Some conflicts start small and slowly get worse until they boil over. Others simply explode into existence without warning. Some simmer forever and never turn violent. Sometimes you have warnings. Sometimes you don’t. Some people have great experience with conflict and know when the time is right. Others are rank amateurs. I was an amateur. By many measurements I still am, but I learn quickly. I learned a lot during The War. I had many teachers. And I paid for the lessons with blood.
Jack and Ken leaned back in their chairs in what seemed like the fiftieth store of the day. The chairs were large and comfortable and a screen showed two teams of men running back and force across the field of battle. A white ball passed between the arms of one of the players and the announcers shouted out a long “goal!” as it slammed into a net. The two Cowboys shared an amused smile. European football was certainly nothing like the real thing. But it was better than watching paint dry. Or shopping.
Jack had to admit that there were some mighty fine actors in the bunch though. They could take a miss as clear as day to Ageless eyes and make it look like an Earth-shattering collision had left them bawling on the ground while holding injured limbs. Those boys belonged in Hollywood. Or wherever they were making films now. They could win Academy Awards with that much talent.
The clock displayed fifteen minutes when several packages floated away on the delivery drones that would take them back to the base. Jack and Ken looked up as the girls finally walked over to stand in front of the two men with beaming smiles. Ken and Jack exchanged quick looks before coming to their feet and making their way to the front door of the fine establishment that had been happy to take so much money from visiting servicewomen.
Jack was thinking about how much money they must make off his kind of people as he stepped out onto the sidewalk and scanned for any threats. People walked up and down the sidewalks, but none of them looked like threats. He began to turn when a subconscious shiver ran through his body. Something wasn’t right. He looked at Ken and a confused gaze met his. They both swiveled to Katy who had stopped entirely and was scanning the area, tense as a cat at a dog show. Something was wrong. Jack looked around in hopes he could identify it.
On his right stood a furniture shop main entrance selling high-end leather couches and chairs, while to his left a posh women’s clothing store promised more odds and ends to purchase. Too late Jack realized what his hindbrain was trying to tell him. They were being watched.
“Betty,” was all he had time to say before the missiles shot down the alley towards them. Natalie and Jasmine barely had time to twitch before the missiles streaked into their flanks with eye-blinding force. Explosions sent the two robotic avatars flying through the air and through the shop windows. The sound of glass tinkling on the sidewalk rained in the echoes of the explosions bouncing off the nearby buildings.
Jack didn’t waste any time trying to find their attackers. He just turned, grabbed twin handfuls of Olivia’s uniform, and threw her back through the shop doors.
“We’re being jammed!” Betty shouted in his ear as bullets passed through precisely where Olivia had stood a half second earlier.
“Cut through it!” Jack ordered and ran back into the shop. “We need backup!”
“I’m trying!” Betty shouted back
Jack reached down, grabbed Olivia by the scruff of her uniform neck, and pulled her off the floor as he ran like his life depended on it. The enemy quickly proved that it did. Bullets screamed by his head, but most caught on shelves or exploded expensive vases around him. Katy and Ken thundered after him into the disintegrating china shop and Jack scanned the main counter. The girl that had checked the purchases was hiding behind it and Jack hoped it could protect her. But he had more important concerns.
“Back door!” Jack shouted at the frightened store clerk. She just pointed towards the back and Jack ran as fast as he could, carrying Olivia with one arm while he leaned into his run. The door appeared as he turned around another shattering display and he leaned forward with one shoulder as he put all his weight and strength into making sure that door opened. It resisted him for no more than a split second, and then the bolts tore through the wall and the hinges snapped. The door flew into the alley behind the store and Jack followed, eyes instantly scanning for threats.
They came to a stop in the middle of the narrow alley between two large buildings. To the left stood the furniture shop’s loading dock, and to the right was a dainty door to the fashion store. Nothing looked suspicious.
But Jack’s instincts flared again and he pulled Olivia straight down onto the pavement. He landed on top of her, shielding her with his body as weapons fire erupted. Bullets scythed through the air they’d just vacated.
Katy and Ken moved around them, knives and throwing stars appearing in their hands as they spun for cover. Jack figured that was a good idea and forcibly rolled himself and Olivia behind a convenient dumpster. Bullets stitched through the air and clanged off the heavy metal of the dumpster loud enough to destroy his sensitive hearing.
But Betty had seen the enemy now and the contacts he wore showed him red outlines where they stood. Five of them armed with automatic rifles on full rock and roll. That told him they were dealing with amateurs. Pulling the triggers back and spraying out a steady stream of lead looked good in the movies, but in real life it was a good way to miss with everything until your magazine was empty. Which should happen…right…about…
“Jack!” Betty shouted, a warning light flashed, and Jack turned around to see five more men stepping into the other end of the alley. He jerked his arms once, felt the knives slide down from his sleeves, and grasped them with his fingers. He flicked them once, sent the knives flying through the air, and turned to latch onto Olivia once more.
Her eyes were wide open in surprise, her brain still trying to catch up with the fact that they were under attack. Jack couldn’t give her time to process that though, and he shoved her into the nearest wall barely in time to avoid three streams of bullets that instead bounced off the side of the dumpster. Screaming echoed off the walls of the alley, and then more screams joined them and the streams of bullets jerked up into the air before cutting off entirely. Jack had time to glance to the other side of the alley where Katy gave him a brief nod. And then two more knives dropped into her hands before sailing off towards their attackers.
Then the last stream of bullets began marching towards Jack and he pulled Olivia back down to the pavement as quickly as he could. He had to keep moving, had to stay ahead of the last gunman’s ability to react, but he was running out of maneuvering room. He dropped down on top of Olivia again as the gunman walked his fire into the alley wall, sending stone chips flying across the alley. Then Jack rolled both himself and Olivia back out into the middle of the alley to give them room to move.
He had barely enough time to glance in the direction they’d been walking three seconds ago. Three of Ken’s opponents were down with throwing stars in their chests and he’d closed the range with the other two already. It looked like they’d gotten some shots in and Jack could see the beginnings of red stains on his dress whites, but Ken had them. The small man struck out with some quick ninja moves and his last two gunmen died before they even knew it. Jack spun his attention around to see Katy’s knives drop the last gunman in that direction, and the last rifle’s last fully automatic salvo sprayed up into the air to the sound of a gurgling scream.
Bullets tinkled off walls, stone chips fell like rain, and the sound of whimpering humans took over. People were hurt. People were dying. Jack blinked. They’d been alone in the alley. So it was gunmen hurt and dying. And Ken, but he wasn’t whimpering. Jack blinked again and realized he hurt too. How bad? He didn’t know. The adrenalin was pumping and he couldn’t feel much, but he knew he was going to start hurting once that stopped. One of Katy’s arms hung limp, her shoulder a mass of blood. So they were all hurt. Then he looked down and saw Olivia’s mouth clenched against pain of her own. He couldn’t tell how injured she was without moving, so he pushed himself up.
Only one arm pushed. He fell back to the pavement as he finally connected the dots. The shoulder hurt a lot and stars filled his eyes. So he hadn’t been fast enough after all.
“Jack!” Betty shouted and his contacts flashed again to show a map of the area. Two larger groups were moving towards the end of the alley. They couldn’t get out that way.
“Status check!” Jack shouted and looked for Jasmine and Natalie. They were nowhere to be seen, and their diagnostic displays came back as no signals. That wasn’t good. He lifted Olivia off the ground and saw her wince in pain. Blood colored her uniform, and based on the holes and tears he didn’t think it was all his.
“Armed and ready,” Ken said as he walked past the dumpster to look at Jack and Katy. Blood poured from at least a dozen wounds and his uniform jacket was nearly torn off. He walked with a limp but carried three rifles and extra magazines bulged out of his pockets. Now that Jack finally got a good clear look at them, he recognized the QBZ-18, standard battle rifle of the People’s Republic of China. Wasn’t that just shiny. Ken tossed one of the rifles towards Katy with a nod.
“Better now,” Katy said and grabbed the rifle with her one good hand. “So what do we do?”
“Run,” Jack said and looked towards a closed door marred by a dent from the door he’d sent flying across the alley. The door in question lay next to it, warped and bullet-ridden. But not penetrated. These were strong doors. Good. He could use that. “Betty, open it.”
“Got it,” Betty answered and he saw the electronic lock go from red to green before the door opened to reveal a stockroom full of shelves.
“Come on!” Jack shouted and pulled Wyatt into the back of the clothing store. Katy and Ken followed, and all four of them stumbled into the public parts of the store. Customers gasped or cried out in shock at the sight of four injured people dripping blood invading their safe and comfortable lives. The door clanged shut behind them and Jack figured that would hold the bad guys for a few seconds at least. They had to move fast though. Jack maneuvered his way through the shocked shoppers and stepped out onto the front sidewalk after only taking a second to scan the street for safety.
They were clear, and he ran across the street with the others on his heels. The map still filled a part of his vision and he could see the other gunmen following them. Jack scowled and ran through the front door of a shoe store. The woman running the counter started to ask how she could help them, and then stopped as their wounds registered. That was when she screamed. Jack ran into the back room and saw the rear exit unlock in front of him. Way to go, Betty.
He stepped out into the alley and froze for a second. A pack of dogs looked at him like he was intruding on their territory, glistening fangs revealed by lips pulled way back. The largest Doberman was nearly the size of a man and Jack really didn’t want to deal with them.
“Sorry, just running from some bad guys,” Jack explained and scanned up and down the alley in desperation. It was still clear except for the dogs. The front door to the shoe shop exploded open and the store employee screamed again. The dogs perked up and growled towards the store. Then a man in a black suit stepped around the corner and took in the sight of the dogs and fleeing Cowboys.
Ken and Katy spun to aim their rifles at the man, but the man just smiled at them. That was all Jack could tell though. The man’s privacy screens were on maximum. No name appeared on Jack’s contacts and even the man’s face looked blurry. But a green outline appeared around the man, declaring him a friendly. That meant Betty and his AI or cyber had just had a conversation and verified each other as good guys. Well wasn’t that just shiny.
The man grunted once and cocked his head down the alley. “One block down. Third door on the left. Go.”
Jack frowned and glanced down at the dogs as they began forming a defensive perimeter around the back door. They had no idea what they were getting into. Even if the men had been amateurs, the plan had been very professional. Missiles backed up by four groups of rifleman to finish the job. If the first two had been any better it would have succeeded. “The bad guys are good.”
“So are we, ” the Doberman growled and flexed his massive neck back and forth like he was getting ready to rip a man’s face off. Maybe several. The other dogs echoed his statement with a mix of yips and yelps that left no doubt about their confidence.
The man in the suit just reached inside his suit and pulled out two pistols with extended magazines. Once again, that was all Jack could see. Even the model of the weapons was concealed by the privacy screen. “Go. Before they catch up.”
“How did you know?” Jack asked.
The man shrugged. “A mutual friend thought you might get into trouble. Told me to keep an eye out for you. Now go.”
“I’ll stay,” Ken said and moved to take a position near the door. Then he shrugged. “You three go on ahead.”
Jack nodded in understanding. Ken wanted to keep an eye on the man in the suit. Jack wrapped an arm around Olivia and began guiding her down the alley with Katy walking on ahead to cover them. Gunfire erupted behind them, dogs snarled their challenges, and men screamed in pain. Jack and Katy kept on walking, eyes scanning for any threats to Captain Wyatt.
“Where are the police?” Olivia asked in a voice colored by labored breathing.
“Good question,” Katy returned, head swiveling back and forth.
“If this is the Hursts, they probably bought off the cops,” Jack said between gritted teeth. It was starting to really hurt when he moved. And when he didn’t.
“That’s fine…for a quick ambush…but this is…spread out now…they should be…coming…” Olivia whispered laboriously and Jack looked over at her in concern. Blood ran down her white uniform, staining it with a metallic-smelling red. She was losing too much of it. They had to get her somewhere safe. Fast.
Katy caught his eye and cocked her head. “She’s got a point. They should be coming.”
Jack nodded in agreement. “They should.”
They reached the end of the block and Katy stuck her rifle around the corner to search for enemies. Jack’s contacts filled with red outlines of armed people and Jack shook his head.
“They’re trying to cut us off.”
“Allow me,” Katy said with a wink and pulled the trigger. A single shot rang out, and then another and another and red outlines fell with each pull. Others dropped behind cover and within two seconds the street looked completely clear. Then Katy nodded towards Jack and Olivia. “Go on ahead, Boss. I’ll keep their heads down. Catch up with you later.”
“Don’t dawdle too long,” Jack returned with a smile and lifted Olivia up again to cross the street at a full run.
“We…can’t leave her…behind,” Olivia protested in a weak voice.
Jack snorted. “She’s safer away from us.”
He felt Olivia tense as everything finally clicked into place in her mind. “Oh. It’s me they want.”
“Right in one,” Jack said and dragged her into the next alley without having to dodge a single bullet. And considered how much he hurt right now, he really didn’t want to try dodging bullets right now. It looked so much better in the movies when they could edit out the mistakes.
“I’m…sorry,” Olivia whispered as he dragged her past the first door.
“Don’t be,” Jack returned and kept a look out for the second door. He had to blink to get something red out of his left eye and clear his contacts. It just turned into a red smear so he shook his head. That hurt. A lot. And then he said something he hoped he would never have to say again in his life. “Besides, it was my idea to go shopping.”
He wasn’t certain, but he thought he felt her giggle at that. And then she whispered, “Ow. Don’t make me do that.”
“You know…you could just leave me.”
Jack dragged her past the second door. She wasn’t moving very well. Not that he was a picture of health either. His adrenalin was masking the pain but he knew he was moving slower than normal. A glance behind showed a blood trail a blind man could follow. But gunfire in the background told him the bad guys were still being stopped.
“No offense, Ma’am, but Aneerin asked me to take care of you. And the last thing I want to do is tell that man I walked away when you needed help.”
He came to a stumbling stop as he saw the third door on the left. Jack licked his lips and looked at it for a long moment. It was strong. Better than the others he’d seen. Maybe it would hold. He wondered what was on the other side and then let out a long breath.
“I don’t know, Jack,” her voice returned from thin air. “Are you sure you trust him?”
“You greenlighted him,” Jack said with a snort. Then the sound of police sirens came to his ears and he frowned.
“The police are coming,” Betty as her form shimmered into existence in front of him.
“They should have been here earlier,” Olivia whispered so quietly that Jack nearly missed it. She was getting weaker.
“She’s right,” Jack said with a meaningful look at Betty. “I don’t think I trust them right now.”
Betty nodded and turned to face the door with a suitably dramatic pose. She spread her legs wide, extended one hand towards it, and spoke with a commanding voice.
“Open sesame.” The lock turned green and the door swung open.
Jack smiled and took one last look down the alley towards where Katy fought to give him time to get away. To run away. Part of him wanted to go back and help her. He hated leaving his people behind in combat. But the best way to protect them was to get off the streets so they could run away. He let out a long breath and dragged Olivia into the building.
The door shut behind them and he slid down to the floor in pained relief.
Olivia groaned next to him as she hit the floor.
“How bad is it?” Jack asked and ran his eyes over her body, looking for the wounds. Her white naval uniform was covered in blood, but there were relatively few actual holes in it.
“Not bad I think,” Olivia whispered in response. “Thanks.”
“Jack, we shouldn’t be here,” Betty interrupted, her holoform flickering into existence in the darkened room to look around.
“What?” Jack snapped back. “The man in the suit said to come here, so I came here. Where else should we be?”
Betty turned to Jack and licked her lips. “Anywhere. You want to be anywhere but here.“
“Are you saying he’s not trustworthy?” Jack asked and slowly pulled himself back up onto to his feet.
“No. He’s good. But you won’t want to fight here.” Betty looked towards the door they’d entered with a wistful look. “We need to go, but we have to wait until it clears up out there.”
Jack looked down at Olivia. “No offense, but I’m not sure how much longer she can move.”
“We can leave her here,” Betty told him. “She’ll be safe here. But if we leave quick enough, we can draw the enemy off her.”
Jack pulled in a long breath and felt the wounds catch in his chest. He’d been shot more times than he wanted to admit. And it hurt more than he wanted to think. But if Betty said they had to go, he would go without question.
“Don’t…be an idiot,” Olivia whispered from the floor. “You’ll just…get yourself killed.”
“I take a lot of killing,” Jack answered with the best debonair smile he could manage at the moment.
“And they have…a lot of bullets,” Olivia returned.
That was when a door opened into the back room from behind and Jack spun to see who it was. But he knew before he finished turning. He knew who it was from the strawberry smell on the air. He knew from the sound of a single word escaping breathless lips.
Jack froze as his mind finally caught up to Betty. The voice that uttered that one word told him everything he needed to know. He turned towards it and his heart stopped in his chest as he saw the woman standing in a door. Curly blonde hair framed a face he would never forget and bright, intelligent blue eyes met his.
“Julie,” he whispered and licked lips suddenly dry.
“What’s going on?” Julie asked
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here.”
Julie’s eyes scanned over to where Olivia sat against the wall. “What happened?” she asked and shouldered past Jack.
Jack winced in pain as she hit him and leaned the wall to stay on his feet. It hurt so much it brought tears to his eyes. But he wouldn’t stay here. He wouldn’t risk them. “Take care of her,” he said through clenched teeth and turned back to the door they’d stumbled through. Julie was down on her knees, hands opening Olivia’s tunic to see how bad her wounds were. And that was when the other shoe fell.
“Jack!” another voice said, and he let out a long breath. He didn’t turn towards it. It hurt too much to turn, and besides he didn’t have to. He knew that voice as well as Julie’s. He felt Alex step up behind him and her arms wrapped around him. They squeezed and he couldn’t stop a grunt of pain escaping his lips. The arms sprang away. “I’m sorry!” Alex said and he felt himself fall against the wall again. It was getting harder to stand. “You’re hurt!”
“What?” Julie asked and turned away from her inspection of Olivia. Then she saw Jack’s stance and her face fell. “What happened out there?”
“Somebody wants her dead,” Jack began and paused to take another breath. It hurt so much to breathe, but he would not lead the people who had done it to him to this place. These people. “Now I need to lead them away from here.”
“Bullshit!” Julie and Alex said in unison.
“You need help!” Julie added.
“You tell us what happened,” Alex demanded.
Jack didn’t answer. He had to conserve his strength. He had to leave.
“We…were attacked,” Olivia whispered.
“Don’t…tell them,” Jack ordered and Wyatt’s eyes opened wide. Then Jack pushed himself away from the wall and began putting one foot in front of the other in the long trek back to the door. “The less they know, the better.”
“Like Hell,” Alex shouted and stepped in front of him. She planted a hand on his chest and pushed so hard the pain took his breath away.
“You’ll die without medical attention,” Julie added from Wyatt’s side.
“Now sit down and stop hurting yourself,” Alex said and pushed harder.
Jack gritted his teeth against the pain and focused on the one thing he could think of. Julie and Alex. He looked into Alex’s eyes and smiled. “There are bad men out there, and I won’t lead them to you. I’m…leaving.”
He moved his eyes from their protesting faces to Olivia and the starship captain surprised him. She had to be holding onto consciousness through sheer willpower, but she had a lot of that. “You don’t…need to go,” she whispered and Jack shook his head at her.
That was when Alex pushed against him harder and the pain of it forced him to take a step back. “You’ll die out there,” she said without a shadow of doubt.
Jack smiled through the pain. She was so beautiful when she was angry. And if he had anything to do with it, she would stay that way. Whatever the cost.
“I can…live with that.”
Alex’s eyes opened wide again as his meaning hit home.
Julie just stared at him for a moment, and then shook her head. “Isn’t he sweet?” she said to Olivia as if bringing the captain into a private joke. “He thinks we’re in more danger if he stays.” She chuckled at that and shook her head.
“He wants to protect us,” Alex added and poked him with one finger hard enough to push him against the wall. The pain almost made him faint. “Should we feel insulted by that?”
Jack tried to think of something to say, but the pain hurt too much. And his mind was having trouble keeping up with the way they were talking. The words didn’t make sense. They were singers.
“No.” Olivia’s single word cut through the argument like a knife. It was breathless and ragged, driven out by her seemingly limitless force of will. Julie and Alex met her gaze and then smiled.
“Good point,” Julie whispered and Jack wondered what they’d said to each other. He hadn’t heard anything. Had he blacked out? He didn’t know. It was getting harder to stay standing…or whatever he was doing.
“Come on,” Alex said and turned Jack around. He tried to struggle, to break away and make for the door, but Alex’s farm girl muscles held him like a vice. He’d been running on adrenalin for minutes, but that was gone now. His body was betraying him, his subconscious telling him he wasn’t in danger any more, and now he was running out of strength. She lifted his left arm and wrapped it around her shoulders so she could carry him deeper into the building.
It hurt. It hurt a lot. It hurt so much that his eyes rolled back into his head and Jack lost all consciousness. The only thing he remembered was the smell of peppermint as she dragged him deeper into the building.