The First AnnouncementEdit
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location, Early Morning
Jaxon Jeremiah, STAR Defense Squad, was trying hard to appear impassive. He was good at it, but maybe not as good as he'd been seven years ago. The better part of a decade could bring a lot of change with it, and almost twice as long had passed since STAR's last meaningful action as it had been between that moment and their inception. Perhaps this was why Jaxon almost had a sense of nostalgia about all of this.
"Perk up, man. It's finally happening. You're allowed to be pumped."
The voice of the man sitting next to Jaxon did little to dispel his reverie. Nate was right here, on the same boat now instead of spearheading the other side of the operation. They'd had their ups and downs over the years, Jaxon and Nate, and even though they'd been joking around again like there was nothing between them for a while now, Jaxon felt a little more comfortable having his squad-mate close at hand, and so Rachel was in charge of the second boat. Nate hadn't complained—hadn't even seemed that interested in team distributions. Nate had said that as he saw it, they'd get there before there were any real players and the AT as a whole would go down in flames, so he wasn't going to bother arguing for leaving anyone behind this time. Jaxon felt like there was something else there. There usually was with Nate.
Dane would know what to do. It was another nostalgic thought—a glum thought, a Zach thought, even. Dane had been dead for a long, long time, and when he died he'd been seventeen. He'd had some charisma, some natural ability to pull everything together and get disparate personalities to cooperate cleanly, to get Nate to shut up and play nice. Of course, that had been in one single high pressure situation. Who knew what would have come of Dane if he hadn't stayed to the very last, playing vanguard as the rest of the embryonic STAR got out? Maybe he'd be the troublemaker now.
"I am pumped," Jaxon said, replying a few seconds too late for it to sound at all natural. Nate laughed.
"You're pumped like a flat tire," he said. "Drink some coffee or something. I think we've got an adrenaline syringe around here somewhere if you don't mind getting pricked."
Jaxon waved his hand, trying to look cool and dismissive but feeling like he mostly just came off as edgy and exasperated. He was regretting having Nate on his boat, now, because the man made it much, much harder to keep his composure. He glanced at Nate, and that was a mistake too, because Nate cocked an eyebrow and wrinkled his forehead, and this made him look quite funny indeed, especially combined with the stupid goatee he'd recently cultivated.
"At least you're here," Nate said. "Waiting's gotta just be killing Zach. That's why you never want to become important. You're not allowed to have any fun anymore."
"I don't think anyone's going to have fun today," Jaxon said.
"Speak for yourself. Still wish the assault team would've taken me, though."
Jaxon shrugged, but privately he agreed with Nate. It didn't make much sense to keep one of the loosest cannons in the group aimed at his companions and the people they were supposed to be helping when pointing him in the general direction of the enemy was an option. Then again, Dax and Matt and CeeJay and the rest preferred to keep things on a very tight leash, and it really wouldn't do to have someone going off half-cocked in the most dangerous situations the crew faced.
"I don't really get why squads are even still a thing," Nate continued. "Like, Zach played eenie-meenie-miney-moe when he was trying to figure out how to get us off that island and now whatever we pulled is our job forever?"
"You know it wasn't like that," Jaxon said, and now it was Nate's turn to shrug.
Yes, getting Nate off the Defense Squad should have been a point of focus a long time ago. Just a week or two back, Jaxon had talked to Garnett a little about this, and about some of the other issues he'd been noticing recently, and Garnett had promised to look into them but had then gone and disappeared with Grossi on whatever their secret project of the moment was. That was another thing to add to the list: STAR always had so many balls in the air, and there were still these divisions, these suggestions of less-than-perfect trust. Most of the V3 kids had been shuttled away for their own little part in the proceedings, and while it had been framed in the most positive way, Jaxon knew it was more complicated. It didn't matter to him that they hadn't been there from the start—neither had Grossi, and neither had some of the others who'd come into the fold—but there was something about the V3 survivors that had never quite fit. Maybe it was that they'd suffered something far more evolved and complicated than what the rest of STAR had been subjected to. Maybe it was that many of them had struggled to cleanly integrate, fighting their own demons well after most of the rest of STAR had come to terms with its baggage. It didn't really matter. They would play their part, insofar as they wanted to, and then if they wanted out, they'd finally get the chance.
The plan was not simple, but it could be distilled to a handful of basic elements. The Defense Squad, bolstered by members of the Intel and Recon Squads, would land on the island, do its best to stop the violence, and corral the surviving students. The Assault Squad, along with members of the other squads and working off the advice of a handful of specialists STAR had been able to contract, would take out the terrorists' HQ using a large amount of explosive material. Upon receiving confirmation of the destruction of the AT and the rescue of the students, a third branch headed by a couple members of the Intel Squad would distribute this information to the public, at the same time revealing the origins of STAR as victims of an SOTF test run and the survival of a number of students presumed dead after V3. Throughout all of this, Zach and a skeleton crew would hold down base and Garnett and Grossi would do... whatever it was they were doing.
It sounded so easy. They'd gotten information from all the usual sources. STAR had known something was coming for months—based on movements of known AT resources, fluctuations in certain market prices, and intelligence from contacts they and their backers had cultivated in the appropriate fields—and for all the terrorists had learned to cover their tracks at least a little, it was hard to disguise a class of high schoolers vanishing off the face of the earth. STAR had been on standby since March, and so it was a huge relief to finally deploy, but also hard to believe that just seventy-two hours ago they'd all been anxiously waiting for something to happen.
And now, the island was in view. The darkness of the pre-dawn morning made it hard to pick out much, though Jaxon had seen old photographs. The buildings were blocky against the skyline, ugly and grey and predominantly concrete, and Jaxon wondered what this place had once been. A shipping outpost? A scientific station? The information had been incredibly scarce—likely the reason the AT had chosen it.
"Pretty ugly, eh?" Nate said. "I sure wouldn't want to die here."
"You can say that again," Jaxon said, before adding, "but don't."
Nate smirked, and Jaxon turned to look over the rest of the crew. The half dozen faces displayed a range of emotions, most seeming to fall somewhere between his nervousness and Nate's eagerness. One, though, looked positively crestfallen.
"You doing okay, Mateo?" Jaxon knew what the answer would be, but he asked anyways.
"Mostly, but we just lost another." Mateo Greenway nodded at the tablet he was carrying, and Jaxon made his way over to the man, moving slowly to keep his footing against the rocking of the boat. On the screen was a wireframe schematic populated by dots, each one corresponding to a signal that matched the frequencies expected from the collars. Mateo tapped the screen a few times, and the projection rewound. He point out a cluster of three of the dots, one of which winked out a second later.
"Look like someone giving up, or do we have some sickos on our hands?" Nate called.
"I think—" Mateo started, but Jaxon cut in, "Can't really say."
"Sure," Nate said. He scratched at his leg, right below his holstered pistol. "Sure."
"Under no circumstances are we going to make any trouble with the students," Jaxon said.
"Of course," Nate replied. "But if anyone opens up on you, and it's you or them, pick you. I don't want to lose anyone."
"They won't shoot at us," Jaxon said.
"Then there's no problem with what I said," Nate retorted.
Jaxon considered firing back, but decided it would just lend credence to Nate's paranoia. Instead, he directed his attention to the others.
"Look sharp, and quiet down now. We're on final approach. We should have the easy job. Remember, if everything goes to plan, we're staying here until the marines or someone turn up to relieve us, but if it doesn't we're doing another smash and run and may have to make it past some patrol boats on the way out. But our big goal is to keep the kids calm and organized. We're just here to help."
Saturday, April 25, 2015: Australia, 5 AM
Lucas Grossi was doing his recon rounds when his phone rang. It was the phone he used only for the most serious STAR business, a disposable phone with a number that changed every few weeks, so he experienced a flash of anxiety upon picking it up. If someone was calling at five in the morning, there were only a handful of things it could mean.
It could be one of the sponsors calling to make an offer or a complaint or try to uselessly steer the organization. STAR had its backers, most of them private, many of them loosely trustworthy at best. He expected that, were they all to become aware of each other's identities, half of them would immediately sever all ties with the organization. A good number were either altruistic or nursing hero complexes, and truly were in it to save the children. Some were out for revenge—especially those with connections to some of the international students and institutions targeted in the early days of the program. But of course, among the backers of STAR also numbered those delighted to watch the organization give the United States government a black eye, by accomplishing what officials had so conspicuously failed to do for years. He tried not to lose any sleep over it—after all, they were saving lives, and weapons and equipment didn't pay for themselves, not to mention the costs inherent in housing several dozen otherwise-unemployed people.
The caller could be a member of the organization, in a hurry to tell him something had gone wrong. That wasn't so common these days—the uncontrolled actions common among the V3 survivors had largely tapered off by now. There weren't many goings-on in STAR that could surprise Grossi—he was, if anything, the one keeping secrets. Garnett still gave him grief about it from time to time, told him he should never have orchestrated the logistics for Rizzolo's assassination unilaterally, told him he presumed too much when he was just as new to the organization as those V3 students, talking as if he had been there any longer. It was funny, in a way, how Grossi and Garnett had gotten along more smoothly when they were in the AT together. Maybe it was because Grossi had been in charge, whereas now the shoe had somehow ended up on the other foot. But of course, the students—no, Zach and the rest, he had to remind himself that they'd not been students for years—never heard a whisper of it. That was one place where he and Garnett agreed completely: anything one said in public, the other would back up to the end of the world, no matter how much they might privately disagree later. They had to be a unified front.
The caller could be one of any number of intelligence assets updating him on preparations or, more importantly, letting him know that the switch had been flipped and the game was starting. They all knew it was coming at any moment, but not, Grossi thought, on a Saturday. Still, it could always be something truly unusual, a church group kidnapped or some extracurricular sports trip hijacked. He expected a shift from the senior trip plan; senior trips were barely a thing anymore, thanks to the AT. Still, Grossi doubted the AT could gather a decent number of students on the weekend; all of the contingencies he could come up with would leave them with a miniscule roster, and that would in itself be a major victory for STAR.
All these thoughts that flashed through his head in an instant, however, were dispelled when he answered. The person on the other end of the phone should never have been who it was.
"Hello, Lucas," she said. "It's been a while."
Instinctively, Grossi let his free hand drop to the long knife he'd taken to wearing on the back of his belt. He should have hung up, called Garnett, and had the entire organization piled into jeeps heading into the outback ten minutes later. Maybe if he'd been thinking clearly, that's exactly what he'd've done. Instead, he said, "Oh. Hello. It has."
"How've you been?" Was that actual concern, or a mocking edge?
"Not getting too bored or lonely, hiding out for years on end? But then again, I suppose you get out more than the rest."
"Why—no, how are you calling?" Grossi had by this point pulled himself together enough to let go of his knife and start walking back towards the large isolated house that served as the STAR headquarters, but he was still a mile or so away along largely-empty roads. Still, he let his voice drop to almost a whisper.
"I know things. I always have. It's my job." The woman laughed. "As to why... I have some things you might be very interested to know. A bit of professional courtesy, for a former colleague."
"What makes you think I won't hang up on you and disappear?" Grossi said, realizing as he did that that was in fact exactly what he should do.
"It won't matter to me either way. It would have absolutely no bearing on anything."
"Okay." Grossi had slowed his pace, finally coming to a stop next to a scraggly bush, shaded even from the illumination of the stars. "What do you want to tell me?"
"I'd like to offer you a chance to get out. You were loyal to Danya for a long time. You were trusted for a reason. You threw that away."
"Of course I did," Grossi growled. "How could I sit still while we mur—"
"I know you had your reasons. You think this makes you a good person, even though you're now taking money from people with far more blood on their hands than you've ever had. You think you're doing the right thing for the kids you shepherd around, even as you hide them away and deny them any chance at a normal life."
"I'm going to hang up," Grossi said.
"I'm not looking to hurt anybody who's not looking to hurt me, Lucas. And I know you're hurting. You probably miss your family. I know you're not living the high life. And I know you want to protect those in your care. If you work with me, that can happen. Otherwise, well, I reached you. What makes you think others can't?"
"You're operating on your own?" He let the incredulity sound loud and clear.
"For now. This will be a lot bloodier if that changes, Lucas. Neither of us wants that."
He said nothing.
"Now, if you're feeling receptive, I have a proposition..."
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location, Early Morning
Matt Przybysz liked few things less than hearing someone new try to pronounce his last name, but one of them was waiting for something that was right around the corner and another was having to stay really quiet. When he was a kid, he'd be fine all year anticipating his birthday or Christmas, but then when he woke up two hours before anyone else in his house and had to play it cool until they were ready to celebrate, it was pure torture. He could do it, of course—he wasn't enough of a hothead to actually cause issues like fucking Caudle was—but today was like all the Christmases and birthdays of the past ten years rolled into one, and the package he wanted to break into was a shitload of C-4 filling up every part of the boat not filled with STAR members, primarily those from the Assault Squad.
They'd slipped the perimeter ships really, really easily. Well, it had been a little more complicated than that, but that was mostly the Intel Squad's doing. They'd managed to pull some strings to get a few ships diverted close to these waters, and just like they'd hoped, the AT had scrambled their guard ships to go chase off some Chinese fishing poachers. This had let the smaller boat with all its lights cut make its way towards the HQ ship.
The AT hadn't used it as their primary base during V4, and that had been a blessing and a curse. It had been a whole lot easier to get going with a largely ground-based attack, but on the other hand they could just blow a big hole in the side of the ship and laugh as it sunk and shoot anyone who tried to evacuate. That was what the C4 and all the Assault Squad guys with guns were for.
With no light and a motor a lot smaller than what the old tanker the AT was using had, they were getting nice and cozy and so far seemed to have passed undetected. So now, all they were waiting on was the signal that the Defense Squad was in position to land on the island and try to stop the killing.
So Matt held his breath and tried counting and glanced back and forth at the others. He wiggled his eyebrows at Dax, trying to get him to crack and laugh, and Dax shot him a glare so fierce he almost started giggling and had to turn and look out at the water instead.
Soon, he'd hear that click over the radio. Soon.
And then, there it was.
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location, 6 AM
"Does it bother you, being so far from the action?"
As Greynolds spoke, Tracen glanced up from the papers covering his desk. Greynolds stood in front of the small window at the back of the room, silhouetted against the first rays of the rising sun. It was almost time to give the first announcement of the game, and Tracen had been reviewing the notes taken, especially those that came courtesy of the newer recruits. Some of them had a real gift for humor and turn of phrase. He'd been so absorbed in his work that he'd almost forgotten Greynolds' presence in the room.
Of course, truth be told, he was intentionally letting the task distract him from everything else going on. As usual, Greynolds had seen through that.
"It does," Tracen said. "A little, at least. But it's not like I didn't have choices. I'm here because I'm needed here, and I trust that everyone else will do their parts."
Greynolds' head moved slightly as he looked Tracen up and down, and then he stepped to the side of the window, letting Tracen get a better look at his face. Greynolds was smiling, a quiet little smile unlike what he usually wore, but one that Tracen was familiar enough with from days past.
"I'm glad to hear you say that," Greynolds said.
"It's what Victor always struggled with," Greynolds elaborated. "He was a great man, with great ambitions, but part of that was that it was always personal for him, to some extent. He liked to make examples."
Greynolds fell silent for a spell, but Tracen said nothing; he could tell that there was more coming, and this musing on his father was unusual for Greynolds. He knew there had been moments of tension between the two—both had, at various times, let hints of frustration with each other color their interactions with him—but they had by and large never revealed any specifics.
"We thought he was making a big mistake back in V3," Greynolds said. "That was getting personal in a way that was bad for everyone. Bringing someone back onto the island went totally against our message, and forcing a traitor back into the ranks made no sense. His decisions were not good for morale. Now that you've seen how things here work, I'm sure you can figure out why."
"Yes." Tracen spoke immediately, because it was true. He expected it to feel like a betrayal, like a repudiation of his father, but the simple fact of the matter was that Greynolds' analysis was correct.
"Sonia and Steven and Melvin and I got assigned far from the island during that version, mostly by our request," Greynolds said. "Insistence, really. Sometimes I wonder if that was a mistake. If we'd been closer, maybe things wouldn't have gotten so far out of control. Maybe we could've stopped the snowball before V4."
He shook his head.
"I don't mean to dwell. I guess what I'm saying, Tracen, is that I'm proud of you. You have perspective, and you know when to put what you want aside. There's a reason people follow you."
"Thanks," Tracen said. He turned back to the papers, thinking to prepare for the speech he'd be giving in just a few hours, but now that his thoughts had started to wander, he found them drawn inexorably to an island far away.
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location, Early Morning
They were off the boat almost as soon as it touched the beach. Jaxon's team was the first on the ground, but Rachel's was supposedly not far behind. They'd received confirmation that the Assault Squad was in position. The all-clear went all around.
Jaxon was carrying a megaphone, an assault rifle, a sidearm, a knife, and some electronic equipment he didn't fully understand that was supposed to at least interfere enough with the collars to stop the AT from blowing them en masse. Mateo had the main gear, trading all armament except a small pistol for a bulky backpack containing a toolbox, a computer, and a large number of cables and adaptors. Nate was decked out similarly to Jaxon, but while Jaxon held his megaphone and left his rifle slung over his back, Nate's primary weapon rested comfortably in his grasp.
The beach was scraggly, covered in rocks and driftwood and trash, and an asphalt road full of potholes led away from it and wound upwards towards one of the first stocky buildings.
"Looks like we've got five of them in there, three more in some sort of shack a couple hundred feet to the side," Mateo said, showing his tablet to Jaxon. Jaxon took a look, noting that the larger concentration was closer to where the light had blinked out earlier.
"Nate, can you grab someone and go check the shack?" he said.
"Sure thing, chief." Nate put extra emphasis on the last word. Jaxon didn't much care for his tone of voice, but then, Nate seemed set on regressing to the exact way he was back in 2008. Whatever. If everything went to plan, this was it. There might well be no more need for STAR after today. Nate could take his resurgent attitude problems somewhere else.
"Mateo, let's head for the big building. Keep an ear out for anything from Rachel. Dera, stay with the boat and be ready to head out hot if we have to."
Dera Sterling gave a nod. The rest of the squad started moving. Jaxon stuck close to Mateo, sneaking glances at the tablet. It looked like most of the island was still asleep—some of the dots were moving, but most of them were stationary. This was another benefit of their timing. If most of the island was unaware of what was going on, STAR would be in a better position to either keep everyone calm and stop any killing or to grab those they could and get out quickly and safely.
"Looks like they've got one guy on guard," Mateo said, pointing to one of the dots marching a perimeter inside the building.
As the group made their way up the hill, Nate peeled off to the side, one of the others in tow. They moved quickly and as quietly as they could, keeping low to the ground. By now, the terrorists would be well aware of what was going on due to the cameras, but they'd similarly have their hands full with the assault on their ship. In any event, they clearly hadn't been able to blow the collars; it seemed that either the gear STAR had was working or the AT wasn't quite willing to give up on the season.
Reaching the door, Jaxon took up position on the hinge side, Mateo behind him. The others moved to cover for him. He watched, and then, at the point where the patrolling student was furthest from the door, Mateo gave a nod.
Jaxon jiggled the handle of the door and then, finding it locked, gave it a hard kick. The door flew open.
"Nobody move," he called. "We're here to help you. Stay calm."
But as one of the others flicked on a flashlight, Jaxon saw that there were no students in the building at all, just four collars strewn across the floor and a fifth attached to a small box on wheels, rolling circles around the room.
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location, 9 AM
The chair in front of the microphone set up was really just a chair. That's all that it should have been.
No matter how many times Tracen Danya told himself that, it never quite rang fully true. At times, he felt like the child prince scrambling to climb onto the throne of the king.
Some throne, some crown.
Tracen sat, checked the digital clock on the desk one more time, and then hit the button controlling the island's PA system.
A moment later, his voice rang out across the entire area.
"Good morning ladies, gentlemen and those of unspecified gender. If you're hearing this, then congratulations. You're still alive. I'll let that sink in for a moment, because if you can put two and two together, you'll conclude that means some of you aren't."
Tracen took a deep breath. Exhaled.
"So with no further ado, here's the butcher's bill.
"Our first casualty of the festivities was Jennifer Su. Friendly reminder not to play on the edge of bridges, guys.
"Florentina Luz found herself with a second smile when she ran into Isabel Ramirez in a bad mood; let's give a warm round of applause for the first person to bite the bullet and take someone else out."
He didn't try too hard to inject enthusiasm into his voice. The very first killer? That had enough impact all on its own.
"If you ever wondered who would be a bad person to run into in a dark room, well, you have your answer in Kimiko Kao. You have Cristóbal Morales to thank for making that discovery for all of you. I'll pass his corpse your regards."
Mostly, it was a matter of pushing the right buttons. Tracen's opinion on what he was saying didn't really matter. He wondered, sometimes, if that was the same rationale behind his father's theatrics when he'd sat in this chair. He hoped so.
"Abigail Floyd was our next to die. She opted out by slashing her wrists, making it just that little bit easier for all the rest of you.
"In a fun little turn of events, Conrad Harrod got twitchy and in short order Harold Porter got opened up. Harold didn't hold on for much longer than that, and bled out. However, I suppose he can take some posthumous consolation from the fact that Isabel Ramirez guaranteed Conrad didn't outlive him by much. Two for two for Miss Ramirez."
It sounded good, for their purposes, to root for someone who was doing it 'right'. What mattered was that it sounded good.
"Lastly, we lost Joshua Bracewell - more swordplay on the menu from Cochise High after Jasmine Reed impaled him through the shoulder. If I'd known we were in for a fencing display, I might have just assigned a sword to every one of you."
How many of them, Tracen wondered, would hear that and curse his name, threaten his life and limb and everything in between?
He'd find out soon enough.
"You'll want to listen close to this next part, everyone. For the next twenty-four hours, the Supply Depot will be considered a danger zone, meaning anyone in there will have their collars blown. You have ten minutes from the end of this announcement to leave.
"Last, but by no means least, the guys in the office were a big fan of Kimiko Kao out there and are pleased to announce her as the very first winner of the V6 Best Kill Award. Come along to the Helipad to collect your well-earned prize."
Tracen tapped his fingers on the desk.
"See you all tomorrow, kids. Try not to die until then."
He hit the button again, pushed back from the desk, the chair scraping along the floorboards, let out a ragged breath.
Long live the king.
The Second AnnouncementEdit
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Australia
Zach Valentino had hoped his nerves would ease once the operation was underway, but that had been optimistic in the face of all past evidence. Ever since he moved to a more passive, administrative role in STAR, he got tense when his friends and compatriots were away. He felt like he was holding his breath when Garnett or Grossi was off for a meeting with one of their sponsors. He'd been anxious the entire time when Maxie vanished to take care of some unfinished business. He'd just about paced a hole in the floor in 2008, when most of the organization had been deployed.
They told him that he had to stay safe—not just Garnett and Grossi, either, but most of STAR's members. They told him he held things together. They said he was the glue, had the personality and the vision, but Zach didn't quite see it that way. He wasn't the sort for inaction. He hadn't volunteered to head the most dangerous part of the operation that had birthed STAR just to improve morale. Going out there and being on the frontline, that was who he was. It was how he could feel like he was having a real impact. Most of STAR had come home in 2008, but a few hadn't. Zach had been haunted by that, wondering if he'd been there whether things could've been different. Okaying Brynn's infiltration had been one of the hardest things he'd ever done, because they'd all known how high the odds were she'd never return. Her departure had been the last he saw of her.
And so, even though everything for this operation checked out and lined up to a degree he'd never before seen, a sense of dread hung over Zach. Maybe if there had been more people around, he could've relaxed more, but the house felt empty. Garnett had pulled Grossi out for some secret piece of work, telling Zach to just stay the course and claiming that he'd reveal everything upon his return, but the absence of the older men left Zach feeling even more isolated in his position of authority. Ki was still around, and Torrie and Yu, but the rest were either enacting the operation or shepherding the V3ers, whose absence was felt in its own right.
So he was pacing between his room and the operations center, where Ki and Yu were keeping closer track of the operation in progress. He was only out of their sight for a few minutes at a time, he told himself. He'd be able to respond if anything came up. He could hear anything anyone shouted.
But when Ki's voice called out, "Zach, come quick," he wasn't ready at all. As he raced to the room, breath quickening, hands tensing, he realized that, for all his worry, he'd never actually believed things would go particularly wrong.
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location
"Get out, now," Jaxon shouted, but he knew it was already too late.
He turned and started to run, Mateo and the others a step behind, when the gunfire broke out. It came from off to the side, a different blocky concrete building, and the angle and distance weren't optimal, which was probably the only reason they weren't cut down en masse. The tablet, still in Mateo's hand, suddenly erupted into a shower of shards and glass, and Mateo cursed and swatted at the air. Everything seemed to be moving slowly; Jaxon watched drops of blood trace arcs from Mateo's hand into the night.
"Fire back," Jaxon growled. "Keep them down."
This direction was probably unnecessary—with the initial moments of shock past, his comrades were already busily pulling or reorienting weapons, and moments later the flow of ammunition was moving in both directions.
Jaxon did not draw his own weapon, however, but rather clawed his radio loose from among the mass of gear he was carrying. It took him a few seconds to get it tuned to the panic channel that would cut the whole operation into his broadcast; in that time, someone behind him screamed and fell. He didn't know who, had no time to look, no time to go back. It was a sick, sinking feeling. They hadn't lost many people in 2008, and none on Jaxon's team. He wondered whose face he wouldn't be seeing again.
"Dera," he called into the radio, "get moving, now. It's a trap. They probably have someone moving to you now, so swing around the side and we'll try to catch you at the backup extraction point."
"Jaxon, are you—" her voice came, panic clear even over the fuzzy connection, but Jaxon said, "No arguments, no questions. Now. Everyone else, the AT is on us. Abort and run. We'll try to get clear."
"I don't think it's gonna be that easy." That was Rachel's voice, and there was an edge of budding panic to it. "There's something heading our way."
But Jaxon's attention was drawn from the conversation by a lull in the gunfire around him. STAR was still firing back, but mostly blind, and the AT hadn't advanced at all from their positions. Something was wrong here, and in a second he realized what it was.
The AT wanted them running. That they hadn't all been cut down on the spot spoke to something else going on. He had a few ideas—could be they wanted prisoners to interrogate, or more likely they were waiting until they could spring something on all the branches of the operation simultaneously and his group, as the ones running a little ahead of schedule, had been allowed to get further than anticipated—but it didn't really matter. What was important now was surviving, getting out, and to do that they had to be smart. Dera was already abandoning the beach, so they'd have to make their way to the backup rendezvous, down a fairly treacherous slope a half mile around the edge of the island. That meant they couldn't just run back the way they came, no doubt into the waiting arms of the AT.
"Head to Nate's position," Jaxon said. "Link up with them, then we'll try to sneak it out. Don't shoot unless you have to."
His ears were ringing, making the sudden quiet seem less still, but the flip from nothing to coming under assault to nothing again left him edgy and drained. It was almost like being back in the game again, and those old doubts came swimming back. Should he turn around, see if whoever they'd lost was alive? Should they surrender and throw themselves on the mercy of the AT?
"I don't think we're getting out," came Rachel's voice from the radio. "They're faster than us, and they're better armed. We're returning fire as best we can and trying to lead them away from your position, but..."
"Stay safe," Jaxon said, knowing it was a meaningless platitude.
Rachel seemed to sense it too, because she laughed.
"No," she said, "you stay safe. I think it's way too late for us. I think they're going to—"
Then the radio went dead, and a few seconds later the sound of an explosion tore through the air.
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location
About three minutes after the all-clear, as the Assault Squad was just about into position, Jaxon Jeremiah made a call on the emergency channel to let them know that, whoops, Christmas was actually canceled and in fact today was the first day of school and also Matt's puppy had been hit by the school bus.
Right on cue, a bunch of floodlights came on along the side of the tanker, making Matt feel pretty damn stupid sitting in his matte black boat wearing all black like some kind of wannabe ninja. He didn't have too long to worry about it, though, because those constantly-helpful terrorists saw fit to distract him by opening fire from the deck. Always happy to return the favor, Matt stood up and shot back, the kick of the assault rifle against his shoulder almost welcome after so much sitting still.
Dax shouted something. Matt couldn't really hear what, but it must have been an order to turn tail, because the boat got moving in a hurry, which made Matt stumble and fall back down. It was actually a pretty damn good boat, built for going places in a hurry as well as quietly when the need arose, so within a few seconds they were zipping off into the ocean, away from the tanker.
"Well, that went to shit fast," Matt said.
Dax grunted something back. Everyone was shouting, moving around, doing things, but really what Matt knew how to do was shoot and blow things up with C-4, and it looked like both of those tasks had become unnecessary, at least for the moment. He couldn't exactly feel bored, though, given that he was in mortal peril, which left him to think about the ocean spray on his face and the way everything had fallen apart in about two seconds.
"I wonder when the other boot's gonna drop," he said.
"What?" Dax shouted.
"I mean, they didn't wait all night to miss us with potshots and then let us run away from their really slow tanker," Matt clarified.
"What do you mean, 'miss?'" Dax said.
Matt paused, did a quick headcount. It looked like nobody was missing, but he realized Dax was clutching his leg, and some of the others were hunched over someone lying on the deck. It was too dark to make much out, especially since everyone was wearing all fucking black, but Matt had a pretty good guess they were dealing with at least one potentially-fatal injury.
"You gonna be okay?" he asked Dax.
"Not sure. Bleeding pretty bad, but not dead yet," Dax said. That was all the incentive Matt needed to rush over to his side, digging a first aid kit from under a bench on his way. He pulled gauze and pads out, letting other stuff fall to the floor of the boat to be rolled from one side to the other by the rocking waves, but Dax held up a hand and said, "Painkillers first. I gotta be able to function."
"Yeah," Matt said, "yeah, alright."
Matt's search in the first aid kit was made momentarily easier by a flash of illumination, but this prompted him to look up just to catch a flame dying out over near the island they were racing away from. Moments later, the sound of an explosion swept over them.
"I think that was Rachel," Dax said.
"Shh," Matt said. He'd found the painkillers, and handed the bottle to Dax, who poured more pills than Matt thought was probably wise into his hand and dry-swallowed them. Matt didn't say anything about this development, just got to work bandaging Dax's leg again. He was so focused that he was taken by surprise when another pair of hands started helping out; one of the others who'd been surrounding the fallen boy was here, but Matt couldn't tell who because the guy was wearing this stupid-ass balaclava. Even in the dark, Matt could see the tearstains under the eyeholes.
"How're they doing?" Matt asked, but the guy just shook his head and closed his eyes.
Matt felt like he should do or say something, maybe even try to bring a bit of humor to the table to raise morale, but before he could come up with anything this whirring, thumping noise from back towards the ship they'd been planning to assault started up and everyone turned to look that way.
Following their gaze, Matt caught the silhouette of a helicopter taking off, then watched as it turned and sped towards them.
Monday, April 27, 2015: Australia
It was clear something was wrong long before Garnett turned the car off the main roads and headed towards the outskirts of town, but Grossi didn't say anything. Everything about Garnett's demeanor suggested he had no interest in idle conversation, and he'd made very clear that the business they had to discuss was of the utmost secrecy. Zach hadn't seemed thrilled about it, but he trusted both of them, and Grossi trusted Garnett, so here they were.
The car pulled off onto a dirt access road, thumping its way along for about two miles—even after all these years, thinking in kilometers still eluded Grossi—and finally stopped at a small gate barring further access. Garnett got out of the car, opened the gate, got back in, drove through, got out and closed and locked the gate, then returned and drove them a similar distance further, until they came to a fairly nondescript field with a small stand of some sort of equipment off at one edge of the makeshift parking lot. Then, he got out of the car and gestured Grossi to join him.
"What're we doing here, Brandon?" Grossi asked. "You wanted to show me something? What is all this?"
"I'm not here to show you anything, Lucas," Garnett said. "I wanted to talk in private. Real private. It's harder than you might think around here."
His tone was cold and formal, in a way that Grossi hadn't heard in a long time, which rendered the meaning beyond the words hard to decipher. There was none of the anger that had seeped into Garnett's voice when he'd disagreed about some course of action, none of the warmth and humor that had colored their more positive interactions. There was nothing, a blank slate, and that made Grossi edgy.
"I'm not sure if you knew this, but I helped STAR get out way back in Test Run Eight," Garnett said. He was staring out into the empty field, looking with his one good eye at nothing Grossi could discern.
"No," Grossi said, "I didn't know that."
"I didn't think you did," Garnett said. "The kids don't know. I think Danya—the real Danya, not his kid—might've had an idea, but maybe he was just crazy. But I figured he was getting closer, so that's why I dipped out, right before McLocke and Kaige and Rice bit it."
Grossi didn't say anything. It was a hot day, and a dry breeze ruffled the scraggly plants in the field. Their surroundings seemed uncultivated, perhaps some sort of conservation area or wildlife preserve restricted to the public, though Grossi saw no signs of animal life.
"I spent a lot of time pretending to be someone I wasn't," Garnett said. "I did a lot of bad things to keep my cover up. But I always knew that, when the chips came down, I'd be on the right side. It wasn't easy, but that was what I told myself whenever I had to act like friends with some psychopath, or when I had to let one terrible thing happen to prevent two more."
Garnett rolled his shoulders. He was wearing a bulky leather jacket despite the heat of the day, and Grossi could see a bead of sweat forming along the bottom edge of the eye patch he wore.
"You getting nervous about the operation?" Grossi asked. "Excited that it's almost over?"
"There's not going to be an operation," Garnett said.
"I know who you've been talking to, Lucas."
It was like a punch. Still, Grossi had learned to roll with the punches, to adapt to sudden changes—sudden changes like the one which had left him fleeing the AT along with Garnett all those years ago—so he kept as cool as he could, even as worry began to mount. Okay, so Garnett knew. What now? There was no point denying. Explain, then.
"It's not like you think," Grossi said. "She found me, somehow, and I was trying to figure out what she knew. She clearly has some sort of source on us, but she said she didn't want to see anyone die who didn't have to."
"I don't think Sonia's too concerned about avoiding unnecessary bloodshed, Lucas." Every time Garnett said Grossi's name, he intoned it with a little more venom.
"She said she was working on her own. I was trying to stall her until..." Grossi trailed off as Garnett waved his hand in the air.
"I'm not interested in excuses, Lucas. I know you're a capable enough liar. And even if you are telling the truth, it changes very little. We've been thoroughly compromised."
"Exactly," Grossi said, trying to fight the building panic. Garnett had clearly gotten, if not entirely the wrong idea, at the very least a twisted picture of what was going on. "That's what makes it so important we figure out where the leak is and how to stop it."
"There's no 'we' anymore," Garnett said. He turned, now, to face Grossi for the first time. "You messed up, bad, and you got caught."
"So that's it?" Grossi was more nervous than ever, now, but he felt something else stirring, too: anger. So that was it? All their years, all their work together, and Garnett was willing to assume the worst based on... on who even knew what? On half-heard conversations? Because it was true, to a greater or lesser extent, but it was not simple. Grossi had listened to Sonia, and he had been considering her offer, very carefully, but not, he told himself, for his own sake. He'd been trying to figure a way to keep STAR from slamming headlong into a trap, and he'd known the whole time that if he told Garnett or Zach or the others before he was sure, they'd do something rash or jeopardize the whole tenuous situation, or they'd run off into the night to hide for another decade, somewhere even further from everything, and probably still get themselves caught in the process. He'd been looking out for their best interests—his too, of course, but never solely. "What? I'm out of the club now?"
"Oh yeah, Lucas, you're out of the club now," Garnett said.
"Well, I guess it was nice working with you, then. Thought we had a nice thing going. Friendship and trust and all that, but I guess I'll see you on the news when whoever the actual leak is throws you under the bus again."
Garnett raised the eyebrow above his patch.
"That's not how this is going to work, Lucas," he said. "If you wanted to get out, you should've left like Ben. Or maybe even gone with Dorian."
The mention must've been aimed at spiting Grossi—while Benjirou had allegedly parted ways with the organization on passable enough terms before Garnett and Grossi had even joined, Dorian's departure had felt a little different. Dorian had, after a time in which he utterly failed to integrate with STAR, begged a lump sum from their reserves in exchange for all the information he could recall from his time in the AT's technical department and had vanished off to somewhere in Southeast Asia with a fake identity. Grossi made cracks, now and then, about him living it up in Thailand while his former comrades and victims thereof died left and right.
"You always talked big about security," Garnett continued. "The vague threats, the ominous insinuations when it seemed like the V3ers might go off course. Well, what's the only way to be really sure with someone who knows all your secrets?"
As he spoke, Garnett slipped his hand from the pocket of his jacket—Grossi hadn't even noticed him reaching in—and revealed a small revolver.
"You're kidding," Grossi said. "Brandon, this is insane. This isn't how we do things."
"This is exactly how we do things, Lucas," Garnett said. "We've just been fortunate enough not to need to so far."
Grossi took a step closer, then backed right back up when Garnett wiggled the revolver at him. His head hurt. This was wrong, all wrong. A question came to him, then, a small and stupid question, but one he had to ask.
"Does Zach know?"
"Nobody knows," Garnett said, "nobody but me."
That got a little smile out of Garnett.
"I'll tell them you're off on assignment. You won't come back. That's all they'll have to hear, if that makes you feel better."
"I guess it does," Grossi said. "Only a little, though."
He was telling the truth, but the fear and anger were also rising and raging within him now. This was what he'd left the AT to escape. Sonia had been right. What had they become? Taking money from anyone who'd donate it, turning on each other at the drop of a hat? He'd thought about his death a number of times, of course—it came with the situation they found themselves in—but never had he thought Garnett might be the one to pull the trigger. He told himself that, were the situations reversed, he'd have listened. He'd have spent more time trying to sort the matter out, or at worst he'd've kept a suspected traitor captive.
"I'll stay in the house," he said, spurred by this thought. "I won't talk to anyone. Lock me up, I don't care."
"This is unbecoming, Lucas," Garnett said. He closed his eye for a moment, and his features softened, but when he opened it he was right back to how he had been. "I'm sorry it has to be this way. I hate it. It's tearing me up. But that changes nothing. If you have anything else you want to say, now's the time."
And in that moment, Grossi found himself making a decision he'd also never conceived of in all his hours of musing and fantasizing.
"No, Brandon," he said. "I guess there's nothing else I want to say."
Then he lunged at Garnett, pulling the knife from the back of his belt as he did.
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Australia
It was pure chaos at STAR HQ. Ki and Yu were talking over each other, the radio was howling with a recording of Jaxon Jeremiah's voice almost drowned out by gunfire, and all Zach could think was that everything had been fine five minutes ago.
"Cut the speakers," he shouted, and when nobody moved he said, "Ki, cut the speakers," and the boy did.
Now, with Zach having assumed command, the room fell into total silence. He thought for a moment, then said, "Yu, go get Torrie. Ki, tell me what's going on."
"It's an ambush," Ki said. "I don't know how, but they were waiting. It sounds like they've been planning this a long time. The kids weren't there—maybe they just killed them, or maybe they're on some other island who the fuck knows where."
Zach grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair, glancing as he did at Yu's computer screen, but he couldn't parse any of the text quickly enough, so said to Ki, "What's everyone's status?"
Ki swallowed, and Zach closed his eyes, wondering how many of his friends were already dead.
"Rachel's crew got hit with a torpedo or something. No responses, and everyone's assuming they're gone. Dax and the rest are being chased down, one dead, a few injured. Jaxon's group is split on the island, pinned down and trying to extract, but so far their ride has eluded capture."
"Anything from Yun and Quinn?"
"They're going underground. So far no pursuit on their end, but..."
"Alright, then—" But Zach didn't finish his sentence, as the sound of nearby gunfire broke his concentration. He darted immediately across the room, digging under papers in the top drawer of a cabinet until he came up with a pistol. Guns were always close to hand in the STAR house.
"Scuttle everything," he said to Ki, who was already typing on his computer. There was the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and Zach stepped out into the hall, but what greeted him was Yu, clutching his arm as blood dribbled down it.
"They're coming," Yu said. "No idea how many, but they rolled up out front and just started shooting."
"Torrie?" Zach said, and Yu closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Forget the computers, Ki," Zach shouted. "Grab a gun. We're running, now."
Ki came out of the room at a sprint. His usually cheerful face was now dominated by wide eyes and tense, flat lips.
It was strange. Everything was falling apart around them, but Zach did not feel afraid. He was tense, anxious, crushed and enraged by the deaths of his friends. This wasn't what he'd pulled them together for, wasn't what they'd spent years planning for and working towards. They were going to lose. All their progress, their work, was crumbling down around them, and yet Zach felt more calm and alive than he had throughout all the planning, all the setup. He wasn't free from risk anymore. He wasn't sitting safe while everyone else took the chances.
"Come on," he said, turning and starting to run. Ki was right at his heels when he made it to the top of the back staircase, but Yu was not. Looking back, Zach saw him still standing in front of the door to the HQ room.
"Come on," Zach yelled again, but Yu shook his head.
"I'll stay and wipe what I can," the boy called, "slow them down a little."
"It doesn't matter," Zach shouted back.
"We need to," Yu said, but Zach shouted again, "It doesn't matter. Get over here," and Yu broke into a stumbling jog towards them, drops of blood from his arm speckling the floor behind him.
They hurried down the stairs, even as they heard the echo of boots on the front staircase. Slipping into the living room, Zach locked the door behind them, knowing it would buy them at most a handful of seconds and hoping that would be enough. Then it was out through the kitchen, to the back of the property. They were careful. They had vehicles in multiple places, had plans for evacuations. Nobody needed to talk.
But when they did make their way through the kitchen door and into the backyard, those careful drills and preparations proved fruitless. Two men in body armor were already there, standing along the wall at one corner of the house, and they opened fire. The siding of the house exploded into splinters. Yu screamed and toppled, clutching his gut and rolling in the grass. Zach and Ki scrambled out of the line of fire, towards the side of the house. There was always a car parked there. The AT might have reached it first. Zach could deal with that. He hadn't been on the front lines in a while, but he'd tangled with the terrorists before. While they were acting quickly, he was reacting in time with their movements.
And of course, someone was indeed waiting. As Zach whirled around the corner, he came face to face with three men holding assault rifles, one on either side of the car, and a third between them. There was no thought. Zach steadied the pistol at the target closest at hand, the man on the left, and pulled the trigger.
It was only as that man crumpled that he recognized the man in the middle, the one even now turning his rifle on them. The buzz cut and thin-lipped face, expressionless as it ever was, were familiar from briefings and STAR's files. The black body armor was standard-AT issue, but the trademark sunglasses definitely were not. Undoubtedly, Steven Wilson cut a recognizable figure.
Thursday, May 7, 2015: Undisclosed Location
There was a body at Nate's assigned position. Jaxon didn't get close enough to tell if it was Nate, his companion, or one of their attackers. It barely mattered. They took a further detour, slinking between the grey concrete warehouses. From time to time, someone far off opened fire, and sometimes Jaxon's group returned it. The whole process seemed interminable, but they were slowly but surely making their way towards the gravelly slope the marked the secondary extraction point.
It was just Jaxon, Mateo, and two others left at this point—he thought Jordan and Lulu, but couldn't say for sure. Nobody was talking. The radio had gone mostly silent.
Finally, however, Jaxon had to break the spell of quiet.
"Alright," he said, gesturing, "We cross this lot, then over the fence and down the slope. Dera should be there. Then we go. No waiting. If someone goes down, leave them."
The others nodded.
Jaxon took a deep breath, counted to ten in his head, and then gave a nod.
They broke from the cover of the building, and had made it halfway to the fence before the gunfire started. Probably-Jordan cursed as he took a hit in the side, but he barely broke step. The fence wasn't tall—maybe six feet and chainlink—but it represented enough of an obstacle that Jaxon was pretty sure they weren't all going to make it. A bullet clipped the side of Mateo's face, and he howled and tumbled roughly to the other side of the fence, but kept moving. Jaxon was the last one over, and as he touched down and watched the others begin their scramble down the hill, he experienced a brief pang of hope, that maybe they'd all somehow made it through.
Then there was this feeling, like he'd been punched in the side and the leg, and he found himself spinning to the ground. Mateo looked back and yelled something, but one of the others grabbed at him and they kept moving. Jaxon tried to stand and follow, but his leg wasn't moving right and he could barely manage a kneel.
He looked back, and saw figures on the other side of the fence, now, maybe fifty feet away and closing rapidly, and he felt the blood running down his back and leg, and he almost wanted to laugh, because there wasn't a whole lot else he could do.
Friday, May 8, 2015: Undisclosed Location, 9 AM
"Good morning, Cochise High School."
His voice was calm and level. In another place, it could have been the voice coming out of the speaker system on a plane, the tannoy in a train station.
"There are nine people who listened to yesterday's encouragement and failed to make it count. Nine more names crossed off the roster.
They're dead and you aren't. Contemplate that for a short while."
He paused appropriately.
"Okay, time's wasting. Let's get to it.
Jasmine King took a moment to declare herself the winner of the game. Good news for everyone else: ripping open your own throat does not, in fact, send you home victorious. I really didn't think that it was something that would need spelling out, but no, more fool me.
Nancy Kyle kept her momentum from the first day - and let me tell you, we have a real go-getter on our hands, here. Doing her best axe murderer impression, she took Sabrina Luz to pieces, then followed up by introducing Sanford Bricks to the business end of a screwdriver. Turns out that most anything has a business end if you try hard enough."
He 'hmm'd' to himself, loud enough to carry.
"Though, does it really count as an impression if you're actually just murdering with an axe? Answers on a postcard, everyone."
It came easily, casually enough. Quite a pair of shoes to fill, but the familiarity was simple.
It wasn't hard.
"Bradley Floyd was our next to fall, and at the hands of another repeat performer, no less. Perhaps you wouldn't credit her with the strength, but Kimiko Kao ran him through," he paused a moment. "See, I was considering making a joke here, but I think Mr Floyd already took all the good ones himself. Consolation prize.
Who they needed was the man in the chair. He could be the man in the chair. Wasn't really important how the words tasted when they sounded so sweet to the ears that mattered.
"Mitch Settles moped around for a little while and then shot himself in the head. Whoops.
"Familiar face number three - Isabel Ramirez is beginning to be right at home in my little announcements, isn't she? This time, Danny Brooks managed to get onto her bad side. She introduced her weapon to Mr Brooks' bad side. She stabbed him, is what I'm saying. A lot.
"Moving on to other matters: for the next twenty-four hours, the Utilities Compound will be considered a danger zone, so pack your bags and get out in the next ten minutes if you like your collars and necks intact. If you left some precious keepsake at the supply depot, don't lose your head about it; that area is open again."
"On a happier note, Brendan Harte was a real crowd pleaser and has won the second Best Kill Award of V6. Come along to the radio tower to collect your well-earned prize."
"Until tomorrow, kids."
The Third AnnouncementEdit
As the figures in military gear hustled towards him, Jaxon could really only think of two things: the pain wracking his side and leg and how much he didn't want to die like this. There were, of course, intricacies to both of these ideas. He wondered how bad the damage from the shots was, whether he was imminently dead no matter what or whether it'd require intervention on the parts of those coming to get him. He wondered if they meant to execute him on the spot, or whether they were planning to drag him back to base, interrogate him, maybe even throw him into some game somewhere along the line to prove whatever point they were trying to make. He was trying to decide how to deal with it, and had settled for going down fighting.
So as the figures closed in, he raised his rifle, pointed it, and squeezed the trigger. He knew immediately that none of his shots had connected; the first few were in the general direction of his enemies, but the kick from the rifle was strong and right now he was not. He tilted over, his bullets going mostly into the ground a good twenty feet from his targets, and almost toppled.
It was enough to get them to slow down and bring their guns up again, though. That sealed it, then. Jaxon wanted to close his eyes, but didn't let himself.
Before any of his foes could return fire, however, shots broke out from another angle. One of the terrorists yelped and stumbled backwards, clutching at his chest, and then something landed near them and they were all scrambling away, ducking for cover. A second later, there was an explosion, kicking up a cloud of dirt and grass and gravel, some of which pattered against Jaxon's face and chest. He blinked against the afterimage of the flash, looked around for his savior, and there he was: Nate running along the side of the fence, alive after all and en route to the pickup point himself.
"Come on," Nate said, barely slowing his stride to scoop Jaxon up under the armpits. The fence shook as the AT fired at them through it, but the shots went wide, and Nate pulled Jaxon along bodily, towards the slope. The rough handling, however, tore at Jaxon's wounds, cutting through some of the adrenaline fog he'd cultivated, and he screamed.
"Move," Nate hissed, tugging at him, and when Jaxon tried to slow his pace and favor his injured leg, Nate half-pulled-half-shoved him onwards. They made their way down the hill at altogether too fast a pace, and Jaxon stumbled about fifteen feet from the bottom. This apparently caught Nate by surprise, as the boy failed to support him, and Jaxon tumbled down the remainder of the slope, covering his head as best he could. Nate swore and chased after him, and everything was a flurry of activity during which Jaxon blacked out for a moment.
When next he returned to awareness, Nate and Mateo were dragging him to his feet. There was gunfire again, coming down from above, but with the support of the others he was able to hobble towards the boat. Nate leapt up and then helped drag Jaxon onboard, with Mateo pushing from below.
"Hold on," Dera shouted, and then the boat was moving, peeling away from the island. Nate moved to Jaxon's side, digging through a first aid kit, while Lulu attended to Mateo. Jaxon could see Jordan lying towards one side of the boat, groaning and clutching at bandages.
"How's everyone else?" Jaxon asked.
"Not good," Mateo said. "The Assault Squad's under fire. Still nothing from Rachel. I think she's gone."
"Get me the radio," Jaxon said, then hissed as Nate tugged at the fabric around the wound in his side.
The radio was passed his way, and after a few moments of fumbling with it, Jaxon was able to get it tuned as he wanted.
"Anyone out there?" he said.
"This is Dax. We're here," came the reply, barely audible over the crackle of gunfire near and far. "Don't know how long for, though. And HQ just stopped responding."
"Not sure if something went bad there or if they just cut us off somehow. Sort of occupied by the helicopter."
Nate did something that shot a stab of pain through Jaxon, but the conversation was actually helping a little, giving him enough horrible material to focus on that his wounds seemed a distant secondary concern.
"No sign of anything like that over here," he said.
In fact, pursuit after the initial launch had been negligible, and that made Jaxon uneasy. There had to be more boats out there—whatever had gone after Rachel, for one—so where were they all?
"Well, they'll probably be back your way after they're done here," Dax said.
And that elucidated things a bit. The AT weren't going all out because they didn't have to. They'd already gotten almost everything they wanted, and now they could mop up at their leisure. Where could Jaxon and the rest hide from a helicopter? Where could they hide in general? Somehow, everything had been thoroughly compromised. If HQ was in trouble, then there was a good chance that even if STAR made it to their extraction point, they'd just find more terrorists there waiting for them.
"Well," Jaxon said, "I guess that's it. I thought we had them this time."
Nate squeezed down, and Jaxon gasped and almost dropped the radio. He turned to see what it was that Nate was doing, but couldn't tell; it looked like the other boy had actually finished dressing Jaxon's wounds.
There was some muted discussion from Dax's end, something Jaxon couldn't make out. When the other man's voice cut in, though, he sounded much more cheerful than Jaxon felt.
"Well, you make a run for it as best you can. Stay clear, stay cool, do what you can. We'll keep them as distracted as possible, waste their time for you, and then try to get out ourselves. Stay safe. I'll see you around."
Jaxon could tell something was up, but he was too scared and tired to parse it, so instead he just said, "Right. See you."
The relative silence of the boat's motor humming and the waves lapping against its sides returned, broken only occasionally by the moans of the wounded. Jaxon imagined he could hear the whir of the helicopter off on the other side of the island, but it was probably just fancy.
"What do we do now?" he said, to nobody in particular.
"We get out," Nate replied. "What else can we do?"
Grossi wiped his hands against his legs, again and again, but the blood would not come off. He was kneeling in the dirt, breathing heavily, sobbing like he hadn't since he was a child.
It had been quick. Too quick. That was what he told himself. He'd made his decision, and he'd decided to look out for himself, and when he'd been threatened he had responded as he'd been trained. It was instinct, muscle memory. It had to be.
He'd killed his friend. All those years with STAR, all those years first working for and then opposing the game, and it was only now that he was starting to understand what its victims went through. Some distant, intellectual part of him found that intriguing and almost humorous.
He'd run through a lot of emotions and thoughts in the half hour since he'd lunged. He'd replayed the scene, again and again, trying to imagine a different ending. In the end, Garnett had never even pulled the trigger. It had been a quick tussle, the two of them grappling for the knife, but Grossi had brought momentum and surprise and after he first made contact everything else had been blurred and quick.
Garnett lay slumped against the side of the car. His gun was now in Grossi's pocket. Grossi had, for the briefest moment, mulled over turning it on himself, but that was absurd—that would make everything he'd done a waste, would make him not merely selfish but evil maybe.
But what, he wondered as he wiped at his legs again, could the future possibly hold for him?
He couldn't go back to STAR. He could absolutely not look Zach and the others in their eyes and tell them what he'd done. He couldn't even lie to them. Sure, maybe he could attempt to spin the exact same story Garnett had planned to, but he felt like maintaining that facade for years would require a level of devotion and detachment bordering on the sociopathic. That had never been him.
So what would he do? Wipe the smear of blood off the side of the car and drive? Where? What was left for him? He'd thrown it all away in an instant—no, it had been taken from him, taken by Garnett, by his overreaction. All Grossi had been doing was trying to save whoever he could, to find the best resolution, to gather information. Was he to be damned for that?
His sobbing had subsided, and now he clenched his hands and smacked his fists into the sides of his leg. The field was quiet and still. The sun was high. The back of his neck was probably burning. He'd dropped the knife somewhere as he stumbled away, and now it was lost in the vegetation.
Grossi turned his face upwards, looking to the sky, but no answers came. All he could think of, now, was that he was so much like those kids on that island. And what had they done, seven years ago, with those who had made mistakes, who had passed some point of no return? They had damned them, condemned them to death. Nobody on the exclusion list had left the island alive.
So that was it. He was, in his way, the equivalent of a "player" now. So much for his attempts to be a good person. So much for trying to turn himself around, to make his mother proud. It had fallen apart, and now he was guilty of murder, out in the middle of nowhere with a car and the body of one of his best friends. If he got caught by the authorities, there would be trouble—he'd be imprisoned at best. Maybe someone in STAR would come for him out of revenge, make him the new Rizzolo.
But if there was truly no going back, if he'd been forsaken by or forsaken all he'd built his life around for these past years, there was still one person who might be able to save him, one person he could turn to, who might yet offer him an out and give him some future, no matter how pathetic and bleak. He first thought of it only as a distant option, a vague possibility, a thought experiment. It was, in a way, her fault that he was in this situation. And yet...
He let these thoughts distract him as he pulled Garnett into the field and loosely covered him with uprooted shrubs and grass. He let it occupy him as he took handfuls of dirt and scraped at the blood on the side of the car, smudging and covering it. He let it carry him as he shakily returned to Garnett's side and searched his pockets for the car keys.
By the time he dialed, it all seemed inevitable.
He got a response on the first ring.
"Sonia," he said, "I need your help. I'll do what you want, but I need your help."
"Wilson," Ki squeaked, bringing his pistol up a split second after Zach. Zach was already adjusting his aim, tracking to the right, but Wilson moved faster, stepping forward to meet Zach a fluid motion. The remaining soldier made a sound of surprise, and Zach pulled the trigger, trying to take Wilson down, but the older man had moved too suddenly, in an unexpected direction, and Zach's shot went wide as Wilson pressed his attack.
The first punch caught Zach in the gut, and he stumbled back a step and dropped the gun. The second connected with his jaw, clacking his teeth together and sending a surge of pain through him not only from the impact but also from a corner of his tongue getting mashed between his teeth. He barely realized he was spinning into the dirt until he landed there, coughing and spitting a gob of bloody saliva.
"Don't move," the surviving AT member called, somewhat redundantly. As he spoke, the other terrorists, the ones who had been pursuing Zach and Ki and Yu, came charging around the corner behind them, weapons leveled. Zach saw Ki glance from the newcomers to Wilson and his companion to Zach's position in the dirt. Zach gave his head a slight jerk. Ki nodded, lowered his hands, let his gun drop to the ground.
Zach's vaguely positive feelings about being near some sort of action had now entirely dissipated. His stomach and jaw were aching, his vision still slightly blurred, and as he pushed himself to a kneeling position, the slowness and care of his motion was from more than just a desire to avoid spooking the people training guns on him.
"Steven Wilson," Zach said, then paused to spit more blood into the dirt to his left. "I'm flattered."
"Don't be," Wilson said. The man had taken a step or two back and was standing at ease, but Zach could sense the energy and readiness about him. "I'm just here to make sure this is done right."
"Still. I never saw Danya on the ground," Zach said. His heart was racing—he knew this because of the throbbing in his jaw which beat in time. Ki had backed up a step, further away from Wilson but closer to the people who'd been chasing them.
"I'm not Danya," Wilson said. He didn't elaborate.
"Well, I'm glad about that." Zach took a deep breath to center himself. He'd been hit before. He'd been in danger before. There was probably no way out of this—not a clean one, at least. He and Ki were caught, and the only question remaining was what would happen to them.
He assumed they weren't going to be killed on the spot; they were, after all, still alive. That meant that the AT had something else in mind for them. Maybe they'd be dragged off and tortured or interrogated. Maybe they'd be tossed onto the island, in some sort of grand statement about the futility of resistance. There was a chance—a chance so small as to almost make musing on it useless—that they'd be kept alive as a bargaining chip of some kind. It had happened before—STAR had rescued that teacher back in 2008—but since then all intel suggested the AT disposed quickly and quietly of extraneous captives.
"I'm a little surprised to find you running," Wilson said. While his face was mostly impassive, his hands were still held in tight fists. This both perplexed Zach and gave him hope; if he could get under Wilson's skin, maybe there was still a chance.
"I wasn't exactly going to win a fight," Zach said.
"No," Wilson said. "You weren't. None of you."
"What's happening to everyone else?" That was Ki speaking, breaking into the conversation and snapping Zach back to full awareness of his situation. His flicker of optimism died. It didn't matter if he could goad Steven Wilson into slipping up in some fashion. There were still half a dozen guns pointed at them.
"All dead by now," Wilson said.
The blunt, casual nature of the reply caught Zach off guard, and he closed his eyes tight, squeezed them until the pain and pounding almost overwhelmed him, just to push away the thoughts of the faces, of Dax and Rachel, Yu and Jaxon. Of Torrie.
"Not easy, is it?"
Wilson's voice was exactly the same, the statement another blunt and curt one, but it didn't read to Zach as mockery or knife-twisting—not principally, at least. Zach noticed Wilson glance over at the fallen AT member right after he spoke. The man Zach had shot was now being checked by his uninjured comrade.
"You'd know, I suppose," Zach said. He knew bits and pieces of the stories of many of the prominent members of the AT, Wilson among them. Wilson was unusual in that there was no clear reason for him to have fallen in with the terrorists. He wasn't pinned to the wall, wasn't desperate, wasn't, so far as STAR's intelligence had been able to discern, particularly psychotic or delusional. They were pretty sure he had a very successful military career behind him.
"I do," Wilson said. "You've been responsible for your share of it."
"You have to fight for what you believe in," Zach said. Next to him, Ki started moving slightly, but the rustling of one of the terrorists shifting his rifle stilled the man.
"I don't suppose someone like you might have a change of heart," Zach said. "All of you. You really think killing high school kids is worth risking your lives for? Being hunted around the world?"
"It is." Wilson spoke quietly. "You think we'd do this—dedicate all this time and energy to this project, see so many people die over it—if there wasn't some meaning behind it?"
"I don't understand," Zach said.
"You wouldn't be able to."
Zach didn't have anything to say to that. All was quiet, except for a faint rustle of wind, or perhaps it was cars on the road far away. Ki looked tense and anxious. Zach knew he wanted to do something, take some action. It was an urge he understood completely.
Zach took a breath and came to a decision.
"So what now?" he said.
"What now?" Zach got the impression Wilson was peering at him, even though the sunglasses prevented him from meeting the man's gaze. "What now is we're here, and there doesn't seem to be much room for you to maneuver."
"Obviously." Zach pulled himself up to a crouch, swallowed the welling blood instead of spitting, then stood as straight and tall as he could. He'd never had bad posture, but now he tried to keep his back ramrod stiff. "Which leaves what happens now largely in your court."
"Well," Wilson said, "I guess that means we're going on a trip together."
"I don't know about that." Zach was pulling away, distancing from himself, trying to reclaim that almost euphoric sense of purpose, to push any musings on Wilson far, far away. Normally, he told himself there would be time for such things later, but just now he wasn't very sure of that. "I don't much fancy being dragged back as Danya's prize. I'm sure that wouldn't end well for me."
"Probably not," Wilson admitted.
"What might happen"—and despite Zach's surety he swallowed here—"if I told you I wasn't going to come along nicely?"
Ki inhaled sharply. Wilson raised an eyebrow.
"You'd probably get knocked out," he said. "I'm not really much for shooting unarmed prisoners."
"How about you toss me a gun?"
Wilson lowered his head just enough to lock eyes with Zach, peering over his sunglasses for the first time. Then he kicked the pistol towards Zach with the toe of his boot.
The time the pistol took to slide towards him through the dirt was perhaps a second, but in it Zach weighed his options, realized that he was being given a choice, and accepted the inevitability of the forgone conclusion. He dived forward, scrambled for the gun, scooped it up and turned towards Wilson, and before he could fire a shot Wilson drew his own pistol and shot Zach twice in the chest and once in the head.
In the split second before that last bullet hit, as beside him Ki turned and lunged at one of the terrorists behind them even as the man opened fire as well, Zach was torn by rage and hate, by the burning knowledge that he was right and they were wrong, but worst of all by the slightest stirrings of gratitude for the way it was all cut mercifully short.
It took a minute or two to find something they could wave as a white flag. Almost everything on the boat was matte black, and the terrorists pursuing them were buzzing them pretty close but not close enough to see a roll of gauze flapping in the breeze. Matt finally tugged first his shirt and then his undershirt off. They tied the latter to the end of a rifle and waved it in the air, slowing the boat at the same time, while Matt hurriedly redressed himself, because even if they were almost certainly all about to die, he didn't want to do it cold and stupid-looking.
The helicopter's first pass was the most tense. It came in low, quick still, skimming right overhead. The wind from the rotors kicked up a spray around the boat and nearly ripped their makeshift flag off its pole. Matt crouched low, half expecting them to be immediately blown out of the water, but the bullets didn't come. That was good. Whatever happened now, no matter whether anything they tried succeeded or failed, they were buying more time for Jaxon and the rest to get away. That was a pretty sad consolation prize given how everyone else was pretty much dead or captured and they hadn't blown up the AT's headquarters or saved even one student, but you took what you could get, and Matt and Dax and the rest had it in mind to grab just a little more if they could manage.
Matt wondered what the terrorists' stance on the Geneva Convention was. They probably didn't follow it particularly well, and Matt really only knew the basics of it anyways. He was pretty sure that months of torture culminating in cutting someone's eye out and forcibly reconscripting them was a no-no, though. Or did the rules not apply to Garnett, since he was technically a defector from the AT's own forces?
Really, though, Danya Jr. was probably rubbing his not-yet-fat-but-Matt-could-pretend hands together and getting off imagining throwing them all into collars. He was probably wondering how their lofty ideals would hold up, whether they'd all sit and wait to die or whether one would crack and start the whole inevitable process just like some teenager always did.
And after all, it wouldn't be easy to say. Test Run Eight had been different. They hadn't been forced to fight each other—not exactly, at least. They'd been thrown against members of the AT, though in the chaos and confusion plenty of students had hurt each other too, many thinking that they might somehow find escape or acceptance by doing so. Matt remembered one night, when Jaxon had had an uncharacteristic number of drinks and had mumbled that he'd almost shot Zach when he first saw him. He said he'd been scared, and he'd had this crazy idea that the AT would take him into their ranks if he just started playing on their side. He said he'd been scared to die, but at the last second he'd figured out there was something else that scared him more, and then he'd been quiet, and Matt had never brought it up to him again and sort of wanted to call him and say something about it now, but it was too late and besides he didn't know how to phrase it.
The helicopter spun around again. Matt looked to Dax and was about to waggle his eyebrows again, this time to keep the fear down for both of them, but Dax was leaning over someone who looked pretty dead so Matt just swallowed instead. There was no point trying to help anyone injured on the boat at this stage. They both knew that, but maybe this was how Dax helped himself feel better just like making funny faces kept Matt calm.
The third time the helicopter came around, it moved slowly, eventually hovering right above and to the left of the boat. A spotlight came on, and Matt raised his hand to his eyes, trying to block the blinding glare.
"Drop any weapons you're holding," came a voice, amplified by a megaphone or speaker or something. Matt wasn't holding any weapons, but he heard a clatter behind him, so someone else must've been.
"We can take anyone injured off first." There was that amplified voice again. Matt could faintly see three people standing in the bay of the helicopter, one manning the spotlight, one holding a device to its face, and one pointing a gun. The shapes were indistinct; aside from the glare making it hard to make out details, he was pretty sure they were wearing helmets. Their genders were indiscernible via voice or sight. He imagined one or two more were lurking out of sight, plus the pilot.
"You need to come closer," Matt yelled. "We've got some pretty hurt people."
They probably couldn't hear him over the rotors, he realized, so he waved at them, gesturing them closer. As he did, his heart started pounding.
He'd thought it was a mix of Christmas and a birthday, and then the first day of school, but he'd been wrong on all accounts. He'd been trying to keep what was happening out of his mind, to push away the endgame here, but the truth was this was definitely Thanksgiving: a bunch of people who didn't like each other forced into proximity and made to suffer together.
As the helicopter scooted that little bit closer, Matt turned and looked at Dax and this time he did wiggle his eyebrows. Dax's eyes had been closed but he opened them just in time to catch the gesture. It looked like he'd been crying, just a little, and Matt felt kind of shitty then, but Dax shot him a smirk and raised one of his own eyebrows, and Matt nodded, and then Dax raised his hand up, and in it was the controller for that shitload of C-4 they'd planned to use to make the terrorists' ship do its best Titanic impression.
Yeah. Thanksgiving. Matt was thankful that someone might get away. He was thankful that he wouldn't find out what the AT had planned for them. But most of all, he was thankful someone else was going down with him.
The explosion lit up the sky and echoed so loudly to be clear even to Jaxon. He made one more attempt at radio contact, but expected and received no response from the Assault Team. Nobody else was responding either. So far as he could tell, they were the only ones left.
The atmosphere on the boat was tense, nervous, somber. Jaxon kept expecting some sign of further pursuit, the whir of a helicopter or the roar of an approaching boat, but there was nothing. Everything was still and largely quiet.
The sun came up, but by then they were far enough away from everything that there was nothing to see. They'd steered off course, but that wasn't such an issue; they decided not to go back to either their launching point or their designated backup.
It was mid-afternoon when the boat landed on a small beach on the mainland. They'd chosen somewhere rocky and isolated, but even with that they moved quickly, pulling the boat ashore and covering it with a tarp. Jaxon's contribution was limited; in fact, the bulk of the work was handled by Nate, Dera, and Lulu—the only ones who'd escaped relatively uninjured. Mateo had caught a shot in the back at some point, and Jaxon felt horrible to have not even noticed during the fighting. He did his best to help keep Mateo and Jordan comfortable, in those moments when he wasn't overcome with his own injuries.
As night fell, they made their way into a small cave system—closed to the public due to dangerous surfaces and erosion, Dera said, translating the faded French text—and settled in.
They had no idea if the AT was coming after them. Their supplies were limited, especially those not intended for use in an assault. They were battered and out of contact with the rest of the world. But they were alive, at least for the moment.
"Welcome to another beautiful morning here on our island."
Danya grinned at that one. He knew that would rile some of them up.
"We have a good mix of new and familiar faces for you today. Always good to see more people taking the initiative."
Again stirring the pot, the angrier they were the better.
"It shows in the results as well. They're alive while some of you, not so much."
"Cameron Herrig took a pickaxe to the stomach courtesy of our newest challenger to take up the game, Alessio Rigano. Way to go, I look forward to seeing more of your work. I hope it meets this standard."
He tapped his fingers lightly on the desk, assessing how the tone of his daily monologue was coming along. There had been a danger of everything becoming routine, but luckily the previous day had offered some more diversity to work with.
"A little PSA about drugs, specifically tranquilizers. Always make sure to check what the correct dose is based on what you need it for. The last thing you want is to end up in a permanent slumber like Mia Rose did thanks to an overdose administered by Kaitlyn Greene."
He paused for added effect.
"And to answer your question Mrs. Greene, no, we don't do deals."
He smirked at that. Sowing some distrust and paranoia was a trick his father had never used enough in his opinion. Another mistake of his.
"Tessa Mabel Cole died to teach you all an important lesson. We value our cameras quite a bit around here, after all if we lose one that's a lot of money down the drain and another angle for the adoring public at home gone. So when she smashed one we blew her collar. Just like I said we would."
He let the rest of the threat hang in the air unsaid.
"Next up, in a display of poor sportsmanship Wayne Cox threw himself from the asylum roof. An opportunity for someone to earn a prize gone."
He sighed dramatically for the microphone.
"Oh well, he's made sure you're all one step closer to winning."
"Henry Spencer got to live a horror movie courtesy of Alessio Rigano who is making good strides in becoming a real life monster. Great work, I didn’t expect to see your name again so soon."
He slowly clapped to sell the comment.
"Our next returnee has kicked things into high gear recently as Isabel Ramirez punted Steve Dobson off the helipad then stabbed him to make sure the job was done. I personally loved the passion and flair for the dramatic displayed."
"Finally Oskar Pearce went cliff diving. It turned out about as well as you would expect."
"In other news that's important for you all, the Peaceful Meadows Crematorium is a danger zone for the next twenty-four hours. For those of you that don't know what that is it's the building with the lovely garden around it. If you like your heads on your shoulders I'd suggest staying away."
"And in the news you've all been waiting for, we decided that even if we don't make deals we can reward the ingenuity in trying to make one. As such congratulations Kaitlyn Greene on winning our third Best Kill Award. Your prize will be waiting for you in the crematorium."
"I'll see you all tomorrow kids. Remember to play nice."
The Fourth AnnouncementEdit
Cleaning up took longer than the action, but not by much. The men and women of the AT descended upon the house STAR had called headquarters, moving quickly and efficiently. Anything with the potential to hold information, no matter how slight, was seized. The rest was tossed roughly to the ground, piled up in the centers of rooms or in hallways.
The bodies were identified, bagged, and conveyed to a large truck for later disposal. Disposing of bodies was an area in which the members of the cleanup crew had plentiful experience. There were fewer corpses than expected, and that was cause for some concern and haste, but the project went uninterrupted. The closest neighbors were over a kilometer away—STAR had presumably picked the area in part for its isolation—and none of them seemed to take notice of the traffic to the house. Perhaps they were used to odd comings and goings there.
Once everything of value that could be pulled from the building had been, most of the AT sped away. The remaining skeleton crew made a final sweep through the house, now not removing objects but rather placing them. Then, job complete, they too vacated the premises.
Ten hours later, in the middle of the night, the building was engulfed in flame as the timed incendiaries set by the AT activated. Due to the late hour and the distance from centers of population, it was some time before firefighters arrived, and very little could be salvaged. It did not take local authorities long to figure out that the fire had been no ordinary accident, and so the ASIO was called in and the area sealed off.
The press made brief mention of the fire, but no notable details were released, and the story died fairly quickly—after all, the government was offering little in the way of cooperation, and since it seemed nobody had been hurt in the fire and the only damage had been the consumption of an isolated house officially owned by a foreign firm and allegedly unoccupied, the most interesting thing about it all was the silence from official parties, making it difficult to say much about it.
The Australian government came to suspect that the house had been razed either in the course of foreign espionage or organized crime, but details were scarce. Those parties usually involved in such activities showed no awareness of the incident, and nothing of strategic value was apparent about the location or timing. Stranger still, reports from those who lived nearby pegged those most often seen near the house as a number of men and women in their twenties and thirties, who rarely behaved in troublesome or suspicious fashion.
The investigation remained inconclusive, though privately those closest to it suspected they were dealing with national powers with major resources—a spat between the Americans and the Russians, perhaps.
Grossi did his best to clean up before the meeting, but days on the run had taken their toll. He'd used what money he'd had on him for food and gas, and while it had carried him far enough—he wasn't totally remiss in his preparations; he knew to carry enough cash for an emergency—he'd had to sleep in the car and had made stops as infrequently as possible. He was unshaven, partially because it made his features less recognizable, partially because he hadn't thought to buy a razor.
He was a couple hundred miles from STAR HQ by now. There was no word as to whether Garnett's fate had been discovered. Grossi doubted it, but he had been surprised, time and again, by the resourcefulness and resilience of his former wards. It was only a matter of time before someone went digging, and then they would come looking for him, no doubt with some very pointed questions. The only thing working in his favor, the only thing buying him time, was his and Garnett's propensity for independent operations with minimal communication. Even that would eventually wear thin, though, and he very much doubted any amount of explaining could get him back into the organization's good graces.
And so, it had come to this. It was another middle of nowhere meeting, and while Grossi knew what was coming this time, he didn't feel any better for it.
He was, after all, here to sell his soul once again.
He slipped out of the car (now more thoroughly cleaned of evidence of his crime), locked it, and moved up the road. The weight of the knife on his belt and Garnett's pistol in his jacket pocket gave him no confidence whatsoever.
Unlike the field where he and Garnett had parted, this was a park, one lush with trees and bushes. As Grossi moved further from the parking lot, he wondered how the area had been so effectively emptied. The only other person within sight was the woman he'd come to meet.
Sonia Nguyen sat at a picnic table, facing away from the table itself, towards the path Grossi was walking. She nodded at him as he approached, then gestured for him to join her on the bench. Grossi held up his hand, deferring.
"Suit yourself," Sonia said.
Grossi's palms were sweating. Even when he had leaned the driver's seat back and closed his eyes, he had found precious little rest. He'd imagined this meeting many times over, played out a thousand different ways it could go, and still he felt unprepared.
"Well?" Sonia asked. She smirked a little as she spoke.
"Well," Grossi said, but his lips and throat were dry so he had to swallow to properly find his voice, "well, what?"
"I'm actually surprised you came," Sonia said.
"You are?" None of the scripts had gone this way. Sonia had, in the course of their conversations, always seemed utterly certain of the inevitability of this conclusion.
"I am. I figured you'd give me what I asked for and then head straight for the border."
"You found me once," Grossi said. "I don't see any point starting off our... renewed relationship... on a bad foot."
"Certainly." Sonia chuckled. "It's already been far more dramatic than I'd hoped."
"Yes," Grossi said, "it has."
He tried not to think of Garnett. He tried not to think of Zach and the others, of how horrified they would be if they knew what he was doing, what he had done. He was trading their safety for his own. He was trading the lives of whatever class the AT next targeted for his own.
He had told Sonia everything. It hadn't been as hard as he'd expected, in the moment, because she'd encouraged him by noting just how much she already knew. She'd promised him, when he was talking to her while still staring at Garnett's makeshift grave, that she'd make sure STAR was neutralized with the minimum force necessary. Destruction of equipment, she'd said, and a cutting off of resources from their sponsors. She'd explained that Tracen had no real interest in revenge, just in keeping things running smoothly. She'd told him things were different in the AT now, more focused and professional. There was no more reign of terror, no more summary executions.
And of course, Grossi hadn't believed all she said. He still didn't. He was prepared, prepared for the inevitable and likely painful interrogation sure to accompany his reintroduction into the ranks. He hoped he could hide his revulsion, but even if he couldn't, the truth was that he was taking the road that seemed most likely to lead to his continued survival and prosperity. He thought it likely his former foes could respect that—it was, he knew from his time with them, what drew so many to the organization in the first place.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how things have changed," Grossi lied. No time like the present to brown-nose a little. Sonia had, after all, sought him out—if he could further cultivate her favor, she might be able to shield him from the brunt of the potential fallout. "I've been kicking myself for leaving for years. Only stuck with those kids so long because I didn't think anyone would trust me again."
Sonia nodded, her lips quirking up a hair more.
"I didn't see the car you took in the lot," Grossi said. "Should we take mine to wherever we're leaving from?"
"We're not leaving from anywhere," Sonia said.
She said it like it was just another idle piece of small talk, said it just like she'd said everything to Grossi since she first called him over a week ago, but the words landed like bricks.
"Oh Lucas," she said, perhaps reading the look on his face, "you really have been gone a long time."
"What do you mean?" he said, trying to push what he knew away even as he frantically attempted to come up with alternatives, contingencies, fantasies to get him out of the situation he found himself in or ways he could have dodged it.
"You're a liability," Sonia said. "All you care about is yourself. You sold us out, and then you sold those kids out to us when you thought that could save you. There's no room for that in the AT. Not anymore."
"So why?" Grossi said. He'd thought to perhaps stall and buy time, but found that he wanted—no, needed—to know the answer as well.
"You had something we wanted," Sonia said. "We got a certain small amount of information from one of your backers who experienced a change of heart. It wasn't much, but it was a start. We would have caught up with all of you eventually, but you represented an opportunity to expedite the process. Brandon's getting caught up in it was an unintended but fortunate coincidence."
"Why risk contacting me?" Grossi said. "If I told the rest, we could've vanished again."
"If you moved, it would offer us further opportunities to gather information and find you, and it would keep you busy when we needed you out of our hair," Sonia said. "Not that any of that really matters to you now."
"You brought Garnett back," Grossi said. He felt like he was pleading not with Sonia but with himself, with reality. He'd thought this through, had grappled with this, had damned himself, and now the shoddy prize he'd been offered was being ripped out of his grasp.
"That was how Victor did things." Sonia waved her hand. "It's why your lot found the success they did. It was stupid and inefficient, a clear recipe for disaster. Nowadays we tie up our loose ends."
And just like that, for the second time in the week, Grossi found himself grabbing the knife from his belt and lunging forward with the intent to kill.
He only made it two of the ten steps that separated him from Sonia. The gunfire came from his left, from behind one of those trees that surrounded the table, and it was mercifully accurate. As Grossi crumpled, he felt like he should feel something more altruistic, some horror at his killing of Garnett, some fear for STAR now that Sonia had showed her true colors, some revulsion with himself and his stupidity and selfishness, but all he found was that same fear that had propelled him so many times in his life, screaming at him one last time to save himself. The last thing he saw was Sonia looking down at him, shrugging.
"I can't believe he came." Christina Stockton stepped from her hiding place and slung the rifle back over her shoulder.
Sonia shrugged. "He was always susceptible to suggestion. It's why he clung to Danya so loyally so quickly, and it's why Garnett had such an easy time turning him. Some of us saw it at the time, but you know how Victor could be with his favorites."
Christina made her way towards Grossi's fallen form, pulling a pistol from her belt and keeping it trained as she kicked the knife from his limp grasp and then patted him down. She recovered a small revolver from the pocket of his jacket, snapped open the cylinder and let the bullets fall to the ground, then tucked it into the hip pocket of her fatigues.
"You think he really gave us good intel?" Christina asked.
"I don't think it matters," Sonia said. "Maybe we're lucky and Wilson and Tracen get what they want. Maybe our trap catches some flies. Maybe we just have another smooth version, and they're down two of their biggest assets."
Christina moved to check Grossi's vitals. When she was satisfied that he wouldn't be getting back up, she stood and gave the all-clear.
"Alright," Sonia said. "Let's get him packed up and move out. There's a lot of work left to do."
They'd buried Mateo in a far corner of the cave system, in one of the only areas where the ground was soft enough to dig. That had been five days ago now. Jaxon had spent much of that time wondering if he would follow his comrade into death, and a good bit of it hoping he might. He'd developed a fever and become delirious for a time, and when it had finally broken, he found his wounds prevented him from doing any sort of heavy work, or even from moving much. Lulu said he'd probably messed himself up worse by running so hard on adrenaline.
They had been living off provisions, and had made no attempt at leaving their hiding spot. Dera had reported a boat she thought might be the AT passing by the day after they holed up, and then again three days later.
They were somewhere in southern France. Much of their equipment had been damaged, destroyed, or abandoned during the evacuation—Jaxon had ditched most everything besides his weapons almost as soon as the shooting started—so the remnants of the STAR landing squad were subsisting on emergency rations and medicine while trying to figure out what to do.
Part of the problem was that the radio had been silent. There was no telling what had happened, what the situation in the outside world was, who was left. Jordan had made a few attempts at contacting someone else, but had found no luck. They had discussed their options, considered the pros and cons of moving on or staying put.
The biggest problem was they had nowhere to go and no resources to speak of. Nate had reported that they were miles away from anything. They would have to make the trek on foot—at least, some of them would. Jaxon and Jordan weren't mobile enough to go anywhere.
But now more than a week had passed, and the AT had not found and killed them, and food was running low. And then, right when it seemed critical that they act, the radio finally came to life.
It was Yun Choy from the Intelligence Squad, Yun who had been slightly disappointed to be assigned to handling the V3 survivors but had agreed without too much argument. They all clustered around the radio, around the makeshift cots Jaxon and Jordan lay in, and they listened. When she stopped talking and said she had to sign off, nobody spoke for some time.
What they had learned was this: STAR had not only been lured into an ambush, but had also faced a frontal assault on their headquarters, one which had resulted in the death or capture of Zach and almost everyone else present. This information came through Torrie Taylor, who had been shot at the start of the attack and left for dead by the AT, and had managed to make her way to one of STAR's stashed cars and slip away while all attention was focused on the ongoing fight.
So far as they could tell, all that remained of STAR was Torrie, Yun, Quinn, the V3 survivors, and the remnants of Jaxon's landing squad. Most of STAR's sponsors were refusing to respond to or even acknowledge the survivors, though one sympathetic backer had revealed that word on the street was that the AT had also caught up with both Garnett and Grossi.
"So," Jaxon finally said, when it became clear nobody else would, "I guess that's it."
Jordan groaned. Dera scratched at her head.
"I'm not quite sure I follow," Lulu said.
"We're not getting help," Jaxon said. "We have to figure out what to do now, how to stay safe."
"What we have to figure out," Nate said, "is how we're going to fuck up the people responsible for this."
Nate's goatee had been subsumed by a week's worth of beard growth, leaving him a more rugged but also friendlier appearance, but even that couldn't mask his scowl.
"I don't think so," Jaxon said. "Jordan and I can't walk. We don't even know where the others are. Everyone who's ever helped us is pretending they've never heard of us. Zach is dead."
"So what are you saying?" Nate's tone was cold, dangerous. It was the sort of tone he'd taken seven years ago, when he'd argued so long and hard that killers had to stay, but now there was nobody else to take his side, no string of facts or rationalizations that could sway Jaxon. There was only the truth, no matter how much it hurt.
"I'm saying STAR is done," Jaxon said. "Our best bet now is to find some friendly government and pray they can keep Danya from sending someone to shoot us in our sleep."
"I don't think so, Jaxon," he said. "This isn't over. This isn't even close to done. We've had setbacks before. Half of us died getting off that island. But you know, when things get tough, you don't quit. We don't quit. Not until every one of us is dead.
"When we killed Danya, did they give up and call it a day? Did they say, 'oh, damn, guess we have to stop killing kids now?' They did not. So pardon me if I'm not quite ready to pack it in."
"We have nothing," Jaxon said. "Maybe we can think—think—about restructuring once we're somewhere safe. Only three of us could even walk a mile. You need to be real. We have no chance."
It hurt, to say this out loud. It hurt to acknowledge it, because Jaxon wanted Nate to be right, almost as much as he knew he wasn't. Glancing around, Jaxon could see on the others' faces that they knew it too. Only Nate looked unbroken.
Perhaps he sensed it as well, for when he spoke his voice was free of bluster.
"I'm not giving up," he said. "I'm going to see this through. Anyone who wants to come with me, well, let's go."
Nobody budged. Jordan groaned again. Nate shrugged, and set about filling a pack. Jaxon said nothing as Nate went through their equipment, selecting weapons and electronics, stuffing the pack to overflowing. When he'd finished, Nate looked at the rest and shrugged.
"Have a nice life, I guess," he said. "I hope you're able to live with yourselves." Then he made his way out of the cave, scrambled up the scrubby slope, and disappeared from sight.
"He'll be back," Jaxon said.
The others nodded like they believed it, but when the next morning came and Nate had not returned, Jaxon felt only marginal surprise.
"If I had to numerically quantify our success rate, I would say we're sitting comfortably at seventy percent, maybe eighty if we're generous."
Monica Brown was speaking to Greynolds and Tracen, and even though both already knew most of what she was saying, this felt important. Last time around, her job had been simple: make sure nobody wrecked the game. She'd performed admirably enough to land further responsibilities, with an eye towards ensuring the smooth operation of the program through the somewhat more proactive removal of a longstanding threat.
"STAR's headquarters was razed. Its leadership is dead. Its files are ours—some of them are wrecked, but the techs should be able to pull a good portion and patch a lot together, given some time. Most of STAR's manpower was eliminated in their attempt on the decoy island. The two most prominent defectors among their ranks have been eliminated."
Greynolds smiled. It was always just a little disconcerting when he did that.
"However..." he said, prompting.
"However, there were mistakes. One girl escaped the HQ raid, because someone didn't double check she was dead. Wilson has already handled the discipline, and it may even work in our favor to have a report of the action floating around, but it was sloppy nonetheless.
"Moreover, the organization of the decoy raid was troubled. Part of that is no doubt due to the number and experience of the staff dedicated to it—with the game also occupying attention, things slip through the cracks—but this still led to a group escaping and our loss of a handful of troops on the ground, plus a full helicopter crew.
"Finally, due to some sort of last-second change of plans that our primary sources were unaware of, all the survivors of V3 are unaccounted for. While they do not form the core of STAR's active force, they do represent a certain level of potential embarrassment should they surface."
"Hm," Greynolds said. "Tracen?"
Tracen seemed to think for a moment.
"Good enough," he said.
"It feels... I don't know. I'm glad." They were alone now, Greynolds and Tracen; Monica had departed to take up position monitoring the game once again, an energy drink—the origins of which Tracen could not figure out—already in hand. The room was largely empty, with a handful of comfortable, padded chairs and a table too small to be rightly called a conference table, despite its use as such.
"Most of the people who had a hand in your father's death are gone now," Greynolds said. "The ones who aren't are on the run."
"The one who pulled the trigger isn't."
The only surprising thing about Dorian's departure from STAR was that they had only just learned of it.
"We could have him tracked down," Greynolds offered.
Tracen waved his hand. "No. No, it's over. Let Dorian cower in whatever hole he's crawled into. The same with the rest of them. There's nothing they can do to us now, so they're more useful alive. This way, they're a warning to others."
"Even the ones who got away?"
It was always hard for Tracen to tell whether Greynolds was testing him, seeking to understand him, or some combination thereof. He wasn't even certain Greynolds himself knew. The questions rarely grated, however, and Greynolds had a special knack for getting right to what Tracen needed to ponder.
"Even them," he said. "Maybe they'll stay in hiding. In that case, nothing has changed. If they resurface, though? All that does is get our name front and center again. What happened in 2007, it was nothing to what happened the next year. A minor blip. We've already proven our system repaired, and like you said, grudges aren't going to help us."
"Get some sleep," he said. "Have to be fresh for your radio program tomorrow."
"As you said, the people who led to my father's death are mostly dead," Tracen said. "I think I'll sleep better than I have in a long time."
Tracen set his mug of coffee down on the side of the desk, next to his notes on the previous day. Gently blowing on the drink to cool it down, re-read the final changes to his script he had made the night before making sure he was happy with what he had chosen to say. He checked the time and took a sip of his coffee before beginning the announcement.
"Good morning children. If you are hearing this, congratulations you have survived yet another day."
After a pause so he could take another sip Danya continued.
"I'm pleased to say that there's a lot of new people who have joined in the festivities today. It's always good to see people finally realizing that there's only one way to get out of this alive. Trust me kids, the longer you wait the worse your chances get so act now or you'll live to regret it."
He took another gulp of his coffee and absentmindedly played with the pen he had brought with him. He was letting the remaining students think about what he had said the more people they had participating the better it looked and the more shocking it was for those watching at home. It didn't matter in the long run though, they would only be left with one when the games ended.
"We have a new entry to kick things off today as Caedyn Miller hit Bridgette Sommerfeld over the head, when this didn't quite work she resorted to stabbing her...a lot. We'll put the messiness down to first time jitters."
He finished off the coffee and narrowed his eyes at the next time on his list.
"Looks like I have to explain something again to all of you. You aren't leaving this island unless you are the last one standing, trying to escape just gets you killed, if you don't believe me just ask Taranis Behzad. She found out that setting a fire and then beating herself into unconscious in an attempt to remove her collar wasn't the best decision, and then she didn't even have the guts to stick around, instead opting to eliminate herself. I want you all to know I hate quitters kids so don't let me down like Miss Behzad did."
He sat back and gave the remaining children a moment to process what he had told them.
Reading the next name a small chuckle escaped Tracen's lips.
"Time for another health and safety PSA kids. Be careful of rocks in case you trip and fall. They can cause head injuries that lead to your death. Bernadette Thomas found this out when Brendan Harte pushed her over."
"As for the danger zones today I'd advise avoiding the The Staff Housing Block if you like your head."
"Our final piece of business is always our Best Kill Award, this time won by Caedyn Miller, hopefully your reward makes sure that your next attempt at murder goes a little smoother. Your prize will be waiting for you in the Hunting Cabin."
"I'm pleased with how you're all coming along kids. I'll see you again tomorrow."