Category Archives: Arc III


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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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.


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…”


“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.


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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