Thin Lines – Bella Forrest

What do you mean they’ve been watching us?” I asked, my mind spinning. I was trying desperately to get my brain to cooperate, but my thoughts were still flooded with everything that had just happened. We had attempted a jailbreak to save our friends. Friends that the Ministry, or Compliance Authority, had captured and imprisoned after our raid on the warehouse. That raid had failed. And the subsequent jailbreak had gone just as badly. We’d come across armed soldiers almost immediately, and they’d known that we weren’t supposed to be in the Compliance Authority compound, disguises or not. There had only been one option—run—and we’d taken it. We’d kept running, with almost no idea of where we were going, until we’d found our friends and broken them out of the large plastic boxes the Authority had been using as jail cells. At that point, I’d taken on another burden: Nelson, who’d been too weak to keep up with the rest of the group. Those soldiers had then zeroed in on me and caught me in the leg with one of their bullets. I grimaced at the memory of it hitting me. My second-skin suit had deflected the bullet—I hadn’t seen any blood—but the impact definitely hadn’t been good for me. In fact, I couldn’t feel the limb at all right now. Though that could be for a number of reasons, including shock, so I put that thought to the side.

We’d gotten out of the building, which was the important thing. There, we’d been rescued by the anonymous men in black for the second time this week (though who knew if there had been other times). They’d airlifted us out before dropping us in this meadow. I looked around, my mind still struggling to catch up, and started counting my friends’ sleeping bodies. It didn’t seem that everyone had come to yet, which made it difficult to see if we were all here. The grass in the meadow was high enough to hide anyone still lying down, which had to be at least half of us. Since I wasn’t quite ready to rise to my feet, I snapped my focus back to my friend, and last functioning tech expert, on the other end of the comm line. “What exactly makes you think they’ve been watching us, Gab?” I asked again. Jace, also listening in on his own comm, stared at me, his mouth hanging open—and somehow still looking completely sexy. I narrowed my eyes, not sure whether I was more irritated with him for looking so good in such a horrible situation or with myself for noticing it, and waited anxiously for Gabby to answer.

When she didn’t, I spoke again. “What did you hear? Come on, Gabby. We need details!” “Right, okay,” she said, her voice shaky. “Thing is, I don’t really have details. I heard the bang, which must have been their gas bomb hitting the ground, and then I heard lots of thuds. You guys falling over, I guess. I didn’t count the number of thuds, but what else could it have been? And that’s when they started talking. Though, they were speaking in some kind of code, mostly, and they didn’t say all that much. It was like they all knew exactly what they were doing, and they’d planned it out beforehand, so they didn’t really need to discuss it in-flight, you know? But they said enough to give me the idea that they knew who you guys were and they called themselves Little John.” I exchanged a long look with Jace, then swallowed heavily.

Little John. It was the exact name that we’d seen in that office back in the Authority building. It had looked like the Authority—or Ministry—was researching, or watching, the mystery organization. Courtesy of our raid on the warehouse, we’d somehow ended up on that same research board in their office. What was Little John, to have attracted that much attention? And why the hell had they come to our aid? Were we somehow connected to them, without even realizing it? What made Gabby think that they’d been watching us, of all people? “So, you didn’t hear much, but I do need you to tell me exactly what you did hear, Gabby,” I pressed. As a spy, she had some growing to do. I’d never been one myself, but I didn’t think it should take so many questions to get the information we needed. “They were on the radio with someone else, calling in their progress. They said something along the lines of ‘Little John, Team 1 to base. We have the cargo, dropping it off at the meadow.

Team 2 still at the compound. Team 3 involved in an air confrontation on the other side of the compound.’” “So there were multiple teams,” Jace murmured, rising to his feet and starting to pace. Wondering if that helped him think, I got to my feet to give it a try. If nothing else, it would get the blood flowing, and maybe that would get my brain working, because I was still feeling completely lost. I hated that feeling. Unfortunately, the moment I got to my feet, another kind of feeling came back into my leg. And it hurt. A lot. Of course, I should have expected that.

I’d been shot, after all, and no matter how cool the second-skin suits were, a bullet had come into contact with my body. I gritted my teeth, narrowed my eyes, and started walking. I didn’t have time for weakness, and I was not going to cave in to a little bit of pain. I was not a damsel in distress. Never had been, and I was damned if I was going to start acting like one now. I started thinking out loud to distract myself. “So, there were at least three teams and more than one airship—the one that rescued us and one other, if they had a team involved in some sort of air battle. I wonder if—” I whirled around, suddenly remembering our airship, and the fact that Marco and Julia had said they were involved in an air battle themselves. I’d seen the ship landing when I had woken up, but I hadn’t seen them yet. My leg gave out completely the moment I put full pressure on it again, and I crumpled to the ground with a yelp of pain.

Jace skidded to his knees at my side and pressed his hand to my face. “What is it?” he gasped. “What happened?” I rolled my eyes, frustrated and embarrassed. “I… I was sort of shot during the jailbreak,” I admitted. “What?” Jace gasped, staring at my leg. “When? How?” “I’m going to guess it was with a gun, though that’s not a sure bet,” Ant announced, appearing out of nowhere and falling to his knees next to Jace. “Did it get through the suit?” I shook my head, moving the leg back and forth experimentally. It was stiff and a bit swollen, but it didn’t feel broken. “Nah. There was no blood, and if it had been bad enough to seep through the suit, it would have slowed me down way more.

Honestly, I think it’s probably fine. Just stiff.” I tried to get up, but suddenly Jackie was by my side as well. “Oh my God, what?” I asked, frustrated at all the attention. She cast one look at my face and grinned. “Robin, this is probably going to hurt. Take a deep breath.” I opened my mouth to reply, but she’d already started probing at my leg. Any words I might have had in mind went flying right out of my head with the pain. My eyes immediately squeezed shut of their own accord.

It felt like she was driving hot pokers into the muscles of my leg, and only the thought that she was my friend and trying to help kept me from smacking her. A second later, the pain from her fingers stopped, and I opened my eyes again to see her leaning back on her haunches. “The bullet definitely didn’t enter your body,” she said, her words chopped and short. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’ve got an awful lot of inflammation.” “Which I already knew, and which will probably get better with movement,” I retorted. “Look, my leg hurts, but it’s not our biggest problem right now. Focus, people. We’ve got bigger things to worry about than my bruised leg. Like what the hell are we supposed to do next? Where are we supposed to go? And what is Little John? Gabby, did you get anything else at all from them? Anything we can use?” “I don’t know if it’s anything you can use,” she replied, her voice metallic over the comm.

“They identified all of you, as if they were checking off names on a list, and then said that you’d accomplished your mission. Sounded like the team they left on the ground was successful too, though they seemed to expect that. It sounded… It sounded like this was all a foregone conclusion. Like they’d known everything about the mission—who you were and who you were going after—and had been expecting it to turn out the way it did. I don’t think they knew what you were going to find inside that prison, though. They didn’t seem to have any insight there. But they assumed you’d be successful.” I frowned. So they knew who we were, and they’d obviously known exactly where we were going to be, and at what time. And they’d evidently been waiting to clean things up in case we didn’t manage it on our own.

But they hadn’t known what we’d see inside the prison… Everything about it rubbed me the wrong way. Who were they, and if they were our allies, why hadn’t they appeared sooner? Why send us into that prison unprepared? Had this just been some sort of research mission? Had we been guinea pigs or something? If they’d been worried enough about us that they were watching, then why had they waited until everything had gone directly to hell before coming to help us? Why help us at all? Jace frowned and turned on his heel—presumably to resume his pacing—and came face-to-face with Marco and Julia. He jumped in surprise, while Jackie gasped and leapt to her feet. “Well, it took you long enough,” she remarked. “What were you guys doing, having a picnic in there or something?” Julia lifted a single eyebrow. “If we’d been having a picnic, I probably wouldn’t feel so sick right now. We got here as quickly as we could, but it would have helped if we’d known where you’d gone! We must have spent three hours flying over and around that compound, looking for you guys without any luck. Then suddenly we get a radio signal from a frequency I’ve never used before, with a written message right to our screens telling us exactly where to find you. It also added that some mystery airship had picked you guys up and saved the day, and, I’ve got to say, that freaked me out a little. Mystery airships just picking you up and towing you away? No, thank you.

What the hell happened to you?” This last question was directed at me. I lifted both eyebrows in what I hoped would be a convincingly humorous expression, then returned to my feet, managing to favor my bruised leg only slightly. “Got shot during the escape. I’m fine, just a bit bruised.” “And as long as she’s able to keep up, we have slightly bigger problems,” Jace said. “Like who it was that saved us, and why. I’m more than a little curious about Little John and what they want with us. And what the hell we’re supposed to do next. I want to get back into town and get to a safe place, so we can sort through our next steps, ASAP.” Julia gave him a quick nod, but then frowned.

“Easier said than done, I’m afraid,” she said. “We have no transportation. The airship was basically running on fumes by the time we got here, thanks to all that unexpected flying around we had to do. So we have no way of getting back out again, other than walking. We’ve done our best to hide the airship, and for now that’s about all we can do.” “Okay. Walking it is.” Jace was already moving forward. He turned and shouted at the others as he swept through the meadow. Ant, Jackie, Julia, Marco, and I moved along in his wake, pausing every so often to shake someone awake and tell them to get on their feet.

Several of the people we’d rescued from the Authority jail were stiff and sore, though no one seemed to be badly wounded. The healthy people quickly went to work helping those who weren’t as mobile, and within ten minutes, we were in a ragtag group and heading toward the tree line. I glanced at each of them, then stopped my roving gaze and went back to one face, frowning. He looked familiar. Of course, I would have seen him on the video that the Authority had sent us, but it took my brain a moment to place him in the daylight. His expression, both condescending and prideful, as if he knew better than Jace and was resenting being given orders here, helped with that. Even more so when he caught my gaze and glared back at me. “Robert,” I muttered. I’d had a negative opinion of him from the moment I’d laid eyes on him, to be honest. He cocked his head and pursed his mouth but didn’t answer, and I liked him even less.

I started to dart after Jace, knowing that I didn’t have time to get into any kind of conversation with Robert. At least Gabby would be relieved to know that he was safe, and I knew that we weren’t missing people. Then I realized that we were. “Alexy,” I gasped, coming to a stop at the tree line and looking around at the group. Where was that girl? I’d known her for less than a week, and I already knew that she almost always made herself obvious within five minutes of appearing on the scene. Yet I hadn’t heard her voice bossing other people around, wisecracking at Ant, or even casually bickering with Zion. I started turning in a circle, my eyes scanning the people we had with us, my mind immediately going to the worst possible conclusion. “Jace, Alexy’s not here,” I said. “Where is she?” Jace turned back into the group, and everyone else stopped as well. “Alexy!” he shouted.

We all waited for a moment, gazing around the clearing, but there was no answer. My eyes scanned the group, picking up Nelson, and then Winter, and then Austin—and then I realized that Alexy wasn’t the only one missing. “Zion is missing as well,” I said. There was a sharp intake of air from around me. Two of our strongest team members, gone. The two team members with the best abilities to come up with materials and plans. We hadn’t known them well until right before the raid on the warehouse, but when they had been two of the three team members we had rescued in that forest, they’d become part of our family. There was a third, I remembered. Allerra, the other member of their unlikely little trio. We’d also saved her in that forest, and she’d been part of the planning for the raid on the jail, but not the mission itself.

Zion had insisted that we leave the young girl behind, to keep her out of danger. With any luck, she was still sitting in the twenty-four-hour coffee shop above Jace’s apartment, waiting for us. Please dear God, let her still be sitting in the coffee shop, waiting for us. At least that way I would know the girl was safe. As for Zion and Alexy… “Where could they have gone?” Jackie asked. “They got on that airship with us. I saw them. Hell, I dragged Alexy onto it myself!” Jace whirled around and started walking again, and the rest of us fell in behind him. I increased the length of my strides, desperate to catch up with him and hear what he was thinking. “Should we stay to look for them?” I huffed, doing my best to ignore the dull twinge in my leg and hurrying to keep up with his longer steps.

“No,” Jace said. “We know that they were on that airship with us, and that means the Authority doesn’t have them. So they either went with the men in black, which means that they’ve deserted us, or they went back to town without us, also essentially deserting us.” “Why would they have done that?” Ant asked. “That would make them pretty bad teammates.” “I don’t know,” Jace replied. “If anyone knows what we’re supposed to be doing next, it’s them. They had more access to Nathan than anyone but Boyd, and they were in charge of planning. I had assumed that included an idea of what we were going to do after we waltzed into an Authority prison and stole some of their most important prisoners.” I nodded in agreement.

I’d thought the same. We’d all been so busy planning the jailbreak and so concerned with getting our friends back that none of us had dedicated much time to considering what we were going to do afterward. We’d been relying on Zion and Alexy to have a plan. They’d been the ones in charge of recon. In charge of everything. Now here we were, having broken into an Authority prison and having stolen our friends right out from under the Authority’s nose. We had no sure route to safety, and the people who might have had that route were missing. A shiver ran down my spine. “Where are we going to go?” I asked, my voice hoarse. “Back to Trenton.

” Jace said firmly, picking up his pace. “Anyone with phones, get on the encrypted app and see if you can get through to the people we’re missing. Ant, use your GPS to figure out where we are and where the closest train station is. I know where Zion and Alexy live, and that’s where we’ll start. We need to get the full story from them —along with an idea of what the hell we’re supposed to do next.”


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