Authors: Dan Wells
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Survival Stories, #Social Issues, #Prejudice & Racism
Tovar, Hobb, and Kessler all raised their hands; a moment later Woolf did the same.
A unanimous vote. Tovar leaned down to sign the paper in front of him, and four Grid
soldiers walked in from the wings to escort the prisoners out. The room grew noisy
as a hundred little conversations started up, people arguing back and forth about
the verdict and the sentence and whole drama that had unfolded. Isolde stood up, and
Marcus helped her into the hall.
“All the way outside,” said Isolde. “I need to breathe.” They were ahead of most of
the crowd and reached the outer doors before the main press of people. Marcus found
them a bench, and Isolde sat with a grimace. “I want french fries,” she said. “Greasy
and salty and just huge fistfuls of them—I want to eat every french fry in the entire
“You look like you’re going to throw up, how can you even think about food?”
“Don’t say ‘food,’” she said quickly, closing her eyes. “I don’t want food, I want
“Pregnancy is so weird.”
The crowd thinned as it reached the front lawn, and Marcus watched as groups of men
and women either wandered off or stood in small groups, arguing softly about the senators
and their decision. “Lawn,” perhaps, was misleading: There used to be a lawn in front
of the high school, but no one had tended it in years, and it had become a meadow
dotted with trees and crisscrossed with buckling sidewalks. Marcus paused to wonder
if he’d been the last person to mow it, two years ago when he’d been punished for
playing pranks in class. Had anyone mowed it since? Had anyone mowed anything since?
That was a dubious claim to fame: the last human being to ever mow the lawn.
I wonder how many other things I’ll be the last to do.
He frowned and looked across the street to the hospital complex and its full parking
lot. Much of the city had been empty when the world ended—not a lot of people eating
out and seeing movies while the world collapsed in plague—but the hospital had been
bustling. The parking lot spilled over with old cars, rusted and sagging, cracked
windows and scratched paint, hundreds upon hundreds of people and couples and families
hoping vainly that the doctors could save them from RM. They came to the hospital
and they died in the hospital, and all the doctors with them. The survivors had cleaned
out the hospital as soon as they settled in East Meadow—it was an excellent hospital,
one of the reasons the survivors had chosen East Meadow as a place for their settlement
in the first place—but the parking lot had never been a priority. The last hope for
humanity was surrounded on three sides with a maze of rusted scrap metal, half junkyard
and half cemetery.
Marcus heard a surge of voices and turned around, watching Weist and Delarosa emerge
from the building with an escort of Grid soldiers and a crowd of people, many of them
protesting the verdict. Marcus couldn’t tell if they wanted something harsher or more
lenient, but he supposed there were probably different factions calling for each.
Asher Woolf led the way, slowly pushing through the people and clearing a path. A
wagon was waiting to take them away—an armored car rigged with free axles and drawn
by a team of four powerful horses. They stomped as they waited, whiffling and blustering
as the noise of the crowd grew closer.
“They look like they’re going to start a riot,” said Isolde, and Marcus nodded. Some
of the protestors were blocking the doors of the wagon, and others were trying to
pull them away while the Grid struggled helplessly to maintain order.
thought Marcus, frowning and leaning forward.
They’re not trying to maintain order, they’re trying to . . . what? They’re not stopping
the fight, they’re moving it. I’ve seen them quell riots before, and they were a lot
more efficient than this. More focused. What are they—?
Senator Weist fell to the ground, his chest a blossom of dark red, followed almost
immediately by a deafening crack. The world seemed to stand still for a moment, the
crowd and the Grid and the meadow all frozen in time. What had happened? What was
the red? What was the noise? Why did he fall? The pieces came together one by one
in Marcus’s mind, slowly and out of order and jumbled in confusion: The sound was
a gunshot, and the red on Weist’s chest was blood. He’d been shot.
The horses screamed, rearing up in terror and straining against the heavy wagon. Their
scream seemed to shatter the moment, and the crowd erupted in noise and chaos as everyone
began running—some were looking for cover, some were looking for the shooter, and
everyone seemed to be trying to get as far away from the body as they could. Marcus
pulled Isolde behind the bench, pressing her to the ground.
“Don’t move!” he said, then sprinted toward the fallen prisoner at a dead run.
“Find the shooter!” screamed Senator Woolf. Marcus saw the senator pull a pistol from
his coat, a gleaming black semiautomatic. The civilians were fleeing for cover, and
some of the Grid as well, but Woolf and some of the soldiers had stayed by the prisoners.
A spray of shrapnel leaped up from the brick wall behind them, and another loud crack
rolled across the yard. Marcus kept his eyes on the fallen Weist and dove to the ground
beside him, checking his pulse almost before he stopped moving. He couldn’t feel much
of anything, but a wave of blood bubbling up from the wound in the man’s chest told
Marcus the heart was still beating. He clamped down with his hands, applying as much
pressure as he could, and cried out suddenly as someone yanked him backward.
“I’m trying to save him!”
“He’s gone,” said a soldier behind him. “You need to get to cover!”
Marcus shrugged him off and scrambled back to the body. Woolf was shouting again,
pointing through the meadow to the hospital complex, but Marcus ignored them and pressed
down again. He hands were red and slick, his arms coated with warm arterial spray,
and he shouted for assistance. “Somebody give me shirt or a jacket! He’s bleeding
front and back and I can’t stop it all with just my hands!”
“Don’t be stupid,” said the soldier behind him. “You’ve got to get to cover.” But
when Marcus turned to look at him, he saw Senator Delarosa, still in handcuffs. She
was crouched between them.
“Save her first!” said Marcus.
“He’s over there!” cried Woolf, pointing again to the buildings behind the hospital.
“The shooter’s in there, somebody circle around!”
Blood pumped thickly through Marcus’s fingers, staining his hands and covering the
prisoner’s chest; blood from the exit wound flowed steadily from the man’s back, spreading
out in a puddle and soaking Marcus’s knees and pants. There was too much blood—too
much for Weist to ever survive—but Marcus kept the pressure on. The prisoner wasn’t
breathing, and Marcus called again for help. “I’m losing him!”
“Let him go!” shouted the soldier, loud and more angry. The world seemed drenched
in blood and adrenaline, and Marcus struggled to stay in control. When hands finally
jutted forward to help with the bleeding, he was surprised to see that they were not
the soldier’s, but Delarosa’s.
“Somebody get over there!” Woolf was shouting. “There’s an assassin somewhere in those
“It’s too dangerous,” said another soldier, crouching low in the brush. “We can’t
just charge in there while a sniper has us pinned down.”
“He’s not pinning you down, he’s aiming for the prisoners.”
“It’s too dangerous,” the soldier insisted.
“Then call for backup,” said Woolf. “Surround him. Do something besides stand there!”
Marcus couldn’t even feel a heartbeat anymore. The blood in the victim’s chest was
stagnant, and the body was inert. He kept the pressure on, knowing that it was useless
but too stunned to think of anything else.
“Why do you even care?” asked the soldier. Marcus looked up and saw the man talking
to Senator Woolf. “Five minutes ago you were calling for an execution, and now that
he’s dead you’re trying to capture his killer?”
Woolf whirled around, shoving his face mere inches from the soldier’s. “What’s your
The soldier quailed. “Cantona, sir. Lucas.”
“Private Cantona, what did you swear to protect?”
“What did you swear to protect!”
“The people, sir.” Cantona swallowed. “And the law.”
“In that case, Private, you’d better think good and hard the next time you tell me
to abandon them both.”
Delarosa looked at Marcus, her hands and arms covered in her fellow prisoner’s blood.
“This is how it ends, you know.”
They were the first words Marcus had heard her speak in months, and they shocked him
back to consciousness. He realized he was still flexing his arms against Weist’s lifeless
chest. He pulled back, staring and panting. “How what ends?”
think it was the Grid,” said Xochi.
Haru snorted. “You think the DG killed the man who used to represent them in the Senate.”
“It’s the only explanation,” said Xochi. They were sitting in the living room, nibbling
on the last remnants of dinner: grilled cod and fresh-steamed broccoli from Nandita’s
garden. Marcus paused on that thought, noting that he still thought of it as Nandita’s
garden even though she’d been missing for months—she hadn’t even been the one to plant
this crop, Xochi had done it. Xochi and Isolde were the only ones left in the house,
and yet in his mind it was still “Nandita’s garden.”
Of course, in his mind this was still “Kira’s house,” and she’d been gone for two
months. If anything, Marcus spent more time here now than before she’d left, always
hoping she’d turn up at the door one day. She never did.
“Think about it,” Xochi went on. “The Grid’s found nothing, right? Two days of searching
and they haven’t found a single piece of evidence to lead them to the sniper: not
a bullet casing, not a footprint, not even a scuff mark on the floor. I’m no fan of
the Grid, but they’re not inept. They’d find something if they were looking, therefore
they’re not looking. They’re covering it up.”
“Or the sniper’s just extremely competent,” said Haru. “Is that a possibility, or
do we have to jump straight to the conspiracy theory?”
“Well, of course he’s competent,” said Xochi. “He’s Grid-trained.”
“This sounds like a circular argument,” said Isolde.
“Weist was part of the Grid,” said Haru. “He was their own representative on the council.
If you think a soldier would kill another soldier, you don’t know much about soldiers.
They’re ferociously vindictive when one of their own gets attacked. They wouldn’t
be covering this up, they’d be lynching the guy.”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” said Xochi. “Whatever else Weist did, he killed a soldier
in cold blood—maybe not personally, but he gave the order. He arranged the murder
of a soldier under his own command. The Grid would never just let that slide, you
said it yourself: They’d hunt him down and lynch him. The new Grid senator, Woolf
or whatever, Isolde said he was practically screaming for the death penalty, but then
they didn’t get it, so they went to plan B.”
“Or more likely,” said Haru, “this is exactly what the Grid says it is: an attempt
on Woolf or Tovar or someone like that. One of the senators still in power. There’s
no reason to kill a convicted prisoner.”
“So the sniper just missed?” asked Xochi. “This amazingly competent super-sniper,
who can evade a full Grid investigation, was aiming for one of the senators, but he’s
just a really crappy shot? Come on: He’s either a pro or he’s not, Haru.”
Marcus tried to stay out of these arguments—“these” meaning “any argument with Haru”—and
this was exactly why. He’d seen firsthand the way the soldiers had reacted to the
attack, and he still had no idea if it was a conspiracy or not. The soldier had tried
to pull Marcus off Weist, but did he do it because he was trying to save Marcus, or
because he was trying to keep Marcus from saving Weist? Senator Woolf seemed practically
offended by the attack, as if killing the prisoner had been a personal insult against
him, but was that genuine or was he just playing up the ruse? Haru and Xochi were
passionate, but they were too quick to jump to extremes, and Marcus knew from experience
that they’d argue back and forth for hours, maybe for days. He left them to it, and
turned instead to Madison and Isolde, both cooing quietly over Madison’s baby, Arwen.
Arwen was the miracle baby—the first human child in almost twelve years to survive
the ravages of RM, thanks to Kira’s cure self-replicating in her bloodstream. She
was asleep now in Madison’s arms, wrapped tightly in a fleece blanket, while Madison
talked softly with Isolde about pregnancy and labor. Sandy, Arwen’s personal nurse,
watched quietly in the corner—the Miracle Child was too precious to risk without full-time
medical attention, so Sandy followed mother and daughter everywhere, but she had never
really fit into their group socially. There were more in their retinue as well: To
help protect the child, the Senate had assigned them a pair of bodyguards. When a
crazed woman—the mother of ten dead children—had tried to kidnap Arwen the day Madison
first brought her to the outdoor market, they had doubled the guards and reinstated
Haru to the Defense Grid. There were two guards here tonight, one in the front yard
and one in the back. The radio on Haru’s belt chirped softly every time one of them
“Any luck with that?” asked Madison, and Marcus snapped back to attention.
“The cure,” said Madison. “Have you had any luck with it?”
He grimaced, glancing at Isolde, and shook his head. “Nothing. We thought we had a
breakthrough a couple of days ago, but it turned out to be something the D team had
already tried. Dead end.” He grimaced again at his own word choice, though this time
he managed to avoid glancing at Isolde; better to let that reference disappear in
shame than call any more attention to it.