Authors: Dan Wells
Samm ran to catch up. “Heron, tell me what’s going on.” He grabbed her arm. “We’ve known each other for almost twenty years, and that . . .” He looked at the clouds. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“Your decisions are stupid,” said Heron. “Our only operational goal is survival, by any means necessary, and you’ve had that in your hands a dozen times now just to throw it away. Your plans don’t lead toward that end; your tactics don’t support it. You’re dying in seven months if you don’t do something, and yet you’re leaving behind your best chance to stay alive. Now Calix says you’re in love with Kira, and that’s the only thing that explains anything you’re doing. They taught us in our training that love makes you stupid, that we could use that against our enemies, but you . . .” She turned to face him. “You’re not even happy. You’re throwing away your own life because you love someone who’s not here anymore, and you hate it, and it’s killing you. Love is the worst thing that ever happened to you, but you still love her.”
She paused just long enough that Samm thought she was finished, and then spoke again.
“I . . . ,” she began. “I wanted to see what that felt like.”
Heron fell silent, but her eyes never left Samm’s, and his mind swam. He didn’t know how to respond or where to start, or even what he felt about Kira or Heron or anyone else.
“Kissing isn’t love,” he finally mumbled.
“Crossing the wasteland is?”
“Maybe,” said Samm. “Heron, love isn’t a weapon.”
“Everything’s a weapon.”
“Everything can be
as a weapon,” said Samm, “but that’s not the same thing. Love is when you have the opportunity of turning someone’s feelings or trust or vulnerability against them, but you don’t. You make promises you don’t want to keep, but you keep them because they’re right; you help people who can’t help you back.” He turned up his palms, trying to describe something he could only barely define for himself. “You . . . call it the Badlands instead of the wasteland.”
“You kill yourself,” said Heron.
“You lose yourself,” said Samm. “Love is when you find something so great, so . . . necessary, that it becomes more important to you than your own goals, than your own life—not because your life has no meaning without it, but because it gives your life a meaning it never had before.”
“Life is its own meaning,” said Heron. “We live because otherwise we die. There is no meaning in death, no hollow gestures, no glorious sacrifices. Love ruins your ability to make those decisions properly.”
Samm shook his head. “Do you realize I used to envy you? I used to think how great it would be if nothing ever got to me, and I never got sad and I never lost anything I loved, and my heart never broke over any of the stupid, meaningless tragedies that have defined our entire existence. Did you know ParaGen built us to love? To empathize? They gave us emotions specifically to make us value human life, to love them. All it did was make it hurt that much more when we finally realized they didn’t love us back. And you . . . you never let that or anything else ever bother you. I used to think that was something to strive for. But you’ve pushed your emotions so deep inside that I can’t even feel them on the link. Tactical data, health data, location and combat, that’s all there, but your emotions are gone. You’re like a black hole, Heron, and that’s not good. That’s not healthy.”
“The espionage models were built differently,” said Heron. “You don’t feel my emotions because I don’t feel them either. And you’re right about me—I’m a black hole. I’m a hollow shell. You think I’m being mysterious but I’m just . . . confused. I thought that maybe if I kissed you, if I felt what Kira felt, or Calix, then maybe . . .” She turned away. “It didn’t work.”
Samm stood in shock, trying to process what she’d said. “Why would anyone do that?” he asked. “Why make a person, and then take away everything that makes them a person?”
Heron’s link data was as empty as always. “Because it helps us survive.”
ome of the Partials Kira met by the seaside were from Morgan’s faction, out on patrol; by the time Jerry Ryssdal died and the first great snowflakes fell, they were all deserters like Green, too shocked by what they’d seen and felt to ever go back again. The world had changed, pivoting too far, and at too violent a velocity, to ever be the same again. Some of them fled east, trying to find old friends from other divisions who’d already joined the outlying factions. Three others joined Kira, swayed by her promise of a cure for expiration. She was open with them, and with Green, telling them that no matter how certain she was, there was still a chance that her plan wouldn’t work. The leader of the squad, a soldier named Falin, simply scratched his head and looked out across the sound.
“If it doesn’t work, and we die, at least we tried.” He looked at Kira. “I don’t know that we can expect any better than that. Not now, not ever.”
“Not everyone’s going to be so open-minded,” said Kira. “The humans are just as likely to resist this as the other Partials.”
“The sooner the better, then,” said Falin. “I’m only one batch away.”
One batch away,
Green will die in a month, and Falin the month after.
How much longer does Samm have? Will I ever even see him again?
They buried Ryssdal by the side of the ocean, laying him in a shallow grave and covering him with rocks. It took long enough that he was already blanketed with snow by the time they finished. Kira wondered how long the storm would last, but she didn’t dare to wait any longer. The park Ryssdal had called them to sat at the head of a long, narrow bay leading out to the sound, and a quick run across a bridge brought them to a large pier crowded with boats. Many of them had long ago come loose from their moorings, and the years of waves had washed them into a massive pile on the edge of the wharf, or out into deeper water where they dotted the bay like tiny white shipwrecks. Several were still tethered tightly to the docks, but none of them looked seaworthy enough to risk sailing. They walked through the vast lot of beached boats, safely stored for an off-season that had lasted thirteen years, and cut off the tight plastic wrapping that covered them, searching for one that would suit their needs. No one in their group knew how to sail, but one of the larger yachts, sixty feet at least, was equipped with wide, black solar panels, and a console that leapt dimly to life almost as soon as the panels were uncovered.
“We’re not going to have much sun to rely on,” said Green, looking up at the clouds. “It’s late afternoon already, and those clouds aren’t going anywhere.”
Falin looked in the gas tank and waved his hand in front of his nose as the foul stench rose up. “The gas is almost completely settled out—mostly resin now, probably won’t even turn the motor. The solar panels will still work until nightfall, but that’s probably not enough to get us across the sound.”
“Let me show you a little trick I learned,” said Kira with a smile, and pointed across the lot to a tall
sign a few blocks away. “If that place has any turpentine, we’re good to go.”
“Paint thinner?” asked Falin.
“What do you think gasoline resin is?” asked Kira. “Come on.”
Falin glanced at Green, who only laughed. “Trust me, she knows her stuff.”
The auto body shop did indeed have turpentine, and they brought it back in heavy metal cans and pushed the boat down the ramp into the water. It took them an hour to get through the press of broken and overturned boats, clambering over them and cutting them loose while the snow grew heavier and wetter. When they reached open water Kira cranked the engine up to full power, pulling from both the panels and the gas tank, and roared out into the bay.
“Stay away from the exhaust vents,” she called back, “and be careful if the wind changes and starts to blow it toward us. That turpentine smoke is poisonous like you wouldn’t believe.”
The mouth of the bay was choked with small sandbars and islands, and they maneuvered through them carefully. By the time they reached the sound it was already night, and they were forced to rely solely on the gasoline as they thumped through the choppy water. The boat had a convertible canvas awning that raised up over the pilot’s station, but the years had not been kind to it, and it cracked nearly in half when they tried to unfold it. Green found a baseball cap belowdecks and gave it to Kira to keep the snow out of her eyes while she steered, and when she needed a break she passed both controls and hat to him. They steered slightly westward as they drove, and made land in Huntington Bay sometime around midnight. The beach was wide and pebbly, and they beached the yacht carefully in case they needed to use it again, tying it to a sturdy upright log that had once been part of a dock.
The snow was getting thicker, and with the storm clouds blocking out the moon, they could barely see enough to walk. They took shelter in a massive mansion just off the water, sleeping soundly in a small bedroom with all five of them huddled together for warmth. In the morning they scoured the house for canned food, finding some garbanzo beans that hadn’t gone bad yet, and shared the meager fare before trudging back outside into the snow. The world was covered with a thick, white carpet, with more still falling in a slow, steady curtain. They didn’t walk far before Falin stepped on a small bump and jumped back with a curse.
“That’s a body.”
Kira looked up quickly, glancing around to see if there was danger she hadn’t registered yet, perhaps some ambush from the storefronts, but she saw nothing. She walked to the group, clustered around the prone body, and knelt down next to it. Now that she was looking closely, she could tell it was a vaguely man-shaped outline, lying on his side in a fetal position.
“Not a Partial,” said Green. “No death stamp on the link.”
Kira brushed away the snow and frowned as she uncovered more and more dark, frozen blood. Whoever it was had died violently. She wiped the snow from the dead man’s face and gasped in horror.
“You know him?” asked Green.
“His name is Owen Tovar,” said Kira. “He was a member of the group that rebelled against our government a couple of years ago, and then a senator after his rebellion was successful. I didn’t know him well, but . . .” She shook her head. “I liked him. He was a good man.”
“He’s missing three fingers,” said Falin, clearing away the snow from his hands. “And it looks like the kill shot was in the gut. No reason for a Partial to have done any of that.”
“No reason for a human, either,” said Kira.
“What I’m saying is that a Partial’s more accurate,” said Falin. “We would have hit him up here, in the chest or the head—”
“There’s no exit wound,” said Green. He was crouching on the other side, by the body’s back, and Kira stepped over to look. “That looks like a gunshot in his stomach, but whatever it was didn’t come out the back. I don’t even know what would make a wound like this. The entry hole’s too big for a knife.”
“Oh no,” said Kira, and tried to roll him over to see the wound; he was frozen to the ground, so she scrambled back around to examine it more fully. She felt her heart sink. “Oh no.”
Kira could sense their alarm on the link; they were already fanning into defensive positions, cued by her words that something was wrong. Green crouched next to her. “What is it?”
“I’ve seen this kind of wound before,” she said. “Once. On your squad mate I found on the dock back at Candlewood.”
Green held her gaze for a second, his mind adding up the ramifications, and he came to the same conclusion she had. “The Blood Man.”
“I’m not saying it is,” said Kira, standing up. “It could be a coincidence.”
“Who’s the Blood Man?” asked Falin.
“We don’t know,” said Kira. “Some kind of . . . murderer? Collector? We escaped from a group of modified Partials that seemed to take orders from him, but we never saw him. He killed a bunch of Partials and drained their blood, and the last Green heard he was headed south to do the same to humans. We don’t know why.”
“Modified Partials?” asked one of Falin’s soldiers.
Green placed his hands on either side of his neck, and flapped them up and down. “Gills.”
“There are only two good reasons to collect blood,” said Falin. “One is you’re crazy, and two, you need it for a transfusion or something. Maybe he’s dying.”
Kira shook her head. “If all he needs is a transfusion, he wouldn’t hop around taking a pint or two each from a dozen different people. He’s definitely collecting it, almost like he’s curating it, trying to get a variety of different samples. In Candlewood he took at least one each of the three Partial models he had access to.” She looked up. “I’ve done a lot of blood tests in my work as a medic, and experiments and all kinds of things. Maybe he needs it for that?”
“Whatever’s he’s doing, and for whatever reason he’s doing it, we need to get out of the open,” said Green. He waved them toward the sidewalk, out of the snow-covered road. “Stick to the storefronts, and keep your eyes open for trouble.”
“We can’t just leave him here,” said Kira. “I knew this man.”
“He’s frozen to the street,” said Green, “and we don’t have time.”
Kira struggled to move him again, but he was as solid as ice. When she finally managed to budge his arm, it was only by leaving a patch of torn skin frozen to the pavement below him. She winced and let go.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, touching his frozen hair. “I’ll come back.” She looked up, feeling a dark foreboding. “I’ll try to come back.”
They ran down the street, leapfrogging from one secure position to the next, and several blocks later found the rubble of a recent explosion, now soothed by a blanket of snow. “Somebody hit a Partial emplacement,” said Falin, examining the debris around the site. He picked up the barrel of a Partial-issued rifle, torn and twisted by the blast. “Maybe your friend back there.”
“Probably,” Kira admitted. She looked down the road, past a storefront with a faded yellow duck, and another that looked like a castle. “There’re tire tracks in the snow,” she said, pointing. “Not fresh, but they were made since the snow began. Whoever made those tracks might have stayed to clean up and not left until after the storm started.”