Page 50

Patrick was watching her. She couldn’t afford to break down now; she couldn’t let him down. The four of them—they might be all they had, now. She would not be the weak link.

So she simply shook her head. He didn’t seem surprised. Just grim.

Fueling finished, he took a trip to the station’s probably horrible restroom; Bryn used one of the smaller bills in their drug dealer’s bankroll to supply them all with water and high-protein snacks, mainly for her, Riley, and Joe. She didn’t know how the other two felt, but her stomach was aching with need, and Riley was probably just as starved.

After that, it was more than a hundred miles across open desert before any significant towns, broken by occasional twisted eruptions of ancient rocks and the twisted, spiked growths of Joshua trees and mesquite. Green balls of desert sage growing out of mounds of pale sand. Rotting shacks. A cloudless, bone-dry, unforgiving sky.

And nothing ahead.

They didn’t talk much. She offered a phone to Joe to call his family, but he refused; Riley wanted one to call her superiors in the FBI, but that was overruled fast. “Yeah, the last time you checked in with them, they had you pull a gun on me, and then they ratted us out to Jane,” Joe said. “FBI means Fucking Bastard Informants, in my book. No phone for you.”

Riley glared, but she didn’t ask again. Most likely, even she didn’t trust her people anymore, Bryn thought. Their circle of trust was about as big as this car, now.

They were still at least fifty miles out from the next landmark—Van Horn—when Bryn’s phone rang.

They all froze, staring at her as she pulled it from her pocket. The shrill ring filled the car’s interior, and Patrick said, “Wrong number?”

“Wishful thinking,” Bryn said. No choice, really. The caller ID was blank. She flipped it open and said, “Hello?”

There was a few second’s silence, and she had an intuition of the call being forwarded through a variety of cutout points, and then Manny’s voice said, “Bryn?”


He let out a slow breath. “We were pretty sure you were all—”

“We aren’t,” she said. “Jane is.”

“You killed Jane.”

“If Thorpe’s cure worked, then she’s beyond help.”

“Oh, it works,” he said. “Better than any of us ever expected. The nanite shutdown takes about two minutes, five at the most. And they don’t come back.”

“How do you know—”

“You’re coming up on an exit for Highway 285. Take it northwest toward New Mexico. You’ll be met.”

“Manny, wait! Annie—”

Click, and he was gone. Dead air.

She felt short of breath. Two minutes. Five at most.

And they don’t come back.

He didn’t have any guinea pigs.

Except her sister. No, no. She doesn’t have the upgrade.

What was to stop him from giving it to her? He’d have samples, she knew that. Manny always had samples. He’d probably managed to take one from her, while she was close by.

That made her feel faint and sick, and she gripped the phone so tightly she felt the plastic crack in her hand. Don’t you fucking hurt her. Not anymore than she’s already been hurt.

“Bryn?” Patrick asked. He sounded worried.

She swallowed and said, “Take the exit to 285 toward New Mexico.”


“Because I don’t trust Manny not to kill my sister.”

Chapter 25

They never made it to anything like a destination along the narrow highway; the signs all advertised the faded glory of the Carlsbad Caverns and all its attractions, but just over the state line, Joe said, “Pat, we’ve got a bird coming in. Check that. Two birds, eight o’clock.”

They were large helicopters, military style if not military-owned, painted in desert camouflage, and as Patrick pulled off the road, the two helicopters circled overhead in a tight spiral. One drifted down in a storm of blown dirt and tumbleweeds to settle about a hundred feet away, while the other watched from overhead.

Pansy bailed out of the helicopter’s bay and ran over to the Challenger. Bryn had the door open before she reached them, and Pansy must have expected a hug, because she smiled, but the smile didn’t last long as Bryn slammed her against the car. “What did that psycho do to my sister?” Bryn shouted at her over the idling roar of the bird. “What happened to Annie?”

“Bryn, let go—let go!” Pansy was no lightweight; she slipped out of Bryn’s hold and hit her with a solid two-handed shove that sent her stumbling back two long steps. Riley, Joe, and Patrick were all out of the vehicle now. None of them intervened until Bryn reached for the sidearm that went with her uniform, and then Riley restrained her.

“Easy,” Riley said. “We need to hear this.”

“Thanks,” Pansy said, and frowned as she rubbed her bruised arm. She looked—fine. Well fed, well rested. Tense, but otherwise completely normal. “Well, I was going to tell you all how excited we were you were still with us, but . . .”

“Annie,” Bryn said. “I want to know what’s happened to my sister.”

“Annie’s fine, Bryn. What did you think, that Manny—” Pansy got it, then, and covered her mouth with her hand. “No. No. He wouldn’t do that. He’s not Jane, for God’s sake!”

“Then how does he know this cure is so effective?”

“Because I convinced Brick to help us out with data mining. He found another Alzheimer’s facility being used as a Fountain Group farming operation,” she said. “The people there couldn’t be helped, Bryn. So Manny gave it to Brick, and—he tested it there. It wasn’t what he wanted to do; it was what he needed to do. But it works. Effective on both those with the basic nanites, the ones on Returné, or those with the upgrades.” Pansy glanced at the helicopter. The pilot was gesturing to her. “We need to go. Now.”

Bryn was not a fan of helicopters, and this ride didn’t make her feel any better about them; she clung to the hanging strap as Patrick asked more questions. She couldn’t hear much over the constant noise, but he seemed satisfied enough with the answers from Pansy.

Joe silently offered her a thick piece of beef jerky. Peppered. She took it and chewed; she hadn’t even realized she was hungry, but she quickly downed six pieces from his stash, to his evident amusement. Riley needed less, but she ate, too. Bryn thought about asking where they were going, but it honestly didn’t make much difference, because the only alternative was a jump out the door, and from this height she didn’t really look forward to the recovery.

It was a relatively short ordeal, at least, and the aircraft touched down again within an hour’s flight. Still desert, so they’d likely gone west, though Bryn’s sense of direction was never good in the sky. There was an excellent reason she’d never signed up for the air force.

Once they were out of the bird and on solid, sandy ground, she realized they’d been let out . . . nowhere. There was a single small concrete building, well pitted with age and wind. Big enough to be a small closet, nothing more. No windows. One thick steel door that had once been painted some color, but had now faded to a dull off-tan that matched the sand.

The helicopters weren’t landing here, she realized; once the five of them were out, they immediately dusted off again and beat rotors on the sky heading east. The silence of the desert was stunning, after they’d disappeared toward the horizon. One of the quietest places in the world, she’d always thought, and it seemed even more hushed here than she expected.

Pansy said, “Welcome home.” She spread her hands to indicate the expanse of nothing that surrounded them. It was inhospitable as hell, and Bryn couldn’t imagine who’d want to call it home beyond snakes and lizards. It felt ancient here.

And it felt unwelcoming.

Pansy walked to the small concrete structure, pressed her hand flat on the center of the door, and waited. After a few seconds, the door sagged open, with an audible hiss of air.

“Hope you’re all okay with stairs,” she said. “It’s a long way down. Watch out, it’s steep.”

Inside, the lighting was dim, from inset wire-covered fixtures that had a distinctly cold-war era look to them. Concrete, and narrow, steep stairs descending. Nothing else except a bright yellow sign, only slightly faded, that read HIGH SECURITY AREA—KEEP ID VISIBLE AT ALL TIMES.

Bryn pulled the door shut behind her, and felt a shiver as it locked with a heavy, forbidding clunk.

Then she followed the rest of them down the steps.

She counted more than a hundred before she gave up. There were periodic flat landings, which helped them all catch their breath, but by Bryn’s estimate they went more than six stories down . . . and then arrived in a large, bare room with nothing but another door.

This one, though, had no keypad, no sensors, no handle on the door. Pansy simply waited, face upturned to a domed observation camera above the entrance, until it clicked open as well.

Another missile base, Bryn thought, but it turned out she was wrong.

“Welcome to BHC-One,” Pansy said, and led them down a clean, arcing hallway with blue carpeting. “That stands for biohazard containment, by the way. Back in the day, this was where the government tinkered around with nerve gas, and then it was refitted to explore infectious agents like anthrax, botulism, lethal influenza, and hemorrhagic fevers. Anything with a rapid infection rate and high kill percentage ended up getting grown and evaluated here, all the way through the late eighties,” she said. “When they mothballed the place, they disavowed it ever existed. Most of the equipment was too expensive to remove, and nobody wanted to take responsibility for destroying the place, so it just . . . stayed here. Manny took it over ten years ago. It’s been our home ever since.”

“Home,” Bryn repeated. “I thought you didn’t actually have a home.”