Garbage, microscopic plastic particles of it, rushed up her nose, stinging. Her lungs burned to cough. Sana was drowning, though that was the least of her problems.
She’d botched the job—bad—and somehow let the mark get away—worse—so even bleeding out five feet under paled in comparison. She’d expected the rough waters, expected the scrappers to fight back, but the moment the gun had been pulled there was just a split second of the hesitation she’d thought had been trained out of her, and that was all it took. Point-blank, shot by her own mark. The shame was enough to kill her if the internal bleeding didn’t do the job first.
It shouldn’t have slowed her down. Pain was trained out of her too—meant to be, anyway. There would be much worse than a bullet wound waiting for her on the other side of this, assuming she didn’t die first. But it didn’t so much matter now, did it? She was already dying, and she’d lost her speeder too—which shouldn’t rank, but only because she was being grit-toothed practical about it. She really loved that speeder.
Moonlight, golden white, refracted through the surface of the water, drifting slowly away as she sank deeper. There was a tendril of blood trailing back to the surface. Drowning, bleeding out, she was a dead woman anyway. Might as well enjoy the dancing play of light filtering down through shifting fragments of garbage.
A hand reaching out…
Sana was drowning.
And then she wasn’t.
A simple job. But they were always supposed to be simple, weren’t they? Just make the mark. Not even a catch and return, not even a kill job. All she had to do was tag them so the company could keep tabs, so they couldn’t pick their nose or scratch their ass without someone knowing about it. That simple.
But all it took was one miscalculation, one reflexive flinch before instinct could kick in, one stupid little mistake, and a simple job became your last job. Sana knew that. But then, everyone’s invincible until they aren’t, right? That’s human nature.
The waves in the middle of the Pacific were like concrete walls of water, rising and falling and shifting the ground beneath, forever reorienting perspective. There was no reprieve, no moment of rest or respite—too long a blink and you might find yourself coughing up a lungful of water.
She pulled her goggles down and readjusted the thin, black breathing mask fitted over her mouth and nose—the only thing standing between her and so much toxic air. The fumes floating up from the garbage gyre stung the exposed skin at the edges of her mask. The sun baked the chemicals right out of them, all those plastic particulates pulled here by the currents. Most of it dumped in the twenty-cen. Ancient fuckers didn’t even care what they were flushing down the drain: a legacy of garbage decaying out here in the deep for their great-great-to-the-power-of-great grandkids to choke on.
She was gaining on them, her speeder skimming over the water and kicking up a salty spray. Just aim the tracker gun, burn a little laser barcode into their skin from fifty yards. Easy. Until a piece of plastic flew up, nicking her goggles, half-blinding her. Until one of them pulled a gun—an ancient thing which shouldn’t have worked, much less from this distance. Must’ve been jacked, teched-up somehow.
Until they pulled the trigger and she felt the sucker-punch impact that knocked her off balance. Until her immortal number was up and she was drowning in plastic, and, well, you get the picture: bad and bad. Fatally bad.
She scrambled against the running board of the speeder, the harsh downdraft tossing her out across the water, splayed and grasping, and then under, buffeted deep, waves breaking below her feet overhead. Torqued over. Water gushing through the filter of her mask, pushing at the back of her throat.
What a stupid fucking useless way to go.
Sana had taken a blow to the head. Subdermal hematoma, maybe. Flat-out lost it, at any rate. That much was evident, the only explanation, the only thing that made any sense as to why a mermaid—a kripping gorgeous mermaid with a salt-tarnished, metal tail—was dragging her to safety from the whirl of the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre.
Except, maybe not saving. Because down was up and sunlight was below and that hand was dragging her away which meant she was being dragged down. Deeper and deeper, pressure building.
Less of a mermaid, more of a siren, then. But what did fictional semantics matter? She could worry about words and the many mistakes that led to them—the choice of her unstable old, speeder and a hot meal over the credits for a safer, newer option; the way she’d shifted at the last second so the bullet hit her dead on instead of clipping her at an angle; the fact she’d taken this job in the first place because it was the most isolated, most exciting, and yet not even the biggest payout—or just accept that she was being dragged to her death.
Well, Sana could think of worse ways to die than in the arms of a beautiful siren.
(Drowning wasn’t so bad, as far as these things went. Relatively peaceful once you accepted it for what it was. Stop panicking and just breathe, natural, let the water flow in and take you. No drawn-out, painful struggle. No questions or accusations. Just inevitability.)
Pleasantly numb and floaty—Sana was content to drift into unawareness.
But—and she noted this with some concern, because this was something else, some unaccounted-for alternative—she didn’t seem to be dying. Her head was clearing, images coming into better focus even as the water around them continued to warp her perception. That’s when she realized there was a rebreather in her mouth.
Sana sucked in a greedy breath. Sweet, sweet, recycled oxygen—because god-kripping-damn-it this was definitely the unaccounted-for something else—and finally, gladly, passed out.
Lying on the floor—metal or something like it. Metal alloy. Expensive. She could hear movement across from her, shifting, scuttling. Her captor. Sana cracked her eyelids, crusty with saltwater, just enough to see without being seen.
The mermaid was detaching her tail.
No. Sana blinked. Her mind was still connecting incoherent thoughts. The woman—because she was certainly a human woman—was removing some sort of fin attached at the knees. She set it aside, hanging from a hook on the wall where a steady patter of droplets fell from segmented tailfins.
The woman pulled out a pair of curved, walking blades, and it was clear now that the fin Sana’s hypoxiated brain had mistaken for a mermaid tail was just a prosthetic. No mythical creature, but a feat of engineering. Clever.
Too bad, really. All things considered, she would’ve preferred a touch of fantasy.
Sana felt the familiar press of dense polymer at her lower back. The woman hadn’t searched her, hadn’t even restrained her. Not so clever then.
She reached for the gun holstered just beneath the soaked hem of her shirt, shoulders and chest protesting the movement. Injured, but that was a problem for later. This gun was real, not the laser tagger lost back with her speeder. Plastic-polymer with biodegradable bullets—unlike the one that had passed clear through her shoulder.
Teeth gritted. Carefully, without betraying anything but the slightest movement, she freed the weapon and took aim.
The woman was gone. Sana barely had time to track movement to her right—the woman was behind her, how, and so quickly?—when she felt a sharp prick at the base of her neck—kripping hell—and drifted back into black.
One of her wrists was cuffed to the water line, a thin film of condensation clinging to the metal. A steady drip-drip-drip of water fell against her wrist, dragging a line of cold down her arm. She tugged halfheartedly, already knowing it would be sound. More “rote motion” than “escape attempt”.
Her other wrist was free—which might’ve been a rookie mistake, except the woman had learned from last time. Gun missing, and she’d clearly been searched. Thoroughly. No tasers or knives, and the hidden blade compartments lining the seams of her clothes would be useless considering she wasn’t currently wearing them.
Stripped down to her skivvies, clothes hung to dry haphazardly around the room. On the back of the chair; hanging off hooks. Her leather jacket was draped over a pipe near the ceiling. A snailtrail of water dripped down its sleeve, sluggishly. Sana shuddered. It was real leather—grown in a lab, worth more than both her kidneys on the black market. She’d kill for that thing; loved it more than her own mother.
She pushed herself up to sitting and scanned the room. Stereotypical lab equipment: vials of rose- and teal-colored luminescent fluids and jars of indiscernible specimens. A work table under the port window covered in mess. Half-eaten protein packet, spilled caf mug, scattered papers. But the vials themselves were meticulously labeled—careless only where it didn’t count.
She stretched to peer into the rest of the space—small and damp, but sturdy; made to stand up to immense deep-sea pressures, which made her think of some sort of submersible lair—but a sharp, tugging pain followed by a deep ache stopped her. Injured, right.
Unclothed as she was, a simple glance down was enough to tell her that her wounds had been tended. Her fingers traced butterfly stitches which pulled the edges of the gash on her forehead together. Old fashioned, gauze bandages wrapped her upper arm and shoulder.
She peeled back the edge to bruised and tender flesh underneath. The stitches were crude, but even. Passable. She’d certainly done worse herself.
It would scar, no question, but Sana didn’t mind. Scars were a commodity in her line of work, better than any résumé or recommendation. Flesh ripped open and sewn back together, puckered and red and grisly—there was something striking about that. It meant your survival was hard fought. Proof of life.
And the black silk sutures themselves—not surprising there’d be no medical adhesive in a place like this. Sana lived hard, but even her cityrat life was a step above this middle of nowhere scrapper. Honest, who made a home in the middle of the Pacific? Flat-out mad people was who.
Said madwoman walked back into the room, hips swinging out to accommodate the blades she walked on. She didn’t acknowledge her—sitting up and fully conscious, mostly unclothed—which disconcerted Sana, who’d expected at least a good you’re awake or a not so quick with your gun this time, I see. Instead she just checked the cuff holding Sana’s wrist and glanced at the exposed stitching beneath her collarbone then went on like she had better things to do. More important than a naked prisoner strapped to her waterline.
Cuffed and gunless, Sana had no idea how to properly handle this situation. Violence, maybe. Except being stripped and strung-up made that a bit trickier, didn’t it? And she’d already made the mistake of underestimating this woman once.
“I’m your prisoner now, is that it?” Sana called out. The woman ignored her, out of sheer spite, Sana felt certain. She went back to her bench. Examined some instruments and scribbled notes longhand in the open notebook like she was living in the twenty-first century.
“Why’d you bring me here anyway?” Silence. She moved through corners of the room, to places Sana’s eyes couldn’t follow. The torque against the arm cuffed over her head would’ve snapped her wrist—though she did pull at it just to try, or maybe because the sharp lightning tug of pain jolted through her brain like caffeine.
Sana gritted her teeth. “Not that I’m not enjoying this, but if you’re determined to ignore me, why not just let me go?”
“Your presence could skew the results,” she said finally, the other woman.
Not an accent she recognized. Not American Provinces or the Great Northern Conglomerate and not the Allied Arab Nations where Sana had grown up—what growing up there had been to do, anyway. An indiscernible accent couldn’t tell much except that she’d probably been rich enough and educated enough to lose whatever accent she’d had in the first place. There was power in anonymity.
Sana let that hang in the air. “Your…results?”
The woman didn’t turn around. “Yes.”
“So I’m your prisoner.”
“Only until the experiment’s finished.” The woman walked out of the shadows, pulling off latex gloves, rolled inside-out and left on the table. Still some bloody gauze up there, too, now, Sana noticed.
She made no attempts to cover herself despite her not-insubstantial state of undress. If the madwoman hadn’t wanted to see her half-naked she shouldn’t have cuffed and stripped her. Not to mention, she must’ve seen a good portion of what there was to be seen when she’d tended to Sana wounds in the first place.
The woman was smart, well-trained. Said only what she needed to say and no more. She had a pair of vintage glasses pushed up on her forehead—which said something about her person, that she’d opt for the outmoded frames instead of implants or augs. Some weird psychology there.
Madwoman noticed her staring; raised a pointed eyebrow.
“Hey, I’m not the one bringing strange women back to my underwater lair and drugging them up, stripped and handcuffed to the wall,” Sana said—before adding with a coy, dangerous edge, “not that I might not be into that, right circumstances and all.”
She didn’t take the bait—but then where was the fun in easy prey?
“Maybe you could find out if you let me loose.”
No shift in the other woman’s expression until Sana tugged meaningfully at her cuffed wrist. Gentle lines tightened around the madwoman’s eyes, the only sign of her comprehension.
“I saved your life,” she said, looking pointedly at the bandages taped across Sana’s torso. “You’re welcome for that.”
Which apparently settled it.
Later, Sana realized the question she should’ve asked was how long, exactly, this experiment was going to last. Not why or what—though she suspected the madwoman would’ve loved to explain the whys and whats in excruciating detail, scientists always did—but just how long exactly, because it had been however many hours now and Sana was beginning to realize that in addition to the blood loss and the head injury and the near-drowning, it’d been quite a while since she’d had anything more than polluted sea water in her system.
Not a winning combination, according to the headache beating against the inside of her skull.
But the woman didn’t like to answer questions, however she phrased them. “How long are you going to keep me here?” Silence. “Experiment, huh?” Silence. “Maybe uncuff me or give me some kripping water already!” A glass of water slid her way, sloshing over the sides and adding to the slick dampness of the floor. She stretched awkwardly to reach, one arm still shackled overhead.
“What’s your name, anyway?” Sana asked after taking a sip, speaking only to fill the silence. The depth of it, unsettling.
But the woman responded without looking back. “So you can report it back to those corps you work for?” She said it, not accusatory, but plainspoken in the way of everything else. Matter-of-fact.
It took Sana longer to answer than it should’ve. “I don’t work for anybody,” she said. More guile than Sana had pegged her for, though, which was interesting in its own right.
“Who pays for all the scrap you drag in then? Who pays out the bounties you don’t lose in the middle of the ocean?”
Much more guile. Maybe Sana should’ve known better than to think a scientist clever enough to survive out here would be any kind of simple. An interesting knot to untangle, if she could just free up her hands long enough pull at it.
“What’s your name?” Sana asked again to no answer. “My name’s Sana.”
Sana narrowed her eyes at that. Annoying and likely untrue. Her files were all redacted, street cam footage erased, no trails for any other companies to track or—
The woman pulled out the identification stick that had been tucked beneath Sana’s shirt before the accident and was, of course, missing along with the rest of her clothes. Sana gritted her teeth. The woman must’ve done a hack job. So her knowledge of Sana’s life was less guesswork and more identity theft.
A name didn’t have any more power than you gave it, but that didn’t mean you had to part with it easily. Especially when parting with it made you an identifiable target.
“You make a habit of ID theft with all your prisoners? This your way of getting to know us? Because, darling,” she slipped into a sultry drawl, “you could’ve just asked.”
“You’re my first.”
Her frank speech once again left Sana blinking to catch up. “I’m your—”
“Prisoner,” she said. “You can call me Em.”
“That your name?”
Em tossed her ID stick, Sana catching it between the edges of her fingertips even with one wrist cuffed. A glance up and down. Testing her reflexes, sizing her up, injuries and all. Em smiled and walked out, leaving her alone once again. Sana cocked her jaw in a thoughtfully pleased expression that sent aching tendrils up toward her temples. This, Sana could work with—and maybe even enjoy.
Sana dozed, restless. The woman—Em—came and went. Slipping on the fishtail and out of her blades, dripping a trail of saltwater as she settled on her bench, pipetting samples and adding in chemicals that shifted them every shade of green and pink and blue.
Sometimes, after hours and hours of fiddling with those samples, she’d open a panel that pulled out from the wall like a drawer, letting in a clear tank of ocean water she could partition off, sometimes with a few fish or plankton or—once—a jellyfish in with it. Once it was sealed, she’d carefully dropper in her colored solutions, now the pink, then the green. She’d watch, take careful measurements. The water and fish were always disposed of, never re-released.
“What is that? You a poisoner-chemist? Poisoning fish?” Nothing, and half the time Sana felt like she was talking just for the talking of it. Just because solitary was worse, and even though this wasn’t solitary, the quiet was bad enough even when Em was there. “Thought we had enough of that already. Fish is expensive enough, and here you are trying to poison off the rest of them.”
The hum and creak of the pressure against the walls was the only response. Then: “Those corps you work for—” She shot Sana a pointed look as she pipetted. “—what is it you do for them—aside from drowning?”
“Couldn’t piece it together from this then?” Sana waved her ID stick through the air, Em’s eyes tracking the movement. “You didn’t tell me yours, why should I tell you mine?”
The other woman shrugged, meaning to convey indifference. A bargaining chip, perhaps, if a small one. Her eyes darted up to the jacket slung over the pipe.
“Give me my leather, I’ll tell you what it is you want to know.”
Em eyed her, narrow and gauging. The thoughts flitted across her face and she did nothing to hide them—no proper training how to, maybe. Why that? Why not freedom or painkillers? Is it valuable? Sentimental? Useful to my advantage?
Cunning and secretive, but not wily, which might’ve been surprising—except maybe rich scientists who spent all their time doing experiments out in the middle of the ocean like old British spy movie villains didn’t need much beyond that to get what they wanted. Maybe they could just buy it.
“Just the jacket,” Sana said, answering the questions Em hadn’t meant to ask.
She grabbed it—roughly— tossing it down, and Sana had to conceal the wince to catch it, the movement pulling at her shoulder. Not as if she could put it on, so she just held it in her hands. Should’ve made her more suspicious, that. The jacket had sentimental value, sure, and monetary, too, which was just as important, but why would Sana want it back when she couldn’t even wear it? Why waste a bargain on nothing? That’s what the woman should’ve been asking.
Instead, there was something like guilt in her eyes.
Sana could use that. The scientist hadn’t realized yet what she’d done—rescued a cetacean only to tie up a feral shark, and Sana had fangs. Was made to bite.
“Your job, anyway,” she said.
Sana considered toying with her, withholding just to see how she’d react—reason? lash out? reverse transaction?—but decided against it, mostly because she was too tired to reckon with any of that, however edifying.
“I’m the delivery girl,” she said, shifting to rest against the wall as best she could. “I find whatever it is they’re looking for; deliver it back to them.”
Em eyed her. “That’s not what your stick said.”
Sana knew exactly what her stick said—and what it didn’t. “You’re a bad liar,” she told her.
“So are you,” Em said. “Unless you really expect me to believe a scrapper would risk their skin for some degrading plastic out here in the middle of the Pacific.”
Sana shrugged. “Things are rough out there.”
“Not that rough,” she said. Then: “You’re a bounty hunter.” And if she’d known all this time, she might as well have come out and said it.
Sana bared her teeth in a smile—predatory, she’d been told. “That’s right,” she said, leaning forward, as much as the cuff and her protesting wounds would let her. “Are you so sure I’m not here to hunt you?”
The last hours had been wiled counting the passing schools of fish. Maybe not more than one at all, but a single school swimming round and round the Gyre indefinitely and forever.
Then again, maybe that was Sana’s own nihilism speaking, stuck in a cage she might never find a way out of. Better would’ve been to count the days, tally the marks on the wall. A useful course of passing time. Not much point, though. Aside from the floodlights occasionally switched on around the submersible lab, sunlight didn’t filter down this far. No way to track days and nights, just indeterminable periods of sleeping and waking until there didn’t seem to be a point in asking what time it was or what day.
Em came and went, sometimes bringing food, between experiments, but largely ignored her beyond that. Finally, on the third day or the fifth day or maybe something more than that, Sana realized why.
“You don’t like me,” she said, when Em came out for the first daily check of her specimens. “Why?”
Em turned to face her, head cocked to one side as if she’d finally asked a mildly interesting question. “I don’t think much about you at all.”
Some people might’ve flinched at the honesty of it. Not Sana.
“But what you do think, you don’t like,” Sana persisted. “You don’t know me—only read an ident stick. That’s just words.”
“I do actually,” she said. “Know you. I know you like I know everyone, because you are everyone—living day to day, ignoring the world to make life better for yourself even with the air burning and the oceans rising around you. Selfish.”
“And you’re so much better? Out here on your own, ignoring the rest of us. I got plenty of problems all my own to deal with, alright?” said Sana.
“They’re all our problems,” said Em. “We all die if we don’t fix them.”
“Then we die!” said Sana. “You want to call me selfish? Everyone is selfish. The world is selfish—I’m not the one who made it this way.”
“But you don’t do anything to change it, do you?”
Sana scoffed. They were only going around in circles like everything else out here, circling the Gyre, and what was the point? “Think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
Em tipped her head. “A genius, actually.”
She slid a plate across the floor, then, something fresh that smelled of roasting. It pulled a groan from Sana’s stomach as she picked at the lump of whitish meat. “What is this?”
“Fish,” said Em. “Halibut.” Sana poked at it, picking off a flakey piece of flesh still attached to bone. Em watched the careful dissection. “It’s not poisoned.”
“Not one of your experiments?”
Em’s lips twitched up into something that was almost a smile as she shook her head. “Fresh.”
That was all Sana needed to raise the plate up to her mouth, using her knee for balance and her free hand to shovel the fish into her mouth—salty and sweet. So tender. She’d never had fish before—never been able to afford it—so had no way of knowing if this one was unusually good or just a sampling of the rest that was out there.
“Five percent, that’s how much of our oceans have been explored,” Em said as Sana ate, the scientist in her finally winning out into a lecture. “Only five percent. And thousands of marine species endangered—did you know that? Hundreds already lost. Some we never even knew.”
Sana wasn’t sure if she was meant to feel sorry for a bunch of fish—she mostly just wanted to know where she could get more of this one, the taste of it still melting into her mouth even as her tongue chased the last traces of juice from the plate.
“I’m testing bio-chemical solvents,” Em said, turning back to pull a sample of the treated saltwater up into a dropper. The shifting gradient in the tank began to undifferentiate. “Altering the genes of microbes, making them hardier, the ones that already digest poly-base substances.” She glanced back at Sana. “Plastics.”
Sana blinked, lowering the plate. She licked juice from her lips, suddenly suspicious. “Why are you telling me?”
“It’s a stopgap,” said Em, ignoring her, “but one that might buy precious time.”
She swung her legs around the bench, walking to stand over Sana. Her dark eyes studied her for a long moment, then, like a seabird darting down to capture prey, she reached out to unlock Sana’s handcuff.
“Why?” Sana asked, narrowing her eyes as Em entered the code to release her cuff, mind flicking again to the possibility that the fish was poisoned—why else tell her everything? Why else let her go?
“You’re right,” said Em. “I don’t like you.”
It didn’t make much sense, as far as reasons went, but it also didn’t really matter. Poisoned or not, all that mattered now was escape. Anything immediate would’ve been too obvious, and impossible besides. No, what Sana needed was an opportunity, and, more than that, an excuse.
She started to grab the rest of her things off the table, but Em blocked her way.
“The experiments will be over in a few days,” said Em, not in answer.
Sana glanced around for the gun she knew must be hidden somewhere. “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Em, maybe also remembering what happened last time.
She let out a growl of frustration. “Why let me go if you’re still just going to keep me locked up in here?”
“You’re insufferable,” she said, taking a step toward her.
Sana held her ground. “You’re exasperating.”
They parried words like daggers, up close, until they were nose to nose. Until Sana could taste the salty tang of spit flying off her lips.
“You’re intolerable,” said Em.
Then Em’s lips were on hers, hands on her neck and back, grabbing, pressing, searching. She wasn’t sure who moved first, who kissed who, or if it was some inescapable pull that drew them together. She just knew their bodies were pressed flush, and she could still taste the last traces of saltwater on Em’s lips as they moved against hers. She just knew they were finally moving, Em pulling her back through that door at the end of the room, down into a bunk—too small for two, but that didn’t stop them.
Hands on hips, fingers digging. Her entire consciousness scaled down to only lips and tongues and teeth, pulling, snagging, tugging.
Sana didn’t care anymore whether Em liked her or how much longer the experiments would last, because with her lips against her neck, it really didn’t seem to matter.
“Everything is connected,” she said, tracing the line of Sana’s hip with her hand. “Everything.”
Sana arched up to meet her as Em’s hand moved even lower.
“Us. The oceans. Even all that plastic.”
Sana shifted up to bite down sharply on her lip. Silencing her. “Stop talking,” she demanded, and for once, Em did what she said.
The bunk was empty, covers rumpled, when Sana woke. She slipped on an oversized shirt from the pile on the floor and ventured out, wearing little else.
“Dammit.” Em slapped the flat of her palm against the table, sending ripples across the surface of the vials in front of her, a shifting gradient of colors, dark purple to white.
Sana watched her, eyes calculating as Em slid the microscope away, resting her head in her hands. Not the comforting type, Sana tapped her finger lightly against the table instead. A patter-pat of solidarity.
“Every scenario I run ends the same: the microbes just can’t keep up. They eat and multiply but there’s just too much of it.”
“But they do eat it. So you’ve solved it then,” said Sana, half questioning. Em didn’t seem to take it as a comfort.
“It’s not good enough.”
Sana watched her, silently, measuring the lines of exhaustion around her eyes. “Come back to bed.”
“I have to get this right,” Em said, rubbing at a spot above her left eyebrow until it was red.
The glass of water from before was still there next to Sana’s jacket, lying in a discarded heap on the floor. Sana crouched down, tracing her finger around the rim, before handing it off to Em.
Sana watched her take a sip, throat bobbing as her hand trailed down Em’s shoulder to finally grab her by the hand. “Leave it for tonight,” she said, and Em didn’t notice the bottle of pills she let fall as she dragged her back to bed.
A single Lion’s Mane Jellyfish drifted by the port window, its gelatinous pink body undulating with the pull of currents. Thirty-foot tentacles trailed by as it passed.
Sana slipped her hands through the sleeves of her leather jacket, shrugging it up over her back in a single practiced move. Stitches tugged uncomfortably at her shoulder, but she was planning to pull them out anyway—one less thing to slow her down. The vial of alprazolam was a small pressure against the flesh of her waist, back in the hidden pocket where it belonged.
The samples on the desk glowed iridescent blue in the low light, casting a soft shine through the tank of water that suffused out across the room. It was too bad, really, that Em had figured out the solution already. She fingered one of the sample vials, lifting it from the stand and twisting it through her fingers, watching the shift of light play through the glass.
Looked useless enough to Sana, but what did she know? How to manipulate people; how to do what was needed to get what she wanted. Em had her specialties. She had hers.
And it shouldn’t matter, not really. If Em was telling the truth—if all she wanted was to save what was left out here—the means achieved the ends either way, whoever got the credit and, more important, the money.
She ripped off a page from the old notebook. In a few hours, when the benzodiazepine wore out of her system and Em awoke, hair frizzed from bed, hurt and confused, she’d find the unpracticed scrawl of Sana’s note left in the center of the desk, mess cleared so she’d be sure to see: 24 hours.
No endearments or promises—Em had been right when she’d called her selfish, and Sana had been even more right: the world was a selfish place. They both did what they had to—but Sana did one better.
Twenty-four hours. That was a generous head start, plenty of time for running or hiding or salvaging the rest of the samples before word got out. Plenty of time to make her choice, whatever it was. Sana owed her that much, which was saying something.
The people she worked for were going to take some convincing, and Sana couldn’t show up empty-handed—not if she wanted to show up again at all. She pocketed the sample vial, grabbed a rebreather from the shelf.
No promises and no commitments. Just reality, and Sana swimming straight back to it.