She landed on bodies. It was a good thing Annie was still out, because it was gruesome. Riley was the only one still standing, and she looked…feral. There was a silvery, reflective shine deep in her eyes, and as Bryn watched, she lifted a raggedly severed arm and…
And ate until the shine went away. Then she dropped the gnawed flesh, wiped her mouth on her shirtsleeve, and looked away. “It’s not a choice,” she said. It was the second time she’d mentioned that, Bryn thought. “The nanites need energy. They take it how they can get it, it’s part of the programming, and protein is what they crave.”
She was right, horribly and awfully right. Bryn should have found the heap of dismembered limbs sickening, but when her stomach complained, it was rumbling, not heaving. Dear God, no, no, let me not be hungry.…
She licked her lips and tasted blood. It was delicious.
“Keep moving,” Riley said.
This level was empty, too, but Bryn thought that there must have been personnel still alive and sealed up behind doors, because there was no attempt to gas them. Annalie woke up—groggy and confused, which was good because it meant maybe she wouldn’t remember what had happened before so clearly. The stairs that Riley headed for were locked up, but that didn’t seem to pose a problem anymore to Upgraded Riley. She just smashed the locks, picked out the pieces, and led the way up.
They met Jane halfway to the next level. She was standing on the landing. “You know I can’t let you leave,” she said. She must have been afraid, Bryn thought, but there was nothing of that on her face, or in her body language. She just looked…hard and uncompromising. “Sorry.”
“You did this,” Riley said. “We’re just the lab rats. You’re the ones who conducted the experiments. Can’t blame us if it goes wrong.”
“You’re not stupid, Riley, and you’re not vicious. You know what happens if you get outside the Pharmadene building; you know the risk of vector infection. The government knows, too. If you make it even one floor closer to the world, they’ll vaporize this place with a nuclear strike, because that’s the only way. And I wouldn’t bet that you and Bryn can survive that. You’ll be taking most of San Diego with you in the process. Innocent lives.”
“Well, on the upside, we’d be taking you,” Bryn said. “What do you mean, vector infection?”
Jane actually smiled a little. “Those nanites inside you are self-replicating. That was what Fountain Group was tasked to create—self-replicating, self-powering nano-soldiers that don’t need injections, and can convert others as they go. The only thing they haven’t mastered yet is how to program them accurately for combat situations, but you know what? You’re doing just fine without it.”
“You called it harvest,” Bryn said. “You were using those people in the lab as incubators for the nanites, and harvesting the crops.”
“I told them that if they made them touch-transfer enabled, it would be a mistake,” Jane said. “But too late now. The rat’s out of the cage, and all that crap. You can’t leave here, Bryn, because you’re a walking colony that’s going to replicate, and when that happens, you’ll pass it on. Vector infection. It’s not even a choice.”
“It can only pass to someone without a live immune system,” Riley said. “Don’t let her spook you. You can’t infect the living, only someone already Revived.”
“You sure about that?” Jane asked. “Because I’m not. And the consequences are a global plague the likes of which only Revelations predicted. So you’re not leaving. Are you?”
Bryn was dizzy with the imagined horror of it. Riley hadn’t been able to control the impulse to transfer the nanites, and the hunger…“Self-powering,” Bryn whispered. “The hunger. We’ll eat anything, won’t we? Even other people.” She wanted to be sick, but her body refused to allow it. No, the nanites refused. They were in charge now.
“Protein,” Jane said. “Think about it. In battle, there’s always a source of protein around. Living or dead. It’s just good strategy.”
Bryn leaned against the stairwell wall, suddenly faint. She collapsed to a sitting position on the stairs.
“Don’t give up,” Riley said. “Bryn, don’t give up.”
“Let Annie go,” Bryn said. “She’s not infected. Let her go, and I’ll stay. I swear.”
“Oh, sweetie,” Jane said softly. She had a remorseless look in her eyes. “It isn’t even vaguely a possibility that we’re negotiating here.” A door opened above her on the landing, and she glanced up, but not with any surprise; she was clearly expecting reinforcements. “See? You’ve got zero shot here, ladies. Absolutely ice-cold zero.”
“I’d recalculate that if I were you,” said Patrick McCallister, as he leaned over the railing and pointed a P90 directly at Jane’s forehead. “Hello, Jane.”
“Hello, Pat,” she said. Other than a flicker of her eyelids, and a slight tightening of muscles, her self-control was impressive. “How’d you get in?”
“I had help,” he said. “On your knees, Jane. Face the wall, hands up and flat—you know the drill.”
“You’re a fool if you think you can take them out of here. Oh, it can be done, but you have got to ask yourself, Pat—should it be done? Because what you’re taking out of here isn’t your sweet little not-quite-dead girlfriend. This thing inside her skin, it’s not really human anymore. And it’s weaponized.”
Patrick’s face tightened, and he failed to hide his fury; it shone in his eyes, impossible to miss. “Not going to say it again. Knees. Wall. Hands.”
Jane shrugged and followed his orders, and that was when Bryn realized that McCallister wasn’t alone. Joe Fideli was at his back, and Liam, and—dear God—Manny Glickman, wearing body armor and carrying a truly badass machine pistol. Pansy Taylor was with him.
“Joe,” Patrick said. “Secure that bitch.”
“Securing the bitch, aye. Hey, how ya doing, Jane?” Joe jumped down onto the landing, pulled Jane’s right arm behind her, snapped on cuffs, and then the left. He made sure they were tight, then zip-tied her ankles. “I thought you were dead.”
“I was,” Jane said. “And you’re going to wish you were, too. Especially if you don’t listen.”
“Knew I forgot something,” Joe said, and pulled a strip of duct tape from a row of them stuck to his pants. He put it over Jane’s mouth. “Now you’re secure.” He wasn’t taking chances. He searched her and removed anything that could have possibly constituted a weapon, or a lockpick, and propped her into the corner. She was trying to yell through the gag, and her eyes glittered furiously.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Bryn said. She felt horribly numb now and resigned. “None of you should have come.”
Joe turned to Bryn and gave her the warmest, most heartbreaking smile she’d ever seen. “Hey,” he said. “Come on, cheer up. This is a rescue, not a wake.”
Riley put her hand on Bryn’s shoulder and said, “If we stay here, they’ll burn us. There’s no question about it. Annie, too.”
“And if we go?” Bryn raised her head and stared into Riley’s face, saw the flash of silver in her eyes. Knew it was in her own. “My God, Riley. Look at what we are.”
“We’re what they made us,” Riley said. “And we’ll have to deal with that. But we will.”
“No,” Bryn said. “I can’t. I won’t take the risk.” She pulled in a deep breath. “Patrick. Jane’s right. You can’t take us out of here. We’re infected.”
“I know,” Patrick said. “Manny figured out the incubations, and what they were planning to produce. We’ll take precautions, but I’m not letting you stay here and burn, Bryn. I can’t.”
“You can’t trust me. And I can’t trust you,” she said, and met his eyes. She saw him flinch, and knew he was having the same reaction she’d felt on recognizing Riley’s change. “Go. Take Annie and go.”
“Shit,” Riley said. “You mean that, don’t you?” She looked past Bryn, and her eyes widened. “Annie, don’t!”
It was a bluff, and it worked, because for a split second Bryn took her attention off the threat in front of her, and looked toward her sister…who looked utterly shocked, and definitely not attacking her.
Even her nanite-fueled reaction time wasn’t enough to stop Riley from crushing her neck.
Bryn came back to life strapped down to a gurney—not with Velcro, but with heavy-duty leather and chains that would probably have held a ship’s anchor, much less a somewhat woozy woman. Without leverage, there was no way to break free.
She was in the back of a van, and the van was moving.
Patrick McCallister was sitting next to her, staring down at her face. Annie and Riley were next to him, and Joe Fideli. She didn’t see Liam, Manny, or Pansy; she guessed they were up front in the cab of the truck.
“How?” she asked. “How did you get us out?”
“I had help,” he said. “The FBI wanted in; they knew something had gone wrong in there. I just tagged along. They were looking for a missing agent who’d tipped them to problems.” He glanced aside at Riley. “I let them know she was probably still inside and in grave danger.” He looked grim and tense, and didn’t quite meet Bryn’s gaze. “I knew you were headed to Pharmadene, and once we understood that Riley had gone missing, we knew that was no longer safe. Mercer talked about the new generation of nanites they were brewing; that was enough for the FBI to make the decision to move on them.”
Then how…“They don’t know about me and Riley,” Bryn said. “You didn’t tell them about us. About the nanites we’re carrying and incubating.”