“Raise a glass,” said Hector, “to the best officer in New America.”
The room came alive with the clink of glass and the roar of a hundred voices. “Cornwell! Cornwell!” The men tipped their mugs and bottles and drained them in gurgling unison, slamming them down or even throwing them at the floor when the booze within was gone. Samm watched in silence, adjusting his spotting scope almost imperceptibly. The window was murky, but he could still see the soldiers grin and grimace as they slapped one another on the back, laughed at ribald jokes, and tried not to look at the colonel. The link would be telling them everything about Cornwell anyway.
Hidden in the trees on the far side of the valley, well outside the effective range of the link, Samm had no such luxury.
He twisted the knob on his tripod, swiveling the microphone barely a fraction of a millimeter to the left. At this distance even a small change of angle swept the sound across a vast portion of the room. Voices blurred through his earbuds, snatches of words and conversations in a quick aural smear, and then he was listening to another voice, just as familiar as Hector’s—it was Adrian, Samm’s old sergeant.
“. . . never knew what hit them,” Adrian was saying. “The enemy line shattered, exactly as planned, but for the first few minutes that made it all the more dangerous. The enemy became disoriented, firing in all directions at once, and we were pinned down too fiercely to reinforce him. Cornwell held the corner through the whole thing, never flinching, and all the time the Watchdog was howling and howling; it nearly deafened us. No Watchdog was as loyal as his. She worshipped Cornwell. That was the last major battle we saw in Wuhan, and a couple of days later the city was ours.”
Samm remembered that battle. Wuhan had been taken almost sixteen years ago to the day, in March 2061, one of the last cities to fall in the Isolation War. But it had been one of Samm’s first enemy engagements; even now he could remember the sounds, the smells, the taste of the gunpowder sharp in the air. His head buzzed with the memory, and phantom link data coursed through his brain, just enough to stir his adrenaline. Instincts and training surfaced almost immediately, heightening Samm’s awareness as he crouched on the darkened hillside, prepping him for a battle that existed only in his mind. This was followed almost immediately by an opposite reaction—a calming wave of familiarity. He hadn’t linked to anyone in days, and the sudden feeling, real or not, was almost painfully comfortable. He closed his eyes and held on to it, concentrating on the memories, willing himself to feel them again, stronger, but after a few fleeting moments they slipped away. He was alone. He opened his eyes and looked back through the scope.
The men had brought out the food now, wide metal trays heaped high with steaming pork. Herds of wild pigs were common enough in Connecticut, but mostly in the deep forest away from Partial settlements. They must have hunted pretty far afield for a feast like this. Samm’s stomach rumbled at the sight of it, but he didn’t move.
Far away the soldiers stiffened, only slightly but all in unison, warned by the link about something Samm could only guess at. The colonel, he thought, and twisted his scope to look at Cornwell: He was as bad as ever, cadaverous and rotten, but his chest still rose and fell, and there didn’t seem to be anything immediately wrong. A twinge of pain, perhaps. The men in the room were ignoring it, and Samm chose to do the same. It wasn’t time yet, it seemed, and the party continued. He listened in on another conversation, more reminiscing about the old days in the Isolation War, and here and there a story about the revolution, but nothing that fired Samm’s memory as profoundly as the sergeant’s story. Eventually the sight of the pork ribs and the sound of chewing became too much, and Samm carefully dug a plastic bag of beef jerky from his pack. It was a pale imitation of the juicy ribs his former comrades were enjoying, but it was something. He turned his eyes back to the scope and found Major Wallace right as he stood up to speak.
“Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cornwell is unable to speak to you today, but I’m honored to say a few words on his behalf.” Wallace moved slowly, not just his walk but his gestures, his speech—every motion was measured and deliberate. He looked as young as Samm, like an eighteen-year-old human, but in real time he was nearing twenty—the expiration date. In another few months, maybe only a few weeks, he’d start to decay just like Cornwell. Samm felt cold, and pulled his jacket tighter around his shoulders.
The party grew as quiet as Samm, and Wallace’s voice carried powerfully through the hall, echoing tinnily in Samm’s earbuds. “I’ve had the honor of serving with the colonel my entire life; he pulled me out of the growth tank himself, and he put me through boot camp. He’s a better man than most I’ve met, and a good leader to all his men. We don’t have fathers, but I’d like to think that if we did, mine would be something like Richard Cornwell.”
He paused, and Samm shook his head. Cornwell was their father, in every sense but the strictly biological. He had taught them, led them, protected them, done everything a father was supposed to do. Everything Samm would never have the chance to do. He tweaked the zoom on the spotting scope, pushing in as close on the major’s face as he could. There were no tears, but his eyes were gaunt and tired.
“We were made to die,” said the major. “To kill and then to die. Our lives have but two purposes, and we finished the first one fifteen years ago. Sometimes I think the cruelest part wasn’t the expiration date, but the fifteen years we had to wait to find out about it. The youngest of you have it worst, because you’ll be the last to go. We were born in war, and we earned our glory, and now we sit in a fading room and watch each other die.”
The roomful of Partials stiffened again, harder this time, some jumping to their feet. Samm swung his scope wildly, looking for the colonel, but the tight zoom on the major’s face made him lose his bearings, and he searched helplessly for a few panicked seconds, listening to shouts of “The colonel!” and “It’s time!” Finally Samm pulled back, reset the scope, and zoomed in again from nearly a full mile away. He found the colonel’s bed, in a place of honor at the front of the room, and watched as the old man shook and coughed, flecks of black blood dribbling from the corners of his mouth. He looked like a corpse already, his cells degenerating, his body rotting away almost visibly as Samm and the other soldiers watched. He sputtered, grimaced, hacked, and lay still. The room was silent.
Samm watched, stone-faced, as the soldiers prepared the final death rite: Without speaking a word, the windows were thrown open, the curtains cleared, the fans turned on. Humans met death with crying, with speeches, with wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Partials met it as only Partials could: through the link. Their bodies were designed for the battlefield: When they died, they released a burst of data to warn their fellow soldiers of danger, and when they felt it, those soldiers would release more data of their own to spread the word. The fans churned at the air, blowing that data out into that world so that everyone would link it and know that a great man had died.
Samm waited, tense, feeling the breezes blow back and forth across his face. He wanted it, and he didn’t; it was both connection and pain, community and sadness. It was depressing how often those two came together these days. He watched the leaves flutter on the trees below him in the valley, watched the branches sway gently as the wind brushed past them. The data never came.
He was too far away.
Samm packed up his scope and the directional microphone, stowing them in his pack with their small solar battery. He searched the site twice, making sure he’d left nothing behind—the plastic bag of food was back in his satchel, the earbuds were stowed in his pack, his rifle was slung over his shoulder. Even the marks of the tripod in the dirt he kicked smooth with his boot. There was no evidence he had ever been here.
He looked one last time at his colonel’s funeral, pulled on his gas mask, and slipped back into exile. There was no room in that warehouse for deserters.
The sun beat down through the gaps in the skyline, mapping out a pattern of ragged yellow triangles on the broken streets below. Kira Walker watched the road carefully, crouched beside a rusted taxi at the bottom of a deep urban canyon. Grass and scrub and saplings stood motionless in the cracked asphalt, untouched by wind. The city was perfectly still.
Yet something had moved.
Kira brought her rifle to her shoulder, hoping for a better view with the telescopic sight, then remembered—for the umpteenth time—that her scope had been broken in the cave-in last week. She cursed and lowered the gun again. As soon as I’m done here, I’m going to find another gun store and replace the stupid thing. She peered down the road, trying to separate shape and shadow, and raised her gun again before cursing under her breath. Old habits die hard. She ducked her head and scuttled to the back end of the taxi; there was a delivery truck a hundred feet down sticking halfway into the street, which should be able to hide her movements from whatever—or whoever—was down there. She peered out, stared for nearly a minute at the unmoving street, then gritted her teeth and ran. No bullets or clatters or roars. The truck did its job. She trotted up behind it, dropped to one knee, and peeked out past the bumper.
An eland moved through the underbrush, long horns curling into the sky, its long tongue picking at shoots and greens growing up through the rubble. Kira stayed still, watching intently, too paranoid to assume that the eland was the same thing she’d seen moving before. A cardinal screeched overhead, joined moments later by another, bright red streaks spinning and diving and chasing each other through the power lines and traffic lights. The eland nibbled at the small green leaves of a maple sapling, peaceful and oblivious. Kira watched until she was certain there was nothing else to see, then watched some more just in case. You could never be too careful in Manhattan—the last time she’d come here she’d been attacked by Partials, and so far on this trip she’d been chased by both a bear and a panther. The memory made her pause, turn, and check behind her. Nothing. She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to “feel” a nearby Partial, but it didn’t work. It never had, not in any way she could recognize, even when she had spent a week in close contact with Samm. Kira was a Partial, too, but she was different—she appeared to lack the link and some of their other traits, plus she aged and grew like a normal human. She didn’t really know what she was, and she had no one she could turn to for answers. She didn’t even have anyone to talk to about it—only Samm and the mad Partial scientist Dr. Morgan knew what she was. Kira hadn’t even told her boyfriend—her best friend—Marcus.
She shivered uneasily, grimacing at the uncomfortable confusion that always followed her questions about herself. That’s what I’m here to find, she thought. Answers to the questions.
She turned and sat on the broken asphalt, leaning against the truck’s flat tire and pulling out her notebook again, though at this point she had the address memorized: Fifty-fourth and Lexington. It had taken her weeks to find the address, and several more days to make it here through the ruins. Maybe she was being too cautious. . . .
She shook her head. There was no such thing as “too cautious.” The unsettled areas were too dangerous to take any chances, and Manhattan was more dangerous than most. She’d played it safe and she was still alive; she wasn’t going to second-guess a strategy that had proven itself so successful.
She looked at the address again, then up at the weather-beaten street signs. This was definitely the right place. She tucked the notebook back into her pocket and hefted her rifle. Time to go inside.
Time to visit ParaGen.
The office building had once had glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows, but glass didn’t last long since the Break, and the entire ground floor now stood na**d to the elements. It wasn’t the ParaGen headquarters—that was out west somewhere, on the other side of the country—but it was something. A financial branch, located in Manhattan solely to interface with other corporations’ financial branches. It had taken her weeks of searching even to find that the office existed. Kira picked her way through the pellets of shattered safety glass, and the mounds of siding and facade sloughed off from the building’s upper floors. Eleven years of neglect had filled the floor inside with dirt, thick enough that small weeds and grasses were already beginning to sprout through. Low benches, once upholstered in sleek vinyl, had been weakened by sun and rain and torn apart by what looked like cats’ claws. A wide desk that had probably held a receptionist was now weathered and sagging, the epicenter of a loose scattering of yellowed plastic ID tags. A plaque on the wall named dozens of businesses in the building, and Kira browsed the weather-beaten listings until she found ParaGen: the twenty-first floor. Three elevator doors stood in the wall behind the reception desk, though one was hanging crooked in its frame. Kira ignored them and went to the stairway door in the back corner. There was a black panel in the wall next to it, a sensor pad for a magnetic lock, but with no electricity it was meaningless—the hinges would be the biggest problem. Kira leaned against it, pushing gently at first to test it, then harder as the ancient hinges resisted the force. Finally it gave way, and she walked in to look up the towering stairwell.
“Twenty-first floor,” she sighed. “Of course.”
Many of the older buildings in the world were too treacherous to climb around in, devastated in the first winter after the Break: The windows broke, the pipes burst, and by spring the rooms and walls and floors were full of moisture. Ten freeze-thaw cycles later, the walls were warped, the ceilings were drooping, and the floors were crumbling to pieces. Mold got into the wood and carpets, insects dug into the cracks, and a once-solid structure became a precarious tower of crumbs and fragments; rubble that hadn’t fallen down yet, waiting for a kick or a step or a loud voice to bring it crashing to the ground. Bigger buildings, though, and especially ones this new, were far more durable—their bones were steel girders, and their flesh sealed concrete and carbon fiber. The skin, so to speak, was still weak—glass and plaster and Sheetrock and carpet—but the building itself was sturdy. Kira’s stairwell was particularly well preserved, dusty without being filthy, and the extra staleness to the air made her wonder if it had stayed more or less sealed since the Break. It gave the stairwell an eerie feeling, like a tomb, though there was nobody buried in it that she could see. She began to wonder if there was, higher up—if someone had been walking the stairs when RM finally claimed them, and they had been sealed in here ever since—but by the time she reached the twenty-first floor, she still hadn’t seen any bodies. She thought about going on to look for some, to satisfy twenty-one floors of pent-up curiosity, but no. There were bodies enough in a city this size; half the cars on the street held skeletons, and the homes and offices held millions more. One body more or less in an old forgotten stairwell wouldn’t change anything. She pried open the door with a squeal of hinges and walked into the ParaGen office.