PRIORITY ONE • by Kelly Castillo

“If we keep going, we can make it by sundown. We’ll be okay.” I pull her along, knowing our only hope is to get to the bus station before nightfall. If we have to stay the night in a terminal, they’ll catch up. Shay’s face will be all over the evening news. Local authorities will have a face, if not a name. We have to cross over into neutral territory as soon as possible.

“No, I can’t—”

“If you want to get out of here alive, you will.” I don’t mean to snap, but it comes out pretty harsh as we race through snapping vines and biting branches.

“Maddox, stop!” She pulls up short, jarring my arm. Her fingers slip out of mine. She takes a breath like she’s about to speak, but then doubles over and is sick. She’s in shock. I wait as the retching is broken up by sobs. Her body contorts like an animal, emptying its contents on the forest floor.

For the first time, the magnitude of what we witnessed hits me. Her brother is dead. The Underground’s leading O’Rourke family is gone, except for the last living child sitting in front of me, puking her guts out. Shit. All urgency about making it to town instantly dissipates from my mind.

When she’s done being sick, she lists onto her side, dissolving into tears. I know nothing I say or do will help, so I bite down hard and wait. Her pain begins to sink into me, slowly, like the sun setting behind the thick canopy of leaves. I understand what she’s lost, but we’re running out of time.

“Shay… I’m so sorry.” I’ve never seen her like this. She’s always put the mission first, regardless of how it affects her. It’s what makes her one of the most capable, most dangerous assets The Underground has ever trained. It’s a complete one-hundred-and-eighty degree transformation. I have no clue how to get her back on her feet. But I have to find a way. We’ve accomplished a Priority One Mission — we stole time-sensitive intel that could end the struggle in a matter of days.

“We have to keep going. Getting out of here before nightfall is our only chance—”

“You should go. You’ve got the intel. You can put faces to the names. You can finish this thing.”

I wrap my hand around her arm and yank, pulling her limp body up. “I’m not leaving you here. This is the end. We’ve got everything we need for a full infiltration. We get this back to HQ, and it’s all over.”

“Then there’s nothing left for me. It makes no difference what I do. It’ll happen either way.” She shakes me off.

“What are you talking about? Shay, this is what we’ve been fighting for! This has been The Underground’s priority since before you’re father joined! I know you can’t see it now but there’s—”

“You think I never considered the end game? That our lives were only as valuable as we were useful? No, I knew what I was signing up for. I knew I was being played for my connection to all of this. And I asked for one thing, Maddox. I asked them to protect my little brother. Turns out, his death was more valuable to The Underground than his life. Just like my father’s!”

Her voice twists into something choked and ragged, her curls plastered to her face by tears and sweat. Her eyes are shining, but not in a pleasant way. And I don’t know what to say anymore.

“I’m not going back. They don’t get to claim me, like recovered property. Like a crucial piece of their courageous crusade. Because we all know that’s a charade. They don’t need me there to watch our world descend into chaos, again. And make no mistake, that is what will happen. No, they got what they needed from me. I’m no longer obligated to them.”

“Your family died for this. And you’re just walking away?”

I watch my words sink in. Her jaw hardens, her eyes turn to steel. She pulls her hand out of mine. “Let me see the drive.”

“Shay?”

She steps away, and before I know what’s happening, she draws her gun. “Give me the damn drive, Maddox.”

I keep my eyes on her as I pull out the cell-phone sized black box. The gun doesn’t waver. I hold out the drive, but she doesn’t take it. She aims the weapon with one hand and taps her portable data hub to the drive with the other. It beeps three times before she pulls away — she’s cloned the drive.

“Shay,” I snarl. She knows the position she’s putting me in. Her eyes apologize even as she tucks the data hub into her pocket and hefts her pack.

“What do you think will happen when you turn it in, Maddox? My father joined The Underground because it was a rebellion. When they didn’t have a name, and they operated underground. He never wanted power. He wanted change. I never would’ve followed in his footsteps if I’d known what it had become.”

“You’re turning traitor?” My blood goes cold. Her features crumple, and tears stream down her face.

“I’m finishing what my family started. Give the General the drive. The Underground will move fast. I’ll give them forty-eight hours. And then I’m going to burn it all to the ground.”

“Shay—”

My shock and desperation propels me forward. She fires a warning shot off to my left. I’m temporarily deaf, but I can see the humanity leave her eyes.

“Just go!” she screams.

I shake my head in disbelief. I don’t know why I’m in this, if not for her. But she’s not the Shay I came up with anymore. And she’s not giving me a choice.

So I turn and run.


Kelly Castillo is a college student from Southern California. Writing is her creative outlet, and her favorite escape from civil engineering studies.


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