Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
,” he said.
Ella shook her head. “I wasn’t talking about you. Or Jakob.”
Peter’s heart skipped a beat. Were Ella’s feelings for him still so fresh that she was talking about herself? He considered it and realized it might be possible. His own feelings for her, forged over a lifetime, hadn’t changed much. But then she simultaneously revealed the truth and secured his aid.
“It’s Anne. She’s your daughter.”
If there was one thing Peter Crane was good at, it was preparing for the unknown, whether that be a bad crop year, an enemy ambush or even Ella’s Stalkers. But the bombshell she just dropped hit him with the shock and awe of Hiroshima’s atomic blast. He stood up straight, as though electrified, stumbled back and caught himself on the kitchen counter. Ella’s reappearance into his life was always tumultuous, but this...
Attempting to concisely express his mixed feelings about the revelation, he condensed it all into a single word. “Bullshit.”
Ella looked aghast. Then angry. “Bullshit?
I tell you that we, that
, have a daughter and that’s your response? Bullshit?”
“Yes,” he said. “I don’t buy it.”
“You think I’m just telling you that to...what? To guilt you into helping us?”
“It would work,” he said. “And you know that.”
“Whether or not the knowledge forces you to help us, doesn’t make it a lie.”
“How did you raise her?” he asked, knowing she’d understand the context. She was a busy woman in a powerful position at a growing company. She worked late. Sometimes she didn’t go home. She lived her work. How could she have a baby, let alone raise a daughter?
“I was in the office when I went into labor,” she said. “Took a week off to recover. Worked remotely for another week. And then I went back. I wasn’t a good mother. Anne was raised by daycares, school and nannies. I’ve only really gotten to know her in the past two years. Is that what you wanted to hear? Does it ease your guilt, knowing that I was a shitty parent?”
“Guilt?” he said. “I didn’t even know she existed. Had you told me, I would have—”
“Taken her,” Ella said. “You would have come back to New Mexico and taken her. You would have done right by her. You’d have raised her, with Kristen. And I...I would have let you. I’d have lost her to Kristen, just like I lost you.”
That took the wind out of his sails. But it didn’t prove his stance wrong. “I still don’t believe you.”
Ella closed her eyes. Rubbed circles into her temples with her fingers. “Telling you about her was not meant to coax you into helping me.”
She stood up, rounded the island and stabbed a finger at his face. “You already know I’m telling the truth, because both you and I know that you would have helped me regardless. Because that’s who you are to me and who I am to you. It’s who we’ve always been. Other relationships didn’t change that. Distance never changed that. Time never changed that. I could have come here by myself, and you would have come with me. I’m telling you about her because I want you to protect her first. Before me. The only way to get you to do that was to tell you the truth about her.”
Peter could feel his blood pressure dropping. She was right about him. About them. But did that mean she was telling the truth about Anne? The girl was the right age, but the verdict was still out. He’d try to see it in the girl’s face. In her eyes. Believing he had a daughter, and adjusting to that idea, would take time. Time they didn’t have. If they made it to Boston and the lab waiting for Ella, maybe he’d request a paternity test. It’d be a dick move, but Maury Povich made a living from such revelations, not just because men are dogs, but because the connection between a father and his bloodline was a powerful thing.
“How much time do we have?” he asked. “Do they hunt in the day?”
“They do,” she said. “But only when agitated or ravenous. Most of the species I’ve seen still operate this way, so moving during the day is still the safest course...”
“I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming.”
“But...these Stalkers. They hold a grudge. They’ve been following us for two weeks. We managed to avoid them by crossing rivers—they don’t like water, but eventually they find their way across—and by hiding in trees. They’re horrible climbers. They nearly had us two days ago, but I used the last of my C4 to bring down a train tunnel.”
“Is that when this happened?” he asked, pointing at the bandaged claw marks.
She nodded. “One of them made it through before I detonated the explosive. I killed it with the machete.”
“You’ve changed.” He looked her up and down. She was certainly more solidly built than she had been twelve years previous. Harder. But he still had trouble picturing her blowing up train tunnels with C4 and fighting monsters with a machete.
“Yeah, well, I hope you haven’t. Look, best guess, the ones that survived, made their way back out and around, are a day behind us.”
“You’ve already been here fourteen hours,” he pointed out.
“And that’s a guess. They could be closer, especially if they’re moving through the daylight.”
This was all happening too fast. To make the kind of decision she was asking him to make, to uproot and endanger his son, he couldn’t be rushed. Not without good cause. “So what’s the plan, then? Continue across the country, holing up in biodomes you had built, until you reach Boston? Find this lab and ‘turn the key’ back?”
“Without a map?”
“You know I don’t need one.”
Ella had an uncanny memory. If she set herself to the task of memorizing something, like a map of the United States and the locations of biodomes—locations that she had chosen—he believed she was capable. “What about the science? Is it possible to turn the key? And before you answer, you should know that you’re standing above a bunker that has nothing to do with the biodome you had built, which is strong enough to withstand a nuclear blast, not to mention a hundred of your Stalkers—”
“—and that’s if they could even find the entrance. So for me to seriously consider what you’re saying, it better be damn convincing. Now...is it possible to reverse this? To put things back the way they were?”
“Anything is possible,” she said. “I think we’ve proven that. But if you’re asking if this is something I’ve already made progress on, then no. Is there anyone else left alive that has any chance of undoing this hell? The answer to that question is an absolute ‘no.’ This is a Hail Mary play. I get it. But it’s either that, or wait for the seeds to get inside, or for something hungry to come knocking. I wouldn’t be doing this...wouldn’t be putting Anne at risk, if I didn’t think it was possible. You understand risk assessment. Is a world full of edible food and free of ExoGenetic predators worth the risk of dying a little sooner than fate has already scheduled? You tell me.”
The best answer he could come up with was silence. But someone else gave an answer for him. “I think it is.”
Peter turned to find Jakob and Anne standing in the dining room doorway. Seeing them standing together, Jakob was a foot and a half taller than the girl. Peter looked from one face to the other. Their eyes, dark brown, matched each other’s. Matched his.
Under other circumstances he’d have been thrilled. Even if Kristen had still been alive.
A daughter? Holy shit.
But it also meant he had even more to risk. Also more to gain. If they could undo the genetic modifications unleashed on the world, then their children might not just have their lives, they might have futures.
“Did you hear me?” Jakob asked. “I’m tired of sitting here and doing nothing. If we can do something about it, we have to.”
“It’s not that easy,” Peter said.
Jakob crossed his arms. “Why not? Because it’s dangerous? Believing we’re safe here means pretending that Mom didn’t—”
“Enough,” Peter said, his voice stern, not because he was angry at the boy, but because he didn’t want to open that can of worms. Not with Ella, and not right now. He took a moment to collect himself, and then said, “If we do this, every single one of you does exactly what I say, at all times, without questioning and without hesitation.” He looked at Ella. “I don’t care if you’ve survived out there for months, or a year, or however long you’ve been traveling; you can’t do what I can do.”
“But—” Anne said, before Ella silenced her with a raised hand.
Ella turned to Peter. “Fine. We’ll do things your way.”
“For as long as it works,” Anne said, eyebrows raised in challenge.
Peter had to fight his smile. He saw himself in her with every passing second. “Okay, then. Now let’s—”
“The wheat is moving.” It was Anne again, but all the toughness had left her voice. She sounded like a little girl again. Her eyes were fixated on the field outside the kitchen window above the sink.
Peter kept everyone else from moving by holding out his hand, and tip-toeing to the window. He leaned out slowly, looking through the window, which was covered by a sheer shade. He could see the wheat fifty feet away, but the fabric reduced the detail, making it a silhouette. The wheat was indeed moving, bending with the wind. He was about to say so when he noticed a subtle aberration. While most of the wheat stalks gave way to the breeze, some of them remained rigid and upright.
Not as smart as they think.
He stepped back from the window. “How long do we have?”
“They’re here already?”
“What’s here?” Jakob asked.
“Big booties,” Anne whispered.
Jakob’s eyes widened. “Stalkers? You mean, they’re real?”
Peter put his hands on Ella’s arms. “Ell, how long?”
The answer to his question didn’t come from Ella, it came from the front door, as something large and heavy threw itself against the wood.
“Take them to the basement,” Peter said to Jakob.
“Huddle?” Jakob asked, and Ella realized he was speaking in code.
Peter shook his head. “Extra points.”
Code based on football. Great.
Plan or not, retreating to a basement, fortified or not, sounded like a horrible idea to Ella. As strategically smart as Peter was, locking themselves below ground would only prolong their demise. The Stalkers were persistent, and patient. She opened her mouth to say as much, but he cut her short.
“Not a word,” he said, pushing her toward Jakob, who was leading Anne to the back of the house.
“But—” was all Ella managed to say.
“I might not know very much about them.” He motioned to the door, which received and withstood another impact. “But they know
about me. And if we’re being honest, your knowledge in that regard is also fairly outdated.”
“That works both ways,” she argued.
“Agreed,” he said. “But this is my house. You’re just going to get in the way.”
Jakob opened the basement door, stepped inside and motioned Anne to follow. The girl looked to her mother for the go ahead, but when the door shuddered once more, she made up her own mind, following Jakob down the stairs.
“We don’t have much time,” Peter said.
The door was hit again. This time, the distinct sound of cracking wood merged with the wall shaking like a rattle. Peter and Ella leaned into the hall. There was a hairline crack at the center of the door, but it was still in one piece, still dead-bolted and barricaded with a thick hardwood plank. But it wouldn’t last. She’d seen stronger blockades fall to a continued barrage. The Stalker leading the attack was always the largest male, but when he didn’t have any luck, he’d call in help from the real hunters—the females. Working together, the female Stalkers would make short work of the door. She was almost out of time.
Ella took Peter’s arm in her hand. “You’ll protect your daughter?”
Peter looked her in the eyes, and she saw that same, deep earnest gaze she’d fallen in and out of love with for decades.
“No one is going to die here today,” he said. “But you have to listen to me. Go.
She kissed his cheek and ran for the basement door. To her surprise, he ran in the opposite direction, heading upstairs. She felt herself pulled back, wanting to help. To fight. She’d stood her ground so often and fought her way across the country... She was unaccustomed to letting someone else fight her battles. But she knew this was a losing fight. If Peter had an ace up his sleeve, she had to let him play it.
The front door shook again, the sound of it chasing her around the basement door. She nearly shouted in surprise as Jakob’s face emerged from the dark stairwell below her. Anne was behind him, lower on the stairs. Behind her was a metal door with a metal wheel, like something from a submarine.
“Dad’s upstairs?” Jakob asked. When Ella nodded, he lifted his wrist and started a countdown. “He’ll be down in forty-five seconds.”
The boy moved past Anne, spun the wheel and opened the metal door to absolute darkness. To Ella’s surprise and relief, he flipped the light switch, illuminating the space beyond. “Let’s go,” he said, waving them on.
“Won’t that exhaust the battery?” Ella asked, pointing at the light.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said and stepped onto the basement’s concrete floor.
She followed Jakob into the basement. Her eyes went wide. The space was massive, at least twice the footprint of the house above, constructed beneath the concrete barricade outside. The walls were lined with shelves covered in canned goods, dehydrated food and various supplies. Enough for two people to live for years. And it all looked untouched. In the past two years, neither father nor son had eaten anything but what the biodome had provided. The more she observed Jakob, the more she saw his father in him. Confident. Disciplined. Compassionate.
Jakob hurried across the broad open space, moving past cots and crates, heading for the back of the room. He held Anne’s hand, whispering to her. Ella couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was calm and consoling.
Just like his father.
From upstairs, she heard the front door crack again. “Should I close this?”
“Leave it open,” Jakob said. “Dad will be here in twenty seconds. And hurry up.”
Another impact set her in motion. The frequency of attacks on the front door was increasing, and the hits were harder. The females had joined the assault. Twenty seconds might be too long.
C’mon Pete, hurry up.
Ella rushed across the room, running past shelves intercut by large barrels. She passed the first few without a second glance. Then she noticed the label:
. Then she noticed the wires connecting all the barrels. Her run slowed to a jog, and then to a stop. “Holy shit, is this...?”
A shotgun blast made her jump.
A second blast, along with Jakob’s shouted, “C’mon!” spurred her onward.
When she reached the far end of the room, she found Jakob lifting a garage door.
A garage door in a basement?
But this wasn’t just any garage door. It was thick and solid, windowless steel. Like the basement door. Jakob was pushing it up, but only with the help of grinding gears. As the door rose higher, the lights began to fade, sucking the remaining battery life to raise the heavy slab of metal.
Footsteps spun her around. It was Peter—she hoped—coming down the stairs. The booming footfalls were chased by a warbling shriek she recognized, and it made the tiny spires of hair atop her head prickle. Anne took hold of her hand and squeezed. Ella reached her free hand down for her machete, but it wasn’t there. The weapon was still outside, laying in a heap with all the clothing and supplies that had taken her this far.
Peter, wearing a single backpack, leapt into the basement, spinning around and slamming the metal door shut, but not before three long, brown, talon-tipped fingers reached through and pushed. Peter started sliding back, but before the Stalker could open the door wide enough to enter, Peter shoved his shotgun into the stairwell and pulled the trigger. The cacophonous boom was followed by a wailing shriek. The brown fingers snapped back as the force of the shot shoved the creature back into the stairwell.
Peter moved to shut the metal door again, but his eyes went wide, and he dove to the side instead. The metal door smashed open, clanging against the stairwell wall. A female Stalker hit the floor awkwardly, falling sideways and slamming into the wall. The stunned creature looked like all the others Ella had seen, its once human face lacking a nose. Black eyes blinked. Its long tail thrashed back and forth, rattling, guiding the others no doubt already flooding into the house. Its long arms and legs scrabbled at the smooth floor, claws digging gouges.
Before the monster could right itself, Peter, who had turned his dive into a roll, came up, spun around and pulled the shotgun trigger again. The Stalker’s head was turned inside out and splattered against the wall. Peter turned and ran as the lights dimmed to almost nothing. Screeching and thundering footsteps chased him from the stairwell. Ella saw them emerge a moment before the lights went out. The grinding gears stopped.
For a moment, the world was just sound. Jakob moving behind her, breathing hard. Peter feeling his way through the wide open space. The Stalkers, smashing everything around them. Screaming for their prey. Giving chase. While Peter couldn’t see, the Stalkers had excellent night vision. When the lights went out, the basement became the perfect hunting ground for the nocturnal predators.
A flashlight came on with a click. The light cut through the darkness from Peter’s position.
“How much time?” Peter shouted.
“Ten seconds behind,” Jakob replied. Ella glanced back. On the other side of the mostly open garage door was a large Dodge Ram, reinforced with plates of metal, and covered in spikes and barb wire. It looked like something from a Mad Max movie. Jakob had the door open and was helping Anne climb into the back seat.
When Jakob leaned over the front seat and turned the key, the truck roared to life, its rear lights casting beams of red. Ella looked back to Peter. He was just thirty feet away, waving her on. But he wasn’t alone. A single Stalker had closed the distance, nearly within striking range. The rest were still fifty feet back, clumsily careening through the maze of contents in the room.
“Look out!” Ella shouted, as the nearest Stalker leaped forward, its long legs extended, claws open wide.
Peter dove forward, flipping over to land and slide on his back. He brought the shotgun up, fired—and missed. Instead of putting a hole in the Stalker, he simply took a chunk out of the ceiling. The Stalker landed on Peter’s arms, pinning them to his sides. With a snarl that revealed its gleaming white teeth—now pink in the truck’s light—the Stalker lunged for Peter’s neck.
With a war cry, Ella stepped forward and drove a kick into the side of the Stalker’s head. “Weapon!” Ella shouted back to Jakob. He leaned out of the truck, eyes going wide at the sight of his pinned father. While the Stalker hissed at Ella, Jakob drew his pistol and flung it to Ella. She caught the weapon and with surprising swiftness, spun around and pulled the trigger, putting a single round in the Stalker’s head.
The monster fell limp atop Peter.
The mob closed in.
Ella bent down and took Peter’s arm with one hand, helping him to escape the Stalker’s girth. With the other hand, she calmly raised the pistol, found her targets and pulled the trigger. The rhythmic pop...pop...pop of the handgun was followed by pain-filled shrieks and toppling supplies, as the struck creatures thrashed and flailed on the floor.
Peter didn’t offer any thanks when he got back to his feet. He simply shouted. “Time!”
“Thirty seconds back!” Jakob yelled.
Ella let out a shout of surprise when Peter’s arm wrapped around her waist, lifted her off the ground and carried her into the garage. She was hefted up and flung over the flatbed hatch, landing hard on the metal floor. She was about to complain when Peter dove over after her. He slapped his palm on the metal floor twice and shouted, “Go, go, go!”
Peter sat up with the shotgun, but he didn’t aim at the horde of Stalkers nearly at the door. Instead, he turned the weapon to the side and pulled the trigger. Sparks flew as the buckshot struck metal, destroying whatever support had held the large door in place. The door, a large sheet of metal, dropped. The fastest of the Stalkers dove forward and slid through, losing its tail to the door. The second in line had its head crushed. The rest slammed against the other side of the metal wall, attacking it with audible savagery.
As the truck raced away through the darkness, Ella sighted the tailless Stalker, which had gotten back to its feet, and she pulled the trigger. The monster twitched and fell, just as darkness claimed it again. The truck shifted gears and accelerated to what seemed like a dangerous speed.
He needs to slow down
, Ella thought.
We’re safe. We’re...
Peter and Jakob’s shouted numbers mixed with her vision of the barrels of ammonium nitrate, and then clicked. It was a countdown. Audible. They’d rigged the whole place to explode.
She looked Peter in the eyes, his face lit by the flashlight he held. Shouting over the roar of the engine, which was amplified by the tunnel’s confines, she asked, “Are we going to make it?”
When he replied, she was surprised to find he’d learned how to sugar coat bad news. “It will be close.”
The sudden, blinding light pursuing them through the tunnel, racing faster than the sound of the explosion that generated it, answered her more honestly, with a resolute and resounding, ‘No.’