“Sorry.” She wasn’t. He turned his head just enough that she saw the hateful gleam in his eyes. “Didn’t have much of a choice. They weren’t going to just let us go.”
“You were dead. I know you were. . . .” Walt’s voice trailed off, because he’d caught sight of Reynolds clinging to the tree. His mouth opened, as if he intended to say something, but nothing came out.
“Yeah, we were,” Bryn said. “Call it a miracle.”
“Not from any god I’d worship.”
“I’d be surprised if you ever worshipped any god except your own ambition,” Patrick said. He was no longer being Vaughn, and the cigarette was gone, stamped out on the road. He looked taller now, and straighter. “Taking the truck, Walt. Do you want to live to make it back to your compound?”
“If you’re offering.”
“I am,” he said. “But you have to make me a promise.”
“Why the hell would I do that? Vaughn?”
“Because I know how much you hate governments and corporations and rich fat cats,” Patrick said. “And we’ve got all three of those things looking for us now. They’re going to find their way to you, eventually, and I need you to do exactly what comes naturally—put up a fight. I’m not asking you to fall on any swords, but just don’t help them. Not right away. If you could forget about the truck, I’d owe you.”
“Owe me what?”
“That half a million you lost on the Stinger deal,” Patrick said. “By the way, that was me. I took it and I burned your weapons contact. Sorry. The job was to close off the dealer, and I did it. And I wasn’t too wild about someone like you having the missiles, either, to be honest. But if you do this for me, I’ll get you the half million back, in cash, untraceable bills.”
“Not enough,” Walt said. “I want a full million. Interest.”
“For doing exactly what you always do, fight whatever comes at you? No.”
“A million, or I pick up the phone and call the cops to tell them my truck’s been stolen.”
“We could just kill him,” Bryn said. Her voice sounded light and cold, and utterly at odds with the beautiful sunrise and the twittering birds in the trees. “Kill him and dump his body in the ditch. Seems like karma.”
“It does,” Patrick said, but he sent her a glance that let her know he was worried by what she’d said. And the way she’d said it. It worried her a little, too, but in a distant, arctic-ice-locked way. “But I think Walt understands there’s a better outcome to be had.”
“There is if there’s a million on the table,” Walt said. Bryn had to admit that she would not have been that calm in his situation, with a knife at his throat and another at his back, and a woman who was evidently capable of resurrection calmly threatening to slice.
Patrick knew when he was beaten, even with the upper hand, and he shook his head a little and said, “All right. One million. Deal?”
“Why would you believe a thing I said? Considering how long you’ve been lying to me.”
“I just do,” Patrick said. “Because I’ve lived behind those walls, and I know you care about those people. And I know you keep your word.”
Walt hesitated, then said, “All right. My word on it. You take the truck, and you get me the million. I won’t tell whoever comes calling.”
“It may take a while on the million. Seeing as we’re on the run right now.”
Walt grinned. It looked maniacal. “I trust you, brother. Tell your bitch to stop poking that in my back unless she wants to buy me dinner first.”
Bryn thought about pushing the knife home. Thought about it a lot. But she saw the clear warning in Patrick’s expression, and finally took a deep breath and stepped back. “I think this is a mistake,” she said, “but if you want to trust him, it’s on you.”
“Then it’s on me,” Patrick said. “Let him go, Bryn.”
Walt gave her a second, very long look. “Bryn. You don’t look much like a Bryn to me.”
“What do I look like?”
“A dead woman,” he said. “Because I don’t forget.”
She laughed. It sounded crazy.
The hackles raised on the back of her neck as she thought, I sound like Jane.
Patrick grabbed the shaking, exhausted Reynolds and shoved him into the truck, then took the passenger seat next to him. “You drive,” he said to Bryn. He nodded to Walt as she took her spot behind the wheel, with Reynolds sandwiched in the middle. “Good luck, brother.”
“Be seeing you, Bryn,” Walt said, and aimed a finger gun at her. She managed not to bite it off. Just barely.
“I liked it better when he called me bitch,” she said, and threw the truck into gear.
They left him, and his compound of maybe-crazies, behind in a veil of dust.
Patrick said, very quietly, “Are you all right?”
“Sure,” she said. “Shot in the heart by the man I love, thrown in a ditch, dragged to the edge of a cliff for disposal, forced to kill four guys to cover our escape. It’s Thursday, isn’t it? Typical Thursday.”
He didn’t laugh. He was watching her; she could sense it without glancing in his direction. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was the only thing I could think to do.”
“It was the right play for the right time. I’m fine.”
“I’m fine. How about you, Mr. Reynolds? Catching your breath?”
He had at least enough to say shakily, “Fuck you.”
She tried to laugh, but it turned to a cough. Her throat felt very dry. Dry as the dusty road. “Pat?”
In her peripheral vision, she saw him turn his head away. “You’re right. Typical Thursday,” he said.
And that was the last of their conversation for a while.
The truck was good for about two hundred miles before the tank signaled it was about to give out; it was good timing, because they were running on fumes when the first gas station appeared on the horizon. It was miraculously in business, and Bryn used the last of the cash Patrick had on him (and the last of what Reynolds had in his pockets when they searched him) to pay for the gas and the entire jar of Slim Jims, plus a jug of drinking water. The attendant didn’t seem to think that was strange at all, but then, he was in a part of the country where it was probably survival instinct to aggressively mind your own business. Once they were fueled, they got off the main road again and angled for another freeway, where the nondescript truck joined convoys of tractor trailers heading north.
“It’s probably time to get some answers,” Patrick said, and shook Reynolds by the shoulder. The man was dozing. He didn’t look any better than before; in fact, he looked worse, which didn’t surprise Bryn in the least. When the nanites started dying, there was no recovery without more Returné, and it wasn’t exactly going to appear on a convenience store shelf.
Reynolds was going to suffer, and he was going to rot, slowly. Bryn supposed she ought to feel worse than she did about that, but honestly, she didn’t really care. Fuck him. Fuck him and his feverish, dishonest greed. He hadn’t cared about how many died in horrible agony; he ought to have a chance to live through it himself.
But first, he needed to talk. He’d been stubborn so far, but with the right pressure . . . the right tools . . .
You’re becoming her, a still voice inside her whispered. You’re becoming Jane. Listen to yourself.
She pushed it aside, because another thought struck, one that rang inside her head like a tuning fork. Returné. He was on Returné, not on the upgrades.
She didn’t think there was a chance in hell that it would work, but on the off chance that hell had rolled snake eyes just this once, she said, “Condition sapphire.”
Patrick sat bolt upright, as if she’d hit him with a cattle prod. “Can’t be,” he said. “Didn’t they factor the command sequences out of the batch of drugs they gave their executives?”
“They lost their best scientists,” she pointed out. “Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe they didn’t bother, because these men—these men would believe they were invincible, wouldn’t they?”
He shook his head. “I think you’re dreaming.”
“We’ll see. Hand me a Slim Jim, Reynolds.”
Reynolds, without hesitation, reached for the jar wedged into the narrow opening between his feet and Patrick’s, and took one out. He extended it to her.
“Unwrap it,” she said. He did, and held out the raw jerky stick. “Now eat it.”
He did, expressionless, chewing like a machine and swallowing until it was all gone.
“Good. Now eat the wrapper,” she said.
He raised it to his mouth. His dulled eyes looked terrified, but he was doing it. He was really doing it. The wrapper crinkled and buckled as it hit his lips, but his fingers continued their relentless progress to shove it in.
“Bryn,” Patrick snapped. “Stop him.”
Reynolds had jammed most of the plastic into his mouth. She was tempted to tell him to swallow, just for the hell of it, just to watch him choke, but the anger in Patrick’s voice penetrated the lazy fog of cruelty. It was misty red, that fog. Like an aerosolized spray of blood.
“Stop,” she said. “Take the plastic out of your mouth and drop it on the floor, Reynolds.”
He did, and, lacking instructions, folded his hands and just sat. Waiting.
Waiting for her orders.
It had worked. Condition Sapphire, the hidden feature that made Returné victims into slaves . . . it was still encoded in the nanites. Into these nanites, at least. It rendered Dr. Reynolds completely, utterly helpless and at her mercy.
She thought about what she was going to do with him. All the terrible and wonderful and horrifying things.
And then it all collapsed inside her into a black hole of pain and anguish and horror.