Fragments, p.14Dan Wells
He reached the window and peered in; the air inside was dank, like a cave, and Marcus smelled wet dog. Unless recently abandoned, the basement had become an animal lair, though the dogs probably didn’t use this entrance; the ground around it was loose, not packed like a high-traffic passage would be. He couldn’t see much, and decided it was safer to crawl in himself before pulling the sick woman after him.
He was only halfway in when Haru scrabbled to a stop next to the window, breathing heavily. “Pretty sure the game is up,” he said. A bullet slammed into the brick wall above him. “Yep. Get out of the way.”
Marcus slithered the rest of the way through, dropping to the floor and immediately slipping in several inches of slick mud. He stood up and pulled Izzy through, listening as more bullets exploded against the wall. As soon as the window was clear, Haru launched himself through, landing with a strangled groan in the mud.
“It smells like dead dogs in here.”
Marcus searched his pockets for a light, holding Izzy with one arm. “And I’m pretty sure that’s not all mud.”
“No lights,” said Haru. “Follow me.” He stepped forward with a squelch, a dim silhouette in the basement darkness, and Marcus followed as carefully as he could. In addition to five or so inches of liquid mud, the basement was filled with metal desks, stacks of worm-eaten books, and row after row of old laptop computers, tethered with rusty metal cables to rolling metal cabinets. Haru led them cautiously through the maze, and as Marcus’s eyes adjusted to the dark he saw a door appear in the wall before them. Haru tried it, the knob clicking open, when suddenly the room got even darker. The light source behind them had been abruptly obscured, and Marcus dropped to the ground.
Bullets ripped through the air, muzzle flashes lighting up the room in deafening staccato bursts. The flimsy wooden door shredded under the onslaught, and Marcus was just able to see Haru dive for cover behind the nearest laptop cabinet.
“They’re really determined,” said Haru. “I’ve wanted to kill you before but never this bad.”
Haru returned fire on the open window, and the shooter ducked out of the way. Marcus took the opportunity to surge forward, dragging Izzy through the door. When he got to safety Haru stopped, trying to conserve their final bullets, and the shooter came back to the window, laying down a thick stream of suppressive fire. Haru fired his last few bullets, driving the Partial back into cover, and dove through the mud at the bottom of the door.
“I don’t actually agree with what I’m about to say,” said Marcus, “but we’re safe. At least for now.”
Haru nodded, wiping mud from his face “As long as we still have bullets—and as long as they know we still have bullets—they’re not following us through there. But you can bet they’re coming around through another entrance.” He looked up, and Marcus could feel his eyes burning through him, even in the dark. “Time to decide, Valencio. You want to die hiding or pulling a trigger?”
“Where’s the option for ‘soaked in my own urine’?”
Haru laughed. “I’m pretty sure that comes free with either package.” He sniffed. “Besides, we’re already soaked in something’s urine. No one’s going to know the difference.”
“Try the radio,” said Marcus. “You never know.”
Haru pulled it from his belt, holding it up in the darkness. “You have a better chance of reaching God on this thing than anyone still living on Earth.”
“Then I’ll pray.” Marcus took the radio and thumbed the button. “This is Marcus Valencio, assuming anyone out there can hear me. I’m . . . hiding in a muddy tunnel full of dog urine and Haru Sato, though I’m not sure which is worse. I have a wounded civilian and what appears to be an entire brigade of vengeful Partials. They’ve been chasing us for miles, whittling us down from twenty soldiers to two. I don’t know if they’re trying to conquer the island, raid it, or just kill us for fun. I don’t even know who’s around to hear this—for all I know we’re the last humans left.” He let go of the button, and the radio crackled instantly to life.
“If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that lately,” said the radio. The voice was scratchy and clipped, and so sudden Marcus almost dropped the handset. Haru stood up, his eyes wide.
“Who is this?” asked Marcus, staring at Haru in wonder. He shook his head, clicked the button, and asked again. “Who is this? Repeat, who is this? We require immediate assistance, and backup, and . . . saving of our lives.” He let go of the button and shrugged helplessly. “They’d better not say no just because I screwed up the radio protocol.”
The radio crackled to life again. “Partial radio traffic says that they’re looking for you, specifically, Marcus. Dr. Morgan wants you for something.”
Marcus froze, suddenly realizing why the voice sounded so familiar. “Kira?”
“Hey, babe,” said Kira. “Miss me?”
“What?” Marcus stumbled for words. “Where are you? What’s going on? Why is Dr. Morgan looking for me?”
“Probably because she wants me,” said Kira. “The good news is, she has no idea where I am.”
“Well that’s a relief,” said Haru derisively. “I’m so glad Kira’s safe.”
Marcus thumbed the radio button. “Haru says hi.”
“Don’t worry,” said Kira, “I’ve got good news for him, too: there’s a Grid army advancing on your position.”
“Head out of the building and south,” said Kira. “You’ll meet a Grid battalion coming the other way, just two minutes out at the most.”
“Hot damn,” said Haru. “Let’s get out of this muck.” He lifted Izzy into a fireman’s carry and started making his way down the hall.
“Wait,” said Marcus, running to catch up with him. “Where are you? What’s going on?” The radio was completely silent, and Marcus ran back to where he’d been standing before. It must have been a sweet spot for reception, because the radio crackled to life again.
“. . . now. Repeat, you have to go now. The battalion has a small arsenal of rocket-propelled grenades, and they intend to bring down the entire building.”
“Wait!” screamed Marcus. “We’re not out yet!”
He turned and ran, catching up to Haru at the base of the stairs. They ran up, testing the door cautiously before opening it into a wide school hallway. There didn’t seem to be any Partials, and Haru pointed at a pair of loosely hanging doors. “There.”
They ran out of the south side of the building, sprinting across the open street to the cover of a residential street beyond. No shouts rose behind them, no bullets flew past their heads. Marcus swerved around a corner, Haru close behind with Izzy on his shoulders; he lifted the radio to his mouth and screamed into it as he ran.
“Kira? Kira, can you hear me? What’s going on?”
“How old was I when you met me?” said Kira’s voice. “Go that many channels up.”
Five, Marcus thought, we met in school the first year here. He set it for five, then paused. They didn’t organize a school the first year here. I met her when we were six. He flipped the channel dial one more slot up. “What’s going on?”
“This is a trick that will only work once,” said Kira. “They’re listening to your frequencies, but I’m listening to theirs; I told you there was a Grid battalion close by, and I had a friend here give them a false report with the same information. The two Partials hunting you have fallen back, but they won’t stay gone long, and the battalion to your south is at least six miles away. You have to get there fast, because they are hunting you specifically and they will come after you when the realize they’ve been tricked.”
“So—” He slowed, trying to catch his breath. “What do I do now?”
“I’ll help you as much as I can,” said Kira, “but we don’t have a lot of options. We’ve been listening to Morgan’s communication, and here’s the bad news: They’re not just invading the island, they’re conquering it. Inside of two days, every
The first alarm sounded at four in the morning. Afa had rigged the first-floor doors and windows with small electric alarms, wired to his bedroom and a few of the main research rooms, and the small jingle woke Kira almost instantly. She was still on the couch in the film studio, where she’d been for just over a week—the most permanent sleeping arrangements she’d had in ages. The alarms were persistent but quiet, designed to alert the occupants without letting the intruders know that anything was amiss. Kira was on her feet in seconds, pulling on her shoes and then grabbing her gun. If she had to flee, those were the essentials.
Of course, with Afa poised to blow up the entire building, even fleeing barefoot and unarmed wasn’t the worst-case scenario.
Kira met Afa in the hall, both silent; he shut off the alarm and listened. If it was a false alarm, maybe wind or a stray cat pawing at the glass, the building would stay silent. Kira listened with her eyes closed, praying that nothing would—
Afa shut it off again, permanently this time, jogging heavily down the hall to another bank of switches. The solar panels on the roof stored massive amounts of electricity, more than enough to power their jury-rigged security systems at night. Afa woke up a sleeping monitor, the picture jerking to life like a slide show, just in time to see a black-clad figure in body armor slip through the window. The helmet was round and faceless, the too-familiar calling card of the Partial army, though this armor was battle-scarred and damaged to the point that Kira wondered if it was salvaged. The brief outline of the intruder’s body against the moonlit street beyond showed that it was female, though the second form climbing in behind her was probably male. Kira glanced at Afa, his face of rictus of anxiety and indecision: His other safe houses he’d simply blown up when they were threatened, but this was his headquarters, his main library of documents, his life’s work. He didn’t want to blow it up.
But then again, he wasn’t exactly a clear thinker in stressful situations.
Kira and Afa were on the seventh floor, and there were two full levels of security measures before any ground-level intruders reached the important stuff. The first story was the explosives, enough to bring the entire building down, and Kira carefully placed herself between Afa and the manual trigger for the bombs. They watched on scratchy, closed-circuit cameras as the intruders—only two—picked their way carefully through the rooms and hallways, from one camera to another, the different angles and monitors giving their path a crazed, disjointed trajectory. Left to right on the third monitor; right to left on the first. Top to bottom on the second and fourth simultaneously, one in front and one behind. They moved slowly, rifles at the ready, colorless shapes in the darkness. Their helmets seemed to provide augmented night vision, and the two figures were seamlessly coordinated in their movements. A surefire sign of the link at work. They were most definitely Partials.
Kira checked her ammunition carefully, never taking her eyes off the monitors; she might be able to drop one of the Partials if she surprised him, but the odds of beating two in concert were minuscule. If she didn’t run now, she’d probably wake up back in Dr. Morgan’s lab, stretched out naked on an operating table while the mad doctor cut her open to find her secrets.
She took a step to run but forced herself to stop. Breathe, she told herself. Breathe deep. Stay calm. Nobody in the world is more paranoid than Afa—he knows how to protect his home. Give him time. There’s still another floor between us.
The final camera showed them at the stairs, testing the door and then slowly coming up. The first floor was devoid of traps because Afa didn’t want the bombs to trigger accidentally by a stray animal, but Kira hoped the Partials would misread it as a lack of security entirely. Would they be less cautious on the second floor? She held her breath, and the Partials’ feet disappeared into the darkness at the top of the stairs. There were no cameras on the second floor, just sensors and automated booby traps.
A red light flashed on the wall panel, and Kira heard a violent clatter shake the building. “Antipersonnel mine,” said Afa. “It’s called a Bouncing Betty—when someone walks by, the mine jumps up about four feet in the air, like a ball from a Little League pitching machine, and then explodes out, like this, in a ring.” He demonstrated with his hands, showing an expanding halo of destruction in a single plane. “Nails and shrapnel and buckshot, right at gut level. They’re wearing armor, but it can still do a lot of damage without bringing down the building frame.” Kira nodded, her stomach queasy, watching the next light in the row. If the Bouncing Betty had stopped them, no more lights would come on. The threat would be over, and all they had to do was clean it up. Kira prayed—
The second light came on.
“They’re moving through the east hallway,” said Afa, his hands curled in front of him like an infant’s, weak and fetal. His face was streaked with sweat.
“How do we get out?” asked Kira. There was a fire escape, she knew, but it was laden with traps as well, and she hoped there might be a faster way down. Afa swallowed, staring at the lights, and Kira asked again, “How do we get out?”
“They’re in the east hallway,” he said, “coming up on the shotguns. They’re motion-sensored, not wired like the mines—they won’t know what’s coming until it’s too late.” The third red light came on, and Kira heard a distant crack. She waited, gritting her teeth in desperation, and the world paused.
The fourth light blinked to life.
“No,” Kira muttered, shaking her head. Afa was looking up and down the hall, his hands opening and closing on some imaginary tool. He had no guns, and barely tolerated Kira’s; he did everything by trap, distant and impersonal. If they made it up here, he was helpless.
“Afa,” said Kira, grabbing his elbow. “Look at me.” He kept searching for something, moving his head, and Kira placed herself firmly in his field of vision. “Look at me: They’re going to come up here, and they’re going to kill us.”
“They’re going to kill you, Afa, do you understand me? They’re going to kidnap me and kill you, and burn this entire building to the ground—”
“—with all your records in it. Do you understand? You will lose everything. We have to get out of here.”
“I have my backpack,” he said, pulling away from her and snatching up the massive backpack from the floor, never more than a few feet away from him. “I never lose the backpack.”
“We need to take it and go,” said Kira, pulling him toward the studio. She had a few seconds to grab her things and then they had to run, as far and as fast as they could. She thought about the radio station upstairs, about Marcus and the way she’d helped him. Dr. Morgan had taken control of East Meadow, and every other population center on the island, and it was all Kira could do to use the radios and keep Marcus one step ahead of his pursuers. She was about to lose it all. Afa resisted, pulling away to go back to the sensor panel, and Kira ran to the studio without him, quickly gathering her things to flee.
“They’ve passed the conference room,” he said. “They’re moving slowly. They’re past the second Bouncing Betty in the east hallway, moving on to the—there’s more now.”
Kira stood up, her bag half-packed with the last of her survival gear. “What?”
“One in the east hallway and one in the west. There’s another group.” He spluttered, his voice growing wilder and higher. “I didn’t see anyone else come in! I’ve been watching the monitors—I would have seen them come in!”
Kira snapped her pack closed, leaving the bedroll and sprinting back down the hall. “It’s not more,” she said. “They’ve split up.” She pointed at the seventh light. “There’s a central hallway here, right? It’s the same on every floor. This is a two-man kill team just like a dozen others I’ve been following on the radio—they don’t need a second team, they just split up the first—”
“The stairs,” he mumbled.
“Yes,” said Kira, placing herself in his eye line again. “I know it’s the stairs, but I need specifics. You built this entire system, Afa, you know where they’re going next. This one.” She pointed at a red dot. “Where will that dot reach the third floor?”
“The back stairs,” he said, practically stuttering in fear. He reached for the manual bomb trigger and she stopped him, pulling his hand away. “The service stairs. They come up from the delivery room in the back.”
“Perfect,” said Kira. She wrapped his hand around his backpack and pushed him gently away from the control panel. “You need to save this backpack, do you hear me? Do not blow up the building—if you blow it up, you will lose your backpack.”
“I can never lose the backpack.”
“Exactly. You find whatever escape route you have planned and you take it—you run far away, and you don’t come back for a week. If the Partials go away, I’ll be here be waiting. Now go!”
Afa turned and ran down the hall, and Kira shouldered her pack and ran the other way, swinging around the last doorway and practically throwing herself down the stairs. Sixth floor. Fifth floor. If she could reach the third floor first—if she could get there while the Partials were still split up, still alone, right where she knew they were coming—she could ambush the first and retreat before the second arrived as backup. She had a chance to kill both of them, but it was only a chance. Fourth floor.
She slowed, placing each step carefully, listening at the corner before moving around it. The stairwell was clear. She dropped to her knee, raising the rifle to her cheek, peering around the corner into the second floor. Moldy carpet stretched away in the darkness. The metal door had been completely removed, hauled upstairs as armor for one of Afa’s mini bunkers—that was where Kira would retreat, she decided. Kill the first, fall back to a bunker, and wait for the second to make a mistake. If the Partials even made mistakes.
Fragments by Dan Wells / Young Adult / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes