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The Bad Rescue of Devon Streeter

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bad Rescue of Devon Streeter

 

Riven Part 1

 

By B.C. Johnson

 

Copyright © 2015 by B.C. Johnson

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

Printed in the United States of America

 

First Printing, 2015

 

www.bc-johnson.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Gina

 

Contents

Chapter 1 – The Green Flash. 6

Chapter 2 – Poor Decisions and Other Hobbies. 14

Chapter 3 – Ace In A Hole. 19

Chapter 4 – First Do No Harm.. 29

Chapter 5 – Magic in the Backseat 35

Chapter 6 – Snake Oil 42

Chapter 7 – Homeward Bound. 50

Chapter 8 – Smoke and Mirrors. 61

Chapter 9 – Price Check. 72

Chapter 10 – The Flight of the Nothing. 80

Chapter 11 – Sirine’s Song. 87

Chapter 12 – They Shoot Delta Victors, Don’t They?. 96

Chapter 13 – Dance Breaking. 106

Chapter 14 – Too Many Wings. 114

Chapter 15 – Enemy Yours. 121

Chapter 16 – AP Inhuman History. 128

Chapter 17 – Most Important Thing. 139

Chapter 18 – The Part Where Everybody Meets. 149

Chapter 19 – Nobody 154

Chapter 20 – It Breaks Easily Enough. 166

Chapter 21 – This and Taxes. 171

Chapter 22 – Zealous 181

Chapter 23 – Enter Sandman. 193

Chapter 24 – A Guide to Not Getting Ambushed. 206

Chapter 25 – Out of the Ring. 216

Chapter 26 – Words Unwise. 224

Chapter 27 – Sand in New Places. 233

Chapter 28 – Serenity 239

Chapter 29 – Deal of a Lifetime. 245

Chapter 30 – Speech and Debate. 249

Chapter 31 – Teamwork 258

Chapter 32 – Buttons 266

Chapter 33 – Red, Then Dead. 274

Chapter 34 – With the Enemy. 277

Chapter 35 – Do You Still Hear Them Screaming?. 284

Chapter 36 – Sirine’s Story. 288

Chapter 37 – If You Mean It 291

Chapter 38 – Knock Knock. 298

Chapter 39 – The Fountain. 308

Chapter 40 – The Fan. 313

Chapter 41 – All Her Engines. 322

Chapter 42 – The Problem with Tangled Webs. 328

Chapter 43 – Five Horses. 335

Chapter 44 – Hiding Places. 341

Chapter 45 – You Are Here. 348

Chapter 46 – Not Go Quietly. 356

Chapter 47 – Full Dark. 362

Chapter 48 – Home Again. 367

Chapter 49 – The Strange Tale of Sarah Ferrel 370

Chapter 50 – To Other Ends. 380

Author’s Afterword 388

Appendix – A History of the End of the World. 389

 

Chapter 1

The Green Flash

 

The Volkswagen banged one last time and went silent.

Devon Streeter jammed on the brakes – coasting it would only make the return trip harder. It took some muscle and stubbornness, but the Beetle creaked to a stop on the gravelly shoulder of Interstate Five.

Devon glanced into the rear-view mirror. Looking for an ambush, maybe, or a tail out of an old detective movie. Dusty asphalt stretched beyond sight.

“I guess that’s the fourth marker, then,” Bloom said.

She glanced over at Bloom, raised an eyebrow, and waited. As he unfolded the map, a symphony of crinkly paper scratched at her ears.

Daniel Blumenthal was long all over, like a normal person crammed into a particularly unflattering fun-house mirror. He was tall, too tall for sixteen-years-old, and seeing him stuffed into the Beetle reminded Devon of a praying mantis in a baby-food jar. Just limbs, limbs until Christmas, stick legs folded up and bent backwards, arms at his sides, shoulders slumped. A long face, handsome in a certain light but with way too many sharp angles – he had a ghost-story face, the kind you could flick a flashlight under and scare the bejeesus out of anyone six-to-thirteen years old.

The tip of his tongue jutted out between his lips as he folded the map, a tic she knew he was unaware of. He’d be mortified if she told him, but it didn’t make him look bad, in fact, it put him one step closer to cute. Not cute to her, of course.

“Why don’t they give us horses, Streeter?” Bloom whined and got out of the car.

She rifled through the olive-drab duffle in the trunk, and heard Bloom’s door close.

“Horses? Come on. They don’t trust us that far away from home base. Think we’ll get sacrificed to some unholy inhuman god.”

She smirked at him. His chestnut eyes were wide and starry.

“Hmm. Do inhumans have gods?” Devon asked.

“You know what? I’ve never asked.”

Devon grunted and pulled the M1C-Garand out of the trunk. The damn thing was all wood and steel, heavier than her, the kind of rifle you could club something to death with long after you’d run out of ammunition. Bloom’s rifle had a black scope on top big enough to spot Pluto. It had to be custom fit – the rifle was pre-World War II, but the scope was far newer. The best one he could find without any electronics in it.

It was a nice piece of gear, one Bloom would have had NO access to without a little nepotism on behalf of Devon’s mom.

She tossed him the rifle, and he slung it over his shoulder. Next came a survival belt, which he strapped around his narrow waist. Devon belted hers on and did the customary checks. Ammunition, canteen, utility knife, emergency blanket, medic pack, compass.

“Check Bloom.”

“Tip-top. Check Streeter.”

“Solid, shall we?”

She went to close the trunk, but Bloom caught the edge.

“Forgetting something?”

Devon flashed a Disney-princess smile and batted her eyelashes. “Hmm?”

Bloom laughed, reached into the trunk, and turned up a black-webbing holster with a distinctive-but-understated Hello Kitty sticker on the side of it. The straight, flat grip of her Browning Hi-Power pistol stuck out.

“I’m a godawful shot, please don’t make me take that thing.”

“You’re a . . . decent shot,” he said, like a lying liar who lies. “You don’t want to take it because of other, much dumber, reasons.”

“Do not.”

He wiggled the holster-and-gun at her. “That’s the best pistol in SONGS or Pendleton.”

“It’s okay.”

“You realize that’s the only semi-auto that still works past the ninth marker.”

“Intermittently.”

“Intermitt . . . “ Bloom scoffed. “Take the damn Browning.”

“It’s ostentatious.” Devon crossed her arms.

“You’re . . . ostentatious,” Bloom shot back. “Time to get over the mommy-issues.”

“Says you.”

She slid the holster onto her belt and glared at Bloom’s back.

“Come on, let’s do this thing,” Bloom said. “You’re seriously not curious what that flash was?”

They’d been out on search-and-steal – the area around SONGS hadn’t been completely scavenged – when they’d spotted a bright green flash of light to the north, on the beach-side of the I5. It was blinding; Devon had nearly crashed the Beetle into a guard rail.

When the purple-green spot of light in her eyes faded, Bloom and Devon began their usual discourse. He wanted to check it out, and she wanted to pretend like it hadn’t happened. They solved it with debate and mutual compromise – which is to say, Bloom flipped a coin. And cheated.

“Maybe it was aurora borealis,” she said.

“I don’t really know what that is,” Bloom confessed.

“It’s a localized phenomenon, caused by the Earth’s magnetic fields. It produces brilliant flashes and ribbons of light in the night sky.”

“Nerd alert,” Bloom said. “Localized where?”

Devon coughed and covered her mouth a little.

“Sorry, missed that,” Bloom said, grinning.

“Polar. Polar regions. At night.”

“So not Southern California, during the day, then?”

She frowned at him.

“Fine,” Devon said, “but if that flash sterilizes us or turns into werewolves or something I’m going to really enjoy the moral high ground on this one.”

They hopped the center divider and crossed into the southbound lane. She yanked her Browning HP out of its holster and fumbled with the safety. As fear tightened all of the strings in her body, she found herself grudgingly grateful to Bloom for having made her take the weapon.

The paint on the cars had long since faded in the blistering desert sun, bleeding back into a uniform tan no-color. Some of the cars they passed had been torn in half, paving stones on a path of destruction that tracked horizontally across the road.  This Breach had released something big that could tear through automobiles like they were made of an easily-tearable thing.

“Hey, Bloom.” Devon whispered. “No corpses.”

Despite her discretion her voice still boomed. Only the soft churning noises of the Pacific scraped beneath the flinging echoes of her voice.

“Yeah, that is sorta odd. A Breach definitely opened here.”

“The doors are all open,” Devon said. “Probably bailed. Better than sitting and dying in a gridlock, or being turned inside-out by Red magic.”

“Can Reds do that?” Bloom whispered.

“Yeah, I saw this cadaver one time – “

Disgust flashed across Bloom’s face, and Devon decided to not finish that exciting anecdote.

Bloom crept between cars, his huge rifle in his hands. Devon figured trying to swing that enormous antique around must be like using a pool cue in a closet.

“We should check some of these,” she said. “If they booked fast, the cars might be full of swag.”

They were supposed to be scavenging, after all, and hadn’t found more than a rusty toolbox and an adult-contemporary CD collection.

“You don’t like Phil Collins?” Bloom said with a snicker. “‘No Jacket Required’ is a seminal album.”

“I’m sure Nickleback’s ‘All the Right Reasons’ is going to stop Lieutenant Freya from bouncing our heads against the wall.”

“It’ll probably make her bounce harder,” Bloom said. “You’d think a place called SONGS would have a decent music collection. I’d kill for some MCR. Or CCR. Really any ‘CR’. “

“I was thinking like bandages, antibiotics, food. You know, that silly stuff.”

“We’re busy. I wanna see that green flash,” Bloom whispered back. “And the only way I’m giving that up is if we run across a combination Blu-Ray, comic book, cheeseburger factory.”

“How about five minutes of actual scavenging? The lieutenant already wants to transfer me to Research.”

“You should go to Research,” Bloom returned. “You’re too smart to be elbow deep in castoff garbage.”

Devon covered her smile. “So are you.”

“Yeah, well, someday,” Bloom said. “I’ve been asking for a sniper detail – WHOA!”

Devon pulled her pistol away from her chest and settled her feet evenly, sighting down the barrel with both eyes open. She swept it toward Bloom, keeping it away from his silhouette. Bloom looked down toward something in the back of a faded yellow Toyota pick-up, his rifle sagging in his hands, his mouth open.

Time stalled. Devon’s pulse throbbed in her ears, a rushing ocean noise. Everything seemed brighter, sharp-edged and more real.

“Bloom!”

With no line of sight on whatever was attacking him, Devon raised the pistol into the air, her finger squeezing the trigger -

“Wait!” Bloom said, and held his hand up. “Chill the hell out. Check this out!”

Bloom hopped up into the bed of the truck. Devon tucked the pistol back into its holster, crossed her arms, and threw him a glare you might call “withering.” He wasn’t looking at her, but boy, when he did – he’d feel it. Heat. Real evil-gaze stuff.

He yanked a black case up onto the cab’s roof. Devon frowned – it was too small to be a suitcase, and sort of puck-shaped.

“Who would just . . . leave this?” Bloom exclaimed, fumbling with the catch.

“Totally, crazy, unbelievable. What is it?”

“What – are you kidding me?” Bloom asked.

“Yes, it was all a joke.”

“Your sarcasm isn’t helping anybody.”

“It’s helping me, which I feel is valid. What are you drooling over up there?”

Bloom held up a finger and opened the case. As the top hinged up toward Devon, she could see the writing, in faded gold paint: Stetson.

What was Stetson?

With the kind of gentle touch someone would use to pick up a baby, Bloom lifted a brown cowboy hat out of the case. He turned it over and ran a finger along the inner rim, examining it in annoying detail.

“A hat?”

“A hat? A hat? This is a Stetson! A . . . hold on . . . ‘Stetson Powder River 4X Buffalo Fur Felt Cowboy Hat.’ Holy Pumpkin-Pie Lord.”

Boys. Devon shook her head, completely nonplussed by his enthusiasm.

He turned the hat over, tucked it against his forearm, and slipped it onto his head with the same motion she’d seen a thousand movie cowboys use. It wiggled a little – a bit too big on his head. She smirked and tried her best not to laugh. Standing on top of the truck, the sun behind him, long silhouette capped by that hat: he actually did look like a cowboy. Another thing she’d make sure to never tell him.

Because I’m mean, Devon thought.

Devon remembered an obsessive western-movie phase Bloom had gone through as a child, and she could see all the old fevers heating up in his eyes.

“How do I look?”

“Tall and skinny?” She turned up a coy smile.

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“Keep digging, Watson.”

“Come on.”

Devon grinned. “You don’t look silly at all. Nope.”

Bloom rolled his eyes and hopped off the truck, case in hand. He really was planning on keeping that ridiculous thing. She gave him a sideways glance as they crossed the road.

“You think Freya’s gonna let you keep that?”

“She can try to filch it,” Bloom drawled out, in a decent approximation of a Western accent. “But I reckon I may just put up a tussle.”

“This is a thing now, isn’t it?” Devon groaned.

“Come on, little lady,” he said and hitched up his rifle.

Her only response was another groan.

 

***

 

They were walking down an off-ramp when they heard the first shots. Three, in rapid succession. Out in the open, no hard surfaces to amplify the noise, it sounded like marbles hitting a tile floor. Devon flashed Bloom a look, pushed up her glasses, and yanked her Browning out of its holster.

“What do we do?”

She fumbled with the safety. Bloom slung his rifle off his shoulder and tipped the cowboy hat back on his crown. Even as the cold metallic tang of adrenaline filled Devon’s mouth, she wanted to slug him.

“We could leave,” Bloom didn’t sound convinced.

“We’re not gonna leave.”

“Nope.”

Another shot rang out, then four more.

Devon ducked – she couldn’t help herself. Her nerves were already knotting up. The cool sea breeze scraped across her hypersensitive skin like a Brillo pad.

“Inhumans?” Bloom whispered.

“With guns?” Devon asked skeptically.

His big stupid hat accentuated his head shake.

A pained scream broke their conversation. Just over a small hill. Bloom and Devon stared at each other, then ran hard after the sound, between the pumps of a broken down gas station.

They plowed over the swell, which was mostly dirt and ugly greasewood shrubs. Bloom slid the huge lock of his rifle back and socked the butt into his shoulder. Devon dropped to one knee, her palms slick with sweat.

There, at the top of their little hill, they had the perfect view of a bloody, smoke-laden, knockdown warzone.

Devon saw the corpses first.

Chapter 2

Poor Decisions and Other Hobbies

 

She’d never seen a dead Shade before. Or a live one, matter of fact.

Her mother had drilled her in the known inhuman species, but she wasn’t ready. Black hair draped their skulls. Their skin, the deep gray color of sidewalk in the rain, was mottled with black crawling tattoos. They slid and squirmed like a bag of snakes over the dark gray flesh. Some of the crawling patterns had already stopped moving – she hoped that meant they were dead.

Arrows littered the ground around their bodies, and some had died with backward-curving black knives in their hands.

The dead human soldiers wore desert camo like the ones in Pendleton, except these fatigues were drenched in blood. Even with all of her medic training, she’d spent more time with cadavers than actual bloodied combatants. The sight of their gore and viscera sprayed so carelessly into the dirt made her stomach roll over like a well-trained Labrador.

No one sported obvious tech, beyond revolvers and double-barrel shotguns. They even wore swords. They were long-ranged troops, she realized – they hadn’t been near SONGS or any nuke plant in months. But her brain was running away with itself, and she had to stop and focus on the here and the now.

Below the hill, a dilapidated structure of corrugated steel leaned off the cliff. Two large bays gaped open, revealing an aging Honda Accord and an old American muscle car. It strained to be cherry red, but years of neglect and apocalypse had rendered it a tired pink color. A forlorn sign proclaimed the building to be “Jett Burks Auto-Detailing, Repair.” They were “Smog Certified,” whatever the hell that meant.

Muzzle-flash fireworks lit up the bay, revealing a crouched, human figure in the darkness. Devon skated her eyes across the field of the dead.

A dozen figures of darkness and smoke, obscured even in the pre-dusk light, crowded in the dusty shell of an ice-cream truck. The tires had rotted away, but it served just fine as a giant block of steel cover. They were inhumans, Shades, same as their dead comrades, but they projected a hazy cloud of shadow that made them difficult to spot.

That is, until one crawled out of the haze and stood on top of the truck.

The Shade’s skin absorbed the last rays of sunlight. It grew darker around him, and his black web of writhing tattoos made him blend with the churning shadows. His hair had been glued into a hedgehog-like mane of spikes. He held his left hand out toward the garage bay, while his right hand drew a black arrow from a quiver on his back. He notched the arrow in the bow string and pulled back with all of his might.

Wait. No. Though his arm seemed to be straining with the effort of drawing the bow, Devon tilted her glasses and realized that the Shade didn’t actually have a bow. There was nothing in his hands – he could be a little boy playing Cowboys and Indians.

Except the arrow – that was real. Devon realized that the arrow head, which should have drooped without an actual bow to support it, hung suspended in the air. She blinked, adjusted her glasses, but she was sure. There was no bow in his hands.

The Shade turned, tracking his quarry, and let loose. Devon wanted to laugh at the childish game of pretend, that is, until the arrow flew from its “bow” and impaled a soldier in the mechanic’s shop. A terrible scream of agony cut the air. Devon’s whole body clenched.

The Shade on top of the truck nocked another arrow. An explosion blasted in Devon’s ear, and the Shade’s head erupted into pink mist. His legs crumpled, and he pitched off the side of the ice cream truck. Devon’s right ear rang and her balance went to hell, but fingers curled around her bicep and threw her to the dirt. Just in time, too. As Devon gaped up at the sky, trying to catch her breath, a black arrow whipped over her head and soared onto the I5.

She looked to Bloom, lying in the dirt beside her. A white line of smoke drifted lazily out of the barrel of his World-War-Two era rifle. He smirked at her and tipped the cowboy hat over his eyes.

“Thanks,” Devon whispered, feeling a full body tingle that might have had something to do with her near death experience.

“Yer welcome, miss,” Bloom drawled. His voice caught, and the rifle fell out of his fingers. His body heaved, and he rolled up on his hip and peppered a greasewood plant with his lunch.

When he stopped vomiting, she squeezed his arm. He wiped his mouth and took up his rifle. His skin paled. Devon pointed down the hill, to their right. They belly-crawled toward a small cleft, keeping the hill between them and the Shades.

They had to get a look at the battlefield. Those were Pendleton soldiers, maybe a relative or friend or husband of someone she knew. Humans were a dying breed – Devon couldn’t live with herself knowing she’d left a group of them to whatever miserable fate the Shades had planned.

She couldn’t peek over the hill, not at the same spot. Her minimal combat training had at least taught her that much. If the enemy knows where you are, don’t be there.

A gully crept between two hills and ended in the back wall of the garage. Devon hissed at Bloom, and he glanced over his shoulder, his eyes partially obscured by the brim of his stupid hat.

“That’s the – “

A gunshot shattered her words. Her whole body sucked up close to the ground.

“The garage,” Bloom whispered.

Devon took a deep breath. Her guts were turning into water, but she still managed to say a very stupid thing.

“I have to get in there.” Stupid, right?

“Into the garage?”

“They’re hurt. I’m training to be a medic, you know.”

Bloom covered his eyes.

“They might be dead already.”

“Oh yeah? Was that gunshot from a Shade-and-Wesson revolver? I didn’t realize they’d gotten into the business.”

“Sarcasm achieved. Thank you. It’s suicide, Devon. Need I remind you, the garage is what the Shades are shooting at.”

“For now.” She wiggled her eyebrows and pushed her glasses up.

“You want me to be bait? Holy Hannibal are you mean.”

“They’re going to be aiming at both of us. At least you can shoot for shit. My gun is basically for show.”

Bloom conceded that point with a crooked frown.

“What’s the plan?”

"No plan. You find a high spot and start pelting them. Move around a lot. That valley is tactically crap and they're dancing in it. I'm gonna sneak into the garage and see if I can help. Do you think you'll be okay alone? What if you have a seiz- "

“I won’t,” Bloom said. When Devon reached for his arm, he shook it away. “I won’t.”

Devon pulled her hand back and hoped to God Bloom would be okay.

“Exit strategy?”

She rubbed her nose. “Do I have to come up with everything?”

“You are the brains,” Bloom said. “The only thing under this Stetson is a handsome face.”

Devon thought really hard about slapping him. Instead she grabbed his collar, leaned in, and kissed him hard on the mouth. When she pulled backed, his cheeks flushed strawberry red. His face screwed up in confusion.

“Devon?” he asked, softly.

“Don’t die,” she said.

She turned and scrambled down the gully, toward the back of the garage. Bloom hissed at her, and she glanced over her shoulder.

“Exit?” Bloom asked.

“Oh, right. You take down the bad guys, I’ll save the soldiers, and we’ll meet at the nearest Baskin Robbins.”

“Hey, I’m the funny one. That’s my job,” Bloom said. “I’ll bitch to the Union if you keep this up.”

Devon stared at him. Memorized his face, his dumb smile.

Bloom tipped his hat.

“Good luck, Streeter,” he said.

She smiled and pushed her glasses back up her nose. “Ditto.”

She clicked the Browning’s safety off, crouched low, and raced along the bottom of the gully.

There was a door at the side of the garage. Her best chance of getting into the garage without becoming close personal friends with a dozen Shade arrows was to stay low, move quick, and hope to God they didn’t notice the tiny, bespectacled ginger girl running like a goober across the hard-packed dirt. Just before she moved into plain sight, Devon holstered the Browning HP, rubbed her hands together, and stared at the door into the garage.

She willed it to get closer. She focused all of her thoughts on the door. She wasn’t going to look left or right, up or down. She wasn’t going to think about the Shades, or the arrows, or Bloom. There was the door. There was her. Everything else was window dressing. She slipped into a runner’s crouch. Her heartbeat sang in her ears, and her mouth tasted like pennies.

A girl. And a door.

A gunshot went off, cracking over the distant sounds of waves crashing. The girl bolted for the door.

Devon made it three steps before she kicked the trip wire. Her face hit the ground so hard the world went white. Shouting. Fingers slicing into her arms, pulling her out of the dirt.

A gunshot.

A door banged shut.

Chapter 3

Ace In A Hole

 

Move. Aim. Shoot. Move.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

He’d taken out one more Shade, but he’d almost eaten a black arrow in the process.

How long had Devon been gone? Two minutes, three? It didn’t feel that way: more like he’d been playing “Bop-a-Shade” for the entire fair and now just wanted to take his big stuffed bear and go home. That was the easiest way to look at it, too – he wasn’t shooting living breathing people, no sir. Just tin targets. Sure as shooting (ha ha).

That illusion was wearing thin as an old shirt, though. Little tin targets went ping when you took them down. They didn’t spray their personalities out of their ventilated skulls in a Kool-Aid red gout. He’d just wiped out two futures. Put paid to ‘em, kicked their buckets, showed them the door. His stomach heaved again, but he didn’t have anything left to ralph – the last of his breakfast was drying in the faded-green leaves of a manzanita bush. [_ _]

He tucked his Stetson down low over his brow. He imagined himself as Clint Eastwood. Did ‘ole Squinty-Eye feel bad when he laid low some cattle rustler or cowboy or murderin’ rapin’ no-goodnick? No, certainly not. Except Bill Munny in Unforgiven, maybe. But that had been post-modern, a good flick, but not his favorite.

Those Shades down there were just highwaymen, he told himself. Just cowboys, circling the camp of some poor frontiersman trying to make an honest living. No, they were an Indian warband, circling Fort Jett Burke – which offered a discount on Smog Certification, don’t you know. What did that make Bloom?

“That makes me the cavalry,” Bloom drawled. He rammed another clip home, bowed his head, and popped his Stetson higher with one jutting thumb.

“Yeehaw,” Bloom said, and jumped up.

He sighted as fast as he dared down the long black scope. A Shade near the front of the truck . . . wait, no. A Shade much closer to him leaned out of a gray haze of expanding smoke, tucked low in a crouch, his eyes up . . . up on Bloom. Bloom could see down the length of an arrow, straight into the Shade’s black eyes.

Bloom squeezed the trigger on the exhale. The Shade loosed the arrow.

The Shade’s face evaporated, painting the side of the white ice-cream truck red. Bloom lost sight of him, though, as a white hot line of agony exploded on the left side of his neck. It took him off his feet and knocked him hard on his back, his breath disappearing like a magic trick. His Garand spun out of his hands and slid down the rocky scree, out of sight, out of mind.

Bloom rolled over a plant that slashed at his face and clutching hands. A sharp collision with a boulder stopped his fall. His guts exploded in his midsection.

Warm, hot wetness, on his shoulder. He clapped his right hand over the left side of his neck and took a hard, short breath, but nothing came. Panic. Cold fingers of primal terror gripped his throat, choking the life out of him. He brought his left fist up, squeezed it into a ball, and thumped himself in the solar plexus.

Bloom gasped as air blasted through the catch in his throat.

Get up. Get up get up or she’s dead you useless sack.

The sky yawned above him, lit with striations of purple and orange. He pulled his right hand away from his neck and glanced at it before slapping it back in place. Blood coated his hand like he’d dipped it in red paint.

She’ll die if you don’t get up.

His breath came short and hot and fast. Bloom struggled to one knee, and a shard of fire burned up his side. Broken rib, maybe? He tugged his jacket off and threw it on the ground. He stepped on the jacket, put the cuff of one sleeve in his mouth, and tugged the canvas taut. With his left hand, his right still clinging to his neck, he fumbled to pull his knife from the right side of his belt, a feat that took no small amount of doing. He managed it without cutting his fingers off.

Bloom sawed mercilessly where the sleeve joined the jacket, glancing up the slope all the while, expecting to see a smoky cloud creeping into sight, skin like charcoal . . .

“No,” Bloom growled into the jacket sleeve. “One thing. Then another.”

He jerked his head like a wolf worrying a carcass, and heard a dry burp from the jacket. He did it again, and again, and when the last stitch popped he almost went tumbling backwards down the gully. Fumbled the knife back into its sheath, folded the sleeve up with one hand, and pressed the pad of cloth to the left side of his neck.

Bloom looked up the slope. A hot trickle he pretended wasn’t blood leaked down his left shoulder.

He couldn’t shoot like this. Hell he didn’t know how long he’d even be alive. Bloom knew he’d be dead if the Shade’s arrow had sliced his carotid artery, but the blood wasn’t gushing so much as swiftly leaking.

But it was leaking alright, like a busted pipe.

He spotted his rifle lying a bit down the slope, caught on a dry yellow stick. Bloom took a deep breath, cocked his Stetson high up on his forehead, and shook his head.

He began the delicate operation of holding his neck together while slipping sideways down a long and dangerous rocky slope toward his Garand.

He prayed Devon was doing better.

 

  • * *

 

Devon woke up to vigorous face-slapping. They seemed to be really going at it, too, like they were trying out for the Olympics. And the gold medal for slapping the bejeesus out of an unconscious Devon Streeter goes to . . .

Who did it go to? The Olympic committee would probably need a name to send the medal to.

Devon’s eyes creaked open. A good-looking guy looked down on her, his face striped with dusty light. He had dark features and a wide, action-hero jaw. His hair was cropped close, barely more than a black shadow across his head. Dark eyes glittered in the dim light.

“Who are you?” Devon asked. It might have been more like “hooruuu.”

“Ahern,” the male-model said.

Beyond that easily-distracting face, she could see that he was a soldier. Forest camo. That’s odd. The patch above his right breast said “Ahern,” and there was no patch above his heart. Not Army, not Marines. Devon had never seen combat fatigues without either, not at Pendleton. He didn’t have any rank insignia.

Ahern picked up a large black revolver from the ground and glanced toward a large square of daylight. She could see a second soldier tucked against a car, holding a double-barrel shotgun in both hands. He raised it to his shoulder, and the gun roared twice. Devon clapped her hands over her ears.

The soldier with the shotgun broke the barrel open and dropped two more shells inside. He looked over at her and smiled. He had a thin face and short blonde hair. His eyes were a faded, no color blue that gave his face a strange intensity. The soldier with the shotgun crawled back into the garage. His name patch said “Wallace.”

“We’re in a peck of trouble here,” Wallace said.

Ahern took two potshots behind him. He knelt next to Devon and touched her wrist.

“What’s a kid doing out here?”

She sat up, brushing dust off of her clothes.

“I’m not a kid,” Devon said. “I’m out here on Supply Recovery. Me and my partner saw the green flash.”

“Your partner? Did the Shades get him?”

“No!” Devon said. “He’s why you’re fighting one less Shade. He’s got superior position and those Shades are in a perfect fire corridor.”

Ahern considered her words with clear surprise.

Told you I’m not a kid.

“He popped that one?” Ahern frowned. “I thought I got him. Why did you come down here? Are you fucking nuts?”

“Medic,” Devon said. She snatched the khaki pack from her back, the one with a bright red cross on the flap. “You got wounded?”

Devon didn’t feel as badass as she sounded. The world dipped and spun, compliments of her recent concussion. Her mouth, dry as dust, betrayed her.

“How old are you?” Ahern said. There was skepticism in his eyes.

“Sixteen,” Devon said. “So what? Crawled down here on my own, didn’t I? You got wounded?”

Ahern’s eyes darkened. He took her wrist and led her to the Honda Accord tucked into the other garage bay. Devon smelled the combination of rust, old grease, and blood. A blue tarp covered four human-shaped lumps she suspected were dead soldiers. Devon’s hands began to shake.

I’m going to die in this garage.

And so was Ahern, and Wallace too. They were surrounded, in an inferior position, with inferior weapons. The Shades were on their own turf, and human technology was bubkis. Devon didn’t see any other living soldiers on the way to the car.

Ahern popped the door and gestured inside.

“Arrow in the chest.”

Devon leaned into the car. The cloying, raw-meat stink of blood made her throat click. There was sweat, too, and urine.

She coughed and tucked the inside of her elbow against her mouth.

A man lay across the back seat of the Honda, and he wasn’t a soldier. He wore jeans, first of all, and a pair of black Converse Hi-Tops. He had long salt-and-pepper hair in a ponytail, and a short but full beard of the same color. The man was bare-chested, and a cloth soaked bright red with blood had been hastily wrapped around his chest. A black shaft poked out from the center of the cloth, broken at the base.

His entire body had been scrawled with tattoos, central symbols with branching pathways and curlicues that mimicked the larger symbols on a smaller scale. They were different colors, and she thought the lines and swirls and symbols might actually be glowing faintly in the darkness.

What the what?

She looked up at Ahern, her mouth working long before she could get any words out. “Who is this?”

“This is our mission. If he dies . . .”

His intense eyes bored into her. She knew what he was asking.

‘Are you a medic, or are you a waste of my time?’

Devon didn’t know. Her body trembled, and she wanted to leap into a dark hole and fall forever. She studied hard, sure, and wasn’t afraid to admit that she was bright. Gifted. Best in all of her classes, especially first aid and biology.

But this? Saving a man with a hole in chest while under siege by inhuman monsters?

She took a long yoga breath.

“I’m a medic,” Devon said.

Dear God what have I got myself into?

Ahern turned to leave.

“Wait!”

“What?” Ahern grunted.

“Do you have any other arrows from the Shades?”

“If you don’t shut up you’re gonna have more than you ever wanted.”

Ahern lifted the tarp over the human-shaped lumps and yanked an arrow out of the still form of a dead woman. Devon made a point not to focus on any of them too closely.

“Grab one of their pill packs,” Devon said.

Ahern snapped open the dead women’s front pocket and extracted a small pouch. He dropped the tarp and handed her the pack and a still-bloody arrow.

“They haven’t missed. They only take shots they know are gonna hit.”

Ahern left her, jogging over to support Wallace.

The arrow had been constructed from a dark wood, the fletching from a black bird. Maybe a raven. The arrowhead itself looked like volcanic glass. Obsidian. Fragile but incredibly sharp – the edge could be shaved down to stupidly-thin widths. No wonder it had punched right through their flak vests. Those obsidian heads would slice flesh and arteries like they weren’t even there – victims would bleed out in moments if they hit the right spot.

The Shades hadn’t barbed the arrows or made the heads particularly nasty. They were flat, like old Indian arrow heads.

So maybe she could pull it out of her patient. Depending. At least if they got this guy to real corpsmen, they’d know what they were dealing with.

One step at a time.

She went back into the car with her new patient and knelt against the seat. His chest rose and fell in shallow breaths. Devon set her pack down on the patient’s knees and opened it up.

His tattoos were glowing. She was sure of it this time. They cast soft light onto his pallid flesh. Most of them burned a deep red.

How was that possible? Some kind of glow-in-the-dark ink? Was that safe? She laughed at herself. Safe. The man had an arrow snuggling up with his heart and she was worried about toxic ink.

Outside, something clanged loud and hard. Devon ducked, and two gunshots rang out, close by and deafening. Outside, far away, another pop. Too distant to be the soldiers, too noisy for Shades bows. It had to be Bloom. Still out there. Devon’s hands were shaking. She held her fingers to her face, trying to steady herself, trying to focus on what she had to do.

She remembered her training. Devon squeezed hand sanitizer into her palms. She checked his pulse. Low and slow. Not great. Devon pushed her glasses back up, took a deep breath, and removed the bandages.

The arrow was buried in the left side of his chest. There wasn’t enough blood on the patient for the arrow to have hit any major arteries. No one had taped the arrow in place to prevent it from cutting him up even worse. Judging from the soldiers’ rudimentary first-aid skills, either their corpsman had died already or they’d never had one to begin with.

She cleaned the outside of the wound as best she could. After that, Devon got out a thick pad of fresh gauze and a pair of scissors and cut the square of gauze from one edge to dead center. Then she carefully slipped the slot in the gauze around the arrow shaft and packed it tightly around the wound. She applied pressure for a minute, just to make sure all of the local arteries were sealed and on their way to clotting. She secured the dressing, then taped what was left of the arrow shaft in place.

Devon swore softly, just remembering her AVPU. Alertness, Voice, Pain, Unresponsive.

“Are you okay?”

No response. No surprise there. His eyes were closed, and he hadn’t move once during her examination. She pinched his earlobe. No response.

Devon slid her hands behind his neck, turned his head up to face her, and dragged her hands up behind his long hair and up to the top of his skull. That’s a fun one – remember to check for head wounds and exposed brain matter. Ugh. She’d thought her instructor had been joking the first time he taught them that trick.

As best as she could without jostling him, she ran her hands down his back, the back of his legs, and looked at her palms. No blood. The arrow was likely lodged in a true rib. Hopefully. He had none of the immediate signs of lung puncture.

She checked his pulse again. Relatively stable.

Devon removed the pilfered combat pill pack from her pocket, ripped the packaging, and dropped all four pills into her hand. Fifty milligrams of VLOXX, four-hundred milligrams of Gatifloxacin, and one thousand milligrams of plain old Tylenol.

Devon forced the pills into his mouth one at a time, and with a squirt of water and some throat massage, he got them all down.

A thump, a cry of surprise, and a half-dozen gunshots rattled outside.

Devon peeked out the Accord’s window. Wallace lay slumped oddly against the pink Mustang. Two black arrows pinned him against the car. His intense blue eyes stared into the middle nothing-distance, but their shine was gone. Just non-living particles. Just a shell, like the soldiers under the tarp.

Ahern, beside the dead soldier, ducked down. He circled around the car and came up behind Devon.

Ahern stared down at Devon, his broad handsome face splattered with a fine dot-pattern of blood. From Blue-Eyes, probably. He might not have even realized it. He grabbed her arm and rattled her. She hadn’t realized she’d zonked out a little.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

“Devon. Uh, Streeter.”

“Streeter?” he repeated, a look of confused familiarity on his face. He knew the name. “Is Green dead? Your patient?”

 Ahern opened up his revolver and reloaded it.

“Oh, uh, no. He’s stable. He’s lucky the arrow didn’t take out a lung.”

“We need him awake,” Ahern said.

“That’s not happening.”

“Then we’re dead. As soon as they realize our ace is down they’re going to break out the real fireworks.”

“Ace?”

“Thaumaturge? Spellslinger,” Ahern said. “Well, sort of.”

Devon goggled up at Ahern. He glanced away from the garage door, saw her expression, and scoffed.

“What?” she spat.

“You’re not gonna ‘catch’ it. It doesn’t work that way. And besides, that’s the least of our problems.”

POP. She looked outside in time to see a Shade tumble out of the back of the ice cream truck.

“Your partner?” Ahern asked, a tone of admiration in his voice. Oh sure. Devon brings a man back from the edge of death and gets nothing but crap. Bloom pulls a trigger a few times and is man of the year. Figures.

“Yeah, he’s swell.”

“We might just – “

A whip-crack stung her ears, and Ahern went stiff. He gurgled, sucked air, and collapsed to the concrete floor. Devon’s heart stalled. His eyes pinched close, his mouth set into a white line. His body spasmed, and for a second she thought he was having a full blown grand mal seizure.

When he opened his eyes again, Devon screamed at what she saw.

The whites of his eyes had turned the color of blood, and black smoke leaked out of the tear ducts. Every tiny jerk of his body came with a grunt of pain. It looked like some kind of poisoning, except for the eyes. Devon had never seen or read anything that would make someone’s eyes turn into blood-red bonfires.

“Ahern! Ahern!”

He bucked on the ground. Devon left her patient, taking time to climb out of the Honda’s cramped back seat. Footsteps scuffed against the hard ground.

“Bloom thank – “

She looked up in time to see the Shade walk into the garage.

 

Chapter 4

First Do No Harm

 

He wasn’t much taller than her. A black cloud of haze wrapped him like a robe, flapping in a phantom wind. His head was shaved clean to display his charcoal gray flesh and the worming black tattoos beneath. They looked like foliage shadows dappled across his skin, like he was running through a thick forest at high noon.

The eyes were the worst part. A pair of jet black pools of oil. Fathomless, a moonless night over a still lake. They regarded Devon with dispassionate malice.

He held one hand out to her, like someone offering a handshake. Black shadows danced over his fingers, and a feeling of cold keen dread gripped her.

Devon had never experienced magic before. She knew it existed, had even seen it from a distance. She had a vague memory, half dream, of when the world ripped in half, of seeing impossible things from the back seat of her mom’s Volvo.

But it had been mythical, something that happened to other people. Facing it down, feeling the waves of unnatural energy buffeting her senses from six feet away, that was new.

He looked surprised, she realized. His grave face wasn’t easy to read, but for a moment his eyes went wide. The Shade spellslinger had expected to walk into a garage filled with bodies. Had he done something to Ahern? Was the seizure some form of spell?

Devon went for her Browning, but the muzzle sight caught in the holster. The Shade’s hand glared with black light, and he started speaking in a low, rolling language that made her blood run cold. The tattoos on the Shade’s arm thrashed with violent fury.

Devon freed her pistol with a hard yank, pointed it at the Shade, and pulled the trigger.

Click. Click.

Jammed. Even basic tech jinxed out in the face of his magic. Devon had heard it was possible, but she’d been so reliant on tech working that she had simply forgotten. Too much time at SONGS, pampered and protected.

The air buzzed with energy.

DEVON!”

Bloom’s distant shout cleared her head.

She darted at the Shade and swung her pistol down in a heavy arc toward his head. A sharp crack, and a lance of pain raced up her wrist. The Shade staggered, black blood pouring into his eyes. He cupped his face with both hands where she’d pistol whipped him.

Another gunshot roared, and the Shade’s chest erupted in a black spray. He hit the ground hard and stayed there. The thrill of energy in the air vanished. The black haze around him faded, and the garage visibly brightened, like the sun escaping a cloud bank.

She wheeled toward the hill, where Bloom’s shout and timely gunshot had saved her life. Bloom knelt on a hill, little more than a black silhouette against the fading day. Something had happened. Genuflecting on his right knee, his left knee cocked up. His left arm cut a section of the purpling sky into a tiny triangle, and he seemed to be holding his neck. A long black stick that had to be his rifle shot out of his right hand, and he’d laid it across his left knee as some kind of make-shift tripod.

On top of the white truck, three Shades sighted down their imaginary bows toward Bloom, but he was looking at her.

BLOOM RUN!” Devon shouted.

Bloom didn’t hesitate. Smart guy. He dropped behind the hill. When the Shades turned her way, Devon raced inside the garage, but tripped over a snaking hydraulic line. Of course. She tried to put her hands out, but only managed one. The oil-stained concrete rushed at her, and her hand caught beneath her. She bounced and slid, pain exploding in her hand and arm.

She held her hand up – the skin of her left palm had been torn free. Blood gushed down her arm. Devon hissed and scrabbled to Ahern.

“Get up,” Devon whispered, grabbing the front of his uniform with her good hand and shaking him. “Wake up!”

He was breathing, he was alive. But he was just . . . gone.

“Ahern! AHERN!”

Nothing. Sweat poured down her forehead, stinging her eyes, and she wiped at them with the back of her hand. The darkness of the garage pressed in on her. The shrinking sun splashed rich purple shadows over everything, turning the darkness into a fathomless haze. The Shades were still outside. Something had happened to Bloom – he’d been injured, somehow.

Ahern lay helpless on the floor. Her patient – the strange man named Green – wasn’t going to survive much longer. Her gun wasn’t working. She tried to flex the fingers of her right hand -

Devon groaned. It felt like the skin on her palm was ripping.

“Swell,” Devon whispered.

What to do?

Ahern said the Shades feared Green. They certainly didn’t fear her, or Bloom, or all the dead Marines who couldn’t save her.

She stumbled around the Honda, her left hand tucked tight to her chest, and threw the door open. There he was. She’d done everything she could, hadn’t she? Devon climbed into the Honda and straddled Green, pushing her head and neck against the roof.

“Who are you?” she whispered. Devon Streeter didn’t believe in magic. She believed in science, biology, chemistry. She’d seen magic, sure – even the most sheltered had survived an apocalypse that had ruined the planet. Still, seeing and accepting were very different concepts, especially if you’re particularly stubborn.

Green’s chest rose and fell in such small movements . . . she took his pulse again, and wasn’t happy with the result. Her eyes flicked up, and she could see them. Their approach. The Shades were stalking closer, a cloud of black fog rolling over the ground.

He was circling the drain, even a medic-in-training knew that. Green had lost too much blood, he would be deep in shock now. She didn’t have any plasma, and even if she did she wouldn’t have had the time to administer it. Another quick glance upward . . . the black smoke and the things inside it were so close now . . .

Her guts melted. The urge, the need, the screaming desire to pee came over her like a shot. She barely managed to hold her bladder in check. They were close.

Closer.

She drew her Browning, which almost squirted out of her hand like a bar of soap. As an experiment, she aimed the barrel out of the broken window of the Honda and pulled the trigger. Click click.

It hadn’t jammed. She turned it sideways, checked the breech, nothing. In the onslaught of magic, the close proximity to the irrational, the rational had folded. Left the table. Admitted just how little it knew about the universe, picked up its toys in a fit of pique, and ran home.

The pistol fell out of her limp fingers. A trickle of glacial sweat traced a path down her spine.

Wait.

Epinephrine.

Could he survive it?

She glanced down and laughed in the close darkness.

Did it matter?

Devon fumbled with her medpack, grabbed the ampoule of epinephrine, and filled a syringe. A clear pearl glittered at the tip of the syringe, and she took three long breaths, breaths she didn’t have time for. Calm down. Remember. Remember. Remember.

Epinephrine, artificial adrenaline, was for anaphylaxis primarily. Allergic shock. It wasn’t meant to be a wake-up call, but Devon qualified the current situation as “dire straits.”

Green was deadly close to going into cardiac arrest, and epinephrine would immediately increase his heart rate. Make him feel alive again, sure, like he’d just injected espresso into his eyes. Sure sure.

Devon pushed her glasses back up her nose, but it wasn’t helping – they slipped right back down like her nose was a water slide.

She could see the veins in his arm just fine, and settled the tip of the needle, that little clear pearl, just against his skin. The pearl popped and spread against his skin in a tiny puddle. It was entrancing, hypnotizing, and part of her wanted to stare at it until everything was over. The fearful, deer-in-headlights part of her, of course.

The angry ginger inside of her kicked her in the ass. Screamed in her face.

DO SOMETHING OR YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.

Epinephrine. Vasoconstrictor.

Hand. Could cause permanent damage.

Throat slit by Shade causes permanent damage.

Good point.

Devon stabbed the syringe home and pushed the plunger. She wanted him to pop-up like a jack-in-the-box, like the movies had told her he would. He didn’t, but after a dozen seconds that could have been a thousand, his eyes fluttered open.

She started. Those eyes, staring up from his lined face, handsome and worldly in a hippyesque kind of way. They were the color of emeralds, refracting light in all directions, absorbing and entrancing. A lambent energy radiated from them.

His lips parted.

“Hello dear,” Green whispered. His voice sounded like it was on the other end of a crappy phone line. “Who are you?”

“Streeter,” she whispered. “Devon. We’re going to die.”

Green smiled weakly. “That’s too bad. We . . . just met.”

Her mouth hung open. Banter? Now?

“If there’s a better time, kiddo, I can’t think of it,” Green said at a measured, breathy pace.

“You’re crazy.”

“I’m dying, I think,” Green whispered. He coughed out a hard laugh. “Finally. This should be interesting.”

“You’re not – “

“Not much blood left, I imagine,” Green said, almost clinically. “Lung punctured. Not sure which.”

She shook her head. “If you have a sucking chest wound, you couldn’t talk. You don’t – “

Green held up a hand, with a visible effort. “Enough. Where . . . is Lam?”

“I don’t know,” she said, and wondered if he was one of the four lumps under the tarp.

“Ah,” Green whispered. “Jubell? Powell? Wallace?”

She gave that slow shake of her head again. Green’s face fell. Cracked.

“Ahern is alive,” Devon whispered. “I think. Some kind of seizure . . . “

“They’re coming, then,” Green said. It didn’t sound like a question. “Is your gun working?”

Devon held the Browning up and clicked the trigger twice for emphasis.

Green squeezed his eyes shut. He looked dead then, pallid and cold and lifeless. If he never moved again, Devon wouldn’t have been surprised. She refused to look out the window, but even in the corner of her eyes she could sense the light fading.

They were coming.

Chapter 5

Magic in the Backseat

 

The fear left her – it didn’t leak out or morph. It was just gone, and Devon wondered if a sudden acceptance of the inevitable was behind it. Her cheeks flushed, and her fingers pressed the diamond-pattern of the pistol’s grip so hard into the palm of her hand that she wanted to scream.

She was sixteen. Her world had been taken away. All futures burned and the ashes swept under the rug. Her father, gone and dead, never heard from again, taken by God-knows whatever monstrosity lay between San Diego and Pendleton the day of the Merge.

And though delayed by two years, the Merge had come for her now. Its aftershocks, its side-effects, would take them all. Devon muttered a curse and shook Green by the shoulders. His eyes flicked open, sparkling green gems. A smirk bent his lips.

“Ahern said – they needed you,” Devon scolded. “Do something.”

Green looked into her eyes, and his face went tranquil. She was drawn to it, pulled in by it, settled in place like an anchor in a raging storm. This man was older than he looked, she realized. A heart-stopping, stomach-fluttering sensation rolled through her, like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon and looking down into a thing of ageless depth.

Then he raised the back of his left hand. A deep red symbol was tattooed there. It was a simple symbol, almost a doodle, of a perfect diamond taking up the majority of the back of his hand. A spiral began dead center and curled over and over, until the ending tail became part of the diamond that enclosed it.

Curly-cuing vines of red light sprouted from each of the four points of the diamond, looping and spinning and nesting and expanding. The vine-growth repeated up his forearm, crawling across his bicep, and strangling around his shoulder.

And they all pulsed softly with a blood-red light.

“What is it?” Devon whispered.

“A glyph,” Green said, his face calm “Like these.”

He gestured to the rest of his torso, where other large symbols had been inscribed. They were all different, but after examining the Spiral-in-Diamond, Devon could see a pattern. There was always a central symbol and lines streaking, growing, away from it.

“What are they?” Devon asked. The terror and the anger were draining away, and she could feel Student-Devon peeking out. The one with the unquenchable curiosity, the hungry mind, and the heedless, reckless, stupid intelligence.

“Not now,” Green said.

“Are they dangerous?” Devon asked. She wasn’t even sure why she asked it, but though the glowing marks sparked a wonder inside of her, they gave her a feeling of unease that she couldn’t explain.

“Dangerous? Oh hell yeah,” Green said.

“Is it magic?”

Green’s eyes opened on rusted hinges. Devon knew what he was going to say before he said it.

“No,” he said.

Okay, that wasn’t what she had expected.

“Maybe,” Green said, between violent coughs. “Does it matter?”

Her fingers dug into Green’s bare upper arms, and he winced.

“Do something!”

“I am,” Green said. “But I’m going to need your help, Devon, was it?”

He seemed to be making a hard decision by the squint of his eyes and the deep lines carved into his forehead. Devon had seen the same look on her mother a hundred times, the look that said ‘I don’t know about this.’

The inky blackness began to envelop the car.

“Well, can you save us or not?” Devon spat.

“I need you to heal me,” Green said, “I – “

“I already did,” Devon shouted. “I’m not a miracle worker.”

Green smiled.

“Wanna change that? Gimme your hand.”

He held out a rough, scarred hand to her. His right hand. The Spiral-hand. How. Why. Devon laid her palm across the symbol.

I don’t believe in magic.

“Good, just like that,” Green said. Then, just then, Devon caught something in his face, for just the span between heartbeats. Not fear, not anger. Regret.

“What do I do?” Devon whispered.

“Nothing, dear,” Green said. “This is my work.”

Minutes ago she’d been sorting through old CD collections and checking the expiration dates on Beans and Weenies. Now she was crouched in the back of a Honda in a broken down garage, surrounded by Shades, about to be shown the secrets of magic by a dying spellslinger.

Devon expected him to chant or wave his arms or speak something in Dreaded Latin, but instead he let out a long rattling breath.

His eyes popped open.

“Shit,” he said.

Devon frowned. “Problem?”

Wise old wizards didn’t say “shit.” Not when the ancient unknowable bad-guys were twenty feet away and ready to murder our heroes. Devon twisted her lip and pushed her glasses back up her nose.

“What? What?”

“I don’t know,” Green snapped. He flexed his fingers, the tendons rippling against the palm of her right hand.

“Out of magic?”

“Hilarious. That should have worked.”

“Is it the wound?”

“I shouldn’t even BE wounded.”

The Honda’s windows were black now, a black that crawled.

“Oh God,” Devon whispered.

Green touched the shaft of the arrow. “I shouldn’t be wounded,” Green repeated.

“Why?”

“Not by this.”

“What does that MEAN?”

“The arrow, it’s . . . I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Know,” Devon commanded. The darkness writhed against the windows of the Accord.

“It’s blocking me. Somehow.”

She grabbed the shaft of the arrow and, ignoring everything she had ever learned about modern medicine, yanked it out of his chest. Her bandage, the tape, and more than a little blood and flesh came free. Green spat and hissed and kicked the door.

“Son of a bitch!” Green shouted.

He dipped his hand into the fresh blood on his chest, reached out, and squeezed her hand with those bloody fingers. Hard.

Then Devon was kicked by what had to be a horse. A horse on steroids, made of molten steel. It punched her square in the chest, blasted the air out of her. She shook, trying to snatch her hand out of his. He was pouring fire into her, somehow, and he wouldn’t stop. She didn’t understand. Why. How?

The flesh must have been melting from her bones. The fat bubbling and sizzling, dripping between his fingers to land on the stained gray upholstery. The bones charring, turning black, brittle and crumbling. The hot spitting sounds of her marrow, super-heated, cracking the bones and spraying out like bacon in a frying pan.

STOP!” she screamed.

He did.

The pain lessened, and she closed her eyes against it. It was endless, it would consume her body in a fiery hell forever and ever and ever. She squirmed and shook, huffing out little tight sobs.

Then he slapped her face. Her eyes shot open.

His chest was a ruination of gore and blood and white bone. His lips were pale. He held his hand against his wound, as blood gushed across his chest, down his stomach, pooling in the crotch of his jeans.

The Spiral-in-Diamond, along with its nesting vines of curlicues, was gone.

In her left hand, she clutched a bloody sawed-off arrow shaft. The head wasn’t made of obsidian – she noticed it immediately. The shaft was identical to the one Ahern had pulled from the dead soldier, but instead of the shiny black perfection of volcanic glass, the arrow head was a dull heavy gray, almost like lead, but shot through with opalescent flecks.

She dropped it to the floor mats when she saw her right hand.

A perfect diamond took up the majority of her palm, and it burned with violet light. There were no curlicues or vines or outward spirals. There was only one Spiral, dead center of the Diamond.

“No time,” Devon whispered.

“No time,” Green mouthed.

“What do I do?  How?”

Green’s eyes closed.

“Oh God,” Devon whispered.

Scraping. Scuffling. Behind her. In the deeper darkness that had been slipped over the windows. The door handle. She slapped her left palm down on the lock, then twisted and stretched around the car to lock them all.

The world was fading, growing hazy and insubstantial, and she thought she might be passing out.

Wonderful.

Devon!

She looked down, pushing her glasses up her nose for the umpteenth time.

Heal him. Miracles. That’s what the crazy shirtless old man had promised.

Devon opened her right hand over the chasm where Green’s pectoral used to be. Think magical. Think mystical. Imagine flesh knitting back together, a golden rush of light, think whole and fit and lay on hands.

Nothing happened.

The door handle behind her jiggled.Devon pushed her palm down into the blood and the torn flesh, feeling the slimy-over-hard sensation of touching living bone with bare hands.

You’re sticking your hand in hot soup, Devon thought to herself. Tomato soup. No. Bad choice. Pea soup.

She pushed down harder.

Heal. Be well. Go Web Go.

Crack. She didn’t turn around, but the whole car shook with the blow. The Shades were smacking something hard and unyielding into the passenger-side window.

Then behind her. Crack. Crack.

Crack.

Oh God oh god oh god oh god.

Devon shoved her palm into Green’s chest.

The glass behind her shattered.

HEAL GODDAMMIT!”

Heat flowed through her arm, and with eyes like silver dollars Devon saw blue-glowing vines growing on the flesh of her right arm. Springing up, like time-lapse photography, sluicing over her hand, up her wrist, disappearing into her sleeve.

Fire exploded in her belly.

Hands reached through the glass and grabbed Devon by the shoulders.

Just before a pillowy, welcoming darkness sloshed over Devon’s senses and took her down down down . . .

Green’s eyes opened. Locked with hers, two glowing green gems at the bottom of a darkening well.

He winked.

Devon passed out.

Chapter 6

Snake-Oil

 

“How do you feel?”

“Still fine. Seriously. I’m swell.”

“No fever? Muscle aches? Trouble in the bathroom?”

“Wow. No. My bathroom-using powers are tip-top. Always have been.”

“And the other – “

“If I write it down, would you believe me? Do you have any stone I could etch it into?”

“What about your neck?”

“Better after morphine. That’s true of most things though.”

“Good, good. Hungry?”

“Starving. Do you have any seared ahi, maybe with some whipped potatoes? I don’t actually know what goes with ahi, but I’d like it. For my belly.”

“We’ll send something up. Thank you, Mr. Blumenthal.”

The guy in the space suit closed the door so gently you’d think it was made of glass instead of two inches of steel. Bloom made sighing sounds and jumped to his feet. He circled the room twice, searched the cabinets. Tried the door. Locked.

He wondered where his clothes were. His ass was getting cold from hanging out the back of a paper smock. They’d put a mirror above the sink. Bloom examined himself for the thousandth time. No horns, no scales. His face wasn’t sloughing off. He did have about a hundred yards of white linen around his neck, though. His fingers grazed the bandage, and he let out a hiss. Yup. Getting your neck sliced with an obsidian arrow hurts. Cross that off the bucket list.

When he’d given up searching the room, he went back to bed and tried to nap.

He woke up to shouting.

It sounded like a fight.

Bloom rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tried to focus. The steel door muffled the words but not the anger behind them. Two people at least, engaged in a bright and violent argument.

He pictured Rebels. Shades.

 Bloom tried to secure his paper gown a little tighter, then he rolled out of the bed and collapsed a metal folding chair by the door. He picked it up by the legs, swung a test swing through the air, and tried his best to channel his inner wrestler.

He backed up against the wall.

The steel door blasted open. Bloom swung the chair with all his strength at the first person who came through the door.

The woman ducked it, but the guy behind her took the chair full in the face and flew backward through the doorway. The blonde woman, tall and spry, grabbed the chair and twisted it out of Bloom’s grip. The woman came in fast, snatched his right hand, and put him in a wrist lock that had him mewling against the stone wall.

Bloom’s face smooshed against the wall, flattened out like pizza dough. He mumbled against the concrete, but his attacker wouldn’t let go. The pain in his wrist felt like something alive.

“What was that?” the woman said.

“Hey Colonel,” Bloom gasped. “Nice reflexes. Could I have my bones back?”

Colonel Amanda Streeter released him, and he slumped against the cold, hard wall. He patted it twice with his numb hand before turning around.

Amanda Streeter wasn’t thickly built; she had the lean look of someone fast and dangerous. Which, she was. She had hair like spun gold, smashed into an inelegant warrior’s braid at her back. She might have just crested forty, by the sparse lines around her eyes and mouth. Her face would have been pretty with makeup and a smile, but she wasn’t known to carry either.

She wore desert fatigues and a sidearm at her hip. A black duffel hung from her shoulder.

“Daniel,” she said. She scanned him, up and down. “Where are your pants, kid?”

“A man took them.”

The Colonel’s mouth formed the closest thing to a smile she was capable of.

“You feeling okay?” she asked.

Outside, a man made wet noises.

“I think you broke his nose,” the Colonel said.

“I’ve eaten jello for two days. He earned it.”

The Colonel shoved the duffel bag into his hands.

“Put your clothes on. It’s time to go.”

Bloom perked up. “Where are we going?”

The Colonel didn’t answer him. She disappeared into the hallway, probably to take care of the man Bloom had brained. Bloom took the time to change. Jeans, a t-shirt, running shoes. Amanda must have swung by his parents’ house. He turned the duffel upside down and frowned. No Stetson.

“Balls,” Bloom whispered.

The Colonel came into the room, her arms around a guy’s shoulders. He was shorter than her, dressed in Marine fatigues. The hands covering his face were red. She laid him in Bloom’s hospital bed, then grabbed the discarded paper gown and folded it into a bandage. He held it against his bleeding face, his eyes off in Nowheresville.

“He gonna be okay?” Bloom asked.

“Sure,” the Colonel said. “Shattered face builds character.”

“And scar tissue,” Bloom said.

The Colonel led him out of the small room without another word. Bloom sighed – like mother like daughter.

 

***

 

“Where are we?”

“Oceanside,” Amanda said. “They told me they’d brought you back alive, in quarantine for deviation. This whole place is off-site. Off-books.”

“They wouldn’t tell you where I was?” Bloom asked.

“Hubbard’s orders,” Amanda said, grinding the words like gristle.

“How’d you find me?”

Amanda flashed a sadistic smile that could freeze a lake.

Colonel Streeter had been the head honcho of Pendleton, Bloom knew, before the Merge. She’d rallied everyone together and kept everyone safe, and was a huge part of the reason they’d survived as long as they had.

Six months after the Merge, Brigadier General Miles Hubbard had arrived by nuclear submarine – one of the last remaining ships, all the way from sunny Pearl Harbor.

Hubbard showed up with his own loyal pack of Marines and Navymen. His boys didn’t outnumber hers, but she was a good soldier, and he had the rank.

Some said things weren’t the same under General Hubbard’s reign.

Amanda Streeter led Bloom through the concrete bunker, browbeating terrified soldiers into telling her where to go. Where they kept the bodies.

They came to a door marked “Morgue,” with a female guard posted at the door. The Colonel ignored her protests and went for the door handle. The Marine reached out to grab her wrist, but the Colonel’s body snapped with the appearance of ease that only years of mastery could project. She rotated her wrist, caught the Marine’s arm, and flipped her toward the wall. The Colonel wedged her there, her arm cranked up to her shoulders.

“Yeah, she’s really good at those,” Bloom said.

The Colonel whispered something in the Marine’s ear. The Marine sagged.  The Colonel released her and stepped away from the wall.

“Go get some coffee.”

The Marine marched down the hallway, rubbing her shoulder.

“What – “

“I told her I’d come to see my baby,” the Colonel said, in a hoarse whisper that sounded nothing like her brassy alto bark.

Bloom started. Looked at her. Looked at the door marked “Morgue.”

“Colonel,” Bloom whispered.

She went through the door. Bloom followed.

The inside was all florescent lights and cold tables and drawers, everything Bloom had seen in the old movies. White coats milled around, but Bloom couldn’t keep his eyes off the six tables that weren’t empty.

A short thin man with a pinched fox-face drifted over to them. He took stock of the Colonel, then Bloom.

“This is a classified area, Colonel,” the man said. “You’re not on the guest list.”

“Who is?” the Colonel asked in a cool tone.

It sounded like a thin veneer of “polite” slathered over potential violence. Bloom was certain she could crack this tiny man open like a beer and pour him onto the floor.

“That’s classified,” he said, with a smirk. Bloom glanced at his lab coat – no rank, just ‘Y. Tyrell.’ “What do you want?”

Bloom watched the colonel, trying to spot some trace of the choked grieving mother he had glimpsed for half-a-second outside. She didn’t exist. Her face had transformed into alabaster fitted with a noble’s sneer.

“I want to see the bodies the Marines brought in from the inhuman attack.”

Bloom’s chest tightened.

“Why?” Tyrell asked. He shook a hand-rolled cigarette out of a silver case and stuck it into the corner of his mouth.

“I’m investigating the deaths,” the Colonel said. “The General’s orders – “

“Bullshit,” Tyrell whispered, with no trace of heat in his voice. “The General told me anyone who examines these bodies who wasn’t on the list gets a bullet in the pan.”

“You gonna shoot me, Yance?”

He shook his head.

“Too much paper work. Plus I know why you’re here.”

“Oh yeah?” the Colonel asked, and there was a ghost of that woman outside in her inflection.

Bloom tried his best to melt into the wall. It couldn’t be. They weren’t. It couldn’t be.

Tyrell walked to a table behind him. He pulled a sheet back, revealing the naked upper body of what had once been a handsome young man with straw-blonde hair. The young man had a thin face and eyes so blue they looked white. The light shined off his waxy skin, like a doll made up as a person. There was a hole in his chest, cleaned of blood but black and hollow looking into -

Bloom jerked away and tried to breathe through his mouth. He felt light-headed, like he might take a nose dive into the concrete floor.

“Who’s this?” the Colonel asked.

“Corporal Tyler Wallace,” Tyrell said. “Special Forces, not Marines. That’s how I knew you were full of shit, by the way.”

“What kind of Special Forces?” the Colonel asked.

“Classified. You shouldn’t even know his name.”

“Then why did you show me this?”

"I just wanted you to see one of the boys your daughter tried to save. She was brave. Forensics and his statement -"

Bloom coughed hard.“Uh, what do you mean was brave? What do you mean – “

“ – all point to your girl running through enemy fire to administer first-aid to the soldiers pinned down inside. When the rescue team found her body, she was surrounded by three dead Shades with bullet wounds we’ve matched to her pistol. She was slumped over a patient – she’d died trying to save him. Balls of steel, if you pardon the anatomical impossibilities. A true corpsmen, Colonel. I put her in for a medal.”

The Colonel looked at the floor.

“I want to see her.”

"See her?" Bloom said. "She can't be -"

The Colonel didn’t move. Tyrell stared at Bloom, rolled the cigarette to the other side of his mouth, then sighed deeply.

“I’m sorry, son,” he said.

“What? What do you mean?”

Tyrell stared at him.

Bloom caught the edge of an empty table. His breath came in short gasps, and a weight pressed on his shoulders. His legs almost buckled from the strain of holding up the entire Earth.

“That’s bullshit,” Bloom said. “Devon’s not. No fucking way. I got out. She had to have . . . you just didn’t find her.” Bloom felt his voice ratcheting up in pitch. “You just didn’t find her. She’s out there. She’s been grabbed or she’s running – “

“Daniel,” the Colonel whispered.

“No, no I was there!” Bloom shouted. His eyes were threatening to burst out of their sockets. Why didn’t they understand? She was Devon.

When he woke up in the morning he knew he’d see her. He’d have something to say to her, to tell her. Things weren’t real until she knew about them. If his dad came down on him, or his mom made a weird, inappropriate joke at the dinner table after her second glass of homemade wine. If Bloom found a working PlayStation at the Market. None of it happened until he told Devon about it.

He’d been thinking, just now, about what he’d say to Devon about the hospital room he’d woken up in. About the room she must have woken up in too. About the quarantine. He’d been thinking of a funny way to say that he’d almost brained her mom with a folding chair.

Tyrell’s hand curled around his arm.

“She went pretty hard. Her wounds – “

“Show me,” Bloom said. His voice had dropped into the basement.

Tyrell lead them to the other side of the long row of tables, to a small thing at the end . . .

Bloom looked at the shape on the table, the silhouette painted by the draping white sheet. A thin shape, and short, leaving plenty of space on the cold metal. Something squeezed his guts – he remembered having sleep-overs with Devon when they were young enough for that not to be weird. He remembered her cold-ass feet and blanket-thievery.

He remembered her shape under the sheets of his childhood bedroom.

Bloom stopped in his tracks and covered his eyes with a shaking hand.

“Okay,” the Colonel said, after a moment of dreadful silence. Bloom dropped his hand from his eyes.

Tyrell folded the sheet back.

Chapter 7

Homeward Bound

 

He stopped just above the non-swells of her small breasts, and Bloom had an idea that the move was more than modesty. The shape of the sheet went funny around her midsection, drooping down further than it should.

He stared into her face. Her heart-shaped face on a thin neck.

Her skin stretched taut across her clavicle, across her cheeks. Too skinny. She’d hated her frailty, but couldn’t seem to put on weight. Slender, short, and sleight, she’d done her fair share of time as a bully target. But she was pretty, Bloom thought. The large eyes, now closed (forever), the small cute nose sprinkled with freckles. On the table, her ginger hair flared out behind her like a sleeping Disney princess.

Normally her lips were pinkish, not from makeup, perish the thought, but from windburn. It only made her look prettier, he realized. Beautiful. She never needed makeup. He’d teased her endlessly about her tomboy ways, but it wasn’t anything. It didn’t mean anything.

He wondered if she’d known that. It hadn’t meant anything. Bloom expelled words like a balloon leaked air. He’d never given them much thought.

I should have, a voice peeped up inside of him. You should have said something real.

He’d never get a chance.

To tell her that she actually was beautiful. That orange hair she hated so much looked like flames to him. That too-skinny body she despised reminded him of a fairy, delicate, girly but somehow strong. The freckles she’d once tried to scrub off her skin with the rough side of a sponge were perfectly adorable.

Why didn’t I say any of that?

Why?

Now her lips wore the same flat pallor of her skin.

It didn’t look like Devon. The features were hers, but different. The muscles in her face had gone slack, and she had an expression Bloom had never seen before. Not peaceful, like they say. Empty. Just, empty.

Her hair was too short – she always kept it up. He’d been one of the few people to see it down, and he knew how long it was. The red-orange flames of her hair poured halfway down her back . . . but the corpse’s hair barely passed her shoulders.

The knot in his gut unraveled. He stared at her, numb. Empty.

He looked up at the Colonel.

Her head was cocked to the side, like someone at an art museum trying to decipher brush strokes. A ring of red rimmed her eyes, but Bloom didn’t see any tears. Her eyes, so intense, bored into the still form of her dead child.

Bloom imagined he could hear the heartbeat of everyone in the room. All the living ones, anyway. He could hear their breath, hell he probably could have counted out their pulse. All eyes in the room rested on the tableau, the tall strong woman in the camo, her hands behind her back in something like parade rest, looking down into the frightfully pale, motionless girl.

She looked like a doll, swaddled in a pretty white dress.

The Colonel leaned close and whispered something to the body. She stood up straight again and nodded to Tyrell.

That was all. Tyrell covered her with the sheet.

 

***

 

Amanda Streeter forced the labcoats to clear Bloom – he didn’t have Deviation symptoms, and all the tests were negative. They’d given him his gear back and sent him out with the Colonel. They had his Stetson. He turned it over in his hands, then stuck in in his duffel.

They drove back in her Jeep. She dropped him off at his parent’s place, in SONGS. Just before Bloom left, she pulled him into a stifling hug.

She spun away from him, got into the Jeep, and drove away.

Bloom watched the dust rise up behind her.

He then did what everyone does when there’s nothing left – he went home.

His home in SONGS was little more than a storage shed, which made it finer than most homes. Many folk who lived around the nuclear power plant, the ones who didn’t trust moving in to Pendleton and were too scared of inhumans to live in Oceanside or Fallbrook, lived in a ramshackle spray of tents, lean-tos, store-bought plastic sheds, cinderblock huts, and clapboard bungalows. There were a few motor homes on rims, and some enterprising people had made long apartments out of semi-truck trailers.

Living in a building with honest-to-God foundations made Bloom feel like a king.

His parents were home.

When he opened the door, they wrapped him in a double-sided embrace. He tried to smile, and he held them, and for a long time there was silence.

Two hours later, in the darkness of his room, he wrote a note. When he was done, he taped it to his door. Then he loaded everything he owned into a backpack and lowered it out of his bedroom window, along with a hardcase the rough shape of an M1-C Garand rifle.

Bloom looked at the note, framed in scotch tape.

 

Mom and Dad,

 

I have to go. I love you. I can’t tell you where I’m going, but I’m sure you can take a guess. Delusion or hope, I have to know. I have to. I’m taking all precautions against my condition. I know you won’t approve, but I can’t wait.

 

There’s so little left. I won’t let the Merge take anything else.

 

Please feed Turtlesworth.

 

With all my love,

 

Daniel

 

Bloom crawled through the window and closed it behind him.

 

***

 

Bloom moved through the crowded market, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head. He carried only a backpack full of trinkets – he’d stashed everything else.

Around him, the post-apocalypse bazaar churned with the constant exchange between one man’s trash and another’s treasure.

He found the stall he’d been looking for – Nico’s. A dark, rangy man, on the wrong side of fifty but lean as steel wire. Equal parts garbage and almost-garbage crowded his counter.

Nico spotted his approach and sucked in a huge breath.

“Save it,” Bloom said.

Nico deflated.

“Oh, come on,” Nico said with a theatrical sigh, “it’s my favorite part.”

Bloom upended his satchel on the only ounce of counter-space amongst the sea of junk. Scrap metal. A tire iron, some screw drivers. A handful of Compact Discs, a Zippo lighter embossed with the Confederate flag (no lighter fluid), an unopened package of Bic disposal lighters (some lighter fluid). A sun-faded pink Swiss-Army knife. The last thing to tip out of the bag landed heavily, a long package wrapped in canvas.

Nico flicked his eyes up into Bloom’s face and cleared his throat. His thin raw face carved out a smile.

“What’s this?” Nico asked.

Bloom flashed a wary look at Nico.

Not waiting for response, the thin old man slashed the knotted twine with a knife and unfolded the canvas. Bloom tapped the counter and glanced around, and Nico held up the edges of the cloth to conceal the package from prying eyes.

“What is this?” Nico whispered.

“That’s a Shade knife.”

“Bullshit,” Nico said, but his eyes were blazing.

Nico ran a finger across the flat of the black blade inside the canvas.

“Obsidian?” Nico said with a low dry whistle.

“Make their arrow heads out of it, too.”

“Seems fragile . . .”

Bloom grabbed the tire-iron from his collection of crap and banged it hard down on the flat of the blade. Nico cursed, but when Bloom pulled the iron away the black blade hadn’t been scratched.

Nico whistled again.

“What do you want for it?” Nico said, eyeing him.

“Show me the lot, Neek.”

 

***

 

Devon and her mom, the Colonel, lived in a two-story townhouse on a suburban street of identical town houses. The grass, perfect rectangles of well-fed green, could have been cut and sculpted by robots.

Bloom reached over the Streeter’s garden fence and tripped the latch. He slid inside as fast as he could. The first thing Bloom noticed as he closed the fence was Wyatt Earp, who leaped through the air without a sound and slammed Bloom into the gate. Bloom squeaked in shock and collapsed into the grass. Triumphant, Wyatt Earp sat on Bloom’s back and shoved his wet nose into Bloom’s neck.

He didn’t bark, but the exuberant wag of his tail spoke volumes.

“Wyatt!” Bloom groaned. He rolled over, and the dog tumbled into the grass. Wyatt came up smiling, offering a dopey face and a warm welcome via face-licking. Wyatt, a medium-sized golden-rust Vizsla, with his thin frame and long legs, reminded Bloom of his own spindly build. Bloom growled low in his throat, wrapped his arms around Wyatt’s neck, and rolled over him onto the grass.

Wyatt didn’t mind. His pale amber eyes stared up at Bloom in the most sincere expression of love (the kind only dogs and grandmas can pull off), and his tongue lolled crazily out the side of his muzzle.

Bloom laughed at the dopey dog and scratched his tummy as vigorously as Wyatt would allow. When Bloom got tired of Wyatt’s tail thumping into his thigh he climbed to his feet.

As usual, Devon’s dog joined him, orbiting no further than a foot away from Bloom as he cased the Streeter’s back yard.

“Is the back door open, Wyatt?” Bloom asked.

Wyatt didn’t think so, not from the way his tongue tucked away and his mouth closed. Without the dopey tongue-hanging face, Wyatt had a strange nobility that made him about ten times funnier looking. Bloom laughed again, scratched Wyatt’s floppy ears, and started working.

He picked a rock up from the garden, tucked it into his jeans, and climbed the white trellis up to Devon’s bedroom window.

He smashed in the window as stealthily as he could. It took three solid hits – glass is surprisingly strong, he decided. He slid the rock along the edge of the frame to clear out the last jagged shards, then he crept inside.

Devon Streeter kept the kind of bedroom parents had nightmares about. A twin bed, pushed against two walls. Every square-inch of carpet concealed beneath a strata of laundry. An overflowing waste-paper basket. A dusty computer screen on a sticky desk.

He scooped up a picture frame from her desk and smiled at it. A lump clogged up his throat.

They’d taken the picture on Devon’s twelfth birthday pool party. Bloom had been the only boy invited. The other girls had assumed he was gay. Or a weirdo.

The picture showed a twelve-year-old Daniel Blumenthal, all legs and arms, springing off a diving board and into an oval of blue lapping water. Over his head, thrust triumphantly into the sky, was the bowl of ambrosia one of the parents had foisted on the celebrating kids. It had been met with harsh disapproval, and so Bloom had executed it.

The photographer deserved a Pulitzer.

Bloom dropped to his knee. He sorted through the dirtiest laundry he could find, avoiding bras and underthings for dignity’s sake. He got a handful of old used shirts and threw them into his backpack.

He gave the room one last look.

“I’m going to find you.”

Out the window he went, and down the trellis.

Wyatt looked up at him, doggy eyes wide, tongue flapping in the breeze.

“If you think this is a bad idea, now’s the time to say so.”

Wyatt stared up at him.

“Good dog.”

Bloom found his leash nailed to a post on the veranda. It took some wrestling, but Bloom managed to clip the leash to the dog’s collar without getting his bones crushed by doggy enthusiasm.

Bloom left the Streeters’ backyard and strolled down the sidewalk, Wyatt Earp tugging at the leash like a plow horse.

Boy and dog marched on. Out of Pendleton, out of SONGS.

Away.

 

***

 

Miniature cliffs dot the San Onofre beach, fifty-foot walls of wet rock sculpted by quake and sea.

Down on the beach, a pair of long straight lines curved into the mouth of a cave.

It wasn’t a large opening – no wider than three men standing abreast. It grew into a multi-chambered sea cave, one Devon and Bloom had discovered well before the Merge. They’d wiled away hundreds of afternoons in that cave, pretending to be Batman or vampires or unicorn technicians. Sometimes just sitting and talking, or snacking and napping. Or sometimes just sitting in the dark, thinking of far-reaching things.

The back of the cave had been piled with swag like an old pirate hideaway. Bloom spotted a bicycle thrown haphazardly across the top of the heap.

“Thank you, Nico,” Bloom said to the empty cave, a smile on his face. “Wherever you are, you’re a handsome, dapper bastard.”

Bloom let Wyatt go, and the dog shot right for the lapping waves. Wyatt streaked to the edge of the water, then high-tailed it as soon as the water sluiced over his paws. He kept this cycle of chase-be-chased going for a long while.

Bloom unloaded all of Nico’s stash onto the sand. Twenty-one-speed mountain bike with a luggage rack. Hiking boots, a dozen pairs of socks, three sets of outdoor clothing. A backpack full of MRE rations. Two canteens, water purification tablets and a boiler kit for when they ran out. Two full cans of Keta-cal powder. A bag of oranges. Great heaping bags of beef jerky. Binoculars. A compass and map of Southern California. Pens, and an empty journal. A fixed-blade survival knife and a sheath. Sewing needles, fishing hooks, a spool of twine, fifty feet of nylon rope. Matches, and a flint for when those ran out. Sleeping bag, a tarp, a winter blanket.

Two packages came last, wrapped in canvas – one long, one short. He laid them gently on the ground.

Bloom knew what Devon would say, if she saw him kneeling over these bundles like he was praying.

“Boys,” Devon would say. “If it doesn’t explode, put holes in people, or have boobs, you want nothing to do with it.”

Bloom would laugh and say, “It doesn’t have to have boobs.”

Which, of course, would only drive flat-chested Devon into stuttering paroxysms of rage.

Bloom cut the ties of the bundles with his new survival knife and laid out the packages in the dust, unwrapping the cloth like Christmas morning. The first bundle, the long one, surprised him – when he opened it, he looked up at Wyatt with genuine awe.

“Wow with a capital Holy Crap,” Bloom said to the dog.

Bloom raised the sword in its black sheath, holding it horizontally in front of his eyes. It didn’t look old, but he could feel the balance of the thing, the strength. He drew the sword, drenching the thin curving blade in the sunlight. Bloom ran his thumb lightly down the blade and knew, right away, that he could hack his thumb off if he pressed down hard enough. He snapped the sword back into the scabbard.

“Not a katana,” Bloom said. “I think it’s a small changdao.”

Wyatt flapped his tongue, bounced in a circle, and crashed off toward the waves.

“Thanks Wyatt.”

He opened the last package and frowned. It was a pistol, like he’d asked for. He’d need an old gun – the further he got away from SONGS, the more his technology would fail. They’d found that most pre-World War Two weapons could still operate well into the wilderness, with only huge amounts of magic making them glitch. And usually, someone exposed to gigantic flows of magic didn’t last long enough to lament their gun jamming.

But this . . .

The gun had been wrapped in a leather holster and belt, and he tugged it out and turned it over in his hands. The revolver had been a work of beauty, once, maybe two-hundred years ago. A curving red wood handle and the metal frame looked pitted and scarred, like it had traveled through space. It opened on a hinge, and when Bloom turned the cylinder, his mouth fell open.

“I know you don’t care, Wyatt, but this thing is pre-Civil War. A Colt Navy.”

Wyatt darted at the water. Recoiled. Looked over his haunches at Bloom.

Bloom riffled through the belt pouch that came with it and counted fifty paper cartridges.

 Amazing.

At least I don’t have to worry about it glitching, pup,” Bloom said. “I don’t think this counts as technology, strictly speaking. My belt buckle is more sophisticated.”

He holstered the thing, strapped it on, and stood up.

Bloom stared out, his eyes drawn to ocean. The sun hung like a fat orange on a drooping branch.

Wyatt came bouncing back, jumped up, and planted his wet muddy paws right in the center of Bloom’s chest. He peered up at him, his ears rotating around.

“Help me tie this stuff to the bike,” Bloom said.

Wyatt bounced off toward the ocean.

“Asshole.”

Bloom strapped his gear to the bike’s luggage rack, watching Wyatt gambol down the beach. A silent rust-colored streak, a silhouette against the dying sun. Bloom wheeled the bicycle into the sea cave and crouched down in the mouth of the cleft. He tucked his knees up to his chest and pulled his Stetson down over his eyes.

“Good doggy,” Bloom said, and scratched Wyatt hard down his spine. “When we wake up, let’s do somethin’ stupid.”

Bloom drifted off into sleep.

He dreamed of a girl on a table. A girl whose hair had been too short. A girl who only looked like Devon if you didn’t know her face better than your own.

A girl who had the wrong freckles in the wrong places.

Chapter 8

Smoke and Mirrors

 

Sometimes she’s awake. Sometimes, she isn’t.

One of her dreams is a worn memory, a yellow-faded picture shuffling through her mental photo album.

It’s her mother, tall and blonde, her face hard and her lips pinched. She leans over her, fussing with her backpack. Devon remembers squirming, because her mother . . .

“Mom!” Devon whines.

“I said pack your food and clothes, Devon. We don’t have time for this,” her mom says to her. Her voice is stiff, her eyes far away.

“I need this stuff!” Devon says. She’s fourteen years old, about to enter high school.

“You need a Kindle? You need four giant textbooks? You need graph paper? We have to go, Devon.”

“You’re packing other stuff!”

“Guns. It’s my job.”

Devon swings her backpack away from her mom and backs against the wall.

“This is my job,” Devon says. Her long red hair is in a high ponytail, and it bobs against her head when she shakes it.

“Devon . . .”

“When do we meet up with Dad?”

“We don’t. I’m leaving a note here, telling him where we’ll be.”

“What if he can’t come here? What if those things on the streets – “

“Enough.” Mom’s in the kitchen now, shoving cans and a box of rice into a backpack. “If he can’t make it here, he knows where we’re going anyway.”

“Home? Camp Pen?”

“That’s right.”

They’re pilfering through their grandparents’ house. Where they’d been visiting, when things had gone sideways. When Devon and her mom had seen such amazing things . . . pools of light. Men with gray skin, and monsters that -

“Where’s grandma and grandpa?” Devon asks.

"They're safe. There's an evacuation announcement -"

“We should go there, go get them.”

“They’ll be fine,” Colonel Streeter said. “We have to get back to base.”

Devon laughed bitterly, ran toward the windows, and threw the curtains open.

"Look out there, Mom! You think they're safe? You think -"

The sun stabbed at her eyes, and she threw her forearm over her face. She groaned.

“Holy shit-on-a-shingle,” a jabbering voice said. “She’s not dead.”

“I’m not dead,” she mumbled. Her throat had been wallpapered with high-grit sandpaper. Her tongue had been replaced with a thin flap of leather.

“Once more with moisture,” the voice said.

Ice stung her tongue, and she coughed. A dark shape blocked the sun and another blizzard cascaded past her lips. Her mouth came alive, absorbing the water like a codependent sponge. She grasped for the shape, for the water, but strong hands pushed her away.

“Careful kiddo,” the jibber-jabber shape said. “Too much water and it’s Vomit-Town, population you.”

“What?” she whispered.

“You’re the medic. You really should know this one.”

“What?”

“Try this.”

The shape popped something into her mouth. It sat on her tongue, cooler than her mouth, and when she tried to work her jaws it felt like chewing on a shoelace. A cool trickle of grass-flavored juice splashed over her tongue.

Color poured back into the world, and she became suddenly aware of her limbs. Her entire body tingled, like she’d guzzled coffee laced with sunshine. She remembered, in that moment, and decided at the same time that she had no use for remembering. There had been Shades and arrows and dead soldiers. There had been a dying man who’d given her . . . something. An impossible thing.

She remembered the Shades breaking through the window, coming to kill her like they’d murdered everything else . . .

“Djave meat,” the voice said. “A bit rich for my taste, but hoooo-boy is it packed with power. Did you know you could live off a pound of djave meat for a month, with the proper water supply?”

She chewed, feeling vibrant strength burning into her. She did her best not to think of the chewy leather as meat, to think of the grass-flavored blood as “juice.” It filled her mouth, and there was a coppery tinge. Her brain told her to puke it up, but she kept chewing, waiting for her eyes to adjust.

“Green?” she whispered, when she choked down another mouthful.

“None other.”

Devon went away for a while.

When she came back, her body felt like it had gone through a washing-machine spin cycle a few times. Still her brain worked, and she remembered her name.

She sat against a deflated tire in the shade of a massive big rig. The truck had retired on a hardy lawn in front of a Regal Cinemas.

A man in fatigues lay next to her, his eyes closed, his breathing ragged. His name was . . . Ahern. Man of snark and lantern jaw, turned into a quivering mass of hamburger by Shade sorcery. She hated the sound of his rattling breath, and her medic training threw off air-raid sirens. Still, despite her urge to help, her tank was empty. It felt selfish and shitty and unheroic, but there it was. Her arms had been cast in lead, and her splayed legs felt chained to the ground.

Breathing. Breathing was good enough.

You have to enjoy the little things.

A middle-aged man in a bright hi-lighter yellow leather jacket, faded jeans, and black converse Hi-Tops strutted into sight, tossing the doors of the Regal open and scowling at the sun. His neck-length salt-and-pepper hair flapped around his face. When he saw her, he launched a wide smile through his trim beard.

Green hefted a plastic garbage bag and plunked it at her feet.

“What’s this?” Devon asked.

“Supplies!” Green shouted, as if saying ‘surprise!’

“Oh.”

He popped the trash bag open and looked her over. One eye squinted closed, the other wide open and scanning. Green dumped the contents of the bag into the grass and stirred them with his foot. Plastic water bottles, cans of soda, dried ramen packages, deviled ham, tomato and chicken soup cans, and candy bars. Snickers, Three Musketeers, and something called a SoiBoi that sounded as appetizing as a foot.

“Wow,” Devon whispered. “I’ve never wanted to eat deviled ham so bad in my life.”

“You and me both, sister.”

He plopped into the grass in front of her, tucked his legs Indian-style, and began piling the food. He tore the wrapper off the ham, popped the top, and handed it to her.

“I don’t have a spoon.”

She’d swallowed two finger-scoops of the dry lumpy meat before Green could snatch it from her hands. She stared at him, blinking, licking the remaining spread from her fingers.

“Holy pants,” Green said. “Slow down or you’re gonna yack.”

“How long have I been out?” she asked.

“About a day,” Green said. He swallowed a mouthful of the deviled ham with an angry look on his face. He stared at the empty can like it had slapped him.

“A day?”

Devon’s stomach had learned how to do somersaults in that day, because there were serious acrobatics happening. She could have eaten an entire turkey. In fact, she really wanted to. When she reached for a second can, Green kicked at her with one black Converse hi-top.

“Nix,” he said. “I said wait.”

While he split his new plunder between two backpacks, he sang the chorus of “Back in Black” in a raw, throaty voice that didn’t sound half-bad.

“Where are we?” Devon asked. She didn’t particularly care, but it seemed like something she ought to ask. All she really wanted was to find herself back at SONGS -

“Bloom!” Devon shouted.

She snapped her head around to Green, who’d frozen up, a water bottle half-in and half-out of the mouth of a green Jansport backpack. His head rotated up, slowly, his face grave and pinched. His long hair hung in his face, and she realized that when he wasn’t smiling Green frightened her. Emerald flames lit his eyes like lanterns through a thick fog.

“Your friend?” Green asked. “The marksman?”

There didn’t seem to be enough air. Her chest felt tight and her vision swam.

“After I took care of the Shades, I couldn’t find him. Alive or dead. It’s possible he ran.”

“No,” Devon said. “You don’t know him.”

“There’s no shame in it, if I saw the Shades, I’d run. In fact, I did, before they cornered us. And I had a handful of Marines with me.”

“He didn’t run. He wouldn’t.”

Green held his hands out, as if saying, ‘here are the facts.’

“I think he’s alive. The Shades that survived ran away. They didn’t have time to take prisoners.”

Devon sat up against the truck tire. “Do they take prisoners?”

“Occasionally. They believe in the power of blood. They don’t like to waste it.”

“Not from what I saw. Not from what I’ve heard, either. The Knives in the Darkness, some of the people at SONGS call them. Why were they after you?”

“That’s a story for another time.”

“When?”

“If Ahern pulls through,” Green said, “or if he doesn’t. I don’t want to talk about Shades while he’s still infected.”

Ahern’s skin, pale as paper, glowed with sweat. She reached for his face, but stopped. Looked to Green. Green nodded. Devon opened one of his eyes, then ripped her hand back like she’d been bit.

A nest of black veins coiled through his staring eyes.

“What the hell?”

“Magic,” Green said. “The worst kind. He’d be dead, if he wasn’t who he is.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s a deevee.”

Devon jerked back, bouncing off the tire.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Aren’t deviates . . . you know.”

“Contagious?” Green laughed. “Not to you.”

“Why not?” she said, staring at Ahern like he was a live grenade.

“You don’t remember?”

Green turned his right hand over, showing her the bare skin of his palm, and then the back of his hand. Then he took her right hand with rough, calloused fingers and turned it over.

Devon’s mouth fell open. The memories came back to her, the images that had to be a dream. The glass and the car and the blood. And the magic. The symbol that Green had seared into her palm, had transferred, somehow, to her.

She stared at the back of her hand, pale, freckled, slender – and branded. Burning curlicues wrapped around her fingers, her hand, and slid up under the sleeve of her jacket. The whorls split and branched out, hundreds of vines growing spiral-shaped fruit. When she turned her palm up, she shuddered. A massive symbol scored her entire right palm, the grown-up version of the smaller corkscrews – a large diamond shape, with a spiral folding in on itself inside the diamond.

The symbol and the tangle of helices blushed an angry red.

She flexed her fingers, and her entire arm lit up in pain.

Ah . . . You did this to me,” Devon said, when she caught her breath.

“Really wish I didn’t have to, if that helps.”

“It doesn’t. What is it?”

“It’s called Panacea,” he said. “It’s a glyph.”

Green held up his left hand, which had been branded with a large triangle with a circle inside of it. It burned yellow instead of red, like hers, and it glowed brighter. Instead of the nest of curlicues around her glyph, there were tiny ruler-straight lines turning at perfect right angles, each ending with a miniscule triangle before slicing off in a new direction. It looked more mechanical than hers, and it reminded her of the fine gold lines on a circuit board.

“This one isn’t as nice as yours.” Green said.

“How many do you have?” Devon asked.

Green smiled. “Many.”

“Do they all do different things?”

Green whistled. “You’re smarter than I’d like.”

Devon smirked. “I get that a lot.”

Green slung a backpack on and kicked the other one toward her.

“You feel up to walking?” he asked.

“Let’s find out.”

Her arms, skinny and frail already, didn’t want to push her off the ground. She half-turned and groped behind her, digging her fingers into a ledge of the big truck’s fender. Her right arm cascaded pain, but she bit down hard, muttered a womanly growl, and yanked herself up. Her head spun, and the buzz of the djave meat was the only thing that kept the world from going dark. She held onto the buzz like a life-preserver in a storm. The encroaching blackness in her vision faded, and she scooped up the backpack with all the speed of an elderly librarian.

“Why am I so tired?”

“The glyph,” Green said. “Feeds on you, to fuel itself. To fuel the magic.”

“I don’t believe in magic.”

“Bullshit.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

“That’s because you don’t know it,” Green said. “Let’s walk and talk.”

Devon looked down at Ahern, swaddled in his blankets.

“How do we . . ?”

“Oh!” Green said. “You’re gonna love this.”

 

***

 

Four skateboards. One surf board. Duct tape. Bungee cords. Rope. Devon looked down at the contraption, then up at the sign of the Sports Chalet above them.

“You’re kidding,” she said.

Green dropped his foot on top of the board and wiggled it back and forth. To his credit, it rolled smoothly beneath him. He held the board down and tugged hard on the rope. It didn’t budge.

“There’s no other option?” she said. “What about a car?”

“If we find one with gas, one that runs with decent tires, it’s just going to glitch on us sooner or later,” Green said. “We could tie the ropes to a bike . . .”

“No, slow is better, I guess.”

“Agreed.”

Devon rubbed her forehead and adjusted her glasses. “This is insane. Can we make it back to SONGS with this? Where are we?”

Green’s smile faltered.

“What?” Devon asked.

“I have to go . . . I have to warn the others,” Green said. “If the Shades found me, than they might have found our camp.”

“What camp?”

“It isn’t far.”

“If I refuse?”

Green set his jaw. “Then you can find your way home through a whole wilderness of monsters and inhumans you know nothing about. Or, you can come with me. I can protect you. When we get to camp, you can decide what to do then.”

“I decide to go home,” she said. “I decide to find Bloom.”

“It’s your decision.”

“Damn straight.”

“When we get – “ Green began.

“I’m leaving now.” Devon turned.

Green rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Without my glyph, and without your medic training, how long do you think Ahern has?”

“I don’t know. You’re the expert.”

“No, you are.”

Devon ran her fingers through her hair.

“You’re guilting me to come with you.”

“Yes.”

“Just to the camp,” Devon said. “Which isn’t far.”

“Just to the camp. Which isn’t far.”

I SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to consecrate my life to the service of humanity.

Devon ground her teeth together. She thought of Bloom, out there in that wilderness. She thought of an oath she’d taken, too, when she’d first started practicing medicine.

I WILL PRACTICE my profession with conscience and dignity.

Ahern had tried to protect her, and was now playing ding-dong-ditch on the devil’s doorstep.

THE HEALTH OF MY PATIENT will be my first consideration.

Bloom could be home – they weren’t far, and he certainly knew his way well enough. Green hadn’t found his body, and he’d said himself there was no way the Shades had taken him.

But why would Bloom run? Especially if Green had killed or chased off the rest of the Shades right after waking up. Where had Bloom gone?

Devon helped Green take his surfboard contraption back across the parking lot, watched him pull at the ropes and talk about stability and safety. She ignored his words, but stared hard into his back as they walked. She watched him load Ahern onto the surfboard, wrap his blankets tight around him and bungee cord him to the surfboard like luggage.

Devon examined the Browning Hi-Power at her hip. She checked the magazine, she racked the slide, she clicked the safety on and off, on and off. She slid it back into its holster.

“You know how to use that thing?” Green asked. He looked unarmed, but she guessed that wasn’t a problem.

“Point at what you want to die. Pull trigger. Repeat until you achieve desired result.”

“Cute,” Green said. “Ready to go?”

She checked her medpack and nodded.

They trekked across the deserted parking lot, the make-shift sled rumbling as the wheels carved into the decaying blacktop. Green walked smoothly, steadily, looking back only to check that the board wasn’t wobbling. She watched him as they walked, and she knew there were two options.

Either Bloom had run, or Green had lied to her.

No other option made any sense.

She touched the gun at her side, and tested the snap-strap that held it snugly in place. It clicked open, clicked close.

I WILL MAINTAIN the utmost respect for human life.

She clicked the snap-strap on the holster open. She snapped it shut.

Chapter 9

Price Check

 

Cold. Devon zipped her jacket shut. They’d been walking two hours.

The energy from the djave meat faded, leaving in its wake a bone-deep exhaustion. Her thoughts degraded, condensing down to two simple concepts. Hungry. Cold. Hungry. Cold.

She’d complained for a while, and Green had let her drink half a can of chicken noodle soup. He’d had to tear it from her grasp.

She’d eventually settled on a foul glare and grumbly noises. Green didn’t seem impressed or concerned. He chugged along in front of her, the ropes from Ahern’s sled digging into his jacket, never complaining. He’d even whistle or sing when the mood struck him. The man had to be fifty, at least, but he was in excellent shape. Broad shoulders, lean frame below it. His t-shirt hung off a well-muscled torso.

His eyes never stopped moving. Those emerald lamps swept, constantly active, to the windows of the decrepit shops around them, to the streets beyond, and up even to the sky.

Green came to a stop in an intersection, turned, and stopped Ahern’s sled with one Converse Hi-Top.

“What?” she asked.

“Don’t move,” Green said, calmly. He looked past her.

“What?” Devon started to turn.

“‘Don’t move’ is not a complicated instruction.”

Devon froze. Her hand hung limply, inches from her holster. She tugged at the strap.

“You’ll die if you move again.”

Devon’s muscles cramped up, and only when she stopped moving, only when she closed her eyes, did she hear it.

Scraping.

A metal wire across glass. It approached, she realized, just behind her.

“Oh my god,” Devon whispered.

She clamped her mouth shut and stared at Green.

“You can talk,” Green’s eyes followed the phantom progression of something behind her, and to her left.

“Is it deaf?”

“You could say it’s more a respect thing.”

“What?!” Devon asked. The pitch of her voice crept up toward shrieking.

The noise stopped.

“Okay, turn around. We’re fine.”

Devon yanked the Browning from its holster, turned, and dropped into a wide-legged shooter’s stance. She brought the sights in line, and stared down the street at a . . .

Shopping cart.

Someone had left a big cardboard box inside of it, and the whole cart turned on one wheel in the breeze. It had reached the end of a short but steep driveway, and was now caught in the gutter. The thin wire cage beneath the cart, where often lived toilet paper and kitty litter, had broken, and the wires were scraping the sidewalk.

Devon lowered the Browning.

Green barked a laugh. She turned around, jammed the Browning back into its holster, and crossed her arms over her chest. Beneath the beard, Green’s lips were set in a hard, fierce grin.

“Are you kidding me?” Devon asked. “You’re fucking serious right now?”

The spellslinger chuckled again, wrapped the ropes around his chest, and returned to his slow march.

“I have a gun.”

“Sure do,” Green said, over his shoulder. “I’m sure you’re a terror to shopping carts everywhere.”

Devon fished a crumpled Pepsi can out of the gutter and whipped it at his back. It bounced off his leather jacket and clattered on the black top.

“Try not to make so much noise. Attracts the wrong sort.”

Devon ran up and shoved him.

“Was that a test?” Devon demanded. “If I could follow instructions?”

“Sure, or a prank. Whatever makes you feel better.”

“I almost pissed my pants.”

Green laughed.

Devon unzipped Green’s backpack from behind and yanked a Three Musketeers bar out of it.

“I’m keeping this,” she said.

He laughed again, and launched into a lusty-throated rendition of “Jesse’s Girl.”

 

***

 

Near sunset, Green pointed it out to her: a beach house overlooking the sea, a slatternly three-room wreck. Half of the rail along the small front porch had collapsed, but Green assured her that the building was safe.

“Safer than what?” Devon asked. It amazed her how quickly a thing could go to hell without maintenance. Two years without people, and in another two the house wouldn’t even be standing.

Green kicked the door in. Once he’d checked the rooms, they dragged Ahern’s sled inside.

The bungalow had modern conveniences, all of them useless. Devon flicked the light switch in the living room, but nothing turned on. She didn’t expect anything to happen . . . but she hoped it might.

Devon wandered the small rooms. There wasn’t much. She checked the bathroom first, but it had been raided of any medical supplies. The only remnants were a decaying tooth brush, a half-empty tub of hand soap, and an enormous square bottle of Nautica Blue men’s cologne.

“Nice,” Green said from behind her, “not my scent though.”

Devon smirked and joined him in the living room.

Devon stared at the broad, uncovered windows that framed the sea.

“This place doesn’t seem super safe,” she said.

Green, riffling through the kitchen cabinets, grunted.

“Corned beef hash!” Green said, triumphantly.

Devon rolled her eyes.

He procured a can-opener from somewhere and eviscerated both cans with some laborious cranking. He bowed his head and held both cans in front of him. Finally he plopped down at the kitchen table and handed out cans and forks.

“Grace?” Devon asked.

“Not quite,” Green said.

Devon eyed him and scooped a forkful of the greasy concoction into her mouth. She coughed and spat it on the table. Curls of steam rolled lazily out of the can’s open mouth.

“What?” Green asked with a discreet smile.

“It’s hot,” she said. “How?”

Green smiled. “That thing you don’t believe in.”

“You’re using magic to cook our dinner?”

“Not cook, warm.”

“Why didn’t you warm up the deviled ham earlier?”

“It wouldn’t have helped.” Green dug into his corned beef hash without dignity.

Devon joined him, watching the can and Green in rotating intervals.

She turned her hand over and laid her palm open on the table. The Spiral-in-Diamond shape, the glyph, the panacea or whatever, glowed like a distant fire. When she focused on the tattoo, she could feel a faint burning that crawled all the way to her chest.

She flexed her fingers and glanced over her shoulder at Ahern. The soldier, still trussed up on his make-shift dolly, hadn’t stirred.

“Should I try to heal him? Tonight?”

“Only if you want to die,” Green said through a mouthful of corned beef.

“I am a corpsmen. A medic, long before you gave me this . . . thing.”

Green shrugged. “Ever hear of any treatments, in any of your books or classes, for black magic? A soul burn? Any creams or salves for that? Aspirin, maybe?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Devon said.

“If it wastes your time and your medical supplies, then I would say it could hurt us very much.”

“So what?” Devon tossed her fork into the half-full can. “We just sit here?”

“We just sit here. At least until your panacea recovers.”

“How long will that take?”

“Depends, it’s heated up right now. You saved my ass from the edge of death. It’s going to take time to cool off.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Devon said.

“Thank you so much.” He set his fork down and stared her in the eye.

Devon raised her chin.

“How long for it to cool down? How will I know?”

Green reached across the table and took her hand. She flinched, staring at him above her wide black frames. His finger traced the looping patterns growing out of the glyph across the back of her hand. It stung where he touched her.

“You can tell by the color,” Green said, “and by the creep. These miniature spirals that branch out from the main glyph represent growth. The glyph, as you use it, fuses itself to your body, your soul. It’s easier to use, the more creep covers your skin, but it’s also more dangerous.”

Devon touched her chest with her other hand. “It hurts.”

“That’s why you have to take it easy,” he said. “Panacea is a hungry bitch. Aggressive. Some glyphs aren’t as actively dangerous, but this one is. It’ll creep on you at the slightest use. If you were to use it, right now, for anything more than a bruise or a hang-nail, it could end badly. Heart or head – if the creep reaches both . . . well, listen. Let’s just say ‘Don’t let it reach both,’ for now.”

Devon dabbed at the creep on her chest, and felt a sharp sting. Not good.

“Will it go away?”

“Over time, as it starts to cool, the creep will recede.”

“How . . . powerful is it? Can it. This sounds so stupid. Can it bring back the dead – “

“No,” Green snapped, suddenly. His lips twitched, and he picked up his fork.

They finished their dinner in silence, watching the sun go out in the big cold sea.

When it was done, Devon checked on Ahern. Took his temperature – too cold. Listened to his pulse – too faint. The color had drained from his skin, and his eyes were sunken and bruised. She pinched his earlobe with her fingernail, hard enough to leave an angry red crescent, but he didn’t stir. He breathed, faint but steady. She loosened his belt. She dug her fingers into the collar of his shirt and stretched it away from his neck. She unbuttoned his shirt and loosened the straps on his gear harness.

“He’s dehydrated,” she said, shaking her head, standing over the couch.

“Can he make it one more day?” Green said.

“No more.”

Help the patient. Get the hell out when it’s done.

The wind rose as the temperature dropped, and Green took her into one of the back bedrooms and uncoiled a sleeping bag on the King-sized bed

Green went into the living room, and Devon closed the door down to just a thin crack. Only a bit of moonlight from the narrow window saved her from total blackness. She kept her gear on, except for the holster and her utility belt, which she hung from the bedpost. Devon checked her reach – she could draw the Browning and aim it at the door in seconds.

What am I afraid is gonna show up in that doorway?

An inhuman shade, or was it a human with a salt-and-pepper beard and a fierce smile?

He could have hurt me or killed me when I was out. She pulled the sleeping bag up to her neck and stared at the doorway crack.

He saved me, like I saved him.

The crack in the door showed only a strip of fathomless black. When she strained her ears, in the close silence, she could hear the occasional creak of the sofa.

He could have killed me a thousand times.

She turned her hand over and looked at the Spiral-In-Diamond. She flexed her fingers, felt the needle-thin lines of pain shoot up her arm, her shoulder, all the way to her right breast.

Heart or head. Don’t let it reach both.

Devon peaked down her shirt. Her bra, an itty-bitty white thing she had no real need of – sigh – covered most of it, but she could see spiraling shapes. A glowing henna tattoo from hell, curling through her freckles, toward her sternum. Inches from her heart.

“Heart and head,” she whispered.

Panacea, he’d called it. Where had Green found it?

The ability to heal someone back from the edge of death. She had no doubt Green had truly been knock-knock-knocking on Heaven’s door when she’d saved him. An arrow in the chest, no heartbeat to speak of, enough blood to fit in two people his size – he was a goner.

Bloom would think it was “awesome.” She realized she could use that voice right then, that constant insistence that life was a carnival instead of a horror show. That magic was real and great and useful. But. . .

But…

That kind of power didn’t come cheap, and wasn’t given away easily.

 

Chapter 10

The Flight of the Nothing

 

The air reeked of sage brush and dust. Devon had never been so tired of that smell in her life. Above it, the salty fish-smell and crisp edge of an ocean gust. Devon could smell her own sweat, too, and realized it had been way too long since she’d showered.

The next day they trudged along the breakdown lane of the freeway, taking turns with Ahern’s brand new wheelchair. They’d found the chair in the back of a van, and Green had been weirdly sad to see the surfboard sled go.

At midday, they spotted a Hound in a dirty white hoody in the southbound lane, rummaging through a bus.

Devon pointed it out to Green – they’d heard the noise of its progress a few times, but couldn’t figure out what the hell was causing it. Green hadn’t notice it, mainly because he’d been bent over Ahern’s wheelchair, rattling off an endless stream of dirty jokes to the unresponsive soldier.

A dog-like face peeked out of the top hatch of the bus, a lean black muzzle nestled in a tattered white hood. It sniffed at the air, turned toward Devon, and darted back into the hatch. She’d seen a Hound or two before – you were bound to, as a scavenger. Hounds didn’t have any kind of society – they were vultures, through and through, sometimes all alone or in packs. The packs were dangerous, she’d heard, but she’d never run into one.

She and Bloom had seen a lone Hound with russet red fur and a stocky frame crouched in the aisle of a Kmart three months back, tearing a bag of Lays apart with its oddly human, furry hands. It’d been wearing a denim jacket and sweat pants, both nabbed from the Kmart. Bloom had barked at it, because that was the kind of thing Bloom did, and the Hound had bolted. That one had been maybe five feet tall, and thick.

The Hound in this bus looked long and rangy, like a jackal.

“Ever notice that the Hounds are the only thing that look like stuff we know? I mean, from the Distance,” Devon asked, brushing her hair out of her face. “I mean they look just like dog-people.”

That’s what bugs you about dog people from another planet? The inconsistency?”

Devon sighed.

“It’s in a Greyhound Bus,” Green said, with a chuckle. “That’s priceless.”

Devon laughed.

An hour later, they came upon an abandoned, immense indoor mall perched on the edge of the ocean. The signage had decayed: only a few worn J.C. Penney letters clung to the bleached out boards. The structure had once been a cathedral to consumerism, the roof glittering with massive sky lights.

“Thar she blows,” Green said. “Camp Echo.”

Devon turned to Green and raised an eyebrow. As usual, it wasn’t easy to tell when he was screwing with her.

“A mall?”

“You’ve never seen Dawn of the Dead?” Green asked.

“Guess I missed that one.”

“Heathen.”

They walked on.

“Are they going to be able to heal him?” Devon asked.

“Without your glyph?” Green asked. He stopped walking and took a long pull from a bottle of water. He tossed it to her, and she did the same. “Maybe.”

Devon tossed the water bottle back and stood up straighter.

“I think I can do it,” she said.

“What makes you think that?” Green asked.

“I healed you.”

“Yeah, and it almost killed you,” he said. “Plus you knew it would save your life to have me up on my feet. Or you suspected as much. Either way, you were running on survival instincts. Powerful, but no good for precision work. You and panacea must find some kind of harmony, some kind of purpose.”

“I have a purpose,” Devon said. “I’m getting this soldier back on his feet. And as for harmony, I’ve got so much harmony it’s coming out of my ass.”

She glanced down at Ahern, his eyes still closed, his breath shallow. The idea that a person could be comatose and have nothing medically wrong with them clashed with her favorite version of reality.

Green put his hand out in front of him. He bowed his head, and Devon felt a magnetic pull. The air thickened, and the glyph on her own hand thrummed.  Green would probably call it something like “communing,” but Devon guessed it had something to do with the energy being on the same frequency.

The dull yellow glyph on his hand blazed.

Pencil-thin beams of light spiraled from his fingertips in slow, lazy arcs, weaving together a tiny form in his hand. A quasi-wireframe appeared, coalescing into the shape of a featureless bird. The details filled out as Green concentrated, first completing the plumage, then beak and feathered tail. The eyes came last, miniscule black beads that flicked inquisitively as it hopped in Green’s hand.

Devon wanted to look blasé and cool, but she barked a surprised laugh and clapped her hands. Cynical and science minded as you want to be, making a bird from thin-air is fucking cool.

“That’s amazing,” Devon said.

Green smiled, but his eyes looked strained.

“I’ve always been proud of my birds,” Green said. “Complicated, detailed. Not easy.”

“You can make anything?”

“Anything.”

“Is that, what, hard light?” Devon whispered. “Holy crap.”

“I can even do people. That one’s really tough.”

He popped his hand up. The hologram bird, Devon recognized it as a dove, launched into the air. It flew in complicated patterns, catching thermal drifts and soaring, sometimes dive bombing and swooping up again. Devon watched its flight through the bleached blue sky and saw no clue that it wasn’t real.

Another dove appeared, sprouting up from a tangle of bushes. A real dove, Devon realized – Green never took his eyes from his facsimile. The dove chased after its false partner, and the two began an elegant aerial dance, flying close to one another, nipping and biting before swinging away. She honestly couldn’t tell if it was a mating ritual or some kind of male superiority shtick. Devon realized fighting and flirting didn’t look all that different in human mating rituals either.

Green’s facsimile swung around in a long clean arc and hit the real dove hard enough to shake it. The dove plummeted, wings flapping, and only just righted itself before hitting the ground. Devon let out a noise of protest, but Green’s concentration only intensified.

The fake dove wouldn’t let up, driving its beak hard into the real dove’s side. A spatter of blood caught the wind, a splash of rubies across the clean blue sky.

“Hey quit it. What are you doing?”

“Teaching,” Green said, with some effort.

The dupe grew bigger than the dove, twice the size. It spun around, grasped the real dove in its gigantic talons, and broke toward the ground at speed.

“Cut it out!” Devon shouted.

“One second.”

“Stop it!”

She kicked him hard in the back of his left knee, just like her mom had taught her. Green collapsed like his bones had dissolved, and he hit the dust with a strangled cry. It didn’t matter; it was too late. Fake bird and real bird smashed into the sage brush with a terrible crash.

Devon scrambled after it. She found the dove lying in a bramble, shaking the entire bush with one thrashing wing. The facsimile was gone.

Devon reached into the bushes. Her fingers closed around the startled dove, which beat its wings and fluttered its thousand-mile-an-hour heart against her palm. It didn’t try to nip at her, but it squirmed and wormed and flapped. She squealed in surprise and fell on her butt.

“Oh,” Devon said.

She’d expected the dove to be peering up at her with wide Disney eyes. Instead, its head rotated at alarming angles while its fathomless oil-drop eyes blinked at a machine-gun pace. Blood slicked its plumage, and one of its wings poked out away from its body at too many angles.

Green was up on his feet, uninjured, watching her with his hands behind his back.

Devon focused on the dove and its hard luck wing. She honed in on the Spiral-in-Diamond shape on her palm, pressed against the dove’s thrumming body.

She did her best to ignore everything she’d learned about modern medicine and science. She cleared her mind, balanced her feelings, channeled her interior Buddhist monk or whatever.

Okay, Devon, she thought as she pinched her eyes closed. Abracadabra, you stupid bird.

No burst of warmth. No sudden peek at the spinning core of the universe.

Nothing.

She looked up at Green, whose faced had transformed into what could only be described as “sardonic douche.”

“What?” Devon narrowed her eyes and flipped her bed-head red locks out of her face.

“Having a problem?”

No, but you have a problem or two.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Devon whipped her head back to the dove. She walked the line between “squeezing firmly” and “smooshing into a sticky paste.” Her brow wrinkled. Healing. Wellness. Happy thoughts.

“What am I doing wrong?” Devon asked, finally, when it was clear Green wasn’t going to offer any advice.

“You’re not healing the bird. Assuming that’s what you’re trying to do.”

Devon’s eyes turned into pinpoints of red light. Well, she wanted them too, anyway. The death glare she cast him could have sandblasted a boat hull. Green didn’t appear impressed.

“Let me see the bird.”

Devon fought her way back to her feet and handed the dove over with a ginger touch. Green petted one hand along the dove’s flicking head and whispered to it. When he was done delivering whatever message you might deliver to a bird, he shot her a reproachful look.

“You want to fix this bird? Why?”

“Some asshole attacked it.”

“That’s not the reason.”

Devon’s blood turned into lava, especially in her face.

“To learn. How to heal, whatever.”

Green’s face turned sour. He grabbed the dove by the head and spun its body in three quick circles. Its neck snapped brightly.

“NO!” Devon shrieked.

Bile stung her throat. A violent explosion of horror and disgust and shame erupted in her guts. It had been her bird to protect, to heal. A defenseless busted-wing thing from a cartoon.

Green threw the bird’s body into the dust.

Devon dropped to her knees and grabbed the dove.

Her right hand lit up with flames, like she’d dipped it in gasoline and thrust it into a fireplace. Lines of agony stitched up her arm, over her shoulder, and sliced into her right breast. She let out a short flat stroke of sound that wasn’t a scream or a shriek but a primal grunt of pain. The curlicue spirals multiplied and crisscrossed, rolling out thicker across her whole right side. Pink light flared along every vine before finally sinking down into a deep purple color.

Her breath froze in her lungs, and her body went into full-blown panic mode. The air turned to lead, pressing on her chest, squeezing the life out of her.

Oh god. Help helphelphelp!

Green didn’t move. Devon’s eyes bulged, she balled up her fist and punched herself in the chest as hard as she could.

Air exploded out of her. She took three ragged breaths before looking down at her hand.

By some miracle (or accident, Devon believed strongly), she hadn’t dropped the dove. Its eyes were closed. The gentle rhythm of its heart pulsed against her palm. It slept.

Devon goggled. Its neck had healed, though the bird was still matted with sticky blood. She unfurled its mangled wing out and prodded gently. The bones seemed whole. She laid the dove on the ground and spread both of its speckled wings to full span. They were identical, save the dried blood.

Green gave her the golf clap. Small, close to the body, with just four or five little hits. In any other circumstance it would have seemed patronizing.

“Here endeth the lesson,” Green said.

Devon wanted to punch him in the brain, but for the tiny cooing bird resting asleep in her open hands. Warm, and whole, and alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

Sirine’s Song

 

A hard black ribbon threaded between the hills.

It was a long road for a tired girl.

She couldn’t decide which voice in her head was the loudest. When she felt maudlin, she wondered which voice was her own.

It wasn’t always easy to keep track of. She remembered that she used to love writing. Asking questions. Providing answers. Her favorite word was “why.” Her next favorite word was “how.”

She loved warm sunlight. Cold rain. The earthy living smell of the wilderness.

Whenever she lost track of herself, when the chorus of voices crescendoed into chattering catastrophe, she listened for the little girl screaming questions at the top of her lungs.

“Sirine?” an outside voice asked. A real voice.

I am Sirine, a voice popped out of the chorus, brittle and jagged.

You are Sirine, another voice called. It rang truer.

“What?” she said.

Her focus dilated, and the surroundings locked into reality. She remembered where she was. Who she was supposed to be.

Her brothers and sisters, those who followed Set and Sorrow, stared at her with rapture on their faces. Their thoughts, those who still had their own thoughts, crashed around in the echo chamber of her mind.

She tried to remember what it had been like to have only one mind.

It must’ve been so quiet.

“What do we do with the prisoners? The humans?” the voice asked.

Sirine flashed a wide smile and clapped her hands together, like an excited child.

“Take them, hmm. Let’s see. Up to that hill! Call Zealot, and use no more than two brothers to escort the prisoners.”

“Just two, mistress?” one of the brothers asked.

The crowd hissed in fear, and the brother who questioned her blanched. He quivered and stared, his eyes darting, his mouth half-open. He was wondering if these were his last moments. She hated the feeling of his fear coursing through her.

He questions the Master! The crowdthink washed over her like a wave of sewage.

“Peace, my friends. Chillax. The brother cares for my safety, he doesn’t question my intelligence.”

The crowd settled. The fires of their crowdthink broke up, splashing from one great bonfire of stupidity to a thousand little candles.

She tried to hide her annoyance. The Questioning brother was the only one she didn’t hate in that second. The few brothers who could still think for themselves felt like a cool glass of water in the desiccated desert of their crowdthink.

That is not a thought for Sirine, a basso voice blasted through her mind.

She disguised her pained wince from the gathered brothers and sisters. It wouldn’t do to see weakness in their leader.

It is not, she replied to the voice. She honestly wasn’t sure which of the many Voices had stepped up to make the apology. It wasn’t the girl with the questions, she knew that. Forgive me.

The low voice, the deep voice, rumbled again. It sounded further away now, like a retreating thunderhead.

You always have my forgiveness, my love, the basso voice faded as it retreated. Now show the humans your own Mercy.

Sirine thought that was a splendid idea.

 

                                                                          ***

 

Two chained humans knelt at the edge of a cliff.

Shaggy hair and wild beards betokened a harsh life in the Mergelands, but neither had been deviated. The man on the left had skin like ebony, and his hair was black and wiry and tight to his head, even with its length. His name, she knew right away, was Van. He’d once had a pair of daughters, but they’d both died in a car crash before the Merge.

The man on the right was Caucasian, but his pale flesh had been crisped bronze by an unforgiving sun. His nut-brown hair ran wild, flipping in the insistent gusts of wind sliding over the cliff’s edge. His name was Eric, and she knew right away that he’d be the one who would crack. It was written all over his mind, cascading through his thoughts. He had a wife, a brother, and two children still alive, hidden away in a converted bomb shelter to the east.

He was so afraid. His face didn’t show it, but it exploded through his mind.

The brothers that flanked them, thinking they were guarding Sirine, stood tall and straight, axes in their hands.

“You are dismissed,” Sirine said, flicking her hands at the brothers. “I’m safe, and you’ve done a bang-up job. Don’t say anything. Just go.”

The brothers exchanged reluctant looks but were too smart to do anything else. They left without fanfare, trudging away with their minds full of regret.

She had her Zealot. Zealot stood behind her, out of sight, like a proper valet. Both of the humans stared over Sirine’s shoulder. She didn’t blame them. Zealot had a knack for being the center of attention – it was half the benefit of having him around. The other half was his ability to eat a person in, like, three bites.

“I’m here, boys,” Sirine said to the humans, Van and Eric.

Van struggled at his chains – Eric knelt without motion.

“Van, please stop,” she sighed. “I could just kick you off the edge of the cliff if the chains bug you so much.”

Van stopped struggling, but his dark eyes regarded her with malevolent defiance. She could see all of his thoughts. They mixed and mingled with hers, a refreshing change of pace from the constant fanatical rabble that usually followed her around. It was like listening to one song for two years and having someone finally snap the radio to a different station.

“Do you know who we are?” Sirine asked. She knew their answer, but it helped to get people chatting.

“The Rell,” Van said. He tried to spit at Sirine, but only blood and air came out.

“Bingo! Kewpie doll for the winner,” Sirine said. “Do me a favor Zealot, find me a kewpie doll.”

“Mistress?” Zealot’s stunted voice sawed at the air. She didn’t turn to look at him.

“Forget it,” Sirine sighed.

The things Zealot wasn’t good at: Sparkling conversation. Understanding sarcasm. Flossing.

“Listen guys,” Sirine said, and skipped forward. She pushed the skirts of her robes out and sat down on the dust in front of them. She drummed on her knees and smiled. “As you can see, you’re in a tight spot here. I’m not going to make a bunch of threats. Well, I’m not going to make any more threats. Does that sound fair? We’re all adults here.”

Sirine frowned for a moment. She had been a little girl with questions; she had never been an adult. The body certainly wasn’t. It had been a teenage girl’s body before she’d been Seeded.

Many of the voices were adult, though. Or they had been. Sirine rubbed the jagged crystals protruding from her hairline and hummed a half-forgotten tune.

“Deal?”

Eric and Van both nodded, but it was confused, half terror. They were humoring her. Fine. As long as they were getting comfortable with obeying, it made things easier.

Sirine’s mouth split into a smile, one she didn’t feel. She slapped her knees and held her hands out.

“You boys lived in Diablo Canyon?” Sirine asked. She laughed. “Delightful names you humans come up with.”

Van and Eric exchanged looks. Eric nodded.

“Used to,” Eric said. “Nobody lives there now.”

“Yes, bit of a radiation leak, I heard,” Sirine said. “You really ought not hang around nuclear reactors.”

“Was sabotage,” Van barked.

“Deviate sympathizers,” Eric said. “Didn’t much care for how we dealt with those freaks.”

Sirine rolled her eyes.

“Humans killing humans,” Sirine said. “Why make our jobs easier?”

Van’s eyes went cold, but Eric kept talking. No need, really. She could see their minds plain as day. Still, she’d learned long ago that what a person’s thoughts were not the end-all, be-all of identity. She’d known people with the worst, most disgusting thoughts boiling around in their head who had turned out to be self-sacrificing heroes. And the opposite. And everything in between. Eric was going to break – he’d already decided. Van had decided not to, but sometimes . . . sometimes people surprised you, and themselves.

“Deviates are dangerous freaks,” Eric said. “Killers. Humans poisoned by your world.”

“Yes, well, your Native Americans didn’t do well against smallpox did they? Culture clash has these little kinks,” Sirine said.

“Are you going to kill us?” Van asked.

Sirine rubbed her chin, then drew her hair back behind her ears.

“I’m going to employ you.”

“I’ll never work for the Rell. Murderers. Inhumans,” Van said. His eyes narrowed. “You kill your own kind too, they say.”

Sirine nodded. “Well, the inhuman nations aren’t big fans of the Rell, true story. But we’re the only ones fighting the good fight.”

“What fight?” Van asked. He struggled to stand. “Don’t you kill humans on sight? Why do you want us?”

“No no no. No sweetie, no. We invite all the races, inhuman and human, to join our cause,” Sirine said. “We have a righteous goal.”

“Slaughter?” Van asked.

“Just plain old-fashioned world-saving, actually. Mister Smarty Pants,” Sirine said.

Van laughed bitterly.

“Eric?”

Eric flashed his eyes to Van. For a second, the two humans exchanged a complicated look. Then Van sighed and shook his head.

“What do you want from us?” Eric asked.

“You’re scavengers,” Sirine said. “Vultures. But you know the lay of the land, don’t you?”

“From San Diego to Anaheim,” Eric said, pride fighting shame in his voice and his eyes. And his mind.

“And you love killing deviates, eh?” Sirine asked prettily.

Eric ground his teeth together. He nodded.

“There is a nest of deviates in this area,” Sirine said, “with a cute name. Camp Echo. Heard of it?”

Eric and Van exchanged confused looks.

“Go forth. Be fruitful,” Sirine said. She slid to her feet and walked toward the prisoners. Behind her, she heard Zealot growl. “Every deviate you find and bring to us . . . you get paid.”

“Paid in what?” Van growled. “I don’t think money’s worth the plastic it’s printed on any more.”

“Not money,” Sirine said. “Guns. Ammunition. Food. Water. Whatever you and your family require.”

When she said family, she rolled her eyes toward Eric. His dark eyes narrowed.

“If you don’t bring me any, well . . .”

Sirine crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her hip, dropping into a pouty little-girl pose.

“I’ll be very upset,” Sirine said. “We might have to find you guys.”

Van tried to stand again.

“N-” he started to say. He was going to say never, Sirine knew. She’d heard it bouncing around in his head as he tried to find the proper heroic tone to capture. The defiant moment, the perfect scene.

Sirine flicked her hand, and a gust of intangible wind caught Van full in the chest and launched him off the edge of the cliff. His last defiant word, unuttered, became a scream.

Then a wet thud.

“Bring me deviates,” Sirine said. “I want them. I want to know what they know. If you don’t, or if you agree and try to run, Zealot will find you. I will find your family. And the last thing you see will be the screaming face of your daughter Marlene right before Zealot’s teeth close over her porcelain-doll head.”

Sirine smiled and ruffled Eric’s hair. She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead.

“Then I’ll scoop out your mind,” Sirine said, and tapped her temple. “And I’ll keep you right up here, where I’ll make you watch that moment for all eternity.”

Eric’s skin bleached white. His eyes drooped. His mouth, half-open, stared.

“Plus you get guns and food and stuff if you help me out. So, super-upside versus super-downside.”

“You k-killed Van,” Eric stammered.

“I might have killed you too,” Sirine said. “I hear using magic around undeviated humans can cause a whole boatload of problems.”

Eric started breathing hard. A spike of terror ripped his rational thoughts apart, made it painful to listen to.

“Agree quickly,” Sirine cooed. “Or just being next to me . . . uh oh.”

Eric couldn’t join up fast enough. He promised his entire scavenger group to the hunt, and Sirine had him out of chains, his gun back in his hand, and facing the long road home with a fresh perspective and new employment.

Eric turned toward her, right before he left, his gun hanging from his hand.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

Then he was gone.

                                                                                ***

 

Sirine chuckled and rubbed Zealot’s pale, lumpy face. His big black shark eyes stared into hers, and his blade-like teeth flashed out of his grinning face.

“I am so hungry, Mistress . . .”

Sirine clapped her hands together and glanced over the edge of the cliff.

“The dead one’s a bit . . . greasy,” Sirine said. “I don’t think he landed in one piece.”

Zealot’s mouth opened, and his tongue fell out of his mouth.

“Seriously, Zealot? Gross.”

Zealot stood up, long and lanky and fish-belly pale. His amorphous head was all teeth and eyes. His long-fingered hands opened and closed.

“Fine,” Sirine sighed.

Zealot pounced away, down and around the cliff, to find wherever it was Van had landed. Zealot was hungry, after all, and in the Mergelands it was bad form to waste good food.

“I’m way too nice,” Sirine said.

To herself.

To her Voices, anyway.

She supposed she was never herself. Not around others, where their minds poured their savage wants and carnal lusts and boring tedium and everything in between. Not by herself, where the ghosts of a hundred minds or more still lingered, haunting her thoughts.

Or the one Voice, the low Voice.

Him.

Sirine bounced off down the cliff-side, skipping as she ran, trying to remember the hopscotch pattern she’d absorbed from the mind of a little girl in La Jolla.

One. One. One. Two. One. Two. One.

She laughed, hiked up the skirts of her robes, and did it again.

One. One. One. Two. One. Two. One.

Chapter 12

They Shoot Delta Victors, Don’t They?

 

The not-dead bird slept like it’d been out drinking last night.

The small breathing fluff of feathers rested in the bottom of her shirt, which she’d tucked up and pinned to itself as a half-ass kangaroo pouch. She checked it for what had to be the thousandth time, and was adjusting the pouch when Green tapped her shoulder.

“What do you think?”

An acre of parking lot surrounded the mall, husks of cars with rotted tires. She cocked her head to the side, and finally she smirked.

“Those aren’t random,” Devon said.

Green looked at her solemnly in that way that he did, but his eyes glittered.

“The way the cars are placed,” Devon said, and pointed. “They funnel you between those two buses.”

Two buses parked opposite each other had been placed right in front of the mall’s main entrance, and drew the eye right down the center. One was a yellow school bus, the other a much shorter airport shuttle, but Devon guessed if you walked between them you’d be riddled with gunfire from either side.

As they approached, Devon expected him to whistle or sing some secret tune, but instead he called out in a sharp, clear voice.

“It’s me, you monkeys. Please don’t shoot us.”

As they walked between the buses, the windows above them filled with faces. Five or six on each side, a mish-mash of races and ages and genders. When the world shit the bed, everyone became a soldier. It just took a little apocalypse to bring everyone together. It was sweet, really.

Their faces were drawn, and Devon could read their eyes easily enough. Green had left with six or seven and come back with two.

The doors opened, and a blast of air conditioning physically staggered her in surprise. A few places in SONGS and Pendleton were allowed to use their air conditioners, and even then only in the most hellish months of summer. Devon didn’t want to do the math, but air conditioning an entire indoor mall seemed like a waste of good resources.

An old man and a young woman stood guard, neither wearing fatigues, both heavily armored. The old man’s face turned sour the instant he saw Green.

“Honey, I’m home,” Green said.

The guards searched them and asked for their gear.

Devon flashed betrayal to Green.

“It’s okay,” Green said.

“No it’s not.”

“You’ll get it all back, except for the food and the stuff we found. That all goes into the communal supplies, yeah? All your stuff is yours, like Pendleton.”

“If I don’t get my gun and my books back,” Devon said, “it’s going to go badly for you.”

“Scout’s honor. If you don’t get anything back, let me know and I’ll raise a fiery hell.”

Devon wondered if he was being literal. She left it at that, and handed over her gear. The old guard took hold of Ahern’s wheelchair.

“Excuse me miss,” he said. “This boy’s gotta go to the infirmary. You understand.”

Devon let him go with a reluctance that surprised her. She promised herself she’d go check in on him, when her glyph had cooled down. She didn’t know if Green wanted her to use it, but she decided she sort of didn’t give a crap.

“What’s with the bird?” the woman asked.

Devon blinked. She looked down at the dove sleeping peacefully in her shirt.

“Her boyfriend,” Green said, shaking his head. “The deviations affect us all differently.”

The woman glared at Green. When he didn’t flinch, she sighed and signaled a nearby guard over. She whispered and sent him off, and in five minutes the guard came back with a thin wire cage. Devon placed the dove inside the cage and took the handle.

“Don’t let it out,” the woman said.

The guards let them be after that, and Green led her through the mall, saying nothing. She appreciated it – she was approaching maximum saturation of weird shit.

The teal-colored tile gleamed with a dozen layers of freshly applied wax. Shrubbery filled the waist-high planters. Cedar benches, wet with oil, flanked the planters. The residents, teenagers mostly, lounged on the benches.

The wide skylights bathed everything in pure clean daylight. Some of the overhead, recessed lighting glowed, but most seemed to have been switched off during the day. Combined with the air conditioning . . .

 They have juice, Devon thought. A lot of it.

This left questions spinning through her brain about electricity – the only options were a plethora of generators and a lot of gas to power them, or a direct feed from SONGS. The nuke power from the latter would offer reliable power.

How far am I from home? Not far, if Camp Echo was latched onto the SONGS grid. All of the outbound lines had been cut. Everyone knew that. It was the safe thing to do – when the apocalypse happened, most people hadn’t had the common courtesy to shut off and unplug all of their appliances. Too many fires had burned down too many communities to risk it. So the power was cut, to everything but SONGS and Pendleton.

Except for this place. Camp Echo, as Green called it. The Shopping Mall of the Damned. Still, as Devon watched the guys and girls lounging around, apparently carefree and safe as houses, she wondered just how much of a freak show this place was. Was it really just a sanctuary?

Deviates were a rumor, a whispered boogieman. Avoid magic. Avoid it like a radiation leak. It could infect you, it could change you. Kill you if you’re lucky, transform you if you weren’t. Into God-knows-what. Scales and tails and burning pustules, extra arms and sterility and baldness and blindness and the ability to accidentally murder your family with uncontrollable power.

Devon didn’t see any of that here. If they were the dreaded deviates (deevees to the layman, Delta Victors for the military types), they didn’t seem that upset about the arrangement.

And so far, she hadn’t seen any horns or extra forehead eyes. Did that reduce her own chances of growing pointed ears and a long scraggly tail? So far (and God I hope pretty please with sugar on top it stays that way), she just sported a fairly bitchin’ tattoo on her right hand that occasionally grew and changed colors.

The former store fronts didn’t have signs anymore. They all had curtains or wide slatted blinds, and they were all closed. Green stopped in front of a pair of glass doors and nodded toward it.

“This is your dorm,” Green said.

“So I’m staying?” Devon asked. “That wasn’t our deal.”

“You have to eat. Clean up. Regroup, resupply. It wouldn’t hurt to have our medic look at you.”

 Devon pictured a hot bowl of spaghetti and her stomach almost leaped out of her mouth.

“I don’t – “

“We have hot showers.”

Devon groaned.

“Bloom,” Devon said, by way of explanation.

“You’re honestly telling me you don’t want to sleep in a bed tonight?” Green asked. “A real bed, with real sheets and real insulated walls surrounding it?”

Devon leaned against the door and closed her eyes.

“It’s temporary,” Green said, “and voluntary. But do me a favor?”

Devon raised an eyebrow.

“Hide the glyph. For now,” Green said. “And don’t mention your situation.”

“What situation?”

“Any of it.”

 

                                                                           ***

 

Devon didn’t know how comfortably she could be kept as a pet in Freakville.

The rebellious parts of her brain were already ginning up escape plans, but for now she was dead-tired from her walk, smellier than a dumpster, and hungrier than a zombie in a brainfarm.

But first and most fore, she wanted to see her dorm. She’d read enough books and seen enough old TV shows and movies (filmed before the Merge of course, the ever-present be-fore) to have had some of that “going away to college” vibe settle in her bones. Pre-med at UCLA, maybe somewhere further away for her internship. Maybe NYU or Tulane or even Oxford in Jolly Old England.

She recognized the thin wispy fantasies for what they were – they’d lost contact with New York early after the Merge, and it could be a smoking hole in the ground like San Francisco or surrounded by alien jungle like San Diego or it could have just fallen into the ocean like most of Florida. Which meant school’s done for summer. School’s done for ever.

Devon pulled the glass door open and walked inside.

If the room had once been a House of Cutlery or an Apple store, there was no sign of it anymore. Bamboo laminate and well-placed throw rugs covered the floor. Size-wise, you might call the living room cozy. It housed a pair of teal arm chairs split with a cream colored couch. All of them were crowded around a center coffee table stacked with books and garbage. The current occupant didn’t believe in the cleanliness/Godliness matrix. Cardboard cups and Styrofoam containers littered the table and floor, not all of them empty of food.

The bare walls were skirted around the bottom with amber wainscoting. The upper half of the walls, not covered with the finished wood, were painted a cool cream shade.

The two doors on the opposite wall crushed her last hope that she’d have the room to herself. She heard a cotton-wrapped noise from the door on the right, something like low music or a lower television. Devon closed the front door as quietly as she could – the idea of meeting anyone right now mortified her. Smelly, dirty, covered with road dust. Hair like wet spaghetti noodles. Devon didn’t consider herself particularly vain or girly, but no one wanted to meet their (temporary) roommate looking like the Wicked Witch of the West Coast.

Devon set her birdcage on the coffee table and slapped eyes on the far left door.

Devon made use of her frail, waifish body, bounding across the living room in all silence and into the room on the left. The door she hoped wasn’t the bathroom.

The lights were off, and the corner of a bedframe whanged into her shin. She went sprawling, bounced off a mattress, and landed with her face full of pillows. Had it actually been a bathroom, Devon reflected, she might have gotten a toilet water facial.

Hurrah for the little victories.

Devon clambered to her feet with less effort than it would have taken her to do a dozen backflips. She found the nub of the light switch and gave it the old flickeroo. A single row of track lights burned to life, the three tiny faces of their lamps pointing at the desk (where some work might get done), a painting of a nondescript sailboat above the bed, and the twin bed (where no work would be done, Devon knew from sad experience).

The bed touched two walls and flirted with the third.

The desk had been tucked tight to the corner. There was no computer, which didn’t surprise her – tech that complicated rarely worked more than a mile away from the nuke reactor at SONGS. The electricity that enabled the lights and the escalators would project a thin field to protect against the Glitch, as long as nothing terribly mystical came along to huff and puff and blow the tech down. Still, it wouldn’t be enough to let computers or cell phones even turn on, Devon guessed.

The walls had been swept clean and showed off a lot of white paint. The floors were laminated with the same bamboo as the living area. Overall, not a bad place to crash.

Temporarily.

Mismatched but clean towels sat stacked on the hamper. Devon grabbed two of them (because that’s what you do when you don’t have to clean the towels yourself), and jetted for the door.

No one noticed her on the way to the showers, a result of her thinking exceptionally inconspicuous thoughts. The shower rooms were marked boy-girl, and inside were rows of lockers and stalls. It didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen in a mall before, which meant it had been created whole-cloth for the “students” of Camp Echo. Wonders upon wonders.

She stripped and blasted herself with hot water and felt immediately like a god of Olympus. She didn’t know how long she cooked under the blazing torrent, leaning against the tile, letting the water sluice over her face and hair and body. The knots in her muscles melted. The long walk through the Mergelands went down the drain.

After a month or two of pure marination, she lathered on the soap and the shampoo, only then taking time to examine the creep of her glyph. The curlicues and spirals, latticing up her arm and across her chest, burned a bright green. Water ran over the creep, and it felt odd in a good way, indescribably satisfying. The creep had receded from what she remembered, and stopped just at her shoulder now instead of slicing all the way across her right breast.

Heart and brain, Green’d said. When can I help Ahern? When the creep drops back to my elbow? Wrist?

Hadn’t Bloom been wounded too? It had been impossible to tell. He’d been so far away . . . but if he got away, he must have been okay. He must have been. Right?

She examined the luminous lines of the glyph on her hand, the fat spiral in the razor-thin lines of the diamond. Panacea. Green had said he could commune with his glyph. Devon thought that might be a load of waffle from an old hippy, but she was a scientist at heart, and so she gave it the old college try.

Her eyes closed, and she focused on the water pouring deliciously from the shower head. She thought about her brand new tattoo, the glowing lines that looked more than a little radioactive. Panacea, that fabled cure-all. Spirals. Her mind raced across the edge of the spiral, tracing it, imagining its curve, the gravity of the thing as you ran closer to the center.

 After ten minutes, Devon gave up. If the glyph could talk, it sure had nothing to say to her.

She toweled off and slipped into a fluffy blue robe. The world always felt more manageable on the other side of a shower. Devon let out a long sigh, arched her back, and decided it was time to face the music. See if her new roommate was a clean non-smoker.

Just before she left, she noticed a first aid kit on the wall by the door. In less than a minute, she had an Ace bandage wrapped and pinned, covering the skin from her right palm all the way up her shoulder. Glyph concealed. Green would be oh-so-happy.

 

                                                                               ***

 

Devon made a point to close the door too hard.

“Hello?” Devon asked.

There was muffled sound from the right-hand door, followed by a thump and a cry of surprise.

In the time it took for Devon to hesitate at the threshold, the door on the right banged open. A tall scarecrow of a guy stumbled out, his ragged blond hair sticking up in wild tufts. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, but he was doing his best to correct the situation, staggering but handcuffed by the t-shirt over his head.

The hand pushing him out the door of the bedroom belonged to a girl with the unlikely name of Raizel Takeshi. Half-Japanese, Half-Swedish, all warrior. A wide striking face, showing the jaw and bone-structure of a Norse queen and the pale skin, almond eyes, and Disney-princess nose of her Asian descent. A comet-spray of dark brown freckles splashed across her nose, around her eyes, across her cheek bones, and even up across her forehead and into her hairline. They stood out against her milky skin, like chocolate chips on a cheesecake. Long black hair, straight and wild with bed-head (crazysexhair, Bloom would have called it), hung in tangles to her shoulders.

She was six-feet tall and built like Wonder Woman. Devon wouldn’t dream of going toe-to-toe with her – maybe if Devon was driving a truck. Fast.

Devon hadn’t suddenly become psychic. She knew the name because she knew the girl. Knew of, anyway: Devon had the amazing luck of staying under Raizel Takeshi’s radar throughout middle-school.

Devon had been too young – Raizel had about three years on Devon. Raizel Takeshi (Raze, to friend and enemies alike) had been the bane of her classmates at SONGS’ makeshift school.

It wasn’t any different than the schools before the Merge. You had the burnouts, you had the nerds, and you had the jocks. Raze had been the High Princess of Baseball. And basketball. And volleyball. There weren’t any other schools to play (obviously), but they’d run games with groups of young soldiers at Pendleton, or any young people who wanted to take on the Nuke High Sentinels.

If Raze’s team didn’t win, she did, with a gusto of spirit and a violence of action that gave pause to even the most battle-scarred master sergeants in the stands. A loss for the Sentinels might be a better show than a win. You never saw a more explosive performance than Raze Takeshi trying her best to single-handedly lay waste to an entire team. Raze the Riot. Ragin’ Raze.

Devon had once heard four-hundred souls chanting the words “RAZED AND CONFUSED” over and over and over. They must have been heartbroken when she’d gotten drunk and driven her car through a telephone pole. Died instantly, no pain.

Clearly the reports of her death had been premature. Or falsified. Devon wondered if other kids there had “died.”

The boy she’d discarded like an apple core tripped on the rug, bounced off the wall, and hustled out the door.

“Hey roomie,” Raze said, her voice flat, her eyes glittering.

“Hi,” Devon whispered.

“Say anything to the Screws about my visitor and I’ll introduce your teeth to the back of your throat,” Raze said in a pleasant voice.

“What visitor?” Devon asked.

Raze pursed her lips. She didn’t look happy, but she wasn’t punch-kicking either. A good sign?

“What’s with the bird?” Raze asked.

Complete bafflement draped over Devon like a wet wooly blanket. Raze rolled her eyes and pointed toward the coffee table.

“Is that your pet pigeon? Because I’m going to be honest,” Raze said. “The first time that thing squawks or shits I’m frying it extra-crispy.”

Devon looked down at the dove still dozing at the bottom of its cage. She closed her eyes and laughed. So much for first impressions.

“I’m Devon Streeter.”

“Great,” Raze said. “Be quiet for the next two hours. Minimum.”

Raze slammed her bedroom door shut.

Chapter 13

Dance Breaking

 

Devon decided to call that brief encounter a lucky break and scurry scurry scurry into the door on the left. She plopped the cage and sleeping dove on her desk – she wasn’t convinced Raze had been joking about eating the bird.

 She noticed something under the bed. Devon hopped on the bed, held her glasses onto her face, and looked upside-down under the frame.

Black duffel bag and an odd lack of dust bunnies. Classically, a black duffel bag held bombs or severed heads or secret black mail files. So, in her typical style, Devon dragged the bag out and unzipped it three inches from her face. It wasn’t a bomb, thankfully. There were some weapons though.

Her Browning Hi-Power pistol, along with her medpack and other gear. The clothes she’d been wearing were gone, likely because they’d been drenched in a hurricane of blood. Her boots were still there, black standard-issues with extremely non-standard issue neon green laces. Her mother had dealt out holy hell when she’d seen them, but Devon wasn’t technically in the military yet. Devon’s mom had stressed the yet part with extreme prejudice.

With a squeak of joy she spun the belt around and fished her groping fingers into the side-satchel. She found the flat plastic edge and yanked her Kindle out with a strangled cry of victory.

Devon Streeter clutched the flat gray rectangle to her chest and pulled her knees to her chest. For the first time in a long time, she wept. Her thin frame vibrated with deep sobs. She tugged her glasses off and shoved the heels of her palms into her eyes.

She thought of her late nights at the SONGS hospital with Bloom’s mom, who always sneaked her gallons of coffee from the commissary when she ran out of caff rations. Mama Blumenthal who taught her that aortic dissection sometimes put on a mask and ran around looking an awful lot like heartburn, or that you never let someone spend a valuable painkiller ration when a little crushed willow bark in ice water could do the job just fine.

She did her best not to think of stupid silly Bloom or his brand new stupid cowboy hat that she’d probably never get to make fun of ever again.

Devon cried silently in her tiny room. She wanted to sleep, to fade away and let the darkness claim her for a little while, but the relaxation from the shower was fading away and the fog was rolling out and she wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon.

She didn’t have the heart to pore through “Gray’s Anatomy” or “Principals of General Pathology,” not with the golden haze of her days with Mama Blumenthal rotting in the pit of her stomach. So she brought up Ender’s Game, her favorite book, and started over from the beginning. By the time Ender Wiggin was loading onto the shuttle to Battle School, hours later, Devon had disappeared into another world entirely.

 

                                                                           ***

 

Raze Takeshi kicked her door open.

“What in the hot hell are we doing tonight, Ginger?”

Devon, laying across her bed with her Kindle dangling from her fingers, opened her mouth. She hadn’t exactly expected the explosion intrusion, and certainly not by a six-foot Asian Viking wearing a scandalously cut red top that showed off most of her boobs and all of her back. The skirt she was wearing could have once been a white handkerchief. A small one. It showed off miles of well-muscled leg ending in knee-high cream colored high-heel boots.

She looked like a Valkyrie stripper. Warrior-Woman of the Night. A hooker that could lift you over her head and crack you over her knee. She didn’t push the make-up too hard, but she really didn’t need to. Her face showed no trace of softness, and Devon didn’t think anyone would ever call her pretty, but there was something magnetic about the aura of power she projected. Devon hated her and admired her in rotating shifts.

“Well?” Raze asked. She examined Devon’s body with a disappointed eye. “You’re gonna need clothes.”

“For what?” Devon said, finally summoning the strength to speak to the Amazon in a micro-mini.

“I’m bored,” Raze said, “and so are you. It’s time we bonded as roommates.”

Devon was fairly certain Raze disliked her, but she decided not to remind her.

“I’m reading,” Devon said. Still too stunned for sass, her words drifted out of her lips like soft pillowy clouds.

“Nope,” Raze said. “You’re mistaken. Do you have anything slutty?”

 “I don’t have any clothes.”

“Wearing no clothes is probably too slutty,” Raze said with an air of philosophical musing. “Come with me if you want to live.”

Raze held her hand out, and Devon looked at it like she’d been offered a live snake. Devon pushed her glasses up her nose and gave Raze the best, most off-putting glare she could muster while trying to hold in fear-pee.

“Okaaay,” Raze said.

Raze lifted Devon up by her waist. She spun, set her down, and kicked her hard in the bony butt, repelling Devon through the door and out into the living room. There would have been carpet in her teeth (or teeth in the carpet, ha ha) if Raze hadn’t moved like a shot and caught her by the waistband of her pants.

Devon crossed her arms over her chest, turned, and scowled. “You can’t treat me like this.”

“Listen up, bitch. I came in here to make friends, be nice. We’re going out, and you’re going to be my friend.”

Devon smirked. “Nice pitch. You should run for office.”

Raze leaned in close. “We’re going out.”

“No, we’re not, and you can’t make me.”

“Do you want to know a little something about Camp Echo?”

“Enlighten me.”

“This is a jail for freaks. Deviates. People exposed to juju normally die. Did you know that? Did you read that in any of your books?”

Devon’s lips turned into a thin white line.

“Yeah. Most humans can’t handle exposure to magic. They grow a nest of exciting tumors, or their skin turns to rock, or their brand-new screwed up DNA tells their body that it’s important to have six arms or no lungs. They die, kiddo, screaming buckets of parts that used to be people. Something like one out of a hundred doesn’t die. They change, sure, sometimes for the worse. For a lot worse. But they live on.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Raze stood up straight, pulling her face out of Devon’s personal bubble. The smile disappeared, replaced with something that might have been pity.

“You like Green, think he’s a nice guy?” Raze asked.

“I don’t know him.”

“Treats you well? Big mentor type, Gandalf and all that shit?”

Devon shrugged, mostly to not give Raze the satisfaction of whatever point she was trying to make.

“Green isn’t a nice guy,” Raze said. “No one here is a nice guy. None of our jailers. And that’s what they are. They have the keys, they give the orders, and we follow like good toy soldiers.”

Hating someone for treating you like crap wasn’t easy when you agreed with their viewpoint. She tried to focus on Raze’s face and maintain her anger, but she was making way too much sense.

“There’s them,” Raze said, pointing out the door, “and there’s us. They aren’t going to help you when it gets bad, and I promise you it’s going to get bad.”

The stubborn little girl inside of Devon, the one that had gone for two whole days without eating when her mother told her it was “Nutrigrain bars or nothing,” put her armor on and buckled her sword to her waist. Devon drew herself up.

“And this involves you dressing like a slut why?” Devon spat.

Raze didn’t flinch. Devon locked eyes with the Amazon, folded her thin arms over her chest, and fully expected Raze to take her apart like she was made of Legos.

“Because we’ve got us,” Raze said. “The other freaks. And we gotta stick together. We’ve also got precious little free time. If you don’t uncork, honey, you’re gonna explode.”

“I’m fine, really,” Devon said.

She brushed past Raze and walked into her room. Or, she tried to, until the big chick locked a hand around her wrist.

“You’re going. Or I’m gonna tell everyone in Camp that you made a pass at me while I was sleeping. Little lesbo nerd can’t keep her hands to herself. Maybe they’ll toss you in the Pad for a few days. They don’t really take kindly to sexual assault.”

Devon laughed, but sounded thin in her ears.

I assaulted you?” Devon asked. “Right.”

“I didn’t say you were successful. Maybe I’ll even give you a few broken bones to give the story a little bump. You don’t think they’ll believe me?”

“You’d lie? Why?”

“Because I get what I want,” Raze said. “You’re going out tonight with me. I’m going to show you around whether you like it or not, and if you don’t learn something it’s your own damn fault.”

Devon squared her shoulders.

“Why do you care about someone you don’t like?”

“I never said I didn’t like you,” Raze said, “but you’re making it difficult.”

Devon deflated like an old birthday balloon. Raze squeezed one of her shoulders and propelled her out the front door.

 

                                                                           ***

 

Raze lead her into the room of a girl named Lyssa with bright pink hair and an attitude that matched it. She was practically effervescent, and she darted around her nightmare-fashion-jungle of a room, putting together various ensembles with no visible effort. Devon denied the first three options before Lyssa even had the time to take them across the room – a lycra dress (no way), a cut-off denim micro-skirt and plaid (really?), and a corset-looking lacy top with a matching foofee skirt. Devon was fairly certain that outfit was, in fact, lingerie.

“Nothing?” Lyssa asked with a put-upon air.

“She’s got no boobs or butt to speak of,” Raze said.

“Truth,” Devon added, helpfully.

“Skinny, I guess. You have to have something for skinny,” Raze said.

“Focus on the legs, hmm?” Lyssa asked.

They made Devon up, and when she asked where they got all of the supplies from they told her that Camp Echo was fully stocked with everything except freedom. Camp Echo had been a shopping mall once upon a time, and had been taken whole and unlooted. When Devon asked who had taken it, they told her about the big theories. Secret branch of Pendleton. A remaining CIA bastion. Elves.

Devon knew elves weren’t real, but the other two seemed like a possibility.

Lyssa didn’t hit Devon too hard with make-up. Her pale, befreckled complexion took to make-up like a dog takes to Calculus, and other than a little eye shadow and liner they left her alone. The clothes were another matter, and Devon did her best to pretend she was wearing . . . well. Anything else.

They settled, with much argument and coercion, on a dress that Devon wouldn’t ever have looked twice at. Well, maybe twice, but only followed by a snicker and a question like “what kind of trollop would wear that?”  A slinky black thing, it exposed her entire back from shoulder to just above her ass. The hem ended so abruptly that it took Raze five minutes to convince her the dress wasn’t, in fact, a top. The front of the dress was held together by a metal O-ring that rested over her navel, and bare streaks of her skin showed out like a belt around her waist. It actually had long sleeves, which meant she only had to cover her hand with the ace bandage – Lyssa, seeing her distress, provided a single tight leather glove that actually gave the ensemble an asymmetrical, punker vibe. They threw some strappy nude heels on her that were certain to snap her ankles into kindling.

Devon regarded herself in Lyssa’s long mirror.

“No,” Devon whispered in horror.

“Oh yes,” Raze nodded. “Oh yes.”

The beauty-pageant feeling climaxed, and Devon half-expected them to dish out a numerical score and ask “what she would do with three wishes” or “how to achieve world peace.” God willing, there wouldn’t be a talent portion. She couldn’t sing or dance, and she didn’t think “emergency tracheotomy” would qualify.

They picked up more and more girls dressed like strumpets but it wasn’t until the fifth door that Devon got her first peek at a deviate who didn’t pass for normal. When the evening began, it was easy to forget that everyone there, all of the girls now so anxious to go “out” had been exposed to magic. Had nearly died from it, been changed by it. The One Percent. Devon didn’t know how you asked: ‘Hey, what kinda of freak are you? How screwed up? One-to-ten it for me.’

But Naya wasn’t easy to forget.

At the door, Raze put a hand on Devon’s shoulder and leaned down close.

“Don’t freak,” Raze said.

The door pitched open, and a soft-faced girl with strawberry blond hair bounced into the hall. She’d been yanked into a strapless green dress, and she stumbled into the growing gaggle of girls with a wide smile.

Devon opened her mouth to ask Raze just what she meant when the other roommate came over the threshold.

“Oh my God,” Devon whispered.

Chapter 14

Too Many Wings

 

Black scales of hard shiny rock, no bigger than postage stamps, covered Naya Morales from head to toe.

Whatever had taken her skin stole her hair as well, and she was as bald as a door knob, her pate covered with those same scales. Between the oil black plates, a lurid red light burned, like volcanic magma peeking through a shiny mantle of rock. Her eyes were pure black, all over, no iris or pupil distinct from the inky darkness.

Her hands, over-large, ended in three fingers. A black talon as long as a cigarette and four times as wide capped each finger. The only thing that kept Devon from screaming was the fact that Naya Morales, even looking like a demon from a comic book artist’s nightmare, was smiling from ear to ear with genuine excitement.

“Where’s it at?” Naya asked. Devon expected a reptilian hiss or a growl, but she sounded like a Southern California girl with a mild Hispanic accent.

“The AMC.”

“Sweet!” Naya said, and clapped her hands together. A pair of black leather pants clung to her shapely legs, and she wore a white tank top glittering with plastic jewels across the neckline. The shirt complemented the black scales well, Devon realized.

“I love that top,” Devon said. She clapped a hand over her mouth.

Naya flashed Devon a brilliant grin, drilling into her eyes with her creepy black orbs.

“Thanks! I love your necklace!”

Devon thanked her, nodded, and examined the floor, which had become extremely interesting since the last time she’d seen it.

They’d picked up a dozen more girls who weren’t “Passing,” the term Raze taught her for the deevees like herself and Raze and Lyssa that didn’t look different. A few were changed all over, like Naya Morales. Devon met Jaina Moore, a girl who looked like she’d been run through the “Negative” filter on Photoshop. Jaina’s shock-white hair ran through with black lowlights. Her skin was blue-black and practically incandescent. Her white eyes, the opposite of Naya’s, projected a soft glow onto her cheekbones and across her white eyebrows.

“What can she do?” Devon asked Raze.

“Not my story to tell,” Raze said.

They weren’t all so obvious. A girl named Deen had pointed ears, and another had thin white lines crisscrossing her arms and legs. Cheyenne had no eyes, as in, no eye sockets. Just smooth skin from nose to forehead. She walked with a cane, a grave face, and an unsteady gait.

When they’d picked up the entire female young adult population of Camp Echo they made for the AMC 30. Devon hadn’t been to a movie theater in two years.

People dotted the upper mezzanine, wearing normal clothing but all strapped with a weapon of some kind. She saw a man in a Hawaiian shirt with a machete at his thigh, two women in jeans and t-shirts conversing by a fountain, both gesturing with one hand, the other curling the strap of the pump shotguns hanging from their shoulders.

They looked like plainclothes guards, sure, protecting them from outside attack. But in the right light, with the right mood, they looked an awful lot like prison guards too. Devon wondered if they were deviates too.

“They are,” Cheyenne of the No-Eyes said in her ear. Devon spun around to face the creepy-looking girl. “Everyone here is, or else everyone would be soon, you know? Best people to hang around sick people are the ones who already caught it. And yes, I can read thoughts.”

“I didn’t ask,” Devon said.

“Sure you did.”

Cheyenne smiled, and Devon turned toward Raze with wide eyes.

The gaggle poured through the glass doors of the AMC Theater. The lights were low, illuminating only shapes and shadows in neon shades. A young bald dude and a short blonde stood behind the snack bar, pouring drinks for a press of guys. Collared shirts with the sleeves rolled back, muscle-bound guys in tank tops, grungy jeans-shirt-sneakers types with long hair and longer faces.

A pair of hallways led off from either side of the large main lobby, but only one was illuminated by running lights.

“The dance floor,” Cheyenne said, poking her cane toward the lit hallway, her eyeless face turning vaguely toward Devon. “This is just the holding area. Waiting for the girls to – “

A roar went up from the gathered guys of Camp Echo as the girls appeared. The girls were getting into it too, laughing and cat calling and tossing back everything the guys dished out.

Devon tried to talk above the roar, but Cheyenne just shook her head and appeared to laugh, though the crowd swallowed the sound of it.

Cheyenne pointed at her own temple, then pointed to Devon. Devon picked the notion up right away, but the idea of actually going through with it made her feel embarrassed and foolish. Worth a try, eh?

What number am I thinking?

Cheyenne cocked her head to the side and – even without eyes – displayed such a perfect expression of disappointment that Devon coiled in on herself. Devon shook her head and thought: If Echo is a freak-training academy, why is there a meat market serving alcohol on campus?

Cheyenne laughed into the din and mouthed the words: “Because we could all die tomorrow.

Devon stood, thoughtful, as the blind girl joined the surging crowd.

The crowd swept her up too, down the hallway like blood through an artery.

Someone thrust a plastic cup into her hand, which she dropped it into the first trashcan she passed. Devon couldn’t see in front of her, behind her: in all directions, only bodies. Stiff fingers crawled up the back of her legs, and she slapped them away without looking. A dozen more times she felt hands groping at her, and at some point she gave up trying to stop them.

Theater Twenty-Seven had been stripped of chairs, and the huge screen played a subtitled version of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” On screen, Roxie Richter and Ramona Flowers dueled in a dance club, hammer and razored steel belt clashing explosively over Michael Cera’s cringing form. Someone had rigged theatrical lighting in the theater’s rafters, and the banks of lights rotated between dark saturated colors, bathing everyone in blues and purples and reds.

Devon came into the theater somewhere in the middle of the throng, and all those ahead of her were already contorting and gyrating under the throbbing lights. Music buffeted her like hurricane wind, unbearable and unbreakable, tunneling into her brain and setting up shop. The bass locked into her heartbeat, overrode it, until the music became something she could feel instead of hear.

Fingers closed around her unbandaged wrist and yanked her from the throng.

Her attacker ripped her through the tide and into the small empty corridor that used to have an emergency exit at the end of it. Devon almost fell and died in her heels.

She came to a stop in a wide chest. He reached out and caught her by the waist with one arm. His other hand was wrapped around the handle of a cane.

Devon muttered a shocked stream of words that weren’t actually words.

“Streeter, right?” Ahern asked.

He had on a black long-sleeved shirt that showed off his startling well-muscled shoulders and chest, and dark jeans that were no slouch either. His eyes were hollow and dark. His sclera was badly bloodshot; he’d popped more than a few blood vessels in his eyes.

The kind of patchy stubble a nineteen-year-old could manage grew along his jaw, and it almost suited him, Devon decided. She was suddenly, intensely aware of the arm around her waist.

As if on cue, Ahern let her go and dropped his arm to his side.

“Are you okay?” Devon whispered.

Ahern wiggled the cane at his side and leaned against the wall.

“I shouldn’t be standing, doctor’s orders,” he groaned.

“So you came to a half-ass apocalypse night club?” Devon scoffed. “You’re crazy.”

“Well, you would know crazy,” Ahern said.

Devon stared at him.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Ahern said. “Green and I wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t been crazy.”

Devon flushed. She was suddenly, horrifyingly aware of the three ounces of fabric she was “wearing” on her body. She tugged at the skirt, trying to will it to be about six inches longer than it was.

“Forget it,” Devon said.

“How’s your sniper friend? I didn’t see him in the infirmary.”

Devon’s face darkened. She could almost see him standing behind Ahern, wearing that hat, his long face cocked at the tall marine. For a split second, she saw annoyance flicker across phantom-Bloom’s face.

Then he looked at Devon. Imaginary-Bloom frowned at her, as if asking:

‘Good question. Where is your sniper friend?’

“I don’t . . . I have to go.”

“Streeter?”

Devon pushed away from him, toward the dancing mass, Ahern’s last shouted words disappearing in the din.

The crowd tightened around her, a straightjacket of pulsating flesh, and the titanic effort required to push through to the upper levels of the theater wiped her out. The crowd thinned out at the stairs, and she took them two at a time up toward the projection windows, not caring that her dress was riding up, not caring how much of a lunatic she must look. When she hit the back wall she spun around, her head racing in the close stifling air, her breaths coming in labored gasps. She tugged the criminally short dress back into place, and watched the churning mass below her.

Devon caught her breath with both hands and tried to settle the panicky feelings of claustrophobia into something manageable. Everyone at the bottom level of the darkening theater thrashed against each other, and she could see the mania in their bodies and their hard glinting eyes.

They were soldiers on leave, revelers on the top floor of the Tower of Babylon, looking into the nothing in front of them with lips curled away from teeth that could be smiling or snarling.

Devon tugged the glove from her right hand and looked at the Spiral glyph. It burned glowing cyan lines into her palm. Spiral curlicues traced up into her tight black sleeve. She flexed her hands, and thought about the day her life had changed. The red nightmare of Green’s ruined chest, the blood.

The power within her. The power Green used to have, and no longer did. Green the liar, who had told her Ahern couldn’t have survived without her glyph. Green who told her that Bloom had run. Bloom would never run. Ever.

She wasn’t a student. Looking down at the furious battle of hormones and music and wild glorious abandon, the despair behind the flashing grins and locked lips and burning eyes.

Devon thought about the price of power long into the night. No one spoke to her, no one noticed her, so intent were they on the end and the beginning of all things. When the crowd began to break up, hours later, Devon snuck off. She avoided the few familiar faces she knew and raced back to her room.

She threw the door open, tugged off the hellish dress and kicked it into a corner. Naked and clammy with old sweat, Devon leaped into her bed and crawled beneath the scratchy covers with only the thoughts of a gentle darkness that would demand nothing of her.

Devon reached for her lamp and froze.

She jumped to her feet, the covers falling to the floor.

“Oh . . . “

The whisper floated out of her mouth and broke apart.

She stood in the center of her mattress. A red spatter of what couldn’t be blood speckled the bars of the bird cage and splashed across the desk. The dove she’d healed with her wondrous new gift in the center of the red-and-white wire had disappeared, replaced by a broken thing.

In its place sat a twisted shape with six or seven pairs of corrupted wings. One wing was scaled like a lizard, and another thin and membranous like the wing of a bat. Blood pooled at the bottom of the cage, soaked up by mulched newspaper. She could see shattered bones covered with spurs and spikes sticking out of the dove’s flesh and . . .

Devon closed her eyes. She crawled across the bed and reached out, groping at the carpet . . .

Her fingers curled around the still-damp black dress. Kneeling on the edge of the bed, afraid to move or to touch the carpet (it’s lava, lava) she tossed the dress over the cage, masking the grim scene.

The lamp clicked off, the covers slipped over her body, but Devon Streeter didn’t fall asleep for a long, long time.

Chapter 15

Enemy Yours

 

Finding the way back wasn’t hard. They hadn’t been far from Pendleton in the first place.

He came up the freeway, remembering where he’d seen the green flash. Where he and Devon had raced headlong into danger. Where Devon had “died,” according to the official story. The gas station they’d raced through, he biked through alone now, weaving through concrete islands shattered under a tyrant sun. Wyatt loped along beside him, tongue lolling, silent except for the fleshy tapping of his pads on the ground.

Bloom held out the handful of dirty laundry to Wyatt, and the dog buried his nose into the pile, snuffling voraciously. The dog darted ahead, a russet comet, bounding up the side of the very same rise Devon and Bloom had climbed.

Bloom left the bike at the bottom of the hill, and most of his gear as well. He kept the rifle slung over his shoulder, the hat on his head, and the Colt Navy strapped cowboy-style down his thigh. All in all he’d attained a hearty gunslinger vibe only ruined by his supreme lankiness and complete inability to grow even the downiest of stubble.

At the top of the hill, he looked down from the same spot he and Devon had first seen the Shades and soldiers battling. The white ice cream truck, its menu of stickers long faded and peeled. The gully Devon had used to get around to the soldiers. The garage, still open, still full of shadows, the front end of a faded car poking out like a dead man’s tongue.

“Jett Burke’s Auto Detailing,” Bloom said, staring at the rusted mouth of the mechanic’s bay.

The last place he’d seen Devon. Acting like a big dumb hero.

Wyatt gamboled into Bloom’s legs, almost flinging him down the hill. All of the bodies were gone – Shade and man alike. The weapons had all been scavenged, and the blood had faded. The scavengers from SONGS and Pendleton had even swept up the brass from the guns – waste not, want not.

“We’ll find – “

The dog ran a tight circle, smashed into Bloom’s legs again, and shot down the slope and into the mechanic’s bay. Bloom cursed and raced after him. He came in to the bay hard, gripping his enormous revolver in both hands. He pied off the shop, but there was nobody. He holstered the revolver. They searched the bay together. Wyatt lingered on the dried pools of blood rusting on the metal tool boxes and the car doors.

Someone had dumped a trash bag full of blood inside the Honda Accord.

There were bits of gauze and medical tape, a part of a tourniquet. Scraps of torn clothing. Devon had been in there, tending to someone she couldn’t possibly have saved.

Bloom leaned in to get a better look at the foul-smelling back seat. Something caught his eye, down by his leg, between the seat and the door. A thin stick of wood, smooth and straight.

He plucked it out and turned it over in his hands. An arrow head and the last four inches of the shaft. Strips of medical tape clung to it. 

“Devon’s patient took an arrow,” Bloom said. “She tried to keep it in place. Stabilize him. Hmm. That’s funny.”

Wyatt padded over and gazed up at him, tongue lolling.

“Not funny ‘ha-ha,’” Bloom said. “Usually the Shades kill what they hit. Everyone knows that.”

Wyatt sat down in response.

“True,” Bloom said. He prodded at the side of his neck, at the white bandage where a Shade arrow had almost William Telled his Adam’s apple. “That ain’t the funkiest part either.”

He examined the arrowhead. It looked nothing like the razor-edged obsidian arrowheads they were famous for. Like the arrow that had grazed him, like the knife he’d brought back to sell to Nico. Instead, this arrowhead was metallic and dull, almost like lead, but with an opalescent luster. The damn thing weighed a ton, too. Even for lead it weighed too much.

Bloom’s eyes widened.

Bloom’s father worked at SONGS. A nuclear physicist. Bloom had taken tours of SONGS, seen everything that had been safe for him to see – he’d probably seen more of a nuclear reactor than any kid his age ever would have.

He knew uranium when he saw it.

“Oh craps,” Bloom said

Bloom tore through tool boxes and drawers until he found a coil of lead solder, the kind mechanics used for body work. He stuck the arrowhead inside the spool and duct-taped the hell out of it. It wasn’t perfect, he knew, but it would have to be good enough.

One chip of uranium wasn’t going to kill him, but he wasn’t super excited about bare-handing it. He grabbed a dusty rag from a counter and used some water from his canteen to wash his hands.

“If I go sterile, I’m gonna be pissed,” Bloom said to Wyatt. Wyatt loped out into the sunlight, evidently finished searching the garage.                                                      

Bloom followed him. The shaft was Shade-made, he knew that. He’d seen enough of their arrows to last him a life time, and he recognized the hand-made roughness. They were beautiful, but not exactly factory-made.

“Who the hell makes uranium into an arrowhead?” Bloom asked Wyatt, who seemed more interested in the ice cream truck.

“And how do Shades get a chunk of uranium?” Bloom asked. “Imposseeblay.”

Wyatt scraped at the door of the ice cream truck. Bloom peaked inside the windshield, saw nothing but old dust and shadows, and let the dog into the truck. Maybe he felt like a Bomb Pop.

Someone shrieked inside the truck. High and hard and full of terror.

Bloom cursed, tugged out the revolver, and jumped into the truck. He tangled himself in the driver’s side seat and stuck the barrel of the gun toward the shrieking noise.

Darkness flooded the ice cream truck. It wasn’t the absence of light, it was aggressive – the amorphous shadows choked out the dusty beams of light. Bloom had seen that kind of darkness before, in this very spot.

I am king of all stupids, Bloom thought numbly. And now I’m going to die.

He pulled the revolver’s trigger three times.

A roar louder than July Fourth exploded inside the truck. Three roars, from an idiot firing a gun in an enclosed metal box. Bloom screamed and cringed behind the chair, the bright world outside the windshield burning his eyes and stretching at all angles.

The world rang in his ears, blocking out everything but the bass-vibrations of his own movement. He climbed into the back of the truck, his legs wobbly, his eyes stinging. The blob of darkness had evaporated, replaced with the sad amber light from the filthy windows.

Wyatt, his head low, crouched on a still and wide-eyed Shade.

The dog’s teeth were bared inches from her face – she stared up at Wyatt with the naked look of mind-melted terror. She was unmistakably female, and unmistakably young.

Her raven-black hair hung around her cheeks. She had a slightly curving feminine shape under the silks that wrapped her body. They covered everything from neck to ankle, a single band of black silk wound around her like a mummy. She was lying on her quiver, and arrows spilled out across the floor.

She had baby-fat in her face, and by human standards, he would have put her at sixteen, maybe. A damn sight younger than the Shades that had been there last time. Though his eyes watered from the gun blasts, and his ears rang with all the bells of Notre Dame, Bloom did his best to look dangerous. He leveled the revolver at her face.

“Roll over. Now.”

The girl’s eyes were pools of black paint, no whites or irises or pupils. She didn’t look like a monster, even with the black shadowy tattoos wriggling on her skin. He’d never seen a more helpless looking person in his life.

The long curve of a wooden bow poked about from beneath her thigh – she must have fallen on it.

“Don’t move,” Bloom said with absolutely no idea whether she could understand him or not.

He yanked the bow out from under her and tossed it behind him. She didn’t flinch. He bobbed the gun again and shook his head.

“Roll over!”

Wyatt Earp jumped off of the Shade girl and rolled over on his back. He looked up at Bloom expectantly.

Bloom ran his hand across his face.

“You, turn around. Shade girl, not stupid dog.”

The Shade girl’s eyes flashed.

“I’m not . . . I’m just going to tie your hands, okay? I’m not going to hurt you.”

When she started to move, Wyatt spun around, his hackles rising. There hadn’t been a bark or a growl, but his curling lip and rows of sharp teeth spoke a language the inhuman girl understood perfectly. The fear returned, and she complied, rolling over onto her stomach.

“Don’t move,” Bloom said again. She seemed to understand his tone, and that worked okay.

Wyatt dropped his front paws on the Shade’s back and lowered his face toward her head. Amanda Streeter had trained her dog well, not that that surprised him. Colonel Streeter made Batman look sloppy.

No rope. He had some in his pack, which he’d left on the other side of a hill.

Okay, time to get creative.

Confident the Shade girl was immobilized – she’d been more afraid of dog than man anyway, from what he could tell – he holstered the Navy and got out his pocket knife. He cut out both front seatbelts and spliced them together. Satisfied, Bloom knelt down next to the Shade girl and drove his knife into a low wooden cupboard next to her face.

“If you move, that’s it,” Bloom said. The badass bravado rang off in his own ears – Bloom knew he was about as hardcore as marshmallows.

The Shade either bought it or couldn’t understand him, because she kept as still as the Mona Lisa. He rolled the seatbelt into a rope and tied a pair of Texas handcuffs. It wasn’t great, not with the shape of the seatbelt, but he thought it would hold. He didn’t remember anything about Shades having noteworthy strength, not above a human anyway, and the girl was thin. He checked it a half dozen times and called it good.

Finally, he grabbed a rag, snapped out the dust, and tied it around her mouth.

“There,” Bloom said. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

Bloom had no idea what to do with the girl. A hardcase would shoot her, but Bloom had never been mistaken for one of those. He could just leave her, but eventually she would get out of her bonds. That, or another Shade would find her – he doubted they would let a girl that young out on her own. Maybe.

Bloom felt a surge of frustration – he knew nothing about Shades. Nothing beyond his Pendleton training, which had amounted to “watch out for the dark, don’t let them shoot at you, run if you can’t fight.” The Shades had been the first intelligent thing humanity encountered during the Merge, and things hadn’t gone well. Not for humanity, anyway. No one knew if they’d caused much of a dent in the other side.

Kill her (off the table). Leave her (she’d join up with her squad, then come and kill him).

Someone had taken Devon, faked her death, and they weren’t Shades. Someone human or someone in bed with the humans at Pendleton had worked that piece of witchcraft.

There certainly wasn’t any tech capable of making a body look nigh-identical to another. Plastic surgery left scars, bone structure was different. Devon’s “body” had been changed or maybe even created whole cloth from magic.

The place he’d been quarantined, and where he’d seen Devon’s “body,” had certainly been far enough away from the nuke plant for that kind of magic to work. Which had to have been intentional. Which meant whoever was doing the fooling had some control over where they’d kept Devon’s body and himself. 

Inhumans working with humans? With Pendleton? To fake deaths?

Why?

If there were an enclave of humans or human-sympathizers this way, the Shades might know about it.

This Shade might know about it.

Bloom knelt over the girl and stripped the quiver from her back. He gathered her scattered arrows, dropped them in the quiver, and slung it over his shoulder. He grabbed her bow, unstrung it carefully, and tucked it into the quiver as well.

There’d be more Shades. Soon. As much as he wanted to try to talk to her, to explain or just give peace a chance, that wasn’t a good spot. That ice cream truck was turning into the center of his horrible world.

He yanked her to her feet. She was light, but her muscles were hard – it felt like grabbing a pipe wrapped in leather.

“You’re gonna live,” Bloom said. He jabbed his finger into her back. “Unless you become more trouble than you’re worth.”

His voice sounded too high, too scared, and the tough-guy talk came right out of an old mafia movie, but she didn’t seem to mind. Her neck stiffened, then her shoulders sagged.

One hand on her wrists, the other on the heel of his Colt Navy, they walked.

 

Chapter 16

AP Inhuman History

 

Traveling with a prisoner, a bike, and a dog wasn’t easy, and Bloom couldn’t stop and study his map. Luckily Wyatt must have caught Devon’s scent, and he bounded along in front of them.

Bloom knew to stop when he spotted the gold arrow and red writing of an In-N-Out Burger. It wasn’t far from the gas station, but it was far enough.

The doors and windows had been shattered long ago. Bloom lead the Shade girl through the broken doors at gun-point. White tile in all directions, broken only by red checkered stripes. Bloom’s stomach began to awaken at old memories of Double-Doubles (animal style, naturally) and enough shoe-string french fries to thatch a roof with.

A tasty roof, Bloom mused.

He stashed his bike underneath a booth and led the Shade girl through the kitchens. Wyatt stalked beside her, casting her sidelong glances and sniffing at her. The Shade girl shot the dog constant furtive looks, and Bloom took a moment to silently thank the stalwart Wyatt Earp. Without him, the Shade girl probably would have put a feathered shaft through Bloom’s neck while he’d been Sherlock Holmesing the garage. Wyatt had saved his life.

Devon still has my back, Bloom thought, even if she is dead or kidnapped by God-knows-what.

The kitchen had been ransacked by Vikings, apparently. Someone had been really pissed off they couldn’t score any vanilla shakes.

He took them into a back office, which amounted to a closet with a shitty desk stuffed into it. Post-It notes littering the ground like fallen leaves.

The Shade girl turned around, slowly, and he didn’t stop her. Now, out of the sunlight, the writhing bag of black snakes that crawled in two dimensions across her skin looked inkier and more well-defined. She could summon the darkness in a moment. Could flood the room with it. Her oil-pool eyes regarded him coldly.

Bloom waggled the Navy in front of her face. He only had three shots left – reloading the Civil-War era revolver took a little time, and he hadn’t had any during their walk – but they would do the trick alright. He pointed behind her, to the threadbare office chair.

“Sit down,” Bloom said.

The girl’s eyes flared.

“I could shoot you,” Bloom said conversationally. “I’d rather not. It’s a loud noise, which is gonna call your friends. Sure, they’ll kill me, but that won’t help you.”

The girl flipped her hair out of her eyes and perched on the edge of the chair. Her eyes flicked down, toward the gag.

“Do you wanna talk or scream?” Bloom asked. “Talking is fine. Screaming is no bueno.”

The Shade girl gave him a flat stare, disbelieving. Her eyes flicked to the gun.

Bloom shrugged and pulled his coat back, revealing the sword he’d traded from Nico. He waggled his eyebrows and smiled at her.

She sat back in the chair, her face going slack. Bloom pointed to the big black Navy in his hand, wiggled it for emphasis, and slid it into the holster at his side. He unbuckled his belt, which held the gun and the sword, and set it behind him on the file cabinet.

Her eyebrows went up.

He held one finger up, as if to say “wait.” Bloom rotated the finger until it pointed at Wyatt Earp, in the doorway of the office, then pointed at her. By the crease of her forehead, she seemed to understand.

He laid her bow and quiver beside the file cabinet as well. He still had his survival knife in the pocket of his coat, but no reason to give up all of the juice.

With exaggerated movements, he sat on the edge of the desk and doffed his wide-brimmed Stetson. He held it loosely in his lap with one hand while he reached out and untied her gag with the other.

“Can we talk?” Bloom asked.

The Shade girl only had eyes for Wyatt. Dogs scared the hell out of her. Bloom snapped his fingers in her face.

“Do you understand me? Sprechen sie Californian?”

The girl flashed her eyes up to him. Her concrete-colored lips bent into a frown. The twisting black tattoos avoided her face, but they did swirl across her neck. It wasn’t easy to stop looking at them.

“What do you want?” she asked through a thick accent.

He almost fell off the desk.

Her voice was surprisingly low for her age, and it caught him completely off-guard. Well that and the, you know, English.

She said the words heavily, like she was dropping a burden with each step. It sounded like a weird combination of a Russian accent and an Italian one, and yet somehow like neither.

“How. English? How you . . . what?”

“Learned it,” she said. “Better than you, I see.”

 Her eyes darted back to Wyatt.

“He’s not going to eat you,” Bloom said. “Not unless I ask him to.”

It took her a long time to look back up at him.

“How do your people know our language?” Bloom asked.

“Captives,” she said. “From the beginning. From when the Mating happened.”

Bloom’s eyes went wide.

“Your people, uh, mated with us? Your captives?”

She shrugged and said, “Of course. But I am talking about the Mating of our worlds.”

“We, uh, call it the Merge,” Bloom said with a nervous chuckle. “Which, I mean. That’s what goes on during mating anyway.”

The Shade’s dark eyes regarded him dispassionately.

“Not big on the laughs. Okay. Do you understand I have no fight with you?”

The girl cocked her head to the side. She wiggled her captive arms and flicked her gaze toward Wyatt.

“Well I’m not just going to lie down and let you kill me,” Bloom said with a laugh. “Wouldn’t be sporting. Would you do any different?”

“Would not use children,” the Shade said.

“What?”

She looked pointedly at Wyatt. Bloom joined her, his brow knitting together.

“Wyatt’s a dog.”

“I know this.”

Bloom couldn’t figure out how the conversation had gotten so weird in such a short period of time.

“I will join with you, if you will let me go,” she said, suddenly, her eyes narrowing.

“What.”

“To join, the mating – “

Bloom held both hands out and shook them. “Neg. That’s not. No. Absolutely, not okay. That’s not why – “

“Then why?” the girl spat, slamming herself down so hard the chair bounced. Her eyes smoldered, and her tattoos vibrated hard against her gray skin. “Let me go.”

“You’ll kill me,” Bloom said. “Or your friends will.”

The girl looked at him, expressionless, for an uncomfortably long beat. Finally she tilted her chin up and shook her head.

“We do not kill children,” she said. “Or put them at risk, as you do.”

Something hot surged inside Bloom’s belly, and he pointed at the bandage still taped to the side of his neck.

“Oh yeah?” Bloom spat. “One of your friends tried to put an arrow through my neck. Maybe for a Shade that counts as horseplay, but if I hadn’t ducked I’d have daylight in my esophagus and a pretty bad case of being fucking dead.”

The girl’s lip curled in something like a sneer.

“That was a warning, tuchok. My people do not miss.”

Bloom had heard that before, of course, but he’d assumed it had been campfire, oogey-boogey talk. The way they’d fired their arrows without bows suggested some kind of telekinesis, which would make it pretty damn hard to miss what you were shooting -

Wait. Bloom turned around, glancing down at the bow he’d taken from her. None of the other Shades had bows. They’d mimicked the shape of a bow with their hands, but they’d fired their black glass arrows with nothing but their minds.

He scooped up the bow.

“What’s this?” Bloom asked.

“Bow,” she said. “Fires arrows, arrows that do not miss. Make little youman filled with sun light, as you say.”

Bloom smirked and popped his Stetson back on his head.

“Why can’t you use your voodoo to fire arrows?”

“I do not know of voodoo,” she spat. “Bow is soldier’s weapon.”

“How come none of the other Shades have bows?” Bloom asked. “They seemed pretty damn soldiery to me.”

“Adepts. Powerful.”

“You’re lying. Badly.”

The Shade girl smashed her chair into the ground. She pulled her gray lips back from her teeth and hissed at him. Darkness seeped out of her pores in wisps of black ink.

Wyatt took two steps into the room, his hackles up, his tail low. His silently snarling mouth revealed a long row of white teeth made for shredding.

The girl flicked her eyes at the dog, up to Bloom. The wisps of darkness drifted away.

“Who are you?” Bloom asked.

The girl glared up at him. “Who are you?”

“Daniel Blumenthal,” he said, tipping his hat. “I’m sixteen-years-old, incredibly funny slash charming, and hell with a rifle. I’m looking for my best friend Devon, who was attacked in that gully where I found you, a couple days ago. Your cousins killed a bunch of soldiers here, soldiers she was trying to patch up.”

Bloom recognized the look on the Shade girl’s face, the mix of bewilderment and annoyance he tended to inflict on people.

“Friend is dead,” the girl spat. “We cannot be defeated.”

“My friend is the same age as me,” Bloom said. “Red hair, very small.”

“She lives, then.”

“Shades prefer gingers? Had no idea.”

“My people,” the girl said, “do not kill children. We are not youmans.”

“Humans,” Bloom corrected. He rubbed his forehead. It made sense, even if it did conflict with the Shades-Are-Monsters stories he’d heard since the Merge. They hadn’t killed Bloom, even when he’d been killing them, and if someone had taken the time to fake Devon’s death, there was a good chance she was still alive.

“Did you capture her?”

Her black eyes were unnerving as hell, Bloom decided, like staring into an ocean on a moonless night.

“No,” she said, finally, before staring at the tile.

Bloom wondered how it was possible that two different species from two different planets could have the exact same facial expressions. She wasn’t lying, he didn’t think, but she wasn’t sharing either.

“Did someone else capture her?” Bloom asked. “Another group of inhumans? Or maybe human marauders?”

The girl scrunched her forehead. “I do not know.”

“Why are you out here by yourself with no backup?”

“I cannot say,” she said, her face locked in a defiant glare.

“Here’s an easy one: what’s your name?” Bloom asked. “I promise I won’t use it to curse you.”

“You are not branded,” she said. “You cannot lay spells upon me.”

“Joke,” he said. “Name and rank.”

“Rank?” she asked, puzzled.

“Another joke.”

“You joke too much,” she said.

“It’s Devon Streeter all over again,” he mumbled.

“Tannis,” the girl said. “Rhyf Tannis Nahat, of Family Rhyf. Seed of Rhyf Caris Loren. Youngest and Torchbearer, sworn to Ord Malor Rane, of Family Ord, Seed of –”

“Okey dokey,” Bloom said. “I’m not writing a biography, I just wanted to call you something besides ‘Shade girl.’ Call me Bloom, I’ll call you Tannis. Easy, right? Unless you prefer Bloom, son of Stephen, blah blah who cares.”

The Shade girl called Tannis Whatever-Something looked about as happy as a cat in a bathtub. Even through the veil of her anger, he could see it. The way she fidgeted, the way she twisted the rope between her wrists, the way her eyes bounced between Bloom and Wyatt. Young and scared, lacking the training or power he’d seen in other Shades.

“What are you going to do with me?”

Good question, Bloom thought.

“I need to know who would kidnap a human girl.”

“She’s in grave danger,” Tannis said. “She may have been Cursed and taken, or worse, a slave of the Rell-Anon. She is lost to you, either way.”

Bloom suppressed a burning surge of panic.

“One at a time,” he rasped. “Please.”

“You do not know of the Cursed or the Rell-Anon?”

“I’m guessing the ‘Cursed’ are deviates, right? What the hell is a Rell? I . . .”

He touched his forehead with his fingers – he felt something disconnect in his mind, a dropping sensation like someone had turned down the gravity on Planet Earth. Oh no . . .

Around him, the world brightened, the glow streaming in from the In-N-Out’s kitchen turning into a blinding column of light. His head buzzed, and he grabbed the file cabinet behind him to stay standing.

Tannis half-stood up, but Wyatt took a menacing step forward.

Bloom sat down on the desk and held his face in his hands. He could feel things stretching out, the world clouding. His limbs felt heavy, all of a sudden, and he lay across the desk. A stapler chunked against his back. Bloom wondered if he’d put a staple in his –

 gray face with eyes like black paint.

A sound, a ripping gurgling noise –

- in his head like a grenade. Bloom clutched the side of his head, where someone must have sank a red-hot knife to the hilt.

A red red car like fingers . . . what

Stop. Stop. Images bowled around in his head, fluttering and mixing and jumping and diving like a raffle picker. None of it made any sense, and his brain blazed with feverish pain.

He flashed his eyes up, around – he couldn’t remember how . . .

The Shade – Tannis, he remembered – sat on her knees on a chair, staring hard at him, her face twisted in fear.

He turned his head, expecting to see some bear or monster or zombie on the other side of the desk.

Slobber. A hot scratchy tongue sliding across his cheek.

“Gah,” Bloom said, but even the utterance of one syllable shook the phantom knife in his skull. “Wyatt, stop. Enough.”

Wyatt padded over to the Shade girl, who looked no less horrified.

Bloom held a finger out to the girl and went to his pack. He staggered like a drunk, his knees banging into furniture. He found the potassium pills and aspirin in his pack and ate more than he should, swallowing them dry and making a yuck face. Someone had been strip-mining the inside of his skull with dynamite, and he sat in one of the white booths and waited for his senses to return.

After an interminable length of time, Bloom felt half-human again, though his head didn’t feel any better. He went back to the office, nodded to the girl, and pointed toward the door.

“We have to move.”

Tannis stretched to her feet, watching him the way you might look at a breakdancing seagull. Bloom belted his weapons back on, attached her quiver and bow to the ever-growing luggage rack on his bike, and lead them out.

 

                                                                           ***

 

Bloom steered them off the roads, through backyards and wooded parks and anything else that would keep them out of sight.

“What is wrong with you?” Tannis asked, after a long period of silence.

“Just an aura.”

“A curse?” Tannis asked, no emotion in her voice.

 

“Oh yeah. The evil curse of epilepsy,” Bloom said. “If you try anything, Wyatt will eat you.”

Tannis stared at him in disgust. After another half-mile, the Shade girl jumped in front of him, blocking the path.

“I am your prisoner,” she said.

“Ding ding ding.”

“Kill me, and you will be hunted,” she said. “Hurt me, and I will kill you myself, or my Sworn will.”

Bloom eyed her. His headache hadn’t receded, and this wasn’t something he had the patience for.

“If you help me find my friend,” Bloom said, “I’ll help you find your brother.”

Tannis rocked back like she’d been kicked.

“Father, maybe?” he leaned heavily on the bike.

“What do you know?” she said.

“I recognize someone over their head, forced from home to find a loved one,” Bloom said. “I’m an expert, actually.”

“You are my enemy,” she said, “and a fool.”

“I hear that a lot.”

They stared at each over the bike while Wyatt padded around the back of the Shade girl. She glanced behind her, then back to Bloom. Those horror-movie eyes didn’t make him feel better, but he knew he was right. She wasn’t a scout, or a soldier. She’d been searching the gully, same as him. She was out of her league, same as him – it was the only way he could have got the jump on her. The only reason she’d put herself out there would be for love or friendship.

Bloom had shot two or three Shades dead, and he had no way of knowing if any of them had been her kin. He wasn’t sharing that information– he didn’t think even Wyatt would protect him against her fury. He’d seen what Shades could do, and even a teenage one scared the beans and cheese out of him. Only his childish bravado and ability to lie really well allowed him to play the tough guy. An actual tough guy would have killed her.

Bloom knew he was just too chicken-shit.

“The Rell-Anon have them,” she said, though her voice shook. “Or the Green Man.”

“Green Man?”

“A Branded. A dangerous human, gifted with magic.”

“Not a deviate?”

“No,” Tannis whispered.

“Okay,” Bloom said. He thought about that suspect he’d made up in his brain, the human with magic. Deeper and deeper down, eh Bloom? “What about the Rell?”

“Rell-Anon,” she corrected. “They are fantastics. Crazy-people.”

“Fanatics,” Bloom corrected. “Are they human?”

 “They are from my world, and they are driven by fear and superstition.”

“What do they want?”

“Death,” she said. “Destruction. The end of youmans and all your works.”

“Tell me more.”

They walked, and they talked, and Tannis told him in her stilted English the kind of fate the Rell-Anon provided their prisoners.

He thought of Devon, and he prayed she’d found another way.

Anything else.

“Where are they?”

“I do not know,” she said.

Bloom whistled sharply. Wyatt prowled the ground, sniffing, and finally circled around to ram into Bloom’s legs and dart forward again.

“Yeah, well, my dog does.”

Chapter 17

Most Important Thing

 

“When he starts going into a seizure, it’s important that you don’t stick anything in his mouth,” the voice whispered, from a long-off corridor.

“He won’t swallow his tongue?” Devon asked.

She turned to look at Bloom, who flashed a wide grin, pulled his mouth open with his fingers, and let his tongue fall out across his chin.

“No,” the voice whispered.

She was tall and indistinct, but she had the reassuring bedside tone of Bloom’s mom. From before . . .

Before.

“Well I might swallow my tongue,” Bloom laughed. “But only for fun.”

“Baby, please try to take this seriously.”

Bloom barked his infectious laugh. Even as a child, he’d had a long face and limbs stretched out like taffy.

“Serious? What would that be like?” Devon said with a sigh.

“A biblical plague. Of boring,” Bloom said. “Like ‘watching-golf-on-TV’ boring.”

“Guys,” the indistinct form of Bloom’s mother said. “Can we focus for a second? When Bloom starts fading away, it’s important that you . . .”

Her voice rolled into a buzz. Devon remembered that moment, after Bloom’s first seizure. Devon had thought he was screwing around, but after a minute it didn’t end. She tried to shake him awake, her face drenched in tears. But he just rolled on the grass, eyes fluttering.

Bloom’s mom explained everything. The epilepsy Devon for years had pronounced effilebsy, after their talk. Devon had been at Bloom’s side, watching him, waiting, remembering the signs, the treatment, in case of another seizure.

Bloom’s mom had seemed so put-together. So in command. Even her own son’s medical condition didn’t faze her. Devon remembered how powerful she’d been.

Bloom spun toward Devon and punched her in the arm.

“Knock knock.”

“Hey . . . “

Bloom rolled his eyes.

“Knock knock.”

A muscular man in his thirties kicked Devon’s door open.

“Wake up! UP UP! I didn’t realize this was the Holiday-Fuckin’-Inn! Well this is what we call ROOM SERVICE!”

Deep purple facets broke up his forehead and nose, and the flesh beneath it faded from purple to lavender to flesh color. His eyes were slitted like a snake’s, and he wore all-black fatigues and wide biker boots. This was not Devon’s favorite way to wake up.

He whipped a handful of white clothes at her.

A white sports bra, a white tank-top, and a pair of white sweatpants. He threw a pair of white sneakers at the foot of her bed.

“Get dressed!”

Devon growled, finding a grip on her anger through the haze of sleep. She pinched her comforter around her body and raised a middle-finger at the Snake-Man in her doorway.

“Hahaha!”

He stepped out of her room without closing the door. A crash reverberated through the walls, and she realized Raze was getting the same treatment. Her eyes bugged and she flung the comforter aside. She tugged the whites on as fast as she could. If the Snake-Man was about to be torn limb-from-limb by a very hung-over Raze Takeshi, Devon needed peepers on that.

She wrapped the Ace bandage all the way up to the bicep and slipped Lyssa’s leather glove over her hand. Devon fumbled for a hair tie in her room, made no headway in finding one, and tugged her orange hair up into a sloppy bun, tying it with itself.

Her eyes slid over the cage, and her stomach rolled over. The dove. The dress still draped the cage, but she grabbed a pillowcase from her dresser and tossed it over the cage anyway. Just in case.

She took too long. The Snake-Man and any violence Raze had committed was over and gone. Raze wore the same whites as Devon.

“Time to go,” Raze said. She flashed an evil grin, pulled her black hair into a ponytail, and bolted out the door. Even hangovers were afraid of Raze.

She stumbled out of their quarters to find the entire mall filling with kids in white and assholes in black. The throng engulfed her and carried her outside.

The herd moved along the edge of a beach cliff. To the west, some of the stars still burned. She scanned the throng and saw Naya Morales sticking out like someone whose skin is all obsidian scales.

“Naya!” Devon shouted.

Naya flashed a thin, tired grin. Hangover, party of one.

“Devon, right?”

Devon nodded and focused on breathing, thankful that she hadn’t drank last night. Everyone else looked like hell on toast.

“When did you get here?” Naya asked over the din of crunching sand. A pathway sloped down from an eroded chunk of the cliff, toward the beach.

“Yesterday.”

Naya tucked her enormous talons against her chest, but Devon could see how uncomfortable it was for her. Devon understood – if Naya let her hands swing at her sides, she could cut the person next to her to ribbons.

“You?”

“Five days ago,” Naya said.

SONGS?” Devon asked.

“Irvine,” Naya said. “My family got attacked, and some Echoes found me.”

Echoes.  Was that what they called Deviates here? Or was that the guys in the black? The ones that had gone through whatever training program they were now thrust into.

“What are we doing?” Devon asked.

“They kick us outta bed,” Naya said. “Take us to the field, the roof. Like boot camp. Always something different, every other day. They don’t tell us. Sometimes they take us out in small groups, out into the wild. Other times they even make us fight each other.”

“I hope I don’t have to fight you.”

Naya laughed breathlessly. “I hope so too.”

Too winded to talk, they ran in gasping silence. Devon would take any companionship in Camp Echo. Raze had the warmth of an ice floe, and despite Naya’s appearance, Devon liked her much, much better.

Devon took stock of the crowd – eighty or ninety kids in white, and twenty or so in black running along the outside of the group like sheep dogs.

None of the kids in black had weapons, but Devon suspected they had plenty of teeth. Naya could probably slice through a steel door with her talons, Cheyenne No-Eyes could read minds, and Devon herself could heal even the most horrific of wounds. If she figured out how to make it work, anyway.

A twisted, shattered dove at the bottom of a cage -

Devon squeezed her eyes shut. She focused on breathing, and watching, and learning.

The block rolled to a stop on the freezing sand. The dark sea curled and tossed, reflecting only the distant rumor of the dawn light. The breeze kicking off the ocean cut down to her bones.

When the silence and the cold went on long enough to convince her that standing might be the test today, a voice trumpeted over the crowd. Four figures stood on the cliff above them, only one of which she recognized. Green. He was unmistakable in a yellow leather jacket, jeans, and a black t-shirt that, even from a distance, clearly featured the Punisher skull in the center. Beside him was a familiar man in black fatigues.

No. Devon squinted, and her mouth gaped. Ahern. The cane was gone, and he appeared to be standing just fine. The last time she’d seen him she’d bolted away like a frightened deer. As long as I don’t have to see him face to face, she thought, I can keep the embarrassment from physically slaying me.

The other two people rang no bells. One was a short woman in desert camo, and the other was a hard-looking, square-jawed man in his fifties wearing loose-fitting pants and a gray hoodie. He had a soldiery vibe, with his buzz-cut and even the way he stood, but the clothes came straight out of a Yoga video.

He was the one speaking.

“Good morning!” he said. “Another beautiful day in SoCal!”

The crowd shot out laughter and profanity in equal measure.

“We have some newcomers,” he said. “Welcome to Camp Echo!”

He certainly sounded good-natured, which rang every alarm Devon had in her entire body. No one should be that cheery in the morning.

“The Echoes are going to organize you into groups. Don’t go whining to your Echo about being separated from your bee-eff-eff. It’s just for today’s activity. Echoes, ten-minutes please.”

The crowd churned. The black-shirts cut the herd apart with brutal efficiency. The voice from the cliff rose up over the rumble.

“Before we start – is Devon Streeter present?”

Devon’s heart relocated to her throat.

“I’m here,” Devon mumbled. Others picked up the noise and pointed her out with loud shouts.

“Good,” the man said. “Please pop up here before the festivities start. Kidder Green needs a word with you.”

The standard ooooooooos rose out of the crowd, an artifact of civilization that Devon wished hadn’t survived the Merge.

The crowd between her and the ramp parted, and she trudged. All eyes were on the new girl, called up to the front of the class. She squeezed her hands into fists as she mounted the sloping path.

Had she caused trouble? Was she someone important? Was she to be feared or envied, hated or sucked-up to? What made her so special? It wasn’t anything physical. Scrawny, unfeminine. Carrot-colored hair, freckles. Big dorky glasses. Smart, probably. Thinks she’s smarter. All girls who looked like that did, right? Something to prove? Man-hater too, likely.

She trudged over to Green with sloped shoulders, hands in pockets, a virtual caricature of the sullen teenager.

“Twenty-two squads, an Echo at the top of each!” the old man wearing the hoodie shouted. “Double-time it now!”

The shouter was older than Green, with a cracked face and hands that must have been underwater for ten years. His voice reeked of authority.

“Doesn’t look like much,” the man said.

Green slapped her, hard, on her bandaged arm. She clenched her teeth, biting off a half-dozen terrible insults to people’s mothers.

“Devon Streeter, meet Axel Abbot,” Green said in his low, faintly mocking tone. “Illustrious leader of this establishment.”

“Owner. Operator. Grand Master Sensei. You Amanda’s kid?” Abbot grunted.

Devon perked up. Just the mention of her mother’s name sent a swirl of conflicting emotions through her. All of her youth she had wished a magic genie would whisk her mother away, or at the very least bring her back waaaaaay less intense. Now that the prospect of never seeing her again loomed ahead . . . .

“Yes,” Devon said, evenly.

“I don’t trust women in power,” Abbot said.

“Why, um,” Devon said. She cleared her throat and drew herself up. “Why am I up here?”

Green smiled at almost the exact same speed that Abbot frowned.

“Come with me,” Green said.

They turned to go, and Ahern split off, flush with weapons and black fatigues. Green held out a hand.

“Hang on Reece,” Green said. “Enjoy the view.”

Reece.

As first names went, it wasn’t half-bad. Though, she admitted, it might not have been his name that did the trick.

Devon’s eyes floated up to his chest then to the square-cut jaw, the dark features, and the handsome-but-unforgiving face. Then she remembered him twitching and sparking on the ground, black smoke pouring out of his eyes. Their trek across a wasteland, giving him what aid she could.

“Ahern,” Devon said.

She tried not to think about seeing him at the club. About running away from him without a word, much in the same way a total freak might. He hadn’t mentioned it. He was playing along. She wondered if he’d been drunk, if he even remembered the encounter.

Ahern nodded at her, his face as blank as a new diary.

“Thanks,” he said.

Green stared at Ahern like he’d just regurgitated his lunch. Devon glanced between the two. Ahern lowered his eyes to the sand, stepped forward, and offered his hand. She took it weakly, surprised.

“Don’t stress. It’s my job. Good to see you up and okay,” Devon said. “Especially so soon.”

She glared pointedly at Green. He kept his Mona Lisa smirk on.

“Thanks anyway,” Ahern said. “You saved all of our asses. I won’t forget it.”

“You’re welcome? That seems lame.”

Ahern’s lips twisted almost imperceptibly.

“I liked your dress,” he said, suddenly. “It was, um. Brief.”

Devon felt her face going numb.

Green took her by the upper arm, rolled his eyes at Ahern, and lead Devon away from the cliff.

Ahern turned back toward the cliff’s edge, but she noticed a stiffness in his motions. He turned like his waist was made of rusted metal, and his left arm floated close to his body. He probably shouldn’t be standing.

“Ahern healed on his own. You said that wasn’t possible. So did you lie to teach me a lesson or something? Keep me worried, make me feel guilty? What?” Devon whispered.

“What do you think?” Green asked.

Devon tried to boil his blood with her eyeballs.

Green checked over his shoulder, saw no one was watching them, and reached for the bandage on her arm. He held her arm in his hands, turning it gently, examining it. Much to her surprise, the color had changed again – from cyan to a solid cornflower blue. It glowed faintly.

“Good,” Green said.

Devon looked at his hands, where his own glyph sent tiny triangles on ruler-straight lines up his wrist and under his sleeve. Back-to-back crescent moon shapes peaked out around his collar.

“Why?” Devon asked. “Why good?”

“You’re taking,” Green said. “Some people don’t.”

“Please just say what you’re saying,” Devon sighed.

Green smiled at that. “The glyphs don’t always agree with everyone. It can be dangerous. Yours is having a gay old time. Flourishing.”

“Swell,” Devon said.

“It might have something to do with your background,” Green said. “I always had a bit of trouble with panacea.”

“What does my background have to do with it?”

“Combat medic,” Green said. “You harmonize well with a glyph of healing. I wouldn’t be surprised if healing others is your true destiny.”

Devon rolled her eyes as hard as she could. When they returned back to center, Green had nothing but that smug smirk to offer her. He rewrapped her arm in the bandage and slipped the leather glove back into place.

“Don’t forget,” Green said, “don’t show anyone this. Not yet. They won’t understand. If someone asks how you’ve been deviated, what your ability is, tell them you are under orders not to speak of it. Or you haven’t figured it out yet. Pick one.”

She did her best not to sigh. She was on the verge of making a new friend. Naya had her deviation written all over her body – how tolerant would she be of the privacy of a Passing girl like Devon? It’d be like skipping ahead of a burn victim in line for plastic surgery so you can smooth your nose out a little.

“Why would they care?” Devon asked.

“Because you aren’t a deviate,” Green said, “and that makes you their enemy. Trust me. I know.”

“What am I?”

“You might be a spellslinger. If you make it.”

Green turned to go, but Devon cleared her throat.

“The dove . . .” she began.

He didn’t turn around, but fingers plowed furrows in his salt-and-pepper hair.

“It’s been removed from your room.”

“Not really the concern,” she said. “What happened?”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

“Go to hell.”

Green nodded as if he’d expected that and went off to join the others at the cliff. Too tired to pursue, too confused and angry, she trudged back down the earthen ramp. She shot one backward glance, but it wasn’t at Green – it found Ahern’s back. He was talking with Abbot and the others, gesturing, but his arms looked stiff and obviously sore.

How in the hell was he up and walking?

“Why do you care so much?” Devon mumbled under her breath.

Chapter 18

The Part Where Everybody Meets

 

There were twenty-two groups all up and down the beach, five white-shirts and one black-shirt each. Devon tucked her hands into pockets and found a good hard rock to prop up.

Ahern came strolling down from on high, nursing one leg more than the other. He beelined for a group of deviates podding together.

“Streeter!” a voice called. Ahern’s voice. Oh come on.

She schlepped over, familiar with the ancient ritual of being picked last for sports. It figured that here, her first day at Kidnapped-Freak High, would be no different.

“Streeter,” Ahern said. His grateful, relaxed tone had evaporated. However he’d spoken to her in private, it wasn’t going to fly in public, apparently. “Welcome to Team 13.”

“Seriously?” Devon said.

Ahern smirked. “I don’t believe in bad luck.”

Devon sure did.

Everyone in the team introduced themselves. Alex: thin black guy with a goatee. Emile: big shaved-bald dude with an easy smile. Jacob: short-and-nerdy, who just might get more crap than she was about to get. Guillermo: shockingly good-looking. He’d introduced himself as ‘Guillermo, at your service’ and thus enamored himself to her, somewhat.

Last was Cheyenne: thought-reading girl with no eyes. She held her cane at rest at her side, and moved her head back and forth, never quite facing her head in the right direction. Devon felt a swell of pity for her – Devon was already exhausted from her run, and Cheyenne still hadn’t stopped breathing hard. That and not being able to see -

“Don’t,” Cheyenne said, and “looked” at Devon.

“God that’s awesome,” Alex said.

Cheyenne smiled prettily at Alex, and Guillermo held his chest.

“You are so beautiful when you smile,” Guillermo said.

“Stop,” Cheyenne said with a playful tone. “Picture Devon like that. I’m not that flexible.”

Guillermo’s eyes bulged.

Ahern explained to them why they’d been dragged out of their beds the night after a ‘Twenty-Seven.’ The playful mood flat lined. Devon had pictured running through tires, climbing a rope, maybe even (God forbid) swimming through the icy waters. Montage music optional, but appreciated.

“We had an escape,” Ahern said. “This is not a drill. There aren’t enough Echoes to canvas the area, and the person who ran . . . isn’t easy to find.”

Ahern – Devon tried really hard not to think of him as “Reece” – explained the situation as clearly as Devon could stand. One of the trainees had sneaked off Camp Echo last night during the ruckus of the party at Twenty-Seven. The trainee’s name was Jaina Moore. Jaina, the Negative Girl. The one with the blue-black skin and the white hair.

She’d used her light-bending abilities to breach the perimeter. Ahern explained that while she couldn’t achieve true invisibility, she could deepen the darkness, or make her skin look like the background behind her.

“Like a chameleon,” Guillermo said.

“More like Cyborg-Ninja or Predator,” Jacob said, speaking up for the first time. And the last time, judging by the disdainful glare Alex, Guillermo, and even Ahern shot him.

After going through the camera footage, they’d spotted her leaving the perimeter on foot. Sneaking past the guards and out into the world. The entirety of Camp Echo emptied out to what . . . bring someone back?

“I don’t get it,” Devon said.

“We have to find her,” said Ahern. “She can’t be far. She’s on foot, by herself, and has two hours head start, at most.”

“No, no,” Devon said. “Why don’t we . . . let her go.”

Ahern drew himself up. The others stared at her like she’d suggested they eat their shoes for nourishment.

“You don’t understand,” Ahern said. Flat. Angry. “Because you’re new.”

Devon recoiled.

“I’m sorry, was I the only one here kidnapped and forced into . . . I don’t know, slavery?” Devon asked.

“No,” Cheyenne said. “None of us are here by choice.”

“Then I reiterate – “ Devon began.

“Hold on, hold on,” Emile, the big bald fellow who’d remained heretofore silent. “Everyone calm down.”

“Stow that, recruit,” Ahern said. “We can’t just let her go.”

“Why?” Devon said. Ahern leaned in her face, but she didn’t flinch.

“A few reasons,” Cheyenne began. Her forehead scrunched up, and a cloud drifted across Ahern’s eyes for a second.

“Stop that,” Ahern said.

“The inhumans,” Cheyenne said in a tone suggesting she was reading a particularly difficult passage. Ahern started breathing hard, maybe trying to force Cheyenne out of his mind. “The inhumans . . . don’t like us deviates. They distrust us more than even humans do. They don’t . . . understand. Why we change. Why magic affects us like it does.”

Ahern rubbed his temples. “Right. They don’t see magic the way we do . . . look I don’t really understand it. But they are pissed that some of us are able to use it. A group of them called the Rell have dedicated their lives to murdering every deviate they come across.”

“Assholes,” Guillermo said.

“Right, so any deviates on the loose, on their own, like Jaina, are ripe for the picking,” Ahern said.

“Second reason,” Cheyenne said, “is the danger we pose. To . . . regulars.”

“Regulars?” Alex asked.

“The people at SONGS, Pendleton, the foragers out in the worlds. The humans who haven’t been changed,” Ahern said.

“We can infect them,” Cheyenne said. “By using our abilities, we can change them. Make them into us.”

“The ten percent, right?” Devon asked, remembering what she’d heard. “Everyone else would mutate and die when exposed to magic. Uh. I guess our magic.”

“Bingo,” Ahern said. “You want that on your conscience? Typhoid Mary with super-powers?”

“So if you run home and hug your normie grandma, it’s a death-hug of death,” Guillermo said.

“We don’t know she’s going home,” Devon said. “She might just want to go . . . out.”

“They all go home,” Ahern said. “Don’t be dense. Where would you go? Right now, if you got away?”

Devon pursed her lips and looked into the faces of her new team. She sensed what answer they wanted – even as they argued with her, they agreed with her. All of them wanted to go away, all of them wanted the fugitive to escape, all of them wanted to end this and go back home. All of them, and peering into his eyes, maybe Ahern most of all.

“Home,” Devon said. In her brain, it sounded like Bloom.

“To your mom, right?” Ahern said, no trace of insult in his voice.

“Straight to,” Alex agreed.

“My sister,” Emile said.

“My brothers,” Jacob said.

“The Playboy Mansion,” Guillermo said.

Cheyenne and Devon groaned together.

Devon did notice that Cheyenne hadn’t bothered to join in on the team bonding. Who did she want to go home to?

Ahern described the area they’d be searching. He went over the ways to spot Jaina, who’d be no easy target.

“Look for the discrepancy,” Ahern said. “Don’t look for the girl.”

Things like that. Nothing hard and scientific, just a lot of maxims that probably wouldn’t amount to diddly squat once they hit the road. If they found her, it’d be luck or Jaina screwing up. Finding a near-invisible girl in God-knows how many miles of wilderness with only a hundred people sounded pretty fruitless to Devon. There would be little fruit.

Ahern lead them out, back up the ramp and away from the beach.

They trudged into the hills and up onto a rocky rise. Below them, a small road split from the I5 and curled into the remnants of a cozy community.

At the rise, when Ahern was finished examining the valley, he turned around.

“Okay,” Ahern said. “Who’s up for show and tell?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 19

Nobody

 

“Show me what you can do,” Ahern said.

Ahern examined them, his eyes crawling from face to face. They stood in a rough circle, watching each other, each as anxious to see the others and each as anxious about showing. Devon peered at Cheyenne and sucked in a hard breath.

Don’t think about it. Don’t. Don’t don’t don’t.

Cheyenne perked her ears up like she’d heard something. She turned her face toward Devon and furrowed her brow. Devon tried to think of anything but -

She thought of elephants. Big brick walls. Castles. Tall impenetrable things.

Cheyenne held her hands out, as if to say, ‘I won’t pry.’ She smiled and looked away, but Devon couldn’t trust it. Not because she didn’t trust Cheyenne, but more that she didn’t trust herself. She tried to clear her thoughts into a white featureless plain of nothing.

“Alright, guys,” Ahern said. “Best to know, for everyone’s safety. What do you have?”

“Well you all know mine,” Cheyenne said.

“Mind-reader!” Cheyenne said at exactly the same time Alex did.

“Wow!” Cheyenne said, in tandem with Jacob.

“Stop that, this is creepy,” Guillermo and Cheyenne said together.

“Alright, alright,” Cheyenne and Ahern said. “Enough, we get it.”

Ahern frowned. Cheyenne smiled at the ground and settled her walking stick between her feet.

“Obviously my Deviation is stunning charm and – “ Guillermo began. At everyone’s groan, he held his hands out in a placating gesture, mimed rolling up imaginary sleeves (he was wearing the same tank top as everyone – though, Devon admitted, few filled it out as well as he did), and blew air between his hands. Then he whistled, sharply, and pointed at the ground. They all shuffled over to stare at the dust.

“Is that your ability?” Alex asked. “Super . . . pointing . . . power?”

Guillermo flashed a rogue’s grin that Devon found equal-parts charming and annoying. Why was it her doom to be surrounded by smart-asses with no boundaries? The thought made a sudden ache appear in her chest, the thought of Bloom. She then did her best to push the feeling down, push it back, lock it where it couldn’t hurt her.

“You don’t see it?” Guillermo asked.

“See what?” Ahern asked.

Guillermo smiled and pointed down, at his feet, which were no longer touching the ground or supporting his weight in any way. He wiggled his sneakers in the air. He rose higher, just a few inches, and the group gave out a collected whiff of air. Devon looked up into his face, which now hung well over their heads, and watched his smile split into a wide stupid grin.

“You can fly?” Cheyenne asked. She wasn’t looking at him, but Devon supposed she wouldn’t need to. Their thoughts were probably screaming what was happening.

“Levitate,” Guillermo said and dropped back to the ground, kicking up a runner of dust as he landed. “Pretty slowly, too. But Abbot says that with training, I might be able to really fly.”

Devon looked at him with new astonishment. Cheyenne could read thoughts, and those around her had shown strange mutations of flesh and bone . . . but flying? Like in old movies, in comics books? Like Superman? Weightless, impossible, free? Flying.

“Wow,” Devon said, her best understatement ever.

“Not very practical,” Emile piped up.

“True,” Guillermo said. “But damn am I handsome.”

Everyone laughed at that, even Ahern.

Jacob had a danger sense, which he admitted was difficult to demonstrate but appeared as a sort of ‘flash of images’ whenever he was in harm’s way. Emile swung a lazy backhand at Jacob’s head while he was talking, and Devon did notice his eyes go wide before the hand struck him. Jacob staggered forward, rubbed the back of his head, and smiled sheepishly.

“I saw it coming,” Jacob said. “I just, uh . . . I’m not very fast.”

Devon felt a powerful tug of sympathy.

Emile picked a rock off the ground, tested its weight, and threw it at Ahern. Ahern flinched. He touched his fingers to his head, chuckled, and shook his head. Emile picked up another rock and threw it at Devon this time. She felt it brush her earlobe as it whipped by at impossible speeds.

Alex laughed. “Here. Here”

The skinny black guy turned and ran up the side of a hill. He held a hand over his head, the thumb and forefinger curled into an “OK” circle, leaving an empty hole no bigger than a quarter. From where Devon was, she could barely see the sky through the tiny hole. Emile didn’t calculate or even bother aiming. He whipped the pebble, it arched through the long blue distance, and zinged right through the center of Alex’s circle.

“Holy shit!” Alex shouted.

“That’s amazing,” Ahern said.

“Thank you,” Emile said, and bowed.

“Does that apply to – “

“Guns? No,” Emile said. “But knives, hatchets, spears, basketballs, frisbees? Yes.”

Ahern whistled. “You seem to have good control over it. You might be wearing black before you think.”

Emile, huge and bald and intimidating, blushed.

“Streeter. What about you?” Jacob asked.

Devon shifted from foot to foot, examining all the faces, trying to think of something before Alex came scuttling down the hill. A lie, a dodge, anything. She looked Cheyenne in her weird too-smooth face, and thought these words:

Please don’t out me. I’m going to lie right now, but it’s for a good reason.

Cheyenne didn’t look at her, didn’t flinch, made no sign that she’d “heard.”

Ahern coughed and spoke up, “Devon doesn’t know yet.”

“I don’t know,” Devon said. “What he said.”

“How do you know you’re a Deevee?”

Devon flushed and grasped for words.

You went through the sickness.

“I went through the sickness,” Devon echoed. “I didn’t die. So I uh . . . have to be one.”

Jacob’s face revealed his skepticism perfectly, but Guillermo spoke up in what Devon thought to be an obvious attempt to disperse the tension.

“Sometimes it’s best not to push, Jake the Snake,” Guillermo said to Jacob. “You know how it is with girls. They like to be coy. Let her come around.”

“Come around?” Emile asked. “It is dangerous, no? Have any of you ever been out here? Alone? Have you met a Red or been attacked by Shades or seen a primal raiding party? It’s not pretty.”

Devon pictured a Shade, deep gray skin and black churning shadow tattoos. Their non-existent bows and telekinetic black arrows. The arrows that never missed, lodged in rows of dead men in black fatigues. In the handsome green-eyed soldier with his comforting smile, stapled to the side of a rusted-out car.

 Jacob roused her from her grim thoughts.

“Why don’t we have guns?” Jacob asked. “If we’re in such danger.”

“Orders,” Ahern said. “We don’t want to scare Jaina off. We’re not out here to kill her. If she thinks we are, we’ll never find her. Besides, we have other weapons, don’t we?”

“Some of us do,” Cheyenne said.

They all stared at her for a long beat. Ahern didn’t squirm, but Devon could tell he wanted to. In a hunting party, what use was a blind girl who could read thoughts?

“Alright, time to move on,” Ahern said.

“What about me?” Alex asked.

Ahern sighed and rolled his hand over in a “hurry up” gesture. Alex pulled wind through his teeth and knelt down in the dirt. He dug around his feet until he found a small dry twig struggling in a pit between rocks. He blew into his cupped hands and clamped them down around the stick.

When he lifted his hands away, the stick sprouted leaves. They unrolled in time lapse, unfurled and grew, thickening and twisting. A network of thin green lines exploded inside the rocky cleft, until it looked like a spider-web of tiny vines held the rocks together.

Guillermo barked a laugh. Everyone else looked vaguely embarrassed. Alex narrowed his eyes and jumped to his feet.

“That’s cool,” Alex said. “You know it’s cool.”

Devon smirked but kept quiet. Alex’s eyes lit up, his nostrils flared, and she felt the heat wave of his rage. Alex spun away and set off toward the town. Devon rubbed her nose and slid her glasses back into place.

“Handy,” Ahern said. “Let’s move.”

Ahern passed out a large canteen from his pack, and instructed them to take a few sips and pass on. Devon watched Alex’s back, far ahead of them, her hands jammed tight into the pockets of her whites.

They humped down the hill, into the silent, battered town that had become what every zombie movie, Mad Max movie, and the Road had told her the apocalypse would look like. The paint on the buildings had peeled away in the unrelenting sun and salty air, everything fading to a depressing dun color. Asphalt had turned into just a thousand tiny islands of broken pavement, like it had been shattered with a massive hammer.

Some of the buildings had given up the ghost entirely – an entire strip mall had caved in, and through the grimy windows they could see the roof now rested comfortably on the floor.

There had been no fire, no great attack – clearly most of these people had scattered to the wind. Devon’s old scavenger instincts highlighted the best places to find salvage – a Sheriff’s station, its front doors locked up tight. A Radio Shack with intact windows, a big-rig parked on the side of the road, its closed trailer apparently untouched.

Beyond that, a school rolled out behind a chain link fence. A dusting of small buildings, an enormous field and a baseball diamond, and the kind of portables they crammed into the back of an overcrowded school.

“Isn’t she going to see us coming?” Devon asked. “We are in the middle of the freaking road. Plus all of these buildings . . .”

Ahern brought them all to a stop in the center of the road, and turned toward Devon.

“Agreed. Any ideas?”

Devon’s eyes widened. “I just meant – “

“It’s a good point,” Ahern said. He even crooked a small, patient smile. “How would you go ahead?”

All eyes on her, Devon felt considerably less snarky and smart. She wondered if that had been Ahern’s plan – any jerk could complain about a plan, but few people could actually come up with a good one.

“Devon?” Cheyenne prompted.

“I guess I’d . . . split up,” Devon said.

“Good. We can get murdered faster that way,” Guillermo said. He held up his hands when Devon rounded on him. “Kidding, Roja. Kidding.”

“Hilarious. Teams of two or three,” Devon said. “Maybe not . . . get too far apart. Same block.”

Ahern nodded. “Go on.”

“And we . . . are you sure? I think your plan – “ Devon said.

“Please go on,” Ahern said.

“Figure out which building everyone is gonna be in, you know, beforehand.”

“Why?”

“So that if someone calls . . . we already know where they are,” Devon said. “Because we don’t really have radios or anything.”

Ahern scrutinized her face, his eyes narrowed.

“Let’s do it,” Ahern said.

He split the teams quickly, efficiently, and without mumbling like a jackass. Unlike certain people. Devon, happy to have the spotlight off of her, let out the kind of sigh you let out when you wake up from a nightmare.

The teams were: Ahern and Jacob, Guillermo and Alex, and Emile with Cheyenne and Devon.

“How come Emile gets all the girls?” Guillermo whined.

“You don’t know how often I hear that,” Emile said.

“Cheyenne is blind – no offense,” Ahern said.

“I am blind. That’s not offensive.”

“And Devon is new,” Ahern said. “Emile can take care of them. If you run into something, while I don’t doubt your ability to levitate successfully, I need someone who can take care of it.”

Ahern pulled a black tactical knife from his belt and tossed it to Emile.

“I resent that,” Guillermo said, a peacock with its plumage ruffled.

“Noted,” Ahern said.

They entered through a gap in the chain link fence. They searched a bank of classrooms together, splitting the rooms by groups, but found nothing but desks and the vaguely creepy sensation all empty schools vibrated with.

They moved on to another section of the school. Devon and crew would search the library, a flat two-story building with the architectural charm of a brick. Ahern and Jacob were exploring the adjacent bank of classrooms, and Guillermo and Alex were checking out the cafeteria.

“Once you’re done, we meet back here by these benches,” Ahern said. “Then we do the next chunk. Understood?”

Emile, Cheyenne, and Devon broke off and headed for the library. The doors were locked, front and back, and when they’d made a full circle Emile stared at the big dark windows and shook his head.

“It seems wrong to break the windows of a library,” he said, finally.

“It’s not a church,” Cheyenne said.

“Wait until we check the church,” Emile returned.

Emile picked up a loose flagstone from the path across the lawn, lugged it over his head, and heaved it through one of the big two-story windows. The glass showered the lawn, and Devon and Cheyenne looked up and smirked.

“Did that feel good?” Devon asked.

“A little,” Emile said.

Devon climbed up and kicked the rest of the glass out of the frame. Emile turned toward Cheyenne, who sighed and tucked her cane into the crook of her arm. Emile laughed and scooped her up in his arms. He lifted her up to the edge and set her down, Devon smirking all the while.

“Shut up,” Cheyenne said.

While Emile climbed up, Devon peered into the library. She felt Cheyenne’s hand reach for hers, and she grabbed it and squeezed. The school’s creepy atmosphere had begun to sink into her like a freezing fog, and she wondered if Cheyenne had picked up the same fear. Either that, or just being around the thoughts of so many frightened people was just the same as being afraid.

They were on the bottom floor, which was an assortment of bookshelves and study tables. The bookshelves were full. Devon whistled low. Emile climbed up, cursing in Russian, and parked behind them. Devon wasn’t surprised to see the knife Ahern had given him clutched tightly in his fist.

“This would be the perfect place to hide,” Emile said. “We could miss her easily.”

“Let’s hope she didn’t figure that out yet,” Cheyenne said.

The labyrinthine book shelves, and whatever the hell might be on the second floor, didn’t comfort Devon.

JAINA!” Devon shouted. Emile grabbed her arm and spun her around.

“What the hell?”

“Look,” Devon said. “If she’s hiding in here, she heard the window break. She heard us talk about how good of a hiding spot this is.”

“And?” Emile asked.

“And,” Devon said, her voice rising, “AND we need you to give yourself up! We can help you here, Jaina. You have friends who care about you here. We all just want to go home! But do you want to go home badly enough to hurt your loved ones? To INFECT them? Would you do that to them? Would you risk it?”

Devon didn’t have the answer to that question. Hadn’t she been considering escape attempts? Hadn’t she decided to leave? Could she risk hurting Bloom, her mother, everyone at SONGS and Pendleton just to see them one more time?

Devon hoped the uncertainty wasn’t creeping into her voice.

They waited. There was no answer.

“Guess we better keep looking,” Devon said.

“Worth a shot,” Cheyenne said.

They canvassed the bottom floor. Cheyenne held Devon’s hand and walked beside her, while Emile stuck in front of them, the knife clutched in his hand. Devon tried to scan the titles as they passed the books, but she got dizzy and gave up. She promised to convince Green to send someone to pick all these up. They were always on the lookout for books – when it became obvious during the Merge that man’s civilization was pretty much done with, people had grabbed them up or burned them.

At SONGS, they’d been trying to scan every book into a massive database that could be transferred easily to e-readers. That’s where all of Devon’s books on her Kindle had come from. Even at the ragged edge of humanity, they had something worth saving. Worth keeping.

“Where you from, Emile?” Devon asked, as they walked. It was the only thing she could think of to break the eerie silence.

“Corona,” Emile said. “My uncle thought to bring me to Pendleton, when they came.”

“I’ve never seen you there,” Devon said. She grabbed a biology textbook from a shelf and tucked it under her arm.

“We never made it,” Emile said. “My uncle saw the soldiers, the tanks and helicopters. All working. He suspected the government was behind it all – how else could they be unaffected by the glitching?”

“The nuclear reactor. It has some kind of anti-magic field – “

“I know,” Emile said. “Now I know. I didn’t then, and I trusted my uncle. We hid in the nearby hills. Foraging what we could, growing what we could. We were attacked by an animal, when we were out hunting.”

“An animal?” Cheyenne asked. Devon wondered why Cheyenne even bothered.

I can only read what he is thinking.

Devon frowned at Cheyenne, but she had eyes on Emile and no signs that she’d even “spoken.”

“A strange thing,” Emile said. “Covered with fur, like a bear. But taller, more slender, still on four legs. My uncle thought to kill it with a bow, to eat it. As we sneaked up on it . . . “

 Emile’s voice caught.

“It’s okay,” Devon said. “I didn’t want to dredge up – “

Nyet. It is important,” Emile said. “It was upwind. It couldn’t have smelled us, and we were quiet as the breeze. But as my uncle drew the bowstring back, as I readied my own . . . it stopped. Sniffed the air. Then it turned  – it moved so fast. Like boom, and then it was there. It didn’t have claws, we thought it harmless.”

“I’m sorry,” Cheyenne said.

“What?” Devon asked.

Emile sighed. He turned the corner of a bookshelf, and glanced both ways. He led them to the left, and as they passed each stack they looked down, left and right, scrutinizing every detail. Devon remembered Ahern’s advice – look for what isn’t there. If Jaina Moore could manipulate light, it was possible she would have to recreate the surface behind her in her imagination.

“It roared, but it . . . was not sound,” Emile said. “It’s hard to explain. Like hearing, but not with your ears. Its jaws opened and I felt weightless all of a sudden. I remember a kind of pressure, then a searing agony. Then nothing.”

“It attacked you with sound?” Devon said.

“Sort of. When I told Kidder Green – he seems very interested in all of our stories, I’m sure he’s going to ask you – he called it a ‘psychic attack.’ Apparently the animals from the Distance have ‘unique defenses’ he said. No shit.”

Devon laughed at that.

“I woke up days later, in a cot, surrounded by soldiers. It was Green who found me,” Emile said. “They say he knows, he can sense deviates. I don’t know that, but I know he saved my life.”

“He saved your uncle too,” Cheyenne said.

“He did. It was the sickness that killed him. The deviation,” Emile said.

“It’s less lethal with young people, isn’t it?” Devon asked. It had been a pet theory, judging by the amount of teens and young adults in Camp Echo.

“Yes,” Emile said. “They would not let me see him, before the end. I don’t think – I think the sickness must have . . . changed him.”

Devon and Cheyenne stared at his back. Cheyenne squeezed her hand, harder, and Devon pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and tried to remember what it was like. Before the Merge, before everyone’s story had to be a sad one. Had to be about death and the end of all things.

Simply being alive had turned into a miracle.

“Emile,” Devon said.

Emile leaned against the bottom of the stairs. His face, round, strong, looked tired. Cheyenne tapped her cane across the ground and joined him there.

“There’s nothing down here,” Emile said. “Let’s try upstairs.”

Devon agreed, though she wanted to say something to him. Comfort him, somehow. This wasn’t her area of expertise. Snarky comments and cold intellectualism, sure. Bloom had ever been the heart of their operation, and he’d had enough for both of them. For the third time this day, she felt his absence like a physical blow.

Emile began walking up the stairs, a renewed bounce in his step. Devon and Cheyenne, holding hands again, went up behind. Cheyenne was surprisingly adept on the stairs, climbing with no hesitation. Devon found herself wishing she was as strong and independent.

“Huh,” Cheyenne said, and turned her face up to the top of the stairs.

Devon followed her gaze. Emile, big and bulky, blocked most of the stairwell, but she could see a shape crouched at the top of the stairs, ten feet above him. She saw Emile’s hand move, just a twitch, before a gun went off.

The noise exploded in the dead silence, shattering it like a bomb. Two hard blasts. It was the loudest thing Devon had ever heard. Emile’s head bulged strangely, and he canted sideways, his arms flopping. He crashed against the stair railing and slid down to the ground.

Most of his forehead was gone.

Chapter 20

It Breaks Easily Enough

 

“Oh my God!” Cheyenne screamed.

OhmyGodOhmyGodOhmyGodOhmyGod . . . they weren’t Devon’s thoughts. Cheyenne was broadcasting them at max volume.

A thick syrup of panic held her body motionless. The figure at the top of the stairs fell to the ground at the same time. Something black, something that could have been a tactical knife, jutted out from his eye socket. The flat metallic sound of his gun hitting the ground, and the acrid taste of gunpowder, woke her up.

OhmyGodohmyGodohpleasedon’tkillmeOHGOD

She fell to her knee at Emile’s side. He started to slide down the stairs, and so she grabbed his belt to keep him from slipping. She knelt over him, her hands grabbing a medpack that wasn’t there. On close examination, he wasn’t going to need it. The top half of Emile’s skull had been vaporized by the gunshot, and there was nothing but a red and pink mess flecked white bone.

ohnoohnopleasepleasepleaseplease

“Cheyenne shut UP!” she snapped.

Devon felt the world growing cold and flat, felt herself detaching. She was a corpsman, or she was going to be. She’d seen death before, bodies. There was a gunman at the top of the steps, maybe more, and Cheyenne was standing in the middle of the stairs, clutching her arms to her chest, her face a frozen mask of terror.

There was no one at the top of the stairs yet, but she could see the strap of a gun, the shooter’s gun, hanging over the top step. Devon raced up the stairs and, without peeking her head up beyond the first floor, grabbed the strap and yanked. The gun that came sliding into view looked ancient – a lever-action rifle that Buffalo Bill might have rocked. She cocked it and held it to her shoulder, backing slowly down the steps.

“Cheyenne!” she called.

donwannadiedonwannadie

Devon turned and, letting the rifle’s muzzle dip, shook Cheyenne as hard as she could. The girl with no eyes looked at her, her mouth twisted in a cartoonish grotesquerie of horror. Devon shook her again, and Cheyenne’s mouth went slack. Her body began to tremble, her hands flicking in little inscrutable motions, and Devon wondered how to diagnose shock with someone who didn’t have eyeballs.

“Cheyenne wake up!”

The blind girl slipped to the ground, slowly, until she was sitting on the edge of a stair. Devon stared down at her, feeling nothing, bolted firmly into her detachment armor.

Devon wondered what it would be like to be inside the mind of someone as they died.

Devon dropped as low as she could and climbed the stairs. She kept the rifle aimed forward, trying to remember any of the training her mother had drilled into her head. The things Bloom had taught her about firing a gun, everything. It didn’t change the fact that some deep dark ugly part of her wanted to just run down the stairs and out the door and be gone and safe. Gone and safe.

But that would leave Cheyenne alone. In the darkness. With only Emile to keep her company.

Devon looked around, her muzzle following her sight. No one. The stacks on the second floor were only waist-high. Tables. Chair. No people. No one visible, anyway.

Devon examined the body at the top of the stairs.

The dead man was in his forties, white under the road-grime. A mismatched tornado of clothing covered him, lots of leather and denim, the kind of gear you could wear for a long time before it disintegrated. A hatchet at his right hip, a baseball bat across his back. He had a bright green pin-on novelty button on his right breast that said “Department of Redundancy Department” and one under it that said “Keep Staring, I Might Do A Trick.”

The man had thick brown hair matted into dreadlocks. His face was cracked with age, and a splash of gore stained his left cheek and pooled in his ruined eye socket. Emile’s final throw had saved their lives. The black knife Ahern had given him was now lodged to the handle in the scavenger’s eye. A perfect shot.

His remaining eye, a glassy brown thing, stared up at the ceiling.

A canvas backpack lay on the ground beside him. She opened the flap and glanced inside. Chemistry texts, first-aid manuals, a book titled “Forged in Fire – Medieval Blacksmithing.” The kind of books you might want after the end of the world. Devon wondered if he was bringing them back to his family.

“Devon?” she heard, from below her.

“I’m fine, Cheyenne,” Devon said. “Don’t move.”

“Okay,” the tiny voice returned.

Devon took another step, and jumped when she heard three more gunshots. They sounded like they were coming from . . . the west, she guessed. Just outside the library.

“Devon?!” Cheyenne said again. Devon heard her coming up the stairs.

“Can you hear them?” Devon asked.

Two more gun shots, a short pause, than six more. Was Guillermo dead? Ahern?

“What?” Cheyenne said.

“Thoughts. Anyone up here?”

Cheyenne came up beside her, her face turning, as if she was scanning the top floor of the library. Cheyenne’s foot caught the dead man’s splayed-out arm, and she wobbled. Devon caught her arm and steadied her.

“What was that?”

“Dead guy,” Devon said. Cheyenne’s lips tightened. “Hear anyone?”

“No one up here,” Cheyenne said. “God I’m so sorry. I should have heard him coming. I sensed his thoughts, right before . . . right before – “

“It’s okay,” Devon said. “Nobody’s fault. Can you hear what’s going on outside?”

“Frantic. A fight. Jumbled . . . and distant. It’s hard to tell.”

“Do you recognize anyone?”

“It’s too much. I can’t – “

“Shh, it’s okay, don’t worry,” Devon said. She squeezed Cheyenne’s hand.

“What do we do?”

“I’m gonna go see.”

Cheyenne almost crushed her hand.

“You can’t do that.”

“You’re going to come with me, downstairs,” Devon said. “I’m just gonna look.”

"Devon -"

“We have to know.”

“You aren’t as confident as you sound,” Cheyenne said. “You can’t bullshit me.”

Devon smiled and squeezed her hand. Then she pulled it away and wrapped it around the stock of the ancient rifle. She thought it might be called a Winchester or a Henry or something – firearms had never been her specialty. Three guesses who she relied on for that information.

Goddamn Bloom. Couldn’t stop annoying her, even when he wasn’t around.

She fumbled with the breech, and found five more shells inside. This next part . . .

“Don’t,” Cheyenne said.

Devon wished she could follow that extremely sensible advice. Instead she leaned down and rummaged through the dead man’s pockets. She found six more shells, a folding knife, a tinned army ration, and a bottle of water. She took everything, and stared down at the knife in his eye. That was Emile’s knife. That was Ahern’s knife.

“Devon – “

Devon laid one hand across the dead man’s forehead and felt a chill crawl up her back. She crouched over him, and that flat brown eye beheld her, capturing her reflection in its glaze. The button on the man’s chest leered at her – ‘Keep Staring, Maybe I’ll Do a Trick.’ Devon wrapped her fingers around the handle of the black knife, feeling it stir in the pulpy flesh. Her stomach flopped over – the curtain of detachment parted, and she could feel a hundred emotions stirring in her gut, all of them filed under the twin categories of Panic and Terror.

‘Keep Staring, Maybe I’ll Do a Trick.’

She let go of the knife. Sorry, Emile. Sorry Ahern.

She stood up. Cheyenne’s mouth was set in a hard line, and she clenched her walking stick with both hands. Devon asked if she needed help down the stairs – Cheyenne shook her head and started down without another word.

Figures. Devon’s hardass armor was melting just as Cheyenne was finding her steel.

Cheyenne stopped halfway down the steps, right next to Emile.

“I wish we could bring him,” Cheyenne said. “We can’t, can we?”

Devon weighed nothing, and Cheyenne was shorter than her. Emile had to be close to three-hundred pounds, tall and bulky with muscle, and he was on stairs. Six Devons couldn’t drag that much.

“No,” Devon said.

Cheyenne nodded, and they scooted down the stairs as fast as they could. They made for the broken window. Devon climbed up and peaked over the edge of the frame. Two shots rang out, and Devon ducked down.

No need. They were aimed at someone else she knew.

Chapter 21

This and Taxes

 

Outside, three scavengers in leathers posted up on the roof of the classrooms. Ahern and Alex – they’re alive, thank God – crouched just beneath them in a covered walkway. Alex leaned heavily against the bricks, and the left half of his pants was stained crimson. The blood stood out garishly against the snow-white fabric.

Whenever Alex or Ahern tried to move, the gunmen on the roof leaned down and let loose. They were pinned, and their only escape was a short hallway between the classrooms. Away from the library.

They had a safe window to get the hell out of Dodge, but they were trying to get to her and Cheyenne.

Devon tried not to notice the absence of Guillermo and Jacob, and instead set the rifle barrel on the edge of the sill. She wished with all of her heart that Bloom would appear beside her for this next part.

When she turned, she half-expected to see him standing beside her wearing that . . . that hat. A dumb smile on his face, one he thought was charming but just looked dopey. But no one was there, and so she cranked the rifle up toward the men on the roof.

“Who are they?” Cheyenne whispered.

“Scavengers, marauders. They might have been tracking us, or this could just be really bad luck,” Devon said. “Hell they could be a family.”

“They killed Emile.”

“I know.”

She peeped down the rifle and put the dark metal bead on one of the men across the way.

“How good of a shot are you?” Cheyenne asked.

“Awful,” Devon said, and fired.

The first shot missed, but the men jumped at the sound. They turned toward her, and Devon swept the bead toward the one who reacted the fastest. She pulled the trigger four more times until it clicked. She ducked down, having no idea if she had hit anybody. Her vision glazed over with tears, and her hands buzzed against the rifle stock. She dropped the rifle on the sill and slid down next to Cheyenne.

“What are you doing?” Cheyenne asked.

“We have to move,” Devon said. “It’s a . . . thing.”

Devon remembered that most basic of military strategies – if they know where you are, don’t be there anymore.

Seconds later, another library window shattered. Ahern came through it, dragging Alex behind him. A gunshot rang out, and they jumped, landing hard on a study table and crying out.

Devon pulled the rifle from the window sill. There were two more gunshots and the buzzing-bee sound of rounds whizzing overhead. She put her last six shells in the rifle and stuck it into Cheyenne’s hands.

“Couldn’t be worse than me,” Devon said with a grin.

Cheyenne laughed wretchedly and crept to a different window.

Ahern was already on his feet, but Alex hadn’t moved from the table top. Ahern grabbed Devon when she got close, pulling her into a tight hug. When he pulled back, she wasn’t exactly happy to go.

“Alex was shot,” Ahern said. “Guillermo dragged him out of the cafeteria, I met up with them. Jesus.”

Devon looked around – she didn’t have a medkit. Maybe the librarian did.  Devon ran around the main central desk, and rummaged through the drawers.

“Where’s Guillermo? Jacob?”

“They ambushed us. Four of them. They shot at us, and Jacob ran before I could stop him. They were flushing us out – I saw them grab him, tie him up. I got pinned in a room . . . I couldn’t get to him. I tried, but Jacob was gone before . . . “

“What will they do with him?” Devon asked.

“Kill him if he’s lucky,” Ahern said. “Sell him to the Rell if he isn’t.”

Devon didn’t have time to figure out who or what the Rell were.

“Guillermo?”

“He’s going for help,” Ahern said. “I told him to. We can’t get away. Too many wounded. I think there’s maybe six or eight of them, all together. Vultures, I guess. Must have seen us coming and set up.”

Devon found a white box with a red cross in the bottom drawer. With a strangled cry of victory she yanked it out, rolled over the table, and darted to Alex’s side.

“Where’s Emile?” Ahern said.

Devon shook her head and leaned over Alex. He was conscious, and he smiled weakly at her and winked. She ran her fingers down the back of his leg – the bullet had gone all the way through the meat of his thigh. Small mercy, that. It hadn’t punctured his femoral artery – if it had, he’d already be dead. She tore the pant leg up the center and folded the strips of cloth back onto Alex’s chest.

She clamped one hand around the exit wound and one around the entrance, trying to staunch the flow. She thought about healing him the other way. Then she saw the blood-soaked dove in her mind’s eyes, a nest of tumors and twisted wings and -

“What happened to him – “ Ahern began.

“Reece! I need your help,” Devon said. “Open the first-aid kit. Tell me what’s in it.”

He fumbled with the clasp and pulled everything out, telling her exactly what was inside with detached efficiency.  A roll of bandages sat on top, which he grabbed and set aside.

Smart man.

He unwrapped the gauze next and set it out.  Some antiseptic ointment (dried up), a snake bite kit (really?), Band-Aids. Ibuprofen, long expired. A bottle of isopropyl alcohol – success! Well, maybe. It was unopened. That was a good sign.

“Alcohol goes bad?” Ahern asked, when she expressed her skepticism.

“It can break down into acetone, over time, depending on the bottle it’s packaged in and the conditions,” she said. “Open it. If it smells like alcohol, at all, we’re okay. If it smells like paint thinner, ditch it.”

Ahern’s eyebrows flashed. He was impressed. He spun the top off, punctured the foil, and took a big whiff. He gagged, then flashed her a thumbs up.

Two gunshots shredded through the stillness.

“Cheyenne,” Devon said, by way of explanation.

Cheyenne? Mother of God . . . “ Ahern said, and bolted after her.

“Alex, are you with me?” Devon asked.

He nodded like he didn’t have any bones in his neck.

“Hurts like a bitch, doc.”

“You know what don’t hurt at all? Being dead,” Devon said. “Be grateful.”

“So . . . grateful,” Alex said. It wasn’t as easy to tell with Alex’s dark skin, but she was pretty sure he’d lost a lot of blood. They’d have to leave, soon. If he went into shock, that was that.

Ahern returned, shaking his head.

“She won’t give up the rifle.”

“Good girl,” Devon said. “Did you see anyone?”

“Vultures? Yeah. Opposite roof. I pointed Cheyenne in the right direction.”

“Pinch his earlobe with your finger nails,” Devon said to Ahern.

Blessedly, Ahern didn’t ask questions. When he pinched him, Alex yelped. Good news.

“What happened to Emile?”

“He saved our lives,” Devon said. “If you survive, make sure someone knows it. He’s upstairs. Get your knife, you might need it.”

“Where is it?”

“You’ll see.”

Ahern gave her a queer look before disappearing.

“I’m going to have to apply a tourniquet,” Devon said. She yanked Alex’s belt off and clasped it around his leg.

“What’s . . .”

“It’s not good,” Devon said. “You may lose the leg. I’ll try to let some blood in . . . “

“Leg?” Alex said, his face the picture of confusion.

“I’m sorry, but it’s better than being dead.”

Another gun cracked, but not from inside. Glass shattered and wood splintered. Devon felt another rise of violent panic and tried to shut it down. She was with a patient. If she didn’t keep her cool, bad things happened.

“Cheyenne,” Devon said, slowly, trying to keep the hot-bubbling panic out of her voice.

“I’m good,” Cheyenne said. “How’s Alex?”

“He’ll be okay,” Devon said, and thought: He’s in real trouble.

Cheyenne’s voice echoed inside Devon’s mind, like someone shouting at the end of a long hallway: Save him.

I’m trying, Devon thought. She was never going to get used to that. I don’t have my tools. I forgot to bring them – I thought we were exercising.

This is pretty good exercise, Cheyenne sent, and it might have been funny if her voice didn’t sound so full of sorrow. I’m not talking about tools.

What?

In your mind, Cheyenne sent, you thought about healing, just now.

Shit, Devon thought, and she heard the distant ringing of Cheyenne’s mental laughter.

It doesn’t matter, Cheyenne said. Why do you hide it?

“It’s more complicated – “ Devon cut off as soon as she heard her own voice.

No it isn’t, Cheyenne sent. Have you seen my face? Naya’s? Even Jaina’s. We don’t judge. We can’t. Don’t you understand?

Devon pushed Cheyenne’s thoughts away with every ounce of guts she could pour into her own mind. The echoing stopped, and she dived back into helping Alex. The dove she’d saved, the grotesque twisted thing it had become – the image kept swimming into her mind’s eye from the bottom of a black abyss.

Alex needed antiseptic, some kind of styptic. She cinched the belt-tourniquet a few inches above the gunshot wound.

Broken, leathery wings . . . bloody feathers -

Devon cleared her throat. Poured alcohol into the wound. Rolled him over onto his side. Poured alcohol into the exit wound. Alex hissed in terrible pain, but Devon wasn’t hearing it. She remembered lectures, cadavers, books. She was a corpsmen, a medic, not a . . . wizard. Time-honored methods of first-aid, triage, not, not -

Magic?

Shut up, Cheyenne, Devon said.

Help him, Cheyenne sent. Do your job.

“I’m doing it!” Devon shouted. Tears stung her eyes.

Alex closed his eyes, and Devon shook him by the shoulders.

“When did you learn you could  . . . uh – affect plants?” Devon said. A tear streaked down her cheek.

She packed the wound with gauze and taped it down. The tourniquet worked too well. He wasn’t keeping the leg.

“I . . . near a rend – “ Alex whispered. “My daddy, he’s driving.”

“Yeah?” Devon said. She flicked the back of her hand across her cheeks.

Alex went away again, and Devon, her hands shaking, gripped his shirt. No matter how many times she said his name, he wouldn’t wake. She checked his pulse: thin. Thready. He was going into hypovolemic shock.

“This is your fault,” a voice said, suddenly, and Devon looked up to see Cheyenne leaning against a book shelf. The rifle hung from her fingers. “If he dies, you killed him.”

Devon stared into that eyeless face. Cheyenne tossed the rifle to the ground and stood motionless.

Devon looked down at Alex. Looked down at the bloody mess of a thing she had “saved,” a mess of extra wings and tumors and scales.

Don’t tell anyone about your glyph. Not Cheyenne’s voice. Green’s. A high-quality mental recording.

She unwrapped the bandage from her own arm, the one covering the bright-green spiraling vines that crept up her bicep.

Ahern stopped halfway down the stairs, his mouth open.

She tugged the glove off and flexed her fingers. She watched the Spiral-in-Diamond glyph there bend with her skin. Panacea, Green had named it. An old word. A Greek word. A goddess of healing, and a cure-all. Green studied his classics – Devon only knew it because “panacea” was often medical shorthand for “something that doesn’t exist.”

The back of her hand burned in the gloom of the library.

“Oh,” Cheyenne said, softly, her voice like the rasp of a page turning.

“You – “ Ahern whispered. “Green. He passed it to you?”

“I’m sorry,” Devon said.

She lowered her hand over Alex’s thigh. She’d healed Green completely from a mortal chest wound, and he’d survived, hadn’t he? Was he different? Was he special? Would the poison in her hand, the one that healed and harmed in equal measure, kill Alex in a way that made blood loss look like a gentle sleep?

The thing. The glyph. Green said it was alive – did it enjoy this?

Devon pictured Alex’s wound knitting closed. She imagined his skin healthy and flush. His eyes opening. Blood, clean and warm, flowing through his veins. She closed her eyes and twitched her hand and felt a hammer hit her so hard in the head that she staggered.

Her knees went out, and she dropped to the ground. She went away for a while, adrift in a sea of images, floating through an art gallery where she couldn’t touch the pictures.

The ceiling, and a face.

Ahern?

Dragging -

- sneakers scraping across broken asphalt. A bright blue sky, a void of cloudless light. Blood. A red leg sticking out of a pair of white pants. Devon laughs, but the man’s face is grave. Her head lolls to the side, and there’s a Sheriff’s station, a tiny adobe box, the kind of thing you might see in a western. There’s a horse out front, but Devon doesn’t think there’s really a horse out front. She has a memory of wanting to search, of having to scavenge there, but it fades when she reaches for it.

A long time and no time passes.

The world solidifies.

 

                                                                          ***

 

Cold water dripped over her eyes, down her nose, into her mouth. Pooled in her ears. She coughed, and the sensation went away. Green – Green? – stood above her, his hair tied back into a ponytail, his beard framing a warm smile with too many teeth.

“What happened?”

“You didn’t listen,” Green said with that smile. “I told you not to tell anyone.”

“What?”

Green’s face retreated. She looked around, and regretted the decision. The world spun and flip-flopped, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was seeing over a hundred people gathered around her in a loose circle looking at her like she’d lit her hair on fire and started dancing.

Devon’s whole body contracted. She tucked her knees against her chest, her mouth agape. She looked down.

The spiraling vines, extending from the four tips of the diamond, covered her arm in deep vermillion lines that glowed like magma through cracked rock. The vines extended well past her arm, and when she moved she felt a stabbing sensation deep in her chest.

She could see familiar faces staring at her. Naya, old Abbot and standing behind Green, Reece Ahern looked as stern as ever. His was the only expression she recognized.

“You’re famous,” Green whispered. “You’re special. Congratulations.”

He cast her a look of unmistakable disgust before nodding to Reece. The both of them turned on their heels. She watched Abbot break out from the crowd, and he reached out to hold her hand – her left hand. His eyes stayed on her right hand and the glyph like it was a cobra.

“You’re like him,” Abbot said in a soft whisper. “You aren’t a deviate.”

Devon nodded. She could do nothing to prevent the tears of shame and fear and anxiety from rolling down her cheeks. Her hands vibrated like they were on the hood of a misfiring car.

“Alex?” Devon asked.

“He’s okay,” Abbott said.

His face told a different story, and Devon wanted to run away and hide before he could tell.

Devon felt her hands creeping up the sides of her face.

“Cheyenne didn’t make it. One of the scavengers had a rifle – “

Devon tucked her knees against her forehead and held onto them like a mast in a storm. She answered no more questions, looked at no one. As the crowd drifted away, hands lifted her arms, and she did not fight them. They pulled her up and walked her away.

Raze and Naya took her back, leading her arm in arm, neither appearing afraid of the glyph she carried. They did not speak of her, and in fact, acted as if she wasn’t with them.

But she heard them.

“They found Jaina,” Raze said. “Curry’s squad. Down in a cave a mile south of here. Abbot said it was just an exercise – Jaina was in on it. They were screwing with us again. Running into scavengers was just bad luck.”

Naya grunted.

“So we’d do our best? Why don’t they just tell us?”

“You know how Green is,” Raze said. “‘There’s no such thing as safe conditions.’”

Naya turned to Devon, but Devon wasn’t home.

“I guess he was right,” Raze said.

They took her to her room. She stayed there for a long time, and though she thought she would never sleep again, she passed out as soon as the sun set. The horrific dove and its cage was gone, from her room anyway.

She dreamed of demon birds with no eyes, and of Emile, laying upside down on a stairwell and talking about his uncle while a red mess slid out of his head.

When she woke up, a blackshirt loomed above her.

A different one, this time. He tossed her new clothes, and walked her down to the beach with all of the others. Green wasn’t there, but Ahern and Abbot and the blackshirts lead them in a three-mile run as the sun peaked over the mountains.

When they stopped running, they swam. Then they ran back, freezing cold, their eyes stinging with salt water. Than they ate, beans and rice, and ran some more.

“Aren’t we going after Jacob?” Devon said, whispering to another white-shirt as they ran, a thin black-haired girl with intense eyes.

“Who?” the girl asked.

“Nobody,” Devon said, and kept running.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 22

Zealous

 

They were talking about killing him again.

Jacob’s wrists didn’t hurt anymore. They had, at first, when the marauders beat him down and tied his hands together with scratchy hemp rope. The hours since his capture had scraped the skin from his wrists until hot liquid dripped onto his fingers. He tried his best to pretend like it wasn’t blood. Picturing other things helped, even if he knew it was bullshit. He pictured sweat, at first, but it felt too thick. Picturing tomato soup wasn’t as helpful as he’d hoped. Chicken soup. Yeah. Chicken-Soup for the Captive’s Soul. Jacob had laughed at that one, laughed at it until his chuckles turned into sobs. They’d beat him again until he stopped.

At some point they’d taken off the blind fold. Everything looked like road and chaparral and busted-ass ghost towns. Jacob hadn’t caught a whiff of the ocean in a long time.

They padded down a broken road. Ahead of them he could see the shimmering glint of a mid-sized town, something that had tall enough buildings that some of their windows had escaped hand-thrown rocks.

There were five marauders “escorting” him. One was old enough for a beard, but the rest barely managed scraggly peach scruff. They wore road leathers and makeshift armor made of football pads. No other captives. Jacob held onto that as some kind of fucked-up silver lining.

Just me, he thought. They didn’t get anyone else. They got away.

They left you, another voice inside of him growled. They aren’t coming for you.

Jacob shook his head. They were coming. Ahern wouldn’t leave him. Emile wouldn’t. Abbot wouldn’t. They’d woke the entire school to chase down Jaina Moore. They’d come for him.

A hard spike of pain stabbed into the base of his neck, and he knew something bad was about to happen. His danger-sense blared, and he had a good idea one of his captors was about to strike him. Just to his right. He could picture it in his head, a preternatural flashing image. The young guy, the one with the bright yellow hiking boots. He whipped his palm straight at the back of Jacob’s head.

Jacob pumped to his left and ducked, trying to escape the blow.

Nope. The smack resounded in his skull, and he cried out, falling to his knees.

“What the hell?” one of the marauders asked, the one old enough for a beard.

“Stay out of it,” the young guy, Yellow-Boots, said.

The asphalt tore his knees apart. Jacob struggled to his feet, but it wasn’t easy with his hands trussed behind his back.

“I’m just saying,” Yellow-Boots said. “We should just do it.”

The older guy sighed.

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

Someone else piped up. Jacob felt something hot running down his shins. Not tomato soup, no.

“How do we trust them?”

They tugged at the rope trailing from his wrist, and Jacob fell back a step.

“Keep up, dumbshit.”

Jacob said nothing. He did speed up, though, despite the aching in his knees. In his wrists. The chicken soup or whatever stupid thing he imagined now trickled into his shoes. He must have cut himself pretty bad. The knees of both pants were shredded, and his white pants were black and red from filth and not-tomato-soup.

“Why don’t they kill us?” one of them said. The voices were blending together. They were the same to him, a five-headed monster of misery and kicks and leather.

“They don’t care about us.”

“Bullshit they don’t.”

“They care more about them.”

“Them? The government?”

One of them horked a ball of spit onto the ground. This eminent philosopher then launched into a lecture about taxes and the laws and the liberals and the laws and the conservatives.

“Cell-phone laws,” the man said, horking another chemistry experiment. “We got starvin’ and disease and pollution and war. So what do they tell us? Can’t drive with your cellphone. Who gives a baker’s fuck? Polishing the goddam brass on the Hindenburg.”

“He wasn’t talking about the government you shit-brick. Talking about the ‘R’ to the ‘A.’ The Rell rhymes with hell. Them.”

Oh, them them. Sure.”

“No, no, no. I was talking about the deevees. The Rell just want the deevees.”

“For now.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“For now. It means for now. For. Now. You as dumb as you are stupid?”

“What now?”

“You heard me.”

“Didn’t make no sense.”

“Still heard me.”

This went on for a while. Jacob didn’t get much from it beyond the Rell. The marauders had been after the usual scavenger crap – books, clean water, food, chemical supplies. Probably for bombs, that last one. Maybe medical. Some things were probably still good after two years, Jacob knew, but a lot of Western Civilization had already spoiled or broke down. Some things lasted, though.

Some things.

They didn’t feed him, but they would squeeze water into his mouth from a Coleman bottle. Not a lot, not enough, but some. Whenever they did he opened his mouth as wide as he could to try to get every drop – they weren’t super concerned about accuracy. They would make nasty jokes about him, but he didn’t care. He’d been the butt of nasty jokes long before the Merge.

Comics had gone mainstream just before the Merge, or at least the movies had, so that hadn’t been so bad. He could make Thor and Green Lantern jokes and people at least didn’t immediately start whipping fruit at him.

For all the mainstream, there was just as much counter-culture. He’d been ripped his whole life for Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering or Final Fantasy. He could deal with bullies being bullies. So he did, in silence. He didn’t respond to their taunts, he didn’t answer their questions. He didn’t even tell them his name.

They didn’t like that. They’d kicked him around for a while, trying to wheedle anything out of him. To hell with them. They were the same big jockey douche bags he’d never let in, and he wasn’t going to let them in now.

They stopped at a crossroads, one with a gas station on one corner, a church on another, a Taco Bell on the third corner, and miles of desert on the last.

“Enchiritos?” one of them suggested, and they all laughed.

Up into the church they went – the doors weren’t even locked. They went into the chapel, because apparently they were going for some kind of irony trophy, Jacob decided. It wasn’t a gothic-style church, and it looked more like a corporate office than the house of the Almighty. Still, the chapel had a cross big enough to surf on, a peaked roof, and enough pews to seat half-a-thousand parishioners. The windows were frosted glass, dirty from neglect, and let in a sickly yellow light.

He sat down in a pew and felt his wrists crush against the wood. He didn’t care. He could barely feel his hands anymore anyway.

“Stand up,” someone said. He tugged at the rope, but the way Jacob was sitting, it couldn’t dig into his wrists.

Jacob sighed, enjoying the exquisite release of his tired muscles unclenching.

“Get the hell up.”

Jacob looked up at them, his eyes half-shut. His emotional armor could deflect a tank shell. Thank you, Curtis Floss. Elementary school bully, burglar of lunches, tearer of precious and rare cards, pincher of girls’ asses and over all stain on humanity. He’d outfitted Jacob for all the trash talk in the world. Jacob hadn’t thought of Curtis in ages. He wondered if he’d been killed in the Merge. Odds were good. The idea didn’t make Jacob as happy as he’d like. Just numb.

“Get UP!”

Jacob leaned forward. Stretching his back felt amazing.

The base of his skull buzzed, and he flinched.

Smack.

“Little shit,” one of them said.

“Leave him alone. The more you wail on him the less he’s worth.”

Jacob laughed at that. He couldn’t help himself.

“Something funny?”

Jacob looked up at them and nodded, the grin still plastered on his face.

Tingle. A closed fist smacked into his jaw, blasting white light into his eyes. They wouldn’t get the joke. No reason to bother explaining it.

The base of his skull exploded with phantom pain, and he knew he was about to die. His deviation broadcast a level of danger so high it scraped sky. He wondered if he was about to be shot, stabbed, or just clocked so hard with a baseball bat that . . .

Nothing came. Jacob turned to look at his captors. They felt it, even if they didn’t know what it was they were feeling. They’d caught a whiff of something rotten.

“What –”

The doors to the chapel banged open. A loud crack split the air. Jacob jerked at the tremendous sound – when his eyes opened again, both doors hung from their twisted hinges.

You couldn’t call the thing standing in the doorway a man, but it looked male. An inhuman Jacob didn’t recognize, one of the many species that flooded through the rifts. There were so many inhumans. On Earth, only one species had any kind of sentience. Humans. These inhumans from the Distance boasted hundreds of sapient species – it didn’t make sense, from an evolutionary standpoint.

Jacob shook his head – he’d always been a thinker more than a doer. But now was time for doing, if he wanted to survive. It sounded like something his dad might have said. That would have been before Dad had been torn apart by a rift that opened up inside their house. Jacob wondered if he’d be seeing his dad soon.

It didn’t sound so bad.

The “man” in the doorway must have been six-four or six-five, but he looked taller because of his slender frame. His chest was bare, but there were no nipples. He had two eyes, no nose, and a mouth full of white nightmares. His hands had four digits each, long and slender with way too many knuckles.

He had skin the color of bleached bone. His eyes were white too, all the way through, and it was impossible to tell where he was looking.

Jacob felt his body clench, and the danger-sense in his head went into overdrive. The ringing buzz vibrated through his entire body, from neck to scrotum, and every primal part of his caveman brain told him to GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE.

Jacob lurched up and bolted. The marauders had been just as distracted by Sharkface, but there were five of them, and Jacob had never been quick. He’d been smart, well-read, nerdy, and stubborn. Never quick. He felt the buzz in his skull just before one of the marauders tackled his legs.

His head banged against the indestructible gray carpet. White flashbulbs popped, and his hearing went away, smothered under a tight ringing. Someone dragged him to his feet, using the rope on his wrists as a handle. The furious spike of pain in his skinless wrists woke him up. His glasses were gone, whipped away somewhere in the struggle. He wasn’t too blind, not like his mom had been (they’d traded glasses a few times, to infinite hilarity), but everything took on a blurred edge, like just before a good cry.

They were talking . . .

“…deevee. Few more . . .”

Jacob shook his head, but the ringing wouldn’t clear. In some faraway place (like Narnia, Jacob’s damaged brain thought, and he smiled at that) he worried about a concussion. In the ringing place, in the fireworks-in-his-eyes place, he felt okay.

The exploding lights reminded him of his one and only trip to Disneyland. His mom and dad had both been alive. He’d just turned ten. There had been Facebook updates and Superman movies and everything had been just fine.

The tall pale thing with the chainsaw teeth stalked between the pews. Deep down Jacob felt fear, but it was more like a memory than real-time. Everything looked unreal. Too bright. Too ridiculous. Why would he be here? Other people got captured, other people died. It doesn’t happen to you. Spider-Man would save him, or something. Something would happen.

It had to.

It had to.

Behind the awful tall thing, other shapes coalesced out of the too-bright daylight. He saw a Shade, three Reds, a pair of Hounds, and a dozen more species he didn’t recognize. Why were they together? The Shades hated the Reds . . . and the Hounds avoided everyone. Didn’t. Make. Sense.

Dizziness washed over him, and Jacob tried to touch his brow. Remembered his hands were bound behind his back. Smirked at that. Ooops.

“You have one,” the tall, pale thing said. “One is not enough.”

“It’s fine,” one of the marauders said. “One is fantastic.”

“C-consider it a good faith agreement.”

The tall pale thing smiled again. Jacob gasped. He’d never seen anything worse than that smile. Not ever. That smile ate babies in old fairy tales. You didn’t run into that smile. You didn’t smell it.

“Faith,” the Sharkface said. “I have faith.”

It spoke English like it’d found it in a ditch. It turned the words in its mouth, trying to figure out their shape and purpose.

“Do you know who I am?” the Sharkface asked.

“You work for Her,” one the marauders said. He hit the “H” hard, like some people did when talking about God.

Sharkface slid into a crouch, four-fingered hands thrown wide, and Jacob’s bladder let go in a warm gush. His smile stretched his face like hot elastic. His face got flatter, his eyes bigger, and Jacob wondered if it had rows of teeth that went down down down. Jacob knew he should be more frightened than analytical, but his brain had been dribbled like a basketball. Thankfully, Jacob thought. He was enjoying his conscassion. Concushion.

Concussion.

“I worship Her,” Sharkface said. “With red teeth and black claws. I sing her songs with snapping bones, play her symphonies of screams.”

Crouched, arms wide, Sharkface looked like it could devour the world with one gulp.

“Call me Zealot, for I believe.”

Zealot. Of course its name was Zealot. Jacob sighed, softly.

The world slowed down, then spun up into overdrive.

Zealot . . . pounced. He landed on one of the marauders, drove him into the ground, and his grasping four-toed-feet liberated the man’s organs. The next marauder tried to run. Jacob wondered why. Zealot stretched, his long body swiping down. He took one great bite, and the fleeing marauder didn’t have a head anymore. His body ran another ten feet before it fell between the pews.

Jacob heard screaming, and it wasn’t his. He closed his eyes, swaying gently, enjoying the exploding rockets behind his eyelids.

When he’d gone to Disneyland, six years ago, he’d been most excited about the Indiana Jones ride. It wasn’t new – far from it – but he’d always been an Indy kid. The ride had been radical, badass beyond his hopes. A rollicking jeep, the voice of Sallah blazing through the speakers, telling him to duck, telling him NOT TO LOOK INTO HER EYES. He did. When the Jeep steered away from the path of riches and onto the path of doom, Sallah screaming protests, Jacob was sure it’d been him. Everyone else had looked away, but Jacob had stared right into Kali’s eyes.

Jacob opened his eyes and watched the marauders’ ends. They were dead in seconds, threshed like wheat. Zealot stood, a tall pale tree amongst the torn and sundered, wearing that same white smile. It wasn’t as white though, Jacob thought. Not anymore. Maybe Zealot liked tomato soup.

Jacob laughed.

Zealot leaned down, bringing their faces together.

“Where is your fear?” Zealot asked.

His breath tasted like old ham and dog food.

Zealot’s milky eyes were imploring, somehow. Jacob realized that the great pale thing actually wanted an answer.

“I don’t think I brought it with me,” Jacob said.

Zealot stood up then, stretching his lanky body to its limit.

The inhumans behind the tall pale thing laughed, and Jacob realized they weren’t laughing at him. They were actually laughing with him. There wasn’t that tinge of meanness, of spite. They actually thought he was funny.

“The Rell,” Zealot began, “do not carry fear either.”

Jacob’s nose filled with the iron-and-penny smell of blood. The marauders had quite a bit of the stuff, turns out. Had.

“We who are enemies,” Zealot said, sweeping his arms out, “have become brothers. Us wretched outcasts. Jacob, we follow the prophet. We are his instrument, as is She.”

SHE WHO HEARS,” the group behind him spoke up in unison. “SHE WHO SPEAKS.”

Jacob wondered how Zealot knew his name. Psychic, maybe. Could read minds. Maybe Jacob had told him –he was pretty sure he’d been hit in the head. Hard. He couldn’t remember when.

Am I in a church?

“She wants to meet you,” Zealot said. “Do you wish to hear her Word?”

Where did my glasses go? Things were so blurry . . .

The inhumans behind Zealot were chanting in that creepy horror-movie unison, and they were saying a name. Over and over again.

SIRINE. SIRINE. SIRINE.”

The crowd split like a rotted pumpkin. A cloaked figure came forward slowly, gracefully. She held a black staff in one hand, and she stopped behind Zealot. She planted the tip of her curving black rod in the threadbare carpet at her feet. She leaned jauntily on it.

“Give us your word, mistress,” Zealot said. His long, ropy tongue slid out between his nightmare teeth. “Tell him.”

Beneath the hood, he could see a young girl, younger than him, with purplish-blue skin. Shards of white crystal broke the skin just at her cheek bones, at her temples, and across the ridge of her forehead. Her eyes were molten gold.

“Jacob,” Sirine said, and strolled forward. She rolled at the hips, her steps slow and languorous, her golden eyes burning into him.

His stomach cranked taut.

No need, Jacob. No need to look anywhere but forward, to see. To Listen.

“Green,” Sirine said. “Kidder Green. Such a silly name. I wonder if it’s his real name?”

“I don’t know. They just call him Green,” he thought he said it out loud, but maybe not . . .

A human with glyphs? What a world we live in.

“He’s powerful.”

Is he? He attacked the Shades, didn’t he? Right in their home. And lived to tell the tale. There is power, it seems, and a heaping bucket load of either pure arrogance or batshit insanity. And now he’s leading children. But where, I wonder? To what purpose?

“I don’t know. I’m just a nobody. I didn’t even know he attacked the Shades. Nobody tells me anything.”

Oh, you know a few things Jacob. Camp Echo, for instance . . . Just not everything. No shame in ignorance but . . . mind if I poke around?

The thoughts weren’t his own. Were they? So fuzzy . . .

“You know what I want,” Sirine whispered. She traced her fingertips across his face.

“Information?”

Sirine laughed musically, a sound like silver bells tinkling. Her fingers curled in his hair, tugged, and the world brightened and clarified for just a second, filtered through pain’s sharp lens.

“I have all that, sweetie,” she whispered. “You kept it in here, you see, so now I keep it in here.”

She tapped her temple.

Jacob understood. A reader. For some reason, a profound sense of relief washed through him. He wouldn’t have to betray anyone. Somehow -

“Well,” Sirine interrupted. She tapped her lips and leaned in close to his ear. He shivered when her breath slid across it. “We’re actually doing a bit of recruiting, so that betrayal thing is still on the table.”

Jacob jerked back.

“I won’t.”

Sirine’s eyes grew comically large, a theatrical look of fear on her beautiful, strange face.

“Are you certain?”

“They’re my friends,” Jacob said. He stood up straight. He wondered if his dad could see him now. If he’d still be disappointed.

“They abandoned you,” Sirine cooed.

Jacob bit his cheek.

“I won’t,” he growled. He wondered where his glasses had gone . . .

Sirine squeezed his hand, smiled, and let it drop back down to his side.

“You are free to go, then.”

“Really?”

“Ha. No. Come on. Don’t be silly… Zealot?”

Something slashed at his back, then something crunched, then the carpet rushed up and . . .

Black. Red. Then just black.

Chapter 23

Enter Sandman

 

“Why?” Tannis asked.

She stared at him like he’d asked her to put a fork in her own eye.

“It’s safer,” Bloom said.

He held up the sweatshirt to her, but she shook her head.

“How safer?” Tannis asked. “If my people find us, they will kill me too. Not safety, being killed.”

Bloom laughed.

“They don’t kill kids, right?”

Tannis narrowed her eyes. The universal nature of facial expressions was really starting to freak him out. Part of him wondered about evolution and anthropology, and part of him decided that other part was a total nerd. A nerd of Devon Streeter proportions.

“No,” she said.

“Well, there you go.”

“What about youmans?”

Humans are going to want to kill you on sight.”

“Youmans are monsters.”

“Not monsters,” Bloom said. “Humans. Just afraid. I don’t know if you know this, but you guys are scary as hell. The summoning shadows, the ‘we totally never miss’, the black soulless eyes. Really screams bad guy.

“Your people use machines,” she spat. “Machines that pervert the laws of nature.”

Bloom let that one go. Pointing out hypocrisy to a magic-using, shadow-shaping, gray-skinned inhuman from the other side of a D&D manual wasn’t going to solve anything.

“Listen,” Bloom said. “If we run into my people they’ll kill you. If we run into your people they won’t kill me, right?”

It took some time, but she finally nodded.

“Get dressed,” he said, handing over the fold of clothes.

“They are too warm.”

“Yeah, well, tough cookies.”

He pointed at the dressing rooms.

That’s when Tannis dropped the bundle of clothes and began unraveling her silken wraps. He spun around before she got to her shoulders. He coughed and wandered off, trying to find something to pretend to look at.

The Wal-Mart they’d stumbled over had been sacked, but there was way too much stuff to rob it completely. There weren’t enough humans alive to strip every Wal-Mart to the bone – it made Bloom feel kind of proud.

As Tannis dressed, Bloom perused the grocery section. Two years had ticked off the calendar since the Merge, and all the fresh food had rotted and dried out. The other sundries didn’t look so hot either, but he managed to salvage a bear-shaped bottle of honey (good foreeevvveeerrrr), a can of apple pie filling, a can of chicken gravy, and a five-pound bag of Botan Calrose rice miraculously free of weevils.

He found a few more bungee cords to tie-down the ever-expanding pile of crap on the luggage rack of his bike. Still, better too much stuff than not enough. He even recovered another tin of Keta-Cal, that yummy orange-flavored chalk powder that kept his brain from dancing the epilepsy tango.

Tannis looked almost human when he came back, although that human might have been the Uni-Bomber. White sneakers, dark jeans, gray sweatshirt (hood pulled up) and a pair of Aviator sunglasses straight out of Top-Gun. Still, if you didn’t stand too close, you might not notice her skin was the color of washed-out blacktop.

"These wrappings -"

“Clothes,” Bloom said. “They’re clothes.”

“These clothes are ridiculous,” she said. She yanked off the sunglasses and glared at him.

“You’re a mystical shadowy elf thing from another dimension,” he said. “This is not that weird.”

They were out and gone and on the road, though Wyatt never strayed more than a few feet from her. The dog would sniff at the road, lead them onward, but would always circle back to walk at her side. To be honest, Bloom thought, the dog was a lot smarter than Bloom remembered. He’d always been a bit of a dope, and although his silence had been constant, he’d never seemed so aware.

Once, Tannis complained of having to “water,” which Bloom assumed meant having to make her bladder gladder. He’d been suspicious, but they found a secluded wooded area behind a liquor store. Bloom sat around the corner, his hand on the curving horn grip of his Colt Navy, drumming up witty-one liners for when he ran into Devon. Something like “Miss me?” or “Best game of hide-and-go-seek ever” or even “Sorry for taking so long.”

He only realized she’d tried to escape when Wyatt raced past him and around the corner, a streak of rust-colored canine muscle.

When Bloom caught up with them, he found Tannis lying in the bed of a battered Chevy pickup with Wyatt Earp standing on her chest. Bloom leaned against the truck, smiling sweetly down at her.

“What have we learned?”

“Y-your beast has more w-wits than you,” Tannis spat out.

“Exactly,” Bloom said. “Come on, Wyatt. Let her up. Good boy.”

An hour later, following along behind Wyatt, Tannis seemed much more subdued. She responded to his attempts at conversation with grunts or glares. All in all, it felt a lot like being with Devon again.

They ate lunch, well: Bloom ate lunch. Tannis wouldn’t eat, but she did quaff half of his canteen while Bloom downed his MRE. The MRE, Meal Ready to Eat, contained a chemical package (an FRH, Flameless Ration Heater, because everything has to have an abbreviation) that when broken would heat the entire foil bag up to a scaldingly hot temperature.

“There,” she said. “There is magic.”

Bloom pulled out the Chicken Fajita Entree pack.

“Son of a bitch,” he said. “Nothing magic about that.”

He did his best to consume the slimy remnants within – you couldn’t call it eating, Bloom decided, because eating involved food. Still, he piled it away, finishing it off with a tiny pack of mini-Oreos and the chewing gum inside. No Blow-Pops – good thing, too. Bloom had heard an old Marine superstition about Charms candy in your MRE being an Omen of Death.

He finished his meal off with some Keta-Cal powder mixed in his mouth, Quik-style, with a bit of water. It tasted like goopy cement, but medicine is medicine. Better than a full-blown brain-melting seizure. His potassium pills went next, and when he was finished, Tannis stared at him like he’d devoured an entire live goat.

“You sure you’re not hungry?” Bloom asked, wiggling his back pack. “I’ve got plenty.”

Tannis frowned so deeply he thought she would hurt herself.

“The fajitas blow, sure, but they aren’t all bad.”

Her lips pressed together in a white line.

“You don’t eat?”

Tannis shook her head.

Bloom’s eyes widened. “Ever?”

Another negative.  Devon would have chewed on that answer like a dog on a bone, but Bloom just didn’t care that much. The magic assassin girl tells you she doesn’t eat, you accept it. Bloom had bigger problems to worry about than inhuman biology. Once he and Devon were back home at SONGS, they could forget any of this ever happened, and things could go back to normal.

These were the pleasant fantasies rolling around in his head when they found the first camp.

Bloom spotted it, a wisp, a fine tendril of discoloration in the flat blue sky. Smoke. Thin, reedy, seen and gone in an instant.

The sun flirted with the horizon.  Bloom pulled them all off the side of the road and up against the side of a Payless Shoes. He set the bike and all their supplies down in the shadow of a dead hedge. He told Wyatt to sit, and the dog sat dutifully, his big tongue lolling out.

“Come with me,” he said to Tannis.

She shook her head violently. “My arm, give it to me.”

“Your standard two look fine to me.”

She rubbed her hands across her face and pointed to the revolver at his thigh.

“Your bow?” Bloom asked. Arm. Right. It actually made sense in a Tarzan kind of way. “No. Absolutely not.”

Bloom had unstrung it and tied it inside of all the supplies. If she tried to make a sudden grab for it, it’d take her a good half an hour to extract it. It’d still be useless – he kept her bowstring, and the two extras she’d been carrying, wound up in his pocket. He didn’t worry about the pistols – the chances of an inhuman successfully firing a gun were low. It’d be like someone made of fire trying to juggle ice cubes. Besides, she seemed deadly terrified of the gun whenever he lifted it. Not as scared as she was of the dog, but it was close. The only thing keeping him alive, he surmised, was her youth.

“The blade,” she said.

He’d quit wearing the sword: with all of the other gear on him, it was just too damn heavy to be hiking with. He shook his head.

“Stay here, with Wyatt,” he said. “Or come look with me.”

They sneaked around the store and into a reedy lot enclosed by half collapsed chain-link. Smoke drifted into the sky from a poorly doused campfire. Blankets and bits of clothing littered the ground. He noticed a propane tank amongst the tall grass, the kind you attached to a camp stove. One dun-colored tent sat deflated like an old party balloon. Tent stakes arranged in loose rectangles, accounted for two more tents.

“Someone booked in a hurry.”

Tannis picked up a faded green Hulk action figure.“Children, yes?”

“No, that’s Dr. Bruce Banner.”

“What?”

“Yes, children.”

They scoured the area, but all of the important stuff had been swept up. Bloom’s stomach went sour – these people had made camp a few hours ago and had booked it at warp speed.

He unslung his rifle case, pulled out the Garand, and snapped a round into the chamber.

“Come,” Tannis hissed. She dropped low into the tall grass and tugged on his shoulder.

Bloom slipped down, but he kept moving the scope slow and steady, scraping it across the landscape. After a few minutes, he tucked the rifle close to his chest and shook his head.

“Whatever spooked them is gone,” he said. Or invisible or flying. Hurray. “Shades?”

Tannis shook her head.

“How can you be sure?”

“I am sure. We must move on. My podmate is not here.”

“Podmate?” Bloom asked. She hadn’t said what had drawn her out into the wilds of the Mergelands. “Brother?”

“Too complex for youmans to understand,” she said. She tugged the sunglasses from her face. “Promise you will help me, come fire or blood or ash?”

Bloom raised an eyebrow. It was an odd place to vow, in the tall grass behind a Payless. Her eyes, deep as the night sky, were hiding something.

“If you help me find Devon,” he said, “I swear I’ll help you.”

“Give me an arm,” she said. “Or I will die and be of no help.”

“Why do you even need a weapon? Don’t you, you know . . .  use mind bullets? Telekinesis?”

Tannis’s head fell. Her eyes slid closed.

“My bow shames me,” Tannis said. “I cannot control the Wind.”

Bloom rocked on his heels.

“You can’t . . .”

They were going to have to sleep tonight (assuming Shades slept). Even without a weapon, and with Wyatt nearby, a sleeping person wasn’t hard to kill. If he didn’t trust Tannis but still shared a camp with her, then he was an idiot.

Let her go, or trust her. Really the only options, Bloom. He cocked his head toward the road.

When they had Wyatt and the bike, they found the trail of the refugees easily. It led north, along their path to find Devon. Bloom felt a sense of fate he didn’t care for. Oh well. He’d abandoned “being careful” somewhere around the time he’d gotten buddy-buddy with a Shade.

He wanted to think he considered his options, he wanted to think he would ask himself the question “is she worth it?” Being honest with himself, he knew it was a dumb question. She was Devon. End of story.

He untied a bundle from the luggage. The black scabbard slipped out of the roll of crap, and he examined the sword for a long time before he handed it hilt-first to Tannis.

She didn’t hesitate. She took the sword, tossed the strap over her shoulder, and centered the curving blade across her back. She drew the changdao in one fluid sweep and sent three swipes through the air. The black blade looked right in her hands, and she pivoted and sliced horizontally. At first her movements were clumsy, like a kid playing around. Her dance began to smooth out, and in another minute she had the blade moving in a blur, snapping it out at invisible foes and drawing it back into a ready position in the span between blinks.

“Never used a sword before?”

“No,” she said. “We have the rannok, for hunting. There are knives also, the deep glass roka, but they are not so long. This is a clumsy arm.”

“You seem to be doing alright.”

“For practice,” Tannis said. “We shall see, against arms.”

“Heads up,” Bloom said. “It’s not going to be as sharp as your knives.”

She slipped the sword into the sheath on her back.

“It is sharp enough.”

Seeing the way she danced with that “clumsy” weapon and the cold light in her eyes, Bloom didn’t doubt it.

 

***

 

They bedded down on the roof of a laundromat, beneath the wide spray of stars. The fleeing campers’ trail led onward, northward, but Bloom felt his fatigue like a suit of lead armor. His new Shade B-F-F lagged behind, too, though she claimed she’d been “studying their surroundings.” Through half-lidded eyes, maybe.

In the back of the dusty laundromat, Bloom found a Coke machine standing sentinel over the silent washers and dryers that would neither wash nor dry anything ever again. With the help of a crowbar and the corrupting influence of time itself, he managed to crack the door open. There wasn’t much left in it, which Bloom attributed more to a lazy owner than the ravages of the Apocalypse. A couple of cans of Sprite sat in the long vertical slots, and a few plastic bottles of PowerAde and Minute Maid that were no good. Drinks in plastic bottles absorbed the PVC over time and developed the delicious taste of acrylic paint.

So they sat on the roof, drifting off, pointedly not talking. He thought about the sword he’d given her and wondered if it would be stained with his guts come tomorrow. Wyatt laid his big doggy head across Bloom’s lap.

Tannis sat against an air-conditioner across from him. Her black oil eyes gleamed with starlight. She ran her slender gray fingers through her hair and made a noise in the back of her throat.

“So what do you think?” he asked, nodding to the green can next to her leg.

She took another sip from the can, but she held it gingerly, like it might explode. Another pull, then another, and she set it down and made a face.

“Sprite?”

He nodded.

“In metal?”

“A can, makes it last longer.”

“It is too sweet.” She picked it up and drained the rest off.

Bloom smirked and sipped at his own can. “It’ll make you fat, too.”

“Fat?”

“Chubs. Extra-chunky.” He puffed his cheeks out and mimed a huge torso with his arms.

She rattled the can and stared at Bloom, and her expression didn’t change.

“Well, not one,” he said. “Oh. Hey. You’re not diabetic are you?”

She frowned.

“I guess,” he began. “Yeah I guess that’s a dumb question.”

“You talk.”

“I do,” he said, and sighed. “I really do.”

“No, I mean. Why do you talk?”

“Hmm. That’s psychological dynamite I try to avoid handling, you know? Is talking forbidden?”

Tannis winced.

“Not forbidden. Private. We do not talk to everyone all the time.”

“Why not?”

Tannis held her hands palm-up toward the stars. The sharp black tattoos writhed in slow, languorous motions across her fingers. Her eyebrows beetled, and Bloom knew immediately she’d run out of vocabulary for the thought she wanted to convey. She let out a puff of frustration and leaned forward, pulling the sleeves of her sweatshirt up past her elbows. The black shadows crawled across her forearms in intricate patterns. They made his eyes feel . . . squidgy.

“I don’t understand.”

Tannis looked down at the ground, looked up. He couldn’t figure out if she was trying to talk to him in some kind of body language or if her frustration was getting the better of her.

“What do you not do?” she asked, finally.

“What?”

“What is bad? What is private?”

Bloom snapped his fingers. “Ah, um. Nudity. Being naked.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Yeah, me too,” he said. When he realized she was asking a question, he grinned. “Oh, ha. Skin. We don’t show other people . . . all of our skin.”

Tannis rocked back like she’d been slapped. Her face contorted in such a textbook look of moral outrage that Bloom couldn’t help but laugh.

“What is funny?”

“Sorry, your face. I mean. Ha. Not your face.”

Tannis shoved back against the air conditioner, her arms sliding over her chest in a freakishly human expression of annoyance.

“We don’t show everyone all of our skin,” he said. “It’s, uh, private. Like you said.”

“Skin is private?” she asked. “I see your face. That is not private.”

“It’s only some skin.”

“What kind of skin?”

Bloom held his hand out. “This conversation is going a little Cinemax for me. If a pizza delivery boy shows up, I know I’m in trouble.”

Her expression told him just how many of those references she caught.

“You’re not exactly naked,” Bloom said, and pointed at her. “Neither were the other Shades.”

“Cold, hot, the dayburn,” she said. “Dirt. Cuts, scratches. We wear the wrappings to protect us.”

“Well, sure, yeah, us too, but only one or two people ever see us. You know. Totally full frontal, is what I’m saying.”

“Why?”

“It’s private. It’s special.”

“Something secret is special?”

Bloom shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“That is why we do not talk so much; that is why we are private.”

He sat back and chewed on that. It kind of made sense in an inhuman kind of way. Right away he knew he’d flunk out in Shade society – Bloom couldn’t keep his clap trapped if you stapled his lips together. It served as a source of pride, actually.

“So instead of keeping your skins personal, you keep your minds personal,” Bloom said. “I dig it.”

Tannis’s mouth made something that would someday be a smile if it drank milk and did push-ups every morning. Still, it was the closest thing to mirth he’d squeezed out of her.

“Why do you look for this girl? Do you mate with her?”

Bloom coughed and experienced the exciting feeling of carbonated sugar blasting up his nose.

“No!”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“Because your skin is private?”

“No, well, yes. It’s private. I’m not flashing everybody like a maniac or anything.”

“Flashing is being naked?”

“Bingo.”

“Who?” she asked.

“It’s a game.”

“Being naked is game?”

“No! Well, I guess maybe sometimes . . . “

“You are very confusing.”

“You. You’re the one. I wasn’t confused when I started.”

“Are you sure?”

Bloom narrowed his eyes. Tannis gave him a mysterious smile and pulled her hood up over her head. She scooted down onto her side. The sword lay under her arm – she sort of spooned it. He checked his revolver – he’d tucked the gun and holster inside of his sleeping bag. He hadn’t decided if he trusted her or if he was just too tired to care.

It took some doin’, but he managed to close his eyes and relax. He scratched absently at Wyatt’s bristly head and listened to the gentle thumping of his puppy heart.

Minutes crawled along, and he peaked up at Tannis.

“Don’t be mad,” he said.

“Not mad, sleeping. You should too.”

“Shades sleep?”

“All sleep, all things.”

“All things eat,” he countered.

“True, but not all things eat same. Same thing. Same time.”

Bloom sat up.

“Are you going to kill me while I’m sleeping?”

Tannis didn’t open her eyes.

“Are you?” she asked.

“Of course not.”

“Why?”

“It’s not . . . right.” He didn’t say the second half of that thought: and I don’t think I have the guts.

“We agree, Bloom, son of Stephen,” she said. “So we sleep.”

Bloom didn’t know why he found her words as comforting as he did. He watched the stars, and he scratched Wyatt, and he thought about Shades and Devon and the campers they were chasing. Sleep yawned like the mouth of a vortex, and he tumbled inside.

They found the survivors of the camp the next day.

Chapter 24

A Guide to Not Getting Ambushed

 

The signs of their passage had become more obvious. Tannis guessed they thought themselves safe from their hunters. There were wrappers, empty cans, and even the blackened remnants of a frugal campfire.

They stopped, staring down a swell in the freeway at a road choked by a cataclysmic multi-car pileup. SUVs and miniature foreign gas-sippers and even a pair of 18-wheelers had been caught in the melee of twisted steel.

The two tractor-trailers were massive, one bearing the Ralph’s logo, the other emblazoned with a witty zinger courtesy of the Jack-in-the-Box corporation. Their trailers were parallel, providing a thin corridor that looked to be the only way through the collision without leaving the road.

“Do you know what that is?” Tannis asked, sullenly, as they looked down from the top of the overpass.

“Ambush. Trap. Fire corridor. Bushwhack. Snare. Subterfuge.”

She looked up at him, her face placid.

“You have many words for this,” she said. “That is good.”

“Healthy paranoia?”

“Yes, for some. For us.”

“Ambuscade,” Bloom snapped his fingers and smiled.

“What?”

“I had one more, I just remembered it.”

They went over the plan, though there wasn’t much to it. After a loud argument, only half of which was feigned, Tannis shoved him hard. He staggered back, hurled an exciting epithet, and stalked away from the shattered tangle of cars. He took the bike with him, and Wyatt, who circled the Shade girl once before bouncing off after Bloom.

Tannis threw her hands up over her head, yanked her hood up even closer around her face, and ambled (slowly) toward the trapped corridor between the two trucks.

As soon as Bloom got out of sight, he pushed the bike under a car, yanked out his rifle, and tethered Wyatt Earp to the car’s passenger-side mirror. Wyatt looked up at him quizzically, his tail describing a slow uncertain circle in the air.

“I don’t like it either,” Bloom said. He slipped his Stetson down over his brow. “The girl’s got guts.”

Wyatt sat down on his paws and let out an almost silent whuff of air.

“I just don’t want to see ‘em plastered all over the road,” Bloom patted the dog on the head. “Be good.”

Bloom circled around the hulks of cars, staying as low as he could. He’d abandoned his long coat and most of his gear beside the bicycle, keeping himself as sleek and light as possible. He didn’t even take the pistol, but all of his pockets were loaded with clips for the Garand. If he needed more than his rifle, Bloom knew, he didn’t have much of a chance anyway.

He slid down the gully alongside the western side of the freeway and did his darnedest not to snap his leg. He skittered along the scree, his eyes open, his heart pounding in his ears.

“Can’t we just leave?” Bloom had asked Tannis as they stood on the road.

“They will track us if they think we saw their trap. Once we lose sight of them, they take us in our sleep.”

“You don’t know that.”

Tannis looked at him. “I know it. I have seen it. It is what I would do.”

“I’ll go,” he said.

“No,” she said. “I have ways. You cover me should I fail.”

“Fail in what?” Bloom’s inner chauvinist knight rankled at the idea of using a girl as bait. Even a Shade girl.

“Protect me, Bloom.” she said.

It had been off-hand, more a translation choice than the promise it sounded like, but it hit Bloom like a gut-punch. In that moment, all he could think of was Devon, racing into that garage.

Tannis wouldn’t be swayed. When the plan called for fake yelling, Bloom didn’t have trouble selling it.

When he passed the wreck by a good fifty feet, he darted his head up over the guard rail. He couldn’t see Tannis – she was between the trucks. Shit.

Bloom bounced across the guard rail and dropped into a crouching, crab-like run between the cars. He could hear something – talking, or yelling. He passed around the front of the trucks and saw men with guns leaning out the windows of each cab, aiming between the trailers. At the opposite end of the corridor, a man and a woman in faded denim and leathers hung out from either side of the rear doors of the trailers. Both were armed.

A lonely, slight figure stood in the center of the corridor, her arms over her head. Bloom spat a curse again and couldn’t believe he’d gone along with her dumbass plan. Even if he fired four times and hit each one of them with a kill shot, could he do it fast enough?

He laid his rifle across the hood of a silver Taurus. He picked one of the men in the front of the truck and slotted him into the long dark tunnel of his precision scope. He calculated distance, and didn’t bother with wind speed or arc – they weren’t far enough away for it to matter.

With the slow deliberate motions of someone who had done something way too many times, Bloom racked the bolt slowly and chambered a round. He cleared his throat, grinned, and pulled his hat low over his eyes.

He tipped the rifle up and squeezed the trigger. The windshield of the west-side truck exploded into fragments, and a tremendous crack bounced off every surface.

ATTENTION ASSHOLES!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “IF ANY OF YOU MOVE YOU WILL HAVE A COOL BREEZE WHERE YOUR BRAINS USED TO BE.”

They jumped like Bloom had rubbed his sneakers on the carpet and blasted them in the ass with a static shock. Or, you know, like he’d shot at them. Their guns swept (away from Tannis) toward the sound of his voice. The guy near the back of the trailer disappeared, while his female counterpart tucked herself tighter against the trailer. The two men in the cabs ducked behind the dashboard, but he could still see the dull shine of their gun barrels peaking over the top.

Tannis . . . disappeared. She moved like she was made of liquid, dropping to her knees noiselessly and rolling away underneath the western truck. A hot thrill of panic ran through his spine.

WHO GOES!” one of the men, the one in the eastern cab, barked.

Bloom shook his head and laughed. ‘Who goes?’

Lord Spider-Man, King of America, with his squire Katniss Everdeen and loyal manservant Justin Bieber!

Bloom raised his voice again. “PEOPLE YOU DON’T NEED TO SHOOT AT, WHO DON’T NEED TO SHOOT AT YOU. GOT IT?”

“YA DID SHOOT AT US!” the man in the western truck bellowed.

JUST A LITTLE,” Bloom shouted back. The man in the back of the trailer reappeared. Bloom swept his scope down the center of the corridor – the man in the back and the girl both looked freaked, staring down the barrels of their guns at an empty spot where a girl in a sweatshirt used to be. Bloom wondered, briefly, if this hadn’t been Tannis’s real plan.

She could have killed you in your sleep, Rational-Bloom thought. She could have left in the night even easier.

True. Too true. But this also guaranteed he’d be stuck dealing with four armed highwayman while Tannis snuck away with his sword. Bloom cringed. And his bike full of gear. Wyatt would protect it, sure, and maybe she was afraid of Wyatt, but the dog was tied to a car and the Shade had a sword. No contest, really.

Bloom banged his fist on the hood of the car.

STAY WHERE YOU ARE!” he shouted. “THREE MEN HAVE YOU COVERED FROM FOUR DIFFERENT SPOTS, YOU GET IT?”

Bloom wasn’t sure why he’d said that – it sounded like something a tough guy would say. Bloom ducked down and kept up his crouch-run back to the guard rail and -

Pain. A bright flash, his body bouncing off something that grunted in surprise. He went down in a tangle, and his rifle flew away from him. The thing on top of him kicked, and he heard the low rasp of a blade being torn from a sheath.

A blur above his head –a black blade with a silver edge. Bloom punched the arm holding the sword and it clattered on the ground behind them.

“Tannis!”

The girl lay over his chest, one wrist trapped in his hand, the other clawing at his throat. Her chest heaved, her hood had fallen back, and she’d lost her sunglasses. Black tendrils of smoke leaked out of the wide pools of her eyes. The tattoos on her neck contorted insanely, like snakes thrown into a fire.

“You,” she said. Her breath calmed, and the cold rage went out of her eyes. “Bloom. Sorry. Instinct took over.”

Footsteps. Hard and fast, advancing through the tangled of cars.

Tannis dived for her sword. Bloom rolled and hooked the strap of his rifle just in time to swing the barrel up toward his pursuer and . . .

Daniel Blumenthal stared down the black circle of a shotgun barrel huge enough to park inside.

Behind the shotgun stood a teenager, younger than Bloom, with a shock of auburn hair that hadn’t been washed since two months before the Merge, he guessed. Behind the teenager stood a huge strapping man who looked like a bear, but hairier. Bloom flashed his eyes to his right spotting Tannis in a fighting crouch, the sword held diagonally in front of her body. All of her muscles were tense, fit to spring. A man in his twenties loomed in front of her. He had long black hair and a terrible scar that turned the right side of his face into hash. The girl beside him had dingy blonde hair and a 1911 .45 pistol that definitely still worked.

Bloom racked the bolt of his rifle and flashed a gimlet-eyed stare at the teenager holding the shotgun/tunnel.

“You shoot me,” Bloom said. “You get shot.”

The teenager’s face paled.

“Just me, though.”

Bloom angled the rifle, lining a shot up that would punch through the kid and straight into the big bear’s chest.

“Nope.”

The bear rubbed a hand across his filthy beard and nodded.

“That’s a bloody Shade,” the woman said. Bloom couldn’t afford to look at her.

“Sure is,” Bloom said. “Good eyes on you. Get out of here. We don’t want your stuff.”

“You been following us,” the big bear of a man said. His voice still hadn’t gone beyond a “how-do-ya-do” tone. He could have been chatting about the Dodgers.

“And you got a Shade. That’s one of the enemy, chap,” the other man said, the one with the scar. The man and the woman near Tannis had British accents.

“What’s that saying? Books and covers, something?” Bloom hadn’t taken his eyes from the boy or his finger from the trigger. “Can’t remember it right this second. Judging? I feel like it’s about judging.”

“We do not want your things or your arms,” Tannis hissed.

Their near-unison gasp told Bloom they hadn’t expected her to talk. Or to speak English. Monsters in storybooks just growled and ate babies. They didn’t stop and chew the fat. Still – they had Tannis dead to rights. The British couple could have shot her a dozen times: Tannis’s sword made for a terrible ranged weapon. Bloom guessed that only their fear of the boogeyman kept their guns quiet.

“We’re passing through – “ Bloom began.

“You’re following us,” the big man said.

Bloom looked into the bearded man’s eyes and saw nothing but flat nickels. He wasn’t going to be fed any bullshit with a smile.

Bloom flashed a grin he didn’t feel – using a shotgun barrel for a karaoke mic wasn’t putting him at ease.

“We’re looking for someone,” Bloom said, “We thought they might be with you.”

“Are they?” the big man asked.

Bloom shook his head.

“Are you f-from the Rell. Rell-Anon?” the teenager asked.

The hands holding the shotgun were shaking now, and Bloom could see that enormous black tunnel swinging back and forth in front of his face. If the kid didn’t calm down . . .

I might get a sudden brain-ectomy, Bloom thought giddily.

Tannis spit something that sounded vile in a language Bloom didn’t understand.

“No,” Bloom said. “I’m from SONGS. She’s from . . . actually I don’t where she’s from. She’s looking for someone too.”

The British man with the scar laughed, “Sure. It’s like a buddy cop movie.”

Bloom choked a laugh he did feel.

“More or less.”

The bear had that “doing long division in your head” look that suggested deep thought. After an extended beat, he slapped the teenager on the shoulder. The shotgun bounced a solid foot, and Bloom’s life flashed before his eyes. It was a brief slideshow.

“The Rell are in the area,” Big Bear said. “We don’t have time for this. That shot you fired is going to bring them. Come with us. Now.”

“Dad!” the teenager said.

The British couple echoed the kid’s dismayed tone.

“That’s a bloody Shade, Jim,” the scarred man said. “The kind that killed Jackie.”

The big bear, Jim, made a chopping motion. “No it ain’t. She’s young and a girl.”

Tannis rasped a breath.

“Does that matter?” the British girl said.

“Matters to me,” Jim said. “What you do is your own business. Boy, what’s your name?”

Bloom didn’t love being called “boy,” but he also didn’t like sitting helplessly in a Mexican stand-off while these “Rell” crept in on them. The way the kid had said the name had been the same way you talked about anthrax. Bad juju.

“Bloom,” he said. “Daniel Blumenthal.”

“Bloom’s fine,” Jim said. He pointed a meaty fist. “Whaddya call that one?”

“Tannis,” Bloom said. “Well it’s actually a crazy mouthful that I couldn’t remember. Even with a gun to my head.”

Jim pushed the shotgun-wielding teenager aside, and held his hand out to Bloom.

“Give word,” Tannis said, to Jim. “Give word of safety.”

Jim’s hand didn’t move.

“I promise me and mine won’t touch you, if you return the kindness. I swear to it.”

Tannis sheathed the changdao and straightened. Bloom tucked the strap of his rifle over his shoulder, clicked the safety on, and took Jim’s hand. The man had him up with a tug that could have loosened a boat anchor.

“We have to go,” Jim said. “Follow me.”

The scarred man cursed and shook his head. “No way.”

“Suit yourself,” Jim said. “Come on, Scott. Keep an eye out.”

The teenager looked up at his dad the way people used to look up at Superman in the old movies. Bloom felt gears grind painfully in his chest, and he thought of his father and mother. He’d been a lucky kid to keep both parents after the world took a serious dump. They were good parents, too. Even when they were being fussy or overprotective and it drove him bonkers, they were still decent. Fair. Consistent.

Bloom knew he shouldn’t trust Jim, not in the Mergelands where cannibals and marauders and shape-shifting monsters dwelled. Still . . . Bloom could see his own dad in Jim. Well, not physically. Physically Bloom’s dad probably could have been literally in Jim: Bloom’s father Stephen had the body-shape of a particularly malnourished praying mantis, while Jim had the rough outline of a lady bug. Still. He could see him, alright. Where it counted.

The British couple hissed a conversation for a few minutes and turned tail. They struck off east, into the hills, and no one said a word to their backs.

“Sorry,” Bloom said.

“Don’t be,” Jim said. He hitched up his belt and looked at Scott. “They were driving me crazy anyway. Wouldn’t share for shit. You guys ready to move? We gotta hustle.”

Tannis pulled her hood back over her head. Scott was still gawking at her like she was on fire, but he agreed with a barely audible whisper.

They were off at a shuffle. Bloom went back to cut Wyatt loose and jumped on the bike, peddling it through the cars back to the group. Wyatt bounced alongside him, silent as a windblown leaf.

“You got a mutt,” Jim said, with a strange surge of approval.

The five of them set off north, through the rambling jungle of cars. No one spoke – Bloom peddled the bike at the lowest speed he could without it tumbling over, but the others were jogging along at a decent clip, wrestling for air.

When Scott lagged behind, Bloom traded places with him. Scott didn’t have breath, so he nodded his appreciation. He peddled slowly, cruising, slumping over the handle bars.

Another mile, and a low warbling sound broke the air, cranking from a soft thrill to a lusty trumpet blast. The ground fluttered, and it rattled Bloom’s chest.

“What is that?” Bloom asked.

“The Rell,” Jim said. Sweat lathered his face – he looked like he’d been trying to drink from a fire hose.

“The Horn,” Tannis said. She didn’t sound out of breath. “The Hunting Horn.”

“What does that mean?” Bloom asked.

“It means they have caught prey,” Tannis said.

Bloom and Jim exchanged a warning look. The British couple . . .

“Dad?” Scott barked. The bike wobbled crazily as he fumbled for his shotgun.

Jim shook his head.

“Dad?”

They kept running.

Chapter 25

Out of the Ring

 

Ribbons of steam drifted out of the pile of rice on her plate, a hypnotizing dance.

How long had she been staring at it? Her aching muscles, sore and swollen, enjoyed the brief respite. She didn’t realize it, but she’d been swaying, a cobra mesmerized by a snake charmer’s song.

Her eyes flickered. An elbow cranked into her side, and her body folded like a house of cards. The tray caught the lip of the counter with a flat crack. She landed on her hip, hard tile against bone. A cherry bomb went off in her side, and she chuffed out a breathy cry of pain.

A wet hot splat of rice landed on her chest, and she burbled another shocked scream and scraped the scalding food away as fast as she could.

The line exploded into laughter.

People stepped over her, moving down the line, shaking with mirth.

Devon rolled out of the way. Her hip protested, and a fresh pop of pain stabbed up her side. The wet rice not only burned the spot between her breasts, but it had drenched her Echo-issue white tank top. It might have been made of cellophane now. Her bra stuck out, fully visible. She could see all the skin of her stomach, even the fine details of her belly button.

Devon scrambled to her feet, her eyes darting. She wasn’t surprised to see Raze, tall and strange with laughing eyes. Raze mimed shoving her again, and flailed her arms. Her mouth went wide, and she pretended to fall down.

Devon shuddered with the beginning of a sob.

No.

Her breath caught.

Devon spun and ran out of the food court just as tears ran down her red face.

The laughter doubled, tripled, and Devon could barely see through the curtain of tears.

A week can pass quickly if you never get a chance to stop moving. Even with the constant teasing, the alienation, the loneliness and fear, time can fly.

Devon learned this the hard way. Ever since the “exercise” with Jaina Moore, ever since Emile and Cheyenne and Jacob had been killed – Devon no longer fooled herself into thinking that being captured meant anything else for Jacob – they’d been pushing the Echoes-in-Training harder than ever.

Hours later, she was sweating in Close-Quarters-Combat.

Her glasses were tucked away, and beyond ten feet the world turned into a smear.

Her opponent, a delicate bird-like waif with long blonde hair, was kicking her ass. Becca Talbot. Devon didn’t have any meat either, but seeing this little blonde chick whip her around like a stuffed animal was getting on her nerves.

Plus what had happened at lunch . . .

Devon pivoted and slung a high kick at the girl’s face. Becca ducked and shot an arm up, bent and tensed, and Devon’s shin bounced away. Her balance wobbled, and Becca slid forward, and hooked Devon behind her knee.

The sand punched her hard in the back. Devon gasped for air like a trout slung into the back of a fishing boat. She tasted sand in her mouth. She stared at the point where the delicate blue sky sank into the glassy ocean.

Becca held her hand down to Devon, her ponytail bouncing behind her.

Devon slapped it away, popped up, and swung her fist at Becca’s jaw.

Becca jounced in under the punch, swung her arm over Devon’s shoulder, and kicked the back of Devon’s knee out again. This time she landed face-first, the sand scraping her cheek.

“Son of a bitch!” Devon rolled up and leaped at Becca.

Steel cables snaked around her waist and stopped her mid-flight. Then Devon was in the sand again, this time landing heavily on the same hip Raze had tossed her on earlier. Devon stayed, grasping at her waist, trying to see anything through the red blast of agony.

“Becca, why don’t you join Hugh? He’s teaching how to gang up on a superior foe. Tell him I sent you.”

Devon recognized the voice. She sighed and looked up from her back. In the dirt.

Naturally.

Reece Ahern, Captain America himself, loomed over her. His silhouette came right out of a Renaissance painting. Dark hair, a bit shaggier than Marine standard. He hadn’t cut it since the attack on Green. His flat chestnut eyes were huge, a bit shadowed, and she could see the capillaries in his eyes. His hand hung in front of her face.

“You looked odd without glasses,” Ahern said matter-of-factly.

“What?” she spat.

“Need a hand?” Ahern asked, his voice the perfect tone of Zen calm.

“I need like six, I suck at this.”

She expected the kind of response she’d been getting since everyone had found out about her Glyph. About her not being one of them. They called her “Green’s Girlfriend” or “Green’s Slut” or “Marked” or just good old fashioned “Liar.”

She had lied. They weren’t wrong about that.

Ahern grabbed her wrist and pulled her to her feet without straining. “You’re swinging wild, it isn’t hard to see what you’re doing.  And if you’re good like Becca, you can counter it.”

“Thanks.” Devon wiped sand from her pants and made a point not to stare at his stupid handsome face. “That’s very helpful. I suck, and Becca’s great. You’re just the best teacher ever.”

“If I had your body – “ Ahern stopped. He pursed his lips.

Devon’s stomach flipped over.

Ahern started again.

“If I had your frame, I wouldn’t even try to strike. You don’t have the weight or the strength. No offense.”

“Scrawny, weak. You are good.

Ahern smiled at that. “Have you heard of Aikido? Krav Maga?”

“I feel like you’re naming Godzilla monsters.”

Ahern’s face broke, and he actually laughed. Devon didn’t expect how handsome he could be with a wide smile transforming his features. Devon didn’t consider herself the girly girl type, but she felt it alright. A warm blossom in her chest, spreading down to her stomach. Her face tingled, and she didn’t move an inch while he laughed, afraid she’d scare him away.

“The ancient art of . . . Gamera – “

Ahern lost it again. He planted his hands on his knees, and belted his running, musical laughter.

The others were watching them now. Devon covered her eyes, as if shading herself from the sun, and stared pointedly at the sand.

Ahern’s fit ended as soon as it’d started. His face had turned to stone again. He went over a dozen locks, throws, and pressure points with her, explaining how to use someone else’s weight and momentum against them. Sometimes he came in close, tucking himself against her body from behind or wrapping his arms around her waist. Devon tried her best not to freak out. She tried to listen to him, to remember the moves and the pivots and the twists.

“Break toward the thumbs, that’s always the weak point in any grip.”

How is he so strong?

“Your waist is your best lever. Every throw should start right here . . .”

He’s holding my waist . . . his hands . . .

“He’ll be watching your shoulders, so don’t drop them.”

His fingers, hot, high up on my arms. Firmly holding me . . .

Devon had never had such a hard time paying attention in her entire academic life.

 

***

 

Later on, thoughts of Ahern’s strong hands died down long enough for her to get some study-time in. Sitting down to dinner, her Kindle on her table, Devon had just as tough a time studying Anatomy as she did paying attention during CQC. The chicken tasted gamey but excruciatingly fresh, and so she ate it in huge bites while she read. She attempted the same paragraph about four times before she flicked her Kindle off.

Two guys she didn’t recognize stood over her table.

Devon pushed her lenses up and stared over the rims of her glasses.

They sat down at her table – there were plenty of chairs.

“Can I ask you something?” The bigger one asked, with the short yellow hair buzzed against his skull.

“No,” Devon said.

They exchanged confused looks.

“Does Green have those glyphs all over his body? You know, like on his . . .”

The two guys couldn’t stop laughing enough to get out the single entendre.

“Oh yeah,” Devon said.

They stopped laughing.

“That’s where he keeps his biggest glyph,” Devon said, and forked chicken into her mouth.

“W-what?” The skinny guy asked, the one with the huge nose.

The big guy punched his shoulder. The light was dying in their eyes, and they had the look of two people who’d found a treasure glinting at the bottom of a trash can.

“Are you serious?” The big guy asked.

Devon flashed her best attempt at a lascivious smile. She thought it was pretty terrible, but they both leaned in close. Oh, boys.

“Mmm-hmm, I’ve seen the glyph pretty close too. Want to know what it looks like?”

They did. Their eyes gleamed now.

“Just. Like. This.”

Devon raised her fist, her middle-finger and thumb popped out.

“I call it the Bird,” she whispered, low and slow. “Now leave me the hell alone and go play with each other.”

They stood, frozen in place. The big guy’s mouth worked, and the thin guy stumbled backward, like she’d drawn a gun. Finally, the big guy horked in his throat, and spat an enormous lunger right in the center of her chicken.

“Have a nice dinner,” the big guy said.

The skinny guy called her a name, one guys think is really offensive.

Devon pushed her tray away, smiled at them, and went back to reading her Kindle. Her pulse rammed against the side of her head, and it felt like someone had lit her collar on fire, but she didn’t move. She pretended to read, but the words were blurry, indistinct, rows of symbols she couldn’t believe she’d ever been able to comprehend.

When an eternity had passed, Devon gathered her things, left the cold chicken-and-loogie salad and went home. She wanted to brood and hate and rage, but her body didn’t care.

Sleep claimed her like a prize, and she went away, down into the dark respite.

“Who goes there!” Devon shouted. She brandished a plastic foam sword high over her head and whooped.

The boy on the ground, no, the knight, lowered his Nerf shield and raised a foam battle-axe high above his head. His eyes, shaded beneath his soup-strainer helmet, were two pinpricks of light. The line of his jaw, at the end of his long face, was stiffened with pride.

“Sir Spider-Man, Prince of California!” the boy shouted.

Devon lowered her sword and leaned over the wooden railing, the one her Dad had added to the tree house the year before. When he’d been hammering it into place, measuring angles and lengths with strange devices, he’d said it had been necessary.

“You kids are made of rubber,” Dad had said. “But rubber breaks and so do your silly necks. This’ll keep everyone happy and alive and your Mom won’t have to body slam me.”

Devon sighed and put on her “Don’t You Know” voice. “Bloom!  You can’t be Spider-Man.”

“Can too, you said I could call myself whatever I want.”

“You’re a knight, Spider-Man isn’t a knight.”

“Says who?”

Bloom couldn’t possibly understand. He never played right.

“So he’s a knight if I say he’s a knight,” Bloom said.

“No!”

Bloom stared at the ground, his feet shuffling. “Fine! Go again.”

Devon cleared her throat, punched her Nerf long sword at the sky, and trumpeted again.

“Who goes there!”

“Sir Peter of Parker, King of Awesometown! I come to burn this castle to the ground! To loot the women and bilge the city!”

Devon held her head in her hands, baby-fine red hair cascading over her little chubby fingers, and sighed. Even then, she’d had enormous gag-gift black glasses perched on her freckle-sprayed nose.

“Bloom, why can’t you play right?”

“I’m playing! Playing is playing, egghead.”

Devon’s cheeks lit up like she had a light bulb under her tongue.

“Call me that again! I dare you!”

Bloom threw his shield on the ground, stepped forward, and leveled his Nerf. Pointing up the trunk of the tree, over the railing, until Devon stared down the very end of it, right into Bloom’s powerful gaze. Even then, his eyes had been weird, containing an eerie aura of complete and utter don’t-caredness.

“You. Are. A. Super. Ultra. Egghead.” Bloom whipped his axe over his shoulder and popped his fists against his waist, like Peter Pan. “Bring it on Ginger!”

Devon screamed a seven-year-old battle cry and slid down the tree house’s escape pole. She slammed into the grass, and launched herself at Bloom. Bloom caught her wrists, and the two of them tumbled into the dirt.

Bloom kicked her away, leaped, and landed on top of her. She stared up at his face, hidden in darkness, the sun behind him. He’d been a towhead back then, and the light exploded his flyaway blond hair in a glowing nimbus.

She couldn’t see his face, but his eyes were still glowing.

His face smoothed.

When he spoke, his voice was deeper.

“I’m coming to save you,” Bloom said. “I swear.”

Devon gasped.

A man stood over her.

A man with salt-and-pepper long hair, and a neatly-trimmed beard. His face was set.

Green.

Devon sucked in another breath and sat up in her bed.

Chapter 26

Words Unwise

 

She shielded herself with her covers and stared up at his blurred face. Her hands trembled, and her heart double-tapped in her chest.

“What’re you doing in here?”

She hated the quiver in her voice.

Green leaned against the (closed) door, his arms crossed over his chest. For the first time, she noticed how tired he looked. The laugh lines around his eyes were deeper than she remembered, like ravines cut into rock. The furious green light of his eyes had dimmed, emerald deposits at the back of a mine shaft.

 “Please answer,” Devon whispered. Her voice sounded, to her, exactly like the seven-year-old Devon who’d shouted “Who Goes There” to Bloom.

Her gun was under the bed. If she moved faster than she’d ever moved in her entire life, she might get to it before Green could grab her.

“I had kids,” Green explained, after a long beat. He seemed to reconsider, his lip twisting. He went quiet again.

The watch on her bedside said 1:39 AM.

“Are you drunk?”

Green’s eyes brightened.

“No, of course not.”

He looked at her, blinked, as if seeing her for the first time.

“I had two kids, before. A wife, too.”

Devon dug around for the tank top she’d tossed off the side of the bed. She grabbed it and slid it on – the smell of old sweat hit her in the face. Then she tugged the strap of her duffel out from under the bed. The Browning slipped into her hand, and she sat up on the bed, the gun and its holster sitting on her lap.

Green glanced at the gun, then looked up at Devon.

“What was her name?” Devon asked.

“Celeste,” Green dug his fingers through his hair, trying to arrange the mess. “I just called her Cell, most of the time. Bugged the hell out of her.”

Devon could see Green flinging backward through time. The light in his eyes sank back, the tunnel elongating, until his eyes were two black coals. The room was almost pitch black. The only light at all, Devon realized, came from them. The glyph on her hand burned an eye-piercing violet. It threw purple shadows across the bed spread and over the walls.

Green’s only visible glyph, his left-hand glyph, burned the same electric violet. Beneath his white shirt, she could see the diffuse shapes of other glyphs – the back-to-back crescent moons on his chest, the pied-off circle just above his belly button, the one that looked like a trivial pursuit tray with no pieces in it.

“What did she look like?” Devon asked.

Everything felt weird, distant and dream-like.

“Tall. Taller than me,” Green said. “But thin like a willow branch. If you called her delicate she’d bop you in the nose. Mid-length hair – she straightened it sometimes, when she got bored. Girls with curly hair sometimes – “

He groped behind him like a blind man. He sat heavily on the edge of the desk like his legs had gone out.

“Mahogany skin. She used to joke about ebony and ivory. Every time we went to her parents, she’d always say ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ So silly. Me and her Dad got along fine . . .”

Devon set the Browning aside. She sat up, slowly, feeling a tickle in the back of her mind. She had only a single question, one she didn’t have the heart to ask.

“She used to love the Grand Canyon,” he said. “Her parents lived in Arizona. She used to stare at it, for hours, when we went. She’d never say anything, she’d just, I don’t know. Looked at it. Maybe imagining what it used to be, or what it would turn into.”

“What about your kids?”

Green snapped out of his trance, his eyes flaring to life. “I need you to listen to me. Do you understand?”

“I am listen – “

“No, listen to what I say. I asked you not to show anyone your glyph.”

Emotional whiplash, your table is ready.

“Alex was dying. He was bleeding out. Gunshot wounds are pretty serious, I hear.”

“Cut the crap,” Green stood up, and the desk thumped against the wall. “Why do you think I asked you?”

“More cryptic bullshit.” A thrill of fear bounced like a pinball up her spine. “You know, I saved your life by running in and acting rashly. Maybe I should stick with that strategy.”

“You’re happy with what happened out there?”

Devon remembered Cheyenne’s face. She thought of Emile, caught mid-sentence with his head opening up like a grotesque hinge. “Of course not.”

“You chose Alex,” Green said.

“I didn’t choose anyone.”

“Didn’t you? Alex might have survived. You’re a medic.”

“Maybe. You don’t know that.”

“Neither do you,” Green said. “Let’s say he did survive. When Cheyenne was attacked, you might have been able to save her. If you’d been conscious.”

“Panacea knocked me on my ass. That’s not my – “

“Isn’t it? You chose. You could heal one person, and you chose Alex.”

“What’s wrong with Alex?” Devon didn’t believe him, but the anger in her chest had to be spat out, like poison.

“Nothing at all,” Green said. “But Cheyenne is dead.”

“So what?” Devon almost jumped out of bed. At the last second, she remembered she was only wearing panties on her lower half. “I shouldn’t have saved anyone? Should have kept my glyph a secret while people died?”

“If necessary – “

“Screw you,” Devon said.

“Want to know why they hate you?”

“I don’t care.”

“Because maybe you can go home,” Green said. “If.”

Devon stared at him.

Green went for the door and jerked it open, savagely, despite the calm expression on his face.

“If?”

“You’re not a deviate,” Green said. “You’re branded. Not changed, like them, not a walking magical radiation leak.”

“Aren’t I?” Devon thought of the dove . . .

“You are until you learn to control your glyph. Until you learn to control yourself, you’re dangerous.”

Green stood in the doorway, waiting for her to say something.

Devon stared at him, but she didn’t blink or speak.

Green shook his head –

He closed the door behind him, leaving Devon alone with the soft violet light of the spiral on her hand.

 

***

 

Days marched by, and though she didn’t know it at the time, the week-of-hell was coming to an end.

The center atrium of the mall contained a modern-art fountain, a thing of obsidian rectangles cascading with water. Once again, Devon marveled at the waste of it all. The power, the air conditioning, the fountains. Conservation wasn’t the name of the game here at Camp Echo. She understood how it was possible – the amount of juice that had once powered half the state now only powered one military base and one freak factory. There would be plenty to spare.

She couldn’t shake the feeling of how unnecessary it was.

A football field-sized skylight, latticed with steel, streamed sunlight into the massive atrium. The white-shirts were gathered in a rough semi-circle around the central fountain, some sitting on benches and tables, others leaning against an old information kiosk with rolling doors shuttered closed.

Devon sat on the edge of the circle. She lounged against the wall of what had once been a jewelry counter but now wasn’t anything at all. She stared straight forward, never turning at the stares or reacting to the snide comments.

At the center of the atrium, standing on the lip of the fountain, was Axel Abbot. Rotund, but muscled, military haircut, Yoga pajamas, in all his glory.

Axel Abbot was teaching, as he always did. They were doing breath control today, which basically made the atrium sound like a Lamaze class. Lots of “breathing with your stomach” then “breathing with your chest,” most of which Devon found not only anatomically inaccurate but full of hippy bon-mots that must have come straight from Kidder Green.

Not that Green was around. He’d given Devon a few random impromptu visits, some in the middle of the night, others in the middle of class. Green pulled her out of the morning jog once, which Devon knew only increased the other students’ murderous desire.

None of the talks had been particularly helpful.

Apparently she wasn’t any good at “communing.” Or “harmony.” Or “not rolling her eyes when Green talked.”

On the plus side, her medic studies had never gotten so much of her attention. And that was saying something. She didn’t know for sure, but she guessed she could probably qualify as an EMT or a corpsmen in a heartbeat.

Devon breathed in and out, hissing or puffing as Axel instructed.

One of the Echoes raised his hand. She recognized him as Jay Quizon (KEYS-on), a thin Filipino kid who hung out with Raze. He had dusky skin, a runner’s body, and a darkly handsome face that was quick to sneer. She didn’t know him very well, but she was sure she didn’t like him.

“I can’t hear you, Mr. Abbot,” Quizon said. “I’m really sorry. That redhead in the back is moaning too loud.”

Devon’s entire body stiffened.

“Quizon,” Axel said. “You know a quick mouth can lead to slow dental surgery?”

Quizon bellowed laughter, even though everyone else had sucked in shocked breaths at the burn. Quizon waved his hand lazily at Axel, turned, and bowed in Devon’s direction.

“Just kidding Ginger,” Quizon said.

Devon’s eyes flicked to her left – Naya, rock-skinned lizard girl, was making a threatening gesture at Quizon with her massive black talons.

Naya and Devon made eye contact, and Naya wore a ghost of a playful smile.

 

***

 

When the class ended, Devon stood up and, after a tense moment of consideration, tried to rendezvous with Naya. She made it six steps before she hit a wall of Raze. Devon bounced back, and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose.

“I’m a slut,” Devon said. “Wait! I think I’m special. No. I think I’m smarter than you. I’m funny when I fall down. Oh I’ve got it! No boobs. I don’t have any boobs.”

Raze flicked her black hair away from her large face and stared down “Are you sassing me, Red?”

“I’d say . . . yes, yeah I’m going with sass.”

Raze and a shark have two things in common: their inability to stop, and their smile.

“I like a little wriggle in my food.”

Devon added a third thing to the Raze/shark comparison. “Are you saying you want to eat me? Can’t we hold hands first?”

“I saw Green in your room,” Raze said.

Devon’s half-smirk ran away from her face.

“Past midnight, you keep him up late.”

“Screw off.”

“There’s that anger, I’ve heard that about gingers. Feisty, increased risk of skin cancer, sort of dorky.”

Devon snapped her mouth closed and marched away. Raze kept pace with her.

“So is that how you get it?” Raze asked. “The glyph thing? Do you have to play a little polo first?”

One. Foot. In front of the other. She tried Abbot’s breathing exercises, low and slow, and found, to her surprise, that her rage quieted down. The humiliation faded, and she was just listening to idiot chirp noises.

She walked out the front doors. She could hear grunting noises from the beach, so Devon turned that way. The taste of the ocean crowded into her mouth, the waves splashed in her ears, and the bright sunlight bouncing off the glassy ocean blinded her.

“Are we running away now?” Raze asked in a pleasant voice. “I didn’t have time to throw a party.”

Devon cleared her throat. She could see a CQC class going on down by the surf, tucked up in a thin sliver between water and cliff face. She marched down the earthen ramp, taking Abbot-breaths. In the chest, five times, slow. In the stomach, five times, slow. Both now, five times, slow.

When they hit the bottom, Devon saw that Ahern was putting a group of black-shirts through pretty intensive calisthenics. She wasn’t certain, but it looked like the black shirts were warming down.

“Oh, it’s Ahern is it?” Raze whistled low. “The girl aims high. Are you going to tell your boyfriend on me? Should I be worried?”

“What did this to you?” Devon asked. “Why? Why do you act like this?”

“I don’t like being lied to, sweetie.  I don’t bullshit my friends.”

Devon ran her hands down her face. “What?!”

“I told you, I liked you,” Raze said. Her voice lost the smirky cat-in-cream tone. “You lied to me. You lied to your team. Now Cheyenne and Emile are dead.”

“You don’t know anything about what happened.”

“I know enough. You took your sweet ass time saving Alex, and because you suck at your job, Cheyenne and Emile died. Everyone knows it.”

“Oh is that what happened?”

“That’s right,” Raze said. “Just so you could be Green’s little apple polisher.”

Devon laughed in Raze’s face. For the first time since Devon had met her, Raze actually looked shocked.

“It’s the end of the world,” Devon laughed again, deep in her belly. “And you’re still in high school.”

Devon left her there and pounded across the sand.

She marched up to Ahern, pointed an accusatory finger, and flipped her long orange hair out of her face.

“Sir?” Devon grunted.

“Yes?” Ahern asked, squinting at her.

“Kick my ass.”

Chapter 27

Sand in New Places

 

Reece Ahern stared at her, his eyes bugging. He glanced at his trainees, then at her, a double-take so perfectly cartoonish that Devon actually burst out a shaky chuckle.

“I suck at this,” Devon said. “I need to be better.”

Ahern twisted his lips.

“Kick the shit out of her, Reece,” one of the blackshirts called.

“Everyone stand down,” Ahern said. “Thank you for your time.”

Even as Ahern watched them with guarded eyes, the trainees made a show of getting their things together . . . slowly.

Ahern spoke low – the crashing waves and gull cries masked his voice well enough. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m pissed.”

He nodded and backed off. His eyes changed, from guarded compassion to something predatory. He scraped up and down her body, then locked on her eyes. Her breath, hard and fast, made her chest heave. She slid her right leg back, putting the lion’s share of her weight on it.

She noticed that Raze Takeshi stood half-way down the ramp, watching the two of them circle each other like gunslingers.

Ahern danced in and snapped a high jab at her face. Devon ducked and stuttered backward, too slow. The punch missed her, as it had intended. She realized he was gauging her reaction time, the way her body naturally dodged how her feet moved. She saw this happen in his eyes in a split second. Then his eyes slid down to her shoulders. They kind of . . . unfocused, the way you do when taking in a piece of artwork.

Devon had no idea what Ahern’s deviation might be, but in that second she knew what his natural talent was: he’d completely sized her up. He’d recorded every motion of her body, every tell. Suddenly, she saw him relax. His body rolled and loped, and he reminded her of a panther she’d once seen on Animal Planet. The panther had flowed, like its entire body was poured from black oil. Ahern moved exactly the same. His muscles slid beneath his black tank top. His dark eyes focused again.

He leaped.

His right leg came up high, and Devon knew there was no chance she could block anything that powerful. She rolled to her right, sending up a spray of sand. Ahern was already on top of her, and he tossed a casual punch into her side. She rolled again, taking away some of his strength, but not all. His knuckles raked across her ribs, and a bright clear splash of pain painted her side. She gritted her teeth, cupped a handful of sand as she came out of her roll and whipped it into Ahern’s face.

Ahern clapped his hands over his eyes and coughed in surprise.

Devon spun and cracked a tight fist into Ahern’s mid-section. Ahern’s other arm swept, too fast, and snatched her wrist in the split-second after she connected with her punch.

His fingers clamped like a snake bite. The muscles in his hands were stronger than her entire body – she whipped and tugged, but Ahern barely moved. He didn’t have anything like human strength.

Her eyes widened.

Devon shot a knee up between his legs in wild panic. Eyes still closed, Ahern dropped his right knee down and to the left, deflecting her knee. He tugged her down with it.

Okay, time for the stupid part. Devon coiled her legs beneath her, slapped Ahern’s shoulder, and vaulted over his kneeling posture. Her free elbow hooked him in the neck, and the force of the jump and her weight spilled them both in a crazy pile into the sand.

Ahern let go of her hand.

He’d been pulled onto his back, bent backwards with his knees, calves and feet tucked beneath him. His eyelids fluttered rapidly, and he scraped at the clods of sand flecked in his face.

Devon stepped on his chest, grabbed one of his wrists, and yanked his thumb back into one of the submission holds he’d taught her. ‘It doesn’t matter how big they are,’ Ahern had said, ‘crank back this way, and that’s about all she wrote.’

Ahern gurgled in pain for about half a second.

His wrist rotated, and even with her entire hand over his thumb, he began to bend it back into a fist. Devon’s stared in shock, right before he bounced impossibly to his feet. The jump and mid-air contortion looked like something out of Cirque de Soleil.

The crowd of blackshirts sang a harmonized cry of surprise and delight.

In the time it took her to blink in surprise, Ahern rabbit-punched her three times in the stomach. He must have pulled every punch – with his strength and perfect form, he could have turned her ribs into yogurt-with-granola. Devon doubled over, her breath exploding out of her mouth.

A coiled python of leg muscle hit her behind the knees, and her back slapped the sand with a bang like cars crashing together.

Ahern towered over her. Devon’s lungs tried to grab armloads of oxygen. The tall Marine was breathing steady and calm, his head cocked to the side. No drop of sweat glittered anywhere on his skin.

An odd clarity had enveloped her, a perfect perception that always comes with fresh pain.

“That was incredible,” Ahern said.

Devon managed to frown.

“Improvisation. Quick thinking. Crazy-ass risk-taking. Want to go again?”

Devon stared at him.

“Yes.”

They went again.

Devon got in two shots and one arm lock before Ahern had her in the sand again. Her heart bounced on a string between her chest and throat, one second choking her breath then the next blowing her chest up. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the world.

Their audience left through the middle of the third bout. Ahern and Devon kept dancing. She could see bonfires flaring in Ahern’s dark eyes. He was still dry, his breathing still cool and calm, but his gorgeous mouth had twisted into an exultant grin.

He put her down again in three quick moves – a fake punch to the gut, a light stinging kick upside her head that had been more shocking than painful, and finally a shoulder flip that flopped her down into the sand again.

“I’m . . . getting so tired . . . of sand,” Devon puffed.

Ahern helped her to her feet.

They circled each other – Devon tucked her long sweat-soaked orange hair into a loose bun, tying it in on itself. Her feet stung from the sand, and her whole body felt like a bruise. They were alone against the cliff, the wind baying in her ears, the ocean roiling and boiling.

“I know I . . . can’t beat you.”

Ahern nodded, simply. His joyful grin hadn’t moved. “Funny thing? I don’t think I can beat you.”

Devon laughed so loudly, so naturally that she popped her hands over her mouth. She stared at him with wide sunny eyes.

“Well I can bring you down, Sure. But could I win? I don’t know.”

She stopped circling and popped her hands on her hips. A dim awareness floated at the back of her mind, of how sweat-soaked her white clothes were, of how they clung to her. He didn’t look away from her eyes. When they fought, occasionally they danced down to her shoulders, the turn-signal blinker for any move she might make, but never further down. If there was a part of her that lured him, it was in her eyes.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Devon asked. “I’m not a flattery fan.”

“No flattery,” Ahern said. “Just the truth. I’d have to kill you to get you to quit, wouldn’t I?”

Devon smiled and faked a pretty bow from a coming-out party in a Jane Austen novel. “You certainly know what to say to a girl.”

Ahern smirked. “One more round?”

“Do you have something to teach me?”

“I know a few things.”

“Just a few?”

“More than you,” Ahern said.

“How would you know?”

“Oh I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

“Just ideas or a plan?”

“A plan for what?” Ahern asked. “Are you suggesting something?”

Devon’s lungs still crawled for air, but they were slowing. She sensed every inch of her body, alive and burning hot from over-exertion, slick with sweat.

“How come you’re the only one who’ll talk to me?” she asked.

“You saved my life, I could care less what those assholes think of you.”

“Why’s that?”

“I know the truth,” he said.

“Care to share?”

“Not really,” Ahern said.

Devon stalked up to him, until she was staring up into the granite-cut features of a face with shadowed eyes. His eyes, still hanging bruised darkened bags, were no less intense for his apparent sorrow. Or pain. An after-effect of whatever the Shade had done to him, to be sure, but there was something more. Or maybe, she thought, something less.

A hole. Those men he’d been with . . . his team. His friends. Dead.

He only had Green now – she’d known that. Who did he talk to? Green. Green wasn’t someone who had friends. Green had enemies and pupils and guards, maybe, but not friends.

Devon wondered if Bloom was alive. If her mom had even bothered looking for her. Just another body amongst foundations, right? There wasn’t anyone for her, either, at her old home or her new. Alone.

Her fingers slipped over his. She wrapped both her hands around his calloused fingers and clutched it tight to her throat. She tucked her chin over it, and Ahern’s body turned to the same granite as his chiseled face. For the first time since she’d met him, he was nervous. It burned in his eyes, like a lighthouse beam cutting the ink-black sea.

“Want to go again?” Devon laughed, but her voice was shaking. The adrenaline dumped out of her, leaving her trembling and confused and weak.

Ahern pulled her in tight, and his powerful arms – again she felt his incredible strength – encircled her waist. His lips crushed into hers frantically but restrained, like an animal at the end of its chain. Snapping short, being pulled back, straining with muscles like bundled rope.

Her fingers clutched at his back, trying to dig in, but it was like he’d been carved out of wood. There was some give, but it almost didn’t feel like muscle. It felt denser, completely resistant and unmistakably potent.

His scent, sweat and ocean and something underneath it, musky and strong and delightfully masculine. His eyes squeezed closed, and he backed up, dragging her with him effortlessly, crushing into the cliff wall. Rock chips whipped out at crazy angles, and Devon’s eyes widened.

He drew her in tighter, until she felt every curve of her body fitting perfectly into every plane of his. Her hands slipped up his face, into his hair, where she grabbed handfuls of his black locks and pulled his face harder into hers. Their lips clashed, teeth and tongue. They were devouring each other, happily, with wild abandon and yet keen, impenetrable loneliness.

She could feel it in him, as she could feel it in herself. The alone.

They tore at each other’s clothes, and they sank into the sand, and the waves crashed and the birds screamed and the sun drank the ocean.

Chapter 28

Serenity

 

Bloom’s favorite military phrase was the “Charlie Foxtrot.” It was a filthy phrase, if you knew your NATO phonetic alphabet. The “C” stood for the word “cluster,” and the “F” stood for an F-word. He was thinking about the phrase because they were in the middle of one.

Scott’s shotgun stopped working. He’d been pelting the air with lead, keeping the Rell at bay. On his second reload, the shotgun just . . . clicked. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a jam. Bloom had seen it before, hell he’d been victim to it before, and he knew what it meant.

Magic. A crapload of it.

Scott’s shotgun, a Remington, was five years old. Simple enough to work in the Mergelands, but way too new to go up against any real magic. Big Bear Jim had a Buffalo Bill-esque Winchester lever-action rifle, and it barked fire without a hitch. Ditto for Bloom’s Garand, and his Colt Navy. Neither was “technology” by any modern definition.

Tannis had less problems than all of them. As Scott cursed and dropped down behind the guard rail, the Shade girl popped up and let loose a pair of arrows. They arced away and out of sight, but two far off screams of agony told the story just fine. She bounced down, tucked her bow against her chest, and slid to the right a good dozen feet before popping up and taking another shot.

“Heads up!” Bloom shouted. “Scott!”

The kid turned around, and Bloom tossed his gun belt. Scott caught it and yanked the Colt Navy out of its holster. The thing looked like a cartoon pistol in his hand.

“Pain in the ass to reload,” Bloom said. “Don’t waste your shots.”

Scott nodded.

“What’s our plan here?” Jim growled. He snapped off three more shots and took cover.

Bloom laughed out loud. When had he become the leader? Looking to him for advice had about the same success rate as a magic eight ball. Maybe less success rate, Bloom wasn’t sure. Ask Again Later.

A quick peek over the concrete guard rail told him they were in trouble.

They’d run out of energy long before the Rell had, and Jim and Bloom had agreed that their only option was to stop running and take a stand. It wasn’t a good plan, but it was a plan. If they’d fled much longer, the Rell would have found them passed out and drooling like morons. Easy pickins. 

Jim had led them up onto an overpass, giving them the high ground but absolutely nowhere to run. There were enough cars on the overpass to provide cover from flank attacks, and the concrete dividers on the edge of the overpass made for impermeable cover.

It didn’t matter, not really, Bloom thought. They’d just picked a better place to die.

Wyatt walked in circles, unflinching at the gunfire, his ears perked. Whenever he passed Bloom, he ran his flank across his leg before resuming his vigil.

Rell arrows, steel-tipped and obsidian-tipped and stone-tipped arced high over them, sailing over the overpass or exploding against the concrete. The inhuman archers were having a hard time finding the proper arc to hit them. Whenever an arrow did get close, Bloom and company would all just shuffle one way or the other to spoil their aim.

Again, it sounded like good news. It should have been.

Bloom peeked over the divider and dropped back down. There were over three hundred inhumans arrayed in the road beneath them, hiding behind ample cover. Bloom had taken a dozen, as had Jim and Tannis. It didn’t matter. Tannis was almost out of arrows, same for Jim with his shells. Bloom had enough for a while longer, but not forever.

“Any ideas?” Jim asked.

“Helicopter evac?” Bloom asked. “Superman? Clint Eastwood on a pterodactyl?”

Jim rubbed his beard and smiled. “I guess that’s better than my plan.”

“We were screwed as soon as they found us. So that’s . . . comforting.”

They grinned at each other. Bloom wasn’t sure why they were grinning, but they couldn’t stop it. Bloom felt invincible all of a sudden. Humans have their own magic, and thy name be “adrenaline.”

“Why do the Rell want us?” Scott asked.

Tannis launched a volley of arrows before taking cover again. She swept her strange black eyes across all of them.

“They want you gone,” Tannis said. “They want everything you are to disappear.”

‘“So . . . you’re saying we should try diplomacy?” Bloom asked.

“Don’t you guys want us dead too?” Scott asked.

Jim took another half-dozen shots over the divider. Bloom popped up beside him and sighted down his scope. A man-shaped thing appeared there, crouched behind a Volkswagen. It didn’t matter. Bloom’s height advantage spoiled its protection. The inhuman wore rags, and it had some kind of scepter in its hand, complete with a dusty-looking purple jewel at its tip. Coarse hair covered its entire body. It pointed the scepter up toward the overpass, right at Bloom, and the purple gem sparked with light.

Nope. Bloom pulled the trigger, and the nightmare disappeared, crumpling down behind the Volkswagen. Its blood had been powdery. It sprayed behind it like a handful of sand in the wind. Bloom wondered what Devon would have to say about the anatomical uses of dust for blood. He grinned at the thought, and knew somewhere deep down that he was losing his grip.

Devon had been his handle, his anchor. If he didn’t get to her . . .

“We don’t want you near our homes,” Tannis said. “As you do not want us.”

“This planet is ours,” Scott said with wounded pride. “The whole thing is our home.”

“It was,” Tannis jumped up and loosed an arrow. “Now our homes are . . .”

“Merged,” Jim said, between two shots.

Scott frowned. “So what the hell is their deal? Why are they chasing us?”

“They are an old order,” Tannis said. “Never taken seriously. A cult, you would call it. Fringe. No more than a dozen at any time, in the old days.”

“Yeah well they don’t make crazy cults how they used to, because there’s a shit-ton more than a dozen,” Bloom laughed into the wind.

“Why – “ Scott began.

The world rocked. Bloom fell on his ass. Scott and Tannis went down, but Jim grabbed the concrete with both hands and stayed on his feet. It didn’t help him. An arrow took him through the shoulder. Blood hit the air, and Jim collapsed to the asphalt.

“Dad!”

Scott went to him. Tannis vised Bloom’s wrist and shook her head.

“It’s Her,” she said. “Only She could – “

The ground bucked hard. If the overpass had been built anywhere but California, it would have sent them down to their doom. As it was, the overpass merely rolled and bounced, tossing them around like dice on a craps table.

“Magic?” Bloom asked.

“Yes,” Tannis said. “Shaker. They’re trying to bring us down. We have to get off this bridge.”

Bloom agreed, but if they left they died too. Both of the exit ramps had been blocked by Rell.

“How is he?” Bloom asked.

Scott didn’t look away from his father, lying sprawled out on the wildly trembling asphalt. A feathered shaft sprouted from the big bear’s chest.

“Alive,” Scott said. “He’s b-bleeding real bad . . .”

Bloom looked at Tannis. “They’ll kill us.”

Tannis nodded.

“Will they kill you?” Bloom asked.

Tannis considered the question for a long time. Bloom never heard the answer.

A voice boomed through the air, and Bloom clutched his ears. It sounded like a cannon going off, if a cannon had something threatening to say.

“Lay down your arms,” a male voice roared. It seemed to be enhanced– Bloom guessed it probably wasn’t a megaphone. “Lay down your arms and you will live.”

Bloom watched Tannis. The Shade girl’s eyes, hard and cold and black, told him everything he needed to know about that offer.

“Do they want you?” Scott asked. He had his hand cupped where the arrow shaft disappeared into his father’s ample flesh. “A-are they after you?”

“They were hunting you,” Tannis said, spitting out the words. “Long before we found you, you were on the run.”

“M-maybe.”

Jim coughed and tried to speak, but it was all wind and bubbles. A pink froth spilled from his lips. Bloom didn’t need Devon’s medical expertise to know that Jim was going to die. The arrow had skewered his lung, and this far away from SONGS and the last piece of modern medicine, Jim was a goner.

“If you do not follow,” the voice shouted, “the bridge will break apart at Her word.”

There’s that Her again. Bloom had noticed the hard “H”. Worship.

“And we all d-die,” Scott whispered. His eyes unfocused. He gripped Bloom’s Colt Navy with white, bloodless hands.

“We’re not gonna die,” Bloom said. “Because we’re the heroes, right?”

Scott stared at him.

He swung his rifle into his hands, settled his Stetson over his brow, and stepped up onto the concrete divider. Below him, the ground loomed, a fifty foot pitfall straight onto blacktop. Inhumans of all disgusting shapes and sizes stood out amongst the cars, dressed in stolen human clothing or roughspun linen, others wearing nothing at all. There had to be three hundred, maybe even four, all staring up with perfect expressions of alarm. Bloom smirked at that. To his surprise, he noticed a few real-live humans among the throng, holding weapons like all the others.

What the hell?

He held his rifle over his head, as if he was wading through a stream.

“Who speaks?” he belted. “Who dares?”

Behind him, he heard Scott gasp. Tannis started whispering something to herself, a prayer of some kind. Bloom even thought it was a stupid idea, but sometimes being unpredictable goes a long way.

An image popped in his mind, one so clear and sudden that he almost tripped – seven-year-old Devon Streeter, a Nerf sword in her hand and a salad bowl on her head, leaning over a tree house railing, daring all comers.

A tall, ivory-skinned, naked thing unfolded from behind a pickup truck – it towered over the others. Even from a distance, Bloom could see that the thing had no genitals. It was smooth down there, like a G.I. Joe.

It had a perfectly round face, white eyes and a lipless mouth crowded with teeth like broken glass. It had a face made for seeing and eating. A primal sense of RUN flooded through him, but he bit down hard on his cheek to keep his guts.

Bloom held his rifle loosely at his side like a wizard’s staff.

Tall, White, and Horrifying spoke, and its voice carried with that same eerie power.

“Lay down your arms, child,” the thing said. “Lay down your arms and join us.”

Chapter 29

Deal of a Lifetime

 

“Zealot!” a voice yelled, boosted to incredible volumes by that same power. It sounded female, confident, and it matched the figure that appeared.

She made an impressive entrance. The whole scene stank of theater.

Directly underneath the overpass, the air distorted, like it was being grabbed and twisted. A woman, hooded and cloaked in blue-black fabric, appeared on top of a massive eighteen wheeler.

 Though her hood hid most of her face, something against her skin caught the light and glinted fiercely. She stared straight up at Bloom.

“Hello, Daniel,” the woman said.

Bloom’s legs went weak, and he almost fell.“How do you know my name?”

He could see the lower half of a lovely face beneath the hood. Her lips curved into a mischievous smile that made his heart hurt.

“Call me Sirine,” she said, pronouncing it just like serene. “Now we are on even footing, yes?”

“What’re you after, little lady?” Bloom cocked his hat back on his brow with one jaunty thumb pop.

“Conversation,” Sirine spread her hands, displaying pale green fingers engulfed by voluminous sleeves.

“You ask pretty hard,” Bloom said. “You must be really starved for banter.”

She cupped her hand near her mouth, a stage whisper to a crowded theater.

“To be honest, Daniel, you hit the nail right on the head.”

Bloom tried not to let his smirk falter but her casual grip on slang freaked him out.

“Put your guns away,” she said, still in her ‘jus-folks’ tone. “Hop on down, and come meet my friends. I promise they won’t bite.”

Bloom flicked his eyes toward the monster Tall, White, and Horrifying who they called Zealot. That mouth could swallow a dog in one bite. That made him think of Wyatt, and just how pissed Devon would be if he got her dog killed.

“I should take your word . . . why?” Bloom asked.

Sirine rubbed her chin.

“I could kill you now.”

Bloom didn’t doubt that. “Why don’t you?”

Sirine’s mouth bent into a deep, almost comical frown. “I don’t kill my friends, Daniel.”

“We’re friends? I wonder how you treat your enemies.”

Sirine’s mouth flattened out. “Wanna find out?”

Bloom paused. Glanced behind him. Scott’s eyes were pained slits, and they were locked on Tannis. Tannis had her eyes closed, and her lips were moving fast.

“How can we trust you?” Bloom asked.

“Trust has to be earned, Daniel, too true,” Sirine said. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a wounded man.”

Sirine frowned, and this time it wasn’t comical in the slightest. “We have dead men, and women, too. At your hands, Daniel.”

“What would you have done?” Bloom asked. “If you were being hunted down?”

“I woulda done the same, Daniel. Really. I hold no grudges for self-defense. We’d like to give you an offer.”

“What kind of offer?”

“A membership deal,” she said with a pleasant chuckle.

“In your merry band of murderers?” Bloom asked.

Bubbles of giddiness swept up into his belly. Call it insanity or impatience, but Bloom didn’t really feel like talking anymore.

He heard three quick steps behind him and felt a hard cold circle of metal prod him in the ribs. Shit.

“If you save my d-dad!” Scott shouted. He had his finger on the trigger of the Colt Navy and the barrel kissing Bloom’s kidneys. Bloom didn’t move, but he sucked in a hard breath between his teeth. “If you save him I’ll bring these two down for you.”

Sirine’s laughter tinkled up to them, and she clapped her hands together. “Thank you, Scott! You are a doll!”

Bloom sighed.

“D-d-drop the rifle,” Scott said to Bloom. His voice sounded like it had been tossed in a blender. “Do it. Off the eh-edge.”

“Shoot me asshole, I love this gun,” Bloom said.

Bloom threw his rifle into the bed of the pick-up truck near Tannis. It landed with a spectacular clatter.

“Hey!” Scott said, and jabbed Bloom hard enough in the ribs to make him gasp in pain. “Dammit. Get down.”

Bloom lowered himself off the concrete barrier and stuck his hands up. He flicked his eyes over to Tannis. He couldn’t tell if she was praying or just in maximum freak-out. She still had her eyes closed, her hands in her lap, the bow leaning against her knees. Her whispers had become desperate rasps.

“Fine time to go catatonic,” Bloom snapped at her.

Tannis didn’t flinch.

“On y-your knees!” Scott shouted.

“You’re really taking admirably to the role of ‘dirty traitor,’” Bloom muttered.

He shuffled to his knees and laced his fingers behind his head.

“Okay!” Scott shouted over the edge. “Come up! Hurry! My dad . . .”

“The Shade?” Sirine shouted up from beneath them.

“She’s – “

Scott’s voice stopped dead, like a soundproofed screen had been dropped in front of him. Bloom looked to his left and felt his jaw slack – Tannis was gone. Her bow was gone. No sign of movement, not a sound. Nothing. Besides Jim, they were alone.

“Wow,” Bloom laughed. “That’s gotta be terrifying.”

Scott spun around, the Colt Navy shaking. Bloom took the opportunity to yank the knife from his boot. He spun up to one knee . . .

The world brightened and yet went blurrier. A bright clamor of bells exploded in his ears. Reality detached like a helium balloon on a badly tied string. A sharp pain rang in his temple, and Bloom stumbled. The knife fell from his numb hand, and Scott spun around in shock. Colorful streaks ran behind his motions, curving around, taking their sweet ass time to settle.

Bloom knew what was happening. He just couldn’t believe it.

Not now. Not now not nownownownot.

The world sank down to a tunnel, at the end of which was a circle of light and the frightened face of a kid with a gun. Before the lights went out, Bloom saw an auburn torpedo fly through the air, a dog as quiet as a shadow plow into the kid, knocking them both away . . .

Then the seizure started, and the world stuttered away.

Chapter 30

Speech and Debate

 

Devon woke up to the usual boot-camp bullshit.

Shouting. Furious profanity, usually in the “worm,” “insect,” “genital-nickname” genre, followed by the classic blanket-yank. In her heart, with all of her soul, Devon believed that anyone who tore the warmth from a sleeping person had to spend at least a few minutes in hell for every individual cover stolen.

To her complete stupefaction, it had been Raze who’d torn her from her bed.

Devon stared up at her, her mouth hanging open in a spectacular display for moronity, while Raze hooted and laughed and stuffed her arms full of clothes.

Devon watched with sleep-blunted senses as Raze belted out dirty jokes and stuffed her gear into a backpack. Her Kindle. A bunch of silver-package military rations. A canteen.

“Are you robbing me?”

“Is this all the ammo you have?” Raze asked, holding up her webbing belt.

“One in the gun,” Devon mumbled. “Two spare.”

“Okay,” Raze said. She produced three more clips from her pocket, and dropped them into her backpack.

“What in the hell . . . “ Devon started. She popped her glasses onto her face. She dragged the big tangles out of her hair and tossed it up into a slipshod ponytail.

“Field trip,” Raze said. “They said grab chow in the food court. Bring your pack. Then it’s outside past the buses. Twenty minutes. Got it?”

“What?” Devon said again.

Raze hopped forward, kissed her on the cheek, and bolted away.

Devon dropped her backpack in surprise.

Were they kicking her out? Had they found out about her thing with Ahern? Was that not allowed?

She couldn’t believe that had happened yesterday. What the hell had happened?

Devon ran her hand over her stomach and stared at the wall.

Giddy, tired, confused and excited, Devon grabbed her pack and raced out of her room.

 

***

 

“Push-ups,” Green said. “Jogging. Swimming. Fighting – we won’t be doing any of that. Or, we won’t be training you on any of that.”

Everyone sighed in relief, but Devon’s voice lead the choir.

“You were chosen for your talents, your personalities, and for some of you, your physicality. The strongest of you – “

Green indicated Ahern. Raze clicked her tongue.

“ – have your place, as do the weakest of you.”

Someone coughed. Devon turned around to see Jaina, Quizon, and Raze smiling at her. Devon tucked a middle-finger to her waist and wiggled it at them.

“Nice,” Green said, and Devon’s face went red. Well, redder. “Anyway. We need brains, muscles, and talent. I need folk who can be a diplomat and a warrior, an athlete and a scientist. Ambassadors. People who can ask questions of themselves and others, and more importantly, know when there aren’t answers. This all sounds like a load of waffle, I imagine, but things will become clearer today. I hope. Or you’ll die screaming. We’ll see how it goes.”

He smiled congenially.

Ahern spoke up, “Just to clear things up, we’ve established a military-style chain of command. This applies at all times, but it doesn’t mean you get to be a dick to your subordinates. None of you are real soldiers, and you don’t have the discipline or the education about rank structure and conduct. If I hear about one of you ‘ordering’ the other to clean up his mess, I will personally put a boot print on your kidneys. Understand?”

Devon’s heart did about a thousand somersaults. She tried to get his attention with her eyeballs alone, but he was in full-on drill sergeant mode.

Yes sir,” Raze lilted.

“Green is in charge. I’m the lieutenant, and in command of field operations. The only time I’m going to be tight with the command structure is when the crap hits. None of these appointments reflect actual military ranks – you haven’t earned shit, and if you meet a military man, he’s going to laugh you up good. These apply only within this unit.”

“We get it,” Quizon said, “we’re terrible people. Hand out the goodies.”

Everyone sucked in a shocked gasp, but Ahern flashed a smile.

Jay Quizon, Devon thought. Asshole laureate of Camp Echo, Male.

She remembered his snide comments during Axel Abbot’s classes, and wondered if their field trip didn’t consist of eighty-percent people who hated her guts.

“You got it. Commanding Officer – me. Executive Officer – Raze, Sergeant.”

Raze’s victory-whoop made Devon’s teeth hurt.

“Corporal – Becca,” Ahern said, and gestured to the Barbie, Becca Talbot. Devon remembered the miniscule waif tossing her into the dirt about a dozen times during CQC.

 When everyone looked at Becca, she smiled nervously.

“Becca is our communications.”

Devon wondered just what exactly that meant, and how this little shy girl was going to lead anybody, but they were already moving on.

Devon hoped to God, Ganesha, and Odin that she fell somewhere at the bottom of the pile [- -] a little more special treatment from Green and she’d wake up being beat to death with pillow cases full of soap. Second reason – Devon didn’t want to give out orders in emergency situations. She could barely tell herself what to do.

Just let me patch up the wounded and keep my head down and we’ll call it good.

“Lance Corporal Tennant is next up,” Ahern said. Tennant bowed his head, but said nothing, “He should be in charge, brains and brawn, but he’s green.”

Tennant folded his hands behind his back and looked off into space. She’d seen Chris Tennant a few times at Camp Echo, but she’d never talked to him. It was hard not to see him – Tennant was six-foot-five inches tall and nearly as wide. Not fat – just huge. An anvil made of flesh and more flesh. His hair was too stiff – it ranged back from his head in a fringe, like porcupine needles. His arms hung too low on his body, and Devon realized he looked quite a bit like a gorilla. He also reminded her of Emile, which made her throat close up.

“All the rest of you are privates – “ Ahern said.

Guillermo barked a laugh, then covered his mouth. “Oh, sorry. Sorry.”

When Devon had seen Guillermo, one of the few survivors of her “Jaina hunting group,” she’d nearly exploded in excitement. The glare he’d given her when she’d gone up to talk to him tamped down some of her fervor.

“It’s fine,” Ahern said, “genitals are funny. The rest of you are grunts. Got it?”

Devon let out a sigh of relief. Thank God.

“Except Devon,” Ahern said, “as team medic, consider her a lieutenant where medical conditions apply.”

Everyone groaned, Devon loudest of all. Medic, good but Lieutenant? She had the same rank as Ahern? She scanned the ground, searching desperately for a large crevasse she could jump into and die. All she could find was a snake hole. On the upside, maybe if she tried to squeeze in a rattlesnake would bite her face.

Her heart, that traitorous organ, once again double-tapped in her chest. Was Ahern playing favorites? She locked eyes with him for half-a-second, but she saw nothing there but rain-splashed concrete.

Raze’s face spelled murder in capital letters, and Quizon had a smile that could freeze a hot spring.

Behind him, Jaina Moore, the Negative Girl (wild goose and reason for Emile and Cheyenne’s death, Jacob’s capture, Alex’s gunshot wound, and Devon’s unraveled lie), stood with her arms crossed and her eyes in the dirt.

I’m making all the friends, Devon thought.

“Why are we out here, exactly?” Alex asked.

Alex, at the very least, had favored her a tiny smile when their gaggle had gathered in the parking lot. I guess saving someone’s life deserves a hint of warmth.

Okay, everyone,” Green said. Then he started speaking in Portuguese.

It sounded like Portuguese, anyway. It had that peculiar French/Spanish/Alien sound. Green addressed them all as he talked, his eyes traveling across their faces. Devon’s brow knit together, and she turned toward Alex.

“I’m not crazy, right?” Devon whispered.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” Alex said. “But if you’re asking if you’re hearing Portuguese, you are.”

“Sir?” Ahern said. His eyes shot to Devon.

Oh boy.

Nervous tension sparked in Ahern’s face.

Green barked more Portuguese in Ahern’s direction.

“I kind of . . .” Guillermo began. “I’m getting pieces.”

“Me too,” Naya said. “Something about . . . a nest. He’s talking too fast, and it doesn’t sound enough like Spanish.”

“Is this a test?” Devon asked.

Green stopped talking, looked at her, and said, “Sim, bom dia! Como vai?”

His tone rotated between sarcasm and excitement. She looked around at the rest of the team, but they were all staring at her. So far she’d been the only one to wheedle a response from him.

“Is that, yes?” Devon asked.

Sim, voce fala portugues?” Green asked, and rolled into more words too quick for Devon to even make out.

Guillermo and Naya jumped close together and whispered to each other, trying to decipher what little bits they could.

“Go . . . somewhere,” Guillermo said. “He’s giving us directions. I think.”

“Can anyone read minds or something?” Jaina asked. “Decipher languages? Read emotions? Anything?”

Devon thought of Cheyenne’s eyeless face.

“I can link my mind with others,” Becca Talbot said, and fiddled with her braids. “But it’s voluntary.”

Raze laughed. “What the hell use is that?”

Becca frowned. “I can try – “

“Then try,” Raze said. “That’s an order.”

“Raze, shut up,” Ahern said. Quizon laughed. “Go for it, Becca. I think Green’s trying to teach us something.”

Green taught in odd ways? Gasp. That and a bulldozer could knock her over.

Becca closed her eyes and laid her fingers across the left side of her face, touching her temple, cheekbone, ear, and behind her jaw with each fingertip. She shook her head.

“He’s not accepting,” Becca said. Her hand fell from her face.

“Wrong number?” Quizon asked.

Green kept talking.

“What do we got, Guillermo? Naya?” Ahern asked.

“He’s saying . . . we have to go somewhere. I think he’s saying down the ravine,” Naya said. She pointed to a dried-out creek bed that wound between the foothills.

“Why?” Ahern asked.

“Something . . . growth. I’m sorry,” Guillermo said. “We can’t figure it out.”

Green shook his head and smiled.

Ahern looked preternaturally calm. Devon wondered if he’d been in command of the previous group that accompanied Green – his tranquility and easygoing style made her want to follow him.

Well, Devon thought, a dull heat winding through her stomach. Follow him and do other things.

“That’ll have to do,” Ahern said. He turned to Green and pointed down the ravine. He made the two-finger ‘walking, walking’ gesture. Green nodded.

“Hang on,” Tennant said. The big gorilla pointed at Green’s chest, then down the ravine.

Green shook his head. Then he pointed at the cavalry saber hanging from Tennant’s side.

“He wants you to cut his head off,” Quizon quipped “See, I figured it out.”

“Shut up,” Jaina said. “I think we need weapons.”

“No,” Naya said. “He’s saying nao. I think he wants us to be unarmed.”

“What?” Quizon asked, at the same time Guillermo said “Bullshit.”

“Come on,” Ahern said.

Ahern sloughed off his assault rifle, his pistol, and his kukri knife and laid them on a wide flat rock.

“Put them in a pile, guys,” Ahern said. “I won’t ask again.”

 Quizon dropped a pair of knives next to Ahern’s gear, the kind with brass knuckles for handles. Tennant laid his cavalry saber across them. Devon sighed, unclipped the Browning Hi-Power, and laid it on the ground. Raze had a cop nightstick on each hip, and she slipped them out of their loops, spun them twice, then laid them like tender infants on a flat rock nearby.

Alex set a well-used Louisville Slugger baseball bat right on top of the heap.

Green chuckled and said something incomprehensible. It wasn’t any different when he spoke English, Devon realized.

“We don’t need weapons anyway,” Raze said. She pulled her stick-straight hair out of her face, and glared with her odd and exotic eyes. “We’ve got me.”

Devon still had no idea what gift Raze had, other than an undeniable power to be an obnoxious slut. Which, to be fair, took on a supernatural scope. Still, Raze had been shaped by God himself in Wonder-Woman’s own image, except Asianish and angrier. Devon wouldn’t pick a physical fight with her if her life depended on it.

“And me,” Jaina said.

“Yeah, if we run into anyone, you can hide them to death,” someone said.

No, scratch that. Devon felt her lips and realized the words had popped out of her own mouth. Oh Christ-on-a-cracker. Here comes death. Sweet, sweet death.

“Excuse me?” Jaina said.

Jaina’s eyes, glowing white against her blue-black skin, flared. She advanced on Devon, her hand plunging to her side. A nimbus of pure white light welled between her fingers.

“I bend light, bitch,” Jaina said. “You ever fry an ant with a magnifying glass?”

Devon raised her head and tugged the glasses off her face.

Okey dokey, Devon decided.

Her fingers curled into fists, and she ran through pressure points, locks, and takedowns in her mind. She hadn’t learned many, but she’d practiced the few she did until her bones ached. Ahern had made sure of it.

“She’s bigger than an ant,” Raze laughed. “Slightly.”

Jaina raised her hand out in front of her, the palm swelling with light. The temperature spiked, and Devon’s hair floated in a hot breeze. The ball of light wafted heat like an open oven. Still, Devon didn’t blink, or twitch, or show any sign of her fear. They weren’t going to get the satisfaction.

“Ladies,” Ahern barked. Devon saw Green beyond Jaina’s shoulder, his lips curled up, his eyes bright.

“Would you like a demonstration – “ Jaina began.

She didn’t finish.

Devon lunged.

Chapter 31

Teamwork

 

Devon grabbed Jaina’s wrist and folded it back on itself while she rammed her right hand into Jaina’s stomach. Air wooshed out of Jaina in a dry gasp, and the girl doubled over.

Then something tossed Devon hard onto her ass. When her eyes worked again . . .

Quizon stood in the space between them, his hands on his waist like Peter Pan. That dark smile evaporated, replaced with a scowl of such wrath that Devon and Jaina flinched. He shook his head, and without explaining how in the hell he’d moved so fast, marched down the ravine.

Ahern crouched next to Jaina, whispered something to her, and helped her up. He crossed over to Devon and held his hand out. He spoke in a voice so low Devon could barely hear him.

“Control your mouth,” Ahern said. “Jaina’s your sister now, and that means, you have to love her no matter how stupid she is. Now get up. If you try to pick a fight with anyone else, you’re out.”

Devon searched his eyes, trying to find some hint of what they’d done together. Some recognition. She hated that she felt pinpricks of heat in the corners of her eyes.

“What if I want to be out?” Devon said. “I don’t even know why we’re out here. Why should I care?”

“Then stay there, on your ass, and wait for something to eat you,” Ahern said.

Ahern fixed her with those cold eyes. Devon tried to match them, but it was like trying to melt a glacier with a cup of coffee. She turned her eyes away and slapped her hand into Ahern’s. When she was up on her feet, Ahern leaned in close.

“Nice wrist lock,” he said. His breath tickled her ear, and she shivered. “Apply more pressure to the thumb next time, leverage the elbow, and she’s putty.”

Ahern walked off.  Devon followed along in the back – Naya and Alex hung close, talking quietly. She couldn’t hear them. She stared at Ahern’s back, trying to decide if she wanted to push him into a volcano, or a bed.

The ravine curved around a hill, out into the dusty chaparral. They looked more like a high school field trip than Echoes-in-Training, Devon thought. Tagging together in twos and threes, laughing and flirting and giving each other goo-goo eyes. Tennant and Becca chatted with Guillermo as they walked, Guillermo embellishing some grand tale of romantic adventure. Raze, Jaina, and Quizon hung together, no doubt cooking up misery for her.

Ahern walked alone. Ah hell with it.

She sidled up next to him and pushed her glasses up.

“Hi,” she said.

He grunted. His eyes skated around, no doubt looking for whatever snipe Green had sent them to hunt.

“You’re very, you know, military,” Devon said.

Ahern glanced sideways at her and dared a half-smile.

“I’m in charge,” Ahern said, as if that explained everything.

“Okay.”

They walked in companionable silence for a bit, until Devon thought her lungs were going to explode from held-breath.

“Do you . . . feel better?”

Ahern flashed a surprised look at her. Devon coughed laughter.

“I mean, since the. Shade. You were in bad shape. I’m surprised you can be up. I mean, up and around.

Devon ripped her glasses off and wiped them furiously with her shirt. Her cheeks warmed up.

“This is a checkup, then?” Ahern asked.

Her lips popped, and she swung her fists in front and behind her, the perfect picture of casual conversation. You know, if you’re a dork, she thought.

“Yeah. I’m a lieutenant now, Lieutenant. How do you feel?”

Ahern’s eyes sparkled, but his face settled into non-expression.

“Sixty-percent,” Ahern said. “The pain is constant, but it gets better every day. I feel stiff, a little dazed. I think it almost killed me.”

Devon pulled her ponytail loose and shook her long red hair out, trying to comb the messes with her fingers.

“Green called it a soulburn. You looked like hell. I mean, when it happened. Your eyes were – “

“It’s okay,” Ahern said, clearly spotting her discomfort. “Hell, I’m okay.”

Devon dug at her hair. If this conversation kept beating around the bush, she was going to end up eating her hair.

“That’s good – “

“Because of you,” Ahern said. “I’m alive because of you.”

“Green – “

“I was dying because of Green. He might have saved us after, but that’s just good housekeeping. You saved my life. You didn’t have to.”

“I think I did – “

“Bullshit, Streeter,” Ahern said. “I didn’t think anyone could be braver than your mom, the Colonel, the legend. I was wrong.”

Devon coughed, and covered her mouth.

“You’re crazy,” Devon whispered.

“Your father must have been a grizzly bear,” Ahern said. “It’s the only explanation.”

“I don’t think there are redheaded bears.”

“Huh?”

Devon groaned, “Forget it. I’m about as funny as syphilis.”

“Doesn’t syphilis make you crazy?”

“Yeah.”

“Well that’s pretty funny,” Ahern said, hitched up his backpack, and broke away.

Devon thought he’d peeled off to get away from her. She turned to leave him, her fists tight, until he crouched down between two sage bushes.

He whistled so hard her eyes watered. Everyone stopped.

“To me,” he said.

Quizon joined him, like he’d been standing there the whole time. A curtain of dust hung in a rough line between where he’d been and where he was, and Devon pinched her ear. Of course. The guy wasn’t teleporting – he ran. Fast. Like, cheetah-fast. Like Flash-fast.

“That is, pardon my girl parts, adorable,” Quizon said.

Devon raised an eyebrow. Raze laughed gratingly.

They crowded around the bushes, staring down into the nest Ahern had uncovered. Long braids of twine and bark and thistle were arranged in a triangular shape. The triangle had been set down perfectly equilateral – if she’d had a compass and a massive nerd obsession to prove it, she guess they’d be exactly sixty degree angles.

Three furry things, no bigger than footballs, sat in the center of the triangle. Eggplant colored hair carpeted their backs and heads. They were huddled together, and she could only make out fluff and squat elephant-like legs.

 Ahern crouched and held his hand out.

“No,” Devon said. “Bad idea.”

Ahern gazed at her without expression. Next to him, Raze dropped to one knee and put her hand on Ahern’s shoulder. Her usual sneer had been wiped away, replaced by something like wonder.

“Don’t,” Raze said. “Red Rover is right.”

Devon sighed. She guessed that she was both a ginger and a dog in Raze’s eyes. That’s really fantastic.

Raze, the Swedish-Japanese Amazon, turned into a wild-eyed little girl all of a sudden. Devon had to fight the urge to enjoy it. She crossed her arms over her chest and committed herself to hating whatever idea Raze came up with.

“Let me try,” Raze said.

Devon didn’t see how that would solve the problem. Though, it did put Raze in harm’s way, which was kind of an upside.

“Go for it,” Ahern said. “Everyone, a few steps back. Green sent us without weapons, but that doesn’t mean he intended us to find this either.”

“We could be out here to find each other,” Tennant said.

Everyone stared at him, and Devon wasn’t sure if that was the dumbest or the smartest thing she’d ever heard.

Raze scooted closer, and groped for the edge of the nest. The three furry balls stirred, muddling to their trunk-like feet. They had pointed gray faces, hairless, like their legs. If a tiny bear and a tiny elephant had babies, that’s what they would produce. They were so ugly they circled right back around to cute again.

Their eyes were squeezed shut.

One of them climbed over the nest and tumbled into the dust. It bugged and squirmed on its back, revealing a long strip of gray flesh on its tummy. Devon assumed it was female or had some kind of vent, like a frog. It struggled, looking more and more like a furry football, but couldn’t right itself.

Raze exchanged looks with Ahern, reached out, and poked at the thing’s side. It wobbled over onto its legs. Everyone laughed.

“Okay, Quizon,” Alex said. “They’re pretty cute.”

Quizon mmm-hmmed loudly.

The football bear-elephant thing walked in a small circle, sniffing at the ground, kicking up tufts of dust. Devon remembered something about dogs having scent pads on their feet – which made her think of Wyatt Earp, which made her heart constrict.

She hoped her mom was taking good care of him. Amanda Streeter had never been known for her nurturing ways, but she’d always been a steadfast dog lover.

The only person who’d loved that dog more than her had been Bloom. She wondered if either of them were alive or safe or . . .

Oh, here we go. Devon stared down at the fuzzy football through a wet sheen.

“It’s not attacking me,” Raze said. She ran her hand across its back. The thing mewled and arched against Raze’s palm.

“Wait until it gets to know you,” Naya said, and ducked a lazy backhand from Raze.

“Do we bring them back?” Alex asked.

“Can we keep ‘em?” Naya asked.

Ahern rolled his eyes.

“Why are we here, exactly?” Alex asked. “Are we pretending this is normal?”

“The purple football bears?” Devon asked.

“Say that three times fast,” Quizon said.

“No,” Alex said. “This. That Green can just give us directions in Portuguese, tell us to leave our weapons, and go hunting for nothing?”

“It’s a learning experience,” Ahern said, watching Alex calmly.

“Learning what, exactly?” Alex asked. “Sir?”

Ahern shrugged.

“Not a bad question.”

“Where’s their mother?” Raze asked. “Three cubs . . . no mom. Is this something we should worry about?”

“Yes,” Tennant said, his voice low.

Ahern pointed at Quizon.

“Scout the area. No more than a mile.”

Quizon disappeared. A dark blur streaked away and took a sharp turn to the right. A pennant of dirt smoked behind him.

Raze picked up one of the cubs. The odd pointed face swung around and pitched a deep burbling growl. She turned it in her hands, exposing its belly. The animal tried to snap around and bite her, but it couldn’t reach.

“Please don’t piss it off,” Devon said.

Raze’s look of wonder dissolved into a smile as brittle and sharp as broken glass.

“If I want shit from you, honey, I’ll squeeze your head.”

“Colorful,” Devon said.

“Ladies,” Ahern said.

Raze turned back to her purple creature. Devon wondered why she was so punchy all of a sudden – her patience was worn-out, thin as greasy wax paper.

If they’re going to hate me for no reason, better give ‘em one.

“Shouldn’t have brought girls along,” Naya said with a white grin that glowed against the black scales of her skin. “You know how we get.”

“Next up it’s pillow fights and talking about boys,” Jaina said.

“Well, just one of the boys,” Guillermo said, and smiled when everyone groaned.

“I know you’re not military,” Ahern said, “but I’m going to need you all to cut the chatter.”

“But – “

Becca Talbot, who’d been standing quietly and scrutinizing the creatures, shuddered and pitched sideways. Devon caught her by the shoulders. Her straw-colored hair had come loose of its bun, and the strands hung in her face. Her hand stuttered up, and she laid her fingertips across her cheek.

“Becca?” Devon asked. Years with Bloom had put her on seizure-watch, but Becca’s eyes weren’t dilated . . .

“Hold on,” Becca said, “it’s Green.”

“What’s Green?” Alex asked.

“On the line,” Ahern said.

Quizon tried to speak up, and Ahern hushed him with a chopping gesture. Becca’s lips moved, and a susurrus floated out, but it didn’t sound like words. Finally she dropped her hand from the side of her face. Her eyes shined with tears.

“What is it?” Ahern asked. “What’s the matter?”

Becca shook her head.

“What the hell is going on?” Jaina asked. “Is Green in trouble?”

Becca shook her head.

“Did he tell you what we’re doing?” Ahern asked.

She nodded. She pointed down at the creatures, two of which were still cuddling in their perfectly triangular nest while the third squirmed in Raze’s hands. It flicked a thin red tongue across the back of Raze’s hand and gurgled in her arms. A guileless smile tugged Raze’s lips back, and she cooed into the little thing’s belly.

“What about them?” Naya asked.

Becca’s hands trembled.

“He says we have to kill them.”

Chapter 32

Buttons

 

Devon’s mouth fell open, and Raze stiffened. The creature in her hands burbled and rubbed its face across her knuckles.

“Why?” Devon asked.

“They’re harmless. I don’t . . . understand,” Becca said.

“He meant the babies? Not the mother or the father?” Naya asked. Her voice unraveled, and Alex laid his hands across her shoulders.

“Yes,” Becca said. She covered her mouth.

“Why?” Raze said, too quietly. Only her lips had moved.

“Find out,” Ahern said.

Becca touched the side of her face and whispered. Her eyes went out of focus, as if seeing something in the middle distance. The wet bubble of tears coating her eyes hadn’t burst, but Devon guessed she could barely see through them anymore.

“He just said ‘do it, and quickly,’” Becca said. “He said if we don’t all get back to him in fifteen minutes . . . something horrible is going to happen.”

“Like what? How horrible are we talking?” Guillermo asked.

“Are you sure?” Ahern asked. “Isn’t there another way to avoid the danger?”

“Convince him,” Tennant said, without looking at her.

“I tried!” Becca said. The bubble burst, and a tear scoured a line down her cheek. “I told him they’re just babies.”

Devon, and everyone else, turned to Ahern. Raze regarded him from the ground, her face devoid of emotion, the furry thing in her hands purring and burrowing into her fingers.

His eyes swept them. Then he gazed at the ground, but didn’t slump or shake. He didn’t look like a man making a decision – he looked like a man trying to explain a decision. Devon’s stomach rolled over.

“Give it to me,” Ahern said.

“Ahern,” Devon warned.

“Go to hell,” Raze returned, still quietly, still staring up at him from her kneeling position. Whether she was aware of it or not, Devon saw her pull the creature tighter toward her breast.

“Raizel,” Ahern began. “You don’t know Green – “

“Who gives a shit?”

Ahern ran his hands through his hair. “Give it to me, Sergeant.”

Raze barked her nasty, raw laugh. “Are you ordering me?”

“Yes,” Ahern said.

Raze’s bitter chuckle was her only answer.

“We have to do it,” Jaina said. “This is a test, isn’t it?”

“A test of what?” Devon said. Jaina flashed her white glowing eyes.

“Loyalty,” Jaina said. “Or if we can make the hard decisions. . .”

“Balls to that,” Devon said. “It could be a test to see if we’d murder on command. We might fail by doing what he said.”

Ahern’s eyes bored into her.

“He wouldn’t threaten us,” Tennant said. “If that was the case.”

“Why not?” Devon asked.

“Because that is an unfair test,” Tennant said.

“Unfair? Unfair?” Raze snapped. She jumped to her feet, still holding the burbling thing in her arms. “I’m going to unfairly put my fist through your face.”

Tennant had a lot of weight and size on Raze, but she walked right up to him and knocked on his chest. Raze, all legs and shoulder and corded muscle, barely made it to Tennant’s chin. His long arms hung to his knees, and the tableau looked strange, like the girl at the altar confronting King Kong instead of screaming.

She held the creature up to his face.

“Ready to murder it?” Raze asked.

Devon couldn’t believe she and Raze were on the same side.

Jaina picked up one of the creatures by the scruff. Raze spun around, and her murderous glare staggered Jaina.

“What?” Jaina said.

“Don’t do it,” Devon said. She held her hand out. “Give it to me.”

Devon cursed and darted around Ahern. She grabbed the third creature. Ahern followed her with his eyes. They drifted into a rough circle. Everyone could see everyone. Devon wondered if this had been the test. A test of leadership, a test of group cohesion.

We failed.

Devon clutched the creature to her chest and backed away from Ahern.

A distant thrumming sound approached, rolling into a high-pitched whine. A flash of dust appeared, and Quizon stood amongst them. He looked frightened. It didn’t suit his dark features and cruel eyes. Devon slide closer to Raze.

“What the hell is going on?” Quizon asked.

“They want to kill the creatures,” Naya said, and nodded at Ahern.

“I didn’t – “ Ahern began.

“Whatever,” Quizon said. “Two huge things on their way. Both about the size of a tractor, cross between a lizard and a bird. They’re just past those hills, and coming fast.”

“Dangerous?” Guillermo asked.

“Angry giant monsters?” Quizon said. “Hungry, pissed. Nah, it’s fine.”

“Not the mommy and daddy?” Naya asked.

“Not unless these things change species when they grow up,” Quizon said.

“Green – “ Becca began. “He’s saying we have ten minutes before he leaves us out here.”

“With those things?” Jaina asked.

“And he takes our weapons,” Becca said.

Jaina’s hand slipped over the creature’s neck.

“Break its neck and I break yours,” Raze said.

“Do you want to die out here?” Jaina asked.

“Not really worried,” Raze said.

Tennant spoke from behind Raze. “If those monsters get here, the babies die too.”

“Than what’s the point of us killing them?” Devon asked. “This doesn’t make sense!”

Ahern locked eyes with Quizon. Then he nodded, and Devon felt the floor drop out.

“Take them,” Ahern said.

It happened fast. Raze flew back into Tennant, who caught her before she could hit the ground. Devon stumbled and fell ass-first into the dirt, and Jaina was blasted back into a sage bush. The creatures they were holding had been snatched at super-speed.

The furry purple creatures all lay in the nest, their necks twisted at angles. Dead.

Quizon stood over them, wiping his hands on his pants. His eyes were stormy and sick.

“What the fuck – “ Raze growled.

She barreled at Quizon.

No way, Devon thought. Quizon’s too quick . . .

 . . . but he didn’t move. Raze slugged him in the face, in the stomach. Caught his arm and flipped him into the dirt. She raised her boot to stomp down on his neck, but Ahern seized Raze in a full-nelson and dragged her away. She kicked and fought, but Ahern didn’t budge. He might have been holding a wiggling teddy bear.

“Let me go, Reece,” Raze growled.

“Calm down,” Ahern said.

“No,” Naya whispered. She stared at the three little bodies, her hands shaking. “Why?”

Devon couldn’t bear to see them anymore. They were dead – she had no hope of even trying to heal them. She knelt down beside Naya. Naya’s scaled, hard arms slid around Devon’s neck, and she sobbed.

Quizon climbed to his feet like every move pained him. His right eye was puffy.

Good, Devon thought. I wish Raze had finished the job.

“We must go,” Tennant said.

Quizon faced Raze, who still struggled in Ahern’s grip.

“I’m sorry –”

She spit in his face.

Quizon wiped his face and walked away.

“We have to – “

“Wait!” Alex said. He pointed at the nest.

The dead creatures jittered. Raze gasped, and Ahern dropped her in surprise. She fell to her knees next to the nest, her fingers opening and closing. Devon and Naya held each other and watched the creatures stir. Their necks began to twist.

“Holy shit,” Quizon said.

The creatures’ necks straightened, and in moments they climbed to their feet. They rolled over each other, burbling and nipping at their fur. Becca laughed, her palms clutched to her cheeks, tears spilling over. Raze stretched a trembling hand out, and the creature she’d been holding slurped at her fingers.

“Becca?” Devon whispered.

“It all makes sense,” Becca said dreamily.

“What does?” Guillermo whispered. “Because I’m not seeing a whole lot of sense here.”

“No time,” Becca said. “Green says the creatures Quizon saw are called belks, and they’re extremely dangerous. If they get here . . .”

“What about them?” Raze said, indicating the babies.

“They’ll be fine,” Becca said. She wiped the tears out of her eyes and walked up to the little furry creatures. “BOO!”

The creatures’ fur rippled, and they disappeared.

“Green says the belks won’t find them,” Becca said. “They’re invisible. But we aren’t.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jaina said.

“Even if they do catch them, they can heal, right?” Ahern said. “We have to go.”

Raze held out her hand toward the nest, and one of the creatures melted back into sight. It stared up at Raze, sniffed her fingers, and bleated. She scratched behind its ear one last time. Then she was up, hands on the straps of her backpack.

Ahern lead them through the ravine, away from the burblers, the belks, and Green’s test. Even Quizon hustled beside them, his eye swelling closed, a smile on his face.

 

***

 

Green splayed on a flat rock, his head on his arms, his face soaking up sunlight. They stopped in front of him. Everyone except Quizon, Ahern, and Raze sucked oxygen from the run.

“Well done,” Green said, staring up into the sky.

“Not really,” Raze said. “You’re sick.”

“I agree,” Devon said. Raze flicked a glance at her.

Green folded into an Indian-style position.

“Sick?” he asked.

Raze’s face twisted. She snatched one of Quizon’s trench knives and dived at Green.

The blade skipped off a semi-circle of light that domed around Green. Raze laughed into the sky and threw the knife in the dirt.

Green smiled.

Devon gaped.

How the hell had he been shot with an arrow?

“W-why didn’t they die?” Alex asked. “What was the point of all that?”

“To learn,” Green said. “This isn’t the Earth you all remember. The faster you learn that, the longer you’ll live. Those creatures are called murgos. Murgos are quirky – they have potent healing factor, and are functionally immortal if not completely destroyed.”

“So you were just screwing with us?” Raze asked.

“Nopes,” Green said. “The thing is – a murgo’s natural abilities, including the power to cloak itself, don’t develop by themselves. They need a swift kick in the ass.”

“Are you saying if they don’t get hurt, they never have to heal?” Devon asked.

“Bingo,” Green said. “An adult murgo kills its young shortly after they hatch, to start the process. Unfortunately, Mommy disappeared. Maybe she was eaten or fell into a Breach. Those murgos hadn’t adapted their defenses yet.”

“That doesn’t make any evolutionary sense,” Devon said. “Why wouldn’t they be born with those abilities?”

“Maybe evolution had nothing to do with it. You’re assuming their world works like our world. Not very scientific of you.”

Devon ground her teeth.

“So we saved them?” Ahern asked.

“No,” Green said. “Quizon saved them.”

Quizon’s smile disappeared.

“Miles to go before we sleep, kids,” Green said, and climbed to his feet. “Grab your gear.”

Devon watched the others while she strapped her holster on. The team of Raze-Jaina-Quizon had shattered spectacularly. Raze stood alone, staring off down the ravine. Tennant and Quizon chatted. Becca and Ahern talked quietly, to Devon’s great annoyance, while Jaina endured Guillermo’s endless pick-up attempts with what looked like good humor.

Devon watched them without smiling.

What kind of mission were they supposed to be training for?

Kill when I say. Don’t ask questions.

What team needs to learn that kind of lesson?

 

Chapter 33

Red, Then Dead

 

They tracked through the hills, the beach on their right, visible whenever the hills dipped low. The endlessly washing waves, the blade-edged wind, the sun beating down on them. She checked the Spiral-in-Diamond glyph on her palm. Panacea. Over the hours of walking, she watched the colors change, cascading from purple to intense violet.

She could feel its hunger. She wasn’t cold, but she could sense a craving for sunlight, like she’d spent her entire life in a cave. She stripped off her jacket, letting the sun drench her arms. The spiraling curlicues flared up in the sunlight, and a sensation of warmth and peace flooded through her. The curlicues on her chest felt strangled and cold, but damned if she was going to go topless to satisfy the strange urge.

Naya, walking beside her, reached out and brushed the tips of her claws across Devon’s arm. Devon shivered and jerked away.

“Uh . . .”

Naya shook her scaled head. “I’m . . . gosh, I’m sorry. I just had to see.”

“See what?” Devon asked. She tucked her branded arm to her chest.

“To see if I could feel it,” Naya said. “What does it feel like?”

“You’re not afraid?”

Naya laughed, “Of what? Being deviated?”

She spun a nimble pirouette that drew the eyes of the others. She grazed a hand along the obsidian scales of her arm, cracked through with a fiery light. She flashed her claws across her scaled face.

“That’s a fear I got over a long time ago, Devon.”

“Touché,” Devon said.

“Well?”

“It feels like . . . power,” Devon said. “Hungry. And dangerous.”

Naya nodded. “And exciting?”

“No,” Devon said.

Wallace. The dove. Alex. Cheyenne. Emile.

The way the others treated her, a life with Green doing God-knows-what in a broken wasteland. All things considered, it’d be just fine being home with Bloom and hell even her mother, sitting on the porch and watching Wyatt Earp try to eat flies.

Devon polished her glasses.

“Sorry,” Naya said. “I am the true master of awkward.”

Devon squeezed Naya’s hard wrist.

“Where do you think we’re going?” Devon asked.

Naya’s head hung.

“Next exam, I guess.”

“Think it’ll be horrible?”

Naya shrugged.

“Why?” Devon whispered.

“To learn,” a voice said from behind her, and she almost tumbled down the slope.

Green, his hands tucked in the pockets of his jacket, flashed a toothy smile. He might have been standing three feet behind them for the last hour. His feet landed in the same dead vegetation and crunchy gravel they were passing through, but it was like his volume had been turned down. His shoes clearly broke the ground and the twigs beneath him, but nothing happened.

Devon raised an eyebrow.

“We have an important purpose, Devon.”

“Are we assassins? A hit squad?” Devon asked.

Green laughed. “Remember when I said I needed ambassadors?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you think that meant?” Green said.

“You were being insufferable?”

“You know me too well,” Green said, “but this time I was telling the truth.”

“You mean . . .”

“This evening, we meet with an inhuman scout.  A Red.”

“What?!” Naya barked.

Devon felt her face go numb. The Reds had been one of the first public enemies of the human race during the Merge – everyone had seen the video where a trio of Reds murdered a dozen police officers before killing the camera man himself. They were masters of magic. They said a Red could turn a man inside out with the flick of his wrist, could rain hellfire and summon lightning and . . . all the fairy book evil sorcerer clichés you could pack into a three-legged, freakish alien body with skin like blood.

“You’re kidding,” Devon said. “The Reds attack Pendleton all the time. They’re our enemy.”

“Spoken like the daughter of a fascist.”

Devon lunged, but Naya caught her wrist.

Green tapped his index finger on his curving lips.

“Try to control that temper,” Green said. “Diplomacy is about forgetting old grievances.”

“Not my specialty,” Devon said. “Maybe I learned that from my mother.

“I thought you hated your mother?”

Devon stared at him. She suddenly felt tired.

“Old grudges get complex, don’t they?” Green said.

He laughed and walked off, leaving Devon with thoughts, and questions, and fears.

Chapter 34

With the Enemy

 

Ropy appendages squeezed at his chest, his shoulders, his arms. He woke up from a nebulous dream, a series of images. They evaporated when his eyes opened, but the last fading picture stuck with him. A face, young and smiling, a girlish face. Not Devon . . . a stranger, with blue-green skin. Digging.

He sucked hot air and shook his head. His back was on fire . . . being dragged. The ground ripped at him. His eyes flashed open.

Surrounded by inhumans.

A crowd, shuffling along, talking in a dozen languages. He saw slender Shades with worming slate-gray skin and darker hair, but they wore scavenged human clothing, ill-fitting and poorly combined. A trio of Reds to his left, spindly limbs straining from bulbous torsos in sets of three. Three legs, reverse-articulated. Three arms with three joints and three fingers. The three burning eyes on their mouthless faces . . . one of them looked at Bloom, and a crawling sensation of sickness slid across his body.

A waist-high inhuman walked behind Bloom, and he recognized it only by rough description. Small, with a dozen spiky horns curling across its skull and pointed backwards, like hair. Floppy ears hung on either side of its face, like rabbit ears but pointier. Huge black eyes took up most of its round face, giving the thing a kid’s-cartoon air of innocence. It didn’t have a nose. It had a lipless slit for a mouth, and tan fur covered its whole body.

Designed for maximum cuteness.

Bloom remembered the species: Pookas. They’d been spotted by some smart-ass Marine who’d known way too much about Irish mythology. It didn’t quite look like a rabbit, except for the ears, but the nerd-Marine had nailed it – they could shapechange. Reports claimed they stuck to animal forms, mostly.

The pooka smiled at Bloom, displaying a mouthful of needle-like teeth.

Okay. Scratch that cute thing.

Being dragged over asphalt felt like Bloom imagined it would. His long leather coat was the only reason he had any skin left on his back and legs. The pain, however, cowered before the slamming Metallica concert in his head. He always had a headache after a seizure, but this one really took the taco. Some asshole had stuck an air-compressor hose in his ear and inflated his brain to three-times its normal size, without bothering to stretch the skull at all. Everything looked fuzzy, and his limbs didn’t work. The seizure had been a real nine-point-fiver.

The ropes around his chest and arms were bone-white, segmented, and warm. Revulsion tap-danced up his spine, and he twisted to look behind him. Tall, albino, a great big glass of horror. Zealot, dragging him. The white “ropes” grew from four stalks in his back. Two of them lead to Bloom, and the other two tailed off to . . .

Scott. Big Jim’s traitor kid, the one who’d borrowed Bloom’s gun and used it to paint pictures on his kidneys. Zealot dragged Scott along, too.

They’d wrapped dirty cloth around Scott’s right hand, which seemed somehow diminished. Bloom remembered that Wyatt the Amazing Silent Dog had tackled Scott – he wondered if the dog or the kidnappers had wounded him. Scott’s shoulders and neck were caked with blood. His eyes were open, unfocused and unfixed. The shallow rise-and-fall of his chest told Bloom he was alive. Scott was tougher than he looked.

Bloom’s chest tightened . . .where was Wyatt? His eyes flicked around, but he could see nothing beyond the crowd of inhumans.

“Wyatt!” Bloom shouted, but it came out airy and thin. “Wyatt!”

Sirine stepped out from the crowd. His mouth went dry. From up close, he could see her a lot better. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to. She sang out a feminine laugh, almost contagious, almost warm.

An indigo robe, sewn through with a swirling silver thread, accentuated her girlish form rather than hiding it. It cinched around her waist, and the hem fell to just above her bare feet. The hood concealed her hair and the very top of her forehead, but the rest of her face soaked in the warm sunlight. Her skin shone a soft blue-green, the color of the clearest sea on the clearest day. At her temples, across the ridge of her brow, and along her cheekbones, colonies of white-clear crystals broke out of her skin, capturing the burning amber of an unforgiving sun. Her eyes were incandescent multi-colored marbles.

So young. Sixteen, if that. A delicate chin and a fey curving nose, wide cheeks. She moved with the grace of a swan and the bouncing energy of a child.

Her laughter tightened the screws in his heart, and her easy smile was the kind that broke nations in half. He’d have a crush on her, if she wasn’t going to be the one to end his life. Horribly, no doubt, judging from Scott’s ragged condition.

Bloom tried to get his feet under him, but his knees went out and he slammed his butt back on the ground. His breath exploded out, and he hacked for anything like oxygen.

Sirine held up a hand and made a mollifying face – probably to Zealot, who must have felt Bloom thrashing around. The girl with the crystalline cheekbones bent down and held out one blue-green hand to him.

“Stand, Daniel,” she said. Her eyebrows flicked, and her lips formed a knowing smile.

Bloom wiggled his hands, still trapped at his sides, and shook his head. He’d wanted to smirk and say something witty, but he didn’t have the juice. They were going to kill him, and Scott. They’d probably already killed Jim (or at least let him die). Tannis might have gotten away – Shades were known for that kind of thing. The idea made him happier than he would have guessed. But Wyatt . . .

“Get up, dummy,” Sirine said. She grabbed the white organic tendrils and lifted Bloom to his feet with a casual gesture. His eyes widened, and he staggered under the sudden weight of his own body.

He couldn’t quite turn, and so he stumbled, walking backwards, face-to-face with a girl with sea foam skin and psychedelic eyes.

“You must have a question or two,” Sirine asked. She walked with her hands clasped behind her back. Not like she was hiding something, but more like . . . Spock. Analytical, examining, thinking.

Bloom nodded.

“Yeah?”

“Where’s my hat? I liked that hat.”

Sirine tinkled laughter.

“One of my boys took it,” she said. “It’s a very popular hat. A few of them got in a little scuffle.”

Bloom couldn’t tell if she was fucking with him or not. He guessed it didn’t matter.

“We took all of your gear,” she said in a friendly tone of voice. “Kept what we could use, tossed the rest.”

“My rifle?”

“We left the guns,” she said. “Took them apart.”

“I guess they don’t really work for . . . your kind.”

“About as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle.”

“You really don’t talk like one of them,” Bloom said.

Them being . . . inhumans?”

“Yeah.”

“I can climb into the heads of those around me, look around, raid the fridge, that kind of thing. That’s how I learned everything I know about Earth. USA. California. Southern California. The language and the slang comes with it. It used to bug the crap out of me, but now I like it. “

Bloom stared at her.

“Don’t freak out,” Sirine said. “Seems I can’t read your mind at all. Isn’t that interesting?”

“How do you know my name?”

“I can read other people’s minds, remember.”

But why? Why wouldn’t she be able to read his mind? He was just a normal kid, utterly unspecial in every way -

Epilepsy. His current predicament had been caused by a seizure with the worst timing since that iceberg had floated into the path of an unsinkable ship. About half of the cases of epilepsy had no discernible cause – just a weird brain structure. Misfiring electricity in the ole dome. Would it put his brain in another language, another shape? Like how Arabic was read from right to left . . .

His thoughts ran to more interesting places. There’d been humans in Sirine’s group. He’d seen them. Tannis had said they were Cursed Ones: deviates. Humans poisoned with magic. Contagious freaks that passed their nigh-unsurvivable radiation to anyone they came in contact with. Your classic boogeyman, really.

Sirine offered membership, up on the overpass. They’d killed Jim without hesitation, and Scott was next. Bloom looked Sirine in the eyes, which wasn’t easy to do. He had to really test the theory, or he was just going to waste his time and make a gigantic ass of himself. And then die. Don’t forget that.

He stared into her chromatic eyes and thought in the loudest thinking voice he could muster.

I AM NOT A DEVIATE YOU STUPID BITCH!

“I’m a deevee,” Bloom lied. His voice trembled. “That’s my . . . power.”

“I figured as much. Is that all of it?”

Bloom stopped walking, and the ropes almost pulled him over. He stumbled along, still moving backwards, still staring at her strange face. Was she screwing with him? Pretending not to hear his thoughts so she could buffalo him later?

“That’s it,” he said. Zealot tugged at him. “Unreadable. Lead in the head.”

Sirine cocked her head to the side, and a tremor of fear shot through him. She knew he was lying, somehow. She could read his mind after all.

Calm down, he thought. Take a pill. You can James Bond your way out of this.

“Why the freak-out?” she asked. “I recognize a seizure when I see one, Daniel.”

He sucked at his tongue, trying to coax some saliva back into his mouth. He wondered if Zealot could crush him with the pale ropes of flesh, if it even required effort. Just a thought, a command, and then squeeze.

“Where’s my dog?” he asked. Devon’s dog. “I’ll tell you if you tell me.”

“Quid pro quo, Mister Lecter?” Sirine said in a passably good Jodie Foster impression. Bloom started.

“R-right, sure.”

“The little doggy ran away,” Sirine said. Bloom stared hard into her face. As far as he could tell, she wasn’t lying. “Well, after it thrashed Scotty.”

“The exits were blocked.”

“Sure,” Sirine said. “Blocked for you. Why do you think we’d care about killing a dog? We’re not monsters, Daniel.”

Bloom coughed and glanced around.

Sirine laughed, “Yeah, okay.”

The pooka, the one he’d completely forgotten about, bounced forward. He changed in the span between eye blinks, his bones snapping, his body shrinking and somehow expanding too. The pooka, now a huge black raven, flapped around Bloom’s head and landed on his shoulder. He turned his head, slowly, and the raven seemed to leer at him. Its black beak, the size of a pick-axe, floated just in front of Bloom’s eye.

“What’s your deviation?” Sirine asked. “Please don’t lie.”

Or I’ll have Randall Flagg here pull your eyes out, Bloom thought. The threat, unspoken, hung in the air.

“I can see, uh. See the future,” Bloom said, his eyes wide. He wanted to close them, not that he thought that would offer much protection from the raven’s sable beak.

Zealot stopped walking, and the pressure around Bloom’s chest eased. Sirine stared at him, her delicate mouth parting in surprise. Whispers skimmed through the crowd in exotic tongues, and the procession ground to a halt.

Shit, Bloom thought. He’d oversold himself. He’d only picked “future-guy” because it was the only power that might coincide with seizures. Or so he’d learned from movies. The guy who caught flashes of insight always freaked out like he’d been tazed. That came part-and-parcel with seeing the What Ifs, right?

The stares the inhumans were giving him . . . were bad. They glared at him like he’d just said he was Jesus, or that he believed in the Illuminati, or hated french fries.

Shit, Bloom reiterated. Double-shit.

“You can see the future?” Sirine said. She crept toward him, one foot at a time, her eyes searching his. She pulled the hood back from her face, revealing long lustrous white hair twisted into an elaborate bun behind her head. Her sinuous, snake-like movements made him go cold.

Sirine scraped her hands down the front of his chest. Her nails, even through the cloth, dragged across his skin and sent not unpleasant tingles coursing through him.

“We must speak . . .” she whispered. Her breath slid over his face, and it smelled like lilac.

“Privately.”

Chapter 35

Do You Still Hear Them Screaming?

 

Bloom rubbed his mouth, smearing a flag of blood across his palm.

Zealot hit him again, hard enough to take him off his feet. He collapsed and twisted, landing hard on his hip. Pain jolted up his leg, and he got his hands beneath him just as four fingers dug into his hair. The pain in his leg disappeared as a new lightning storm burst in his scalp.

The huge white monstrosity folded Bloom backward by his hair, but Bloom grabbed Zealot’s wrist with all his strength to stay standing. His whole body bent, tensed like a bow until he saw nothing but sky above and long white limbs and a lumpy face with a smile like a wood chipper.

“Tell me the truth,” Sirine said, quietly. Her tone sounded almost embarrassed. “Can you really see the future?”

“Y-yes,” Bloom said, without hesitation.

Zealot rumbled in his chest.

“Did not see this coming,” the thing said in its bouncing, high-low voice.

“It’s . . . not my future.”

Lies, lies, and more lies. The whole thing. Didn’t matter, not to Bloom. He’d lie all day long if he had to – it might be the only thing that kept him breathing and alive. Bloom liked breathing, and being alive. He put the gold-star on both.

“Does it have a future?” Zealot said.

“Cut it,” Sirine said. “Your face is more useful than your mouth.”

“Does not have to be,” Zealot said.

He snapped his jaw open and closed, inches from Bloom’s face. Bloom had never been inside a shark’s mouth before. Dizziness bowled over him – he felt his body trying to throw all the switches off. With a grunt that bubbled the blood in his mouth, he managed to stay conscious. Just barely.

“Okay, you’ve officially gone off the reservation,” Sirine said. “Out. Now.”

“Master – “

“Technically it would by Mistress, because I’m a chick. However – “

“Mis – “

HOWEVER. If you talk again, you’ll never talk again. Get it?”

The fingers tearing the hair from Bloom’s scalp slid away, and without their support Bloom hit the ground. Hard. He lay still for a while, trying to remember how to breathe. He wiped the blood from his face and spit the stuff in his mouth into the cheery green grass beneath him.

He never heard the tall freak’s footfalls, but when he looked up again Zealot had vanished.

Instead, Sirine stood above him, draped in her indigo, silver-stitched robes. Lines and curlicues and tribal-looking designs rubbed elbows with an alphabet that looked vaguely Arabian. Glowing tattoos streaked her fingers and up her wrists. She unfolded one of those delicate hands, her left, and extended it to Bloom. The tattoo there burned a soft blue, and described the shape of a rounded-off rhombus with a trio of wavy lines bisecting it. Swirling lines broke away from the corners of the tattoo, razor thin and perfectly defined. They curled away in branching points of three, sliding over her fingers and into her robes.

The hand swung up and snapped, like a dog, in his face. Bloom bucked and let out a whuff of air. Sirine tinkled laughter and offered him the hand again.

“It won’t bite,” Sirine said. “Twice, anyway.”

Bloom took the hand cautiously, and she helped him to his feet.

“Admiring my ink?” she asked. She took the corner of her sleeve and wiped at his face and lips. Bloom half-expected her to the do the “mom spit-rub,” but she withheld.

“Never seen a Day-Glo . . .” he coughed, leaned over, and spit more blood.

Getting the shit kicked out of you and then snapping off quips really only worked if you’re Robert Downey Jr. After a second, he stood up and held the side of his head. Zealot’s fists had been softer than baseball bats.

He glanced around, trying to gather his rattled thoughts and bruised ego. Zealot had dragged him off the road, into what had once been a driving range. The real grass had died off, but the fake grass chipping mats were as green as ever.

“Some call it a glyph, others a brand. The Shades call it a mortat, and the ectos’ word roughly translates to ‘poison mark.’ It’s all very technical.”

“Sure.”

“Is it still quid-pro-quo?” Sirine asked. She perched on the plastic divider between the driving stalls. The brown sloping lawn of a once-manicured golf course rolled out behind her.

“You bet, Clarice.”

Sirine bent her lips into a chaste little smile. “The brand makes me magic. This one the ignorant call an ‘air brand’. You, me, and the nerds would call it psychokinesis. This one –”

Sirine held up her right hand, which bore a vibrantly violet mark. It described the shape of a jagged lightning bolt bisected with a curving parabola. It sort of looked like an ‘X’ that someone like Zealot had mugged in an alleyway.

“ – is a tad more interesting. But I gave you an answer, now answer me – what did you see, Daniel? What did you see when you had your seizure up on the bridge?”

Her eyes were alight, her lips parted, and she leaned forward on the edge of the plastic divider.

“Flames,” he said, because it sounded good and mysterious. “Around a, uh, a fortress.”

Sirine’s breathing intensified, and excitement gleamed in her eyes.

“Yes . . .” she prompted.

“My turn, right?”

Sirine sat up, drawing a curtain of control around her obvious excitement. She rubbed the side of her face and nodded.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Me or us?” she said.

“The group.”

She slapped her hands together and shook herself out, as if getting ready to perform. She jumped to her feet and walked toward him. Bloom did his best not to tremble.

“What have you heard?” she asked.

“Psychos,” he said. “Religious whack-jobs. Hell-bent-for-leather on wiping out humans. Black hats, mustaches, girls on train tracks.”

Sirine laughed and clapped her hands.

“The villains?” Sirine hopped up on the balls of her bare feet. “Fun! Not true, but it’s nice to be feared.”

Bloom stared at her, saying nothing.

“Oh cut it,” she said. “Such a spoilsport. Can I tell you a story?”

Bloom nodded. He was feeling like a reverse Scheherazade, spooling out information and questions and stories that would extend his life just a little bit longer. Not to any real purpose, he knew – no one was coming to rescue him. Hell, no one even knew where he was. Even if they did, they’d have to fight through an army of mystical alien sadists to get to him.

Still, some times living is enough.

Chapter 36

Sirine’s Story

 

“There was once a little boy named Attah. Attah lived in a balloon, floating from village to village with his entire family. His mother worked the crowds, stealing bits and bobs from everyone that had come to see the main attraction – Attah and his father Ortah. Ortah pretended to tell the future. He wore elaborate costumes and performed silly dances, declaring what would happen in a loud pompous voice.

 Attah, little Attah, acted as his assistant.

Attah would fetch him feathers, or water, or volunteers from the audience. Ortah would read the lines in their face, or talk to them about loved ones long gone. The idea was that his predictions always went wrong – predictably, hilariously, right there on stage. If he said it would be sunny today, someone from back stage would throw a bucket of water on his head. If he said somebody had a green thumb, a house plant on stage would wilt. All theater, of course, all staged.

Then, when the audience had their fill, the show would end. Always the same way, no matter the town, and always thus – at the very end, little Attah would make a prediction about the village they were in. If they were in Lorrel, Attach would shake his head at his father, pop his fists on his hips, and crow to the audience something like:

‘It will rain three days hence in Lorrel!’ or ‘No, father, Lorrel’s crops will do just fine!’ or ‘Can you believe Rava, the elder’s wife of Lorrel, is going to have twins?’

Then, Attah and Ortah would pack up and leave. And always, always, Attah’s prediction would come true. They would marvel far and wide about the tiny boy’s words, and they would all demand that Attah and Ortah return. It was a neat little trick, but wholly truth – Attah had the Sight, and it gave him glimpses of What Will Be.

Attah lived a happy life. He ranged far and wide and saw all the myriad wonders of the great big world. Attah went with his happy family, where his parents loved one another and all of the strangers he encountered admired him.

All children are innocent, and Attah knew nothing but happiness. They say the Sight sees what you do, and all of Attah’s predictions were happy ones.

One day, Attah’s mother grew sick and wan. She could no longer pick the crowds as she once had, and would stay in the balloon when Attah and Ortah performed. After three weeks of sick beds and three weeks of watching his father grow sick with worry, Attah gave a prediction.

At the end of a normal show, in the village of Throck, Attah shook his head at his father, popped his fists onto his hips, and crowed to the audience:

‘Beware, Throck. Keep your loved ones close, for the flames come soon.’

The crowd, ready for the peak of the show, prepared for the happy glimpse of a certain future, balked. Silence covered them all like a funeral shroud, and Ortah, clad in his make-up and golden robes and silken hat stared at his son in unmanned shock.

The crowd rioted, for they knew that Attah’s predictions came as certain as sunset. They tore down the stage, they captured Ortah and beat him. Attah escaped, fleeing in terror, running away and hiding in the kinds of places only children can fit. He wept in the night, for he knew the prediction had been true. He had seen it, tall flames leaping by and by, roof to roof, men and women screaming. He had not wanted to see it, but he had, sleeping and dreaming the night before the show. His father had taught him to tell the truth . . . to share his Sight.

When he sneaked back in to town, he heard the worst of it. His mother had died for fear and grief, forfeiting her fight with her disease. Ortah had been smashed to a pulp, and had died of his injuries hours later.

Attah understood his dream, and he wept bitter tears. He took a torch to the town in the dead of night, sparing no building, a flitting shadow and flame that no one would see.

Attah took his balloon and sailed off.

Years passed, and none would cross Attah for the story of Throck’s reckoning. They still came to him, for the only thing people fear beyond death is the future. They paid him well for his terrible insights, for the Sight sees what you do, and Attah lived a life of misery and bitter grief.

When Attah said a great shaman would die, he did. When Attah said a pack of predators would eat your cattle, they would be stacks of bones before you got home. As Attah grew older, his predictions grew larger in scope and graver in meaning. In his white beard, Attah told of far reaching things.

Wrapped in the blankets that would see his death, Attah told of three things.

One, he said ‘Here and there will be as one, a catastrophe. They will share not only a world but a great misery.’

Two, he said ‘The shadow-kept will spread to the Strangers, and the Stranger in his dole will open the gates that cannot open.’

Three, he said ‘Beyond is the darkness after death, where my Sight sees no more.’

He died then, and he would See no more.”

Sirine let out a soft breath and closed her eyes.

Chapter 37

If You Mean It

 

“We are the children of Attah the Paingiver, Daniel. We have passed through the ages, mocked and ridiculed for our beliefs. Spat upon and beaten and killed in the streets of our home, the place you call the Distance. We have carried his final three predictions on a yolk around our necks, and we have suffered for it. A small group of ‘whack-jobs’, of ‘psychos’, preaching the disastrous future to those who would not listen.”

Bloom’s eyes went wide.

“The Merge,” Bloom said. “He predicted it.”

Sirine flashed a bitter smile.

“And we preached it,” she said. “And no one listened.”

“Now they listen,” Bloom said. His voice shook.

“Some of them. They came to us, all the races under the new sun. The penitents came, after the Merge, and they fought for us. Our numbers swelled.”

“But not everyone joined,” Bloom said.

“Not even close,” Sirine said. “Even with the truth thrust in their face, they won’t see us as anything but what they saw before. They’d have to admit they were wrong. Even for your people, how easy is that?”

Bloom shook his head. He’d known people who’d have their tongues torn out before they’d admit they’d made a mistake. That their beliefs were wrong, that their faith had been misplaced.

“So we’re your Strangers from Attah’s prediction?” Bloom said. “Humans open the gate meaning what? We end the world?”

Sirine bit her lip.

“You can’t know that,” Bloom said. His words sounded pathetic, even in his own ears. “You can’t know it’s us.”

Sirine shook her head. “I don’t like it, Daniel. But it fits. Our best mystics tell us so. Hell, common sense tells us. We knew of all the other races before the Merge, Daniel. You are the Strangers. You have to be.”

Bloom ran his fingers through his hair.

“I’m sorry Daniel,” she said. “I don’t like killing. I hate it.”

Her eyes were wide, her hands clasped together, and suddenly she looked so young. She might have been distant cousins with Devon Streeter, if you ignored the blue-green skin and the crystal protrusions on her face. Slender, short, with wide eyes and long hair, he wondered if her smart-ass tone and laughing face were her attempts to distance herself from the work.

“Why do you think I have so many deviates with me? So many humans?” Sirine said. “I never wanted to hurt anyone. If I can turn them to our cause . . . maybe I can stop this. I despise what I must do.”

“Some of you don’t despise it,” Bloom said. “Zealot’s tailor-made from the murder catalog.”

Sirine bowed her head.

“It’s unfortunate, but our agenda attracts not just the righteous. Some enjoy violence for its own sake.”

“Psychos,” Bloom spat. “Whack-jobs.”

Sirine said nothing.

“You’d kill my people to save yours?” Bloom asked.

Sirine shot her face up, and her Technicolor eyes hardened.

“Wouldn’t you?” she said.

Bloom sat down on one of the benches and leaned against the uneven stone. His face ached from where Zealot had clocked him, and his back and legs reminded him that he’d spent the better part of an hour being dragged across asphalt. He thought of Nico’s supplies, his bicycle, everything he’d painstakingly procured. His weapons. His rifle. There was no rescue in his future, not for him. Which meant Devon wouldn’t get her rescue either.

Too bad, really, Bloom thought. He’d been looking forward to the whole “ride in on a white stallion” image. His cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, until he swept it off dramatically and . . . he didn’t even have that damn hat anymore. Now it just looked like an extraordinarily stupid quest for someone whose body he’d actually seen cold and dead.

It wasn’t her body, a voice said. The stubborn, mulish part of him that remembered how wrong it had looked. Her freckles. She’s alive you hard-quitting douche.

Bloom tugged at his hair, then smoothed it in place. He missed his stupid hat.

“What are you after, Daniel?” Sirine asked in her silky tones.

“A friend,” he said. “Lost out here, somewhere.”

“What’s his name?”

“Devon. Her name is Devon.”

“Girlfriend?”

The bench creaked as she sat next to him.

Bloom chewed his lip. Shook his head.

“Kinda wish she was?”

Bloom hissed wry laughter.

“You’re good at this,” Bloom said.

Silence held for a beat. She squeezed his arm. “So cynical.”

“Wary.”

“How do you know she’s alive?”

“I don’t,” he said. “But . . . I hope.”

“Where is she?”

“My dog was tracking her. “

Fingers, surprisingly cool and supple, stroked his cheek. Bloom snapped his head around. Sirine’s marble eyes flashed around his face, searching. Her hand slid to his other cheek, and she held him there, transfixed. There was something fascinating about her face. The mad eyes, the otherworldly tone of her skin. The crystal ridges on her cheek bones and her forehead, sparkling in the refracted sunlight. Her touch fireworks shoot down his nerve endings.

“Where is she, Daniel?”

“I . . . don’t know.”

“That’s okay,” Sirine said. Her fingertips drifted down his neck, burning a trail of rippling sensation. It occurred to Bloom that no one had ever touched him like that. It felt indescribably amazing. His entire body reacted, like a string running from his belly to the top of his head had been cranked tight.

He couldn’t tell if she was magically compelling him or his hormones were doing the work.

I guess they’re the same, Bloom thought, and laughed.

“What is it?” Sirine asked. Her free hand entwined with Bloom’s. She leaned forward, resting her forehead on his cheek. The scent of her hair floated through his senses, that same lilac smell he’d noticed when she spoke. It pervaded every inch of her, light and intoxicating and wonderful.

The crystals . . .

This girl is a killer, the voice shouted from somewhere near Arkansas.

“I think I’m going crazy,” Bloom whispered.

Sirine gazed up at him. She smiled an innocent, nervous-looking smile. Her lips brushed across his cheek, and he shivered. Then she leaned back a little, her eyes searching his. He’d heard of being “lost in someone’s eyes” and always thought it a painfully clichéd nugget of sappy nonsense. This time, though . . . her multi-colored eyes were hard to steer away from.

Her face floated closer, and her fingers, on either side of his face, traced lines from his cheeks, across his ears, and into his dark hair. She tugged his hair, and sparks of dull, pleasant pain danced across his scalp. His breath came out in a stuttering sigh.

Bloom . . . wake up.

She came closer and trapped his lower lip between hers, and Bloom’s body practically exploded. He felt her teeth, just for a second, sinking into his lip. His mouth reacted, his lips capturing hers. She parted his lips, and the tip of her tongue explored his mouth.

Then she brought the kiss to a slow, steady stop and leaned back. Her chest puffed, fighting for air. Her eyes, bright and excited, ranged across his face.

Bloom wondered just what the hell stupid part of his reptilian brain had allowed that to happen. All kinds of pleasant sensations ran through him, his lips were numb, and a powerful animal need commanded him to keep going, to never stop, to club her over the head and take her back to his cave.

“I’ve never, uh. Done that. Before,” Bloom whispered.

“I know,” she said, and flashed her eyes down. “Would you believe I’ve never done that either?”

“No.”

She laughed. Her fingers crawled through his hair, and a light pressure encircled his neck. His hands shot up, and he felt her slip a leather cord around his neck. Hanging from it, something hard and ow, sharp, resting on his chest.

An arrowhead. A small dull arrowhead. Semi-lustrous and sort of lumpy . . .

“What is this, Daniel?” Sirine asked. She cupped her hand over the arrowhead. “Why does this stop magic?”

Bloom jerked in surprise, and the last of his ardor faded.

“I don’t know,” Bloom lied. He did. She must have found the uranium arrowhead in his stuff and made a necklace out of it. It made sense, he realized. She said the arrowhead stopped magic – of course it did. The nuclear radiation in SONGS kept magic away. The uranium forced any inhumans who attacked to play by the home team’s rules – no magic.

“It stops all magic?”

Sirine nodded and crinkled her nose. “Strange, isn’t it?”

That’s why someone had made an arrowhead out of uranium. They’d been using it to shoot at something magical in the garage. And it had been on a Shade arrow shaft . . .

Who had given Shades a uranium arrowhead? Pendleton? Why would they give weapons to Shades?

Who did Pendleton hate so much that they would make back-alley deals with Shades?

And a Shade wouldn’t be able to fire the arrow, not with their telekinesis. The very nature of the arrow would prevent it being used like that . . .

Only someone with a bow could have fired it.

Bloom had never seen a Shade with a bow before. Except . . .

Bloom’s eyes flashed wide.

“Where did you get it?” Sirine asked.

She trailed her fingers through his hair, but the pleasant atmosphere had evaporated. A murdering priestess of a long-dead apocalypse prophet sat in his lap trying to kooky-poo him, and it’d lost its charm.

“Found it . . .” he said. “In a garage, south of here.”

I trusted her. I traveled with her; I slept next to her. Tannis played me.

Had she taken Wyatt with her? Had she been pretending to be afraid of him the whole time? Was she acting like the demure prisoner so he’d take her along to find Devon? Or to find whoever it was she’d been trying to assassinate.

Tannis had hit her target. The target and Devon must have escaped the carnage, or else Tannis wouldn’t be after them. She used Wyatt and Bloom to find them again, but she’d been deprived of the arrow head he carried. He wondered if she knew he had it. If she was just biding her time until the right moment to take it, take the dog, and finish her hit. Why kill Bloom straight out when she could use him as a bodyguard and guide?

She’d kill Devon, too. Of course she would. Why would she care?

Bloom sat forward. His eyes sparked.

“Help me find Devon,” he said. “She’s in danger.”

He went to take off the necklace – he didn’t like the idea of uranium sitting on his chest – but she snatched his hand and shook her head.

“Keep it on,” she said. “For protection.”

Bloom’s hand went slack.

“Help her.”

Sirine sat back. Her eyes narrowed.

“Why would I do that?”

Bloom’s mind raced in circles. He could see only one option, and he didn’t like it.

“If you find her, and promise to do her no harm . . .”

Yes?”

“I’ll join you,” he said.

“And sing me the future?” she said hopefully.

“Yes.”

Her face lit up, and she clapped her hands together like a child.

“Lucky for you, Danny boy, I think I know exactly where she is. Isn’t that wonderful?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 38

Knock Knock

 

“You alright?” Devon asked.

Becca offered a colorless smile and stroked her forehead. She drifted to the back of the pack. Devon had noticed her lingering there ever since they’d abandoned the purple football bears to their dubious fate. She didn’t respond to conversation, and her thin fingers kept floating to her temples [- -]

“She’s probably just freaked about the Reds,” Naya said. “Or the neck-snapping baby animal stuff. I still don’t feel right about it.”

Devon agreed, whole-heartedly. She said it loud enough to make Green turn around. He looked at her with a tranquil non-expression before turning back to Raze. The two of them ranged ahead of the group, hissing in quiet tones. Devon didn’t trust that particular combination of flavors.

They had been walking for a good hour, and night was slinging its creepy blanket all over everything. A sliver of sun clung to the horizon, spraying a subtle orange film across the ocean. It would be a lot more beautiful if they weren’t flying away from safety to meet with horrifying spellcasting monsters after sundown.

On a scale of one-to-ten, this plan sucks.

“Ahern,” Devon said.

Their stalwart lieutenant jogged over to her. “What’s up Streeter?”

“That’s Lieutenant Streeter,” Naya teased.

Devon gave Naya the kind of glare that would make lesser mortals dissolve. Naya took it okay. In fact, she waved and sneaked off to go talk to Quizon, who still looked sullen.

Ahern gave Devon a painfully earnest look of attention. Taken in whole, he radiated Captain America rays. Unbelievable, really.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Are you worried about this meeting?”

“Should I be?”

“Reds,” Devon said. “Sworn enemy. Masters of magic. Trap, etcetera.”

“I’m cautious,” Ahern said, eyeing her. “We’d be dumbasses not to be.”

“Green doesn’t look cautious.”

“Green doesn’t really do cautious,” Ahern said. “That’s why we’re here.”

“Why you’re here,” Devon said. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that you’re the only one of us with combat experience?”

Ahern shrugged. “Green’s teaching. Maybe he wanted kids who hadn’t developed bad habits yet.”

“Kids who wouldn’t question him?” Devon asked.

Ahern’s eyes darkened.

“I’m not talking Mutiny on the Bounty,” Devon said. Ahern with furrowed-brow was scarier than she would have guessed. “Can I ask you a straightforward question?”

Ahern said nothing. Panic rose in his eyes.

Devon laughed. “Jeezie Creezie, Reece. We’re not having the talk. I won’t ask about floral arrangements.

He blew out a sigh of such relief that she laughed again.

“Where were you going?” she asked. “When the Shades attacked?”

“Home. Back to Echo. Where else?”

“No,” Devon said. “Where were you coming back from?”

“A mission.”

“Top secret?”

Ahern nodded.

“We’re part of the team now, Reece,” Devon said. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Aren’t I your equal, now? We’re the same rank.”

“Not officially,” Ahern said. “And not in combat.”

“I’m not telling you to flank a broadside,” Devon said. Ahern even cracked a smirk at that. “I’m the medic, right? The last time Green was in charge, the whole team died.”

“Not the whole team.”

“Right,” Devon said, and jabbed her finger into Ahern’s chest. “Because of me.”

Ahern’s face smoothed out, and Devon could see his wheels turning. He glanced at her, then at the rest of the team. He cocked his head. They drifted as casually as they could away from the others, just along a fifty-foot cliff. Ahern, gentleman that he was, stood closer to the drop.

“You saved our asses,” Ahern said. “That’s why I’m letting this conversation continue.”

“The only reason?” Devon asked. Her stomach fluttered.

“Maybe not,” he admitted.

“Such a sweetie.”

 Ahern looked at her sideways, and her face burned. She’d meant to sound like a smartass, but the words had escaped her mouth a tad more . . . earnest.

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“I just want to keep everyone safe,” Devon said. “I’m worried.”

Ahern watched their squad, dwindling in the distance. “So am I. This stays private.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “What was the mission? Where did you go?”

“Catalina,” he said.

“The island?”

“The island. Green tunneled us there – “

“Underground?”

Ahern laughed, bright and clear. She stifled the big puppy grin she’d unintentionally cracked and tried not to think about the warm feeling in her stomach. Or beaches . . .

“Not quite,” Ahern clarified. “He can create a, uh, like a wormhole. A portal. Enough to carry around fifteen people, if he puts enough juice into it.”

“Holy snacks, are you serious?”

“It burns him out pretty good,” he said. “He only uses it when he has to.”

“Why not just take boats?”

“You grew up in Pendleton, you know the stories.”

She did. The Merge had dumped colossal and deadly things into Earth’s seas, shapes that had destroyed most boats, ocean going travel, and beach parties pretty much for all time. The one submarine that had survived the trip from Pearl Harbor had been a nuclear vessel, one that must have created a strong enough anti-magic bubble. Devon’s mom had told Devon to never ask the submarine’s crew about their voyage.

They’d been haunted men. They’d seen things in the waves.

“So he tunneled you there?” she prompted.

“Yeah. The place has changed. My parents took me there when I was a kid, on vacation. I saw the buffaloes and the big-ass casino and went kayaking. I knew the place pretty well. The Merge replaced it with . . . somewhere else. Only the rough shape of the island has stayed the same.”

“What were you looking for?”

“Green told us he had intel about the Shades,” Ahern said. His face paled as he spoke – he was digging through memories he’d tucked away for a very good reason. “They were planning something. A huge offensive against SONGS.”

“Green worked with Pendleton?”

“They don’t trust him, I don’t think,” Ahern said, “but they appreciate his power, and Axel Abbot’s army of deviates.”

“Axe-Men,” Devon said with a laugh.

“Huh?”

“It’s an . . . X-Men joke. Forget it.”

Ahern laughed that sweet clear laugh.

“I can’t believe I never thought of that before,” Ahern said, when he had air again.

 Warmth glowed in her stomach again. She furrowed her brow and stamped it down into a tiny nugget of repression. She steered the conversation back to business-y waters.

“Can’t trust ‘em, can’t kill ‘em,” Devon said. “Better to make allies than enemies.”

“Basically,” Ahern said. “We were just on recon. But the Shades knew we were coming. The place is a jungle, and the Shades are everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the damn Shade Capitol. There were hundreds of them, children and warriors. Villages, built into the trees.”

“What did you find out?”

“ Green called it a ‘sacred grove.’ The Shades were growing glyphs.”

“On trees? Glyphs grow on trees?”

“I guess so.”

Devon turned her palm up. Ahern glanced down at the Spiral-in-Diamond shape of panacea. “They’re plants . . . that makes sense. Oh my God. Of course. They’re parasites, right? Or symbiotes at best, like a pilot fish that cleans the gunk out of a shark’s mouth. Glyphs crave sunlight, they eat it. Photosynthesis. Of course! Roy Gee Biv.”

“You realize you sound nuts? Who’s Roy Gee Biv?”

“The sunlight charges up the glyphs – when they glow red, they’re out of power. Red has the lowest frequency of visible light. When they’re super charged, they’re violet. Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. As they run out of energy, the frequency drops.”

“Wow, I did not pay enough attention in science class.”

“Green hit me with all the hippy mumbo-jumbo about communing, but it’s science. I mean, sort of. The glyphs join with their host. They get food, probably from our ATP or something. Cellular energy. That’s why I have to eat so much, and drink so much. They get food, water, and all the sunlight they need.  That’s why they grow, why they spread. If they get to our head and heart . . . maybe they take over. Or just straight-out kill the host.”

“I didn’t understand most of that,” Ahern said. “But I think I get the big picture. You get power, they get food.”

Devon clapped her hands together.

“Booyah. Victory for science!”

“It’s still magic, right?”

“Well, I guess,” Devon said. She bit her lip. “Maybe we just don’t understand it. It’s not like we’ve been able to test it. Magic blows our tech up. It creates energy that hurts us, transforms us. Like radiation. Maybe some band of radiation that interferes with technology.”

“An EMP? Like after a nuke blows?”

“Electro-magnetic pulse? Maybe,” she said. She waved her hands, knocking the thoughts away. “What happened then?”

“Green said they were growing powerful glyphs, the kind that cause earthquakes or thunderstorms or worse. Is that possible?”

“Green can tunnel through space and create hard-light constructs with his thoughts,” Devon said. “Hell I can bring people back from near-death with mine, and I’m incompetent. I’d say it’s extremely possible.”

Ahern whistled.

“Anyway, we tried to destroy the grove – we all had charges. We never made it. We didn’t even see them before they set on us. Shades and their pet blackcats and . . . everything. They killed half of us before we even realized what had happened. Green tunneled us out, back to the mainland, but the Shades were waiting.”

Devon realized that had been the green flash she’d seen with Bloom, the one that had started this whole mess. They’d seen the after-effect of Green and his guys tunneling back.

“The Shades were waiting at the garage? How could they have known?”

“Green said it wasn’t possible. Shades were already set up there, and they hit him with an arrow as soon as we arrived.”

Devon frowned, but her brain had started doing backflips in the kind of way she enjoyed.

“Did you leave from that garage? To go to Catalina?”

“Yeah. It’s easier for Green to make a tunnel if he anchors it in advance. He anchored it at the garage before we went to Catalina.”

“You were backstabbed,” Devon said. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. One of your own.”

Ahern rubbed the light dusting of stubble on his cheek.

 “Green thought the same thing.”

“But everyone died. Except you. And Green.”

“It wasn’t me,” Ahern said. “Though Green suspected it for a while. When I woke up back at Echo, I had some interesting meetings with every mind-reader in Camp Echo. Cheyenne eventually cleared me.”

Remorse slipped a knife into her side. Cheyenne might still be alive, if . . .

Always if.

“Green decided the Shades didn’t kill me because I was too young,” Ahern said. “They’ve got a thing about kids.”

“A kid?” Devon looked him up and down. That was not the word she’d use. He looked like the model for an action figure.

“Non-adult,” he said. “I’m nineteen, so they must have a different voting age than us.”

“Good thing.”

Ahern agreed.

“Do you think Green is trying to make alliances with the other inhumans to battle the Shades?” she asked.

“Shakes out,” Ahern said.

That put their meeting in a wholly different light. Devon felt less worried – they weren’t playing Marco Polo just to see the sights or satiate Green’s curiosity. They really were ambassadors, out to prevent a war. Or survive one. She’d seen Shades in action, and feared what an organized super-charged force of them could accomplish.

Still, one thing nagged at her. What human, even a deviate, would betray them to the Shades? That was like breaking your own arm.

“Do you know who might have betrayed you?

“No idea,” Ahern said. “Everyone in the team was solid. I was the rookie.”

Devon smiled. “Really?”

“Two years ago I was a high school senior at Beryl High trying to make it with the captain of the swim team.”

Devon raised an eyebrow.

“The girl’s swim team,” Ahern laughed.

Their arms were touching as they walked, and their heads bent closer as they talked. For a little while, Devon allowed herself thoughts of pleasant things. The feeling of strong fingers diving through her hair. His back, a nest of steel cables, beneath her hands, and the great expanse she’d seen in his dark eyes.

“Alright, everyone. Two teams,” Green said, when they crested a ridge to reveal a rambling hacienda-style estate. Cottonwood and aspen trees, once beautifully landscaped, now grew wild and unchecked, ripping up the flagstone driveway. The foliage had protected the paint from being bleached into nothingness: it still featured a brightly tiled roof and wood balconies painted a dusky red color.

On the far end of the estate, Devon could see a half-dozen horses milling around a huge fenced off yard. If they’d been left after the Merge, they’d have busted through the gates long ago. Or been eaten by something, desperate humans or big animals or the sorts of creatures that came through the rifts. The kind like the lizard-things that she’d first seen, two years ago, in her mom’s car when the worlds had first smashed together. The memory of her mother, freaked but not showing it, teeth bared and eyes dead-set, made her heart ache. Her mom would have known what to do.

“Horses?” Ahern asked.

“I think they’ve been working with humans,” Green said.

“Wait, hang on, I’m slow. Two teams for what?” Guillermo asked. “I thought this was a peaceful meeting of the minds.”

“Yeah, well,” Green said. “A little caution never hurt anyone.”

Ahern and Devon exchanged surprised looks.

“Alright everyone,” Ahern said. “Split into Fireteam A and B, like we practiced.”

They did. Raze lead Alex, Jaina, and Quizon. Huge hulking Tennant lead Guillermo, Naya, and Becca.

“Ahern, Devon, you’re with me,” Green said. “Tennant, watch the road. Be obvious about it. Raze, circle the property. Be less obvious.”

Raze bared a fierce grin and whispered orders to her crew. Quizon blurred out of existence, leaving a streak of wind as he raced around the hacienda. Raze, Alex, and Jaina huddled close together. Jaina closed her eyes, those smoky-black eyes disappearing. Everything shimmered as Jaina bent the light around them. It wasn’t perfect invisibility, but if they stopped moving they wouldn’t be easy to spot. The three of them circled around the hacienda, the opposite way Quizon went.

Tennant drew his hefty cavalry saber from his side and nodded to Guillermo. Guillermo unslung his double-barrel shotgun from his back, Naya flexed her black talons, and Becca unsnapped her holster and produced a long-barreled nickel-plated revolver straight out of an Eastwood flick. Bloom would like her, alright.

Ahern held his hand up as they walked back down the road.

“Becca, sync up Raze, Tennant, and myself.”

Becca stroked her temples in that headache gesture. Her features screwed up, and she closed her eyes. She hissed an obscenity Devon wouldn’t have ever imagined the tiny blonde waif knew, then shook her head. She locked eyes with Green.

“Something’s wrong,” Becca whispered. “I can’t link them. I can’t transmit to anyone.”

Chapter 39

The Fountain

 

Green cocked his head, and for a long beat said nothing. Then he took his yellow leather jacket off and tossed it into the dirt. He scanned the hacienda, his salt-and-pepper hair whipping around his face. His features hardened beneath his beard.

He opened his left hand and closed it. The glyph burned violet – he was supercharged. Devon felt a little better, but she still unsnapped her holster.

“Could be a Red precaution,” Green said. “Stops transmitting and eavesdropping.”

“Maybe,” Becca said. She sounded about as convinced as Green was.

“Keep your head screwed on, everybody,” Green said. “Don’t start freaking out. Tennant.”

The big gorilla of a man corralled his squad down the path. Tennant could stop a Rhino with a shoulder check, and Devon felt a lot better with him and his crew watching their backs. Having psychos like Raze and Jaina hiding in the wings eased her fear too – they might be crazy, but they were on her side, and invisible.

If there have to be invisible psychos, at least they’re our invisible psychos.

Ahern rolled his M4 carbine around from his back. He had one hand on the rear grip, but kept the other hanging slack at his side. He looked ready but non-threatening. Hopefully it wouldn’t make their hosts too dicey. She wondered for the nth time what Ahern’s deviation was. She hoped she wouldn’t find out soon.

He led them up the driveway.

Green came next, looking all manner of casual. He whistled a tune as he walked, and Devon thought it sounded a lot like the “Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” theme song. Devon came last, and she felt stiff as a two-by-four. Her eyes darted, up to the windows, out to the tangle of cottonwood trees, in the garden behind the hacienda.

Ahern knocked on the front doors, a pair of overelaborate mahogany monstrosities.

A voice drifted out from behind the door, but it didn’t sound right. Devon felt it in her head more than she heard it in her ears.

“Enter, friends, so that we may speak in safety.”

The door swung open, and no one stood at the entrance. A long dusty hallway disappeared into the gloom.

“Fear not,” the voice said again. “Though my appearance may startle you.”

“No part of this feels like a trap,” Devon whispered.

Green spun and demonstrated the perfect angry ‘hush’ face. Ahern flashed her a quick grin before settling back into soldier mode. Ahern’s other hand slipped to the forward grip of his M4, and they crept down the hall together. The voice drifted from the end of the hallway, and so they walked. They passed an empty sitting room full of dusty furniture, paintings of rural California settings, and yellowed pictures of a Caucasian family ranching around the house.

All other hallway doors were locked – Devon checked – and she had never felt more corralled in her life. Green had too much confidence or arrogance, and she knew the latter would get them killed.

The hallway brightened, leading them to a sun room in the center of the house.

Buick-sized sheets of glass made up the peaked ceiling. Stars winked through the glass, stars that never would have been visible before the city lights died.

Gas lamps lined the exterior walls, filtering eerie white light through the fern leaves. Dead leaves and dirt concealed most of the yellow tile floor. A long-dry fountain featured a typical cupid-with-arrow statue on the top. It clashed painfully with the Mexican-style architecture.

A monster sat casually on the edge of the fountain. At his feet, three dead Reds and two human women lay curled in pools of bright red blood.

Her eyes went to the Reds first. She’d seen blurry pictures of them and rough sketches, had them described to her, even spied them at great distance. Up close, they were worse. They had bulbous, ball-shaped central torsos that branched off into long limbs. Three legs, spindly and spider-like, three arms that weren’t any better. Two large eyes dominated their mouthless round faces, and a third smaller eye rested on what you might call a forehead. All of their eyes were open and staring now, and their bodies were a road-map of deep lacerations. Their skin was the color of the blood that had pooled around their bodies. The blood hadn’t rusted or even properly clotted – they’d been killed within the hour. Within the half-hour. Less.

Devon didn’t need to see the dead women. She’d seen plenty.

The monster on the edge of the fountain had bone-white skin and would be taller than seven feet standing up. It had two legs and two arms, but they were frightfully slender. It was man-shaped, but as if a human had been bleached, its nose had been removed, and it’d been stretched into a long terrifying scarecrow. It had a lumpy amorphous head with shining white eyes and a mouth full of deadly promises. It bared those teeth in a wide grin that made its whole head flatten out, like there was no skull to support it. Just a lump of meat and teeth.

Ahern raised his M4 and leveled it at the monster’s face. Devon’s survival extinct screamed at her to grab her gun, but her muscles were locked down tight. Pure, naked horror froze her solid. If she didn’t move, maybe it wouldn’t kill her. Eat her up.

Green tapped Ahern’s shoulder. Ahern took three slow steps to the left, moving to a flanking position, his grip on the M4 unflinching. He didn’t tremble or dip – once again he reminded Devon of a stalking panther.

Green stepped in front of Devon, and for a bare second blocked the monster from sight.

Devon’s breath came back in great glorious gulps.

“Who are you?” Green asked, all idle curiosity.

“Her arm,” the monster said, in words he barely fit around his massive white teeth. “Her Zealot.”

“Why’d you kill my friends?” Green asked. He indicated the bodies with a sweep of his hand.

“Impatience,” the thing, Her Zealot, said. “They were supposed to live . . .”

Green laughed. Devon didn’t know how he could even talk, let alone laugh. He walked closer to that thing, and Devon’s body tensed until her muscles shook.

You’re in arm’s reach, Devon thought. He can reach you. Snatch you. Those claws . . .

His four-fingered hands ended in white hooks. Devon’s inner corpsmen kicked in, and she realized those talons had killed the Reds. The lacerations were perfectly sized, and consistent with an enraged animal attack. With claws.

“Why?” Green asked. “If you don’t mind.”

Zealot smiled, and dizziness swept over Devon. She could never dream of a worse thing than that smile. No human mind could conjure an image like that smile.

“Why have them live?” he asked. “We wished to watch your meeting. A strange thing for youmans to meet Reds, yes?”

We have to kill him. Fast, she thought.

“You knew we’d be here,” Green said.

Zealot kept his eyes on Green, but Devon could see Ahern creeping to the left. They’d have Zealot in a crossfire in moments.

“Yes. We have learned many things about you,” Zealot said. “Youmans cast out their Cursed, and then make them their Sword. Rejection and then acceptance. What kind of creature is this?”

“Hypocrites,” Green said. “But decent folk, when motivated.”

“Join us,” Zealot said, sharply. “Become us, and you will become our arm.”

“Who are you?”

“Children of Paingiver, of Attah who Saw,” Zealot said. His words were disintegrating, and Devon could barely make them out. “Rell-Anon. We mean to save the world.”

Green ran his hands through his hair and shook it out.

“I’ve heard of you. Don’t you want to kill all of us?”

“She wants to bring our peoples together so that we may stop the Strangers. She does not want killing. “

Green laughed, loudly and brashly. Devon’s hand came to life, and she yanked her Browning out of the holster and thumbed the safety off. Something in Green’s laugh defrosted her arms.

“Sure she does. But what do you want?” Green asked.

Zealot stood up, and he was taller than Devon thought he could be. He towered over them, willowy and tense with muscle. He vibrated with barely contained energy.

His nightmarish mouth slid open.

“I thought so,” Green said. “We’re not joining your Mouseketeers. Ahern, kill this asshole.”

 

Chapter 40

The Fan

 

Many things happened at once.

Least of which, and most surprising, was that Devon got off the first shot. Her hand moved on its own, guided by years of training from her mother. She squeezed the trigger of her Browning. She didn’t yank it like an amateur. Even as her brain spiraled into horror, her muscles reacted. Colonel Amanda Streeter would’ve been proud.

She fired three rounds, and all of them hit Zealot in the stomach. Center mass, like she’d been taught. The jacketed-steel ripped three holes in the monster’s midsection, and inky blood painted the cracked white fountain. Cupid’s face turned black.

Ahern came next, firing a burst from his M4. They tore into Zealot’s left arm, just where it met the shoulder. The arm fell to his side, useless, dangling by shredded meat.

Then Green happened. His left hand flew forward, like he was doing shot-put, and an honest-to-God fireball streaked from his palm. An orb of flames the size of a baseball sailed into Zealot’s midsection and blasted the tall gangling creature off his feet. The tangle of white limbs flew backward, smashing through the door and into the darkened hacienda.

The sulfurous reek of gunpowder mixed with the burning-hair stink of melted flesh.

Green turned to Ahern. “Make sure he’s dead.”

Ahern responded with motion. He moved too fast: not as fast as Quizon, but quicker than anything else she’d seen. He vaulted over the fountain and bounced further than a human should, and he was gone down the hallway in a second. Green grabbed Devon’s shirt and pulled her toward the hallway they’d come from.

“Out, now!”

No argument there. Devon turned and ran, and she heard Green rushing behind her.

The doors in the hallway burst open, vomiting a stream of monstrous forms. Shades, Reds, Ectos, Hounds, and a dozen other species she didn’t recognize rushed into the hallway. The all wore the tattered remains of salvaged human clothing, and they all had weapons. Sword, spears, bows, knives, rocks, staves, and clubs, all of them swinging.

“Down!” Green shouted. Devon dropped to all fours just in time.

A wave of fire blistered from Green’s extended left hand, and Devon felt the air around her tighten. The pain and the flames were too intense, and she could smell her hair burning. She dived out of the hallway and into one of the open doors. She rolled around on an ancient carpet in an empty bedroom, trying to put the flames out.

She looked out into the hallway, but saw only raging fire. It sheeted over the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. She heard screaming, and knew she had to find another way out. She almost made it to her feet before a figure blasted into her, knocked her into the wall, and sent them both scrambling to the ground. Her glasses flew off her face and skated across the carpet.

A muzzle covered in yellow hair snapped at her face, but she gripped the loose skin on its chest and held it back. Foul breath assaulted her senses and hot drool splattered on her neck. A Hound, long and muscled with all the strength of a man-sized dog, pinned her to the ground. Her arms were failing, and she knew it would tear her throat out in seconds.

Devon didn’t know where her gun had gone. Both of her hands dug into the creature’s hide, and she thought of only one way she might survive. A dumb plan, an extrapolation of an idea of a guess.

She tried it, because if she didn’t she’d die anyway. Her right hand flared – panacea lit up like she’d stuck her hand in a pot of boiling soup.

Green had told her panacea could heal. Commune with it, man. Feel the chakras, align yourself with its chai tea or whatever. Devon knew that panacea was a symbiote, and it would obey her if she kept it fed. She also knew that healing meant arranging molecules, soothing nerves, speeding up the metabolism. If panacea could calm nerves and ease pain, it had control over them. Detailed, powerful control.

Devon thought of pain. She sent the message through panacea of burning nerve endings, of crippling agony.

It worked.

The Hound jolted away, howling pathetically. Devon found her Browning just out of her reach on the smoldering carpet. She rolled, grabbed it, and spun. It didn’t matter. When she brought the barrel around in line with the Hound, it wasn’t a danger anymore.

The beast-man convulsed on the floor, its paw-like hands clawing at the air. A whining keen burst out of its muzzle. Devon stood up, but it didn’t notice. It was enveloped in agony.

She thought of putting it out of its misery. Then she thought of the house being on fire, and prioritized. First, she groped for her glasses and slipped them back on her face, and the world tightened back into focus. The window above the bed had been shuttered, but it was the work of seconds to swing it open. She darted through the window, hit the dirt, and came up rolling.

A battle raged outside. Inhumans had appeared out of nowhere, in the fields, among the horses. On the roof, from the cries of anger coming from above her.

She spotted Tennant swinging his cavalry sword, taking out inhumans with every swipe. A feathered inhuman wielding a spear leaped at him, and Tennant reached out one gorilla palm and caught the thing mid-air. He pelted the bird-man into the crowd of monsters and followed the motion with a sword-swing that chopped through the throng. Guillermo floated in the air above Tennant, and his shotgun roared fire into the crowd. Naya, all glistening scales and shining white teeth, pounced out of a group of attackers and into another, her claws making short work of anything in her way.

Raze and her squad were in the field around the shed. The entire area blurred as Quizon raced through the battle. She couldn’t see any of his actions, but wherever the dark blur passed, inhumans fell over dead, clutching at holes and gashes and stumps.

Raze had a matte-black club in each hand, what martial arts types called tonfas and what cops called nightsticks. She held them by the side-handle, with the long edge of the club along her forearm. She whirled between a pair of Shades, smashing them wherever she found an opening. There was nothing graceful to her motions, just a whirlwind of brutality.

The Shades were striking her, constantly, their spears finding gaps in her defenses and jabbing into her side, her chest, her thigh, her face. None of them pierced her flesh. They hit her and bounced away, like someone trying to stab a marble statue. Raze caved in one of the Shade’s skulls and went after the second one, who backed away furiously, jabbing his useless spear and achieving nothing.

The air shimmered near the shed, and Devon spotted Jaina. Her blue-black skin, her burning black eyes with their shadows splayed across her cheeks, her white hair streaming behind her. She had her hands out, and light gathered in her outstretched palm. A lance of cornea-burning white streaked from her hand and hit the shed. Inside, someone screamed, and the burning laser cut a hole the size of a basketball through two walls. A whuff sound split the air, and the shed went up in flames.

An inhuman on top, covered in bright blue lizard scales, darted from the roof and crashed into the ground beside a pair of scrub plants. The scrubs came to life, wrapping their long limbs around the lizard-man and pinning him to the ground. Alex stood nearby, beside a fence, staring at the man intently. Devon realized Alex had more control over his plant power than he’d let on.

She turned away from the spectacle and ran toward the back of the house, where Ahern faced that horrible white monster all alone.

The back of the Hacienda featured an enormous concrete patio, complete with a pool, an attached Jacuzzi, and a bloody melee. The pool and Jacuzzi were empty, their contents evaporated by the unforgiving California sun. The back of the hacienda, a pair of glass French doors, were blown out, littering the ground with shining speckles of broken glass. Devon heard a pair of strangled cries.

She arrived just in time to see Ahern and Zealot plummet into the pool.

An M4 carbine, the one Ahern had been holding in his right hand, clattered to the deck.

Devon pounded concrete toward them, her fingers screaming from how hard she gripped her Browning.

They’d both landed in the deep end of the pool, and they were both on their feet in a flash. Ahern’s face had turned red, blood pouring from where his head had cracked into the bottom of the pool. It didn’t slow him.

He hauled his pistol out and aimed it -

A white rope of flesh uncoiled out from Zealot’s back, grabbed the pistol, and flicked it high over the roof of the house.

Ahern planted his foot on the sloped edge of the pool, sprang off, and cracked a heavy fist across Zealot’s face. Zealot reeled, and Ahern was already running to the other side of the pool. A claw slashed at him, but he side-flipped over it, hit the sloped wall, and did another spring-punch that laid Zealot out.

Devon had never seen anyone move like that. Ahern combined the grace of a dancer, the sleek smooth motions of a springing panther, and an agility she could only describe as Olympic. It wasn’t human – or at least, not one human. He ran like the fastest human on Earth, jumped like the best long-jumper, and punched like Mike Tyson. Devon could describe him as nothing less than an amalgam of human excellence.

Ahern completed his momentum by running half-way up the side of the pool, backflipping, and bringing his knee down on Zealot’s neck.

But Zealot wasn’t human either, not by a long shot, and he bounced up and caught Ahern right in the chest with all four claws.

The red-stained claws burst through Ahern’s back. Zealot caught him perfectly, and used Ahern’s own momentum to impale him.

Devon’s heart stopped.

Ahern hung suspended in Zealot’s grip, his mouth open, his eyes bulging. The long white monster bled from dozens of wounds, but managed to stay standing. He brought Ahern’s twitching body closer, staring into his dying eyes. Zealot let out a horrible groan of pleasure, opened his mouth, and brought Ahern’s head into his gaping jaws.

Devon fired the rest of the Browning’s clip into the side of the monster’s face. Zealot’s lumpy head jerked with each detonation. Her gun went dry with three sharp clicks. Zealot keeled over sideways, and Ahern and the beast went crashing down.

She ejected the clip and slotted a spare magazine into the pistol. She racked a round into the chamber, and sited into the pool.

Zealot was still. Ahern had fallen off of his claws in the crash. He lay curled up, gripping his chest, his last breaths coming hard and ugly and filled with pink froth.

The monster didn’t move.

Devon put its head behind the irons of her pistol and squeezed off four more rounds. When she was finished, there wasn’t much left above Zealot’s neck.

Devon scrambled down the deep-end ladder without breaking her face. She took three fast steps and booted Zealot’s corpse away from Ahern. She stuck the barrel of the gun against Zealot’s chest and fired one more time into his black, shriveled heart.

Devon holstered the pistol and dropped to her knees next to Ahern. She rolled him onto his back.

Ahern stared up at her, and he tried to speak, but his sucking chest wound was making hash of it. Tears flooded her eyes, blurring everything, and she cursed and wiped her face on the back of her sleeve.

She yanked Ahern’s curved blade from the holster at his hip, a long deadly thing called a kukri. Bloom had taught her that, like most bits of weird useless trivia she knew. She tried to keep her heart and her hand steady as she tucked the blade under his shirt and sliced it all the way to the neck. Beneath lay blood and ruin.

No decisions needed to be made. Her conventional medic skills weren’t going to mean dick.

She pumped her right hand against his chest, stared into his dying eyes, and took a long slow breath to steady herself.

“Don’t even dare,” she said.

Then she closed her eyes and pictured his wounds knitting closed. Imagined his bone marrow going into overtime, generating enough blood to keep him from going into shock. She pictured sutures pulling his skin and muscles together, imagined the cells in his lungs and heart growing new tissue. Better tissue, stronger tissue. Whatever stem cells he had left she forced them to repair his shattered organs, to bring him back, to absorb the blood in his lungs and send it to better places. Places that needed it.

The heat in her palm exploded, and pain stitched spirals all the way to the elbow.

She didn’t pass out this time, though it was close. She knew it would mean his death, but more importantly she refused to let it happen. Panacea worked for her. Devon was the host, and panacea just a super-helpful tapeworm.

Her eyes snapped open, and Ahern was already up. His arms wrapped her shoulders, and her cheek rested against his chest.

“Are you holding me up?” Devon said, and laughed from the end of a long tunnel.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You were dying.”

“You saved my ass,” Ahern said.

“Again,” she whispered.

Again, yes ma’am. Can you stand?”

Devon thought she might be able to, even though the world was doing a sweet merry-go-round impression. Ahern helped her to her feet, then out of the pool. The carnage had come to an end, blissfully. Though her eyes were blurry, she could hear no more gunshots or dying screams, no more otherworldly blasts of energy or fire or God-knows what other kind of bullshit. Whoever had won had won.

Ahern helped her around to the front of the hacienda, and by the time she got there she could walk on her own. Enough to stand up and inch, anyway. She’d never make it as a runway model.

Green stood on the front porch. He looked alright, except for black soot smudges on his face. The others were gathered around, but they weren’t all standing. Becca leaned heavily against the porch, one hand slapped tight to her leg. Blood welled between her fingers. Tennant had deep lacerations and heavy contusions on his forearms. Guillermo lay on the ground, a spear broken through his chest. He was dead.

“Guillermo . . .” Devon whispered.

Naya let out a soft shuttering sigh. She looked uninjured.

“They didn’t get his face,” Naya shuddered. “He’d like that.”

Tennant reached out, and Naya tucked her face into his chest.

Quizon was uninjured. The rail-thin Filipino was doubled over, his forearms on his knees, his chest heaving in huge breaths. A trench knife on a lanyard dangled from his wrist. Devon didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone look so exhausted.

Other than a lot of blood that wasn’t hers, Raze checked out fine. Her wide, darkly-freckled face looked hard, and her eyes were eager. She wasn’t tired, not by a country mile. Devon guessed her invulnerability meant she couldn’t possibly get tired. A lot of things about her personality made a lot of sense to Devon in that moment.

Invulnerability did not an empathic person make.

Jaina had a nasty gash across her face. It ran through her forehead, her nose, her right eye, and down across her cheek. Half of her right ear had been hacked off with it. Devon doubted she’d keep that eye. Alex stood behind her, holding her up.

Devon went to her, and when she offered to fix Jaina’s ruined eye, the Negative Girl nodded pathetically. She clapped her hand over Jaina’s slashed eye. When she pulled away, Panacea’s creep went half-way up Devon’s bicep, and the Spiral burned dark blue.

Jaina’s milky eye looked normal again, but the wounds around it hadn’t changed.

“Help me,” Devon said to Ahern, and he didn’t ask why.

She went to work patching them up old school – everyone else refused Panacea. She was glad – she didn’t think she had much energy left anyway. Ahern made a serviceable nurse, and when they finished everyone was on their feet.

Everyone except Guillermo.

Chapter 41

All Her Engines

 

The Rell marched fast, like Hell itself nipped at their heels. Ironic, Bloom thought, considering that hell lay nowhere but in front of them.

Zealot and the pooka had disappeared the previous morning, racing ahead of the vanguard, Sirine told him. Sirine kept Bloom close, though he wasn’t sure if it was really affection or paranoia. She surrounded herself with her most loyal servants, and they never left her side. A pair of slender Shades in hoods, each wearing black glass daggers. A mangy Hound, who loped on four legs more than he stood up straight. Her fourth guard frightened him the most – an Ecto, an inhuman he’d only heard about in fretful whispers.

The Ecto walked like a man, was shaped like a man, with a bald head and wide soulful eyes. He’d heard them called Mimics, too, three guesses why. Whenever it drifted past something, it changed shape, becoming a horrifying, semi-transparent version of that thing’s species. It looked like the perfect image of a ghost. For some reason, whenever it strayed close to Bloom (which was often), it took the image of a sorrowful man that looked too much like Bloom’s father. He hated it, wanted to attack it or run away screaming, and he honestly couldn’t decide which.

It didn’t matter, he decided. His thoughts ran only to one thing: Devon. He had to find her.

Zealot had captured a deviate days ago, and had interrogated him before disposing of him. The deviate had let slip that an entire school of deviates lived nearby, and that he was one of its students.

“We do not normally band together in such big groups,” Sirine explained as they walked. The Ecto drifted at her elbow and gaped at Bloom with wide-eyed sadness. “Too dangerous. But we couldn’t ignore this. So many deviates, gathered together. Would be a powerful boon if they join us.”

“And if you have to kill them, that works too, right?”

Sirine stopped speaking to him for hours.

He’d learned a few things from her. Zealot and the pooka had intercepted a message, an attempted alliance between a local tribe of Reds and the deviate camp. That’s why some of them had run off. They had an appointment to keep.

Near sunset, the freeway crested, revealing a huge indoor mall that flirted with the edge of a sea cliff. A temple of glass and stone, glittering with dying sunlight. It looked surprisingly well-kept, Bloom thought.

Right away, Bloom knew. The deviates were in there.

Devon’s in there.

He hoped.

The throng of Rell, hundreds strong, gathered in front of the massive mall. The cars in the parking lot were arranged just so, funneling any comers into a central corridor between two buses. Bloom knew if they walked down that corridor, the unseen guards hunkering in the buses would light them up. No one passing through that corridor would survive. He’d seen it before – the truck trap on the freeway, with Tannis.

He wondered if the Rell had noticed. He hoped not.

Sirine strode forward, bringing her personal guard and Bloom to the forefront of the Rell horde. They stopped before the bus corridor of death. Sirine unstrapped the curving rod from her back and thrust it above her head. She twisted the rod, and a spur of deadly crystal grew from the end of the staff, a shimmering blade of faceted glass as long as Bloom’s arm.

She cracked the scythe into the ground. When she spoke, her voice boomed.

“I come to speak with . . .”

Bloom glanced over at her, surprised by the uncharacteristic stall. Her eyes were half-lidded, flickering, like someone having a seizure. Not that Bloom had ever seen anyone have a seizure – he’d always been first-person for that story. No one moved, including her personal guards, and if they were worried they weren’t showing it.

Sirine’s face flicked toward the left-hand bus, then the right. Finally, her lips curved into a smile and her Technicolor eyes opened wide.

 “ . . . Axel Abbot!” she said, with the enthusiasm of someone finding a twenty-dollar bill in the pocket of their jeans. “We’ll discuss terms.”

Her worlds rolled over the asphalt.

Within minutes, a large bald man came out. He looked much older, in his fifties, with a thin layer of fat over bulky muscle. He wore no weapons, and to Bloom’s shock, strolled into the parking lot. He stopped within ten feet of Sirine and her army.

Sirine’s guards fidgeted: it made Bloom smile. They were intimidated. Bloom already liked the big man, Axel Abbot. He reminded Bloom of Devon’s mom.

He spoke without pretension and with a flat delivery, like someone trying to speed past the bullshit.

“Which is it?” Axel asked.

Sirine stepped in front of her guards and bowed low. She bounced back up and gave Axel a friendly smile, the kind she specialized in.

“I’m Sirine – “

“I’m not,” Axel said. “Which is it?”

“I don’t understand, Mister Abbot – “

“Surrender or appeasement or what?” Axel asked. “What did you come to ask for?”

Sirine drew herself up, glanced back over her shoulder, then spun back to Axel.

“We’re here as friends,” Sirine began.

“What do you want?”

“I want to talk,” Sirine said. “With you.”

“Wish granted. Anything else?”

Sirine folded her hands behind her back, inclined her head a little, and started again.

“We are the Rell-Anon, my boys and I,” Sirine said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of us.”

Axel barked a chuckle that had nothing like mirth in it. “We got the memo.”

“Our reputation is ill-earned,” Sirine said. “We just want peace. We count many deviates in our brotherhood, who entered willingly and are loved greatly.”

“Ah, I get it. This is a recruitment.”

Sirine tilted her head.

“What do we get if we join?” Axel asked.

 “Many of you can continue living here – it’s a fine fortress. Continue training your deevees. Hell Axel, we’ll send you new ones. All those we find that haven’t learned to control their abilities. You can keep on trucking, is what I’m saying. No real change.”

“Except?” Axel said. “There’s an except, otherwise why bother?”

“We’d expect your loyalty, and your aid,” she said. “We really aren’t so bad, Mister Abbot. We’re trying to prevent a catastrophe.”

Axel grunted deep in his chest.

“Your messiah predicted the Merge, and if that’s true his apocalypse has to be true, right?”

Sirine nodded, and Bloom thought she was impressed. “You’ve heard of Attah.”

“We do our research,” Abbot said. “Strangers, darkness, the door opened that shouldn’t be. Right?”

“Exactly!”

Axel leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper, “What if we’re not the strangers? Because, to us, you inhumans look pretty strange.”

Bloom saw the tiniest flash of annoyance skate across her eyes like a bug on a pond.

“We know our own prophet, Mister Abbot.”

“Really?” Axel asked. “You ever meet him?”

“Of course not, he died – “

“A long ass time ago,” Axel said. “Besides, even if he was right about the Merge, what does that mean?”

“It means he knew the future,” Sirine said. “Could see all that would happen.”

“A broken clock is right twice a day, you know,” Axel said.

Bloom felt the tension rising around him, a near-audible thrum of electric anger that sparked through the Rell. Their muscles grew taut, their hands tightened, and he imagined those with otherworldly powers were gathering their energy around themselves.

What the hell is Axel doing? Bloom wondered. Is he trying to pick a fight?

“Our prophet is not a broken clock,” Sirine said. “You know nothing.”

Abbot shrugged, smiled, and said, “I do know this – I won’t be training kids so you can send them out to kill their own people. I know that won’t be happening.”

“That’s fine,” Sirine said. “I can always find someone else who’ll do it.”

“Oh? What happens to me? Tell me, since we’re all friends here?”

“You are free to leave,” Sirine said.

“I like that wording,” Axel said. “You’d make a good politician.”

Sirine swept her hands around, toward her army, as if to say “aren’t I?”

“Can I come inside?” Sirine asked. “Just myself and two guards. I promise peace, if you do the same, while I speak.”

“Like to get a look at the defenses?”

Sirine tapped her fingertips against her chest.

“Of course not,” she said, the very picture of wounded pride.

Axel pondered the offer, then finally nodded and held his hand out.

“Shake on it. Banner of peace, while you’re under my roof and cause no trouble.”

“Done,” Sirine said, and held her hand out. They engaged in what Bloom thought might be the most awkward hand shake in hand shake history.

 Bloom’s eyes lit up, and he realized exactly why she wanted to go inside. Sirine could read minds . . . how had he forgotten? She’d be privy to everything the defenders knew as soon as she got inside that building, within range. Even if they masked their defenses and hid their forces away, Bloom realized it wouldn’t make a difference to Sirine. She’d probably already sifted through Axel’s head and would hit everyone inside the building. She’d know every plan, every escape route, every position of every defender and the contingency plans of each.

Bloom didn’t realize how dangerous Sirine was until that second. Sirine couldn’t be stopped or outmaneuvered. Not only did she read minds, she absorbed them fully into herself. She was a super-computer combining all the information into a larger picture.

Axel Abbot and his men didn’t have a chance.

If Sirine could project her thoughts, she might be in communication with her entire army right now. They would already be using Axel Abbot’s intimate information, formulating their own counter-plans.

Camp Echo had already fallen. They just didn’t know it yet.

Chapter 42

The Problem with Tangled Webs

 

Bloom had to do something. Not just for Devon, but for everyone.

“Sirine!” Bloom blurted. He’d always wondered what the angry stares of hundreds of people felt like.

Sirine turned and offered him a patient smile. “Daniel?”

“I have to, um, speak with you.”

Sirine raised an eyebrow. She tossed “one second” gesture to Axel Abbot and walked back toward her inhuman army. Sirine threaded through the front line, came straight to Bloom, and laid a hand against his chest. Her fingers moved sinuously against his skin, and he tried his best not to shiver.

She looked up at him with her wide, expressive eyes. Her body curved into his, and he felt his body betraying him at multiple points.

“This is not a great time, Daniel,” she whispered.

“I know. I uh, it’s a thing.”

Sirine actually smiled at that, and Bloom found it hard to think of anything but those curving lips. “A ‘thing?’”

“I saw something. Just now.”

“Really?” Sirine said, her forehead creasing. “What have you seen, Daniel?”

“This is . . . folly,” Bloom said, because it sounded prophet-y.

“Are you sure? What did you see?”

Bloom licked his lips.

“Death,” he said. “They have a trap laid within. They mean to assassinate you, I think.”

Sirine frowned, glanced backward, then turned to lock eyes with Bloom. “I heard nothing of the sort in his mind.”

“It’s not Axel,” Bloom said. “Someone inside. A defector. You’ll die if you go within.”

Sirine’s face fell.

“You must stay outside,” Bloom said. “I saw your body.”

“How lucky for you.”

Sirine’s eyes flashed up, and he saw a gleam of something there that unsettled him. Her smile came back, but there was nothing compelling about it. It was hard and sharp as flint. The hand on his chest opened, and she flicked the arrowhead hanging around his neck. The uranium arrowhead.

“You didn’t see anything, Daniel,” she said. “You couldn’t. This blocks magic, dumbass.”

Bloom touched the arrowhead with numb fingers. Despair poured into him, and his mouth went dry. Shit.

“I thought you might be faking,” Sirine said. Her smile widened and her eyes flattened. “I liked you, did you know that? I wasn’t faking. What a shame.”

Shit.

Sirine, I – “

“Shut it,” she said. She gestured to the closest Rell – a human deviate with a spiny back – and flicked her hand to Bloom.

“Kill him.”

The razorback zipped a knife from his waistband, and Bloom barely had time to gasp before the rusty blade darted toward his side. Sirine caught the deviate’s wrist and stopped it dead.

“Not here,” Sirine said. “Jeez, man. The humans can see you. Do it somewhere private – we’re trying to make friends.”

The razorback went to cut the cord of the arrowhead necklace, but Sirine shook her head.

“Bring me the necklace after he’s dead,” Sirine said. “If he is a deviate, I don’t want him pulling any surprises.”

Two other inhumans, a lizard-dude and a tall gray-skinned man stepped out of the crowd and seized his wrists. They bound them together with something strong and uncomfortable.

“Goodbye Daniel,” Sirine said. She traced her fingers across his face, shook her head, and walked back to Axel Abbot.

The world tightened in on Bloom. He didn’t know if was fear or shock or plain dumb surprise that froze him in place, but before he could act the inhumans were dragging him away. Bloom could only watch Sirine and Axel walk toward the doors of Camp Echo.

He sucked a huge breath.

ABBOT!”

The inhumans tugged him, but Bloom darted forward, snapping hard against the rope.

Abbot turned, slightly, staring at the crowd in confusion.

SHE’S A READER!”

Abbot’s eyes went wide. Behind him, Sirine was already in motion. Her staff sprang into her hand, the crystal blade shot from the end, and she whipped it deep into Axel Abbot’s chest.

What had to be a redwood log hit Bloom in the back, and he went down into the surging crowd of Rell.

He knew he’d be trampled to death before he even had a shot of escaping. His wrists were bound behind him, and he couldn’t get to his feet. Ratcheting gunfire exploded all around him, along with the sounds of bows twanging, electricity crackling, metal tearing, and the wind kicking up into a sudden roaring maelstrom. The powers of inhuman, man, and deviate were meeting in a destructive storm, but Bloom could see nothing but legs and feet and broken asphalt.

Hands gripped his wrists and tugged, once, twice, and he was on his feet. He couldn’t see who was behind him, but they were shoving him, propelling him through the crowd.

An immense BANG cracked the world in two, and Bloom’s face spun around. One of the buses had been lifted, somehow, and thrown into the front glass of the mall. It hung, suspended in the side of the building, half buried through steel and glass. Bloom saw a human trying to escape through the back hatch. The unlucky man sprouted a half-dozen Shade arrows and collapsed backward into darkness.

He craned his neck around to see his captor, but he lost his balance and crashed on his back. Above him, a thin dark figure blended in with the encroaching night. She’d changed her clothes – she now wore a canvas jacket and a pair of jeans, and she had a quiver of arrows and a bow across her back.

“Don’t move!” she shouted at him.

Bloom squirmed around to see a pair of Rell deviates, one holding a crossbow, the other brandishing a pair of hedge clippers, running at full speed toward him.

Tannis reached for her bow, but she wasn’t going to make it in time. She might stop one of them, maybe . . . not both.

“Wyatt!” Tannis shouted. “Attack!”

An auburn shape streaked out from the back of a pickup and launched into the Rell with the hedge clippers. The man went sprawling, and the hedge clippers slid across the ground. Before he could recover, Wyatt the Wonder Dog was on his feet and running, faster than Bloom had ever seen. The other Rell had his crossbow leveled, and Bloom could see right into the eyes of his killer.

Wyatt pounced, his jaws closing over the crossbow. Wyatt spun in a tight circle and released, and the crossbow flew. It bounced to a stop just feet from Bloom’s face. Bloom’s eyes rounded – Wyatt had never been that smart. No dog had ever been that smart.

 Bloom watched the Rell yank a hatchet from his belt and swing it down at the dog. Wyatt wasn’t even looking: his doggy eyes and lolling face still pointed gleefully at Bloom.

"WY- " he began to shout.

An arrow took the Rell in the throat. A sharp something slashed the ropes at his wrists, and Tannis helped him to his feet.

He grabbed the fallen crossbow and spun to face her.

“You are alive and safe, if we can flee,” Tannis said, her eyes bright. “I followed you amidst the crowd – there were too many to notice me. Many of my people, betrayers.”

Tannis looked at him, and her face fell. Bloom kept the crossbow tight on her chest, and though she held her bow in one hand, even the fastest archer in the world couldn’t grab a fresh arrow, nock, and fire it before Bloom could pull the trigger.

“I am your ally,” Tannis said. Confusion rolled over her features. “I saved you.” Behind her, a crowd of monsters churned war.

Bloom nodded. He slid one hand from the crossbow’s stock and took the bow out of her hand. She didn’t fight him. He dropped the bow on the ground and regripped his crossbow.

If she’d been any other Shade, there’d be no way to disarm her. Bloom didn’t know if he ought to classify it as luck or not.

“Bloom?”

Bloom ground his teeth together.

“You lied to me,” he said. “You’re lying to me now.”

“What?”

“You came for this,” Bloom said, and flicked the arrowhead around his neck. “For your anti-magic arrow. Not for me.”

Bloom saw something in her eyes – apprehension, or maybe fear.

“Admit it.”

“There is no time,” Tannis said. Her eyes flicked down, to where Wyatt had appeared. He raced to Bloom’s side and thumped his tail against his legs. “We have to go.”

“Go and find your target, right?” Bloom said. “The guy you shot with this nifty arrow. The reason you stayed with me, the reason you pretended to fear Wyatt. The reason I’m here, the reason Devon is out here. Everything. You’re a liar. You didn’t lose anyone.”

Tannis’s face hardened. “I lost many people. Good people, companions, and arms. To kill a man who would do us all harm.”

“You sound like the Rell,” Bloom said.

“No,” Tannis spat. “Never. I am a true Shade.”

“The Shades work with Pendleton now?”

“It is necessary. Who told you that?”

“I’m not a moron,” Bloom said. “Most of the time, anyway. Where else would you get a uranium arrowhead?”

“It’s more complicated than you understand – “

“This isn’t David Fincher here! You take the anti-magic arrow, you kill your target with it. Only, why is Pendleton in the business of helping inhumans assassinate humans?”

Tannis held her hands out. Her face was pleading, her eyes wide.

“I was the only Shade who could fire the arrow, Bloom. I am a freak. I do not control the Wind. I learned to fire a bow. They made me – I don’t want to kill anyone.”

“Could have fooled me,” Bloom said, his heart bouncing in his chest.

“Bloom. This man is dangerous. Obsessed. This Green Man. You don’t know him – “

“Were you going to kill Devon?”  Rage pulsed at his temples.

“The girl? Never. We don’t kill children. Please, Bloom – “

Bloom wheeled the crossbow and rammed the butt into the side of Tannis’s head. She took one step, wobbled, and collapsed. Her eyes fluttered, and she breathed a soft moan, but then she was out. Deep down, far away and gone.

“That’s why you get to live,” he said. He felt hollow. He’d almost-died too many times in the past few days to feel anything.

He picked Tannis up and found a nearby unlocked car to hide her in. He tucked her in the back seat of a once-blue Volkswagen Beetle, laid her bow across the dashboard, and slammed it shut.

Camp Echo burned in the gloaming – it had caught fire in half-a-hundred places. The other bus had been flipped across the parking lot, and no one within stirred. The Rell were inside the Camp choking through the doors.

A burning fortress, falling.

Bloom recovered a hatchet and crossbow bolts from the dead Rell. He knelt down, and Wyatt covered his face with strokes of his wide, hot tongue. Wyatt flashed a doggy grin and bounced into his legs.

“Are you getting smarter? Somehow?”

Wyatt gave Bloom that same enigmatic doggy grin.

“If I tell you this next part is too dangerous, you won’t listen.”

Wyatt sat down. Turned his muzzle toward the building. Looked up at Bloom.

Bloom’s eyes widened.

“We’re getting Devon,” he said. “We’re killing Sirine. Ready?”

Wyatt bounced to his feet, ran a circuit around Bloom’s legs, and padded toward the mall.

Bloom followed, into the flames.

Chapter 43

Five Horses

 

Devon felt a voice whispering in her head. She relaxed and let it in.

Thank you, Becca spoke in her head. Inside her mind, she didn’t sound tired. Becca sounded twelve feet tall and ready to rock. I don’t know what we’d do without you.

Devon gave her the best smile she could, which wasn’t much.

You’re welcome, Devon sent back.

“Becca,” Green said. They were all sitting on the porch steps, trying to catch their breath. Behind them, the house smoldered. “Can you link now?”

Becca closed her eyes.

“Yeah,” Becca said. “Whatever . . . whoever was jamming is dead or quit.”

She’d lost blood, and her skin was see-through. She shouldn’t even be conscious. Devon didn’t think it was deviation – Becca had a yard of guts for a ninety-pound, five-foot-one waif. She refused to quit. Devon felt a grudging respect for her.

For everyone, actually.

“Get Camp Echo on the line. Axel, preferably,” Green said.

Becca slid her fingers up the side of her face, the gesture Devon had come to recognize as transmission.

“What the hell happened?” Alex asked. He drifted over to Naya and put his hand on her shoulder. She grasped his hand.

“Ambush,” Green said. “The Rell-Anon got wind of our meeting.”

“The meeting was legit?” Quizon breathed.

“It was,” Ahern said. “The Reds were trying to make contact.”

“And now they’re dead,” Raze said. She spat. “Other Reds are gonna be pissed.”

“Probably,” Green said. “It’s sort of down the list of my worries.”

“What?” Raze said. “Why?”

“Because Camp Echo might be in danger,” Ahern said. “This could be orchestrated.”

“Sure,” Naya cut in. “Lead away the strongest – “ she pointed at Green “ – and attack the rest.”

“Shit,” Alex said.

“Shit indeed,” Green returned. “Becca?”

They all turned to her. The frown on her face deepened with every passing second. Finally, when Devon felt tense enough to throttle her, Becca and dropped her hand.

“It’s bad,” Becca said. “They’re under siege, and losing.”

The group rumbled.

“What?” Raze said. “How is that possible? Camp Echo is a bucket of badasses.”

“Numbers,” Becca said. “There’s an army of inhumans. Axel tells me he’s got Jamie evacuating the whiteshirts, but there isn’t much time. The inhumans have a Branded who is tearing down the walls. Literally.”

Devon cursed. She’d seen Green in action – if there was an inhuman with even a fraction of his power, Camp Echo was boned.

“They’re rounding up prisoners,” Becca said.

“Why?” Raze asked.

“That’s what the Rell do,” Green said. “With us. With deviates. Shoot or recruit.”

“Why?” Devon asked.

“They think they’re saving the world,” Green said. “They’re religious fanatics from before the Merge.”

“Is that what Zealot was talking about back there?” Ahern asked. “The Stranger thing?”

“Yeah,” Green said. “They think us, humans, are the Strangers their crazy-ass prophet spoke off. They think we’re gonna blow up the world.”

“They’re nuts,” Alex said.

“Yeah, but there’s a lot of them,” Green said. “Did you tell Axel what happened here?”

Becca nodded.

“What’s the word?”

“Axel says bail,” Becca said. “He says find a place to hole up and get to the Dana Point refuge when it’s safe.”

Raze laughed, loud and hard, and said, “Asshole says what? No way. We’re not tucking tail and running.”

“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Green said. “We have to find a route out of here.”

The chorus of dissension was deafening.

Devon listened to them but watched Green. She made up her mind.

“We’re too far away to make a difference,” Green said. “And there’s not enough of us.”

“Tunnel us,” Devon said, and stood up. “Tunnel us there. That’s instant.”

“It’s not quite instant,” Green said. He looked at her oddly. “I don’t have the energy for it, besides. I used most of it in the house. Most of the inhumans were in there, Devon.”

“Then we ride,” Devon said.

“I can get there faster,” Quizon said. He drew himself up. His eyes watered, and his muscles trembled. “I can scout ahead.”

“No,” Green said. “You couldn’t outrun me right now. You’re wiped, like everyone.”

I’m okay,” Raze said with a fierce smile.

“One-man army, Raze?” Green said with a poisonous grin. “Just because they can’t kill you doesn’t mean they can’t pile on top of you and tie you up. It doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to hurt you.”

Raze’s smile cracked in half and fell off her face.

“If we go down there, we’ll arrive late, we’ll be useless, and then we’ll die achieving nothing. Or, worse, they’ll recruit all of you. How would you like to be hunting your own friends down? You’re all powerful deviates,” Green said. “You’d do nothing but make the Rell that much stronger.”

“And you?” Alex said.

“Me? Me they’d kill, and their Branded would take my glyphs,” Green said. “Does that sound like a swell idea to you?”

“We don’t have to go Custer on them,” Devon said. “We can help evacuate. We can track the Rell. We can do something.”

“I won’t be a part of it,” Green said. “And neither will you. I order you to come with me. We’ll regroup with the survivors.”

“If there are any,” Raze said. “I’m with Ginger. I’m going.”

Devon flashed her a look, and Raze returned a smooth, clean smile. Devon didn’t realize she’d ever wanted Raze’s approval, but knowing she had it made her stomach light up with butterflies.

“I’m going, too,” Quizon said.

“Yeah,” Becca said. “I’m in.”

“Becca – “ Devon began.

“Can it,” she said. “I’m in.”

Green threw down his canteen and lurched to his feet.

“You can’t go. They’ll take your glyph.”

His tone was strange. Possessive. Devon glared him down.

“Stop me,” Devon said.

Green clapped his hands together and strode up to her.

“I could,” he said. “If you like.”

“H-hey,” Alex spoke up and jumped between them. “Relax, everybody.”

Green and Devon glared at each other across Alex, heedless of his presence.

“If you’re going, saddle up,” Devon said. She spun as quickly as she could in her state of dizziness and walked toward the horse paddock. Bodies were strewn everywhere, but she focused on the horses, and the stables behind them.

No one said another word.

She dug through piles of leathers inside the dusty-smelling stable, and found a good number of saddles and bits that might serve. She’d learned horsemanship at SONGS, like many of the scavengers – horses were renewable, fuel-free, and unaffected by magic or technology. Horses always worked, and she was a fair rider.

Hands reached out to help her, to untangle the reins and put the harnesses together. Raze’s hands, and Quizon’s, then Alex’s and Naya’s and Becca’s. When they were done, they’d saddled six horses and mounted up in the field.

Except for Quizon.

Quizon looked up at his horse and smiled. “I’ll be your point man. I’ll run ahead, warn you guys of danger.”

Devon reined her horse in line and stared down at Quizon.

“You’re put up,” she said. “You can’t run anymore. Just get on a horse.”

“I’m fine boss. Lieutenant, sorry,” he said, and snapped off a salute. A wry smile tugged at his lips. “I’ll make sure you don’t run into any traps or pitfalls.”

Devon frowned.

“He’s gonna go anyway,” Raze said. “Don’t bother.”

Quizon barked a laugh, slapped Raze’s horse on the ass, and bolted. His blurry form streaked down the trail. Devon wondered if she’d see him again. She wondered about a lot of things.

She hooked her reins and dug her heels into her horse’s flanks, a dappled gray Arabian with an easy temperament. They opened the paddock and rode out. Green was draping an afghan over Guillermo’s still form, and Ahern stood on the patio with his M4 in his hands. Jaina sat on the porch, still silent, her bandaged face in her hands. Huge, gentle-souled Tennant dominated the center of the trail.

Devon drew up, and Raze and the others stopped behind her.

“You’re making a mistake,” Green said. He flapped the afghan over Guillermo’s handsome, still face and pushed himself up off his bent knees. “Why would you throw your life away?”

Devon thought about Bloom, her best and oldest and only real friend. She knew what he would have done – he wouldn’t hesitate. He’d never leave someone behind. She knew her mom had made that her personal motto – she’d never abandoned a soldier, dead or alive. Ever. Pretty good role models.

Axel Abbot, who’d always been sweet to her. Lyssa, who’d managed to turn skinny, tomboy Devon into something pretty. Camp Echo had been Cheyenne’s home, and Emile’s, and Jacob’s.

“They need our help,” Devon said.

“Did anyone ever tell you you have a real hero problem, Streeter?” Ahern said.

Devon looked at him. Ahern should be with her. He should be leading them down into the fire. She didn’t even have to ask why he wasn’t coming – he followed orders. Green was his captain, and Ahern was a good soldier.

“I’ve heard that,” Devon said. “Usually works out for you.”

Ahern smiled, then winced like it hurt. He gazed down at the deck.

Devon nodded, and the five of them wheeled their horses and raced down the trail.

Back to Echo.

Chapter 44

Hiding Places

 

Quizon’s good eye was locked on the waves in the distance when Devon found him. He was battered and bloody, hanging half-out of a Ford Explorer.

His face had been used for batting practice. Lumpy, bruised, dyed half-red. One of his eyes had swollen shut under the barrage, but the other was open and glassy. He’d propped himself up in the driver’s side of a rusted-out SUV. One knee crooked against the steering wheel, the other flopped out the open door. In his left hand, the one hanging out, a lazy curl of cigarette smoke floated into the freshening breeze. The night above him had filled with stars.

Devon checked Quizon’s condition. He kept blissfully quiet as she assessed him, and when she was done she slipped him a couple pills from her belt and bandaged up the deepest three lacerations.

“Morphine. Antibiotics. Most of the ribs on your left side are cracked, but they haven’t splintered,” Devon said. “Concussion, moderate. Dozens of contusions. You’ll live.”

Quizon took a pained drag from his cigarette and nodded.

“Thanks doc,” he said. “Help me up and stick a gun in my hand.”

He used his right hand to twist the Explorer’s rear view mirror around. The others appeared in the glass, all on horseback, staring down at the truck.

“Stay put,” Raze said, in the mirror.

Devon nodded. “Doctor’s orders. Hang tight here. If you hear anyone coming, close the door and recline the seat. Don’t make any noise.”

“Bullshit,” Quizon whispered. “I’m coming.”

“I could pound you down until you can’t talk anymore,” Raze said. “If you want.”

Quizon rattled something off in a furious stream of Tagalog. Then he smirked, nodded, and returned to smoking.

“What did you find out? What happened?” Devon asked.

“Echo is done,” Quizon said. “Saw a few people evacuating, mostly white shirts. The place is on fire and going down fast.”

“Shit,” Alex whispered. “How?”

“About four or five hundred pissed off inhumans is how,” Quizon said.  “The Rell. I was lucky to escape. These bruises were definitely best-case scenario.”

A long silence pulled itself along. No one was in a hurry to break it.

“Any advice?” Devon asked him. Asked everyone, really. Her face tingled, and what might be the beginning of gut-watering fear had sprouted inside of her.

“Stay quiet,” Quizon said. “Help where you can. Don’t kill yourself for no reason.”

“We could turn back,” Naya suggested.

Devon twisted around to glare at her, but Naya flashed white teeth and chuckled.

“Stay down,” Devon said. Quizon kept smoking.

“We’ll be back for you,” Raze said. “Count on it.”

Quizon waved his cigarette hand. His open eye looked glassier, and Devon guessed old Mister Morphine was responsible. He reached out, tugged the door closed, and reclined the seat.

“Don’t go to sleep,” Devon said, uselessly.

“Sir, yes sir,” he mumbled.

 

***

 

The light of the burning mall strobed through the darkness, a dancing lurid glow.

They crested a hill and saw it, their home. Quizon hadn’t lied. Even from a distance, they knew they’d already lost. The front parking lot had been swept clean by some powerful force, the same force that had picked up a school bus and put it through the wall.

Flames licked the outer structure, and from the flashing orange-red glow at the windows the interior had caught as well. Gunfire chattered out, but it sounded small and pathetic and far too sporadic. Screams of anger and pain bounced around the hills in a symphony of war.

“They’re still fighting,” Alex offered.

“That’s optimistic,” Raze said flatly.

“We have to try,” Naya said.

“How in the hell are we getting in?” Devon asked. The front entrance had been obliterated, and she guessed that the Rell army had entered that way.

“Tunnels,” Raze said. “Axel had them expanded from the maintenance basement below. In case something like this happened. They probably evacuated the whiteshirt newbies the same way.”

“You know where they are?” Devon asked.

“Hell yes I do, Ginger,” Raze said. She waggled her eyebrow, which made her strange broad face even more surreal.

“Training?” Alex asked.

Naya shook her head. “She’d sneak boys down there.”

Raze grinned and snapped the reins of her horse. She led them down through the hills, down and away from Camp Echo, around to the dark rolling beach beneath the cliffs.

 

***

 

They tied the horses to a length of pipe beside the cave entrance and delved inside.

Raze knew the way, even in the cloying blackness within the cave. The ocean roared behind them, funneling its fury down the cave’s throat. Naya had a hand-charged flashlight aimed up at the ceiling, and it gave them enough light to go by.

A huge hole broke through the natural rock, and Raze lead them into it, down a tunnel that had been shored up with slabs of timber. Everything smelled like dirt and sea water.

Devon kept her right hand on her Browning, and her left held out in front of her, her fingers curled around Alex’s belt. She couldn’t see for shit, and the air and the fear sweat on her face were making her glasses slippery. Naya’s flashlight just made the shadows darker, Devon thought. A soft blue glow burned from Devon’s right hand all the way up to her chest, visible even beneath her shirt, but it wasn’t enough to see by.

“Human nightlight,” Alex whispered, but Devon didn’t have the energy to laugh.

The tunnel burst through another hole, one that had been chipped through concrete. Someone had plugged the hole with a rough door carrying a heavy lock. Lucky for them, no one had bothered to close it during the exodus of the whiteshirts, and it hung open like a dead tongue. Raze banged it out of the way and lead them onward and upward.

Through a boiler room, through electrical maintenance, and finally up into a dripping concrete room full of immense fans and blowers. The strange subterranean labyrinth creeped Devon out.

Raze put her fingers to her lips and lead them up into the side hatch of an enormous blower.Inside, a blanket of gray dust covered every surface. They had to crawl, and the dirt stuck to her hand and peeled away in big carpet swatches. She wiped it off and kept crawling, doing her best not to yack.

“Where are we going?” Alex hissed.

“Anywhere we want,” Raze said. “These go everywhere. I’d stay on the ground floor, though. As soon as these start getting suspended from the ceiling they become too dicey to crawl through.”

“Becca?” Devon asked. “Any word?”

Naya turned her flashlight on Becca. The tiny girl barely looked blonde anymore – the gray dust had powdered her hair, and she looked like a junior high kid playing an old woman in a play.

“If they’re dying . . .” Becca started. “It’s . . . painful.”

Devon could imagine. Being in someone’s head as they took the last train to Clarksville couldn’t be a pleasant experience. Cheyenne had come unhinged when she’d experienced Emile’s death from the inside.

Still, they had to know where they could help, or else they’d come for no reason at all.

“Do it,” Devon said.

Becca hesitated for a breath, then closed her eyes and played her fingers across the side of her face. She pulled in a shuddering sigh, and after a few long beats, shook her head.

“It’s not good,” she said. “I found Abbot. He and most of the survivors are holed up in the second floor of the Galleria. The uh, central atrium. The Rell have the entire bottom floor.”

“Standstill?” Raze asked.

“The place is on fire,” Becca said. “The Rell are covering the exits and waiting them out.”

“Why?” Devon asked. It didn’t make any sense.

“The Rell are offering terms of surrender,” Becca said. “Abbot’s already had a couple kids defect. They’re scared. They don’t wanna die.”

Devon sighed, and Raze launched a line of profanity so vivid it qualified as poetry.

“Ask him what we can do,” Devon said.

Becca paused.

“He says we should have stayed where we were.”

“Anything else?”

Becca touched her forehead. She cringed, touched it again.

“Something’s wrong. He stopped answering.”

Devon pushed her glasses up on her sweat-soaked nose and stared.

“What?”

“Is he dead?” Raze asked.

“I don’t think so,” Becca said. “I can feel him at the other end, but he’s not letting me in.”

They waited, and after a half-dozen attempts Becca cursed and flipped her hair out of her eyes.

“Any luck?” Naya asked.

“He said ‘She can hear.’ Then stopped talking.”

“That is in no way creepy,” Alex whispered. “What does that mean?”

“No idea,” Becca said.

“Guess we’re on our own,” Devon said. And dead, a voice whispered nastily inside of her.

“What do we do?” Naya asked.

“Coming here was a bad idea,” Devon said. “But that ship has sailed like, to Corsica.”

“I’m in,” Raze said. The others echoed her statement. “What do we do?”

“Where’d the call come from?” Devon asked.

“From inside . . . the house!” Alex whispered, miming terror.

Devon ignored him, because he was acting like Bloom, and that was the only remedy.

“The atrium,” Becca said.

“That’s where we go,” Devon said, not because it sounded like a good idea, but because some decision had to be made. “If we find a hole, we go in fast and loud and stupid. Maybe we can lead some of them away.”

“Loud and stupid,” Becca tasted repeated, as if tasting it.

“Done,” Raze said. “My specialty.”

“You know the way?” Devon asked.

“Hell yeah,” Raze said. “I can’t tell you how much time I spent down here.”

“A true romantic,” Alex said, and blew a ball of gray dust at her. Raze slugged him in the arm.

They crawled on.

 There were calls of agony and the strange languages of a dozen species of inhumans. Abbot had been right – the Rell held the entire downstairs. They couldn’t see much through the dusty air vent slats. They could smell blood, the close heavy stench of smoke, a cloying scent of sweat. Distant fire, the only light, painted everything in bloody tones.

“This is it,” Raze said. They came to a junction that reeked of stale water and mildew.

A small passage lead up, and when Devon stuck her head over the lip, she looked into the atrium – the mall’s expansive centermost area.

Dancing fire lit everything in flickering shadows. A few empty benches. An information kiosk, its shutters closed. Devon realized they were under the center fountain. A beautiful piece of artwork, the fountain consisted of a wide flat pool of shiny black stone, interspersed with tall black blocks of a varying heights. It looked like a half-flooded city of black skyscrapers. Water sluiced from the top of each block, covering the structures in a liquid sheen.

“What do we do?” Naya asked.

Devon elbowed up the short jump and crept toward the vent. As she got closer, she noticed an odd thing – the ground floor of the atrium was empty. She could see the silhouettes and dark shapes of inhumans down the huge thoroughfares that intersected the atrium, but they’d all been pushed far back. They were guarding the exits, but they’d left the entire central atrium free.

Devon pressed her face as close as she dared to the vent and craned her head up, but she couldn’t see much on the second floor. Just the top couple feet of each storefront, and she noticed that the security gates had been engaged.

Becca, Devon thought, loud. She didn’t know if it would work -

Gotcha, Becca’s voice sang in her head. What’s up?

Our people are in the upstairs cages. Locked themselves in.

What should we do? Becca asked.

Tell everyone to get ready with any weapons –

That’s when someone started talking. No, not talking, Devon thought. Proselytizing.

A woman’s voice boomed over the still atrium, and Devon clapped her hand over her mouth.

“Call me Sirine,” the voice began. “For I bring you serenity. And a future.”

Chapter 45

You Are Here

 

A chorus of boos belted out from the second floor. Devon saw someone spray a submachine gun through the bars of the security doors. He fired directly at the speaker – Devon cringed. Tiles near the vent exploded into razor-edged chips.

Then, the gallery went deadly silent.

“Wow, rude,” Sirine said. “You’ll find you can’t kill me. It’s a whole thing. Telekinesis. Logline: Just Stop Trying. I don’t wanna fight anyway. I wanna talk.”

The angry murmuration came again, but quieter. Subdued. Defeated.

“The fire is coming. This building won’t last the night,” she said.

Devon covered her ears. So close to the source, the booming voice made her eyes water.

“We didn’t come here to fight. We want peace, between our kind and your kind. The Shades don’t want that. The Reds, the Ectos, and the Hounds. Your people fight them on all fronts – you fight your own storm-tossed people, too – how long can you last?”

She paused, and the words pealed out, a damning question. She was good, Devon realized. Compelling. Friendly, even.

“The Rell are unified like your nation, America-that-Was. We bring everyone together under a banner of peace. Of protection. All the races exist in us, including humans, and your deviates. Deviates. That’s a shitty word, don’t you think? Sounds like deviants, right? You’ve been mistreated by your own people, cast out. Left for dead, many of you. Did you know that?”

Murmurs.

“Of course not,” she said. “How could you know? What did you think Axel Abbot and Kidder Green told your families? They sent back bodies. Bodies that looked like you, for your parents and loved ones to weep over. What kind of leader does that? What kind of family?”

Voices. Louder. Arguing. Devon touched her face and slumped against the duct. Could it be? Bloom, if he survived? Her mother? The Marines? Were they still at home? Not even looking for her, but grieving for her?

Would Green do that? She’d seen the holograms Green could conjure – they were perfect. Visible, tangible, expert recreations. Could his light-bending glyph make a reasonable corpse?

It made sense, in a twisted sort of way. Why hadn’t Pendleton or SONGS ever found Camp Echo? Because they weren’t looking. The higher-ups who provided Camp Echo power and supplies knew about it, of course, but the average person? The citizens, gathered together at the end of days . . . they wouldn’t know.

They’d said Raze had died in a car crash. It happened over and over.

Her breath caught, her face burned and her fingers curled into fists.

“Axel Abbot is using you. His own private army. But for what purpose? Why does anyone make an army? He means to send you against his enemies, like any tinpot dictator. But who are Axel’s enemies? Your Pendleton? Inhumans? Do you even know who he’s going to ask you to kill?”

A voice barked out, and Devon recognized it. Axel himself, booming over the gallery with nothing but good-old-fashioned voice projection.

“What’s your army for?” Axel boomed. “Because for peacekeepers, you’re pretty good at slaughtering children. Or leaving them to burn to death.”

“We’re out to save the world,” Sirine said. “One of us, long ago, predicted the Merge. He was cast out of his society, like you were. No one believed him. No one listened. Then the Merge happened. Billions died. Now we live on a shattered cinder, smashed together by cosmic happenstance. He also predicted a worse catastrophe. The true end. Not a combination but a destruction. We won’t let it happen.”

“How do you plan to stop it?” Axel asked.

“By joining with humans,” she said. “A human will be responsible for the end. It isn’t your fault, but we have to be ready. If we can make peace, we can solve this together. We will.”

“How?” a human shouted, and it wasn’t Axel. “How does it happen?”

“One of you will reach too far,” she said, and sorrow filled her voice. “You are new to the power you call magic. Your deviations, your glyphs. A catastrophe is coming, and we’ll stop it. Together.”

The voice approached, and Devon ducked. Footsteps pattered closer, bare feet on tile. A pair of sea foam-colored feet, delicate and small, slapped the tile inches from Devon’s face. She covered her mouth and scooted back. Indigo robes swirled around the girl’s ankles.

“Put away your arms, leave your cages. I promise you safety, and brotherhood. I promise you a future outside of someone’s pet army. Come with us. If you don’t wanna stay with us, you’ll be free to go. Wherever you want, home, Bermuda, Disneyland. Axel forces you into his army, forces you to stay. Make your choice. Safety, freedom, or flames.”

The woman bent down, and Devon jerked. Her face appeared at the edge of the vent. Petite, with blue-green skin and scintillating eyes. Faceted ridges of crystal grew out of her cheekbones and above her brow, sparkling with the reflections of distant flame.

“Peekaboo,” the woman said. She made a gesture, and the air vent ripped off its moorings. It squealed to a stop dozens of yards away. Her hand flicked again, and an invisible force snatched Devon and dragged her out of the vent. It skipped her across the floor, and her hands and knees burned where she tried to stop it.

Devon tugged her gun from the holster – no. She tried to. She hitched and pulled, but it might as well have been welded into the holster.

“Stop,” Sirine said. She strode forward and offered her graceful hand. Her face, framed by her hood, beamed warmth. “There’s no need for any of this. Your friends can climb out of their little hidey-hole.”

Devon pivoted sharply, her heart threatening to explode through her chest. The gallery, massive, extended far out from the fountain. There were tables and benches, empty, and the little kiosk. The army of inhuman Rell were split down the four large corridors, all over a hundred feet away. Sirine stood alone in front of the still black fountain. Above, a paneled skylight as large as the atrium showed an endless spray of white stars. On the second floor, hundreds of faces crowded against the store security cages. Many had weapons, and many more were streaked with blood.

Mostly blackshirts, Echoes – they must have really gotten the whiteshirts out.

“Stop!” Axel shouted. Devon spotted his face amongst the multitude. “Don’t hurt her. Please!”

Devon went for the knife in her boot, and actually got it out of its sheath – Sirine must not have noticed it. It didn’t matter. The second she brandished it, Sirine flicked her eyes. The knife ripped out of her hands, sailed through the air, and plunked into the fountain.

Sirine sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Guys. Please stop trying to stab slash shoot me, okay?”

Raze says keep her occupied, and she’ll take her out from behind, Becca’s voice rang in her head.

“No, Becca,” Sirine said. Devon gaped at her. “Raze isn’t going to do any such thing. All of you, climb out. Now.”

Devon’s eyes widened. Sirine had plucked the thoughts. That’s why Axel had gone silent – Sirine knew exactly what everyone around her was thinking.

Son of a bitch. Or just bitch.

“I could kill your friend Devon right now,” Sirine said. The “let’s-be-friends” tone dropped.

It didn’t take long. The others crawled out of the ducts: Raze first, her black eyes drilling into Sirine, her face set in the determined scowl that usually preceded someone’s death. Next came Naya, her black scales reflecting the glow of the fire. Then Alex, and finally Becca.

“Stop!” Axel shouted, from above. “Let them go, and I’ll come out.”

Sirine looked up at Axel, and Raze made her move. The Amazon flipped her tonfas away from her forearms, revealing two long lengths of shiny black club. She swung them at either side of Sirine’s neck.

Sirine wasn’t looking. The strikes would shatter both her collar bones into shards.

Then Raze . . . stopped. Her deadly leap slowed to a halt, like she’d jumped through a wall of wet cement. Her body . . . froze. Her clubs stopped a solid six inches away from Sirine’s back.

The woman in the indigo robes turned and poked Raze in the chest.

“You’ve got a real listening problem, sugar,” Sirine said. “Bye.”

Sirine extended her palm in front of her face and, in a shockingly human gesture, blew Raze a kiss.

Raze exploded backward, slamming into one of the pillars of the fountain so hard that her body cracked it in half. She blew right through it. She crunched through a second pillar, bounced, and landed on the opposite end of the fountain. The top half of her body draped into the water, and her long black hair floated around her submerged head like a crown.

The invulnerable Amazon didn’t stir.

“No!” Naya screamed.

“Please . . .” Devon said and ran toward the fountain.

Then. She. Stopped.

It felt like a dozen strong people were holding her in place. She could struggle, gain a few inches, but she wasn’t going anywhere. Her eyes flicked up to Sirine.

“Enough,” Sirine said.

Naya stared daggers at Sirine’s back, and Devon saw her massive black claws slide out from her fingers.

“You do that and you won’t get off as easy as Raze did,” Sirine said. “Sit down. All of you.”

Devon’s body bent without her will, forcing her to sit on the tile. Alex, Naya, and Becca exchanged looks, and sat on the edge of the fountain wall.

“Good. Thank you.”

Sirine hopped onto the fountain. She drew the long black curving staff from her back and held it high over her head. A blade of jagged crystal sprouted from the staff, turning it into a strange scythe.

“I ask one more time,” Sirine said, addressing the second floor. “Do you want to live?”

The gates rattled open in a matter of minutes, and Devon saw them tossing their guns, swords, bats, and knives into piles. The Rell marched up the dead escalators, crowding the Echoes together. A few of them fought, but not for long. Axel shouted for calm – the few who didn’t obey were beaten down by the Rell. Tied up.

Devon couldn’t believe it.

“I promise you a future,” Sirine said. Devon noticed that she didn’t look happy. She looked tired. She touched her forehead and climbed down from the fountain. She held a “stay put” hand out to Naya, Alex, and Becca.

She came over to Devon. Devon stood up haltingly, Sirine’s marionette. They walked over to a pair of benches near the kiosk.

When she “sat,” Devon felt the tense energy around her disperse.

The strange priestess tucked her scythe into the crook of her shoulder and locked eyes with Devon.

“Is that Panacea?”

Devon gritted her teeth. “You already know.”

Sirine inclined her head and gave a weary smile.

“I prefer talking,” Sirine said.

Devon held her hand up. The Spiral-in-Diamond burned blue. The curlicuing creep plunged into her jacket sleeve.

“Amazing,” Sirine whispered, and she seemed to mean it. Above them, Devon heard the Echoes being rounded up.

“Never seen it before?” Devon asked. She examined Sirine’s hands. She had a trio of wavy lines inside a rounded-off rhombus on her left hand, and a jagged-looking ‘X’ on her right.

“Panacea? No one has,” Sirine said. “It’s a myth. Funny, huh? You ever been a myth before?”

Sirine’s blithe tone washed over and around her – it didn’t penetrate. Devon felt numb, and tired. She wondered if Raze was dead. She was invulnerable but . . . Devon had never seen anything like that. That throw would have destroyed a bank safe. Raze hadn’t moved, either. She still floated face-down in the fountain. Devon supposed Raze would have to breathe, invulnerable or not.

“Be honest,” Devon said. She took her glasses off and tucked them into her pocket. She could still see Sirine okay, up close, but everything in the distance had been smeared with Vaseline. “You’re not letting anyone go. If they ask to leave.”

Sirine smiled.

“If that were true, why would I tell you?”

“Because you’re going to kill me,” Devon said. “That’s the only way to get a glyph. I have to be on the way out. You might as well tell me.”

“‘No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die?’” Sirine quoted. “I’m not gonna monologue for you. Come on.”

“Worth a shot,” Devon said.

Green had been right. This had all been a terrible mistake. The Rell would have captured all the Echoes anyway – now they just had a few more. And Panacea. They could heal their dying now.

“Why are you doing this?” Devon asked. So tired . . .

“You heard the speech.”

“To save the world? From us ignorant humans?”

“Not ignorant,” Sirine said. “Nascent. I wouldn’t give a gun to a child. Humans aren’t ready for magic.”

Devon rubbed her eyes.

“Is it weird that I agree with you?” Devon said.

Sirine shook her head. “Not at all. You’ve met Green, after all. You ever ask about his wife?”

Goosebumps marched across her skin. “What do you mean?”

Metal rattled, right next to her. The shutter of the cell-phone kiosk rolled up.

“I have had. Enough. Of you,” a familiar voice exploded through the stillness.

Daniel Blumenthal vaulted over the kiosk counter. He landed heavily and pointed a crossbow at Sirine’s head. He hauled a hatchet out of his belt with his free hand. His long thin form was tensed, his boyish face hardened into a mask of rage. His eyes flamed.

Devon’s eyes widened. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Bloom?”

Chapter 46

Not Go Quietly

 

Devon goggled at a miracle. A ghost. The very last thing she would have ever imagined seeing in that particular moment.

The sun had bronzed him. He wore a long leather duster – no hat, she noticed, with a bizarre laugh that she couldn’t repress.

Something had changed. She’d never seen him so assured, or so angry. He held the crossbow tucked against his right shoulder, his eyes staring down the length of a bolt with its end covered in shiny duct tape. In his left hand, he held a hatchet close to his side.

“Devon – “

His eyes flicked up to her, and he saw a spark there. It had been too quick, too hard to read, but it looked like something you’d see in the eye of a little boy at Christmas. His face resumed its Clint Eastwood impression in the span between heartbeats…

… but she’d seen it. She’d never forget it.

Then he looked at the crossbow bolt. Then her. Then the bolt. Devon frowned. She didn’t understand.

Sirine slid to her feet, the scythe held loosely in her left hand. She turned her back on Devon.

“Daniel – “ Sirine said. Devon’s jaw fell open. She hadn’t said his name like she’d read his mind – she said his name like she knew him.

“Don’t move, Sirine,” Bloom said. “I’d hate to accidentally shoot anyone in the throat with a crossbow. Imagine the paperwork, good golly.”

Sirine held her hands out.

“You came back,” Sirine said.

Back? Devon’s mind reeled. How had Bloom even found her? How did he know the Rell? She wondered if she’d gone nutter butters.

“Don’t even pull the affably-evil thing on me,” Bloom said. “You tried to execute me.”

“Well, you did scorn me. I hath some fury.”

Sirine took a step.

“Don’t,” Bloom said, and rocked the crossbow. The arrow head shined dully with duct tape. “That’s uranium. My new favorite metal, by-the-by. I mean, I hope they don’t make zippers out of it or anything . . . but – “

Devon gasped. Uranium. The dull metal she’d seen, the strange arrow head she’d pulled out of Green’s chest. The anti-glitch field around the nuclear power plant. Even depleted uranium had a little radiation in it . . . enough to punch through Green’s shield. She hadn’t been able to heal him until she’d pulled it out.

Devon had a weird urge to shout Eureka!

“You know what I can do with this,” Bloom said. “I can kill you in a second. You’re done, kid.”

“You sure about that?”

Sirine snapped his crossbow’s string with a thought.

Bloom’s eyes rounded.

All hell broke loose.

Devon grabbed Sirine without thinking, an act of reflex, and the only reason it worked.

She thought of pain, of broken ribs and shattered spine and hot, burning flesh-melting flames. Panacea boiled on her right hand, stitching lines of agony up her bicep.

Sirine shrieked as every nerve in her body erupted, sending her messages of perfect and terrible agony. It lasted a fraction of a second. A gush of wind ran up Devon’s back, picked her up, and threw her. Devon smashed sideways into a table. Her back hit the edge of the table and kept going, and she landed in a pile of chairs. The table crashed on top of her.

She couldn’t catch her breath, and a crunching, debilitating pain tanked her motor control. It flared from her shoulder – she tried to move, and a thousand red fireworks erupted through her body.

Then she saw something in the corner of her eye, even as her body stormed in pure brilliant misery. A red-auburn rocket bounded over the kiosk counter, out of Bloom’s hiding spot. It couldn’t be . . . but it was. Wyatt Earp, the Wonder Dog.

Across from him, hurdling into motion, was Naya.

Naya pounced across the room, taking three long jumps and plowing into Sirine. Sirine tried to slow her down, but she was still swaying, her eyes watering from the pain Panacea had tricked her into feeling. Naya’s jump slowed . . . and stopped, a foot from Sirine. It didn’t stop her. Naya howled and lashed her claws out, tearing red lines into Sirine’s face and abdomen.

Wyatt surged in on the other side and latched his jaws around Sirine’s ankle. Blood splashed the tile, and Wyatt thrashed her leg with full-body snaps.

Sirine rocked back, her face twisted in outrage. She swung her scythe into her hands and buried almost three feet of crystal blade into Naya’s chest. Naya slumped, and Sirine whipped the weapon around. Naya’s body flew off the blade and crashed amongst a tangle of tables and chairs.

no…

Devon saw Bloom spin and throw the hatchet in his left hand at Sirine, but she ducked it. The axe hit one of the black pillars and splashed into the fountain. It was enough of a distraction, and when she’d turned back to face him he had a crossbow bolt in each hand. He lunged, both hands stabbing toward her chest.

Sirine stopped him. Yanked the arrows out of his hands with her mind. Bloom’s eyes flashed wide, and Devon could see every little emotion sparking through his mind.

Surprise. Anger.

Calm.

Sirine turned the arrows in the air, until their shining steel points glittered at Bloom’s throat.

Wait. Steel. They had duct tape on them . . . but they hadn’t been modified.

Neither of the arrowheads were uranium.

Then Bloom smiled.

He spit in Sirine’s face.

Sirine flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. The crossbow bolts plunged into his throat.

NOOOO!” Devon screamed.

Her eyes flooded with tears, and she only saw the vague shape of Bloom’s body get thrown backward by another gust of wind. He crumpled at the foot of the kiosk.

She tried to move, and whatever was broken in her back flared to life. A star went supernova in her spine, and she strangled a scream.

He’s not dead.

He’s not dead.

YOU’RE NOT DEAD.”

She reached out, gripping the rough edges of the tile flagstones. She dragged herself forward, and something in her back ripped. She felt her bladder give way, and her vision spun down to a pinpoint. She’d never felt anything like that before. Vomit flew up her throat and out of her mouth. The taste of blood lingered.

I’m dying, Devon thought, and nothing in her mind disagreed with her.

She reached back with her right hand as she far could and touched her left shoulder.

Please, she begged. Please, please.

Panacea burned, and the creep seared lines all the way to her neck. She gasped – the spirals glowed a deep amber color. There wasn’t much left.

Devon hadn’t healed her back completely, but she’d stitched up most of it. She stagger-crawled toward the kiosk. The world opened up to a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, a crumpled figure lay drenched from neck to waist in bright red gore.

To her left, Alex raced at Sirine and swung his Louisville Slugger at her head. She caught it in the crook of her scythe, and went to shove him away. The baseball bat cracked open at the end, and a dozen leafy vines ripped out from the wood and coiled tightly around Sirine’s scythe and arm. She jerked and tugged, but it wouldn’t come free.

Alex ripped his pistol from his waistband and jammed the barrel into her chest.

“Fuck you,” he spat.

Click. Click click.

His gun glitched.

Sirine whipped her left hand around, and a spur of serrated crystal jutted out of her palm. She sank it into his side, jerked it out, and plunged it back in again. Alex fell to his knees, but his baseball bat hung from Sirine’s staff. The vines were still growing, overtaking her arms, snaking around her waist.

Wyatt Earp tugged and snapped higher, his jaws crunching the bones of her knee. Sirine screamed and stared at the beast, her hands flicking out, her eyes darting. Alex’s vines constricted her, gluing her arms to her sides. She started slashing at the vines with her crystal spur -

Becca raced over the fountain in full retreat. Devon didn’t blame her.

Devon tried to focus her thoughts, her fears. Ignore everything else. Above, on the second floor, a riot had broken out, a desperate battle between unarmed Echoes and hundreds of Rell. Don’t focus on it. It didn’t matter.

She stared down at Daniel Blumenthal and pushed her emotions away. With two quick jerks she pulled the arrows from his neck and flicked them over her shoulder.

Gunfire rattled through the air. Screams.

I’m a corpsman, she said. I can do this.

She laid her right hand over Bloom’s neck. His eyes were open and glassy and dead.

NO!

Devon gritted her teeth and bulldozed that thought. She flooded her will through Panacea, and something happened. She felt the creep cutting up her neck, stitching the tattoo over her chin, her cheek . . . she felt it slash into her ear. Around her eyes . . . into her eyes. Her right eye went dark.

She pulled her hand away – the gaping punctures were closed.

Bloom didn’t stir.

Behind her, she heard Wyatt yip painfully.

Before she could turn to see, hands dug through her hair and dragged her back with incredible force, away from Bloom’s lifeless body.

Alex lay on his side, his hands on his ribs, his chest rising and falling slowly. Slower. She caught a glimpse of his eyes, and they fixed on Devon with confusion. Beside him, Wyatt staggered, his legs wobbling beneath him, his tail between his legs. The top of his head was a thick mat of bloody fur.

Sirine yanked Devon to her feet. Then she jabbed the point of her palm-crystal knife into the soft skin of Devon’s throat.

Chapter 47

Full Dark

 

Devon froze.

The dog limped toward them, shaking its head viciously. Sirine’s staff-scythe lay on the ground beside him, in a spray of shattered crystal.

What . . .

Sirine dragged Devon to her feet. Alex’s vines still hung off her, but she’d snapped most of them. The bitch was bleeding badly from the wounds on her chest, and the slashes across her face had flooded her eyes with blood. She kept reaching up with her free hand and scooping the blood from her face.

Sirine swung Devon between her and the dog.

“You made me do this,” Sirine said. “I didn’t want this.”

Wyatt limped closer. His eyes were clearing, and his lips pulled back into a toothy, silent snarl. Something had been duct-taped to his collar . . .

“You’re . . . full of shit,” Devon said. “You’re a killer. And a liar. And a whacko.”

“Two for three,” Sirine growled.

“It’s okay Wyatt,” Devon choked. “It’s okay baby.”

Where was the uranium Bloom had talked about?

The collar?

Sirine hadn’t been able to kill Wyatt, Devon realized. Hadn’t used her telekinesis on him, either. She’d bashed his head with her staff, but the crystal had shattered against the dog. It hadn’t cut him – just the blunt force of the staff itself had smashed his head.

“Stay back!” Sirine screamed at the dog.

“Having trouble with my puppy?”

Sirine’s face transformed, and she screamed. She clamped her free hand over Devon’s.

Over Panacea.

The crystal knife split Devon’s skin, and blood trickled down her throat.

That’s all folks, Devon thought giddily

“Thanks for this,” Sirine growled. “It’s quite a gift you brought me.”

“Yeah, well, Merry Christmas bitch.”

Sirine screamed, and Devon watched over her shoulder as Raizel Takeshi brought Bloom’s hatchet down.

It split into Sirine’s shoulder with a sick thud. She let go of Devon and spun toward Raze.

Raze exploded into motion, cracking a furious barrage of jabs and haymakers into Sirine. Sirine had her hands out – she was trying to stop her, trying to throw her. Raze started to slide across the floor, but she reached out and grabbed a fistful of Sirine’s robes. She wouldn’t stop. She kept slugging her other hand into Sirine’s face.

Devon saw how Sirine’s left arm sagged – the hatchet had slashed deep into her clavicle.

“Wyatt!”

The auburn dog limped closer. Devon dropped to her knees, grabbed at his collar, and ripped the tiny triangle of metal out from the duct tape. Fucking Bloom. Certified genius. Sirine’s mind reading didn’t count dogs, did it?

Sirine screamed, a high-pitched cry of naked helpless terror. She slashed her crystal-knife at Raze, but it shattered on the Amazon’s indestructible flesh.

“Hold her!” Devon screamed.

Raze wrapped Sirine in a bear hug and lifted her off the ground.

Devon jumped up and stabbed the uranium arrowhead deep into Sirine’s ugly gaping shoulder wound.

Sirine shrieked.

Raze slugged Sirine in the jaw, and she folded like a towel.

“Kill her,” Becca said, hopping off the fountain and jogging toward them.

“No!” Devon said. She shook her head – darkness still snuffed out her right eye. No time to worry. No time for anything.

Alex’s eyes were wide open, and his chest had gone still. He was dead.

Maybe I got to Bloom fast enough . . .

She staggered toward Bloom and fell to her knees beside him.

“Why the balls not?” Raze asked.

A battle raged on the top floor. Raze and Becca stayed close to Devon, watching the Rell and the Echoes clash with wide eyes. The fire had engulfed the exits, and a canopy of black smoke obscured the ceiling.

“We need her,” Devon said.

“She just killed everyone!” Raze spat.

“It’s our only way out,” Devon said. “Becca, link with Green.”

Devon put her hand to Bloom’s neck.

“It’s okay,” Devon whispered. Her body wasn’t obeying her, and she almost fell over. All of her bones ached. The right side of her face felt like she’d dragged it through a rose bush.

“What’re you doing?” Raze said.

“I have to heal – “

“You’ll die,” someone whispered.

They craned around. Sirine lay, holding her shoulder. The crystal ridges over her cheeks and brow were sloughing off. They cracked and fell in small pieces, tinkling across the tile.

“Shut up,” Devon said.

“The creep,” Sirine said. “If you even try it’ll burn into your brain. It’ll kill you. And then . . .”

Raze looked between Sirine and Devon.

“Ginger. Don’t. He’s gone,” Raze said.

“No!” Devon spat.

“I have Green,” Becca said. She was crying.

“Tell him to tunnel here and get us out,” Devon said. She turned to Bloom and tried her best to gather her thoughts into the palm of her hand. To link with Panacea . . . but she saw only a deep red wall. The glyph flared to life, and a hot dagger slid into her right eye. She bucked.

Raze put a hand on Devon’s back, holding her up.

“Don’t do this,” Raze whispered. “I’m asking nicely.”

That merits a parade, Devon thought, deep down in the caverns of her mind. The spirals on her arm had grown, and were glowing an almost imperceptible vermillion.

“Green won’t come,” Becca said. She fell down to her knees, coughing.

Devon’s remaining eye flicked around. Everything had gotten so dark and hazy.

Gunfire. Screams.

“Tell him we have Sirine,” Devon said. “We have her glyphs, if he wants to . . . come pick them up.”

Raze hacked a short nasty laugh.

“Do it,” Raze said. “He’ll come. That greedy sonofabitch will come. You’re a genius, Red.”

Devon put her hand back on Bloom’s neck. Raze grabbed Devon’s wrist and shook her head gravely.

“I asked nice,” Raze said.

She cracked her fist into Devon’s skull, and the shadows rushed in to catch her.

 

***

 

Images flicked through her mind. Her eye, stuttering open. In and out. Dragged across tile. Smoke.

A flash. Green. Brighter than the sun. Searing her corneas, burning everything away.

“To me!” the man called. A man with a bright yellow leather jacket and salt-and-pepper hair.

Time stuttered.

“Can you open it again?” someone asked. She felt a hand on her brow – Ahern.

“Hold them off  . . . I just need to catch my breath.”

A small dark place. Close, pressed together.

“Jaina!” someone shouted.

The world stuttered again.

“Where?!” the man with the salt-and-pepper hair shouted.

SONGS!” Raze shouted.

A green flash – a sensation. Floating, weightless.

Gone.

 

Chapter 48

Home Again

 

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station sits on the ocean, a rambling run of concrete buildings. A pair of spherical structures make up the cooling towers of Generators 2 and 3, known colloquially by their mammary-like appearance. Behind them, the Pacific Ocean churns and rolls as it always has, and will always do.

The last of humanity, as far as the residents know, has found refuge here. Nuclear power, the pinnacle of human technology, has created a perfect bubble to protect its residents from the horrors of the Mergelands. A place of monsters and magics and things from the Distance, the Mergelands are no place for the unprepared. Reality doesn’t work how you want it to, out there.

They call it S.O.N.G.S, as they’ve done since well before the Merge.

To the east, across the road, sits the last Marine base. The last presence of America’s military forces, as far as they know. A place called Camp Pendleton, filled to bursting with Marines, Army, and Navy, as well as whatever civilians they can host.

Things don’t always work how they used to, before the Merge. Military discipline is not the order of the day, not always, not to everyone. They’ve struck an easy balance with the civilians at SONGS and in their own backyards, and are still struggling with the role that has been thrust into their hands.

No one is ready for the collapse of civilization. Even after two years, there is nothing there but people trying to do their best.

Well. That’s not entirely true.

For the most part, however, for the most part – they’re trying.

There is no one between SONGS and Pendleton that hasn’t lost someone. Husbands, wives, family or friends, everyone has had love ripped out of them by the cataclysmic event that merged two worlds where there had been one.

For a handful, a bare few, their loved ones have been found.

To the east, in the town once called Fallbrook, within spotting distance of Pendleton’s rolling hills, there is an orchard. A small place, somebody’s homestead once, had been abandoned. A place called Downing Ranch, if an old battered sign is to be believed. The orchards had grown wild, and the coyotes had come, but it was the work of days to clear them out. To clean out the house, to fill it with long-traveled folk. Folks who can’t be around normal people, but deserve to be.

Two weeks have stood up and fallen down since they saw Hell.

Two weeks is a long time and none at all.

A girl with orange hair, freckles, and black-framed glasses is sitting on the porch, barely filling an old swing. She is reading, her mind is away, and she’s glad of it.

Far away, a gate creaks, a soft whistling scrape that carries over the stillness.

The girl looks up. She sets the flat gray square she’s been reading down at her side, and her body tenses.

The screen door swings open, and she sees a man standing there. A man with salt-and-pepper hair, wiping his hands with an old towel. The redolent smell of hamburgers sizzling on a grill drifts out behind him. He doesn’t say anything for a good while, but he looks hard at the girl on the swing. Finally, he speaks.

“What day is it?” he asks her.

“Tuesday,” she says. Her eyes never leave the driveway in front of the house, the one that rambles up a hill and curves toward the gate. Out of sight. Her left eye is a soft water-color blue. Her right eye is milky-white, shot through with spiraling red lines. If you didn’t look close, they might be strange blood vessels.

If you didn’t look close.

A voice drifts down the path.

The girl springs to her feet and runs barefoot up the driveway.

“Mom!” Devon screamed. “Mom!”

Chapter 49

The Strange Tale of Sarah Ferrel

 

The cracked asphalt dug into her bare heels, but she didn’t care. She’d run her feet into bloody hamburger. She’d seen her mother for just an hour when they’d come back. Devon had been less than coherent, too, badly battered and wiped clean by her overuse of her glyph.

Green had dragged them apart.

After all, Devon wasn’t quite normal anymore. None of the deviates were, the ones who’d survived. They were poison to normal humans, and they’d been sequestered.

They called it quarantine. There was some of that, yes, but Devon knew it for what it was – the Pendleton brass had to debrief everyone. They’d all filled out miles of reports, answering every question a human mind could think of.

Devon had been truthful when she told her story. Why not? The world had gotten too small and dangerous to keep anything in her pocket.

At the top of the hill, standing just inside the gate, was a tall woman with a long blonde ponytail. Instead of fatigues, she had on a pair of jeans, hiking boots, and a comfortable flannel shirt. Her face had been lined with worry long before Devon had left her, but now it smoothed.

Amanda Streeter had an old duffel bag over her shoulder and a new necklace over her chest. A cartridge on a brass ring dangled between her dog tags. Devon didn’t have to ask. Depleted uranium slug, from a fifty-cal machine gun.

Of course it was.

Devon surged into her mother’s arms. They didn’t speak for a long while, she held her, and it was good. Tightly, powerfully, and Devon knew she’d never have to worry. Her body shuddered with great choking sobs that she didn’t even try to suppress.

They said soft words, of assurance and strength.

They came down the path a half-an-hour later.

 

***

 

They ate burgers on the veranda, their feet dangling from the porch swing. There were others in the house, but they left mother and daughter alone.

“How’s your eye?” Amanda asked. She always knew everything.

“Still dark,” Devon said, quietly. “Maybe I can get a cool eye patch.”

“No one would screw with Amanda Streeter’s one-eyed corpsmen wizard,” Amanda said. “That’s just a terrible idea.”

Devon smiled. She devoured another good chunk of hamburger, and they watched the lemon trees sway in the wind.

“I knew he’d find you,” Amanda said. “I knew it.”

Devon put her chin on her chest. “Yeah. Bloom doesn’t quit, does he?”

“Thank God,” Amanda said. “How is he?”

“It’s still too early,” Devon said.

“I guess I don’t understand.”

“He survived the wound,” Devon said. “Because of what I did. But exposure to . . .”

She held up her right hand. The Spiral-in-Diamond glowed a brilliant, vibrant violet.

“. . . this changes people. Most normals don’t even survive the fever. Don’t last long enough to get deviated.”

Amanda nodded. “That’s what took out most of us.”

“Right,” Devon said. “He’s still under. In the back room. Fevers. He might not make it.”

“And if he does?” Amanda asked.

“Then he’ll be deviated,” Devon said. “Who knows how. He might not even be – “

Her words drifted off. Amanda squeezed her arm.

“Can’t you just . . . heal him?” Amanda said.

“More magic would make it worse,” Devon said. “That’s what’s hurting him. Until we know…”

“Should we go inside?” Amanda asked.

Devon nodded. She wiped her eyes with the side of her fist, finished the cheeseburger, and climbed out of the chair. Then she led Amanda inside.

Way too few sat at the kitchen table. Their dinners long finished, they whispered soft words in the gathering dimness. They looked up when Devon and the Colonel entered.

Green sat at one head of the table, Becca, Raze, Quizon, and Jaina split the rest of it. There was no one else.

There were two empty chairs, and the newcomers filled them.

Jaina’s eye had recovered, but the scar across her face had puckered into a white wormy thing that made her look even meaner. Her white hair hung stiffly around her blue-black skin, and she made a point not to look at anyone.

“Where’s Ahern?” Devon asked. Her belly flip-flopped.

“He’s with Bloom,” Green said. “Boy’s a good nurse.”

Devon nodded. She’d found that out herself up at the hacienda.

She glanced around the kitchen. People were missing, people that should have been there. Tennant. Guillermo. Alex.

Naya.

Naya had been the closest thing to a friend at Camp Echo, one of the few that hadn’t thought the worst of her. When everyone had hated her, treated her like shit, Naya had stood by her.

Devon put her hands in her lap, beneath the table, to hide their shaking.

Green rapped his knuckles on the tabletop.

“I call this meeting of the Junior Justice League to order,” he said. It got a few laughs, probably more than it earned. Any attempt at humor got extra points for effort lately.

“What’s the word from Pendleton?” Green asked.

“Straight to the point,” Amanda said.

She eyed Green, and Devon didn’t blame her. Devon trusted Green less than she ever had, which had never been much. He’d played a lot of people, he’d brought down danger and death on children. Worst of all, now his own power had increased twofold since he’d absorbed Sirine’s glyphs.

Devon trusted her mother, and Amanda didn’t trust Green. That much was obvious just in her eyes.

“Pendleton has agreed to help,” Amanda said. “I managed that much.”

“Help how?” Green asked.

“Horses. Weapons, supplies. Any intel we have.”

“Soldiers?” Green asked.

“Not with you,” she said. “Risk of deviation is too high.”

“What about the uranium?” Green asked.

“Too dangerous,” Amanda said.

“The radiation?” Devon asked.

“A little, but that’s not the most dangerous part. The depleted stuff we have doesn’t keep out all magic. The only way to guarantee perfect insulation from magic would be non-depleted uranium. That’s far too radioactive for anyone to be carrying around.”

 “You’re saying it’s on and off,” Raze spoke up. “Any normals hanging with us would eventually get exposed to our juju.”

“Exactly,” Amanda said.

“So we’re on our own,” Green said. He leaned back. “Those Rell kidnapped children, Colonel. Lots of them. Dangerous and powerful children. They’re in the hands of a gang of radical religious psychopaths who are convinced we’re gonna blow up the Earth.”

Amanda leaned back in her chair. She slid into a flat, expressionless poker face. The kind of face a smart person would be intimidated by.

“We read the reports, Green,” Amanda said. “I’ve been doing everything I can. But the general and his men are talking conspiracy.”

“They should be,” Raze said. “Who do you think piped power to Camp Echo? Supplied us on the DL? Somebody at Pendleton.”

“Well, since Camp Echo went catastrophic no one is claiming credit for it,” Amanda said. “Surprise surprise. I have my theories, though.”

“What about the uranium arrowhead?” Devon asked. “Who at Pendleton is making deals with Shades?”

“Putting hit-contracts out for my life,” Green said. He steepled his fingers on the table and ground his teeth together. “I take it a bit personally.”

Amanda shook her head. “Probably whoever was helping to set up Camp Echo.”

“Why?” Devon asked.

“Reports say Green encountered Camp Echo on his own. Right?”

Green nodded. “I joined up separately.”

“Maybe someone at Pendleton didn’t like that. You had influence. You were close with Axel Abbot?” Amanda asked.

“We’re friends,” Green said. “I had some say in the Camp.”

“What was the purpose of the Camp? Originally?” Amanda asked.

“Axel told me they were just trying to teach deviates. To control themselves, to stay away from humans,” Green said. “All good things.”

“Why weapons? Why military training?” Amanda asked. “It sounded like an army.”

“I don’t know about that,” Green said. “Axel said it was just discipline. Like a boarding school. Something to keep everyone occupied, busy, in line. Some of these kids were powerful. They could be massively fatal without a guiding hand.”

“That’s it?” Amanda asked.

Green regarded her, his eyes unreadable.

“That’s it,” Green said. “I’d ask Axel, but he’s a prisoner. Or worse.”

“Rell can turn people?” Amanda asked.

“They have ways,” Green said. “There’s a crystal you can plant in someone’s skin. It grows, expands. Starts to take over the mind.”

“Like Sirine?” Devon asked, stunned. “She was being controlled? By who?”

“Good question,” Green said. “What did she say?”

“Sirine didn’t talk easily, but we have some methods. Drugs, and the like,” Amanda said. Both of her palms were flat on the table. “She wasn’t voluntary. Not at first. Now she’s got sort of a Stockholm Syndrome going on. Her memory of the past year is sketchy. She was captured by the Rell just north of Dallas.”

“Wait, what?” Devon asked. “Sirine’s human?

“Originally,” Amanda said. “Her name was Sarah Ferrel, before she was infected. She’s a deviate.”

Devon sat up. “Are you serious?”

“Wait, Sarah Ferrel?” Raze piped up. “Sarah Ferrel the Blog Princess?”

“Who?” Green asked.

“The Blog Princess,” Raze said. She stared at everyone, her mouth open, her almond-eyes darting around like they’d said they’d never heard of Channing Tatum. “The chick. The chick who catalogued the end of the world on her blog. The videos? She was one of the last websites to go down.”

“You can read?” Quizon gasped.

Raze whipped a fork at him, but he blurred and the utensil whanged off the wall behind him.

“She’s a deviate?” Devon asked.

“Yeah,” Amanda said. “Apparently she can read minds. Her other powers were glyph-based. Not a problem anymore.”

She gestured to Green.

“What did she know?” Green asked.

“She told us the Rell have all the Camp Echo kids that didn’t go down swinging, including your newbie ‘whiteshirts’ that evacuated to Dana Point. She used her mind-reading to get the fallback point from Axel, and relayed orders to capture them. They have everyone.”

Green nodded – they’d all expected as much when no one reported in.

“Where did they take them?”

“San Diego,” Amanda said. “Base of Rell operations, apparently.”

“Who’s in charge?” Green asked.

“Sirine wasn’t in charge?” Becca asked, speaking for the first time.

“Just of a local cell,” Amanda said. “She’d never met the one who lead them, but he controlled her, long distance, through the crystals. His name’s Sett. Supposed to be a Shade. Word is he can see the future, like their prophet. Probably why they follow him.”

“What else did she know?” Green asked.

“She knew that the Rell were making a huge push,” Amanda said. “Preparing for something big.”

“With all those deviates,” Green said, “they’d have a huge boost. If they’re doing something, they’re doing it soon.”

“What? Wipe us all out?” Raze asked.

Green and Amanda eyeballed her. Raze leaned back in her chair and threw her hands up.

“Son of a bitch,” she said, and went quiet.

“I can prepare Pendleton and SONGS,” Amanda said. “Train everyone for a full scale attack. Focus on defenses. Patrols, intel, everything. I convinced General Hubbard to send out scouting parties, to track the Rell movements.”

“Just not with us,” Green said.

“No, but we can tell you everything we learn,” Amanda said.

“That’s it?” Green asked.

“And supplies. That’s it.”

“Okay,” Green said. “We’ll recover here, no more than a month. Can you get us supplied by then?”

Amanda nodded.

“Alright,” Green said. “I guess meeting adjourned.”

They filtered out of the kitchen. Amanda, Devon, and Raze stood out on the back porch, staring out at the wide lot. A crumbling tree house and a basketball hoop sans net told Devon that kids had once lived there. A family. She tried not to think about it.

“You don’t have to go,” Amanda Streeter said.

“Yes I do,” Devon said.

Raze punched her in the arm. She leaned down and dug into a red Coleman on the porch. She passed them cans of beer she’d scavenged from God-knows-where. Raze never needed recoup time, and had spent days ranging out into Fallbrook and the surrounding towns.

Amanda eyed Devon.“You’re too young.”

Devon laughed, popped the top, and took a half-dozen gulps. Raze and Amanda joined her, and they watched the birds flit among the trees. Wyatt Earp the Super Dog bounced between the tree trunks, following the path of the birds up above, his tongue lolling out. He’d occasionally jump for one, miss, and then stare dolefully as it flitted away.

“That dumbass dog,” Amanda said.

Devon wasn’t so sure. She’d spent a lot of time with Wyatt lately, and had noticed how intuitive he’d become. He never fell for pretend-to-throw anymore, and when she talked to him . . .

He seemed to understand. Somehow. His eyes, though still full of playful dopeyness, had something else in them. Comprehension or even, maybe, worry. Devon hadn’t said anything to anyone, because she didn’t want to look crazy.

They finished their beers, and listened to the wind.

 

***

 

Amanda stayed that night, in a sleeping bag on the porch. She’d insisted, probably out of precaution. The slug around her neck stopped some of their magic, but not all of it, and it was safer to put a few walls between the normal and the freaks. 

Devon drifted away in a corner room in the back of the house, the window wide open and flooding the room with chill air. She gazed at the bedpost – her Browning hung from its holster. She felt better sleeping with it – she supposed she’d always would, after everything that had happened.

She thought about Sarah Ferrel, and the thing she’d been forced to become. She wondered if Sirine, Sarah, whatever was still alive – Amanda hadn’t been forthcoming about her fate. Devon wanted to ask, but her compassion for the thing Sarah’d been turned into faded whenever she thought of Naya. Or Alex.

Sirine had smiled calmly as she forced two arrows into Bloom’s throat -

A cold, wet nose prodded her side. Devon sat up, slowly.

Wyatt Earp sat next to her bed. His mouth was closed, and the look in his golden eyes scared the hell out of her. His tail dragged the floor. When he got her attention, he turned and darted out through her door.

Devon grabbed the Browning, stuffed it into the waistband of her pajamas, and followed.

The dog led her to Bloom’s room – she knew he would. She half-expected Ahern to be slumped in the chair across from the bed. He rarely left Bloom’s side, and Devon thought she knew why – Ahern had lost so many people. So many friends, so many squads. He’d probably never even talked to Bloom, or seen him with his eyes open, but Ahern saw him as another soldier he couldn’t leave behind.

This night, however, the chair was empty.

Bloom lay alone in his bed. And he was moving.

Wyatt jumped up onto his legs, staring hard down at his face.

Devon closed the door.

Bloom’s eyes were closed, but he was squirming. Turning slowly back and forth, his lips parted, a stream of frost pouring out. His breath came in hard, flat huffs, and his fingers tore holes in the sheets.

She recognized it as a full-blown epileptic seizure.

Chapter 50

To Other Ends

 

There wasn’t much that could be done, she knew that. She batted Wyatt off his legs and turned Bloom on his side. She tugged the collar of his shirt away from his neck, and propped his head in place with a pair of pillows.

He jerked, his back popping, his hips twitching. His long face twisted – his mouth hung open.

She timed it. It didn’t go over five minutes. When he was done, his body relaxed, smoothing out, drooping with exhaustion.

His eyes were still closed tight.

A half an hour passed. He was getting hotter. When she laid her hand over his forehead, it felt like palming a barbecue.

She leaned over him, daubing his forehead with the towel, running cool water from a bowl on the night table over his heated face. The fever still clung to him, enveloped him, and the sheets and his clothes were drenched in sweat.

“Bloom?” Devon whispered. She tried to keep the wretched grief out of her voice, but it wouldn’t stay. Her voice quivered.

She wondered if this was the last moment she’d spend with him. She held his hand, long into the night, feeling the heat boil his skin. He lay still, his chest rising and falling.

“I love you,” Devon said. “I know it’s not . . .”

She looked down. Her lip quivered, and she felt the tears in her eyes.

“I know it’s too late. But thank you. For everything.”

Devon ran the washcloth over his long face. It had always been a face made for smiling, the kind that caught fire and spread. The kind that looked perfect under that stupid cowboy hat he’d been so weirdly proud of.

She leaned down and pressed her lips to his.

Bloom exhaled a breath.

None followed after.

“Goddammit,” Devon said.

She clapped her right hand over Bloom’s chest.

“What’re you doing?” a voice rasped, behind her.

She turned. Ahern held the door open. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. His hair was tussled, but his eyes were sharp.

Devon’s eyes floated . . . spilled over.

“He’s . . .”

“Come on,” Ahern said.

He slid around the bed and held Bloom’s skinny arms tight to the bed. He nodded to her. His eyes stormed, and she couldn’t figure out what he was thinking… if she tried.

“Wake up,” Devon said. “Don’t. Don’t do this.”

Bloom’s heart had stopped – she could feel it through his chest. He wasn’t breathing.

“Please.”

Devon closed her eyes and pictured Bloom, as she’d always known him. Tall and skinny. Long face, beaming brightly. The stupid jokes that always filled her with warmth and laughter and strength. The boy that had never cared what she looked like, how much of a dork she was, how acidic and vitriolic she could be. How mean. How ginger.

Her breath hitched in her chest.

“Do it,” Ahern said.

Devon blew out every ounce of air in her lungs and pumped her strength through the Spiral-in-Diamond on her right hand.

Panacea, you bitch. You owe me. You owe me this.

The Spiral on her arm blazed. Stop-motion vines unfurled across her wrist . . . her forearm. She stared at it, mesmerized, as it changed colors. Violet, purple . . . blue. Neon green, emerald. Her breath disappeared, and the world tilted and spilled and -

- dark

“Hold on,” Ahern growled, in her ear. “You’re stronger than this.”

Devon sat up. Shook her head. Bit down and burned.

The creep burned amber . . .

On the bed, tangled in the sheets, sweating gleaming on his forehead . . . Bloom twitched.

His mouth opened. A rasp of air, like sandpaper across blacktop.

Devon stuffed her palm against her mouth and wept.

His eyes opened.

Epilogue

Deviation

 

The world swirled to life.

His chest . . . something was sitting on it. The air came in a thin trickle. It wasn’t enough. But no matter how hard he gasped . . .

Devon’s face floated above him. Thick black glasses, a heart-shaped face encircled in flames.

She’d kissed him . . . somewhere. He remembered . . .

“Bloom,” a voice called, long off and far away. He was dreaming.

Wyatt the Red Rocket scraped his tongue across Bloom’s face.

“Wyatt, stop . . . stop.”

Things ticked forward, and the light changed.

A man stood over him. Older. A face lined with age and more than years. Grey-and-black hair, shaggy, hung to his chin. His eyes were impossibly green. He was wearing a Doctor Horrible t-shirt that proclaimed, in faded white letters: “Wow, sarcasm! That’s original!”

“You’re awake,” the man said. His face was unreadable and ancient, like the Easter Island statues.

“Is that . . . what is this?”

The man crossed his arms over his chest.

“Do you know – “

Things changed. The shadows slid up the wall, and the man wasn’t there. Devon crouched beside him – he knew her face anywhere. Memory and time and love had stitched it into the back of his eyelids.

“Dev . . .”

“It’s me, Bloom.”

Time swirled away, but when it came back, she was still there.

“Where am I?”

“Safe, home,” Devon said.

“Something’s wrong,” Bloom said. “I feel . . . strange.”

Devon’s teeth sunk into her lower lip. Behind her loomed a stranger he didn’t recognize – a tall guy, with dark hair and a powerful jaw. His eyes were sunken and intense, and he wore all black.

“You’ve been deviated, Bloom,” Devon whispered. “You survived.”

Bloom laughed. He felt it bubble up in his mouth.

“More handsome than ever, huh?”

“You look great, Bloom,” Devon said. “Handsome as ever.”

Her eyes were pierced-through with pain and worry and a deep fear.

“What am I?”

 

***

 

The days passed by.

Devon stayed by his side. He ate soup from bowls clutched in her hands, he slept, and he talked. Quietly, to her. He even told her about the Shade girl, Tannis, and wondered out loud if she was alive, if she hated him or understood what he’d done. If she was still hunting Green. He doubted he was even making sense to Devon – everything felt heavy. Hot. Clumsy.

When there was strength in his arms and bones in his back, Devon helped him to the bathroom.

Inside was a mirror, a flat shiny glass he’d been dreading since they’d brought him back. Since the world had taken on color and life and sound again. They’d filled him in on the rest of their “adventure” with Sirine, about the future, about the what now.

Devon clutched his hand. She kissed his fingers and laid her hand across his chest.

“Time’s up,” Bloom whispered. “Let’s see what’s behind Door Number One.”

Bloom stepped into the bathroom.

The dusky light from the dirty window above the shower cast everything in shades of gold. They didn’t have any power . . . it was his only light.

He stared into the looking glass.

“Are you okay?” Devon whispered, from the doorway.

Bloom rolled his head around. He stared into his own strange eyes.

He held his hands out in front of him. His skin hadn’t changed much, but it seemed frightfully pale. It could be the fever . . . could be. The veins beneath his skin shone through the paper-white flesh, dark blue lines splitting through him like he was carved out of marble.

The hair at his temples had gone white, like Reed Richards, and thin shocks of snow streaked back from his forehead into the depths of his chocolate-brown hair. He recognized the face in the mirror, even if it did look more gaunt (if that’s possible), more pale. When he stopped moving, he realized he looked like a statue. Everything looked harder, whiter, angular. He prodded a finger into his cheek and felt resistance.

It was his eyes, though . . .

His irises and pupils were molten gold, one flat disc that reflected a polished amber mirror on the world. A spark of warmth bounced into the back of his brain, and he shuttered a gasp of delight and pain. The mirror started to fade, becoming translucent but smudgy, like seeing through a curtain of smoke.

Beyond the wall, he could see warm, faintly glowing shapes. People. Bent into an “S” . . . sitting at a table.

The people faded, visible but see-through, another layer of smoke. It made it harder to see behind them . . . there were so many layers . . . but he could see a shape, low to the ground, on four legs. It bounced through a field, a glowing tail-shape whacking the air happily behind it.

I can see everything . . .

“Bloom?”

He laughed. He bent over, his fingers digging into the edges of the sink. The racking guffaws belted through him, clear and hard and beautiful.

“Bloom?” she whispered. The fear in her voice could have cut through an oak tree.

Bloom turned to her and beamed a wide grin. “What’s up?”

Devon gawked at him. He could see the trail of her glyph disappear beneath her clothes, could see it more brightly than anything else in the room. It pulsed with life. Her dead eye, the one shot-through with deep red spirals, burned like a coal.

“Are you okay?”

“Never better,” Bloom laughed.

“What did you see?” Devon whispered.

“Everything,” he said. He closed his eyes and concentrated on that flat warm spark. It popped, two little pinpricks, in the back of his eyes. “Superman vision. Fantastic.”

When his lids slid open again, he could see normally.

“Let’s show me off to the fellas.”

“You’re insane,” Devon said. The fear had disappeared, replaced with wide-eyed wonder.

Bloom draped his arm around her shoulder, and she held him up. Gave him strength, where there was none.

“You think I’m crazy?” Bloom said.

“Yes,” Devon said.

“The more things change, eh?”

They stared at each other. He looked into her ruined right eye, milky and swirling with red lines. She must have stared right into his brilliant golden eyes. For a long time, they didn’t move, trying to absorb everything. Maybe she was trying to picture their childhood, maybe their last adventure, with the green flash and the Shades and the stupid heroics.

“Hungry?” Devon said, finally. Her lips pulled into her patented half smirk.

“Starving.”

“Green made steak.”

“Bless the Lord and pass the beef.”

They toddled out of the bathroom, arm in arm.

They whispered old jokes, and laughed, and when they came into the kitchen the others stared at them and saw one person where there had been two.

No one talked about the future. No one talked about their scars.

They ate, and they talked, and the world, for a time, could be as it was. Before.

“Hey, wait, where’d your hat go?” Devon asked, putting her fork down and staring across the table. “I thought you’d be buried with that stupid thing.”

Near the kitchen sink, the tall man who’d introduced himself as “Ahern” turned to watch them.

“I almost was. I think monsters stole it.”

“Freakin’ monsters.”

“Too bad really. My handsome and super-heroic entrance to save the day could have really used that damn hat.”

“Did I tell you how we got to Camp Echo so fast?”

“Hover-train? Boom tube?”

“Horses. The cavalry, Bloom, you should have seen it.”

“Oh man! I miss all the good stuff. This is Grade-A maximum crap. Horses are my thing.”

“Shouldn’t get captured next time.”

 

The End

 

Author’s Afterword

 

This book has gone through so many changes I can barely recognize it. What you’ve just read took me about three years to put together. You might say “hey, you should’ve taken six,” and that’s a complaint not without merit. The original story was about Green, but like any squirrely story it changed in the telling.

After a few chapters, I decided Green was too much of a complete jerk to center a story. So, I branched out to his mentees. The story rotated around Devon, Bloom, and Raze in the second incarnation, with Raze getting as many chapters from her own perspective as the other two. Back then she was called “Daze,” real name “Daisy,” but having three “D” names got confusing really fast. Devon, Daniel Blumenthal, and Daze. Yeah. During edits my eyes would go cross-eyed.

Raze took the next hit, getting bumped down to “supporting cast” because the book was just too damn long. Then I realized that my original story concept was probably two books, or even the dreaded “trilogy,” and so I had to retool and focus on telling a small part of a bigger story.

Some worldbuilding had to get cut, a few characters truncated, and the “ensemble cast” book instead became a duo. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – that’s just how writing goes sometimes.

After this afterword, I’ve included the prologue cut from this story. I love it, but it’s a weird way to start a book. It’s a kind of “History of the Apocalypse,” a scrapbook collection of social media posts, YouTube videos, interview clips, and news articles all showing the rise and fall of the Merge and human society.

If you want to know how the world first dealt with the Merge, or you’re just a completionist, or your next book hasn’t downloaded yet, feel free to poke around. Meet Sirine as a human, if anything.

Thanks for reading “The Bad Rescue of Devon Streeter.” Book Two is on the way.

Bobby Johnson, 12/10/2014

Appendix

A History of the End of the World

 

The Blog Princess – News and Views from the Now

Final Entry – Aug 29th

By Sarah Ferrel

 

I’m going to tell you about the end of the world.

I don’t know if anyone even still has internet access – I don’t even know if anyone is ever going to read this. Between fighting the inhumans and battling the fever, most of the adults here are gone. My parents. My aunt and uncle. All of our teachers. Don’t get me wrong, us kids aren’t feeling so hot either – I’m fairly certain there’s only about twenty-percent of us left in my town. I see them, hollow-eyed shadows wandering the streets. Looking for food, shelter, company.

Lights off, smoke in the distance. Sometimes you can hear gunfire, rattling away like a distant snare drum. Sometimes you can hear screams, but they don’t last very long.

The kids who recover from the fever get changed. When I see them, I try to stay away. Everyone under twenty or so seems to handle the fever better, but those aren’t odds I’m playing.

Most of the media is dead or gone underground, their tech smoked – the glitching is almost total now.

I’m not sure why my computer works. We’ve got a generator, sure, but so did a lot of people. If I wasn’t running my own server, I probably couldn’t even post anymore.

I guess you can’t keep a good reporter down, even if she is just a junior at a high school paper.

I’ve collected what I could from the websites I could still hit, before they tanked completely. I had a feeling things were getting bad when Army generals started doing interviews with bloggers and college interns.

Okay. Here’s everything I managed to grab. There’s some news, some videos. Maybe it’ll tell the story. Here’s the first odd thing I could find, dated August 10th. Maybe the start of the glitching.

Check it:

 

—————

 

 

Intermittent Mobile Phone Service Attributed to Solar Flare

By ELLIE CHAMBERLAIN

Published: August 10th

 

WASHINGTON – With three major cell phone providers added to the nationwide interruption of service, the Senate’s FCC committee, bowing to public pressure, has accelerated its investigation into alleged negligence and misconduct. The FCC investigation has turned up a possible celestial cause, in the form of an uncommonly strong solar flare.

 

The committee’s science team has come to the conclusion that a massive cloud of electrons ejected by the Sun on August 8th is behind the communications interruption, and may not abate for up to a week.

 

A solar flare is a huge release of energy from the Sun’s corona, a burst of electrons, ions, atoms, and is known to produce radiation along the entire electromagnetic spectrum. While it’s not uncommon for solar radiation to affect earthbound communications, such a widespread drop out is unheard of.

 

JAMES PRESCOTT, Doctor of Astrophysics, Professor at Stanford, claims “There was no solar flare observed on August 8th, August 9th, or August 10th. In fact there hasn’t been a confirmed solar flare since mid-September. The kind of radiation it would take to affect global communication would cook us like burritos. We wouldn’t be worrying about our cell phones – we’d be worried about our skin peeling off.”

 

Prescott echoes a growing collection of scientists who have observed no such phenomena in the past week.

 

The intermittent service is expected to last less than a week.

This article appeared in print August 10^th^, and can be found in your local copy of the Los Angeles Times.

 

Comments (187)Add/View Comments | Discussion

 

SkipJeryy 6:45pm Aug 10

Better take this week off my bill, right?

 

Zipton215 6:41pm Aug 10

ridiculous – solar flare? what next weather balloon?

skeletireMAX 6:38 Aug 10

cook us like burritos – FUNNIEST PART! Doctor Awesome is AWESOME

 

Rbillit 6:25 Aug 10

There is NO WAY a solar flare did this. There is no way anything did this but some kind of electro- magnetic pulse. You know what causes an EMP? An above-ground nuclear blast. I'm a science teacher for thirty years. That "accident" last week? The outbreak of influenza that was so bad the CDC closed off an entire COUNTY in Arizona? Cities outside of La Paz reported electrical FAILURE! No cameras, no news, nothing. You people are SHEEP.

 

FiSiKiIkForty 6:21 Aug 10

im srzly dying without mai phone. 1/2 calls dropped. Verizon is bettr? tell th Sun to stop being an azzhole.

—————

                                           

Them’s the official stories, but here’s a few Facebook screengrabs. Some are friends of mine. Were friends of mine.

 

—————

 

Doug Baites

Dad’s pacemaker freaking out. Mom pulled us out of class, we’re at the hospital now. Please pray for him.

 

Like * Comment * 2 days ago

 

Angel Gonzalez Gawd I’m so sorry. Hope they can figure it out.

2 days ago * 6 people like this

 

Jaime Flass Dad’ll get a new robo heart and be good as new. Dude’s a badass.

2 days ago * 2 people like this

 

Emily Reynolds Seriously? My aunt just went in for pacemaker problems.

2 days ago * Like

 

New Notification!

 

[* Tyler Banks -> Jill Guerrero *]

Didn’t you move to La Paz? Is everything okay? The flu, really? Dumb.

 

[* Tyler Banks -> Jill Guerrero *]

Hello??? We're kinda freakin out. Everybody's really worried. Are you okay? Just call someone, okay?

 

[* Amanda Schulz -> Jill Guerrero *]

Where are you ? Been calling and texting. How bad is the outbreak?

 

[* Stephanie Guerrero-Hernandez -> Jill Guerrero *]

Honey we’re really worried. Are you okay? Your father and Charlie are going to take the Ford out to find you. Please call baby.

 

[* Tyler Banks -> Jill Guerrero *]

WHERE ARE YOU?

 

—————

 

This is the shot heard round the world. You’ve probably seen it, but I’d feel like a phoney if I didn’t include in my apocalog.

Phoenix Video, below:

 

—————

 

VidSpace – Get Out There

 

Aliens! Totally Real! CRAZY!

Uploaded by Hcktheplnt

Description: Crazy video of three aliens being shot by cops in Phoenix! Not photoshoped, iPhone quality. Watch 2:18! Alien shoots cop with lasers!

 

Category:

News

 

Tags:

aliens, Phoenix, Arizona

 

 

“Okay okay it’s up, Aaron. Roll roll roll.”

Something cuts through the frame, speed blurring his figure. He is thin, with a mop of curling yellow hair that whips the air, accentuating his incredible acrobatics. He flips hand over heels in smooth handsprings, traversing the green swell of the hill in front of a camera trying its damnedest to catch a motion that is far too lightning-quick for its shutter speed.

The cameraman hoots, distorting the audio. He laughs and jumps up and down, and the video tears.

A sharp, distant crack sounds a little like popcorn through the phone’s mic. The cameraman stops hollering, and there are four more distinct, uneven cracks. The handspring artist with the blonde mop falls over, and looks up from his back. The camera spins violently to record a different scene.

A police car, fifty feet distant, parked on a curb. The doors are flung open, and two police officers crouch behind them. Both are in a shooter’s stance, clutching black blobs the camera can’t render but one could realistically assume to be riot shotguns.

A trio of pops, and smoke curlicues out of the cops’ shotguns. The cameraman runs, and the video jostles up and down, flicking between a muddy gray blur of sun-bleached asphalt and the bright blue splash of desert sky.

Closer, and the extreme-sports cameraman has transitioned smoothly to embedded war-time journalist. Clearly what he lacks in cinematography he makes up for with a yard of guts. He is crouched behind the police car, and the pop of corn in a sizzling pan becomes a booming concussion that peaks the phone’s overworked mic and turns the sound to hissing static.

We can see the backs of the two officers and the ever-growing cloud of gun smoke, but we can also see what they are firing at. They’re not human. It’s not a trick of the light. It is midday on a sun-drenched Arizona street, and three monsters from a nightmare walk down the westbound lane. Their stride is steady, unhurried, leisurely.

They are naked and smooth, with skin the cheery red shade of a Gala apple, and just as mottled. They lope along on three thin but powerful legs, the back center leg operating as some kind of steadying peg as the outer two legs pull it along. Their bodies are tall and muscular, ropy with inhuman musculature, and a pair of low arms, shoulders fitted at what appear to be the creature’s waist, nearly scrape the ground.

Their faces are smooth except for a trio of wide, white eyes. Milky and staring, no pupils to focus on, no familiar touch of expression.

Buckshot caroms off their bodies with white flashes of light, like paparazzi flash bulbs.

“…shield . . .” a cop-voice floats into the microphone.

The cameraman climbs up onto the squad car’s trunk and aims over the roof.

The three crimson monsters raise their arms in unison, and crackling energy dances in their hands.

With a blinding crack, the energy jumps to the two cops – they jerk and fall to the floor. One of the bolts slams into the front of the car and races across the metal, but the cameraman seems unharmed.

“Shit!”

The cameraman is leaping and running now, and the image is nothing but panicked flashes as he surrenders to blind fear.

Gray. Blue. Graybluegraybluegrayblue.

“Shitshitshitshitshit”

The video ends.

 

Related videos:

“La Paz LEAKED WATCH BEFORE TAKEN DOWN

“White Light over Hope Arizona”

ALIEN trailer Linkin Park”

—————

 

Next is that weird ass interview with the Army general. Time Magazine’s website was running low on reporters who weren’t dying of fever. They tapped Anne Barrow, an eighteen-year-old college intern who’d probably spent more time making coffee than reporting. Still, she ended up cracking probably the last biggest news story ever. So hey. Kudos to her. Sort of a new hero for me, if I wasn’t so jealous.

Though she calls him “Unnamed Informant,” I dug up that it was actually General Malcolm Mailer, Head of Operations in the United States. Guess he was having a nice fine freak-out.

This was one day after the President’s speech about the La Paz lockdown. You remember. Vaccinations, treatments, etc. It was baloney. Anyway, I couldn’t find a copy of it. Just an audio clip, recorded on Anne’s cellphone.

 

—————

 

Interview with “Unnamed Informant,” by Time magazine reporter intern Anne Barrow. August 16^th^, one day after the President’s speech:

 

Anne Barrow: “I have here, um. I have one of the higher-ups in the government, uh, Army forces involved in the La Paz, Arizona lockdown. The quarantine. He’s concealing his identity, to protect his family. Why did you wanna speak out?”

 

Mailer: (Voice Distorted Heavily) “You’re the reporter?”

 

Anne: “My, uh, colleagues are out. The fever. I couldn’t actually get any of the interview equipment. No keys. Sorry for the crappy set-up. Please, tell us about speaking out.”

 

Mailer: (Voice Distorted Heavily) “I had to. I couldn’t in good conscience keep this a secret. This isn’t about patriotism, or loyalty. As a soldier, I’m loyal to the American people. I serve them, as we all do, or as we all should. I protect America, I defend it, I love it, but the ‘US’ isn’t made up of politicians and presidents. America is made up of people, people who are being lied to by those they’ve elected.”

 

Anne: “D-did the President lie to us?”

 

Mailer: “He did.”

 

Anne: “What was there? What happened?”

 

Mailer: I don’t know. I thought I was going crazy, or that the world was . . . [BEEP]. I’m sorry.”

 

Anne: “It’s okay. What did you see?”

 

Mailer: “We set up roadblocks and a perimeter, then sent a recon team into Howell, which was little more than a few ranches strung together. We lost contact with them an hour in. We sent a second, larger team, and they found the bodies of the first team.”

 

Anne: “Oh my God. Bodies?”

 

Mailer: “Drained of blood, laid in rows. Covered with white sheets. The recon team pushed further, but their equipment began to malfunction. Radios, goggles, even weapons. They encountered resistance. Strange people with . . . dark skin. Not black folk, not African-Americans I mean – I mean gray. Charcoal gray. Surrounded with some kind of smoke screen. They were using arrows, and large-bladed knives. And they could . . . do things. The last report before the radio cut out was nonsensical . . . about shadows coming to life, strangling, stabbing. The third unit we sent in was SEAL Team 3. Six made it back, six out of over one-hundred SEALs.”

 

Anne: “What did the survivors see?”

 

Mailer: “They saw . . . too much. Shades, they called them, the ones with the arrows who seemed to be able to control shadows.”

 

Anne: “What? That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

Mailer: “Hell I know that! You think I’d be sitting here committing treason if I didn’t believe it? Have you ever met a SEAL operator?”

 

Anne: “No, I – “

 

Mailer: “These boys don’t scare easily. They don’t scare at all. They eat iron bars and [BEEP] steel, you understand me? They don’t make up stories, and they don’t lose. They called these things Shades, and they almost wiped out one-hundred-and-twenty of the deadliest, most well-equipped warriors on Earth with ARROWS.

 

Anne: “Are you serious? Are you saying we are being attacked by aliens?”

 

Mailer: “Not aliens. No ships were found. They didn’t have any technology to speak of. The surviving SEALS encountered other hostiles on their way out, other humanoids. Different races, some who seemed to be just as interested in escaping the Shades and the strange animals as we did.”

 

Anne: “What are you saying?”

 

Mailer: “SEALS brought back plant life. Stuff they’d never seen before. They brought back a body of one of the Shades. They’re good boys, like I told you. Committed. They saw their friends cut down, barely escaped with their lives, and they were still focused on the mission. They brought pictures back, too, those whose cameras still worked. Pictures of . . . breaches.”

 

Anne: “What’s that? I mean, what’s a breach?”

 

Mailer: “I don’t know. But they didn’t come from space, miss. They came from . . . somewhere else.”

 

Anne: “Do you believe the famous video posted online by, um, hold on. By ‘Hack-the-Planet’ is real?”

 

Mailer: “Yes. The boys from Howell called ‘em ‘Reds.’ Dangerous when provoked.”

 

Anne: “Are these, uh, ‘inhumans.’ Are they all hostile?”

 

Mailer: “We don’t know. Analysis says no. The Shades are incredibly aggressive, as are the Reds in that video. Others appeared to be fleeing, getting the hell away from the breaches.”

 

Anne: “That video was taken in Phoenix. Is the perimeter breached? Has Operation Excalibur failed?”

 

Mailer: “Operation Excalibur failed the minute your microphone turned on, Annie. But if you’re asking if anything has come through quarantine, I can tell you with full certainty that nothing has. Not yet.”

 

Anne: “So Howell isn’t the only breach? Is that what you’re saying? What does that mean?”

 

Mailer: [laughs] “It means we’re [BEEPED], Annie.”

—————

 

 

I love this next article a lot, because I enjoy irony. You might like it too.

 

—————

 

SCIENCE TODAY – Editorial

 

Science or Magic? – The Facts

 

By Doctor Austin DeSanto

August 15th

 

The Media has been throwing strange words at this La Paz crisis that may be confusing to even the most well-educated.

 

As more of these outbreaks occur, confined mostly to Arizona and the Southwest, there has been a greater opportunity to study these breaches.

 

A loose structure has begun to form around the “new science” of these “portals.” And portals they are – no longer the stuff of science fiction, our source, Doctor Miles Chen (Professor of Physics at M.I.T) tells us that the “breaches” are indeed entrances to another place.

 

“I was fortunate enough to be vacationing at the Grand Canyon with my family when one of the Breaches opened,” Dr. Chen says. “I was also fortunate that the Grand Canyon Breach was what we call a ‘soft breach.’ Some have reported lightning forming around the breaches as they tear through space/time. Entire towns wiped out by being in even mild proximity to the event. Strange radiation, unexplained illnesses, and of course the appearance of hostile ‘inhumans’ have turned many breaches into tragedies.”

 

“The Grand Canyon Beach contained none of these. In fact, it seemed to ‘meld’ some of our world with the alien world. It started as a vibration which grew in intensity until I could feel it in my chest. We watched from the lip of the canyon as green moss and strangling vines crawled up the dusty orange rock. “

 

“It was like watching plants in time-lapse. When an orchid seems to go from a green bud to full bloom in seconds, twisting and unfolding and fattening up? Within an hour, the entirety of the Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas had become untamed jungle. I’ve been to the Amazon, and it . . . it looked so similar, when it was done.”

 

“My little girl asked me if it was ‘magic,’” Chen says.

 

“What could I say?”

 

Chen and scientists like him have run into a problem trying to codify the rules behind these events – they don’t conform to any rules. No breach is like another, and they even seem to opening at different parts of the alien world.

 

One fact appears to be universal – the breaches radiate an undetectable electromagnetic pulse that is capable of freezing up advanced technology. There are even reports of simple technology, like cars and some firearms, going dead around breaches, and even around the strange inhumans pouring out of them.

 

As more data pours in, many scientists are convinced they are dealing either with technology so advanced that is beyond our comprehension, or is simply the impossible – magic.

 

Dr. Chen seems to believe that the world that has so violently collided with our own is rife with magic, a claim without any real evidence behind it. He is not alone in his beliefs, however, and a small but growing number of people, scientific and otherwise, are indeed convinced that the phenomena can be described no other way.

 

After seeing videos of inhumans performing stunning acts of the impossible, what can we believe?

 

Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

 

Occam’s Razor states:  “When faced with competing hypotheses that are equal in other respects, select the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.”

 

So what are to believe? No matter the superstition to the contrary, which hypothesis makes the least assumptions:

 

1. Magic is real.

2. We have come into contact with amazing technology.

 

The choice is simple.

 

Magic is Not Real.

—————

 

What a dunce. A few days after the above article was posted, Doctors Chen, DeSoto, and their entire team contracted the fever. Turns out sticking your nose into a Breach amps up your chances of catching the fever by about 900%.

Below is one of the last recorded radio transmissions:

 

—————

 

Transcription of the President of the United States’ RADIO speech, August 21^st^ on the Breach War:

 

“My fellow Americans. I speak to you at our darkest hour.

 

The Breaches we thought to be a local phenomenon have exploded across the country, and for those few that can still receive this radio signal, you must know where the Safe Zones are, and how to get to them.

 

The Inhumans and their foreign creatures have assimilated most of the western United States, with small pockets of resistance. In California, the reported Safe Zones include San Simeon, Diablo Canyon, and Mount Shasta city. There are no remaining known Safe Zones in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, or Oregon. There are some reports of roving Safe camps in Washington and Montana, making sporadic radio transmissions whenever they can.

 

The armed forces are engaged in prolonged warfare along the Ninety-Fifth meridian. We have established a stronghold near Kansas City, and we advise anyone still alive and active and in danger to travel there as fast and safely as possible.

 

Washington has asked for help from our Allies across the globe, but we are not the only nation experiencing this tragedy. The breaches have infected the entire world, reports tell us, and we must band together.

 

We are under assault. Our very world is facing the brink. We must stand strong, we must stand together.

 

We will survive this.”

 

– Last known speech by the final President of the United States

 

—————

 

Here’s the last thing I recovered before the internet kicked the bucket. The glitching is rampant now. My phone is fully charged, but it won’t even turn on now. I think the glitching might have to do with the level of technology. I’m writing on an old desktop now, so maybe that’s helping. I don’t really know.

When this post’s done, I’m going to pack survival essentials and try to make it to the Diablo Canyon safe zone. Assuming, you know, it exists. I’m probably young enough to survive the fever, but I’m going alone anyway. I can’t chance catching it and dying out on the road or turning into . . . those things. I’ll stay off the road, I’ll use my dad’s old Thomas Guide. I don’t know. Wish me luck. This’ll be Sarah Ferrel, the Blog Princess’s, last article.

Anyway. I grabbed a screenshot of the journal below, just before the internet blacked out.

 

—————

 

Colonel Amanda Streeter, U.S. Marine Corps, Pacific

August 29^th^

 

Yesterday we lost contact with anyone above us on the chain-of-command.

 

We can’t raise any other marines on any channels, radio, phone, what’s left of the internet, nothing. Since the Merge, technology has been failing across the world. Except for here. At Camp Pendleton, everything works fine. The cars, the guns, the computers, hell even helicopters and tanks.

 

The further we travel away from Pendleton, the more the “glitching” sets in. The boundaries are nearly measurable – at the same distance from camp, the glitching starts. I’ve sent a group out to mark the boundaries, so we know how much wiggle-room we have.

 

We’ve had minor incursions since the War started, but they’ve been ineffective and desperate. The Inhumans don’t seem to be organized – in fact, they seem to be a dozen different cultures and races. They have never attacked in tandem, and in fact three days ago when the Shades hit us, a group of Hounds attacked them from behind.

 

We aren’t being attacked, I don’t think. Our world, I mean. Not by some organized army, some grand invasion.

 

The Inhumans seem to be fleeing from the breaches, and God knows what kind of hell they must be escaping. They’re trying to survive, and many are bastards and murderers to be sure, but I don’t think they planned this.

 

I think this was an accident.

 

I was on the I-Five freeway when a Breach opened. Just north of San Diego. They poured out, running in terror, pounding over cars and scattering in all directions. Have you ever seen a forest fire? The way the animals bolt together, mountain lions beside deer beside rabbits beside coyotes? They’re more afraid of the fire than each other.

 

They were running. Not to here, but from There. The Distance. That place on the other side of the Breach.

 

Is there anyone left? Are we the last? Some survivors have filtered in, and we’re taking care of the workers at the San Onofre Nuclear Generator Site. Good to have them, too. The lights are still on, and we have all the amenities we had before.

 

Most of the men are missing families, wives, loved ones. Many immediate families were here in Pendleton – my daughter included. But fathers, mothers? Best friends, girlfriends, fiances? Wives and husbands on vacation, on work trips? Commuters?

 

My daughter Devon asks me where her father is. She’s fourteen for Christ’s sake. She was with me, when the Breach opened. Do you know what she asked me, when that sound started? The dry burping-roaring sound of canvas being ripped in half, in tandem with a thin ear-splitting whistle. After those things poured out of Wherever-the-Hell? A long scaled beast, six-feet-high like something out of Jurassic Park, ran right past our car. Long tufts of brown hair sprouted out between the scales, and its eyes were bright and gleaming yellow, even in the California sun.

 

She asked me, her voice relaxed – she could have been raising her hand and asking a question to her teacher about algebra: “Mom, do you think that’s a mammal or reptile? They say dinosaurs used to have feathers . . .” I didn’t have an answer. I was too busy screaming. I’m not proud of that, but there it is.

 

This log is running long. Rambling.

 

For all I know, the entire surviving military and civilian population of the United States is 12,561 people, and they’re located entirely within Camp Pendleton and the San Onofre Nuclear Generator Site.

 

The world is done. We are alone. And we are surrounded.

 - Amanda Streeter, CO of Camp Pendleton

 

—————

 

Other B.C. Johnson Titles:

 

Deadgirl – Urban Fantasy/Young Adult

Meet Lucy Day, the girl who doesn’t let a thing like “dying on her first date” slow her down.

 

The Lancer – High School Noir

A Kindle Single about a pair of high school detectives uncovering a tawdry love affair and having to decide if the truth is good enough.

 

Curiosity Quills: Chronology – Short Story Anthology

A collection of short stories by a dozen different authors. “In the Clutches of the Mummy Prince,” by B.C. Johnson, is a pulp comedy absurdist story about Hog McMasters, the foul-mouthed mummies of Chile, and the power of friendship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Bad Rescue of Devon Streeter

Devon's a teenage medic. Bloom's a wannabe gunslinger. Just two best friends hanging at the end of the world. When Earth and another world smashed together, everything went sideways. Some people survived, some inhumans too, and they all made for bad neighbors. Fighting for scraps on the face of a changed world, Devon and Bloom have to face alien magic, inhuman monsters, and the inescapable fact that the Merge is going to change them. Deviate them into . . . something else. But when circumstance flings Devon and Bloom apart, can they find each other across the wild wastelands? Will they recognize each other when they do?

  • Author: B.C. Johnson
  • Published: 2016-08-28 20:05:30
  • Words: 111434
The Bad Rescue of Devon Streeter The Bad Rescue of Devon Streeter