Fragments, p.39
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       Fragments, p.39

           Dan Wells

  “That sounds like someone else I know,” said Samm, though Kira didn’t respond. It would take more than a mistrust of authority for Calix to earn her trust.

  “Tell us about the Partials,” said Phan. “We were told stories about them when we were kids, hiding here after the Break. Can a Partial really throw a car?”


  Marcus and the soldiers flew as far as they could in the stolen Rotor, but the rioting Partial army was hot on their trail. A lucky shot clipped their left wing somewhere over New Rochelle, and Woolf managed to coax another few miles out of the flier before an antiaircraft emplacement on the coast forced them into an emergency landing in Pelham Bay. Vinci wanted to head southwest, crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge to Long Island, but Woolf said it was too dangerous—the bridges were covered with traps and explosives, and there was no way they could cross them safely. Instead they found a motorboat on City Island, filled it with as much good gas as they could find, and made the crossing that way; Partial pursuers fired at them from shore as they raced across the water, but nothing hit. They landed in Queens near the ruins of the Defense Grid base.

  It was a blackened husk, bombed to oblivion and burned to the ground.

  “Welcome to the last human refuge,” said Woolf. “As you can see, we’re not really equipped for visitors.”

  “Great,” said Galen. “We got away from one Partial army just to end up behind the lines of another.”

  “But at least we got away,” said Marcus. “What’s the next move?”

  “It seems like a fair guess to say that the pro-Morgan faction won the civil war back there,” said Vinci. “With Trimble gone, Morgan’s cemented herself as the single greatest power in the region, but there are other factions, and they might be sympathetic—even if they didn’t take a side before, Morgan’s actions may have tipped them in our favor.”

  “Enough to mount a resistance?” asked Woolf.

  “Maybe, maybe not,” said Vinci. “It depends on how quickly we could unite all the remaining factions—and if any of them have already joined Morgan outright. I’m afraid I don’t have any reliable intelligence on that.”

  “Then we need to get back there,” said Marcus. “We need to find them all, and we need to recruit them.”

  “If they still oppose Morgan,” said Woolf. He looked Vinci. “Twelve years ago your people nearly exterminated our race in a rebellion. Do you really think they’d ally with humans now? Against their own people?”

  Vinci paused a moment before speaking. “I have recently learned to make my allies along ideological, rather than racial lines. That was a lesson you taught me. I do not agree with Dr. Morgan, and I don’t know if I’ll agree with whoever wins the civil war in White Plains, but I agree with you. You said you wanted to work together and cure us—our expiration date and your disease. Is that still correct?”

  Woolf didn’t answer, but Marcus nodded firmly. “Absolutely. We’ll do everything we can.”

  “Then I’m with you for now,” said Vinci. He looked at Woolf. “We started a war but never intended to end the world—the virus did not come from us. We’ve been struggling with the guilt of what happened for twelve years. There are many Partials left who might just be looking for a reason to trust humans again, or at least a reason to live in peace. The hell we just escaped from should be proof enough of that.” He held out his hand. “I can’t speak for every Partial, but if you’re ready to trust me, I’m ready to trust you.”

  Woolf hesitated, staring at the Partial’s hand. Marcus watched the old soldier’s eyes, guessing at the battle of memories and hatreds and hopes that must be going on behind them. Finally Woolf reached out and grasped Vinci’s hand. “I never thought I’d see the day.” He looked in the Partial’s eyes. “As commander of the Defense Grid and a senator of the last human nation, consider this an official treaty.”

  “You have my support,” said Vinci, “and the support of any other Partials we can recruit.”

  “I want to kiss you both,” said Marcus, “but this touching moment doesn’t mean anything until we get some more people behind it. Where to next?”

  Woolf looked around at the devastated ruin. “Before we try to raise a Partial army, we should at least check in with the human forces—we’ve been gone long enough we don’t even know what’s going on here. Even if we could find a radio, though, I don’t know how much we can share. Morgan’s forces are monitoring all frequencies, and the last thing we want is to let Dr. Morgan know we’re raising a combined army of Partials and humans.”

  “Where to, then?” asked Vinci. “Do you still have a base of operations Morgan hasn’t conquered?”

  “I honestly don’t know,” said Woolf. “The Senate fled to an old outlaw hideout, but if I had to guess, I’d say Morgan’s already taken it. Our best bet is a guerrilla named Delarosa.”

  “You’re sure about that?” asked Marcus. “She might not take kindly to a Partial in the ranks.”

  Vinci looked at Woolf. “You want to ally with a racist?”

  “More of an extremist,” said Woolf. “After the invasion, her extreme methods made her one of our most effective forces in the field. She knows the island better than the invaders do, and if anyone’s managed to stay free, it’s her.”

  “And you’re sure you can trust her? That she won’t just shoot me on sight?”

  “She’s a pragmatist,” said Woolf. “She’ll use the weapons she has, and she’ll use them as effectively as possible.” He slapped Vinci on the back. “What better weapon could she want than a Partial?”


  Calix spread her arms wide, gesturing toward the entirety of the Preserve. “What do you want to see first?”

  “Dr. Vale,” said Kira.

  “Not till this afternoon,” said Calix. “I checked with the hospital, and he’s got a birth this morning.”

  Kira’s heart soared at the thought of a birth, and she longed to see the cure administered firsthand, but she forced herself to stay focused. They had a lot of other things to investigate. “That big black spire in the middle,” she said.

  “Too dangerous,” said Phan. “That was ParaGen’s main building, and the Partials blasted the shiz out of it during the rebellion. I’m amazed it’s still standing.”

  It was worth a shot, thought Kira. But if Heron hasn’t been captured, that’s got to be where she is.

  Samm bent down to examine the grass, probing it gingerly with one finger before pressing his whole hand down to touch it. “How does this survive the rain?”

  “Engineered microbes in the soil,” said Calix. “It absorbs the poison too fast for it to do any real damage to the plants.”

  Kira knelt down as well, running her fingers through the soft, lush grass. “They’re not even discolored. The microbes must come right up into the leaves.”

  “Maybe,” said Calix. “I’m not a scientist, I wouldn’t know.”

  “But they do teach you science,” said Kira, standing up. “I mean, they have a school here, right?”

  “Sure,” said Calix. “You want to see it?”

  Kira shot another glance at the central spire, towering over the Preserve like a blackened tombstone. That was where she wanted to go, but they’d have to wait until the time was right. She felt ready to explode with frustration, but took a deep breath and hoped Calix and Phan couldn’t see how stressed she was. The time will come, she told herself. We need to earn their trust first. “Sure, let’s see the school.”

  “The school’s great,” said Phan, falling into step beside Kira as they walked. He had more energy than anyone Kira had ever met, ranging back and forth as they walked, smiling and waving at everyone while inspecting each tree and wall they passed, all while carrying on a conversation. “You learn all the basics first, like reading and writing and math and all that. Vale saved a bunch of schoolteachers, so they know what they’re doing. I was actually with the teachers during the Break. I was in kindergarten, and we were all
hiding in a bomb shelter after a Partial attack during the first wave of the war. They hit so fast they didn’t even have a chance to cancel school, so I don’t know what happened to my family, but I guess that’s the only reason I’m still alive. Sucks to be my parents, obviously, since they weren’t at school and we could never find them afterward, but you say some people are just naturally immune, so for all I know, they’re still alive. That’s awesome; that’s like the best news ever.”

  Kira couldn’t help but smile, struggling to keep up with the dizzying pace of his conversation. “I’m sorry you lost your parents.”

  Phan looked at her quizzically. “You still have your parents?”

  Kira shook her head. “Good point—I guess none of us have our parents anymore.”

  “Some do,” said Phan with a shrug. “Families Vale was able to find and inoculate all in one bunch. Doesn’t bother me, though—I never would have made it twelve years if I’d spent all my time missing dead people. You gotta move on.”

  Kira glanced at Samm and Calix, deep in a similar conversation. She hoped Samm could keep his head and not spill any secrets about who he was; Calix was certainly doing her best to distract him, smiling and laughing and touching him now and then on the arm or shoulder, just lightly. Kira felt a sudden surge of paranoia, convinced that Calix was trying to seduce Samm and learn the truth, but even as she thought it, she realized it was stupid. Calix was probably just giddy at the sudden introduction of a hot teenage guy into a very, very small dating pool.

  Somehow, that thought only made Kira angrier.

  “Being a hunter is not the most important job,” said Phan, “but it’s definitely one of them, because it’s one of the only ways we get protein. Protein that’s not eggs, I mean. There are deer in the Rockies, and elk and mountain goats, and this is the best place for them to find food, so we keep the gates open and tore a bunch of the fences down and welcome them in—which makes it sound easy, but sometimes they don’t come in, and sometimes we get wolves coming after the chickens or the kids or whatever, so the hunters are the ones who set traps and follow tracks and keep the food chain moving in the right direction.”

  There was something incredibly cheery about the way he talked—his bragging didn’t seem arrogant or pushy, he was just proud of what he did and genuinely happy to be doing it, and his excitement over each new topic of conversation seemed infectious rather than overbearing. Kira soon gave up trying to squeeze a word into the torrent of eager babbling, and listened as Phan talked about everything from wolf pelts to wasteland survival to the finer points of converting an office building to living space. They passed several more of the big buildings, and even a fountain in a grassy courtyard, and Kira marveled at the strange mix of affluence and survivalism that permeated their society—they had running water and electricity and showers and even a grounds crew, patiently mowing the grass and trimming the bushes, but on the other hand they had none of the salvage opportunities that Kira had grown up with. All the clothing stores within easy reach had been ravaged by acid storms or incinerated in chemical fires, so the people wore a mixture of frontier homespun, animal hides, and patchwork oddities hand-stitched from old curtains and sheets. Kira realized that they would probably find her own background equally bizarre, a parade of high-fashion divas using candles and wood-burning stoves in their giant, decaying mansions. Was there anywhere on Earth where life was normal? Did “normal” even mean anything anymore?

  The school was in another office building, filling the two lowest floors with hoots and hollers and the happy shrieks of children. Kira’s heart beat faster as the sound grew louder, still shocked by the existence, let alone the sheer number, of children in the Preserve. This is what I’ve been working for, she thought. This sound—this crazy, wonderful chaos. A new generation discovering the world and making it their own. Tears filled her eyes, and she felt torn between the desire to stop and stand and soak it in, absorbing the happiness as slowly as she could to make it last that much longer, or simply to race forward and throw open the doors and drown herself in the joy of so many children. Her reverie was cut short when Samm spoke.

  “You go in,” he said. “I’m going to go get the horses.”

  Kira looked at him in surprise. “Alone? Let me go with you, it’s too dangerous in the ruins for one person.”

  “It’s okay,” he said. “I can tell you want to see the children. Calix said she’ll go with me—this close to the Preserve, she knows the ruins well.”

  Calix was smiling, and Kira was so shocked she couldn’t read the expression on the other girl’s face. Did she look pleased? Too pleased? Victorious? Kira stammered, trying to form a response: On the one hand, Calix almost certainly knew the territory better, and for that reason would be a better companion for the trip. On the other hand, a trip into the ruins for Kira and Samm would be another chance to speak in private, and to look for Heron—or for Heron to contact them. If she was trying to stay hidden, she wouldn’t approach with Calix standing right there. And . . . Kira still didn’t trust Calix, for reasons she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Kira wasn’t going to keep denying to herself that Calix’s evident crush on Samm didn’t rub her the wrong way. But it was more than that.

  “We’ll be fine,” said Calix. “I’ve been through there dozens of times. I think I know exactly which store you left them in. And I haven’t seen a horse since before the Break. I’m dying to meet them.”

  “Weather’s clear,” said Phan. “Go now and you’ll be back in time for lunch—I bet those horses’ll be excited to eat some real grass for a change after walking in the wasteland. How long were you out there anyway?”

  “Um . . . three or four weeks,” said Kira. She was still trying to form a plausible protest as Samm and Calix walked away.

  “Come on inside,” said Phan. “This is great. You’re going to love it. They’re doing a play today, all the third and fourth graders. Something about fairy tales or something; they do it every year.” He pulled Kira into the school, and she followed blankly, watching Samm and Calix disappear around the corner.

  The city of Arvada looked different in the daytime—it seemed more desolate, somehow, with the sun beating down from a cloudless sky. Samm took deep breaths, vigilant for any sign of Heron on the link, but all he smelled was dirt and sulfur and bleach. The toxic scent of the wasteland.

  Calix steered him around a wide, hazy intersection, pointing to faint wisps of smoke with an expert eye. “Toxic fumes,” she said. “The rain last night reacts with some of the dry chemicals that collect in the shallow pans like that, and it makes a poison gas. When the wind gets bad, it blows right into the Preserve, but on a still day like this you can just go around them.” She led him onward, sometimes speaking softly about the city—its hazards and its opportunities—and sometimes just walking in silence. Her knowledge of the wasteland and how it worked was impressive, and Samm thought about how helpful she would have been on their journey out here. They would have traveled much more easily, and perhaps even managed to save Afa’s life. I wonder if she’d want to come back with us, he thought. She talked about trying to leave, and she’d be an asset on the road, knowing what she does about surviving in the wasteland. Of course, she might not want to come at all if she knows what’s it like there, and it would be a change for her, going from the bliss of the Preserve to the horror of war back east. I’ll ask Kira what she thinks before I suggest it.

  “That’s it up there, right?” she asked, pointing down a wide, ramshackle street. Samm recognized the shopping center at the end of the road and nodded.

  “That’s right.” They walked easily, without fear of enemies or predators because there were none anywhere in the area. The same wasteland that imprisons them, thought Samm, also protects them from any other threats. It keeps them safe, and it keeps their lives easy, but if a real threat ever appears, they won’t be ready for it. He watched the way Calix walked, sure and confident but wary only of very specific dangers—she could spot
the poison gas, for example, and yet walk right past a prime ambush point without even noticing. They wouldn’t last a day against a real enemy. They should pray that Dr. Morgan never finds them.

  The horses whickered hungrily when Samm approached; their food was gone, and their water was almost depleted. He spoke to them simply, trying to emulate Kira’s soothing tone, but his words were still direct and matter-of-fact, like he was talking to another Partial soldier. “Sorry we were gone overnight,” he said. “We found a group of people in the ParaGen complex. They have real grass and an apple orchard, and clean water to drink. We’ve come to take you back.” He pointed at Calix. “This is Calix. She’s a friend.” The horses stared back with deep, dark eyes, stamping their feet impatiently.

  “They’re huge,” said Calix. “Bigger than any elk I’ve ever seen.”

  “They’re hungry,” said Samm, “and they want to get outside. They don’t like being stuck inside with their own droppings, this one especially.” He patted Oddjob on the nose and brushed her back with his fingers to calm her. “This one’s Oddjob, and that’s Bobo. Kira named them.” He showed her how to soothe them, and then how to load them up with the equipment—first a blanket, then the saddle, buckled tight enough to stay on without cinching too close and hurting them. They were skinnier now than when they’d started the journey in New York, and he hoped that a short stop in the Preserve could give them some strength back, and a bit more weight. They’d need it for the return journey.

  Calix seemed to be thinking the same thing, for she asked him a question as she worked on Bobo’s saddle. “How long are you staying?”

  “I don’t know,” said Samm, though the question had been troubling him ever since they’d found the settlement. He had to be careful what he revealed to her. “We can’t stay long—we came looking for ParaGen’s headquarters in the hopes to find a cure for RM, and now that we’ve discovered one exists, we need to take it back as soon as we can. Our people are at war, and we need . . .” He paused, not sure how to say what he needed without giving too much away. “To be honest, we’re looking for more than just the cure for RM,” he said. “We need information on the Partials themselves. We’re trying to . . .” How much should he say? How much was Calix prepared to hear? The people in the Preserve didn’t seem to think much one way or the other about Partials, but they likely still blamed them for the Break. How would she react to the idea of peace between the species? She was staring at him, her eyes full of . . . trust? Friendship? He couldn’t read human emotions, and wondered again how they ever managed to get along without the link. He’d seen the look on her face before, on Kira’s face, but he wasn’t sure what it meant.

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