Never Fade Page 4

Maybe he wanted you to be standing there when the explosion went off, a small voice whispered at the back of my mind. Maybe he was hoping…

No. I wasn’t going to think about that now. Vida was my responsibility. Not Rob, not Prisoner 27. Goddamn Vida the viper. When I was out of here, when I found Vida, when we were safely back to HQ, I’d play the situation out in my mind again. Not now.

My ears were still thrumming with their own pulse, too loud for me to hear the heavy steps coming from the lookout post in the Laundromat. We literally crashed into each other as my hand brushed the outside door.

This soldier was a young one. If I had been going on appearances alone, I would have thought he was only a few years older than me. Ryan Davidson, my brain filled in, coughing up all sorts of useless information from the mission file. Texas born and bred. National Guard since his college had closed. Art History major.

It was one thing, though, to have someone’s life printed in crisp black letters and laid out in front of you. It was something else entirely to come face-to-face with the actual flesh and blood. To feel the hot stink of breath and see the pulse jump in his throat.

“H-Hey!” He reached for the gun at his side, but I launched a foot at his hand and sent the weapon clattering across the landing and down the stairs. We both dove for it.

My chin hit the silver metal, and the impact actually jarred my brain. For a single blinding second, I saw nothing but pristine white flash in front of my eyes. And then, everything returned in brilliant bright color. The pain filtered through next; when the soldier tackled me and I hit the floor, my teeth sank into my bottom lip and it burst open. Blood sprayed across the stairwell.

The guard pinned me to the ground with his entire weight. The instant I felt him shift, I knew he was going for his radio. I could hear chatter from a woman; I heard her say, “Report status,” and “I’m coming up,” and the knowledge of just how badly I would be screwed if either of those things actually happened sent me into what Instructor Johnson liked to call a controlled panic.

Panic, because the situation seemed to be escalating quickly.

Controlled, because I was the predator in the situation.

One of my hands was pinned under my chest, the other between my back and his stomach. That was the one I chose. I bunched up his uniform the best I could, searching for bare skin. My brain’s wandering fingers reached out for his head and pried their way in, one at a time. They fought through the memory of my startled face behind the door, moody blue images of women dancing on dimly lit stages, a field, another man launching his fist at him—

Then, the weight was off, and air came flooding back into my lungs, cold and stale. I rolled over onto my hands and knees, gasping for more of it. The figure standing over me had tossed him down the stairs like a crumpled piece of paper.

“—up! We have to—” The words sounded like they were being carried along underwater. If it hadn’t been for the strands of shocking violet hair sticking out from under her ski mask, I probably wouldn’t have recognized Vida at all. Her dark shirt and pants were torn, and she seemed to be moving with some kind of limp, but she was alive, and there, and in mostly one piece. I heard her voice through the muffled ringing in my ears.

“Jesus, you’re slow!” she was shouting to me. “Let’s go!”

She started down the stairs, but I grabbed the scruff of her Kevlar vest and pulled her back. “We’re going outside. We’ll cover the entrance from there. Is your comm still working?”

“They’re still fighting down there!” she shouted. “They can use us! He said not to leave our post—!”

“Then consider it an order from me!”

And she had to, because that was the way this worked. That was what she hated most about me, about all of this—that I had the deciding vote. That I got to make this call.

She spat at my feet, but I felt her following me back up the stairs, cursing beneath her breath. The thought occurred to me that she could easily take her knife and slash it through my spine.

The soldier I met outside clearly hadn’t been expecting me. I raised a hand, reaching out for hers to command her away, but the sound of Vida’s gun firing over my shoulder rocketed me back and away from the soldier so much faster than the splatter of blood from her neck did.

“None of that bullshit!” Vida said, lifting the gun still somehow strapped to my side and pushing it into my palm. “Go!”

My fingers curved around its familiar shape. It was the typical service weapon—a black SIG Sauer P229 DAK—that still, after months of learning to shoot them, and clean them, and assemble them, felt too big in my hands.

We burst into the night. I tried to grab Vida again to slow her down before she ran into a blind situation, but she shrugged me off hard. We started at a run up the narrow alley.

I hit the corner just in time to see three soldiers, singed and bleeding, hauling two hooded figures up out of what looked like nothing more than a large street drain. That access point definitely wasn’t in the Op folders we were given.

Prisoner 27? I couldn’t be sure. The prisoners they were loading into the van were men, about the same height, but there was a chance. And that chance was about to get into a van and drive away forever.

Vida pressed a hand to her ear, her lips compressing to white. “Rob’s saying he wants us back inside. He needs backup.”

She was already turning back when I grabbed her again. For the first time maybe ever, I was just that tiny bit faster.

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