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The explosion is loud and violent. I hear the flash bang, and nothing else. No gunfire. No screams. I yell into the comm, but all I get back is static. My heart slams in my chest as I switch channels.

“Vivian, are you getting anything?” I ask, trying extremely hard to keep the panic out of my voice. I trained Shy, so on some level I know she can handle herself. It’s the other part of me, the part that’s usually walled off from emotion, that screams the irrational question of . . . is she alright?

“No, Michael. Her comm is dead,” Vivian replies.

“Do we have thermal imaging from the sat?”

It isn’t Vivian’s voice I hear come back over the comm. This time it’s the General.

“Yes, there are four heartbeats surrounding her, and four more on the perimeter.”

“Send in an extraction team,” I demand.

“That’s not the profile, Michael. Stay on course. Capture or kill Benet. He cannot be allowed to escape again. Shyira is collateral.”

The comm goes silent, but I refuse to copy that order. The General made his orders loud and clear, but for me the mission is to rescue Shy. Everyone else is collateral. I’ll deal with the repercussions later. I scale the same tree she had, entering through the same window. Her rappelling rope is still locked onto the beam. I latch myself to it and am on the ground in no time. The door to the hallway is cracked, allowing the perfect line of sight to what’s coming my way. Two of Benet’s men are heading in my direction. Taking a few steps behind the door, I melt into the shadow, silently pulling out my nine-inch bayonet. The man in the lead opens the door wider. As he crosses the threshold, I step out quickly, jabbing my knife into his gut before shifting behind him, placing him in a choke hold. I brace the man with one leg, while putting my weight on the other. Turning halfway puts me right where I need to be as the second hostile walks in. My blade hits home as it sweeps across the throat of the second hostile. It’s clean and quiet. The men don’t have time to react. I’m too quick. Too precise. The man clutches his throat before falling to the ground, allowing me to turn my attention back to the man I still hold in my arms. My blade is dirty. The asshole in my grip serves a purpose as I wipe the blood left on my blade onto his shirt before snapping his neck, tossing him to the ground. Stepping over the second victim’s body, I head down the hallway.

I hug the wall as I come to a stop just before rounding the corner. I pull out a small mirror. I angle it just right, allowing me to see around the corner. There’s not a lot of distance between me and my next victim. Putting the mirror away, I quickly round the corner with nothing, except deadly intent. I feel the switch being flipped in me. I’m a predator. The adrenaline is at a ten as I walk up to the man without breaking stride. The second I reach him my palm finds its mark, hitting his chest with such force it stops his heart. What comes next, I have to mentally prepare myself for. This has to happen in order for the plan to work. I feel a sharp pain at the base of my skull as the hostile strikes me from behind. Lights out.

I wake to my body, slamming against something hard and cold. I don’t move, or show any signs of consciousness until I’m able to get my bearings. My head hurts, and the ringing in my ears is annoying as fuck. No use in giving myself away just yet. I lie on my side with my eyes barely open when I hear Oscar ask Shy a question. My eyes aren’t open enough for anyone to notice, but open enough to see Shy get struck across the face. Rage boils up inside me when I see Oscar laying hands on her. The emotion is indescribable. Every cell in my body aches to rip him apart. This kind of rage should never be inside someone like me. It’s too dangerous. I welcome that danger as I watch the blood trail down her swollen lips, dripping onto the floor.

“Strike her again and I promise you, you will beg for death long before it’s granted.”

My voice is low, full of malice and warning. A deaf man can hear the truth in my words.

“Oh. Looky, looky, who decided to join the party,” Oscar says in a voice thick with sarcasm.

Oscar laughs as he makes his way over to the cage.

“Are you going to cooperate? You see what she made me do to that pretty little face of hers, and she’s more my type. I won’t hesitate doing worse to you. Now, I assume this was a two-person op, or more of your people would be storming my castle, so to speak. Isn’t it just like the Collective to be as arrogant as to think two people could bring me down.” Oscar kneels in front of the cage. “It’s your turn, pretty boy. You’re going to tell me the location of the substation, and if not, she will.” His eyes dart to Shy. “I see the way she looks at you. This one is smitten.”

He stands, turning to give his men orders. “Swap them. Let’s see how long blue eyes over here can hold out.”

His men do as instructed, untying Shy from the chair. Her body is limp as her face twists in pain at their touch. They quickly throw her in the cage next to me before unlocking mine to grab me. They slam me down into the now--unoccupied seat. I don’t fight. I sit motionless, watching Shy lie there in a crumpled heap. What have I done? Every fiber of my being is screaming for me to go to her. Touch her. But all I can do is look at her. Shy finds the strength to sit up and lean against the back of the cage. Her feet reach the other side with her knees scrunched up almost to her chest. She holds my gaze. Her strength is incredible.

“I’m only going to ask you this once. Where is the Collective’s substation?”

Oscar leans forward, resting his hands on the arms of my chair. I turn from Shy for the first time to look him in the eyes.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Does this fucker think he can intimidate me . . . Michael Varro?

“That answer didn’t work for her when she said it. Now look at her, and that’s me sparing her because she’s a beautiful woman. What do you think I’m going to do to you?” Oscar asks right before he tries to head butt me. Only, I’m quicker. I lower my head, protecting my nose. Instead of Oscar breaking my nose he hits the top of my head, which hurt him a lot more than it hurt me. Oscar pulls out his gun, aiming it right at my forehead. A scare tactic. They don’t work on me.

“Is that your final answer?” Oscar asks.

I glare at him, not giving a shit that he has a gun pointed at my head. It’s not the first time. I hold Oscar’s gaze as I say, “Final answer.”

“Wait. Don’t do this.” I hear Shy shout from her cage.

“Fuck,” I breathe.

Shy continues to watch me closely from her cage. I see it in her eyes. She’s looking for a sign, a signal, anything to let her know I have things under control. I hope she knows me well enough to know I wouldn’t get caught without a plan. She just needs to be ready when it comes time to react.

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