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Once we were all in position, the girl with the gun half walked, half skipped over to the van, stopping next to the driver’s-side door. She beamed through the glass, blue eyes wide and bright as a kid’s on Christmas morning. Her hair destroyed any illusion of childishness, despite her size. Most kids have bleach-blond hair these days, a sign that their parents are properly respecting security protocols. Her hair was so red it was almost orange, and only the last six inches had been bleached, ending in about an inch of inky black, like the tipping on a fox’s tail.

She tapped the barrel of her gun against the window, gesturing for me to open the door. I did so, moving slowly in case she decided to take offense at the fact that I was moving at all.

“Hi!” she said, once the door was open. She removed her right hand from the gun stock long enough to reach over and tap the skin behind her ear, presumably turning off the transmitter she’d been using to speak through Mahir’s tablet. “I’m the Fox. Welcome to the Brainpan.”

“Uh,” I said slowly. “Nice to meet you?”

“Oh, that’s probably not true,” she said, still with the same manic good cheer. “Why don’t you come inside? The Cat baked bread this morning, and I don’t think it’s poisoned or anything! Also, leave your guns in the car, or I’ll not only kill you, I’ll f**k up your corpses so bad that even DNA testing won’t be able to figure out who you were.” She flashed us one last, bright-toothed smile and started walking backward down the path to the porch. She kept her gun leveled on us all the way. Only when she reached the porch did she turn, bounding up the stairs and vanishing through the open door.

“Oh, great,” said Becks, in a faint voice. “I was wondering how we were going to fill our daily quota of bat-shit crazy.”

“Maybe we can make quota for the rest of the month.” I unbuckled my belt and slid out of the van. Once I was clear, I removed the guns from my waistband, setting them on the seat. “Everybody drop your weapons and come on. We came to them. We may as well play by their rules.”

“Yes, because allowing the crazy people to set the rules is absolutely always the way to ensure one’s survival in a hostile situation.” Mahir managed to sound almost amused, even though he scowled as he removed his own pistol from the holster beneath his arm.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said amiably. He had the good grace to look abashed. I leaned back in through my open door and punched him in the arm. “Don’t worry. The lunatics have been running the asylum around here for a long time. We’ll fit right in.”

Becks had to shed six guns before she got out of the van, and even then, I was reasonably sure she was holding back at least a couple of knives. Maggie didn’t need to remove anything. That made me grimace a little.

She really isn’t field ready at all, is she?

“No, she’s really not,” I murmured, and slammed the van door.

The four of us walked together down the broken concrete pathway leading to the Brainpan porch. As we got closer to the house, I started spotting the security enhancements and architectural tweaks hidden among the general disorder and decay. All of them were subtle, and from what I could see, all of them were designed to be effective. That meant they were recent. If they’d been done immediately post-Rising, when most of the improvements—such as they were—were being made to this neighborhood, they would have been flashy. These had no flash at all. They weren’t here to show off how secure the house was. They were here to secure it.

“Look,” I said, elbowing Becks in the side before nodding toward a camera mostly hidden beneath one of the shingles edging the roof.

She followed my gaze. “Not very well concealed.”

“Yeah, but it’s also a dummy. You know, for dummies.” The Fox bounced back into the open doorframe, beaming at us. “If you think that’s the only camera, you’re a dummy, and I get to shoot you.”

“That’s an entirely reasonable and understandable mechanism for judging one’s guests,” said Mahir smoothly. “Might we come inside now?”

“Oh, sure. Just take off your shoes. The Cat gets a little crazy when you track mud on her floors.” She disappeared back into the house.

Becks and I exchanged a look. “I’m not sure what’s worse,” she said. “The fact that she just implied someone else might be crazy, or the fact that everyone here has a name that starts with the word ‘the.’ ”

“Just pretend they’re all comic book villains and it starts to make sense.” Maggie took off her sandals, swinging them casually from one hand as she climbed the porch steps and entered the house.

“I’m Batman,” deadpanned Mahir, and followed her. Becks was half a step behind him, and I brought up the rear, looking back over my shoulder for signs of pursuit as I stepped inside. There were none. For better or for worse, we were alone with the people we had come to find.

I expected the door to swing shut itself as soon as I was over the threshold. Instead, it remained open until an aggravated female voice shouted, “Shut the damn door!” from somewhere at the end of the hall.

I shut the door.

It took a moment for me and Becks to undo the laces on our boots. Mahir and Maggie waited for us to finish, and we walked down the short entry hall to the living room together.

The house was constructed on one of the pre-Rising open-space models, with the living room, dining room, and kitchen essentially blending together to form one large space. There were multiple windows, which must have provided a lot of natural light before they were sealed up and boarded over. Now they were just plywood rectangles set into the walls, barely visible behind the banks of computer equipment and monitor screens. The place looked like a combination of a server farm and a college student’s dorm room, with one big exception: It was scrupulously clean. There might be a futon on the floor, but there were no pizza boxes or takeout containers; there was clutter, but no trash. It managed to be sterile and lived-in at the same time.


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