We set off. The hallways were deserted, but I could hear the stomp of boots somewhere in the facility, and panicked voices. We had ten minutes, at best, to find Hannah before real soldiers descended on this place and riddled us with bullets. They wouldn’t play games with us any more, not now that I’d massacred their own.
We ran past a row of closed office doors. The end of the hallway forked left and right, and we ground to a halt.
“I’ll go left. You go right,” I told Emma, already running down my corridor.
Her voice carried behind me. “What am I looking for?”
“Anything of interest,” I shouted before I turned a corner and dismissed her from my mind.
I was on the first floor, around the back of the building. The room we’d been housed in for the clinical trial was on my left. I knocked on the thick door and peeked through its glass window, but I couldn’t see anyone. A couple of bullets in the door would have eliminated any uncertainty, but I didn’t have time.
I moved on to the doors on the opposite side of the hall: they belonged to a canteen and a kitchen. Further down, there was an empty lab. Or a lab that appeared empty. The equipment on one of the benches, as well as the open laptop and a mountain of books, implied otherwise.
“Hannah?” I called as I stepped into the room, and a slight clang caught my attention. It came from a cupboard at the very back of the room. The doors were the slightest bit open, and all I could see inside was darkness. I shot into both doors, two bullets for each, and waited. No one fell out, and I couldn’t hear crying or whimpering.
Steadying myself on the benches, I made my way to the cupboard and peeled it open. The only damage I’d caused, as far as I could see, was to a monumental stack of paper.
Something silver glinted on one of the shelves, and I picked it up. Dog tags, with army numbers. Hannah must have hung it in the cupboard, hoping it’d fall and distract me. It was a ridiculous plan – one that almost offended me.
“You really thought you could trick me with a necklace?”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
I spun and found her standing behind me, an old, metal lighter open in her hand. I knew what she was going to do even as I watched her move, and I did nothing to stop it. I couldn’t have even if I’d wanted to.
She lowered the open flame to the gas tap on the bench and a stream of fire shot towards me. I dropped to my knees, but I was too slow. From my stomach down, I was out of range but the rest of me burnt. My hair went up like kindling, and was soon scorched to my scalp. My face shrivelled like old leather, and the heat melted my eyes. My vision went orange, then red, then white, and finally black. Flames fused my eyelids together, blistered my cheeks and the skin on my nose slipped down my face, into my lipless mouth.
Every part of me from the waist up was subjected to the merciless, roaring inferno, and even when the heat slacked and I was freed from its clutches, its effects remained with me. I couldn’t feel my fingers, or my breathing. The connection between my mind and my body had been severed. Without pain to tie me to the tragedy that’d struck me down, I was a spectator, trapped on the viewing platform.
Why wasn’t I dead? Had Fortis fucked me over one last time?
I heard retching. Heard it. The impossibility of being left with my hearing stunned my brain into silence, but that didn’t change the reality. I was blind, but I wasn’t deaf.
Hannah –I was assuming-, upchucked whatever was in her stomach in-between cuss words, and when she’d finally finished, she dissolved into hysterical screams. I listened to her shrieks with no small amount of satisfaction, since I was the cause, and I revelled even more when masculine shouts joined her feminine ones.
She might have killed me, but I’d gotten the last laugh.
A calm voice interrupted the madness. “Quarantine the area and burn the body. Were you exposed, Hannah? Did she touch you?”
A sniffle. “No. She thought I was hiding in the cupboard. I tricked her.”
“Don’t feel guilty. You did what you needed to do.”
I would contend that, if I had a voice. Roasting me like a pig on a spit was overkill, especially when she’d orchestrated my whole predicament. But of course, I was the one punished while she got away with murder. Literally. All I could hope was that Emma had managed to find the others. I couldn’t wait to see the damage they’d do. Or, hear it.
“What are you standing around for?” The calm voice, which was no longer calm, snapped. He must have been speaking to the room’s other occupants. “The longer she’s exposed to the open air, the higher the risk of exposure.”
“I didn’t sign on for this.”
“I don’t give a shit what you signed up for, Monroe. I gave you an order.”
“You’re not my CO, Tyrone, so stop acting like it.”
I heard a rush of air. Staggered breathing. A gasp.
“Put it down, please.” It was Hannah’s voice.
“When he obeys me,” Tyrone said, and a gun cocked.
Without sensory input, I couldn’t pick up on the small things, but even I could sense the tension in the room. There was a pissing match going on between Monroe and Tyrone. Over Hannah? Or over authority? It’d have been fun to play on that, once upon a time. The right words might have led them into butchering each other.
Hands grabbed my ankles and tugged. I felt myself move, but as a result of mental awareness, rather than physical sensation. Suddenly, the hands dropped me and two fingers pressed against my inner thigh. I heard an intake of breath, and a very naughty swear word I’d never been allowed to say.
“She’s still fucking alive.”
“What?” Monroe’s voice was a croak, and it was matched by Hannah’s repetitive ‘oh God’s’, each one spat out despite the fact that she was hyperventilating. Tyrone tried to calm her down – I heard his attempts clearly, - but it must have been a thankless job because he fell silent, and a second later a sharp crack, like the snap of a whip, echoed in the room.
“Get it together, woman. You defended yourself. Whether she’s alive or not doesn’t change that.”
“Look at her, Tyrone. I did this to her, and she’s alive, suffering from it!”
“She has Fortis in her bloodstream, remember?” Monroe said, intruding on the conversation. “I bet she can’t feel a thing.”
“I don’t give a fuck if she can feel it!” Hannah cried, before breaking down in sobs.
I heard one of the men mutter under their breath, but I couldn’t hear what he said. It was either an entreaty to God, or to the patron saint of women, for divine intervention.
“Get her on life support,” Tyrone finally said. “We’ll decide what to do with her once the outbreak has been contained.”
I was transferred to a hospital bed, but the process of attaching wires and tubes to my body was made difficult by my burns. I listened to the doctor struggle, and took my amusement where I could. By the time he gave up, the only machine I could hear was the heart monitor, which was emitting a sporadic sound. He lowered the volume and put a hand on my leg. I could feel his gaze on me.
“Poor girl,” he said. “Letting you die is the only merciful thing I can do. I’m assured that at least you can’t feel any pain, and I thank God on your behalf for that mercy.” His hand squeezed my leg, and he released me with a sigh. “If you can hear me, Sasha, let yourself die. We have no idea when Fortis will wear off, and if it leaves your body while you’re like this…no one deserves to go through that.”
“Well, hell,” an amused voice said from the direction of the doorway. “It smells like a barbecue in here.”
“Shut up, Cole.” Emma, the one who’d spoken, must have had her hand over her mouth, because her voice was almost inaudible. “What the hell happened? She was perfectly fine when we split up.”
“You heard the solider. She went after their pet scientist.”
“I don’t care. She made a shitty choice – one she’s paid for. If we stay here, they’re going to make us pay too.”
“What about the others?”
“I’m not risking my neck for strangers.”
“Don’t play the Alpha male with me, you meathead. I risked my life to rescue you, and I’m risking it by babysitting your blind arse when I should be making a run for it.”
“Then why are we here?”
“I owe her. She had a chance to kill me earlier, and she didn’t take it. I’m going to repay her by taking her life instead.”
“Twisted logic you got there.”
“It’s perfect for the world we’re living in.”
A gun clicked. I imagined the weapon against my forehead, poised to strike, and took a deep, mental breath.
“Goodbye, Sasha,” Emma said.