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.”
“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:
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.
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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