THE MEN CRAWLING ALL OVER my plane were the first indication that something wasn’t right. Well, it wasn’t exactly my plane, but I was a Renegade, and it belonged to our group, even if I was mortal and wouldn’t live two thousand years like my Unbounded comrades. Besides, I was the only one who could fly the plane, so I considered it mine.
I’d thought taking care of the plane in this little out-of-the-way airstrip in the Mexican jungle while my friends looked into an attack on the medical lab we funded here was little more than babysitting duty, something to keep me away from the real action. Safe. More than a bit irritating, but if staying behind meant staying alive, I’d deal with the irritation for my two children, who had been through more than any children should since their mother’s murder two months earlier. I’d nearly lost them, too, yesterday when the Emporium had attacked our stronghold in Oregon, so being safe wasn’t all that bad.
Except now I’d bet the men trying to get inside that plane weren’t doing it for my welfare.
“More?” asked Diego Molina, the young Mexican who, along with his father, ran the airstrip. He put his hand on the pot of bad coffee sitting on the small table between us—the third pot since my arrival several hours ago. The coffee and the stale biscuits made me wonder if they were trying to poison me or simply weren’t used to entertaining. If it hadn’t been for the delicious smells coming from the attached kitchen and a promised dinner, I would have already retreated to the privacy—and comfort—of the plane.
“He is probably sick of that swill,” a young woman said, appearing from the kitchen for the first time. She set a sweating can of beer in front of me and smiled. It was the first I’d seen of anyone besides the two men since my arrival. She wore tight, American-style jeans and a light blue tank top that hugged her small curves. She looked barely out of her teens and pretty in a dark, exotic way, with long black hair and eyes that were almost too large in her narrow face.
Ignoring the can, I jumped to my feet and strode to the small open window, stopping to draw out a pair of binoculars from my backpack of survival gear so I could see better. Across the wide expanse of dirt that separated this small building from where my plane sat, the strangers were inspecting the underbelly of the plane, presumably trying to find another way inside besides the locked door. That wasn’t happening any time soon. Only our Renegades knew the combination to the hatches, and there was a handprint reader for added security. While they could eventually break the codes or drill through the mechanism, it would take time.
“What are they doing to my plane?” My hand went to my pistol, which suddenly seemed inadequate protection against the half dozen men. Rough men, who looked prepared to do whatever it took to achieve their goal, if the rifles slung over their shoulders were any indication.
Diego followed me to the window, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed nervously. “I don’t know,” he said, his accent thicker than ever. Turning, he rattled off something in quick Spanish to his father, César, who still sat at the table.
The two men exchanged more rapid conversation, and then the older man stood and clumped to the outer door, pulling it open. A short time later, he was in the sedan he’d picked me up in and was speeding toward the plane. The men stopped banging on the lower hatch when they saw him coming. They clustered as they waited, and I thought it a promising sign when none of them attacked him as he climbed from the car.
The goodwill didn’t last. We were too far away to hear anything said, but the violent gesturing told me the newcomers were angry. The pistol one of them waved around also spoke loudly of their intentions. Diego’s father nodded and lifted his hands in an obvious plea for them to wait. Then he returned to his car and drove back across the dirt.
When César arrived, his wide, sun-darkened face was even darker with anger as he exchanged more words with his son. Diego looked the picture of a wounded child who had done something he knew he shouldn’t have.
The girl’s head yanked back and forth between them as she followed the conversation, the flush rising on her face making her more compelling. She spoke to the men, and Diego answered her sharply. I was beginning to regret that I hadn’t paid more attention to learning real world Spanish. I just hadn’t needed it in my hometown of Kansas City.
“What is it?” I demanded.
César pointed at his son. “Diego mahk dee deal wid bandeets. Day loose men. Day are wanting plane or keel us.” His disgust was obvious, but his English was even more heavily accented than his son’s, and I had no idea what he was saying.
“What?” I asked.
“Bandits want your plane,” the girl said. “Diego made a deal with them, and they want it because the deal didn’t work out. They will kill us if we don’t give it to them.”
“No way.” I slid my pistol from its holster, glad my Renegade training meant I carried extra magazines and more target practice in a month than most mortals had in an entire lifetime. “They are not taking my plane.”
Cost aside, the plane was our way of rushing back a cure we desperately needed for the husband of Stella Davis, one of our Unbounded Renegades. Bronson was dying of a rare autoimmune disease, and our lab here in the Mexican jungle had reported a breakthrough with a cure. But two days ago, the lab had been razed to the ground, and my team was tracking our scientists that we believed had escaped with the research. I wasn’t about to let my people down, especially after what had happened at our stronghold yesterday. It was more than just the life we’d lost. Far more.
“You no understand,” Diego shouted, punching his fist in the air. “Your friends keel their men. They no leave. They will keel you.”
I pointed my gun at him. “What deal did you make?”
No one answered for a long moment. Then the girl said, “They were supposed to rob your friends.”
That almost made me laugh. Against my younger siblings, Erin and Jace, and the experienced Renegades with them, an entire army of mortal bandits wouldn’t have stood a chance. Unbounded can’t be killed, not in the normal way. Head and heart and reproductive organs had to be completely separated. No two sections could remain attached or they would fully regenerate. Unique abilities made Unbounded even more powerful, but of course, these people knew nothing of Unbounded.
“You sold us out?” I spat at Diego. What a creep! We’d paid them a small fortune to land here and to park the plane while we finished our business. The weaponry alone that we carried would have been attractive to any militant group, but I’d expected some honor in dealing with César, who I understood had worked with our Renegades in the past. Apparently, his son was greedy.
The girl was still studying me. “All the men who attacked your friends in that big vehicle died, except two who were tied up.”
Big surprise there. “Just give them back their money,” I said to Diego.
He shook his head violently. “No. They want more. They want the plane.”
“Geeve me key,” César ordered, holding out his big hand, palm up.
I backed away. “There is no key. It’s numbers, and I won’t give them to you.”
“Then you die!” Diego growled. “One man against all them. You no succeed.”
“You have guns,” I jerked my head at the two rifles standing against the wall. “We can take them together. Or drive them away.”
“No! No!” César shouted. He glanced out the window where the bandits were still gathered in a clump near a blue truck. “Day keel you! We no help or day keel us too.”
As if they could hear us, the bandits began piling into their truck.
Above all, I had to hold the plane. Not just for Stella’s husband, but for our team. The Renegades were all that stood between humanity and enslavement by the Emporium Unbounded, who considered themselves gods to the expendable mortals. The Emporium had murdered my wife and tried to kill the rest of my family to further their agenda. They’d tried to abduct my children for their breeding experiments. Now they were here in Mexico and were most certainly behind the attack on our labs.
The plane was our way to safety. There was only one choice.
I lunged for the girl, grabbing her and pulling her against me, my gun pressed into her side. “You will help me fight. You made a deal with us, and you won’t break it. Now pick up those guns, or I’ll kill her.”
I must have sounded convincing because both men, nodding energetically, started for their guns. Suddenly, it didn’t seem wise to be in the same room with them. “I’ll watch the back door. When they come, I’d better hear shooting.”
With that, I dragged the girl into the kitchen. It was a small place with only one narrow window opposite a black potbellied stove that looked like something from a frontier movie. Shutting the door to the other room, I shoved her into a chair. “Don’t move.”
She watched me, seemingly more curious than afraid. “You a good shot?”
“I guess we’ll see.” I wished I were wearing my body armor.
I slipped a picture from the pocket of my white T-shirt. My young children stared up at me, Spencer’s thin face covered in freckles and Kathy’s blue eyes looking so much like her mother’s. They were in hiding with the rest of our Renegades until we regrouped after the Emporium attack. Safe for now, but as long as the Emporium existed, they would always be in danger. I slipped the photograph back into place.
My watch said that only two minutes had passed when the shooting began. I stepped to the back door, almost expecting the girl to bolt, but she remained sitting. As I opened the door a crack, a man came around the edge of the house. I fired, and he crumpled.
I felt sick. All the practice in the world hadn’t prepared me for actually taking a man’s life. I was a pilot by profession, not a killer. Not Unbounded. Just a regular guy, who chose to work with the Renegades in order to protect my children, to make the world a safer place. That might sound noble, but I’d seen what the Emporium had to offer, and there was nothing noble about fighting them. It was the only way humanity would survive.
Except these men weren’t semi-immortal Emporium agents. They were mortal.
A movement inside had me turning my gun back toward the girl, but she already had a pistol in her hand. For a several seconds, we stared at each other while the boom of rifles came from the next room and from outside. I couldn’t shoot her. She was innocent.
She whirled from me abruptly, breaking the window with her gun and firing at someone outside. I blinked, almost surprised to still be alive. More men were coming around the house, and I fired again and again. So did the girl. The faces ducked out of sight.
“Is there a way onto the roof?” I asked.
She started to shake her head, but then nodded. “You can use the window and climb. You will have to do it from outside. I will cover you.”
If we made it out alive I’d have to ask her where she learned to speak such great English. Her words were accented, attractively so, but completely understandable.
Should I trust her? She could just let them kill me.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked.
Her chin lifted and for a moment she was fiercely beautiful. “Because those men killed my husband.”
It was good enough for me.