Lark had never ridden in a helicopter before. And on the afternoon of her second prison break, she knew she never wanted to ride in one again.
The noise was unbelievable. Denali was sliding down the cabin floor with his ears tucked and his back legs splayed. She could tell that he was whining in fear, but all she could hear was an incessant mechanical whirr and Axel’s muffled shouts.
Her seat rattled with the engine’s vibrations as the chopper began its climb, and her restraints dug into her shoulders. It felt as though they were sailing down a storm drain in a boat made out of gum wrappers — not fleeing in a military helicopter. Conrad had shouted something about the mountains and turbulence, but Lark felt convinced that they were about to be knocked out of the sky.
As the chopper pitched violently, Lark squeezed the edge of her seat and gritted her back teeth to ward off a sudden swoop of nausea. They had left the oppressive walls of San Judas behind, but the Department of Homeland Security was hot on their tails.
The plane pursuing them was militaristic in design. It had sharp edges, a prominent rudder, and an almost reptilian silhouette. Lark was sure she had probably seen one on the news before she went away, shooting over some faraway desert as a show of force.
They couldn’t outrun the plane. That much was certain. Their helicopter was designed for air-dropping medical personnel into a war zone, while the plane behind them was built for speed.
She glanced to her right. Soren was strapped into the seat beside her, looking deathly pale. He was gritting his teeth and wearing a pained expression, but whether he was responding to the rough ride or his injured arm, Lark couldn’t be sure.
Bernie, Simjay, and Portia were also in their seats. Bernie had her eyes squeezed shut, and Simjay looked as though he might be sick. Axel was the only one not strapped in. He was gripping one of the handholds attached to the fuselage, yelling over the din at Conrad.
“Can’t we lose ’em?” he bellowed.
Conrad let out a deranged laugh but did not tear his gaze away from the controls. “That’s an RC-12 Huron.”
“We can’t outmaneuver that plane . . . not out in the open like this.”
“So git us outta the open! If we flew between two buildin’s or somethin’ —”
“Trust me. We’d have a better chance of losing them on the ground.”
“Then why don’ we jus’ para-shoo out?”
Conrad turned his head a fraction of an inch, and Lark knew that he wanted to tell Axel to shut the hell up. “Have you ever jumped out of an aircraft from two thousand feet at one hundred and thirty knots?”
Axel gave him a blank look.
“I didn’t think so,” said Conrad.
“Well, how ’bout you come up with some bright ideas, then?” Axel snapped.
Conrad was silent for a moment. “We would have a better chance on the ground.”
“Okay!” said Axel, clapping his hands together and slamming into the side of the aircraft as the helicopter took another violent dip.
Conrad’s next words were interrupted by a short burst of static. Axel’s eyes grew wide, and Lark realized that the sound had come from the helicopter’s communication system.
There was a garble of sound, followed by a voice that sent a cold chill down Lark’s spine.
“Lark!” barked the handheld. “Lark Roland! Do you copy?” It was Special Agent Reuben of Homeland Security.
Axel’s head swiveled around on his thick neck as he rested his beady eyes on Lark.
She didn’t speak. She sat frozen in her seat until another bout of turbulence rattled the chopper and her hands flew up to grip the tops of her restraints.
“It’s for you,” Axel grumbled.
Lark swallowed and released her hold on the restraints. She climbed out of her seat and edged toward the cockpit, gripping the slick walls of the fuselage.
At one point, the chopper pitched violently to the side, slamming Lark against the wall and sending a burst of pain through her shoulder. Lark closed her eyes and waited for the turbulence to subside before throwing herself into the cockpit and gripping the pilot’s seat for dear life.
Lark picked up the handheld with shaking hands and pressed the button to talk. “What do you want, Reuben?”
“Jesus Christ. You are a piece of work. You know that? We made a deal, and you decided to go rogue. Figures. Is that Cuckoo-Bird Kelly flying that thing?”
“What — do you — want?” Lark spat.
“I want you to tell Colonel Kelly to find a safe place to land. Then you and your little friends need to turn yourselves in.”
Lark took a deep breath, willing herself to stay calm. “Not going to happen.”
There was a long pause on the other end, and Lark could practically see the steam pouring out of Reuben’s ears. Reuben was the type of person who expected everyone around him to follow orders and bend to his will. Lark was probably making him look bad.
There was another garble of static, and Reuben’s voice came back at her through the handheld. “Now, you listen, and you listen good. You’re gonna get yourself killed trying to outrun this. You’re gonna kill yourself, and you’re gonna kill your friends. Is that really what you want?”
Lark didn’t respond. She was gripping the handheld so hard that the tips of her fingers were turning white.
“It’s time to end this, Lark,” said Reuben. “Otherwise —”
“You lied to me,” Lark snapped, finally finding the words she was longing to hurl at Reuben. “We made a deal, but you were never going to let us walk. You just said that because it was the only way for you to get what you wanted.”
“Lark . . . I was going to make good on our deal. But that was before your friends slaughtered two Homeland Security agents and you skewered Mercy Peters in front of a mob full of witnesses.”
“You’re lying!” Lark yelled. “You told Soren that you weren’t going to keep your end of the bargain.”
“Just land that thing and turn yourself in,” said Reuben. “It’s the best thing for everyone.”
“Best for you, you mean?”
“Look, if you don’t surrender, my boys are gonna shoot you out of the sky,” Reuben growled.
She didn’t say a word. A heavy, choking dread was spreading throughout her entire body, paralyzing her from the inside out. She couldn’t move. She could hardly speak. She didn’t know what to do.
“Turn — yourselves — in,” yelled Reuben, the connection growing more staticky by the second. “I mean it, Lark.”
But Reuben’s voice was overtaken by another burst of static. Lark wasn’t sure if he’d stopped speaking or if they’d simply lost the connection. But then there was a click from the other end, followed by a new voice.
Lark opened her mouth to speak and finally managed to unstick her throat. It was Special Agent Cole, and Lark felt a fresh stab of betrayal when she realized that he’d been lying to her, too.
“Lark, you have to stop this.”
“Yes. Yes, you can,” said Cole. “Only you can. Just call this off and come back down. It’s not too late. I’ll talk to Reuben. Maybe we can get the murder charges reduced to manslaughter.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Lark croaked. “Why should I listen to anything you say? You lied to me once before.”
“I didn’t,” said Cole. “They kept this from me, too.”
“Why should I believe you?”
There was a long pause, and Lark sensed Cole taking a deep breath and visually consulting with his colleagues from an office hundreds of miles away.
“You don’t have to believe me,” he said. “You just need to understand that they’re going to fire on your chopper if you don’t surrender.”
“You can’t,” said Lark, feeling a little desperate but having the presence of mind to call his bluff. “I have the seeds. I have the seeds, and I have GreenSeed’s files. You need me.”
Cole lowered his voice, and for the first time, it sounded like his voice — not the voice that Homeland Security had trained him to use. “Trust me, Lark. They don’t.”
“Yes, they do.”
“No. They’ll find another way. They always find another way.”
Lark sucked in a short burst of air.
“You were only plan B,” Cole continued. “This is the United States government. They have a plan C and a plan D. There is nothing to stop them from killing you all right now.”
Suddenly the chopper shook, and Lark stumbled sideways into Axel. The plane behind them must have closed the distance, because Lark could no longer see it from the side windows. She sensed it hovering at a comfortable distance, all of its missile launchers pointed in their direction.
“Lark?” said Cole.
Lark swallowed. “I’m here.”
“They have thermal imaging on that plane,” he said. “They’re transmitting that data back to us.”
Lark’s mind was racing. She couldn’t imagine how that was relevant. Surely all it would take was one missile fired directly at the chopper to send the aircraft plummeting toward the earth in a fiery blaze.
“It wasn’t just Colonel Kelly and Simjay Kapoor that came to rescue you,” he continued. “There are two more people in that helicopter. I’m guessing Bernadette Mitchell and Portia Wong.”
Lark didn’t respond. It was eerie how easily Homeland Security could get to them — how much they already knew. It gave her an uneasy feeling that she was about to be caught in a lie — the same feeling she’d had while being interrogated by Annalisa Stein.
“They’re with you now, aren’t they?”
Lark looked around. Bernie and Portia were too far away to hear what Agent Cole was saying, but Bernie’s eyes were locked on to hers.
In that moment, Lark felt a brief spark of connection that was as old as their friendship. Bernie wasn’t just a friend. She was Lark’s best friend, and Lark could read everything Bernie was feeling in that one look. She was terrified.
“I know you’re feeling desperate,” said Cole. “I know you think you have nothing to lose at this point, but you have to think of your friends.”
Lark swallowed. Agent Cole was just manipulating her. He’d read her file. He’d seen the results of that bullshit personality test she’d had to take to gain admittance to San Judas. He was hitting her where he knew it would hurt.
“What about Bernie?” he asked. “Would you really sacrifice her life just to avoid going back to prison?”
Lark tore her eyes away from Bernie. It was too difficult to stay the course when she was staring into those fearful brown eyes.
How had this all landed on her? She hadn’t asked to be rescued this way, and she hadn’t asked to become Homeland Security’s link to their little group. Conrad, Simjay, Bernie, and Portia had masterminded their escape. She didn’t know what was next.
“I know you don’t care for Portia,” Cole continued, “but what about her baby?”
Lark’s stomach dropped.
“Yeah. We know she’s pregnant,” said Cole. “She’s about three months along, right?”
Lark couldn’t take it anymore. She dropped the handheld and stared out of the cockpit. She couldn’t tell how high they were flying — only that there was no way they could possibly survive a crash.
She wondered fleetingly how long it would take for the missile to kill them. Would they die instantly from the impact? Or would it be the flying debris that did them in — a jagged piece of steel through the chest or a support bar shattering her skull?
Maybe the impact wouldn’t kill them at all. Maybe they would have a few seconds to contemplate their deaths as they plunged toward the ground in a plume of acrid smoke.
The voice drifted through the chopper slowly, as if the thinner air had somehow bent the sound on the way to her ear.
She turned. It was Soren. He was feeling his way along the inside of the fuselage. The chopper was swaying from side to side like the deck of a ship, making it difficult to move without being thrown into the side of the aircraft.
“It’s now — never — ark,” came Cole’s garbled voice.
Lark swallowed and watched Soren edging toward her — preparing to cover her body with his own as the plane blew apart.
“Fly us lower!” yelled Axel, elbowing his way into authority the way he always did. For once, Lark was grateful.
A muscle tightened in Conrad’s jaw, and Lark braced herself against the seat as the chopper dipped lower. Soren threw out an arm to stop himself from flying into the control panel, and Lark heard a noise that was unlike anything she’d ever heard before.
A deafening bang shook the helicopter, and something struck the side of the aircraft. Lark’s fingers slipped from the back of the pilot’s seat, and she tumbled to the ground. Axel swore as his head hit the side of the chopper, and Lark lost sight of Soren.
An urgent beeping sound filled Lark’s ears. The chopper swayed dangerously from side to side, and when Lark managed to right herself, she saw half a dozen lights blinking frantically from the control panel.
“In your seats!” yelled Conrad.
Nobody needed telling twice.
Fighting against the violent pitch of the chopper, Lark stumbled back to her seat. She fell twice along the way, bruising her knees as they slammed into the floor.
The second time she fell, Soren pulled her into an upright position and thrust her back into her seat. Lark groped for her restraints, her ears filled with the frantic beeping.
“They clipped the skids!” Conrad bellowed. His voice was urgent but surprisingly steady. It seemed as though his years of training and experience had kicked back in, allowing him to stay in control despite the chaos raging around them.
“What the fuck does ’at mean?” yelled Axel.
“It means — we have — to land.”
“Land?” Soren spluttered, unable to hide the twinge of panic creeping into his voice.
“The Rio Grande is just below us . . . We might be able to make a water landing.”
“Might?” Bernie screeched.
Lark couldn’t see her face from where she was sitting, and she immediately regretted getting a seat so far away from her. If they were about to plummet to their deaths, it would have been nice to reach over and grip Bernie’s hand.
But before Conrad could answer, another loud bang! pummeled Lark’s eardrums, and she squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for impact.
The second missile grazed the side of the chopper, and Lark felt the force of the blow like a charging elephant. It ripped into the sides of the fuselage, and Lark saw a flash of light in her periphery.
The missile had torn several small holes in the side of the aircraft — pinging off the steel in a pattern like Morse code. They wavered in the air for a moment, and Lark tightened her grip on the edge of her seat.
Conrad was saying something, but Lark couldn’t hear a word over the whirring of the engine. Then he let out a strained yell, and the chopper plummeted toward the earth.
Lark gritted her teeth and hunched over in her seat. A half-remembered illustration of the best position for surviving a plane crash flashed through her mind, but in that moment it was all she could do to avoid being sick.
The rush of wind grew deafening in her ears, and she squeezed her eyes shut so that she wouldn’t have to see the blur of trees in her periphery just before the crash. But then the chopper seemed to level out, and Conrad pulled them into a controlled glide.
“Brace yourselves!” he yelled over the din.
Lark opened her eyes just in time to see him pull the aircraft out of the dive. The scenery outside the chopper was a tangled blur of color, and Lark realized that they were much closer to the ground. She glimpsed the sprawling fields of sage and junipers off in the distance, but just below them lay a steep gorge.
Lark glanced to her right and saw Soren staring wide-eyed out the window. They seemed to drop a few feet, and then Lark saw the glimmer of water rushing beneath them.
Conrad was attempting the water landing.
There was another loud bang in the distance, and Lark saw a burst of flame whoosh past the helicopter. Bernie let out a horrified scream, but the fiery missile never made contact.
The helicopter jolted to the side, and Lark’s head banged violently against the side of her headrest. The engine rumbled, and the entire aircraft seemed to shudder.
Lark’s stomach flew into her throat as they plummeted toward the river. She gripped the edge of her seat so hard that she thought part of it might snap off in her fingers. She wanted to close her eyes, but she couldn’t. They were glued straight ahead as she braced herself for impact.
The next thing she heard was the rush of water along the sides of the chopper. They shot forward like a missile skimming along the surface, and Lark’s head whipped forward as they came to a sudden halt.
Denali slammed into the wall with a panicked yelp. There was a harsh burp like metal being flexed and bent, followed by a horrible screech of ripping steel as part of the fuselage separated from the chopper.
A calming whoosh filled Lark’s ears as air surged into the helicopter, and Lark heard water pouring in as they began to sink beneath the surface.
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