Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Peter reached up and caught the spiked metal frame he’d welded to the bumper. Once he was pulled free of the dead, he rolled for his shotgun, snatched it up, pumped it and found a target. He pulled the trigger, knocking a young opossum back. A shriek spun him around, and he swung the weapon like a bat, catching a second youngster in the side of the head. It landed on all fours, stunned, but not dead. Peter rushed forward, put one hand on the back of the creature’s coarse hair-covered neck, and the other beneath its long snout. He pushed down hard on the neck, while shoving the snout up. The sudden movement produced a loud crack, and the thing fell limp.
Peter spun, looking for another attack, but a sudden thunderous booming dropped him to the ground. Fire spat from the back of the truck as the machine gun unleashed its few and final rounds.
A voice cut through the silence that followed. “Dad! Get in!”
He turned and saw Jakob standing in the flat bed of the truck, which looked like it had seen some action during the night. It was covered in scratches, and the windshield was shattered, but maybe that had happened on the way, because if Jakob wasn’t driving... He stood up and saw Anne behind the wheel, looking back. She waved.
Peter recovered his knife and stalked toward the mother. The creature was dead, one half of its head punched through with three clean holes, the other side missing completely. The thing’s belly writhed as Ella fought. Her hand stretched out and then, with a sick tearing, a knife burst from within the opossum and slipped down through the skin. Ella emerged, eyes wide with horror, body covered in mucus. She saw Peter, blinked and then fell, her eyes rolling back. He caught her slick body before she hit the ground, but she was out for the count. He carried her back to the truck, as Jakob opened the back door. Working together, they slid her inside.
“Buckle her down,” Peter said to Jakob.
The boy nodded and climbed inside.
“I think they’re all dead,” Jakob said. “We don’t have to ru—”
“We just made a hell of a lot of noise.” Peter knocked on the passenger side door and waved Anne over. The girl understood and scooted out from behind the wheel. “I don’t want to be around when every hungry thing within a few miles comes looking for a snack, do you?”
Jakob climbed into the truck without another word and set to work, buckling Ella’s prone form.
When Peter climbed behind the wheel, Anne was smiling at him.
He paused, not comprehending what could have put a smile on the girl’s face.
“I like your way better,” she said.
Understanding, he grinned back. “Me too.” He shoved the gas pedal down, shredding soy plants as the tires spun and caught, propelling them back toward the road and the rising sun.
The sun rose, a beacon guiding them east. The roads were congested with vehicles, abandoned at the end of civilization. Some had been fleeing the Change, only to discover that there was nowhere to run, and then, that they didn’t want to run at all. They wanted to feast.
Jakob looked at a pair of SUVs stopped on either side of the road, their doors still open. In the middle of the road, between the two vehicles, were a pair of skeletons dressed in tatters, still locked in mortal combat as they attempted to devour each other, neither combatant having lived long enough to evolve into super-predators.
Jakob had seen a few people during the Change. Long black nails. Extended canines. He thought they had looked a lot like basic vampires, with appetites to match, though people weren’t only eating people back then. They were eating anything they could catch—squirrels, livestock, pets. But people weren’t the only creatures on the planet changing. Sometimes the pets ate their masters. Sometimes the herds turned on the farmer, before turning on each other.
He’d been protected from most of it, thanks to the forewarning and the biodome supplied by Ella. His father had tried to warn people, but no one believed him. Not even their family. Why would they? Food was plentiful, and nearly free. World hunger had been cured. To see a devil in those details took a level of paranoia that modern culture had mocked. Jakob didn’t blame them. He understood the benefits of hacking genomes, and he understood the desire to feed the world had been
noble with a trace of greed. GMOs could have saved the world. He knew that. It was the rush, and hubris, that had turned the tools of modern humanity bad. But wasn’t that always the way? Isn’t that what history taught, back to the very beginning? The ExoGen crops were just the latest example of ‘corrupted human ingenuity.’ His father’s words, though he didn’t think Peter had ever said them to Ella.
She lay in a fetal position across the back seat, held in place by two seat belts, her legs across Jakob’s lap. She was still unconscious, but breathing. Anne worried her mother had fallen into a coma. Peter said she hadn’t, but Jakob recognized the false confidence in his father’s voice.
Looking at the woman sprawled across the back seat, it was hard to imagine his father having feelings for her. She was dirty, ragged and hard. She had a scar above one lip, and another revealed by her shaved head. She was also decisive and confident. If he was honest, she was a lot like his father. His mother had been...soft. Fragile. Sensitive. She hadn’t been cut out for the hard life of a farmer, let alone for the end of civilization. And in her weakness, or perhaps just to spite Ella’s warning, she had eaten. In secret. Not a lot. Not as much as everyone else. But enough to instigate the Change. It just took longer. Had she been more like Ella...
Jakob shook his head. Images of his mother that he’d wanted to forget were coming to the forefront of his mind, not just of his mother launching herself at him, giving in to the hunger, trying to tear out his throat, but also of the woman-thing who had straddled him in the gas station parking lot. The woman he believed was his mother, but also wasn’t. His mother was dead. What he saw had been something...stronger. Confident. And savage. Perfectly adapted to the new world. But he also knew that wasn’t possible. His mother was dead. Shot. He looked up at the back of his father’s shaved head.
The skeletons in the road crunched beneath the truck’s tires. Jakob winced at the sound.
“Sorry,” his father said. “Couldn’t avoid them.”
“Crunch,” Anne said. “They weren’t people anymore anyway.”
Jakob’s brow furrowed. “They used to be. Isn’t that enough?”
“They were monsters,” Anne said. “Same kind we’d kill now without thinking about it.”
“It’s not that easy,” Jakob said. “Is it, Dad?”
Peter kept his eyes locked forward, steering around an overturned 18-wheeler. Finally, with a quiet voice, he said, “No. It’s not that easy.” He glanced back. “I’ll try to avoid them next time.”
Anne shrank down in her seat. “Going to have to be tougher than that to survive out here.”
Jakob could hear Ella in Anne’s voice, and he thought the girl was overcompensating for her mother’s silence. “She’s going to be okay.”
“Shut-up,” Anne snapped. “You don’t know that. Don’t tell me something you don’t know.” She spun around and climbed to her knees. “You can’t do that.”
“Do what?” Jakob said, leaning back from Anne’s angry eyes. “Geez.”
“It’s false hope,” she said. “Just because your mom is—”
“Shut-up, you little jerk,” Jakob said, working hard not to show surprise at what he said.
“Asshole!” Anne said, lunging back, her fingers hooked. The look on her face was ferocious, and for a moment, Jakob thought she must have eaten some ExoGenetic food along the way. Then the anger shifted to surprise, as she was stopped in midair and yanked back.
“Hey,” Peter shouted, the bark was so loud that Jakob and Anne were both stunned into silence. “Knock it off! Both of you!” He let go of Anne’s belt, where he’d pulled her back into the front seat. He pointed at the seat and waited for her to sit. She complied with a huff, crossing her arms.
“Your mother is going to be fine,” Peter said. “What she went through, it was hard on her body. She’s unconscious, but her breathing is regular and her pulse is strong. Her body and mind just need time to heal. She’s a strong woman. You know that better than anyone. Just give her time, okay?”
Anne’s arms tightened as her frown deepened. But then she offered a begrudging, “Fine.”
Jakob was certain Peter would then make her apologize for her behavior. It’s what his father would have made him do, but the man just continued staring ahead, stoic, a statue behind the wheel. Jakob watched him, seeing the concentration in his eyes. He glanced at the speedometer. They were going 40 mph, which wasn’t fast by old-world standards, but it could be dangerous on a road as congested as this one. There were cars everywhere. Fallen trees. Predators hiding in wait, ready to pounce. At least, Jakob imagined there were. Since the previous night, they hadn’t seen another living thing. But that didn’t mean they weren’t out there.
And his father was thinking the same thing. He could see it in the man’s eyes. And then, in the way his vision flicked back and forth to the rearview mirror. Jakob’s eyes widened with the idea that something might be chasing them already, that his father was driving fast, with no regard for the dead, because they were being pursued.
He swiveled his body and cut a sidelong glance out the back window. He watched the road streak past, framed by trees and pocked with the remnants of civilization. They crested a hill, and his vision turned upward. The sky above was bright blue, lacking even a trace of clouds, which seemed impossible given the humidity outside.
The clouds will come this afternoon
, he thought,
along with a storm
. Western Kentucky was on the fringes of the infamous Tornado Alley, where storms could roll in without warning, tearing entire cities to shreds. The sky above might be blue, but storm clouds could be rolling in behind them, or waiting to greet them over the horizon.
As they reached the bottom of the long hill and started up the far side, Jakob caught a glimpse of movement at the top of the hill. He strained to see what it was, but his view shifted to the pavement as they rose up a second hill.
“Jakob, buddy,” his father said, sounding calm, but strained.
Jakob looked forward, meeting his father’s eyes. He understood the look, which could be translated to something like, “Not a word.” He was trying to spare Anne the stress of knowing they were being pursued. Jakob played along. “Yeah, Dad?”
“You have the map back there?”
Jakob looked for their thick map book. Found it tucked into the back of the driver’s side seat. Leaned over Ella to pluck it out. “Got it.”
“We’re about ten miles out—”
Jakob’s heart hammered from the news. “From Alia?”
Peter gave a nod. “But I don’t think the direct route is going to work out for us. We need to find an alternative. Something more...”
“Winding,” Jakob said, understanding the request.
“Probably a good idea,” Anne said. “Since we’re being followed.”
Peter slowly turned toward the girl. Busted.
“But you knew that,” she added, glancing up at the man who might be her father, too. “Two words. Situational awareness.”
“How long have you known?” Peter asked.
“About five seconds after you saw them in the rearview,” she said. “And a whole thirty minutes before Super Genius in the backseat knew.” She motioned to Jakob with her head.
“Hey,” Jakob said, but his offense lasted only a moment, mostly because she was right, and once again she had proved he had a lot to learn before he could survive on his own. He wasn’t too proud to accept that. “So who’s back there?”
back there,” Anne corrected. “And the answer is always, ‘nothing good.’ So find us a good route or hand me the map.”
, Jakob thought, wanting nothing more than to argue and put the girl in her place. But he remained silent, partly because he thought she’d win the argument, but also because they were just ten miles from Alia’s biodome. They’d be safe there. And with company. He’d never seen Alia, but his mind’s eye had painted a pretty picture based on how she had described herself. He assumed she might have embellished a little. He certainly had. But as the only other teenage girl...maybe anywhere, she’d be pretty much perfect, no matter what she looked like. He knew these were stupid thoughts to have, given the circumstances, but he was still a guy, and a teenager. As a non-ExoGenetic person, his teenage hormones were firing exactly as nature had created them to do. So he turned to the map, found a circuitous, confusing route to the biodome, which had already been marked, and said, “Next exit. Turn right.”
As they turned off the highway, Jakob looked back, watching the horizon. He saw nothing as they moved past the trees, invisible to whatever was chasing them. The side road was half the size of the highway, and curved like a snake, but it was mostly free of vehicles. Peter pushed the gas pedal down, bringing them to fifty-five, explaining, “We need to put some distance between us, so they can’t hear the engine.”
“If it’s a bat-thing,” Anne said, “that might not be possible.”
“The trees will help,” Jakob said.
Peter nodded, pushing five more miles per hour out of the engine and taking a sharp turn. The weight of the truck kept them on the road, but the tires chewed through gravel on the side.
“Next left,” Jakob said, as they rapidly approached the turn.
Peter braked hard without screeching the tires, and accelerated again. The rollercoaster continued this way for miles, leaving Jakob as car sick as he was desperate to reach their destination.
And then they did, parking at the edge of a treeline mixed with wheat. The field before them was covered in endless, almost luminous, carrot greens, poking out of the soil, flickering in the breeze. Jakob felt ill as he looked out across the field. All of his hopes shriveled up and died as he saw compelling evidence that while the world had changed, Tornado Alley had still lived up to its name.