Two bullets bit at my shoulder as blasts erupted from the hallway. Humans were forbidden to own guns. Many did anyway.
I pointed for Twenty-two to get out of the way. He stumbled over a chair, his eyes fixed on the holes in my shoulder. I ducked as another shot whizzed over my helmet and Twenty-two pressed his body into the rotting wood of the wall.
I ran to the hallway, using my arm to cover my face. Depending on the type of gun he was using, my helmet might offer no protection at all from a direct shot.
But he was a lousy shot. I felt one in my chest and another scrape my neck as the blasts rang in my ears. When I rounded the corner and came face-to-face with him he missed from three feet away.
He was out of bullets with that last shot.
“Twenty-two!” I yelled. Teaching mission.
Cole sent his foot straight into my stomach. A gasp escaped my mouth and my back hit the wall with a loud crack.
He took off at a full sprint to the back door and I hauled myself up to my full height. The pain pinged at me in several places—how many times had he shot me? Four, perhaps. Only two had gone straight through. I was going to have to dig the other two out with a knife when I got home.
“Come on,” I called to Twenty-two as I took off after the human.
I only caught a quick glimpse of the terror on his face before I was running at top speed down the dirt road behind Cole. His long legs kicked up dirt as he flew down the street.
I picked up the pace, Twenty-two’s footsteps pounding behind me. At least he could keep up now.
I jumped over the trash bin Cole threw in my way and he disappeared around a corner. He was faster than the average human.
The chase felt good.
I rounded the corner and sidestepped his swing before his fist could make contact with my face.
I loved it when they got cocky and stopped running.
What harm could that little blond girl possibly do to me? No human had ever said it to me, but I’d seen it in their eyes.
I delivered a swift punch to his jaw to answer the question.
He stumbled and I punched him again. Blood on my hands this time.
I took his legs out from under him with one kick and I slapped the handcuffs on his wrists. He let out an angry scream and kicked his feet, frantically trying to make contact with my stomach. I grabbed the foot cuffs and bound his ankles.
I attached the leash and looked up at Twenty-two. His chest rose and fell so quickly I thought something might burst out of it. His face was red, although it seemed more from anger than running.
“Secure the feet if they’re runners,” I said, pointing. “Especially if they’re fast.”
Cole spit on my shoes, so I gave him a kick in the mouth. Not necessary. But it felt good.
“Wren One-seventy-eight with Twenty-two,” I spoke into my com. “Assignment secure.”
“Proceed to shuttle.”
I looked up at Twenty-two. “Do you remember how to get back?”
His breathing had slowed. His panic, however, had increased. The smiling Twenty-two, the boy in the shuttle ten minutes ago, was gone, replaced by the terrified Reboot staring at me. His eyes flicked over the bullet wounds still seeping blood all over my body, then to the man I had tied at my feet.
They all looked terrified the first time; I suppose I should have known Twenty-two would be worse.
I pointed in the right direction but he didn’t move. I hauled Cole through the dirt and past him, grabbing his arm and giving it a tug.
He said nothing; I had to glance back to see if he actually followed. He did, trudging along with his face turned to the ground.
“Hey! Hey! Help me!” Cole yelled.
I whirled around to see a human crouched at the side of a building, his arms wrapped around his thin brown pants. Twenty-two stopped and the human fell backward, panicked gasps escaping his mouth. The human’s eyes met mine and I saw the flash of recognition. Many humans in Rosa knew me from my five years of assignments. They were never pleased to see me.
Twenty-two drew a shaky breath as he looked from me to the horrified human.
“Curfew violation,” I said into my com.
The human let out a yell, scrambling to his feet.
“Leave it,” the voice on the other end said.
I jerked my head at Twenty-two, but he was watching the human throw terrified glances over his shoulder as he ran.
“They ordered us to leave it,” I said, pulling on Cole’s leash again. I turned and Twenty-two followed a few seconds later.
I threw Cole in the human shuttle and we walked to the adjacent one in silence. I felt like I should say something, although I had no idea what. I had a speech I usually made at this point—toughen up, accept your life, it gets easier—but I couldn’t remember it. His sad little face made me want to say nothing at all.
We entered the Reboot shuttle and Leb gestured for us to sit down. Only Hugo and his newbie were back, so there was nothing to fill the silence as we strapped ourselves in.
The rest of the Reboots trickled in, Lissy and her newbie last. Forty-three had two black eyes and tears streamed down his bloody face. It looked as though they’d had a tough human, and Lissy hadn’t done much to get her trainee out of the way. Twenty-two gave me the smallest of grateful smiles. That could have been him. My mouth turned up just slightly.
“Sit,” Leb said, turning away as he closed the driver’s door.
Forty-three just stood there. Lissy yanked on his shirt and he whirled around, his hand smacking across her face. She gasped and shot to her feet, shoving her hands against his shoulders so hard he stumbled.
Leb strode across the shuttle and grabbed Forty-three by the front of his collar. He roughly shoved him into his seat, gesturing for Lissy to sit as well. She glared at her trainee as she strapped in.
Forty-three’s breathing was still heavy, his gold eyes fixed on Leb. The officer didn’t notice. Leb sat down and stared at his hands, lost in thought.
Forty-three’s mouth twisted, hate spewing from his every pore. I’d seen newbies have similar reactions after their first assignment, although many of them were better at concealing it. The hatred of humans, particularly of HARC officers, was understandable in a new Reboot. They were shoving guns in our faces and yelling and making us do their dirty work. It didn’t bother me anymore, but I remembered the feeling as a newbie. I’d understood my trainer didn’t have a choice any more than I did. It was the humans who made us do this.
I tried to catch Lissy’s eye, to get her to control her trainee before Leb noticed, but she was biting her nails, her gaze on the shuttle wall.