Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
“I do,” he said, meeting her eyes. “It had a brand on its hind leg, from a farm not far from here.”
She raised her eyebrows, waiting.
“That...was a pig.”
Jakob drove for three miles, after narrowly avoiding what his father had identified as a pig. It was six miles before his heart stopped racing and the muscles in his thighs, forearms and chest stopped twitching. His body was exhausted, but his mind... It was spinning with the tumultuous urgency of a carnival Tilt-A-Whirl. It was still before noon, but he didn’t think he’d be able to sleep later that night. Maybe not for days.
If we live that long.
Jakob understood what had happened to the world. His father had told him the details, holding nothing back, including the involvement of the woman they’d rescued the previous night. Ella. He couldn’t remember her last name, but he had vague memories of his mother cursing it. But as much as his mother had loathed this woman, his father clearly felt differently. Despite having not seen each other in a decade, his father and Ella were comfortable with each other.
, Jakob decided, then realized the truth:
they had been more than friends.
Whatever they had been in the past, whatever they were now, he didn’t really care. Ella and her daughter were real, living, breathing human beings. Since losing contact with other survivors, Jakob had been afraid that he and his father were all that was left. Now he knew differently, and the knowledge gave him hope. The pig on the other hand...
“Let’s call it a Swine,” Anne said. She sat beside him in the Ram’s back seat. It was a little cramped for Jakob, who had become lanky in the past year, but he preferred the backseat to the driver’s seat. His father had told him, more than once, what a good job he had done. Despite his success behind the wheel, though, he had no desire to repeat the experience.
“Fits,” Ella said from the front passenger’s seat.
“I was thinking something more like Giant Pink Asshole,” Jakob said without thinking, his exhaustion switching off his verbal filter.
Anne burst out laughing. Ella turned around, but didn’t look upset by his language. She looked at Anne, a mix of happiness and sadness. Tears filled her eyes. She glanced at Jakob and mouthed, ‘Thank you.’
Peter on the other hand... “
Watch your mouth.”
Ella put her hand on Peter’s arm and said, “It’s not like there’s a society left to deem which words are wholesome and which are not. There are better things to be offended by, and if it makes her laugh—” She glanced back at Jakob again, “—he can say whatever he wants.”
“Gives a whole new meaning to having a 4.0 GPA,” Jakob said, encouraged by Ella’s support. He spoke in a deep voice, saying, “What’d you get on your report card, son?” Then in a higher voice, “A 2.5 GPA, Daddy.” And again in a deep voice, he said, “Son, I expect at least a 3.5 Giant Pink Asshole.”
Anne was laughing so hard by the end of Jakob’s corny shtick that her tears matched those of her mother. Jakob was happy to see his father’s shoulders bouncing as he joined in, expelling the tension that had gripped them since the Stalkers and the Swine had fallen away behind them.
When the laughing died down, Peter turned to Ella and asked, “So, how is this going to work? We have thousands of miles to cover, which we can do in a few days in the truck, but...”
“The truck is going to attract attention,” she finished. “If we drive steady and slow, during the day, we might do okay. On foot will draw less attention, but could increase the risk simply because we’ll be exposed for months rather than for days. I say we take our chances with the truck until it’s no longer an option. But what about gas? This beast must guzzle it.”
“We can find gas along the way,” Peter said. “There’s a hand pump in the back for siphoning and two jugs of PRI to restore the old gas. Assuming there are hardware stores between here and Boston, we should have no trouble finding more if we need it.”
“What’s PRI?” Anne asked.
“You add it to the fuel,” Jakob explained. “Old gas separates. Gets water in it. The PRI sucks it up. Or something. Makes it safe to use again.” It had been more than a year since his father had explained it to him, and he’d only been half listening at the time, more concerned with when he would speak to Alia again.
Jakob’s eyes widened as he thought about the girl. “Are we headed through Kentucky?”
Ella turned back. “We need to find a map. Plot a route. But it’s possible. There are two biodomes in the state. Why?”
“He has a friend in one of them,” Peter said.
“Alia.” Jakob’s stomach began twitching again. The idea of reaching Alia, after all this time, triggered an adrenaline spike that suddenly overcame him with nausea. The truck’s AC was running, but he cracked the window and took several deep breaths. The air was full of sweet scents. Luckily, the endless stores of food that had destroyed the world was safe enough to smell. As his nerves settled, he looked out the window.
They’d grown fast, overtaking former grazing lands, producing fruit all year round. Mounds of the uneaten stuff littered the forest floor. New trees sprouted from the rot, joined by random tufts of corn, wheat, fruit bushes and crops he didn’t recognize. The vegetation seemed hell bent on taking up every inch of available soil.
They’ll grow until it’s impossible to get around, until the world is choked.
Or they are.
“Will the ExoGenetic plants ever exhaust the soil?”
“Not where the growth is mixed,” his father said. “Like here. The bananas rot and add nutrients for the ground crops, while the ground crops go through their growth cycles monthly, adding nutrients for the trees. It’s a fairly balanced circle of life.”
“Hakuna matata,” Anne said.
Jakob chuckled. “Hardly. And for the record, I hated that movie.”
“Simba would have, like, three faces and wings by now,” Anne said, giggling.
“It’s not a perfect system, though,” Ella said. “The crops will eventually use up the natural resources. It’s why crop rotation works. The mix of plants might help sustain them, and the ExoGenetic plants don’t need much in the way of nutrients, which is why they can grow on rooftops, or rugs, or really anything permeable. But there is a limit.”
“That...sounds good,” Jakob said.
“It’s thousands of years away,” Ella said. “At least.”
Jakob frowned, eyeing the blur of plants streaking by. “What about the crops that aren’t mixed? Like the wheat around our house?”
“It will deplete the land much sooner. Probably in our lifetimes, but the land will be taken over by another crop, or...”
This got Peter’s attention. He glanced from the road to Ella just long enough to ask, “Or?”
“Meaning?” Peter asked.
“They’ll find other ways of getting what they need to survive, just like everything else on the planet does. But faster.”
The truck slowed as Peter once again turned toward Ella. “How fast?”
But it was Anne who answered. “A tree ate our friend.”
now?” Jakob was horrified. As screwed up as the world had become, trees did
“Anne,” Ella chided, but then she sighed and explained. “We were camped beneath a lemon tree. During the night, the...roots... They came up through the ground. Well, use your imagination.”
“The ExoGenetic plants are becoming
?” Peter asked.
“When conditions require it, yes. They’re adapting. It’s what they were designed to do.”
“What you designed them to do,” Jakob said, and he quickly regretted it. He liked Anne a lot, and her mother had been nice to them so far. She probably felt horrible about it already.
“What my company designed them to do,” she said without a trace of humor, or regret. “Yes. In that regard, they’re a success. The error was believing the genes wouldn’t be passed on to anything consuming the plants. But testing for that would have taken years, and by then, the competition might have developed their own strains. It was a risk. A big one.
“But the company was protected by the long-term GMO Protection Act, passed thanks to generous campaign contributions and an army of lobbyists. Did you know the bill passed because it was attached to an education bill? Voting against it would have meant voting against America’s future, and no politician on either side of the aisle could have afforded to do that. Of course, if any of them actually read the rider that was tacked on, none of them really understood the ramifications. They gave GMO companies an endless deck of get-out-of-jail-free cards. Without oversight, we could have made any genetic modifications to food, released that food, and regardless of the negative outcome, we couldn’t be held liable for the results.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Jakob said.
“What wouldn’t?” Ella asked.
“The bill protecting ExoGen. There’s no one left to sue them, and no one left to sue.”
“That’s...not entirely correct.” She spoke to Peter. “ExoGen has a secure location just outside San Francisco. When they realized what I had warned them about was true, they built a vast facility, similar to the biodomes I had built, where they could ‘weather the storm.’ But they’re not interested in undoing the damage. For the group that’s left, who are safe from harm, the world is more like a big Petri dish now.”
“That’s why you left?” Peter asked.
Ella nodded. “A group of us. What we couldn’t do in San Francisco, we’d do in Boston.”
“How many did you start with?” Jakob asked.
“Twenty-seven,” Anne replied. “Including Ed, Mom’s boyfriend.”
Jakob watched his father for a reaction to this revelation—the death toll and the boyfriend—but his father’s cool eyes betrayed nothing. When he spoke, the question caught Jakob off guard. “Are they dangerous?”
Jakob was about to ask who he was talking about, but Ella understood. “Maybe...yes. They came after us the following day. They have helicopters. Weapons. A security force. Three of our people were captured. I don’t know what happened to them. Two who fought back were killed. We haven’t seen them since, but it’s possible they’re still looking.”
“And the other twenty...they died out here?”
She nodded. “Every one of them. Yes.”
Rotor blades snapped through the air, shoving swirls of black smoke away from the helicopter. The vehicle hovered over a scene of carnage so vast that human involvement was guaranteed. As self-destructive as the world had become, nothing could blow shit up like the human race. The helicopter made a slow circle around the blackened earth. The remnants of a farmhouse’s concrete foundation could be seen, like some ancient uncovered ruin. The house had also been surrounded by a fifty-foot-wide circle of concrete, an interesting way of keeping the crops from encroaching. At the back side of the home, a long oval extended out, its glass dome shattered and missing, white framing hanging limp. The biodome was in ruins, but still recognizable now that Edward Kenyon had seen a few of them, each one surrounded by death.
Of course, the corpses here were different from the other locations. For starters, they were burned to a crisp rather than torn apart and partially consumed. But the biggest difference was that the bodies littering the concrete surrounding the foundation weren’t human. The monsters Ella called Stalkers lay about in twisted, smoldering heaps.
Whoever Ella had found in this house was a dangerous son-of-a-bitch.
“Sir,” the pilot’s voice in his headphones came through clearly over the roar of the rotor. “We’re not seeing anything on the FLIR. Overwatch says we’re clear.”
Overwatch was the third helicopter in their squadron of three. It was a mile up, watching for movement in all directions. The job was made easier thanks to the ring of fire eating up the vast wheat field. It was two miles out now and still burning, creating a large safezone. It was safe partly because their line of sight was extended, but also because most living creatures on Earth, ExoGenetic or not, still ran from fire.
“Take us down. I want a sweep for human casualties.” While he couldn’t see any bodies from the air, that didn’t mean there weren’t bits and pieces strewn about. The explosion that took down the house had been vast. They’d been slowly tracking Ella’s flight across the country, gain ground with each discovery, but the column of smoke rising into the air had been like a beacon. They had arrived too late, but they’d never been so close. Their best estimate was that the explosion had taken place two hours ago. If there were survivors, they were likely long gone by now. But there would be a trail to follow, and if Ella was still alive, he knew that trail would be headed east.
But first they had to do their due diligence and make sure her body wasn’t lying among the ashes.
And if it was...
He closed his eyes, pushing the image from this thoughts. He’d lost her devotion, but that could be regained, especially when she realized he was still alive.
The blue Black Hawk helicopter touched down beside the first, which had landed just moments before, the ten soldiers within spreading out, clearing the area and seeking out the dead. As he opened the sliding door on the side of his helicopter, a man named Doug Hutchins approached. Of the thirty men making up the ranks of Field Expedition Alpha, Hutchins was the only one Kenyon considered a friend. Unlike these other grunts, who had been U.S. Military before the world went to shit, he and Doug had led the ExoGen security team for the past fifteen years. While he had gone along with Ella’s expedition, to see where it would lead, when things had gone south and people started dying, it was Hutchins who had found him, clinging to a tree, surrounded by Stalkers.
“What’s the plan, Ed?” Hutchins asked. “This place looks like a real shake n’ bake.”
Kenyon shook his head. “Thanks.”
Hutchins knew the story. Knew why Kenyon pushed for this mission, despite the odds. ExoGen wanted Ella back. Believed the future depended on her return. But they didn’t want her nearly as bad as Kenyon. So when he had suggested this long distance expedition, taking three helicopters that would require scrounging fuel from airports large and small, scattered across the county, ExoGen had been apprehensive. But Kenyon had been persuasive. Passionate. If the mission ended in failure, or worse, death, Kenyon would be crushed.
“Sorry,” Hutchins said. “But I think whoever did this had a way out.”
Kenyon nodded. “The second site.”
They’d seen evidence of a secondary explosion not far from the house, but they had to clear the main residence before moving on. “Double-time the search,” he shouted to the soldiers spreading out. “We’re in the clear, so focus on searching for bodies.”
When they’d conducted similar searches at the ruins of previous biodomes, they’d had to keep their guard up, because some Stalkers tended to linger behind, looking for scraps. But here...that problem had been taken care of. Decisively.
“All I’m seeing is Rattletails, sir” a soldier called out from the side of the house.
“Same here,” said another from the opposite side.
Kenyon spun his finger in the air. “Full perimeter, and then inside. You know the drill.”
The men were never happy about being on the ground, especially where evidence of ExoGens was clear. But this was their job. Why they were allowed to stay in San Francisco. Why they were alive at all. So they’d do their job, even if it was something Kenyon couldn’t bring himself to do. It wasn’t the idea of finding a dead body that spooked him, it was the idea of finding
And if they did find her here, he’d make damn sure to find whoever blew this place apart and make them pay. He’d gone too far, fought too hard and lost too many men on finding Ella to return to San Francisco without anything to show for it.
A soldier jogged over. “There’s nothing here, sir.”
“Nothing human, sir. That’s what you wanted to know, right?”
The man was right, but that didn’t make other details insignificant. “How many Stalkers?”
The man looked confused, so Kenyon used the term preferred by the soldiers. “Rattletails.”
“Counted thirty outside the house. Hard to say how many were in the basement when—”
“The Stalkers were
“In the basement. Fifty or more.”
“Shit,” Hutchins whispered. “The most we’ve ever killed was...” He just shook his head.
“Fewer,” Kenyon said. “A lot fewer.” Whoever had lived here had prepared for the worst and blown the shit out of the place. Alpha would have to proceed with caution.
“Sir,” the voice was in his earbud. It was Mackenzie, his third in command, and the only soldier among the lot he respected, reporting in from Overwatch. “We’re over the second site now. No signs of dead, human or ExoGen. Looks like it was a barn. It’s blown apart, but not like the house. The debris field is scattered over nearly a mile. Looks like it was shredded from the inside, but it’s only slightly singed.”
Kenyon eyed the basement, searching the blackened and crumbling walls. His eyes locked on a large square of metal, bent inward to expose a dark recess, but how far did it go? “Drop down closer. Look inside the barn. What do you see?”
“Hold on,” Mackenzie said.
While he waited, Kenyon shut off his throat mic and shouted to his crew. “Pack it up! We’re moving!”
The soldiers dutifully hurried back to their helicopter, more eager to be inside the secure cab than obedient.
“Sir,” Mackenzie said, “Looks like there might be a tunnel inside the barn. Leads back toward the house.”
That’s how they got out
, Kenyon thought.
Advanced tactics for a civilian.
“Looks like the explosion vented through the tunnel. Tore the barn apart. There are tire tracks leading away from the barn.”
Kenyon toggled his throat mic. “Which direction?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.
“Headed east, sir.”
Kenyon headed for his Black Hawk. “Pack it up. There’s nothing for us here, and we’re not far behind now.”