There are still a thousand questions burning inside by the time we pick our way through the trees back to the car. The sun is low on the horizon by the time we reach it. She starts the vehicle with ease and backs her way out of the space and we begin our trek back to the base.
About thirty minutes into our drive, Naomi checks the small device at her waist. It’s been buzzing and vibrating furiously. When she reads it her eyes widen. She swears before she pulls the car over to the side of the road, coming to an abrupt stop and, in spite of the sun’s steady decent in the west, shuts the headlights off, abandoning us to the oncoming darkness.
“Surveillance got wind of a patrol in the area. About two miles down the road. We’re going to have to go the rest of the way on foot.” She says, unbuckling her seatbelt.
We exit the vehicle and she begins quickly stripping it of any gear or wires that could be used for transmission. The small device at her hip she removes and, with a resigned look, smashes it underfoot.
“That’s the fifth one this month,” she says regretfully. “Their patrols are getting tighter.”
Naomi unlocks the back of the van and pulls up a carpet cover. Two guns are secured underneath the hatch; she pulls them out and checks the ammunition. My fingers reach to grab one but she places a warning hand on mine and shakes her head in denial. Guess our walk in the woods didn’t do much to ensure her trust. The fight yesterday probably didn’t help either. She never mentioned it, but there’s no way she doesn’t know.
We continue down the road on foot, walking in a silence that is not entirely comfortable. After about fifteen minutes we spot the bright lights of a military grade vehicle winking in the distance. Naomi ducks into the woods, squatting behind the thick vegetation, motioning for me to follow; our dark clothes assisting in hiding from the headlights sweeping across the trees.
A bright light wavers across my vision, and I close my eyes against the light. When I open them again, I feel something snap. Little details that were fuzzing together in my mind’s eye now seem clear. A sharp metallic taste fills my mouth, and I grit my teeth against the oncoming memory.
It was nighttime. I was armed in a bulletproof vest, pacing in the center of a circle of vehicles. The headlights were on, casting elongated shadows that twisted together like gruesome marionettes.
I was holding a rifle, clutching it in hand as I barked orders at the Switches in front of me. They were a scarred and ugly bunch. Their fingers twitched and trembled, stirred with the thrill of the hunt.
“I want three patrol cars circling the designated perimeter. If there is indication of movement in the area signaling disobedience with curfew, the law breaker will be punished as seen fit by the soldiers that find them.” I smiled, a twisted grin that opened up a fresh cut on my face. I wiped the blood from my mouth. The soldiers around me began moving, shifting, restless with the desire to break free and titillated with the prospect of encountering the curfew breakers.
Reality isn’t so different. I’m so dazed by the shift in my vision that I almost allow the high beams of a patrol car to catch sight of me. I stumble back into the relative safety of the trees.
I motion for Naomi to come close. “It’s a curfew patrol. There are probably three cars in the vicinity. That’s fairly commonplace.” She nods, maybe this is old information to her, I continue whispering regardless. “The third car is probably stationary and the occupants are on foot. If I had to guess they would be that way,” I point the direction we need to go. “They aren’t stealthy. They’re eager to be hunting and that eagerness will make them clumsy. If we can hear them we can avoid them.”
Naomi looks uneasy. “I think we should stay here,” she mutters. “Double back and get the carrier.”
I shake my head no. “Staying stationary is a bad call, they will find us. They’re going to find the car down the road and they’ll realize someone else is here. They’ll probably keep moving in that direction, so we can’t move back. We have to move forward past them.”
Her eyes harden when she realizes I’m right. Through the moonlight in the trees I can catch the determined expression on her face. “Lead the way,” she says, her voice low.
I begin creeping my way through the woods, Naomi following close behind. The moon shines a silver glow between the trees and casts long shadows that trail in our wake. I keep my ears perked, waiting for the slightest indication of noise. I hear nothing.
Our pace is agonizingly slow and both of us are on edge. At one point a twig cracks under Naomi’s foot and my pulse jumps. We crouch, motionless, in a tense, expectant silence. When no one appears we breathe two heavy sighs of relief and continue foraging on.
Though we have yet to encounter any Switches, I know it’s going to happen. The foot patrol will be moving steadily in this direction to catch up with the others, and sooner or later our paths will intersect.
I hear a voice calling in the distance and still my movement. Naomi tiptoes up silently behind me. I look to her; her eyes are wide with fear. I’m tense with the anticipation that precedes a fight.
I dive behind a tree, pressing my back against the rough bark and motion for her to do the same. My heart speeds its pace when I hear the crunching of leaves beneath heavy boots. From my hiding spot I can’t see far enough to spot the patrol, but judging by the footsteps I would guess two people are approaching us. I wish Naomi had given me a weapon. My hands are capable of breaking a neck but that requires me to get much closer that I would like. My injuries from the surgery are still aching. Darrow didn’t know how to fight, he didn’t know how to hone in on a weakness and exploit it to achieve maximum damage, but I’m confidant that any EXCERP fighter will. In this condition I’m a walking liability.
In the same instant that I spy two Switches about thirty yards out I hear the clicking sound of a gun safety being removed.
I turn my head to the side. It’s a large man, maybe in his thirties. Even in the darkness I can decipher the block lettering adhered to his People’s State uniform. Beta 302. Not high ranking, a technical field officer. Smart, but not deadly. Well, I consider, less deadly anyway.
“Arms up.” He says, with a menacing grin. I acquiesce. “Are you alone?”
I shake my head yes, not allowing my eyes to dart where Naomi is hiding. His gun is still trained on me. Beta 302 saunters closer, somehow managing to avoid every snapping twig and crunching leaf. Large and deceptively quiet—ideal for patrol. He’s quite close to me, close enough that I can feel his breath on my face, hot and excited.
A rustling sound breaks the quiet and both of our visions snap to where Naomi has emerged from her hiding spot, gun raised. In the split second he isn’t looking I swing a leg to his crotch. It’s an easy out when fighting with a man, one I don’t particularly enjoy utilizing. It’s over too quickly for my taste. He groans, folding over, and I pry the gun from his loosened hold. I’m reluctant to shoot, knowing it will bring the others our way, but I’m hoping the majority of them will assume it’s a soldier firing on a civilian, and not the other way around.
Who am I kidding? A Switch would never make a death so slow. I aim the gun and shoot twice in the head.
Almost immediately I hear the urgent call and response of a pair of Switches. The sound of their heavy footfalls begins thundering in our direction and I waste no time before I begin sprinting as fast as I can, Naomi trailing not far behind.
The other two soldiers, despite having long since passed us, double back, and I hear them crashing through the woods with thunderous footfalls I can picture them, seething, practically foaming at the mouth. Attempting stealth is pointless now. I spot a Switch out of the corner of my eye and aim wildly, hoping a bullet or two in his direction is enough to discourage his pursuit. But armed prey is simply a more pleasurable game. We continue racing forward, slipping on wet leaves and lose earth. When I think we’ve gained significant distance I stop, resting against a tree. My heartbeat pounds and the wounds in my back throb with strain. At this rate I’ll either pass out or vomit. Possibly both.
I can’t keep sprinting at this pace. I wish I had a long-range weapon, because the small handgun isn’t going to be enough. My patrols were armed with rifles, and I can’t help but be glad this wasn’t one of my former units. I grit my teeth. Time to hold ground and fight. With 302 down I think the other two are the only ones in this area. I look to Naomi, shrug, and fire two rounds into the air. I’m hoping the gun had a full magazine when I took it.
Naomi screams something unintelligible at me, making a move to run. I stay in place, shaking my head. Amazingly, she stays put. A shot is fired nearby and I spot a dark uniformed figure steadily creeping towards me. I stick out my hand and discharge two shots, but hear no response. The figure makes a play of darting from tree to tree. The first few times I aim and attempt to make contact, but I must be rusty because none of my shots land. The third time it happens I catch a glimpse of long brunette hair, and I realize that the shooter is trying to empty my gun before they get closer. Fine. I’ll let her get close.
I’m banking on the fact that she probably wants to see me suffer a little before she kills me, so I step out from behind the tree when she darts forward. The two of us are only about twenty feet apart, both of our guns aimed at each other. She edges out around a thick tree trunk and her small face is pinched into a quizzical look.
“Evening,” I say, my voice nonchalant.
“Drop the weapon,” she replies, her voice mechanical. “You can’t win. You will die.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Naomi edging her way around a tree and do my best to draw any attention away from her as she skulks nearer.
“I’m not really sure that’s going to work out for me. I have plans later.”
The girl bristles. “Why are you making a joke? You’re going to die now.”
I grin widely. “I’m not so sure about that.”
Naomi bursts from her hiding spot and fires two rounds into the girl’s stomach, the girl’s face contorts into an intense look of pain before she fires at Naomi and falls. Naomi moves, but her movements are too slow, and the bullet, poorly aimed, grazes her side. She cries out.
I look to either side, anticipating the appearance of the third soldier. Seeing no one, I stride to the wounded girl on the ground. The two shots to the stomach are bleeding profusely, staining the earth with her dark blood. It will take her too long to bleed out and die. Patience is a virtue. Luckily I don’t have any. I place my foot on her throat and apply pressure. She flails her arms in an attempt to claw my foot, but from her position on the ground it is impossible to pry my boot away. Her eyes turn red, blood vessels popping with strain. It’s not long before she suffocates and her wild movements go still.
I sigh and pull my boot away. It’s only then that I remember Naomi has been injured, and that most likely the automatic human response would have been to tend to her first. Not the most pragmatic, though.
She has pulled herself up to a sitting position, supporting herself against a tree while she inspects the wound in her side. It looks fairly shallow, although in the darkness it’s nearly impossible to tell whether or not it’s serious. I briefly entertain the idea leaving her here, but it isn’t like I can return without her. I would abandon her in favor of…what, exactly? I have nowhere else to go other than the New Order.
“C’mon,” I say. “We have to get out of here.” I hoist her up and allow her to use me as a crutch for a moment. The wound is still bleeding and walking is difficult for her, but I’m certain that making her stretch her arm around my shoulders might tear it open further.
We move about fifty feet before the another Switch makes his way across my field of vision. He chuckles darkly. He’s a squat, thick man with pockmarked skin and thinning hair. I eye the gun holstered by his hip, but he makes no move for it. Instead he pulls out a long, thin blade.
“I’m not much for guns,” he says, lovingly caressing the edge of the blade. “Thanks for getting rid of the other two. I was never a big fan. 302 always steals my fun.”
I lift my arms to aim the gun, but in the midst of the movement the soldier flings the knife. It slices across my left hand and I drop the gun in a mix of surprise and pain. Knife throwers, of course it’s fucking knife throwers. He pulls a second blade from a strap across his shoulder and takes aim at Naomi. I barrel into her aside and she falls to the ground with a grunt. The squat man aims another throw, barely missing my shoulder. He’s only got two knives left strapped to his chest, but my exhaustion is making me slow. I doubt I can keep dodging this effectively. In all honesty, the last two were sheer dumb luck. I rush forward, swiping my hand across the ground and grabbing the knife that hit my hand. He pulls the final two blades from his chest strap in anticipation, and soon the two of us are caught in a frantic dance of sweat and blood. He slices at me and it catches my arm, opening up a deep wound.
I can’t keep this up for much longer, my arm is aching and lifting the knife is proving difficult. At one point I knock one of the weapons in his right hand aside; it clatters to the ground. He hardly hesitates before he transfers the knife in his left to his better hand and continues slashing at me in long arcs.
I skirt backwards to put some distance between us.
“Naomi!” I bellow. “A little help here!” But either her wound was worse than I thought, or she knocked her head when I shoved her because I receive no reply.
My opponent aims a kick at my stomach and I fall flat on my back, the knife gone from my grip. He lands on top of me, the cool metal of his blade pressed against my throat. I spy my fallen weapon just a few inches out of reach. I edge my hand towards it slowly.
“Where should we start?” the squat man purrs. He looks down at my body and I can practically see his eyes light with malicious intent. He sticks the knife beneath the sleeve of my shirt and yanks it up, slicing the strap. “What about here?” My hands close around the handle of the knife and—in the most counterintuitive act I have ever committed— I stab it down towards my chest catching him in the back. He shrieks with rage and I yank the knife from his back with a grunt, thrusting my hips upwards to maneuver his body off of me. I scramble to my feet.
I drop the knife. He’s still on the ground, twitching in agony. I’m filled with the desire to place my hands on him and end his life myself. I want to feel the reverberation when his neck snaps and he is finished and I am left the victor. Evander’s warning to stay away from the rage seems so far away now. This brute deserves to die for even thinking to assault me. I grin when a thought occurs. Evander never said I had to stop the savagery. He just said I had to hide it.
When it’s over I allow myself only one second to compose myself. To hide the glee in my eyes. To breathe and embrace the fact that this is the only second in the past few days where things felt clear. Steeling my expression, I meander to the place Naomi lies on the ground, bleeding heavily from her side. She must have rolled when I shoved her out of the way because her body is several yards away at the bottom of a small ditch. Naomi couldn’t have seen the fight. She couldn’t have seen what came after. When I get closer I can make out her labored breathing and the sweat that drenches her delicate brow.
“I’m sorry…”she breathes. “I couldn’t sit up.”
“That’s okay,” I reply. I bend down, placing my hands behind her back and force her into a sitting position. She cringes but does not cry out. I finally admit I’m going to have to support her and hope that the motion doesn’t force her to stretch her side too much. I walk the two of us through the forest until I find the road. The rest of the patrol seems to have moved on by now; probably assuming the ones we’ve killed have located and terminated the source of the gunfire. If not, they have no qualms about leaving soldiers behind. If the deserters want to eat and fight, they’ll return.
By the time she finally directs me back to where the camp is her head is lolling and her eyes are unfocused. She’s pale and feverish and barely responding coherently. I drop her body outside the gate. Her neck is bent at an awkward angle and her long limbs are in ungainly positions. With a resigned sigh I maneuver her limbs to a more acceptable position for presentation, resting her back on a tree.
When I reach the chain link fence I listen closely to ensure it’s no longer live. Satisfied that I probably won’t be electrocuted, I scale the fence. It’s an abysmally long time before I’m spotted, and I’m almost embarrassed for the New Order’s security. I’m already waiting on the other side of the fence before I’m met by the sounds of stomping feet and distant shouting. I scan the crowd that has gathered until I spot the wide shoulders and brown hair of Beckett Morris. He pushes past two younger boys nearly knocking over a lanky blond with long, waving hair, who stumbles into his companion, a stockier boy with ebony skin and a wide nose.
“Beckett!” I shout when I spot him. “Naomi is on the other side of the fence. She needs the doctor she—” Beckett isn’t even listening. He grabs the larger of the two boys and they spring into action, shoving me out of the way and storming into the woods to find her, their heavy feet making loud impacts on the ground. Satisfied that Beckett will see to her care, I dismiss myself from the fray, ignoring the curious and occasionally petrified looks of the crowd. I stop when one of Ayana’s long-fingered hands grasps my arm.
“You’d better have Sydney see to that,” she says, looking at my arm with a grave expression. When I glance down I see what she is referring to. The adrenaline must have diminished the pain and the urgency to return to the New Order preoccupied my thoughts, but with nothing else to distract me the thick trail of blood dripping down my arm is somewhat concerning.
“Does it have to be Sydney?” I ask, warily. Frankly I’m not overly enthusiastic about spending any one-on-one time with my biggest fan.
“The doctor’s going to be busy with Naomi and no one else here is going to know what to do. You might need stitches,” she replies, wrinkling her nose.
“Fine,” I say, “but you’re waking him up. If I do it he might stab me, and that’s already happened twice tonight.”
An amused snort is her only answer.