FLIP OF A COIN

"Are we underground?" the man said, wide-eyed and apprehensive. Dr. Helding completed the scan and smiled at him.

"Yes, most of the RCF complex is. It makes the most efficient use of the space available behind shielding, and keeps environmental-control costs down."

She picked up the burn spray for his face. "Close your eyes, please. This will feel cold at first, but it should be very soothing, and it'll help the skin to heal." The man did as she bid him and sighed as the clear gel was sprayed onto his face and hands.

"Thank you, Doctor," he said.

"You're welcome," Dr. Helding replied, then beckoned over one of the HL Ops Privates who was waiting near the Infirmary exit. "The Private here will show you to your temporary quarters."

He was alone, in the tiny little box they called "temporary quarters". He'd lived his whole life under the wide open sky; storms and all. He felt trapped down in this rabbit warren. During the days of orientation and physical testing, and the receipt of the DII, he hid his dread, a part of him afraid they'd throw him out, or send him to a shrink, if they knew. Even out in the City aboveground, he felt the buildings leaning toward him, menacing, cold, with too many eyes looking out the staring windows. Days went by, but the fear grew, and he began to resent having been brought here. He'd been happier out in the desert with the monsters.

Eventually his anger and fear found a focus. All his problems with fitting into this City weren't his fault; they shouldn't have brought him here. Those people, kidnapping decent folk from their lives outside, where people should be, not shut away like mice in a maze; those people were responsible. If they were responsible, they should have to pay for their cruelty.

To his frustration he discovered that while knives were allowed in the City, guns, or projectile weapons of any sort, were not. He got the impression that the City people felt that this kept any fighting personal and on a scale small enough to be easily dealt with. Even the police only had tranks. There had to be a way, though. Black market or something. But then he found that the guns confiscated from refugees were almost immediately sent to the metal reclaimation smelters; there simply weren't enough guns available to support much of a black market. Humans would find a way, though, he knew. He kept searching.

Finally, he realized that finding a gun within the City was going to be too difficult with his limlited resources. But the rules in the frontier towns were more lax, and gating out to one of them would be no problem; he simply claimed to have family in the nearest towm. In the town, he stole an old semi-automatic pistol; it would be easier to hide than the rifle he would have preferred. But he couldn't gate back into the City, incoming security would detect the firearm and confiscate it. Then he had a simpler idea.

It was fitting, he thought, that the agents of his misery would be the very same people who would be the agents of his revenge against themselves. If he could make his way across the Wasteland again; and he'd already done it once; he could conceal himself underneath one of those HL vehicles and get inside that way.

Even from the nearest frontier town, it took him weeks to get near enough to the City to find one of the HL patrols. While those fools were busy coping with the Recessives he had neatly evaded, he slipped under the larger of the trucks, and, finding a space that would hold him, if awkwardly, he settled in for the long drive back to the City.

Down the ramp, through the long tunnel. The first time he'd been this way, he'd been in the truck, unable to see any more of their route than he could now. He recalled the HL leader saying somehting about decontam procedures, but he didn't worry much about that. The light got a little strange, and he felt a slight tingling on his skin, but nothing other than that. Then they were inside the RCF complex.

The trucks were washed after they unloaded personnel, but he waited until a lull in the activity in the hangar before he crept from his hiding place. Now to find those responsible for trying to imprison him in this closed-in, underworld nightmare.

Through the hours of night -- as best he could tell, in the constantly lit hallways -- he waited and hid, listening for the voices of his enemies.

"You don't have to play, 23," Tom said. "Just show up this time; you can sit on the sidelines and cheer us on."

"I dunno, Tom," 23 replied. "You know how boring sports are to me; and I was going to finally read that manual on the new ZX:1-9's while I had the chance and everyone else was busy."

"Shea and Azami will be playing on our team, you know," Tom pointed out, trying to pique his friend's interest. "And didn't I hear Mendi say his sister would be out for a visit for the weekend? You could keep her company."

23 laughed at him. "Why the hardsell?"

Tom shrugged. "You so rarely come to the tournaments; I just hoped you'd make an exception this year."

"Waitaminute. If Rhin and Tes and Jacine are going to be there, that means Tam probably will too."

"Well, I don't know..." Tom harrumphed uncomfortably.

"Oh yes she is! And you want me there to run interference for you; to give her someone else to argue with, right?" 23 grinned smugly at his superior officer, then burst out laughing at the look on Tom's face. "All right, Colonel, I'll come to keep the ladies on the sidelines entertained."

Tom gusted an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Thank you, 23, I owe you one!"

23 chuckled again and shook his head. If there was any one thing that would send Tom Valdoon into fits of irrationality, it was Tamlynn McLendon...

They turned a corner and walked right into gunfire. Valdoon dropped first, struck in the chest. 23 only had a second to react before he took a round to the head and fell to the floor unconscious.

Nearby, Mendi heard the shots and came running. He rounded a corner and nearly ran the gunman down. Beyond him, Mendi saw the crumpled bodies of Valdoon and 23. In his moment of hesitation in shock, more shots were fired, but Mendi grabbed the man's gun-hand. Small bones cracked and the weapon fell to the floor; but the bloody image of the two who were shot drew a red haze over his vision. With a snarl of rage, Mendi threw the man against the wall. The head made an odd, liquid popping noise as it hit; blood, bone and other tissue spattered over the walls, floor and Mendi. In horror, the young Lieutenant stared down at the crumpled body at his feet.

He suddenly became aware of shouts and running footfalls, approaching swiftly. Dazed, revolted, horrified, and abruptly terrified, he bolted. I'm half-Rec; they'll think I went berserk, killed all of them! I've got to get OUT!! Once out into the Wastelands, they'll never find me...

Tamlynn and Rhin were among the first to arrive at the scene. Someone had already called for a medical team, and Drs. Helding and Lathgow came soon after. 23 and Valdoon were still alive; the bullet had merely grazed 23's skull, making a long, ugly furrow in his scalp, but doing no more damage than a concussion. Valdoon's condition was more serious. Both were rushed to Infirmary 1.

Tamlynn crouched over the other body, once Helding and Lathgow and their teams arrived to take care of Valdoon and 23. "Someone did quite a job on this guy," she said, having a hunch as to who. It didn't take much to guess, given the amount of force it would have taken to crush the man's skull like that. Rhin was giving the area a cursory once-over, being careful not to disturb anything before the Security investigative people could get there.

"There's a blood trail over here," she told Tam quietly. Tam moved to where Rhin indicated and pulled a sample microtube out of her pocket. "You must carry those things around like Tes does C4," Rhin commented.

"I'll take this back to the lab," Tam said. "But I think I already know whose blood this is." She looked up at Rhin's worried face. "Michael."

"I'll find him," Rhin said, already moving.

Tam nodded. You'd better before anyone else does... She stood and headed for the Infirmary lab.

"He never even stopped at his quarters," Rhin said. "He took a roundabout way out of the RCF complex. Then the trail disappears."

"Do you think he left the City?" Azami asked. With both Valdoon and 23 wounded, command of the unit devolved to Azami, who'd been a Major slightly longer than Rhin had, and they had met in Valdoon's office.

"That's what I'd guess. Since he and Jacine lived out in the Wasteland with their mother for years, he may consider it as a kind of haven. And if he gets too much of a lead on us, we'll never find him."

Azami groaned. "Get Tam, and...Andy Seale, and M'Kinzie. We're going after him."

Rhin found Tam in the Infirmary. 23 had come to, she was at his bedside, holding his hand, talking quietly with him.

"23!" Rhin said, jumping up on the edge of the narrow bed to give him a gentle hug. "I'm glad to see you're okay, but I need to swipe Tam." She leaned in to whisper in his ear, "We have to go get Michael; we think he ran off into the Wasteland."

"What?! Why?" 23 whispered back, sitting up.

"We think he killed the man who shot you and Tom," Tam said.

23's mouth opened, but he didn't speak for a moment. "I'm coming with you," he said, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed.

Tam stopped him. "Oh no you're not, you're staying right here."

23 growled. "Then take my two Skeeters; they're in my quarters." He reached for the copuset that was never far from hand. "Here're the codes, Rhin. And, Tam, you remember the key to my quarters? Fine. I won't go with you, but at least let me go to Ops so I can monitor the scanners and help you find him!"

Tam bit her lips for a moment, considering.

"It will help to have someone back here who knows what we're doing," Rhin pointed out.

"All right," Tam sighed. "I'll log your release, 23; and then I'll meet you guys in the hangar, Rhin."

Rhin gave 23's shoulder a parting squeeze, hopped off the bed, and dashed off to round up Seale and M'Kinzie.

He heard the truck long before he saw it. He kept running, mentally grinding his teeth in a heated mix of emotions. They came after me... Why? Just let me go! They probably think I shot 23 and Valdoon, too... They'll use tranks...!! NO!!! I'll make them kill me first... The Trio would never...Jacine would never...Jacine... SHUT UP!!! It doesn't matter, none of that matters...I'm just another Rec, just like Wes... It's going to happen AGAIN...!

The sound was closer now, he couldn't outrun the vehicle; he'd have to try to hide, and hope they couldn't track him. In this hilly land he could evade human eyes easily enough, but the satellites... Perhaps an overhang or cave would serve.

"IR bands are useless," said Andy. "But, as long as we don't run into a Storm, the new link to the telecameras or 23's Skeeters should pick him up."

M'Kinzie just hoped they were still headed in the right direction. After finding the trail beyond the edge of the Shield, Rhin had been able to pick up a few more tracks, indicating direction. He knew she was still frustrated that she'd had to simply determine direction then rely on the speed of the vehicle. He shoved his hat farther up on his forehead, still privately amazed at how much distance Mendi had been able to cover, even in the few hours lead time he had on them.

They came around the end of the gully they'd been following, skirted a low hill on the left; and one of the long-range cameras picked out a running figure.

"There he is!" shouted Andy and the Trio at the same time. M'Kinzie floored it, catching up to Michael, but slowing and staying behind him in case he swerved suddenly into their path. Rhin hit the manual override on the door.

Rhin and Azami dove out of the truck and hit the ground running; M'Kinzie swerved away and slammed on the brakes, just managing to warn his passengers as he did so. Azami reached Michael first and tackled him. He threw her off; this was no sparring match; he was fighting for his... what? Life? Michael knew he'd already thrown that away. Azami ducked the swing of his arm, leaped over his kick, then caught him amidships with the flat of her foot. He grabbed her leg and threw her. Rhin catapulted at him like a small cannonball, knocking him off his feet. Azami jumped on him and the two had him pinned.

"Why not use the tranks!?" Michael shouted at them.

Azami struck him, across the side of his face with the flat of her hand, hard enough to drop an ox. His head bounced off the hardpan and he tasted the metallic tang of blood in his mouth.

"You know we'd never do that! Are you gonna shuttup an' listen, now?" Rhin shouted back, using her voice like Azami had her hand. Michael growled and shifted position, but held still when he felt one of them grope for a pressure point that would cramp up his legs. The groping hand patted him instead, like gentling a horse. Tam was out of the truck and running a mediscanner over him.

"Get off him, you two, he's bleeding!" she said, opening her feild kit. Michael sighed and went limp as the two slowly moved away to let Tam at him. Running wouldn't do him any good at this point; his side hurt terribly, and the Twins would jump him again...

Tam compressed her lips into a thin line. The bullet had passed through muscle high on Michael's side, not piercing the abdominal or thoracic cavities. But an artery had been hit and he'd lost more blood than even his body could replace easily. She gave him a hemopoietic, and slapped a coagulant pressure bandage on the wounds. She scanned him again, met his glare with one of her own, then sat back on her heels.

"What the hell did you think you were doing, running off like that when you'd been shot!?"

"Jeez. Scared us half to death when we found your blood trail," said Rhin.

"Is that how you found me?" Michael growled.

"Initially," Rhin replied. "Then when 23 came to, he helped us get the new Telesat link focused on where we thought you were headed."

"23's alive?!"

"Just clipped on the noggin," Andy explained.

"Head wounds always look nastier than they are," Tam confirmed. "Valdoon was still alive when we left." She turned back to shout into the truck, "Hey, M'Kinzie! Ask 23 if there's any word on Tom yet!"

"Will do," the driver replied.

Michael grunted and tried to sit up. Tam protested, but Azami, being the sturdiest person there besides Michael, scooted behind him, back to back, to support him. Even as angry as he was, some small corner of his mind noted how they clustered protectively around him; like his family would have. There was comradeship -- and more -- here, if he wanted it. He shuttered that corner away; he didn't want to look at it right now. He was also relieved that 23, at least, was evidently all right. But he had still taken a life, and there were people in the City who would call for his own blood in payment, whatever his motive had been; and he told the Trio as much.