Authors: Joss Ware
Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Horror, #Dystopia, #Zombie, #Apocalyptic
Simon Japp was damned tired of running.
The cold, heavy weight of a Beretta’s nose smashing against his forehead would be a relief. Or the barrel could be shoved into his mouth, damn the straight white teeth with which he’d been blessed, and the trigger pulled. Or firm, capable hands positioned around his skull, and the nasty, lethal twist. Quick.
Then the bliss of ignorance. Of escape.
Because, really, death was the only way to escape Mancusi.
The desert air was dry and cleaved into his raw lungs. Blinding sunlight burned gritty eyes and tightened his skin. But green clumps of brush and trees softened the arid landscape, and brilliant flowers sprang from their depths. Above and around him, the iconic red rock rose like stacked sandstone plates, all shades of flame, copper, and orange. Breathtaking from a distance, daunting from up close. No one could deny the beauty of this place.
He’d come here to Sedona, to hide. To try, anyway.
Florita, of the perky ass and multiple wrist bangles, had rambled on about how beautiful it was in Sedona, rattling on about things like energy vortexes and crystals and shit like that. And then Rita got a little too friendly with her bodyguard, and Mancusi kicked her the hell out.
Simon had run here for no other reason than to get away from Mancusi, but he couldn’t deny that he felt different here. He really did. Maybe it was just the fact that he was away from it all, even if it didn’t last very long.
Nothing could erase what he’d done. Who he was.
Oh, God. He wanted to put it away, to crawl out of his skin. Out of this person.
Usually so surefooted, so sleek and feline in his movements, he stumbled. Grabbed with a shaking hand at a branch. A shadowy crevice yawned before him. Here, in the middle of nowhere, along shallow, rocky hills, small mountains, the opening of a cave.
Simon cast a glance over his shoulder. He hadn’t seen Mancusi’s
for the last hour of wavering, stumbling flight, but that didn’t mean they weren’t hot on his heels.
Of course they were.
Of course they had found him, only a breath after he’d left East Los. Probably even before.
For his pursuers belonged to Mancusi.
El Mero Mero.
As did he.
Inside, the narrow cave was cool—cooler than the air outside, anyway—and dark. Simon dragged the crushed water bottle he’d bought at the last party store and drank. The liquid instantly rebelled in his belly, and he coughed it up. It splashed over the dirt-packed floor and onto his dusty boots, just as clear as it had been going down.
Pushing back the long strands of hair clinging to his face, he swore, and then prayed as he knelt there, weak, shuddering, shaking, puking up nothing.
He hadn’t done that for a long fucking time.
Did God care if he swore when he prayed?
Please. Aliviáname. Dammit, please.
He sagged to the ground, face into the dirt, unable to control the withdrawal shakes, the dry heaves, the incessant, paralyzing nausea. Simon inhaled sand and dust, the floor gritty beneath his cheek, dry and rough beneath his fingernails.
He closed his eyes and waited.
They’d find him here. And at last, in a spray of blood and minced bone and flesh, he’d find release.
Suddenly, the earth moved beneath him. Furious. Pained.
Then again, harder and more violently, trembling, splitting…The rumbling grew louder and the ground cracked before him. Stones rained down from above, pummeling his shoulders and back.
With one last silent plea, Simon sunk into oblivion.
City of Envy
Fifty years after
“So you do come up from out of your lair.”
Sage Corrigan started, jolted from her contemplation of the sunset, and barely resisted the reflex to clap a hand to her leaping heart. She turned from the view of a roaring ball of red-orange bisected by the horizon, and saw the man…Simon was his name…standing there behind her.
A generous distance gapped between them, as if he took care not to get too close and spook her. As if she were a skittish cat.
Maybe that’s what he thought. And maybe he wouldn’t be too far off about that.
“Just because the only times you’ve seen me have been below doesn’t mean that I never come outside,” Sage replied, the words tripping sharply from her tongue. “I know I have pale skin, but I’m not some sort of vampire. Or…or…ghoul.”
And, okay, she did spend a lot of time in the secret computer room two floors below ground level. Maybe too much time. But she was tired of being teased about it. Even Theo Waxnicki, her closest friend, had made a few comments recently about her propensity to stay below, alone, working hard in secrecy.
That had ticked her off because Theo and his brother knew exactly why she spent so much time there. She was helping them in their secret war against the Strangers.
“Sorry. Bad joke,” Simon replied. The inflection of his voice sounded different than anything she’d ever heard before—a slip of an accent, and a harsh, staccato rhythm, as if words were precious to him and therefore must be measured carefully.
“How did you find me up here, anyway?” she asked, gesturing to the rooftop area around them. The yellow glow of setting sun muted the sharpness and color of the space, and below was the City of Envy, already shadowed from the close, tall buildings.
Sage knew she sounded defensive, but it was hard to keep her voice measured when her heart was trammeling along at warp speed. She didn’t know this man very well, and she had no idea what to say to him. Most of her conversations were about facts—things she found while doing her research. Easy things to talk about.
“Accidentally. I didn’t follow you.” He took a step back, as if to leave, his boots grinding quietly on the dingy rooftop.
Sage looked at him, suddenly feeling guilty. It wasn’t his fault she couldn’t carry on a conversation. “You don’t have to go. It’s not my view.”
He paused. “You want to be alone. I understand.”
“No. Wait. Really.” Sage knew she sounded just as clipped as he did. She drew in a deep breath. “I don’t mind.”
In fact, now that she was over her initial startle, she burned with curiosity. She’d been curious about Simon Japp and his four friends since they had arrived in Envy only a few weeks ago.
Sage was twenty-eight, born twenty-three years after what everyone called the Change—the deep-seated earthquakes, raging fires, and devastating weather that had destroyed twenty-first-century civilization and nearly all of the human race. For the last half a century, the survivors and their children and grandchildren had worked to rebuild some semblance of civilization. The result was this small pocket of a city—the largest settlement of humans—in what had once been the western United States.
Although they looked as if they were in their mid-thirties, Simon and his male friends had actually
in that world fifty years ago.
And somehow, they’d been preserved, intact, for decades in a place called Sedona. They’d emerged unscathed and unchanged from a cave, half a century after the earth, and life as they’d known it, had been annihilated.
Simon was looking at her as if he wasn’t sure whether to believe her implied invitation to stay—sort of sidewise—while half his attention appeared to be focused out over the city.
She was struck, as she had been every time she’d seen him, by how simply beautiful his face was. Lean and chiseled, with perfect angles at chin and jaw, cheeks and nose, his was the most handsome face she’d ever seen. He had dark, exotic eyes with slender, well-formed brows arching over them, and a mouth that looked as if it had been carved lovingly by some heavenly sculptor.
And yet, despite the startling beauty of his face, Simon had an aura of reservation about him. Reservation and…something else. Something she couldn’t quite define.
It was in his eyes. Something haunting…something dark.
As always, his walnut-colored hair was pulled back in a low ponytail. It looked as if it would just brush his shoulders, but she’d never seen it loose, so she wasn’t sure how long it was. He wore a crimson T-shirt that hugged his muscular upper arms and loose, comfortable pants with many pockets.
Curiosity gave her the words. “Had you been here…before?” She gestured to the city below, her hand spanning what had once been known as the Las Vegas Strip. She’d seen pictures of it, had heard about it from Lou and Theo Waxnicki, who had also been alive during the Change.
Now what was left of the city was known as New Vegas, or N.V.
He stepped closer, coming nearer to the edge of the building, but not any closer to her. “Yes. Many times.”
Silence descended and she followed his gaze, looking out over the landscape of buildings demolished by the furious earthquakes, of steel beams and jagged walls now sprouting trees, bushes, and grass. And beyond, to the ocean, glittering fire, bronze, and orange as the sun touched it. She knew that fifty years ago, the ocean had been nowhere near Las Vegas, and that more than half the cluster of tightly packed hotels and resorts had crumbled beneath the onslaught of the Change.
“What was it like?”
At first, she thought he might decline to answer. But then, he stepped way,
closer to the edge of the rooftop than she ever would, and drew in a deep breath.
“Vegas never stopped moving, or breathing. It was wall-to-wall people, lights, activity, sound. The sole purpose of the city was pleasure. Hedonism. Food, sex, money, entertainment.” He looked at her, the words rolling out bitterly. “Superficial. Tawdry. Garish…yet, beautiful and exciting.”
Sage had seen pictures, of course, but those were images, frozen in a moment. The way he spoke, with his short, sharp sentences, painted a more fluid image, albeit a tainted one.
“But now,” he was saying, almost to himself, “all of that’s gone. The hype. The desperation hidden beneath the lights and sounds. It’s not a place for pleasure anymore. It’s been reborn. There’s greenery. And new life. And…” He seemed to catch himself, and she saw the way his jaw shifted when he closed his mouth as if to cut off the words.
“It must be horribly weird for you to see it now. After.”
His reply was a derisive sound, as if to say,
Yeah, duh, of course it is.
She gritted her teeth, mentally kicking herself for the inane comment. And she wanted to ask more, but a sound behind drew her attention. She turned. “Theo!” A rush of relief swept her, and became even stronger when she noted that he seemed to be walking on two legs and fully intact. “You’re back.”
He’d been gone on one of his missions for four days, working to extend the secret computer network he and his twin brother Lou were building. This particular task had been to install several network access points for what was going to be a communications and information system—a new, covert Internet—for those who joined them in the struggle against the Strangers. The NAPs were strategically located, hidden in the overgrowth of old structures or high in trees, and powered by solar energy. Neither the Strangers nor the zombie-like night monsters known as
would suspect their existence.
“I’m back, and in one piece. Of course.” He smiled as he came toward her, smooth and easy. His tattoo of a writhing red dragon curled down from beneath the sleeve of his T-shirt to wrap around his wrist. Whenever he flexed his substantial muscles, Scarlett shimmied and curled along with them. “I knew I’d find you up here if you weren’t in the computer room.”
“Did you get them set up?” Sage asked. “All ten of them?”
His glance strayed behind her, obviously to Simon, who’d also turned from his contemplation of the view, and then back to Sage. It was still light enough to see the question in Theo’s eyes, and something else that he quickly hooded. He stepped closer to her.
“Yes, all of them, in a fifty mile arc. As soon as you and Lou are ready, you can test their status.” He paused for a moment, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled. “I brought a bribe,” he said, producing a small satchel he had slung behind his back, “in case you wanted to start right away.”
When he produced three books from the depths of the bag, she snatched them up, then flung her arms around his neck in a big hug.
Unmildewed, unmoldered, unnibbled books.
“You know I don’t need a bribe to work on the computers,” she said, looking at them behind his shoulder, “but I’ll take them anyway.”
“I know that,” he said. And his arms tightened around her just as she would have pulled away. “I’m glad I found something for you.” Then she eased back, and she felt his arm loosen almost reluctantly.
“Thank you, Theo,” she said, already flipping through them. He always seemed to pick novels she’d like…and never once had he brought back something she’d already read. And it wasn’t as if there were many to choose from in the homes, stores, libraries…whatever…that he might encounter during his travels.