Fragments, p.4Dan Wells
Tovar, Hobb, and Kessler all raised their hands; a moment later Woolf did the same. A unanimous vote. Tovar leaned down to sign the paper in front of him, and four Grid soldiers walked in from the wings to escort the prisoners out. The room grew noisy as a hundred little conversations started up, people arguing back and forth about the verdict and the sentence and whole drama that had unfolded. Isolde stood up, and Marcus helped her into the hall.
“All the way outside,” said Isolde. “I need to breathe.” They were ahead of most of the crowd and reached the outer doors before the main press of people. Marcus found them a bench, and Isolde sat with a grimace. “I want french fries,” she said. “Greasy and salty and just huge fistfuls of them—I want to eat every french fry in the entire world.”
“You look like you’re going to throw up, how can you even think about food?”
“Don’t say ‘food,’” she said quickly, closing her eyes. “I don’t want food, I want french fries.”
“Pregnancy is so weird.”
The crowd thinned as it reached the front lawn, and Marcus watched as groups of men and women either wandered off or stood in small groups, arguing softly about the senators and their decision. “Lawn,” perhaps, was misleading: There used to be a lawn in front of the high school, but no one had tended it in years, and it had become a meadow dotted with trees and crisscrossed with buckling sidewalks. Marcus paused to wonder if he’d been the last person to mow it, two years ago when he’d been punished for playing pranks in class. Had anyone mowed it since? Had anyone mowed anything since? That was a dubious claim to fame: the last human being to ever mow the lawn. I wonder how many other things I’ll be the last to do.
He frowned and looked across the street to the hospital complex and its full parking lot. Much of the city had been empty when the world ended—not a lot of people eating out and seeing movies while the world collapsed in plague—but the hospital had been bustling. The parking lot spilled over with old cars, rusted and sagging, cracked windows and scratched paint, hundreds upon hundreds of people and couples and families hoping vainly that the doctors could save them from RM. They came to the hospital and they died in the hospital, and all the doctors with them. The survivors had cleaned out the hospital as soon as they settled in East Meadow—it was an excellent hospital, one of the reasons the survivors had chosen East Meadow as a place for their settlement in the first place—but the parking lot had never been a priority. The last hope for humanity was surrounded on three sides with a maze of rusted scrap metal, half junkyard and half cemetery.
Marcus heard a surge of voices and turned around, watching Weist and Delarosa emerge from the building with an escort of Grid soldiers and a crowd of people, many of them protesting the verdict. Marcus couldn’t tell if they wanted something harsher or more lenient, but he supposed there were probably different factions calling for each. Asher Woolf led the way, slowly pushing through the people and clearing a path. A wagon was waiting to take them away—an armored car rigged with free axles and drawn by a team of four powerful horses. They stomped as they waited, whiffling and blustering as the noise of the crowd grew closer.
“They look like they’re going to start a riot,” said Isolde, and Marcus nodded. Some of the protestors were blocking the doors of the wagon, and others were trying to pull them away while the Grid struggled helplessly to maintain order.
No, thought Marcus, frowning and leaning forward. They’re not trying to maintain order, they’re trying to . . . what? They’re not stopping the fight, they’re moving it. I’ve seen them quell riots before, and they were a lot more efficient than this. More focused. What are they—?
Senator Weist fell to the ground, his chest a blossom of dark red, followed almost immediately by a deafening crack. The world seemed to stand still for a moment, the crowd and the Grid and the meadow all frozen in time. What had happened? What was the red? What was the noise? Why did he fall? The pieces came together one by one in Marcus’s mind, slowly and out of order and jumbled in confusion: The sound was a gunshot, and the red on Weist’s chest was blood. He’d been shot.
The horses screamed, rearing up in terror and straining against the heavy wagon. Their scream seemed to shatter the moment, and the crowd erupted in noise and chaos as everyone began running—some were looking for cover, some were looking for the shooter, and everyone seemed to be trying to get as far away from the body as they could. Marcus pulled Isolde behind the bench, pressing her to the ground.
“Don’t move!” he said, then sprinted toward the fallen prisoner at a dead run.
“Find the shooter!” screamed Senator Woolf. Marcus saw the senator pull a pistol from his coat, a gleaming black semiautomatic. The civilians were fleeing for cover, and some of the Grid as well, but Woolf and some of the soldiers had stayed by the prisoners. A spray of shrapnel leaped up from the brick wall behind them, and another loud crack rolled across the yard. Marcus kept his eyes on the fallen Weist and dove to the ground beside him, checking his pulse almost before he stopped moving. He couldn’t feel much of anything, but a wave of blood bubbling up from the wound in the man’s chest told Marcus the heart was still beating. He clamped down with his hands, applying as much pressure as he could, and cried out suddenly as someone yanked him backward.
“I’m trying to save him!”
“He’s gone,” said a soldier behind him. “You need to get to cover!”
Marcus shrugged him off and scrambled back to the body. Woolf was shouting again, pointing through the meadow to the hospital complex, but Marcus ignored them and pressed down again. He hands were red and slick, his arms coated with warm arterial spray, and he shouted for assistance. “Somebody give me shirt or a jacket! He’s bleeding front and back and I can’t stop it all with just my hands!”
“Don’t be stupid,” said the soldier behind him. “You’ve got to get to cover.” But when Marcus turned to look at him, he saw Senator Delarosa, still in handcuffs. She was crouched between them.
“Save her first!” said Marcus.
“He’s over there!” cried Woolf, pointing again to the buildings behind the hospital. “The shooter’s in there, somebody circle around!”
Blood pumped thickly through Marcus’s fingers, staining his hands and covering the prisoner’s chest; blood from the exit wound flowed steadily from the man’s back, spreading out in a puddle and soaking Marcus’s knees and pants. There was too much blood—too much for Weist to ever survive—but Marcus kept the pressure on. The prisoner wasn’t breathing, and Marcus called again for help. “I’m losing him!”
“Let him go!” shouted the soldier, loud and more angry. The world seemed drenched in blood and adrenaline, and Marcus struggled to stay in control. When hands finally jutted forward to help with the bleeding, he was surprised to see that they were not the soldier’s, but Delarosa’s.
“Somebody get over there!” Woolf was shouting. “There’s an assassin somewhere in those ruins!”
“It’s too dangerous,” said another soldier, crouching low in the brush. “We can’t just charge in there while a sniper has us pinned down.”
“He’s not pinning you down, he’s aiming for the prisoners.”
“It’s too dangerous,” the soldier insisted.
“Then call for backup,” said Woolf. “Surround him. Do something besides stand there!”
Marcus couldn’t even feel a heartbeat anymore. The blood in the victim’s chest was stagnant, and the body was inert. He kept the pressure on, knowing that it was useless but too stunned to think of anything else.
“Why do you even care?” asked the soldier. Marcus looked up and saw the man talking to Senator Woolf. “Five minutes ago you were calling for an execution, and now that he’s dead you’re trying to capture his killer?”
Woolf whirled around, shoving his face mere inches from the soldier’s. “What’s your name, Private?”
The soldier quailed. “Cantona, sir. Lucas.”
“What did you swear to protect!”
“The people, sir.” Cantona swallowed. “And the law.”
“In that case, Private, you’d better think good and hard the next time you tell me to abandon them both.”
Delarosa looked at Marcus, her hands and arms covered in her fellow prisoner’s blood. “This is how it ends, you know.”
They were the first words Marcus had heard her speak in months, and they shocked him back to consciousness. He realized he was still flexing his arms against Weist’s lifeless chest. He pulled back, staring and panting. “How what ends?”
“I think it was the Grid,” said Xochi.
Haru snorted. “You think the DG killed the man who used to represent them in the Senate.”
“It’s the only explanation,” said Xochi. They were sitting in the living room, nibbling on the last remnants of dinner: grilled cod and fresh-steamed broccoli from Nandita’s garden. Marcus paused on that thought, noting that he still thought of it as Nandita’s garden even though she’d been missing for months—she hadn’t even been the one to plant this crop, Xochi had done it. Xochi and Isolde were the only ones left in the house, and yet in his mind it was still “Nandita’s garden.”
Of course, in his mind this was still “Kira’s house,” and she’d been gone for two months. If anything, Marcus spent more time here now than before she’d left, always hoping she’d turn up at the door one day. She never did.
“Think about it,” Xochi went on. “The Grid’s found nothing, right? Two days of searching and they haven’t found a single piece of evidence to lead them to the sniper: not a bullet casing, not a footprint, not even a scuff mark on the floor. I’m no fan of the Grid, but they’re not inept. They’d find something if they were looking, therefore they’re not looking. They’re covering it up.”
“Or the sniper’s just extremely competent,” said Haru. “Is that a possibility, or do we have to jump straight to the conspiracy theory?”
“Well, of course he’s competent,” said Xochi. “He’s Grid-trained.”
“This sounds like a circular argument,” said Isolde.
“Weist was part of the Grid,” said Haru. “He was their own representative on the council. If you think a soldier would kill another soldier, you don’t know much about soldiers. They’re ferociously vindictive when one of their own gets attacked. They wouldn’t be covering this up, they’d be lynching the guy.”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” said Xochi. “Whatever else Weist did, he killed a soldier in cold blood—maybe not personally, but he gave the order. He arranged the murder of a soldier under his own command. The Grid would never just let that slide, you said it yourself: They’d hunt him down and lynch him. The new Grid senator, Woolf or whatever, Isolde said he was practically screaming for the death penalty, but then they didn’t get it, so they went to plan B.”
“Or more likely,” said Haru, “this is exactly what the Grid says it is: an attempt on Woolf or Tovar or someone like that. One of the senators still in power. There’s no reason to kill a convicted prisoner.”
“So the sniper just missed?” asked Xochi. “This amazingly competent super-sniper, who can evade a full Grid investigation, was aiming for one of the senators, but he’s just a really crappy shot? Come on: He’s either a pro or he’s not, Haru.”
Marcus tried to stay out of these arguments—“these” meaning “any argument with Haru”—and this was exactly why. He’d seen firsthand the way the soldiers had reacted to the attack, and he still had no idea if it was a conspiracy or not. The soldier had tried to pull Marcus off Weist, but did he do it because he was trying to save Marcus, or because he was trying to keep Marcus from saving Weist? Senator Woolf seemed practically offended by the attack, as if killing the prisoner had been a personal insult against him, but was that genuine or was he just playing up the ruse? Haru and Xochi were passionate, but they were too quick to jump to extremes, and Marcus knew from experience that they’d argue back and forth for hours, maybe for days. He left them to it, and turned instead to Madison and Isolde, both cooing quietly over Madison’s baby, Arwen.
Arwen was the miracle baby—the first human child in almost twelve years to survive the ravages of RM, thanks to Kira’s cure self-replicating in her bloodstream. She was asleep now in Madison’s arms, wrapped tightly in a fleece blanket, while Madison talked softly with Isolde about pregnancy and labor. Sandy, Arwen’s personal nurse, watched quietly in the corner—the Miracle Child was too precious to risk without full-time medical attention, so Sandy followed mother and daughter everywhere, but she had never really fit into their group socially. There were more in their retinue as well: To help protect the child, the Senate had assigned them a pair of bodyguards. When a crazed woman—the mother of ten dead children—had tried to kidnap Arwen the day Madison first brought her to the outdoor market, they had doubled the guards and reinstated Haru to the Defense Grid. There were two guards here tonight, one in the front yard and one in the back. The radio on Haru’s belt chirped softly every time one of them checked in.
“Any luck with that?” asked Madison, and Marcus snapped back to attention.
“The cure,” said Madison. “Have you had any luck with it?”
He grimaced, glancing at Isolde, and shook his head. “Nothing. We thought we had a breakthrough a couple of days ago, but it turned out to be something the D team had already tried. Dead end.” He grimaced again at his own word choice, though this time he managed to avoid glancing at Isolde; better to let that reference disappear in shame than call any more attention to it.
Isolde looked down, rubbing her belly the way Madison always used to. Marcus worked as hard as he could—everyone on the cure teams did—but they were still no closer to synthesizing the cure for RM. Kira had figured out what the cure was and was able to obtain a sample from the Partials on the mainland, but Marcus and the other doctors were still a far cry from being able to manufacture it on their own.
“Another died this weekend,” said Isolde softly. She looked up at Sandy for confirmation, and the nurse nodded sadly. Isolde paused, her hand on her belly, then turned to Marcus. “There’s more, you know—the Hope Act is gone, none of our pregnancies are mandatory anymore, and yet there are more now than ever before. Everyone wants to have a child, trusting that you’ll have figured out how to manufacture the cure reliably by the time they come to term.” She looked back down. “It’s funny—we always called them ‘infants’ in the Senate, back before the cure, like we were trying to hide from the word ‘child.’ When all it was was death reports, we never wanted to think of them as babies, as children, as anything but subjects in a failed experiment. Now that I’m . . . here, though, now that I’m . . . making one of my own, growing another human being right inside of me, it’s different. I can’t think of it as anything besides my baby.”
Sandy nodded. “We did the same thing in the hospital. We still do. The deaths are still too close, so we try to keep death distant.”
“I don’t know how you can do it,” said Isolde softly. Marcus thought he heard her voice crack, but he couldn’t see her face to tell if she was crying.
“You have to have some kind of progress, though,” Madison told Marcus. “You have four teams—”
“Five,” said Marcus.
“Five teams now,” said Madison, “all trying to synthesize the Partial pheromone. You have all the equipment, the samples to work from, you have everything. It . . .” She paused. “It can’t be a dead end.”
“We’re doing everything we can,” said Marcus, “but you have to understand how complex this thing is. It doesn’t just interact with RM, it’s part of the RM life cycle somehow—we’re still trying to understand how it works. I mean . . . we still don’t even understand why it works. Why would the Partials have the cure for
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Sandy.
“Not unless there’s some larger plan,” said Marcus.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s some huge hypothetical plan,” said Madison. “It doesn’t matter where the pheromone came from, or how it got there, or why the sky is blue—all you have to do is copy it.”
“We have to know how it works first—” said Marcus, but Isolde cut him off.
“We’re going to go take it,” said Isolde. There was an edge in her voice Marcus hadn’t heard before. He raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“You mean from the Partials?”
“The Senate talks about it every day,” said Isolde. “There’s a cure, but we can’t make it on our own, and babies are dying every week, and the people are getting restless. Meanwhile right across the sound there are a million Partials who make our cure every day, without even trying. It’s not ‘will we attack the Partials,’ it’s ‘how much longer will we wait.’”
“I’ve been across the sound,” said Marcus. “I’ve seen what Partials are capable of in a fight—we wouldn’t stand a chance against them.”
“It doesn’t have to be an all-out war,” said Isolde, “just a raid—in and out, grab one guy, done. Just like Kira and Haru did with Samm.”
That got Haru’s attention, and he looked up from his argument with Xochi. “What about me and Samm?”
“They’re talking about whether the Grid’s going to kidnap another Partial,” said Madison.
“Of course they’re going to,” said Haru. “It’s inevitable. They’ve been stupid to wait this long.”
Great, thought Marcus. Now I’m stuck in a conversation with Haru whether I like it or not.
“We don’t have to kidnap one,” said Xochi. “We could just talk to them.”
Fragments by Dan Wells / Young Adult / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes