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T Minus: 052 Days 17 Hours 46 Minutes 11 Seconds
The Minus Faction Episode One
Dedicated to my beta-readers, some of whom are in these pages.
I don’t get better without you.
The trick to walking around in someone else’s body is not getting caught.
That doesn’t mean you have to hide. You can walk down the street in broad daylight; you just have to give people a plausible reason why the man in the hoodie and sunglasses is not their old friend Jeff who’s been in a coma for six months—Jeff had dark hair and no mustache—and people will assume it’s just someone who looks like Jeff. If they notice at all.
The trick to busting up a drug den, on the other hand, is not getting shot.
On a warm Saturday in May, John Regent failed at both.
According to the army, the trick to surviving a gunshot wound is to stop the bleeding and get immediate medical attention. That means keeping still and putting pressure on the wound. That’s what they teach in basic training, and it’s true. As far as it goes.
But then, people who are scared and angry enough to shoot other people tend to keep shooting, so the real trick to surviving a gunshot wound is to keep moving and not go into shock. The best way to avoid shock is prior inoculation: being shot before, preferably multiple times.
Luckily for his host, John Regent had been shot before. He’d been trained for it. In fact, it was in training where he took his second bullet. Not basic training. Not Ranger training. Not even Special Forces training, although they feigned it.
It was after that, at the training that had no name for a unit that had no insignia. The training that had no manual, no base of operations, no weekends or holidays. The training where John had been drugged and blindfolded, shot through the arm by his instructors, dumped from a helicopter, and told to find his way through the swamp without a map or compass or anything. “Oh,” they had said, “and there are guys on the ground hunting you. With dogs.”
It wasn’t until the clouds parted a few hours later that John saw the stars and realized he wasn’t even on the same hemisphere anymore, let alone the same continent.
That was Day One of the training that didn’t exist. Things got progressively harder from there.
But John survived. And he learned. All kinds of things. He learned that the first trick to hostage rescue is getting inside. Standing on his borrowed legs, bleeding against the door frame of some asshole’s second floor apartment, John was already inside.
See? he told himself. Stop complaining. Hard part is already over.
Of course, it helped that when he hitched, when he was in someone else’s body, John Regent could control the pain. And the fear. And the doubt. All the tricks your genes use to keep themselves alive. Riding someone else’s bones, John was in total control like he never was, like no one ever was, in their own skin.
The trick to disarming someone is making them want to drop their weapon. There are several ways, but if you’re reasonably sure your target hasn’t seen combat—this kid looks like a tool, John thought, with that bandanna so low he can barely see—then a firm strike to the top of the forearm usually does the trick. You know the place: where the skin runs thin over the bone and good whack sends a shock of pain to the hand. It’s a reflex, like dropping a scalding hot pan. You can force yourself to hold tight, but only if you know what’s coming. And only if you can take it.
That takes more than training. It takes experience, knowing what to expect, partially from the pain, but mostly from yourself.
That’s the trick to heavy combat. Knowing yourself. You feel things in war people never should: the spasms of skin in your fingers as you strangle a stranger before he strangles you, the cold lightning of a knife in the back, the splatter of warm red mist across your face as a chunk of your buddy explodes in front of you—or if you’re very unlucky, a chunk of yourself.
That kind of thing.
Some shocks people never shake, people like John’s friend Gabriel. Gabe had just finished a tour. Gabe watched part of himself disintegrate in an explosion that killed every other man in his unit. Gabe was in bad—home but still a hostage.
The three drug dealers in the room hadn’t seen combat. They were nineteen-year-old dropouts, barely literate punks. Vicious, violent, but undisciplined. Inexperienced. They all stood still as the shooter’s handgun bounced on the hardwood with a thud. No one expected “Jeff” to fight back, not after being shot. A gun was supposed to stop people. A gun was supposed to make the holder powerful.
There was a pause.
Along the wall to Regent’s right, asshole number two, a mixed-race kid with cornrows, stood with his mouth open at the far end of a couch. A young mother sat clutching her baby.
No shooting to that side.
To Regent’s left, asshole number three, the white kid with the chains and the tattooed forehead, pushed his chair back from the table full of paraphernalia. There was a gun on the far side, a showpiece in polished chrome. He was twitchy. Not afraid to shoot. But he wasn’t mobile, not with those baggy pants hanging around his thighs.
Three seconds. Tops.
In one fluid movement, Regent stepped in and popped Bandanna Boy in the throat. That disorients. People who aren’t used to getting hurt, people who aren’t trained to stay focused, think about the pain and—for a second at least—worry about whether or not they’re able to breathe. That distracts, makes their limbs pliable as their conscious brain relinquishes its control.
Regent pushed the young man forward along the couch as Baggy Pants grabbed the chrome-handled pistol.
John was an athlete, or he had been once, and he knew not to take his eyes off the ball. He pushed Bandanna Boy to the left without turning. The kid, still clutching his throat, stumbled across Baggy Pants’s line-of-fire, forcing him to sidestep with a scowl.
John smacked Cornrows in the teeth. The kid put his hands to his lips instinctively as Regent grabbed the gun poking proudly from the kid’s pants. John turned and went down on one knee—lowering his profile and making him a moving target despite his planted feet—and with the steady aim of a trained marksman, shot Baggy Pants in the shoulder without pause. The man’s torso turned from the impact and swung the barrel of his gun toward the door and away from the mother and child. He screamed and went down. His weapon slid across the floor.
Regent stood and popped Cornrows in the gut with his fist. When the kid doubled over, Regent rammed his knee into the young man’s nose.
Bandanna Boy, still coughing from the pop to the throat, regained his balance and put his hands in the air. Everyone froze. The AC in the window clicked on. Regent held Cornrows’s gun loosely and stood in the middle of the room. His hands were sweating. It was warm.
Three seconds. No fatalities. One casualty.
It was clear Baggy Pants hadn’t been shot before, let alone seven times.
John looked down at “Jeff’s” leg. Make that eight.
The noise of the shot startled the baby, who began to wail. Everyone in the room winced as the young mother rocked back and forth.
“Shhh . . .”
Baggy Pants was shaking on the floor. The other two were waiting to see what he would do. He must be the leader. He certainly had the most gold on display. He was moaning and holding his shoulder.
That’s good, Regent thought. Just what they teach in basic. Stay down, keep pressure on the wound.
John knelt and put his gun to the boy’s shaved head, right above the tattoos, some kind of gang insignia. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” White people don’t look good with shaved heads. Except Captain Picard. John always liked Captain Picard. Dude was tough, but he had class.
The kid grimaced. He nodded.
“You been shot before?”
The kid shook his head. The baby kept wailing.
“Don’t worry. It’s easier the second time. You know Gabriel Gonzales?”
The kid scowled. “Man, there’s five hundred guys with that name just on this block.” He was cocky.
Regent popped the kid in the skull with the butt of his gun, then put the barrel back to his temple.
The boy yelped.
“Heavy set. Hispanic. About your age. Prosthetic leg. Buys pills. You know the guy now?”
The kid nodded. “I don’t know where he is, man. He just shows up. I don’t keep track.”
“I’m not asking where he is. I know where he is. The problem is where he should be. Get it?”
The kid shook his head.
“Back at the VA. He’s got a wife workin’ two jobs and kid on the way. But he’s not gonna get help when he’s hiding inside your pills. So that means you’re gonna stop selling to him.”
The young man raised his watering eyes to John. He glowered. He didn’t like being given orders. He wasn’t used to it. He wasn’t a soldier.
“I don’t care what else you do. I don’t care whose life you fuck to make bank. But you and all your buddies are gonna stop selling to him. You’re gonna spread the word. Corporal Gonzales is off limits to you and everyone else. Do you understand?”
The kid nodded, but he didn’t mean it.
John moved the gun and shot the sleaze in the knee. Point blank. The bullet ran clean through baggy jeans and flesh and impacted the hardwood with a crack, throwing up little splinters.
The kid joined the baby in an alternating duet. He grabbed his leg with his good hand and rocked back and forth again, yelling and cursing at the top of his lungs.
John put the barrel to the young man’s head again. “See? Hurts less than the first one, right?”
Baggy Pants’s chest shook in tiny convulsions. He didn’t know the tricks. He was going into shock. He didn’t have long. But there were sirens in the distance. They were never far. Not in this neighborhood.
John pressed the gun barrel hard to the young man’s temple. “Convince me, asshole.”
“I’ll stop! Fuck, you crazy muthafucker! Fuck! I’ll stop. He’s off limits, man.” His voice heaved. “I’ll tell everybody. He ain’t fuckin’ worth it.”
John nodded. He looked at all the gold hanging from the kid’s chest, like a nineteenth century admiral’s, studded in medallions. John looked at the tattoo. That was his insignia, like the US Army star. Regent pressed the barrel of the gun to it. “You think you’re some kind of soldier, huh? Street war or something? If I have to come back here, I’ll show you what war is really like. Am I clear?”
The kid nodded in pain.
“I got it, man! Fuck . . .” His voice was broken.
John looked at the other two. They didn’t move. The mother—she was cute; must be somebody’s girlfriend—clutched the baby’s face to her chest and looked at the floor.
Regent stood. “What are you doing? Bringing a baby to a place like this.” He motioned to the table full of drugs.
She was silent. Her eyes stayed down. She rocked back and forth.
“GO.” John pointed to the door with the gun.
The young woman stood, still with her eyes on the floor, and scurried out of the room clutching her crying child.
John shook his head and followed her with a hobble. “Jeff’s” leg was soaked red, and Regent stumbled down the stairs and out the back as he rubbed the gun clean of prints. He dropped it with the sunglasses and fake mustache into a storm drain and walked onto the street as the police and ambulances arrived. People watched from behind narrow pines and old two-story apartment buildings. John lay down on the sidewalk and felt the sun on his face. He slowed his breathing. “Jeff” wasn’t in the best shape. He’d lost a lot of blood.
When the medics leaned over him, John said he didn’t know who he was or how he’d gotten there. And when it was clear they had everything in hand and “Jeff” was going to live, Captain John Regent took a deep breath and left the man wounded on the field.