Your Exclusive Sneak Peek at...
A deadly contagion has spread across the country, turning the afflicted into violent monsters and the streets into killing grounds. The government has fallen. Once great cities lay in ruins. And those cursed with immunity have braved the chaos to take shelter in military bases unprepared to withstand the continuous attacks of the infected.
But that’s not the worst part.
An ancient evil hell-bent on bringing about the end of the world has awakened. Fortunately, a Hopi elder who’s spent his entire life awaiting the fulfillment of the prophecies foretelling its return has traveled the highways, leaving signs summoning the chosen to the site of humanity’s last stand.
If they can reach it in time.
An FBI agent and a prescient teenage girl need to fight their way down the west coast. An expert on indigenous languages and a woman with precognitive abilities must battle inland from the east. And a pair of scientists have to escape from a doomed research facility so they can share a discovery that the entire world needs to know: The virus runs its course in 72 hours. All the immune have to do is survive that long.
And pray the forces of darkness don’t find them first.
Newark, New Jersey
The sun breached the horizon, its crimson rays staining the pall of smoke hanging over the distant city. Several skyscrapers still actively burned, while others had fallen during the night, leaving conspicuous gaps in the New York City skyline. Helicopters carved through the haze, running lights winking and spotlights sweeping the ground. Emergency vehicles flooded the streets in a desperate attempt to save as many people as they possibly could, but with the military having destroyed all of the bridges and tunnels leading off the island, there was no denying the reality of the situation.
None of them would survive.
Jack Lucas watched the nightmare play out from Gate 65 at Newark Liberty International Airport, across the Hudson River. He hardly recognized his own reflection in the window, a spectral apparition with a dirty face, messy black hair, and haunted eyes staring back at him over a powder blue surgical mask. His button-down shirt was filthy, his jeans torn at the knee. There was dried blood on his cowboy boots, although he didn’t know whose it was. Probably one of the people he’d rescued from the massacre on the Tappan Zee Bridge, a foolhardy act that had cost him his truck, but one that had secured him a seat on the Black Hawk that brought him here.
USNORTHCOM had deployed the First Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division to help the National Guard and various civilian agencies convert the airport into an operational command post. They’d lit up the runways, reinforced the outer perimeter with razor wire, and cleared the central area to provide access for a ceaseless stream of helicopters that landed only long enough to disgorge groups of shellshocked survivors, who were then processed through intake stations, evaluated for symptoms, and shuttled to holding facilities throughout the complex, where they watched the end of the world on the TVs mounted to the ceiling.
“…has extended the national shelter-in-place order,” the newscaster said, the barely restrained panic in his voice momentarily standing apart from the sniffling and crying of the people huddled on the floor and in the surrounding seats. “Stay where you are, move to an interior room without windows, and prepare to remain in lockdown for an indeterminate length of time. Seek immediate medical attention if you begin experiencing headaches, nausea, blurred vision, or sudden and inexplicable bleeding…”
Lucas knew all about the virus. He’d witnessed the death of Patient Zero, an epidemiologist named Trevor Ward, who’d been exposed at an archeological site above the Arctic Circle, where ancient human remains had been discovered in a tomb dating to the last ice age. Researchers at the site had also documented primitive artwork unlike any they’d seen before, so when one of them manifested symptoms consistent with those caused by a hemorrhagic disease, NeXgen Biotechnology—the global pharmaceutical company that financed the dig, along with countless others around the world, in an effort to combat emerging diseases preserved in the permafrost—had dispatched a rapid response team to sanitize the site and summoned Lucas to its corporate headquarters in Cambridge. As a professor of indigenous languages, they’d hoped he would be able to translate the artwork, which had turned out to be a warning, but by then it had been too late. Ward had brought the virus back home with him.
Right into the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
And while NeXgen and its partners at the CDC, USAMRIID, and the Department of Defense had quarantined the block and sealed off the island, there’d been no hope of containing the virus. Ward had traveled through airports in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Queens, spreading the contagion to the other passengers on his flights, who, in turn, carried it with them onto planes heading all around the world.
Worse, the virus wasn’t merely hemorrhagic; it produced symptoms of unrestrained violence, causing the infected to attack everyone in their paths with their bare hands and teeth. The petroglyphs Lucas had translated from the tomb’s walls documented the same kinds of behavioral changes, just like the pictographs he’d photographed in the Anasazi cliff dwelling known as Eagle Nest, an isolated fortification abandoned by its residents in such a hurry that they’d left behind their unburied dead and enough food to last for several seasons.
The site painted a picture of a people under siege, a tribe that had been slaughtered and driven from its home, one that had tried to hide the truth of what had happened within those canyon walls by abandoning its entire civilization and filtering into other indigenous populations. But before they left, they’d carved giant symbols into the stone above the fortress that could be seen for miles, conveying a message that left little room for interpretation, the same symbols that had begun appearing all across the country, on billboards and overpasses, on buildings and signs.
“Go west if you want to live,” Lucas whispered.
Coupled with everything he’d seen at NeXgen and the events playing out in real-time on the news, that was exactly what he’d decided to do. He’d loaded up his truck and plotted a course for his childhood home of Cortez, Colorado, a small town near the Canyons of the Ancients, where the Anasazi had thrived before suddenly moving from pithouses to fortified cliffside pueblos, and then vanishing altogether. There he would find the answers he needed to save humanity, in ruins abandoned by people whom he believed had survived this very virus and the assault of the infected by hiding where they couldn’t be reached and watching as a tide of diseased humanity rolled through the valleys.
He imagined all of those people across the Hudson, huddling in their apartments dozens of stories above the ground, watching the carnage on the streets below. Canyons of concrete and steel. Only unlike the cliff dwellings of the ancients, they didn’t have toe-trails and ladders that could be raised to prevent the infected from reaching them, and from everything Lucas had seen, there was nothing on this earth that could stop the monsters from doing so. He’d watched them overrun a military battalion, swarming in numbers that defied comprehension. Had the helicopter not arrived when it did, he would have been killed right along with the soldiers, instead of being brought here.
There had to be nearly a thousand men, women, and children in this terminal alone, most of them standing at the windows overlooking the tarmac and bearing witness to the apocalypse. It felt as though the earth had stopped turning on its axis, the fear and tension in the terminal so thick that the mere act of breathing was difficult. Someone whimpered, another person sobbed, and just like that, the dam broke, and a flood of emotions rippled through the crowd.
“I need to get out of here,” Lucas said.
“You don’t want to go back out there,” the woman standing beside him said. Her caramel skin was covered with soot, her black hair tangled. The way she looked at him with her light, bloodshot eyes was simultaneously familiar and unsettling. “Believe me, there’s only death beyond these walls.”
A man brushed past them, his skin pasty and his forehead beaded with sweat, and Lucas realized that death was already inside these walls, too.
“I’m Jack Lucas,” he said, proffering his hand.
“Milana Boswell,” she replied, staring down at it as though it were a snake preparing to strike. She hesitantly reached for it and met his stare. He caught a spark of light from deep within her pupils—
* * *
The ground fell out from beneath Milana. She experienced a sensation of dislocation, as though her consciousness had been ripped from her body, hurled headlong through a curtain of shattered glass, and into a vision.
A flashlight beam passes over mortared stone walls and a mummified corpse, clutching something in its desiccated hands. The ground shakes and rocks rain down on her. The light swings wildly, illuminating the sand cascading from above. A man reaches toward her, his eyes wide with panic, his features white with dust—
Milana found herself looking into those same eyes. She averted her stare and rushed away from Lucas, shouldering through the throngs packed into the terminal.
What in God’s name was wrong with her? These visions…they were happening with increasing frequency. They felt so real, like she was actually living them. Worse, they’d started coming true. She remembered her mother’s eyes flooding with blood and her dead body lying beneath the broken window; her neighbor, Mrs. Lovato, attacking her sleeping husband; the infected man dragging the driver from a car and butchering him right there on the street; the evacuees she’d abandoned on the bus to the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, which she’d watched catch fire and burn, killing everyone inside.
You must heed the signs, child, for you are the only one who can read them, her grandmother had said.
They were the words that had saved her life and helped her escape the city through the PATH train tunnel, but this so-called gift she’d inherited through her Romani blood was more of a curse than a blessing. Watching all of those people die, wondering if there was something she could have done to stop it, was tearing her up inside.
She was surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Crowding her. Pushing her. Staring at her. She shoved through them. Shouldered them aside. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t stop the terminal from spinning. She needed to get out, to find air that hadn’t already been exhaled by someone else.
The vast majority of the refugees congregated on the fourth level, which was far larger than the others and the only one that offered a view of the surrounding area. Maybe a quarter as many people sat on the floor surrounding the airline check-in counters on the third level, while fewer still sprawled on the baggage carousels on the second. There was practically no one on the first level when Milana dismounted the escalator.
She could see the intake station through the windows, the frightened people lined up to have their blood drawn and their temperatures taken by the overwhelmed National Guardsmen. A helicopter lifted off from the central island, battering them with wind and debris. Another chopper immediately landed where it had been. The chaos was overwhelming, the fear on the faces of those desperate to get into the terminal more than she could bear. She ran down the hallway, away from the madness. All she needed was a little time alone in her own head, just long enough to make sense of everything.
She rounded a corner and found herself in a shallow alcove, locked service doors on either side of her. Leaning against the wall, she slid down to her rear end and buried her face in her hands. This was all too much. Over the past few days, she’d lost her grandmother, the woman who’d raised her like her own child, and her mother, who’d finally wanted to build a relationship with her after abandoning her so many years ago. One was rotting in the back room of a mortuary, the other in the bedroom of the only home Milana had ever known, one she would never see again. She’d never go back to NYU, never study near the fountain in Washington Square, never ride the subway or shop in the corner store or tell fortunes or walk through the front door to the smell of boiled cabbages ever again. Everything that had made her life normal, everything she’d taken for granted…gone. All gone. And in their place was now only hopelessness and the terrifying visions that cropped up at the least opportune—
“Are you all right?”
Milana glanced up at the sound of the voice and found herself staring into the amber eyes of a man who looked vaguely familiar, although she couldn’t quite place him. Surely if they’d met before, she would have remembered those penetrating irises and that purposefully messy hair that cried out for her to run her fingers through it. He wore a filthy button-down shirt, slacks torn at the knee, and scuffed Italian leather shoes. That he was still wearing a tie struck her as comical. She sniffled a laugh as she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“I’m just about the furthest thing from all right,” she said.
“I’d imagine that pretty much sums up all of us right about now.” His smile made her stomach flutter. “Dylan Prince. And you are?”
He offered his hand, but she instinctively pulled hers inside the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
“I get it,” he said, wiggling his fingers. “Germs.”
“It’s not that, it’s just…” She shook her head and climbed to her feet. Good luck explaining the real reason she didn’t want to touch his hand. “I’m Milana. Milana Boswell.”
A drumroll of heavy footsteps echoed down the corridor. Soldiers wearing tactical isolation gear and carrying assault rifles jogged past. They looked just like the men she’d seen securing the cordon around Midtown on the news, reminding her that she wasn’t out of the woods just yet.
She and Prince followed the soldiers up one escalator after another until the men reached the main terminal and fanned out into the crowd. One of them strode straight toward a woman lying on a row of seats. He shook her awake, took her by the arm, and dragged her to her feet. Her face glistened with sweat, her unfocused eyes drifting beneath heavy lids. She staggered as he dragged her down the hallway but didn’t put up a fight. Her surgical mask slid down over her chin, revealing just how sick she truly was. Worse, she’d exposed them all.
Milana pinched her mask over the bridge of her nose and tightened the straps around her ears.
Another soldier forced his way through the masses, guiding an older man by the arm. The man had sweated right through his undershirt and looked like he could barely remain conscious. A woman who must have been his wife trailed them, tugging at the soldier’s sleeve and demanding an explanation.
They were rounding up the infected.
Screams erupted from deeper in the terminal. People scattered in every direction. Down the hallway, Milana saw a woman wearing a tank top and sweats. Her eyes were flooded with blood, which drained down her cheeks like tears. She bared her teeth, curled her fingers into claws, and sprinted into the crowd, slashing at everyone within range. She caught a fistful of a woman’s hair and yanked her from her feet. The two hit the ground in a tangle of limbs. The infected woman raked the sobbing girl’s face and bit her on the cheek. Ripping away the flesh, she raised her head—
A crack of gunfire and her face disappeared. She collapsed onto her screaming victim, whom soldiers dragged out from underneath her.
Milana stumbled out of their way as they ushered past the injured woman, wailing in pain, blood sluicing between the fingers pressed over her macerated cheek.
The remaining soldiers dragged away the dead woman’s corpse, leaving a crimson smear on the polished tile like some morbid piece of abstract art.
Milana glanced up and met the stare of the man who’d caused her vision and read the truth in his eyes.
There was no escaping what was happening.
Not here, even in this fortified airport.
* * *
Stacey Wheeler sobbed in agony. The air passing through her fingers was cold against her molars, even with the sheer volume of blood flooding her mouth. She sputtered and gagged on it, felt it draining down the side of her neck and soaking into her blouse. Never had she imagined such terror was possible, yet she knew full well what happened to anyone exposed to the virus. She was going to turn…if she didn’t bleed to death first.
She screamed at the thought, freckling the face shield of the man attempting to tend to her wound.
“Try to hold still,” he said, his voice muffled by his oxygen mask. The bus bounced wildly, and he nearly dropped the roll of tape he used to affix the gauze to her cheek. “I know it’s hard, but you can do this.”
He coaxed her hand from the wound, sealed the bandage from the corner of her mouth all the way back to her ear, and replaced her palm over her cheek. She could already feel the blood soaking through the material.
“My name’s Corporal Peter Quaid,” he said. She glanced up at him for the first time. His light eyes met hers and held her stare. “What’s yours?”
“Stacey,” she said through clenched teeth to minimize the movement of her facial muscles. She tried to say her last name, but the pain cut her off.
“Nice to meet you, Stacey.” The man took her free hand and offered it to the soldier swaying down the aisle, who pressed her index finger onto his scanning device. The man offered a subtle shake of his head and moved on to the sick woman farther down the aisle. “How did you come to be here?”
She pressed her hand against her cheek and swallowed to clear the blood from her mouth.
“Roommate,” she said. “Rutgers.”
“Your roommate at Rutgers has a family member in the service? She received the call and you came with her?”
Stacey averted her stare and nodded.
“It’s all right. Don’t worry. It’ll be our little secret.”
The bus rounded a tight turn going faster than it should have been. The terminals crouched low against the smudged horizon to her right, across the long-term parking lot, which now served as a helipad and base of operations for the military vehicles transporting soldiers and evacuees in every direction. She caught a glimpse of a tank, and for the first time truly recognized the magnitude of the threat they faced.
A row of trees crowded the road from her left. The airport Marriott stood behind them, its lighted windows staining the pall of smoke. For as much chaos as there was everywhere else, the hotel appeared surprisingly subdued.
The bus followed the spiraling road and pulled up to the valet station below the porte-cochere. Front and back accordion doors opened, and soldiers commenced unloading the injured and infected, some of whom were so weak they had to be carried. A team of medical professionals appeared from the automatic doors, their isolation suits stained with blood as though they’d recently emerged from an operating theater.
Quaid helped Stacey from her seat, offered his arm like a prom date, and guided her toward the entrance. A wave of nausea rippled up from her belly and she doubled over in pain. She felt warmth on her lips and watched blood drip from her nose. It splattered on the white tile like so many roses blooming in a snowstorm. Her breath caught in her chest. This was so much worse than the wound on her face.
She was infected.
Quaid gently patted her back until the nausea passed. A moan seeped from her chest.
“We’re going to take care of you,” he said. “Don’t you worry about a thing.”
Stacey allowed him to lead her past a double-sided fireplace roaring with gas flames and furniture that looked so comfortable she could have plopped down right there and slept for days. She glanced back and watched the medical professionals directing the soldiers to bring the majority of the infected either toward the elevators or into the hall leading in the opposite direction from the way Quaid led her. Only one other sick man followed her, barely able to stand without the assistance of another soldier.
“You’ll have to forgive us in advance for your accommodations,” Quaid said. “With just under six hundred rooms and countless people arriving every hour, we have to triage our patients by severity.”
Closed doors passed on either side as they walked, the room numbers rising, the corridor growing subtly darker. It terminated at a doorway, beyond which lay an industrial room with scuffed flooring and bare cinderblock walls. A service elevator stood open in one corner of the room, linen carts discolored by blood parked inside, the door leading to the restaurant in the other. Heavy steel doors, hinged to open outward, lined the far wall. For the life of her, Stacey couldn’t imagine where they were going.
Quaid’s grip on her arm tightened. He fell a step behind her and used his shoulder to push her ever so gently forward.
“First and foremost, we need to make sure the families of the men and women serving here are given the best possible care. I’m sure you can understand that. Second, we have to prioritize the treatment of those most likely to have successful outcomes.”
He reached in front of her and pressed the release bar. The door swung open upon a concrete loading dock. A cloud of flies erupted from the pile of bodies on the asphalt below her, concealed from the road by a line of Dumpsters. Soldiers in isolation suits loaded the remains onto the hydraulic platform of a semi-trailer and raised them to the men waiting inside, who transferred them to a giant metal tray and fed them into a massive cylinder with a hinged lid. Blue flames rose from the gas pipes inside and took root in the clothing of the deceased.
It was a mobile crematorium.
“I might not be a doctor,” Quaid said from behind her, “but I don’t think you’re going to get better.”
He pressed something cold and hard against the back of her head.
A clap of thunder—
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
Special Agent Delilah Banks awoke to the soft sounds of crying. She sat up and glanced around the small, curtained room. The kids she’d rescued from the Snoqualmie Center for Children slept on the concrete floor, on chairs, and on the rolling gurneys that served as beds. The girl with the stuffed dog wiped her eyes and rolled over so Banks wouldn’t see her tears. Banks’s heart broke with the realization that she didn’t even know the child’s name.
She stood and stretched out the kinks from sleeping on the hard floor of the repurposed airplane hangar. A glance at her watch confirmed she’d only slept for a few hours, but she felt marginally better. The headache that had followed her all the way from Detroit seemed to have relented, if only a little, and the fog that had settled over her brain had lifted, at least enough for her to recognize that she needed to take charge of her situation. These kids were now her responsibility, whether or not she’d consciously accepted it, and it was up to her to make sure nothing happened to them.
She kissed the crying girl on the top of the head and whispered that everything was going to be all right.
“Shadow, too,” the little girl whispered, offering her dog. The black stuffed animal’s fur was matted, and the poor thing was missing an eye. “He’s trying to be brave, but he’s still a little scared.”
Banks stared at the dog for several seconds before realizing what the child wanted. She accepted the stuffed animal and kissed it on the top of the head, too. The little girl tucked it under her arm and rolled over again, leaving Banks staring at her back.
What was she doing? She didn’t know the first thing about kids. And yet here she was, trying to manage seven of them. A surge of panic rippled up from her gut, but she swallowed it back down. She just needed to make sure the children would be safe here. Surely there was someone more qualified to take care of them than she was, especially a teenager as troubled as the blond girl sleeping against the back wall.
As though sensing Banks’s thoughts, Ciara Winters rolled over and let her long hair fall over her face. She was the whole reason Banks was here in the first place, and why the special agent hadn’t flown back to Michigan when she’d still had a chance to do so. There was something about the girl, something simultaneously wondrous and terrifying. After her father had killed her mother and younger brother and turned his shotgun on himself, she’d begun drawing horrific, photorealistic pictures of young women dying in the most brutal ways. Worse, they’d depicted the very serial murders Banks had been investigating thousands of miles away, right down to the monster’s sick signature, which hadn’t been released to the press. And then Ciara had drawn a picture of a killing that hadn’t happened yet, including details that had helped the FBI track the perpetrator to his twisted lair.
This is only the beginning, he’d uttered before stabbing himself in the neck, echoing the last words of the man who’d killed her partner.
Banks still didn’t know how to rationalize the seemingly supernatural events, but it didn’t really matter what she thought one way or another. The bottom line was a young woman was alive and a bad man was dead thanks to Ciara’s “gift,” which had so far proven infallible. Banks hoped to God that wasn’t the case though, because in her pocket was a folded piece of paper with the girl’s most recent drawing on it, one depicting a death that rattled Banks to the core.
With a final glance at the sleeping children, she opened the curtain and stepped out into the narrow hallway. The massive hangar had been partitioned into hundreds of individual rooms, each of which housed a family that had been lucky enough to reach Joint Base Lewis-McChord when everything outside went to hell. A constant din of crying and whispered words of comfort emanated from them. The occasional sob or shout of anguish erupted out of the blue, but otherwise the fear suppressed the panic.
An elevated office spanned the width of the building, the horizontal blinds dialed closed to both minimize the light shining down on the sleeping refugees and shield the men inside from scrutiny. The remaining officers from the Air Force’s 62nd Airlift Wing, the Army’s I-Corps, and the National Guard’s Western Air Defense Sector might have been some of the brightest minds in their fields, but they’d been woefully unprepared for the nightmare that had unfolded during the night. Banks had been with them while they watched their own planes destroy the bridges connecting Seattle to the mainland, effectively passing a death sentence on those attempting to flee the murderous rampage of the infected, who ran down people in the streets, pulled them from their cars, and smashed through windows to reach them in their homes.
The airwaves had been filled with promising stories of the impending release of a cocktail of antibodies and experimental treatment regimens utilizing medically induced comas and therapeutic hypothermia to slow the progression of the disease, but those stories had been planted in the media to stave off panic. The officers in that room knew better. By the time anything resembling a cure went into mass production, every major city on the planet will have already fallen.
Banks jogged up the metal stairs, her clanging footsteps echoing from the structure. She filled a Styrofoam cup from one of the carafes of coffee on the desk in the anteroom, shouldered open the door, and stepped into the main office, where men and women in various uniforms stared in stunned silence at the rows of televisions on the wall. None of them so much as looked in her direction as she entered. The tension in the air was so thick that Banks flinched when one of the men abruptly shouted and punched the wall.
She squeezed through the press of bodies until she was able to see the monitors. They all displayed the same imagery, only from different angles. Aerial footage captured by news choppers, with different channel numbers and call signs in the corners. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles stained a vast swath of bare earth and scorched crops and reflected from pools of standing water. Debris blew in all directions, accumulating against the fuselage of an airplane and the burned seats surrounding it. People in yellow isolation suits picked through the wreckage, collecting bodies in silver bags and piling them underneath a portable awning that mercifully concealed them from the cameras.
Banks didn’t need to see the words at the bottom of the screen to know what she was watching. She recognized the markings of the Nightwatch plane and knew exactly whose bodies they were collecting from the charred remains of the National Airborne Operations Center.
The President and the majority of those responsible for coordinating the response to the virus were now dead. And, like passengers on a lifeboat jettisoned from a sinking ship, the officers in this room were now on their own until the chain of command was restored. Assuming any of them could snap out of it long enough to take charge.
Surely at this very moment, the Continuity of Operations Plan was being enacted across the country. USNORTHCOM would be assuming command of the military from NORAD, buried deep within Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, and the Looking Glass plane would be taking to the air in case the base fell. FEMA would be coordinating disaster relief from the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Virginia and the ranking members of the Pentagon would be assuming command of Site R, the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Pennsylvania. That the powers that be were still scrambling to do so spoke volumes about the direness of the situation, although Banks was confident it would only be a matter of time before they established a coherent response. Thousands of federal officers and agents like herself were ready and waiting to do their part and pitch in wherever they were needed.
One of the screens switched to a panicked newscaster, who climbed over his desk and jumped toward the camera. His forehead struck the lens, cracking it. The image swung wildly, revealing his co-anchor, who wasn’t fast enough to escape the man who tackled her behind the desk. She crawled out from behind it, her mouth framing a screen, only to be dragged out of sight once more. A pool of blood spread across the floor. The camera went dark, and the carnage was replaced by the colored bands of the Emergency Broadcast System.
Other stations cut away to scenes of violence: patients in hospital gowns running out into traffic and getting mowed down, people gathered on burning rooftops waiting for help that would never arrive, drivers trapped in traffic jams as far as the eye could see, packed triage facilities and hospitals, overflow centers in stadiums and parking lots. And in all of them, bodies simply left where they’d fallen.
Banks felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. Every one of those corpses was a reservoir for breeding the virus. It would continue to spread, becoming deadlier with every mutation, until no one remained to spread it. There was no fighting it, no hiding from it.
This was an extinction-level event.
A shout echoed from the hangar, followed in rapid succession by several more.
“What’s going on?” Banks asked.
She glanced at the powerful men and women assembled in the room, read the guilt on their faces, and ran for the door.
* * *
Ciara’s eyes snapped open. She didn’t immediately recognize her surroundings, at least not until she saw the other kids sleeping all around her. Everything came crashing down on her. Miss Amanda, trying to kill them with her bare hands. The dead counselor, bleeding out on the floor. The infected children, chasing them as they sped away. Their escape through the forested hills, and their arrival at the military base.
All of those thoughts raced through her head in the scant seconds between shouts from outside the enclosure.
“What’s happening?” Kimmy whispered, clutching her dog to her chest.
Ciara tried to respond, but she still couldn’t speak. She resorted to pressing her forefinger to her lips and looking from one frightened face to the next. The yelling grew louder and louder, until she could hear nothing else.
The voices originated from somewhere near the back of the hangar. The rumble of footsteps echoed from seemingly everywhere at once.
Ciara crept closer to the curtain and opened it just far enough to peek out. She ducked back when someone ran right past her.
“What is it?” Wes asked.
Ciara shook her head. The way he looked at her…the way his eyes fixed on hers…
She risked a glance into the corridor. No one coming. She slipped out and walked toward the sound of voices. So much anger. Even more fear. Other faces poked out from behind the curtains as she passed and quickly disappeared again. She reached the central walkway and saw commotion in the distance.
Soldiers in baggy yellow isolation suits were posted by the doors, rifles seated at their shoulders. Others waded into a crowd of people, forcing back men and women in street clothes, who appeared to be fighting against them. Ciara couldn’t understand why anyone would want to attack the men who’d saved them…until she watched more soldiers in their fancy isolation suits and masks drag an older man and a teenage girl from the fracas and out the back door. She’d gotten a good look at them before they were manhandled out into the night, though. Their clothes had been wet and their faces beaded with sweat.
They were sick.
More soldiers funneled into the hangar, spreading out to either side.
Ciara ducked from the aisle and ran back to her enclosure. The frightened children looked up at her through wide eyes. All but one, anyway. Randy was still lying on the gurney, his face turned away. His hair was soaked, his pillowcase drenched with sweat.
Banks burst through the curtains and quickly assessed the situation. She brushed past Ciara and scooped up Randy in her arms.
“No one say anything,” the special agent said. “Am I clear?”
Ciara felt the heat radiating from the young boy as Banks ducked through the curtain, the special agent’s words reverberating in her head. Her mother had said something similar in her final moments.
Don’t make a sound, do you hear me? No matter what you see, don’t make a sound.
Ciara emerged from the enclosure just as Banks reached the end of the corridor. A man in isolation gear appeared in front of her, holding what almost looked like a radar gun in his hand. Banks backed away, but it was already too late.
“I have another one,” the soldier said, his voice muffled by his mask.
“You’re not taking him,” Banks said.
“It’s for his own good.”
“The hell it is.”
“Look,” the soldier said, holding up the device so she could see it. The tiny video screen showed the world in thermal colors. The background was barely visible in shades of deep blue and black, but when he pointed it at Banks and Randy, they appeared in bright color. While Banks was primarily red and pink, with localized sections of gold for her eyes and mouth, Randy appeared to burn as brightly as the sun, his eyes blazing white. “We’re not going to hurt him. We just need to separate him to minimize the chances of exposing everyone else. And we need to get his core temperature down in a hurry so we can slow the progression of the disease.”
Banks stared down the man for several seconds. He lowered the thermal imaging device and reached for the child.
“There’s no slowing the progression, is there?” Banks asked. “I’ve seen the news. All of those infected people wearing hospital gowns—”
“Take her down,” the man said.
Two men appeared, as if from nowhere, and shoved Ciara to the ground in their hurry to get past her. They’d approached so stealthily from behind her that she hadn’t even sensed them coming.
Banks barely had time to turn her head before the closest man raised his rifle and struck her with the butt, driving her to her knees. She clung to Randy, but she lacked the strength to prevent them from wrenching him from her arms. He screamed and reached for her, but she couldn’t even get to her feet. She just stared up at the men, blood running down her forehead and over her eye, with an expression of unadulterated hatred.
“I’m a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” she said.
“Then you’ll understand that sometimes hard decisions need to be made for the greater good.”
“You lose the moral high ground when you hurt a child.”
“I assure you; we’re going to do everything in our power to prevent him from developing active symptoms.”
“Then you won’t mind if I go with him.”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that.”
“Then I’m just going to have to go over your head.”
Banks bared her teeth and struggled to her feet. Her eyes went momentarily out of focus. She blinked several times and steadied herself against the divider between curtained enclosures. Pulling Ciara close, Banks whispered directly into her ear.
“Keep an eye on the other kids. And be ready to leave the moment I get back.”
Ciara met the older woman’s stare and nodded. While she’d only known the special agent for a few days, she knew her well enough to understand that things were about to get messy.
Banks turned and strode straight for the stairs, leaving her to usher the other kids into the enclosure again.
Ciara stood with the curtain at her back, six pairs of eyes focused on her. Lauren, with her messy brown hair and overalls. Andrea, her eyebrow pierced and her lips painted black. Gus, with his curly black hair and tears streaming down his cheeks. Tarah, peering up from behind her bangs, her arms wrapped around her chest as though giving herself a hug. Kimmy, her dog tucked under her arm and her thumb plugged into her mouth. And Wes, the memory of marking his face with a graphite palmprint still fresh in Ciara’s mind.
They looked to her for leadership, but she couldn’t seem to make a single word form. The psychogenic mutism had short-circuited the communication between her brain and her mouth. All she could think to do was lower herself to the ground against the back wall and open her arms. The younger children climbed right on top of her, while the older ones scooted up beside her, leaving Wes to pace in front of the curtained opening, the light radiating from the elevated office reflecting like flames from his eyes.
Stroking Kimmy’s hair, Ciara glanced at the notebook on the floor beside her. The top page was blank. She’d drawn something, hadn’t she?
A tattered remnant marked where someone had torn off a page.
Ciara glanced at Wes, who continued to pace like a caged animal.
She heard the howl of a coyote from somewhere far away.
* * *
Wes Parker could feel it building, like the barometric pressure before a storm. The end was coming, and with it, the release he so desperately craved. So many lives lived, so many more taken. He existed only in the moment. No future, no past, just a ceaseless barrage of images passing before his eyes, as though flipping through the photographic mementos of another person’s life, their memories mixing with his own—and those of so many others—that he could no longer tell where one began and the other ended.
He felt the overwhelming desire to shed this form, for every moment he lingered in this body brought him one step closer to losing himself entirely. Already he felt the burning sensation, the one that told him the time had come to find another host, but he couldn’t afford to lose track of Ciara, who, for reasons he didn’t entirely understand, terrified him.
Fear was an emotion with which he had been long estranged. How could he feel frightened when nothing could kill him, no matter how hard he tried? With every confrontation, he prayed that the encounter would be his last. Every time he’d been shot breaking into a stranger’s house. Every time he’d been stabbed or run over by a car or killed himself in any number of ways, he always awakened in another body, staring down into the lifeless eyes of the one he’d just left, experiencing the same rage he always felt upon realizing his torment would never end.
He’d learned early on that changing vessels so quickly only served to sensitize him to the failings of the flesh. The sensations of death and decay, no matter how slow their progression, were a constant source of agony, which worsened with every transition. The mere act of breathing made his lungs burn. His stomach consumed itself with its own acid. Electrical impulses fired through his appendages like fiery forks of lightning. His blood tunneled through his veins as though it had been replaced by magma. The constant sloughing of invisible skin cells felt like a sunburn that never went away. Even the dimmest of light caused his entire brain to ache. Only that precious moment of insensate darkness between lives—little more than the blink of an eye—allowed him to maintain his tenuous grasp on sanity, for the faster he moved between bodies, the sooner he’d be able to return to it. Of course, that release came at an increasingly steep physical cost, one that would eventually drive him mad.
There had been a time, long ago, when he’d recognized what was happening to him, a point when he could have slowed the progression of the symptoms merely by allowing himself to suffer for decades within each host and endure the meaningless minutiae of life, but never could he have imagined he’d still be trapped in this hellish state all these years later. How many times had humanity teetered on the brink of annihilation, only to miraculously persevere? How many wars and diseases and natural disasters had brought it to the brink of extinction?
At least the part of him that was still the man once known as Ixpuztec grew smaller and smaller with every assimilation, his memories—peeling the skin from the body and choking it down. Clapping his hand over his mouth to prevent himself from regurgitating even a single mouthful. Licking the blood from his hands and using the residual crescents beneath his cuticles to lure the spiders from their webs. Hurriedly shoving them past his lips, even as they repeatedly bite him—vanishing as they were replaced by the host’s, leaving him only those to which he jealously clung, if only to use them as a mental flail to ensure he never forgot what he had done to incur the wrath of the gods.
Ciara was the key to ending his suffering. There was something different about her, something not just important, but important to him. He didn’t know how or why—at least not yet—but he could feel with complete certainty that she would bring about his end, one way or another. It was a sensation he’d felt only once before, and the reason he’d followed her home from the store where he’d first seen her, shopping for groceries with her family. Why he’d kicked in her front door, knowing her father would defend his family. Why he’d assumed first her old man’s form, then that of the attendant from the medical examiner’s office, and why he’d chosen this pathetic skinsuit. This body allowed him to remain close to her while he figured out why she made him feel this way.
And once he understood how she could bring about his permanent demise, he would use her to do just that.
If she failed, however, he would make her suffer for causing him to experience the most painful and debilitating emotion of all, one he had long since given up on feeling.
Davis Patterson and Riley Middleton stared at the boulders blocking the tunnel leading to the outside world. A faint haze of dust still hung in the air, stained red by the emergency lights, although the majority had settled to the asphalt. The occasional rumble shivered through the mountain, causing the cracks in the ceiling to widen and pebbles to rain down on them, but otherwise the only sound was the echo of their breathing. Davis had long ago given up on the satellite phone, which had rung through for a while, but had stopped ringing altogether after the last cave-in, which had collapsed one of the tunnels below the parking lot, taking half of the garage with it.
No one was coming to rescue them.
He’d instinctively known it the moment the missile struck, sealing him inside the renovated DUMB—deep underground military base—hidden high in the Wind River Mountain Range. The pilot of the chopper that had been dispatched to evacuate them presumably thought he’d already done so when he picked up the monster responsible for slaughtering everyone inside the base, and even if the men on board discovered their mistake, they’d assume that any survivors they’d left behind had been killed in the explosion. Not that anyone would have been able to reach them through a hundred solid feet of rock anyway.
Riley placed her hand on his shoulder.
“We’re not accomplishing anything just standing here,” she said. With a gentle squeeze, she turned and headed back toward the entrance to the facility.
Davis nodded his agreement but made no move to follow. He felt a bone-deep exhaustion and wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and go to sleep right there.
“How long do you think the air in here will last?” he asked.
“Longer than the roof,” Riley said. As if to prove her point, the entire mountain shuddered. “We don’t want to be here when it finally collapses.”
She was right, and Davis knew it. Unfortunately, the only possible way of escaping this tomb was through the tunnels beneath their feet, and God only knew how far they went or where they let out. Or if they even reached the surface at all.
An affable enough character named Badgett had been waiting at the airport in Lander when Davis and the rest of the team from the National Institutes of Health arrived. While careening wildly down gravel roads barely wider than his tires, he’d explained that construction of the Riverton facility had commenced just prior to World War II as part of a plan to secretly connect military bases and research facilities of strategic value all around the country via a network of subterranean tunnels, through which the military could transport large numbers of troops without the Soviets being able to detect their movements by satellite. Badgett had claimed not to know if any of them had been completed, and, truthfully, Davis hadn’t cared in the slightest at the time. Now, though…now every one of the arched entryways in the far wall represented both their only hope of survival and the certainty of their deaths.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, old sites like this one had been leased to corporations eager to work on sensitive projects without public scrutiny or government oversight, which was how NeXgen had come to be in possession of this complex, and why Davis was here.
He’d been a last-minute addition to the envoy from the National Human Genome Research Institute. As a psychology student working on his doctorate, isolating the physiological cause of psychopathy, he’d stumbled upon the physical expression of a gene that the NHGRI had been studying for years, essentially starting with the physical expression of their Trident Gene and working his way back toward them. They’d been so impressed by his work that they’d immediately brought him into the fold. Of course, none of them had even suspected that the gene responsible for producing psychopathic traits in serial killers and mass murderers was the residua of an ancient virus that had become incorporated into the human genome, the same ancient virus responsible for the nightmare that had transpired in this facility.
“Are you coming or what?” Riley asked.
Davis resisted the urge to turn and run in the opposite direction. The idea of going back into that charnel house with all of those dead bodies made him physically ill.
“Three…two…one,” he whispered, repeating the countdown his therapist had taught him. If he focused on calming his emotions and breathing through the growing panic, he could at least keep himself from curling into a ball and shutting down. “Three…two…one.”
He walked through the hermetically sealed door behind Riley and entered a narrow corridor. Everything was red, from the emergency lights in their shatterproof housings to the floor tiles to the smell. It was like entering a butcher’s shop on a sweltering day, only there was no mistaking the fact that the meat had begun to turn.
He held his undershirt over his mouth and nose and followed the archeologist. Her bare feet were filthy from walking through blood and the detritus on the forest floor, her powder blue scrubs darkened by patches of dirt. She’d endured far worse horrors than he had and radiated strength he could only imagine possessing, yet, somehow, they’d both managed to survive the massacre inside the station.
The main hallway was littered with bodies, human and simian alike. The chimpanzees had been infected with the virus, driven to a frenzy of bloodlust, and then released by a man named Tyler Cullen, who’d followed them through the residential wing with a semi-automatic rifle, shooting everyone who survived their bloody rampage and killing the beasts when they were done. And then he’d come for Riley.
Davis had watched the massacre on the monitors in the security office, where he’d cowered beneath a table, just like he had so many years ago during the school shooting in Sacramento. Only this time, he’d summoned the courage to confront Cullen before the much larger man could shoot Riley. Davis had nearly been killed for his efforts, and undoubtedly would have been, too, had Riley not bludgeoned Cullen with the butt of a rifle.
Maybe if they’d killed him—right then and there—instead of running, they’d be on the chopper headed for safety and he’d be the one entombed inside this house of horrors.
Davis stepped over and around the bodies, his boots peeling from the sticky floor. The spatters of blood on the walls turned black in the crimson glow. Somehow, a handful of flies had found their way into the complex and buzzed in delight at their good fortune.
Riley appeared to be looking for someone specific among the bodies.
“Would you recognize the man who drove you here?” she asked.
“I think so,” Davis said. “Why?”
“We’re going to need his keys.”
Davis thought of the fleet of vehicles parked outside, slowly vanishing beneath the settling dust, and realized she was right. These tunnels would have to be hundreds of miles long to reach other bases, assuming they’d even been completed, and there wouldn’t be any convenience stores along the way. Setting off on foot, without several days’ worth of food and water, would be suicide.
It didn’t take long to find Badgett, whose body was sprawled across the threshold of one of the offices. He appeared to have opened the door when he heard the commotion, only to be overwhelmed by the chimpanzees. Lacerations deep enough to reveal the underlying bones transected his face and chest. A meaty chunk had been torn from his throat.
Davis patted down the man’s pockets, which contained a lighter and a handful of cough drops. The keys were hanging on the wall inside, which appeared to be some sort of lounge for the non-scientific staff. He grabbed a set labeled GMC Yukon and returned to find Riley trying on a pair of black combat boots. A corpse with bare feet lay beside her. She flinched as though he’d caught her doing something she wasn’t supposed to do.
“She doesn’t need them anymore,” Riley said.
Davis simply nodded and held up the keys
* * *
Riley loaded the boxes of supplies she and Davis had gathered into the trunk of the SUV. In addition to random dry goods and several thermoses full of water, they’d collected a digital tablet and any research that looked remotely useful from the lab where Davis’s colleagues had been killed. Presumably, Cullen had turned over the information they’d originally gathered and the trial dose of the therapeutic treatment to his rescuers, and pharmaceutical companies all around the world were putting the cure into mass production, but after everything that had happened here, they couldn’t afford to take the chance. For all they knew, he could have already murdered everyone aboard the chopper and destroyed humanity’s last hope of survival.
Davis had tried to explain the importance of the data on the tablet to her. His team had created a cocktail of antibodies that bonded to all of the active sites of infection on the glycoproteins of the virus, effectively rendering it inert. Of course, that only mattered to those who hadn’t been exposed, because once the virus took root, there was no halting its progression, as she’d clearly seen with her own eyes. She’d witnessed her fellow researchers and graduate students tearing each other apart with their bare hands and teeth. Of the eight of them working the arctic excavation site, only she and Dale Edgerton had survived.
While his had been an acquired immunity, gained through the process of fighting off the virus, her body had naturally produced the requisite antibodies. According to Davis, both types of immunity indicated a mutation of the Trident Gene, a sign that they were among the 2.2% of people capable of surviving the virus, while the remaining 97.8%—or more than 7.8 billion people—would turn into mindless killing machines, attacking everyone and everything in their way. At least until the virus ran its fatal course.
If Davis was right, the hemorrhagic symptoms responsible for physically altering the brain and triggering the staggering changes in behavior caused the afflicted to internally bleed to death within approximately 72 hours, but by then it would likely already be too…late…
“Wait,” Riley said. She mentally ran through the calculations. She’d been in Alaska 72 hours ago, so the only way the scientists could have known the virus consumed its host was if…
“Oh, God,” she gasped. “Nate.”
She dropped the box she was carrying and ran back into the complex, blowing past Davis. He shouted after her, but her reeling mind couldn’t register his words.
Nate Paulson had been the only infected member of her team who’d still been alive when she’d been tranquilized by NeXgen’s rapid response team, loaded onto a helicopter, and transported back to the contiguous United States. Dr. Phil Rankin, the virologist in charge of Riverton, had told her that she and Edgerton had been the only survivors. And she’d taken him at his word. The man who’d caged her like an animal and subjected her to invasive batteries of tests…she’d believed him when he told her that her charges had all died. She’d been so eager to beat herself up for failing them that she hadn’t even questioned if he was telling the truth.
Riley ran down the main hallway, shouldered through the pass-through chamber, and headed for the wing where she and Edgerton had been housed. She remembered the thumping sound she’d occasionally heard, the way her captors had glanced nervously in that direction.
She squeezed through the final airlock and stood before an observation room. The lone window set into the submarine-like door was smeared with blood. From the inside. The streaks had dried to a dirty brown, between which she could see a gurney toppled on its side and a body sprawled on the floor beside it. Her heart sank as she spun the wheel and pulled open the door.
“Don’t!” Davis shouted, but he was too late.
Riley recoiled from the sight. Had she not known that at one point in time the mess on the floor before her had been Nate Paulson, a graduate student with whom she’d worked in close quarters for several months, she never would have recognized him. He’d punched the walls with such ferocity that he’d pulverized his fists. Jagged white slivers of bone stood from his misshapen forearms. His hospital gown was tattered and bloodied, his face so badly lacerated that he hardly looked human. He’d torn the stitches holding his cheeks and forehead together, exposing the fractured calvaria underneath. Only his eyes remained intact, the halos of his irises standing apart from the crimson sclerae.
She sobbed and fell to her knees.
“I’m so sorry,” Davis whispered, resting his hand on her shoulder.
“He was my responsibility. It was my job to return him to his parents in one piece.”
“None of this is your fault. You’re a victim here, too.”
“Of course, this is my fault,” she snapped, shrugging off his hand. “I should have recognized the warning carved inside the tomb.”
“From what I understand, there was never anything you could have done to stop it.”
“That doesn’t make it all right.”
“No, but it doesn’t make it your fault, either. You want to make it up to him? Help me get the research that everyone here died for to the right people. This guy might never go home, but I guarantee he’d forgive you if you made sure his parents survived.”
Riley nodded to herself.
Nate had been a kind and generous soul. He would have done anything for those he loved. To honor his memory, she would do the same.
Davis helped her spread a blanket over the grad student’s body. There was nothing more they could do for him. Nothing they could do for any of the people lying dead in the hallways, save for ensuring that their sacrifices hadn’t been for nothing. She would get the research to the right people. She would see that the information was used to spare more innocent people the same fate. And then she would make sure that Cullen paid for what he had done to all of them.
But the truth of the matter was that she didn’t know who Cullen was.
The man who’d shot her with a tranquilizer dart, taken great pleasure from her confinement, and smiled when she realized that it was his responsibility to dispose of her when she’d outlived her usefulness had been a monster, but he’d been a human monster. The man who’d come into her chamber during the massacre had been something different. She’d seen it in his eyes, the same thing she’d seen lurking behind Edgerton’s when this all first started—You can see me, can’t you?—an otherness, a dark sentience that frightened her on a primal level. And she’d heard it in his voice, a singular sound composed of many, like a hellish harmony.
Don’t be afraid. This has always been your destiny, as it has always been mine.
She’d stabbed him in the eye with a needle, beaten him with a rifle, and left him for dead. Yet, somehow, he’d survived, and in doing so, trapped her here.
The sun will set on the world again, only this time it will rise upon a land of darkness, and humanity will be no more.
Whatever he was now—and she hesitated to even speculate—there was no doubt in her mind that he was right, but she wasn’t about to give up without a fight.
“Come on,” she said, striking off down the hallway again. “We have a long drive ahead of us.”
Casper/Natrona County International Airport, Wyoming
The Air National Guard Black Hawk streaked low over grasslands slashed by barren highways and snow fences, heading straight toward the faint pink stain in the sky heralding the sun’s imminent rebirth. The occasional cattle ranch emerged from the horizon and quickly fell away behind them. The only signs of life were the cows grazing among the wind-carved rock formations.
Tyler Cullen had to turn all the way around to see the ground below him, thanks to the injury that awful woman had inflicted. The man who’d attempted to treat his wound hadn’t said the eye would never function again, but he hadn’t had to, either.
Cullen gingerly touched the gauze taped over his right socket. A scabrous crust had formed on the underside as the blood clotted with the cotton. The painkillers were already beginning to wear off. He could feel where his eyelid had torn, where the field sutures stitched his flesh, and where the needle had pierced his eyeball. The optic nerve seemingly carried an electrical charge straight through his forehead and into the base of his skull. Managing the pain would have to wait, though. Right now, there were far more important things to do, and he needed to be sharp. He’d endured the consequences of his previous failure for far too long and wasn’t about to let anyone trap him in the darkness again.
If this body failed him, then he’d simply get another.
Something stirred deep inside him at the thought, but he forced it back down. Soon enough, all vestiges of the man whose form he inhabited would be gone, anyway.
“We’ll be on the ground in fifteen minutes,” the pilot said through the cans over Cullen’s ears. “We have confirmation that a plane is ready to take off the moment you’re on board.”
The two soldiers from the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing, who wore black tactical isolation gear and full-face respirator masks, appeared simultaneously relieved and even more anxious. They knew the value of the cargo they carried and how important it was to the survival of their species. Cullen had eavesdropped on the conversation between Sergeant Bradley and whoever was on the other end of the call as the soldier had described the contents of the hood Cullen had taken from the other survivors at Riverton and understood the implications. The tablet contained the specifications for the precise combination of antibodies required to combat the virus and the vial of fluid was the first trial dose, which computer simulations had already shown to be effective. He’d saved the world, as the men repeatedly told him.
Well, he was just going to have to do something about that, wasn’t he?
Dale Edgerton sat diagonally across from him, staring out the window through glassy eyes that didn’t appear capable of focusing. His form had been weak, his mind even weaker, yet he’d served his purpose. As he would likely do so again; he’d already made the perfect human shield once.
“Who do we report to when we get to NORAD?” Bradley asked, speaking into the inset microphone in his mask.
“General Slayton has assumed operational command,” the pilot said. “You’re to hand-deliver the package to him, after which you’ll be reassigned to evacuation duty.”
“We’re hearing both Colorado Springs and Denver are on the verge of being overrun,” the copilot said. “They’ve fortified quarantine centers at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Air Force Academy, but their field triage centers are overflowing, and the labs are so backed up that they can’t process the blood samples quickly enough to separate the infected from the immune.”
“So what are they doing about those exhibiting symptoms?” Bradley asked.
“That’s above my pay grade.”
Cullen knew the answer: they were doing the only thing they could. With no way to counteract the symptoms of the disease, they could either euthanize the patient while he or she was too sick to be a threat, or wait until he or she became one. It was the same thing his clan had done all those thousands of years ago, when they’d sacrificed their infected to entomb him within the mountain.
Fingers clawing at his skin. Arms around his chest, his throat. The scraping sound of stone-on-stone eclipses his screams. The crescent of light extinguishes, stranding him in complete darkness. And he realizes that if he does not kill these people, it is only a matter of time before they will kill him, but they are weakened by starvation, while he has eaten and remained strong. He bellows in anguish, twists from one man’s grasp and buries his teeth into the soft flesh of another man’s throat—
Cullen shook his head to dispel the image. Now was not the time for memories. Not while there was still so much to do, and so little time to do it. He’d waited countless years for this moment, suffered through endless eons in the darkness, every second seemingly eternal, with only his thoughts to keep him company and the growing madness to bind him to this world. Now was the time to end his suffering, his eternal misery, and there was no room for error.
He realized he was scratching away the skin on the back of his hand and forced himself to stop before anyone noticed.
Cullen smelled smoke and glanced up to find the horizon stained gray, the rising sun burning blood red from deep within. It seemed a fitting portent for the day to come.
Clusters of prefabricated warehouses blew past below the chopper. The occasional shadow streaked across a parking lot or emerged from the infinite grasslands, which would soon reclaim the asphalt and erase all traces of mankind’s existence.
Runways appeared in the distance, beyond which the low-lying terminal cringed. A sleek white twin-turboprop with a tapered nose and an Air Force roundel on its tailfin waited on the tarmac.
“What in God’s name is that?” the pilot asked.
Cullen had to lean his head against the glass and crane his neck to see what had drawn the pilot’s attention. A swirling cloud of black birds descended upon the airport, alighting everywhere. On the ground, the buildings, and even the waiting plane. One struck the front windshield of the Black Hawk with a resounding crack. Another rebounded from the stub wing and hammered the window mere inches from Cullen’s face, leaving a smear of blood on the glass.
He couldn’t help but smile. The old gods—the gods of vultures and crows, flies and worms—those for whom he had sacrificed everything, and in whose names he had willingly welcomed damnation, wanted him to know that he was on the right path.
More ravens thumped against the hull and burst in the rotors, altering the thupping of the mechanical heartbeat and threatening to stall the engine. The chopper descended through the swarming birds and landed with a jolt.
Bradley threw open the door, admitting the ferocious wind, which propelled dust and feathers into the cabin. The soldier grabbed the tablet and the vial and jogged toward the steps leading up to the waiting plane. His partner took up position outside and waved for Cullen to hurry up. He rose and was halfway to the door when he noticed that Edgerton wasn’t following. Grabbing the evolutionary anthropologist by the scrub top, he pulled him from his seat.
“No, please,” Edgerton whimpered, shaking his head violently from side to side.
“You’re coming with me,” Cullen growled. He dragged Edgerton across the floor. “I’m not done with you yet.”
* * *
The words hit Edgerton like a physical blow to the gut. The thought of dealing with this monster for a single second longer was more than he could bear, yet he found himself stumbling across the tarmac, shielding his eyes from impelled debris, pushed from behind by a man who was anything but. He knew all about the being animating Cullen’s form, a sentience nearly as old as humanity itself, for it had been inside of him, as well. He’d heard it calling to him from deep within the excavation where it had been entombed, felt it burrowing through his skin on the stingers of the mosquitoes that had sucked the residual life from its mummified remains. It had usurped his form, and in doing so, had become both one with him and more than him, making him a prisoner inside his own flesh, an unwilling participant in the horrors that had followed.
It had felt like he was asleep and dreaming, whisked from one never-ending nightmare to the next. He’d watched as the infection he carried with him spread to the graduate students, as they’d butchered one another like animals at the mercy of their base instincts. Never in his life had he imagined that such evil could exist, something so cold and black and full of hatred, like flames burning inside him that would neither give heat nor be extinguished. He felt its rage as his own, its lust for annihilation pulsing through his veins. And he’d realized that he would be forced to do this monster’s bidding, to watch his friends and family die while aiding the sentience in its quest to bring about the end of the world.
Cullen shoved him up the steps of the Cessna UC-35A Citation Ultra. He tripped and fell, crawled the rest of the way. A man wearing an olive-green jumpsuit and a tactical gas mask helped him to his feet and ushered him into the nearest seat.
The National Guardsmen from the Black Hawk had already assumed the back row, opened their laptops, and begun coordinating with the various agencies involved in getting them to NORAD. Cullen took the seat across the narrow aisle from Edgerton and strapped himself in.
The mere sight of the man made Edgerton sick to his stomach. He looked away and watched the airman raise the steps and latch the door in place. The moment it was sealed, the pilot accelerated onto the runway, grasslands blurring past through the side windows, wheeling ravens darkening the sky. The airman strapped himself into the seat behind Cullen and started speaking at a million miles an hour into his headset.
Everything around Edgerton coalesced into a chaos of sounds and images. The scream of the wind along the fuselage. The hiss of air from the overhead vents. The pilot’s voice from the cockpit, warring with those of the men behind him. The whine of the flaps on the wings. The vast prairie falling away below him, the roads barren of traffic. The clouds waiting to engulf them. Cullen watching him with that knowing expression on his face, the one that reminded Edgerton of how small and insignificant he was. How little his life mattered, and yet how much damage he had inflicted through his own hubris and jealousy. How helpless he was to do anything about it. He’d cowered within his own form while the monster inside him made him do such terrible things, perpetrating acts that—if he were being completely honest with himself—a part of him had even enjoyed.
The other part—the better part—could have stepped up at any moment and done something about it. It would have been easy to have thrown himself into the campfire back in Alaska or gotten himself killed in his cage back at the research facility, ending the threat. He could blame the entity for usurping his free will, but the truth of the matter was that he could have stopped it at any moment and done what needed to be done. But he hadn’t. He’d been weak and he’d been scared.
Well, no more.
It might have been too late to save the world from the plague he’d unwittingly unleashed, but he’d be damned if he was going to let the evil he’d incubated inside of him eradicate everyone who was left.
For the first time in his life, Dale Edgerton felt a true sense of purpose. It had always seemed so important that everyone know of his accomplishments, yet like the forgotten proto-humans who’d given their lives to seal the evil inside that cave, he could give future generations hope for survival. They might never know what he had done for them, but he would. With his dying thought, he’d know that he had saved the world.
He recalled how he’d seen the soldier operate the door and mentally rehearsed the steps in reverse. Pull the red handle and shove the door open. That’s all he needed to do. The pressure would take care of the rest, sucking everything that wasn’t bolted down through the opening, destabilizing the plane and sending it hurtling to the ground, killing every single person on board. And he’d get to watch it happen as he plummeted to a mercifully swift death.
The cure had already been electronically transmitted, so only the six of them on this plane would have to die, half as many as it had taken to end the evil threat from thousands of years ago.
Before he could change his mind, Edgerton unbuckled his seatbelt and jumped to his feet. He went straight for the door, grabbed the handle, and jerked it toward him until it released.
Shouts erupted from behind him. He heard the clicking of seatbelts disengaging, felt the reverberation of footsteps through the floor. Sobbing, he threw himself against the door—over and over—but it simply wouldn’t budge.
Arms wrapped around him from behind, wrenching him backward. He fought against them for as long as he could before he was lifted from his feet and slammed to the ground. The airman pinned his arms behind his back and ground his face into the floor.
“What the hell are you trying to do?” the airman shouted down at him. “You can’t open a door in mid-flight. That’s eleven hundred pounds of pressure per square foot pushing against you.”
Edgerton struggled until the fight drained from him, and he started choking on his tears. A needle stabbed his arm and warmth flood through his body. His movements became lethargic, his vision watery. The airman crawled off his back and rolled him over. He took one of Edgerton’s arms, while Cullen took the other. Together they lifted him into his seat and buckled him in.
“I didn’t think you had it in you,” Cullen said. He patted Edgerton on the cheek. “Like I said, I’m not through with you just yet. Once I am, though, you’re free to die however you want.”
The horrible smile on his face was the last thing Edgerton saw as he drifted into unconsciousness.
Sherman County, Kansas
Robert Sakeva shifted uncomfortably and readjusted his grip on the steering wheel. It felt like his spine was as rusty and compressed as the springs in the seat of his old Chevy pickup truck. His sciatica was acting up something fierce and the outside two fingers on his right hand tingled from the pinched nerve in his neck, but he would not have traded the sensations for anything in the world. They reminded him that he was still alive, at least for a little while longer.
He was an old man, held together by dust, with wrinkled skin that hung from his bones and long gray hair as brittle as straw. A relic of another time. The last of a dying breed. He had lived long enough to have known the world before cars clogged the roads and planes filled the skies, before the air turned gray with pollution and the rivers flowed cloudy with chemical waste. Long enough to have seen true beauty and to watch it decompose before his eyes, to witness the death of the traditional Hopi way of life.
And it broke his heart.
Sakeva shook off the melancholy and focused through the cracked windshield on the arrow-straight highway. Seemingly infinite fields of grass streaked past in his peripheral vision, the wavering blades stained red by the rising sun, reminding him of the desert sands back home. The thought of Third Mesa was both comforting and saddening, for he knew that his return marked the end of the Fourth World. His lineage had stood sentry against the growing darkness for centuries, watching as each of the prophecies came to pass. They had known the Day of Purification would soon arrive, yet they had failed to prevent it. He had failed to prevent it. Worse, he had failed to prepare his successor for the trials to come. And the entire world would pay the price.
He glanced at his great-grandson from the corner of his eye. Billy might have been a child, but he had aged considerably in the last few days alone. While his body was that of a man coming into his prime, his eyes were those of a boy burdened by responsibilities he did not yet comprehend. Sakeva wished he could carry that burden for him, although laboring beneath its weight would make the boy stronger. Hopefully strong enough to face what was to come, for when the ancient enemy arrived, Sakeva would no longer be able to help him.
His destiny lay elsewhere.
Billy caught him looking and offered a pathetic attempt at a smile. Sakeva squeezed the wheel even tighter so the boy would not see how badly his hands shook. The confrontation with the skinwalker had unnerved him, for he had recognized the evil wearing the man’s flesh. The Diné called their kind yee naaldlooshii, while the Hopi had no word for their ilk, as to speak their name was to invite their presence. According to ancient lore, they were shamans who had forsaken their tribes and chosen the Witchery Way. In murdering members of their own families and consuming their flesh, they had been granted the ability to control animals, call up the spirits of the dead, and reanimate corpses. Cursed to walk the earth until the end of time, they despised humanity and actively sought the end of the world.
Or so the stories said.
After looking into the skinwalker’s eyes, Sakeva realized that the tales did not do them justice. The one who had revealed himself had reveled in the confrontation and would only be emboldened by the fulfillment of the ninth and final prophecy, which Sakeva had personally witnessed. He had watched the Blue Star Kachina fall from the heavens, a sign he had seen in a field in the middle of nowhere, one meant for the eyes of someone who would understand its meaning. Little had he known at the time that the burning wreckage strewn across the acreage had belonged to the Nightwatch plane, aboard which had been the men responsible for coordinating the country’s response to the pandemic.
Not that they had ever stood a chance in the first place. The wheels had been set in motion long ago, when their forefathers had forsaken their covenant with Taiowa, although it would not be the Creator who meted out their punishment. That responsibility fell to others who had been waiting eagerly for this moment to arrive so they could unleash unimaginable suffering upon a world that had inflicted the same thing upon them, surrounded by mere mortals in an eternally devolving society, unable to live as they once had and, worse, unable to die.
Ravens lined the telephone wires running alongside the highway. Sakeva felt the weight of their eyes on him, the darkness of the sentience behind them. The god of vultures and crows, flies and worms. The enemy had declared himself, although in doing so he had exposed his own weakness: he feared the light.
“Hopefully, there is still enough of that left in the world,” Sakeva said.
“What was that?” Billy asked.
“Just an old man thinking out loud.”
Sakeva smiled wistfully. He had lived a long life. A good life. And soon it would be time to move on. He did not fear his end, nor the pain it promised; he feared for those he left behind and the trials ahead of them. He had done all he could for them, though. He and Billy had commenced the migrations as directed by Maasaw—the Great Spirit, Skeleton Man, Doorkeeper to the Fifth World—who had given his ancestors the same instructions when they emerged from the underground into the Fourth World. Only instead of spiraling inward around the continent until they found the harsh land where they ultimately settled, he and Billy had worked outward from Third Mesa, painting their message on billboards and overpasses, street signs and bridges, using symbols that only the chosen would be able to read. The same symbols that had been discovered near the dwellings abandoned by the Bear Clan before their arrival at Second Mesa and passed down through countless generations for this singular moment in time.
Go west if you want to live.
Unfortunately, he and Billy had not been able to complete their migration before the Day of Purification had arrived. While they had spread their message throughout the eastern half of the country, they would not be able to make it all the way to the West Coast. They would have to trust that Taiowa would see the chosen to safety, for someone needed to be there to welcome them when they arrived. And to prepare them for the coming confrontation.
Sakeva prayed that Billy would be up for the task. His great-grandson seemed to be coming to grips with the idea that the old ways he had so recently believed to be fantasy were actually real, bringing him one step closer to accepting his role in the final battle between good and evil. Sakeva wished he had done a better job preparing Billy, but the boy needed to figure things out for himself.
And he was running out of time to do so.
The survivors would soon arrive.
And so would the darkness.
* * *
Billy rolled down the passenger-side window and thrust his face into the wind. Maybe a little fresh air would make him feel better. He was doing his very best to act strong, but he felt like he was going to throw up. Before yesterday, he’d never seen a dead body, and now, all of a sudden, they were practically everywhere. The memory of the man running out in front of his car near St. Louis still haunted him. The way the guy’s face had lit up in the headlights…the sound his body had made when it hit the grille…the way they’d left him bleeding on the side of the road like an animal.
He closed his eyes and shook his head to clear the image, but only saw the flaming wreckage of the Nightwatch plane spread out on the field before him…smelled the jet fuel and the deep black smoke gushing from the fuselage…the bodies burning in their seats—
“Pull over,” he said. “Hurry!”
His great-grandfather hit the brakes and skidded onto the shoulder. Billy shouldered open the door while the truck was still moving and vomited onto the gravel. He doubled over and retched, watching a long strand of saliva dangle from his lips before snapping off. The tears came without warning. He balled his fists and bellowed in frustration, his voice echoing across the plain.
He felt the old man’s hand on his shoulder and hung his head.
“There is no shame in sorrow,” Sakeva said. “And no man can know courage without first facing fear.”
Billy nodded. He was grateful for the words, but they changed nothing. He was a kid who was way out of his depth, hundreds of miles from home and scared to death. All he wanted to do was climb into his bed and pretend none of this had ever happened.
Sakeva gave him a squeeze on the shoulder and returned to the truck, its engine shuddering beneath the crumpled hood, its bumper still marred with blood and…was that hair?
Billy retched again, but only summoned a dribble of stomach acid. How long had it been since he’d last eaten? They hadn’t passed anything resembling civilization in—
He saw a water tower. Way off to the north, across a field of wheat, wavering green and gold beneath the rising sun. If he squinted, he could just make out houses peeking out of the trees. Maybe his great-grandfather wouldn’t mind making a quick stop—
His breath caught in his chest. There was something out there in the field, cutting a V through the wheat. Several somethings, in fact. All of them heading straight toward him. Silhouettes took shape from the distance. Shoulders heaving, arms pumping. Details lost to the shadows. They must have seen the truck. Did they need help? Was there something—?
One fell, vanishing into the crops. Several others converged upon it. A woman’s scream rent the silence.
“Hey!” Billy shouted, taking several tentative steps into the field.
A man’s face rose above the wheat, his features glistening with blood, his beard and overalls dripping with it.
“Oh, crap,” Billy said, lunging for the truck and climbing into the cab. “Go, go, go!”
His great-grandfather looked at him with an expression of confusion. The old man’s eyes suddenly widened. He hit the gas, slamming the passenger-side door closed. Gravel pinged from the undercarriage as they pulled back onto the highway, the old truck laboring to find its horsepower.
The shapes cutting through the field altered course to intercept them, but they didn’t have a prayer of keeping up with the truck as it accelerated. Billy watched the figures fade away behind him and allowed himself to exhale a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
He returned his attention to the road and settled back into his seat. That woman. She’d been trying to get away from the people chasing her, trying to reach him. Her scream resonated inside his head. Dear God…that man had attacked her with his teeth.
“There was nothing you could have done,” Sakeva said.
Billy nodded to himself, but this time the old man’s words didn’t make him feel any better. The truth of the matter was that he hadn’t even tried.
A body appeared on the side of the road, its legs protruding from the weeds lining the drainage ditch. The raven perched on the dead man’s back craned its neck to watch them pass. The gravel shoulder was torn up where a car had gone off the road into the field, the sun reflecting from its roof.
“Should we stop?” he asked, his voice little more than a whisper.
His great-grandfather didn’t reply. He’d paled noticeably and kept glancing up through the top of the windshield toward the black birds wheeling overhead.
An overpass rose from the horizon, growing closer with every passing second. A sign announcing they were leaving Kansas blurred past in the corner of his eye. A figure streaked across the road above them right as they drove underneath it.
Billy glanced back as they emerged from the shadows. A silhouette materialized from the heart of the blinding sun. A man with his arms outstretched, plummeting toward them from a tear in the chain-link fence lining the overpass.
Before Billy could shout a warning, the man landed in the bed of the truck, knocking aside buckets of paint and tumbling back against the tailgate. He braced himself and looked up, his face a mask of blood from a laceration across his forehead. Baring his broken teeth, he scrambled over their supplies and slammed into the back window, punching it with knuckles that split against the glass. The sliding window shattered, throwing glass shards over Billy’s shoulder and into his lap. The man reached through the opening, grabbed his great-grandfather’s hair, and jerked back his head.
The old Chevy swerved onto the opposite shoulder. Sakeva overcorrected and nearly rolled the truck. Tires squealing, he straightened it out with a lurch.
Billy grabbed the man’s arm. He squeezed and twisted and bent it backward, sawing it against the broken glass lining the frame.
And still the man didn’t let go.
A raven struck the windshield, its blood spreading along the network of cracks.
Billy needed better leverage. He unbuckled his seatbelt, turned around, and froze in horror when he truly saw the man for the first time. His blood-filled eyes and ragged mouth. Skin lacerated so deeply that the bone showed through. The heat of disease radiating from him. He snapped his teeth mere inches from Billy’s face, jolting him from his stupor.
Rising to his knees, Billy braced his hands on the man’s shoulders and pushed him through the back window, forcing him to release Sakeva’s hair.
The infected man fought like a rabid dog, cutting his own flesh to ribbons in the process. He lost his balance and tumbled backward. This time when he struck the tailgate, the old mechanism gave way. The man grabbed onto one of the boxes in the bed, but only ended up sliding over the edge with it and cartwheeling into the open air. It struck the road and disgorged its contents, scattering their clothes onto the asphalt. Along with all of the cash they’d brought with them.
Thousands of dollars fluttered across the ground like freshly fallen leaves. The man pushed himself to his feet and limped after the truck, the greenbacks swirling around his ankles. Other people appeared behind him, running from the field and converging upon him.
“We have to go back!” Billy shouted.
“We will die if we do,” Sakeva said.
“That’s all the money we have! We won’t make it home without it.”
His great grandfather focused on the road and said nothing more. His neck bled from where the man’s fingernails had raked his skin.
Billy glanced at the gas gauge, which was already under half a tank, and then back at the road behind them as the people rapidly falling away from them swarmed the injured man, tearing him apart with their bare hands. An empty paint bucket rolled down the bed and bounded onto the highway.
“Taiowa will provide,” his great-grandfather said.
Billy turned around and slumped in his seat. He watched the carnage fade behind him in the side mirror, until all he could see were the black birds wheeling against the sky, waiting to descend upon their feast.
* * *
The being inside Dr. Desmond Duvall watched the chaos unfold through the man’s eyes, infused with a clinical curiosity he hadn’t experienced before. Not so long ago, he’d been a surgeon whose goal had been to open people, fix them, and make them whole again. Now, he experienced the opposite side of the coin. This host was a forensic investigator accustomed to starting with death and working his way backward, an academic who appreciated the slaughter playing out before him for its animalistic savagery. Watching a dozen men and women overtake the man who’d fallen from the truck, while simultaneously turning on each other, allowed him to experience the true depths of humanity’s capacity for violence. This was more than mere war, the kind these animals had been accustomed to waging for the entire history of their existence; this was the frenzied melee of survival, Darwinism in fast-forward, slaughter on a scale so grand that there would be no one left when the battle was through. And finally—finally—the end would come for the entity, as well.
Thousands of years might have been a drop of water in the sea of time, yet each and every one of them had felt like an eternity of its own, one never-ending day bleeding into another and another until everything about the man he had once been was gone. He no longer looked back on the pivotal moment that had consigned him to this hellish existence, when he had traded his soul for survival and, in doing so, sacrificed his humanity.
A moment of weakness.
That was all it had taken to damn him to walk the earth until the end of days, bearing witness to the deaths of everyone and everything he had ever loved and the metamorphosis of humankind into a species he no longer recognized, one he had grown to despise with every fiber of his being. Where once man had lived in harmony with nature, he now bent it to his every whim, whipping it like a beast of burden birthed for no other reason than to do his bidding. And all in the name of progress, a term so loathsome that Duvall’s lips curled at the mere thought of it.
He’d watched the deterioration from inside the men and women whose lives he had stolen, existing solely in the here and now, his memories becoming increasingly corrupted by theirs until he could no longer distinguish his own from those of the countless hosts he’d inhabited. He was simultaneously all of them at once, experiencing the present through the lens of a body already beginning to decompose as the spirit of the host died, while desperately clinging to what little of his true self remained before it was gone forever, strengthening those tattered recollections through acts meant to remind him of who he had once been so that he didn’t lose sight of his mission.
The being once known as Pu’wihi chuckled at the irony, for it had been he who had feasted on the dying man’s eyes so many, many years ago, a fact he would never allow himself to forget. And thus, he had needed a constant reminder, one that would follow him from one life to the next, one that was impossible to misinterpret, for each time he looked upon the excised eyes of his victims, he experienced the same hunger that had cursed him, a hunger that drove him ever onward toward the day when he would finally be able to shuffle off this mortal coil and know the serenity of oblivion. A reminder of the violent acts that had earned him many names through the centuries. Anáá’ Aniʼįįhii. Ixpolotl Ichteki. Auga þjófr. Ange de la Mort. And yet he had only recently tasted the one that truly fit him, an honorific he would carry with him into the afterlife.
It seemed the perfect identity for the days ahead, for his final act in this godforsaken world would be to ensure the deaths of the entire human population. Only then would he know peace.
Duvall put the Explorer into gear and drove out from the stand of trees behind which he’d been hiding, waiting for one final glimpse of his adversary before their paths diverged.
His tires grumbled on the gravel as he merged back onto the highway, the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign a vague blur in his peripheral vision. He accelerated past the men and women beating each other to death right there in the middle of the road. They pounded his windows, leaving bloody smears on the glass, but they could barely walk, let alone give chase. Soon enough they would be dead.
Each and every last one of them.
Wheeler Ridge, California
Nicholas Crawford let the water run until it was as cold as it was going to get. He cupped his palms under the faucet and did his best to immerse his nose and forehead. From the corner of his eye, he watched the faint pink tinge of blood swirl around the drain until the water ran clear. When he finally looked up at the mirror, its steel surface scarred with crude drawings and scratched initials, he found himself staring at the face of a man he hadn’t seen in a very long time. A man standing on the brink of a new life, one just waiting to be taken by the horns. Sure, the bridge of his nose had split open where it struck the steering wheel and both eyes were ringed with bruises like he was transforming into a furless raccoon, but he still had that thousand-megawatt smile, the side of which hardly drooped from that infernal mini-stroke anymore.
He cocked his fingers at his reflection and, with a click from the corner of his mouth, fired his trademarked pistols.
“Sweet baby Jesus,” he gasped, thrusting his left hand back under the water.
The mere act of bending his fingers made it feel like his flesh had caught fire. The skin was blistered and raw from radiation exposure, although the cold did help it feel a little better. He let the stream run over his hand and took a moment to evaluate the extent of the erythema. The redness ran all the way up his arm past the elbow. And the swelling made his forearm arm look twice the size of his right, but as long as he managed the burn properly and kept the epidermis from separating from the dermis, he’d be just fine.
For a while, anyway.
Eventually, one form of cancer or another would turn his arm into one great big tumor. Like Popeye’s. He laughed out loud at the mental image and whirled when he heard someone else laughing behind him. The stall doors stood open, confirming that he was still alone. It must have been an echo caused by the strange acoustics of the bathroom.
Crawford shrugged it off, dabbed his face and hands with paper towels, and headed back out into the hallway. Never in his life had he seen a truck stop this fancy. Gone were the days of greasy spoons staffed by smart-mouthed waitresses with tall hair and line cooks wearing checkered pants and paper hats; bathrooms with bare concrete floors that could give a guy athlete’s foot just by looking at them the wrong way; and racks brimming with pamphlets advertising sketchy local attractions. This place was more like an indoor mall, with polished floors, potted plants, and rows of leather chairs that would massage away the road weariness with the swipe of a credit card. There was even a Baskin Robbins, although the metal curtain had yet to be raised for the day.
He wandered into the convenience store and peered down the aisles, but he didn’t see his Golden Bear anywhere. The cashier and a man who both looked and smelled like he was hauling livestock of some kind gave him the side-eye as he left without buying anything. He ducked around the corner and peeked into the restaurant next door.
Leticia Saenz was seated in a booth at the back, her long black hair imbued with a crimson hue by the sun streaming through the window. Her skin was the color of coffee with just the right amount of cream, her lips full and plump, her eyes like smoky quartz when she fixed them on him. His breath caught in his chest at the sight of her, so young and beautiful and full of life. Hers wasn’t the kind of fake smile he’d deluded himself for all those years into thinking was happiness to see him, but a genuine, heartfelt emotion that reached all the way up into her eyes. She positively lit up when she saw him coming and gestured to the seat across the table from her.
Crawford felt a flush of guilt that he’d never truly seen her before now, but he’d make up for it. Oh, there were all kinds of wrongs he was going to right, just as soon as he found a nice, quiet place to set up a lab so he could begin reclaiming the plutonium-240 from the nuclear fuel pellets he’d “reappropriated” from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. An entire briefcase full of them awaited him in the trunk of Leticia’s Camry.
“You look like you’re feeling better,” she said as he slid into the seat across from her. She blushed and clapped her hand over her mouth. “Not that you looked bad before. I just…that came out wrong. What I meant to say was—”
Crawford silenced her with a gentle squeeze of her hand and looked her in the eyes when he spoke.
“I know what you meant. You don’t have to worry about what you say when you’re with me.”
She smiled and glanced down at their hands.
“I am with you, aren’t I?”
The way she said it made him swell with pride. It had been a long time since anyone had looked at him the way she did now.
Her brow suddenly furrowed. She released his hand and reached for his other arm.
“Oh, my,” she said. “What happened to your—?”
Crawford reflexively jerked back his arm and hid it under the table.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“Does that have something to do with the briefcase in the trunk?”
“Nothing to trouble that pretty little head of yours about,” he said. He winked and grabbed an only somewhat sticky menu. “Now, what do you say I treat the most beautiful woman in this diner to a breakfast she’ll never forget?”
“Assuming you can get the waitress’ attention.”
Crawford turned toward the counter, where maybe a dozen truckers and the entire wait staff had gathered around the wall-mounted television. None of them uttered a single word. They just stared mutely at the screen as one flickering image gave way to the next. Crawford was too far away to tell what they were watching.
Something made a crashing sound outside. He peered through the window, but he couldn’t see what had caused it.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, sliding from the booth. “One waitress, coming up.”
He hitched up his khakis and navigated the maze of tables toward the counter, cracking his neck from one side to the other like a prize fighter preparing to enter the ring.
“Excuse me,” he said in his most commanding managerial voice. The waitress didn’t turn around. In fact, none of those gathered around the TV so much as cocked an ear in his direction. They simply stared at the screen, oblivious to everyone and everything around them. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Excuse—”
The words died on his lips when he saw what they were watching. At first, he thought it must have been some sort of horror movie, but the special effects were too real, too visceral, and the camera cut from one scene to the next so quickly that he could hardly keep up. Aerial imagery of people attacking one another in the streets, smashing windows and dragging their screaming victims from their homes and cars. Shaky, handheld videos captured from underneath tables, behind furniture, and around corners as men and women were butchered mere feet away. Automatic gunfire sparkling from behind barricades erected across city streets, camouflage-clad men under siege from the hordes preparing to crash over them like a human tsunami.
The scenes were made somehow more surreal by the fact that the TV remained muted, the closed captioning displaying disjointed sentences and phrases that didn’t match the movement of the newscaster’s lips. Crawford recognized words like “virus” and “shelter in place,” although his mind had trouble correlating them with those interspersed between them, words like “seal your windows” and “barricade your doors,” or “deploying the military” and “surgical airstrikes.”
He heard another crashing sound from outside, followed by the roar of an engine. An SUV accelerated past the front window, its rooftop cargo carrier disgorging its contents. A woman ran after it, screaming and waving her arms.
Crawford returned his attention to the television. He recalled how the emergency room in San Luis Obispo had been overflowing with patients, how Diablo had been running on a skeleton crew, and how he’d been so sick himself that he’d driven his truck into a ditch. Something nasty was out there, something worse than anything that anyone had ever seen before. The news made no attempt to calm the masses. There were no pseudo-experts stating that everything was under control. There was only panic, and the fear he could see reflecting on the screen from the eyes of everyone around him.
Brakes squealed outside. All eyes turned toward the window, where a pickup truck slammed into the sedan at the nearest pump, sending it skidding sideways in a rapidly expanding pool of gasoline. A man wearing overalls jumped into the bed of the truck and bounded onto the roof.
Crawford walked toward the window as though in a dream, a high-pitched humming in his ears.
The crashing sounds grew louder and louder. An animal made an awful half-screaming, half-bleating sound.
A woman wearing a checkered flannel shirt and jeans ran right up to the window, blood streaming from a gash along her eyebrow. She pounded her fists on the glass, her eyes wide and wild, and shouted—
In a blur of motion, a teenage boy appeared from nowhere, tackling her to the concrete. Her screams roused Crawford from his stupor.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing Leticia by the hand and dragging her from the booth.
The window shattered behind them, sending balled glass cascading across the table.
Crawford glanced back and found himself staring into the eyes of the teenage boy, the flesh peeled from his forehead and cheekbones, as though he’d used his face to smash through the window. The kid scrambled over the sill and bared his teeth.
The entire restaurant erupted into chaos.
* * *
Leticia ran for everything she was worth. She’d been close enough to the window to see what that horrible boy had done to the woman, and she wanted no part of it. Yet all she could seem to think about was that Mr. Crawford—Nick—was holding her hand. He was holding it too tightly though, and her knuckles were grinding together. She’d have to talk to him about that later, once they were—
A burly man with a graying beard slammed into her from the side as he tried to squeeze through the door ahead of her, sending her sprawling. She lost Mr. Craw—Nick’s hand, rebounded from the wall, and went down hard. She barely had the presence of mind to wrap her arms around her head to keep from being trampled. All she could see between her forearms were boots and shoes and flashes of denim. A cacophony of shouts seemed to originate from all around her at once, but Nick’s voice rose above them all, calling her name. She caught a glimpse of his face as he reached for her.
A crimson spatter struck his face, forcing him to close his mouth. The waitress tumbled to the ground at his feet, screaming as the kid tore out her throat with his fingernails and teeth.
Blood dripping from his chin, Nick pulled Leticia to her feet and battled through the press of bodies struggling to get through the door. They sprinted into the hallway and headed toward the exit to the parking lot. The man in front of them tripped and fell through the plate glass window beside the door, opening a passage for the others, who trampled him, oblivious to his cries.
Nick and Leticia hit the asphalt and made a beeline for her Camry. The woman who’d been asleep at the wheel of the minivan parked in the adjacent spot looked up at them through bloodshot eyes, the vessels of which ruptured and flooded the whites.
A thunderous crash—the same sound she’d heard repeatedly from inside the restaurant—drew Leticia’s attention to the lot behind the rest stop, where dozens of semi-trucks were parked in long diagonal rows. Another crash and the rolling metal curtain that served as the rear door of a giant silver livestock trailer bowed outward. The people thrusting their arms through the ventilated siding ran around to the rear, just as the curtain tore open with a metallic shriek, and cattle funneled out through the ragged orifice, stampeding the men and women beneath their churning hooves.
Fumbling the keys from her pocket, Leticia ducked behind the wheel and cranked the ignition. Nick jumped into the passenger’s seat beside her and repeatedly slapped the dashboard.
“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted. She was going to have a serious talk with him about the way he treated— “Drive, Leticia!”
She pinned the gas and rocketed backward across the lot, striking a trucker she hadn’t even seen. The man rolled off her trunk and just kept on running. She’d barely put the car into drive when the first cow thundered past her hood. The second struck the Camry squarely in the side, crumpling the back door and knocking the car sideways.
A man with long, greasy hair and a hooded sweatshirt jumped on top of the heifer, who bucked him off and kicked him squarely in the chest. He quickly rose again, crescents of broken ribs protruding from the wound. Behind him, a wall of humanity flooded across the parking lot, preparing to wash over them.
Leticia stomped the gas and accelerated toward the highway, swerving to avoid cars backing from parking spots and people running in all different directions. A man she recognized from the restaurant grabbed the handle of the door behind Nick and pounded his fist against the window, but he was run down from behind before she could even think about slowing to let him in. She caught a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror, trying to shield his face from his attacker’s windmilling arms—
A black blur rocketed through her peripheral vision. The BMW struck the Camry’s rear quarter panel, causing the back tires to slide sideways as though they were on ice. She overcorrected, hopped a curb, and tore through a hedgerow. The front end dove down into a drainage ditch, the bumper throwing up turf from the other side. Her forehead struck the wheel—
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Leticia’s eyelids parted just far enough to admit a sliver of blinding light. She heard screams as though from miles away, but they faded as her eyes closed and the blackness once more—
Leticia opened her eyes. The world took watery form from a miasma of colors. She tasted blood in her mouth, felt it dribbling into her lap. The Toyota logo on the horn drifted in and out of focus. She had only the vaguest recollection of losing control of the vehicle and—
A raven perched on her windshield wiper, its head cocked to the side to appraise her through its glassy black eye. It tapped its beak against the windshield, hard enough to pit the glass.
She detected movement from the corner of her eye. A bare-chested man running straight toward her car, on the other side of the tattered hedges.
The giant ebon bird flapped its massive wings and took flight.
Nick groaned from the seat beside her, where he’d crumpled against the glovebox, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the rearview mirror. The man plowed through the bushes and bounded onto her trunk. He punched the rear window. Shattered glass cascaded into the back seat and skittered over the console.
Leticia threw the Camry into reverse and rocked backward, knocking the man off balance just long enough to put the car into drive and angle up the incline toward the highway. He clung to the lower rim of the broken window, his body sliding sideways over the edge of the trunk. She tore through the hedges on the other side of the ditch, bounded over the curb, and swerved hard, sending the man tumbling in her wake. Springing to his feet, he chased after them until he faded from sight.
Might as well pull over and let that man have you, Mother said from behind her. Lord knows he’s the only one who will.
“That’s not true!” Leticia screamed.
A glance at the rearview mirror confirmed there was no one in the back seat. For a moment, she’d almost forgotten standing over her sleeping mother, raising the shovel she’d just used to disinter her father’s remains, and swinging—
“That’s my girl,” Nick said, his words somewhat slurred. He leaned back in his seat and rested his hand on her knee.
“See?” she whispered, but apparently Mother didn’t have anything to say about that.
The Camry shuddered as it accelerated, the wheel pulling to the right as its tires were no longer in perfect alignment. She didn’t need to ask which way they should go, for the answer was obvious.
The raven alighted on top of the onramp sign and fixed its stare upon her approaching car. It took flight as they passed and headed east.