blood

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Their ride had arrived at the rear of the house, not the front as I had assumed it would. The back door opened, giving me access to Clair's lenses again, and a small contingent began to file outside. There was nothing visible through what few sensors I could access-distant satellites, an old-fashioned security camera on a neighbour's porch-but there were odd blurs and shadows shifting in ways they shouldn't. The safe-house had gained a number of attendant data ghosts that I was having trouble exorcising.

The yard was long and narrow, and crowded with ornamental fruit trees and flower beds, creating an irregular canopy through which a red-brick path meandered. The path terminated in a gate. Beyond the gate was a lane of some kind-a relic of the original urban layout, back when there were roads for cars to drive on.

"You go first, Stevie," said Gemma.

Stevie edged out into the yard, and she followed him. Ray indicated that Clair, Zep and Jesse should go next, with him and Arabelle bringing up the rear.

The night was very still. The only sound I could pick up through Clair's ear rings was the whining of Arabelle's chair and the rustling of leaves. It was so dark under the arbour that Clair's lenses could barely make out Gemma's back. Patches winked at her, but she ignored them. They were nothing inconsequential, anyway: signals from another time, before WHOLE, before Improvement, before me. This was her life now. I existed solely to see her through it.

The shots took us both by surprise.

The first caught Stevie high up in the spine, felling him immediately. The second struck Gemma in the right shoulder and buried deep, gifting her with all its considerable momentum. She spun one-eighty degrees to face Clair, fumbled for something at her waist and then she too fell to the ground.

Clair was already ducking into the shadows and raising the pistol she didn't know how to use. The night was suddenly loud through her ear rings. People were shouting. Two more shots cracked, and this time she saw the muzzle flashes, bright yellow flames that came and went faster than lightning. They gave both of us just enough information to locate their source. The shooter was on the top of the safe-house, aiming down along the yard, invisible from infra-red against the hot roof. A fifth bullet whizzed over her head. I heard the sound of it but couldn't see what it hit. Perhaps just the bushes Clair was hiding under. Zep was lying across her, physically protecting her. I approved of his priorities.

Ray returned fire from her right. Clair rolled over beneath Zep and planted her elbows on the ground and braced the pistol in both hands. For someone who had never fired a gun before, she was doing it pretty well. She hadn't activated the pistol's auto-targeting system, though, and after her first two shots missed, I switched it on for her.

More muzzle flashes came from above. The shooter had moved. She adjusted her aim and fired again, and kept firing until the magazine was exhausted.

Silence fell. Ray moved out of cover and scrambled onto the fence. From there he moved to the roof. No one fired at him. A spotlight flared from the lane, casting the scene into crisp, black and white relief.

A body sprawled against the guttering, as though it had slid and got stuck there, leaving a red smear in its wake. Ray approached warily, shoved it with the sole of his boot.

The body tumbled off the roof, hit the ground and sprawled face-up in the glare. The shooter had been hit in the stomach and throat. His flesh was ripped and bruised, but his face was recognizable. Dylan Linwood.

Jesse cried out in pain and surprise. Ray dropped down next to his father's body and did his best to keep him away.

"We have to keep moving," Arabelle said in a strong, clear voice. "Clair, get up. Don't freeze on us now."

She looked stunned, but did as she was told.

"Shift, you big lug," she said to Zep, who was still lying across her. "It's over."

He didn't move. Clair rolled over, and we both saw that Zeppelin Barker wasn't ever going to move again.

The fifth bullet that had narrowly missed her had caught him under the left ear, entering just behind his jaw and tearing a violent path through the base of his skull, destroying the top of his spinal column and sending fragments of bone and metal all through his brain. His right eye bulged as though someone had pushed at it from behind. His expression was one of absolute bewilderment.

"Come on," said Gemma to Clair. "Or we're leaving you behind."

Clair stared down at her clothes. She was covered in Zep's blood. An awful noise escaped from mouth, as though she was only barely able to suppress a scream.

"Clair? That's it. This way."

Clair got herself into motion and followed Gemma through the yard. There was something in the lane, something low and silent.

Ray pushed past Clair, practically dragging Jesse to the lane. Two new people dressed in black came the other way, lifted Arabelle from her chair and carried her off.

As Clair came closer, I saw that the something was in fact a vehicle, a narrow, segmented, many-wheeled contraption the sides of which were slippery with illusions. It had edges but no visible sides, just an outline. Starlight didn't seem to touch it, and I could see a drain clearly though it, as though it wasn't even there. It might have been completely invisible for the door open in its side.

The space within was matte black and crammed full of people. Ray grabbed Clair under one arm and shoved her to the front. There was a space next to a young, brown-haired boy who looked barely ten. He stared at the blood on her with wide eyes.

The spotlight clicked off outside, leaving Zep and Dylan Linwood's bodies in darkness.

"Let's go!" called Ray, slamming the door shut.

With that I was cut off again. The vehicle was a Faraday cage like the safe-house. It whined into motion and slid like a shark through the darkness, leaving me behind.

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