Talin didn't dare breathe. "Nebraska?"
"Not only that. They tracked it down all the way to Cinnamon Springs."
Her hand crushed the back of Clay's shirt. "Jon's in that lab." It was a storm inside of her, this need to reclaim what was hers to protect. But no, she had to think. Her brain wasn't fuzzy now - in fact, it was almost dizzying how clearly she could think. Strange, given that the disease had to be escalating. "We can't just barge in. The lab is too huge."
Clay tugged at her ponytail, raising her face to him. "We bring in the pack and the wolves, we can do it."
Talin had never had that much strength behind her. Her mind filled with a split-second montage of the people she had met - Nico, Tamsyn, Nate, Lucas, Sascha, Faith, and Vaughn. That kind of backup, she realized, was both a privilege and a responsibility. "No." It was a painful decision. "We'll lose too many people."
"Pack is One, Tally. We bleed for one another."
"I know." She hugged him, strong enough now to accept the protective violence that was a part of him. "But it doesn't matter. Twelve hours is too short a time frame to mount an organized attack. They might kill Jon before we ever got close enough."
"Or," Dorian said, picking up and unrolling a printout of the lab schematics taken from Judd's data crystal, "they could have a built-in self-destruct mechanism." He tapped several spots on the plan. "The lab is designed to collapse if you apply pressure at specific points - all those spots are internal. I'd guess they have the whole place wired. Input a specific code and boom."
The coldness of such a plan shook Talin to the core. "They'd kill their own?"
"Without a pause," Clay and Dorian said in concert.
People like that, she thought, wouldn't hesitate to destroy a teenage boy if they didn't get what they wanted. "Will they be able to track it back to us if I reply to this e-mail?" She copied the address, opened a new window.
"No," Dorian reassured her. "I've set it up to encrypt all outgoing messages." He tapped in a quick code. "This will feed an encryption worm into their system, too."
Nodding, she typed in a single line:
What do you want?
Neither of the men said anything as she pushed Send.
They waited in silence. Dorian shoved a hand through his hair and began stalking up and down the makeshift runway. Clay, though he remained unmoving, was a vibrating column of rage.
She reached up to massage his temples with gentle strokes. "Maybe this person isn't evil. He's prepared to help Jon."
"Why now? Why not the other children?" His arms held her firm against him, though he bent his head so she didn't have to stand on tiptoe. "Whatever it is he wants, we'll give it to him. DarkRiver has more than enough funds."
He growled at her. "Thank me again for taking care of my mate and I'll have to get mean."
There was that word again, that incredible, impossible word. She knew it had been nothing more than a slip of the tongue on his part, but she hugged the mistake to her heart.
A second later, something flashed in the corner of her eye and she twisted to look at the screen. Striding back to them, Dorian opened the e-mail.
One day, I'm going need help to retrieve someone else. When I ask, will you answer?
"Hell," Clay muttered.
"Yeah," she said. "Not the mercenary demand we expected." Reaching forward, she sent back a reply.
Will you trust my word?
The response was close to instantaneous.
Humans have an odd thing called honor. Jonquil seems to believe in yours and he is an intelligent boy. I will hold you to your honor.
There was something deeply poignant in those words. Whoever this Psy was, whatever he wanted, he wasn't evil.
"Say yes," Clay told her. "I'll answer the damn IOU."
She angled her body so he couldn't see her next message until it was too late.
How do I know your request won't lead to more deaths?
"Damn it, Tally!" Clay gripped her upper arms. "Why the hell did you do that?"
"Because you're mine to protect, too," she snapped. She wouldn't barter Clay's life for Jon's. Losing Jon would break her, but, Lord help her, she couldn't give up Clay. Not even if it meant betraying her deepest principles. Not even if it meant killing. The realization should have nauseated her. It didn't. Truth never did. "I'm not having you sacrifice yourself again!"
"God damn it." He gripped her nape, spun her around to face him. Then he kissed her. Hard. "After this is over, I'm giving you a spanking."
She felt her face go bright red, though she knew he was simply blowing off steam. "Men," she muttered, then glanced at Dorian. He was attempting to look uninterested but she saw the grin in those bright blue eyes. "Dorian, I swear to God, if you laugh, I'm going to peel your flesh from your bones."
He picked up her hand and kissed the underside of one wrist. "I like you, too."
"Stop flirting with Tally." Clay wrapped an arm around her waist. "Okay, this falls through, we still have the original plan - we go in through that supply chute. Let's start double-checking our calculations on its probable location."
And that was how they passed the minutes as they waited for the answer to a question that might cost a child his life and shatter something deep inside Talin. When it came, it was so unexpected, it stunned all three of them.
It was illogical of me to ask you - you have neither the manpower nor the connections to assist me. But I will help Jonquil escape. Can you come to these coordinates at exactly 9 p.m.?