THEY ALWAYS SCREAMED.
My assignment wailed as she slipped in the mud, whipping her head around to see if I was gaining on her.
Her feet hit solid pavement and she broke into a full sprint. My feet grazed the ground as I chased her, my short legs easily overtaking her panicked attempt at running.
I yanked her arm. She hit the ground. The sound that escaped her mouth was more animal than human as she desperately tried to stand.
I hated the screaming.
I pulled two sets of cuffs off my belt and secured them around her wrists and feet.
“No, no, no, no,” she choked out as I attached the leash to her handcuffs. “I didn’t do it.”
I wrapped the leash around my hand and ignored her protests as I hauled her to her feet and dragged her down the street past the crumbling wooden shacks.
“It wasn’t me! I didn’t kill nobody!” Her movements became wild, almost convulsive, and I turned to glare at her.
“There’s some human left in you, ain’t there?” she asked, craning her neck to look at the number above the bar code on my wrist.
She froze. Her eyes flew from the 178 printed on my skin to my face and she let out another shriek.
No. There was no human left in me.
The screaming continued as I led her to the shuttle and threw her inside with the other members of her gang. The metal bars clanged down as soon as I stepped aside, but she didn’t try to make a run for it. She dove behind two bloodied humans in back.
Away from me.
I turned around, my eyes flicking over the slums. The deserted dirt road stretched out in front of me, dotted with poorly constructed wooden homes. One of them was leaning so heavily to the left I thought it might tip over at the slightest gust of wind.
“Wren One-seventy-eight,” I said, adjusting the camera on my helmet so it pointed straight out. “Assignment secure.”
“Assist Tom Forty-five,” a voice on the other end of my com ordered. “In pursuit on Dallas Street. Coming up on the corner of Main.”
I took off down the dirt road and turned into an alley, the stench of rotten trash hanging in the humid air so thick I wanted to bat it away from my face. I sucked in a deep breath and held it in my lungs, trying to block out the smell of the slums.
Forty-five whizzed past the alleyway on the paved road in front of me, his black pants torn and flapping against his skinny legs. He left a liquid trail behind him I assumed was blood.
I darted onto the street and flew past him, the sound of my boots causing the human ahead of us to turn. This one didn’t scream.
He stumbled on the uneven road and a knife fell from his hand and skidded across the pavement. I was close enough to hear his panicked breathing as he dove for it. I reached for him, but he shot to his feet, whirling around and slicing the blade across my stomach.
I jumped back as the blood trickled down my midsection and the human’s lips turned up in a triumphant smile, like this was a victory.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
Forty-five hurled himself at the beefy human, taking them both down. I hadn’t trained Forty-five, and it was obvious. Sloppy and impulsive, he was barely faster than the human.
Before I could intercede, Beefy took hold of Forty-five’s neck, gave his helmet a shove with his palm, and jammed the knife straight through the boy’s forehead. I winced as Forty-five gurgled and slid off him, his bright, gold eyes vacant as he hit the dirt.
The human scrambled to his feet, doing a few celebratory jumps and making whooping sounds. “Yeah! What you got, Blondie?”
I adjusted my com, ignoring the human’s annoying attempt to bait me. “Wren One-seventy-eight. Forty-five down.” Beefy’s smile slid off his face at the mention of my number.
“Continue.” The voice coming through my com was flat, uninterested.
I locked eyes with Beefy. I wanted him to run. I wanted to kick his legs out from under him and smash that triumphant look on his face into the dirt.
I took a quick glance down at Forty-five.
I wanted it to hurt.
Beefy whirled around and raced away from me, pumping his flabby arms as fast as he could. I bit back a smile as I watched him go. I’d let him have a tiny head start.
The chase was my favorite part.
I leaped over Forty-five’s body and the human looked back as I gained on him. I grabbed his shirt and he stumbled with a grunt, his face smacking against the ground. He clawed desperately at the gravel, but it was too late. I jammed my foot into his back as I pulled out my cuffs. I snapped them around his ankles.
He screamed, of course.
“Wren One-seventy-eight. Forty-five’s assignment is now secure.”
“Report to the shuttle,” the voice in my ear said.
I attached a leash to Beefy’s wrists, jerking it tighter until he yelped in pain, and tugged him over to Tom Forty-five’s body. He was a young kid, maybe fourteen or so, just out of training. I avoided his vacant eyes as I roped the leash around his wrists.
I lugged them past the sad little wooden houses of the slums and back to the shuttle, the blood crusting on my stomach as my wound closed. I shoved Beefy into the black box with the other humans, who cringed at the mere sight of me.
I turned away and headed for the other shuttle, pausing to pull the knife out of Tom Forty-five’s head. The door opened and the Reboots looked up from their seats, their eyes immediately skipping over me to rest on Forty-five.
I pushed aside the nagging voice that said I should have been able to save him, and carefully placed him on the floor. I took a quick glance around the shuttle and found my most recent trainee, Marie One-thirty-five, strapped into her seat. I scanned her for signs of injury, but didn’t see any. She’d survived her first solo mission. Not that I’d expected otherwise.
She looked from me to Forty-five and back again. She’d been silent through most of our training, so I barely knew her any better then I had her first day as a newbie, but I thought the expression on her face was gratitude. My trainees had the best survival rate.
I handed the knife to the shuttle officer, who gave me a sympathetic look. Leb was the only officer I could tolerate. The only human I could tolerate, for that matter.
I took one of the small seats lined up inside the black windowless shuttle, pulling the straps down my chest as I leaned back. I stole a glance up at the other Reboots, but they were all looking at Forty-five sadly. One even wiped at tears on her face, smearing blood and dirt across her cheek in the process.
The lower numbers often cried. Forty-five probably cried. He was only dead forty-five minutes before he rose. The less time dead before the Reboot, the more humanity retained.