- ONE -
Lights stabbed through winter twilight, setting the raging blizzard ablaze with twin beams of shifting white fire. The matte-black Spyder assault vehicle crushed along through the storm with an urgency born of terror. Its driver blindly felt his way through swirling snow as he struggled to put miles between him and the gory scene he had left behind.
Night was falling, yet safety was nowhere to be found.
Mr. Vickers squinted hard out of the truck’s windshield as he drove, straining to see the street ahead in the gathering darkness. The pelting snow dizzied him. It felt as though a tunnel of spacetime had engulfed him and a frantic starfield rushed towards his face, hurtling to the side at the last moment with every flick of the windshield wipers. The autodrive and mapping function hung limp from a sheaf of ripped wires dangling from the dashboard, killing any chance of using the nav computer for guidance. Not like he’d want to do that. A working nav computer meant that Central Admin could track him, and that was the very last thing he needed.
The adrenaline that had flowed in his veins only ten minutes before had begun to recede, leaving tattered exhaustion and confusion in its wake. Explosions still rang in his ears and flashed behind his eyes. Disturbing images and impressions as well: the sight of a little girl smashing a full-grown man into a door, then blowing him away with automatic gunfire; the concussion of a grenade shattering glass, the stench of blood. His mind still refused to accept what he’d seen, although he knew that it was not only possible but true. He should have known all along that Sonya was capable of such violence. Because her father was too…
Mr. Vickers spared a short glance to the back seat where the curled-up form of that same little girl was barely visible in the dingy light. Drying blood caked her clothes and hands. Her breathing came in erratic, chaotic bursts. Her eyes were fixed wide open; two barely blinking stony orbs, staring at nothing. Her teeth chattered but not with the cold. A look of profound terror gripped her features. As Mr. Vickers turned to look at her she shied away behind her hands and her entire body tightened.
“Sonya,” the old priest breathed barely above a whisper. “Talk to me. Please.”
“NO!” the little girl screamed back, a violent, shrill sound. The sound of a mind without focus, a body that obeyed other powers. “Get the voices out! Make them stop! My head hurts!”
Mr. Vickers turned back and tried to keep an eye on the road while he glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. He ached with empathy as he listened to her. “I know it does, Sonya. But we have to get away from the men who tried to hurt you before I can help you.”
“Leave me alone! Shut up!” Sonya shrieked back at him. Her breathing went ragged, causing her whole body to twitch with the effort. “They're all dead, I made them die.” She slipped a thumb into her mouth and began to suck, the other hand pulling distractedly at her hair. Dried blood flaked from her fingers onto the seat as she fidgeted.
Mr. Vickers gave up on reasoning with her for the moment. It was useless. Her mind had snapped, some synapse in her tortured brain losing a vital connection to some other corner. If the grim data Verite had captured on the reactive computer bore out, Sonya would be facing massive problems very soon. But how soon? And what sorts of problems? Every person who’d been programmed via the reactive computer responded to its electronic violations differently.
He gritted his teeth and concentrated on the road again. There were a couple places they could go, none of them ideal but at this point nothing was ideal. His mind fixed on one in particular, a home in Arlington owned by a man whom he called friend. Doctor Harold Mann, a cardiovascular surgeon too timid to join Verite outright but not so timid that he refused outright to help when called upon. At least, Mr. Vickers hoped he could call upon the man now, if only for temporary relief. Going toward Central Admin made his stomach ill, but fleeing back west was out of the question now. Sonya had heard a second assault team approaching from the back yard, and the priest was sure that if Central Admin was coming from that direction, then they knew about the service road. They would know which direction he would flee.
In fact, it sounded like Central Admin knew the whole truth now.
Mr. Vickers’ heart convulsed with grief at the thought of Annalise. Annalise, that poor troubled woman, so strong and yet so weak, grasping for goodness but recoiling like a person burned when she found it. Annalise. Verite’s eyes and ears inside Central Admin. His reluctant but persistent pupil, an earnest soul asking all the right questions. His eyes burned with tears as he remembered their last interaction that morning in her kitchen. He’d held the loaded magazine for her gun in his hands, turning it over and over as he waited for her to descend the stairs on her way to work. He knew as soon as he’d seen her that she’d been crying all night long; that look of utter desperation and despair on her beautiful face haunted him. What would become of her now he could only imagine. No, he didn’t want to imagine. It was too ugly to contemplate.
He put all of that out of his mind and returned to the task at hand. Arlington lay somewhere beyond the swirling snow in front of him, but even reading street signs in this weather proved difficult. He strained to see the signs at the next intersection and his heart leaped when the marker for George Mason Drive came into view. George Mason Drive led directly to the Virginia Hospital Center, although that wasn’t quite where he wanted to go. Walking into any hospital within a fifteen-mile radius with a psychotic little girl in tow would get them both arrested on the spot. No, three blocks past the hospital was the real destination. Dr. Mann would be getting the surprise of his life tonight at his home.
But the first rule of the day: to ditch the Spyder. That had to be done before anything else. To continue toting it around was suicide. Perhaps Sonya could be persuaded to walk? Or perhaps Dr. Mann could help there too. The good doctor stood a foot taller than Mr. Vickers and had always been the one with the stronger back, if Sonya needed carrying.
Another ten minutes passed in relative silence, the only sounds being the swish of snow against the tires of the truck and the flick-flick of the wiper blades. Of the few cars that passed him, all gave him a wide berth as he hoped they would. The falling snow intensified, limiting his vision to only about fifty feet beyond the hood of the Spyder. He saw the hospital creep by on his left and began counting houses, paranoid that he would somehow not recognize the place. One, two, three blocks passed, and a familiar faux wrought-iron lamppost came into view on the left side. Beyond lay a two-story detached home in a dismal brown color, made all the more dismal by the ice that crusted it. It hunched on the top of a little hill like a shivering homeless man trying to fit between two trash cans.
Mr. Vickers hesitated, then sped up before turning left at the following corner. Parking a Spyder in the doctor’s driveway would be stupid. There was an alleyway down the side street here, he knew, which would conceal the vehicle long enough for him to alert Dr. Mann to the situation. He pulled into the alley and turned the truck’s systems off, then turned to Sonya again.
“I will be right back, Sonya,” he whispered into the back seat, pondering the girl’s sprawled form. “Sonya? Sonya?!”
There was no answer. Sonya’s eyes were closed, but she was not asleep in any normal sense of the word. Her body kept twitching, small but disturbing uncontrolled movements of her arms and legs. Her eyes moved behind the lids, quick and persistent. Her breathing had shallowed considerably since the last time she’d spoken.
“So it’s already begun,” Mr. Vickers murmured, his heart thudding in mild panic. There wasn’t much time.
He pushed the door open into a chilling breeze and slid down to the pavement, landing in almost a foot of snow. More snow still fell all around him, rasping lightly against the world as it settled down. With one last glance into the Spyder to make sure Sonya was going nowhere, the priest shuffled down the alley and up the steps into Dr. Mann’s side yard. The snow piled even deeper up here, away from the protective walls of the alley. He pushed his way to the side door of the drab brown house and knocked three times hard.
A long tense moment passed, a moment of hesitation and doubt that Dr. Mann would show his face. Mr. Vickers heard no movement, saw nothing through the thin gauzy curtains guarding the window of the door from prying eyes. Then, when he had determined to knock once more, he saw a shadow descend on the curtain and watched as a hand from inside pushed the fabric aside. A round face framed in long graying hair appeared in the gap, a sad expression on the ample mouth. The mouth opened in a small gape, then the doorknob rattled as the doctor unlocked the bolt.
“Edmund Vickers,” Dr. Mann exclaimed under his breath, looking the priest up and down with a sad appraising glance. “As I live and breathe. Although you tend to bring trouble my way. Will I be allowed to live and breathe for much longer, I wonder?”
“You gloomy old fool,” Mr. Vickers retorted, cracking a small smile and clasping hands with his friend. The smile faded in the next instant. “I need your help, and I need it now. I have no one else I can ask right now. Please tell me you can help.”
Dr. Mann withdrew his hand and cracked his knuckles nervously. “What sort of help?”
“A girl under my charge, no more than about eight years old. She’s slipping into a coma and she needs treatment.” Mr. Vickers stopped, then added with reluctance, “We’ve been found out, Harold. Central Admin is looking for us. I won’t lie to you about how much danger this puts you in.”
Dr. Mann rubbed his hands together, his breath steaming nervously into the frigid air. “Shit. I wish you had lied to me.”
Mr. Vickers shrugged as the smile returned for a moment. “I’m a priest, Harry. It wouldn’t be right.”
Dr. Mann snorted. “Sometimes I regret the day I met you, Ed.” He thrust his head out the door, glancing around. “Where is this girl?”
“Her name is Sonya. She’s immobile in the back of my vehicle. I wondered if you could carry her inside while I ditch the truck.”
The surgeon’s eyebrows shot up. “Whose car did you use?”
“Long story.” Mr. Vickers hesitated again. “And … don’t mind the blood. It’s not hers, although she’s covered in it.”
“Fuck this,” Dr. Mann grumbled, snatching his coat off a hook by the door and following Mr. Vickers outside. “Next time this happens you fucking lie to me, Ed. I don’t want to know why or what you’re doing.”
“If there even is a next time,” Mr. Vickers shot back ruefully.