Kids with Guns Part Two
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Part Two

The explosion reduced the house to kindling and flipped Nathan over before slamming him to the ground. His combat suit protected him from the heat and debris, but the concussive shockwave of compressed air turned his insides to jelly. When he tried to move it felt like he was going to break apart into a million pieces; the only thing preventing him from doing so was the suit, holding him together like a sausage casing.

Burning roof tiles, pulling tails of smoke and embers, sizzled and rained down all around him. It looked like the Pleiades meteor shower. Shards of porcelain scudded past his head. Pretzeled rebar clanged as it hit the ground and went careering off into the surrounding woods. A bed frame landed in the boughs of a white pine, setting the needles on fire.

The rapid change in pressure, from high to low, caused the wind to howl and whip around Nathan as it rushed back in to fill the sudden vacuum.

Administered hormonal agents, otic compound and coagulants, the Director said inside his head. He was speaking at his normal volume, but to Nathan it sounded amplified, booming and echoing through his skull. He winced and — not for the first time — wished for the serenity of a mute button.

SOME PAINKILLERS WOULD BE NICE, he texted back.

Later. There're more Foundation troops en route, both air and ground. Now get up.

Nathan attempted to lever himself onto his knees and elbows. His sight dimmed from the exertion, black particles swimming and expanding across his vision, and he tasted the signature copper notes of blood on his pallet. His strength ebbed and he foundered, sprawled out on his stomach. He may have passed out for a second or two. It was hard to tell.

He tried to pick himself up again, grinding his teeth and choking back a moan that demanded to be released. A vein throbbed in his forehead. Nathan imagined his insides as a frayed sweater, the entire garment unraveling under the governance of a single unspooled thread. He coughed, and the taste of blood grew stronger.

Get up, ordered the Director. You have internal bleeding in your lungs and bowels. One of your lungs has also collapsed. It's been closed off and the other, remaining lung adjusted for compensation. You've got several herniated discs, your right eardrum is ruptured and you have a hairline fracture in your clavicle and another in your ulna. You're dying but the nanodocs have you stabilized. It will take hours for you to expire in your current condition. But if you don't hurry you're going to jump to the head of the line. Now. Get. Up.

Nathan relied on his arm strength, pushing off from the ground and curling his knees into his chest, swinging his feet into position under him. He straightened his legs, and when his sight finally returned he found himself standing, albeit weaving drunkenly.

You should feel the adrenaline and the otic stabilizer kicking in.

Nathan didn't feel shit; or if he did it was too subtle to notice. He had pharmaceutical caches inside his body that could be administered automatically based on vitals or remotely through the phone in his head. The hormonal stimulant should've boosted his energy while the otic compound restored balance, but at that particular moment there was nothing more he'd rather do than lie down and close his eyes, make the world stop spinning and hibernate for the next four months.

The missile had transformed the house into a pocked lunar landscape. In the unsteady light of the burning trees he glimpsed the female agent, supine and half-buried in sheetrock. Her helmet was dented, the bangs pasted to her forehead by a bright red freshet. A curtain rod had skewered her below the left breast, pinning her to the ground like a butterfly specimen pinned to a piece of corkboard.

WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THAT DRONE? he asked, glancing away from the body. Her eyes were open. For some reason that he didn't care to explore that was the worst part of it. The eyes were open. They lent the corpse a vampiric quality and seemed to follow him as he roved the debris field.

It's inspecting a vehicle approaching on George Street. Not one of ours, and obviously not Foundation. Seems to be civilian. Once they figure that out it will return, so we only have a small window of opportunity.

DOES IT HAVE ANYMORE MISSILES?

Yes. I think they're using the AGM-114-V variant of the Hellfire.

WHAT MAKES YOU SAY THAT?

It's what I'd use. If I'm right, then that drone's model can carry a payload of four. So it either has three remaining or some other armament that's the equivalent.

Great, Nathan thought as he stumbled through an asteroid belt of rubble formed by the explosion. A webwork of copper piping was being licked by green flames. The silhouette of a large chifforobe loomed through the smoke — it was missing the wardrobe door, drawers hanging out and clothes strewn across the yard. He stepped over a smoldering pile of tomes and grimoires. A Windsor chair split down its saddle-shaped seat. What looked to be a horned neopagan altar, the unwrought stone covered in a patina of soot and candlewax with runes crudely chiseled into the sides and surface of the Communion table.

He paused, frowning at the spot where he'd last seen the McKeown boy, trying to free his mother from her bindings. It would take a sponge and squeegee to clean them up. They'd been closest to the point of impact, and all that remained now was a bloody skidmark and some viscera that might've belonged to one of them, both or neither. The wet cordage of an intestine stretched like a clothesline between a pile of drywall and a jumble of wooden beams.

What about Herbert McKeown? said the Director.

Nathan, assuming he meant the old man, picked his way through the wreckage. The old man had been partially shielded from the blast by the box truck and one of the SUVs, but still looked to be in poor shape. As Nathan recalled, even prior to the missile strike he hadn't exactly been a shining beacon of health.

Nathan jabbed his hand under the outcrop of chin, rooting for a pulse. It was there, fluttering and off-tempo. Nathan wasn't sure if he was breathing or not.

Rivulets of blood leaked from the old man's nose and ears. His skin was jaundiced, beard the indistinct gray of cobwebs, speckled with putrescent food and squirming with fleas and lice. The fingers were chapped and stained from nicotine and resin. He was naked except for threadbare cargo shorts, starched with dirt and dotted with cigarette burns. Up close the yellowed flesh was oddly translucent. Not only could Nathan see the vascular system, but also the faint outlines of the skeleton — the attenuated and pronounced rib-cage, the almost bird-like fragility of the arm and leg bones and the spur of his hip…

Unless it was all some kind of elaborate subdermal tattoo. There were designs, a mandala and what appeared to be Buer or Baphomet —

The drone has completed its scan of the car and is headed back your way.

Nathan removed the catchpole noose from the old man's neck, pulled out the gag, and then picked him up, draping him over his shoulders in a fireman's carry. He was greasy but remarkably light, and the new burden seemed to make little difference to Nathan, except for an acute itch that flared in his collarbone.

Maybe those hormones were finally kicking in after all.

Even through the air filters of the suit he was assaulted by the stink of the old man. It socked him like sulfuric fumes, causing his eyes to water and the little hairs in his nose to curl. It reminded Nathan of a long night he'd once spent out in the Florida everglades, surrounded by an inhuman miasma of jungle rot and scales and steaming mud.

He opened the driver's side door of the closest SUV, a Ford Explorer, and after verifying the keys were in the ignition he tossed the old man over the center console and into the passenger seat. The rear left tire was on its rim after catching a stray bullet, but he chose it because the other SUV had taken the brunt of the explosion and was worse for wear. He threw the transmission into reverse, looping backwards to align the front end so that it pointed down the driveway.

Wait. Take her with you.

WHAT? WHO?

Don't be obtuse. The female Foundation agent. I want her. Bring her along.

WHY? SHE'S DEAD.

She's not dead, and stop arguing. We don't have time for this. I want her.

Nathan put the Explorer into park and darted out. He didn't understand or agree with the request, it seemed to jeopardize their objective with additional — and unnecessary, if you asked him — risk, but the Director was right on one account: there was no time for arguing. He wrenched the curtain rod from the woman's abdomen. The yawning wound fountained blood like a geyser.

He texted, as if the Director didn't already know: FOUNDATION AGENTS ALL HAVE TRACKING IMPLANTS.

I've arranged an ambulance retrofitted for surgery to rendezvous with you in Ware. It's equipped with stealth technology, signal dampeners and multi-spectral camouflage. That should buy us enough time to extract the devices.

AND WHAT ABOUT ME AND THE OLD MAN? WE DON'T WARRANT AN AMBULANCE? I DON'T THINK HE'S GOING TO LIVE MUCH LONGER WITHOUT IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION. He hauled the woman up onto his shoulders, repeating the process of the fireman's carry. Her removal left an impression of her profile in the powdered sheetrock like a snow angel. She was much heavier than the old man, and the itch in Nathan's collarbone graduated into a molten burn.

The separation of you from the agent is tantamount to your safety. The sooner the better. After you drop her off a private maglev train will be waiting for you and Mr. McKeown up in Fallon. It has a fully-staffed medical bay to see to both of your injuries, and is about twenty miles north of Ware. The distance is… regrettable. But it's the closest point in the railway line to your location. There isn't a station; the train will be making an unscheduled, unreported stop on the westbound line, which is where you'll board. Your vehicle will then be dumped into the nearby Pike's Pond. It's small but deep. Used to be a quarry. The Toyota will never be found.

Nathan pawed open the rear door of the SUV and deposited the Foundation agent into the back. After a moment's hesitation he decided to remove one of the zip ties from her belt, rolled her prostrate, and cinched her wrists behind her back. He didn't think she posed any threat, not really. If she was alive she must've been knocking on the pearly gates, had an appointment with Saint Peter. But she'd already proven to be a dangerous adversary, and he didn't relish the thought of her waking up and finding herself strategically positioned behind him.

The UAV is locking on to you.

The drone couldn't actually see Nathan, but it sure as hell could see the Ford Explorer and his two passengers. He jumped into the driver's seat and floored the accelerator. The vehicle lurched forward with a jolt that pushed him back into the seat. They caught air cresting the top of the driveway, and he bit his tongue when the SUV's tires touched down. Sparks spat out from the rim. The old man jounced and slewed sideways, leaning against Nathan's shoulder. His slack mouth — the few remaining teeth rotten kernels of corn — was only inches away, and Nathan could feel his rank cesspool breath on his neck.

At least he's breathing, he thought and shoved him off. The old man flopped and sank to the floor, wedged between the glove box and the bucket seat.

He turned right at the bottom of the driveway, the rear of the vehicle fishtailing as he swung onto Hammond Hill. For one brief moment Nathan was sure that he was going to flip the damn thing before the Explorer responded and straightened out of the slide.

There were headlights about a quarter mile up the road, three pairs, maybe more, approaching fast and occupying both lanes of traffic, blocking his escape. More headlights appeared in the rearview mirror. Too many to be a coincidence on this rural backstreet and at this hour of night, and they lacked the flashing red and blue lights of emergency response vehicles.

HEY, I'VE GOT A PROBLEM HERE.

He considered turning his own headlights off and vetoed the idea. A lot of good it would do him. He was dragging a rooster tail of sparks behind him like the fourth of July.

I told you that Foundation troops were en route by both land and air.

They were already between Nathan and the fire road where his Toyota Camry — and his weaponry stashed in the trunk — was parked. He checked the ammunition on his gun. The feed counter next to the slide read seven. He had a spare magazine containing another twenty flechettes. He was also wearing the explosive bandolier with an assortment of grenades — frags and incendiaries and flashbangs. And he had his knife.

The shoulder of grass on either side of the road was only two feet wide. Too narrow for him to squeeze on and sneak past. Nathan, his foot a lead weight on the gas pedal, red-lined the tachometer, the RPM needle dancing as the Explorer roared forward. He couldn't sneak past them, but maybe he could barrel through if he gathered enough speed and momentum. Probably not; probably the collision would kill both the old man and the agent, and then the Foundation could finish Nathan off leisurely in a hail of gunfire.

What I wouldn't give for a plough or cowcatcher right now, he said to himself as the speedometer crept to forty miles per hour. At this speed the SUV continuously wanted to pull to the left, cantering on that rim. Nathan fought the wheel for every inch he gained.

He buckled his seatbelt. How did that old joke go?

Question: Do you know what the letters in Ford stand for?

Answer: Found on road dead.

The headlights had grown much larger and brighter. Lensflares kaleidoscoped across the windshield. There was the squawk of a voice projected over a loudspeaker or megaphone. Nathan couldn't parse the words but knew the gist. Pull the vehicle over and exit with your hands up. Stop or we will shoot.

Walls of fire sprung up in front of and behind him, transforming the night into a holocaust. His hypersensitive eyes were blinded by the sudden blaze, and he threw his arm up to shield them in the crook of his elbow, until the lenses of the cowl dimmed and polarized. The flames erupted thirty feet into the air; they spanned the entire width of the road and scored the trees that fenced the street, cutting a swath through their ranks.

Nathan had to fight the reflexive impulse to slam on the brakes. Instead, he applied even more pressure to the gas. A large sycamore had been guillotined and the cloven trunk was toppling into the street. If he didn't beat it he'd get trapped behind it.

Or crushed beneath it.

I hacked the drone, the Director informed him, and deployed the remaining Hellfires. Direct strike on the Foundation vehicles. They've already regained control of the drone, but not before I set it into a nosedive.

The fire was fading as quickly as it had bloomed. Nathan drove into the newly-formed crater. Waves of heat prickled his flesh and sweat issued from every pore, engaging the suit's climate control. The Explorer shook and rattled across the scorched bowl as if skiing over moguls. He could feel the rubber of the tires melt and try to adhere to the chunks of baking macadam. Of the Foundation vehicles only one remained — they'd all been blasted into scrap except for a sedan that had been lagging behind the formation. It was now nothing more than a charred husk. Tines of fire lapped the interior, and flames poured from the driver's mouth and eye sockets. The corpse was still strapped in with its hands fused to the steering wheel.

The descending sycamore's branches raked the roof of the Explorer, gouging the paint in a high-pitched squeal, like nails on a chalkboard. It was going to be close. A window coughed inward, showering the unconscious Foundation agent with glass as a limb of the tree speared through the back seat. The hatchback door was ripped from its hinges and disappeared in a spray of foliage. The sycamore's bole grazed the rear bumper, briefly lifting the SUV off the front axle until the bumper tore off and the Explorer squirted out from under the immense weight of the tree. Nathan clipped the burnt sedan's fender in his haste and sent it spinning off the road.

The Ford, limping along on its last leg, managed to make it the rest of the way to the old fire road. Nathan stepped out and doubled-over, bracing his arms against his knees while he tried to catch his breath. It felt like a python was squeezing his lungs. His eyes scanned the road, up and down. It was unbelievably deserted in comparison to mere seconds ago. Through the burning trees he saw a light on at the nearby ranch, and heard a one-sided conversation as a neighbor, out on the wrap-around porch, screamed on the phone at a 911 dispatcher.

A buzz with a Doppler shift drew his attention. What now? Nathan groaned inwardly. The noise seemed to be plummeting out of the sky, right above his head. It quickly terminated as another explosion burgeoned just twenty yards away. It was smaller than the Hellfires and lacked the forceful punch of the missiles.

"The fuck was that?" he said, reverting back to verbal communications. "They're shelling artillery now?"

The Foundation stalled the drone trying to pull it out of the dive.

Nathan chewed his lip. It was the first piece of good news he'd heard all night, and it momentarily caught him off guard. He stifled a laugh. "Are there any agents left in the area?"

A pair of military helicopters have been deployed out of Worcester. ETA seven minutes. Local law enforcement is much closer, they're only ninety seconds out, but they're approaching from the southeast and will be blocked by the felled tree if you follow my directions.

He jogged down the fire road and hopped into the Camry, backing it out onto Hammond Hill. "Some painkillers right about now would really hit the spot."

I administered them at the same time as the hormones and otic compound.

"You did? Why didn't you tell me?"

Because I wanted you focused on the task at hand and not thinking about it.

Could Nathan feel the opioids coursing through his bloodstream, releasing pain-blocking neurons in his brain? Certainly he could feel the hormonal stimulant by now, his mind honed to the sharpened point of a single atom, body thrumming like a finely-tuned instrument. Likewise the otic compound seemed to be working since his balance no longer troubled him. But he still ached all over. A heavy weight had settled over his chest due to the collapsed lung. And even more worrisome were the injuries he couldn't feel — the internal bleeding in his lungs and bowels. He could wind up drowning in his own blood or bleeding to death through his ass.

"Did you ever stop and wonder if by withholding that information you were having the opposite effect than intended?"

Yes.

He pulled the Toyota alongside the SUV, swapping the prisoners from one vehicle to the other. He placed the woman in the passenger seat, right beside him where he could keep a close eye on her. From his travel kit he ripped open a packet of powdered antibiotics coupled with a cauterizing agent. He dumped the entire package down the ugly hole in her tactical vest to try and staunch the bleeding and keep her alive, at least until he got her to the ambulance and she became someone else's problem.

When Nathan laid the old man in the backseat he spasmed, shackled arms and legs outstretched as the atrophied muscles seized and contracted. His gnarled hands beat a drum solo against the upholstery, and a dry keening ejaculated from the back of his throat like a Passing Bell.

"I think we might be losing the old man," Nathan remarked.

Is there anything you can do?

"I don't think so. Are you hearing this shit? It looks like he's having a convulsion or something."

You must have some medication that will help.

"I wouldn't even know what to give him."

Let me see him.

Nathan took a hard, steady look at the old man, letting the Director soak it all in. His spine arched as he writhed and spittle ran through his beard.

That's not good.

"Thank you, doctor."

His condition could be caused by a multitude of different injuries. It could even be neurological or biological.

"Yeah, definitely biological. Has nothing to do with the missile that landed on his head."

Do you have chlorpromazine?

"I'm not sure what that is. Maybe."

It's Thorazine.

"Yeah, I think I've got it somewhere." He fished through the travel kit and found the small glass vial and a single-use syringe.

Administer ten CCs intravenously.

Nathan bit the cap off the syringe and spat it out onto the ground. He stabbed the needle through the vial's rubber stopper and retracted the plunger until the barrel was filled with ten cubic centimeters of the clear fluid.

"You think this will be enough?" The dose looked paltry and insubstantial.

I think it might be too much for a man in his state and estimated weight, but I have no clue. Give him the shot.

"Isn't this stuff for psychotics?"

It covers a wide range of receptors, which is why we supply it to our field agents and why we're going to give him some without knowing exactly what's wrong with him. I can guess that his injuries are probably similar to your own, but you don't happen to have any extra nanodocs or clotting factors in that bag, do you?

"Sorry, fresh out."

So give him the Thorazine. It's not going to treat his injuries, but it might ease his symptoms and prevent him from hurting himself.

It was easy finding a vein, since they were all highlighted in ink. He chose one on the calf, waiting for the small muscle to unclench, and then thumbed the plunger of the syringe.

"Okay, done. Anything else?"

No. The police are arriving. Just get to Ware.

The Camry, as a Director-issued vehicle, came with an electronic countermeasure pod installed in its undercarriage, coupled with stealth advances to deceive an array of detection systems. It was a Toyota in appearances only. By putting the two prisoners in it Nathan made them vanish from any aerial surveillance that might be spying. The ECM applied various passive and active techniques to manipulate surveillance intelligence and sensing behavior. It could engage in soft-kill measures such as electronic warfare to jam communications, mask acoustics or confuse missile guidances with directional IRCM, and even substitute image-feeds with false pictures, erasing the car from visual recordings.

I'm going to have Levine drive.

"Go for it," Nathan replied. It was one less thing to have to worry about. "Tell him to be gentle. Precious cargo."

The Camry was then remotely controlled by Levine, a professional driver on the Director's payroll. He'd driven for Nathan on several prior occasions, during a car chase on the Los Angeles freeway and an extraction in Mumbai.

Of course, none of the stealth advances in the world did any good if you had a police cruiser riding on your tail or a helicopter pinning you in its spotlight. That's where the performance upgrades came in.

The car's engine was an after-market V16, essentially two V8 engine blocks linked to one crankshaft. The immense size and weight necessitated a custom chassis and hood to accommodate the mount and an enlarged heat sink to hide its thermal output. The car purred as it chewed up the road. They broke sixty miles per hour in under two seconds. But as a back road in New England it wasn't exactly like racing on a salt flat; the street consisted more of hills and potholes than actual pavement, and their speed was constantly hindered.

Nathan let his eyes drift shut. "You know, I've been thinking… "

Don't. Stick to things you're good at.

"Funny. You should heed your own advice and leave the humor to the professionals. But seriously, how come I'm getting the feeling the old man isn't a priority anymore?" He glanced in the backseat. The tremors — or whatever the hell they were — were still present, but had subsided in their intensity. "Why did I pull this guy out? I mean… why don't we stick him in the ambulance and I take Little Miss Foundation over here — " he hooked his thumb at the agent " —to the train instead."

I don't pay you to question motives, especially mine. That being said, it seems I've learned an important lesson which you, unfortunately, have not.

"Oh, yeah? And what's that?"

What's done is done. As unpropitious as Herbert McKeown's death may be, there's no point in getting upset over something that can't be changed. It's counterproductive. Do I wish it had gone differently? More smoothly? Of course. But I've adjusted my plans accordingly and we will continue to forge ahead with the resources that are available to us — not lament over what could have been. And that means getting the agent into surgery as soon as possible to remove the implanted Foundation trackers.

"Is he even the right guy?" Although Herbert was the eldest of the McKeown clan, that didn't automatically make him their target. It could just as easily have been that the Sothian talent in the family skipped a generation, and his daughter was the sorceress, or that the grandson showed an aberrant proclivity for the cult's particular brand of black miracles, one the rest of the family didn't share.

I have no idea. It might turn out he doesn't know anything and his death won't be a loss to us. Certainly the capture of all three members would've been preferable to just one that might die anyway. Even their bodies could've aided us in our research.

"Yeah, I'm not going back to the house to pick them up. You'd need a fucking wet vac for that job."

And I'm not asking you to.

"I know. That's not what I meant, though. You're getting me sidetracked. I want to know why you suddenly became interested in the girl." He allowed his sight to linger on her. "What's so special about her?"

There's nothing inherently special about her; not that I'm aware of. It was simple opportunistic predation. The drone was investigating the car, it was going to take me at least another thirty seconds to hack into it, and so I had you retrieve her. Can you not see the benefit in capturing a Foundation agent alive despite the risk?

He still couldn't believe she was alive. They'd been standing right next to each other when the Hellfire hit, and she'd been impaled like a goddamned kebab.

"Are you sure she's even alive? She looks dead. I might just be carrying a Foundation tracker inside a hundred pounds of rotting meat." Her head rested against the window, and he noted there was no condensation formed on the glass around her lips or nose.

She's alive, the Director said. And I intend to find out the explanation for that as well.

Nathan shook his head but remained quiet. It wasn't like a movie where the action star bodysurfs the shockwave of an explosion. If something had the power to toss you through the air for thirty feet, could bend metal and shatter glass, then you weren't somehow getting back up unscathed and without a single hair out of place.

The car slowed down as they entered Ware. Like a lot of places in the area, it was an old mill town that had seen better days. Just when exactly those fabled better days had been no one seemed to recall. The car drifted through empty streets and vacant lots; buildings elbowed for space perched above the Ware River. Some of them had been converted into retail and residential space since the textile industry had parted ways overseas, but most remained untenanted and abandoned. The Toyota crossed a bridge over a spillway and turned into the lot of one such building.

Hidden in the shadows of the tin roof overhang was the ambulance.

"You sent a helicopter?"

Yes. As you're aware, time is crucial. What'd you think I was sending?

He'd been expecting a typical ambulance, a van, although in hindsight he realized the Director had never specified.

A pair of EMTs rolled a gurney over to the car. The technicians opened the passenger-side door of the Camry and gingerly placed the woman on the stretcher. They looked disapprovingly from her bound wrists to Nathan. Nathan glowered back through the cowl and dared them to say anything. Perhaps from a sense of self-preservation they chose to remain silent, wheeling her up a short ramp into the clamshell doors of the helicopter. As soon as they were out of sight the car's wheels kicked up a fan of gravel. Levine steered the car onto the road and headed north, back they way they'd come while avoiding the same streets.

Let's hope that's the last I ever see of her, Nathan thought to himself.

Part One

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