Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Sunlight glistened through Spring’s thin green leaves, which were shifting about in the wind like they were nothing more than a layer of algae-colored water. The emerald light they cast, mixed with diamonds of orange, created a magical kaleidoscope. In the light was warmth. Safety. Familiarity.
Peter recognized the view. He’d stood here before, in the street, in front of his childhood home. He felt young again, seeing the world in more vivid colors than he remembered. But this is what it looked like, wasn’t it? This is what the world had felt like back then. The magic of it had faded with age, but he remembered it now.
He wept, looking up, the tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Thank you,” he said to no one. Maybe the trees. Maybe his subconscious.
Motion tugged him from the view. He resisted, but the trees vanished in a blink, replaced by darkness. The crunch of vegetation and the swish of a plastic tarp replaced the quiet of the memory made dream. The calm he had felt fled in the face of terror and rage, the latter of the two controlling his motions.
He rolled out from under the tarp, slipping out of the intolerably humid blanket and into the clear night. He moved instinctually, having no memory of what set him off, but somehow knowing it had been Jakob’s scream that pulled him from the dream and set him moving. The boy’s voice still echoed in his ears. The shotgun in his hand came up as a shadow descended over him.
His arm was pinned beneath a boney limb.
The weight hit his chest next, driving the air from his lungs.
He froze when the cold edge of a blade—not a claw—pressed against the skin of his throat. He waited for the attacker to drag the knife across his neck, sever the artery, drain his life. But the assault stalled. The knife pulled back.
“You’re dead,” Ella said, as she leaned back.
“Ella?” Peter’s body tensed, and he fought the urge to backhand her off of him. “What the hell?”
“A lesson better learned before it’s real.” She stood up over him. “You’re dead because you came out.”
“I heard Jakob—”
“And now you’re dead.”
“God-damn it, Ella. Where is Jakob?”
“Here,” Jakob said.
With his night adjusted eyes, Peter found Jakob sitting at the foot of the tarp looking confused. “Are you hurt?”
“Just confused.” The boy rubbed his head. “Maybe a bump on the head. Something pulled me out of the tarp.”
Peter sat up, glaring at Ella. “Why? What’s the point?”
“If you had stayed hidden, you’d be alive.”
“Only because I’m not an ExoGen.”
“And you expect me to just cower under a tarp while my son is taken?”
“Anne and I are alive because of this rule. Once hidden, stay hidden. No matter what. People were taken during the night, and we survived by not moving.”
“Maybe some of those people would still be alive if you had.”
Even in the dull blue moonlight, Peter could see the disappointment in Ella’s eyes. Had she really thought he’d buy into this? That he’d agree to not chase after his son, if he was taken during the night? Hell, he’d already faced down a hunting party of Riders to get him back.
That’s why she’s doing this,
She would have left him there.
“We didn’t come up with this night one,” she said. “A lot of people were killed, more from chasing after those who had been taken, than had actually been taken. When a rabbit is caught, the rest don’t come out of hiding to face the pack of wolves. We’re the prey now. Sometimes we need to act like it.”
“If the choice is to hide or die beside my son, I’ll die with my son.”
Again, she looked wounded, and it took him a moment to figure out why.
He hadn’t really started thinking of her as his daughter. He barely knew her. But if she really was his flesh and blood, should he die beside his son, or survive to protect the daughter he just met?
I couldn’t do it,
I couldn’t abandon Jakob. No matter what.
No one was more important to him. He suspected Ella felt the same for Anne, which was why this little object lesson was skewed. “You’d lay still while Anne was taken?”
“She’d never be found,” Ella said.
“That’s a dangerous opinion,” Peter countered. “But the question is still valid. Would you let a Stalker make away with Anne while you hid beneath a tarp?”
“It’s not the same,” Ella said.
Peter climbed to his feet. “It’s exactly the same.”
Ella stepped back, the soybean plant crunching beneath her foot. She crossed her arms. “I’m not going to talk about this now.” She started moving away, retreating into the shadows.
Peter followed her, grabbing her arm and spinning her around. “You don’t have a choice.”
Ella glanced down at his hand clutching her arm. “Really?”
He didn’t remove his hand. “Tell me, Ella. Explain to me how your daughter is more important than my son.”
Ella stood rigid, her normally full lips pinched together in a tight white line.
“We’ve been a lot of things to each other over the years,” he said, “but we’ve never lied to each other.”
His grip tightened. Her eyes darted back down to her arm.
“You made me think my son was dead,” he said, giving voice to the energy that was being expressed through his vice grip. He loosened his grip. “Tell me, or we’re done.”
“What do you mean, ‘done?’” she asked.
“We’ll go our separate ways,” he said. “I can either trust you implicitly with the life of my son, or...I can’t. In which case, you’re on your own.”
“You would leave us?”
“It’s your choice.”
She stared at him, her eyes wavering between doubt and resolve. Finally, her shoulders sagged. “Fine. But you’re not going to like it.”
He let go of her arm. “Didn’t think I would.”
Head lowered toward the bed of tightly packed soy plants, Ella said, “She’s the best of us both.”
“Anne,” he said.
“You can’t possibly expect me to favor one child over the other simply because Jakob was born from Kristin and not you. I knew you didn’t like her. God knows, she hated you. But what you’re suggesting, some kind of eugenics parental preference—”
“What?” Ella objected. “I’m not saying anything like that. Peter, you know me.”
“I’m not sure how well this time,” Peter said. They’d spent large portions of their life apart, but every time they came together, the relationship seemed to zipper right back together. He’d thought that was how things were playing out once again, but now he wasn’t so sure. The world had changed, and Ella with it, neither for the better.
A deep sadness filled Ella’s eyes, and for a moment, he saw Ella the way he remembered her on the day he had told her he was staying with Kristin.
And then, she was gone.
Long black fingers tipped with rounded, black talons slipped out of the darkness behind Ella, snapped closed around her waist and then yanked her back. The motion was fluid and unnatural, snatching Ella away in a blink. As she slipped back into the darkness, she managed to say, “Let me go, Pete,” before falling silent.
Like a clubbed animal, Peter went rigid, stunned dumb.
It was Jakob who snapped him out of his surprise. “Dad!”
Peter looked back to find his shotgun in the air, tossed by Jakob. He caught the weapon, shouted, “Stay here! Hide!” and then charged into the woods after Ella, hoping that the exchange they’d just had wouldn’t be their last. The way he’d left things with his wife was burden enough. He didn’t think he could handle losing Ella this way. Not after the things he’d said. The way he’d treated her. Like she wasn’t her. Wasn’t Ella. His Ella. If she was different now, it was because she’d been hurt—was
hurt—and that was unacceptable.
She might be different.
She might be wrong.
But she was still...what?
. With a capital H.
The girl who helped form the boy into a man.
And he wasn’t going to let her go, whether or not she was wrong. Not without a fight.
Running through the dark acted like a time machine, propelling Peter to some other place, charging down an enemy position to rescue a captured comrade. It had been equally hot then, but the kind of dry that scratches your throat with each breath. And the land beneath his booted feet had been hard-packed sand, not...this. Not crunchy plants that were impossible to run over silently. Each step brought the rubbery crunch of firm, water laden leaves. His approach would not be stealthy, even if he cut his speed in half, so he poured everything he had into speed, while listening for a direction. The thing that took Ella had slipped away into the dark without a trace.
He tried not to think about that long-ago mission, though he could still feel its weight on him, threatening to spill over from memory to déjà vu. The conclusion of that now-ancient assault had ended with many dead enemies, but at a price. The lesson for him then was, ‘sometimes there’s nothing you can do.’
He heard the hard chop of blades—claws—striking bark.
It’s moving through the trees,
he thought, turning his gaze upward in time to see something like a bright apparition slipping through the sky. Was it a bird?
he decided, birds didn’t need to leap off of trees.
He remembered his earlier thoughts of those massive, flightless birds that had once roamed South America. But they were fast, like killer ostriches. Something like that wouldn’t move through the trees. This was just another who-knows-what conjured by the vast trough of available DNA unlocked by ExoGen.
A flash of white ahead made him flinch. Instinct guided his hands as he raised the shotgun, taking aim at the broad, almost luminous surface. Part of him thought,
Don’t shoot! You’ll hit Ella!
but the rest of him knew that if he didn’t shoot and slow this thing down, it would eventually escape. And at this range, even if a few pellets found Ella, they probably wouldn’t be fatal. He had to risk it.
The gunshot cut through the night like some ancient cannon announcing the battle’s start. It was followed by a high-pitched shriek, the target struck. But was it stopped? Or even slowed?
Peter kept the shotgun against his shoulder, ready to fire. His pace slowed as his ears fought to hear over the shotgun’s echo.
A gunshot blasted to his left. Peter ducked, recognizing the sound for a breaking branch only after he hit the vegetation. The creature was getting sloppy.
, he decided, climbing back to his feet and stalking toward the sound of crunching soy plants.
He slowed when a smell struck him: fetid, rotting and rank. He winced, putting his hand to his nose. The air was thick with the scent of ammonia, sauerkraut and sun-baked, bloated fish. This was the scent of a kill. The animal, upon its death, had vacated its bowels, mixing the fragrances with blood from its wounds.
He stopped when he saw the thing ahead. It was a large mound of gnarly white fur, the size of a horse. He took a step closer, wincing once more at the smell. The too-strong smell. He’d just shot the monster, but it smelled a week old. Unless this thing had evolved to rapidly decay, which made no sense, the stench wafting up from this thing was manufactured.
Like a skunk.
Closer now, he could see the white fur was actually a mottled gray, like the thing had been rolling around in mud. Its physical appearance was nearly as horrible as its smell. And then he knew what is was—or what it had been before DNA had been flung about through nature like a genetic Pollock painting.
It’s playing opossum.
an opossum—or was, once upon a time.
He willed his eyes to see better in the moonlight’s glow, trying to confirm that Ella wasn’t going to be hit when he put a cloud of 12 gauge into the creature’s back. It would quickly go from playing dead to being dead, but he wanted to be sure Ella wouldn’t join it, if she hadn’t already.
Keeping the shotgun aimed at the swath of putrid fur, he slowly crept around the creature’s head, or what he thought was the head. The opossum was bent in on itself, most of its features concealed. Then the back moved.
Was it an involuntary muscle twitch?
Was it preparing to strike?
He held his breath, sure that he was going to cough from the ammonia scent, triggering an attack. The back twitched again, and then again, further down. It was like something was twitching inside the thing.
Then a pair of eyes, black orbs like twin eight balls, opened from the creature’s back.
A second pair opened, further down, staring at him.
Like some demon from the Biblical apocalypse, this opossum had evolved eyes all over its body. Ten sets in all, opened to stare at him, hunger in every orb. He wasn’t sure if the revelation, in combination with the death scent, was meant to confuse an enemy, or to intimidate. It was doing both, but he wasn’t another ExoGen predator. So this must have been a hunting technique, luring prey in close to...what? The body remained still.
Then one of the sets of eyes lifted upward to reveal a head. The opossum’s face was recognizable. Its ears were tipped black, as was its long snout. But the head was the size of a German shepherd’s. The mouth opened wide, hissing and revealing two-inch canines. Normal opossums, the size of footballs, had impressive jaws and teeth. This thing was worse than any attack dog he’d seen.
And it wasn’t part of the larger creature’s mouth, it was
to its back. The giant opossum was laden with ten young, each nearly as big as Peter. Knowing the ruse was up, the larger mother began to stir, shedding its young like Allied soldiers from a landing craft on the beaches of Normandy.
Peter took a step back, unsure of what to shoot first, or whether or not he should.
Ten young and an enormous mother.
He’d already fired one shell and didn’t have enough to take care of the others. And that was if they lined up, nice and orderly, and let him take his time to aim and shoot. He’d have to pump each shell into the chamber before firing, and if these things came at him in any way other than one at a time, he was screwed.
So he took another step back, hoping the distance would equal time. But he didn’t think so. While these things were identifiable as once-upon-time opossums, mostly thanks to the hair and their behavior, they were built for strength and speed, closer to that of a jaguar than their more recent genetic history.
He shifted his aim to the mother. The smaller ones were each big enough to take him down, but they were still animals. Still young. Without the mother’s living presence, the young might become confused, or even despondent. That would give him time for...what? He still didn’t have enough shells, and there still wasn’t any sign of Ella.
Had she been dumped in a tree? Killed and left behind? Whatever the case, he didn’t see her, not even as the big mother stood on its hind legs and opened its mouth, which looked like it belonged more on a massive Nile crocodile. It hissed, pushing its death stink over him, causing him to gag. Its arms snapped open wide, the black, hairless limbs nearly invisible in the night. The tail, also black, snaked backward slowly, sliding up a tree trunk like a constrictor in the jungle, a mind of its own.
The mother was intimidating as hell, but a shotgun shell in the chest would change that. Peter stopped moving back and looked down the sights, placing the barrel directly on the creature’s center mass. Impossible to miss. His finger slowly hooked around the trigger while he held his breath against the rank hissing flowing over him.
And then, with a twitch, he stopped.
The mother’s gut moved.
Was it another young about to detach or...
The form inside the mother’s belly was human.
He could see the arms and legs moving. Straining. Ella was trapped inside the mother’s belly, and if he took the shot, he’d hit her, too. But had the thing eaten her whole? Was she slowly being digested in its stomach? She’d surely be dead already if that was true.
But the truth was even more twisted. Pursued and perhaps wounded by his first shot, the mother opossum had played dead, but not before stuffing its catch into its pouch. The opossum was a marsupial, and while this creature had devolved in many way, it had kept that ancient evolutionary trait shared by kangaroos and koalas. And it had adapted it for storing more than offspring. It was using the pouch to hold its prey. How many other meals had met their end in that pouch before being fed to its brood?
“Ella!” he shouted. “If you can hear me, I’m coming for you!”
The flailing movements inside the pouch froze for a moment and then really moved. Ella was trapped, but she was still fighting.
Peter swung the shotgun toward the nearest opossum and pulled the trigger, erasing its head. The gore splattered into the face, and eyes, of the next creature, sending it into a mad shrieking spin, perhaps because it was disoriented, but he hoped a bone fragment had found its eye—or even better, its brain. He didn’t wait to figure out which. He turned and fired again, putting a hole through another opossum’s chest.
Only then, after two lay dead and one spun in confused circles, did the remaining seven, and the mother, take action—they scattered.
“Damn it!” Peter shouted.
If they scattered, he might never catch the mother. But the monsters weren’t fleeing. They were doing what opossums did best—deceiving. All at once, like the maneuver had been rehearsed, the family of ExoGenetic marsupials altered course, coming at Peter from all sides.
He opened fire, pumping the shotgun after each trigger pull, dropping three more of the creatures. But as each young killer opossum fell, another took its place, leaping over its fallen brethren, along the ground, or climbing up the trees. Peter pulled the trigger as an airborne opossum fell from above. Guts blasted upwards, bloody Fourth-of-July streamers arcing outward, but the creature’s momentum carried it downward, tackling Peter’s back.
Air coughed from his lungs as the impact slammed him down on the firm bed of soy plants. Despite the dead creature laying over his torso and head, he still had a clear view of the now purple sky above, staring up through the portal of flesh carved by the shotgun. As the thing’s guts slid toward his face, the view was blocked by another of the young opossums. It looked down at him, unflinching as it lowered its snout through the remains of its brethren, teeth bared to carve off Peter’s face.
Peter felt for the shotgun, but he’d dropped it when he’d fallen, and he couldn’t find it. Even if he could have, firing from the side would likely break his wrist. So he gave up on the shotgun and reached down for his belt, freeing the knife and swinging it up without looking. He felt a moment of resistance against the blade, and then it sank into something soft before striking something solid—meat and then bone.
His view cleared as the young killer opossum reared back. In that moment of clarity, Peter withdrew the blade from the thing’s back and thrust again, this time putting all five inches of the blade through its temple, skewering its brain. The creature’s long tongue lolled from the side of its toothy mouth. Then the black eyes became vacant, and the whole thing fell to the side, taking the blade with it.
Was that six down?
Peter wondered, as he tried to squirm out from under the pair of dead opossums.
Or was it five?
He couldn’t remember, but he knew that whatever the count was, he was dead if he couldn’t get up and recover his weapons.
And then, that rare stench flowed down over him as the night sky was blotted out by a large body. The mother opossum stood over him, her awkwardly massive jaws open in a silent hiss. Her maw looked big enough to swallow him whole, and he thought that was exactly what she intended to do, as she reached down toward his head.
As the first trickle of drool struck Peter’s cheek, dangling from a four-inch canine just a foot from his face, the opossum was cast in bright red light. Something roared and charged, striking the mother opossum in the side, its spiky horns piercing flesh. The mother was knocked aside, replaced by the rumbling body of his rescuer, which he recognized the moment it belched exhaust over his face and pulled forward.