Fragments, p.19
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       Fragments, p.19

           Dan Wells
 

  The tan dog whose call they’d responded to leapt onto Kira’s chest, knocking the air out of her, and lunged for her throat to finish her. But inches before contact he fell aside, and Kira felt a hot gush of blood pour onto her chest. She looked up to see Samm standing over her, his rifle gone and a gore-drenched hunting knife in his hands. He slashed at the dog on Kira’s shoulder, but the massive dog jumped into him, knocking him again to the ground. Kira brought her gun up and another dog leapt in to wrestle it away from her, his jaws clamped around the barrel and his heavy paws pressing it flat across her chest—away from the creatures menacing Samm. They were trapped.

  She heard a shot behind her, and saw the dog at her feet drop lifeless to the dirt; another shot took the dog on her rifle right through the back, and he slumped over her like a hairy boulder. His eyes even with hers, the life draining out of him, he wheezed out a single word in a horrible, inhuman voice:

  “Please.”

  The dog died, its eyes still open barely four inches from Kira’s own. She stared back at it in terror, her mouth working soundlessly, her hands gripping the trapped rifle like a lifeline. She heard another shot, and suddenly the dogs were barking rather than growling, short, clipped sounds of communication. The pack turned and fled, the biggest pausing only to snarl “bastard” before disappearing into the trees.

  Heron stepped into view, her rifle still tight against her shoulder. She nodded at Kira and kicked the dead animal off her chest.

  Even when she was free, Kira couldn’t move.

  “Did that dog just call me a bastard?” asked Samm.

  “We need to get out before they regroup,” said Heron. “Come on.”

  Kira finally managed to speak. “What?”

  “We need to go now,” said Samm, reaching down with a muddy, bloody hand. “If they get the drop on us, we’re dead.”

  Kira took his hand, struggling to her feet. “What on earth is going on?”

  “Watchdogs,” said Heron, leading them back out around the wall of rock. “We used them in the war.”

  “Hyperintelligent dogs bred for battlefield assistance,” said Samm. He retrieved his rifle and fell into line behind Kira, walking backward to keep his gun aimed at the dog pack’s path of retreat. “They’re bigger and tougher and capable of basic speech. We used them for everything over there. I should have recognized, the moment I heard it’s voice, but it’s been too long.”

  “You had talking monster dogs?”

  “ParaGen made them,” said Samm. “Apparently they’ve gone feral.”

  Kira remembered the brochure she’d seen at the ParaGen office: It had mentioned both a Watchdog and a dragon. She looked to the sky, but nothing swooped down to tear her apart with angry talons.

  She’d seen the word elsewhere as well, “Watchdog,” in some of the battlefield reports she’d read in Afa’s library. She shook her head, still numb, stumbling through the dog path. It wasn’t just the word—she remembered now another thing, a scene in her mind, one of her only memories of her father. She had been attacked by a dog, a giant one, and he had stepped in the way to save her. Had that been a Watchdog, or something else?

  Worse was the realization that this thing—this inhuman, unnatural beast—had come from the same place she had. She looked more human, but her origins were closer to those Watchdogs than to any human she’d ever known.

  “You’ve been on Long Island for twelve years,” said Samm. “It’s a closed environment. The rest of the world’s changed.”

  “They’re circling around,” said Heron. “Go!”

  Please, the dying dog had said, its face burned into Kira’s memory. She shook her head and climbed.

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  Ariel McAdams had run away from Nandita’s house years ago, living by herself on the south side of East Meadow, but after her infant died—almost every woman on Long Island had a dead infant or two, thanks to the Hope Act—she’d left East Meadow altogether. Marcus had found a vague address in the hospital records, and hanging around to look for it had very nearly cost him his freedom. He kept a portable radio to listen in on military reports and to talk to Kira if she ever called him again, and the news as he left East Meadow was grim. The Partial army moved in barely an hour after he left. He had nowhere to go but away. He checked again the address on his small piece of paper: “An island in Islip.” It wasn’t much to go on, but it was better than nothing.

  He learned from his radio that the Partials had set up a perimeter around East Meadow, catching much of the population before they were able to leave, and sending out search teams to comb the island for stragglers and bring them all back to that central location. Still, the island was very big, and a hundred thousand Partials couldn’t look everywhere at once. Marcus stayed low, never lighting fires or walking through open spaces, and managed to avoid them for the first few days. It won’t last, he thought, but if I can find Ariel and just hunker down instead of traveling, I can last a lot longer.

  On the evening of the second day, his radio chirped to life; his heart sped up, but he quickly realized it was not Kira, nor was it another guerrilla report from the Grid. It was Dr. Morgan.

  “This is a general message to the residents of Long Island,” said Morgan. “We did not want to invade, but circumstances forced our hand. We are looking for a girl named Kira Walker, sixteen years old, five feet ten inches tall, approximately one hundred eighteen pounds. Indian descent, light-skinned, with jet-black hair, though she may have cut or dyed it to help disguise her identity. Bring us this girl and the occupation ends; continue to hide her, and we will execute one of you every day. Please don’t force us to do this any longer than is necessary. This message will cycle through all frequencies and repeat until our instructions have been complied with. Thank you.”

  The message ended, and Marcus listened in shock to the static that hung in the air.

  After a moment of stunned silence, Marcus twisted the tuning knob, searching for the next frequency up. The message was playing there, just like she’d said it would, and Marcus listened to it again with disbelieving ears. He followed it up the dial four more times, as if he was certain it was all a dream, that it wasn’t actually real, but every time it was the same: They wanted Kira. They would kill innocent people to find her. They would stop at nothing.

  That night he paced the floor of his makeshift hideout, thinking about the message. That was what this whole invasion was about, from the beginning; they wanted Kira, and they’d do anything to get her. Why was she so important? Why did they need her so badly?

  Why hadn’t Kira contacted him?

  He had no solar panels for his radio, as those had all been commandeered by the Senate and the Grid in the earliest days after the Break, but he had a hand crank, and he worked it furiously to keep the radio active. His days began to blur together, walking all day in search of Ariel, and cranking all night in the hope that Kira would contact him. When he reached Islip he found an unassuming home to hide in, and connected the radio to an exercise bike; as he pedaled he listened to the hiss of radio static buzzing softly through the house. In his crazier moments he thought about going to Manhattan himself to find her, imagining all sorts of horrible scenarios: She’d been captured by Partials, or eaten by lions, or simply trapped by a collapsing building. It was stupid to travel alone, and he’d been stupid to let her. But stopping Kira was something he’d never been able to do.

  The radio buzzed, the wheels squeaked. When the sun began to set, he took a break for water and an apple, grown in a heavy tree in the backyard, and then went straight back to his pedaling. Nighttime, he knew, was the most likely time for a call, when it became unsafe to travel and Kira settled down for the night. He pedaled until after midnight—until his legs burned and his feet throbbed and his hands felt blistered against the handlebars. He crawled to his bed, the radio still crackling in his ears, and fell asleep.

  In the morning he rode some more, and when he couldn’t take the walls closing him in
, he went outside for air. He rubbed his throbbing calves and set out for a walk, looking again for Ariel. An island in Islip, he thought. Islip was huge, but only some of it touched the waterfront. He walked up and down it all day, his radio in his backpack, looking for any sign of human life. On the second day he found an island, and on the third he found an occupied house: a trimmed lawn, a cultured garden, a stained porch that had once been wrapped in vines, now studiously cleaned. Marcus walked up the warping wooden steps and knocked on the door.

  The sound of a racking shotgun slide was hardly a surprise, and Marcus didn’t even flinch.

  “Who’s there?”

  “My name is Marcus Valencio,” said Marcus. “We’ve met before, though it’s been a few years. I’m a friend of Kira’s.”

  A pause, then: “Go away.”

  “I need to talk to you,” said Marcus.

  “I said go away.”

  “Nandita’s disappeared—”

  “Good riddance.”

  “Ariel, look, I don’t know what kind of falling-out you had with them; I don’t know why you hate them so much. I can assure you they don’t hate you. But that’s not why I’m here—they didn’t send me, I’m not going to report back to them or tell you to visit them or anything like that. I’m definitely not trying to find Kira to turn her in to Morgan. I’m just trying to figure something out.”

  Ariel didn’t answer, and Marcus waited. And waited. After a full minute he realized she was probably just ignoring him, and turned to leave, but as he did he saw that she had a small bench on her porch; not a swing, just a low wooden seat to sit and watch the world go by. He brushed away some dirt, sat down, and started talking.

  “The first question I need to ask you, assuming you’re even listening, is how you met Nandita. I’ve talked to the other girls she adopted, and they all tell me that by the time they met her, you were already with her. Isolde said something about Philadelphia, that you were there when Nandita found you. That’s actually the same place Xochi’s from, but I don’t know if that means anything. What I want to know is . . . where did you come from, I guess? How did you meet Nandita? Was it just the standard ‘lone little kid wandering the streets’ kind of story? We have a lot of those on the island—a heartwarming number of them, in a weird kind of way. Your family’s dead, your neighbors are all dead, you get hungry or scared or whatever and go out looking for something. For me it was milk—we had plenty of cold cereal in my house, and it was the one thing I knew how to make when I was five, so I ate it every day, for every meal, and it didn’t take long to run out of milk. I tried a few other meals, peanut butter and jelly on tortillas, that kind of thing. I couldn’t even work the can opener.” He laughed, and rubbed a tear from the corner of his eye. “So anyway, I went out looking for milk. I don’t know where I expected to find any, and the whole world was just sitting there, you know? A couple of things were burning, like a car and a drugstore, but this was Albuquerque, and there wasn’t a lot of foliage to help the flames spread around. A couple of hoses were running, just running and running, making a little stream in a gutter. But no people anywhere. I walked all the way to the nearest store I knew—my uncle’s place, a little Abarrotes shop just a few blocks away—but it was locked, and I couldn’t get in, so I just kept going, and going, and the entire city was just empty. Not a single living person. I found a Walmart, eventually—walk far enough in a town like that and you’ll inevitably find a Walmart—and I went inside to look for milk and there was this guy, I’d never seen him before in my life, filling a wheelbarrow with bottles of water. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and he lifted me up into the wheelbarrow and gave me a pack of lunch meat. He even found some milk in the back of the store, shelf-stable so it hadn’t gone bad yet, and I ate a bowl of cereal while he gathered up everything he needed. His name was Tray, I don’t know his last name. Tray carried me all the way to Oklahoma City before we finally met up with the National Guard. I lost track of him, and I honestly don’t know if he even made it the rest of the way here—I’m ashamed to say I haven’t thought about him much in the last few years. I suppose if he’s here, he lives in the wilds somewhere, fishing or farming or whatever. I’d have found him if he lived in town. And I don’t know why I told you that whole story, except to say that those are the kinds of people we need—those are the kinds of people we are. Nobody survived unless they worked together, and helped each other, and that’s what makes RM and the Break the most over-the-top natural selection process of all time. I don’t know how Nandita found you, but she found you, and she saved you, and she brought you here, and now she’s missing and I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on. What did she know, what did she do, why was she here? Why are the Partials looking for her?”

  “Nandita didn’t find me in a Walmart,” said Ariel through the window. Marcus had lulled himself with the sound of his own talking, and Ariel’s voice startled him out of his reverie. The curtains were closed, her voice muffled, but the words were clear. “She came to my house. My parents had been dead maybe twenty-four hours. She came and she took me away.”

  Marcus furrowed his brow, trying to piece together the puzzle. “You think she may have known that you were there? That she came for you specifically?”

  “I think she never let me say good-bye.”

  Marcus turned to look at her, but the curtains were still drawn tight across the window. “I’m sorry,” he said. And then, because there wasn’t anything else to say: “That sucks.”

  Ariel didn’t respond.

  “The Partials are looking for her,” said Marcus. “They’re looking for Kira because of what she did a few months ago, I think, but they’re looking for Nandita because they think she knows something. She does know something—Ariel, I saw a photo, of Nandita and some dude with Kira in the middle. They were at a ParaGen complex. Whatever she knew, it had something to do with Kira, and the Partials have mounted a full assault on us in an attempt to find out what it is. If you know what any of this means . . . please, you have to tell us.”

  There was no response, not for a while. Marcus could hear Ariel’s shallow breathing behind the curtain, and waited. It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go.

  “Nandita was a scientist,” said Ariel finally. “She did experiments.”

  “On Kira?”

  “On all of us.”

  The inside of Ariel’s house was, Marcus discovered, full of planter boxes. “I didn’t know you were a gardener,” he said, his eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. With so many Partial patrols out combing the island, Ariel had covered each window as thickly as possible.

  “I grew up with Nandita,” she said. “Gardening’s one of the only things I know.”

  “Is that why you hate her?”

  Ariel’s voice dropped. “I told you why I hate her.”

  “The experiments,” said Marcus. He looked at her. “Are you ready to talk about them?”

  “No,” she said, looking off into the street. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not time to do it.” She closed the door, plunging the room into blackness.

  Marcus let his eyes adjust, and focused on Ariel’s silhouette. “What kind of experiments? Why didn’t the other girls say anything about this?”

  Her voice sharpened. “Do you know how much I’ve tried to move on? To pretend like I have a normal life? I got a job I didn’t need just so I’d have something to do with myself all day; I got pregnant two years before the Hope Act said I had to. I’m even weeding this stupid garden because . . . because that’s what people used to do, before the Break. I’ve done everything I could, I’ve even avoided my own sisters—”

  “What happened?” Marcus demanded. “What was so bad?”

  “It started with breakfast,” said Ariel, looking down at the floor. “Nandita would get up early and make us tea—chamomile and peppermint and things like that. She was an herbalist, obviously, so she had all kinds of stuff in the house, and in her hothouse out back. Some we could touch, lik
e the chamomile, but some were in these little glass droppers, with numbers on the sides like specimen jars, and those we couldn’t touch. I didn’t think anything about it at the time—we got in trouble just for playing in the hothouse, so it didn’t seem out of place—but one morning I got up early and came down to help with the tea, and she was putting whatever was in the droppers into it. I wouldn’t have thought anything about it, but when I asked what she was doing, she looked guilty—as guilty as I’ve ever looked getting caught doing something I shouldn’t. She played it off, just a new flavoring or something, but I couldn’t forget that look. I snuck down again the next day to look again, and she was doing the same thing again, with different droppers this time, keeping notes on a clipboard. She did it almost every day, but I stopped drinking the tea.”

  “Did you ever see the clipboard?”

  “Once, when I snuck into the hothouse, but I think she knew I’d done it, because I could never find it again. It wasn’t just notes on the tea, it was notes about us—how fast we were growing, how healthy we were, our eyesight and hearing and things like that. She always had us play games, like coordination games and memory games, and after I saw that clipboard I couldn’t even play those anymore. She wasn’t playing with her daughters, she was testing us.”

  “Maybe she was just . . . keeping track,” said Marcus. “I don’t actually know how a concerned parent is supposed to act, maybe that’s normal.”

  “It wasn’t normal,” Ariel insisted. “Everything was a test, or a study, or an observation. She didn’t play catch, she threw balls to test our reflexes; we didn’t play tag, we ran time trials against each other up and down the street. When one of us cut her finger or scraped her knee, she wrapped it up in a bandage, but not before looking at it closely to see every gory detail.”

 

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