It wasn’t good.
Riley was pinned down in her bed by a man in a lab coat armed with a scalpel. He was an older man, maybe in his early fifties, with a graying fringe of hair that clung to the curve of his skull and desperate dark eyes shining behind wire-frame glasses.
The scalpel was at Riley’s neck, pressing hard enough to draw a red bubble that burst and ran threads down her pale skin. She was absolutely still, but her eyes were open and burning.
“I may not be able to get her head completely off before you stop me, but I’ll do a fair job of trying,” the doctor said to Bryn. There was a glittering mist of sweat on his brow, but his surgical hand was absolutely steady. “A blade this sharp will make the soft tissue part like silk. Back off.”
“Riley?” she asked.
“Dr. Ziegler, I presume,” Riley said, and Ziegler looked down at her with an almost comical surprise. “You’re coming with us.”
He got in one slice that sent a fountain of blood rushing for the ceiling, but Riley had hold of his wrist by then, and she was rolling him off the bed and to the floor, and Bryn joined her fast. Together, they wrestled the scalpel away from him, and Riley sat back against the tile wall, gagging and holding a hand to her sliced throat.
“She’s dead,” Ziegler said, and bared his teeth. “And you won’t get anything from me!”
“Who exactly do you think we are?” Bryn asked him. “Riley?”
Riley gave her a silent, shaky thumbs up. Ziegler did a double take that was just about priceless in its sincerity, and watched as Riley’s arterial blood loss lessened, then stopped.
“Oh God,” he whispered. “Oh God.”
“Not hardly,” Bryn said. “Up. We’re going.”
She grabbed a stitching kit and bandages on the way out, not for Riley, but for Joe, who was looking legitimately green now. He took the medical supplies and led the way out. Bryn had the doctor in an armlock, and hustled him out as fast as possible. The people in the waiting room had either vanished, or were trying to be invisible, like the receptionist, who was crouched down on the floor looking terrified.
Riley was right behind them.
It was a long hundred feet to the SUV, and Bryn handed the doctor over to Riley as she dug the keys from her pocket and unlocked it; Ziegler went into the backseat with Riley and Joe, and Bryn took the driver’s position. She peeled out fast, checking for any police lights, but nothing popped in the mirrors.
Apparently, responding to an altercation at the free clinic wasn’t a hot priority. Thankfully.
“Hey, Doc,” Joe said. “Whatever happened to first, do no harm? Isn’t that still a thing?”
“Screw you, you freaks—” Dr. Ziegler’s voice faded as he looked at Joe more closely. “You’re not healing.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
“You’re not one of them?”
“I’m not even sure who them is right now.”
Ziegler looked confused now. And scared. “You—you’re not with that psychopath Jane?”
“Definitely not,” Bryn said. “But you’ve definitely got my interest, Doctor. Please, go on.”
“Your friend needs attention.”
“Then do it. There’s a suture kit right there, and Betadine here in the first aid kit on the seat. But talk while you work. We may not have long.”
The doctor didn’t fuss about it; with Riley’s silent help, he opened the suture kit, gloved up and threaded the needle, then washed Joe’s arm slash with Betadine before he began the handiwork. “Sorry about the pain,” he said. “No local.”
“It’s cool,” Joe said. “One thing I love about docs—they might slice you up, but they sew you back together afterward.”
“You’ve lost a fairly significant amount of blood. You’ll want to rest.”
“Does that really look likely to you?” Bryn said, and got silence in response. “Doctor, we got your name from decrypted Fountain Group materials. What is it exactly that has you involved with them?”
“Research,” he said, and wiped his forehead with his sleeve, then continued to stitch. Bryn tried to hold the truck steady, and Riley focused a flashlight on Joe’s arm as the doctor worked. “I’ve been involved in the program for years. But I got out.”
“Let’s get specific,” Bryn said. “Tell me about the Fountain Group. Names, places, details.”
“I can’t,” he said. “They’ll kill me. They’ll kill my family. They’ll kill everyone I ever met.”
Riley must have recovered enough to speak, because she said, “Too late, Doctor. They’ll know we have you, and that makes you toxic already.” Her voice had a hideous hoarseness to it, and that leant a scary conviction to her words. “It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? That’s why you were hiding out at the free clinic. I can’t imagine it’s your usual digs.”
He shuddered and avoided her stare, preferring to talk to Joe’s surgical fix, apparently. “I was out of work. Fountain Group recruited me for a new program.”
“And exactly what were you doing?”
“Don’t be a dick, Doc,” Joe said. “You know what she’s asking you.”
“I’m not answering any more of your questions,” Ziegler said, and tied off his stitches—which, from Bryn’s seat up front, looked surprisingly expert. “Just let me out.”
“No,” Riley said, and the word was as rough as gravel in a blender. She didn’t look in a forgiving mood, and as blood-drenched as she was, she looked more dead than alive. “You’re telling us everything you know. One way or another. So just say it now, and save yourself the pain.”
Bryn was almost sure that was an empty threat, but it didn’t sound that way, and Ziegler seemed to take it very seriously. Riley took the rest of the suture kit away from him, and he folded his hands in his lap and looked scared and miserable.
Too bad. Bryn couldn’t summon up much sympathy.
“My name isn’t Ziegler,” he said softly. “It’s Calvin Thorpe. I was in charge of the Revival team at Pharmadene Pharmaceuticals before I—before things went wrong and I left.”
“Left,” Bryn said. “You mean ran. They didn’t let anyone leave alive if they could help it.”
He nodded, eyes still fixed on his gloved hands. “Someone helped me out. A friend inside the company. He—helped me fake my death. I changed my name and tried to find work, but Fountain Group found me first. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the filthy process of bringing back those abominations.” He hesitated, and then said in an unconvinced voice, “No offense.”
“None taken,” Bryn said in the same tone. “You’re a specialist in reviving the dead during the administration of the nanite drug—do I have that right?”
“I administer the drugs, measure the results, do the follow-ups. I was the first to raise the issue of . . . maladjustments.”
“What kind of maladjustments?”
“Like that psychopath Jane,” he said. “I nearly succeeded in killing her. If they’d let me finish my work, I would have done it.”
Bryn braked and steered the truck to the curb, because her heart had started racing, and she was no longer sure she had the attention span for driving while talking. “Killed her,” she repeated. “You mean, before she took on the upgrades?”
He gave her a frowning glance, then looked away as if she was something too horrible to behold full-on. “I mean that I tried to kill her last month,” he said. “Upgrades and all. And I could have done it if they hadn’t spotted me. I had to go under again. I was hoping to try again soon.”
There was a heavy moment of silence, and then Joe said, “Doc, exactly how do you plan on killing Jane? Because I thought that was a pretty tall order.”
“It is,” he said, and for the first time, Bryn saw the arrogance of one of the men who’d decided to play God with human lives. “But essentially, what runs her—all of them—is just a biomechanical program. It can be disrupted. And it can be killed. And I know how to do it.”
“Who else knows?”
“No one,” Thorpe said, and glared at Joe. “Which is why you’d better not threaten me again, if you plan to take that bitch down. I’m your only hope.”
“We need a safe house,” Riley croaked out. “Right now. We can’t take a chance keeping him out in the open like this. What the hell were you doing, out in public? Don’t you know how hard they’ll kill you?”
“Of course I know!” Thorpe shot back, and clenched his fists on his thighs. “But I can’t hide in a hole. While I’m alive, I’ll help the living. That’s all I can do to make up for—for what I’ve done, helping release this terrible plague.”
“It’s not a plague,” Bryn said. “It’s not contagious.”
He laughed hollowly, and when he met her eyes in the mirror, his were haunted and more than a touch insane. “No?” he asked softly. “You don’t think so? Because it’s just a matter of time. A few mods. And then we’re all just . . . lost. I helped make that happen. I deserve to die. But not yet. Not until I take Jane with me, and as many of them”—his glance included Bryn and Riley in that—“as I can.”
“Yeah, that’s real noble,” Joe said, “but you’re not going to do it from the inside of a plastic bag in a landfill, so let’s get you under cover.”
“I’m open to suggestions!” Bryn said. “Driving aimlessly probably isn’t the best solution.”
Joe took out his phone—Bryn realized he still had it on—and hung up the call, then dialed again. “Yo, lady,” he said. “How’s tricks? Yeah, still alive. We have Ziegler. Well, Dr. Calvin Thorpe, turns out, so look into that for me. But more to the point, we’d like to please not get hate-murdered out here by Jane, if she’s sniffing around after us, so . . . any suggestions?”