Vortex

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She backed away from him slowly. “I think I really need to leave now.”

“No, wait.” He let out a breath. “This is all coming out wrong.”

“Was there some way that could possibly have come out right?”

Yeah, she had a point. “What I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry I hurt you and I think there’s so much about you that’s amazing and I really need you to know I feel that way.”

She was silent a moment. Then, “Where did the horse come from?”

“Forget the horse,” Tom said vehemently. An explosion rumbled in the distance, so he took the opportunity to shoot the trainee, too close for comfort. Then he turned back to her. “This is the main reason I contacted you: Joseph Vengerov of Obsidian Corp. approached me. He leaked to your military that we were meeting. He also wants me to do some clandestine work against you. He wrote a computer virus designed to incapacitate you. My friend made sure that’s what it’s for, just in case. I’m supposed to use it on you.”

She jolted away from him. Tom realized she thought he was going to deploy it. He risked raising his hands, even though he was aware the other group might see the gesture.

“Don’t go! Listen, Medusa, I’m not doing it. I thought I should warn you. Actually, this is good news.”

“Good news?”

“Yeah! LM Lymer Fleet is not monitoring you because they know anything about what you and I can do—it’s because you’re winning too much. Vengerov doesn’t like it, and he controls LM Lymer Fleet as well as Obsidian Corp. He doesn’t want you finishing the war so soon. I got it right out of the horse’s mouth.”

Then he winced. Why had he brought up the horse again?

“LM Lymer Fleet surveilling you has nothing to do with what we are, Medusa. Just lose here and there, and stop posing such a threat to their war racket, and they’ll back off. They’ll leave you be.”

Medusa hugged her arms across her body, and he was struck by how alone she looked in the clouds of fluorine gas billowing around her. “You don’t plan to use the virus on me, then?”

“Are you serious?” Tom blurted.

“What,” she said, “you would never do something underhanded and vicious for the sake of winning? Is that what you’re saying?”

Tom laughed softly. He had to give her that. “Fine, so I’ve got a bad track record there, but you know, I took it on myself to warn you. If I was planning to use it, would I really stand here and tell you all about it beforehand?”

Apparently, the enemy group had figured out there was a sniper hidden nearby. They were scouring the area, searching for their mysterious assailant. Tom kept an eye out. He was ready for them.

“Actually,” he told Medusa, trying to set her at ease, “I’m a bit insulted here. You really think I’d be the sort of supervillain who tells all his plans before he does them. I mean, come on. That burns.”

Her voice was teasing. “I know for a fact you’re the gloating type. I could see you explaining all your diabolical plans to me before you pull them off.”

Tom made a show of doubling over in terrible pain, like her words were hurting him. Her laughter rewarded him. When he peeked up at her again, he saw her roll her eyes. “Fine, Mordred. I suppose you wouldn’t do the supervillain lecture. I guess no one does it in real life.”

“Actually, I knew a kid,” he admitted. “His name was Nigel, and he was planning something pretty diabolical. Just before he did it, he gave me the whole lecture. Like, an explanation about how he did it, his motives, all that, and even his evil plans for after he pulled it off. I’m not even lying here.”

Makis Katehi spotted Tom. Tom hurled himself up before Makis could shout an alarm, tackled him to the ground under the cover of the poisonous gas, and slit his throat. Then he dove back for cover in his makeshift hiding place and thrust a mound of dirt back over his body.

“So I really don’t have a reason to be worried,” Medusa said.

“No. No reason apart from the obvious winning-too-much-so-must-be-stopped thing.”

“And you really wanted to warn me.” Her voice was wondering. “That’s all?”

“That’s all. That and the . . .” He fumbled a moment, feeling stupid. “And the horse thing.”

He shot the next trainee who ventured too near him, and looked up in time to spot the fleeting smile on her lips. It made him bold. “Tell me one thing. Just one. Is your name . . . Mulan?”

“Not even close. Good-bye, Mordred.”

“Visit me again,” Tom said on impulse.

She was silent. Then, “Maybe.”

She fizzled away, leaving Tom in the mud, bodies sprawled all around him, swirling clouds of poisonous gas in the air. She hadn’t said no.

CHAPTER TWENTY

TOM AND MEDUSA didn’t fall into their old habit of meeting for fights in VR games, but she did take to inserting herself in his audiovisual feed during Applied Scrimmages. It was early morning in China whenever she came, and since the Chinese trainees only slept every other day. She was able to find time to visit him more often than he’d even hoped. So Tom went rogue from his group every simulation in hopes she’d show up. Since Yosef Saide cared only about kill ratios, and Tom liked to show off to Medusa by really piling up the bodies when she was there, the arrangement actually impressed his simulation group instructor, who told him to keep at it.

Medusa couldn’t participate in the sim or even kill people on the other side when she was entering Tom’s visual feed, but she took on something of an advisory capacity, which almost gave Tom the sense they were teaming up for rampages together. One extended simulation between the Mongols and the Russians, she caught up to Tom where he wandered alone in a Siberian forest, and found him hovering over a makeshift fire.

“You should put out that fire.” It was a chilly day dipping into evening in an extended sim. Tom was a rogue Mongol, prowling across Siberia. “I could climb a tree and look for their smoke, then you go kill them.”

“Maybe later,” Tom told her.

“You should at least put out this fire, Tom.”

“I don’t like being cold.”

“Do you like being dead? Because that’s what you’ll be when someone notices it, and hunts you down.”

Cold and dead were about the same thing in his mind now. But he held firm, and Medusa gave a wicked grin, then began to kick dirt over his fire. Tom couldn’t allow her to put it out, so he charged her unexpectedly and hoisted her over his shoulder.

“What is this supposed to accomplish?”

“I’m throwing you over my shoulder in a manly way,” Tom informed her. “I’m thinking of covering you in snow so you learn to appreciate my fire, too.”

“I could fight my way down anytime,” Medusa declared.

Tom laughed. “Not before you get snowed!”

She twisted in his arms, and Tom ducked his head to avoid the hands she swiped at his face, trying to gouge his eyes. Medusa kicked at his torso and unbalanced him, sending Tom tumbling back, but he made sure they both plunged into a bank of slushy snow. He didn’t even feel the chill with her searing up against him, and she punched his face, knocking him to his elbows and knees.

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