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“Oh hell no,” he said, and that at least was heartfelt and honest. “I’m not okay with a lot of things. But if I was lying on the battlefield and you had to cut my leg off to save my life, I’d be okay with it because the alternative sucked worse. I’d be not so okay with all the pain and coping, but everything’s a tradeoff. I’m trying to believe this is—no different.”

“It—” She eye-polled the others. Riley shrugged. Regardless of what she believed, she couldn’t add to Joe’s general distress. He was too pale, too controlled. Let him keep his illusions, if they got him through the day. “I guess maybe it isn’t.”

“Then I’ll whine about my awful life later,” he said. “But even then, I’ll be alive to whine about it. Relax, Bryn. I’m cool.”

“That’s why we love you,” Pat said.

That was too close to real emotion for Joe to handle. Bryn saw it, and he put up the armor again. Fast. “Moving on . . . What about Jane?”

“She’s dead,” Bryn said. “I slashed her throat and poured Thorpe’s cure right down the hole.”


“She deserved it.”

“Yeah, I know, but Jesus, Bryn. You sounded just like her for a minute; you know that?”

She did, and it made her fall utterly silent. Patrick kept them moving, speed high, until they reached another turnoff—actually he passed it, then studied that side of the road, looped around and came back.

This side road, after half a mile of badly paved road, led to something that had sometime in the seventies been a happy family mobile home community, complete with convenience store and pool and campgrounds. Today, it was polluted by crumbling ancient trailers with blacked-out windows, trash, and prowling stray dogs. The pool was empty and full of rusting junk. The convenience store had long ago been left to rot in the sun, and taggers had left their discontent all over it in primary-colored swirls of graffiti.

“What are you doing?” Riley asked. “This place looks like they might as well call it Meth Manor.”

“You know what I love about meth cookers? They usually have a lot of money and drive good cars,” Patrick said. “They also love weapons, and tend to not call the police when you steal from them.”

“Ah,” Joe said. “Supply run.”

“That, and I’m pretty damn sure this truck is LoJacked. So they’ll be tracking us in it. On the other hand, if they come rolling hard into this place and start shooting—”

“Lots of bullets come right back,” Riley said, and smiled broadly.

“It’s a side bonus, along with the heavy potential for explosions. Meth cooking is not exactly a low-risk business, especially when you combine it with firearms. I think it has the potential to make our friends’ lives very interesting for a while.”

“There,” Bryn said, and pointed. In front of a particularly decaying trailer that had once been disco-era antique gold sat a new Dodge Challenger, matte black. If Batman had a casual car for running errands, that was what it would look like, she thought—and the Challengers had a lot of power under that hood. Enough to get them out of a lot of trouble.

“Outstanding,” Patrick said. “Riley—”

She gave him a cartoon salute, and was out of the truck the second it stopped. The Dodge was locked—not an unreasonable precaution in this neighborhood—but she took a second to search around the rocky ground near a Dumpster, and came up with a flat, thin piece of metal that she rapidly fastened into a slim jim.

“Somebody ought to tell the FBI they need to check their criminal records,” Joe said. “Because she’s done this before.”

Fifteen seconds after Riley found the metal, she was in the car, and fifteen seconds after, she had it running, a low throb of engine that Bryn felt even through the battle-tested metal of what they were in. “Go,” Patrick said, and bailed out to join Riley; Joe and Bryn were right behind him.

Bryn was still outside the car when a skinny, pale dude in smudged underwear opened the trailer’s door and stepped out on the rickety front porch, mouth open in an outraged yell. His front teeth were gone.

She waved, jumped in, and Riley jammed the car into gear and smoked tires on the way out.

Joe started laughing, and the rest of them joined in, not out of any real amusement but simply because ripping off a meth cooker was probably the funniest thing that had happened to them in a long time, and it felt good to laugh.

Bryn finished with a last hiccup that was almost giggles, and sagged against Joe. She put her head on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Really.”

He shrugged a little, but he was careful not to dislodge her from that position. “I’ll adjust,” he said. “So will Kylie. Really.”

In the front seat, Patrick was quizzing Riley about her car-boosting skills; she was electing to reply with a frosty, regal silence that was funny in itself.

Jane was dead. They’d roused at least some part of the government to act directly against the Fountain Group, if Riley was to be believed. And against all odds, they were still together, still moving.

But despite all those impossible strides, she felt one thing very clearly: fear. Because while they’d been suffering in Jane’s personal killing jars out here in the desert, the meeting of the Fountain Group—their opportunity to take the brains of the beast—that had happened and passed without incident.

And they didn’t even have names to track.

“We’re boned,” she whispered, echoing Joe from before, and closed her eyes as Riley turned the Challenger on the main highway, heading east. The only thing west was Mexico, but Bryn knew that if she asked, Riley wouldn’t have any sort of destination in mind except not here. No point in even asking about directions until they reached some point where a decision could be made . . . which, from El Paso, would be two hundred miles at least.

They searched the car, and came up with an interesting assortment of goodies—concealed panels in the doors yielded up a couple of poorly maintained handguns and a stack of stained bills, mostly twenties and fifties. When they stopped for gas, they found the trunk was filled with stained empty cups and fast-food bags . . . but underneath, at least ten prepaid cell phones, still in the packaging.

Bryn took one out and typed in the number that they’d used to reach Manny, before—before everything had gone to hell. “Think he’s still answering?” she asked.

“I think that when we didn’t come back in Barrow, he folded up the tents and vanished, along with everybody else on that plane,” Patrick said. “He’d have considered us dead. He’d have been perfectly right to do it.”

She couldn’t argue with that, but something was bothering her—something much bigger. “Patrick . . . he knows how big this is, better than any of us. He knows the risks, if the Fountain Group goes unchecked. They’ll take over strategic assets, like the military, or the government itself. Once they do that, it’s over for the rest of us. They want to live forever—them, and their handpicked best people. Sooner or later, they’ll own us. All of us. What do you think Manny would do about that?”

“He’s got the cure,” Patrick said, watching the numbers roll by on the pump as the Challenger drank down the fuel. “He’ll concentrate on taking it apart down to the molecules, until he understands everything about how it works. And then he’ll put it back together again, synthesize it, and use it.”

“He’ll act.”

“Yes,” Patrick said. “He’ll do it because it needs to be done.” He frowned, shook his head, and said, “I don’t know how long we were—in there. Do you?”

“Long enough,” she said. “Long enough for my nanites to mature and migrate.” Which made her think, suddenly, about Riley . . . who hadn’t shown any signs of the same impulse, though they were on the same schedule—had to be, since Riley’s bite had infected her. “You’re not—?”

The other woman didn’t look up from where she was loading trash from the Challenger’s trunk into the pump-side bin. “Jane used them,” she said. “Yesterday. She brought me one of her people.”

“And you upgraded him?” Patrick said. It sounded like an accusation, though he probably didn’t mean it that way.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she snapped back. “Ask your girlfriend. Doesn’t matter. He was—she doesn’t like to share. She had him put down.”

“Put down?” Bryn said, and went very still. “What do you mean, put down?”

“We can still die, Bryn. Figure it out. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t easy to do, but with enough ingenuity and cruelty you can do anything.” When Bryn continued to stare at her, Riley looked away. “Acid. She dissolved him. Trust me, you don’t want to know the details.”

“Why would she do that?”

“Because she could,” Patrick said. “And because she wanted to be sure she could destroy an upgrade if she needed to do so. Research and fun: her favorite combination. I’m sorry, Riley. She found ways to hurt all of us, one way or another. That was her specialty.”

Riley nodded. “At least I’m not contagious now for another thirty days. Neither is Bryn.”

“I don’t think we’re going to make it another thirty days,” Patrick said. He sounded calm, and sure, and nodded to Bryn. “Call Manny. Maybe he’ll pick up. We can hope he will.”

But Manny didn’t pick up. The phone rang, and rang, and rang, and then a distorted recorded message reported the number had been disconnected.

Manny was gone, along with Pansy, and Liam, and Annie. They’d even taken her dog.

It was ridiculous, after all she’d been through, to want to burst into tears, but . . . suddenly, that last little piece of normality being chipped away seemed to take the last solid ground from under her feet, and Bryn had to brace herself against the Challenger’s sleek fender, just to stay upright. She gently folded the phone and put it in the pocket of her fatigues.