Seconds, minutes, hours. Time is the constant pushing Farah onward. An urgency present in the rumble of her Range Rover's engine, the humming of thick tires devouring the sodden road, the slick schick-schick of her windscreen wiper blades, the vibrating black plastic of her steering wheel - time is the eagerness to push on and move, move, move -
She deepens the weight of her foot on the accelerator. Hears the smooth growl flare. Her eyes slide over a passing sign, illuminated in her headlights, breaking through the patchy, dark rain.
Seattle. Leaving. Finally. Destination unclear. Safety, unknown. But gone, away, and - all importantly - moving.
She lets a small breath pass between her pursed lips. She rolls her head, stretches her neck, actively drops the tension in her shoulders. She can't afford to be pressured, but she feels like bottle of shaken soda: compressed and capped, waiting to be opened.
'You'll be fine,' Amanda says from the backseat, her voice soothing and calm. Farah flushes. Is her anxiety that obvious? She can't afford - 'It's not real - I know that doesn't help, but it's not. Just keep breathing,' Amanda continues and Farah realises that (of course, stupid, stupid) Amanda isn't speaking to her, but to Todd, Amanda's brother, coaxing him through his painful twitches as pararibulitis rolls over him.
Farah flicks her eyes to the rear-view mirror. Todd is sprawled across both the backseat and his sister, curled half over on himself, trembling. The knuckles of his left hand are white, twisted into the leather seat. Trauma. Farah's seen videos of torture - been trained to resist herself - and can see the absence of any such training in the transparency of Todd's agony. Amanda is holding his head, stroking his hair, matted to his face with sweat. There's a smear of blood there, across his mouth. A lip bitten through. Nothing fatal. No real injury. Farah made sure. Checked him over, her hands everywhere, in the bathroom of the diner, but saw nothing to explain - nothing to explain -
'You'll be fine. You'll be fine. You'll be fine.'
They'll be fine. They have to be fine. All of them. Amanda. Todd. Vogel. Dir -
No. No, not Dirk. She's lost Dirk.
Don't think. Don't think. Just drive.
Farah had thrown Todd into the backseat of her car, after picking up his abandoned cell, holding it to her ear with her shoulder as she shoved her keys into the ignition. It was a horrible echo of just a week ago - Lydia caught. Lydia tortured. Lydia abused by the man that Farah put a bullet through - it all came flooding back as Amanda shouted, screamed down the phone.
Amanda was Lydia. Todd was Lydia. And Farah didn't think - couldn't think - just slammed her foot on the gas and shouted.
Where are you? Where are you? I'm coming - I'm coming, Amanda - just hold on -
She found Amanda and Vogel at a dusty roadside off the I-90 by Lake Easton. Amanda's mascara smudged with sweat. Vogel's hands shaking. Amanda captured Farah in a embrace which shocked the heat back into Farah's freezing skin, tore herself away and ran to her brother - the brother in the backseat, the brother whose eyes were filled with tears, the brother who could barely open those eyes to greet her.
Amanda had recognised the electrocution immediately. It's okay! - she had shouted - he'll be okay once the hallucination stops! But they couldn't wait to find out.
They had to start driving, start moving.
Pararibulitis. Farah didn't know the disease existed a week ago, now it's a fellow passenger in the car with snarling teeth, red eyes. A demon. Amanda knows it; it's her demon. Farah trusts her. Farah has her own.
They're waiting for Todd to pass out: waiting for his exhaustion to outflank the pain and his body to give up. He's been seizing for hours; it can't be long now. Something has to give. Farah can hear the erratic hiss of his breathing, over the rumble of the road, over the whipping rain on her windshield. Can feel the flood of pain as he gasps in air.
Farah’s hands tighten on the steering wheel.
Drive, drive, drive.
Eyes back on the road. Blink away the fear.
Bottle of soda, ready to explode.
Stupid, so stupid.
'They’re going. They’re going. Far away, going.' Vogel now, beside her, in the passenger’s seat. Rocking. Knees to his chest. No seatbelt. Hands, pushed into his eyes. Blocking out. Fingers laced in his hair. Looks so small. Too small. Separated. An amputated limb. 'Can’t feel… can’t feel.'
He slams the palms of his hands onto the dash.
Then, again and again and again.
He screams out each time his hands batter the plastic. Pure frustration and anger and hatred.
Farah puts her arm out across him, grips his nearest shoulder, tries to hush him quiet.
Vogel doesn’t even notice. Disorder is cresting over him with the same dispassionate animosity as Todd’s disease does - as Farah’s anxiety does - and none of them can do anything.
Everything is wrong. Everything is broken.
They're running out of time. The demon is on them all.
Farah has to drive.
The setting sun finally drowns the new worst day of Farah's life as the last of its light slips underneath the horizon. Her car is still and solid nearby, all passengers but her curled up and asleep inside. They pulled over near La Grande, Oregon, when the rain stopped. They’ll spend the night here, and she’ll keep watch outside. Sitting by the fire she’s made, cross legged on the damp pale grass.
The blistering heat cools and the sky unfurls into a star-filled night. Galaxies like oil spills are painted across the deep, black dusk above. Farah doesn’t know any constellations other than Orion, the hunter. She finds him easily - three thick stars studding his belt. She doesn’t care for astronomy. There's no need for celestial navigation. The world has evolved. GPS. Radio frequencies. Pointless. The beautiful evening is wasted on her.
She pushes a thick stick into the base of the fire. Ash spits into the air, crackling. She stares into the flames. If she lets her eyes relax, her vision blurs, and she can almost see visions in orange-red. Women twisting in complicated dances, soaring crossbow bolts, ferret-like animals racing each other. Farah creates these ideas. Nothing more than cloud watching. Pareidolia. Apophenia. Fictions. Campfire stories. An overactive imagination, putting meaning into licking flame and nothing more.
Amanda. From behind her. Farah didn't hear her approach. Dangerous. She needs her caution. Needs to keep the edge. Farah can't afford to mess up (again), to be distracted by fire.
Amanda slumps down besides Farah, shoving her legs out in front of her, thick boots pointing left and right. Her leather jacket is a slumped weight over her narrow shoulders. It’s scuffed, but thick. It will keep her warm tonight.
'What're you thinking?' Amanda’s voice is heavy with exhaustion. Farah wishes she would sleep.
'How useful a few visions would be right now,' Farah murmurs, honestly. Amanda stays silent. Farah stokes the fire. There’s nothing else to do. She’s on first watch. Probably second and third too. She’ll sleep on the road tomorrow, if Todd’s up to driving. They can’t afford to stay still. 'Why aren’t you asleep?'
'I can’t,' Amanda says, her dark eyes lit orange by the flame. Something solid and heavy rolls in Farah’s throat. 'I’m too - too excited.'
Amanda wipes her eyes with the heels of her hands, long strokes which smudge heavy liner. Her eyes are watering. Farah doesn’t want them to be.
'Yeah. I really am. It's fucking terrible, isn't it? This is the most excitement I've had in years. I shouldn't be -' She pulls her legs in, hugging around her knees, and groans. 'God, I'm gross, aren't I? For... for feeling like this. Everyone captured… but I'm out of the house, I'm - I'm living.'
'Don’t blame yourself for feelings. You can’t control your feelings; you can only control your actions.' Farah knows this, has read this, has understood this. She keeps the knowledge close to her chest: it can turn her invisible and shut out the voices. Safety. Calming. The access to her centre, to her dantain. (Not that dantains are real. Farah isn’t lost to the whims of traditional Chinese medicine. It’s a picture, an image she holds to centre herself - a methodology. Images in dancing fire, no less beautiful for being unreal.)
Amanda looks across at her. Her eyes. Still wild with fire. Farah could burn in them.
'Where are we going? Do we know?' Todd asks in the morning, his voice rough and his eyes squinting in new sunlight.
'Just… not here.' Farah stamps the last embers of the fire dead. It's a cool, brisk morning. Cloudless, for now. 'We need to keep moving. The CIA will have eyes on us - on Vogel, at least. Doesn’t matter where we go, as long as we keep going.'
They’ve travelled far, but it’s not enough. They need to put more states between them, maybe even countries. Just somewhere, not here. They have to keep moving. They must keep moving. Farah feels exhaustion in her bones. She rolls her neck, her shoulders and cracks her fingers. She's been awake for twenty-four hours but she can't yet give into the urge to sleep.
'Vogel… We - we need to keep him with us, don’t we?' Farah knows Todd's not really asking the question he's asking. Todd's wrong. He's thinking that Vogel is the odd one out - disconnectable, removable - but he's wrong. Todd has Dirk. Amanda has the Rowdy Three. Amanda and Todd have each other. It's her. Everyone is connected, apart from her. Farah is the interloper, the alien, the stranger.
'He’s one of us,' Farah says. She has decided - although she doesn’t know when she did - that she is on the side of the universe, despite being deaf to its voice. On Vogel's side. On Dirk's. Farah will protect them. It's the right thing to do.
She stands and stretches. Unspoken time to get going. Farah begins to make a list in her head of what they need: Bedrolls. Tents. Bowls. Plates. Gas burners. Propane. Water. Medicine. Coffee. Rations. Clothes. Today will be scavenging. Supply getting. Keeping on the back roads is the tactic for later; now, they'll risk exposure to get the equipment they need to survive.
They'll have to get a new vehicle. Farah shouldn’t have used her own car. Registered in her name. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She hears the demon growling at her, the voice in her rising pulse and her tightening chest. She breathes. In, out. In, out. More seconds out than the seconds in.
Calming. Relax… don’t think…
Deep breaths, sweet and honey thick...
The panic subsides. The demon sated, for now.
Todd stumbles on his way back to the car, shoe slipping on a protruding rock. Farah throws her body into a sprint as Todd yelps. She grabs his arm before he can collapse, gives his bicep a tight squeeze and feels him shudder underneath.
'Are you okay?' she asks as he rights himself.
Todd wipes some sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, blue eyes wide.
'Um. Y-yeah. I think - It’s not - was - I thought…' Todd laughs, relieved. 'I just put my foot wrong. I thought it might have been another attack.'
'You’re okay…' Farah says cautiously, warily, watching the pressure form between Todd’s eyebrows. She helps him onto his feet.
'No. No, I’m not,' Todd says, looking at the car ahead, where his sister is still sleeping. 'I don’t think I’ll ever be again.'
They keep to the back roads which shadow the I-84. Close to Salt Lake, they spot a pick-up truck outside a small, one-room store. Farah’s tires crinkle the stones as she pulls in.
She hotwires the pick-up as Amanda distracts the driver inside. Farah watches her through the grimy window as Todd starts the engine. Flicking her hair, chewing her nails, Amanda does a good job of pretending to be a dumb, lost grad on her way to a kegger.
For a split second their eyes meet. Farah pushes nervous laughter down into the heels of her boots, ignores the heat on her cheeks, and replies to Amanda’s covert wink with a half-smirk of her own.
They leave Farah’s car as repayment. It’s an upgrade, a Mustang. The driver should be happy. He won't be, but he should be. He's not on the run. He’s not worrying about the lives of his friends. He should be grateful for whatever life he has - it must be better than hers.
When Farah thinks they’ve driven far enough to be clear, they pull into an outlet mall. Farah finds an ATM, maxes out the withdrawal limit on her credit card, transfers two thousand to Amanda and Todd and tells them to do the same. Farah cuts up their cards as they pack twenties into the inner linings of their jackets, pockets the plastic shards to dispose of later.
‘What do you want from Starbucks?’ Amanda asks, hands deep in her baggy leather jacket.
Farah blinks first at her, then at the large store behind the ATM which is glinting in tempting dark forest green. Filled with suited business people on break and ravenous, shopping bag laden families.
It's a bad decision to go inside. There’ll be security cameras. It’s a waste of their limited cash. It’s caffeine; will increase the need to urinate. No nutritional benefit.
‘I’ve got a craving for a white chocolate mocha,' Amanda says, and then she's smiling - the first real smile Farah’s seen for days - as if her tongue is already slick with the sugared-caffeine.
Farah can almost taste it herself.
‘That’s fine,’ Farah lies, checking her wristwatch. They can afford a few risks. Maybe. Morale, for the team. Shit. She’s been awake for so long her nerves are fraying. Her sense is leaving her. When they’re safe, she’ll sleep.
Farah asks for black coffee, large, extra sugar. The caffeine and sugar will wreck the careful balance of chemicals in her body, but Farah will deal with raging anxiety in exchange for staying awake.
Amanda pointedly doesn’t ask Todd. He stares, defeated, at her back when she twists away.
Vogel - non-verbal, scuffing his shoes on the ground, and twisting a napkin procured from nowhere in his fists - doesn’t notice the charge between the siblings. Farah wishes she didn’t either.
They buy camping gear and supplies from Dick’s Sporting Goods. Farah explains away the teetering mass of items to the curious checkout cashier as being under-prepared friends on a fishing trip.
Farah’s senses are dulled. She’s exhausted. It affects her attention, her awareness. The demon is on her neck. Anxiety, biting. Her mind is spinning off in directions she can’t control: You’re worthless. You’re already dead. You’re so dead. Dead like Patrick, ripped apart. You failed him. Dead like Lydia, gunned down before she made it to the airport. You left her alone. Dead like Dirk, bullet through the brain.
'Vogel?' Amanda asks, in a cautious, careful tone which makes Farah’s eyes snap to them and away from where Todd is bagging loose items into paper.
Vogel’s trembling. Fists balled at his sides, scared. Eyes wild with uncharacteristically bright intelligence - a new perception, enlightened horror.
Vogel twists his hands into his hair, his face scrunching. Then, begins to hit himself, beating the sides of his face.
Amanda lunges at him. Vogel shouts out: 'No! No! No!' skirts away and rushes for the exit. In his haste, he knocks over a display of silver-wrapped TREK protein bars, which litter the linoleum floor.
Amanda bolts after him.
Farah urges to follow, but the cashier is blinking, owlishly, and they can’t afford any more attention.
Todd stammers an excuse - something about tantrums, an unnamed illness - and Farah pushes too many bills into the cashier’s hands.
Cash register, change, receipt and they’re both sprinting in their wake, into the muggy heat outside, using the cart as a path-finder through shoppers.
Amanda and Vogel are by the pick-up. Vogel’s arms are tight around himself and he’s shaking, leaning against the side of the truck, his forehead flat on the metal. Amanda is grabbing at his hands, trying to pull them away from his face, attempting to settle eye contact between them. Vogel is endlessly fighting her, pulling himself away, turning himself away, muttering disorderly.
'Stop - stop hurting yourself. Vogel -' Amanda pleads.
Farah grabs Amanda's hands from their unintended assault and tries to listen to what Vogel’s saying. Amanda's fingers curl over hers and Farah feels the heat in them.
Vogel’s hands pass through his hair over and over again, whispering frantically. His eyes won’t focus on anything.
Farah recognises the dissociation. Panic attack. You think you’re going to die but you’re not going to die but you think you’re going to die but you’re not going to die -
‘Vogel?’ Farah snaps through the demon on her back. 'Vogel, talk to me. What’s happening?'
Vogel looks at her, and the words come out of his mouth in a flood.
'- not there should be there put asleep put as-LEEP we don’t sleep we can’t all together gotta keep Rowdy awake gotta gotta gotta can’t sleep can’t sleep -'
He sticks there like a record: 'can’t sleep gotta gotta gotta can’t sleep'.
Farah leads him to the back of the pick-up, helps him up and onto the cargo area. Can’t sleep gotta gotta gotta can’t sleep. He scrambles close to the cab and curls on himself. Can’t sleep gotta gotta gotta can’t sleep.
Amanda leaps onto the back and crawls over to him. She holds him tightly, smoothing her hands through his hair. He falls into her, head on her chest.
Farah watches. The rocking of his body, the terror and anger in his voice reminds her of Lydia’s nightmares. Of boogeymen and monsters under the bed. Farah never had boogeymen or monsters. She didn’t learn how to fight them. Farah had demons, even when young. To to be finally named ‘Generalised Anxiety’ and ‘Major Depressive’ by psych evals when she was rejected by every branch of the military to which she applied. Named, she could fight them.
When Todd’s finished throwing their stuff in the back, Farah shoots him a look: 'We need you.'
He tears his eyes away - pretends he doesn’t see - and climbs into the cab instead. Separate. Alone. The AC, blasting. Farah blisters with anger. Coward. Hasn’t said more than three words to Amanda since they started, not that Amanda has said anything to him.
Then, as suddenly as it began, Vogel falls into an unexplained trance. He pulls himself upright but his face falls into utter relaxation, his eyelids fluttering half closed, back of his head against the cab. His voice finally silences. His palms roll open in his lap.
‘You’re okay. We’re here.’ Amanda’s voice is soft. Loving. Farah watches her brush hair from his eyes. Press a kiss to the side of his head, just above his left eyebrow. It warms Farah, to see someone do what she can’t so effortlessly. To care, to love.
‘This is alone. I remember this,’ Vogel mutters, in a voice so unlike his own. Calm. Smooth. Regular. Human.
Amanda telegraphs her terror in that strangeness in the glisten of her eyes as she looks at Farah, and her sadness in the way she wipes them dry on her sleeve.
Todd drives. Amanda and Vogel in the back of the pick-up, curled together. Farah in the passenger’s seat.
She leans against the window and, in seconds, sleep sucks her under.
Farah drifts herself through strategies and procedures. She disassembles and reassembles various firearms. She walks through the Spring mansion and assesses the ingress and egress points.
Sleep, to Farah, is just more time to plan. She started lucid dreaming at eight, mastered it at thirteen. She hasn’t had a dream outside of her control in two decades. She knows everything that can, and will, happen.
In her dreams, nothing is unknown.
They stop in a dusty field somewhere in Utah. The ground is a parched, bare yellow with only the occasional pile of ripped up corn breaking the flat skyline. They stretch, yawn, make camp for the night. Fire pit, two tents. Farah and Todd; Amanda and Vogel. Amanda refuses to let go of Vogel’s arm and Todd can’t sleep alone with his attacks. It’s only logical to split them like this, but Vogel shakes his head petulantly at Farah’s suggestion.
‘No, no, I wanna be outside. Closer to ‘em,’ Vogel says decisively, even an inch of nylon tent between him and his distant brothers too much agony to consider.
He pulls his way from Amanda’s grip, starts to climb up the pick-up, to the roof of the cab. The metal groans as it’s bent by his weight.
Amanda follows him with her eyes, her arms crossed over her chest, stiff.
Todd whispers to Farah as they watch.
‘He’s speaking in full sentences. Blinking, holding eye contact. Have you noticed that?’
Farah had. Didn’t want to put it into words, not knowing what it meant.
‘Is this... good?’ she asks.
Todd shrugs in response, looking as bewildered as Farah feels.
‘Amanda?’ Farah ventures softly, offering her entrance into the conversation, breaking the frozen silence of the siblings. ‘You know them better than we do. Is this normal?’
Amanda doesn’t look at them. She remains staring at Vogel, who is sitting on the top of the cab, his eyes shut but twitching his head like a dog on guard.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know them at all.’
They put the radio on in the cab, and blast it through the open windows as they cook canned beans and sausages, in the new, stainless-steel camping containers. The three of them sit on new fabric camping chairs, Vogel still refusing to leave the top of the pick-up. There’s so little to talk about - or maybe the opposite, maybe too much - so the music wafts between them undeterred.
The food tastes heavy and deep with over-sugared tomato sauce. Farah scoops her bowl with a spoon, watches Amanda lick hers clean with her fingers and tongue, shameless. Farah is incapable of looking away.
The song changes to some soft rock, an acoustic guitar lightened by a man’s voice who sounds foolishly in love. Some of the words fall into Farah’s mouth from her memory; she’s heard the song before. Farah feels like drifting off, the lifting music and the slowly setting sun a natural sedative, so she packs herself more upright in the chair and looks around.
Todd’s eyes are closed, arms folded, maybe already asleep, but Amanda is moving. Farah watches Amanda’s wrists twist. She’s tapping imaginary sticks on imaginary drums. Her lips perfectly shape every syllable the singer offers, but she doesn’t make a sound. Then, when they reach the chorus, Amanda’s voice lilts as she starts to sing. Farah’s heart leaps. Christ. Amanda’s voice is beautiful.
‘You sing?’ Farah finds herself asking when the song drops into the bridge and Amanda’s fingers clasp around sticks again.
Amanda catches Farah’s eyes, sharp and dark, unreadable.
‘Yeah,’ she smiles, with obvious ambivalence to her talent. ‘I mostly drum, but Todd’s tone deaf and we -’
‘You’re a great singer,’ Todd’s voice cracks into the conversation from the other side of the flickering fire - evidently not asleep. He opens one eye, looks at his sister with undisguised pride. ‘I always said you’ve got a real talent - you should -’
‘I’m a drummer,’ Amanda interrupts, curtly. Farah realises it’s an argument they’ve had before.
‘You’re a great drummer.’
‘I’m a fucking awesome drummer.’
‘And so modest.’
Amanda’s lips twitch into a smile. Farah just recognises the familiar warmth between family before it freezes over in Amanda’s eyes and she stands. Todd closes his eyes again and Farah watches him turn over.
‘Todd?’ Farah asks, when Amanda has left for her tent.
He doesn’t reply, but Farah can tell from his shaking hands that he’s awake.
Amanda’s high-pitched scream knocks Farah out of her purposefully light sleep. She wrestles out of the thick sleeping bag, pulls her gun from underneath her pillow and flicks the safety off. Todd is solid, warm and snoring beside her in his own sleeping bag. She hits him hard in the side, making him groan awake.
Then, outside, through the open zipper. Farah stands upright and spins. Points of attack - North. South. East. West. Points her weapon in each direction. Clear. Clear. Clear. Clear.
Farah backs herself up to the flickering fire, in the direction of the road - the most probable advancing point - her boots crunching on the dry ground. She flicks her eyes over her shoulder to see Amanda, doubled over. Her body curled. Her hands around her own shoulders, hissing in pain.
‘Attack - attack -’ she hisses.
All of Farah’s power vanishes. She puts her gun on the ground and drops to her knees in front of Amanda’s shaking, small body. Farah presses her face to Amanda’s neck, and smells the soft tang of peach softener in her clothes, the taste of dirt and blood heady around her. Farah pulls her closer into her lap and puts her arms tight around her, cosseting her whimpers and shakes.
Stop hurting. Stop hurting, Farah thinks - almost prays - but it's no use: Amanda is falling apart under her fingers.
Farah pulls away from the soft, earthy smell of her and watches her dark, frantic eyes, scattering with terror. Farah wipes under Amanda’s eyes with the pads of her thumbs, clearing tears and accrued dirt.
‘Cold, so cold…’ Amanda shivers and Farah could kill a thousand men if it would do any good.
Vogel’s presence comes into play; the sound of his scuffing boots, the change in the flickering firelight as he stands between them and the fire.
‘Vogel - please -’ Amanda gasps, holding out her hand to him.
Amanda has told Farah; told her what the Rowdy Three can do for her. Farah’s seen it, what they did to Dirk, and she doesn’t trust it. Nameless power. Close to magic. There’s no explanation; no rules. But for Amanda? For Amanda, Farah will allow anything.
‘I -’ Vogel’s fringe flicks over his face as he shakes his head, eyes screwed up in anxiousness. The fire frames him from behind. He’s shrunk in the shadow, his dark hair lighting up. Burns a halo around him. ‘I can’t - not without - not without -’
‘Amanda,’ Dust flies into the air as Todd crashes down besides them, scraping the knees of his already filthy jeans.
He wraps his arms around his sister, and Farah pulls herself away before Todd can push her. Amanda crashes her head into his shoulder, shivers rolling down her body, and moans in pain.
Farah sits on the ground, alone, her heart hammering at her ribcage.
‘I’m here - I’m here,’ Todd says, wiping Amanda’s hair from her eyes. He looks at Farah - desperate, blistering with fury - then at Vogel. ‘Can’t you do anything?’
‘I - I can -’ Vogel swallows, seems to settle himself. ‘Okay.’
Then, he breathes.
A deep, cascading roar. The fine hairs on Farah’s arms stand. The air vibrates. Farah can remember from before, from the basement of the Ridgely Building, when Dirk was brought to his knees and emptied, how this will go.
Vogel stalks towards Amanda, his mouth slightly curled in wide-eyed hunger, and inhales.
Amanda sighs in blessed relief as a tornado of twisting sapphire smoke bursts from her face. It coils like a snake as it’s siphoned frantically fast towards Vogel, whipping the air around it. Vogel breathes and the smoke seeps into his nose, his mouth and his body begins to shake with tremors. He twitches against them. Squeezes his eyes shut. His fingers roll into tense fists.
Farah frowns. That’s different. It had started the same as it did in the Ridgely, but it’s evolving to something else - the elated greed on Vogel’s face has vanished. He’s barely standing upright.
Then, the smoke, the something, is barrelling uncontrolled into his face. He’s drowning in it. Undisciplined. Unchecked. He can’t breathe.
Comes in a flood of realisation: Vogel is one taking energy meant for four.
‘Stop! Stop!’ Farah shouts but the roaring, the smoke, the electricity doesn’t cease.
Vogel can’t hear her; or maybe he doesn’t want to hear her.
Farah drives herself to her feet and tackles Vogel to the ground, landing on top of him.
In his shock, he closes his mouth, cutting off the smoke.
The air around them explodes. The smoke whips around them, an untethered monster, snarling and screeching. Farah spins around, watching the storm wrapping around them both, holding the distance between unshackled energy and Vogel’s desperate, gasping, overwhelmed body with an outstretched hand.
The energy twists dives into her and Farah’s stomach screams in agony as she’s thrown away from Vogel and to the ground. Feels the jolt on her neck as her head wrenches back and cries out as the back of her head smacks against the dirt.
She hears Vogel crying and Amanda gasping and Todd screaming his sister’s name.
She opens her eyes and sees stars. But. Not the stars she remembers. Not Orion. Something different. Something else.
The smoke, untethered, has swamped the air above her, forming a floating miasma. And inside, little flashing studs. The stars, but not quite. Beautiful and small, Farah’s fingers itch to touch, but she can feel the overwhelming heat of them from where she is.
And the sound. Oh, the sound. They’re singing.
Farah breathes, the stars start to flash and -
“- thought this would be easy. I don’t get how are we supposed to weaponize these people -”
“- it doesn’t have to be like this! It never needed to be like this -!”
“- Dirk, please - wake up -”
“- won’t let you hurt my boys -”
“- she’s one of them. She’s my everything -”
“- You’re not supposed to be here. WHY ARE ALL YOU PEOPLE IN HERE. ”
Farah hears herself screaming and scrabbles upright. There are hands on her and she claws at them, only stopping as she recognises a yelp as Todd’s and Amanda’s heightened voice.
The night around them is still. The smoke has cleared. Everything is clear. Farah’s heart is racing, exhaustion in her bones. Flashing images. Faces she recognises, faces she doesn’t, places she remembers from dreams and places she remembers in memories.
She feels sick.
‘Farah? Farah - are you okay?’
She sucks down oxygen. She breathes. (In, out. In, out. More seconds out than the seconds in.) This is so unlike a panic attack, but the breathing works.
She finds her centre, her daintain. Finds reality again.
The world resolves in front of Farah’s eyes. Amanda, above her. Farah stretches her hand out and touches the side of her face. Smiles, lazily, with how relieved Amanda looks and feels her cheekbones burn as Amanda presses her face against Farah’s hand, nuzzling in.
‘I couldn’t control it…’ Vogel is standing above them, his hands wrapped around himself. His eyes are streaked with tears. ‘It’s too much to control on my own. I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s okay - I’m fine -’ Farah says, her throat aching. ‘Is everyone -?’
‘We’re good,’ Amanda says. ‘Please, never do that again,’ Amanda laughs, her eyes shining.
‘It wasn’t in the plan,’ Farah says, wiping a tear from Amanda’s cheek.
They recover. They sleep. Todd holds watch and manages the night without incident. In the morning, Farah feels flushed out, her skin looser, her mind open. She wants to run - a quick 10K just to take the edge off and feel human - but there isn’t time. They have to keep moving. But moving where?
(The stars, something says to her. What did you see in the stars?)
They begin to drive, Amanda in the back with Vogel, Farah in the passenger’s seat. It’s her turn to drive, but she doesn’t have the strength to fight Todd.
No one asks Vogel, but he begins to talk anyway. Farah listens impassively, watching in the rearview mirror as Amanda rubs his back.
‘It’s psychic energy. We can extract it. We can - we’re supposed to eat it. To absorb it. We source it and sink it, but it’s too much for one person. We - we -’ Vogel sighs, his breath shaking ‘I’m remembering everything. I don’t want to remember anything.’
‘Remembering?’ Todd echoes, quietly. He looks across at Farah.
‘I wanted to be a doctor,’ Vogel says, quietly. ‘I got good grades. I was really - really smart, you know? AP science. My mom homeschooled me. She had - she had ideas. She was a scientist. She wanted me to be… good. But something happened. When I was fourteen, I started not listening. Things were too distracting. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t see what she was trying to tell me. I felt like I was going backwards, like I was unlearning. We had just moved then - to a military facility, where my mom worked. It was the proximity. It - it activated me.’
‘Military facility…’ Farah murmurs.
‘Black Wing,’ Todd says, quietly. His face scrunches and he looks out of the window. Farah has the impression he wants to punch through it.
‘I found them there. My mom - she didn’t want me to be admitted - but I begged her. I pleaded with her, just to be with them. I didn’t care that I was giving up my freedom, college, future - what the hell was the point when I had found everything I needed with them?’ Vogel sighs. ‘I’m different with them. I don’t need to be…’ Vogel waves his hands over his face. ‘A whole person, like this. I can be just one fourth. Just... excited, happiness. Pure emotion.’
‘You chose to do that?’ Todd said, sounding confused.
Vogel nodded. ‘I would rather spend my life in a cage with them, then free without. I don’t understand how anyone can think any different. And I’m gonna find them again,’ Vogel stares out of the window, the world rushing past his unblinking eyes. ‘I just know it.’
The desert highway becomes winding roads through flush forest. The plants become thicker with roots. They find a stream. It’s an oasis.
Amanda and Vogel tumble out of the back of their newly acquired car as soon as they stop, stripping off their clothes and heading towards the water like freshly freed schoolchildren.
Farah is itching to feel water strip dirt from her skin, but there are priorities. She has to fill their canteens. She has to wash their clothes. She has to refill the van’s radiators. There’s a list being generated in her head, orders already being barked, and she flinches when she feels Todd’s hand on her leg.
Todd’s face is relaxed, a genuine smile, the oasis infecting him.
‘We have time, right?’
Farah urges to correct him, remind him the one thing they don’t have is time. Time to stay anywhere, time to not be moving. But the water calls some fundamental part of her.
She wants to feel human again.
She walks with Todd to the edge of the river, seeing Amanda yelping as Vogel tries to get on her shoulders, her heart lifting. Vogel pushes her under and Farah can’t suppress her giggle at the betrayed expression on Amanda’s face, but covers her mouth anyway.
When Amanda re-surfaces and flicks her hair backwards, her eyes filled with humorous fury, it’s obvious that she’s topless.
Farah’s cheeks inflame. She whips her head to Todd, who is rolling his eyes, unfazed.
‘You can’t keep a shirt on her,’ Todd explains. Exasperated. Fondly. ‘She had to delete every single photo taken of her at Rock Fest off Facebook so our mom didn’t see.’
Farah rubs the heat above her cheekbones in disbelief. There’s something beautiful in Amanda’s joy, her freedom, the connection to her body. The sharp, genuine grin across her mouth. The way the water douses her hair. Her fringe is plastered against her forehead and she’s still laughing, childlike and free, as Vogel spits water over her in an arc.
After hours of slow bathing, Farah feels expanded and huge, the water soaked into her bones. She leans against the van window, relief washing over her as the water did. The rumble as they move is massaging and comforting, reminding her of long drives in her youth.
‘We needed that,’ Todd says, sounding exhausted but happy.
Farah murmurs agreement and wraps her arms around herself. ‘It’s a relief, not to… stink so bad.’
‘Speak for yourself; I always smell amazing,’ Todd says, making Farah smirk. She looks into the back, where both Vogel and Amanda are curled up together, asleep. ‘Have you - have we got a plan here?’
‘Keep moving,’ Farah mutters, her eyes skipping over the trees outside her window. ‘We need a new car really. Had this one too long.’
‘I was thinking we should try and find him. Them,’ Todd corrects, not quickly enough.
‘Did Dirk tell you where he was originally held?’
Todd shakes his head, rubs his hand over his stubble. ‘Just said it was a facility. Somewhere hot.’
‘Vogel may remember,’ Farah says, flicking her eyes over the sleeping boy. ‘But it doesn’t really matter; there’s no guarantee they’ll still be there. If they’re smart, they would have decamped and moved to a more secure location.’
‘We have to do something,’ Todd says, forcefully. ‘I can’t - I can’t spend my life running, Farah. Not when he - when they need me. We just need a fucking clue, or something. If Dirk was here...’ Todd sighs. ‘Yeah. If Dirk was here.’
Farah is seconds from sleep when she hears shuffling outside her tent. She breathes herself cognizant and opens her eyes to see Amanda crawling inside, her brown hair lit by the moon outside. She’s wearing nothing but a long, white shirt - an XXL cotton thing they had picked up from a tempting washing line few days ago. Her feet are bare, her hair is long, loose but tangled.
‘Everything okay?’ Farah asks, quietly.
Amanda smiles, nodding. ‘Do you mind if I sleep in here?’
Farah does mind - minds for reasons she can’t divulge, like how difficult it will be to sleep next to her without stroking her, holding her, smelling her neck - but nods anyway. Amanda shuffles in, over to Todd’s sleeping bag and lies on it. Farah’s eyes slide down the long length of her legs - the path her palms itch to follow.
‘Amanda -’ Farah says, and swallows, her mouth is dry.
‘You saw something, didn’t you?’ Amanda says, quietly.
For a split second, Farah thinks Amanda means at the lake earlier, the lightness of her pale skin, the water roving down her body and flushes, but Amanda’s eyes are asking a deeper question.
‘When you were - when the energy - when that shit happened,’ Amanda says, stumbling over terminology. Her eyes are glinting, mischievously. ‘What did you see?’
Farah has been asking herself the same question, trying to decode the snapshots of images and voices. ‘I don’t know. Things. Weird… stuff, I don’t know what any of it means. Wait - did you? Did you -?’
Amanda nods. ‘The first time the Rowdys worked their magic on me. I saw, god, it was like the universe broke apart and let me just feel. There was so much stuff - I could barely hold onto it - but I remembered the handle - it’s how I knew about the thingy, in the basement of the Ridgely. I thought that maybe - maybe you saw…?’
Something to help us find them, Farah finishes for her. Farah’s heart falls.
She knows nothing. She’s let the universe down. She’s let them down. It extended a hand to help them, to guide them, and Farah couldn’t hold onto what it was saying.
Amanda’s hand is on hers and Farah’s chest flutters. Her fingers are long. Her nails are bitten, her polish chipped. She’s fractured all over, but so perfect.
‘Hey, I didn’t mean - don’t worry about it. It’s weird; it’s okay to not understand it -’
‘How is this so normal to you?’ Farah asks. Amanda looks at her quizzically. ‘I’m - I’m terrified, all the time, but you’re handling this like this is some big adventure.’
Amanda appears to consider the question. ‘Everything is... better than what came before,’ Amanda says, carefully. ‘I want to go forward. I want to move.’
Amanda shakes her head. ‘No, not to run. Well, maybe, but to run somewhere. It’s a path,’ Amanda holds Farah’s palm flat and upwards in her hand, and starts to trace the lifeline there, slight pressure. Hypnotising. ‘We just have to follow.’
‘How can you believe that will work? How do you know this?’
‘I don’t,’ Amanda smiles. ‘I don’t know anything. I just know that we have to get Vogel to his boys and Todd to Dirk. We have to do that.’
‘And us?’ Farah says. ‘Why are we - why am I here?’
Amanda laces her fingers with Farah’s. Her eyes scatter over Farah’s face and the air heats between them. Farah can feel Amanda moving, hear the shuffle of her knees on the bedding. The tension is a physical weight in Farah’s chest. She can’t breathe for the pressure.
‘I think you’re here for me, and I’m here for you,’ Amanda murmurs. Her eyes are scattering over Farah’s mouth. Amanda’s lips are slightly parted, the slight pink of her tongue and white of her teeth in her happy, half-grin. ‘Is that - is that okay?’
‘I will follow you anywhere,' Farah says, and kisses her.