Chapter one maybe found here: The Curse of M
Lorna’s return to consciousness was a gradual, grudging thing, as though her body instinctively knew that she wouldn’t like what she found when she woke up.
She felt boneless, and more than a little floaty. It took her a moment to realize she was cruising a wave of very strong painkillers, and several more to remember why she’d need them. Damn.
At least she was warm now, and dry, lying on a somewhat uncomfortable bed. It smelled like a hospital, harsh disinfectant and floor wax, the air a little stale. How did she get here? Where was here?
Gingerly she opened her eyes, blinking as her vision swam. Above her were speckled ceiling tiles and an annoyingly harsh fluorescent light. Yep, hospital. Her mouth was cottony, her throat even more so, and she could feel a large patch of gauze on her forehead. A blood-pressure cuff banded snug around her left arm, and there was something plastic attached to the index finger of her right hand.
“You’re either made of iron, very lucky, or both.”
She blinked, and managed to turn her head. A tall woman in pale blue medical scrubs stood in the doorway — she was maybe Lorna’s age, her fair hair pulled back in a ponytail. “What?” Lorna asked, or tried to; all her dry throat could produce was a rasp.
The nurse filled a paper cup with water, and eased the bed up so she could actually drink it. “You went right through the windshield of your car. You were unconscious a full two days before you got here.”
The water hit her tongue like a blessing, cool and soothing all the way down to her stomach. Something about that statement didn’t make sense, but her fuzzy brain couldn’t immediately work out what. She’d been running from the Men in Grey, she’d wrecked her van —
“Shit,” she whispered. “There was a man with me, in the wreck. Is he okay?”
The nurse’s face went blank for a moment, and Lorna could actually see her trying to line up all those syllables into coherent speech. “He’s here, too,” she said, after a moment. “He was in pretty bad shape, but he’ll recover.”
“Where is here?” The surroundings screamed ‘hospital’, but the nurse’s mind said ‘Institute’. Where had the two days between the accident and now gone? Why hadn’t she been in hospital the whole time?
“You’re somewhere safe.”
Well, that was a non-answer if she’d ever heard one. It didn’t help that the woman’s thoughts didn’t match her words — her mouth said safety, but her mind didn’t agree. She was deeply uneasy, and again there was that word, ‘Institute’. There was nothing at all happy about it.
“Can I use the toilet?” Lorna asked. She had no idea what else to say, and she really did need to wee.
“Of course.” The nurse sounded almost relieved. “Let me get you unhooked.”
Lorna’s vision wavered when she sat up, and she had to shut her eyes while she was disentangled from what seemed like far too much plastic tubing. Balance was even harder to find; for a moment she had to lean against the bed, the tile floor cold beneath her bare feet. For the first time, she registered what she was wearing — soft grey trousers like pajama pants, far too long for her, and a grey T-shirt that was equally huge. It felt unsettlingly like a prison uniform.
Her stumbling walk to the bathroom would have been embarrassing if she hadn’t been too drugged to care. It was like hospital bathrooms everywhere, dull and impersonal and smelling even more harshly of disinfectant. She fetched up against the counter, leaning on it heavily while her equilibrium fought to restore itself again.
Unsurprisingly, the reflection she confronted was horrible. There was in fact a large white square of gauze stuck to her forehead; it had a number of scrapes and bruises to keep it company, and she’d chipped her left eye tooth. Her normally olive complexion was ashy, her upper lip split and swollen, her hair a wild tangle of black and grey. She looked…well, like she’d gone flying through a windscreen. You’re lucky you didn’t break your bloody neck, she thought muzzily. She realized, dimly, that all of this was going to hurt like an absolute bastard later, but for now the happy, floaty feeling kept her numb in body as well as mind.
Just imagine if Mairead could see you now. You’d never hear the end of it. She’d looked just as bad after the wreck that had led to her first meeting her half-sister, though at least this time she didn’t have a broken leg. Small mercies.
She couldn’t slam the lid on that thought quite fast enough. Grief welled up around the edges, and spread like dark water through her mind. I’m sorry, Mairead. I’m sorry I ran, but you’d’ve just suffered with me. Her sister wouldn’t have thrown her out for being Cursed — of that, Lorna was entirely certain — but the government had been pondering martial law by the time she’d recovered from the fever. She’d had to get out while she still could, but what this must be doing to Mairead…
Guilt stabbed at her, and she shut her eyes, hard. Lorna owed Mairead everything she had, everything she’d become — Mairead, and Gran, and Big Jamie, and all of Baile, tiny as it was. It was home, and if she wasn’t careful, the pain of leaving it might swamp her entirely. She wanted to go back — wanted it so badly she could literally taste it — but that could never happen. Not unless she killed her Curse, and if anyone knew how to do that, it wasn’t her.
Jesus fuck, I am so sorry. No. No, not now. There was no time for the burn in her eyes, or the lump in her throat; at least the morphine dulled the edge that would otherwise have cut her to the heart.
Wanting things is stupid, Lorna. You won’t get them, so don’t waste your time. That voice was older, colder, but still very much hers, and she hated it. “Oh, fuck off,” she hissed. Rallying herself wasn’t easy, especially given her mental glue, but she had to do it, so she did it.
Her business was more or less easily taken care of, and after she’d washed her hands, she sucked down several more cups of water. It cleared some of the glue from her mouth, if not her mind. This whole situation was a lot more fucked than it appeared on the surface, but her brain was still riding too steep on morphine for her to work out why.
The nurse rapped on the door. “You okay in there?”
Lorna cleared her throat. “Yeah. Out in a second.” A bit steadier on her feet, she actually managed to walk a straight line on her way out. Suck it, field sobriety test.
“I brought you a hairbrush,” the nurse said, surprisingly kindly. “Let’s get that taken care of, and then do you think you could handle eating in the cafeteria?”
Lorna didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she thought that was a terrible idea. Somebody’s making her ask that, she realized, and a vague tendril of unease pierced the opiate-fog. The thought of food was vaguely nauseating, but if she could get out of this room, she might be able to figure out just where the hell she actually was.
“Sure,” she said, hauling herself back up onto the bed. “Can I see my friend, too?” She was ashamed, now, that she didn’t know his name.
The nurse frowned. “Maybe later. He’s asleep now, anyway.”
Somehow, that did not fill Lorna with confidence. Something else she needed to investigate, if she could…once it no longer felt like the top of her skull was about to sail away if she moved wrong. Great.
Her fingers were still too stiff and clumsy to undo her long braid herself — the nurse had to help her, as if she were a child. At least she could handle the brush on her own, and she did, using the action to mask her attempts to actively read the nurse’s mind. It was, of course, worse than useless — she’d never been able to control her telepathy at the best of times, and her drug-addled brain really wasn’t in any condition to even try.
— too soon, she shouldn’t be up yet —
A jumble of images were all that accompanied the thought: bland hallways, flat, featureless scrubland, and uniformed men who looked suspiciously like prison guards. Well, hell. It was so at odds with the pleasant, hazy warmth that suffused her that the dissonance was almost too much.
Stop it, she scolded herself. Yes, her situation probably sucked more than she was yet aware of, but she was never going to get out of here with that attitude.
Her balance was steadier when she stood again, and she fought to clear her head. Though her stomach roiled once more, she firmly tamped down her nausea — orders or not, the nurse wasn’t likely to let her out if she sicked up before she even reached the door.
Two men waited outside it: big, burly, expressionless men. Though they too wore hospital scrubs, their entire bearing shouted ‘prison guard’. Well, damn. Sometimes I hate being right.
The nurse frowned. “Is this really necessary?”
“Yes,” the guard on the right said flatly. Someone must have told him the circumstances of her capture. That wasn’t going to make her life any easier.
“‘S all right,” she said; she tried to enunciate, and probably failed. “Not like I could do much right now anyway.” Which was very true; right now she was every bit as innocuous as she looked. Nobody was going to feel threatened by a tiny woman who looked like she’d been tossed off a cliff.
Both guards looked at her so suspiciously that she almost laughed, but they said nothing. She noted that they consciously matched her slow gait, their posture tense as they watched her like a pair of hawks, and she fought a grimace. Most definitely prison guards.
The hallway was as bland and nondescript as the recovery room: flat white walls, pale, speckled tile floor, and fluorescent ceiling lights that buzzed erratically. Whatever this place was, it looked like a hospital, and even her bleary mind was obscurely worried by that.
Her head spun a little, but she refused to let it slow her down — her own stint in prison had taught her never to show weakness to guards or fellow inmates, no matter how awful she felt. That was a great way to get shanked. So she stayed grimly silent, letting her captors’ thoughts flow through her mind in frustratingly incomplete waves.
Yet again there was that word, ‘Institute’. To the nurse it had been unsettling; the man on the right was indifferent, but the one on the left attached an almost sadistic glee to it. The glee was tempered, however, by the fact that he was unable to physically harm the — inmates? Well, that was an even worse sign. His mind only made Lorna feel more ill.
When they reached a window, she paused. It was covered in metal grillwork, and it looked out on a landscape as desolate as the one she’d seen in the nurse’s head: flat scrubland, tinted red by the light of a bloody sunset. There were no trees, or even other buildings — just a fence, chain-link topped with razor wire, and woven through with heavy cables she suspected were electrified.
The guard on the right nudged her. “Move it, lady,” he said, his tone obviously bored.
“Fuck off,” Lorna said automatically, as she approached the window. Oh hell, where are we? Was she even in the States anymore? The nurse and guards all had American accents, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. The sight of all that desolate nothing made her heart sink, even though her head still swum.
“I said move.” He made the very grave mistake of grabbing her shoulder, trying to drag her away.
If Lorna had been sober, she might not have done it — or at least, not done it so drastically. She drove her elbow into his ribcage as hard as she could — hard enough to actually drive him backward, his breath exhaling in a surprised whoosh. She rounded on him before he could recover, socking him in the jaw with all the force she could muster. His lip split where it mashed against his teeth, turning his pained grimace bloody.
He bellowed, trying to grab her hair even as the other guard caught her arm. That one took a foot to the groin, and ouch, that was a mistake — Lorna wasn’t nearly flexible enough to be trying to kick that high, and even through the painkillers she felt something strain at the back of her thigh. Oh, fuck absolutely everything…. If she could feel that while still so very doped, she was going to hate the entire world later.
Guard number two fell to his knees, but to give him credit, he didn’t drop entirely. He grabbed her ankle, but she used his grip as leverage to kick his face with her other foot. Barefoot, she didn’t do nearly as much damage as she could have otherwise, but it was enough to break his nose with an audible snap.
Guard number one, swearing like a sailor, managed to get her into a choke-hold — tight, but not strangling. He wore too much smelly aftershave, and the stink of it assailed Lorna’s sinuses like a solid force. It made her scowl as she gripped his arm, planted her feet on his thighs, and threw herself forward. It was sloppy, and she knew she’d hurt like a bastard later, but it worked — he fell with her, crashing headlong into the wall and losing his grip on her in the process.
She scrabbled away on all fours, wincing when her knees hit the tile, and took off like a fleeing drunk. Her stomach roiled again, and she almost lost all the water she’d just drank. She slammed into the wall herself, and only vaguely registered anything like actual pain as she used it to guide herself in something like a straight line.
Now what? Pure adrenaline propelled her forward, but she had no idea where she was going — she couldn’t have, not knowing where she was to begin with. What little of her mind remained her own was too focused on running to bother wondering about a destination, or what she would do when she got there. It was the running, however unsteady, that mattered. I just wish the floor would stop moving…
— goddamn bitch —
— just embarrassing —
— break her arm for that —
Well, shit. The hallway branched into a T ahead, and she staggered right, still using the wall for support. She’d rather not have her arms broken, thank you very much. I need a hostage. What she would do with one, or how to take one in the first place, were not answers her much-abused brain was willing to provide. Lacking that, she needed a hiding place, but no convenient closets appeared.
She could feel people ahead of her — a lot of people, a full-on crowd whose minds were a sea of nervousness. That was far from heartening, but maybe she could disappear into it. And maybe someone could tell her just what this place actually was, and where.
Her right leg almost gave out under her, but the distant, thudding gait of her pursuers spurred her on. She skidded at the next corner, stumbling so badly she actually ran into the opposite wall with a heavy thud. That, she thought dimly, is going to hurt like hell later. Oooops. In spite of everything, a giggle rose in her throat.
Somebody else caught her before she could actually collapse — two someones, a man and a woman who both wore inmate garb.
“Easy,” the man said, carefully steadying her. His accent was Scottish, though he looked East Indian. He seemed to be about her age, and he was incredibly tall — six-five at a guess. She couldn’t sort his thoughts out from the maelstrom, but his expression was kind enough.
“You look like you were hit by bus,” the woman said. Hers was an accent Lorna couldn’t place — Swedish? Norwegian? Something Scandinavian. She certainly looked Nordic enough: tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, with a face an angel would have envied. Her mind was distinguishable only because she wasn’t thinking in English; it was a truly fascinating garble that momentarily stole the entirety of Lorna’s attention.
“Close enough,” Lorna said. She shivered, and glanced around the corner. Creeping anxiety tinged her high in the most unwelcome way possible, and kicked her nausea up a notch. “Could we maybe move a bit? Only there’s some right pissed off people after me.”
The woman gave her the blank look she was all too familiar with, but the man, miracle of miracles, actually seemed to understand her.
“I’m not sure I want to know,” he said, guiding her further into the group. It was clustered around a pair of blue metal doors, waiting…well, a little like cattle, Lorna thought uneasily. Quite a few of them looked unnaturally placid, and she wondered if they were drugged. Maybe there’s more than enough to go around, she thought, and blinked hard.
“I want to know,” the woman said, giving Lorna a frank appraisal. It was almost creepy.
Lorna grimaced, casting another nervous glance behind her. She couldn’t see past the rest of the group, but it also meant her pursuers couldn’t see her. “I might’ve broken a couple noses,” she said. “And maybe a kneecap. I know they were after me — dunno why they’ve not caught me yet.”
Her companions exchanged a sober glance, which didn’t help the nerves that broke ever more strongly through the fog. “It’s possible they were told not to,” the man said. “The doctor who runs this place might want to see what you’ll do next. Sometimes he likes to give us enough metaphorical rope to hang ourselves.”
Before she could ask what the hell that meant, the doors opened. Watching the group move through them made the cattle analogy seem more apt, though there were a fair number of people who didn’t look doped to the eyeballs. Lorna herself felt her high ebbing, and she was already regretting it — the pain the drugs had kept at bay was creeping back, starting with her left shoulder. Because apparently this day wasn’t horrible enough already.
The room they entered was obviously a cafeteria. Long and wide, its walls were smooth grey concrete, unpainted and unadorned, with surprisingly large windows. The dying sunlight they let in stained everything golden-red, but it didn’t make the drab surroundings any prettier. The tables were long, unpainted steel, their benches probably attached and bolted to the floor. Christ, even the cafeteria in gaol hadn’t been this bland.
It hadn’t been this cold, either; Lorna shivered as she joined the queue that seemed to form automatically. Small though she was, cold normally didn’t bother her — Ireland wasn’t exactly the tropics, after all — but her clothes were thin and her feet were bare, and even the artificial warmth of opiates couldn’t combat it. She unbraided her hair, letting it fall heavy over her back and shoulders — not many people seemed to realize it, but long hair could be as good as a blanket against a chill. Sure, she probably looked like Cousin It with a face, but she was marginally warmer.
Her male companion eyed her, but no sooner had he opened his mouth than she cut him off.
“If you make some crack about the Addams Family, I swear I’ll kick you.”
The blonde woman choked on a laugh, and he held his hands up in a placating gesture.
“Good. Now that that’s out’v the way, I’m Lorna. I’d say I was pleased to meet you, but in this place I’d be a fucking liar.” And I’d be even more of one if I didn’t say I want some more… She’d got clean years ago, and had had Mairead keep hold of the hydrocodone she sometimes had to take for cramps. No, she didn’t think she’d abuse it, but better safe than sorry.
Heh. Safe. Sorry. She wasn’t safe, and she was sure she’d be really sorry sooner or later. Really, really sorry.
Again the woman gave her a blank stare, and she sighed. This was going to get old really fast.
Once again, though, the man didn’t miss a beat. “I’m Ratiri,” he said. “And likewise. This is Katje, who doesn’t always understand English.”
“That was English?” Katje muttered. “You could fool me. You look cold.” Without any warning, she wrapped her arm around Lorna’s shoulders, plastering her at her side. “And bony.”
Lorna stiffened. Even her family knew better than to touch her without warning, and she’d just been glomped on by a complete stranger. It took every ounce of willpower she had not to sock Katje in the face.
Ratiri groaned, and pried Katje away. “Ignore her. She has no sense of personal space. Or tact. Or modesty. It’s best to just think of her as a total savage.”
Katje made a wordless protest, but Lorna laughed. It was a shaky, nervous sound, but it also acted as something of a focus. It helped that her head was weirdly quiet in here; with this number of people, her mind ought to be a mess of foreign thoughts, but it just…wasn’t. Was it because so many of them were drugged, or because she was? She didn’t know, but she wasn’t going to question it. She had too many other questions to be getting on with.
Though the line moved slowly, they were close enough to the deli that she could smell food. Somehow, though she was still slightly nauseated, her stomach managed to growl, reminding her that it had been days since she’d actually eaten. Her misfiring nerves weren’t helping her nausea, either; though Ratiri and Katje both seemed to think she’d be left alone, she still expected her guards/victims to burst in, looking for vengeance. What kind of person would just leave her to a crowd, after something like that? This doctor — and she really didn’t like the feeling that either of her new friends attached to that word — had to be a right strange one.
She was quiet as they collected metal trays and plastic cutlery from one end of the buffet line, again letting the collective, alien thoughts wash through her mind. Sometimes, it was easier not to fight it, and she’d wished more than once that she knew how to meditate. Her bruised hands grabbed things automatically — lasagna that actually smelled good, a small, remarkably fresh salad, and a cup of apple juice. At least the food here might not be so bad, she thought — not that she planned to stick around long enough to get used to it. Out, away, and then…well, ‘then’ didn’t matter. Until she was out, there would be no ‘then.’
“Where are we?” she asked abruptly. They’d reached the end of the line, and Ratiri beckoned her to follow him to a far table.
“I don’t know,” he said, “and I’m not sure anyone else does, either, except the staff. My guess is either Alaska or northern Canada.”
“No one is awake when they come here,” Katje added. “I think that is on purpose.” She deposited her tray on the table, and sat in one enviously graceful movement. “Were you?”
Lorna shook her head, and winced. Maybe it was the cold, but the drugs were wearing off even faster, and all sorts of pain was making itself ever more insistently known. “I just woke up. Thought I was in a real hospital at first.”
“Oh, it’s a real hospital,” Ratiri said, as he sat beside her. “Of a sort. God knows they do enough tests.”
Lorna glanced around. Though there was conversation, it was muted, uneasy, people hunched over their trays. “They’re all Cursed, aren’t they?” she asked, though she thought she already knew the answer. “We’re all Cursed.”
Ratiri nodded, but neither he nor Katje said a thing.
That didn’t make sense. Well, it did — of course the Men in Grey would be stashing their captives somewhere — but…why were they all still here?
She ate a forkful of the lasagna, wincing when the sauce hit her split lip. It really was surprisingly good, though. “I know some’v them are drugged,” she said slowly, “so there’s not much chance they’d run, but what about everyone else? Are the staff like us? I’d think a big enough group’v Cursed could break their way out, guards or no.” Guards, electric fence, wasteland…atomic winter, she thought, and wondered why she did.
“There’s nowhere to run to,” Ratiri said quietly. “Not unless you wanted to die in the wilderness. So far as I can gather, the only way out is by air, and it would take an actual, coordinated uprising to do it. And not many here would dare try.”
Personally, Lorna didn’t think getting lost in the wilderness would be too bad — but then, she didn’t exactly have much experience with the great outdoors. Homelessness didn’t count. She didn’t buy the ‘too afraid’ excuse, either: there were some nasty Curses out there. In a group, just how many normal people could withstand them? Shit, fear of that idea was why they’d been hunted down in the first place. Sure, her telepathy was useless, but there were people who could walk through walls, could create fire — hell, she’d heard of a few Cursed who had caused earthquakes. Neither Ratiri nor Katje seemed like sheep, but they also seemed to dread the very word escape.
Some of her dubiousness must have shown on her face. “You have not met man who run this place yet,” Katje said. “He is…some of us think he is not human.”
Isn’t that melodramatic, Lorna thought sourly. If her two victims hadn’t come for her yet, they probably weren’t going to, and her fuzzy fear was joined by irritation — at this place, the cold, her mounting pain, and especially at herself, for getting caught in the first place. “Last I checked, aliens hadn’t landed when the Curses started. Is he one’v us?”
“He’s a telepath,” Ratiri said. “We can’t plan anything without him finding out. Some of us tried.”
Lorna twitched. A telepath? Another one? She hadn’t met another like herself, and she didn’t want to. Especially not one who could control himself. She’d read enough science fiction in prison to know that never ended well. “And what happened?”
“They disappear,” Katje said grimly, and popped a whole cherry tomato in her mouth.
Lorna looked at Ratiri. “Does she always sound this dramatic?”
“She’s practically turned it into an art form. She’s right, though. And, while I’ve only met the doctor once, I never want to do it again. He’s human, but he’s…wrong.” He shuddered, staring down at his food. “He didn’t ask questions. He just sifted through my mind, and I could feel him doing it. He might be Cursed, might be one of us, but to him we’re test subjects. Once he’s in your mind, he can control you. He just…takes you over.”
Well, that was more than a little alarming. Dammit. “So he what, plays Mengele with us? Fucking brilliant.” She should be scared. She was scared, but she was also sore, tired, annoyed, and once again nauseated. She shoved her tray away, pressing the heels of her hands to her temples. The drone of passing thoughts might be bearable now, but it was still…wearing.
Neither responded. They didn’t need to.
Ratiri raised his hand, but hesitated. “I can do something about your pain,” he said, a little awkwardly. “May I?”
Lorna looked at him more than a little askance. Sure, he seemed nice enough, but she’d just met him. Still, she was feeling steadily more awful. “How?”
He seemed to read her expression with disturbing ease. “I don’t need to touch you,” he said. “I just need to pick at your aura.”
My aura? she thought. Sounded a bit New Age, but at this point, she’d take what she could get. “Go for it,” she said, trying to mask her hesitancy.
Privately, she thought it looked a bit ridiculous, him picking at something she couldn’t see, but she couldn’t argue with the results. Both pain and nausea faded to tolerable levels, though her buzz unfortunately went with it. Still, she’d take the trade-off.
“Is that your Curse?” she asked. “Because if so, it’s a lot more’v a gift.”
For the first time, he smiled. “I’d say so too, if it hadn’t got me caught. Do you mind if I ask what yours is?”
She scowled. “Telepathy, and it’s fucking’ useless. I can’t shut it off, but I can’t control it, either. I just get snips and bits’v things from everyone around me. All it does is give me a headache.”
It took a moment, but Katje choked on a tomato — the first ungraceful thing Lorna had seen her do. “That,” she said, red-faced and wheezing, “is bad. Very bad. He will want to be seeing you.”
No need to ask who he was. Katje really did seem a bit of a melodramatic sort, though; whoever ran this place probably was an arsehole and a half, but Lorna wouldn’t put it past Katje to exaggerate. True, Ratiri seemed much calmer, and he was downright scared as well, but this was the twenty-first goddamn century, not bloody Auschwitz.
And if this doctor truly was some kind of monster, if he was so interested in her telepathy…well, Lorna could be extremely annoying if she wanted to. If she was too aggravating to deal with, he might just give up. More than once in her life, she’d been so annoying that people gave her what she wanted just so she’d go away.
The real thing she had to focus on was how to get out of here. It would probably take awhile to work out the logistics of a viable escape plan, but she didn’t buy the idea of it being impossible. She doubted the others would, either, if they weren’t so damn terrified.
She jumped when a loud clatter broke the quiet. Someone a table over had flung their dinner-tray, and she swung around to scan the room. Her gaze fell on a trio of young men — very young, in their early twenties at most. They must have just arrived, because they wore street clothes, rather than the prison-uniform: baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts, none of which looked like they’d seen the inside of a washing machine any time recently.
Something in her went cold when she saw the tattoo one sported on his neck. It was a Russian prison tattoo, a knife with an ornate handle, and it signified that he’d killed someone while in prison. One of her old cellmates had three skulls on the knuckles of her right hand — Tatiana, her name had been, a downright crazy Russian woman who had killed her cheating husband, his mistress, and the brother that tried to intervene. She’d explained the long and detailed history of Russian prison tattooing to Lorna, and had been baffled when Lorna didn’t want one herself. This was not going to end well.
“Why do you sit here?” he demanded. His English was very accented, though still intelligible. “I know what you are, what we are. Why are you cattle?”
Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lorna thought despairingly, not here. Not yet. She wished she could actually use her Curse to communicate with him, but no, of course not. God forbid it be of any use to her.
Nobody said anything, which seemed to serve only in pissing him off. “Pathetic. We are gods. They are — are ants. Why do you not walk out?”
He had the right attitude, at least. She could use his help, if he’d shut up and quit drawing attention to himself. “Nyet,” she said, wracking her brain for what Russian Tatiana had taught her. The woman had taken Lorna on as some bastardized combination of daughter and protégé, and Lorna had let her, because she didn’t want to get shanked. It had certainly been an education. “Podozhdite. Poka ne.” Wait. Not yet. God only knew what it sounded like, with her own heavy accent, but she had to try.
He turned his head, blinking at her. “Vy govorite po-russki?“
Okay, at least she knew that one. “Nemnogo.” A little. A very, very little, she thought. “My dolzhny pogovorit’ pozzhe.” She meant to say ‘we must talk later’, and she hoped she was close enough.
He rattled off something in Russian far too rapid for her to understand, and she shook her head. “Pozzhe,” she reiterated. Later. “Kogda my znayem bol’she.” When they knew more…if they knew more.
He actually paused, and she hoped she was getting through to him. Come on, kid, she willed. I can use you. All of you. Just don’t be a bunch of flipping gobshites.
That fragile hope was not to last. One of the others grabbed the table one-handed, and actually ripped the bolts out of the floor with a tearing screech. He lifted the entire thing over his head, and hurled it at the buffet line.
Even some of the more drugged-up inmates shrieked at that, trying to duck when the table crashed into the counter, shattering the glass sneeze-guard. The sound echoed off the high walls, nearly deafening after so much quiet.
Katje, wiser than she looked, dove under their table. Lorna knew that if she had any sense, she’d do the same, but she was close to despair.
“Nyet, you bloody moron!” she cried, even as her heart sank. “You’ll get us all put in lockdown. You know that word, right? Where we’re stuck like bugs in a goddamn bottle?”
He gave her a look of total incomprehension — but then, so did Ratiri, so it was likely a problem of her accent rather than his English proficiency. He shouted at her in Russian, and she shouted right back, in a bastard mix of English, Russian, and Irish. Some small part of her knew she wasn’t helping matters in the slightest, but logic had gone out the window. They’d obviously been in prison before — they had to know this was doomed to end badly.
Fortunately for Ratiri, she evaded his attempts to restrain her when she hauled herself off the bench. More than ever did she wish there was anything at all useful about her Curse — if she’d been able to properly use her damn telepathy, maybe she could actually convince them to just hang on a while. She couldn’t understand the idiot kid, and she highly doubted he understood her, but she couldn’t stop. She never had been able to, once her temper got going, no matter how disastrous the outcome.
“Will you give over and sit down, before you get us all locked up? You’re right, we need out, but for Christ’s sake your timing’s fucking’ awful. Just. Wait.“
With what little rational mind she had left, Lorna wondered where the guards were. They should have come running the moment the table flew — were they too stupid to head off a riot before it started, or were they waiting to see what happened? She hoped it was the former, because the latter idea was too ominous to contemplate.
He screamed something else unintelligible, and she stalked toward him, yelling right back. The man with the knife tattoo suddenly found himself being the only reasonable one when his other companion joined in.
The poor bastard grabbed both his friends, holding them back. “What even are your words?” he demanded.
She answered in broken Russian and fractured English, hoping he’d understand, and that no one else would. “You are right. We need to escape. But trying to cause a riot won’t work, and now all four of us stand out. Sit down, shut up, and wait until we have an actual goddamn opportunity. Christ, I know you’ve been in prison before,” she added in English. “You ought to know how this works.”
“What are you, a predatel’?” the man on his right sneered.
Predatel’. Traitor. Snitch. “Do I look like a goddamn snitch? Fuck you in the ear!” Lorna didn’t hit him, but it was a near thing. They’d blown it, and she knew it — all of them, herself included. They were going to wind up separated, and never be let near one another again.
He ducked his comrade’s arm and shoved her, and now she did punch him. It hurt like a bastard — apparently Ratiri’s aura-thing had a short half-life — but he rocked backward.
As if some unseen thread had snapped, what seemed like half the cafeteria weighed in. In reality it was only a few people, but that was more than enough.
Ratiri merely tried to restrain the man on the left, but Katje socked him right in the jaw. To Lorna’s surprise, it was a decent hit. Whatever else Katje was, she knew how to throw a punch.
Ratiri winced, pulling the man backward and pushing him out of the way with unfortunate mildness. He was not, Lorna swiftly realized, a fighter by nature, which wasn’t going to do him any favors now. He might be giant-sized, but anyone who had been in prison longer than a week knew how to spot the weak link, and he was it.
The man she’d first hit made a grab for her hair, and earned himself a forehead to the face. Pain exploded through her head, shockingly intense, enough to momentarily send her vision grey. She staggered, kicking him in the knee on sheer accident, and ran into a complete stranger — a middle-aged Hispanic man. He righted her balance with surprising gentleness, right before punching her attacker so hard he fell over backward. Hell, maybe we’ll get a riot after all.
The cafeteria doors slammed shut with an almost majestic thud, and the room abruptly fell silent and still. It had to — quite suddenly, Lorna found she couldn’t move, and it didn’t look like anyone else could, either. What in flying fuck? Stark terror flooded her veins, warring with her anger and what little was left of her high in such a way that she was almost sick again.
Someone was moving, though; a heavy, measured tread across the concrete floor. Lorna, who had been stuck in place facing away from the door, couldn’t see who or what it belonged to, which just made it worse — she hated having a threat at her back, and it made her shoulder blades itch. Something in her stomach quivered, but she couldn’t be sure if it was fear, nausea, or some horrible combo of the two.
“I am going to release you all. You will stay still, you will behave, and you will tell me exactly what is going on here.” It was a male voice, deep, mostly American, but with a slight shift she couldn’t identify.
In spite of everything, she almost wanted to snort. It was pretty damn obvious what was going on; either that was a rhetorical statement, or the questioner was a moron.
The strange, invisible lock that held her immobile abruptly vanished, and she wasn’t the only one who sucked in a deep breath of relief. She turned, and had to peer around the third Russian to see anything.
They were faced with an extremely tall man — Ratiri’s height at least — who regarded them like they were an exhibit at a zoo. He didn’t look much older than Lorna herself: late thirties or early forties at most, though there were threads of grey through his blond hair. While his height made him imposing, there was nothing in his appearance that could explain the level of gut-wrenching fear the sight of him inspired. If he was the doctor Ratiri and Katje had mentioned, she took it all back: there was something about him straight out of the Uncanny Valley. It took everything in her power not scarper, because nope. All aboard the Nope Train. It squeezed at her chest like a vice, like a band around her heart, and bile so far up her throat that she actually had to swallow it back.
His eyes raked the crowd, and they were the palest, coldest eyes she’d ever seen. She half expected them to glow red, like he was a bloody Terminator. “Well?”
No one spoke. Lorna doubted anyone was able to, but the silence was excruciating. It reminded her far too much of being called up before her old primary school’s bastard of a headmaster, which probably had a lot to do with what she did next.
“He started it,” she said, pointing at the bloody-faced, belligerent Russian kid. Technically his friend had, but Lorna actually halfway liked that one, so his mate could take the fall.
Those ungodly laser eyes fixated on her, and she wished she hadn’t spoken. One of his pale eyebrows arched. “Did he? Young man, step forward.”
The kid obviously didn’t want to, but someone behind him actually shoved him. He shot Lorna an extremely dirty look, which she returned full force.
The man stepped forward, giving the boy a thorough, downright chilling, and wholly unimpressed once-over. Despite her self-imposed lifelong training against showing weakness, she couldn’t help but shuffle away; she was stubborn, not suicidal.
“Strength,” the man/doctor/whoever said, flatly. “Dull. Dull, and more trouble than you are worth.” He reached out with a truly disturbing lack of expression, caught the boy’s throat, and squeezed. Somehow, with one hand, he snapped the kid’s neck like a pencil.
At this point in her life, it took a hell of a lot to genuinely horrify Lorna, but that was more than enough. Blind instinct made her rear backward, and she wasn’t the only one — as if some spell had been lifted, the crowd erupted into chaos, every damn one of them fleeing for whatever cover could be found.
Lorna herself practically dove under one of the tables, thwacking her head as she did so; if she hadn’t started out with a concussion, she probably had one now. Dark stars bloomed behind her eyes, and she only staved off actual unconsciousness by sheer force of will. Ratiri had mentioned telepathy, but he’d said nothing about that sort of strength, and even through the pain, she wondered if the bastard had multiple Curses. Jesus, is that even possible? If it was, she’d never heard of it.
The boy’s body hit the floor with a thud that was almost nauseating, and guilt joined the lump of leaden fear lodged in her gut. If she hadn’t said anything — but then, that terrifying man would surely have killed someone. Not that that knowledge helped: she was still the one who had chosen his victim.
The bastard turned, searching. He managed no more than that, though, because a moment later, every window on the eastern side of the room shattered. No, not shattered — they practically imploded, shards of safety glass filling the air like glittering hail.
Frigid air blasted in, momentarily knocking all the breath out of Lorna. Some wild part of her remembered the exploding streetlights, the drunken collapse of a roof that ought to have weathered the storm, and she realized with dawning horror that she was somehow the one doing this.
Stop it, she thought, but her mind was so besieged by panic that she couldn’t have done it, even if she’d known how. Not all the pain in her head came from hitting it. She clapped her hands over her ears, as if that would somehow do any good, and shivered from shock and revulsion as much as from the cold. Christ, this was like one long nightmare that only got worse.
The overhead lights exploded, one by one, and the western windows cracked into a crazed mosaic. At this rate she’d bring down the roof in no time, and then what? Just how much worse could this get?
It was the wrong thing to wonder. A hand grabbed Lorna’s hair, right at the crown of her head, and used it to drag her out of her hiding place. Of course she had to bash both knees on the bench as she went, adding two new sources of hurt — as if she didn’t already have enough. If she’d been in any shape, she’d have lashed out with her fists, but she was so disoriented and cold and ill that all she could do was stagger.
When she found her balance, more or less, she found herself faced with that terrifying doctor. She always felt short compared to most of the adult world, but he made her feel positively miniscule, and it didn’t help that he was looking at her with a dreadful, detached curiosity. Motherfucker.
At least he released her hair, leaving her to rub at her scalp with bruised fingers smeared with someone else’s blood. He was bleeding, too, she saw: something had cut his temple, and the wound bled as only head wounds could. If it bothered him, he gave no sign at all, which somehow made it worse.
“Stop that,” he ordered, almost casually, as if all the glass in the cafeteria wasn’t shattering around him.
Unfortunately, the western windows chose that moment to implode. Lorna instinctively tried to duck, but his hand shot out with unnerving speed and snatched her hair again.
“I can’t!” she cried — two words even her accent couldn’t mangle.
He tilted his head to one side, that horrible, clinical curiosity intensifying. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
She didn’t bother responding, because really, what could she say? Her every instinct was telling her to run, even if she had to let him tear out half her hair to do it.
He didn’t give her a chance. He touched her forehead with his other hand, and darkness sucked her down like quicksand.
The book itself can be found on Amazon; it’s enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, should anyone want to take a free look.