“What are you doing?” he was asking her, but he knew. He knew all too well. “Bryn, Jesus . . .”
Joe didn’t move. Silence fell. No one spoke at all. The sound of a drop of Bryn’s blood hitting the floor was the loudest thing in the room . . . and then Patrick let her go and collapsed on his knees at Joe’s side to check his pulse.
He shook his head.
“Wait,” Bryn said. She felt unnaturally calm now. It was—was almost as if she could feel those nanites that had left her body, feel them spreading and working, reviving and reinforcing the tiny army that the first shot had delivered. “Wait.”
A minute passed. Riley shifted uneasily at the door. “Something’s wrong—it shouldn’t take this long. We have to go,” she said. “Bryn—”
“Are you feeling it yet?” Bryn asked. “The compulsion to spread them?”
“No,” Riley said, which didn’t make sense. They were both nanite factories, both primed to infect others; Riley ought to have been ahead of her on the harvesting curve. “Guys, I’m sorry, but we have to get out of here.”
“He’s gone,” Patrick said, and sat back. “It didn’t work. He’s dead.”
“I’ve been dead,” Bryn said. “Have a little faith.”
They waited another full, agonizing minute before Joe’s eyes opened, and he let out that horrible, mind-shattering scream—the scream of a newborn, dragged from safety and comfort into a raw, painful world.
Or the shriek of a soul dragged out of peace and into hell.
Patrick took his hand and held it tight. “Easy, Joe, easy. I’m here. We’re here. Breathe. Breathe.”
Joe did, big, whooping heaves of air that rattled with liquid. He coughed out blood. The next panicked set of breaths was clean.
Riley nodded and left the room.
Patrick checked his gut wound. It was still raw, but it was already better. The bleeding had stopped.
“Jesus,” he said, and it was half a prayer. “I know I’ve seen it before, but—” He shook his head. “We have to move. Joe, can you get up?”
“Pat?” Joe blinked and, for the first time, really focused. “That bitch stabbed me, Pat. Wish I could say I got her back, but—”
“Easy, man, she’s done. Come on. Get up.”
Bryn helped get Joe to his feet, and after an unsteady few seconds, he started shaking in earnest. His face went pale, and his eyes . . . strange. Empty and yet very focused.
He said, in a low, rough voice, “Hungry. I’m hungry.”
Of course he was. Bryn realized with a jolt that he’d used up whatever energy the nanites had brought with them in this massive healing effort, and he’d need food. Fast.
Or he’d turn on Patrick, as the next available food source.
Riley had already realized that, and she came back . . . dragging a body. One of the men Bryn had killed in the hallway. Jane’s men.
“Oh God,” Bryn murmured, but she knew there was no choice.
Riley, expressionless, ripped the sleeve from the dead man’s arm, and said, “Patrick, you’d better wait outside. Bryn—”
Bryn was only too happy to join him.
Patrick didn’t say anything, but the tight expression on his face was more than enough to communicate how repulsed he was.
I did this, Bryn thought, with a wave of sick horror. I did this to Joe.
She tried not to listen to the sounds inside the room.
A few minutes later, Joe came to the door. He was visibly stronger. Shaken, confused, but solid on his legs. His face and hands were clean of any evidence of what he’d just consumed—that would have been Riley, and kindness. The trauma would come later for Joe, she thought—it always came, sooner or later. But for now . . . for now it was just survival.
“Good to go,” he said hoarsely.
They took him at his word.
Riley took point on the hallway, all the way to the end. There was another keypad, and she eased out of the way for Patrick to work his code magic, which Bryn assumed he’d learned from watching Jane . . . and the door opened.
It also set off a shrieking alarm, and flashing strobes.
“Go!” Patrick yelled, and Bryn charged after Riley. The next hall was another cinder-block nightmare, door after door, with another code-keyed exit. He opened that, and set off more alarms.
This time, when the door opened, there was a hail of gunfire. Riley took hits, but she fired back, and Bryn stood next to her, calmly taking down three more in addition to Riley’s two. These were also wearing fatigues—not official current army camo, but Desert Storm–era. No identifying marks.
Joe was trying to be himself, and he almost managed it. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said as he stripped a machine pistol from one of the fallen men, “we are officially, truly screwed if this is a military op.” He spoiled it only by the trembling of his hands and the haunted shadows in his eyes.
He was right. There was a window on this hallway, neatly painted and clean, and Bryn looked out to see clear white gravel, carefully raked. Trimmed hedges. Camouflaged vehicles, and the American flag flying high.
Truly screwed just about covered it.
She looked at the four of them, in bloody jumpsuits. . . . None of them looked passably military, at the moment. “Joe, Pat, they’re close to your sizes—” she pointed to two of the downed soldiers, and went to strip the clothing from the smallest man. It felt horrifying; it felt dishonorable. But there wasn’t any other choice. I’m sorry, she told his lifeless, empty corpse. I hope you weren’t innocent, just posted here on orders.
And my God, I hope you’re not actually military.
Bryn—hair just starting to emerge in a blurred fringe of pale gold around her scalp—looked like a particularly gung-ho recruit. Riley’s shorter hair could at least pass muster. Nothing could be done about Patrick’s messy, unshaven state, or Joe’s bruising, but if they walked quickly and quietly out of the building to the vehicles, they might just manage it.
Of course, the alarms going off would be a problem—or at least, would have been, except for Joe. As doors banged open at the other end of the hallway, admitting a flood of soldiers, he bent down, grabbed one of the fallen still wearing a uniform in a collar-pull, and began towing him toward the oncoming men. “Medic!” he yelled. “We need goddamn medics in here—we’ve got men down!”
It was confusing enough, with the sirens and strobes, that he seemed to be on their side, and with Bryn, Riley, and Patrick all uniformed and pulling their own bodies, the crowd simply flowed around them.
Joe left his man as soon as it was clear and ran for the door. They all followed. Bryn was acutely aware that anyone could twig at any second to the thin deception, but the general chaos—and the fact that all this was undoubtedly top secret, and nobody knew what was going on, or who was supposed to be there—contributed to just enough confusion for it all to work.
They made it to the parked vehicles lining the side of the gravel, and Patrick elbowed Joe aside to take the wheel. The keys were in it, and they’d managed to get halfway to the gate—manned, of course—before the first alarm was shouted behind them.
Patrick hit the gas. Bullets started flying as they accelerated, and Bryn felt two hit her in the arm and shoulder, but then they were smashing through the barriers just before the tire-shredders raised up, and taking the turn on two screaming tires to reach a main road.
When she looked back, she realized that it wasn’t a genuine army base—couldn’t have been. There were no signs, beyond PRIVATE PROPERTY and TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. It was far, far out into what looked like . . . scrub desert.
“Where are we?” Riley asked. It damn sure wasn’t Alaska; not a flake of snow in sight. The mountains in the distance were blue and more like foothills. It looked and felt like the far Southwest, but Bryn wasn’t entirely sure until they took a sharp left at the next main road, heading west.
All of a sudden, the nagging familiarity fell into place.
“I know this,” she said. “My God. It’s El Paso. Somewhere near it, anyway.”
“El Paso where?” Riley asked. “California?”
“Texas,” she said. “Right at the corner of New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.”
“That wasn’t Fort Bliss,” Joe said. “I’ve been to Bliss.”
“I was stationed there,” Bryn nodded. “That back there is some bullshit paramilitary compound, probably one Jane bought out or took over. If we’d been at Bliss, they’d have killed us in the hallway.”
“We’d have never gotten out,” Joe agreed, and then, after a pause, said, “What just happened to me?”
“You know already,” Riley said, quietly. “You were dying, Joe. In fact, you did die. Don’t blame Bryn. She did it to save you.”
He narrowed in on her then, and she felt a sick surge of guilt and horror. She hadn’t intended any of this.
“No, you should blame me,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Joe. The nanites were driving me, but I still—I wanted to help you. Jane left you there to die, and I couldn’t bear that. I really couldn’t, for Kylie and the kids. And because you’re just—better than that.” She was on the verge of tears, and the guilt felt overwhelming. She knew how much she’d hated waking up to . . . that. How traumatic it was.
Joe gave her a smile. It was almost real; she had to give him credit for the effort. It was possible to see past it, to see the uncertainty and the horror and the shock, but he was holding together. Fake it ’til you make it. It was probably his family motto. “I’m not angry about it. Look, I want to live for them, too, even if this is not the way I expected it to come out. And let’s face it: being nearly invulnerable in my line of work . . . isn’t a terrible thing. I got the upgrade, right?”
“Yes,” she said, and just stared at him for a while. “You’re okay with that?”