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       Tremor, p.19

           Patrick Carman
 
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  There was no firing up the engine; it was nuclear. Put the HumGee in gear and it just drove. He pulled the gearshift down, slammed on the gas, and burst forward, fishtailing around a tree and hitting it with the rear end of the right side. The HumGee pulled hard to the left and hit a steep section of grass. Hawk was driving down the side of a mountain whether he liked it or not. His feet fumbled around for the brake but kept landing on the gas, shooting him forward in gasps and bursts. Trees were everywhere, and while he wasn’t hitting any of them dead-on with the grille, he was grazing plenty, spinning sideways and nearly flipping over as he spun the wheel wildly back and forth. He was, to put it plainly, 100 percent out of control. His luck held though, and soon he exploded into the open expanse of the field that lay at the bottom of the hill. Here, without the trees to dodge and crash into sideways, he sped up, passing fifty miles per hour before finally finding the brake and stomping down with all his weight. The HumGee pitched right and slid into the open as Hawk held on to the steering wheel for dear life. When the monstrous rig came to a stop in a plume of dust, it was upright, on all four wheels. Hawk was banged up and bruised, but looking back up the hill at the path he’d taken, he threw open the door and rolled onto the ground, letting out a cry of victory.

  It was, possibly, the greatest moment of his life, and no one had been there to see it.

  “Where are the cameras when I need them!” he yelled, laughing at himself. His hair was a wild mess on top of his head, and his muscles ached with buckshot and rollover wounds, but he was feeling pretty good, all in all. A few seconds later he had his Tablet in hand, and, more importantly, he had a strong signal.

  The prison was back online, moving at a thousand miles an hour, heading for the Kansas state border.

  Hawk climbed onto the hood of the smashed-up HumGee and sat down, running calculations.

  “Meredith, copy?”

  “Copy,” she responded. “We’ve landed in Texas, regrouping for five.”

  “Listen, I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but the prison is headed straight for the Eastern State.”

  There was a slight pause, and then she answered.

  “I know. I’ve always known.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Clooger asked. He was confused and frustrated. He had a terrible itch, and he had to pee. The whole operation appeared to be falling apart all around him.

  “Clooger, head back to the Western State. Faith might need the help even if she’s not willing to ask for it. I’ll take the rest to the east.”

  “What’s going on, Meredith?” Clooger asked. He’d stopped in midair and rolled the bullet suit down into a loop he held in one hand. Snapping it onto his belt, he scratched his knee like a dog with a pack of fleas.

  He was bothered but not surprised by the dead air on the other end of the sound ring. Their relationship had always been complicated. Neither of them were second pulses, so they were both vulnerable. But it was much more than that. Meredith knew things she would never tell him. She was aware, on some unknown and mysterious level, of where this was all going. And she wasn’t telling anyone, not even him, the whole truth. Theirs was a relationship built on secrets. It was a shaky foundation.

  What did he really know? What was he sure of?

  Meredith had a fight ahead of her; that much was true.

  The stakes were high. How high, Clooger had no way of knowing.

  He had loved her as successfully as he could: listening patiently, not pushing too hard, holding on.

  Clooger was also realistic, always had been. His fight would lead directly under his feet, through the clouds, in the Western State. Her fight would happen somewhere else.

  They were two people living in a world where not a thing could be counted on in the end, not even each other.

  Chapter 14

  Personally, I Like the Javelin

  Gretchen was not the type who took chances with even the smallest details. She kept her fingernails trimmed to a precise shape and length, long enough to inflict damage in a cat fight but not so long that they got in the way of using her Tablet. This was a more exact calculation than those around her would have guessed. She wore her hair cropped short, not because it was easier to manage or brought out her gloriously high cheekbones. She kept it short purely for reasons of strategy. The only use long hair had in a fight to the death was getting in the way. It could be pulled, shut in a door, tangled in the gears of a machine. This was the way her mind worked: observe the risks, minimize them, complete the task at hand, repeat.

  It was this kind of disciplined system of thought that made her even more invincible than the other second pulses wandering the face of the earth. It was also why she carried the darts, because one never knew for sure about the last second pulse.

  Gretchen, like Meredith and Andre, had what she liked to call “special information.” Only the three of them, no one else, knew certain things. And Gretchen, for reasons she liked to turn over in her mind on a regular rotation, knew the most. She knew two things no one else in the world knew, because Hotspur had told her before the end. Her and her alone.

  There will be five. Five second pulses, he had told her. No more, no less. It is ordained. Two will be twins, so really, in a sense, there will be four. One of these two is a doppelgänger, a black mirror, a balance.

  Gretchen had never liked the sound of that. She’d also seen it as a miscalculation. Wade and Clara were both evil brats without vision or control. As far as she was concerned, they only reflected each other’s incompetence.

  Hotspur also told her something else: There may come a time when these humans I have engineered must go. Even you, Gretchen. One day you must go. Water, the living things of earth, stone, and titanium. These are the way in, the way through, the darts of death. Do you understand?

  She had understood perfectly. These were the elements that could kill a second pulse. And she knew the owner of all but one. Stone for Dylan, the living things of earth for Wade and Clara, water for herself. She could drink it, wash with it, touch it—but water was extremely dangerous for Gretchen. It had to be consumed in small doses. She never submerged herself in water, only showered, and even that burned after a few minutes. It was another reason, possibly the main reason, she kept her hair short. Long, wet hair burned her scalp and took too long to dry.

  That left titanium, and the one who had never appeared. Somewhere, alone and hiding or unaware entirely, an unknown second pulse lurked. The last, the fifth, the most dangerous of them all. Dangerous because titanium wasn’t just lying around everywhere. Rocks, trees, water—these things could be found and used as weapons with relative ease. But titanium, well, that was another matter. It wasn’t the kind of thing one had quick and easy access to in the event of a real confrontation.

  He’d chosen it for obvious reasons. For Hotspur Chance, titanium was the perfect element. He had torn it asunder, reorganized it, manipulated it into the clay of God. Titanium was the seed of it all: the Tablets, the States, the first and second pulses. But for one second pulse, the one Gretchen could never find, it was the poison that killed.

  This was why she carried the darts in sleeves along her belt: six of them, made entirely of titanium, with tips as sharp as needles and feathers of coated steel.

  She hated the fact that Meredith had been given the ability to sense the second pulse.

  A balance of power is required, Hotspur had said. I know what I’m doing.

  It had turned out to be his greatest mistake, for not long after that Meredith was gone; one of the second pulses was alive and kicking in her belly. Hotspur had let that happen and more. If the fifth second pulse was going to be found, it was Meredith who would make the discovery.

  All these things—the number of the second pulses, the killing elements, Meredith’s sixth sense—all this information had been given to Gretchen and Gretchen alone. She thought of these many shards of knowledge and how they added up to a complete picture only she could see.

>   As she stared across the sky at Faith Daniels, Gretchen ran a perfectly manicured finger across the slick titanium of six darts. She drifted up, higher in the sky, much higher than the top of the tallest spire in the Western State, just below the ceiling of clouds. Of course Faith followed her ascent, but she held back, biding her time.

  Poor little single pulse, Gretchen thought, staring across the open sky. Your days have been numbered. We arrive at zero.

  She heard the sound of Clooger’s sawed-off shotgun before she felt the metal buckshot pellets bouncing off her back. The impact pushed her softly forward, as if she’d been struck by a blast of Nerf balls. She turned on Clooger and found he was surprisingly close, only ten feet off, reloading.

  “Shooting someone in the back,” Gretchen said. “I didn’t take you for a coward.”

  “Whatever gets the job done,” Clooger said, and then he shot her dead-on in the face at point-blank range, peppering her with metal.

  Gretchen’s lungs filled with a great breath of air as her chest widened, and she floated slightly higher, her chin resting on her chest. When the breath released and her head came up, she was smiling. The shotgun flew out of Clooger’s hand along with all the shells he had in his pockets. Gretchen loaded the barrel with two rounds, but when she looked up to fire, Clooger was gone. He’d flown up into the clouds above, hidden from view. Gretchen felt a presence behind her but didn’t turn. Faith was at her back, close enough to kill with one shot.

  “I’m the one you want,” Faith said, slow and steady.

  Faith couldn’t see Gretchen’s face until she turned, only a few feet away, and fired the shotgun. At the same moment, Clooger descended from above, knocking Gretchen into a tailspin as he spun her around and around and let go, flinging her toward the Western State below. The timing was such that Gretchen hadn’t seen the way Faith moved right into the shotgun fire as if it were nothing more than a steady rain. Her second pulse was still, for the moment, a secret.

  Gretchen turned on Clooger, her anger fully engaged now, and fired the second round in the chamber. As Clooger dodged to one side, a half-dozen pellets stung his left forearm. It hurt but didn’t break skin through his layer of clothes, and as Gretchen reloaded, he dived headlong, down toward her.

  “Clooger, don’t!” Faith screamed, diving alongside in the same direction.

  All Gretchen could think was how perfect this was going to be. Two rounds in the chambers, the barrel slapped shut. I’ll take them both, bang bang. This was almost too easy.

  Gretchen took aim as both of her targets came in fast. The blast zone would be at least ten feet wide; two shots in a row would finish them if they stayed the course. She fired both barrels empty in rapid succession at thirty-foot range. Using the power of her mind, Faith pushed Clooger wide, tumbling him end over end into the vastness of the sky above the Western State. The full force of both shots, hundreds of lead pellets, slammed into Faith at close range.

  And she kept on coming without the slightest hesitation. Gretchen’s expression changed from a gleeful rage to confused surprise. The idea that Faith Daniels could be the one, the last of the second pulses, was somehow beyond her ability to grasp in those first few seconds. It was a fact of the universe that couldn’t be true.

  Faith’s fist, the hand that wore the tattoo of the hammer, struck Gretchen square in the face hard enough to rattle Gretchen’s brain. Her second-pulse weakness wasn’t a fist, but the punch was so full of power and vengeance that Gretchen felt it all the way down her spine.

  Gretchen tumbled toward the tallest spires of the Western State, setting off the first of many alarms in the security center of the city. They were close enough now to attract attention, and bigger than the biggest birds that might fly through the airspace above the state. This set a standard drone protocol in motion, of which Clooger was the first to take notice. He pressed the sound ring.

  “Hawk! Incoming!” he yelled. “This is going to get complicated fast.”

  “I’m on it,” Hawk said. There were six attack drones heading into the sky, all designed first to provide high-definition visual, then strike if necessary. Hawk had prepared for this and knew he had only twenty, maybe thirty seconds. He’d already hacked into the military system and set up a daisy chain of commands that led from the security center to the drone video feeds. The States relied on visual to determine threats coming in from overhead and had never gone so far as to fire on a target. The drones, each of them shaped like a four-foot fighter jet, were extremely accurate at determining enemy fire. Inside the security center, Western State officials were unconcerned. They’d never seen anything but low-flying condors or the occasional mass of space junk falling to Earth. They were on strict orders not to shoot birds out of the sky, but space junk was like target practice, something they always hoped for. Western State security officials had an expectation, and it was Hawk’s job to meet it.

  “Hawk?” Clooger said. “You seeing this? We got six fliers, coming in hot.”

  Hawk didn’t answer; he was too busy programming, his fingers flying across his Tablet. Just a few more keystrokes, Hawk thought.

  Got it!

  “Okay, you’re clear,” Hawk said. “At least for these six.”

  Inside the Western State all six drones were returning images of three huge condors, birds with wingspans of four feet that seemed to be participating in some kind of high-flying mating ritual.

  Gretchen looked down into the mass of towering spires and calculated her options. There were very few weapons so high in the air, many more down below. And it had been her primary job to get down there anyway, to create some havoc, a diversion that would hold the attention of both States.

  She dived, headfirst, like a bullet into the core of the Western State. Faith pressed her sound ring.

  “Don’t you dare follow me in, Clooger,” she said. “I can handle this alone.”

  Clooger was having none of that, taking chase right behind Faith as all three of them plummeted to Earth. But in his desire to help Faith any way he could, he’d set off a second set of alarms in the security center. There were now three, not two, objects in the sky, and one was unidentified.

  “Cover blown!” Hawk yelled. “Cover blown! Get ready for incoming fire!”

  Six additional drones launched off the tops of Western State buildings, making a total of twelve. Gretchen took control of the nearest one with her mind, guiding it in Faith’s direction. They were both below the line of the tallest buildings now, darting back and forth between them. Faith lost Gretchen around a corner and, clearing the edge, found a drone staring her in the face. It slammed into Faith’s midsection, buckling her over like a rag doll, pushing her backward. She slammed into the edge of a building, the metal and glass flying, and punched out on the other side. The drone was a rocket-fueled beast that wouldn’t let her go, so she turned it toward the ground and waited for the impact. Hundreds of stories down she went, faster and faster, slamming through encircled walking bridges that spanned buildings, knocking wide holes through frosted glass and steel. She turned toward the ground, straining against the power of the drone, and guided it through a maze of elevated walkways. When the drone hit the pavement, the impact was felt for a hundred yards in every direction, like a small earthquake rattling the Western State. The hole was deep, ten feet or more.

  Gretchen flew in close, hovering overhead, a titanium dart at the ready.

  Drones weren’t programmed to fly this low; it was far too dangerous. There was an enemy at ground level, and the protocol was to change to ground forces, which were dispatched from the nearest military station. Armored vehicles, loaded with personnel and weaponry, were on the move.

  Clooger had landed on a building, where he assumed the position of a gargoyle, low and still. Clad in a black T-shirt and green camo pants, he held a knife with a six-inch blade in one hand as drones flew back and forth overhead, searching for him.

  “Clooger, stay low,” Hawk said. “Airspace is crawling with
drones. Must be thirty of them now. They’re on to us.”

  “Is there anything you can do? Any kind of diversion?”

  “Working on it. Hold tight. If you go airborne, they’ve got you.”

  Clooger looked down over the edge of the building and saw the crisscross of white bridges clogging the space, the shadows of people moving inside behind frosted glass. The space between himself and the ground below looked like a thousand white arteries pumping shadowy blood.

  He couldn’t help himself. Staying put just wasn’t an option. He dived for the ground, knife extended.

  “Where is she?” Clooger asked Hawk, pressing the sound ring with his free hand as he dodged bridge after bridge.

  Below, Gretchen waited. She could already hear the convoy of military heading her way from three different directions. Maybe she’d only imagined Faith was a second pulse, or maybe their little Intel friend, Hawk, had developed some sort of shield against a certain level of violence. Faith was probably nothing but a mangled corpse, ten feet underground, never to be seen or heard from again. She’d done her job—the military was on high alert, and the Eastern State was distracted with the mayhem she was causing. Everyone would be pleased with her effort, and she wasn’t finished yet. She planned to have quite a lot of fun wreaking havoc in the Western State before she was done. Why not enjoy herself a little? She’d earned it.

  Clooger saw three things on his way down, darting between bridges and buildings: the military convoys, coming in from three directions; the impact hole from Faith’s crash into the ground; and his target, Gretchen. All three convoys converged into action at once.

  The front end of all three convoys was made up of large assault vehicles, with doors that opened from the side, pouring armed soldiers out into the open like ants out of a hill. Within seconds there were a hundred of them in position, pointing everything from rifles to rocket launchers directly at Gretchen. Faith was nothing if not theatrical. She waited until the whole world seemed to be watching before bursting out of the hole, tripling its size as she came. Gretchen backed up in the air, momentarily stunned, then raised her arm and fired a titanium dart as if it were blown from a cannon. Faith turned sideways in the air, but the dart grazed her left arm, tearing into flesh. She screamed and lurched backward, stunned by the searing heat of pain. Blood began to flow as Gretchen took a second dart in hand. Someone was speaking through a bullhorn.

 
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