Rob ran, mindful of the mercenary leader who would no doubt gun him down if he faltered. The driver had to half carry Amanda behind them; the injured rifleman bringing up the rear of their little group. The grassy flanks of the canal rose to either side. The pursuing MHU officers fired a few times to their right, herding them away from the houses that lined the east side of the canal.
The leader grabbed Rob’s shoulder and tugged him towards a concrete path cut into the opposite side. More police cars drove towards them ahead of them, hoping to cut them off. As the leader hesitated for a moment at the sight of them, Rob twisted his head around, checking on Amanda. She stumbled along behind them, propped up by the driver. A few bullets hit the ground just shy of their heels. Fuck.
Before Rob could rush over to her, the leader snarled, “Move,” and shoved him off the sidewalk, towards the strip mall on the opposite side of the street. They sprinted, sirens on their heels. Any time Rob tried to check on Amanda, the leader shoved him again, keeping him moving. They ducked through fences and passed through a park, gaining distance between themselves and the plodding armored MHU officers.
Finally, Rob heard the sirens recede into the distance, searching the wrong area. A helicopter with a spotlight passed in the distance. Too late for that. Though maybe the cops would be a better option than these guys.
“Keep your head down,” the leader hissed to Rob, following it up with a metallic click from his pistol. They huddled out behind an old brick office building, between a dumpster and the rear entrance. The night air around them was thick with the smell of sweat and residual adrenaline.
“I think we lost them,” said the rifleman, rifle hanging from one hand as he probed his injured face with the other.
The mercenaries let out a collective breath of relief. The driver left Amanda’s side, clasping his hands behind his head. Rob eyed the leader. Go for the balls. Gives me time to get up. When he reaches for his gun, twist his arm. Put him between you and the others. What about Amanda? Rob glanced past the rifleman to see Amanda curled up, back against the wall off the office building they hid behind. She’s in no shape to run. Fuck, I’m not just leaving her. What if she’s just faking it? That’s a damn big if.
“That giving you any problems?” asked the leader after a moment for the group to catch their breaths, tapping his own cheek where the rifleman’s cut was. As the rifleman shook his head, he turned to the driver. “How is she doing?”
“Not good,” said the driver, hovering over Amanda’s shoulder.
“I was shot, you asshole,” growled Amanda, arms over her stomach.
The driver muttered, “Shit. Let me see.”
She shrugged his hand off of her shoulder. “No, no, a month ago. It hasn’t fully healed. It just hurts.” Rob had barely taken a step towards her before the leader lightly elbowed him in the upper arm. He shook his head. Jackass doesn’t even want us talking. Paranoid.
“You’re not going to die on us, are you?” the rifleman asked Amanda, a weary expression on his face. Rob felt his hands tighten into fists for a moment. You don’t actually give a fuck, do you?
“Painkillers would be great.”
The rifleman laughed. “They would.”
“Think you can keep carrying her, or do you need me or John to?” the leader asked the driver. Rob glanced at Amanda again. She grimaced and sat up, as straight as she could, refusing to meet Rob’s eyes. Now isn’t the time to get stubborn.
“I can, but where are we supposed to go?” asked the driver.
The leader ran a hand through his greying, short cut hair. “I’m calling it in.”
“What if they’re listening?”
“What?” asked the leader as he reached into his pocket.
“How did the cops know where we were going? What if they were listening into our phone calls?” asked the driver, Amanda totally forgotten behind him.
The leader shook his head. “We can’t spend all our time coming up with what-ifs. We’re not losing anyone else.”
OK, fuck it. Rob shouldered his way past the distracted rifleman and took a seat next to Amanda. “How you doin’?” he asked, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
“Get back over there,” ordered the leader before she could reply, pistol leveled at the two of them. Rob felt a smile forming on his own face as he met his gaze. Fucking really?
Amanda spoke up, “If you shoot him I will-”
“Save it,” said the leader, cutting her off.
Rob shook his head. “What, gonna fuckin’ shoot me over this? After all that nonsense? Look. The fuck’s the problem with this?”
Silence fell over them, the leader’s glare boring holes in Rob and Amanda. “Fine,” he growled. “Just shut the hell up while I make this call.”
The leader turned his back on them as he dialed a number and held the phone to his ear. The rifleman kept watch on Rob and Amanda, face impassive, while the driver was torn between nervously watching the leader or them. Maybe Amanda could do some crazy techie thing? I know I’ve got no ideas. These guys know what they’re doing. They knew to keep a phone out of her hands.
“How you holdin’ up?” Rob asked again, voice low.
“Fine,” she replied. “It just hurts a little bit. I’m not about to die if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Hell of a first date, ain’t it?”
Amanda cracked a smile. “You could say that.”
“Dinner good? What’d you get, the gnocchi?”
“It was good. Although…” She trailed off, struggling to keep a straight face. “Though not as good as the terrifying murder bot we could have been making.”
Rob burst into laughter. “Fuckin’ romantic right there.”
They both leaned back against the wall, observing the mercenaries. The leader paced back and forth, shoulders hunched over. “Ideas?” asked Rob. The rifleman, still watching them, raised an eyebrow.
“Well, beyond hoping for Cyrus or Olivia to drop from the sky, not really,” replied Amanda. She raised her voice above a murmur and said, “My parents must be desperate, they’ve never sent a team of jackboots to kidnap me before.”
If she was trying to provoke a reaction from the mercenaries, she didn’t get one. The driver and rifleman didn’t so much as blink. The leader wrapped up his call and hung up.
“They’re taking off now,” the leader announced, turning to face the others. “We’re taking her to the Riverside safe house and work on getting her out of the country.”
Amanda managed a choking laugh. “On the run, serves them right. Why the hell are you still working for them?”
“Shut up. They write the checks,” said the leader. That was a little defensive.
“Used to,” muttered the rifleman.
“What about him?” asked the driver, motioning to Rob. “We taking him with us?” I ever mention I like living?
The leader sighed and said, “He’ll come with us if he’ll cooperate.”
Rob shrugged. “Sure.” Don’t know why you’ve put up with me for so long, but sure, why not?
“Then get back on your feet, we’re leaving.”
Despite their earlier bitching, the mercenaries didn’t seem to mind when Amanda leaned on Rob instead of them when they got moving. The leader led the way, on the lookout for any cops or other witnesses. Across the street they found a row of small houses.
“This one looks good,” said the rifleman when the leader turned to him, leading the way to an old, beat up car. He smashed in the window with the butt of his rifle, then reached in to open the door. No alarm sounded. Soon enough, he’d hotwired it, and the leader took the spot of the driver. The old driver was crammed in the back with Rob and Amanda. This again. This didn’t work last time, jackasses.
They drove without incident this time. No one felt like talking, and the leader kept the radio off. The roads were empty, as always. Can’t blame people. Freedom Fighter starts riots, Overlord and Cyrus make a tornado, people like us are always dicking around this time. Best to just stay in at night nowadays.
Twenty minutes later, the leader pulled into a mostly empty parking lot behind a club. He motioned for everyone to get out. “We’re walking the rest of the way,” he said. Dumping the car somewhere else. Won’t stick out here. Hell, I’ve done that once or twice.
Another hurried five-minute walk, and they found themselves in front of a large metal door of what looked to be an old video rental store. The leader pounded his fist against the door a few times. A slot in the door opened and a pair of suspicious eyes peered out. “What?”
“It’s me, Brian,” replied the leader. “We need in.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Change of plan,” said the leader.
“Yeah, a lot of that going around. Define ‘change of plan’.”
“The police intercepted us. We’re still in custody of the boss’ daughter.”
“Shit.” The slot closed in their faces, leaving them in silence. Just as Rob was about to let out a laugh, the door creaked open. “In.”
The mercenaries ushered them in, and the metal door slammed shut behind them. Inside loitered half a dozen other mercenaries, as well as four Overlord robots. Son of a bitch, don’t start screaming and trying to murder us.
“The hell are those doing here?” demanded the leader, anger seeping into his voice. Huh? Weren’t you guys working with Overlord? That’s the whole reason the cops are gunning for you. Rob glanced at Amanda, who looked just as confused as he felt.
“Bosses told us to take them,” said the man who’d opened the door for them.
“I don’t know. They came with this big ass metal box. Bosses told us to protect it at all costs while we figure out a way out of here. Cops been around here sniffing since they showed up though.”
The leader eyed the impassive robots distastefully before turning to the rifleman and saying, “Get yourself cleaned up.” To the doorman, he motioned to Rob and Amanda and said, “We need a place to put these two for the night. Can you do that?”
The doorman shrugged. “Lemme check.” The small crowd dispersed.
“Are we going to get out of the city in one piece?” asked the driver.
“We will,” the leader replied. “Go get some rest, I’ll take them from here.” The driver hesitated for a moment, then nodded and left, heading for the rifleman. “Fucking knew Overlord was a bad job. I fucking knew it. Going to get killed for them again,” muttered the leader once the driver was out of earshot. What was that?
“Hey,” called out the doorman, catching the leader’s attention. “We got two rooms. Secure as we can get them. Down the hall, second left.”
“Good. How is the situation here?”
“Bots are covering the outside. They don’t sleep or anything. They probably kept me from blowing your head off. Been real jumpy, lots of cops making sweeps. But we’ve been good so far. Just waiting for word from the bosses.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Oh, and we’re only a third of the people in our operation. Have you heard anything about the others?” Others? What? You mean those other mercs you were with? You left them to the wolves.
“No problem. Thanks.” The doorman nodded and left to rejoin the others.
The leader murmured to himself under his breath as he led Amanda and Rob to where the doorman had indicated. He stopped them just before a pair of heavy doors, checking over his shoulder a couple times. “Rob, right?”
Rob nodded. Me now? I thought you cared about Amanda.
“Look, I’ve never been any good at this. Your brother’s probably dead. Overlord had us protecting a dig of his, out in Iraq. He said something about a gold knife, that it was the key. But the fucking rag heads, they hated him, hated everything to do with him. The moment they found out, they fucking wiped that whole place out. It came out of nowhere. I was pulled out to oversee a different job maybe five days before it happened. And fuck. Your brother and most of the guys had no idea what they were really there for. None of them knew what they died for: some fucker’s delusions of power.”
Rob stared at him for a moment. The leader looked dead serious, almost pained. He isn’t dead. Amanda pressed up against Rob, a thoughtful frown on her face.
The leader shook his head and said, “I’m fucking sick me and my friends being some fucker’s battle fodder. I’ve had to tell four women they’re widows. Might have to do that again. Those cops weren’t fucking around. Can’t use a paycheck to make that go away.”
Rob jabbed a finger at him. “Hey, buddy, you were gonna gun me down, probably the moment Amanda was outta sight. You’re tellin’ me my brother is dead. You want sympathy now?”
“No, I wasn’t going to shoot you, not unless I had to. I was going to let you go the moment she got on that plane. Believe me or not, I don’t care. They got fifteen years of damn good work out of me, and they tell me to die for their little family squabble. Fuck your parents, fuck Lock Corp, and fuck their secrets. I’m done”
“What’s your name?” asked Amanda.
The leader sighed and stared at the wall. His fists unclenched. “It doesn’t fucking matter.”
“You don’t have to do this,” she said.
He snorted and said, “Just get in your cells. I’ve got a job to finish.”
He shoved Rob into a room and slammed the door behind him. Thick iron bars, set deep within the wall itself, covered the tiny window near the ceiling. The door locked behind him. OK, how am I getting out of here. The only thing in the room, beyond Rob himself, was an old mattress.
He circled around the room, tapping his knuckles against each one of them. Solid, solid, solid. Can’t just punch through drywall here. Rob came to a stop by the door and stared at the lock, then at the metal wire bed frame in the room. Is that a keyhole? Seriously? I don’t just make metal armor, jackasses. I can get this jimmied open in five seconds. He felt a wide grin form on his face. You fucked up!