"Eeeh-hah!" Talia Nelson yelled, feline reflexes letting her slalom the gray Corvette off into Nevada's scrub desert, then back onto Canyon Road. Stop sticks fell behind, made futile by feral speed.
"Brennan, what's going on?"
The elemental mutant winced as he took his eyes off careening asphalt just long enough to glance at his comlink, knowing the sound of sirens would underscore his words. "Now is not a good time, Adam."
"Never mind," the geneticist sighed. "Where are you and how much trouble are you in?"
"Short version?" He gulped, holding white-knuckled to the dash as Talia played dodge with swearing cops. "You were right, Talia's fine, Dirk was the setup, GSA agents came out of the woodwork and we had to borrow a car to get out of..." He peered at the sign that flashed past, a green splash against gray scrub. "Bixby."
Brennan glanced at the keyless ignition he'd started with a spark from his fingertips. Good to know he hadn't lost his touch. "Well... sort of borrow."
"Okay." Brennan could all but see the leader of Mutant X holding his head with one hand. "I hate to ask, but can you lose them?"
"Just give us a clear stretch of road," the feral bounty hunter purred, tossing back glossy chestnut hair as she shot the rearview a hot emerald glance. "I - what the hell?"
Dust-covered patrol cars were jamming on the brakes; Brennan caught a glimpse of dark GSA vehicles tangled in the knot of flashing lights before the rocky curve swept them out of view. "They stopped."
"Nevada Highway Patrol deals with the idiots who hit Vegas casinos," Talia bit out. One hand lifted off the wheel, slipped under her brown leather jacket to finger the 9mm she was licensed to carry. "Trust me, those guys don't just stop."
"Then you listen back there and tell me if you hear them coming." Brennan kept his eyes on the twisting asphalt behind them. "I'm telling you, they stopped." And every instinct that had kept the elemental alive and out of prison was ringing alarm bells.
"Hold the wheel." Green eyes flashed feral gold as Talia craned her head back, listening with senses no regular human and few New Mutants could match. "Two... three engines still on our tail," she said thoughtfully. "Just taking them a while to get around the cops. They're not Patrol engines, they're not powerful enough."
"GSA," Brennan sighed, yanking the car a little left as the road tried to throw them off. Feeling the edge of sparks in his fingertips, readying himself to throw lightning as soon as their pursuers got into range. "They never learn."
"Hmmm." The bounty hunter's gaze flicked to the gray scrub desert, the road, the car they were driving... "Hang on."
So much for the shocks, Brennan thought, teeth clicking together as they careened off-road once more, raising a plume of dust that swept out to engulf an official-looking white metal sign, freshly pocked with a well-placed ring of bullet holes. Great, the locals are armed and bored... did that say something about "Endangered Species"?
"Brennan." Sudden concern in Adam's voice; it grated on Brennan's already-jangled nerves. "Where are you, exactly?"
"We didn't exactly have time to grab a road map." Polished black had just roared after them, charging through scrub and small rocks with more tenacity than sense. "Thirty-odd miles from Bixby and leaving fast, heading into the mountains, some kind of Federal Wildlife area, sign said Canyon Road - does it really matter?"
Oh no, what? Brennan thought, exasperated, as bullets started to fly. Thumbing the button to lower his window; throwing a lightning bolt through glass was generally a bad idea. And people say being a thief is dangerous. "Adam?"
"Put the pedal to the floor and head into town," the geneticist said bluntly. "Don't stop. Don't turn around. Don't go off the road-"
Talia ducked as a round starred glass over her head. "Too late for that."
"Get back on the road!"
Adam? Yelling? Unreal, Brennan thought, hands making small circles as he built up a crackling blue-white charge. "We would, but there's this little problem called heavy artillery-"
The car dropped, as if earth had suddenly disappeared out from under it. Brennan held lightning in his clenched fist as Talia fought the steering wheel; touch any bit of metal, and the bounty hunter would lose it completely. Better ground this- Leaning out the jolting window, he threw.
Lightning lashed over the nearest black hood, sparks crawling in a cascade of actinic white. The GSA car stalled, tried to start, sputtered-
Screeched, a shriek of tortured metal, as earth rose up around it in a host of pale tentacles and snapping beak.
Talia twisted the wheel to a dust-spinning stop, staring back at the upheaval of sand and steel. "Holy Mother of Ravens..."
Now human screams were joining torn metal, as dust rose and polished black was dragged roughly down.
Brennan swallowed. "What are those things?"
The feral's gaze narrowed. "I think it's just one thing." Her voice dropped. "One very big thing."
The other two GSA cars were making a bumpy - if not exactly hasty - retreat to the highway. Brennan unsnapped his seatbelt, leapt out of the car. "Come on!"
"Are you out of your mind?" But Talia was out and following, a graceful feline glide over rough ground.
The elemental ran for heaving soil, just in time to see a chrome grille spit into the air. He ducked, feeling the wind as steel nearly clipped his ear.
"Brennan! Find a rock and get on top of it. Now!"
"Lady, what a stink," Talia whispered, eyes flicking across the landscape as Brennan dug into disturbed sand. GSA agents or not, he couldn't just leave them there...
A snakelike tendril shot out of the pit, sank teeth into his black leather coat.
Inhuman strength yanked him loose, flung him twenty feet sideways. Brennan rolled with Talia's throw, casting lightning back toward snapping jaws.
A whistling shriek cut the air; leaping clear, Talia grabbed her ears.
Three bodies hit the ground; two human, one definitely not.
Shaking his head - as if that would stop the ringing - Brennan helped the cursing feral to her feet. "Is it dead?"
"Misbegotten mother of a - no," the bounty hunter snarled, with the curious flat tone he'd heard Shalimar use when his teammate hit a noise too loud for cat-sensitive ears. "I can see it breathing."
He'd take her word for it. "What was that about a rock, Adam?"
"Find a big one. Get on top of it. Stay there!"
Brennan blinked, leaning against Talia as they staggered toward a lump of granite. He'd never heard the geneticist yell like that before. "And then?"
"I... know someone local. Sort of."
"Sort of?" Scrambling up onto gray-and-black stone, Brennan raised dark brows. Adam almost never talked about his past. Who'd he know out here in the middle of nowhere? And how?
"He helped us get the initial cell samples when the problem first showed up. Eventually."
Behind them, Brennan heard a tentative screech.
He scrambled faster.
"If we're lucky, he can get there inside an hour."
It was an hour of bolts thrown, one after another, punctuated by flat cracks from Talia's 9mm. In both cases they had the same problem; the Graboid - as Adam reluctantly admitted the creature was called - had enough brains in whatever it kept for a head to keep a layer of insulating dirt between it and any possible attack. So far all they'd managed to do was strew dirty, orange-streaked glass fragments over the desert, as his bolts fused sand and Talia's shots pierced the creature's tendrils.
Well, that and completely ruin his hairstyle. No hair gel on earth could cope with this kind of static.
Talia's head snapped up. "Truck." She pointed off into the distance.
Brennan squinted, but couldn't make out so much as a puff of dust. "You sure?"
"Yes. Now he's throwing... you might want to cover your ears."
A second passed. Boom!
The Graboid shrieked in dismay, haring off toward the hills as a monstrous tan-and-desert cammo military-surplus truck appeared at the limits of Brennan's view. The horn tooted defiant rock-and-roll; Mulwray rubbed fingers through sweaty hair, trying to place it.
"Tomb Raider!" Talia thrust an exultant fist into the air. "I like him already."
The truck rumbled to a stop, passenger door missing their rock by inches as it flung open. "Get in!" the man in the Seahawks ball cap ordered. His dark hair had just started to gray at the temples, his vest was festooned with enough survival gear to outfit a Ranger squad, and the gun slung in his door holster looked like it could stop an elephant. "El Blanco won't steer clear of here long."
Didn't have to tell him twice. Brennan piled in after Talia, slamming the door as their driver gunned the engine and took off across scrubby desert. "Burt Gummer," the man introduced himself, large hands spinning the wheel to take them between larger rocks. "Light one of those and toss it back, would you?"
Those? Brennan dug into the gym bag on top of his seat. A misspent youth was enough to identify white-and-taped cylinders. And sweat harder. God, don't let me throw off any sparks. "Pipe bombs?"
"Sound drives them crazy," Burt nodded. Narrowed eyes flicked to the rearview. "Here he comes..."
"Cannon fuse," Talia murmured, tracing a finger along black cord. Emerald eyes were bright with sudden interest as she flicked open a cigarette lighter to touch flame to the fuse. Waited until it was sizzling merrily, then tossed the bomb out with casual ease. "You have a cannon?"
Burt blinked; gave the feral a look that finally registered attractive female instead of armed combatant. "Of course. Do you... have an interest in heavy artillery?"
"Comes in handy if you have to drag a bail-jumper out of a Central American state," the bounty hunter shrugged.
The survivalist's rugged face relaxed into a smile. "Guatemala?"
Talia grinned. "Just a month ago. How'd you know?"
"The way you wear your knife under that coat, my lady. It's a classic..."
Jaw dropped, Brennan listened to throw-weights, shaped charges, and comparative penetration all the way into Perfection.
He was still shaking off the shock a few hours later, barely registering the soft rumble of the Double Helix as Mutant X's jet hovered over Perfection's main (and only) street. Jodi Chang had offered him the use of the shower built into her General Store, and he'd managed to tame his hair into something approximating its usual casual disarray. "I don't believe it."
"Believe what?" Shalimar's blonde head poked out of the hatch as she dropped a ladder into reach. "Where's Talia?"
"Decided she'd stay in town a while. She figures even Eckhart wouldn't chase her out to Burt's place. Given what the locals say about it, I'd have to agree with her." Brennan climbed into the high-tech cockpit, relaxing in the blast of cool air after desert heat. Jesse at the controls, Emma standing by with a medical kit, Adam here and pacing instead of coordinating back at Sanctuary... man, he must have been worried. "What is it with ferals and heavy weapons?"
Mutant X's resident feral gave him a toothy grin. "Survival, kiddo. All about survival."
Jesse flung him a sly, sidelong look. "What's the matter, Talia dump you for a guy with a bigger arsenal?"
"Let's just drop it, okay?"
"She did!" Emma exclaimed.
Telempaths. Can't live with 'em, can't sell 'em for spare parts. "So, Adam." Stealing a chair, the elemental lifted a cocky eyebrow. "You want to tell us how you met this guy?"
Rubbing his temples with one palm, the geneticist cleared his throat. "Let's just say, the dumbest things can sound like a good idea when you've just finished defending your thesis, and you're not the first one Gummer's picked off that rock..."