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Chapter 23: Flight
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes: Descriptions of hand-to-hand and gun battles, people in restraints, breaking and entering, bad language, dead bodies, computer fraud, and falsification of public record documents. At least.

Happy spring to all! Big thanks to my wonderful editor gwoman for her work on this chapter!

Back to Chapter 22

“Come on, get on,” Casey said, kneeling down and gesturing to her back.

Lex sighed as she climbed up and fastened the straps around herself, to bind her to her friend like a backpack. “I just don't feel right doing this. Plus, I feel completely stupid.”

Lex could hear as well as feel Casey laugh as the taller woman stepped out of the back of the van, carefully maneuvering so that she didn't hit the passenger on her back on the door frame. “Relax. I can't even feel you back there since you're so skinny these days. I know you want to be running around like you usually do, but be patient. You'll be ready again soon; just don't push yourself.”

Sighing as she rested her chin on Casey's broad shoulder, Lex bit back her annoyance at feeling so helpless. “You're right, but I just want to be doing more.”

“You've done enough. We wouldn't have been here at all if it weren't for you. Come on, let's go in.”

Lex looked glumly at the unobtrusive MSI sign nearby, wondering if that was a good thing. As they neared the building, Lex said in a quiet voice, “Casey, we might see some awful things in there.”

After a long moment of silence, she heard Casey's reply. “I know.”

“Worse than that,” Lex continued, knowing she needed to, “we won't be able to help anyone, not if we want to make it through this.”

The long sigh Casey let out was the only answer Lex thought she'd get until she heard her friend say, “I'll try not to stop; just remind me if I forget.”

“OK,” Lex agreed, poking her head up over the top of Casey's shoulder so she could see where they were going.

Almost to the door leading into the facility from the loading dock, she could see that a few haggard-looking people had gathered. Most wore hospital gowns and blinked as if it had been awhile since they'd seen sunlight.

“Don't wait here,” Casey told them, and pointed northwest. “There's a break in the fence back there, and a few garbage bags full of clothes. Take what you need and keep going, but get out of here as quickly as you can.”

The few people who'd been milling around had different reactions, some glancing at Casey suspiciously, some with confusion. A few just took off running in the direction Casey had indicated, and the rest seemed to gradually follow. Casey and Lex went the opposite way, into the building.

“Looks like it worked,” Lex murmured into Casey's ear as they entered.

Casey shrugged. “That's what they get for using all those electronic locks.”

Inside, emergency lighting provided some dim illumination, and Lex could see people moving through the half-darkness in all directions. Casey stood taller, more visible than most, and called to the people standing in confused groups in hospital gowns.

“The exit is this way. Go to the northwest corner of the property and get out through the break in the fence.”

Some started filing for the door, and others farther away began to follow them. Lex watched as people filed past them, and felt sad to note that a good number of them would likely have lots more trouble fitting in than she'd had. She took the smart phone Riss had set up out of her front pocket and called up the map of the building that her friend had loaded onto it.

“We should find a door to the stairs on the left after we go another few yards. Then we go down three flights. When we get to that floor, we need to go left and Lou's door should be the fifth on the right.”

Casey nodded in response and started off down the hallway at a trot. “Just repeat that back to me if I start going off track.”

They made their way downstairs, stopping every now and again to give directions to people who looked lost. The bags of clothes had been Riss' idea, and Lex had quickly realized what a good one it was. She'd wished they could give more help to everyone fleeing, but maybe just being free again would be enough. Lex ducked automatically as they reached the floor they'd been searching for, but Casey had to stoop in order to make it through the door.

When they arrived they saw a long hallway stretching to the left and a shorter one to the right. A number of people in hospital gowns stood pressed against the walls with more shoved into the far left corner. Lex's eyes flew wide to see one person on the floor, screaming in pain due to what looked like two broken arms. Two combatants took up the majority of the space in the hall. One a tall, broad man, thick and strong-looking like Casey, the other more difficult to see in the emergency lighting. Lex blinked a few times, her eyes finally adjusting to realize that the other figure seemed to be covered in dense, dark fur. The dark shape growled to show a mouth full of sharp teeth and brandished a broken metal bar in a hand that ended in claws.

Lex thought the fighting man looked as if he had some martial arts knowledge, but the dark figure moved so quickly that he was on the worse end of the fight. He looked panicked and seconds away from his defeat.

“Hey!” Casey called, and suddenly, the dark creature's attention turned towards them.

“Oh, crap,” Lex said, squeezing down in the straps holding her to Casey's back until only her eyeballs showed over the blonde's shoulder.

Casey charged the figure as the other man stepped out of the way. She managed to catch both of its wrists and took in a deep breath as it started to struggle.

“All the rest of you, get out of here!” Casey yelled in a strained voice. “Go to the northwest corner and you'll be able to escape.”

Everyone standing in the hallway fled for the stairs, shooting terrified glances at Casey and the dark shape struggling. Finally, the hallway stood empty, and Lex started to worry as she felt Casey slip underneath her, breathing hard and trying to keep hold of the furry creature but losing ground. Lex looked into its eyes at that moment, and although she knew that this had once been a person just like her, she couldn't see any remnant of that left. An incredible amount of anger and a desire to kill seemed to be all that remained; Lex had to look away in shame, even though she'd played no part in what had happened.

At that moment, she felt a terrible shift, and Lex clutched Casey's back as her friend lost her hold of her opponent and fell to one knee with a muffled curse. The blonde recovered quickly and moved to put her hands over her to reconnect with her attacker, but Lex could already see that the effort would be too slow. The dark, furry creature moved so quickly that the metal bar was almost on top of Casey's head before Lex automatically yelled, “Stop!”

Her voice felt as if it contracted within her, and then released to boom out oddly in the hallway, seeming to momentarily cover the growling and thumping of the conflict and the injured person still moaning on the floor. Lex had squeezed her eyes shut, unable to do anything about the terrible event that was about to occur since she'd been so securely strapped to Casey's back, but after a moment, Lex reopened her eyes because she registered the silence that had taken over.

Casey's muscles seemed to vibrate underneath her as if straining to act, but Lex noted that the only movement she made was to breathe. When Lex looked up at the dark, furry figure in front of them, she could see it frozen into a statue of angry intent and snarling teeth, the bar of metal still inches from Casey's head and below her outstretched arms. If she craned her neck, Lex could also see the injured person farther down the hall, now lying still and breathing quietly.

“What the fuck?” she mumbled to herself. Lex tried pushing on Casey's back to get her to move, but even though she eventually worked up to a punch, the blonde remained motionless. Feeling panic rise up in her as she looked across at the furry creature that once had been a person, Lex finally whispered in Casey's ear, begging her friend to wake up. Finally, as Lex felt she would go out of her mind with fear, she felt the odd sensation she’d had before as she mumbled into Casey's ear, “Wake up, Casey!”

The other woman stood up then, sliding to the side to avoid the metal bar just over her head. Casey looked at the furry creature in front of them, and then farther down the hall at the injured person. She glanced back at Lex a moment later, her expression incredulous.

“What did you do?” the blonde asked in a wondering tone of voice.

“I don't know,” Lex said in a low tone, still looking nervously at the other two figures in the hallway. “Let's get Lou and get the hell out of here.”

Casey nodded and went to Lou's door, turning sideways to move past the immobilized furry figure in front of them. Like all the other doors in the facility, Lou's had an electronic lock, now disabled, and so it sat slightly open. Once they saw inside, it became clear why Lou hadn't been out in the hallway. Someone had put him in restraints so that he was held tightly to the bed by metal shackles. Fortunately, they had a latch but no locks, so Casey removed them quickly. Lou didn't move once released however, and Lex sighed.

“I guess it carried all the way in here,” she said, feeling confused and now afraid.

It took her a few tries in order to make her voice work again the way it had earlier, but once Lou moved again, he smiled.

“Somehow, I knew you'd be coming,” he said, sitting up and rubbing at his limbs to try to get his circulation going again.

Casey kissed him fiercely then. Lex looked away in embarrassment as the kiss lingered, but she had a big smile on her face.

“I wasn't going to leave you behind,” Casey replied once she and Lou broke their kiss, as she helped him up off the bed. They stopped for a moment once they got out into the hall and Lex winced as she saw both Lou and Casey surveying the two still figures there. The furry creature remained motionless, but the person with the broken arms had begun to stir, moaning quietly. Lex sighed.

“Lou, Casey, can you both hold your ears and hum for a moment? I want to try something,” Lex said.

“All right,” Casey agreed, “but hurry. Weren't you the one who told me we couldn't help people out here?”

Lex shook her head as they both did as requested, and then said “sleep” several times before she felt the odd contraction and expansion that she had before. When she looked down next, Lex noted that the injured person now appeared to be resting. She heard a noise behind her as she nudged Casey to let her know everything was OK, and when they all turned around to leave, Lex saw that the dark-furred figure had slid to the floor, snoring slightly.

When they made it into the stairwell, Lou looked over at Casey and Lex and asked, “How did you arrange all this?”

The two of them looked at each other before Lex started to speak. “Riss took care of most of it. We figured some chaos would be good in order to be able to get you out of here, and we felt bad just leaving everyone else trapped, so Riss figured out a way to make the main power go out and then took out all of the computers in the facility as that happened. So when the emergency generators went on, none of the computers came back up, and Riss had sprung all the electronic locks. After that, all we really had to do was come in here and get you.”

Lou nodded, and they all fell silent as they turned the corner on the stairs to reach another landing. Lou trailed Casey, still moving slowly but now on his own. He looked across at Lex to meet her eyes.

“So what was that thing that you did with your voice?” he asked. “Casey never mentioned you could do anything like that.”

Lex turned her face into Casey's shoulder in embarrassment, trying to look down.

“I was curious about that, too,” Casey added, craning her head to look sideways at her friend.

“Well,” Lex said, clearing her throat, “that's a good question. It's never happened before.”

Lou and Casey both seemed surprised, and then Lex felt a rumble underneath her as Casey laughed.

“Too bad we're not going to see Lily again,” Casey said. “You could definitely write this down in your symptom journal.”

Lex sighed. “At least it came in handy,” she replied.

Casey laughed again. “Oh, you're right about that,” she agreed, opening the door back onto the floor they'd started out on.

She pulled back a moment later and closed the door again as Lex heard a whining, whizzing sound and something hit the door frame.

“Crap. They're shooting now. Lily did say something about security guards. Lou, do you know if you're bulletproof?” Casey asked.

Lou shrugged. “Not sure, really. Fortunately, whenever someone's pointed a gun at me, I've been able to talk my way out of it.”

“Well, since your body seems to be as tough as mine, you probably are. I'm going to edge out of the door first, and you come behind me. I'll slide down the wall to the door that's maybe 20 yards down the hall, the one that leads out onto the loading dock. You stay behind me and shield Lex. Lex, keep your head down under my shoulder.”

“OK,” Lex said, suddenly feeling very small as she ducked down behind Casey's shoulder and looked back to see Lou hovering nearby.

By the dim emergency lighting in the hallway, Lex could occasionally see a shadowy figure run by at an intersection ahead of where they needed to go, usually dressed in uniforms much like she'd seen the people in the sewer wearing. The distinctive sounds of a pitched battle reached her ears as they emerged onto the loading dock, but she gauged it to be some distance away, so none of the small group got hit. Lex chanced a glance, darting her forehead over Casey's shoulder for a moment. She gasped involuntarily as Casey stepped carefully over two mangled bodies, dark helmets still intact on their heads even though one of them now sat about a foot away from its body.

“Don't look down,” Casey muttered as Lex ducked so that she could barely see over Casey's shoulder, but not so far that she didn't spot the figure in the hospital gown. At first glance, she simply seemed to be sitting on the ground, but the second look clearly revealed the gush of blood all down her chest.

As they stepped outside moments later, Lex noted that the grounds looked peaceful; the only thing that seemed out of place was the sight of two people in hospital gowns running for the break in the fence.

“You were right, Lex. It seems they aren't willing to risk the exposure of shooting outside. Let's go,” Casey said as she picked up her pace, running for the van they'd arrived in.

Lex had the straps released once they made it back to the van, and she slid down Casey's back as the taller woman stopped to open the driver's door. Walking over to Lou, Lex tugged on his arm.

“Let's get you in the back,” she said, taking him around to the rear doors, something Casey had suggested earlier due to the need for weight distribution when transporting the two of them.

The two of them got in and Lou shut the doors behind them as Casey made the engine roar to life. Lex pushed a stack of clothes over to Lou with a smile, then went to the front of the van. She looked over at Riss as she passed by. Her friend's eyes were shut and she had a serious expression on her face, lit by the screens of the few laptops she'd purchased during the time Lex had been out of commission. Sliding into the front seat, Lex fastened her seat belt as Casey quickly backed out of the loading dock and pointed the van towards the rear exit of the facility.

She and Lex exchanged a glance as they both noticed that the gate arm on the road leading out of the facility was down. As Casey started to say something, most likely to warn everyone to brace themselves, the gate arm rose and they drove safely out of the facility, turning left into the surrounding residential streets and leaving the cursed building behind them. Lex threw Riss a glance, suspecting she'd made something happen, but the other woman's position and expression didn't change.

Sometime later they pulled into a big rental car lot across the city. Riss had opened her eyes and shut down most of the computers she'd been using, except for the laptop Lex had given her. She nodded and pointed as they drove down the rows of vehicles to a sky blue van with tinted windows.

“That should be it,” she said, checking something on the computer and then pointing as they pulled alongside a sky blue van.

They left the white van they'd been driving in the drop-off area. As Casey and Lex had changed their clothes in the back of the old van, Lex had patched up the cuts on Casey's shin that she'd received during her fight with the dark furred creature that had driven her to one knee, and a circular dent bleeding on her forearm.

“I've never seen you hurt before,” Lex had said, then bit her lip.

Casey had just shrugged. “I could tell when I was grappling with that thing with the fur that it was dense like me. I don't think it was as dense as I am, though, because it really didn't scratch me that deep. As for the other one, I guess there were some sharp edges on that bullet or something.”

Lex had sighed and finished the job, putting everything they'd worn, including Lou's hospital gown, into a plastic bag.

The four of them moved to the new van then, got it going, and drove away with no trouble. They made a stop at a convenience store a mile or two from the car rental lot, and as they went in, threw the bag with the clothes in the trash bin in front. As they drove further onto the busy streets of the city, Lex found herself laughing.

“Good job, ladies,” she said, looking over at Casey and back over her shoulder at Riss.

Casey laughed in return, slapping the steering wheel as she drove. “I can't believe it worked so well. You're a certified computer genius, Riss.”

Lex looked out of the corner of her eye as Riss smiled and turned to look out the window.

“It was a bit of a job to make sure that none of the cameras started recording or the locks re-engaged while you were inside. I kept the cameras feeding what they saw to me, but it won't be available to anyone else.”

“Were a lot of people able to get out?” Lex asked curiously.

Riss tilted her head in consideration. “A number of people were successfully trapped by the guards, but a good number managed to escape. It seemed like people lucky enough to be housed near the loading dock got away in greater numbers.”

“Oh, by the way,” Riss said as she leaned back over the seat to hand something to Lou, “here's your new driver's license and a credit card, Robert Louis Stevens. Wait at least a few hours to try it, and let me know if it gives you any trouble. Don't forget to sign the back.”

After a pause, Riss added, “In case you hadn't heard, I'm now Priscilla Claire Smith, Martha Acacia Robbins is driving, and Jane Alexis Mansfield is sitting shotgun.”

Lou gave Riss a smile as she finished, then looked at the new cards before he opened his wallet to take the old ones out, snapping them into bits and putting the pieces in his front pocket.

“Thanks,” he said, nodding at Riss. “They look perfect. You did a great job.”

Riss just looked away then, but Lex spotted a little smile on her face. Lex smiled herself as she settled back to facing front in the passenger's seat, but noticed Casey looking at her out of the corner of her eye.

“So, do you want to talk about it?” she asked Lex, one eyebrow quirked upwards.

“Talk about what?” Lex mumbled, shrinking in her seat.

“You know what I'm asking about,” Casey said in a slightly amused tone.

“Not really,” Lex replied, trying to answer even more quietly.

“What are you two going on about up there?” Riss asked after their exchange.

“Lex manifested a new symptom today, as Lily would say,” Casey answered her, looking at the other woman in the rear view mirror.

“What happened?” Riss asked, her face concerned.

Lex shrank in her seat even more as she listened to Casey's explanation of what had happened in the facility.

As Lex turned in her chair, she saw Riss staring at her with interest now, both of her eyebrows raised. “Really?”

Lex sighed, her shoulders dropping. “It was sort of like that, just less dramatic.”

“You should have seen her. It was amazing.”

Sighing again, Lex continued. “I don't really know what I did. Maybe it just happened because I was scared. It might be something I can't ever do again.”

Riss shrugged. “Sounds to me like it's a new change that's part of the event you went through. Lily warned us to be on the lookout for things like this. She said that if anything did happen, that it was important to test it out as much as you can, so you know what your limits are for future situations. She passed along a file for me to give to you in case you noticed anything new, so I'll show it to you once we get settled.”

“Thanks,” Lex replied distractedly, looking out the front window at the traffic on the city streets. She began wondering if this was some permanent change, but shrugged the thought off, knowing that she had more pressing things to focus on.

“We agreed we're going to head west, right?” Lex craned her neck to find out if she could see into the back of the van, but it was too dark to make out details. “Riss, can you find out if Lou can hear back there?”

Leaning over her seat, Riss shook her head. “No, I think he's asleep. We can go over the rest of the plan later, maybe when we stop for the night.”

“That's probably a good idea,” Lex replied, suddenly having to put her hand in front of her mouth to stifle a yawn.

She remembered blinking slowly at the road in front of them, glad for her sunglasses even though the day had dawned cloudy and grey. The next thing she knew, the van had stopped. She looked to the driver's seat, which now sat empty. Confused, Lex looked out the window. The day had cleared, but the sunlight seemed thin and far away. Not recognizing their location, Lex turned to the back of the van to see Riss sitting behind her. She looked up and nodded when Lex looked in her direction. Upon registering a sudden movement next to her, Lex rubbed her eyes and glanced out the window to see Casey waving.

“Hey,” Casey said after Lex had fumbled the door open. “Do you want to stretch your legs or anything? We're south of Winchester now; I thought we probably shouldn't stop until we got out of the DC area altogether.”

Lex nodded heavily, still feeling about half-asleep. “Bathroom?” she asked, struggling out of her seat belt and the van to go in the direction Casey pointed.

Later, after Lex had dashed some cold water on her face, she looked into the mirror. She felt glad it was still cold outside, because she wore a stocking cap to cover up her new red hair, but she took the hat off and smoothed her hair out, watching in the mirror. She looked up as the door to the outside opened and Riss came in, smiled, and then looked back at her reflection, still with a smile on her face, something her new hair color never failed to induce. Sticking the hat back on, Lex finished up and turned to leave when she caught her arm on something and wobbled.

A moment later, Riss was at her side, steadying her. “Don't lose your balance and hit your head now that we're on the road.”

Lex laughed. “No, now would not be a good time. Thanks, Riss.”

When they resumed their trip, Casey insisted on continuing to drive, but Riss and Lex switched places so that Lex could lie down. She had tried to argue, saying that since she'd had a nap she wasn't tired anymore, but after letting out a big yawn in the middle of her speech, she'd had to abandon that line. Lex fell back asleep to the sound of clicking keys from the front of the van.

Waking up a couple of hours before they decided to stop for the night, Lex moved to the passenger seat so she could keep Lou company, since he'd now switched to be the driver. Casey sat in the back of the van now, and Lex could hear the murmur of the two other women discussing something.

“So,” Lex asked, looking over at Lou, “how are you feeling? I'm sorry we couldn't get there any quicker. It looked like they were treating you pretty badly.”

He gave her a quick look and smiled before he looked back out the front window. “I'm fine. They just had me strapped down like that because I kept trying to escape. I overheard someone saying they don't like to use tranquilizers on people like me because they have to use so much to have an effect. They had other people like Casey and I on staff and they overpowered me by numbers. Mostly, they were running a lot of tests on me, not giving me any weird drugs like the other people there. From what they said, I got the impression they took me in hoping that if Casey was still out there that she'd come for me. I don't think they had any idea that something like this would happen.”

“Good.” Lex said with a nod, then sighed. “I hope a lot of those people got away. We were lucky: most of them were housed nearer to the guards. What a terrible place.”

He nodded, then fixed Lex with an intense glance. “So how are you? I know Casey was really worried about you.”

Lex looked up to meet his eye and sighed a second time. “Well, I'm glad to be free and not a lab rat anymore, but I just feel so weak. I sleep a lot, and I can't do most of the things I'm used to. It's really frustrating.”

Lou listened, then let a moment of silence stretch out between them as he considered. “Well,” he began, “from what Casey said, you nearly died, right?”

“Twice, unfortunately.” As she said it, she couldn't help but glance into the back of the van, but she couldn't see Casey or Riss.

“And your whole body reformed itself, I guess, according to some talk I heard at the facility.”

Lex nodded in response, listening.

“Maybe you should think about it like being born, or like having to re-learn how to do stuff after a stroke. Figure your body's new to you now and you don't know what to expect. Try to be patient like you're teaching a child, because being impatient with kids won't help them learn any faster. It'll take some time to build your strength back up, too. You're not born a strong adult, after all.”

Smiling, Lex looked over at him. “Casey never mentioned how smart you are. Do you always give advice this good?”

Lou smiled in return, still looking at the road. “Hard to say. A lot of people don't like advice.”

The two of them alternately talked and enjoyed the scenery as it rolled by. They decided to stop for the night around the time the light disappeared from the sky, and they found a tiny motel on the outskirts of a small town. Casey insisted that they find something with a kitchenette so that she could cook, to make sure Lex had something to eat. She made dinner for everyone though, and Lex began going through the next step of their plans as Casey cooked.

“All right,” Lex said, “before I begin, Riss, did you manage to pick up any information about what happened today on the news or anywhere else?”

Riss raised an eyebrow. “Nothing on the news, and I didn't expect it. As I think you noticed before, they don't like to talk about us on the news. I think it's sort of an official policy of denial, I guess; if we don't exist, they don't need to worry about doing whatever they like to us. Anyway, from what I've been able to tell from police and internal MSI reports, they don't seem to be too sure about what actually happened. They circulated our descriptions again, though, along with Lou's, but mostly to law enforcement along the east coast.”

With an expressive shrug, Riss continued. “They don't seem to be doing any searching on their own anymore, although the first couple of weeks they had all their troops out searching likely spots all over the DC metro area. They're not making a big deal about it now, though. It seems they still want to keep things quiet, even from the police, which makes me pretty sure they're not in on the secret. At any rate, it seems we've made our escape, so we're probably safe for the moment. I'll continue to monitor police communications and the news. If you're still worried, though, one of the nice things about all of the crap they try to sell to women is that it makes it pretty easy to change your appearance, as Lex demonstrated.” She finished talking with a raised eyebrow, playing with the fork in front of her on the table.

“Thanks, Riss. That's great to hear,” Lex said with a smile, then continued. “I'm figuring our main focus now should be to stay free, and to figure out where we should go to recoup and plan our next move. I did as much research as I could in the couple of weeks before we came to get you, Lou, and here's what I'd like to propose.”

She paused for a few moments and spread some sheets of paper out on the small table the three of them were gathered around. Casey glanced over the tiny counter that separated the kitchenette and the table, but then nodded and went back to her cooking as Lex continued to speak.

“I printed these out on the library computer, so I apologize that there's only some summary information. What I'd like to propose is that we choose a new place to live where we can think about what we want to do next. Lou, I already talked to Riss and Casey about areas of the country we should avoid, based on where people might recognize them, so I eliminated a few places right off the bat.”

“You shouldn't need to worry about that for me,” he said, after having glanced at the papers on the table. “My family is from northern New York, and it looks like most of these places are out west.”

Lex nodded. “I figured it would probably make the most sense to avoid anything on the east coast, but I ended up avoiding anything east of the Mississippi, pretty much. Also, I figured avoiding the biggest cities was probably the way to go, since they'll have more of everything, including police and possible publicity. I went with slightly smaller cities instead, figuring that in a city it's easier to blend into a crowd. Anyway, have a look, and we'll figure out between the four of us where we want to go.”

All of them looked over the papers Lex had provided over dinner, which consisted of summary information for a dozen or so cities all over the western United States. After they'd finished eating, they all discussed it for a while, and finally went with Riss' suggestion to have everyone vote by ordering their top picks at the top of a list and their least favorite at the bottom, eliminating several agreed-upon bottom choices every round. After a couple of rounds, Lex announced, “It looks like Phoenix, Arizona is probably the winner. It's everyone's top pick or second pick; nothing else seems to be as popular. Everyone else should look at the results, though, to be sure.”

Lex passed the pieces of paper to Riss, who looked at them and nodded, passing them along to Lou. After everyone had a look, Lex asked, “What do you all think? I visited a friend there once, several years ago, and I thought it seemed like a good place.”

Casey nodded. “I've never been there, but from what I've heard it sounds like a nice town.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Riss said.

“I've heard the country around there is beautiful,” Lou added. “I'm looking forward to seeing it.”

“All right,” Casey said, her hand in front of her face to hide a yawn, “we'll get some maps tomorrow to help us get there. And we should see if we can find a health food store on the road, too, because I think I'm going to start dying my hair, too.”

Lex raised an eyebrow. “What color?”

“Black, I think,” Casey replied, looking as if she was trying to stifle another yawn.

“Why don't you two get some sleep,” Lex suggested, looking at Lou and Casey. “Riss and I can do the dishes.”

“Oh, we can?” Riss asked, folding her arms across her chest, but smiling the ghost of a smile.

Lou and Casey seemed happy enough to agree with that and went next door to the second room they'd gotten. Riss and Lex cleaned up quietly, putting the dishes away and straightening everything up. Once they'd finished, Lex turned to Riss.

“How tired are you? I know it was a long day, so if you're worn out, just tell me.”

Riss shrugged. “I'm actually not tired. I slept a bit in the van, probably just because I got bored. I'm used to staying up most of the night anyway, so I'm feeling pretty awake about now. What's up?”

“Well,” Lex began, “I wanted to go through the exercises that Mr. Chen put together for me, but I should have someone spot me in case my muscles get too tired. I still can't quite figure out what my limits are yet.”

“Just tell me what I need to do,” Riss said, sitting on the floor as Lex did.

Riss nodded as Lex explained and then helped her friend work through the set of exercises that Mr. Chen had written out. After what seemed like too quick a time, Riss tapped Lex on the leg, helping the other woman bring it back to the floor.

“I think maybe you should call it a night,” she said, studying Lex's face. “Your muscles are shaking as you're doing these. It's been a big day already, maybe that's enough.”

“But, I should–” Lex began, only to be cut off by Riss' voice.

“You know, Lex, you don't have to do everything all at once. Why don't you just pretend you're on vacation for a while and take it easy.”

Lex just looked at her mutely for a moment before finally relaxing enough to lie back on the carpet with her head in her arms. “I'll try to relax. I'm just not very good at it.”

“I noticed,” Riss replied with a gentle snort of laughter, then reached a hand down to help her friend off the carpet as she stood up. “Do you want to watch some TV? I was going to go online for a while to see if there's been any news.”

Lex sighed. “Not really. I'm not that tired, though.”

“In that case, here,” Riss said, handing the other woman a small laptop. “This is the file that Lily left for you. I think she said it's some kind of manual. Even though nothing happened while we were at the apartment, I think Lily suspected that, since you came through your body event with differences, you might have some changes to your capabilities, too. So she left this with me and asked me to pass it along if you noticed any further changes.”

Riss showed Lex the file before settling on the floor surrounded by computers. Lex sat back on one of the beds and started looking at the manual Lily had sent. “Determining Your New Skills” the cover page proclaimed, underneath the MSI logo, and Lex raised an eyebrow before reading on.

After reading for a short time, she realized that it seemed to be an instruction book for figuring out how to identify and use any new talents you were left with after a body event. Lex glossed over some initial chapters about adjusting to new limbs and body types to read in detail the first chapter that explained how to investigate changes that weren't apparent from the outside.

“You have to think about this as if you were a child, exploring the possibilities of your body for the first time. Be completely experimental, because things you thought you could never do before you might be able to do now.”

Lex rolled her eyes and wondered who had written the manual. Maybe they have ex-patients working at the facility; I can't see the people who run the lab farming this work out to anyone who didn't know what goes on there.

As she read, she mentally discarded some suggestions but made note of some things that interested her (“Your new talents may manifest themselves at times of extreme stress”). After a while, however, Lex found her head nodding as she read, and ran through a series of short dreams where she was doing all sorts of bizarre things, like shooting rays from her fingertips.

Eventually, the scenes in her mind resolved and Lex found herself sitting at the edge of the river again, shifting uncomfortably as she sat on a large rock but smiling as her breath showed in the fall air, and as she turned to the side, she saw her uncle sitting beside her, enjoying the sunset. He smiled at her in return.

“Congratulations, Lex. I'm glad you made it.”

Unable to help herself, Lex reached out and hugged him. He hugged her back as she laughed.

“I'm so glad to be here. I don't look the same, though.”

“You're as lovely as you ever were. Besides, who ever ends up looking the same over the years, anyway?”

Lex tilted her head from one side to the other as she considered that. “I guess you're right.”

The scene melted away then, and Lex blinked, suddenly looking up into Riss' eyes.

“Why don't you get ready for bed and get under the covers? It looks like the file wasn't too interesting.”

Lex smiled and stretched after handing the laptop back to Riss. “I think it's going to take some time to go through it.”

After getting ready and tucking herself in, it seemed only moments later that she saw sunlight streaming in through the window and smelled breakfast cooking. As she sat up, Lex yawned and looked over at the kitchenette area to see Lou, Riss, and Casey awake and smiling at her.

“Good morning,” she said with a sleepy wave, then made her way to the bathroom to get ready for another day on the road. By the time she joined everyone else at the table, they had begun to eat.

They ate in companionable silence for a while, and then Lou asked a question.

“I remember when we talked about escaping a while ago, Casey mentioned that someone had worked it out so that our money could follow us. Can you tell me how? I want to be able to help out, but all I have right now is this credit card.”

Riss nodded as she finished chewing on some toast and picked up a cup of coffee. “It's ready for you to use, with a $15K limit, but we're going to have to make sure to pay on them in order to have them continue working. If everyone just treats them like normal credit cards, they shouldn't set off any alarm bells. I have them all monitored, though, in case something weird happens.”

She drank some of her coffee, then continued. “I took the info you gave me and I have all of the money from your account held safely. It's currently in a bank in Idaho with your new name on it. Once we settle in Phoenix, I'll transfer it to a bank of your choice there under your new name. You should probably pick something available nationally, though, since Phoenix might not be our last step.”

Riss stopped then, and the three women looked at each other for a moment, as if they weren't sure how to continue, but finally Lex nodded at Casey, and the blonde nodded back, then started to speak.

“Actually, we talked before we left about sticking together. We figured that we'd have a better chance of survival together, and I agreed at the time. If you want to do something different, we can move on by ourselves, but I'd like for all of us to stick together, if you can get behind that.”

Lex thought Casey looked like she was holding her breath as Lou stared at his plate a moment, chewing and thinking. Finally, he glanced back up at Casey.

“That's fine by me,” he agreed. “I think we should stick together. We've gotten this far, and I think we can go even farther together.”

“OK,” Riss said, “there's something you should know, then. When the three of us spoke, we agreed that we should share what we have so that we'd all share in out good fortune. Between the four of us, we have over half a million dollars.”

Lou's eyes widened, then narrowed a little. Riss shook her head.

“Before you think we stole it, what I did was to transfer our pay out of our accounts. The M Agency pays well, due to all the borderline-legal experiments they do, I guess. Plus, they want to be sure no one tries to leave, so they pay high wages...that remain mostly uncollected, so they simply take the money back into their corporate accounts when they transfer people to the labs permanently. Casey had earned over $200K, Lex had earned about $100K and I threw in the $50K the facility usually gives to the next-of-kin for the person who experiences a body event and subsequently disappears, in her case. I hadn't earned anything because I was a prisoner, but in all fairness I thought I should earn the same rate as everyone else, which netted me about $200K. So, we should have enough cash to keep us going for a while.”

Lou still looked surprised, but nodded. “That sounds good, but won't they be able to trace us through the money?”

Riss shook her head. “No, although I've already moved the money, it currently looks like nothing has changed in their accounts. It won't be until sometime in the future, when they get down to a certain level, that they'll discover that some of that money no longer exists.”

She gave a smirk before continuing. “From what Lex and I figured, it'll probably be enough to fund all of us for about a year while we travel and figure out what to do next. We both agreed that it would be good to try to keep out of the government's eye as much as possible for a while, so the money will allow us to avoid things like applying for jobs and such for the next several months at least. Plus it'll give us the freedom to look around. We figured that we could settle in Phoenix for a while and do some traveling until we all decide where we want to settle permanently, or just stay there until we figure out what our next step should be.”

Lou nodded and looked at Casey, who grabbed his hand and squeezed it once. Riss continued after eating another bite.

“Like I told you yesterday, though, I haven't seen any sign that anyone is pursuing us or knows where we are. We probably should take the scenic route and act like we're on vacation, because for once we're not in a hurry.”

Exchanging looks then, suddenly everyone was grinning like crazy.

“I haven't had a vacation in years,” Riss added.

“I can't really count being out of work, so I'll have to join you in that,” Lex replied, smiling broadly now.

Casey shrugged. “I've had vacations, but mostly they were to visit family back in Kansas. Can't say as I've had a vacation just to enjoy myself in years. How about you?” she asked, turning to Lou.

Lou smiled wider as he caught the look in her eye. “No, it's been some years for me, too.”

Lex laughed as she finished a sip of tea. “OK, Riss, we'll probably have to use some computer time so we can figure out what we want to see between here and Phoenix.”

“OK,” Riss said with a smirk. “Where is 'here', anyway?”

Forward to Chapter 24
Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!

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Very interesting chapter! I love that they thought ahead of a way to help other prisoners escape as well. Like storming the Bastille!

As a natural products person who dyes my hair, I recommend Casey dye her hair red. I use henna, which you can have in any colour, so long as its red. There is a way to dye your hair black using natural products, but its a two step process; you have to go red first, then black. Or you end up green, which could be funny.

New Names:
Robert Louis Stevens - He is going to have a son who is an author.
Priscilla Claire Smith - Priscilla should be a pretty name, but it makes me think of prissy. Riss might have been short for something like Marissa (or Clarissa, hmmm), so now she's probably be Cill.
Martha Acacia Robbins - If that was my name, I would go by Acacia. Acacia->Casey aha. I was going to say Martha sounds like a big woman in an apron, but actually, Casey is a big woman who probably wears an apron quite often. But younger and more fit!
Jane Alexis Mansfield - The real name blatantly in the middle name, I hope that's not going to be a problem. I like the simplicity of Jane for Lex.

Re: Chatty after Chapter

I'm glad you liked it! Although they wanted to do something, they knew they couldn't go in and save everyone, so at least they could leave the doors open.

Very true! I did use natural products to dye my hair black, but like you say, it definitely was reddish. Since I didn't have to go from blonde, I was unaware of that particular issue...

Heh, heh...yeah, I think he was a big fan of Treasure Island as a kid. : ) Aside from Riss, they did all go for middle names that would make their nicknames still reasonable. And, yes, I did sort of worry about that for them, but I guess you'd have to be around listening to them to figure out what they call one another...well, I guess the best thing they have going for them is that America is a big country, which makes it fairly easy to find a place to hide in.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Re: Chatty after Chapter

It just dawned on me that "Riss" could also be a nickname for Priscilla.

Re: Chatty after Chapter

Exactly! :D

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