We’re still following the soldier, but it’s hard to stay too close to him in this weather. Visibility is shot, and the wind is blowing the rain around so hard it’s almost like we’re trapped in a hurricane. This is going to get ugly really quickly.
Then, a small voice: “What do you think is going on?”
Of course she has no idea what’s happening—why would she?
The smart thing to do would be to hide her somewhere. Keep her safe. Out of danger. A weak link can bring everything down with it, and I don’t think this is the time to be taking chances. But Kenji, as usual, doesn’t seem to agree. Apparently he doesn’t mind making time to give Juliette a tutorial on being at war in Sector 45.
“They’re herding them up,” Kenji explains. “They’re creating groups of people to kill all at once.”
“The woman—,” Juliette says.
“Yeah.” Kenji cuts her off. “Yeah,” Kenji says again. “She and whoever else they think might be connected to the protests,” he says. “They don’t just kill the inciters. They kill the friends and the family members, too. It’s the best way to keep people in line. It never fails to scare the shit out of the few left alive.”
I have to jump in before Juliette asks any more questions. Those soldiers aren’t going to wait patiently for us to get there—we have to make a move now, and we need a plan. “There has to be a way to get them out of there,” I say. “Maybe we can take out the soldiers in charge—”
“Yeah but listen, you guys know I’m going to have to let go of you, right?” Kenji asks. “I’m already kind of losing strength; my energy is fading faster than normal. So you’ll be visible. You’ll be a clearer target.”
“But what other choice do we have?” Juliette asks.
She’s like the second coming of James. I feel for my gun, flexing and unflexing my fingers around it. We need to get going.
We need to move now.
“We could try to take them out sniper-style,” Kenji says. “We don’t have to engage in direct combat. We have that option.” He pauses. “Juliette, you’ve never been in this kind of situation before. I want you to know I’d respect your decision to stay out of the direct line of fire. Not everyone can stomach what we might see if we follow those soldiers. There’s no shame or blame in that.”
Yes. Good. Let her stay behind where she won’t get hurt.
“I’ll be okay,” she says.
I swear under my breath.
“Just—all right—but don’t be afraid to use your abilities to defend yourself,” Kenji says. He seems a little nervous about her, too. “I know you’re all weird about not wanting to hurt people or whatever, but these guys aren’t messing around. They will try to kill you.”
“Right,” Juliette says. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
Juliette shouldn’t have to see this.
Six soldiers have rounded up almost thirty civilians—a mix of men, women, and children—and they’re going to kill them. It’s basically a firing squad. They’ll just go down the row, pop pop pop, and then drag the dead bodies away. Put them into an incinerator. Clean it up, nice and simple.
I’m not sure what the soldiers are waiting for, though. Maybe they need final approval from somewhere, but there’s a slight delay as they talk amongst themselves. It’s raining really freaking hard, so that might have something to do with it. Honestly, they might not even be able to see where they’re shooting. We should be taking advantage of this opportunity. This weather might end up helping us out in the end.
I squint against the rain and take a closer look at the people, trying hard not to lose my head. They’re not doing too well, and I’m not either, to be honest. Some are pretty hysterical, and it makes me wonder how I would do in a situation like that. Maybe I’d be like that guy in the middle, standing there with absolutely no expression on his face. He looks almost like he’s accepted what’s going to happen, and somehow, his certainty hits me even harder than the tears.
A shot rings out.
A guy on the far left falls to the ground and I’m shaking with anger. These people need our help. We can’t just hang back and watch thirty unarmed, innocent people get killed when we could find a way to save them. We’re supposed to be doing something, but we’re standing here for some bullshit reason I can’t understand because Juliette is scared or Kenji is sick and I guess the truth is we’re just a bunch of crappy teenagers, two of whom can barely stand up straight or fire a weapon, and it’s unacceptable. I’m just about to say something—I’m about to yell something, actually—when Kenji lets go of my hand.
About goddamn time.
We charge straight ahead and my gun is already up and aimed. I spot the soldier who fired the first shot and I know I need to fire; there’s no room for hesitation. I get lucky: he goes down instantly. Five more soldiers to take out—soldiers I’m hoping I won’t recognize—and I’m doing my best, but it’s not easy. It was pure luck that got me that first target; it’s almost impossible to shoot well in this weather. I can barely see where I’m going, much less where I’m shooting, but I drop to the ground just in time to avoid a stray bullet. At least the rain is making it hard for them to take us out, too.
Kenji is making miracles happen today.
He’s invisible now, and working fast. He’s staying sharp despite being injured, and he’s just a part of the wind, taking out three soldiers in one go. Two soldiers are left and they’re distracted by Kenji’s dance just long enough for me to take one down. One more left and I’m about to take him out, too, when I see Juliette shoot him from behind.
Kenji reappears just then and he starts bellowing for the civilians to follow us back to shelter, and Juliette and I join in, doing what we can to get them to safety as quickly as possible. There are a few compounds still standing, and they should be enough. The civilians can get inside and away from the battle—as well as the storm brewing in the sky. And even though their gratitude is touching, we can’t stop long enough to talk to them. We have to settle them back into their homes, and then keep moving.
It’s what I’ve always done.
Always keep moving.
I glance at Juliette as we run, wondering how she’s holding up, and for a second I’m confused; I can’t tell if she’s crying or if it’s just the rain streaking down her cheeks. I’m hoping she’ll be okay, though. It kills me to see her deal with this. I wish she didn’t have to.
We’re running again, charging through the compounds now that we’ve gotten the civilians back into their homes. This was just a stop on the way to our final destination; we haven’t even reached the battlefield yet, where Point men and women are already trying to keep Reestablishment soldiers from slaughtering innocent civilians. Things are about to get much, much worse.
Kenji is pulling us through the half-demolished landscape. I know we’re getting closer to the action now because there’s so much more devastation here: units falling apart and half on fire, their contents strewn everywhere. Ripped couches and broken lamps, clothes and shoes and fallen bodies to step over. The compounds feel like they could stretch on forever, and the farther we go, the uglier it gets.
“We’re close!” I shout to Kenji.
He nods, and I’m surprised he even heard me.
I hear a familiar sound. “Tanks!” I call out to him. “You hear that?”
Kenji shoots me a bleak look and nods. “Let’s move!” he says, making a motion with his hand. “We’re not far now!”
It’s a fight to get to the fight, the wind whistling hard in our ears and slapping sharply against our faces, angry raindrops pelting our skin, soaking our hair. I’m frozen to the bone but there’s no time to be bothered by it. I’ve got adrenaline, and that’ll have to be enough for now.
The earth shakes under our feet as a harsh, booming sound explodes in the sky. In an instant the horizon is lit on fire, flames roaring in the distance. Someone is dropping bombs, and that means we’re already screwed. My heart is beating fast and hard, and I’d never admit it out loud, but I’m starting to get nervous.
I glance at Juliette again. I know she’s probably scared, and I want to reassure her—to tell her everything is going to be okay—but she doesn’t look my way. She’s in another world, her eyes cold and sharp, focused on the fire in the distance. She looks different—a little scary, even. Somehow, that worries me even more.
I’m paying such close attention to her that I almost trip; the ground is slick underfoot and I’m up to my ankles in mud. I pull my legs free as we forge ahead, gun steady in my hands, and focus. This is it. This is where it’s all about to get very serious, and I know enough about war to be honest with myself: I might walk onto that battlefield with a beating heart and be dragged off with a dead one.
I take a deep breath as we approach, three invisible kids walking through the compounds. We make our way over fallen units, broken glass from shattered windows; we sidestep the garbage strewn about and try not to hear the sound of people screaming. And I don’t know about the rest of us, but I’m doing my best to fight the urge to turn around and run back to where we started.
Suddenly James is the only person on my mind.
This is even worse than I was expecting. There are fallen bodies everywhere, collapsed and piled together and bleeding into one another. It’s almost impossible to distinguish arms from legs, enemies from allies. Blood and rain are mixing together and flooding the ground, and suddenly my boots are slick with mud and the blood of someone else—dead or alive, I don’t know.
It takes just a split second for enemy combatants to realize we’re new to the battlefield; when they do, they don’t hesitate. We’re already under siege, and I glance back just in time to catch a glimpse of Juliette and Kenji still making their way forward before I feel something sharp slam into my back. I spin around, and one sharp crack later my soldier’s got a broken jaw. He doubles over and reaches for his gun and I beat him to it. Now he’s down and out, and I’m already moving on to the next one.
We’re all so jam-packed together that hand-to-hand combat seems unavoidable; I duck to avoid a right hook and punch the opposing soldier in the gut on my way up, grabbing a knife from my belt to follow through. In, up, twist, and he’s done. I yank my knife out of his chest as he falls. Someone charges at me from behind and I turn to meet him when suddenly he’s coughing up blood and falling to his knees.
Kenji saved my ass.
He’s on the move and moving well, still not letting his injury cripple him. We’re fighting together, he and I, and I can feel his movements beside me. We shout warnings to each other, helping each other when we can, and we’re actually doing okay, making our way through the madness, when I hear Kenji shouting my name, his voice scared and urgent.