231 pretended to look down at Sophia, and sneaked a glance behind them. The man was gaining on them.
She glanced up at him, her brow wrinkling. “Yeah?”
“Please walk two steps ahead of me on my left side.” Ahead, the foot traffic was even thinner than where they were. They were on the left side of a main thoroughfare that led away from the telepad deeper into the city. 231 saw an alley ahead on the left, a half-block away. He had to decide.
Behind them, too close, was the man with the concealed gun.
“You’re nervous. Why are you nervous?’ Sophia whispered. She hustled forward, falling into position.
Good soldier, thought 231 with a little smile. He looked down at her too see her eyes widen, her mouth turning down.
Apparently, she didn’t taken the thought as a compliment. Right. She doesn’t want to be a soldier.
Clearly, the man behind them wanted to be a soldier, but wasn’t. 231 had spotted him when he reached into his jacket – too thick for the warm Dubai weather – to click off the safety of his weapon. After his first assignment on McNamara Base, that movement never failed to draw his attention.
“It’s all right.” They were almost to the alley. “When-” He stopped. “Listen to me, please.”
She kept her eyes dead ahead. He bumped into her when he turned toward the alley.
As soon as we are out of sight of the main street, find cover. Hide behind something. If you understand, cough.
Sophia lifted her arm and coughed into her sleeve. 231 heard her breath stutter. She was terrified.
They stepped into the alley. No garbage bins. No side alleys. Just a straight, dark, narrow path to the next main street. A cat tensed as it caught sight of them, then bolted, leaping over a crumpled sheet of industrial plastic.
Sophia took a step forward, then balked. Her head darted left and right, searching frantically for a hiding place. Suddenly, she gasped and looked back at 231. “There’s someone behind us!” she hissed.
“I know,” 231 growled. “Run!”
Sophia sobbed and ran down the alley, her footfalls echoing against the flat walls.
231 knew he only had a few seconds. Nowhere to wait in ambush. His eyes darted about the shadowy alley. Nothing but a-
231 bolted to the sheet of thick plastic and rolled to the ground. He tucked his knees to his chest and, facing the permacrete wall, tugged the plastic over him like a blanket.
The pursuer’s running footsteps entered the alley, then slowed as they approached the Goliath.
Just another human street-dweller. Keep chasing the girl. Pay no attention.
“Hey!” the man shouted at him, stepping closer. “You see a big motherf-”
231 whipped back his arm, tossing the plastic sheet into the man’s face. The man flailed and stumbled back. Two blasts echoed in the narrow space as his gun fired wildly, bullets punching twin holes in the sheet and smacking into the solid wall behind 231.
The Goliath was already rolling to his feet. He spread his thumb and fingers into a C and struck the gunman’s throat. In the instant of contact, 231 felt the familiar shape under of an implanted communicator under the man’s jaw. The man gave a heaving gasp and doubled over as 231 stood and grabbed him by the base of the skull, ramming him headfirst into the wall. The gunman staggered, went slack, and toppled backward to the pavement. His gun clattered against the ground.
231 tossed the plastic aside. The man was unconscious. A compact assault rifle lay next to him, which 231 instantly recognized as a Frontline A-12. A black market channel ran them through Corinth, making them the weapon of choice for the separatists.
The Goliath picked up the weapon. Dubai Colony’s security had never allowed a separatist incursion.
He looked up at Sophia. She was staring questioningly at the knocked-out separatist, then back up at him. “He wasn’t after me.”
It was only then that the gunman’s words struck him. “He wasn’t. He was after me.”
The Goliath and the girl stared at each other, confused.
Then, in the distance, they heard the explosions.