“This way,” I called, dropping Callum’s hand as we crossed the dirt road. The spotlight lost us as I wove in between houses and darted over lawns, but I could see officers in the distance, a huge group of them dispersing on the streets.
I came to a stop at the back of the old shelter and yanked so hard on the door that the building actually swayed like it was going to fall over. I stumbled as the door swung open easily and stepped inside only to reel back, hitting Callum’s chest.
People. Humans, everywhere. They smelled like grime and filth and infection. I knew that smell.
I recognized the humans huddled in their own little corners, some using only clothes or sticks to mark their territory. Saw the track marks on their arms, the shaky hands, the desperation etched on their faces.
As a child, I lived in a similar place for months while my parents floated on an intense high, a drug that lasted so long they often didn’t have time to come down before finding an opportunity to shoot up again. The squatters in the abandoned buildings were the worst off of the slum dwellers, the ones who gave every cent they had to the drug dealers and criminals who had stalled Rosa’s progress.
I’d forgotten most of my time squatting with my parents, but I remembered the smell and how I used to hold the blanket to my nose at night to block it while I slept.
Callum gagged, which drew a few interested looks. Some of the humans blinked and stared, too high to recognize the two Reboots standing in front of them. But others weren’t that far gone.
I raised my fingers to my lips, begging for silence, but it was useless. A regular human was bad, but these people were worse.
They screamed and I was struck by the sudden impulse to pull out my gun and start shooting. There were about thirty of them. How long would it take to kill them all?
“We can go out that way.”
Callum’s voice sliced through my thoughts and I looked over at him in surprise. I had almost forgotten he was there.
It occurred to me that he would be horrified if I started killing people. He’d give me that look, like I was a monster. He had been willing to die because he refused to take a life.
But me, I contemplated shooting everyone.
“Wren,” he said, pulling urgently on my arm.
I let him drag me to the front door and out into the darkness. We took off in the opposite direction of the spotlight.
I forgot that I hated humans. I had been clinical about the assignments; that’s how we were trained. But I hated them, even when I was one.
Dirty, disgusting, violent, selfish, impulsive, and now I had to spend days—weeks—wading through them to find Adina and this mythical Reboot reservation.
I wanted to hate Callum for it, but my brain immediately screamed at only me. Me, the one who could never get Callum to follow the rules. Me, who couldn’t train him well enough to survive inside HARC. Me, who brought him into this madness, where he was most likely going to be killed anyway.
Bullets peppered the ground as we ran, biting at Callum’s ankles and spewing blood across the dirt. It slowed him down, so I pulled ahead and grabbed his arm to tug him along.
The houses were closer together, the night quieter as we crossed into the nicer area of the slums. The bullets from above stopped and I thought maybe they had lost us.
But the ground crew had found us. The officers, six, seven—no, nine of them, came barreling around a corner, their guns poised.
“Duck,” I said, pushing his head down as they fired.
I left him on the ground and flew at the soldiers. I recognized a couple familiar faces through their plastic masks, although the terror splashed across them was new.
I slammed my foot into an officer’s chest as he fired at my head, dodging the shot and knocking the gun out of his hand. The others tried to grab me but I darted away, faster than their little human eyes could keep track of.
I lifted the gun. One, two, three. I shot each one in the chest, ignoring the bullets that tore through my jacket and bounced off my helmet.
One of the soldiers unhooked a grenade from his belt and tossed it frantically in my direction, missing by several feet.
The grenade sailed past him and hit the house just behind him. He dove for the ground as the blast blew out the back of the little wooden shack, engulfing the lawn, and him, in flames.
The barrel of a gun pressed against my forehead. The panic hit, for only a moment, and I kicked his legs as the bullet grazed my ear. My fingers tightened around my gun and I fired a shot into his chest.
Another blast rocked the ground, and I snatched a grenade off the dead officer’s belt and launched it at the men running for me.
One remained, and I turned to see him taking aim at Callum, who was on the ground, trying to extinguish the flames lapping up his legs.
I fired three times, my aim messy as fear took over. The final soldier fell after the third shot and I dove for Callum, jumping on top of him and rolling us through the dirt. I smothered the lingering flames with my hands and hopped off him, pulling him to his feet.
He swayed, his hands shaking as he lifted them to examine the damage. His skin was red, charred in places. His shirt was almost totally gone, his pants nothing but scorched threads.
“Are you all right?” I asked, swiftly taking a glance around.
“Yes,” he stammered. “I’m—I’m sorry, I tried to get away, but as soon as I got the first fire out they threw another one and—”
“It’s fine,” I said, taking his hand as gently as I could. “Can you run?”
He nodded, wincing as we took off. We only had to go a block; I was headed to the closest hiding place I could think of.
The large square trash receptacle was piled too high, as usual, and sat not far from the brick wall of the schoolhouse. I pushed the large gray container closer to the wall, gesturing for Callum to get behind it. My first instinct was to jump inside and bury ourselves beneath the trash, but if I were an officer, I would immediately look in every place with a lid or door that shut. We weren’t entirely covered behind the trash bin—they’d be able to see us from the side, at the right angle—but it was such an open place to hide I hoped they wouldn’t even think to look for us there.
I edged around and leaned against the wall next to Callum, casting a worried glance in his direction. I’d never been burned to the extent he was—his arms were black in places—but I remembered the pain of lesser burns well. The stinging had been impossible to totally shut out, mixing with the uncomfortable sensation of new skin stretching over the dead.