Fragments, p.10
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       Fragments, p.10

           Dan Wells
 

  “Obviously nobody’s in charge of you,” said Kira, frustrated by the circular conversation, “but what about your friend? The one who warned you not to lose the backpack?”

  “No friends,” said Afa, shaking his head in a strange, loose sort of way that shook his entire torso as well. “No friends. I’m the last one.”

  “Were there others before? Other people with you, here in the safe house?”

  “Just you.” His voice changed when he said it, and Kira was struck by the thought that he might very well have been completely alone—that she might be the first person he’d spoken to in years. Whoever had saved him and taught him to survive, whoever had set up this and the other radio stations—whoever had rigged them with explosives—was probably long dead, lost to Partials or wild animals or illness or accident, leaving this fifty-year-old child all alone in the ruins. That’s why he says he’s the last one, she thought. He watched the last ones die.

  Kira spoke softly, her voice tender. “Do you miss them?”

  “The other humans?” He shrugged, his head bouncing on his shoulders. “It’s quieter now. I like the quiet.”

  Kira sat back, frowning. Everything he said confused her more, and she felt as if she was even further now than before from understanding his situation. Most confusing of all was the name on the door at ParaGen—Afa Demoux had had an office, an office with his name on it, and ParaGen didn’t strike her as the kind of place that let a mentally handicapped man have an office just to keep him entertained. He had to have worked there; he had to have done something, or been something, important.

  What had it said on his door? She struggled to remember, then nodded as the word came back: IT. Was it just a cruel joke? Call the weirdo “it”? That could explain why he didn’t want to talk about ParaGen. But no; it didn’t make sense. Nothing she knew about the old world suggested that kind of behavior, at least not so officially in a major corporation. The letters on the door had to mean something else. She watched his face as he finished the can of fruit, trying to guess his emotional state. Could she bring up ParaGen again, or would he just go silent like before? Maybe if she didn’t mention ParaGen, and just asked about the letters.

  “You seem to know a lot about . . . I-T.” She winced, hoping that wasn’t a stupid question—or worse, an insulting one. Afa’s eyes lit up, and Kira felt a thrill of success.

  “I was an IT director,” he said. “I used to do everything—they couldn’t do anything without me.” He smiled broadly, gesturing at the computers arrayed around the room. “See? I know everything about computers. I know everything.”

  “That’s amazing,” said Kira, barely containing her grin. Finally she was getting somewhere. She scooted forward. “Tell me about it—about I-T.”

  “You have to know how everything works,” he said. “You have to know where everything is; some’s in the cloud, and some’s in the drives, but if it’s the wrong kind of drive, then it won’t work without power. That’s why I have the Zobles on the roof.”

  “The solar panels,” said Kira, and Afa nodded.

  “Zobles and Hufongs, though those are a lot harder to find, and they break a lot. I turned the generators in room C into capacitors to hold extra electricity from the Hufongs, and they can hold on to it for a while, but you have to keep them cycling or they run down. Now,” he said, leaning forward and gesturing with his hands, “with the right kind of electricity you can access any drive you need. Most of what I have here is solid state, but the big ones, the ones in that corner, are disc-based servers—they use a lot more electricity, but you can store a lot more data, and that’s where most of the sequences are.”

  He kept going, more rapidly and with more animation than anything he’d done or said before. Kira reeled at the sudden burst of information, understanding most of the words but only about half the concepts; he was obviously talking about the digital records, and the different ways they were stored and powered and accessed, but he spoke so quickly, and Kira had such a poor background in the subject, that most of his meaning flew right over her head.

  What stood out to her more than anything was the sudden, almost shocking proficiency he had with the topic. She’d assumed he was slow, too childlike to do more than fetch water on somebody else’s instructions, but she saw now that her first impression had been wildly wrong. Afa had his quirks, certainly, and she didn’t doubt that there was something off about him, but on at least one subject the man was brilliant.

  “Stop,” she said, holding up her hands, “wait, you’re going too fast. Start at the beginning: What does I-T mean?”

  “Information technology,” said Afa. “I was an IT director. I kept everyone’s computers running, and I set up the servers, and I maintained cloud security, and I saw everything on the network.” He leaned forward, staring at her intently, stabbing the floor with his finger. “I saw everything. I watched it all happen.” He leaned back and spread his arms, as if to encompass the entire room, maybe the entire building, in his gesture. “I have it all here, almost all of it, and I’m going to show everyone, and they’re going to know the whole story. They’re going to know exactly how it happened.”

  “How what happened?”

  “The end of the world,” said Afa. He swallowed, his face turning red as he raced to speak without pausing for breath. “The Partials, the war, the rebellion, the virus. Everything.”

  Kira nodded, so excited her fingers started to tingle. “And who are you going to tell?”

  Afa’s face fell, and his arms dropped to his sides. “No one,” he said. “I’m the last human being left alive.”

  “No, you’re not,” said Kira firmly. “There’s an entire community on Long Island—there are nearly thirty-six thousand humans left there, and goodness knows how many more on other continents. There have to be more. What about me?”

  “You’re a Partial.”

  The accusation, again, made her uncomfortable, especially since she couldn’t counter it with a flat refusal. She tried a misdirection instead. “How do you know I’m a Partial?”

  “Humans don’t come to Manhattan.”

  “You’re here.”

  “I was here before; that’s different.”

  Kira ground her teeth, caught again in Afa’s circular, self-referential arguments. “Then why did you let me into you house?” she asked. “If the Partials are so bad, why trust me?”

  “Partials aren’t bad.”

  “But—” Kira frowned, exasperated by his simple, matter-of-fact answers, which seemed to make no sense. “You’re out here alone,” she said. “You hide, you protect yourself like crazy, you blow up your radio stations anytime anyone gets too close to them. You’ve got a huge community to the east, and a huge community on the north, and you don’t join either of them. If the Partials aren’t bad, why keep yourself separate?” It occurred to her, as she said it, that the question applied equally well to her. She’d been out here alone for months, avoiding Partials and humans alike.

  Not avoiding them, she told herself, saving them. Saving both of them. But the thought still bothered her.

  Afa scraped the last bits of fruit from his can. “I stay here because I like the quiet.”

  “You like the quiet.” Kira laughed, more helpless than amused, and stood up from the floor, stretching and rubbing her eyes. “I don’t understand you, Afa. You collect information that you do and don’t want to show anyone; you live in a giant radio tower and yet you don’t like talking to people. Why do you have the radios, by the way? Is it just part of the information gathering? Are you just trying to know everything?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you didn’t think that maybe somebody else could benefit from all this information you’re putting together?”

  Afa stood up. “I have to go to sleep now.”

  “Wait,” said Kira, abashed by his discomfort. She’d been arguing with the brilliant IT director, almost yelling at him in her frustration, but here she was confronted with the chi
ld again, awkward and slow, a tiny mind in a giant body. She sighed, and realized how tired she was, as well. “I’m sorry, Afa. I’m sorry I got upset.” She reached toward his hand, hesitating as she watched his eyes. They had never touched, Afa always keeping his shy distance, and she realized with a rush of emotion that she hadn’t touched anyone—not a single human contact—in weeks. Afa, if she understood his situation correctly, hadn’t touched anyone in years. Her hand hovered over his, and she saw in his eyes the same mixture of fear and longing that she felt in herself. She lowered her palm, resting it on his knuckles, and he flinched but didn’t move away. She felt the pressure of his bones, the softness of his flesh, the leathery texture of his skin, the warm beat of his pulse.

  She felt a tear in the corner of her eye and blinked it away. Afa began to cry, more like a lost child than anyone she’d met in ten years, and Kira drew him into an embrace. He hugged her back tightly, sobbing like a baby, nearly crushing her with his massive arms, and Kira let her own tears run freely. She patted him softly on the back, soothing him gently, luxuriating in the sheer presence of another person, real and warm and alive.

  CHAPTER TEN

  Marcus ran as fast as he could through the forest, trying to keep his feet under him and his head from cracking into low-hanging branches and vine-crusted poles. The soldier beside him fell abruptly, red blood blossoming on his back as a bullet brought him down. Marcus faltered, instinctively turning to help the fallen soldier, but Haru grabbed him and dragged him forward, crashing headlong through the trees.

  “He’s gone,” Haru shouted. “Keep running!”

  More shots flew past them, whistling through the leaves and exploding against trunks and old boards. This part of Long Island had been heavily wooded even before the Break, and in the twelve years since then, nature had reclaimed the neighborhood, tearing down rotten fences and collapsing old roofs and walls, filling the lawns and gardens with new growth. Even the sidewalks and streets were cracked and split by a dozen years of freezes and thaws, and trees had sprung up in every gap and rift and crevice. Marcus leapt over a crumbling brick retaining wall and followed Haru through a living room so filled with vines and brush it was almost indistinguishable from the world outside. He dodged a sapling sprouting up through the floorboards, and cringed as another Partial bullet whooshed past his ear and shattered the glass in a picture frame not ten feet in front of him. Haru turned down a sagging hallway, dropping a live grenade just around the corner, and Marcus’s eyes went wide in terror as he leapt over it, putting on an extra burst of speed he didn’t know he had. He tumbled out the far side of the house just as it exploded. Haru hauled him to his feet again with an urgent grunt.

  “If they’re as close behind as I think they are, that got at least one of them,” said Haru, puffing as he ran. “Either way it’s going to slow down anyone who followed us into the house, and it’s going to make them think twice about following us into the next one.”

  “Sato, you all right?” A woman’s voice cut sharply through the trees, and Marcus recognized it as Grant, the sergeant of this squad of Grid soldiers. Haru ran a little faster to catch up, and Marcus snarled with exhaustion as he struggled to keep up.

  “Just dropped a frag in that last house,” said Haru. “Medic and I are fine.”

  “Grenades are fun, but you’re gonna miss ’em when they’re gone,” said Grant.

  “It didn’t go to waste,” Haru insisted. Another soldier beside them twisted and fell in midstride, claimed by another bullet, and Marcus ducked involuntarily before sprinting forward again. They’d been running like this for nearly an hour, and the forest had become a nightmare of death unmoored from the familiar rules of cause and effect. Bullets came from nowhere, people lived one second and died the next, and all they could do was run.

  “We need to make a stand,” said Haru. He was in better shape than Marcus, but fatigue was more than evident in his voice.

  Grant shook her head almost imperceptibly, conserving her energy as they ran. “We tried that, remember? We lost half the squad.”

  “We didn’t have a good ambush point,” said Haru. “If we can find a good spot, or if we can regroup with more soldiers, we might have a chance. The one thing we did accomplish was to get a good look at their forces, and they’re not very big. We outnumber them, and we know the terrain better—there’s got to be a way to make this work.”

  Another bullet flew past, and Marcus stifled a scream. “You have an absolutely heartwarming level of optimism.”

  “There’s a work farm near here,” said Grant, “on the grounds of an old golf course. We can make a stand there.”

  They redoubled their efforts, discarding grenades here and there as they ran, hoping the erratic explosions would deter their pursuers enough to buy a few precious extra seconds. Marcus saw a sign for a golf course and marveled at Grant’s presence of mind—he was too scared and frantic even to notice their environment, let alone recognize it. A voice from the trees called out for them to halt, but they barreled forward as Grant shouted back, “Partials behind us! Hold your positions and fire!” Marcus followed the soldiers past the line of cars that marked the edge of the parking lot, and dove to the ground behind the largest truck he could find.

  A man in rough farming clothes crouched next to them, clutching a shotgun. “We heard the reports on the radio. Is it true?” His eyes were wild with fear. “Are they invading?”

  Grant readied her assault rifle as she answered, checking the clip for ammo and then slapping it back into place. “Full-scale. The Grid base in Queens is gone, and the watch posts on the North Shore are reporting Partial landing craft from there all the way out to Wildwood.”

  “Mother of mercy,” the farmer muttered.

  “Incoming!” shouted another soldier, and Grant and Haru and the rest reared up, bracing themselves behind the line of cars and firing furiously into the trees. Ten or so farmers, already gathered by the radio reports, joined them with grim looks. Marcus threw his hands over his head and ducked lower, knowing he should help but too terrified to move. The Partials returned fire, and the cars shook with the staccato rhythm of bullet impacts. Grant shouted more directions, but she stopped mid-word with a sickening gurgle, falling to the ground in a red mist of blood. Marcus moved to help her, but she was dead before she even landed.

  “Fall back,” Haru hissed.

  “She’s dead,” said Marcus.

  “I know she’s dead, fall back!” Haru emptied his ammo clip into the forest, then dropped behind cover to reload. He glared at Marcus fiercely. “The farm’s back there somewhere, and anyone left in it is not a fighter—if they were, they’d be out here. Find them and get them out of here.”

  “And go where?” asked Marcus. “Grant said the Partials are everywhere.”

  “Go south,” said Haru. “We’ll try to catch up, but get the civilians moving now. You’ll need all the time you can get.”

  “Going ‘south’ won’t be enough,” said Marcus. “This isn’t a raid, it’s an invasion. Even if we make it to East Meadow, they’ll be right on our heels.”

  “You want to stay here then?” asked Haru. “I don’t know if they’re here to capture us or kill us, but neither one sounds pleasant.”

  “I know,” said Marcus, “I know.” He glanced toward the farmhouse, trying to work up his courage to run. Haru rose, turned, and fired again into the trees.

  “This is what I get for volunteering,” said Marcus, and ran for the farm.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  Afa slept on a king-size bed on the seventh floor of the building, in what looked like it used to be a dressing room. Kira tucked him in like a child before searching for a room of her own, eventually finding a vast, dark studio with stadium seats on one side and half of a stylized living room on the other. A talk show set, she guessed, though the logo on the back wall didn’t spark any memories. She knew that talk shows existed, because someone had watched one in her house—her nanny, maybe—but she doubted
she could recognize even that one’s logo. Afa had filled the chairs with boxes, each carefully labeled, but the talk show couch was empty, and she checked it for spiders before laying down her bedroll and going to sleep. She dreamed of Marcus, and then of Samm, and wondered if she’d ever see either of them again.

  There was no natural light in the building, thanks to Afa’s logical insistence on blackout curtains, and even less light in the studio, but Kira had been fending for herself for too long, and jerked awake at the same time as always. She found her way to a window and peeked out, seeing the same familiar sight that greet her every morning: ruined buildings laced with green, and tinged with blue light as the dark sky turned pale in the sunrise.

  It didn’t sound like Afa was awake yet, and Kira took the opportunity to skim through some of his files, starting with the boxes in the studio. They were numbered 138 through 427, one box per chair with more ringing the walls, back-to-back around the entire perimeter of the room. She started with the nearest box, number 221, and pulled out the page on top, a folded printout with a faded military letterhead.

  “‘To whom it may concern,’” she read. “‘My name is Master Sergeant Corey Church, and I was part of the Seventeenth Armored Cavalry in the Second Nihon Invasion.’” The First Nihon Invasion was one of the early major defeats for the NADI forces in the Isolation War, the world’s failed attempt to take back Japan from a suddenly hostile China. She remembered learning about it in school in East Meadow, but didn’t remember much of the details. The Second Nihon Invasion was the one that worked—the one where they went back with two hundred thousand Partial soldiers and drove the Isolationists back to the mainland, kicking off the long campaign that finally ended the war. It was the reason the rest of the Partials had been built. Kira read more of the letter, some kind of battlefield report, recounting the man’s experience fighting alongside the Partials; he referred to them as “new weapons” and said that they were “well trained and precise.” Kira had grown up knowing Partials only as bogeymen, the monsters that had destroyed the world, and even having met Samm—even knowing that she herself was some kind of a Partial—it was strange to see them referred to so positively. And yet so clinically, as if they were a new kind of Jeep from the quartermaster. The master sergeant mentioned that they seemed “insular,” that they kept to themselves and ignored the human soldiers, but that was hardly a negative—a bit ominous, in light of their eventual rebellion, but not immediately threatening or scary.

 

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