16 NE (New Era)
There it went. The last can of beans. They were officially out of food, and as far as anyone could tell, their little ragtag group was all that was left of the once-thriving city of San Francisco.
Sinna licked her spoon clean, refusing to waste a single molecule of nourishment. She felt like hell, but then, they all did. Most of them hadn’t stepped foot out of the underground rectory in so long, they couldn’t remember what the outside looked like anymore.
Nate, their leader by virtue of his assault rifle, sometimes scouted for food with David and Connor, but over the last few weeks, they’d returned with nothing. Sinna suspected Nate and his seconds-in-command ate whatever they found before they came back inside, but she had no evidence to support that. All of them looked a small hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.
Night was coming on, depriving them of what little light filtered in through the handful of ventilation holes torn into the ceiling and the outside walls. Sinna drummed her spoon against her up-drawn knee, debating what to do with it. Highly unlikely they’d ever again find food she could eat with utensils, but she was reluctant to just toss it away.
Nate tapped his foot against a crate, and his hand on the weapon in his lap. Something was eating at him—no pun intended. When he shoved to his feet and started pacing, Sinna flinched. His camo uniform was covered with dirt and dust, but his boots were in surprisingly good shape. She envied him that. Her own had been pilfered off of a half-eaten corpse and were a size too small for what she considered to be her abnormally gigantic feet. Two months of wearing them had accomplished nothing but bloody blisters on her heels and her big toe wearing a hole through the inside lining.
“This is it,” Nate said.
By the door, David and Connor sat up a little straighter. They weren’t soldiers like Nate. David used to be a school teacher, and refused to touch anything more lethal than a baseball bat. Connor, a former butcher, liked to arm himself with knives and cleavers. He was slightly more heavyset than the rest of them, which made him the logical choice for defensive brute force. He’d lost his cleaver a few months back, but a number of his steak knives were still in pretty good shape. He’d even found a decent-sized rock to hone them on. For him, this was as good as it was going to get.
David and Connor didn’t exactly get along with each other, but both followed Nate with the mindless obedience of lost sheep. One day, he’d lead them to slaughter. Perhaps not intentionally, but Sinna knew it would happen, and when it did, they’d obey without question.
“What’s it?” Sinna asked, since no one else seemed inclined.
With a huff, Nate paced another circuit, then took a knee in the middle of the room. A longish lock of dirty brown hair fell over his eye. He might as well have been posing for a fashion shot. He had the bone structure for it, and those dark, mysterious eyes beneath a pair of sweeping eyebrows with one set slightly higher than the other in a sometimes quizzical, sometimes menacing way. Hard times had lent his features a sharp quality, just short of starved. He had that whole renegade soldier thing going on. The look suited him.
Nate swept his gaze over them, like a general about to go to battle. It made Sinna nervous. “We always said we’d stay only as long as we had a safe shelter and food to eat. We all agreed that a quick death out there was better than starving down here.”
Sinna frowned. She could hear David gulp while Connor rearranged himself on the stoop.
In the back corner, Amy clutched her son, Matt, even tighter. A sixteen-year-old miracle child, born with the turn of ages. The only reason he’d survived this long was because his mother refused to let him out of her sight. Amy was desperately devoted to Matt; he was her reason for living. If anyone would stand up to Nate on this crazy idea, she would, surely.
But Amy didn’t say a word. Instead, she hid her face behind a fall of matted blonde hair.
“You can’t be serious,” Sinna said.
Nate gave her a grave nod. “I am.”
“You can’t mean to walk across the city with Tam in tow!” The short, half-Chinese, half-Portuguese barista hadn’t spoken since her boyfriend had to be put out of his misery a couple of weeks ago. Poor Jimmy. A bad fall, a broken leg, and the resulting infection had put him half in the grave.
Tam couldn’t handle it. She’d sobbed hysterically while Jimmy had screamed in pain and fever-induced delirium. When Connor had done what needed to be done, Tam had just…stopped. She’d turned catatonic. Nothing got a reaction from her. She ate when hunger drove her to it and drank when they gave her water, but that blank haze in her eyes never lifted. It probably never would.
Nate ducked his head. “We may need to leave her behind.”
“How dare you!”
“Sinna, there’s nothing left. What do you want me to do?”
She pushed to her feet, clutching her spoon like a weapon. “If you’re so eager for death, then turn that gun on yourself and blow your own goddamn head off. You have no right to decide who lives and who dies.”
Nate stood to match her. “You think this is easy for me?”
“Yes. I think you’re just itching to get rid of us and go off with your buddies over there.”
David scrambled up, too. “Now that’s not true! Tell her, Nate.”
Ignoring him, the former soldier sighed tiredly, his handsome face creasing with lines of strain. “I could have done that any day,” he said, and in a softer tone added, “Why do you think I keep coming back?”
That was as close to a declaration as she’d ever allow him to get. Tam was as good as a walking corpse. At thirty-four, Amy might have been Nate’s age, but she was vicious when approached, and as long as she had Matt with her, some last shred of human decency kept the men away.
But Sinna was still young, and she had no one, which made her fair game. Nate watched her all the time; she felt his gaze on her so often, she’d almost gotten used to the feeling, akin to warm slime oozing along her skin. She’d allowed him to look because his attention seemed to keep the others at bay, and he’d kept his own distance when she’d pushed back, almost out of courtesy, as if he’d appointed himself her knight in shining armor, willing to wait for her to make the first move.
If that status quo was changing, then Sinna was in deep shit.
Taking a step back, she prepared to thoroughly lambast him, when Amy spoke up. “He’s right, Sinna. We need to go. Now, while we still can.”
Sinna shook her head.
Old Isaac sat up on his pallet. “Listen, I don’t like it any more than you do, but the fact is, we ain’t gettin’ any younger, you know what I mean?” In his late fifties, Isaac was physically the weakest, with bad knees that locked up, making him limp if he moved around for too long. Whenever Nate and his crew went out to gather, Isaac guarded the door. He should have been the voice of reason among them. How could he agree to this?
“Isaac, what if you can’t keep up?”
“Thought about it. I’m willing to take the risk.”
“So we’re going to sacrifice the old and weak, so the rest of us can live? Amy, what if Matt falls behind?”
Amy started rocking the boy. He heard what they discussed but, with a sick sort of trust, he never said a word in opposition. He’d never known a world without his mother, and as long as Amy made decisions for him, he’d never make one on his own.
“How about we put it to a vote?” David suggested, adjusting the frames of his glasses. Sinna didn’t know why he bothered wearing them. The lenses had gotten smashed out years ago.
Sinna looked at each of them in turn—all people who’d seen the worst of what humanity could do, who’d watched their world get torn apart. The eight of them could very well be the last people anywhere on Earth, and they had nothing left to fight for. Except for Tam and Matt, every one of them looked ready to walk out and risk becoming a banquet for Grays.
Maybe they were right. Maybe it was time to move on.
“No,” Sinna whispered in defeat, “you win. We’ll leave.”
Nate’s shoulders sagged, and he smiled, raising his arms to hug her. Sinna stepped out of his reach, disgusted by the gesture offered like a treat to an obedient pet.
His smile dimmed somewhat, but he must have interpreted her retreat as fear because he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe, I promise. And Tam—”
“I’m not leaving her behind,” Sinna decreed. No way in hell would she walk out of here and leave that girl to the monsters.
“She can walk on her own, and she’s quiet. I’ll guide her if I have to, but I’m not letting her stay here to rot.”
Nate’s mouth twisted. In the three years she’d known him, he’d never shown a hint of temper; ever the level-headed soldier with a gun. Now, he seemed to seriously contemplate choking the life out of her.
Sinna refused to back down. There were some lines she refused to cross. She had to believe there was still good in people. If they left someone defenseless behind to die, they’d be no better than the monsters everyone feared so much.
“Fine,” Nate growled when Sinna wouldn’t let him win the staring contest. “Get some rest, everyone. We leave in the morning.”