The burning building sat on the edge of a bluff, above a cold dry creek-bed and under the indifferent gaze of a million desert stars. The burning was almost finished, down to embers glowing a sickly orange, mimicking the sunset of hours before.
Two women lay beside the remains of the fire, warmed by it, both still, both silent, although only one of them was unconscious.
The conscious one spoke. “It didn’t have to be this way.” She sat up, slowly, blood across her torso, some of it hers.
“You could have stopped this.”
Getting to her feet robbed her of the breath to speak. After a time, though, she recovered, tried a hesitant step, and then another,
“You could have just walked away,” not all of the pain in her voice was physical. “Why didn’t you just walk away?”
The unconscious woman had no answer.
The conscious one just walked away. She knew where she was headed. She didn’t know if she would make it.
Eight Hours Earlier:
Sylvia Andersen trudged slowly across the sand, the morning sun already beginning to beat down on her like a drum. Day after day of walking under the burning sun had taken its toll on her and she was close to giving up. The desert seemed endless, even though she knew it had to stop somewhere.
Her gaze was fixed on the ground in front of her. She heard the helicopter, but she just put it down to illusion. She had a hard time dismissing it when it landed in front of her, though. The whipping wind from the rotors threw Sylvia’s hair around. Looking up, she barely recognised the object in front of her any more.
A woman climbed out of the pilot’s seat and ran to Sylvia. “Oh my gosh, are you alright?”
Sylvia opened her mouth to speak, but her throat was too dry to manage words.
“Come on,” the woman said. “I have water in the chopper.”
The woman led Sylvia to the helicopter and retrieved a canteen. “Carefully, now. You shouldn’t drink too much.”
Sylvia took the canteen and stared at it for a long moment. She raised it to her lips and tipped a little water into her mouth. As the water touched her tongue, her mouth protested as if unused to the sensation. She drank some more, swishing the water around in her mouth.
“Thank you,” Sylvia managed to croak.
“Come on, get in,” the woman said. “I need to take you back to my place. We’ll need to call the authorities.”
Sylvia let herself get bundled into the helicopter and watched in a daze as the ground sank away beneath them. Even in her dim thoughts, she knew that no-one could call the authorities.
Margret Gates flew with one eye on the stranger in the seat beside her, already regretting her action. Would any of the others stopped to pick up a hiker? Probably not. No, certainly not, they were all committed to the cause.
I’m a scientist, not a terrorist, Margret thought to herself. I couldn’t just let her die.
Margret had seen the shape against the sand and reacted without thinking. There were miles from anywhere. Whoever the stranger was, it was a miracle that she had gotten this far.
Maybe this is better, Margret thought. Somebody is out there looking for this woman. If I had left her there it might have brought attention to the station. This way, I can bring her home, make a few calls, and get her out of the way before anyone gets suspicious. She’s barely conscious, she won’t notice anything odd about the station.
Control would be angry, but Margret thought that she could explain the situation, make them see that it was the best course of action. Better a lost hiker rescued than a corpse found on the grounds. Although…
Where the Hell had she come from? There weren’t any hiking trails anywhere around here. That’s why the station–Desert Reclamation Station 21–was out here. It was two hours by copter from the nearest town, and that was just a wide spot in the highway, a place to pick up supplies once a month. This whole area was a blank spot on the map. The stranger was in a place where no one should ever go. The whole plan depended on that.
Margret wished she could turn around and take the stranger to town, but there wasn’t enough fuel. They had to go to the station to refuel, if for nothing else. Fuel the bird, find out who to contact to get the stranger gone, and back in the air.
The short time that they would be on the ground the stranger wouldn’t notice anything. Rows of sickly plants in a fenced enclosure, a barn-like structure with a low rent biochemistry lab in it–nothing that anyone who wasn’t a trained botanist would think out of the ordinary.
I’m a scientist, Margret thought again. Just a scientist, studying desert plants, nothing more. It was almost true.
Sylvia kept staring blankly out of the window as the helicopter settled to the ground. Her wits were starting to return to her out of the desert sun.
“I’ll be back in a second,” Margret said. “I just have to grab something from inside and then fill up the chopper. Once that’s done, we’ll make some calls and find out where I should take you.”
‘You’re not taking me anywhere,’ Sylvia thought, but she kept her gaze on the sand, pretending to be out of it.
Margret opened the door to the chopper and hopped out. She ran for one of the buildings, ducking low to avoid the helicopter blades.
As soon as Margret was out of sight, Sylvia opened her own door and slipped out. She took another sip from the canteen and then slung it across her shoulder. She scanned the place. There was a house, where Margret had run, a few enclosures of plants and a barn.
Sylvia could feel the hot sun on her. She couldn’t be out any longer. She stumbled towards the barn.
Inside, the barn was almost empty. A few pallets of plants were stacked near the door. A table was in the centre, with chemistry supplies on top of it. Sylvia walked over and examined them. There was nothing of interest.
She picked up a plant from the table and looked at it. Some part of her brain supplied the name, ‘Drimia Maritima’. She knew it was poisonous. This one was sick, however. It had dark red spots all over the leaves.
Sylvia dropped the plant back on the table and looked around. There was nothing there and nowhere to hide.
“I see you found our barn,” Margret said. “We’re studying a new form of pesticide.”
Sylvia nodded, saying nothing.
“Do you want to come in the house for a cup of tea before we make some calls?” Margret asked.
Sylvia nodded and walked out of the barn.
“My name’s Margret,” Margret said, holding out her hand.
“Sylvia.” Sylvia shook Margret’s hand.
The house was cool after the crackling desert air. Margret took Sylvia into a large, clean kitchen. “The others are out running errands, but they should be back later. You’ll probably be gone before that, though.”
Sylvia nodded again. Her eyes darted around the kitchen, searching for a date. They settled on a calendar – ’21st June 2015′. She might already be too late.
Margret rolled the refueling hose and started walking it to the helicopter. They were so close, the virus was almost ready to release. Years of work had gone into the plan, and now she would see it happen. A few days, maybe a week on the outside. Nothing could allowed to stop it now.
“These… others,” the stranger—Sylvia—said suddenly, “how did they go on these errands?”
Margret jumped, almost dropping the hose. Sylvia had come up behind her silently. She hadn’t even heard the other woman leave the station.
“I’m sorry?” Margret busied herself with connecting the hose to the tank.
“You said that the others were out running errands,” Sylvia reminded her. “But you’ve only got one pad for a chopper. And you’ve got two fuel dumps—one for aircraft, one for the generators. So this is your only vehicle. Are your friends on foot?”
Margret cursed herself for the lie, and also for the fear that made her hands shake. “I—,” she began.
“You’re alone here,” Sylvia said. “There are no others.”
Margret took a deep breath, calmed herself. “I am part of the Federal Wilderness Management Program.”
“Good for you,” Sylvia grinned. “But they’re not here right now, are they?”
“No,” Margret answered. There was no point in lying any more.
Sylvia brought up her hand. In it was a small gun. “What’s going to happen now is that you and me are going to take a little trip. We’re going to go out to a place I know in the dessert and pick up a package. And then you’re going to take me and my package into a town—any town, I don’t care where. After that you can come back here and go back to growing bulbs, or whatever the hell it is you do.”
“Or else what?” Margret asked, anger replacing fear, “You’ll shoot me? Can you fly a helicopter?”
Sylvia shook her head. “Nope. But I bet you don’t need both feet to fly.” She dropped the gun’s barrel. “Want to find out?”
“Okay, I’ll take you where you want to go,” Margret lifter her hands. “But you have to let me finish fueling first. And if you fire that now the fumes will go up and we’ll both fry.”
Sylvia lowered the gun. “You’re the pilot.”
Sylvia kept her gun trained carefully on Margret while she finished fuelling the chopper. Sylvia was careful now not to give her any opportunity to run or reach for a concealed weapon.
“Where are we meant to go?” Margret asked, finishing fuelling and putting the pump back.
“30.020, -105.647,” Sylvia said.
“Alright, that’s pretty precise. What exactly are we going to find there?” Margret asked.
“A new start,” Sylvia said. “Get in the helicopter.”
Sylvia held her gun tight to her body as she got into the passenger seat and faced Margret. Sylvia was exhausted, but there wasn’t long left and then she could rest.
The helicopter blades sped up and the chopper slowly lifted off the ground. It flew swiftly over the desert. The same desert that had taken Sylvia days to walk. Eventually, Sylvia saw it in the distance – a broken jeep, the axle cracked and in the back her prize.
Margret flew the chopper close and set it down. “Alright, we’re here.”
“Get out,” Sylvia said. “I can’t have you flying away, besides which I’ll need your help, this thing is heavy.”
Sylvia waited until Margret was well clear of the helicopter and then got out. She waved Margret over to the jeep.
As Margret got close, she recoiled in horror. Steve, Pete and Lance were right where Sylvia had left them, rotting in the seats of the jeep with bullets through their brains.
“Who are you?” Margret asked.
“Never mind that,” Sylvia said. “Help me get that crate onto the chopper.”
Sylvia tucked her gun into the back of her jeans and moved to one side of the crate. It was still covered up, Margret wouldn’t be able to see what it was.
Margret shot a glance at the chopper.
“Don’t even think about it. I can draw my gun faster than you can run,” Sylvia said. “Don’t worry. Just take me and this crate to any big town and you’ll never see me again.”
After they had the crate stowed awkwardly across the rear seat Margret took off, headed north by northeast, climbing high, over 8,000 ft. The desert below them was a tan carpet, visibility was unlimited. There was still nothing to see.
“Is it cocaine?” Margret asked.
“It’s none of your business,” Syvia answered sharply.
“You killed three men for it, must be valuable,” Margret continued. “In this part of the world, that usually means cocaine.”
“What part of none of your business don’t you understand?” Sylvia asked.
Margret glanced over, then the helicopter dropped, fast. Sylvia hit the window.
“Is it cocaine?” Margret asked again.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sylvia yelled. “You’ll kill us both!”
Margret worked the controls and the descent stopped abruptly. Sylvia slammed back into her seat.
“Just answer the question,” Margret said mildly.
Sylvia pulled her gun out, her hand shaking, “Listen, if you try anything like that again—”
“What?” Margret asked. “You’ll shoot me? We’re in the air now, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
The helicopter started climbing again, the altimeter reading 9,000 feet.
“You wouldn’t crash on purpose,” Sylvia said. “It’s your life, too.”
“No?” Margret asked. “Are you sure?”
And the helicopter dropped, nearly free fall, Sylvia clinging to the straps to stay in her seat. The altimeter spun, 8,000, 7,000, 6,000.
“Okay,” Sylvia shouted, “Okay, yes, Jesus, it’s coke!”
Margret leveled out the rotors and the helicopter stopped falling. “That’s all I wanted to know.”
“Look, don’t even think about trying to take it. You don’t have the contacts to move this much, believe me. If you try, you’ll just get yourself killed.”
“I don’t want it, you can keep it,” Margret said, her voice cold and angry. “You might want to keep it for a while before you sell it, though. The price is about to go way up.”
“What do you mean?” Sylvia asked.
“Erythroxylum novogranatense is about to go on the endangered species list,” Margret laughed. “It’s going to make number one, with a bullet.”
“Just take me to the nearest town,” Sylvia said. “Whatever you’re doing back there is your business. It won’t matter much in a couple of days’ time anyway.”
Sylvia saw Margret glance back at the crate again.
“Why won’t it matter?” Margret asked.
“I won’t be around to see it anyway,” Sylvia said. “Enough questions. Just fly.”
Margret checked her chart and aimed the chopper for Juan Aldama, a town with just over sixteen thousand people. It was close enough to Chihuahua that she thought Sylvia could connect with her drug cartel friends. She worried for a moment that Sylvia might lead them back to her, but she couldn’t do much about that with a gun trained on her.
Margret set the chopper down on the outskirts of the town and looked at Sylvia. “Here you go. The nearest town.”
Sylvia waved with her gun. “Help me get the crate out.”
Sylvia hopped out of the helicopter and put her gun away. It was nearly done. Only another hour or two and nothing would matter any more. She got into the back of the helicopter and shoved the crate towards Margret.
Margret tried to hold the heavy crate, but it slipped from her hands and broke open. Canisters fell out of the side of the crate and rolled onto the ground.
“What are those?” Margret asked. “That’s not cocaine.”
“Just get in your chopper and leave,” Sylvia said. “You don’t want to be here when this happens.”
Sylvia climbed out of the rear of the chopper, pulling out her gun and pointing it at Margret.
“What do you have in those canisters?” Margret asked.
“Get in your chopper and leave now,” Sylvia said. “Or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
“I can count, you know,” Margret said. “That gun is a Ruger LCP 380 Ultra Compact. It holds seven bullets. There were three men in that jeep. I counted the bullet holes. There were seven holes.”
“Guns can reload, you idiot,” Sylvia said.
Margret shook her head. “They can, but you’re out of bullets. One of those men was halfway out of the jeep. If you’d had a round, you would have finished him and not left him to bleed out.”
Sylvia sighed and put her gun away. She walked to the crate, pulled out a gas mask and put it on. Lifting one of the canisters, she put her hand on the valve. When she spoke, her words were muffled by the mask. “Trust me on this, if I turn this valve, it will kill you just as surely as a gun would. I’ve very little reason not to kill you. If you value your life, you’ll get in that chopper and leave.”
Margret got in the chopper and the rotors sped up. Instead of taking off, though, she angled the rotors and the chopper clung to the ground, backwash throwing a hurricane of dust around Syvia, who staggered back against the stinging wind.
“GO AHEAD AND OPEN THE VALVE!” Margret shouted over the roar of the motor. “LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”
Blinded by dust, even with the mask, Sylvia struggled to drag the crate out of the helicopter’s storm. Margret touched the controls, and the chopper crept forward a few feet, skimming the dirt. “EVEN OUT HERE SOMEBODY’S GOING TO SEE THIS PRETTY SOON! EXPLAIN TO ME, OR EXPLAIN TO THE FEDERALES! YOUR CHOICE!”
Sylvia raised her hands in surrender and stepped away from the crate. Margret turned down the engine on the helicopter until the rotors were barely spinning. She climbed down from the cockpit, leaving the door open and one hand resting on the controls. “Now talk,” she said. “No more games. Just tell me the truth, and I’ll let you go.”
Sylvia pulled off her gas mask. Underneath her skin was red and blotchy. “You ever heard of a man named Luis Garcia Delacrux?”
“El Buitre Negro?” Margret nodded. “Of course I’ve heard of him. Everyone in Mexico’s heard of him. What about him?”
“The black vulture, yes,” Sylvia translated, “Well, this is a gift for the black vulture.”
“You’re going to kill him?” Margret asked.
“Him, me, and everyone in his compound. It’s taken me years to gain his trust. I’m going to meet him and… boom. The vulture flies no more.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Margret said.
“Yes, I do,” Sylvia’s voice was firm. “You have no idea.”
“No, what I mean is that I’ve already taken care of it,” Margret shook her head, laughing. “All this time, you and I were on the same side.”
“You?” Sylvia sneered. “What can you do?”
“The virus,” Margret explained excitedly, “Don’t you see? He controls the majority of the cocain fields here. Once I get my virus into his land it will spread in days—his entire crop will die.”
“You’re planning to kill his plants?” Sylvia asked angrily.
“They aren’t just plants,” Margret countered. “They are the source of his power. Without his money, he’s nothing. His own men will kill him.”
Sylvia frowned. “No. No, that’s not good enough.”
“He has to suffer,” Sylvia said. “Do you know what this stuff does? It melts the flesh off your face. I don’t want to take away his money. I want him to beg for death.”
“Trust me. Once the cocaine disappears, his friends will make him beg for death just as well as any gas,” Margret asked. “Won’t this gas hurt other people? His wife? His maid? His children? Do children deserve that death?”
Sylvia stared at Margret and shook her head.
“What did he do to you?” Margret asked.
Sylvia shook her head. “I’ll never tell a soul.”
“Come on,” Margret said. “Come back to the compound and I’ll show you my plan.”
They both lifted the canisters back into the helicopter and flew back to Margret’s compound. Margret led Sylvia back to the barn with the sick looking Drimia Maritima. Margret went to a wooden pillar and reached behind it. She pulled something and a trapdoor on the floor of the barn swung open. Margret waved to the trapdoor. “It’s down there.”
Sylvia walked to the trapdoor and looked down. A ladder led down to a concrete floor far below. She stepped onto the first rung and climbed down.
“You’re not the only one he’s hurt, you know,” Margret called from the top of the ladder as Sylvia made her way into the basement. “There is a whole network of us. You’re not alone.”
Margret watched as Sylvia reached the bottom and looked around.
“Where?” Sylvia asked.
“The file cabinet in the corner,” Margret said. “Everything that you need to know about us is in there.”
Sylvia moved away from the ladder into the dimness of the basement. “I don’t see…” she began.
Margret slammed the trap door closed. Quickly she pushed a steel table laden with plant specimens over the door. She could hear Sylvia coming back up the ladder.
Margret rolled a heavy drum of fertilizer over and added it to the table. She saw the wood of the trap door shake as Sylvia pushed on it, but it didn’t lift. There was no way that the other woman could get enough leverage to open the door from on top of the latter against the combined weight of the table and the drum.
“I’m sorry about this,” Margret called. “I really am.”
From below Sylvia pounded on the trapdoor. It wasn’t going anywhere.
“I can’t have you wrecking the plan. Not now. Not when we’re so close.” Margret explained.
“Let me out of here!” Sylvia screamed.
“I can’t,” Margret said. “It’s going to take time for the virus to spread. If Delacrux dies now it will shut down his operation. We need him to stay in business long enough to ship the contaminated samples across Central America.”
In reply Sylvia started pounding on the door harder.
“You’re just going to hurt yourself,” Margret said.
Sylvia gave up pounding on the trapdoor and looked around the basement. There was light coming from somewhere. Following it, she found a narrow slit at the top of one wall. It was only enough to give a little air and light, of no use otherwise.
She surveyed the basement. There were three rooms. The first room with the ladder only had a filing cabinet and the wall with the slit at the top. The next room had a sofa, a television and a mini-fridge. The last room had a bed and a stack of books. It was obviously somewhere that a single person could hide for a few days while they waited for any heat to die down.
Sylvia growled. She hadn’t trekked across the desert for Delacrux to just die at someone else’s hands. The revenge was meant to be hers.
Walking back to the first room, Sylvia pulled out all of the drawers of the filing cabinet. They were full of old paper files. She took them all out and threw them into a pile on the floor. She was then able to drag the now empty filing cabinet over to the trapdoor. She lined it up under it.
She walked back into the second room and opened the mini-fridge. Pulling out all of the soda bottles and junk food, she unplugged the mini-fridge and dragged it back to the first room. Lifting it, she put it on top of the filing cabinet. It was still a good few metres under the trapdoor.
Sylvia walked back to the second room and dragged the sofa into the first room with her. She pushed it onto one arm under the trapdoor. It was a little taller than the filing cabinet, but still not tall enough. She slid some of the drawers out of the filing cabinet and stacked them on top of the sofa arm. She climbed the ladder as she worked, until she finally had to lug the fridge over.
She almost dropped it, but she managed to finally get it balanced on top of the cabinet drawers, just under the trapdoor.
Sylvia sighed and stretched out her back. Pulling a small plastic lighter from her pocket and her gun from her belt, she hammered on the canister in the back of the fridge. It held up for twenty blows and then cracked. Gas began leaking out, spraying the trapdoor above her.
Sylvia shielded her face with her hand and light the lighter. The gas ignited in a blue-purple flame and Sylvia yelped. She clutched her hand to her and scrambled back down the ladder.
The flame kept burning above her, playing across the trapdoor. Sylvia hurried back from the ladder as metal began to drip down.
She examined her hand. It was badly burned. She was going to make that bitch Margret pay. Delacrux was hers and no-one else’s.
There was a loud bang as the isobutane in the fridge exploded. The sofa, filing cabinets and fridge fell to the ground in an almighty clatter.
Sylvia hurried over and looked up. The trapdoor was warped and she could see sunlight. It was still white hot from the gas, but she knew Margret had probably heard the explosion.
Margret heard the explosion from inside the main building. She had been trying to compose a message to Control, to let them know about Sylvia in a way that wouldn’t make them angry. It was a good thing that she had picked Sylvia, had learned the other’s plan in time to stop it. She had things under control. She just needed to find some way to explain it to Control so they would see things the same way…
The bang took her by surprise, and it took her a moment to identify the sound. Out here in the high desert the winds could get vicious, if the door to the barn wasn’t latched the wind could slam it open with a bang like that.
She went to the window. The barn door was closed, but smoke was coming out from under the door.
Margret ran. The fuel for the generator was in the barn.
When she reached the door it flew open, propelled not by the wind but by Sylvia, and struck Margret, knocking her down. Sylvia lunged forward with an overhand blow with a shovel, held in both hands.
Sylvia paused, breathing hard. The flames spread throughout the barn, the desiccated lumber catching like paper. Then the far end of the barn went up in a fireball, the concussion throwing her to the ground beside Margret. She covered her head and lay still, waiting for the shocks to die down.
The fire spread to the main compound and Sylvia crawled away, dragging Margret. Despite everything, Sylvia couldn’t leave her to be burned alive. She wasn’t the real enemy.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” she whispered, her voice harsh with effort.
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