The hospital is too busy. This is a stupid idea, a big mistake. It’s already too late and Berent is already here looking for us. He’s gonna-
“You still with us?” Zac gave her a lopsided grin when she looked up at him, startled out of her thoughts.
“Where do you think he is right now?” Meris felt like her forehead was going to become permanently furrowed from all the stress of this past week. There was a knot in her stomach as well that felt twice as big as it had yesterday.
Zac took a long moment before answering, letting his gaze wander over the interior of the Personnel Carrier Vehicle Wyll was flying them to the rendezvous point in. “He skipped out before we did, so he probably went to ground. If he knows we survived, which we don’t for sure he does, then there’s about a seventy-five percent chance he’s looking to silence us before we get to the Nexus Hub.”
Leo frowned. “Why only seventy-five?”
Zac looked at each of them. “If it were the other way around, what would your main concern be right now?”
Meris shrugged. “Keeping the truth from getting out.” Zac nodded, but didn’t continue, so she raised an eyebrow at him. “So…?”
He sighed. “The way I see it, there are only two ways to do that. And if he doesn’t wanna risk exposure by killing us, his only other option is to discredit us.”
Leo let out a low, whistling breath. “I never thought of that.”
She had to swallow before answering. “That’s… how do we stop him?”
Zac shook his head, scoffing. “The only thing we can do: beat him to the punch, literally or figuratively.”
“We’re going in now.” Wyll’s voice sounded unnaturally loud after their hushed conversation. “Everyone ready?”
The three exchanged looks. “As we’ll ever be,” Zac answered for them.
Meris slammed through the double doors into the hospital lobby, dirt, soot and blood smeared on her face. “Somebody help!” She ran up to the nurses station, here a group of four nurses and three doctors were gathered. “Please, my friends – there’s a fire!”
Without hesitation, they all sprang into action. One doctor came around and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Where? Are you injured?”
“In the woods, I don’t know, maybe quarter of a mile? We crashed. I got out okay, and I think my boyfriend did, too, but I don’t know about the others.” She gripped his lab coat as tight as she could in her fists. “I looked back and all I could see was smoke. Please help them.”
“All right, miss, just stay here.” He joined the other medical personnel at the doors.
One nurse gasped and pointed. “There, I see the smoke!”
As they rushed out, the second doctor called to the third. “Call the fire units, I’ll get the ambulances dispatched.”
Meris made a point to look miserable, scared and helpless – until they were out of sight. Then she quickly made a mental note of the two other people waiting in the lobby: an elder man and a young woman, both Sindrian. They were both looking at her with wide eyes. “I need, I need a drink…” She turned and wandered down the hallway, toward the surgical wing.
After she turned down the first intersecting hallway, she sent a buzz to Wyll: Seven on their way to you. Getting to M and A now.
Myranda glanced around the door frame and let out a sigh when she saw Meris. “Where’d you get all that?”
Meris opened the labcoat and touched the shrubs she’d borrowed, then held up streetcars she’d slipped off of the doctor. “Found the supply room.”
Myranda grinned. “Get in here.”
Meris followed her into Alazar’s room. The sight of him sent a sharp jolt through her stomach, but he smiled at her as well as he could. “Hey, Doc, can I go home now?”
“Anywhere but, I’m afraid.” She sent a buzz to Leo, letting him know they were in place. “We’ve got about five minutes, maximum.”
Myranda nodded and began shutting Alazar’s machines off. Meris took another rolled-up set of scrubs out of her pocket and sat them onto the bed. “I figured they trashed your clothes.”
“Thanks.” He sat up as carefully as he could, grunting with pain. Feeling the time crunch, Meris went over and pulled the blankets back for him, then ducked to help him put an arm around her shoulders. He hissed in a sharp breath as she stood him up, and Myranda eyed him with concern as she removed the monitor leads and IV.
With practiced efficiency, Myranda disposed of the biohazardous materials, stowed the machines and then picked up a touchpad out of a niche in the bed’s foot-board, typing something quickly. “Meris, let me see the keycard.”
Meris handed it over, then helped Alazar to a chair next to the bed. “Here,” she shook out the scrubs pants and knelt to dress him. She ignored the rush of pink that flushed both his and her faces as it became apparent that he was naked under the hospital gown and just got the pants and shirt on as quickly as possible.
The sound of a small craft approaching told her their time was up. “That’s Leo.”
Myranda opened the door and scanned the hallway. “It’s clear. Let’s go.”
Meris and Alazar followed her out into the hall, every step a challenge for the tall Sindrian man. He made no complaints, however, and the trio soon made it to the end of the corridor.
Myranda waved one hand back at them. “Wait here a second.” She disappeared into the intersecting corridor, then came back . “All clear. Let’s get out of here.”
Meris saw an empty wheelchair sitting idle in the corner of the hallway. “Wait a second.” She guided Alazar toward the wheelchair and helped him sit, glad not to have to support him the whole way. She was worried her much smaller stature would mean she would tire out too quickly before they could get him to the roof, as he could barely manage to bear his own weight.
He groaned a little, but sank back in evident relief as well. She pushed the wheelchair’s power switch and it juddered forward at her urging. She steered Alazar up the hallway as fast as she could without attracting the attention of anyone in the rooms they passed. They entered the lobby and veered toward the elevators along the wall furthest from the entrance, behind the nurses station.
Meris didn’t look up to see if the man and woman were still in the lobby, focusing on looking like a doctor transporting a patient. Myranda swiped the keycard in the reader next to the elevator panel, then pressed the “Up” button. The doors slid open a moment later and they entered quickly. Again, Myranda used the keycard to get authorization to access the roof level.
“You all worked this out pretty well.” Alazar sounded impressed.
Myranda smirked. “Glad you think so.”
“We’re sort of making it up as we go, actually.” Meris looked down at him. “We were so fixated on working out the crash, we sort of glossed over a few details of your…extraction.”
His eyebrows raised slightly. “Well done, then.”
She and Myranda chuckled lightly, feeling some of the tension ease off. The elevator doors slid open to reveal a short hallway that ended in a metal door. A key reader blinked red next to it. Myranda rushed forward and swiped the card.
She looked at them. “Um, let’s try that again.” She swiped the card again, quicker this time. Still the light blinked red at them. She growled in frustration, and swiped again.
Myranda glanced at her in irritation, but then tried it again, only much more slowly this time. A small click proceeded the light turning green. They all breathed a sigh of relief.
She threw open the door and the golden evening sunlight bouncing off the light-colored roof momentarily dazzled their eyes. The engines of the small transporter Leo piloted reverberated off the various structures dotting the roof. He waved to them impatiently.
Below, the sirens of a multitude of rescue vehicles rang out in a chorus, racing toward the staged crash site off into the woods on the opposite side of the hospital. Meris helped Myranda get Alazar out of the wheelchair and into the transporter, before climbing in themselves. They had no room for the wheelchair, so had to leave it behind, in the middle of helipad.
Once in safely, Leo took off, staying just at the height of the roofline until they were well away from the hospital. He took them across an open meadow and then dropped low as they approached a mag-lev track. Switching to mag-lev mode, the transporter slowed and began following the track of its own accord and Leo swiveled his chair to face the three of them.
“Glad to see you in one piece, Mr. Alazar.” Alazar was lying in the open space between rows of seats, with Meris and Myranda seated behind him. “More or less.”
“You, too, Leo. Where are Zac and Wyll?”
“On their way to the next rendezvous point.”
Myranda furrowed her brows. “Are they okay?”
“Right as rain, whatever that means. I got a buzz from Zac just before you all arrived on the roof.”
“How soon til we meet up?”
“Not until morning, I’m afraid, Mr. Alazar. We need to give you time to rest, to make sure you’re fit enough to go on camera first.”
Myranda nudged Alazar with her foot before he could protest. “Doctors orders, so don’t argue.”
He looked up at her. “Yes, ma’am.” He then winked at Meris, his eyes sparkling with amusement, despite the heavy bruising around them.
She smiled but looked away. Her stomach clenched up when he looked at her, just as it had when he had offered his condolences on the loss of her fiance as she and the others carried his bruised and broken body out of the Stell-Ore Security Compound.
She turned her attention to the Sindrian countryside through which they now traveled. Rolling green meadows stretched in all directions, dotted liberally with tiny blue flowers called swans-bonnets. She never understood why, the five-petaled blooms resembled neither a swan nor a bonnet. She figured the name was carried over from Earth, from as far back in antiquity as bonnets themselves were.
As a child, she had often made crowns of the lovely flowers, wearing them and proclaiming herself queen of the swans. That was many, many years ago, but she always somehow felt peaceful and safe when she saw the little blossoms.
Tonight, however, that feeling eluded her.