The men didn’t talk as they walked back to Base. Chyler adjusted his grip on the stranger, and tried to ignore the soft feel of her skin, in spite of the dirty, ragged piece of cloth that barely covered her. Which was odd, considering she appeared to have bathed recently. Her hair was still damp.
The woman remained half out of it, so they couldn’t question her. Didn’t matter. She’d be placed in quarantine as soon as they arrived. Once she was safely behind bars and conscious, then they could get the information they needed from her. He just hoped she didn’t turn before they got there.
They were within sight of the ship when she stirred and lifted her head. Chyler caught a whiff of her hair, and his body reacted. Stunned, he almost stopped in his tracks as a surge of sexual attraction made the hairs rise on the back of his neck, and affected his dick as well.
The woman looked up at him. “Where are we?”
“Almost at our base.”
She surveyed the structure they were nearing. “Is that a boat?”
“It’s a ship,” he corrected.
“Formerly the U.S.S. Allmendor. Now affectionately called Hellmendor,” Damrung added.
She frowned. “Why do you call it that?”
Chyler grunted. His pants were becoming uncomfortably tight. Thank goodness carrying her helped to hide it from view. But this reaction left him puzzled. “Wait until the summer. That steel hull will bake you like an oven.”
“Then why do you stay in it?”
“Damn thing’s impenetrable,” Steen remarked. “But it’s not as bad as he makes it sound. We have ways to ventilate it and keep us cool on those hot days.”
Chyler noticed how the woman scrutinized the ship. “What’s a boat doing out in the middle of land? Why isn’t it in the water, where it belongs?” She glanced back up at him. It was an effort for him to not get caught up in her gray-green gaze.
“This used to be a harbor,” he informed her. “We’re walking on what used to be covered in water. After all hell broke loose, the ship got stranded.”
She glanced down at the hard packed earth, but said no more, prompting Chyler to ask, “What’s your name?”
“Shadow, like the sun casts your shadow?”
“Said the same, but spelled differently.”
“Well, Shaddoe, I have to inform you that when we reach the ship, you’re going to be placed in quarantine for a while. It’s for our protection, as well as yours.”
Oddly enough, she didn’t argue, or plead for him to reconsider. Instead, she nodded. “I understand. You probably already know that I wouldn’t have been expelled unless I was infected.” She lifted one leg. Chyler glanced down to see the swollen, reddish ankle.
“Does it hurt?”
“Yeah. It throbs, and it burns. I almost can’t walk on it anymore.”
“An infected creature got into the bunker. I don’t know how.”
“Do you know what kind of creature it was? Had to be something small, like a rat.”
Shaddoe shook her head, and the fragrance of her hair wafted up to him again. Chyler groaned inwardly as his erection strengthened further. This was getting ridiculous. How in the hell was this woman able to affect him like this? It would be a relief to finally be able to dump the woman in the brig.
Johannes spotted them coming, and that they had a companion. He climbed down out of the tower in order to assist Damrung and Steen in opening and closing the steel door. The few people who were out and about, and saw Chyler with the woman, said nothing. They knew the drill. They knew where they were taking her. It was mandatory in order to survive, and they weren’t about to interfere with the mandate.
Accompanied by Steen, Chyler took her straight to the brig, which was open and waiting. Going inside the small four-by-six-foot cell, he set her on her feet, then went outside as Steen closed the door and locked it.
“How long am I gonna have to be in here?” she queried.
“There’s a required thirty-seven hour wait,” Chyler answered. Now that he no longer held her, his body started to calm, allowing him to face her without embarrassing himself.
She glanced around the tiny cell, then sat on the narrow cot. “What happens then? Is that how long it’ll take for me to become Broken?”
Damn. He stood there in awe of this woman’s calm acceptance. Of the few, rare people he’d seen rescued, all of them either wailed in sorrow or screamed in righteous anger, demanding to be let out. This woman did neither.
“Maybe. Maybe not. If you don’t break, then we’ll let you out,” Steen answered, then turned to Chyler. “We good here? Or do you need me to stay?”
“Nah. We’re good. Thanks for the backup.”
The man gave a nod and left. When Chyler looked back at her, she was staring at him with wide eyes. “What do you mean, if I don’t break?”
It was difficult not to smile. Apparently she believed everyone afflicted eventually succumbed to the virus. “Not everyone who becomes infected turns. There are some who manage to survive. Not many, but some do.”
At first, her reaction was one of disbelief, until she peered more closely at him. “Like who? Who has survived?”
“Like me,” he told her. “And Damrung. He was the other man who was with us.”
“What about Beasley?”
He nodded. “Beasley, too. In fact, a few of the people you see living here have suffered a bite, or a scratch, or in some way got infected, but the virus didn’t break them. They survived.”
“A few of you? Not all of you?”
“Some of us were born up top,” he explained further. He started to say more. To add a caveat about the fact that the thirty-seven hour rule wasn’t ironclad. That sometimes, albeit rarely, a person thought to have escaped having their brain fried suddenly broke. But he kept that bit to himself. For now, at least. If she managed to live that long, then she’d be made privy to the rest of it. But not until then. Not until she…
A shudder went through him, forcing him to wrap his arms around his waist in a self-hug.
If she managed to live that long.
The thought of this woman going rabid was like a punch to the gut, completely taking him by surprise by its ferocity. Why in the hell should I care whether or not she survives? he tried to argue with himself. For some reason, that callous exterior he thought he’d developed over thirty-two years of seeing friends, acquaintances, and family turning wasn’t working this time. It had softened, and dangerously so. He was unaware that she’d gotten to her feet and limped over to the bars, to get closer to him, until she spoke.
“Most of you? You survived? H-how many are there of you?”
“Right now, thirty-nine.”
She checked the room where they were. She’d been placed inside the end cell of three. The other two were empty. “Am I your only prisoner?”
“Yeah. In fact, you’re the first person we’ve seen upchucked from a bunker in almost four years.”
Shaddoe shook her head. “That can’t be right. Dury was bitten, too. He was taken to the surface after me…I think,” she quickly amended. Gasping softly, she clutched the bars. “Can you call Beasley and have him check? Please? Ask him if there was a young man, sixteen years old, who came Above after me. He’d be wearing a white jumpsuit.”
“I’ll check,” Chyler promised.
That answer satisfied her, and she returned to the cot, dropping onto it. From the way she favored her left leg, it was obvious she was in a lot of pain.
“Look, I’m going to go give Beasley a holler, and let him know to be on the lookout for another person. I’m also going to fetch Friar, and have him come look at that foot. There’s no sense in you suffering while you wait.”
She lifted an eyebrow in surprise, but didn’t make any further comment, other than to say thank you.
Turning on his heel, Chyler strode out of the brig and headed for the upper level. Although he tried not to dwell on the fact, the truth continued to stare him in the face. That woman, Shaddoe, had to survive. She had to. If for no other reason than to give him the chance to lift her into his arms again. Because, damn him to hell, he felt empty and incomplete without the feel of her against him.