Chapter 1 – Natalie
75 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada
I should have brought more ammo.
I jabbed the elevator’s penthouse button and rolled the tension out of my shoulders. I treat every mission like a Special Forces shopping spree, but instead of a spending limit, I have a weight limit. It’s simple combat math. The more you carry, you slower you move, and the easier it is for people to shoot you. I thumped the back of my head against the elevator’s paneling. I should have brought a few more rifle magazines. You can never have too much ammo, unless you’re on fire or drowning.
My pre-mission prep started with a Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle. The H&K is a badass weapon molded in killer black plastic. Snug one against your shoulder and you positively ache to pull the trigger. One squeeze and you’re spraying death down range at seven hundred fifty rounds a minute.
After grabbing the rifle, I added support gear, a MAC-11 for when things go bad, and a 9mm pistol for when they really go bad. A girl has to accessorize, after all. You would not believe how many electronic lock-pickers and communication scramblers there are in the dimly lit back alleys of the black market.
The elevator’s ascent was taking forever. I hate them. The first thing you learn in this business is elevators are death traps. They’re tiny, confining boxes that are easily shot full of holes. You never want to be in one if there are bad guys around.
I tucked a wisp of blonde hair behind one ear, just above the earbud. The strands must have escaped my ponytail during the firefight with the perimeter guards. Good hair is always the first casualty of combat.
When I was gearing up for the Norway mission last winter, Stalin said I looked like a modern-day Valkyrie battle maiden prepping for Ragnarok. I’m cool with that. I’m sure I have more than one Viking ancestor who earned a living charging into battle with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other.
Nowadays, my battle attire is a neck-to-ankles suit of black Kevflex body armor. It looks like a diver’s wetsuit with reinforcing panels over my vital parts. I accessorize with a black harness bulging with pouches to hold extra ammo magazines and expendables like grenades, flash bangs, and electronic jammers.
At least the harness was bulging at the start of the mission. I shifted the H&K to my other hand as I shrugged out of the now-empty harness and let it drop to the floor. Once bulky and overloaded, it flattened on the elevator’s floor like a nylon puddle. The way in had been rougher than I had expected.
My left earbud buzzed to life. “Natalie.”
I really didn’t need the distraction. “What is it?” I hoped the hair-thin microphone next to my mouth carried my irritation back to Stalin.
If it did, he ignored it. Of course, he could afford to be cool—his ass was safely sitting in the Ops Module a thousand miles away. “No movement on the motion sensors or the infrareds. The penthouse is clear.”
Stalin handles the cyber war back in Texas while I’m busy killing the bad guys up close and personal. His jowly face, shaved head, and beefy six-foot frame are as imposing as hell. If you’ve ever owed money to the Russian mafia, you know the type.
I placed the black rifle against my shoulder and eased out of the elevator as the doors chimed open. Stalin was probably right about the penthouse being clear, but I always like my first view of a room to be through a gun sight.
Halfway through the doors, I froze in mid-step. Seeing the blueprints for the penthouse during mission prep was one thing. Seeing it in real life was something else.
A transparent dome arched high over my head, revealing the bleak Nevada desert and the star-filled night sky beyond. I took a few tentative steps forward, feeling like a goldfish in a fishbowl made for a whale.
When in doubt, move. One halting step at a time, I emerged into the palatial headquarters. With each step, I made sure to pan my head around to give Stalin a good view of the Sima Robotics HQ through the tiny camera attached to my headset.
I tried not to be impressed. I failed.
I surveyed the dozen or so elaborate computer stations. The penthouse’s décor was so cutting-edge it wouldn’t even be cutting-edge for another year. Its granite panels and hand-carved Japanese symbols would have made the perfect war room for a digital shogun. The place had feng shui coming out its ass.
This building, this room, was the heart of Sima. If you’re standing here, you’re important. Like president-of-a-country important, or killer-of-things-that-go-bump-in-the-night important.
Padding to the edge of the lush pebble-gray carpet, I looked down for a better view. Two hundred feet below, Sima’s cavernous assembly buildings, towering storage tanks, and twisting coils of industrial piping radiated outward in every direction. Strings of lights shone feebly, barely outlining the shadowed structures. The barren landscape lay motionless except for the bulky automated vehicles trudging between the buildings like worker bugs toiling away in a gigantic metallic hive. Beyond the perimeter wall, sand and scrub stretched to every horizon.
Dreary, even for me, and I’m the girl who dresses in black for picnics.
I stood motionless next to where the plastic dome met the floor. I leaned forward and my forehead brushed the inner surface. The entire dome above me exploded into digitized life. Dozens of video feeds, satellite maps, and real-time graphs sprang into existence across its surface.
I yanked my head back and reappraised the fishbowl. It covered the entire top of the building, easily two hundred feet across. Until now, the biggest sheet of PlasTech I’d ever seen had been at the European Strategic Defense Center; it was a tenth this size, and had cost millions.
PlasTech fuses transparent nanocomputer circuitry into a glasslike sheet of plastic. I cautiously poked at a video feed streaming in from a Sima data center in China. Spreadsheets and graphs materialized. Based on the numbers, it looked like the company was having a good year.
That was about to change.
I wove a path through the computer workstations, rifle butt glued to my shoulder. If anything moved, I’d put a burst through its face. I glided up to the wraparound security console in the center of the penthouse.
As I moved, my image flashed across the computer screens. The place was loaded to its electronic eyeballs with sensors, cameras, and security. My eyes lingered on a passing screen.
Cool. My black Kevflex went with the color scheme.
Kicking ass goes with the job. Looking hot while I do it is priceless.
I slipped behind the console and slid my fingertips across the keyboard to bring the security station to life. When the Sima logo appeared on screen, I snagged a custom-programmed dataspike out of a belt pouch and jammed it into the station’s data socket. The console chirped twice in confusion as the virus infiltrated its programming. Right on cue, an ornate, one-person elevator rose out of the floor like an oversized silver lattice birdcage. The tinkling of a Japanese wind chime announced the elevator’s arrival. All the cutesy touches and classy décor grated on my nerves. If I worked here, there would be blood on the pricey carpet before lunch.
Whoever designed the security for Oleg’s lab had earned their pay. Unwanted guests had to take one elevator up to the penthouse, then a second down to the lab.
I stepped in and the cage hushed downward to an unfinished cube of a room with concrete walls. There was no feng shui here. This floor was the private domain of head honcho Oleg Sima. Normally, high-security double doors would have sealed my only exit from the elevator room, but Stalin’s virus had taken care of that problem when it tore through the security station’s programming.
The steel double doors stood half open, and the wall-mounted security screen flashed a red error message.
I shouldered through the thick steel doors into a twisting maintenance corridor. Pipes and cables snaked across the ceiling, and every few steps the passage widened to accommodate a service alcove. Excellent. I couldn’t ask for better cover.
Up ahead, the corridor ended in frosted glass doors.
Son of a bitch.
I slipped into a maintenance alcove to get out of the line of fire. Never stand out in the open. When people are running around with guns, it’s always best to be the one yelling “surprise!”
I tried to keep my voice level, but little things like unexpectedly frosted doors can get you killed. “Hey, Stalin, got any news for me? Like what’s going on inside Oleg’s lab? I wouldn’t ask, but your blueprints said regular glass doors, not frosted doors. So right now, I’m wondering where Oleg is and if he’s about to kill me.”
Stalin’s voice took on an edge of its own. His cyber war must be going badly. “Sorry. They weren’t in the security files I accessed. You should not encounter any more defenses until you’re in Oleg’s lab. And . . . you have ninety-five minutes to be over the horizon.”
“How goes the computer war?”
He paused for long seconds before answering. Not a good sign. “I’m losing control of the communications network.”
Yeah, that wasn’t good. If we lost communications, he wouldn’t be able to warn me about guards, Meckos, and ambushes.
I traced the tip of my tongue over my upper lip. It’s a nervous habit and plays hell with the lipstick.
What was Oleg up to? Guaranteed, if I was about to declare myself High King Overlord of Earth and some chick blew down my front door and started killing my minions, nailing her ass would be priority numero uno. “Is Oleg doing anything? Like maybe coming out to say hi?”
The chatter of rapid-fire keystrokes carried through the link as Stalin checked his Hawk recon programs. “No. He’s still in the lab sitting at the main computer console. Maybe he’s updating his Facebook?” Stalin laughed. “Give the guy a break. I’m sure he’s got an unbelievable To Do list.”
I smiled. I had a To Do list of my own. “I’m moving. Watch my six.”
I leaned forward to peek out of the alcove. The frosted doors were maybe thirty feet up the corridor with no cover in sight.
I whipped around the corner and charged the doors. The time for sneaking had passed. From now on, I needed speed, not stealth. With every stride, I expected the doors to fly open and Oleg and his guards to hose down the corridor with automatic weapons fire. As I reached the doors, I pivoted at the hips and lashed out with a booted heel. The frosted double doors crashed open and I strode through the gap before they rebounded off the walls and slammed shut behind me.
Oleg Sima sat alone on a raised throne-like computer station in the middle of his personal computer lab. The whole place had the sterile chill of an operating room. High above, faint bluish glow strips cast the lab in perpetual gloom. Metal bins stuffed with electronic components covered the far wall. Unmoving robots of all shapes and sizes lined the other walls.
I frowned at the thought of all the problems they presented to my tactical situation. The last thing I needed was a herd of robots attacking me while I was shooting the crap out of Oleg.
A swarm of Hoverlights buzzed overhead like plastic fireflies. Their cones of light lanced around the lab as they swirled twenty feet above my head.
I stopped a dozen strides from Oleg. He peered at me from behind his super-sized monitor and gave a small wave as if I were a secretary bringing him fresh coffee.
I responded with a shrug and a wicked smile as I raised the rifle. “Sitting, standing, or checking your email, I’m still going to kill—”
I hit the floor before the silver blur launched itself into the air. With robots all over the place, of course Oleg would have a Mecko-Dog nearby. It hurtled over me, glistening steel claws outstretched to tear me apart.
The dog-shaped machine stood three feet at the shoulder, could run forever, and used digital sensors to locate its prey. Where a living dog had skin and bone, the Mecko-Dog had steel pistons and chrome plating protecting its delicate computerized guts. Oleg had designed them for maximum lethality and intimidation.
He was fucking awesome at his job.
It whipped around in a metallic blur as I rebounded to my feet. From the hip, I fired a stream of 5.56mm armor-piercing rounds through its polished skull. The dog’s head crumpled under the impacts and the light faded from its neon red eyes. It took one more lurching step before collapsing onto its side.
I looked down at its chrome endoskeleton and wiggled a scolding finger. “Bad dog.”
Oleg’s large nose seemed out of place on his lean face. His pristine lab coat, starched white shirt, and creased black slacks reminded me of my high school chemistry teacher. My eyes locked on his woven silver headband. With the link, he could mentally command nearby computers and machines, like a Wi-Fi hotspot for your brain.
He raised his hands. “I surrender. Go ahead and arrest me.”
A half smile curled my mouth. “Evil scientist and comedian. I like that.”
I snapped the rifle to my shoulder and fired a three-round burst through his forehead.
Hell yeah! That wasn’t so tough. I should have done that to him a year ago in Peru. I let out a long-held breath of relief . . .
But Oleg still stood there smiling even though three ragged bullet holes now decorated his shiny forehead.
Where was the blood? There should have been a head’s worth of blood dripping down the consoles.
I hoped my voice came out steadier than my feet. “On second thought, I accept your surrender.”
He shook his head in regret. “No, you were right—surrender could never work. You and I are not people who give up easily.” He continued in a grim tone. “And that, my beautiful young friend, is going to make your death very painful.”
I suppressed a swallow and glared at Oleg. When you’re scared, look mean. If you survive, you can always claim you were never scared.
The bullets should have taken the top of his head off. I circled to the left to buy time.
The whine of a diving Hoverlight increased in pitch. I spun, shifted my grip on the rifle, and swung it like a baseball bat. Crack! The softball-sized globe came apart in a spray of plastic and rained debris across the steel-grated floor. I flipped the rifle back to its normal grip and cast a quick glance toward the ceiling. A dozen or so Hoverlights still whirled around up there.
“So what’s with the mood lighting? It looks like a tomb in here.”
Oleg prodded the Hoverlight’s wreckage with one foot before answering. “I cannot see the computer screens if the background lighting is too bright. Too much glare. It gives me a migraine.”
Just my luck. Glare gives him a headache, but I shoot him in the head three fucking times and he doesn’t even reach for an aspirin.
He seemed lost in thought, tenderly poking at the shards of the Hoverlight. Weird thing for him to be sympathetic about, but you never know when it comes to crazy people. That’s what makes them crazy.
I made a show of bringing the rifle to my shoulder, sighted, and squeezed off a round. A Hoverlight jerked from its flight path, slammed into a wall, and fell in a flaming heap at his feet. “Oops. Be sure and bill me for that one.”
His eyes narrowed in anger and the words hissed through his clenched teeth. “That was uncalled for!”
He strode toward me, the humor gone from his voice. “I am very good with machines and computers, even the tiny ones.” His voice came out as a snarl as he tapped the side of his head just below the neurolink. “In fact, the tiny ones think I am their god!”
Apparently he was also insane, but I’ve found that mentioning that to people rarely helps the situation.
Oleg sighed. “Oh well, let us be done with this. I have work to do. You confused me with your little detour when you first scaled the perimeter wall. I could not understand why you did not come straight for me, but I have figured it out.” He took a shallow bow. “You should not have gone to the weapons bunker, but that is of no matter. I will undo your tampering. You know, arming a nuke that already had its circuitry hacked can be a tricky thing. You are lucky you did not vaporize everything within five miles.” He stopped talking in mid-thought and frowned. “Why did you come to my lab anyway? You could have been back over the wall by now and fleeing to safety.”
“Yeah, that was Stalin’s plan, but I wanted to be sure this time. I thought I killed you last year in Peru when I brought a mountain down on your lab, but I didn’t go through the rubble to make sure. I didn’t stand over you and put a bullet in your brain. I’m not going to make the same mistake a second time.”
He shook his head in feigned disgust. “You know your landslide killed almost a hundred people who lived in the town below my lab, right?”
Of course I knew. The team raised hell about it when I got back. They yelled at me for over an hour. I’ve never heard the phrase “unacceptable collateral damage” so many times in my life. I shrugged. “Yeah, I think I heard something about that.”
I needed to keep him talking. Once Stalin figured out what made Oleg tick, I’d dig in with both hands and rip it out. “Where’d you get a nuke, anyway?”
He smiled in satisfaction. “It was very difficult, actually. Even with my connections and money, it took a great deal of effort, but I think it was worth it. People take you more seriously after you incinerate a city. Of course, I still need to select the best location for my surprise. Should it be D.C.? Paris? Sydney?” He shook his head and sighed. “So much to do and so little time.”
“The bunker wasn’t guarded. I would have thought you’d put your best people there. Instead, all I found were a few Meckos.” I tapped the rifle. “By the way, I think I voided their warranties.”
He shrugged. “People cannot be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to killing millions of innocents. It was best no one knew about it.”
His eyes fluttered as he strained through a deep grunting breath. A webbing of black pulsing veins surfaced through his skin.
Oh, good, another problem.
He cupped a hand and snapped it forward in a throwing motion. I glimpsed a pool of syrupy blood congealing in his palm. It reshaped itself in mid-flight to form a ruby spike speeding toward my face.
I dodged to the side. The spike streaked past my ear and embedded itself in the wall with a clang. Robotic arms and legs tumbled from their bins and clattered to the floor.
Oleg raised his palms. No blood. “It is a gift I have, a mix of my blood and my tiny machines. Once they leave me, they soon die, but their sacrifice is appreciated.” He lowered his voice as if conveying a secret. “Between you and me, I think they are proud to make it.”
I circled to put a rack of computer monitors between us.
Oleg’s other hand slashed forward and launched another handful of blood. The blob expanded and formed a crimson web five feet across. I dove to the side as it wrapped around a monitor. Its contracting strands crushed the screen in a shower of sparks.
Stalin’s tense voice came through the earbud. “Natalie, there’s no data going to or from his neurolink. I don’t know how he’s controlling the machines.”
I sprinted to the side and used the momentum to front flip over a computer console. “Oleg, what’s with the neurolink? There’s no data flow.”
He smiled. “So you figured it out. No matter, it was useful in hiding my abilities.” He reached up and casually tossed the neurolink toward a nearby steel worktable. It caromed off the surface and clattered to the floor. I cringed. A neurolink costs more than some countries make in a year. “I wore it to avoid raising suspicions, but I do not have to worry about that with you, do I? Besides, it always left unsightly red spots on my head.”
Movement caught my eye off to the side. A Mecko-Spider the size of a dinner plate scuttled out from under a worktable and clattered toward me on metallic legs. The two razor-sharp mandibles blurred into motion as it scuttled forward.
Oleg glanced to the side and a large cargo loader whirred to life. The yellow forklift rolled out of its alcove on clanking metallic treads. Two side panels flipped open and steel arms ending in heavy claws emerged. Twin forks in front opened and closed like the pincers of a huge beetle. It wasn’t fast, but it was the size of a small car.
And it had distracted me.
A searing beam of red light swept across the machine in front of me. Its top half slid along the cut and crashed to the steel floor. Laser cutter!
A telescope-shaped cutter tracked my movements from across the room. It couldn’t move, but several joints on its heavy tripod frame allowed it to fire in any direction. I sprinted for the forklift, dodged its snapping mechanical claws, and dove behind it as the cutter fired again. I had to get the timing just right to get them both.
The laser neatly bisected the forklift with a diagonal cut. The top half thudded to the floor, crushing the Mecko-Spider. I smiled. You gotta enjoy the little things.
Before the cutter could recharge, I popped up, braced the rifle on the crackling edge of the dead forklift, and fired a single shot. Glass shards exploded as the cutter blew apart.
I shifted my aim, squeezed the trigger, and put a round through Oleg’s heart. I knew it wouldn’t kill him, but as they say, it’s the thought that counts.
He dropped to his knees, clutching his chest, and a few crimson drops leaked through to stain his snowy white shirt.
Weird—the shot had more of an effect on him than the headshots did. I was kind of expecting him to shrug it off. Still, it wasn’t nearly enough.
“Stalin, you’d better come up with something. He just took a shot that should have blown his heart out through his spine, and he reacted to it like a nasty paper cut.”
Oleg still clutched his chest as he regained his feet. I peeked over the dead forklift. “I bet you have your souvenirs hidden somewhere in this lab, don’t you?”
His arms slumped to his sides. “I am not proud of what I do, but there is no other way.”
I dashed away from the forklift’s immobile hulk to the cover offered by a row of diagnostic machines along the wall. I had almost traced a full circle of his lab when I spotted the wrecked Mecko-Dog.
I stopped and took cover behind a bin of robotic scrap metal. A few more steps would put me in front of the frosted glass doors—and out in the open.
Oleg smiled. I had nowhere to hide.
“If I ever turn into a monster like you,” I said, judging the distance to the dog’s carcass, “I hope someone’s there to put me down once and for all.”
Oleg shook his head. “But it will not be you, and it will not be today.”
I sprinted toward the dog as he spoke, hoping to reach it before he could react. While the thing was dead, its power core was still intact.
I didn’t even come close.
He whipped both hands forward in sweeping arcs. Hundreds of inch-long blood slivers sleeted toward me. I lifted Kevflex-covered forearms to protect my face. The normally flexible armor stiffened under the impacts and stopped dozens of slivers, but dozens more pierced me like steel cactus needles. I staggered backward, slamming into the frosted doors. My body slid to the floor in agony.
I shook my head to clear the pain. I had to keep moving.
But to where? I eyed the doors behind me. I could make a run for it. He’d probably let me go. He had far more important things to do than chase me down when he had a hundred guards and Meckos to finish the job for him. Besides, he had a nuke to disarm. If it were me, I wouldn’t put something like that off to the last minute. He had no idea what I’d set its timer for.
No. This had to end here and now. He beat me in Peru, and now my blood covered the floor of his lab. I was going to kill the bastard where he stood. For no better reason than I was tired of losing.
I slowly regained my feet and limped to the side to put a heavy steel worktable between us. It was easily large enough to assemble several robots at a time.
Stalin’s desperate voice came through the comm link. “They’re nanites! He’s got millions of microscopic robots swarming through his body. Somehow, he can mentally control them. Right now they’re holding his brain and heart together. His work has progressed much farther than we thought! You’ve got to kill him!”
Pain pulsed through my body with every heartbeat. I wanted to curl around the agony and give in, but that would get me killed. “Yeah, I already figured out the ‘gotta kill him’ part of the plan.” I snarled. “Any ideas on how to do that?”
Awesome. Just awesome.
Oleg confidently grabbed the worktable to push it out of his way, but it didn’t budge. It must have weighed a thousand pounds. He planted his feet and groaned with effort. The black webbing throbbed and he shoved the table ten feet to the side. Metal screeched as its legs ripped through the floor grating.
A single drop of blood emerged from one of the bullet holes, trickled down his forehead, and traced a path around his nose.
My lips pulled back in a predator’s smile. My prey had a weakness. The nanites were powerful, but they had limits. If I could keep them busy on other parts of his body, I could blow his head off. I squatted down and got a solid grip on the dead Mecko-Dog.
Startled, Oleg reached up to feel the drop of blood just as I heaved the metal carcass at him. He looked up, eyes wide, as I fired a stream of bullets into its volatile power core. The room flashed white as steel shrapnel ripped through his body.
The blast punched me backward through the glass doors in a shower of frosted shards. I skidded across the floor, rolling like a rag doll. After a few seconds, I pushed myself to my elbows, coughed to refill my lungs with oxygen, and flexed my hands and feet.
It looked like everything was still attached.
Dazed, I pushed myself upright and brushed off the glass splinters. The Kevflex had stiffened to prevent the shrapnel from tearing me in half, but several places would have ugly bruises in the morning.
I forced myself to stagger back into the lab, when my entire battered body begged me to head toward the exit.
A haze of oily smoke filled the room, and small fires crackled around the lab.
Parts of Oleg littered the floor. A dozen fist-sized wounds cratered his limp body. Each wound should have been instantly fatal. I looked again. No blood flowed from the ragged holes.
I raised the H&K to blow his head off with a final burst, but it had locked open. Empty.
It clattered to the floor as I grabbed the stubby MAC-11 machine pistol strapped to my right thigh. Oleg’s wounds were starting to stitch themselves back together.
I snarled a curse at the nanites’ frantic scrambling. Given a couple of more minutes, the little bastards just might put him back together.
I tapped the mic with one finger and moved my head back and forth to pan the tiny headband camera over my handiwork. “Hey, Stalin, you seeing this?”
“It’s not like I’m surfing the Internet over here,” he sighed. “Nice touch using the dog.”
My ribs still throbbed from the blast. “Yeah, well, that’s why I get the big bucks.”
Somehow, Oleg forced a smile through his shredded face. Shards of bone and muscle poked through the mangled flesh.
“Eww! Now that is just creepy.”
I looked down at his disfigured body with the thinnest of smiles. I squeezed the trigger, hosing a stream of bullets into his head. Every time the MAC recoiled, my smile grew. Thirty-two rounds later, I was grinning like a kid on the first day of summer vacation.
When the gun finally ran dry, Oleg’s brain looked like a bowl of pink oatmeal splashed across the floor. Finally, blood started flowing freely from the shredded neck hole. The black webbing pulsed one last time, and then flaked off his skin like ash.
I spun on one black-booted heel and slapped in my last MAC-11 magazine. “Stalin, call the local cowboys for me. Tonight it’s party time! Tell Howard I’m coming out.”
On the way out, I scooped the neurolink off the floor and twirled it around one finger. I knew people who would pay a fortune for it, and I needed a vacation.
Two elevator rides later and I was back outside the HQ building.
I hugged the shadows and crept alongside darkened buildings, making my way across Sima’s deserted landscape. I needed to get back to the perimeter wall, and over it, as soon as possible.
After so much noise, the silence seemed to pulse with a life of its own against my eardrums. I had just splattered Oleg’s head all over his lab, but there were no alarms, no tromping of booted feet sweeping the facility in search of me. It was like the whole place was asleep.
Through the pain and fatigue, one thought kept running through my brain: this was too easy. Oleg should have had more forces. They should have been in the penthouse waiting to ambush me or at least coming to his aid in the lab. Where were they?
Finally, I made my way to the cafeteria I had passed on my way in. It was just inside the perimeter wall. The corner of the building blocked the distant floodlight, cloaking me in deep shadow.
“Stalin?” It came out as a whisper.
“Here.” His reply came back, just as quiet.
“I’m almost in position for evac. I’ve got fifteen minutes to get out of the blast range. I’ll be over the west wall in forty seconds.”
“Acknowledged. I’ll tell Howard to start his run.”
I slipped out of the shadows and risked a glance around the final corner. One hundred feet away, the ten-foot concrete wall separated me from evac.
“Stalin, I’m heading for the wall. Confirm.”
Static garbled the link. They must be jamming us.
I grimaced and tried again. “Stalin, come in.”
More static filled the comm channel. I was out of time. If I didn’t go now, Howard would get his ass shot off waiting for me.
Then it hit me. This is where Oleg had stationed his most trusted goons. As soon as I broke cover, they’d gun me down. It was Oleg’s final revenge. He was egotistical enough to think he didn’t need guards to help kill me, but vengeful enough to make sure that if by some chance I killed him, his guards would still get me before I could leave.
There had to be a way out of this!
I couldn’t wait them out. Howard would be outside the wall in seconds, and besides, this whole area was going to be radioactive glass soon. I couldn’t go over the wall somewhere else. Howard would never find me with the comm link jammed. Damn! Damn! Damn!
I took a deep breath and sprinted for the wall.
Spotlights flashed on and caught me in their beams. Guards and Mecko-Dogs charged toward me from the shadows.
Sometimes it really sucks to be right.
I poured on the speed.
Instantly, shots rang out and bullets kicked up puffs of dirt around my feet.
I gripped the MAC-11 tightly in one fist. Wherever I pointed, a guard died.
Halfway to the wall, the gun ran dry and I dropped it. Safety waited beyond the wall, but the Mecko-Dogs were gaining ground and the guards were shooting again. Once at the wall I could front-handspring over it. Five years ago, getting that much height would have been impossible, but now, after all my changes and learning about my new place in the world, it’s just part of the job.
A bullet seared along my right forearm. The Kevflex deflected most of its impact. I staggered, but I kept running. The Kevflex would stop most pistol rounds, but it wouldn’t even slow down the military rifle rounds the guards were firing.
Another bullet whizzed by my head.
I half stepped and raised my arms to start the handspring over the wall.
Pain exploded through my right thigh as my femur shattered. My legs buckled and I landed hard, skidding to the base of the wall. Blood pumped from my leg with every heartbeat.
I clawed at the wall to regain my feet, but my leg wouldn’t move.
Twin lances of pain tore through my back and erupted from my stomach, slamming my face into the wall. Dazed, I pressed one arm over the holes to slow the bleeding.
I crumpled to the ground and reached out to touch the cool concrete separating me from safety. Every breath made a wet gurgling sound.
I tried to draw the 9mm pistol on my hip and crawl to safety, but I couldn’t move. My body was shutting down.
“Stalin…” It was barely a whisper.
The wall grew blurry and darkness closed in.