Authors: Dan Wells
“Then it’s time for us to make a decision,” said Green. “If Kira’s right, we’re only a few hours behind a platoon of Partials, which looks like it’s headed east; that means they’re not going home, likely because they’re chasing a group of human rebels. We could follow them, or we could stay on course for East Meadow and meet up with them there.”
“East Meadow will be safer,” said Falin. “Humans and Partials who are actively shooting each other at the time might be a bit less receptive to our plan of reconciliation.”
“The Blood Man’s probably headed to East Meadow as well,” said Kira. “If he’s really after a wide range of human samples, that’s where he’s going to find them.”
“Then we go,” said Green. “Move out.”
t had been snowing for a week. Wet mounds of it weighed down the trees, cracking the branches, and deep drifts of it piled three feet high in the streets, with no sign of stopping.
It’s like something out of a fantasy novel,
Ariel thought. The world looked unfamiliar and alien. She and her group moved from house to house even slower than before, slogging barely twenty miles through bitter cold and waist-deep snow. In each new shelter they hacked up the furniture to build as big a fire as they dared, ever wary of Partial patrols, and then peeled off their cold, wet clothes and put on new ones, desperately scavenged from whatever the house had available—a grown man’s pants, shoes that didn’t fit, summer dresses layered until they were warm. Ariel remembered her early days with Kira and Isolde, running giddily from house to house in the post-Break wasteland, finding cute new clothes in a hundred different styles, trying on rich women’s jewelry, collecting shoes of every shape and color until their closets couldn’t hold them. Now she raided old men’s dressers for moldering jeans, and cut them in half to use as extra sleeves to save her arms from frostbite. The few good jackets they found they gave to Isolde, and wrapped the baby in old flannel shirts and blankets. Their one heavy coat, pulled from deep storage in the back of a rest home, was rotated between all six of them, and painstakingly dried each night by the fire.
The fires were easier to build, obviously, in homes with fireplaces, but thirteen years of neglect had left the chimneys clogged and useless, and even with the windows open, the rooms would fill with smoke. They lay on the floor, where it was easier to breathe, and hoped that no one was close enough to see the smoke and come looking—Partials were the main worry, but Ariel was just as concerned about desperate humans, starving and freezing, who would see a group of women and get all kinds of thoughts. Even with the dangers, though, it was simply too cold to forgo a fire completely. They kept their guns close and ready, and always had at least one person on watch. In spite of the fact that they disliked him—or perhaps because of it—Senator Hobb always took a double watch.
The conditions, though, did nothing to deter them from their mission to find the lab Nandita spoke of, and the first week of winter brought them as far as Middle Island, a small community that was exactly what the name implied: halfway between the west end of the island and the east.
“This is good,” said Isolde. Her eyes were bloodshot, rimmed with black circles, and she stroked Khan’s blistered cheek as he screamed feebly. “We’re halfway there, baby. You’re going to be just fine.”
“Halfway from Brooklyn,” said Ariel. “We started in East Meadow, so we really haven’t come that far.”
“Thanks for the pep talk,” said Isolde, too exhausted to manage much of a glare.
“We only made it two miles today,” said Xochi. The baby was slowing them down. “The farther east we go, the worse the snow is going to be; the rain was always worse farther out on the island, at least, and I imagine the snow’s going to be the same.”
“We won’t give up,” said Hobb firmly. “This is my son we’re talking about.”
Ariel and Xochi gave each other a look, but said nothing.
“We’re almost to Riverhead,” said Kessler. “Another fifteen miles or so; a week at the most.”
“We’ve made worse time every day,” said Xochi. “Who knows how long fifteen miles could take us?”
“Riverhead is the largest community outside of East Meadow,” said Kessler. “The Partials relocated everyone during the occupation, but their supplies might still be available—clean water, stored grain, smokehouses full of fish. At the very least we’ll find houses with good windows, working chimneys, and clean clothes.”
“We’re not planning to stay there,” said Xochi.
“I’m just saying we’d have the option,” said Kessler. “A few days to recuperate and get our feet back under us, or a few weeks to sit out this storm.”
“We don’t have a few weeks,” said Hobb. “There is a nuclear bomb—”
“This storm will hinder Delarosa’s progress just as much as ours,” said Ariel. “There’s no way she’s going to make it to White Plains and set that thing off.”
“That only makes it more likely that she’ll set it off early,” said Hobb. “That she’ll set it off closer.”
“But if the storm ever breaks—” said Kessler, but Nandita cut her off, speaking up for the first time that evening.
“This storm isn’t going to break,” she said. “You heard the giant as clearly as I did—this isn’t a freak storm, it’s the return of winter; the first great backswing of Earth’s pendulum, struggling to rebalance itself. And as far as that pendulum swung in one direction, it’s going to have to swing just as far in the other. This winter could last a year or more, and this storm? I shudder to think of it.”
“All the more reason to push through to Riverhead,” said Xochi. “Kessler’s right about their supplies, and we’ll need all the help we can get if we’re going to make it to Plum Island.”
“You could at least call me ‘Erin,’” said Kessler, “since apparently ‘Mother’ is too much to ask for.”
“If Riverhead’s such a strong community, the Partials will be holding it,” said Ariel. “It’s the best place to set up an outpost on the eastern half of the island, especially since we did all the work for them. Our best course is to avoid it altogether.”
“We’ll starve,” said Kessler. “We can barely feed ourselves as it is. This house didn’t have a damn thing we could eat, and unless you’re volunteering to go fishing—”
“We can scrounge in stores along the way,” said Ariel. “We can send out pairs to forage while the others build the fire. Anything to avoid walking into a base full of Partial soldiers.”
“It would be easy enough to deal with them,” said Kessler. Her voice was different, and she stole a glance at Khan.
“No,” said Isolde, “I do not want to have this conversation again.”
“He wouldn’t be at any more risk than he already is,” said Kessler. “What, you think they’re going to take him somewhere in this weather? We’ll show up, they’ll ‘take us prisoner,’ which will essentially just mean they feed us and lock us somewhere warm, and then a few days later they’ve died of whatever Partial plague they catch from him, and we have the place to ourselves.”
“And killing an entire group of people, just like that, doesn’t bother you?” asked Ariel.
“They’re Partials,” said Kessler, “and no, you’re not the same thing, so don’t look at me like you’re offended. No matter where you came from, you grew up human, with human morals, and you didn’t lay siege to an entire species. They attacked us in the old world and they attacked us again in this one, and now they’re sitting in houses we rescued, eating food we grew and caught and stored, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them? The hell I am.”
“I don’t care how good your reasons are,” said Isolde, “my baby is not a bomb.”
“Then we use you instead,” said Kessler, “or Ariel, if she’s so keen to get up close and personal with them.”
Ariel spread her arms wide, waving her fingertips to beckon Kessler closer. “You wanna go, bitch? Let’s do this.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Hobb, positioning himself between them. “How are we supposed to use Ariel or Isolde in the same way? They’re Partials—you keep saying that—but they’re not sick. Are they carriers?” He scooted away from Ariel almost imperceptibly.
“They’re the source of the disease,” said Kessler, “which is how Isolde’s baby got it. It’s latent inside their bodies, but Nandita has a chemical that can trigger it.”
Nandita’s hand went to her chest, clutching the small bag that she wore on a chain around her neck. When she saw that all eyes were on her, she looked calmly at Senator Hobb.
“The reason I gathered the three Partial girls was because I knew they might have something inside them, waiting to be unlocked. I thought it was the cure for RM, and I spent their entire childhood trying to find a way to trigger its release. That’s where I went last year—I found the facilities on Plum Island and used the equipment there to finish my research.” She held up the bag, staring at the small outline of a vial faintly visible in the folds of the fabric. “But the cure was never part of the genetic code for the new models, as Kira proved, and the trigger I found is for the disease.” She looked up. “If we give this to Isolde, she’ll start producing the pathogen in her lungs, and spread it to kill every Partial she comes in contact with.”
“Does she just drink it?” asked Kessler. “Does it have to be injected?”
“Injection only,” said Nandita. “The formula’s too fragile to survive the digestive system.”
“Why Isolde?” asked Ariel. She remembered all the lies and deceit and experimentation, an entire childhood as a secret lab rat in this woman’s hands. “Why didn’t you say me?”
“I thought you didn’t want to do it,” said Xochi.
Ariel roared at her without looking away from Nandita’s face. “Of course I don’t want to do it! But I want to know why she thinks I can’t.” She pointed at Nandita. “That wasn’t an accidental omission—you know something about me.”
“Your child died,” said Nandita. “Khan isn’t the first Partial-human hybrid, he’s the first one who lived; the plague processors in Isolde’s DNA made him immune to one disease, but cursed him with another. Your baby . . . simply died.”
“So you don’t think I have the Partial disease in my genes.”
“I don’t,” said Nandita. “I don’t know about Kira. Isolde, as far as I know, might be the only one.”
“So all the experiments,” said Ariel, “all the horrible things you did to us as kids, the herbs and the physical tests and the ‘alternative medicines’ you gave me to try to figure this all out, that was all for nothing? You treated me like a test subject when I lived with you, and a liar and a pariah when I tried to run away, and it was all for this? So I could just turn out to be completely normal, and everything you were looking for wasn’t even there?”
“Negative results are still results,” said Nandita. “You have more knowledge than you did before. More truth.”
“Yeah,” said Ariel. “The only true thing you’ve ever told me.”
The group mostly fell quiet after that, discussing Riverhead only briefly and deciding to follow Ariel’s plan of cutting north around it. There was no more mention of diseases, or of using Khan as a living weapon, and lots of murmured worry about the worsening storm. It was becoming increasingly likely that they might never make it to Plum Island at all, though no one dared to say it out loud, and Ariel wondered what would happen then. Khan would die, at the very least. Isolde would fall apart. Hobb might very well abandon them.
And I can shoot Nandita,
Helping Khan is the one decent thing she’s tried to do with her life, and if she can’t do that? The world will be better off without her.
Xochi took the first watch, and Ariel slept fitfully by the fire, one side too hot and the other still freezing. She dreamed of flowers, and the garden she used to keep as a child in Nandita’s house. She’d been so proud of them, and when she’d moved away she’d started a new garden: daylilies and salvia and geraniums; joe-pye weeds and black-eyed Susans. All dead now under three feet of snow.
She woke in the middle of the night to find the fire burning low; Nandita was awake, taking her watch. Ariel kept her eyes slitted, faking sleep while the old woman added more scraps of the old kitchen table to the fire. Nandita stood there a moment, warming her hands, and Ariel felt a crazy, almost overwhelming compulsion to shoot her now, right here; to rid the world of her manipulations, and save the group from their useless trek to Plum Island. They’d never make it. Killing Nandita would only hasten the inevitable and give them time to escape from the island before dying of cold or the nuclear explosion. It made so much sense. Ariel reached for her pistol, mere inches from her head, so slow and so quiet the old woman would never even notice.
Nandita pulled out the bag from around her neck, staring at it in the firelight. Ariel froze. Nandita didn’t move, simply looking at the bag, until at last she reached up with her other hand and opened it, tugging apart the strings that held it closed and pulling out the small glass vial. Inside was the plague trigger, dark brown and glistening in the firelight. Nandita unscrewed the rubber cap, dumped the liquid in the fire, and watched it disappear in a hiss of bubbles and steam. Ariel watched with her. Nandita re-stoppered the vial and tucked it back in the bag, and Ariel closed her eyes again before the old woman turned around and walked back to her window to keep watch.
Ariel watched the fire for the rest of the night.
reen heard it first, stopping in midstep and raising his head to listen. The other Partials stopped an instant later, warned by the link that something was happening. Kira tried to listen as well, but when the Partial soldiers all dropped to the ground in unison, taking cover and pulling up their rifles, she realized that her ears weren’t nearly as finely tuned. She pulled up her own rifle, crawling to the snow toward Green.
“Gunshot,” said Green, and pointed down the road to a wide-open parking lot. “Two so far. Long gun, medium caliber by the sound of it. Sniper, but he missed what he was shooting at.”