My face was in the dirt again. I couldn’t remember why I should get up.
Officer Mayer’s voice was distant this time, and I squinted to see my com lying on the ground.
I slammed my fist down, the little plastic device making a pleasing crunch sound. I almost smiled, but a hand grabbed my shirt collar and I wiped at my eyes to see Gregor preparing for another hit.
I didn’t care.
Callum grabbed the fist and Gregor let go of me. I collapsed back to the ground. Callum punched Gregor, the hardest hit I’d ever seen come out of him. The bigger Reboot stumbled and Callum struck him again.
“Would you shut up?” Callum yelled. Considering neither Gregor nor I had said a word, I could guess who he was talking to.
He went for a third punch, but Gregor snatched his arm and cracked it.
Callum didn’t even wince. He slammed his palm against the bone, putting it back in place as he kicked Gregor in the stomach. He doubled over in pain and Callum kneed him in the face.
Gregor went down with a yell and Callum slapped the hand- and foot cuffs on him. His feet thrashed, but he wasn’t going anywhere.
Callum knelt down next to me and I forced myself to sit up, wiping the back of my sleeve against my bloody face.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, unable to look at him.
“Twenty-two!” I could hear Officer Mayer yelling in his ear. “What is going on?”
I felt his hand on my cheek and I looked up at his bruised face. He gave me a little smile. He opened his mouth to say something, then frowned as Officer Mayer began yelling again.
I gently removed the com from his ear and set it on the ground.
“What a rebel,” he said quietly. He scooted closer and gathered me into his arms. I felt like a little kid in his lap, but when I pressed my face to his chest and smelled his fresh skin through his clothes, I didn’t mind.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. “I was useless—”
“No, you weren’t,” he said, running his fingers beneath my helmet and up into my hair. I liked his warm fingers there, liked the sensations they sent down my neck. “I’m sorry about Ever. She was your best friend?”
I’d never thought of her that way. “Yes,” I said.
He wrapped both arms around my waist, holding me tightly. I could hear the muffled sounds of Officer Mayer yelling in the com from a few feet away, and I closed my eyes and blocked the sound. No one could see or hear us. I had been under the watch of a HARC guard every minute of the past five years.
I felt free.
It was a false freedom, of course, since my tracker gave away my exact location, but I sank into Callum for a moment and pretended.
When I pulled away he tried to bring me back, but I shook my head and gestured to his com.
“You should put it in,” I said. “If you don’t report they’ll send in more Reboots. It’ll be bad if they send more in and we’re alive.”
He sighed and reluctantly stuck the com in his ear. “Callum Twenty-two with Wren One-seventy-eight. Assignment secure. Lissy One-twenty-four and Raul Ninety-three are dead.” He listened and looked around. “All right.” He grabbed his helmet, plunking it on his head and adjusting the camera. “See? She’s fine. Her com just got smashed.” Callum winked at me. He knew exactly how that had happened.
He paused for a moment, then looked at me sadly.
“Can’t you send—” He sighed. “All right.” He jerked his head toward Ninety-three and Lissy. “They want us to bring them back.”
I nodded, beating down the disgust. “Yeah, standard procedure when Reboots die in the field. I’ve got them.”
“I can do it, Wren—”
“It’s fine,” I said, attaching a leash to Ninety-three’s wrists, then Lissy’s. “You get him.”
Callum secured Gregor, a frown crossing his face as he hauled the Reboot to his feet.
I frowned at him in confusion.
“No,” he repeated into his com.
“What are they saying?” I asked.
“Nothing. You sure you got them? I can take one.”
“It’s fine. Are they telling you to do something?”
“Nope. Let’s go.” He nudged Gregor forward.
“Callum, you can’t just ignore them.”
He cast an amused smile back at me. “Come on. Everything’s okay.”
I doubted that, but I trudged after him, dragging the two dead Reboots behind me.
Leb ran around the corner, coming to a stop when he spotted us. He winced as his gaze fell on me, and I wiped at my face and found blood.
“Where’s your gear?” he asked.
“Smashed,” I replied.
He pulled his hand com out of his pocket and lifted it to his lips as he turned his back to us. “I have Twenty-two and One-seventy-eight. Smashed gear. Heading back now.”
Callum and I piled the adult Reboot, Lissy, and Ninety-Three into the cargo shuttle and headed back to our own. We plopped down in our seats and Leb settled in across from us as the shuttle lifted off the ground.
Callum let out an annoyed sigh, giving his helmet a shove so the camera pointed up at the ceiling. He took his com out of his ear and sat on it.
“They won’t shut up,” he said, to our horrified looks.
“What are they—” I stopped, glancing at Leb as the shuttle lifted off.
“There aren’t any other camera or audio feeds in here, if yours are gone. Just his,” Leb said. He nodded to the com in his pocket. “They can’t hear everything on mine. It mutes unless I’m using it.”
Callum looked from him to me in surprise.
“What are they saying?” I asked, ignoring the look.
“They told me to kill Gregor.”
I gasped, clapping my hand over my mouth to stop the wave of nausea that crashed over me.
“You shouldn’t have done that, kid,” Leb said. “They did not sound happy.”
Leb’s sympathetic tone made the pounding in my stomach worse, and I forced my hand away from my mouth and gripped my seat instead.
“You can’t just disobey an order,” I said, my voice shaking.
“I can, and I did. They can’t make me do that.”
“But you knew! I told you it was a capture-if-possible, kill-if-necessary mission.”
“It wasn’t necessary. He was contained. The only time it’s necessary is in self-defense. They can’t make me kill someone.”