It was a forty five minute walk to the abandoned school where Nev had agreed to meet her. She waited by the entrance, glad to have Zoe for company. Dusk was starting to settle in. She gave three short whistles, like they used to do when she and Nev and Mearzt had played in the woods in the country. That was how they could always find each other.
Moments passed. “Come on, Nev,” she said.
When she heard a single long whistle, she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and moved towards the sound, which was from the other side of the building.
“Stay there.” It was Nev’s voice.
“Where are you?”
“I want to see you,” she said, walking towards his voice.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He coughed. “You brought Zoe,” he said, at the sound of the beastie’s whining.
Ayn continued towards his voice. She rounded the corner. “Are you all right?”
Nev stood hunched against the wall. His clothes were dirty and wrinkled, and the hood of his coat was pulled down, covering most of his face. “Don’t know. I’ve felt better.”
Zoe went to him, sniffing, then she backed up. She nipped at Ayn’s jacket, and tugged her away from Nev.
“Stop it, Zoe,” Ayn said. “Are you sick?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Listen, Ayn. I know they’re here—”
“Black Suits. Look,” he said, holding up a shaking hand when she started to say something, “I can’t tell them anything they don’t already know. They probably gave you something that’s letting them hear every word we’re saying. That’s okay. I want them to hear what I’m going to tell you.”
“Nev,” Ayn whispered, suddenly chilled to the bone. She fingered the card in her pocket.
“We’ve found out what they’re doing to the Terrestrials. They’re treating them as lab experiments. We have proof,” he said. “They know that, too. I really wish it wasn’t you standing here with me, Ayn.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means Father Gheraeld’s too chicken shit to do his own dirty work. I don’t know why he wanted to get you out of the way at the same time. So your dad could have one less distraction in his work, I suppose.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Ayn croaked. Nev was sick. And had been brainwashed from the sound of it from whoever he’d been in hiding with. Her dad wouldn’t put her in harms way. Would he? No. But Lettie might.
“I’m sorry, Ayn.” Nev moved to pull his hood back.
Nev slumped against the wall.
Ayn was too shocked to even scream. She backed away as Nev fell at her feet.
Zoe started barking, pulling on her leash.
“Back away!” A voice from the gathering dark commanded.
Ayn was too numb to do anything. She stared down at Nev’s partially uncovered face, at the open ulcers on his cheeks that the hood had been hiding, at his open eyes staring at her. His mouth moved. He was still alive. She scrambled to him, put her ear over his mouth. “What, Nev?”
“I wish it hadn’t been you,” he said before his eyes became vacant.
Ayn moved away from Nev, fast, backing up into the legs of a man. He helped her to her feet with a gloved hand, covering her with a blanket. He was fully covered from head to foot, and wore a gas mask.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked as the man steered her toward a solar craft nearby while the others bagged up Nev’s body.
“Quarantine,” he said, and closed the door on Ayn and Zoe.
# # #