Category Archives: Arc II


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.


“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.


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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.”


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.”


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.”


“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.


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.


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


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

They were covered in blood.

I thought of Alice.

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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:


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.”


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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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:



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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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?”


“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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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.”


“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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A Fantasy Web Serial


A Complete Web Serial