Afterburn: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller (Next Book 1)

Five years after the apocalypse, a group of survivors is caught in a world where mutants, monsters, and a new government are battling for the top of the food chain.

 

AFTERBURN

 

(NEXT #1)

 

A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller

 

By Scott Nicholson

 

 

Copyright ©2015 Scott Nicholson

Published by Haunted Computer Books


One of the most thrilling writers working today. Miss him at your peril
.” – Blake Crouch, Wayward Pines

 


Like Stephen King, he summons serious scares
.” – Bentley Little, The Association

 

Look for the rest of the After books on Kindle:

 NEXT #2: EARTH ZERO at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

NEXT #3: RADIOPHOBIA

 

AFTER #0: FIRST LIGHT (free) at
Amazon US
 
Amazon UK

AFTER #1: THE SHOCK (free) at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

AFTER #2: THE ECHO at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

AFTER #3: MILEPOST 291 at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

AFTER #4: WHITEOUT at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

AFTER #5: RED SCARE at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

AFTER #6: DYING LIGHT at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK
 

 

ZAPHEADS #1: BONE AND CINDER at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

ZAPHEADS #2: SCARS AND ASHES at
Amazon US
or
Amazon UK

ZAPHEADS #3: BLOOD AND FROST

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

 

 

Crows lined the crumbling and contaminated road that led to Stonewall.

As Rachel Wheeler approached, they lifted one by one against the hazy October sky. A muted lime-green aurora shimmered behind the clouds as if the black birds were swimming against a frothy tide. The hardwood trees on the surrounding Appalachian slopes were gone to gold and scarlet, and the strange light hinted at the gray winter waiting ahead.

One of the crows turned, and its eyes flashed with fire. A blood-chilling caw cracked the brittle air. Rachel slid her machete from its canvas sheath, but the crow veered wildly and then rejoined the broken formation heading south toward the distant city of mutants.

DeVontay Jones chuckled behind her. “What were you going to do with that blade? Make us some chicken pot pie?”

She replaced her machete and glowered at him. “Better than hoping you could shoot it down.”

DeVontay touched his left eye and wiggled the glass prosthetic. “You got that right. My depth perception is for the birds.”

“That wasn’t funny even before Doomsday. Now it’s just sad.”

“You didn’t marry me for my wit.”

“We’re not married yet, remember. All the priests seem to be either dead or Zap.”

DeVontay shouldered his M16 and caught up with her so they could walk side by side. He took her slim right hand with his left and gave it a squeeze. “Living in sin is okay with me.”

Rachel squinted up at the hidden sun and whatever force, if any, lay beyond it. “I’m not sure sin exists anymore. Maybe we paid that debt.”

Grass poked up through cracks in the highway, bent under the weight of yellow seeds. Waist-high weeds grew along the shoulders in alternating bands of briars, goldenrod, and tiny periwinkle flowers. Here and there were gravel turnouts that led up to blank and brooding houses, but neither Rachel nor DeVontay were inclined to stop and explore them. Experience suggested such places were more likely to harbor danger than supplies.

Not that the open road was much safer, but at least their options were more appealing—fight or flight rather than fight or die.

“I thought you were done with that philosophical stuff,” DeVontay said.

“I’m done with asking why, but not with wondering what’s next.” Rachel scanned the surrounding vegetation and shook her hand free of his grip. She wanted to be able to shoot if necessary. And it was often necessary, given what roamed the forests these days.

“Maybe nobody’s left. People, I mean.”

“I can’t believe that,” Rachel said. “If we’ve lasted this long, then others must have made it, too.”

“Yeah, but we’ve got a bunker.”

“Franklin’s surviving on his own. He can’t be the only one.”

“Your grandpa spends too much time alone up in that compound of his. He’s probably getting cabin fever with no one to dismember but himself.”

DeVontay shrugged his rifle strap down his arm and brought the weapon across his chest. They were coming up on a Honda sedan, which bore a thick coat of grime on its windows and blue paint. They had passed the same car plenty of times in the last five years, but it was wise to avoid complacency. You never knew what surprises lurked in this ever-changing world.

“See anything?” Rachel said as she subconsciously drifted to the opposite side of the road. The sedan had bottomed out in a ditch, and the corpses inside had long ago gone to bone. Those unlucky travelers had endured the solar storms with their windows down, so their flesh had both rotted fast and been raided by scavengers. But at least they hadn’t been collected by the Zaps.

DeVontay poked the barrel of his rifle through the open window. “Just like before. Never noticed this guy wore a wedding ring, though.”

“You have marriage on the brain all of a sudden?”

“Beats thinking about whatever’s waiting in Stonewall.”

Rachel’s voice fell. “Are those kids still in the back seat?”

She thought of Stephen, Marina, and Kokona back in the bunker. Usually during these forays, Franklin stayed and watched them, but now they were old enough to take care of themselves. Even though the bunker was secure and defensible, she imagined plenty of things going wrong.

Especially since Kokona was a mutant.

So am I. But I’m stuck halfway and she’s not.

“Kids are still there,” DeVontay said, turning away from the Honda. “Looks like they’re resting in peace.”

What a wonderful lie that was. As if all the horrors of the solar storms—the deaths of billions, the end of civilization, and the evolution of the Zaps—were geared toward some great benevolent purpose. But that was philosophy, and Rachel was done with it. Why couldn’t she just turn off her brain?

Because part of it is running on automatic. Hearing little whispers from far away
.

They were still eight miles from Stonewall. They could likely make it before dusk if they pushed, but tracking the sun was difficult because of the haze and she didn’t know how much daylight remained. The continuous auroras that skirled through the heavens like lace curtains were scarcely visible under full sunlight, but at night they cast their supercharged neon glow across the land.

Despite the pollution, the sky had once been far worse. In the second year, thick smoke from burning cities required them to wear gas masks. No doubt they were courting lung cancer, and the air still bore a faint scorched odor, but breathing freely was worth the risk.

As they resumed their march, DeVontay fished a canteen from his pack. He gulped down a drink and passed it to Rachel. The water was stale but clean, carefully filtered. She splashed some into her palm and rubbed the back of her neck.

“Maybe we should turn around,” DeVontay said. “We can sleep in that garage at the turnpike.”

“No. I’m not giving up hope.”

“Even if we find somebody, what are we going to do? Bring them back to the bunker and let them join the big, happy, freaky family?”

“We’re not that freaky,” Rachel said. “Two teenagers, a mutant baby that never grows up, and us. Not to mention a crotchety old hermit.”

“Yeah, fine representatives of the human race. Except two of you are Zaps.”

“I’m only half Zap, thank you very much. You of all people shouldn’t be such a racist.”

“Depends on who we count as ‘people’ these days.”

DeVontay’s skin was a rich, ebony shade, and his short curly hair revealed patches of gray above each temple. Although he was in his early thirties, he’d aged fast under the duress of the apocalypse.

Not that Rachel had fared much better. She wasn’t exactly a survivalist calendar girl, as her pale skin exhibited an unhealthy lack of sunlight. She sported creases and crinkles around her eyes, which she inspected often to see if the unnatural, glimmering flecks in her irises had multiplied. She was constantly on watch for physical signs of change, although the internal effects were the ones she feared most.

Because you can never trust the Zap inside.

Something roared in the forest, distant enough to elicit a shiver but not inspire them to immediately scramble for cover.

“Sounded big,” DeVontay said.

“It’s all relative. Bigger than a car, smaller than a house.”

“Mammal or reptile?”

“Maybe some of both.”

“I don’t even want to think about it.” DeVontay looked down at his rifle as if it finally dawned on him how puny the weapon was against the dangers of the new world. They’d only encountered a few creatures today, and those had been rodent-sized and elusive, scurrying into the grass before they could glimpse any details. The animals gave the impression of disjointed menace, as if their bones were knitted together with barbed wire and their faces glinted like razors.

“We have to think about it,” Rachel said. “They’re changing. Just like the Zaps.”

“So you can sense them?”

“No. They’re doing their own thing. Thank God. I don’t think I could stand dwelling in a reptilian brain.”

“Yeah, but it would help if we knew when they were coming.”

“That would be predictable and boring,” Rachel said. “Life is full of surprises.”

DeVontay’s good eye mirthfully squinted at her. “So is death.”

Rachel shared a perceptive connection with the Zaps ever since the mutants had healed her life-threatening wound years ago. They hadn’t
in
fected her so much as
af
fected her, but she was able to suppress their influence as long as she stayed well away from them. She still bore some physical symptoms of the change, and she feared she was a ticking time bomb that threatened the small group of survivors.

But the years of relative isolation had also reduced the mutant influence on Kokona, the intelligent Zap infant in their care. Rachel could only hope the strange communal influence was fading by the day. If the Zaps had congregated in the larger cities as suspected, then their remote bunker in the Blue Ridge Mountains was probably the safest place to be.

Unless more of these abnormal creatures were roaming the world, in which case nowhere was safe.

“We’re almost to the bikes,” DeVontay said. “So we’ll have to decide between making time and holing up for the night.”

“I vote for bikes. Better than risking a random house.”

The little town of Stonewall was twenty-four miles from their bunker, but the elevation change was several thousand feet above sea level across the span of that distance. Because the grade was so steep, bicycles were only useful on two long stretches of highway. They planted bikes along the route both to speed up the trip and fool themselves about the possibility of a fast getaway. With gasoline-powered engines wiped out by the same electromagnetic radiation that erased the electrical grid and communication systems, two-wheeled transportation was their only alternative to walking.

“One of these days, we’re going to have to find out,” DeVontay said.

Not this again.

“Why?” Rachel asked.

“Because we don’t know what the Zaps are cooking up. If we want to defend ourselves, we can’t just stick our heads in the sand.”

Rachel waved to the surrounding forest and its chirruping, squeaking insects. “Nothing around here but mud.”

DeVontay stopped walking and gave an exaggerated, heaving sigh. “Why do you always get like this?”

Rachel kept moving forward, but slowly. The words were easier to take if they slid off her back. “Like what?”

“Afraid of who you are. You don’t want to know if the Zaps are still evolving because you might want to join them.”

She spun, and she knew her eyes sparked as they always did when she was angry. She could even see their glow in the settling dusk, casting out before her like miniature headlights. “That’s low, DeVontay. I’m committed to us. To this family. To the human race.”

DeVontay didn’t draw back from her rage. “Sometimes I wonder. Are we doing this so we can find other people, or because we might encounter some Zaps?”

“After sleeping beside me for the last five years, you’re still worried I’m going to go all zombie freak on you, tear out your liver, and eat it?”

“We don’t know anything about what’s happening.” DeVontay jabbed his rifle barrel toward the sky. “Just look. The sun’s still spewing shit all over the planet, the animals are changing, and we’re pretty much back in the Dark Ages. We keep on pretending we can put things back the way they were, but it’s way too late for that.”

Rachel forced herself to calm down. DeVontay was right—he shouldn’t trust her, not when she couldn’t even trust herself. She could never be sure whether the Zaps were subtly and insidiously influencing her behavior. But he didn’t have to constantly remind her.

“Adapt or die,” Rachel said. “The rules haven’t changed.”

“Nature’s a pure, heartless bitch.”

“But I’m not.”

DeVontay nodded and sagged as the tension left his body. “Your lights are on.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“I kind of like it, but some of these critters might see them. I don’t want to wind up as dinner. If I’m going to be eaten, I’d rather it be by you.”

Rachel closed the distance between them and wrapped him in a hug. She kissed his neck and then playfully nipped at the soft, dark flesh. “Careful what you wish for.”

“Right now I just wish we were back in the bunker, but we got a job to do.”

“Let’s get to those bikes.”

Five minutes later, they removed the bikes from the back of a stranded van where they hid them. DeVontay’s front tire was a little low and each crack in the asphalt sent him juddering, his backpack threatening to throw him off balance. However, they made good time, racing against the veiled sunset. Thunder rumbled to the south, although the clouds there didn’t appear any thicker or ominous than the rest of the sky.

They talked little as they pedaled, instead concentrating on the road and the surrounding vegetation. They passed a gas station and several roadside shops but didn’t stop to explore them. They’d long since cleared those buildings of any useful supplies. Their overnight refuge was five miles outside Stonewall, a furniture warehouse whose owner had been the paranoid type.

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