The 5th Wave
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“Don’t be a dumbass, Sullivan,” Hutchfield said. “She can’t go out there without an escort.”
“Sure,” Dad said. “Right. You’re right, of course.”
He leaned over and gave me a hug. Not too tight, not too long. A quick hug. Squeeze. Release. Anything more would seem like a good-bye.
Branch turned to his commander and said, “First priority, sir?”
And Vosch nodded. “First priority.”
We stepped into the bright sunshine, the man in the gas mask and the girl with the teddy bear. Straight ahead a couple of soldiers were leaning against a Humvee. I hadn’t seen them when we passed the Humvees before. They straightened at the sight of us. Corporal Branch gave them a thumbs-up and then held up his index finger. First priority.
“How far is it?” he asked me.
“Not far,” I answered. My voice sounded very small to me. Maybe it was Sammy’s teddy, tugging me back to childhood.
He followed me down the trail that snaked into the dense woods behind the compound, rifle held in front of him, barrel down. The dry ground crunched in protest under his brown boots.
The day was warm, but it was cooler under the trees, their leaves a rich, late-summer green. We passed the tree where I’d stashed the M16. I didn’t look back at it. I kept walking toward the clearing.
And there he was, the little shit, up to his ankles in bones and dust, clawing through the broken remains for that last, useless, priceless trinket, one more for the road so whenever he got to where the road ended he’d be the Man.
His head came around when we stepped inside the ring of trees. Glistening with sweat and the crap he slopped in his hair. Streaks of black soot stained his cheeks. He looked like some sorry-ass excuse of a football player. When he saw us, his hand whipped behind his back. Something silver flashed in the sun.
“Hey! Cassie? Hey, there you are. I came back here looking for you because you weren’t in the barracks, and then I saw…there was this—”
“Is he the one?” the soldier asked me. He slung the rifle over his shoulder and took a step toward the pit.
It was me, the soldier in the middle, and Crisco in the pit of ash and bone.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s Crisco.”
“That’s not my name,” he squeaked. “My real name is—”
I’ll never know Crisco’s real name.
I didn’t see the gun or hear the report of the soldier’s sidearm. I didn’t see the soldier draw it from his holster, but I wasn’t looking at the soldier, I was looking at Crisco. His head snapped back, like someone had yanked on his greasy locks, and he sort of folded up as he went down, clutching the treasures of the dead in his hand.
The girl wearing the backpack and carrying the ridiculous teddy bear, standing just a couple of yards behind him.
The soldier pivoted, arm extended. My memory’s a little fuzzy about this next part. I don’t remember dropping the bear or yanking the gun from my back pocket. I don’t even remember pulling the trigger.
The next clear memory I have is of the black visor shattering.
And the soldier falling to his knees in front of me.
And seeing his eyes.
His three eyes.
Well, of course I realized later he didn’t really have three eyes. The one in the middle was the blackened entry wound of the bullet.
It must have shocked him to turn around and see a gun pointed at his face. It made him hesitate. How long? A second? Less than a second? But in that millisecond, eternity coiled on itself like a giant anaconda. If you’ve ever been through a traumatic accident, you know what I’m talking about. How long does a car crash last? Ten seconds? Five? It doesn’t feel that short if you’re in it. It feels like a lifetime.
He pitched over face-first into the dirt. There was no question I’d wasted him. My bullet had blasted a pie plate–sized hole in the back of his head.
But I didn’t lower the gun. I kept it pointed at his half head as I backed toward the trail.
Then I turned and ran like hell.
In the wrong direction.
Toward the compound.
Not smart. But I wasn’t thinking at that point. I’m only sixteen, and this was the first person I’d shot point-blank in the face. I was having trouble dealing.
I just wanted to get back to Dad.
Dad would fix this.
Because that’s what dads do. They fix things.
My mind didn’t register the sounds at first. The woods echoed with the staccato bursts of automatic weapons and people screaming, but it wasn’t computing, like Crisco’s head snapping back and the way he flopped into the gray dust like every bone in his body had suddenly turned into Jell-O, the way his killer had swung around in a perfectly executed pirouette with the barrel of the gun flashing in the sunlight.
The world was ripping apart. And pieces of the wreckage were raining all around me.
It was the beginning of the 4th Wave.
I skittered to a stop before reaching the compound. The hot smell of gunpowder. Wisps of smoke curling out of the barrack windows. There was a person crawling toward the storage shed.
It was my father.
His back was arched. His face was covered in dirt and blood. The ground behind my father was pockmarked with my father’s blood.
He looked over as I came out of the trees.
No, Cassie, he mouthed. Then his arms gave out. He toppled over, lay still.
A soldier emerged from the barracks. He strolled over to my father. Easy, catlike grace, shoulders relaxed, arms loose at his sides.
I backed into the trees. I raised the gun. But I was over a hundred feet away. If I missed…
It was Vosch. He seemed even taller standing over the crumpled form of my father. Dad wasn’t moving. I think he was playing dead.
It didn’t matter.
Vosch shot him anyway.
I don’t remember making any noise when he pulled the trigger. But I must have done something to set off Vosch’s Spidey sense. The black mask whipped around, sunlight flashing off the visor. He held up his index finger toward two soldiers coming out of the barracks, then jabbed his thumb in my direction.
THEY TOOK OFF toward me like a couple of cheetahs. That’s how fast they seemed to move. I’d never seen anyone run that fast in my life. The only thing that comes close is a scared-shitless girl who’s just seen her father murdered in the dirt.
Leaf, branch, vine, bramble. The rush of air in my ears. The rapid-fire scuffscuffscuff of my shoes on the trail.
Shards of blue sky through the canopy, blades of sunlight impaling the shattered earth. The ripped-apart world careened.
I slowed as I neared the spot where I’d hidden my father’s last present to me. Mistake. The high-caliber rounds smacked into the tree trunk two inches from my ear. The impact sent fragments of pulverized wood into my face. Tiny, hair-thin slivers embedded themselves in my cheek.
Do you know how to tell who the enemy is, Cassie?
I couldn’t outrun them.
I couldn’t outgun them.
Maybe I could outsmart them.
THEY ENTERED THE CLEARING, and the first thing they saw was the body of Corporal Branch, or whatever it was that called itself Corporal Branch.
“There’s one over there,” I heard one say.
The crunch of heavy boots in a bowlful of brittle bones.
The cackle of a static frequency, then: “Colonel, we’ve got Branch and one unidentified civilian. That’s a negative, sir. Branch is KIA, repeat Branch is KIA.” Now he spoke to his buddy, the one standing by Crisco. “Vosch wants us back ASAP.”
Crunch-crunch said the bones as he heaved himself out of the pit.
“She ditched this.”
My backpack. I tried to throw it into the woods, as far away from the pit as I could. But it hit a tree and landed just inside the far edge of the clearing.
“Strange,” the voice said.
“It’s okay,” his buddy said. “The Eye will take care of her.”
Their voices faded. The sound of the woods at peace returned. A whisper of wind. The warble of birds. Somewhere in the brush a squirrel fussed.
Still, I didn’t move. Each time the urge to run started to rise up in me, I squashed it down.
No hurry now, Cassie. They’ve done what they’ve come to do. You have to stay here till dark. Don’t move!
So I didn’t. I lay still inside the bed of dust and bones, covered by the ashes of their victims, the Others’ bitter harvest.
And I tried not to think about it.
What I was covered in.
Then I thought, These bones were people, and these people saved my life, and then I didn’t feel so creeped.
They were just people. They didn’t ask to be there any more than I did. But they were there and I was there, so I lay still.
It’s weird, but it was almost like I felt their arms, warm and soft, enfolding me.
I don’t know how long I lay there, with the arms of dead people holding me. It felt like hours. When I finally stood up, the sunlight had aged to a golden sheen and the air had turned a little cooler. I was covered head to toe in gray ash. I must have looked like a Mayan warrior.
The Eye will take care of her.
Was he talking about the drones, an eye-in-the-sky thing? And if he was talking about the drones, then this wasn’t some rogue unit scouring the countryside to waste possible carriers of the 3rd Wave so the unexposed wouldn’t be infected.
That would definitely be bad.
But the alternative would be much, much worse.
I trotted over to my backpack. The deep woods called to me. The more distance I put between myself and them, the better it was gonna be. Then I remembered my father’s gift, far up the path, practically within spitting distance of the compound. Crap, why hadn’t I stashed it in the ash pit?
It sure might prove more useful than a handgun.
I didn’t hear anything. Even the birds had gone mum. Just wind. Its fingers trailed through the mounds of ash, flicking it into the air, where it danced fitfully in the golden light.
They were gone. It was safe.
But I hadn’t heard them leave. Wouldn’t I have heard the roar of the flatbed motor, the growl of the Humvees as they left?
Then I remembered Branch stepping toward Crisco.
Is he the one?
Swinging the rifle behind his shoulder.
The rifle. I crept over to the body. My footfalls sounded like thunder. My own breath like mini explosions.
He had fallen facedown at my feet. Now he was faceup, though that face was still mostly hidden by the gas mask.
His sidearm and rifle were gone. They must have taken them. For a second I didn’t move. And moving was a very good idea at that juncture of the battle.
This wasn’t part of the 3rd Wave. This was something completely different. It was the beginning of the 4th, definitely. And maybe the 4th Wave was a sick version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Maybe Branch wasn’t human and that’s why he was wearing a mask.
I knelt beside the dead soldier. Grasped the top of the mask firmly, and pulled until I could see his eyes, very human-looking brown eyes, staring sightlessly into my face. I kept pulling.
I wanted to see and I didn’t want to see. I wanted to know but I didn’t want to know.