Faraday Serum

Faraday Serum
By: Meridian and Light Clark

Synopsis: Twenty years after a viral plague wipes out all women on a remote planet colonized by humans, society has largely fallen apart into warring tribes of men waiting for extinction. However, a team of scavengers unearths an alien facility and two of them are exposed to a foreign substance that transforms them both into the first females on the planet in over two decades. As they fight to survive a world with an entire generation of men that have not known women, one of them hopes this miracle might just save their entire civilization.

Chapter One: Hole in the Ground

"Quinn?"

The sound of someone shouting my name drew me instantly over in that
direction, pushing through the tall weeds and scarce underbrush toward a
man crouched over in the dirt. I caught Bates and Kerensky up in my wake
and we came up short in sight of McDunnough there. Carlton too. He
hovered over the other man, a big, satisfied grin plastered across his
face with his hands snugly on his hips.

"I think we got something here," McDunnough explained needlessly as we
all sat there staring at it -- the sheen of metal plating breaking the
monotony of the earth. He turned his head toward me with an excited look
of his own.

I got down beside them and swiped a hand across the surface, exposing
dimmed light panels, plastics, mesh wires, and such. They had been worn
down by the elements while sitting buried there in the dirt for who knew
how long. Forgotten and lost.

And now we'd found it.

"Right," I declared, standing back up. I glanced around at the other
nine men crowding the space, looking at either me or the thing in the
sand, and sucked in a deep breath. "Let's get to it then."

Kerensky and Bates broke out two shovels. They had to edge McDunnough
and Carlton out of the way from where they had already started digging
excitedly with their own bare hands.

"Take a walk," I whispered to Jordan, coming up beside him. My eyes
drifted meaningfully to the copse of trees around us and the rolling
grassland it punctuated, other stands of brightly-colored maples and
oaks and such scattered about. Lots of visibility from afar out there.
Lots of places for a good set of eyes to hide and watch for others too.
And that's just what Jordan was good at.

He nodded, catching my meaning, and shouldered his hunting rifle.
Clapping a hand on the shoulder of his little brother, Leslie, as he
passed, he smiled at the kid. "Keep your eyes open."

Leslie was far from little, though. He had a full three inches on Jordan
and was built much broader and more muscled besides. He smirked back at
the other man, showing half his teeth beyond his lips. "That's your job,
J.D."

"Yeah, you just sit there and look pretty 'til I get back," the older
brother replied, clapping him a few more times. Then he trudged off,
crouching down to lose his profile a little more into the brush.

The rest of us spread out while Kerensky and Bates worked. After about
fifteen minutes, I had them switch out for Ortega and Cooper. Then
Leslie and McDunnough. By then, almost an hour had passed and we had a
good deal of that metal thing unearthed. Enough to show what looked
roughly like a broken corridor of steel -- a little like our old module
terminals between sections. The metal had been splintered, frayed, and
worn away like the world just ripped the top off something and
cauterized the wound left behind with centuries of dust and wind and
dirt. And that corridor shell led downward into the ground. Carlton and
I were putting our backs to it by the time something else started to
manifest beneath the mounds of dirt we'd been shoveling out.

"Move, move, move," Harris pushed his way excitedly past us, and I
grabbed onto Carlton's shoulder to help get him out of the way. Harris
was one of the few people who knew how to handle bullets, explosives,
and other chemical or ballistic things among our people, taught by his
father who'd been something of an engineer back when we'd all first
landed here. Somehow, that had translated along the way to him being
good with opening tricky doors. Which was what I assumed we were
starting to look at.

"That a door?" McDunnough echoed my thoughts from beside me, face
screwed up squinting at it. Harris didn't grace him with a response,
though, just started running his hands over the surface and brushing
away clumps of dirt and mud to get a closer look. Mumbling to himself a
bit.

"Got a control panel?" I asked instead. That actually warranted a
response.

"Right here, I think."

It was hard to pull Harris away, but I did. I put a hand on his shoulder
and scooted him back so we could finish digging out the rest of that
thing. If anyone else had tried to pull the man away from Protean tech
like that I doubt he would've budged. I was in charge of this run,
though, and Harris had been with me plenty of times before. He knew not
to argue. He knew he'd get his chance to take a crack at it.

Another half an hour and we were set and looking at what I assumed was
an opening to an alien ruin, even if the door was still locked. I tried
not to give into any undue excitement like the others, keeping my head
on the mission. We'd been sent out here to locate that very thing after
all, and there was a good chance that we'd find some useful supplies or
tradeable gear inside. But there was never any telling what else could
be lurking within those ancient, forgotten places. It wasn't like we'd
be the first team to turn up missing after investigating one of them.
Not to mention the possibility of other scavers or even raiders
stumbling across us and trying to lay claim to our haul. By force, if
they had the guns and the numbers.

Jordan would keep an eye out for that sort of thing, though, and warn me
on our short-range radio if so. I could always trust his instincts and
sharpshooting out in places like this. He'd had my back ever since we'd
been scrappy kids scrounging outside the habitat years ago, and had
pulled my ass through a few bad runs in the time since. I never let Vigo
send me out unless Jordan was my second and felt better for it every
time.

Bates and Kerensky kept a closer eye on things with their rifles while
Ortega, Harris, and I crowded in the fractured corridor. It led down
along cracked stairs toward the alien door below. Harris was crawling
all over that, his toolkit open on the dirt-stained steel floor beside
him, already getting to work on the panel beside the door. The rest of
us waited patiently while he did. Every so often, one of the guys above
would trudge up and glance down after us to check on our progress, but
that was it.

For the most part.

"You gettin' all this, Leslie?"

I'd made my way back out to the top where I could keep a better eye on
the guys outside and inside both. The younger Weeks was scribbling on
his pad with a pencil, but he stopped when McDunnough elbowed him from
one side, immaculately-kept rifle in hand contrasting with the man's
dirt- and mud-scarred clothing.

"Make sure you describe in detail all this waitin' around. You know ...
for posterity."

The man showed Weeks some teeth in a smile.

"Don't worry, I'm cataloguing your heroic slouch in some detail," Leslie
replied in even tones, continuing his notes and smirking to himself. It
was hard to say what he WAS noting down at the moment, given our standby
posture until Harris was done working. Old man Weeks had been a teacher
and a student of Earth history from back when, and that had translated
into a oft-ridiculed desire to chronicle Brotherhood history after
things went to shit. To ensure any future visitors might know what
happened to our failed colonization attempts here. To ensure that maybe
some of us and what we did weren't just forgotten in the sands of time
like these weathered ruins and the ancient Proteans before us. A lot of
people had painted him an optimist.

Some of that optimism had seemed to rub off on the younger Weeks,
Jordan's kid brother. He liked to take notes on all kinds of thing, but
I knew he recorded what we did on runs too. All the guys knew. And
McDunnough nudged him again.

"Oh yeah?" The other man suddenly stood up straight, crooked smile never
leaving his face. He made an effort at showing Leslie his profile,
holding his weapon firm. "Make sure you write me down with my good side.
Gotta make sure future generations that won't exist know exactly how
good I looked standing guard outside a hole in the ground."

"McDunnough?" I chimed in then, raising my voice without looking back. I
put on that chiding tone of mine, the one that served as a warning to
one of the guys that they were getting out of line. "You wanna join
Jordan on the perimeter?"

"Not me, Quinn. Just makin' sure baby Weeks over here gets the story
straight. Wouldn't want him misrepresenting me to my kids someday."

"Sounds like you just volunteered to wait here when we get that door
open."

"Not me," McDunnough repeated, a little more insistently. He knew
there'd be no chance for special picks if he wasn't on site to make it
happen. Jordan never seemed to care much about his share or what
constituted it, but he also knew I'd snag anything I thought he'd like
for him anyways.

"Then shut up."

Leslie flashed McDunnough a sidelong smile and showed him some teeth in
return. The truth of it, however, was that he'd never have kids someday.
Neither would Leslie. None of us would.

That future had died out a long time ago.

Half an hour passed and something clicked over near Harris in the tube.
He hopped back as sparks flew, then excitedly started gesticulating at
Ortega. "Try it now!"

Ortega pushed forward with a crowbar to the flush metal plating of the
door where it should open, wedging in and trying to push. I gestured
Carlton down in after them to help and noticed an impatient look flash
across the younger Weeks' face. He knew places like this were usually
sterile, as far as they were rare, holding the possibility of
uncontaminated medical supplies inside. Being such close friends with
his older brother, I also knew that Leslie'd made a certain promise to a
certain dying old doctor that he'd find him something out here to cure
what ailed him if he could. Months and months of a deteriorating
condition had poured tension into that normally jovial, boyishly
handsome face.

There was shouting, grunting, and all manner of effort put into prying
that secure door. I started to worry about attracting attention, though
we hadn't seen any signs of wanderers on our way in. Weeks was on watch
too, I reminded myself. I took my radio in hand and warned him that we
were opening a Protean door.

"Start bringing it in," I concluded into the channel.

"On it."

Then the door was open.

Metal creaked and groaned. The prybars scraped metal and excited cries
punctuated that hatch ripping open. Ortega and Carlton stumbled back
toward Harris, out of breath and sweating. McDunnough jogged down with
his gun in hand and Carlton grabbed his. Those two jumped a step inside,
scanning the immediate interior while I caught Leslie up behind me and
started down. The rest followed.

"Looks clear," McDunnough declared after a few seconds. Someone lit a
torch and then waved it near the opening and we saw an immaculate
corridor stretching away before us. I pushed my way right up inside.

"Alright, here's how we're gonna do this," I said aloud, rounding back
on the others and unslinging my rifle after getting a good look ahead
into the dark. "Two teams of three on the initial sweep. Two more on
control and two on watch. Bates, Ortega, Cooper. Carlton, Kerensky,
Leslie." I pointed each of them out in turn. "Harris, you're with me,
looking at the control station up ahead there. McDunnough, you hang back
and keep an eye out with Jordan here when he catches up."

"Ah, shit," McDunnough grumbled, spitting out into the dirty metal floor
and turning back around. Without another word, he trotted up and out to
wait for Weeks.

"Ready, everyone? Alright. Move in."

* * *

"What am I looking at here?" I asked, eyes scanning over the readout of
alien words on the console in front of me. They streamed passed in
various directions depending on which part of the screen I was looking
at, some bigger some smaller. And if I didn't focus too hard I could
just almost -- ALMOST -- get a sense like I might read them. Like
looking at a forgotten memory of a dream I'd lost upon waking days ago.
It kind of gave me a headache.

"That is the first Protean data we have EVER come across," Harris
explained, jabbing a finger into the screen enthusiastically. He had a
power pack in his hand connected to the control terminal we'd thought
we'd found, wires soldered on where he'd guessed at the input from the
back. A few tries, and he'd gotten it right. The thing WAS jerry-rigged,
though, and it showed in the way the screen flickered and rebooted every
so often despite the other man trying to keep his hands still to not
disrupt it.

"So?" I countered that excitement with a stern look of my own. "It
doesn't do us much good, does it? I want a control terminal that might
give us power to doors and systems if possible, not some database that
we can't trade or use back home, Harris."

The other man shook his head and rolled his eyes at me. I gave him a few
minutes to tinker with his pet project there before I came down harder
and made him move on to another of the terminals we'd found in that room
just off the main corridor from where we'd entered. I wanted lights and
door controls if possible. Years ago, I'd been on another run with a
better leader than me and we'd come across a Protean ruin like this one.
Our Harris type at the time had managed to get full power control of the
facility and we'd made out with some mechanical and electronic parts to
be disassembled and used to repair our own back in the original habitat.
So I knew it could be done. Of course, raiders had gotten that old
technician not long after and I was stuck with Harris to reproduce that
success, which was always gamble.

It wasn't like Protean tech was the easiest thing to decipher after all.
Some of the older guys who'd been adults when the colony first touched
down had been there when the scientists first started digging into the
alien technology they found on the planet. It had all been very
unexpected at the time, I'd been told. But there were still a few people
around who remembered what early successes they'd had in studying the
Protean ruins back then. Losing that knowledge was like losing a weapon.
Or an eye. It blinded and weakened us just that much more.

Not that we weren't all destined for extinction anyways someday.

But we did manage to get some limited lighting within a few hours.
Harris finally cracked that after a few tries while Bates' and Carlton's
teams finished their cursory sweeps and checked back in with me. Nothing
hostile. Some collapsed parts to tunnels, though they hadn't gotten into
any rooms. The structure was three levels deep with broken down lifts in
locked tubes and stairwells leading between. They'd managed to get into
one where the secure door was broken and scout down it to see how deep
that rabbit hole went. I took a look for myself and came back when some
of the lights flashed on overhead.

"Limited power," Harris told me, eyeballing the charge on his power
pack. "It's not burning fast on just lights but we won't be going on
forever like this."

"Focus on door control," I told him, nodding. "We can burn torches for
light and I'd rather not have to pry open every single room if I can
help it."

"Yeah, me neither."

Once those initial sweeps were done and things looked clear, I got one
team started on manually breaking into the nearest room while the rest I
set up in guard rotations on the opening outside, keeping watch for any
other scavers or raiders who might try to muscle in on our prize. Jordan
caught up with me while I was watching Ortega and Cooper work at our
first room's door, hands on my hips.

"Pretty good find," he remarked, glancing around. "Vigo'll be beside
himself that the waster wasn't lying to him."

"We haven't found anything yet," I just grunted, eyes still on the room.
A dehydrated, beaten-down and mud-caked man had staggered into our
habitat's guards two weeks back, and traded the location of some metal
bits that could've been Protean in exchange for a meal and someplace to
rest before we inevitably kicked him out. There'd been no guarantee that
anything would be out here at all. But Vigo thought the risk well worth
the cost of one meal and a bed.

Jordan clapped an arm around my shoulders, flashing me an encouraging
look. "We will. There's always something in these tombs that people want
or will use. Even just the metal is good. We did it, Quinn! This is
going to really help everyone back home, you know it will."

I looked back at him for a few moments. Then I shook my head, grinning.
Good, old Jordan. Not so naive as his brother, but the whole family was
a bunch of hopefuls. For what, it was hard to say. Someday they'd be
rotting in the dirt and forgotten like the rest of us. No one was going
to carry on our names or this colony. No one was ever going to remember
who we were. In time.

Sometimes I wondered why we bothered fighting so hard for scraps. For
just another few moments even though that interminable night was always
just on the horizon for our failed civilization. Sometimes. But Jordan
always had a way of making it seem just that much less hopeless.

Grinning back, and apparently satisfied with my response, he shook me
off and drywashed his hands through the tactical gloves. "Now where's
little Leslie and what's he gotten into so far?"

We got that door open and there was a whole lot of nothing inside. After
poking around a bit in broken steel crates and rusted instruments, I
decided we were looking at a storeroom of some kind. Some chemicals in
canisters were in what looked like lockers, but most of them were empty
or long since evaporated into dust and nothing. There was an air of
disappointment, of course, but that changed right around the time when
Harris charged in, grabbing me to tell me that he thought he had door
control. The lights went off and the torches came back out, but we had
limited power going to the doors. Prybars got things moving much faster
then, and we even got the other floors open. A few more careful sweeps
and we confirmed the whole compound was clear.

“See?” Jordan was saying, slapping me on the back while we looked at a
room on the second level and finding what looked like some kind of
medicinal lab coated in dust on the inside. Chemicals and vials and
syringes were scattered in various places all over, looking like the
place had been state-of-the-art for whatever kind of people the Proteans
had been long before humans ever arrived on their planet. But hastily
abandoned. Still, medical supplies were a dwindling, precious thing.

“What’d I tell you, Quinn? And just look at all this. Leslie’s gonna
love it!”

Remembering the younger Weeks, I turned back to Cooper standing behind
me gawking and told him, “Go find Leslie. He’s gonna want to get in here
and see this.”

The man nodded absently, then trotted off to go find the kid.

Chapter Two: Pandora

My hand worked quickly and independently of my thoughts as it scribbled
down notes on my pad. They started clinical enough, a description of the
alien characters and odd arrangement of the Protean language that I
could see flickering across the console screen, but they quickly
ventured off as my notes so often did. Here was where my mind and hand
found common purpose, speculating about the possibilities and
implications. Why had they chosen to arrange things in such a way? Was
there any clue that I could use to decipher what they meant? If I could,
what secrets would they hold? Would they offer despair? Sympathy? Hope?

“Leslie, get your ass over here! Quinn wants you!” I heard a voice
shout, tugging me away from those symbols. But as fascinating as they
had been, they were quickly forgotten. After all, if Quinn needed me, it
meant that they had found something interesting – something that
required more than just a strong enough back to carry it home.

Looking up, I spotted the speaker, Dresden Cooper, coming from down the
hall where the door to the stairwell sat. “What is it? New tech?
Medicine?”

“Something Quinn wants you for, so why don’t you quit trying to read
moon letters and come see for your damn self,” Dresden retorted,
confirming a find, but giving me no clues to guess at what that find
might be.

Rather than be deterred by the man’s refusal to answer, I was only more
eager to comply; my curiosity driving me to action. Tucking my pencil
behind my ear and my pad into one of the pouches on my belt, I got
moving, trotting over to Dresden. By the time I reached him, he’d
already turned around and started back the way that he’d come, heading
deeper into the alien facility.

“Found the runt, Quinn,” Dresden announced as he turned the corner in
front of me, stepping through one of the doors that the team had must
have managed to get open.

If Quinn responded, I didn’t hear it. By then, I’d turned the corner as
well, stepping into the room right behind the other man. It only took a
moment for me to lurch to a stop, eyes going wide as I took in the grime
and dust of the lab. The place was a mess, but not enough of one to hide
its former purpose as a place of science and thought. Alien minds had
toiled here, seeking to unlock the mysteries of their world just like
humanity had for so long. I couldn’t help but wonder what mysteries
they had found answers to and what those answers had allowed them to
create.

“Leslie!” Quinn’s voice barked, cutting into the whirlwind of
possibilities that had been building within my head.

Jerking my gaze toward the noise, I finally noticed Quinn and my brother
standing there amidst the disarray. The former had an impatient look on
his face that made me wonder how long he’d been talking to me before I’d
finally heard him. “Sorry. What?”

“Think you can sort through this mess and figure out what in here’s
worth bringing back with us?” Quinn asked as he scanned around the
dilapidated lab.

Excited by the prospect, I had to resist the urge to let my own gaze
wander and lead to more distraction. It would only delay my getting to
the task, and probably get me yelled at to boot. That didn’t stop me
from giving the older man an enthusiastic nod. “Definitely! I’ll have
it sorted out in no time!”

Displaying none of my energy, Quinn just gave me a curt nod before he
turned his attention to the man beside me. “Cooper, stay here and help
him.”

The other man grimaced a bit at the command, but didn’t bother to
protest. “Fine.”

Orders given, Quinn just tossed a quick look over at my brother along
with a head bob at the door before moving on. Jordan fell in behind him,
but whereas Quinn marched straight out into the hall, my brother stopped
long enough to rest a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t get too sidetracked,
Les. Top priority stuff first.”

Understanding the reasoning even if I wished it wasn’t so, I let out a
defeated sigh. Given time, there was no telling what I could learn from
the place, but learning wasn’t what mattered anymore. All the others
cared about was what we could haul out of here quickly. “Yeah, alright.”

My reluctant agreement earned me a faint smirk and a head shake from my
brother. “Don’t worry, we can always come back again if there’s more,”
he added before following Quinn out into the hall.

Left to my task, I turned my attention back to my room as a big grin
spilled out onto my face. Hidden in the mess were countless treasures
just waiting for me to discover them. Just the idea of the kind of
things that I might find had my heart racing with anticipation.
“Alright, let’s get to work!”

* * *

“Co’e o’ ...” I muttered, garbling the words as I tried to say them
around the flashlight I had held in my teeth. That made the already
unstable light wobble around unsteadily, but there wasn’t much I could
do about that. Both of my hands were already occupied with tools which
were currently jammed inside the open casing of a locking mechanism that
I was trying my very best to pop open.

Just as I thought I was about to get it, one of my hands slipped,
causing both implements to jerk out of position, clanking against the
confines of the lock. It also sent my right hand careening knuckle first
into the solid metal door the lock held closed, sending a sharp stab of
pain shooting my arm. Gasping from the hit, I lurched back, shaking my
hand fiercely. That did nothing to undo my stupidity, however.

“Shit,” I finally cursed under my breath as the pain dimmed enough for
me to reach the other hand over to rub at the bruised knuckles. Even
with that to help, I still winced a couple of times from the sting. “I
need to stop doing that.”

“That’s not the only thing you need to stop doing,” Jordan’s voice
remarked from behind me, earning a wince from me that was unrelated to
my injury. “You were supposed to be back up on the first level half an
hour ago.”

“Sorry,” I muttered without really meaning it as I tucked my tools into
their places on my belt. Now that my brother was here, I knew my time to
work was done. “You know how it is, though. I got caught up in work
and–”

“You’re right, I do know how it is,” Jordan interrupted, having little
interest in the excuses I always tried to feed him in situations like
this. His attention had already shifted away from me anyway, focusing on
the lock that I’d been fiddling with. “What are you working on anyway?”

Reaching over with my unhurt hand, I rapped the knuckles gently against
the door which was part of a larger metal box that sat against the back
wall of the lab. “I’m trying to get into this. It’s some kind of
storage unit, but it’s locked up tight. I thought maybe I could bypass
the electronic lock, but I’m not having much luck so far.”

“Couldn’t Brad cut it open for you?” Jordan inquired, eyeing the door
critically.

Hardly an expert on the limits of a cutting torch, I had to shrug. “I
don’t know. The door seems pretty thick. Doesn’t really matter, since
there’s no way to be sure we wouldn’t damage whatever’s inside, and
given how hard this thing is to get into, I’m betting that, whatever it
is, we really want it intact.”

“Good point. I guess that means using one of his little bombs is out
too,” Jordan mumbled, rubbing at his chin thoughtfully. He spent a
couple of seconds like that, but apparently no other suggestions came to
mind, because when he finally spoke he just asked, “Think you’ll be able
to get it?”

“Of course. I just need more time,” I answered, confident that, with
enough time, I could figure out my way around this lock or any other
one.

Jordan’s thoughtfulness returned in the form of a few slight nods.
“Alright, there’s enough in this place to keep us here for at least
another day. I’ll talk to Quinn and see if we can’t spare you for a bit,
so you can work on this.”

“Really?” I questioned in a mix of surprise and excitement. I just knew
that whatever was in the box was something big. I could feel it.
“Because that would be great.”

“Just make it worth it, Les,” Jordan told me before turning back toward
the door. As he did, he waved over his shoulder at me. “Now, come on.
I’m starving. Let’s get back and get some grub.”

Hunger, previously kept out of mind by my focus on the lock, came
rolling in when I heard those words, making me notice the empty ache of
my stomach. Even so, I took one last longing look around the lab,
wishing I could just stay and sate my curiosity right then. It would all
still be there in the morning, though, and I didn’t want one of Jordan’s
lectures on how immature I was acting, like some kid too caught up in an
adventure to do what needed to be done.

Resolved to waiting, I trotted over to Jordan and fell into step with
him on the way up to the first level. Waiting there, our group had made
a base camp, choosing to shelter in the ruins for the night as much to
stay out of sight as concern for the elements. As such, most of the
group were huddled around a single camping lantern that we had, using it
for light as they played cards and chowed down on jerky and half stale
biscuits.

Not everyone was busy distracting themselves with simple games, however.
Quinn and Brad Harris were off to one side, discussing a door that they
were having trouble with down on the third level. I didn’t see Travis
Carlton at all, meaning he was probably the one that had been assigned
lookout duty for the moment.

“I see you found the stray,” Dresden, the member of the card game that
was facing our way, remarked when he spotted us approaching.

“Better not give him any scraps or else we’ll never get rid of him,”
Mikey McDunnough joked, snickering at his own attempt at humor.

Unbothered, I just quipped right back, “Is that how they got stuck with
you, Mikey?”

While that comeback earned a few chuckles from the other guys, Mikey
seemed to take it as a challenge, adopting a lopsided grin. “Where’d he
find you anyway, kid? Lost in the dark, crying for your big brother?”

Before I could think of a retort, a bark of, “Leslie!” put a swift end
to the banter, while spawning sniggering from the gathered men. “Get
over here!”

That order pulled an involuntary wince from me, as I twisted around to
Quinn. The older man had a way about him that made me think he should’ve
been some military captain snapping orders at soldiers. In fact, that
was how he sort of ran the team. Whatever it was, it did a good job of
pulling an obedient, “Yes, sir,” from my lips before I started over that
way. Jordan followed right along with me, tipping his head to Quinn by
way of a greeting as he drew close.

“What’ve you been up to, kid? Haven’t heard from you since Cooper came
back, saying that you two had cleaned out that medlab on the second
floor,” Quinn asked in that stern, overly calm voice of his.

“Apparently, the room wasn't quite cleaned out, because I found him
caught up working on this fancy box down there,” Jordan answered for me.
“It looks promising, but he needs more time to open it.”

Our leader took that report stoically, offering only the slightest of
nods as he digested it. “How long?”

“Half a day tops,” I answered immediately, confident that I could crack
the mystery box with that much time.

That new bit of information churned through Quinn’s thoughts before he
snapped his gaze over to the nearby Brad. “Harris, do you need Leslie
for anything tomorrow?”

“Nah, not unless we find something weird,” Brad answered. “Not expecting
to, though. Bottom level seems pretty cut and dry, just a bunch of
storage and utility rooms. All we gotta do is pop the doors and pick ‘em
clean.”

With all the pieces collected, I waited as Quinn slotted them into place
in his mind before spitting out his order, “Alright, half a day, you got
it. We’re on a time table, though. When you’re out of time, you’re done.
We all are. Don’t forget that.”

Just glad to be able to keep working on the box, I nodded agreeably at
the deadline. “Sure thing, Quinn. It won’t be a problem.”

“Great ...” Quinn mumbled distractedly, seeming to have moved right on
to some other task now that he’d sorted things out with me. He added a
quick, “Good luck with that box, by the way,” before he slipped away,
off to go check on some other facet of his command.

Once Quinn was gone, that freed Jordan and I up to go find a seat over
by the lamp, although, I didn’t join in the game of cards like he did.
Instead, I tugged out my pad and pencil, intent on catching up with my
notes for the day. There was a great deal to write about, from the
various interesting bits of salvage that I’d pulled from the lab to all
my speculations about what lay beyond that troublesome lock.

* * *

“Nope, not gonna work,” I muttered in frustration as I yanked my tools
free of the lock to step back and glare at it. The damn thing was
proving harder than I’d thought, eating through my time without showing
any signs of yielding to my will. Whatever secret it kept locked away
from me, it seemed damned intent on keeping it.

Figuring that I needed a new approach, I looked down at my belt, running
through the equipment that I had in search of something that might
provide an answer to my problem. I had a pretty good array of gear for
having had to scrounge most of it up by myself, but nothing really leapt
out at me as an elegant solution. Of course, elegant was power and a
keycode, and while I could maybe have rigged up something for the first,
there was no way I was getting the second.

“Well, if I can’t do it the nice way ...” I mused, tucking away the
items in my hand. In their place, I grabbed my survival knife to use as
a hammer, an awl to wedge into the lock, and of a few more refined tools
that I could use to jam things in place.

Stepping forward again, I dove back into my work, toying around inside
the lock for a bit before finally setting the awl in place. When I tried
to smack the butt of the knife against it, however, a couple of the
other bits popped free, clattering against the floor. Muttering curses
under my breath, I bent down to scoop them up, trying to figure out a
way to get this to work.

“Any luck?” Quinn’s voice questioned from behind me.

Focus shattered, I looked up from the pile of tools in my hand, having
to blink a couple of times to get my eyes to focus on the man across the
room. “Huh? Oh ... uhm, no, not yet,” it wasn’t until I’d let that
admission slip out that I realized that Quinn being here had to mean
that I was out of time, that it was time to go and leave the box behind,
unsolved. Unwilling to let that happen, I quickly added, “But I’m really
close.”

Quinn’s brow furrowed slightly at me, though, whether from thought or
skepticism, I wasn’t sure. “How close?”

“I just need like ten minutes and a couple extra hands,” I answered,
hoping that would be a short enough amount of time to get him to agree
to it. Of course, I also had to hope that, if he did agree, it would
also be a long enough amount.

A dreadful silence followed my words as I waited for Quinn to decide one
way or the other. I tried to follow his thoughts, watching his eyes,
guessing at which way he might lean. At the same time, I muttered
encouragement in my thoughts as if that could somehow influence the
outcome.

“Alright, Leslie, ten minutes,” Quinn finally agreed, filling me with a
triumphant thrill that almost had me pumping my fist. “But then you’re
helping pack up along with everyone else and we’re out of here. Until
then, I’ll be your couple extra hands. What do you need me to do?”

Having blurted out that requirement without really thinking about it, I
raced to come up with instructions, stumbling awkwardly over my words a
bit. “Oh ... uhm ... right, just ... uh ... just come over here and hold
a couple of things where I tell you while I try hammer something into
place.”

Without a word of protest, Quinn just nodded and started worming his way
through the mess to get to my side. As he did, I turned back to the
lock, getting everything into place, so that all I had to do was point
once he got to me. “Just hold this one up against that, so it can’t move
and this one right in there.”

Quinn quickly took up the indicated positions, allowing me to grab my
awl and knife again. It took me a moment to figure out how to twist my
wary around the other man in the tight quarters before I could finally
set myself up in the right spot. Once I had, I asked quickly, “Alright,
ready?”

“Ready,” Quinn confirmed immediately, tensing for the coming strike.

A moment later, the ring of my first blow resounded through the medlab,
however the lock didn’t budge. As a frown crept onto my face, I reared
back to try again, this time putting more force behind the strike. This
time, I got a loud clank as Quinn lost his grip on one of his pieces,
forcing us to reset to try again. For the third hit, I really put my
strength behind it, cracking the two tools together so hard I almost
worried about breaking the handles of one of them.

Rather than one of my implements breaking, though, I felt a different
shift, one from the lock as the bolt slipped back with a clunk. What
followed was a loud hiss as the door’s apparently airtight seal broke.
Right after that, the door popped open, promising the first tantalizing
glimpse of whatever lay inside.

Instead of a glorious view of some hidden treasure, the door unleashed a
sudden cloud of mist-like, green gas, spurting out of it like some kind
of spray can. As I was bent over right in front of the door, the fumes
shot right into my eyes. After that, all my thoughts were on how much
that burned.

Hissing in pain, I lurched back, smacking into Quinn who’d been looming
over me to hold his pieces in place. He doubled over around my bulk,
dropping his weight on top of me. Already off balance, I went right down
under him, slamming into the hard ground with enough force to drive the
breath from my lungs. Wheezing from the hit, I yanked both of my hands
up to my eyes, trying to get my vision to not just be a red field of
searing agony.

Atop of me, I could feel Quinn’s weight shifting around as he scrambled
off of me, coughing from the fumes. The next thing I knew, I felt hands
grab me under one arm and tug, sending me lurching a few inches along
the ground. I had little time to worry about that, though, as my lungs
finally started to work again, pulling in a fresh puff of air.

Whatever the fumes were, they were definitely not fresh air, sending me
into a fit of gagging and hacking as I curled up into a ball. Strangely
enough, that new torment seemed dimmer than the previous one – distant.
The red in my vision was dark, too, fading toward black – then it just
was black.

Chapter Three: Mother May I

“Leslie!”

I remembered shouting that. Shouting the man’s name. Jordan’s baby
brother’s name. One of my men’s name.

I remembered, but no words had come out. The case he’d been so obsessed
with opening had exploded and filled my lungs, kicking them hard and
fast and choking everything else out. We’d collapsed to the floor on top
of each other and I’d managed to throw myself back up on instinct and
adrenaline alone, driving toward the open door and away from whatever it
was that was killing us. I shouted his name and pawed at his body,
trying to heave him along after me when he just collapsed there on the
ground. But strength fled so fast as that stuff ripped up the insides of
my chest.

I remembered collapsing too just a few steps shy of escape. I remembered
coughing out my lungs there on the ancient metal of the floor, thinking:
this was it. This was how I died. And I’d gotten Jordan’s little brother
killed too.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

I remembered because I felt hands on me. The realization that I was
suddenly conscious again was a slow and painful one. A face crowded in,
shouting down at me insistently through a fugue of white noise that rang
inside my ears, making it sound like it was coming at me from under
water. A hand slapped my cheek. I recognized Jordan’s face looking down
at me, saying something. Shaking me. I couldn’t make it out.

The next time I came to, it was quiet. Blood thumped slowly inside my
head, bringing with each pulse the sharp stab of the worst headache I
had ever had in my life. I felt myself cry out, it was so bad. So bad I
barely registered the excruciating pain coming from the rest of my body
beyond it.

Ortega pushed into view. He was more coherent than Weeks had been, but I
couldn’t focus past that pounding migraine. I tried to shout at him and
he disappeared. Jordan replaced him. The other man looked calm on the
outside, but his eyes were frantic. I became dimly aware that I was
resting on one of those decayed old beds in the facility’s barracks we’d
found, with the younger Weeks writhing beside me. Looking as bad as I
probably did -- pale, feverish, sweating all over and grimacing or
howling depending on where the pain took him.

I must’ve lost consciousness again because the next thing I knew, Jordan
was replaced by the rusted and cracked ceiling of the room and Leslie
was still, unconscious, and looking like an emaciated corpse atop that
bed. Voices drifted over to me. Jordan’s. Cooper’s. Carlton’s. They were
arguing about something. Arguing and whispering harshly to each other as
they did so. I heard the creak of the room door slam shut and felt
myself drift away again with it.

“Quinn! Quinn, hey, you hearing me now?”

Jordan’s voice was much closer. He was standing over me again. I blinked
up at him and wondered slowly at what was going on. But he was coherent.
My whole body felt like it was dead below my neck. Except for the
throbbing soreness. And the pain. Like little spiders crawling under my
skin.

I tried to work my tongue.

“Quinn! Quinn!”

The other man ducked in close and I could suddenly see the feverish
desperation in his own eyes as they bore into mine.

“You’ve gotta fight this, Quinn. Whatever this is. Don’t let it kill
you. You’ve gotta help me keep this from killing Les. Please, Quinn.
Please. If you can’t make it, he ... he’s got no chance. He’s not as
strong as you or me. You HAVE to help m--!”

“Jordan,” I suddenly managed to croak out and it felt like my throat was
on fire with little shards of glass crinkling up and down it buried in
flesh. I immediately coughed and it was a thin, weak sound like a little
kid. It made me suddenly wonder if I’d been wasting away as much as
Leslie had looked like he was when I last saw him.

The older Weeks recoiled abruptly at the motion, covering his face. I
was confused by the sudden, real fear there at first, but my brain
quickly caught up, as slow as it seemed to be at processing anything but
pain just now. The other man seemed to feel the need to explain.

“Sorry, Quinn. Everyone else ... I’ve got them under control, for now.
But they were scared when we found you. When you two started ... They
were just scared, Quinn. They wanted to leave but I made us stay. I
wasn’t going to just leave you two behind to die like this. But I can’t
hold us up forever. You’ve gotta fight it and come back or they're gonna
lose it and run one way or another.”

He rested a hand gingerly on my shoulder as I lay there, blinking
through the haze, and looked deeply at me with that hint of feral
desperation so unlike his usually calm, optimistic self. He’d always
been the moral rock of my command on runs. Always the softer edge to my
authority for the men. I could see that melting away to fear as he
crouched over me and his little brother now. Were we dying? So slowly?

It was a struggle. But I managed to lift one hand. And I crept it over,
wincing and groaning at the steady burn that I got while I did. I got it
all the way to the other man’s wrist and managed to grab onto him.
Squeeze some reassurance into him.

He blanched at first, looking at that hand on his own. I don’t know why.
But then I saw his resolve harden once more as he brought his eyes back
around to my own. And his jaw set.

He squeezed back and clasped his other hand over mine, sandwiching them.
“You’re gonna make it, Quinn. I know you can. You just keep fighting
it.”

And I did.

* * *

The room was black when I finally woke up again. Black, and empty. But
more importantly than that -- much, much more importantly than that --
my body wasn’t aching all over any more. My throat didn’t burn and my
bones didn’t ache down to the marrow. My head had stopped pounding, the
blood settling into a steady, quiet thrum within my veins. Whatever it
was ... it was over. It had to be.

I tried to move, but my muscles were all like jelly. I couldn’t pull
myself up, so I rolled over halfway onto one side and reached a hand out
in the dark toward the shadowed form of Leslie huddled there on the next
bed beside me. I could just make out the silhouette but had no idea if
he was still breathing. I needed to know that he was alive. I needed to
know that he’d made it through too.

Fingers flopping clumsily along the cold, rusted steel of the floor, I
got to him. Eventually. It took a minute, but I got to him. Those beds
were nothing but cracked pallets flush to the ground so I was able to
reach him. And I grabbed onto what must’ve been his arm through his
clothes and could already tell it was too thin. The image of an
emaciated corpse version of the young man who’d always been so tongue-
in-cheek and vivacious flashed in my mind, and I resisted the urge to
worry about how badly I looked in turn. I just focused on feeling the
subtle tension of life humming through his veins.

He wasn’t cold. I could just barely tell, but I didn’t think he was
dead. And he confirmed it when he stirred slightly under that desperate
pressure I applied. I pulled back then, slouching onto the flat of my
back and heaving out in relief. I sounded like a ghost when I did, and
became powerfully aware of just how thirsty I was. When was the last
time I’d drank anything? Just how long had I been out?

I needed to alert someone and tried my voice to do just that but it
caught in my throat. Too dry and wasted to do more than squeak. So I
scrambled around for something -- ANYTHING -- and found my pistol, still
belted at my hip. I worked my fingers around it until it was free in my
hand, ignoring how my cargo pants now swam against my thigh. Then I just
started tapping it as loudly and insistently as I could against the
floor with whatever strength I had left.

I remembered what the older Weeks had said about the men wanting to
leave us behind and I had to crush a wave of despairing fear before it
crushed ME as I waited for some sign that they hadn’t done just that.
That they hadn’t abandoned me and Leslie here to die after all. I just
kept on with that pistol against steel as best I could.

It took forever and I nearly lost it, the sound ringing erratically
while my fingers struggled to keep a hold. Then I heard stirring
somewhere out of sight. A door creaked open and footsteps scurried
inside. I dropped the gun with the hopeful relief of a man who’d just
run miles and miles and had finally reached the end, collapsing at the
finish line. And Jordan was there again, throwing himself down to a knee
beside me.

“Q-Quinn?”

“Water,” I croaked out after several tries. The other man hesitated a
few seconds before scrambling away for a canteen. And I’d seen his eyes
lingering on my face before he did, confusion and shock writ there all
over for me to see. It made me even more fearful for how I must look.
What that stuff had done to us.

He helped me get that canteen to my cracked, bleeding lips and some
water in me. While he did so, he checked on his baby brother as well.
That same look of fearful incredulity on his sun-browned features. For
my part, I noticed how diminished the kid’s previously large, muscled
frame seemed now. And I felt the weakness in my own limbs, had seen how
thin my arm was when I’d reached out to Leslie. I could only imagine
what drew the man’s concern.

“How long?” I managed when I’d wet my ravaged throat enough to actually
speak, but just barely. The sound was thin and so weak that the other
man had to press in close to hear.

“Three days, Quinn,” he told me and my eyes flashed wide.

I’d shared Vigo’s warning with him, the old man’s suspicions of a leak
in our fraternal ranks. We couldn’t stay here that long. We couldn’t
stay out on ANY run that long! The attacks on other groups had been too
consistent to suggest anything other than someone feeding the raiders
information, getting worse and worse and worse over the past six months.
I hadn’t dared to stay out in that ruin for more than two days for fear
of the mission details having found their way to raiders this time too.
And now whatever had happened to us had made that five.

“You have to get out!” I tried to tell him, clutching at his jacket
while he hung over me. Except my hands were too weak to do much more
than limply hang there and all the words that came were a choked “get
out.” But that was enough. He got my meaning. And he shook his head.

“I wasn’t going to leave you two here,” he explained. “None of the
others would help carry you either. Once the changes started. We’d
thought to wait it out before then and see if you two pulled through but
... I sealed the lab. We got you out and made sure no one else went in.
But the other guys wouldn’t come near you two after what happened. They
were too scared.”

“What ...?”

He was babbling. It was overwrought, useless babbling. Like a man who’d
seen something so impossible that it had freaked him right out of his
wits and he wasn’t so sure what was real anymore. Was desperately trying
to cling to some stable, familiar THING. So unlike the Jordan Weeks I’d
known, the Jordan Weeks who’d run beside me out there in the wastes so
many times before. We’d fought raiders, been jumped by scavers in the
dark, and kept each other alive through it all. None of it had ever
shaken him like that before. I could almost just imagine that it was
seeing his kid brother laid low that had him suddenly so rattled, but
... No. I’d felt so wasted away. I knew it was more than just that.

He moved away toward his brother for a moment while I sat there,
wrestling with my own fears and doubts. I was trying to move again
before he came back, feeling the slightest bit healthier with some
fluids in me now, and Jordan just stood there while I did. I managed to
push myself up on my elbows and stopped, seeing my jacket and
shirtsleeves looking so loose and empty like there was nothing in there
of me at all. And I had a blind, stabbing shard of panic break right
through.

“Wh-what h ... hap--”

Again that voice was thin and weak. Just like the rest of me. I’d shrunk
within my own clothes until I was little more than skin and bones.

And Jordan was just standing there, watching me. That wide-eyed look of
a man in a situation beyond his control painted on his face.

“What the h ... hell ...”

My sleeves rolled down over my hands when I moved to push myself off the
pallet. I brought them up in front of my face and felt like a little kid
wearing his dad’s clothes until the cuff of one slouched back down and I
saw my hands. Mature, adult hands. But not like mine. Thin, and
insubstantial, and fine-boned.

My legs too. I peeled my eyes away from those alien hands and saw how I
wasn’t just swimming inside my cargo pants -- they were all but falling
off me down to the floor. Boots hanging on by a thread, my feet sloshing
around inside them.

I was shaking before I realized it, trembling all over.

“Jordan ...?”

His name was a plaintive, shell-shocked whine when it left my lips. I
looked up at him like a gutshot, dying man and he was still just
standing there, watching. I held my hands up in the space between us
like he could just take them from me and tell me what the hell was going
on here. But he had no more idea than me, I could tell.

And he had watched it happen.

Something fell off my face. Glancing down, I saw black fuzz on my collar
and had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach at the sight. Those
hands, still trembling, found their way up to my face toward my beard.
Or what was left of it as I pulled a mass of brown and black hairs away
in my palm, matted with days-old sweat.

And I started hyperventilating.

“W-Weeks ...?!”

The other man didn’t move. His eyes flicked towards the form of his
brother before coming back to me, frozen in apprehension. I could just
imagine what he was seeing. And I had to see it too. I called out to
him.

“Mirror?”

But he started to shake his head.

“Quinn. I don’t know if that’s such a good idea ...”

I didn’t wait for him to change my mind, or bother trying to argue. I
just snagged the combat knife from my belt and did my best to hold it up
in front of me so I could see my own reflection in the oiled steel. It
was too dark, though. Jordan had brought in a light but he was currently
holding it over where he was standing, too far away to see.

I looked at him again. Sharply.

“Bring me the light.”

“Quinn, you really shouldn’t --”

“Jordan!” I snapped, and coughed at the harshness of it on my still
abused throat. I had to swallow thickly to continue on. “If you don’t
want me to see it then you better just kill me right now, god damnit.”

I tried to push myself up onto my feet. Failed. And punched the bed with
one too-weak fist before glaring daggers at the other man. He finally
gave in then, but it was as reluctant as I could imagine he could be
when I meant business like that. Which made me wonder all the more at
what I was going to find. I was still shaking all over when he hastily
dug out a small shaving mirror from his gear and scurried over to put it
in my hands.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, at first. I pushed the mirror up to
my face before I had a chance to think about it anymore than I already
was, and saw the smattering of my beard there, a big clump swiped away
by my hand. The rest of it was smeared all over and I just stared at
myself for a moment, looking like some sickly mess. I didn’t find
rotting flesh or cadaverous eyes, though. I didn’t find the face of a
corpse. If anything, I suddenly looked too young. I looked like a
prepubescent boy buried in the remnants of my old body, its clothes and
face.

Sparing Jordan a confused look, he was just studying me with a semblance
of calm. Still rattled, though, I could tell. I’d know him too long not
to catch it beneath the surface. It made me wonder.

“Did that,” I started to ask out loud, but my voice broke. I was focused
back on the mirror. “Did it make us ... younger?”

“I don’t think that’s it, Quinn,” he admitted worriedly after a moment
and I frowned. Back to studying my face in the mirror again, I started
swiping at the rest of my beard hairs, pawing them away from the skin so
I could see. The skin of my cheeks underneath was too soft, too smooth,
like a little boy’s. Except I kept pouring over it and noticed how I
didn’t look like I had when I’d been younger, I was pretty sure. My chin
was too pointed, jaw too soft and small, nose too short -- I remembered
how big it had been, even when I was just a kid, and this wasn’t it.

“I ...”

I touched my face again, tentatively. Like it was some poisonous snake
that would suddenly bite me. But I got a distinct flash of memory inside
my head then.

“I look like my mother.”

Jordan didn’t say a word. He just bobbed his head like he had already
realized that some time ago, despite the remnants of my facial hair
smattered all over my face. And as I mumbled that realization out, I
believed it.

I remembered the face of my mother, even though she was over twenty-
years dead. All the women were. All women all across this miserable
planet our parents had tried to colonize thirty years ago were. I
remembered what she looked like, even though I’d only been six when
she’d succumbed to the plague that’d swept across each of the habitats,
attacking and killing every last female while leaving the men alone to
inherit what was left. There hadn’t been a child born on Proteus in more
than twenty years. Leslie had been one of the last, and then the Weeks
brothers’ mother had perished too. Living on this planet was a death
sentence to ALL women. Inevitably.

And a whole new fear flooded into my head then.

One, shaking hand pulled away from the mirror and found it’s way to my
chest. I knew what I expected to find there. I’d felt the vague
difference in myself since waking up, but had ignored it with all the
other thoughts waging war inside my head. Now there was just the cold,
clammy fear as my fingers pressed in and found soft flesh beneath my
jacket and shirt where there had been nothing but lean muscle before. I
knew what to expect, but couldn’t help the shards of ice that spiked
down my spine at the raw confirmation of it.

“H-how?” I managed, body hunched over in horror as the pieces started to
fit together inside my head.

I knew how, though. I didn’t expect an answer from Jordan, I just felt
too helpless not to say anything. It was impossible. It was impossible.
And it was also a death sentence.

“Quinn? Quinn, look at me!”

The other man finally got into gear then. I must have looked pretty
fucking wrecked for him to finally pull it together after being
confronted with all this, and sitting on it for maybe a day or more
while it happened. He stuck a hand out and grabbed my shoulder, trying
to steady me. And I noticed how easily that hand swallowed my entire
shoulder up inside it.

“You’re still alive, Quinn!” he was trying to argue with the bone-
crushing despair that was welling up inside me all over. “You’re still
YOU, Quinn! You’re still HERE!”

But I was shaking my head at him, staring at nothing and barely hearing
him. My whole body was just ... wrong. I could feel it. I’d felt it
since waking and now I knew the reason. The terrible, deadly reason. I
might as well have just died back there in the med lab. How much worse
it was going to be once the Phage caught up with me. I remembered the
adults back then saying that every male was a carrier. We were infected
already, and if we weren’t -- well, Jordan was re-infecting me right now
just by being in the same room.

I tried to push him away. I tried to stand up and stumble my way away
from the bed and him and Leslie all. Not towards the door. Not out into
the rest of the facility and wherever the rest of the team was. Not into
a world full of men and the disease I had just somehow become uniquely,
entirely susceptible too. I just tried to get away from ... EVERYTHING.

I didn’t get far, though. Jordan grabbed me and kept me from getting
away. Grabbed me like a child and I had all the strength of one just
then so I could hardly fight him.

He was hissing in my ear.

“Quinn! Quinn! Listen to me!”

He was wrestling with me, getting angry. I didn’t look at him. I
couldn’t. I just kept trying to squirm out of his vice-like grip that
was suddenly so, so much stronger than my own that it made me sick.

“Quinn! I need you to get your shit together, okay? QUINN!”

He shook me. Hard. It got me to actually look back at him for a moment.
Long enough to realize he was taller than me now by a couple inches, and
I felt him tower there over me. I’d actually shrunk.

“You can’t fall apart on me right now, okay?” he was growling at me,
jabbing a finger in my face like I was some kid Leslie’s age on his
first run who didn’t know the ass-end of a knife from the tip. “I need
you to help me keep this thing together so we can get the fuck out of
here and back home and figure out what to do to fix this!”

“Fix this? Fix this?!” I screeched, and the man just nodded his head
quickly.

“Yeah. Think about it! Something in that case did this to you,” he
explained. “Something turned you and Les into ... THIS. So maybe there’s
something in there that can fix it! Maybe there’s something in there
that can change you back!”

I stared at him for a moment. Stared, and then immediately tried to spin
around and run for the door. Back to the lab. Back to where that
something that could fix this might be.

“No, Quinn! FUCK! Will you stop?!”

He held tight, wrapping me up again so that I couldn’t just take off
without him. Held me back from the door and I fought him viciously,
scrabbling for the door. Fought him until he abruptly picked me up right
off my feet and swung me back around so I was facing the other way.

“LET ME GO, JORDAN!” I screamed at him, that alien voice shrieking up an
octave and filling the room. It wasn’t my voice anymore. It wasn’t mine.

I squirmed, but he held fast. “You’re not going to go messing around in
there and fuck yourself up anymore than you already are, Quinn! You’ve
got NO idea what you’re doing. You’ll only make it worse!”

“FUCK YOU!”

“Shut the fuck up!” he snapped back. And then suddenly threw me into the
floor. I rolled over and away from him, landing on my back. He was
standing there, heaving above me when I came back up.

“The rest of the guys don’t know!” he shouted at me, angrily. “I have to
tell them, Quinn. ME! As far as they know, you guys are dying and we’re
just waiting until you’re gone before we leave. We still have to get out
of here, Quinn. We don’t have time to let you tear apart that lab and
fuck yourself up with more Protean chemicals!”

“I’m dead if I go out there, Jordan! The plague will KILL me! You know
that!”

“Maybe,” he agreed, his face grim and set and obviously having already
considered that. “But you’re not dead yet. And there’s time. Do you
think the Proteans made something that could do this to you just so you
would die?”

“What does it matter?!” I shrieked back at him.

“It matters because we’re just going to have to hold on and figure this
out! We’re going to have to get back to the habitat and get help before
we can do anything! We’re not equipped for this sort of thing, Quinn!”

“I can’t go back like this! What the hell do you think they’re going to
do to me, Jordan?”

He stopped and had a hard time saying anything to that for a few
seconds. The thought had obviously not really occurred to him, even
though he’d suspected this long before I finally woke up.

We had ... holdovers ... from the time before the Phage. Boys that had
grown up not knowing of a single, living woman still had pornography
from their fathers and the times before. Still had the carnal urges that
our race demanded for procreation. Like one half of a whole feeling
phantom pains for a limb that had withered away and died off, they
limped on and wondered at their missing pieces. And now I looked like
that missing piece. Leslie too, I had to imagine since I hadn’t bothered
to look at him thoroughly yet.

So I just repeated myself.

“What the hell do you think they’re going to do?”

He took a long time to answer. I could see the terrible, insurmountable
problem being worked behind his eyes. But he held as firm as I think he
could. Naively, and stubbornly so.

“I’m not going to let them hurt you, Quinn. Either of you.”

I wondered if I could be so resolute in his position. I wondered if I
could be so foolish.

I took a deep breath, swiping a trembling hand back through my lank,
sweaty hair.

“What do you want me to do then?” I asked then, trying to shove that
panic and fear aside as best I could. Get myself back to a working
brainspace. He was right, and I had no other choice than to kill myself
here and now. I wasn’t ready to die.

And he needed me for Leslie. Leslie needed to see that this hadn’t
broken me. That I hadn’t given up. He was just a kid.

“We need to get out of here, I agree,” Jordan started anew, relaxing
just a little now that I’d apparently calmed down enough that we could
start attacking the immediate problems. “The rest of the team, they’re
... I don’t know how they’re going to take this. I’ll talk to them. They
need to know it’s still you guys inside there. So you have to be YOU,
Quinn. You have to pull it together long enough for us to get back home
and figure this mess out. We know where this facility is. We can get
HELP looking into a cure.”

I listened to him and nodded. I nodded even though I didn’t feel it. I
agreed because I wasn’t in a state right now to disagree with him or
fight him on this and that shook me. How had I come into this place
leading this run and come out like ... this? So weak. It would’ve been
easy to break. It still was.

But I nodded at him.

“Good,” he said, nodding back. He breathed out another sigh of relief
that I’d become amenable, planting his hands on his hips as he thought
about what was coming next. “I’ll go figure this shit out,” was what he
finally told me, shaking his head. “I’ll go talk to the rest of the guys
and start making sure we can move as soon as possible.”

He gestured toward his brother’s form on the bed, still laying there,
and I saw him falter just the slightest bit.

“We need Les up and together too, Quinn. We need you both ready to walk
out of here.”

“We’ll make it,” I assured him. We had to. “Can you get us some food?
Bring me my stuff? Water too. We’re gonna need it.”

“Sure. Anything you need.”

And with that, Jordan left. I didn’t envy him the task ahead of him, and
felt bad letting my leadership pass to him even though I was still alive
and now up. But I didn’t envy what lay before me either. What lay before
both me and his kid brother both.

There wasn’t much else to do but harden the fragmented pieces of my
resolve, though, and wait. And sit down there by Leslie’s side, ready to
keep him from losing his shit like I almost had. Like I still wanted to.

To the kid’s credit, he took the situation much better than I did.

Chapter Four: Priorities

Seated there on the bed, I had no idea how to react. The last few days
had been nothing, a feverish haze of pain that had been eternal and
instantaneous at the same time. My next waking moment, I’d been looking
up at what I’d thought was a young brown haired boy right up until that
boy, Quinn I found out, told me that he was a woman and so was I.

That hadn’t been all Quinn had said, but that news, no that single word,
had been what had caught in my mind, leaving the rest all but unheard in
its wake. It had been enough to render me in my currently dazed state –
not terrified, not panicked, not worried, just ... stunned by the
situation. It didn’t seem possible. There were no women, not anymore. My
only memories of seeing them came from aged pictures, showing a
different time, a happier time, when our whole world wasn’t rotting away
in despair. A single look down at my chest, where the baggy green
sweatshirt I wore was tented out quite considerably around a pair of
fleshy orbs, was all it took to prove that it was not only possible, but
a reality. There were women again.

That single realization had my mind whirling with possibilities, both
good and bad. The obvious was that I might have woken up just to die,
the first victim of the Gynophage in twenty years, but I doubted that.
My father had written extensive notes on that doom bringing disease,
describing its effects in great detail. It worked fast, fast enough that
I would’ve expected it to already be killing Quinn and me by this point,
at least enough to be noticeable. I certainly didn’t feel like something
was eating me apart from the inside, which seemed to imply we were safe
from that fate.

No, my mind was already off on the positives, the wonder of it, the hope
of salvation. My changes proved that something in that lab, in that
strange locked box, could bring women back to our world. The Proteans
might have created it for that express purpose, if they had been ravaged
by the Phage just like we were. Yes, it meant some people having to
choose to be female, but compared to a slow inevitable extinction that
prospect didn’t seem so bad. Certainly, whatever had done this to Quinn
and me at least warranted study. I needed to get back to the lab to
collect a sample to bring with us. We’d have to find facilities to study
it at, too. Home didn’t have such things. The capital maybe?

Driven by excitement, I jerked my gaze up, mouth opening to call out to
Quinn, but the words never made it past my lips. The other man – er no,
I supposed that she, no, we were both women now – stood in front of me,
facing the other way with her gaze focused on the door. The changes had
left her quite different from me. I was smaller than I had been, but
certainly not small, still almost as tall as my brother and sporting
womanly bits that were too well rounded to be hidden even with my baggy
clothes. She, however, was ... small, her now far too large clothes
dangling loosely on her frame. It was strange to see her like that.

Before I could overcome the weirdness of trying to address the girl in
front of me as Quinn, the door opened taking the moment away. My brother
was the one that came through it, his face creased with worries and his
arms and shoulders loaded down with everything from food to Quinn’s
rifle. When his gaze met mine, though, all the gear and worries that he
carried seemed to be forgotten and I received what had to be the
strangest look I’d ever seen from my brother. It was like fear, anxiety,
joy, relief, trepidation, and a dozen other emotions had all been
jumbled up into one chaotic concoction and then been dumped into his
eyes.

“Leslie ...” Jordan breathed my name, like it just fell out of him on
its own. “How ... uhm ... how are you feeling...”

“Better,” I answered optimistically, managing a reassuring smile. That
smile was a touch strained, though, as the sound of my altered voice
shook my confidence just a bit. It was going to take a while before it
stopped sounding off in my ears.

My answer got my brother’s lips to curl up wanly as he nodded in
acknowledgement. The fact that I wasn’t dead or hysterical was probably
a huge relief to him. It really shouldn’t have been, though. After all,
Quinn was up before me, and she was handling it all fine. I could handle
it, too.

With no other reply forthcoming, a moment of silence hung there where
Jordan and I just looked at each other awkwardly before Quinn, ever the
stalwart commander, stepped in to get things right back on track. “How’d
it go with everyone? Did they take it well? How long until we’re ready
to depart?”

“It went, as well as can be expected, and the gear is all mostly packed
and ready,” Jordan rattled off his answers calmly as he set down the
things in his arms, his manner contrasting sharply with the eagerness
with which Quinn had asked those questions. No sooner had he finished
answering than uncertainty crept into J.D.’s features as his gaze
shifted back and forth between Quinn and I. “It’ll probably take some
time, though, after everyone ... uhm ... sees the two of you to get
things orderly again. Once we do, we can go.”

“Alright, then we–” Quinn began to respond, but she never got a chance
to finish.

“Wait, we’re just leaving?!” I blurted in disbelief, scrambling
awkwardly up from my seat with my unfamiliar physique.

My outburst pulled both Quinn’s and Jordan’s attention to me. It was the
former, the one that had to spin around to look at me, that responded,
though, with a simple, “Yes, as soon as we possibly can.”

“We can’t do that!” I protested, unable to believe what I was hearing.
We had made the greatest discovery since humanity landed on this planet
and these two wanted to just leave it all behind. It was absurd. “I have
to go back to the lab, collect samples, search for some clues as to how
they developed ... whatever it is that did this!”

To my surprise, I saw something flare in Quinn’s eyes at my objection,
something wild and abnormal before a sharp command snapped from her
lips, stomping it back down. “No. There’s no time. We have to get out of
here.”

“But–” I began, determined to keep the argument going, to get them to
see how important this was.

“He’s right, Les,” Jordan cut me off, siding with Quinn as he always
did. “I had to seal the lab to make sure it didn’t spread, and
everyone’s already antsy around here. We’ll come back for it, though. I
promise.”

Outnumbered, I could only growl in frustration and dig in. “Don’t you
get it?! There’s no way to know if it will be possible by then! It could
already be too late to collect samples! Even if it’s not, someone else
could find this place before we can get back!”

“That’s exactly what we’re afraid of, Leslie. Someone finding this
place. Someone finding the two of us,” Quinn retorted, trying to give me
one of those stern, parental looks of his. Except now, looking between
the two of them there agreeing with each other, it was like looking at
what I’d imagine mom and dad would have looked like, maybe telling me
something was off-limits. “We have to get moving. We’ve been here too
long already.”

“Fuck that! If you want to leave, then go! I’ll get what we need
myself!” I spat furiously before taking off, stomping toward the door.

“Les!” Jordan yelled with obvious exasperation, stepping into my way to
block my path. “You have to be reasonable here! We’re in dan–”

I didn’t care, not about my brother’s lecture nor about how he was in my
way. I’d had enough of the two of them telling me what was important. I
knew what was important, not just for us, but for everyone.

In spite of the fact that I was the younger sibling, Jordan had not been
much of a physical worry for me. He was lanky and not very tall, suited
to prowling around with a rifle more so than brawling with brute
strength. As such, normally, I would plow right through any attempt by
him to physically block me. This time, though, I just plowed into him
instead. The impact sent a stab of pain through my shoulder as Jordan
and I bounced off each other, staggering in opposite directions. It was
messy, but it provided the gap that I was looking for, allowing me to
stumble past him to the door as I caught my balance.

“Leslie!” Quinn barked from behind me, or at least she tried to. Her
voice cracked, going squeaky and a touch shrill midway through.

Ignoring my name, I just burst through the door, coming out onto the
first level of the Protean facility. A short ways down the hallway was
the group’s base camp where Dresden was in the middle of gathering up
some gear while Lincoln and Shaun sat nearby chatting. Beyond them,
another little ways down the hall, were the stairs that would lead me
down to the second level and the ever so important lab.

Once I had my bearings, I was off again, rushing toward the stairs and
away from any more orders from my brother or Quinn. As I did, I felt my
shoulder ache from crashing into Jordan, but that wasn’t my only
discomfort. My new chest flopped about under my shirt from my determined
movements. The considerable weight of my belt of gear also bounced
loosely around on my hips as if trying to find an angle or position
where it could squeeze past my rounded pelvis and drop around my ankles.
Even my shoes felt wrong, jostling about on my feet with every step.
Taken altogether, walking had never been more awkward.

In the meantime, the sound of me slamming through the door and stomping
by had interrupted the work of the three men at camp. They’d looked up
at the noise only to have their eyes widen and their jaws drop in
surprise at the sight of me. Like that, they remained frozen, just
staring in disbelief.

“Stop him!” I heard Quinn’s new voice command from behind me. While it
didn’t crack this time, she had no better luck getting people to listen.
The three men just remained frozen in shock, although, they did move
enough to take in the sight of the new woman behind me.

Only a moment of inaction passed before Jordan stepped up to help Quinn.
“He’s going to open the medlab!”

Mention of that place combined with Jordan’s authority prompted action.
Dresden was the one to move first, dropping his gear to step toward me.
As I was just getting to the camp at that moment, he was perfectly
positioned to make an attempt at stopping me, grabbing my wrist as I
tried to walk by.

“Let go!” I growled at the touch, trying to yank my hand free. I didn’t
have enough strength, though. All I managed to do was tug Dresden
forward one lurching step.

“Nobody’s opening that place, no way!” Dresden growled as he caught his
balance. Once he had, he used his grip to tug at me like I’d tried to
do with him. Rather than just lurching a step, though, he managed to
yank me fully off balance, sending me stumbling into him. As soon as I
hit his chest, he wrapped his arms around me, intent on trapping me in a
hold.

“Get offa me!” I screamed in rage and frustration as I flailed about,
trying to jerk free. One of my arms managed to break loose from his grip
then I felt it hit something with a loud crunch. Pain shot through me as
all feeling in that arm turned to pins and needles.

Whatever I’d hit, it broke Dresden’s grasp, sending the man staggering
back. While freed, my flailing about had robbed me of my balance,
leaving me to just wobble unsteadily as I tried to right myself. I never
got the chance, though, before new arms grabbed me, pinning my own limbs
behind my back in a hold I knew I would have no chance of breaking. That
didn’t stop me from trying, jerking about futilely.

“Hold still, damn it!” I heard Shaun’s voice from behind me, his voice
strained from the exertion of holding me.

“Fuck you!” I spat, tired enough from my struggling to limit it to
little twists and tugs rather than flailing around.

“That’s enough, Leslie!” Quinn scolded me as she and my brother marched
over. “We don’t have time for this bullshit!”

The use of my name slackened Shaun’s grip on me, although not enough to
allow me to break free, as he gasped. “You’re Leslie?!”

Meanwhile, off to the side, Lincoln’s eyes bugged out at those words.
“You mean Jordan wasn’t just cracked?!”

“Of course I wasn’t!” Jordan retorted angrily. “Why the hell would I lie
about something like that?!”

Hearing that, Lincoln turned his wide-eyed gaze to the small, brown-
haired woman. “Unbelievable ... then that means you’re ...”

“Quinn,” Quinn stated stiffly.

“I don’t care who the fuck they are, that ... that bitch broke my
fucking nose!” Dresden hissed as he scrambled up from the ground to
stalk toward me, one hand clutched to the bloody wreck of his nose.

Before Dresden could get close, Quinn stepped into his way, glaring
sternly up at the man. “And we don’t have time for any of this, Cooper,
so you’re just going to have to deal with it. Now, stand down!”

For a moment, Dresden held his ground, matching Quinn’s glare with his
own. The new woman didn’t back down, though, just squared her shoulders
and held firm under the tension. Once that moment passed, Dresden
finally yielded, turning away with a dismissive hack to stomp over to
his gear.

“Bates, help Dresden fix his nose,” Quinn ordered, her shoulders
slumping just the faintest bit as Dresden walked away.

Once again, there was a moment as Lincoln just looked at his diminished
leader, unsure of what to do. That uncertainty vanished a second later
when my brother barked, “You heard him, Linc. Get to it.” After that,
Lincoln snapped to the task, hurrying after the injured man.

With Dresden handled, Quinn finally turned back to me with her features
so stiff that I saw one of her eyes twitch slightly. “Now are you going
to do what you’re told, Leslie, or am I going to have to let Kerensky
truss you up like a waster and drag your ass out of here? Either way
we’re leaving.”

“Come on, Quinn!” I tried, left with nothing to attempt besides a
pitiful beg. “We can’t leave!”

“No, you can’t stay,” Quinn countered stubbornly. “Now which is it going
to be? Walk out on your own two feet or tied up and tossed over
someone’s shoulder?”

Not wanting to yield, I tried to tug free of Shaun’s grip one last time,
but it was no use. Quinn had me. As such, all I could do was slouch in
defeat. “Fine, you win.”

With a quick nod at my surrender, Quinn gestured toward Shaun. “Alright,
Kerensky, let him go.”

“No hard feelings, Les,” Shaun mumbled as he released my arms. When he
did, he stepped back quickly, looking down at his hands with obvious
unease. “I’m not going to ... y’know ...?”

Those words didn’t stop me from tossing a glare at the man as I rolled
my shoulders, especially the sore one, to loosen them up after the
uncomfortable hold. That did little to alleviate my frustration over the
situation. There’s was nothing I could do, though.

“If it was contagious, I would’ve caught it a while ago, and I haven’t
changed any,” Jordan reassured the other man. “I think the rest of us
are fine.”

“Thank God ...” Shaun sighed in relief, letting his hands finally drop
back to his sides.

After giving me a wary look to make sure I didn’t just try to run, Quinn
turned her attention to Shaun. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Travis and Ortega are ... uhm ... on lookout,” Shaun reported,
stumbling just a bit as he tried to look down at the girl in front of
him. “Brad and Mikey were just moving some of the loot up top, since
J.D. said we were finally leaving. They should be back in a bit.”

That information was too much for me, tearing away my acceptance of the
situation in new indignant rage. “We’re wasting time on scraps?!”

“No, we are not, at least not any more. As soon as Harris and McDunnough
get back, we’re grabbing our gear and leaving. Anything else that isn’t
already up and ready to go is getting left behind. We’ll come back for
it later,” Quinn countered, shutting me up. Once she had, she turned
back to Jordan. “Can you make sure that happens, Jordan? I have to ...
get my own gear in order.”

“Sure thing, Quinn,” Jordan agreed readily before his friend turned to
go back to the barracks room to get the things Jordan had left in there.

“I guess I should do the same,” I muttered, walking off toward where the
rest of my stuff sat by my brother’s in camp. It was already neatly
packed up, but I flopped down next to it and started poking through it
anyway, pretending to be busy.

With the commotion over, people scattered about. Quinn vanished back
into the barracks as she’d indicated. My brother went off to follow
orders, probably checking on Brad and Mikey if I had to guess. Lastly,
Lincoln finished helping Dresden with his nose, leaving the latter
lounged back against the wall. In the meantime, he came back over to sit
across from me with Shaun plopping down next to him. They didn’t just
start up one of their usual conversations, however, leaving a silence to
hang over the room.

Annoyed by the quiet, I looked up to see what was going on. Opposite my
seat, the two men just sat there staring at me, almost as frozen as they
had been when I’d first stepped through the door. It made sense that
they would do that. I would probably have stared too if the situation
were reversed. Understanding didn’t lead to tolerance, though. Still
angry over what had happened, I was in no mood to have two idiots just
sit there and gawk at me.

“If you two keep staring at me, Drez isn’t going to be the only one
around here with a broken nose,” I hissed in warning at the two men.

The threat of bodily harm snapped the two from their stupor, getting
them to look away awkwardly. Shaun even added a nervous run of his hand
over his hair. “Sorry, it’s just ... you’re ... uhh ...”

“You’re a girl,” Lincoln finished for his buddy. “A real one ... right?
With all the ... parts?”

“Yep,” I confirmed tersely, turning my attention back to my fake check
of my gear. “Now, why don’t you two go find something else to do besides
bugging me?”

“Aw, come on,” Shaun complained. “Can you blame us for being curious?
How does something like that even happen?”

That question was the exact one that I wanted an answer to, but it
seemed that everyone was dead set on making sure that I never got it.
The frustration of it had my jaw clenching. “I don’t know, and I don’t
care if you’re curious, just leave me the fuck alone.”

“Fine, whatever,” Shaun muttered, shoving himself back to his feet. “I
guess I should recheck my gear, too.”

While Shaun walked away, Lincoln made no move to go. He sat there,
returning to staring at me in a way that only fueled my anger further.
Before I got the chance to tell him off again, though, the heavy sound
of boots sprinting across the floor echoed down toward us. That sound
interrupted all three of us, turning our attention down the way. Just as
I spotted Jordan running, I heard him shout, “Roamers!”

Chapter Five: The Human Beast

“How many would you call that?” I asked, lying flat against the floor of
that broken corridor we’d unearthed leading down into the Protean
facility. Carlton was prone beside me and so was the older Weeks, the
former with a pair of binoculars he’d had passed to him by the latter.
He was currently studying the mass of vehicles and men moving about a
mile away from us across the sparsely forested grasslands. We were
keeping our profile as low and unnoticeable as possible, using the hole
as cover and facing away from the sun.

“Fifty? Upwards to Eighty?” the black man answered, peering through at
them in the distance. He shook his head ever so slightly. “Hard to tell
with how much they move around in those rides of theirs. I count maybe
ten of those. Four large, six small.”

Shit, was all I could think at that confirmation, having seen it for
myself already.

Shit, shit, shit.

“I told you we stayed here too long,” was what I grumbled at Jordan,
though. And he growled right back at me.

“And I told YOU I wasn’t going to leave you or Leslie behind!”

Might as well have, was what I wanted to say. But I didn’t mean it.
There was a very real, alien fear clawing at the back of my mind with
the sight of those raiders on the horizon. If I had some grave,
distressing concerns about how the rest of the Brotherhood would react
to us out here and back home, well ... what would the raiders do if they
got their hands on us instead?

Instead. Huh.

Instead of the Brotherhood that is, I guess. And just what would THEY do
when we got back to the habitat? I wondered. Vigo had respected me for
years as an accomplished runner and run leader, sure, but what did that
matter in the face of utter extinction? What did brotherhood matter in
the face of being suddenly presented with this ... this THING that every
man had been coveting for so long in absentia. Like drink to a man dying
of thirst. How long would it take them to break and see us as just
another commodity like food or water? Even worse, because there would be
that primal logic of perpetuating what was left of our race here on this
world to sustain it.

I shuddered at just the thought of it. What that would mean for us. Me
and the kid.

I looked to Jordan while he was busy and distracted beside Carlton,
studying the Roamers across the way. A part of me had dreaded coming out
of the relative safety of that room he’d tucked us away in while we
withered down into our current incarnations. A part of me had dreaded
having my own men see me as I was now. A big part. And with good reason
too. I’d seen the confusion in their eyes. The way Kerensky had stumbled
over his words, looking down at me. The way Cooper had hardly registered
my commands. If Jordan hadn’t been there alongside me ...

It represented a breakdown in leadership. I’d kept my teams alive by
keeping things regimented, orderly, and moving in a unified direction
for years. If I couldn’t keep them in line now, things were going to
quickly fall apart, especially with raiders sniffing around our trail.
We needed to get back to the habitat before that happened. But there was
a huge mass of Roamers out there right smack dab in the middle of our
way.

I was going to need the older Weeks on my side to get us through this.
For all intents and purposes, he might be the real leader right now
despite the fact that I was awake, aware, and alive. I had our
friendship going for us, and he hadn’t shown any reluctance as of yet to
back me up. That was a good thing. And I needed to make sure it stayed
that way.

My eyes lingered too long on the back of his head and he glanced over to
catch me staring like that. He blinked.

“What are you thinking, Quinn?”

Shaking my head, I just muttered, “Nothing good,” before turning back
toward the Roamers in the distance. Jordan winced, but nodded to
himself.

“We could push ahead, loop around, and get behind them?” he suggested.

“No. That’s too far.” And I didn’t want to consider how weak I still
felt or what that might mean for our speed over land now. “Too much
visibility.” They had those jerry-rigged buggies and trucks grinding
around in the dirt too. It was what this particular group of raiders was
known for, and they used those wheels to chase down runners mercilessly,
hounding the wastes outside the habitats all along their expansive
territory. No team from our clan or any other had ever outrun them that
I knew of, and only a few had ever survived an attack. Bates was one,
having managed to somehow drag himself back from an ambush by Roamers
years ago. He was the only one I knew.

“Wait for night?”

I shook my head. “Unless we figure something else out, we still won’t
outrun them that way. We’re fucked, Weeks. Fucked.”

“Quinn!” the man hissed, and he moved abruptly like he meant to shove me
back out of the way from Carlton, hesitating only at the last second
when he looked at me.

Carlton spared me a look too, but it was brief. More in confusion and
worry in contrast to Jordan’s sudden anger. Weeks snapped his hand in a
gesture back toward the door below and I grudgingly slipped down the
stairs, far enough to get up to my feet again. When I did, he got right
up in my face, crowding over me.

“You told me you could do this, Quinn,” he admonished in a low,
frustrated whisper like a father scolding a child. “You can’t say that
kind of shit around these guys right now, you KNOW that. I shouldn’t
have to tell you that. Not you, Quinn. You’ve gotta be YOU right now.”

“I AM me right now,” I grumbled right back. He was so close and towering
over that it made me feel smaller than I ever had before in my life. I
wanted to push him away but figured I physically couldn’t, and I sure as
hell wasn’t going to take a step back and give him the point. I just
gritted my teeth.

“We’ve gotta figure something out,” I changed the subject a few moments
later when he refused to back down. “They’re obviously looking for us.
Someone told them what that waster said and that we’d be out here.”

“Probably hoping to catch us with all the good stuff already packed up,
and our gear too,” the man agreed, nodding. “Nice, convenient delivery
to them. And gone before anyone knows its them if they leave us all for
dead.”

That chill returned, washing over me from behind. I wrapped my arms
around myself.

“They won’t leave us ALL for dead ...”

Jordan looked at me, but I didn’t meet his eyes. He knew what I meant.
Probably had shoved that to the back of his head so he could function,
but he knew. And he had a little brother -- now SISTER -- on the line.
Even if Leslie had no fucking clue what was in store for her, for both
of us, I knew, and I could almost wish that I didn’t.

“We need a plan,” was what the man said instead of whatever he was
thinking. “Wait for nightfall, then we have to move or do something. I
can’t imagine it’ll take them more than a day to find us over here.”

“We could bury the entrance again,” I suggested, but didn’t really think
that was much of an option.

Weeks agreed. “Too risky. It’d be difficult to do that without leaving
any obvious signs, and they could still just find it like we did. They
know the area to search.”

“We’d have better luck luring them down here and into a crossfire than
fighting them out there.”

“You know as well as I do that there are way too many for that, Quinn.
We’d run out of bullets and be fighting hand to hand within minutes.
And, no offense, but do you really think you or Les would be much help
in a fistfight right now? No, you know as well as I do that the best
thing we can do is run.”

I went red at the insinuation that I couldn’t still somehow fight.
Despite my new size. Despite the way all my former male clothes draped
off me like a little kid. I could almost envy Leslie her size after the
transformation, still being tall enough and substantial enough to maybe
hold her own if it came right down to it. I was the size of a teenage
boy now, and felt about as useful just then.

“Quinn,” Jordan started to say in a softer voice, reaching out a hand to
touch my shoulder. Probably because of whatever look I’d had on my face
just then. I imagined it wasn’t quite so schooled as it should’ve been.
He reached out, but I just twisted away and trudged back toward the door
inside.

“Just let me think,” was what I said back over my shoulder to him as I
did.

* * *

“Come on,” I growled sometime later. Alone, bent over, and pulling my
boot laces as tight as I could together to keep those things on my feet
from flopping all over the place. I needed to be able to move. I needed
to not slow us down. I needed those -- FUCKING boots -- to fucking ...

“FUCK!”

The worn out old lace snapped in my hands, breaking completely and so
abruptly that I fell over flat on my ass.

“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, FUCK!”

I scrambled back up, taking the broken part of the lace and hurling it
across the room. The way it fluttered out only a few feet before getting
sucked down again toward the floor was very anticlimactic. Especially
compared to how my whole body was shaking and trembling all over.

I clapped a hand to my face and felt the blood thumping in my veins.
Overwrought and with helpless frustration welling up so quickly inside,
I squeezed my other hand into a fist. And punched my thigh a few times
until it started to subside. Punched that skinny, soft, un-muscled thigh
until it bruised enough to calm me down.

I thought about what Jordan had said. About how he’d looked at me like I
was losing it. Maybe I was. My composure had slipped several times
already since finally waking up to ... this. The familiar calm and
steady hands that came with years of experience and battling the
hardships of running the wastes kept slipping through my fingers like
oil across water. Surges of fear and doubt and anger would rise up and
drown any semblance of self-control right out.

And I hated it.

I’d told Weeks that I needed to think. But I’d done little other than
secret myself away in one of the storerooms, trying my best to do what I
could with all those too-big clothes, knowing that I could hardly hope
to run in them. And now I’d ripped one of my laces up, trying to fasten
it securely to my tiny new feet. So I went about salvaging that as best
I could while grumbling to myself alone in the dark.

It wasn’t long before another sort of grumbling reached my ears, though.
The grumbling of a certain man stalking down the corridor outside,
fighting the nasally sound coming out of his so recently crushed nose.

“I don’t care what the fuck’s going on with those two, I wanna kick that
kid’s fucking ass!” it said, and I bristled where I sat, letting my
efforts fall aside.

“Come on, Drez,” someone else was saying, arguing back in a warning
voice as they walked along. I recognized it as Ortega. “You really think
that’s the best idea, right now? You heard what Quinn said.”

“Fuck Quinn!” Cooper snapped at the other man. “That thing isn’t Quinn
anymore, and I’m tired of those two always protecting Leslie like he’s
some kind of special case. He’s not! This world’s a shithole. He needs
to learn that, and he’s not going to so long as he keeps getting away
with this kind of shit!”

“I really don’t think that’s wh--”

“Shut up, Marty. And get away from me.”

Cooper tried to shove the other man, who had drifted out into his path,
but he dodged. And I appeared in the doorway right about that moment,
peering out at them both.

“Going somewhere, you two?”

They stopped, and looked at me. Ortega got an abashed look on his face,
scrubbing a hand along one side of his scruffy face. Once he got past
that doubletake for this tiny, fragile girl standing there talking to
him like a soldier out of the way, that is. He turned his eyes away from
me, keeping his distance.

Not Cooper, though. He turned and looked right at me instead. Glaring. I
saw his teeth flash past his lips as they curled back ever so slightly
along his mouth.

“Nothing you need to worry about,” was what he said to that.

“Christ, Dresden,” Ortega muttered, half warning, half uncertainty at
that posture of his.

I straightened myself up to the fullest height I could manage.

“You wanna say that to me again, Cooper?” I challenged, resisting the
urge to push up on the tips of my feet to squeeze any more altitude out
of myself. I just shoved all thoughts of this girl’s body right out of
my head. “You wanna tell me just what the hell you think you’re going to
go do?”

Any other time, he would’ve backed down. Any other time, and that man
with his busted-up glasses taped and bandaged back together and lying
crooked on his face with his squashed nose would’ve turned away and
backed off the moment I took that warning tone with him. But any other
time and it wouldn’t have come out sounding like a prepubescent boy
trying to scold an adult. Any other time and it wouldn’t have come off
thin, and weak, and shrill with frustration.

He took a couple quick steps toward me.

“You trying to tell me what the fuck to do?” he growled right back.
“Huh? QUINN?”

He got right up in my face and, for a moment, I could see his hand lash
out and strike me just before it would. I saw the tension and that glint
of feral, barbaric cruelty in his eye as he loomed over me, and I knew
he wouldn’t hesitate to strike me down. Beat me to death right there in
the middle of that ancient place. He could do it now, and he knew it.

And I felt a stab of fear.

“Just what the fuck’s going on here?”

Someone else butted in before the man could do anything. JORDAN butted
in before the man could do anything. Of course.

The man had just waltzed into that little stretch of abandoned corridor
from wherever he had been, stopping there to eye the scene in front of
him. I wondered if he hadn’t somehow been waiting there, just out of
sight. And I found the idea almost just as disturbing as the man
threatening violence on me now.

Cooper didn’t look at him. Not at first. He just stood there, leaning
off his feet toward me ever so slightly like he might lunge. For my
part, I held my ground. I felt sweat on my palms and the prickle of tiny
hairs on the back of my neck, but I didn’t move. I stared back
unblinkingly, willing any signs of fear from my face. Willing myself to
appear as impassive as stone.

“Dresden!” Weeks barked suddenly then, taking a step toward the other
man.

The moment passed. Cooper turned slowly to shoot a dark look Jordan’s
way. He threw his hands up and stalked away back down the corridor the
way he had come, brushing past Weeks as he did.

Ortega looked from me to Jordan. Then the other man gave him a curt nod,
which sent him jogging along after Cooper to check on him. To keep him
in check.

Leslie was somewhere down the opposite way.

“You okay?” Jordan started to ask when I leveled him with a look of my
own. But I turned on my heel before he could, not answering. I just
moved quickly down the hall away from him too, trying my best to
suppress the shakes that suddenly threatened to overwhelm me once more.

* * *

I eventually found Leslie in the room that we’d woken up in, tucked away
again so far from where the others had been bedding down that it
reminded me of a time when facilities like bathrooms and dormitories had
been separated between the sexes. When those figure markings of a
faceless nobody wearing a triangular dress actually meant something.
When they weren’t rubbed off or smudged and just ignored because it
didn’t matter anymore.

I found Leslie, but she was turned away from me and peeking down her own
sweatshirt. Getting an eyeful of what she found down there.

Frozen mid-stride at the door, I goggled at her from across the room for
the time it took me to watch her drop her shirt back down and twist
around toward her notepad, sketching down some notes.

“... Leslie?”

“Huh?” Her eyes snapped over toward me in surprise, her now curvaceous
body hopping upward a few inches from where she sat on one of the old
Protean beds. And those doe eyes went wide before narrowing again, as
she saw that it was just me.

“Oh ... I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind?”

“What?”

“About the lab and those samples. Please tell me you’re here to talk
about that because you guys have to understand just how important this
really is.”

I sighed, holding my ground just inside the door for a few moments
longer. Long enough for her to go back to her notes and scribble
something more. Then I pulled myself over toward her bed, standing in
front of her.

“Or you could let me take your measurements,” she offered as I did. “We
need to figure out exactly how this thing works so that when we’re
trying to replicate the results we’ll have some idea of what to expect.”

“Replicate the results?” I echoed, frowning down at her. “Don’t you mean
reverse them? Find a cure to this?”

“I guess we could look into that too,” she mused, bobbing her crown of
still tied-back blonde hair thoughtfully at the idea. “But it’s much
less important. The priority has to be to repeat the transformation on
willing volunteers if it’s to give us any hope of saving our world. We
need to get samples and bring them back with us. We’ll probably have to
go all the way to Aurora to analyze them. That’s the only place that
might have the kind of equipment we’ll need.”

I plopped down on the bed across from her, still wrestling with just
what had come out of her mouth right then. I knew that she wanted those
samples, but--

“Willing volunteers?” I asked, interrupting my own thoughts and giving
her a bemused look. “What the hell makes you think anyone would WANT to
do this to themselves, Leslie?”

The other woman looked at me like that was the dumbest question in the
world. To her, it seemed like it certainly was. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s
certainly a better option than waiting around for us all to just die
off, leaving nothing in our wake but our failure. It’s not like the two
of us by ourselves would be enough to create a sustainable population.”

I cringed again at the thought. Hard.

“Do you even know what you’re saying? Men VOLUNTEERING for this? To ...
to have THAT done to them?” I gestured with my hands vaguely toward her,
but I meant the disgusting idea of somehow procreating, and I think she
got the point. “How the hell do you even know we could ... we can ...”

My words trailed off between us. She waited patiently and then nodded
her head.

“I don’t know for sure, but there had to be a purpose to this thing,
Quinn. What purpose is there in turning males into non-functional
females?”

“And what happens when the Phage catches up with us?” I demanded. “What
then, huh? Do you have any idea how bad that’ll be?”

Control slipped for a moment and I raised my voice at her. That hadn’t
been my intent, but the flow of words that came out of her mouth was
dredging up the worst fears that I had had rattling around inside my
skull ever since realizing just how truly fucked we were. Better to have
died, I still thought.

But she gave me a serious look.

“I know because my dad took exhaustive notes on the Gynophage,” she
explained, crooking a slim eyebrow. “We would’ve been feeling the
effects of it already, Quinn. Everyone’s a carrier. Think about it. They
think it came out of places like this at first and, if that’s true,
along with this thing and what it did to us ... there’s gotta be a
reason for it. It fits too conveniently. The Proteans must’ve had the
same problem as us and developed this as a cure, although, apparently
not soon enough to save themselves.”

“Jesus Christ, would you listen to yourself, kid?” I barked a shaky
laugh at her, throwing my hands up. “Got it all figured out, don’t you?
I mean ... do you have any idea what people are going to do to us when
we get back home? Do you?”

Now it was her turn to frown at ME, not understanding.

“Welcome us like heroes? Be thankful that there might be an end to the
Phage in sight? That we might actually not all die out and maybe even
survive to have children?”

I just stared at her for a few seconds, feeling something fall inside
myself. Pity welled up in its place as I just sat there, staring. She
squirmed a little while I did and didn’t say anything for a long time.

“What?!” she demanded then. “Am I wrong, Quinn?”

“No, it’s just ...”

I shook my head. I shook my head and threw my hands up again.
Helplessly.

“I hope you’re right, kid. I really do. ‘Cause things are probably gonna
get real tough in the meanwhile, assuming we even get out of here alive.
And I need you to be ready for that, Leslie. Do you think you can be
ready for that?”

“What do you mean?” Her brow just creased even further. “Menstruation?
Pregnancy? It’ll be tough but I’m sure we can--”

“God, no!” I snapped, cutting her off. “Fuck. No, Leslie. I’m not
talking about ... about that. Any of that stuff.”

“You’re not?”

“No. JESUS Christ ... How do you even know about that stuff?”

“Dr. Carlisle has books on all kinds of things,” she argued, getting a
little defensive. “I thought it was an interesting topic ...”

I sucked in a deep breath. I looked away and then squeezed my eyes shut
before coming back around to her. I tried to soften my tone just the
slightest bit.

“Just ... be careful. And stick close to me,” I told her. “Stick close
to your brother. We’re gonna take care of you. Okay? As best we can.”

She stiffened a bit at that, though. “I’m perfectly capable of taking
care of myself, you know. I don’t need you guys to baby me, especially
not now.”

“Leslie ...”

She opened her mouth to start arguing that point with me again but
someone knocked against the open door and we both spun around toward the
sound. It was just her brother, though. Again. He was standing there
looking at us with that same concerned cast to his face.

“Got a minute, Quinn?” he asked, and I tried not to scowl back at him. I
could’ve hoped he had come here for Leslie and not me. I’d just ASSUMED
that was the case.

Leslie shook her head in frustration.

“Great. Why don’t you two go huddle somewhere else and leave me alone if
you’re not gonna let me into the lab.”

Jordan visibly resisted the urge to argue with his ... sister. Instead,
he just set his jaw and quirked an eyebrow at me, waiting.

I got up with a groan, trudging out into the hall and walking some
distance with him down the corridor.

“You have to keep following me around like this?” I demanded while we
moved away, a biting tone to it that I just couldn’t quite help. I
didn’t like being harried, or having to have him hounding my steps like
that to keep the wolves at bay. All our lives before, I’d been the older
one, the stronger one, the one in charge. And he had accepted that. Now
the situation felt completely reversed but with a much, much larger gulf
gaping between us. One that wrapped me up in anger at my own
powerlessness and the need for him -- for ANYONE -- to step in and keep
me safe.

So it was hard not to level him with an icy glare for what had happened
earlier. What had BEEN happening ever since that damned box had exploded
in our faces inside the lab. Even though I knew it wasn’t really his
fault. That he was just trying to help.

He ignored the jab. And asked instead, “How are you holding up?”

“Yeah, you keep asking me that,” I grunted back.

“Well, it’s a legitimate question, Quinn. You’ve been up for less than a
day after having your whole body practically torn apart and put back
together by God-knows-what and I can tell you aren’t coping like you
want me to think you are. You’re not doing a real good job at hiding it
either.”

“Yeah, well it doesn’t matter does it?” I countered. “How I FEEL isn’t
going to change what we have to do to get out of here, or how we’re
going to survive.”

“Maybe not,” he agreed with a bob of his head. “But you know that’s what
Drez saw when he nearly attacked you back there, Quinn. You know these
guys aren’t going to buckle under to you like they did before.”

I looked up at him, sharply. “You gonna make them buckle for me,
Jordan?”

His head tilted to one side at that, just giving me an exasperated look.

“What do you expect, Quinn? What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Stand back and let someone like Cooper take a swing at you?” he
continued right over me. “You think you can even take that kind of
physical punishment from a guy like him right now? You don’t exactly
have the body mass or muscle anymore.”

Again, my cheeks burned as anger flared behind them.

“You think I don’t know that, Weeks?”

“I don’t know what to think, Quinn,” he responded with a shake of his
head. “I just know we have to get out of here and that’s going to be
hard enough just worrying about the Roamers. I don’t wanna have to worry
about you and Les getting taken out by our own guys while we do.”

I laughed at him. “And what does it matter if we do get out?” I demanded
angrily, and shoved my hand back the way we’d come toward Leslie. “You
should just listen to your brother back there. Sorry, SISTER. She’s
already contemplating how we can save the human race on this miserable
planet by turning ourselves over into baby-making factories, you know?”

“Damn it, Quinn, I’m trying to talk abo--”

“‘Cause you and I both know that’s exactly what’s going to happen,
Jordan!” I snapped at him. “The boys back home are gonna take one look
at us and start plotting how to USE us. They’re gonna make us into
slaves. Sex slaves. Childbearing slaves. Whatever. All of it!” I threw
my hands up. “I can’t do that, Weeks. I can’t go back to ... to THAT!”

“So what are you gonna do about it, huh, Quinn?” He stepped in close,
pushing me back and trying to shut me up with a backward glance to see
if anyone else could hear. My voice had been rising shriller and more
hysterical while I worked up to shouting at him then. “Stay here? Let
the Roamers get you? You really think it’s going to be any better with
them?”

“No.”

“So what then, Quinn? I said I’d protect you, and I will. Both of you.
You’re my best friend. You’ve had my back more times than I can count.
You really think I’m going to just let anyone do that to you, Quinn? To
my little brother?”

I looked up at him again.

“Are you saying you wouldn’t do it too?” I demanded in a small voice
already sure of the answer. “Are you really going to tell me you don’t
feel the temptation to do just that? I’ve seen those looks. The rest of
the team isn’t going to stay cowed for long. Everyone’s going to want a
piece eventually. Who’s to say you won’t too?”

He just stared at me, his dark eyes smoldering, for what felt like a
minute without saying anything. His teeth ground against each other
while he did. I didn’t look away either. I waited for an answer.

“I’m not going to let that happen, Quinn.”

“So you keep saying.”

“Well then believe it!” he shouted at me suddenly and spun on his heel,
throwing his hands up.

I watched him while he stomped away.

Chapter Six: Progress

Having been drawn by the sound of raised voices, I watched as my brother
stormed away from Quinn, leaving the woman there alone. That wasn’t the
only adjective I’d used to describe her current state, though.
Dejected, frazzled, helpless, those all fit her, as she just watched my
brother’s back fade away.

Seeing the other woman like that, I was tempted to step out from cover
and go over to her, try to offer some sort of support. What would I even
say to her, though? After our last conversation, it was clear to me that
she had no interest in the potential upsides of what had happened to us.
All she wanted was a cure, a rewind button that could take her back to a
world that, no matter how miserable and hopeless it had been, was stable
and familiar. Words couldn’t give her that, though. The only thing that
possibly could lay down in that lab.

“And this is my chance to get it,” I suddenly realized. Quinn was
clearly in no condition to try to stop me right now. My brother had
stormed off, no longer watching me nor likely to be too attentive
wherever he’d gone. All I’d have to do was slip past the others out in
the camp which shouldn’t be that hard. We were reliant on torches and
lamps for light, leaving plenty of shadowy recesses along the edges of
rooms and hallways.

Forming a plan, my gaze dipped away from the woman I couldn’t help to
the belt at my waist. Some of my tools were gone, lost to either being
left in the lab or jostled loose in the process of dragging me up to
barracks. I still had my flashlight, though, some useful tools, and my
scrap metal machete. If Jordan had just closed the door, rather than
welding the thing shut or something equally idiotic, I should have
enough to get through it, find whatever had done this in the lab, and
grab it.

Resolved to an idea, I slipped away from the barracks and off to a
nearby shadowy recess to begin my trip. At first, it was quite easy,
since I was too far away from anyone for them to even possibly notice.
That didn’t last, though, not once I drew closer to the base camp we
were using.

Other than a couple of lookouts, most of our group sat huddled in the
camp, having muted conversations. The bewilderment of what had happened
to Quinn and I combined with the sudden arrival of the Roamers had put
everyone on edge. Now, a palpable weight of fear and uncertainty hung
over them, keeping anyone from daring to speak too loud.

All of the other worries helped make my job even easier. Everyone was
distracted and introspective as I snuck by in the shadows, wincing at
every jingle of my belt and ever scrape of my floppy boots. Any other
day, I was sure that I would’ve been caught by the experienced team that
was usually quite wary of every noise and flicker out in the wastes. As
far as I could tell, though, on that day, no one even registered any of
the sounds much less considered investigating them.

Once I was passed the camp, eagerness increased my pace. I needed to
hurry. I didn’t know how much time I would have before someone would try
to seek me out and find me missing. Before that happened, I needed to
already be in the lab at the very least. That would keep there from
being any reason to stop me.

Reaching the stairs, I hurried down, grabbing my flashlight from my belt
as I went. It wasn’t until I was down on the second floor that I turned
I turned on the little light. It flickered briefly when it first came
on, making me worry that I wouldn’t have enough battery left to finish
my work. A quick shake fixed the issue, though, earning a heavy sigh of
relief for me.

With the light on, I quickly progressed across the level to the medlab.
There, I let out my second sigh of relief as I found the door, not
welded shut or blasted in, but merely closed. Still, without power, it
was going to be a pain to get it opened, but not impossible.

Leaning in close, I ran the flashlight over the door, looking for the
best way to get it open again. There were no hinges I could undo or
handle to pull. However, I did find a part where the door remained a
crack open, perfect for prying.

“Hope this is sturdy enough,” I muttered as I used my free hand to tug
my machete free and jammed it into the crack.

The ring of metal on metal was followed immediately by a sudden wash of
light that was far brighter than my dinky little flashlight, and the
sound of Mikey McDunnough exclaiming, “What the hell do you think you’re
doing?!”

Wincing at the voice, I tightened my grip on the machete handle,
wondering what I could possibly do in that situation. If it was just
Mikey, I still had a chance. He could be a bit of an ass sometimes, but
he wasn’t unreasonable. I could maybe convince him to let me work or,
failing that, maybe knock him out or something. After my last attempt to
fight through men, though, I had some doubts about how easy the latter
option would be.

Yanking the machete free again, I turned around to face the man,
squinting into the bright light of the bulky box of a flashlight he
held. Because of that, I couldn’t really see much else, but I was fairly
sure that there was only the one shadowy figure. That was something.

“I need to get samples of whatever did this to Quinn and me,” I stated,
not bothering to lie about things. “That’s the only way we’ll ever
understand it.”

“Understand it?” Mikey repeated as a question. “All I want to do is get
away from it. We shouldn’t even be down here, let alone opening that
door. I mean, look at what it did to you! What if you infect the rest of
us?”

When I opened my mouth to reply, I had to catch myself, holding back the
urge to talk about how that outcome would be great – proof positive that
the change could be replicated instead of a one time fluke. After
dealing with Quinn, I knew Mikey wouldn’t see it like that, though, so I
went with a different tactic. “When you all found us, you were on this
floor with the door open, and none of you changed. It’s obviously not
that virulent. It should be perfectly safe to open the door, especially
now that everyone is on an entirely different floor.”

The only reaction I could actually see was Mikey lowering his light so
that it no longer blinded me, but instead illuminated mostly the ground
between us. “I guess it really is you in there. Nobody else is that
reckless and idiotic.”

“Idiocy is really more your department, Mikey,” I joked back, smirking
in amusement.

“Yeah, well you’re ... “ Mikey started, seemingly ready with one of his
usual comebacks, but it just trailed away into nothing. Even with his
face heavily shadowed by the awkward angle of the light, I could tell
that he was just staring at me. It was awkward and unsure, like I was
some alien thing that he didn’t know what to do with anymore.

Shifting uncomfortably in that gaze, I quickly spoke up to break the
silence. “So ... you going to let me do this or not, Mikey?”

“Huh?” the man mumbled, snapping free of his stare at his name. “Oh ...
look, Les, I get you wanting to find a way back–”

“That’s not what I’m looking for at all,” I corrected before he could
finish.

I could tell that answer stunned him, because he actually reeled
slightly back from it like some incredible surprise. “Wait ... you ...
you’re not? Then what ... you’re just gonna stay like that?”

“Some people will have to,” I answered logically. “Admittedly, I
would’ve prefered not having to be one of them, but since I already am,
it would seem counterproductive for me to try to go back. By the time we
could even figure out a way, I’ll already be more accustomed to it than
anyone else.”

For a moment, my only answer was shocked silence as Mikey tried to
process what I’d just told him. “So you’re just ... this now?”

“Yeah, why?” I confirmed. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a girl now
...”

“No!” Mikey blurted defensively. “I mean ... of course not, it’s just
I’ve never actually seen one and now ... you’re ... ”

For a moment, I thought maybe things would stop being awkward, but once
again Mikey was back to stumbling over his words. Frustrated, I decided
it was time to put an end to the questions and get back to the task at
hand. “Look, Mike, I get the curiosity, but can we talk about this
later? I need to get into the lab before anyone else stumbles down
here.”

Immediately, I regretted my choice of tactic as Mikey’s posture went
from confused to resistant. “I can’t let you do that, Les. Jordan told
us–”

“Fuck what my brother told you!” I spat, furious at the idea that I was
going to be denied by my brother again when he wasn’t even there. “He’s
not my fucking babysitter! This lab holds the key to saving all of us!
Don’t you fucking get that?! We can’t just leave it here!”

“By doing the same thing to us that it did to you?!” Mikey demanded, his
own anger flaring up in response to my outburst. “That’s not saving
shit!”

“It’s not going to fucking do that, you idiot!” I spat, the
shortsightedness infuriating me. “All that’s going to happen is I’m
going to open the door, grab a sample, and come back out! No one else
will change, no one will even fucking know, unless you tell them!”

To my surprise, the logic actually seemed to sink into Mikey as he went
from angry to suspicious. “That’s it? You’re absolutely sure nothing
will happen to us?”

“Yes!” I assured him, even though, it wasn’t quite true. There was some
chance that whatever I got in there might unintentionally affect
someone, but it was extremely slight. “And all you have to do is just
walk back up those stairs and forget you saw me down here.”

There was a pause as Mikey considered that before he added, “And this is
really that important to you, to everyone?”

“More important than anything anyone has ever found on this planet,” I
answered, this time not having to bend the truth.

Another pause filled the air, followed by a sigh of defeat. “I can’t
believe I’m doing this, but ... alright. You owe me, though – big time.”

“Fine, whatever you want,” I agreed, certain that anything I had would
be worth it to get into that lab.

I caught sight of a nod in the shadows as Mikey agreed to the deal.
“Okay. Just give me a bit to get back upstairs. I don’t want to be
anywhere near that door when you open it.”

“Of course,” I answered, having no problem with giving the man time to
escape. I would probably want the same thing in his shoes, just to be
safe.

“I’m going to regret this, I just know it,” Mikey grumbled as he turned
away from me and took off at a trot back to the stairs, leaving me alone
with the door once more.

With profound relief, I watched the man go, almost unable to believe
that I hadn’t been stopped again. I even offered a silent thank you to
my departing comrade, so glad that it had been him instead of my brother
or Dresden who both would’ve stopped me for sure. After that, it was
just a matter of waiting until the sound of clomping boots was gone, so
that I could turn back to the door.

Just like before the interruption, I found the crack along the edge of
the door and jammed my machete into it. Unlike before, the sound of
metal didn’t draw any unwanted attention, allowing me to throw my weight
against the tool. At first, I just huffed out a grunt, straining
against the lever without much luck. It took a moment of that before I
heard the first shrill creak of the door beginning to budge, then
finally there was a sudden pop as the door lurched open enough to fit a
hand into it. Shoving my machete back onto my belt, I got my hands into
the door and started tugging, scraping it slowly along the ground until
it was about half open before finally releasing it to slouch and pant
for breath.

As I collected myself, I looked at that gap, half expecting to see a
burst of green gas that would sear my eyes and lungs just like before.
This door was not as spiteful as the last one I’d opened, though,
showing nothing but blackness beyond. I would have to go inside to find
more, and as soon as I caught my breath, I moved to do exactly that.

“Ow! Stupid breast tissue!” I hissed in pain as I tried to squeeze
through the gap only to have my chest get caught on the door. I ended
up having to go back out so I could press a hand to that protruding
flesh and hold it all in while I squeezed by.

Stumbling as I tugged my way through the door, I finally found myself in
the lab that I had been longing to return to since I’d woken up. My
flashlight shot up in an instant, sweeping the room. The place looked
exactly as I remembered it from that fateful day, apparently left
untouched after what had happened.

Actually kind of glad that no one had come in and trashed the place
while I was out, I started forward, winding my way across the room to
the mysterious box that had started all of this. I founded it in the
exact same spot as before, the door hanging slightly open with my tools
scattered on the ground in front of it.

Excitement building, I leaned forward, trying to keep the hand that
held the flashlight from shaking so that I could see. The other had to
be steady as well as it was the one that had to reach for the door,
intent on pulling it open so that I could see inside. Both still shook a
little, in spite of my efforts.

Slowly, I tugged the door out of the way, not wanting to rush and damage
the contents any further. The light came next, bathing the interior of
the case. It revealed several neat rows of capped, glass vials that
filled the shelves within. Some held a translucent green fluid that I
suspected was the same color as the gas I had briefly seen before it had
blinded me. Not all of them were so filled, though. Most had shattered
or cracked at some point, leaving behind no trace of what had once
filled them. That fact was worrisome. It meant the vials were fragile,
possibly impossible for me to even safely travel with.

Humming thoughtfully, I set down my flashlight before starting to tug
off my sweatshirt. Underneath, I had on a flannel shirt which came off
next, then under that, just a simple cotton undershirt. That I stripped
off as well, leaving my chest flopping about in the decidedly chilly
underground air.

Ignoring that nuisance, I leaned in, using the undershirt to carefully
grab a vial and remove it from its rack. To my relief, it didn’t just
shatter at a touch, allowing me to pull it free with the fluid still
safely inside. I did the same for another vial as well, but left the
others behind, seeing no sense in risking all of it on such a precarious
method of transport.

Once I had the two vials, I wrapped them up in the undershirt and
carefully set it on a nearby desk. After that was done, I emptied one of
the pouches on my belt, dumping tools off to the side. That gave me a
spot to shove the shirt into, packing it neatly into the pouch so that
there was no risk of jostling, but also not so tight that it would exert
too much pressure on the fragile vials.

“Brr,” I shuddered after I was finished, quickly grabbing my shirt to
tug it on. Pulling it over my chest earned a wince of pain from my
nipples. Confused, I reached up to check only to find the already
swollen buds stiff and enlarged – almost painfully so. That discovery
prompted a confused look from me. While I knew that women tended to have
larger nipples from some of the more revealing pictures of them that I’d
seen, I had never heard mention of this particular phenomenon, making me
wonder if it was some issue with my transformation.

“I’ll have to ask Quinn about it. Maybe she’s experienced it as well,” I
noted as I quickly finished getting dressed again. Once that was done, I
took a moment to rub at my arms to fight off the chill. After that, I
set about gathering up the tools that I’d had to remove my belt as well
as the ones that I’d left behind the day I’d opened the box. There was
no room on my belt for most of it, except my knife, but the rest I could
carry in my hands until I got up to the rest of my gear. As soon as that
was done, I hurried out of the lab, wanting to get back upstairs before
anyone noticed my absence and came looking.

Sneaking back up a level and by the camp seemed both easier and more
stressful than the last time. That time, Mikey had apparently heard me,
otherwise he’d have had no reason to go down to the second level. At the
same time, I’d also been in a rush then. With my task done, there was no
longer the need for haste, allowing me to focus on stealth to get myself
back to the barracks unnoticed. Once there, it was a simple matter of
just walking out of there like everything was normal, so that I could
get to my gear and put away the extra tools I had.

As I approached the camp, everyone looked up at me. They weren’t the
quick acknowledging glances kind of look either, but long stares full of
things from confusion to curiosity to introspection. Like Mikey, none of
them really seemed to know how to handle there suddenly being a woman
around.

Ignoring the attention as best I could, I just sat down with my gear and
set to work finding places for my retrieved equipment. As I did, most of
the men lost interest in me, returning to their hushed conversations and
dark worries. Not all of them did, though. Lincoln sat not too far away,
and while Shaun was talking to him, his attention remained locked on me,
not confused, but intent and focused – almost penetrating.

That attention worried me, like the man suspected something about me.
Maybe he’d seen me sneaking past. Maybe he just suspected. Whatever it
was, having his eyes on me was decidedly unsettling.

“What?” I demanded, lifting my gaze to lock it with the man’s. “Got
something to say, Linc?”

While my tone was harsh, Lincoln didn’t seem to take it as a rebuke. He
just kept looking at me the same way. “Not really. Just curious where
you’ve been is all. Haven’t seen you.”

“Documenting what happened,” I answered curtly. “Chatter and weird looks
aren’t great for analyzing the situation.”

Even as his eyes seemed to see right through the lie, Lincoln nodded in
acceptance. “I guess so, still, you shouldn’t be wandering off on your
own. Wouldn’t want something to happen to you.”

“Whatever, I can take care of myself,” I responded dismissively.

“Maybe you could, but things are different now,” Lincoln pointed out.
“You’re different now.”

I shrugged off the argument. “Not that different.”

“You’re wrong,” Lincoln pressed on, though. “You have no idea. You’re
valuable now. Both of you are.”

Not needing to be told that, I just rolled my eyes at the man and got
back to my work. Of course, Quinn and I were valuable. We were the first
test subjects, the proof of what was now possible. That didn’t mean I
needed to be coddled like some child, though. I could handle things on
my own.

Chapter Seven: In the Saddle

“Quinn! Quinn!”

I stopped, fists clenching to either side at the sound of the elder
Weeks’ voice calling after me again. I’d just come back down from
checking on the watch and the progress of the Roamers above, and the
news wasn’t good. They’d loosened up their search radius and gotten
close to running us over before night started to come on, putting a stop
to it for the day. They’d been encamping when I left them, Ortega
describing just how near to the hole one of the search parties had been
-- within five hundred feet, he’d said. Close enough to make my heart
clench with cold dread inside my too-narrow chest.

Now Jordan was suddenly there again, having avoided me ever since our
discussion earlier after which he had just stormed off. Even though he
knew as well as I did what lay ahead of us. I clenched my fists and
turned around to face him.

“What, Weeks?” I demanded, as calmly as I could. If the man was still
angry with me for how I’d slapped him with the brutal truth of it all,
it didn’t show. He just jogged up excitedly.

Harris was right behind him.

I frowned as Jordan gestured toward the other man.

“Listen to Brad, Quinn. He’s got an idea.”

I did. I stood there and listened while Harris pushed past whatever
awkwardness he felt toward addressing me as I looked now and described
his idea. Jordan nodded beside him, chiming in every so often and
studying my reactions. By the time they were done, I was wide-eyed and
considering all the possibilities.

“And you ... you think you can really do that?” I tried to clarify as I
wrestled with the hope of it, but I didn’t have to look at the man to
know he nodded.

“We’ll need two to carry all of us, I figure. The smaller ones,” Jordan
added. He was talking about the Roamer buggies. They both wanted to
sneak in there and try to steal them while the raiders were bedding
down. Find the keys or more likely hotwire the vehicles, and get us out
of here before we could get caught out in the open.

I was thinking how that just might work.

“They might have sentries. We’ll have to take them out without alerting
the rest of them,” I mused aloud, eyes darting back and forth at nothing
as I thought it through. “I wouldn’t count on getting the drivers at
all, or their keys. But hotwiring two? That’ll take time, Harris.”

“It’ll be close,” he agreed, unable to keep the worry from his face over
that much of our success relying on him and what would happen if it all
went wrong.

“What choice do we have, Quinn?” Jordan argued. I stuck a finger at him.

“What about Leslie? He’s not -- she doesn’t know this stuff, probably
never even SEEN one of those rides up close before. But she’s probably
the next best person to figure it out.”

“I guess ...” Harris scratched the side of his head. “It’s a bunch of
wires inside the console, one for the ignition. Not that hard, but
trickier in the dark and especially if you don’t know what you’re
looking for.”

“So tell her,” I said. “Give Leslie as much detail as you can. Walk her
through it. We’ll have her on the second ride. If she can’t get it
going, you can always finish it once you’ve got the first one done.”

They looked at me and there was nodding. Focus on the task ahead and the
drive to see it done. It sank into each of us and I looked to Jordan.

“It’s just gotten dark out. I say a few hours to let the bulk of them
pass out and then we strike. We’ll need to get everyone ready to move.
Stow anything that’ll weigh us down too much to carry on foot away.
We’ll need a few guys unloaded to scout ahead of us as we move and take
out their eyes. It can’t be me or Leslie. And we’ll need two guys good
enough to drive.”

Weeks looked at me while I worked through those orders with him, looked
at me and nodded to Harris, dismissing him. When his face rounded back
to my own, he was smiling.

“What?” I asked, brow furrowing.

“Nothing. It’s just good to see you back.”

* * *

Three hours later saw us sprawled out on the dirt beneath the grass,
elbows and stomachs and knees pressed against the cold ground. It was
the first time I’d been out of that hole in nearly five days, not
counting our vigil on the Roamers. The night was mostly quiet and still
now, huddled bodies and soft breathing all around me. It was impossible
to tell who was who without pushing in close.

Jordan was at my one elbow, and I’d made sure Leslie stayed close behind
even though I had Harris at the other. We waited there silently in the
dark to hear back from Kerensky and Bates, who’d scurried off to check
the path ahead. They were our frontrunners tonight.

Everyone was up and out of the ruin and had been for the past twenty
minutes or so. We’d slinked up as quietly as we could and crawled a
short ways towards the Roamer encampment fires, hoping we wouldn’t be
seen. The nearest light was a good thousand feet away, though, so we’d
been lucky. Our two scouts were just making sure that we STAYED lucky.
Given that the raiders had almost certainly been tipped off to our
location, they’d be wary of us fleeing at night at the very least. It
was far less likely we’d have the courage or numbers to attack. Even
less so, I thought, to attempt what we were going to try now.

Eventually, the crunching of dried grass and shallow footsteps came at
us out of the dark. I tensed, and so did Jordan beside me, tightening
hands about our weapons. The older Weeks dangled a finger along his
knife, steel glinting ever so softly next to me from the muted
starlight.

“Jordan? Quinn?”

Kerensky. Jordan and I clambered up to a crouch -- one of us having a
much more difficult time of it -- and crept over to where the man was
ducked down, hiding. I could see the pale sheen of sweat that coated his
face as he swiped at it, looking at us.

“A few sentries. We didn’t make any move on them yet, but got a good
idea of where they are and what their movements are like.”

“Good, you guys ready to move?” Weeks whispered back.

“Yeah. We’re good.” The man nodded and so did Bates beside them.

I drew their attention back toward me.

“Remember. Kill them quick, and take them down. Go for the throat. Avoid
the ones holding torches.”

Again, those two nodded, though a little less eagerly than before.

“It’s them or us,” I reminded them, “but only if they get too close.”
Those two men looked like they understood that just enough. “Carlton,
get the others ready to move.”

I had Carlton and McDunnough shouldering the excess gear from Bates and
Kerensky, with Ortega and Cooper on the flanks. Jordan, Leslie, Harris,
and I were in the middle, following as closely behind the path scouted
and cleared ahead toward the vehicles. They weren’t hard to pick out
from the rest of the encampment there in the dark off to one side,
larger trucks looming up a dozen feet from the tents scattered around
below it. The problem was that there were a lot of lights around that
area. Our hope was to keep our approach to the far side of the raider
camp, focused so that we could go unnoticed for as long as possible by
angling to loop slightly around.

The open stretch of ground leading up toward the Roamers was hard on me
and Leslie with our ill-fitting clothes. Jordan was keeping pace with us
but I knew he could’ve scrambled along much faster. Ortega and Cooper
too, though the latter man didn’t keep formation so well. Our two pack
mules had just about as much trouble keeping crouched low and moving as
we did.

Some of us had guns, but Jordan and I had ordered them used only as a
last resort. We knew the moment that first bullet thundered into the
night, our gambit was up. So we had better be on the last legs of it by
then. Most of the men carried knives.

Kerensky and Bates had a good lead on us, as intended. They were much
faster and lighter and I tried to keep my head up through the puffing
and straining and aching muscles in order to see how they were doing. A
torchlight bobbed and vanished somewhere up ahead when we were about
halfway to the thin treeline that screened the makeshift motorpool. And
I held my breath, stopping. Jordan blinked back at me, saw what I saw,
and waited. Everyone did.

But no alarm came.

A collective sigh of relief was felt more than heard as we started up
again. The rest of the way had no incidents, which was good because my
legs had started to burn so badly that I could barely put one foot in
front of the other, my gear sloshing around on my back as we continued
on in that interminable half-crouch down against the height of the
grass. Each step, I felt like I was going to lose it finally, my world
burning down to just that overwhelming discomfort and fatigue, this new
body starting to fall apart. And then we stopped. Just when I was sure I
couldn’t take it anymore -- we stopped.

Jordan hopped between me and then Leslie, putting a hand to each of our
shoulders before moving on to check on each of the men. I envied him the
fact that he still had the stamina to do that as I sat there, breathing
hard and sweating profusely all over. I couldn’t even keep myself up on
my feet at that point. I just fell flat on my ass, sucking in air
through my teeth. I looked over and Leslie was doing somewhat better,
though still strained.

No, out of the two of us I had definitely gotten the worse end of this
whole shitshow. Even her much more generous assets didn’t seem quite so
bad in comparison to my own girlishly frail body. At least she could
still hold her own out here.

And I hated it.

But I pushed all that from mind after I got some wind back in me, taking
the time to look up and assess. We were about a hundred feet away from
the nearest vehicle, pulled back to just outside the treeline and away
from the torches.

Kerensky crept out of the dark, covered in blood and looking slightly
ashen, but good. I would’ve jumped in surprise had I the energy to when
he did.

“Where’s Bates?” I asked, and the man blinked. Then looked around.

“He was right behind me,” the bloodied man said, then started to get a
little panicky. Jordan came up and saw him, asked the same thing and the
man’s temperament frayed all the more.

“Calm down,” I told him, which was echoed by Weeks a second later.

“There’s nothing we can do now,” he told the other man. “We have to keep
moving. Get ready to take out those guards.”

I agreed. “Ortega!” I hissed, and the man materialized at my side. “You
and Cooper drop your shit and go with Kerensky. We need you to help take
out those guards.”

“Okay,” the man said, bobbing his head in the dark.

“We’ll cover you from back here in case things go wrong. Remember:
shooting is a last resort. We’re dead if we fire too soon. Carlton?
Think you can haul two more sets of gear?”

The black man didn’t even dignify the question with a groan. He just
nodded.

“I’ve got it too,” Jordan volunteered. “You and Les just worry about
getting up there when we need to go. You’re the best shot at medium
range anyways, Quinn.”

I unslung my rifle and set up to cover the men as they advanced, which
they did quickly. I sighted down and followed one of those Roamers as he
trudged along beyond the parked trucks and buggies and jeeps, lining up
the sights with his head and tracking him. Then switched to a new one as
that one moved out of view. Kerensky, Ortega, and Cooper all spread out
along the edge of the light bleeding out toward us, knives and weapons
in hand. As soon as the last sentry was moving away, they rushed forward
in a crouch.

We watched them as they made it to the motorpool. Watched them with our
breath held as they closed the space between without a single shot
fired. Watched them as the sentry who had stomped away doubled back,
looking like he forgot something.

Cooper buried a knife in that guy’s neck, taking him down before he
could make a sound.

They waited for another sentry and jumped him too. Kerensky whetted
himself a second time while Ortega held the guy.

And then the path was clear.

We hauled ass across the way.

“It’s all you, Brad!” Jordan whispered, racing ahead of our doorcracker
despite his load to meet up with the other guys in position. A jeep was
straight ahead of us, and one of those buggies parked crookedly a dozen
feet away. Harris picked up his pace and went for the former while I
shoved Leslie with a hand toward the latter. She nodded and scurried off
that way.

Too bad the camp chose right about that time to erupt in a bunch of
shouting.

I wasn’t sure what had gone wrong. None of us were. I could tell that by
the way everyone just glanced at each other around the silhouettes of
the trucks and smaller vehicles, hands still clutched to knives and
machetes and whatever blades they had. A gunshot cracked in the
distance, but I couldn’t see a one of us that had missed a sentry or
even been spotted. Not that it mattered. Not that there was anything
else to do at that point but run.

“GET THAT SHIT MOVING!” I screeched at Harris and Leslie, unslung my
rifle again, and howled at the other guys too. “SHOOT THEM! GUNS FREE!
HOLD THEM OFF!”

Everyone who had a gun pulled it free. People scrambled around vehicles,
looking for better cover. Guys pushed forward and tried to use the
bigger trucks. And the first shots rang out near the motorpool as a
sentry on the other side took a potshot at Harris.

The man ducked it. I came charging up behind him and shoved his ass
forward toward the jeep. He hopped right in it and got to work while I
slapped myself down against the hood, sighting down at the open spaces
between vehicles ahead. A Roamer popped up as I watched and my finger
twitched. He twitched too, shoulder slammed back. The next bullet found
his head.

“Come on, Harris!” I shouted over at the man crawling around inside the
jeep’s front seat, buried beneath its console. He didn’t answer me. The
gunshots and shouting and sounds of booted feet clomping around did. I
plugged two more Roamers unlucky enough to get in my field of vision and
narrowly missed a third, hitting the cowboy hat atop that one’s head and
knocking it clean off instead. He ducked out of the way and started
barking orders I couldn’t quite make out with all the noise.

I glanced over and saw Ortega take a hit, the man jerking back behind
the rim of a truck with a bloody hole in his arm. A Roamer jumped past
him with a knife, howling, and Carlton buried his climbing pick in the
raider’s eye.

“GOT IT!” Harris howled as the engine of the jeep suddenly roared to
life. I fired off a few more shots from my rifle to keep the raiders
ahead looking for cover and reached in to slap the man on his arm.

“Go help Leslie! Hurry!”

He peeled himself out of the jeep and Cooper appeared there in his
place, tossing Harris a 9mm pistol as he climbed into the jeep without
another word. I glanced back toward Leslie’s buggy with Harris charging
that way and saw Jordan. I waved to him.

“Cease fire. CEASE FIRE!”

Someone was shouting. Not one of ours. I hopped back fully behind the
rifle and watched out of the corner of my eye as Cooper shouldered a
double-barreled shotgun that I was pretty sure only had a couple shots
left.

The raiders started to settle down. They stopped charging at our people
recklessly, at least. I saw a cowboy hat with a hole in it waving high
over the tops of another jeep down the way, and Roamers everywhere
seemed to hold their ground. Our guys didn’t hesitate to shoot or knife
anyone who didn’t.

“Got one of your boys over here, y’all,” that same voice cried out with
an exaggerated twang. “Sure you wanna keep doing this? Could just
surrender before we execute him and then move on to the rest a ya!”

A Roamer popped his head up and I nearly blew it off. Jordan was
scurrying around between positions, getting people ready to move. Harris
and Leslie were both fighting over that other buggy, frantic to get it
working.

Cooper apparently really knew something about driving like he’d said, or
at least had intuited it quickly. Because he knew enough to rev the
jeep’s engine down low as the carnage slowed all around us. I wondered
what that man out there would think as soon as he realized just what we
were doing.

And that was when Bates got shoved into view. I nearly took his head off
too, finger squeezing toward my trigger on reflex. He had a hand around
the back of his neck and a pistol buried at the base of his skull, his
teeth bared. But it was him. Looking like someone had cuffed him over
the head, but it was him.

And I second guessed myself for the first time that night.

“Huh?” that voice called out again, confident and rich and filling the
night above the sounds of shuffling bodies and our people desperately
clinging to weapons. “You want me to blow his brains out? You want to do
this the hard way? Because there’s nowhere to go and we’ve got ya
outnumbered ten to one!”

I gritted my teeth. I could see Bates’ eyes narrowed, looking for us in
the dark. I thought he could just make me out against the jeep’s hood,
rifle trained his way.

It wasn’t much of a choice. I knew the Roamers wouldn’t let us live. And
even if they did? They weren’t going to let me and Leslie go. I tried to
tell myself it was the former instead of the latter fact that ruled my
decision making then, but it was hard to lie to myself. And I felt a pit
open up in my stomach as I said nothing and waited for the inevitable
bullet to splatter Lincoln Bates brains across the night.

The sound of the other buggy finally coming to life came first.

Leslie was back there, crying out shrilly in excitement behind the
wheel. Harris just shoved her over. I saw Jordan come jogging back my
way and I focused on my rifle for one last burst.

“EVERYONE MOVE!!!” I shrieked and fired a blind burst around the
vehicles, missing Bates by a clean mile.

The same sound erupted around me from the rest of the guys in position
with guns. I kept firing in short, controlled bursts around erratically
as they displaced and raced back toward the vehicles. The Roamers
started roaring back to life and I heard that man with the cowboy hat
cursing aloud. Bates vanished and I assumed he was dead. It was
impossible to tell when the shot fired that got him though with the way
everything went up in smoke and fire and bullets just then.

Ortega and Carlton pushed past me, piling into the back of the jeep. I
glanced back again to see McDunnough already in behind Leslie with
Kerensky charging that way. We were good. The buggy was starting to pull
back and I felt the engine rev in the jeep beneath me.

I pulled back, firing off another few rounds. Then slung my rifle as
Cooper started to peel out.

Something hit me from behind. I heard the rush of feet at the same time
it did and felt that something come crashing down on the back of my
head.

And everything went black.

Chapter Eight: Pinch

At first, there was excitement, an adrenaline fueled rush as I finally
got the wires right to bring the buggy’s engine to life. I couldn’t help
but shout in triumph at the success. Sure, it had taken some help from
Brad, but I still felt like I’d done pretty good for something I’d never
tried to do before, and in the dark no less.

That moment of triumph vanished a moment later as Brad just slammed me,
turning my shout of triumph into a grunt as I was shoved over to the
passenger seat. “Watch it, asshole!”

“You watch it, you little–” Brad began to retort as he situated himself
behind the controls.

“EVERYONE MOVE!!!” Quinn shrieked with shudder-inducing shrillness,
cutting off Brad’s words. I looked over that way as more gunfire filled
the air with its roar, cracking through the night like a thunderstorm
was about to roll in.

As I watched, Quinn, looking once more the consummate commander, fired
off a few bursts of covering fire. That allowed Marty and Travis to pile
into the jeep. At the same time, I could feel my own buggy rattling as
Mikey hopped into the back seat.

Right there, at that moment where we were almost away, finally a mistake
happened. As my attention was on Quinn, I could see it coming, a
shadowed figure in the night bearing down on the woman. I tried to shout
out a warning, but it was lost in the sounds of gunfire and engines.
With no firearms of my own, there was nothing else I could do besides
watch as Quinn was caught unawares, eating the butt of a rifle to the
back of the head.

I could’ve sworn that I heard the crack of wood on bone right before
Quinn dropped like all the bones inside her had just turned to mush.
She’d barely hit the ground before a sound I could actually hear cut
through the air, joined by the muzzle flash of Dresden’s shotgun. The
jeep’s driver blasted the Roamer standing over Quinn right in the chest,
leaving a bloody, ruined mess there as the man went flying.

Seeing the save, I scrambled to get out of my seat, wanting to rush over
and help, but by the time I even had that idea, my brother was already
there. He scooped Quinn up off the ground as easily as he would his
backpack, handing her off to Travis. The black man pulled the small
woman into the jeep with Jordan hopping in after her. Almost perfectly
timed, Shaun, the last of the group other than poor Lincoln, joined
Mikey in the back of our buggy and the whole group was ready to go.

Motors revved as tires ground and spit on the dirt and grass. A moment
later, buggy and jeep shot forward into the night, although, the latter
seemed to do so with considerably better pick up. The resultant lurch
slammed me back into my seat with a gasp, while beside me, Brad let out
a loud, satisfied whoop.

By the time I recovered from reeling, the buggy was already going at a
pretty good clip, bouncing along the uneven ground as it raced off. A
little ahead of us was the jeep with the rest of our team, jostling
about every bit as badly as our own vehicle was. It seemed to be of
greater concern to them, though, as I could see Jordan and Travis in the
back of the jeep fussing over what had to be Quinn. Unfortunately, the
woman was out of view, so I had no idea if she was just out cold or far
more seriously injured.

A sudden crack cut through the air, loud enough to be heard off the roar
of the motor and the bounding crashes of the buggy against the ground.
It was the sound of gunfire from somewhere behind us, getting me to
twist around in my seat to look back. Leaping out from the motorpool was
a line of other buggies and jeeps, the vehicles that we’d left behind
now in hot pursuit with Roamers at the wheels.

“Give us some cover back there, you two!” Brad shouted as he crouched
down behind the wheel to reduce the risk of getting shot.

Even before the order was finished, Mikey and Shawn were turning around
in their seats, getting their rifles up to fire back at our pursuers. A
few shots rang out, but there was no sign of any damage to the Roamers.
They didn’t even slow, racing after us with all the speed their vehicles
could muster.

“We would if you could keep this damn thing steady!” Mikey growled back,
fighting with the vehicle’s uneven ride as he tried to line up a shot.

“It’s a random fucking field! You think you can do any better?!” Brad
spat defensively, even as he was forced to lurch the wheel to the side
to avoid a big rock, sending us all careening the opposite way.

My shoulder slammed into the metal cage of the buggy from the jerk,
sending pain shooting along my side. Behind me, I heard a few
involuntary shots go off as the riflemen clutched to their weapons
rather than risk losing them over the side. It had to be better than
just hitting that boulder, though.

Rolling my arm to loosen up the injury, I turned back to check on the
Roamers again. "Uhm ... I think they’re gaining on us!”

“Of course they are!” Brad spat in exasperation. “They drive these
fucking things all over the place! I haven’t touched one in years!”

Before I could fully grasp the meaning of those words, there was a loud
crash as a bullet tore off the side mirror next to me. Apparently,
driving wasn’t the only skill the Roamers had an advantage in. Shooting
on the move seemed to be one as well.

“Shit! You mean we can’t outrun them?!” Mikey complained from the
backseat as he tried squeezing off another couple of shots.

“Not likely!” Brad confirmed. “I’ve got a few ideas once we hit the
trees, though!”

“Well then get us there already!” Shaun shouted, as he hunkered down in
his seat as low as he could get. “Cause I don’t have bullets to waste
like this!”

Taking a queue from Shaun’s last remark, Mikey abandoned trying to
shoot, hunkering down as well. He didn’t get quite as low, though,
preferring to stay facing toward the back so that he could peek over and
check on the roamers. With every check, they only drew closer.

Tired of watching the inevitable close in, I twisted back around,
looking toward the tree line. We were close already, only maybe half a
minute away. I didn’t see how the trees would help much, however. They
were fairly sparse, making it seem like it would be pretty easy to weave
the vehicles in between them. Besides, whatever edge the Roamers had in
driving, they’d still have at driving in the woods. Clearly, we needed
some other plan if we wanted to get out of this alive.

Knowing I would have even less of a chance of hitting anything than the
two guys in the back, I abandoned the idea of relying on firearms.
Instead, I dropped my gaze to my belt, trying to consider what I could
do with my tools. Almost immediately, I started cursing my stupidity for
wasting time on that. I had tools for opening doors, tinkering with
gadgets, and treating injuries, not for battling raiders on the open
plains. Unless I wanted to try to throw a knife at them, I had nothing
there that was helping us.

With my own items dismissed, I started searching about the buggy’s
cockpit. I had no idea what I expected to find, but presumably the
Roamers would keep useful weapons for on the move in the vehicles.
Unfortunately, the floor was empty. There were a few compartments to
check, but all I found was some car related tools inside, some jerky,
and a lighter. None of that was going to take out our enemies.

No sooner did I slam the last compartment closed then I heard a loud,
pained hiss from behind me. Jerking around, I saw Mikey clutching a hand
to his shoulder, a hand that was rapidly coating red with blood from a
wound. Apparently the Roamers were close enough that they weren’t always
going to miss.

Luckily, that was when we finally hit the trees, a few dozen feet behind
our friends’ jeep. Immediately, the ride went from rough to crazy as
Brad started having to swerve to swing us around trees. We even had to
leap a small creek, crashing down the other sound with an audible groan
from the buggy. All the swerving and bouncing did nothing to give us
distance. Still, the Roamers closed in.

“Shit!” Brad shouted from beside me after taking a rare glance back over
his shoulder to see how bad things were getting. “Uhh ... hold on!”

The warning barely got out before the buggy lurched again. This time we
actually moved less, skirting closer to trees so that we could use the
vehicle's low clearance to cut under the branches. Doing so created
audible whooshes every time we passed a trunk, due to the proximity. A
few were so close, I was surprised that we didn’t clip them.

Brad’s new trick helped hold the gap with the jeeps behind us, but the
other buggies had no problem matching the move. They just kept on
closing like before. From the look on Brad’s face when he noticed that,
I got the feeling that he didn’t have another trick to try.

Seeing our driver start to give up, I felt a sudden surge of fear. I
forced it back down, refusing to just give in. We couldn’t – not this
time, not after finding a way to fix things for our world. We had to get
away, and if Brad didn’t have a way, I had to find one.

Desperate for an answer, I returned to my previous search, casting about
the cabin in an attempt to find something, anything, that could turn the
tide. For several panicked moments, I found nothing, forced to listen to
the pings of bullets hitting our buggy as the Roamer drew closer and
closer. Finally, my eyes landed on something and my hand lashed out for
it.

“What the fuck are you doin’, kid?!” Brad gasped as he felt the
distraction of my hands fumbling at his belt.

“Borrowing these!” I shot back as I tugged free two rather plain looking
metal pipes. The only interesting thing about them were the black
strings that stuck out of one end. They were Brad’s ‘special lockpicks’
for use on very stubborn doors when the structural integrity of the
building around them wasn’t a big concern. I’d only ever seen him use
one once, but that one viewing was enough to know that I’d found my tide
turner.

“Careful, kid, those aren’t toys!” Brad warned as he saw me retrieve the
two bombs.

The warning fell on deaf ears, not even earning acknowledgement from me
as I was already in search of the next thing that I needed. Yanking open
the front compartment, I thrust a hand inside, searching for the lighter
I’d seen before. I nearly lost to it one of Brad’s lurching turns, but
my fingers managed to snag it before it went flying off to God knows
where.

Fighting against the jerking of the buggy, I flipped open the top of the
lighter, trying to shield it with my other hand even as I had to hold
the pipes pinned between my arm and torso. It took a few spins to
actually get a flame, and a few more spins after that to keep it going
long enough to light one of the fuses. Then, suddenly, I found myself
with a sputtering bomb in my lap with a fuse that was rapidly burning
out.

Finally realizing what that warning had been about, I scrambled to get
up and turned around, putting my knees on the seat beneath me. As soon
as I was up, I just immediately chucked the bomb out behind me. It was a
terrible throw, spoiled by everything from the bounce of the car to the
awkward, weak way my arm flung it. Still, between the speed we were
going and the throw, I managed to get it out far enough that when the
fuses ended, we weren’t going to die from it.

Before the bomb even made it to the ground, a earthshaking crescendo
exploded outward, roaring far more loudly than some measly gunshot. It
was joined by a bright flash and a burst of orange. For all the
spectacle, though, it did little besides sear some tree trunks and set
fire to downed leaves.

“Fucking Christ!” Shaun exclaimed as the explosion was already fading.
“What the fuck are you trying to do?! Blow us up so they can’t take us
alive?!”

Jaw clenching at the comment, I tried to shove it to the back of my
thoughts and focus on what I could learn from my failure. In spite of
the bumbling, that was actually a lot. I had a decent gauge of the fuse
time and how far back I could maybe get it to explode. I didn’t have
exacts, though, and I only had one bomb left to throw.

“Gotta make it count,” I muttered, so quietly that even I could barely
tell that I’d said it. As I did, I hunched down in my seat, using my
body to shield the bomb and lighter from the wind all while bracing
myself against the seat. Quickly, I worked the lighter, spitting curses
with every spin of the wheel that didn’t create a usable flame. Finally,
after numerous sparks, it gave me what I wanted.

As soon as the second bomb was sparking, I popped back up into the
throwing position. I took a quick guess at the path and distance of the
lead Roamer buggy as I cocked back my arm. That was all that I had time
for before I threw.

Once the bomb left my hand, all I could do was watch the metal cylinder
spin through the air before it vanished into the night. I had to guess
when it hit the ground, hoping that the fuse stayed lit, that I’d gotten
the timing right, that I hadn’t wasted our only hope. A moment later, I
got my answer.

The roar and flash of the bomb exploding blotted out my vision of the
buggy. For one terrible moment, I thought I’d been too early, that it
had blown up far ahead of my enemy, screwing us all. Then I heard the
crash of two heavy objects slammed into each other, the terrible screech
as metal was rent apart. After that, the flash of light finally faded,
and I could see only one buggy headlight left behind us instead of four,
and it was getting further and further away. Back beyond that, even the
jeeps apparently came to a stop, more worried about checking on what had
just happened than pursuing us.

“Yes!” I screamed in exhilaration, not even caring how high and shrill
my voice got. At the same time, I pounded a fist against the back of my
seat, too utterly thrilled to not do ... something ... anything to show
how happy I was. Only after that was done did I spin around, flopping
back down into my seat with a profound sense of relief.

The next thing I knew, I felt a big hand on my shoulder rattling me with
every bit as much joy as I felt. “Way to go kid!” Brad praised
energetically. “Way to fucking go!”

“Yeah, now can we get the fuck outta here?!” Shaun demanded. “Mike’s not
looking so good back here!”

“We’ve gotta get some distance first, at least an hour or so!” Brad
yelled back.

Remembering that Mikey had been shot, my relief vanished as I hopped up
again to twist around. “Here, let me see it!”

Happy to comply, Shaun helped shift Mikey over close enough that I could
take a look. It wasn’t a good look, though. It was dark, Mike’s shoulder
was covered with clothing and blood, and everything was bouncing around
like crazy. Still, I set to work, getting Shaun to apply pressure while
I grabbed the limited medical supplies from belt. It took some effort,
but we at least got him stabilized enough so that he wouldn’t bleed out
before we got a chance to stop.

Once the medical work was done, I slumped back into my seat, looking
down at my hands as I rested them in my lap. There was a lot of blood
coating my fingers, wet, sticky, and already starting to congeal. I
didn’t bother to wipe them off, though, not wanting to coat my clothes
with it. Still, I did wonder about the amount, worrying if it wasn’t too
much. It was hard to tell in the dark, but I thought Mikey had looked a
bit pale. All I could do was hope that he’d make it.

Lost in those thoughts, it took a bit for it to seep into my head that
we were slowing down, no longer bouncing around so frenetically. When I
finally did, I looked up to see the jeep that’d been leading us by a
good distance for a while had drifted back almost parallel with us. A
moment later, I heard Jordan’s voice call out over the wind and motors,
“You alright?!”

“Been better!” Brad yelled back. “Mike got shot in the shoulder!”

“How bad?” Jordan asked as the jeep came up alongside of the buggy,
allowing him to look down into our vehicle.

While Brad shrugged, I spoke up to answer. “Pretty bad. We need to stop
so I can give it a closer look. How’s Quinn doing?”

“Out cold, but doesn’t seem to be in any danger,” Jordan answered before
he tossed a smirk my way. “You the one responsible for those
explosions?”

“Of course!” I declared proudly.

The confirmation just earned a hearty laugh from my brother. “Good work.
Still, even with them giving up, we need to get some distance before we
stop. We’ll keep going for a few more hours. Do what you can for Mike,
in the time being.”

Glancing back at Mikey, currently breathing heavily and sweating pretty
badly, I doubted that there was much that I could actually do at this
point. He’d have to just make it until we finally stopped. In spite of
that, I still agreed with my brother’s request with a rather hopeless,
“I’ll try.”

Chapter Nine: Darkest Before Dawn

I groaned aloud, and my surroundings responded. I felt hands reach down
and gently take my shoulders, shaking.

“Quinn? You okay?”

Leslie.

My eyes popped back open and I wanted to lurch upward, remembering the
last few moments before I blacked out. Remembering the fight with the
Roamers, Bates getting captured and executed, and someone jumping me
from behind. It wasn’t a Roamer looking down on me now, though. It was
Leslie, and she was smiling a beautiful smile in relief.

“Was worried about you there for a minute.”

I blinked up at her, frowning. I was lying with my head against the
ground and I reached back to gingerly touch where I’d been struck. And
winced, feeling blood there. Leslie sucked air in through her teeth.

“Careful. That’s probably gonna hurt for a bit.”

“Where are we?” I mumbled back, trying to look around. A huge tire was
behind me and I noticed it was somewhat familiar. The jeep. I’d been
laying down next to the jeep. That brought me to quickly check the area
and realize I was surrounded by the others. Cooper, Ortega, Harris ...
everyone. We’d made it.

We’d made it.

“We’re on our way home,” was what the younger Weeks said to that.

I bobbed my head, grimacing at the pain I still felt there. It was
probably a couple hours before dawn by the looks of the sky. It’d been
out most of the rest of the night.

“You want me to take a closer look at that? There’s not usually a lot to
be done -- with head injuries, that is. But I can--”

“No. That’s fine,” I told her, pushing up onto my elbows and using the
jeep to help. “What happened?”

“We got out of there is what happened,” the other woman said with a
cheeky little smile. “It took some luck, but you, my brother, everyone
else got us out of there alive.”

She looked relieved at that, but not for the reasons I imagined now that
reality was coming back to me full force. The blonde woman had a happy
determination about her instead, not the grim certainty of going from
the frying pan into the fire that I started to feel come on again when I
thought about just what “going home” would really mean.

I lingered there, looking around and trying to piece together what had
happened and if we were any the worse for wear. Everyone seemed fine for
the most part, though. Except McDunnough was looking rough, laid out on
the ground with a bandaged shoulder that I didn’t remember him having
gotten in the fight. Ortega had his arm cleaned up too. And Jordan was
over there making the rounds with the men. When he saw me awake, he got
to his feet and hurried toward us.

“How are you feeling?” he asked when he did. I shook my head to show him
I was fine, letting myself lean back against the jeep’s frame.

“As well as can be expected,” I told him. “What about you? What about
the men? Everyone accounted for? Who hit me?”

“I’m fine. McDunnough took a bad hit, but should make it. As should
everyone except Bates,” he said.

I felt a pang of guilt stab at me at the mention of Lincoln Bates as our
casualty back there, even though I knew full well there had been no
chance to save him. I’d been so careful to limit this mission as much as
I could from the start, to keep our time tables short, in an effort to
avoid just that very thing. And still, everything had gone to shit. I
shouldn’t have lost a man on my watch. We shouldn’t have lost a Brother.

And McDunnough. What had happened to him? I glanced that way and
realized now that he looked far, far too pale. Jordan said he’d make it,
though, and it looked like Leslie had gotten a chance to see to him
already. I guess there wasn’t much more for me to do about that right
now.

“Roamer got you from behind,” Jordan continued, letting himself settle
in between Leslie and me and making us a trio over here away from the
campfire the guys had going near the buggy. It was nice to see both
those vehicles with us -- that everything had worked out pretty much as
planned with only a few exceptions. One of which, was me going down in
the middle of the fight.

“A Roamer?” I repeated, reaching back to touch that bloodied spot at the
back of my head again. It was annoying and embarrassing to think I’d
gotten dropped by a raider in all that mess. I’d been so on top of
things and keeping them moving forward. I’d been myself for a few
minutes, like nothing had changed. Then some random asshole somehow gets
in close and clocks me in the back of the skull.

It was annoying because I knew that I should’ve been quicker hopping
into the jeep. It was embarrassing because I hadn’t noticed someone
coming up on me from behind. I hadn’t even put up a fight. This stupid
body couldn’t take a hit to save its life.

“Coop and J.D. saved you,” Leslie was saying, and she shoved her brother
with a hand, goodnaturedly. “Drez blasted that guy and Jordan here
grabbed you and got you into the jeep. And, oh you should’ve seen it,
Quinn!” the girl suddenly exclaimed, eyes flashing excitedly wide. “They
came after us, were gaining on us, but we lost them! I threw some of
Brad’s bombs at them and blew one of their precious rides up right
underneath ‘em! It was amazing!”

“We’re good, Quinn,” Jordan added much more calmly when she was done. “I
made sure we put enough space between us so they won’t catch up easily
once they regroup. We’re in the clear as long as we get moving again by
daybreak.”

“Good, yeah,” his sister agreed sarcastically, rolling her eyes. “More
like badass as all hell. No one’s beaten the Roamers like that ever
before, right? No one!”

I glanced over toward the guys huddled around the fire. The mood was
noticeably bright despite the hits we’d taken. Brighter than it had been
in days. Brighter than it had been since Leslie and I had first been
laid low by that mysterious stuff back in the ruins.

Of course, it was hard to feel it like they did. They were going back
home, back to their lives. Leslie and I were not. We were going back to
a complete unknown. Except that I had a pretty good idea of how that
homecoming was going to go for us. A pretty damn good idea.

The two Weeks siblings seemed to notice my lack of general enthusiasm at
our turn of events and got quiet for a moment while I brooded. Leslie
had a perplexed look on her face but Jordan probably guessed at just
what I was thinking about then. I looked up at him when he cleared his
throat.

“Maybe we should--”

“I’m glad we got out,” I said, cutting him off. “Really. I am. Thank
you,” I added, thinking about how he’d been the one to save me. Again. I
felt the need to say it, unlike every other time before. Because I knew
I couldn’t do the same for him anymore. We couldn’t be brothers-in-arms
anymore. Not after tonight.

“You don’t have to thank me, Quinn,” he argued gently anyways. And if he
meant to follow that up with a token, “You would’ve done the same for
me,” then he thought better of it. Probably realized that I really
couldn’t. And maybe that was why I had to thank him, because I’d become
a liability trying to fill the role I had always filled so easily
before. Jordan was far from stupid or slow. Like his little brother.
Sister.

“Well, I should go check on Mikey,” Leslie suddenly announced, climbing
back to her feet. She scurried over to the fire and McDunnough laying
there, looking like he’d passed out. I hoped she could help him too. One
casualty had been more than enough for this run.

But that left me and Jordan alone and neither of us with much to say
apparently. Because he sat there rather awkwardly without so much as a
word, and I was being held hostage by my own dark, foreboding thoughts.

I looked at him after a minute or so of that, though. Pensive silence
hadn’t necessarily been our enemy before, but it was now. So I looked at
him, thinking about everything that had happened and what I could only
imagine was going to happen once we got back to Wendover. Once everyone
in the Brotherhood finally saw something that shouldn’t have existed
anymore. Some of them, like most of the guys here, would hardly know
what to do as they couldn’t even remember the women from before. They’d
been too young. Others, like Vigo, would remember. They would remember
and see the same thing I saw, knowing it was inevitable.

I looked at Jordan and thought about survival. I thought about how I
could possibly make it through this no matter what his promises of
protection. I resented that promise because I knew I needed it now. I
resented that promise because I knew he was just one man and in no way
could he follow through on it in the long run. Not unless we ran away
where no one could find us and, even then, they would hunt us, knowing
we were out there.

I looked at him, and he caught me. A small, apologetic smile graced his
lips. I didn’t return it. I just waited until he excused himself to go
take a leak and followed him a few seconds behind, knowing exactly what
I had to do.

Jordan finished up while I watched from behind him. He’d stopped us near
a small wooded area and had found some privacy back there away from the
others to do his business. After he’d shaken free and put it back away,
I called out to him.

“Jordan.”

“Christ!” The man spun around in surprise, then frowned when he saw it
was me. “What are you doing, Quinn? Following me to take a piss?”

I started towards him, trying to buck up my resolve as I did. It wasn’t
as hard as I’d thought. Maybe that had something to do with the Protean
science experiment that had done this to me or maybe it was just the
simple fact that we were such close friends. Close enough that we had
fooled around once or twice when we were younger, as a lot of guys did
considering their lack of other options on this slowly dying world.

I trudged over in my too big clothes and my too big boots and tried not
to trip. His brow was furrowed at me the entire way, uncomprehending. He
didn’t get it. He didn’t get it until I had closed the space between us
and reached up to pull his mouth down against my own.

We kissed for a moment, and I thought: “This isn’t so bad.” We’d done as
much years ago, and the biology made for this to be that much more
natural, as far as I understood it. If we could fool around as two men
then I could certainly swallow what was left of my pride and try and be
with him as a woman. It wasn’t like I really had much of a choice
anymore in that regard.

For a moment, he kissed me back. He leaned into it, nearly knocking me
over. He wasn’t as bulky or as tall as his younger brother had been
before, but he was way bigger and taller than me now. I wrapped my hands
around his neck and tried to hold on to keep my feet.

Then he stiffened, grabbed me by both my hands, and hastily pushed them
away from him like some kind of poisonous snake.

He took several heavy, shallow breaths, glaring down at me in confusion.
I didn’t fight him. I just waited for him to open his mouth and ask.

“What the ... HELL are you doing, Quinn?”

His voice was husky and strained. I figured it had something to do with
being kissed by a woman for the first time in his life. It was probably
what I might’ve looked like had the situation been reversed. He blinked
rapidly at me, overwhelmed and not understanding. So I tried to make it
easier on him.

I pulled my hands free without a word and started unbuttoning my shirt.
I unzipped the jacket and worked the buttons down until there were none
left.

He watched me while I did. He watched me with rapt fascination, in wide-
eyed shock. I didn’t take my eyes off his face the whole while, waiting
until my too-big shirt was unbuttoned and I could pull it open to reveal
the breasts hanging there now, which no one could see within my baggy
clothes. And I watched his eyes widen all the more as he beheld them,
fixated for what felt like a full minute before he squeezed those eyes
shut.

“P-please, Quinn,” he stammered, trying to look away while having broken
out already in a warm sweat. I could see the sheen along his jaw. “What
are you trying to do here?”

“Does it matter?”

“... Yes!” he all but shouted back, eyes snapping open but kept
pointedly now on my face.

I sighed.

“It might as well be you, Jordan,” I explained, because he was fighting
me on this. I knew it was a possibility, but I felt like he should be
more eager once he had me practically throwing myself at him in the
dark. “It’s going to be someone. Eventually. So it might as well be
you.”

“What? What are you talking about?” he demanded, shaking his head. “Why
does it have to be anyone? I said I’d protect you and Les from this.
It’s not going to BE anyone if you don’t let it!”

“It will,” I assured him. “You know it will. I know it will. I’m going
to control this thing and make sure it happens on my terms. If I’m
already yours by the time we get back ...”

I faltered, and squeezed my eyes shut. I faltered at the idea of what I
was saying and how much it went against everything that my life had been
for the past twenty-eight years. But I forced those reservations aside
again, knowing they would only make it worse. I looked up at the man
once more.

“If I’m with you already -- if I’ve CHOSEN you already,” I continued.
“If you’ve chosen me. It’ll make it that much harder. They’re far less
likely to try and hand me off or use me if I’m already yours, Jordan.”

“Quinn, I ... I can’t believe you’re fucking saying this to me right
now!”

“I am, Jordan.”

I reached up and took his hands and moved them down to my breasts. He
flinched, but I held them there.

“Just do it,” I told him, and my voice suddenly choked. My eyes started
to burn and I closed them again. “Just do it,” I repeated, lowering my
head. “Jordan. I want you to do it.”

“Do what?” he snapped at me in that husky whisper. “Do what? FUCK you?”

I bobbed my head slowly.

“If that’s what it takes ...”

He pushed me away.

“No. No! FUCK, Quinn. Jesus Christ! Why would you even ... even ...?”

He’d removed his hands from my breasts and forced me back a step. Too
gently. He shook his head and twisted apart from me, looking away into
nothing deeper into the woods. I watched his back turn and felt a
momentary stab of pain at the sight. At that rejection.

“W-why not?” I demanded, finding my voice after my mouth just bobbed
open a few times, refusing to speak. “Just why the fuck not? I just told
you it was OKAY ...”

“Because it’s--” He spun back around, glaring at me and raising a hand.
Then softened just the faintest bit. “Because it’s YOU, Quinn. Because
it’s you.”

“What?” I breathed. “We did it before!”

“That was different.”

“What? Why? So?” I rattled off, shaking a little angrily. “It’s easier
now isn’t it? Isn’t it?!”

“No.” He shook his head. “It’s not easier at all ...”

“But I ...” I started arguing and then lost the words. My chest heaved
as I stared at him, but he was looking away again. And my eyes fell to
my open shirt, to the feminine chest there that he had pushed away from
him.

“Is it ... because I don’t look like Leslie?”

“What? That’s disgusting, Quinn!”

“You know what I mean, goddamnit!” I growled. “Like one of those old
porno models! With huge tits and a fat ass!”

“You’re talking about my brother, Quinn!”

“Oh, shut the fuck up. Like I wanted this. Like I fucking CHOSE this. Do
you have any idea how difficult this is for me?”

“Do you have any idea how difficult it is for ME?” Jordan shot right
back.

“What?” I threw my hands up. “What about it could POSSIBLY be so
difficult for you? I’m giving you everything you could ever want, right?
How could you not want this?” I gestured wildly at myself on display
there for him like it was the most obscene thing for him not to be
slavering with desire over this body right now. Because it was.

He didn’t answer, though. He looked at me, and he looked at my breasts.
And that look was pained. Angry, and pained.

He just shook his head.

“Jordan,” I finally pleaded, slumping and feeling all that anger bleed
right out of me at the sight of him like that. I tried to work my jaw to
say something. But I just ended up repeating myself again.

“It’s going to be someone, Jordan,” I echoed, ignoring the defeat in my
voice. It was probably the most pitiful I’d ever sounded before in my
life.

“Why can’t it be you?”

There was a long time then where he didn’t look at me. Just kept staring
off into the forest. Minutes passed, or what felt like it. I watched
him. I watched him and I waited for some sign that he would give up
whatever stubbornness it was that kept him from just letting me do this
and make sure that everything didn’t fall apart all around me back in
the Brotherhood. This was the only reasonable choice. I trusted Jordan
more than I trusted anyone else, and I knew he trusted me too. So why
was this so hard for him to accept?

But he didn’t give it up. Eventually he just turned on his heel, stomped
over toward me, and grabbed the edges of my jacket.

Then stopped. He wavered there, staring down at my naked chest once
more.

I waited.

But he just zipped my jacket back up over my shirt, gave me an
unreadable look, and left. He slipped around me and trudged back toward
the others and the fire. He left me standing there alone.

Chapter Ten: Pain

An agonized groan brought a worried frown to my face, making me
reminisce about just moments before when, for once, things had been
pretty good. We’d escaped from the Roamers thanks to a little ingenuity
from me, all the injuries had looked survivable, and Quinn, Jordan, and
I had actually not been fighting for what seemed like the first time in
a very long time. All it had taken was just one groan to sour that for
me.

The source of the pained noise lay on the ground in front of me, Mikey.
The guy was looking more than just a little worse for wear, pallid and
covered in a cold sweat that left him feeling chilled and clammy to the
touch. Not having much blood will do that to a man.

Unfortunately, I found myself with little I could do to help. I’d gotten
the bullet out and sewed up the wound, but that didn’t mean he was safe
just because he hadn’t already died. To help with the chill, I’d grabbed
a few blankets from the gear and tossed them over him, but that wasn’t
much. Long ago, there might’ve been other options, a blood transfusion
probably would’ve helped a lot, but I had no idea how to even do one,
much less what any of our blood types were. It was too bad I couldn’t
just pipe bomb us through this problem too – not that we had any of
those left. Mikey was just going to have get through this on his own.

“You’d better not die, asshole,” I muttered at the man, who had been
shifting between sleep and some hazy waking that was full of shudders
and moans. “You’ve still got that favor to hold over me, remember? Can’t
just let that one slide on account of getting shot.”

There was no indication that Mikey had even heard me, but he did slip
back into one of the more peaceful sleep stages. That wasn’t much cause
for relief from me, though. One of these times, he was going to just
keep on slipping right past sleep and into death.

Shaking the negative thoughts from my head, I just sat back to wait for
something to change. While I did, I glanced around the camp, checking on
the others. Most looked good, thrilled even to have escape the Roamers
at all, much less with the limited casualties that we’d suffered. The
other gunshot wound, Marty, was doing a lot better than Mike. That left
Quinn as the only other injury. When I looked around for the woman,
though, I couldn’t find her.

Frowning at the odd absence, I switched my search to Jordan to ask him
where Quinn had gone with her brains probably still pretty rattled from
that hit she took. My brother seemed to be missing as well, nowhere to
be found in the small campsite – at least not at first. As I was
looking, I saw him trudge in from some nearby bushes. For some reason,
he didn’t show the same happiness or relief as the other men. Instead,
his face was pulled into a pensive scowl combined with eyes that looked
like those of a man that had witnessed something truly harrowing.

Worried by that look, I scrambled up from beside my patient, and started
toward my brother. I had no idea what was wrong, but maybe it was
something I could help with. That certainly wasn’t true with Mikey right
now.

By the time I caught up to him, Jordan had crossed the camp over to find
a spot away from the men and far from whatever he’d seen. That spot
proved to be the far side of the jeep, against which he leaned with his
arms folded and his gaze focused intently on the dark grass at his feet.
It was the position of a man that did not want to be disturbed, which
made my plans to do exactly that all the harder.

“Jordan?” I began after a moment of just watching my brother silently.

“Hmm?” Jordan hummed distractedly as he looked up. When he saw me, he
tried to smile, but it was clearly strained and fake. It was also very
brief, barely giving him enough time to mumble, “Oh, hey, Les,” before
he was back to staring at the ground.

While hardly welcoming, I took those words as a start, walking over to
my brother to lean against the jeep right beside. “Crazy day, huh? Quinn
and I woke up as girls, Roamers showed up, and we had a big nighttime
chase through the woods.”

There was very little reaction to what I said from Jordan. In fact, I
wouldn’t even have been sure that he heard me if not for a slight wince
early on. Other than that, all he gave me was an absent-minded, “Yeah
...”

“So, you seen Quinn around?” I tried, figuring that my brother might at
least talk about his best friend. “She’s not in camp.”

“He’s ... she’s ...“ Jordan began, sounding kind of ... lost. Even his
attempt to gesture back the way that he’d come was uncharacteristically
weak and vague. “Over there.”

While it still wasn’t much, that answer was at least slightly more
information, so I tried again. “What were you doing out in the dark
anyway? Checking to make sure we weren’t followed or something?”

“Nothing,” came Jordan’s completely uninformative response. “Taking a
piss.”

“That's a long piss,” I commented, trying to nudge a bit harder.

This time, I didn’t even get words at all, just a weary grunt from my
brother to confirm that statement. There was no elaboration. There
wasn’t even a moment where he seemed to consider giving one.

“Alright man, what the hell actually happened?” I blurted, deciding that
beating around the bush wasn’t going to work here. “Everything seemed
good like ten minutes ago, now you look like you just saw someone murder
your best friend.”

Finally, my words got a real reaction out of my brother, but it wasn’t
the one that I’d expected. His shoulders just slumped as a profound sigh
slid out of him followed by a mumbled, “Sure feels like that’s what
happened.”

Blinking in surprise, I glanced between my brother and the dark bushes
that he’d come from – bushes that I had not seen Quinn return from.
“Wait ... what happened? You didn’t ... actually do something to her,
did you?”

“Of course not!” Jordan blurted out, so quickly and loudly that it
actually startled me enough to send me reeling back a bit. The sudden
surge of energy vanished as soon as it came, though, leaving Jordan once
again slouched as he looked down at his hands. “It was just ... I don’t
know. Quinn’s been my best friend for a long time, Les. But now ...”

“What? What are you talking about? There some reason you can’t still be
friends?” I questioned, wondering just what had happened between them.

Jordan shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. Maybe ... maybe not ... not
so clear anymore.”

“Well, not to brag, but I’m pretty good at figuring things out,” I
commented cheekily. “Why don’t you tell me what happened and I’ll see if
I can’t sort it out for ya?”

That offer got Jordan to look over my way for the first time since he’d
greeted me. It was a strange look, though, like he was seeing me for the
first time. His eyes roamed over me with that same harrowed look that
they’d had when he’d walked back into camp.

Furrowing my brow, I tilted my head to the side curiously. “What?”

“N-Nothing,” Jordan stammered out dismissively, jerking his gaze away.

“Come on, J.D.!” I pressed, not wanting him to just clam up again. “What
are you going to do instead, just sit over here by yourself all night,
moping like some little kid?”

Sighing heavily, Jordan shook his head. “No ... it’s just ... have you
...”

Eager for more, I barely waited a moment of awkward pause before nudging
my brother to continue. “Have I want?”

“Have you ... “ Jordan began again, this time only very briefly
stopping, “... thought about what comes next?”

“What comes next?” I repeated the odd phrasing, screwing my face up
indignantly. “Of course. That’s why I ... “ Just before I said something
I shouldn’t have, I yanked the words back into my mouth, awkwardly
stumbling to recover. “ ... y’know took all these notes and stuff. That
way we’ll have everything we need for when we ... uhh ... come back to
get the stuff that did this.”

Finally, I got a reaction other than confusion from Jordan, but it
wasn’t a particularly useful one. He rolled his eyes at me like I’d just
said something annoying and stupid. “That’s not ... argh ... just ...
leave me alone, Les.”

“But–” I started to argue, but I didn’t get far.

“Just back off!” Jordan snapped angrily, twisting toward me to toss a
frightening glare my way.

Bewildered by the sudden harshness, I raised my hands in capitulation.
“Alright, alright, sorry. I’ll go.”

Having gained my concession, Jordan just slouched again, lost in
whatever dark brooding consumed him before I even started to leave.
Still, I followed through on what I said, turning to walk away. As I
did, I wondered what I’d done wrong, and more importantly, what terrible
thing had happened to get my usually affable brother to such a state.

As I returned to the camp, I found what was most likely the cause of my
brother’s mood. Quinn was returning from the same shadowed bushes that
my brother had left a few minutes before, and she looked no better than
he did. Her whole body looked hunched over, as if all strength had left
her. It was her eyes, though, that were really telling. They were
unfocused and haunted in a way that I would never have expected from
someone like Quinn – she was usually so resilient. Now, though, she just
looked so ... hopeless.

All the more worried about this apparent rift, I resolved myself to try
again. Squaring my shoulders, I started toward the listless woman,
determined to do better at helping her than I had with Jordan. However,
the look in her eyes made me wonder if she wasn’t more of a lost cause
than Mikey.

Like Jordan, Quinn had found a lonely spot all to herself by the time I
got to her. Unlike my brother, though, she hadn’t remained standing,
flopping onto the ground as if she no longer had the energy to hold
herself up anymore. That appearance hadn’t stopped her from finding a
place that was also out of the way, far enough from the others that they
had no reason to ever look her way.

“Quinn?” I opened the same way as I had with my brother, looking down at
the morose brunette.

Unlike Jordan, Quinn didn’t even try to engage. In fact, she didn’t even
acknowledge my presence. Instead, she just slumped there on the ground
with her vacant gaze off into the indistinguishable black of night.

Undeterred, I settled myself onto the ground next to the other woman,
leaning around in front of her to put my face into her vision and try
again. “Quinn?”

Finally, after a couple of blinks, focus entered Quinn’s eyes, settling
onto my own. She barely had time to register who I was before her head
jerked away, looking off to the ground on the opposite side of her. Only
then did her pained voice demand, “What do you want, Les?”

“N-Nothing,” I replied, surprised by the hostility. “I just ... you
looked a little out of it, so I came over to see what was wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Quinn very obviously lied.

“Come on, Quinn, I can’t help if you–” I started to call out the
evasion, but I winced myself silent as midway through, the other woman
finally turned to me with eyes blazing.

“Help? You?!” Quinn hissed with such venom that I wasn’t sure her anger
would actually stop at words. She laughed bitterly. “You’re just some
naive little kid, bouncing around here without a care. I don’t need your
help.”

Reeling back from that vehemence, I could only stare at the other woman
in shock and a little bit of fear. I couldn’t even get mad at being
called a little kid – not in the face of the consuming pain and anger I
saw in Quinn’s eyes. “I-I’m s-sorry ... I just ...”

“Just what? What do you think you’re going to do, huh?” Quinn spat
derisively. “Come over here and spout some positivity? Some empty
platitudes and the world will just turn into sunbeams and daydreams?”
She paused to wait for an answer to the obviously rhetorical question.
When she didn’t get any, she shook her head at me. “The world doesn’t
work that way, kid. No. It fucks you over.” She threw up an angry hand.
“And then when you try to pick yourself back up – try to make it work –
well, it just smacks you right back down again on your fucking ass!”

“I –” I began, perhaps to try to argue. Even I didn’t know or, at least,
my brain didn’t give me any words to continue with. After all, how could
I argue when I knew nothing about what was going on – about what had
caused this sudden explosion of pain. Finally, I found enough words to
finish with a quiet, “I’m just sorry.”

That apology seemed to deflate Quinn’s anger, although, I didn't
consider her return to a slouched, listless husk much better. Her
dismissive response of, “Well then stop wasting your time worrying about
me, kid, and go worry about your own problems,” wasn’t much better.

“Well, I’m still going to worry about you, whether you want me to or
not,” I insisted as I scrambled back to my feet. Even as I said it, it
felt kind of weird. I’d never had reason to worry about Quinn before, he
wasn’t that kind of guy. He wasn’t a guy anymore, though, and neither
was I. “If you ever decide you want to tell me what’s going on, just
come find me.”

Quinn’s only response couldn’t even be considered a laugh, just a dry,
hollow rattle in the back of her throat. It was, however, a clear
rejection of the offer, leaving me with no options but to do as she
wanted and leave. I took my time with that, though, just looking down at
the other woman with worry for a long moment before I finally turned
away.

As my attention fell on the center of the camp, the only place for me to
really go, I noticed that Shaun was walking away from the fire with a
dark look on his face. After my repeated failures, I didn’t try to
follow him. Instead, I just walked back over to the other guys.

“What happened with Shaun?” I asked as I reached the fire and plopped
down on the ground next to Mikey, so that I could give him another quick
check. He wasn’t looking any better, but there still wasn’t much I could
do besides wipe the sheen of cold sweat from his brow.

“Oh, that’s this bastard’s fault,” Brad answered, nudging his shoving
Marty’s shoulder. “Said something about what happened to Bates, and
Kerensky didn’t take too kindly to it.”

“Yeah, and I said I was sorry about it, too!” Marty huffed defensively.
“How was I supposed to know that he’d get that upset about that?”

Brad rolled his eyes at that excuse. “Seriously? Bates was his best
friend. They’ve been running together for years. How’d you think J.D.
would be if they’d gotten Quinn back there too?”

“You so sure we didn’t lose Quinn back there?” Dresden remarked
caustically. “Besides, Linc’s dead, whether we talk about it or not.
Shaun’s gonna have to get used to that.”

“It’s only been a couple of hours, you asshole,” Brad retorted. “Give
the man some time to grieve.”

Dresden shrugged. “Keep giving people time and there’ll just be new
people for everyone to grieve. Just look how worried little Leslie here
keeps futzing over Mike.”

Suddenly, understanding exactly why Shaun had stormed off like he did, I
tossed an angry glare at the man with the busted nose. “It’s called
medical care, shithead. You do it to keep people alive when they get
shot.”

“That so? Because, I figured you just decided that since you got turned
into a girl it was time to start mothering someone,” Dresden taunted
sarcastically, snorting out a nasally laugh through his messed up nose.

Before I could get in on a comeback, the sounds of pain beside me,
forced my attention back to more important things than an asshole like
Dresden. Twisting around, I looked down at Mikey, who was moaning and
twisting about. I couldn’t see any cause for the sudden struggling,
though. He didn’t seem to be any worse than before, and the bandages on
his shoulders hadn’t started seeping through or anything to indicate
issues with the wound.

Even as I searched for clues, Mikey’s struggles slowed and his eyes
popped open for the first time in hours, blinking against the firelight
and confusion. As busy as I was, I didn’t notice them at first, spending
another worried moment searching before my gaze met his. When I did, I
smiled in relief.

“Hey, Mikey,” I greeted gently once I saw Mikey’s eyes not just opened
but focused. “Nice to see you awake finally.”

“Leslie?” Mikey breathed through obvious disorientation. “Tha’ you?”

Trying not to worry about if the man was having trouble with his vision,
I nodded as reassuringly as I could. “Yeah, it’s me, man. How you
feeling?”

“Tired ... sore ... “ Mikey mumbled hazily. “Wha ... what happened?”

“You got shot during our daring escape,” I reminded him. “We managed to
get away, though, and I patched you up.”

Seemingly relieved by that news, Mikey sunk against the ground and
nodded slightly. “Oh ... thanks.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him, dismissing the gratitude. “I just
saw a chance to even up with you is all.”

A faint smirk crept onto Mikey’s lips. “Hey now, I didn’t ask you to
save me. You did that on your own. You still owe me.”

“Is that so?” I demanded facetiously. “Maybe I should rip those stitches
outta your shoulder then, huh. That way, I won’t even have to worry
about it.”

“Go ahead,” Mikey muttered, calling my bluff. “But when I ... still ...”

Midway through the comeback, I saw Mikey’s eyes drift closed again as
his breathing slowed, almost seeming like it was going to stop
altogether. For one moment, I panicked, gasping out a desperate,
“Mikey?” as if just the call of his name could bring him back from the
brink. His eyes didn’t open, but neither did the steady rise and fall of
his chest fade away. It took several such sequences before I finally
relaxed, slouching back. In that moment, I was content to treat the
brief bout of consciousness as a sign that the injured man was going to
make it.

Chapter Eleven: Homecoming Queen

We let everyone get a few hours of sleep as we waited for dawn to come
and continue on our way back home. As much as most of us would’ve
prefered to just ride it out all the way back to Wendover and the
Brotherhood, the vehicles were cramped and everyone was pretty much
running on fumes by that point. The escape from the Protean facility and
fight with the Roamers had drained most of what was left of everybody. A
few hours was better than nothing to keep our wits sharp. Just in case.

I kept watch. Even though my head ached and I was pretty sure I hadn’t
gotten any decent sleep having been knocked out before, I was still the
only one with some shut-eye under my belt in the past twenty-four hours.
The elder Weeks came up and tried to argue with me after hearing that
declaration, but I rebutted him.

“At least one of us is going to need to be alert for the ride, to keep
everyone in line,” I told him. “It might as well be you.”

And he winced. It took me a moment to realize just how closely that last
statement had mirrored what I’d said to him in the privacy of the trees
not so long ago. I schooled my face so that nothing of how I felt about
that showed, but he was not so careful. He just gave me this pained look
for several moments before bobbing his head and leaving me alone again.

To my surprise and relief, there was no sight of the Roamers on our tail
while I waited for the daylight, surrounded by the passed out forms of
my men. What was left of them. McDunnough was still looking pale and on
thin ice medically, and I kept a close eye on him. Not that I knew much
about that sort of thing; Leslie was the closest thing to a medic we
had, having been mentored by Doc Carlisle back home. And I found her
curled up in a ratty field blanket close to the injured man, makeshift
medkit clutched in one limp hand. I roused her first when the time came,
and she groggily went about tending to McDunnough without a word as soon
as she was awake again.

Everyone’d had their gear already prepped and ready to go in the
vehicles where they could, having been told by Jordan and I to be
prepared in case I caught sight of any pursuit. So it was a short time
spent getting back on the road, with just the clingy damp of early
morning and quiet grumblings of men having gotten too little sleep to
break it. I found Jordan somewhere in the midst of that, getting his bag
into the jeep.

“I want you in the buggy for now on, Weeks,” I told him then. And added
quickly, “Until we get back.”

His brown eyes slipped over me and again I saw that same flash of what I
had seen in the woods.

“One of us to each vehicle,” I continued on, explaining away that
hesitance on his part. “That way we can keep control if we get
separated, or something should happen.” Not that I was so worried about
it at this juncture. If the Roamers hadn’t caught up to us by now, they
probably weren’t going to before we got back to the safety of our
habitat.

Jordan opened his mouth to argue, though. Opened his mouth, then
promptly closed it again. He didn’t look me in the eye for several
moments before taking a long, hard look at the jeep and his gear already
in there.

“I don’t like the idea of leaving you alone, Quinn,” he finally said. I
thought he might have glanced briefly over in Cooper’s direction as he
did. But I just folded my arms over my chest.

“You should’ve thought about that last night.”

The man stood there for a moment without comprehending at first, then it
was like someone had slapped him right across the face. It twisted and
contorted, scrunching up and away from me. I waited while he did. I
waited until he got himself back under control.

Unfortunately, it was only just.

“You should be looking after Leslie, Weeks,” I continued. “That’s your
blood there, and she’s going to need your help a lot more than I will.”

“Quinn--”

“Get moving.” I turned away and opened the passenger side door to the
jeep, climbing in. “We’ve still got a ways to go and a lot to think
about. As much as I’m not looking forward to what’s waiting for us back
home, I’d rather not let the Roamers catch up with us.”

I sat there for what felt like half a minute while Jordan stood outside,
making no effort to move away. Staring ahead, I waited for him to leave.
When he didn’t, and I felt my own cheeks start to heat up, I finally
turned to him and snapped, “You got something to say, Weeks?”

He didn’t, though. He just turned on his heel at that and stalked back
toward his sister in the other vehicle.

Cooper hopped in beside me, Ortega and Carlton moving to the back. A
minute later, Kerensky came trotting over with his stuff from the buggy,
swapping with Jordan. Then we were off.

That first hour out was fairly quiet in our jeep. Those guys were still
getting themselves back into a wakeful frame of mind as we rode over the
rough, largely untamed terrain we’d covered a week ago on our way to the
Protean ruin. There’d been roads here once, of course -- long ago from
when I could barely remember, linking the various habitats in the
networked beginnings of our colony after it set down. Aurora lay at the
heart of it, the remains of the warship that had escorted the original
colonial vessels recycled into the fledgling capital of this new world.
Our own people had touched down with a hydroponics module, a thousand or
more souls, in the northwest of Proteus’ centralmost continent, which
had been aptly named Centralia. Our own corner of it was choked in old
growth trees with lots of space between them for our stolen rides to
slip between with ease.

Morale stayed pretty good, though I thought it might be slightly worse
in the buggy with McDunnough back there still unconscious. Cooper,
Ortega, Carlton, and Kerensky had escaped the whole encounter relatively
unscathed, only that bullet hole in Martin’s arm or Dresden’s broken
nose to say differently. So it wasn’t long before the thrill of an
actual motorized vehicle roaring across the dirt got to them and they
were laughing and joking aloud with one another once more. Except for
Kerensky. I knew he’d been close with Bates.

I didn’t take part in any of it either, content to look out and study
the landscape as it whipped so quickly by around us, calling out the odd
order as needed but mostly refraining from speaking. Cooper listened to
me for the most part, though not without some snide remarks and
grumbling. I don’t know if it was just his good spirits or the other
three in the back, but he kept any of the more serious shit from back in
the ruin to himself.

Those other three each wanted to take a turn at driving, of course. I
nixed the idea of swapping while we were still on the move, and they
argued with me for a bit. It wasn’t lost on me how they ignored what I
had to say to see if they could just get Cooper to agree anyways. Not
that the man would. He was enjoying it too much, I could tell. But he
was also one of the only people I knew of who’d ever driven something
before -- even if it probably had been when he’d been a little kid.
There was no point in risking anything until we were safely back in
Wendover. I had to explain that to them all now instead of being able to
just bark down whatever I’d decided was best without outright
opposition.

The ride gave me a lot of time to think about what had happened between
me and Jordan back in the woods. Too much time. I tried to gloss over it
as much as I could, looking for new paths forward now that the most
effective and obvious one had so utterly failed. I wasn’t sure what I
could do except try and reason with Vigo when we got back. Maybe hide
myself away as best I could from everyone else until the end of my days.

Even as I thought that, though, I knew it was an ignorant hope. I was
never going to find peace again for the rest of my life. Not looking
like this. Not unless more scientifically-inclined minds found a way to
reverse it or they somehow followed through on what Leslie had seemed so
sure that they would do: start applying whatever that thing had been
that’d transformed us to other men in the various habitats. It would
potentially flood our dying world with hope and enough females to
continue on the civilization, distracting from me as so rare a
commodity. Not that I thought it would be as easy as all that. I had a
hard time imagining anyone accepting such a fate willingly.

It wasn’t like being assigned that role at birth. This would be men
actively sacrificing themselves for purely procreational needs.
Accepting a weaker, second-class role in the human hierarchy. To most
people, I knew, that’d be like volunteering for death. In fact, I very
much doubted that there would be much “volunteering” going on at all. I
had a good idea of just what the people in authority would do with
something like this in a situation like ours -- isolated, xenophobic
compounds separated and barely amicable towards each other at the best
of times. Competing actively with and undermining each other at the
worst. No, I could see the future already -- the REAL future that Leslie
couldn’t see with her childlike optimism. A future of slaves and
prisoners forced into sexual servitude by their male masters.

My eyes squeezed shut in a wince at the idea. I had no real, pragmatic
hopes for a cure to this as a way to reverse it. It wouldn’t be
important enough for anyone to waste their time on. And I was so ...
small ... now. How could I ever physically return to what I’d been
before? Was it even possible?

No. I was absolutely certain my only real chance had been with Jordan.
If I was going to be owned by someone than I damn sure had wanted to
have a say in the owner. Life might not have been so absolutely terrible
if my best friend had been the one to do it. And people would’ve very
likely left us to it. Reason and decorum could prevail, but not with me
as a free entity. If I was unattached? Someone was going to try and take
possession of me. Potentially EVERYONE was going to try and do so. And I
was no longer equipped to defend myself against one man, let alone all
of them everywhere.

We stopped later in the afternoon to eat and rest some more. The men
stretched their legs and some took naps. Leslie saw to Ortega and
McDunnough and even me for a moment. While she did, she tried to open
her mouth and talk to me.

“Quinn, about ... about earlier ...”

I bristled immediately, and I think she noticed. It sucked some of the
confidence right out of her as I did.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” I cut her off, crushing the rest of
that courage before she could ask. It came out more harshly than I’d
meant, but I didn’t want to talk to her right now just the same. “You
need to get your head around what’s going to happen back home when we
get there. Focus on that.”

I heard her swallow audibly beside me, but kept quiet.

“We’ll hide our faces and as much of ourselves as possible until we get
inside,” I continued. “Don’t let the sentries see you, and don’t speak.
I want to make sure I talk to Vigo first.”

“What am I supposed to do?” she asked, sounding dangerously close to a
whine with that soft, new voice of hers. “Just wait around until you
guys are done?”

“No. We’ll get you back to your quarters and make sure no one sees you.”

“Okay, Quinn. But if you ever want to talk ...”

I waved her away quickly after that and put some space between me and
the others until we were ready to move on again. No one bothered me
there just on the opposite side of the vehicles from where the rest of
the guys had set up to cook and eat and relax. I found a big old tree
and slumped down on the other side, holding my head in my hands and
trying not to break down in more shakes.

Time flew by and the next thing I knew it was time to go.

Jordan was waiting for me back by the vehicles while everyone loaded
back up. I greeted him with a placid, “What do you want, Weeks?”

If that distant tone bothered him this time, he didn’t show it. He just
asked, “How are we going to do this when we get there?”

I told him my plan to keep myself and Leslie concealed from anyone else
in the Brotherhood until we could get to Vigo. I wanted to get his
sister squared away so that we could meet the Old Man alone, and try to
explain things. That, of course, meant that Jordan would be doing most
of the talking at the gates and inside.

“You good for that?” I concluded, half into the passenger’s seat of the
jeep already. Cooper was starting the engine.

The man nodded. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something more
but Harris shouted at him from the buggy to get in so they could go. So
he nodded again, and took off.

The final stretch to home passed by me in a despondent haze, one in
which I had to wrestle with the anxiety that constantly threatened to
bubble right up and over into outright terror. The rest of the guys in
the jeep were oblivious, of that I was fairly confident. I spoke even
less then, and I think it might have surprised them when we finally saw
the habitat on the horizon and I opened my mouth for the first time in
hours.

It was night time by then, but everyone saw the red lights miles off in
the distance. A general cheer and shouting went up, shared between both
vehicles as we all caught sight of home for the first time in over a
week. It felt longer, I knew, considering there had been moments there
where I was sure that none of them thought they might ever see it again.
I didn’t cheer.

“Slow us down when we get close, Cooper,” I told the man driving. He
didn’t look at me.

“Yeah, why’s that?”

To my credit, I didn’t flinch when he questioned me instead of just
doing as he was told. I was still the leader of this run and he wouldn’t
have done so had things remained as they were. If I hadn’t had his
respect before, then I’d certainly had his obedience. Not so much now,
which stung, but I kept that inside.

It was just a sign of things to come.

“They’ll mistake us for Roamers,” I explained because I had to, but I
did it in a calm, rational voice for him. “Slow down, stop us a couple
hundred feet back, and Weeks’ll clear us ahead.”

That obviously made some sense to him because he actually did as I said
when it finally came time for it.

To everyone’s credit, they contained their excitement to be back enough
to stay inside the vehicles while Jordan jogged up and waved at the
sentries. Floodlights had already been leveled at us and we waited,
blind, while they shouted back and forth. I had already wrapped an old
shirt from my pack around my face and looked back to check that Leslie
had done something herself. Without looking too closely, I could’ve
passed for a teenage boy, but she was in a rougher spot with her much
curvier figure. I just hoped that no one bothered to pay us too much
attention.

Jordan returned and gave us the thumbs up. Those lights softened and
moved away enough that we could see the way forward, the sound of steel
grinding on steel filling the night as the gate up ahead swung open. A
whole wall of repurposed metals from the original ship and module
encircled that massive, squat structure ahead -- the remains of what the
previous generation had touched down with to start their part of the
colony. Sentries patrolled along its length, keeping an eye out for
wasters or others who tried to get too close. Thankfully, they looked
only mildly interested in us at the moment -- now that Jordan had
cleared things up -- and that curiosity was more for the rides we’d come
in on than ourselves.

“Oh, man! Where the hell did you manage to get THESE from?” a man was
saying, hands on hips and eyeballing the jeep and buggy after trudging
out the door to meet us. I recognized him as Gerald Forester, one of the
underbosses amongst our sentries. It wasn’t so esteemed a job as runner,
but it had its perks. Like getting a first good look at the strange haul
we’d brought back in with us.

Of course, Forester had stars in his eyes as he saw those two vehicles
idling there so he completely failed to notice Leslie or I as we
dismounted with the rest of the team that was left, leaving Cooper and
Harris at the wheel of either to take them inside. The closest the
sentry leader got to noticing that it was Jordan speaking to him and not
the man who’d left in charge of the team originally was when he briefly
turned to ask, “Where’s McClelland?”

To that, Jordan just gave the sentry a long, hard look. I assumed
Forester took that as an indication of my death, which I found bitterly
poetic. He didn’t say anything more, just waved the rest of us along
inside.

There was a short distance within the outer gates between the wall and
the remains of the module, sitting still against the dark sky with the
thick glass of the old core hydroponics unit looming up inside it. The
two vehicles followed us in and parked off to the side, a few sentries
escorting and waving them into place enthusiastically. I drifted close
to Leslie and so did Jordan as we moved to the main doors of the
habitat.

When we got inside that first main open space of the habitat, the elder
Weeks took over again quickly and started dismissing people. Carlton and
Kerensky carried McDunnough in a field litter off toward Doc Carlisle
and the infirmary with Ortega in tow. When Cooper hurried in, he joined
them, hoping to get the old medic to look at his nose. Harris never came
back in and we assumed he was fussing over those vehicles now that we
were safely behind our own walls.

“You get her to your housing unit and stow her there,” I told Jordan,
bending close enough to whisper so the couple other Brothers I saw
wandering around or passing through couldn’t hear. I didn’t want the
girl there for that conversation. I didn’t want the Old Man to see her
until I had gotten a chance to gauge his reaction to me first. Leslie,
with her generous assets, would’ve challenged the idea of us being
anything other than sexual creatures far more than my frail, little girl
body would, I was sure.

I noticed one of the other Brothers giving us a weird look after he’d
stepped into the space and I knew it must be for Leslie’s poor job at
hiding those very same assets. I grabbed her and pulled her towards her
brother.

“Hurry! I want you to get Vigo and get him to come see me in my rooms.”

“Quinn, I really think we should st--”

“Go!” I hissed, and Leslie got him moving, starting off toward the
eastern corridor. Jordan gave me an unreadable look as he turned away to
follow after his sister. As soon as they were gone, I hurried off
towards my own rooms the other way.

Thankfully, no one tried to stop me.

Chapter Twelve: Plan

Sighing in exasperation at Quinn’s unreasonably brusque mood, I turned
to my brother to get him moving, only to see that the man was looking
right past me. His gaze was locked on Quinn, eyes full of worry with a
hint of something else that I couldn’t quite figure out. It wasn’t the
first time that I’d seen him give the other woman that look, but it had
never led to anything besides him staring. As such, I just gave him a
swat on his arm to get his attention.

“Come on,” I told him as his eyes snapped to me, tipping my head toward
our unit.

“Right ... “ Jordan muttered absently.

Rolling my eyes, I just started off, figuring that my brother could stay
there if he wanted. In fact, that would just make things easier for me.
He didn’t, though, falling into step with me while taking one last look
over his shoulder at Quinn as the other woman also wandered off.

“Why do you keep looking at her like that?” I asked, once we’d gotten
far enough away for Jordan to turn his attention forward.

“Huh? What are you talking about?” Jordan questioned as if he could
possibly not understand what look he was giving or who he was giving it
to.

Rolling my eyes at my brother, I elaborated, “That weird look that you
keep giving Quinn.”

“I’m not giving her a look,” Jordan denied the painfully obviously.

Again, my eyes rolled. “Yes, you are. Practically every time I’ve looked
at you since last night, you’ve just been staring at her. What the hell
happened between you two?”

“Nothing,” Jordan answered gruffly, forcing his gaze down to the ground.

Shut out again, I just shrugged helplessly. There was nothing I could do
for the two of them if they wouldn’t tell me anything. I couldn’t even
guess at what had happened. All my life, those two had been friends, and
I’d never seen them act like this – not even when they were furious with
each other. It was unfathomable.

With no progress to be made on figuring out what was up with Jordan and
Quinn, I wondered if I should even bother trying to talk about other
things. For one, I didn’t see why I had to just sit in our unit and wait
around while other people talked to the Old Man. It was a waste of time.
Time that could be better spent talking to a different old man, namely
Dr. Carlisle. He would understand the value of what we’d discovered in
that facility.

Glancing over at my brother, I quickly gave up on the idea of asking for
permission. Quinn had given him orders, and he would follow them. Even
if Quinn was around, I doubted I could convince the stubborn woman to
let me go off on my own, especially since I couldn’t reveal what I had
without her getting mad at me. It would just be easier to wait for
Jordan to leave then go off on my own.

Resolved to that course of action, I just trudged along beside my
brother in silence with my focus on the pouch on my belt. Inside were
the samples that I’d taken from the Protean lab. Dr. Carlisle didn’t
have the equipment here to analyze it, but he might at least have
something safer for me to keep it in than a balled up old shirt. The
last thing I wanted was to have something happen to them after all the
trouble it had taken to get this far. With my thoughts so preoccupied,
it took what seemed to be only a few moments to arrive at our home.

“Alright, just stay here and try not to draw attention to yourself,”
Jordan instructed as I walked inside. He didn’t follow me in, however,
just hanging out at the door to direct me like some child left home
alone for the first time. “I’ll get Vigo, Quinn will explain things, and
then I’ll be right back here.”

“Sure thing, J.D.” I agreed amicably, wanting Jordan to go already so
that I could leave as well.

Normally, such ready agreement might have tipped my brother off that I
didn’t intend to follow orders, but distracted as he was by Quinn, he
just nodded and turned away. A few moments later, he was on his way to
Vigo’s, a task that would undoubtedly take him a while. Just to be sure
he couldn’t look back and catch me, I gave him a few extra moments to
get out of sight before I left as well, hurrying off a different way.

For the first few steps, I was excessively cautious, expecting my
brother to somehow know I was disobeying him and turn back to stop me.
He didn’t of course, but it made me hyper aware of the people around me.
In spite of my efforts to disguise myself at Quinn’s behest, they seemed
to be just as aware of me as I was of them. It wasn’t the same kind of
gawking that I’d received from the guys when I’d first change, more a
confused disbelief as if people weren’t sure what they were seeing or if
they were even seeing anything at all.

Fortunately for me, the unit that Dr. Carlisle used as a medical office
wasn’t that far away, allowing me to get there before confusion
inevitably turned to curiosity. Still, I was relieved as I stepped
inside, getting away from the unwanted attention. The interior had some
unwanted things as well, though, namely Dresden, who was standing to the
side with Marty while the dock looked over Mike.

“Well, well, what do we have here?,” Dresden remarked when he saw me
enter. “I would’ve thought your brother’d have tucked you in and kissed
you goodnight by now. Isn’t it past your bedtime, little girl?”

Not wanting to waste time with the asshole, I just tossed him a glare
before quickly turning to Dr. Carlisle. The old guy was looking even
worse than the last time I saw him, his heart condition slowly sapping
what little vitality he had left. Now, he looked thin and worn, moving
with a plodding weariness as he looked up from his examination at the
mention of my name.

“Leslie?” Carlisle questioned when he saw me, squinting his rather bad
eyes in confusion.

“Yeah, Doc, it’s me,” I answered, looking down at my very female self.
“Just a little different from the last time you saw me.”

“Kid got himself turned into a girl,” Dresden clarified crassly. “Pretty
one, too, with really big–”

“Shut it, Drez, unless you want me to break that nose of yours a second
time!” I growled, more than sick of that guy’s attitude.

Dresden gave out a dismissive snort. “You talk pretty big for someone
that got lucky the first time. If I’d been ready for a fight rather than
trying to just stop you from running off, things would’ve gone
differently, that’s for sure.”

“You keep telling yourself that, asshole,” I retorted, confident that
girl or not, I could still take him if I had to.

Before Dresden could come up with another comeback, Carlisle coughed
loudly to interject himself. “Did I just hear him right, Leslie?”

“You sure did, Doc,” I confirmed, my anger bleeding away into
excitement. “We found this medical lab in the Protean facility we went
to, too. Inside, there was something ... extraordinary, something that
can turn men into women.”

“But ... that shouldn’t be possible. How does it work?” Carlisle
questioned, seeming to gain energy at the mere idea of such a discovery.
“Are you fully female? Are you suffering from the Phage?”

All of those questions were good ones, but unfortunately, they weren’t
ones that I had definitive answers to, leaving me to shrug. “I don’t
know. It took a few days after exposure, and as far as I can tell, I’m
fully changed. There haven’t been any signs of Phage symptoms, either.”

“Extraordinary,” the doctor breathed, mirroring my own sentiments on the
matter. “Did you get a sample of what did this?”

Caught up in the discussion, I nearly blurted out in the affirmative,
but I caught myself just before I could admit what I had in front of
Dresden of all people. Instead, I stammered out an awkward, “Of-uhm ...
unfortunately, no, but I really need to get some time to talk to you
alone about it. I think you’ll really want to hear what I’ll have to
say.”

“And I do, my boy-er ...,” Carlisle concurred. “But I have patients to
worry about right now.”

“Yeah, get in line, dork,” Dresden spat infuriatingly.

I wasn’t the only one to ignore Dresden this time as the doctor did it
as well all while tipping his head toward the man on his examination
table. “This one especially could use some help, although, I see at
least his shoulder got stitched up well. Your work, Les?”

“Yep,” I confirmed. “It’s still a bit rough, though. Not as good as you
would’ve done.”

“Nonsense,” Carlisle muttered as he leaned into look at the injured man.
“It’s better than anything I could do, at least anymore.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled, feeling a little swell of pride at the compliment.
It didn’t last, though, as my gaze drifted down to the injured Mikey,
still not looking good. “You think he’s going to make it, Doc?”

“Leslie here’s been clinging to him the whole way back, worried sick,”
Dresden remarked, snickering. It earned him another glare from me, but
he didn’t care. If anything, that just made him laugh harder.

Meanwhile, Carlisle stayed on task, taking a few moments to examine
Mikey further before finally answering my question. “Well, the wound
looks good, he doesn’t seem to be sick, and he made it this far through
rough travel, so I think he’s got a good shot at recovery. The big
hurdle for him will be making it through the night. After that, he
should be good.”

While it wasn’t a certainty, having the old doctor confirm my hopes that
Mikey was going to make it was a relief. Still, I wanted to be as sure
as I could, so I offered, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“An extra pair of hands wouldn’t hurt,” the doctor replied. “Just go
clean them up first.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” I agreed, hurrying across the room to do as told.

After that, I spent the next little while helping the doctor with his
patients while chatted about what had happened to me. The old man
certainly needed help, mostly when it came to fetching things, but some
other stuff as well. By the time all three patients had been handled,
and the two conscious ones sent on their way, it was late enough that I
imagined that Quinn had to be mostly through her conversation with Vigo.
That meant I didn’t have a lot of time left.

“Hey, Doc,” I began as soon as I could be sure that Dresden, the last
patient, was gone. “About what I said earlier, it wasn’t entirely
accurate.”

“What wasn’t?” Carlisle asked, turning to look me over as if expecting
to see something out of place.

Smirking mischievously, I reached down to my belt and opened the pouch
with the samples, tugging the shirt free. “I actually did get a couple
of samples of what I think changed me.”

The moment the doctor saw the little glass vials, his eyes lit up like a
little kid and a broad grin spread across his face. “I knew you wouldn’t
just leave something like that behind!”

“Not a chance, although, Quinn and J.D. tried their best to make me,” I
remarked. “Luckily, they were busy with other stuff, so I managed to
sneak back to the lab and get these.”

“Any clues at the site as to what they contain?” Carlisle inquired,
leaning in to peer at the vials.

I could only shake my head at that question. “Not really. When we opened
the case that held them, we got hit by gas. I think that’s what turned
us. There were a lot of broken, empty vials in there as well, so I’m
guessing this stuff evaporates when it’s not under pressure.”

“Fascinating,” the doctor commented. “Makes it hard to test, though.
Certainly can’t do it here.”

“I know,” I agreed, having already considered that issue. “I was
thinking about taking it to the capital.”

The doctor rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “They are probably the only
ones with the kind of facilities you’d need. Plus, as a woman with a
supposed cure for the doom of our planet, they’d pretty much have to let
you through.”

“That’s what I was thinking. The problem is getting it there,” I noted.
“For so many of the vials to have broken, they have to be pretty
fragile. I’m lucky to have even gotten them this far still in tact. I
can’t tredge halfway across the continent with them crammed into a
shirt.”

That concern prompted a snap of his fingers from Carlisle. “Now, that,
is something I can help you with. I’ve got plenty of empty medical
containers around. Should be easy enough to find one to keep your
samples safe. Still, it’s a long trip.”

“Yeah, but lucky for me, we snagged a couple of vehicles from the
Roamers last night,” I informed the doctor.

That news had the old man’s eyes going wide. “You took what from who?”

“The Roamers caught us out at the facility,” I explained. “To get away,
we had to sneak into their camp at night and steal a couple of their
rides. After a little ingenuity from me to shake our pursuit, we got
away with a jeep and buggy in tact. One of those can cut the travel time
down a lot, plus keep me relatively safe from all the poachers that
wander the wastes.”

“It’s a good plan, my er ... girl, but you’ve got some problems,”
Carlisle criticized. “There’s no way that Vigo is going to let you
leave, much less take one of those rides with you.”

“Why wouldn’t he?” I questioned. “It’s not like the samples are of any
use here, and Quinn and I are the only proof that it works. At least one
of us has to go, and science isn’t Quinn’s thing.”

My reasoning seemed sound to me, but Carlisle shook his head in denial.
“I get what you’re saying, Leslie, but Vigo isn’t going to see it that
way. He’s going to take one look at the first women he’s seen in twenty
years, and he’s not going to want to risk them on the chance that there
might be more somewhere down the line. He’s going to want you kept safe
and sound right here in Wendover.”

“Why would he do that?” I queried. “There’s only two of us – not enough
to fix anything. Even if we bred constantly, there’s no way. We need
more women to have any hope.”

“Just trust me on this one, Leslie,” the doctor told me solemnly. “I’ve
been around long enough to know how people react in situations like
these. They see something scarce, something valuable, and they cling to
it tightly whether it makes sense to or not. Unfortunately for you,
you’re something scarce now, something more valuable than basically
anything in this world. He’s going to want to keep you right here.”

Rationally, I wanted to deny such idiocy. There was no reason behind
ruining this chance for everyone just to cling to something that, while
rare, was meaningless. I couldn’t deny that, though, not after all the
conversations I’d had with Quinn and Jordan where they just couldn’t
understand. Vigo was more like them than me. He’d probably see the same
thing, focused on what is rather than what could be.

Realizing that the doctor was right, I slouched in frustration. It was
one thing to sneak past a few distracted men. It was something else
entirely to sneak out of a habitat of hundreds that would all be trying
to force me to stay.

“If I leave now ...” I tried to plan, refusing to just let myself be
trapped here, not when I was so close to saving everyone.

“Won’t work,” Carlisle interrupted. “You just rode in on those fancy
Roamer vehicles. People are going to be flocking around them for a
while, at least long enough for everyone to find out about the new women
in the habitat. I’m guessing that hothead, Dresden will see to that fact
as payback for what you did to his nose.”

“Shit,” I cursed under my breath, not having any trouble imaging that
fucker doing exactly as the doctor suspected. He’d spent the whole trip
back finding every possible way to needle me and outing my womanhood to
the whole damn place would certainly do that.

Carlisle reached out to rest a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “I’m
sorry, Leslie. Your best bet is to play nice and try to wait for an
opportunity.”

“But this stuff could save the whole planet!” I growled, full of
frustration. “I can’t just sit around here and hope that I find a way
out before it’s too late!”

“The only other options are foolhardy at best,” Carlisle told me. “You
can’t put the fate of the whole world on any of them. You have to make
this chance count.”

“Maybe you ...” I started to suggest, but i didn’t even finish the idea.
There was no way that the doctor could make such a journey. He struggled
to make the journey from his bed to the john these days. “What if I gave
the samples to someone else?”

Again, Carlisle shot me down. “You tell Vigo he can have at least two
more women and he’s going to take them even if it screws everyone.
Besides, without a woman along with the samples, the guys at the capital
will just laugh at anyone that goes, thinking them some crazy person
trying to lie their way in.”

“But we’re so close ... “ I complained hopelessly. All I had to do was
make the drive to the capital and our world would be on its way to
salvation. It wouldn’t even be that hard, but it wasn’t going to happen,
not right now – maybe not ever.

“I know,” the doctor answered sympathetically. “Vigo’s not some Roamer,
though. He probably won’t lock you in a cell with constant guards. If
you’re patient, play along, you’ll find your chance to slip free.”

Trying to be optimistic, I nodded along with the logic. “Alright. You
should probably hold onto these for now, then. I don’t want to risk Vigo
discovering them and wasting them.”

“Alright,” Carlisle agreed. “I’ll keep them locked up in the cabinet in
my office. You still know where I keep the key?”

“Bottom right drawer, tucked in front of the files,” I answered
immediately.

The doctor nodded in confirmation. “Right. That way you can just swing
by and get ‘em whenever you make your escape.”

“Thanks,” I told the doctor, hoping that there would actually be an
escape someday.

Chapter Thirteen: The Ghost and the Darkness

I paced back and forth inside the main room of my quarters for a few
minutes after ducking inside. When I got tired of that, I remembered the
pack on my back and all that gear scattered around my baggy clothes and
tossed them off. Then I took a look at those clothes and wondered at if
I should do anything about them before Jordan brought Vigo around. They
were dirty, smelled of sweat and human meat after more than a week being
lived in on the trail since. After our strange transformation, I hadn’t
thought to change. I’d tried to avoid being confronted with my new self
as much as possible, like not seeing it with my own eyes would somehow
let me get past it all that much quicker. Too bad there was nothing to
get past to.

Making sure the main door was locked, I went to my bedroom and started
to peel those various layers off. My mind blanked as I did, and I found
clean underwear and a shirt to put on. Pants too, though I abstained
from trying to fit another awkward pair of shoes or boots on my now tiny
feet. Socks were good enough. After I was done I darted over into the
bathroom, looking for the mirror.

It was probably the first time I’d seen myself since first waking up.
Still dirty, I splashed water in my face and on my hands from the sink,
trying to swipe away some of the dirt and grime and blood. And then I
could see that face again. That girl’s face. She looked slightly younger
than I thought she might be, though, it was hard to tell since it had
been so long since I’d seen a woman in the flesh. I supposed I still
looked older than Leslie, if just by the mature cast of me. But ... the
same green eyes as before. The same shaggy brown hair creeping down
toward my chin. That same face that reminded me so much of my mother. I
thought that maybe this was what my sister might have looked like if she
had survived.

The thought brought an unbidden tear to my eye. I saw it slip down one
cheek, caught it on the back of one hand, and stared at it. Then I
twisted around and looked toward where Dani’s room had been. I hadn’t
thought about her in years. I hadn’t gone in there in even longer,
though Dad had always kept it well-preserved, just like Mom’s various
things inside their room. I started to regret the fact that I hadn’t
kept up the effort for him after he’d gone and joined them on his own,
two years ago.

My feet took me back out into the main room and I found myself staring
between my sister’s and my parents’ rooms in silence for a while. It was
strange, being back in this place that had been our home. Like this.
Feeling like a stranger to my own life in some subtle, indescribable
way. Part of me was glad that they had never had to see me like this and
had all died knowing who I was before. Part of me was just painfully
hollow at the thought that, for the first time in my life, I felt truly,
utterly alone.

Another tear joined that first. I felt it burn downwards and I swiped at
it, noticing then just how my old male shirt hung off me like a tarp. I
was skinny now. So, so skinny. My breasts were tenting it out in front
and I could make out the nipples underneath. A quick trip back to my
bedroom and a dark blue shirt later and that problem had been half
solved. I was still standing there in severely ill-fitting clothes that
made me look even younger and sillier than I already did. My stomach
lurched with sudden panic at the thought of Vigo seeing me like this.
Even worse than being female, I looked young and foolish. And I needed
him to respect me. I needed him to still value me enough not to dismiss
me outright. I had no chance if he did.

My eyes wandered over toward my parents’ room again and uncomfortable
thoughts ran through my head. Distressing, discomforting, DANGEROUS
thoughts. And I squeezed my eyes shut.

It wasn’t that hard a decision to make, but I mostly just tried not to
think.

Focusing on the practicalities of my situation, I trudged over there and
reached to open the door. My hand hovered for a moment -- a moment in
which I felt revulsion at the idea of what I was about to do. It was
washed quickly away by another pang of fear, and I swiped across the
sensor. The door slid back.

My parents’ room was perfectly preserved from the last time my dad had
been alive. The bed was a mess. Things had been rattled around. Drawers
were opened and so was the closet. I saw some of my dad’s clothes
scattered about the floor and a bottle of some unknown liquid that had
all either been drunk or evaporated into the air since.

The sight replaced that pit in my stomach with a falling sensation
instead, and I nearly toppled over. It was a good minute before I could
bring myself to get in there and rifle through my mother’s old things.

Dad had put it all away in sealed containers. He’d been desperate to
save everything about his wife and daughter after the Phage got them.
He’d taken the whole thing really hard and never really recovered. Dani
was nine years old when she died. I think that death hit him the
hardest. His perfect little angel.

I’d thought I resembled my mother greatly -- the memory I had of her
anyways -- but it was hard to say for sure whether she was even my size
until I pulled some of her old clothes out. I didn’t remember her being
small, just my dad being big. I was seven at the time and I could only
remember her from the perspective of a little boy, not a grown man.
Still, I made the attempt, pulling together what I thought was an
appropriate but not too uncomfortable gathering of her clothes.
Underwear, tank top, and one of those form-fitting jumpsuits I had
seldom seen but knew they’d worn a lot back in the first few years of
colonial development. It suited my limited tastes for the enterprise far
better than any of the more feminine things I found in there. And, to my
relief, it was a near perfect match. Even the bra and panties, both the
plainest, most utilitarian I could find. It seemed that my new self took
distinctly after my dead mother.

I realized, just then, that I was even about the same age as her when
she’d died.

Another two tears streaked across my face.

While I stood there, staring at myself in my parents’ bedroom mirror and
how disturbingly much I looked like those lingering memories of my
mother of mine, I had a moment where I could almost feel her in the
room. I stepped in front of the mirror and, for a second, my brain had
been so sure it was her instead of me standing there that my breath
caught and my heart stopped. Then it passed, and I just felt profound
loss.

The front door chimed.

I froze where I stood and couldn’t bring myself to move for the longest
time. The door chimed again, and it jolted me back to life like a bolt
of lightning. I scurried over with my heart in my throat and slammed a
fist against the sensor.

Jordan stepped in first. He’d been all but on top of the door and was
inside before I could do anything, forcing me back a few steps into the
room. I noticed the posture of his body and thought it seemed as if he
was trying to put himself between me and who must undoubtedly be Vigo
outside. He didn’t really look at me until he was all the way inside and
then it was to stare, eyes popping wide, for the few moments it took the
Old Man to follow suit.

Vigo was an old man just like his unofficial title around the habitat
said he was, even though most of us second generation kids had been
calling him that since long before he’d gotten gray around the temples.
These days he was all white and silvers, with a scraggly beard that hung
down to his broad chest and paunchy stomach. He’d been the senior
officer on board the colonial ship we’d originally touched down in,
after the captain and his first mate. Those two had died off long ago,
however, and Vigo had been the voice of reason and de facto leader
that’d kept our people alive in the decades since -- when everything
started falling apart with the Gynophage. A lot of people had lost all
sense of order or good will once they’d realized that we would be going
extinct in this second generation. Vigo’d managed to pull enough of
those people together to create some semblance of stability for us to
live out our lives in relative peace, though. He was like a father to
all of us who remained.

As he entered the room, Vigo looked like a distraught father, face
slightly pale beneath his beard as he did. Confused already by whatever
Jordan must have told him to get him here, that emotion only magnified
when he quickly looked up to see who else was there besides the elder
Weeks brother and beheld me in my jumpsuit, looking decidedly like a
female person and probably the first that he had seen in twenty years.

Vigo stopped dead in his tracks. His brain seemed to stop too, because
he stood there transfixed, eyes squeezing shut after a moment and
twisting away before coming back again. It seemed to come on him in
waves of increasing certainty that what he was seeing was real and as it
appeared to be. I think he had a hard time of it.

“You ... what ... h-her ... what?” was about the extent of the sense the
Old Man made for a good minute or so. Jordan, for his part, had stopped
staring at me after I returned his look with a blank one of my own. Then
the main door slid shut behind them and Vigo jumped.

“Weeks. What the HELL is going on here?” the Old Man demanded.

Jordan tried to explain and it was obvious that he hadn’t done so in
order to get the other man here in my quarters. He tried to explain the
impossible and came off sounding like a crazy person. His only saving
grace was that the evidence of it was standing right there in the room
beside him.

“I’m Quinn McClelland, sir,” I butted in abruptly and they both looked
at me like they’d forgotten that I could speak.

“Quinn ...” the Old Man breathed incredulously. Then he shook his shaggy
head. “No. That’s impossible. This just ... who are you? How are you
still alive?”

Jordan told him about the Protean ruins. Told him about the accident in
the abandoned med lab and what had happened to me and Leslie. He told
him how he had watched us change over three days and how Quinn
McClelland had become the thing standing before him now. While he did
so, I just tried to endure his scrutinizing looks of disbelief, as he
hardly looked away the whole time Weeks spoke.

It wasn’t until the end of it, after fifteen minutes or so of explaining
and convincing with that totally implausible and yet true story that
Vigo finally cocked his head slightly to one side and looked at me,
asking, “Quinn ...?”

I bobbed my head. “Yes, sir.”

“What ...?” the Old Man glanced at Weeks as if hoping the other man
could help things make more sense. “How ...?”

But we’d explained how already, so we just stood there and waited for
him to catch up. When he did, he finally stepped forward and looked down
on me, eyes wide and searching.

“You ... you look just like Cynthia ...”

He reached out like he meant to touch my face, but I flinched back and
his hand fell. Then he recomposed himself just a bit and started to
slowly circle around me, taking everything in. I stood there as
passively as I could while he did.

“I can’t believe it,” he mumbled aloud to himself, eyes roving up and
down. I could feel them. “This is ...”

It went on for several more minutes like that. Vigo seemed as if he
couldn’t quite get his brain to accept what he was seeing, no matter how
real I seemed or how much I told him that I was really Quinn. He touched
me a few times like he expected an illusion. I weathered it all as best
I could.

Then Jordan stepped in.

“Sir, what are we going to do about this? If people find out, they’ll
come here and try to take her away -- take Leslie away. Our own people
might even turn on us. These are the only women anyone has seen in two
decades!”

Vigo almost didn’t notice the younger man. A fervor had gotten into him,
though, and Jordan stood there, having moved in front of me to block the
Old Man from continuing his circuit. Weeks’ jaw clenched and he looked
like he wanted to fight someone. Vigo just looked up at him, still
dazed.

“What? Yes ... yes, you’re right,” the Old Man said, nodding his head
and glancing away in thought. His eyes didn’t leave me for long.

“So what are we going to do?” Jordan demanded again, harshly, when the
older man said nothing for a long time.

“What? Oh.” Vigo remembered that he was there. “I don’t know ... I don’t
know, yet. I’ll have to think.”

“I’m telling you right now, sir,” Jordan pressed, gritting his teeth at
him, “I’m not going to let anyone do anything to them. Is that clear?”

The Old Man twisted his eyes back toward the younger man, firming up in
his composure just a bit. “Calm down, Weeks. We’ll figure this out. Of
course we can’t allow any harm to come to them.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but had expected no less. I just
swallowed and squeezed my eyes shut.

“This is my best friend, sir. And that’s my little brother. Nothing is
going to happen to them. Do you understand me?”

Jordan’s posturing seemed to coax the older man out of his bemused funk
to the point where he straightened up to his full height to address the
elder Weeks. “Are you threatening me, boy? I said nothing would happen
to them and it won’t. This is some kind of miracle and I’m obviously not
going to let anyone do anything to them.”

“They’re still our Brothers, sir,” Jordan added, not happy enough with
that declaration.

Vigo bobbed his head. “Yes, they are.”

Then he paced away a few steps into my home, thinking.

“They’ll have to be protected. You’re right, of course. When word of
this gets around ...”

“Do we have to tell anyone?” It was me who asked. Again, that snap of
both of their eyes to me like they’d thought me mute. “Is there any way
we can just hide this?” I knew it was a hopeless question, but there was
some small part of me that hoped Vigo might have an answer I hadn’t
thought of. He disappointed me by shaking his head.

“Someone will find out eventually. Better to control the flow of this
information as best we can to avoid any kind of panic or riot.” I
cringed inwardly at the thought. “And of course we can’t allow this to
get beyond the Brotherhood. If any of the other habitats find out ...”

He didn’t need to finish the thought. We all knew too well what would
happen. Some sort of extinction war between the clans with Leslie and
myself as the prize.

Funny. Funny how our doomed little world would probably tear itself
apart immediately just to acquire us two. Our sad colony would turn its
slow death into a quick one in the most ironic way possible.

Vigo seemed to agree.

“I’m going to post armed guards outside your quarters.”

“Leslie’s not leaving me,” Jordan said immediately, before he even
finished and the Old Man nodded.

“I think it might be best if both of them are kept in the same place.
For now, at least. Easier to guard and less to worry about.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but caught myself. It made sense. Jordan
seemed less pleased, but merely shook his head without a word, looking
away.

A short silence followed, where none of us were sure what to say. Vigo
broke it finally by sighing aloud and rubbing at his wizened brow.

“Okay. I think you two should get some sleep for now. We’ll look at
things again in the morning and figure this out. Stay here and don’t
leave.”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“Alright then,” the Old Man said. Nodded his head. And then moved to
leave. “I’ll see you in the morning ... Quinn.”

“Yes, sir.”

He left me alone there with Jordan, both of us staring after his
departing form for another minute without speaking. Eventually, I opened
my mouth.

“Under guard,” I murmured, half to myself and half to no one at all. I
just shrugged my shoulders, helplessly.

“He’s doing it to protect you. Both of you.”

“This is how it ends,” is what I said to that, shaking my head.
“Precious commodities. Protected. You know what’s going to happen here
eventually.”

“I’m not going to let it come to that.”

“Yeah, you keep saying that,” I told him.

“I mean it, Quinn.”

I looked at him then. I felt my eyes start to well up and I had to bite
whatever it was back down to keep it from overwhelming me. We were back
home now. We were safe. But things could never go back to how they had
been before.

“You should go,” I told him then, gesturing weakly toward the door. “Go
make sure Leslie’s keeping out of trouble. You’ve done all you can here.
Thanks.”

I was staring at the floor. I wrapped my skinny arms around my skinny
body and just let my eyes roam over the carpeted metal of the floor, not
seeing it. Not thinking either. There were too many things spinning
through my head for any particular one to be more coherent than the
next. Everything was struggling to get out all at once and I just felt
profoundly drained and tired.

I turned to go back to my room and realized Jordan was still there. He
called after me of a sudden then.

“Quinn ...”

I stopped at the door to my bedroom and glanced back at him. He didn’t
say anything, just sat there with this unreadable look on his face
without a word. I bobbed my head after a few moments of that.

“Goodnight, Jordan.”

Then I slipped inside, and closed the door.

Chapter Fourteen: Prisoner

“This is amazing,” Dr. Carlisle breathed as he went through his exam,
poking and prodding at my lower abdomen. “For such a drastic change to
occur in only three days ...”

“I know!” I exclaimed excitedly from my seat on the exam table. It was
nice to finally have someone else to talk to that was actually excited
by the discovery. “It makes me wonder what other things we could find in
these old facilities, especially if we could decode their language.
There could be all sorts of secrets just waiting to be–”

Before that sound could finish, I heard the door opening followed
quickly by the sound of my brother bellowing with obvious anger.
“Leslie!”

Wincing at my name, I let out a weary sigh and turned toward the
entryway. My brother’s arrival meant the end of reasoned discourse. He’d
be angry at first, then drag me off somewhere, and soon after that, Vigo
would start dictating how things were going to be for me. It was just so
frustrating.

“I told you to–” my brother was yelling as he stomped into the room only
for his words to just cut off as his eyes popped wide. For a stunned
moment, he just stared at me before his gaze lurched off so far to the
side his whole body had to turn a little. At the same time, a hand shot
up to further shield him from looking my way as he blurted, “What the
hell are you two doing?!”

“What? Doc’s just giving me a physical to make sure everything turned
out right after the change,” I explained, shrugging my shoulders at the
obvious overreaction.

“And you needed your shirt off for that, why?!” Jordan demanded, still
refusing to look at me.

Rolling my eyes, I reached over to grab my flannel shirt, since my being
without seemed to bother my brother so much. I threw it over my
shoulders and started buttoning it up while I responded with, “That
happens during physicals, y’know. It’s called an abdominal exam.”

“Yeah ... well ... You’re not even supposed to be here!” Jordan
stammered, seeming to switch topics just so that he could stay angry. “I
told you to stay home and wait!”

“And I decided not to,” I retorted simply. “We’re not on mission
anymore, Jordan. You’re not the boss of me around here. I can do what I
want.”

“Do you have any idea how much trouble you could’ve caused?!” Jordan
growled. “We’re trying to keep this thing controlled!”

“Yeah, and I’m not interested in your ‘control’!” I shot back, knowing
that the only people that were going to be controlled were Quinn and me.

Before Jordan could find something to yell back, Dr. Carlisle
interjected. “Now, now, boys ... I mean, you two, that’s enough. Your
family. Act like it.”

There were few people left could effectively chastise both Jordan and
me, but the doctor was one of them. He’d been a friend of the family
since before either of us was born – a second father to us. That was
more true than ever after our own father had finally had enough of this
hellish planet and put an end to his misery. As such, I felt myself
slump contritely at his words, like a child being scolded by her father.
I could see Jordan do the same, hanging his head.

“Sorry, Doc,” Jordan mumbled softly, at least pretending to not be angry
anymore.

“Not to me, to Leslie,” Dr. Carlisle instructed reprovingly.

That prompted a heavy sigh from Jordan, but he still complied. “Sorry,
Leslie. I’m just trying to look out for you.”

“I’m sorry, too,” I muttered, even though, I didn’t think that I had
anything to be sorry about. Jordan had no right to tell me to just sit
in my room. “I just needed to talk to Doc about what happened.”

“There, now isn’t that better,” Carlisle declared, sounding just a bit
smug. He got some insincere affirmatives from Jordan and me, but that
didn’t seem to sour his mood any. “Now, Leslie, I think we’re done with
the exams for the moment, so why don’t you head on home. I’ll have to
come by and check on Quinn sometime tomorrow, anyway, so we can talk
more then.”

“Fine,” I conceded, grabbing the rest of my clothes before hopping off
the exam table. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Doc.”

“Tomorrow,” Carlisle replied, giving me a smile that was both warm and
reassuring.

Realizing that I was probably going to need that reassurance with what
was coming ahead, my return smile was a little strained before I turned
to walk over to my brother. “Alright, J.D., let’s go.”

“Don’t you think you should finished getting dressed, first?” Jordan
questioned, looking me over.

With just the shirt on rather than my attempt a disguise, my womanhood
went from a hint that people could doubt to full on obvious. I didn’t
really care, though, shrugging off the concern as I started out the
door. “Why bother? People are going to figure it out anyway. Might as
well happen now.”

Sighing in frustration, Jordan followed after me. “Why are you being so
difficult? Quinn and I are just –”

“You and Quinn are just what? Because, every time I try to ask about you
two, you’re about as interested in talking as you are in getting shot by
a Roamer,” I interrupted, not going to just sit through another lecture.
“In fact, sometimes, I think you’d prefer the latter.”

Obviously caught by surprise by the topic change, Jordan didn’t have an
immediate answer. Even after a couple of moments of stunned silence to
collect himself, he only managed a mumbled, “It’s ... complicated.”

“Well, maybe you should spend more of your time worrying about her
rather than me,” I told him. “Maybe then things wouldn’t be so
complicated.”

The only answer Jordan gave was a mumbled, “Maybe ...”

* * *

Morning came with the sound of voices penetrating into my groggy
thoughts. They were too quiet to make out the words, muffled by the
walls of my room, but I could tell one belonged to Jordan. The other was
familiar as well, but not familiar enough for me to immediately place.

Rubbing at sleepy eyes, I sat up in my bed, trying to wake up enough to
figure out what was going on. That wasn’t an easy thing to do, though.
After the crazy last couple of days that I’d had, I’d been exhausted,
out the moment my head hit the pillow. I seemed to have slept pretty
late as well, and even then, it didn’t quite feel like enough.

“Either that or I just don’t want this day to start,” I muttered,
knowing full well after my talk with the doctor the day before that
today would be the first in a line of wasted days. It would take me time
to find my way out of the habitat and away from the ‘protection’ of my
supposed Brothers. “Probably some protection talking right now.”

As sleep faded away, I finally recognized the other voice, Vigo’s. It
seemed that the Old Man really wasn’t taking any chances with his new
treasures just like Dr. Carlisle had predicted, even coming by in person
to check up on us. Whatever he had to say, it apparently wasn’t
something Jordan liked, because my brother’s voice had been getting
louder ever since I’d woken.

“I guess I should see what’s up,” I sighed, not seeing any point in
putting it off. The sooner I knew how I was going to be kept, the sooner
I could find the holes to escape through.

With that resolution in mind, I hopped out of bed, tugged on some pants
to go with the t-shirt that I’d slept in and padded to the door. A
moment later, I was out of my room, catching the tail end of my brother
declaring, “... them myself!”

Those words were almost immediately forgotten as everyone noticed me
entering the room. Vigo was the first to spot me, his stern scowl swept
from his face to be replaced by wide eyes and then a bright smile. He
had two men, both armed, flanking behind him who also joined in that
look. Only Jordan was not impressed when he glanced back over his
shoulder at me, choosing instead to roll his eyes in a clear sign of
annoyance over something I’d done. He seemed to feel that way about
everything these days, though.

“Leslie, I presume,” Vigo greeted, dipping his head politely.

I nodded in confirmation. “Yep, that’s me. Now, why are you in our unit
yelling while people are trying to sleep?”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Vigo apologized before turning to
shoot a frustrated look at Jordan. “I was just trying to explain to your
brother some of the measures that will be taken to assure your and
Quinn’s safety.”

“Unreasonable measures!” Jordan growled, gesturing at himself
fanatically. “They’re my brother and my best friend! I can protect them
better than anyone! They should stay with me!”

“I understand how you feel, Jordan, I do, but you’re just one man. You
can’t watch them both constantly,” Vigo countered. “Besides, when the
others found out that you were keeping the women to yourself, things
would get messy. It’ll be better if they come with me – safer. They’ll
have multiple guards constantly, and there will be no hint of
impropriety.”

Anger flaring, Jordan clenched his jaw, ready to go right back into the
argument. “And I told you–”

“I don’t like the idea of being kept in some cell like a prisoner,” I
interrupted in calm, even tones.

“Who said anything about a cell?” Vigo questioned incredulously. “You’ll
still be allowed to go about as you please, although, you will need to
do so with an escort – for your own protection of course.”

Not wanting to accept such a condition, I shrugged off the concern. A
constant watcher would be a huge hindrance to my escape. “I can take
care of myself.”

“I understand how you feel, Leslie, but you have to understand,” Vigo
appealed, sounding quite unhappy with the reality of the situation as
well. “You’re too young to remember what it was like ... before. Men
are not always as good at controlling themselves as they should be,
especially not after twenty years without. It’s just not safe for you to
be alone.”

“If a guard is really necessary, why not just let Jordan do it?” I
asked, trying a different tactic. Jordan would be much easier to slip
away from. With enough time, I might even be able to convince him to go
along with my plan. “He’s my brother after all.”

“I already told you, if we had him guard both of you alone it would just
stir up trouble,” Vigor told me. “And splitting you up just means having
to dedicate more men to guarding you.”

Frustratingly, the old man’s arguments all sounded logical to me. He had
counters to every protest prepared. It was enough to make me want to
just start screaming about how stupid this all was or just punch him in
his face and try to run for it, but neither would work. If I resisted,
he would just grip me tighter.

“Alright, just give me some time to gather my things,” I conceded,
pretending to be swayed by Vigo’s reasoning.

“Les!” Jordan protested, clearly not happy to have me giving in to the
Old Man’s demands. “You don’t have to do this!”

Already unhappy with this affair, I spun to glare at Jordan. “What are
you complaining about? All you’ve been talking about since we woke up
like this is how you plan to keep us safe. Vigo’s plan certainly sounds
safe. You should be thrilled. You got what you want.”

“This isn’t what I wanted,” Jordan argued. “I wa–”

“This is exactly what you wanted!” I spat, anger slipping lose. “Me
hidden away under guard to make sure nothing can ever happen!”

As Jordan recoiled form my outburst, his eyes went wide, filled with
confusion and a little pain. He recovered quickly, though, right back to
being the protective older brother. He even reached forward, mouth
opening with what I was sure would sound like a very well meaning
speech.

Unfortunately for my brother, I had no interest in hearing a speech.
Instead, I just spun away to storm back to my room. Over my shoulder, I
yelled back to Vigo. “I’ll be ready to go in a bit!”

* * *

“Doesn’t really seem so bad,” I mused aloud as I walked about my new
home and prison. It was part of the old officer quarters for the ship.
As such, it was well appointed, with some of the nicer furnishings
available in the module. It was pretty spacious as well, with large
bedrooms for both Quinn and myself as well as a living area and kitchen.
It seemed that I would at least be languishing in comfort until I could
plan my escape.

Tossing my stuff in one of the bedrooms, I returned to the living area,
wondering what I should try to do next. Vigo had set up the rules for my
imprisonment, which meant that now I could start working on how to break
them. The hardest issue would be the guards. I would need to find a
blind spot. That didn’t seem likely in my new quarters, with their
single, easily guarded exit. As such, I would probably have to slip away
while I was out. In order to do that, I needed to figure out what kind
of escort I would be saddled with, and how limited Vigo would try to
make my movements around the habitat. Visiting the Doctor at his office
would probably be fine. It might be harder to get close to the captured
Roamer vehicles, though. Anything close to the gates would probably be
off limits. I would have to test to be sure. Once I did, I could find my
way out.

Even as I made plans, I heard the door to the unit open, causing a brief
scowl to slide across my face. The last thing I wanted to do was waste
more time with Vigo right now. Just listening to him was enraging,
knowing that he stubbornly stood in my way.

It wasn’t the heavy footsteps of an old, sizable man that I heard enter,
though, but far quieter ones. Curiosity wiped the scowl from my face as
I looked up to see who it was. I was just in time to see Quinn come into
the room with a bag tossed over her shoulder.

“Quinn!” I greeted with a smile, much happier to see my prison mate. She
was a friendly face, not to mention my best hope for a comrade in
escaping.

“Hey, kid,” Quinn greeted wanly, forcing a hollow mirror of my smile
onto her own face.

That single look was enough for me to realize that Quinn was still
trapped in whatever funk had resulted from that night after the escape.
Hopes for an ally dashed, I switched quickly to a concerned friend,
wondering if I could do anything to help. So far, I hadn’t had much
luck, but it wasn’t like she and I weren’t going to have plenty of time
alone together over the next few days.

As I considered the other woman, I finally noticed that she was dressed
differently from before. Gone were the baggy men’s clothes that had made
her look like a little boy. In their place was new, properly fitting
attire that didn’t completely hide the fact that she was a woman.

“New clothes?” I tried, keeping it just to a simple overture for now.

Quinn nodded lazily. “Yeah.”

“Where’d you find clothes that would fit you around here?” I asked,
trying to think of a place where such things could be found. My clothes
weren’t as bad as Quinn’s had been, but I certainly wouldn’t have
complained about having stuff that fit better. I’d even considered
taking some of Jordan’s stuff since it was closer to my size now.

“Storage,” Quinn answered before a hint of pain danced through her eyes.
“They ... they belonged to my mother.”

“Oh ...” I mumbled unsure of how to respond to that. I was too young to
remember women, but I knew that those that did, didn’t like to talk
about those that they’d lost. Something sympathetic might work or maybe
switching subjects would be better or ...

Before I could figure out what to do, Quinn moved the conversation along
on her own with a simple question. “Bedrooms?”

“Oh right ... I ... uhh ... I took this one,” I stammered, pointing
toward the one that I’d dumped my stuff into. “We can switch if you
want, though.”

Shaking her head, Quinn started toward the opposite room. “Either’s fine
with me.”

The uninterested response left me just watching as the brunette walked
away. My thoughts were on the move, though, trying to figure out a good
way to keep the conversation going. “Vigo set us up with some pretty
nice rooms!” I commented, raising my voice to be heard through the wall.
“Beds are really comfy too!”

“Great!” I heard Quinn call back, but the voice was empty of any
feeling, clearly not believing her own response. Immediately after, I
heard two thumps from the room, one that I suspected was her bag hitting
the ground, and the other that was probably her body hitting the bed.

For a moment, I was tempted to just let the conversation, stunted and
awkward as it was, end right there. After the last few times, it seemed
futile. This time, though, Quinn was at least talking without lashing
out. It was as good as things had been in a while.

Rising from my seat, I followed Quinn into her room. Inside, I found the
other woman spread out on her bed. Her gaze was up on the ceiling,
distant and uncaring. She didn’t even seem to have the energy for
thought or feeling, just listlessness.

“You alright, Quinn?” I asked, giving the woman the opening if she
wanted it.

“Sure,” was all the answer that I received. “Just ... getting settled.”

“Yeah ...” I mumbled, finding myself at a loss again. In a way, it was
even harder to talk to Quinn like this than when she was angry. “Are you
not happy with it either? I would’ve rathered Vigo let us stay where we
were.”

Quinn shrugged disinterestedly. “It’s fine. As good as staying
anywhere.”

Hearing that indifference was enough to get me to give up. Quinn might
be in a different mood, but it clearly still wasn’t one where she wanted
to talk. “Alright, well ... I was thinking about going out, y’know check
on Mikey and stuff. Wanna come or ...”

“No,” Quinn answered.

All I could do was nod in acceptance at that answer. “Okay ... well ...
see ya,” I mumbled, starting to turn to go. I paused briefly in the
doorway, glancing back at Quinn with worry, but no new ideas came to me
in that moment. Once it was gone, I finished my turn and walked away,
trying to get my mind back on something I could effect, my escape.

Chapter Fifteen: Up On a Pedestal

The next several days were some of the loneliest and most difficult I’d
ever felt in my entire life. Lonely, because this rift had opened up
between us and the rest of the Brotherhood, the result of accidental
biology and the fractured nature of our world. Difficult, because I had
to pretend that none of it bothered or affected me at all. Resistance
would’ve just made things difficult since they were going to progress a
certain way regardless of what I did. My only hope was to influence the
direction things went, making sure that it resulted in the most
comfortable circumstances possible for Jordan’s little sister and me.
And each time I bit my tongue or numbly followed along to do just that,
the man I’d been before died a little inside.

The first terrible thing was being ousted from the only home I had ever
known and stuffed into those plush, well-apportioned quarters originally
meant for officers of the habitat’s colony ship, the Wendover. None of
which were alive today except for Vigo. My family had lived back in my
old quarters their entire lives once settling down here. My sister and I
had been born there. Grew up there. She’d DIED there. It was like the
only thing I had left of them. And now it was gone.

Vigo, of course, had wanted to move us somewhere together that was
easier to protect. I could imagine that the much nicer living conditions
were due to some sympathy on his part for the inconvenience of our
plight, but I really wasn’t fooling myself at all. Yes, he sympathized.
But he also knew just how precious we really were. He wanted us to be
happy and well taken care of because he knew the best case scenario was
for us to be pliant. Then we could be brought about to enthusiasm maybe,
eventually, over what would undoubtedly be our new roles in the
Brotherhood and our duty to our people. A good mother was a happy
mother, I assumed.

The thought still made me shudder inwardly, my stomach bunching up in
knots. Not that the very idea was so sickening. I supposed I could
accept it in time. No, it was the fact that it would not be on my own
terms that it was done. It was the fact that I knew Leslie and I would
be used for our ability to bear and rear children that made me want to
vomit every morning I awoke still in that body in those nice quarters,
and every night when I went to sleep alone in my now sumptuous bed.
There was something so invasive about the idea of being used like that,
so violating. It wasn’t like being a soldier and sent out as a runner,
no matter what I tried to tell myself. In both cases, my body was being
used for the survival and potential betterment of the Brotherhood. It
was just that the one in which I was female felt like I would be even
less of a person somehow. Because, to them, it was no longer my mind
that was important. At least not for what they would want from me.

The Old Man tried to make the best of it for us. He had them deliver the
best and highest quality rations to our quarters. He acquired books and
clothes and games from around the habitat, some having gathered so much
dust I wondered how he’d even found them. He delivered us these things
and sought our approval, hoping it pleased us. Not at first, though. Not
that first day. He left us our space for a moment to adjust. No, it just
started rolling along faster and faster the more time passed and the
longer he had to consider what our fate here would be.

The second day, he came by, toting a storage crate like the one I’d
found my mother’s old clothes sealed away in. Inside were more women’s
clothes, these ones a much better fit, he’d thought, for Leslie, who had
nothing but her male ones. They couldn’t have anticipated her figure,
but loose, flowing casual dresses and skirts did a whole lot more for
her than an ill-fitting male t-shirt and pants. She accepted them with a
tight-lipped smile while I watched, and the Old Man had seemed pleased
with that. It became a theme with him, and I knew it smacked of giving
gifts to someone to earn their affection or allegiance. That was
important to Vigo.

I could have worried that the Old Man was so quick to pamper us, but I
tried to tell myself it was all to be expected. Perhaps, even preferred,
given the alternatives. Better he try to earn our favor than just take
it by force. And would it really be so bad? Being a coveted, pampered
sex object? There were certainly ways to turn that toward our advantage
if we could learn to stomach our bodies being used in what felt like
such a personal way. Logic dictated that was the case but, of course, my
stomach lurched at the thought. For all her previous enthusiasm, I got
the sense that Leslie had no more desire to be made into a broodmare for
the Brotherhood than I did. Unfortunately, for her, she was the far more
nubile of the two of us by all accounts: tall, sturdy, and curvaceous
with firm breasts and thighs. My much shorter, slimmer, and petite
figure filled my head with cringe-worthy nightmares about being
overpowered and broken by any such efforts. If I’d been a lesser person,
I would have contemplated using her like a shield to gather any sexual
attention instead of me. She certainly seemed to get enough attention on
her own without any help.

As much as the blonde always drew the eyes of Vigo and his guards during
deliveries or visits to “check up” on us, I did start to notice a
disturbing tendency for the Old Man to pay particular attention to me.
At first I’d thought it was just due to the nature of our relationship
as it had been before -- him trusting and respecting me as the more
capable, responsible one out of the two us. I had been one of our
premiere run leaders after all, and I thought he might just look to me
to set some kind of example for Leslie and lead the way into this new
existence of ours. But there was a disconcerting way about him when he
asked my opinions of things now, or when his eyes lingered much too long
on my face as we spoke. I caught him using my mother’s name infrequently
while we did, which had not been so strange because I had remembered him
being close to our family when she was alive.

No. It was when Vigo came around on an unscheduled visit to bring a
familiar set of clothes to me that I started to get suspicious for the
first time. He set the bin down in front of me and I rifled through it
while he watched, frowning as I did. And I froze when I recognized some
of those things.

“This was my mother’s,” I said, holding a slim black dress I remembered
her favoring when I’d been younger. Something my father had always
complimented her on, which was why I remembered it. I didn’t look at
Vigo, but my face blanched as I continued a moment later, “You went into
her room?”

“I ... hope that isn’t a problem,” the Old Man offered a little
awkwardly before clearing his throat. “I noticed you hadn’t taken all of
her clothes when you left and just thought it might be best if you
collected everything together for your room here. It’s not like they
were doing any good back there, sitting in storage.”

I barely heard him. I just started thinking about this man whom I had
respected my entire life, and who had respected ME and, most of all, my
FAMILY ... invading my home to take my mother’s personal things. I tried
to brush the thought aside and think of it in practical terms, but could
not. Especially not when Vigo said what he said next.

“That was a particularly lovely choice for Cynthia.” He gestured vaguely
at the black dress I held. “I remember her wearing it often to the rec
rooms, back when they were still in good repair and being used. A shame
you never got to enjoy some of the finer moments we of the first
generation did, before the Phage. Perhaps you should try it on for size
sometime. I’m certain you’d look as beautiful as she did.”

He’d meant it as a compliment but I could only feel all the blood drain
from my face as he said it. And if he realized that I’d seen through
that thinly veiled attempt to have me present myself in a dress and
emulate my mother, I couldn’t tell. He just stood there, waiting while I
slowly put the dress back and sealed the container up again with a
terse, “Thank you, Vigo.” He nodded happily at that, and left.

A great many suspicions about the Old Man’s relationship with my mother
whirled through my head thereafter.

Though I closeted myself away those first few days, Leslie seemed
restless in our quarters. She was always trying the sentries’ patience,
asking to go out at all hours of the day to visit with the Doc, check up
on Mikey’s wounds in the infirmary, survey the Roamer vehicles, and
anything else she damned well pleased. They would try to give her a hard
time, but an escort always showed up eventually to see her to it --
usually three or four other sentries that swirled around her when she
left. I couldn’t understand why she wanted to parade around where
everyone could see, but I found out later that Vigo went to some effort
to clear any areas she wished to go to of all non-essential personnel as
quickly as possible. He did so to control our exposure and I sometimes
wondered why he bothered allowing the girl to go out so freely at all. I
suppose it was all part of that effort to keep us happy, though. But he
found a better way to expose our status to the rest of the Brotherhood
before too long.

Rumors had been circulating, I was sure. And there was the rest of our
team to consider, who had seen the truth for themselves. So it came as
little surprise when Vigo had Leslie and I both rounded up from our
quarters and brought to the cafetorium, which in recent years had
doubled as a meeting place for the majority of the Brotherhood when such
things were called for. That day, he did call a meeting. And Leslie and
I were the topic.

The whole event went by in a haze for me because my heart was in my
throat, blood thundering in my ears, and my stomach dropped out beneath
me while it happened. I remembered flashes of standing there, feeling
exposed more than I ever had been before in my life. I might as well
have been naked for how it felt to be scrutinized by the hundreds of men
who had once been my Brothers. Leslie and I had stood near Vigo while he
presented us and started making dictations about how much of a miracle
the two of us were. How precious and important we were. How much our
safety and security was paramount to the continued survival of the
Brotherhood. Thankfully, he didn’t go into specifics on that point. He
just tried to stress to everyone in attendance that the lives of these
two women were worth more than any one of theirs alone and that it was
like a sacred duty for them to protect us and ensure future generations
here on Proteus. I listened to that, and felt sick and lost all over
again.

I remembered how my Brothers had looked at us. Shock and disbelief.
Horror and revulsion at the thought of that transformation, knowing who
we’d been before. Eagerness and hope at the message Vigo stressed, which
was a parody of what Leslie had told me soon after we first awoke as
females. The worst of it all, however, was the hunger. That sense of
being a desired object dangled before so many men’s eyes like a prize. I
could see flashes of it when I dared to look out into the group myself.
And I saw the death of myself as a Brother and as a person in those
looks. Here was the terrible fate I knew was inevitable since the moment
I woke up with my mother’s face all those days ago.

Thankfully, that was the only time we were exposed so utterly and
completely. I think Vigo had wanted to make a point to all the men,
getting the novelty of it out of the way at the same time. He apologized
profusely to the two of us afterwards and especially to me, noting what
must have been an ashen cast to my face. I’d been shaking and mute and
he latched onto one of my arms, seeing to it that I was escorted back to
my room with the utmost gentleness. As soon as he was gone from there
again, I finally ran to the bathroom and retched into the toilet for
what felt like forever.

Leslie tried to talk to me at times. I think she worried that I was
taking everything hard and maybe felt like she was the only one in a
position to truly be my friend anymore. Maybe she was, and I sometimes
believed I needed one so badly over the course of that week back at
Wendover. I cried into the toilet while I vomited that night and the
blonde girl tried to comfort me afterwards. The gesture was entirely
alien and entirely uncomfortable for me to accept and I pushed her away.
Gently, but firmly.

Not firmly enough that she gave up, though. After that she convinced me
to play at some of those games with her that Vigo had brought by, in the
rare moments when she wasn’t out and about and doing whatever it was she
thought was important at the moment. There were times when she started
trying to talk to me about what she was doing, times that I felt so lost
deep inside myself that I could hardly listen, and she stopped. I
realized if she was trying to be my friend than I was being a bad
example of one. But, for the life of me, it was hard to summon the
energy to care.

* * *

We’d been imprisoned in all the luxury the Wendover Brotherhood could
offer for five days before I finally heard from Jordan again.

I was sitting slumped on a couch in the main room, dragging my eyes
across the pages of a book without really ingesting any of the words at
all when I heard a commotion outside. My paranoid mind conjured up
flashes of Brothers rising up against Vigo’s “protection” and attempting
to break into our quarters and steal “the women” for themselves, and I
leapt to my feet. When one of the usual sentries that brought our food
scurried his way in with lunch and a shy smile for me on his face, I
relaxed just the slightest bit.

“Trouble?” I asked as he set down the platter of choice rations,
ignoring them. Vigo seemed particularly concerned with getting me to eat
more. I think I was a little too thin for his tastes and it might have
worried him. Not that I really cared.

The sentry shook his head. “Nothing you need to worry about,” he assured
me. “We’ll keep everything under control. You’re safe here with us.”

The man stressed it eagerly like he was trying to impress me and I
ignored that too. It was a common enough thing, of course. Our personal
sentry guards were always trying to capture our attention subtly yet not
so subtly. I almost felt sorry for them really, except for the way their
eyes roamed over mine or Leslie’s bodies when they thought we weren’t
looking. And a lot of times, even if we WERE looking. It didn’t matter.

But when that sentry finally turned around to leave and the doors
slipped open, I heard Jordan’s voice cry out, “QUINN!” from without. And
I stomped right over to the door and opened it again, demanding, “What’s
going on here?!”

The four guards outside were there, two flanking the door with weapons
drawn and another two holding Jordan against the wall opposite. The one
who’d brought me my food lingered only long enough to see Weeks subdued
before taking off. When I appeared in the doorway, everyone looked at me
immediately.

“Go back inside, please,” one of them ordered, blocking my path forward
with a hand that brought me to a disturbingly easy halt. “We’re
resolving a situation here.”

I looked at Jordan there struggling with those two sentries and thought
he might say something. He’d been baring his teeth angrily and looked
like he would. But when he saw me, he just froze. And one of those men
took the opportunity to sock him right in the gut, doubling him over.

“What the hell is going on here?!” I repeated myself.

“This Brother here was trying to get in. The Old Man says no one’s
allowed in without his permission and supervision. For some reason, he
doesn’t get that.”

I’d resisted the overwhelming temptation to rush forward and attack that
sentry who’d hit Jordan. We’d always had each other’s backs before and
had the circumstances been different, I certainly would have. But I was
smart enough to know that it would accomplish nothing except
embarrassing me. So I held back and just clenched my fists at my sides.

Weeks was much more pliable now as they pulled him back up to his feet
between them, his head hanging as he sucked in shallow breaths and
gagged. I turned to the guard who’d spoken, saw his snide, self-
impressed look and bristled all the more.

“Let him go.”

“I’m sorry, Mistress,” he apologized, and I flinched at the label they’d
started using for Leslie and me instead of our real names or Brother
over the past few days. “But Vigo’s orders were explicit when it came to
your safety. No one is allowed in or near your housing unit.”

I glared at the man and had to use every ounce of will I had to keep
from decking him right in the face. Anger surged up inside at the way he
was talking to me, treating Jordan, and what those orders from Vigo
insinuated. I gritted my teeth at him.

“Jordan is exempt from those orders.”

“I’m sorry, but he’s really not. Vigo said--”

“I don’t care what Vigo said!” I snapped, then shoved the man aside,
stomping toward Weeks. All at once, the four of them seemed to forget
the man and looked like they were going to try and apprehend ME instead.
But I just grabbed Jordan by the scruff of his neck and hauled him
toward the door.

They jumped in my way, blocking me. And I pulled a card that I had
become increasingly aware of but had never, EVER, wanted to have to use.

“You wanna stop me?” I snarled at those guards, “Really? Then maybe I’ll
just have to have a talk with Vigo about how incompetent and
insufficient this current detail is and make sure you never set foot
near these quarters again!”

Of course, their minds translated the ramifications of that. Things were
still in a golden age of us women being potentially allowed to maybe
pick and choose our future abusers and none of them wanted to be left
off that list. Our opinions meant something only in regards to
eventually choosing who we might mate and procreate with, or at least
take to our bed. All of them blanched at the idea, and my stomach turned
at how quickly they did.

They exchanged looks, but they let me pass with Jordan. And I idly
wondered how long such a threat would be viable before any power we had
at all was wrested away from us by necessity.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded of Weeks once I’d gotten
him into the room, the door locked, and shoved him toward a chair. He
didn’t take it. “Leslie’s not even here!”

Catching himself and coming back around to face me, he looked
disappointed at that. Still, he shook his head just the same. “I came
for you, Quinn. I’ve seen Les out and about and been able to talk to her
some, but you never leave your room and the guards won’t ever let me
in.”

“Came for me?” I echoed, making an irritated sound in my throat. “Why?
As long as they’re letting you still see Leslie, what does it matter
what happens to me?”

“That’s just it: they’re NOT letting me see Leslie.”

“What do you mean, Jordan? You just said you were able to talk to her.”

The man shook his head vehemently, pacing a few steps away into the
room. He still had a hand clasped over his stomach lightly from that
blow before. “I had to fight my way in to talk to her, just like you,
and they wouldn’t let me talk to her alone. She had to yell at them just
like you did. It was harder to keep me away when there wasn’t a door
between us and she could see me coming.”

“So?” I threw a hand up. “Talk to Vigo.”

“I HAVE talked to Vigo. He tries to tell me not to worry, that this is
just until things get settled and we establish boundaries. He doesn’t
want it looking like anyone’s getting preferential access to you two,
not even me.”

“Then maybe you should listen to him, and just wait for things to settle
down,” I said, but felt that sickness at the back of my throat at just
what “settling down” would mean.

“You don’t get it, Quinn,” he argued. “He’s shutting me out. I promised
to protect you two and he’s shutting me out of the loop. He doesn’t care
if I’m Leslie’s family or you’re the next closest thing for me. He’s
been giving me busywork and trying to keep me preoccupied. I even asked
to be part of the guard rotation and he wouldn’t allow it! He just keeps
talking around in circles, pushing me away.”

Jordan was stomping back and forth as he explained, his face pained and
creased with anger and frustration and a hint of desperation while he
did. I wasn’t so surprised by Vigo’s actions, though. The elder Weeks
represented a distinct chink in any plan to control access to us and
control Leslie in particular. He could be seen as a rival, given how
close his relationships with both of us had been before. Not that I
thought for a second that Weeks would do anything like that. But the Old
Man had to know it’d be a hard call to pit our loyalties to him against
Jordan. Isolating him was smart.

As much as it made sense to me on a rational level and I had expected no
less, I felt some cracks in my resolve at the flustered sight of my
former best friend then. And it was hard, but I managed to steel myself
enough to look him in the eye and say, “Well just what did you expect,
Jordan? We both knew what was going to happen.”

“Not like this!” He shook his head. “Not without ME! I was supposed to
stay close to you both, help keep you safe! How am I supposed to do that
if he cuts me out? How am I supposed to make sure Vigo doesn’t just take
advantage of you if I can’t even see you two?”

“It’s too late, Jordan,” was what I told him then, folding my arms
across my chest. “I offered you a way in before we got here, but you
didn’t take it. I told you what would happen if you didn’t.”

He opened his mouth to argue, but he took me in for what might have been
the first time since he’d entered the room then. His eyes lingered on my
face for a long while before that anger seemed to bleed right out of him
and his shoulders slumped. He looked me sadly in the eye.

“I’m sorry, Quinn,” he breathed quietly, then looked away. He swallowed,
and wrestled with what he was trying to say next. “I was so surprised
... I didn’t think about how that might hurt you ...”

Hurt me?

“Hurt me?”

He bobbed his head. “I was ... I was just worried about my best friend
getting taken advantage of. I didn’t want it to be me. You asked me what
if I gave in to what you were now back in the ruins, remember? I didn’t
want to prove you right like that. But I didn’t think about what you
must have been feeling. Not really.”

“I wasn’t ...” I started, but trailed off, unsure of just what to say to
that.

“I know this must be terrible for you,” he continued when I didn’t
finish, taking a tentative step toward me. “I don’t want you to feel
like you’re alone in this. I’m sorry about what happened. You’re NOT
alone. You have Leslie, and you have me. We’re not going to abandon
you.”

Something shuddered in me at those words. At that sorrowful, apologetic
look in his eye while he said them. I felt cracks forming along my mind,
thoughts bleeding through. And I shivered.

“It doesn’t matter,” I mumbled back at him, swallowing thickly and eyes
falling to the floor where he couldn’t see them. “You can’t stop this,
Jordan. You can’t change things. This is how it’s going to BE from now
on.”

“Quinn ...”

He tried to argue, but I held up a hand to shut him up.

“You really shouldn’t be coming around here like this, Jordan. Not for
me. For Leslie, sure -- that’s your sister. But not for me. You can’t
argue with Vigo just because we were friends. I don’t want to see Leslie
lose you just because you didn’t know when to shut your mouth and accept
things so we could survive.”

“Were?” he asked, voice breaking just the faintest bit. “Aren’t we STILL
friends, Quinn?”

The way he said it stabbed at my guts, feeling like betrayal. I don’t
know why he’d focused on that one, simple note instead of the rest of
it. But I felt it burn at me sharply.

I just forced my eyes shut and shook my head at him, whispering, “What
did you expect, Jordan?”

“Not that you’d shut me out completely! Not that you’d suddenly go off
and act like you were all alone in this and none of us mattered
anymore!”

“You DO matter,” I started, “it’s just ...” Then caught myself.

I forced out a trembling breath, glaring at the floor between us.

“You’re delusional if you think things can continue like they were
before, Jordan. We’re going to be USED, Leslie and I. There’s no getting
around that. You’re just going to have ... just going to have to ...”

My voice broke as I tried to say it. I sucked in a few breaths, feeling
tears sting at my eyes. My shoulders heaved and shook for a few moments
while I stood there in front of Jordan, trying desperately to keep my
entire resolve from falling apart utterly in a moment.

But I’d been feeling the fractures for days. Steeling myself against
this wasn’t like steeling myself against the perils of running or the
tragic, inescapable fate of our people. It was different, somehow so
much harder -- especially now -- and personal. And with Jordan standing
there in front of me I felt the overwhelming force of it all suddenly
coming crushing down to break me apart.

Then I felt his arms wrap themselves around me.

I stiffened, my breath catching in my throat. It surprised me so much
that my mind went blank for a moment as he suddenly squeezed me into
him. I’d been too distracted in that moment it took him to close the
space between us and do that. I hadn’t had time to react or stop him.
And then I was just standing there frozen while Jordan held me in his
arms.

I went to push him away once I’d gathered enough wits back about me to
do so. I pulled my hands up to either side of him and started to shove.
His hand touched the back of my head, though, and pulled me into his
chest. And, for a split second, there was something so comforting about
the gesture. A second where I felt something snap inside me, and tears
started suddenly rolling down my cheeks. And my hands froze where they
were before clinging to either side of him instead. Fingers dug in and
then I realized I was just pulling myself in tighter. My resolve
crumbled to dust.

We stood there for a few minutes, wrapped up in each other. It was such
an alien feeling for me that I found myself flitting between wanting to
push away violently and to never let go. I squeezed my eyes shut and
tears came pouring out with increasing ferocity the longer I stayed, and
soon I was shaking all over against him, sobbing against his chest. I
didn’t know what he thought of that. I couldn’t even imagine how it must
have looked, seeing me like that.

I didn’t say anything the whole while we held each other. Not that I
could have spoken a word. I just cried and cried and cried, thinking
about everything and none of it all at once. My face must’ve been a mess
when I finally pulled back, leaving a huge, ugly wet spot on the front
of his jacket. My whole life felt like such a mess that I could hardly
bite those tears back when I finally pushed away from him once more.

When I did, he just looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, Quinn.”

“I can’t do this,” I whispered back, voice croaking as I did. I choked
down a sob and scrunched my face up, trying not to just break down once
more all over again. I shook my head. “I don’t want to do this, Jordan
... I don’t want them to do this to me ...”

He didn’t say anything. He just looked heartbroken and sad, staring at
me like he wished he had an answer but could think of none. His hands
were still holding onto me, keeping me from breaking away completely.

“But I don’t know how to stop it ...”

He tried to pull me in close once more. I let him. It wasn’t so strange
the second time. I didn’t feel better about any of it -- I COULDN’T. But
I could hug that man into me, feel his strength while he wrapped his
arms around me, and believe, however fleetingly, that things might be
different. That he could actually do like he said and protect me.

But he couldn’t.

I indulged in that embrace for as long as I could before pushing back
away again. And I couldn’t look at Jordan while I did. But he held onto
my arms, keeping me from pulling back completely again.

“Quinn?”

I’d turned my head away. I wanted to swipe at those tears staining my
cheeks, but he was holding me back. I just sighed out through my nose.

He let one of my hands go and I immediately rubbed the back of it
against my eyes. Then I felt his fingers gently at the side of my head,
turning me back around to face him.

“Why did you throw yourself at me that night?” he asked, his face gone
stoney and impassive as he studied me.

I swallowed.

“I told you why.”

“But why?” he pressed anyways. “Why would you, if you hated the idea so
much? Why throw yourself at anyone? Why not just run away when we
weren’t looking? You could’ve taken one of the vehicles while we slept
those couple hours and run. Why didn’t you?”

“Because I couldn’t do that to you, Jordan,” I told him after a moment,
shrugging my shoulders and glancing away briefly. “Because I knew I’d
never get anywhere. Because I didn’t want to leave you or Leslie behind
to deal with this alone.”

Then my voice got real small.

“Because I thought -- if it was you ...” I choked, nearly swallowing my
tongue. “If it was you, then ... I thought it wouldn’t be so bad.”

His lips twitched. I don’t know what he saw in my face just then, but
his brow creased and he had a hard time finding his voice.

“I wouldn’t have pushed you away if I’d thought you really meant it.”

That sentiment hung there in the air between us. It took my brain a
while to process it, turning over and over until it made sense to me.

I didn’t know why it suddenly made my stomach drop out, or my heart feel
dense and heavy inside my chest. And I didn’t know why I reached forward
of a sudden then and pushed my lips up into his.

I kissed him, but it was different than it had been back in the forest.
My eyes had fallen across his face down to his mouth and it had suddenly
just felt like the most natural thing in the world. Even though I knew
it could never amount to anything. Even though I had nothing at all to
gain from it because nothing could change the course that we were
already on.

I kissed him, and I wanted it to. I wanted things to change, to be
different. I wanted to go back in time and kiss him like this that
twilight dawn in the woods, and make it stick. I wanted him to believe
that I meant it and ... and I wanted to mean it too.

I kissed him, and he kissed me back.

I don’t know how long it went on while I tried to swallow his lips with
mine, feeling this overwhelming need for him not to find this body or me
or my advances repulsive. I just tried not to think about how easy it
must have been for him to kiss the only woman in the world that existed
at that moment who wasn’t his sister. I don’t know how long it went on,
but we were both so wrapped up in each other because of it that neither
of us heard the door open behind us, or the sharp, feminine gasp of
Leslie as she caught us in the act.

Chapter Sixteen: Perceptions

When I’d walked through the door of the fancy unit Quinn and I called
home, I’d had all sorts of thoughts in my head. I’d been tinkering with
my escape plan which was progressing much more slowly than I would’ve
liked. I’d been mulling over some ideas I’d had to help Quinn, who as
far as I could tell was sinking further and further into despondency
with every passing day. I’d even been musing about how my efforts to
fashion myself a bra from my old t-shirts had actually worked out pretty
well, a necessity since unlike Quinn, there had been no appropriately
sized options for me.

All of those ideas had vanished the moment I saw what awaited me inside,
leaving my mind empty of anything even remotely comparable to a coherent
thought. No words came to my mouth, just a startled, involuntary gasp.
No actions were routed to my limbs, leaving me frozen in place. That was
how shocking it was to walk in on Quinn and Jordan kissing each other.

For as stunned as I was by those two, they seemed to be completely
oblivious to me. They just kept right on with the act, sucking on each
other’s faces as if their lives depended upon it. For all I knew, that
was actually the case. It wasn’t like I’d ever seen anyone kiss before.
After all, at that moment, I didn’t really know anything – or at least
my brain didn’t seem to think I did.

As is its way, the surprise didn’t really last. While it felt like I was
frozen there for minutes at least, it couldn’t have been more than a
second or two before the emptiness in my mind started to fill up again.
It didn’t just fill, though, it was dumped into, a thousand reactions
all clamoring to be the first one I felt after the shock wore off.
Should I be revolted by what these two, as close to each other as real
brothers, were doing? Should I be happy to find someone finally cracking
through Quinn’s defensive wall? Should I be enraged that these two would
waste time on such frivolities in the midst of much more important
issues?

In the end, I settled for an almost embarrassingly mundane reaction,
giving voice to my shock and disbelief with a simple shout of, “What are
you two doing?!”

Instantly, the two broke apart – no more like sprung, like magnets that
had been suddenly switched to the same polarity as each other. As they
lurched away from each other, both brightened with embarrassment, cheeks
turning red. That embarrassment translated into shame-filled looks,
looks that would not turn to me, would not meet my gaze. Instead, they
focused on the ground or the wall, unable to face their situation.

“We were ... just ...” Jordan began, trying to offer some sort of
explanation for the situation, but his mouth, like his eyes, wouldn’t
engage on that topic.

While Jordan stumbled for some sort of answer, I just stared, waiting,
wrestling with my own confusion on the matter. All sorts of words shot
up my throat only to die on my tongue unspoken. I wasn’t even sure I
wanted Jordan to answer my question – to confirm what my eyes already
knew.

Apparently, I was not the only one that didn’t want to hear my brother
explain. Ever since my outburst, Quinn had been getting redder and
redder, to the point where, now, she looked about ready to melt her own
brain with the heat of her embarrassment. Before that could happen, she
cracked, spinning away and running off to her room.

As befuddled as I was, I could do little besides shift my stare from
Jordan to the fleeing woman. My brother was a little more capable,
however, raising a hand to reach for her. As he did, he called out,
“Quinn!”

Even my brother’s reaction came far too late. By the time his hand
raised, Quinn was already a few strides away. His words barely caught
her before she was through the door to her room, closing it behind her
and hiding from both of us.

That door slamming shut across the room seemed to somehow do so right on
top of my brother. Jordan’s whole body crushed down, slumping in a
thoroughly defeated manner. Even his outstretched hand fell, leaving him
to just stare at the door, looking no longer just confused but lost.

It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I might have made a
mistake, interrupted something I shouldn’t have. It would have been easy
to just turn around and let the two friends ... do as they wanted. It
might even have been good for them. Unfortunately, I’d bumbled into it.

“Jordan ...” I began, planning to apologize, but like so many of my
words recently, that apology never made it out of my mouth.

The sound of his name prompted a wince from my brother, as if he’d
forgotten that I was there and that single word had reminded him. It
shook him free of his stare, getting him to turn back to me. This time,
he could actually meet my gaze, but it was with an expression full of
chagrin.

“Leslie ... I ... uh ...” Jordan tried again to explain with no better
luck than the last time.

My own mind was a little better, starting to organize itself at least
enough to formulate questions. “You and Quinn? How did ...? When did
...? Why did ...?”

None of my inquiries finished, but Jordan nodded along with each in
understanding. At the end of the list, though, that nod turned into a
helpless shrug. “I don’t know ... it’s just ... with everything that’s
happened ... is happening ... will happen ...” His train of thought
broke there for a moment, bringing out a weary sigh. It was followed by
a swipe of his hand through his hair before he finally continued. “I
just wanted to be there for her ... for both of you, then she was crying
and ... she ... we ...”

That fractured answer did little to assuage my confusion. “How does
crying lead to you two ...?”

“I don’t know!” Jordan blurted, a touch defensive but mostly just as
bemused as I was. “I really was just trying to help ... trying to
protect her. Vigo’s been trying to stop that, trying to keep me away. I
couldn’t ... can’t ... won’t just let that happen.”

“By ... doing ... that?” I questioned, still lost as to the logic behind
it all.

“No!” Jordan exclaimed, this time very defensive. “That was just ...
she wanted ...” Rather than finish those thoughts, he just buried his
face in his hands to yell, “Argh! It just happened!”

Reeling back from the outburst, I tried to figure out what I should do.
Quinn’s choice of fleeing was seeming better and better. The situation
was just too strange, too confusing, too unbelievably awkward. Quinn and
Jordan were best friends, my brothers, albeit only one by blood, but
still, they just shouldn’t be doing ... that together.

“Do you ...?” I began before losing my nerve mid way through, forcing my
gaze down to the floor. “I ... uhm ... I should go, so you two can ...”
Rather than try to vocalize the rest, I just turned to leave.

“Les,” Jordan tried to call after me.

Like Quinn, I had no interest in listening. I just wanted away from the
situation that I didn’t know how to handle. As such, I kept right on
going, out of the door, and passed the guards. By then, my previous
escort had gone, leaving only those that were assigned to the house.
They looked rather confused by my very abrupt departure so soon after my
return.

“I’m going to Doc’s,” I mumbled absently to the guards without slowing.

Forced to scramble to deal with me, one of the guards tried to call out
like Quinn. “But, Mistress, we don’t–” By that point, the guard realized
that I wasn’t slowing, stopping, or giving any other reaction, and
abandoned the words. Instead, he just gestured at one of the others to
follow him before trotting after me. When he caught up, he tried to
loosely grab my arm and start speaking again, “Mistress–”

Against Quinn, such a measure might have been sufficient to stop her,
but it definitely wasn’t for me. I immediately jerked my arm free of the
overly gentle grip. As I did, I twisted my head enough to glare at the
man and hiss, “Get off me! It’s just the fucking doctor’s for Christ’s
sake! I’ve been there every damn day! I don’t need a fucking four man
escort! You wanna escort me then fine, I’m escorted! Now, let’s go!”

Reeling back from the outburst, the guard glanced uncertainly at his
comrade. Neither seemed to have the courage to argue with me, although,
I had no idea why. It could just as easily have been fear about damaging
their precious treasure as it was out of any sort of respect for my
reasoning or capability. I didn’t really care, either.

Since neither stepped forward to attempt to stop me again, I spun back
the way I was going and returned to storming off. The two guards fell
into step behind me, apparently determined to make sure that I had at
least some form of escort. That was fine with me. I didn’t really want
to be hassled by the crowd, and I knew they’d leave me alone once we
reached the doctor’s. I’d convinced them of that the very first day,
citing Dr. Carlisle’s infirmity as well as various very private medical
considerations as excuses. Other than within my own quarters, it was the
only place where I was not under constant supervision.

Sure enough, the guards stayed behind as I stomped through the Dr.
Carlisle’s door, calling out, “Doc!” The old man didn’t give me an
answer to that, nor did I stomp for long. Instead, I came to a stop in
the main exam room when I saw Mikey there, moving around to clean stuff
up with one hand. The other was held up in a sling. “Oh ... hey, Mikey.”

“Hey,” the man greeted as he turned to smile at me. “Sorry, but the
Doc’s resting in his office.”

“Oh ...” I mumbled, this time with obvious disappointment. If the doctor
was resting, I shouldn’t disturb him, which meant I had lost my
distraction, leaving me with nothing to do but just stew about what had
happened between ...

A quick shake of my head cleared thoughts I didn’t want out of my mind
and allowed me to focus my gaze on Mikey – a new distraction. “So,
finally up and about, huh?”

“Yep,” Mike confirmed with a grin. “And not a moment too soon, too. I
was going nuts being stuck in that bed all day.”

Quite familiar with the idea of being trapped somewhere I didn’t want to
be, I commiserated, ”Yeah, I can imagine. Glad to see you’re getting
better.”

“Me too,” Mikey agreed. “I hear I have you to thank for that by the
way.”

“Me?” I repeated, scrunching my face up dubiously. “I didn’t really do
anything, just sewed you up after you got shot.”

“Yeah, well, Doc says I would’ve died out there in the wastes if you
hadn’t been there,” Mikey countered before a sudden softness overtook
his features and his gaze dipped down thoughtfully. “Seriously, thank
you for that.”

Smirking, I quickly waved off the gratitude. “Don’t worry about it. I
was just doing my job as our field medic. No different than what you did
to cover our escape after that alarm.”

“It was more than that,” Mikey insisted, lifting his gaze again. This
time, there was a strange look in those eyes as they met mine. It wasn’t
a look I could place, but it was unsettling to have it directed at me.
“Drez says you practically never left my side on the way back, and
you’ve been coming by to check on me every day. That really meant alot
to me.”

Mention of that asshole had me rolling my eyes. “Great ... Dresden’s
giving you fodder to mock me with now? Just what I need.”

Mikey chuckled at the idea. “You know what? I hadn’t really thought of
it like that. I guess it is kind of embarrassing for you, doting over me
like that.”

“Well, you may not remember this, since you were pretty out of it at the
time, but I already told you that I was only doing it to pay you back
for the help back in the ruin,” I reminded him.

“Oh?” Mikey asked, raising an eyebrow at the claim. “And what did I have
to say about that.”

“That you didn’t ask me for it, so it didn’t count,” I answered,
chuckling at a bit at the memory. “You also told me to rip out your
stitches if I wanted to, because you were going to come back anyway.”

While it was only an amusing memory to me, Mikey burst out laughing at
story. “Hahaha, guess that means you still owe me.”

“I guess so,” I conceded. “Why, you have something you want from me?”

That question stole Mikey’s mirth, leaving behind only a few awkward
chuckles as he looked away, running his hand through his hair. “Uhm ...
yeah ... kinda.”

Confused by the odd reaction, I tilted my head curiously. “Really? What
is it? If it’s something quick, maybe we can get it out of the way right
now. I’m looking for something to do.”

“It’s pretty quick, but ...” Mikey confirmed only to trail off before
explaining the task.

Only growing my intrigued, I leaned in a little to ask again. “Well?
What is it then?”

“It’s ... uh ... “ Mikey began an answer, but the end never came.
Instead, he just lifted his gaze again and a big smile filedl his face.
“Nevermind ... it’s nothing. Just a stupid idea I had to mess with you.”
As he finished, he laughed while rubbing a hand on the back of his head.

Furrowing my brow at that answer, I straightened back up. It didn’t feel
like the truth, not to me. The man’s smile was too broad, his posture
too stiff, his laugh just a little forced. I wondered what the truth
was, what task he wanted performed that he didn’t want to say.

“Are you sure?” I questioned, pressing a little for more.

“Yeah, just forget about it,” Mikey answered, seeming to be a hurry to
dismiss the topic. “Besides, even if I didn’t ask, saving my life is
more than enough to call it even. All I did for you was look the other
way.”

“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds like you should owe me,” I
joked with a chuckle.

Joining me in the laugh, Mikey shrugged. “I guess. Why? You need some
help with something?”

Now, that was an interesting question. I certainly did need help with
something, namely my escape. Even storming out, I’d still been left with
two guards watching me. One, I felt I could handle, but two wasn’t going
to be possible – not alone anyway. The problem was that I was alone.
Quinn had been closed off, and now ... well, there was just too much
confusion there to count on for an ally. Dr. Carlisle was willing to
help, but there wasn’t much he could do, and trying to recruit other
people had all sorts of risks. Mikey, though, had already proven to be
willing to disobey orders to help me. Sure, he was injured, but he
wouldn’t always be.

“Actually ... “ I stalled as all those considerations ran through my
head. “There might be–”

Before I could even pose the idea, I was interrupted by the sound of the
door opening behind me. Not wanting someone to overhear my plans, I cut
myself off and turned to see who was entering. I’d expected some Brother
with a minor injury contracted during work, but that wasn’t it at all.
Instead, there were two men, one leaning heavily on the other. The
helper was Shaun, which wasn’t a surprise, but the man he was helping
was. It was Lincoln Bates.

The unexpectedly alive man was not in great shape. He looked like he had
been beaten half to death, then tortured for good measure. His face was
swollen and bruised. His clothes were tattered and stained with blood,
showing glimpses of more bruises and cuts underneath. In short, he was
an absolute mess, making the fact that he was standing there, even with
someone else’s help, all the more astonishing.

“Linc?!” I heard Mikey gasp in disbelief from behind me, a sentiment I
definitely shared.

The injured man managed to lift his head and force a pained smile onto
his face as he wheezed out, “Hey, Mike.”

Meanwhile, Shaun brought the two of them to a stop as his eyes darted
about the room. When he couldn’t find what he was looking for, he yelled
out, “Damn it! Where’s the doctor?!”

“I’ll get him,” I answered immediately, turning to go. “He’s just in–”

Before I got far, Mikey’s uninjured hand grabbed my arm to stop me. “No,
I’ll get him. You get started on helping Bates.”

Having no argument for that, I just nodded and let Mikey move past me.
Once he had, I turned back to Lincoln. “Alright, let’s get him onto the
exam table.”

As I approached to help, Shaun tossed a wary look at me, as if not
wanting anyone else to touch his friend. He didn’t actually stop me from
helping get the injured man up onto the table, though. Nor did he stop
me from examining Lincoln, but he did wince sympathetically, every time
I touched something that caused the beaten man pain.

“Jesus, Linc ...” I breathed as I looked over the plethora of wounds the
man had suffered. “What happened out there?”

“Roamers ...” Lincoln groaned out the word. “Snagged me during the
escape ... didn’t take too kindly to the mess we made. Decided to ...”
There he had to stop to cough weakly. “Decided to keep me around, so
they could take it out on me. Jokes on them, ‘cause I managed to slip
my bonds and get away. Feels like my luck might be running out, though.
Hurts to breath.”

“Nonsense, you’re the luckiest bastard alive. How else could you slip
away from those bastards twice,” Shaun remarked, resting a hand on his
friend’s shoulder. “Right, Les?”

While I had no way to know after so cursory an inspection, I nodded
anyway just to be optimistic. “Right. You’re gonna be fine, Linc. Just
lay back and rest.”

“Sure thing ... “ Lincoln mumbled, but did not comply. “But first ...
have to warn you ... the Roamers ... they’re coming ... all of ‘em. Day
or two, tops.”

My eyes went wide at that proclamation, as did Shaun’s. The idea of
Roamers was terrifying enough. The idea of a whole army of them showing
up at door was the stuff of nightmares. Not wanting to believe those
words, I had to ask, “All of them?”

Linc nodded wearily. “Yeah ... they rode back to their base ... to
gather up everyone they could.”

“I’ll let everyone know,” Shaun promised his friend. “You just focus on
getting better.”

Nodding, Lincoln slumped against the table underneath him. “Whatever you
say, buddy.”

Chapter Seventeen: Apartheid

“Quinn?”

I heard Jordan’s voice beyond the door, muffled by the thin sheet of
metal and plastic that separated my bedroom from the rest of our
quarters. He was trying to speak softly and gently, but had to yell a
little bit to be heard. He didn’t realize that I was slumped down right
on the other side of it and could hear him just fine.

I’d panicked when Leslie caught us ... doing THAT. Mortified at kissing
a man at all, and especially her own brother, my best friend, I’d fled
before I’d even realized what I was doing. I just needed to not be
THERE, looking at them or having them look at me. It was one thing to
rationalize that sort of thing in my head like I had back in the woods
with Jordan a week ago. It was a whole other thing to have it happen
spontaneously like that out of nowhere and, what’s worse, to have
someone see it. To have LESLIE see it.

Red still painted my cheeks. I felt disgusted with myself for doing that
to her brother in front of her. SEDUCING him, essentially. I’d thought
it would be a simple thing, something necessary for my own survival but
... I don’t know. It had been nice, I think. Maybe that was the scariest
part of it all.

“Quinn?” I heard Jordan call out again and, again, ignored him.

I could find fault with myself but I couldn’t fault him. What did he
know? What could he do in the face of the ONE woman on the planet
available to him suddenly acting like she had feelings for and actually
WANTED him? Exactly what he’d done. Did that even mean anything? Did it
matter if I had feelings for him? Did I actually want him?

If I had to choose, of course, I would choose him. Maybe that meant I
wanted him, or would. But it meant nothing by itself. That was just
pragmatism speaking. The deeper concern was over whether or not I’d
actually felt something for him, whatever that meant. I think I had. But
we had been close for so long, had let that closeness push some
boundaries one night years ago when we’d both been too drunk to think
better of it ...

I loved Jordan. As a friend. Maybe that meant something more now and
maybe it didn’t. Maybe I just needed him as a pure necessity like I’d
told him back in the woods, understanding that the only alternative was
to be some sexual utility for the general population of our habitat,
which I had no interest in at all. Which caused me revulsion so deep
down in my being that suicide seemed like a better option. Maybe I j--

“Quinn ... If you want me to stay away, I’ll stay away. I’ll keep my
distance and won’t bother you again, if that’s what you want. Just
please tell me ... one way or the other ...”

Jordan said that through the door and I could imagine his head pressed
into it. I could FEEL him against it. But those particular words made me
listen instead of just ignoring him. I felt like he was threatening me
with the absoluteness of it.

I got to my feet and slapped the door back open.

“Quinn, you--”

“I don’t want you to leave,” I told him.

It came out flat and angry and I scowled suddenly as I said it. Having
to admit that made me angry, but I wasn’t sure why. Leslie was no longer
out there and the fact that she wasn’t diminished the embarrassment of
it all just a little bit. I didn’t need an audience.

But there was still this man in front of me, looking for something more.
I tried to think about how I’d felt a few minutes ago when I’d been
kissing him and also how I felt in general about everything and wondered
if I really meant any of it. I wondered if I was just deluding myself
into thinking I felt something for Jordan like that, just to make things
easier for myself. As desperate as I was to escape that situation, there
was something so intrinsically wrong about manipulating him that way.
After all these years, I owed him better than that.

I stared ahead into his chest and through it while those thoughts burned
through my mind. He didn’t say anything, seeming to wait for me to
figure out whatever it was that I was going to say. Eventually, I just
forced myself to say exactly what I was thinking.

“I don’t know how I really feel, Jordan,” I started to explain to him.
“I think being with you would help protect me from ... everything else.
But is that the only reason? Am I just trying to make things easier for
myself?”

Having gotten this deep into it, I hoped two minds on the problem -- two
perspectives -- might be better than just one. I hoped that he could
resist the biological temptation to just convince himself that this was
what he wanted because there was no other choice. I thought he could. He
had made noises like that was exactly what he’d wanted to do from the
start.

But what I inevitably got was a, “I don’t really know either, Quinn.”

My shoulders slumped at that admission from him. My whole body slumped
as he shook his head in confusion.

“You ... you’re my best friend,” he added, struggling with it a moment
later.

“I feel like you’re the closest thing to family I’ve got left.”

He nodded at that. “That makes it very difficult. You look so different
now ...”

“I know.”

“... but you’re still you,” he continued. “At least, to me you are. And
I told you I don’t want to take advantage of you like this. Even if
everyone else will, I won’t.”

“So,” I started. Stopped. Thought about just what I wanted to say, and
then continued, “Do you want to leave?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Not and leave you alone to this. I’ve been
saying that over and over again, Quinn. How long have we known each
other? Do you really think I would just abandon you because of this?”

“It’s a unique set of circumstances, Jordan.”

“Not unique enough,” he scoffed at that.

I sighed, wrapping my arms around myself. “And if I ... if I actually
feel something for you? What then, Jordan? What would you do then?”

He studied me for a moment. I made an effort to meet his gaze while he
did. It was something that had never been difficult before, but I felt
diminished by it somehow. Standing there and contemplating whether or
not I might actually, somehow -- IMPOSSIBLY -- feel something for
someone -- a man, my best friend -- in that way made me--

“I wouldn’t push you away, Quinn.”

He’d said that before, and I’d felt that overwhelming urge to close that
short distance between us and kiss him right after. I felt another
twinge in my chest at the sound of it now, and the thought of just what
it could mean. Fear or something else, it was difficult to say ...

“I’d rather be with you if it meant not being with anyone else,” I
managed to tell him then. And coherently too. More coherently than I
felt like it should come out of my mouth. “I don’t know if that’s
possible. Probably not. But ...”

I looked at him hopefully without realizing it when I was done.

“I don’t want you to do that unless you actually want to, Quinn,” he
said, frowning at me seriously.

“I know.”

“I can’t say I’m not tempted, regardless, but ...”

“No, I get it,” I said. “You don’t want this whole mess unless I really
mean it. Unless I genuinely want it.”

“No, that’s not it exactly,” he argued with a grimace, shaking his head.
“Even if you didn’t, that doesn’t mean I won’t still do my best to keep
you two safe. I don’t want the Brotherhood to use you anymore than you
want to be used, Quinn. I promise you that.”

I nodded at him slowly, believing it as much as I could. A part of me
was pretty sure that he’d fight that much harder if it were real between
us, though. Another part of me knew it wouldn’t matter either way and
doing so would just get him killed in the end. But I tried to push both
those parts away and just focus on him in front of me as much as I could
for a moment.

“Maybe I do want it,” was what I mumbled after a few moments of deep
thought. And I looked up to him as soon as I did. I caught the flash of
fear. Frustration. Then his face brightened just the faintest bit.

That look decided me. I unraveled, reached out, and wrapped my arms
around him instead. He didn’t expect it, but he didn’t resist either. He
let me hug him for a moment before hugging me back. And just like that
we were holding each other again like we had been before.

It was different this time, though, because I didn’t feel desperate
anymore. I didn’t feel like I NEEDED him as much, and I knew that that
was what I had felt the first time. Everything had been desperate and
that’d been the worst part. Pushing past it, I realized I might actually
WANT him too. And that wasn’t such a bad feeling. That wasn’t so
terrible, I thought.

“I want to try it and see, Jordan,” I told him, breathing into his
chest. “Alright?”

I pulled back enough to look at him again and he bobbed his head at me.

“Alright.”

* * *

Jordan was gone by the time Vigo showed up later, and I could tell
instantly that the Old Man knew Weeks had been in there by the flustered
look about him.

I was back sitting on the couch in the main room, book from before
Jordan had come by back in my hands and trying to read. Then the door
slipped open again and I watched as Vigo looked around the room for
several seconds before finally settling on me. It was obvious what he’d
expected to find, though I wondered how the guards hadn’t told him about
Weeks having left already on his way in.

I just waited until he spoke.

“How are you, Quinn?” he asked, and I could see the effort he made to
swallow whatever irritation had been bubbling up in his throat. He was
swallowing it for me, not wanting to show that anger because of me. It
was interesting, though disturbing, to see me having that effect on
someone of his stature. Of course, the signs had been there since the
start but ... still.

“Fine,” I told him simply. “Why do you ask?”

It was an opening, and he strained against getting immediately sucked
right into it. I saw that struggle, his bearded face twitching in odd
places.

“You seem more relaxed than I’ve seen you in a while, my dear, that’s
all.”

I didn’t even flinch when he called me “my dear,” which had become like
a pet name for me in the same way “Mistress” was to the guards outside.
I just nodded my head and looked back down to my book.

“Maybe I am.”

What must have been a minute passed with him just idling around the main
room. He trudged about, looking at various objects and grunting to
himself. I saw his hands fidget out of the corner of my eyes. Again, it
was both interesting and disturbing all at once.

He didn’t go and try and check in my room, though. Or Leslie’s. That
might have been too obvious since I could tell that he so desperately
wanted to, if only to make sure the elder Weeks wasn’t somehow hiding
out in there.

“Is something wrong, Vigo?”

Again, the opening. He didn’t take it, not at first. I realized he must
not have given the guards enough time to warn him of Jordan’s departure,
which meant he’d been in such a hurry to get in here and maybe confront
the younger man that he hadn’t bothered to stop. If I hadn’t already
suspected what I did, I might’ve been more alarmed by that.

“I heard you ... might have had some company today,” he finally
attempted to explain himself, in as calm and even a tone as he could
muster. Like he was talking about mission details or the weather outside
in the wastes. “I hope you weren’t bothered. I’ve posted these guards
outside for a reason.”

“Oh. It was just Leslie’s brother,” I said. “Nothing to worry about.”

Of course, that casual confirmation and dismissal struck him. At once
his face seemed to brighten as if relieved that I could be so cavalier
about it. Then the suspicion set in again. I could see it while I
watched him now.

“I ordered no one be allowed in without my permission,” he started, and
trailed off.

“I assumed Jordan was exempt from that order. The sentries didn’t seem
to think so and I corrected them. It shouldn’t happen again.”

His eye twitched, and he turned his face away. I don’t think he realized
how obvious he was being in his covetousness. It had been growing more
and more so ever since he’d first seen my transformed self that night
we’d come back.

“Quinn,” he eventually started anew, having traversed the room back
towards the door so that he could face me there where I sat on the
couch. “You have to understand how it will look to the rest of the
Brotherhood if anyone is seen being given special access to you and
Leslie right now ...”

“Special access?” I echoed, frowning at him. “Is that what you call
Jordan getting to see his little brother?”

Again, the twitch. “Leslie wasn’t even in here at the time.”

“So? He didn’t seem to know that. And he’s my closest friend. He’s had
my back since we were kids, and he’s certainly not going to let anything
happen to me or Leslie while he’s around.”

Vigo stared at me for a moment without saying anything. Then he crossed
over until he was in front of me and looking down. He sighed.

“I know you’re not so naive, Quinn. You know what you’re going to have
to do here for us eventually?” he asked. I didn’t bother to answer, and
he continued, “For the Brotherhood? For it’s continued existence? Hell,
maybe for all human life here on this planet for all we know ...”

My look was fairly blank, and I think he took it for the naivety he said
he knew I didn’t have. Because he just growled irritably in his throat
before getting down on one knee to explain to me like I was a child.

“You and Leslie are the only two females on this planet, Quinn, the only
two in twenty years. You have to know how significant that is,
especially since both of you seem to be immune to the Phage. Doctor
Carlisle informed me you should both be fully ‘functional’ as well. I
know it might not be the thing you want to hear but ... we are going to
NEED you to reproduce if the Brotherhood -- if this COLONY -- is going
to survive.”

He reached out and tried to take my hand when he said the last of it. I
bit down on my instinct to pull away at that sort of touch and instead
let him cradle my fingers gently in his.

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

The question threw him, of course. Twenty years without women was a long
time, but he was an old man. He remembered decorum and what it was like,
at least enough to not act like some clumsy teenager discovering his own
dick for the first time. He recovered, and even got out his explanation
like a practiced speech. Who knew? Maybe he HAD been practicing it ever
since he’d seen me in my room that first night.

“Manual insemination would perhaps be the most straightforward method,”
he said as clinically as he could, but I knew what he meant and choked
down my own revulsion at the idea. “I know that would be uncomfortable
for you both. We will have to ensure a proper genetic diversity so it
would require more than one partner anyways. I’ve spoken with Doctor
Carlisle about artificial impregnation with donor samples and he seemed
to think it possible with equipment he has in the infirmary. We would
acquire samples from everyone in the Brotherhood and randomize them so
that no one but the doctor can know just whose child it is. That would
hopefully prevent any ... emotional difficulties. Among the Brothers.”

I supposed I should have been thankful that he bothered to make
something so vile as impregnation as painless for us as he could to
start, though I also had a good idea as to why he would bother to do so
in the first place. Beyond worries about having the Brothers fight over
us for birthing rights, I was pretty sure whose “sample” I’d find
implanted into me first. And I had little doubt that that same person
would be privy to the supposedly “randomized” selection of those
samples. Privy to and in control of, certainly.

Vigo was smart enough to know that no matter how much he lavished me and
Leslie with creature comforts and privileges and praise, he was not
going to convince me to let him have his way with me any time soon. The
best he could hope for was to impregnate me under the guise of
anonymity. And maybe, just maybe, given time ... I might warm to him as
I was sure he hoped that I would. Maybe someday I would let him have me
as he must have wanted my mother all those years ago but probably never
had. Maybe, he’d hope.

It was all I could do to not show my disgust for that outcome on my face
as he touched me then.

“Of course,” he continued, and it wasn’t long before pink splashed
across his wrinkled cheeks as he did, “If you should ever wish to allow
anyone to ... well.” He recovered, too embarrassed to say it out loud.
“Just know that it would take priority over any other concerns, at least
in the short term. Genetic diversity and all that.”

And there it was. I think he just might have forgotten the possibility
that I’d choose anyone other than him.

The Old Man turned to leave once he’d finished getting all of that out.
I expected it embarrassed him a hell of a lot more than it did me, and
that was only because I’d been thinking those thoughts for so long now
that I’d known this conversation was coming long before it did. And I
was steeled against it.

“Vigo?” I called after him as he reached the door.

He turned around, silver brow furrowed, and glanced back at me.

“Please make sure you tell the sentries that Jordan is allowed to visit
his sister whenever he wants before you go. I don’t want to have to go
out there and yell at them again. It doesn’t look good when I do.”

He stared at me for several moments, and I started to worry that he’d
refuse. But I’d taken that speech so stoically. I hadn’t argued or
fought him or anything. I’d let that sick little fantasy of his live
another day because I knew there was no value in crushing it outright
without the physical force to back it up. So I hoped that he might
overlook this one thing, blinded by his own secret hopes.

Eventually, he nodded, and I breathed an inward sigh of relief.

“I’ll make sure they know.”

“Thank you, Vigo,” I said. And I made myself smile while I did.

“Oh, and one last thing,” the Old Man said, just before he opened the
door.

I looked after him.

“Lincoln Bates managed to drag himself back here somehow. He’s in the
infirmary, beat to all hell.”

Chapter Eighteen: Precipice

Focusing intently, I tried to keep my hand steady as I plied the needle
that it held. Stitch after careful stitch I wove, sewing up the rather
ugly looking gash I’d found on Lincoln’s arm. It was deep, and had
reopened under whatever terrible strain the man had been under to get
back here alive. Fortunately, there had been no sign of infection, so
all it had taken was some quick cleaning and dextrous fingers to deal
with. That latter requirement was how I had ended up with the job.

Meanwhile, across the table from me, Dr. Carlisle was also hard at work
on helping the battered man. HIs current focus was setting a broken
finger with a splint. Before that, there had been a few other, more
shallow cuts that he’d had to bandage. Beyond that, there were scrapes,
nicks, and contusions at the very least. The Roamers had really done a
number on the poor guy.

Fully absorbed in my work, I had no idea when new people had entered the
room. I did know that I was roughly two thirds of the way done with my
task when I heard the sound of Vigo’s voice bellowing, “What are you
doing here, Leslie?!”

Startled from my work, my hand twitched, nearly ruining my efforts in
the process. Luckily, it was mild enough and close enough to the end of
a stitch, that I didn’t tear skin and make the wound even worse. Still,
anger flared as my gaze shot up to level a glare at the very unwelcome
distraction.

“Trying to help Linc, so get out!” I growled at the gray haired man,
before immediately dipping my eyes back to the work at hand. It was much
more important than dealing with Vigo right now.

“That doesn’t explain why you just burst out of your rooms and stormed
off without a proper escort!” Vigo yelled back, fueling my hatred in the
process. A man lay beaten half to death right in front of him, and he
was more worried about how many guards I’d left my room with. It was
sickening.

Not wanting to let the man’s selfish greed triumph over good sense, I
didn’t bother to look up again, focusing on my task. I just had a few
stitches left to finish. If I just ignored him until then, the doctor
would be able to take care of the rest on his own.

Vigo didn’t seem to like my plan, however. When I didn’t answer him
promptly and obediently, he stepped forward and smacked a paw onto my
shoulder, nearly ruining my work for the second time. As he did, he
barked, “Answer me, Leslie!”

Afraid of making things worse, I sighed heavily, resigned to having to
abandon my nearly complete task to waste time on Vigo. Laying the needle
down, I stepped back to pull myself free of Vigo’s grasp and looked up
at him. “What does it matter why I left?! Aren’t I free to go where I
please?!”

“No!” Vigo blurted out before his anger vanished back into control. “I
mean ... not without a proper guard. Who knows what might have happened
to you.”

I rolled my eyes at that ludicrous concern. “Argh, nothing’s going to
happen to me in Wendover whether I walk around with an army or no one. I
can take care of myself, and even if I couldn’t, what do you think is
going to happen, someone trying to snatch me in the middle of the
habitat in front of everyone?”

“They won’t do it in front of everyone,” Vigo countered, a twitch of
anger flickering across his face at my continued resistance. “They’ll
wait until you’re alone somewhere, like right here in the doctor’s
office then they’ll come in, kill the old man, and–”

“That’s enough, Vigo,” Dr. Carlisle cut in, his voice calm but stern.
“We’re trying to help a patient right now, a patient that nearly died
bringing us valuable information about a very serious threat to all of
us. Unless you absolutely must yell at my assistant right this instant,
I’m going to have to ask you to go outside and let us work.”

Few people in the brotherhood could gainsay Vigo in such a manner, but
Dr. Carlisle was one of them. Many of the brothers owed their lives to
the doctor’s work, Vigo among them. When it came to matters of health,
he was allowed the final say.

This time, there was more than a twitch as Vigo’s features contorted
with rage at the interruption. I could see as he had to fight that
emotion down, forcing his features to return to their calm before he
leveled a commanding look my way. “Fine. Finish helping Bates, Leslie.
After that, you are to return to your rooms and neither you nor Quinn
will be leaving them until this threat has been dealt with. If you
refuse, the guards outside, which have been increased to a proper escort
of four, have orders to do whatever they must to drag you back there.
Don’t make them show you exactly how far I’m willing to let ‘whatever’
go.”

That made it my turn to be angry, but I didn’t bother to argue with the
obstinate man. If I did, I knew that Vigo would just have me dragged
away right then and there, and Dr. Carlisle still needed my help. My
only option was to nod in compliance and mutter, “Fine.”

* * *

“Stupid ... fucking ... “ came the string of angry mutterings that left
my mouth as I was marched back to my cell. Certainly that was the right
way to phrase it, now. The guards weren’t there to protect me anymore,
not even ostensibly. They were there to make sure I complied with Vigo’s
command and returned to where I belonged. I would not be allowed to
leave the quarters that waited for me at the end of the march, making
them a prison no matter how posh they might be. It was so infuriating,
but there was nothing I could do about it.

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of it all was that I felt like I’d
been so close to succeeding. If I’d managed to recruit Mikey to help, if
I’d managed to repeat my departure from my quarters with only two guards
instead of four, if the Roamers hadn’t come, then maybe I could’ve
finally gotten free. It still wouldn’t have been easy, but it would’ve
been possible, and I would’ve made that possibility a reality. Now,
there was no chance. I would be trapped until the Roamers were either
dealt with or had slaughtered all my brothers and taken me for
themselves. It wasn’t just infuriating. It was depressing.

“None of this would’ve happened if they’d just let me go,” I mumbled
onto the end of my hate-filled words, lamenting the obstinance of my
fellows.

“What are you talking ab–?” one of my wardens started to ask.

“None of your fucking business!” I hissed, silencing him in the process.

For his part, the guard seemed surprised by my vehement retort as if it
was somehow unwarranted. If so, he was an idiot, not that I really cared
even if he wasn’t. I had no plans to talk to any of my keepers.

Putting an end to my mutterings, I passed the rest of the trip back to
my quarters in silence, stewing on the damnable situation. With talk of
Roamers racing through the habitat, I didn’t get the usual stares from
the people I passed, just surreptitious glances that were full of worry,
and the guards made no more efforts to talk to me along the way. That
was some small relief, but not enough to alter my foul mood.

Deposited at the door to my quarters, I stomped right on inside, intent
on finding my bed and flopping onto it. Those intentions vanished as
soon as I entered the living area of my quarters, though. There, I
ground to a halt as I saw who waited for me.

Seated on the sofa was none other than Quinn. That the other woman would
be found in our quarters was unsurprising, since I couldn’t remember her
leaving them of her own accord since the day that we’d moved in. That
she was out where I might bump into her certainly was, though.
Furthermore, she looked ... different from the last few days. The
depressed listlessness that had clung to her since that night out in the
wastes was gone, replaced by a level of self-possession that I hadn’t
seen from her since she was a man. She wasn’t quite to old levels, but
she did at least seem controlled.

While I did notice those facts, I was more worried about what had caused
them. In my anger over Vigo’s actions, I’d mostly put what had driven me
from this room earlier from my mind. Now, though, those awkward
memories, memories of my brother and the person I almost considered to
be a second brother doing ... things, came rushing right back to the
forefront of my thoughts. Seeing Quinn after that would have resulted in
enough trepidation to rob motor capability from my limbs, but to see her
so composed instead of mired in whatever malaise had afflicted her
recently was even more uncomfortable. It kept me from moving or
thinking, leaving me just standing there with no idea of what I should
do.

While I was frozen, Quinn certainly was not. She looked up from the book
that she’d been reading to lock her gaze with mine. There was
embarrassment in that gaze, enough to have her cheeks looking a little
rosy, but she didn’t falter or look away. She did, however, greet me
with a slightly uneasy but still pleasant, “... Hey, Leslie.”

Hearing my name freed me from my paralysis, allowing me to jerk my head
sharply to the side and mumble, “H-Hey ...” right back. That broke the
awkward stare, but did nothing to assuage the building anxiety within
me. To do that, I got my feet moving, intent on hurrying right through
the living area to my bedroom where there would be no Quinn.

My efforts carried me only a few strides before Quinn spoke again. “Did
you happen to see Bates out there?”

“Huh?” I mumbled, confused by the completely unexpected opening topic.
Stopping, I turned back to Quinn as my thoughts got into order. “Oh ...
uhm ... yeah, I did.”

Nodding in confirmation, Quinn finally looked away from me, her gaze
dipping downward in worry. “How ... how bad is it?”

“For getting captured by Roamers? Not bad,” I remarked, legitimately
amazed that Lincoln had made it back at all. “They did a number on him,
though. Didn’t look life threatening, nor was there anything that won’t
heal. He’s gonna need a couple of days probably before he’s ready to be
on his feet, and a couple of weeks to be back to one hundred percent.
Still, seems we all made it out of that mess somehow.”

That news elicited a sigh of relief from Quinn, but also had her brow
furrowing slightly. “Yeah ... I guess so.”

With nothing more to add, I let things drift into silence for a moment
before my mind reminded me of what I was doing before the distraction. I
started to turn, but I didn’t even manage to get all the way around by
the time Quinn spoke again. “Leslie, we ... we need to talk about what
yo–”

“Sorry, Quinn, but I ... uh ... I’m kind of in the middle of something,”
I blurted out to interrupt the other woman even as I finished my turn
and started off toward my room once more. “We’ll have to talk about it
later or ... uhh tomorrow or some time after that maybe. I don’t exactly
know when I’ll be free.”

As I walked, I could still see Quinn in my peripheral vision,
specifically the look in her eyes. It was a mix of exasperation,
embarrassment, and determination that made me know that I wasn’t going
to get out of this conversation. Sure enough, Quinn spoke up before I
managed even two steps. “Leslie, this important.”

“So is what I’m working on, Quinn,” I countered, not agreeing with the
other woman’s sentiment at all. In fact, her and Jordan was about the
least important thing right now, so much so that it would be perfectly
fine if we never discussed it at all. “Vigo’s decided to lock us in here
until the Roamers are gone. I have to figure out what to do–”

“Roamers?” Quinn questioned, surprise and worry instantly flooding her
face at that single word.

Only now realizing that this news probably hadn’t reached Quinn’s ears
yet, I nodded uneasily. “Uhm ... yeah, Linc says they’re on their way
here.”

“How many?” Quinn queried, features going stiff and severe at the
mention of such a serious and imminent threat.

“He ... uh ... he said all of ‘em,” I informed her, more than a little
worried about that particular fact, myself. I didn’t worry too much
about overarching strategy stuff, but I knew the Roamers were a major
power in the region, more so than Wendover. They were more of a threat
out in the open where they could take advantage of their vehicles, but
having them show up here couldn’t be a good thing.

As stern as Quinn’s features had been, they still flashed with shock at
that answer, her eyes going wide. “All of them?”

Again, I was nodding in confirmation. “That’s what he said.”

“What else did he say? Total numbers? Weapons? How much time we have?”
Quinn rattled off questions, seemingly returned to the commanding run
leader in that moment.

While I could understand Quinn’s interest, I unfortunately had little to
offer besides a shrug of my shoulders. “Sorry, but he didn’t say much
before he passed out. Just that we had a day or two tops.”

Hearing that deadline, Quinn shook her head thoughtfully. “Only a couple
of days to prepare? That won’t be easy. I’ll have to talk to –”

Suddenly, Quinn just stopped mid-sentence with a wince. I had no idea
why, though. It wasn’t like she held the same animosity toward Vigo that
I did. In fact, as far as I knew, she didn’t have issue with our prison
at all. The only issue I knew of she’d had with ... well, it seemed to
be resolved now regardless.

After a moment of silence with no hint of more words from the other
woman, I spoke up. “Quinn?”

Her name snapped the brunette’s gaze back up to me. “Sorry, I was just
... considering our options.”

“Ah, well, I’ll leave you to that then,” I replied, relieved to have the
woman distracted by the approaching disaster rather than talking about
what she’d done. It was a much better use of her time. As I spoke, I got
myself moving again, back on track for my room.

Just before I could slip through the door, Quinn called out to me one
last time. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, Leslie. You
know that, right?”

“It doesn’t seem like either of us is going to have much say in what
happens to us,” I replied without looking back. “Not anymore.”

I imagine that Quinn probably had a response to that, something that was
both reassuring and patronizing at the same time. In fact, I was pretty
sure that I heard her start to say something, but I had no interest in
listening to another of those speeches – not from her, or my brother, or
anyone else for that matter. I just walked into my room and closed the
door behind me, cutting off anything else.

Inside, I strode quickly across the room, so that I could flop wearily
onto the bed. Looking up at the ceiling, I let out a heavy sigh,
realizing that I’d better get used to the terrible view. It was all that
I was going to be allowed to see for a while, unless the Roamers took
us. If that happened, I’d probably wish that was all I had to look at,
because those ruthless bandits were going to be even worse, and they’d
never give me a chance to escape.

“Linc managed it somehow,” I noted, trying to give myself some hope. If
that battered and beaten man could somehow find a way to slip free from
his captors and make good his escape, then I could, too. Even as I said
that, though, something dark and deep within me countered with a
resounding denial of that hope – of all of my hopes. It teased me with
how close I’d been, how we’d literally found what we needed to save our
world, and yet, because of greed, we were all still going to die off.
Worst of all, there was nothing that I could do about it.

Chapter Nineteen: Strange Bedfellows

The Roamers arrived at noon the next day.

A hundred vehicles rumbled across the wastes, right up to the makeshift
wall surrounding the habitat. Hundreds and hundreds of Roamers came
riding in on them, trucks unloading dozens each with weapons and
preserved guns until they surrounded the gates in a wide semicircle mass
of grumbling machines and bodies. Pistols, rifles, crossbows, and even a
heavy machine gun emplacement were all directed at that front and only
gate, the one way in and out of Wendover. Roamer scouts set up pickets
around the woods behind, boxing us in from any would-be attempts to
escape.

Within that first hour, they had us completely surrounded and under
siege. Sentries on the wall were quickly bolstered by runners and
auxiliaries with any weapons we had left to our arsenal. The wall could
only support so much, though, so most of the Brothers huddled and jogged
about inside the space between the wall and the habitat proper. Our
Roamer vehicles were tucked safely to one side and out of the way. Not
that they would be much good. There were a hundred more just like them
out there, surrounding our home.

And that was where they stayed for some time, just squaring off with our
defenders.

Jordan came by and relayed all of that to me. I sat there, stunned,
while he did.

I wasn’t sure when or how it had happened, but my knees failed me and I
sunk down into the couch.

“What are we going to do, Jordan?” I breathed out in dismay, holding my
head in my hands and feeling the weight of inevitability come crashing
down.

Weeks dropped down beside me.

“I’m not going to let them take you,” he just repeated himself, reaching
a hand over to touch my shoulder in a gentle way that reflected this new
situation between us far more than our old. “Either of you,” he added
with a meaningful glance back over his shoulder to where Leslie had been
listening, standing inside her bedroom door. Her eyes were vacant,
though, when they looked on the two of us. And she slipped back inside,
out of sight.

“You’re not going to be able to stop it, Jordan,” I told him gravely,
however. “And even if you do ... how many Brothers will have to die to
make that happen? What if one of them is you?”

I looked over at him and he met my gaze. His resolve cracked just the
faintest bit.

“We’ll find a way,” he assured me even so, before reaching out
tentatively to pull me towards him. I let him.

That was how Vigo found us when the door abruptly slipped open, letting
him inside.

Weeks saw him first, and he pushed away from me a few inches. I noticed
the Old Man then, and pulled away completely.

“What’s going on out there, Vigo?”

Vigo stood there, eyes burning between the two of us for a moment. He
looked haggard, his usually calm features having fractured with this
latest issue and the potential destruction it promised. That, and seeing
Jordan there hugging me hurt his composure all the more. I watched him
try and pull himself back together with an effort.

“The Roamers are here,” the Old Man said, pointedly looking at me while
he did. “I’m guessing someone told you about that already, though?”

The question was rhetorical and I didn’t bother to answer.

Vigo just nodded to himself.

“I’ve got the situation under control,” he tried to assure me, but I
didn’t buy it. I knew there was no way he could have it under control.
Not with that many raiders outside our walls. We had no real defense
against numbers of that kind.

He watched us for a couple more seconds, looking through me as he did. I
saw thoughts turn over inside his head, sweat making his silvered brow
damp. Then he abruptly looked up at Jordan.

“Weeks. I need every available man ready to fight this thing. You
included.”

Jordan moved away from me to stand, facing the Old Man, who watched him
the whole while he did.

“With your permission, sir, I think it best if I stay here with Leslie
and Quinn. If things go badly out there, I want to be the last thing
between them and anyone getting into this room.”

Vigo was already shaking his head. “That won’t do, Weeks. They won’t get
that far in the first place, not if I have anything to do with it. But I
need everyone -- EVERYONE -- out there. Right now.”

“There isn’t enough room on the wall, sir,” Jordan just argued. “Idling
in the courtyard isn’t going to do us anymore good with me there or not.
Here, at least, I can maybe make a difference.”

I didn’t ask what that difference Jordan thought he could make was. I
had an idea when he pulled out his pistol and chambered a round right in
front of us. I could only assume that he had at least two bullets in
there: one for Leslie, and one for me.

Vigo studied him for a long time. His eye twitched just the faintest bit
while he did, not that Jordan knew the significance of what was going on
behind the Old Man’s eyes. I hadn’t told him yet, knowing that it would
make him dangerously confrontational with the older man, only causing
problems. And I wanted Jordan here, by my side ... as much as he could
be.

The Old Man looked from Jordan to me, and then grunted out, “Very well,”
before spinning on his heel and leaving.

The sigh of relief I gave out once he was gone only made Weeks frown in
confusion.

“What?”

“Nothing.” I shook my head at him. “I’m just glad you’re here.”

“It’ll be okay,” he told me, reaching over again.

But I knew it wouldn’t.

* * *

Several hours passed without us hearing anything. It was the worst kind
of waiting, because I knew the headsman’s axe was coming for us one way
or another. I just had no idea which form it would take. There was
simply no way -- no way! -- the Brotherhood and Vigo could get us out of
this one unscathed.

If the Roamers were here then I doubted it was merely because we stole
two of their vehicles and shot them up. Not with these numbers. They
must’ve known about Leslie and I, about the first two women on the
planet to exist in twenty years.

Us. They’d come for us, of that I had no doubt.

The only question was: what was taking so long?

I’d heard no gunshots. No rumblings of people rushing about and a war
being started. Nothing. We were a ways away from the frontlines, of
course, but the guards outside merely seemed nervous, not expecting
blood to come spilling down the halls anytime soon. Their radios
crackled to life several times when I went out there to check, but it
was orders being relayed back and forth between posts, not the cries of
wounded and gunfire.

I was pacing back and forth across the main room while Jordan watched,
hand on his gun. He had an ear to the door, waiting for any sign of
someone else out there, I was sure. It came as a surprise to both of us
when one of the sentries ducked inside and told us to get ready to move.

“What? Why? Did something happen?” I demanded, terrified that the
fighting had started and we were suddenly about to be drenched in an all
out war. All over the two of us.

“Vigo’s orders,” the sentry said, waving in two more of his buddies.
They jogged over to Leslie to gather her up. She was reluctant, but
neither of us put up too much of a fight as we got a sentry each,
grabbing on our arms. Jordan growled behind them.

“Is that really necessary?”

They didn’t answer him, though. Leslie tried to shuck her escort and he
just latched onto her again. They coaxed us towards the door and Jordan
followed.

We were herded down the corridor outside and a few more. I recognized
the path but not the destination and imagined Vigo deciding to maybe put
us somewhere more secure -- maybe a secret hold or storage place that
only he had known about, being an officer from the original ship. Leslie
was backtalking her escort as we moved, but I just kept quiet, paying
attention. Jordan paced us, and that was enough to keep me from losing
it.

Until we got to where we were going, that is.

Vigo was there waiting. One of our four sentry guards radioed to tell
him that we’d arrived and the door to the abandoned lab we arrived at
slipped open with a whisper. He took one look at us and I noticed he
seemed somehow older than he had even just the last time I’d seen him, a
couple hours ago. He nodded wearily to the sentries before turning to
Jordan.

“Weeks, you stay out here.”

“What?”

Our two handsy escorts tightened their grips and started hauling Leslie
and me inside through those doors. Jordan immediately lurched forward,
furious.

“What the hell is going on here?!”

I wanted to know that myself but wasn’t sure which way to leap just yet.
Jordan was. He had his gun in hand and looked like he just might use it
if Vigo didn’t start explaining things.

But Vigo had no intention of doing so. Another nod to the two sentries
with their hands free and those hands suddenly grabbed at Jordan before
he could react. A brief struggle ensued, but the man hadn’t expected to
be jumped by his own Brothers just yet. Weeks started bellowing out
curses and threats and hissing at them until those two had him securely
in hand.

“Put him in the brig,” Vigo ordered the other two sentries, and Jordan
screamed bloody murder at the older man.

“Vigo, what the fuck is going on?!” I all but shrieked at him, squirming
much less impressively against my own guard.

The Old Man turned back around and met my eyes for a moment. They were
haunted, but determined. There might have been a hint of worry in there
too as he looked at me, but it was gone in a flash. He recomposed
himself, pushing inside with his two sentry guards dragging us along in
his wake. Jordan vanished from sight behind that door as it slipped shut
again. Then we were inside.

“Well, hello darlins.”

Our escorts hauled us into the room and there was a surreal moment where
a vaguely familiar man was standing there, flipping a cowboy hat with a
bullet hole in it around between his hands. A slick, oily grin crept
across his face as he saw us and I remembered where I’d seen him before.
The Roamer camp. Before escaping the Protean ruins, I’d put that bullet
hole in his hat.

A Roamer was standing in the middle of Wendover.

I went shock still for a moment. Confusion lit up Leslie’s face beside
me.

Then I tried to hurl myself at that man across the room.

“Whoa! WHOA!” he threw up his hands at me in an exaggerated gesture. I
only made it as far as twisting against my sentry escort’s grip. “Now is
that any way to treat a guest in your home, little lady?”

Eyes filled with bloody fury and desperate for a weapon, I almost didn’t
notice Vigo step up beside me, calmly reaching out to touch my shoulder.
And I didn’t think about those words he chose. Not until AFTER it had
become quite clear that none of my Brothers were about to shoot this man
dead or something else equally applicable to an enemy being here inside
our very walls right NOW. I felt a lurch in my stomach instead, and I
glanced aside to the Old Man.

“They’re here,” was what Vigo said. “Satisfied?”

The Roamer stood across the room with two other men that I did not
recognize, which meant they could only be Roamers too. All of them were
armed but no one was drawing weapons. I noticed an old .44 magnum
resting easily on the lead Roamer’s hip. He was impeccably clean-shaven,
with trimmed-short brown hair that looked like it might be cleaned
regularly and sparkling green eyes filled with wit. It wasn’t hard to
tell that he was exceedingly handsome, for a man, even if Leslie in her
new form had an inch on him in height. It was a strange thing to see
that sort of cleanliness and grooming in our time, especially from a
Roamer.

That man cocked his head to one side, grin playing upon his lips. “I
should say so,” he replied lightly, easily, while studying Leslie and I.
“At least to the extent a man CAN be satisfied with the current set of
circumstances.”

Vigo did not share the man’s enthusiasm for the situation. He just
growled, “Well. Get on with it,” and flashed a hand out in mine and
Leslie’s direction.

“I am.” The Roamer nodded. “I mean, give me a moment here, please, Mr.
Romani,” he said with that grin showing teeth, using Vigo’s last name as
politely as a raider possibly could. “This is the first time I’ve been
in the presence of members of the fairer sex in a long time. Not sure
I’ve come presentable enough for the occasion.”

The too-handsome man ran both hands -- one still clutching the hat
lightly -- with too much enthusiasm back through his wavy hair, smiling
a dazzling smile at the two of us the whole time he did it. Vigo’s scowl
settled in all the deeper.

“Dale Pruitt,” the Roamer greeted us with what felt like genuine, warm
affection, ignoring the Old Man entirely. He reached out a gentle hand
to take first mine and then Leslie’s, bending over it to kiss the back
of our palms. I was too stunned to resist but Leslie jerked away
immediately as soon as he tried to touch her. I just looked over at
Vigo, face going pale.

“What is this?” I barely more than breathed, horror creeping up to
replace the shock inside my voice.

The Old Man didn’t answer me, though. He still wore that dark, worried
look upon his face.

“Would you just get on with it please?” he snapped at the Roamer.

“Well,” that man, Pruitt, said, eyes roaming from me to Leslie and back
again and down along both our bodies easily as we sat there, held firmly
within those sentries’ grips. “I have to say I like the feisty one a bit
better, myself ...” His eyes dipped down, scanning all of me toward my
boots when he said that, leaving no illusions about just who he meant.
“But I know who Mr. Sinclaire would choose.” Those eyes leapt from me to
Leslie, drinking in her much more curvaceous form. “And I could
certainly be brought around to find this one just as ... interesting,
I’m sure. Given time to make her acquaintance properly.”

I looked to Leslie, saw the cringing discomfort as that Roamer got right
up in front of her, almost like he was trying to breath down her neck.
The other woman shoved the raider back a step with her free hand, and he
laughed.

“See? I’m sure we’ll grow on each other.”

“So her then?” Vigo broke in impatiently, and I goggled at him.

“Well, if I have to choose just ONE ...”

A lot of thoughts that had been swirling around in a maelstrom inside my
head seemed to suddenly click into place just then. And I realized just
what Vigo was about.

“You’re going to trade one of us to them?” I barely more than breathed,
and there was nothing but horror there in my face then too. Pale, blood-
drained horror as I looked at the Old Man.

Vigo didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. That look on his face said
it all.

“Whaddya think about that, darlin’,” Pruitt was saying just on the other
side of me, standing far too close to Leslie again and trying to reach
up a hand to touch the side of her face.

Before that hand even got close again, Leslie swatted it away with one
of her own, hard enough to make a resounding clap. “Keep your hands off
me, you miserable little pile of shit!”

Retracting his arm, the Roamer just smiled that sparkling smile at her
while my hand snaked out and snatched his gun.

I elbowed back into the sentry behind me immediately after I did it,
square into the soft part of his guts, and his hand came away. He hadn’t
expected it. Pruitt hadn’t expected. None of them had. So it was the
easiest thing in the world to jump away from Vigo and the Roamer and
those sentries into the room, putting some space between all of us and
that magnum too.

I waved it at them.

“GET BACK!!!”

Everyone but Vigo and Pruitt backed up on reflex as I shrieked at them,
holding the .44 with a finger grazing the trigger. The two Roamers who
must have come with Pruitt went for their weapons and I waved the
handgun their way.

“DO IT AND YOU’RE DEAD!”

For a moment, I don’t think they thought I was completely serious.
Pruitt’s eyes were wide, but he was still smiling, and Vigo put his
hands up in a placating gesture. I didn’t bother to wait for him to
speak before snarling at him instead.

“SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH, VIGO!”

I could have hurled accusations at him. I could have demanded to know
WHY he would betray us like this while I had him as a captive audience
with that stolen gun. But I didn’t need to. I KNEW why. He’d hoped to
split the two of us with those Roamers to avoid some kind of
confrontation, and had counted on them choosing Leslie as the much more
physically appealing of the two of us over me.

Pruitt arched an eyebrow and turned to Vigo, nudging the older man with
a hand. “Maybe I should’ve picked her after all. I think she might be
jealous.”

“Leslie?” I called out over them, and the other woman suddenly blinked
at me. I wondered if this situation as it stood had settled into her
brain comfortably yet. “Please. Get over here by me.”

One of the Roamer guards was subtly going for his weapon and I saw it
out of the corner of my eye. The .44 swung that way and I growled at
him.

“DON’T!”

But another flash of movement drew me right back.

Pruitt surged forward like a snake. I spun back towards him but he was
so fast he got to my arm before I could level him with the barrel. His
whole body twisted down low as I pulled the trigger, and a bullet sliced
away the skin beneath his jacket sleeve. And his hands were on me then
with one reared back, snapping toward my face.

Then everything went black.

Chapter Twenty: Perfidy

The steady rhythm of my feet contrasted with the racing, chaotic pace of
my thoughts as I paced back and forth across the room. The room in
question was Quinn’s bedroom which I had invaded to look the other woman
over after she’d been dumped on the bed, still unconscious.

The fact that Quinn hadn’t woken up was actually one of the reasons for
my pacing. It had been a while since the disgusting meeting where Vigo
had tried to trade one of us off to the Roamers. That same while had
passed since the guy in the cowboy hat, Dale, I believe he said his name
was, had slugged Quinn right out of the world of the waking. Her getting
knocked out by a single punch was odd on its own, certainly not
something I’d ever seen happen to the old Quinn, but not unreasonable.
People aren’t usually out that long in those cases, though, minutes more
so than hours, which had me worrying about what kind of damage Dale had
done to her.

Fortunately, Quinn didn’t show any particular signs of distress. In
fact, other than a swollen, rapidly bruising cheek and eye, I could’ve
mistaken her for just being asleep. Dr. Carlisle had examined her right
after the hit as well, and hadn’t found anything wrong. Even so, I was
still a little worried about it.

Of course, I had other, much bigger worries, as well. After dealing with
Quinn, Dale and Vigo had talked briefly. The key points were that Dale
was headed back to his camp to report the deal to his leader. If that
leader accepted, he would return the next day, and I would be trussed up
like some fancy present and handed over to a life of ... things I didn’t
want to think about.

As terrifying as being the property of the Roamers was, I was less
afraid of that than I was infuriated by my inability to stop it. Jordan
was in jail. Quinn was unconconscious. There were four armed guards
outside of the only exit to my room. I couldn’t possibly take that many,
even with them taking it easy on me to avoid damaging the Roamer’s
prize. Escape just wasn’t feasible.

Feasible or not, I kept right on pacing, my mind running through
useless idea after useless idea. There had to be something that I could
do, some way to avert this terrible disaster. Nothing appeared in my
thoughts, though, only that dark cloud from within me, whispering about
my complete failure.

Coming to a stop, I clutched my hands to my head and let out a
frustrated growl. Everything could’ve changed, everyone could’ve been
happy. Instead, there was only degradation and the bitter promise of the
death of our world. Just thinking about it had my eyes burning as my
hands dropped uselessly to my side. It just wasn’t fair.

“Leslie?!” a familiar voice hissed, both soft and urgent at the same
time.

Tugged from my despair, I looked up, twisting around toward the voice.
Unbelievably, it was Lincoln’s voice. The man shouldn’t even be out of
bed yet, though, much less been shown into our quarters. No one except
Vigo should’ve been coming in here after what the Old Man had done.

“Quinn?” Lincoln tried hissing instead when my name brought no response.

Hearing that incredible confirmation that I hadn’t been hallucinating, I
finally moved, hurrying across the room. It only took a few bounding
steps to take me right through the door to the living area. There, I
froze, legitimately shocked by what awaited me, even with the voice to
proceed it.

Across the room, a battered and bandaged Lincoln smiled at the sight of
me. “Ah, there you are. Where’s Quinn?”

“On her bed, recovering from getting her brains punched out,” I supplied
readily, just so that I could get it out of the way to ask, “What are
you doing here?”

“Rescuing you two, well sorta anyway,” Lincoln informed me with a slight
shrug. “The Old Man expects the raiders to try something rather than
take the deal, so he decided get you and Quinn out of here. Since I’m
not much good in a fight anyway, I asked to join the group that’ll be
guarding you.”

My eyes went wide at Lincoln’s wonderful answer. After everything that
had happened since returning to Wendover, I couldn’t believe the Old Man
would do something so shockingly altruistic. Then again, he’d always
been a fair and capable leader before women had shown up in his world
again. Maybe, that part of him was shining through, finally. Either that
or he didn’t want the Roamers to take either of his precious possessions
away. Whichever it was, I was thrilled.

“That’s great!” I finally exclaimed. “We need to stop by the doctor’s
before we get out of here, though.”

My request had Lincoln furrowing his brow in confusion. “Why? Is Quinn
in bad shape?”

“Well, she’s not in good shape, but no, there’s something there I need
to grab before we leave,” I answered. This was my chance to escape, but
I had to get the samples first.

Unfortunately, Lincoln didn’t know that and was shaking his head to
refuse. “There’s no time for that. We’ve got everything we’ll need for
the road already.”

“You don’t understand, Linc. Ther–” I started to explain, ready to spill
the beans about the samples just to make sure this opportunity wasn’t
wasted.

“No, you don’t understand!” Lincoln snapped sharply, cutting me off. “No
one else knows about what we’re doing except the Old Man! We have to get
out of here before someone sees us and thinks we’re abducting you. It
just not practical to stop for anything!”

“But, I ha–” I tried again, knowing that it wasn’t just anything that I
wanted to stop for, but perhaps the most important thing on the planet.

“No!” Lincoln barked, exasperation bleeding into anger at my resistance.
“Now, either come on or stay in here and wait for the Roamers to get
ya.”

Reeling back from the sudden hostility, I reluctantly nodded. I could
get more samples from the ruins or find a way to sneak away while
Lincoln got Quinn to safety. Arguing anymore here would just reduce the
chances of success.

Content with my answer, Lincoln turned to limp out of our quarters. I
followed right behind him, easily catching up by the time he got
outside. Out there, it was fairly dark thanks to the late hour, with
only a few dim lights on nearby. Illuminated by that dim light were four
men, only one of whom I knew well – Shaun. They had a nervous, antsy
look to them which was unsurprising, given the clandestine nature of
what they were doing.

“Shaun, Quinn’s out cold on her bed. You mind grabbing her for us?”
Lincoln requested quietly.

Giving a quick nod, Shaun started inside with an agreeable, “Sure thing,
Linc.”

As the man left to get Quinn, the injured man turned to the other three
in the group. “Any trouble out here?”

“Nope. Quiet so far,” one of them answered. “It seems people are
following the Old Man’s orders to stay away.”

While Lincoln worried about the mission, I looked over my new guards,
trying to find weaknesses that I might be able to take advantage of to
slip away. What ended up catching my eye, however, wasn’t a weakness,
but it did have me furrowing my brow in confusion. One of the man’s
hands had a reddish cast to it in the dim light. A closer look was all
it took for me to recognize the pale smear of blood that had been
haphazardly wiped clean. I’d seen that same smear plenty of times on my
own hands while helping the doctor.

My closer look had other things filtering into my vision. There wasn’t
just blood on the man’s hand, but some drops scattered about on the
ground as well. He didn’t appear to be injured, though. That left me
wondering where the blood had even come from. It was very strange.

As I tried to figure out that mystery, Shaun came back with Quinn tossed
over one shoulder like a sack. “Got her.”

“Alright, then, let’s move,” Lincoln instructed before immediately
starting off, taking the lead. Shaun and one of the other men fell in
behind him, but the other two, including the man with the bloody hand,
hung back. It wasn’t until I started moving that they finally followed
suit, falling into step behind me. My being so surrounded was usual for
my escorts, but I’d kind of hoped that these guys, not having been doing
the task for the last week, might be a little sloppier.

With the blood smears behind me, I tried to glance back, but I couldn’t
really see anything through the two men. I could hardly walk backward
staring at the man’s hand either. As such, I started to abandon the look
behind me, only for something else to catch my eye before I could turn
all the way back to the front.

From the door, he’d been impossible to see but a few steps forward with
a different angle showed the shadow of a man hunched down behind some
nearby debris. I couldn’t make out his face in the dark that he was
hiding in, but there was the faint shimmer of eyes watching us. That was
all the person was doing, just watching, not yelling, not running off to
get guards, nothing.

Perplexed by the oddity, I wondered if maybe it was my brother out
there. Actually, thinking about it, I wondered why Jordan hadn’t been
included in this mission. I supposed that, after what he’d done earlier,
Vigo might not have trusted him to bring us back, should the Brotherhood
defeat the Roamers. If so, that meant that I might have an ally out
there, someone who might help me slip away when the time came. He
probably wouldn’t be willing to leave Quinn, though, not after ... which
meant that I would need a plan to not just get away, but handle the
guards. That was going to be tricky.

With that new goal in mind, I scanned over the men in front of me. They
were heavily armed, each carrying at least two firearms in addition to a
knife. Most had other weapons as well, more than ready to protect us
from anything. Such weapons mattered little when it came to stopping me
from escaping, since they wouldn’t shoot me. If I could get one,
however, I could certainly use it to aid in gaining my freedom. The
guards were quite alert, but most of their attention was focused
outward, watching for signs of other brothers that might spot us
sneaking out of the facility. That would offer an opening that I could
exploit.

Even as that plan began formulating in my thoughts, something else snuck
in there. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, but when I lifted my
head, it became clear. We were in the wrong part of the habitat, moving
away from the main gate which was, as far as I knew, the only exit.

“Where are we going?” I questioned out of sheer curiosity. “The gate’s
the other way.”

“Vigo has a secret back way for emergencies like this,” Lincoln told me.
“Some old maintenance shaft.”

Content with that information, I drifted back into silence and planning.
It was no surprise that the old man, clever as he was, would have
something like that ready. However, it complicated my plan, since I
needed to learn where this secret entrance was before I tried to slip
free. That way, I would be able to use it as well, once I’d retrieved
the samples from the doctor’s office.

“Shit,” I heard a man curse, tugging me up from my thoughts.

When I looked up, I saw the cause of the cursing. Ahead of us, lounging
out underneath one of the more secluded lights in the habitat was
Dresden, lounged back in a chair. He was looking our way while enjoying
a bottle that looked like the kind the Brotherhood used for our homebrew
beer. It was certainly a good beverage for a night like this, with death
waiting right on our doorstep.

“Don’t worry,” Lincoln whispered from up front. “I’ll handle him.”

As our group drew closer, Dresden furrowed his brow and pushed himself
up drunkenly from his seat. “Hey Linc. Heard you managed to cheat death
again. Real nice streak of luck that.”

“Yep, and I’m grateful for it,” Lincoln replied.

“Looks likes you’ve got more to be grateful for,” Dresden noted as he
looked between the unconscious Quinn and myself.

Lincoln followed that gaze, glancing our way as well. “Yeah, Vigo let me
join the group that’s sneaking them out tonight.”

“Sneaking them out?” Dresden questioned in confusion. “Rumor had it we
were trading one of them. I was rooting for that snot-nosed little brat
you’ve got cowering in the middle of you.”

Tweaked by the insult, I tossed a glare at the infuriating man. “Fuck
you, Drez.”

“That’d be fun,” Dresden remarked with a grin before taking another pull
on his drink.

“Hey, look man, this whole thing’s supposed to be a secret,” Lincoln cut
back in before I could retort. “Think you could just let us by?”

That request had Dresden turning a confused look on the injured man.
“Secret? Why?” he asked before that dirty grin came right back. “You
planning to do something you shouldn’t with the two of them?”

“What?! Of course not!” Lincoln blurted. “I’m just following the Old
Man’s orders. Hell, if you want, you can even come with us. We’ve got
plenty of supplies to go around.”

For a moment, Dresden seemed tempted by that offer, making me worry that
I would have to deal with yet another guard. In the end, though, he
shook his head. “Nah, they ain’t worth all us dying over. Rather just
trade ‘em off and go back to how things were, so why don’t you march ‘em
right back to their cell and tell the Old Man to go eat shit.”

Jaw clenching, Lincoln sighed at the refusal. “Well, I’m sorry you feel
that way ...”

The next thing I knew, there was a blur of movement as Lincoln snatched
his handgun from his hip. Dresden’s eyes barely had time to widen before
the weapon was up and leveled. A startled “Wha–” started to slip from
his lips when the crack of the weapon firing cut him off.

At first, Dresden just jerked from the impact, standing there in shock.
That didn’t last, though. Blood was starting to stain his shirt where
his heart should be when he tried to reach up to his chest. His hand
didn’t make it there before his knees buckled, sending him flopping to
the ground where he could breath his last breaths.

“What the fuck?!” I finally managed to gasp as my surprise turned to
disbelief. Even as the question burst out of my lips, though, my mind
was putting it together. The blood on that one guy’s hand. The
unexpected charity of the escape. The men I didn’t know serving as
guards for the escape rather than the usual rotation. Lincoln somehow
surviving the Roamers not once, but twice. It all pointed to one thing –
this being an abduction.

“Shut her up and get her moving. We have to hurry now,” I heard Lincoln
order in the back of my thoughts.

One of the kidnappers started toward me from behind, but by then, my
shock was gone. In its place a bright red rage welled up, driving away
rational thoughts. Vigo was a greedy asshole, but Lincoln ... he was so
much worse – a murderer and traitor.

Before the man could grab me, I burst forward, aiming for the gap
between Shaun and the other man. One was burdened and neither was ready
for my full weight to come crashing into their backs. Shaun,
overbalanced the other way already, easily got knocked aside. The other
man was much more solid, though, sending pain stabbing through my own
shoulder as I muscled past him. That was enough to send him stumbling
too, leaving my path clear to charge at Lincoln. I had to catch my
balance first, costing me a few precious hops to the side that made no
progress toward the man. Then I finally was ready to start my charge,
coiling to burst forward.

Hands grabbed me from behind, two to each of my arms. When I tried to
charge, they held me in place, letting me do nothing besides painfully
twist my own shoulders and growl out, “No! You traitorous fuck! I’ll
ki–”

That was all the further I got before the man I’d knocked aside,
recovered and returned. When he did, he slammed a fist right into my
gut, driving the breath from my lungs in one agonized burst. Crumpling,
I sagged into the arms holding me, wheezing and gasping for breath.

With the fight literally knocked out of me, the men shifted me around so
that one of them could hold me. He pulled me upright and pushed me along
even as I fought for air. Meanwhile, the others started moving as well,
marching past Dresden’s corpse and off toward the nightmare that awaited
us.

Chapter Twenty One: Band of Brothers

When I came to, I was being carried.

My eyes blinked open and I saw a man’s back and the floor and quickly
realized I must have been slung over someone’s shoulder like a limp sack
of meat. And I had the wherewithal to stay limp, wondering at just who
might be carrying me. Unless it was somehow Jordan, I knew I wasn’t
being taken anywhere I ever wanted to go.

Vigo had betrayed us. That thought came roaring back through the white
noise of all the others. I’d known the Brotherhood wouldn’t keep us in
their fold like they had before we’d been women, but I’d never imagined
they’d go so far as to actually turn us over to raiders without a fight.
That it was only one of us and not both was somehow worse, if only
because I understood the logic of it and yet could never accept it. Vigo
shouldn’t have ever accepted it either.

But he had. He had dragged us out there in front of Pruitt and hoped the
Roamer would choose Leslie and not me. Things were that far gone and I
couldn’t trust anyone anymore. All there was left to do was fight.

So I pretended to still be unconscious. I pretended that, and listened
as voices around me hissed warnings and commands back and forth, trying
to get a handle on my latest situation. I’d been overwhelmed too easily
back in the room with the Old Man and Pruitt. I hadn’t expected the
flamboyant Roamer to be that fast. I couldn’t afford to make that same
mistake again.

I counted at least four voices, two of them more familiar to me as
Kerensky and Bates, with Kerensky the one carrying me. I wondered at
that, but I also heard the lighter breathing and footsteps of an
infrequently whimpering woman and knew it was Leslie. We were being
taken somewhere. There was a gun on my carrier’s hip and I assume the
rest were armed too. They weren’t Roamers, but Vigo had already proven
definitively that I couldn’t trust my Brothers anymore either.

“Here!” I heard Bates suddenly whisper back hurriedly at the rest. “It’s
in here!”

I felt us go through a door and then the press of bodies as they all
squeezed inside, closing it behind them. I was just contemplating trying
to snag that pistol at Kerensky’s hip when he hefted me up and over to
slump me down against the wall to one side. I did my best to pretend to
still be out of it.

“Move all of it! Get that area clear!”

Bates hissed more orders. The shift of bodies could be heard through my
closed eyelids as those other men started moving things around in the
room. I cracked an eye open ever so slightly as they did, seeing Leslie
sitting across from me in what seemed like a storage closet with an
armed Brother standing over her. The rest were hauling crates and boxes
and junk that had been stacked against the back wall, moving them out of
the way. Something like a ventilation shaft began to appear behind it.

I noticed Bates standing there watching, still injured and looking
agitated. Leslie was furious and forlorn and I could only imagine just
what was going on here. Nothing good, I thought.

They left me alone, sprawled there against the wall on the floor, and I
listened while they worked, waiting for my moment. It was Leslie who
eventually spoke, though.

“You’re not following Vigo’s orders,” she declared in a flat tone,
before looking up slowly toward Bates.

The man glanced over at her. “Now what makes you think that, Les?”

“A lot of things. The blood, the guards, Dresden...”

She trailed off at Cooper’s name. Had he been here too?

“He was going to stop us,” Bates argued back at her. “And we didn’t have
time to waste arguing.”

Leslie just shook her head.

It was another minute, and I could tell the Brothers were almost done
clearing that thing on the back wall, when the radio on Bates’ hip
suddenly roared to life and a desperate voice cried out over it,
“Breach! Breach! We’ve got some kind of breach! The women are gone, no
sign of their watch in s--!”

Bates switched the radio off before it could finish, but it had said
enough. Leslie’s eyes glazed over with dark certainty and the men
clearing hurried to finish. A few seconds later, and they had it.

“We’re good!”

Bates stepped forward to inspect the dark space they’d opened up,
pulling back a metal plate to reveal what could have been a tunnel
beyond. A secret way out, maybe? Did Vigo even know about it?

“You’re really just going to do this to us?” Leslie demanded, voice dark
and heavy with loathing now. “To your Brothers?” It was the sort of tone
my mother had used when my father came home to our unit drunk and
disorderly. A tone like he had disappointed or betrayed her
immeasurably. By what came out of his mouth next, I supposed that he
had.

“Should’ve kept believing the fantasy, kid. You want my advice? I’d get
used to the idea of making nice to Roamers, if I was you.”

“Oh?”

Leslie demanded more, but that was the extent of what the man was
willing to say apparently, focusing back on the tunnel with Kerensky
crouching in front of it, directing a flashlight down it. But that
didn’t matter, because he’d said enough.

We’d been worried about a leak in the Brotherhood before this whole
mission that had thrown everything upside down and ruined mine and
Leslie’s lives. Vigo had suspected a spy feeding information about our
runs to raiders and here the Roamers were. They’d found us at the ruins.
They’d found us here. Bates, who had been as good as dead, was now back
here, orchestrating our kidnapping.

He was the spy. He, and Kerensky, and the other Brothers ... they’d sold
the Brotherhood out to the Roamers. They’d sold US out to the Roamers.

“Gonna be a tight fit,” Kerensky was saying, looking in that shaft.
“We’ll have to send a couple through to make sure they don’t bolt.”

“Pruitt should be on the other side waiting, assuming he followed my
directions and found it.” The man grazed a hand over his bruising with a
wince. “We’re not taking any chances, either way.”

I sat there while they prepped Kerensky to shimmy into the tunnel and
start making his way into the dark. I sat there and fought the
overwhelming urge to leap up to my feet and start howling at those
traitors and swinging my fists until they were all broken and dead. No,
I’d seen how little good that sort of impulsive aggression got me now.
So I choked that rage down until I was placidly calculating death.

“Get her through next, while she’s still out,” Bates was saying,
sticking a thumb towards me and moving over to Leslie with a gun leveled
at her head.

“You won’t shoot me,” was what the woman grumbled up at him defiantly.

“No? I’d like both of you, but one will still do. There’s always your
brother to consider too. And your arms and legs aren’t important for
where you’re going.”

One of the other Brothers marched over and reached down to pick me up.
As soon as I was on his shoulder, half up toward my feet, my hand
slipped down to his holster and snatched that pistol free. The traitor
had a brief moment of surprise before I planted the barrel against his
kidney and put three bullets in him, right up his back.

I dropped down to my feet as the Brother tumbled over. Bates spun back
around and then went for his gun. The man beside him did the same and I
shot that one first. Two bullets to the chest, one to the head and he
pitched over into the ground. The third one was smart enough to just
rush me, but not fast enough to avoid getting shot in the face twice.
Bates was the only one to get close.

The gun moved to shoot the last man and he came up short just as the
chamber clicked empty. We both stared at it for a second in disbelief,
which quickly turned to horror for me and blind rage for Bates. He
howled at me and then grabbed me by the shoulder.

I flipped the pistol around and bashed it across the man’s face. It
snapped to one side, then the other as I brought it back. Before I could
hit him a third time, he reared back and slammed his bleeding face right
into mine.

My vision spun. Everything flashed black for a split second and I felt
sick to my stomach. Somehow, I still kept my feet, but just barely.
Reeling, I stumbled back into the wall.

Bates’ hands were wrapped around my throat a moment later.

I choked out a gasp. He bore down on me as everything started going
fuzzy at the side, narrowing down to that furious, raging face with its
teeth clenched toward me like a bleached skull. I pounded a fist into
his arm, clutching at those huge, powerful hands on my neck. They didn’t
budge. My knees gave out and he was holding me up, crushed against the
wall while I gagged.

A shot rang out, and Bates flinched. His hands were still on my throat,
but his face froze.

Then another shot sounded. And another.

Those fingers eased up. The man staggered, lurching towards me. I
collapsed to the ground and his hands came free right before he
collapsed down on top of me.

I sucked in air for a few, horrible moments as I felt the bruises on my
neck. Bates’s body was heavy and limp, a dead weight crushing me into
the ground.

Then I heard, “Oh my god! Quinn!”

It took a minute, but that corpse that had been my Brother once was
pulled back and Leslie’s desperate face replaced it. She pulled me up
where I could see her, trying to slap some sense back into me.

I clutched at her hands, still breathing hard.

“It’s okay, Leslie,” I mumbled, shoulders heaving. “I’m okay.”

The door behind us suddenly opened and Leslie threw herself away from
me, pistol clutched between her hands and shaking as she stuck it out
that way.

“Les-- WHOA! Hold on, Les, it’s me!” someone shouted in surprise as they
came up short from charging inside. Then seemed to catch sight of that
bloodbath of Brothers all around us. “What the FUCK?!”

“Are you with them?!’ the blonde woman screamed at that man who I saw
now was Michael McDunnough. But I was right there with her on that
suspicion at this point. “Are you?!?”

McDunnough had his hands up, and he swallowed, having gone pale. He
focused on Leslie, though, dropping his gun quickly back to his side.

“No,” he told her. “No, Les. I caught them trying to steal you two from
your quarters and followed. I heard the gunshots ...”

“What about Vigo, huh?” the other woman kept on, jerking the barrel even
closer toward McDunnough’s chest. “You wanna trade us to the Roamers
too?”

“What?” The man’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Of course not!”

I helped myself up while those two argued back and forth, Leslie
battered and rattled and not sure who she could trust anymore. I wasn’t
too keen on seeing any other Brothers at that moment either, and I
limped over to grab one of the other guns in hand, loading down with a
rifle and a pistol at my hip for good measure. Knife too. There was
still another traitor left through that tunnel and they’d mentioned that
smarmy Roamer who’d clocked me in the “negotiations” was somehow in on
it. I thought back to the moment when Pruitt had had Bates with a gun to
his head at the Roamer camp and felt a sick twist in my stomach that had
nothing to do with the man himself lying there dead now on the ground.

“Leslie?” I called gently from behind.

“What?!” the woman all but shrieked over her shoulder at me, still
pointing that gun at McDunnough, who was desperately trying to talk her
down.

“We can’t stay here anymore,” I told her then.

The woman didn’t look at me, but I could feel her thoughts turn wildly
away from that man in the doorway to other things and she shook her
head, looking ahead at him.

“I need something first, something very important. I’m not leaving
without it.”

“Jordan?” I asked, and she flinched.

“No.”

Her shoulders heaved and then slumped. I assumed she was thinking about
her brother and I couldn’t imagine what else could be more important.
Staying on task, I looked down at the dead men around us. They had
travel packs and supplies. We were going to need it all to get the hell
out of here.

“Dr. Carlisle has something I need,” the woman explained when I didn’t
ask after several, long moments of us just standing there, McDunnough’s
hands still in the air. “We ... we have to go back for it, Quinn.”

“Les, listen to me,” the man started to say, but was interrupted by
boots pounding down the corridor behind him. He twisted around and then
his whole body just sagged in relief.

“LESLIE!”

I heard Jordan’s voice and felt my heart skip before I sidestepped so I
could see out the still open door past McDunnough. And there was the
elder Weeks, charging down the hall outside, straight toward us.

“Jordan?” I barely more than breathed.

The man caught up to us. He squeezed around McDunnough with a huge,
relieved smile on his face at his sister standing there alive. One
glance around the storeroom only dented it a little and he quickly
started to ease down Leslie from pointing that gun at the other man.

“It’s okay, Les ... he called the Doc and the Doc got me out. It’s okay.
I’m pretty sure Mike’s not gonna hurt you.”

Leslie still seemed skeptical at that, but having her big brother
telling her otherwise seemed to go a long way and she finally lowered
her hands. Once the gun was out of the way, Jordan hugged her tightly to
him and she bristled for all new reasons I didn’t understand. I just
watched them from behind, the man’s eyes finding my own. He smiled at
me. And I smiled back.

McDunnough stepped inside with someone else and let the door slide
closed.

“Leslie? Quinn?” a familiar voice inquired between heavy breaths, and I
glanced over to see Doc Carlisle shambling forward. The old man looked
relieved to see the two of us in one piece, but I noticed his stride was
lame and his face pale, sweat gleaming on the brow. He gave me one
cursory look to make sure I wasn’t shot up or anything before focusing
on the blonde woman.

“How ...?” was all she could manage, faced with all that.

“Little Mikey here called me on the radio,” the old man explained with a
wince. “I’m sorry I didn’t call the sentries. After what happened, I ...
Well, I thought your brother was the smartest bet on making sure you
stayed safe.”

Now that I looked at him, McDunnough still seemed confused. Vigo hadn’t
exactly broadcasted what happened with the Roamers, I was sure. Most of
the Brothers probably didn’t even know what was going on or how Leslie
had almost been traded to those raider scum. Not that it mattered
anymore. Things had become pretty clear to me in the past few hours.

“We can’t stay here,” I said aloud, and everyone looked back at me.
“Leslie and I ... the Roamers will tear this place apart looking for us.
And I’m not going to let Vigo trade Leslie to them just to save the
Brotherhood. I can’t do it.”

“It’s ... more important than that,” Carlisle offered, draping a hand
across his damp forehead. He held out a hand to Leslie as Jordan pulled
back from her. “Here. You’re going to need them, Leslie. Do what we
talked about. Quinn is right. Get out of here.”

“Wh-what about you?” she asked, reaching out to take a small hard case
from the doctor’s hand and went to stuff it into the pack I’d tossed by
her feet.

The old man cracked a pained smile. “It doesn’t matter.”

A few moments passed where Leslie looked up from that thing to the
doctor and I saw the glimmer of tears in the corners of her eyes. I
shared a look with her brother, but neither of us knew what the two were
talking about -- what was in the other woman’s hands. And McDunnough had
even less clue.

Unfortunately, we were all interrupted by the distant sound of gunfire
springing to life all around us, muted by the walls of the habitat.

“Oh my god,” Jordan breathed, looking around with wide eyes.

We knew what that meant. Somehow, the Brotherhood had opened fire on the
Roamers outside and vice versa.

“Come on!” I growled at them, rifle in hand. I ducked back down toward
the tunnel those traitors had been planning to use to sneak us out of
there. “We’ve gotta get out of here NOW!”

I wasn’t going to take the chance of Vigo finding us again. I wasn’t
going to let the Roamers get us either. I just dropped down and started
shimmying my way down into the tunnel, not waiting to hear what the
others might say.

Thankfully, I heard Jordan follow after.

* * *

“What the fuck is going on over there?!”

Dale Pruitt was stomping away like he meant to go running off towards
the cavalcade of gunfire being exchanged in the distance beyond the
trees. Four Roamers were with him, holding rifles and pistols and axes
and knives close at hand, on guard now that a war had erupted back in
their camp. They were all looking away, distracted when I crawled my way
to the end of the tunnel in the dark and peered out into the night
beyond.

Kerensky was with them. He stood a few steps apart and was paying more
attention to the end of the tunnel than his Roamer counterparts and I
started to consider the best way to take all six of them down so we
could get the hell out of here and probably never look back. I felt
Jordan nudge my boot from behind as I did, and I tapped a finger on the
side of the shaft softly, signaling for him to wait.

A minute later and I was crawling my way out, hands held up in the air.
I’d left the rifle lying in the tunnel for Jordan to find, moving the
pistol behind my back, tucked into those trousers I’d stolen from among
my mother’s clothes. My former Brother leveled his gun at me as I did.

Pruitt glanced back, saw me, and couldn’t help a smile breaking out
across his face as he did. “Well hello again there, darlin’,” he greeted
smugly, a touch of relief in his eyes. I could just imagine what he
thought: get the two women, head back to the Roamer camp, and order them
to pull out, leaving the Brotherhood here with their dicks in their
hands and missing their prize. I could imagine it, but I had no
intention of letting it happen.

I dropped my hands to my sides, but that didn’t alarm them. Neither did
Jordan crawling out of the tunnel at my feet. They probably assumed he
was just one of Bates’ crew and everything was going according to plan.

It wasn’t until Kerensky looked down at the wrong moment and saw Weeks’
face that anyone started the think differently.

“What the hell?” the man breathed out in surprise, turning his gun on
Jordan.

I didn’t hesitate.

Hand slipped back, and that pistol came out. I shot Kerensky twice, and
he went down, pulling the trigger on his rifle and sending a splash of
bullets Jordan’s way. They went wide, and the prone man recovered,
pointing his rifle ahead. That smile evaporated from Pruitt’s face in an
instant and he leapt out of the way just as Weeks fired a few bursts
into the trees. He clipped one Roamer and pegged another clean.

I focused on Pruitt. I fired the pistol at him, emptying the clip into
the trees as he ducked down low and scrambled ahead of each shot. Then I
snagged my rifle from Weeks. While Jordan was tossing himself aside
behind cover, shouting for Mikey to get the fuck out here too, I
peppered the underbrush around the remaining Roamers. Between me,
Jordan, and McDunnough, we had them properly fucked a minute later. I
wasn’t sure who was even alive anymore but bullets kept flying back at
us.

It wasn’t Pruitt, though. While we were trading shots with the remaining
Roamers in the trees, I caught that man charging away from the whole
thing, bolting deeper into the woods. Something feral inside me
responded and I was sprinting after him almost before I even knew what I
was doing.

“QUINN!” someone called, but I ignored it.

Branches and leaves slapped at me while I ran. The firefight shifted
around to my left and started to slowly drift away. Enough so that I
could just make out the labored breaths of a man ahead of me somewhere,
barreling through the dark trees. I screamed out at him, lugging the
rifle up to pop a shot off when I thought I got a flash of him there in
my path. It kept him on the run.

I lost track of him over the next minute, my shorter legs failing to
keep up over time. And my lungs were burning when the treeline suddenly
opened up and I was looking at a hill that bumped up sharply before
falling away in front of me. My boots skidded to a stop, eyes tearing
around. Then something slammed into me from behind.

Pruitt closelined me, knocking me flat on my face. I felt his body come
down hard a second later, crushing me into the earth. All the air burst
out of my lungs in a dry heave. He wrestled with me for the gun.

I held onto it for a precious moment, but that was it. He wrenched it
out of my hands and tossed it aside, getting a good grip on the nape of
my neck to pull me up so that I could look him in the eyes a second
later. “I knew there was something I liked about you,” he said in a
self-satisfied huff, smiling at me through his belabored breathing. Then
he slammed his fist right into my face once more.

It hurt. It hurt like hell, and I screamed out but didn’t go down. Not
this time. He let me topple over into the ground for a few seconds while
he sucked in air and tried to recover from our chase. I was choking out
a pained gasp when he reached over to snatch me up again. He couldn’t
resist the urge to talk to me while he did.

“I can’t believe you shot at me,” he gasped out, giving a sardonic laugh
right in my face. “You killed my men. You killed your OWN man.” Then he
shook his head. “I guess it’s not so hard to do when you find out they
were pretty much working for us the whole time, though, is it?”

His fist launched into my stomach this time and I crumpled around it,
croaking a long, low moan as I deflated. Black spots flickered at the
edge of my vision.

“Oh, sorry,” he clucked his tongue at himself. “Gotta remember that’s
the goods down there, isn’t it? Might wanna keep that intact for later.”

I tried to sink down to my knees and somehow get my lungs working again.
Failing that, curling my whole body up into a ball would’ve worked too.
But he held onto me. And he started hauling me away a few steps up that
hill.

“Now, I like you, darlin’,” he said as he did, “But here I’m thinking
that maybe you might just be more trouble than you’re worth. Whaddya
think?”

All of a sudden I realized there was no ground beneath as he tilted my
whole body backwards over the crest of that hill, and I looked down,
still gasping for air. It wasn’t a hill, I realized then, but a cliff. A
rock face dropped down right below me, falling away into a forested
canopy I could just barely make out fifty feet below or more in the
dark.

My hands clutched tighter to the Roamer’s arm holding me up in response.

He was still talking.

“I could just head back there, kill your friends, collect the other girl
... you know ...”

“Quinn?!” a voice suddenly pierced the gloom of the wood, some ways off.
I knew it was Jordan, and he would be looking for me.

“Oh, and there’s one now.”

He went for the magnum at his side the same time I did and caught my
hand instead, gripping the handle.

“Ohhhhhh, almost got me again!” he laughed, holding my wrist in place so
that I couldn’t draw it out.

“Fuck you!” I spat, his other hand now holding my head by the face,
squeezing my lips apart. I worked my finger forward toward the trigger.

“Maybe later, sweetheart,” was what he said, grinning wickedly down at
me while I still teetered back over the edge, booted feet squeezing down
as hard as they could like that would pull me back.

My finger found that trigger and I tried to point the gun toward him,
but couldn’t with his grip on me. That didn’t stop me from firing it
though.

The man growled as I planted a bullet in the ground beside his feet, the
gunshot roaring in the night air between us. I went to squeeze again but
his hand was suddenly crushing my wrist until I was sure the bone would
break, and I cried out, losing my hold on the .44. He laughed.

Then my other hand came around with the knife I’d stolen from Bates and
he had no hands left to stop me. I stabbed it right down into his neck.

The man’s smile vanished, but he twisted aside at the last second,
sending the metal down just inside the ring of his clavicle.

His hands fell away. He struggled with the knife, grunting out in
surprise and anger and I collapsed down onto my back. The upper half of
my body was hanging out over the cliff, starting to tip. Hands flew out
to find rock underneath, desperately pushing me back up so I could twist
over onto solid ground. The man bellowed down at me as I did.

“YOU FUCKING BITCH!!!”

He pulled the knife out, tossed it, and then grabbed his gun, pointing
it at me.

I stilled.

“Oh. Oh ho ho ho, you,” he half snarled, half laughed, lips curling back
in a sneer from his face. He pulled the hammer back on the .44, glaring
down at me in amusement and rage. “YOU ...”

I looked back up at him, heart pounding inside my chest. I waited for
him to shoot. I waited for that sound to crack and to feel metal rip
right through me. I saw it in his eyes while I watched. His need to kill
me outweighed any carnal desires in that moment, I saw. And Leslie was
still out there somewhere.

Those calculations whirred through his head while I lay there, waiting.
Then I saw him smile. Genuinely.

“Quinn!”

Jordan broke out of the brush of a sudden, crying out my name. In a
flash, Pruitt’s gun was up and firing at the man.

I saw Weeks’ body shudder. I saw it, and felt my heart stop.

Then I reached over, grabbed both of Pruitt’s legs, and shoved.

The man toppled right off the side of the cliff out of sight.

Chapter Twenty Two: Parting

In the back of my mind, I could tell people were moving around behind
me. Quinn and Jordan were getting into the tunnel, probably giving each
other strange looks. Mikey would probably move in after them, and Dr.
Carlisle had found a seat off to the side to catch his breath. Even
further back, there were gunshots, announcing the beginning of some
great battle out by the gate.

None of that could really pull my focus, though. My attention had found
itself locked onto the corpse of Lincoln Bates, while my hand felt
preternaturally aware of the handgun it gripped tightly within its
fingers. It had been like that for a few moments, ever since all the
adrenaline and worry from the situation had had a chance to wane and
leave me not entirely focused on survival.

I doubted that this was my first time killing a man. The pipe bombs I’d
thrown during the car chase had caused some pretty serious damage.
There’d been no way to be sure, though, no way to see the deed done.
Other than that, I didn’t have much experience fighting, well not in
life or death situations anyway. I’d only been out on runs a few times,
and we’d never had anything as crazy as a Roamer attack before. I’d only
ever shot a gun at targets, and even then, not much. There weren’t
enough guns to go around, and I never took to them like my brother.

Clearly, I still hadn’t taken to the things, given how my hands were
shaking. They’d been doing that when I’d shot Lincoln, too. I’d actually
been amazed that I’d hit him, even at such close range – three shots
right in the back. It seemed almost fitting to have done it that way
after what the man had done – tried to do. Still, I couldn’t help but
stare.

Mikey’s hand tapping my shoulder finally broke that stare, getting me to
lurch sharply to the side to tug away. “What?!”

“It’s ... uh ... it’s time to go,” Mikey stammered out, pointing back
toward the tunnel. As he did, he peered at me with obvious worry. “Are
you al–”

“Go ahead,” I directed, cutting the man off. Before I could say more
than that, though, I found myself in need of a deep breath to settle my
nerves. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Still giving me that unwelcome look of concern, Mikey nodded slowly.
“Alright,” was all he mumbled in response before turning to do as he was
told with clear reluctance.

Just glad to have the man’s attention off me, I focused on calming down
and getting my mind onto what came next. Dr. Carlisle had brought the
samples to me, meaning I needed to get ready to go on a trek. Toward
that end, I finally got my hand to loosen on the gun, dropping it onto
Lincoln’s corpse. From there, I went about gathering up some gear, like
a pack that I could shove the samples into and a knife.

“You going to be okay, my girl?” Dr. Carlisle asked as I knelt there
working. “You’re looking a little rattled.”

“I’ll be fine,” I insisted as I finished and straightened up with the
pack on my back. Once I looked at the doctor who was still trying to
recover from hurrying to catch up with us. “Will you, though?”

Smirking, Dr. Carlisle shrugged. “ I don’t have much time left, whether
the Roamers get me or my crappy old heart does.”

“I just wish you could come with us,” I replied, chest starting to hurt.
“In the capital there –”

“I’d never make it that far, and I’d hold you back the whole way,” Dr.
Carlisle interrupted as his smirk twisted into a wistful smile. “No ...
I’m fine just knowing that I saw the hope of our world off as safely as
I could, which means you need to ease up a little. You’ve been wound up
too tightly lately.”

Forcing a sad smile onto my face, I gave the doctor a slight nod. “I’ll
keep that in mind.”

The old man seemed relieved to hear me say that, but his relief proved
short lived. He had just enough time to open his mouth before new
gunshots, not from far off by the gate, but from the other side of the
tunnel cut through the air. They were presumably the sound of Quinn
engaging whoever lay on the other side. Instantly, my head jerked that
way in worry, but it quickly turned back to the man I was leaving
behind.

Still smiling, Dr. Carlisle nudged his head toward the tunnel. “Go on,
my girl. You’ve got more important things to worry about than me. The
whole world in fact.”

While I knew the old man was right, it didn’t make it any easier to turn
away. “Goodbye, Doc.”

“Goodbye, Leslie,” Dr. Carlisle parroted right back. “Stay safe out
there.”

With burning eyes, I finally turned away to enter the tunnel. It was
dark and cramped inside, but I was in a hurry, leaving me scurrying
along as quickly as I could. At the other end, the sound of gunfire was
lessening, the gaps between shots growing longer to indicate fewer
people left shooting.

By the time I got to the base of the exit, the final gunshot rang out
above. After that, there was just the eerie silence of a battle that had
passed by. It made me afraid to climb up, worrying that all that I would
find up there were the bodies of my friends and capture. Fear wasn’t
enough to keep me down there when I might be needed, though. I powered
through it, climbing up to the battlefield above.

As my head poked out, I got a view of exactly how well my friends had
done. That view proved my fears unfounded as Mikey stood nearby,
catching his breath after the tense action. Across the way, there were a
few bodies laid out on the ground. Strangely, I saw no sign of Quinn,
though, nor my brother.

Feeling a sudden surge of panic, I cast about in a desperate search only
to finally spot a sign of something, namely my brother running away from
me. I only caught a glimpse of him before he disappeared into the
treeline. While it was nice to see him alive, the running introduced a
different problem. He had to be running to something, and I still hadn’t
spotted Quinn, so I could guess who he was racing after.

“Leslie!” Mikey exclaimed as he finally saw me scrambling up out of the
tunnel. “What took you so long? I was starting to worry.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled absently, only barely catching the general idea of
what Mikey was saying.

As soon as that single word was out of my mouth, I burst forward,
breaking into an immediate run to chase after my brother. He was
undoubtedly after Quinn, to save her or help her or something, I didn’t
know. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure that I’d be needed, too.
Besides, I couldn’t just leave my brother and ... in danger.

“Les!” Mikey yelled as I took off, but I ignored it, figuring he could
follow or not at his own discretion. It didn’t matter which. He didn’t
need me.

As I crashed into the tree line, I huffed out a curse under my breath.
Womanhood was not well designed for running nor were their clothes.
There was uncomfortable bouncing and constant snags from sticks and
shrubs tugging at my attire. Both I just had to power through, chasing
after where I hoped my brother had gone.

As time passed, I started to get more and more worried that I was going
the wrong way. I hadn’t caught sight of my brother, and this chase was
lasting a while. I even started to consider whether it would be best to
just turn back.

The crack of a gunshot cut through the air from up ahead, proving that I
was on the right course. However, that dreadful sound actually had me
trotting to a halt as true terror gripped my chest. That terror only
grew when, a moment later, the gunshot was followed by the sound of a
man screaming.

That scream broke my momentary pause, sending me sprinting off once
again. It only took a few seconds for the woods to clear enough for me
to see two figures in an open area in front of me beneath a small rise.
One was clearly Quinn as it was too small to be a man. She was crouched
down next to the other one, a man, blubbering as she fussed over him.
That man had to be my brother – and he had to have been shot.

Driven to even faster speeds by that realization, I burst out from the
tree line and dashed across the remaining gap. A few dozen feet away, I
noticed something that slowed my stride. Jordan didn’t look that bad. In
fact, he was trying to ward Quinn off with his hands as tears ran down
her face.

“I’m alright!” Jordan insisted loudly. “It’s just flesh wound!”

“Then why are you bleeding so fucking much?!” Quinn retorted. “You
shouldn’t have followed me! You just ... just ...” Her words lost steam
as she went, seeming to drain the energy from her along the way. She
ended up just slumping there in obvious relief, tears sparkling in her
eyes. The injured man reached out to comfort her with a reassuring grip
on the shoulder.

Trotting to a stop, I coughed loudly to interrupt the moment, even as I
forced my gaze to the side. “Ahem! If someone’s hurt, maybe I should
help with that.”

“Oh!” Jordan gasped, only just now noticing me. “Hey, Leslie ... uh ...
yeah, it’s not that bad. I caught one in the leg.”

Beside him, Quinn immediately clammed up, clearly trying to compose
herself. She still managed to mutter, “Because you just charged blindly
right out here after me,” however.

Jordan smirked at the woman’s words. “What else could I do? I promised I
wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”

“Yeah, well ... next time be more careful,” Quinn retorted, sniffing
loudly and doing her best to not look like she had been quite so
worried. “You’re just lucky I had him distracted.”

Trying to ignore those two’s conversation, and in fact their presence
entirely, I walked over to kneel down, pull out a flashlight, and check
on Jordan. As far as I was concerned, he was just a leg at the moment,
one that had a pretty big bullet hole shot in it. Luckily, Jordan was
right in that it appeared to just be a flesh wound as it was situated
far to the left in the meat of his leg rather than center where the bone
and veins were.

With my initial assessment out of the way, I snagged the knife from my
belt, using it to cut away the pants enough so that I could work. Once
that was done, I could poke in and around, checking the hole, as well as
the exit wound on the back. Those proddings earned some winces and
hisses from Jordan, but I was quite happy with them.

“Looks like a pretty clean through shot,” I declared. “I should be able
to get you all patched up pretty quickly.”

“Alright, but hurry,” Jordan instructed. “We can’t stay here. Once that
battle ends, someone is going to come looking for us.”

Nodding, I hummed thoughtfully. “Hmm, well, you’re going to need a
crutch or something to walk with them.”

“I’ll find something,” Quinn offered far too quickly as she sprung to
her feet. Before I could even accept her offer, she was already off
toward the trees again.

Shrugging at the departing woman, I slipped off my pack to start looking
through it for something resembling medical supplies. “Alright then ...”

* * *

A heavy, brooding sigh escaped my lips as I looked down at my lap.
Sitting there was the small box that Dr. Carlisle had brought to me –
the box that contained the hope of the world. It wasn’t much, just a
simple plastic case that had been carefully packed to ensure the safety
of its contents for its journey to the capital, a journey that was
finally beginning.

Well, the trip would mostly begin tomorrow. With Jordan injured and
night already well under way, we hadn’t gotten far before our stamina
flagged and we’d stopped. It was just far enough for us to feel safe
from any pursuers that might come in the aftermath of the battle, a
battle that was far enough away that we couldn’t even hear it anymore.

In spite of the distance, I still felt that battle’s impact. It was what
had prompted the heavy sigh. Dr. Carlisle had been left behind, along
with the rest of the Brotherhood, friends so close that they were like
family to me. They’d been in a battle against a superior force, a battle
that I was pretty sure that they would lose. Afterwards, all those
family and friends would probably be dead. The habitat, the only home
I’d ever known, would be trashed and abandoned. So much destruction over
something that should’ve been so positive. It was such a waste – a huge,
cruel, terrible waste.

“You ever going to tell us what’s in that thing?” Quinn’s voice, the
voice of the only other person that was still awake, cut into my
melancholy.

Looking up from the box, I just gazed at Quinn blankly for a moment
before the question finally registered. “Oh ... uh ... I guess, I
should, huh. Not much reason for you to be mad about it now.”

“Mad about it?” Quinn queried, furrowing her brow at that phrase. “Why
would I be mad?”

“Because, you and J.D. ordered me to leave it in the ruins,” I hinted,
not quite wanting to just admit to what I’d done.

Unsurprisingly, Quinn was sharp enough to figure it out almost
immediately. When she did, her eyes widened. “You took samples of what
did this.”

That wasn’t a question, but I still nodded in confirmation. “Yep, two
vials from that box we opened.” I tapped a finger on the case on my lap.
“That’s what’s in here.”

“Well, that explains why you didn’t want to leave it,” Quinn noted,
giving the box a thoughtful look. “What are you going to do with it,
though?”

“Take it to the capital,” I answered. “There, they should be able to
figure it out, fix the slow demise of our world.”

My plan brought a scowl to Quinn’s face. “I’m not sure that’s going to
go like you think it will.”

I shrugged listlessly. “Could it really go any worse than returning to
Wendover did?”

The other woman’s scowl only darkened at my question. She knew what sort
of ruin lay behind us. She had lost people she cared about, a home that
she had fought and bled for, just like I had.

“We’re harbingers, Quinn. I don’t know if it’s of hope or doom, but the
message is coming regardless,” I continued when she didn’t speak. “I
want to do everything I can to try to make it the former.”

Surprisingly, Quinn didn’t try to argue or sway my course. She just
nodded in apparent acceptance of the plan. Maybe, having seen her own
allies turn on her, she now realized that there was no other way.

“How about you? What do you plan to do?” I asked, wanting to move past
my fears of the trouble my sheer existence might continue to cause.

“I don’t know,” Quinn responded with a shake of her head. “I guess I’ll
be helping you get there. I’d worry about you otherwise. Besides, Jordan
would never let you just go off on your own, and ...”

A sudden awkward moment sprang up between us as the topic drifted toward
something else. Color invaded Quinn’s cheeks, tinging them pink right
before we both looked away. I had no idea where Quinn’s gaze went, but
mine dropped back to my lap and the box. The trampling of what had once
been a perfectly comfortable relationship was just one of the many ruins
the stuff inside had wrought.

“Leslie ... “ Quinn began uncertainly. “Jordan and I are–”

“Can we not talk about this?” I interrupted. I meant it to sound like a
neutral request, but the words came out strained and a bit desperate.

Frowning, Quinn shook her head forcefully. “No, we can’t keep putting
this off, Leslie. I know it’s ... different, but after what happened to
me it just makes sense for the two of us–”

“No, it doesn’t,” I cut in again, my voice starting out soft but growing
louder. “None of this makes sense. It’s still you in there. Isn’t it?
And Jordan is still Jordan. Why would you ...” I couldn’t finish,
couldn’t get myself to put their strange relationship to words.

Quinn didn’t seem to have a good answer to that, shrugging helplessly at
me. “I don’t know, Les. It just ... happened. We were always close ...”

“But you’re practically brothers!” I blurted, finally jerking my gaze
up. The momentary fire quickly faded, though, leaving behind an empty
uncertainty. “At least, I thought of you that way.”

Quinn smiled wanly. “And I always kind of thought of you like a little
brother, but, I can’t claim to be anyone’s brother anymore.” She sighed.
“That changes things.”

“Why? Is a sister really so different?” I demanded, not seeing the
reasoning.

“Well, it’s been awhile since I had one, but yeah, it’s different,”
Quinn told me, adopting a sort of wistful look. “I still plan to look
out for you, but with Jordan ...” She looked away briefly before coming
back. “Well, I don’t think brother and sister is quite how we feel about
each other. We didn’t always feel exactly like brothers before either.”

Feeling defeated, I let my head drop down, so that it was hanging there.
As I did, a weary sigh slipped from my lips. “That’s going to be
awkward.”

Quinn actually chuckled at that comment. “Of course it will be. Are you
going to be okay with it, though? Because I don’t think either of us is
going to be able to try this if it’s going to cause trouble for you.”

There it was, an opening. She looked at me with a serious expression and
I knew that all I had to do was shake my head and say no, and it would
be over. It was tempting, but I knew it wouldn’t be fair, nor would it
really give me what I wanted. Whatever they felt for each other, it was
enough to keep things from going back to the way things were. Hell, just
our physical differences were enough to stop that.

“Yeah ... “ I found myself saying and nodding. “It’ll take some getting
used to, but ... I’ll be okay with it.”

“Thanks, Les,” she replied as her face lit up with one of the first
genuine smiles I think I had ever seen from her.

Epilogue Part 1: Another Tower

There were tears in my eyes the very first time I saw the view from atop
the Veridian Tower, the central highrise of Aurora proper. I had never
seen the landscape of Proteus from anywhere higher than a few dozen feet
before then, always scrabbling across the ground on scavenging runs and
missions between Wendover and ruins in the wastes. Seeing the gently
rolling hills and verdant fields that surrounded the city for miles and
miles out toward the horizon had been one of the most beautiful and
surreal experiences of my life. It was like a whole other world. It was
like seeing our dying planet with fresh eyes.

Even today, looking out again after a week living in one of the most
luxurious arrangement of quarters I could possibly imagine, it still
looked breathtakingly beautiful. I’d never considered myself the kind of
person to stop and take a look at the beauty in things, but it was so
very hard not to when that was literally all I could do as I stood up
there on that pristine balcony.

Aurora was a different place than Wendover. Living day to day and taking
one step closer to extinction with each had left little concern for
creature comforts among the Brotherhood. Survival had been the order of
the day, everyday. But the capital was different. Here, I looked down
from the central tower on immaculate paths winding between countless
domiciles and edifices, sprawling out in orderly fashion and swallowing
the Protean landscape in the synthetic construction of human progress.
Even though it had still been a dying world for the Aurorans like
everyone else, you wouldn’t know it by the homes they kept or the work
they did. Everything looked as busy and vibrant as if there was no end
in sight for these people. I don’t think they ever truly believed that
there was.

Leslie had been right. The Protean serum that caused our strange
transformation that day was something that should be studied and used to
find not only a cure to the Gynophage, but also resuscitate our
fledgeling civilization long ago resigned to its death bed. Aurora had
facilities -- I’d seen them. She had scientists and able bodies that’d
been working toward some sort of solution ever since the Gynophage first
occurred. Of course, they’d never had any hope of solving the problem of
all females on the planet being driven into extinction, even though
they’d apparently been trying their best at pursuing artificial means of
reproduction. No, they’d been just as doomed as the rest of us --
Wendover, Roamers, and all the others. But then Leslie and I arrived on
their doorstep.

It had taken us almost a year to make that long march from our lonely
corner of the continent down toward this last bastion of what our
civilization had been here in its center. The remains of the battleship
Aurora from the original colonial expedition’s escort had become a
central government for the colony those first few years before
everything had fallen apart. In the time since, many of the lesser
habitats in the area around them were assimilated for their workforce
and minds, what was left of the old leadership consolidating power,
intellect, and technology into this one, seductively utopian city. It
was an illusion, though. An illusion dying a slow, exhaustive death just
like the rest of us. One that we had breathed renewed life right back
into.

For that -- for the miracle that was Leslie and me -- the Aurorans had
taken us in and given us an honored place amongst their people. I owed
that tower view to them, of course, and the fateful quirk of being what
I was now. We were not, as far as I could tell, glorified prisoners this
time like we had been with Vigo, however. The two Protean serum samples
that Leslie had brought with us made all the difference this time. Those
Auroran scientists had everything they needed to analyze and reproduce
it, seeming optimistic in their progress towards doing so the last that
I’d heard. And the Auroran Council representative who was in charge of
our care here, Gregory Schulz, had spoken to me candidly and with
confidence about finding volunteers willing to undergo the change as
Leslie and I had. The man painted a vivid, idealistic picture of our
people’s future that was somehow very convincing whenever we talked.

I had my doubts, but I banished them from mind as I looked down towards
the edge of the cityscape then. The old engineers had constructed a
broad thoroughfare from the city center to the outskirts where much of
the foot traffic ran, and I could just make out the armed convoy of
precious vehicles and people leaving it now. An expedition out to make
the journey back northwest toward Wendover and those Protean ruins where
we’d originally found the serum. Where this whole thing had first begun.
They hoped to discover more of the samples that we had told them were
still there when we’d fled. I hoped they found more than just the ashes
of the Roamers and Brotherhood we’d left behind. So many of my Brothers’
faces flashed through my head, haunting me all the way south. It
would’ve been good to find some peace in discovering what had eventually
become of them during that last battle so long ago.

“I wish I could go with them.”

A voice at my elbow echoed my thoughts of a sudden, and I glanced over
to find Jordan standing there, staring down and out toward the edges of
the city as well. Like me, he was scrubbed clean in a way that had never
seemed possible outside Aurora before, dressed in clothes untarnished by
the wastes, sweat, and blood. Unlike me, he sounded very much like he
genuinely meant what he said -- wishing he could leave with that Auroran
convoy and head back north. Home.

I reached out and took his fingers in mine.

“You’re not leaving me alone with these people,” I told him, looking
back over my shoulder like there might actually be some of them around.
I smiled as I did it, though, and he smiled at me. His arm came up
behind my back, hugging me to him instead.

“Of course not,” he said, turning that smile out to the view beyond
again. “Not after all that work it took to get us this far.”

I tried not to think about all of that. Most of it had been unpleasant,
and a lot of it terrible. Escaping Wendover and the Roamers had felt
like the easy part. It had been a long year, roughing it across what
felt like the whole world just to get to this spot today. And now that
we were here, I was pretty okay with just letting everyone else try and
solve some of these problems for a while. I had my own to deal with now.

One of which, Jordan brought keenly back to mind when he finally tore
himself away from that astounding view to look down at me. His lips
found the crown of my head and his free hand found my stomach. And the
rather large, troublesome bulge there.

“How are you feeling today?” he asked. It was in that sickeningly sweet,
gentle way of his too. The way that had grown far, far too much on me
ever since this latest development had transpired. I didn’t look at him.

“Sore.”

“Your back?”

“Sure.” I nodded. “There too.”

Of course, at least the general queasiness and vomiting had stopped some
time ago. That’d been the worst of it, and had caused quite a scare at
first back on the road south. Leslie was the one to figure it out after
the effects didn’t kill me, thinking back to whatever her dad or Dr.
Carlisle had taught her about medicine and the human body. In this case,
the FEMALE human body. At the time, I’d gone through quite a few
episodes of shock, depression, and outright anger -- one incident of
which had involved me threatening quite convincingly to permanently
cripple Jordan’s ability to procreate ever again with my trusty combat
knife, stolen from those traitorous Brothers back when. Fortunately, for
him, I’d since grown to tolerate the situation. I mollified myself with
the fact that it had been ME, not him, to finally push for that first
grand act of consummation between us after months and months of getting
accustomed to and quite comfortable with our situation physically on the
road south from Wendover. I couldn’t say that the wish wasn’t in my mind
on more than one occasion for our positions to have been reversed, but I
resigned myself to try and endure it as optimistically as I could
regardless. Jordan had had few qualms himself, given time and proper
encouragement.

He squeezed me in closer until my breasts, which had grown
embarrassingly large over the past couple months, were squashed into him
and I let out a sigh. My arms wrapped around his back and he bent down
to kiss me on the corner of my neck. It wasn’t so unwelcome as it had
been what felt like a lifetime ago now.

Of course, the Aurorans had been astounded and then unnaturally excited
over my apparent pregnancy. I’d had to endure all sorts of tests and
uncomfortable procedures from their resident doctors and scientists,
being not only one of the first women on the planet in two decades but
also the first PREGNANT one. I’d tried my best to suffer it all
stoically, although, it had sorely tried my patience more than maybe
anything else in my entire life. The situation wasn’t ideal from my
perspective -- not even close -- but I could recognize the significance
of it, forgetting for a moment that it was me who had to suffer through
it all. I knew people were going to have to make that same sacrifice if
we were ever going to survive and thrive, I had just kind of hoped that
group wouldn’t ever somehow include ME. But that’d always been a vain
hope from the start.

Jordan had done his best to treat me well in the aftermath. Ever since
we’d discovered that inconvenient truth, he’d been going so much more
out of his way to make sure I was as comfortable and taken care of as he
could possibly manage. It was, again, sickeningly sweet, and I felt
mortified at that sort of attention -- that I would need it, want it,
even start to look forward to it. I’d loved him as a friend and
something almost like a brother before, so it was intolerable to feel so
weak and dependent as I was now. Especially with this ... THING, growing
inside me. It was just good that he never made me feel any worse about
it than I already did myself. No, quite the opposite. Sometimes, he
actually made me feel like I could survive it. Survive THIS.

And one of those times was right now, when he whispered in my ear.

“I love you.”

That skipped right over me for a second before it sunk in. When it did,
I pushed him back away so I could look him in the eye.

“You don’t even know what that means.”

He and I had both been kids when the Gynophage had claimed its last
female victim. Little kids. Kids too young to understand what had
brought their parents together and kept them together, right up until
that moment the Phage tore it all away from us. Too young to understand
what something like “love” might be or mean to mature, rational a--

His lips pressed into mine hard. Hard enough to push all other thoughts
from mind as he kissed me and kissed me and kissed me. And ...

“--What?”

I blinked back to self-awareness, stumbling a step at the space that had
opened back up slightly between us once more. He was grinning at me.

“I think I can guess what it means,” he said, those brown eyes so big
and soft that they threatened to swallow me up as I stared into them.
“And I think I love you, Quinn.”

I felt a pang in the center of my chest as he said it a second time. It
hurt, but not in a way that was unpleasant. It hurt like desperation.
Like something fleeting that would get away from me if I didn’t reach
right out and seize it before it could, and hold on with all my might.

So I did.

“I think I love you too.”

Whether or not I knew what it meant, it was enough. I felt for him, and
he felt for me. I suppose that was all that mattered. I’d made a choice
and I didn’t see that changing anytime soon. And, with the way he was
looking at me now -- and did, so often -- I didn’t see him wanting to
change any of it either.

So I kissed him back hard, and meaningfully, on his mouth. And, while I
did, I tried not to think too much about the future beyond him being in
it, as the best and closest friend that I had or probably ever would
have. I figured that would be enough.

“Why don’t you go get Leslie,” I told him, pulling back with another
warm, genuine smile. “I bet she’ll want to see them leave.”

“Yeah, especially because she wanted to go so badly.”

I just kept smiling after him as he kissed me one last time and left.

Epilogue Part 2: Period

A heavy sigh slipped from my lips as I slouched back against the couch
in my living room. It was a comfy couch, in a comfy room, in a comfy
city. The decades without hope were gone, replaced by a scientific
fervor to understand and replicate the samples that Jordan, Quinn,
Mikey, and I had finally brought to the capital. There were even plans
to test it on other people soon, plus an expedition that was headed to
the ruin where it was found. Truly, I had no reason to be sad – no
reason except one.

Out in my little corner of nowhere, I was considered a scientist. I was
the one people came to when they needed something odd figured out, or
something tricky repaired. In Aurora, though, I was an idiot bumpkin.
The real scientists they had here had little use for me outside of being
a subject of study. There’d been a little for me to do early on, but
that time was past.

So with nothing useful to do, I’d tried to go along on the expedition to
the Protean ruins. It made sense for someone to go, and Quinn was ...
otherwise occupied, and Jordan too unsettlingly attached to staying by
her side. That left only Mikey and me as options, but in spite of my
relative uselessness, the scientists weren’t quite willing to let one of
their only subjects leave, and Mikey had refused them when they’d asked.
That left me lounging in the capital with very little to do to fill my
time besides study just how much I didn’t know.

Sighing again, I forced myself to sit up and look at the table in front
of me. Scattered there were all sorts of books on topics from chemistry
to biology to medicine – all things that I would need to learn to be a
real doctor instead of some hastily trained field medic. It was a
daunting pile of knowledge to tackle, but that was what it was going to
take to make something of myself in a place like Aurora. The question
was, which book to start with.

A knock on the door spared me from having to make that decision, but it
presented me with a different one. Should I answer the door? The most
likely visitors were my brother and Quinn. They usually went places
together these days and watching my brother dote upon the unfortunately
burdened woman was awkward to say the least. Still, not as awkward as it
had been when I’d first figured out what that burden was, and the kind
of things the two of them had to have done to make that a reality.

The sound of a second knock got me to stand up with an exasperated
groan. As uncomfortable as they often made me, I did still care about
Quinn and my brother a lot, so bad mood or not, I would sit through
another bout of their relationship. I didn’t hurry to make that a
reality, though, trudging across the room to pull open the door.

To my surprise, it wasn’t Quinn or Jordan at the door, nor any
scientists or other Auroran officials. It was Mikey, the fourth of our
little group, who stood out in the hall. He’d been sort of the odd man
out, at least at first. As my brother and Quinn grew increasingly ...
close, though, I’d found myself talking to him more than either of them.
Of course, there had been other frustrations with that, namely the man’s
love of jokes and pranks which turned many of our conversations into
insult wars. Plus, I still hadn’t forgiven him for the time one of his
stupid pranks had ruined my baseball cap, although, forcing him to shave
his head clean in penance had gone a long way on that. He’d looked
pretty stupid with his head bare, bright red, and peeling from sunburn.

“Hey there,” Mikey greeted with a smile.

“Hey, Mikey ... “ I mumbled back, furrowing my brow at the man. “What
brings you by?”

“Well, I ... uhm ... had something I’ve been wanting to talk to you
about for a while now,” Mikey began, sounding oddly nervous. “I figured
since you we’re all kinda settled now, what with the samples delivered
and none of us going on the expedition, you might have time for it now.”

While the reminder of how little I had to do wasn’t welcome, I had no
issue with talking to Mikey. I was a little confused by his logic,
though. Over the last year, we’d had all sorts of downtime just walking
or sitting around a campfire when we could’ve talked. Maybe it was
something we couldn’t do until the trip to the capital was at an end.

“Is there somewhere new you wanted to go?” I guessed, trying to figure
it out.

“Sort of ... yeah,” Mikey hedged, clearly not wanting to relinquish his
secret so easily.

That answer, and the prospect of some new adventure it hinted at, was
enough to excite me. With Quinn and my brother preoccupied with each
other, there wasn’t anyone I would rather go off with than Mikey. He was
a great guy to have around, funny, dependable, and good with a rifle.
Over the last year, he’d always been there to watch my back – except
when he was being ‘funny’.

“Alright, then come on in and tell me about it,” I instructed, stepping
back to let the man through the door.

“Thanks,” Mikey mumbled as he stepped past me. He only made it a couple
of steps before he stopped to just stand there and rub a hand through
his hair.

Figuring it must be some adventure to have Mikey this nervous to ask, I
decided to press a little as I closed the door and turned around. “So,
what is it? Maybe a trip south? I’ve always wondered what it was like
down there.”

“No ... uh ... that’s not ...” Mikey stammered, keeping his back to me.

Given nothing to go on, I leaned around the man to look him in the eye.
“Well what is it then? Some new ruin you’ve heard about or a weird
module out there?”

This time, I didn’t even get the stammered words. Mikey’s gaze just
locked on my own, with his eyes wide and unblinking. It was a rather odd
sight to see, like some kind of startled animal that was too afraid to
move.

“Mikey?” I questioned, furrowing my brow again.

His name seemed to snap the man from his stupor, finally getting him to
blink. “Well ... I ... uhh ...”

“Are you going to tell me what this about or not?” I queried, beginning
to grow frustrated with the lack of information.

Again, Mikey seemed to freeze up, but this time, it was only for a
moment. The next thing I knew, he was moving forward, bringing his head
toward mine. Surprised, I tried to tilt my head back, but he just
followed right along. Then suddenly, his lips were on mine.

For one brief instant, I was frozen by that touch. It was almost totally
alien to me. I’d seen such things, especially with the way Quinn and
Jordan had been acting recently. However, I couldn’t remember ever
having done something like that with someone, but I was now.

The next second, my shock broke, and my body reacted. A step back was
joined by an outthrust hand to forcibly disrupt the kiss and knock Mikey
away from me. As soon as I had space, my other hand reeled back, curled
into a fist, then immediately shot forward. It cracked into Mikey’s jaw
with as much force as I could muster.

Caught completely unawares, Mikey didn’t even attempt a guard. He just
took the hit, his head snapping to the side. A moment later, he was
falling, toppling onto his side as a pained gasp burst from his mouth.

“Gah! Shit! What the hell, Les?!” Mikey growled from the ground as he
used one hand to push himself up a bit and the other to rub at his
aching jaw. That second hand pulled back a moment later to show the red
stain of blood from a split lip.

“That’s what I should be asking you!” I yelled back. “What were you
trying to do?!”

“Kiss you!” Mikey shot back as he shoved himself up to his knees. “You
know to show you that I ... uhm ...y’know ... like you ... like ...” He
struggled to find a word before giving up and going with, “ ... that.”

Hearing that declaration made me feel like I’d been the one that had
just been punched. All thought flew from my head as I reeled back from
the blow. The only other thing I could do was stare down at the fallen
man in shock for a few moments as he dabbed at his lip again and
scrambled back to his feet.

“Y-Y-You what?” I finally managed to stutter out once Mikey was up.

“I ... y’know ... like you,” Mikey repeated himself, looking down shyly.
“Like how your brother likes –”

“No fucking way! Not possible!” I denied not even wanting to hear that
comparison finished. “This is one your jokes isn’t it?! J-Just a prank!”
My denial was already losing steam by then, though, leaving me to
desperately add, “Right?”

Forcing his gaze up, a very earnest looking gaze at that, Mikey looked
me in the eye and shook his head. “No, Les. I’m being serious.”

“But ... how ... when ... why?” I rattled off, not comprehending what
had happened.

“I don’t know, a long time, and because of lots of reasons,” Mikey
answered my triplicate questions.

Still not wanting to believe, I latched onto that last answer. “Like
what?”

“Well ... you’re, uh, smart ... fun, easy to joke around with ...
passionate,” Mikey complimented, his eyes growing soft and longing.
“Just the way you cared for me after I got shot escaping from the
Roamers was enough.”

Once again, I was shocked into silence. The incident that he’d mentioned
had been over a year ago. I’d only been a woman for a few days at that
point. How could he have possibly felt that way already? How could he
have kept it to himself so long? How? How? How?

“If that punch was anything to go by, though,” Mikey continued with a
self-deprecating chuckle. “I guess you don’t feel the same way about
me.”

My mind, already awhirl with confusion, grew only more tumultuous as
that last statement was dumped on it. I hadn’t even considered how I
felt. What could I even feel? What would it even feel like if I ... felt
the same way as he did? What would it feel like if it didn’t? What?
What? What?

Finally, Mikey couldn’t take my befuddled stare any longer and his head
dipped down with embarrassment. I heard him mumble, “I should probably
go,” just before he started forward, moving to walk past me, and
presumably out of the room entirely. That would leave me there, alone,
having never responded, having done nothing but punch him for daring to
tell me how he felt.

Before the man could get past me, my arm lashed out, blocking his path.
Seeing that, he stopped, turning toward me with a look of confusion. As
he did, I turned as well, moving toward him all the while. When he
finished, he was going to want an answer, deserved an answer, but there
was only one that I could think of. It was one that I didn’t understand,
and was even a little scared about – enough so that I almost didn’t give
it. Yet, by the time we we had both finished our turns, I was in
position, and I didn’t pull back. I leaned in, and my lips met his.

In that first moment, Mikey was as shocked as I had been when he’d tried
that with me. When his surprise passed, his hands even rose up. They
didn’t move to push me away or punch me, however. Instead, they slid
around me, pulling me against him as he pressed more forcefully into the
kiss. For the briefest of instants, I felt the urge to pull away from
that embrace, but other, much stronger feelings, kept me receptive – no
eager to reciprocate. My own arms started to rise to–

Knock! Knock!

That simple sound turned the moment from thrill to terror. My wayward
hands inserted themselves in between Mikey and I, shoving him away just
like they had before with an involuntary jerk. That snapped the kiss and
embrace apart, allowing me to lurch back and gasp for breath as my
cheeks burned with embarrassment.

Panting was all I could do until a second series of knocks spurred me to
action. I spun to the side, taking the few quick steps I needed to get
back to the door. Once I did, I immediately opened it, trying to adopt a
pleasant smile as I spotted my brother waiting on the other side.

Something must have been wrong with my smile because Jordan gave me a
quizzical look. “Hey, Les ... you okay?”

“Of course,” I assured him hastily. “Never better.”

That confused expression didn’t lift from my brother’s face as he
nodded. “Alright. You busy?”

“No, just ... uh ... discussing something with Mikey,” I answered before
hurrying to add, ”But we’re finished. What do you need?”

“The expedition is leaving, and Quinn thought you might want to see it
off with us,” Jordan informed me before leaning into the room to look at
Mikey, “You should come join us too, Mike.”

“That sounds great,” I agreed immediately as I stepped forward, ushering
Jordan back toward his and Quinn’s rooms. “In fact, we should probably
get moving, so we don’t miss it. Come on, Mikey.”

My actions only increased his confusion, but Jordan didn’t fight me.
Mikey proved obedient as well, following me out into the hall, so that I
could close the door on both my apartment and the moment of insanity
that had gripped me there. With that done, we were off on the short trip
to the rooms that Quinn and Jordan shared where we found the woman
waiting on the balcony they had that overlooked the city.

As we all filtered out onto the balcony, Quinn turned around to greet
us, leaning back against the railing. “Hey, Les.”

“Hi Quinn. How are you ... uhm ... feeling today?” I asked, pointedly
keeping my gaze on the woman’s face and not letting it dip to her recent
... abdominal growth.

“Tired of getting asked that question,” Quinn complained lightly. “How
about you? Anything exciting to report?”

Instantly, I felt my cheeks heat up like twin furnaces as my head
twisted to the side in embarrassment. “N-Nope, nothing new.”

I imagined that Quinn gave me the same confused look as my brother had
in that moment, but I didn’t see it. I just hurried across the balcony
to the railing, so I could look down on the city below and the
expedition making its way through the streets. It was a beautiful sight,
but also an unpleasant one. Melancholy over being left behind fought
with my embarrassment over which emotion I should feel at the moment. In
the end, both felt worthy of a sigh.

“Sorry they wouldn’t let you go,” Quinn offered sympathetically.

I tried to shrug nonchalantly. “It’s alright. I’ve got studies to worry
about, and your ... condition to help monitor, since I certainly can’t
trust that to my brother.”

My word choice prompted a wince from Quinn, but Jordan was right there
with support, hugging the woman from behind. “She’s pregnant, Les, not
dying.”

Hearing that word sent a shudder down my spine. I knew that ... that
state was exactly the point of us bringing women back to the world, but
the thought of those two ... and .. that, still made me queasy. I never
thought Quinn and Jordan of all people would ... that thought just
trailed off into another shudder.

“Are you sure it’s not both?” Quinn asked rhetorically with a soft
chuckle tinged with some bitterness.

“I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” Jordan assured the woman
as he kissed the top of her head.

“Yeah, well ... you kind of already did,” Quinn retorted, but she didn’t
make any move to resist the affection.

Tilting myself away from the nauseating couple, I saw that Mikey had
moved up beside me on the railing. He wasn’t looking down at the city,
though. Instead, his gaze was on me and the two behind me. There was a
thoughtful expression on his face, tinged with a bit of nervousness. It
was a similar look to the one he’d had earlier.

Before the man could get any ideas, I tossed him an icy glare. That had
him jerking his gaze away to look out over the balcony, abandoning any
plans he might have been making at that moment. No matter what had
happened back in my apartment, I had no intentions of letting him cling
to me like Jordan did with Quinn, not now, not ever.

With Mikey turning away, my glare faded, leaving me just watching him.
Meanwhile, down below, the expedition travelled on, leaving the four of
us behind, but together. Somewhere during its departure, the man glanced
my way again and I gave him a little smile. Well ... maybe not ever was
a little too strong.

The End



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
69 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 87028 words long.