“Joe here,” Fideli said, and coughed again. “Fuck. Hey, Pat, you sleeping in? Because we’re in some trouble here.” While he talked, he was working the release on his seat belt. It was stuck, but in seconds he had a combat knife out of its sheath and was slicing through the thick fabric like silk. Riley squirmed back to give him room to drop; he did it more elegantly than either she or Bryn had done, but then, he’d probably had more practice.
Patrick didn’t answer. He was hanging limp, bloodied arms dangling. Joe cursed under his breath, rose to his knees, and cut the man free. Bryn, without prompting, helped ease him down. Behind her, she heard more glass breaking, and metal groaning; Riley was forcing open the driver’s side door with muscular kicks.
There was a firefight going on outside the toppled SUV, a thundering chatter of bullets punctuated by a low rumble and a loud blatting horn, and what the hell was that . . . ?
Joe had taken hold of Patrick beneath the arms and was crab-walking backward, dragging the other man with him. Bryn shook the lingering fog out of her head and turned to the cracked window next to her. Impossible to see what was going on, so she smashed it out with a flurry of quick punches. Cuts and breaks didn’t matter.
There was a spotlight rushing toward them, and the sound of metallic screeching pierced the noise of combat, and Bryn had time to realize that the vibration was coming from the railroad tracks, the railroad tracks underneath the SUV that she was in, and the headlight was from a black locomotive rushing toward them with the pulping force of God’s biggest hammer.
Riley realized it, too, and from the other side of the SUV she grabbed Joe and heaved, hauling him and Patrick out with one bone-shaking pull and dragging them at an angle backward to a ditch.
Bryn bailed out of the window she’d broken, hit the hard, vibrating metal of the tracks, and didn’t have time to get out of the way . . . just enough time to roll off the metal and onto the wood and gravel in the center.
The train went over her like a storm, a roaring black hurricane of steel and smoke, burning metal and sparks. She was facedown, cheek pressed onto the sharp chunks of rock, and the smell of burning oil overwhelmed her.
She didn’t hear the train hit the SUV, but it must have, because it kept moving, thundering over her and gradually easing to a stop still parked on top of her.
She made sure it was stable, then shakily crawled out between the smoking wheels, slithered down the embankment and rolled into a weed-filled ditch that was smoldering with pieces of the exploded car.
The battle was in full force up on the road.
Half the escorting SUVs were trapped on the other side of the tracks, barred from them by the train; Brick’s two other teams were still in the game and laying down hot fire to keep the attackers—from the goddamn train now—from firing down on Riley, Pat, and Joe, who needed cover badly. Bryn took only a couple of seconds to take the situation in, and focused on the body-armored assault team in the boxcars of the freight train, who’d slid aside the doors and were pouring semiauto fire at the guardian SUVs, trying to take them out first.
Bryn lunged back up out of the ditch, grabbed hold of the back passenger door of their wrecked, mangled, chopped-in-half SUV, and braced herself. All about leverage, she told herself. The door was twisted and hanging loose anyway. Go.
She yanked, and metal groaned and shook, but the door held.
One of their attackers turned his fire on her. She felt the bullets striking but ignored them; pain was pain, the nanites would fix it. Her world narrowed to the door.
She yanked violently, twisting down, and the one remaining hinge snapped at its stress point, leaving her holding a thick armored door.
She picked it up and ran to the opposite side, around the still-smoking SUV, and rolled into the ditch that held Joe, Patrick, and Riley. She and Riley got the door up and above them, protecting the two men, seconds before the concentrated fire bore down.
“Ladies,” Joe said between gasps for breath, “you’re making me feel kinda useless here.”
“You’re the only one who can shoot right now,” Bryn panted. “How’s that for feeling useful?”
He grinned. He was bloody from a cut on his head, and his smile looked wild and warlike. He still had his sidearm, though Bryn hadn’t had time to grab her weapons bag, and he crawled to the edge of the sheltering door. “Go,” he said, and they shifted it a few inches down his body. He fired six shots in about three seconds, moving his aim with tiny, precise ticks. “Clear.” They moved the door back to cover him—and the answering fire was less—a lot less. “Got five out of six. Last bastard twitched.”
“Vest shots?” Riley asked.
“What am I, an amateur? Head shots, thank you very much.” He took a couple of deep, pumping breaths, and nodded. “Go.”
They repeated the maneuver, and he did six more shots. When he signaled clear again, there was only a desultory rattle of fire on the steel, and then silence.
They were retreating.
Joe wasn’t assuming anything, though. He ejected his clip, slapped in a new one, and racked the slide so fast that it was one blur of motion. Ten seconds passed. Fifteen. Twenty. Bryn’s arms were starting to burn under the strain, and she could see that Riley’s were shaking, too.
Then she heard a shout from behind her, and saw that one of Brick’s men was gesturing at them from his bullet-pocked SUV. “Guys, I think we’re leaving,” she said. “Joe, can you carry Patrick?”
“Better if I drag him,” he said, and holstered his weapon to take hold of the still-unconscious Patrick beneath his arms. “On three?”
They counted down, and as Joe pulled, Riley and Bryn kept the shield over their heads as they moved toward the waiting SUV. From there, Brick’s surviving men—there were at least two down on the road—loaded Patrick in, and then Joe, Riley, and Bryn. One of them tried to hold up the door as a shield, and looked comically surprised when he realized how heavy it was.
Bryn found it funnier than she should have and had to suppress panic giggles. She swallowed them as the remaining mercenaries piled in with them, and pressed her fingers to Patrick’s throat. His pulse was steady and strong, but he had a wicked blow to the head, and plenty of cuts.
“He alive?” the man in charge asked. He resembled Brick a little, but in miniature—small, muscular, and a man who’d clearly been given quality training in mayhem; he was in the shotgun role, and before they could answer he fired out the window of the SUV at the remaining members of the assaulting team. One went down. The others broke for cover.
“He’ll be okay,” Joe said. “Could be a concussion. Hopefully his skull didn’t get fracked.”
“We’ve got a portable med unit I can roll to us,” the man said. “Anybody else got holes in them?”
“Nothing that won’t fix itself,” Bryn said. She wasn’t being flip; she knew she’d taken five or six rounds, but the wounds had already closed, and the bullets had been pushed out. She was, if not healed, well on the way to healing. Efficient things, the nanites. She could almost like the little bastards, except for the side effects.
Like looking at the blood on Joe’s face and having an almost irresistible desire to lick it off and bite into that soft, tender flesh. . . .
She looked away and squeezed her eyes closed. “Riley,” she said.
“Yeah,” Riley said. “I know. Hang in there.”
“Trouble?” the driver asked. He jammed the SUV into reverse, expertly steering around the abandoned vehicle in the way—from the way the engine was smoking, it wasn’t drivable—and hit the gas.
“Nothing you can fix,” Riley said. “What’s the plan?”
The truck was rocketing backward at a terrifying speed—Bryn couldn’t imagine driving that fast in reverse, but the man behind the wheel looked perfectly comfortable with the whole thing. She decided the best thing to do was to not watch, and instead focused on the man in the passenger seat, who was changing out the clip on his military-grade selectable full-auto P90. “We get the fuck out of this killbox and regroup,” he said. “I’ve been around, but I’ve never seen that much firepower to kill four people, outside of diplomats or drug dealers. Jesus, who’d you folks piss off?”
“Better you don’t know,” Riley said. “Classified. What’s your name, soldier?”
“You can call me Harm,” he said. “Everybody does.”
He laughed a little, but it was humorless. “Harmon Strang the Third. Harm, for short. Ain’t no brag, ma’am.”
“I don’t think you go in for bragging, Harm,” Bryn said. “Guys like you don’t need it.”
“You say the sweetest things. I almost don’t mind getting shot up for you.” The sarcasm was scorching, and so was the bleak look in his dark eyes. “Can’t say the same for the two men I lost back there.”
“I’m sorry,” Bryn said. “Friends?”
“Coworkers,” he said. “Risk is part of the job. I’m pretty sure they never thought they’d be bleeding out on a side road in Kansas, though. Seems like a fucking waste.”
He wasn’t wrong about that.
The driver got to a wider spot in the road, and performed a bootlegger turn that made a scream of panic rise in Bryn’s throat, but she braced herself and swallowed it, somehow. She could tell Riley was feeling some of that, too, in the glance they exchanged.
Joe, grinning, looked like he was having the time of his life. Adrenaline junkie. He’d probably have a hard comedown later, but for now he’d go off a cliff, screaming defiance and shooting people on the way down. A genuine to-the-bone soldier.
They sped down the access road, did a shrieking sharp turn to get back on the freeway, and rocketed over the arching bridge, beneath which lay the train, the remains of the train-bisected SUV Bryn and her friends had been inside, the exploded car, and the bullet-disabled second escort vehicle. She could see, from this vantage point, the bodies scattered like broken toys. There were a lot more than the two they’d lost. On the other side of the train, the other two SUVs—Brick’s—were off the road and shielded behind the concrete of the gas station—which, Bryn realized, was abandoned and closed. The whole thing had been a setup.