About this Serial
Broken Skin is my take on a zombie story. Though there will be some uncomfortable imagery and likely a bit of violence, this story will not be grotesque or overly graphic. However, it is intended for adults.
This story is more about intrigue than horror. If you're hoping for people running away from shambling hordes and decapitating rotten bodies with chainsaws, you will be disappointed. If you are interested in an adventure with plenty of mystery and unique explanations, then this is the story for you. Enjoy!
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Maya wiped her forehead with the back of her hand before looking down at what had once been a white silk camisole. It was now soaked through with sweat. Her black pants were covered in the dust of the road but they still held in the heat just as effectively. If she only had something to tie her hair back, she might have been able to cope. As it was, the black mantle fell down her back and refused to relinquish even a drop of the rays the sun was sending at it. Breathing gave little relief as the same dust that covered her clothes tried to invade her nostrils. Any air she took in smelled of dirt and sand.
She stopped and looked around. The only shade was a standing of trees in the wrong direction. She looked down the road. There might have been a town there. It was still too far off to tell but the horizon was broken by something and that had to be enough.
She pushed one foot in front of the other, forcing her mind to focus on the minute movements of her muscles so that she would not feel the heat. Just as she was thinking that it did not help, she looked up again.
There was definitely a town. It was much closer now. She could see the high walls and thought she could even make out the change in colour that indicated a gate. But she was still too hot to feel any joy over the sight. Her body had nothing more to give than the focus on her steps. Her left foot moved forward. Her right moved, the toe of her black leather pumps catching on the gravel.
How had the gate gotten in front of her so fast? She stopped and looked up at it; a riveted mass of steel. There were scrapes and dents on the metal. Even this town had not been without its travails. She looked for some kind of signal: a doorbell, a knocker, an intercom. There was nothing, so she took what little strength remained within her and banged on the door with her fist.
"Please," she tried to call out. It was little more than a hoarse wheeze. "Please, help me," she repeated. "Let me in!" She finally managed to shout. "Let me in!"
Her knees buckled and she fell against the door at the same moment she heard scraping metal.
"Who are you? Identify yourself," came a ragged voice.
She pushed against the door to get herself upright. A panel at eye level had been pulled open. She could not see the man on the other side but she was sure he could see her.
"Maya Thanatos," she panted. "Please, my car was attacked by roamers; my driver killed. Please, I need help."
"Gone. It's all gone. I barely escaped! Just let me in, please," she pleaded. She was too tired to argue with him but he was the one in control of the situation.
"Stand by for screening," he grunted.
She had been expecting him to send her away so his response made her sober. For a second, the sun was not as hot. There might even have been a breeze. Her muscles felt renewed.
There was more scraping of metal as the panel closed. Then there was a bang, a clang, and a high pitched squeal as the steel gate rolled to the side.
A darkened opening lay beyond. The only thing Maya could see was a guard in his military fatigues who was pointing his M16 at her head. "Five paces forward and stop," he ordered. Despite his hostile posture, his voice sounded indifferent. That might have been because it was muffled by the scarf tied around the bottom half of his face.
She did as he instructed. The moment she stopped, the ear-piercing squealing of the gate started again as it closed behind her. As it banged shut, her surroundings went black for a split second before fluorescent lights turned on overhead.
Maya nearly screamed. An officer stood just over a foot in front of her.
"All your papers are gone?" he demanded in the same ragged voice she had heard through the open panel in the gate.
They were standing in a room with a high ceiling. There were panels of mirrors high on one wall. She was sure there were people on the other side, watching her.
"They were in my car. It was swarmed by roamers," she repeated.
"Where were you headed?" he asked.
"I was trying to get home to Mirottaly. I had just completed some business in Thirreb."
"What is your business?" he asked.
"Classified under the Sorienops Act," she replied.
He raised an eyebrow. "You know that without your papers to confirm any of this it means we will have to screen you," he said.
She nodded her understanding even as she swallowed.
"Additional screening of Maya Thanatos," he barked.
Several guards came through doors on either side of the room, all with their guns drawn and aimed at her head. She hoped none of them had twitchy fingers. She could not tell what they thought of her. Several had scarves wrapped tightly around their faces like the first guard. All were wearing gloves.
One man with a concealed face made her pause. His eyes lacked any emotion. They even seemed to lack awareness of where he was or what he was doing. He had his gun aimed at her but his thoughts were not behind it.
"Arms up," the commander barked.
She did as instructed. Two of the guards lowered their guns and rushed forward. Though she had known what screening had meant, she had not been prepared for it. One grabbed her shirt and pulled it over her head. The other ripped and tugged at her pants until they were removed from her body.
She opened her mouth to protest but the commander stopped her. "If you're clean, you will be given new clothes," he said, as if that would be the only objection she could have.
The guards did not stop. They continued their assault as they ripped her bra from her body, the back strap snapping back against her skin as it burst. Her underwear was not pulled off so much as ripped away. At some point, they had removed her shoes though she could not recall when they had done it.
She stood naked before all the soldiers. The two who had been in charge of accosting her stepped back in line and raised their guns again.
"Turn around," the commander ordered.
With her arms still lifted above her head, she did as she was told. When she was facing him again, he barked another order, "Screeners!"
Two men in lab coats came out of one of the doors. They were pulling a cart between them. On the cart were syringes, vials, swabs, a black light, and a camera.
Maya swallowed again. Knowing what screening involved and enduring it were entirely different matters. At that moment, she wished she were one of the roamers and that she did not need to seek refuge in a city.
"Lower your arms," one of the screeners grunted.
She did as she was told. He grabbed her hand and swabbed the back of it. He said nothing as he stabbed the syringe into it and began to extract her blood.
The other man had put on latex gloves and was pressing her skin while examining it under the black light. Every so often, he would put the black light down and pick up the camera to take a photograph of the area he had just been examining.
The first withdrew the syringe from her hand. He took another off the cart and grabbed her other hand to repeat the procedure.
The second man had finished with her shoulders and back. He took the hand that the other man had finished with and turned it over to examine her palm. He ran the black light over her forearm and hand, stopping when he came across a long vertical scar that was little more than a hairline. He put down the black light and picked up the camera. Maya looked around at the soldiers as he took his photographs. She could have sworn the man with the blank expression flinched but could not be sure. The scarf on the lower half of his face obscured too much.
The examiner picked up the black light again and continued with his work. He walked behind her once more and bent down to examine her buttocks. Maya could not help but clench.
"Please, relax," he said. "It causes problems if you're tense."
She forced her muscles to release but they immediately tried to clench again. Only through conscious effort was she able to keep them slack. When his fingers moved between her legs, she nearly jumped through the roof.
"Legs apart," he ordered.
Even as she wanted to scream and run away, she complied. She could feel his probing fingers and the black light brushing against her leg as he examined the area. He set the black light down and picked up the camera.
"Is that necessary," she growled.
"Yes," he said. "You have a few scars we need to catalogue. Nothing to worry about."
"And that's all they're for?" she said through gritted teeth.
"I'm a professional," he muttered.
"He's also not interested in women," the commander chuckled. "Don't worry, sweetheart. He won't be using them for anything else."
Sweetheart? She was not reassured.
The man with the syringes had grabbed another and moved to her legs.
The men continued their tasks until they had both covered her entire body. When they were finished, they took a white package from the cart and ripped it open. From it, they pulled a blue gown that they handed to her. She wrapped it around her body and watched them leave.
The guards did not move the entire time. Their guns remained trained on her.
"We'll wait until the results come back," the commander explained. "It should only be a few minutes."
She wrapped her arms around her middle and regarded the group of men who had all just watched her be molested. The man with the dead eyes looked no different. None of the men seemed to have cared about what they had just seen. She was not sure if that made her feel better or more disgusted. How many screenings did they do in a week? Was it really that common? Were they really that twisted?
With her bare feet on the concrete floor, Maya's body temperature felt like it was dropping rapidly. She would be shivering soon if they did not hurry and get her some proper clothes. She began to shift weight so that she could hold one foot off the floor at a time.
The man who had poked her with syringes came back into the room holding a piece of paper. He handed it to the commander before leaving again. The commander read it over.
After his eyes flicked across the page several times, he said, "Maya Thanatos, we have confirmed that you contain the Perfectia protein marker in your blood. We have also confirmed that you have had several reconstructive surgeries. Though we cannot confirm your work is under the Sorienops Act, which is to be expected, we have confirmed that you do obtain security clearance under that legislation and are a resident of Mirottaly."
He lowered the paper. "We will get you some clothes and you are free to stay in the city until you can get replacement papers and make new travel arrangements to return home. Sorry for the inconvenience and welcome to Sile."
She could only blink in reply.
He left the room and all but two guards followed him. One of the remaining guards walked back to stand next to the gate; the other was the guard with the blank expression. He had lowered his gun and was now walking towards her. His eyes were focused upon her, no longer the detached stare of before.
"Come with me," he said. "We'll get you some new clothes."
She followed him as he led her through the door opposite the one the examiners had used. Through it, there was a locker room dimly lit with far too few fluorescent lights for the size of the space. The walls were lined with closed lockers with combination pads on them. The soldier looked over at the numbers on the lockers, stopping at 1320.
He did not block Maya from view as he typed in 919451208 into the keypad. After a loud beep, he swung open the door and reached inside. He pulled out an opaque vinyl bag with a zipper down the front and held it out.
"Some clothes for you," he said.
After she took them, he reached back into the locker and pulled out a pair of black, designer boots with laces up the front and buckles across the tops.
"Will they want these back when I leave?" she asked.
He stared at her and blinked. After another moment, he shook his head. "Of course not." He looked over his shoulder. "If you want some privacy, there are change rooms around the corner," he said.
Considering what he had just endured, she was surprised she was being given that much.
Then he added, "There are notes for 20 Parts in one of the pockets just so that you can afford some food and accommodations while you try to make your arrangements to get home."
She held the vinyl bag close. "Thank you," she whispered.
He shrugged. "After you're dressed, just walked out the door on the other side of the change room and you'll be in the main office. They'll get you to sign a Confirmation of Status form to use as temporary papers but after that you are free to go."
"Thank you," she said again.
He looked directly into her eyes. "No," he said, "Thank you."
Her brow knit with confusion at his response but she could ask him nothing about it as he had immediately turned and hurried from the room.
She walked to the change rooms and locked herself inside a stall. She hung the hanger of the vinyl bag on a hook on the wall. For a minute, she just starred in the mirror. Her eyes were wide and her skin more pale than usual, looking almost grey under the fluorescent light. After several deliberate breaths, she dropped the thin blue robe to the floor and stared at the nearly imperceptible scars on her body, the ones the examiner had photographed. Her skin appeared nearly flawless and, only if you were looking for those scars, could you find them.
She turned her palm over and looked down at the thin line that marked her forearm. She could not remember getting that one. The others were from her surgeries, but that one was different. How had it happened?
She shook her head and sobered. She unzipped the vinyl bag and looked at the outfit inside. It was more casual than she was used to wearing but the "Lika Am" label proved it was designer. They obviously believed her identity claims even if they could not prove all of her story.
She pulled on the provided underwear and bra, which sagged and bunched in all the wrong places. Then she put on the purple knit shirt. It was tight fitting and lower cut than she was used to but she would cope. There were black jeans and a black leather jacket to go with it. Though there was also an ornate belt with silver highlights on the overly large buckle, she left it in the bag.
After pulling on the socks and boots, she left the change room through the far door. The main office consisted of a single long desk at which two soldiers sat. One, a middle-aged man with a grey moustache that hid his mouth, looked up when she entered. His cheeks and eyes indicated he smiled at her but his moustache was too good at hiding his mouth to show it.
"We have your papers all ready," he said. "You'll need to contact HPO when you get home to get permanent replacements but these will help you until then." He pushed a paper clipped grouping of papers across the desk towards her.
She walked up and looked down at them.
Confirmation of Status was emblazoned across the top. On the form itself were her name, her city, her confirmed protein markers, scar count, and SA Clearance stamped in red letters across the page.
"Just sign at the bottom," he said as he held out a pen.
She took it and signed her name in long, angled strokes. He photocopied the signature before handing the forms back to her.
"Keep these safe," he said, "And welcome to Sile."
She thanked him and left.
She had never been to Sile before. She had heard of it of course. It had a reputation for being elitist even in Mirottaly, which was the commerce, fashion, and legislative capital. Sile was near enough to the petroleum trade routes to have a steady supply but far enough that it was desirable as a retreat for the wealthy.
As she stepped out onto the sidewalk, she looked around at all the well-dressed people with their perfect complexions. Across the street, a man with a scarf around his face, a hat on his head, and thick gloves on both hands was holding open the door to a limousine for an immaculately dressed and bejeweled woman who was just leaving a restaurant.
As well dressed as she was, no one took any heed of Maya. At least there was that.
She had no idea where to go and was feeling as vulnerable as if she were still be defiled by the examiners. The soldier had told her there was money enough to survive in one of the pockets. She stuffed her hands in the jacket pockets and found nothing. When she pushed her fingers into the tight jeans' pockets, she felt the thick and bumpy papers of bills.
She pulled them out and a thin piece of folded white paper fluttered to the ground. She picked it up and unfolded it. Across it was written:
984 Pridemonte Way
Maya blinked at the paper. She had never been to Sile before and knew nothing about the city aside from its reputation. She looked around for street signs. The nearest sign indicated she was on Tilly Drive. There were no signs indicating anything more helpful.
With a sigh, she stuffed the paper back into her pocket and looked for the friendliest face she could find. A man in a grey, three-piece suit was looking at his phone as he walked and would soon be right next to her.
"Excuse me," she said, reaching out a hand to stop him if necessary. It wasn't; he looked up and stopped right away.
His eyes flicked over her body and she saw his shoulders relax when he finished his appraisal. A twitch of a smile teased at the corners of his mouth.
"Yes?" he said.
"I'm not from here and I'm trying to get to Pridemonte Way. Would you be able to tell me how to get there?"
He blinked. "You don't have a driver?"
"Not at the moment," she said, feeling too impatient to explain her bad luck to a complete stranger.
His lips pursed in disgust for only a moment as he looked her over again. "Are you sure you're looking for Pridemonte Way?" he asked.
It seemed Sile's reputation for elitism had actually been grossly underestimated.
"I'll find it myself," she grumbled as she pushed past him.
"It's in the other direction," he called after her.
Her cheeks flushed as she was forced to turn and walk by him once more. "Thanks," she muttered.
Once past him, she pushed her stride to her limit just so that she wouldn't have to walk next to that jerk. She had been raised amongst snobs but even they hadn't been as bad as that guy. Getting back to Mirottaly could not happen too soon. She would never have to come back to Sile again. It wasn't like they were known for their businesses. It was a city of retirement and trust funds; exactly the type of place her family would have gone if they had survived; exactly the type of place she had wanted to avoid.
When she reached the nearest intersection, she looked up at the signs and was disappointed to find that the next street was not Pridemonte Way but something called Parts Avenue. She cringed at the crass name. She also felt more irritable at not knowing where she was going.
She looked around. Cars with tinted windows and masked drivers passed by in an endless staccato but the sidewalks were nearly empty. She looked behind her. Thankfully, the man she had asked for directions had long since gone into a building and was no longer following her.
She was currently in the shade of a several-storeys-tall building but despite the protection from the immediate glare of the sun, she was beginning to feel as warm as she had on the road. She tried to ignore it for the time being as she considered which way she should go.
Ahead, Tilly Drive curved up a hill. She looked to her right and left. Parts Avenue was flat in both directions. Elegant shop signs and trees lined both sides of the road. She took the paper out of her pocket again and read the address over, hoping for some other indicator. For a moment, she considered turning back and asking the soldiers for directions.
She shook her head as she fully comprehended the note in her hand. It had been stuffed in the pocket of her clothing not handed over with the forms. It was not the military that wanted her to seek out Jeremy. But who? Someone who didn't want the military to know. Why? Her stomach flipped at the implications.
When she looked at the road ahead of her again, she swallowed hard. First that humiliating screening and now this. She crossed Parts Avenue and headed straight along Tilly Drive, simply for something to do as standing still with her newfound worries was more difficult than she wanted to endure at that moment.
As the road curved, the slope grew. Her heeled boots were proving uncomfortable walking shoes, though still better than the shoes she had been wearing on the road. A soft bed and some refreshments would be very welcome if she ever came across them.
She followed the road and the sun was at her back, quickly heating her beyond comfort. Combined with the exertion the hill demanded and her ill-fitting footwear, she had to stop to catch her breath. She hadn't walked so much in her life. After taking a deep breath, she surveyed her surroundings.
The road ahead curved up and to the right. Though there was no intersecting road, there was a green street sign in the crook of the turn. Across it in bright white letters was written 'Pridemonte Way'.
"You have got to be kidding me," she muttered. "If you're going to name a street, at least keep the same freaking name all the way down."
She looked at the houses on either side of the road. They were all mansions with white stone fences that gleamed golden in the sunlight. Across each driveway were iron gates and numbers emblazoned across them in wrought iron.
Though she knew she was headed in the right direction, she was also discouraged. The numbers grew as the hill climbed and the number she was standing next to was 444. She would still have quite a bit of walking to do. She looked back down the hill to see how far she had come, and then up to the top. She groaned. Evidently, Jeremy lived at the top.
"Of course," she muttered as she started walking again.
By the time she reached her destination, she was soaked through with sweat. It did not matter if her clothes were designer now. They looked no better than the grimy drapings of a roamer.
She stopped in front of the large iron numbers of 984. Every muscle in her body wanted to collapse with relief but she was not at a soft bed and a good meal quite yet.
Through the gaps in the ornate iron, she could see the house looked like a series of glass and white stone boxes piled together into random rectangles. The front courtyard was much prettier with long settees on a patio that overlooked the town below and exotic plants lining the cobbled driveway and walk up to the front door.
She walked to the intercom at the side of the gate and pressed the button. When there was no immediate response, she was tempted to press it again but thought better of it. She still had no idea why she was there or what she was walking into.
"Yes," came the indifferent voice.
"Hi," she responded. "I'm Maya Thanatos."
"You must be so proud," said the indifferent voice.
She stared at the speaker for a moment, unsure of what to say or do. How could she explain why she was there when she didn't even know herself?
"I've just gotten into town," she began, figuring it out as she went along.
"There are hotels on Parts Avenue."
"I'm not looking for a hotel," she said, getting increasingly annoyed. Couldn't anyone in this stupid town just have a normal conversation? Before the voice could interrupt, she added, "I was given a note at the gate." She pulled out the note and read it into the intercom.
There was silence.
"Hello?" she asked.
There was still no answer.
She rammed the note back into her pocket and turned to walk back down the hill. Everyone in this town was insane. As she took her first step, a loud buzz vibrated behind her. She turned to see the lock on the gate had been released and the gate had slipped open an inch.
Though she was seriously reconsidering whether she wanted to accept such an invitation, she walked back to the middle of the gate and pushed it open. When she closed it behind her, it locked immediately.
Unsure of what else to do, she headed for the front door. It was open by the time she reached the path and a man stood in the doorway.
He was shorter than she was and much older. She guessed middle age but it was difficult to be sure. His hair had been buzzed so short that it was little more than white stubble. He was wearing a plain blue shirt with buttons down the front. It was loose in the shoulders but stretched just enough around the middle to indicate a rounded stomach. He was wearing shorts and flip flops and had a cigarillo in one hand.
"Get inside," he said when she hesitated. Though the timber of his voice was the same as that on the intercom, it was no longer indifferent. There was an edge of haste to it.
She did as he instructed, having to squeeze past him to get through the door. The inside of the house was not as well-kept as the outside, at least, not at that moment. Rolls of fabric were strewn everywhere, half unraveled in most cases. There was a red, black, and gold print that looked like the roll had fallen down the stairs. There was a hideous fabric of lemon yellow and lime green stripes bunched against the baseboards on one wall. A dark blue and gold fabric had been thrown half over a potted palm.
"Sorry about the mess," he said as he closed the door. "I usually tidy up before I have guests. I was in the middle of work." He walked around in front of her and looked her up and down.
"Lika Am for sure," he said. "Though a little... used. It does not suit you at all. I'm sure it didn't even when it was clean."
"Sorry," she said. "I lost my driver and had to walk."
He waved his cigarillo dismissively. "You look amazing under the circumstances," he said, still examining her with his eyes. She was beginning to feel like she was undergoing screening again. He began to nod as he walked around her. "Yes, you will be of great use to me," he said. "Have arrangements been made for you?"
"Not yet," she said. "I've only got three days to get back to Mirottaly."
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," he said in rapid fire. "That will not work at all. I'll take care of it. You will stay with me for a while."
Why on earth had she come? The way he was appraising her made her want to crawl under a rock. She just wanted to get home.
"I appreciate the offer," she said, "But I really do have to get back to Mirottaly. I need to find alternate transportation and head home. I need to contact HPO and get new documents. I have so much to do and I have to get back to work."
He stopped in front of her and looked into her eyes. One eyebrow was only a tick higher than the other. "You really weren't planning to stay in Sile?" he asked.
"I wasn't planning on coming to Sile in the first place."
His lips pursed. Then he took a long inhale from his cigarillo. "What did you say your name was again?" he asked.
He twitched his head to the side to blow the smoke away from her. "I have connections," he said. "Let me help you make those arrangements. I can take care of it right now and have you back on the road home within the day."
For the first time that afternoon, she was feeling relief. "Yes, please," she said. "That would be wonderful."
He gestured to his left with the cigarillo. "Go have a seat in the living room," he said. "I'll go make some calls and then bring us some drinks."
She felt much more at ease doing what he asked now. If he could get her home faster, she would be in his debt.
The living room had a large rectangular, glass table in the middle with several white couches placed around it. There were several more rolls of fabric that looked like they had been randomly thrown over the couches. Two of the walls were lined with large windows overlooking the town below. At the moment, the sun was filling half the room with its warmth and light. Maya wished she could just shut it off and sleep.
She walked to the nearest couch and sat down. After ten minutes, Jeremy finally returned.
"I have some bad news for you," he said. "The roamers have been raiding the roads quite a bit today. The military has ordered a travel ban until they can get it under control. No travelling for you, I'm afraid."
Her heart sank.
He forced a broad smile. "I'll make us those drinks," he said. "And I insist you stay with me until this all gets sorted out."
She had no choice now. "Thank you so much, Jeremy," she said as he turned to leave the room. "I really appreciate it."
He paused. "No problem," he said. "But, do you mind calling me Phoenix?"
She blinked. "Ph-ph-phoenix?" she stammered. "The Phoenix?"
He chuckled. "I suppose so," he said.
The fabric strewn all over the house now made sense. There was no designer as successful as Phoenix. He was a legend. He was the only designer to remain successful after decades. Most were popular for only a few years before people tired of them. The designs of Phoenix were still considered the pinnacle of perfection.
She thought she should say something but was now feeling like an idiot for not realizing who he was before. His real name had never been known and, though she knew he lived in Sile, she had no reason to suspect she had been sent to him. By the time her mouth started working again, he had already retreated to fetch the drinks. By the time he had returned, it had ceased functioning again.
"I have parties every night," he said, handing her a martini glass filled with something pink. "So I usually don't let people visit until after five. It enables me to devote myself totally to my work and still have time to tidy before my guests arrive. Sorry if I sounded irritable over the intercom. I find interruptions tedious."
She took a sip of her drink. There was grenadine in it for sure, but she had never been good with identifying liquors. In truth, she tended to avoid them because of the flavour of most alcohols but this drink was sweet, fruity, and refreshing. There wasn't even the slightest burn of alcohol.
"You can take off your coat, if you'd like," he said before taking a sip from his own drink.
She set her class on the coffee table and did as he suggested, feeling a twinge of embarrassment as she realized just how soaked her shirt was with sweat. Her only comfort was the air moving freely across her bare forearms.
When she reached out for her glass again, Phoenix took in a sharp breath. Her arm froze as she looked at him.
"Is something the matter?" She asked.
He blinked. "Just... uh... caught in my own thoughts," he said, but his eyes were firmly locked upon the scar on the inside of her forearm.
She looked down at it. That was the second time she was sure someone had reacted to it yet it looked so unremarkable to her. It was as thin as hair and if it were not so long, she doubted anyone would have noticed it. It wasn't like she was the first person to have scars. Everyone had them.
"I think you simply must come to my party tonight," Phoenix said, changing the subject. "It will be a who's who, definitely something you shouldn't miss."
With nothing better to do until the travel ban lifted, she agreed. "I don't have anything better to wear unfortunately," she admitted. "All my things were lost this afternoon. My car was one of the ones hit by the roamers."
He nodded his understanding. "Tragic, of course," he said. "But you're being silly. You're a guest of Phoenix. I've got plenty lying around that will suit you just fine. I don't want any excuses for not coming tonight."
"I wouldn't dream of it," she said, feeling a twinge of excitement despite herself. Her memories of her mother poked their heads out and quashed it, sending any optimism she felt back into the shadows of her mind. The people would probably all be like that guy on the street. Sile was a city of the self-righteous, they would frown upon her. But she had agreed to go and would look stupid for backing out in the very next sentence.
"I'll show you your room," Phoenix said, "Get you some decent clothes, and then I insist you talk to everyone who comes tonight. They will adore you."
Maya swallowed. She was hardly confident.
Phoenix led Maya up the stairs to the second level and down a long hallway. On either side were open doors. As she passed, Maya saw a piano in one room, a pool table in another, and a movie screen covering an entire wall of a third. She was beginning to think he didn't have any bedrooms at all. There was a long stretch of wall before the end of the hall where there were two doors across from each other. One was closed. Phoenix pointed to the open door.
"You can sleep in there," he said. "It has its own bathroom so you shouldn't need to wander the house at night. If you go on in, you can get yourself a shower while I fetch you some new clothes."
She nodded her understanding and thanked him.
He turned and walked back down the hall.
The room was much smaller than Maya had been expecting. It had a king-size canopy bed with iron posts and golden linens. There were matching night tables on either side and a dresser on the far wall but everything felt stuffed into the small room.
She figured the open door in the corner led to the bathroom and walked straight for it. It was just as surprisingly small as the bedroom. There was a small stall shower, a toilet, a sink, a hamper, and a shelf to hold towels.
She undressed, setting the 20 Parts on the counter before stuffing her clothes into the hamper. As she was getting into the shower, she paused as she saw herself in the mirror. She could see that she really did need a shower but her focus was on her scars, the ones that the screeners had so meticulously catalogued.
Everyone had them. She had had most of hers for quite some time and gained new ones every so often. She was no different than those around her and she had never felt any negative feelings about them. They were a fact of life.
Since coming to Sile, she could not explain why her stomach churned so much at the sight of them. She looked down at the pink hairline on her forearm. More troubling to her was that this scar in particular had evoked such strong reactions. Was there something hideous about it that those in Sile frowned upon?
Her mother had told her that she was above others. She did not have a value in Parts. But she had never felt above anyone. She had never felt at ease amongst her own kind. Through her devotion to her job, she had thought she had buried such insecurities but in that day, they had come back as if they had never been repressed.
She closed her eyes tightly and swallowed hard to force her regrets back into the pit of her stomach. With a deep breath, she turned on the shower and tried to focus on getting clean.
When she had finished her shower and dried off, she returned to the bedroom in search of clothing. A silk dress lay on the bed with matching shoes and a note next to it. She picked it up and read, "There are more clothes in the dresser but put this on now for the party. - P"
She looked at the purple dress again. I looked similar to something a Greek goddess would wear. "He has these parties every night?" she muttered as she considered how formal it looked.
Her mother would have been in heaven; Maya was miserable. Not wishing to be rude, however, she put on the dress anyway. She had nothing to style her hair so she combed it as best she could with her fingers and let it fall loose over her shoulders. With nothing better to do, she walked back downstairs.
Phoenix had already changed into a tuxedo and was directing several men in white shirts and black vests and pants. He was telling them where to put the trays of food they were bringing through the door. Though some of the men were wearing gloves, none had scarves over their faces.
She stopped a few steps behind Phoenix and waited. Despite her silence, he looked over his shoulder. "Lovely, dear," he said without really looking at her. "You will fit in nicely."
"Uh, thanks," she muttered.
"Get those torches on the patio lit too!" Phoenix called to one of the men who had just walked out the door to start another run.
"You must really like entertaining," she said.
He shrugged again. "It brings the right people."
She supposed it made good business sense. There must have been some reason he was still so prolific.
The last of the platters was brought in and the torches on the patio were lit along with several logs in a stone fire pit that Maya had not noticed before. Phoenix had put soft music on the speakers that were located throughout the house. The sun set and the cars of guests began to arrive.
"Amelia!" Phoenix gushed to the first woman to enter the house. She had an overly large nose for her face but was beautiful despite it. She had olive skin and thick black hair that had been pinned up. Her red dress was covered in tassels that swung back and forth as she moved.
Phoenix threw his arms around her. "You have not come to one of my parties in over a month. I was not expecting you."
She returned his embrace. "My last surgery had some complications," she informed him, "Today is my first day back in the world."
He held her back from him. "Yes, I can see the difference," he said as he looked over her face. "I do hope you're not pushing it too much. If you need anything, you know I can help you out."
She smiled. "You are always so good to me, Phoenix," she said. "These surgeries are so hard on all of us. Janice won't be coming tonight. She had to go in for an emergency procedure. It will cost her at least 10,000 Parts and it will be weeks before we see her out again."
Phoenix shook his head. "Awful," he said. "When you reach 10,000, you really lose the whole 20."
She nodded in agreement. "It's the third time this year she's had such extensive work. I don't think she'll last much longer before she looks no better than the roamers."
"Shame," Phoenix said. His voice was distant. He shook his head as if to clear it and then took her hand as he turned to face Maya. "Enough melancholy. You simply must meet my latest inspiration," he said brightly. "I'm going to make her one of my models. What do you think?"
The woman's eyes followed the length of Maya's body twice. "Not bad," she nodded. "Who's your agent?"
Maya blinked. "I'm not a model. I'm from Mirottaly. I work in..."
"Yet," Phoenix interrupted quickly. "She's visiting Sile and when I saw her, I simply had to have her wear my clothes. I'm not letting her leave until she agrees." He gave an overly dramatic jump. "Where are my manners?" He gasped. "Amelia, this is Maya. Maya, this is Amelia. She is the mayor's wife and has been a good friend of mine for many years."
Maya shook the woman's hand and smiled in greeting. Just then, several more people arrived and before Phoenix had finished with their introductions, another group was already clamouring at the door. Maya's head was spinning with names. Miles, Andrew, Lucina, Sara, Thomas, Ethan, Margo ... It went on and on. When the house was nearly full of people chatting over wineglasses, Phoenix held Maya's hand in his and leaned in close to whisper in her ear.
"Thanks so much," he said. "You've helped so much tonight."
"I just said hello," she countered.
He smiled. "Of course." He straightened and his smile broadened. "Have fun," he said. "The only place that is off limits is my room, the one across from yours. Otherwise, you'll find people tucked into the silliest crannies in this house." He wandered in the direction of the bar.
When Maya looked around at all the people, she saw Amelia waving to her from the living room.
"Maya," she called. "Maya, come here."
Not wishing to offend anyone, she did as Amelia asked. When she neared, Amelia gestured to a blond-haired woman sitting on the couch. Maya tried to search her brain for her introduction to the woman. She thought her name might have been Tabitha but it might also have been Tallulah. She hoped it would not become relevant. Maya sat in the open space next to the woman.
Amelia was much more animated than when she had arrived. Her nearly-empty wineglass, which was also not likely her first, might have explained it. She said, "I was just saying how you are from Mirottaly and my dear Tabby wanted to know what you did there but I realized you never said."
"I work in the financial district," she lied.
"What brings you to Sile then?" Tabitha asked.
"My car was attacked by roamers," Maya replied. "I lost my driver, the car, and everything in it. This was the closest safety I could reach by foot."
"That's horrible," Tabitha gasped. "Those roamers are a menace. I will be glad when we can finally get them all dealt with."
Maya nodded in agreement. "If that weren't bad enough," she said. "I was apparently not the only one hit today. They've closed the roads to travel until further notice. I can't get back home until they open them, which is why Phoenix is letting me stay here."
Tabitha's brow furrowed. "That's strange," she said. "I was visiting my cousin in Mirottaly today. I just got back. The roads were fine."
Maya blinked. Why would Phoenix lie to her? She looked over at the bar. He was still there chatting to a handsome young man with wavy brown hair. Maya was sure she had not greeted him at the door.
"Maybe he got the report wrong," Maya muttered.
Amelia waved away the issue. "Maybe they re-opened the roads this afternoon," she suggested. "You just got back an hour ago, right Tabby?"
The woman nodded. "That must be it."
Maya refused to let it drop. She thanked the women for the conversation before getting up and heading straight for Phoenix.
"I need to talk to you," she grumbled.
He saw the look on her face and his smile faltered for only a moment. Within a second, he was already turned back to the other man, even broader smile spread across his face.
"You're in luck, Dominic. You'll get to meet her after all," he said before turning so that Maya had to face both him and the brown-haired man named Dominic. "Dominic, this is Maya. Isn't she wonderful."
He looked her over like everyone else had. "Very much," he said as a smile teased the corners of his mouth."
"Nice to meet you," she muttered, but she would not be deterred from her reason for coming over. "Phoenix, I really must ask you something."
"It will have to wait, dear," he said as he gestured with his wineglass to someone across the room. "Arthur!" He gushed just as he had with Amelia and he pushed past Maya to go talk to Arthur.
Maya stared at Dominic, feeling entirely used, abandoned, and stupid. The only reason she remained where she stood was that she was trying to decide if she wanted to flee to her room and demand answers later or just flee the house altogether. The latter was feeling more attractive at that moment.
"Is there something wrong with my nose?" Dominic asked. "You've been staring at it for at least a minute."
Maya shot her eyes to the floor. "Sorry," she muttered. "I'm just distracted."
"Reasonable," he said. "These parties are usually pretty crazy." The smile that had been teasing the corners of his mouth burst out in a broad grin. He took her hand in his and said, "We can go out on the patio. It is usually quieter out there."
Before Maya could say anything in protest, Dominic was striding for the door with her in tow. The cool air washed over her face and caressed her shoulders as they emerged into the night, leaving the stifling air of the indoor party behind. There were a few people sitting on the settees around the fire pit but their conversations were hushed and relaxed.
Dominic stopped and looked at the lights of the town below them. "It is beautiful here isn't it?"
Maya wanted to agree but she had seen so many more spectacular views. If Dominic could see the lights of Mirottaly or the mountains of the west, she doubted he would be as impressed by this tiny pocket of elitist snobs. He was probably some heir who had never had need of the real work required in other cities.
"Phoenix is quite taken with you," he said when she remained silent.
She shrugged. "A new toy perhaps," she said.
His boisterous laugh caught the people on the patio by surprise. Several jumped and stared at him. He smirked at Maya, without any apparent embarrassment, as the others returned to their own conversations. "You seem to understand Phoenix quite well already."
She raised a brow. "Have you known him long then?"
He nodded. "Most of my life," he said. "He's my uncle."
"I'd never heard about him having any family," she said.
"He and I are the only survivors. He's been good enough to make sure I'm taken care of. It's a sore subject for him. Notice how he didn't mention who I was when he introduced me? So it's probably best not to mention it."
"Is he ashamed of you?" Phoenix did not seem the type to be ashamed of anyone. He had secrets that was for sure but he had been pleasant to everyone with the exception of their exchange on the intercom earlier that day.
Dominic shook his head. "Nothing like that. I just think he doesn't like the reminders of the past. I often think these parties are to help distract him from it so he doesn't have to be alone with his memories at night."
Maya looked over her shoulder at the house. She could not make out Phoenix in the crowds behind the windows. What else did he do to distract from his misery? Was that why he had lied about the blocked roads? He did not want her to risk going back out and being attacked by the roamers again?
She looked down at her arm. That did not explain his reaction or the reaction of the soldier earlier that day. "Can I ask you something?" She was not sure why asking Dominic seemed like a good idea. Perhaps his relaxed demeanor engendered confidence. His smile was definitely disarming.
He raised a brow. "Anything," he said.
"Is there something strange about this scar?" She asked as she held out her arm for his inspection.
Cradling her arm in his palms, he looked down at the mark. The touch of his fingers tickled.
After a moment, he said, "Looks like any normal surgery scar. Why would anyone care? I've got a few of my own I could show you."
"That's what I thought," she said. "But Phoenix seemed to be bothered by it."
"Have you asked him about that?"
She looked over her shoulder at the party inside. "Somehow I don't think he'd answer me."
He laughed again, but this time he tamed the sound enough that there were only a few quick glances from the others nearby. "You're probably right," he said. "He has a skill that way. But enough about my uncle. How long are you in town for?"
"If Phoenix has his way, I have a feeling I'll never be allowed to leave."
"And if you can subvert his efforts?" he pressed.
"I'll be on my way back to Mirottaly as soon as I can arrange transportation."
He focused on the floor between them for a moment before looking over the town again. "Can't even take a few days for a vacation?" he asked.
"Too bad," he said before taking a long drink of his wine. "You'll need to head into town tomorrow to make your arrangements. I can send my driver to pick you up since I hear you've lost yours."
"Thank you. That would be an amazing help."
His smile broadened again. "Make sure you get a refundable package. I have a feeling my uncle will be getting his way."
"You Owens men are determined to get your way, aren't you?"
His brow knit. "Owens?" he asked. "Our name isn't Owens. It's Nevett. Where did you hear Owens from?"
Now she was really confused. Was anything Phoenix told her the truth? "Sorry," she said. "I've been introduced to so many people tonight that I think it's all gotten muddled in my brain."
He nodded his understanding. "Fair enough," he said. "But my name's Dominic Nevett. Try not to forget it." He smiled. "I might just take it personally."
"Dominic Nevett," she said. "Filed under priority memories."
"I get priority status do I. Then there may be hope yet."
Yes, Dominic was very easy to talk to and Maya was pleased to realize that no one she had met that night was anything like the jerk in town. Everyone had welcomed her as if she were an honoured guest. With most of them, however, she suspected that had very much to do with their desire to please Phoenix. Dominic seemed to like her independently of that. Though she wasn't sure she would ever return his feelings, his attentions felt good nonetheless. She had no desire to shoot him down just yet.
They did not return to the party until near the end of the night when Phoenix announced to the remaining guests that it was time to leave. This was met by several guests shouting bids for how much longer to keep the party going. This was apparently a nightly tradition. If Phoenix accepted the highest bid, then for every 100 Parts the guests could stay another minute. That night, the top bid was 9400 parts. It had reached that high largely because the inebriated guests were enjoying shouting higher numbers than their friends.
A big show was made of the bills being passed over to Phoenix. There was much cheering as the man skipped through the crowd to hand over the money with a great arc of his hand. Phoenix took the bills with both hands and a large bow.
For the next hour and a half, Dominic and Maya mingled with the other guests as they discussed the latest fashions and their latest surgeries. When it came time to see the guests off, Dominic stood by Maya, waiting until he was the only one left before saying goodnight.
"I'll send my driver up before noon," he said as Phoenix was struck by a convenient bought of exhaustion.
She could not help smiling back this time. "Thanks so much. You are really making my life easier. I don't think I could walk that hill again."
They said their good-byes and Dominic got into the back of the waiting car. His masked driver shut the back door before getting into the driver's seat and heading through the iron gates.
Maya stood on the top step, watching him leave despite the cool air causing her bare arms to shiver. When they were gone. She was about to turn to go back inside when she thought she noticed something amongst the trees near the patio.
Something had moved. She knew that for sure but as she squinted, all she could see were the bushes and the tree trunks. She waited another moment. There was no movement. She shrugged and went back inside.
Maya had trouble sleeping that night. Maybe it was the strange room, the unfamiliar bed, or the strange noises in the house. She was sure she had heard someone walking around in her room but every time she turned on the light and looked around, she was alone. After the sixth time it happened, she became convinced it was just the house settling in a strange way.
Her dreams were filled with chattering crowds and Dominic's face. Though she had not been in Sile even a day, its hold on her bordered on the traumatic. When not obsessing about the party of Dominic, her mind tortured her with what she had yet to do.
She should have contacted HPO the moment she was released in Sile. The note in her pocket had completely distracted her from the routine task. Alone in this dark room, Phoenix's enchantments had worn away and her reality was all too present. She had not checked in. There would be problems. Before she could entertain Dominic, she would need to go to Sile's HPO branch and explain the situation. She only hoped there wouldn't be problems. She needed to get back to Mirottaly. She knew she would be reprimanded either way.
As the room lightened with the dawn, Maya felt relief that she no longer had to attempt sleep. She stumbled out of bed and headed straight for the shower. Though the warm water felt good on her skin, it did little to rejuvenate her. Her mind was still agonizing over her failure to check-in when she opened the dresser drawers in search of clean clothing.
"He couldn't have put in at least one pair of jeans?" she muttered as she looked over the selection of skirts and dresses.
She pulled out a yellow wrap dress and put it on. The skirt felt just past the knee. It was better than nothing but she would have preferred the freedom a pair of pants offered. She sighed as she resigned herself to the situation. Phoenix thought he was being helpful and he was, just not necessarily in ways that made Maya comfortable.
She headed downstairs. The pungent smell of black coffee lured her like a siren's song. She fantasized that the caffeine would erase her worries along with her exhaustion.
Phoenix had the house in disarray again. Bolts of fabric had been tossed into all sorts of places. The plant by the door was adorned with a long swath of fabric again. His creative process was much more chaotic than Maya thought she could bear but she was a guest in his house, so it was not her place to comment.
She did not say good morning to him, fearing the same snappish response she had gotten over the intercom the day before. If he wanted to be left alone to work, she was perfectly happy given him that space. She looked around, hoping to see the source of the aroma that had pulled at her. She couldn't see any coffee pots and Phoenix did not have a mug near him.
He was hunched over the coffee table in the same outfit he had been wearing when she first met him. His hand zipped and whirled over a large sheet of paper as he sketched his latest idea. She was too far away to see the details of it but he frequently reached over to grab blue and yellow markers that he used to fill the drawing in with broad strokes.
"I just buzzed the gate for Dominic's car," he said without looking up. "Have fun."
"Thanks," Maya muttered with a twinge of regret. Her last hope of getting that cup of coffee dissipated with his words. At least Dominic was taking her to lunch. She looked around for a clock. Was it really that late in the day already?
"I knew that dress would be perfect for you," he said, still not looking up.
Maya raised an eyebrow. When had he looked? She muttered another thanks though inside she wanted to ask for something else to wear. "I'll be back this afternoon," she said, realizing she shouldn't keep Dominic waiting. "Thanks again."
"Not a problem, dear. Bye."
She opened the front door. Dominic's driver was standing next to a black limousine with tinted windows. A thick cloth covered the lower half of his face and his hands were covered in rigid gloves. When he saw her approach, he opened the rear door. Two of his fingers did not bend with the others as he gripped the handle.
Dominic poked his head out and smiled broadly at her. "Perfect timing," he said. "I wasn't expecting you to be ready yet. It's only 11:30."
"Just happened to work out, I guess," she said returning his smile, the smile that had haunted her through the night.
"Get in," he beckoned. "I've got an errand to run before lunch anyway."
"As do I," she said. "I really need to get to the nearest HPO branch."
She climbed in and took her seat next to him. He was wearing a navy three-piece suit with a clean white shirt and pinstripe tie. He waved a dismissive hand at her comment. "No need," he said. "It's already been taken care of."
She raised a brow. "I don't mean to offend your connections but I'm quite sure only I can manage this particular visit."
He hit the switch that raised the divider behind the driver. When it was raised and the car had set off, he turned back to her. He pulled out a small wallet that looked very much like the one she had lost the day before. It was the wallet most people never saw.
He flipped it open and showed her the card inside. It read:
Home Protection Office
Agent: Dominic Nevett
Security Clearance: Level 4 Sorienops Act
So the only reason he was nice to me was because he was a fellow agent, she thought to herself. She knew she was being silly but the discovery stung just a little. "Screener," she said as she looked back at his face, which matched the photo on the ID perfectly.
"Deana East Analog Time Hunter," he said.
With the correct code words spoken, she relaxed a little. She began to say the reply code so that he could confirm who she was especially since she had no identity card to show him.
"No need," he said. "I spent most of the night talking with headquarters about you. You were supposed to be back in Mirottaly. They had presumed you dead or worse. You really should have checked in yesterday. They are livid about it."
"You can thank your uncle for that. He kept me busy," she said, her heart sinking with the confirmation of her worst fears. She saw the face of her supervisor, Michael, in her mind. He looked similar to Dominic if Dominic aged fifteen years, dyed his hair blond, and had frown lines.
In fact, Dominic was looking very much like Michael at the moment. There was no smile on his face as he nodded in response to her comment. "He tends to do that. How did you end up in his house anyway?"
"There was a note in the clothing they gave me after screening."
"Interesting," he said in a flat voice. "Any idea who put it there?"
"No," she said even as her mind skipped back to the soldier who had started at the sight of her scar. It was possible she had imagined the man's reaction. After all, Dominic had said himself there was nothing remarkable about her scar. Still, she couldn't dismiss the soldier entirely. She just needed another day to think about it before saying any of her silly theories out loud.
"Too bad," he said. "You don't happen to have the note on you, do you?"
She shook her head. "It's back in my room. I can get it for you when we get back."
"Do that," he said. "We've been trying to discover the identity of a mole in Sile for years. We've made no headway. He's been too smart but this might just be his first slip up. Maybe you got the note by mistake. It could have been intended for one of the mole's allies."
"Mole? Allies? In what?"
"Someone is trying to help the roamers," he said. "And this person is not working alone."
She thought of the hoard that had swarmed her car, of hearing the flesh of her driver tear as they ripped at him. She swallowed hard as she blocked the memory. Everyone had had at least one brush with roamers. "Why would anyone want to help them?," she asked with forced calm. "They're animals. They threaten the existence of everyone."
"Not everyone sees it that way evidently. What I would like to know is why you have been targeted and, more importantly, why you were sent to my uncle."
"I have no idea. I wasn't even supposed to be in Sile," she said. "I wish I could be of more help."
He smiled again. "You will be quite a bit of help to me," he said. "I knew I recognized your name last night, which is why I contacted HPO. After telling them about your appearance at the party, they agreed to switch you to my assignment. You will be staying in Sile until we find this mole and arrest him. Everyone goes to Phoenix's parties. They are the best place to get information. The fact that Phoenix is gushing over you helps too. Everyone will trust you because he does."
"I wouldn't say he trusts me."
"It doesn't matter if he really does. Everyone else thinks he does. That's what's important."
Her guts churned at the idea of enduring more of those parties and being put on display night after night. She didn't want to be Phoenix's doll but if HPO required it of her, she had little choice. "Why do they think I can help?" she asked, grasping at a reason to get out of it while trying not to be too obvious. "I mean, you've been going to those parties for years right? And how much more trust worthy can you get than Phoenix's nephew?"
His mouth compressed into a line.
The car came to a stop. Maya looked through the window. Her eyes fell upon the large NPB logo; National Parts Bank.
"Why are we at the bank?" she asked.
"We're getting you a new account set up here. HPO has already approved it. I'm sure my uncle has already seen to your clothes and we need you to stay with him as long as he'll let you but you will still need money, especially if you get into the circles we need access to." He pulled out a brown envelope from under the seat and handed it to her. "I picked up your new documents this morning and the military has already been informed that you have been approved to stay in Sile."
She opened the envelope and pulled out the small wallet that looked like Dominic's. She flipped it open and read over the information to make sure it was correct.
Home Protection Office
Agent: Maya Thanatos
Security Clearance: Level 2 Sorienops Act
She looked at her photo, a deadpan expression on her face. It was a horrible photo but it fit what HPO required. She looked at her security clearance level again. Dominic was Level 4. She could not help wondering about all the things he might know that she didn't.
She looked in the envelope again. There were travel and residence permission documents all neatly stapled together. She had no pocket or purse for the papers so she kept them with her ID in the brown envelope. She would have to ask Phoenix if he had any accessories like purses lying around later.
The door opened and Maya climbed out with Dominic following close behind her.
As with all banks. There were three doors: a heavily armored door on the left with 'Deposits' emblazoned on a sign above it, a plain white door on the right labelled 'Withdrawals', and a frosted glass door between them labelled 'Transactions'. Dominic skipped ahead and held open the 'Transactions' door for Maya.
She walked into the air-conditioned, white room. A lady in a white lab coat was sitting at a glass desk and typing the information from a sheet of paper into the computer in front of her. The wall behind her was frosted glass. Shadows moved behind it.
The woman looked up and smiled as Maya and Dominic approached. "Welcome to NPB, how can I help you today?" she asked in her rehearsed line.
"We need to set up a new account," Dominic said as he pulled out a small white envelope from inside his jacket pocket.
"Identification," the lady requested.
Maya pulled out her forms and ID and handed them to the woman, who nodded as she read them over. She looked up only to compare Maya to the photo on her ID.
Dominic then handed his envelope to her. "These should be all the necessary transfer forms."
The woman set Maya's documents down on the desk before taking the offered envelope and checking the contents. When she had extricated the new documents and looked them over, her brow furrowed.
"500,000 Parts," she said. "That will be a problem. There is supposed to be a parts transfer coming in tomorrow but until then, we can only guarantee 250,000. Will that be alright?"
Maya looked at Dominic, who nodded. "That should be fine," he said.
The woman began typing the information into her computer. "I will print out a declaration form for you to sign. It will say that you understand the situation and will outline how much will be designated for the account once the transfer comes in. You will need to submit a copy to the HPO branch for their records as well."
Dominic nodded. "Sure thing," he said.
The only sounds in the room were the clicking keys of the woman's keyboard. Maya looked around but the walls were bare. She was not sure what she had been expecting to see. It was like any of the other banks she had been in.
She looked over at Dominic. His face was unreadable. It was strange seeing him so serious after their meeting of the night before. He had smiled so much and been very charismatic. Her blood jolted through her veins at the memory. Her jaw clenched as she berated herself for being so silly. He was good at his job and she was focusing far too little on hers. When he had been flirting with her, she was not even sure she had wanted the attention. Now she knew it had all been an act, she couldn't stop hoping it had been real.
"Alright," the woman said, startling Maya after the prolonged silence. She pushed a form across the desk and pointed with a pen to the signature line at the bottom. "This is the declaration form," she said. "Either of you can sign it."
Dominic took the pen and did as instructed. There were several more forms for both Dominic and Maya to sign but when all the drudgery had been completed, Maya was handed her new bank card.
Dominic had also suggested she withdraw at least 500 Parts in bills to have just in case. She couldn't see why she would be using so much but did as he told her. After all, he was technically her superior now. She tucked the bills into the brown envelope along with her documentation.
When they left the bank and were out in the fresh air again, Dominic smiled. "Ready for lunch?" he asked.
She nodded. She still wanted coffee more than food but a restaurant would have both. She was feeling better just anticipating the black liquid.
Dominic's driver held the door for them as they climbed back into the car. "Now that we have business out of the way, we can relax," Dominic said once they were settled. His broad smile had returned to its true glory.
She raised a brow. "Can we ever relax on a mission?" she asked.
He chuckled. "Always," he said. "With this type of work, it's best that way. It's easier to gain people's trust when you're at ease."
"Is that what you were doing last night?" She wanted to kick herself the moment the words had left her lips. Asking that one question felt the same as dropping her clothes to the floor right in front of him.
His smile did not fade. In fact, he seemed more pleased. "Maybe," he said.
She wanted to hit him. Maybe he thought his games were endearing but they were making her fists clench involuntarily. "That is hardly professional," she grunted.
"I would have thought someone with your history would be well accustomed to the masks we have to wear in this profession." His tone was serious but the smile still danced in his eyes.
"You know my case history?" she asked.
He nodded. "Of course. I make it a point to learn everything possible about those I work with. After what you just did in Thirreb, I would have thought you could handle anything but I'm beginning to suspect you're having trouble handling me."
"Don't be ridiculous," she lied. "You're a fellow agent. I don't need to handle you."
"Maybe," he said again.
The car turned onto Parts Avenue. Maya looked at the shops they passed without really seeing them. She refused to indulge his stupid replies. Even coffee wasn't worth this.
"Just as a reminder," he said, breaking the silence, "It doesn't really matter what either of us thinks of the other. We have a job to do and we will do it. We are also forbidden from bringing anything unprofessional to our relationship. Do you get my meaning?"
She nodded. He was right; they needed to be professional, but she still wanted to hit him.
Maya said nothing to Dominic the rest of the way to the restaurant. She was not deliberately giving him the cold shoulder so much as she just wanted to be alone. It was the same feeling she had had about attending Phoenix's party. Other people made her ill at ease. Though Dominic had been easy to talk to the night before, knowing the truth about him negated any of the warm feelings such ease had brought.
The bright and crowded restaurant accosted her with everything she wanted to flee. A few heads turned to the door as they entered. The customers' appraising eyes did not go unnoticed and Maya was cursing Phoenix again for the dress she had been forced to wear. At the same time, the robust twang of fresh coffee and expertly crafted pastries wafted past her nose, beckoning her onward with more power than her will could have ever hoped to resist.
Their server was a young man with perfect skin and a marked lack of gloves or mask. He led them to a table along one wall. It was covered with a white table cloth and had been neatly set with flowers and wine glasses. He pulled out the chair nearest the wall for Maya. Dominic sat across from her, his back to the rest of the room. He leaned back and crossed one leg over the other.
"A bottle of Paso, please," Dominic said before the young man could even give him the wine list.
The man nodded, handed them their menus, and left to fetch the drink.
"Paso?" Maya asked. "What's the occasion?"
He smiled but it was more restrained than usual. "Partly a peace offering," he said, "Partly to celebrate the news you are staying in Sile." He uncrossed his legs to lean forward and reach across the table to take her hand in his. "You know how happy I am to hear it."
"I just hope your boss doesn't mind you taking this vacation too much," he added.
Her jaw tensed and she had to focus to keep herself appearing calm and at ease with him. This must be why he was Level 4. His mask could be turned on completely and within seconds.
"It is the first time I've taken one," she said, feeling a twinge in her gut at playing along. Why was she being so silly? This was her job. She had done it before, though not much. Why did she feel so guilty for the deception now? She was feeling like a trainee.
"I hope you'll take many more in the future," he said as he let go of her hand and sat back. "I have a reason to look forward to my uncle's parties now."
She forced a smile, worrying that it looked unnatural but not feeling happy enough to do anything about it. No matter how hard she tried, she knew the expression never made it to her eyes.
The door to the restaurant opened and Maya instinctively looked up. Her brow furrowed when she recognized Dominic's driver. His eyes were wide as he scanned the room. Seeing Maya and Dominic, he headed right over.
She nudged Dominic's foot with hers. When he turned to see what was wrong, he too looked surprised.
When his driver reached them, he bent over to whisper in Dominic's ear. Dominic's jaw clenched at what he was hearing. When the driver was done talking, Dominic said, "We'll be right out. Have the car running."
The man nodded before turning and hurrying from the restaurant. Dominic did not enlighten her. He waved to the nearest server and explained they had to leave and to give the Paso to whoever wanted it. He then gave the server several bills.
Maya followed without having to be told and stayed quiet until they were back in the car.
"What's going on?" she asked when the door was shut and the car had started moving.
"We have to get back to the bank," he said. "Phoenix had a sudden outbreak and requires emergency surgery."
"Is he going to be alright?"
He looked out the window. "It will cost 14,000 Parts," he said.
She swallowed. Such an extensive surgery was rare; surviving such even more so.
As they made their way to the bank, neither spoke. Dominic's foot bounced rapidly and he tapped his fingers on his knees. Maya kept her hands clasped in her lap and her eyes focused resolutely out the window and on the storefronts they passed.
When they got to the bank, Dominic did not wait for the driver to get out of the car. Maya scrambled to follow. He was already holding open the door to "Withdrawals" when she had extricated herself from the vehicle.
"Go to Amelia's," he called out to the driver who looked confused by not having to open the door for them. "She'll spread the word about what has happened. I doubt Phoenix will be able to entertain tonight."
The driver nodded, got back into the car, and drove off.
The inside of the lobby for "Withdrawals" was similar to that for "Transactions" except there were chairs for waiting and several people in lab coats going in and out through a door behind the main desk as they came to retrieve and submit paperwork. There was no one in the waiting room at the moment, but behind the door must have been very busy.
Behind the desk sat a woman in a white lab coat. Her hair was pinned tightly at the back of her head and she was scanning the documents handed her before inputting the information into the computer in front of her.
Dominic walked up to the desk and did not wait for the woman to address him.
"I am Phoenix's nephew," he said. "I want to see him."
The lady looked up. "I'm sorry," she said. "He's already been taken into surgery."
"How long?" Dominic demanded with a restrained bark.
"Given the extent of his outbreak, I would estimate at least three hours. You are welcome to wait here or come back then."
His shoulders rose and fell in a slow, deliberate movement, after which he was smiling again. It was not the easy, broad smile Maya had become accustomed to seeing. It was tight and restrained. His mask was faltering. "My uncle means a lot to me," he said. "I would really appreciate it if I could get back there to see him."
The woman's mouth pressed into a thin line. "I'm sorry," she said. "I really cannot allow that. He is already in surgery and only medical personnel are permitted in the operating room."
"Thank you anyway," he said, though his tone lacked any of the graciousness the words should have implied. He turned and walked to one of the empty chairs in the waiting room and sat down. Having no idea what else to do, Maya took the seat next to him.
"I'm sure he'll be fine," she said. "Even after all these years, he is still in great health."
"He spends an average of 7,000 Parts a month to maintain that health," he growled. His hands were gripping his knees so tightly that his knuckles had gone white.
She blinked. "I had no idea."
He shrugged. "To be honest, it's the same as the average spending for all the aging wealthy in this town. Exactly the same." He looked over at the woman at the desk again. She had returned to reading over the documents and entering the data into her computer. "I don't know why it bothers me so much," he said. "None of the rest of them have had the final death yet."
Maya had no idea what to say. Dominic was a fellow agent; one who had made clear that they were to keep their relationship professional. On top of that, he was an agent who took acting as a very serious part of his job. She could not help but feel any consolations from her would be received as insincere and, if she was honest with herself, she was not entirely sure his grief was genuine.
"Is there a coffee shop nearby?" she asked. "I could get us some coffee." If he was as distraught as he seemed, she hoped the drink would help soothe him but mostly she just wanted to escape for a few minutes and sort the events in her own head. She had never expected to end up in Sile, let alone on a mission. She was still trying to turn her thoughts away from the regret of not tying up the loose ends in Mirottaly.
"Just three shops down on the right," he said as he reached into his pocket, pulled out several bills, and held them out for her.
"I can pay," she said, refusing the bills.
He smirked. "I doubt that. You left your things in the car."
She looked around, realizing he was right. Something about this town had addled her brain. It was a simple oversight she never would have made before. She felt like a complete amateur sitting there with her most important papers forgotten in a car.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "You can treat me next time."
As she took the offered money, he said, "Black. None of that other crap in it."
She nodded and left to fetch their coffee.
Outside, it was almost as warm as it had been the day before. Maya was beginning to think that a cold drink would be better but she had yet to have any breakfast and she was beginning to feel the effects of a coffee-less morning.
As she passed a jewellery store, two clothing stores, and a shoe store, she stopped. She looked up and down the street at the businesses then turned around and continued in the right direction this time.
She stopped and turned around. A soldier with a covered faced was approaching her. He had a Glock in a holster on his hip.
"Can I see your papers please?"
She looked back towards the bank. Dominic's driver had not yet returned, though she had not expected him to. "I left them in my friend's car," she said.
"Come with me," he ordered.
"My friend is right in the bank. He can vouch for me." It was a feeble attempt but she really did not want to go through another session of screening all because she had forgotten to keep the envelope with her.
"Sure, he is," the soldier said as he reached for her arm.
"It would be quite a bit faster and less paperwork than if you take me in," she added.
He shrugged as his fingers wrapped around her bicep. "I'm not the one who does the paperwork."
Maya shut her mouth tight. It was obvious nothing was going to change how this was going to play out.
He pulled her down the street away from the bank, keeping his grip on her tight enough that her fingers were beginning to numb. As irritated as she was that she would needlessly have to go through screening, she was more concerned about Dominic. She was not sure what he would think when she didn't return with the coffee and was also worried she would be reprimanded for not properly checking in again.
They turned a corner and walked down a new street. The sun was hot on Maya's back.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"I'm taking you in for screening," he said.
"The gate is on the south side," she pointed out as she tried to jerk her arm from his grasp.
He seemed to have been prepared. In one seamless movement, he spun her around in front of him and had both her arms held behind her back. She let her legs go limp beneath her but he was ready for that too. He let go of her hands only to wrap his arms around her body so that he could carry her down the street. She tried to kick and wiggle out of his hold but her kicks went unnoticed and he only tightened his grip in response to her wiggling.
The street they were on was a side street that lacked the traffic of the main roads. Even if she tried to scream, there would likely be no one that would help her. Her thoughts went to the man's gun. She didn't want to risk anyone trying to help her either. She stayed quiet but did not cease her struggling. Her hope of escape plummeted when the soldier pulled her into a building, shutting and locking the door once they were inside.
He dropped her. She had not been expecting it and so she was not able to get a decent footing. She fell forward onto her knees, which exploded in pain as they hit the concrete floor hard.
She tried to look around to get a good feeling of her surroundings but they were in darkness. The only light came from the cracks around the door and those were not sufficient to make sense of the void around her.
"What do you want?" she demanded as she climbed to her feet. The room smelled of dust and wet concrete. The stagnant air made her breathing shallow.
"Just doing my job," he said.
"Your job? Whose job?" She was trying to get back to the door without running into him but he seemed to have melded into the blackness. She froze when she felt body heat next to her right arm.
His breath was hot on her ear as he said, "How many more of you did they send for this mission? Did they send anything with you?"
"What are you talking about? I work in finances in Mirottaly."
He chuckled, his breath tickling her throat as he did. "Maya Thanatos, a lowly financial worker? I think not, Agent 108." He smelled of coffee but the smell was not the same temptation she had been feeling since waking up that morning. On his breath it was stale and unpleasantly pungent.
His body was pressed against the side of hers. She considered using the proximity to attack him but she was not confident she could do so effectively and get away unharmed. For the moment, she waited. "Who are you?" she asked, allowing her voice to quaver as she tried to summon the masks that Dominic had talked about. If she allowed him to think she was terrified, he might think he really had made a mistake. It was more difficult than she had expected because, despite the situation, she was not afraid. If anything she had a strange swirling in her gut of curiosity and rage.
"An agent, like you."
"Try showing your ID next time," she shot back, the anger rising in her cheeks despite herself. If he really was an agent, he hardly needed to accost her to have a conversation.
"I forgot it in my friend's car." She could hear the smile in his voice as he mimicked her earlier excuse.
She had no patience for games but he had her at a disadvantage. "Let me go."
"You're working with Dominic Nevett," he said, ignoring her request. "That hasn't gone unnoticed."
"I just met Dominic last night. I've never met him before," she pleaded, trying to cry now. She managed a wail to her voice but the tears would not come. She was thankful that the darkness would hide that fact. "He asked me to lunch," she rambled. "We heard his uncle was ill when we were at the restaurant. That's all. I have no idea what you are talking about with missions and agents. Now, let me go."
"I just need one more thing from you," he said, unmoved.
Before she could react, he had a wet cloth pressed against her face. She held her breath as long as she could as she tried to struggle against him but just like he had outside, he compensated for all of her efforts. Her lungs convulsed as her muscles spasmed against her determination to keep from breathing. Her body betrayed her and she gasped, taking in a large breath permeated by rotten sweetness. With her body's refusal to cooperate in her resistance, she had soon taken several more inhalations of the chemical on the cloth. Her fingers clawed at her attacker's face in one last act of desperation but far from the strong offensive she was hoping, they simply slid gently down his cheek as her arm fell.
She woke up with a splitting headache. Her throat felt dry and ragged. Her mouth fared little better as her tongue felt like she had been licking a metal pole.
She was still in darkness. Before she moved an inch, she listened for rustling fabric, for breathing, for anything that indicated she was not alone. Nothing. She sat up and stared at the light spilling through the cracks around the door.
Apart from the pounding in her head and her dry mouth and throat, the rest of her body felt completely normal and unharmed. Her mind flashed to Dominic. He would be wondering what happened to her. What had happened to her? What had that strange abduction been about?
Her clothes felt intact and no different. She felt no other physical effects of a molestation. She ran over what had been said. Though the conversation was muddled, she doubted it would have made any more sense to her even if her memory were clear.
She pushed herself to her feet and left the building. Outside, she turned to look at where she had been taken. A large white sign with red letters said: For Lease. There was no building number on the outside but it was near a corner with a street sign that indicated she was on Ram's Ore Way.
By the change in the sun's position, she estimated she had been gone an hour. Her stomach flipped at the realization.
She walked back to the bank, which was really only half a block away. It had seemed farther when she had been trying to fight off her attacker. She berated herself for not screaming. Dominic would have helped her if she had screamed loud enough.
She walked into the Withdrawals office. Dominic was still sitting in the waiting room. He looked up when she entered and within a second was in front of her.
"Are you alright? What happened?" he asked. "You look awful, what's happened to your face, and why do you have blood on your arm?"
She followed his gaze to the crook of her elbow. A trail of dried blood from a pinprick hole curved around it.
"Why did he take my blood?" She wondered aloud.
"Who?" Dominic's hands were firmly on her shoulders. When she looked up, he was already staring wide-eyed into her face.
"I don't know," she said. "He was dressed like a soldier. His face was covered. He took me to an empty building on Ram's Ore Way. I woke up there and came straight back."
"Did he say anything to you?"
She nodded but glanced over his shoulder to the wide-eyed woman at the desk without saying anything. He nodded his understanding.
"We'll discuss it later," he said. "First, you need to get checked out. Who knows what he put in you."
He led her by the arm to the desk. "We need to see a doctor," he said as if the woman had not already realized.
She nodded as she stood. "Of course. Just one moment."
She went through the doors behind her and was gone for several moments.
"He claimed he was an agent," Maya whispered out of the side of her mouth.
Dominic scoffed. "Not one of ours, surely. I doubt he was really military either."
"That's what I thought."
Dominic looked over at her again. "Are you sure you're ok?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I think so but I hadn't realized there was blood on my arm so I can't say for sure."
"It will be alright," he said as he rubbed her back with his hand. "We'll get you checked out. It looks like we'll both have to be more careful from now on. I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"You have to," she said. "It's part of our mission."
He grunted but said nothing in response.
While they were alone, Maya took the opportunity to fill him in on what exactly had happened.
Dominic furrowed his brow. "I haven't gotten a single lead in years and you show up and the leads, as cryptic as they are, won't stop coming. As soon as we're done here, I'm taking you home and contacting HPO. It's possible our mole has infiltrated HPO itself. Our job is going to be that much harder." He looked around. "How long does it take to fetch a doctor?" He muttered.
Maya had forgotten about that entirely but now that Dominic mentioned it, the woman was taking very a long time. They waited several more minutes before she finally returned, a handsome man in scrubs following close behind.
He looked right at Maya. "I'm Dr. Soren. Please follow me," he said with a restrained smile.
He took them through the doors and into the back of the bank. They walked down a long, white hallway lined with doors, many of which were closed. It smelled strongly of anti-septic.
They passed several people in lab coats and scrubs who were heading into various rooms. Farther ahead were double doors with small square windows. As they walked by, both Dominic and Maya looked through them.
It was the operating room. Several medical personnel were gathered around two tables. Each had what looked like a body on it but Maya could not be sure because they were covered in large green sheets. The surgeon was in the process of turning from one table back to the other. He was holding a small plastic tray in one hand and a medical clamp in the other. His front was bloody and in the tray were several fingers.
"Phoenix?" Maya asked Dominic under her breath.
He nodded but said nothing. His mouth was in a firm, tight line.
Dr. Soren stopped at an open door and gestured for Maya and Dominic to go inside. It was a small exam room with the same white walls as the hall.
"Sit on the exam table please," the doctor said as he followed them in.
Maya did as instructed. The doctor examined her face first. When Maya was confused by this, he pulled a mirror out of a drawer and held it up. Around her nose and mouth the skin was the faint purple-red of a chemical burn. When he had finished inspecting it, he looked at her arm, asking about what had happened and how she was feeling. He checked her eyes and reflexes for any signs of ill effects from being knocked out. He examined the pinprick wound on her arm and then he retrieved vials and syringes from a small cupboard before taking her blood himself.
When the vials were full, he pulled a clipboard out of a rack on the wall and began to fill out a sheet that had already been affixed to it. He then handed the board to Maya. "Fill this out," he said. He then picked up the vials and added, "I'm just going to run some tests on these to make sure you weren't injected with anything. It will take a few minutes but you are welcome to wait here. I'll take the completed forms when I get back."
Even when they were alone again, Dominic didn't speak. He was staring at the wall, seemingly unaware the doctor had even left. Every few moments, his lips would purse or his brow would knit. Maya tried to focus on filling out the forms but after writing down her name in the appropriate box, Dominic's facial expressions were just too curious to ignore.
"Everything alright?" she asked.
He did not startle at her question. He simply nodded as if he knew she had been watching him. "I'm just thinking about what all this means for our mission," he said. "There have been a few surprises today. There is so much more I need to investigate."
She nodded her understanding. "Do you think we need to let the military know someone was impersonating one of their soldiers?"
His jaw tensed as he considered. Then he shook his head. "No. I think involving the military would be premature and create complications for us."
She raised a brow. "I thought you said this guy wasn't really military. You don't think he might actually have been working for them, do you?"
He said nothing.
"You look very different when you're frowning," she commented without really meaning to.
He forced a grin. "I don't have to wear the mask with you when we're alone," he said. "But at least that means I succeed at wearing it in public."
"Are you going to be alright?"
He let out a deep breath. "My mind is just working. That's all."
She didn't believe him but she doubted pressing the issue would be productive so she dropped it. Returning to the form, she considered the next box she needed to fill out. She was supposed to write her address but under the circumstances she was not sure what to put. With a sigh, she wrote: 942 Pridemonte Way, Sile.
"GET AWAY FROM ME!"
Maya dropped the pen and clipboard as both she and Dominic jumped to their feet at the sound of a woman screaming. They hesitated only long enough to look at each other before lunging for the door.
"Please, calm down."
It sounded like Dr. Soren was in the hall too.
Maya and Dominic ran out to see what was happening.
A young woman, maybe only a few years younger than Maya, was pressed into the corner at the end of the hallway. She was wearing a hospital gown and holding a scalpel in both hands in front of her. Her eyes were darting around the hall and had landed on Maya and Dominic.
"You're monsters. Get away from me!" She screamed. Her voice echoed down the full length of the hallway. The vibrations of her fear shook Maya's insides as it reverberated off the hard walls and floor.
Dr. Soren, flanked by several men who looked too muscular to be the nurses their uniforms and nametags implied, was approaching her slowly with his hands up in capitulation.
"We are just taking you for an examination to make sure you're alright," he said.
"Don't lie to me!" The girl shrieked. "I know what happens here. We all do."
"Miss, please," Dr. Soren pleaded.
"No! I won't be used for spare parts. I'm not a monster like you. I'm still human."
"We're all human," he reasoned.
The girl's jaw tensed. "Not anymore." She lifted the scalpel to her arm. "At least if I die, my body won't live on as a disfigured monster like you."
"Stop!" He shouted even as she began pulling the scalpel down her arm in a long line. She switched hands and did the same to her other arm. Then she held the scalpel to her throat.
"Stop her!" He yelled to the nurses on either side of him. The men charged forward but it was too late.
"Filthy zombies," the girl seethed before stabbing the scalpel into her jugular. Her body had crumpled to the floor before the men could reach her. Her eyes remained open and focused upon Maya as the last of her life gurgled from her throat.
The doctor was shaking his head. "20,000 Parts wasted just like that," he muttered as he stared at the now lifeless girl upon the floor.
Dominic walked over to the doctor and rested his hand on the man's shoulder. "Roamers are so hard to control. Someday, we'll figure out how to handle them and things like this won't happen anymore."
Dr. Soren swallowed. "I'd rather we didn't need them at all," he said. He sighed. "I'll go get your test results," he muttered before turning and walking back down the hall.
The nurses remained behind. One had already lifted the girl's body and was carrying it through one of The back doors. Another had fetched a mop and bucket to clean up the blood that was slowly advancing in a narrow stream down the hall towards Maya.
Dominic walked back to her. "You'd think the Roamers had forgotten why things are the way they are," he said. "If it weren't for them, none of this would have happened."
Maya nodded her agreement but was having trouble pushing what had just happened from her mind.
They returned to the examination room. Maya bent down to pick up the clipboard. She didn't care about filling it out now. She sat on the table and held it in her lap but ignored it.
"I'll do that for you," Dominic said, easing the board out from under her hands.
"Thanks," she muttered.
"You've never seen anything like that before, have you?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Sile is providing me with several firsts."
He nodded as his hand darted across the form. Maya wondered if she should be disturbed that he knew enough about her to fill out her medical forms. She shook the thought from her head. They were agents. He was her superior. It was his job to know.
"I assumed, given your last mission, that you'd been through quite a bit more."
"It always sounds more dangerous than it is," she said.
"Fair enough." He lowered the clipboard and set it on the table next to her. "Are you sure you can do this?"
She tried to chuckle but it never became anything more than a quipped exhale. "Do I have a choice?"
"Unfortunately, no," he said. He wrapped his arms around her and kept her close. Her face was buried in his shoulder and she could not help but close her eyes.
She had thought she was ready for bigger missions. Thirreb had made her feel strong enough, like she had been right. Sile had taken her fledgling confidence away from her. Where had her bravado gone?
Dominic was so warm. She knew she should push him away. Masks or not, she had no idea what to think about him. When he was flirting with her, she was never sure if she liked it. When he wasn't, she was sure she did.
She put her palms on his chest and gently pushed him away. "Professionals," she whispered.
He nodded. "Of course."
Dr. Soren returned with several sheets of paper in one hand and a white bottle of something in the other. "You're in luck," he said as he looked over the papers in his hand. "There was nothing abnormal in your blood work." He held out the small bottle. "This is an ointment for that burn. Apply it once this afternoon and again before bed," he explained. "The burn should be gone by morning but keep applying the ointment every night before bed for the next week."
Maya took the bottle and thanked him.
"I've been told you also happen to be Phoenix's family," the doctor said as he turned to Dominic.
"His surgery has gone better than expected. They are just finishing his bandages so you can go see him but he won't be ready to go home until tomorrow."
After taking Maya's completed forms, the doctor led them out into the hall again. Maya could not help but glance over at the far corner. Any evidence of what had happened had been cleaned away and it looked as pristine as when they had arrived.
They were taken several doors down to another room. It was much larger inside and in the middle was a hospital bed. A man was laying upon it, bandages around his face, arms, and legs. A blanket covered his middle. A nurse was adjusting the settings on an IV drip.
The patient's head lolled in their direction and he lifted the tips of his fingers in a miniscule wave.
"The surgeon will be right in to speak with you," Dr. Soren said before leaving them alone.
Dominic's eyes followed the length of Phoenix's body. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Sleepy," Phoenix whispered.
"Are the medicines enough for the pain?"
"Do you need anything?"
Maya looked over her shoulder at the door, partly wondering when the surgeon would show up and partly wondering if she could just leave. She had just met Phoenix the day before. It felt rude to be intruding upon what should be a family moment.
"Maya," Phoenix whispered.
She stepped closer, surprised he had addressed her. "Yes?"
But he said nothing. She waited another awkward moment before the surgeon came into the room.
He shook their hands and introduced himself as Dr. Hamilton.
"Dr. Soren said the surgery went better than expected," Dominic said.
Dr. Hamilton nodded but explained, "In many ways, that is true. The damage was mostly surficial and not as extensive as we had first thought. It was mostly skin grafts that were required. However, we had some trouble with our donors. What we were dealing with should have cost only 12,000 Parts. Due to the donor issues, the cost has tripled. Our first donor had insufficient parts. There was an incident with the second and we had to bring out a third for the remaining grafts."
"It's. Fine." Phoenix panted. "I can. Afford it. I want. To Go. Home."
"I'm sorry," Dr. Hamilton said. "We've replaced three of your fingers on your right hand, two on your left, and had to apply skin grafts to almost your entire body. You will have to stay overnight at the very least. Even when you get home, I want you to take at least a month off before you return to work."
"No good," Phoenix protested. "Fall line. Due. This week."
Dr. Hamilton shook his head as his eyes turned to the ceiling. "Why do you think you're in here so much?" he asked. "Because you never take enough rest. If you want these outbreaks to settle down, you need to take it easy."
"Fine," Dr. Hamilton grunted. "I'll see you next week for another avoidable surgery then." He turned and left the room.
"You should listen to your doctor," Dominic complained. "You could save yourself so much money."
"I'm tired," Phoenix whispered. "Come back tomorrow."
Dominic leaned over and kissed Phoenix's forehead. "We'll pick you up then."
Dominic and Maya left the bank. Dominic's driver had returned and opened the car door for them.
"I know he owns nearly half the Roamers in that bank but he's being reckless," Dominic vented as we waited for Maya to get in before him. "He needs to take better care of himself."
"He has survived this long. Maybe he can handle it," Maya reasoned as she climbed into the car.
He settled in beside her. "I'll be staying at Phoenix's tonight," he said.
"That really isn't necessary."
He scoffed. "And what exactly happened to you this afternoon?" He asked. Without waiting for an answer, he added, "Until I've made more sense of all this, you're just going to have to get used to me sticking around."
When they reached 942 Pridemonte Way, the gate to Phoenix's house was open.
"They are always doing that," Dominic grumbled.
"Who?" Maya asked.
"The emergency crews," he said. "I guess I can't blame them but it leaves the house open and unattended for hours. I should have sent my driver to check on it earlier."
The car pulled up to the main walk. As they waited for the driver to open the door, Maya said, "You really don't have to stay."
Dominic smirked. "You're not getting rid of me that easily."
The door swung open and Dominic slid out of the car. For a moment, she considered staying where she was in protest but the childish thought faded as quickly as it had come.
After Dominic completed a security check of the house and they had cleaned up the thrown-about fabrics, he finally let Maya seek out coffee from the coffee maker. It was late afternoon and she had yet to have anything to eat or drink. The mug of hot liquid felt divine on her tongue and as it trickled down her throat. She took it with her to the couch and held it close to her chest as she curled her feet beneath her on the cushion.
Dominic spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone in the other room. Every so often, she would hear him raise his voice. Though she never heard exactly what he said, she knew it was not going well. She dared not interrupt to ask so she stayed on the couch, looking out over the town below, only getting up to replenish her drink. She was on her third when Dominic finally emerged.
"Sometimes I wonder whose side they're on," he complained as he took a seat on the adjacent couch. He let his head fall back. She could not tell if he was looking at the ceiling or had his eyes closed.
"I made an order at Beau Noir," he said. "I even managed to talk them into delivery."
Beau Noir was a restaurant of such esteem that she had heard of it even in Mirottaly. It was a common item on the bucket lists of those dreaming of better things; those like her mother. "I didn't realize they would deliver," she said, thinking of the four-year wait to get a reservation.
He chuckled. "They don't but after dealing with HPO on the phone, persuading them was easy. I just told them the address."
She took a sip of her coffee. "What did HPO say?" she asked as she set the mug down on the table.
He did not look up. "Pretty much that we're on our own. They're being pig-headed. They refuse to believe someone sympathetic to the Roamers might have infiltrated their ranks. They were more amenable to thinking the military is at fault but refuse to do anything about it until we can give them more information."
"Great," she muttered.
"My thoughts exactly." He lifted his head to look at her. "You alright?"
She blinked. "Of course, why?"
He chuckled again. "You are very strange," he said. "You seem to have trouble playing roles like an agent. You've never seen a Roamer martyr herself before. And yet, you endured being attacked and witnessing such violence as if you had just met someone you didn't like at a store."
She shrugged. "Maybe I'm just in shock."
He shook his head. "I doubt that."
She picked up her coffee and held it close to her again. "I don't know," she said. "I still see that girl in my head. I feel like I should feel sorry for her but I don't. Dr. Soren told her we're all human. In a way, I suppose that's true but when was the last time we ever thought of each other as such? I watched her die and it bothered me but no more than if I had watched a cow being slaughtered for sale. Can I really look at another human like that?"
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands in front of him. "The Roamers never gave us any such courtesy as moral anguish," he said. "Remember how they treated our kind. They were the first to strip us of the human label. Even that girl today still thought of us as nothing more than monsters. Roamers will never change."
"Maybe not, but have we?"
He blinked back at her for a moment. "We do what is required to survive and if it wasn't for the Roamers' efforts, we would never have needed them in the first place. We could have survived peacefully together without having to harm a single one of them. They made it this way. We have nothing to feel guilty about."
She looked over the town below. The definition of the buildings had melted away into darkness, the dots of the streetlights giving the only indication there was any civilization below. An orange glow still remained on the horizon. "Perhaps," she said.
He moved beside her. "Don't ever make yourself feel guilty for what you saw today," he said. "We wanted it to be all of us together. They chose us-or-them."
She nodded. "I know. I don't feel guilty." That was the entire reason she felt so strange. She could not shake the feeling that, despite the situation, she should feel remorse.
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Good," he said. "If anyone should be torturing themselves over the situation, it's them. It isn't like they hesitate in killing us when they get the chance."
She thought of the fate of her own driver and nodded. "You're right," she said. "They are even less humane in killing us than we are in killing them." She could not help it. She rested her head on Dominic's shoulder. Professional. She could find no will to follow the rules then. In Sile, and truthfully even in Mirottaly, he was all she had.
The caffeine proved insufficient in her system. Dominic was too warm. The house felt too safe. She had had too long a day and too little food. Her lids felt heavy and she did not care enough to fight them.
She had dreams full of strange crowds and chattering sounds that were not quite like conversations. Had people come for a party anyway? The idea jolted her awake. Moonlight shone through her bedroom window. She sat up and looked around. She was fully clothed. A knitted blanket had been laid on top of her. She was completely alone. Her stomach gurgled and growled her hunger.
As tired as she was, she pulled the blanket off and headed downstairs. Maybe Dominic had left some of the meal from Beau Noir for her.
The lights were already on when she got downstairs. Dominic was on the couch; his feet propped up on the coffee table, his head resting against the back of the couch. His hands were clasped over his stomach and his eyes were closed. He was no longer wearing his suit jacket and the top three holes of his shirt were unbuttoned. There was a thick folder laying on the coffee table by his foot.
She could not help herself. She did not want to disturb him but she wondered what was in the folder. She crept up and looked at the writing on the tab: Maya Thanatos. Her mother would have told her it was none of her business. That was partly why she leaned forward and reached out to flip the front open.
Just as her fingers brushed the heavy paper, Dominic stirred. She jumped back and headed in the other direction.
"There's nothing in there you don't already know," he said in a sleepy voice.
She turned to look at him. His eyes were still closed.
"You can't blame me for being curious," she said.
He yawned. "Of course not. An agent should be curious."
"I came down for some food," she explained, changing the subject. "I was hoping there was some left."
His head flopped in the affirmative. "Give me a minute and I'll get it for you," he said.
"No, no. I didn't mean to disturb you. Just tell me where it is and I'll get it."
He stretched his arms above him as he opened his eyes. "I had only meant to take a nap anyway," he countered. "Come make yourself comfortable and I'll go heat it up."
"You are very stubborn," she said, folding her arms across her chest.
He grinned as he stood. "Thank you very much. I try quite hard at it."
She rolled her eyes but was smiling at his playful response. In truth, she was too tired herself to argue. If her stomach hadn't growled as loudly as it did, she would have gone straight back to sleep. She walked over to the couch and curled up on it like she had earlier that day. Dominic was already out of the room by the time she looked up.
"It won't be as good as it was fresh," he called out.
"I'm sure it will be fine," she called back.
She had no idea what time it was aside from the fact that it was dark outside. She looked over at the folder again. Dominic had said she knew everything in it but she was still interested in her life from the perspective of someone else. She leaned over and pulled the folder to her, flipping the cover over as she did so.
The front page included her agent photo, her name, her address in Mirottaly, her security level, and a summary of some other personal information. Under "Family" it read: Deceased; see attached FDFI form.
She flipped over the front page to look over the FDFI form. It read:
Family Deceased Further Information Form
Family Member: Serena Thanatos
Perfectia Protein: Present
Cause of Death: Donor Rejection
Details: Serena Thanatos died when experimental tissue was transplanted during outbreak treatment. Her autopsy revealed she had been infected with the Roamer's Virus which caused the tissue rejection.
Family Member: Leanna Thanatos
Perfectia Protein: Present
Cause of Death: CORA (Casualty of Roamer Attack)
Details: Leanna Thanatos had been abducted from her home by Roamers. Her remains, which consisted of a defleshed skull, mutilated torso, arm, hand, and foot, were found the next morning outside the walls of Thirreb. Investigators were unable to determine how the Roamers entered or escaped the city. Her remains were confirmed through a DNA match.
Family Member: Malcolm Thanatos
Perfectia Protein: Absent
Cause of Death: Execution
Details: Malcolm Thanatos fled the family during the Rights Revolution. Four years later, he was identified as operating a terrorist cell of the Roamers. A pre-emptive attack was carried out by HPO, during which Malcolm Thanatos' life was terminated. His remains were confirmed by DNA match.
Additional Information: No other existing family members identified.
Maya shut the folder as she tried to swallow the ball of anguish in her throat. She knew that information was in the file. She had known and yet reading it was another matter.
"You going to be alright?" Dominic asked.
She looked up, feeling embarrassed yet not sure why. He had no problem with her looking in the file. He knew nothing of her thoughts at that moment. Yet she felt naked before him.
He was standing next to the couch with a plate in one hand and a fork and knife in the other. He said nothing, letting her take her time to respond.
"Just bad memories," she said.
He pushed the folder aside, set the food down, and held out the utensils for her. "Eat," he said. "You will feel much better with a full stomach."
She wiped her eyes before taking the offered cutlery. "Thanks," she said. "I don't even remember my father so I don't know why it bothers me so much about how he died. I was just a baby when he fled; barely a month old."
"It makes sense to me," he said as he sat down next to her. "Your own father betrayed your family. He preferred to be a Roamer than to stay with those he was supposed to love."
She looked at the food before her: a salmon steak with a cream sauce drizzled over top, cooked carrots and broccoli, and roasted potatoes. Despite her emotions, Maya salivated at the colourful food. She stuck her fork into the pink, flaky flesh of the salmon and lifted a piece to her mouth.
"I'm glad you're eating at least," Dominic said. "I was worried for a second that you might have lost your appetite reading all that."
She shrugged. "They are old wounds," she said before putting another forkful of fish in her mouth. It melted on her tongue.
"I've got my own old wounds," he said, "As do we all, but they are still wounds. They still hurt."
"Were any of your relatives executed for being Roamer terrorists?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing like your situation, no. I've lost everyone except Phoenix though. Most of them didn't survive the times before the Revolution. Those that did have since died, the outbreak finally proving too much for surgery to correct."
She paused in her efforts of stabbing a carrot through to look at him. "Is that why Phoenix's surgery today bothered you so much?"
He nodded. "He's all I've got left. With each surgery, I know he's coming that much closer to the final death. One day, his outbreak will be too severe, they won't be able to correct it, and I'll be alone."
Maya thought being alone wasn't so bad but she was used to it, though she had to admit having Dominic around had been like food to the starving for her. She supposed she could understand his fear in a way. Her situation had been very different. Her sister had been so much older than her that by the time Maya was old enough to understand she had a sister, she had moved away to Thirreb. That left Maya alone with their mother who was a very difficult person with which to live. Maya had been shocked by her mother's death and mourned her in a way, but looking back she did not miss her mother. Maybe part of the reason for that was how much her mother's disapproval haunted her thoughts. It had never felt like she had really been gone.
"Sorry for whining," Dominic said as he leaned back and closed his eyes. "Maybe I just need sleep more than I realized."
"You can go use my room if you need," she suggested.
He shook his head. "The couch is fine."
She smiled. "Fine. I give up. Have it your way."
"Thank you," he muttered.
Maya finished the food, which could not have possibly have tasted better even when fresh. She could understand waiting four years for a chance at eating that again.
She pushed the empty plate away and leaned back on the couch. She rolled her head to the side to look at Dominic. His chest rose and fell in a slow, steady rhythm. She contemplated returning to her room but it didn't seem fair to be in a nice bed when Dominic was on the couch. She also wasn't sure she was that tired now that she had eaten. She looked away, her eyes falling upon her file.
The same curiosity she had felt earlier was little more than a faded echo. It had been silenced by the uncomfortable memories it had resurrected. She looked out the windows at the city below, trying her best to clear her head and just be.
When she awoke, her back ached and her ear had gone numb. Her head was resting on something much firmer than the couch cushions. As her vision cleared, she realized it was Dominic's chest. She pulled back, giving herself a headache with the sudden movement.
"It's alright," Dominic said. "There are worse ways to wake up." His eyes were bright as he looked at her and he was smiling.
"I am really sorry," she said as she pulled her hair over her shoulder to tame it.
He shrugged. "Nothing to be sorry for," he said.
"Professional," she reminded him.
He chuckled. "I won't tell HPO if you won't. Besides, nothing happened."
Her eyes narrowed. "How long have you been awake?" she asked.
"Long enough," he said as he pulled himself off the couch and stretched.
"Long enough? What is that supposed to mean? Long enough for what?"
He wandered over to the coffee maker at the bar. "Long enough to know you snore," he laughed as he began scooping coffee grounds into the filter.
"You aren't funny," she grumbled.
"If you have such a problem with me, why did you stay on the couch?"
She began running her fingers through her hair to get out the tangles. "I don't have a problem with you but it didn't seem fair to leave you here while I was in a big bed."
"How noble." Though his back was to her, his voice still floated on his humour.
She was just about to rebut him when the front door opened. Both she and Dominic looked to see a man in a driver's uniform enter with a still heavily bandaged Phoenix using his arm for support.
"What the Hell are you thinking?" Dominic shouted as he stormed up to Phoenix.
"That I wanted my own bed," Phoenix replied as casually as if he were chatting at one of his parties.
Dominic walked to Phoenix's other side to take his arm. "If you're going to be so stubborn about it, at least let me get you up to your bed."
"Don't be silly. That's what I've got Gerald for," Phoenix said indicating the driver who was helping him.
"You're crazy," Dominic said as he shook his head in disbelief.
"I'm no one's infant," Phoenix insisted. "I've earned the right to live the way I want. Now, let Gerald get me upstairs. I want to get some rest before the party tonight."
"Party tonight?" Dominic yelled. "Now I know you really have lost your mind. You expect to entertain people bandaged up like that?"
"Of course not," Phoenix replied as if he too thought the suggestion absurd. "But I don't expect to get any sleep in my room with all the chattering going on down here. As for hosting, Maya will be taking my place tonight."
Maya's stomach fell into her feet.
Dominic began yelling at Phoenix for his ludicrous obsession with hosting parties but Phoenix in turn had an onset of weakness in the legs, requiring him to be rushed upstairs by his driver.
Dominic gave an animalistic growl and snort. "That man can be so infuriating."
"Why can't we just cancel the party?" Maya asked.
"He'll have made sure Amelia knows there will be one," he explained, "Which means everyone will know. It won't matter what we say. What Phoenix says goes."
With a sigh, she dropped herself onto the couch. "If he can't even come, why does he care?"
"His fashion line," Dominic said as he came to join her. "He uses the parties to promote his work, which is one reason he remains so successful. It is more friendships than tastes that has kept him on top." He let his head drop against the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling.
"Is that why he wants me to host tonight?"
He tried to nod but the angle of his head made it more of an awkward twitching. "Most likely," he said. "I noticed he put you in one of his newest dresses last night. I'm sure everything he's given you is from his new line. To him, you're a walking advertisement."
Maya dropped her face in her hands. What a nightmare. She was best at blending in. She hated standing out. It was everything her mother would have wanted, everything that had brought her so much misery.
"Can I fake sick?" She asked hopefully through her fingers.
"Thought not," she groaned.
Dominic rubbed her back. "Think of it this way: it will make HPO happy. All the connections you'll be gaining will make them salivate. The fashionable don't like to waste their time with those they see as beneath them. Getting agents into their fold is difficult. I've never talked about my employer but I've always thought Phoenix told his friends because I've never quite been accepted in my adult years. I grew up around most of them and you'd never know it. My job alone makes me other."
"So you're saying all I have to do is admit who I really am and I can get out of this?" She bounced beside him at the prospect.
He gave a wry chuckle. "And lose your job in the process."
"Only the best." With a groan, he gave a great stretch. "We should do something fun in town," he said, his hand resting on her knee.
"That doesn't sound very professional," she said. A spark of hope flitted behind her navel. Why did she even care?
"It is if we are trying to convince everyone we're an item," he explained.
She soured. "I should have realized. It's always business with you."
"And it isn't with you?" He asked as he lifted his head to look at her.
She wanted to keep her mouth shut. The embarrassment and her inner conflict about the situation were too much to endure inside, yet she knew they would shred her to pieces if she said them out loud. She felt as vulnerable as she had as a child in school. But she was not that child. Silence was not an option. With her cheeks burning, she looked Dominic in the eyes. It took far more strength than it should have.
"Sile has been messing with my head," she said. Though it was true, she also knew it was irrelevant as far as he was concerned. Saying it felt like a lie; one she was telling to soften the blow of his response. "At the party the other night, I thought," she paused to find just the right words, "You were showing friendly interest. For some reason, I can't seem to let go of that, even though I wasn't even sure I was interested then and even though I've since learned the truth behind your kindness."
The self-absorbed part of herself flipped her stomach as it waited for him to tell her he really did want her. Her logical mind knew everything she had just said was uncomfortable fact and there was no use crying over it. She had to remain strong and focused. This new mission was unexpected but she had to get a grip on herself and approach it with the same strength she had in Thirreb despite the differences in the tasks.
Dominic let out a long breath and looked out the windows ahead of them. The hand he had been using to rub her back had stopped. After another moment, he withdrew it.
"Is that how it's going to be then?" she asked. A hint of bitterness escaped into her tone.
"I'm sorry if I've misled you," he said.
Did he ever. Her heart sank into her gut and bobbed around, making her nauseous. Never mind, she thought to herself, he never said he liked her. In fact, on several occasions he said there could be nothing more between them. But he had flirted... as part of his job.
He got up and walked to the coffee maker. "You should get changed," he said over his shoulder. "These people will notice you wearing the same thing more than once."
She looked down at the yellow dress, which was now a stretched and wrinkle curtain over her body. She didn't care as much about what she was wearing as those around her seemed to but it was a good excuse to escape in search of her pride.
She headed back to her room, passing Phoenix's driver as he headed back downstairs. He said nothing as he walked by.
After a shower, she found a blue dress in the wardrobe. It fell off her shoulders with a fringe at the top. The bodice was fitted and embroidered with gold and silver thread. The simple skirt fell to just above the knee. Luckily, the fabric was loose and flowed with her movements.
When she returned to the living room, Dominic looked her up and down. "Perfect," he said as if appraising a delivery. "We're going to have that lunch I owe you and that will definitely get the attention we need."
She said nothing. Her embarrassment had not yet settled and her irritation with being treated like meat was growing. Checking out others' flaws was a way of confirming their status and if they were a threat but those in Sile took it too far, Dominic especially.
At the restaurant, they were shown to a table near the window. This suited Maya just fine as it meant she could look somewhere aside from the room full of faces glancing over at her. Dominic reached across the table to take her hand.
"You alright?" he asked.
She almost believed his concerned tone and the worry on his face.
"I'm not used to this kind of thing," she said. "I'm not usually someone who is... seen."
"Now that does surprise me," he said as he leaned back in his chair. "You don't get this kind of attention in Mirottaly?"
She shook her head. "Never, but Mirottaly is so much bigger. Knowing everyone would be impossible even if you tried."
He shrugged. "I wouldn't know," he said. "I've lived here for all but three years of my life. I'm used to everyone knowing... and talking."
"I like Mirottaly," she said as she recalled her small apartment there. It was small but it was everything she needed and was exactly how she had wanted. She wondered when she would see it again.
Their server, who happened to be the same young man from the day before, brought them their drinks. Dominic took a sip of his wine after the boy had left. "Perhaps I will be able to change your mind about that," he said as he set the wine on the table.
She looked out the window at the shops across the street. Several boutiques were side by side. One had a sign announcing Phoenix's Fall line would be revealed in a week and pre-orders started at 20,000 Parts. "I doubt that," she said in reply to Dominic's conviction.
Two soldiers walked down the sidewalk in front of the boutiques. One had his hand resting on the holster at his hip. With the memory of her abduction of the day before, she wrapped her arms around her middle.
"Cold?" Dominic asked and before she could respond, he had pulled off his suit jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
Too depressed to argue, she muttered a thank you and pulled it tightly around herself as she dared a look back into the restaurant. Unfortunately, Amelia was walking straight toward them at that moment and their eyes met. It was too late for Maya to pretend she hadn't seen her.
"Maya, my dear!" She gushed as she reached them with her arms wide.
Maya could not refuse the cue. She stood and embraced Amelia, forcing a smile as she did so.
"I heard Phoenix is at home already," she said as they released each other. "I was so happy to hear it wasn't too serious. I will be seeing you tonight then?"
Maya managed to hesitate only a moment before replying. "Of course," she said, "But Phoenix is not well enough to join us. He has requested I host tonight."
Amelia stuck out her bottom lip. "That's awful," she said, "But I'm sure we'll see him before the end of the week. He heals faster than anyone else I've ever met. I do hope his new line isn't delayed because of all this."
"He would never let that happen," Dominic said before taking a sip of his wine.
Amelia looked down at him as if she had just noticed he was there. "I suppose not," she said before turning back to Maya. "I'm sorry to have interrupted your lunch. I'll see you tonight, dear."
Maya smiled and nodded. "See you then."
Amelia hurried back across the restaurant to a table near the back where a middle-aged, balding man was eating stuffed pasta.
"Sorry," Dominic muttered.
Maya sat down and looked at him with a raised brow.
"I was hoping they would be more accepting of me with you around me," he said. "It seems their aversions are not so easily overcome."
Maya shrugged. "We'll see tonight, I guess."
He nodded and took another sip of his wine.
After lunch, as they arrived through the gates of Phoenix's house, Dominic swore.
"What is it?" Maya asked.
"That idiot," he yelled as he opened the door before the car had come to a stop.
He ran up the front steps to Phoenix who was standing there in full bandages and directing the caterers who had arrived.
"Your brain has finally been afflicted, hasn't it?" Dominic demanded.
The driver parked and Maya hurried to catch up.
"You weren't here and someone had to take care of the usual arrangements," Phoenix countered in a calm voice.
"When will you learn that you need rest?" Dominic screamed.
Phoenix was unmoved and held himself tall as he looked back at his nephew. "When will you learn I'm stronger than you think?"
Dominic was apoplectic. He threw his hands up as he yelled and looked around at everyone as if expecting them to join his attack upon his uncle. "Strong? Strong? You think ignoring your health is strong? It's inviting death! How long do you think you can ignore what you are before it finally overcomes you? You've cheated it this long. Do you really think you are so lucky that it will never catch up with you? You're not a Roamer. You won't get the warnings that come with old age. You didn't have any warning this time. You never have any warning and one of these days, it won't just be a few fingers. One of these days, it will be your brain and then that's it. Do you not understand that?"
Maya stood at the bottom of the stairs. She was watching the two of them, unsure she should approach any closer. The caterers had all frozen where they were. No one wanted to move.
Phoenix rested his bandaged hand on Dominic's shoulder. "I understand exactly what I am," he said. "I know what that means but no matter what I am, there is no guarantee of warnings. No matter what age I am, there is the chance I will not see tomorrow. Why waste what time I have trying to hide my life from the view of death? She finds us all."
"And you are giving her a map," Dominic growled.
"Go inside," Phoenix suggested. "Get a drink. Sit down. Calm yourself. Maybe tomorrow you will see that I am fine."
Though Dominic grunted, he also relented and went inside. Phoenix's eyes fell upon Maya.
"The next time I am sick it will be just the same," he said. "It's our usual cycle."
Maya looked at him, standing nearly a foot taller than when his driver had brought him into the house only hours before. Amelia had been right. His rate of healing was unbelievable.
"You are looking well," she said.
He smiled. "Thank you," he said. "But I'm feeling a little weary now. I will be returning to bed the moment the caterers are finished." He looked over his shoulder. "You should probably head inside. Dominic will likely need someone to rant at."
She had expected Phoenix to be right but when she entered the living room, Dominic was on the couch with her file held open in front of him.
"Finding the answer to your problems in there?" she asked, curious as to what about her could be so interesting.
He closed the folder and tossed it onto the coffee table. "Finding distraction," he said. With a heaved sigh, he dropped his head back and looked up at the ceiling. "He has never listened to me. You'd think it would have stopped bothering me by now."
"My mother and I hated each other and we never got used to it," she confessed. "Right until her final surgery, we fought."
"The joys of family."
She shrugged. "At least you and Phoenix argue out of love for each other. I was a disappointment to my mother and to me she was pathetically shallow." She had been happier since her mother's death, but she would never give such thoughts the honour of sound.
He shrugged but said nothing.
"You going to be alright?" she pressed as carefully as she could.
"Eventually. I just need some time. You might as well go get dressed for the party."
When Maya reached her room, she was both unsurprised and annoyed to find yet another dress laid out across her bed. This one was royal blue and looked like Phoenix hadn't quite finished sewing it. She looked over her shoulder as she considered shoving the dress in the back of the dresser and pretending it had never existed. Phoenix may have been the world's most respected designer but he could not seem to figure out her style. Everything he picked for her was far too flashy and revealing.
Despite her reservations, she changed into the dress. Dominic would have reminded her that it was her job to play along, so she would, even if she hated every second of it.
The dress was both more revealing and less revealing that she had expected. It looked like the fabric spiralled down her body, covering breasts and cleavage at the same time it left one shoulder bare and exposed stretches of skin around her middle and on her legs. Along the top edge of the fabric was a string of white crystals.
She ran her fingers through her hair and let it fall over her shoulders. She simply did not know enough to put more effort into it. Her mother had always insisted on doing her hair and in rebellion, she had deliberately ignored any of the instruction her mother had attempted to give her in the matter. With a sigh she returned to the living room.
Phoenix was closing the front door as she reached the bottom step. He smiled broadly as he appraised her outfit.
"Exactly as I pictured it," he said. "You will make a perfect host tonight."
"I'll try my best," she muttered.
He walked slowly by her as he headed back to his room. "And you will succeed."
"Do you need any help?" She offered.
He waved her away with a limp flip of his hand. "I'll be just fine. Go keep Dominic company."
There was already a bartender behind the bar setting up several glasses when she returned to the living room. Dominic had gotten a head start and had a martini in front of him on the coffee table.
The party was just the same as that first night except that it was Dominic by her side as she greeted the guests. For the most part, they gushed over her and ignored him. Amelia insisted she come chat with her, just the two of them, once she was finished welcoming everyone. Dominic pretended he had not heard the request and conveniently disappeared once the first opportunity arose for Maya to seek her out.
Maya turned around and scanned the living room for Amelia's face. There were too many people squeezed together. She began to walk around in search of her but her foot caught. She tripped. As she regained her balance, she turned to see what had caused her to falter. Another dark haired woman was doing just the same.
When their eyes met, Maya's heart stopped. Her balance nearly gave way again. "Leanna?" She whispered. The name was drowned out by the party but her sister's eyes went wide. The woman hesitated a moment more before nodding.
"It's me," she said.
Maya gasped. "You're alive?"
"Leanna," Maya repeated.
Her sister nodded.
"You were..." Maya hesitated as she looked around at the other guests. "Come with me," she instructed as she turned to head for her room.
Dominic was already in front of her. "Who's this lovely woman you've met?" He asked as he looked Leanna up and down. His mouth opened in surprise as he then looked at Maya and back to her sister. He recovered quickly. "Who are you?" he demanded as his brow knit with anger. He grabbed Leanna by the bicep and pulled her towards the front door.
"Let go of me," she protested as she tried to pry his fingers loose. "Who the Hell are you?" she shot back when her attempts failed.
Maya was trying to catch up. "Dominic, calm down. This is my sister. I would know her anywhere."
"And you also know she's dead," he shot back, ignoring the people who were beginning to stare.
Maya needed to smooth things over quickly. She was not a host, she was hardly charismatic, but it was part of her job at that moment. She stopped and forced a smile as Dominic wrenched open the front door and pulled Leanna through. "Sorry about this," she said. "Just a party crasher. Everything is alright."
Though that did not placate the worried faces, the conversations returned to their normal bubbling once Maya had joined Dominic outside.
"I came to see my sister," Leanna was yelling as she was still trying to get away from Dominic, who was dragging her towards the gates.
"Let her go," Maya commanded with more authority than even she had intended.
Dominic stared at her but obeyed. Leanna lost her balance and came within a hair of falling over when he let his hand fall from her arm.
"And if she were one of the companions of that soldier friend of yours?" he asked. His eyes were cold and his shoulders were back as if he were expecting physical defiance.
"Do you honestly think someone in league with him would show up at a party like this?" Maya countered.
"Yes." He crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared at her.
Leanna was looking back and forth between them.
"Fine," Maya huffed, "But at least let me hear her out before we evict her."
He gave an indistinct grunt.
"Thank you," she said with mock sweetness before turning back to her sister.
Leanna was wearing a simple black dress. It was entirely unremarkable and not something that would have been considered acceptable at one of Phoenix's parties. Especially since Leanna had always been more like their mother, Maya was strangely just as surprised about this as she was about seeing her sister at all.
"You were murdered," Maya said. The statement was more to make sense of what she thought she knew than as any explanation to Leanna.
To her surprise, her sister nodded.
"You were murdered?" Maya repeated, her heart galloping as the words were processed in her brain. "You were really murdered and now you're alive and standing here?"
She nodded again.
"Care to explain?"
Leanna looked at Dominic. "I wasn't planning on having an audience for this," she said. "Who the Hell is this you're hanging around with now, Maya? I didn't know you had any friends."
Maya crossed her arms over her chest. "Unless you actually take something seriously for once in your life and answer me, I'm inclined to take his stance on the matter. He wasn't found in pieces only to come back to life, so start explaining."
Leanna looked at the gate and back to Maya. She hesitated a moment more. "Sorry to have bothered you," she said before heading towards the gate.
"Is this some kind of game to you?" Maya yelled after her. "Simply being alive wasn't reason enough to find me? You heard I managed to become Phoenix's house guest and thought you'd get a chance to go to an A-list party? Is that it?"
Leanna stopped and glared at Maya over her shoulder. "I'm not mom," she said before continuing through the gate.
"Dammit," Maya yelled. "Dammit. Dammit. Dammit."
"I doubt HPO will be helpful but I'm going to have them look into her death records again to see if that explains any of this," Dominic said.
Maya growled like a cornered dog. "We could have had an explanation from her!" She paced the cobblestones as she focused on breathing evenly. The sun had set at least an hour before and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Its searing refreshment forced a cough from her throat. She needed to get back inside but she couldn't face the party guests just yet.
Dominic scoffed. "It would have just been some cover story full of lies," he reasoned.
She turned on him. Even in the second she had stopped pacing, the chill got to her arms. She rubbed her biceps, trying to push the discomfort from her mind. "Say you're right," she said. "Say she is some imposter working with the Roamers. Say she really did come here to spread lies. At least we would know what they're trying to trick me into believing."
"I don't think she came here to lie to you. I think she came here to kill you."
"She was trying to get you alone," he continued. "I'm sure even her dramatic little exit was a ploy to get you to agree to her terms. "
She laughed at the absurdity. "Why would my sister want to kill me? Why would anyone want to kill Maya Thanatos?"
"Why would anyone abduct you and take your blood?" He countered. His eyes narrowed and his tone hardened. "You're not some decoy agent anymore. You need to understand what that means and the risks."
"I do understand," she shot back. Her face was on fire. Her hands clenched and unclenched. She looked at the open gate. The sounds of the party behind her pushed her will towards it but she remained firm.
Dominic walked closer to her, stopping within an arm's length. His warmth was welcome; his attitude was not. "I don't think you really do," he said. "If you did, you'd know how to do your job. Now get back into that party and let them fawn over you like HPO wants."
"Stop acting like my pimp," she snarled. "I'm beginning to see why everyone treats you the way they do. It has nothing do with your employer and everything to do with you being a giant ass."
"Get inside before I have to report you to HPO," he seethed.
"Fine." Part of her wanted to call him a pimp again but what would be the point? Standing in the cold name calling all night was useless. She knew she was not even angry at him. She was angry at herself for letting her sister run off so easily. She needed to find her again. Sile was not very big but that didn't mean it would be easy to find her, especially if she planned to leave town first thing in the morning.
When Maya was back inside, she did not mingle with the guests. Though the house was hot with the packed in bodies, the air was stifling and smelled a little too much of sweat and strong perfume to be welcoming even after the chill of outside. She hurried to the stairs and up to Phoenix's room.
She knocked on the door, feeling like a complete jerk even as she knew she could do nothing else. His room was silent. She knocked again and there was still no noise coming from the other side, not even muffled movements.
"Phoenix?" she called. "Are you alright?"
She knocked again. "Phoenix?" She put her hand on the knob. "Phoenix, I'm coming in."
"I'm coming," he called. "Just takes me a while. Hold on." When he opened the door and she saw the bandage on his hand, her shame for pestering him blossomed into all-consuming guilt.
"Sorry," she said. "I should let you sleep."
He shook his head. "No, what is it? The party sounds fine so why are you here?"
She swallowed. "I need to talk to you," she said. "I need your help."
He nodded. "In your room," he instructed. He pushed through the door, not opening it any more even to let himself through more comfortably.
She walked into her room, leaving the door open for him to follow. She considered sitting down on the bed but thought better of it; she was too agitated. Instead, she paced.
"You can sit if you need," she said to him. He shook his head and remained standing near the door.
"What is it?" he asked again.
"My sister," she said. "She's come to Sile but we had a bit of a disagreement and she left suddenly. I need to find her. I need you to help me. I really need to talk to her again before she leaves town."
He nodded. "Of course," he said. "I'm sure someone I know will see her around. What's her name?"
"Leanna," she replied. "But don't tell Dominic I asked this of you. He can't know."
He raised a brow. "Lover's quarrel?" he asked.
She snorted and immediately flushed. "That's not exactly our relationship."
He shrugged. "And that's not exactly my business anyway. I'll let you know what I hear by tomorrow night at the latest."
He smiled. "Anytime."
His agreement lifted the weight from her mind. She sighed but her calm was short lived. "Phoenix," she said.
"Where're the bandages that were on your head?"
She looked over his face. There wasn't even a single line from his surgeries.
"I felt better," he said, "And I needed to see better to work so I took it off."
"No one heals that quickly. No one." The chatter from the party seemed so quiet and distant compared to only a moment ago. Being alone in the room with Phoenix made her stomach flip.
His Adam's apple bounced in his throat. He said nothing.
Her mind considered as many possibilities as she could fathom. "Are you faking surgeries? Why would you fake surgeries?"
"Maya, I think I should head back to bed. I'm feeling a little tired." He slumped his shoulders and drooped his head as if to emphasize the point.
"Liar," she barked. "What is going on here? Explain or I'll go get Dominic and tell him what I've seen. He's been worried over you to the point of being a real asshole. I'm sure he wouldn't be happy to learn you've been lying to him."
His eyes widened. "No, no, no. We do not need to involve Dominic. At all. Ever."
"Why not? Doesn't he deserve to know the truth?" She was tempted to go get him right then and show him what she had seen.
He began to wring his hands. "This has nothing to do with what he deserves," he said.
She was feeling little sympathy. She'd lost her chance at one explanation tonight. She was not going to lose another. "Then what does it have to do with?"
"I can't tell you."
"Then I'm getting Dominic."
"No!" He panicked. "Fine. I'll tell you but you have to promise me several things first."
She folded her arms across her chest. "You and my sister would get along."
"This is no small thing, Maya. If I can't trust you, I will have to take my chances with Dominic, as much as I really don't want to."
She watched him fidget. His forehead glistened. Her gut flipped as she considered. She needed to know. Her heart skipped a beat and her stomach twisted into a knot as she knew there was only one choice. "Fine."
The tension in his face relaxed but he remained serious as he said, "You must promise you will never tell another soul. Especially not Dominic."
"And you must promise to stay calm."
She raised a brow. "Of course."
"And whatever you think of me, after this, you are still welcome in my house so long as you keep both your promises to me."
He looked her right in the eye. "My blood does not have the Perfectia protein," he admitted.
Her guts dropped to the floor or at least she was sure they must have. There was no splat but her organs had fled. Her entire body felt like a vacuum. "You're..."
"Phoenix, a fashion designer," he interrupted with a proud lift of his chin.
"No." She shook her head. "You're a Roamer!"
At her elevated tone, he cautioned, "Calm."
She took a deep breath before speaking again. "But you are a roamer. No protein and you're still alive? You can't be anything else."
He sneered at her classification. "I'm a human, Maya. Just like everyone else. I have an immunity to the Perfectia protein, or at least that is my doctor's best guess."
"Your doctor. He's alright with this? He's never told anyone?"
"A few of his staff know but they have all honoured my secret. They help me fake the surgeries so that no one suspects. If anyone found out, I'd be turned into currency at best, outright executed at worst. All because I'm incapable of carrying a stupid protein." He walked over the bed and sat down. "Dominic can never know," he said.
"Because of HPO? Then why did you tell me?"
He shook his head. "Nothing like that. I really don't think he would have it in him to turn me in even if he knew, but it would break our relationship beyond repair. He holds so much resentment against the Roamers because of what has happened. He blames them for everything and he would lump me in with those who hurt him most. I can't see him in that kind of pain. I refuse to impose such a moral dilemma upon him. At the moment, he's sure of how the world works. I can't take that from him."
"Does anyone else know?"
He nodded. "Amelia," he said. "She's known for years. She doesn't judge me for it though. To her, I'm still one of her kind no matter what my blood says." He sighed. "Maya, none of us chose any of this. We're all victims and we're all trying our best. Hating each other, killing each other, using each other... none of it helps anyone. All I want is to keep going about my life, so please, keep your promise. Do not tell anyone."
Bile was rising in her throat but she nodded. She had felt no sympathy for the girl begging for her life at the bank. If it had been Phoenix... The moral dilemma he wanted to protect Dominic from was pounding down on her shoulders.
"I should head back to my room before anyone else sees me," he said as he pushed up from the bed. His voice sounded drained of all energy. His movements were slow as if he really were recovering from major surgery. "I'll be making another one of my miraculous recoveries within a day or so," he explained. "You won't have to host my parties too much. Maybe just once more. Goodnight, Maya."
She said goodnight and watched him leave. When she was alone, she collapsed onto her back on the bed, trying to ignore her rising nausea. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to ignore the sounds of the party.
Dominic had been trying to find someone working with the Roamers and had no idea that his uncle actually was one. Though she considered breaking her promise to Phoenix, she knew she couldn't. A promise was a promise. It had been her own fault for giving her word so easily before knowing what she was really getting into. She wished he had never told her.
How could she keep it a secret from Dominic? How could she not? Phoenix was right that it would devastate him. It threatened everything in Dominic's life. If HPO ever found out, they would label Phoenix the mole with no further effort just to ease the paperwork and they would likely charge Dominic with collusion and possibly treason. She had to keep the secret. It was her problem now, not Phoenix's and not Dominic's.
Phoenix wasn't hurting anyone. He was obsessed with fashion, not wars. He was a good man, even if annoying. He did not deserve what would happen to him... did the girl in the bank?
The fear in the girl's eyes came back to her but the colour of the memory dripped with new vibrancy. They were all human.
She jumped and looked up at the door. Dominic was peaking his head around the corner.
"You alright?" he asked.
She forced a smile, this time feeling like she succeeded in the facade. Perhaps she had never really felt the urgency in the act before.
"Much better," she said. "I can come back to the party now."
His brow knit. "You still mad at me?"
She shook her head. She had too much on her mind now to be mad at him. Besides, Phoenix had promised to find Leanna.
He pushed into the room and knelt down in front of her but his eyes did not meet hers. Instead, he stared at her knees. "I'm not your pimp," he said. "And I definitely think more highly of you than a prostitute. I just needed you to know that."
"That was just the heat of the moment," she countered. She regretted the tantrum. Sile made her act like a pretty pathetic adult.
He looked up at her. "Sometimes words of the moment reveal our truest feelings."
His eyes were beautiful. Even in the house, she could still feel his warmth with him so close. Why did he have to be so handsome? And, more importantly, why did he have to be so confusing? It drove her mad. So mad, that she had lost all sense. Sile had weakened her sanity; Dominic had obliterated it.
She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Everything in her body wanted to press into him. Her brain would have pulled her back or, at the very least, expected him to push her away, but his arms were around her waist and his lips wrestled unwaveringly with hers.
Then they were standing and he was holding her body against his as she pressed ever more firmly against him in response. His tongue slipped through her lips and she whimpered as their actions were still not enough to sate her.
But her small whimper had been enough to break the spell, at least for him. Though he did not thrust her away from him, he withdrew his tongue and concluded their kiss much earlier than she was ready.
"I'm sorry, Maya," he said through heavy, rapid breaths.
She was panting too. "No." She did not want him to be sorry. She wanted him to be ecstatic. She wanted him to love her. She wanted all of it to be real; the only real thing in Sile.
She nearly choked out a sob but managed to restrain it at the last second. None of it was real. Dominic's smiles were an act. Phoenix was a Roamer. Her sister was not dead. Nothing was as it was supposed to be. Nothing was sane.
"We need to get back to the party," he whispered as he stepped away from her. "People will begin to wonder what's happened to you."
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and nodded. "Alright," she said. "Let's go."
When Maya and Dominic were back downstairs, it was only moments before Amelia found her.
"Where have you been?" She asked with an uncharacteristic bite.
"Sorry," Maya offered. "I was worried about Phoenix."
Amelia pursed her lips. "He's quite alright. I assure you."
Maya looked Amelia right in the eye as she said, "I know. He's perfectly fine."
Amelia's jaw tensed and after a moment, she gave a nod that would have been imperceptible to anyone else in the room unless they had been focused immediately upon her. Maya knew that wasn't an issue because everyone seemed to be stealing quick glances at her not Amelia. Dominic had been right; her absence had not gone unnoticed.
"I have been trying to find you all evening," Amelia complained again. "There is someone I want you to meet."
Wrapping an arm around Maya's shoulders, Amelia led her away, ignoring Dominic in the process. For his part, he accepted the slight and headed for the bar.
Amelia led her through the crowds, who had returned to their normal mingling, and to a small group gathered near the window. One in the group was Tabitha who greet Maya with the exuberance of a homecoming for a long lost friend. After enduring a hug that was too hard and being kissed on both cheeks by Tabitha, Maya was introduced to the other three.
One was a man about the same height as Phoenix. In all other features, he looked completely different. He was wearing a green, blue, and gold silk suit and had thick blond hair combed over his head and pale blue eyes with large bags under them. When he smiled, his teeth shone bright white and several wrinkles that had before been absent now etched his face in deep relief. Amelia introduced him as Arthur, Phoenix's fabric supplier.
The second person she was introduced to was a woman by the name of Margo. Maya had a vague memory of greeting her at the door at her first party in Sile and again that night. Margo was Tabitha's daughter but looked very little like her mother. Her hair was curly, dirty blond and her facial features were much more square. She wore a dress of ivory lace. She was holding her wine with both hands in front of her. It was still full. She gave a quick nod to Maya in greeting.
Amelia gestured the third person, a man who must have been at least several inches taller than Dominic. He had short brown hair and was wearing a dark grey three-piece suit, black tie, and a rose in his lapel. Maya could not help but look at his eyes. They were hazel in the middle and vibrant green around the edges of his iris. The colours swirled and danced. Maya would have remembered greeting him at the door. He must have been a late comer.
"This is Evan Freeman," Amelia said. "He runs the modelling agency Phoenix uses for his shows."
Evan held out his free hand. Maya took it in a firm handshake. She liked that kind of greeting so much better than Tabitha's.
"This is Maya Thanatos," Amelia explained to him. "She's staying with Phoenix. I thought you should meet her because she is his latest inspiration. You will need to keep that in mind for the show."
Evan nodded as he appraised Maya. He looked her over and yet it was more of a quick glance of confirmation, the same type that was common in Mirottaly, rather than the creepy lingering that was customary in Sile. "Definitely," he said in a deep baritone. "Will you be able to come by the agency this week?"
Maya raised a brow. Was that why Amelia had introduced them? To help Phoenix in his goal of keeping her in Sile? Little did either of them know she would be staying for some time no matter what she really wanted. "I'm not a model and I'm definitely not looking for an agency," she said.
He gave her a crooked smile. "That wasn't why I asked," he said. "Phoenix will be sending me some test outfits within a day or so. If you are the inspiration for them, I need to know how they are supposed to look to make sure I get the right models for his show. It would help me out but I have no intension of pressuring you if it is problem."
Maya was sure she flushed. "Oh."
His smile broadened for a moment. He looked like someone who would have fit in with the upper class of Mirottaly better than the older population of Sile. "How about I give you a call when I get the outfits and then you can come by at your first opportunity?"
This was the kind of thing HPO wanted so she agreed. Her response made Amelia beam. Everyone seemed happy about it and, strangely, even she couldn't find any real reason to protest. Trying on clothes as a favour seemed far less daunting than being flaunted before a crowd.
"Out of curiosity, what do you do for a living?" Evan asked before taking a sip of his drink.
Though she had already given her cover story to Amelia and Tabitha, both women turned to her expectantly. "I work in finances in Mirottaly," she said.
His crooked smile broadened again. "I'm from Mirottaly," he explained. "I just moved back here a year or so ago. If you're in finances, you must know Will Martin. He's my godfather."
She nodded. Most people knew of Will Martin. He was one of the most successful traders in Mirottaly. She had met him once after he went into finances but she actually knew him from years before when he had worked in the medical research firm that her mother frequented for her transplants. Her mother had died only a month after he had left his position there. "I've never worked with Will though," she explained. The connection would be too easy to track, especially given Evan's personal connection. "But I've met him a few times."
Evan nodded; his enthusiasm by no means lessened. "I used to live in Finn. Where did you live?"
Finn was the neighbourhood most known for the young wealthy who had come to Mirottaly to find their own jobs. Maya had lived there for a couple of years herself after she finally left her mother's oppressive care.
"My current apartment is in Tapt," she replied. Tapt was the neighbourhood nearest the financial district. It was also nearest HPO headquarters, which is why they had provided it to her.
"Nice neighbourhood," he said. "A bit too quiet for my liking though."
"Really?" She wondered aloud. "I'd never noticed that." In fact, she had felt the opposite. She always seemed to be tripping over people walking their football-sized dogs, which liked to spend the nights barking. "You find Sile more exciting?" she added, thinking Sile was far quieter.
He grinned. "Sile is far more exciting than it seems. You just need to know where to look."
Arthur laughed. His comb-over wafted on the air with the movement. "If Sile were exciting, everyone here would leave. We're all just a bunch of old rich people waiting for the final death." He gestured with his wine glass to the room. "These parties are the most excitement this town ever sees. Were you on Parts Avenue today?"
"Of course," Evan replied.
Amelia leaned close to Maya and whispered, "That's where his agency is."
"And did anything at all happen there?" Arthur persisted.
Evan chuckled. "I see your point but as I said, you need to know where to look."
"And you do?" Arthur raised a brow and pursed his lips.
"Not always," Evan admitted. "But I've stumbled into some excitement now and again."
Arthur's demeanour didn't soften. "Like?"
"A person is entitled to some secrets," Evan replied before taking a sip of his wine.
Arthur smiled broadly and thrust his glass at Evan within a hair's breadth of sloshing the contents over the side in the process. "See. He knows I'm right. This is a boring place. The only reason I'm here is because of Phoenix. Who could pass up business contact like him?"
"Crass," Tabitha muttered before she too took a sip of her drink.
Amelia intervened. "Arthur, you're reflecting poorly on us in front of our new guest. She's going to think we're nothing but shallow social climbers."
Arthur's brows knit. "Aren't we?"
Margo's shoulders shrunk forward like she wanted to melt through the window at her back and flee. Tabitha and Amelia had wide eyes and mouths agape. Evan burst into a full-bellied laugh making Maya jump.
"Don't lump the rest of us with you," he said to Arthur. "Besides, I think you are insulting Maya. I have the feeling she is definitely not a social climber."
Her cheeks went hot. "Just a victim of circumstance," she muttered.
Evan nodded. "I heard. Have you finished making your travel arrangements yet?"
She looked at Amelia who at least had the decency to fidget and avert her gaze. "Arthur's right. It can be boring around here and you're news."
"Thanks," Maya muttered before turning back to Evan. "No," she said. "There has been a slight change in plan. I'll be staying in Sile for a while."
Now Arthur laughed. "See, Evan. She's just like the rest of us." He nudged her ribs with his elbow. "Couldn't pass up the opportunity of being Phoenix's house guest, could you? I know I wouldn't. How did you manage it anyway? He never lets anyone stay with him."
She blinked. "I honestly don't know."
He raised a brow. "Surely he invited you at the very least?"
"Well, yes, after I showed up at his gate."
Arthur's mouth fell open. "He just took you in off the street? No offense, dear, but you don't seem that inspiring."
"Arthur!" Evan hissed. "Too far."
Arthur was unrepentant. "What? You don't think that's a little odd?"
"No," Evan grunted. "It's Phoenix's business. You think it odd, talk to him. Stop picking on Maya."
Arthur shrugged and took another sip of his drink. "You're just proving my point. The conversation just gets interesting and you want to return to boring. I think I'll go talk to Vander." He nodded at Maya. "Nice to have met you," he said before walking away.
"Sorry about that," Amelia muttered. "Arthur can be a little hard to take even for the best of us sometimes."
"No need to apologize," Maya offered but what Arthur had said stuck with her.
If he only knew the whole story of her arrival, he wouldn't think Sile was so boring. But it also made her wonder why Phoenix really had taken to her so quickly. All she had done was read a note that had a name and his address. That name had seemed to mean something to him. She had thought the name was his but her first meeting with Dominic had proven it wasn't. Who was Jeremy Owens? Did it have anything to do with Phoenix's real blood status?
She wanted to find Dominic to ask him again about Jeremy Owens but if it did have something to do with Phoenix's lack of a Perfectia protein, she could not risk it. She had promised to keep his secret and she wanted to keep it. She did not want to betray him.
"You alright?" Evan asked.
She started at the intrusion into her thoughts. "Yes, of course," she replied automatically.
"Don't let Arthur bother you," he said. "He's an idiot."
"No, no. It's nothing like that." She looked around the room but couldn't find Dominic anywhere. "I need a drink," she said to excuse herself.
"I'll come with you," Evan offered and she nearly groaned. She did not have time to act the hostess. Her confusion needed to be fed with substantial deliberations about the facts. She could hardly do that with Evan.
It was possible he noticed her reluctance, for he lifted his glass to emphasize the small puddle at the very bottom. "Nearly out," he explained.
She relented and walked with him to the bar, still scanning the room for Dominic who seemed to have disappeared. The party was much louder and hotter away from the windows. They had to squeeze through tiny gaps between people to get anywhere and were pressed up against the bar when they finally reached it. The volume of conversation was increasing with the rate of the guests' inebriation. Maya would be glad when the night was over. She had always thought parties like this would be more exciting. Essentially, they were little different than the parties of any of the classes; eat, drink, talk. The only difference was that the purpose of Phoenix's parties were for networking and everyone who came seemed to see them the same way.
With her mind spinning, water would not be enough. She tried to describe the drink Phoenix had made after she first arrived. The bartender knew exactly what she meant the moment she said martini glass and pink. Evan handed his wine glass to the bartender.
He leaned in close to speak over the surrounding din. "You haven't set up a driver yet, have you?" he asked.
"Haven't needed to," she said, as she leaned over the counter and began to drum her fingernails on the lacquered surface.
"I'll make sure to send my driver for you when the clothes come in then."
She nodded. "I appreciate that." She turned her back on the bar to get a better look at the room. It was possible Dominic was around but there were just too many people blocking her view to make out more than a few faces.
After another moment, of silence, Evan spoke again. "By the way, I've heard rumours that you've been hanging around Dominic."
"And?" She was still scanning the room for him as a matter of fact.
He didn't look at her as he continued, "It's understandable in the situation I suppose but..."
"But?" She stopped looking for Dominic and turned to Evan.
His crooked smile had left. "Some people are concerned about it."
She tried not to laugh. Evan seemed genuinely concerned about the idea. She had no idea why but she thought it best not to insult him. "I assure you that Dominic is perfectly safe."
He shrugged. "It's possible but there are concerns about his line of work and what kind of trouble that could mean."
Dominic had been right. The ill-ease he had noticed was very much to do with his profession. It was a good thing Evan didn't know what she did for a living or he might run for the door.
When she said nothing, Evan kept talking. "I don't mean to give a false impression here. Dominic and I used to be friends when we were younger and again at university. We were as much friends as young kids can be. He's a decent guy, but if he's gotten himself into certain circles... you don't want that kind of trouble."
HPO was rarely greeted with smiles and hugs but referring to them as trouble seemed a bit much. "What exactly do you think he does?"
"He says he's just living off his inheritance and doesn't work. I'm not convinced." His voice was getting lower and it was becoming increasingly difficult to hear him. She leaned closer to get a better listen but then the bartender handed them their drinks. "Want to go sit on the patio?" She asked, hoping for a venue that better permitted conversation.
He agreed and followed her outside. It was not as warm as it had been two nights prior. There was a strong breeze and no one was bothering to sit outside, even near the fire, which was being ripped about by the wind. The torches had been blown out but that made it easier to see the streetlights below.
"It might be better inside," he suggested.
"I like this," she half lied. She could do without the chill but the quiet was so much closer to divine than the hot noise of inside. She walked over to the large cushioned chair nearest the fire. Evan followed and took the one next to it.
"Why aren't you convinced?" she asked, continuing their conversation from inside.
Evan shrugged. "Everyone here suspects he's up to something. He's not the same as he was before he went to school. He's more guarded. His eyes are always flicking around, taking in everything around him."
She took a long sip of her martini. It was chilled perfectly but had a slight bite to it that Phoenix's mixture had lacked. However, it calmed her, putting her brain closer to where it needed to be. A flicker of the Maya she was in Mirottaly was coming back to her. The faint hint of confidence she once knew was being resurrected. "You're beginning to sound paranoid," she said, not bothering to soften the insult.
He was watching the fire but he nodded. "You might be right but for me it isn't just the vague rumours that have me wary. Dominic and I went to university together; at least, we did freshman year. He was more himself then. He was a bit silly at times and excited about everything. It was a great year. But then we started taking a course about the history of the Rights Revolution."
He drank some of his wine. When he had taken a mouthful, he set the glass on the ground by his chair. His eyes met hers. The firelight made them dance even more than they hand inside. "Something about that course took my friend away from me. He became consumed by it. He read everything he could. While the rest of us would just do the required assignments, he would go to the library and read three books for every one the course required. One book, Roamer Atrocities and the Rights Revolution, he must have read a hundred times."
"I take it you weren't a very good student," she teased.
His smile sparked on his face but faded quickly. "I took a while to find my path but even the good students weren't as obsessed as Dominic was and none of them changed like he did. By the end of term, he was ignoring the rest of us. He made new friends with people years older than him. None of them talked much when they came to visit. With them around, Dominic acted nervous, not at ease like you would be with real friends, but he claimed they understood him better than I did. He seemed pretty miserable for a guy who insisted he had found true friends."
The wind shifted and blew the fire smoke in Maya's face. Her eyes stung and watered and she had to move her chair closer to Evan to avoid it. "People grow apart," she suggested as she dragged the chair the foot needed to rest against his. Sitting so close, his warmth was noticeable despite the heat of the fire.
He shook his head. "There were plenty of people I parted ways with at that time but with Dominic, something strange was going on. I could have understood it better if his friends were at least normal but these guys gave me the creeps and most of them seemed too old to be hanging out with students. There was one guy who really bothered me. He looked like his surgeon had botched a few of his surgeries. His nose didn't look quite right, like it had been taken from a small woman or something."
Maya tried not to laugh. He had just described Theodore Walliams, the head of recruitment for HPO. His face looked so strange because he had suffered a donor rejection during a surgery; the same affliction that had killed her mother. Luckily for Theodore, the donor incompatibility happened when his outbreak was much less severe and his doctors were able to stop the damage before he lost his life. Despite his odd appearance, he was the friendliest person at HPO.
"Then Dominic started disappearing," Evan continued. "I knew something was up when he didn't even show up for that history class one day. I went back to our dorm and he wasn't there. I didn't see him for another week and when he finally came back, he said he was just grabbing some of his things because he had transferred to another school but he would never tell me which one. I've had quite a bit of time to think about it since and I'm sure he got involved with some kind of criminal organization. Why else would a person act so nervous and then just get up and leave everything behind like that? I'm even worried he's gotten involved with Roamers somehow. That guy looked a little too mangled not to be one. He might have gone so far as to get involved in the illegal parts trade."
Evan's assessment couldn't have been further from the truth. Maya contained her amusement only through the thought that she and Dominic would be having a good laugh about it later. "But you've never actually seen any evidence he's in trouble?" She forced her tone flat just to keep the humour from it.
"Well, no," he admitted. "No one has. But even Phoenix doesn't trust him and that says quite a lot."
"What Phoenix says goes," she said, mimicking what Dominic had told her earlier.
Evan blinked. "I suppose. I trust him far more than I trust Dominic."
"I trust both of them," Maya said, surprising even herself at the truth of it. She really did trust them both even if she wanted to strangle both of them at least eighty percent of the time.
"That may prove impossible in the long term," he said.
They both watched the fire as Maya digested his last comment. "With any luck, there won't be a long term."
He laughed, which sounded obscenely loud in the quiet night. "Dominic and Phoenix really get to you that much, do they?" He bent down, retrieved his wine, and took a long drink.
She rolled her eyes with excessive drama. "You should try living here. They fight all the time. They're insufferable."
"Oh come now, I'm hardly that bad, am I?"
Maya startled at Dominic's voice and looked over her shoulder at him. He had just walked onto the patio. Evan's crooked smile faded as he too looked at who had just joined them.
"It's been a while, Evan," Dominic asked as he walked over to them. "How's the agency?"
Dominic took a seat on the opposite side of the fire. "Have any trouble finding models for this latest show?"
Evan downed the last of his wine. "Not at all," he said before pushing himself to his feet. "If you'll excuse me, I need another drink."
"See what I mean," Dominic said when they were alone.
Maya smiled. "I think you're really going to laugh about this."
Dominic had refused to go home yet again. With Phoenix still healing, he wanted to be nearby in case anything went wrong. His obsessive concern for his uncle churned Maya's guts with guilt but the idea of telling him the truth, thereby, betraying Phoenix's trust and ruining both their lives in the process seemed a rather poor alternative.
She had told Dominic everything Evan had said and was right that he would be thoroughly amused by it. Knowing that the people's suspicion of him had nothing to do with his work for HPO seemed to take some of the sting out of their slight. By the time she said goodnight to him, he was downright pleasant.
The story also appealed to his one track mind. For him, it confirmed that Evan was not the one helping the Roamers. He admitted that he had always wondered if Evan was using his modelling agency to transport and free Roamers by claiming they were newly discovered models. However, he admitted that he had no more evidence than it would be something he would have done if he were working for the Roamers.
Though Maya felt much more at ease by the time the party had finished, she still had trouble sleeping. She just could not get used to the house's strange settling sounds and the parties were taking a stronger toll on her than she had realized. Her dreams were filled with more talking, though the voices were wary and hushed compared to usual. She began to dream she was at one of the parties and everyone had learned who she really was. They welcomed Dominic with open arms, willingly accepting him once they learned his truth was not all that sinister. But they glared at her, angry she had lied to them and made them feel like fools. Several of the guests had her mother's sour face. She was a failure.
By the time the sun came up, Maya was just thankful the night was over. She couldn't understand why her mind had chosen to torture her the way it had. HPO wanted her to be accepted but if she wasn't, what could they do?
Personally, she shouldn't care about the people at the party. She had spent her life trying to escape people like them. She had failed but she had never wanted to be one of them. That thought resurrected a memory of her standing before a mirror, a blond wig, candy apple lipstick, and large sunglasses obscuring her features.
She had never wanted to be one of them. She had gone into a profession deemed vile by their kind to distance herself. Yet, even that attempt had failed and twisted itself into being what she hated.
No, she wasn't them. She wore their masks but she wasn't one of them. They did not agonize over who they were.
She got up. Instead of showering and dressing right away, she put on the bath robe from the bathroom. She walked downstairs in search of coffee before one of the crazy people of Sile could find an excuse to keep her from it.
Dominic was already up or, at least, still up. He was still wearing the shirt and pants from his tuxedo. He was bent over her file.
"How many times are you going to read that thing?" she asked as she walked over to the coffee maker. "It's getting to be a little creepy."
"I wasn't reading it to be honest," he said. "I was thinking."
The pot was already on and full. She grabbed one of the nearby mugs on the counter and poured the liquid salvation into it. "Oh? What about?" He was far less pleasant than he had been when they parted ways the night before. She hoped it was just exhaustion.
"Actually, I was trying to get up my nerve," he admitted.
She turned to look at him, holding her mug in both hands close to her chest. "That doesn't sound like you." She sipped her coffee. The warmth washed down her throat and did not stop until it had reached the tips of her extremities. This was how a morning was supposed to start.
He shook his head as if to clear it. "Never mind," he said. "The latest news from Mirottaly is that the Prime Minister is planning to retire. HPO says his latest outbreak was too severe. He might not recover."
Her eyes stung at the news. "His wife must be devastated," she said.
"She's understandably been out of the public eye for the last three days and I suspect she will remain that way when it is announced officially. Of course, this means an election will be called soon."
"HPO expecting an executive shuffle?" She asked. With a new government always came the show of purging the old executive and demonizing anything the previous executive had done.
"They're working to avoid one. We've been made a higher priority. They are desperate to see results from as many assignments as they can to prove their usefulness. When I made my report to HPO last night after you went to bed, I told them about your sister and they salivated over the potential. They were very confused to hear she was still alive but pleased we have something to investigate. They are checking into what became of her remains."
She sipped her coffee as she considered that. "She was cremated after the DNA match had been made. No one's come back from that."
"Did you see her cremated?" He asked.
She shook her head. "I didn't arrive in Thirreb until the day we scattered the ashes."
He looked down at her file. "I think it is safe to say those weren't her ashes."
"But her head had been found de-fleshed. There was no brain."
"Which means the question is where did it end up? Someone brought her back. No one knew how the Roamers got into the city to attack her or why they would target her. I don't think they meant to murder her at all, just fake her death."
"Too bad we never got to hear her side," she said with a bite. Until Phoenix found Leanna and Maya got a chance to speak with her, she would not stop regretting the lost opportunity.
He rubbed his forehead. "I'm still not sure that would have made any difference. Who would bother faking her death? If she had been abducted, why wouldn't she come to the military or HPO at her first opportunity?"
Her jaw tensed and her face became so hot it tingled. "You saying my sister is working with Roamers?"
He nodded. "It's the only explanation that makes sense to me."
She glared at him. "She has the Perfectia protein. Roamers kill anyone with the Perfectia protein. So how exactly does that make any sense to you?"
He was unsympathetic. "What is your more logical explanation then?"
She didn't have one. She tried to swallow but the lump that had formed in her throat refused to be dislodged. "What is HPO going to do about her?" she whispered around the obstruction. The reality was too strong for her denial.
"First they are looking into the possibility of an imposter and confirming your sister is really dead. They are also sending her description to the military, who will take her into custody the next time they see her."
He shrugged. "She'll likely be sent to Mirottaly for interrogation and testing."
He closed the file and pushed it away. "We're not in a clean line of work," he said. He wasn't looking at her. His voice was muffled. It was like he wasn't really talking to her.
"It would be nice if it were," she muttered, taking another sip of her coffee but not really tasting it anymore.
"I told HPO about the rest of the party last night," he said, looking out the window. He let out a long sigh weighted with exhaustion and stress. "They are pleased with your progress. You've been welcomed exactly as they hoped, even better than they hoped."
"And?" She was considering abandoning the remaining half of her liquid breakfast. She was sick of talking about HPO.
"And they had new instructions for you."
"That wouldn't be the first time."
He was still staring out the window. "They're orders I knew you wouldn't like and ones I am not comfortable giving. I told them you would never agree."
Her cheeks flushed. She was sick of him acting like her keeper and he had no right to refuse assignments those superior to both of them wanted to give her. "Isn't that for me to decide?"
"So you would sleep with Evan Freeman for them then?"
The mug slipped from her hand. In a whirl of awkward flailing, she tried to catch it before it hit the ground. While she succeeded, she had also succeeded in splashing her coffee all over the bar, the floor, and her bathrobe. She swore under her breath, both at the coffee and at the order HPO had handed out.
"I thought you might feel that way," he said. "Especially after your pimp comment of last night, I figured it was safe to tell them you wouldn't do that."
She started opening cupboards in search of a cloth or rag to clean up her mess. These latest orders were too much. On top of everything else, she couldn't contain her rage any longer. "I end up in Sile and suddenly everyone is allowed to treat me like a doll," she ranted. "Phoenix is dressing me. You're taking me out to show me off. Everyone looks at me with their creepy leering like they're about to take my parts, and now HPO thinks I'll just spread my legs for anyone they want." She found a stack of small towels under the sink. She grabbed the top one and threw it onto the splattering of coffee on the floor. "Seriously. What is wrong with you people? My body may always have been part of my job but this is just sick. I'm not some Roamer and my parts aren't up for sale." She threw the wet towel in the bar sink before releasing a ragged yell.
When her frustration had been reduced to a simple, rapid panting, he said, "This isn't the first time they've asked agents to do something like this."
She glared at him. "And that is supposed to make me feel better?"
He threw his hands up defensively. "Hell no! But don't take it personally. Be mad at them but don't think it's just because it's you. If anything, I think this is a slight against me."
She raised a brow. "That's a bit of a stretch. They're not asking you to sleep with someone you just met."
"True but I've asked for resources and help for years. They've never given me any help because they never thought Sile was important. You show up and now they are demanding daily reports and with this latest order, they threatened my job if you don't do it. In fact, you'll be getting a call from Niles Germaine about it this morning."
Maya swallowed. Niles Germaine was Director of HPO, one of the most powerful men in post-Rights Revolution times. He also did not have a kindly reputation.
Dominic was still venting. "They think I'm incompetent in this but that you can get it done." His eyes met hers. "Please know, that whatever you decide in this, I will not force you. This makes us no better than Roamers and what point is there to any of this if we can't hold onto who we are?"
His words were descending into an apology; one that is given after a person has given up. She was not ready to give up. "Sleeping with Evan doesn't even make sense," she said with one last attempt at sanity.
Dominic shrugged. "They'll do anything to ensure they have a step up on the Roamers and they are convinced that Evan might have more information to offer given his connections and what he said last night."
Maya blinked back at him as she considered why they would care about anything Evan had said. He seemed clueless enough. At the very least, he had been completely wrong about Dominic.
Her breath caught. Did they think Evan had been right? Was he right? No. No way. Dominic hated the Roamers. He resented them for so much. It was one of the reasons Phoenix couldn't trust his own nephew. HPO might suspect Dominic but they couldn't be right. He could be an ass but he was no traitor.
"Dominic," she said quietly. "Do you think HPO is hoping to learn some dirt about you in all this?"
He laughed but when she failed to join him, his amusement faltered. "You're serious?"
She nodded. "Maybe they think you're the mole. Maybe that is why they have been so reluctant to help you with anything."
"You have got to be kidding me," he whispered. As this possibility reverberated through him, he swore. He kicked the coffee table. He jumped to his feet and began to pace. "I've given my life to HPO. I did it because it was right. I did it because we don't deserve to keep living in fear of the Roamers. I did it because I'm sick of families being destroyed by those vermin. Why would I ever help them? It isn't like they need help. It's been over thirty years since the Rights Revolution and we still have to live behind walls. You know firsthand how dangerous it is just to travel between cities. It's crazy that this has been going on so long. It's time it ended. We deserve to move on and those damn Roamers won't let us. They made sure we could never move on!"
He punched the wall. The bang and crumbling of drywall made Maya jump and cringe. Dominic seemed oblivious to the large hole he had left behind. She listened to his seething as he paced, quite sure any comment, even of support, would be too much for him.
He stopped in front of one of the windows and rested his head against it. "All I've got is HPO and Phoenix. HPO has betrayed me and with Phoenix's determination to ignore his own health, he will be gone within a few years. I'll have nothing left."
"You don't know that. Phoenix has lasted quite well this long. He could last for decades more." She couldn't tell him why she was so confident in her statement but she hoped it helped just the same.
He turned and looked at her. "Be sensible, Maya. The brain is always afflicted in the end. How many live to his current age? Not that many. Sure, with his resources, he has better chances than most but how many are even older than him, wealthy or not? His life can likely be measured in months, not years." He walked over to the nearest couch and flopped onto it. "I'm not sure what to do. I've focused on doing my best for HPO so much. I kept trying even when they never seemed to appreciate it or care. I kept working. I knew it would be for the greater good, that someday everything I could sense would be proven and dealt with, that in doing so, we would finally annihilate the Roamers." He put his face in his hands. "They are so blind."
A ringing from the other room interrupted his venting. He hesitated but when the second ring started, he got up, walked by the bar, and through the door. Maya followed, leaning against the door frame as she took in the library. Bookshelves lined every wall except the one that had floor to ceiling windows. The shelves were so full of books that many had been stuffed into random gaps between the tops of books and the bottom of the shelves above them. There was a small table by the window that had the phone on it. Dominic lifted it off the receiver and with a deep breath held it to his ear.
"Hello, sir... Yes, sir... I've informed her of the situation... I think she has a few questions about the assignment... Yes, she's right here."
He got up, walked over to her, and held out the phone. "It's Niles Germaine," he explained.
She had figured that was who it was. With bile in her throat, she took the phone. "Yes, sir," she said.
"I'm not accustomed to our orders being questioned or resisted like this," Niles growled. His voice was ragged and hard.
"I'm just not sure spending our time on Evan is a good use of resources. Perhaps the mayor's wife would be a better choice. She has taken to me quite well and likes to talk."
Niles did not even consider it. "We have information that indicates Evan is a more valuable target," he said without hesitation. "I was under the impression that your conviction in your work was unsurpassed. Michael told me I would never have reason to doubt you but if he is wrong and you cannot handle the full demands of an agent, then you may be better suited to a different line of work."
"I can handle the demands just fine," she said back, mimicking his firmness.
"Good to hear. So I can expect weekly reports on your progress?"
Her guts flipped. As much as she was against it, she had just agreed without realizing. Her eyes fell upon Dominic's face. His jaw flexed, relaxed, and flexed again. If she did do this, she could prove to HPO they had been wrong about him. It might be the only way to clear his name. Besides, they wanted her to sleep with Evan to get information out of him. She might be able to manage getting what they wanted without sex. She just couldn't admit that to HPO until she had succeeded.
"Yes, sir. Do you wish to speak with Dominic again?"
"Yes. Put him on."
She handed the phone to Dominic, who turned his back to her as he held it to his ear. She could hear Niles yelling on the other end though she couldn't quite make out everything he was saying. From what she could understand, he was reprimanding Dominic for interfering in her orders and not doing his job.
After another minute of being insulted, Dominic said good-bye and hung up. He did not turn to look at her. "You better get dressed," he said. "They'll be expecting you to go see Evan today to get things moving."
Maya walked back to her room. The idea of the wardrobe Phoenix had been providing her made her stomach clench and twist into a more painful knot than usual. His fashions were normally worthy of envy but everything he had provided for her in Sile was everything she wasn't. There was a time, that seemed ages ago now, that she enjoyed looking her best and felt confident in her suits, even if they were technically someone else's. She dreaded clothing now.
Her name was whispered down the hall. It was Phoenix. He was standing by her door. His reason for whispering became apparent when she saw he had not yet put on his bandages to cover is uninjured skin. She hurried to meet him.
"I was wondering where you went," he said. Then looking down at her coffee stained bathrobe, added, "You simply cannot let the coffee maker win."
"Morning conversation more than the maker," she explained. "What do you need?"
"I've found that sister of yours," he explained. "She's staying at a small bed and breakfast on Parts Avenue called 'Mornings'. She might be leaving town today, so you'll need to hurry."
She nodded. "More than you know," she said, thinking of what would happen the moment Leanna arrived at the gate. "I'll leave as soon as I'm dressed. Thank you."
He nodded. "Of course. I've also called my driver to come pick you up. I'm sure you don't want Dominic around for this one."
She gave him a smile that did not reach her eyes. "I'm sure he wouldn't want to be around me today either. Thanks again."
Phoenix said good-bye before slipping back into his bedroom.
Her assignment regarding Evan had turned into a much needed excuse for going into town alone. Despite the perfection of the lie, the bile rose in her throat again. She was bloated with secrets. Sile had made her regret her line of work. Everyone thought her previous assignments were so impressive. They were nothing compared to this charade. Before, she could pretend she was little more than a picture. She smiled and waved and turned her head just enough to prevent giving anyone a good look. Maya Thanatos was never really seen. This, pretending she was herself but not, was too real and too painful.
After she had showered, she sifted through the wardrobe. Perhaps Phoenix had picked up on her discomfort. The clothing in the drawer had changed and it was now much more her taste. She picked a black boat neck dress. It was sleeveless with a straight skirt that fell to just above the knee. Strips of blue fabric had be sewn down the sides and crisscrossed the torso. She found a matching pair of stiletto heels in one of the drawers of the wardrobe and a purse she could use for her papers and money.
By the time she had reached the bottom of the stairs, she was feeling ready to face her sister. She just needed to make sure Dominic didn't come along.
He was getting his own coffee at the bar when she walked into the living room. "Phoenix's driver is waiting out front," he said over his shoulder. " I could have taken you into town, you know."
"I'm sure having you around would have made me so much more attractive to Evan," she countered, hoping the meaning would prevent him from wanting to come along.
He smiled too easily; she had a feeling his mask had returned. "Good luck. I'm here if you need me."
She felt sorry for him. HPO had treated him horribly, not that they had treated her much better, but she could understand why this whole think irked him.
"I'll be back this afternoon," she said before leaving.
Phoenix's driver was holding open the back door of a limousine. She climbed in as quickly as she could while remaining decent. This dress was better but it was still no pair of pants.
Despite what lay ahead of her, she felt relief as the car pulled onto the street. She needed to get away from that house, from the stress of Dominic, and from the lies the home held. It was a beautiful day with a blue sky and the warm air. She was feeling optimistic about the answers she would get from her sister once they were alone.
The driver took her to Parts Avenue, pulling to a stop in front of Mornings.
He opened her door and waited for her to get out. "I'll be waiting here when you're finished with your errands today," he said, his deep bass passing through his mask with little distortion.
"Thank you. I'll be dropping by Evan's agency after so I might be a little longer."
He nodded. "Very good. Do you know where it is?"
She looked up and down Parts Avenue. "Along here somewhere."
He pointed south to a door just a few businesses down from the restaurant she and Dominic had gone to. The sign on the door said "Aphrodite" in white cursive lettering.
She thanked him and walked into Mornings. It was a tiny place, more like a small urban inn than a bed and breakfast. The only accessible room on the main floor was a lobby with a single elevator door, a check-in desk, and smelled of freshly shampooed carpet. The check-in desk was being manned by a perfectly groomed young woman in a rigidly tailored grey-blue dress.
"I'm here to see Leanna Thanatos," Maya said.
The woman's forehead creased as she looked over her guestbook. "Could you have been mistaken about the last name?" she asked. "There is no Thanatos here."
It would make sense that Leanna wouldn't use her real name under the circumstances. Maya threw on a smile that risked spilling over into giggles as she attempted a mask that held the same ease as Dominic's. "I'm so sorry," she said. "She's an old friend and I haven't see her in years. I just heard at a party last night she was in town. We were so young back then she might have gotten married since."
The woman smiled back, her shoulders relaxing in response to Maya's frivolous demeanour. "We had a Leanna Owens this morning, but she checked out about an hour ago."
"Owens?" Maya repeated, using focused strength to keep her smile from faltering. "She was dating a nice guy by the name of Owens when we last chatted. I'm sure that must have been her. Thank you anyway. Maybe I'll run into her again sometime."
"Sorry I couldn't be more help," the woman apologized. "Have a nice day."
Maya left Mornings crestfallen and confused. She had missed Leanna, who was likely already in the custody of the military, and Leanna had used the name Owens. Her eyes fell on Phoenix's driver who was sitting in the car waiting. He hadn't see her come out again as he seemed to be taking a nap. Though she considered getting in and going straight home to demand Phoenix explain the name, her guts pulled at her as she remembered Evan and HPO. Besides, she didn't want to wake the driver and, more than anything, she needed time to sort out her own thoughts.
She crossed the street and walked to Aphrodite. She wrapped her fingers around the polished chrome handle on the frosted glass door. She hesitated. She swallowed hard.
A soldier rounded the nearest corner and walked down the sidewalk toward her. His hand was resting on his holster. He wasn't looking at her and his face wasn't covered but she tensed all the same. She pulled open the door with such haste that she nearly knocked herself in the face with it. Hurrying inside, she hoped to put the matter of soldiers behind her.
The air conditioned room forced goose bumps up her bare arms. There were black leather chairs set around a chrome coffee table. A large palm plant was in one corner and the room was lit by soft table lamps set on tables beside the chairs. Opposite from the chairs were floating stairs that went up to the second level. A man wearing a suit was sitting at a glass desk near the waiting area. He ignored her until she spoke.
"I'm here to see Evan Freeman," she said. "My name's Maya Thanatos."
He looked up with a raised brow. "Do you have an appointment?"
"I wasn't aware I would need one," she said. "I just met him last night at Phoenix's house and he had talked about me coming down here. I had the time and thought I would stop by."
His eyebrow lowered with her words. "He has no appointments at the moment but I will have to check with him first." He picked up the phone and hit one of the top buttons before holding it to his ear. "Sorry to bother you, Evan. There's a woman here to see you. Maya Thanatos... Yes. Of course." He hung up. "He'll be right down. Please have a seat." He gestured to the chairs.
There was no need. Evan walked down the stairs at that moment and flashed her his crooked smile. His eyes flicked over her body in verification. "I wasn't expecting to see you today," he said as he held out his hand to shake hers.
It was amazing how easily he could put her at ease with such a simple gesture. "I had some time and happened to be on Parts Avenue," she said, accepting the offered hand in a brief shake.
He ran his fingers through his hair. "Unfortunately, Phoenix hasn't sent me any of the new outfits yet."
HPO was insane. Evan had given her no indication he was interested in her and he seemed no more excited to see her than anyone she just met would be. But she had her orders and at least had to try. Dominic had worked so hard at his masks, it was time for her to do the same. It had worked on the concierge at Mornings, she had to hope it would be good enough on Evan. As silly as she felt doing it, she smiled and said, "Well, we had a lovely conversation last night so I figured stopping by might just be a nice way to spend my morning."
He smiled again. "Dominic didn't forbid you from talking to me again?"
"You're assuming he has much more control over me than he does. Dominic's a... friend of circumstance." It was wrong to put it that way not just because the technicalities of it were a lie. She could live with the lies for the sake of her cover. It was that he was more. At least, she wanted for him to be more even if he refused it. Their kiss from the night before teased her senses with the memory.
"Come up to my office," he offered. "I was just making some calls to book a few of the models that might be good for the show but I'm due for a break anyway."
She followed him up the stairs. At the top he turned into the first room along a long hallway with several doors. It was only about twice the size of her bedroom at Phoenix's. The white walls contrasted sharply with the black desk and chairs.
"Have a seat," he said gesturing to one of the two chairs in front of the desk.
As she did, he took the one next to it rather than his office chair. He sat half-turned to face her, draping one hand over the back of his chair. "How are finances in Mirottaly?" He asked. "Still coping without you?"
She crossed one leg over the other and rested her hands on her knee. "Seem to be. I haven't heard otherwise."
"You're lucky to have the time off. My godfather never seemed to have time to breathe."
She coughed a laugh. "Will Martin is a bit more important than I am."
"Still, you must be eager to get back."
Just her luck. The one person in Sile not trying to force her to stay was the one she needed to seduce. Evan would unfortunately take much more work than she had hoped. Flirting outright could destroy her chances of getting anything out of him so she chose to focus on something they had in common.
"I miss Mirottaly," she said. With the words spoken, it felt like something blissful had released in her shoulders. It was probably the truest thing she had said since coming to Sile. "I miss my little apartment. I miss being able to go home at night to be with my own thoughts. I even miss all those crazy people walking the puffs of tissue they claim are dogs."
He laughed. "I never thought of those dogs that way but that is a very apt description." His amusement fueled a quiet chuckle. "Funny how it's those little annoyances we miss most when we're away from them. I thought it would be refreshing to get away from Finn's night life and be able to sleep without being woken up by drunken yelling in the street. Strange thing is, I sleep worse in the silence here than I did amongst the parties there."
"Why did you come to Sile?" she asked. "There are so many more designers in Mirottaly."
He shrugged. "I never planned to stay here. I came to visit my parents. They live just down the street from Phoenix. They took me to one of his parties and he found out what I did. He said he wanted to have a devoted agency to help him with his shows. He's so against travelling. He refuses to go to Mirottaly even for his own business. I don't think he's ever left Sile because he is so afraid of the Roamers."
Phoenix was afraid but not of the Roamers. If he had to undergo screening for any reason, his secret would be ousted just like that.
"Phoenix has a way of trapping people here," he added, his pleasant expression belying the insult. "To be honest, I'm not even sure why he asked me to stay. I make far more money here than I ever did in Mirottaly so I shouldn't complain but he barely uses my services."
"What do you mean?"
"I told you I was making some inquiries about models. Well, I do that every time. I line up famous names to wear his clothes and every time he complains about them. He's always got some reason the men and women aren't good enough for his clothes and ends up calling in his own. They're always professional and always perfect for the job but why does he bother paying me to stay here when he does it all himself? It gets tiring to work with such a control freak sometimes."
"At least he doesn't pick your clothes for you like you're a child," she muttered.
"He's tried but that's where I draw the line." He looked her up and down, letting his eyes linger longer than usual. Though she felt herself getting warmer, she had none of the same urge to flee as she did when others in Sile did it. "I will say this: he's doing a great job. You look fantastic."
She smiled as her heart sped up. "Thank you."
He glanced over at his phone and then back at her. "I can probably take a longer break. It isn't like those calls matter in the end. Did you want to go for lunch with me? There's a small bistro across the street that has an amazing mushroom soup."
Her smile broadened. "Of course."
Her heart beat faster at the same time she felt relief. HPO would be pleased. Fortunately, their plan was working. Unfortunately, their plan was working.
They left Aphrodite and crossed the street. Evan pointed to a tiny business with a plain burgundy canopy over the door.
"It's actually owned by my aunt but she's never been involved in running the place, thank goodness. She's a terrible cook and has very little business sense."
As they stepped up onto the curb, she nearly ran into a masked soldier. Her heart dropped and she glanced over at Evan, who seemed entirely unconcerned as the soldier dodged around her and kept walking. She berated herself for being so paranoid.
Evan had reached the door of the restaurant and opened it for her. "Hey, did you drop something?" He asked as he pointed to a folded piece of paper on the ground near her foot.
"I don't think so," she said even as she bent down and picked it up.
"Maybe that guy dropped it," Evan said.
Maya looked around but the soldier was gone. Her heart dropped again, this time staying lodged in her gut. She unfolded the paper and read:
Leanna - 9-13-544
"What is it?" Evan asked.
"Just some woman's phone number," she called back to him even as she memorized the number. She crumpled the paper and threw it in a nearby trash bin. She smiled at Evan as she walked by him, trying to get her mind back into the mode for seduction.
Evan had been right. The soup at the bistro was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted. It was rich and creamy. She reached the bottom of her bowl before she was ready.
"Now you know where to come for great soup," he teased her when he saw her empty bowl. He still hadn't finished his but he pushed it away.
"You said you weren't sure why Phoenix pays you to stay in Sile," she said, trying to get some more information out of him, "But do you at least like it here?" She hoped he would elaborate on the excitement he had been touting at the party.
He considered. "It has its charms. I find listening to the gossip is an entertaining exercise to break the boredom but Arthur was right when he said it gets boring around here. I just argued with him because he can be so smug when he's right."
A dead end. Evan was not making her life any easier. At this rate, she could give him the best sex of his life and she still wouldn't learn a thing. "Do you like your job, or at least what you get to do?"
He shrugged. "It's better than being a useless heir to a fortune I had no hand in making. My mother made quite a bit of money in Mirottaly designing shoes so I've always been exposed to the business. I'm awful at design so some kind of management seemed the most logical choice."
She leaned forward. "Which shoes did she design?"
His crooked smile tried to break free but he held it in. "Itelet," he admitted.
Itelet shoes had been just as popular as Phoenix's clothes when Maya was young. Unlike Phoenix, they had fallen out of fashion.
"She made a fortune that she knew how to use," he explained. "We moved here when I was very young. I didn't return to Mirottaly until university. I imagined I would go into medicine like my father. When I looked at the courses and the requirements, I convinced myself I could handle it but had to switch my major a single month in. No matter how much I wanted to make a difference in medicine, I realized how bad I was at science. I think too much like my mother to be of any use at it and too much like my father to design anything more attractive than a trash bag. Dominic and I ended up taking random courses to figure ourselves out. I finally realized the fashion industry was the only hope I had. Do you like finance?"
She cringed. "Hate it," she admitted. "It's what my mother wanted."
"Is she proud of you?"
She snorted without meaning to. "My mother took her shame of me to her grave."
"So taking a path to please your mother didn't work out too well for you, did it?"
"I guess not."
"If she's gone now, what's stopping you from picking what makes you happy?"
She blinked back at him. The echoes of her mother's derision still haunted her but he had a point. She may not really have gone into finance and that likely did play a role in her mother's disappointment but Evan's words poked at her. What was keeping her from changing her job? She was sitting there, trying to seduce him all because an organization told her to. Who was she trying to please? She hated being treated like a prostitute but she was letting them treat her that way. She was letting them blackmail her. If she could, what would she do instead? Where would she go instead?
"I don't know," she muttered.
"Fair enough. It can be difficult shedding parental expectations. But maybe that's why you've found yourself here. Maybe you'll like it better here."
"Maybe." She neglected to mention that Sile was exactly where her mother had wanted to live most.
He looked up at the clock on the wall. "I should probably be getting back. Will you be hosting Phoenix's party again tonight?"
"I'm not sure but I'll be there either way."
His smile broadened. "Great. I'll see you then."
When Maya returned to Phoenix's house, Dominic wasn't there and it appeared Phoenix was still playing the recovering patient in his room. She stood at the bottom of the stairs considering confronting him about the name 'Owens'.
Her hand rested on the banister. She stared at it as she considered.
Phoenix had shared his most important secret already but that did not mean he would be willing to tell her every secret he had. She was also not sure she wanted to hear it from him. She ran over Leanna's number in her mind. She withdrew her hand from the bannister and walked to the phone in the library. She picked it up and dialed the number with no hesitation. It rang only once before the familiar voice picked up.
"Hello?" Her sister answered.
Maya did not know how secure the line was. She dared not address her sister by name.
"When and where?" was all she said.
"Tonight. Outside. We'll take care of the rest." Leanna and Maya may not have been close but she had to admit her sister had always been astute.
"Just one more thing," Maya said. "Stay away from... "
"The gate," Leanna finished. "We know. Bye."
Leanna hung up before Maya could say any more.
What Leanna had confirmed was that she was not working alone. The bile rose in Maya's throat as she considered the implications. She would likely be meeting a masked soldier that night and she had little doubt it would be the same one that had abducted her. With a deep breath, she let the reality wash over her.
"Did you catch your sister?"
Maya turned to see an bandage-free Phoenix standing behind her. His face and hands looked a little redder than they had the night before.
"You're not wearing your bandages," she commented, figuring this meant he would also be hosting his party that evening.
"Another miraculous recovery," he said. Holding up his reddened fingers, he added, "It's amazing what make-up can do."
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Don't you think you're pushing it just a bit?"
"No one recovers this quickly. How has no one asked questions before? You're just begging for trouble."
"Dominic didn't suspect a thing. He's used to my rapid turn-arounds by now though I can't say he was pleased I was out of bed."
Her brow furrowed at his stubbornness. "Where is Dominic anyway?"
He shrugged. "Went home for a shower and a new suit. He seemed pretty upset about something. I got the feeling he wanted to be alone."
She had a good idea what had him in such a foul mood, but she didn't feel comfortable talking about that with Phoenix; no matter what he had shared with her about himself. She also had too much of Leanna on her mind.
"Who is Jeremy Owens?" She blurted. Her curiosity had overtaken her control.
"I cannot tell you that," he said. His eyes did not waver from hers. Every muscle in his body seemed to have frozen in place.
"But it isn't you, is it?"
"No, it isn't."
The library was too small and too stifling. She wished she could just open a window. His demeanour guaranteed he would not elaborate but now that she had asked, she couldn't drop the matter. "So who is it?"
"I already said I can't tell you."
At the same time she had known he wouldn't give her anything more, she wanted to hit him for holding back. "I know you're a Roamer, what could be worse than that?" She had no right to judge what he did and did not choose to share. She had her own secrets from him. What would he have thought if he knew he had shared his true blood status with an agent of HPO?
"Maya, who I am is my secret. It is my place to decided who knows it. The identity of Jeremy Owens is his secret to share."
Her bitterness coated her tongue but she was not mad at him. What he said made sense. She just wished it didn't.
"I'm seeing Leanna tonight," she said. "She had already left Mornings by the time I got there."
"And the party? Surely you realize people will notice your absence. You don't want to make people suspicious do you?"
The party of the night before had shown her that was a likely outcome but the concern had fallen from her mind. The prospect of learning what Leanna had to tell her was too strong. She had forgotten that she had agreed to see Evan at the party. How would she explain standing him up in her report to HPO? How would she get away without Dominic realizing? He did not trust her sister at all.
"But you're hosting tonight, aren't you?" she asked, gesturing to his lack of bandages with her hand and hoping that would be enough.
He nodded but added, "And you are still the main attraction around here."
"I'll figure something out," she said but his pursed lips told her he didn't think she would.
That evening, she stood at the bar awaiting her drink as the guests milled about her. Phoenix had insisted she wear a read strapless gown he had just finished. The skirt cascaded from her hips down to her toes. The tight bodice had slits down the sides that were criss-crossed with metal and diamond strands. A slit in the fabric between her breasts was held together with a similar strand. She had brushed her long black hair straight so that it fell down her back.
Evan had not arrived with the initial guests and she hoped that would simplify matters. Dominic had not returned either. Her guts tightened at the thought of the pain he must be feeling. Her jaw tightened at her own betrayal of him. He had not wanted her to agree to seducing Evan and she was withholding the largest secret his family held from him. The fact that she felt she had little choice in either situation was an insignificant comfort.
Even after getting her drink, she did not leave the bar. She leaned against it as she sipped at whatever she had been given and thought about what to expect in her meeting with Leanna. Dominic's warning tried to resurrect itself in her mind. Its pull on her was too feeble to overcome her need to discover the identity of Jeremy Owens.
She looked out the windows across the room. It was fully dark. It was time. She set her drink down at the bar and walked for the door.
"It's a bit chilly tonight," Phoenix said as he watched her pass. "Stay near the fire."
The front door opened and Evan walked in at that moment. Maya could not help swearing to herself.
When Evan saw her, his crooked smile spread across his face. "That was easy," he said. "I didn't even need to look for you."
She forced a smile that she hoped reached her eyes. "I was just on my way to get some air," she said, hoping that would be enough to give him the slip.
"Come with me to get a drink and then we can do it together," he suggested.
"Sure." She forced the same bubbly tone she had used with the concierge at Mornings. Her efforts to hide her disappointment became increasingly difficult as she walked with him back to the bar.
The crowd was not has packed as it had been the previous night despite the supposed chill of outside. They did not need to push around anyone. That was when Maya realized she hadn't greeted Amelia, who was usually the first to arrive.
"Where is everyone tonight?" She wondered aloud as they reached the bar.
Evan shrugged. "I ran into Margo in town just before coming here and she said there have been several simultaneous outbreaks," he explained before giving the bar tender his order. "It's happened before."
Her chest tightened. "Is Amelia alright?"
He nodded. "Her outbreak was minor; just surficial damage to her shoulder. They caught it early. Tabitha was afflicted too. Hers is a little more serious but only just. She'll be given a new foot." The bartender handed him his wine and he took a sip as he turned back to Maya. "Shall we go find our place by the fire then?"
She nodded but her thoughts were elsewhere. She could not remember going outside or sitting down, but she was already by the fire, goose bumps covering her arms, by the time Evan spoke again.
"Are you alright?" he asked. "You seem distracted tonight."
"Sorry," she muttered. "I'm worried about Amelia."
He raised a brow. "Her condition is hardly worrying. We'll likely see her at the party tomorrow."
She tried to smile back at him. If Amelia really had been her concern, she might have found his words comforting. Given that it was a lie, she felt only worse. With a deep breath, she tried to find the mask that Dominic had mastered. Her masks had always been physical. These emotional games were too difficult to maintain. She thought of her home and of being hurried from limousines into buildings and back again. When she tried to smile again, it came much more easily.
"How have your phone calls been going?" she asked.
He chuckled. "Does it matter?"
"I guess not."
"Phoenix called me today," he said staring at the glass in his hands. "The show will be next week. I was a little surprised. I'm not sure how we'll get it put together in that time but he is adamant it can be done. I was hoping for a little more time."
What was Phoenix up to now?
A new car pulled into the driveway. Maya's breath caught as she both hoped and feared that it would be Dominic or maybe even Leanna. When she saw Gerald climb out of the driver's seat and head inside, she was confused. A moment later, Phoenix was heading to the car, not even waiting for Gerald to open the door for him. Maya jumped to her feet, having to fight the folds of her skirt in the process to avoid tripping.
"Phoenix, what's wrong?" She called to him.
His wild eyes turned on her. He blinked as he realized who was talking to him. "Maya, come with me. They can manage the party without us."
Her heart stopped. "Dominic?"
He nodded. "He's in trouble."
She ran down to the driveway and the car. "How bad is it?" She asked as Phoenix waited for her to get in.
"Bad enough that we might be saying good-bye."
Nausea washed over her. They left the party and Evan behind.
The town looked so different in the dark. The soft street lamps did little to counteract the ominous desertion of the streets. The stores and restaurants were all shut. Only Phoenix's house served the night life. At that moment, they were completely alone; the sole residence of Sile.
"When did it happen?" she asked. It didn't matter but she couldn't survive being alone with her imagination at that moment.
"This afternoon," Phoenix said. "I don't know anything more than that."
She swallowed hard. There would be no distraction in the endless drive to the bank. She twisted her fingers in her lap.
As they pulled up to the bank, they seemed to be stopping in slow motion. Phoenix did not push the door open fast enough for her liking but he was in the way and she couldn't very well push him out of it.
After an eternity, they were in the bank and at the desk, which was currently being manned by a poorly shaven man in his thirties who was wearing a nurse's uniform. There were dark bags under his eyes.
"Dominic Nevett," Phoenix said.
When the man looked up, his eyes widened. "Yes, o-of c-course," he stammered. "Follow me." He stood and led them back through the same hallways Maya had walked before.
"How many parts?" Phoenix demanded.
"Only 7,000," the nurse said, "But the location was problematic. I will let the doctor explain."
He stopped in front of a room with an open door. Inside there was a single bed and on it, Dominic lay unconscious. An IV was in his arm and a pulse monitor on his finger. His lower half was covered in a blanket. His upper half was bare with bandages wrapped around his middle and shoulders. Another nurse was just finishing securing the end of one of the bandages.
When they had visited Phoenix, his bandages had covered most of his body to emphasize his supposed ill health. Dominic had far less coverage. His head and arms were bare and he looked like he was peacefully asleep. He did not even look like he was in any pain.
Maya walked to his bedside, leaving Phoenix by the door.
"Is it alright if I am here?" She whispered to the nurse. "I don't want to disturb him."
The nurse shook her head and said at a normal volume, "You won't. We've sedated him until his swelling goes down. I doubt anything would wake him."
Maya reached out and brushed his hair away from his face. She wished very much that Phoenix wasn't the only one pretending to have the Perfectia protein.
The nurse left and Phoenix came to stand on Dominic's other side. They did not speak while they waited for the doctor. Phoenix simply took Dominic's hand in his and held onto it. Maya could not take her eyes away from Dominic's face. She didn't want to risk too worrying a look at his bandages. The heart monitor beat at a slow rhythm.
His face was perfect at least. It helped her pretend he was simply asleep and not medically sedated. It helped her pretend there was really nothing to worry about.
An indefinable time later, Dr. Hamilton walked into the room. He said hello but his energy was much lower than when she had seen him fight with Phoenix. Of course it was. He had known Phoenix was in no real danger. He could enjoy the act. Dominic was no Roamer.
Dr. Hamilton began his explanation. "What we know is he had told his driver to pick him up at noon but Dominic didn't answer the door. The driver went inside to check on him and found him collapsed in the shower with an outbreak covering 80 per cent of his back and spine." He took a deep breath. "It consumed the tissue around his 2nd lumbar vertebrae and continued up to his cervical vertebrae."
"His brain?" Phoenix asked.
"We think we managed to stop the damage before it got that far," he replied. "It affected mostly the surrounding muscle tissues. Very few of the nerves were affected. He was very lucky. If it had penetrated his nerves in the cervical column, we would not have been able to stop it. I believe he can recover but we need to be realistic. This kind of outbreak often indicates an onset of brain infection will happen within months. Even if he makes it through this time, he likely has little time left. He will be dead within the year."
Phoenix sucked in a sharp, whimpering breath. He squeezed Dominic's hand. A tear fell onto Dominic's knuckle.
Dr. Hamilton rested his hand on Phoenix's shoulder. "I'm sorry, old friend. I know we both hoped this would never happen but we simply ran out of time."
Phoenix made a strangled sound as he tried to suppress a sob. He couldn't look at the doctor. he stared at the heart monitor. His bottom lip could not be kept still.
"Thank you, Martin," he whispered. It was not a truly grateful comment. It was a dismissal.
"I'm sorry," Dr. Hamilton said again. "I'll be back to check on him in an hour." He nodded to Maya before he left.
She was numb. She was watching Phoenix's pain consume him. She couldn't find her own. It was there, somewhere deep inside, locked behind heavy doors of something akin to denial without the blissful delusion. She looked down at Dominic again, forcing herself to stare at the location of his bandages, forcing herself to understand what they meant. They were too real. She couldn't look at them. She couldn't stay.
She took a step back, and then another. She had made her way to the door, turned, and ran.
The uncomfortable chill of the night air was now a welcome reprieve from the still air of the bank. Gerald jumped out of the car and hurried to open the back door for her. She ignored him. With her skirts clutched in her fists, she started running again. She didn't know where. She let her legs decide which darkened streets she would dare explore. It didn't matter.
She ran until her chest seized from the exertion. She collapsed against the stone wall of a building and left her head fall against it as she squeezed her eyes shut.
Dominic was her superior. He was an ass. He was under suspicion for being a mole. He was someone she had just met. All reasons she should not care as much as she did. But if she was honest with herself, she did care. She cared the first moment he flashed that glorious smile of his at her.
It was stupid. It made no sense. If everyone else had their way, she'd be chasing after Evan. She felt at ease with him not vulnerable and stupid. Everything said that Evan was the type of guy she should want, not Dominic. But she wanted Dominic; not Evan or anyone like Evan. And sense or not, Dominic's dying gutted her in a way that she had never been fortunate enough to experience before. Everything and everyone she had lost before that moment she had never wanted.
"You've been more difficult to find tonight than we had expected."
She opened her eyes and saw Leanna standing next to a masked soldier several feet away. Leanna stepped closer before speaking again. "Time to come with us," she said.
Maya closed her eyes once more, hoping that when she opened them again, they would be gone. As much as she needed to find Jeremy Owens, she could not do it now. She couldn't manage it.
When she opened her eyes and the couple were still there, she grunted, "Go away."
"You wanted to meet," Leanna shot back.
Maya pushed against the wall to stand upright. "Later," she muttered before turning to walk back the way she had come.
"Sorry, sis, but our timeline doesn't allow for later," Leanna growled.
Maya heard rapid, heavy footfalls behind her. She spun around to see the masked soldier lunging for her.
Maya woke up with the unfortunately familiar headache and metallic taste in her mouth. The strong smell of damp concrete fill her nose and her back ached with cold upon the unforgiving surface. A bright light was above her. It did not help the searing throbs that shook her skull.
She rubbed her forehead, trying to ease the pain without any luck. She froze when she heard a voice only feet away from her.
"She's up," Leanna said.
Maya scrunched her face, refusing to open her eyes. Though she knew she was awake, she was hoping there was still a chance this was a dream, an annoying dream that made her want to choke someone.
"Want me to knock her out again?" a man asked from several feet further away. Maya knew it must be the masked soldier. His presence alone was enough to know that Dominic had been onto something, though she took comfort in the fact that if they wanted her dead, they would have done it already.
"Maybe we can reason with her," Leanna offered.
Maya gritted her teeth. "Would you listen to someone who just kidnapped you?" She asked.
The soft whumps of practical shoes on concrete grew louder. When Leanna spoke, Maya could tell her sister was standing above her. "If you would have listened to me in the first place, my measures could have been less drastic."
Maya's rage forced her eyes open. She glared at her sister, who was standing above her and looking down. Her head was blocking the light; her features washed into a flat, dark grey nothing. "I was completely willing to listen," Maya countered, "But you want me to trust you without any evidence I should. In fact, all the evidence so far supports Dominic's theory that you just want to kill me."
Leanna straightened. The light hit Maya's eyes directly and she flinched at the unexpected blinding. As she slowly regained her sight, she tried to keep her eyes on her sister, whose jaw was tight. Her shoulders crested with a slow, deliberate breath.
"You don't know what you're talking about," Leanna said, still staring unfocused ahead of her.
Maya sat up and saw that she was likely in the same room she had woken up in once before. The bare brick walls and concrete floor gave no clues as to why they had brought her here. She tried to push herself to her feet but her evening gown was twisted around her legs. Her first attempt immediately failed as she fell back on her rear. Her efforts were further impeded by the fact that she was still woozy. Even after she managed to free her legs and stand, she couldn't seem to stay steady as she righted herself.
"I don't know what I'm talking about?" she muttered in reply to her sister's insult. "Your friend here has already violently abducted me once. I thought he was going to kill me but in a truly warped turn of events, he took my blood. Why did he even need it?" Her anger was giving her strength and steadying her legs. She latched onto it and used it as she continued, "And then my dead sister shows up completely unharmed, demands to speak with me alone, and storms off in a huff before she can tell me anything. Then, when someone dear to me is in real trouble and I don't have time to deal with cryptic messages and this insanity, you knock me out and abduct me again! So what exactly do I not know when I say I don't trust you?"
She was avoiding looking at the soldier. She wanted to pretend he wasn't there. This was between her and her sister. She could stay strong if she could focus on how much she wanted to slap her sister. It was easy to hold to that. Now that she knew they were working together, she could even blame her sister for the original abduction. After all, the guy seemed to defer to her for instructions. It must have been her sister who ordered her blood be taken.
"You were always such a self-righteous twit," Leanna shot back. "No one was ever good enough for you. You treated mom like she was no better than some psychopath and you barely acknowledged dad had ever existed."
"So I'm the bad one because I refused to buy into mom's elitism but I'm also at fault for not willingly accepting that I had a traitor for a father?" Maya crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Who is the self-righteous one here? I was never anything more than your dumb kid sister who lacked as much worldly experience as you. I at least dedicated my life to something bigger than myself."
Leanna expelled a laugh truncated by cynicism. "We are well aware of your employer," she said.
"And who's yours? Before I thought you were dead, you were a transactions clerk at a bank. It made mom proud at least."
Leanna's face was turning red. Her hands twitched as if she was going to punch Maya in the face. Maya was ready but the blow never came. "Shut your face, Maya," Leanna barked. "I will never be a party to the slave trade again."
"Slave trade?" Maya was confused for only a moment. Derision and hatred washed through her body, leaving acid in its wake. "So it's true and you've joined the Roamers. Are you trying to get me to help you now? Is that it? You want me to switch sides? Sorry, but I don't hate my own kind."
A smile spread across Leanna's face. Her eyes were predatory. "You're already helping us," she said. "You've been helping us since the day you arrived in Sile."
Maya narrowed her eyes as she tried to form her hatred into a tangible spear that might silence her sister. She hated that no such weapon actually appeared. "I would never help you," she seethed.
Leanna grabbed for Maya's arm. Maya tried to pull away but her senses were still dull from being forced into unconsciousness. Her sister held her firmly and turned her arm over. Even as Maya was still trying to pull it away, Leanna dragged her fingertip down the length of the scar. "This says otherwise," she whispered. "You do not need to consent to be of use to our cause."
"I guess that's great for you then, because I would never willingly help you with anything." She managed to free her hand with another great jerk but only because Leanna seemed no longer interested in holding onto it.
A chill spread across Maya's bare shoulders, leaving goose bumps and vulnerability in its wake. She wanted to leave this insanity. She had made a mistake thinking she would find out anything from her sister. Dominic was near death at the bank. He could be dead already and she wouldn't even know. She needed to get back to him.
"Would you help us if it would save Dominic?" Leanna asked with all the knowledge of a psychic.
Maya's guts faltered. She swallowed hard as she attempted to find any evidence of deception in her sister's expression. Though there was none, Maya wasn't fooled. "Liar," she spat. "If you're with the Roamers, you're just as likely to make sure he dies." After all, they were known to believe they were freeing their loved ones from zombie-ism by killing them, and as Dominic had said, they were the ones who had ensured there were no other choices.
"I have no desire to kill anyone," Leanna said as she turned and walked to her masked friend. "I am not the one defending a system that kills hundreds and maims thousands every day, reserving its only regard for those with the money to sponsor such atrocities." She rested her hand on the soldier's shoulder. He looked back into her eyes for a lingering moment. Her hand retreated to her side. "Maya," she whispered, " Your cooperation isn't necessary but it would be helpful. If I could offer an end to all this suffering, could we forget how much we hate each other even for a short time? Even just long enough to help everyone?"
Maya felt numb. She could not truly process what Leanna was saying. She did not see how it could be possible. She also could not see why her sister would want her help. Her denial regained its hold. "What do you mean by 'help'?" She asked.
Leanna whirled to face her, the anger having freshly contorted her features into a mass of reddened creases. "What do you think I mean? Help. H-E-L-P; help!"
"The Roamers who attacked my car, killed my driver, and forced me to take refuge here thought they were helping too," she growled back as she planted her feet instinctively.
Leanna snorted. She turned to her companion. "She's going to use invented attacks to argue me now?"
The man's eyes shifted back to Maya but he said nothing.
"'Invented attacks'?" Maya repeated. "'Invented attacks'? I watched a man get ripped apart and you say I'm lying?"
Leanna stormed up to her. Maya braced for an assault but was still too slow to avoid Leanna reaching for her arm yet again. She held it just as firmly as before but did not follow the scar with her finger this time. She kept her eyes locked upon her sisters'.
"You watched a man get ripped apart and you weren't all that bothered by it," Leanna pointed out. "Even now, even with your anger and hatred directed at me, you haven't truly been traumatized by that 'attack'. What was his name? Do you remember? How could you? You don't even remember when you got this scar."
Maya's heart sank at the realization that her sister was right. She did not remember and she was as bothered by the Roamer attack as she had been by the girl killing herself in the bank; not much at all. She whipped her hand away. "I don't remember but he was a new driver, a fill-in," she reasoned. "Just because I didn't catch his name doesn't mean I wanted him to be murdered by your friends."
A guttural scream attempted to escape Leanna's throat but she pressed her lips together in a tight line to hold it back. She threw her hands up in the air. Her audible attempts to even out her breathing filled the space between them.
"That's enough," the soldier grunted. "You've tried reasoning with her. She won't listen. It's time to get this done whether she wants it or not."
Leanna glared back at him. "That isn't how Jeremy wanted it."
So Jeremy was someone Leanna knew after all.
"None of this is how Jeremy wanted it," he said. There was a weight to his tone Maya could not understand but Leanna must have. Her face hardened. Her jaw flexed repeatedly.
"Who is Jeremy Owens?" Maya asked in the lull.
Both the soldier and Leanna turned their eyes on her. Neither spoke. It was like she was looking at an eerie, ancient photograph. The room was completely still. Even the air had stopped moving. It was suffocating.
"Who is Jeremy Owens?" She repeated.
Leanna's mouth was firmly shut. She was staring an some indistinct spot just below Maya's clavicle.
"I was sent to Phoenix by a note that had the name Jeremy Owens on it," Maya explained. "You were registered at mornings under the name Owens."
"He's the one trying to save everyone. He's humanity's saviour," the soldier said.
"Shut up," Leanna barked at him.
Maya wanted to bark at him too. As sincere as he had been in what he had just said, it was just uninformative hero worship. How exactly was this Jeremy Owens trying to save everyone?
He shrugged at Leanna's rebuke. "Do you want me to deal with her or not?"
Leanna glared at her sister. Her face did not soften as she considered. Finally, she heaved a sigh. "Fine," she grunted. "I'm sick of fighting with her anyway. It doesn't really matter." She turned and walked away to, what Maya only then realized, was the door. "I'll be outside," she said. "Let me know when she's ready."
He nodded. Maya's heart jumped. She considered running after her sister and pushing her way through the door but the gap between them was too wide. She'd never make it before the soldier intervened. She looked around for a weapon but a half-collapsed cardboard box next to the door was the only thing in the room.
She was out of time. Leanna was opening the door. The soldier was approaching. There was nothing she could use.
"Get away from me," she shot at him. She knew there was really no point. He was a faster, stronger, and a more skilled fighter than her. Even if there had been a weapon she could use, he likely would have turned it against her within the first move. Roamers spent their lives fighting like animals. His violent upbringing had served him well and she was undertrained for such an opponent. Self-defense alone had proven useless against him before. "Leanna, get back here!" She shouted in desperation. "At least have the guts to do it yourself!"
Her sister said nothing as she closed the door between them.
Maya tried to keep her distance from the soldier but the space was too small for that to work for very long. She clenched her fists and readied to fight. He would have to kill her or knock her out again because there was no way she was going to give in. When he was nearly within reach of her, she lunged forward and tried to punch him in the throat. He deflected her blow by grabbing her wrist. She tried to bring her knee up into his side but he pulled his waist over just enough for her to miss. She had no hope but she also had no choice. She could not surrender.
She tried to claw at his face with her free hand. Her fingers brushed the scarf covering his face, pulling it loose. It fell to the floor leaving his scars entirely exposed.
There was no nose left. A purple and red mass of poorly stitched together skin was in its place. Two holes appeared to have been cut where there should have been nostrils. His jaw was little better than a gangrenous mass of an untreated outbreak. The stench was overwhelming. Maya nearly vomited on his shoes even as he grabbed her free hand.
She was firmly in his grasp. For a moment, her fear kept the contents of her stomach supressed but she forced herself to give into the sickness. She heaved. Without letting go, he pushed her away enough to avoid getting hit. She heaved again, this time shifting her head so that he couldn't avoid it. He released her wrists as he tried to jump back.
Though her body was still clenched in the violent expulsion, in her mind, she was smiling that she had managed to free herself. It may not have been in the most dignified of ways but it had worked. She dodged around him, taking the opportunity of the momentary lapse in his focus to get away. With her skirt clutched in her hands, she ran for the door.
She hadn't heard the clicking of any locks when Leanna had left. If she could make it to the door, she could get out. She might not be able to defeat this soldier but she had much more confidence in facing her sister. She dared to hope.
Her heart danced as her hand wrapped around the knob. She yanked the door open. The cold night lay before her. She took her first step into freedom. A thick forearm around her throat pulled her back inside. Her heart shattered. Why could she never win? Just once? When it mattered most.
He dragged her inside, kicking the door shut with a bang. The night was gone. Dominic could be dead by morning. She would never see him again. The Roamers would win. Even if she lived, she would lose everything.
"Sorry for any bruises," the soldier grunted in her ear as he dragged her. "But this would be so much easier if you would just cooperate."
"Like you did? You're no Roamer. Why are you helping them?"
He slipped his other arm behind her neck, putting her into a sleeper hold. The colour drained from her. She struggled but he was simply too strong for her and her limbs were traitorously weak.
His mouth was next to her ear. "Because I don't want to die."
The bright light was still in Maya's eyes. Her head lolled to the side. Her wrists felt tight. The stench of dead and dying flesh was still firmly planted in her nostrils. Memory came back to her and her eyes flew open as she gasped.
The soldier was kneeling over her, readying a syringe. She looked down at her hands. He had used his mask to bind her wrists. Even if they had been free, the room was spinning too much for increased movement to be helpful.
"You've already taken my blood," she muttered.
He ran his weathered finger on the inside of her elbow. She assumed he was looking for a vein.
"I don't need your blood this time," he said.
Finding the desired spot, he pushed the syringe through her skin. As he injected whatever the concoction was, she sucked in a gasp. The flow of the liquid felt like fire leaving a trail up her arm. She clenched her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut.
"Just breathe," he said as he withdrew the needle. "It will stop burning in a minute."
"How do you know?" she growled back.
"Because you've had it before."
Despite the pain, her eyes flew open and she looked directly into his, which was difficult given the disfigured state of his face. He pushed himself to his feet and walked to the damaged cardboard box. He sifted through the few contents that must have been in the bottom and pulled out some rope. He walked back and straddled her legs while he secured her ankles with the rope.
"Not letting me go this time?" she seethed.
"More than one treatment this time," he said.
Even if the burning had remained, it would have been extinguished by how cold her blood turned. "Treatment? What are you talking about?"
"Enough chat," he said as he walked over to the nearest wall. He sat with his back against it and closed his eyes.
"So who is Jeremy Owens really?" she asked.
He didn't move. He definitely didn't speak.
She looked around the room the best she could, not to survey her surroundings like before but out of boredom. Finally, she just lay there and stare at the light above her. The cold concrete against her shoulders sapped her of body heat far too quickly. Goose bumps turned to shivers.
She thought of Dominic, motionless and bandage on that bed in the bank. She thought of Phoenix. Dominic had feared losing Phoenix. He was convinced his uncle would die within the year. Fate's humour was cruel. She closed her eyes. She might never see him again alive. Her tears left cold trails down the edges of her face. She wanted it all to go away. She wished it had never happened.
She tried to distract herself. She focused on her breathing. She focused upon her shivering. She focused on relaxing her muscles to ease the shaking, with little luck. She yawned despite herself.
The soldier stirred against the wall. "Time for your booster," he said as he pulled out another bottle and a sealed package that contained another syringe.
He gave her the shot in the same manner as before. Maybe her senses had been dulled by her exhaustion but it did not burn as much as the first. He returned to his spot along the wall and closed his eyes once more.
After another stretch of time, long after her fingers had lost feeling and her arms had fallen asleep, he returned to her side, this time with two different vials. The first injection felt much the same as the two from earlier in the night, though the burning was even less pronounced. The second she could not feel at all.
He looked down at her. "I'm hoping we won't have to see each other again," he said. "But I'll leave that up to Jeremy. If I untie you now, do you promise not to slug me or cause any trouble until I'm gone?"
She snorted. "I haven't landed a shot on you yet."
What might have been a smirk spread from the gangrenous flesh. "You're right about that," he said. "I thought you HPO agents were trained better to be honest."
"I'm not normally a field agent," she said. "I'm just a decoy with low level clearance."
"Still, I was expecting more."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
He shrugged as he reached for the mask that held her wrists. "You can find your way back to the bank?" he asked.
"Are you really going to pretend you're worried about me?"
The smirk returned. "Of course I am. All our hopes are inside you now. Don't go screwing it up."
"Sabotaging your plans sounds really fun actually."
"The only way you could at this point would be to kill yourself. I doubt you've got it in you to do it."
"I was willing to let you kill me."
He chuckled. "I doubt that and even if you were, taking your own life takes a hell of a lot more courage than letting someone else do it."
Despite her attempted bravado, she was little different than he was. She didn't want to die, but she didn't want to help the Roamers destroy her people either.
He pulled the mask free before tugging at the knot around her ankles. "Like I said, don't go screwing it up." He dropped the rope and stood. "Bye, Maya."
"Tell Leanna I hate her guts," she shot back. Her hands were still numb, but it didn't matter. She had no will to start fighting him again.
He looked over his shoulder when he reached the door. "I think she knows."
The door thudded shut and she was alone.
With difficulty, she stood. She did not try to rush it. There was no need to run and doing so would likely end up with her flat on her face with a tongue coated in concrete dust.
When she finally got outside, the sky was purple and pink. Was she too late? She hurried, but dared not run, back to the bank. The same exhausted-looking nurse was at the desk, sorting through a stack of charts. She ignored him as she walked past and headed straight for Dominic's room.
Phoenix was asleep in a chair he had pulled next to the bed. His hand was still wrapped around his nephew's. Dominic looked no different. She stared at the little blips on the heart monitor and smiled her relief. He wasn't gone.
She walked to the other side of the bed to hold his free hand. She cupped his cheek in her palm. He had survived the night. Though that changed nothing of what Dr. Hamilton had told them the night before, it made her more hopeful that he would live.
She leaned in next to his ear. "Screw HPO," she whispered. "I quit." She kept her face close as she regarded his. When he woke up and she told him for real, she knew he would join her in leaving that mess behind.
She smiled as she thought of Niles Germaine's livid expression when he found out. The veins in his temples might pop right out of his head. Her smile broadened when she realized how little she cared.
"We'll figure this out," she whispered before pressing her lips to Dominic's. Leave silly rules to silly men.
"Even that won't wake him up now."
She turned to see the soft voice had belonged to Dr. Hamilton. There were dark circles under his eyes. He must have been up all night.
"Any change?" she asked.
"A little," he replied. "But it will take much more time before we know how well he'll recover."
Despite her interlude with Dominic, she had not forgotten the events of her abduction that night. "Dr. Hamilton, can I speak with you alone for a few minutes?"
His brow knit but he nodded. He led her to an empty patient room next door.
"How can I help?" he asked, resting Dominic's chart on the bed.
"I was wondering if you could test my blood."
The crease in his brow deepened. "Are you feeling unwell? Do you think you're about to get an outbreak?"
The question made her pause and do a mental evaluation of her body. Though she still felt chilled and her head still ached, she otherwise felt completely fine.
"No," she said. "I don't think it's anything like that."
"When was your last outbreak? I have to be sure it isn't likely."
"Maybe four or five months ago," she offered, though she was not entirely sure. It had been a minor event that had led to a skin graft on her inner thigh.
His lips pursed. "It isn't impossible that soon but not likely unless you've had signs of ill health."
"No, Dr. Hamilton, that isn't why I wanted to know. I wanted you to check for anything strange in my system."
He raised a brow. "Such as?"
"I have no idea. Anything that shouldn't be there."
"That seems like a pretty random concern."
She took a deep breath and used the easiest excuse to corroborate that she could think of. "On the day of Phoenix's surgery, I was attacked and when I woke up, there was evidence that I had been poked with a needle. They tested me and nothing came up but I thought that maybe they weren't looking for the right thing and might have missed something."
He considered. "I'm pretty sure they would be quite thorough for something like that," he said. "But if it would put your mind at ease, I can test it again."
"Please, and look for anything, down to the smallest molecule that shouldn't be there."
He shrugged. "If you insist. I'll just go get the tools."
He left the room and returned minutes later with a kit for taking blood samples. He had eight labelled vials. "This is really overkill," he said, "But I'll do every test I can think of. If you can wait at least a few days or a week, I can even send a sample to Mirottaly for imaging."
She felt she couldn't but she needed as much information as possible. "Yes," she said. "Please do."
He had her sit on the chair by the bed. He turned her hand over to get a good look at the veins in her arm. When he saw the scar on her forearm he stopped. "How long ago was this abduction?" he asked.
"Several days, why?"
"It looks like you've been given several shots recently," he said as he pointed to the pinpricks on her arm.
She blinked at them and pretended to be dumb. "Strange." She offered nothing more.
He lifted his finger to press on her arm near the small dots but stopped again when his eyes flicked lower down her arm. His brow knit.
"What is it?" She asked.
"Are you sure you have the Perfectia protein?"
She stared at him. "Of course I do. My papers prove it. Why would you even ask that?"
He tied a length of rubber around her upper arm. "Just your scar," he said. He reached for the needle.
She watched his face but he seemed too preoccupied with his task of pushing the needle into her arm to look up. "What about it?" She demanded. "Everyone seems to be bothered by it. What's so special about it?"
"Well you really should complain to the doctor who did this work," he said, replacing the first vial with the second. "They should never have given you a rebel part. That's far too reckless."
"A rebel part?"
He looked up at her. "They didn't even tell you they were using it?"
"They might have," she lied. "What's wrong with it?"
"Roamers who actively fight us go to great lengths to ensure their parts do not get donated to one of us. It's why donor rejection started cropping up. They manufactured a protein that kills our kind. Unfortunately, it can kill them too so not many of them use it but you never know who has. These same people will deliberately scar their parts in specific ways, almost like a ritualistic sacrifice. They cut their limbs in long lines like this to make their parts undesirable. It doesn't always work. This one isn't the worst I've seen, it has healed quite nicely in fact but the position and length of it makes it obvious to a surgeon. I've seen it on so many of the deposits that come through here. We are supposed to dispose of such parts just in case they are also tainted with the rejection protein. I suspect your surgeon tried to squeeze this one through due to the lightness of the scar."
"I'll have to have a talk with him about it," she muttered.
She was marked like a rebel was marked. The idea sickened her even as it explained why Leanna said it indicated she was helping them.
He looked at her face a moment more before returning to his task. He secured the last vial, withdrew the needle, and pressed a cotton swab to her skin. "I'll have the preliminary results in an hour or so."
She thanked him and watched as he gathered the vials and left the room. She soon followed but, out in the hall, she headed in the opposite direction, towards Dominic's room.
Phoenix was awake, still holding Dominic's hand. "There's another chair behind the door," he said over his shoulder.
She found it and dragged it to the other side of Dominic's bed.
"What did Dr. Hamilton say?" he asked as she sat down.
"Nothing about Dominic." She hoped he would let her keep her secrets for now.
His fingers tightened in their grip around his nephew's. His eyes were red but his face dry.
"He will be alright," she reassured. "It's morning and he's survived this long."
"But this time next year, I will be alone." His eyes were locked on Dominic's face. He seemed unable to look away. "Despite all the risks I've taken and everything I've done, none of it mattered."
Maya could say nothing. It was not her place to explain away his grief or to deprive him of feeling it. It wasn't like she had any authority in the matter anyway.
The heart monitor continued its repetitive blips. Maya did not take comfort in the steadiness of the rhythm. Dominic's face was as perfect as ever but her eyes followed the path down his neck and chest to the bandages. She swallowed. If he didn't pull through, she really would have nothing left.
For only a second, she considered not resigning from HPO. At least she would have that. She had always had her job. It had been the only thing she did have. The fleeting thought was impossible. She had made up her mind and even though HPO had no idea yet that she planned to resign, she could not turn back. She could not cope with what she would be turning back to.
Perhaps she would stay in Sile and help Phoenix after all. They could share in their grief once Dominic finally went. Could she survive the parties and the boredom? Likely not. But she had time. She would find something else, something that didn't make her feel like a toy.
Dominic's chest rose and fell as if even his body had no idea of the trauma it had endured. If he did recover, what kind of life would he have left? Living with the possibility of outbreaks at any time was just reality. No one thought about it much but with Dominic's alarm so definitively set, mortality seemed very different. If he survived, would he even be happy to wake up? Would he still be mad at her?
"Phoenix?" Dr. Hamilton had just entered the room.
Phoenix looked over his shoulder but did not release his grip on Dominic. "Yes, Martin?"
Dr. Hamilton looked at Maya. "Could you give us a few minutes? I would like to discuss some things with Phoenix alone."
She blinked at first. She wanted to protest and say she damn well had a right to know what was going on too, but she didn't, not really. At most, she was Dominic's underling, one who had confessed, even if just to her comatose boss, that she was resigning. As much as she hated it, she nodded, stood, and walked do the door. "Call me if you need anything, Phoenix," she said before closing the door behind her.
The hall was empty. The acid in her stomach was churning to the point of escaping via her esophagus. She couldn't just walk away. She would feel idiotic if anyone caught her, but she had to know. She couldn't risk Phoenix keeping any of the worst news from her. She pressed her ear to the door, careful not to make any sounds, and listened.
"We really can't discuss this later when Dominic's better?" Phoenix demanded. His voice was harsh but weary.
"No, they've given her the booster. We have to discuss this now," Dr. Hamilton said.
She couldn't swallow. Dr. Hamilton and Phoenix were in on the conspiracy? Of course they were. Why else would she have been sent to Phoenix. Why else would he have let her into his house based only on hearing the name Jeremy Owens? She hated herself for being so stupid. She hated them for using her.
There was a pause. "So it really showed up on the test then?"
"Yes, just as Soren said. We're lucky the military screeners didn't catch it."
"Soren said it had degraded unexpectedly, maybe that had something to do with it," Phoenix reasoned.
"It's the only explanation I have at the moment. We should just be thankful for it. They might not have looked too closely given her status as an agent. If they checked again, they might put her under quarantine. As far as this regime would be concerned, she's a walking biological weapon."
"Then let's hope she has no reason to be screened again," Phoenix muttered.
"I don't' see why that would happen. The good news is that booster. There is no sign of the original degradation."
"Is there hope for Dominic then?"
The weariness was gone from Phoenix's voice but Dr. Hamilton hesitated.
"I think the fault with the original protein is what made him like this," the doctor explained. "Amelia, Tabitha, and Dominic had all been near her that first night when the protein was at its strongest. While I could find no evidence of it lingering in his system, I'm sure it was passed to him. I think when it broke down, it triggered a particularly aggressive outbreak, likely due to his continued proximity to her. Amelia and Tabitha were luckier because their initial exposure to the unstable protein was less."
"But they've given her the booster. It will work this time, won't it? It could save him."
"The protein might help but if they haven't truly stabilized it, he could be at higher risk. Personally, I would want to keep her away from him as much as possible until we know for sure that they solved the degradation problem."
"Keep her away from him?" Phoenix's voice was low but the edge to it kept it clear. "And what am I supposed to say to her? How am I supposed to explain that? The girl's in love with him, and I know he loves her too. Dominic's never liked anyone and he took to her right away. When he wakes up, he'll be asking about her."
"And if you don't think of something, she could kill him. Look what that first protein did to him. I've looked at their latest version, it would have much stronger effects if it failed."
There was a bang of what sounded like Phoenix's chair hitting the floor. "Damn, Jeremy!" The "damn" had started out as a shout before being restrained to a raised whisper when he said the name. "He promised me he had figured it out. He claimed that's why he was willing to use her of all people. It's the only reason I agreed to move forward with this. For shit's sake, he's using his own daughter as a guinea pig."
Maya's blood froze.
Jeremy Owens was her father? That wasn't her father's name. Had her mother had an affair? Had he survived the assassination attempt and changed it? What was he testing on her? What the hell was in her blood?
Dr. Hamilton sighed, bringing her frantic mind back to the moment. "What's done is done. All we can do is work with the situation as best we can. I'll come up with some excuse to get another sample from her in a few days. If I'm confident the booster is stable, I'll let you know and we can both relax."
"I won't relax until we've rid the world of this vile epidemic once and for all."
"Me too, my friend. Me too."
After a moment Dr. Hamilton sighed again. "I leave it up to you to decide if you will keep her away from Dominic. Either way, we need to keep a close eye on him. His condition remains very serious and there is still the potential for the outbreak to have a resurgence and reach his brain. When the spinal column is involved, it can be so difficult to be sure you've gotten all of it. You know my recommendation given his fragility."
Phoenix's voice was quiet. Maya had to strain to hear him. "I'll need some time to think about it," he said. "You just get that follow up test from her so we can learn what we're really dealing with."
Footsteps approached the door and Maya jumped back several feet before running through the main doors to the waiting room. She threw herself into one of the empty chairs, nearly knocking it over in the process. The nurse at the desk looked up from his files but averted his eyes immediately. She tried to pretend that everything was normal but her limbs were shaking.
She crossed one leg over the other and pressed her hands onto her knee to keep herself still. She had less luck controlling her breathing and could only hope that the urge to hyperventilate was not outwardly noticeable.
She looked down at her rigid hands, which seemed to have been drained of all colour. They were not hands to her anymore. They were vessels of some kind of microscopic monster. She had no idea what the monster was but she could feel the tingle of it under her skin; the strange creeping and lurching it made through her veins.
She forced herself to hold onto a breath before releasing it slowly. She needed to clear her head. In Sile, she was surrounded by enemies. She needed to consider her next move carefully so that she didn't fall into yet another trap.
She could phone HPO and tell them everything. They would send agents to help her, possibly get her out. But she would have to explain too many things she had withheld, like the note and the name of Jeremy Owens. At best, her plans to resign would be gone. It would be pulling her deeper into HPO. At worst, she would become a prisoner and a lab rat as they tried to figure out what this weapon inside her was. And what would happen to Dominic? It would confirm for them that he knew all along who was the mole. His last few months of life would be spent enduring merciless interrogations. She knew him. He wasn't involved, but Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton were. She had been a fool to keep the truth of Phoenix's blood status from Dominic. She should have told him right away. She should never have trusted a Roamer.
She jumped and looked towards the soft call. Phoenix was standing in the doorway. His shoulders were slumped, belying the fervent objections he had just been voicing to Dr. Hamilton moments earlier. He had succeeded in deceiving his own nephew regarding the state of his health for years. She didn't trust his frailty now, but she was not stupid enough to reveal that just yet.
"Are you doing alright, dear?" he asked. His brow was knit and his eyes moist in nearly sincere concern.
"I'm fine." She pressed her palms more firmly against her knee.
The crease between his brows deepened. "Are you sure? You look tired."
She flashed a broad smile and pulled herself up straighter. "Fit as a fiddle."
He shook his head. "You look exhausted. You should go back to the house and sleep. I've already called Gerald."
So he had decided to keep her away from Dominic, for now at least. She was filled with fear and hatred at what it meant. What right did he have to keep them apart? He was the terrorist, not her. Her heart sank. But Dr. Hamilton was convinced Dominic was in his current state because of her, because of what they had done to her. She wanted to scream and choke the last bit of life out of Phoenix. She hadn't asked for any of it. She didn't want to hurt Dominic and now her very presence could kill him.
She didn't know what to do without him. She needed to tell him everything. He would know what to do. He would know how to escape all this insanity. She needed him more than ever but he was unconscious until who knew when.
"You've been with him longer. You should be the one to have the first chance at a rest," she reasoned as she stood. She hoped he would mistake her earlier absence for an indication she had slept. She had, in a way.
"Maya." His voice was so quiet she had to step closer. "Dr. Hamilton says he'll be fine. He expects him to wake up in a few hours." He wasn't looking at her but she didn't need that little tell to know it was a lie. "You don't need to worry anymore," he insisted. "Go get some rest and you can make sure to be back by the time he wakes up."
Less than an hour before, she would have thought him sincere and trusted him. She would have pitied him for his worry. She would have accepted his concern and been touched by it. In that moment, he was nothing but a lying reptile.
As angry as she was, she needed time to think, possibly time to contact HPO if she determined it was her only option. She hated having to consider it as one. She had left them behind in her heart and even before she could make that known to them, she might have to latch onto them again.
She forced a smile, one that she knew lacked the enthusiasm she had feigned only moments before. She hoped her faltering would be read as capitulation. "Maybe I should get a few hours," she said. Then gesturing to the evening gown, added, "And some fresh clothes."
Phoenix nodded and, ever the designer, replied, "There's a purple suit in the wardrobe that would be perfect."
There was too much to worry about without being distracted by his obsession of treating her like a doll. "Fine," she muttered. "I'll see you in a few hours." She headed for the door.
"And bring coffee."
She waved an arm in acknowledgement of the request but did not look back.
Gerald was waiting outside, leaning against the stretched black car. He stood at attention when he saw her and held open the back door.
She climbed inside but did not look at him. She did not trust anyone associated with Phoenix. He took her straight to the house. She declined his help to take her inside. The site of it was not comforting. It felt as much like enemy territory as the bank had but she really was feeling exhausted.
She trudged up the front step and opened the door with slow, gentle movements. She had reached the point that even tiny sounds were too much stimulus. She shut the door without a sound and rested against it.
The house had been left in a surprisingly pristine state given there had been a host-less party there the night before. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised. It wasn't like most of the guests at Phoenix's parties were young people fresh out from under their parents' eyes and looking for excitement. They were older and there to network. Drunken debauchery was hardly a good impression to make upon potential contacts.
She walked into the living room, reflexively expecting to see Dominic or Phoenix sitting on the couch. She had not been in Sile all that long and yet the strange routine of the place had wormed its way into her psyche. The couch was empty, which was disconcerting despite how much sense it made.
She hated this house. She hated its memories, the good and the awkward. She hated the good because all of those had been tainted or taken away from her in one night. Though she had always felt unease with her situation there, she had never before felt in as much danger as being outside the city walls.
Phoenix knew more about her than she knew herself and he was involved in the plot that was manipulating her. There was terror that came with realizing she was a puppet.
She walked up the stairs. She really was exhausted. It had been adrenaline that had kept her going through her eventful night. The idea of collapsing in her bed was becoming more appealing with each increasingly difficult step.
When she reached the top of the stairs, she faltered and blinked at the silhouette at the end of the hall. She could not even tell if it was an adult let alone if it was a man or a woman. She was too tired, her mind too distracted by other things, for her reflexes to be at the necessary speed. By the time she started calling out, the figure had rushed through Phoenix's bedroom door. With a groan and protesting ache from her legs, she lifted her skirt off the floor and ran after them.
The door to Phoenix's room was wide open. She stood there, looking at the unremarkable bed and dresser under the window. They looked no different than the cheap disposable furniture of a dorm room. There was little else: a chair in one corner, a sketchpad on a small nightstand, a lamp next to the sketchpad, and a pair of black socks on top of the dresser. Near the far corner, there was a door that she suspected led to the bathroom.
She took a step toward it and stopped. She was possibly dealing with a Roamer, someone who might be eager to kill a "zombie" or at least wouldn't be all that worried about hurting her. Leanna's friend had proven she was easily outmatched by those with rougher histories.
She needed backup but she would have to tell HPO everything to get it. She was a pretty sorry excuse for an agent. She had never felt so incompetent in her life.
She stared at the open bathroom door. She wanted to go in there. She wanted to find out the truth. She was sick of not knowing. She was sick of being weak.
She swallowed. But if she did, what would happen? What would happen to Dominic? She was the only person who knew that the Roamers were plotting something to bring them all down. HPO needed to know. She could run back down the stairs and call them right then, before whoever she had seen had a chance to tip off Phoenix.
Dr. Hamilton had called her a biological weapon. If that were true, HPO wouldn't be her saviour. They would either kill her or study her, likely both. She had no one to trust except Dominic, who was still in a medically induced coma.
She took another step. She hadn't made up her mind. She was being stupid she knew. She needed to get as far away from Phoenix's house and anyone else who knew her. She took another step forward. If she disappeared, she wouldn't be able to stop them either. She wouldn't be able to protect Dominic. She swallowed again as she took another step forward.
The smell of aftershave and a still-wet shower grew stronger as she approached. She strained her ears for any sounds of movement or breathing. The only thing she could hear was the ringing in her own ears, which was growing loud enough to drown out her own breathing and heartbeat.
She neared the edge of the doorway and stopped. She leaned over just enough to peer around the corner. There was no one there. She stepped into the doorway and turned on the light. The bathroom was as small as hers and completely empty.
Had she imagined the person in the hall? She must have. Her abduction, her discovery of the plot to use her to destroy her own people, and her exhaustion had all combined into one hallucination.
She felt so stupid for being afraid of nothing. Even if she had not felt she needed sleep before, she knew she needed it now. She had no hope of outwitting anyone in her current state. She had no one to rely on who could help her through it. She was on her own and needed a clear head to figure out what to do.
She left his room and returned to her own, where she let the red evening gown fall to the floor before she stretched herself under the blanket.
Phoenix didn't know she knew the truth about him. That alone should be enough to buy her a few hours of rest. It was so easy to surrender just that once. The idea that all solutions would be carried to her once she was rested comforted her to sleep.
She had slept at the wrong time of day after too much had happened. Despite her delirious hopes, she felt worse when she awoke. It was still daylight out. She had likely been asleep only a few hours at most but she felt even more exhausted, even more weighted by what was happening in Sile. Her limbs were sore and stiff. The headache from being knocked out had never really subsided and now it was making an angry resurgence.
She needed to get out of the city. If she weren't so worried about Dominic, she would have just left them all behind. She would have returned to Mirottaly and resigned there, pretending she knew nothing of the plot in Sile. If it had still been just her, she could have disappeared, but she did not have that freedom anymore. She couldn't be selfish no matter how attractive that option might have seemed. Dominic needed her too.
Through fogged vision, she stumbled to the bathroom. As she sat on the toilet and looked around, trying to blink away her sleep. She considered taking a shower to clear her head. Her eyes flew open and her vision was immediately clear.
The shower had still been wet and the smell of aftershave fresh. Phoenix hadn't been home all night. The party guests would have left many hours before. None would have been audacious enough to intrude upon Phoenix's bedroom and she doubted any of them were deranged enough to do so for a random shower.
Her heart was cranked to top speed within a single breath. As soon as she was off the toilet, she ran for the wardrobe and reached for the nearest dress, some grey and red thing. She had it over her head before she could even see what it actually was. She had been asleep, alone, in that house, with some Roamer, or at least a Roamer sympathizer. Had they escaped while she slept?
She ran back into Phoenix's room and to his bathroom. She banged her hand against the wall as she turned on the light. The shower was now dry. There was no sign anyone had used it recently. The smell of wetness and aftershave was gone, leaving just the cold and stale floral scent of a clean bathroom.
But she was sure now. She knew she had not imagined it. Someone had been in that hallway. Someone had run into this room and there was no way they could have gotten away from her. She looked around for anything that might explain the situation to her.
The bathroom was no different than when she had last stood in it. Nothing had been moved as far as she could tell. She opened the hamper. It was too small to hide a person, but she was desperate. She opened the medicine cabinet. Nothing but shaving supplies, deodorant, a toothbrush, and toothpaste were in there.
She opened the cupboard under the sink, then the linen cupboard and pulled out all the towels. She fiddled with the shower knob. She pulled the hamper out from the wall. Then, she grabbed the linen cupboard. It didn't budge despite its narrow frame. By the looks of it, she should have been able to move it easily but it was firmly affixed to the wall.
She sat on the toilet across from it and stared at it. She knew there was something suspicious about it. The white painted wood turned into an incomprehensible blending of shapes the longer she stared. When she realized those shapes included grunge and dirt, she sobered. There were three darkened marks, just under the top shelf. The three marks looked similar in size and shape to finger tips and the fact that they were there indicated repeated pressing on the same spot, a very strange spot.
She stood and leaned in to get a better look. The built-up oil of fingerprints were obvious upon closer inspection. She lifted her hand and ran her fingers over the markings. She took a deep breath and matched her fingertips to the dots. She pressed. Nothing happened at first but she could feel a give to the back of the cupboard that should not have been there. She pressed harder. When nothing happened again, she pressed harder still. There was a click and the panel felt different, looser. She wiggled it and it gave way more easily in one direction. While still keeping heavy pressure upon it, she slid it to the side and revealed a doorknob and deadbolt.
She reached her hand through the opening, wrapped it around the knob, and turned.
She stopped. Her hand was trembling upon the knob. It had met resistance. It was locked. Relief spilled through her chest. The memory of her abduction of the previous night, as muddled as it was, was enough to force sense into her. If the door had opened, she could have just shortened her life. But she was sick of being powerless and used. She still needed to do something.
Just because there was a door didn't mean she had to go in to figure out what was going on. She smiled to herself as she jiggled and turned the handle as hard as she could, making as much noise as possible, even banging on the wall with her fist. With no desire to belabour her point, she turned and ran back through Phoenix's room, down the hall, down the stairs, hit the gate buzzer on her way to the front door, opened the door, slammed it shut without going through, and finally hurried as silently as she could through the living room and into the library, where she hid behind the door.
She waited, trying to keep her breathing as shallow as possible so that she could hear any movement. At first the high pitched tone in her ears only grew louder with no other stimulus to impede it. Even her own breathing and heartbeat were drowned by the silvery whine. Then soft footfalls upon the stairs banished it away.
The footsteps were soft and muffled but she could tell there was more than one person. Whomever she had seen in the hall was not alone. She swallowed hard. She was doomed.
She heard the click of the front door open and the louder clack of it closing again.
"She's gone," said a man.
"What are we going to do," said another man with a higher voice. He sounded agitated.
"I don't know," groaned the first.
"Maybe you should have thought of that before doing something so stupid." A woman this time.
"How was I to know she'd come back all of a sudden?" The agitated man seem unwilling to accept the situation.
All three sounded scared. Maya did not know whether to be comforted by this. Those who are frightened often attack without thought or restraint. Even if there were only three, she was still outnumbered. If they saw it as a her-or-them, her odds for survival were further reduced. She was the one who had the right to be scared.
"How were you to know she wouldn't," growled the first man. "Use your head next time. We only have a few days left before the show and it might all have been ruined because of a damn shower."
"It was the towel actually," the agitated man corrected. "She saw me when I went to find a towel in her room."
"Do you think I care if it was the shower or the towel?" Screamed the first man. "Poor little princess needs his body wash."
"Hey, stop acting like it's so easy," the other man shot back. "You've only be locked up in that room a couple weeks. I've been in there nearly three months. I can't take it anymore. It's been too long."
The first man scoffed. "Yeah, no kidding. You've been locked up so long you forgot about the risks. And if, all for a stupid shower, we all get returned to the bank and made into parts, will it have been worth it?"
"Yes," his voice was forceful but a slight inclination of the tone indicated uncertainty. "It might have been the last one I ever get. It isn't like they have plumbing like that in the camps."
His companion was unsympathetic. "I'd rather be sitting in my own filth in the camps than turned into currency. She's probably at a phone telling HPO about us right now."
"She didn't tell them about Phoenix." The agitated man was still trying to remain hopeful.
Though he was right that she hadn't told HPO about Phoenix's blood status, that was an awfully risky thing to assume. If she had had any sense about in her Sile, she would have reported it the moment she found out. She was paying for that lapse of judgement.
"We don't know that," said the first man. Though he was only being realistic, it would have been a bit more helpful if he believed she could be on their side. It sounded like they were more worried about being found out than wanting to hurt one of the monsters. Though that should have been reassuring, she would not gamble on it. The collateral was not something she was ready to give up.
"They would have come for him by now if she had," the agitated man argued. He really wasn't going to let go of his hope.
"Unless they were watching Phoenix, hoping he would lead them to a bigger pot," reasoned the first. "She knows and she ran. She didn't stay to chat. We need to let Phoenix know."
"And are you going to go to the bank to tell him?" Asked the woman.
"We can use Phoenix's phone can't we?" He shot back. "We just need the number. Go get that list he gave us. The number's on there somewhere."
Maya's heart jumped into a frenzy as she looked across the room to the phone. Either they would find her there or Phoenix would learn the extent of her knowledge or both. No matter what, she was in trouble.
She considered unplugging the phone but she would have to go across the open doorway and get back without them seeing. Their approaching footsteps heralded the impossibility of her success. Not only despite but also because of their fear of her, she knew her safety was truly in trouble. Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton would want to keep her alive. She could not assume this group knew that or would agree. Her death might as well have been imminent, but she could not give up. She focused on keeping her breathing as even and, therefore, as silent as possible. She pressed herself against the wall and sucked in her gut. She held the door handle with one finger to keep it as snug against her as possible.
"I'll call him," said the agitated man. "It's my fault after all."
They were just outside the door. The footsteps entered the room.
Her assignment in Thirreb had seemed like an outing to the park compared to all this insanity in Sile. She held her breath without meaning to. When her body tried to convulse to pull more in, she had to force an even intake. She hoped she had not just made the door shudder.
"No, I'll do it," said the other man who was just on the other side of the door from her. She heard him walk across the room. Silence fell over them. Her breathing was thunderous as she waited for something to happen. How they couldn't hear her, she had no idea. Her heart's taiko drumming should have given her away at the very least.
"It's going to be ok, Grant," said the agitated man.
"Really?" Grant shouted. "How do you figure that? How could you be such a complete idiot?"
Something heavy was thrown against the door. Stars danced in front of Maya's eyes and she had to bite her tongue, press her lips together, and focus solely upon breathing as a cough and wheeze threatened to escape her mouth. Her knees had given way; the only thing keeping her upright being the still heavy pressure against the door itself. That same pressure made her ribs shriek in splitting agony. She would not be surprised if a few of them had broken.
"I'm really sorry about all this, Grant," said the agitated man, his voice on the immediate opposite side of the door. "Please, let me go. You know I didn't mean it. I really am terribly sorry."
Grant's fury came out in a low hiss. "I have a feeling you're going to be. I just wish you wouldn't be pulling me down with you. All for a stupid shower. A stupid fucking shower. Sorry, a stupid fucking towel," he corrected in a growl.
He let out a violent sigh and the pressure against the door released. Maya's legs had luckily already come back to her but she was still trying to force her body's reflexes into submission. Her chest was convulsing; her lungs fighting against the conscious control of her muscles as they tried to take in and expel air at a rapid pace that she could not afford to indulge. For that moment, she was thankful for the sharp pain in her possibly broken ribs as her body's attempts to avoid it also helped temper the struggle to still her diaphragm.
"I'm just so sick of living like vermin," the other said. "It feels like there's no point to living. I might as well just be parts. My mother told me what it was like before the outbreak. She would say it would be like that again someday. She told herself that because she couldn't accept that it would never go back to what it was. She talked about the simple things: toilets and showers and buying your food at the store and money just being paper. Those simple things are what turned life from survival to living. But she was captured and turned into parts. She never got to have another shower. She never got to live again. Her legs and arms might still know what nerves are triggers by the feeling of soap and warm water on the skin but she doesn't. She's gone. I don't want to forget what it feels like. If I do, I might as well be nothing more than parts, just like her. So, it might sound like some stupid thing to you, but it isn't so stupid to me."
There was silence. When Grant spoke again, his voice was quiet, rough, and across the room. "You're still stupid," he said.
Maya didn't believe he meant it. Even she was moved by the plea. The girl who had killed herself in the bank came back to her mind. Her haunting eyes now having an entirely different meaning. If she could have moved, Maya would have looked down at the hairline scar that showed part of her had once been a Roamer. Had it even been that man's mother? Her guts churned. Dr. Soren had been right. They were all human. They were all people. She swallowed, the movement of the saliva down her throat renewing her lungs' convulsions. Through terror and will, she quelled them again.
"Where the heck is Gloria?" Grant muttered.
"Right here," the woman replied, her voice so close that Maya almost jumped. "Keep your parts together."
"That's what I'm trying to do," Grant grunted.
There was the crinkle of paper changing hands and the click of the receiver being lifted off the base of the phone. After another second, Grant was talking with an evenness that had not been present in anything he had said during the conversation before. "Is Phoenix there, please?... Tell him Junior Owens... Thank you."
Maya's jaw tensed at the name.
Several moments passed with no sound in the room. Finally Grant spoke again. "Yes, there definitely is a problem. Thanatos saw Lawrence... He took a shower... He thought you were both at the bank... Nothing at first but just a few minutes ago, she found the door and tried to get in. When she couldn't, she ran out the front door... I'll make sure of it. Bye."
The receiver clicked as it was replaced on the base.
"He wants us to get everyone into the other room, lock ourselves in, and keep our mouths shut. No talking. Nothing," Grant explained.
Gloria groaned. "I hate complete silence. Heather's stress gas always kicks in."
Grant was unsympathetic and all business. "Nothing can be done about it. There's no way to get us out of here at the moment. Phoenix is working on it but we're just going to have to wait. He's going to send Gerald to look for her and deal with her. Now, get moving. We need to be locked in before Thanatos gets back with anyone from HPO."
Maya pressed herself more firmly against the wall and slowly wrapped a second finger around the door handle. Part of her wondered what was the point. It sounded like Gerald would be dealing with her the moment he found her.
Her sympathy for Lawrence and his talk about living versus survival had faded. She was just trying to survive too. A nice outfit and a clean body didn't change that. It didn't make her any less vulnerable at that moment. Hadn't she been abducted by Roamer sympathizers while wearing an evening gown? The little comforts of life did let to protect from the big threats. Some sympathy any of them had had for her.
"Thanks a lot, Lawrence," Gloria muttered as she passed.
"Lay off him," Grant shot back. "It's not like he can take it back now anyway and he feels miserable enough as it is."
"Since when are you so fond of Lawrence?" Her tone was taunting.
"Shut it, Gloria," he barked.
Gloria's rebuke was too distant to make out as the trio climbed the stairs.
Maya did not move. She kept her breathing even, her hand on the doorknob, and her gut sucked in through all the pain in her ribs even as she heard more footsteps upstairs. After several minutes of movement and shuffling, the sounds finally died away and there was nothing but the silence of the house. The fear in Maya's chest took longer to abate and it was several more minutes before she could relax her stomach and let go of the door handle. She whimpered involuntarily as her stomach expanded and her ribs moved.
She couldn't hold it in any longer. She wheezed and coughed, forcing her mouth into the crook of her elbow to stifle the sound. Still hacking, shots of pain abused her with each jarring movement, she headed to the front door for real this time. She knew the Roamers had been ordered to stay put for now. She needed to find help to save herself. She needed Dominic but she couldn't go anywhere near Phoenix. She feared him as much as any Roamer should be feared. She hated him too, for deceiving her so easily.
She needed help. She needed the help of someone she could trust; someone who was definitely not a Roamer. She couldn't trust anyone in Sile. Everyone was either in on Phoenix's plan or unconscious. She paused. Not everyone. Evan hadn't know what Phoenix was up to.
She remembered their conversation, how Evan had complained about feeling useless to Phoenix, how his services were never really used. She knew now what he had been talking about. Phoenix didn't have any need for Evan's big-name models because Phoenix was getting his out of the bank. His models were Roamers. Evan hadn't known. Evan had cut off ties with Dominic, thinking Dominic was involved in the illegal parts trade. When it came to Roamers, Evan was downright fragile. Evan was innocent.
She wrenched open the front door. It was just after midday. The sun was high, the air was hot and still; not a cloud in sight. She looked over her shoulder and up the stairs. Knowing people that she could not see were there was unsettling; the type of threat that crept and scurried across the skin. She looked down at her bare feet and back up the stairs. She didn't dare risk it.
She turned and walked barefoot down the driveway and through the gates. Each step made one rib on her right side snap at her in protest. The hot pavement was too rough on her feet and she was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of not getting a pair of shoes.
She was reminded of the day she came to Sile; the heat, the stillness, the sore feet. She had thought her endurance being tested by the heat and the pain was in the past but there was no end, only a new trial replacing one just overcome. She tried to think of her goal to force the discomfort from her mind.
She needed to get to Aphrodite. Evan wouldn't be on Phoenix's side. Her biggest worry about Evan was that he might press her to contact HPO or the guards at the gates at the very least. She would have to confess everything if he did. He had to know why she felt she couldn't to turn to them. She barely knew him but in their short time together he had been kind to her and had that strange ability to put her at ease. Even though Gerald would be searching for her, she doubted he would look for her at Aphrodite. There, she might find at least one ally, whether he could do anything to help her remained to be seen.
By the time Maya reached Aphrodite, she had lost feeling in the soles of her feet. Sweat had soaked through her dress and her hair was matted against her head. She still felt lucky; Gerald hadn't found her. Sile was so small, she considered that fact downright miraculous.
She pulled open the door to Aphrodite and melted through the opening into the blissful air-conditioned room. The young man at the desk looked up at her and jolted.
"Are you alright?" he asked. He at least seemed to recognize her enough not to ask her to leave though he did not leave the safety of his desk. He gripped this barrier between them with both hands.
She nodded but her exhaustion made the gesture more of a flop of her chin. "I need to see Evan."
He blinked. "I'm sorry. He went to visit some friends who are receiving treatment at the bank. You could go meet him there if it is urgent." He had not loosened his hold on the desk.
She knew he just wanted to get her out of there. His newly pale face and stiff posture all heralded his desire for her to go away. Whatever her problems were, they were too much for him. If he only knew the truth, he'd probably pass out.
Despite his motives, his suggestion of going to the bank flipped her stomach before pile driving it into the base of her pelvis. There was no way she could risk the bank.
"I can wait," she said, trying her best to sound nonchalant. Given her appearance, even she realized how comical such a lie must seem. He was too fearful and she too stressed to laugh about it but the faint knowledge that it should have been funny nestled into the back of her brain. "He will be back, won't he?" she asked, when he did not respond with anything more than widened eyes.
He nodded in reply. His eyes dropped to her body before going back up to her face. "You might be more comfortable waiting in his office," he suggested.
She had no delusions about his comment having anything to do with her comfort. Despite what was really a slight, she was grateful. If Gerald poked his head in, she wouldn't be out in the open. She thanked the man and walked up to Evan's office.
It looked exactly as it had the last time she was there. She closed the door behind her before walking over to the same chair and collapsing into it.
Her exhaustion had truly taken over. Her limbs felt like overcooked noodles. Her feet were still numb and she hoped they would stay that way. She knew when the feeling returned she would be in agony. She tilted her foot over to look at the sole. It was angrily raw and in some places outright bleeding. She didn't bother to look at the other.
She let her head fall back and closed her eyes. She needed sleep, a real sleep in her own bed away from insanity and danger. The hum of the air conditioner soothed her nerves.
The click of the door flicked her eyes open. She was too exhausted for her reflexes to give any more. She might have been asleep but her mind was still too sluggish to be sure. She wasn't even sure if she was now awake. Everything had blended together in her mind. Time and physical sensations had become abstract to the point of nonsense. And yet, though she had lacked the energy to sit or stand, the adrenaline had found a way to get her heart running and her brain entertaining all the wild possibilities of who might have joined her in the room.
"Maya? Are you alright?"
She pushed herself into a more presentable posture and looked over her shoulder to smile at Evan. "I've been better," she said.
He was wearing a navy three-piece suit, but the jacket was draped over one arm and his tie was absent, the top two buttons of his shirt undone in its place. "I take it you heard about the Prime Minister then," he said as he walked over to the other chair and tossed his suit jacket over the back.
She sobered at the unexpected response. "No, what about him?"
"The mayor just received a message about it this morning. The outbreak reached the Prime Minister's brain. There will be a state funeral for him next week. There is chaos in Mirottaly though. Half the ministers have left the city, the others are all fighting over who will be his interim replacement. The favourite is still the Prime Minister's wife but she seems to have disappeared."
Her heart found a previously unknown higher gear but its agitation was no longer from concern for her own well-being. "They don't know where she is? At all?"
Evan's brow knit. "Haven't heard the details but I'm sure she'll turn up. You one of her supporters?"
She looked down at her dirty and raw feet. Any other day and she would have headed to the bank for treatment. "I'd just met her a few times," she muttered. "That's all."
"Wow, you must have been with a pretty important firm. How did you manage to meet her?"
Why had she even bothered to lie? She had walked until her feet were ripped up like plowed soil all to confide in him and seek his help.
"I've never worked in finances," she confessed. "I'm an agent from HPO."
He raised a brow. "That's unexpected."
She would not tell him how she had met the Prime Minister's wife. It would be unnecessary, dangerous, and illegal to divulge that much. She would let him speculate on how her position related to the woman. However, there was enough she could share to get his help.
"I've been involved in the investigation of a mole in Sile. I've been trying to find someone who is helping the Roamers. Unfortunately, I think I've found him."
His eyes widened but he didn't move. "Not me, I hope," he said, his crooked smile absent.
She shook her head. "Are you aware of Phoenix's blood status?"
His nose scrunched for just a second. "You're not suggesting Phoenix is a Roamer. That's ludicrous."
"He told me himself. He lacks the Perfectia protein and he admitted it outright. I wasn't convinced he was helping the Roamers though. I was a fool for thinking he wouldn't be aiding his own kind. I overheard him talking with Dr. Hamilton and I think the two of them are working together to liberate Roamers from the bank."
Evan raised a brow and crossed his arms in front of his chest. His lips pursed as he seemed to consider her assessment. "You're sure about this?"
She nodded. "I was at the house alone today and almost ran into some Roamers. They are hiding in his house. They talked about the upcoming fashion show. I would bet they will be the 'models' Phoenix provides. It explains everything."
He gave a small shake of his head as he turned his back to her. "I can't believe it." He shook his head again.
"I'm telling the truth!" She needed someone to believe her. Someone who wasn't HPO. Without Dominic, she needed someone to be on her side.
He turned back to face her. "That's not what I meant. I believe you. It makes too much sense not too. To be honest, I've suspected it myself but dismissed my theory as just paranoia. I didn't know Phoenix's real blood status until now so I was able to keep lying to myself. I just wish it weren't true." He rested his hands on the back of the chair and took a deep breath. "Why are you telling me, anyway? Shouldn't you be reporting this to your superiors?"
"Unfortunately, I have not come through this investigation unscathed." She proceeded to recount what had happened the night before and what she had heard Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton saying. Confessing that she might be a weapon made every muscle in her body tense. She was trusting Evan because she truly believed he was not with the Roamers but he might go to HPO himself. When she had finished explaining, she pleaded, "I need your help. I can't trust Phoenix. I can't trust the bank. I do not trust the military and I would like to keep HPO out of this for as long as possible for my own safety. I'm stuck." She held her breath as she waited for his response.
He shrugged, the hint of a smile threatening to come out. "Not so stuck, I think. It's an easy fix now that you've told me. HPO isn't the problem. You just would rather they not know about what has been done to you."
She nodded. "Their procedures would require an end to my freedom at the very least and more than likely an end to my life."
He nodded as he considered. "Well, we don't have to mention that part then."
"You're not afraid of whatever this is inside me?" she asked. "They called me a biological weapon. Dominic is dying because of what they've done to me."
"I don't think either of us knows enough to be afraid of it, right now. They didn't say you were a biological weapon, they said the current regime would see you as one. You haven't been to the bank since this morning, have you?"
She shook her head. "No, why?"
"Dominic was awake when I went to visit Amelia. He's nearly healed. I overheard Dr. Hamilton calling it a miracle."
Her heart leapt at the news. Dominic would be alright. He was awake. He could help her. Her enthusiasm faltered before plummeting into her swollen feet. Phoenix would still be there and he knew enough now not to let Dominic out of his sight and being awake did not mean Dominic would be well enough to do anything to aid her. She was happy he was getting better, but she could not rely on him. She took a deep breath, trying to focus her mind, trying to focus on Evan, who was so good at bringing out the best in her.
"Dominic is still in danger so long as Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton are allowed to continue their trade in Roamers."
Evan nodded. "Which is why HPO needs to be told."
"But they already suspect Dominic is in on it. I know for a fact that he knows nothing about it. He doesn't even know Phoenix's real blood status. Phoenix has been keeping everything from him. He knew Dominic would go to HPO if he ever learned the truth."
Evan crossed his arms again. Any hint of his smile was gone as he looked at her with an intensity that was just shy of a glare. "Maya, who else can put a stop to this? It's either the military or HPO. You really have to decide which you want to trust."
"I was hoping you could help me avoid both."
He chuckled. "Sorry, I'm not that powerful. I can act as a witness but I can't protect you from Phoenix in Sile or from the Roamers anywhere else."
Her heart sank. "If HPO finds out what they have done to my blood, I'll be executed or turned into a lab rat and then executed."
"The military then."
The memory of her arrival in Sile twisted her insides as much as the idea of being imprisoned by her own employer. "I can't," she said. "The guy who injected me is dressed as a soldier. I think he's even the one who slipped the note into my pocket, sending me to Phoenix. I can't take that risk."
"Well, so long as Phoenix is loose, you can't stay in Sile. That's for sure."
"But if I leave, he'll set those Roamers free at the next show."
"Let me handle that. Given that I handle his models, it would be only natural that I would be in the position to sound the alarm. In fact, I'm pretty pissed at him actually. If he had been found out by anyone else, what are the odds I wouldn't have been implicated? He was playing with my freedom too."
"All these Roamers seem to have no qualms about using us for their own ends," she grumbled. She meant it, but as soon as the words were spoken, she thought of Lawrence and his pleas to Grant. She swallowed hard. She had no right to point fingers. She looked down at the hairline scar on her arm. She wasn't exactly innocent herself. Did she really have a right to judge Phoenix? He was setting people free, not killing them, not taking mothers from their sons.
Evan's voice intruded upon her thoughts. "We need to get you out of Sile but Mirottaly might not be safe right now. Would Thirreb be better?"
She thought of the Prime Minister's wife, Anastasia. "No, I'll take my chances in Mirottaly but I have no way to get there."
He waved away her absurd comment. "I can have a driver for you within the hour. Where are your papers."
She closed her eyes and cursed as she realized she had left everything, including her papers back at Phoenix's. She could not endure screening again.
"What's wrong?" He asked.
"They're at the house. I left them there."
"Where? I can go get them."
She opened her eyes. There was no lie on his face. "Guest bedroom, in the wardrobe."
He nodded. "I'll arrange for the driver. It would probably be best if you waited here while I get the papers. You alright with that?"
She nodded. If Gerald were at the house, it would complicate matters. Evan could pretend he was just looking for Phoenix. It was the safest option.
Evan walked around to the other side of the desk, picked up the phone, and dialed a number. After moment, he said, "Hi mom, will you be needing your driver today?... He's had an outbreak and is at the bank. I need a replacement just for the day... Thanks, I'll cover his costs for today and tomorrow to make it up to you... Right away if possible. I'm at the agency and have some errands to run... Thanks, again... No, I don't think so. His nephew's still recovering from his outbreak. Amelia didn't seem to think it likely either... Of course. I'll let you know the moment I hear anything. Tell Dad I said hi. Bye." He hung up the phone and turned to Maya. "He'll be here in a few minutes. I'll take the car up to Phoenix's and return with your papers. Anything else you need me to grab?"
She shook her head. "I don't even own this outfit. It's all Phoenix's."
He grabbed his suit jacket and headed for the door. "Alright. You stay here. I'll be back soon."
He closed the office door behind him.
The hum of the air-conditioning was no longer soothing. She was still tired but her adrenaline was granting her a second wind, one she hoped would last until after she had gotten back through the gates. She wondered if she was doing the right thing leaving Sile. It did not feel right.
It did not feel right to leave Dominic unprotected. It did not feel right to leave while Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton were freely carrying on their plans. With her disappearance, those plans might not be so successful. That was a small comfort. She could only hope Dominic would be safe from their plot as well as from HPO's suspicion. She wished Evan would ensure Dominic was not implicated, but hope was all she had. It would be out of her hands.
Her guts flipped and turned to an acidic mush inside her. She couldn't leave without seeing for herself that Dominic was alright. She needed to see him again. She shook her head. That would be supremely stupid. Then again, what could Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton do in the middle of the bank with others there who were completely oblivious?
She could get in to see Dominic. She couldn't just abandon him. She had to take the risk. If she left and he got hurt, she would never forgive herself. She needed him to know. She needed to tell him everything. The small childish voice in the back of her head was hoping he would give her better guidance than Evan. Evan's plan made sense and was definitely the safest, but it was also the least satisfying.
She pushed herself to her feet. The feeling in her limbs had come back in a charge of spears up her legs. Her knees buckled from the shock and she fell back into the chair. The bank was only a couple of blocks away but she would not be able to walk it. She doubted Evan would relent in taking her there either. Them being in cahoots needed to be kept secret at all costs.
This was a modelling agency. Extra clothing should be lying around somewhere. Rather than waste her precious time searching, she decided to ask the man at the desk downstairs.
She took several deep, rapid breaths before clenching as she pushed herself onto her feet again. She had been right. The feeling that returned was agony. She took a step, keeping her balance only through herculean effort. She walked gingerly toward the door. She had hoped the pain would become less acute the more pressure she had on her feet. It did not.
The man looked up as she padded down the stairs.
"Do you have any shoes I can borrow? Just for a few hours?"
He blinked as he processed her request, then pushed himself back from the desk. "We don't normally allow that kind of thing," he said before glancing down at her feet, "But I think we have something from the sporty line that was just delivered."
He skipped two stairs at a time past her as he headed upstairs, returning only a moment later with flawless white running shoes. There were no laces, they just slipped right on. The cushioning was divine on her soles.
"Thank you," she said. "Now, I need to leave a message for Evan. Can you make sure he gets it?"
"Sure." He was much more amenable now that she was about to leave. He reached over to grab a note pad and pen from the desk and handed them to her.
Had to make a detour. Couldn't be avoided. Send the car and the papers to the gate. If I don't show up, tell HPO.
She folded the paper in half and handed it, with the notepad and pen back to the man and thanked him.
She dared not delay any longer. She left Aphrodite, looking up and down the streets for Gerald before fully committing to the outdoors. Parts Avenue was busy with the usual midday crowds, mostly those heading to and from the small restaurants. There were cars lining the street, all parked as their drivers waited for their patrons. She could not see Gerald specifically but she could not see most of the drivers in the cars.
She couldn't stand in the doorway like an idiot. She had to take the chance. Gritting away the pain, she let go of the door and ran down the street towards the bank. If Gerald saw her, he would have to catch her. She thought of Dominic, alive, awake, possibly healed. She did not look back.
Maya's legs were not used to the exertion, nor were her lungs. She ran anyway. Instinct raced just as fast through her mind, telling her to turn back. She knew on almost every level that she was being stupid, but on the most important level, the one where Dominic resided, she had no real choice.
She heard the deep throated call. She did not have to look back to know it was Gerald. She had been seen. She was nearly at the end of Parts Avenue. She would be turning the corner in only a few more steps. She still had hope she could make it without him catching her.
"Maya, stop! Something's happened. I need to speak to you!"
Did he think she was that stupid? Alright, fine. She was that stupid. Her current sprint proved it but she wasn't going to give the Roamer sympathizers any help.
As she ran down the next block, she listened for Gerald's pursuit. His heavy frame would have made pronounced thumps on the pavement but there was nothing. She dared to look over her shoulder as she turned the last corner. No one was following.
She could see the bank ahead. She did not slow. She was wheezing. Her legs were quickly returning to the overcooked noodles they had been in Evan's office. They were going to give out from underneath her. She ran through her weakness. Her momentum carried her forward when she tried to stop at the door. She grabbed the handle with one hand. Her legs were too far gone to regain her balance. She clutched to the handle with the other hand and pulled herself up. She opened the door the minimum amount necessary to slip through.
She indulged her fatigue for only a few moments of doubled-over panting.
"Are you alright?"
She looked up. It was the same woman who had been working the desk during Phoenix's "outbreak". Maya nodded without restraint or control. "I'm fine," she wheezed. "Just out of breath." She forced several deep breaths as she straightened. The nurse did not look placated so Maya added, "I heard Dominic Nevett woke up this morning and came to see him."
The shock on the woman's face subsided into condescending comprehension. "Yes, of course," she said. "You can head right back. You're not the first visitor he's had today. I think the other gentleman is still in there with him."
"Phoenix?" she asked. Her chest would have tightened had it not already been twisted into an abused and ragged knot.
"No, no. His uncle went home for some sleep not long ago."
Maya's worry assaulted her nausea. If Phoenix were at the house, Evan might have trouble getting access to her papers without appearing suspicious. Without those papers, she would be in serious trouble and it wasn't like his absence from the bank made her any safer there. She had no idea if Dr. Hamilton might still be around.
She tried to push those concerns aside as she forced a pleasant smile. She thanked the nurse and pushed through the doors to the back hall. The door to Dominic's room was ajar. A particular twinge in the churning of her stomach made her pause.
"Are we going to tell her the truth now?"
Maya tried to swallow. Her throat had closed on her yet she was not gasping for breath. The hushed voice was of Michael, her supervisor for her previous placement.
"No," Dominic grunted. "She's been through too much. It makes how she reacts unpredictable. I've provided the security and support she's needed so far. If we take that from her, we have no guarantee she won't join the Roamers just to rebel against us."
"I wish I had your ability to read people," Michael said with awe.
"You don't get this level of clearance being a dunce. You've told Niles of what happened last night?"
Maya looked up and down the hall. A nurse walked by with a medical chart under his arm. He took no notice of her. She hoped that meant he wasn't working on the Roamers' plan. She worried Dr. Hamilton might show up but Dominic had just said he intended to keep her ignorant. She needed to know what he was hiding from her. She inched closer to the door, being careful not to touch it. She had begun breathing again, but she could not remember when. Her shock had subsided enough that she knew she needed to focus on what they were saying. Their hushed tones made that far more difficult than she would have liked.
"Yes, I had one of my men watching that empty building ever since the first incident. The moment she left, he reported it to me and I called Niles. If Mirottaly weren't in so much chaos right now, he would come oversee this himself. We've never been this close to taking down the Owen cell before."
"Being close doesn't mean it's done. I would have thought the Humans for Life in Thirreb would have proven that much to you," Dominic scolded.
Maya was confused. He was referencing her last assignment. Their intel had been correct in Thirreb. The assassination attempt had been made and thwarted, the assailant, the man they sought had been arrested. It had been a success. There was nothing about it that should have brought shame upon Michael.
Dominic continued, "We must tread carefully. The changes they've made to her Perfectia protein nearly killed me. We need to find a way to get our hands on her latest blood tests. I'm not sure our antidote can work against this latest version without finishing the job. We need to develop an updated version as soon as possible."
"Just have her lose her papers again," Michael reasoned. "Major Turner was a great help giving us the results from last time. I'm sure he wouldn't mind doing it again, especially if we explain the situation."
There was a pause. "It could work," Dominic said. "Maybe have some soldiers keeping an eye out for her around the town. It has to happen in a way that keeps her ignorant."
Michael agreed. A silence spread between them and was only broken when Michael sighed and said, "Do you really think Jeremy would risk coming directly into the city?"
"No," Dominic grunted, "But Leanna is here, Phoenix has been pulled in, and they are getting emboldened. They must feel they have perfected the poison. We can't let it get outside these walls."
"This operation will be written in history books until the end of time." Michael's enthusiasm sabotaged his whisper as his voice momentarily shot up to normal speaking volume.
"And I intend my name to be right at the top next to Niles'. You've ensured Anastasia won't be a problem anymore?"
"She's been transferred to Desfinel Island. No one will know. Everyone thinks she's in mourning."
Desfinel Island was HPO's most secure prison. It was reserved for mostly political prisoners because they didn't bother keeping useless people alive or out of the banks. It was impenetrable not just from escape or rescue attempts, but even from information leakage. The public had never once learned the name of any prisoner.
"Good," Dominic grunted. "One less problem at least."
Michael gave a strained groan. "I better get going. I'm sure Maya will be coming to see you soon. Make sure you keep up the charm on her."
"Haven't I always? I would bet I'm the only one she trusts in the whole world right about now." Dominic's smugness made Maya's cheeks burn. She had to resist the urge to slam the door open, tell him exactly what an asshole he was, and punch him in the face. It would have hurt less if he hadn't been right and if she hadn't been so wrong in trusting him. Embarrassment kept her silent and still.
Michael teased, "I hope I never get on your bad side."
"It's just business, Michael. I have no animosity towards her."
"No. I'm good at what I do. Now be good at what you do and get out of here before she really does show up."
"Yes, sir." There was a loud screech as a chair was pushed along the floor.
Maya panicked. She looked up and down the hallway. The room Dr. Hamilton had taken her the day before was still open. She skimmed the floor as she hurried to slip inside. She pressed her back against the door as she shut it behind her.
Their toxic words oozed into the folds of her brain, coating each neuron as its blackness trickled down her spinal column where its reality spread to the rest of her body. It permeated every cell and pore. It proved toxic to her muscles too and she was no longer willing to stand. She slid down the door, landing with a gentle thump onto her backside. She hugged her knees to her chest and pressed her face between them, willing an impenetrable shell to surround her. When of course nothing happened, she felt even more like the idiot failure she was. She cried silent sobs into her knees.
She had been the biggest idiot on display. Even Dominic had been playing her and everyone at HPO and the military had known the whole time. The Roamers were no different in their plots. Her stupidity had been theatre for the world to consume and mock. Which side was Evan working for? Would there be a car waiting for her at the gates? Would the military let her through?
There was no one she could trust. Maya was alone, completely alone. If she died right where she was, it would destroy everyone's plans but other than that, no one would care, not her sister, not her own father, not even Dominic. She was a tool.
Anastasia had been too. Maya had cared so much for the woman but had never thought of her as a friend. She was too inept to recognize the friendship that lay beneath labels. And now, with no one to protect her, she remembered those moments in Mirottaly. Those moments she should have recognized before death became her only out. If she had, she might have been able to save them both.
Maya pressed her face deeper into the refuge of her legs as she tried to regain some of the security she had felt with that friend. She thought of the last time she had seen her; the last time life was normal.
Anastasia laughed. "I'm so glad they found you for me," she said. "Look at that. We could truly be twin sisters."
Maya scratched at the blond wig that concealed her true hair. "I wish we really could. Then I wouldn't have to wear this dumb thing all the time."
Despite her complaint, she had to agree on their similarities. They stood in front of the floor-length gilded mirror in Anastasias enormous bedroom and looked more like a double image than two people. Though she did wonder if some of their difference were simply obscured by the dim light. Anastasia loved her antique lamps.
No one had yet discovered Maya's true identity while in her costume but the threat was always there.
Anastasia batted the negative comment away with her hand. "That doesn't matter. We have the same bone structure, the same cheeks, and the same mouth. All the important bits are the same."
Maya looked over at the credenza for the oversized sunglasses that covered the difference in eye colour. "My nose is wider," she said. It was not a complaint, just an observation of fact and one that had been pointed out many times by her superiors. HPO had recently discussed having it surgically replaced. Maya could assume the delay was only because they had yet to find a Roamer with the right replacement.
She picked up the glasses and put them on. They made the already dim room darker.
"Only a little," Anastasia said, "And if you moved around enough, no one will ever notice. You simply must get rid of this pessimism."
The Prime Minister's wife was the complete opposite of her husband. She was exuberant and warm, whereas he was business all the way. She had truly been picked as a trophy wife; someone who looked good on his arm, able to give fluff feel good speeches, and was beloved by anyone who met her. She also was able to let her adoration for her husband spill into her public appearances though he ensured she slept in a room on the other side of the house. Her purpose was fulfilled when her husband's popularity had doubled and the murmurings of unrest had been quelled by the propaganda that was draped around her as securely as the wig had been pinned to Maya's head. The Prime Minister had no desire for his wife despite her efforts to change that.
But her significance to the government's popularity had also made her a target for those who were discontent with the authoritarian rule. She had nearly been shot coming out of a clothing store, only being saved by the agent who had jumped between her and the shooter - his death orphaned two toddlers. That's when HPO decided they needed a double.
The entire purpose of Anastasia was to be seen. Her defiant public appearances emphasized the strength of the regime. Maya being the one who was really in her place ensured any attempt on Anastasia's life, no matter how well orchestrated or accurate, would be futile.
"My voice is deeper too," Maya noted as Anastasia continued to beam at their similar reflections.
At this point, she was reciting the difference as a mantra to get her mind into her role. Though it might sound like pessimism to Anastasia, it was crucial for Maya to pull off the ruse. She would raise her voice when she gave the speech. She would be sure to turn her head to look at the different people in the crowd; a gesture mistaken for oratory skill that was really intended to prevent a good look at her. She would keep the sunglasses on.
Despite Maya's even tone, Anastasia still seemed to think she needed reassurance but standing in the open as the target for an assassin was easy. There was little for Maya to do except play her role and trust in her fellow agents. She honestly would rather have done that than sit in an office talking finances all day.
"Don't worry," Anastasia cooed unnecessarily. "I have already been assured that if anyone comments on it, they will leak reports I had had a minor outbreak that was easily fixed. I'll be back performing my duties in a few days." Her face turned serious. "Are you sure you can handle this? Nothing will happen to you?"
Maya shook her head. "I will be fine. They are putting the best field agents on this one."
Anastasia was unconvinced. "And if they have a sniper, you know members of Humans for Life aim for the head?"
"Of course I know that but HPO has been spending weeks clearing all the surrounding buildings. No sniper will get a chance. They are making sure the only option is an up close attempt."
A restrained smile spread across Anastasia's lips. "If that were true, honey, I would be the one making the speech."
Maya smiled back to emphasize her confidence and her pride in her work. "You must be so proud of what you are contributing to our people," she said. "I'm just making sure you can keep doing it. The cities have never been so peaceful."
Anastasia's smile spread. "I do what I must and what the country requires of me. If it were me in my husband's place, however..."
There was a knock on the door.
"Enter," Anastasia called.
Michael poked his head around the door. His sandy hair had been cut short. What remained of his bangs were combed flat to one side. "The car for Thirreb is ready, Maya. You've got five minutes to finish up."
Maya nodded. "Thanks, Michael. I'll be just a minute."
He pulled the door shut again.
Anastasia was in front of her in a blink, fussing with Maya's sleeves to get them sitting just right and looking over her make up. "Like looking in a mirror," she said as she looked into Maya's eyes. "You can do this."
"Trying to convince me or you?"
"Both. Let's hope they catch the bastards."
Maya nodded. "They will."
Anastasia hugged her close. "I'll see you in a few days. I've got a banquet to attend early next week and I'll definitely be needing you."
"I'll be there."
Maya looked up from her knees at the cold and empty hospital room. Anastasia had known. When she had said good-bye, she had known. Maya had not truly caught her tone the first time. She had been sad. It had also been the first time Anastasia had hugged her. She had thought Anastasia was just worried about the operation to ensnare agents of Humans for Life but the woman had known something more than she was letting on. If it were me in my husband's place, however... Did she know what was going to happen to Maya or herself? Both?
Maya wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. Her knees eased away from her chest. The need to hold them so tightly against her abated with her revelation. She had no one she could trust, not even family. Anastasia had been worried for her but even she had known more than she had shared. She was also currently imprisoned and useless to Maya.
Maya had always felt alone to some extent but those feelings were simply hyperbole. In truth, she had had her mother even if they hated each other. She had had HPO even if she hadn't realized how much she had relied upon it to feel connected to something. What was left of her family had betrayed her. HPO had betrayed her. There was no way she could continue to trust Evan. He would prove to be a liar like the rest of them. Yes, now, without any exaggeration, she was alone. She was the only one who could do anything to secure her own life.
She had feared being alone as much as she had avoided meaningful relationships. She realized that somewhere in the back of her gut, she had thought being alone would be the end of everything. There would be no point. Why live if there was absolutely no person or thing for which to live?
She smiled. But in that moment, with her back pressed against the door, knowing she truly was alone spread refreshing tingles throughout her body. She was alone. She had no one to worry about pleasing. She had no one she had to impress. She had no one and nothing left. There was no reason to want to fight and survive. Death would be less trouble but she wanted to live. She wanted to survive even though she had no idea what survival would look like out the other side. She wanted to win for herself.
She thought of the humiliating version of screening she had endured, of Phoenix's attempts to dress her like his doll, of Dominic screaming at her in Phoenix's driveway about doing her job as a prop, of Niles Germaine's orders to seduce a man she barely knew for dubious intelligence, of her failures to fight off Leanna's soldier boy. Rather than feeling fear, embarrassment, and guilt, she felt rejuvenated with anger.
She thought of the Roamers, of Lawrence's story, of Phoenix's true blood status, of the girl who killed herself before Maya's eyes. She understood Soren's feelings over the suicide now. She would have done the same as that girl; die rather than be used. Maya had been used. Her mother had said she had no value in parts because she was above those sorts of people. Whether it was measured in parts or something less tangible, Maya had been passed around like a commodity. She was a slave just like the Roamers and she fully comprehended now that they were slaves. They were tortured. She understood why they went to such extents to avoid it and to fight her kind. Dominic had kept his hatred towards the Roamers because it was their fault there was no other choice but to deal in parts. She could no longer agree so easily. She doubted it was that girl's choice or Lawrence's just like it wasn't her choice what HPO or her own father was doing now. She and those others were nothing more than toys to more powerful people.
She was done being a toy to anyone. She wanted to live but even if that was not possible, she wanted to teach them all she wasn't theirs to manipulate. All she had to do was destroy their plans. That was it, nothing else. If she did that, she won, even if she didn't survive it.
She pushed herself to her feet, straightened her dress, and took a deep breath.
"It's just you," she said to herself; a phrase that would have previously evoked fear but now felt like a battle cry.
She pulled open the door and stepped into the hall, unafraid of who she would find. As if fate had chosen to confirm her decision, she heard Dr. Hamilton's voice down the hall to her left.
"Maya? You're here," he said as if trying to convince himself. He looked her up and down as he approached. His brow knit and his lips pursed when they fell upon her dress.
She smiled at him. The same mask that had evaded her when HPO wanted her to play the part of Phoenix's inspiration and Evan's temptress was now reflexively available. "Of course, I was just about to visit Dominic. I heard he was awake."
"That's a lovely dress," he said.
She tried not to raise an eyebrow at the out of place comment. "Red," she said, "The perfect colour, don't you think?" She was simply trying to be conversational to keep him from suspecting anything.
He nodded, though the confusion did not leave his face. "I guess Phoenix made quite an impression on you at the house."
Another odd comment. She smiled and said, "He influences many of us," hoping her cryptic reply would be interpreted in whatever way would benefit her.
He dropped his voice several decibels. "And you really don't have a problem with it?"
Her smile broadened. "I'm learning so many new things about how the world really works. My time in Sile has definitely converted me on several issues."
His face and shoulders relaxed as he expelled a lungful of tense breath. "Thank goodness. I was afraid all our efforts were destroyed this morning. I'm so glad that isn't the case. You won't tell Dominic will you?"
"I wouldn't dream of interfering in such a family matter. As it is Phoenix's life on the line, it is his place to tell his nephew. Though I would like to see him now to make sure he is alright."
His eyes lowered to her dress again before he nodded. "Phoenix will be fine with it. I'm sure."
She thanked him and headed to Dominic's room. The door was open. The monitors continued their rhythmic beeping. Michael had long since left and Dominic's eyes were closed. She did not care if he was sleeping. He had enjoyed playing her. She would enjoy returning the favour.
She forced the smile from her face, twisted her hands together against her stomach, and pinched her eyebrows together to accentuate a worry she no longer felt. Let him try to see through her mask this time.
She closed the door, making sure it was firmly shut before walking with deliberate steps to his side. As she expected, he opened his eyes with a flutter. "Maya," he whispered. His voice was far weaker than it had been during his conversation with Michael. Then, it had been strong and determined. He had been openly conniving with Michael. For her, he was pulling out the complete theatrics. She wanted to punch him in the gut and watch as he folded in half with winded pain but instead quavered a smiled onto her lips.
"You're alive," she said just as quietly back. "I was so worried you were going to die."
He reached out and took one of her hands in his. "Not yet," he said. "I'm glad to see you." He smiled at her, pretending the expression took much more effort than she knew it did.
"Me too." She caressed his forehead, finishing the gesture by trailing her fingers down his cheek. Let him bask in the devotion he was sure he had created. Let him be the one to believe a lie for once. She felt no sympathy, despite the clammy sign of weakness she felt on his skin. That was not faked but she did not care. It was his own fault being where he was.
His feigned smile faded. "Did you do what HPO wanted? Did you and Evan..." He trailed off. He had truly joined the wrong profession. He would have every person alive clamoring for his performances had he gone into acting.
She shook her head but refused to look him in the eye. "I couldn't bring myself to do it. I... I love you too much. I'll leave HPO if I have to." It was easy to sound convincing when all she had to do was pretend it was the night before. She had planned to say those same words to him then, back when they were true. Bitter acid flooded the her throat. She truly wanted him to feel pain. She wanted to see his hatred and defeat when she destroyed everything he had worked for.
He lifted his hand and rested it against her cheek. She held on to it to prevent herself from reflexively pulling away. His touch was now like a crawling swarm and no longer the dance of hot tickles that sent her mind out of orbit. "I love you too," he pretended to confess, "More than anyone or anything."
Anger stirred inside her as she looked into his eyes. Had she not overheard the truth, she still would have been stupid enough to believe him. Her heart would have danced and she would have felt elated, only to be destroyed upon learning the truth in the end. She was glad she had overheard his conversation with Michael. It had saved her so much embarrassment and heartbreak.
Dominic felt no guilt or remorse over his lies; he was just doing his job after all. The only thing that worried him was that the new changes to her protein were a poison that would kill him. Maybe it would. The previous incarnation almost had. Dr. Hamilton and Phoenix weren't even sure what this new one would do.
She let her smile through, encouraging him to think it was in response to his tender admission. She leaned close, speaking in a hot breath against his cheek. "This last day has been so hard," she choked, "But I have learned so much." Then, before he could protest, she moved the few extra inches necessary to press her lips against his.
She indulged in it. The pleasure of knowing how terrified he would be of the poison outweighed any physical pleasure the gesture should have given her. He had turned her into a sadist. That was not o.k. but in his case, she would make an exception.
She parted her lips and moved her mouth to ensure as much of her saliva passed to him as possible. She kept herself there even as she felt his hands, no longer frail, pressed against her shoulders and trying to push her away.
She pulled her mouth from his but did not lean away. She looked him right in the eyes as she breathed heavily against him. She wanted to see his terror.
Though his eyes were wide, his masks were too good to allow all the fear to expose itself. "Let me get better first," he said, as if trying to tease her.
Let him feel a new fear, she thought to herself. She leaned in close to his ear, letting her lips brush against it as she whispered, "I know ev-er-y-thing."
He chuckled. "Everything? Everything what?"
She did not pull away. "Can you feel the poison inside you right now? Did you feel it the first time?"
His body went rigid beneath her.
"You're working with them?" He seethed.
She pulled back and sat on the edge of the bed. She wanted him to see her laughing at his absurd comment. More than his fear, his ignorance lifted her spirits. "Never," she said simply.
"I don't believe you. You know what's inside you and you have a Roamer scar. Where did you get it if you're not working for them?"
She looked down at the hairline on her arm. It no longer worried her. She did not recall having that part replaced and Leanna had mocked her for that but it had come from someone who refused to be used without a fight; a faceless person with whom she felt a strong kinship. "Not a clue." She shrugged. "But you should know better than anyone that people like to use me without my consent."
"You welcomed me without any reservations," he shot back as if his deception were her fault. "You were so desperate to have someone love you and protect you that you never questioned me. Your abandonment issues made you latch onto me. We knew each other a few hours and you were out of your mind for me. You're an agent and you have the nerve to want to be protected. You're an agent and you can't even keep yourself under control. You're an agent and you can't even handle being alone."
She laughed again. "Don't act like some wise monk teaching his pupil. I already know all that, idiot."
He blinked rapidly as if he had been smacked. "So you're feeling jilted and you're going to get revenge on me by joining the Roamers, is that it? Is that why you kissed me? To help their poison assassinate me?"
She gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes. "You're so melodramatic," she said. "I'm not the same fragile thing you knew before ending up in here. Get used to it and get used to not knowing me as well as you think. I have no intention of joining the Roamers. As I'm sure you know, it seems this current faction is headed by my own sweet father; a man kind enough to use his daughter as fodder in his terrorism. So yeah, not really feeling like helping him out."
Dominic did not relax. "Then what?" He demanded.
"Then we finish our mission, like we are supposed to. My mission was to find the mole. I've found the mole but that wasn't exactly your mission now, was it? You're trying to draw out my father and stop his biological weapon from spreading, correct?"
Dominic stared at her. His jaw was tense.
She shrugged. "I already know. You don't have to say anything. Though I do wonder if your uncle remaining free all these years was really only because of his role in this mission. That's seems like a heck of a lot of foresight if you ask me."
His eyes narrowed.
"Oh, I'm sure you know the truth about him too," she said, "But does HPO know?"
"Yes," he seethed.
"Ah, so you kept him hidden until he was useful. Truly..." she paused to smile as she recalled Michael's wording, "Diabolical."
"Don't pretend you understand me all of a sudden. I've got years of practice on you not to mention a hell of a lot of natural talent. You know nothing about me. You've only just figured out yourself."
She nodded. "True on that last point but I have figured out quite a bit about you, actually."
He scoffed. "Like what?"
She grinned. "Let's see if you can use that natural talent to figure it out," she said as she pinched his cheek. She looked down at his bandaged chest before adding, "Not so much talent right now, I think."
"Maya! What are you doing in here?"
She turned to look at the door. Phoenix was standing there looking murderous. His familial resemblance to Dominic was finally obvious.
"I came to see Dominic," she said meekly, returning the quaver to her voice. "I heard he had woken up and headed right over."
Phoenix looked at her dress. "That isn't what I told you to wear," he growled as he stepped into the room.
She looked down and raised her voice into a submissive whimper, "Sorry, I was in just such a hurry, I wasn't paying attention."
His face softened but only enough to go from murderous to worried. She was relieved that she had disarmed him so easily, especially given that he knew what she had learned at the house. Her relief at her own success was short lived. Dr. Hamilton walked by as Phoenix said, "It might be best if you go home and change," he said. "I wasn't intending for anyone to see that creation yet. I would really rather you wear that blue outfit I suggested earlier."
Dr. Hamilton stopped. "Blue?"
Phoenix looked over his shoulder. "You alright, Martin?"
Dr. Hamilton nodded but it looked more like a twitch. "Fine," he said. "But I wanted to discuss some things about your last blood work. Could you join me in my office?"
Phoenix looked back at Maya. "I will only be a minute," he said, "Please go home and change before too many see that outfit."
She nodded even though she had no intention of doing that. She knew that her plans were in jeopardy if Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton spoke now without her there. Phoenix left the room to follow Dr. Hamilton to his office. Her heart raced after them even as her body was still seated upon the bed.
"Stay put," she said out of the side of her mouth to Dominic. She patted his bandages with careless force as she stood and followed.
Dr. Hamilton and Phoenix were turning the corner at the end of the hall just as she reached the door. She scurried after them. She needed them to trust her. She just hoped she could convince them that they could.
Dr. Hamilton's office was around the corner and at the end of another hall. Maya just reached the corner as the door clacked shut. She stretched her stride, making it to the office only a moment later. She pressed her ear against the door.
"How was I to know?" Dr. Hamilton defended. "She was wearing red and red means we can trust her. Given everything that has been going on, the only way that could be the case is if she knew."
Phoenix sighed, leaving a long pause between them. "Well, how much did you tell her?" He asked.
Maya did not wait any longer and she did not bother to knock. She turned the handle and forced the door open wide to reveal the office that looked more like an underfunded library. The white, dirty shelves were only partly covered in books. The desk in the middle was the same grey metal and laminate she had seen in offices filled with cubicles. In front of it were two chairs. The room smelled stale, like it was in need of a good window.
Phoenix and Dr. Hamilton were standing on either side on either side of the desk. They both jerked their heads in her direction as the door slammed against one of the bookshelves. Dr. Hamilton simply looked surprised but Phoenix's rage had not been contained. The redness of his face and the glare in his eyes could not be mistaken.
"We are trying to discuss Dominic's care," Phoenix growled. "As much as you like each other, you are not family. I would prefer to have the discretion to which I am entitled for these decisions."
Being such a small man, his anger made him resemble a small yappy dog but Maya did not laugh. She looked down at her feet and swallowed. She felt no regret at his words. He had nerve acting like he had been wronged but she wasn't about to waste her chance on telling him what a hypocrite he was.
"I'm sorry," she muttered, "But I know that isn't what you were discussing. I know you were discussing me and my threat to your cause." She looked up to make eye contact with Phoenix. She kept her face strained with the illusion of worry. "How could you not trust me, especially after I kept your secret?"
Phoenix blinked at her. Dr. Hamilton's shock waned and he dodged out from behind the desk to walk up to her. Taking her hand, he pulled her into the room. "Maybe we should all figure out where we stand before we jump to conclusions," he suggested as he closed the door, locking it this time.
Maya pretended to have trouble meeting Phoenix's eyes as she said, "I saw the Roamers at the house. I freaked out, mostly because I had no idea why they were there. I ran but then I thought about it and realized I had nothing to fear. You have never tried to harm me and if they were in your home, it was with your blessing. I came back here looking for you."
Phoenix crossed his arms in front of his chest. He had not softened.
She sighed, making sure to add a shake to her shoulders. "I know what you are doing," she said. "I figured it out. You and Dr. Hamilton are freeing Roamers and using the fashion shows to do it."
This time Phoenix raised a brow. "You have informed HPO about all this, I'm sure."
She shook her head as she approached him, using her eyes to plead with him to believe her. "No. I didn't. I swear to you. I haven't told them anything about it. I kept your promise, Phoenix, and I'll keep this one too. You mean so much to Dominic; he can't lose you. I could never be the one to take you from him."
"You would let Roamers go free just like that?" He looked over at Dr. Hamilton, who seemed determined to stay distant from this particular conversation. He had moved to the far side of the room from where he simply watched her. She hoped his silent evaluation was an indication in her favour.
She locked eyes with Phoenix. She did not allow herself to blink. Perhaps channeling Dr. Soren would disarm them both. "I would let humans go free just like that."
"I was not aware HPO had agents committed to saving humans," Phoenix growled. "You agents are more often involved with executing men like me."
"Maybe I don't agree with HPO's view anymore," she said quietly.
Phoenix scoffed and began pacing the room. "I doubt that," he said. "HPO makes sure their agents never doubt. Let us not forget the official history taught on the subject. Humans supposedly injected zombies with a chemical that altered the Perfectia protein to reject any lab grown transplants, which removed the only ethical option for treatment. HPO claims this was an attempt to kill off all the zombies as an easy way to stop the epidemic. Why try to help those afflicted when they were no longer legally human? Legalities over people after all. Yes, we Roamers are dastardly and vile and just want to kill people; the whole justification for treating us like monsters only good for our parts. I'm sure, just like your comrades, this history was drilled into you until you could passionately espouse it to any who might show the slightest doubt. We can't have anyone who disagrees. Skeptics are no better than Roamers. So forgive me if I don't believe an HPO agent would ever see Roamers as human."
Phoenix's jaw tensed. Maya felt he had some nerve being so angry. Had he not just recounted the horrible things the Roamers had done to commit genocide all because they didn't want to sort through the sticky issues that had arisen with inheritance laws?
Those laws had been written before a protein could bring the dead back to life. When someone died, all their belongings were confiscated by the state. This left many destitute and feeling their rebirth had been no miracle but a curse. Politicians labelled the issue a problem with inheritance laws but what had really brought societal collapse had been the threat to everyone's survival. While the dead came back only once and only for as long as it took for the protein's miracle to become a poison that brought the final death, it was long enough to give a large influx of population growth. As competition for resources increased, those with the Perfectia protein felt increasingly betrayed by their own government and those without it began to see the infected as a nuisance instead of a gift. The Roamers tried to kill off the infected to protect their precious status quo.
It had become increasingly clear to Maya that neither side was innocent. Although she was developing her own doubts about the ethics of the parts trade, she felt Phoenix was a complete hypocrite acting as if he had any right to the moral high ground. It was with genuine venom that she glared at him now. She clenched and re-clenched her jaw.
Perhaps sensing the situation might come to blows, Dr. Hamilton stepped between them. "Now, old friend. Don't be so quick to dismiss her. Did you dismiss me so easily?"
"Yes." Phoenix was unapologetic as he glanced at his accomplice. "I didn't trust you at all. When you suggested we start saving Roamers, I thought it was an HPO plot to trap me."
"And you were proven wrong," Dr. Hamilton lectured.
Maya blinked as she looked at Dr. Hamilton and then Phoenix. "Wait," she said looking at Phoenix. "You are helping him?" She pointed to Dr. Hamilton.
Phoenix had the nerve to look smug. She wanted to smack the smirk off his face. "Don't know as much as you think," he sneered. "Agents always think they know so much more than Roamers."
"I thought we were working to destroy this type of bigotry," Dr. Hamilton lamented, his shoulders falling forward. He walked back to his desk and leaned back to sit on the edge of it. He rubbed his face with the palms of his hands. Only then did Maya notice the dark, swollen bags under his eyes.
Phoenix's face only hardened. "Do not confuse my distrust of HPO as hatred towards the afflicted."
Maya did not like that she felt the very same way at the moment with one exception; her hatred included him as well. She stifled a sigh. She could get nowhere if he shut her out. How did Dominic plays his roles so well? It was so incredibly exhausting! "Phoenix," she whispered. "Do you know what I was going to tell Dominic when he woke up?"
Phoenix glared. "That his uncle is a Roamer and should be arrested?"
"Of course not!" She yelled. She thought of how much stupidity had happened over the last several days. She thought of her father and sister and how no one in her family, except her mother, the one she hated most, were who she had thought. They were all manipulative and conniving. They had lied to her about their deaths. Her hatred twisted her guts into a pain that shot to the top of her mouth. Her palette tingled and constricted uncomfortably. The tears came. They were exactly what she needed to evoke her prey's sympathy but she resented the sincerity of them at that moment. Their authenticity robbed her of the illusion of control. She swallowed and took a deep breath. What did that room have to be so stale? Wasn't the lack of a window unhealthy?
Forcing out the words, she said, "I was going to tell him I am resigning from HPO so that we could be together."
Phoenix's jaw did not tense this time. He raised an eyebrow instead. "What?"
"They wanted me to seduce Evan," she explained. The bitterness in her voice was completely sincere. "They thought he had information and that I could get it out of him."
Phoenix's tension finally cracked with an incontrollable laugh. The small office was too much containment for the sound. It made her ears ring when it could not escape. He doubled-over in the exertion of his outburst. As he slowly regained his composure and his breath with it, he said, "Evan's too happy to follow the rules to ever be involved in this. He knows nothing. I wouldn't even keep him around if it weren't for the fact his mother begged me."
"I tried to tell HPO that he wouldn't have anything we could use," she explained, "But they were convinced enough to threaten my job. Dominic hated the idea. He said he would quit HPO if necessary to ensure I didn't have to. We are going to leave HPO because people matter more to us than to them."
Looking like he had been slapped, Phoenix sobered instantly. "Dominic was going to resign?" He asked with wide eyes.
She nodded. "We think HPO believes Dominic is involved in the illegal parts trade and that Evan had information about it. Dominic has been having trouble getting the necessary resources from HPO to investigate the mole in Sile for years. I came and they were all too happy to help me but wanted to keep him out of it. After everything he has given them, their suspicion was too much for him to accept."
Phoenix was in disbelief. "Dominic... my nephew... he was going to turn his back on HPO?" It was a whisper of confirmation. He began pacing again but this time at the slow pace of contemplation, not the hurried agitation he had shown before when giving her a history lecture.
She nodded her confirmation. "As was I."
He shook his head and stopped. "It doesn't mean he'd accept the truth about me. His prejudices run very deep. He has always blamed Roamers for the death of our family. He's convinced lab grown transplants would have worked better to keep them alive."
"You never know until you try," she whispered. He scoffed and she took this cue to ramp up the agitation in her performance. "You need to give him more credit!" she shot back. "You've never trusted him. You trust his bigotry more than his love."
Phoenix was about to yell back at her but Dr. Hamilton left his desk to step between them again. He was facing Maya. "It is not that simple," he said. "If Phoenix miscalculates and tells Dominic the truth, it is not just his life that might be ended. Everyone we have tried to save and anyone we might save in the future will die too. This isn't some personal matter, Maya. This is part of a complex operation that could change society."
She huffed as she violently twisted her arms across her chest. "A complex operation run by my not-dead father?" She asked. She wanted Phoenix to fall. She needed her father to fall. He needed to pay for using her, for not even having the decency to come to her himself.
Dr. Hamilton's lips pressed together in a twitching movement as he averted his gaze to the floor between them. "Your father is trying to help everyone."
"Even me?" She asked. "It seems to me that I am expendable in my father's eyes."
Dr. Hamilton's gaze shot back up to her face. Phoenix stepped around the doctor to look at her too. "He was trying to cure you," Phoenix said. "He is convinced he has found a way to suspend the effects of the Perfectia protein. It would mean you would never have another outbreak. You would never have to worry about needing another transplant. You would effectively return to being a normal human, complete with a human's life expectancy. That was what he was trying to ensure."
If she had known less, she might have believed his plea regarding her father's nobility. As it was, she knew what was inside her affected those around her more than herself. It had nearly killed Dominic. That may not have been the intent of it but it had. Her father had been willing to test the concoction on her before he was sure it worked properly. That was hardly love.
"Then let him prove it to me," she said. "Let him tell me himself. As far as I know, my real father is dead. Maybe this Jeremy Owens isn't really him. Maybe he's been lying to everyone. You all seem to love your lies so much. Let me see him and see for myself that he is alive. Get him to Sile."
Dr. Hamilton's mouth fell open. "You can't be serious," he said. "Jeremy Owens, a wanted terrorist, in one of the cities? You'd be asking him to turn himself in."
"Only if the authorities knew it was him," she countered. She knew convincing them was unlikely but she had to try. If she was going to bring down those who manipulated her, she couldn't leave out her dear father, the ring leader of it all.
Phoenix was apoplectic. He threw his hands in the air and paced. "You're insane, Maya. Have you honestly lost your mind to make such an insane request? How do you expect us to get him here? How do you think we could ever have you two meet without HPO realizing who they had in their hands?" He stopped pacing and turned slowly on his heel to face her again. "Unless that is what you want. You aren't quitting HPO at all. You just want us to bring in the largest prize of all."
She stepped back as if his accusation wounded her. She had expected it but he need not know that. "I find out my father might be alive and you think I'd turn him in to HPO?"
Phoenix narrowed his eyes. "You said yourself that you don't believe he actually cares about you. Maybe you want to get revenge on him?"
Bingo. "You still don't trust me?" She let a resurgence of her stress spill over just enough to renew the tears. She choked back a convulsion in her chest and held her lips firmly together.
"Why should we trust you?" Phoenix said. "You might be manipulating us to get what you want."
She could not maintain the mask. She glared at him. Her anger ripped through her to attack him. "Like you have manipulated me?" She shouted. "You expect me to help you and trust you and do everything you want when you have been treating me like some plaything since the beginning. How can I know I can trust you?"
Dr. Hamilton raised his hands in capitulation. "Maya, you have to understand why we are so hesitant. This is not just our lives in question here. We do this because we care about the lives of all humans."
"No one seems to care about my life," she said, sounding like a petulant child even to herself.
Dr. Hamilton straightened. "Let me ask you something," he said and without waiting continued, "When was your first outbreak?"
She blinked back at him. "Excuse me?"
He simply continued to wait expectantly for her answer. With a huff, she said, "I was seven."
"And what did you have to have replaced?" He pressed.
"My left hand," she muttered, trying to forget the pain that came with that first transplant. The first was always the hardest; the recovery time always the worst. She had been unable to sleep properly for a week as the protein tried to accept the new tissue. She cried every night. She felt acid in her throat as she recalled her mother stroking her hair. The memory was not a comfort but an acrid reminder. She was being unfair.
Dr. Hamilton sighed. "That is a typical age for it to start. I used to work in Mirottaly. My youngest patient was less than a year old. Age didn't matter for him. The outbreak was on his spine and despite my best efforts, it was in his brain within hours. Do you think it fair that babies die of something we could prevent? And what of the donors? Children cannot receive adult parts. Do those healthy Roamer children deserve to be hacked up into bits? I moved to Sile because I couldn't handle watching the young die but that does not mean it is easy with the old. This disease could be eradicated. We could fix everything and it has nothing to do with whether one person lives or dies but whether we can right a horrible wrong." He looked away. She could see his eyes were wet. After a moment of controlled breathing, he rubbed his face with his hands. When he spoke again, his tone was even and soft. "I think you are trying to get revenge on us but I am asking you to think of what you really want and who you really want to be. It isn't fair what has happened to you but it isn't fair what has happened to any of us in this stupid world. You can choose petty revenge or choose to find what you think is right. Who do you want it to be?"
She had never felt so deflated. She had been so sure this was her moment to fight, to shine as the strong one for once. She was so sure that this time she would prove herself and feel vindicated and victorious. She would not. If she worked to bring them down, any of them, it would not just be them. Even if it was, what would she do after? Trying to be what she wasn't, trying to fight them like a heroine she never felt she was, all to get payback, felt hollow and downright embarrassing as she admitted it to herself. She hated them all the more for it but her ability to be their downfall had twisted back into confusion. In a matter of minutes she had gone from a pathetic mass to a warrior and back. What was it all for aside from ripping her apart inside? She looked everywhere in the room except at Dr. Hamilton and Phoenix. She wanted to find a solution that felt right, one that made her feel capable and like she would be the one to win. There were no winners. There were no solutions.
Dr. Hamilton sighed again. "It is understandable that you wouldn't trust us, Maya," he said, "But you must see that even if we did trust you, bringing Jeremy to Sile is impossible. It simply cannot happen."
She locked her eyes with his. She understood but she needed to see her father. She couldn't work this out on her own. She needed to know her father's reasons and not through some messenger. "You got my sister through those gates," she pressed. "You are going to be getting dozens of Roamers through them in less than a week. How can it be so impossible to see my father?"
Dr. Hamilton shook his head. "Getting through the gates for Roamers is not nearly as difficult as getting one out of Desfinel Island."
She blinked as it felt like her brain evaporated. There was absolutely nothing that would have prepared her for that.
"Martin!" Phoenix shot at Dr. Hamilton. "What were you thinking? They didn't know. She didn't know."
"And why would I?" she shouted at him. "I only found out he hadn't been executed today and you expected me to figure out he is somehow the mastermind of the largest resistance in our history and accomplishing this from the most impenetrable prison ever known? Is he a ghost too? Can he float through walls? And why is HPO looking for him if they already have him? Explain that one to me since I'm so stupid." The tears had returned but this time without any deliberate effort on her part. She was close to hyperventilating. She could feel the control over her own breathing flooding away. The world truly was insane. What was the point of even trying?
"HPO doesn't know who they've got," Dr. Hamilton explained. He did not seem nearly as concerned as Phoenix about sharing this information. He seemed to have decided to trust her but she found that she cared very little. She wanted to strangle the whole world, herself included.
Dr. Hamilton continued, "Jeremy has been too smart for them. His branch of the resistance has been so successful because he knew exactly how everything would happen right from the beginning. He understands how HPO thinks. You don't get to his level of biomedical research being an idiot."
"My father wasn't in biomedical research. He was a teacher," she said, not knowing why she bothered. Everything she had ever known was wrong. She might as well go with it. Though going along with it was easier said than done. She was still near hyperventilating.
Dr. Hamilton shook his head. "He did high level biomedical research for the government but he was too smart for them, which is why they have no idea who they have locked up."
It still made no sense, even as he explained it, even as she tried to believe everything he said just so that she could make sense of it. "Stupid or not, you can't get messages, any messages, into Desfinel," she panted. "Is he telepathic too?"
"He doesn't have to be, "Dr. Hamilton stressed. "He set this plan in motion before he was captured nearly thirty years ago. They did not execute who they thought. You can't use DNA and protein marker checks to confirm the identity of someone with the capability to re-write the genome and you can't be found if you hide in the one place they will never look for you. More importantly, your plans can't be stopped when you have already figured out what your enemy is going to do at every step. We follow his instructions exactly as he laid out in the beginning. If there are any failings to his plan, they are ours."
Her breathing had calmed but not because his words had helped her. Her confusion had reached critical mass leading her to have no idea what to think or feel. "You are following instructions laid out almost thirty years ago and have had no contact with the maker since?"
Neither man said anything.
"You're all nuts," she muttered, throwing her hands in the air. "You're nuts. There isn't some great plan. There isn't some end point based on any sense of morality. This is all just mindless lunacy. You're just moving in some random way that seems to make sense to you because you've convinced yourselves it must make sense. It doesn't. None of it does!"
Screw revenge. Screw helping the world. Screw everyone. She was done. She could be ripped apart by feral Roamers for all she cared. At least that would make sense to her. She could not seem to stop shaking her head; a slow back and forth immune to the deceleration of friction. She turned and set her hand on the doorknob.
"Where are you going?" Dr. Hamilton asked. His voice was soft but there was still an edge of panic to it.
"To drown myself, walk in front of a car, maybe piss off a soldier just enough," she muttered.
"Maya, wait." It was the compassion in Phoenix's voice that made her pause. Her hand was frozen in mid-turn of the lock. She did not turn around, only listened as he continued, "Please don't attack me for saying this, but I understand. I had little reason to trust in Dr. Hamilton or Jeremy at first and I still question my judgement every day since... No, not you, Martin," he added, perhaps at some gesture of offense from Dr. Hamilton. "I still wonder if I should be trusting Jeremy. I follow the plan mostly because it seems the only option. I think he's crazy but it doesn't mean he's wrong. He foresaw the person in my role in the plan being tormented as I have been. He left letters for whoever filled my position and, if I did not know better, I could mistake them for the comfort of my closest friend. He insisted that when his daughter came to me, she would only be sent when victory was assured. She would come when the plan could not fail. He said that was because he would never send his Maya unless he was sure there was no risk. His accuracy has been uncanny. He knows me better than I know myself even though we have never met. I let this predictive ability of his lull me into false confidence. When you came, the plan nearly did fail. The vaccination was not where it should have been. Those left to engineer it made too many errors. He may not have wanted you to be put at risk but I am sure he knew there were risks. I trusted him because he sacrificed you at the altar of my skepticism. I should have used my sense but I did not. I understand your anger and your confusion. I understand what it is like to feel manipulated and lied to."
Damn hypocrite. Damn jerk. Her hand slipped from the knob despite herself. Her forehead thunked against the door. "Why can't anyone just tell the truth?" She whispered into the wood. "Why do we have to use each other like this, for parts and plots?"
"I'm sorry, Maya," Phoenix said just as quietly.
"As am I," Dr. Hamilton added.
"I wanted to scheme against you," she said, confessing what she had never intended to admit but what they had already figured out. "Not to help HPO. I wanted to screw them over too. You were right, Dr. Hamilton. I wanted revenge. I wanted you all to fall, but now I just want to sleep. I want to curl up and make the world go away. You've all stolen me from myself." She wiped at her wet cheeks. She was always so insufferably weak. "Do you know the one thing worse than not knowing yourself?" she asked, not expecting an answer. She knew they didn't know it. "Not knowing who you could be," she explained with a sigh. "You asked me who I would choose to be, Dr. Hamilton. But I have no choices. I have no options left. That is what my father's grand plan has done for me."
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Without lifting her head away from the door, she turned just enough to see the owner. Dr. Hamilton was looking down at her. His eyes were glistening. "Your father recruited me before he was captured. Phoenix may never have met him but I knew him well."
She blinked away more tears. "You're one of my father's friends?"
He hesitated. "Yes," he said without taking his eyes from hers. He waited. She indulged him.
"You've been keeping as many secrets as everyone else," she muttered.
He sighed. "I have been helping make his plan for the future and for you a reality since the start. It is true that it has meant rather a lot of duplicity and I do not like it but this society cannot remain the way it is. It will fall whether under the weight of its own faults or that of sabotage, it is not sustainable."
She scoffed. "More delusions about the greater good," she snorted.
"You have no reason to trust me," he conceded. "My words will be meaningless, I'm sure, but I must say this: your father's plans have never failed to this point. They may not have gone as smoothly as intended but he always foresaw the biggest hurdles and planned for them. In his plan, he would explain to you himself everything that has been going on. I know that fact meant a great deal to him. If you want answers, they will come even if not when you want them. And in those answers, you may find a cure to your hatred and anger."
She thought of the girl who had killed herself only feet away from where they were now standing; she thought of Lawrence, the Roamer that had been at Phoenix's; she thought of what Dr. Hamilton had just told her about this youngest patient; and, for the first time, she thought of the child that had been forced to give her hand to save Maya's life. Maya may not know who she would be but she would give making a choice a chance.
"What was my father's plan?"
"I can't tell you any more than you already know," he said unsatisfactorily.
She had the distinct impression that it was not that she had exhausted his knowledge but that he simply would not give her more. This was confirmed when she looked around his shoulder to Phoenix, challenging him to explain. He shook his head. "You already know enough."
They still refused to trust her even though she had decided she would trust them. The slight stung no matter how justified. "I hate you both," she said in a flat voice. The venom that had been so strong in her when she entered the office had turned into a sludge in her gut, incapable of being expelled onto those who may or may not have deserved it.
Even the thought of lifting her arm to go for the doorknob again filled her with aching fatigue. She forced herself to do it anyway. The draft of the movement prickled her skin. With great concentration, she opened the door and wished she hadn't. There was too much light; too many sounds. There was just too much of everything. A chill yanked its way from the top of her head down to her toes, taking out her knees as it went. The air pierced her arms as it passed. Her hair felt lighter.
She did not hit anything hard. She floated. It was not the relaxation of stretching out in a warm pool. It was the sudden drops and lack of control of turbulence. Her armpits hurt. Voices were too loud again. The lights were moving too fast. She couldn't focus.
"Stop," she pleaded. The floating did not stop. The room did not focus. No one cared about the state she was in. "Stop!" she pleaded again but she couldn't hear her own words. Her ears were plugged by the same ether that clouded her eyes.
Through water and glass, she heard the shouting. "Maya, can you still hear me?"
"Shut up!" she shouted but her words were faint, nearly drowned out by her breathing. Since when did she breathe so loud and so fast?
"Maya, how many fingers am I holding up?"
She shook her head side to side. "No fingers."
"Look at me, Maya. Can you see me?"
The lights were darker but still there. Her survival instinct was finally taking over in her brain, at least enough for her to realize something was wrong. She should not be surrendering to the disorientation. Blocking out the light and the sounds would end very badly. She tried to focus on the darkened shape. If she could only make it clearer, she might be alright. A cure, her salvation, was in that darkened shape.
It was a person! Why a person? Who had she been talking to? Phoenix? Was it him? Dr. Hamilton, hadn't he been there too? The floating had stopped. When had that happened? She was on something... stable. She tried to focus again. She looked harder at the shape. It was definitely a person.
"Maya. Can. You. See. Me?"
Dr. Hamilton. Yes, it was him.
With the effort of lifting another person, she breathed, "Barely."
"Phoenix, get Soren."
She did not hear a reply.
"I'm going to run some tests on your blood," Dr. Hamilton said. His voice was getting clearer but her vision was still woefully discombobulated and her muscles completely uncooperative.
"If the updated vaccine is breaking down like the last one, it's possible you're having a reaction to it." He then mumbled something about the Perfectia protein not altering well.
Her chills worsened. The problems with her vision, hearing, and muscle control coalesced into one terrifying explanation in her mind. "Doctor... Outbreak... My brain."
"You will be fine, Maya," he said. She did not believe him. Like everything else, she knew it was a lie.
"Transplant," she pleaded. "Please." It did not matter that transplanting the brain was impossible. She needed help. She needed him to do something.
He hesitated. "Maya, just relax."
"No!" she pleaded as strongly as she could, which even she had to admit was little more than a pathetic whimper.
He ignored her. "Close your eyes and rest. I will take care of everything."
He couldn't take care of everything. She knew it without doubt now. Her brain was slowly dying as the outbreak spread. Maybe it was little more than a few neurons at that moment. She had no idea how it felt for an outbreak to spread in the brain. Maybe half her brain matter had already been consumed. Did she have seconds? Minutes?
"I don't want to die," she whispered.
"None of us ever do," Dr. Hamilton replied.
She was still in Dr. Hamilton's office when she blinked awake. He was still leaning over her, though over his shoulder was now Dr. Soren and Phoenix too. She had not been moved and felt strangely alert for what had been happening what felt like only moments before. She was slouched uncomfortably in one of the leather and wood chairs; one designed to pretend comfortable meetings happened in it but was really only meant to be seen and not used. She tried to straighten.
"Not yet," Dr. Hamilton urged quietly. At his words, she felt a tugging on her arm.
She looked down. An IV had been placed there.
"Your tests were fine," Dr. Hamilton replied to her unspoken question. "There are no signs of degradation this time. In fact, the antibodies in your system appear to be fortified compared to last time. It looks like they finally fixed the last of the problems."
She groaned. "I'm so happy for them," she muttered. "How is my brain?"
He looked into her eyes before answering. "I only have a guess but I think the Perfectia protein was indeed attacking your brain. You were suffering an outbreak but the antibodies were able to counteract it."
She twitched her hand, indicating the IV. "What was this for?"
"A desperate attempt to stave off the outbreak," he said. "Those who die the final death tend to have desiccated brain matter. As the outbreak appears to dry up all fluid, I was trying to replenish it in your body."
"Maybe it worked," she muttered. The door was open but the room still felt too stifling. She needed to get outside. She needed air that was not filled with the dust of old shelves and neglected books.
Dr. Hamilton shook his head. "Unlikely. Dehydration is a side-effect of the damage caused by the rogue Perfectia protein and not the cause of the damage. I was desperate."
She tried to sit up again. She felt stronger this time and was able to push against Dr. Hamilton's hand of protest. "You can probably remove this then," she said, indicating the IV.
He gave up fighting her and began to remove the IV. "There is one thing that might prove to be a problem for you."
"Oh?" She was through with being shocked by much of anything and even learning more at this point seemed unimportant. She still needed air more than anything.
"The antibodies are indeed working but they are outright destroying any evidence of your Perfectia protein," he explained without looking up.
She watched him tape gauze over the puncture wound and asked, "What does that mean?"
He looked up. "Within hours, you will be completely indistinguishable from a Roamer."
She wanted to laugh but her diaphragm felt too weak to comply with any emotional demands at that moment. "HPO isn't going to like that," she said as she pressed her fingers against the taped gauze.
A three of the men smirked but it was Dr. Hamilton who replied. "Not one bit."
She nodded. "And what do you need me to do?"
"We have it all covered," Phoenix replied firmly.
His determination to be confrontational was excessively wearying at that moment. She ignored him even as Dr. Hamilton shot him a glare.
Turning back to Maya, Dr. Hamilton spoke with his kindest tone. "Actually, we need you to provide us another blood sample in a few days. If your Perfectia protein is completely eradicated and the antibodies are still stable, we will need you to speak with as many people as possible. Touch them, shake hands, get very close when you're talking. They engineered this cure to spread like a virus once inside human tissue. The more people you get close to, the more it will spread and, with any luck, the more people it can cure."
Maya could think of countless people who would not want to be cured, moral ambiguity of living donors or not. This was forcing a cure upon them. A flicker of the possible future that could mean started in her mind. No more Roamer attacks. No more killing. Everyone could live together again. People could travel freely. The walls of the cities could crumble. It was a nice fantasy if they were right.
"Why me?" She wondered. Wouldn't it have been easier to inject it into someone loyal to their cause in the first place?
Dr. Hamilton's brow furrowed. "Because you're the one carrying the cure," he said, mistaking her meaning.
"But why not just give the cure to any willing participant? Why me? Why all the subterfuge?" Her lungs were filling more easily but her brain was still sluggish. This additional effort to make herself understood was quickly making her want to scream.
"Your father was insistent it had to be you," he said. "We actually did try deviating from his plan. We tried to inject it into other people. It never worked. It always killed them immediately. No matter what changes were made to it, it didn't work. After we discovered Phoenix, we even tried using his blood to engineer something to replicate his immunity. That didn't work either. While it didn't kill test subjects, it had absolutely no effect whatsoever. That is when we decided we had to do it your father's way no matter how difficult that made it." He sighed. "He always had so much more figured out than the rest of us. It's why I trust his plans. Maybe... when this is all over, you can ask him yourself."
She turned her head to stare at an empty shelf. Her father had ensured it had to be her. Lovely. Did he think he was doing her a favour? Did he care at all? She pushed herself to her feet, pushed through the men, and walked for the door. Her legs were working but there was just enough quivering in her muscles to warn that could change.
"Where are you going?" Phoenix asked, a slight twinge of panic colouring his tone.
"To get some air." She looked over her shoulder to smile back at him. "Right after I talk to Dominic."
He gave a start.
"Don't worry," she said. "Obviously this new protein won't hurt him."
His eyes narrowed. "And what are you going to tell him?"
"Relax. I can't exactly fight for zombies anymore now that I'll be a Roamer. But Dominic knows too much. I'm just going to ensure that doesn't become a problem."
Phoenix raised a brow. "What exactly does he know?"
She shrugged. If it had been Dr. Hamilton asking, she might have been more amenable to answering but Phoenix had chosen to act like she was an enemy. "You already know enough," she said, mimicking his earlier words.
She walked down the hall. It felt invigorating to escape the stifled office and the watchful eyes of Dr. Hamilton, Phoenix, and Dr. Soren. She truly saw the gift of solitude in that moment. It was with great annoyance that she stopped in front of Dominic's door. That selfish, lying prat was going to keep trying to manipulate her. She would have to manipulate him right back. Her desire to do it for revenge had evaporated in Dr. Hamilton's office. She did it now because there was no other choice. Even walking away would not free her of the burden upon her. There was no ignoring it.
As she walked in, she smiled at him. He had not moved since she had gone to Dr. Hamilton's office. Perhaps he had been waiting nervously the whole time. Now he raised a brow. "Care to explain," he said.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, not taking care to avoid sitting on his foot. He jerked it out from under her.
"How are you feeling?" She asked, patting his thigh as if hammering in a nail. She was genuinely curious. She wanted to know if her antibodies had indeed spread like Dr. Hamilton said they should.
Dominic pursed his lips as he considered her. "Hoping your poison will finish me off?" He asked with a sneer.
She shrugged as she watched the blips on the heart monitor. "I don't appear to have that much luck," she said. "So you'll probably be fine."
"A woman scorned," he muttered.
She laughed. It felt good to have a genuine laugh. It had been too long. "Don't flatter yourself."
"Don't lie to yourself," he shot back. "Say what you want to act all strong and smart but you were infatuated with me and you don't know nearly as much as you think about what's going on."
She shrugged again.
"Nothing to say to that?" His lips spread into a smug grin.
She was surprised to found his self-satisfaction actually kind of sad. It was at that moment that she realized she really wasn't that upset about him anymore. After all, being spurned by a guy was pretty low on the list of her concerns at the moment. Life or death stakes made good distractions. For the first time, she was a little thankful for her situation. Wasting tears on Dominic Nevett would just be another victory for him.
"HPO still interested in bringing down the resistance?" she asked.
"What do you want, Maya?"
She readjusted herself on the bed. He yanked his foot out from under her yet again. "What was the plan?" she asked, locking eyes with him. She would not be fooled by his masks this time, no matter how good he was at them.
He did not say anything.
She would not leave him alone. "What did you want me to do? You know about the poison inside me. HPO seems to be working on a cure." That didn't do a thing from what it sounded like, she thought. She pressed on. "HPO has locked up the first lady in Desfinel Island. You were lying to me this whole time to use me to lure out my father. I know you are trying to bring down the resistance but I just don't get how any of that is connected to what's happening in Mirottaly."
"And why should I tell you? So you can go back and report to your Roamer friends?"
She pinched his cheek. "No. I'm helping you, remember?"
"I don't believe it."
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and looked down her nose at him. "You honestly think being spurned by a man is enough to turn me against my entire race? Are you honestly that conceited?"
He glared. "Your family has always been sympathetic to Roamers. Why would you be any different?"
She straightened his blanket, taking pointless interest in its smoothness. "You must never have met my mother; the one who raised me. She raised me to despise Roamers. She even went so far as to teach me to despise those unable to afford transplants for their afflicted parts. She hated my father."
"Strange," he said with mock contemplation. "She is also a woman who wrote impassioned articles pleading with the government to rethink their policy on using people for parts. That was, of course, all before the Rights Revolution."
Maya's jaw tensed. She hated not knowing as much as he did. She hated feeling like a pathetic idiot. But she had decided which side she was on and she would see it through. She refused to let him see any further reaction even though he tried very hard to evoke one. She brushed imaginary lint off his blanket.
He would not be so easily thwarted. "The change in her loyalties seemed to occur not long after you were born and violence had broken out in the streets. I guess she was too weak to stand by her convictions. She even denounced your father publicly after that. I suppose that's what made him run and join a bunch of filthy terrorists."
Despite how much she wanted to punch him right in the face, she forced a smile. "The same ones we are now trying to bring down," she said sweetly. "But I get the feeling you really don't want my help so I suppose I will go now." She stood and turned for the door. "Have fun explaining this to HPO," she said over her shoulder.
"Wait!" He called after her. "Get back here!"
She turned, the sweet smile still on her face. "Yes?"
"Niles Germaine had big plans for you," he said. "Plans that he would not take too kindly to having messed up."
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. For the first time, she was getting the impression he was actually worried HPO might find out she knew as much as she did. His forehead was glistening and his eyes had a roundness to them she had not seen before. Perhaps she had just never seen him panic before or perhaps he had never had to pull out that particular mask for her.
"Does this have something to do with Mirrotaly?" She asked. "Maybe a key part of their plan to gain control over the parliament?"
He stared back at her.
She waved. "Bye!"
"Yes!" He called after her.
She walked back in and sat down on the bed. Once again she sat on his foot and once again he yanked it out from underneath her.
"Get explaining or I might just go tell Niles Germaine everything I happen to know and don't know. Like, how I'm not sure but I think you might be trying to double cross HPO to get Phoenix out of the city. He is just like a father to you after all and you seem so sure that parental bonds sway our political views."
He glared at her with more venom than any mask, no matter how adept, could convey and his tone was bitter as he explained, "Anastasia was dealing with the Rights for Humans terrorist cell. She was a sympathizer. They staged the assassination attempt to distance her from the group. She knew her husband's health was failing. She planned to seize power after he died and turn the government over to Rights for Humans. She had already secretly gotten the support of several MPs."
She urged him to continue his explanation even as she wondered how much of it was a complete lie. Maybe Anastasia was plotting against the government and HPO but it was just as likely she had done no such thing and HPO had framed her for its own purposes.
"Niles wants to use the support she's already put in place to make HPO the real government. He wanted you to pretend to be her. Once the parliament had given her, really you, power, you would hand governance over to HPO."
She wanted to laugh. She nearly choked trying to stifle the first of an involuntary outburst but managed to cover it with a cough. She smiled back at him. "Why would I be opposed to that?"
He scoffed. "Get real, Maya. We understand you. Your psychological profile showed us you would likely resist the plan given how close you had gotten to Anastasia. You would only have done it if you thought you were acting in honour of her."
She raised a brow. "In honour of her? You arrested her and put her in prison. How would helping you then honour her?"
"You were supposed to think she had been killed and, amongst the chaos in Mirottaly, you would be the only hope to restore order by taking her place and making everyone think she was still alive."
She looked up at the ceiling and tapped her chin with a finger as if considering. "And who were you going to frame for this murder?"
"The Owen Cell."
She shook her head. Not in disbelief of the fact so much as what they had been trying to do.
"So, if I help you, I become Prime Minister?" she asked, letting her eyes fall upon the blips on the heart monitor again. Why couldn't they just stop? She silently berated herself. Dominic was not HPO. He was part of the problem but the evil would continue with or without him.
"Though, not with the power," he stressed. "If you did anything against HPO, they would find a way to... remove you."
She nodded. "Of course. But how does this work with the poison in me and all?"
"We have an antidote," he said. "I'm sure it's why I survived. HPO will need another sample of your blood to make sure the antidote will still work."
That would be a problem now that she would soon be the same as a Roamer on a cellular level. She smiled. "No problem." She would figure out how to avoid that later. "You will need lots of it," she added. "The Roamers are hoping I'll infect as many high ranking people as possible at the fashion show."
Dominic nodded. "It is what we suspected then."
"So foiling their plans should be easy enough. I just won't go."
"No. We need you to go. If the resistance isn't assured of success, we won't be able to bring down the Owen cell."
She locked eyes with his, hoping she looked confused. Pretending he was trying to kill her, which might not have been far from the truth, actually made it easier to keep up the façade. "Isn't that a little risky given the circumstances? We could end up poisoning a lot of people."
"With your blood, we'll have the antidote ready and it is worth the risk to bring the main resistance down once and for all."
It was how little concern was in his tone that bothered her most. He was worried about the effects of the so-called poison upon himself but it could do whatever it wanted to anyone else. She knew from her years with HPO that he would not have been alone in his attitude. She was feeling confident in her choice for the first time.
"The problem with resistance cells," she said, "Is that another one will just pop up in its place. When people feel oppressed, they don't accept defeat easily."
He snorted. "We don't care about petty resistance cells; a bunch of Neanderthals with knives and guns. There isn't another cell like this one. Jeremy Owens is a particular threat. If we can take him out, any remaining resistance will be nothing but stragglers in the wilds. Owens has people in the cities on his side. That is why we need to get rid of him. If you honestly help us, Maya, we can bring down your father and you will become Prime Minister. You will have revenge and power; everything anyone could want. So even if you hate me, isn't it worth it?"
She smirked. "And I'm sure you're hoping for a nice fat promotion too."
He smiled. "Then we understand each other. We both win."
She nodded. She understood all too well. The little story he had just shared was complete lies. Maybe placing her as Anastasia's replacement had been the plan at one point but she didn't believe his confidence in the antidote. She knew was ineffective anyway. He hadn't died because the antibodies had been doing their work. After her contact with him, he, too, would soon be no different than a Roamer. It wouldn't take long for HPO to figure that one out and realize it was no poison but a cure. She just hoped that took longer in him than it did in her. It had been days before the protein broke down in him and caused his reaction. She had to believe a delayed response would happen again. For now, she would play along and not ask too many more questions.
"I better let Phoenix know I'll be happy to be at the show," she said, standing. She looked down at his bandaged body. Despite the severity of the outbreak, he would be well soon enough. Her fears from the night before regarding his short life expectancy seemed so pathetic. The fact that she had ever cared for him was embarrassing. He was nothing but lies. He was the embodiment of HPO.
"I'll come see you tomorrow," she said with a grin. "I'll be expecting my exact orders."
She returned to Dr. Hamilton's office only long enough to inform him and Phoenix that HPO was convinced it had an antidote and that just such an antidote had saved Dominic's life from the supposed poison. Dr. Hamilton had found this amusing. It meant they were taking the degradation of the cure as a sign their antidote was working while it was the degradation itself that had caused the problem.
"Still," he had added. "Try to hold out as long as possible giving them your blood. They know they haven't given it to you and if they see what I've seen, they may deem you too dangerous to remain walking around."
She nodded her understanding. "I'm going back to the house," she said to Phoenix. "I need some proper sleep. We can go over anything else you need from me tomorrow."
He nodded reluctantly.
"Don't worry," she said. "I won't bother the Roamers."
"Take Gerald in with you then," he said. "So they know not to bother you either."
The roads seemed busier than usual as they drove up Parts Avenue. When she commented on it, Gerald explained over his shoulder that it was all the elites from Mirottaly, Thirreb, and Thade who would be attending the show. Over the next week more and more of them would arrive in Sile.
She looked at the faces they passed; all people she would need to meet; all people she would need to touch; all people she would need to infect. She swallowed. Thinking of it in those terms made it seem downright insurmountable and much more diabolical. Was her father an evil genius or a saviour?
When they pulled up in front of the house, Gerald hopped out and opened the door for her. "Am I to walk you in?" he asked.
She nodded and tried to smile as she ignored the twisting sensation in her stomach. She didn't really think she would be attacked but the unknown lay ahead.
Gerald nodded and they walked up the steps together. It was as clear and sunny as the first day she had arrived in Sile. There was not the slightest breeze. The sun had baked the stones to the point the heat wafted up from them to caress her ankles. The weather never did seem to take heed of the underground chaos of Sile.
Gerald opened the door and held it open for her to pass. He had not yet looked inside but she had. She froze on the threshold. She swallowed hard and blinked.
She was having a nightmare. No. She wasn't. No matter how much she wanted to be, she wasn't. The pungent smell of copper proved it wasn't as it tried to gag her. She tried to force the smell out of her nose but it would not be dislodged. Air could no longer make it into her lungs. In that moment of her hesitation, Gerald had turned to follow her gaze to take in the reddish-black pool and the body in the centre of it.
Evan lay sprawled on his back with his eyes open and unfocused. If he had been alive, he would have been looking right at her but it was obvious he was not alive. He could not be judging her but for a second she fell into those vacant depths where nothing but judgement lay.
She shook her head to dislodge the panic. In the next second, she and Gerald both sprang into action at once. Gerald headed for Ethan but she headed for the phone.
She was being patched through to Dr. Hamilton within seconds.
"I'm at the house. Evan's been murdered. I have to call HPO. Tell Phoenix."
"Check the door," was all he said back.
She knew which door he meant. She called Sile's HPO branch and informed them of what had happened.
She needed to follow protocol. She needed them to see her as a good agent. As per protocol, she then called the military as this would be their jurisdiction but HPO would be monitoring the situation even before the officer picked up the phone. Once the military was informed, they would have only a moment or two to check the door upstairs; the door in the bathroom.
After reporting the crime to the military, she tossed the receiver back onto its base and sprinted to the foyer. Gerald wasn't there. She did not have time to figure out what had happened to him. Her panic escalated but she did not hesitate as she turned and hopped over the edge of the puddle of blood to get to the stairs. She reached the third when she saw Gerald at the top on his way back down.
"Secured," he said.
"Was it them?" she asked. She couldn't help it. Roamers killed zombies. It was all she had known until coming to Sile. No matter what she had learned, her reflexive suspicion would not be quelled. Her twinge of guilt flickered into nothing as she recalled why Phoenix had instructed Gerald accompany her inside.
He shook his head. "Not a chance."
"Even if he stumbled upon them by accident like I did?" She pressed. They weren't completely harmless.
He shook his head again. "They would have restrained him at most."
She looked down at Evan's sprawled body. "Maybe they struggled. Maybe it was an accident." She knew she was grasping at straws as she squatted next to the scene to get a closer look. His throat had been cut. From the angle and depth, she was almost certain he had been grabbed from behind and whoever had done it had been strong. His head had nearly been severed. That was no accidental blow. That was deliberate.
The stomping of boots grabbed her attention and she looked up to see several soldiers running up the steps from the driveway. They came through the door with their guns drawn. Several more were extracting themselves from a Hummer now parked in the driveway. She and Gerald lifted their hands in surrender.
"We are the ones who called," she said, though she was not surprised when they grabbed her arms, pulled them behind her, and secured her wrists in cuffs. "Off to interrogation then?" she asked even as one soldier shoved her through the door.
She could hear Gerald being cuffed behind her. Arrest first, ask questions later; the military motto.
She was pushed into the back of the Hummer. A soldier sat on either side of her. She watched as several others marched Gerald into second Hummer ahead of them.
The few minutes it took to get to the gates were uncomfortable and nauseating. It was not because of the stress but because of the two jarheads on either side of her who took up nearly the entire seat by themselves. She was squished and her shoulders were being pulled and stretched in all the wrong ways with her hands uncomfortably secured behind her. It was also stifling. Sweat was dripping from her face by the time they pulled up to the military office at the gates.
She was pulled roughly from the Hummer and half-led, half-dragged inside. She knew what was coming but at the moment, the only concern she had about it was them taking her blood.
She was stripped of her clothes though more gently than she had been the first time they had screened her. Her body was examined for all her scars, her blood was taken from several points in her body, and the entire time, a line of soldiers with guns drawn eyed her. Her heart sped up each time a syringe was pressed through her skin. She tried to ignore it by looking at each one of the soldiers' faces. Most of them were covered. Soldiers did not make much after all but they were fed. She paused for an extra heartbeat on one masked soldier: Leanna's comrade.
She was given a blue paper robe to wear, handcuffed once more, and then taken to a concrete interrogation room. She sat down on the too-cold metal chair at the metal table and waited.
Two soldiers were stationed in the room on either side of the door. Once again, she noted Leanna's little helper had gotten himself into just the right place for a show. She tried to ignore him.
To be honest, she had more pressing matters on her mind. Once they saw the results of her blood tests, they might just send someone in to execute her. In that secure room, whether they planned to kill her or not, she had no options. She began to shiver and her legs went numb as her body heat was sapped through her feet into the concrete floor. She tried to press the soles against the chair leg to ease the pain but it did little to help. Her rear-end was becoming painfully flat and, though it was better than blood, she was becoming sick of smelling metal and concrete.
A tall, sandy-haired man walked through the door sometime later. Her heart slammed into the top of her mouth, nearly bringing her stomach contents with it. His face was perfect with not a visible scar in sight. His hands were another matter. They looked like they had long since healed from severe burns. As he approached, every step and slight swing of his arms spoke of outward aggression. She was blinking back at Niles Germaine.
"I thought you were in Mirottaly," she said.
"Ms. Thanatos," he grunted as he pulled out the chair opposite her and slapped a file down on the table. "Right now, it is not you who needs information but me."
She was not happy about this. How much of what she had said would Dominic have passed on already? Did they know how much she knew? How easily could she become expendable? Was she already expendable? Had the tests revealed that she was effectively a Roamer and there was no poison in her? Was that why Niles so easily sat across from her with seemingly no concern for contagion?
"What do you require, sir?" she asked, trying to interpret any reaction. He might as well have been made from stone.
"Did you kill Evan Freeman?" He asked with a deadpan voice.
"No, sir," she replied firmly. "Phoenix's chauffer and I came upon him when I got back to the house. I called you right away."
He opened his file and looked down at the sheet on top. "Except you called Dr. Hamilton first to tell him and I quote 'I'm at the house. Evan's been murdered. I have to call HPO. Tell Phoenix.'"
She could feel the colour drain from her face but she tried to force her posture to remain strong. She needed to give away as little as possible. Had she just outted Dr. Hamilton as part of the resistance?
He continued, "Then he told you to check a door. Would that be the secret door to the Roamer hideout?"
She nodded. She knew they had already known that much was going on. She just didn't know if they had known who had been helping Phoenix. She tried to calm herself. They had known so much. Of course they had known Dr. Hamilton was involved.
"How long have you been helping the Roamers?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I would never help those vile monsters," she shot back. "I'm working for HPO, on your orders!"
"Yet you know much more about what is going on than you have shared with HPO," he said with a slight smile and a raise of a brow.
She pretended to be confused. "I've reported it all to Dominic, sir." Let him feel some pressure this time. Niles Germaine was not going to like it if Dominic had been keeping secrets. If she could get their suspicion switched to Dominic for real this time, she might have a better chance.
His brow inched higher but he did not respond to it directly. "Tell me what you know."
She needed him to see her worth. She launched into it, telling him everything but conveniently not correcting the notion that what was inside her was a poison or explaining that she fully intended to help the Roamers by passing on the cure at the show. She also kept any mention of her father's real whereabouts out of the conversation. When she was finished, she looked around and then back at Niles.
They knew she had passed the so-called poison onto Dominic and possibly even Amelia and Tabitha. Dominic had nearly died and they believed he had only been saved by an anti-dote. However, she was now face to face with the most powerful man in the country with nothing but air and a table between them. Did he know the truth? Did he have that much faith in HPO's antidote?
Niles was looking down at the file in front of him. After a moment, he looked back at her. "We no longer require your help in Mirottaly," he said.
"I am willing to help," she said, unable to keep the twinge of panic from her voice. She was sure he might as well have just given her death sentence.
"Unnecessary in that matter," he pressed with a stern glare.
She stayed quiet. Maybe she would be shipped off to Desfinel Island.
"We still require your help in Sile, however," he said.
She tried to stifle and audible sigh of relief. "Anything you need," she said.
"Follow through with what the Roamers have asked. We will have everything in place to bring down Phoenix, the Roamers, and even Jeremy Owens in place."
Inside, she was smiling and realized for the first time she felt affection towards her father. A man smart enough to outwit Niles Germaine, especially doing so 30 years early, was a man to respect. The affection was short lived as she realized he had outwitted her with no care for his daughter's feelings. She pushed the thought aside. "Of course. But the poison?" she asked.
"The risks," he grunted, "Are necessary."
"And after?" She could not help it. She needed to know. Once they had what they wanted, if she was no longer needed in Mirottaly, what would they want from her?
He smiled but there was nothing about Niles Germaine that could ever put anyone at ease. His show of teeth seemed more like a hungry wolf ready to pounce. "Promotion to a new assignment," he said.
They both knew it was a lie.
"Yes, sir," she replied, trying to force enthusiasm into her voice. She hoped it had worked. His smile hadn't faltered but her insides were nothing but roiling acid.
He slid a key across the table. "We have secured you a room at a local inn. Mornings, I think it's called. As the military will be continuing to investigate Evan's murder, you will be unable to return to your previous accommodations." He stood.
"Do they know it was Roamers who killed him?" she asked, hoping the question would solidify his trust in her.
He looked down at her. He was calculating. "Ensure you brief with Dominic before the show." Then he walked from the room.
She glanced at each of the soldiers. Niles hadn't cared that they were there the whole time.
Within the next few minutes, she was given back her clothes, which had survived the screening process, and sent on her way. Gerald was nowhere to be seen as she walked out onto the street. Her chest constricted at what that could mean and she considered waiting for him. She could show no sympathy for the resistance. She kept walking. HPO had let her go because they still needed her for something. Gerald was worthless to them, except maybe to be tortured. She swallowed hard.
She headed to Mornings. While she could understand the roamers killing Evan if they had panicked about being discovered, she doubted they would. Even if they had, why would they have left Ethan and all the evidence of his murder in plain sight? Niles' reaction to her question seemed the biggest tell. HPO had killed Evan. But why?
Evan would never have gone against them. He was too law abiding to do anything differently. He would have reported the Roamers the first chance he had. It made no sense. Killing Evan didn't help anyone.
Did HPO want to keep the military in the dark? She thought back to what Michael and Dominic had said to each other about having the military's help and to the fact that Niles seemed unconcerned about the soldiers in the interrogation room. No, the military knew as much as HPO. Their collaboration was seamless. But the angle and depth of cuts on Evan's neck were not made by a panicked Roamer.
Her guts sank as she recalled how Niles had quoted her call. They had known much more than the Roamers had suspected. The fact that Niles spoke so openly with her showed he was not afraid of some poison. There was the possibility that they misunderstood how it was passed. Maybe he thought the risks of transmission were too low from simply being in the same room but that seemed a pretty silly risk to take with a poison. They had gotten her blood. They had seen what Dr. Hamilton had seen. HPO knew what was in her. They knew how it worked, yet, they still wanted her to do exactly what the Roamers wanted her to do. They wanted it passed around to everyone who came to that show but if Niles himself was unafraid of it, what did they hope to accomplish?
She looked up at the sign above the door to Mornings. It felt like she had been teleported there. She pulled open the door and walked inside. The same woman who had helped her before was standing at the desk. She smiled and began to say, "How can I help you," but Maya held up her key and said, "Just heading to my room." The woman nodded and wished her a nice day.
Maya got on the elevator and went up to the third floor, the top. Her room was number 31. She slipped inside. The room was dark. The daylight outside was dimming. She could see the outline of the small bed in the middle of the room. Maya threw herself fully clothed onto it and fell asleep.
She was awoken by the sun shining in her eyes. It was morning. It hadn't felt that long. She certainly didn't feel rested. She buried her face in her pillow but the world refused to wait. There was a knock at the door. She groaned as she pushed off the bed and stumbled to the door. She pulled it open without bothering to check who it was. Every side seemed to need her alive.
Phoenix was looking back at her.
"Really, darling?" He said in an image of his former self. "You should put in some effort."
"I just woke up," she grumbled as she stood aside to let him in.
He dropped his eyes over her body before returning them to her face. "And before you went to bed?" he asked.
"What is it?" she groaned. "I was under the impression you didn't like me anymore."
He rolled his eyes. "You are so melodramatic. I've come to fetch you for the preparations for the show."
"Preparations? I thought I just had to show up?" There was a tickle on her chin and she wiped at it only to discover she must have been drooling in her sleep.
He rolled his eyes in an unnecessarily dramatic gesture. "No one is going to care about shaking hands with a nobody. We need people to fall all over themselves for you. They need to believe they are being given a huge treat being able to shake your hand so that every last one of them will want to."
"And how are you going to manage that?" Her fingers got caught in her hair when she tried to run them through it. Phoenix might actually have been trying to be kind in his assessment of her. With a twitching wag, she managed to dislodge her fingers.
He smiled broadly. "You'll be my star model and the one to walk the runway with me at the end of the show. That means we have fittings to do and we need to make sure you can walk like a professional."
"I know how to walk."
"I beg to differ, dear." He sighed. "I would have sent Gerald for you but the military is determined to hold onto him for the time being. Dominic has leant me his driver." He looked her over again. "Though I might need to come back later to give you time to... freshen up."
She walked to the bathroom, sticking her tongue out at him before slipping inside and shutting the door. Using all the free products and her fingers, she was able to get her hair and face looking presentable. There could be nothing done about the crinkled mass of her dress. When she opened the door again, Phoenix's eyes fell immediately to said wrinkles and he tsked at the sight.
"At least we'll get you changed soon enough at the venue," he lamented before taking her arm and pulling her from the room. For a short, old man, he was unfairly strong.
The limousine outside drove them several blocks over and pulled up in front of a long two-storey building. The entire main floor had large French windows every few feet and between each one along the sidewalk were potted trees that had been sculpted into perfect balls. The main doors were propped open by two of the potted trees. The cursive lettering on the sign above the door said Hotel Punica.
"I thought we were going to your house?"
Phoenix waved a dismissive hand. "Of course not. The military won't let me near the place for at least another day."
The driver got out to walk around the car.
"Then where are your models?" she asked quickly.
He shrugged. "A few hadn't been removed from the bank yet. I managed to get them through today with some of Martin's documentation artwork."
"You realize that HPO knows what you're doing, right?"
He smiled. "And yet they are doing nothing about it."
The driver opened the door and she climbed out. On the sidewalk, Phoenix linked arms with her as if she were his favourite person and they walked into the hotel. "It's a shame Amelia won't be well enough to see my show," he lamented with a dramatic wave of his hand. "She so loves my work."
"You and your nephew really should be more open with each other," Maya said out of the side of her mouth. "The two of you share an incredible skill for acting."
The smile did not leave his face as he waved boisterously to a lady at the far end of the lobby.
"We Nevetts have a skill for survival," he muttered back.
"Apparently," she said dryly. "You don't even seem to care that he betrayed you to HPO?"
Phoenix's hand dropped along with his smile. He turned to face her. "What did you say?"
"You didn't know?" She had assumed everyone knew everything. At least, that is how it had felt to her, like they all knew exactly what was going on but refused to admit it out loud to the other side.
His eyes flashed with the same intense anger she had seen the day before in Dr. Hamilton's office. "When did this happen? Did you have something to do with it?" He growled.
She raised her hands defensively. "Don't blame me. He told them years ago. He's been watching you ever since. I thought you knew."
He looked around before grabbing her by the bicep and leading her down a white columned hall and through a door. They were in some kind of storage closet for reception chairs.
"You better be telling the truth and not some lie in a twisted revenge plot," he snarled.
She looked him right in the eyes. "I'm not interested in revenge. I'm interested in getting through this alive and maybe bringing a few others through it too. You and Dominic can have your family dysfunction."
His hand released from her arm and fell to his side. "He betrayed me," he whispered. "He actually betrayed me. I always figured it was likely but I never really believed... "
He looked as though he were about to faint. Maya reached for the nearest stack of chairs and removed one, setting it down next to him. He collapsed into it.
"It really is war then," he said in the same hoarse whisper.
"Yes," she said, "It is." With a sigh, she added, "Family doesn't seem to mean much in all of this. Look at what my father was willing to do to me. And my sister obviously doesn't care either. I'm little more than a tool to either of them."
He looked up at her. Tears had pooled on his lower lashes. He wrapped his finger around her forearm. "I see what you mean now," he said. "I had no right to treat you so horribly yesterday. I'm sorry."
Despite herself, she gave a faint smile back. "If we survive the week, I'll accept."
He laughed, a twinge of hysteria to it. "I suppose that's fair." He stared at nothing over her shoulder for a moment before blinking himself back to reality. "Never mind," he said. "It changes nothing. We had already suspected HPO knew about me. It doesn't matter how they found out now. We must still continue with the plan. Jeremy said nothing could stop it once it had reached this point so we must trust that he was right."
Maya swallowed hard. Trusting the thirty-year-old predictions of a man seemed a very dangerous prospect at that moment. Phoenix stood and linked his arm in hers again.
"Let's go try on some clothes!" He announced with what might actually have been genuine glee.
Due to Phoenix's house currently being examined with a military comb, he had convinced the hotel to give him early access to the ballroom that would be used for the show. The way he told it, it sounded as though it had taken some convincing and rearranging of events on the part of the hotel but his influence had not waned. Phoenix got what Phoenix wanted.
The runway and staging area had already been set up, which was what Phoenix needed most. There were several people already waiting when they walked in. Three were standing in one corner, looking nervous. Maya assumed they were the newly freed Roamers. One, a girl, looked to be barely 16. The other two, a man and a woman, looked double her age.
Aside from how ill-at-ease they looked, there was nothing about them that would have indicated they were Roamers. They all looked well put together and quite attractive. Their bodies were perfectly toned. Maya wondered what Phoenix did to save the less attractive Roamers. Maybe he didn't bother. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. How far did his desire to help go? She berated herself. He was a fashion designer. He couldn't very well put those who didn't fit the part up on that runway. He would have been discovered long ago, even without Dominic's betrayal.
Phoenix pulled her towards the others gathered. They were chatting by one of the vanity mirrors and stopped when he approached.
He pointed to a tall, round woman who was wearing jewelled, horn-rimmed glasses. Her blond hair was twisted up into a spiky bun. "This is Nicole. She does make-up." He then gestured to a short, thin, dark-haired woman next to her and said, "This is her assistant Rita." Then there was a man with an overly sour expression on his gaunt face. His hair looked like each lock had been meticulously placed to give it the perfect Feng Shui. "Sasha does hair with his assistant Eliza," Phoenix said before gesturing to a short woman who looked as young as the Roamer in the corner. Her brown hair was pulled back into a simple pony tail that lacked any evidence of the effort Sasha had expended upon his.
Phoenix then introduced Maya to the aestheticians. "She will be my jewel for the show," he explained. "Expend as much effort as you can on her."
All four looked her up and down, not all of them looking pleased about their task. Maya wanted to say some snarky words back but Phoenix was already calling to the group in the corner. "Gloria, Jack, Pam, come here. We'll get you three started right away." He turned back to his team. "I'm going to get Maya dressed. I want to see your best styles on these other three."
The rest of the day was slipping on clothes and having pins stuck all over, praying that Phoenix wouldn't miss and hit her flesh. He never did but it never got less nerve wracking. Then it was hair and make-up. Within minutes, she was surrounded by a cloud of floral fragrances and pungent sprays as her skin was roughly massaged with creams and her hair was forced into unrealistic directions. None of it was enjoyable. Phoenix and his team were brutally critical. Apparently, Maya had one eyebrow higher than the other, which she had never noticed. They were also quick to point out she was beginning to get crow's feet and, to her gut-dropping surprise that she had a bruise on her shoulder, the same spot one of the soldiers had hit to shove her the day before. Zombies did not get bruises. Roamers got bruises.
"Don't be silly!" Phoenix said to Rita, who had pointed it out. "It's just some natural discoloration." He looked at Maya. "You've always had that, haven't you dear?"
She nodded. "Of course."
Rita looked unsure but also properly castigated. She said nothing more about it.
"Yes, you see," Phoenix said as if it had all been obvious. "Just even it out with some foundation dear. I shouldn't have to tell you how to do your job."
Rita looked down and nodded quickly. "Of course, sir. I'll take care of it right away."
Phoenix looked at his watch in his usual theatrical way as he announced they would practice walking before calling it a night. He made Maya walk the runway what seemed like a hundred times. In reality, it might not even have been a dozen but every step she made evoked a new criticism.
"Hold your head high!... You're the object of everyone's desire, not a Neanderthal!... Flick those hips!... What are you? A dashboard hula girl! Walk!..."
When he was finally satisfied with the amount of abuse he had inflicted upon her and the others, he called an end to the night. He looked right at Maya. "I'll be picking you up the day after tomorrow. I'll have the alterations ready by then and you will need to work with the other models. I want you to practice that walk! People need to think you're a goddess come to earth who has chosen my clothing. Right now you look like a wounded emu."
She glared at him but he just turned to talk to the others. She returned to the staging area to retrieve her clothes before intending to walk back to Mornings.
"You can join me for dinner," Phoenix called after her as she headed for the door.
She waved to him but did not look back. "I need sleep," she said.
"Don't forget to practice!"
She deliberately ignored any advice he had given her as she walked back to Mornings.
With great relief, she looked at the 31 upon her door as she exited the elevator. She put her hand around the knob and paused. There was something stuck to the underside of it. Her relief vanished as she picked at it with her fingers, pulling off a strip of tape that had written on it, "34, now."
She knew who it was from. Cryptic notes had come from only one source this entire time. She turned immediately and strode down to 34. Before she could knock, the door opened. She could not see who had opened it because they were hidden behind the door itself but she knew who it was. She walked it and Leanna closed and bolted it immediately.
"We have only moments," her sister said quickly. "HPO is watching this place."
"Then why are you risking being here?" Maya shot back.
Leanna walked further into the room. "Because I have to."
Maya followed and was unsurprised to see the masked soldier sitting in a chair by the drawn drapes. With a finger, he pulled them apart just enough to peak through.
"What do you two want from me?" she demanded of Leanna. "I'm helping Phoenix just like our father wanted."
Leanna turned to face her. "You need to know more. Dad wanted you to know. I need you to know."
She reached up to touch Maya, who instinctively pulled away. Leanna paused, her face sad as she took in Maya's distrust. "Please," Leanna pleaded.
Maya did not know what her sister wanted but did not move when her sister tried to touch her again. Leanna's finger tips touched a spot just behind Maya's ear. "Get a head x-ray," she said.
"Thanks," Maya said sardonically. "Though you are the one who seems crazy right about now."
Leanna glared. "I'm serious. Dr. Hamilton can help and it will give you the answers dad wanted you to have."
"And the ones you wanted me to have?" Maya pressed.
Leanna locked eyes with her. "HPO really does think you are carrying a poison," she said. "We've been tampering with your samples." She gestured to the soldier seated behind her. "They also believe it is still degrading and that their antidote works."
"Then why would they let me walk around?"
"Because they want you to take out all the current elite you can. They need their coupe to be complete. Anyone with power or influence is going to be brought down."
While that made sense, Maya was unconvinced. "Niles Germaine didn't seem to fear it."
Leanna scoffed and paced across the room. The floor creaked beneath her. "Of course not, he trusts his useless antidote."
Maya watched her sister pace but wished Leanna would just sit down. The back and forth was making Maya dizzy. "Why does any of this matter?" she asked. If it was so impossible to lose now, why did anyone care what the other side thought?
Leanna stopped and looked at her. "Because it means they don't know that they have already lost."
Maya raised a brow.
Leanna dropped onto the edge of the bed where she sat precariously as she explained. "The moment we gave you the last of the injections, it was too late for them to fight it," she said. "It passes like a virus, even more easily than a cold. Essentially, it really is a virus, one that replicates by destroying the Perfectia protein. It is highly contagious. Every person you have talked to, breathed on, touched, every one of them will already be going through the change. Even Niles Germaine will have it now that he was so kind as to interrogate you himself. Dad had made sure that by the time they figure this out, there would be nothing they could do."
"That still doesn't explain why keeping them in the dark still matters so much. Why care?" Maya pressed.
"To give you a chance to live," Leanna replied. "If they knew any of this, they would kill you on the spot. They don't want a cure. A cure takes their control away. A poison with an antidote that only they have is something they are eager to use. A cure that makes us all equal takes their power away. Roamers are no longer a threat. They can't use fear to keep people from talking and moving around as they please. We need to keep them convinced you are not a threat, that they have no reason to kill you. When I leave here, they will apprehend me."
"Why would you let them do that?" Maya shouted.
Leanna was looking at a spot on the floor between her feet. Her shoulders were hunched. "To make sure they get the information we need them to have when they torture me," she whispered.
"No," Maya gasped. "You don't need to do that." Her voice was a strangled whisper. Hadn't their father already made all the sacrifices necessary? If Leanna sacrificed herself for Maya, what was the point of any of it? Her father had known so much. He would have known this. He truly hadn't cared.
"Yes, I do," Leanna insisted, jumping to her feet. "I need to make amends for how I have treated you. I found out dad's secret and I freaked. I blamed you for everything even though I would be dead without you. I'm so sorry, Maya. I should have come to you and told you everything right then. I didn't. I sought out the resistance and treated you like an enemy to be manipulated and used."
She stepped closer, reaching out and taking Maya's hand. She looked down at the long Roamer scar and traced it with her finger. "She was a friend of mine."
"Excuse me?" Maya could do little other than blink back at her sister. Leanna was still focused upon the scar. The soldier used a finger to pull open the drape just an inch again.
Leanna locked eyes with Maya. "What I am sure was conveniently not mentioned to you was that you did not arrive in Sile the same day you left Thirreb. We took you. HPO had learned of our plans and was using the threat from Rights for Humans to set you up as bait. They were hoping to capture our father then but we changed our plans. It went wrong for them and we got you. But you had an outbreak immediately after. We had no choice. We had no way of helping you aside from a transplant. No one wanted to volunteer. Too many distrust the plan... At least, they don't trust it enough to be willing to sacrifice any of themselves for it. I grabbed the nearest person to me and cut it off myself... She died."
Maya pulled her arm away. She knew she was grimacing but she could not pretend to be anything but horrified by her sisters' matter-of-fact recount of what had happened. Though Leanna's voice had trailed away, there was no evidence of emotion, any emotion, upon her face. "We do what we have to," she added.
Their eyes met. Leanna's were hard. Was that really the worst Leanna had done? She appeared sickeningly comfortable with it.
Maya shook her head. "No," she whispered.
"Yes," Leanna countered. "This is the world they forced us into. I do not like it. I do not feel good about anything I have done even if it was just the simple fact that I lied to you and faked my death with help from the resistance. But I sacrifice myself now hoping it will erase all of it. There is no changing what I have done but if I can make sure something good comes of it, then at least it was justified."
"Leanna." It was grunt from the soldier who was peeking through the drapes.
She nodded back to him. "Time to go," she said before looking back at Maya. "Make sure you tell Dr. Hamilton about this."
The soldier was by Leanna's side. "We have to make it look real," he said.
She sighed as she turned to him. "I know." She reached up and caressed his cheek. "Live a long life, alright?"
He reached down and caressed her cheek in return. "I'll think of you every day."
She stretched up and kissed the cheek of his mask before whispering something in his ear.
He looked down at her face for a moment and then punched her as hard as he could right in the middle of it. Maya cried out and lunged for her sister who was falling backwards but the soldier was already there, grabbing Leanna by the scruff of the neck. He flipped her over roughly and pulled out cuffs that he slapped onto her wrists.
Leanna screamed and struggled as he lifted her up and dragged her to the door. Maya ran after them as he half-dragged Leanna down the hall. They were nearly at the elevator when several soldiers came through the door to the stairs. Their guns were drawn.
Leanna twisted and spit at the soldier carrying her. In response, he punched her across the face again. Blood splattered the adjacent wall. Leanna never stopped struggling or screaming. Maya stood in disbelief as she watched the entire display. Leanna's shrieks echoed in Maya's ears even after one soldier hit her sister so hard that she was knocked out.
They dragged her down the stairs, leaving Maya alone in the hall.
It took Maya several moments to return to thought. Then Leanna's plea that she see Dr. Hamilton drove her. She ran from the building. The hummer that carried her sister away was turning the corner. There was nothing she could do no matter what she wished so she ignored it. She ran down the street towards the bank. HPO would want to know what Leanna had told her. She would not betray her sister. She would lie as best she could when that time came. But now, she needed to know what was so important for Leanna to make that sacrifice.
She burst into the waiting room. The male nurse behind the desk jumped at her sudden appearance.
"Has Dr. Hamilton left for the day?" Maya was panting and barely got the question out in one breath.
The nurse shook his head. "He's in his office."
Maya nodded and thanked the man before charging through to the back. The nurse tried to stop her, perhaps to follow some protocol. She did not know. She rushed past him and down the hall to the office she sought. The door was open and Dr. Hamilton was sitting at his desk, writing in some files. He looked up at her disruptive entrance.
"Maya? What's wrong?" He asked with a knit brow.
She closed and locked the door behind her before she said anything. Locked in the room together, she said, "My sister says you need to give me a head x-ray." She pointed to the spot Leanna had touched. "She seemed to think we would find something here, something important."
He stood and nodded. "Come with me."
Within minutes, they were down the hall and he was trying to explain to the x-ray technician that he had a new hypothesis about how outbreaks started in the brain and needed a head x-ray. The confused technician consented reluctantly.
Dr. Hamilton told Maya to go wait in his office. Several minutes later, he walked into the room with a tray full of gloves and surgical tools in one hand and a metal tray in the other. "There is something in that very spot," he said. "I can't tell what it is but I think I can remove it."
"Should we be removing it?" Maya asked.
He paused to look at her. "It really is the only way to figure out what it is quickly."
"Fine." She gritted her teeth. "No anesthetic?"
He pointed at a small bottle in the tray he was holding. "I've got a local one here. It will help dull the pain but this will still feel a little weird."
Willing but still apprehensive, she sat down in the same chair she had been placed during the outbreak in her brain. Her hands were clasped together, wedged between her knees. He snapped on his gloves and pulled up a chair next to her, placing the metal pan in his lap. She swallowed. When he began to clean the area, she forced her body rigid. The anesthetic was applied with a small spritz from the bottle. Within a second, the entire area felt numb. After another moment, Dr. Hamilton reached down and grabbed a scalpel from the tray.
He took a deep breath. "Ready?" he asked.
She forced her head to remain as still as possible as she replied, "Yes."
He pressed the scalpel to the spot behind her ear. Though she could feel the pressure, she was not in pain. Blood trickled down her neck. The tickling was nearly too much to endure without moving. In response, Dr. Hamilton quickly grabbed gauze and wiped it away.
It felt strange to have someone poking underneath her skin but he was skilled and within moments had extracted whatever it was. She heard a hard clack as he dropped it into a metal pan on his lap. He ignored it while the sutured wound closed. It wasn't until he had finished and cleaned her up that he looked at what they had extracted.
Maya peered into the tray in his lap. The thing looked like a bloody chunk of hard nothing. "What is it?"
He picked it up with tweezers and rinsed it with several squeezes from a bottle of saline solution before holding it close to his face to examine it. "A computer chip," he said.
She was more confused than ever. What was she supposed to do with that? "A computer chip?" She repeated. "How could that be there? Computers are Class A government monitored products. Only the military and banks can have them."
He nodded. "That wasn't always the case," he said. "Before the Rights Revolution, they were in every home. That was also before the government decided they made information and people too hard to control."
"So it has been in me all this time? Since then?"
He nodded. "I think so."
It had been no exaggeration that her father had laid his plans more than thirty years earlier but if he had seen every step so clearly, wouldn't he have known a computer chip would be useless to her? Even if she could figure out how to use it, HPO would likely find out. Even if she could, did computer chips last that long, inside a human body?
"Wouldn't it be useless?" she asked. She really didn't know anything about computers.
"Maybe not for the purpose it was meant to serve," he countered. "Knowing your father... "
"What do you mean, 'Knowing my father'?"
He held the chip even closer to his face, going cross-eyed in his attempts to further examine it. He smiled. "Wait here," he said, dropping the chip back into the metal pan, setting both on his desk, and jumping up. He hurried from the room.
Maya peaked over the edge of the pan at the chip again. How could anything so tiny be important?
When Dr. Hamilton returned, he was holding a microscope. He carried it across to his desk where he searched for an outlet to plug it in. Without a word, he reached for the pan and picked up the chip with the tweezers. With tiny, deliberate movements, he set the chip on the stage and looked through the eye piece. He fiddled with the knobs for several moments, changed the magnification once, and then fiddled with the knobs again. He heaved an annoyed sigh, grabbed his tweezers, flipped the chip, and looked through the microscope again. After repeating his rotation of the knobs, he stilled. He did not pull away from the eyepiece for several heartbeats. Maya wanted to scream at him. Was he making her wait on purpose?
"I knew it!" he shouted.
She was at his side a second later. "What?"
"It's a letter, to you," he said. "He had it made into the chip. Some chip designers would put artwork on their computer chips that could only be seen through a microscope. He had a letter to you put onto one!" He sat back and laughed. "Jeremy, you eccentric old nutter!"
"Can I read it?!" Maya demanded.
He blinked back at her and sobered. "Yes, of course." He moved aside so that she could look through the microscope. She stepped closer and looked down at the microscope. She had no choice in the matter. She hadn't really had any choices since the day she came to Sile at the very least. It was possible she hadn't had any even long before that. Taking a deep breath, she looked through the eyepiece and read:
My Dear Little Maya. Please hate me. To find a cure for Lea's illness, I created all this. The powerful saw in it immortality and control. To stop them, I needed you. I leave to protect you. My plans are to save you. Only in you can my cure be completed. Only you have my protein that activates it. They cannot keep the cure from you. Hate me as you should. I love you. Dad
She sat back and stared at the ceiling. She felt hollow. It was such an unsatisfactory explanation. It wasn't even an explanation at all... but he had cared. It was a small consolation.
"I don't even know what any of this means," she muttered as she closed her eyes.
Dr. Hamilton moved beside her and she opened her eyes to see him looking into the microscope and seemingly reading through the contents again. When he was finished, he looked over at her. "What illness did your sister have?"
Maya shrugged. "I never knew she had one."
He again asked her to wait before getting up and leaving the room.
Maya stared at the panelled ceiling and breathed in the stale air of the office. She thought about what Leanna had said: just walking down the street and talking to people was enough. That was all it took to spread the cure. Even if she died now, she had come into contact with enough people that it would continue to spread. Even if she left now... Leanna had sacrificed herself to give Maya a chance to live. If Maya went through with the show, more people would become carriers. More importantly, the wealthy and influential would become carriers; those who could make a real difference. Doing the show would also make her easy pickings for HPO.
She sighed. It wasn't like she could run. She couldn't get out of the city. Even if she could, would she? Could she give up on the good of her father's work so easily? He wanted her to live but could she do that? Could she still be so selfish after everything that she had seen, after everything that had happened, after all the sacrifices her father had made?
Her father had cared. He was trying to help her. At the same time, she suspected he had put the protein she carried in her. He made it sound like the entire dichotomy of Zombies and Roamers had been his fault. No... it had been because the government abused his work. The genesis of the entire mess came back to them.
Niles Germaine would already be a carrier but that would not be enough. If he ever figured it out, he would likely hide it from everyone. The wealthiest and most powerful needed to be free of the Perfectia protein if anything was ever going to change. The faster that happened the better. She would do the show and if HPO arrested her in the end, so be it. She could only hope that Leanna would understand.
"I found it," Dr. Hamilton said as he walked back in the room carrying several sheets of paper. "I found your sister's medical records."
Maya stretched and looked at him. "What do they say?"
He looked down at the papers as if to confirm before speaking once more. "When she was three, she developed a slowly progressing but incurable form of a flesh eating disease. When she was five, she was given a six-month series of injections. She was cured but... That was exactly 35 years ago; the same time the Perfectia protein emerged." He sifted through his papers again. "There is something else," he said.
Maya raised a brow.
"All this made me think I should look into your mother's medical records as well," he paused and looked around the room as if considering if he should say anything. After another moment, he took a deep breath. "Were you aware that you were conceived through in vitro fertilization?"
Maya blinked back at him. "Not a clue," she said. "What does that have to do with anything?"
He took a deep breath. "I think your father genetically engineered you to be one half of an antidote to his Perfectia protein. I think that is why you were born."
Maya couldn't help it. She snorted. "No wonder my mother hated him."
He shook his head. "I'm not so sure about that either. When I knew them in Mirottaly, they were very close. She was as against the government abuse of the protein as he was."
Dominic's words came back to her. She swallowed. "Maybe she changed," she reasoned.
Dr. Hamilton was unconvinced. "I also found information about her last procedure. There was a peculiar irregularity."
Maya nodded. "Yeah, she suffered a donor rejection."
He shook his head. "No. That's not what was irregular. She chose her donor specifically before the procedure. She insisted they use a specific Roamer."
No one chose the Roamers used except the doctors performing the procedure. They were the ones who knew how to choose the best candidate to help the recipient. Knowing her mother, Maya figured she must have picked someone deemed of higher birth. She didn't want any run of the mill mangy body. But even she had to admit that with everything she was learning, the experiences she had directly had with her mother were looking less and less genuine.
"Why would she do that?" she asked.
Dr. Hamilton shrugged. "I don't know. I have not spoken with your mother or heard anything about her aside from her death since I left Mirottaly. But given everything else, we need to assume at the very least she knew something we don't. We also need to assume there was more than a simple case of donor rejection involved in her death."
Maya wrapped her arms around her middle. More than all the other things that she had learned, the real possibility that her mother had really been a decent person only playing the role of a bigoted snob gutted her. Her mother had spent three decades pretending, even with her own daughter, even when they were alone. How hard had it been for her mother to say such horrible things? How tortured was she to see her daughter unknowingly go to work for the same organization that had ripped her family apart? Maya was going to be sick. Forget minor personal slights, HPO had brought down the apocalypse and perverted her family to do so.
"None of this will matter when I infect everyone at that show," Maya said through gritted teeth. She looked up at Dr. Hamilton. If she did not focus on what had yet to be done, she would be sick. "HPO will likely send all of us to Desfinel Island afterwards but if I can pass the cure to as many as possible, it won't matter."
He nodded. "I never expected to die naturally once I joined Jeremy."
"Sorry," she muttered.
Dr. Hamilton sighed. "You're even more a victim of all this than I am. No point in apologizing."
She swallowed hard, trying to force the bile back into her gut where it belonged. The vomit was kept from rising but her stomach did not withdraw the threat.
"I should go see Dominic," she said, pushing herself to her feet. She needed to walk. She needed to do something to distract from the tragedy of her past.
Dr. Hamilton seemed to understand. He made no comment and gave no reaction to her abrupt announcement of departure aside from a small nod. "His body is recovering rapidly," he said, indulging her the change of subject. "This cure of your father's appears to fix any damage the Perfectia protein does. He will be ready to go home within a day or two."
She looked down at him. "So he'll be back to full health before the show?"
He nodded. "Positive."
Now it was her turn to sigh. "I'm sure HPO will have him glued to me the whole night," she muttered.
He laughed. "Good luck with that."
"Thanks." She hesitated before leaving. "How are Amelia and Tabitha faring?" she asked, remembering that Dominic was not the only one negatively affected by the first attempt at the cure.
He shrugged. "Not healing as rapidly as Dominic but doing well. They only had minor outbreaks after all."
She wasn't surprised. She had not seen either of them since before her final injections. They did not have the properly engineered cure to help them. "Maybe I'll pay them a visit after I talk to Dominic," she suggested.
He smiled. "Every little bit helps."
She walked down the hall to Dominic's room. It was late and there did not seem to be as much going on as her first day to the bank. Few people walked the halls. Most of the rooms were empty with the doors wide open.
Dominic was still bandaged but sitting on the edge of his bed when she entered. He had wrapped the sheet around his waist and it fell like a skirt over his legs. "Feeling better?" she asked.
He looked up at her and his eyes darkened slightly. "Disappointed?"
She shrugged. "Doesn't really matter to me." She meant it. She had developed complete indifference toward him. His previous affect upon her seemed so silly now in the context of everything else. She had so much more to think about. She talked to him now only because she needed to keep up a ruse, nothing more.
"Phoenix is going to have me pretty busy over the next few days," she said. "I figured I would come talk to you now about what the plan is."
"You know the plan," he growled.
"Do what Phoenix wants," she muttered. "That's it? You really think you'll lure Jeremy here just with my presence?"
"He is your father," Dominic reiterated. "He will come and we will arrest him."
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and leaned against the door frame. "And is sacrificing my family to HPO enough to prove my loyalty and worth?"
He evaluated her for several heartbeats. "With our antidote, we have nothing to fear from you. Your father's work has failed again."
She raised a brow. "Again?" At the same time she was curious, she felt her cheeks getting hot. She did not like his insinuation regarding her father's skill. Her father was so smart HPO did not even know they had set a trap for someone who was already in their custody.
Dominic continued as if she had said nothing. "When this is all over, we will finally have a stable government and no resistance to worry about. Your father's acts of terrorism will be no more. You are doing the right thing helping us, Maya. Can you imagine how many murders you are going to prevent? We'll be able to take down the walls. Everything will be as it should be."
She wanted to slap him but instead forced a smile. It was her father who wanted to bring down the walls but for the freedom of the people to resist not because there was no resistance left. "It's the right thing to do." She forced the words out and was disgusted at how natural and familiar they sounded coming out of her mouth. Just days ago, she would have believed what she was saying. With a sigh, she added, "I better go. I need rest for tomorrow."
She left without waiting for a response from him. She had reached her tolerance for speaking with him. He was a reminder of everything she now hated. She clenched and unclenched her fists repeatedly as she walked back down the hall in search of Amelia and Tabitha's rooms.
She was almost certain that Dominic knew everything he was saying was a lie. That only made her anger worse. HPO had created the whole mess and were using it to their own selfish ends. She would prevent murders going to that show but it would not be because of HPO but in spite of it.
She found Amelia laying staring at the ceiling, a blanket pulled up to her chin. Without thick layers of make-up, Amelia looked tired and weathered. She had large bags beneath her eyes that were too swollen to have been caused by only a few rough nights. Her hair splayed in a matted mess around her face on the pillow.
Maya knocked on the door. Amelia did not move her body, only her eyes.
"I thought I would come see how you are doing," Maya said. "Is it alright if I visit you for a few minutes?"
"Dr. Hamilton said you were doing well."
Amelia nodded again. "I've had worse." For someone pretending to be so unconcerned, she looked and sounded miserable.
"Everything alright?" Maya asked.
Amelia lifted her head. "I assume you've heard about what's going on in Mirottaly?"
"That never bodes well for mayors," she said, shifting her eyes back to the ceiling. "I'm worried about my husband. He came to visit me this morning. He's worried."
"I'm sure everything will be fine," Maya lied. The possibility of still more going on did not bode well.
Amelia sighed as she dropped her head back on her pillow. "I hope so but apparently Niles Germaine came to talk to him personally. You know who that is don't you?"
Maya raised a brow. "The name rings a bell."
"He's the head of HPO," Amelia explained. "And let's not kid ourselves, they're running things now that the Prime Minister is dead."
"But if he came to talk to your husband, that's a good sign, right?" Though Maya was deliberately playing ignorant, she did not miss the effect her words had upon herself. There was a twinge of hysteria mingled with hope. Her realism returned and trumped it all.
Amelia stayed quiet as she stared at the ceiling. After a moment, she swallowed hard. "I'm going to miss my friends here," she said. "People always say we're snooty in Sile."
Maya had been exactly one of those people. She felt no need to admit to that now. She simply listened as Amelia rambled.
"They just don't know us. We have a different way; our own way. We don't want trouble. We want to enjoy the good life away from the intrigues of politics and big business." She chortled. "Arthur called us boring as if that was a bad thing. But people in Sile are like family, we stick together for the good of the whole." She sighed again and rolled her eyes towards Maya. "Please don't get involved with Dominic. I know he's Phoenix's nephew but he can't be trusted."
"What do you mean?" Maya asked innocently. She wished she could tell Amelia how right she was.
Amelia explained, "Tabitha and I have suspected for years that he works for HPO. My husband all but confirmed it today. It was something Niles Germaine said." She paused a moment, maybe waiting for Maya to react. Then she said, "We don't need politics in Sile. The people who live here moved here to get away from all of that and I am pretty proud of my husband's work to give that to them. We just want to enjoy what is left of our lives."
Maya nodded and longingly agreed with the idea of simply living out her life in peace. "I can understand that," she said. "Maybe things will turn out." It was a lie. The peaceful life was the impossible dream.
Amelia scoffed. She was in the midst of facing the shortcomings of reality. "HPO's idea of a resort is a little different than mine. Even if I thought it wise to stay, HPO would likely force us out. They wouldn't want to risk people turning to my husband if they don't like his successor."
Maya reached out and stroked Amelia's arm. "Don't worry about things like that right now. Get better first."
Amelia said nothing.
"You won't be leaving any time soon, right?" Maya pressed. "There would still have to be elections before any major changes are made so you'll still be at the fashion show, right?"
A reluctant smile spread across Amelia's lips. "I would never dream of abandoning Phoenix like that. I'll be front and centre." Her smile widened. "Did he finally get his way? Are you in the show?"
Amelia laughed and for a moment, the wrinkles upon her forehead and the bags beneath her eyes were erased. She was the cheerful party guest Maya had come to know. "I knew it," she said triumphantly. "Phoenix always gets his way." Her smile faded and the bags returned. "I hope he will be alright."
Maya squeezed Amelia's hand. "Phoenix is a survivor. Trust me. He has it all worked out."
Maya and Amelia chatted for several minutes about the clothes in the show. Maya was not all that interested but it seemed to make Amelia feel better. As Maya listened to the woman's enthusiasm for fashion, she came to realize that Amelia had been right. Those in Sile were not shallow or snooty. They were desperately looking for an escape from the horrors of the real world. The talk of clothes and fashion shows was a tiny escape from the horrors of the reality that held them.
When they exhausted the topic, Maya said good-bye and headed for Tabitha's room. It was late and Tabitha was already asleep so Maya settled for a light stroke of Tabitha's arm, trying not to wake her. She hoped that would be enough to help the healing process.
She left the bank and headed back to Mornings for some much needed sleep.
Despite the build up to the show, Maya found the following days the least stressful of her time in Sile. Doing what she was told, standing where she was to stand, sitting where she was to sit, walking where she was to walk made it seem like she had very little responsibility. She was playing a role that was much easier than dealing with her real motives.
Keeping busy with the show was also a good excuse to stay away from Dominic, though this did make her feel more isolated than she had since coming to Sile. The other models did not speak to her. They were all Roamers and knew who she was. It was obvious they either did not like her, did not trust her, or both. She could understand that. She did not mind. Keeping to herself removed pressure from her. She had less acting to do that way.
Her follow-up blood test with Dr. Hamilton had confirmed that she was now fully a Roamer and the cure worked exactly as intended. She did not let this fact go to waste. In the few moments of the day when she was free to do whatever she wanted, she walked the streets of Sile, greeting those she passed, sitting in cafes, making sure to touch as many people as she could without drawing too much suspicion. Even late at night, the streets were almost never empty now that the show loomed. The wealthy from all over were arriving to ensure they were seen at one of Phoenix's shows. When it was over, they would return to their homes in other cities, bringing the cure with them.
HPO seemed unconcerned with Maya's excursions. At least, they had not tried to intervene. It seemed they still did not understand how the cure worked, or they had far too much confidence in their precious antidote. With each successful return to Mornings, she felt more at ease with the chaos that would inevitably come the day of the show. Even if it went as bad as it could go, the cure had been spread. Her father's work had not been in vain.
Leanna's sacrifice might have been. Her sister had been so foolish to give herself up that way. She had sacrificed herself foolishly just like their mother had. As far as Maya could see, there really was no way she was going to get out of this alive but she had accepted it. Each new person she talked to was someone who could carry on her father's work and undo what the government had done to them all. If Maya died right then and never completed the show, she probably still had succeeded in her task. She could have run as Leanna wanted but it felt wrong to entertain the notion. Too many people had been hurt by HPO. She had to see this through. She could not run and simply hope.
She wondered if her father would be freed when the government fell. Would he be happy knowing his plans saved the world? He had done it to save his family and yet it was the sacrifice of his family that was required to see it through.
One the eve of the show, she returned to Mornings late that night. She opened the door to her room and groaned audibly when she saw Dominic sitting by the window. If he still wore any bandages, they were hiding under his dress-shirt. He looked as healthy as the day she had met him, as cocky too.
"Happy to see me?" he asked. "Or would you prefer I were one of your Roamer friends?"
She rolled her eyes as she went into the bathroom to wash off the latest pancaking of make-up.
"If they were my friends," she said as she reached for a towel and set it by the sink, "Then why would they still be doing everything you need for your plans tomorrow? I work for HPO."
He snorted. "Are you ready for the show?"
"Of course," she called out to him between splashes of water on her face. "HPO ready to take down my father?"
She heard the chair creak as she dabbed at her face with the towel. When Dominic spoke next, he was next to her. "If you interfere in anything we do tomorrow, you will be signing your own execution order. Understand?"
She straightened and looked him right in the eye. He had had no clue how much she had expected exactly that. There was no mask involved in the indifference she stared back at him.
"I'll see you at the show tomorrow," he said.
"Can't wait," Maya shot back sarcastically as she watched him let himself out.
Dominic, and most likely HPO itself, was up to something. Exactly what that something was eluded her.
The next morning, the sun had not even risen when there was knocking on her door. She had not truly slept. Though she had logically accepted she would not live to see the end of the day, she had been kept awake all night by the adrenaline her base instincts had injected into her system. She had tossed and turned for hours and was blinking at the ceiling when the knocks came.
She grabbed a robe from the bathroom before opening the door and seeing a tense Phoenix looking back at her. He had one of his cigarillos in his hand and took a long puff from it before saying hello.
"You can't smoke that in here," she said.
He scoffed. "What is anyone going to do about it?" He challenged, pushing past her in to the room. "Let a man enjoy his last smoke."
She was not surprised he had come to the same conclusion she had. She had suspected it all week in the furtive glances they had exchanged during preparations. They were realists but they were determined. Uttering any of these acknowledgements out loud would threaten that determination. That was why she allowed Phoenix his last smoke without making any reference to his comment.
"I'll just take a quick shower," she said before slipping into the bathroom.
"Make sure it's quick," he said to her back. "Waiting is killing me. I need to do something!"
Despite her promise, her time in the shower was long. She had too many things to do to get ready and that was complicated by the fact that her mind wandered. Was Leanna already dead? Was she being shipped to Desfinel Island? What would death be like? How long would it take for the cure to spread to everyone? How long until the government fell? What would the look be on Dominic's face?
She smiled to herself but was brought back to her immediate task of shaving her legs when Phoenix banged on the bathroom door and accompanied this with a shout to hurry up.
Even though it only took her another 10 minutes to be dried and dressed, Phoenix tsked and muttered all the way to the waiting car outside.
"I have a new dress I want you to wear down the runway at the end," he said. "I should have enough time to do the final tailoring this morning."
She raised a brow. "Do you sew when you're stressed?" she teased. The tension was getting too unbearable. She needed laughter and would grasp at it anyway necessary.
His glare said he felt differently. "I was worried it wouldn't be ready. The fabric has been particularly troublesome to make but I think I've finally gotten it just right."
"It's good to know you can still think of fashion at a time like this," she muttered.
"I'm thinking of you, not fashion. Are you always this snarky under pressure?" He shot back.
She looked down at her lap. She had been twisting her fingers together without even realizing it. "Sorry."
They both went quiet and did not speak even when they reached Hotel Punica. They climbed out of the car and headed for the staging area.
They were the first to arrive. It was still not light out so she wasn't surprised. She flopped into one of the make-up chairs and waited while Phoenix fetched the new dress. Maya spun the chair around in a feeble attempt at distracting her mind. It reduced the need to hyperventilate but did not quell the threat of vomit that was being growled from her stomach.
When Phoenix returned, he was cradling a large gown of white fabric printed with black vines. At the left hip, orange-red flowers made a sash-like trail up to the right shoulder where they formed a strap. It was sleeveless on the right arm but the white and black pattern covered the left shoulder and continued in a tight sleeve all the way down to the left wrist.
Maya raised a brow. "Particularly proud of this one?" she asked.
"Just put it on," he grumbled. "It would make me feel much more comfortable."
She took the dress. Despite how it looked, it felt like it had been starched heavily. She went behind a folding divider and changed into it. It kept its shape, even where it didn't touch her skin. Anyone could have worn it and looked like they had the very same body. It seemed a little much at the same time Maya had to admit she felt stronger and more confident in it. The rigidity of the fabric created an inexplicable but powerful transformation in her psyche.
She walked out to show Phoenix who clapped his hands together with glee. "Perfect!" he said. "I won't even need to alter it."
Hooray for small miracles. She changed out of the dress and gave it back to Phoenix, putting on a robe in the meantime.
Within the hour, the hair stylists had arrived followed by the make-up artists. The models had joined them and the staging area turned into a dance of frenetic organization. Phoenix was running from person to person, ensuring everything was done exactly how he wanted, models were switching from make-up chairs to hairstyling chairs, and final fittings and alterations were being made right in the middle of the room.
Maya's make-up was just being touched up when he returned to her. "I've made some changes to my plan," he said. "You won't be going out until the very end."
She raised a brow. "And how am I supposed to change that fast between outfits?"
He shook his head. "You misunderstand. Forget the other outfits. Just the dress. That's all. I want you exposed as little as possible during the show."
She nodded though she did not understand why. The entire purpose of the evening was to expose her to people. She hoped Phoenix wasn't trying to back out. She wouldn't let him. Her guts flipped at the possibility. He had never shown any more reaction to Dominic's betrayal since he first found out. She worried he was planning something stupid.
People other than the models began to show up back stage. Arthur was one of them. Maya tried to smile at him when he looked her way but upon seeing her, looked only upset. He strode over to her, his eyes on the dress.
"Where did Phoenix get that fabric?" he demanded.
She looked down at it. "I think he said he made it."
Arthur clutched his chest as if to prevent his heart from leaping out of it. "He what?"
"The nerve!" He yelled. "After I've worked loyally for him for over ten years!" He looked around for Phoenix, and apparently seeing him, stormed off.
Maya shook her head.
"Maya dear, that dress is exquisite!"
She turned to see Amelia walking up, the last of her bandages had either been removed or expertly covered with strategically placed accessories. Amelia reached out and took Maya's hands in hers. "Phoenix has chosen perfectly for you tonight." Maya looked at Amelia's face and noticed the woman's smile did not reach her eyes.
Phoenix's voice called over the discordant hum of conversation. "Five minutes. Models to their places."
"We'll have to talk after the show," Maya said. She had said it as an attempt at idle chitchat and nothing more but Amelia's smile faded for a moment before she forced it back onto her face.
"Maybe another time," she said.
So she was to leave right after the show. Maya didn't see how Amelia even dared try. The only way out of Sile was through the gate. If HPO wanted to arrest her and her husband, they could sit at the gates and wait for the two to deliver themselves like a present.
"Good-bye, Amelia," she said quietly.
Amelia nodded, the pained smile little more than a derisive smirk now. "Good-bye, dear. Have a good show." She walked away, leaving Maya alone to feel the dread of her impending capture or death.
She walked to the long line of models, joining the end of it. It was only with them all lined up together at one time that she realized exactly how many people Phoenix was trying to save. There were at least three dozen. If he had been using Roamers in all his shows for years, and he had one every season, he had save hundreds, if not thousands, nearly singlehandedly.
It was time for her to help.
One would think a fashion show would be over in only a minute. It is just people walking down a platform after all. And maybe it really was only a minute or two, but for Maya it was excruciatingly long and boring. She wanted to grab Phoenix by the hand and drag him onto the runway. Let doom come quickly. The anticipation was too much.
The models that returned from the runway did not look relieved by it being over, because it wasn't. Their biggest performances were still to come.
The penultimate model began her walk and Maya could feel Phoenix's arm brush against her as he reached to link his with hers.
"Ready?" he asked, with a failed attempt at a smile.
She nodded. "For the worst."
They started their walk out onto the runway. She was immediately blinded by the bright lights. She did her best to ignore them but was annoyed that she couldn't see any of the audience. She and Phoenix were alone walking down the tunnel to death. Their march was surrounded by disembodied applause.
Her stomach muscles clenched and she had to force herself to think about her walk. She needed everyone to want to meet her. That wouldn't happen if she looked like she was going to vomit on them. With a deep breath, she elevated her chin and thought screw HPO.
They had just reached the end of the runway and Phoenix was taking a bow when Niles Germaine, followed by Dominic and flanked by four armed soldiers, climbed onto the runway right where it went to the staging area. Maya's mouth pursed at seeing a major escape route blocked. The murmurings of the crowd had shifted from murmured praise and insults about the clothes and Phoenix's legitimacy as a designer to questions about what was going on. Was it part of the show?
It was HPO's show now. They already knew the models were Roamers. There were probably soldiers back stage taking them into custody at that very moment. Shouts and thumps coming from behind Niles confirmed her suspicions. Were they now going to screen every person in the room in search of her father? They would never find him. At least she had that. Even if they shot her now, they had lost. Let them do it. Let it be over with.
Niles Germaine spoke over the murmurs of the crowd and the sounds of struggle behind him. "I apologize, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Please remain in your seats."
As he gave this instruction, Maya could hear the doors around the perimeter of the room being slammed shut.
Niles continued as one of the soldiers behind him handed him a gas mask. "It has come to our attention that the fashion designer known as Phoenix is actually a Roamer who has been using his shows to free dissident Roamers, thereby, helping their terrorist cause."
Shocked gasps and frantic words filled the room. Niles raised his voice. "We have been tracking down his previous models and taking them into custody. His accomplices at the Sile bank are being apprehended as we speak. However, it has further come to our attention that, for this show, he was attempting to spread a chemical weapon that would kill all of you."
The gasps and murmurings had now switched to panicked yelling. Niles was not deterred. He lifted his hands for silence even as he continued speaking over the noise. "Please do not panic. We have developed an antidote. Remain calm and breathe deeply."
"It's only an antidote to their problem with us," Phoenix said next to Maya.
She had spread the cure to enough people on the street. It did not matter in the grand scheme but it still mattered. HPO didn't care about people, whether Roamer or Zombie. It cared about itself and Niles was all too happy to carry out its work.
She pulled her arm away from Phoenix and charged up the runway towards Niles just as he and Dominic were about to put on their masks. They did not see her approaching but the soldier behind Niles' left shoulder did. He raised his gun. Her eyes locked on his. He fired.
The forced of the bullet hit Maya right above her heart. She was thrown back. Her body slammed into the runway. There were more screams now but the lights were too bright and Maya too dazed to see what was going on. She tried to look down at her chest. She needed to see her blood. She needed to know the end was coming. She was too dazed. She could not focus on what she was trying to do.
The lights above her dimmed. She looked up and squinted. Phoenix was kneeling next to her, asking if she was alright.
"I'm dying," she said, trying to the vision of his face to sharpen. It did, albeit more slowly than she would have liked.
"Don't be so melodramatic," he said. "You're not dying any more than I am."
She looked down at her chest. She was able to focus again. There was no blood, only a large metal slug over her heart.
"Bulletproof fabric," he said. "Now get up. Dominic's trying to run."
She blinked up at him but did as instructed. The chaos around her was what she was trained for. She could navigate a panicked crowd after shots had been fired. That she could do.
She was on her feet and used only a heartbeat to take in the scene around her. Whatever gas they had been about to release had not been. Niles and Dominic's gas masks lay unused upon the runway. The soldiers that had flanked Niles were either on the ground dead or unconscious or now grappling with the models who had come to the rescue. Their hands and feet moved in exquisite bare-handed combat. They had been preparing for more than a fashion show in that house.
Those trying to fight and those trying to escape had begun climbing over the runway, blocking the path, but Maya could see what Phoenix had meant. Niles was trying to stand and looked to be having trouble as he swayed in his efforts. Blood was flowing liberally from his head.
Dominic, on the other hand, had slipped through his attackers was just turning the corning into the staging area. Maya and Phoenix gave chase through the sounds of violent chaos around them.
With a familiarity she had not felt since her arrival in Sile, Maya dodged through the crowd with her skirts clutched in her hands. She ignored the chaos and kept her eyes on the openings, thinking of the people as little more than obstacles to evade. She jumped over a woman who had tripped trying to get onto the runway. She spun around a driver grappling with a soldier. She dodged soldier's arm that swung out in an attempt to snatch her. She reached the other end of the runway and slipped around Niles on one side and then a grappling model and soldier on the other.
She was in the staging area within seconds but she was alone except for Dominic who was still running away like a coward. She reached over to the nearest hair styling station and grabbed the largest bottle of gel she could find. She then launched it into the air like a football, aiming it for Dominic's head.
It hit him with a thump and he fell forward. She ran to him. He was not unconscious but dazed enough that he did not hop to his feet. He rolled onto his back. He was blinking frantically.
"Too bad my father wasn't here," she said. "You would have been able to gas all your problems away."
Even as he attempted to return his vision to normal, he chuckled. "Your father was executed just like it says in your file."
She knelt down next to him. She could hear Phoenix's footsteps behind her. "That's where you're wrong, Dominic," she said with a smile. "My father is in Desfinel Island. You had him the whole time."
He laughed fully now. Perhaps he was delirious, realizing his plans had been for nothing. "Where he was executed. Just like your sister was just days ago," he cackled.
Maya's smile fled. "What?" If her father was dead, if he knew that was exactly what was in store for him at Desfinel Island, his letter made so much more sense. It was the confession of a dying man. He had always known he would never be able to tell her the truth himself.
"Desfinel Island isn't a prison," he said. "Political prisoners can escape, they can help their cause. There is always the risk of messages getting in and out. Calling it a prison avoids the martyr problem. But just killing them outright saves on food." He kept laughing. "You're father failed."
Maya reached down and wrapped her fingers around Dominic's throat. She did not squeeze, not yet. "My father succeeded," she said. "Whether he lived or not. He was too smart for you. He foresaw everything."
His mirth was not abated. "He didn't foresee your mother dying."
"Did you have a hand in that?" Maya growled.
"Not at all." He was still blinking rapidly but his ability to converse had been entirely unaffected. His voice even retained its usual air of arrogance. "We would have intervened if necessary but your mother's mistake took care of it all. She didn't trust that the poison wouldn't just kill you too. She had one of her little resistance friends work on an entirely new one that would not require using you and had the first version sent to her. The resistance delivered it inside a Roamer. She offered herself up for testing so she wouldn't have to risk you. Your father's pathetic work killed his own wife."
"That was never the plan," Phoenix protested. "She was never meant to do that!"
Maya wanted to crawl into the corner and cry. She looked up at Phoenix. "You knew about this? Was this what Dr. Hamilton meant when he said deviating from the plan never worked?"
He shook his head. "I had no idea. I don't even think Martin knows. We never would have risked her like that. Why would she do that?"
Dominic chuckled again. "The panic of a mother's love. Your father was a fool not to see that coming."
Maya slapped him across the face. She was sure that had just compounded his vision problems. "My father may not have been perfect, but he's still beaten you tonight. He's dead and his work has already begun to spread."
Dominic's eyes continued to roll around too much to indicate clear vision but he tried to steady them upon her. "You still don't get it, do you?"
She indulged him by staying silent. It was Phoenix who spoke. "You never cared about Jeremy. You never even cared about the cure. You wanted an audience tonight."
Dominic smiled. "Your little army may have been a hiccup but it won't matter. They'll never get through the gates and when HPO publishes the next newspaper, you're names will be on the front page, right next to the word 'terrorists'."
"You already have power," Maya said, letting go of him and sitting back on her haunches. "If you didn't care about my father or his work, why?"
"Oh we cared," Dominic said. "But once it became clear the so-called cure degrades into nothing, killing any carrier in the process, HPO didn't care about the spread. With the antidote, it didn't care about the threat to its agents either. We saw an opportunity to remind everyone of what we are protecting them from so we took it." His eyes lolled over to the direction Phoenix was standing. Maya new what that meant, his head was clearing. They were going to have another fight on their hands in a moment.
"I will celebrate your death," Dominic said with all the supressed hatred of decades. "It was your kind that killed our family. Enjoy your death, traitor."
Phoenix just looked at Dominic. He was impassive. "I've always loved you," he said after several moments. "You were a son to me even before my sister died." He walked slowly up to Dominic and knelt down on the other side of him from Maya. "I would never betray you as you have me but I will never disown you for it. I am disappointed but more heartbroken for you." He reached out to stroke Dominic's cheek. Dominic recoiled and tried to hit Phoenix. His arm went wide and Phoenix evaded it easily with little more than leaning back a few inches. "But you are wrong," Phoenix continued. "I didn't use the shows as a way to free just any Roamers. I doubt you even noticed the trickle of people who left Sile every other week."
Dominic snorted. "We noticed Dr. Hamilton's little forgeries but no more will be getting through. We're done watching."
Phoenix kept his voice quiet and compassionate. "You misunderstand," he said. "The intent was never to get this group of Roamers through those gates. The intent was to capture Sile."
Dominic laughed, hysteria making it ring eerily around them. "A few dozen models are no match for the soldiers at the gate. What are they going to do? Walk us to death?"
Phoenix shook his head. "Those are no models. They spend months in my home, training. They are soldiers; a Roamer army."
"There are 36 of them," Dominic sneered. "They are outnumbered and no match for the soldiers of the whole city." His eye movements were becoming more controlled. Maya reached for the gel bottle, getting ready to use it again if necessary.
A faint smile touched Phoenix's lips. "No soldiers are a match for the people of Sile. You've been so focused on resenting me for being a Roamer that you never noticed how much the people here love me."
"They love the prestige you can give them!" Dominic shot back.
"They love being able to live," Phoenix corrected, "Truly live and that is exactly what I have promised them." Phoenix turned to Maya. "Help me," he said. Then he reached for Dominic's arm.
She did the same on the other side and they dragged Dominic, who was now trying to fight them, towards the runway.
"Need some help!" Phoenix called and within a second three of the models were around the corner and helping to restrain Dominic.
Phoenix let go of him and took Maya's hand. "Come with me," he said. "We have won and it is time to claim our victory."
Phoenix led Maya out onto the runway. Niles Germaine was lying unconscious, possibly dead. He was very pale but there might have been a hint of a rise and fall beneath his shirt. No one seemed to care to bother with him. The lights in the room had all been turned on. Maya could now see the chaotic mass of turned over chairs and confused and frightened people. Drivers, models, and even some soldiers were holding the still conscious soldiers at gunpoint. The guns happened to have belonged to the HPO soldiers just minutes before. The models carrying Dominic dragged him to place him with the other hostages. Maya noticed he had a large bruise on his face that had not been there a moment before. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that he was no longer trying to flail to get away.
Phoenix stopped on the runway and all eyes went to him.
"I apologize for this mess," he said. "But I am simply the janitor. It was HPO that created it. It was HPO that created the Perfectia protein and HPO that poisoned lab grown transplants. It was even HPO that introduced donor rejection to keep the people afraid and compliant and to control the parts trade. It was HPO that poisoned the Prime Minister and, I hate to admit, has likely already executed his wife, all in their attempt to root out any politicians they could not already control. HPO has killed millions to maintain its own existence. It has turned humans against each other, creating the false dichotomy of Roamer and Zombie. But that ends in this room, at this moment." He looked at Maya. "This woman is the carrier of a cure, one HPO has chosen to label a poison. The only thing this cure will kill is the existence of HPO. This is a cure to the Perfectia protein. It returns those who have it to human, completely human."
He reached out a hand to someone. It was Amelia who took it and climbed up onto the runway. "Tell them," he said.
She turned to face the crowd. "HPO felt we were too rich and powerful not to be under their control," she said. "My husband learned of the cure. He wanted to share it with the people so that none of us would ever again have to suffer an outbreak or the threat of the final death. HPO was going to send us both to Desfinel Island for his even suggesting this to them. HPO is not protecting us. It is imprisoning us. If you believe, like those in Sile believe, that we should have the right to enjoy our lives, then join with us. Talk to this woman, expose yourself to the cure and take it back to your homes to give it to others. We can crumble the walls of every city and live as one society again."
A masked soldier holding a gun handed it to a nearby driver. He turned and walked to the runway.
"I want to be cured," he said. Maya recognized him as Leanna's helper. He pulled the mask away from his face to reveal the gangrenous mass. Several people gasped, a couple retched.
He hopped onto the stage and walked right up to Maya and looked down at her. She could see what no one else there would have known. His face did not look nearly as putrefying as it had even a week before. The edges of the flesh around his nose appeared to be regrowing.
"You're already carrying it," she whispered.
He smiled. It was not a pleasing sight. He whispered back. "They don't have to know that."
Tabitha followed and did the same. Maya knew that she too was already carrying her cure but her small act gave hope to those who might otherwise have reconsidered.
An older woman climbed onto the stage. She had thin blond hair pulled back into a tight bun. Maya did not recognize her. She walked up and took Maya's hand in hers. "I've had ten outbreaks in two years," she said. "My doctor says it will be my brain next. Please, tell me you are telling the truth. Even if it is a lie, I want to believe."
Maya nodded. "My own father died trying to give me this cure," she said. "And I have seen it cure outbreaks like a miracle."
The woman gave a strained smile. "Even if I die now, thank you for giving me hope for my final days." She walked away. Another woman waited behind her. More and more people came to speak to Maya. Not all of them seemed confident but desperation makes risks more attractive. She shook hand after hand, imagining a bit of herself passing into each person she touched.
Not everyone in the room came to Maya. She could understand their reluctance. She wasn't sure she would have accepted what they had been told either. It had certainly taken an awful lot to bring her around. In terms of saving society, it did not matter.
When the line had dissipated and the room was filled with mingling stragglers. Phoenix let out a long breath.
"How do we know no one will just report us to the guards at the gate?" Maya asked. She looked around. "In fact, why hasn't a second wave been sent already?"
Phoenix laughed. "How do you think I've been getting Roamers through those gates all these years? The forged documents Dominic mentioned were just in case any of them got stopped on the road or if we needed to send them to other cities. We didn't need them to get the Roamers out of the gates here. Sile has not been under government control for years. We've kept that fact hidden but this was our day to take a stand." He jutted his chin in the direction of the hostages made up of the handful of soldiers and Dominic. "Those vermin were all brought here by HPO. We'll send them back once the cure has taken hold." Several new soldiers were entering the room and beginning to handcuff the few hostages.
Phoenix frowned. "I suppose so."
"Still hoping he'll let go of his hatred?"
Phoenix scoffed. "Not a chance. It runs too deep." He rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. "I think I'll go home and have a sleep," he said. "You're always welcome to stay with me." He looked up at her. "Neither of us really has family anymore and I hate the lonely life."
"You're too old," Maya teased.
He chuckled. "I'm also too gay but I have the space and like having my friends."
Maya smiled. "I'll think about it."
He slipped out the back. No one noticed he had gone.
Maya looked over at the hostages. All but Dominic had been handcuffed. He was now pretending he was still injured and giving passive resistance.
She walked down to the group and stopped only a couple of feet from the limp Dominic.
"Why did HPO kill Ethan?" she asked.
He snorted at her question but did not look at her. "Who cares?"
She crouched in front of him so that he had no choice but to look into her eyes and glared. "I care. What possible purpose did killing him serve?"
"Collateral damage," he grunted.
"Wrong place at the wrong time?" she asked. "Or was it that he was going to out the Roamers too early in your plan?"
He shifted his eyes to look at her hair. "Pretty much."
He chuckled as he looked her right in the eye. "And when that cure degrades and kills you all, I'll be laughing."
She smiled. "You keep thinking that."
She straightened and watched as the soldiers walked Dominic and his cohorts from the room. She realized as she watched them marched from the room why she had stayed and not run as Leanna had wanted. She needed to see her enemies vanquished. She could not live in fear, worried that they had not been truly defeated. She had stayed because she was too afraid to leave.
She let out a long breath, the first, she was sure, since that day had started. She saw Leanna's helper flopped in one of the chairs. He had replaced his mask. He was staring unfocused at the floor between his feet. It reminded her of the last time she had spoken with Leanna; her sister perched on the edge of an inn bed.
She walked up to him. He seemed startled when he realized she stood there.
"Thank you," she said. "Though I could have done without the abductions."
He looked back at the floor between his feet. "Had to be sure the plan succeeded whether or not you were on our side. And then there was the keeping up appearances for HPO. It's not easy making them think they still control this city."
"Well, you did admirably. My sister would be proud."
His eyes glistened.
"You know then?" she asked; her voice soft.
She felt like she was intruding upon a private moment. "Good-bye," she whispered before leaving him with his torment.
She walked from Hotel Punica and kept walking. Despite the heat, the movement of the late afternoon air refreshed her skin or perhaps it was the comprehension of freedom washing over every pore. She kept walking. It might take weeks or years but HPO would crumble into nothing and the need for the parts trade would go with it as the cure spread. She kept walking. The fix had been set in motion and could no longer be stopped. There was nothing else anyone needed her to do. She kept walking. There was nothing else anyone needed her to be. The sun set. She kept walking. This time, she would have to choose.