“It seems more likely that no one’s been able to get back into the city since the announcement,” Roman whispered back.
Don’t let your guard down, I thought, counting the floors we passed. Main garage, lobby, first floor…
Priyanka stepped up again, dealing with the keycard pad. There was a small window on the door that gave us a clear sight of the empty hallway. Roman pressed his finger to his lips and held his gun with his other hand as he slowly shouldered the door open.
My chest was burning, and my ragged breaths sounded louder in the complete and utter silence of the floor. A few scattered ceiling lights were on above the rows of gray cubicles. The lines of desks stretched from one end of the building to the other. I swept the phone’s camera around, capturing them, then shook my head at the others. Next floor.
The second floor was just as shadowed as the first had been, but the setup was entirely different. The stairwell opened to two long hallways: one that stretched straight ahead to a dead end at a covered window and another that ran to its right, cutting off abruptly at two heavy doors labeled QUARANTINE.
My tennis shoes let out a horrible squeak as we took to the one ahead of us. I stopped dead, bracing myself for someone to jump out from behind one of the doors. Priyanka glided forward like she was stepping across clouds. Roman shook his head as she reached for the handle of the nearest door, but she ignored him, pushing it open. I kept the phone recording.
An office. A desk, a crammed bookshelf, piles of papers, and an extra pair of high heels under the desk. We didn’t need to go any farther to know that the others would be exactly the same. All the electrical pulses I felt were identical. All of them were sparks compared to the roar of power that was coming from behind the heavy sliding doors at the end of the other hallway.
This time I led, and the others followed. The hallway seemed to darken at its edges as I moved toward the doors. My heart was beating so hard, so wild now, I couldn’t have spoken even if I’d needed to. I reached out and pressed the button on the wall, letting the doors hiss open.
But the second I released the button to move ahead, the doors slid shut again.
“They probably only open from this side,” Roman said.
“Only when I’m not here,” Priyanka whispered back. “Open sesame.”
Cold, sterile air swept past us, running its icy fingers along my cheeks and through my hair. I fought back a shudder as Roman went straight for the box of surgical masks posted on the wall, passing one to each of us. I held mine over my mouth, grateful to have something to ward off some of the chemical stench. Goose bumps trailed up over my arms and the back of my neck. This section was even darker than the others had been; only one light shone down from the ceiling as we passed the hospital-like rooms with their many machines. Priyanka slowed, peering in through one of the observation windows.
“What the hell is this place?” she whispered.
I had a horrible suspicion about what this place was originally used for years ago, back when IAAN first emerged and the world was convinced it was a contagious virus. This must have been where they kept the first few known cases.
Roman turned back toward the doors we’d come through, motioning for us to follow him. But just as I took a step forward, a faint strain of music reached my ears and I almost dropped the phone.
Not just music. The Rolling Stones. “Start Me Up.”
It traveled over the tile floor, across the smooth surfaces of the walls. The other end of the hallway had been so completely blanketed in darkness, we hadn’t even seen the way it intersected with another hall and turned right.
I went first, feeling like I was pulling one thread of myself loose with each step. Roman kept close beside me, his gun up and aiming.
The hallway ended at another pair of double doors, which were swinging slightly open and shut with the force of the air-conditioning blasting from above it. Blue scrubs. A surgical table. Large, wheezing machines.
Not here, I thought as I reached out and pushed one of the doors open. Please not here.
It was like something out of a nightmare.
A surgeon stood at the head of the operating table, waving the drill in his hand in time to the song’s beat like a conductor’s wand. A small figure stood on the other side, next to a tray of gleaming silver instruments. A third person sat behind a monitor, controlling the arm of some sort of scanner that was rotating overhead.
And on the table, her head shaved, her face like wax, was Ruby.
“Stop!” The word exploded out of me with a roar of power. The surgical light flared, shattering at the same moment the monitor did. The woman sitting there was thrown to the floor, knocking her head on the tile.
Roman shot the man before he could finish. The drill in his hand fell to the floor a second before his body did.
The other woman screamed, running for the shelves of supplies along the far left wall. They pulled forward easily. Too easily.
Priyanka ran after her, all but tackling her. As the woman fought her, kicking and twisting, Priyanka leaned behind the shelves to see what was there. “We’ve got a door—where the hell does this go?”
“It’s just—” the woman sputtered, sobbing in terror. “It’s just an emergency exit out to one of the streets—please, we were just doing our jobs!”
I didn’t see how Priyanka silenced her. I didn’t care. I turned off the phone’s camera and ran straight for the operating table.
Ruby’s shoulders were too thin under my hands. Her face was gaunt, still shadowed by a bruise on one cheek. She looked…
“Ruby?” I said. “Ruby, can you hear me?”
I searched for the IV drip, whatever drug they might have injected her with, but there was nothing. I grasped at her hand beneath the surgical blanket, my fingers feeling for her pulse. Faint. There.
I just wanted to save you. I just wanted to help.
Roman faded at the edge of my vision. The operating room took on a silky texture, brightening until it was completely blotted out with white. It felt like fainting, even though I could feel the ground steady beneath my feet. That same white light faded, and forms began to take shape from the darkness it left behind. A hallway, not unlike the other one on this floor, unfurled in front of me. I was moving down it, past the locked doors, past the small faces peering out at me through the observation windows, the small hands pressed against it.
I released my hold on Ruby with a gasp, but the memory didn’t fade. Not until I saw the number on the hallway’s wall, the way she’d seen it. LEVEL 3.
“—okay? Say something!” When the image of the hallway cleared, Roman’s worried face replaced it. All at once I felt the pressure of his fingers on my upper arms.
“What’s going on?” Priyanka asked. “What just happened?”
“There are more kids here,” I said. “They’re on the floor above us. Ruby wants me to get them.”
Priyanka looked between me and Ruby’s terrifyingly still face.
“I don’t have time to explain,” I said, taking her arm. “You have to come with me to get their doors open.”
“All right,” she said, putting a hand over mine. “I’m coming. Ro, are you going to be okay?”
He nodded. “I’ve got everything handled.”
I threw the phone to Roman, who caught it with his free hand. He looked like he wanted to protest, but there must have been something in my face that made him hold back. All I could feel was Ruby’s fear; all I could see was her still, frail form. “Text the others that we found her. And tell Max we’re going to need a bigger transport.”
Priyanka opened the quarantine doors from the inside, leading the charge down the hall to the stairs. My head still had that cottony feeling, like something had been placed inside of it that didn’t belong. Ruby hadn’t woken up, but she was in there. Somehow, she knew it was me. She’d heard me or se
We stopped outside the door leading into the third floor. Priyanka kept her back to it, trying to look through the small glass panel without being seen. Her whole posture stiffened. Without explaining, she stepped back so I could see for myself.
A security officer was sprawled across the hallway tile, a pool of blood beneath him.
I pulled back, looking to her with wide eyes. Maybe the others had already come through, or they’d crossed paths with him and he’d made it down this far. But there was no blood anywhere on the stairs. There was no blood beyond what was right there, soaking through his dark uniform. He’d fallen where he’d been hit.
Priyanka gave me a searching look, waiting for my cue. I peered through the window again. There was no one, and there was no time.
I opened the door slowly, one hand taking the gun from Priyanka as she offered it and the other turning the phone camera back on to record.
I covered her as she ran to the nearest door, then, when no one fired, followed her over. A child, one who looked to be about six, pressed his face against the glass, watching us both with wide eyes. My hand shook a little as I captured it on film, then turned to do the same with the others. The sight of the eight doors, and the kids behind them, sent a tremor through me.