It was nearly dawn before Sid and Griffin decided they had done enough with the Fresnels and needed some rest. Wordlessly, Cassie guarded Sid’s return through the gray stillness of early morning. The streets were quiet, with only a few early-rising urchins watching from doorways or pausing in the work of setting up for their daily hustle. A girl rattled a tambourine ominously as they passed and the smell of toxic smoke stung their noses as they walked past an enterprising teen burning treated scrap lumber for cooking. When they got to the hotel, they found it quiet too, although the vibe felt off somehow, like something wasn’t right.
“You’re wanted in the conference suite,” a guard told Cassie.
She shoved back the hood of her cloak. “What for? That’s a weird place to meet when it’s this hot out.”
“It’s an important discussion. Mundo wants total privacy.”
“Why would he want that?” Cassie murmured, more to herself than with any expectation of an answer. They had discussed everything up to and including battle strategy in the outdoor office by the pool. Why this sudden need for closed doors?
Treating the question as if a response was required, the guard said, “May is back. She escaped.”
Cassie hurried to Conference Suite A, where she was let in right away. She found Doc, Mundo, Kayleen, Alex and Julilla huddled in front of the window. They moved aside so she could squeeze in, and she stifled a gasp of shock at the wan form on the sofa.
May was almost unrecognizable. Her hair was chopped in a ragged fringe close to her scalp, and in one spot someone had gotten too enthusiastic with the shears and left a gash, which wasn’t healing as it should and oozed a pale yellow fluid. What Cassie found truly alarming, though, were the red, puffy blotches all over May’s face, neck and hands.
“It’s mostly second-degree,” Doc explained. “But some of it’s from chemicals and might as well be third-degree, in terms of health risk.”
May said nothing and closed her eyes.
“She created a lab explosion in order to escape,” Mundo said. “They were making her run experiments for them.”
“When they weren’t experimenting on her,” Julilla muttered. “We need to clear those fuckers out.”
“Glad you finally agree with me,” Alex said.
“Enough.” Mundo glared at each of them. “We don’t do ‘I told you so’ around here, and anyone who doesn’t like that rule can join another group. Besides, until now Julilla’s point was valid. We had no details of location, numbers, or alliances, but now we do.” He bent to take May’s hand, but it was so badly blistered that he simply thanked her instead. “You’ve done brave work and we won’t forget it. You’ll get the best medical care we can offer, and after that, anything you want. A new shop, a new lab…just tell us and we’ll make it happen.”
May nodded, but didn’t open her eyes.
“I’d like to move her to the clinic now,” Doc said. “She needs fluids and rest. You can quiz her again later.”
Alex and Julilla improvised a stretcher and carried May to the clinic. They gave her a private corner of the treatment room rather than put her on the ward, so she wouldn’t become an object of curiosity.
Once May was resting as comfortably as could be expected, Doc and Cassie went through his manuals in search of useful information about burn treatments. “We have no aloe, no calendula, and we sure as hell don’t have any drugs.” Doc threw up his hands in frustration.
“Vitamin C and aspirin?” Cassie suggested.
“Maybe a band-aid, too. One with Mickey Mouse on it, to represent the ridiculous level of care we’re providing.”
“Well, we can’t do magic. We need proper drugs. But if we try to barter with the Pharms, they’ll know why we’re doing it.” Cassie sighed and closed the book. “We’ll be lucky if they don’t come looking for her. But maybe another group in the alliance can make a trade for us. We could give them a list of what we need.”
“Maybe someone has some drugs from an earlier trade,” Doc said thoughtfully. “I’ve heard the St. Catherine’s girls are pretty aggressive about storing antibiotics.”
“And the Thespians would probably have pain-killers.”
“They always seem to be high on something.”
“Actually, I think for a lot of them that’s their natural state.”
“So make me a list and I’ll take it to Mundo so he can send someone to make inquiries.”
Doc fumbled among his papers for a pen, then sat down and began writing.
EXCERPT FROM CASSIE’S JOURNAL:
May is back and she’s pretty bad off. At first we thought the burns were her biggest problem and we sent people to try and collect medicine without alerting the Pharms. But when Doc and I undressed her to rinse the burns with cold water, we found something else. At first Doc thought it was menstrual blood and got embarrassed. But something Julilla said earlier made me suspicious and I made him give me a flashlight.
You’d think after helping birth a baby, it wouldn’t be so embarrassing to go examining up there, but it is. I’m glad I did, though, because something’s very wrong. I don’t know if we can fix it. Without pain killers there’s no way we can stitch her up, and there appears to be deeper bleeding from inside that we have no idea what to do about. In the end, all we could do was clean her up and pad her with rags in the hope that the bleeding would stop on its own.
I almost didn’t tell Julilla, since I knew how she would react. She didn’t disappoint me. She stomped around the penthouse, ranting about misogynists and rape as a terror tactic, then she attacked the punching bag like she was going to put a fist through it. When she had finally worked off some of her anger, she said, “She’s going to need counseling.”
“We’ll sit and talk with her,” I said. “We’ll make sure she knows she’s loved and safe. What else can we do? Hire a Thespian to play Sigmund Freud?”
“They’d like that.” Julilla paced the room, tapping her boxing gloves together. “Actually, I was wondering if we could bring her up here. It’s pretty and quiet, and away from all the bullshit that goes on downstairs.”
“True,” I said, “But then we’d need to let Doc up here to treat her, and Mundo and Alex to debrief her, and next thing you know it’s not our place any more. And once it’s everyone’s place, they’ll trash it like everything else.”
Julilla stopped pacing. “I guess you’re right. It would do no good to get her up here only to have it turn into more of what’s down there.”
“Besides,” I said, “After what I’ve seen, it doesn’t look like she’s up for climbing all those stairs. I’m surprised she made it here at all.”
“Adrenaline. Fear is an amazing motivator.”
Julilla went on to tell me some of Alex’s ROTC stories about the heroics of wounded soldiers under survival conditions. I guess this is why neither of them was surprised that May walked nearly five miles to get to us after she blew up her lab and escaped. It took her nearly twenty-four hours of hiding in buildings and sneaking through side streets, but she did it.
She says the Pharms know all about our Telo research. They’re firmly in alliance with the Obits, but are hedging their bets by trying to find the cure on their own, since the Obits cannot or will not give it to them. Of course, a few questions remain. Is Jay still with the Obits, and if so, whose side is he on? If we fight the Obits, will we have to fight the Pharms, too? And finally, how many grownups are left alive?