Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
The orange sphere of the sun hung on the horizon like some kind of ancient protector, illuminating the world for as long as possible. But even the mighty Sol couldn’t stop the Earth from rotating. Night came like a shroud, plunging the world outside into a bleak darkness. Peter couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, let alone the world outside.
Moving slowly, feeling his way through the home, he entered the biosphere. On his way toward the stepladder, which he would climb to look at more nothing, he glanced up. The view made him stop.
The Milky Way hung over his head like a soft, shearling blanket. The fog of lights, so densely packed with stars he could see and worlds he couldn’t, transported him through time. He hadn’t given the universe much thought in his life, as a kid preoccupied with sports or on the battlefield. But then, he’d never really seen the nighttime sky. Kristen had shown it to him one night, after a windstorm that had cut the power. He’d resisted, arguing to set up the generator, but she had pulled him outside, taken his chin in her small hand and turned his head skyward. It was then that he’d realized he’d never seen the night sky without modern life getting in the way. He’d been in many locations around the world that didn’t have electricity, but he’d never really looked up. He was always too busy looking out for an enemy.
Like I should be right now. For all the good it’s doing.
Peter found the short ladder, climbed to the top and looked out over the field. After a moment, he thought he detected motion. His heart beat hard, but then he realized it was just the wheat, undulating in the wind.
The moon was rising. The sun had been defeated, but was redirecting its light to them via the moon. Twenty minutes passed, and the full moon had cleared the horizon, illuminating the field and the circular path that led all the way around it.
Hours later, he still moved around the moonlit greenhouse, taking the stepladder with him, peering out over the field, searching for signs of approach or egress. When the view from the biodome revealed nothing new, he headed back to the house, which, with its shades pulled, was still pitch black. He opened what once was the back door and now separated home from greenhouse, and stepped inside, colliding with something that should not have been there.
Peter sprawled back, lifting his shotgun, but holding his fire.
“Shit!” It was Jakob. “Dad?”
“The hell are you doing down here?”
“You told me to come get you if I saw anything.”
Peter had the boy watching the fields from the home’s second floor. ‘Your callsign is: Overwatch,’ he’d told the boy. ‘Keep an eye out from above. Get me if you see anything.’ But he could tell by the groggy sound of Jakob’s voice that Overwatch had fallen asleep. He couldn’t blame him. It had to be 1:00am, and they had to sleep eventually.
“What did you see?” Peter asked.
“Out front,” Jakob said, and he led the way through the dark. They both knew the space as well as blind people might their own home. With nothing new coming into the home, and everything already there having a place, the pair moved through the kitchen and living room without a sound, reaching the shade-covered front windows in seconds.
Jakob poked a finger behind the shade and lifted it away slightly. “Right there.” He stood aside and let Peter have a look.
The farmer’s porch, unused for years and coated with dirt and peeling white paint, was empty. As was the fifty feet of concrete between the porch and the field. But the field... Where there had been a wall of wheat when the sun went down, there was now a wall of wheat divided by a two-foot-wide patch of flattened stalks. Their visitor had closed the distance to the house in the cover of darkness.
It hadn’t breached the house. There was no way to do that without making a lot of noise, but it could be anywhere. Right outside the window for all they knew.
Jakob slipped his finger out from under the window shade, letting it slowly close.
“I’m afraid we won’t be sleeping for the rest of the night,” Peter said.
If Jakob nodded, Peter couldn’t see it. But he heard his son’s whispered voice. “Where do you want me? Overwatch?”
“Stay with me,” he said and sat in a living room chair. “We know it’s coming now. We’ll have a better chance of...”
Of what? Surviving?
Could he say that to his son? Could he imply they might die tonight?
He’s not stupid
, Peter decided. He knows we might die. No need to sugar coat it. “...surviving.”
Jakob sat on the couch. Peter couldn’t see him, but he heard the distinctive pop of the spring Jakob had broken years ago when jumping on the couch was still a fun thing to do. “And here I thought you were going to say, ‘kicking ass.’”
Peter huffed out a laugh. “That probably would have been better, huh?”
“Hells to the yes.”
“Is that a pop-culture version of ‘hell yes?’”
“I’m one of few teenagers left alive, right? I think that makes everything I do and say the new pop-culture. Okay, Cream Cheese?”
“Your callsign,” he said. “You called me Overwatch. I’m calling you Cream Cheese.”
“Like hell you are.”
“Okay, then. You tell me what to call you. You had a callsign, right?”
“You named yourself Ricochet?”
“Callsigns are given, not chosen. I was Ricochet...because bullets bounced off me. Which wasn’t true. The enemy just had really bad aim.”
“Huh,” Jakob said. “That’s kind of awesome.”
“You wouldn’t think so if you were the one being shot at enough to get the name.”
Three loud knocks sounded from the front door.
Both men held their breath. Peter stood slowly and moved to the window, shotgun in hand. When he peeked out, the porch was empty.
What the hell?
“What is it?” Jakob asked.
“Seriously? We’re being ding-dong ditched?”
While the answer was technically ‘yes,’ Peter didn’t like the implications. A predator...
...would never think to do this, formerly human or not. But a person...
Peter let the shade shut. “I’m going out.”
“What? Why? That’s obviously what they want, right?”
“But not what they’ll expect.” Peter realized that they were both now using the plural for whoever was outside. He had no idea what was waiting outside the door, but he’d rather face it head on, in the open, instead of waiting for it, or them, to barge their way in. Opening the door now wasn’t that big a deal. The wheat outside was still flowering. Would be for a few more days until it hit the ripening stage, shed its seeds into the wind and started all over again. It was a cycle the crop went through
. Like the post office, the world’s crops weren’t stopped by snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor pretty much anything. The roots were just too deep.
But if the outer shell of the house was compromised, and seeds made it inside, they’d pretty much be screwed without the power to run the fans in the decontamination room, at the biodome’s entryway. The powerful turbines would be more than the solar-panel battery could handle.
“Come over here,” Peter said, standing at the front door. When Jakob joined him, he continued, “The moment I say so, I want you to turn on the front floods. The light will stun and blind whatever’s out there.”
“Won’t that drain the solar battery?”
“We have enough water stored for a week. We’ll survive one day without running water, and there’s more than enough air for us to breathe. We’re only going to get a few minutes out of the halogens, so wait until I say so, and shut it off the second we’re all clear.”
“Okay,” Jakob said, but there was a quiver in his voice.
Real life was nothing like video games. Jakob would learn that lesson tonight, but he needed the boy at ease, or at least not freaking out. “You have my six, Overwatch?”
“Copy that, Ricochet.”
Peter saw the hint of white from Jakob’s smile.
“Let’s do this,” Peter said. “On the count of three. One.”
The door rattled with three loud knocks. Both men held their breath while Jakob gripped his father’s arm. He was no doubt terrified, but the fact that he hadn’t screamed at the knock meant he had potential. There were three things every soldier needed. Brains, which could be taught. Physical ability, which could be honed. And nerves of steel, which you were either born with, or not.
“Two,” Peter whispered.
Jakob pulled his hand way from his father’s arm and stood to the side.
The heavy front door swung inward, forcing Peter to take a step back before stepping out. Flood lights cut through the night. Peter lunged through the door, leading with the shotgun, finger on the trigger. The deep thud of his work boots striking the wooden porch felt foreign, like a nearly forgotten sound from the past. And the air... It was intoxicating. He hadn’t realized just how bad the house smelled—of rot, dirt and body odor—until that moment.
But none of these stimuli distracted him. He swept the shotgun from side to side, searching for a target, but finding nothing. Jakob’s footfalls on the porch alerted Peter to his son’s approach. “Get back inside.”
“But I don’t see anything,” the boy argued.
“That’s the problem.” Peter motioned to the left and right. “Could be just below our line of sight.” He motioned his head up to the farmer’s porch ceiling. “Or above us.”
“Above us? Could people really—”
Peter held his open palm up to Jakob, silencing him. His son was right—people couldn’t get on the roof that fast—but they might not be dealing with a person. Then again...
What kind of predator knocks on doors? The human kind.
Unaltered person or not, that didn’t make them safe. He was about to send Jakob back in, but he realized that might start an argument, which would distract and endanger both of them. So he just glanced back to make sure Jakob had his weapon at the ready and pointed in the right direction, which was anywhere but toward Peter. He was surprised and impressed to find his son wielding the weapon in a two hand grip, finger on the trigger, but with the barrel pointed down and away. With nothing to aim at, the boy was keeping the weapon at the ready, but in a safe position.
“Take the right side,” Peter said. “I’ll clear the left.”
When Jakob stepped next to him, they took the three stairs to the flat concrete barrier and swept their weapons in opposite directions. With nothing ahead of him, Peter asked, “Anything?”
“Clear,” Jakob said.
“Check the far end and then meet back—”
A dry rustle of wheat snapped Peter’s attention back to the slit of an opening, fifty feet away. Whatever had knocked on the door had apparently retreated back to the field. Assuming it was alone. He took a step forward. “Watch our six. Anything moves, it’s not friendly. Pull the trigger and talk when it’s dead.”
He hated talking to his son in such blunt terms, but this was life or death. They’d been sheltered for so long, any sugar coating could get them both killed. And while he had trained Jakob to fight, it was against another person, and didn’t involved guns. It became clear to him, as he stepped further toward the darkness at the edge of the flood light’s reach, that he would have to step up his son’s training, holding nothing back.
If they survived the night.
Peter stopped, looking down the barrel of his shotgun. “Show yourself.”
Wheat stalks rustled as a wind carrying the scent of flowers wafted over the field. Peter couldn’t help but breathe more deeply. The air invigorated him. And a week later, when the wheat released its seeds to the breeze, the air outside the house would seal their fate. Opening the front door as briefly as they... Did they close the door behind them? Was it locked? He couldn’t stop himself from looking. The door was shut, which was good. But was it locked? If so, it wouldn’t be the deadbolt. They could break back in without damaging the door.
Attention back on the field, Peter shouted, “I’ve got nine shots. If you’re not out here in five seconds, I’m going to fire a spread into the field. At this range, some of the buckshot will find you. Five!”
The voice was raw. Feminine. And weak. Hardly threatening, but it could be a ruse.
“Step out,” Peter said. “Slowly.”
A figure limped out of the field. If this was the woman who spoke, he couldn’t tell. The figure was clad in a black cloak coated with vegetation, like a homemade ghillie suit, the preferred camouflage of snipers. The figure carried a large, black duffle bag, similarly camouflaged. Whatever was in there, it was heavy, weighing the figure down.
“Hands,” Peter said.
“Too heavy,” the newcomer said. It
the woman. Her face was hidden, partly by the hood, partly by the smear of dried mud caked over her skin. She was gripping the bag like it contained something precious.
Peter’s gaze moved between the woman and the bag. He spotted blood stains. Some of it long since dried. Some of it fresh. Still tacky. The sight of it raised his guard.
“Who are you?” Peter asked.
“I think she’s hurt,” Jakob said.
“Why are you here? Why did you walk around the house?”
“I wanted to be sure it was you,” she said.
“That it was you living here. The house was dark. I...didn’t think...” The woman stumbled forward, her knees grinding against the concrete floor. She somehow kept the bag from striking the ground and placed it down beside her. Then she wept.
Jakob stepped toward the woman, but Peter held him back. “Unearned trust is a weakness. It can get you killed.”
“She needs help,” Jakob said. “I think she knows you.”
Peter agreed on both counts, but he meant what he’d said about trust, and this woman, whoever she was, hadn’t earned it yet.
“Who are you?” Peter asked. “It’s the last time I’ll ask.”
The woman’s head sagged. “You really don’t recognize me, Peter?”
When his name, spoken by the woman, reached his ear, the familiarity of it unleashed a torrent of memories and emotions that had been locked away for more than a decade. “E-Ella?”
The shotgun lowered.
The figure nodded.
“Who’s Ella?” Jakob asked.
Peter didn’t hear him. Didn’t hear anything. Didn’t smell anything. The hunched-over figured concealed beneath a mass of cloth and old vegetation, remained his sole focus. He tried to see the woman he knew underneath it all, but failed. Her voice, though, was undeniable.
This was Ella Masse, the woman who had destroyed the world, and nearly destroyed his marriage.
He almost rushed forward without thought, but stopped. He hadn’t survived this long by being stupid. “How did you get here?”
The more important question came next. “What did you eat?”
“There are still things in this world that grow without RC-714, and creatures who specialize in eating only those plants. There is edible food in the world, if you know where to look...and have a mental list of the more than two hundred plant species you shouldn’t eat.”
That last bit of knowledge confirmed that this was Ella Masse. Few people knew the ID number of the gene that had transformed the world.
“If you’re wondering how I got here alive... I’m not sure I did.” She lifted her cloak, revealing a white shirt beneath. There were four long tears, claw marks, framed by bright red, still-fresh blood. With this final revelation, Ella fell forward and collapsed to the concrete.
“Take this,” Peter said, handing the shotgun to Jakob. He hurried to Ella’s side and rolled her over. He peeled the cloak apart, revealing the torn shirt. He then slipped his fingers between the shirt’s buttons and yanked. The buttons popped, revealing her belly and four gouges. He probed the flesh with his fingers, looking for signs of exposed muscle or organs, but found none. Still, she’d been a half inch from being eviscerated.
“Will she die?” Jakob asked.
“She’s lost a lot of blood.” Peter got his hands under Ella’s back and knees. He paused before lifting. The duffle bag would weigh them down. But he suspected, by the way she’d clutched the bundle, that it contained something important. “Take the bag.”
Jakob worked the long strap over Ella’s arm and head. He lifted it with obvious strain. When he hefted it over his back, the bag moaned. Or rather, what was inside the bag moaned. Startled, Jakob dropped the bag and jumped away. He started to raise his pistol, too, but then the bag started crying.
“What the hell?” Jakob said.
Peter was frozen in place. “Open it.”
“Now, damn it.” Peter’s patience was worn razor thin, not because of anything Jakob had done, but because Ella had been carrying a person around in a bag. A young person by the sound of it.
Peter stood, lifting the unconscious woman with a grunt. While Peter was strong and Ella small, the camouflage she wore...
. It was covered in vegetation. Covered in seeds. In pollen.
“Dad...” Jakob said, as he unzipped the bag, revealing an unconscious girl, no older than twelve. Her hair and face were matted with mud, like Ella’s, and her clothing was covered in blood. These two had been through a torturous journey. “Should I take her inside?”
“Yeah,” Peter said, looking at the door to the house. If any seeds got inside... Even if they stopped in the foyer, the RC-714 laden crops could take root in a rug. In a dusty corner. And once they took root, sending shoots down through the floor, through the basement, there would be no stopping them.
“Take off her clothes,” Peter said, lowering Ella to the ground and following his own order.
Jakob’s eyebrows rose as he locked in place. Peter met his eyes. “It’s the seeds.”
“Take off everything.”
“Aren’t we contaminated now, too?” Jakob asked.
Peter looked down as his clothing covered in loose, dry bits of grass and dangles of nature. He quickly peeled off his flannel shirt and tossed it away. Then took off his shirt. “Let’s do this quick, son. It will be a lot less awkward for everyone if we’re all dressed when they wake up.”
If they wake up.
The pair quickly removed their clothing and then the women’s. Carrying their weapons and visitors, they hurried back to the house and out of the night, neither one of them aware that they were being watched...
That they were being hunted.