The 5th Wave
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Ringer’s scrunched into a corner of the room with good angles on the windows and the door coming in from the lobby. A hand on her neck, and that hand is gloved in blood. I have to look. She doesn’t want me to look. I’m like, “Don’t be stupid, I have to look.” So she lets me look. It’s superficial, between a cut and a gouge. I find a scarf lying on a display table and she wads it up and presses it against her neck. Nods at my torn sleeve.
“Are you hit?”
I shake my head and ease down on the floor beside her. We’re both pulling hard for air. My head swims with adrenaline. “Not to be judgmental, but as a sniper, this guy sucks.”
“Three shots, three misses. Makes you wish this was baseball.”
“A lot more than three,” I correct her. Multiple tries at the targets, and the only true hit a superficial wound to Teacup’s leg.
“He probably is.”
“Probably.” She bites off the word.
“He didn’t light up and he’s no pro. A loner defending his turf, maybe hiding from the same guys we came after. Scared shitless.” I don’t add like us. I’m only sure about one of us.
Outside, Poundcake continues to occupy the sniper. Pop-pop-pop, a heavy quiet, then pop-pop-pop. The sniper responds each time.
“Then this should be easy,” Ringer says, her mouth set in a grim line.
I’m a little taken aback. “He didn’t light up, Ringer. We don’t have authorization to—”
“I do.” Pulling her rifle into her lap. “Right here.”
“Um. I thought our mission was to save humanity.”
She looks at me out of the side of her uncovered eye. “Chess, Zombie: defending yourself from the move that hasn’t happened yet. Does it matter that he doesn’t light up through our eyepieces? That he missed us when he could have taken us down? If two possibilities are equally probable but mutually exclusive, which one matters the most? Which one do you bet your life on?”
I’m nodding at her, but not following her at all. “You’re saying he still could be infested,” I guess.
“I’m saying the safe bet is to proceed as if he is.”
She pulls her combat knife from its sheath. I flinch, remembering her Dorothy remark. Why did Ringer pull out her knife?
“What matters,” she says thoughtfully. There’s a terrible stillness to her now, a thunderhead about to crack, a steaming volcano about to blow. “What matters, Zombie? I was always pretty good at figuring that out. Got a lot better at it after the attacks. What really matters? My mom died first. That was bad—but what really mattered was I still had my dad, my brother, and baby sister. Then I lost them, and what mattered was I still had me. And there wasn’t much that mattered when it came to me. Food. Water. Shelter. What else do you need? What else matters?”
This is bad, halfway down the road to being really bad. I have no idea where she’s going with this, but if Ringer goes Dorothy on me now, I’m screwed. Maybe the rest of my crew with me. I need to bring her back into the present. Best way is by touch, but I’m afraid if I touch her she’ll gut me with that ten-inch blade.
“Does it matter, Zombie?” She cranes her neck to look up at me, turning the knife slowly in her hands. “That he shot at us and not the three Teds right in front of him? Or that when he shot at us he missed every time?” Turning the knife slowly, the tip denting her finger. “Does it matter that they got everything up and running after the EMP attack? That they’re operating right underneath the mothership, gathering up survivors, killing infesteds and burning their bodies by the hundreds, arming and training us and sending us out to kill the rest? Tell me that those things don’t matter. Tell me the odds are insignificant that they aren’t really them. Tell me what possibility I should bet my life on.”
I’m nodding again, but this time I do follow her, and that path ends in a very dark place. I squat down beside her and look her dead in the eye. “I don’t know what this guy’s story is and I don’t know about the EMP, but the commander told me why they’re leaving us alone. They think we’re no longer a threat to them.”
She flips back her bangs and snaps, “How does the commander know what they think?”
“Wonderland. We were able to profile a—”
“Wonderland,” she echoes. Nodding sharply. Eyes cutting from my face to the snowy street outside and back again. “Wonderland is an alien program.”
“Right.” Stay with her, but gently try to lead her back. “It is, Ringer. Remember? After we took back the base, we found it hidden—”
“Unless we didn’t. Zombie, unless we didn’t.” She jabs the knife toward me. “It’s a possibility, equally valid, and possibilities matter. Trust me, Zombie; I’m an expert on what matters. Up to now, I’ve been playing blind man’s bluff. Time for some chess.” She flips the knife around and shoves the handle toward me. “Cut it out of me.”
I don’t know what to say. I stare dumbly at the knife in her hand.
“The implants, Zombie.” Poking me in the chest now. “We have to take them out. You do me and I’ll do you.”
I clear my throat. “Ringer, we can’t cut them out.” I scramble for a second for the best argument, but all I can come up with is, “If we can’t make it back to the rendezvous point, how’re they going to find us?”
“Damn it, Zombie, haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said? What if they aren’t us? What if they’re them? What if this whole thing has been a lie?”
I’m about to lose it. Okay, not about to. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Ringer! Do you know how cra—stupid that sounds? The enemy rescuing us, training us, giving us weapons? Come on, let’s cut the crap; we’ve got a job to do. You may not be happy about it, but I am your C.O….”
“All right.” Very calm now. As cool as I’m hot. “I’ll do it myself.”
She whips the blade around to the back of her neck, bowing her head low. I yank the knife from her hand. Enough.
“Stand down, Private.” I hurl her knife into the deep shadows across the room and get up. I’m shaking, every part of me, voice too. “You want to play the odds, that’s cool. Stay here until I get back. Better yet, just waste me now. Maybe my alien masters have figured out a way to hide my infestation from you. And after you’ve done me, go back across the street and kill them all, put a bullet in Teacup’s head. She could be the enemy, right? So blow her frigging head off! It’s the only answer, right? Kill everyone or risk being killed by anyone.”
Ringer doesn’t move. Doesn’t say anything, either, for a very long time. Snow whips through the broken window, the flakes a deep crimson color, reflecting the smoldering crumbs of the tanker.
“Are you sure you don’t play chess?” she asks. She pulls the rifle back into her lap, runs her index finger along the trigger. “Turn your back on me, Zombie.”
We’re at the end of the dark path now, and it’s a dead end. I’m out of anything that passes for a cogent argument, so I come back with the first thing that pops into my head.
“My name is Ben.”
She doesn’t miss a beat. “Sucky name. Zombie’s better.”
“What your name?” Keeping at it.
“That’s one of the things that doesn’t matter. Hasn’t for a long time, Zombie.” Finger caressing the trigger slowly. Very slowly. It’s hypnotic, dizzying.
“How about this?” Searching for a way out. “I cut out the tracker, and you promise not to waste me.” This way I keep her on my side, because I’d rather take on a dozen snipers than one Dorothied Ringer. In my mind’s eye, I can see my head shattering like one of those plywood people on the firing range.
She cocks her head, and the side of her mouth twitches in an almost-but-not-quite smile. “Check.”
I give her back an honest-to-goodness smile, the old Ben Parish smile, the one that got me practically everything I wanted. Well, not practically; I’m being modest.
“Is that check as in yes, or are you giving me a chess lesson?”
She sets her gun aside and turns her back to me. Bows her head. Pulls her silky black hair away from her neck.
Pop-pop-pop goes Poundcake’s gun. And the sniper answers. Their jam plays in the background as I kneel behind Ringer with my knife. Part of me more than willing to humor her if it keeps me—and the rest of the unit—alive. The other part screaming silently, Aren’t you, like, giving a mouse a cookie? What will she demand next—a physical inspection of my cerebral cortex?
“Relax, Zombie,” she says, quiet and calm, the old Ringer again. “If the trackers aren’t ours, it’s probably not a good idea to have them inside us. If they are ours, Dr. Pam can always implant us again when we get back. Agreed?”
“Check and mate,” she corrects me.
Her neck is long and graceful and very cold beneath my fingers as I explore the area beneath the scar for the lump. My hand shakes. Just humor her. It probably means a court-martial and the rest of your life peeling potatoes, but at least you’ll be alive.
“Be gentle,” she whispers.
I take a deep breath and draw the tip of the blade along the tiny scar. Her blood wells up bright red, shockingly red against her pearly skin. She doesn’t even flinch, but I have to ask: “Am I hurting you?”
“No, I like it a lot.”
I tease the implant from her neck with the tip of the blade. She grunts softly. The pellet clings to the metal, sealed within a droplet of blood.
“So,” she says, turning around. The almost-smile is almost there. “How was it for you?”
I don’t answer. I can’t. I’ve lost the ability to talk. The knife falls from my hand. I’m two feet away looking right at her, but her face is gone. I can’t see it through my eyepiece.
Ringer’s entire head is lit up in a blinding green fire.
MY FIRST REACTION is to yank off the hardware, but I don’t. I’m paralyzed with shock. A shudder of revulsion next. Then panic. Followed closely by confusion. Ringer’s head has lit up like a Christmas tree, bright enough to be seen a mile away. The green fire sparks and swirls, so intense it burns an afterimage in my left eye.
“What is it?” she demands. “What happened?”
“You lit up. As soon as I pulled out the tracker.”
We stare at each other for a long couple of minutes. Then she says, “Unclean glows green.”
I’m already on my feet, M16 in my hands, backing toward the door. And outside, beneath the sound-deadening snowfall, Poundcake and the sniper, trading barbs. Unclean glows green. Ringer doesn’t make a move for the rifle lying next to her. Through my right eye, she’s normal. Through the left, she burns like a Roman candle.
“Think this through, Zombie,” she says. “Think this through.” Holding up her empty hands, scratched and scuffed from her fall, one caked in dried blood. “I lit up after you pulled out the implant. The eyepieces don’t pick up infestations. They react when there’s no implant.”