Authors: Jack Heath
For Mum and Dad, who are always proud of me, whether I’m writing action novels or watching trashy TV
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The carriage held but just ourselves—
—From “The Chariot”
by Emily Dickinson
The girl’s eyes opened. Inky pupils dilated, absorbing the tiniest echoes of light from the fragmented darkness of the room. In the temporary absence of a conscious mind, instinct dug its claws into her brain, and every muscle in her body tensed.
She rolled quickly off the steel table on which she had been lying, and landed with an undignified thump on the gritty concrete floor. The scrabbling of her long nails against the cold, rough surface echoed around the cavernous room.
She rose to all fours, her eyes straining against the unfamiliar blackness. Her naked skin erupted into goose bumps in the slight draft.
Fragmented memories slashed at her mind, more felt than seen. Pounding footsteps, smashing windows. Dozens of giants scooping her up, examining her with glowing orange eyes. She felt painfully alert, yet weak, as if she had been asleep for many years, or as if she had just been born.
Slowly the room came into dim focus. There was the table she had woken upon, there was the concrete beneath her bare knees, and there were the grimy brick walls. There was a tickling on her back, like the crawling of spindly spiders. She whirled around and grabbed a tuft of her waist-length brown hair in a slender fist. She continued scanning the room, storing visual data in an otherwise empty brain. There was a heavy metal door with
a seam of light beneath it. She looked up. There was a single lightbulb. Off. Cold wires behind dusty glass.
Her stomach growled. Hunger. Thirst. A furious, burning desire for sustenance.
She rose slowly to her feet. The lightbulb clinked against the top of her skull. She walked, unsteadily at first, but with growing confidence. She staggered through the darkness.
She bumped into the door and wobbled backward slightly. Somewhere in her brain, a sense of depth perception rippled into existence.
She pushed the door, palms flat against the icy metal. There was no movement. Feeling around its surface she found nothing but smooth steel and a square-edged handle, which didn’t respond to her pressure.
She pushed the door again, harder this time, and there was a creaky, whispery crunch which seemed almost deafening in the suffocating silence of the room. She ran her fingers over the brickwork around the door frame, feeling the cracks she’d made. Encouraged, she prepared to push the door harder—and then it swung open towards her.
The girl fell backward. She was on her feet in moments, washed in the light pouring through the doorway. There was a figure silhouetted in it, his slender fingers resting on the handle. The girl squinted at the glare reflecting off his bald head.
“I didn’t expect you to wake so soon,” he said.
The girl tried to sculpt words from her thoughts, and failed. She pulled her lips back into a silent snarl.
“But I knew you’d be full of surprises,” he continued. He flicked a switch. The lightbulb clicked on. The girl scrambled sideways, towards the shadows under the table. The darkness felt safer.
The man crouched slowly, examining her with wintry eyes. “You look…ready,” he said.
The girl clenched her fists, ready to attack him if he approached. But he stood up again, turning back towards the door.
“Come with me,” he said.
He walked out of the room. She heard his footsteps retreating into the distance.
The girl crawled out from under the table. Light still flooded through the doorway. She looked around her grimy cell once more and stepped into the light, closing the door behind her.
The truck roared through the warehouse, narrowly avoiding a stack of crates.
The smugglers glanced sharply towards it. After a moment’s hesitation, they abandoned their work. Drivers climbed out of trucks and cranes. Loaders pulled their carts to a halt. Guards raised their weapons. And suddenly everyone was running towards the runaway truck, guns first. Hundreds of bullet dents appeared in the door of the cabin. Sparks blossomed off the walls from the shots that missed, and off the aluminum frames of the crates. A halogen lamp fizzed out in the opposite corner of the warehouse.
From his hiding place behind a nearby crane, Agent Six of Hearts couldn’t see Kyntak at the wheel of the truck. He hoped he was keeping his head down.
The truck broke through the row of guards and kept going, screaming towards the giant warehouse door. The armed soldiers running after it hung back for a moment, expecting it to swerve.
The walls shook and the door buckled outward, twisting its slides out of line. Silence fell as the last cartridges hit the floor and the echoes died away. The smugglers crept silently towards the motionless truck, guns steady.
One of them, apparently the group’s commander, put his hand on the door handle of the half-crushed cabin. He motioned to the others, who slipped into firing stances and locked their crosshairs on the door. The leader stepped aside, pulling the door wide open.
There was a tense pause as the smugglers realized their quarry was no longer inside the cabin. They edged closer. Then they heard a beeping sound.
There was a shoebox-size lump of plastic on the seat, with a glowing LED display attached with red wires. It read
“That’s five hundred grams of Semtex A,” Agent Six called out from behind them as he approached.
They whirled to face him, and a flurry of clicking filled the warehouse as the guns were cocked again. “That means more than four hundred seventy grams of Penthrite,” Six continued. “Enough to vaporize everyone in this warehouse.”
He waved the detonator in his right hand. A green light blinked ominously on it. “If I release this button, the bomb goes off. If I hit the disarm switch, it doesn’t.”
The smugglers stared at him in absolute silence. Their guns didn’t waver.
“I’ll make this simple,” Six said, uncomfortably aware of the number of guns trained on him. “Drop your weapons and put your hands on your heads. Deck agents will come in and hand-cuff you. Then I’ll disarm the bomb.”
No one moved. “Your alternatives include shooting me and getting blown up,” Six continued, “trying to disarm the bomb from inside the truck and getting blown up, or running for the door, realizing it won’t open, and then getting blown up.”
A few of the smugglers glanced at the door, which did look too twisted to open.
“You have ten seconds,” Six said. “Nine.”
Still no one moved.
“Eight,” Six continued.
As if a telepathic command had been issued, they all lunged forward at once. Six was suddenly faced with a hundred furious smugglers, charging at him like a herd of rhinoceroses.
They’ve called my bluff
, thought Six.
Kyntak’s fake bomb obviously wasn’t convincing enough. Lucky I have a plan B.
The concrete flashed past under his feet as a lone bullet sparked off a crate next to him—he hoped the cargo inside wasn’t harmed. He ducked and weaved in and out of the stacks of crates, with the smugglers thundering hot on his heels.
Mid-step, Six dropped backward onto his side and slid under the base of a towering yellow crane. Scrambling to his feet on the other side, he kept running.
Too late, he realized that he was trapped. There were now two trucks parked nose-to-nose in his path. Someone had moved them since he’d last come through here.
The smugglers had elected to go around the crane rather than underneath it. They were coming into view behind him. A bullet pinged off one of the trucks, and Six ducked to avoid the ricochet.
Six drew his Phoenix SK909 and aimed it at the passengerside window of the truck on the right. He pulled the trigger, and cracks latticed over the shatterproof glass. He took a deep breath, ran, and jumped.
His arms, head, and shoulders penetrated the glass like a fist
through rice paper. Before he’d even touched the seats inside he was firing again, shredding the window on the driver’s side. In mid-flight, he reached forward and grabbed the window frame for balance, then catapulted his torso through to the other side.
The smugglers didn’t attempt to copy his maneuver. They ran past the trucks, looking for another way around. Six paused for a moment to give them time to catch up. This plan wouldn’t work if they lost sight of him and decided to find a different exit.
A shot whistled by overhead.
Guess they know where I am,
he thought. He picked up the pace again, keeping his head low.
Ahead was the door marked exit. Six burst through it and kept running, finding himself in a perfectly straight hallway about forty meters long and three meters wide, with no doors or windows except for the door he’d entered through and a similar one at the opposite end. The walls were concrete, the floor was linoleum. A sign on the wall to his left read fire exit→.
All according to plan
, Six thought. He kept running.
Behind him he heard the first of the smugglers hit the door, and it burst open again, swinging wildly on its hinges and slamming into the wall.
The wall crumbled slightly in the impact, revealing that it was plaster, not concrete. But the smugglers streaming through the doorway didn’t notice. All they saw was the boy up ahead, dashing towards the door at the other end of the corridor.
They charged. Some leveled their guns again.
Six was nearly at the end of the corridor now. He saw the plaster around the doorway splinter in a hail of bullets, exposing the steel underneath. He lunged forward and grabbed the door handle, wrenched the door open, and dived through, slamming it shut behind him.
The first of the smugglers reached the door, pulled it open, and tried to run through—but he crashed into a metal wall. Falling over backward and clutching his broken nose, he saw that the door didn’t lead outside at all. It didn’t lead anywhere. A steel barrier had slid across the door frame, blocking off the exit. The smuggler cried out as the others trampled him when they too charged into the solid doorway. Soon he was buried under a pile of people.
The last smuggler had just run through the door leading into the corridor when something slammed shut behind him. He whirled around and saw that the door itself hadn’t closed, but the door frame was no longer empty. A slab of metal, identical to the one at the other end, was blocking the exit.
Outside the corridor, Kyntak looked at Six. “May I do the honors?” he asked.
“Go ahead,” Six said.
A voice boomed through the corridor from an unseen PA system.
“The doors and walls are steel, bonded with tungsten. I doubt you’ll do much damage with your bare hands or your weapons.”
The smugglers looked around, searching for the source of the voice.
“You are all under arrest for possession of contraband.”
There was a pause.
Kyntak parked the truck with the trapped criminals inside next to the crumpled front door of the warehouse, while Six pried open some of the crates.
The first one had five children in it, all between seven and ten years old. The multiple needle marks in their arms suggested that they could have been in this drug-induced sleep for some time, and Six could see their bones through their skin. They probably hadn’t been fed in days.
He looked away, feeling sick. It wasn’t the sight of these kids as much as the knowledge that he’d find the same thing in every crate he opened. This warehouse held hundreds of children, stuffed inside packing crates like food or furniture.
Child-smuggling was happening more and more these days—presumably some new sector of ChaoSonic was buying up big. The giant corporation had all sorts of uses for children, from black-market adoptions to slave labor, but Six had a feeling he knew what had caused this sudden boom. Eight months ago, he had broken into the headquarters of the Lab, ChaoSonic’s primary biological weapons research division, to rescue captured Deck agents. He and Kyntak had destroyed the facility and plucked the Lab’s latest human weapon from the flames: a genetically engineered baby girl—their sister. The collapse of the Lab had crippled ChaoSonic’s bioweapons work for a while, but Six knew that they would find another division to fill the vacuum. And now someone was purchasing thousands of children. Six figured that the increased demand was caused by the need for test subjects.
Saving these kids would slow ChaoSonic down, he knew. But it wouldn’t stop them.
Six had opened all the crates. She wasn’t here. It had been six months since soldiers had invaded Kyntak’s house and abducted the baby girl, and each day made it less likely that they would find her. By now she was probably either dead or a prisoner of whoever had devised the abduction.
“No sign of Nai?” Kyntak asked as he approached, carrying a large yellow box.
“No,” Six replied.
Kyntak clapped a hand on Six’s shoulder. “There are plenty more places to look. We’ll find her.”
Six didn’t respond. The fact that there were plenty more places to look didn’t reassure him. The City was 7.5 million square kilometers, and Nai could be anywhere in it. He began walking back to the truck as Kyntak opened the box, exposing fruit bars, chocolate biscuits, and water bottles, which he distributed to the dazed children emerging from the crates.
“When will the shelter vans arrive?” he asked.
“About twenty minutes,” Six called over his shoulder. There was a small organization operating under ChaoSonic’s radar which found homes for orphaned or abandoned children—he had called them already. They would provide housing for the kids until homes could be found for them.
“Job well done,” Kyntak said as he walked back towards the truck. “I should promote myself.”
“The other agents don’t know you’re one of the Jokers,” Six pointed out. “It’d be suspicious. And all you did was drive a truck into a door and park another one in front of an exit.”
“All you did was run.” Kyntak opened the passenger door. “All you
do is run.”
The yelling and cursing of smugglers from inside the artificial corridor interrupted them. Kyntak picked up the microphone.
“This is your captain speaking,” he said. “We’ll be cruising at an altitude of one meter and having a brief stopover at a roadside merchant so I can have a sandwich before we reach our eventual destination—prison.
“You will be traveling in a twenty-four-wheel ChaoSonic
Roamer truck—it is thirty-eight meters long with a three-meter cabin, three meters wide, and two meters high plus one-meter wheels. It weighs about seventeen metric tons. As we have around a hundred passengers today, excluding myself and my lovely crew…”
He winked cheekily at Six.
“Copilot,” Six hissed.
“I calculate that you each get just over one square meter of floor space for your journey. Have a pleasant trip.”
The yelling and cursing increased in volume.