Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
After the hellish stress of the past days, the dichotomy of the endless and eventless road they had traversed during the past six hours left Jakob feeling anxious. It wasn’t that he disliked the quiet, or the rapid progress being made, it was that every passing moment built the anticipation. They were headed toward disaster. No matter what direction they headed in, it would be there to greet them, arms open wide for a sharp-toothed embrace.
With every passing mile, conversation fell away, replaced by monotonous scenery and stress. Crops walled in the road, alternating every few miles, but Jakob avoided looking at them. Part of him thought he might spot hungry eyes staring back as they passed, or the long twitching tails of Stalkers rising up, but mostly the crops just made him hungry. They still had enough to eat—MREs and protein bars made before the ExoGen crops started being used by the food industries—but the scent of apples, oranges and countless berries twisted his stomach up in a way he’d never experienced.
Worse than the crops and the constant threat of danger from ExoGenetic predators was the inexorable progress of the sun across the sky. It was behind them now, casting the truck’s shadow out ahead of them. And he knew what that meant.
Night was coming.
And with it, nocturnal hunters. They’d only made it this far because most of the world’s horrors still preferred to stalk their prey—each other—under the cover of darkness. His mind filled with images of predators stalking each other. With no real prey animals left, acquiring a meal demanded more than simply hunting and killing, because prey could fight back now, and it wanted, just as badly, to eat the predator. The world was a nightly battleground, slowly filtering out the weak and leaving only the most adapted and horrendous monsters behind. He’d asked Ella if the predators would eventually eat through their populations, and she thought they would, but their numbers were still high enough that it wouldn’t happen for a long time. They’d probably become omnivores before fully dying out. If humanity couldn’t somehow reclaim the planet, the future belonged to an ExoGenetic species.
Staring down, he flexed and clenched his fists, watching the blood moving in and out of his hand change the color from pink to pale white. The color shift was hard to see past the layer of dirt covering his skin, blocking his natural scent and filling the truck cab with the smell of earth.
Better than blood
, he thought, surprised that he was still alive, still in shock at who had spared his life.
It was her,
But it didn’t make sense. He remembered the night his father had dragged his mother outside, her hands bound, her teeth stained with both of their blood. The gunshot had been a defining moment in Jakob’s life, the sound of it slamming the door on his childhood. He’d hated his father for doing it, but that wound had healed in time with the physical wounds inflicted upon him by his mother.
His eyes shifted from his soiled hands to his forearm, where a crescent moon of scars revealed where his mother had bitten him, just for a moment, before his father had intervened.
She tried to eat me.
But not this time.
She remembered me. Spoke my name.
He hadn’t told his father about the encounter. It was ridiculous. Insane. His dead mother, now a monster, had pinned him to the ground and spoken to him? Even he knew it wasn’t possible.
It was a hallucination
, he decided. Evidence of his fracturing mind. He’d been chased through the forest. He’d nearly been killed. Eaten. Again. How could he be sane after the past few days?
How was Anne?
He looked at the girl who might be his sister. She sat quietly, looking out the window, unfazed by the delicious scenery. How could she not be? She’d already walked through the endless fields of food without eating any of it. Seeing it now, as a blur, was probably easy.
Anne slowly turned toward him, somehow feeling his gaze on the back of her head. She leaned forward, cracking a slight grin. “Are we there yet?”
Jakob was surprised when both Ella and Peter, who had been silent for the past hour, burst out laughing. Anne had cut through the tension with four words, and the look she’d given him prior to speaking said she’d done it on purpose. Neither parent answered her question, but their conversation resumed, discussing what awaited them at George’s Island.
Anne sat back in her seat, looking pleased. “A sense of humor helps.”
“I have a sense of humor,” Jakob said.
“You didn’t laugh.”
She was right. He knew what she’d done was funny, but the laughter they’d shared just a day previous was no longer a part of him.
“I thought you knew that already,” she said.
“What made you think that?” he asked.
She looked out the window for a moment. “Because you made me laugh.”
“I hadn’t been out here yet. I hadn’t seen what you saw. Lived like this.”
She frowned. “But we are still alive.”
For how long?
he thought, but couldn’t bring himself to say it. Not to a little girl who clearly needed hope. Or was she trying to give it to him?
“Why did the toilet paper roll down the hill?” he asked.
Well, that was easy.
“Why?” she asked.
“To get to the bottom.”
She snorted and said, “That is the dumbest joke I’ve ever heard. Wait.
Why did the toilet paper roll down the hill?”
Jakob squinted at her, wondering where she was going with this. “Why?”
“Because the Giant Pink Asshole wanted to use it!”
It was the kind of lame punchline that only a kid could conjure, but the image of that long-limbed, beaked pig flashed into his mind, chasing a roll of toilet paper down a hill.
“GPA strikes again,” she said, and this time got a laugh out of Jakob.
“There you go,” she said, and then shifted suddenly, growing serious. “Let’s make a deal. No matter what. If you make me laugh, I’ll make you laugh.”
He grinned. “Sounds like I’m getting a raw deal.”
“Bite me,” she said, making him laugh again.
“Good enough,” he said, and they shook hands.
After crossing two bridges, in and out of Illinois, a flash of bright blue color pulled Jakob’s eyes to the window. The brightness of it, caught in the sun, made him squint, but the words resolved and opened his eyes wider, despite the brightness. He whispered the words, ‘Welcome to Kentucky,’ and then louder as they flashed past the sign, he said, “We’re in Kentucky?”
“Told you he could read,” Peter said to Ella.
Jakob leaned forward, head over the seat. “Are we going to Alia’s? To the biodome?”
His father nodded. “It’s on the way, and we could use some supplies. Brant is a good man. He’ll help us out.”
Brant was Alia’s father. He and Peter had spoken on several occasions, sharing tips and tricks about the matching biodomes. They hadn’t met, but like Alia and Jakob, they had become friends. Alia’s mother, Misha, was still alive, too. Jakob had only spoken to her once, when calling for Alia, but she seemed nice enough. They were good people. Farmers, like his father, but also not like his father, because none of them had ever been an elite Marine CSO. They probably had some weapons, but he doubted they knew how to use them like his father. They probably didn’t have an armored truck. Or an escape tunnel. Or a basement rigged with explosives. They were getting by, but could they survive outside the dome?
“We can’t,” Jakob said. “If we bring our trouble to them...”
“We’ve been driving all day without any sign of trouble,” his father said.
“They could track us,” Jakob argued.
Peter deferred to Ella, glancing at her. She turned back and said, “We’ve been tracked over greater distances, but were on foot at the time. We’ve been driving all day, at an average speed of fifty miles per hour.”
“The Stalkers hold a grudge,” he said.
“We haven’t seen them since leaving home,” his father said.
“And we have no reason to believe there are many of them alive,” Ella added.
“What about the Riders?” he asked. The name, along with ‘Woolies’ had been endorsed by Anne and accepted by the others. “They were intelligent.”
“They were,” Ella said. “And it was a surprising adaptation. I didn’t expect it to—”
“You expected predators to become intelligent?” Peter asked.
“It’s a logical step in the evolution of most species...assuming it’s a beneficial adaptation. That the Riders had once been human makes it less of a leap forward and more of a leap back. When their predatory instincts kicked in, human intellect took a back seat. Now that time has passed, hyper evolution has found intelligence and community to be beneficial attributes. But they didn’t need to grow brains. They were already there. The Riders just needed to access them again, though they’re clearly doing so in a limited, almost Cro-Magnon kind of way.”
“Cro-Magnon men didn’t ride domesticated animals,” Peter pointed out.
“Regardless,” Ella said. “They pose no threat to us now. Only one of the hunting party we encountered survived, and for all we know, she was the last of them.”
Jakob’s stomach soured.
“And while her evolution might be shaped by the encounter, she was also intelligent enough to realize a second encounter would not be in her best interest. Unlike the Stalkers, who’ve had many victories, and meals, along the way, the Riders will see no benefit to chasing after what they’ll see as a superior predator.”
Peter replied, making a joke, but Jakob tuned it out. He closed his eyes and remembered the female Rider’s face. Heard her voice, familiar yet modified. Her body was large. Muscular and hair covered. Hardly human. Unashamedly naked.
But her eyes...
Jakob shook his head. It wasn’t her. It was a monster. Ella was right. The Rider woman would have no more desire to follow him than he had to go back and face her again.
It’s not my mother,
he told himself, doing his best to ignore the fact that he didn’t really believe it, and to scour clean the memory of her speaking his name.
“This is far enough,” Ella said, dropping the folded tarp on a bed of cushiony, densely packed soybean plants.
Anne put a backpack down and stretched. “This actually looks like it will be comfortable.”
“Comfortable?” Jakob said. “Looks like the world’s lumpiest mattress.”
Anne crossed her arms. “Have you ever slept inside a raspberry bush?”
“Touché,” Jakob said.
Anne knelt and pushed down on the nearest plant. “What I thought.”
Jakob knelt beside her, testing the bed of plants with his hands. “Are we sure it wouldn’t be better to stay in the truck? I’d feel a lot safer with metal walls around me.”
,” Anne said. Jakob was smart, but sometimes she wondered how he’d survived this long.
Because of his father
, she decided. Jakob might have the survival instincts of a golden retriever, but his father... The man had gone to scout the area thirty minutes ago. Had presumably been tailing them, watching for signs of danger. And all the while, she hadn’t detected even the faintest trace of his presence. There wasn’t a single ExoGenetic predator she’d encountered capable of that.
“We can hide our scent,” Ella explained, “but not the truck. It’s too big, and everything about it smells different, especially since it’s been running. The truck will attract attention. Empty, it will just be a curiosity, helping to pull attention away from us. But if we were in it...”
“Sardines,” Anne said.
Jakob gave a slow nod, absently scratching at his dirt-covered arms, the dry dirt sifting up into the sunlight stretching down through the trees that broke up the crop. “Right.”
She decided to not be hard on Jakob, though. He was nice. Made her laugh, and she him, which was a blessing in its own way. He also had proved he could fight when it mattered. He might not be stealthy or well versed in how to survive the new wild, but he’d also been cooped up in a house, learning how to farm small crops in boxes. He was older, but he was the more innocent of the two.
Ella began spreading the tarp over the soy plants. She looked up at the sky. The sun was nearing the horizon. “Anne, I think we have time to forage. See what you can find.”
Anne swatted Jakob’s arm. “C’mon. Time for Anne’s survival school.”
“We’re going...alone?” Jakob asked.
Anne squinted at the boy. He seemed more skittish now, outside of the truck, but certainly more than the previous night in the church. She supposed it was because he’d nearly been killed.
He’ll get used to that
, she decided, and waved him to follow her. “Your dad’s out here, right? Probably keeping an eye on things.”
“I suppose,” Jakob said, rooted in place until Anne moved into a stand of trees. Then he hurried to catch up.
Not afraid enough to leave me on my own
, Anne noted, feeling glad that she now had a foraging companion. She never let her mother see, but these little foraging trips, alone in the wilderness, terrified her. It wasn’t the predators. She could outwit most anything in the wild, hiding her small body with ease. She simply feared that she’d find a bloodied and emptied camp when she returned. At least now, with Jakob, if she found her mother dead or missing, she wouldn’t be alone. It was a horrible way to think, she knew, but not unrealistic. She’d seen friends eaten. Had listened as they were plucked from their hiding spots and torn apart. The wild tended to take people away from her. Before finding Jakob and Peter, their group had been whittled down to just she and her mother—who she thought survived by the strength of her convictions, to right the wrong she’d helped perpetrate.
So Anne took Jakob along, knowing that if her mother died, she’d still have him, and if she died...it wouldn’t be alone. Jakob didn’t need to know that, and she hoped it wouldn’t happen, but she couldn’t deny the comfort his presence would provide if death finally claimed her.
“Yes!” Anne scurried over a patch of soy, heading for the base of a tree. She began plucking small green plants growing in the moss that covered the lower bark.
Jakob crouched beside her. “What is it?”
She held up one of the small, three leafed plants. “Clovers. Duh.”
“Clovers... Are they for luck?”
“First, four leaf clovers are for luck,” Anne said. “Second, all clovers, three or four leaf, are edible and non-ExoGenetic.” She scooted to the side. “Help me collect them.”
They worked in silence, plucking the small plants at the roots, stuffing them into a cloth bag that Anne pulled from her pocket. When there wasn’t a single clover left, Anne moved on, checking the bases of all the trees. Where there was moss, there was often other edible things. Jakob split away from her, searching on his own. He was only ten feet away, but Anne kept an eye on him, making sure they didn’t get too far apart.
“What about this?” Jakob plucked something from the ground. He turned around, holding it up victoriously as Anne came to see what he’d found. “Mushrooms are—”
She swatted the long stemmed, white topped mushroom from his hands, shattering it like it was made of glass.
“The hell!” Jakob grumbled. “We used to have mushrooms like that all the time.”
“Did you also have diarrhea, nausea and stomach pain resulting in a coma? Wait, no, you didn’t, because you’re still alive.” She pointed at the mushroom’s remains. “That’s a Destroying Angel. It would kill you.”
Jakob deflated. “Oh.”
“Just...only pick what I tell you to, okay?” Before he could reply, a bright patch of yellow caught her attention. She gasped and hurried toward the glow. When Jakob caught up to her, he was breathless, but more from panic than running, she thought.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Dandelions.” She pulled one from the ground, carefully pushing her hands down, freeing the roots from the moss in which it grew. She held the plant up for Jakob to see, then popped the whole thing in her mouth and chewed. “They’re good. You can eat the whole thing.”
Noting his disgusted face, she searched the area and was pleased to find a few more edible bits of vegetation clinging to life at the fringe of the world’s genetically aggressive crops. She pulled a small sampling of the plants from nearby trees, combined them in her hand and held it out for Jakob to see.
He looked dubious. “What is it?”
“Clovers, dandelion, chive and a Chanterelles mushroom. None of it will kill you. Or even make you sick.” She carefully placed bits of chive atop the flat, golden mushroom head, placed a few cloves on top and then wrapped it all up in a dandelion stem, the bright flower looking like an ornate bow on top of a present, which in Anne’s mind, wasn’t far from the truth.
She placed the small package in Jakob’s hand. “Eat it.”
He looked down at the slowly unraveling vegetation. “It won’t kill me?”
“It’s one of the last things on Earth that won’t,” she said.
He let out a long breath, then put the whole thing in his mouth. His nose scrunched up as he chewed through the dandelion stem, but then he looked surprised, and pleased. “Not bad.”
“Right?” She pulled another dandelion and put it in her bag. “Now we just need to gather enough for four people.”
Jakob frowned. Looked at the sky. Dusk and all its heinous possibilities was nearly upon them. “We better get to it then.”
The two worked in near silence, gathering small plants under Anne’s direction. Jakob paid attention to everything she said, which made her happy, and he willingly tried everything she pointed out, even the stuff that tasted gross. Within twenty minutes, they had enough for a decent-sized salad. It wouldn’t be filling anyone’s belly, but would provide some nutrition, and the pleasure of eating something real.
As they snuck back to camp, Anne told Jakob how to hide, how to detect predators—with his ears, with his nose, with his eyes. “If you’re going to survive,” she told him. “You’re going to have to learn from the best.”
He laughed at that, but the very fact that she was still alive made him listen. They approached the camp in silence, practicing stealth, which Anne thought Jakob needed the most help with. He even breathed loudly. But with some pointers, he became silent enough that they crept to within thirty feet of her mother and Peter. They were standing close; the way her mother used to with Eddie. They were speaking quietly, but their voices carried in the abject silence.
Anne flinched at what she heard, but when she looked at Jakob for confirmation that he had heard the same, he just looked confused.
“What?” he whispered.
Anne held a finger to her lips, but it was too late.
“C’mon out,” Ella said, sounding casual. “What did you find?”
Anne pushed herself up and walked out like she hadn’t been spying. She held up the bag of foraged plants.
Ella took it and looked inside. “Wow. You guys found a lot.”
Her praise was out of character. She’d normally just take the plants, comb through them and then divvy them up, eating in silence. Peter seemed to bring out a different side of her. A kinder side. Anne liked it, but didn’t trust it. If her mother got soft, it would be dangerous for both of them. Then again... Anne looked at Jakob and he smiled at her, munching on a dandelion.
I’m getting soft, too.
And if what she had heard was true, she understood why, and why remaining strong was more important than ever.
After a quiet meal of foraged salad and protein bars, the foursome crawled beneath the shelter Ella had created. The tarp, which had been rubbed with tree sap collected from some nearby pines, was laid out over the soybean crop. She’d covered the sticky surface with soil and a collection of strong smelling plants. They’d be invisible to the eyes and noses of any predators that happened past them, as long as nothing stepped on them and no one snored.
Under the tarp, the air got humid and hot, but Anne was accustomed to these conditions. She preferred it to the wide open space or the hard surface of the church. Felt safer despite the lack of walls.
But sleep wouldn’t come. The words she’d heard, spoken by Peter, kept repeating through her head, fueling her insomnia. “Are you going to tell her I’m her father?”
Her mother hadn’t replied to the question before Jakob gave away their position, but the question itself implied her mother believed him to be her father, too. And that made no sense. None at all. But she hoped it was true. Because it meant she had a family. A brother.
A chill ran through her body and she was gripped by a sudden anxiety. If she had a family, it also meant she could lose a family, and if life had taught her anything, she knew in her heart that she would lose them.
She slowly reached out her hand, finding Jakob. He flinched, but then took her hand in his. They squeezed each other, providing comfort in the dark, eventually falling asleep.
Anne woke in the early morning hours. She couldn’t see the sky beneath the tarp, but her internal clock knew that the sun was still an hour off. She also knew her fears from the night before were well founded. Something was moving around the outside of the tarp, near her feet. She held her breath, fighting the urge to pull her legs higher. She nearly screamed when Jakob squeezed her hand. She hadn’t realized they were still holding on to each other.
But then he did.
Dragged out of the tarp.