The world outside of the city isn’t what I thought it would be. The media has been lying, and they’ve done it for months, but for whose benefit I’m not sure. They made it look like vampyrs were the only threat, like they’d holed us up and contained us, like humanity was living out life normally, safely, like they’d beaten the threat into submission.
They never thought that what could take them out was hiding down below, lurking within them. We knew that the media picture wasn’t entirely true. We saw the experiments. We heard Shapiro tell us of the plague. But he made it seem so small, so containable, so… manageable.
Fix it or destroy it before it spreads, he said.
It’s wasn’t, or at least it’s not anymore. Humanity is a dying breed. They’re overcome by nature. They’re evolving. One minute you have this living, healthy, fragile human, and the next you have a new vampyr, young and bloodthirsty and ignorant of what’s happening to them. I have wondered if it might be better for some not to have a maker, some like me. But for most, like Alice and Dana, without a maker, a good maker, they have no conception of how to process their overwhelming emotions, of how to handle all of their heightened senses and feelings so that they can contain their urges.
And when this happens, even if the vampyr is somehow aware, able to contain himself, if he’s really no different than who he ever was, he can’t tell a soul. Why? Because he is a villain to what once was his family, his community, his life.
He has two choices: say something anyway or fight his way to freedom.
Both are bloody and painful.
If he tells, he is murdered immediately, cruelly. How quickly humans turn on their own out of fear of what they do not understand and refuse to accept. And if he fights… he becomes the very thing that he claims he is not, and then the humans are justified in killing him anyway.
And they will kill him, no matter how far he almost gets.
So the natural has become a global epidemic, a civil war, and, if I’m honest with myself, an extinction event all at once.
I was wrong to believe that we could coexist with the humans, and not because coexistence isn’t the right course of thought in circumstances such as they were. I was wrong because the circumstances have changed. We have no need to coexist because we are all the same. And for those who aren’t, it’s only a matter of time.
It’s no longer just children afflicted with the change. All are susceptible. Such is the reach of nature, and she is crushing humanity from the inside.
How do you fight your own biological makeup?
Why would you try?
I cannot understand it. I only know that it’s happening. Cities are empty but for carnage and ruin. The air is thick with departed souls and the odor of burned flesh. Fires overrun the forests and consume the landscape. Evidence of military intervention leaves craters of destruction dotting the surface of a blood stained earth where nothing has been permitted to survive. City after city is abandoned and wrecked and left the world a ghost town. But perhaps the most chilling aspect is what we found at the end of our journey: the human commune.
Those who have not changed have been evacuated to Atlanta Georgia. This is where the planes have led us, causing us to stumble across the remains of a grisly story of senseless death everywhere we’ve been. There is nothing left of life outside of this one place, and more and more are flown here from all over the world every day.
Atlanta Georgia, the Center for Disease Control, it is humanity’s last stand.
They are given food and shelter and medical care. They are protected from themselves, or at least that is the lie that they choose to believe. We do not know what is happening inside the main facility, but if we look at what we have seen of state-of-the-art science, it cannot be pleasant. This is Lilith’s grand stage.
I cannot understand her motivation here. Compelling them, giving them the hope of survival and the means to seek it out… for what end? She has to know that they can’t stop the transition from happening and she would not suffer them to live. It is against everything that she believes in. It is against everything that she stands for.
I can only assume that these people are a distraction and a buffer for protection. But from what? She has made wiping us out her mission, their mission, and she is close to success. Why is she pulling them all here, seeking to destroy her own children and cling to the animals that she despises?
Whatever the reason, she is protecting them well. Fortified fences form a wide ring around the facility, and it’s heavily guarded, housing rows of tents filled with what’s left of human life. I have spent the last two months observing them, trying to find a way past their fences, past their protective forces, through the throng of puppets, and into the heart of the facility at their center, but I cannot find a way.
It’s all so… macabre, almost grotesque. I get this feeling that this is all just a grand stage, some sort of twisted puppet show. It’s as if Lilith has made herself empress over those she hates to watch them squabble and toil, and then only to die with her false hopes as they seek to rid the earth of us, her children, the betrayers. This feeling is all encompassing. But for all that I’ve seen and felt while watching these humans, the most unsettling aspect is that I have not seen one child.
Not a single baby or adolescent or teenager…
And not one woman heavy with pregnancy…
This war and the humans that perpetuate it are killing themselves over nothing and they don’t even seem to realize it. But it’s more than that: they’re taking us down with them.
I can’t help but think of Tina, of our child, and worry so profoundly that my heart feels as if it’s made of crystal, like one single touch will send it crumbling into glassy sand.
Where they went, how they could survive out in this…
I can’t think of a way, but then I can’t think of the alternative either.
It feels as if I can’t think at all.
I feel… murky, my head clouded, like I’m walking alone through a fog without any sense of hearing, touch, or smell. And yet, others are there, turning to me. They speak to me, their eyes wide with the need for help, for a plan, for reassurance, for leadership. I have nothing to give them, no more wisdom or understanding of what to make of this world than they themselves can comprehend.
I don’t know anything more than they do. I’ve only seen what they’ve seen. But I do know Lilith. And as much as it kills me to realize it, even I am completely at a loss in this situation.
What is she doing?
Why is she doing it?
It’s beyond my comprehension.
So I stare through my own friends, even as they are waiting for me to speak, to respond, to give them hope that isn’t false. I see their mouths move, but no sound reaches my ears. It’s been that way since we got to the CDC. They, for the most part, have stopped trying. I’m both grateful and disheartened. I know that they’re ragged. I didn’t want this mantle or the responsibility that comes with it, but here I am, saddled to our success or failure and having no way to avoid the latter.
We have an ample source of food from the earth, but there is nowhere to give real shelter. Even if we squat in a ruined or abandoned building for a time, long enough to sleep and try to revive, there’s only a temporary reprieve before another cleansing party comes crashing into town with mortars, armor, and weapons.
And the satellite…
When Tasha described it as a beam of death from above she wasn’t kidding. It’s red, searing hot, and maps across the earth quickly tearing up any and everything in its destructive path.
It’s for these reasons that we’ve lost several of our own along the way. There are only eleven of us now, and I can see the emotional turmoil on each face. We have not encountered one survivor, human or vampyr during our time out here, that is not bent on killing us. In a span of eight months total, running, dodging, hiding, following the military, waiting… we are weary.
Eight months… if Tina is alive, she may already have brought our child into this desolate world, and if I’m honest with myself, I have to recognize that this is a big if.
One tiny word has the power to bring me to my knees. And that’s why I’ve been completely disconnected from her. It’s my fault. I know that if I allow myself to see her, I will not be able to push forward.
So, I’ve subconsciously avoided my dreams. I still feel her, just like I always have. Only now, I refuse to accept the worst. I choose to believe, to know that she’s alive, somehow, somewhere, away from this. But I cannot bring myself to face her, not yet.
What if there is nowhere away from this.
What if I sleep to find her and she’s just not there?
What if she is and she sees just how low I have gone?
No, she loves me, all of me, dark and light.
But what if?
No, it is better to wait. If I get the wrong answers, I will not care about this world anymore. Why fight for something that will be void even if we somehow make it perfect?
None of this means anything without her.
Either way, coming back from this will take centuries. Humans, even while dwindling in number, have decimated us and the earth. They do not care about the cost and they hold all of the weapons of mass destruction at their disposal. If I can’t get to Lilith, kill her to remove the compulsion and soon, all will be lost.
I cannot help but consider that maybe Dylan, Carmen, and Helena were right: if we hide and wait this out, perhaps they will just destroy themselves and then we can take back the earth, try to repopulate it, help it to thrive once again, a new world…
But the cynical part of me, the dark part of me that will always be there lurking – it knows.
It knows that time is all that Lilith needs, though it doesn’t know why.
What good is it to kill everything, everyone? How does that help her, delight her?
I hear the snapping of a twig and lower my binoculars to look for the cause of the sound. A search party is the last thing that we need. I see Dana and relax, again lifting the goggles to my eyes to continue my watch on the movement within the CDC fences. They’re burning what’s left of the dismembered bodies from the day’s turnings.
Approximately one person changes every hour and the planes bring in twenty to fifty refugees twice a day, and that’s on top of the hundreds that were already camped here. At this rate, we’ll be waiting out here for several more months for them to all just die if we don’t find a way to act.
Lilith wants this. She must. There is no other explanation. And as such, I cannot let that happen. We need an answer now. How could we possibly get past all of those people and into the CDC without detection?
“Bette, I’ve been avoiding this, but it’s time. We have to do something.”
I sigh and keep watching the humans, the military patrols, anything for the slightest glimpse of an opening in their stringent routine. It’s all I know to do.
I know that Dana’s right, that we have to do something, but what and how?
We can’t just walk in there…
I scan the perimeter again along the fence, looking for anything that will give me an idea, a glimmer of hope and possibility.
There’s a hand to my shoulder. “Bette, you can’t ignore me, and you can’t ignore the problem.”
I lower the binoculars angrily. “I’m not ignoring anything, but the endless whining and prattling doesn’t help either, Dana.”
Her face saddens and I sigh, gripping the hand on my shoulder in apology. “Listen, I didn’t ask to be your leader. You wanted me to lead. Now please, if you want to help, I can use all the help that I can get, but I don’t know yet, Dane. I just don’t.”
She looks out at the commune. “Bette, we’ve been in Atlanta for two months now, moving around what’s left of the city and keeping our distance to avoid detection, but how long do you think that’s going to last? If one of those scouting parties finds us again…”
I know all too well what will happen: we’ll be dead. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Paige and two others had been the only ones found the other night, we’d all be dead now. We listened, cowardly and helplessly, as they were destroyed.
And we did nothing.
Dana’s hand drops from my shoulder. “We need to either leave this place, or find a way in.”
I gesture to the commune. “I’ve been watching them since we got here, trying to find a weakness that we can exploit. There just isn’t one. We’d be killed before we even reached the fence. So, I’m open to suggestions.”
Dana looks at me helplessly before gazing out across the scorched expanse of city and earth to the fortified CDC and droves of guarded humans camping around it. Her face says it all: she doesn’t know a way either.
I lift the binoculars and continue my vigil, hoping that this conversation is over, at least for the moment.
There has to be a way inside.
But there isn’t.
“We don’t know if Lilith is even in there, Bette.”
I feel for the low churning in my stomach but my emotions are all over the place. My senses are not telling. I can’t say with one hundred percent accuracy that she is here.
But…, “Where else would she be, Dana? This is the end of the world, and this is the last kingdom, so to speak. They’re compelled and she’s having them brought here. She has to be here. You’ve seen and heard for yourself. There’s nowhere else. This is all that’s left, or at least, it’s soon to be all that’s left.”
“They’re still evacuating some areas down south, and France, Germany, and parts of Russia…”
I glance over at her ruefully and she grimaces before nodding in defeat. The whole of the world to draw from, and those few places are all that’s left?
“Why Atlanta,” she asks rhetorically.
I watch as several soldiers converge on a woman whose come running out of one of the tents, a man following behind her and slowly lifting his hands. She’s crying and shouting as she points to him. The soldiers fire on him immediately, but he uses one for cover and then knocks the other two back with the body still in him arms.
He takes one step toward the woman, reaching a gentle hand out to her as if he’s trying to reason with her, but she won’t listen to him. A spotlight lands right on him and I glance up at the tower to see the watch soldier take aim with a rifle.
Whatever the woman just said to the vampyr has caused him to drop to his knees. Like a spotlight on a stage, his demise is eminent for Lilith’s enjoyment.
I’ve seen this before, all such scenes a little different but always with the same result. I know what it means, and I can’t do anything but watch as the distant sound of gunfire ricochets through the silent evening and obliterates the heart within his chest.
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust…
I nod curtly at Dana’s question and continue to watch as they start to clean up his remains and check the woman over for injuries.
I wonder how long he had been waiting to tell her…
How long he had been hiding amongst the humans…
How long had he been fighting his instincts before hunger got the best of him and he said something…
How long before he reached out to his wife for understanding and support, only to be turned over and gunned down like a rabid animal, all for merely existing.
Did he tell right away? He was compelled to hate vampyrs.
Did he hate himself?
I imagine that he fought the compulsion, found a loop-hole in the brainwashing to fulfill the preternatural pull of survival.
He could have no faith in those around him. He knew; he knew what he was and what it meant to his life, his wife’s life.
He must have told her, and she went running for help.
I’d ask why she would do such a thing, but then I have to keep reminding myself that these people, their minds, are not their own.
They have no will, no say, only instructions.
It’s odd. The longer that I live the more that I realize that slavery is present in all aspects of life, one way or another. We may believe that we’ve come a long way, but in reality, we have not. We are still petty, selfish, afraid, and look for the easy way out, the convenient end.
Is that human nature?
And if it is, do I really want to be counted amongst humanity’s number?
I want to laugh at myself for my thoughts, but anyone looking in, and they all are, would find me mentally unsound. It may be true, but I can’t risk mistrust, especially not now. No, I have to hold it together, find a way in, try and stop something that I may only be able to stave off for a short while longer.
In the end, evil will still be here. I know that. But how do I fight evil without becoming evil?
How long did he fight his needs and his instinct, pretend to be like them, to hate himself while living among them?
Or… maybe… maybe that’s it…
I lower the binoculars. “Dana… get Shapiro.”
She glances over at me questioningly.
“Now,” I say. “And don’t alert anyone else. I want him alone. Hurry, please.”
I watch her disappear behind the ruined brick wall and down a flight of crumbling, scorched steps, and I wait and hope. Maybe I was wrong, maybe there’s a third option for those within: pretend. Hide, keep your mouth shut and hope that you can hold off the hunger.
That can only last so long though…
I hear Dana return and see that she’s with both Shapiro and Alice. I should have known…
Dana’s face is mildly apologetic and she shrugs as they approach. I can’t help but shake my head at her as Alice, of course, starts questioning me. “What’s going on?”
I ignore her and address Shapiro in a much quieter voice, barely above a whisper. “What makes us different than the humans?”
He cocks his head at me as if I’m daft. “Well, we’re stronger, faster, our senses are ten times more potent…”
I shake my head at him. “No, I mean, in our bodies, our blood. Is there something in there that makes what we are easily distinguishable to the humans? How can they tell us from them unless they’re told?”
He seems to think about this. “Well, when I looked at Tina’s blood, nothing in there gave me any indication that she wasn’t just another pregnant, human woman.”
Okay, this is good, but… “But, we are different; our bodies are different. How can they tell us from them?”
He takes a deep breath and paces a few steps. “Well, before, indicators were no pulse, a lower body temperature, etc, but those things don’t apply anymore. After the change, the only way for me to determine if someone was genuinely vampyr, was to run a chromosomal workup from a blood, skin, hair, or saliva sample. The blood itself, while determined by the passing of chromosomes, doesn’t immediately give away any chromosomal abnormalities. You have to run it through a series of tests to get that kind of information. Ultimately though, without extensive testing, we all look pretty much the same inside.”
I step closer to him. “So there’s no way to detect someone changing?”
“Well, I don’t know. Everyone I tended to had already changed.”
“So you didn’t see anything strange with just a blood sample?”
He shakes his head but then stops. “Well, I noticed a large amount of antibodies in the blood, as if the body was fighting off an infection. But after a day or so, once the transition completed, the antibody levels returned to normal.”
I step closer again. “So, unless someone has recently changed or they’re undergoing a full chromosomal workup, there’s no way to tell?”
My proximity seems to make him nervous, so he steps back. “Um, yes.”
Dana is the first to catch on. “Bette, you aren’t seriously contemplating pretending to be human to get inside…”
I stare at her for a few moments while she struggles with this information. She finally swallows so loudly that the resulting gulp is almost comical. “You… you’re serious.”
“If it doesn’t work, we’ll be slaughtered, all of us.”
I sigh. “Then we need to consider what to do if we’re caught.”
Alice breaks in loudly. “That’s insane, Bette!”
Dana clamps her hand over Alice’s mouth, and after a moment of heated telepathy, she releases a forcibly calmer Alice.
Her voice is no less grating, but it is quieter. “You’ll get us all killed!”
I look out around us, my point very clear. “If we try, we could die. If we don’t try, we will die.”
It’s even quieter as they all think about this and I can see that it’s asking a lot for them to trust my hunch and Shapiro’s limited experience, so I try to find a more definitive answer. “Shapiro, when they bring people in, we’ve seen them using some sort of scanner on their wrists. I assume that it’s for the RFID chip?”
He nods. “All humans have them. It was mandatory within the first week of containing the vampyr threat, just before humans started to change without a maker. It’s the only way through the barriers, and scanning them would give them a complete medical and personal history at-a-glance right on the handheld… including chromosomal data.”
There goes the extra reassurance. “Okay, so we need to be chipped with fake identities then?”
He smiles. “Now that, I know would work. They’d trust the RFIDs.”
I again look out at the desolate earth around us. We’ve not found one human or vampyr, living or dead. We didn’t need the hands when we left NYC because the barriers had been destroyed in the culling. And even if we could find some humans, how would we get a microscopic chip extracted and re-implanted?
Okay, one step at a time. We need living humans to harvest.
I feel my stomach roil as I glance over at the commune. There’s a massive supply of identities to steal right there, but they’ll have already been scanned in. It has to be humans still unaccounted for and either way, it means cold-blooded murder.
I sit down heavily and pinch the bridge of my nose, letting the headache and exhaustion overtake me as I give myself over to the darkness within me.
There’s no other way.
“Shapiro, if we could find some humans that aren’t accounted for, how would we get the chips out?”
He sighs and sits next to me. “Those same scanners are also used for injection and extraction. It uses a glorified magnet of sorts to pull the chip up out of the flesh. It then ejects it into a small tube of fluid for preservation.”
Alice and Dana plunk down in front of us and Alice asks another question. “Why would they need to extract them?”
“Espionage and wet work,” Shapiro says simply. “The government can implant them into an enemy, like they did with Isis and before them, Bin Laden, and do it so covertly that the target won’t even know it. The chip then tracks and monitors his every word, movement, his sleep schedule, what he had for dinner… everything… and feeds it back to the NSA. When they capture the target, or he’s no longer needed for intel, they never leave the chip behind. It’s a loose end if it’s discovered, and those guys don’t want the public knowing when they get their hands dirty.”
He shrugs. “So, they extract it, usually from a corpse.”
I furrow my brows, again wondering if there is any real hope for the survival of not just life, but light.
“Okay, so we need to get our hands on one of those scanners.”
I look up at Dana and nod.
“How,” Alice asks.
Dana and I don’t take our eyes off of each other and I can see the understanding in her eyes.
Alice isn’t far to follow. “No! No way!”
Dana again has to cover her mouth, but it no longer matters. The others are awake. I can hear rustling down below and Duffy is quick to make her way up the steps.
“What’s going on?”
I stand wearily and glare at Alice before answering Duffy’s question. “We have an idea, maybe a plan.”
Duffy is immediately alert. “What is it?”
I glance out at the commune and Alice answers for us. “Suicide.”
For all that Duffy does to irritate me, she really does have her redeeming qualities. In the six months that it took to get to the CDC, and especially the two months sitting stagnant and, I’ll admit, directionless, gave her ample time to let me know how much she disapproves of me.
I can’t say that I blame her. It’s my leadership that got half of our number killed. And it was my leadership that forced us to hide, to sit by while three of our own were slaughtered.
That was my call.
That’s on me.
It was my responsibility, they were my responsibility, and I failed them.
I feel like life has been one giant ass kicking, one mistake after another, sins that I should pay for with my life mounting up and weighing down my soul.
I only hope that their deaths weren’t in vain.
If I’m wrong…
Well, that’s something that I will have to live or die with.
After a log talk with everyone: Duffy, Jamie, Helena, Carmen, Alice, Dana, Dylan, Shapiro, Tasha, and Addie, we reached an agreement on how this is going to play out.
Duffy, despite all of her disapproval, volunteered for the most dangerous job in this plan: she will be bait.
She will lure the search party into an ambush, and if the rest of us do our jobs right, she will survive it.
It won’t be easy. Their parties tend to be three large military issued Humvees, each fitted with a swivel turret on top and loaded with six armored passengers, each packing enough wooden firepower to drop a small army of vampyrs quickly and efficiently.
More than that, they’re trained, professional killers. And if none of this is dangerous enough, they’re pure in their mission, united in their goal, brainwashed into one single unit of death and destruction.
The hardest part will be getting around the suits and the turret gunners, but we have a plan for both of these dangers. That’s why all but Duffy are waiting up as high as we can get onto what’s left of the rooftops.
The turret gunners are our first priority. As for the armor, we plan to force them to at least remove their masks. Looking around in the abandoned areas of the city, we were able to recover some ping pong balls, foil, and a few knives. Shapiro assured us that this was all that we’d need. We’re all skeptical about that reassurance, but it’s all we have and it’s a quiet option. We need to keep the noise level to a minimum.
Ultimately though, keeping the noise down will be impossible. All the search party has to do is fire one shot, and the CDC camp will know that a threat somewhere in the ruined city is being eliminated. But when these soldiers don’t come back, this area will officially be the most hostile territory on the planet, and that’s saying something.
One way or the other though, this plan will finish this mess. There’s no going back, only forward, even if forward is death. It’s not comforting to know that guerilla warfare and our superior physicality is really all that stands between us and annihilation. We’ll have to move fast but in the end, all we can do is hope for the best.
“She’s coming,” Carmen calls out.
I glance to my left to see Duffy making a beeline down the street, the lights of four Humvees roughly one hundred yards behind her gunning their engines as small spirts of flame ignite at the end of several gun barrels.
Fuck. “There’s another vehicle,” I point out
I glance over at Helena across the street and she nods in understanding. “I’ve got him.”
“Okay, I’ve got the first one.”
“Second,” Dana says.
“Third,” follows Alice.
“I always get the leftovers,” Helena jokes and we all smile. It helps to break the tension, but only for a moment as Duffy dives behind a ruined car within the ambush perimeter, barely avoiding the bullets chasing her.
She looks up at me, her face bloody, her chest heaving, and I wait until the trucks are nearly on top of her before nodding to her. She takes off again, bullets whizzing past, some hitting her and sending bursts of red into the night, until she goes tumbling headfirst over the edge of a broken crater in the street.
The Humvees skid to a halt in the center of the ambush and I lower my voice to just a whisper, my heart pounding in my ears as I wait.
“Wait,” I say.
The doors on the vehicles open and armored soldiers come spilling out, some waiting at the cover of their crafts and taking aim as others move ahead to catch their prey.
“Wait,” I command again.
Four of them move cautiously up to the edge of the split street and peer over, and I realize that it’s time.
“Now,” I say.
Several things happen at once: the hiss of several foil covered ping balls igniting reaches my ears as the sour smell of white smoke spills out of them and hits my lungs. Shouts and gunshots erupt from below as the area begins to become swallowed up in our homemade smoke.
“Now,” again I command louder this time, and like one, four of us drop from the rooftops right onto the vehicles as the rest of us spill out from their hiding places along the street. I’m quick to snap the neck of my turret gunner and look around me to see all but Helena has succeeded. She’s been hit. She’s clutching at her chest frantically as the remaining gunner removes his helmet and fires into the smoke wildly, hitting several of us on the street.
I grab the helmet of my own dead gunner, rip the visor from its face, and hurl it at the last turret gunner. The visor slices through the side of his head like warm butter, leaving the turret to go slack. Quickly, I pull out the body in my way and settle myself into the swivel, using the hollow point bullets to tear through any exposed, enemy that I can find.
It’s just not enough with the armor, even as I watch gore and blood burst into the smoke, and even as I become the thing that I hate to save those whom I love.
“BETTE! BEHIND YOU!”
I turn in the bucket and see a wooden tipped baton coming straight for my heart, the face of the soldier wielding it one of rage and hate. But before I fully realize what’s happening, the wood has penetrated. I grip it on reflex and try to force it away from its mark, but I can feel the tip graze along the quickly pumping muscle inside.
I never wanted to know that feeling again. It seems almost worse now that my heart beats because each thump only takes grates more of wood into the sensitive flesh, as if it’s trying to leap to its death at the point of a stake and take my life with it.
My life means nothing, not really.
I could let go right now and never have to feel that feeling ever again.
No more worry…
No more pain…
Just blissful oblivion…
It’s just my life…
My inconsequential life…
Tina is my life…
“NO,” I shout, something dark and primal inside of me blurring my vision yet somehow sharpening my senses. I feel as though I’m on autopilot, like I’ve let go of the wheel to allow myself to careen out of danger and into a speeding disaster of another kind.
With a renewed sense of urgency, I shove the baton back, throwing the soldier off balance. Newly armed, I leap easily from my alcove, landing hard on his back. He’s hardly fazed due to the armor, but he has no idea what he’s just unleashed on himself.
I feel time slow down as I wedge the baton between his teeth and use my knee to crush his skull forward into the cracked pavement. The sweet smell of blood fills me as the wet snapping sound of his head splitting in two against the asphalt sends a trickling excitement down my spine.
Once it’s done, it’s not enough to assuage my bloodlust. I take to the one firing on a slow and injured Carmen, rushing him from behind, gripping his helmet in both hands, and twisting until I hear the snap of his neck. But then I keep going, unscrewing his head from his shoulders completely.
I heft the delightful weight of his death in my hands before hurling it hard like a bowling ball at the soldier about to stake a fallen Addie. The force causes him to miss her heart, but impale her. They both scream as they’re tossed over the edge to a hideous death on the jagged rocks below.
Even over the cacophony surrounding me, I hear the pounding of heavy, frantic feet in the alley to my left and without thought, snap to position in front of the soldier’s retreat. He attempts to fire his weapon on me but the click of an empty clip is his only defense. He drops the gun to lift his hands and I stare at him for a moment. That moment is all he needed to hurl a small stake belted to his thigh at my chest.
It hits hard, plunging deep into my abdomen, but I don’t feel it, even as I pull it out and watch blood seep freely from the wound. When I look up again, I see that he’s turned back and to street. I’m quick to catch up to him and kick him in the ass, sending him sprawling onto the asphalt in front of the Humvees.
Something deep within me roars with pleasure at the smell of fear coursing through his veins. He tries to right himself, to again run, to plead with those around him for assistance, but none of them come to his aid.
He would have killed them.
He has been killing them for months.
None of his friends are alive to help.
Instead, I feel an audience of eyes burning trails along my skin as if they’re seeing me for the first time, as if I’m a stranger.
I pick him up and pull the helmet from his head.
“Please… no! Oh God, please!”
I grab the neck of his armor and pull hard, tearing the flexible areas where the thin, light-weight plates meet and exposing the soft, cloth covered flesh below. I want to feel his entrails as I bury my hands in them, pull them from his stomach, and wrap them around his throat to cut off his screams.
Once choking on his own intestines, I pull the remaining feet out of the open cavity, knot them around a nearby piece of rebar in the ruined sidewall of what was once a parking garage, and hurl him up over a piece sticking out from what once was the second floor.
His neck snaps and he goes limp as the organic noose finds the bottom of gravity, leaving him swaying and dripping a few feet above me.
I turn in time to see Alice help Dana dispatch the last soldier standing on the street and everyone else, alive but injured and still staring at. I feel remorse, not for the man that I just tortured, but for that fact that there are none left for me to visit my vengeance.
I need more. I need to…
I stumble back a bit, the anger draining away and leaving me empty and mostly numb. They are still gaping at what I just did, but they have looked away from me in disgust. I want to shout at them, remind them that wanted me. Now that they see what I’m truly capable of, maybe they’ll consider what I said. I’m not gracious or loving. I’m not fit to lead. Only Tina knew how to find a balance.
But Tina knows me, and she loves me anyway.
Only she can love even when it’s impossible.
She would not judge me so.
Dana and Alice are the only ones who seem unfazed as they go to check on Duffy and locate Addie, and I find myself wanting to hide, to get away from accusing eyes, but there is nowhere to go and I still need them.
Maybe it’s better this way: to be feared, not loved.
They didn’t love me to begin with.
I didn’t want this. I only wanted to stop all of this, to never feel this way again, but I don’t have a choice. I don’t know how to draw the line, to moderate. Is there such a thing as killing someone, murdering them, with compassion?
I feel a sickness roil in my stomach and begin to wonder if I’ll go too far to come back from it this time. Even if Tina is alive, our child, what kind of spouse and parent can I be?
I lift a shaking hand, the blood still warm as it soaks the skin, and see the glint of a promise staring back up at me. I just need to hold on, to get through this. All other things will heal in time… won’t they? Or will it always be this way?
I scrub my right thumb over the scuffed, silver surface to try and frantically remove the taint from it, but it won’t come off.
I close my eyes. I have a job to do. I can’t stop now. It’s too late. We need to get moving.
I hear scuffling and see a limping Duffy coming forward with Alice and Dana behind her. No one says a word but she puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes gently. How strange it is to find understanding in her eyes.
Just as quickly as the touch arrived, it’s gone. She slaps her hands together twice. “Come on. Get the armor and weapons, and find a scanner. We have a plane to catch in Florida.”
Dana and Alice come up next to me and I don’t look at either of them as I move to Helena. I can’t tell if she’s afraid of me, judgmental, or just quiet because of the pain, but she needs help. The need for assistance wins over all possibilities, and I’m able to remove the bullets riddling her chest.
She’s lucky. A few of these bullets only barely missed thier target.
Finally the others begin to move, to help each other and I’m thankful that I’m no longer their main focus. No matter what they think of me, we have a war to fight.
Everyone but Addie is accounted for and cleaned up. I look over the gaping edge of the split highway, and I can only assume the worst. Another one is lost, and it’s my fault.
More than that, I’m monster.
The heaviness in the air is accusing as we begin to salvage weapons and armor, scanners found in the backs of the vehicles. Once we’re all changed, everyone files into a vehicle, leaving one completely empty.
I suppose that it shouldn’t matter that clearly no one wants to ride with me. They’ll still do what I say, now more than ever. I’ve never needed love or reassurance before, not from anyone but Tina. And I know what I’ll find when… if, I find her. She’ll love me, and that’s all that I need.
She has to still love me, or I’ll never get to come back.
Do we get to come back?
Isn’t once all we get?
Alice takes the turret on the remaining Humvee and Duffy the wheel. Dana holds the back door open, and I release a heavy breath as I climb inside and she follows. It’s not long before the ruined remains of the city start to pass by outside of the window, and I close my eyes, the call of exhaustion, both emotional and physical, too much to stave off.
I blink my eyes and look around me. This area is vast and dry, gently rolling hills of sand glinting silver in the dust like small, muted stars or newly uncovered diamonds. The sky is always gray because of the new sun, but this is different. It all seems so surreal, as if all color has been leeched away.
Somehow though, it’s quiet… peaceful… and I feel the familiar hum of contentment low in my stomach.
I look around me, my eyes searching, my ears pricked, my heart thrumming. I don’t sense anything else, just the low hum of her proximity, and I smile as I realize that this feeling is all I need.
It is life sustaining.
I use it to guide me toward her. She’s here, somewhere, and I ache to see her.
I begin to sprint, my anxiousness overwhelming, and find that there is no wind in my hair. I have no need to breathe. My body responds effortlessly and the sand is untouched beneath my feet, leaving me unhindered.
I smile, feeling her presence draw closer with each dreamlike step, but then I sense her distress. It’s strange, so much anguish laced with so much love and anticipation. I feel it, and despite the rest, I feel alive and jubilant.
I crest one of the dunes and stop in my tracks, the shrill cry of a new life piercing the air and my soul. Without thought or consciousness, tears sting my eyes.
The distress melts away, left with insurmountable joy that nearly cripples me with love, anxiousness, and overwhelming joy.
I keep going, tears streaming down my face as I feel the connection get stronger, as if it’s doubled my tether to this earth. The cries get louder and my joy intensifies as I finally see the muted gray flicker of a fire in an alcove across the valley, a small oasis nearby.
I swipe at my face to clear my vision and that’s when I finally see her, my life, my wife, cradling a child in her arms next to a dull but lively fire. I begin to slow as I approach, trying with all of my will to hold onto this image. Shane stands from Tina’s side and makes her way to the water, and I absorb this perfect moment in time, or non-time, whatever this is.
I must be dream walking.
I’ve done this before. I’ve seen it in Tina’s mind.
I won’t remember this, not until I am reunited with her, but that’s okay. I’ll get to live this over again as if it were the first time.
I could not be there for the birth of my child in the flesh, but in spirit, I was here, loving them both from afar.
That could be enough.
Shane returns to Tina’s side and I come a bit closer, enraptured by the tiny form writhing and crying as she’s cleaned.
They get her cleaned up and I step closer again as Tina lifts her shirt and the baby latches on with hungry savagery, red staining her lips against the breast.
“That’s blood,” Shane says.
Tina looks at her and nods. She looks so tired, but healthy, glowing, and beautiful.
“You’re going to need more, and there aren’t any roots for miles.”
Tina nods again. “Give me a few hours, and what’s left in my pack, and we’ll go. I can feel myself healing. If I can drink, It’ll be quick.”
She finally notices me and turns her head, her eyes lighting with more happy tears. ‘You made it…’
Shane looks out into the dessert confusedly and back to Tina before quietly excusing herself, and I smile at my wife as I close the remaining distance between us. I try to crouch down next to my family, but I might have fallen.
‘I wouldn’t miss this for the world,’ I reply.
She grins at me. ‘Not even for the end of the world.’
I feel my smile falter, but I meet her eyes determinedly. ‘No, not even then…’
She reaches up to touch my face, and while I can’t actually feel her hand, a tingling warmth marks the location of the undeserved caress.
She frowns a bit. ‘You’ll make it, Bette. Just keep trying. Don’t give up.’
I nod, closing my eyes and absorbing her quiet strength.
She shifts the child at her breast. “Bette, meet your daughter.”
I grin through my tears, leaning in closer so that I can see a precious face with a sloping nose, just like Tina’s. Her cheeks are round, and she has a full head of matted, dark hair. Her eyes are shut as she suckles, and I long to touch her, but know that I can’t.
‘I miss you, T…’
‘And I miss you, Bette.’
I glance up at her. ‘You’ve been okay, so far?’
She exhales heavily. ‘You always ask that.’
She smiles a little grimly. ‘I won’t lie. We were nearly captured, but we’re surviving.’
I close my eyes and swallow the bile that threatens to find its way from my stomach. ‘I shouldn’t have sent you away…’
‘No, no don’t think like that. I’m fairly certain that we would be dead if you hadn’t. You just need to focus on keeping yourself alive. Shane and I will be waiting for you when it’s over. No more regrets, remember?’
I smile weakly. ‘I remember.’
Her returning smile is radiant and she sighs. ‘Good. There’s still hope, Bette…’
It feels like such a foreign word when I’m not gazing into the hazel eyes of my wife. But when I am, it pours forth like a well spring, eternal and life sustaining.
‘You’re my only hope, T… you and our baby.’
We both take a moment to gaze at our daughter, to absorb her.
‘What will you call her,’ I ask.
Tina grins. ‘What do you think we should call her?’
I feel something pulling on me and turn my face to see what it is, but nothing’s there. It’s a feeling, like my soul has been floating in the atmosphere and only now regained mass and gravity. Now, it’s plummeting toward the earth.
‘Not yet…,’ I breathe out.
‘It’s okay, Bette. The sooner you go, the sooner we’ll see you. Stay alive. Keep hope alive.’
I fight the pull, but I’m losing my grip as I meet my wife’s watery eyes. ‘Hope, T. We should name her Hope.’
She laughs through her tears. ‘I like that.’
I pour all of the good I have left in me out into this moment and knowing that it will be a long time before I find any within myself again. ‘I love you, T… both of you…’
‘We love y-‘
My eyes snap open and I jerk up in the car. “Hey, it’s okay, Bette. We’re nearly to the coast. We saw a helicopter, but the vehicles and armor make traveling easy. They think we’re a search party.”
I sigh and rest rigidly back against the seat before responding to Dana at the wheel. “How long was I out?”
Dana smirks. “A good eight hours. We’re only an hour away now.”
I glance over to see Duffy sound asleep. “Dane, have either you or Alice had a break?”
She nods. “Yeah, I slept for a while but Alice is probably asleep in the swivel.”
“Why don’t we stop and I’ll take the gun, give her a chance to rest a little.”
She smiles and doesn’t hesitate to honk the horn twice. Our convoy slows to a stop and it feels good to open the door and stretch after being still for so long.
I look up at the turret. “Come on, Al. Get a little sleep. I’ll take the turret.”
Alice drags herself out of the bucket and plops down next to me. “Thank all that is holy. I’m exhausted.”
She crawls into my open door without another word, her head hitting Duffy’s lap and her eyes already shut. Duffy doesn’t even flinch, and I smirk as I close them in.
I look around to see the others changing out positions as well. They don’t look at me and I sigh, shaking it off as I pull myself up into the turret and tap the top of the car twice.
We start moving again and I find myself wishing for Tina’s reassurance and praying to Lilith’s goddess that she’s alive. If she’s not, I don’t know how I’ll pull myself back from this abyss.
It was hard enough the first time.
Either way, we’ll be in Florida soon, and one step closer to ending this.