The first bullet hit the smoldering remains of the speaker seconds before the crack of the shot’s discharge split the air.
The girl in yellow dove to the right. The boy reached for the back of his jeans, only to realize whatever he was looking for there was gone. Without a word, he turned sideways and gestured for me to do the same.
For a second I thought he was trying to direct my gaze toward something, but no—I knew this trick. Vida had taught it to me years ago, before the new government had taken root.
Turn to the side to give your attacker less body mass to shoot at.
Another flash appeared in the smoke-clogged distance. This time the bullet struck at my feet, splintering the stone. A shard sliced across my shin, nearly taking me down.
The boy surveyed the steps around us, his eyes landing on a different, smaller panel of the temporary stage that had been blown out in the explosion.
He bounded down toward it, and, in one smooth motion, kicked the sheet up in time for the next bullet to glance off it.
It was the smoke. They didn’t know—they couldn’t see who they were firing at.
“Stop!” I shouted. The word was ragged as it left my raw throat. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
The shots flashed in the burning smoke. The last bit of speaker exploded into black shards that cut at me, fast and deep.
“It’s me!” I screamed back. “It’s Suzume!”
The boy threw us both down, grunting as the sheet of metal absorbed the force of the bullets’ impact. It bent in, further and further, until it was a hairbreadth from his face.
“They don’t know,” I said, struggling against him. They thought it was the attacker. They thought someone was taking me hostage. He didn’t get that. We needed to find Cooper or Martinez.
The boy made sure I heard every single word as he shouted, “They know it’s you!”
I shook my head, blood exploding in my mouth as I bit my tongue. He was breathing hard, inches from my own face; I answered each gasp with one of my own. His weight wasn’t braced on me, but the heat of him was. Droplets of sweat, his or mine, ran down my chest.
He’s wrong, I thought. He has no idea—
“Are you with me?” the boy shouted. “Can you run?”
What was the protocol? What would Mel do?
“We should wait!” I said. “We need to let them see we aren’t a threat!”
“Like hell we should,” he shouted next to my ear. “I don’t want to die here! Do you?”
I don’t know where the voice came from, the same one whispering the words on the teleprompter inside my mind: Someone is here to kill you. As those few agonizing seconds ticked by, the words slowly shifted, slithering and crackling like a serpent shedding its skin. They are going to kill you.
Someone almost had. But I wasn’t about to lie down and let them do it now, or take a bullet by mistake.
Do you want to die here?
I looked at the boy.
He squeezed my arm, understanding. Then we were running toward the car.
The gunfire roared behind us like an ocean wave trying to catch our heels. The girl in the yellow dress appeared in the smoke, her eyes widening as she spotted us. She motioned for us to follow, yelling something I couldn’t hear but the boy could. He looked toward me, then nodded in her direction.
I nodded back, following the path she cleared for us by shoving through the horrified witnesses and university staff on the upper steps. It was only then that the firing stopped. The boy ditched the sheet of metal he’d used to cover us.
What is happening?
A hand reached out to grab me, but slid right off the coat of dust and soot on my arm.
What is happening?
“—op! Stop right—!—ume!”
Cop cars and fire trucks tore up onto the lawn in front of Old Main, their lights blazing as they surrounded the edge of the ruined security perimeter.
They’re here to help. They’re here to take control of the situation. Finally, some kind of protocol was clicking into place. They’d search the area, make sure it was safe. They’d help the injured. They’d find whoever was responsible for…this.
It had to have been a bomb. It took out the speakers on either side of the stage and decimated the tech booth. I remembered that now—that it hadn’t been just one explosion. It had been three separate explosions, within the space of that last breath I’d drawn.
Three detonations, that same dark voice whispered in my aching ears, or a single powerful electrical current traveling through their shared conductor?
My stomach churned, the bile there roiling. Now that the authorities were here, it would only be a matter of time before they figured out who or what was responsible—and whether or not it was connected to the warning on the teleprompter.
We followed the flood of running attendees and staff until the point where they met with a line of Defenders, who caught and corralled them, ushering them to safety in groups. I let out a heavy breath at the sight, at the small touch of relief it brought.
Instead of following them headlong into the human safety net of gray uniforms, the boy and girl swung a hard right at the edge of Old Main, toward the street on the other side of the massive building.
My feet slowed, even as people jostled me from all sides. The girl noticed I had fallen behind first, and motioned for the boy to keep going as she made her way back to me. An expression of disbelief overtook her soot-smeared face.
“Really?” she shouted. “Don’t make me carry you!”
The Defenders were there to help. I looked between her and the swarm of them, including the few who had noticed us—who were pointing and shouting in our direction.
The Defenders were there to help.
The silver, shining words. The promise, the oath they all took. For the common defense.
But it had been a Defender who had guided Mel and me toward the speakers. It had been a Defender who’d had that gun in his pocket, even though they were banned from carrying lethal weapons.
I didn’t let myself think it through. I just followed the girl. Her long legs easily outstripped mine as she caught up to her friend. I tucked my chin against my chest and limped after them as quickly as I could.
The fountain at the back of Old Main, repurposed and rededicated as a memorial to the community’s Lost Generation, gurgled up water as if nothing had happened. This side of the building looked otherwise abandoned. The cars that clogged the small parking lot had been deserted, a few doors left open with the engines running. All except one.
It should have struck me as strange, but I was too relieved to care. I ran toward our SUV, noticing for the first time that the front headlights had been cracked and the
hubcap melted by the earlier attack.
The boy tried to catch my shoulder, but I dodged away. My heart galloped as I all but slammed into the passenger side of the SUV. I could just make out Agent Cooper’s form through the tinted windows.
I pounded on the glass to get his attention.
“Cooper!” I shouted. This wasn’t like him—I’d never seen him so still in all the years I’d known him. “Agent Cooper!”
The piercing drone in my ears grew louder and louder, pitching up and down with my pulse as I ran to the SUV’s driver’s side.
I saw the distorted shapes of the boy and girl through the shattered driver’s side window and the hole in the front windshield before I saw Agent Cooper. He was slumped forward against his locked seat belt, blood still dripping from his forehead and pooling where his sunglasses had fallen into his lap. One of the lenses was blown out.
I reached inside, slicing my arms on the jagged edge of the window. I gripped his shoulder, his tie, then recoiled at the feeling of warm blood. The left side of his skull was broken in, exposing white bone. The speckled pink of soft tissue.
That last fading spark of composure I’d been clinging to was stamped out, and I was left in the clawing dark.
It poured over my mind, my eyes. I knew I was screaming by the burn in my throat. Heat gathered in the center of my palms, and the car’s engine revved to life. The remaining headlight flashed, exploding out onto the asphalt. The flat, dull blare of the horn finally broke through the high-frequency wail stabbing into my ears.
What the hell is going on?
The air shifted behind me. I turned, throwing out my elbow, intending to catch the boy in the chest. I couldn’t stand the idea of being touched, not with the charge from the car’s battery flowing through my senses, giving me power, giving me control when seconds ago I’d had none.
A hand latched onto my head, yanking me back away from the car. My heels caught in the uneven paved surface and knocked me off balance. The rubber of the glove caught in my hair’s twist and dragged painfully across my scalp.
I screamed again, punching back at whoever was behind me. The charge curled just above my knuckles and between my fingers, searing the air. It caught the attacker, but right in the thick chest plate he was wearing over his black jumpsuit. Everything, from the helmet he wore down to the soles of his boots, had been coated with a thick tire-like cover of rubber.