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Brick nodded. “They’ve already gone to work inside the FBI, too; way I hear it, higher ups are saying you went off the reservation, bribes might have been involved. It’s a tangled mess, and the gods on high are going to be wading through it for a while, but until they do I doubt you can count on much in the way of official government support. Pharmadene was enough of a black eye all by itself. It’s now officially an embarrassing clusterfuck, and nobody wants to be caught in charge of it.”

“I don’t care about politics,” Riley said. “Major, I know you have to withdraw; I owe you a favor for riding to our rescue in the first place. I never expected you to bring quite this much . . . thunder.”

“Better too much than too little,” he said, and bared his teeth in a smile. They were big teeth, and very white. “If you get in over your head, yell. I’ll do what I can. So will some of my brothers and sisters, to the best of their ability. But you’re in good hands with Brick.”

He shook hands all around, and he was good at it—a firm, dry hand, good eye contact. Then he was in his helicopter and they were rising up into the air, an eerie combination of brute effort and mechanical grace.

“Plummer will give us maybe fifteen minutes,” Brick shouted over the dull, rolling chop of blades that hovered over them. “Get moving. I’ll escort you where we’re going.”

“Where are we going?” Bryn asked, and got a full, assessing look from the man. He was . . . intense, she had to admit. Intense in a good way—like Joe, he preferred a shaved head, which added to the richness of his brown eyes and dark skin. The goatee framed a mouth that seemed, even now, to be just on the edge of a smile.

“Classified,” he told her, and winked. “Trust me. I know where you need to get, and I’ll make sure you travel safe. That’s my job. Logistics and protection.”

“Brick owns a private security company,” Riley said. “Trust me. He’s a friend.”

“Does he understand what he’s getting into?” Patrick asked. “Brick, the people looking for us mean to kill us, and they don’t care who they have to go through to do it. They may not quite be ready for a missile battle in the skies on sovereign soil, but they’re not far from it. Are you prepared for that?”

Brick gave him a slow, wide smile. “Prepared for it, staffed for it, used to it. Mount up, kids. We’re rolling.”

He walked away as a black SUV—not too dissimilar from their own, actually—pulled up, and Bryn noticed for the first time as he climbed in that he moved a little stiffly. It wasn’t terribly noticeable, until he stepped up in the cab. The way he moved his right leg seemed . . . off.

Riley noticed, too. “Brick lost a leg in Iraq,” she said. “Took shrapnel to the head, too. They said it was a miracle he survived. He decided to put it to good use.”

“You trust him? With your life?” Patrick asked.

“Yes,” Riley said. “With all our lives. Come on.”

With that, they were on their way to their own SUV, and in less than a minute, they were on the road, surrounded by flanking vehicles, with a cloud of air support blocking the sun as they headed northeast.

• • •

Major Plummer’s helicopters peeled off half an hour later and beat the skies toward home base, which left them cruising along at a steady sixty-five miles an hour in a box formation, which rarely had to break up for traffic—wrong time of day, and wrong part of the country, although there were plenty of tractor trailers on the road. Bryn didn’t feel safe, but she also felt a whole lot less vulnerable than before. Jonas Wall—Brick—had a confidence that seemed utterly warranted. Even against Jane and her thugs.

Of course, he probably hadn’t seen what she and Riley could do, under pressure. Or Jane. How many of us are there? She hadn’t stopped wondering about that . . . because it terrified her. The whole operation that had been under way at the nursing home, colonizing the helpless bodies of the elderly in the locked facility, had been about breeding more of the nanites and siphoning them off for later implantation. Had the Fountain Group actually reached the stage where they were seeding the nanites, or was that still a goal for the future? Or was Pharmadene the only pilot program running?

She knew that with ten soldiers equipped like herself, she could have taken on a hundred men, easily. Maybe ten times as many. It was an advantage as lopsided as machine guns against Stone Age clubs. Give those same upgraded soldiers advanced weaponry, and . . . her mind just balked. Better not to imagine what could happen.

“We’ll be in Wichita soon,” Joe Fideli said. “As pimpin’ awesome as the fleet is, are they really going to stick with us in the city, too?”

“They’ll flank us and shadow, but they won’t be right on our bumpers,” Riley said. “Once we leave Wichita we’ll re-form the group until Topeka. Brick will have replacements ready to meet us there, so these will peel off and head in for relief.”

“Damn,” Joe said. “Maybe I need to work for this guy. I love organization, and you don’t get it too often in private security. And Bryn, love you, but so far my association with you hasn’t exactly paid my mortgage, much less put my kids through college.”

“I thought you were doing it because you loved me, Joe.”

“Well, that, too. But the hazard pay invoice is going to be a bitch.” Joe grinned a little madly. “Bet Manny’s saying that, too.”

She could only imagine. The rental on his bulletproof SUV alone would run into the tens of thousands. “Dude, I already gave you a job at my funeral home.” A funeral home she had owned and operated, albeit under government control and funding—because they needed to track the progress of those being administered the Returné drug, like Riley and others who’d been illegally brought back by Mr. Fairview, who’d once owned the place. She’d been in charge, more or less, of taking care of those who’d survived the revival process—and making sure they took their shots, stayed sane, and didn’t attract too much attention. It had been part of the deal.

Now she guessed all that was over, which was sad, because she’d been . . . happy. As happy as a dead woman could be, she supposed. She’d liked the work, the calm, steady, useful work of caring for those who were gone—and those who’d been returned against their will through the magic of super-science. She’d been den mother and counselor to many of those who’d been addicted, against their will, to Returné. She’d seen some adapt, and some give up.

The consequences of giving up were pretty horrific, because the drug was designed to keep you going at any cost, and as its nanites lost efficiency, you simply . . . decomposed. But stayed alive and aware until the bitter end.

I’m not going out that way, she promised herself. If necessary, she’d make Patrick or Joe swear to load her into a crematory oven and burn her to ashes. It would be awful, but relatively fast, at least.

Second thought, maybe she should ask Riley to do it, and they could make a mutual destruction pact. Riley would understand.

Riley’s cell phone rang, and she answered it, listened, and made a monosyllabic response. Then she hung up and said, “Heads up. We’ve got word of some kind of intercept being planned. Brick’s on it, but keep your eyes open—” It was prime territory for it, Bryn thought; the narrowing road out here in the country meant that their escort stayed ahead and behind, but couldn’t fully box them in.

But the flat Kansas fields didn’t seem to offer any kind of obvious threat, either.

They watched tensely for anything big enough to present a threat, and for miles—almost fifty miles—they saw nothing, unless the enemy had taken to recruiting thermal-surfing hawks overhead as surveillance.

Up ahead, Brick’s SUV flashed its lights, and took an exit, heading for the access road. Bryn wondered why, but then she caught a look at Joe’s gas gauge—they were running low, too. And the sign they passed said LAST GAS FOR 150 MILES, so she supposed it was sensible enough. The Shell station up ahead looked ancient and deserted, and it was on the other side of a train track.

She was looking out for everything, but somehow, she forgot to watch out for roadside IEDs.

Bryn saw the car abandoned by the side of the road, half in the ditch about twenty-five feet from the tracks, and even with her experiences in Iraq, her personal experience at being nastily surprised by such things, she didn’t immediately key in on it as a threat. It was positioned crookedly, one tire off, and there was one of those Day-Glo stickers on it that showed the local police had tagged it for towing. Entirely normal, and any other time and day in the USA, entirely safe.

But not today.

She didn’t even see it go up; her head was turned away, checking the other side of the road. She didn’t hear it, either, because before the sound reached her and rolled over her like a tank, the impact had already thrown the SUV up in the air and flipped it partly over, and her body was too busy trying to sort out all of the unnatural inputs—sound, light, heat, gravity twisting out of shape, pressure, pain.

And then the SUV landed on its side with a boom like cannon fire—tinny in her shocked ears—and rolled over on its top in a gritty chorus of bulletproof glass warping and cracking. It didn’t have enough momentum to keep tumbling, so it rocked to a stop, and for a second Bryn held still, waiting for her body to tell her its status.

Good to go, apparently. Aches and pains that she’d have normally felt faded under adrenaline, and besides, the nanites were good for one thing, and that was healing damage.

The cabin was full of smoke, and she heard coughing. “Patrick?” Her fingers scrabbled for the seat belt release, and she found it and pressed. That dropped her onto her neck and shoulder, and she slithered around over the broken glass to ease the strain. “Joe? Riley?”

“Riley’s good,” came the agent’s voice, and then Riley’s body slipped out of the upside-down restraints and rolled next to her.