20 - The Flames and the Fury (IV)

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IV

The air was too thin, too full of soot. She couldn't breathe right. Mikie struggled, ears ringing from the gunfire, from the echoes of Max's explosions around Lab7E. From all of Orion.

She was trapped on a street in the middle of a dying star. And there, blocking her exit, was the only monster in the world.

Her mother hunched and silhouetted in the blaze of buildings, bodies scattered limply between them. Something warm threatened to soak through her boots—blood. She forced herself not to look down as the night air wrapped itself around her shoulders like a blanket. She couldn't bear to see Garrett crumpled like that, couldn't bear to think he was gone. Not yet. Not when she still had to get through her mother.

Hailey sighed like the air was ripping through her. A motion Mikie caught in the collapse of the woman's shoulders. She knew it from childhood, whenever her father would say something she disagreed with. All arguments started with a sigh when it came to her mother. This one would be no different.

She wiped the splatter of Garrett's blood from her cheek and readjusted her grip on her gun. She hadn't shot him. A glance to her left was all it took to know as she met the honey gaze behind the barrel of the gun. She had a partner. She had a way in all of this. Hailey couldn't stop her now. No one could.

"How could you?" The words came as their own shot in the dark, each echoing off the pavement. They even tasted like iron as they left her lips. Mikie's hands shook with rage, all of it directed at the one thing in the world that wasn't already on fire.

Hailey was a mere ten feet from her and crawling closer by the second—even with the hole West's bullet had given her before Mikie's own had ended up in her side. At least she hoped it was West who'd gotten a shot at her from over her shoulder.

"Mikie, please," her mother choked back. Her voice was weak over the flames, her shoulders shook. "Stop."

"I didn't start anything," she cried back. "I didn't start any of this. This is all because of you!" She gestured to the bodies between them, her own chest caving in. Her knees wobbled. Her head was pounding. She didn't want to stay standing, but she refused to fall first. She refused to even check the spot on her neck where Garrett's mouth had been. She wanted to speak before she died tonight. "This is all your fault."

Her mother inched forward, reaching for something on the pavement, searching among the bits of rubble that remained from the houses that burned around them. What a fucking metaphor for her current home life. "I'm...trying...to...protect...you." The words were spat, strangled in her mother's throat and Mikie worked to keep her composure, to fight the lump in her throat, the tears in her eyes.

They were from the smoke, she told herself. It was all because of the smoke.

"From what?" She howled. "So far the only thing I need protecting from is you."

She blinked, the world watery, and tasted copper on her tongue. Something was bleeding. Hell, her entire body was littered with cuts. This wasn't her first round of shrapnel if she remembered right.

"I'm...looking...for...a...cure."

"Bullshit." Mike watched her spit hit the pavement. "You're looking for a better body, improved people. But you're stripping them of their humanity. Their control. No way is that a better world."

"I'm trying...to unlock...the mind," Hailey gasped, reaching the earth at her boots. Mikie took a half step back, further into the puddle of blood.

She bit down on her lip, more copper blossoming onto her tongue. "Then maybe you should take a look at your own." She shook her head.

"I can't..." Hailey rasped, reaching. Reaching, reaching, reaching. Mikie stepped back again, this time afraid. Afraid of the hands that reached for her. Afraid of how human they were, how well they hid what lied beneath.

Her knees shook, threatening to buckle beneath her. Mikie worked to tighten her grip on her gun. She had to end this, all of this. This insanity that her mother had let loose on the world. Hailey worked to lift her head further from the pavement, her hand and side soaked with blood. Mikie'd hit her mark, at least. The second Reem fired at Garrett, she'd shot her mother. It wasn't planned. It just happened. And she had to finish the job. She couldn't wait for one of the Virals to step in. She couldn't risk her mother Turning with that brain of hers. Who knew how much cognitive function she'd retain.

So she blinked away her tears, attempting to steady her gun as the world swayed sideways.

"Mike!" But her world was under water, swaying like ocean waves. She worked past the ringing in her ears to try and aim as Hailey reached for something, a rock, rubble...no.

Reem collided with her and for a horrifying breath, the world solidified as she watched her mother raise her gun. This time, Mikie didn't hesitate. In a single shot, her entire world went still to rest alongside her mother.

And then there was Reem, sturdy and warm against her, stable, and she clung to him as he steadied her. All she could think was how it was all finally over, and the weight of the world slowly fell from her shoulders as she took one breath after another, watching the remaining Virals stir and then thin out, darting back to the cover of the trees. It was clear that when her mother hit the pavement, something died in them as well.

West clapped a hand on her shoulder, letting loose a shaking breath as the world continued to burn. The minutes seemed to stretch around them as camp and a handful of her mothers' Virals stepped forward or packed up. Andy's voice was the only thing that caused her to stir.

It crackled through the walkie on her hip. "Now what?"

Mikie swallowed, dragging her eyes from her mother's body and glancing at Reem before she radioed back. "Now we figure out a cure."

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