off my gloves one at a time, transferring the circuit between hands, so I wouldn’t drop it.

The pounding on the door grew louder. I didn’t dare look. They must have burned through almost the entire frame. It wouldn’t be much longer.

I crouched behind one of the towers, back against the wall, and pulled out the Glock. I checked the safety then dug in for the inevitable. In my other hand, I fingered the miniature circuit board, slowly rolling it across my knuckles.

No, not a circuit board – a circuit jammer. A rerouter. I frowned, put the handgun away, then pulled the other quarter-sized object out of my pack.

Now that I got a good look at the two, I realized they weren’t the same. One was a circuit rerouter, definitely. The other was a data disk. I glanced up at the massive computer towers. The rows were numbered, coded by the technicians so they knew which tower housed which inputs and outputs.

I couldn’t explain it, but I knew what I needed to do. I didn’t understand why or how. I just knew what had to be done. It was like it was second nature, like I’d done the same thing a million times before.

I sprinted through the maze of CPUs like a zombie, mindlessly set on my tasks. I slipped the signal jammer onto a mother board in row five, then added the data disc to one in row fifteen. There must have been a total of twenty-thousand boards in the entire mainframe. Even if the guards knew what they were looking for, they’d never find bugs.

The hardware installed, I raced down the aisle to the end of the room and found an empty computer terminal. My fingers moved seamlessly over the keyboard as I hacked my way into the system. As with the mainframe towers, I was on autopilot. I didn’t understand a single thing I typed.

I slipped the flash drive out of my pack and slotted it into the USB. With a few simple keystrokes, I copied the worm onto Valtronic’s server. The worm would give Olivia access to the train’s control station. And with the hardware I’d planted, the operators wouldn’t be able to trace her signal.

Mission accomplished.

I was about to leave the terminal and get the hell out of dodge when I stumbled upon a series of encrypted files housed on Valtronic’s server. Curious, I hacked my way in and scanned through the documents. They were filled with information on Vert drug trials, manufacturing, Dr. Fine, and something titled USDMA. Did ROOT 4 already have this stuff? I couldn’t chance it. I started copying the files over.

A progress bar flashed on the screen. 15% complete, 16%…

Shit. It was too slow. I was going to miss my window.

An explosion resounded from the end of the hallway, followed by a massive crash. It could only mean one thing – the guards had broken through. Sure enough, a second later I heard the thump of boots against concrete. I ducked back behind a massive computer tower, reached into my pack, and pulled out a smoke grenade.

Here goes nothing.

I pulled the pin and chucked the canister down the hallway. As it bounced and rolled, a huge cloud of smoke erupted around it, causing the guards to sputter and cough. Using the distraction, I reached into the pack once more and removed the device I’d seen Kiro use – the laser. Since there was no way I was leaving the way I’d come, I’d simply have to make a new exit. I slapped the device against the far wall.

Suddenly, my vision turned blue. Grid lines materialized, and a thin layer of light descended over the room and everything in it.

“Rainey!” Olivia shouted over the connection. “Thank god you’re okay. Listen, we don’t have much time, you have to load the worm, now!”

The guards opened fire.

I pressed myself flat against the computer tower. “A little busy here, O.”

The countdown timer reappeared in the corner of my vision:

00:00:55

My window was done for, which meant there was only ten minutes until the train hit Atlanta.

Gunfire lit up my eardrums. I reached around the corner, Glock in hand, and squeezed off a couple blind rounds. Then I glanced back at the computer terminal. The files were only 86% complete. It was going to be tight. Too tight.

87%, 88%.

“The worm’s loaded, O,” I shouted over the noise.

“What? How?”

“I don’t know… I can’t explain it. Just, can you reroute the train or not?”

I could hear typing through the connection. “Yes,” O said. “I… I think I can work some magic. There’s a double-back loop that passes over Lake Lanier. If I can stop the train over the water, then the boys can blow out the bridge.”

“Drown the bomb. Smart.”

“Exactly.”

A thunderous boom shook the walls of the building. The overhead lights went dark, before the emergency system kicked in. Red fluorescent light flickered against the walls, turning the smoke-filled room into a red haze.

“Rainey,” O said, “you just lost your diversion. You have to get out of there. Now.”

I fired off two more shots, giving myself some breathing room, then activated the laser device against the wall.

“Yeah. Working on it.”

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2.03

I didn’t consider myself a runner. At least, I didn’t like to make a habit of it. Bank robbers, dope dealers – those were the guys who needed the real leg speed. Me? I was a con artist. If I had to run, I knew I’d screwed up.

But in those minutes between leaving Olivia and hearing about the explosive-ridden train, I pumped my arms and ran, ignoring the burn in my side that felt like a thousand tiny daggers. Within ten minutes, I’d broken through the tree line, Olivia guiding me toward an area of the fence that wasn’t swarming with guards.

Mentally, I altered my Vidfeed. I’d gotten a better grasp of the Grid mechanics and I used my newfound skills to place a second screen above the first. Now I had two views: one from Kiro’s perspective, the other from JJ’s.

Kiro was where I’d last seen him, still clinging to the rear of the E-train, his hair whipping in the wind and cluttering the camera. As I crept toward the barbed wire fence, he pulled a small device from his jacket and planted it against the hull of the train. To me, it looked like an old school CD player from back in the 90s. But this was no CD player I’d ever seen. A second later it activated, glowing deep crimson, and Kiro chose that moment to lean away, clinging to the overhead railing for support. As he did, a thin red laser shot out of the core of the device. It rotated in a circle, burning a continuous line through the exterior of the train.

I knew what would happen next before I saw it. Using the railing as leverage, Kiro swung his feet into this new target, putting his full weight behind the strike. The hull groaned, then gave way, and Kiro fell feet first into the train car.

As he rose to his knees, my two Vidfeeds came face to face, giving me a perfect view of the rest of ROOT 4.

“Rainey,” Olivia said over the connection. “Kiro’s aboard the train. He’s with JJ and Aiden.”

“I know.”

“Good. Now focus. We’ve only got one chance to make this work.”

I examined the perimeter. As we’d guessed, the depot had tripled its security. The holes we’d taken advantage of previously had evaporated the minute the boys boarded that train. Now the guards weren’t just expecting an attack, they were preparing for one. And with the element of surprise gone, we’d lost any room for subtlety.

The only tactic left to play was a diversion.

I pulled out a base charge and planted it close to the Southeast fence line. The bomb was off the Grid, set purely with an internal timer; no Grid lines would give away its position. I raced back into the cover of the trees and rounded my way to the opposite side of the station. I broke cover once more – long enough to place a second charge – then retreated, waiting.

In the top right corner of my vision two countdowns appeared:

00:05:32

00:25:32

I’d given myself a twenty-minute window between explosions. Twenty minutes to break into the control hub, upload a worm to their computer server, and get out. All without being seen, captured or killed. It would have been a fantastic plan – if only I’d any idea how I was going to pull it off.

“O,” Aiden’s voice broke over the comLink, “have you ever seen anything like this?”

I turned my attention to the Vidfeeds. Aiden and JJ had retraced their steps to the second train car – Kiro in toe – and all three now stood over the largest bomb I’d ever seen. It was so big, I worried that even looking at it might set it off. The base was built of two see-through barrels, filled to the brim with a burnt orange liquid and connected to each other by a series of nozzles and tubing. In turn, those barrels had been rigged into an electronic circuit board, a large fan-looking structure, and three blocks of what I could only guess was C4. The timer on the circuit board read: 00:35:47

I didn’t know much about explosives, but even I knew this wasn’t looking good.

“What is that stuff…” Aiden said, reaching out to touch the massive barrels. “Vert?”

Kiro grabbed his hand. “Don’t. Touch.”

“If it’s Vert,” JJ said, “they’ve definitely made some changes. I’ve never seen it orange like that.”

“Whatever it is,” O said, “they’ve rigged it into a vaporizer and set it all to blow. That’s no joke of a bomb.”

JJ leaned against the wall. “Well? Why the hell haven’t they set it off already?”

“Because you’re not the target,” I said, cutting into the comLink. I cursed under my breath. I wanted to be wrong, wanted nothing more than to be told otherwise, but I knew that wouldn’t be the case. I’d spent a large chunk of my life drifting across the US, and from all my travels, I knew the distances between most cities by heart. This here was no exception. “Thirty-five minutes will place you right in the heart of Atlanta. This isn’t a routine supply run. It’s a fucking chemical attack.”

I didn’t need to see Olivia to know she was already furiously typing, crosschecking my information, loading the schematics of the nearest train lines.

“Olivia?” Kiro said. For once, he sounded worried.

O cursed on the other end of the comLink. “She’s right. In thirty-five minutes, you’ll be directly under the center of Atlanta.”

“Son-of-a,” JJ said. “Can we disarm it?”

“You’re going to have to try,” O said. “That bomb’s completely self-contained. Even if Rainey can get inside, the most we’ll be able to do is divert the train.”

I cringed. Kiro looked straight into JJ’s Vidfeed.

“Rainey?” he said. “O, you can’t expect that girl to -”

Whatever Kiro said next, I didn’t hear it. A massive explosion rocked the Southeast side of the depot, sending tremors cascading across the ground and half of the fence line sky high.  A brilliant orange fireball burned against the night sky and, out of the darkness, I could hear the shouts of guards as they rushed to contain the destruction. In all the commotion, someone triggered an alarm.

Out of the corner of my vision, I watched one of the countdown timers disappear. A reminder that from now on, every second I stayed still was wasted time.

I patched back into the comLink.

“Rainey,” Kiro started, “what the hell –“

“Look,” I said. “If you think I’m going to let these assholes kill half a million people, you’ve got another thing coming. Besides, if you all die aboard that train, I’m beginning to think I won’t be far behind.”

Kiro’s face reappeared in JJ’s Vidfeed. He frowned, then after a moment, finally nodded. “Good luck.”

I tore out of the woods and raced toward the fence line, the pack I’d slung over my shoulder thumping against my back. The floodlights still swept across the perimeter, but most remained focused on the Southeast section. I slipped past one sweep and threw myself against the fence, brandishing the wire clippers. Before long, I was squeezing my way into the train depot.

Olivia’s voice echoed in my ears. “Go left.” I did, fumbling my way across the grounds. The area was still awash with the shouts of guards. Smoke lingered on the air, causing my eyes to water.

“In thirty feet, you’ll see an entrance. Go inside.”

Sure enough, I spotted the doorway. It was built into the side of a circular control hub, which connected to what I guessed was the central station. I was about to pull out the door jammer and crack the access code when I heard hurried footsteps. Someone was heading toward the doorway. I ducked back behind the corner of the building, trying to tuck myself into the shadows, just as two soldiers barreled their way through the entrance.

As they sprinted away, heading toward the fire, I reached out and caught the door just inches before it closed. I pulled it back open, glanced around once more to make sure no one was looking, then crept inside.

The hallway smelled of bleach. It wore that eerie clean feeling of a hospital melded into the sick feeling I got whenever I thought of drug labs. I reached across my waist and untucked the Glock from my pants. There was no telling when more soldiers might head down the corridor. If I was going to survive this, I’d need that one millisecond head start. That split second to draw.

“Quick, Rainey,” O said. “Your first left.”

I traced my free hand along the wall, moving with haste, and followed O’s instructions. Luckily, most of the guards seemed preoccupied with the explosion; the hallways remained clear. That first left led into a second corridor, this one ending in a dead end.

“O?” I said, weary. I could hear her typing through the connection.

“The heat signatures,” she said. “They match the building schematics. The mainframes should be housed just up ahead. End of the corridor, on the right. Go, now.”

I did, reaching the door in record time. I tried the handle, but had no luck. The blasted thing was locked. Beside the doorframe, the access panel lit up, the white glow of the keys mocking me. I glanced up at the timer, still ticking away in the corner of my vision. I had just under ten minutes left.

“Focus, Rainey,” I whispered under my breath.

I threw the bag off my shoulder and fumbled with the contents. O had loaded it up with a bunch of useless junk, but eventually I found what I needed. I held the door jammer up in front of my chest so Olivia could see it through the Vidfeed.

“How do I use this fucking thing?”

O laughed, despite the situation not being funny at all, and walked me through it. A minute later, I had the door jammer flat against the access panel, the device flashing through potential combinations. After that, all I could do was wait. I tried to keep my cool, tried to stay calm, but the silence bore down on me, wreaking havoc on my nerves. I set my foot into motion, tapping out an anxious beat. Beneath my gloves, my fingers itched with sweat.

I kept stealing glances at the countdown. Time was running out.

Suddenly, I heard footsteps, whistling.

“Fuck,” I whispered, “O, someone’s coming.”

I stared at the door jammer, willing it to hurry up. It was still cycling through potential passcodes. The first six numbers were there, greenlit, but eight was the magic number. I still needed two more.

“Come on, come on, come on.”

The whistling grew louder. I could hear the guard breathing. Any minute he was going to round that corner and what he saw would leave no room for interpretation.

Another number flashed green on the jammer. Seven of Eight. I pressed one hand against the door, ready to fling it open the second the access code was complete. I kept my other hand raised, the Glock leveled at the end of the corridor.

The guard rounded the corner and froze. “What the -” On instinct, he reached for his gun, but stopped when I wiggled the Glock in his direction.

He raised his hands, but took a hesitant step closer.

“Don’t fucking move!” I shouted, shaking the handgun. I didn’t want to shoot him and I guessed he could see the reluctance in my eyes. I put more pressure on the trigger, but all I could think about was the bullet in her chest. The blood pooling out of her, drenching the floor. Her eyes going lifeless.

My hand started to shake. The guard took another step closer.

“Stop,” I said, but this time it was more a plea than a command. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I could hear Olivia screaming at me through the comLink, “Shoot him! Rainey, shoot him!” I felt like I was in a bubble – like it was all a dream and I might simply drift away.

And then it happened. The door jammer beeped, catching the last number. I stole a glance just in time to see the access panel turn green, the lock on the door click open.

The guard looked between me, the Glock still leveled at his chest, and the door reader. For a moment, time seemed to stand still. Then everything happened at once. I tucked the handgun into my side and threw my entire weight against the door, forcing it open. The guard drew his gun, whipped it forward and fired. I felt pain – two sharp needle sticks on the back of my leg. In the moment, I almost wouldn’t have noticed, if not for the electric current that burned through my body a second later. I hit the ground hard, convulsing, the Glock bouncing free of my hand and clattering across the floor.

I screamed, my mind starting to haze over. I’d fallen into the room, but my feet still lay in the hallway, blocking the door from closing. Pain ripped through me once more. I could barely make out shouts and heavy footfalls from down the hall.

On pure instinct, I started to crawl. I dragged my feet inside the room – just enough for the door to close. As it did, it caught on the Taser wires, yanking the prongs from my leg.

The doorlock slammed into place.

Outside, someone cursed, then started to type into the keypad. I reached out with my hand, stretching as much as I could. My fingers wrapped around the cold metal of the handgun grip and an instant later I spun onto my back, whipping the gun in front of me and squeezed the trigger. The access panel on the inside of the door exploded in a shower of sparks, jamming the door closed.

I let my head fall back onto the cold floor, giving myself a second to recover, as more shouts sounded outside the door. It wasn’t a lot, but I’d bought myself some time. I’d have to worry about how to get out later.

“O,” I said. “I’m in. Now what?”

Nothing. Not even static.

“O?”

I glanced up at the top right corner of my vision. The timer was gone. So, too, were the Vidfeeds in the bottom left. That could mean only one thing: I wasn’t jacked in anymore. But how?

And then it came to me. The Taser. What had Kiro said? Electricity could break the connection.

I struggled to my feet. I didn’t need to see the timer to know the clock was running down. There wouldn’t be much time left – for me or the boys. And I wasn’t connected to the Grid. I didn’t have Olivia to walk me through the rest of the plan.

I stared at the mainframes, row upon row of massive computer towers.

I was trapped and I had no idea what to do.

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2.02

Since I wasn’t jacked in, I couldn’t see shit.

All I had was Olivia to give me updates as JJ, Aiden and Kiro made their way through the woods toward the train depot.

About halfway through waiting, I let my curiosity get the best of me. Or rather, my frustration. I just couldn’t take standing there, listening to O relate – in vivid detail – the trio’s descent toward the train, the bumps along the way, and everything inbetween. It was like listening to someone describe a scene from their favorite movie. In the end, I simply had to see it for myself.

So when Olivia wasn’t paying attention, I snuck the vial of Vert back out of her pocket. Growing up on the streets had taught me many things: the importance of shoes, the value of a warm meal, the best way to open a can without a knife… But out of everything I’d learned, pick-pocketing was easily the most useful. And I was damn good at it. So as I palmed the vial, I slipped out three beads, and pocketed the rest.

Just like old times.

There were two ways of taking Vert: Swallow and Wait or Chew and Cheek. I chose the former. It was slower and less effective, but had the benefit of not forcing me to talk around a wad of junk tucked under my lip. Think chewing tobacco – it wasn’t the easiest thing to hide. And since O had been ragging on me to take the Vert for the last half hour, I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing I’d caved.

When I was certain she wasn’t looking, I tilted my head back and downed the beads. For all my luck, she chose that exact moment to turn toward me. I almost choked as the drugs went down.

“So,” Olivia said, “you prefer to swallow.” I could practically hear the laughter in her voice as she smiled, then winked at me. “That a girl.”

“Oh shut up,” I said, though I couldn’t help the blush that rose to my cheeks. Clearly, I wasn’t as good a thief as I thought. I leaned against the side of the Jeep and let the conversation die with O’s laughter. But after a moment, my curiosity got the better of me once more. “Olivia, why do you do this?”

O smiled. “Mess with you?”

“Funny.”

“What then?”

“Come on. You know what I mean. This -” I gestured to all the equipment, the Jeeps, the hillside. “ROOT 4. All of it.”

Olivia frowned. She sat down on the hood of the Jeep and crossed her legs. Her skin shone like porcelain under the moonlight, flawless as could be. “We all have our reasons, Rainey.”

“Let me guess. This another one of those things everyone gets to know but me?”

She shook her head. “It has nothing to do with privilege. We just don’t talk about the past. None of us do. Our work doesn’t leave much room for it. Knowing about each other – our families, our past lives – would only make us liabilities were we to get caught.”

“So,” I said, “you live together, you work together, you risk your lives for each other… and yet you know nothing about the others?”

Olivia laughed. “Oh, I know plenty about the boys. I know stuff that would make you blush brighter than a schoolgirl at a sausage festival.” She winked at me – she winked a lot apparently – but I didn’t falter.

“But you don’t know anything about who they were – before all of this. Before ROOT 4.”

“No,” Olivia said. “That I don’t know. Nor do I care to. We all have a past, Rainey. If you choose to let it consume you… well then, you can never truly live for tomorrow. You’ll always be too busy looking over your shoulder, wondering where you went wrong.” She paused for a moment to play with the stitching on her cut-offs. “Why we do what we do is irrelevant. All that matters is that we do it. And that we do it in the now.”

“That was… kind of deep,” I said.

For her part, Olivia simply smiled. “I know, right?”

“Okay, fine. I get what you’re saying, but there’s still got to be that one underlying reason, right? That one something that drives you. Why else would you get involved in a group like this?”

O reached under her arm and unholstered her handgun – a Glock 22. For a crazy second, I actually thought she might shoot me, but then she started to strip the weapon, carefully separating the parts out onto her lap. Eventually, she said, “I do it for the same reason I suspect the others do.”

“Which is?”

She looked up at me, her brown eyes strikingly bright against the neon-green flares, and said one word – “revenge” – before shifting her attention back to her handgun.

I was worried I’d offended her as another silence fell over us, this one a hundred times more awkward. She was difficult to read, Olivia. The way she flipped back and forth between serious and zany was enough to give me whiplash. I didn’t know what to say to clear things up and I assumed the conversation was over when suddenly she said, “what about you?”

I stiffened. “What about me?”

“From what we’ve gathered, you haven’t had the easiest life. Why keep going? What pushes you on?”

“Are you asking why I don’t just up and off myself? Really?”

Olivia shrugged. She didn’t even look up from her handgun. “Well, why don’t you?”

“I… that’s a ridiculous question. Who asks a question like that?”

She laughed. “Is it really so ridiculous?”

“Of course it is! I -”

I stopped and thought about it. Really thought about it. The question had caught me off guard – that wasn’t surprising  After all, it’s not everyday someone asks you why you don’t just kill yourself. But then, the answer that came shooting to my lips, the one that came unbidden to the tip of my tongue – that did surprise me. If only because I’d spent the better half of my life trying to forget about it.

“For Alice.”

I said it with such confidence, such surety, that even Olivia seemed taken aback. She stopped toying with her gun and set it down.

“Huh. There you go. So spill it, who’s Alice?”

“She’s… my diary.”

Olivia narrowed her eyes. “Your diary,” she said. “You live for your diary.”

I thought about the Vert I’d taken and how easy it had been to break my promise. Six years ago I’d said never again, and yet here I was, having used twice in less than a week. I thought of Alice and I thought of blood. The two were intertwined, forever and always, in my mind.

“Sure,” I said.

Olivia smirked. “Now who’s keeping secrets?”

“I -”

Suddenly, the Vert kicked in. It was slow at first, a soft chill that arced through my brain and into my eyes. I felt it like a light snow settling over my consciousness. And then, a harsher chill formed. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for the inevitable burn, but it came and went – a drop in the bucket compared to the pain induced by the liquid formula. When I finally opened my eyes, barely a minute had passed.

For as far as I could see, a layer of blue light settled over the area, forming branches and links between myself and Olivia and all the devices around us. Blue lines shot out of my chest, outlining connections I was capable of manipulating through the Grid, as well as those I wasn’t.

With my fingers, I absently traced the cord between myself and Olivia and found her staring at me.

“The Vert,” I explained, gesturing around me.

“Good,” she said. “Now I don’t have to give you the blow-by-blow.” She typed something onto a floating keyboard built of blue light and suddenly a screen appeared in the bottom left of my vision, notifying me that a user was requesting a file to be shared.

“How did you..?”

Olivia flicked her hair back behind her shoulder. “Just accept already. They’re at the fence.”

I clicked ‘accept’ and the pop-up box morphed into a small screen. On it, JJ and Aiden approached the barbed wire fence surrounding the perimeter of the train depot. The camera bobbed up and down and I guessed it was pinned somewhere onto Kiro – I was seeing everything from the bosses perspective.

“What do we got, O?” Kiro’s voice sounded through the connection.

“From what we collected, the train dock should be directly ahead of you. Through the fence, fifty meters to your right. On average, three wandering guards on overlapping patrol patterns.”

Static, then, “…okay to breach? How are we looking on time?”

“Breach is a go,” Olivia said. “Twenty-five minutes until the train departs. You’re right in the window between loading and departure.”

“Perfect,” Kiro said.

I glanced at Olivia, but she was busy analyzing something on the floating display, so I turned my attention to the small screen at the bottom of my vision. It was pitch black down on the base, save for the occasional flood light that passed overhead. I watched JJ clip a hole in the fence and sneak through, Aiden and Kiro following his lead.

From there, it only took a few minutes before they were within striking distance of the train. I heard whispers through the comLink, orders of some sort, but couldn’t make out specifics. On video, I saw JJ and Aiden crouch behind a stack of supply crates. They paused for a minute, then JJ crept toward the train, sneaking up behind a roaming guard. There was a split second during which the guard turned and spotted him, but JJ was too fast. He cracked the guard over the head with his rifle and the man crumpled – Aiden catching him under the arms just before he hit the ground. Together, JJ and Aiden dragged the body back behind the crates. Then, with no other guards in sight, they boarded the train.

Kiro stayed behind, presumably to keep watch over the patrols, and with him, so too did my video feed.

I was about to tell Olivia to switch me over to Aiden or JJ’s vidfeed, when JJ’s voice came in over the connection, barely a whisper above the static. “It’s strange. The heaviest reading is coming from the second car, but it doesn’t seem right.”

Olivia gave me a nervous look before responding. “I see it, JJ. It’s either a shit ton of drugs or something else entirely.”

“I don’t like this,” Aiden chimed in. “This train is dead. There isn’t a soul in  -”

“Get out of there!” Kiro shouted over the connection.

“What the fuck,” came JJ’s voice. “The train… it’s…”

I didn’t need to hear the last bit to know what was happening. Through Kiro’s vidfeed I saw the train’s outer doors seal shut, the tracks magnetize, and the train cars lift into the air. The train was taking off.

“Olivia!” Kiro shouted.

“There’s nothing I can do! The train and the depot are both rigged into their own system. It’s way too complex to hack from the outside.”

“I don’t care what you have to do. Get it done, damnit!”

I watched in horror as Kiro raced out from behind the cover of the storage crates and sprinted toward the tracks. They were fully magnetized now and the train was gaining speed, the last car approaching the breach in the perimeter fence all too fast. As Kiro reached out, stretching at full sprint to grab hold of the train car’s railing, cracks sounded across the connection and flickers of gunfire lit up the vidfeed. The bullets sparked off the train car as Kiro’s fingers found purchase on the railing. With a final effort, he grabbed hold, half-pulling, half-jumping aboard the train a mere second before it broke through the fence-line.

I walked over to Olivia who was furiously typing. “Give me your gun,” I said.

She didn’t even look up. “A little busy here, Rainey.”

I reached out with my hand. “Your gun, Olivia. Give it to me.”

This time she stopped typing and stared at me. “And just what the hell do you want with my gun?”

“JJ, Aiden and Kiro are all aboard that train now and it’s essentially off the grid. You and I both know the only way to stop it, or even redirect it, is manually. Someone’s got to go down there.” I reached out again. “Now. Your gun.”

Olivia hesitated, then handed me the Glock and a magazine. I tried not to act surprised.

“Come on, Rainey. Do you even know how to use that?”

I snapped the magazine in place, then racked the slide back, chambering a round. Olivia cocked an eyebrow. “You know,” she said. “You could just leave. Take one of the Jeeps and high-tail it out of here. Leave us for dead and get on with your life. There’s little I could do to stop you.”

I thought about that for a long moment. She was right. I could leave. I could take off and never look back. But if I went down that road, if I left now, I’d never get my answers. And I’d forever be looking over my shoulder, constantly wondering when Valtronic was going to find me and snatch me up. I couldn’t live like that.

I took a deep breath. “If you guys aren’t bullshitting me,” I said, “And for some reason I don’t think you are, I’d still have to worry about Valtronic coming after me. Besides, you guys are my protection, right? At least, that’s what you keep telling me.”

“That’s what we keep telling you,” Olivia said, smiling.

I shook my head. “What do I have to do?”

I was halfway through the woods when I heard JJ’s voice over the comLink: “Whatever you’re planning, Olivia, better do it fast.”

I clenched my fists and picked up the pace, dreading what was coming next.

“That reading from the second car,” JJ continued, “it’s…the whole train is rigged to blow.”

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2.01

We took two cars.

I sat in the backseat of an unmarked grey Jeep, JJ packed in beside me, while Kiro drove. Wherever the train rails where, they clearly weren’t public knowledge. We bounced and grinded our way across mudded-out back roads, plowed through thick underbrush, and more than once had to backtrack to find a route that didn’t require drowning in a river. In short, we took full advantage of the four wheel drive. And as my head jolted back and forth, I caught glimpses of the area, barely visible in the glow of the Jeep’s headlights. It was mostly wooded badlands – giant oaks, palmettos – but one thing struck me as odd: the lack of the city skyline. Jackson was tiny. It should have been there.

“Where are we?” I said.

“About two miles out,” JJ said, tapping the GPS on his cell phone.

“No. The city. This isn’t Jackson, is it?”

JJ hesitated and I saw Kiro’s eyes flash in the rear-view. The silence was obvious enough. They didn’t trust me, and that was fine. I didn’t trust them either.

Three days ago, I’d been a street urchin. Not an awesome living, but at least I’d had some semblance of control over my life. Here, with these people, I had no control. They called it protection – protection for my own good – but really, there was no way around it; I was a prisoner, plain and simple.

I met Kiro’s eyes in the mirror and all thoughts of ROOT 4 as my savior vanished like a line of coke through a rolled up twenty. “Really?” I said. “After that whole bullshit speech you gave about trust, you’re not even gonna tell me where I’ve been kidnapped to?”

For a moment, silence settled over the car, then Kiro finally sighed. “Athens,” he said, as he dropped his foot to the floor. The car lurched forward, powering through a thick mud puddle and spraying it up over the windshield. “We’re in Athens.”

“As in Georgia?” I’d moved a whole freaking state over without realizing?

“Mmmhhmm,” JJ murmured beside me, nonchalant as he leaned back in his seat, forehead pressed against the window. I was about to respond, when suddenly he tensed up. “We’re here.”

I glanced out the window as the Jeep rolled to a stop and Kiro killed the lights. From the look of it, we sat atop a cliff. I couldn’t tell how steep from inside the car, but the ground seemed to drop off abruptly about twenty yards ahead. After a minute, Aiden and Olivia pulled up alongside us. Kiro had insisted on the second car. Whether it was part of the plan, or simply to keep Aiden away from me, I didn’t know.

We all got out.

“Alright,” Kiro said, as he walked over to the cliff and peered over. “You guys know the drill. O, get to work. JJ and Aiden, you’ll pack the charges with me. I want everything ready in ten. Rainey?”

“I’m right behind you.”

Kiro turned around and walked back to the car. He grabbed two glow sticks out of the glove box, cracked them in half and tossed one on the ground, the other to me. The area around the Jeeps took on a neon green hue. “Rainey, you’re staying topside with O.”

Shocker.

“Yeah,” I said, annoyance coloring my voice, “sure.”

It’s not that I wanted to be involved. After all, I didn’t do well with people and I wasn’t exactly the team-player type. Really, I just hated feeling useless, disregarded. Like I was the only person there without a purpose, like I existed only to get in the way.

O walked over to the other car, pulled a laptop out of the backseat, and set it up on the trunk. I joined her, handing over the glow stick.

“So you’re really gonna blow up a train?”

She turned to look at me but kept typing, her fingers a blur across the keyboard. “That’s the plan.”

“Won’t they have taken precautions by now? This is the fifth one you’ve hit, right?”

“Sixth,” O said. “And don’t worry. We’re pretty good at this.” She smiled, then pointed to something above her laptop screen. There was nothing there but a neon-green view of the tree line, so I assumed she was jacked into the Grid, viewing a virtual screen. “See? They’ve tripled security. And some of these signature IDs are military. Don’t know how they pulled that off, but…”

She glanced up at me, realization dawning on her face. “Oh, right. I forgot.” She rummaged through her pocket, then tossed me a vial. I caught it and turned it over in my hands. Small silver beads rolled back and forth, clinking against the sides of the container.

It was Vert all right, but not the liquid kind. This was the original form – the kind mass produced in the beginning, before people discovered the drug could be melted down and altered for a quicker, more intense high. Unlike the eye drops sold on the street, the beads were a slow release formula. They provided a sustained, steady connection to the grid with none of the highs and lows seen with the other formulations. Because of that, there was a much lower risk of addiction.

Lower, but still there.

I fingered the cap. “Won’t they know if I jack in?”

“We took care of that.”

“How?” I said, stiffening.

“When you were unconscious we… injected a tracer into your blood stream.”

“Of course you did.”

“It had to be done, Rainey. To protect us. To protect -”

“Me,” I said. “To protect me.”

O nodded. I handed her back the vial. “I’m gonna take a walk.”

“Rainey, wait a second.”

But I was already gone.

I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t even surprised. I was just tired, tired of it all. This was the longest I’d been with the same group of people since leaving home and it was already starting to wear on me. I couldn’t help but think how utterly pathetic that was.

I headed toward the edge of the clearing. The space we were camped on was a small opening sandwiched between dense underbrush and a steep hill. Rain had turned the dirt to mud and the burning Georgia sun had cooked it into a fine sheet. So as I approached the cliff, the ground cracked, forming spider webs beneath my feet. I kept my distance from the edge and peered over.

About a mile away, an area had been carved out of the woodlands and turned into a militarized zone. Under the floodlights, I could just make out a barbed wire fence surrounding the perimeter, enclosing a small train depot and what looked like a control station. A sleek, electric train sat on a set of tracks, passing through the fence at two ends. I couldn’t make out any other entrance points. No gates, no tunnels, no bridges. And around the area were armed guards. About a dozen in all.

I walked back to O. Her fingers moved across an invisible keyboard a foot above the laptop. “Well?” she said, looking up.

“I hope you guys know what you’re doing,” I said.

O punched the Return key on the physical keyboard, while simultaneously striking what I assumed was a key on the virtual one. A confirmation beep sounded and she looked up and smiled at me. “We’ve got it covered.”

Just then, Kiro walked over, Aiden and JJ in toe. Aiden carried a backpack slung over his shoulder, JJ a rifle. “We’re ready with the charges,” Kiro said. “How are we with access?”

“We’re OK,” O said. She pointed to something a foot in the air, invisible to me, but clearly there for everyone else. “I couldn’t get into their system, it’s rock solid. But I was able to set up a Distrupter. You’ll only have thirty seconds, but everything should be down, including thermals.”

“Good,” Kiro said. He checked his watch. “They’ll be loading the train now, which means we’ve got an hour to get on board, set the charges and get out. JJ, Aiden -”

“On it,” they said in unison. They nodded toward O, who said, “good luck,” then took off into the woods.

Kiro turned back to us. “Keep in touch,” he said. “It’s all going to come down to timing.”

“Will do,” O said.

Kiro clasped her on the shoulder, gave me a quick glance, then ducked into the tree line, following JJ and Aiden toward the train depot.

In his absence, the night seemed to get darker, the silence louder. I looked at Olivia. “What now?”

She typed something out on the laptop, then closed it.

“Now we wait.”

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1.07

I must have looked stupid right then, what with my mouth hanging open. Was Kiro lying? Was I not alone in this after all? And these others, were there powers like mine – uncontrollable, all-consuming? I settled back in my chair.

“There are others?” I said.

Kiro waved his hand in front of the display and images materialized from the light. “Were,” he said. “There were others.”

Were? I watched the hologram morph into a newspaper clipping: “Thirty-five Dead in Hollisburg Mall Bombing.” I recognized the headline – anyone would have. The story had run for days about a crazed man who had blown himself up in the middle of a Kansas strip mall. I remembered my mom talking about it, all those years ago – photos so horrible, she’d said, that even the most hardened of reporters couldn’t bear to look at them. Kiro touched the display and another image flashed into life. Another newspaper clip. Another headline: “Mysterious Lightning Storm Kills Nine.” Then, “Earthquake Destroys Subway Line; Fifteen Dead,” and finally, “Five Die Suddenly Aboard Overseas Flight.”

I remembered them all.

Kiro waved his hand again and this time the newspaper clippings were replaced by official looking documents. CIA and FBI seals flashed across the screen. He touched the display disk and four photographs appeared. The first was of a grungy-looking man in old fatigues and a baseball cap. He was older, around thirty-five or so, and it looked like he hadn’t showered in months. I couldn’t place him, but then that didn’t surprise me. From the look of it, I guessed he was homeless.

The second in line was a young guy wearing a sleeveless shirt and jeans. He had the look of a college student who had just pulled an all-nighter – eyes bloodshot, hair in disarray – and he stared out from the screen as if in a haze.

The last two photos were both women. One, a girl about my age who sported a punk rock look with spiked red hair and multiple piercings. The other, a woman old enough to be my mother. Nondescript, except for the cigarette perched above her ear.

Kiro went down the line. “James Finnegan, Dean Westerfeld, Molly Landry, and Katie Pugh. Recognize the names?”

I shook my head.

“You wouldn’t, of course. The government sealed the records.”

“What are you getting at?”

“These… events,” Kiro said. “They weren’t natural disasters or the work of some crazed lunatic. They were, in all four instances, the result of powers – unchecked and uncontrolled.”

He touched the hologram and a video began to play. It was homemade, produced on an old school camcorder. The Vivo type, I figured – they used to be all the rage back when I was in high school. For a moment, the screen shook and then a man’s face appeared – Dean Westerfeld’s face – and he smiled in front of the camera. The date in the bottom right corner read January 9th, 2018. It was like a time machine dragging me back. Back to my own first days – before I realized I wasn’t just going crazy, that it all wasn’t one giant nightmare.

I watched Dean set the camera down and raise his hand toward an old television set in the corner of what must have been a junk yard. He laughed, and it was a giddy laugh. The kind that escapes your lips when you’re not quite sure what’s real anymore. “Boom,” he said. In a flash of blinding light, the TV exploded, a bolt of electricity ripping through the screen and arcing into his outstretched hand.

I looked away, having seen enough, when Olivia said, “No. Watch.”

On the screen, Dean grabbed his arm and yelled, “Fuck!” The camera shifted, was lifted off the table, and then zoomed in on Dean’s hand. Two of his fingers had been scorched red. His palm, too, had been badly burned and in places was already blistering. The recording cut to black.

“For Dean, it was electricity,” Kiro said. “For James, fire. Molly, we believe, could somehow alter densities. And Katie – well, Katie could compel people. She could transfer thoughts, memories, into other’s subconscious.”

“To the general public, four seemingly random disasters,” he said, as he touched the screen and crime scene photos of the Kansas ‘bombing’ appeared. A giant crater sat in the center of what used to be the mall. Blood pooled between cracks in the concrete, broken up every few feet by the mangled bodies and shattered limbs of those who had wandered too close to the blast point. I looked away.

“But the government has a name for them,” Kiro continued, “A code name: Vert Evo.”

“What?” I whispered.

“These weren’t isolated incidents, Rainey. In fact, they all had exactly one thing in common.”

“Vert,” I said.

Kiro nodded. He pointed to the photographs that had reappeared on the screen. Stills of Dean, James, Molly and Katie. “They called them the Four Horsemen,” Kiro said, before looking right at me. “Who would have guessed there was a fifth this whole time.”

I glanced up at the photos and shivered. Was I destined to go out like that too? Bringing a whole bunch of people with me?

Ponytail – JJ – whatever his name was, shifted in his seat. “Did you use Vert?” he said. “You know, before?”

I looked past JJ, at the long tables strewn with gadgets, and my eyes fell on the walkie-talkies there. They lay half disassembled, bits and pieces sprinkled here and there, but I recognized the brand logo. Years ago, just before everything had gone to hell, my dad had sat on my bed one day after work and given me a similar set. For us to always be together, he’d said, even when we couldn’t be. For a moment, I could actually see him there beside me, while the memory played out in my head.

He was looking down on me, his eyes red rimmed and weary. “It’s all going to work out, sweetie,” he’d said. “Daddies working hard at work and the payoffs coming. For your mother and me. For all of us.”

“I know, Dad.”

He leaned over and kissed me on the forehead, then he tucked me away, deep inside the sheets. “Sleep tight, Rainey.”

I lay awake long after he’d left, clutching the walkie-talkie to my chest like a life-preserver. Then, after a minute of indecision, I threw off the sheets and crept down the hallway toward my parents’ room. The door was cracked open – they always kept it open those days – and I pressed myself to the wall, listening.

“John, you can’t keep doing this.”

“It’s going to get better, Tay. Things are almost there. I just need a little more time, that’s all.”

“No, I can’t keep doing this. You’re gone half the night, I never know where you are or what you’re doing, and the days you are home, it’s as if you’re on another planet. In a trance or something. You know it’s killing you, and I can’t just sit by and watch it happen. Watch you lose everything. At some point, this family has to come first. Or I swear to god, John, I’m gone. I’ll take the kids and I’m gone.”

For a long moment, there was silence. And then my dad whispered, “It won’t come to that. It’s almost over.”

I walked back to my room and slipped the covers over my head. After a second, I pressed the button on the side of the walkie-talkie and whispered, “I love you.”

In return, I heard static, then softly, “I love you too, kiddo.”

He was my dad. He was superman to me. I knew that at the end of the day, he’d fix everything – make it all better. So when that horrible night came around, when our whole family came crumbling down around us, I knew I’d put my faith in something that wasn’t real. I’d wanted to move on, but to do that I needed to forget.

And that, unfortunately, was the tricky part.

I looked up and saw JJ staring at me, still waiting for my answer. But all I could see in my mind was blood, bright red, infecting my vision. I tried to recover. “Why Valtronic?” I said. “I thought they had nothing to do with Vert anymore. Not since it was banned.”

Olivia laughed. She flicked her midnight hair back over her shoulder. “You’re drinking the Kool-Aid, kid.”

“Aye,” JJ added, “and it’s quite strong.”

I frowned, looking to Kiro for an explanation. He ran his hand across the console and a new image appeared. A still of Peter Clark – director and president of Valtronic Enterprises. In all the pictures I’d ever seen of the man, he always wore the same coy smile, as if to say, ‘yes, I am smarter than you.’

“Do you recognize him?”

“Of course,” I said. “Who wouldn’t?”

“And what would you say if I were to tell you that Peter Clark is single-handedly responsible for the largest underground Vert trade in the United States?”

I gave a nervous laugh, then glanced between the others, looking for clarification of Kiro’s obvious insanity. JJ shrugged, while Olivia merely looked at the picture with disgust. The still unnamed member of the team – the boy I’d met on campus that first night – crossed his arms, doing a solid job avoiding my gaze. He was wearing black jeans and a wife beater and I had to tear my eyes away from the lean muscle peeking out beneath his shirt.

“I’d say you’re a lunatic?”

Peter Clark? A drug lord? You’d have to be nuts to think that. The man was the biggest anti-vert advocate on the planet. He’d nearly bankrupted his own company donating millions of dollars to the government’s second War on Drugs.

I was a street rat and even I knew all this.

On the screen, Clark’s face was replaced by an older man with stark white hair, dark eyes and spectacles placed precariously far down his nose.

“Dr. Jason Fine,” Kiro explained. “Founder of Valtronic, creator of Vert.”

Out of the corner of my eye, wife beater guy stiffened. He started to get out of his chair when Kiro placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Sit, Aiden.” The boy – Aiden – hesitated, before slowly rejoining the circle. As he did, I could have sworn he shot me a glare.

Kiro looked back at the display. ”Dr. Fine,” he said. “A brilliant scientist. He’d hoped Vert would take us to the next step in human evolution. Everything and everyone connected, a unified world. But as the drug became more and more abused, Fine became a recluse, seen less and less often outside of his lab -”

Black and white photos flashed across the screen. Blurry shots capturing glimpses of Dr. Fine, some taken from street cams, others from street side ATMs and storefront cameras.

“- until the Four Horsemen appeared.”

A final image flashed onto the display. It was Dr. Fine sprawled across a desk, blood leaking from his ears, pooling beneath his face.

“In the wake of their very public deaths and the hundreds of lives they took with them, Dr. Fine spiraled into a depression, eventually killing himself – overdosing on the very drug he created.”

“And that’s when the shit hit the fan,” JJ said. “Clark retained control of the company, on the surface campaigning against Vert, while behind the scenes establishing a full-court press on the drug market.”

I sat stunned. In a weird, twisted way, it made sense. My dad had always told me that the best place to hide was always the last place anyone would think to look. And the last person anyone would suspect of trafficking Vert would be the one person dead set on destroying it.

Did it mean I was buying their story? Not quite. But I was curious.

“So let’s say I don’t think you’re totally insane,” I said. “What then? What would Peter Clark possibly want from me?”

Olivia leaned forward. “He doesn’t want you, love. He wants pieces of you.” She made a tearing motion with her hands. “He wants to cut you open, see what makes you tick.”

Kiro cleared his throat. “What O so delicately put is this: No one knows why Vert changed you, Rainey, or the others for that matter. Whether it was sustained use of the drug combined with something unique in your genes or simply one bad dose – no one knows. And as far as we’re aware, there haven’t been others. Clark hasn’t been able to replicate the results.”

I opened my mouth, but couldn’t force words to come out. I’d always wondered if it was the Vert that had changed me. How could I not have?

So that first year, I’d been constantly on edge, always expecting someone to grab me, to steal me away, as if I was part of some secret drug study and they were hiding in the shadows, waiting for it to take effect. But no one ever came, and over time I stopped wondering why it had happened to me and started trying to deal with what it had done to me.

Still, this? This was crazy. Like straight out a nightmare, crazy.

“So I’m what?” I said. “His key to perfecting some kind of super soldier?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Kiro said, “sure.”

“At least, it’s part of it,” JJ said.

I shifted in my seat. “Fucking hell, there’s more?”

“Over the last three months, Clark’s been expanding his reach with Vert,” Kiro said. “Pushing out much further than he’s ever done in the past. He’s preparing for something. Something big. We just don’t know what yet. We’d hoped that Clark’s interest in you might give us some clues. That’s why we went after you. But I don’t think the two are connected. I’m fairly certain he didn’t know about you until we did. ‘Till you lit up on grid. Literally.”

So that’s how they’d found me. Taking Vert had put me on the radar. Once again, I’d dug my own grave.

I was about to tell them exactly where they could stick their conspiracy theories when the lights overhead dimmed, replaced by flashing red sirens. An alarm blared in the background and, as one, ROOT 4 stood up.

Suddenly, the room was ablaze with action, everyone scrambling to different posts. Caught in the middle, I didn’t know what to do, so I headed toward the long tables.

Olivia flagged my attention and gestured to the flashing red lights.

“Cargo shipment is going to pass through,” she shouted over the alarm, as she strapped some type of utility belt to her waist. “They’ve been using unmarked E-trains to shuffle Vert around the country.”

I remembered the recent news reports. So these were the trains they were taking out? Cargo trains?

Kiro walked over to us, a bullet proof vest now strapped over his long-sleeve shirt. “We can’t let Valtronic get a hold of you,” he said, tightening the straps. “From here on out, you’re under the protection of ROOT 4.”

“Do I have a choice?” I said, repeating what I’d asked JJ earlier.

“Sure you do,” Aiden said, joining the group at the long table. “You can either stay willingly, we can chain you back to that room you woke up in-” He secured his own vest over his shirt. “-Or we can find a more permanent way to make sure Valtronic never gets a hold of you.”

The threat was obvious enough.

I balled my hands into fists. “Look, asshole,” I said. “I don’t know what your deal -”

A large hand settled on my shoulder and when I looked up, JJ was next to me. “Don’t mind, Aiden,” he said. “It’s his time of the month.” Aiden gave JJ the finger. “Look, Rainey, we’re doing this for your own good – well, our good and the world’s good – but mostly your own good.” He paused and stared up at the ceiling for a second, as if wondering whether anything he’d just said made sense. It didn’t.

“So, what? You’re bringing me along?” I said.

Aiden laughed as if it were the dumbest thought in the world, but Kiro nodded. “The girl comes,” he said.

“You’re kidding, right?” Aiden said. “Do I really have to be the voice of reason here?” He pointed at me. “She’s dead weight. She has no useful skills. She can’t help with the mission. And worse than that – she has a huge fucking target on her back. Bringing her here was a mistake, let alone for the bust.”

I flinched from the verbal whiplash, though I didn’t necessarily disagree. Did I even believe them about Valtronic? About Vert and the others? I couldn’t think of a reason why they’d lie, but still…this whole mess was way too much to handle. Unfortunately, walking away didn’t seem to be an option anymore.

If it ever was.

“We’re international terrorists,” JJ said. “We’ve all got huge targets on our back, numb nuts.”

Kiro ignored JJ. He grabbed what looked like a stun gun off one of the long tables and holstered it under his shoulder. Then he stared Aiden down. “Don’t forget your place, kid,” he said, his voice dangerous. “Your personal vendetta aside, you’d be nowhere without me. Don’t forget that. As for the girl? What would you have me do? Leave her here alone, or worse, with one of you and go into this a man down? No, I want her to come. I want her to see what’s going on behind the scenes. See the truth for herself. We’re going to be stuck with each other for a while, whether we like it or not. If she’s going to trust us, we’re going to have to do the same.”

Aiden looked halfway between embarrassed and ticked off. He strapped a silver disc onto his forearm – the same kind I’d seen JJ wear – and stormed out of the room. His attitude surprised me.  So did his anger toward me. It was different, personal. When we’d met on campus that first night, he’d been pleasant, if not into me. I prided myself on being a fairly good judge of flirting and he’d certainly been partaking that night. What had changed his tune?

Olivia picked something up off the table and tossed it to me. A pair of sleek black gloves. Thin textured – the kind thieves used so they could still feel their way around safes and locks.

“If you’re gonna be sticking around,” she said, “better get used to wearing those. Now come on. We’ve got a train to burn.”

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1.06

When I came to, I was alone, save for the darkness.

I tried to get my bearings, tried to rally my thoughts, but my head was a mess of jumbled memories and pain. I remembered the hotel room, taking the Vert. Remembered someone knocking on the door, being chased, and then…

Tasered. I’d been tasered.

My hand twitched toward my chest, but stopped short as it met resistance – a loop of cold steel pressed tight against my wrist. It dug into my skin, sending a stab of pain up my arm and a stab of fear into my heart. Handcuffs.

My pulse took off at a sprint.

I fished around in the darkness, feeling with my free hand. I lay on some type of cot, the coils groaning each time I shifted my weight. My body ached. I’d been beat up, almost raped, shot at, and electrocuted. All in the last 48 hours. Or at least, I thought so. Stuck in the dark, I had no perception of time, had no clue how long I’d been locked up.

I fought against the cuff, yanking it this way and that. What did these guys want with me? What were they going to do to me? A stream of horrid possibilities wound through my head, each worse than the last.

Which would it be? Fuck if I was going to stick around to find out.

I propped myself up with my elbow and ran my free hand along the wall, looking for cracks – for anything really. But the wall was soft, padded. I twisted around and dropped my feet to the ground. Cushions gave way under my weight. Mattress cubes. They seemed to line the whole room, pieced together like one giant quilt.

I cursed under my breath. It was a padded cell. A rubber room. Which meant there’d be no windows, no metal – nothing but the single door to escape through. And I was still cuffed. There was no way around that.

How the hell would –

Footsteps echoed outside the door. I heard muffled voices, the clank of keys, and my stomach turned over. They were coming for me; I was out of time. I lay back on the bed and stretched the handcuff chain taut. It tore into my wrist, drawing a thin trail of blood, but I ignored the pain. Instead, I found the point where the chain connected to the cot and kicked.

Nothing happened.

A bead of sweat dripped down my cheek. Acid rose into my throat on a wave of panic. I kicked again and this time the frame warped slightly under the force. Yes! Come on! I drew my foot back once more but paused as I heard something else, something awful: the turn of a key. A sharp click echoed through my cell and it struck me like a death toll. This was it. With a creak, the door opened, sending a cascade of light flooding into the room.

I raised my hand to shield my eyes. Ponytail stood in the doorway, backlit by a long corridor of overhead lights.

“Morning,” he said.

“Go fuck yourself,” I said.

“Guess I deserve that.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. Casually, he tossed them to me. “Don’t say I never gave you nothing.”

I caught the keys with my free hand and lay back on the cot, stunned. They were letting me go? It didn’t make any sense. I fit one of the keys into the lock and gave it a hesitant turn, as if this was all a set up and the lock was rigged to explode. The key clicked into place and the handcuff dropped off my arm. “What is this?” I said, massaging my wrist. “Some sick joke?”

“No, nothing like that.” Ponytail gestured over his shoulder. “Come on. The boss-man wants a word. I believe we owe you an explanation.”

I wanted to say, “no fucking shit,” but I held my breath. Ponytail looked harmless enough, standing there alone, but I knew not to be deceived by first impressions. The bulge at his hip told me all I needed to know. He was carrying. I looked past him. It was a single hallway, barely wide enough for two people side by side. Even if I could disarm him, I’d have a hell of a time getting away if I ran.

I shrugged. I didn’t have much of a choice. “Lead the way.”

Ponytail shook his head. “Not this time, girly. Ladies first.”

Not this time? What? I got off the cot and walked out of the room, noticing how Ponytail squeezed himself against the wall as I passed.

If the rubber room hadn’t given it away, the rest of the facility certainly did. Walls of peeling paint and crumbling plaster. Identical rooms with odd electrical wiring. Gates blocking off each corridor.

“An asylum?” I said, as we passed through another gate and turned a corner. “You’re set up in a crazy house?” I racked my brain, trying to think of any closed down mental hospitals in Jackson. Were there any? I didn’t think I’d know even if there were. Not unless it happened to be near a bar.

“We like it,” Ponytail said. “You know how it is: the best place to hide –“

“Is often the last place anyone would think to look,” I finished. Where had I heard that before?

Ponytail narrowed his eyes. “Exactly…”

We turned another corner, Ponytail pointing the way, and walked straight into what must have been the mess hall back when the asylum was still running. Only now it was rigged with more electronics than I’d ever seen before. A hacker’s wet dream.

Ponytail walked past me and spread his arms wide. “Welcome to the Hive.”

At the center of the room, two rows of long tables bisected the space. Though they probably served as dining tables in the past, they were now littered with various gadgets, each in some stage of deconstruction. I recognized some of the objects – a military grade stun gun, an ATX geolocater watch (I’d pawned one off two years ago) and a child’s walkie-talkie set. An odd mix, for sure.

Overhead, electrical wiring hung low from the rafters, connecting to circuit boards scattered across the walls. A series of flat-panel monitors wound around the room, displaying maps of the region, the stock exchange, the news, and various bus and train schedules.

But what really caught my attention was the computer station in the corner. It lay sectioned off from the rest of the room by large, towering CPUs. Drawings and schematics had been taped to the units, depicting constructs of some sort and what looked to be weapon designs. And sitting around the central console in disposable lawn chairs, talking animatedly, were three people I recognized – two from mug shots.

Kiro Nagamachi and Olivia Yates were the easiest to spot. They’d been strewn across the front page of the paper recently as the two most prominent members of ROOT 4. Pretty reasonable considering they’d derailed five E-trains in the past week. I shook my head. This wasn’t some two bit job. As far as hacker collectives went, these guys were the real deal. And for some reason they’d taken an interest in me. That set me on edge.

The third face threw me. It was the guy I’d seen my first night out in Jackson – the one I’d run into on the steps of the Health Services building. How the hell was he involved with this?

“Come on,” Ponytail said. He nodded toward the hacker circle jerk. “Time for those answers.”

“Do I have a choice?”

Ponytail pulled back his jacket, flashing the handgun tucked into his waist. It was a small victory that I’d been right about the weapon. He drew it and, before I could even flinch, removed the magazine and racked the slide back. The last remaining bullet fell from the chamber.

“Look,” he said, holding the gun up for me to see. “I know everything that’s happened so far is telling you otherwise, but we are the good guys. Just give us a chance to prove it.”

He tossed the handgun onto a nearby table.

I hesitated. I’d trusted him once already and look how that turned out. Could I really afford to do it again? A part of me knew this was an important moment. I could still run for it, could still roll the dice. After all, they’d gone through a lot of trouble to get a hold of me. There was a good chance they wanted me alive – at least, enough not to shoot me on the spot.

But could I really outrun ROOT 4? As shitty as my life was now, how much worse would it be trying to do what I did and evade hackers?

In the end, it wasn’t much of a choice.

I followed Ponytail over to the computer alcove. As we approached, Kiro looked up and motioned to two empty chairs. I sat down across from Olivia.

My first thought was that her mug shot didn’t do her justice. She was strikingly gorgeous, with jet black hair that fell to her shoulders, deep brown eyes, and full red lips. She wore two spikes in her right ear and a small stud above her left eyebrow. She was the type of girl who couldn’t go anywhere without garnering attention. The type of girl I’d envied before everything in my life went to shit.

She winked at me, then punched a code into the disk nailed into the center of the circle. The surrounding CPUs hummed to life. A low whine echoed off the panels. Suddenly, a cylinder of blue light erupted from the disc, forming a digital display in front of us.

Kiro looked between the display and me. He was much different than Olivia. Harder. Older. His face was tanned and age weary; his hair was just starting to grey. Unlike Olivia, I had no problem seeing the edge to his features – the quality that said: this man is not to be fucked with.

He turned to me and said, “Let me start by apologizing. The way you were brought in was not ideal. You were still connected to the Grid and we couldn’t afford to have our location compromised. Unfortunately, electricity is the quickest way to sever the link.”

Absently, I touched my chest where the rod had burned me. The skin still tingled. I knew I should reign in my anger, knew that the man in front of me was as dangerous as they came, but I just couldn’t do it. After three horrific days, I’d finally had enough. “What the fuck is all this about?” I said. “Why is Valtronic after me? What the hell do you guys want with me?”

Beside me, Ponytail coughed. “Hey,” he said. “Easy…” He looked to Kiro, but the older man waved him off. Olivia chuckled. The guy I’d met on campus – well, he glared at me.

“You have a lot of questions,” Kiro said. “That’s understandable. The short of it, Rainey, is that Valtronic wants very much to get it’s dirty little hands on you.”

“But why? That makes no sense.”

“We thought the same,” Kiro said, glancing at Ponytail. “Until this morning.”

This morning? The hell? How long was I out for?

“Imagine our surprise,” Kiro continued, “when JJ here couldn’t remember anything about rescuing you. Couldn’t tell us a single thing, even though he’d already told us the whole story when he arrived with you last night.”

Crap. I’d forgotten I touched him. Still, what did it matter if they knew? I didn’t get the connection. I’d been this way for the last six years. How could my talent be what Valtronic was after?

“What’s your point?” I said.

Kiro smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He leaned closer to me, close enough that I could smell the tobacco on his clothes, and said, “did you think you were the only one?”

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