There was no way out, because the flames had caught her now.
The pain was enormous. Mind-melting. She knew she was screaming, and she couldn’t stop, couldn’t begin to think how to stop, and the flames were alive, alive and eating her alive, eating her like a lion with a wounded gazelle. She could feel its eagerness, its hot-breath hunger, and she snarled out a challenge as she felt her skin sizzle and pop, and she turned and ran blindly through smoke, flames, past blazing torches of pines. A bear was running with her, its fur on fire, making grunting howls of pain. They trailed smoke and tongues of yellow and red like streamers, and suddenly someone was there, a shadow, and she felt a crack that hardly registered over the fury consuming her body and soul, and then . . .
Then she ran headlong into one of Jane’s soldiers, who had just shot her. More than once, she supposed; she couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t feel much of anything, as her nerves shorted and fried from the overwhelming assault.
She hit him as a fireball and took him to the ground, and as they rolled over and over down the rocky slope, they hit damp, sandy ground, and the motion smothered most of the flames, and then they rolled into the river itself, and steam exploded up in a cloud as the last of the fire went out on her body and clothing.
She dragged him underwater. He was struggling, panicked, and she saw the wide, white-rimmed flare of his eyes as she dragged him deeper. It didn’t take long before the last silvery bubbles burst out of his mouth, and his eyes took on the dull, flat look of death.
His blood was a rusty cloud in the water, and she needed it. Needed it so badly.
She was on him like a shark in the next, breathless second. She needed to breathe, but she didn’t care except to note it as additional things to heal.
For healing, she needed . . .
. . . She only needed.
She crawled out of the water and lay facedown on the riverbank, gasping for air. Pain had come back—and come back way too fast for any kind of sanity—and she shuddered all over, unable to move now, pinned under the weight of the agony. She felt someone taking her under the shoulders and dragging her. Jane’s people, maybe. She no longer knew, or cared.
Death would have been a blessing.
She didn’t get it.
• • •
The nanites must have been merciful, at some point, or her brain simply blotted out the worst of it, because the next time Bryn opened her eyes, she was lying in the backseat of a car, with the road vibration steady beneath her back.
I was dying, she thought. Burning alive.
But when she looked down at herself, she seemed better. Her skin looked angry and fragile, but it was healing. Her clothing must have been a total loss, because she was naked, wrapped in a blanket that was soaked through with blood. It smelled like smoke and disease, and even with the windows down in the car, the stench lingered.
“Patrick?” she whispered.
The speed of the car slowed dramatically, and she felt it veer over to the side and come to a stop. Ten seconds later, the door opened at her head, and she saw him leaning over her, upside down. The setting sun haloed him like a smoke-stained, bloodied angel. “Bryn? Stay still. You’re still healing.”
She didn’t feel inclined to move now, now that she knew he was safe. She held out her hand, which shook, and he took it in both of his. He pressed the back of her fingers to his lips, very gently. There was a terribly haunted look in his eyes.
She wasn’t the only one with permanent PTSD. The people around her, the ones who had to watch what happened to her—it was just as bad for them. And maybe worse.
“Reynolds?” Her throat rasped, and when she swallowed she tasted greasy smoke. Barbecue. Ugh.
“He’s fine. He’s tied up in the trunk,” Patrick said. “I need to buy you clothes.”
“Stolen from a campsite,” he said. “Nobody there. Some hikers are going to have a bad day. Bryn—”
“Am okay,” she said, and attempted a smile. It must not have been convincing. “Drive.”
He nodded. “We need to get the fuck out of here and someplace safe.”
She had no idea where that would be, now. They were far from Manny’s bunker. They’d lost their allies. They’d even lost Thorpe, ripped apart in an instant. Reynolds was all they had, and Jane was not going to let them have him. Not without one hell of a fight.
It didn’t look good.
Luckily, she was too exhausted to fully enjoy the landscape of how much their situation sucked.
She left it to Patrick to fully consider it, and fell back into a deep, dreamless rest, broken by flashes of pain, fire, and blood.
What had she done, there in the water?
She could only remember it in nightmares, after.
They bought her clothing at an ancient camping stop up in the mountains; she’d managed to tell him to head north, and that took them farther into the wilderness. The clothes weren’t exactly stylish, but they were tough—granny panties and sports bras, flannel shirts and thick khaki pants. Her boots had survived, somehow, though she traded out for fresh socks that hadn’t been through a day of exertion and a dunking in the river.
Her skin looked pink now, more like a sunburn. It hurt all over but at least it was intact. The hair, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster.
It looked like someone had taken a blowtorch to her head. Some of it was completely gone, down to the pink, unnaturally healing scalp; some of it was still there, but charred. She asked Patrick for a razor and, using the bathroom’s sink and soap, hacked off what remained, then gave herself a smooth shave.
The result was appalling, but she topped it with a 1950s-era scarf Patrick had bought, and a big pair of sunglasses. Retro chic. The hair would grow back, but not quickly; she had to be prepared to rock the bald look for at least a few days, and then a super-short cut after that, for weeks most likely. Hair was something that didn’t regenerate so fast. Nonessential, according to the nanite programming.
Well, she thought, I’d wanted to change my look. That made her want to laugh, in a dark kind of way. She somehow choked it back, just barely.
Then it was Patrick’s turn. He’d escaped direct contact with the flames, but his clothing was saturated with smoke, and that definitely wouldn’t do; if it came to stealth, the smell of him would announce his presence far too well. He shopped the men’s aisle, and when he was changed he could have posed for an L.L.Bean catalog photo, except for the scabbed wound on his head up close to the hairline, and the bruises. They were turning sickly yellow now, but she had no doubt he had a lot more under the clothing. Fresh ones. New wounds.
“Feeling okay?” he asked her, and took a moment to really look at her. She nodded slowly. She did, and she knew it was because—because of what she’d done. A thing she couldn’t even look closely into, for fear of what she’d see looking back. Water and blood. Thrashing. Food.
“We need to get back on the road,” Bryn said. “Did you get camping gear?”
“We’re set,” he said. “I’ll pay. You go on to the car. He didn’t see you.”
He meaning the proprietor, an ancient man who had decorated his store in American flags and signs. There was a sticker on the door for the John Birch Society, and a Tea Party symbol, and she had the distinct impression that the crusty old man wouldn’t give information about anybody who shopped here to anyone he perceived as government.
Bad luck for Jane, since she was going to look like his worst black helicopter nightmares come to life. If she managed to trace them this far, Bryn doubted that it would get her too much.
Once Patrick was in the car, they headed up a winding mountain road, and he took a turn to the east, veering off.
“Where are we going?” she asked him. She was in the front passenger seat now.
“Someplace you won’t like much,” Patrick said, “but I’ve got a cover there, from way back. Just play along with me, whatever I do. It’s our best possible chance to make this work and get resupplied.”
“Is it worse than a Russian spy station?”
“It isn’t better.”
Lovely. She sighed, relaxed, and looked out the window. At least she was fairly certain Jane would be furious over the way things had gone; she’d brought her A game, had set a very good trap, and still, they’d managed to wiggle out of it (not without leaving skin behind) and taken the bait with them, to add insult to injury. “I hate to say it, but you know what? Stabbing your ex felt really good, Pat.”
“I was thinking the same thing about kicking her ass over the railing,” he said, and smiled. He reached for her hand and held it. “That makes us sound less than well adjusted.”
“Well, in the words of Chicago, she had it coming.”
“Pretty sure that doesn’t make us sound any more stable, Bryn.” He got sober fast, and sent her a glance so quick she wasn’t even sure she’d seen it. “You took a ton of damage back there. Do you need to eat?”
“I ate,” she said dully, and shut her eyes. When she swallowed, she could still taste the blood rusting her mouth, even though she’d brushed her teeth, rinsed, spit a dozen times, and used up half a bottle of mouthwash.
He did. She wondered exactly what he’d seen. Exactly what he thought. He didn’t let go of her hand, that was something; she hadn’t known she needed that until she’d felt the warmth of the grip, holding her in place. She felt like she’d spin off the edge of the earth if he let her go.
There was a thump from the trunk. “Reynolds is awake,” she observed. “Is it too hot for him in there?”
“I punched air holes in the top and made sure there wasn’t any carbon monoxide problem. It won’t be comfortable, but he’s got bottles of water, and he’ll live. I’m not too concerned about his bruises.”
“Maybe he needs a bathroom break.”