UP IN FLAMES.
The cultist camp is ablaze. Mitra has freed Joe and Robbie, but they can’t rescue the other locked up prisoners. Low on ammo and outnumbered, they’re forced to leave the others behind.
Joe stopped kicking the lock. The trauma from each blow reverberated into his hips and knees. The old man behind and the boy locked in the cell huddled close together, and the man’s defeated look must have mirrored Joe’s. He released the boy and approached the bars and placed his gnarled hands on Joe’s fingers.
"Go," the man said in a thick Mexican accent. "You go."
He barely noticed the heavy pain in his throat where the jailor had strangled him. Outstretched, pleading arms all around him, straining through the bars. He felt Mitra’s hand on his shoulder and Joe released the bars. Robbie said nothing.
Joe knelt down and picked up the jailor's knife. When he stood back up again, a woman met his eyes from behind cell bars, then spit in his face. She had venom in her eyes, blonde scraggly hair, and a bright scar on her right cheek. She said nothing.
The three of them moved past the rows of prisoners, their shouting and pleas a cacophony of desperation.
Mitra exited the bunker and covered right, then left with the SCAR. She had one magazine left. Between that and the knife Joe carried, they had no other defense.
"This way," she said.
The barn was ablaze. Amid the din of roaring flames and the braying of cattle, they could hear voices all around them. There was no clear exit. Mitra discarded the cloak she wore, feeling freer and more like a soldier. An outnumbered soldier.
Footsteps. Coming fast. She wanted to exit the way she'd entered the camp, but that option proved impossible. They turned and backtracked. Joe and the kid helped each other along. The boy was emaciated, and Joe stumbled with fatigue. She saw resilience in his face though. Or perhaps it was hate. Either one would do.
Conserve ammo. Five rounds in her current mag. One remaining mag on her chest rig.
A raider emerged in their path and charged at her. He screamed, a machete raised wildly over his head.
She shot him once, square in the chest. The force of the round crumpled his knees and Mitra sidestepped the man as he pitched forward and fell, the point of the machete sticking in the wet mud.
Four rounds. Keep moving.
"Faster, dammit! This way!" she cried out. But she already knew Joe was putting as much hustle as he could into their flight. He and the kid were scrambling as fast as they could.
They ducked behind a shed, and ran into a chain-link fence. They'd reached the edge of the encampment. A thick bramble of razor wire topped the fence. There'd be no way to climb over, not in the amount of time they had.
She withdrew a set of wire cutters from her chest rig. "Start cutting," she said. Joe took the cutters, his jaw set. She sensed a trained stillness in him, like he'd entered a kind of zone. Joe got to work on the fence and the shed provided some cover, keeping them out of view for a few precious moments.
The frantic pounding of approaching footfalls. They were coming.
Lots of them. Mitra stepped away from the fence and took a knee at the edge of the shed and kept watch while Joe cut. The kid next to him breathed hard, his face wet with tears, watching.
Mitra turned back and looked at Joe and the boy, their backs turned to her. Joe engrossed in the work with the cutters. Snip. Snip. Cutting as fast as he could.
She looked at her friend. She remembered target practice back at camp. Joe telling her to keep her elbow down with each trigger pull. Her accuracy improved day by day, every time he shot with her.
She recalled the way everyone back at camp thought of him. A strong-hearted man who was a leader, even if he didn't want to be.
More running footsteps. They'd find them in the next thirty seconds or so, and Joe wasn't nearly done cutting enough room in the fence to squeeze through. Their backs were still turned.
She offered her friend a silent, unnoticed smile, then stood and ran toward the sounds of incoming footsteps.
Joe grit his teeth and cut the fence. Snip. Snip. Snip. Just a few more cuts and they'd be through.
"I'm almost through," he croaked, his vocal chords a throbbing pain from where the jailor had strangled him.
"Come on, come on!" the boy cried.
Snip. "That's enough, come on." He pulled apart the mesh of the fence as wide as he could, and then turned to let Robbie through. The boy dropped to his stomach and wriggled through the fence.
The chaotic flaming night raged from where they'd escaped. Joe stood and went to the edge of the shed they'd hid behind.
Where was she?
Three shots rang out. Four more shots.
"MITRA!" He knew immediately what she'd done.
No. Not her too.
He heard three-round bursts. She had one mag left. Twenty rounds. It wouldn't last.
He wanted to run toward the gunfire. He wanted to save her.
But he had nothing. Nothing to fight them with. Nothing but the jailor's knife, tucked into his belt, and his own seething rage. Perhaps that was enough. Perhaps it was all he needed. He felt murderous.
The kid was outside the fence, the firelight illuminating his young, tear-stained face, staring at him with the same look of desperation he wore months ago in the rain-sodden woods.
One more rifle shot rang out.
Then there was nothing. Nothing but the roar of a distant fire and the sounds of his own anguished breathing.
He collapsed to his knees and gripped the earth in a rage, clumps of mud and grass between his bloodless knuckles.
Then he went through the fence.
They ran all night. By the time they'd reached the coast Joe no longer heard the footfalls of men and horses. He didn't know how long the fire had raged, but he hoped it had spread to every corner of the place.
Rage burned in his heart as searing heat burned in his weary knees. He wanted to turn around and go back to her. He wanted a lot of things.
But he had a new responsibility. One that not even blind rage could turn its back on. The kid jogged alongside him, his breath ragged. They stopped in a rocky outcropping and rested until morning.
When the light arrived, they came upon a cliff-side restaurant. An inn attached to it, its wooden ornamental sign swaying gently in the coastal breeze. Gnarled oak trees towered over the establishment. Their footsteps worked through thick layer of dew-soaked dead leaves over the entire grounds. Abandoned cars in the parking lot, some with their hoods open, their engines stripped for parts by desperate survivors from years past. Salt water decay ate at the paint around the wheel wells. There'd be no jump-starting these.
Hunger gnawed at them. Joe was no stranger to a lack of food, but they needed to keep up their strength if they could have a chance at reaching the camp.
He pushed open the front door to the inn's welcoming office. Rats scurried to safety, and a crow squawked and flew through a window. More dead leaves and debris in the building, blown in from the broken windows. The sour smell of mildew and decay.
Robbie began scouring the place in a manner Joe recognized in himself when he scouted for his own supplies. There was a mini-fridge behind the concierge desk, its hinges bent off. Nothing inside it but insects.
They went to the attached restaurant. The kitchen had been stripped clean. Opened cans of food and soda littered the ground. Flies and insects infesting the place.
"Look," Joe pointed to the floor in an office behind the kitchen. A heavy file cabinet stood against a wall, and on the floor, gouges in the sodden linoleum where it had been moved. "Help me," he said.
They put their shoulders into the heavy cabinet and shoved it hard. Joe grunted as his shoulder ached in pain.
There was a ragged hole in the wall behind the cabinet. It looked like someone had taken an axe or a hammer to the wall. Broken wood and pink insulation on the edges. Joe reached in and felt around and withdrew a plastic bag.
It was filled with canned food. Beans, tomatoes, peaches, creamed corn. Joe used the jailor's knife and punctured holes in two cans, widening them as much as he could and prizing the metal open. They each took a can and slurped down the food messily. Bean juice dribbled down their chins. He opened the can of tomatoes and offered it to Robbie.
"Canned food used to gross me out," Robbie said. Then he took the can and drank from it and handed it back to Joe.
"Me too." And he gulped down a chunk of wet, soggy crushed tomatoes. It tasted great. It all tasted great.
They ate in silence for a moment.
"We tried to eat the bear, you know," Robbie said, wiping his mouth.
"That bear you killed in the woods. My uncle skinned some of it as best he could and he cut out some of the meat. But it didn't work. We didn't know what we were doing. It took a really long time. By the time we got a fire going, there were maggots all over it. We still ate some of it. It made us sick."
We're not made for this world. We built it how we liked it and when it fails, we die. For a moment Joe thought of the raiders. Their austere existence. Their fanatical ways. Do they have an advantage over us?
Then he thought of Mitra and his stomach tightened. Loss. Senseless loss.
"Come on," he said. "We have to keep going."
They spent two more days on the road with no sign of the raiders on their trail. They turned north, and inland along a stretch of road. If they kept going this way, they'd find the highway back to the encampment.
More abandoned cars. One car had come to rest against a utility pole in a stretch of power lines. Its driver was inside, slumped against the steering wheel, long dead.
Road signs and highway markers charted their course. They walked another mile and came upon another coastal establishment, this one a kind of shopping center.
It was quaint, or at least it used to be. Thatched roofs and bay windows. More oaks, more leaves littering the grounds. Rusted cars and detritus and ruin. One particular shop caught Joe's eye.
"This way. I need to see something," he said.
The boy followed and Joe pushed open a shop door. A bell dinged, alerting no owner and prompting no welcome. It was a bookstore. The broken storefront windows, long broken, had let in the ocean air, turning the shelves of books sodden with dew. Warped, swollen pages strained against their paperback spines. They went deeper into the store where the air hadn't penetrated as much.
He reached into a shelf and withdrew a novel. The Hobbit.
"She's probably read it before," he said.
Robbie looked about the store. "Who?" he asked.
The boy didn't ask about the girl Joe referred to, a voracious reader of only 12. He didn't inquire about why Joe always kept an eye out for new books on his travels, or how her eyes would light up every time he'd return to the camp. "What'd you bring me this time?" she'd ask.
Joe pocketed the book, and took two more and stuffed them in his belt.
His attention immediately shifted. They heard the hooves of horses. Mounted riders. Someone was coming.
"Get down!" Joe hissed, and grabbed Robbie roughly by the arm, taking cover beneath the shop window. He drew the knife and squeezed it tightly.
Two riders outside. Cultists from the camp.
How did they track us?
One carried a machete in a scabbard on the saddle. The other had a crossbow slung over his back. Both men had shaved heads, and appeared strong and well nourished.
The riders dismounted outside the shop square. They would enter the building and find them. It was just a matter of time. Joe needed to move.
He pulled Robbie from the shop window and they stayed low and crouchwalked deeper into the back. Robbie's shoes crunched some dead leaves and the sound lingered a moment and they froze, waiting. Hearing nothing, they kept going, past stacks of sodden books and warped shelving.
A crossbow bolt embedded in the wood above Joe's head.
"Run!" They stood and ran. Joe turned in time to see the raiders outside the shop, one lowering the crossbow, and the other running around to flank them in the back of the store. "No, wait!" Joe yelled, and the boy stopped short. He'd be waiting there.
The raider with the crossbow struggled with the reload. He fumbled with the bolt. Joe reacted.
No more running. No more.
He charged. Robbie charged too, screaming his rage. The jailor's knife gripped firmly in his hand, Joe charged at the raider, still fumbling with the bolt and cursing loudly. The raider yelled a primal cry of frustration and fear. Joe was faster than Robbie, and he closed the distance between them in a manner of seconds.
The raider dropped the bolt and raised the bow to block. Joe saw it coming. He ducked, went low, and brought the knife straight into the man's ribcage. The raider dropped the bolt and raised the bow to block. Joe saw it coming. He ducked, went low, and brought the knife straight into the man's ribcage.
The raider was finished. He bled from the wound heavily. Joe took the blade from the man's side and stood up.
Where's the other one …
"Come on!" Robbie pleaded. The boy's courage could only go so far. But Joe wasn't yet done.
The raider who'd run behind the shop emerged. He registered his comrade, bleeding out on the pavement, and raised the machete over his head and charged.
Joe stood his ground. He switched his grip on the knife, carrying the blade out like a dueler. Robbie was scrambling in vain to reach the crossbow.
A rifle shot rang out and the raider fell hard into the pavement and the machete fell from his hand.
The raider got to his knees with a grunt, bleeding from the side. His eyes had one more hateful look to give before two more shots rang out and the man dropped dead.
Joy and the boy crouched next to the car.
"Mitra!" Joe called out. His heart pounded, his adrenaline fueling his every limb. He shook and waited for her to respond.
"I'm coming out!"
It was a man's voice.
Joe stood. From behind a cluster of boulders emerged a man. He carried a rifle in his hands, and he wore faded jeans. Hiking boots. A thick red beard on his face. He carried a pack with a campsite cooking pot dangling beneath it. He walked toward them, moving in a manner Joe had seen before, somewhere. A stride that looked familiar.
"Are you all right," he said flatly, his voice calm.
"Who are you?" Joe asked.
"Name's Martin Hartwell. 23rd Marine Regiment, San Bruno."
Joe paused for a moment. Then he remembered to speak. "Joseph Langley. 1st Marines. Pendleton."
"It's been a while since I've seen a tattoo like that," Martin said, motioning to Joe's arm. Joe turned his wrist over and placed a hand on the U.S.M.C. insignia.
Robbie stood and beheld the two men. There was a slight breeze from the west. The horses stepped aimlessly in the parking lot, their two riders motionless on the pavement.
"I've been looking for others," Joe said.
"There aren't too many of us left," Martin said. "There's a command post up the road. Come with me."
"I need your help. I have others to take care of. They're not safe."
He told the Marine of the encampment along the coast. Over fifty people. Families and children, a community of survivors.
Joe felt strength return to his limbs and he exhaled deeply. The morning was cold, like others before, the kind of damp cold that only the California coast offered. They walked north along the highway, their boots trudging on the pavement and the cookware that hung from the Marine's rucksack clattering with each step. The sunlit hills to the north stretched on beneath evaporating banks of fog.