They drove out of town and through the dense forest that spread out along the valley that surrounded Corinth. The rain grew heavier, until they lost practically all visibility. The driver did not slow the vehicle, however, seemingly comfortable with both the weather and the terrain.
Will had no idea where they were going or how far, and after several turns and switchbacks, he’d lost track of even the direction they were heading in.
“So, how far away are you taking us?” Will asked Freyda.
“It’s a three-hour drive,” she said, keeping her response short. “Have you turned off your compads?”
“Do I need to?” Will asked.
“We do not want anyone tracking you,” she said.
“Fine,” Will sighed and pulled out his compad, switching it off. “There. It’s off. Are you happy?”
Freyda gave him a grim smile and said, “No, but it’s a start.”
Will looked back at Arkady, who was turning off his own compad. He looked back at Will nervously. Arkady usually radiated a stoic placidity, so it was rare for him to show his uncertainty like this.
“It’ll be fine,” Will assured.
“I hope you’re right,” was all Arkady said in response.
They left the forest, driving up into the hills until they came to the high desert region, with tall, yellow-green grass and copses of trees dotting the terrain. Will had never been this far in before, besides his one trip into the lake country, when he interviewed Tal Nathon—where he’d met Amelia.
“So, are we going through any uncontrolled areas?” Will asked Freyda, mostly to make conversation, but also because he wanted to know how nervous he needed to be.
“Van Itay holds this entire region,” Freyda said. “You have nothing to fear.”
“Okay,” Will said, settling back in his seat. After another hour, the rain let up. They turned off the main road to a narrow one of hard-packed earth and stone. It was a little loose around the edges, causing the transport to slip a little on the rocks. They hadn’t seen so much as a village for a long time. Where the hell was Van Itay’s base? Or were they being taken somewhere else? Somewhere where it would be easier to imprison or kill them?
No, best not to let those thoughts in. He’d made his decision and opted to trust these people. It was too late to turn back now. Will was dreading the conversation he was going to have with Amelia when he returned. He wished he hadn’t broken his promise, but this story was important for so many reasons. Maybe he didn’t have to tell her at all? What she didn’t know wouldn’t worry her.
He knew he would need to tell her eventually, but it didn’t have to be until he was back safe and everything had turned out for the best. He wondered if Tatsu would show up at the apartment while he was gone. Probably, if his past luck was any indication. So, maybe hiding the truth wasn’t the best option after all.
She would understand. Amelia was reasonable, and she knew how important this was to him. She would forgive him. And yet, it still left him with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The bumpy road shook the car hard enough to rattle Will’s teeth. He held onto the side of the vehicle to avoid being thrown about in the back seat. Arkady watched him as if he wanted to say something.
“What?” Will asked finally.
“Nothing,” Arkady said. “I’m just reconsidering all of my life choices.” Serious for a moment, he soon gave into a nervous laugh.
“It’s fine,” Will said.
Eventually the road straightened out, and through the mist, Will could see flat plains on every side. There was still no sign of human habitation. When he glanced into the rearview mirror, he saw there was another vehicle following them. It was still pretty far behind, but gaining fast. As he stared, Will realized it was some sort of military transport, much like the vehicle they were riding in.
“Those your people behind us?” Will leaned forward to ask Freyda.
She inspected the mirror, then turned around in her seat for a better look. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Hector drove ahead of us a while ago, so there should be nobody else on this road.”
“Are they going to be a problem?” Will asked. She ignored his question. Realizing he wasn’t going to get an answer, Will settled back in his seat.
He had almost calmed himself down when from out of nowhere a vehicle barreled into the road ahead of them. It had come from the side, from the grassy plain. It looked like it had been driving off road. Their driver slammed the breaks, and Will found himself launched forward, caught only by his seat belt, which grabbed him hard enough to leave a bruise. Their vehicle fishtailed, nearly running off the road, but was saved from tipping over at the last minute. “I take it these aren’t friends of yours?” Will asked Freyda as she grabbed her pistol and cocked it. She didn’t reply, but stepped out of the vehicle, her weapon aimed at the three men leaving the interloping vehicle, rifles in their hands.
“Stay here, Mr. Corwin,” she spit over her shoulder as she slammed the door shut behind her.
Will looked to the rear and saw the car that had been trailing them was very close now. It was indeed some sort of armored vehicle, and half as big as the vehicle in which he was riding. Shots rang out from outside, leaving concussion marks on the windshield. The driver cursed, then grabbed his own weapon and was out of the vehicle in an instant. Will hunched down in his seat so he didn’t present any kind of target. Arkady did the same, both with their faces against the middle seat.
“Now I’m really wishing we had Tatsu,” Will told Arkady, trying to make a joke but failing. Arkady didn’t say anything, sheltering his head with his hands.
More gunshots sounded, spider-webbing the glass next to Will’s own body. He cursed and tried to press himself deeper into the seat, kneeling now on the floor, his upper body pressed against the spot where had previously been sitting. Arkady was too large for that maneuver, so he was lying across the seat, trying to keep his head covered. All of the blood had drained from his face.
Will wasn’t so calm, whispering, “Shit. Shit. Shit,” to himself with every bullet that hit their vehicle. Shouting came from outside. Will thought it was Freyda’s voice, but he couldn’t be sure. Then more gunshots and the sound of a body falling.
Will reached the side of the door and made sure the locks were engaged. Not that it was going to stop anyone from getting to them, but irrationally it made him feel a little better. There was more shouting and the squealing of brakes as the vehicle that had been following them finally arrived. Someone unleashed a barrage of gunfire at the rear of their vehicle, but no bullets entered the car. The glass was holding, but Will knew it wouldn’t for much longer.
Then, the gunfire stopped for several moments. He heard voices now, low and muffled, but very close.
“Is he in there?”
“I think so. We need to get the door open. Should I shoot the lock?”
“No, you idiot, you might hit him, and then what will the boss say?”
Someone tried Will’s door and found that it wouldn’t open. Will tried to sink deeper into the floor, but he was as low as he could get. Next thing he knew, the butt of a rifle was banging out the window near WIll’s head. Bullet-resistant glass shattered all around him. He pushed himself to the side, nearly on top of Arkady, to keep from being hit by splintered shards.
The assailant reached through the broken window and unlocked the door, pulling it open all the way. A tall man, with black and green military garb, pointed a rifle directly at Will’s face.
“Mr. Corwin,” he said, his voice remarkably polite for the circumstances.
What am I supposed to do here? Deny who I am? Will thought, before realizing he was wearing his ID badge across his chest.
“What do you want?’ Will asked the man as he reached forward and grabbed him by the shoulder. In the next moment, the man yanked Will out of the car and pressed him against the bullet-pocked fusillade of the vehicle.
Freyda lay on the ground, blood draining from a wound in her side. Her eyes were open, but it didn’t seem like she was going to be of any help to anybody. He didn’t see the two men who’d been with her and assumed they were lying dead somewhere just out of sight.
Another tall man came toward Will. Unlike his compatriots, he was dressed all in black. He’d mounted his rifle on his back and wasn’t aiming it at Will. This man was bald, with bushy black brows and the coldest eyes Will had ever seen.
“Mr. Corwin,” he said as he came to stand in front of Will. “My employer would like a word with you.”
“Then he should have called and made an appointment with my secretary,” Will said.
The man smiled. “You mimic bravery, but I can tell you’re nearly pissing yourself. If you cooperate with us, no harm will come to you.”
“Do I have a choice?” Will asked. “You seem to have the upper hand here.”
“It’s smart of you to realize that,” the man said. Then, to the two soldiers standing on either side of him, he said, “Make sure nobody else can talk. Bring this one to my vehicle.” One of the men grabbed hold of Will’s shoulder and yanked him away from the transport. The other one opened the door they’d pulled Will out of, leaned in and grabbed Will’s bag, then fired a round of bullets into the back of the vehicle. Will heard Arkady grunt, then fall silent.
“Arkady!” Will yelled as the soldier exited the vehicle. He felt a yawning chasm open in his chest as he shouted his friend’s name, and he struggled against the hands that held him, desperate to break free and make sure Arkady was still breathing. The soldier came to take Will’s other side as they dragged him across the dirt road and to the large transport that had forced Van Itay’s people to stop.
Before Will could be brought to the vehicle, another figure emerged. A young woman this time. She pushed Will back from where he was struggling, desperate to get to his friend, and slipped a black bag over his head. The world went dark as rough hands wrestled him into the transport.