Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Two Years Later
“Hey. Wake up.”
The bed creaked as Peter Crane sat down beside his son, Jakob. “Sun’s up. That means you are, too.”
Jakob groaned and sat up. “Have I told you how much I hate this?”
“Every day,” Peter said, smiling. “But the farm’s not going to tend itself.”
Jakob stood, dressed in boxers. The wood floor would be cold beneath his feet, but he didn’t seem to mind. Probably helped him wake up. He stepped up to the hermetically sealed window, a modification Peter had taken six years ago, back when the world was mostly normal. Back when his mother was still alive.
Peter watched his son, wondering how long the two of them could eke out a living this way, in this place. Alone. Waiting for the inevitable.
He stepped up next to his son, looking at the endless field of wheat. Seven years ago, the view was much the same. The difference was that back then, he put the seeds in the ground and harvested the crop. Now... You couldn’t even eat the stuff.
No one could.
But most everyone had. Only the staunchest opponents to GMO foods—organic farmers, homesteaders and the subculture of ‘crunchy’ eaters—had resisted the plump crops’ siren song. Those who had the means built biodome greenhouses. Those who didn’t either found someone who did, or eventually they gave in.
By the time people figured out what was driving the smallest creatures on the planet insane, it was too late. And it wasn’t that the small mammals and insects that ate the crops were gripped by some kind of madness. They simply became predatory. With an instinct to hunt and kill, their taste in food changed as well. The planet was covered in food, but those who had been eating it no longer had a taste for it. At first, the affected creatures kept to their own kind, eating, attacking and warring with other species. But eventually they turned on each other. Survival of the fittest at its most gruesome.
When larger species of animals began to hunger for meat instead of plants, people realized two truths: it was the food causing it, and they were next. But it was worse than anyone had anticipated. While herbivores turned predatory, animals that were already predators—canines, cats, bears, birds of prey, reptiles—became super-predators, changing physically as much as mentally. The higher up the food chain, the more dangerous they became.
The human population, which had exploded thanks to an overabundance of food, hacked, chewed and swallowed itself down to a more manageable size. It had been a year since Peter and Jakob had seen another person, and that was fine by them.
But how long could they live like this, trapped inside a sealed farmhouse attached to a football-field-sized biodome? It was a closed system, protecting them from the dangers lurking outside, both animal and plant, but it wasn’t a perfect system. Something would eventually give out. A water filter. An air scrubber. Something.
“You think anyone is left out there?” Jakob asked.
“I’m sure someone is.”
They’d been in touch with other biodomes around the country up until six months ago, when the generator ran out of propane. They still had power for the essentials—water and air—thanks to six solar panels on the roof, but the battery didn’t hold much juice. Using it for anything more than it was intended for put them at risk. So they’d gone silent and dark. They could have tried to find more propane. No one else was using it now. But Peter didn’t want to take the risk. They could survive without electricity.
For a few more months anyway. When winter returned, they’d need to find propane. It wouldn’t be hard to find, but Peter hoped that a few more months would mean fewer predators.
They could eat each other into extinction.
That was as close to a long term plan as he had. For now, it was business as usual.
Jakob on the other hand... “When can we look? For others.”
Peter read between the lines. Before the power had gone out, Jakob had met a sixteen-year-old girl, Alia, who was just a year younger than him, via the radio. Since the cell-phone network and the Internet had already become relics of the past, the only real way to communicate was via locally powered radio. They spoke for hours on end, and though they’d never actually seen each other in person, or knew what the other looked like, Peter could tell his son had feelings for the girl.
But it wasn’t time. The world was still too dangerous. If Alia’s parents were smart, they’d understand that as well. She’d be there when the world became safe again.
If the world became safe.
“Why not now?”
“You know why.”
Jakob glowered at the field of wheat. “Can’t we just burn it all?”
“It’s a temporary fix,” Peter said. “The fire just makes the ground more fertile, and since the roots are—”
“Yeah. I know. I just want to burn it. To do something.”
“A symbolic gesture?”
Jakob nodded. “A big ‘fuck you,’ mother nature.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s mother nature who’s most offended by what we did.”
Jakob turned away from the window and began dressing. “We didn’t do anything.”
“The human race.” Peter leaned against the sill, looking at the golden field, undulating in the wind. He longed to feel that breeze again. To taste unfiltered air. To hear the rasp of nature. The dry, stale air inside the house had become stifling. The greenhouse was better, but the pungent smell of trapped vegetation served as a constant reminder of what had been lost.
Not the world.
Screw the world.
He missed Kristen.
“Dad,” Jakob said loudly, and Peter realized the boy had been speaking to him.
Without looking away from the wheat field, Peter said, “Yeah?”
As his thoughts cleared, Peter not only heard his son’s question, but also the trepidation in his voice. His eyes, which had been lost in a memory, focused on the present.
Jakob pointed toward the field. “’Bout a half mile out.”
“I see it,” Peter said. The one benefit of being surrounded by endless, tightly packed wheat was that anyone or anything moving through it was instantly revealed. Right now, there was a single line, pointed straight at the house.
Something was coming.
“I’ll keep watch on it,” Peter said. “You get some breakfast.”
“You know there’s nothing out there that can get in here.” Peter hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt.
“Fine,” Jakob left the room, his bare feet slapping over the hardwood floor.
“Jake,” Peter called. “Put your shoes on. Just in case.”
Jakob stood silent for a moment before saying, “Yeah.”
The sound of defeat in his son’s voice filled Peter with anguish. This was not the kind of life he had wanted for his son, trapped in a farmhouse, motherless and surrounded by death.
“Hey, Jake,” Peter called again.
He heard his son stop without reply.
“We’ll burn the field tonight.”
“Thanks,” Jakob said, and he continued down the stairs, where a breakfast of potatoes and green beans awaited. When he was sure the boy was gone, Peter headed for his bedroom, a place he rarely slept since Kristen... He stopped in front of the closet.
While he’d done what he could to make the bedroom emotionally bearable to him, hiding her trinkets and belongings, the inside of the closet was something different. He put his hand on the metal knob and turned it slowly, fueled by the knowledge that something was closing the distance to their refuge. With a deep breath, he yanked the door open, pulling the air inside the closet, out. It washed over him, still smelling faintly of orange, the oil she put on her skin, which, over time, had become infused in all her clothing.
The smell triggered a cascade of unbidden memories. He could hear her voice again. Feel her touch. Her closeness. Had she been alive now, he might have been content to stay in this farmhouse forever.
Why did you go outside? Why did you do it?
His hands fumbled through the dark closet and found what he was looking for. He took the shotgun and a box of shells, flung himself back out of the closet and slammed the door shut behind him, gasping for air. At some point, he’d held his breath without realizing it.
Perched on the side of the bed, Peter caught his breath. His hands shook. But with each breath of stale, filtered, farmhouse air, the memories of Kristen and her passing faded back into the recesses, replaced by the more pressing question.
What the hell is outside the house?
He loaded the 12 gauge, pump-action shotgun with eight shells into the magazine tube, then gave the pump a quick pull, chambering a round into the breach. He loaded one more round into the tube. All that was left to do was aim and pull the trigger. If they ran into trouble, he’d be able to fire nine shots before needing to reload, and super predators or not, there wasn’t anything short of a whale that could take nine shotgun shells and keep going.
Nothing he’d seen, at least.
Feeling a little more secure, he stood and walked to the bedroom window. He quickly found the line of approach through the wheat and noted the change. Whatever was out there had turned at a ninety degree angle and was now walking perpendicular to the house. As long as it kept on going, he was happy to let it go. But if it breached the wheat field and stepped onto the fifty-foot concrete barrier he’d poured around the home and the biodome, he’d put a shell in it, no questions asked.
He watched the line moving to the side. “Just keep on going.”
The line stretched another thirty feet and then made another ninety degree turn, bringing it toward the front of the home.
Shit. What’s it doing?
He followed the line as it traced a path across the front of the house, a half mile out, never wavering in its route. He listened as Jakob went about his chores downstairs, seeing to the kitchen before heading into the dome, where he’d tend to the plants and animals.
When the line turned again, keeping its distance and carving a path along the far side of the house from where it began, Peter understood.
It’s scoping out the house. Looking for weaknesses.
It seemed the predators hadn’t just gotten bigger and meaner, they’d also gotten smarter.
“Anything yet?” Jakob asked. They were in the biodome, the younger Crane feeding the three pigs scraps of vegetation inedible to the two men. The pigs themselves weren’t for eating. Their manure, when added to the compost and allowed to rot and get hot enough to kill any E.coli, Salmonella or parasites, kept the plants growing.
Peter stood atop a stepladder, peering through the large, domed greenhouse window with a pair of binoculars. The line of trampled wheat continued around the property, methodical and patient. “Nothing,” he said, though he felt their visitor’s behavior was foreboding, to say the least. “But let’s keep a low profile. No candles tonight. If it looks like no one is home, I think it will move on.”
He didn’t really believe that. But he could hear the slowly rising fear in his son’s voice, and he didn’t want to concern him...until there was definitely a reason for it. The last time they’d faced the horrors wrought by the genetically modified predators patrolling the planet, their lives had been changed forever. Jakob was finally sleeping through the night again, though Peter still struggled. He told his son that their low profile had kept them from attracting attention, but he really thought they’d just been lucky. The world was big, and they were far from any of the former population centers. What reason would a predator have to wade through the miles of wheat that separated them from the nearest road or wooded area?
The pigs squealed with delight, devouring their secondhand meal.
“Are they being too loud?” Jakob asked.
Peter shook his head, losing sight of their visitor’s path. “We’re sealed up tight, and the glass is thick.” The biodome wasn’t designed to be soundproof; it just was, which turned out to be a benefit when the world started eating everything that made noise.
“Are you going to watch it all day?”
“Until it goes away,” Peter replied. “Yeah.”
“Might want to stop using the binoculars then.”
Peter lowered the lens and turned to face his son, who now stood below him, arms crossed. “And why is that?”
Jakob pointed to the East, where the lurker was headed. “The sun will reflect off the lens. Give you away. Give
Peter looked at the sun. It was still low enough in the sky to strike the binoculars. Would be until noon.
I’m getting rusty
, he thought, chiding himself for not noticing what his son had. He put the binocular strap over his head and let them hang. “Who taught you that?”
“The video game?”
“Turns out games were good training for the apocalypse.” Jakob looked unsure for a moment, but then he took a breath and said, “I think I should have a gun, too.”
“Video games didn’t prepare you for that. The real thing is different. And you don’t need one in here.”
“Is that why you have the shotgun out?”
Peter stood statue-like for a moment. There was no way to win that argument. Jakob was right. Having the shotgun nearby made him feel a little safer. It took the edge off. “Noticed that, did you?”
“Not much changes in here,” Jakob said. “Putting a shotgun behind a curtain that hasn’t moved in a year is kind of easy to spot.” When Peter said nothing, Jakob added, “So?”
“Jake... We don’t...”
“You have a handgun,” Jakob said. “Beretta M9, right?”
Peter was stunned. How could his son, who hadn’t shown any real interest in weaponry, for hunting or target practice, identify the pistol hidden behind the bottom drawer of his dresser?
“Before you ask,” Jakob said. “Battlefield 3. And it’s the preferred weapon of the U.S. Marines, which you were, once upon a time, before you decided to become a farmer.”
Peter didn’t so much decide to become a farmer as retreat from the world, where loud noises—screeching tires, backfiring cars, screaming kids—triggered his mild PTSD. The farm had been a retreat, and a return to the skills taught to him by his own father, before Peter had joined the Marines and went on to become a CSO—Critical Skills Operator—the most elite special ops units in the Corps.
“Also before you ask,” Jakob continued, “I’m a teenage boy trapped in a house without a whole lot to do. It’s safe to assume you don’t have any secrets left aside from what’s in your head.”
Peter smiled. “Good to know. Found my leopard print thong, did you?”
Jakob laughed. “What!”
“Kidding,” Peter said, though he wasn’t. Kristen had bought him the leopard print garment as a joke. But he’d never dug it out of the underwear drawer and thrown it out. Jakob’s reaction told him there might still be a few secrets left hidden. Or, at least, one. Perhaps the biggest of them all.
“So,” Jakob said. “Can I?”
“A weapon is a big responsibility. Knowing how to shoot it, which you’ve only done in video games, is only half the equation. The other half is knowing
to shoot it.” Peter turned back to the window, finding the line in the wheat, which was slowly wrapping around to the rear of the house. “Some would say that a gun gives man a god-like power to take life. But for those who have done it...” He looked his son in the eyes. “For those who have fired a gun and ended a life...there’s nothing god-like about it. That kind of power, in the hands of men, is far darker.”
“But what about self-defense? Or a justified war?”
“All life is precious, now more than ever.”
“Except for what’s out there,” Jakob added.
Peter nodded. He’d feel no remorse for killing whatever predator lurked outside. But he hoped to never have to kill a human being again. That cup of remorse had been filled to overflowing long ago. Enemy combatants or not, humans weren’t meant to take each other’s lives. It left a stain on the soul. He hoped it was something his son would never have to experience.
But how many people were really left? Odds were, if Jakob needed a gun, it wouldn’t be against anything human. Previously human, maybe, but a genuine human being? They were an endangered species put on the brink of extinction by their own hubris.
Peter watched the still-moving visitor, hidden in the tall wheat. Its presence filled him with dread. They were the prey now, but prey who could fight back. “Go ahead.”
“For real?” Jakob sounded stunned. All this time, he hadn’t expected his argument to work.
“The M9 isn’t loaded, but there’s—”
“Three magazines and a box of 9mm ammo.” Jakob practically spat the words. “Not great stopping power, but it will do in a pinch.”
Peter chuckled. His son’s military education had come from a video game, and so far, it was spot on. Peter had gone through basic training, years of service and then seven months of the Individual Training Course program to become a CSO, and his son’s knowledge of armaments matched his own. But could he handle himself with a weapon? There was no way to find out, and he wasn’t about to turn the biodome into a gun range. The first time Jakob fired a gun, it would be in defense of his life.
“Go ahead. Bring it all to the kitchen table. I’ll show you how to load the magazines, switch them out and chamber a round. But there’ll be no shooting, understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Jakob said with a sarcastic salute that would have gotten him a tooth knocked out by a drill instructor. Then he was gone, back into the house.
Peter returned his gaze to the ominous line in the wheat.
What the hell are you?
He knew very little about the thing outside, only that it was there and was making a slow circle around the house. But why? What kind of predator behaved in this way? None that he could think of. But the world was full of predators beyond imagining. The truth was, they’d been squirreled away for so long that they didn’t know
was out there.
The human race had changed. He knew that much. Longer canine teeth. Sharp, hooked claws. A penchant for scurrying on all fours. And a hunger for meat...and the hunt. But had they continued to change? Had everything else? He’d seen one of the first cows to change. It was on the news just a few months before the human race became affected. Despite the cow’s size, the copious amount of food it ate triggered the change earlier. Its legs had thickened, its body slimming to a more agile shape, and its teeth...like daggers. The cow was found in a pig pen, having slaughtered and devoured three swine, chewing a cud of pig flesh, over and over, the way cows used to eat grass. It made headlines as a freak of nature. The whole herd had been slaughtered the next day as a precautionary measure, the CDC guessing it was some kind of new Mad Cow disease. If only they’d realized the true source...
, Peter thought,
it would have been too late
. The human race had already crossed the tipping point.
, he thought at the Etch-a-Sketch line tracing its way through the field.
Let me put an end to your hunger.
The line just kept on moving, pausing every now and again, but clearly headed all the way around the house. When the line reached the spot where it began, the predator outside would be able to move around the house without detection. And maybe that was the point? Once the circle was complete, and night fell, it could approach the house with less chance of being spotted. It was a full moon tonight, but Peter couldn’t keep watch over every side of the large home and biodome.
And that’s if there’s only one of them
. For all he knew, there was a whole pride of things out there.
The thought made him more sure that giving Jakob the gun was the right thing to do. Odds were, he’d have to use it sooner than later, with sooner being nightfall and later being morning. One way or the other, Peter or the thing outside was going to lose patience and take action before the sun had a chance to rise again.