Hard choices have arrived! The pressure cooker that is this story is now officially on the highest setting…

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Happy reading!

Will

Last week’s story fork…

CHOICES:

1. Stay put so Crypto can finish the job and hope that Martinez can hold out.

2. Jump up to help out Martinez. Crypto’s work can wait.

The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…

 

Chapter 44

As much as I wanted to back up Martinez, Crypto’s work was the whole reason we were here. If he failed, we all failed.

So I stayed put. “Get it done already!” I said through gritted teeth.

“I don’t know if you think that’s helping,” Crypto replied, “but let me assure you that it’s not.” He continued clacking away.

What had started out as sporadic shots in the hallway quickly grew into a full scale firefight. Through the thick, sealed door, it was like a string of distant firecrackers going off.

“Hurry up!” I yelled.

“Almost got it! I think.”

My shoulders ached and having him shifting his weight back and forth wasn’t making it any better. The faintly acrid smell of hot circuitry filled the air. Cooling fans whirred a background of white noise that was both soothing and irritating at once. 

Crypto clicked the keys so fast that the individual sounds began to blur together into a single continuous tone. A counterpoint to the fans in the symphony of the electronic brain.

Whatever he was doing, he was doing it at full speed.

The sound of gunfire in the hallway died away.

A second later, Martinez’s face appeared in the window. She yelled, but the door reduced the words to a whisper. “Open the door!”

“Doctor, open the door!”

Tanaka tapped the button and the slid open.

Martinez stepped deeper into the cover of the doorway and pivoted with her rifle covering the security checkpoint down the hall. “We need to get this train moving! There’s a squad of Grays coming our way.”

She fired a couple of shots, and then ducked behind the bulkhead before answering fire zipped by. “And I’m not going to be able to keep them pinned down much longer.”

“How’s your ammo?” I asked.

“Half a magazine left.”

Outmanned and outgunned. What was new?

“Anyone deploying grenades or RPGs?”

“Negative. I’m thinking they don’t want to chance fragging any of the servers.”

Made sense. They were in the delicate brain of the facility. A high velocity metal sliver slicing through the wrong logic board or microchip could cause havoc.

“Scout!” a voice I recognized shouted from the hallway.

Martinez ducked out to take a quick peek. “It’s the general,” she confirmed as she dropped back into cover. “He’s at the back of the squad behind riot shields, but he’s not fully covered. I might be able to get a shot off.”

“Hold your fire. We need to take him down the legal way. Killing him in cold blood won’t heal the rifts tearing this community apart.”

“Copy that. I’ll swallow my dissent for now.”

“Scout! Are you there?”

Still on all fours, I yelled back. “Yep! How you doing, General?”

“I’ve been better,” his voice echoed down the hall. “Listen. It doesn’t have to be like this. Why don’t you come quietly so we can talk this through? We’re both military men. We understand the world a certain way. Despite the situation, I’m sure we’re are on the same side here.”

I considered the offer. Not that I actually believed he was interested in talking it out. I considered it from the point of view of what he was trying to gain by having this conversation in the first place.

From everything I’d learned about him thus far, his first and default choice was the use of force to solve problems. And from the horror I’d seen in the marketplace, lethal force was the preferred flavor.

So why talk it out now?

Had to be our location. He wasn’t thrilled about shooting up the place, much less using more indiscriminately damaging weapons like the RPGs that had killed and injured so many in the marketplace.

“Crypto, how much longer?” I asked.

“A few minutes. I think.”

“Why do you keep saying I think? I thought you knew what you were doing.”

“This is like doing brain surgery with chopsticks! It’s a whole different thing than I expected. I mean, it’s barely even programming. It’s more like living code. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“But you can figure it out, right?”

The balance of his feet shifted back and forth on my back.

“Did your head just nod or shake?”

“Nodded. I think. Stop talking to me!”

“Scout!” the general shouted. “What do you say?”

“Can I have a few minutes to think about it?”

“We want the same thing. The continued security of every law-abiding citizen. Come out and let’s talk this over.”

“I’m thinking about it.”

“The time for thinking is over. What’s your answer?”

A few passed without reply.

“Scout, it’s time to decide! Do you want to live or do you want to die?”

Well, our burgeoning peace talks fell apart in record time.

“Corporal Martinez!” he shouted. “Put down your weapon and surrender. I understand that you’ve been acting against your will. Do it now and I promise you that you’ll still have a future as a soldier.”

Martinez glanced over at me and her eyes clouded as her lips pressed into a tight frown. She turned back toward the corner she was hiding behind, nodding to herself.

Was she going to accept the offer?

I couldn’t blame her if she did. She’d done all she could for me. She’d more than repaid whatever debt she believed she owed me for her brother. I was most likely going to die in the next few minutes. She had no obligation to do the same.

“General Curtis, I have something to tell you,” Martinez said. “Something you need to know.”

My brain spun through everything that had happened. What secret was she about to reveal? What piece of information would buy her freedom?

“Go ahead, Corporal.”

“Sir, you can bite me! I’m not going anywhere!”

“Then you are a traitor! Kill them both!”

Gunfire erupted in the corridor as Martinez backed away from the corner. Bullets snapped through the air. Others thunked into the metal bulkhead nearby.

Martinez grinned. “They’re not messing around, huh?”

Damn. She was cool as a frozen cucumber. Cooler.

The shooting abruptly stopped.

Several somethings bounced down the hall, an irregular cascade of high-pitched tinking and clinking announcing their approach.

I saw one come to a stop in the hallway outside the door. I snapped my eyes shut and looked away.

Martinez saw it too, but she was too late.

 

Chapter 45

The flashbang exploded before she could react.

A wave of heat washed over me. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, the blinding white light leaked into my pupils. The boom hit my ear drums like a thunderclap.

I blinked my eyes open to see Martinez leaning against the archway, one hand holding the rifle, the other covering her injured eyes.

Her mouth hung open in a painful grimace as she groaned.

“Get in here, Martinez!”

I knew I’d shouted at the top of my lungs, but it sounded like a whisper echoed from a million miles away. A sound buried under the keening electrical whine arcing through my head.

She dropped her hand, revealing wide open, unseeing eyes.

“Finish it now, Crypto!” I said.

She was a sitting duck out there, waiting for a bullet to find her.

“Got it!” he shouted with glee.

The door whooshed shut.

With Martinez outside.

“Why did you close it?”

“I didn’t! I don’t think I did anyway.”

Tanaka must’ve been facing away when the flashbang went off as he was looking around in shock, rubbing his ears. “Doctor! Open the door! Now!”

He saw me waving and I repeated the order. He turned and tapped the button to open the door.

Nothing.

He tapped it again. He hammered it with the side of his fist.

Still nothing.

“Crypto, what did you do?” I yelled.

“I didn’t do that! Not on purpose, at least!”

“Well, get it open again!”

“I’m trying!”

“You!” I yelled at the engineer cowering on the floor in the corner.

He shook his head and curled into a tighter ball, murmuring something to himself over and over.

He wasn’t a soldier. And understandably, he was in the grips of a terror like nothing he’d ever experienced before.

“Get over here or I’ll rip your arms off!”

Terror had levels.

My threat (promise, really) apparently succeeded in breaking through because he crawled over.

I dragged him into place next to me. “Don’t move!”

He nodded.

“Get on him, Crypto!”

The nimble feet on my back leaped away and I was up and moving to the door an instant later.

I smashed my finger on the button to open it.

No response whatsoever.

I looked out the small transparent window.

Martinez was pressed into the corner, still recovering from the explosion.

“Get the damn door open!” I shouted.

“I’m trying! I don’t know what happened!”

A wave of soldiers appeared around the corner. The one in the lead kicked Martinez’s rifle away and then swung the butt of his rifle up at her head. It caught her flush under the chin.

Her head snapped back and she collapsed like her bones had turned to mush.

The soldier turned to face the door with a satisfied scowl on his face.

My legs went wobbly. The pitch of the ringing in my ears seemed to slide up and down the scale. Like the blaring sirens I’d heard in the Oval Office.

I blinked a few times.

I was seeing things.

Right?

Nothing else made sense.

The flashbang had hit me harder than I thought.

There was no other explanation.

The soldier on the other side of the door tapped the glass and waved. His mouth made the shape of saying hi but I couldn’t hear it.

Was I losing my mind?

He grinned and his eyes flashed with amusement.

I’d gone crazy. I couldn’t come up with anything better.

Because standing on the other side of the door, looking at me through the clear window, was someone I never expected to see.

Me.

He was me.

Or maybe I was him.

Was this what going insane felt like?

Like your understanding of reality was a fragile tether that kept your mind rooted like feet to the ground. But now the tether had been severed and my mind drifted through insubstantial fog with no feeling for what was up or down or real or not.

The reality that had felt so horribly firm seconds ago now seemed no more substantial than a gossamer cloth billowing in a ripping wind.

Waves of comprehension swirled around but remained just out of reach.

Did I have a twin?

Like Crypto’s two bodyguards?

The man standing outside the door made that an obvious answer. But why didn’t I remember him before?

What was his name?

And why did he seem so happy about knocking out Martinez and having me cornered?

Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that we’d have each other’s backs no matter what? Like Crypto’s guys obviously did.

The look of scorn on the other me’s face proved that assumption to be false.

General Curtis appeared behind him. He said something and my twin turned away.

He lifted the unconscious Martinez roughly with an arm around her chest. Her head hung limply on her chest. Blood dripping down her front.

General Curtis approached the door, his eyes burning with hatred. “Open the door!”

An engineer scurried over and swiped his badge. He swiped again. He swiped several times. He turned to Curtis and shrugged, his head low and submissive.

Curtis smacked him across the face with the back of his hand, sending the guy sprawling.

I stood there, dumbstruck and staring. My brain not yet working. Numb from shock.

The general turned away, nodding at Martinez.

The other me. The one out there. My twin nodded in return. He pulled a pistol up and put the muzzle against Martinez’s head.

Curtis turned back to the door. “Open the door! Or she dies! Don’t make the mistake of thinking I won’t do it!”

“I think I’ve got it now!” Crypto said from behind. “I think I can open it!”

I spun around as his raised pointer finger descended toward the keyboard.

“Stop!”

His hand froze in position. “What?”

CHOICES:

1. Tell Crypto not to open it. General Curtis might not kill her. And even if he does, opening the door means we’ll all die.

2. Tell Crypto to open it. I can’t let Martinez die for me. I’d rather surrender and face whatever comes next.

What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!