My fists beat on the pod cover, but it wouldn’t budge. I scrabbled around the edges looking for a seam, an opening, controls, anything, but there was nothing.
All I could do was watch as Loree struggled, sputtered and sank in the clinging blue gel, her tiny fists hammering the inside of the cover, eyes huge with terror as her hair formed a dark auburn cloud around her.
She spasmed, her back arching in a spine-cracking curve.
“Get her out!”
But no one heard me. No one listened. I bashed at the cover, willing it to crack, to shatter. The stink of my own frantic sweat mixed with the harsh astringent that flooded the tiny room. No one was here. Nothing was around us. Only Loree drowning, dying.
Another convulsion and then the thrashing of her limbs stopped.
A shudder ran through her body and slowly she sank beneath the blue gel, her unseeing eyes fading away, accusing me.
My howls of rage woke me and I stared blankly at the early morning sun.
I jerked away from the low wall edging the roof where I’d sat down. I didn’t mean to fall asleep even if I was off-duty. Sleep wasn’t exactly restful these days.
Over the pounding of my heart in my ears, ocean waves crashed against the cliffs. The soft breeze brought the clean scent of salt water and vegetation.
But I could smell the gel.
I scrubbed my face, seeing Loree’s eyes fixed on me, feeling the smooth surface of the pod cover under my hands.
It didn’t happen that way, I reminded myself. She’s not dead.
But she might as well be. And that was killing me, too.
Suddenly my hackles raised, I whirled, surveying the empty Compound below.
Most of the remaining residents were cordoned in their dormitory building until we had a better way to determine who was still faithful to mad General Melchior and who had been simply trapped here by circumstance.
I sniffed the air. Nothing. No sound out of place, not a whisper or a creak.
But something was wrong. I knew it.
I hurried down the stairs from the roof and threaded my way through corridors until I emerged in the gaudy throne room we’d commandeered as our operations center.
Ronan cocked an eyebrow in my direction. “Thought I told you to take a shift off, kid. You were here all night.”
“Something’s wrong.” I stalked over to the monitors, watched the screens flip through the cams we’d placed all around the buildings, then paused the view when it splintered to display the inhabitants of the prison cells below.
Twenty-eight men, crammed into the five cells we’d found.
They should be fighting, playing cards, beating the shit out of each other, shouting at the walls. Weeks of confinement does that to humans. But instead each and every one of them sat, spine straight, gaze fixed ahead.
Waiting. But I didn’t know for what.
“They’re not Hunters,” I mused.
Quinn looked up from his commstation across the room. “Obviously. We’d figured that out without your brilliance.”
I ignored him as usual. “But there’s something wrong with them. Nadira or the Doc should come down, check them over more thoroughly.” I argued, dropping myself into one of the chairs at the table littered with tablets. “Maybe they’re brainwashed or something.”
“No.” Ronan glanced at me then away. He’d been acting weird the last few days, half-distracted. “They’ve got a patient they’re working with on Orem.”
“Doc,” I snorted. “Working with a patient. I’m sure that’s going well. Next you’ll tell me she’s going legit.”
“She helped me,” Valrea retorted, looking up from poring over screens of data. “Nadira says Doc’s done a lot of talented work, besides her more extravagant projects,” Valrea’s cheeks reddened as she glanced at Geir, who’d lately been unable to leave her side. “Not that I’m complaining about those, either.”
“And you’re not worried about her doing anything extravagant with Vicki?” Quinn asked.
“Nope, Granny Z is babysitting this week,” Valrea shrugged. “At least she’s had practice with toddlers.”
“Kid’s gonna have some strange career choices,” I muttered.
The screens weren’t telling me anything. “Any clues yet as to what Stanton took with him?”
Quinn shook his head. “We’ve been going over every file, looking for traces, but nothing clear yet.”
I’ve been helping! chirped the silver cube on the console next to him.
“Yes, Nixie. You’ve been very helpful,” Valrea soothed.
Good thing the AI wasn’t so great on body language yet. Eventually we’d have to stop rolling our eyes at it.
Zayda joined me at the table, shoved aside a stack of tablets as she dropped her face into her hands. “I was sure I’d be able to trace what he was doing, find breadcrumbs, something.” She raised her head, eyes dark with misery. “How could I have worked with him for so long and never suspected he was the enemy?”
Mack brushed her shoulder, and she leaned back into him. “We’ll find him, darlin’. And then we’ll kill him.”
The big pilot was certainly blunter than he had been. Of course, that was before he’d been captured and tortured by Stanton and the Hunters.
But I didn’t disagree with the sentiment. None of us did.
The answer lay with those silent prisoners. Cadre, Valrea had called them. The faithful soldiers of the General.
We didn’t know how many there had been. Their black masks concealed identities from friends and neighbors. Some had likely escaped when Geir blew the security dome and Stanton fled with his mystery package.
But more lurked around us like an unseen rot. My gut knew it even if evidence was scant right now.
“What if-” A thundering crash cut Valrea off, and we all leaped to attention at the barrage of blasts that followed.
“Get down!” Ronan roared as Mack and Geir sheltered their mates, but instead I tore out of the room, Quinn hard on my tail.
Whatever the Cadre had been waiting for had arrived.