“Hands up,” said one of the men behind me.
I put my hands up.
“Now get up.”
It was a bit awkward, but I got to my feet while keeping my hands raised.
“All right,” said the man, turning me around.
Both mercenaries had crew cuts, neck tattoos, square jaws and big machine guns. And they both looked at me with mild disgust. While one of them kept his gun aimed at my face, the other frisked me. He tossed aside my handgun, and then tried to yank the plastic bag from my neck. The plastic was stronger than his effort, and he just ended up yanking my head painfully downward. He looked at me, annoyed, and then checked the contents of the bag.
“Forget it,” he said. He gripped his machine gun with one hand and thrust me toward the front door with the other. “Move. Out the back.”
More than the fear, I remember an awful sense of abandonment. Not by my friends, I should be clear, but by the two men driving me toward what I assumed was my execution. I would have given almost anything for even a hint of sympathy right then, but I received none, just the occasional shove in the back. I don’t blame those guys, but their callousness had me feeling like a cooked duck hanging in the window of a Chinese restaurant—plucked and wrinkled and on display for all the world to see and laugh at.
I don’t eat duck anymore.
In the backyard, marching to my doom through the lingering smoke of battle, I was flooded at once by the most horrid regret and the most grateful comfort—I was no longer alone. Toward the back of the yard, standing in a tight group guarded by two mercenaries, were a Rory, Budgie, Nils and Old Nils. They were disarmed, Old Nils was without his black cloak, and Nils no longer had his jetpack. Budgie and the Nilses dropped their shoulders in disappointment at my capture. (They all thought I had got away. Apparently, the two special forces guys had been going back and forward around the house for twenty minutes trying to find me. I think they must have just missed me while I was in the basement and the tunnel and the tepee, like some Laurel and Hardy routine.) The Rory saw the torment on my face and turned to show me the squeaky-clean back of his head—no bloody handprint, he was the real Rory. Thank God.
The armed men pushed me into the group then stepped back.
“Miles, you all right mate?” said Budgie. He had a bandage over one eye.
For a few seconds I could not speak. I felt I would cry again. “What… What happened?” I said finally.
Old Nils shook his head apologetically. “There were too many of them.”
I looked at Rory. He was devastated.
“The clone?” I asked.
Rory lowered his head.
Old Nils answered for him. “He didn’t make it. Fought like a damn Spartan, killed them left and right, but… his body didn’t hold out. The cheese in his arm melted and it fell right off. Poor bastard couldn’t hold his gun. He got shot trying to retreat up the hill.
Rory interrupted me with a glare. He didn’t want me to ask about LaShawn. He didn’t want to tip off Jimmy O’Shea’s men. I nodded. If LaShawn made it out, then that was something, a small victory amid a gallant but catastrophic defeat.
The armed men moved well back, each with a hint of apprehension on his face.
“What’s this?” said Nils.
“I’d say this is the end,” said Old Nils.
“Wait,” said Budgie. “If this is the end, then you shouldn’t be alive? Right? I mean, if Nils dies now, then what are you doing here?”
Rory looked at Old Nils with a glimmer of hope. Old Nils kept his chin up but sighed and shook his head.
“Sorry lads,” he said, “it doesn’t work like that. I didn’t do it this way first time around.”
The others seemed to not quite comprehend him but took his word.
“Rory Zanzibar,” called a voice from the darkness beyond us. A soft green light emerged through the haze, and out stepped Jimmy O’Shea, his bionic arm glowing brighter by the moment. “I underestimated you. That was an impressive fight. But not quite enough.”
I looked around. The mercenaries were at least fifty metres back, but their guns were still on us. We were stuck.
“How much did all this cost you, Biscuits?” said Rory. “You must have wasted your entire fortune on this circus.”
O’Shea laughed. “I’ve got enough to keep me going. And I’ve got you right in front of me, so the circus was worth it.” He stopped about twenty metres in front of us and appeared to press some tiny buttons on the inside of his right arm.
“Shame about Red Ned,” said Rory. “You’ll have to find yourself a new number two.”
O’Shea seemed unfazed. “Ned did his job.” His arm whirred.
Nils gave me a strange look and whispered, “What’s that bag around your neck?”
“Oh, uh, it’s the proximal relativity disruptors,” I said. “You left them near the T.V. last night.”
Rory’s head tilted but he kept facing O’Shea. Budgie and the Nilses looked at each other then turned to me.
“The disruptors are in there?” asked Budgie, with an urgent stare.
“Do you have the remote?” said Nils.
They looked desperately at me.
“Yeah, I think so. Is that the thing that looks like an internet modem but with dials?”
“Yes,” whispered Nils. He looked like he was about to burst.
“It’s been… entertaining,” said O’Shea, raising his arm toward us. It grew unbearably bright and blew a hot wind our way. “Any last words?”
“How about a last request?” said Rory. “Let me and the boys sing one last song.”
O’Shea paused. We couldn’t see his face for the green light. “All right,” he said at last. “Make it quick.”
Rory turned toward us and put his arms around Budgie and Nils. We joined together in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, and Rory launched into a chorus of The Gambler, by Kenny Rogers. He nodded at us to sing, and we did. Then, huddling close, Nils reached his hand into the open plastic bag hanging at my chest and took out the disruptors. He slipped one each to Budgie, Old Nils, Rory and me, and kept the remote for himself. Rory raised his voice for a repeat chorus. Budgie sang a harmony. A f**king harmony. We were seconds away from death, rushing to choreograph a last gasp shot at survival, and Budgie sang harmony. It was beautiful. The air grew hotter and windier, the green light began to envelop us. Nils nodded to where we should each throw our disruptor, and then frantically adjusted the dials on the remote. An execrable (that makes nine) wail sounded, and the wind swirled around us.
“Hurry up,” said Old Nils.
“Give me a second, damn it!” said Nils, his fingers racing and sweat rolling down his face. “Almost there…”
The heat was like a furnace. Rory belted out the final line of the chorus alone, as we all watched a trio of blinking lights appear on the remote. Between the heat and the wind and the adrenaline, my heart nearly beat out of my chest.
“Now!” yelled Nils.
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We all turned and cast our disruptors out from the huddle. The ground shook, there was crack of gunfire and a blinding flash. And then everything was still.
It was about seven-thirty at night, and we stood in midday light and midsummer heat. An immense emerald wall of energy towered before us like a static tidal wave. Off to the sides, the armed mercenaries stood like statues, guns aimed at us but frozen mid-shot. Rory, Budgie, Old Nils and I looked around at each other, sweaty, and trembling with shock.
“Yes!” hollered Budgie, his fists raised in triumph.
Rory karate kicked the air then fell over laughing. I couldn’t move. Old Nils ran to Nils, who was lying on his back.
“Oh sh**,” said Budgie, snapping out of his celebration. “Nils, are you all right?”
Rory got up and checked on Nils too.
“I think it’s okay,” said Old Nils, examining Nils’s head. “It just grazed him.”
I looked down at Nils. He opened his eyes and looked up at us. “Did it work?” he said.
Budgie laughed. “Yeah mate, we did it.”
Old Nils helped Nils to sit up. There was a thin streak of bright blood right along the middle of his scalp to the top of his head.
“Bloody hell,” said Budgie. “You just got shot in the head.”
Old Nils touched the scar on his own head.
“Hey, yeah,” said Budgie, “you said you didn’t do it this way first time.”
Old Nils shook his head in confusion. “I didn’t,” he said.
“Maybe the scar is inevitable,” said Rory.
Nils looked up at us in disbelief, then smiled and began to laugh. We lifted him to his feet, and then jumped about, laughing and shouting like we had just won the World Cup.
After a minute of rejoicing, we studied our surroundings in amazement. We were in a bubble separating us from the regular flow of time.
“Look at that,” said Old Nils, pointing at the wall of energy just metres beyond us, the electric fireball Jimmy O’Shea’s bionic arm had fired at us. “We were that close to death.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rory in admiration.
“It nearly got us,” said Budgie. “Is that your disruptor, Rory?” He pointed to a disruptor just in front of the energy wall.
“Uh, yeah, I think that was the one I threw.”
“Jeez, if you threw it any further,” said Budgie, “the fireball would have made it inside here and killed us.”
We all stared at the massive death ray frozen before us.
“So… now what?” said Rory.
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