Ivy arrived on the ragged edge of a storm. It was wet, wild, and humid in the Myakka boonies. At first, she simply sat there in the borrowed red Corolla, watching the windshield wipers dance back and forth. After a few minutes, she killed the car’s headlights, then the engine.
She pushed the driver’s door open and stepped out into the rain. The raging sky at her back was a beast in agony, swirling with bubbly clouds of ash and electric blue.
The house was painted white, a century-old wooden affair. She walked up to the rickety wooden porch and pounded on the heavy wooden door. Her hand paused in mid-air when the door opened.
The man whose frame filled the doorway was bleary-eyed and irritated. Barefoot, Alexander Viktor wore jeans and a rumpled white tee-shirt. He clearly didn’t appreciate a stranger showing up on his doorstep in the dead of night. Nasty weather to boot.
His gaze narrowed and he scowled down at her. “Who the hell are you?”
Her mouth tightened but instead of voicing her irritation, she drew in a deep breath. “Evan Khan is dead,” she announced. “Tully Anderson too.”
Viktor flinched but he seemed to recover quickly as he absorbed her news. He nodded once but said nothing.
Ivy reached into the pocket of her jeans and fished out a thumb drive.
“The doc once told me to find you and give you this if anything ever happened to him. This counts, I suppose.”
She gestured impatiently for him to take the thumb drive. Seeming to relent, Viktor took it and stepped aside to let her in.
“Wait here.” He ducked down the hallway and returned moments later with a ratty towel. He tossed the towel her way.
Ivy barely caught it. She eyed him quizzically.
“It’s clean,” he said gruffly. “Use it before you ruin my floors.”
Ivy glanced down at the wooden floor. Water was starting to pool around her boots and seep between the floorboards. To be honest, though, she didn’t much care about the damned floor. She had bigger fish to fry.
“I’m making coffee. Want some?”
“Sure,” she shrugged. “Why not?”
He snorted at her lack of enthusiasm. He disappeared into the kitchen while Ivy kicked off her black Moto boots. She opened the door and set them down, upside down, on the porch.
Viktor returned as she was closing the door. He gestured for her followers, then to sit at the dining table. He set the mugs down before her on the table and sank into the chair across from her.
“Tell me everything,” he ordered. “Don’t leave anything out.”
Ivy sat down and rolled up her right sleeve so that he could see the joint where her right arm was fitted into place.
He leaned forward for a better look. “Bionic.”
“Ever seen one like this?” She asked. It wasn’t functioning, so she had to use her good arm to lift it up and lay it on the table for him to see.
“Nothing as advanced as this,” Viktor shook his head. “Hardware failure?”
She nodded briefly. “Something to do with the kinesthetic interface.”
When Viktor said nothing, Ivy pressed on. “The last time I saw the Doc and Tully alive, they’d just come back from sourcing materials to build the components needed to fix this thing.”
Her mind swung back to the grisly scene of carnage that had greeted her in the lab. Blood and broken body parts. So much blood.
Ivy leaned back in her chair. “I want to know why my friends are dead.”
Viktor fished the thumb drive out of his pocket and set it on the table. “Think it has something to do with this?”
“I’d bet my life,” she murmured.
He twirled the thumb drive between his fingers. He stood abruptly. “Only one way to find out.”
Ivy followed him into another room. It was a sparsely furnished office. She stood in the doorway and watched in silence as he booted up his desktop PC, stuck the thumb drive into the port, and waited for the contents to load.
Ivy narrowed her gaze and dipped her head toward the screen. What are those diagrams and symbols supposed to mean?”
Viktor’s fingers paused over the keyboard. “You don’t know?”
He ignored that, answering her first question instead. “They’re schematics.”
“Obviously, genius.” She scowled. “Schematics for what?”
Viktor didn’t answer.
Lightning set the room ablaze with pale blue light and another boom of thunder shook the walls of the wooden house. The rain outside intensified, becoming more thunderous.
After a few minutes of staring at the incomprehensible symbols on the screen, Viktor turned around in his chair. He stared long and hard at Ivy.
“How exactly did Doc and Tully die?”
Ivy leaned against the door jamb. “Quickly, probably. Their heads were separated from their bodies. I don’t know with what. Why?”
Viktor shook his head. “No reason.”
His gaze shuttered. He powered the old computer down and stood. “I’ve got a spare room. Two doors to the left down the hall. You can sleep there tonight.”
He was making a show of being calm, but he wasn’t calm at all. He was silently freaking out. His heart rate had skyrocketed, and his adrenaline levels were off the charts.
Ivy didn’t know how she knew that, but she knew.
She somehow knew better than to comment on his forced nonchalance. She thanked him for the offer and watched in puzzlement as he edged past her and made his way back into the kitchen area.
She lay awake in the dark guest room, contemplating her predicament. Even though the rain had stopped, and the skies had quieted down, she couldn’t fall asleep. As a matter of fact, she couldn’t seem to remember the last time she had slept at all. Or even eaten.
Something about that realization made worry niggle at the back of her mind. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why.
The night was full of sounds she’d never had the occasion to listen to before but somehow, she was able to separate and mentally catalog each source. Bullfrogs. Birds of various species. Cicadas. Alligators.
Her breath caught in her throat as her mind suddenly swung back to Viktor’s seemingly innocent question.
How did Doc and Tully die?
She’d lied instinctively, but the truth was far more confounding.
The two men had been alive in one moment and dead in the next. Between those two points in time and space was a dark void inside her mind.
Near four in the morning, the sound of a phone ringing registered. Ivy lay there in silence, waiting for the ringing to stop. She heard Viktor’s low murmur.
“Took you long enough.”
His voice dropped a few more decibels, but she could still hear snatches of what he was saying. The word psychotic floated down the hallway. She cringed. His next harsh whisper made her bolt upright.
“…and it thinks it’s human!”
She sat upright in the bed, heart hammering away in her chest. She sprang to her feet. Pacing back and forth, she willed herself to take long, deep breaths. She marched toward the door. Her fingers froze around the doorknob.
“Calm down,” she muttered to herself. “Calm down.”
She drew in a deep breath and too antsy to stand still, started pacing again. What was Viktor talking about? Who was he talking about? A sick feeling bubbled up into her throat. Anxiety seeped into her skin.
Doc and Tully were dead. Why couldn’t she remember how they’d gotten that way?
She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. Viktor was in his office. The door was closed, and light peeked out from under the door. She knocked softly.
She heard him say, “look, I’ll call you back. Okay?”
She knocked again. When Viktor didn’t answer, she tried to open the door. It was locked.
An inexplicable wave of fury whipped through her like a lightning bolt. It was sickening and overpowering. She yanked on the doorknob again. She yanked hard. The hinges broke.
Ivy yelped and sprang aside in astonishment as the door crashed to the floor.
Viktor sat frozen in his chair. His eyes were wide and buggy.
Two things registered.
One. Viktor had a double-barrel shotgun aimed point-blank at her midriff.
Two. Viktor was scared.
“Stay right there,” he warned, voice high and taut. “Don’t take even one step into this room.”
“What’s your problem?” Ivy demanded. She advanced without a second thought.
She heard the gun click as he pulled the trigger.
It was morning when Ivy’s eyes fluttered open again. The bright glare of sunlight made her squeeze them back shut. Her eyelids scraped against her sclera like sandpaper. She moaned, forcing her eyelids apart again. She heard a raucous sound, the likes of which she’d never heard before. It was a cock crowing, she suddenly realized. She absently wondered why she knew that.
She tried to move but couldn’t. At first, she couldn’t fathom why. She was seated on the floor, back against the wall. Her gut was a throbbing mass of pain. Her good hand went to her midriff. She stared down at her hand in confusion when it came away wet and sticky with oily, black ooze.
Disturbed and confused, she tried to wipe the gummy mess away. Her fingers stilled abruptly. Her breath hitched as she remembered. Viktor tried to kill her.
He was slumped over in a congealing pool of blood across the room from her. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. His arms and legs were bent at awkward angles. His head had been separated from his body.
It had rolled over to the foot of his desk and settled there with bloodshot, and bulbous eyes open, staring blindly up at the ceiling.
She frowned at the severed head in consternation as dread and confusion swirled in her wrecked gut. The horrifying answer was on the tip of her tongue, yet it eluded her.
Why couldn’t she remember?
Her head throbbed painfully. She fought off the sudden seasick feeling welling up inside her brain. She tried and tried to remember.
Victor tried to kill her. Then she woke up, gut-shot and leaking this strange black sludge onto the floor.
Between the split second in which he’d pulled the trigger, and the instant Ivy regained consciousness, was a dark void inside her mind.