Authors: Spencer Baum
With Renata’s home burned to the ground, with 49 of Renata’s 50 slaves loaded onto a bus and sent to Philadelphia for a massive deprogramming effort, Nicky, Phillip, and Helena hid in a safe house in Alexandria, waiting for the night to pass. Jill, who insisted she had to go take care of some personal business before the night was done, had promised to join them before dawn.
In the morning they would complete their escape, taking two rescues with them. Both rescues were hiding in the safe house.
‘Rescues’ was the Network’s term for innocent people who were evacuated from their current location, given a new identity, and invited to join the Network.
One of the two rescues was Ryan Jenson, who slept in a makeshift bedroom near the utility closet. He arrived at the safe house some twelve hours earlier with blood-stained clothes and a concussion. Helena acted as nurse for him all day, tweezers in-hand, pulling shards of broken glass from his back, his arms, and his hands.
The other rescue was a former slave from Renata’s mansion. A slave who had a connection to Nicky going back to their childhood.
I knew him when I was a kid
, Nicky told Helena and Phillip.
He was like a brother to me. It’s a long story.
It was a long story that Gia had known but the others in the Network did not. There would be time to tell them later. At the moment, the more pressing matter was the state of Frankie’s mind. What had driven him to betray his master? What allowed him to abandon his own programming?
Frankie and Nicky sat together on an old leather couch in the back bedroom. Gordon Krause, who had deprogrammed Jill earlier in the week, sat in a chair across from Frankie, speaking to the deepest parts of Frankie’s subconscious.
“I’m going to repeat the words,” Gordon said. “Find the memory of them for me.
Your master’s word is law.
Find that sentence in your mind.”
This was the third time Gordon had taken Frankie through the routine. With each pass, Nicky saw the real Frankie, the one who had been hidden away for years, come closer to the surface.
“Your master’s word is law,” Frankie whispered.
“Good. Who is saying those words to you?”
“The vampire. Melissa Mayhew.”
“Do you believe the words, Frankie?”
A pause. The first two times through, Frankie’s answer to this question was, ‘I don’t know anymore.’
“The words,” Gordon repeated. “Do you believe them?”
“No,” Frankie said. “I have no master.”
Nicky fought the urge to hug him. She wanted so badly to throw her arms around Frankie’s neck and say she was proud to know him. But her instructions from Gordon were explicit. She could sit here only if she was perfectly quiet and still.
“You do have a master, Frankie,” Gordon said. “You are your own master. Say that for me, please.”
“I am my own master.”
“You are in charge of your actions.”
“I am in charge of my actions.”
“You are in charge of your thoughts.”
“I am in charge of my thoughts.”
“Choose a thought, Frankie. Right now, think of something.”
“What are you thinking, Frankie?”
“I look out for Nicky and she looks out for me,” Frankie said.
Gordon looked Nicky’s way and raised his eyebrows.
“Nicky’s here right now, Frankie. She is sitting next to you.”
“I know. We look out for each other. It’s how we stayed alive on the streets. You need someone looking out for you. And you must return the favor.”
Gordon allowed those words to hang in the room for a few seconds. Then he said, “If it’s okay with you, Frankie, I’m going to ask Nicky to leave us for a bit. These first thoughts on your own are important ones. I fear Nicky’s presence is creeping into your mind and affecting you. Will it be okay if she leaves?”
“Where will she go?” Frankie asked.
“I’ll be right outside,” said Nicky.
“Frankie, it’s important to me that you make the choice to let her go,” said Gordon. “What do you say? Can she leave?”
“Yes,” said Frankie.
Gordon turned to Nicky. “We’ll be done in thirty minutes or so.”
“Yes, of course,” Nicky said.
She left the room, closing the door behind her, and walked down the hall to the back of the house, stopping in the open space near the utility closet, where Ryan was asleep on a cot. She knelt down next to him and put her hand on his forehead. He rolled into her touch, exhaling softly. A grimace came over his face.
” Nicky said. “It’s me. You’re okay. You’re safe.”
He opened his eyes.
“Nicky?” he murmured.
“Hey there,” she whispered. “You can go back to sleep. I was just…looking at you.”
A smile came over his lips as his eyes fell closed again. Nicky couldn’t help but smile back. His eyes still closed, Ryan said, “Is it time to go?”
“Not yet,” she said. “You go back to sleep.”
She stood up to leave, but Ryan caught her with his voice.
“Yes, what is it?”
His eyes were still closed. She wondered if he would remember this encounter in the morning.
“I want to tell you something,” he said.
“I want to tell you it was...”
The poor guy was probably having a bad dream. She placed her palm on his head and gently petted his hair back.
“It’s okay, Ryan. We can talk in the morning,” she said.
“Everything we went through,” Ryan whispered.
Nicky knelt down again and stretched her arm across Ryan’s chest.
“Go back to sleep,” she said.
“What we went through,” he repeated, his voice weaker. Not only was the poor guy swimming through a concussion, he was on a hefty dose of painkillers as well.
Nicky stayed in place, waiting to see if he would find the strength to finish.
What we went through
was a phrase that could go in many directions.
Nicky and Ryan had been through a lot.
“The two of us,” he whispered. He was almost completely asleep now. When he spoke again, it was just his lips moving, with no voice at all. “The front door.”
He was dreaming. Nicky had a good idea what he was dreaming about.
I want for the two of us to walk out the front door, get in my car, and drive
. Ryan said those words to her while they danced at the Homecoming Masquerade. He had no idea back then who she was or where things were headed for both of them.
Now he knew the truth.
Their legs and wrists had been cuffed together on the long plane ride across the Atlantic. The two of them in the cargo hold of Renata’s jet, a team of Renata’s slaves watching over them, guns in-hand—the flight from Italy back to DC was cold and uncomfortable. They talked to each other to get through it. Knowing that death awaited them, they spoke honestly, about everything, and by the time they landed, Ryan knew about the Network, about Nicky, Jill, and their mission, about the memories that drew Nicky to Italy, her encounters with Sergio…
It was in telling Ryan about her encounters with Sergio that Nicky realized how much Sergio had complicated things, not just for the mission, but for her. She couldn’t seem to get him out of her mind. She had a chance to kill him, but she couldn’t do it.
She felt strangely confident that she would see him again.
The plane ride was a chance for Nicky to learn about what happened to Ryan during their captivity in Italy. Falkon had programmed him to sleep for months.
“My dreams were incredible,” Ryan had said to her. “When you sleep for that long, your dreams become your reality. I dreamed about us. Whole lifetimes we spent together. We got married on a high bluff overlooking the ocean. Jill was your maid of honor. Art Tremblay was my best man.”
“Art Tremblay?” Nicky said.
“Beats the hell out of me where that came from,” said Ryan. “After the wedding, well, the dreams only got better. I remember dreaming about delicious dinners and amazing nights at the theater and riding horses on the countryside. We had three children in one dream, no children in another, five children and sixteen grandchildren in another…we lived in small houses, large houses, apartments in the city, cottages by the lake. We never fought. We lived day after day in perfect, wonderful bliss.”
“It sounds amazing,” Nicky had said to him. “I’m sorry we won’t get to live it.”
And in that moment, she was sorry. In that moment, she would have been happy to spend a lifetime in some quiet, suburban marriage with Ryan Jenson. Riding on the plane, she thought she and Ryan were going to die. She would have gladly gone off into a sunset of tract housing, flower gardens, and PTA meetings if it meant keeping Ryan alive.
“We can live it right now,” Ryan told her. “We have our final hours together on this plane, before we land and Renata does whatever it is she intends to do to us. See, here’s what’s funny about my dreams. Some of them went on for years and years. Some of them lasted only a few minutes. It didn’t matter. So long as we were together, my life was complete. It’s something I learned in those dreams. It doesn’t matter if you live a thousand years or ten days. What matters is what you are doing with the time you have. Right now is all we have, Nicky. It’s all anyone ever has.”
Right now was all the time they thought they would get.
They couldn’t hold each other on that plane. They couldn’t kiss. They were prisoners, chained in place and unable to move. After they landed, Renata tied them together, back to back, in a dark room of her mansion, intending to reveal them to the senior class when the Ransom was over, and then, having shown that the prisoners were kept alive and well, as the Ransom rules required, dispose of them.
But Jill solved the Ransom in time. Frankie killed Renata. Nicky and Ryan got out alive.
It was more than they could have ever hoped for.
Now it appeared that Nicky and Ryan were indeed headed off for their own happily ever after. Helena had called Network Headquarters and said the mission was too risky to continue and they were headed out in the morning. A clean getaway, with Ryan, who had no qualms about disappearing in the night, now a part of the group. What was to stop the two of them from living out Ryan’s dreams about flowery weddings, long walks on the beach, children, grandchildren?
Why did Nicky feel like she didn’t want any of that at all?
Ryan’s offer of escape was so appealing to her at the Homecoming Masquerade—in the moment when he offered it, Nicky seriously considered abandoning the mission to run away with him. But now that she had the chance, now that he knew the full truth about her, now that he understood what the Network was and he wanted to be a part of it, now that there was no logical reason not to hole up with this amazing guy who was crazy about her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, she didn’t want to.
The quiet suburban life sounded horrible to her now.
Ryan opened his eyes and tried to say something.
He got stuck on those two words and tried again.
“Shh…” Nicky said, putting her hand on his forehead. “Go to sleep.”
She felt his body relax under her touch. He was there already. He was so in love that even in this semi-conscious state he had no trouble summoning a look of pure
happiness when Nicky touched him.
“I wish I was there with you, Ryan,” she whispered. “But I’m not. I was once. I really was. But I’m not anymore.”
Ryan was completely out now. His breathing was slow and deep. He wouldn’t remember any of this interaction tomorrow.
“Something has changed in me,” Nicky whispered. “More than something.”
A lot of somethings.
Weeks locked alone in a dark prison cell. Seeing her mother, or rather, the monster Falkon had made of her mother.
Sharing memories with that monster, seeing the woman still inside, Celeste Amanda Allen, mother of two who sacrificed everything to protect her children. Was the encounter with her mother the reason she couldn’t summon the same feelings for Ryan she had when all of this started?
Maybe. Her mother had given her a purpose.
Finish what I started, Nicky
. Celeste Amanda Allen had looked pure evil in the eye and stood her ground. She gave Nicky the tools needed to destroy Falkon’s lab and erase all the data he had collected in decades of research. She ended her human life and became something else so she could finish the job she started. How could Nicky bear witness to such heroic sacrifice and not be changed?
How could she just walk away from this mission when it wasn’t finished?
Yes, Frankie was safe. Yes, Network agents had killed Bernadette and Renata, and Network activity had led to the death of Melissa Mayhew as well.
Yes, Jill had hacked into the database of Tremblay Property Management and stolen a terabyte of secret files about the vampires, their assets, and their mansions. Yes, through Jill and Nicky’s activities, they had all but assured that Kim Renwick wasn’t going to win Coronation.