Lana’s face transformed, hardening with rage. Her top lip peeled back, and it was my only warning before she charged.
The wind rushed out of me as she drove her head into my gut, knocking us both to the ground. I shoved back at her as she hissed and clawed, pinning me, her knees locked tight to my side. I tried kicking her off as her fist slammed into my cheek.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” she screamed into my face. “You’re the one who changed them! You’re the one who took them away!”
Don’t let them get you on your back. Vida’s voice floated through my mind as dark spots clouded my vision. You’ll never be able to get up again.
I wheezed. She leaned over me, her hands around my neck.
Get back up….
My nails were broken or gone altogether, but they still left ragged marks across her nose and brow as I raked them across her face.
“I don’t have to bring you back alive,” she told me. “It’d be easier for him if you were gone. It will be easier.”
Her pupils dilated until her irises were nearly gone, and the hate in her expression made my skin feel like it was being flayed off even before the boiling agony filled my skull. It blew apart my last thoughts. My feet drummed on the ground beneath us, my whole body writhing in pain as my vision feathered with black.
At the edge of awareness, I heard the explosive crack of a gunshot and the pressure and pain suddenly eased across my whole body. With the weight off my chest, smoky air rapidly filled my lungs. I gasped and coughed, fighting the phantom hands still squeezing my throat.
Lana stood, staggering back toward the small kitchen. Her palm pressed against her shoulder. But there was no blood; the bullet hadn’t pierced through skin or muscle. There was only a rip in her jacket where the shot had grazed over the leather.
Roman had found the gun I’d lost and had lifted his torso off the ground just enough to get the shot off. I wasn’t sure which one of them looked more stunned by what he’d done. “Lana—wait!”
She turned and vanished through the smoke, and, in an instant, I knew I hadn’t taken out all the soldiers. Two figures, their pale faces burned to a painful, angry red, emerged out of the darkness of the kitchen, charging forward. Roman fired again, downing one of them, but the other already had him in his sights.
An enraged scream filled the house. Priyanka, illuminated by fire, was on her feet now. Every muscle in her body looked strung too tight as she gripped the server rack and hauled it, and all the attached devices, up off the ground as if it weighed nothing. She threw it at the soldier hard enough for it to crack the floor as it fell on top of him.
“Priya!” Roman shouted, his voice strangled. “Stop!”
She charged toward the man, crossing the room faster than I could blink. Shoving the server rack out of her way, she knelt on his chest, clasping her hands together high over her head and slamming them down on his face. Her movements were so erratic and sharp it felt like I was watching a film skip through frames.
She was too fast. Too strong. I could see her pulse beating through her skin, racing harder and harder as she drove her hands down.
Roman crawled forward, snatching up the syringe that Lana had filled. Priyanka was still turning the man’s face into a bloody pulp when he stumbled up behind her and pressed the needle into her neck, jamming down the plunger.
“No!” she howled, swatting at it. “I’m not finished! This isn’t enough!”
Her arm knocked Roman hard enough to send him sliding across the room. He collided with the bottle of pills and snatched it up, struggling to get the lid off.
Priyanka shot to her feet with almost inhuman ease, her eyes too glassy and too bright. There was a predator’s focus to her expression. “Where is she? Where did she go?”
“I’ll—I’ll show you,” I rasped out, standing on unsteady legs.
“Stop her!” Roman said, panic ringing in the words. “Don’t let Priya leave!”
The servers still had a lick of power left in their warm bodies. As I passed the rack, I brushed my leg against one of them, catching that slight charge and carrying it forward that last foot of distance to Priyanka.
The snap of faint voltage jumped from my fingers to her skin. She straightened, her eyes wide as it momentarily stunned her. It was just enough time to wrap her up in my arms and pin hers to her side.
Roman pressed the pills into her mouth, holding his palm over it to keep her from spitting them out. Priyanka fought both of us. Her too-fast pulse pounded against my skin as her muscles and ligaments turned to steel.
“You have to swallow them, I’m sorry, I know,” Roman was saying. “Please, take them, just take them—”
I could tell she hadn’t meant to, but she did. Sweat streaked Roman’s face as he pulled his hand back.
“Lana,” she cried, still trying to get away. Her pulse was slowing, though, the strength sapping out of her. “No…. Let me help….Please…I’m…not…”
“What did you give her?” I demanded.
“A sedative and…” Roman pressed his hand against his head. “And something to keep her from having a stroke.”
Distant sirens underscored his words.
“Shit,” he said, pulling Priyanka’s arm around his neck. I retrieved the gun he’d used, then moved to her other side. Her legs had turned to sand beneath her, forcing me to absorb her weight.
“We have to get out of here,” Roman said, blinking rapidly. Sweat dripped from my face. The smoke was making it hard to think, and if we stayed any longer, the roof would fall in on us.
But Roman seemed almost as unsteady as Priyanka. We made slow, staggering progress across the yard. The heat from the fire roared at our backs.
When we reached the car, Roman struggled to open the back door, his hand slipping off the handle like he couldn’t get a grip on it.
“I’ll do it! Just go start the car!” I ordered. It still felt like Lana’s hands were on my neck, choking the words out of me by force.
Roman nodded, stumbling to the front of the car. The engine started just as I had gotten most of Priyanka’s long body through the door. My muscles sang in relief as I laid her in the backseat. I checked her pulse one more time, satisfied to find it slow and steady.
“Did you see where Lana went?” Roman asked, his voice thin.
Fury swelled in me again as I threw the front passenger door open and slammed it shut behind me. “She got away.”
He brought both hands down on the steering wheel and swore again, this time in what I assumed was Russian.
“No,” I told him. The emergency vehicle sirens were closer now, maybe only a few streets away. “You don’t get to be angry about this. Just drive!”
Roman didn’t move. He searched the street with a desperation that might have broken my heart in any other circumstance. So I did the only thing I could think of. I pulled the gun on him.
I gritted my teeth. “Drive.”
He reached down for the stick shift, moving it out of park. The sedan lurched forward, banking up on the curve before slamming back down onto the road again. The engine revved as he tore onto the next street.
The static was back, pouring through my skull. The lights on the dashboard flickered.
“Tell me what’s going on,” I said, keeping the gun steady. I pressed my back up against the window, putting as much distance between us as I could. In the backseat, Priyanka moaned something insensible. “Tell me about Blue Star—what it has to do with any of this!”
Roman’s eyes blinked rapidly, color draining off his face like ink bleeding from wet paper. One of his fists came up to mash against his temples, beating against it. His breath fluttered in and out of his bloodless lips, which pulled back in obvious agony.
“Stop it,” I whispered. The gun shook in
my hand. “Stop it! Stop hurting yourself—”
“Take…” he began. The car lurched right before he straightened it again. “Take…the…wheel….”
It was the last thing Roman said before he slumped forward in a dead faint.
I shot across the seat, gripping the wheel. The speedometer climbed up and up and up past eighty, ninety, a hundred. The road came to a dead end at a school under construction just ahead; the headlights skimmed over a yellow banner proudly proclaiming OPENING FOR THE BRIGHTEST MINDS NEXT YEAR!
There wasn’t time to pull him out of the seat. I climbed over him, sitting on his lap and kicking his foot off the gas. The car squealed as I slammed my foot on the brake and spun the wheel to the right until it finally locked.
The car skidded to a stop, but not before bumping the scaffolding surrounding the sign. The banner fluttered down onto the hood of the car.
Then, finally, everything was still.
“What…” I breathed out, “the…fuck…is going…on?”
I SAT ON THE EMPTY dirt road, between the beams of the two headlights. The same dust we’d kicked up speeding down the deserted country lane still floated lazily in the air, as if unable to settle itself. With the light blurring out the dark landscape, I could almost imagine that this was what it would be like inside an electrical current. Everything was aglow. Everything was simplified. I watched the hypnotic dance of the dust particles as they drifted down again and ignored the tide of dark thoughts as long as I could.
All along, I’d felt like I was missing at least one piece of this mess. So many aspects of it hadn’t made any sense, even after I found out about Lana. Some parts of it still didn’t.
I told myself that was the reason I hadn’t already left them on the side of the road. For a few minutes, I’d been angry enough to seriously consider it. The only thing more powerful than the suffocating feeling of betrayal, though, had been the need to know. To force the last few answers out of them, if I had to.