I hung sideways, and it wasn’t very comfortable. The stealth suit had hardened where it hit the seat belt and the right armrest, so nothing hurt.
I turned my head to check how Courtney was doing. I’d heard her hit the door, but she moved, and illuminated by the dashboard lights, I could see her turn her head upward toward me.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“I’m fine. Could you pass me the helmet?”
Attached to the guitar by a thick cable, the helmet had fallen past her legs when the van tipped over, and lay on the door.
She handed it to me, and it wasn’t hard to grab. My head hung most of the way to her seat.
I put it on my head and heard the helmet seal while the readouts came to life near the top of my vision.
The guitar was at full charge, and wasn’t showing any error messages.
That was good because at just about the same time, I got my first view of Rook, the guy who had probably tipped the van over.
I saw him through the window of my door (now pointing upward toward the night sky)—just after I heard a thumping noise.
All black, Rook’s powered armor had been shaped to resemble a bird—mostly. Real rooks didn’t have arms that ended in claws.
He scraped a claw across the (also made of transparent aluminum alloy) window.
It didn’t break.
I pointed the end of the guitar at him,and said quietly, “Remember what I said about the armor in the back? Last chance to put some on.”
Courtney took off her seat belt, and climbed over her seat and into the back.
Rook hadn’t reacted when I pointed the guitar at him, but he seemed to hear something because he tilted his head as I talked. That he hadn’t reacted to the guitar didn’t surprise me—the windows were near impossible to see through from the outside—but hearing me did. I thought I’d insulated the van better than that.
Rook punched the window. It still didn’t break, but an opaque, roughly fist-shaped circle appeared where he hit.
I opened my seat belt, hanging on to the door’s armrest as I did it, and then dropping to the passenger side door.
“By any chance, is that the Rocket in there?” A relaxed, and thoroughly amplified, baritone voice filled the van.
“I can’t tell you how much I loved the original Rocket. He inspired me. Did you know him?”
The voice sounded like it had a British accent, or maybe a fake British accent? I had no way of knowing.
“A bit,” I said. Would it be better to talk with this guy?
Over the helmet’s communicator, Haley asked, “Rocket, are you okay? Do you need help?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered. “We’re talking.”
Several lightning strokes and thunderclaps in quick succession came from outside. It sounded like Vaughn might need help.
More loudly, I said, “Sure, I knew him.”
In the helmet’s readouts, a yellow dot appeared next to Cassie’s name, and her voice came over the team’s open channel. “I don’t know how they found me, but I’m getting attacked by mechanical crows. Need some help here…”
With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I guessed how. Even if he couldn’t break the encryption, he might have been able to figure out a way to recognize our communications. With enough birds, he’d be able to use triangulation and track all of us.
“And he trained you?” His voice seemed to convey actual curiosity—as if he’d been introduced to me for some reason.
“Partly, yeah.” Somewhere in the back of my head, I had the sense that two and three word sentence answers might not be the way to keep him occupied.
Without thinking, I glanced toward the back to find out how Courtney was doing.
She’d ditched her sweatshirt, and put on the shirt, but wasn’t quite finished with pants. Plus, she’d taken off her shoes.
I turned away. I’d seen more than I’d intended.
From above, Rook said, “Good. Then it might be worth taking apart your equipment after you die.”
And with that, he sank his claws into the door, and ripped it out of the van.
Pulling his great, black wings next to his body, he grabbed the edge, and dropped inside.
The only things that saved us from dying then were the van’s bucket seats. His lower claws hit the passenger side door, putting the driver’s seat at eye level.
To Courtney’s credit, she had the pants on by then, and she didn’t even try to grab her shoes.
Two steps brought us to the van’s back doors.