This wasn’t novel or rare.

Suffering was the function of our design.

The end result of our advanced evolutionary programming—all those nerve endings connected to all those chemicals in suspension in our frontal lobes that we used to invent emotion.

After awhile, Luther’s long, white fingers moved mine off the dial and he took control.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Keeping my word. You’re going to cook her kidneys and boil her spinal fluid if you don’t shut it off.”

He zeroed out the dials, flicked off the master power.

She had blown her voice out screaming.

The smell and the sound—God.

Luther went to her arms and cut the nylon restraints with a Harpy.

Freed her ankles.

She lay there moaning, trying to move, but stuck to the electrodes.

Luther was coming back now.

He stood with me at the control panel.

“How does it feel?” he asked.

I was still so weak.

I didn’t know if I even had the strength.

“I don’t feel like myself,” I said.

“Or maybe this is how you were always supposed to feel.”

“Maybe,” I said.

He had put his hands on the cart to roll it away.

“Wait, Luther, you forgot something,” I said.

He was turning back to look at me when I struck him between the eyes with the ball-peen hammer.

Luther’s tracksuit was a size or two small through the waist, but several inches long elsewhere, and I kept stepping on the pant legs.

I carried her across the warehouse and through the open door, slow-going and still fighting intense pain despite my having shot both Violet and myself up with a couple doses of Oxycodone I’d found in a drawer under Luther’s control panel.

Outside, mist fell from the gray sky.

First daylight to reach my eyes in a good long while, and I fought a burning headache on top of everything else.

I loaded Violet into Luther’s windowless white van and closed the sliding door.

Limped around to the driver side and climbed in behind the wheel.

“It still hurts,” she moaned.

“I know.”

I cranked the engine, pushed the pedal to the floor, and accelerated across a vast, empty parking lot that seemed to go on for miles.

Soon, I was driving through an abandoned neighborhood.

A water tower in the distance bore the name of a city I’d never been to.

It was an urban ghost town.

Empty, sagging houses.

Abandoned cars.

Trash everywhere.

I glanced at Violet in the rearview mirror, sprawled across the metal floor.

She was awake.

In agony.

I’d examined her in the warehouse—third-degree burns on her arms, legs and back.

Excruciating.

“Am I going to die?”

It took me thirty-five minutes to find a hospital—a six-story block tower on the outskirts of a bad neighborhood.

It was already getting dark as I pulled under the emergency room overhang.

I slid out of the driver’s seat and stepped into the back.

Knelt down by Violet who was lying on the floor and moaning in some half-conscious fever state.

“Violet,” I said.

Her eyes were open but unfocused.

“Vi, look at me.”

She did, said, “It hurts, Andy.”

“We’re at a hospital.”

“We are?”

“I have to drop you off just inside. I can’t stay.”

“Why?”

“You know why. This is very...” Her eyes had left mine, wandering off into space. “Listen to me, Vi, this is so important.”

I framed her face with my hands.

“You can’t tell them anything. Nothing. Not about me, or Luther, or where you were.”

I couldn’t tell if she heard me, if she was comprehending any of this.

“Violet, do you understand me?”

She nodded. “Are you hurt, Andy?”

“Not enough to go in there.”

“Where’s Max?”

“He’s not here right now.”

She took a moment to register this.

“I don’t think you’re going to see me again,” I said.

Her eyes filled with tears.

“You understand, right?”

A nod.

“Never come looking for me, Vi.”

“I love you.”

“Never come looking for me.”

“I love you.”

“Andy Thomas is dead.”

“I love—”

“Stop, Vi. Let it go.”

Violet

SO much pain. She was drowning in it, and it occurred to her that if she lived through this, she would never be the same, just for knowing that pain like this existed.

He was carrying her toward the automatic doors, every footfall sending a spike through her body, the sleeves of his tracksuit rubbing against the burns across her legs and back.

She was crying, and Andy was hushing her, telling her she was going to be all right, she was going to recover from all of this, that beautiful things still lay ahead.

Lies.

And then they were inside the hospital—central heating for the first time in days and the burning glare of the fluorescent lights overhead, and she was trying to say his name, but a heavy darkness was falling and if it contained a single breath of relief, she couldn’t bring herself to fight it.

When she came to, she was draped across a chair in the waiting room and Andy was gone and the pain was back.

A young doctor with wire-rim glasses was squatting down in front of her, two nurses behind him, and though his lips moved, she couldn’t hear a thing.

Andy

NIGHT had dropped and that made finding my way back to the concrete barrens infinitely more challenging.

The Oxycodone was wearing off, the pain of my flayed right leg, stretched muscles, and joints intensifying with each passing moment.

It was that water tower that finally guided me home—its red aviation light blinking through the mist.

8:27 p.m. when I pulled into the parking spot outside the warehouse.

I killed the engine, climbed out from behind the wheel.

The pain in my leg was blinding.

I limped across the broken concrete to the entrance and unlocked the door.

Took all of my remaining strength to cross the length of the warehouse to the cart, my hands shaking as I pulled open the drawer and grabbed a vial of Oxycodone.

The urge to double up the dose was strong, but I resisted.

Hit the vein and slammed 40mg.

The relief was instantaneous.

Euphoria.

“Andy...Andy...Andy, look at me.”

I stood smiling in the warehouse. Letting the narcotic joy wash over me.

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