If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
Kelly tightened her grip around the steering wheel, the way she wished she could wrap her fingers around Alan's neck. His taut, muscular neck, which flexed as he laughed from his seat in the back of the Bronco. That he could laugh at a time like this only twisted the knife.
She adjusted her rearview mirror to see what had Alan laughing, as if she didn't know. Lark was splayed across the three boys in the back seat, but her toned, athletic butt was planted on Alan, and she put her arm was around his neck to steady herself. She wriggled into his lap playfully, and Kelly's strangle hold tightened until her knuckles turned white.
“She's harmless; just one of the guys,” Betsy said, giving Kelly a knowing look. “That's not even flirting for her; I don't know if she can.”
Kelly wasn't interested in the excuse.
“But that's kind of what we're here for, Kel. I know it can suck to see your ex day in and day out... and it's not the first time you two have split...” It wasn't the first time, but so far as she knew it was the first time he cheated on her, and Kelly was determined for it to be the last. “No one wants a repeat of what happened between Toni and Tami.”
“I think they only started up because their names were similar,” Kelly said.
“Yeah, like they were picturing their too-cute wedding invitations before worrying about things like getting along. But their break-up nearly scattered us to the winds, and by the time the dust settled, somehow they were engaged and we were the bad guys.”
“I promise not to get engaged to Alan,” Kelly said facetiously.
“It's kind of the opposite of that that I'm concerned about, actually.”
“Okay. I won't murder him, either.”
“Cripple or seriously maim?”
“Are you suggesting alternatives...”
“Addendums to your list of thou-shalt-nots.”
“Crap. I see why they didn't give this talk to Lark.”
“Nobody gave-” Betsy frowned. “I'm your best friend. I wanted to sit with you.”
“And you didn't want to sit on Angel's lap?”
Kelly's jaw tightened. “Not in front of people. And for whatever reason that seems to bring out his exhibitionist streak. But this isn't about my relationship. I'm here-”
“To extract concessions under duress while I'm too preoccupied driving to properly argue my case.”
“I'm not asking you to give me the Sudetenland, I'm asking you to give us a chance- give this weekend a chance.”
“So you're wooing me as a group, then? I'm not sure I packed the right me for an orgy.”
“Woo might be strong, but yeah, in a nut shell, I want you to take your head out of your mope-hole long enough to remember why we're all friends- why despite some heart ache it's worth it to keep our little troupe intact.”
“Okay. But I can only make promises so far. If he sticks his tongue in her and I happen to be holding a flaming marshmallow on a stick-”
“That sounds like a justifiable homicide to me,” Betsy said. Kelly raised an eyebrow. “What? I told you I'm your friend, here. I just want you to be as cool as you can be. If Alan can't even keep it in his pants for a weekend, I couldn't argue against a strategic and timely shish-kebobbing.”
“I think you're verging on enabling.”
“The best friendships usually do,” Betsy said, and Kelly spent a moment too long watching the way her smile creased her cheeks.
Not that any extra time likely would have helped. The log truck from the opposite direction had jack-knifed, its rear end crossing into her lane and smashing the guard rail that would have separated them from a steep ravine on the opposite side. “Seatbelts!” Kelly yelled as she hit the brakes. The road was slick, and her tires skid even as the anti-lock brakes attempted to stutter their stop.
The bronco slapped against the side of the truck, skidding along its length and barely moving it, funneling the truck off into blackness peppered occasionally with color from the evergreens.
There was a knock on Mikaela's door. She wondered if it could be federal agents, but couldn't bring herself to care. The break-in hadn't been covered by the news media, but one casualty had. Mahmoud had been killed, though news reports linked his death to anti-Muslim sentiment.
So in the back of her mind, she knew she should assemble duplicates from every reflective surface in her dorm, but she couldn't muster even that degree of concern for herself. She swung the door open wide.
“He's dead,” Mayumi said. Her voice was soft, and fragile, but her eyes were hard, and full of a fury that scared Mikaela enough to snap her back into her senses. “There wasn't a body, but,” she held out her fingers, and they were streaked with blood. “He was there. I could smell him. Taste his sweat.”
Mikaela's eyebrows shot up. “Not like that. But we lived together for months,” Mayumi said. “And my senses are... acute. He was there. Someone fired a shot. And there was blood. Lincoln's dead.”
“You can't know that.”
“I know he wouldn't have just disappeared. That he'd tell me if he was okay.”
“Unless he couldn't.”
“The only way he couldn't is if he's dead. Or incapacitated, en route to being dead.”
“Maybe he's with Rox,” she tried to sooth. Mikaeala took out her phone, and dialed the younger woman's cell. It went straight to voice mail. “Damnit,” she said. “She's still not picking up. But that strengthens my argument. He's probably with Rox, and they're all lying low.”
“I don't think so,” Mayumi said. “Judging by his smell, I don't think he got within a hundred yards of her.”
“But you can't know, is my only point. So embrace that uncertainty, so you can hold onto that litle bit of hope.” She navigated to her messages. “Damnit.”
“I've been trying to get a hold of Rox. If she is around... I kind of wanted to get a drink with her. She was there, when we sprung Mahmoudd from that Seattle black site, and... I just feel like I need to get sloppy drunk. I'm not sure I feel responsible, exactly... but responsible enough I could really use not being sober right now. So, uh, what are you doing tonight?”
“I'll go with you, but I don't think I can get sloppy drunk. With my metabolism, I don't even think shotgunning Wild Turkey would do it.”
“That sounds like a challenge. And really, the important thing is that you keep up numerically, even if I end up way more plastered. So long as I'm not weeping alone into my beer, and then drinking the tears, anyway.” Mikaela opened up her front door, and standing there were Iago, Demi and Drake.
“We brought wine coolers,” Iago said.
“And things that people who aren't fifteen year old girls drink,” Drake said, hefting a six-pack of bottled beers.
“And the hard stuff, for people who want to mix their own non-craptastic drinks,” she had a large bottle of vodka in either hand.
“And they brought a teatotaller, for some reason,” Peter said, rounding the corner into her apartment.”
“Because somebody has to give out sober, non-creepy or gropey hugs,” Mikaela said, throwing her arms around him.
“The best hugs come from the pelvis,” Peter said.
“That was your cue to start air-humping at her,” Iago said.
“Damn, I always miss that cue,” he said.
“How's Cris?” Mikaela asked.
“Cris?” Peter asked, turning towards Demi. “Haven't seen him. Not since before... oh, shit.”
“You don't think he went with them, after all, do you? I mean, we know he wasn't at the break-in, but maybe he met up with them after.”
“Well, let's hope not,” Demi said.
“Last night was far too sobering. I don't think we can afford for tonight to be, too.”
“Pour me a shot, too,” Peter said.
“Really?” Drake asked.
“We all lost somebody. It just might mean my hugs get a little bit sloppier tonight than usual.”
“Your hugs were always kind sloppy,” Iago said.
Pete leaned in close and whispered breathily, but loud enough everyone else could here, “Only for you.”
Demi handed out shots.
“For those who couldn't be here tonight,” Mikaela said.
“May they be the last,” Mayumi said, and clinked glasses with her. They others followed suit, until their glasses were all held high in the air. Then they downed their shots together, and set their glasses on the table between them.
Rox had only felt this way once before, the day she lost her father. Her vision was blurry, though she couldn't be sure if that was her eyes wouldn't focus or if they were filled with tears. She stumbled through the cold night air, and right into Ben. “You okay?” he asked, but he sounded far away. He leaned in closer, and pinched her arm. “You need to be okay,” he said. “For the rest of us.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, took in a breath and held it, before letting it out. “I'm all right. Let's go.”
She started confidently towards the hole they cut in the fence. She peeled back the metal links so the rest of them could pass underneath.
“We may have a problem,” Sonya said from the other side of the fence. She nodded down the road, to where they left their car. There were red and blue flashing lights over the hill.
At that moment a red van pulled up, and the driver's side window rolled down. Rox frowned, recognizing her English teacher. “Ms. Fessuns?”
“That isn't my real name. Part of a stage name, really.”
“You'll want to get in the car with me. Now would probably be ideal.” They stared at her a moment more. “They've found your car already. But I know a backwoods way out of here.”
“We have to wait for Mahmoud,” Rui said.
“He isn't coming,” Anita said grimly. “He wasn't even in all the drafts, but... he never made it. Like he was... made to die.”
“Mira?” Rox asked.
“I don't know. She wasn't here in all the drafts... but I never saw her get out.”
“But the future?”
“I don't see the future, just the different ways reality could be unfolding. But the longer we stay here, the more likely we get caught- quantifiably.”
“It's tough enough on my head seeing different drafts of reality, let alone trying to count them. But we're approaching a plurality where we're all marched away in chains, and, frankly, I'm not doing that again. So this party bus is leaving, with or without you on it.”
“And if we say no?” Rox asked.
“Goddamnit,” Anita said. She put the car in park, and put on the emergency break. Then she climbed out, and Rox saw she was holding a pistol. She spun it on her palm, and it stopped with the butt facing towards Rox. She picked it up, and Anita guided the barrel to her forehead. “Your powers are based around luck, right? So if it's the right thing for you to do to shoot me, pull the trigger, and I'll stop being a danger to you. But if me dead is bad for you, the gun'll jam, or the round will inexplicably be a dud.”
“Seeing every moment unfold hundreds of different ways has definitely taught me that sanity is a relative concept.”
Rox's finger curled around the trigger. Her hand started to shake. She'd fired live rounds at the range, but never like this, never at a human being, let alone into one. Then her finger relaxed, and she gave the gun back. “All right, we'll go with you.”
“Good,” Anita said, taking the pistol and sliding it into a thigh holster.
“I could have shot you,” Rox said.
“I watched you do it. Just not in this draft of reality. Everybody saddle up.”
They piled into the van.
“Anybody who feels they might have any extra pull with that big old slot machine in the sky might want to exert it.”
“What happens now?” Sonya asked from the back seat.
“Knocking on wood, because clearly you wouldn't jinx us by presuming we're going to get away scott free, right?” Rui asked.
“Right,” she said, and rapped her knuckle on Rui's forehead.
“Because you're a blockhead,” Ben said with a grin.
“Well, you can't go back to school.”
“Why not?” Rox asked.
“The NSA built this place as a honey pot- a mousetrap. Why else would they have built this facility within driving distance of the school, probably the greatest concentration of transhumans in the hemisphere? They wanted to catch you in the act, to justify taking their next steps.”
“What, you thought their end game was just surveillance? They have plans, the kind people like them always draw up as a worst-case scenario, and then find a way to use just because. Since you cleaned their clocks but good, I imagine they'll hush tonight up, because the headline they want is that the world is scary but they're your only hope- not that they're hopeless but you should totally give them some scary new power to abuse because, hey, creating one monster to fight others could work. But it won't take them much digging to figure out who broke into their piggy bank, then...”
She trailed off, and let the moment linger. “But that's kind of beside the point, because you've got something bigger to worry about. You weren't the only ones there tonight.”
“We heard. We had back-up.”
“I don't mean the other students. A professional knew you were coming, and used your clumsy break-in to cover his tracks.”
“I saw him leave. And I know who he is.”
“You recognized him? How?”
“My dayjob, or maybe my night job, it requires me to recognize certain kinds of people.”
“And what job is that?”
“I'm an assassin. I kill people. But not you. At least not tonight. I only kill people when I'm paid to.”
“And nobody's hired you to kill us?”
“So you aren't an English teacher?”
“I dabbled. But I came here because of Mayumi.”
“Somebody wanted Mayumi dead?”
“Not dead. And while the people who... own isn't the right word, but the people who invested in her, they'd kill to have her back, they don't know I knew where she was. They might have offered me a lot of money for her. I guess they still could. But I had some other business, first.”
“But what does all of that mean for us?”
“Right now? Road trip. Someone just used you to cover up stealing all of that sensitive information you didn't trust the government to have. We need to stop him. Or kill him. Which I guess would pretty effectively stop him- presuming he can be killed. And presuming we can catch him.”
“This is a restricted area,” a male agent said, pointing his service weapon at Mikaela. “Turn back, and forget you ever saw it.” His female partner kept her weapon pointed at Demi. The other cars in the parking lot were empty, and their drivers were already inside.
Drake disappeared, “Did that,” the female agent began, before Drake appeared between them. He put a hand on each of their weapons, then teleported away with them. He was back an instant later.
“Didn't your mothers ever tell you it's impolite to point. Be it guns, cameras,” he grabbed their body armor, on which were clipped body cameras, and teleported away with those, too. He teleported behind them, and grabbed their belt loops. “This I'm doing purely because it's funny.” He teleported away again, and took their pants with him.
“Knew it was a bad day to go commando,” the male agent said.
“Or to forego grooming for what must have been several months,” his partner added.
“A little professional decorum, while we're dealing with threats to national security,” he said.
“We aren't a threat,” Mikaela said. “But we also won't be threatened. Lay down on the ground and you won't be harmed.”
“We don't negotiate with your kind,” the male agent said.
Drake teleported behind them again. “Probably not the best way to phrase that,” he said quietly, before teleporting back behind Mikaela.
“What kind would that be?” Mikaela asked, glaring. “Transhumans? People of color? Women?”
“That is not-”
“Don't be an idiot,” his partner said. “Don't explain. Apologize.”
“I meant terrorists.”
“We aren't terrorists,” Mikaela said. “Though regrettably, we are going to have to blow up your car. Feel free to call for reinforcements, though. But do it from the ground.”
“And I said we don't negotiate with-”
“Demi!” Mikaela yelled.
Lightning arced from her fingertips and struck the ground between his legs.
“I'm not negotiating, but as a sign of good faith, I will lay on the ground while I see what I can do about your request,” he dropped to his knees with his hands up, then flopped onto his face.
“I hope that hurt,” his partner said, lowering herself slowly to the ground on her hands.
“Slowly, though,” Demi said, as he reached into his jacket. He removed a smart phone.
“Yeah, put me through to security. Look, I don't care if the entire Red Army is marching on the server room. We've got a half-dozen transhumans at the front.”
“Demi? Would you deal with their car?” Mikaela asked.
“Sure.” She walked up to the two agents. “Might want to shield your faces,” she said. Then she backhanded the car, smashing it between the front and rear doors. It did a half-turn in the air before smacking into the car one spot over, then landed on its roof on the ground. The glass all shattered as the roof crumpled inward.
“They just totalled my car. No, I don't think it's just a peaceful protest. I need every agent you can spare, every agent we have! Two agents are captive, requiring assistance!”
“Okay,” Mikaela said. “That's probably enough of that,” she slid his phone away from him with her foot, then slapshot it beneath another car. “Everybody, property damage. Show them the cost of profiling American citizens. We aren't here because we're terrorists. We're here to stop you and others like you from terrorizing us. And unlike you, we give a shit about collatoral damage.”
Iago held out his hands, and flakes of ice flew out in a cone from his fingers, collecting beneath one of the cars. An icicle started to form beneath it, but kept growing, until it started to lift the car. As it grew longer it also grew thicker, until its icy tip pierced through the bottom of the car. The scrape of torn metal on ice sent a shriek through the air
One of Mikaela's duplicates ran to the rear of one of the parked cars to see herself in the rearview. Another duplicate climbed out of the mirror, then out of the car as more dupes exited the side mirrors. The side mirror duplicates ran to still other cars, gathering more duplicates, until a tide of Mikaelas crashed against he side of a car, slowly rolling it onto its side.
“Stand back,” Demi said. The Mikaela's moved towards the building, and she waited until the were clear. Then she raised her hands, and lightning struck the opposite end of the parking lot, hitting one of the parked cars. Then it arced, as electricity leapt from either of her hands, through cars. Where it hit windshields they melted, same with tires. Metal charred and blackened, until the electricity started to find the gas tanks of the vehicles, one by one, and they went up in explosions that sent the cars jumping into the air one after another.
Then the doors into the facility burst open and dozens of agents began pouring out. The wave of Mikaela's crashed into them, too quickly for them to use weapons, and then mingling so closely with the agents that they couldn't get safe shots. “Vests!” a dozen of the Mikaelas barked at Drake at once.
“I'm on it,” Drake teleported into the middle of the fray, and teleported away with two vests with cameras on them. He was back an instant later, releiving more agents of their vests.
“They don't want to be on camera!” one of the agents barked.
“Would you?” Drake whispered into his ear. “Camera adds ten pounds, and do you really think you've got that to spare?” Drake wrapped his arms around the agent's torso in a hug, then teleported away with his vest.
“We're being overrun!” Demi bellowed as another agent tackled her. She was still on her feet, but having trouble maneuvering with several people hanging off her at once. Electricity arced over her, and the shock sent them flying away. She held out her arms and electricity began to snake through the air, picking and choosing agents to slash at in the crowd. One tendril of electricity hit a puddle of gas from one of the overturned cars near an agent, and set it alight.
“Goddamnit!” Mikaela yelled, pulling a duplicate out of the side mirror on the sedan and tackling the agent away as the car exploded. The agent was concussed, but otherwise fine, and the duplicate rolled to smother the fire on her back.
“I said to be careful!” she said as she stood, yelling in a chorus of a dozen Mikaelas.
“Can you lecture me one at a time?” Demi asked. “It's kind of terrifying hearing you in stereo from seven directions.”
“And we're still losing,” Mayumi said. “I'm going to have to hurt them.”
“But only a little,” Drake said, teleporting behind Mayumi. “Just keep punching.” He put a hand on her shoulder, and they disappeared. They reappeared an instant later beside the first agent on the right, as Mayumi threw a punch that sent him hurtling through the air. Drake teleported them to the far end, where Mayumi punched another agent. Drake teleported them to the center of the line of agents, and Mayumi threw another punch, knocking another guard into the air. He flew past the first two guards, narrowly missing them an instant before they collided.
“I've kind of been dying to try this,” Iago said. “Get them clear!” he yelled to Drake. Then he extended his hands. Frost collected on the fingertips of his right arm, then traveled up his hands. His other turned red, and started to glow.
“Everybody down!” one of the agents yelled, and most threw themselves on the ground. One agent stood, and raised a pistol. The wind kicked up, tearing it from his grasp. Then he saw it, a small cyclone spinning a tower of snow. It threw him into the wall, then covered him in powder, layering snow quickly over all of the grounded agents.
“Nice work,” Mikaela said. Her phone rang, and she answered. “They're clear,” Pete said. “I'm watching them leave on our pirated satellite. And there's a convoy headed your way. You need to get out of there, now.”
“You hear that, Drake?”
He teleported beside her. “Caught the gist,” he said. “Sound works strangely when teleporting,” he finished, then touched her shoulder. The air sucked in around them and suddenly they were standing by the car. “Start it up,” Drake said. “I'll get the others.”
“Goddamnit,” Mahmoud said.
“What's wrong?” Sonya asked.
“Cameras. They weren't recording to the servers.”
“So? I thought you were blocking them,” Rox said.
“I was... but I can't be sure that my concentration never slipped. With the phones, odds are pretty good that even if we pinged a cell tower, they wouldn't get enough information to trace back to us. But with this... all they need is a fraction of a second of footage to get any one of us- maybe all of us. We have to wipe those tapes.”
“We don't have time.”
“I know,” he said, closing his eyes. “Agents, not 50 yards down that hall. But I think I can chart us a path through the building, but around the agents, that will give us a chance to wipe their recorders.”
“Do it,” Rox said.
“But first,” he squeezed his hand, and a metal door slid down from the ceiling. “Those are blast and fire doors. They'll have a hell of a time getting through them. Come on.”
He started running down the hall. Rox ran faster as they approached an intersecting hallway, and slid around the corner on her knees. She fired shots from a pistol, and several agents went skidding past Mahmoud. Landing in a pile on the other side of the intersection.
“They're rubber bullets,” she said. “Snagged them while I was in the cop shop. Seemed like they might come in handy.”
“You could have told me,” he said.
“And ruin the surprise?” she kicked back up to her feet. “But come on. I've got a finite supply of them- and they'll be firing the real thing back at us.”
“Rox, lookout!” Mahmoud yelled. He shoved her back, skidding into Rui and the rest. Then he took one step down the hall. A fire door slid down between them.
“You're trapped,” she said, pulling herself off the ground.
“You're free,” Mahmoud said over the intercom. “That hall leads right outside, and the agents are trapped on the other side of this door.”
“Need to delete those frames. There wasn't time to escape and destroy the footage.”
“You should have told me.”
“And ruin the surprise?” he asked. “I'll get away. I'm not letting them put me in another black prison. But you need to go. Or I'll be so preoccupied with protecting you I might not be able to save myself.”
Rox frowned. She didn't want this, didn't even know how to accept his decision. “No!” Mira screamed, and hit the door between them.
“Go,” Mahmoud said, fixing Rox with a glare. Then he turned, and ran down another hall. “I'll wipe the discs and see you outside.”
Rox's jaw set. “Come on,” she said, putting her hand on Mira's shoulder.
“No,” the other woman said, “I'm getting Mahmoud. We lost Elijah. I'm not losing another one. Get everybody else out.”
Rox narrowed her eyes. She pulled on Mira's shoulder, and the other woman shook her off, and hit the wall again, leaving a dent this time. “Subdue her,” Rox said, sharing a look with Ben, Rui and Sonya. “Everything you've got.”
Ben shook the air and ground around her, Rui set her ablaze, and Sonya dropped boomlets at her feet. The resulting explosion was blinding, and left their ears ringing. But still they heard the sound of Mira's fists on the metal walls. When the smoke cleared, they could see that the dents from her fists had gotten deeper.
“Again,” Mira said through tears, as she continued to pound the door.
“Does it hurt?” Sonya asked.
“Again!” Mira roared, striking the door.
Ben stepped between them, with his fists balled. He channeled force into his hands again and again as he hit her, until he could barely stand up.
Sonya peppered her with boomlets, so many that the expenditure of energy left her so dazed Ben had to help get her around the corner before they exploded. Rox stood in the open as they went off. She didn't want to look away.
“Clear the way!” Rui yelled. He was a plasma, flying down the hall faster than he'd ever attempted. At the last moment he transformed himself into a solid harder than flesh, and his impact with Mira made a sound like a metal bat on concrete. For a moment he laid crumpled on the floor at her feet, before transforming into a gas, then back to his normal form. “Not, doing that again,” he said, staggering, holding his head.
Mira struck the door one more time, and a seam opened in the center of it. She squeezed her fingers into the groove and peeled the door back enough to slide through.
Ben tried to follow, and she bent the door back. “Go!” she bellowed as tears streamed down her face. “Take him!” Then she ran down the hall, after Mahmoud.
Sorry about the delayed posting, guys. I've been trying to weed out typos and such, and got swamped. We're nearing the end, though!
“We shouldn't be here,” Iago said as Mikaela's car bounced along the gravel road.
“No,” Mikaela said, “we shouldn't.”
“For one, this is kind of a four-wheel drive sort of area, and I'm not even sure this thing is getting power from two wheels,” Drake said.
“Not to mention some of us are piled onto strange men's laps,” Demi said.
“You wanted to sit on my lap,” he said.
“I was going to be on your lap either way; I figured this way it would be a little more honest, slash fun. But all the bouncing is making it a little, uh, friendlier, than I intended.”
“To say nothing of trespassing on federal land,” Mayumi said, as they passed a “No Trespassing” sign.
“It's not ideal,” Mikaela said. “But we have to stop Rox, before she makes everything worse.”
“I'm not sure we shouldn't be helping her,” Iago said.
“Either way, we need to be here.”
Mikaela's phone rang, and she put it on speaker. “Mikaela?” Pete asked.
“What is it, Pete?”
“I've lost Linc.”
“He's not responding on the phone. Its GPS is outside of the facility, but it hasn't moved in five minutes.”
“What's that mean?”
“I don't know.”
“It means we can't count on him to get Rox out,” Drake said.
“So it's up to us,” Demi said.
“And there's worse,” Pete said. “They've raised an alarm. Agents are incoming- fast enough some will beat you there.”
Mikaela pulled her car into a little circular driveway. She could already see cars massing in the parking lot, along with agents in paramilitary garb.
“Can you put me through to Rox?” Mikaela asked.
“We can. They've got a technopath with them, shielding them from phone surveillance, even blocking calls, but I've got several. Hold on.”
“Don't bother trying to talk me out of it. It's too late for that. And it isn't safe to talk on the phone,” Rox said.
“It is,” Mahmoud said in the background. “And given where we're standing, I'm not sure we can complain about her doing something unsafe.”
“Reinforcements have arrived around the front of the building,” Mikaela said. “We'll give you a distraction. But you've got to sneak back out the way you came.”
“I'm not taking orders from you,” Rox said.
“I'm not giving them. But I'm telling you we'll give you as much space as we can. I'd suggest using it to sneak away.”
After a long moment of silence, Rox sighed. “Thanks.”
“Thank us if everybody gets away safely.”
“And we've still got a long talk about your overbearing optimism to come, too.”
“Whatever,” Rox said, and hung up.
“It just warms your cockles, that outpouring of gratitude for us risking our lives,” Demi said.
“They're teenagers,” Iago said. “They're self-centered jerks. I mean, so are we- but they just don't realize what self-centered jerks they are yet, which tends to make them more obnoxious about it. I mean, I'm sure you were a jerky teen.” She glared at him. “Please don't hit me,” he said like he was a deflating balloon.
Demi grinned. “No. I was. And I'd agree, that I become less of a jerk over time; though it's like a limit, I'm approaching my threshold of least jerkiness, but not necessarily no jerkiness.”
Another black sedan flew past their turn-out.
“I think we should establish some ground rules,” Mikaela said. “You don't hurt anyone unless you have to.”
“If you have that luxury,” Mayumi said.
“We're here to provide a distraction, to get the rest of our friends to safety. We aren't here to hurt federal agents. If you've got a problem with that, Drake will take you away from here.”
Mikaela opened her car door. She pulled a duplicate from her rearview mirror, and one from the driver side; her Honda didn't have a passenger-side mirror. The rest of them filed out of the car.
“They'll have cameras,” Mayumi said. “This kind of a security response, they'll be wearing body cameras to catch a fleeing suspect on camera. Destroy the body cameras, or our lives are over.”
“Drake, “Mikaela barked, “that's your priority. You can get in close and do it.”
“Got it,” he said.
“Pete? You still there.”
“What about cameras on the building exterior?”
“Exterior cameras feed outside the building. So long as you stay outside you won't have to worry about the interior cameras. Those are going to be a problem. I'll pass information to Rox.”
“I can't believe we made it this far without any trouble”
“He said, oblivious of the concept of a jinx,” Ben said to Mahmoud.
“We've got ourselves the best damn anti-jinx,” Sonya said.
“Yeah. He could probably have sex with a black cat under a ladder on the shards of a broken mirror, and it wouldn't matter,” Rui said.
“But why would I have sex with a cat?”
“Because guys your age are obsessed with pussy?” Mira asked.
“Or maybe,” Rox began, “we've gotten this far because we weren't talking so much or so loudly.”
“Nah,” Ben said. “That's too convoluted to be true.”
“How are things coming with the server?” she asked, ignoring him.
“The networked drive is purged, formatted, and for good measure it's overheating as we speak; it'll be completely unusable in another thirty seconds.”
“Why do I get the impression there's a big but headed my way.”
“Because you can hear Ben's big-ass footsteps,” Mira said.
“Is it really that big? Like proportionally?” Ben asked, sticking out his posterior. “Or is it just these jeans?”
“I sometimes forget you're children,” Rox said. “Not age-wise, but in maturity. I feel like I'm babysitting.”
“I thought babysitters were supposed to keep kids from breaking into government facilities.” Mira said. Rox turned to her with a wry smile. “What? I was a precocious child.”
“Mahmoud, they'll just keep going like this until we're taken to Guantanamo Bay, or one of us pushes the conversation forward.”
“The but you sensed was that there's a back-up. It's not accessible from the outside, not on the network, it has a single connection to the server, accessible on a timed circuit- like a timed lock for a bank, designed to specifically function on an old analog clock, so even if we had tried a remote hack, we wouldn't have gotten this information, let alone been able to access it. Thankfully,” he pulled a metal panel off the wall. “The back-up isn't far away.” Condensation rolled out of the panel, as it was essentially a server built into a refrigerator.
“How long will it take?” Rox asked.
“Registration data's already formatted; that's just a few 1s and 0s. The surveillance is terrabytes. It takes a while to format terrabytes, even spread across a bunch of different drives. We're being watched, incidentally.”
“I should have specified. Not by the government. This is coming from the school- from our classmates. And as far as I can tell they're trying to shield us. Hold on. I've got a message to them. And they're game. They're going to look for another back-up, surveillance data or registration info. There's definitely some of that with the DoJ. But I wouldn't be surprised if the NSA had a back-up site, where this information was stored. It's just good data-management. I mean, a lazy admin will just set up a RAID environment, which spreads copies of files over a server farm, because the odds of multiple servers crashing at the same time are very small. But if you're worried about fire, flood, act of God or a break-in...
“And I hate to get all Star Wars on you, but there is another.”
“And for those of us who don't speak 'Yoda.'”
“Someone else has been here tonight- someone who I think knew we would be here, and that we'd make enough noise no one would notice. And they copied the database.”
“Our eye in the sky?”
“I'm passing that to them. Maybe they can get something.” They heard the sound of a gunshot, distant, but not distant enough, and everyone stopped moving.
“What was that?” Mira asked, disbelieving her own ears.
“The sound of our luck running out,” Mahmoud said.
“Seriously,” Ben said, “do they not have jinxes where you come from?”
“Seattle?” Mahmoud said.
“I'm not even superstitious, but you do seem like you're daring fate to prove me wrong.”
“Seattle does kind of feel like a cursed place; I think it's all the rain. Gets to a lot of people.”
“How long?” Rox asked.
“Too long,” Mahmoud said.
“Mira, can I borrow you?” Sonya asked.
“Pick up that panel.” She lifted it off the ground. “I'm going to put some bombs inside, and I want you to hold the panel in place. You can absorb anything that gets out.”
Sonya started creating her distortion fields inside the computer, sticking them to components, especially the drives. “Go,” she said, then ran behind a server rack. “Everybody, down.”
Mira shoved the panel in place, and put her back against it, then closed her eyes. The explosion was little more than a fizzle, almost like popcorn in a microwave. But when Mira removed the panel, the computer was riddled with holes and flecks of plastic shrapnel.
“And I'm on clean-up,” Rui said. His hand changed to a gas, then to plasma, and heat poured off him. The plastic pieces melted, and the metal components glowed red. “That should do it,” he said. Mira replaced the panel in front of it.
Mahmoud opened his eyes. “We need to leave, now,” he said. “They know we're here. And they're coming.”
“How are we doing on the satellites?” Peter asked.
“The CIA had one nearby,” Ryan said. “And while we were at it we were able to scuttle a few satellites that would have been in proximity soon. So we'll have the only eyes in the sky.”
“Great,” Pete said. “How are we going on radio silence?”
“We're working on it,” Irene said.
“We've got the nearby cell towers off the grid, phone and internet lines all running through us.” Cassie said.
“What does that mean, exactly?” Pete asked.
“It means we can selectively allow traffic. Offsite, people can log in to their servers. But onsite, they can't so much as order a pizza online without us vetting it.”
“Radio. We think we can scramble radio, at least away from the installation... but it's requiring more fiddling than we anticipated.”
“ETA on that?”
“Few minutes more.”
“Excellent. And Linc's location?” he asked, turning back to Ryan.
“His phone's GPS puts him just outside the perimeter fence.”
“And we'll be able to talk to him?”
“Right. We're allowing our data in and out- it's just everybody else's that hits a brick wall.”
“Patch me through to him.”
“Okay,” Ryan said. “Give me a second...”
The door into the computer lab creaked open slowly, and everyone in the room tensed. Cristobal stepped inside, and since Pete, Ryan and Irene were the only ones who recognized him, the rest weren't eased by the appearance of someone new.
“Cris,” Pete said, trying to at least let them know he wasn't just a random student happening upon their espionage.
“I thought I'd find you here,” Cris said, glaring at Irene. “Where are they?”
“They already left,” she said.
“And what are you doing about it?”
“Trying to get them home,” Peter said.
“Mikaela, a few other students and Linc are going to them, to pull them out.”
“I'm sorry,” Irene said, “about your eardrums.”
He sighed, and shrugged. “I get it. You didn't have time to do a tug of war with me over Rox's plan. But you have no idea how much it hurts forcing an eardrum to mend quickly.”
“You don't sound okay with it,” she said.
“I didn't say I was. You attacked me. And I'm still pissed about it, and might be for a while. All I said was I get why you felt you had to. I might have even done the same, roles reversed. But you'd definitely still be pissed at me if they were.”
“How's my phone call coming?” Peter asked, trying to deflect from their interpersonal trauma.
“Is there anything I can do?” Cris asked.
“Just stand by,” Pete said, “and pray we don't need you.”
“Prayer in general might be warranted,” Cris said.
“You should be good,” Ryan said. “Line's ready.”
Peter raised his phone and waited for it to ring through. It rang half a dozen times before he hung up. “Can you remotely activate his mic?” he asked Ryan.
“Sure. I think.”
“Yeah,” Cassie said. “You're connected.”
Pete listened. There was sounds of the outdoors, insects and the buzz of electricity not far away. “Maybe it's just in his pocket. Can you turn on the speakerphone?”
“Give me just a second,” she said. “Yep. You can talk to him.”
“Linc?” he asked, and waited several alligators. He knew there was a chance he was being silent for a reason, but he also knew he couldn't wait indefinitely. They needed to coordinate, or abandon Rox entirely. “Linc? This is Pete. Wanted you to know you've got your logistical support. I get that you might not be able to answer right now, but, once you can, let us know, okay. We need to coordinate.” Pete hung up.
“That's... not encouraging,” Cassie said.
“No. No, it's not.”
Linc never reconciled hoarding gear and weapons with who he wanted to be. He wasn't a soldier anymore. He wasn't a doomsday prepper, though you wouldn't know that looking in his basement. He wanted to be a teacher, a mentor, someone working to make a world that didn't need soldiers anymore.
But living through some of the worst days most people could imagine had turned him into a man who liked to be prepared. And as often as not, that preparation led to him holding a high-powered rifle, looking through a scope at a heavily fortified compound.
He was wearing civilian equivalents to the body armor he used in Afghanistan. He remembered telling Raphael why he did, when he could always undo getting shot. “Sometimes, the best outcome requires getting shot.” It was true with Mayumi, and had been true half a dozen other times. He ejected the magazine on his rifle and checked. It was full, loaded with live rounds. He pushed it back into place, and took off the safety.
He kneeled to steady himself, and looked down the rifle's scope. The compound was still quiet, no alarms. He wondered if that meant Rox's power was working overtime to keep their ingress quiet.
He dragged the scope across the fence line. He needed to know where they entered to try and figure out where they were in the building. Otherwise, with a facility that size, he could very easily spend hours running around inside without bumping into them. There was a small strip of fence that curled up at the bottom. The fence wasn't six months old, so it wasn't natural warping. That had to be where they entered the facility.
He slung the rifle over his shoulder on a two-point harness, hoping he wouldn't have to put his finger anywhere near the trigger. These were government agents staffing this place, the good guys, even if maybe they were working on a program that was misguided.
That was when he heard a noise in the bushes behind him. He tensed. If it was a guard, if it was Irene, he might end up getting somebody hurt reacting too fast. But they were faster than he would have expected, faster than a person ought to be. He felt the press of a barrel against his head.
He'd never been shot in the head. Every wound and injury he'd come back from had always been in the trunk, or an extremity. He wondered idly in the back of his mind if he could come back from a gunshot in the head, as every muscle in his body coiled.
He dropped to one knee, rolling. A gunshot rang out over his head, deafening him. He twisted his body so his rifle came up and around. He managed to get it aimed at the dark figure, only for them to stomp it into the dirt as he fired. They had their gun raised already. “Fu-” Linc said, but was cut off by a gunshot.
Pick up the goddamned phone,” Linc said.
“I'm telling you, we can handle it,” Anita said.
Then they heard another phone ringing outside his office, and his door opened. In walked Mikaela and Peter.
“I've been trying to reach you.”
“And I was close enough to throw my phone through your office window, so it seemed like it'd be weird to answer.”
“I need your help.”
“That's why we're here. I mean, we needed your help. Rox-”
“I get the feeling our two issues are one and the same. But I'll go first, anyway.” Irene let herself in, and joined them without a word. “Rox is leading an assault on an NSA facility. I put in a call, and know where it is, but it would seem they're already on their way there. I need you to escort Mayumi there to extract Rox and her friends.”
“They did it,” Pete said. “Goddamned Cristobel.”
“Actually,” Irene said, “Cris didn't go. He tried to talk them out of it. They left him to make sure I didn't try to follow them. So I laid him out, and came here.”
“Damn,” Pete said.
“So why do you need us?” Mikaela asked.
“For one, I need discretion.”
“What about Raphael?”
“I trust you and your friends to understand... Rox and the others deserve a second chance. But I also need the muscle. This facility is no joke. I'm not getting them out on my own. But if you can give me a dazzling enough distraction...”
“So we wouldn't actually be part of the rescue?”
“If you can make enough noise, I can sneak in and get Rox out. And Drake can teleport you away like you were never there.”
“Couldn't you just start today over?”
“Couldn't you have stopped that shooter on the campus this morning?” Anita asked.
Linc sighed. “It's not a get out of jail free card- it doesn't give me carte blanche. I remember... what happened to me. Not everybody else. Not conversations. I mean, I remember some of that, but there's really no guarantee that I'd retain the important information- in fact, I wouldn't. I tested it, in Afghanistan, rather extensively. If it was a patrol I was on that got ambushed, I'd remember everything. But even if it was a massacre that happened on the other side of a radio, I probably wouldn't retain enough information to make it worth a damn.
“But that's why I'm going to take point. I've got information about the facility, training, and if things go sideways, I can always have a redo.”
“Always?” Mikaela asked.
“It's always worked before,” he said. “So always, asterisk.”
“I'll see who I can track down,” Mikaela said, and pulled out her phone.
“Have we met?” Linc asked, turning to Pete.
“Uh, not formally. Peter. I'm a lover, not a fighter,” he said. “And a scientist, if that helps.”
“How friendly are you with the technopaths?”
“We could use the logistical support. Anita?”
“I'll stay here, oversee the geek squad,” she said.
“Yes?” she asked, perking up at being acknowledged.
“I know you didn't appreciate getting left behind. But I'm asking that you stay here. Rox and the rest have done some training. Even Mayumi's friends have done some sparring. If I had my choice I wouldn't even be taking any of them, but it would be grossly irresponsible to take you tonight. I need you here. I'm already going to be out of my mind with worry. For me, please, stay here, help where you can.”
“Okay,” she said, and bit her lip.
“Thanks,” he said, and threw his arm around her. “Next time we play ultimate Frisbee, I'll let you pick teams. Deal?”
“This is crap,” Irene said.
Cris sighed. “I know.”
“No. You don't. Because you got a choice. They asked you. I'm being babysat; not only do they not trust me, but they distrusted me so much that they sent you here to make sure that I can't screw up their plans.”
“I don't know if that's fair... but I don't think they're treating you fairly, either.”
“So don't take it,” she said. “Just because they tell us we're benched doesn't mean we actually have to listen.”
“But what can we do, really?”
“Fight back,” Irene said.
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“Meaning you and I aren't weak. You and I are valuable, and they can't just lock us away like we're liabilities.”
“I'm with you that far. But I don't know what we do with that sentiment. Because even though I think they're making a mistake, I don't feel strongly enough that I'm right that I'd impose my opinion on them.”
“Well, I guess that's where you and I are different,” Irene said. “That, and you'll be able to grow your eardrums back after this.” She opened her mouth wide and screamed. The intense pressure from it caused Cris to feel faint. He tried to force himself to stay upright, but couldn't, and crumpled into a ball on the ground. He felt warmth and wetness at his ears, and wasn't surprised to find blood.
“Wait. Don't,” he tried to say, but he was rapidly losing consciousness.
“This isn't a conversation,” Irene said, “least of all because you couldn't hear me even if you were interested in actually conversing back and forth.” She sighed. “I am sorry, Cris. But we can't let Rox do this.” She closed the door behind herself.
Irene wondered where Linc was. It seemed like what she was going to say wasn't the kind of thing you did over the phone. But she was light enough on time that she couldn't justify waiting.
She dialed him up.
“Irene?” he asked.
“Yeah. Where're you at?”
“My office. I was so glad you were okay today.”
“Me, too. But Rox isn't.”
“What's happened?” he asked, concern lining his voice.
“It isn't what happened, it's what she's about to do. We need to stop her, before she makes everything worse.”
“Slow down. What are you talking about, stopping her?”
“Mahmoud has figured out where the NSA keeps its transhuman tracking program. It's in our own backyard. And she means to dismantle it.”
“Why the hell would she do that?” he asked.
“Because of what happened to Elijah. Mahmoud. And Mariyah this morning.”
“Yeah. When you stack those together... it becomes easier to understand her reaction. She's angry. We all are. But what monsters like Dowell want is for us to be at war, for us to ignore millenia of humans learning to peacefully coexist with people who were different.”
“You don't have to convince me. I wasn't invited.”
“They cut me out. Didn't even let me know it was happening until they left me with Cris.”
“They already left?” he asked.
“I need to go.”
“Not without me.”
“I'm hanging up the phone. I have phone calls to make, to try to stop this before it gets out of hand. If you want to help, meet me in my office.”
There was a knock on her door and Mikaela tensed. After the shooting on campus that morning, everyone was on edge. She checked the time on her phone, to see if it was maybe the mail carrier with a package. It was too early, but the knock came again.
She needed to answer, to stop being scared. She cracked the door, and saw Peter standing outside. “I've been trying to find you all morning,” he said. “But with the lockdown, I got stuck in my lab for the better part of the morning. Even when they caught the guy, the cops were paranoid about another shooter, or explosives. They locked everybody down. And of course the phones have been hammered.”
“What's up, that you needed to find me?”
“Yeah. It was just the one girl who was killed, no one we knew, but...”
“Are we going to have to have another jailbait conversation?”
“Just because I like a young look doesn't mean I like them actually young.”
“It's still a little creepy.”
“Whatever. Last night, he told me Rox was planning to hit a government installation, one the NSA is using as part of their transhuman surveillance program. Last night, I didn't... I thought it was idle talk, kids too young to recognize the consequences who just wanted to do something to set the world right. But this morning... I was stuck in my lab during the attack. I was locked inside, and forced to watch the gunman go into Mendel. Twenty minutes later, I watched them wheel his victim out on a stretcher covered in a white cloth.
“I wanted to do something. I thought about harnessing the power of our technopaths to send a malignant signal into their servers and destroy all of their data- not just on transhumans, but all of their surveillance, all of their secrets. Show them the price of their callous arrogance. Clearly I sobered up. My rage didn't last long, but that's more down to temperament and age. If I was still 17, still full of fire over the dirty looks I'd get any time I asked out a straight man whose fragile masculinity couldn't let that slide... I'm worried they really will do it.
“I think I talked Cris down. But that many pissed off teenagers, it's a critical mass. Cris, me, you could have Ghandi and MLK try to talk them down, and I wouldn't like their odds. When you're that age, it already feels like the world is against you, but finding out some parts of it actually are...”
“Yeah,” Mikaela said. “You're right. What can we do?”
“I don't know, that's part of why I'm here.”
“So maybe we need to do what you did in coming to me- call in reinforcements.”
“You mean Linc, don't you?”
“If anyone has a chance of either scuttling their plans or talking them out of it, it's him. Seems like the logical choice.”
“I guess. Saying it all out loud... it feels like maybe I was just being paranoid, like I'm sure Cris and the rest will come to the same sane conclusions I did.”
“You're worried about looking like a hyperventilating loon in front of Lincoln.”
“I'm pretty sure he's thoroughly straight, but still...”
“I'm sure he'd appreciate the heads up, even if nothing comes of it.”
He frowned. “I did come to you. I would feel like I was being a dick if I ignored your suggestion.”
“So don't be a dick. Come on.” Mikaela grabbed her coat and headed for the door. Pete shrugged, and followed.
Mahmoud took in Rox's small dormitory room. “I guess I knew you didn't live with your parents,” he said, “but this is so... dormy.” The room was made all the smaller by the amount of people crammed inside it, but the trade-off for privacy was worth it.
“It's way more dormal than she would have led me to believe,” Rui said.
“I know it's exciting being in a girl's room for the first time,” Rox said, taking a stuffed Panda from Cris and setting it back on her pillow, “but we came here to focus.”
“Seriously,” Sonya said, “down boys.”
“I didn't,” Cris said. “I came here to do the opposite.”
“Have a good time screwing off?” Ben offered.
“I came here to talk you out of it.”
“Pete got to you,” Rox said.
“We talked. He didn't get to me.”
“Way to play hard to get,” Sonya said.
“No. I threw myself at him. The age difference is an issue, at least for now, and, I can respect that. But more importantly, we talked about my future- including what we were planning to do.”
“Were?” Rox asked.
“It's a mistake,” he said. “My priest found out what I could do. He told my church that my powers weren't from God. And they shunned me. It got so bad that I couldn't leave the house on Sundays, without people trying to stone me. I don't mean a few crappy kids throwing rocks. I mean adults, some tossing stones as big as my head, again and again and again, even picking up the ones they'd already thrown if they ran out. So on Sundays I spent the whole day praying, fasting. I didn't ask for vengeance, I asked for acceptance.
“One day, the priest's niece was hurt. I never got the whole story, but either she was beaten pretty severely or in a terrible kind of car accident. The hospital was too far. So he took the girl to me. He thought he was making a deal with the devil for her life. I had him pray with me, and we asked that if it was his God's will, she be made whole. That was how I thought it worked, then; I thought it was divine power worked through me. Maybe it is... but it's not prayer activated, is what I meant.
“It didn't happen overnight. But as word spread, as the priest refused to lie about what happened, people softened. I stopped being a pariah, and started being just another parishioner.
“And they're wrong, people who fear us, and especially those who hate us. I know they're wrong, just like the people at my old church were wrong to hate me. But I also know that you can't force them to understand they're wrong. You have to wait until they're ready, until their reachable. Violence- even this preemptive strike- will only validate their fears, further entrench those who are just looking for an excuse to treat us like we're less than human.
“Maybe it's just... I know I'm more religious than the rest of you, and that's fine. I don't expect you to make the same decision based on faith. But I'm not just appealing to you as a Christian. This isn't the way to do it. This is... it's black militancy removed from all the good that groups like the Black Panthers were also able to do. We could be striking the match that lights the powder keg most of us have been sitting on since we first realized we were different.
“Registration scares me, down to my core. But you don't right wrongs with violence. You don't correct injuries with vengeance. That way lies perpetual war.”
“I think not going would be a mistake,” Rox said. “But I'm not going to try and evangelize that point. If you agree, I want you at my back. If not, I don't. Who's in?”
“I am,” Mahmoud said, “if that wasn't obvious.”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “Me, too.”
“And me,” Rui said.
“I feel like it's redundant to even say it,” Mira said, “but I'm with Rox.”
“Sorry, Cris,” Sonya said.
“Doesn't sound like we're giving peace a chance,” Rox said. “I'm not sure it's wise for you to stick around, that being the case.”
“Wait,” Ben said. “If we kick him out, he'll tell someone what we're planning.”
“Screw you,” Cris said.
“Shut up, Tso,” Rox said. “He wouldn't. He disagrees with us... but he wanted to convince us. Not control us. He's one of us, even if we don't see eye to eye on this. You won't tell anyone, will you?”
“No,” he said bitterly.
“Good. Because there's someone else we intentionally left out. Irene.”
“She'll be heartbroken,” Cris said.
“Better than her being dead.”
“And is she on our same 'team,' too?” he asked.
“She's one of us,” Rox said. “But not everyone is cut out to be a soldier. Not everyone should be on the front lines. I don't expect her to understand that, let alone agree. That's why I want you to take care of her. While we're gone. Keep her safe. Make sure she's taken care of.”
“Whatever,” he said. His phone went off. Then Rox's. Then everyone's phone at once.
“Oh, no,” Mahmoud said. “There's a shooter on campus.” He reached towards Rox's roommate's computer. A password prompt popped up before disappearing. Then an internet window opened, and began to play grainy local news footage. It was a flyover of the campus from a helicopter, showing several cop cars parked at one end of the campus, the end with most of the dormitories.
“There is an active shooter situation on the Baundslow Campus,” a newswoman said over the sound of the helicopter's engines. “The school administration has activated the school's emergency system, which automatically sends out texts requesting for students to remain inside and lock their doors.
Rox was already on the phone with Linc. “What do you want us to do?” she asked.
“Leave it to campus security,” he said. “You run out there like John Wayne, and they won't know who the good guys with powers are from the bad. Otherwise, follow the lockdown procedure. I know it's tough, sometimes, to do the smart thing rather than what feels like it would be 'right.' Be smarter than that. We all have our limits, and sometimes playing the hero just gets more people hurt.”
“Okay,” she said, and hung up. “He wants us to stay put.”
“What if we don't have that option?” Sonya asked. “Police are reporting that he's entered one of the school's dormitories, and are requesting that all students lock their doors.”
“Fat good that'll do,” Ben said, knocking on the door. “These cheap things are practically cardboard.”
“Please let him be in Crick,” Rox said, as the helicopter panned around a dormitory, with the words 'Gunman enters dormitory' on the bottom of the screen.
The newswoman began to speak an instant later. “Reports indicate that he has entered Mendel, and police are surrounding the building. The shooter has already fired shots on one member of campus security, as well as firing into a crowd of students on the commons. Shooter was dressed as a member of the Bellingham Police Department, who have refused to comment on an unfolding situation.”
“God,” Ben said. “That's Irene's dorm.”
“We have to go,” Rox said. “Rui?”
“I'm on it.” He shoved her window, and the pane of glass fell outwards. “I'll be there in fifteen seconds.”
“Hold on,” Mahmoud said. He closed his eyes, and touched his hand to one of the computer speakers. Then they heard radio chatter. “Repeat, suspect is down, suspect is down. He attacked a student, female, five foot four. We need an ambulance for the girl, she's bleeding, managed to fatally wound her attacker.”
“Holy shit,” Mahmoud said. “The city police. They've IDed the shooter. Rox. It's Dowell. He had a printout from her registration.”
“But the girl,” Mira said, her voice breaking, “is it Irene?”
“I can't get through,” Sonya said, slapping her phone. “Circuits are stampeded.”
“I can,” Mahmoud said. He took her phone, and hit redial.
“Hello?” they heard an instant later from the phone.
“Irene?” Sonya asked.
“Yeah. Are you okay?”
“We're fine. And you are, too?”
“Yeah. God. I saw him. I saw him and I locked myself in the bathroom. He tried the door, tried to force it. But the bathrooms have actual hardwood doors, so he moved on. I heard the shots through the wall, heard Mariyah screaming at him through the wall. Is she okay?”
“I'm sorry,” Mahmoud said. “She, she didn't make it. Paramedics just called it.”
“Oh, God,” Irene sobbed, and there was a noise through the phone as she fell to the foor.
“Police,” they heard someone yell in the background, followed by pointing. “I need you to open this door.”
“We're coming to you, Irene. We'll be right there.” Sonya said. “Rui? Can you fly me over there?”
“Sure,” he said. “And at least it justifies having knocked out the window.”
“Whoa,” Peter said, taking a step back. “Whoa.”
“That's the kind of response I was hoping for,” Cris said with a smile.
“Only if you wanted me to be saying it in the 'slow up' sense.”
“Oh.” Cris frowned. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Wrong? No. Not wrong. Just... whoa.”
“I'm not sure if you could elaborate, for those of us who haven't been formally trained as a beast of burden.”
“Not formally trained?” Peter asked.
“Really, I was just trying to get you to picture me with a riding crop.”
“Whoa,” he repeated.
“Does open a whole slew of en tendres, like 'I'd let you put the spurs to me.'”
“I need you to stop.”
“I don't think I see the en tendre in that one.”
“I mean it. We shouldn't need a safe word for conversation.”
“Consider me stopped,” Cris said, putting up his hands. “I'm just still waiting for you to tell me why.”
“I like you,” Peter said. Cris tensed, waiting for the painful follow-up he knew was coming next. Only it didn't.
“I like you, too.”
“But that's a problem.”
“I'm beginning to see why you're single, I think,” Cris said. “You really don't understand how relationships work.”
“It's a problem because I'm the head researcher on your project. It's a pretty high profile gig, all things considered; I'm essentially your boss on this. And you're young.”
“I'm pretty sure we're in the safe harbor for Romeo and Romeos, and even then, I'm nearly eighteen.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I think so, unless you're trying to sneak in polyamory. But the two things are complementary. You being too young, and me being in charge of you. They both speak to the same problem. Right now, no matter what, our relationship wouldn't be equal. I have more freedom, more opportunity, more responsibility, and more power, and I would in our relationship, too. And that's not all right. So even if we were technically okay in the eyes of the law, that doesn't matter to me. Because what I want out of a relationship is equality, a partner, someone who both contributes similarly to what I do, but also someone who's responsible similarly, too.”
“You'll always be older than me, though,” Cris said.
“True. But I'm not trying to say 'No forever,'” Pete said. “The reason I don't like Romeo and Juliet statutes is that an age like 18 is a threshold. It's when you're supposed to be able to make those kinds of decisions, take complete control over your life, and indeed, have complete responsibility for you actions, at the same time. Until then, there's a gulf between where we are in our lives, and it's probably at the widest it will ever be. I do like you. And I'm not blind, either, so I know how you feel about me. And as much as I'm comfortable reciprocating right now, I do. I just don't think it's something we can do right now.”
“What about next year, when I am 18, and I'm living in the dorms, and I'm not some punk from Running Start who conned his way onto your research team?”
“I don't know,” Peter said. “But I hope you'll ask me, then.”
“And in the meantime? Do things get super awkward, so that by a year from now you can't stand being in the same room as me, let alone the idea of every grabbing some pizza?”
“I hope not,” Pete said. “And if you're willing to grab a platonic slice, I'd be happy to treat you.”
“Sure,” Cris said. “But there was something else. Something that's been bugging me, worrying, maybe. And I think that may be why I needed to confront you tonight. In case... in case I wouldn't get another chance.” He stopped, and swallowed. “It's related to the registration act. They've been sharing registration data with the NSA, combining it with their data-mining operation. And we found out where they're storing the data.”
“Please tell me you aren't as stupid as this sounds.”
“They're the reason Elijah's dead. And how many others? We know about Elijah because he was local, because we met him. But how many others have been hurt across the country? How many people got killed because of them, that they were simply able to keep quiet? And how many more will there be?”
Pete held up his hand, and Cris stopped. “I get that,” he said. “You aren't wrong, to want to do something. But that something? What you're implying... it's insane. Attacking a government installation, the federal government would have to respond to that. And they wouldn't just round up Rox and her band of merry mutations. They'd have to come for all of us. It would turn us all into the Branch Davidians, the whole campus into Waco. I don't even want to guess how many innocent students and teachers would get hurt in that crossfire.”
“But what's the alternative?” Cris asked.
“Protest. Activism. Making sure these things get publicized. If we attack them, we're giving them a reason to fear us. If we're seen as violent and aggressive, it validates all of the fear and anxiety bigots have been ginning up against us, makes it easier for there to be more violent against transhumans. Registration, or at least letting registration continue, is rendering unto Caesar. This would be declaring war on the Roman Empire. Maybe some day we'll rule the son of a bitch, maybe even overthrow it. But righ now? We'd just be tossing our whole kind into a lion's den.”