Never Fade Page 3

Vida was at my back, close enough for me to feel her hot breath through the thick black knit of my ski mask. Close enough that the fury she was radiating cut through the freezing Philadelphia air. Vida always radiated a kind of bloodthirsty eagerness, even more so when Cate was Leader on an Op; the excitement of proving herself to our Minder always stripped away the better lessons of her training. This was a game to her, a challenge, to show off her perfect aim, her combat training, her sharply honed Blue abilities. To me, it was yet another perfect opportunity to get herself killed. At seventeen, Vida might have been the perfect trainee, the standard to which the League held the rest of their freak kids, but the one thing she had never been able to master was her own adrenaline.

“Don’t you ever touch me again, bitch,” Vida snarled, her voice low with fury. She started backing away to follow them down the stairs. “You are such a f**king coward that you’re going to take this lying down? You don’t care that he just disrespected us? You—”

The stairwell reared up under my feet, as if dragging in a deep breath only to let it explode back out. The shock of it seemed to slow time itself—I was up and off my feet, launched so hard into the door that I thought I felt it dent beneath my skull. Vida slammed onto the ground, covering her head, and it was only then that the roar of the concussion grenade reached us as it blew apart the entrance below.

The smoky heat was thick enough to get a stranglehold on me, but the disorientation was so much worse. My eyelids felt like they had been peeled and rubbed raw as I forced them open. A crimson light pulsed through the dark, pushing through the clouds of cement debris. The muffled throbbing in my ears—that wasn’t my heartbeat. That was the alarm.

Why had they used the grenade when they knew the code for that door would be the same as the one outside? There hadn’t been any gunfire—we were close enough that we would have heard the tact team engage them. Now everyone would know we were there—it didn’t make sense for a team of professionals.

I ripped the mask away from my face, clawing at my right ear. There was a sharp, stabbing pain and the comm unit came away in pieces. I pressed a gloved hand against it as I stumbled up to my feet, blinking back one sickening wave of nausea after another. But when I turned to find Vida, to drag her back up the stairs and into the freezing Pennsylvania night, she was gone.

I spent two terrified heartbeats searching for her body through the gaping hole in the stairwell’s landing, watching as the tactical team streamed past. I leaned against the wall, trying to stay on my feet.

“Vida!” I felt the word leave my throat, but it vanished under the pulsing in my ears. “Vida!”

The door on my landing was mangled, dented, singed—but it still worked, apparently. It groaned and began to slide open, only to catch halfway with a horrible grating noise. I threw myself back against the wall, taking two steps up the fractured stairs. The darkness tucked me back under its cover just as the first soldier squeezed through the door, his handgun swinging around the cramped space. I took a deep breath and dropped into a crouch. It took three blinks to clear my vision, and by then, the soldiers were fighting through the doorway, jumping over the jagged hole in the platform and continuing down the stairs. I watched four go, then five, then six, swallowed by the smoke. A series of strange buzzing pops seemed to follow them, and it wasn’t until I was standing, swiping my arm over my face, that I realized it was gunfire from below.

Vida was gone, the tact team was now deep into a hornet’s nest of their own making, and Prisoner 27—

God dammit, I thought, moving back down onto the landing. There were upward of twenty or thirty soldiers staffing these bunkers at any given time. They were too small to house more than that, even temporarily. But just because the corridor was empty now, it didn’t mean the firefight below had drawn all of the attention away. If I were caught, that would be it. I’d be finished, killed one way or another.

But there was that man I had seen, the one with the hood over his head.

I didn’t feel any particular loyalty to the Children’s League. There was a contract between us, a strange verbal agreement that was as businesslike as it was bloody. Outside of my own team, there weren’t people to care about, and there certainly wasn’t anyone who cared about me beyond the bare minimum of keeping me alive and available to inflict on their targets like a virus.

My feet weren’t moving, not yet. There was something about that scene that kept replaying over and over again in my mind. It was the way they had bound his hands, how they had led Prisoner 27 down into the dark unknown of the bunker. It was the gleam of guns, the improbability of escape. I felt despair rising in me like a cloud of steam, spreading itself out through my body.

I knew what it felt like to be a prisoner. To feel time catch and stop because every day you lost a little bit more hope that your situation would change, that someone would come to help you. And I thought that if one of us could just get to him, to show him we were there before the Op failed, it would be worth the try.

But there was no safe way down, and the firefight below was raging in a way only automatic weapons could. Prisoner 27 would know people were there—and they weren’t able to reach him. I had to shake that compassion. I had to stop thinking these adults deserved any kind of pity, especially League agents. Even the new recruits reeked of blood to me.

If I stayed here, right where Rob ordered me to, I might never find Vida. But if I left and disobeyed him, he’d be furious.

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