Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Ella waited five minutes before pulling onto the road and heading for the gas station. During that time, Anne remained silent and motionless. The girl had become skilled at stealth, knowing to remain still, body and soul, even while an enemy stood just feet away. The moment the illusion of nothingness was disturbed, the ruse was over, along with your life. Anne had remained hidden while their previous companions had been snatched away and eaten. Ella remembered the events with clarity, lying still under their camouflaged cloaks, listening to screams, and then the chewing. The memories disturbed her. Haunted her dreams. But she was an adult. How much more poignant would they be for Anne?
How different will she be from me when she grows up?
Ella wondered. Endless questions without answers streamed through her mind. How would nurture affect the girl’s nature? Her mind? Her resilience? She’d already proven herself strong, but would she crack?
Or will I crack first?
Ella thought back to what her life had been like as a girl. Normal. Quiet. And shared, with Peter. She tried to picture herself in Anne’s shoes, and failed.
At least she has Peter in her life now. We’ll have that much in common, aside from our shared DNA.
Moving at a cautious 20 mph, Ella drove toward the gas station. As she neared the break in the treeline where the station resided, her apprehension increased. Heading into danger was not how they’d survived so far. Survival was only guaranteed by hiding or fleeing. But this...
On the surface, this felt wrong, like suicide, except she and Peter were putting their children at risk, too. She put a hand on the shotgun in the passenger’s seat, ready to raise it at a moment’s notice. With a sidelong glance at the woods to her right, she looked for any sign of Peter, but seeing further than the roadside was impossible. The newly resilient strain of RC-714-modified Zea saccharata—sweet corn—had filled all the gaps between the leafy trees. The corn looked like a wall, the trees like watchtowers, keeping intruders out. Finding Peter amid the fruits of her labor would be impossible.
He’s not there anyway
, she told herself. Peter was precise. He had said he would meet her at the gas station in ten minutes, so that was where he would be.
Except, he wasn’t.
She slowed to a crawl as the gas station came into view. It was a small station with an attached, one-car garage. The building was painted white with red framing. A collection of never-repaired vehicles sat off to the side, rusting and framed by corn stalks. The logo on the shattered window was unreadable, but it had been mounted atop the two pumps also: ‘Harrison’s.’
With rising trepidation, she pulled up next to the pumps. Peter was nowhere to be seen, but fleeing wouldn’t get them anywhere but stuck a few miles down the road when the truck ran out of gas.
, she thought.
No running or hiding this time. We’ll fight if we need to.
“Stay still,” she said through pursed lips. Not waiting for a reply from Anne, she shut off the truck, leaving the keys in the ignition. Then she opened the door and stepped into the warm, summer air. She hadn’t even realized the truck’s air conditioner had been running. The humid air now clinging to her dirt-caked body quickly saturated her, filling her with longing for a climate-controlled laboratory. She had become hardened. She knew that. Recognized the physical and emotional traits. But the real Ella was still in there, still pining for a soft bed, gourmet food and the safety of a world without ExoGenetic predators.
Suck it up
, she told herself.
That’s not going to happen in your lifetime, so get over it. It’s the future we’re fighting for.
Acting as casual as possible while clutching a shotgun, she scanned the area. They were surrounded by walls of corn and trees in every direction, except for where the crumbling pavement cut through. There could be a hundred Stalkers lurking all around them, and they’d never know.
I’d hear them
, she thought, focusing on the lack of sound around her. With no trace of a breeze, the world was silent. Aside from the ticking of the truck’s cooling engine, she heard nothing. No insects. No birds. No distant hum of humanity. The world had eaten itself. The only insects that remained were either pollen-consuming prey, or super predators that didn’t announce their presence. The same was true for birds. The few she’d seen were massive things, Apex predators with twelve-foot wingspans, hunting each other into oblivion.
She opened the gas cap on the side of the truck, placing it on the flatbed’s sidewall and mumbling. “I’ve never siphoned gas before.”
Jakob looked up at her from below, whispering, “Where’s my dad?”
“Haven’t seen him,” she replied, head down, scratching the back of her scalp.
Jakob pointed to a three-foot-long metal rod with a hook on the end. It lay next to a long coil of tubing and a hand pump. Jakob had been busy while hiding in the back. “Pumps won’t work without power. Use this to open the gas reservoir covers.”
Ella reached in, trying to emote an air of ‘I do this shit all the time.’ She plucked up the nameless tool and looked for the fuel reservoir covers. She found them fifteen feet behind the truck. While keeping watch on her surroundings, she headed for the nearest cover, looped the hook around a small receptacle, and lifted it free. The metal cover was heavy, but not prohibitively so. She moved it to the side, and then she repeated the process with the other three covers, assuming that air flow would help with the pumping.
The smell of gasoline stung her nose and erased all traces of the corn scented air. She stood suddenly tense. No longer being able to smell was nearly as unnerving as not being able to hear or see. In this world of hunter and prey, scent was often the first telltale sign of a predator.
Doubling her pace, she moved back to the truck, reached in and took the pump and tubing.
Jakob’s whispering stopped her before she could walk away. “Take the gas cans.” He motioned to the back of the truck where three red gas cans sat. They’d long since emptied them into the dirty truck. “We need to treat the gas before putting it in the tank. Make sure it won’t kill the engine.”
“This is going to take too long,” she grumbled.
“Is my dad back?”
She shook her head slightly.
“Then it’s not too long, because we’re not leaving without him.”
Ella lifted the pump and walked away, setting it down by the open hatch. She went back for the gas cans, pausing for a moment to say, “He’ll be back.” Then she returned to the pump, moving fast, her sense of impending doom rising, a volcanic cloud blotting out her reasoning and discipline. Her hands shook as she unraveled the tube. The device looked like a bicycle pump, except for the long tube mounted to the side, just beneath the pump, and a second, shorter tube mounted to the side at the bottom. She didn’t know exactly how the pump worked, but only the long tube could reach the gas hidden below, so she fed it into the open hatch until it disappeared inside and the line went taut. She placed the second tube into the nearest gas can and began pumping.
It was easy work at first, the pump moving up and down, but then the gas reached the pump, adding resistance. She was encouraged as air and fuel spattered out of the line and then flowed with each rise and fall of the pump, but her arm began to burn from the repetitive motion. She was also vulnerable; both hands occupied, her sense of smell shot, and her mind distracted by the task at hand. So when she heard the crunch of approaching feet behind her, the sound didn’t register until a hand wrapped around her shoulder and squeezed.
Reflex responded before her mind. She dropped the pump and swung a vicious backhand. Her fist was caught, slapping into the open palm of...Peter. He looked winded, soaked with sweat trailing clean lines down his soiled face.
“Peter!” she said. “Shit!”
“How much have you pumped?” Peter asked, eyes on the road.
“I just got start—” Before she could finish, Peter picked up the device and pumped hard, the fuel gushing into the gas can. “When this is full, prep it with the PRI in the truck and get it in the tank.”
“What’s going on?”
“We’re about to have company,” he said.
Ella scanned the area. Nothing seemed different. But that was part of the problem. They could be surrounded.
“Not sure, but we were right. This station is a trap.”
“How do you know?” she asked, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
“Bodies in the woods.”
“Too many. And not all human.” Peter yanked the tube out of the gas can and inserted it in the next, pumping hard again.
Not wanting to waist time, Ella hauled the heavy container back to the truck. When she arrived, Jakob sat up, looking relieved when he saw his father, and then nervous when he saw Ella’s face. “What’s happening?”
“You know how to get this ready?” she asked. “With the PRI?”
“Do it,” she said, “and put it in the tank.” She turned and walked away without waiting to see if Jakob followed her orders. She knew he would.
Peter was nearly done with the second of the three gas cans when she returned. He knew she had questions and answered without needing to be asked. “I went back to the highway. We got ahead of them, but they’re hauling ass. They’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“They have vehicles?” she asked, surprised.
“Transportation, yes. Vehicles...” he shook his head. “Not exactly.” He finished pumping and switched the hose to the third tank. “If we’re lucky, we can stay ahead of them. But I don’t think we can count on that.”
“You think they’re already coming from the other side?”
“Or permanently stationed there.” He started pumping again. “Have you looked at the concrete? This gas station is a killing ground.”
Ella glanced down, and then around the concrete rectangle that formed the floor of the gas station. Instead of a light gray color, it was stained dark brown. In response, Ella hurried the second gas can back to the truck. Jakob finished pouring gas from the first can into the truck and traded with Ella.
A distant horn blast sounded. The pair froze.
“Was that a car horn?” Jakob asked.
“I don’t think so,” Ella said, and hurried back to Peter, who was somehow pumping even faster now.
“Only time for one more,” he said, withdrawing the hose from the third gas can and pushing it toward Ella as she put the first back down. He was pumping even as he put the hose inside the spout. “Just cap that and strap it down in the back.”
The horn blast repeated, louder this time, and no longer muffled by a forest of trees and corn. It sounded deep and throaty, less like a horn and more like a roar, organic and raw. Hungry.
“That’s it! Let’s go!” Peter said, standing and running back to the truck, his can half full, the pump clutched in hand, dragging the long hose behind, leaking fuel over the blood-stained concrete. “Keys?”
“In the ignition,” Ella replied, loading the tank into the back.
Jakob finished pouring the second PRI treated gas can into the tank and practically threw himself back into the truck bed. He quickly took the gas cans and strapped them down with bungee cords. “I got this!”
“Strap in!” Peter shouted, climbing in behind the steering wheel. Ella started running around the truck, heading for the passenger’s side door, when she was struck by a pang of guilt. She couldn’t leave Jakob alone in the back.