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Authors: James Jaros

Carry the Flame

BOOK: Carry the Flame
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Carry the Flame

James Jaros

Dedication

For the wayward

Chapter One

T
he horizon darkened by midday. Jessie watched black clouds boil from a ridge in the Great Smokies, mountains once verdant and lushly green. Thunderheads, most likely, but she knew the charred forests would offer little fuel for lightning. Wildfires had long scorched the southern high country, and the drought-stricken land had not recovered. The trees and brush had turned to cinders and ash, and the ash—the final mute testimony of life, and the eternally empty echo of death—had been cast by the wind to the desolate valleys below. But what turned Jessie away from the raging clouds wasn't the bleak vision of final ruin, or the potentially lethal force of a crackling sky. It was an elusively subtle scent that tormented her with the darkest, most wrenching memories, and threatened everyone on the caravan with a merciless demise.

Burned Fingers joined her. Despite his age—she guessed late fifties, giving him a good fifteen years on her—he walked nimbly uphill for a better view, leaving her in the shade of a hijacked tanker truck filled with gasoline. It baked in the sun near an armor-clad van packed with looted food, water, and gunpowder.

Nearby, adults and even the youngest children scrambled to chip off sharp lengths of an obsidian wall for knives, traps, and spear tips.

Like hunter-gatherers, Jessie thought without irony as she looked from the collection in her hand to the imposing size of the tanker. She saw Bliss, soon to turn fifteen, holding up a flat, slivery rock. The girl reared back to test it as a weapon, like baseball pitchers had once wound up to deliver a strike. But Bliss didn't let it fly, saving the black glassy stone for when she might need to kill. She caught her mom's glance and smiled, suddenly a child again. Both of them were tall and lean with braided black hair and skin frightfully bronzed by the harsh, unrelenting rays.

Burned Fingers slipped past Jessie so quietly that she found it unsettling. Then he took the disk-shaped rock from Bliss, rubbing the razor edge against his chin; he was one of the few men Jessie had ever seen who still made an effort to shave. After inspecting his salt and pepper stubble, he hefted the rock's weight to check its balance. “It'll throw fast and true. And this,” he thumbed the edge, “will split a man wide open.”

Words like the blessing of a brimstone prophet. Burned Fingers looked the part with a bone-drawn face that flaunted an unnerving geometry of unforgiving features; raked back, shale-gray hair, and the burned index and middle digits of his shooting hand that had given rise to his nickname. Not unhandsome, his steely looks complemented his manner as much as his fused, arced fingers suited the curved trigger of his sawed-off shotgun, like they'd been burned to bear arms above all else. He could have been stained red, for all the blood he'd spilled, including the blood of Jessie's husband. She could not look at Burned Fingers without seeing Eden lying by the gate to their camp, bludgeoned, bleeding, dying. The path that had brought the marauder to her side remained grim, enigmatic, haunting.

He handed Bliss back a weapon old as the Pleistocene and turned again to the blackening horizon.

Augustus moved up beside Jessie and stared at the erupting sky. “It's over my camp,” the missionary said slowly, “whatever it is.” The first spoken suggestion that the midday darkness whirling toward them might not be a rainstorm or gales of gritty dust, but a far deadlier force.

Jessie closed her eyes, no longer able to deny the scent of seared flesh or the hateful weight it carried. Not a strong stench, not so sickeningly sweet as the smells she'd known only three weeks ago when they burned down the fortress of the religious zealots who'd kidnapped their daughters; but in these stark and pressing seconds the scent felt as real as the soot that colored those clouds.

She said nothing about the haunting odor. Maybe Augustus hadn't noticed. Or maybe she was wrong, though her sense of smell had sharpened during these long decades of deprivation, like hearing honed by blindness. They would learn the answer soon enough because the pacifist preacher had shown real heroism during the rescue of the girls, earning him a ride to his settlement. It sat along what had once been the border of Tennessee and Kentucky—the path Jessie and Burned Fingers planned for the caravan's long, perilous journey north.

Burned Fingers had warned that their attack on the fortress would be seen as an attack on the Alliance, a shadowy network of heavily armed outposts across North America. Augustus brought that up to Jessie as he stood by her side, but he also reminded her—maybe himself, too—that the Alliance had stayed away from his settlement. “Called us the curse of Cain, and never came around, like being black was contagious.” But moments later the sweet smell thickened and he shook his head wordlessly, and she remembered him once adding that the men in the Alliance never left you alone for good, “not if you've got so much as a flint knife worth stealing.”

We've got a lot more than that, she thought, eyeing the tanker brimming with gasoline. We've got the Holy Grail of the new Dark Ages, and
maybe
the only way to get to the new Jerusalem
—
arctic Canada, where land was said to be green, and palm trees and crops grew, as well as dates and Kamut and oranges.

That “maybe” worried her ceaselessly, kept her looking back as much as she plowed ahead. Made her feel watched by hidden eyes, knowing the Alliance would rake the very coals of hell to retake the tanker and reassert control of the region.

Burned Fingers had likened the truck to a “rolling gas station,” and Jessie knew they'd never caravan to the Arctic without it; but she also feared that it would get them massacred.

She looked over the adults and children scrambling to add to their cache of weapons, and found it inconceivable that all thirty of them would survive this trip. Far easier to imagine them lifeless as the land they planned to cross. Far worse for Augustus, who might have reason to worry that his people already had been slaughtered, their homes and bodies burned.

He had left a wife and twin girls in the settlement, now roundly cloaked by those black clouds rolling ever closer. But the believer had spoken of his twins only of late, and said little else about them, simply that they were “of age,” which meant they were about to start their menses—prime targets for the ruthless zealots who claimed a God-given right to abduct them for procreation.

“Grab your stuff and get on board,” Burned Fingers ordered. “We've got to get moving.”

“But that thing's coming right at us.” Ananda, Jessie's twelve-year-old, backed up as she stared at the massive wall of clouds marching toward them. With plaited black hair and darkly tanned skin, she was another pea in the family pod.

“And if it's rain, it could disappear,” her mother replied. “If it doesn't, we'll stop when it hits.” Whatever
it
was, she thought, keeping her gruesome concerns to herself so the caravan could stay ahead of the Alliance—or the mercenaries its secretive leadership had sent after them. Might even be marauders from Burned Fingers' old gang.

Jessie watched everyone gather up their rock shards, hoping that turning them into knives and spear points would keep them busy enough to spare her any cries of “Are we there yet?” from the younger children, a complaint as common now as it had once been in cars and on wagon trains. Cassie's mourning came to mind immediately; the smallest, frailest girl's father had been shotgunned to death trying to take control of the tanker. Since then she'd been cared for by her father's old friend, Maul, a big, bald, fierce-looking man who captained the truck with a shotgun by his side and pistol and butcher knife in his belt—but who'd wept openly when he knelt next to Cassie to tell her the news about her dad.

Similar grief haunted other children climbing aboard the vehicles, including nine-year-old Imagi, a Down syndrome girl, and Mia and Kluani, eleven-year-old twins who took turns wearing a twine necklace they'd macraméd for their father, who bled to death after leading the attack that netted them the van; Jessie had taken the necklace off his body to give to his daughters.

She placed her hand on Kluani's back, guiding her to a berth under the belly of the tanker near her darker-haired sister. Throughout the day, the most fidgety children changed positions with one another, shifting along the sides of the trailer or down below the tanker.

Maul, behind the wheel, handed his twelve-gauge to Erik. At thirteen Erik had been given the weighty role of riding shotgun, though the dark-freckled boy recognized that he was mostly an extra pair of eyes for the large man beside him, who handled his weapons as naturally as his forbearers had used utensils. Maul started the truck, and thick plumes of oily black smoke streamed from twin exhaust pipes that rose like horns above either side of the armored cab.

In front of them the van started to roll away, carrying three teenage girls blinded by the zealots, but who still cared for three female babies who'd been in their care since birth.

Brindle drove the smaller vehicle. He was short, wiry, and suffered from a stammer that disappeared only when he swore. He swore a lot. Tow-headed Jaya, fifteen, rode shotgun for Brindle. Jessie had assigned him to the van, and Bliss to a guard post on the tanker, to try to keep them apart, at least during the day. She hadn't been entirely successful: during a break yesterday, she chanced upon them clutching passionately; though their hands were busy, their clothes had been on.

Bliss took her position at the front of a narrow metal walkway that ran along the top of the tanker and studied the territory ahead with the sharp vision of youth. She pumped her shotgun as her mother climbed up the trailer's rear, facing backward on the same narrow grating to watch for creatures that might stalk them. Not all the animals were human. Some, like the playfully named Pixie-bobs, had four legs and fur, beguiling faces, and shocking ferocity. They'd been bred from domestic felines and bobcats, or
Lynx rufus,
as the wildlife biologist called them when she still had use for Latin. The Pixie-bobs had turned voraciously feral, proliferated in the Appalachians, and hunted in packs of a hundred or more. With little fear of humans, these piranhas of the apocalypse could strip a good-sized man to bone in sixty seconds, a child in less time than it took her to scream, turn, and start to run.

After scanning the wretched landscape they were quitting, Jessie waved her arm. Bliss relayed the go-ahead to Maul, and the truck rolled out behind the van, keeping enough distance that a single gas bomb, often poisoned with human waste, would be unlikely to blow up both vehicles and all the children.

Jessie lifted her eyes to the blanched sky, noting the contrast with the black clouds several miles ahead. The caravan would have to stop when the storm hit, assuming that's what it was. If the blackness vanished—and they'd seen the most violent looking thunderstorms abscond with the sweetest promise of rain—they'd continue so Augustus could return to his family by nightfall, or see to their remains.

Who are you kidding?
Jesse shook her head, understanding for the first time that hope and grief were death's only real ghosts.
It'll be their remains, if there are any left.

Minutes later the smell of burning bodies turned as suffocating as the memory of the pyres that had blazed near their marauded camp, flames that granted her murdered friends and loved ones their only leave.

She turned to order a halt so they could scout the danger, when Bliss yelled and pointed to the suddenly accelerating advance of the black horizon. Close enough that Jessie startled at the towering wall of clouds scouring the earth and spitting it to the ethers. In the same instant, she grabbed the grating against a powerful gust that whipped past the vehicles, darkening the air.

She ordered the truck to halt, and saw the van stopping too. Jaya sprang from the front passenger door.

How much time do we have?
she asked herself.
A minute?

“Get under the tanker and cover up,” she shouted to the children clinging to the vehicle. They looked frozen with fear. “Go. Hurry!
Move!
” she bellowed, stepping down onto a metal ladder.

The temperature jumped twenty degrees in ten seconds, a heat wave that gave lie to the original, pallid meaning when her long dead relatives could open fire hydrants or lounge in pools to cool off. These were like siroccos, come to life in the last half century and fueled by higher temperatures than the Sahara of old had ever known. The hot winds funneled across the hugely expanded Great American Desert, raising inestimable tons of dust; and when they swept over isolated bands of humans, they could choke a child to death and leave her parents gasping.

Computer models of the collapse had never predicted such explosive heat, or comprehended chaos theory well enough to explain the mysterious physics of temperature spikes—much less anticipate the vast waves of hot wind that would charge wantonly across the planet, turning it into a laboratory for meteorological uproar. Jessie had only heard of such torrid winds, and had no idea how long they could last or how many lives they could claim.

Grit tore at her skin as she climbed off the truck and children cried out around her. She peered through the slits of her eyes and saw the black clouds surge over them like the monstrous surf of an oceanwide tsunami foaming over the length and breadth of the foothills.

Struggling to duck under the trailer, she watched the wind rip away a blanket of dust, revealing deep, caterpillar tracks. A
tank
? She dropped to her knees, like she'd taken a blow to the gut, disbelief in her eyes, dread at her fingertips. An armored tank in this world could crown its owner king. But that's what it was—a trail of armored murder. No one bothered with bulldozers or other earthmovers with metal treads, not with gas so precious, and slaves to dig and haul away rocks and dirt. Only tanks, with their turrets and flamethrowers, got to guzzle fuel. In the dark realm of weapons, they had become the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.

BOOK: Carry the Flame
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