Allan blocked Cheska. The bodyguard’s back facing her, she saw his gaze flit from her to the panther. Then he said to James, “Sir, may I speak with you in private?”
The novelist arched a brow and considered the request for a second. With a slight nod, he and Allan moved out of earshot. Cheska could tell from James’ stance, his hands on his hips and head bowed, that the novelist didn’t like what he was hearing.
They’re talking about you, my lady, the panther said. Would you like to know what they are saying?
“It’s about Father and Louis’ order, right?” Cheska asked.
“Thanks but I think I know what it’s all about.” She crossed her arms, resisting the urge to pace.
“She’s just going to take a look,” James said in a loud exasperated voice. Annoyance marred his haggard face. “Watch her if you want but, at the very least, let her know the situation her family’s getting into.”
The explanation silenced Allan who glanced her way. Whatever argument the bodyguard was about to come up with died when he saw James glower at him. Reluctantly, Allan retreated to the far end of the room, eyes trained on the novelist and her.
Cheska silently thanked James. The way everybody was bent on shielding her like a helpless child was starting to irritate her. She had almost asked Keena to distract Allan if he hadn’t backed down. Because of James, however, she only had to endure the bodyguard’s eyes bore holes onto her back while she approached James.
The novelist still looked slightly peeved when she stood beside him. Unsure if he’d receive her thanks, Cheska turned her attention to the screen James scrutinized. “What are we looking at?” she asked.
“This is the floorplan where the first batch of plague victims was confined. What the public isn’t made aware of is it used to be a bioengineering research facility. The birthplace of the virus. Its doctors designed the V-X20 and V-X21 strains and its vaccines. You come in with a common cold, they test you positive for plague sickness.
“Each level tests a different strain of the virus. The east wing holds the infected. The rooms are sectioned depending on the virus’ progression. Stage 1 goes here,” he pointed at the end of the building. “You move toward the entrance of the isolation ward to check on those in stages 2 to 7. These patients here are used to test the vaccine.”
“The west wing?”
“The ward there holds patients recuperating from the illness. It mostly houses the lab and rooms for staff use.”
“You think Fred is in there?”
“I know he’s in there. Louis tagged him with a tracking device before he left. The signal went out when they entered the building.” He pulled up screen 12 next to the building’s blueprint. Multiple video footages showed people in biohazard suits bustling in and out of corridors and rooms. “I hacked into their surveillance and got this.” James dragged a video file to the forefront. He moved his thumb and index finger outward to enlarge the video and pressed play. The first few frames showed an empty hall then five men in biohazard suits appeared. Each carried a staff save for the man who wheeled in an unconscious blonde Caucasian. When they drew closer to the camera, James paused the video for Cheska’s sake.
“That’s the only footage they have of Fred,” the novelist said. “It’s likely they hid him.” He rubbed his chin in thought.
James had watched the video a dozen times while he tried to pinpoint his friend’s location in the facility’s blueprint. He was worried but it was the first time his chest constricted at the sight of Fred. Out of the corner of his eye, James studied Cheska and wondered how much she cared for the doctor. Overtly, she hadn’t shown much reaction. The woman stared at Fred’s face a little longer before quickly looking to the floorplan in screen 10.
“What are these for?” Cheska pointed at three unlabeled rooms.
“The basement. That’s where they started experimenting on the virus. They closed it down a year ago because of an accident in one of the laboratories.”
“And level 7?”
“New. They stopped working on it a month ago. There’s no elevator and stairs to go down to the sixth floor, you can only go up. And,” James tapped on the diagram to zoom in, “see this?” His hand hovered over an enclosed windowless space with two overlapping walls. “It’s in the isolation ward. Instead of rooms and rows of beds, there’s only a corridor and this room. It has one bed and a restroom…of its own.” They exchanged a look. Both of them had the same thought in mind.
“I’m going in there,” she said in a low voice. She stepped closer to him, her shoulder came into contact with his arm. Cheska held out the tracer she obtained from the chief of security.
The novelist gaped at her and not just because of her decision. He had felt apprehension rolling off her in waves when she arrived. It was almost gone now right after Cheska declared her intention. James couldn’t believe that he could barely sense her in the mix of emotions; his own and Allan’s.
She jerked the tracer in his direction. For an instant, he wanted to dissuade her; however, Cheska’s amber eyes were hard and resolute. He took the device from her and noticed the bulge on her right sleeve. While he dismantled the tracer’s back, he asked: “You’re armed?”
Cheska’s head slightly moved to the side.
“Don’t,” James said quickly. “He’ll notice.”
She immediately returned her gaze to the screen. “I’m armed.”
“An artist and a warrior.” James gave her a tight smile. “After all this is over, I might make a story out of this.” He inserted a chip in the device’s circuit board.
“Please don’t.” Cheska didn’t want to relive the events by hearing everybody talking about it as a novel. “And I’m not a warrior.”
He glanced at the panther lying beside her feet, then replaced the device’s cover. “Do you have anyone else going with you?”
“A few more friends.”
“And then you’ll storm the castle and save your doctor,” he said in almost a whisper.
The corner of her mouth quirked at how he phrased it. “Something like that.”
James returned the tracer to her.
Cheska took the device from him and noticed how his hand shook a little. She looked up at him sharply. His expression was even more serious than before. “You do know Louis will kill me if you don’t come back alive, right?”
“He won’t,” Cheska replied. She busied herself on checking that the files she needed were stored in the device. She found that he’d also included a detailed map of Libya.
“And Fred would haunt me for the rest of my life.”
She raised a brow at him. “You’re doing a poor job convincing me to stay back.”
“I’m not trying to.” He grimaced.
Cheska tapped her foot twice, a signal for the panther to create the portal to their next destination.
“The virus is transmitted by body fluids,” James said.
Allan noticed a shimmer of light beside Cheska and started to move, calling for her to stop. Keena stretched her limbs. Tail swishing and green eyes narrowed to slits, she studied the bodyguard’s advance then stepped through the portal.
“May the gods look favorably on you,” the novelist said, solemnly.
With a curt nod, she disappeared into the portal just as Allan’s fingers brushed the ends of her hair.
In the tunnels, five striped hyenas looked up as the space in front of them warped and Keena and Cheska emerged. The sole female of the pack walked toward the pair and said, “Well met, my lady, Keena. I am Reesa. Mother of the Rabyanah pack.”
Her pack will be our guide to the hunting grounds, Keena explained while Cheska surveyed the size of the pack.
“Well met, Reesa. Do you know where this is?” Cheska showed the picture of the facility on the tracer’s screen to the matriarch.
It is where the scent of man’s fear is strongest, the hyena commented and giggled. It is also a place of death for your kind. Do you still wish to proceed despite its dangers?
Cheska nodded. “I need to save a friend.”
A spark of interest lit the hyena’s eyes before saying, Come. We shall lead you.
The Rabyanah pack set the pace in which Cheska had to jog in order to keep up with them. They had rounded a bend when Reesa spoke again: You should practice communicating with us through your mind, my lady.
Cheska’s brows lifted. “I can do that?” she asked.
What has that proxy been teaching you all these years? Reesa grumbled.
I’ve never met the former head guardian.
The female hyena’s head swiveled to Cheska’s direction then at Keena’s. The panther held Reesa’s gaze long enough to be considered a challenge. Neither broke their stride and then it was the hyena who tore her gaze away. She grumbled again.
Am I doing it right? Can anybody hear me? Cheska asked them.
We heard you, my lady, Keena said. Don’t try too hard, though. Your voice sounded like a scream in our heads.
We’re almost there, Reesa interrupted, sniffing the air. The smell is sharper than before. The hyena looked at Cheska. The Rabyanah pack would like to join you in this hunt, my lady.
I can protect the lady by myself, the panther remarked coldly.
I am merely being practical, proud one, Reesa defended. The greater we are in number, the better chances for success and survival. The hyena turned to Cheska once more. Your mate’s life is in peril, is it not?
Fred wasn’t her mate but it wasn’t the time to correct a small misunderstanding. Besides, Reesa was right. They could split into groups during the search. It made the task of locating him easier. What terrified her came afterward; the knowledge of his present condition.
She slowed and came to a stop. Panting for breath, she leaned her back on the wall and slid down to sit on the ground. Reesa’s right, Keena, Cheska said. We don’t know what state Fred is in. The longer it takes for us to find him, the more he’ll be in danger. Gather round, everyone. Let’s plan this hunt.
The pack obeyed and sat before her. Cheska withdrew the tracer from her pocket and told them what she learned from James and the details of her original plan.
The locker room’s door opened a fraction. Cheska peeked through the crack and immediately closed it at the sound of a faint hum. A steel tennis ball-sized drone hovered along the corridor. It paused in mid-air, its shell horizontally split in half to reveal a red light. The light expanded across the length of the hallway. “Hall 5-B, clear,” its robotic voice declared and proceeded to the next passage.
She slumped back in relief. Her hood bumped on the wooden door. She’d discarded her baseball cap; pulled the ends of her hair over the top of her head into a makeshift fringe; and wrapped a scarf around it to hold it in place. Hopefully, the style would make her unrecognizable.
Cheska lifted her hand to fan herself and dropped it to the side. After five minutes of wearing the navy green biohazard suit, she was already sweltering in it. Cheska studied the floorplans of B1 and 7. The pack had divided into pairs to check their designated floors. Keena and Tik, the youngest hyena, covered levels 6 and 7; Reesa and her eldest searched levels 5 and 4; Mapo, Reesa’s mate, and their second offspring looked for Fred in levels 1 and 2. The first two pairs to finish would check the basement and top floor.
Meanwhile, Cheska had to wait in the fifth floor. The sentries all voted that she wait in the sidelines until they’ve gathered enough data about the humans’ scent and behavior in the facility while they kept an eye out for Fred. They’d promised to take her to him.
Any sign of him? she sent telepathically to Keena and the hyenas.
No. No sign of him. He’s not here, the sentries responded simultaneously.
Has anyone started in level 7?
Silence answered her.
I have, Reesa’s mate replied. Not easy. The place is crawling with drones.
Don’t let them see you.
Hunt is challenging, he grunted. But scents are unmistakable.
Another minute passed with no word from them. Cheska felt for the gun wrapped around her wrist. Lucky for her, the sleeves of the coveralls had room to conceal it. Underneath the shoe hoods, the dagger was still sheathed inside her boot. She wouldn’t be able to use it without peeling off the protective layer. Still, the gun was easier to use in a crisis. Cheska wasn’t confident she could wield a blade properly in a real fight.
My lady! Keena exclaimed.
A shadow crossed overhead startling Cheska to bump her hood against the door again. Her breath sounded harsh against the mask’s respirator. Keena! You scared me. She glared at the unrepentant cat.
We found him.
Where? Cheska struggled to stand.
You were right. He’s in level 7. Keene circled her, examining the biohazard suit. There’s a problem. He’s heavily guarded and I think they’re transferring him soon.
Why? Do you know where they’re moving him?
They’re going to fly him out. We’ll have to be quick if we’re to rescue him, Keena paced incessantly.
The feline’s restless energy was not only infecting Cheska but also making her anxious. The panther hadn’t answered her first question.
Keena conjured a portal and poked her nose out to check if the locker room on Fred’s floor was empty. When she was sure it was safe, they entered the portal together.
Stay hidden, Cheska instructed and ran toward the isolation ward. Absently, she heard Keena call her.
It was too late to turn back, though. They had already seen her. Cheska’s hands felt clammy inside the gloves. Blood pounded in her ears as she watched the guards step out of the decontamination zone along with two scientists who wheeled a stasis pod between them. Then the glass doors of the isolation ward opened as they moved toward her. The guards didn’t stop to acknowledge Cheska and let her pass through them. She situated herself beside one of the scientists who monitored the vitals in the screen’s panel on the pod. Cheska held the side of the stasis pod and gazed down at the patient.
The instant her eyes fell on the figure inside, Cheska went cold. Fred looked lifeless behind the coffin-like pod. His chapped mouth was the same color as his skin. Pale yellow hair stuck to his forehead. Fred’s face was sharper; the bones more pronounced and his cheeks hollow. They’d only been separated for twelve hours, yet his appearance had changed so much.
Fred’s grey eyes opened and drifted to her. Their gazes met. She waited for him to show a sign of recognition but then he closed his eyes again. Her eyes burned. Cheska blinked a couple of times to keep the tears from spilling over. She looked ahead to check for security cameras. Only one which rotated along their corridor was obvious. It was the camera that recorded Fred’s arrival in the facility.
They turned right toward the stairwell which led to the rooftop. She noted the absence of security cameras. Two more guards stood at the foot of the stairs. There’s probably more outside, she thought. Six guards and two scientists. Cheska would need the pack and Keena’s help to subdue all of them.
She was just about to call them when urgent beeping broke the silence. Red lights blared along the sides of the pod. The scientists spoke in rapid Arabic. The man beside her dialed on the pod’s front panel. The lid opened just as Fred’s body started to shake. Unsure of what was happening, Cheska helped pin him down.
Eventually, his body stilled and so did his heart.
Copyright © 2014-2016 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: I apologise for the delay. Had to stop writing to focus on my research paper for a while. Then had to read a bit for this chapter and revise the text three times. 😣😦
My studies are keeping me especially busy this year. It might take a while for me to upload again, which means I’ll have to keep you wondering what’s going to happen next. 😉 Hehe. Sorry… 😟
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