Authors: Dan Wells
MOVEMENT ON THE THIRD FLOOR,
came the message. She was still up there.
They moved quickly back to the stairs and went up. Kira felt her trepidation grow and was grateful that she wasn’t broadcasting her fear across the link. She needed to be strong. She followed Green out onto the third floor with her rifle up, crouching low to reduce her profile, watching each corner and shadow with her heart in her throat. The gilled Partial assassin could be anywhere, lying in wait for them, cornered and desperate and deadly.
Kira glanced toward the balcony railing and the wide center shaft beyond, looking for the rack of suits she’d seen earlier.
she said, locating herself mentally.
That means I’m facing left of where I was before, and Jansson is over there—
The suits moved again. She froze in surprise, just for a split second, before dropping to the floor. She wanted to call out to the others that she’d found her, but she didn’t risk it; if the assassin didn’t know she’d been spotted, Kira could sneak up on her. A moment ago she was glad to not be on the link, and now cursed the fact that she was unable to silently communicate what she’d seen. She waved at Green, getting his attention, and pointed at the suits. He nodded, acknowledging that they were the same suits she’d pointed out below, and she shook her head, pointing at them more firmly. He stared back, uncomprehending, and she gritted her teeth in frustration.
She’s there right now!
He stared at her a second longer, then suddenly the link flooded with understanding, and the group of soldiers began maneuvering toward the suit display, converging on the single point with brutal efficiency. Kira followed, but a new doubt was creeping into her mind: Why hadn’t the shooter moved? Why stay in one place for so long? The most obvious answer was that she’d taken up a sniping position, but she didn’t seem to have a good view of anything; the railing was solid, more of a low wall, so she couldn’t shoot or even see through it. That led Kira to the next most obvious answer, and she shouted a warning as soon as she realized what was really going on.
“It’s a trap! She’s trying to draw our attention; it’s a trap.”
The Partials responded immediately, fanning back out, combing over the third floor even more cautiously than before, not taking a single step forward until every step behind them had been checked and secured and cleared. When they finally turned the corner to the far side of the railing, Kira looked at the rack of suits and saw an old man, his arms and legs bound tightly with plastic ties, his mouth gagged, his body lashed to the rack. Each time he moved, the suits shook.
“It’s not a trap,” she growled, “it’s a decoy.” She ran forward and pulled the gag from the man’s mouth. “Where is she?”
“Escalators,” the man gasped. “She crawled down the escalators.”
Kira swore, out loud this time, and stood up to peer over the edge. The escalators were such an obvious death trap that they hadn’t even considered them, and their only pair of eyes watching the center of the room was Jansson, far below, where a body slithering down them would be completely hidden. A sniper up here, in her position by the suit rack, would kill everyone who tried to climb them, but their sniper at the bottom hadn’t seen a thing.
And then the link data wafted up:
“Jansson’s down,” said Green. “She’s gotten behind us.”
Kira ran, screaming as she went. “Marcus! Marcus, look out!” A gun fired, and then another, bullets roaring back and forth by the entrance to the mall, and Kira clattered down the escalators as fast as she could, desperate to reach him in time.
I just found him,
I can’t lose him again, not now, not like this, I have to help him—
The gunfire stopped, and Kira dropped to the jagged metal steps, rifle at the ready, listening. Was she too late? Was he already dead?
“Somebody better get over here,” said Marcus, and Kira closed her eyes, so relieved she could barely hold her head up. “I think it’s still alive.”
Kira ran down the last few stairs, creeping carefully through the bullet shells strewn on the ground floor until she saw the Partial assassin lying prone on the tiles, her rifle several feet from her hand. There was blood everywhere. Her head was turned to the side, a gas mask obscuring her face, but her pale gills flapped feebly in her neck, opening and closing in a slow, silent gasp for air. Kira approached the downed monster carefully, still terrified of what she could do, half expecting her to leap up and stab her, or bite her, consuming every last bit of life she could before death dragged her screaming down to hell.
Instead the Partial reached up and pulled off her gas mask, panting for air. She was just a girl, Kira’s age, but smaller. Her eyes, dull from blood loss, focused loosely on Kira, and she moved her mouth, trying to speak.
“Who are you?” asked Kira. She kept her rifle trained on the girl, stepping slowly toward her. “Who do you work for?”
“My . . .” The girl’s voice was a ragged whisper, every word a struggle. “My name is Kerri.”
“Who do you work for?” asked Kira again. Her rage was slowly deflating into pity, but she fought to keep it burning hot. “Why are you killing us?”
“You need . . . to be preserved.” The girl moved her finger feebly, her body still flat on the ground, her head resting on the cold, bloody floor. “We don’t want to . . . lose you. When the world ends.”
“The world already ended,” said Kira.
“It’s ending again,” said Kerri, and her finger stopped moving. The life disappeared from her eyes.
Blood seeped out in a widening pool, hot and red and lost forever.
here’s definitely someone there,” said Ariel, dropping back down behind a tree-lined snowbank. The snow was worse now than it had ever been, a blizzard so thick and windblown they could barely see one another at more than fifty feet. They were north of Riverhead, slogging through wide, flat farmland, and hadn’t heard the noise until it was practically on top of them. “I don’t know who it is, or if they’ve heard us as well.” Ariel shook her head, checking her rifle; it was covered with snow, but it seemed like everything still worked. She wouldn’t know until she tried to fire it. “We need to find better cover if this turns into a fight.”
Xochi scanned the area, though there was little to see. “We passed a farmhouse a ways back, or a church or something. Looked small, wood construction.”
“Not the best defense,” said Isolde. Khan was strapped to her chest, and she covered him protectively with her arms. “We’re on the main road—maybe they’re just passing through. If we get off it, they might not notice us at all.”
“And if they follow us, who knows where we’ll end up?” said Kessler. “You can smell the seawater, even through the storm—too far north and we have our backs against the ocean.”
“I think they’re coming toward us,” said Hobb, running back from his position at the front of the line. “I can take a few shots now, try and get lucky, but that’s only likely to make them mad.”
“We don’t even know if they’re aware of us,” said Nandita. “I can’t feel anything on the link, but who knows how the blizzard’s disrupting that?” She grimaced. “North, then, away from the road. We’ll take shelter in the first suitable structure we find.”
They trudged across the snowy field, Ariel shielding her face with her hands just to be able to see. The world was a white void, unshaped and unmade. Slashing pellets of ice bit into her skin. Slowly the world in front of her grew darker, a patch of gray slowly coalescing to black, and then a building appeared, wraithlike in the snow. It was stone, at least three stories high, with a heavy wooden door flanked by thick stone pillars. It felt unnatural to Ariel, like a castle made real in a realm of dreams, but she ran to the door and heaved against it. It didn’t open. A plaque on the door identified it as the Bluff Hollow Country Club.
“Over here,” said Xochi, “through the window.” They ran to the side, where a row of tattered red curtains blew fitfully through the empty windowpanes, and crawled through to the faded opulence of the clubhouse. The curtains had done little to keep the wind and weather outside; the floor was scattered with leaves and dirt, and the front edge was mounded with snow. The wooden floor was warped and discolored from long years of water damage, and the once-elegant rugs were molding and frozen.
“I think I saw them following us,” said Kessler, helping Isolde through the window before tumbling in after her. “I’m not sure.”
Ariel looked around the room: overstuffed chairs, embroidered couches, central fireplace, stonework bar. “Through that door,” she said. “There’ll be a restroom or something back there—no windows, no snow, and as soundproof a shelter as we’re likely to get. We don’t want Khan to give us away.”
“What’s our plan?” asked Isolde. Khan was fussing, but feebly. He was too sickly now even to scream, pale and skeletal, and Isolde’s eyes looked equally drained.
“Don’t get shot,” said Xochi. “Or captured, or separated, or anything bad.”
“Does besieged count as bad?” asked Hobb. “If they know we’re in here, the restroom will be the worst place we can hide—we need an exit.”
“The kitchen, then,” said Ariel. She jogged across the room, feeling her muscles protest, and looked through the door behind the bar. “It’s small, but there’s a back door, and a large central counter we can duck behind if anyone starts shooting.”
“If anyone starts shooting, we’re dead,” said Kessler. “A kitchen counter won’t protect us from an armed squad of Partials.” Even so, they all hurried to the back room, crowding in among the old steel bowls and copper pans. Ariel closed the door behind them and checked the door to the back; the view was as ghostly as the one they’d just walked through, and she couldn’t see anything at all past forty feet.
“We can talk to them,” said Nandita. “They might not be gathering refugees for East Meadow anymore—the storm could have changed that. Certainly they won’t want to take us there themselves, not in this weather. We’ll be reasonable, and maybe they’ll leave us alone.”
“Maybe,” said Kessler. “I don’t like any plan that relies on ‘Partial mercy.’”
“They’re not evil,” said Xochi, “they’re just the enemy.”
“That’s a meaningless distinction,” said Kessler.
“Quiet,” said Ariel. “I think they’re here.”
She heard voices, dim and distant over the howling wind, and listened closely. She thought maybe she could detect something on the link, but it was too weak to tell for sure—or she was simply too unpracticed. She closed her eyes instead and tried to rely on her ears.
They’re coming in the window,
thought Ariel, listening to the sound of scuffling feet, thumping boots, and low, muttering voices.
I could open this door right now and take them by surprise, kill two or maybe three before they know I’m here. Except
. . . Except she didn’t want to. Every Partial she’d ever met had been an enemy, like Xochi had said, but for all she knew, they
evil. They’d never done anything to show her otherwise. They’d invaded her home, killed her friends, and hunted them like animals; they’d harried Ariel and the rest of them at every turn, and for no reason she could possibly guess.
What do they gain from attacking us? What do they want, and how does rounding us up like prisoners possibly help them to get it? They used to want Kira, but they found her, and they haven’t left, they’ve just
. . .
stayed. Like robots, or trained dogs, mindlessly following their last known orders.
I’m one of you,
I’m a Partial, but I don’t want to be a robot. I don’t want to be evil. Show me you can be good.
I don’t want to be alone.
“This is the worst storm yet,” said one of the Partials. His voice was muffled by the door and bore the same odd passivity that marked the other Partials she’d listened to. Without the link to convey their emotions, they really did sound like robots.
“We’re due to report back in an hour,” said another. “With the radio down, the sergeant’s going to think something’s happened.”
“Something has happened,” said a third voice. “At least we get to wait it out in style. Who knew this place was here?”
They weren’t searching for us,
They were just getting out of the storm. In the middle of that blizzard, they might not even have seen our footprints.
She looked at the others, noting from their expressions that they’d heard the same thing and come to the same conclusions.
All we have to do is wait it out,
Eventually they’ll leave, and if we’re quiet, they’ll never even know we were here.
“Do you have anything to eat besides this crap?” asked one. “I’ve had enough smoked fish to last me till expiration. It’s like the only thing the humans ever ate in that town.”
So they’re based out of Riverhead,
Just like we thought. Once we get farther east, we might be—
“Check the kitchen,” said another. Ariel froze, her fingers clutching her rifle in terror. “There might be some canned . . . I don’t know, what did rich humans eat out of cans? Caviar?”
She heard footsteps and took a silent step backward, training her rifle on the door. Xochi and Hobb stood beside her.
How many are there?
she thought frantically, trying to sort out how many voices she’d heard.
Three? Four? Could there have been more that hadn’t spoken?
“Caviar sounds worse than fish,” said another. “Artichokes, though. I think those come in cans.”
The door pushed forward half an inch. Ariel poised her finger over the trigger, ready to fire, but the door stopped moving.
“Wait a minute,” said a voice. “You’re going to love this.”
“Nothing in the bar will still be good,” said another voice. “It’ll all be separated, like the gasoline.”