Authors: Dan Wells
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Survival Stories, #Social Issues, #Prejudice & Racism
While the 86th floor had been wide and square, with a slim balcony around the perimeter
of the building, the 102nd floor was small and round, almost like a lighthouse. The
only protection between observers and the street below was a circle of windows, mostly
intact, but Kira couldn’t help but lean out one of the broken ones, feeling the rush
of the wind and the insane thrill of the mind-numbing height. It was the kind of view
she’d always imagined the old-world people had seen from their airplanes, so high
up the world itself seemed distant and small. More importantly, it gave her an amazing
view of the city—there were other buildings that were taller, but only a few, and
their view wouldn’t be any better than this one. Kira dropped her bags and pulled
out her binoculars, starting with the southern view and scanning the skyline for radio
antennas. There were far more than she expected. She blew out a long, slow breath,
shaking her head and wondering how she’d ever be able to find the one building she
needed out of the thousands that filled the island. She closed her eyes.
“The only way to do it,” she said softly, “is to do it.” She plucked her notebook
from the back of her bag, found the closest antenna to the south, and starting taking
he farthest antenna Kira found was so far north she suspected it might be beyond the
borders of Manhattan island, in the region called the Bronx; she hoped she didn’t
have to go that far, as the proximity to the Partials still made her nervous, but
if she had to do it, she swore that she would. The answers she stood to gain made
any risk worth it.
The closest antenna was the giant spire on top of her own building, but there was
no one in the building with her. Well—she didn’t think there was anyone else in the
building with her who could be using it, but it was an awfully big building. “Maybe
I’m being paranoid,” she told herself, climbing up to check the antenna. She stopped
and corrected herself. “Maybe I’m being
paranoid. A little bit is probably pretty healthy.” The antenna turned out to be
completely unpowered, and she was surprised at how relieved she felt. She studied
the city, taking notes on each new antenna she found, and watched as the setting sun
revealed new solar panels one by one, winking slyly as the fading light hit just the
right angle, then sliding again into darkness. At night she slipped down a few floors
to find an enclosed room, and bundled herself warmly in her sleeping bag. This high
in the sky the buildings were remarkably clean—no windswept dirt, no budding shoots,
no paw prints in the dust. It reminded her of home, of the buildings she and others
had worked so hard to keep clean: her house, the hospital, the school. She wondered,
not for the first time, if she would ever see any of them again.
On the fourth day her water ran dry, and she made the long climb down to street level
looking for more. A park at the end of a long city block drew her attention, and she
found what she was looking for—not a pool or puddle but a subway entrance, dark water
lapping at the steps. In the old world the subway had been for transportation, but
somehow it had flooded; the tunnels were now an underground river, slow but still
flowing. Kira brought out her purifier and pumped three more liters, refilling her
plastic bottles, always keeping a wary eye on the city around her. She found a grocery
store and stocked up on several cans of vegetables, but stopped and grimaced when
she found one that had swollen and burst—these cans were now more than eleven years
old, and that was getting close to the shelf life of most canned foods. If some of
these were already spoiling, she was better off not risking any of them. She sighed
and put them back, wondering if she had the time to hunt live game.
“At least some snares,” she decided, and set a few simple rope traps near the top
of the subway entrance. There were prints around the mouth of it, and she figured
some of the local elands and rabbits were using it as a watering hole. She climbed
back up to her observatory, set a few more snares for birds, and got back to work.
Two nights later she had goose for dinner, roasted over a smokeless survival stove
and turned on a spit made of old wire hangers. It was the best she’d eaten in weeks.
Five days and three water trips later she found her first big break—a gleam of light
in a window, a tiny speck dancing redly for just a second, and then it was gone. Was
it a signal? Had she only imagined it? She sat up straighter, watching the spot intently
through her binoculars. A minute went by. Five minutes. Just as she was about to give
up, she saw it again: a movement, a fire, and a closing door. Someone was letting
out smoke; maybe their cook fire had gotten out of hand. She scrambled to identify
the building before night fell too completely, and saw the dancing flame three more
times in the next half hour. When the moon rose she looked for smoke, but there was
nothing; they had dispersed it, or the wind had, too effectively to be seen.
Kira stood up, still staring toward the building now invisible in the darkness. It
was one of the many she’d identified as a likely target—its roof was covered with
solar panels, ringing a central antenna so large she thought it must have been an
actual radio station. If someone had gotten that old equipment running again, they’d
have a more powerful radio than either of the two she’d seen blown up.
“Do I go now, or wait for morning?” Staring into the darkness, she realized she still
wasn’t sure what her plan was—knowing where the bad guys were hiding wouldn’t do her
any good if she triggered a bomb as soon as she stepped inside. She could try to catch
one of them, maybe in a larger version of her rabbit snares, and ask questions, or
she could try to slip in when the bomb wasn’t armed—which, she supposed, was only
when the mysterious bombers themselves were inside. That didn’t sound safe at all.
“The best thing to do,” she whispered, crouching lower in the window, “is exactly
what I’m doing now—watch and wait and hope I can learn something useful.” She sighed.
“It’s gotten me this far.”
But the question remained: Should she go tonight or wait for morning? A journey through
the city would be more dangerous in the dark, but her targets had proven to be incredibly
cautious—if they knew a flash of light and a trail of smoke had given away their position,
they might move to a new location, leaving another booby trap in their wake, and Kira
would lose them. Had the fire been an accident? Would it make them nervous enough
to run? Kira had no way of knowing, and the uncertainty made her nervous in turn.
This was one situation where the slow, cautious approach was too risky—she’d already
lost five days; better to go now, she decided, than to take the chance of losing her
only good lead. She packed her things, checked her rifle, and began the long descent
through the pitch-dark bowels of the stairwell.
Feral cats prowled the lower levels, searching for food with bright, nocturnal eyes.
Kira heard them moving in the shadows, waiting and watching and pouncing; the hiss
of predators and the struggling of prey.
Kira scanned the street carefully before leaving the building, then moved softly from
car to car, keeping to cover as much as possible. The building with the campfire was
about three miles north, uncomfortably close to the giant forest of Central Park.
Wild animals lived throughout the city, but the park was home to most of the big ones.
Kira traveled as quickly as she dared, keeping her flashlight off and using the moon
to see. The pale light made shadows deeper and more ominous; it also made the ground
look smoother than it really was, and Kira stumbled on the rough terrain anytime she
tried to move too fast. She skirted the west side of the park, watching for animals,
but there were none out in the open. This was bad news: If there were deer out, it
would at least give the predators something better to hunt than her. Feral house cats
were hardly the most dangerous predators in the city.
A shadow shifted in her peripheral vision, and Kira whirled around to look. Nothing.
She paused to listen . . . yes . . . there it was. A deep thrum, almost too low to
hear. Something very big was breathing nearby, not just breathing but purring, almost
growling. Something very good at hiding.
Kira was being hunted.
Before her was a large plaza, the concrete cracked and buckled and dotted with tufts
of tall, dark weeds; the center statue stood solemn and unmoving. Cars circled the
edge, their tires long ago turned flat and deflated. Kira backed slowly against a
wall, cutting off the predator’s lines of attack, holding her breath to listen. The
deep breathing was there, a bass rumble of giant lungs filling and exhaling. She couldn’t
tell where it was coming from.
There are panthers in the city,
I’ve seen them during the day—panthers and lions and once, I swear, I saw a tiger.
Refugees from a zoo or a circus, well fed by the herds of wild deer and horses that
roam Central Park. There are even elephants—I heard them last year. Do they feed on
she told herself.
They’re going to feed on you if you don’t find a way out of this. Lions or panthers
A terrifying thought occurred to her:
Panthers are supposed to hunt at night, but I’ve only ever seen them in the day. Do
they hunt in both now, or is this thing in the darkness something worse—something
so dangerous the panthers had to change their habits to avoid it? Am I being hunted
by a nocturnal panther, or are the panthers hiding, scared in their dens, to escape
the creature that’s hunting me?
Memories of the ParaGen brochure leapt unbidden to her mind—dragons and intelligent
dogs, engineered lions and who only knew what else they’d done. They’d designed the
Partials as the ultimate soldiers—had they designed an ultimate predator as well?
Kira stole a glance back down the street where she’d come, shaking her head at the
long string of derelict cars and delivery vans; this creature could be hiding behind
any one of them, waiting for her to pass by. It was the same with the plaza in front
of her. Her best bet lay across the street, in the lobby of what might once have been
a shopping mall: fallen mannequins, faded posters of bodies and faces, rack upon rack
of ragged clothes. The beast could be in there, too—for all she knew the cluttered
hallways could be its den—but there were doors as well, human-size and closed, and
if she could get inside one and close it again behind her, she would be safe. Safe
until it went away, safe until morning if it took that long. She heard the same rumbling
growl, closer now than ever, and set her jaw fiercely.
“It’s now or never.” She leapt to her feet, charging across the broken street to the
mall beyond, dodging around the corner of a car as a rush of air tore past behind
her. She imagined giant claws swiping inches from her back, and struggled to regain
her footing as she raced in through the shattered glass facade of the building. Debris
clattered in her wake, far more than she could ever dislodge by herself, but she didn’t
dare look back; she raised her gun over her shoulder, firing wildly behind her, turning
again as she reached a cracking pillar. The interior of the mall was bigger than she’d
expected, glistening metal stairways climbing up and down in pairs, a vast courtyard
yawning wide in the center of the floor below her. It was too dark to see the bottom
or the top; too dark to see much of anything. The door she’d been aiming for was on
the other side; she turned to the right, skirting the pit, and brought her gun back
in front of her, switching on the light. The thing seemed to be scrabbling on the
slick floor; Kira found the first door she could and sprinted straight toward it.
The light beam jerked wildly as she ran, up and down, back and forth, shining back
from the tiled floor and the metal stairs and the mirrored plates across the walls.
In a flash of reflected light the wall before her showed her own image, a massive
black shape bearing down from behind, and then the beam jerked again and the scene
was gone, a strobing nightmare of light and darkness and fear. She fixed her eyes
on the doorway, running like she’d never run before, and moments before she got there
she lowered her rifle, sighted on the doorknob, and fired a semiautomatic burst. The
lock blew clear, the door fell open, and Kira dove through without a pause, slamming
her hand against the left wall to help propel her toward the right and another open
door. She grabbed at this one as she passed, slamming it closed behind her, and leaned
against it just as something hit it from the other side, cracking it loudly; still,
though, it held, and Kira braced herself tightly against it as the thing came back
for another hit.
She looked around wildly, aiming the rifle awkwardly with one hand to shine its light
on the room, and saw a large wood desk. Claws scraped across the other side of the
door—it was pawing at the barrier now, not smashing it, and she took the risk, jumping
over the desk and heaving against it, pushing it back to block the door. The scratching
turned to thumping; the door shook, and suddenly Kira was deafened by a massive roar.
She lost her footing, dropped her rifle, and threw herself against the desk again,
slamming it up against the door just as the thing on the other side slammed it again,
shaking the room. The desk held. Kira fell back, reaching for the rifle’s light, and
brought it up to illuminate the top half of the door, riven with cracks and splintered
away from the frame. Something moved beyond it, nearly as tall as the ceiling; the
light reflected against a huge amber eye, narrowing to a slit as the light blinded
it. Kira reeled at the sheer size of it, scooting away almost involuntarily. A massive
paw clawed at the gap in the door, giant claws gleaming silver in the halogen beam,
and Kira fired a burst from her rifle, clipping it in the toe. The creature roared
again, but this time Kira roared back, cornered and furious. She climbed on the desk,
sighted straight through the broken doorway, and fired at the wall of fur and muscle
before her. It howled in rage and pain, thrashing wildly at the door, and Kira ejected
the spent clip, slapped in another one, and fired again. The creature turned and fled,
disappearing into the darkness.