The temperature dropped a few degrees through the door, and even through her runners she could feel the change in the floor as it switched from linoleum to a rough patch of poured, cross-hatched concrete, and then to the smoother, older variant that occupied the rest of the halls. Up ahead, lights she hadn’t been able to reach during her earlier use of power cut across the end of the hall—bright, stark, and illuminating every subtle bow and dip in the floor for several meters before even their reflected backsplash petered out into the darkness. Standing between the light and the door behind her, she felt like a target silhouette until Nomiki pulled her close to the wall. A small clink sounded as her sister shifted her grip on the modified scissor blades she kept in her other hand. Then she went still, listening.
After a moment, Nomiki pulled her to the side and into an intersecting hallway that ran perpendicular to the stairwell.
She didn’t need to see to know where she was. Seventeen years of near-free-reign over the place gave her an unwavering schematic in her head. The basement—more of a half basement since it had high windows at ground height—had a blocky, squarish design. A single hallway ran through most of its circumference, ending only where it led into the big labs in the two back corners, and only three other halls wandered through its middle. One led to the sub-basement, another made an L-shape through the internal offices, and the third provided an emergency exit to a stair that ran up to ground level through the back of the building. The last five years had seen the majority of the labs and offices down here run into a slow abandonment. Most of the doctors and support staff had left. Some of the equipment, too—either sold for funding or returned to the company’s head branch. She and the other kids had watched some of it go.
Nomiki tried the first door, found it locked, and went to the second. The handle dipped under her hand. She opened it and guided Karin inside with a small push.
“Stay here,” she said. “I’m going to scout around.”
The door shut behind her.
Complete darkness fell around her. Somehow, the air was quieter in here. The rasp of her breath sounded loud to her ear. When she shifted her stance, she could hear the groan of her bones. For a few seconds, she stood still, listening to the possibly-imagined tread of her sister’s retreating footsteps.
Right. This hadn’t been in the plan. Nomiki must have a reason for it, though. She certainly had better instincts. Had something changed? Karin hadn’t seen or heard anything, but Nomiki…
Well, Nomiki was preternatural.
She made a slow turn, pondering her new location. Then, with a shrug no one saw, she called to the light inside of her and let rise to the surface of her hand. The room seeped into view around her, tinged with the dim gold-yellow over her hands. A hybrid of an office, a clinic, and a lab—albeit the lattermost in only the microscope and centrifuge sitting to the side of the desk—an examination bed sat on one side, complete with the crinkly paper she remembered from her earlier years, and an elongated corner desk took up the other side and a bit of the back wall. Pictures and folders scattered across the desktop, with a few more taped to a set of old wooden cupboards above it. The computer terminal in the middle provided a bookend for a series of multi-colored file folders and books. On the wall, a dated wall calendar showed a picture of palm trees leaning over a tropical beach. A thick layer of dust covered everything, including the papers on the desk.
Catching the light behind her so it would be visible to the door—one of the perks of being able to control it—she wandered closer, head bowing toward the papers. An old receipt, it looked like, billing from a laboratory supply company written in both French and English. Putting her fingers around the edge, she lifted the corner and pulled the page back.
Although they knew sort of where the lab was located, it would be nice if they had an exact location before they left.
But, just as she was lifting the second page, a soft scuff sounded outside the door.
She whirled—just in time for the guard outside to open the door.
Shit. She scrambled back with a yelp, smacking the joint of her thumb hard against the edge of the desk. She jerked her hand up at the pain, fingers forming a fist.
The guard jumped up at the movement, and his rifle almost came around.
As she’d guessed earlier, the guards were using nightvision—a pair of thin-lensed camera snouts protruded a helmet attachment that made the man look, at a glance, insectile with the way the rims caught the light—and were fully kitted up to match Nomiki. In addition to the rifle held in his hands, a shoulder harness carried two sidearms and a wicked-long blade hung in a black sheath from his belt. Extra armor layered over his normal uniform, protecting parts of his arms, abdomen, and legs.
He hadn’t pointed the gun at her. Yet.
“Oh my God,” she said, her voice faltering and breaking. “I’m sorry. I just–”
Just what? Couldn’t sleep? Got lost on the way to the bathroom? Was suddenly nosy about the office that had been abandoned for two years? The guards weren’t stupid. They knew all about her, and her ability was staring him right in the face.
And they also knew who her sister was.
Years later, when she was living on the other side of the gate, picking apart their escape, she would have guessed that that last thought had occurred to the guard at around the same time it had for her. He flinched, then jerked around–
A quick-step patter of footsteps from outside beat him to it.
Nomiki slammed him into the door frame, leaping up before he could bring the rifle to bear. Its muzzle scraped hard against the door’s cheap wood, making it stagger back hard enough that the doorknob smacked into the wall with a loud crack. It cracked again when Nomiki leveraged her foot against it and pulled both herself and the guard into an outward fall. They disappeared from sight.
The guard’s feet kicked for a few seconds, one hitting the door with a smack and a scrape, then, abruptly, they lost the energy.
There’d been no cry this time, strangled or otherwise, but, given Nomiki’s current range of weapons, she could guess what had happened beyond the frame of the door.
Karin held her breath. After a few moments, the sound of shifting cloth came from outside the door. Her sister’s head poked into the room and gave her a quick glance-over.
“You okay?” Nomiki’s gaze paused on the wrist she’d banged. “Did he hurt you?”
Karin frowned down. “No, just an accident. I—”
A bullet cracked into the door next to Nomiki’s head, its sound oddly clear in the hallway’s normally echoey acoustics. Nomiki flinched down just as another splintered into the wood. By the time Karin had reacted enough to jerk back, her sister had vanished into the darkness of the hallway.
Karen’s ears rang. Heart pounding in her chest, she doused her light power. Blackness filled the room, so complete it felt like someone had taken the breath out of her. For a second she stood there, frozen in place.
Then, lowering herself to her hands and knees, she began to crawl to the door.
The air felt different closer to the floor. Heavier, with the kind of cold that drew up from the foundation itself. Her hands still hurt, but the pain seemed dull and distant compared to the flighty, racing beat of adrenaline rushing through her blood. She flinched as a series of rapid gunshots rattled through the hallway, loud enough that she could feel their sound vibrate through her bones. Each concussion hit her like a shock. When her reaching hand bumped into the wall and found the edge of the doorway, she closed her eyes and took a sharp, steadying breath.
Then, in a moment that represented one of the stupidest things she’d done in her life, she poked her head around the doorway and looked around the corner.
Fortunately for her, they were too busy trying to survive Nomiki to shoot at her.
Since their escape, Karin had seen Nomiki’s abilities in action more than once. Unlike her very obvious human candle ability, Nomiki’s talents manifested in differences that ran much more subtle on the outside. She had elevated strength—enough to slam a guard into a wooden door and make it splinter—and heightened senses, as well as boosted speed and agility. Pretty cut and dry for most super soldier programs she’d heard about in the time since, but her sister went several steps beyond even them. Her talents weren’t something taught, but innate. She’d taken to violence not so much like a fish learning to swim, as the expression went, but more the way normal humans had taken to breathing.
A burst of gunshots from down the hall illuminated the scene in flashes of muzzle fire. Karin’s breath hitched as she caught a glimpse of her sister’s outline before the burst ended—but, before the guard could do anything more than adjust his aim, there came a yelp of pain. Something thumped to the ground. As silence rose in the aftermath, a picture rose in her mind of the guard slumped against the wall, just as dead as the one that lay beside her on the floor.
Tears pricked her eyes. Her stomach threatened to heave.
She pushed the feelings down with a hard swallow, suddenly self-conscious in the silence.
Speaking of silence…
She half-expected her sister to reappear, to put a careful hand on her head, let her know what to do next—but, as she waited, she realized the silence wasn’t quite as complete as it had been before.
Back up the hall, next to the door they’d entered through, a flashlight flicked on with an audible click and swept across the walls.
She cringed as it found her. Then, remembering herself—remembering her power—she let a little of her ability trickle into her system, adjusted her eyes to the light’s brightness, and stared it down.
Looked like he’d brought the whole gang. Amid the dim, indistinct backsplash, she recognized several faces and head-shapes. At least six, including what looked like one of the toddlers from upstairs in an older girl’s arms. Rachel was there, and Emma, and Stone, whose offbeat name had come his mother in a commune to the North, so he’d told them. Whether it was true or not was anyone’s guess.
Emanuel stood at the front, holding the flashlight. He didn’t seem surprised when she met his stare, but his eyes narrowed, the frown on his brow growing deeper. He pulled the flashlight off her and swept it down the hall, stopping for only a few seconds when he found the body of the guard crumpled on the floor close to the end before taking a full sweep of the rest of the hallway.
After a moment, he grunted. “Where’s your sister?”
Karin looked to a spot over his shoulder. “Right behind you.”
The flashlight remained where it was. Emanuel scowled at her, a childish stiffness in his back marking his refusal to turn around and check. “Yeah, right. She was just over there.”
“You didn’t search the hallway right away,” she informed him. “She had plenty of time to get behind you.” She repressed a shiver, suddenly reminded of the dead body right next to her. Talking distracted her. Focusing on Emanuel and the conversation distracted her. So long as she didn’t look to the side, she could ignore the death and gore that lay beside her. “Plus, you’ve not been looking at the other hallway. She could have come up that way.”
Emanuel snorted. “You don’t know where she is.”
“No, I do.” She raised her voice and gaze, addressing the patch of darkness on the wall behind him. “Right, ‘Miki?”
A shadow detached itself from the wall with a soft chuckle, just as she’d known it would.
Emanuel, along with the rest of the group, spun around. “Shit. How did–” He sputtered when he caught sight of Nomiki, a vision in blood-smeared white, her hair tied back in a professional-looking bun. “Jesus Christ.”
“We’re psychic, too,” Nomiki cut in smoothly. “Just part of our sisterly charm.”
Actually, they weren’t—but, sometimes, they might as well be. They’d grown up together, known each other for so long they could finish each other’s sentences most of the time. Or, they could a few years ago, at least, before Nomiki had begun to distance herself. And even without her sister’s preternatural ability to predict people’s movements—a part of her program—Karin knew Nomiki well enough to guess exactly where she’d be. Even if she wasn’t sure exactly how she’d got there.
This time, she’d bet Nomiki had come up the hall before Emanuel had shone the light down to the guard. Him looking at Karin had provided enough of a distraction, especially considering the dead guard next to her.
“You two are insane. What the hell are you doing?”
Nomiki raised an eyebrow. “You’ve seen two dead guards in this hallway and you can’t guess? We’re getting revenge, dipshit.”
Karin couldn’t see Emanuel’s face, but the frown in his voice was clear. “Well no shit, but is this just a revenge trip or do you have any ulterior plans?”
Nomiki’s eyes narrowed. “Why? You want in?”
“Well, yeah. You can’t just leave us hanging.”
“Sure I can. I’m not responsible for you.”
“Nomiki, what the hell? I thought we were friends.”
Then, Nomiki really did laugh. “Friends? No. I don’t have any friends. I have a sister.” No snark, no haughtiness, just a bald-faced fact. “Look, if you want in you gotta look out for yourselves. Go raid the rest of the place, get supplies. Meet us in the forest on the right side of the road, far enough in that you can’t be seen. If we don’t come by two a.m., we’ve either abandoned you or gotten completely fucked by what we’re about to do, so don’t wait for us. Just go.”
A small silence filled the corridor. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths.
After a few seconds, Emanuel took a step toward Nomiki. “I can help. I–”
“Then help them,” Nomiki said, her voice firm. “They’ll need it.”
By the way his shoulders tensed, Karin thought he would argue further. But, to her surprise, he stayed silent. Then he nodded. “All right. Forest, right side of the road, don’t be seen.”
“Leave at two,” Nomiki reminded him.
“Leave at two,” he repeated.
Another few seconds slipped past. They stared at each other. At the edge of the group, the older student shifted the toddler on her hip and adjusted her grip. A few others looked between each other, exchanging silent glances.
“Go,” Nomiki said. “We’ll take care of things here.”
Emanuel nodded again. “All right.” As he turned his attention back to the group, Karin heard him take a quick, shakey breath. “You heard her. Go back to your rooms, get what you can. Emma, you and Rach head to the kitchens. There’re bags in the third cupboard. Get as much as you can. Stone, Chung-yi, how about–”
“First aid supplies,” Chung-yi answered. “I know where to get them.”
“Good. Everyone else, buddy system. Don’t let each other out of sight.”
Suddenly, Nomiki stepped away from the wall, her attention going up the hall. “Go. Quickly.”
That shut down the murmurs that had been rising from the group. Emanuel pointed the flashlight back the way they’d come, illuminating the old concrete and the metal threshold of the doorway. Before they took the light away and left her in complete dark, Karin used the moment to haul herself to her feet, taking care to step away from where she’d seen the guard’s blood spread on the floor.
A hush fell over the hall as the rest of the children left. In the quiet, and the dark, the air felt cooler and damper than before. She took a slow breath, listening to the sound it made.
Then her sister was there. Fingers pushed across her palm. Nomiki gave her a hand a light squeeze. “You ready?”
“Five left?” she guessed.
“Four. And they’re all in the same room. I’ll need you to blind them.”
“And stay out of the room. No heads around corners.”
“I’ll need to look to blind them.”
Nomiki let out a frustrated sigh. “Fine, but don’t get it shot off. I only have one sister, you know?”