Authors: Dan Wells
A few people tentatively raised their hands, and Kira nodded. “Now: How many of you are trained?”
Two hands stayed up. Kira swallowed her sudden guilt and self-loathing, forcing herself to think of the group, and pointed to the heavier of the two. “What’s your name?”
“Jordan.” The rest of the column shuffled past them, trudging onward through the snow.
“Let me do it,” said Levi. “I’m a better shot.”
“You’ve never seen me shoot,” said Jordan. Levi merely raised his eyebrow.
Kira handed Jordan a rifle and pointed to the window above them. “I want you to go up there, watch behind us, and shoot any pursuers you see.”
Jordan looked back and forth between Kira and Levi, processing the request.
“Accuracy isn’t as important as just keeping them busy,” said Kira. “If you’re as good as you said you were, you’ll be fine.”
“Until they shoot me or capture me,” said Jordan.
Kira clenched her jaw. “Look, I know it’s a lot to ask, but you would be—”
Jordan grabbed the rifle from Kira’s hand. “Hells yeah, I’ll do it.” He checked the sights. “The world’s ending anyway, and if I get to go down taking out a bunch of Partial bastards—” He glanced nervously at Levi. “I mean, enemies. Enemy soldiers. Sorry about that, friend. Old habits.”
Another shot rang out, and a refugee in the back of the line fell down with a strangled cry. Kira shouted for the others to hurry, then looked back at Jordan. “You can save a lot of people.”
Jordan let out a long, nervous breath, then checked the rifle one more time. “I was getting sick of walking anyway. Bad leg.”
“You’re a hero,” said Kira.
“Then do me a favor and keep enough of these people alive to remember me.” Jordan turned and stomped through the snow. Kira ran back toward the fallen refugee, but Green and the human supporting him waved her away.
“He’s dead,” said Green. “Get this line moving faster.”
“You’re the weak link,” Kira shouted back, trying to sound playful but knowing she’d failed miserably.
“I’m going to catch up to you and slap you in the mouth,” said Green, teasing much more successfully than Kira had. She looked at the two sniper victims, facedown and motionless in the snow, fading into the cold gray storm as the group walked on. She pushed forward, encouraging where she could, prodding and cajoling, trying to keep the column moving. Another sharp crack split the air, closer and with a markedly different sound; Jordan had started firing.
The army was getting close.
The snow stung their eyes and clung to their lashes, and the whole city seemed to blur into a pale white limbo. They passed homes and schools and parks and trees, all blended to the same featureless nothing, their steps marked by the sounds of gunfire behind them: single shots that echoed through the storm, amplified and muffled and everywhere and nowhere. The column reached a crossroads, and Marcus led them southwest on Foxhurst Road, still miles away from their destination. The single shots behind them erupted into a cacophony of automatic gunfire, a vicious onslaught that tore through the storm and then just as abruptly fell silent.
I hope he bought us enough time.
Night fell, and the pale-white limbo darkened to a deep, black shadow that seemed to shroud the world in danger. The falling snow was even more blinding now, and the refugees begged for rest, but Kira didn’t dare stop moving. More bullets flew out of the darkness, not sniper shots but advance scouts, harassing their flanks while the main army hurried to catch up. Kira assigned a team to hold them off—Levi and three of the humans—and another to explore the city on their sides, looking for Partial forces that might be trying to flank them. Kira tried to think of how she could possibly hail them and convince them of her cause, but the chances of that seemed to fall with every new attack, every new gunshot, every new fleeing victim left bleeding and dead on the side of the nightmare road.
They turned from Foxhurst to Long Beach, and from there to Atlantic Avenue, always pressing west, always trying to stay ahead of the ravenous army behind them. The suburbs slowly melded into a city, and the buildings each held terror in their shadows. A force of Partial soldiers burst out of a side street, guns blazing and the stench of
wafting off them. Refugees screamed and fell, ducking behind the snowed-in hulks of old, wrecked cars and scrambling for their weapons, or simply dying in the blood-spattered snow. Kira returned fire, Marcus and Falin and even Green joining in; Falin died, and nearly fifty of the humans, before they finally fought off the attackers. Kira assumed that one or both of her scouting teams were dead as well. She ordered the humans to drop their packs, abandoning their food and its weight so they could go even faster.
“If they catch us, we’re dead,” said Kira, frost burning at her face and fingers. “If we’re still alive in the morning, we can look for more food then.”
Night closed in tightly around them. Their world was a cave full of cold and death and horror. The smell of the sea was stronger now, but so was the link data of the Partials, and even Kira could feel it coming in from both sides.
“We’re surrounded,” said Kira. She was guarding the rear of the column, sending the rest of the refugees as far ahead as possible.
“What do we do?” asked Marcus. “Scatter? They can’t chase all of us.”
“They can,” said Kira. “They’re everywhere, and there’s more of them, and they’re better at this. They can see better in the dark, they can coordinate through the link while we can barely even find each other in the snow—”
“I’m not giving up,” said Green.
Kira protested. “Neither am I—”
“Then stop talking like you are,” said Green, “and let’s do something.”
Kira nodded, struggling to think. “Tell them to go to ground,” she said. “If the Partial army’s in front of us now, there’s no sense moving forward—send the message for everyone to seek shelter, to stay dark, to stay quiet. We’ll lead the army away.”
“Whoa,” said Marcus. “Who’s ‘we’? You have to stay safe.”
“I have to protect these people,” said Kira. “If that means a blaze of glory, then . . . that’s what it means. I’ll lead them away, I’ll give the army their vengeance, and maybe the others can make it to the coast.”
“I’m coming with you,” said Marcus.
A burst of gunfire roared out of the snow behind them, and they dove for cover. “Get down!” shouted Kira. “Everyone get down!”
She heard a muted echo of unintelligible shouts, and checked her rifle with fingers she could barely feel. She was down to her last magazine. Feet crunched behind her in the snow, and she tried to burrow deeper. Link data drifted in, closer and closer, a chemical confusion she couldn’t sort through. Rifles and handguns fired in the darkness. A row of soldiers loomed over their snowbank, and Kira and Marcus and Green fired up at them, killing them or scaring them back into cover; she couldn’t tell which.
“I’m out,” said Marcus. “That was my last magazine.”
“Mine too,” said Green.
“I have maybe five shots left,” said Kira. She looked at the others, dim shapes in the darkness. “I’m sorry.”
“For having more bullets than us?” asked Marcus. “How dare you?”
“I mean for bringing you here,” said Kira. “I thought we could make it. I wouldn’t let us leave East Meadow without the rest of the refugees, and even before that I’m the one who dragged you both into this—”
“We came because we believed,” said Green. “If we die for something we believe in, that’s . . . more than the rest of my squad could say for themselves.”
A harsh voice drifted through the storm. “This is General Shon, acting leader of the entire Partial species. Those of you who have betrayed your race and joined the human terrorists are complicit in the bombing of White Plains and the death of hundreds of thousands of Partials. Surrender now and you will be forgiven; stay with the humans and we will exterminate you with the rest of the vermin.”
“We have to work together!” shouted Kira, but the only answer was another hail of bullets.
“Give me your rifle,” said Marcus. “You can run for it, and I’ll cover you—”
Another Partial soldier appeared above them, and Kira screamed and fired, desperate to protect her friends even if only for a moment, but more soldiers appeared, and more beside them, and Kira’s rifle was empty but she still kept pulling the trigger, screaming and crying her defiance—
—and the Partial soldiers were cut down by a wave of gunfire.
“Kira!” a voice shouted. “Fall back to our position! We have you covered, fall back!”
The voice was impossible to identify in the midst of the wind and gunfire, but they were desperate for any help they could get. Kira and Marcus scrambled to their feet, dragging Green between them and stumbling through the snow. Bullets howled through the air around them, slamming into snowbanks and ricocheting loudly off the dark hulks of cars, but the vague shapes in the storm kept beckoning them forward. She didn’t know who they were, but they were on the link, and she wondered how a group of friendly Partials had appeared out of nowhere from the west.
She felt something familiar and almost stopped in shock.
“Keep coming!” said the voice. “We can hold them here—fall back behind us!”
She dragged Green and Marcus forward, and then there he was, kneeling behind the protection of a snow-covered car, holding off the enemy.
“Kira,” he said. “I told you I’d find you.”
here did you come from?” Kira demanded.
“West,” said Samm. He kept his eyes on the road to the east and fired another short, controlled burst from his rifle.
“But how?” asked Kira. “Why? What about the Preserve? I thought I’d . . . never see you again.”
“Go ahead and kiss him,” said Marcus, throwing himself down behind the same car for cover. “He saved our lives—if you don’t kiss him, I’m going to.”
“Questions later,” said Samm. “Do you have any ammo left?”
“We’re out,” said Kira.
“I have a pistol in my side holster,” said Samm, firing another quick burst. “Take it, and get your people to safety. I’ll hold this line to give you and Heron more time.”
Kira took the gun. “Heron’s here too?”
“Planting explosives,” said Samm. “There’s a bridge two blocks behind me.”
Kira looked ahead, trying to spot it, but it was impossible to see anything that far through the snowfall. She looked back at Samm. “I won’t leave you here.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” said Samm, and Kira saw now that there were other soldiers with him, dug in across the width of the road. “Get your people to safety, and wait for my signal. Now go. And Kira?”
She looked at him, her heart still twisting at the confusion of seeing him here. “Yes?”
“I’m . . . glad you’re safe,” he said. It was a simple sentence, but the link data that came with it was so powerful it made her hands tremble. She nodded, trying to say the same thing back, but it came out as a confused mumble. She’d thought he was gone for good, trapped on the other side of the wasteland. She’d dealt with it. She glanced from Samm to Marcus and back to Samm again.
She didn’t know what to do now.
“Let’s go,” said Marcus, and Samm gave them another burst of covering fire as they helped Green to his feet and ran forward through the howling storm. Cars and buildings and lampposts loomed like ghosts on the edge of their vision. Bodies lay in the snow, already half-buried by the relentless storm. The close buildings gave way to a wide, empty parking lot, and then they reached the bridge—the ocean inlet it crossed was narrow, barely thirty feet wide at the most, and it wouldn’t hold the army for long. In this weather, though, removing it would buy Kira’s people a few precious hours.
Someone waved them forward to the bridge. “They came out of nowhere,” said the man; he was one of the humans Kira had sent ahead, though she couldn’t remember his name. He gestured to Heron, climbing up from under the bridge with Tomas, the demolitions tech. “She says they know you.”
“They do,” said Kira, looking at Heron’s eyes as she approached. “I’m starting to think I don’t know them, though.”
“Hey, girlfriend,” said Heron, though her tone was hardly playful. “You miss me?”
“You’re lucky I haven’t already shot you for selling me out to Morgan,” said Kira.
“I don’t think it counts as selling if I didn’t accept any payment,” said Heron.
“How am I supposed to trust you? Nothing you do makes sense.”
“Pay better attention,” said Heron, and looked at Tomas. “You ready?”
“Samm said to wait for his signal,” said Marcus. “He covered our retreat.”
“Then let’s shut up and cover his,” said Heron, and pointed back down the road to Samm and his men, dashing from car to car for cover as the Partial army surged forward behind them. Kira fell into position next to Heron, their differences temporarily forgotten as Heron handed her a new magazine and they began firing. Samm turned and raced toward them, his arm around a wounded companion.
“Get clear!” he shouted. “Are the other two set?”
“Ready to go,” said Heron calmly, and then their whole group fell back, racing away from the oncoming swarm of soldiers. Tomas unspooled a long roll of wire as he ran, and they threw themselves to the ground behind a snowbank. Kira felt the final commands race across the link:
Tomas pressed the detonator, and the bridge exploded in a bright orange ball barely ten feet in front of the leading enemy runners. Kira turned her head away, covering her eyes against the blinding orange fireball, and felt the percussive thump of two more explosions, one and two blocks north on the same ocean inlet.
“That’s it,” said Samm. “Let’s get as much distance between us and here as we can before they cross that canal.”
eron walked in silence, listening to the others speak.