Kat still held her folding combat blade, dulled now from all the hacking and sawing. She’d had only two minutes to ready herself for the siege ahead, barely enough time to get Amy hidden and out of harm’s way. In her head, calculations continued to run as a mental timer ticked down.

Seven tanks … 300 psia/tank … estimated volume of laboratory space …

She heard doors opening and slamming, men shouting orders, working swiftly down the hall toward her position. She had left a door open farther back—but the guards would reach her first.

As planned.

She closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths. She used the extra seconds to smear more of the gelatinous fluid over her face and shaved scalp, leaving a thick film. Her clothes and the rest of her body were equally slathered and dripping with the hydrophilic gel—the same pinkish material that was filling the monstrous tanks in the main room.

Footsteps pounded up to her hiding place. She faced the door as it was ripped open. A guard—then another—came charging inside, with pistols pointed at Kat.

“Drop the knife!” one of them screamed.

She obeyed, lifting her hands to the top of her head.

The other yelled out the door. “Found one of them!”

“Bring her to me,” Marshall ordered.

The guards manhandled her out the door and into the hallway. She did not resist and allowed herself to be led at gunpoint toward the pool of light radiating from Marshall’s office.

The woman stood with her hands on her hips. She ground a boot heel against the vinyl floor. Kat heard a crack and saw a bit of black plastic go flying across the floor.

They’d found her surveillance pen plugged into their network.

Marshall faced her, her cheeks livid, her eyes fiery. She already had her palm resting on her cattle prod. Kat expected to be punished, needed to be punished.

“Where is the other girl?” Marshall demanded.

Kat made sure never to break eye contact, not to betray Amy’s hiding place with the flicker of a glance.

“I’ll make you talk …” Marshall stalked up to her and jammed the prod at her belly.

Kat twisted at the last second as blue sparks spat from the black wand’s end. Pinned by the guards behind her, she still caught a glancing shock on her hip. Electric fire lanced along her side, crippling her left leg into an agonized spasm, forcing her into a painful crouch.

Kat ground her teeth against the pain—and in frustration.

Too low.

Pushing up with her good leg, Kat lunged and caught Marshall’s wrist. One of the guards tried to pistol-whip her, but Kat dodged enough to take the blow to her shoulder.

Kat struggled with her quivering leg, grabbing a handful of plastic curtain that hid the tanks to keep her upright. She still had a grip on Marshall’s wrist and shoved her cattle prod high. The metal tip struck the curtain rod overhead.

Sparks danced.

Then the world became fire.

The detonation blew Kat backward, sent her flying through the air. Overhead, blue flames chased across the ceiling after her—and spread outward. She covered her eyes with her arm, picturing that fire racing down the hallway toward the farthest room, a storage and mechanical space holding all manner of pressurized gas tanks that serviced the many labs of the complex, including seven large tanks marked with the symbol H2.

Hydrogen gas.

Odorless, fourteen times lighter than air, highly explosive.

She had hacked through the lines earlier, bleeding the massive tanks into this enclosed space, knowing the gas would stay high, and be undetectable to the nose.

Kat landed on her back on the floor and slid, the heat blistering overhead, broiling all beneath. The only thing that kept the skin on her body was the thick hydrophilic gel that covered her. The same watery properties that kept the patients in the tanks moist and free of bedsores offered her some meager insulation.

The same couldn’t be said for the others.

Screams cut through her blast-muffled ears.

Bodies flailed, clothes on fire, faces burned away.

In that split second during the explosion, Kat had watched Marshall’s hair ignite, turning into a swirling nimbus of flames.

A fitting end for a woman who played God.

Kat struggled up, choking from the smoke, from the heat, from the lack of air. Her tearing eyes turned the view into a watery hell. All around, fires danced, plastic draping melted in blackened flows, and charred equipment sparked and sizzled.

She gained her feet and took a stumbling step backward.

Another figure rose from the floor two yards away, climbing from behind the shelter of a tank. Her scalp was burned and cracked, pouring blood.

Marshall lifted her arm, holding one of the guards’ pistols in her hand, and stumbled around the tank.

Kat tried to get to shelter, but her legs betrayed her. She fell on her side, supported by one arm.

Marshall came another step forward, the pistol pointed at Kat’s face. Her gaze showed no glee at the kill to come, only a pained necessity, a last act of revenge.

But it wasn’t she who got that revenge.

From the tank next to her, the naked body rose, sitting up like a corpse from a grave.

Marshall turned toward the movement—her deadened eyes suddenly going bright with terror.

An arm pulled out of the gelatinous muck, drawing out a long black baton. The weapon swung with the heavy grief of a sister in mourning. The hard metal cracked Marshall across the bridge of the nose, shattering through bone.

The doctor dropped.

Kat realized then: This is a more fitting death for a woman who played God.

Amy climbed out of the tank and hurried to Kat and helped her back to her feet. “I thought you were dead.”

“I thought I was, too.”

Earlier, Kat had dragged Denise—Amy’s sister—out of her viscous crib, replacing her sibling there instead. Kat had stripped Amy of her hospital gown and made sure the girl was sunk deeply into the tub, well coated with the insulating gel. Afterward, Kat had scooped handfuls of the same and covered herself, too—then carried Denise’s thin body to the storage room.

Kat had wanted Amy hidden in plain sight, knowing no one would look too closely at the occupants of those tanks. She also wanted the girl close to the exit—not trapped down the fiery hall.

Confirming that wisdom, a massive explosion ripped from that direction, spraying shrapnel and shattering glass.

Kat pictured all the other pressurized tanks back there, overheating, leaking gas, catching fire. She also envisioned flames chasing through the gas tubing and conduits, spreading to other floors, other buildings.

“Let’s go,” Kat gasped out hoarsely.

She retrieved the pistol from Marshall’s limp fingers, and together they fled through the smoke and fire and back through the red steel doors. In the ward, alarms blared, and sprinklers overhead sprayed fiercely. Kat stopped long enough to grab another gown for Amy and hurried out the doors. Down the hall, they discovered the guard station empty.

No one tried to stop them as they fled up out of the fiery bowels of the building and onto the ground floor of one of the rear buildings of the campus. The view outside showed the rest of the facility succumbing to the spreading flames. The summer sun was still up, but it looked like dusk outside as smoke obscured the gardens. Across the way, fire danced behind other windows. An explosion blew out an upper section of the main building, showering bricks and broken roof tiles.

It was all coming down.

Kat grabbed Amy’s arm and hurried her through the exit and out into the parklike grounds. Other researchers fled for the gates to the street, looking shell-shocked.

Kat followed them, doing her best to keep her pistol hidden.

In the distance, sirens echoed.

Kat and Amy ran down the entry road and out the gates, chased by more blasts and deep-throated explosions. Debris rained down around them; smoke rolled thickly now, making it hard to see.

They fled farther down the street, trying to break clear, to get some distance away from the conflagration. At last, they reached a clear section of road. They both panted, hands on knees.

Sirens grew louder, converging all around as emergency crews responded from throughout Charleston.

Kat straightened and pointed toward the blue lights flashing through the smoke. “You should—”

The crack of a pistol echoed.

Amy fell back, sitting down on the road. She reached a palm to her chest as blood bloomed through her gown.

Kat twisted and dropped to a knee, swinging up her weapon.

An SUV sat on the side of the road, a back window open.

Movement inside.

She fired wildly at the dark car.

6:55 P.M.

Lisa dropped low in the backseat as the windshield cracked and shattered. She was pinned between two burly guards. In the front, the driver and Dr. Paul Cranston crouched.

“Christ!” the shooter next to her said. “She’s got a gun.”

Lisa covered her head.

What’s happening?

After nabbing her off the streets of downtown Charleston, Cranston and his men had returned to the fertility center, confident after their hunt—only to be greeted by a loud explosion as they turned into view. The concussion rattled the SUV’s windows. Smoke curled up from one of the back buildings. Flames began to spread—then more blasts as the place ripped apart.

Cranston had them retreat a block, to observe the incineration and destruction of his hard work, unable to look away.

He hissed from up front. “Take her out, goddamn it. Before she escapes. If she gets loose …”

While surveying the aftermath from a safe distance, Cranston had spotted a pair of women running out of the smoke, both shaven-headed, one in a hospital gown. He recognized them immediately. They’re from the lower lab! He’d ordered them shot, gunned down like rabid dogs. But it seemed one of the women had teeth.

The gunman next to Lisa returned to the open window, shoving out one arm, his weapon pointed. Another spat of gunfire peppered the side of the truck. The man swore but held his post.

Lisa risked a peek. She saw the woman with the pistol drag the wounded girl toward the shelter of the thicker smoke. Sirens screamed now, and the flash of emergency lights grew brighter through the haze.