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Jonathan Maberry

Dead & Gone

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1

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Sometimes survival is a feast. Sometimes it’s rainwater in a ditch and a bug.

The girl knew both kinds, and all the kinds in between.

Out here, you had to learn every kind of survival or you stopped learning. Stopped talking. Stopped breathing.

The hunger, though — that never goes away.

Not while you’re alive.

Not after you’re dead.

2

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The girl fled across the desert.

She had bloodstains on her hands and on her clothes. She was certain that those stains were on her heart as well. On her soul.

As she ran, the girl prayed that they would not find her, that they would stop looking.

But they would never stop looking. Never.

Not as long as her mother wanted her dead.

Somewhere, out beyond the heat shimmers that hovered over the sandy horizon, killers were tracking her. Reapers of her mother’s Night Church.

They would never stop because they believed — truly believed — that tracking her down was their holy purpose. She was the sinner, the pariah. The monster that they hunted in order to rid the world of a dreadful impurity.

The reapers.

With knives and axes and bladed farm tools they hunted her.

Wanting to find her. Craving her death.

And so many of them were her friends.

From them, and from who she had once been, the girl tried to hide herself in the vastness of a cruel desert.

3

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She was hungry.

It was that deep hunger, the kind that made her sharp and quick for hours. A belly-taut ache that can’t be outrun.

When she was that hungry, she couldn’t be lazy. She couldn’t climb a tree and lash herself to a thick limb and let the day shamble past.

No, this kind of hunger made her go hunting. It shook her loose from the crushing depression she’d felt since leaving the Night Church.

Before she left, she checked her weapons — the fighting knife she’d carried since she was seven years old, the strangle wire, the throwing spikes, the sling with its bag of sharp stones. She looped the coil of rope across her body.

Her home for the last three days had once been something called a FunMart. She had no idea what that was. It had shelves like a lot of the stores she’d seen, but there was nothing on them. The floor was littered with the torn wrappers of bread loaves and cracker boxes, but everything of value had been scavenged by refugees over the last twelve years, and any forgotten crumbs had been devoured by insects and animals. But the place was dry, and it got her out of the desert heat.

Now it was time to leave. She knew that she wouldn’t be coming back here. The reapers were still out there somewhere. Maybe weeks behind her, maybe much closer. She had only stayed this long at the FunMart because of the gripes — a terrible storm that had raged in her intestines after eating a piece of questionable food. That lizard she’d caught and cooked must have been sick, or it had carried some kind of toxin. For two whole days her stomach felt like it was filled with razor blades and acid. She threw up everything she ate, which was also a terrible waste of food. Nothing of value went into her system. No proteins or fats or useful calories. No nutrients.

When the gripes passed, the girl was left weak and trembling. If even the weakest reaper came at her, she could not have defended herself.

The desert offered no obvious comfort. Food had to be caught, and there was very little water. So survival required movement. Hunger demanded it.

Even so, she lingered at the door of the FunMart.

The girl did not have a home. Not anymore. And the home she used to have was not a place she could return to. No way. To the people she left behind she was a disgrace, a lost soul.

A monster.

Places like this empty shell of a FunMart offered no real protection; it was not a home in any genuine way. It was a place to be sick, and if she stayed longer, it would be the place where she died. The reapers were coming. She did not know when they would find her, only that they would.

Beyond the door was the road that stretched through the endless desert. Beyond the door was the truth. The loneliness. The fear.

The hunger.

The hunger called to her. It yelled. It shrieked.

So she had to leave.

Not soon.

Now.

Get your skinny butt in gear, girl,  scolded her inner voice. No handsome prince is going to stroll out of a fairy tale and serve you a hot breakfast of eggs and grits. 

“Shut up,” she told herself. Her voice sounded dusty and far older than her fifteen years.

She could see a faintness of green down the road. Sparse woods that had once been vast groves of fruit trees set, improbably, on the edge of the Nevada desert. Patches of scrub pine and weathered creosote bushes were thriving there now as the orchard died. The ghosts of the fruit trees stood like pale sticks. She reckoned that the water pumping stations were dead. All these years of blowing sand and dust had frozen the gears in the rows of tall, white wind turbines. Now they stood above the orchard, silent as clouds, offering the lie of power in a powerless world.

Beyond the forest was a town. It said so on the map she had.

A place called Red Pass, which looked to be have been built into the cleft of a long ridge of low mountains.

Red Pass. The name meant nothing to her, but the fact that it was a town meant that there might be some vittles. Old canned stuff. Maybe some gardens with enough life for wild carrots and potatoes to still be growing. She knew that birds lived in some of the old towns. Even a scrawny pigeon was roast breast for dinner and a day’s worth of soup from the rest. And where there was one pigeon, there would be two.

The town was where she had to go.

Ten miles under the August sun.

It had to be done during the day, though. At night she would not be able to see, or hunt, or defend. And they did not need the light to find her.

They.

The gray people. The wanderers.

The hungry ghosts.

She knew they were not really ghosts. That was just something her father used to call them. Hungry ghosts.

They were also in the towns.

They were always in the towns.

It’s where they’d lived. It’s where they’d died.

It’s where they waited.

And she, hungry and desperate, had no choice but to leave her empty little place of safety and journey into the places of the dead.

Hunger demanded it.

4

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“Sister Margaret!”

The words tore her out of a daydream of food and dragged her into horror.

The girl spun around and crouched.

There were three of them. Two men and a woman. They rose from the desert, shedding the sand-colored cloaks that had allowed them to hide and wait until she stumbled right into their trap.

Now you walked into it, girl,  said her inner voice. You done gone and stepped right into a snake pit and no mistake. 

They were dressed all in black, with red streamers tied to their ankles and wrists. Stylized angel wings were embroidered on their chests. Their heads had been shaved and comprehensively tattooed with complex images of tangled vines and flowers.

Just like hers.

It was a requirement of everyone in the Night Church. A permanent mark that could not be removed. It was supposed to prove an unbreakable attachment to the god of that faith.

Now it was the only thing that made the girl look like she was connected to them. She did not wear the dark clothes and red streamers and angel wings. She wore ratty jeans, stolen sneakers, and a leather vest buttoned up over her bare skin. She had no other clothes, and she would rather die than wear the clothes of a reaper.

Never again.

The reapers approached, smiling the way they’re taught to do. Smiles of false welcome, of false acceptance.

There was no trace of real acceptance in the Night Church. You were collected by them, you belonged to them, but there was no approval of who you were.

“Sister Margaret,” said the taller of the two men as he walked toward her. He held a broad-blade machete in one muscular fist, carrying it casually with the tip pointed toward the ground. “Praise be to the darkness that we found you.”

“Stop right there, Jason,” warned the girl. “Y’all turn around and be on your way.”

They continued to smile at her. The shorter man had a hunter’s hatchet tucked through his belt. Sunlight gleamed along the wicked edge as he drew it.

“We bring love and greetings from your mother, Sister Marg—”

“Don’t call me that,” snapped the girl. “That’s not my name no more.”

“What name do you want us to use, sister?” asked the woman. She was young, no more than three years older than the girl. Maybe eighteen, but already there were combat scars on her face, and her eyes were ablaze with righteous anger.

“I don’t have a name no more, Connie,” said the girl. “I left all that behind when I left the church.”

“That’s not true, little sister. Your mother sent us to bring you home, to bring you back into the peace and love of the Night Church.”

“I know you, Connie. You don’t open your mouth ’cept when a lie needs to come out.”

Sister Connie’s smile flickered, and her eyes went cold. “And you can’t help but carve more sins onto your own soul.”

Sister Connie drew her blade — a slender double-edged antique dagger that had been looted from a museum in Omaha. The girl had been there when Connie had found the weapon four years ago. Six families had been living in the museum, and they had refused to join the Night Church. The reapers had cut through them like scythes through ripe wheat.

The girl, only eleven at the time, had killed too. It had not been the first time she’d ended the day bathed in innocent blood.

The memory burned in her mind as she saw that knife in Sister Connie’s hand.

“C’mon, Sister Connie,” said the shorter man, “it’s too hot to stand here and play games with this brat.”

“Hush, Brother Griff,” said the young woman. “We were told to give our little sister here a chance to recant her wicked ways and come back to the church.”

The girl laughed. A single, short bark of harsh derision.

“Come back? What kind of sun damage have y’all had on what little brains ye got that my ‘coming back’ was even a possibility? Mom doesn’t want me back and we all know it. She wants me dead and left to the vultures. Anything any of y’all say different would be a goll-durn lie.”

Jason, Griff, and Connie stared at her with a variety of emotions playing on their faces. Anger at her sass, shock at the bald intensity of her words, confirmation of their private thoughts, and something else. A cruel delight that the girl knew only too well. The anticipation of wetting those blades as they opened red mouths in her flesh and sent her screaming into the eternal darkness.

None of them answered her, though.

The girl said, “Y’all don’t have to do this. We can all just walk away.”

The three reapers began to spread out, forming a loose half circle around her, hands flexing to find the perfect grip on each weapon.

The girl sighed. It was so heavy a sigh that it felt like a piece of her heart was being pulled out of her chest and flung into the wind.

“I tried,” she said, though even she wasn’t sure to whom those words were directed. “Dang if I didn’t at least try.”

She drew her knife.

They moved first. They moved with lightning speed.

Perhaps in their excitement they had forgotten just who it was they’d been sent to find. There were three of them. They were all older than the girl, larger and stronger than the girl, better armed than the girl.

It should have ended there.

Brother Jason lunged first, raising his arm and chopping down with the big machete. The blade cut through the air where a girl-shape had been a millisecond before. Jason’s swing was so heavy, backed by all of his weight and muscle, that the blade chopped deeply into the highway blacktop, sending shock waves up his arm.

The girl spun away from the blow, twirling like a top but staying so close she could feel the wind as Jason’s weapon whistled past. She continued her spin and flashed her arm out, silver glinting in her hand, and then the dry air was seeded with red.

Jason made a confused gagging sound that was more surprise than pain as he dropped his knife and clutched his throat. A throat that was no longer constructed for breathing.

“Get her!” screeched Sister Connie, and thrust out with her knife. But the girl darted away, ducked under the swing of Brother Griff’s hatchet, slashed him across the top of one thigh, and then shoved him toward Connie.

Griff tried to keep his balance; Connie tried to jerk her knife back.

Griff suddenly screeched like a gaffed rabbit and dropped to his knees. The movement tore the knife from Connie’s fingers. She stared in horror as blood bubbled from between Griff’s lips.

“No…,” he said, his voice thick and wet.

But the moment said yes, and he fell.

That left Connie standing there, her hands empty, her companions down, and all of it happening so fast.

They stood there, face to face no more than six feet apart. The wind blew past them, making the streamers on Connie’s clothes snap and pop.

Connie tried to say something, tried to frame a comment that would make sense of the moment. “I—” was all she managed before the girl cut her off.

“Run,” said the girl, her voice raw and ugly.

Connie stared at her. “W-what…?”

“Run,” the girl repeated. “Run!” 

Connie stood there, blank-faced and unsure of what was happening. An easy and certain kill had somehow become a disaster.

“Griff and Jason were good fighters. Not y’all, Connie. Y’all were never no good,” the girl said quietly. “But me? Heck, I was taught every dirty trick there is by Saint John of the Knife.”

Connie paled. She knew all about the girl’s training and her level of skill, but hearing of it again and seeing the proof of it demonstrated in the silent bodies of Griff and Jason chilled her to the bone. Her lips quivered with sudden fear.

“No…,” she said. “Don’t.”

“Run away,” said the girl who was no longer Sister Margaret. Her arms were red to the elbows with bright blood. “Run away and tell my mother not to send any more of her killers after me. Tell her to leave me alone. Tell her to forget I exist. Tell her I died out here.”

“I… can’t…”

“You better.”

“I—”

Connie’s protest was interrupted by a low groan. She looked down to see that Griff’s eyes were open. His dead eyes.

His dead mouth opened too, rubbery lips pulling back from bloody teeth as he uttered that deep, terrible moan of awakening hunger. He reached for Connie with twitching fingers.

Connie gave a shrill cry of horror and sprang back.

Right into Jason.

He wrapped his big arms around her and dragged her back.

Connie fought against him, driving her elbow into his stomach, head butting him with the back of her skull, stamping on his feet, and all the while trying to free an arm so that she could wave the red cloth ribbon under his nose. He snapped at her, trying to bite her hand, trying to bite her face.

The girl knew about those ribbons. The reapers soaked them every few days in a noxious chemical mixture that made the gray people react the same way they did around other dead. When the chemical was strong, the dead totally ignored the reapers.

“How long since you dipped your streamers, Connie?” she asked.

Connie’s face, already pale, went whiter still.

She screamed. Loud and terrible.

And then the girl was moving. She lunged in and slammed the steel pommel of her knife against the dead reaper’s temple, knocking his head sideways. That loosened his hold, and the girl grabbed the shoulder of Connie’s shirt and gave her a single violent pull. Connie staggered three awkward steps backward, then fell over Griff, who was trying to get to his feet.

The girl ducked low and slashed Jason’s ankles, cutting the tendons. Even though the man was past feeling pain, his skeleton still needed those tendons in order to stand. Jason toppled into the dust.

Connie was still screaming, but now her horror was directed at Griff, who crawled toward her, teeth bared, fingers scrabbling for purchase on her trouser cuffs. In her panic and confusion Connie had lost herself completely, forgetting everything she’d learned, everything that had helped her survive this long since the Fall.

The girl knew that Connie was going to die.

She almost let her die.

Almost.

Instead, with a sigh of disgust, the girl jumped forward and kicked Griff in the side of the head with the flat of her foot. It toppled the dead man onto his side. Connie stopped moving and stared.

The girl walked up behind Griff, used another kick to knock him flat on his stomach, crouched, and drove the point of her knife into the cleft formed by the bottom notch of the skull and the upper part of the spine. The brain stem. The knife slid in without effort, and Griff instantly went still. No death twitch, no transition. Living death, and then the forever kind of death.

Jason was eight feet away, crawling toward them.

The girl looked at him, then turned to stare down at Connie.

“I told you before and this’ll be the last time,” said the girl. “Run away. Tell my mother and Saint John and all the others to leave me alone.”

“They won’t. You’ve sinned against the church and against your mother. The reapers will never stop. You belong with us. You belong to the church, heart and soul, flesh and bone. You know that, Sister Mar—”

The girl moved like lightning and crouched over the reaper, the bloody tip of her knife pricking the softness under Connie’s chin.

“Call me that again and I’ll butcher you like a hog and leave you to bleed out here. I’ll leave you to Jason and the flies and the scorpions. Y’all think I’m joshing you?”

Connie shook her head.

The girl leaned closer. “Tell them, Connie. Tell them to leave me be.”

A tear broke from the corner of the reaper’s eye. “They won’t . The reapers will never stop. You know  that. You know that they’ll never stop looking for you. And they will  find you and they will kill you. You belong to the Night Church. You belong with us.”

“I don’t belong to anybody!”  snarled the girl. “Why can’t you get that through your head? I don’t belong to the church or to my mother or Saint John or anybody. Leave me alone.”

Jason was inches away now. The girl pivoted away from Connie, knocked Jason flat, and ended him the way she had ended Griff. A single thrust delivered with the cold precision of a perfect killer.

Exactly the way she had killed before. Exactly the way she had ended the lives of countless gray people. And countless living people.

The girl stood up and backed away from the living reaper and the two dead men.

“Y’all just used up whatever bit of mercy I had left,” she said. “Don’t let me see you again.”

With that she turned and walked away.

She didn’t look back. Didn’t watch to see if Connie got up and grabbed a weapon.

She offered her unguarded back to the reaper.

The girl left a trail of broken minutes behind her. She was halfway to the horizon line when the first sobs broke in her chest.

5

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That night she caught a small turtle and ate it.

And threw it up.

She curled up in the backseat of a highway patrol car that was pocked with bullet holes and surrounded by bones. As night collapsed around her, she used spit and a piece of cloth to try to wipe the blood from her hands and arms. It left a brown stain.

She cried all night and finally fell into a weary slumber before dawn.

The hunger screamed at her until she woke up.

6

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As she staggered through the morning, she daydreamed of cool trees and running water. Of leaping fish and bushes heavy with ripe berries.

Way off in the distance she heard a roar, and she stopped, whipping out her knife.

It was a cat, a big one.

Las Vegas was less than forty miles from where she stood. Las Vegas used to have those shows with the white tigers and golden lions. There was a zoo behind one of the casinos, with jungle predators of all kinds. When her father was still alive, back when it was just the two of them traveling through the wasteland looking for shelter, they had gone past the old gambling town. They met a half-crazed man who described the terrors of Vegas: the dead constantly at war with tigers and lions for control of the hunting grounds, and the people who tried to survive there.

The crazed man’s stories were all past tense.

Nobody lived in Las Vegas anymore, and the cats — like the dead — had gone into the desert to find fresh meat.

That roar came from way over in the tumble of red rocks to her left. The big cats made that terrible shriek when they’d killed something. It’s part triumph and part warning — I killed this and I’ll defend my meat.

That kitty cat is too durn big and mean,  she thought. You don’t want no truck with it, do you, girl? 

She often talked to herself as if she were an adult scolding a child. Like there were two of her. It took the edge off being so completely alone.

The girl hurried along the road, wanting no part of whatever red drama was happening behind those rocks. She was hungry, but her hunger had not yet driven her crazy enough to want to fight eight hundred pounds of muscle and claws. She was fifteen, and prolonged hunger had leaned her down to ninety pounds. All that was left of her was bone, hard muscle, and pain.

The road ahead was clear ahead for half a mile before it curved around a big, white piece of junk. The girl thought it was an overturned tractor trailer — they always held the promise of some item left behind after scavengers had come through like locusts. But as she approached, she realized that it wasn’t a truck at all. It was too big.

She hurried to see what it was.

The closer she got, the more she realized that it was massive. Much bigger than she’d thought. The thing had to be well over two hundred feet long with wings nearly as wide. It had once been snow white with a broad sky-blue line that covered the cockpit and ran all the way to the towering tail. But there had been a fire, probably on impact. Much of the white and blue paint was soot-blackened, and in places it had burned completely away to reveal the silvery glint of steel. Rusted now, and pitted by endless blowing sand.

Words had been painted in black along the sides: THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

And on the shattered tail there was a number: 28000.

The girl knew about jets, of course. Everybody knew about them. There were airports full of them. The bones of all kinds of aircraft littered the landscape. The girl had even spent two nights camped out in the shell of a Black Hawk helicopter.

But she’d never seen one this big. Not up close.

The four big engines lay half-buried in the sand, torn away by the impact. Behind the jet was a deep trench cut like a rough scar into the landscape and all the way across the blacktop. The jet had spent a long time grinding to a halt, and now it lay still and silent, its engines cold, the windows shattered and filled with shadows.

The jet presented a tricky choice. There could be bottled water, cans of soft drinks, plastic bags of stuff like nuts and crackers. Things that had enough preservatives in them to last. Not good food, but a far mile down the road from no food.

The doors were shut, and the windows were too small to climb through, and it would take some doing to climb up onto the nose of the craft and enter that way. On the up side, it didn’t look like anyone else had been inside the jet, which was odd because it was right there, big as anything. On the downside, if the doors were all closed, then what had happened to the people on board? Had they managed to climb out? If so, how?

If not… were they still there?

A jet this size had to have carried a lot of people.

All of them could be dead.

And waiting.

“No,” she said. Her voice sounded as dry as the desert wind.

She stared up longingly at the plane.

If it was empty, then it was high and safe, and out of the wind. It could answer all of her needs. It could be a kind of home.

The wind whipped past her, lashing her cheeks with coarse sand. It stung her scalp. She closed her eyes for a moment, wrestling with herself about this choice.

There was the choice she wanted to believe in, and there was the sensible choice.

You’d have to be dumber than a coal bucket to go up yonder. 

“No,” she said again.

With a reluctance so great that it felt like grief, the girl turned away from the jet, dragging her eyes from those smashed-out cockpit windows, turning her whole body with an effort of will. She walked slowly around the jet, studying it from every side, marveling that such a massive thing ever could have flown.

She looked into the desert that ran alongside the road. Far, far in the distance she saw some shapes moving. People. At least a dozen of them, maybe more. She faded into the shadows of the plane and watched them, squinting to try and decide what she was seeing. Were they the gray people? Sometimes they moved in bunches, a small mass of them triggered into movement by passing prey.

There was a flash of sunlight on metal.

No.

Not the dead.

Reapers.

She cupped her hands around her eyes and studied the group, counting the shapes, counting the flashes of sunlight on sharpened steel.

Twenty of them? Twenty-one.

Too many.

There was one shape that walked in front of the others, and it was his weapon that most often caught the sunlight. Even though she was too far away to see him clearly, she thought she knew who this was. Brother Andrew. One of the most senior of the reapers. A bull of a man who carried a two-handed scythe.

“No,” she murmured. “Go away.”

In time, they did. But they were heading in the same direction she was, northwest, their course paralleling the road. They were miles away, though, following a secondary road. Perhaps they thought she was on that road, that she would take the road less traveled in hopes of eluding pursuit.

The girl crouched in the shadows until Brother Andrew’s party was gone, reduced first to tiny dots and then entirely lost to distance and heat shimmer.

Then she stood and stretched her muscles, trying to ignore the ache in her belly. The girl took a steadying breath and began to walk. She cast a single look over her shoulder, and what she saw made her pause within a few steps.

A turkey buzzard sat on the jet’s broken wing. Its dark wings were threadbare and in disarray, its wattled red throat was thin, and its eyes looked totally dead. For a horrible moment the girl thought that the vulture was  dead, that it had somehow caught the plague that had cut like a reaper’s scythe through all of humanity. But then it made a small, plaintive caw.

It wasn’t dead. It was starving.

Like her.

The thought absolutely chilled her and nearly took the heart out of her. If something like this carrion bird — a creature that would eat anything it found — was starving out here, then what hope was there for her?

She turned away from the sight of it.

“No,” she said one more time. She tried to say it with anger, with determination, with purpose.

It sounded like


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a cry.

The girl hurried away, pushed by fear, pulled by hunger.

7

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That night she slept in the back bay of a wrecked Ford Explorer. She had to pull bones out of the front seats. Driver and passenger had bullet holes in their skulls. Someone who knew his business had sent them into the darkness. As she pulled them onto the road — a man in a suit, a woman in the sun-faded rags of a flower-patterned dress — the girl said a little prayer for them. She hoped they had been good people. She hoped they hadn’t suffered much.

Before she climbed into the car to sleep, she walked out among the rough desert brush to see about setting some simple snares. If she did it right, and if she had any luck, maybe she could catch a chipmunk, a gecko, an antelope squirrel, or even a weasel.

She’d eaten worse.

Recently.

The memory of the lizard and the turtle made her stomach churn.

Stop your grousing… You’ll eat what you catch, or you’ll starve and die. 

She walked around the area for a while until she found a small game run that showed use by several species. The prints were not as distinct as they would have been on a game trail, but she was experienced enough to determine that the prints were recent. She followed the run until it intersected another, equally as small. The runs led toward the open desert, and in the faded twilight she could see a thick stand of Joshua trees. There must be water down there. Not a lot, or there would be heavier game sign, but enough for these runs to become well traveled by small animals.

The girl backtracked a hundred feet and washed her hands with sand to remove any trace of her skin oils. Only then did she pick up the materials she would use to make the traps. Humans were predators, and their scents scared off most animals.

She dug a pit and carried the fresh dirt out into the desert. Fresh dirt — or any sign of disturbance — warned prey away. When she gathered sticks, she used only those that had fallen and dried out. Freshly cut sticks bled sap, and that carried a smell that warned prey of a disturbance. The girl made sure that she did nothing that would alarm the animals.

One good way to remove human scent was to coat the trap with mud from an area with plenty of rotting vegetation, but in the desert, in the failing light, she did not have the time to find it. She used the last of the light to rig a whip snare that would lash out and kill her prey. It would only work on something small, but it was all she could manage.

She built three traps before the light and her strength failed.

Then she erased all signs of her presence, hoping that she did it so well that in the morning there would be something to eat.

She had a few slivers of hope left. Enough for tonight.

Then she rigged a few pieces of plastic that she carried with her, stretching them off the ground on sticks, setting them where the shade would be in the morning. With luck, condensation would give her at least a mouthful of dew.

As the sun set, the desert turned from a furnace to a freezer. Sand does not hold heat for long, and soon the girl was shivering. Last week she had owned a bedroll and a blanket, but they had become infested with fire ants, and while she was trying to smoke the pests out of the cloth, a sudden wind sent sparks flying into the material. She had been seventy yards away, washing her other clothes in a thin steam. By the time she ran back and stamped out the fire, her bedding was ruined.

Now she stood by the open door of the car looking at the skeletons wearing ancient clothes. The material was thin and weathered and would offer only a little warmth. It was also wrapped around the bones of dead people.

The girl took the clothes.

It was the kind of night her father used to call a “three-dog night.” The kind where everyone, human and animal, crowded together for warmth. She thought about the dog she’d had years ago. Willyhog.  He had been caught in a blind alley by four of the gray people. Dad had tried to rescue him, but he was never a fighter, and the girl had been too young to do much good. Dad dragged her away while Willyhog’s screams tore holes in her soul.

She wished that he were still alive, still with her. The two of them would be something. Willyhog could find the shadow of food on a dark night, and no mistake. He had been a bluetick coonhound, and she’d loved him more than anything.

She crawled into the car and closed the door, wincing at the banshee squeak of the old hinges, and huddled in the back. She pulled the dusty old clothes over herself and tried not to notice the chattering of her teeth.

The sun was gone now, and soon the sky was littered with billions of stars. So cold and so distant. But so pretty.

For all that “pretty” mattered to her.

It used to mean something. It used to mean a lot. Now she found it hard to even remember what it was about it that had mattered. She would give all the stars in the sky, and every golden dawn, and all the birds that ever sang a pretty song for a thick steak and a plate of vegetables.

She wondered if she would kill for that.

It troubled her that with each day it was getting harder and harder to decide that she would not.

As starlight painted the landscape in blue-white light, the girl prayed to whoever was listening that tomorrow there would be food.

She did not expect her prayers to be answered. Not because of any lack of faith — the girl did believe that there was something up there or out there or somewhere — but she no longer knew what that was. Her mother and the others in the Night Church had drummed one vision of god into her head, but it was a brutal, harsh, and ugly thing. A faith born when the world died, one that flourished as more and more people died. For years she had been a part of that. For years she had belonged to that.

That time had passed.

Now she was a part of nothing. She belonged to nothing.

Now she was alone.

No, the girl believed that the heat of the day and the cold of the night, the deep hunger and the awful loneliness, the pain and the shame, were all forms of punishment.

As she did every night since she ran away from the Night Church, she murmured these words right at the point where sleep began pulling her down.

“I’m sorry for the pain I caused, the blood I spilled, and the lives I destroyed. With all my heart and soul, I’m sorry.”

Then the ragged claws of sleep dragged her down into dreams of hunger and dying.

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In the morning something impossible happened.

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The girl rose with the first light of dawn, her hunter’s mind alert to the touch of sunlight on the smoked-glass windows of the dead SUV. She woke quickly, her senses sharpened by months of surviving on her own.

Slowly and cautiously she looked out of each of the windows, looking for predators, alive or dead.

Looking for reapers.

The desert was empty and vast.

She opened the door of the SUV and moved outside and away from the vehicle, running low and fast and then turning to look back. It was a trick she had learned the hard way. Sometimes predators waited on top of a vehicle. And sometimes there were blind spots when you were inside. From a distance she could see all around the car.

There was no one and nothing. No sign of Sister Connie or Brother Andrew or anyone from the Night Church.

She crept back and examined the plastic she had set up the night before, and for the first time in days she smiled. The center of each sheet of plastic was bellied down, heavy with dew. The girl fetched her canteen and carefully poured the water into it. The combined water filled her canteen nearly to the top. She licked the last drops off the sheeting and carefully folded it and stowed it in her pack. Then she went to check the traps.

From a distance she could tell that all three of the traps had been sprung, and her heart leaped in her chest. She broke into a run, eager to see what kind of meat the night had brought to her.

Almost immediately she slowed from a run to a fast walk to a sudden stillness. She tore the slingshot from her pocket, loaded it with a sharp stone, and wheeled around, looking for an enemy.

For a trickster.

For answers.

Was this some strange and subtle trap set by Brother Andrew?

The desert seemed totally empty.

She turned back to the snares.

What in the sam hill is going on?  she demanded, not sure if she thought it or shouted it.

In the center of each one, standing perfectly erect, glinting in the morning sunlight, was an aluminum can.

Not the empty, rusted cans that were everywhere, discarded years ago by scavengers. These cans were not rusted. And they were not empty.

The girl approached the closest one very cautiously, ready to counterattack if her own snares were baited to catch her. She saw no trip wires, no sticks bent back under pressure. The ground did not look like it had been excavated to dig a pit and then covered over.

The can was still there. A square can. Blue, with an illustration of some kind on it.

She crept closer, and in her belly hunger warred with caution. Hunger became a white-hot screaming thing.

When she was five feet away she could read the label of the can. She mouthed the word.

“Spam.”

She knew what that was. Meat in a can. It was old, but the can was not puffy with expanding gasses the way they got when the contents were spoiled. Cans like that were filled with deadly bacteria.

This can looked fine.

She left it there and moved over to the second snare. That can was round, tall, also blue. It said: DOLE PINEAPPLE CHUNKS—100 % PINEAPPLE JUICE.

The third can was red. GOYA KIDNEY BEANS IN SAUCE.

She looked around.

Nothing.

She made a circle around the traps, going out as far as a mile.

Nothing.

No footprints. No sign.

Just three cans. Meat, fruit, beans.

If she was smart, if she was careful, she could live on that for a week. Maybe more. The beans and the meat were both protein.

The girl straightened and eased the tension on the slingshot.

“Who are you?” she yelled. “Where are you?”

The wind answered with a whisper of sand across the landscape.

She grabbed the cans and ran back to the Explorer.

She was laughing.

She was weeping.

She wasn’t going to die today.

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It was so hard to resist the temptation to open all three cans and have a feast, but that would be a bad choice. She gave it some thought, forcing herself to work it through before she took any action. That caution had kept her alive until now.

The meat would keep as long as the can stayed sealed and out of direct sunlight. To open it now, in this heat, without any means of keeping it cold, would mean that she would have to eat it within a day or so before it spoiled. The fruit, as much fun as it would be to taste something cool and sweet, had no protein.

The beans were the smarter choice. She could eat them throughout the day, and they would keep her going as she continued on toward the town.

It would mean leaving this place, and leaving whoever had left the food for her.

She half believed that it was one of the loners. There were a few of them even out here in the desert — people who could not abide company, who preferred the absolute stillness of a world on the brink of death. Most of the loners were crazy, and a lot of them were downright murderous. There were so many tales — not all of them tall — about loners who trapped unwary wanderers and killed them. Sometimes in order to loot their supplies. Sometimes to enforce their own isolation. And, if some of the tales were to be believed, because a lone traveler was a handy source of food.

It hurt the girl’s mind to think that anyone would turn to cannibalism in a world where everyone who died had been reborn as a flesh-eating monster. But the stories were there, and many of them were told by people who weren’t prone to exaggeration. That made them all the more frightening. These weren’t scary stories told in the dark to frighten children. These were firsthand accounts by hardened travelers who had nothing to gain by making up such tales.

Avoiding loners was a smart habit of anyone who traveled the wastelands.

And yet leaving her three cans of vittles was not an act of cruelty or hostility. Not unless the cans were tampered with or poisoned, and the girl had examined every inch of them under the stark light of the morning sun. No pinholes, no evidence that the cans had been opened and somehow resealed.

No, someone had given her the cans as an act of charity.

After weighing it all out and eliminating the risks, she took the can opener from her pack and carefully worked its sharp hook around the edge of the can of beans. She did it slowly, with great control, making sure not to spill a single drop of the sauce.

She set the lid aside and looked at the nutrition information on the can. High in protein, low in sodium. The first was a good thing; the latter wasn’t. Not in the desert, where the heat leached water from the body. Sodium helped retain water. Lots of iron, though, and she needed that.

Sitting in the shade of the Explorer she ate half the beans. Taking her time, chewing them one at a time, almost weeping from the wonderful taste. Licking the sauce from her fingers.

It took an incredible amount of willpower not to eat the whole can. Once she started, her mind conjured a hundred reasons why she should continue on and clean out every last bean, every last drop of rich red sauce.

“Don’t be a hog,” she told herself, speaking the words out loud. “Like as not we’ll be wanting those beans afore long.”

Her scolding voice sounded just a bit like her father’s, and that made her smile as she wrapped the can in the plastic she’d used to gather morning dew. It went into her pack along with the other cans.

She could already feel the effect of the food. When she pulled herself to her feet, there was strength in her legs. When she took a breath, she could feel her lungs fill all the way.

“I’m obliged to you,” she said aloud, but her voice didn’t seem to carry very far, so she used her finger to write a thank-you in the grime on the Explorer’s broad windshield.

Then she addressed the road that lay before her. She knew that she had a piece of work ahead of her. Today already held the promise of being hotter than yesterday. Hot enough to make rock soup, as her father used to say. The town was at least six miles ahead.

Now, though, she was sure she could make it.

She dug a scarf out of her backpack and tied it over her tattooed scalp.

Don’t want to boil what brains you got left, girl,  she told herself.

Then she stepped out of the shade of the SUV and onto the road.

For the first four miles there was nothing but road and a few smashed cars on the shoulder, but none that held any surprises. She found a lot of bones along the way — mostly animal bones — but there were human skulls and rib cages mixed in. No way to tell how they died, but out here there was no shortage of things that would pick a juicy bone clean in no time. When she squinted and looked up into the sky, she saw a single vulture drifting on the thermals, maybe two thousand feet up. Was it the same starved buzzard who’d watched her from the wing of the plane?

“Not today, you ugly varmint,” she said.

The buzzard, pretending indifference to her, continued to circle above the road she walked.

Then the girl saw the tank.

It sat askew in the middle of a steel bridge that spanned a dry riverbed. The tank was massive, with a hull that was easily twenty-five feet long and a dozen feet wide, and it had been slewed around to completely block the two-lane bridge. The long cannon barrel pointed away from her, as did a heavy-caliber machine gun. The tank and the ground around it were littered with hundreds of empty shell casings that were pitted and rusted.

The tank was monstrous and looked like it was powerful enough to win any battle. And yet here it stood, empty, its sides stained with old smears that were probably once bright red.

She either had to climb over the tank or go down into the riverbed. The sides of the riverbank were very steep, though, and it would take a lot of sweaty effort under the pitiless sun to make that detour.

She walked sideways down the edge of the riverbank to see around the tank.

On the other side was a long line of wrecked cars and trucks, stretching off into the heat haze. Beyond them, she could see the purple silhouettes of buildings.

The town she’d seen on the map.

Nothing moved, though. No gray people. No reapers.

Nothing that she could see.

This was different from the jet; it wasn’t an enclosed, darkened death trap of a metal shell. If she got into trouble she had a fallback plan. She could run.

So, she climbed.

There were all sorts of metal fittings that were useful as handholds. It was hot, though. The first touch burned her fingers, and she whipped them away.

Well, I guess you ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, are you, girl? 

There were pieces of cloth in her pack, and she dug them out and wrapped each of her hands. Burned hands were blunt survival tools, and she couldn’t allow that.

With her makeshift mittens in place, she grabbed a handhold on the tank and began to clamber upward. The tank was easy to scale, and once she was atop the big turret she paused. The machine gun was belt-fed, and there were still a dozen unfired rounds. The weapon was smeared with the dusty brown residue of old blood, and when she turned to examine the curved metal hatch that led down into the tank, there was a clear handprint. The gunner must have been badly hurt, perhaps bitten, when he’d deserted his gun and tried to escape.

She heard a faint moan.

That ain’t the wind,  she thought.

The girl pulled her knife and froze, then tilted her head to try and locate the sound.

At first she thought it was behind her, but the road she’d walked was completely empty. Then she heard a faint rasping sound.

No, not rasping.

Scratching.

And then another soft moan.

It sounded so close, and yet there was no movement anywhere.

That’s when she realized where the sound was coming from.

The plaintive moan and the feeble scratches were below  her.

The girl turned and looked at the hatch once more. The handprint was partially obscured by the closed lid, and she understood. The wounded, dying gunner had crawled back inside the tank and pulled the hatch shut. Down there in the darkness his wounds had killed him, and the plague that lived in everyone had brought him back.

“Gawd!”  she gasped.

Revulsion filled her, and she gagged at the thought of that soldier, trapped in the iron kettle of the tank, cooked by a dozen summers of Nevada heat, kept alive by the plague. Below that hatch was some blackened nightmare thing, its nails scratching at the underside of the hatch, its hungers awakened by her presence on the turret, its mind consumed by disease and filled only with a need that could never be satisfied, not even if it somehow managed to feast on her. The hungry ghosts of this old world could never eat enough, never feed enough to assuage their monstrous appetites.

She backed sharply away from the hatch, fighting down the urge to throw up.

The horror of it was so great that she missed her footing and tumbled backward, twisting as she pitched off the tank and onto the unforgiving blacktop.

The girl had just enough time to turn her body, to position herself for the impact, as she had been taught in the Night Church. She landed hard, and the jolt drove all the air from her lungs, but nothing broke. However, her blade went tinkling away under a parked car.

“Laws a mercy, girl. You are dumber than a coal bucket,” she groaned.

For a long time she lay there, gasping for hot air, appalled at the image in her mind of that roasted creature scrabbling to escape its prison.

Pain washed through her in waves as she struggled to sit up. As she stood, the world took a lively sideways reel, and she had to slap her hands against the hood of the closest wrecked car for balance.

Screw your head on rightways round,  she scolded herself.

She stayed there for a moment, waiting until the world stopped spinning. All she could see were cars that had been rammed into one another or blown to black skeletons by the tank. The scene was typical of many she’d seen, many that her father had interpreted for her. The cars were part of some mad exodus of refugees fleeing the growing armies of the dead. They probably thought that the vacant desert would be a haven, but this tank had been deployed to block the bridge. Maybe the soldiers thought that some of the people in the cars were already bitten, or that the fleeing civilians were smuggling out their dead or dying relatives. That sort of thing had happened a lot, she knew. Growing up, she’d heard countless tales about how people — crazed with fear and grief, confused by the collapse of their world — did insane things. One woman she knew, one of her mother’s personal servants in the Night Church, confessed that she’d carried her own two dead children out of Houston in the trunk of her car. Even though they thrashed and pounded on the trunk after she knew that they were stone dead, the woman had brought them all the way to Wyoming before electromagnetic pulses from the nukes dropped by the army on the major cities killed her car. The woman said that it took four grown men to pull her away from her car so the right thing could be done for her children.

Everyone had stories like that.

Her dad had said that it explained a lot of why the plague had spread farther and faster than it should have.

We killed ourselves,  Dad had said. If we’d had a chance to adjust to what was happening, to study on it some, and to know which way to jump — why, then we might not have deviled it all up. But we panicked, and panic fair killed this world. 

And laziness is going to kill you, girl,  snapped her inner voice. You best collect your knife and your wits before you lose both. 

“Knife,” she said aloud.

Moving carefully, she knelt down and fished under the nearest car for her knife, but it was too far away. So she stretched out on her stomach and half crawled into the darkness below, scrabbling at the weapon’s leather-wrapped handle, coaxing it into the curl of her fingers.

A sound made her freeze.

Scuffing sounds.

At first she saw nothing, and for a broken moment she wondered if she was only imagining the sounds.

Laws a mercy, no… 

The unmistakable sound of clumsy feet moving uncertainly along the blacktop.

Not merely one set of feet.

Many.

And then the moans.

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She scrambled out from under the car and clawed her way up the side of the vehicle until she was on her feet. Her head still swam from the fall, but her legs didn’t buckle.

Thanks for small mercies,  she thought sourly.

She rose cautiously and peered over the hood of the car.

A dead child was right there. Ten feet away.

It might have been a little boy once. It was impossible to tell. There was so little of it left — just enough for the body to remain upright and the limbs to move. But clearly the hungry dead who killed him had feasted for far too long on the tiny body. A head that was more skull than face drooped on a ruined neck.

“Oh, you poor baby,” she whispered.

But even a whisper was too much.

The child’s head snapped up; the destroyed face turned toward her. All that was left of the ears were lumps of gristle, but somehow it heard her. Its shredded nose wrinkled like a dog sniffing the air.

The girl jerked back from the side of the car.

If the dead had been an adult, or even a child whose body was still mostly intact, she would have reacted differently. She knew that, even though it was too late to do anything about it.

The creature opened its lipless mouth and moaned at her.

It was a sound without form but one that was filled with meaning. A broken, bottomless cry of hunger.

Then the thing was moving toward her, colliding blindly with the fender of the car, bouncing off, trying again, moving toward her smell, edging by some crude instinct toward the front of the vehicle. Coming for her.

She would have to flee or kill it.

Indecision rooted her to the spot, chained her to the moment.

Behind her was the tank and the long road back to the empty FunMart.

In front of her were the cars.

And the shapes that she could now see moving among them. They were as pale and dusty as the cars, shambling artlessly between the dead machines, bumping into one another, crunching over bones, spent shell casings, and ancient debris.

Move, move, MOVE, you fool girl! 

As abruptly as if someone had snapped fingers in front of her eyes, the spell was broken and she was moving. She put one foot onto the bumper of the car, and just as the dead child rounded the headlight and reached for her, the girl climbed quickly onto the hood, up the windshield, and onto the roof.

She sheathed her knife, pulled her slingshot out of her pocket, and seated a stone in the pouch. This was no time for knife work. From up there she could see how bad it was. How many of them  there were.

At least a hundred. 

No… more. Probably two or three times that number. With every second more of them tottered out of the shadows cast by wrecks or stepped out through open doors of old cars, their joints popping with a disuse twelve years in the making. Clouds of dust fell from them, having gathered inches thick over time. The girl did not have to wonder why they were still here, or why some of them had not moved in all that time. Folks called them the gray wanderers, but the truth was that most of them did not wander at all. Once they reanimated they would follow prey, but if there was no prey to follow, they would do nothing, go nowhere. They had no imagination, no drive beyond the urge to devour the living. In the absence of life they would remain where they were while the sun chased the moon across the sky, year upon year.

The girl glanced at the desert that ran beside the road. She could run, but that was a temporary solution. The dead could see her more easily out in the open, and so could the reapers. She would be like a bug on a white sheet. Here among the cars she had cover, and she could climb over the vehicles far faster and more easily than they could. Neither choice was a perfect solution. Each held its own advantages and offered its own complications.

The ones closest to her moaned with their pitiful dry voices.

One, a tall man in the rags of a set of blue coveralls, lunged at her, but she crouched and spun, drawing the slingshot tight and loosing a stone. It struck him in the forehead hard enough to snap his head backward and send him sprawling into the arms of the other dead. He struggled to grab her even as he fell beneath their relentless feet.

“Move!”  she yelled, and the sound of her own voice was the whip that made her run to the end of the car and leap across the distance to the next one. She landed with a hard thump, her slight weight denting the hood, her thighs flexing to take the impact, arms pumping for balance. She ran and jumped, ran and jumped, as wax-white hands reached for her. Dry fingertips scraped along her calves as she leaped over their heads.

She fired stone after stone, knocking some of them back, knocking a few down, clearing a path. It was hard work, though, and with every step, every pull on the slingshot, every leap, her energy was flagging. And there were two miles of cars in front of her.

As she ran, she heard a strange mewling cry and realized with horror that she was making the sound. A whimper, like a whipped dog might make.

Shut y


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our gob and run! 

The next vehicle was a pickup truck, and she leaped high and hard to clear the outer edge of the bed. Her left foot made it with half an inch to spare, but her right was half an inch too low, and the girl suddenly pitched forward and down into the truck bed. It had a black rubber liner, but it felt like iron as she struck. She tried to tuck and roll, but she banged her shoulder against the far side.

Immediately gray arms reached over the metal bay toward her.

“No!” she shrieked, trying to shrink back from the withered flesh and clawing fingers. But they crowded around the truck, reaching, reaching.

Fireflies of pain danced in her eyes. Lying there on her back, she dug out stone after stone and fired her slingshot. One dead face rocked back, and then another spun away with a shattered jaw, and a third toppled backward with one eye suddenly blown dark by a stony missile. She fired eight stones, ten, fourteen…

She had to keep firing.

She didn’t even have the chance to get up.

She dug into her pouch for another stone. And another…

Then her scrabbling fingers found only empty leather. The pouch was empty.

The girl flung the slingshot down, tore the knife from her sheath, and began chopping at the hands, cutting dry tendons, filling the air with fingers that twitched like white worms.

And all the time she screamed.

With a last desperate howl of mingled terror and rage, the girl swung her legs up and over her head and back-rolled to her feet with her spine hard against the rear window of the truck. The dead climbed up, scaling the truck by clambering over one another as they sought to tear her apart.

The girl crouched there, teeth bared in a feral snarl of final defiance, one hand balled into a fist, the other locked iron-tight around the knife, ready to fight all the way to her last screaming breath.

“Come on—come ON! ” she bellowed.

And that was when the siren went off.

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Every face turned, every set of eyes darted toward the sound, searching out the source of a high-pitched keening wail that rose impossibly loud above the road. The girl’s head turned too.

There, on the gravel-strewn shoulder of the road, was a boy.

Not a dead boy.

This one was very much alive.

He was no more than ten, thin and dark-haired, with skin the color of chocolate. He wore faded blue jeans, sneakers — real pre-apocalypse sneakers — and a T-shirt with a full-color illustration of a grinning cartoon rat standing on a strange wheeled board. His head was shaved into a Mohawk that was dyed as blue as the sky above. The boy held a hand-crank firehouse siren, and he was working it with every bit of his strength, grinning from ear to ear while he did it.

The dead seemed to forget all about the scrawny girl-flesh they had been seconds away from devouring, and instead began shuffling toward the boy and his siren. When they were a dozen feet from him, he began walking backward, laughing as the dead followed him.

It was so… weird, so strange, so outside of all sense that the girl simply stood there, knife in hand, and stared slack jawed.

Then a voice behind her said, “I got to say, sister, you are a crazy riot of a fighter. Never seen anything like you before.”

Her jaws snapped shut as she whirled, bringing up the knife in a slashing attack that would have gutted a grown buck, but the owner of the voice leaped nimbly out of the way. Another boy stood there.

“Whoa, little sister,” he said with a laugh. “That’s no way to treat friends.”

She stared at him.

He was older than the little brown-skinned boy. Maybe sixteen, and even in the heat of her fury, the girl realized that he was beautiful . That was the word her mind grabbed at. The boy was very tall and lean, with finely sculpted muscles and a deep desert tan. He had lots of curly blond hair and eyes as blue as the younger boy’s hair. White teeth flashed in an almost unbearably handsome face. He wore a pair of khaki shorts, a thin green tank top, and sneakers that looked brand new. Around his neck he wore a silver necklace from which hung an old-fashioned skeleton key.

Despite the boy’s handsome face and white smile, she narrowed her eyes and snarled at him. “Y’all ain’t my friends. Put your hands on me and I’ll cut off some parts y’all don’t want to lose.”

He looked alarmed — but it was a comical alarm, heavily exaggerated. “Yeah, let’s not go in that direction, okay?”

The boy took a small step toward her.

“I’m warning y’all…”

“I know, but our door’s open,” he said, nodding past her. “I think it’s time to hightail it.”

The siren wound down, and the girl looked over her shoulder to see the laughing little boy turn and run away with more than a hundred of the gray people following. The little boy did not seem to be trying very hard to escape the dead, though, and the girl realized that he was staying close enough so they could smell him.

“That young’un’s plain crazy in the head,” she said.

“Gummi Bear?” said the older boy. “Yeah, he is  that. Gummi Bear’s always been a bit twitchy.”

She turned back to him, the knife still clutched in her fist. “Gummi Bear? That’s his name?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And who are y’all?”

“Jolt,” he said.

“Jolt?” She peered at him suspiciously. “That ain’t a name; it’s a verb.”

He grinned. “And look at you with the actual school education.”

“My daddy taught me to read and write. He was a doctor.”

“Yeah, well my daddy taught me not to try and fight six hundred zees with a knife.”

Zees.  It was an expression she’d heard only once or twice. Zee for zombie. Most of the people she knew called the dead “gray people.” Once or twice she had heard travelers call them “zoms.” She liked “zees,” though she didn’t care to let this crazy boy know that.

There was a sound behind him, and one of the dead appeared beside the truck and made a grab for Jolt’s ankle. But then the young man did something that appeared almost magical. He did what looked like a cartwheel, but he did it in midair, spinning his body off the truck and landing well beyond the creature. It was the smoothest acrobatic move the girl had ever seen, with the kind of apparent effortlessness that concealed highly trained muscles.

The zee swiped the empty air where he had been, and for a moment it looked totally blank. Then it sensed him and turned around to face its elusive prey.

“Yeah, I’m over here, Dusty,” said Jolt.

“Dusty? You know his name?”

Jolt darted close to the dead man and slapped his chest, kicking up a cloud of brown dust. Then he spun away out of reach.

“They’re all dusty. Dusty, Lumpy, Ugly, Slowpoke, Shambler… take your pick. Got to call ’em something.”

The girl climbed out of the pickup and stood on the far side, with the whole truck between her and both boy and corpse.

Jolt hopped up onto the hood of a car as if he had springs under his shoes. The zee took another swipe at him, but Jolt dove into a handstand, ran up the windshield, and, once he was on the roof, flipped back to his feet. It was the strangest thing, like watching the bizarre antics of a character in a dream.

“I—” she began, but then she heard a scuff behind her, and she spun as a fat gray woman with bullet holes in her chest reached for her. Without thinking, the girl parried the grabbing arms and ducked low to slash the tendons on the creature’s ankles. As it buckled down to its knees, the girl grabbed the zee’s filthy hair, shoved its head forward, and drew back her arm for a knife-thrust that would have severed the brain stem and sent the monster into the final darkness of absolute death.

“No!”  cried Jolt with unexpected force and passion.

The girl froze, looking over her shoulder as the boy leaped like a monkey from the hood of the car to the hood of the pickup and flipped down to the ground beside her. He shoved her knife arm away and pushed the zee in the other direction.

“What are you doing?” 

They both yelled it at exactly the same time.

“There’s no reason to hurt it,” said Jolt, his smile gone.

“It was trying to bite me,” she fired back.

“So what? You telling me that you can’t get away from a fat old zee like her without killing her? I had you figured for a fighter with a little bit of skill. Guess not.”

Her face felt like it was about to catch fire. “And I figured you for someone with a handful of wits under all that blond hair,” she yelled back, “but I guess a handful isn’t enough.”

“Whoa, wait — didn’t we just save your life? Or am I thinking about a totally different psycho bald chick?”

The girl slipped the knife into its sheath and then shoved the boy as hard as she could with both hands. If she expected him to fall she was disappointed. He took a single backward step but turned it into a pivot and bent his knees to slough off the force. As he straightened, he got right up into her face.

“Don’t do that again,” he said quietly. “We’re trying to help.”

“I didn’t ask for your help.”

“But you got it, so that song’s sung.”

The crippled zee was crawling toward them. The girl and Jolt looked down at her, and she truly did seem to be helpless and pathetic. Over by the shoulder of the road, the zees called by Gummi Bear’s siren were shuffling back toward the cars.

Toward them .

“We can stay and argue,” said Jolt, “or we can get the heck out of here.”

He touched her shoulder to try and guide her away, but she shook him off. “Don’t touch me.”

“Okay,” he said, “for the record, you touched me first. You shoved me.”

“Didn’t neither. Y’all touched me  first when you swatted at my arm like it was a skeeter.”

He considered. “Maybe. Doesn’t matter. We can get out of here, or we can rub steak sauce all over each other and go dancing with the lunch crowd.”

“Why in tarnation do y’all talk like that?”

He smiled. “That question may be funnier than you know.”

“I’m thinking of kicking you in a bad place.”

Jolt held up his hands, palms outward in a “no trouble” gesture. “Okay, come on, let’s not do this. Besides, it’s going to get crowded again. We should go.”

She looked at the approaching dead and then around at the densely packed cars. “Which way? Out into the desert?”

“Nope.”

He took two running steps and leaped hands-first toward the closest car, then slapped his palms on the hood. In a demonstration of incredible flexibility and coordination, he shot his feet forward between his arms so that he cleared the other side feetfirst. Jolt landed on the far side, then jumped onto the bumper of a truck with his left foot, surged upward and leaped onto the hood of an adjoining car with his right foot, and flipped over out of sight. A moment later he appeared atop the roof of a Post Office truck two rows away. The girl had never seen anything like this acrobatic running. Jolt stopped, turned, and waved.

“What are you?” she said. “A monkey-boy?”

He grinned. “You coming or not?”

The ease with which he moved impressed her and annoyed her in equal measures. He made escape look easy… and fun. After all her weeks of struggle and hardship, clawing and scrabbling her way through every hour of every day, his obvious joy in running like an ape under the desert sun was…

Was what ? She didn’t know what to call it.

Was she offended? Intimidated?

Dazzled?

Get hold of your wits, you silly cow,  she scolded herself.

She ground her teeth together, set her jaw, and leaped for the hood of the nearest car.

And made it with more grace and balance than she expected.

She ran up the car and launched herself across a six-foot gap between that one and the next, landed with only a moment’s pinwheeling of arms, and repeated it until she nearly caught up to him. Then her foot slipped and she began to fall, but instead she pitched herself into a tight shoulder roll that whipped her across the ground so fast that she came out of it in a small leap that she used to hop up onto another car. Rolling and tumbling was something she’d always been good at, but the fall was an accident, and the save was more luck than style. Even so, she ended her jump dead center on the hood of the car.

Jolt broke into furious applause and hooted his appreciation. Clearly he thought the roll and leap were intentional. His smile was brighter than the sun.

“Wow — look at you,” he said, nodding. “You’re a real firecracker, girlie. You’re a total riot, you know that?”

“Yeah,” she said sourly — though she blushed as she said it. “I’m a riot.”

As if in answer, the masses of the dead let out a chorus of hungry moans.

“Oops, c’mon, riot-girl, let’s burn .”

With a laugh and no backward glance at all, Jolt spun and leaped for the next car, and the next, and the next.

“All boys are crazy,” she told herself. Nothing — not an inner voice or anything else in the world outside — attempted to contradict her.

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What she really hated was that it was fun.

Running like the wind, jumping high over the reaching hands, dodging and twisting, pushing her body and reflexes to their limits while acting like no limits existed. Not for them, not here and now.

Before this, physical exertion was all built around combat training. Saint John and the others at the Night Church made all of the kids train. Fourteen hours a day. Hand to hand, with weapons, target practice, hunting and tracking, gymnastics, climbing, and all of it geared toward the single purpose of killing. Not that they called it that. “Sending people into the darkness”—that was how they phrased it in the Night Church. Back when she was Sister Margaret, the girl had been the best in every class. The fastest, the fiercest, the most lethal. Her mother demanded it, and Saint John pushed her relentlessly in order to make it happen. And she was the best. No doubt. A murder machine.

And now…

Now she ran free, ran laughing, just for the sheer joy of it.

It was the strangest thing she had ever done.

She was certain it was the most fun she had ever had.

The younger boy, the one with the burned face — Gummi Bear — joined them, but he wasn’t running free over the cars. He was on a bicycle. The girl had seen a lot of bicycles over the years. After the EMPs they were one of the few transportation machines that worked. This one was squat and tough-looking, not like the more slender touring bikes she’d seen. Gummi Bear pedaled his like a demon, and it tore along the edge of the road, kicking up a wall of dust and spitting chunks of gravel from under its fat tires.

“Look out!” she screamed as one of the gray people lunged at the boy from behind a toppled tour bus, but Gummi Bear laughed at her and did something that appeared to be completely mad. He slapped the bars and propelled his entire body off the bike, rising into the air as if pulled by strings. The bike rolled to one side of the zee, and the boy sailed over the creature’s reaching hands and then dropped down into a fast, controlled run directly behind the monster. Gummi Bear then cut left, caught his bike before it fell, flipped himself back onto the seat and was pedaling fast again before the zee was finished grabbing empty air.

“Wooohooo!” yelled Jolt, pumping his fist into the air. He stood on the hood of a Lexus, laughing with pure delight. “You ever see a fox-hop like that, riot-girl?”

The girl said, “Umm… no?”

“You’re darn right no . And I’ll bet you a full bag of prime goods that Gummi Bear’s going to be a full-out player before he’s twelve.”

“A player? What’s that?”

Jolt didn’t answer; he was too busy yelling compliments at Gummi Bear.

The boy suddenly lunged up, pulling the front end of his bike completely off the road. He waggled the front wheel back and forth, landed with a dusty thump and was off, dodging and weaving on and off the road, slipping past zees with inches to spare.

Laughing.

All the time laughing.

It was all so crazy and so well done that, despite everything, the girl laughed too.

She turned and saw with a start that the town was much closer. Without realizing it she and Jolt had run more than half the distance to the cluster of buildings. It was incredible. The hunger, the aches, and weariness were still there — but at the moment her system was flooded with adrenaline and something else. She didn’t dare call it by its name because “happiness” was such a rare and elusive thing she was afraid of chasing it away.

“Hey, Riot!” called Jolt. “You daydreaming?”

“That’s not my name,” she yelled back, but there was a laugh in her voice.

“Okay — what is  your name?”

She had to think about how to answer that. When it was just her and Dad she’d been Maggie. Then once they’d somehow been absorbed into her mother’s Night Church she’d been Sister Margaret. But neither of those names seemed to fit anymore. The first was too weighed down by loss and grief. The other was burdened by horror.

So — who was she?

Jolt squatted down, his muscular thighs bulging, his blond curls stirring as a hot breeze blew in off the sand. Even from thirty feet away, the girl could feel the impact of his stare. There was genuine interest there, and honest happiness. The one thing she could not find, no matter how hard she searched in those bottomless blue eyes, was a single flicker of judgment.

“I… guess my name’s Riot,” she said.

“Booyah!” He rose and shouted through cupped hands. “Hey, Gummi Bear! Riot thinks you have mad bike skills.”

The boy somehow lifted the back end of his bike and rolled forward on just the front tire, then popped the whole bike up, spun it in a 360-degree turn, and zoomed off.

Jolt laughed, then he turned to Riot. “You need to get back to somewhere?”

She said nothing.

“What about your people? Are you lost out here or—”

“I’m not lost and no one’s waiting up for me,” she said. “I don’t belong nowhere.”

As an after-echo she heard the deep bitterness in her voice. Vicious and hard.

Jolt’s smile flickered as he studied her eyes. She had no idea what he saw there, or what he thought any of it meant, but for just a moment he looked very sad.

“Somebody hurt you?” he asked.

She did not answer the question.

“Okay,” said Jolt, accepting her silence, or perhaps her right to silence. Then he beamed another of his bright smiles. “You can come with us, if you want. We got a camp up near the town, and we’re going to play some games tomorrow. You in?”

“Games?” she asked suspiciously. “What kind of games?”

He frowned. “You serious?”

“Of course I’m serious,” she barked. A dozen yards away a couple of the zees turned sharply toward her. Riot lowered her voice. “I just met y’all, boy, so how am I supposed to know what kind of games y’all are fixing to play?”

“Okay, okay, don’t have a kitten. I thought you could figure it out from me and Gummi Bear. Him on his bike, me freerunning out here.”

She said nothing.

“Z-Games?” he ventured.

She still said nothing.

He grunted. “Wow, you really aren’t from around here, are you?”

“And y’all are taking the long way round the mountain just to answer a question.”

The zees were moving toward them again, and more had joined in.

“Better to tell you at the camp—”

“Tell me now or I ain’t going nowhere.”

“Okay, fast version because, like — well, check it out.” He nodded at the approaching dead. “I’m part of a scavenger crew that’s been working the Ruin and—”

“The what ?”

He frowned again and waved his hand to indicate everything. “This… the great Rot and Ruin. Used to be called America, now it’s pretty much a breakfast buffet for the shambling wrinklers out there.”

“Still called America, last I heard.”

“Then you heard different than me,” said Jolt. “You been as far west as California?”

“They nuked California, didn’t they?”

“Just L.A. and, I think, San Francisco. Big state, though, and there’s some towns scattered up and down the Sierra Nevadas. Some small settlements farther out. Everything else — well, we just call it the great Rot and Ruin.”

“It’s not all ruined,” said Riot, but her comment lacked conviction. She had seen her fair share of ruin. Some of it caused by the dead, some by other things. The Night Church was turning a lot of this part of the world into a silent graveyard. So… ruin … that seemed to fit better than anything else she’d heard it called. “What are Z-Games?”

“Ah… well, that’s the real fun,” said Jolt. “Makes the whole scavenging thing worth it, you know? We go into towns to locate food, salvageable supplies, all sorts of stuff. We tag the buildings with spray-paint, and then the trade guards go in all armored up and collect the stuff.”

“How is that a game?”

“It’s all about how  we go in. You have to go in clean. No weapons, no armor, nothing but the clothes you’re standing up in and, depending on the category, your ride. Gummi Bear’s a biker, or at least he’s practicing to be one. Right now he’s a pied piper. He uses the siren to call the zees. There are a bunch of bikers, though, real pros. And we have sticks — kids on skateboards — and cutters, the cats who cruise on inline roller skates.”

“What are you?”

“I’m a bouncer. I do freerunning — it’s a kind of acrobatic sport running. Used to be called parkour before things fell down. I used to be a stick, but I got pretty good at running and I won these kicks”—he waggled one of the sneakers he wore—“so I switched.”

She goggled at him. “You do this for fun ?”

“Sure, why else? Besides, it’s a total rush. The whole thing’s about wits and speed and cruising right there on the edge, where it’s just what you know and what you can do matched against a bunch of biters with dead brains.”

“One bite from those biters is enough.”

“Sure, so the rule is don’t get bit,” he said simply. “Pretty easy rule to remember.”

Do  people get bit?”

Jolt gave another shrug. “Yeah, but the incentive program is pretty strong. Mind you, the crew chiefs won’t let a player in if they think he’s off his game. They’re not actually trying to feed to the biters. The teams that go in are primed, you know? They’re ready to dance on a ray of light and hop over the sun.”

Riot shook her head. “Y’all are crazier than an outhouse full of bats, y’know that, right?”

Jolt laughed out loud.

“What’s so damn funny?”

“Wow, the actual  apocalypse was twelve years ago. I mean, we are living in the epilogue to the end of the world, and you’re telling me that we’re crazy for finding ways to have some fun in the middle of it? That’s fricking hilarious.”

She grunted. “The Z-Games… is that how that young’un got his face all burned up?”

A shadow crossed Jolt’s face. “Nah. We don’t know how that happened. One of the trade guards, Solomon Jones, found Gummi out on the sand. He was burned and half dead. Maybe three years old. No one else around, and no way to find where he belonged. Solomon brought him to us ’cause that’s what people do with orphans. Everyone in the Games is an orphan.”

“You too?”

“Me too.”

The dead had reached them now and were straining upward to reach them.

“Oops, time to boogie,” said Jolt. “We’re about a mile from the camp. It’s Tuesday, right? That’s chicken-and-bean burrito day. You hungry?”

“I—”

“Or did you fill up on Spam and pineapple?” he asked with a wicked grin. He laughed and ran on, leaping and jumping in the sunshine.

Riot — for that was now her name, and she knew that it was going to stay with her — nearly fell over.

“Well I’ll be a…,” she began softly, but let the words blow away into the wind. In all the surprise and excitement of meeting these two boys she had somehow not connected them to the food placed in her traps. She thought that had been a kind act from a loner who wanted to help but didn’t want to interact. Now she could see the prankishness of the act. The wildness of it.

“Hold on, I’m coming!” she cried, but her inner voice clucked at her. Have a little self-control, girl. 

“Hush,” she told that voice.

Riot ran to catch up.

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During the last quarter mile the demands of running and jumping finally caught up with her. Twice she slipped and had to climb back up from the roadbed. To her satisfaction she saw that Jolt had slowed too. She hoped that he was getting tired — proof that he was human enough — and not that he was slowing down out of pity for her. The other boy, Gummi Bear, had sped on ahead.

Both times she fell, Riot’s first reaction was to pull her knife and wheel to face the oncoming zee. Jolt was far ahead and wouldn’t see her. She knew that she could make the kill quickly and be on her way without alerting him. But in each case she put the knife back, used a kick to knock the zee away from her, and hastily climbed up out of danger.

It made her feel strange and conflicted.

In the Night Church her mother and the elders occasionally had to silence the dead, though they always regretted it. There were complex spiritual reasons that were part of the church’s mission to create what Mom called a “quiet world.” At the same time the members of the church — called the Reapers in the Fields of the Lord or just reapers — wore colored streamers soaked in chemicals that somehow kept the gray people from attacking. And one of the elders, a strange and dangerous man known as Saint John, was trying to devise a way of controlling the countless hordes of living dead. The official church policy was to avoid killing the dead — though killing humans was allowed and even encouraged.

The farther Riot got from that group and the more she viewed it from a distance, the less sense it made.

After she’d fled, the girl realized that she had no choice but to deal harshly with any threat. She had no supply of the chemical that kept the reapers safe, and she had no sentries to watch over her as she slept, no teams of armed reapers to come to her aid if she was attacked by a dozen of the monsters. Since leaving the camp she had killed countless zees. It had become an automatic response.

Now she wondered if doing that had been wrong. How many of those kills had been unavoidable?

It was a dreadful question, and it throbbed like a canker in her mind. In light of Jolt’s disapproval, it felt wrong. Now this kind of killing felt like killing . The word was the same, but the meaning had changed.

Now killing these monsters felt like murder.

There was something dangerous hiding in that thought, but now was not the time to sit and puzzle it out.

She ran and leaped and flew through the air. When she caught up, they grinned at each other and ran together.

Jolt ran ahead of her, looking over his shoulder to throw smiles behind him.

Then Brother Andrew stepped out from behind a big delivery van right in Jolt’s path.

There was no time to warn Jolt as the wicked blade of the scythe flashed in the dry desert air.

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Jolt fell backward, leaning, arching, his muscles contorting his big frame into an impossible backbend, lying almost flat as the blade cut through the air a tenth of an inch above him. The tip of the blade caught the loop of the silver chain and tore it from Jolt’s neck. The skeleton key went spinning through the air to land at Riot’s feet.

Brother Andrew was a bear of a man with biceps like bowling balls and a back that was so crammed with muscle that he looked like a gargoyle. He had put every ounce of his strength into that swing, and had it connected, it would have cut Jolt in half. Easily.

Instead Jolt fell hard on his back on the hood of a red Chevy, and the scythe struck the curved windshield and caromed upward, gouging the glass, ripping loose a piece of silver molding, causing the reaper to spin in a full circle and then lose all balance. Brother Andrew crashed against the side of another car.

All of this… all of it… inside a fractured second.

Immediately Jolt twisted sideways and rolled off the front of the Chevy. He landed on the balls of his feet and leaped backward as two other reapers rose up from hiding and slashed at him with knives.

Th


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e blades glittered with reflected sunlight, and they cut absolutely nothing.

Jolt twisted out of reach, stepped on the bumper, and jumped over their heads. Before he landed, he shot one foot backward in a vicious kick that crashed one reaper into the other. The two of them slammed into Brother Andrew, and the three of them collapsed onto the blacktop. The scythe clattered to the ground nearby.

Jolt landed in a defensive crouch, hands open and ready, knees bent, face displaying equal parts confusion and rage.

“Hey! What the hell are you freaks doing?” he bellowed. “You could have fricking killed me. What, you think I’m a biter? Are you stupid or nuts or blind?”

Brother Andrew pushed himself out from under the two other reapers and climbed to his feet. As he rose, Jolt got his first clear look at the man and his eyes widened.

“Jolt — be careful!” warned Riot, climbing up onto a nearby car.

Brother Andrew bent to retrieve his weapon. He held it in one massive fist and pointed it at Jolt.

“You got one chance, pretty boy,” he said in a voice that was low and gravelly. “Walk away. Leave the little witch with us. She belongs with us. She belongs to  us. Walk off now while you can.”

Jolt looked uncertain. “Who the hell are you?”

Brother Andrew cut a look at Riot. “Didn’t she tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

The big reaper narrowed his eyes. “Who do you think she is?”

“Just a girl,” said Jolt. “A friend. Why?”

Andrew laughed. The other reapers laughed too.

“Look, kid, you don’t know what you stepped into. I don’t know what kind of story Sister Margaret told you or how she convinced you to help her, but she is one of us.” Andrew touched his tattooed scalp. “She bears the mark of the Night Church. She belongs to us.”

Jolt turned his head slightly toward Riot. “What’s he talking about?”

“Don’t listen to him,” she said quickly. “He’s crazy. They all are. And they’re dangerous.”

“More dangerous than you know,” said Brother Andrew. “Saint John and your mother charged me to bring you back. You think we’re here to send you into the darkness, but you’re wrong. That would be easy, and after what you’ve done you don’t get ‘easy.’ You’re going to come back with us, and then you’re going to be on your knees before your mother. You’re going to have to account for everything you’ve done. For all of your crimes. For all of your sins. For—”

“Shut up!” screamed Riot, clapping her hands to her ears. “Just shut up.”

Brother Andrew stopped his tirade, but he laughed quietly, shaking his head with amusement.

“Listen, mister,” said Jolt, “I think you’d better haul your fat butt out of here.”

Brother Andrew took his scythe in both hands. “Boy, you don’t know what kind of trouble you’re asking for. I’m going to tell you one last time — walk away before something that isn’t your business becomes  your business. And believe me, you do not want that.”

“What’s going on?” asked a small voice, and they all turned as Gummi Bear appeared between two wrecked cars. He sat on his bike, leaning on one car for support. The crank siren hung around his neck, and his face was flushed with fear.

“Jolt — get him out of here,” said Riot quickly. “They’ll hurt him.”

Brother Andrew clicked his tongue, and the two reapers with him began to move toward the boy.

“Whoa!” barked Jolt. “What are you cats doing?”

The closest one showed his knife to Jolt. “The greatest mercy of god is the release from pain. We will bless this boy. We will open red mouths in his flesh and give him the gift of darkness. Children should not have to suffer in this land of misery and woe.”

“Gift of darkness? What are you talking about?”

“Jolt — they want to kill him,” said Riot, and she moved across the car tops toward Gummi Bear. “That’s what they do — they kill. They think it’s god’s will, that it’s a way to end suffering.”

“It is ,” said Brother Andrew. He pointed at Gummi Bear. “Look at this child. Ugly and deformed. He’s suffered terribly. Why perpetuate that suffering when we can bring him peace?”

“By killing  him?” demanded Jolt. “I mean, that’s what you’re saying? Am I hearing this right? You want to help Gummi by cutting his throat.”

“Um,” said Gummi Bear as he walked his bike backward, “pass, thanks.”

The two reapers moved to intercept him. Riot instantly moved across the car tops, ready to jump down between them and the boy. She drew her knife and pointed the tip at them.

“Y’all take another step toward that boy and I’ll end you both, right here and now. Tell me if I’m lying.”

“Go ahead,” said Brother Andrew. “We are reapers — to die in the service of our god is but a pathway to paradise.”

“Riot,” said Jolt, “don’t.”

She looked at him. “What?”

“Don’t kill them.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Because,” explained Jolt, “there’s been enough death in the world. We don’t kill. The players, the people in our camp — we don’t kill.”

She stared at him. “Jolt — don’t you get it? These are reapers . That name wasn’t picked ’cause it sounds cool. They want everyone and everything to die . It’s who they are and what they are….”

“But it’s not who we  are. We’re scavengers — we find the things that help people stay alive. Seven billion people have died already…. How many more will it take before the message gets through that killing isn’t an answer to anything?”

Brother Andrew shook his head. “You’re as much of a heretic as she is, and you’re twice as much of a fool.”

Jolt shrugged. “I don’t really know exactly who you are, mister, but I’m beginning to get the idea. Reapers — yeah, I grok  that. You think God wants you to kill everyone. Okay, fair enough, that’s what you believe, and who am I to tell you you’re wrong.”

“Smart boy…”

“But,” said Jolt, “here’s the thing. That’s your  gig, man. That’s what you believe. It sure as heck is a popular belief around here. We got this whole ‘hey, we’re alive and ain’t it cool?’ thing going on. I can respect you for your beliefs, man, but you’re going to have to take them somewhere else. You can’t come into my zone and force your ideas down my throat.”

“This is the will of god.”

“Dude, not really all that interested in a religious debate,” said Jolt. “I’m telling you to leave us alone. You say ‘walk away’ to me? I’m giving you that same message. Beat it. Go.”

“Or—?”

“Or I’ll make you,” said Jolt.

“I thought you said you were a pacifist.”

Jolt suddenly jumped up and kicked Brother Andrew in the face with a lightning-fast snap kick. The big reaper went flying backward and crashed into the side of a car, then slid down to land on the ground, legs sprawled.

“I said that we don’t believe in killing,” said Jolt, smiling down at the fallen reaper. “And you ain’t dead.”

Before Andrew could shake off the shock and pain, Jolt whirled. “Gummi! Get out — go loud and long. Sound it!”

The boy picked his bike up, turned it around, and stood on the pedals to get into motion. The two reapers lunged for him, but then Riot leaped off the top of the car and was among them.

“No killing!” yelled Jolt.

Riot pretended not to hear him.

She crashed into one of the reapers and sent him sprawling, then she wheeled on the other. She and the reaper had knives of almost equal length. Riot knew this man — Brother Colin — and he was a superb knife fighter. He was in an entirely different league from Connie, Griff, and Jason. They began circling each other warily, feinting with their knives but not committing to any attacks yet, looking for an opening.

“Riot… please,” implored Jolt.

Suddenly Brother Andrew surged off the ground, wrapped his arms around Jolt, drove him across ten feet of open space, and slammed into the side of a UPS truck. The impact drove the air from Jolt’s lungs, and for a moment his eyes went blank, then he sagged to his knees.

“No!” cried Riot, and in that moment of distraction Brother Colin lunged, jabbing and slashing at her. Blood erupted from Riot’s upper arm as the reaper’s knife opened up a long gash.

Riot danced backward, hissing in pain, narrowly avoiding a second cut that would have torn open her throat.

In the distance she heard the rising scream of Gummi Bear’s siren.

Was that what Jolt meant? To “sound it”? But why? Calling the living dead now would only take a terrible situation and collapse it into absolute defeat.

Nearby, Brother Andrew grabbed Jolt by the arms, hauled the boy upright, then flung him back against the truck.

The third reaper, Brother Max, climbed to his feet and shifted to Brother Colin’s right. Riot knew that the moment was slipping away. They could come at her in a combined attack that would overwhelm her. She couldn’t block two expert knife fighters at once. That’s why Saint John had sent them out, and why Brother Andrew had picked them for this ambush. Their combined skill was more than a match for hers. The only chance she might have — and it would be a slim one — would be to slaughter them, to go in fast and use every bit of skill she had to cut them apart and kill them.

But Jolt’s words kept ringing in her ears.

We don’t kill. 

There’s been enough death in the world. 

In a flash of a moment, Riot thought of all the lives she’d taken before she realized how horrible the Night Church was. She felt like she now stood ankle-deep in a river of blood. She could feel the bloodlust, the murderlust, burning in her heart and tingling in the fingers of the hand that held the knife. She realized with total horror that she wanted to kill these men; she longed  to open red mouths in their flesh. To give them the gift of darkness.

It was everything her mother had ever taught her.

Everything Saint John had taught her.

It was the thing about her that allowed them to own  her.

The blood hunger, the murder hunger, the need to kill in order to make the world right.

Riot thought she had escaped all of this when she’d run away from the Night Church.

But it was there in her hand. In her pounding ear.

In her need .

“Please,” she said to the two reapers. “Please.”

They rushed at her.

Something inside Riot’s mind… twisted.

She moved.

So fast.

As she had been taught.

Their blades drove toward her flesh. She parried hard, knocking one hand aside so that the tip of the knife drove through the empty air an inch from her hip. With the other hand she snapped the tip of the blade down, finding flesh, finding bone.

There was a scream.

There was blood.

Brother Colin’s knife dropped to clatter on the ground.

Riot moved, turning lithely. She may not have been able to dance a bicycle like Gummi Bear or run like the desert wind over every obstacle like Jolt, but in this, in the dance of blades and bodies, she was perfection in form and function. Elegant, in the way that perfect control can be elegant even in the commission of a violent act. Smooth, effortless, flawless.

Riot turned, and the blade whipped across Brother Max, cutting cloth and skin. Finding the redness beneath flesh. Drawing drops of it out in a spray of rubies. Drawing the scream out.

She turned in, completing a dancer’s pirouette, coming to an abrupt stop as if painted on the canvas of the moment. Brother Max was on his knees, arms crossed over his chest, holding his blood inside. Brother Colin leaned against a car, one hand clamped over a ruined forearm. Both of them torn by her knife.

Both of the them only  torn.

Both of them alive.

“Riot,” said Jolt.

She stood there, panting, eyes wide and unfocused, staring through the world.

“Riot,” he said again.

And she looked at him.

Jolt leaned against the truck; Brother Andrew held him in place with a flat palm on his chest and a fist the size of a bucket poised to deliver a killing blow.

Brother Andrew sneered at her, at her refusal to kill. “How far you’ve fallen, little witch.”

He drove the punch at Jolt.

Jolt laughed.

He suddenly dropped into a low squat, letting his body simply go limp in a deadweight plunge. Andrew’s hand slid with him, and the incoming punch missed Jolt’s curly blond hair by ten inches.

It did not miss the side of the truck.

The impact was huge, a massive ka-rang  that shook the whole vehicle.

The sound was so loud it masked the sound of all the bones in Andrew’s fist breaking.

The echo of the sound bounced off all the cars. It drew moans from the dead — the closest of which were now no more than a dozen paces away.

Brother Andrew did not scream.

He stared at his shattered fist, and for a moment the only sound he made, the only sound he was capable of making, was a high-pitched whistle that approached the ultra-sonic.

Jolt rose to his feet and shoved Brother Andrew away from him. The big reaper staggered back, his face flushing scarlet as he fought to articulate his agony.

“Finish it,” cried Riot.

Jolt looked at her. “What?”

“Kill him!” begged Riot. “While you still have the chance.”

The young man glanced at Andrew, who reeled away from him, cradling his hand against his chest and making small keening sounds.

“No,” said Jolt. “It’s over; he’s done.”

“He’s not .”

“Yes, he is.” He looked past her at the two wounded reapers. “They all are.”

“No… you don’t understand…. There are more of them out there.”

Jolt pointed past her and she turned. Beyond the line of cars, near the town and coming hard in their direction, was a mass of people. Fifty of them. A hundred. More. Riding in front of them, his siren still wailing, was Gummi Bear.

Riot lowered her knife.

The dead were getting closer now, climbing over the locked bumpers of crashed cars.

Jolt walked over to Brother Andrew’s scythe, hooked his foot under the handle, kicked it into the air, caught it, and then spun his whole body and hurled the weapon as far away as he could. It arced over the cars and over the heads of the oncoming mass of zees. It fell out of sight, its clatter of impact lost beneath the moans of the dead.

Brother Andrew looked in the direction of his lost weapon and then turned slowly back to Jolt. His eyes were wet with unshed tears of pain, but his face was a mask of murderous fury.

“Jolt…,” pleaded Riot, “please… you have to….”

But Jolt shook his head. “I told you already, Riot. There’s been enough killing.”

Brother Andrew managed a small, tight smile. “She’s right, boy,” he wheezed. “This is your only chance.”

Jolt caught Andrew by the throat and stood him up, leaning in close to stare the man in the face. “Get your sick friends and get the hell out of here. You don’t belong around decent folks.”

He shoved the big reaper away from him and pointed to the only path through the cars that was not blocked by any of the living dead.

Andrew growled at the others to go, but he lingered at the mouth of the narrow path.

“You think you did something smart and noble here,” he said. “But all you did was cry out for the wrath of god. The darkness will come for you. It will come for you and everyone you love… and I’ll be there to see it happen.”

Jolt just shook his head. “Go.”

Brother Andrew looked past him at Riot.

“This is on you, girl. You know that we’ll be back. You know what we’ll do.”

Riot pointed her knife at him. “If I ever see you again, Andrew, I’m going to kill you.”

The reaper smiled. “Ah… now that’s my girl.”

He turned and lumbered away, trailed by his bleeding companions.

Riot hurried over to Jolt and got right up in his face. “He’s not joking, Jolt; they will  be back.”

“I guess they will.”

She studied him. “Y’all are barn-owl crazy.”

Jolt grinned. “Been told that.”

“Why are you doing this?” she demanded, her voice a fierce whisper. “Y’all are stepping into harm’s way here, and you don’t even know  me.”

“Does that matter? How long does a person have to know someone before they do what’s right? You’re a girl out here, starving and fighting for her life. Am I supposed to just ignore all that? What kind of person would that make me? What kind of world would that make? Look, Riot, I wasn’t joking about what I said. How much killing is enough? How much pain is enough? When do we stop and say ‘that’s it, no more’?”

Riot opened her mouth to respond, but she didn’t know how to answer those questions.

“The world that died couldn’t answer those questions either,” he said, and gave a small shrug. “The people Gummi and I travel with — we don’t pretend to know all  the answers, but we’re working on them.” His grin returned, brighter than ever. “And we’re having some fun while we work it out.”

“Y’all are definitely crazy,” said Riot, and she too grinned.

The dead, smelling blood on the air, moaned in hunger. They crawled over the cars toward the living meat.

“Time to go,” said Jolt, and he started to turn away. Then he paused and reached out a hand to her. “Want to come…?”

She gave it a lot of thought. Maybe a full second.

Then she took his hand, and together they climbed onto the nearest car.

“Let’s go!” bellowed Jolt. He let out a huge whoop of sheer joy, took two running steps across the hood, and then jumped high and wide, sailing over the heads and mouths and reaching arms of the biters.

Riot watched him — his strong back, his lithe body.

What in tarnation have you got yourself into, girl?  she wondered.

Behind her the dead were massing, scrambling over the cars now like a swarm of wriggling worms. Off the road, hundreds of people were rushing toward her, coming to help her and Jolt. People she did not know. Orphans and refugees. Scavengers.

Friends?

Maybe. As strange as that concept was.

But what kind of friend could she be to them? Brother Andrew was right. He would be back. The reapers were out there, and there were so many of them. If they came in force, what could a couple of hundred people do?

“Please,” she said to the hot air. But she did not know exactly what she was asking for. She watched Jolt run and leap and twist and land and run. “Please.”

Riot cast one last look behind her, to where Brother Andrew had gone.

“Please,” she begged.

The reapers would come for her.

No, that wasn’t quite right. They would come for Sister Margaret. They would come for the girl who once belonged to them, to the Night Church.

Maybe they would not find her. Maybe by the time they came back the scavengers would have moved on to another town. And another. Maybe if it took too long to find her, the reapers would give up.

She hoped so.

She desperately wanted them to understand that the girl they were looking for did not exist anymore. Not a trace of her.

The girl she had been, Sister Margaret, was dead and gone.

She turned and ran and leaped and followed, hoping that she was free.


THE END

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