And nobody had ever swallowed it in five minutes flat, ripping into it like a wild dog.
Bryn threw a generous tip on the table, and got out fast. She stopped again in the restroom to clean herself up. In the harsh lights, she looked—surprisingly fine. She wiped off the remaining grease and splatters of juice, but she felt good. Better than good. She felt . . . great.
I can do this, she told her reflection. A steak a day. Or any kind of meat, as long as it isn’t . . . alive. It’s strange, but I can do it. There’s a way to deal with this. I don’t have to be a monster.
But she couldn’t shake the expression she’d seen on the waitress, either. Her definition of in control might be someone else’s of insane. Either way, it was going to be hard to masquerade in normal life now, when hunger drove her to these kinds of extremes. And how often would it do that? How much would she have to eat? She’d have to ask some hard questions of Riley to find out, but she suspected that the amount of fuel she took on would have quite a lot to do with how much effort she put out.
And considering they were right now on the unprepared, unarmed side of a war . . . effort would probably be considerable.
You can’t run away from it, Bryn. This is what you are. Deal with it, because it isn’t going away.
She went to the pay phones outside in the hallway—ancient things, but still working, thankfully—and phoned back to the motel. She asked for the room where they’d been staying, and was put through, and there was only half a ring before the call connected and Riley Block said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Bryn?”
“You knew it’d be me.”
“Of course I knew—I’m not an idiot. Where are you?”
“At a truck stop off Route 70,” Bryn said. “I ate an entire seventy-two ounce steak in five minutes. I think I set the new record.”
Riley was quiet for a moment. “Are you sure that was smart?”
“Almost certainly wasn’t. But I couldn’t—I wasn’t sure I could control it, Riley. Around Patrick. Around Joe. And I can’t stand that. I needed to eat, and waiting around for a trail bar and OJ wasn’t going to cut it. You understand.”
“You think it’s safer out there? You’re going to attract attention ordering those kinds of meals; you know that.”
“I know,” Bryn said. “But I had to have a little bit of time to myself. Just to test myself. To know—know if I can really control myself.”
“I can see that. But you can’t be out there on your own; you’re going to get hurt.”
“I know,” she said. “That’s why I’m calling.”
“We’re ready to leave here now,” Riley said. “We’ll pick you up. Stay in plain sight in the restaurant, and we’ll find you. Have some pie. Live a little. It’s not like you have to worry about your weight. No matter what you eat, it’ll burn right off.”
“Bright side to everything, then.”
“Damn right,” Riley said, and hung up.
Bryn went back to the restaurant, took her seat again, and ordered a piece of apple pie à la mode. Because Riley was right about the calories, this time her body was perfectly capable of enjoying the taste of a good pie. And it was good. Extraordinary. Or maybe that was just all her newly upgraded senses coming online.
She was tempted to order a second piece, but saw a large black van pulling into the parking lot. It flashed its lights twice, and she started to get out of her booth.
The waitress blocked her path. She was flanked by a tall, skinny man in a flannel shirt and jeans with a camera. “Just a sec, hon. We need to get your picture for the wall. This is Matt. He’s the manager here.”
Bryn was able to get her hand up just in time to block the flash, and shoved forward, knocking the waitress and the manager—who was still angling for a shot—out of her path as she headed for the door. “Wait!” the manager yelled. “It’s part of the deal. We have to get a picture of anybody who eats the steak. Wait—”
She didn’t. She was out the front doors, across the parking lot, and moving without pause into the black van, whose sliding door had opened for her. Bryn slammed it shut and said, “Drive,” and Joe Fideli, behind the wheel, put the van in gear and accelerated smoothly away onto the access road.
There was a moment of silence, and Bryn looked around. Everyone—absolutely everyone, even Joe, in the rearview mirror—was studying her.
“Enjoy your meal?” Manny asked.
Riley was watching her, too, and after a bare second, she gave an almost imperceptible nod.
Bryn sighed. “I have to tell you something. You’re not going to like it.”
She was certainly right about that last part.
• • •
Bryn chose her words carefully, because she knew what she said next would change everything, forever. And she also knew that Riley was using her as a stalking horse . . . and that whatever she said about her own condition, she couldn’t implicate Riley.
“You know that the version of Returné I originally was given needed daily shots,” she began. “Manny improved the formula and edited out some of the programming to get past the less fun aspects, like being a slave operated by remote control. But the best he could do was extend the amount of time needed between shots.”
Manny said, “You say that like someone else has done better.”
“They have,” she said. “Back there at Pharmadene. But it’s a little bit more complicated. You know they were engineering the drug originally for the military, and the military had a problem with the shot-a-day barrier, which—along with the chancy conversion rate—was why they canceled their support. What we didn’t know was that the project was still under way by a rogue department working for outside contractors, and that was what I stumbled into at that nursing home . . . a farm for advanced nanites, incubated in the unconscious bodies of people who didn’t have anyone to look out for them.” She still had hideous flashbacks of that place—of the quiet horrors that went on there.
“We know all that,” Manny said. “What does this have to do with you running out for a fucking steak dinner?”
Riley turned her head toward Bryn, very slightly, but didn’t make eye contact. Didn’t give any kind of a signal.
“When Annie and I went to Pharmadene for safety, we found out they’d made headway on the military priorities,” Bryn said. “We found out . . . the hard way. I’m infected with the upgrades now. I don’t need shots anymore. What I do need—desperately—is high protein meals. So you can’t just stash me in a motel with a granola bar from now on. Sorry, but it’s a . . . medical condition.”
There was a frozen, electric moment of silence.
“Upgrades,” Manny finally repeated. “That’s why you survived that fight at Pharmadene. But what do you mean, you don’t need shots?”
She took a deep breath, and took the plunge. “They’re self-replicating, the upgraded nanites. When they mature, they’ll reproduce, and that colony will need to migrate to a new host.”
Silence again, heavy this time, and finally, Pansy Taylor was the one who spoke up. “Okay, if nobody else wants to, I’ll say it. What you mean is that you’re infected, and you’re going to be infectious. And when you say you need protein, you mean you need meat.”
“Jesus Christ,” Joe Fideli said. He sounded grim, and he looked it, too. “Fucking eggheads. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency engineered the same tech into their robot battle dog. Official press release says that it could power itself from available proteins, but nobody who looked it over was fooled. It eats corpses. Or, theoretically, live prey, if it can bring it down. That’s what you’re afraid of. You’re craving meat, because that’s how the nanites are powered. You’re afraid you’re going to . . . what, eat us?”
“I—” She couldn’t lie. “Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. But I needed food, and I couldn’t take the risk of staying with you. Manny, the incubation period is thirty days, so I think I’ve got until then to figure out how to stop this thing. I don’t want to spread it. I promise—I don’t. But I’m going to need your help.”
“Yeah,” he said, “you damn sure do.”
And he drew his gun and shot her in the head.
Bryn saw the flash, but she never heard the sound; it was far too late.
The world blacked out.
When it came back, it did so in a thick, red rush of pain—a cascading signal that swept through her brain and out through every part of her body. The machine, coming back online, and bringing with it twists of agony that curled through her like whip-cracks.
She was aware she was convulsing—and then it was over, and she sucked in a cold breath of air and tried to sit up. She failed, but only because someone was holding her down. There was a smell of burned hair and blood and gunpowder, and voices shouting.
Violence in the air. The van had stopped moving.
“No,” she said, or thought she did; she managed to fight the hands trying to hold her down. “No! Stop!”
It would have come as no shock to anybody in the van that she could return from a shot in the head, but still, it made them pause long enough for her to struggle up to a sitting position. “Don’t hurt him,” she said. Somehow, the words came out right, which was a surprise; she hadn’t thought she’d be capable of stringing a sentence together, around the massive, wretched headache. The bullet must have gone straight through and not bounced, she guessed. That would have been a much bigger mess that would have taken time to heal, but even so, she’d have some explaining to do about the blood all over her brand-new clothes. “It’s not his fault. He’s responding to what he sees as a real threat.”
Manny had been tackled, she saw, and Liam was zip-tying his hands behind his back. Pansy had surrendered, but her face was tense and her eyes glittered with fury. Riley Block was holding a gun on her, and paying attention to everyone else in the van as well.