one

Harper

There’s nothing as dark as the desert at night. This far from the compound, there is no florescent glow bleeding onto the sand. There are no searchlights hunting for wanted men.

Before Death Storm, this street would have been lit by porch lights and street lamps, but all we have now are the moon and stars to guide us through town.

We’re driving at a snail-like pace with our headlights off, squinting through the darkness for any sign of movement. To my right, Sage has her head cocked out the open window. She’s dressed in high-waisted jeans, a cutoff coral tank top, and a studded white jacket that’s been rolled to the elbows. Her long hair is whipping out behind her like a flag, and whenever we hit a pothole, her silver bracelets clink against the butt of her rifle.

I barely know Sage at all, but I know she must be worrying about Owen. We all are.

Eli is sitting in the driver’s seat, scanning the dusty road with his brows crinkled in worry. His right leg is pressed against my thigh, and I can feel the nervous energy popping off him like static.

We left the compound to look for a cure to the virus that killed everyone at 119, but when Owen was shot, that mission was scrapped. Owen came to the compound looking for Eli, and Eli won’t stop until he rescues his brother.

He hasn’t said a word since we left Owen’s house, but I know he’s thinking of all the horrible things Constance does to make people talk. If Owen is still alive, that’s where he’ll be.

There’s no use going back to the compound tonight — not with Recon on high alert. Instead, we’re headed for the abandoned pawn shop Malcolm has been using as the Desperados’ base to get our hands on some heavy-duty weapons and explosives.

Breaking out of the compound is no easy task, but breaking in will be nearly impossible. To have a chance, we’ll need much more than the two M-4s we brought with us.

After a few minutes, we reach a fork in the road, and a loud bang on the roof makes me jump. Eli presses the brake and glances into the side mirror. Jackson is sitting in the bed of the truck, signaling Eli to turn left. Eli gives a barely discernible nod and turns, slowing to a crawl until he hears another bang from Jackson.

To our left is a used-car dealership that’s been picked over by looters; to our right, there’s an overgrown junkyard filled with old tractor tires, car batteries, and oil drums.

Eli turns into the weed-choked gravel drive and parks the truck behind a pile of twisted scrap metal. He kills the engine, and Jackson jumps out of the bed with a gun in one hand and a pair of bolt cutters in the other.

I’m not as familiar with this area as he is, but I know we can’t be too far from the pawn shop. Based on our experience with the Desperados, Malcolm will have lookouts posted all around the base. And the closer we get, the greater the risk of coming under fire.

Eli opens his door, and I hop out after him. I check my rifle for what feels like the hundredth time and wipe my sweaty palms on my borrowed jean shorts. We follow Jackson through the inky blackness, and the sound of our feet crunching on gravel fills me with dread. I know we’re going to have to kill whoever stands in our way, but the thought of pulling the trigger makes me feel sick.

We pass a run-down Mexican restaurant, a laundry mat, and the dilapidated shell of a filling station before reaching an area that looks stark, poor, and industrial. We must be getting close.

Suddenly, Jackson freezes and throws out an arm to stop us. Eli finds my wrist and gives it a squeeze, and I hear a rustle over my shoulder as Sage draws her weapon.

Jackson points across the road, and as my vision sharpens, I can just make out the shadow of a man lurking under a decommissioned streetlight. If it weren’t for the tiny orange glow emanating from his cigarette, I might have missed him entirely.

Jackson signals us to stay put and hands Sage the bolt cutters. He stows his gun in the waistband of his frayed khaki shorts, pulls a knife out of his holster, and starts walking purposefully across the street.

He cuts around an abandoned car and soon disappears from view. Eli lets out a long breath, and we wait for Jackson’s signal.

Ten agonizing seconds later, the cigarette hits the ground, and I hear the sound of a struggle. A sickening gurgle echoes across the street, and the lookout’s body hits the pavement with a dull smack.

Jackson lets out a low whistle, and I clench my fist to try to pull myself together. Eli’s finger finds my belt loop, and he pulls me forward to the spot where the cigarette’s glow disappeared. My heart is pounding in my throat, but I manage to hold my gun steady as I scan the road for threats.

We step up onto the curb and cut around the sagging chain-link fence running between the buildings. An overflowing dumpster on our left throws the alley into shadow, and I hold my breath as Eli leads me toward the door of the pawn shop.

Suddenly, my toe catches on something — or someone — sprawled across the alley. I pitch forward, but Eli’s arm shoots out to catch me.

Holding in a gasp, I squint down at the ground to see what I tripped on.

It’s a body.

I can’t make out the dead man’s face, but I can tell he’s wearing a cutoff T-shirt, frayed denim shorts, and bright white sneakers.

The man on the corner wasn’t the only one guarding the base, and Jackson dispatched him with the silence and efficiency of a trained assassin.

Shaking with nerves, I force myself to breathe normally and step aside to let Sage pass.

She doesn’t look down at the body. She doesn’t even blink. She just crouches down next to the door, pulls a flashlight out of her bag, and hands it off to Jackson. There’s a loud zip and a soft clatter of metal, and when Jackson shifts to the left, I see Sage rifling through what looks like a lock-pick set.

She inserts a thin metal rod into the lock and an even thinner pin over the top. Then her delicate cinnamon hands begin coaxing the pins into place. Her long dark hair falls across her face like a curtain, and I can tell she’s completely absorbed in her work.

Eli glances over his shoulder, checking and rechecking for approaching drifters.

After about a minute, Sage lifts her head with a satisfied smirk and pushes the door wide open. Eli’s eyebrows shoot up into his hairline, but Jackson takes the lead without a word as if he’s seen Sage do this a hundred times before.

Taking a deep breath, I raise my rifle and follow Eli into the pawn shop. Jackson shines the beam of Sage’s flashlight onto the opposite wall, and I hear him whisper a quick “clear.” Then Sage slips inside and closes the door behind her.

In the wavering pool of light dancing over the walls, my brain constructs a scattered snapshot of the pawn shop. The front windows are covered with cardboard and plywood, and the dusty shelves are mostly bare. All that’s left is a busted guitar, a dusty toaster, an ancient television set, and a few old movies.

The clatter of the beaded curtain makes me jump, and I hold my breath as Eli glides into the back to look for drifters.

“Clear,” he calls.

All my muscles tense as I follow Eli and Jackson into the cramped control room, but I feel myself relax as the shadows of a dozen sleeping computer monitors come into view.

Eli and Jackson head straight for the metal cabinet in the corner, which the Desperados have converted into a makeshift gun safe. Jackson’s bolt cutters make quick work of the combination lock, and within seconds he and Eli are pulling out the weapons we came here for.

Sage is standing guard just inside the beaded curtain, so I wander over to examine the bulletin board hanging on the opposite wall. When I shine my stolen interface over the papers, I immediately recognize the rumpled map of the town we’re in and the surrounding desert terrain. There are a few more markings than last time, indicating Recon activity in the area, and a large black X drawn over the restaurant that used to serve as the Desperados’ base.

Next to this map is a larger aerial image of the Southwest, dotted with a symbol that most closely resembles a tower. Next to each tower is a number: 112, 113 — all the way up to 121. My eye is immediately drawn to number 119, which is one of about half a dozen towers marked with an ugly black X.

“No,” I whisper, following the map up to the next closest X: 116. Judging by the rough semicircle fanning southeast from Salt Lake City and cutting into the corners of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, the Desperados have been working to eradicate all the compounds near their base.

“Is this . . .?”

Eli’s voice makes me jump. I glance over my shoulder and see him standing behind me with a horrified expression on his face.

I nod, too numb for words.

“What is it?” asks Jackson.

When I don’t answer, Sage wanders away from her post and comes to stand beside Eli.

Sage, like Jackson, isn’t from the compounds. She has no allegiance to the people who live there and no reason to care about the thousands of deaths those Xs represent. But when I glance over at her, I’m startled to see that her almond-shaped eyes are shimmering with tears.

“I can’t believe Owen was involved with this,” she murmurs. “I can’t believe —”

“What is it?” asks Jackson.

None of us responds, so he steps forward with his arms full of guns to see what we’re all staring at.

I know when he finally gets it, because I hear his sharp intake of breath and the sound of several guns hitting the floor. “Ho-ly shit.”

Eli runs a shaky hand through his hair. “One-nineteen wasn’t the first.”

“But 112 is next,” I choke.

“Malcolm’s been picking them off as the Desperados migrate west,” says Sage.

“He isn’t going to stop,” I whisper, looking up at Eli.

He lets out a long, angry burst of air. “No. He isn’t.”

For a moment, I forget all about Owen. I forget my guilt over leaving him and our responsibility to Eli’s only living relative.

All I can think about is Sawyer. She’s lying in the medical ward right now, dying from a virus that no one can control.

Since we left the compound, I’ve managed to push all thoughts of her out of my mind to focus on the more immediate threats, but seeing those black Xs of death spanning across the Southwest makes it impossible to ignore the choking dread I’ve been suppressing all day.

I can’t banish the grisly memories of 119 — the stench of death, the remnants of innocent lives cut short, and the devastating emptiness of those tunnels. When Malcolm’s virus ripped through 119, it didn’t leave anyone alive. It killed with the raw, indiscriminate power of a nuclear blast.

I understand Eli’s determination to rescue Owen, and I feel the pain of the lie he told his brother to gain his trust. But as much as I love Eli, I can’t justify going back for Owen when we’re this close to the only man who can control the outbreak.

If there is a cure, I have to find it. I have to find a way to end the killing before Malcolm’s virus destroys my home and kills everyone I’ve ever met.

“We have to do something,” I murmur.

Eli doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he’s shaking his head. He knows what I’m going to say next, and he’s preparing to fight me on it.

I open my mouth to head off his argument, but I never get the chance. Behind me, I hear the clatter of a rifle and the soft click of a safety. Somebody behind Jackson and Sage clears his throat, and all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

***

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