Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Ella felt heat on her back, but it was quickly smothered by Peter, who threw himself atop her and shouted, “Hold on!”
I can’t even move
, she thought at him, but said nothing. She felt the truck jolt and pitch upwards. At first, she thought they’d struck something and gone airborne, but the angle never changed.
We’re heading up a ramp. Back to the surface.
And then she learned that Peter’s shouted warning and his body pinning her down had nothing to do with the heat, sound and pressure wave pursuing them. It had everything to do with their exit from the tunnel. Wood shattered with the crack of an explosion. The armored truck slammed through a floor, bursting out of the tunnel, this time actually catching air. As the vehicle bounced back to its wheels, she got a view past Peter’s shoulder.
It was a glimpse of a barn interior. Old beams. A hay loft. The tang of animals long since deceased reached her nose, complimenting the image and triggering memories of an easier time, when human beings were at the top of the food chain, rather than somewhere closer to the bottom.
Her father had been a lot like Peter, a Vietnam Vet turned farmer. She often wondered if Peter’s entry into the military hadn’t been to impress him. She hoped not, especially when circumstances had pulled them apart. But he’d taken to the life well enough. It had suited him. And her father had approved of Peter. Only Peter. When she had told him about Peter’s marriage to Kristen, she could have sworn there were tears in the man’s eyes. But by then she was more interested in genetics than in men. That’s what she had told herself...until fate had brought them back into geographic proximity.
Who was it that said women fall for men like their fathers? Probably Freud. Whoever it was, he was right. At least about Peter.
The truck shattered a second wooden barrier, casting aside large, faded red planks like a rhino charging through balsa wood. A shower of large red paint flecks fluttered around them for a moment, butterflies in flight, and then they were left behind.
The engine roared louder. The wheels buzzed over the clear concrete keeping the ExoGenetic fields at bay. Peter rolled away, sitting up and looking back, his eyes squinting. Expectant.
She sat up to join him, shrugging away when he put a hand on her shoulder to keep her down. Her protest was cut short by the reason for their pell-mell drive through the tunnel and out the barn. She saw it in the distance first. An orange ball, framed by fluttering debris that used to be a house.
He destroyed it because of me.
All those memories...
As the fiery tumult rose higher, three hundred yards behind the barn, the explosion, which had chased them down the tunnel, compressed and accelerated, reaching the barn. A roaring cough of fire burst from the tunnel’s throat like some ancient buried dragon, and the flames rose up into the barn. The old walls gave way and lifted skyward, propelled by the explosion. The pressure wave hit the truck, knocking them at an angle, just as they hit the wheat field.
Jakob righted the truck’s course, but they were still in the field, surrounded by the hiss of wheat being shredded, leaving clouds of dust and young seeds in their wake.
“Shit,” Peter said. His voice was impossibly calm, but his eyebrows were twisted up, following the course of his eyes, as debris was launched up and over them. He shuffled to the front of the truck bed, leaning on a long box covered by a tarp. He tapped on the window twice.
Anne flinched at the sound, but when she saw Peter, she opened the small sliding window. “Debris is falling from above. Floor it, but keep us straight unless something falls in your path.”
“I’m already flooring it!” Jakob shouted back.
Peter turned back and up, eyes widening. He crouched down low, clinging to the side of the truck. Ella followed his eyes and saw a hay bale, trailing bits of loose hay like a comet’s tail, descending toward them.
The hay landed just feet behind the truck, where they had been a fraction of a second before. It exploded with a cloud of old, rotted grass that no modern, man-eating cow could find remotely interesting.
Wood came next. While some of the stuff fluttered in the air, carried by the heat rising from the explosion, thicker support beams where thrown free like colossal javelins. Ella nearly fell from the truck bed as Jakob jerked the wheel. Peter caught her, reeling her back in just as they passed the long wooden beam now jutting out of the earth. Had Jakob not turned, they would have crashed. Had Peter not pulled her back in, she would have been decapitated. Despite having survived in the wilds on her own, she was quickly seeing how these two men would help keep her and Anne alive.
She just hoped it was worth it, and that everything she’d told Peter wasn’t a lie. The lab was real, but she hadn’t heard from the people there in a year. The place could be overrun by now. Maybe the people had changed. Maybe predators had made the swim from the mainland. Or maybe something from the water had adapted to live on land. The possibilities were as endless as they were horrible.
The truck carved a zig-zag path through the field as debris fell all around. Ella and Peter flattened themselves to the truck bed floor, watching the cloud of debris fly past overhead and falling around them, and in the case of a pair of shears, puncture the tarp-covered case above their heads.
But then they were clear and all the debris was falling behind them. The truck bounced. Tires squealed. They had reached the road. Jakob cranked the steering wheel hard to the left, but they still overshot the road, plowing back into the field on the other side. Spewing gouts of dirt, the truck nearly completed a fishtailing circle, but then they found the road again. Slowing, Jakob pulled onto the pavement and continued forward at a manageable pace.
“Keep it straight and steady,” Peter said. “If you have to turn, honk first.”
The boy looked back and nodded, his eyes wide, but still in control.
Like father, like son.
Peter stood, one foot on the truck bed, the other on the tarp-covered container. He gripped the fog lights atop the truck’s roof for balance and looked back. The way the sun caught his rugged features and the wind caught his flannel shirt, he looked like a model in an L. L. Bean catalog, but his face was all wrong. Instead of eye-squinching confidence, she saw regret.
She followed his eyes to the rising column of smoke. The home where his son had been born, and if she was right, where he had buried his wife.
“I’m sorry,” she said, but her voice was carried away by the breeze, and she didn’t bother repeating it. Because while she felt bad, she wasn’t sorry. Not really. True, within fourteen hours of taking her and Anne in, he’d lost everything of the life he had known before, but most people on Earth had lost that years ago. It was only because of her warning, and wealth, that his family had managed to survive. That didn’t change the fact that her work had caused all this, and for that she was sorry. But she needed his help. And if this was what it took to get it, so be it. He might have helped her anyway, especially after she told him about Anne, but now there would be no looking back. No doubt that anywhere but forward was the right direction. She needed that from him, because looking forward was hard to do when constantly looking over your shoulder.
She stood next to him, looking ahead. The road was crumbling on the side, giving way to the long roots of the aggressive wheat. In a few more years, the road would be overgrown. A few errant stalks of wheat were already rising from the cracks.
Her eyes turned skyward. They were headed east, covering more ground every minute than she had been covering in an hour. Traveling on foot meant leaving false trails, walking silently and resting frequently, especially with a twelve year old girl. Anne was a good traveler. Had learned how to survive. But she had her limits.
Ella looked up at Peter and wondered what his were, hoping she’d never have to find out.
“Hey, Dad,” Jakob called from the front.
Peter lowered his head.
“You want me to pull over so you can drive?” Jakob asked.
“You’re doing fine,” Peter replied.
“Son,” Peter said.
Jakob’s mouth clamped shut, knowing his father was about to speak.
“Pick up the pace. Stay on the road. If anything gets in front of you—”
“I’ll go around it,” Jakob said.
“Actually, I want you to run it down.”
Jakob flinched as though slapped. “They’re still back there?”
Peter nodded, maintaining his absolute calm. While Jakob returned to the task of driving, the engine revving faster, Peter turned to Anne, who was seated in the back seat. “Hey, honey. There’s a case under the seat in front of you.”
Anne bent, found the case and pulled it free. It was too big to pass back.
“Open it up,” Peter instructed. “Inside are two black bands with hooks on either side.” Anne dug through the case, finding the bands. “Those are the ones. Thanks.” He sat on the tarp, quickly untangling the two hooked bands. When he was done, he handed one to Ella.
“What’s this for?” she asked.
He tied his around his waist, and then clipped either end into holes on the sides of the bed. The band held him rooted in place. “Things are going to get bumpy.” He pointed to the field, behind and to the right. “The field is chasing us.”
Her head snapped around. He was right. Wisps of what looked like wheat, were pursuing them through the field. Some of the Stalkers had survived. A dozen by the looks of it. Maybe more. “We can outrun them in the truck.”
“In about a mile, the wheat field is going to end, and the road is going to get all kinds of bendy. If they’re as persistent as you say, they’ll catch up. Now, before you buckle up, open the crate behind me and give me what’s inside.”
Ella threw the tarp off the large wooden crate. It wasn’t locked, so she lifted the top and looked in. The crate was full of gear and supplies, but she quickly understood which item Peter was interested in—the heavy looking tripod, folded down and compact, to which a drum-fed light machine gun was attached.
Having fled the Stalkers for months, eking out the worst kind of living, slogging through deplorable conditions to avoid the hunting grounds of other predators, she lifted the big gun with a grunt and a grin.
This is more like it
, she thought, too eager to see the Stalkers’ demise to remember that the noise wasn’t going to go unnoticed.
It took just a minute to talk Ella through bolting the tripod to the truck bed, but it felt like time had slowed, shifting hours with each tick of the clock. After the first bolt, she moved quickly, securing the tripod and mounting the M249 drum-fed machine gun, transforming the truck into what the military called a ‘Technical,’ which was just a fancy word for ‘improvised fighting vehicle.’ The slowness came from the knowledge that they might be attacked at any second, and if he fired the heavy weapon before it was secure, his aim would flounder with each kickback.
After firing the last bolt through the hole in the tripod’s foot and into the metal floor, Ella clipped the hooks of her own security band to the sides of the truck, a few feet behind him. They could be tossed and bounced and smashed all about, but they wouldn’t be flung free, which was a good thing—most of the time.
“Where did you get this thing?” Ella asked. “Weren’t they illegal?”
“Older machine guns were legal,” Peter replied, speaking loudly over the wind rushing past. “But not this one. It came from a National Guard Depot. There are a lot of unguarded weapons in the world now.”
Peter kept the gun barrel level and pointed straight back, ready to whip it to either side. Wheat streaked back, a blur of brown lines. And among it, shaking wildly, the tall tails of running Stalkers. The formerly human monsters were falling steadily behind, unable to keep up with the Ram’s acceleration. He considered letting the weapon rip into the field, but he’d be firing blind. The drum held one hundred rounds, but with a sustained fire rate of one hundred rounds per minute, he’d burn through the entire chain far too quickly. With only one replacement drum, he’d have to pick his targets carefully.
He squeezed the grip as the first signs of an adrenaline spike set in, his hands shaking. It didn’t concern him. He’d felt it many times in the past, though it had been awhile. The adrenaline surging through his body made him hyper aware, sped up his reaction time and increased his tolerance for pain, but it also took a toll on his body. When the action slowed, his muscles would quiver and twitch all over with unused chemical energy until the adrenaline was reabsorbed by his system. That he experienced larger adrenaline dumps than most people made him a good soldier, but it also made recovering from a battle that much more strenuous. And after today, they’d all need to crash. Hard.
But was that even possible out here?
Is this what life outside the house is like all the time?
If so, how did Ella and Anne survive?
He tried to picture the two of them, always on the run, fighting Stalkers and foraging for the non-ExoGenetic flora that still existed. He couldn’t do it. He glanced back at Ella as he was bounced side to side, held in place by the thick rubber band. He’d been treating her like the woman he knew long ago, the woman who had spent most of her life in a laboratory. Her eyes were hard, gazing out at the field of wheat, focused, seeking out danger. She’d changed. But how much?
The whoosh of passing trees snapped him out of his thoughts. The wheat field fell into the distance, blocked by tall leafy trees, sentinels of the former, non-GMO ruled world. And yet, even here, where the sun was held at bay by a leafy canopy and the temperature dropped, ExoGenetic berry crops flourished. Tangles of thorny raspberry and blackberry bushes covered the forest floor. Passing through on foot would be laborious and torturous. The long flowing vines were covered in thick fruits, the blackberries hidden in shadow, the raspberries glowing like red beacons, juicy, delicious and deadly.
Berries, berries everywhere and not a bite to eat,
Peter thought, butchering Samuel Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And yet, he knew that the sailors of old never had it this bad. If they had, no one would have bothered sailing to the far parts of the world, and Europe would have still been dependent on the Silk Road to get its iPhones from China. Not that anyone was using cell phones anymore. Paperweights, all.
Their speed fell by half when they reached the first bend in the road. Tires squealed around the corner, tearing through the strands of raspberry bushes stretching out over the pavement. Peter and Ella tipped sideways, but the rubber bands held them upright. Peter tried to keep the machine gun barrel straight back, but it swiveled to the side. Aiming on the curvy road would be hell.
As they rounded a bend in the opposite direction, the truck slowed even more, forced to stay on the road by large rocks and trees lining the sides. Over the lessening roar of the big truck’s engine, Peter heard a high pitched, warbling cry, like a giant turkey being plucked alive.
“They’re getting organized,” Ella said. “For the hunt.”
Peter listened to the sound of crashing vegetation and snapping branches. The Stalkers were moving through the forest behind them, but he hadn’t seen one yet.
“We’re already moving, so I don’t think they’ll try to trap us. They’re inhuman, but they still have limits. They get tired. They’ll probably charge in unison. Try to bring down the larger prey as a group.”
For a moment, he was confused about the ‘larger prey’ comment, but then he realized the Stalkers might see the big truck as a single target.
“They’ll stay low to the ground as they approach,” Ella continued, “but they leap when attacking.”
“That’s when I’ll get them,” Peter said more to himself than Ella.
“Right,” she said. “Or when they’ll get us.”
“Pessimism doesn’t suit you,” he said, once again thinking about the woman he knew, who had believed anything was possible if you set your mind to it.
“Realism keeps us alive.”
He was about to tell her it was a horrible way to live, when the words brought him back in time. He’d said the very same thing to her in regard to surviving an ambush in Afghanistan. He’d done things to survive that he had tried to forget since, but he knew he would do them again if he needed to. The very blunt way he’d told her about those events, and his unflinching acceptance of them, had led to her questioning his sometimes cold outlook on life.
Realism keeps me alive
, he’s said.
He’d been right then, and she was right now. War was hell, and he’d survived it, but this was something worse.
“Two o’clock,” Ella said.
Peter reacted to the statement with unflinching swiftness, which had been instilled in him long ago. He rotated the gun barrel to the right, finding the target a hundred feet back, tearing through the thorn laden bushes like they were made of fluff. Even from a distance, he could see the streaks of red blood streaking down the creature’s gray skin, from a thousand razor-thin cuts.
, he thought,
but not invincible and not without limits
. He pulled the trigger.
Five 5.56×45 mm NATO rounds spewed from the barrel, one of them a bright orange tracer, showing the spread’s path. Not that he needed the tracer round to see where the bullets hit. Tree bark exploded in the air. Getting a round through the forest streaking past and hitting a target moving just as quickly through the trees, would be nearly impossible. He’d have to wait until they were closer.
“What’s happening?” Anne called from the window.
Peter didn’t look back, but heard Ella reply. “Jakob, keep us moving and stable. That’s more important than speed right now.”
“What?” Jakob said. “Why?”
The fear in his son’s voice broke his heart.
Ella shared some more of her newfound blunt realism. “Because we can’t outrun them. Our only chance is to outgun them, and your father can’t do that if we’re swerving all over the road.”
“Okay,” Jakob said, and the vehicle slowed a little more. Peter was about to ask for more gas, when he realized the machine gun was much easier to control. He aimed at the single creature again, holding a bead on it. He pulled the trigger in quick jerks, spacing out the shots. The first two struck trees. The third squeezed through two tall trunks, shredded a blackberry and then struck home, piercing the Stalker’s broad chest. The creature coughed and fell, careening head over heels in a tangle of thorns.
Then a second took its place. And another. And another. They spread out through the woods, running with reckless abandon, focused solely on the their prey. This kind of behavior, this desperate hunger, was what separated predators of the old world from the new. A lion wouldn’t go after an animal it thought might injure it. In the wild, any injury could lead to death, by infection or by simply weakening the animal so it was susceptible to competitors. A lion that couldn’t fend off hyenas because of an injured limb, was typically a dead lion.
He picked targets, squeezing off single rounds when he had a clear line of sight. He missed far more than he hit, and the mob of Stalkers was closing the distance. He’d counted a dozen at first, but he’d reduced the number to nine. Although he’d used twenty-five rounds to do so, and the math said he’d have to change ammo drums to kill them all. The long reload time would leave them wide open to attack.
Peter swung the barrel to the left as the truck swung around a bend to the right. He tracked five of the Stalkers, leaping across the open road.
If they flank us, we’re screwed
, he thought, and he pulled the trigger. The spray of bullets and glowing tracer rounds ate into the group, empty bullet casings clanging to the truck bed, but the creatures at the back were protected from the fusillade by those in the front. After unleashing twenty-five more rounds, three of the Stalkers stumbled and slid across the pavement. The other three made it to the relative safety of the forest on the other side. The two sets of Stalkers advanced on either side, peeling away, deeper into the forest, fully flanking the truck.
At this point, they’re going to overtake us and set that trap Ella warned us about.
But they didn’t. Instead, after a series of squawking cries, both groups turned inward at once. He wasn’t sure just how intelligent the Stalkers were, but he was pretty sure they knew three of them were sacrificing themselves, while the other three...they’d have a feast.