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Chapter 4

MARCH 6, 2029
10:45 P.M.

The interior of the train erupted with the sounds of destruction. Bridge felt the gritty floor on his palms, heard the screech of twisting metal and was blinded by the white-hot light of the explosion. The tell-tale tinkle of flying glass and shards of metal shrapnel sang all around him, but he was unharmed. The world shook and shuddered as the train's momentum fought with the perpendicular thrust of the rocket's force, the wheels squealing as they strained to stay on the tracks. From his vantage point on the floor, Bridge could see almost nothing but the fire. It danced a jig over the invisible shield Mu had managed to throw up. Unharmed by the shrapnel thanks to the shield, Bridge nevertheless was unable to draw in a breath, as the fantastic heat smothered the air within the impossible shell.

Bridge could tell the shield was expanding, the fire growing more distant with each second until it finally broke through, exposing the blackness of the night sky. All told, Mu had managed to cover Bridge, Aristotle, Stonewall, Cierra and himself. Goyo, Hernandez and C@L@C@'s holder had been on the other side of the train, but were still alive, as the rocket had hit the front of the train. A gaping hole, its edges still glowing with heat, was all that was left of the front quarter of the train, including half of the conductor's compartment. Three of the minor Shotcallers were in various stages of dying around the car, and Bridge catalogued the parts of at least two others scattered around the floor. The lifeless eye of Miguel De Silva stared back at Bridge, a mute accusation from the past igniting a fire of memories and sensations of Boulder in Bridge. He lay on the floor longer than he needed to, staring into that accusing gaze, unable to tear himself away from the grotesque half-face that held him entranced. Finally, as the train drifted to a jerky rest, he stood, with Aristotle's help.

"You all right, boss?" the big man said, dusting off Bridge's jacket. Bridge kept staring into the dead man's face. "Boss?"

Bridge snapped to attention at Aristotle's inquiry. He nodded silently and began to take inventory. Stonewall had leapt into action as soon as he could reach his feet, checking on Cierra and Hernandez first, then reaching to help Goyo up. The older man slapped Stonewall's hand away angrily. A raging gash ran down Goyo's cheek, staining his neck and collar with blood. Countless rips in the right sleeve of his shirt bled with less ferocity. One giant chunk of metal the size of a finger stuck in his cane. He started as he caught a glimpse of his bodyguard's lifeless body. Goyo knelt painfully next to the corpse and kissed it gently on the forehead before making the sign of the cross over the body, a ritual he seemed to do without enthusiasm. Bridge sat back on the seat, which promptly collapsed under his weight.

Cierra had rushed to administer to the wounds of Manny Man, one of the minor Shotcallers, who had taken a piece of shrapnel in the left shoulder blade. She worked quickly, with the precision and confidence of someone trained in emergency medicine. All told, six passengers were dead, including two Shotcallers. Mu leaned heavily against the wall in the front corner of the car, a horrified look on his face as he gaped at one of the bodies at his feet. Bridge recognized that look, survivor's guilt plainly eroding the technomancer's confidence. Bridge got up and went over to him.

Mu's wide eyes fixed on Bridge's, all anxiety and doubt. "I tried to cover us all, but I couldn't make it big enough. It was just too big. I couldn't stop it all."

Bridge nodded. "Yeah, you did what you could. You did good." The young wizard seemed on the verge of protesting but the look from Bridge cut him off. "You did what you could." Mu returned an unsure nod and stared out of the gaping hole in the train.

"You still want peace, jefe? You still want to send your errand boy off to suck up to Nacho's tit?"

Stonewall responded with a determined nod. "I do."

Goyo struggled to his feet, his bloody face enflamed with rage. "How many of us do they have to kill before you give them what they deserve? How many deaths have to be on your head before you act like a man?" he screamed. Stonewall shoved him back to his seat angrily.

"You don't think I'm going to see every one of these faces every time I close my eyes? You think I have any illusion that these deaths aren't firmly on my head, brother? You better think again! I am drenched in their blood! And I'm not about to add to it! We need peace!"

Bridge interrupted. "For what it's worth, he's right." Goyo's fiery gaze told Bridge what his opinion was worth. "All this drama tonight, the police might have been able to ignore. But this? This is huge. They can see this shit from Griffith Park. Cops are going to want answers, and they will crack heads until they get it. They ain't gonna care if it's Diablo heads or Magos. You're all subhuman to them anyway."

"You really think we can have peace after this?" Cierra asked.

"Fuck no. I don't think Nacho's one bit interested. But you need time to prepare, and an olive branch will at least give you some breathing room." Bridge shoved his hands in his pockets and shuffled his feet nervously, a deliberate stalling tactic. "But that ain't what you got to worry about. You need to start asking yourself how they found the Barn. It's never in the same place, right? No set schedule, never stops moving? So how did they find it?"

"Watch what you say, puto," Cierra spat through gritted teeth. "You ain't Family, and I got no qualms about gutting you."

"Won't change the equation," Bridge replied. "Your network is compromised somehow. Until you figure that out, you're better off splitting up."

Stonewall gave the order. "He's right. I want everyone to hole up somewhere. Don't tell nobody where you're going. Make sure you ain't alone either, take somebody you can trust. C@L@C@ will coordinate communication. Bridge, you set up the meet with Nacho ASAP."

"Probably be tomorrow before he'll see me."

Stonewall acknowledged the effort. "Do it before the pigs shut us all down."

Within minutes of the explosion, another train had been sent up the line to collect the survivors. The Barn was abandoned, a smoldering wreck blocking the tracks. As the rescue train pulled away, Bridge could hear the distant sounds of sirens headed their way. Their delay was worrying. Even with the disdain and neglect Chronosoft had heaped on the subway system, such a public conflagration should have had the authorities reacting at least as quickly as the Families. Perhaps the word was out; a war was starting and CLED had been ordered to let the scum blow each other up.

Bridge tried to help with the cleanup as much as he could, but it quickly became apparent that the likes of Goyo did not want him anywhere near. After a hurried huddle with Stonewall over the plan moving forward, Bridge collected his bodyguards and grabbed a taxi a few blocks from the nearest station. Stonewall insisted on a Magos escort until the taxi showed up. Bridge had the taxi drop Aristotle off first, watching the big man carefully until he made it to the door. Though the excitement had likely completely sobered up the bodyguard by this time, Bridge still worried that he might not be as sharp as he should. Bridge would have to have a talk with him at some point soon, but he was avoiding it as long as possible. Every time Bridge looked in Aristotle's eyes, he could see the accusations, the recriminations, the question Aristotle wanted to ask. 'Why couldn't you save my grandmother?' It was in every glance, every word, every movement of the gentle giant's body.

Since Bridge had "hired" Mu as a bodyguard from the technomancers, he had wanted to keep the young wizard close. To that end, he had gotten Mu an apartment in the same complex as himself and Angela. The technomancer was never more than five minutes away, and the two had set up a special GlobalNet connection similar to the one Bridge had used with Angela earlier in the evening. Bridge could tell that being constantly on call chafed the kid. Mu was eager to display his new powers, and even more eager to learn how to augment those powers. Bridge's insistence on their subtle use was clearly frustrating.

Bridge trudged into his apartment feeling a hollwed-out shell. Something about the devastation he'd witnessed tonight had awakened a thought, a months-old memory he had been diligently repressed. The eyes of that soldier, the dying, frightened eyes of the soldier he had run over in the technomancer's escape from Boulder haunted him. He had made elaborate stories in his head, creating multiple fantasy histories of this kid's life before that moment, a torturous movie of ambitions, dreams and desires that Bridge had snuffed out with callous abandon.

Bridge didn't do guilt. He prided himself on it, actually. Clients had come to him with the most atrocious desires, unspeakable needs that he would meet without regret. Ageplay avatars, weapons, drugs, exploitation, he trafficked in all the worst aspects of the human psyche and it never touched him. Perhaps he had fooled himself all these months that by being a conduit rather than a participant, he somehow was not responsible for the acts he enabled. This was different. This was a conscious, deliberate act. Though he liked to think he had tried to swerve, tried to avoid the killing contact, there had been no chance to do so, no time to act. He could distance himself from the 30,000 deaths in the city of Boulder, from the deaths of the soldiers and Legios Rangers who had fought the army of car golems the technomancers had used to distract from their escape. That soldier's death was all on him, however. It was the first man he had killed, and he was afraid it would not be the last.

"Are you all right, Artie?" sang out the sterilized voice of Angela's hologram, standing in the hallway in the darkly alluring form of Baroness Eletheia, lich queen of Ars-Perthnia. "Why are you covered in ash?"

Bridge looked himself up and down. His clothes were smudged and stained with soot. Rips littered the dark fabric of his pants and jacket, and there were stains on the pants and sleeves that he knew were someone else's blood. "Did you not see the rocket attack on the fucking train?"

A panic spread out across her face and she ran to him, unconsciously reaching ghostly hands through his shoulders. "I stopped watching when you got on the train. I had to go fix a continent cluster crash. Beezeos went down completely, trapped like fifty people in a warp storm. What happened?"

Bridge described the rocket attack as he poured himself a stiff straight whiskey and settled onto the couch. One long draught of the burning liquid made his head swim, and he leaned back into the couch, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "And you're sure it was El Diablos?" she asked when the story was complete.

"If it ain't, somebody's gone to a lot of trouble to pin it on them."

"You think it's a stitch up?"

Bridge shrugged. "Don't know what to think. Diablos sure got plenty of beef with Magos and they've never been shy about letting everyone know. That whole survival of the fittest bullshit doesn't exactly make them hesitant to pop a cap in a motherfucker."

"What do you mean?"

"That's their whole schtick, dime-store Darwinian bullshit. They got this thing about being the toughest mofos on the planet, that only the strong will survive. So they are constantly challenging each other and everybody else to see who's the baddest. It's like a life-long dickwaving contest with them. The leader is constantly getting ganked. Shit, Nacho's the third leader they've had in two years. You know how he got to be leader? The same way the guy before him did; he killed the last leader. Any other Family, that'd be a negative. Not Diablos. It's a mark of pride. Somehow, he's survived almost a year as leader."

"So this is what, a power play in the Families?"

"Probably. Diablos is the smallest of the five. Maybe they are trying to expand. Terrible fucking time for it, though. Stonewall is convinced CLED's just looking for an excuse to round up all the Families and put 'em up against the wall. Stonewall wants me to broker a peace, but I don't think that's going to happen." Bridge finished his drink and tossed the empty glass down on the barren coffee table, staring into and through it.

The silence was thick, a nervous tension descending on the room. Angela's hologram had sat down on the couch, and she seemed unwilling to speak. Finally, Bridge broke the silence. "What?" he snapped.

"What's wrong with you?" Angela asked flatly with the hint of annoyance in her voice. "You've been… distant since you got back from Boulder. You told me what happened but it's like there's something you aren't telling me, and it's like you don't want to talk to me."

Bridge felt the guilt of the truth in her words. "You're always online, how the hell can I talk to you?"

"I'm right here, talking to you now," she shot back. "What the fuck is wrong with you? You've been mopey and you're never mopey."

Bridge struggled internally, that soldier's eyes appearing in his mind's eye again. The words came unbidden. "I killed someone in Boulder. I don't mean the people in Boulder. That was the techonmancers. I just covered that up. No, I KILLED somebody there, a soldier." He retold the sequence of events that led to the soldier's death. "I ain't never killed anybody before. I'm not sure how I feel about that."

He shook his head. "No, I am sure how I feel about it. I feel fucking shitty. I don't kill people. I could have had Paulie killed a hundred times, I know fifteen guys that work assassins, I coulda whacked anybody I wanted. I never do, I never go that way. I ain't about that. I do everything I can not to have to go that way."

"It doesn't sound like you meant to," Angela began. "That's gotta count for something. He'd have shot you if he had the chance."

"Paulie would have killed me, you, Aristotle, anybody," Bridge stammered. "He wouldn't have skipped a beat. He was serious about wanting to whack me for cutting his fingers off. I could have had him whacked easier than what I ended up with, but I didn't because I know, I know, once you go that way, once you cross that line, you keep crossing that line. It's easier, get it? That first time, that's the hard one. You make that decision once, there's nothing to stop you from doing it again. And I don't want to be that guy."

Angela stood silently. She had no words for him. All she could do was hug him, an ethereal hug that passed right through him. He coughed and stared down at his feet. He tripped over his words, barely choking back a timid sob. "Can… can you come out here, baby? I could use…"

Her eyes grew sad. "I can't, baby, I'm way too deep to come out now. Besides, I been down two days, I probably smell like sour crotch. Get some sleep, I'll make sure to get in bed with you once I'm done." Bridge nodded ruefully. She blew him a kiss and disappeared. Bridge sat up for a few more minutes. Before he knew it, his chin had fallen to his chest and he slept with an uneven snore.

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