The sound hit her a second later, rippling in a physical wave that shattered eardrums, and as the brutal glow still shimmered in the air, Bryn Davis’s shredded body died.
Her last thought was incoherent and strange.
I miss you.
She saw Patrick’s face, just a flash, and then it was all gone.
Coming back wasn’t fun. Bryn hadn’t expected it to be; she’d gone into this on instinct, and instinct had a fatalistic sort of acceptance to the pain that she’d earned. At first, it was all instinct—whimpering, twitching, just an overwhelming sense of the world rushing over her, sweeping her back into a bloody swirl of agony and fury, and it took time for her conscious mind to fight its way to the front and be able to begin to analyze the inputs.
There were a lot. And they weren’t good news.
Sight came online before hearing. She knew they were speaking to her, but she couldn’t lip-read; it was simply too much effort. Instead, she watched Joe’s face for clues about how bad this was going to be.
He was pale, and his face was set into a hard mask. So, presumably not very good at all. Riley was on her other side. She became aware that her bones were resetting, slowly. Usually they snapped together like Legos, but this was more of a . . . bending, a slow knitting that felt torturously deliberate. Her lungs were full of blood that was being pushed up, out through her mouth. Muscles twitched and convulsed as they repaired themselves.
The nanites had a lot to do. But, incredibly, they were doing it. She’d given herself only about a twenty percent chance, tops, of surviving the blast, but damned if the little monsters weren’t pulling it off. She could almost like them, in that moment.
She coughed out a massive amount of blood that left Riley and Joe exchanging horrified looks, but Riley toweled her face and hair clean. The water on her burning skin felt as good as paradise. Running a fever, she thought, and almost laughed, because a little cold was the least of her problems, wasn’t it? She coughed again, and this time managed to drag in some sweet, life-giving air.
Riley patted her shoulder in congratulations. When Bryn concentrated on the movement of her lips, she thought she was saying, Good, Bryn, just breathe. One thing was for sure: if Riley Block looked shaken, Bryn had truly been on the edge of permanent, gruesome death.
She wasn’t sure she ought to find it quite as oddly funny as she did, that deep concern on Riley’s face. But hysteria was probably about as good a way to deal with this horror as screaming, and a lot more fun. There’s that PTSD, she thought, and was instantly sobered up. Dying over and over was bound to have a cost—mental, if not physical. What had Patrick said about Jane? She hadn’t been the cruel bitch she was now, not at first. It took time.
It took agony, and the wearing away of sanity against the hard rocks of immortality.
Her eardrums healed, finally, and sound crashed in raw and hard, and she almost cried out just from the shock of it. Everything sounded wrong, and too loud, and vertigo hit her, hard, even though she was flat on her back on the ground. She gulped in tearful breaths, heard the uneven, too-fast beat of her heart, and felt the last important, load-bearing bones seal together. Just ribs and fingers and toes left now. They’d heal up in a bit.
“Do you have it?” she said. Her voice sounded raw and garbled, and she tried again, and again, until finally Riley got the message and held up something bloody, wrapped in duct tape.
“This?” she asked. Bryn nodded. It probably looked like a convulsion. Felt a little like one, too. “It survived, Bryn. You did it.”
Bryn shook free of Joe’s hand and rolled over on her side, then shakily pushed herself up to a sitting position. That was hard. It was only then that she realized she was lying on the hard shoulder of the road, surrounded by blood like one of those old-time tape outlines from old cop shows. Blood dripped from her hair, from her clothes, and she smelled the hot coppery tang of it everywhere.
Then she smelled the smoke, because what was left of the billboard—a couple of ragged poles and collapsed wreckage—was burning with furnace-level intensity. It looked ghastly. She didn’t see any sign of Calvin Thorpe, but she expected that if she searched around, she’d find pieces of him, here and there. Not big ones.
He was right. It had probably been very quick.
Riley said something to Joe, and he jogged back to the truck, which was idling nearby; he came back with a stack of fresh clothes and a big jug of water. Bryn, with Riley’s help, stripped off the tattered rags of her clothes and stood in her burned and shredded panties and bra to pour the water over herself, washing off the worst of the blood and grit before she threw on the loose jeans and blue work shirt. Her shoes were mostly intact.
There were a lot of small, round metal objects on the road. Larger than shotgun pellets. Ball bearings. There were also nails, bent and broken and scorched, littering the road as well. They’d built a first-class dirty IED, all right.
It made her light-headed to think about all of that shrapnel tearing through her flesh and bone, turning her into a shredded bag of meat. What the concussion didn’t rupture in the first place. God, she hated bombs.
“You okay?” Riley asked, and then gave her a very pale imitation of a smile. “As much as possible, I mean.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s go.” Her voice still sounded as if she’d gargled with those nails, and she hoped it would get better. The nanites were focusing on the important things first, and being comfortable didn’t really figure into their priorities.
The first hunger pangs hit her after she took three steps, and doubled her over like a cast-iron fist in the guts. Bryn stumbled, choking, and felt something feral clawing its way out from inside her. The nanites needed fuel. They were overheating, operating beyond their capacity.
Food. Now. NOW.
Joe stepped down out of the cab of the truck, and before she could think what she was doing, before she could even try to think, she was lunging at him.
Riley got in the way. Thank God. Bryn fought her, hard and violently, trying to get not to Joe but to the fuel that Joe represented—the raw energy stored in that fat and blood and muscle and tissue.
Riley wrestled her down to the road and held her there, and after a few minutes, forced something into her open mouth.
Meat. Sweet, salty meat, tough and chewy . . . salami from the meat store in Kansas City. She chewed and swallowed with mechanical intensity until it was all gone, and the red eased its grip on her just a bit, until she could signal to Riley that she was back in control.
Riley didn’t trust that, and kept hold of her, but let her have another big chunk of the salami. She chewed and swallowed again, a process that had nothing of pleasure to it and everything of desperation. She ate at least three huge hunks of the stuff before suddenly the need just . . . switched off, like a circuit being cut.
She burped, mumbled an apology, and handed the rest back to Riley, who offered her—incongruously—a napkin. Bryn used it to wipe the greasy residue from her mouth and hands.
“Sexy,” Riley deadpanned. “Better?”
Bryn nodded. The taste of meat was metallic and sweet in her mouth, and she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to give an actual answer in words. She was still shaking, but that was terror, not hunger.
She hoped she’d never get the two of those confused. The idea of hurting Joe Fideli brought tears to her eyes, and she couldn’t look at him as, with Riley’s help, she walked to the truck and climbed inside.
Lonnie wasn’t looking too happy anymore. He seemed scared, flinching from meeting her eyes, and he was only too happy to put the truck in gear as Joe settled in next to him while Bryn and Riley sat on the bunk behind them. “You—you were dead,” he said. “Not just wounded. I saw you, lady—you were fucked.”
Bryn didn’t have the energy to try to convince him otherwise. He’d seen it, he knew it, and it terrified him. Fair enough. It had spooked Joe, too; she saw it in the wary way he studied her, as if he was waiting for her to turn feral again. She gave him a shaky, apologetic sorry, and he nodded. Not like he quite trusted her, but as if he understood she was trying.
Lonnie’s wide brown eyes were staring at her from the rearview mirror. He looked away when she glanced his way. She knew she ought to feel something about that—feel sorry, maybe, that he saw her as such a monster. But truthfully, it didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered that much.
Nothing except that blood-smeared syringe in its nest of duct tape, that Riley was still holding.
Joe said, quietly, “Lonnie, focus. You’re nearly done with us—I promise you that. We just need you to take us the rest of the way and we’re done. Another two hours, tops.” He patted Lonnie on the shoulder, brother to brother, and Lonnie didn’t flinch from him, at least. Though he did shoot him a doubting look.
“You—you’re going to let me go, like you promised, right?”
“Absolutely,” Joe said. “And I want you to do me a favor, man, I want you to call in a 911 on the fire when we’re pulling away, okay? Just tell them the billboard’s on fire and you’re not sure what happened. You would normally call a thing like that in, right?”
“Right,” Lonnie agreed. He took a deep breath, and nodded. “Okay. Okay, we can do this.”
“Bet your ass,” Joe said. “Now let’s roll.”
Lonnie engaged the gears, and the truck growled forward. The blood-angel that Bryn had left on the road surface disappeared under the tires, and then they were past the smoke, to the clear air beyond. The truck was moving at decent speed by the time they crested the next hill, and beyond it was . . . a normal world. Hawks soared the skies, planes skimmed the roof of the world, and on the ground it was just blank, empty road and countryside, with some scrub houses in the distance. They’d probably have seen the smoke, Bryn thought. Maybe even the explosion.
Lonnie made his emergency call, and reported it as simply as possible; his voice was shaking, but that probably wasn’t too unusual for someone calling in a thing like that, especially on a long-haul drive. He looked relieved when it was over, she thought, and settled in behind the wheel to drive.