1.8: Amber

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The lemon clovers came out early. Jessenia knew more about flowers than Amber ever would—she insisted they were yellow wood sorrels, and that Amber wasn’t allowed to call them anything else. “They’re named after us, Ámbar.” She pursed her lips, trying to hide her smile.

“It might be the other way around, Yessi.” Amber crouched to her haunches. Ahead of her, Jessenia dove into the bushes, leaving only her bottom and legs poking out. “I know girls are supposed to like flowers,” she said, tilting her head, “but you might be taking it too far.” She laughed as her sister tumbled onto her stomach with a yelp. “Hey!” Amber got down to all fours and grabbed Jessenia’s ankles. “Come on, Squishy.” With a giggle, she heaved to her feet and pulled Jessenia out of the foliage.

“Ámbar!” The girl twisted onto her back and wrinkled up her face. “No fair!” Green stains painted swathes across her blouse.

“Big sister wins. Every time.” Amber flopped down to the grass, splashing dew up over both of them. “Find anything nice?”

Jessenia twiddled her fingers, making a wave out of three yellow flowers between her knuckles. “I would’ve found more if you didn’t stop me.”

“Too bad,” she said, chuckling. The air, damp and morning-fresh, tickled her nose. “What do they smell like?”

Jessenia shook her head, tangling her hair everywhere. “They don’t,” she said. “Here.”

Amber plucked one from her sister’s hand. It sat like a button in her palm, its five yellow petals twinkling in the breeze. “They’re cute.” She gave a wide smile. “They remind me of you.”

“You’re being cheesy.”

“Well, if you stop being the cutest little thing, I’ll stop reminding you about it.”

Jessenia rolled her eyes dramatically. “You’re so embarrassing.”

“Hey!” Amber flicked the wood sorrel at her sister’s hair, then pounced on her. She wrestled to wrap her arms around Jessenia’s middle. “Big sister wins.”

Jessenia flailed in the grass, laughing and shoving at Amber. Bushes, branches, and roots swatted at them. At the base of a tree, Amber released her sister and sat up against the trunk. “Okay, enough of that,” she said, reaching over to wipe the dirt from Jessenia’s face.

“You squished my flowers.” The girl crossed her legs and dangled the crumpled wood sorrels.

Amber frowned and scratched her hair. “Sorry.”

Jessenia grinned. “It’s okay.” She tossed one of them over. “You can eat these, you know.”

“Out of the ground?”

“Sure.” She flashed her dimples and chewed on a petal. “You’ll never forget what they’re like.”

/ / /

Amber tasted lemons. Sour and citrus, but not bitter. The flavour filled her mouth with fuzz. What is that? Her teeth met something almost like lettuce, but softer. Is that…?

White sparkles flashed across her closed eyes. Her other senses exploded online. Muscles writhed in residual twitches, giving way to exhaustion. When she got her hearing back, she found nothing but ringing.

Lemon clovers. Amber spit out a mouthful of flowers. Yellow wood sorrels. The pain and fatigue withered away, making room for adrenaline. She kicked herself up, rolling across her chest, scraping her skin on brambles and loose rocks. Echoes of burns stung at her, marking where her tank top had caught fire. Shit. Amber adjusted her sports bra and held out an open palm. Gun. Gun. Come on, gun. Her aura—still weak, still shivering—stretched out, pushed by her charging pulse. Scraps all across the grass lit up in her senses.

A swirl of fire kicked up, inches from Amber’s nose. Hana trailed it, weaving in circular movements. Amber stumbled. I could only have been out for a second. One of her guns popped up into her hand. Okay. Where’s Kiber? She cast her gaze to the road.

Three rangers surrounded the rogue, pinning her to the ground. Amber smiled. Got her. Her fingers twitched, bouncing her gun out of her grip. She shivered out loud as her upper body seized like flailing rubber. Over by the fight, arcs of electricity flashed from Kiber to nearby bits of metal. Where did she get that weapon?

Amber reached for her fallen gun, but it was gone. She swore to herself and turned. Instead of her weapons, she saw Captain November catching her by the shoulders. He said something, anger lining his face. Cool plastic snapped around Amber’s wrists. Oh, good.

/ / /

Yancy’s team at least had the decency to give them headsets in the helicopter. Amber tuned back into her hearing bit by bit, catching snips of arguments and decisions from Byzantium Black. She counted those present: Yancy and his lieutenants, Jay and Carter, then his four rangers. Hana sat beside her, cuffed and latched to the bench. Two UNGC soldiers manned the cockpit ahead. Metal called faintly at Amber’s senses. She felt the machinery of the chopper all around her, even dulled by plastic shielding. She resisted a snarl. All that metal, just out of reach—like seeing an old friend through a window that wouldn’t open.

Hana bucked back and forth in place. “…gonna…down…I’m…idiots!”

Amber smiled at her voice. They’re in for a fun ride.

November marched over and pointed two fingers at her. Whatever he said, she only made out one word, drawled with extended vowels: “Precautions.”

When the tinnitus finally faded, Amber turned to her friend and raised a brow, more smug than questioning. “You set me on fire,” she said. “I liked that shirt.”

Hana smirked. “You look good like that.” She winked. “You could pull off Kelly’s old look, I think.”

Yancy kicked the bench. “So y’all can hear just fine again, huh?” He propped himself up with one foot and leaned on his knee. “All right. Then tell me what the hell y’all were doing out there.”

No way. They don’t know it was us. Amber prodded Hana with an elbow. Let me talk, she thought, hoping to communicate it with her eyes. “We,” she began, facing Yancy again, “saw the fires out here, and came to help.” She sat back. “Rogues or not. We’re here to help. So sure, arrest us, but we were there for the same reason as you.”

“Christ, Sorrel.” Yancy removed his boot and sighed. “I don’t know what to make of y’all.” He crossed his arms. “Look. When they talk to us about all this—I didn’t say this. But you did good out there.” His expression eased up. “You too, Rose.”

Hana clapped her bound hands as best she could. “Finally, somebody appreciates me.”

“But!” He leveled his two-finger point at them again. “Y’all still shouldn’t have been there. That was stupid. Real stupid.”

Amber nodded. “I agree. But that’s what we do. Stupid things for the greater good.”

He chuckled and shook his head. “Y’all are crazy.” With a sigh, he sat next to her. “Where’s Rose, though? The other Rose, I mean.”

Let’s see how far we can take this. “Not with us.” She tapped a foot and avoided Yancy’s gaze. “I took Hana and split off from her. Kelly is my friend, and I trust her—but what she wanted to do was dangerous. Too dangerous for us, even.”

Yancy pushed his brows together. “That so?”

“I would follow Kelly anywhere. I think everybody here knows that.” She raked in a breath. “But if I backed her up on this, I know she’d go for it. She’s reckless, but not that reckless. I don’t think she would go after McTavish on her own.” Amber shrugged. “I had to hang back, for her own good. I told her not to go. And, I figured, if I wasn’t with her? She might actually reconsider.”

Hana bent down to crane around and join the conversation. “And I went along with it because Amber scares me.”

The talking stopped, leaving only the muffled blast of helicopter engines between their words. Yancy eyed them both, switching back and forth. After a minute of silence, he spoke. “I don’t believe you.”

A chill bit at Amber’s gut. Well, there goes that chance. “No?”

She expected anger in his tone. “I know you, Sorrel.” But he spoke more softly than that. “That’s not who you are.” Yancy messed up his face and ruffled his hair. “But—look. I don’t believe that story, and neither would Vinier.” He took a moment to make eye contact with each member of his team. “But the suits who don’t know you? They’ll believe you.” He wobbled his head. “Maybe.”

Amber slacked her features and breathed. “Yancy, you don’t have to bullshit for me.”

“No.” He grinned. “But I want to.” He replaced his arms at-ease. “Because I know you’re good, and I think it’s a damn shame that you’re stuck following someone as unhinged as Kelly Rose.”

Her hands balled up at that. “You know,” she said, biting the inside of her lip, “you could avoid insulting my friend if you want my loyalty.”

“I’m willing to make compromises, but not that many compromises.” Amber swore she caught a smirk on him. “Y’all know I used to respect her. A hell of a lot. But let’s face it.” He grimaced. “She’s gone off the hook lately.”

Hana waved a hand. “She gets that from me, sorry.”

Yancy pointed. “You be quiet. You’re not part of this deal.” Hana withered back into place with a dry frown. “Anyway,” Yancy said, “Sorrel. When it comes down to it, I’ll vouch for you. But there’s a lot of conditions riding on that.”

“Tell me.”

“You were under duress to follow Captain Rose’s orders. When she heard Gentleman Sword was in town, she lost it and threatened y’all into following her to take him down.” Amber listened with her teeth on edge. “Y’all did your best to reason, but orders were orders. But eventually, y’all decided, hell with it, and took off. You still wanted to do some good, though, so you ran off to help when this shit started happening out here. Follow?”

“So far, yes.”

“Now, you’re going to offer us some help as a sign of good faith. If you tell us where Kelly is, and you agree to join my team—as a probationary ranger, not a lieutenant—once this settles, I’ll put in the best word I can for you.”

“This isn’t fair. You’re rewarding me for making mistakes.”

“Bad decisions made for good reasons, more-or-less.’

Amber let out a laugh and hung her head. Taking his deal is the smart move. She looked at Hana, who made a dramatic lack of eye contact with anyone. “Sorry, November,” she said. “I can’t throw my friends out like that. I’m not saving myself if they’re all going to take the fall.”

“Am.” Hana turned to her with soft eyes. “You should do it.”

“I’m not turning my back on you guys.”

“No.” She shook her head. “Don’t do this for you. Do it for your sister.”

The words gripped her chest. Shit. Her eyes found the floor. She has a point. Sigh. It’ll only get harder to see her. “What happens to Hana and Brand?”

“Dishonourable discharge. Assuming they play along.”

Amber grabbed her hair and leaned into her palm. She cursed under her breath, switching herself over to Spanish. “Asshole. Making me choose between my friends and my sister.”

“Ámbar,” Yancy said.

Qué?” Amber perked up, her eyes tweaking at her name—the emphasis on the second syllable, and the slightest change of inflection in the first. “Hablas español?

Yancy shrugged. “Dizque.”

She raised her brows and chuckled. “Can’t say I expected that,” she said, continuing in her native tongue. “You must understand that this isn’t an easy choice.”

“I know.” He heaved out a breath and sat again. “But what would you do without the choice? Would you rather just be in prison for the rest of your life?”

This is so messed up. “I appreciate that you’re giving me the choice.” Amber rubbed the tips of her fingers together. “Just—what happens to Kelly?”

“If she hasn’t killed anybody? Prison.”

“Right,” she answered.

“She’s going whether you take my deal or not, Ámbar.”

Amber tugged at her cuffs. “Not necessarily.”

“And if you don’t take my deal, you and the rest of your team are all going, too.”

“Why are you doing this?” She turned on him, eyes narrowed. “I thought you hated us. And if anybody finds out, your career is over.”

Yancy flitted his gaze across her. “Because I don’t want to see my heroes throw their lives away.” He bowed his head. “I’ll be honest with you. I’ve lost all my respect for Kelly. But I think you’re still worth something.”

/ / /

“What’s wrong?” Jessenia cracked the door open. “Ámbar? Are you okay?”

Not now, Squishy. Amber flung a hand in the direction of her door, catching the metal knob with her aura and slamming it. The magic flowed out awkwardly, chugging through her body before meeting air. “Can I be alone for a while?”

“That won’t help.” Her sister’s voice barely made it through the wall. “Let me in.”

“Stop shouting,” Amber answered. “Mom will hear you, and—” She stopped to dry her cheeks. “—don’t let Mom know I’m crying.”

Jessenia paused. “No,” she said. “No, I won’t.” The door creaked open again. “Can I?”

Fine. Whatever. Amber lay down and released her magic from the door. “It’s open.”

“Good.” She hopped in, light on her feet, and clicked the door into place. “What’s up?”

Amber watched the door. What if Mom hears? Jessenia, sitting by her side, stroked her hair and smiled at her. “It’s—” She cleared her throat. “—Yessi, okay, I have to tell you something. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“And you can’t tell Mom. Or Dad, or Héctor. Okay?”

Jessenia grabbed Amber’s hand. “Okay.” Her brows arched up. “Is everything okay?”

Amber curled into herself, fingers clawing at her hair, pushing her sister’s gentle touch away. “Give me a minute.” She forced the words out. “I don’t know how to say this.”

“Ámbar—” Jessenia pulled Amber’s hands away from her scalp. “—what’s wrong?” She tilted her head and made a line with her mouth. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

She laughed, choking out the sounds. “I wish.” A coughing fit overwhelmed her as she sat up. “Mom would be happier with that.”

“So Mom won’t like it. Whatever it is.”

“No.” Amber tucked her hair behind her ears. “No. She’d kick me out.”

“Okay.” Jessenia crossed her legs and laid her hands on Amber’s shoulders. “You think you can tell me what’s going on?”

She nodded and sniffled. “I’ll try.”

“Take your time.”

Amber locked her fingers together. “You know—uh—the guy I was seeing?”

“Did you two break up?”

“Sort of.” She nodded and coughed. “We broke up. But—uh—” Her hands drifted up to her mouth, covering her lips with her knuckles. “I wasn’t seeing a boy.” A shake set into her hands. “I was—” She raked her hair and tucked herself into a tighter ball. “I like girls, okay?” Sweat ran down her numbing hands. “I’m scared. I can’t, I can’t think, and if Mom finds out, I—”

Jessenia silenced her with a hug. She wrapped her arms around Amber’s neck and pushed her down to the pillows. “It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.”

“I messed up. I messed up so bad.”

“What happened?” Jessenia released the hug and snuggled up beside her, rubbing her shoulder.

“I don’t know.” Her throat swelled. “I thought everything was okay. This girl, Abi, I—I mean, I guess she’s just suddenly not gay, or something.” She coughed. “Because everything was going okay. We cuddled and kissed and everything. And I thought, maybe let’s, you know, go further? She says okay, let’s try it.” Amber took a deep breath and held it. Tears sprinkled her cheeks. “But then when we’re in bed and, you know, we have our clothes off and stuff, she just suddenly—she’s like, no, this is disgusting, I can’t do this, and—and she’s like, put your clothes on and get out.” When she released her breath, a full sob came with it. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Ámbar, slow down,” Jessenia said, twirling her hair. “What’s her name, Abi?” She angled her brows and frowned. “That’s awful of her. She sounds like a bitch.” Amber wanted to answer, but just kept crying. “Ámbar, look, you’re so beautiful, okay? That girl is just a bitch and doesn’t know how lucky she was.”

“I don’t feel beautiful.”

“Don’t listen to that girl. You’re not gross or anything like that.” Jessenia smiled. “Know what? She’s the disgusting one. Because you don’t do that to people.’

Amber wiped her eyes. “Why did God do this to me? He could’ve made me normal, and—and everything would be okay.”

Jessenia hugged her. “Don’t say that. There’s somebody out there for you,” she said, rocking Amber back and forth. “And—and God saw her, and thought, ‘Wow, she’s perfect for Ámbar Sorrel,’ so He made sure you could fall in love with her.”

“Maybe.” A smile pushed at Amber’s lips. Jessenia was right. But part of her wanted to curl up and cry more.

“Everything will be okay.”

“I just feel worthless.”

Jessenia reached over and lifted her chin up. Her eyes glistened. “Ámbar Rocío Sorrel Márquez.” She smiled. When their mother used her full name, Amber winced and froze. When her sister said it, though, she wanted to laugh. “You are not worthless. You are my favourite person on the whole planet, okay?”

Amber hid her grin. “If you say so.”

“Just this once?” Jessenia poked her nose. “Little sister wins.” She pounced and squeezed her again. “You remember that lullaby? Just relax a bit, okay?”

“All right.” Amber closed her eyes and nuzzled into her sister’s shoulder.

With the soft sugar of her voice, Jessenia sang: “Los pollitos dicen, pío, pío, pío…”

/ / /

“Sorrel?”

Amber shook herself out of memory. “Qué?” She blinked and tuned back into the conversation with Yancy, who had switched to English again. “Sorry.”

“Thinking hard on your options?”

She nodded. “Essentially.”

Hana, swaying side to side in her seat, spoke up. “Are you two done speaking in code? I have no idea what you just said.”

Amber shrugged. “Nothing important.”

Yancy sighed. “Look, you have a few minutes to decide. I’ll ask you again when we get to Guardian Tower. Think about it.” He nodded at her and  left for the front half of the chopper.

“So?” Hana leaned in and whispered. “What do you think?”

Amber smirked. “You know we’re using microphones, right?” She leaned back. “If I say no, we all go down. If I say yes—Kelly takes everything.”

“I still say you say yes.”

“I need time to think about it.”

Hana let her cheerful veneer slide away. “Am, come on. You know this is better for everybody.” She looked away. “You’re not betraying her.”

“Aren’t I, though?” Amber traced the lines of the floor with her gaze.

“I don’t think so.” The girl shook her head. “I think it’s what she would want. If Kelly could choose, I know she would go down for all of us.”

“Sorrel!”

Amber shot her attention over to Yancy, who leaned out of the cockpit. “Yeah?”

“You know anything about this?” He motioned her over.

Through the windows, Amber saw more muzzle flares than she could count. Soldiers and rangers surged around the Guardian Tower courtyard. Red alert lights lit up the plaza. Shadows streaked out behind the fighters, changing places with every flash. Even so far away, the bullets pulled at her aura. She raised an eyebrow at Yancy. “Here’s my answer,” she said. “Yes. I’ll take your deal.” After a pause, she pointed out the window. “Kelly went to infiltrate the tower. So I’d say she’s probably down there somewhere.” I’m so sorry, Kelly. She made fists. “Look, I can help. We—” She gestured to Hana. “—can help. Let us.” Maybe I can still get you out of this, Captain.

He stared out the window. “All right.” He nodded. “All right. I’ll trust y’all.”

Amber closed her eyes and let out a breath. “Thank you.”

“If either of you crosses the line here, though?” Yancy stabbed her shoulder with two fingers. “Consider that deal over.”

“Of course.”

Yancy led her back into the main chamber. “Unlock her. And Rose. We’re coming in hot with air support.”

When the restraints came off, Hana pounded a fist into her other hand. Sparks flared up at the impact. “Who’re we fighting?”

Amber flexed her hands. Her wrists rang with bruises. Damn. Didn’t realize those were so brutal. “Here,” someone said, beside her. “Can you use a rifle as well as a sidearm?” The tiny voice belonged to Lieutenant Jay, a small and tanned woman with a dirty blonde ponytail. “We don’t have any spare pistols.”

She grinned. “I can work with this.” The gun, a relatively dated model she wasn’t familiar with, sat heavily in her hands. Not perfect, but I can deal with it. “You’re Tessa Jay, right?”

The woman bobbed into a nod with her eyes closed. “Just Tess is okay.” She fastened the straps on her uniform, adjusting the armoured plastic pads on her shoulders. “How do you fight? Our only metal-chosen is Mel, and she’s usually on defense, keeping us safe from enemy fire.”

Amber hummed and tapped her foot. “You’re earth-chosen, right? How much fine control do you have?”

Tess shrugged and hoisted her backpack from the floor. Once she had it on, she twisted her fingers. Her bag jostled, and streams of sand flowed out from it. She wove it into spirals around her arms. It solidified into long claws, like push-daggers, at the ends of her hands. “If I concentrate, I can get pretty articulate.”

“From what I’ve seen, you’re on battlefield control most of the time. That correct?” She gave her a moment to nod. “Perfect. When you raise up those walls, can you dig out slots I can shoot through?”

Tessa smiled. “I can do that, yeah.” She turned to the others. “Squad! Sorrel and I will cover your flanks and put up fortifications. The rest of you are on offensive. If you need to rest, duck behind one of my walls. Amber will provide cover fire and deflect bullets.”

“What should I be doing?” Hana asked.

“You form up with Lieutenant Carter and his strike team. You’ll be with Rangers Kirya and Shane—they’re both fire-chosen like you—and you’ll be our main, uh, firepower.” Tess grinned. “Sound good? Yancy, Blake, and Mel are our support team. They’re the middle ground between the offensive and defensive teams. They’ll cover your flanks and make sure Amber and I hold a defensive line.”

Amber’s heart skipped. She’s so on top of everything. “No wonder Vinier likes you guys.”

Tess popped her guns out to check them. “Huh?”

She checked her own weapon. “I just like the way you think. You have a good mind for tactics.”

“Awh, thank you.” Once her pistols were clear, Tess moved to ready the lines for fast-roping. “I try.”

Amber jumped to help her out. The procedures came back to her like clockwork. “And you’re only second lieutenant, aren’t you?”

She winked. “For now.”

I shouldn’t be enjoying this. Amber blushed at the gesture and froze. Tess’s gaze hopped between Amber’s eyes, sparkling as the light changed. Ámbar, come on. “Uh—” She stood up straight and crossed her arms. “—do you have any spare vests?”

“I hope so.” Tess gave her a once-over. “Going out in a bra might be a bad idea.”

Amber chuckled. “Blame Hana for that one.” What’s my deal? I should feel guilty. A jumble of sensations bounced in her stomach as she watched Tess fetch a uniform. I can still fight for Kelly. Her thoughts slowed. It took her a moment to realize she’d been staring at Tess’s shape in her tight pants. No, idiot. You’re here to save your friend, not get laid. She shook her head.

“Here,” Tess said, pushing a thick Kevlar jacket and a pair of gloves into Amber’s arms. “You ready?”

“Yeah.” She nodded, fastening the rifle to the vest.

“Squad!” Tess hauled one of the doors open. “Ready! Defense, support, offense, in that order, clear? Let’s go!”

Amber followed the lieutenant down the rope. Her training flowed back into her. Muscle memory arranged her limbs perfectly around the cord. A familiar burn bit through her gloves. Wind growled around her on the way down. Gunfire and helicopter blades blasted through the air above and below. Amber’s blood charged through her. Let’s do this.

Her feet hit the ground and she rolled off to the side, coming up at Tess’s side behind a wall of stone. The lieutenant pointed at several holes, each only a few inches in diameter—enough to fit a barrel through and still see—across the wall. Amber flashed a thumbs-up and crouched by the nearest. Combatants spilled from the lobby of the tower, running through gaps where windows used to be. Most of the crowd wore grey camo, and a small few wore the black uniforms of rangers. The friendly forces backed away from the building, guns and elemental powers probing the the lobby with skirting shots.

Amber took off for a different gap, nearer the building. Someone inside returned fire—or many someones, judging by the hail of projectiles. What the hell is going on? Amber held her fire and watched.

Tess sidled up beside her. “Any visual?”

“None,” she answered. “Does November have any intel at all on what’s going on?”

“Captain?” Tess said, putting a finger to her headset. “Did you catch that?”

“Yeah.” His voice crackled through the earphones. “Y’all aren’t gonna like it, though. Somebody’s breaking McTavish out.”

Amber narrowed her eyes. “What sort of somebody?”

“We don’t know. Captain Castillo reported an unmarked chopper dropping a group of soldiers on the roof.”

“Any idea what they look like?” Tess asked.

“Our only insight is that they’re wearing black and have helmets on.”

Amber stared out at the lobby. No movement—just gunfire. “What’s your call?”

Yancy’s breath came through in static over the line. “Castillo says we have lethal on both McTavish and the unknowns.”

Lethal on McTavish? Amber raised an eyebrow. “When did they decide not to spare him?”

“Hell if I know,” Yancy answered. “But apparently they wised up and realized he’s too dangerous to keep around.”

Amber returned to her watch without a response. Kelly, where are you? She offered a few bursts for the suppressive fire. Her lips lifted at the recoil jarring through her. Tess, on her right, tapped her arm and motioned forward. Amber nodded.

The center of the stone wall collapsed, and the two sprinted ahead. Amber held her aura forward like a shield, catching bullets from the tower. After a dash, Tess swiveled and brought a foot down to raise another wall. Amber rolled to sit with her back to the stone, peeking through one of the holes. From there, she could see farther into the building. Obscured figures appeared in the intermittent flashes of red light. They carried guns, wore military gear, and sported visored helmets. “Visual!” Amber leaned the barrel of her rifle through the wall.

Yancy called over the headset. “Engage! If you have a shot, take it!”

Amber opened fire. She let her magic rest and relied on her own accuracy. The figures moved constantly. Come on. Amber led the shot, aiming some twenty feet to her left. When the lights flashed next, she fired. Gotcha. The soldier kept moving. Shit. Amber brought her aura up, expecting return fire.

Another figure, dressed differently, dashed through the scene. Amber didn’t have enough time to wonder who it was—when the silhouettes of four swords followed him, she knew. McTavish. He blocked my shot. Sure enough, her bullets came flying back toward her, getting caught in her magical barrier.

“I see him!” She ducked back away from her window. “McTavish is in the lobby.”

“Can you two approach?” Yancy said. “We’re getting flanked here.”

Amber crawled over to the end of the wall and peeked out. The rest of Byzantium Black retreated from the melee, throwing covering shots of compressed air and water at a contingent of black-clad gunners approaching from the north side of the plaza. More unknowns ran out from behind a fence. They sprayed the courtyard with bullets that stopped in mid-air before hitting anyone. Amber turned to Tess, her heart pounding. “What do you think? Move in?”

Yancy roared over the comm. “Squad! Get down! Another chopper coming in, hostile?”

Tess thrust her arms up and extended the earthen wall above their heads. “Who are these guys?”

Amber angled herself to look up through a hole. Faint alarm light from the tower lit up a heavy-duty helicopter high up, on level with the top floor of the building. Muzzle flares and tracer shots poured down from it. “Let’s fall back.”

As Tess got ready to disengage and run, an explosion tore through the stone bunker and knocked both women to the ground. Amber swore as her shoulder hit concrete. Ringing crept in through the headset, and lights blurred in her vision. Shit needs to stop exploding on me. She growled and pushed up to her feet. “Tess!”

“I’m okay!”

She turned to face the battlefield. More black camo swamped the plaza, now matching the UNGC soldiers in numbers. They closed in on the friendly forces, tightening a circle. God, no. Soldiers and rangers fell, sending splashes of red mist across the pavement. The alarm lights, pulsing every second, made it a slideshow. In every frame, fewer soldiers stood, and the ground lay more soaked with blood. Muzzle flashes, like fireworks, crept ahead, going off in waves. Amber wondered what the screaming sounded like. She shivered.

Despite the battle outside, Amber still sensed metal from inside the building. Not much—just hints. That’s him. Has to be. She turned to Tess. “McTavish is in there. And—Kelly might be, too.”

Tess stared back for a minute before putting a hand to her headset. “Captain? Amber and I are in a position to pursue McTavish. Are we good to go?”

“Like I said,” Yancy answered, “if you have a shot, take it.”

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