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I scanned the room I was about to break into from the inside of the ventilation shaft. The duct was large and opened through the side of a wall, giving me a clear view of a big concrete area—the perfect space for testing and developing cutting-edge military technology.
I drew a slow breath through my nose, giving myself one last moment to think about the alternative. This Japanese research facility was mere miles from a U.S. military base, which meant this was the closest I’d come to American soil since I was kidnapped by the North Koreans when I was eight. From the moment my KATO handler assigned me this mission, I had thoughts of using it to escape. But I knew I could never pull it off. After nine years of teaching and training, KATO thought they had me brainwashed to be their ideal spy. And while I had more independent thoughts than they could ever comprehend, they did control me in other ways. No matter how desperately I wanted to break free, I knew I could never get away with defying them.
I pushed the dangerous thoughts away and forced myself to focus. If I didn’t come back with the files for Project Pegasus, KATO would go out of their way to remind me just how much they owned me.
The duct I was in opened up onto a ramp, which led to a platform with a row of computers that overlooked the open testing area. Those computers had what I needed. I leaned back and put my feet up against the grate, preparing to kick it in. Before I could, a rope fell from the ceiling, dangling in front of me. A few seconds later, a tall, broad figure rappelled down.
I slid away from the grate, doing my best to hide in the shadows. I caught a glimpse of his face and knew exactly who it was.
His code name was Scorpion. He worked out of the American-based International Defense Agency—the IDA. They were KATO’s number one enemy, and Scorpion was mine. We had squared off several times in the past, trading punches and wounds and barely escaping. In almost every instance, I’d got what I’d come for and left him empty-handed. Still, he was a complication.
I quickly thought of ways to modify my plan. It didn’t matter how many problems came up, KATO was still expecting a successful mission. It had been a while since I’d dealt with the consequences of disappointing them, and I wanted to keep it that way.
Scorpion did a quick sweep of the room, seeming to look for anything that might be out of place.
“Everything looks clear so far,” he said, using the communication system in his ear to report back to his headquarters. KATO didn’t give their agents that kind of support.
Scorpion slowly stepped away from me and headed up the ramp. He plugged a drive into the computer and started typing.
“I’m not seeing any Project Pegasus,” he said into his comm. I swallowed. He was here for the same thing I was. “Oh no, now I’ve got it.” He kept typing, his fingers sliding effortlessly over the keyboard.
I glanced around the room. The only way Scorpion could get off that platform was if he came back down the ramp. And if he did that, he’d have to pass by my air duct.
“I’ve got the files copied and the computer wiped.” He unplugged the drive from the computer. “I’m moving to the extraction point.”
I sat back, realigning my feet against the vent and leaning to pull my gun out of my holster. I waited until he had stepped just in front of me, then put all of my effort into kicking out the grate. It flew out of the wall, completely nailing Scorpion’s upper body. He was so stunned that the force of the hit sent him flying, knocking the round metal rail loose from the top joint as he fell into the open testing area.
I popped effortlessly out of the vent, slid under the railing, and landed a few feet away from him. Scorpion had just got to his feet. He recovered quickly. He had his gun out of his holster and trained on me, just as mine was on him, before I could get any more of a jump on him. I glanced at the floor between us and saw the drive lying on the ground.
He caught my eye and smirked. “Go ahead, Viper.” He was taunting me. “Take it.”
I eyed him carefully as I edged closer to the drive, waiting for him to make a move.
I was two steps from the device—and four steps from him—when he finally struck. In one quick motion he reached for the loosened railing and swung it in my direction. It hit my arm and sent my gun flying across the room.
I launched myself at him, not giving Scorpion the chance to get a clean shot. I landed a punch to his jaw with one hand and used the other to knock his gun to the floor. It dropped close to the drive. He got in a hit to my stomach while I threw one to his throat, but neither of us slowed down. I ducked a blow to the head and spun to ram my elbow into his chest. We fell into a fierce rhythm, taking turns between blocking and landing our hits. I did my best to back up as we fought, putting myself next to the drive and Scorpion’s gun. I could see the drive at my feet, and I knew exactly how I was going to get it. I picked my moment, then faked a move to Scorpion’s right. He took the bait, leaning in that direction and giving me the perfect shot at his left arm. I grabbed his wrist and twisted it behind his back as quickly as I could, not stopping until I heard it crack. He stumbled in pain and I used his momentum to push him forward. I had the drive in my pocket and his gun in my hand before he could even turn around.
We were both panting. Scorpion and I had always been evenly matched—it was the only reason we had both walked away from our previous battles. And in each of those instances, this was the moment I was afraid might happen. That one time, I would truly gain the upper hand. And now I had.
My gun was on him, and KATO’s directive demanded that enemy agents be put down at every opportunity. He wouldn’t be the first enemy agent I’d killed, and the fact that he had started backing away told me he knew that.
I didn’t want to kill him, but I pulled the trigger anyway—I had to.
Although, when I did, I pivoted the gun to the right just enough to put the two bullets through his shoulder instead of his chest. It was a quick and subtle move. One that would no doubt be written off by the IDA as luck. But I knew the truth, and I was terrified KATO would too.
Scorpion cried out in pain as I jumped into the ventilation shaft. I didn’t look back. I had to move as if I thought I had killed him. My heart pounded with a furious fear as I worked my way to my extraction point. I had never disregarded a directive before, but other agents had, and KATO always found out.
Yet, in the back of my mind I couldn’t shake the thought that maybe—just maybe—if I could get away with this, then I might have a shot at finding a way out.