Authors: Robert Liparulo
Tags: #Thriller, #ebook, #book
He rose and limped through the door. Swinging his weapon back and forth, he crossed to the foyer. Ben was stomping down the stairs.
The front door was open. Emile came through it from outside. He shook his head.
“What happened?” Ben said.
Michael started for the door in the kitchen. As he passed another doorânarrow: a pantry or coat closetâit opened. A manânot the HVTâbolted out, screaming. He was on Michael, hammering at him with something, cracking it against the helmet.
Static flickered over Michael's screen. The man's image flickered with it, his face seeming to change. He went out of focus, then became sharp again, all eyes and nose and teeth. Michael couldn't get his gun around. He pushed, but the man was clinging to him with one hand while the other continued beating the object into his helmet and shoulder.
The man gasped and crumpled.
Liquid spattered over Michael's face mask, obscuring his view. Bursts of static on the screen pierced Michael's eyes. He reached for his chinstrap. His fingers slipped over it, wet. He tugged off his glove, got the chinstrap unsnapped, and ripped off his helmet.
At his feet, bleeding out on the floor, gasping for breath, was a young boy.
The child could not have been more than twelve or thirteen years old.
Unfiltered by the computer, the cartoon aspects were gone. The blood was not black, but bright red. And everywhere. It spurted out of a hole in the boy's side. The kid looked up at Michael, fear and disbelief making his eyes wide. He tried to talk, hitched in a breath. His head pitched back. His chest stopped rising and falling. The air he'd taken in eased out.
Michael dropped his helmet and fell to his knees. He touched the boy's face. The flesh under his fingers was soft. Michael slid his hand down to the wound. Wet, sticky, warm. His finger slipped into the hole. He felt bone.
“What?” he said. He looked up at the helmeted soldier whose shotgun still oozed smoke. “This is
real! Just a . . . just a boy.”
“Michael.” The voice was muffled by the helmet, but he recognized it as Ben's. “Put your helmet back on.”
“But . . . can't you see? This is real. He's dead. We killed him.”
“Put it on, now.” Ben shifted his aim from the boy to Michael.
Michael's chest tightened. “Wait!” he said. “This is real! It's not an exercise, it's not a game!” He felt sick. Had he really believed it was all just a game?
Realistic, yes . . . that's what made the Outis Corporation the best at training soldiers. That's why he'd chosen to go with it right out of high school.
? No, no . . . not now, not here. They had not been deployed. They were still on U.S. soil, he was sure of it. They often traveled, or pretended to travel, to training facilities Outis maintained all over the country. And they had traveled this time, but not far.
“What's going on?” he said. His eyes stung, clouded up. He wiped at them.
Ben was a statue, unmoving except for the finger tightening against the trigger.
Emile darted forward, putting himself between Michael and the team leader. He held his hand up to Ben. “No!” He swiveled his helmet around to Michael. “Put your helmet on. Michael! You
For the first time, Michael saw not his helmet but his own pale face staring back at him from the surface of his teammate's face mask. He was accustomed to the helmets, their uniformity and anonymity. But now, with his own off, and a dead boy in front of him, they seemed alien and wrong.
“Out of the way, Emile.” Ben sidestepped, reclaiming his target. “You have till three,” he said to Michael. “One . . .”
“Michael!” Emile said. “Put it on!”
“Two . . .”
Once again, Emile stepped in the way. He spoke to Ben, words Michael could not hear.
Michael looked down at the boy. About his brother's age. Kind of looked like him too. He spotted what had rolled away from his hand when he fell, the weapon the boy had attacked him with: a family-sized can of chili. Michael felt dizzy. He closed his eyes.
is what's not real: this dead boy. The game, the exercise, those are real. I got hit on the head, that's all. Jumping off the roof. Some crazy actor's overexcitement when he attacked me. Got me thinking weird. I'll open my eyes, and the boy will be gone.
But he wasn't. The metallic odor of blood and tangy cordite from the gunshot that had shed it stung Michael's nostrils. He started to hyperventilate. He stood. “How could this happen?” he whispered. “This isn't right.”
Ben handed something to Emile.
Michael's eyes focused beyond them, to the den. The cartoon characters on the television were doing a cancan through a field of flowers. Red blood ran like claw marks over the screen. He squinted, tilted his head, but he could not quite see the body on the floor in thereâonly a blue-jeaned leg and sneaker. They were small. He had shot another child, maybe a few years younger than the one at his feet.
He groaned. “What have we done?”
Emile stepped toward him, his hand out, calming him. “It's all right,” he said. “It's not what it looks like.”
“Not with the helmets on,” Michael agreed. “Take them off, you'll see. You'll see what's real.”
“We've all had them off at one time or another, Michael,” Emile said. He edged closer. “It's all in the timing, man. You took yours off a little too soon, that's all.”
Michael looked around Emile. “Ben, who did you shoot in that room over there? Who screamed? Who'd you shoot in the bedroom upstairs?” He started to weep.
“Who did you kill?
Emile sprang and seized Michael's wrist. His other hand came around from behind, holding a pistol.
No, noânot a gun
, Michael realized. It was the CO
injection pistol the team leader carried for hostage-taking.
Michael punched at Emile. He struck his helmet, his arm. He stopped him from swinging the syringe closer.
“No!” he said. “Look, look what's happening. This is real.”
He stepped back, and his ankle gave out. He went down hard. His cheek landed in a puddle of blood. The boy's lifeless eyes glared at him accusingly.
Emile's knee dropped into Michael's ribs. He felt the wind forced out of his lungs, but before he could respondâbefore he could push Emile off or take a breathâthe cold barrel of the injection pistol pushed into his neck.
The nightmares began.
THREE DAYS LATER
The place was called Casa Bonita. It was the closest thing the Mile High City had to a true theme restaurant, the kind that pocked the landscape around Disney World like acne. Mexico was done here
en una manera grande
: lava-rock walls, thatched-roof gazebos, fake palm trees festooned with holiday lights, what appeared to be an entire street lifted out of Puerto Vallarta. The centerpiece was a lagoon into which “cliff divers” plunged, alongside a three-story waterfall, every half hour. Diners sat at tables in aristocratic dining halls and waterside cabanas, in the caves of the Sierra Madres, even in the darkness behind the waterfall. Kids played games in one of several arcade rooms and crept through Black Bart's Hideaway, a cavern of passageways where lights flashed on to reveal monsters hidden in the walls and where air, accompanied by shrill alarms, shot out at unsuspecting passersby. Parents got caricature portraits made near a wishing well and passed time in the cantina. Somehow, this tour of
la Tierra Azteca
fit in a single building that, from outside, mimicked an oversized Spanish mission.
Laura Fuller gazed up at the black-painted ceilings, where tiny lights twinkled like stars. “I thought our flight was taking us to Denver, not MazatlÃ¡n,” she said, sipping a margarita.
“Great, isn't it?” John Hutchinson pushed his plate away and leaned back in his chair. He plopped a hand on his belly, groaning. “These all-you-can-eat meals should be illegal.”
“I had three plates of enchiladas,” said Laura's son, Dillon. He didn't bother to look up from the sopaipilla he was dousing with honey.
“It was a long flight, and we didn't get up in time for breakfast,” Laura explained.
Hutch was familiar with the journey.
The day before, Laura and Dillon had taken an eight-passenger commuter out of Fiddler Falls, a speck of a town in northern Saskatchewan. The stomach-tossing, six-hour flight alone was enough to lay seasoned travelers low, but then they had spent the night in Saskatoon and caught a 6:30
commercial flight to Denverâanother five hours in the air.
Hutch caught the eye of a wandering trinket salesman and waved him over. The man stepped up to the table, bearing lighted spinning butterflies, glowing rabbit ears, and swords that
ed when wavedâapparently pirates and conquistadors used the same bladesmith.
“What's your fancy?” Hutch asked Dillon.
“I'm too old for that stuff,” the boy said around a mouthful of food. His eyes sparkled at the goodies all the same.
“Ten is not too old for a light saber,” Hutch informed him. “Green or blue?”
“Hutch, really,” Laura said, “you don't have to.”
“If you're going to explore the caves, you gotta have a sword.” He pointed at one and handed the man a twenty. He turned the saber over to Dillon.
The boy, all eyes and teeth, accepted it. He swung it around, then held it vertically in front of himself. Its blue glow radiated over his face.
Hutch remembered those eyes, at once vibrant and sad; the mouth that when it smiled made dimpled cheeks and revealed Chiclet teeth and a little tongue that seemed not to know quite what to do with itself. It'd been over a year since he'd seen Dillon. Hutch had bought Laura a satellite phone, the only kind that worked in the wilderness she and her son called home. He'd burned through a few paychecks' worth of airtime minutes, but it wasn't the same as being with them.
They'd met a year ago when hell had staked a claim on Fiddler Falls. A young man named Declan Page and a homicidal gang of youthful followers had attempted to take over the townâfor not much more reason than because they thought they could. Laura's husband, Tom, Dillon's father, had died fighting them.
Hutch and three friends had been camping in the hills above town. They had inadvertently crashed Declan's party, and through dumb luck, according to Hutch, or through “survival skills and heroism,” according to some news media, they had managed to stop the siege. Hutch had saved the boy's life. In turn, Dillon had
Hutch's life to him, reminding him that despite the nasty divorce he was going through, life was worth living and the children his ex was trying to keep from him were worth fighting for.
Hutch leaned across the table to run his fingers over Dillon's hair and cheek. “I'm glad you're here.”
Dillon rolled his eyes. “Finally!” He looked anxiously at his mom. “How long, a week?”
“We head home next weekend,” she said.
Dillon frowned. He gazed at Hutch, and his eyes got a little watery.
Hutch felt the same. A week was too short, but he said, “Hey, we can do a lot in a week. You'll see. In a week, you'll be so beat you'll want to go home just to rest.”
“I do chores at home,” Dillon said.
“He does,” Laura said. “It's amazing, how much he helps.”
Dillon hung his head. He found the switch on the sword and turned it off.
Laura smiled at Hutch. “We're tired, that's all.”
“I'm sorry,” Hutch said, bringing his watch up. “I should have thought about that. You need a nap more than you do a crazy place like this.” He moved a napkin from his lap to the sauce-smeared plate in front of him.
“No,” Dillon said, perking up. “That's all right. I want to see more.” As if to prove it, he turned the sword's light on again. “Can I . . . uh . . . ?” His finger pointed this way and that; his eyes roamed elsewhere.
“You sure?” Hutch said. Getting an enthusiastic affirmation, Hutch looked to Laura. She shrugged, as if to say
. He tossed Dillon a plastic baggie of tokens. “Don't spend it all in one place.”
Dillon hefted it in his hand. His smile grew bigger. He stood and looked around, unsure which direction to head first.
“Dillon,” Hutch said, gesturing for the boy to draw closer. He whispered, “Check out the area under the bridge in Black Bart's. It's really cool.” He pointed, and Dillon ran off. Hutch called to him: “But don't get lost. It's easy to do in this place.” To Laura he said, “This is Logan's favorite restaurant.”
Logan was Hutch's twelve-year-old son.
“Once, when he was about seven, he ran off like that and disappeared. We couldn't find him anywhere. Cops came, started interviewing people, checking the security tapes. Janet was freaking out.”
“You weren't?” Laura's eyes had grown big.
Hutch smiled. “In my way. Thing is, I should have known. I've been coming here since
was a kid. Finally, I had a revelation.” He laughed and took a swig from a bottle of Dos Equis. “Black Bart's Hideaway. There's a plank bridge in there. If you're mischievous enough, you can slip between the rocks and get under it. Almost no way to see under there, it's so dark, even with the lights on.”
“He got stuck?” Laura said. She looked over her shoulder the direction Dillon had gone. “Why didn't he call out?”
“Uh-uh,” Hutch said. “Not Logan. He was hiding.”
“That whole time?”
“Well, it is called Hideaway.”
“Exactly.” Hutch drained the bottle into his mouth. He reached for the flag attached to a tiny pole on the table. Raising it beckoned a server. Then he stopped and withdrew his hand. He'd promised himself no more than two beers at a single sitting. After returning from Canada, he'd had trouble with that. It was just too blasted easy to keep going.