Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Peter glanced in the back seat. The adrenaline hangover that beat on the inside of his skull and tugged on his eyelids had claimed the two children an hour ago. They’d fought it for a time, exchanging stories—Anne’s were far more disturbing—and keeping watch, but the endlessly monotonous crops walling them in on the road, and the white, dashed line of Interstate 64 fading along with the rest of civilization’s remnants, had lulled them to sleep. Anne first. Then Jakob.
They’d driven in silence since then, but Peter needed to stem the tide of his own rising weariness. With no coffee, he settled for conversation. “So,” he said. “A boyfriend?”
Ella leaned up, rubbing her prickly head, and then her eyes. “Yeah. Ed.”
“Good guy?” Peter didn’t really want to know, but the emotions brewing inside him were already chasing the sandman away.
He was surprised when she shrugged and said, “Good company. Funny.” She turned sideways, leaning back against the door.
Probably to watch my facial expressions,
See if I care.
“When the world has come to an end, and you’re partly responsible for it, any attention is welcome.”
He didn’t know what to say to that. “So...he was...what? Your post-apocalyptic comfort man?”
“That pretty much sums it up,” she said, but she was frowning now, looking out the front window. “He wasn’t the brightest...but he was brave. A fighter. Like you.”
“He came with you?” Peter asked.
She kept her eyes facing out the windshield. “And died for it. More than a month ago. I didn’t love him—”
Peter felt annoyed with himself for feeling relieved by this. He’d been married to Kristen, who he loved. He’d had a son with her. Had chosen his marriage over Ella. But as far as he knew, he’d been Ella’s only real love. The one who got away. It was selfish—what his son would call a ‘dick move’—but he couldn’t deny feeling pleased that her feelings for the man were only skin deep. Deeper down, a darker part of him felt glad the guy was dead.
“—if that’s what you’re wondering. I’m surprised you want to know.”
“Just trying to stay awake,” he admitted.
“I’m afraid the details of our relationship aren’t scintillating enough for that.” He glanced at Ella to find her watching him again, a slight smile on her lips. “Though the relief on your face is adorable, in comparison to the rest of the world, anyway.”
is adorable, compared to the rest of the world,” he said.
Ella barked out a laugh and clamped a hand over her mouth.
The sound, like a jolt from the past, freed a memory.
Teenagers. They sat in the back of a pickup truck at a drive-in. Classic make-out scenario. But the movie,
, had had Ella in stitches, and all of his best moves were met with laughter and movie quotes. Despite getting nothing more than a kiss goodnight, it was one of his fondest memories from his teen years. One of the nights that had bonded them for life, despite distance and relationships.
As Ella’s stifled laughter was squelched, she craned her head around and looked at the sky. “We’ve made good time. Should probably pack it in for the night.”
Peter looked at his watch. “It’s only four. We have hours of daylight still.”
“Any predators still hiding from the sun will be most active at dusk, while the sun is still on the horizon. And where are we?”
“Missouri. A hundred fifty miles from the border. I think.”
“Know what town?”
“Saw a sign for Mt. Vernon a ways back, but I don’t think we’ve passed through. Never been there.”
“Right. The point is, we need to find someplace secure to spend the night, in a town we’ve never been to, and we only have a few hours to get that done. And by secure, I mean like a bomb shelter.”
“That how you do it every night?” he asked.
“Since the lemon tree,” she said, and she didn’t need to elaborate. “But it doesn’t always work out.” She glanced back at Anne, still sleeping. “The two of us spent more nights outside than in. Had some close calls, but the camouflage suits kept us hidden. With those things over us, there wasn’t much that could see or smell us.”
“Except the Stalkers?”
“They couldn’t see or smell us at night, but they’re smart. They tracked us. And when they figured out we were moving during the day, they switched hunting patterns.”
“What about now?” he asked. “Think they’re still following us?”
She shrugged. “If they are, they’re going to need to find a car.”
“Right,” he said. “They have limits.”
“Not human limits, but they can’t drive trucks. And they can’t run all day and all night without stopping.”
“Unless...” he said, but he wasn’t sure if he should continue.
“Go on,” she said.
“You said the ExoGenetic creatures are adapting fast, right?”
“Generations of change can take place in hours.”
“So,” he said. “It wouldn’t be impossible for the Stalkers to adapt...bigger lungs, stronger legs or less of a need for sleep, say, overnight?”
“You see, this is what Ed never could do for me. No one crushes my spirit like you.”
Her smile said she was joking, but he felt the underlying truth in her words. And it stung.
“Then it’s possible?” he asked.
“If there are any left alive, it’s not just possible, it’s probable. The problem is that we can’t keep on going—even if they are still trailing us—because there are other things out here that are just as hungry. Just because other predators haven’t adapted to eating people yet, doesn’t mean they can’t. And then there’s the challenge of our lack of adaptability. Humans can correct most problems if given enough time. We don’t need to evolve fur coats to survive a winter. We can make them. But there’s nothing we can do about our biology. We still need to eat, and drink, and sleep. You’re already driving all over the road. If we drove through the night, you’d probably careen into a tree long before the Stalkers ever found us.”
“Point taken.” He pointed ahead. “There’s an exit.”
“Take it,” she said.
She nodded. “Larger cities are tempting, but lots of places to hide for us means lots of places to hide for...whatever is out here. Last thing we need is to kick open the door on some predator’s den.”
“Okay then, navigator. Where to?”
She pointed to a rectangular, blue sign fifty feet ahead of the exit. It read, ‘Pierce Creek Baptist Church.’ “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death... Churches have basements, right?”
“Most,” he said, knowing without a doubt that she was asking because she’d never been in one. Her parents, despite being Midwest farmers, were also atheists. “I’m surprised you know the verse.”
“When the residents of ExoGen’s bio-refuge in San Francisco packed, not many of them brought books to read. But someone brought a handful of Bibles.”
He steered the armored truck off the highway and turned left onto a double-yellow-lined road. He was surprised to have a decent view of the distance, no trees or tall crops rising up around them. Instead, for miles around, there was a carpet of cabbage. The plants looked like stemless, oversized green flowers. He’d never grown cabbage himself, but he had seen enough to recognize it. What was unfamiliar, however, was the way it grew. Instead of well organized rows, ready to be harvested, the land was covered in a vibrant green carpet of cabbage.
“There’s the church,” Ella said.
It was easy to see the white steeple rising up over the endless green, like a beacon. He stopped short of considering it a symbol of hope; that well had gone dry after Kristen... But as the building came into view, it looked solid and undamaged, resting on a concrete foundation.
A new church,
built just in time for the end of days.
Is that was this is?
Some kind of biblical prophecy coming true?
He didn’t hear any trumpets announcing the arrival of a returning savior, though it wouldn’t be hard to argue the appearance of the White, Red, Black and Pale Horsemen. And he wouldn’t be surprised if there was a multi-headed dragon roaming the Earth. He didn’t know his Bible well, not nearly as well as Ella now did, but he didn’t think the biological apocalypse, started in part by the woman sitting next to him, qualified.
If he were a believer, that might give him hope. Because if the Bible was right, and the end hadn’t arrived, it meant humanity would rebuild again...before the end. He turned his mind back to the church, trying to escape his fire-and-brimstone thought process, but the building made the mental transition impossible.
He stopped the truck in front of where the church’s parking lot should have been and shut the engine off, conserving every drop of gas he could. “They must not have paved.”
“This isn’t going to work,” Ella said.
He was about to ask why when he figured it out, chiding himself for not thinking of it first. He’d been pampered in that house for too long. “The cabbage will show where we went.”
“That only matters with Stalkers,” Anne said, her voice groggy. “They’re not going to catch us. Even if they change.”
Peter wasn’t sure if Anne had been awake and listening or if she just thought like her mother, but the girl was probably right. Probably.
“We don’t know what’s out here,” Ella said. “It’s not impossible that there could be other intelligent predators.”
“Have you seen anything out here?” Anne asked. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. The population would have been slim, before.”
“Meaning?” Peter asked.
“Big population areas produce pack hunters,” Ella said. “Which are generally more intelligent. Sparsely populated areas generate...bigger predators.”
“—and dumber,” Anne added.
“And dumber,” Ella agreed.
“So we could stay here,” Jakob said, sitting up. “I wouldn’t mind getting out of the truck.”
Ella rolled down her window and sniffed the air.
Is she really smelling the air for signs of nearby predators?
Peter got his answer when she leaned back in and said, “Seems clear.”
But then a sound blared across the open landscape. Chills covered Peter’s arms, as what sounded like a trumpet blare resounded around them. The sound’s source drew Peter’s eyes to Ella’s open window. What he saw made his stomach lurch. “Nobody. Move.”
Seated behind his father, Jakob had a similar view through the passenger side windows, so when he turned his head, he saw exactly what had caused his father to whisper those two fear-fueled words: ‘Nobody. Move.’
Beyond turning his head, Jakob did as instructed, freezing in place. He nearly shouted an exclamation though, stopping at the last moment when he saw the thing’s ears. Ella, with her back to the window, couldn’t see what he could, but Anne... The girl slowly turned her head toward the window.
He expected a scream. At least a flinch of surprise. But the girl remained still, then she leaned over and spoke, her whispering words slurred together like they were nothing more than a breeze, which Jakob realized was her intension—and way too quick of thinking for a twelve-year-old girl.
“Fifteen feet tall,” Anne said. “Light brown fur. Mammalian. Short hind legs. Long arms...twelve feet to the elbow...walks on the elbows...”
Her description was accurate and detailed, but was she just trying to inform her mother? Maybe identify the creature that stalked the cabbage field, three hundred feet away?
“The lower arms are like...spears...no hands...large ears, like bowls...” She held her breath when the distant monster stopped its loping walk across the field and cocked its head to the side. It let out a trumpet blast, the sound rolling past—
—and bouncing off us,
Jakob thought. He leaned in close, whispering the way Anne had. “It was a bat. Using echolocation.”
“It’s an Echo,” Anne said, putting her stamp of approval on the name.
Ella’s hand slid down to the truck’s old fashioned window roller. She slowly cranked the knob, silently rolling up the window. With the window shut, blocking at least some of the sound from within, Ella slid around in her seat, looking out the window. Like Anne, she showed no reaction to the monster, which was now looking straight at them.
But it’s not really looking at us,
Jakob realized, because the thing—the Echo—had no eyes. What it did have was a large, squashed in nose, massive ears atop its head and a mouth full of long, needle-like teeth. Its jaw went slack and then snapped shut, sending more sound out around it, reverberating through the landscape, bouncing auditory images back to the predator’s mind.
The Echo didn’t have eyes, but it could still see them—if they made noise, or if it echolocated while they were moving. Looking at the large flaring nostrils, he thought it might be able to smell them, too. It probably had heard the truck come in. Maybe smelled the fumes. In a world overrun by the smells of nature, the Ram’s exhaust would stand out. It might not smell like lunch, but different enough to pique a predator’s interest.
Ella turned around and delivered her assessment, whispering, “It’s an Apex.”
“Apex?” Jakob asked.
“Lone predator,” Anne said. “One on one, they’re top of the food chain. Pack hunters like the Stalkers can take care of them, but solo, they’re the most dangerous, and evolved.”
“It also means that it was a predator before the ExoGenetic changes. Apex Predators are typically more specialized and evolved than something that started out eating grass. Bats weren’t big, but they were skilled and agile hunters.”
“So if it started as a bat, why is it out there now, in broad daylight?” Jakob asked.
Ella glanced out the window, watching the Echo. “It’s malnourished. Desperate. Prey must be scarce in this area.”
“Making it even more dangerous,” Peter said, his grim gaze fixed on the Echo.
“We can’t stay here,” Jakob said.
Ella shook her head. “We can’t leave. It would make short work of the truck. But we also can’t stay here. We’re too exposed. When the sun goes down, there will be other predators out.”
Jakob’s stomach soured like acid had just been poured down his throat. His mind and body were still recovering from the Stalker’s assault, not to mention the destruction of his childhood home. “You want to go out there?”
“To the church,” Ella said. “Quietly.”
By default, Jakob looked to his father for the final say. He knew what his father had done for a living before becoming a farmer. If someone had a better plan for this situation, it would be him. Jakob’s stomach felt like it would melt away when his father answered, “Sounds like a plan. Backpacks, the handgun and shotgun. Anything that makes noise, leave it behind.” He demonstrated by reaching into his shirt and removing his dog tags.
Jakob checked himself, finding only the carabineer he kept clipped to his belt loop, a childhood habit turned fashion statement. He unclipped it and put it on the seat. There were two backpacks inside the cab. The third, packed for Ella and Anne was still in the truck bed.
“We’ll open just one door,” Peter said, looking back at Jakob and Anne. “So you two will have to climb over the seat. They both nodded. “If it comes at us, you guys get under the truck.” Two more nods.
Peter looked at Ella, and she gave him a nod. Moving slowly, he put his hand on the door handle and gently pulled. With his other hand, he held the door tightly so it wouldn’t clunk open. The latch pulled away with the tiniest of thumps, but everyone in the truck froze, slowly turning to see if the Echo had noticed. Its head was turned away from them, rotating slowly. When Peter pushed the door open a crack, another trumpet blast of echolocation pulsed through the air, freezing them again.
Jakob had done nothing but sit still, but his heart was pounding like he was running a race. Adrenaline surged anew, narrowing his vision, heightening his senses and boosting his anxiety. When the sound fell away, his father resumed opening the door, seemingly unfazed. How men like him went to war and came back with their humanity intact, Jakob had no idea. He didn’t think he had that kind of strength. But here were Ella and Anne, who had endured horrors of their own, and they still seemed normal. Of course, he’d known them for less than 24 hours, and a good portion of that time was spent asleep, but they were more well-adjusted than a lot of people he knew before the ExoGen apocalypse.
Peter slid out of his seat, his boots hitting the pavement without a sound. Ella followed, crawling across the front seat like she was moving through honey. When she reached the pavement, she leaned back in, lifted the shotgun out by the barrel and waved at Anne to follow. The girl moved with surprising grace and unbelievable silence, testing each handhold and foot placement before fully committing, keeping three points of contact at all times. She looked like a spider. Like a predator.
This isn’t the first time she’s done something like this
, Jakob thought, and he was suddenly struck by the realization that despite being a strong, fast and smart teenage boy, he was the weak link in the quartet. Of all of them, he’d never had to fight for his survival before. Well, once, but never before and not since.
Had Jakob’s eyes been closed, he would never have known that Anne had left. She slipped out of the car, moved to the rear wheel and crouched down, disappearing from view. When it was his turn, he reached up and grabbed the back of the front seat. The leather creaked in his shaking hand.
Peter leaned into the cab. “Just move slow. Take your time. Think about each movement. We’re not in a rush.”
Jakob got his feet under him and lifted his body up. The seat squeaked under his hand again.
How did Anne do this so quietly?
he wondered, and then he remembered how light she had felt in his arms the night before. She was a wiry little kid and probably malnourished, while Jakob had eaten well and weighed one sixty—just twenty-five pounds shy of his father.
“Just like that,” Peter said. “One foot at a time. Distribute the—”
Jakob froze. His father was looking past him, through the passenger’s side, at the Echo. “What?”
Peter raised an open palm.
The trumpet blast was so powerful that Jakob flinched, nearly losing his grip on the seat. His father put a hand on his back, steadying him, eyes never leaving the window.
Peter turned his hand around and waved Jakob on, uttering just a single word. “Faster.”
Three points of contact
, Jakob told himself.
Stay quiet. Move faster!
He heard the Echo’s clomping lower jaw sending pulses of noise toward them, and he tried to stop for each, but failed for most. When he found himself fully in the front seat, he felt a measure of relief. The rest was easy. But it was then that he saw fear creep into his father’s eyes. Jakob knew the man wasn’t worried about himself.
He’s worried about me.
Jakob chanced a look back. The Echo was just a hundred feet away now, approaching slowly, its long forelimbs crunching into the bed of cabbage with each step, its gait awkward but menacing. He spun forward just as the thing unleashed another trumpet blast. The sound hurt his ears, making him flinch again, and as he reached forward, his hand missed the seat.
Jakob sucked in a breath as he sprawled forward, out of the truck, his face rushing toward the pavement.
His arms blasted with pain as what felt like two pit bulls clamped down on his shoulders. He nearly shouted, but didn’t. Instead, he snapped to a stop, his face just inches from the pavement. His father had caught him by the shoulders. Peter lowered Jakob’s hands to the pavement, until he was supporting his own weight. When his father let go, Jakob remained rooted in place.
He looked under the truck, his view of the Echo upside down. He could only see its smooth, black limbs, but they weren’t moving.
It heard me,
It’s looking for us, but the truck has it confused.
A sudden tug on Jakob’s waist nearly caused him to shout out again. He pictured the Echo’s long arm reaching over the truck, the spear-like tip punching through his gut. But it was just his father, lifting him out of the truck and giving him the world’s first apocalyptic wedgie.
The Echo let out a series of loud jaw snaps. Peter stopped moving, holding Jakob’s rear end off the ground. The boy’s face burned with embarrassment, but this was the life of the weakest link.
I practically rang the dinner bell. This is what I get.
And it was a price he would gladly pay if it meant none of them got eaten. But as his father lowered him to the ground and the Echo took another stride forward, he didn’t think all of them would make it out of this alive. And since Ella and Peter were fighters, and Anne was a little girl—and protected—he thought that someone would be him.
Back on solid ground, Jakob looked for Anne and found her missing. He turned toward the church and found Anne and Ella—her backpack over her shoulders—already crab walking in their weird, totally silent way, in clear view to anything with eyes, but invisible to the Echo.
Peter ducked next to him and motioned for the cabbage with his head.
Jakob shook his head. He couldn’t climb over a seat without making noise, how could he crawl across and open field of densely packed cabbage? It was a death sentence.
Peter took Jakob’s chin in his hand and burrowed into the boy’s mind with his stern eyes, telling him that if he didn’t move now, they were both going to die. And he was right. So Jakob carefully stepped toward the cabbage, leaned out over it and planted his hands onto one of the green balls, palming it like he might a basketball. The vegetation, growing larger and denser than the former non-GMO variety ever could, was firm, holding his weight with ease. He brought his foot forward, stepping on another plant with equal success.
I can do this,
he told himself, freezing when a trumpet blast sounded out from just behind the truck. He flinched, but remained rooted in place, a frozen object unmoving in the Echo’s auditory gaze.
That was when Anne slipped, and fell forward. He saw the movement during the height of the Echo’s cry. It was subtle. Barely anything.