Feeling so terrified in what was once her home was some kind of fucked up. She’d inventoried, guarded, and treasured the supplies here, and now she was stealing from her own stores. Sarah crawled through the supply hut and shoved food and ammo into her bag, her heart pounding so loud she could barely hear her surroundings. She damn well needed to hear. If they caught her, it would be worse than what that fanatic bitch had planned for her the month prior.
They needed food bad, ammo more, and medicine most of all. Sarah had already scavenged aspirin and antibiotics from the medical station at the southern outpost. She’d said it was stupid to keep precious medical supplies out there, but her commanding officer had overruled her on that, thank fuck. She owed Roland one for his stupidity. She’d hoped for better meds here, but they needed the food alone enough to warrant the risk of this trip. Those kids would die without her, but they’d die without food too.
No medicine, but the cult hadn’t made a big enough dent in the Fireflies' food stores to raid the overflow in this poorly guarded building. Roland had decided that too, also against Sarah’s recommendations. Another pre-meal prayer dedicated to her CO. Sarah grabbed can after can, filling her big pack and starting on another. She estimated she could carry up to seventy pounds, maybe more. She’d once carried one-hundred-fifty pounds of man over her shoulders, not that he hadn’t bled out in her race to get him to safety. She’d carried him far enough but not fast enough.
Even though this had been the height of civilization five years ago, there was no hope of anything stronger than the bottle of amoxicillin in her pack. There might be some injectable penicillin somewhere, but it would be contaminated or degraded by now. They’d never got around to manufacturing more. After the Utah lab collapse, they’d collapsed on themselves here, and their golden hopes had been razed by ugly ideology.
Sarah hesitated, snitching three coats from the supply rack. Washington winter could be cold and wet enough to kill. She could carry the weight. She heaved three full packs onto her back, but she moved quietly, slipping past the guard she'd killed. Not one of her men, at least. These fanatics were slow and disorganized, and that helped her more than a goddamn nuke. She wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that the slow, disorganized fanatics had ousted the Fireflies entirely. Poor leadership? That said a lot about her.
Dawn was breaking, and the gray that had cloaked her arrival—right after the shift change before dawn, which was about the only regular thing these people did—wasn’t going to protect her much longer. She slipped through the gap in the outer wall, one that had been on her list of things to repair back before the outpost had been overrun and her men gutted and hanged.
She held her breath with each step, waiting for the shout of alarm, the rifle crack, the scream of infected, but the only human sounds were her heavy steps and short breath. The morning was loud as it woke too, which gave her some cover when she couldn’t mask the two-hundred pounds or more of her and her pack walking through the woods.
A quarter mile out, she started to think she’d made it. The pack was heavy with promise, and every step ballooned her hope. Relief filled her. She had a plan, a solution, and the kids wouldn’t die, not right now at least. They could start thinking about getting out of this hell.
It was like talking about the last time a no-hitter had been pitched in a particular stadium before the last batter was up. She jinxed herself with her thoughts. When Sarah paused to plan her ascent up a drainage ditch, the press of a pistol barrel against the back of her head froze her and all her hopes. A familiar voice said, “Get on your knees.”
She wished he’d asked her to take the packs off. Sarah turned too slow to catch the man and his weapon before he backed away, and she slowly dropped to her knees. She was strong, but bouncing off of her knees with seventy pounds on her back was going to be slow and clumsy.
There were two men facing her with their guns drawn. They wore dirty fatigues, disheveled versions of the men Sarah knew. They both shifted in recognition. One of them was firm, but the other went wide-eyed. Two more of her men that had fallen in with the fanatic crowd. The promise of fresh enslaved women had turned the weak from their morals. Maybe that was why the Fireflies had collapsed so quickly.
“Hey, Tim. Get promoted yet?” She’d taught Tim how to shoot, curse, and they’d even had a conversation about how to please a woman in bed. He’d looked at her with respect—hero-worship, even. Now his eyes were wide with terror. He wasn’t even old enough to grow more than a wisp of a mustache.
Tim looked at Jon, whose grizzled features showed no sympathy. “We have orders.”
“But… Could we just let her go?”
Jon shook his head. “No ‘but’. We have orders. She's a deserter.” He cocked his old revolver. It was a .45, his pride and joy. He’d preached that the gun had been gathering dust in his father’s study before it saw him across six states and through the worst months of the collapse.
A deserter. How ironic. Or maybe it was just fitting.
Jon continued, “She’s also the most dangerous person here.”
Sarah wondered if a .45 headshot hurt worse than a .22. She sure hoped he blew her brains out in one shot. When the gun barrel dropped, she was sure she’d just missed the sound of it going off. Jon collapsed to his knees, and there was no punch of a bullet through her skull. The swish of an arrow sliding through Jon's neck seemed to come after he’d fallen. Tim turned, and the second arrow went through his eye.
Tim. She’d seen him grow up, slapped him on the back when he puked after his first kill, and saved his neck more than once. Now she was relieved to see him dead.
This world was more than fucked up, and it had fucked her up right along with it.
Elation filled Sarah—a second chance, or a sixth or twelfth or thirtieth to add to all the others. She’d long since lost count. Saved once again by an arrow or two. Lev, her brain told her. Lev did this, and Lev meant safety. But Lev was sick, a cough rattling his chest and fever making him run clammy and hot. Not Yara either, not with Yara’s left arm still healing and healing crippled at that.
Sarah pushed herself to her feet with her teeth bared and her thighs screaming. She reached for the pistol strapped to her thigh.
A woman’s voice. A girl, even. Sarah turned in the direction of that young voice. The girl carried her bow over her shoulder, and she had a pistol up. After the bow and pistol, Sarah noted her red hair. Short and small, easy to overpower except for the weight on Sarah’s back and the girl’s finger resting on the trigger. She had a little .22, about the right size for her small hands.
No matter how many times she’d been in this position, the feeling of a gun aimed at her raised her hands and made her duck her head. “Easy,” she said. Fear made her long-buried accent come out, lengthening the vowels. “Easy. I’m a friend.”
The girl looked at her again, realization coming over her features. Sarah knew that look well. She was often taken as a man at first. She was as tall and muscled as some men. Her daddy had been a big man, and she took after him. Now this girl was reassessing her as a woman. Sarah hoped for some trust, just as she often hoped men would underestimate her strength. She didn’t want this girl to kill her, but she damn well didn’t want to kill this girl either. Girls had always been her weakness.
The girl clenched her jaw. “Give me your pack.”
If she’d been in the position she was six months before, Sarah would have grinned and teased that the girl couldn’t carry it. Now she only shook her head and offered a tight smile. “You’ll have to kill me then. Aim for the eye with that caliber.”
The gun’s aim wavered, and Sarah continued, “I’m dead if you take the pack anyway, and so are the kids I’m looking after.”
Another long look, too long for the time they had.
Sarah moved slowly to point at the two dead men. “These people aren’t my friends. And their friends are going to rape, gut, and hang both of us when they find us along their supply trail. Another group is probably gonna be here in less than a quarter hour, and we have to be quick if we want to be gone before they find their buddies dead. We’ll be lucky to throw them off our tracks.”
“So why are you here?”
Fuck this. Yara was the talker. Sarah just killed things. “You want a safe place to sleep tonight? Food outta this pack?”
After three tense seconds, the girl nodded. “I’ll get their weapons and watch your back. Lead the way.”
Then she did come, carrying all those precious weapons and ammo that Jon and Tim shared between them. They were off, moving through the trees quietly, bound by a mutual need to get the fuck away.
The girl was fast. She doubled back, moved along different paths, walking with purposefully heavy steps in an attempt to mislead trackers. Sarah wondered if her good trackers—Carl, Wes, and Kinsey—were still alive. If Kinsey had survived despite the odds, she’d be raped and pregnant by now. Carl had the morals to stand up against this shit, but she’d thought that about all her men.
Fuck. Fuck all of this shit.
The old hazard sign shook as Sarah slipped inside the gap. If Lev hadn’t been sick, he might be here manning the post, ready to put an arrow through her eye. Sarah didn’t see signs of another person passing through. She hoped she was right, and she hoped she hadn’t led the fanatic cult here.
She nodded for the girl to step into the next room. With the comfort of solitude, Sarah set a trap and continued on without disturbing it. She directed the girl down the next corridor with a look, bouncing the packs higher on her shoulders. Her entire body burned with the strain of carrying the supplies, but she was already mentally limiting the calories she'd eat from this haul.
They moved through the old Seattle Underground tunnels together, Sarah’s light illuminating their path. She led them through the labyrinth surely enough despite the twists and turns. Half an hour of hard climbing around waist-high obstacles was enough to raise sweat on Sarah’s neck.
“No wonder you didn’t blindfold me,” the girl muttered as they paused to lift a fence for each other.
Sarah didn’t have the breath to respond.
They eventually came out on the other side of the underground maze into the basement of a pre-collapse building tucked into Seattle’s old downtown. The fanatics didn’t venture here because infected were thick in the streets, but this building was reinforced on all sides. The only way in was the way they’d just come.
Sarah needed to get the packs off to get the rope down the twelve-foot wall, but she was afraid she'd never get them back on again. She tilted her light up to illuminate the cord dangling four feet above her head. She could jump that high on a good day, but…
“Boost me up. I’ll throw the ladder down. I’ll even jump back down and hand up the packs.”
Could she protest a volunteer? “They weigh more than you do.”
The girl just scowled at her.
Sarah dropped all three of her packs; they clanked to the ground heavily. She drew a full breath as she straightened from her stoop. She didn’t miss the girl's subtle flinch as Sarah straightened. Sarah rolled her shoulders, rooted in the feeling of her muscles flexing in protest. She settled into a crouch, cupping her hands. “Grab the rope. Don’t worry about it falling on your head.”
The girl’s running leap was graceful, but her descent was less so. Maybe she misjudged the weight of the rope. Sarah seized her around the waist, held her close for a breathless moment, then gently set her on the ground. Heavier than the pack, but not much. Maybe a hundred pounds of muscle. Now that Sarah had her so close, she realized the girl wasn't so much short as scrawny.
“Not classy enough for a ladder, huh?” the girl gasped breathlessly before she grabbed up her pack and rope-climbed the wall. Not bad. Sarah considered her own strength. She stripped out of her heavy jacket, already hot from the work she’d done so far. She threw the jacket up to the girl, who grabbed it.
“Want to lob up a pack?”
“I’d kill you with it.” Not to mention she couldn’t throw it that high.
Sarah seized the two lighter, less important packs and double-timed as she climbed the rope. She yanked herself over the edge, dropped the packs, and slipped back down to grab the heaviest one and repeat the process.
“You don’t mess around. You weren't kidding about those bags being heavy,” the girl said as Sarah wound the rope back into its coil and pulled it away from the ledge.
So the girl was a talker. Sarah wiped sweat from her forehead. She tucked her wet coat into a strap on the outer part of one bag and rearranged the burden on her shoulders. The stairs were going to kill her, but she needed to get it all up in one trip. She couldn’t leave this girl alone with her kids.
They climbed six flights of stairs, and Sarah wasn’t the only one winded by the last flight. Sarah slipped through a discreet crack in the wall and navigated the cluttered room to an honest to god wooden door. She knocked three short knocks, paused and wrapped twice on the opposite side of the door. Three latches snapped back, and the heavy door opened. Yara stayed behind the door as she opened it. When she looked around it, her eyes widened at the sight of the newcomer.
The room was warm, heated by a fire that ventilated into the upper floors. Sarah always turned towards the building when she was out of the city, watching for signs of their fire, but she had yet to see evidence of smoke outside. The tree cover and steady rain were their allies in that.
In the corner, Lev gave a too-familiar rattling cough. Sarah thumped her packs down and pulled the contents out with less care than she’d normally give. She lifted a bottle and shook it. “Amoxicillin.” Another. “Aspirin.”
Yara’s brow wrinkled as she studied the bottles. She looked at the girl again, but Lev held her attention. As Yara lifted him, he coughed hard and wet. Sarah shook out a pill from each container, let Yara touch them in wonder, and grabbed her canteen too. They coaxed him to swallow both pills.
“Antibiotic to fight bacterial infection in his lungs,” Sarah explained when Lev swallowed down the amoxicillin. Five-hundred milligrams every eight hours. She needed to count the capsules in the bottle. “Pain killer to drop his fever. You take one too.”
“I need to stay sharp,” Yara protested.
“It doesn’t do that. It’s not like booze. Take it. Take a big drink of water and swallow it with the water.” She needed to count the aspirin too. Three-hundred twenty-five milligrams every six hours.
Yara did as asked and sat still as if expecting to feel effects immediately. Sarah coaxed her to peel off her outer shirt, studying the warped line of her arm. The skin had healed well, but bone always took longer. Yara was just a kid, maybe sixteen at most, and that could help her heal with some function in that arm. Sarah gently palpated the big lumpy callus that healed the bony fragments into one piece, drawing a wince. Yara carefully flexed and extended her elbow, her face tight in pain as her atrophied muscles stretched.
“Don't forget to move it. It’ll make your body strengthen the bone while it’s healing.”
Yara gave a jerky nod. Her eyes moved back to the door. The strange girl still stood there, watching all of them warily. Then she seemed to firm in her decision. She set down the weapons and dropped her own pack. She took off her wet coat and crouched by the fire, rubbing her hands together and raising them towards the heat.
Sarah propped Lev to sit upright. She was ill-at-ease for a moment before she firmed in her decision to continue as needed. That was what she did: keep moving to survive.
She unfolded her damp jacket and laid it by the fire to dry. She peeled off her boots and socks, replacing her wet ones with a dry pair. Her boots were still watertight, but she’s sweated through both layers of her socks, and they needed to dry or she’d get foot-rot. She’d repeated that lesson more times in her life than any other: keep your damn feet dry, oorah!
Sarah shook their lamp and flicked it on to illuminate the room better than the weak fire. The light made the dark room more cheerful at least. They couldn’t risk a window, not with their fire. They couldn’t risk much at all.
Yara had been prime breeding choice, and the fanatics were stirred up into a frenzy of rage that she had escaped without a proper ritual sacrifice for her betrayal. Sarah had seen other girls escape through the last year in an unprecedented number. She’d seen the men sent after them too. No one had to guess what had happened to those girls. Sarah didn’t want to think about what the fanatics would do to all of them if they saw the light of their fire. She hadn’t figured out that contingency plan.
Maybe they were saved in part because Yara’s escape had fallen within the weeks that the fanatics had taken the Firefly base. That night, Sarah had been startled out of sleep, beaten, and dragged out onto that highway to be gutted and hanged by a group of ignorant child-fuckers they’d been trading potshots with for years. She’d never considered the fanatics a concrete threat, not until she was tip-toeing on a bucket with noose around her neck and a knife at her gut.
She wrung out a cloth in their wash pail and splashed her face and neck to wipe away the sweat and grime.
“What the fuck are you looking at?”
The new voice startled her. She looked up at Yara, who was watching the newcomer. The girl apparently didn’t appreciate the appraisal.
“I’m looking at you,” Yara said calmly.
There was a question in that statement directed at Sarah. “I was ambushed. She killed them. Could’ve killed me for the supplies but she didn’t.”
“The bright apostles?”
How fucking pretentious. Even if Yara and Lev had been raised to think of those child-fucking fanatics as their way to a brighter future, calling those murderers 'Bright Apostles' made her see red. Sarah shook her head and lowered her voice. “My men.”
“I’m sorry.” Yara pressed her hand to Sarah’s wrist, a gentle touch with too much wisdom for such a young girl. Yara wasn’t much older than Sarah had been when the collapse happened, and she was so much steadier than Sarah had ever been and had more fire than most in her world. Now Yara turned that steadiness to their newcomer. “What’s your name, stranger?”
The girl studied Yara and Sarah for a long moment. She was younger than Sarah had first judged, only aged by the sharp line of wariness in her mouth and brow. There was wrath outlining her face—a pretty face. Sarah remembered the girl’s hair was red, though it looked brown in this light.
“Ellie,” the girl finally said.
Too pretty, Sarah thought, but she guessed it wasn’t out of character for her to think that about a girl.
“Wash up, Ellie,” Yara replied steadily. “You’re welcome at our table if your hands are clean.”
Sarah went back to the packs, removing more items to inventory them. Lots of canned venison and beans. She remembered the weeks it took to salt the venison. Another hunted deer was always met with groans from the provision soldiers. She’d taken a bottle of whiskey too, something she was tempted to swig. Lev would need it more to soothe that cough. Sarah withdrew the coats too, helping Yara wrap Lev in the smallest one.
The girl glanced at Sarah again before she sank down to her haunches to clean her face and hands. Sarah didn’t miss that the girl, Ellie, kept her in her sight at all times. She considered Sarah the threat in this room, that was sure. If Lev weren’t sick, he would smart from being ignored.
The girl was more of a threat to Sarah dirty than clean. The grime washed away to betray pale skin and heavy freckles and a much younger face than Sarah had assumed. This was a post-collapse kid, maybe fifteen or sixteen at most. Like all post-collapse kids, she had a few scars too. And also as Sarah had expected, her surprising prettiness wasn’t undone by the sharp stare of distrust.
So not too pretty for that pretty name. Ellie, the red-headed post-collapse kid. Ellie, a kid as good with a bow as Lev and better with a gun than some of the men Sarah had commanded.
The watch on the girl’s left arm arrested Sarah’s attention. It was large, a man’s watch with a cracked face, and it stirred something familiar inside her. She lifted her gaze to find the girl was watching her too.
Her silent appraisal was unnerving. She had more important things to be doing than eyeing a stranger.
“Pork ‘n beans?” she asked dryly. No one would refuse it even if it tasted more like metal than food by now. She set two cans by the fire, thinking of the calories she’d burned that day, and she continued unpacking the supplies to find a can opener tucked into a pouch at the bottom. That had been the first to go in. Invaluable. As her dad had said once, nothing was more dangerous than opening a can with a knife.
The newcomer spoke again. “I’ve introduced myself. Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m Yara. This is Lev. And that’s Sarah.”
Ellie flinched at Sarah’s name. It was a subtle shift, but Sarah caught it.
“Why are you here, Ellie?” Yara asked.
The girl’s brow gathered and she took a long breath and touched the watch, then yanked her sleeve over it. “The Fireflies killed people I loved. So now I’m going to kill every last one of those fuckers.”
Sarah couldn’t help her bitter laugh. “Someone beat you to it, girl. I’m the last loyal Firefly alive.” Sarah took her spot by the fire, stretching her legs out on either side of it. She settled her aching back against a blanket draped over a crate. “A fanatic cult took over the Firefly base. Their idea is to breed faster than the infected.”
“Except the more people, the more infected,” Ellie responded.
“Some people don’t care about logic or morals,” Sarah muttered. They were all silent for a moment, and Sarah continued after some reflection. “There was a cult they busted when I was a kid before the collapse. They had a few men that took all the women as their wives—daughters were wives too. My dad said then it takes a special kinda shit to say your freedom rests of the slavery of women’s reproduction.”
Yara had heard all this before and didn’t pause in her task of separating the supplies. She’d never thought about her plight other than to know it was wrong enough to escape. Sarah sometimes wondered if her criticisms were painful to Yara. Sarah couldn’t summon much sympathy; she’d seen her entire world torn out by the roots too.
Ellie was watching her again. “You were one of them. I heard what they said to you.”
Sarah shrugged. There was a dull edge to her voice. “They were the Fireflies that defected for all the wives they could impregnate. Too many years without central contact, and men decide to go their own way.”
“And them?” Ellie nodded to Yara and Lev.
Yara answered for herself. “I was an angel. A wife. Lev is my brother. Sarah saved us.”
“You escaped all on your own. Then you saved me,” Sarah reminded her. The memory lurked; she was still afraid to go back to it: hanging by her neck, her men gutted above her.
“You killed Emily.”
“You swung the hammer.”
“You choked her hanging. The only thing you ever needed was the rope cut. We cut the rope, and you killed three demons with a hammer. You cared for us. You’re our savior.”
Sarah slammed her fist against the crate, a sharp crack of sound in the dark. That word always made her see red. “I’m no one’s savior.”
Lev stirred, drew a rough breath, and mumbled, “Then why are you still saving us?”
She had no answer for that. He made his point, and she simmered resentfully on it.
“What’s the end goal?” Ellie asked eventually.
“To get the fuck out of here alive.”
“Where're you gonna go?”
Sarah shrugged. She wanted to say it was the question of her life, but the real answer had always been, “Anywhere away from here.”
Ellie was grudging with her trust. She ate the same portion of pork ‘n beans as the rest of them. Lev accepted a few bites, Yara savored hers, and Ellie finished the can. Sarah ate the other can by herself and tried not to feel guilty about how much damn food that was to them. Four hundred calories at most, and that was all she’d eaten that day. Maybe a quarter of what she’d eat on a rest day. The drawback of being big was needing more food to keep going.
Since the kids didn’t complain about the few bites they ate, she wouldn’t either. The food she’d stolen wouldn’t get them very far if they didn’t conserve.
Ellie fell asleep sitting up a few minutes after she licked the residue of her dinner from her fingers. As her mouth fell open, her head leaned back. Yara gently nudged her with her right arm, and Ellie sank down onto a waiting blanket. Sarah wondered when she’d last gotten a good rest.
“Sleep,” Yara told Sarah. “I’ll wake you when she wakes.”
As usual, Yara supplied the best plan. Sarah curled up with her front to the fire, her gaze on Ellie as she faded fast. They had supplies and medicine now. If they could make it just one more month, they could slip away to find someplace safer, some place far away from Seattle.
Sarah awoke sharply when Lev was wracked by a coughing fit. She scrambled to her feet to help Yara lift his chest and gave him sips of water, then finally a swallow of whiskey. She had no idea what time it was, a product of living in this shadowed place.
It was only after she turned around that she remembered Ellie, who watched them warily. Sarah should have hidden the weapons, but what good was that when infected or fanatics could break into their haven at any moment? Sometimes trust was a foregone conclusion.
Sarah worked more at inventorying their reserves. She’d lost weight in the last month. There was little fat to her now, and she’d been losing muscle with their lean intake. She’d have to keep going as they were. They needed the bulk of their food on the road, and Lev and Yara needed the calories to heal.
She counted cans, calories, and pills. From those numbers, she calculated time. One hundred twenty-two amoxicillin capsules would see Lev through a forty days of treatment, but hopefully his immune system would only need to see forty-two doses, giving them plenty of excess. The aspirin had been nearly untouched. Four-hundred ninety-nine tablets were in it. Some asshole had opened a new bottle for one fucking aspirin. But at four tablets a day for both kids, they could keep going for two months.
The harder calculation was nutrition. She could figure calories, but nutrients were a different story. The preserved apples and cherries would have to be saved. Her mouth watered in memory of the sweetness and texture, but she couldn’t give in yet. Even the green beans and potatoes were a temptation. What she wouldn’t give for a good blueberry right then. Or a red pepper. God, an orange. As much as she craved the taste, her logic also reminded her what scurvy could do to a man.
These numbers were easy, a lot easier than the first tally she'd taken.
“You smell,” Yara told her not unkindly. It was a pointed comment and probably deserved. The fanatics had liked their girls clean, and with all that Yara put up with, she didn’t like the scent of a sour body. The kids asked so little of her that she couldn’t protest the request.
Yara didn’t pause from her task when Sarah stepped away. Sarah glanced at Ellie before she stripped out of her shirt and pants. She crouched in their designated corner and scrubbed herself with their dirty water supply, using a small shave of soap to try to approximate clean. Yara and Lev would never know what a good, hot shower felt like, but Sarah sure missed it. She missed deodorant and fruity shampoo. They seemed as far-fetched as a fast food restaurant now.
“You were shot,” Ellie said abruptly.
In all her time with Yara and Lev, neither had mentioned it. Getting shot was nothing anymore, but living past it to earn the scar was rare enough to earn a comment. Sarah glanced back at Ellie as she untangled her braid. The scar marked her left side and back, dramatic despite its age. “First night of the epidemic for me, funny enough.”
“Where were you?”
Maybe the kid hadn’t met someone who had lived before the epidemic. “Texas. Lots of guns around there.” Then she tacked on a quiet, bitter, “Yeehaw!”
Ellie studied her scar before betraying a surprisingly vulnerable stare. There was intimacy in the way she studied Sarah’s features, and that made Sarah self-conscious for the first time in years. No kid should be able to lay her bare with a look that old.
“She tried to leave.”
Sarah glanced over at Ellie reflexively. Ellie was asleep, curled up into a ball on her side, her face impossibly young in sleep. Sarah set down her pack and sat down by the fire, wishing she had half a second to arrange her thoughts after her patrol. Yara sat close so they could speak quietly enough not to risk waking Ellie.
“She wants to kill herself.”
“We can’t help her if she doesn’t want it, Yara,” Sarah warned. She’d learned that lesson a long time ago. No matter how much you wanted to care about someone else, you couldn't care more than that person cared about himself. She'd been mainly on one side of that scenario.
“We can help her.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Sarah heard panicked edge her voice. Yara didn’t flinch; she faced Sarah head-on, her expression fierce. The answer was obvious, but Sarah couldn’t fathom it. Yara wanted to help Ellie storm into a military base to 'kill every last one of those fuckers'? “We’re four people. How are we going to kill fifty armed fanatics? They have our rifles now!”
“She said the same thing. I told her what you did that night.”
“Yara, you and your brother killed everyone. They put me in a noose and strung me up. All I did was hang.”
“You saved me from Emily. You saved us from the demons. We can do this with you.”
“I’m not your savior. I won’t do this. I can protect you as far as you let me, but I can’t protect you if you do that. Don’t you want something better that this shit?”
“Not without my sisters.” Yara's reply was firm with a trace of fire that had probably made her spit in fanatic bitch's face. Her faith in Sarah was unshakable and scary as fuck. That kind of trust was so easy to betray. Sarah had a good aim, her instincts had proven reliable under pressure, but she’d survived so far because she had better luck than her enemies. The kids saw her as some superhero, but they didn't see the part they'd played in her survival.
“Lev told her to jump off a building if she wanted to kill herself.”
Sarah flinched, her heart engaged all at once. Who had been killed that made Ellie think this was the only way forward? Sarah shook her head and tried to tell herself again that she could only care as much as Ellie did. No more. In this case, it wasn’t possible to care less.
“When I told her how you saved us, she said you must be like your father.”
The words took a moment to fall into place, and meaning came much later than Yara’s voice. Sarah sank back into her seat and looked again at Ellie, trying to picture the watch on her wrist. It couldn’t mean anything. Her daddy was long dead, and this girl was born years after he was buried or infected. Yara had misheard or misinterpreted.
That fucking watch…
There wasn’t much to do but talk and eat, but both were rationed. Lev’s cough got better after a few days of antibiotics, and Yara didn’t wince quite as much when she used her left arm. Yara’s worry seemed to ease with each day, but Sarah’s dread compounded every moment that Ellie stayed with them.
She might resent the extra mouth to feed if Ellie hadn't offered a new diversion for the kids. Ellie also offered a measure of protection, another person who could defend herself and stand watch. She sang too, something that Lev enjoyed in his lucid moments. They were songs that struck a chord with Sarah and opened her memories to nostalgia she didn’t often indulge.
Ellie was a threat despite all that; she could easily disrupt their fragile plan.
On their third day together, Ellie got up when Sarah did and followed her out of the room. Sarah didn’t have it in her to protest. They scouted the building below floor by floor and found no humans or infected. Sarah grudgingly admitted to herself that if she was going to venture out again, Ellie might as well know the lay of the land. Another required, grudging trust.
They moved through the quiet halls, set aside anything that could be used as kindling, and emerged outside onto a crumbled corner of the roof nearly fifteen stories off the ground. Sarah checked the water jugs she’d left out, pleased as always by how easy it was to get fresh water in Seattle. She refilled their water supply and reset the collectors.
“Can they see us up here?”
“Nah. Go peek over the west ledge.”
Ellie’s brow furrowed, and she did as Sarah suggested. Sarah watched her face open in shock. She liked the wonder she saw on Ellie’s face. Yara and Lev had been scared at first, but Ellie’s wide eyes were paired with a grin. “Is that…?”
“The Pacific Ocean. Or at least the bay.”
“Still impressive. Wow. I've never seen so much water. The coast was all walled off in Boston.”
Boston, huh. Sarah sat down with a sigh, studying the gray sky. It was well above freezing, pleasant for the winter. The cloud cover had thinned, letting in a bit of sunlight. She needed to get Yara and Lev out here for the fresh air and sunlight—for vitamin D—but despite her grudging trust, Sarah couldn’t give up control by leaving Ellie alone with their supplies.
She sat for just a moment, closing her eyes and imaging what life would be like if the cordyceps hadn’t jumped up to the highest link on the food chain. Then, with a grunt to remind herself of what needed doing, she got up and started scrubbing all their dirty clothing.
It was ugly to feel relieved when she saw evidence of Yara’s monthly bleeding on her clothes. Sarah didn’t know if the relief was for the girl, her brother, and herself. She was happy to scrub the dull brown stains. Once upon a time, tampons were all the rage. Tampons ranked up with fried chicken on her I-wish-I-had list.
After a moment, Ellie crouched beside her and shared the burden. She even pulled off her clothes and sat shivering in her tank as she scrubbed her button-down with vigor.
“Don’t be an idiot.” Sarah peeled off her jacket and draped it over Ellie. She looked like a kid in a tent, but Ellie tugged her arms through the sleeves and rolled them up. Sarah wanted to remark on the tattoo she’d glimpsed, but she kept her curiosity to herself.
Eventually, Ellie finished with her clothes and moved on to Sarah’s. Sarah worked at Lev’s, hoping to protect Ellie from whatever had gotten him sick. She’d waited with her breath held for the last two weeks for Yara to start coughing, but so far she only had the broken arm to contend with.
“Thanks,” Sarah finally said as they sat back and sipped rainwater together. The chore was faster with two people to share the burden.
“Just glad to be outside again.”
Their silence was comfortable. Sarah thought she could sleep out here with Ellie next to her. Daylight, quiet, and an ally was sometimes all she needed.
“How’d you survive?”
The question didn’t cut through her peace, though Sarah wondered why Ellie asked all the hard questions. “Yara had Lev cut me down when the fanatics were hanging me. They were clearing out the Fireflies, and I didn’t fit their bill for a breeding machine. The kids ran away from them before the mess, and…” It wasn't her story to tell.
“Not then. The first night of the epidemic. When you were shot.”
“Oh.” Sarah gave up on rest. She didn’t often pull out the memory for a reason. She opened her eyes and studied the gray clouds moving slowly past her vision. “A surgery resident fresh out of school got his hands on me. Patched me back up. They put someone else’s blood in me too. I was just a kid so I healed good as new. The military shot me, fixed me, and kept me. That’s what they did then: save your life and own it.”
“How’d you join the Fireflies then?”
“I wasn’t part of the original movement. Got deployed to a combat zone in New Mexico a lot later. My men and I decided our best bet was the Firefly outpost in Utah. Didn’t seem like anything we did for FEDRA helped. The Fireflies promised us better. I gave it a try under Marlene. Not sure it was any better, but they promised it.” Sarah hesitated and forged ahead. “I wanted to save people. Ever since that doctor saved me, that’s what I wanted to do. Never really happened. Just got some combat medic training.”
“It’s about the same, isn’t it?”
“Not when my main job has been killing people. The Fireflies were no different than the military in that.”
Ellie sat back and didn’t have much to say about that.
“Where are you from, Ellie? Boston?”
Ellie shrugged and picked at a frayed string on Sarah’s jacket. “Sort of. Came across the country and hunkered down in Wyoming for a while. Was a nice life until the Fireflies started killing people.”
Sarah pondered what Firefly branch would deploy an assassin and extrapolate a plausible scenario. None from her crew, but they’d have to be from her crew if Ellie was here for revenge. All the other units in the west went dark years before, leaving no source for the assassin Ellie referenced. “Who did they kill?”
Ellie hesitated before she finally said, “My dad. They said they were from Seattle so here I am.”
Sarah didn’t need her to repeat her purpose. She also didn't want to ask how the information had been obtained.
Ellie gave Sarah another loaded look, one that Sarah couldn’t put into context. None of her men had gone missing or defected in the last six months. Those that died had been confirmed killed by the fanatics. “Did he have a name on his dog tag?”
“Kyle Martin.” Ellie said it with as much hatred as Sarah had heard one person direct at another.
Poor Kyle. He'd gained his fame by getting deathly ill after eating raw bear meat. Stupid country boy that somehow didn't know about parasites. Sarah pictured his dumb grin and sighed. “You’re outta luck. A fanatic killed him a few years ago.”
“I started to figure that was how it was.” Ellie wrapped her arms over her knees and sighed.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Eventually, Sarah asked, “Where’d you get the tat?”
Ellie offered her first real smile. Fifteen, Sarah though. No way she was older than fifteen, not with that smile. Definitely as pretty as her name.
“Can I see it?” she asked while her mind screamed: What the fuck are you doing?
Ellie pushed up the sleeve on the jacket, displaying a faded butterfly and vines. It was pretty as hell, matching the prettiness of the gritty girl next to her.
“How old are you, Ellie?”
“Twenty. Don’t know my exact birthday.”
Older than Sarah had thought. Old enough to know her mind. The answer made her feel better despite herself. “You didn’t have anyone but your dad?”
“There were others, but I had to make this right. I had to figure out why it happened.”
“By killing more people?”
Ellie shrugged. “That’s what they do.”
With all the shit Sarah had seen and done, she just couldn’t imagine this girl living her life by that standard. It hurt to see Ellie giving up her life for revenge. Sarah had been there. She'd thought that karma had finally caught up to her when Emily had put her blade against her belly. Sarah had always expected the end to be relief, but it had only been terror and rage. Now though... Maybe she'd survived to be right here with this kid.
“You want to kill a Firefly to right the wrong? Kill me then. Be done with it and go home with Yara and Lev, back to those other people. There’s a lot more to life than revenge. Take it from me: it doesn’t make you feel better.”
Then Ellie looked at her, really looked at her. Her gaze was piercing, sober, and dark. “He talked about you all the time.”
Sarah shook her head, confused by the abrupt segue. Ellie didn’t pause. She reached under her left sleeve and unbuckled the big watch from her wrist, laying it on Sarah’s knee. Sarah gazed at it as her world tilted and her heart thundered in her ears, but she heard every word Ellie said next. “He wore this every day. He used to tell me how much you loved music, how much trouble you could get into, how strong and smart and beautiful you’d be if you were alive.”
The watch was heavy. There was a smaller circle within the large face, one she’d chosen because having a separate secondhand made it seem fancy. The band had faded to gray; it was frayed and stained. Sarah slowly touched it, smoothing her fingers over the rough band and shiny metal backing. It had cost her fifty-nine dollars and eighty-seven cents, money she’d saved by not eating lunch or getting a soda at school every day for a month. It had been her dad’s money, but she figured not spending it made the gift real.
Sarah’s mouth opened, but she couldn’t form words. This was so out of the realm of possibility she couldn’t accept it as truth.
“Joel isn’t actually my dad,” Ellie said softly, her voice choked with tears. “He loves me though. Saved me and taught me how to survive. He never forgot you, never stopped loving you. He’d be so fucking happy to know you’re alive. He used to say we’d be friends if you were alive.”
“I don’t…” Sarah picked up the watch and stared at it, stared at the hole in the plastic cover. Ellie pulled a folded picture from her pocket and laid it on Sarah’s other knee. She didn’t feel like she’d ever been the little girl in the picture, but that was her daddy, sure as day. She hadn’t seen him in so long that the memory of his face stirred inside her and unfurled. She’d forgotten what he looked like.
“Jesus fuck,” Sarah whispered finally, touching the picture. “Jesus fucking Christ. How did…?”
She looked back up, and Ellie’s eyes filled with tears. Sarah couldn’t cry, not over the gift she’d just been given.
Things had a way of fading out of sight. Emotions softened, and thinking of the quiet advice her dad used to give, the pluck of his guitar, and the smell of him didn't sting anymore even when it ached dully. But this... This made everything fresh and new and so worth every pain.
She pulled Ellie against her, and they hugged as if embracing the man that connected them.
“I wish he was here so he could meet you.”
“I do too. But I’m glad I got to meet you,” Sarah whispered back, feeling the thin back, the ribs, and the shaking chest of the girl in her arms. She missed her daddy, but not nearly as much as before knowing the piece of him in her arms. And she knew she could care more than Ellie let her. She'd get this girl out of here too; she had to.
They stayed on that roof too long, talking quietly about everything related to Joel. Sarah learned more about her father than she’d ever known. Food, music, jokes, gentle love, fierce protection… A good man. A dangerous man, but a good one. He’d loved Ellie, and Sarah could see why. He was so firm inside Ellie that she talked about him like he was still alive.
They skirted around how Ellie and Joel met until Ellie pulled up her sleeve to show her tattoo again.
Sarah looked, knowing too much about the world to take for granted personal boundaries. When Ellie took her hand and pressed her fingers against the soft, warm skin under the butterfly, Sarah knew that touch was a gift too.
“What kind of butterfly is it?”
Ellie grinned, shy for some reason. “It’s a moth.”
Sarah resisted the urge to shrug. There was an important distinction to Ellie, and… She brushed her fingertips over the moth again, feeling the irregular texture: nodular skin. Scar tissue? She rubbed a little harder, tracing the curve of that odd scar in a distinct shape of a human dental arcade, and the hair went up on her neck.
“I was supposed to be the cure. Joel wouldn’t let them use me.”
“I’ll be damned.” Sarah couldn’t help but smile as she traced the raised curve of that bite scar again. Funny how the world came 'round in a circle. Saving the world the right way. That was her daddy. He would never sacrifice the wrong thing for the right cause.
“I used to feel guilty he chose me.”
“Why? What kind of shitty world are we saving by sacrificing kids on the chance of a cure?”
Ellie studied her curiously for a moment. “Joel used to tell me it was all about survival.”
Sarah used to think so too. She’d fought to survive when she’d needed to, and the rest of the time she’d gone through life quietly, ignoring the evil...or embodying it. Then she’d been hanging by her neck with a knife at her belly, and she had the choice to do nothing and die or help and die. For the first time in her entire life, the right choice had been glaringly obvious. “We can survive by doing the right thing. I’m going to keep fighting for those kids even if I don’t fight for me.”
“Are there other girls?”
That was the ugly truth, one that worked through Sarah like the shot of guilt it deserved. She wondered if Yara and Ellie had talked again about mounting a suicidal rescue mission. “I made a vow to protect these two kids.”
Ellie just looked at her.
“I can’t sacrifice Yara and Lev to save the others. They’ll die without me. They’ll die if we stay.”
Ellie set her jaw and nodded, pulling down her sleeve. She nodded at the watch and picture. “Keep them.”
“No.” Sarah held them back out to Ellie, aching for the disappointment she'd seen on Ellie's face. “He’s your memory more than mine. Maybe you aren't his blood, but he was your dad too.”
Ellie’s jaw clenched. She hesitated and then snatched the watch and picture and turned away. Sarah gave her a minute to settle as she folded the clothes and balanced the leather straps connecting all the water containers over her shoulders. When Ellie turned back, her face was dry and the watch was buckled on her wrist. She picked up her share too.
It was easier with two people.
It didn’t escape Sarah’s attention that Ellie started counting her ammunition. Sarah ventured out twice more, but the patrols had changed, and even the quieter outposts were too guarded to snitch supplies. Whatever organization there had been was gone, which made it even harder for her to plan when and how. Each time she left, Sarah returned to interrupt a strained conversation between Ellie, Yara, and Lev.
“What are you planning?” Sarah asked Yara one night after Ellie faded to sleep. It could have been a rhetorical question.
“We have to think of the others.”
“No. I have to think of you.”
“We’re going with her. To make this right.”
God. God no. Sarah pressed her hands to her face and rubbed hard. She'd had Yara and Lev convinced to leave before Ellie came; she’d hoped for more time to change Ellie’s mind. Now they were all turned against her again. “What are you gonna do with a bum arm? And you?” She shot Lev a hard look, taking in his pale skin and short breath. “You can’t walk without coughing. She’s on a suicide mission. We should be talking her out of it, not letting her drag us into it.”
“We can help her survive, and she can help us. I was never going to leave my sisters,” Yara said firmly.
Lev said, “I’m healing. We’ve waited long enough. And she wants to do something.”
So Ellie had won him over too. It wasn’t hard for Lev to trust someone over Sarah. He’d spent his childhood indoctrinated against her and her organization. Sarah wanted to cry, but she held iron control over that need. Anger was always easier. “After all the fucking trouble I went to collect supplies—”
“There’ll be more supplies in the compound.” Ellie had woken up or maybe she hadn't been asleep. She glared now with as much force as Sarah’s first drill sergeant. “And you know the layout.”
“How can I protect all three of you?”
“You said it yourself: what kind of world are we saving if we don’t do it the right way?”
Ellie didn’t get it: suicide was still suicide, whether to kill or save. “I didn’t say we should get ourselves killed.”
“Sarah,” Yara murmured, as calm as she’d been when the fanatics had broken her arm, as firm as she'd been fighting off infected with just a knife, as steady as she’d been curled against Sarah’s chest as Sarah ran hard to the nook she’d discovered scouting with her troops, the men who'd been hanged and gutted that stormy night. She'd only asked that Sarah not forget Lev, but how could she when Lev had been right on her heels to protect his sister? Was all that fear and terror leading up to this horrible fucking end? Sarah could accept it for herself but not for these kids.
Sarah looked at the three young faces surrounding her, and she knew she had no choice.
Save the world or die trying.
She started scouting with Ellie. As Sarah had trusted, Ellie was a quiet companion when she needed to be. She seemed to inherently understand the how and why of their careful monitoring of patrols, supplies, and numbers. They shared the scope from the rifle Ellie had lifted from Tim to identify prominent members of the fanatics.
“Do you see the fat one?” Ellie murmured in her ear.
“Yeah. The patriarch.” The fat fuck, Sarah called him in her head. He was huge, with a gut that flopped over his belt and a big gray beard that looked like it could house a bird. She would vomit before she called him the Bright Lord, which Yara called him. The kid had shivered and professed he was scarier than Sarah, which Sarah assumed meant he was scary. Ellie had laughed, but Lev hadn’t.
The fat fuck stopped to talk to another man, and Sarah paused and blinked, readjusting the scope. Her gut dropped, and she felt screaming rage rise up inside slowly to fill her chest with its weightlessness. Roland, her CO, was talking calmly to the fat child-fucker. He wasn’t cuffed, beaten, or under duress. He smiled.
She’d wondered on and off through the weeks how they could have fallen so quickly and quietly to a bunch of bumbling ignorant savages that shared a few pistols between them. A part of her had been sure it was an inside job, a betrayal, but that had been here paranoid side. To think her CO had brought the whole fucking base down…
For what? For pussy? Because he was angry Sarah had rejected him again? She’d trusted Roland with her career and her life, and there he was, smiling and nodding at the child-fucker they used to joke about torturing to death.
“What is it?” Ellie asked.
Fuck Roland. Sarah had thought he was a good man. She’d thought he was better. But better wasn’t throwing his men to the wolves to be hanged and gutted. Better wasn’t allying with a man that raped his daughters and gave his weak to the infected.
“My CO.” Her voice sounded oddly normal. She handed the scope to Ellie and had her look. “Traitor. Probably opened our doors.”
Ellie studied Roland through the scope. “Did he have it out for you?”
She shook her head and admitted, “He said he loved me, but love means nothing to those people. If you see him in there, kill him.”
Ellie studied her quietly. She finally said, “Sorry.”
“Not something you need to apologize for. Let’s go.”
The next day, Sarah awoke to unexpected activity. Lev was working with his bow and walking back and forth across the room. Yara massaged her left arm. Sarah watched them, both happy for their progress and terrified for the implication of their exercises. Then she realized Ellie was gone.
“Where is she?”
“Scouting,” Yara replied calmly, as if she'd anticipated the question. “She left her rifle and took the scope.”
Sarah couldn’t go now. She didn’t know where Ellie had gone or how long she’d be gone. She went up to the roof to exchange their water and wash clothes and herself. She told herself the cold made her quick in the task, but her worry for Ellie was what put her heart in her throat and made her run down the last flight of steps.
“Still gone,” Lev replied when she got back to their hide.
Sarah sat with her legs around the fire and whetted her knife, unable to think about anything but her worry. When the familiar knock sounded on the door, Sarah opened it because the kids were asleep. Ellie stepped around her wordlessly. She shook off her wet coat, unpacked her bag, and collapsed on the floor next to Sarah with a grunt.
“You take me with you when you go out.” Sarah kept her voice pitched tight and steady.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking.” Ellie glanced at Yara, who curled up by her brother. She turned back to Sarah. “The girls are in the armory.”
“That’s a good guess.” It was. Sarah had already come to that conclusion.
“It's not a guess.”
Everything inside Sarah froze at the admission of risk. Ellie had snuck into the base. Did she want to get herself killed? For someone who was so passionate about saving those girls, she sure didn’t give a fuck about surviving to get them out. “You went in?”
Ellie’s perplexed smile only raised Sarah’s temper. “You look just like Joel right now.”
It was like a baseball bat to the solar plexus. While Sarah tried to collect her shattered anger, Ellie continued, “I was safe. It’s a dark night, and there haven’t been any patrols on the path I took. The mud’s so thick they won’t be able to tell my tracks from theirs. I just looked in a window. There were maybe twelve girls, all scarred, in a room with a bunch of cots. I saw some older women with them. I think they had scars here.” Ellie touched her lateral canthus.
“Tell me before you do something that fucking stupid,” Sarah ground out.
Ellie shrugged and ignored her. “Why’s the armory in with the lockup? Seems stupid to keep the guns and criminals together.”
“Because it’s the only well-fortified building in the base. What was stupid was my CO’s grand idea to dig a tunnel into it. An escape plan.”
“Or an entrance. Did you do it?”
At least Ellie could summon excitement for the idea. Sarah almost hated to disappoint her. A secret tunnel would make this all so much easier. “I overruled him and pointed out the idiocy of digging a tunnel into a building that housed all our wares and one out of the building that housed our criminals.”
“Bet you feel so smart right now.”
“We still have two problems: getting in alive and getting those girls out alive too.”
“We’ll just kill everyone who stands in the way.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s the only fucking answer.”
“Is this about saving those girls or avenging my dad?”
Ellie’s eyes widened. She looked so spooked by Sarah’s question that Sarah regretted asking it. Ellie shook her head. “You’re right. I’m not a hero. I just want to wipe them out, but maybe I can make some of it right if we save even one of those girls. Or at least give them a chance to be free.”
Sarah rubbed her forehead. “Did you notice the padlocks on the doors?”
“Yep. So we guard one exit and keep them from locking us in.”
“So they shoot us on the way out? This is stupid. We can’t plan for all the possibilities of failure.”
“Maybe we’ll just have to take that risk.”
“You know what they were going to do to me? They were going to gut me and hang me alive. And that’s the kindest way they know how to kill.”
Ellie’s face hardened in her anger. “I’ve seen what they do to their enemies. That’s why I’m here.”
It was a punch in the gut. Sarah couldn’t think of it. She didn’t know her daddy, and she couldn’t picture what had happened to him. She wouldn’t say it. Another quieter part of her wondered what the hell the fanatics would want with her father in Wyoming.
“It’s worth the risk,” Ellie repeated.
“We can die to save many or live to save a few.”
“Always the moral dilemma, huh? My whole life has been a fucking moral dilemma.” Ellie seemed to calm in the next moment. “You’ll be the hero. So will Yara and Lev. I’ll just be fucking angry.”
“Don’t get yourself killed. There’s no point in any of this if you do. You hear me?”
Ellie scoffed, and Sarah took her shoulder in a slow but firm grip. She waited for Ellie to look at her, and whatever Ellie saw made her eyes widen. “You hear me, kiddo?”
All of Ellie’s defensive anger faded, and her face opened in honest attention. She nodded slowly. “I hear you.”
Sarah and Ellie scouted together a few more times. They watched for patterns in the patrols, but apparently Roland ran a loose ship without Sarah’s discipline. They watched for infected too, but Seattle’s heavy population hadn’t made its way south. Sarah and Ellie argued in the recesses of the building as they made their way back to their little bunker and never reached an agreement. They’d kill some or none, break into the armory and lock it behind them, and escape somehow from one of the two heavily locked doors in the place.
There were big questions: what supplies would they sneak away with? How many girls would come with them? What would they do if they were locked inside with the only exit leading to a rifle squad? Would they save, leave, or kill the wounded? What if infected came?
It was a shitty plan, one that didn’t even amount to a plan. Sarah slept each night with her heart in her throat and dreamed of all the ways this little family she’d formed would die before they could start.
Then the little shits left her.
She woke several hours into the night to find their hideaway empty and most of the weapons gone. This wasn’t Ellie going on patrol by herself. This was a fucking betrayal.
A single-minded raging terror worked through her. It cleared her thoughts and pumped strength back into her bones and muscles. Sarah left supplies—snarling at the watch and picture tucked onto her pack—and picked up her weapons: shotgun, pistol, and a machete. She’d die if those kids died, and she’d fucking kill every last one of the fanatics if they killed her kids.
Later, she wouldn’t remember much about that long night or the light of the next morning. It was bitterly cold, raining hard the entire time, and even the rain didn’t wash away the scent of death. There was so much death: fanatic and defected Fireflies, and later infected started circling the base’s walls. They screamed, clicked, and scratched the walls with their need to multiply.
Sarah was too busy killing everyone in her path to worry about the infected outside her vision.
No mercy. She had no mercy, not a step behind her kin the way she was, not with the unspoken rage that her people, her fragile family, had been hurt or killed. So she killed every one of her enemies and followed Ellie into the darkness.
She worked through the compound systematically, clearing dead, wounded, and living from each building. She killed men and women, fanatics and defected. The only task that diverted her from tracking her kids was Roland’s office just down the hallway in the barracks. She’d run out of shotgun ammo by then and only carried her machete and pistol, but that was all she needed.
Roland leaned up against his desk, wearing his goddamn dress uniform. He looked like he'd been expecting her. He was clean, handsome, and so fucking dead. She’d trusted him with her life and her career even after her repeated rejections to his advances. Now he was steady and calm as he faced her, and he smiled. “Hi, Sarah.”
He didn’t even give her the dignity of a salute or her rank. But he hadn’t exactly given his men anything either before selling them to their death. Sarah remembered coming back to herself on the wet concrete, lifting her head to see her loyal men hanging with their guts out, living the horror of their last moments as that woman pressed her knife against her belly, and she had nothing for Roland but the sharp edge of her machete.
“You were always—”
She swung so hard the blade went a foot through his shoulder and sank into his chest. His eyes widened, and his breath rattled from around the blade and in his throat. His weight sank into the blade, and his last breath wheezed out in the word, “...Better.”
Better for what? Better for the guilt she felt when she killed? Better for the agony of the decisions she’d have to make the following day? Better wasn’t killing, and she wasn't better for how much that killing ended up hurting after the pleasure faded.
She had to keep moving. Too long here meant too long those kids were in danger. Sarah didn’t wait for Roland to die before she kicked him off her blade and left him behind.
The carnage continued into the mess hall, and it was there that she finally found Ellie. She strode into the room and flinched behind cover at the sound of a shotgun. When she raised her head, Sarah realized she hadn’t been the target. Meat exploded from the gut of the patriarch, the man that enslaved and fucked all women here.
“You killed her, you fuck!” came a scream of rage.
Ellie. Sarah’s visual field expanded as she recognized that voice. The fat fuck’s belly was a mess of fat and blood from the birdshot Ellie pumped into it, but he continued on his trajectory. He was moving towards Ellie. Ellie was bleeding from the head, pinned underneath a table, and cornered. She pulled the trigger on the shotgun again, but there was only a click. Fucking cornered and hurt and out of ammo.
The fat man would kill Ellie because all Ellie had in that moment was a tiny switchblade. But Sarah was bigger that Ellie, madder than the fat man, and she carried the biggest fucking knife in the room.
He knew what he was; he turned towards her call without hesitation. Sarah had never felt stronger. She crossed the distance in three running strides, raised her machete, and his eyes widened as he realized what was coming. He raised his arm in defense, and she hacked it off, her blade sliding through his neck too with a wet crunch of flesh. He collapsed to his knees, and she put her boot into his shoulder to yank the blade the rest of the way out, tearing his head off in the same move.
She panted as she watched his feet and hand twitch as his blood gushed with each dying heartbeat. Then a voice cut through the loud thumping hum in her head and leeched the red from her vision.
“Sarah,” Ellie said cautiously. “Sarah?”
Ellie. Ellie needed her. Sarah touched the table that pinned Ellie’s ankle. These old mess hall tables were heavy, but she lifted it as easily as she’d torn off the fat man’s head. Ellie scrambled out from under it and got to her feet, only limping one step before she took off at a jog. “Yara and Lev went to the armory.”
It was second nature to follow Ellie now.
They only found dead men on the path to the armory. Sarah couldn’t catch up to Ellie fast enough to shove her behind cover. She was sure there would be a gunshot across the silence of the yard, but the door of the armory only quietly opened as they approached. Lev’s arrowhead peeked out as they slipped by him. He was pale but steady. He tried to hide a dry cough, but that seemed to be the extent of his injuries.
“Yara?” Ellie asked.
“Safe.” He nodded down the hallway.
Sarah took another full breath. It was surreal to see Lev carrying her old keychain. He used it to lock the door behind them. The sound of those keys was comforting, even if her old lieutenant had sworn that noisy shit would bring infected to their location. Lev held them out to her hesitantly, and Sarah palmed them, shaking them on her middle finger like a yoyo. The old nervous habit helped her get a full breath back into her lungs.
The cluster of women and children in what had been the Firefly lockup did something evil to her temper. A lot of them were what they would have called ethnic minorities before the collapse. They had been sheltered from good and exposed to all the bad in the world. They looked at her like she was a monster, but she had was no longer surprised by how much people could warp each other’s perceptions. Then again, she'd just butchered several dozen men and was probably covered in their blood.
Some of them were dead, and they were laid out side by side on the floor. Two of the girls were draping sheets over them respectfully. Sarah noticed not all of the dead were kids and girls. Had they mounted a defense within too? She wouldn’t have thought the girls would fight back, but then again, Yara had spat in the face of her matriarch knowing what the consequences would be.
As if summoned by her thoughts, Yara stepped around the corner. Sarah was stunned when Yara wrapped her arms around her in a hug, and she softened into the touch. Sarah didn’t think about the blood on her hands when she cupped the back of Yara’s head and held her close. The last of the red faded from the edge of her vision. “You okay, kid?”
Yara nodded. She stepped back. “Are you?”
There would be pain, Sarah was sure. There always was after killing like that. But for the moment, nothing inside her ached. The anxiety that had tightened around her neck since the noose had been cut was gone, even without a plan for the next day.
They were closer to surviving tomorrow for surviving today.
They stayed holed up in the women’s dormitory, planning their move the next morning. Their watches were long despite their exhaustion, but both Sarah and Ellie managed to stay awake during their shift change.
Ellie sat against the wall beside Sarah, and they carried their guns with their fingers on the safeties, listening to their surroundings for any whisper of attack. Sarah had already lapped the compound twice to scavenge what she could. She’d found no fanatics, but the infected remained keyed on the base. A few had slipped into the gaps in the wall, but she’d killed them silently. The armory was at least safe from infected for the night, and they had to hope they could slip out the next day.
“What if we set off some explosives on the north side to draw the infected around? I can stay behind to keep tossing a few over the wall to get everyone out.”
“Not you. You need to take point. I’ll do it.”
Sarah didn’t miss Ellie’s worried look. She’d washed the blood from her face and hands earlier and felt renewed in more ways than one. She felt a smile come on and let herself shrug like Ellie. “I have to go back to our hide. We left some necessary supplies there. I can move out quickly after y'all get out.”
“Okay,” Ellie said eventually.
Sarah knew she could track the group as they slipped away from Seattle, and Ellie had said she’d follow I-90 as long as it was safe. If anyone could get these women a safe distance away despite the infected, Ellie, Lev, and Yara could.
For the night, they were as safe as they could hope. Sarah had the feeling this would be her first good sleep in weeks.
Ellie wrung her hands and sighed. “There’s a place in Wyoming, that place I told you about. It’s got electricity, crops, herds, houses, and good people. Think we can make the trip? It’ll be hard in the cold, but we have good clothes and this place is a treasure trove for travel supplies.”
“Wyoming sounds unreal.” But Ellie was pretty unreal. The memory of her daddy was unreal. She thought of Ellie as someone who needed rescuing, but Sarah decided now that Ellie would have killed the fat man and lived to tell the tale even if Sarah hadn’t been there with her machete.
“It’s a hell of a lot of work. Everyone has a job, but it’s safe and there’s the best food you’ve ever tasted.” Ellie’s swallow was audible. “Your Uncle Tommy knows how to cook the best barbecue in the country.”
Sarah fought her tears. She wiped one eye and gave a rough laugh. One of Ellie’s people left behind, huh? “Uncle Tommy?”
“He’s got a wife. A kid now, too. His wife wants another. I guess that makes you an aunt. Or is it a cousin? I never figured that one out.”
Sarah tried to speak, but it took a few moments of silence to find words. She couldn’t give voice to the hope. She’d thought that night the fanatics strung her up that she’d lost all hope for the future: her men dead, her organization wiped out. Then Yara and Lev came out of the darkness, and Ellie chased it back altogether.
Sarah’s voice was rough when she asked, “And you? Got a husband waiting at home for you?”
“I’d rather a wife, you know? But nah. I have roots, just not that kind. I’ve always been a little scared of accidentally infecting someone with my bodily fluids so that kind of cuts down on romantic stuff.”
A wife. It lit a spark of joy too bright to ignore. What are you doing, fool? “There were others like you. They couldn’t spread their infection. The doctors couldn’t create a cure from them either. No matter what adjuvant they put into their harvested bodily fluids, CSF included, no immune response. No titers, no IgG, no IgM, no delay or prevention of infection. They even scraped the fungus off the lining of their brains, and nothing.”
Ellie looked like she’d seen a ghost. Sarah justified her knowledge. “I guarded one of those labs for a year. Then I realized the people—usually kids—that went in never came out and I asked to be transferred and tried to forget I ever let that happen. They said I could learn to be a doctor there, but it was just a more sterile way to kill people.”
“I need to tell you something,” Ellie said earnestly.
Sarah didn’t want to hear whatever it was that made Ellie fidget and wring her hands. She didn’t know what made her do what she did next—liar, a wife, she’d said she wanted a wife—but she leaned over and kissed Ellie deep and slow, enjoying a taste of Ellie's mouth. She drew back to judge Ellie’s wide-eyed shock and bright blush. Sarah offered a lazy smile. “Shoot me if I go rabid in a day.”
Ellie’s eyes filled with tears, and Sarah realized she’d just said the worst thing imaginable. “I… Oh, fuck,” Ellie gasped, wringing her hands. “I had a girl I loved back before all of this. She… Fuck. We were horsing around and we kissed, and then we both got bit. I killed her, Sarah. I kept waiting to get sick and I never did, but she turned.”
From elation to regret, but it was a shot of consequence to remind her this wasn’t okay. “I’m sorry, Ellie. It was a bad joke. You won’t get me sick.”
This spitfire of a girl was more vulnerable than Sarah would have guessed. “I promise. But you have to promise me we’ll get out of this.”
Ellie offered a fragile smile. “Promise. There’s a reason to get back.”
Wyoming, Uncle Tommy, and a future with Ellie, Yara, and Lev in it. Sarah understood those reasons maybe better than Ellie did. “Don’t leave me again.”
“Is it leaving when we know you’ll come after us?”
Sarah drew a deep breath, expanding her chest as far as it would go. She leaned her head against the wall and pondered if there was an answer to that question. In the end, she just shrugged. Ellie slumped against her side and rested her cheek against Sarah’s arm. “We won’t leave you again. If you’re not caught up on the second day, we’ll wait.”
Sarah looked at the girl sitting beside her. She imagined all the pieces of this girl that her daddy had shaped. Was it the shy smile, the wicked grin, or the soft look of hope? Sarah wondered how long it would take her to fit all those pieces back into their places. She returned Ellie’s smile and decided that everything was good enough for now.
Maybe it just took the right people beside her to save the world the right way.