Book five in this bestselling self-published series, now released through Orbit: when a devastating plague turns most of population into frenzied killers, a lone soldier is on a mission to rebuild his ruined world.
Frost had covered everything. It crunched under Lee’s feet as he made his way steadily through the woods. He wore his parka, zipped all the way up and the hood pulled over his head. A shemagh was around his neck, pulled up to cover his mouth. But still the cold air stung him. It got under his clothes and pried at his injuries. It made his damaged ankle joint ache like an old man’s and his progress was slow and plodding as he favored these complaining parts.
Lee breathed the air slowly as dawn began to break through the wooded landscape. It smelled of the nothingness of frost. All the other smells – the tree bark, the leaves, the moss – had been frozen in place. The air seemed to freeze his sinuses. Particularly painful to his broken nose. Reset, but still swollen and probably forever crooked. It was the coldest it had been yet. Maybe around 20 degrees, which was not horrible in general, but pretty damn cold for North Carolina.
He stopped at the crest of a rise and stood for a moment. A tall form. Thinner than he’d ever been, so that his clothes and coat hung loose on him. But for all the size he’d lost, he was not weak. Underneath those loose-fitting clothes he was battered and scarred, but possessed a wiry sort of strength that
came only from endless abuse.
He knelt down. His knees cracked threateningly when he did so, the stitches in the gunshot wound on his left side screaming at him. His face showed none of this. His dark eyes were as cold as the air around him.
He looked back the way he had come. Over the skeleton trees he could see Camp Ryder rising out of the forest. The walls built up with surprising speed over the course of the last several days – a last-ditch effort to keep the hunters out. Spikes and barbed wire. Like some reverse supermax prison, designed in a
third-world country. Designed to keep things out, instead of in.
Lee didn’t know how long it would last. They hadn’t made contact with the hunters since the assault on Camp Ryder, but the threat of them still hung over everything. Worse than the packs. Worse than the hordes. These ones were smarter, faster, stronger.
He pulled the shemagh down with a gloved hand. Rubbed the beard he had scissored back to a reasonable length the day before. He watched his breath plume out of him and for a brief moment it obscured his view of Camp Ryder and gave him a sense of melancholy that he could not explain. Equal
measures of regret and responsibility.
You cannot be what you once were.
The fog of his breath dissipated and he could see Camp Ryder again. Quiet and still in the early morning hours, smoke trails rising from the fires that were keeping people warm. Soon it would be alive again. Soon it would be awake. Because ‘first light’ was when the people of Camp Ryder would render their judgment on those that had betrayed them, those that had fought for Jerry. The trials had already been held, overseen by a committee of survivors led by Angela. The facts already weighed. The mitigating and the aggravating. Now the only thing left was to dole out the punishment.
A soft crunch of leaves behind him. A warm snout nudged his elbow.
Lee lifted his arm, put it around Deuce. The dog and the man leaned into each other for a brief moment of warmth. The dog still held his one paw up. Not broken, it had been decided, but probably sprained. He seemed to be getting more movement back into it and was able to put more weight on it than he had before. But it had never slowed the dog down. The dog just kept going, doing what he was supposed to do.
‘You smell anything?’ Lee asked quietly.
The tawny dog looked around, as though he understood the question. His pointed ears always erect and alert. Scanning like a radar dish. His long, lupine nose constantly working at the air. But Deuce stayed quiet. Didn’t whine. Didn’t growl. There were no infected nearby. At least for now.
‘Come on,’ Lee said, as he stood up and began walking again. The dog followed his lead.
Lee cradled his rifle in one arm. Or at least the rifle that had become his rifle. The one he’d taken from a dead man named Kev after he’d crushed the man’s throat with his bare hands. Tore at him like a wild animal. It was strange how different experiences seemed to have different chemical reactions within
your brain. Some horrible things only calcified you. Made you harder and more calloused. You did them and you never thought about them again. Other experiences seemed to be caustic, and they broke you down, ate through you, and stung when you least expected them to. And there was never any rhyme or reason to it, it seemed.
Lee had done all manner of things. He had killed men in many different ways. But for some reason, the crushing of Kev’s throat stuck with him. Sometimes he could feel the little tiny bits of cartilage in Kev’s neck, cracking under his fingers. Sometimes he heard a noise and it made his heart stop because he thought it sounded so much like the strange, gasping, rasping sound that Kev had made when he ran out of air. A few nights he had dreamt vividly of that moment, and woke up with his heart pounding.
This is how it is now, he told himself. There is no room for mercy.
He made his way through the winter forest, following what had become a familiar path. He recognized small things that sat dimly in the morning light. A copse of evergreen shrubs that grew low to the ground. A patch of briars. An outcropping of stone coming out of the hillside as he began to descend the other side.
Every so often he would glance down at Deuce, make sure the dog was still beside him. Check to see how the dog was acting. Deuce just continued to limp along beside the human that he had decided to trust. Forever soldiering on. Just the two of them.
Lee’s ‘escapes’ from Camp Ryder were against the better judgment of Jenny, their resident medical professional. Though she had been quiet and very reserved since everything that had happened during the assault on Camp Ryder, she’d spared no words to scold him about wandering out of the gates when he was supposed to be resting. It was not only dangerous, she said, but also would slow his healing.
After the second disappearing act, Angela joined in.
Lee humored them by forcing a smile and a nod, but he never told either of them that he wouldn’t do it again, because he knew that he would have to. Because he had to do what was required, no matter how ugly it was. All the people at Camp Ryder could turn their gazes away from the truth, they could hold on to morals and ethics – they had that luxury.
Lee did not.
But Lee would not take it from them. He would not spoil that dream for them. Because they needed to believe the ideals and laws of the country they still subscribed to. And no matter how much of a dog and pony show that was, Lee knew he couldn’t take it away from them.
So he would do what needed to be done.
But he would do it quietly, and they would be none the wiser.
He came to the edge of the forest. He stopped, just outside the trees, Deuce making slow circles around him. Sniffing the ground, then the air. Before him stretched cropland, washed pink and yellow in the morning light. It was all open acres of harvested wheat that had never been tilled or replanted. Weeds had begun to sprout up during the abandoned summer but were now brown and dead as fall turned to winter. Still, the view gave him pause each time he came upon it. The seemingly endless acres of open fields, rolling down into shallow ravines where sometimes fog would huddle.
Not now, though. Now it was too cold.
But Lee could look at those fields, and some small vestige of himself that dared to take uncertain glances at the future would think that one day they would plant those fields again. And he wasn’t sure why this part of him insisted on being optimistic, when every other part seemed to have shrugged off optimism in place of cold reality. But he didn’t overthink it. He accepted it. And he looked out on the fields and he thought about sprouting grain seed and cornstalks grown taller than a man.
He allowed himself that moment. And then he continued on.
He followed the edge of the woods for a time. Twice Deuce let out a low growl and looked off into the fields. Lee stopped both times and stayed very still, eyes searching in the distance where Deuce was focused. The weeds in the field were tall, and infected could easily hide there if they just crouched
down. Lee thought he saw movement in one of the shallow ravines several hundred yards from him, but then Deuce quieted. Lee gave it another minute and then kept walking.
After about a mile along the edge of the woods, he came to a road. What had once been a well-traveled highway, now barely visible under a layer of fallen leaves. The shoulders encroached unevenly, swallowing the edges of the road in soil and brown grasses. And where the fields always gave him hope, this old road gave him a sense of loss. A sense of loneliness. Like he might be the last human being on the face of the planet.
He did not go to the road, but stayed off of it about fifty yards. He found the same spot he had used before, where an old elm tree with drooping branches provided him with a curtain behind which he could watch the road in secret. He sat down slowly in that place, the tree shading him from what little warmth could be gleaned from the rising sun. Deuce sat beside him, quiet and reserved.
By now, at Camp Ryder, Angela would have noticed that Lee had snuck away again. Jenny would be livid that he was putting strain on his injuries. But Angela would mostly just worry about him. And she would have already seen to what needed to be done. Tallied the vote. Rendered the judgment.
By now, he would be walking. The last man to be judged. He would be walking, and he would be thinking about how he was going to survive out here, all by himself.
What was his name?
Kyle, Lee remembered. Kyle, who was complicit in the murder of Bus and Keith Jenkins. Kyle, who went and got Abby when Jerry had demanded it, knowing full well what Jerry might do to that little girl just to get Angela to talk. Kyle, who acted all distraught and remorseful. Kyle the young kid, who I almost feel bad for.
A great deal of the testimony against Kyle had come from Sam, the rest from Angela. Sam told everyone how he had been playing soccer and went to retrieve the ball when it was kicked out of bounds. How he had stumbled on Kyle and Arnie, at the back of the Camp Ryder building with Keith Jenkins. How Arnie had swung the pipe that brained Mr. Jenkins, but Kyle urged him to finish Mr. Jenkins off. Then Greg had come and threatened Sam and Abby into silence for what he had seen. Sam told all of this in an unwavering voice, reliving a nightmare for the benefit of others and doing it without flinching.
Angela told how she had been taken upstairs into the office to be questioned by Jerry, just before the assault to take Camp Ryder back. It had been obvious that Jerry wanted to use Abby and Sam against Angela, to harm them in order to coerce her into talking. And when he sent for them, Kyle raised no objections, but simply went to get the children, following his orders, never stopping to think.
And maybe Lee did feel bad for him. Maybe the kid named Kyle had gotten in over his head. Maybe he had never meant to do the things that he was forced to do. Maybe even now he regretted every one of those decisions. But did any of that excuse his actions? Did being sorry for what you did make everything all better?
No. What’s done is done, and cannot be taken back.
Actions have consequences.
The people of Camp Ryder, the ones that put their votes into jars – little pieces of paper with guilty or not guilty written on them – they had decided what those consequences would be, and while Lee spoke quietly to Angela in the back rooms, he sensed the temperature of the group. He knew what they had been through, and knew that they were only trying to hold on to something there. Some semblance of that old world that they so fondly remembered.
So Lee did not argue with their judgments. It was not his place to do so.
His job was not to govern them, but to protect them.
He should have protected them before. He should have handled Jerry when the man had become a problem, before he could sink his teeth into Camp Ryder and split it right down the middle into two warring halves. He should have handled Professor White when he was merely a dissenting voice, before he could arm his group to help Jerry take over Camp Ryder. He should have handled Shumate those many long months ago when Lee had escaped from him in the hospital in Smithfield.
But he had let Shumate get away. And then Shumate had captured him again, quite recently, and forced Lee into a pattern of actions that still disturbed his sleep. He had let Professor White foment rebellion, and he had let Jerry divide the camp, and now the bodies were stacked up to be buried and the space to bury them was running out.
He had tried so hard to be just, to be righteous. To let the dissenters speak. To not pursue the enemy that was fleeing. Sometimes he had felt that he was being too harsh, but apparently he had not been harsh enough. Because every mercy had been used against him. And the people he cared for had paid dearly for those mercies.
Loose ends always come back to bite you in the ass.
He would not make these people pay the price. He would settle their debts for them.
Behind their backs if need be.
It was the only thing he could do. He could not give them medicine, or food or water, or arm them against the threats that surrounded them. He had done what he could before his GPS had been stolen, before he had been betrayed by the remnants of his own country. There was no longer a Project Hometown, and so Lee no longer viewed himself as a Coordinator. Everyone still called him ‘Captain,’ but to Lee, that identity was fading fast.
At the end of the day, when all those things were stripped from Lee, he found that what was left could still be useful. Because what was left was skill and knowledge. The skills to do what was necessary, and the knowledge of why they needed to be done. That was what made him useful to Camp Ryder – even to North Carolina and what little bit of society remained inside of it. Lee could still help them survive. He could still pass on the things that he knew. And he could still fight.
Those were things that could never be taken away from him.
So he waited underneath the barren elm tree, knowing that the low-hanging branches, frosted and reflecting the morning sun, would hide him. His stomach clenched hard to fight the gradual ebbing of his core temperature. And perhaps also to fight the feelings. Not any particular feeling, but just feelings in general. Mercy. Pity. Anger. Indignation. None of those were of any use to him at that moment, though they all swam around him.
No. What he needed now was just coldness. Cold like the ground he sat on. Earth that was fertile, but dormant. Saving its energy. Saving it for another time. And just like that earth, he saved all those feelings for another time. When they would mean something. When they could bear fruit in his life. But now, they were only weaknesses.
Just as the sun began to break over the tops of the trees, Lee saw the figure walking. It was a slow, steady pace. The pace of a man with nothing in front of him and nothing behind him. Just an existence of stasis. Walking. Putting the miles down on the road.
Beside Lee, the dog stirred, his ears rotating in the direction where the man walked.
He stayed quiet, though. This was not an infected.
Lee’s rifle remained in his lap as he watched the figure approach. He wondered if he should talk to the man, but then wasn’t sure what good it would do either of them. Perhaps it was just an attempt to assuage Lee’s own vestigial guilt. Maybe he felt like Kyle wasn’t as bad as the others.
But he was, wasn’t he? Because ignorance was not an absence of guilt. Because following orders didn’t make things okay. It was up to the individual to determine when the lines of morality were crossed.
Lines of morality? Lee almost laughed at himself, but the air was too cold and too still for laughter. Lee had the sense that the world would have fractured around him if he had laughed. So he didn’t. He just raised his rifle, leaning the foregrip on his knees to support it, and then he squinted through the iron sights. No scope today. Just irons. You had to learn to use your irons before you could use an optic, and using them was like going home.
You put the circle around the post.
You put the post on your target.
You pull the trigger.
Here, Lee hesitated. He stared out across the expanse of road between him and Kyle, the young man who walked, ignorant of what targeted him through rifle sights. The young man that wandered now, homeless and futureless. Banished from Camp Ryder. Marked with a brand on his wrist, so that if anyone from Camp Ryder ever found him inside the Hub again, they would kill him on the spot.
That was the solution that the people of Camp Ryder had come up with.
But Lee counted on a different solution.
Something much more final.
Lee took a deep breath. Put the top of the post just underneath Kyle’s chin. Then he exhaled and he waited for that respiratory pause. That one, long, half second of time where your body was completely still. And when he felt it, when he somehow knew on some primal level, that the bullet that would leave his rifle would hit his target just where he wanted it to . . . then he pulled the trigger.
Kyle stumbled backward, then fell to his knees. Then he scrambled for the side of the road – heading for the woods, Lee thought, but he didn’t make it very far. Just barely made it to the overgrown shoulder, in fact, and then he seemed to go limp. Not dead yet, though. Lee could still see his chest rising and falling in great, big, panicked gasps. He could even hear him from across the distance. The feathery sound of
someone trying to speak but unable to.
Lee wondered if Kyle knew why this was happening to him.
He stepped out from underneath the old elm tree, and he stood there in the tall grasses and weeds that lined the shoulder of the road. He could see clear across them to Kyle, and he wondered what he should be feeling in that moment. He thought that there were probably hunters that had shot animals and experienced more emotion.
I’ve got no soul anymore, some part of Lee welled up.
But Lee just shook his head. Stuffed it down. I’m just tired. Just very tired, is all. It’s hard to feel when you’re tired.
He got up and made his way out from under the elm tree. Even in the cold, dense air, he thought he could still smell the others – that tinge of corruption just barely tainting the air. The smell of rot. Various stages of decomposition. None more than a few days old.
He stood there at the edge of the road for a moment, looking around and checking to see that nothing else was watching him, nothing had yet been attracted by the sound of the single gunshot. Still, Deuce seemed a little extra cautious, and hesitated a few steps behind Lee, his tail hanging a little lower than usual.
The dog stared at Kyle’s form, still moving, but faintly now.
Lee considered the dog’s reaction for a moment. Clicked his tongue. ‘C’mon.’
Deuce followed, reluctantly.
By the time they reached Kyle, he had stopped moving. Lee stood over the man, looking down at him. Kyle had died on his back, face up to the sky, mouth open and teeth red, hand over the hole in his chest. For the briefest of moments, as Lee stood there, he thought that Kyle was looking at him, recognizing him, and knowing why Lee had done what he did.
‘Because loose ends always come back to bite you in the ass,’ Lee mumbled to the emptiness around him. ‘Just like Shumate.’
Lee stiffened at the sound of it, instinctively shouldering his rifle. He looked first to Deuce, his gaze ricocheting off the dog and then following the canine’s intense focus, up the road and into the woods. Lee stooped. Moved his head around and tried to see through the trees and into the woods.
No movement. Yet.
With more urgency now, Lee slung the rifle onto his back and bent down with a gripe and a groan to hook his fingers underneath Kyle’s armpits. The underside of the man’s body was wet with blood – still warm to the touch. Lee’s nose curled, distastefully, and he lifted the dead weight, the stitches in his side suddenly afire.
‘Come on, you heavy bastard,’ Lee strained under his breath, despite the fact that Kyle was the lightest of the four men he had killed like this. The only four men that had taken up arms against Lee during the assault on Camp Ryder, and lived to be captured, tried by committee, and exiled.
‘Had to do it,’ Lee continued as he worked his way backward, dragging the body off the road to where it would be hidden in the tall grasses and weeds to the side. The same place as the others. The others that he could smell even stronger, now that he was so close to them. ‘Had to do it this way, Kyle. I know you weren’t a bad guy, but you weren’t innocent, either. I don’t like it, but it’s just the way things are now. You know?’
What the fuck is wrong with me?
Talking to dead men.
Lee stopped, a little out of breath. He noticed that Deuce refused to step off the road and was prancing and whining now. On the verge of barking. His attention was still affixed down the road. More intent now. Like he was seeing something Lee was not.
Lee looked down the road.
Still standing there with his back and hamstrings aching, his finger hooked under dead-Kyle’s warm, bloody back. Breath caught in his chest.
Straight down from him, less than thirty yards away, another man stood, staring right back at him. Except it wasn’t a man. Not really. Not in any way that counted anymore. It stood on two feet, but the way its shoulders were hunched, its head low and feral, naked as a primitive man – Lee knew what
Lee’s first instinct was to break for his rifle, still strapped to his back. But something about the stillness of the moment caught him off guard, made him pause, even as his mind scrambled, Are there more? There’s always more. They’re flanking me. Cutting me off. This is a hunt. Right now, I am their prey.
Deuce was barking.
The thing across the way seemed equally transfixed by Lee. Like the two were in a duel, each waiting for the other to make a move. It looked like it was holding on to something, but over the tall grasses, Lee could not tell what it was.
Lee let Kyle’s body slump out of his grasp, trying to free his hands to get to his rifle, but Kyle’s body fell forward, and the movement could not be hidden. The thing across from him twitched when it saw the movement, and it snarled loudly, but did not make a move toward Lee. Rather, it took a step back. Still clutching whatever it had in its hands.
I know what it has, Lee thought, stomach turning.
The thing hunched low, snatched down to get a better grip on something, its head dipping out of sight. When it came back up, a half second later, it held what was left of a man. A man that had once been fat, but then lost all of that fat from starvation, leaving only a thick flap of loose skin around his belly, which had been opened up and emptied out, like a voluminous leather bag robbed of its contents. The creature
had its jaws clamped around the corpse’s neck, and it began tugging backward, eyes still focused on Lee as it did so.
It reminded Lee of a leopard, dragging an antelope into a tree.
Somehow his rifle had gotten off his back and into his hands. Like it wanted to be shot. Like it wanted Lee to take this thing down. This terrifying and repulsive thing. But by the time Lee broke eye contact with it and raised his rifle to sight through the irons, all he could see was the bottom half of the corpse – pale gray legs with old boots and tatters of pants still clinging to them – and it slipped into the trees with
a muted rustle.
Maybe that was why the hunters hadn’t bothered to attack Camp Ryder for the last few days.
They’d been dining on the bodies that Lee left behind.
Following him like seagulls follow a fishing trawler.
Waiting to feast on the aftermath of whatever he left behind.
Lee realized he was shaking badly. Deuce was still on the road, whining and growling and moving around in tight, tense little circles. Lee looked down and saw that Kyle was far enough off the road that he would not be seen by passersby. He would not be seen by anyone from the Camp Ryder Hub. At least not for a while. And probably not before the hunters came and harvested him up.
But there’s no more after that, Lee thought. No more free meals.
And then where will you go?
He stumbled, pulling his feet out from under Kyle’s body. Then he crossed the road at a painful but deliberate jog, looking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed.