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Chris jerked awake and sat half upright. A rock gouged the palm of one hand. The vivid spring dawn made him squint. He checked his weapon and found it primed nearby, but he heard no threat. The secluded crevice where he’d made his night camp served as a trusted partner at his back.
The last of his weariness gone, he eased out from the crevice and surveyed the surrounding gorge. Creosote bushes bloomed along the jagged upslope of striated limestone, their roots clinging to the smallest holds. A woodpecker made a racket, reminding him of those first few months after the change hit the west coast. They hadn’t seen sign of any wildlife, not even insects, until the demon dogs had cleared out, starving and defeated. That so many natural creatures still thrived in the world should have given him some reason to smile, but Chris hardly remembered how.
He checked his Beretta in its holster and slumped against the cold, solid rock wall. A dream must have woken him. Closing his eyes, his skin already covered in goose bumps, he tried to recapture the last few moments of unconsciousness, fully expecting to find memories of blood. But the lingering images were not so violent. He saw a wisp of white, a flash of corn silk hair.
Whenever he dreamed of Penny—the child he’d left behind after her mother died—he walked south . . . and always found something remarkable. Once he’d found water, just in time to keep his dehydrated body from shutting down. Another time he’d found a young girl. She’d been hiding in a tree, stranded after escaping a pack of demon dogs and too scared to climb down. In appreciation her brother and mother had opened their meager stores to him.
Reluctant curiosity tugged him to his feet. After a quick piss, he packed his gear and stepped into the sharp daylight.
Climbing up the short bank of what might have once been a river, he allowed himself to think about Penny. It was for the best that she lived with his friends Jenna and Mason now. After Ange died, he had found it impossible to stick around beyond the spring thaw.
And Chris was alone. That too was for the best.
He reached the top of the rise and looked over the desert. Dawn still tinted the landscape, but the dry heat sizzling the back of his neck foretold the coming day. He scratched his jaw through his beard and searched for abnormalities. No voices. No prickling sensation of another human presence.
But then came an unexpected sound—an old sound that took a long minute to place.
What the hell?
He held as still as death, leaning nearer to the source as if that gesture might make the unbelievable more real.
He set off at an easy run. Across the length of the country, always heading south, he’d seen the occasional working vehicle and the trouble it could bring. Gasoline supplies had gone scarce, and owners developed twitchy trigger fingers when it came to protecting their valuables.
But he hadn’t heard a big-throated, full-throttle rumble since Before—almost like rush hour and coffee shops and the White House. Old things. He gave up on pacing himself and hit a full run. The wonder of his legs responding to such an impulse no longer surprised him. After nearly four years of wandering, he wouldn’t recognize himself in the mirror. Hard-won resilience waited in every muscle, with every strike of his boots against the flinty earth.
At the next rise he crept along on his belly and looked down. Glasses he’d relied on for years to correct a slight astigmatism had broken back near Colorado, but he didn’t need them to see the distant remains of a two-lane highway. Long-ago engineers had blasted a canyon right through the middle of a wide granite plateau. The highway ran like a river down the middle. Without steady repairs from human custodians, baked asphalt had become striped with fissures. Despite the flowers and grass lining each crack, it reminded Chris of puckered scar tissue.
He burrowed his fingers into the cool, dry earth. Waiting. From along the western horizon rolled the trucks. Sunlight glinted off chrome and dust swirled from beneath the tires.
Where had they come from? Who operated them? And where the hell had they found enough gas to speed along at a hundred kilometers an hour?
The sound of a gun being cocked turned his blood to ice.
“Don’t move.” A man’s voice. Deep. Southern.
Chris lay still with his cheek pressed against the dirt. The Beretta at his hip might as well have been back in Oregon, but he could get off his stomach, he might have a chance.
A heavy boot pressed between his shoulder blades. The man ground down and pressed cold gunmetal against the back of Chris’s neck. “You armed?”
“Yes.” His vocal cords felt fused together, and he tried to remember the last time he’d spoken. Weeks. Maybe months. Not even to himself, that old mainstay of staying sane.
The man made a quiet grunt as he crouched and started a quick search, his motions rough and efficient.
“I was just passing through,” he said as the man’s hand neared the Beretta.
“Then no one will miss you.”
“Then why are you smiling?”
Chris used that moment to strike. He swung his elbow back and up, connecting with his captor’s inner wrist. The gun clattered to the rock. Turning sharply, Chris yanked the boot that had pinned his shoulder blades and twisted. The man fell heavily onto his back, clutching his wrist as his hand spasmed. A grimace warped his features but he tried to kick with his free foot. They scuffled in the dirt, exchanging grunts and punches, until Chris scrambled to his knees.
He grabbed the Beretta off his hip, unhooked the safety, and pointed at his opponent’s head. “Because I got nothing to lose.”
Staring down his adversary, Chris realized what a lucky bastard he was. He’d thought Mason a big guy, but this man was huge—tall and muscular. Those trucks down on the highway could plow headlong into his chest and he wouldn’t flinch.
Chris took aim at his bald head, where dark skin gleamed with sweat. Guns were pretty amazing when it came to leveling the odds.
“Don’t kill me,” the man said.
“Don’t make me. What’s your name?”
“Folks call me Brick.”
Slowly Chris sidestepped until he could kneel and pick up Brick’s discarded pistol—an ancient Colt .45. “All your weapons on the ground. Slowly.”
A set of brass knuckles, a retractable truncheon, a palm-sized .22, and a wicked bowie knife hit the ground one by one. Chris loaded them into his satchel, never taking his attention from his prisoner. He didn’t want those same weapons turned against him, should Brick get the upper hand again, but kicking them over the cliff would be an unthinkable waste.
“On your stomach,” Chris said. “Arms and legs splayed.”
Brick’s snarling expression said that he didn’t take orders well from strangers. But when Chris cocked his Beretta, the man obeyed. He lowered his body on the ground and went spread-eagled.
Chris shoved the Colt down the back of his waistband and frisked Brick, keeping his concentration on high alert. No sense in falling victim to the same ploy. He got the very strong sense that he’d only get lucky once against such a man.
Satisfied that he was drawing down on an unarmed opponent, Chris nudged Brick’s ribs with the toe of his boot. “Up. On your knees. Hands behind your head.”
Brick did as he was told, but only just. Yellow dust coated his damp T-shirt.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Chris said. “Just passing through, like I said.”
“Better pass through pretty damn quick once you turn your back on me.”
“Won’t turn my back, then. Thanks for the tip.” The rumbling trucks were right down from them now. Chris climbed partway up an embankment. From that position he could see an entire east-west expanse of highway and keep the pistol leveled on his captive’s chest.
“Can you fire a rifle?” Brick asked. For the first time, his voice didn’t sound so murderous.
“I’m a fair shot. Why?”
“Because my people down there are expecting backup from me. High-vantage cover.”
“Man, I mean it. I need to be ready. They’ll be sitting ducks otherwise.”
“Should’ve done what you were told and left me alone.” Chris frowned. “How were you going to give cover without a rifle?”
Still kneeling, Brick kept his hands on his head, his elbows out wide. “In my bag, four meters to your left.”
Backing away from where Brick knelt, Chris located the satchel. By touch alone he identified the contents: a disassembled rifle. The man wasn’t lying, but he couldn’t very well hand him a weapon. Chris couldn’t tell who he’d be helping if Brick’s people were successful.
He could use some supplies. The food he’d had of late was scrounged from cactus and an occasional unlucky fox. And ammo. He needed ammo. If Brick knew the Beretta only contained three bullets, he’d probably risk a shoot-out. Even hoping that a favor could buy entrance into a community and replenish his stores, Chris resisted the urge to trust. Since the change, people had become intensely tribal and reluctant to welcome strangers.
He’d be better off moving on. At least he could snag a new rifle and the other weapons. But instinct honed on his own told him that was the wrong move. Brick’s pride had been damaged. If his people suffered, he’d track Chris down to hand over the blame—and any punishment. He knew this area better too. Not a good idea to make this man my enemy.
He looped the sack across his chest and returned to his position overlooking Brick and the highway.
The trucks had stopped just below, flanked by motorcycles. A dozen people roamed over the stalled vehicles. Soon the truckers had been yanked from their cabs, stripped of their clothes, and bound in a daisy chain by the side of the road. Chris couldn’t make out facial details, but the attackers’ body language seemed calm. A practiced operation.
Light glinted in a pattern.
“That’s my signal,” Brick said with his deep, deep voice. “They’ll send backup if I don’t respond.”
“Nope. No way. Stay put. Better to let them think you fell asleep, or that a rattlesnake took a bite out of your calf. Things happen.” Chris stepped closer—but not within lunging distance. No way he could miss from that distance. The bunching muscle at Brick’s jawline said he knew as much. “But don’t even think about shouting for help. You’d be brainless before they even heard it.”
“They could still need my help.”
“Don’t know,” Chris said, flicking his gaze to the valley floor. “They seem to have everything pretty well in hand. How are you going to meet them? You have a vehicle too?”
“Yes. Two hundred meters to the east.”
Chris circled his prisoner until they faced one another. “Look, I’m a doctor.” Though technically a lie, his years spent learning animal anatomy put him light-years ahead of most people left in the world. “I propose a trade. If you take me to your camp, I’ll offer my services for a week.”
Brick scowled, his brain working hard behind his intense gaze. “In return for what?”
“Food, water, ammo. Nothing excessive. Just enough to get me on my way again.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I don’t want to shoot you in the thigh, but I will. Your people will come for you, but they might not get here in time to stop the bleeding.” Chris narrowed his eyes. The tension along his neck and shoulder blades sizzled. “I can’t have you following me. Sorry.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?”
Chris side-shuffled over to his bag and used his left hand to unzip it. He angled the contents toward Brick. “Microscope. Scalpel set. Medical supplies. You see them?”
“Sure. But if you’re a doc, you won’t shoot me.”
Cruel laughter bubbled out of Chris’s mouth. He hadn’t even felt it coming. “Try me. And then wonder where I got the clothes I’m wearing. I don’t act unless provoked, but it would be a mistake to consider me defenseless.”
Brick’s eyes widened. What he saw on Chris’s face and heard in his voice must have been enough.
“Sure,” the other man said. “La jefa would probably like a doc passing through. A couple of ours could use a checkup.”
La jefa? A female boss. Interesting.
Down below in the canyon, the trucks rumbled to life, their noisy engines growling at the sky. Echoes made them sound like a subterranean monster roaring to life.
“Good. Let’s go.” Chris grabbed his bag and gestured with the Beretta. “Keep your hands up.”
A motorcycle waited just to the east, where Brick said it would be.
“Yours?” he asked, nodding toward the glossy machine.
Brick rubbed a big, wide palm over the leather seat. “Nice, isn’t it?”
No flashy chopper or Japanese job, it looked welded together out of pipes and corrugated tin. Barely functional, certainly dangerous, but lovingly cared for. Transportation meant options. Options meant a greater chance at survival. And if Brick was the man who kept the contraption functional, that bike represented pride in his handiwork.
Once Chris had hidden away from people, focusing instead on the ways and patterns of mountain lions. Solitary creatures. Wide-ranging territories. But the last five years had cast his own species in a new, more flattering light—just as animal, but with a cleverness and ingenuity that seemed like a candle with a dwindling wick.
So few of us left.
Brick’s tribe, whoever they were, seemed to have clung to a measure of technology and order. They had vehicles, organization, a settlement of some kind. Part of Chris’s reason for wanting to meet them was pure curiosity. He’d encountered clusters of people barely clinging to life, cowed by the change and the barbarism that had followed. Others didn’t cower; they fought to the point of complete destruction. No society. No hint of humanity. What he hadn’t seen was a fully functional group on a scale large enough to pull off that robbery on the highway.
He also wanted to know where those trucks had come from. Wandering down from the Pacific Northwest had offered no evidence to contradict the theory that civilization was finished. Supplies delivered en masse by semis suggested otherwise, and he wanted to know who was running the world after the change. He’d learn what he could and move on.
Staying long enough to make friends and then watching them die was just too damn hard.
“Throw the keys at my feet,” Chris said. “I’ll give them back when we reach your camp. For now we’re walking.”
“They’ll all jump you, you know. If not before, when we reach Valle de Bravo.”
Valley of the brave? Nice. Chris liked the confidence of it—a big middle finger to the whole fucking mess.
“You’ll just have to convince them that I mean business and that I’m worth keeping alive.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you’re closest to my pistol. And I meant what I said about having nothing to lose.”