Chapter 1 - The End of Ends
Brinda crept carefully through the deserted streets of the city, she was kidding herself with the belief they were empty. It was foolish to think the city was deserted, no place was completely empty. Even now she knew eyes were upon her. She was being watched, it was impossible that she wasn’t, which was why her gun was out in her hand. Well, one of them anyway. It was held in her right hand down alongside her leg. The gun may be pointed at the ground currently, but if someone threatened her it wouldn’t remain there for long. She was an excellent shot; it would take her less than a fraction of a second to raise the gun and make a shot.
Her eyes scanned the seemingly empty buildings of the unknown city, trying to glimpse those who might be watching her. She had no idea what this city had once been called, the sign at the edge of the city had been mostly obliterated by obscene graffiti. What little she could read gave her only a small clue about the city. The remaining letters read, Wel om to Ph l e pa . As a child, she hadn’t traveled much and after so long most of what she remembered was forgotten in favor of more important things. Like survival.
Nearly ten years had passed since the incident occurred that tore apart the world. Most people referred to it as the end of ends. If anyone knew what took place that day, they weren’t informing anyone else. The country they lived in changed drastically overnight. It was no longer known as the United States of America.
A snort escaped her as she thought about the changes that occurred since that day. There were so many, and all of them bad. One of the first things the new President did was christen their country New Untied. It was funny but no one felt very united any longer.
“Yeah, we’re no longer united anything,” she muttered as she moved down the empty street. She paused; head tipped as she listened. “Rats,” she grumbled moving away from the alley she had stopped near. Her brain poked her with memories, and she grumbled some more.
The morning of the incident the world woke with no memory of what took place. They found destruction all around them and three-quarters of the population gone. Vanished as if they’d never existed. The face of the planet shifted and changed as if a giant reached down from the heavens and simply rearranged things to its liking. There was little history written about what took place, the new President didn’t want people to remember, he wanted everyone to move forward. She knew though, she remembered much of those first weeks and months. She was only fifteen at the time of the incident and the fear imprinted the events into her mind. While the world had been reshaped, much of the communications infrastructure still functioned. Internet, satellites, all still worked, and people could see the destruction of the world. It didn’t take long for the President to outlaw the use of computers to everyone but the government. He claimed it was causing panic for people to witness what took place. Once the internet had been taken from the people things began changing rapidly.
Camps were formed and the President encouraged people to move to them for their safety. Many flocked there because they feared the roaming gangs that cropped up after the incident, many controlling vast sections of the cities. People welcomed the promise of safety inside the camps.
She knew the President wasn’t as solicitous of the wellbeing of his people as he claimed that had become obvious very quickly. Rumors were quick to spread. There were stories of torture for those who wouldn’t join the President’s growing army. Death, starvation, filth, and worse things for women. Anyone trying to leave the camps was locked away.
The President’s staff soon discovered people with abnormalities, abilities that cropped up and set people apart. Researchers divided them into two categories, Concealers, and Antagonists.
Concealers could hide themselves. A few had enough power to hide themselves and those around them. Most didn’t live long; the use of their power overtaxed their system and they burned out. The Antags were soldiers of extreme skill and power. They were more common than Concealers. The incident handed the President an entire, highly skilled army.
She ducked around the corner of a crumbling building, eyes scanning the streets. Everything was empty, still, the hairs on the back of her neck were twitchy. Slowly, she crept around the building into the street. This was the reason why she was creeping through the empty city; she would never allow herself to be locked away in one of President Lukus’ rancid, stinking camps. Her skills marked her as an Antag and she would never join Kus’ army.
Her fingers tightened on her 45 as she moved toward her target, a hardware store on the corner. Despite being in the center of a city, it appeared to be one of those small neighborhood types. As with everything in this world, it was tattered and worn. One door was perfect while the other hung from one hinge its glass broken out.
She slipped through the doors, eyes scanning the inside before she moved any further. Many of the shelves appeared untouched. That could be a good thing. A lot of these hardware stores carried ammo and she was running low. She was rather surprised to see stock remaining on many of the shelves, these places were usually the first hit by marauders. The fact that it seemed untouched didn’t make her feel easy and she wasn’t going to go running in all gung-ho. A small feline form slipped past her legs, scurrying deeper into the store.
“En! Dammit, get your furry behind back here!” she hissed at the cat. Of course, the cat ignored her. She sighed, En did as she pleased most days. Brinda clenched her gun tightly as she followed the cat further inside. As she moved, she stopped to look at the shelves. Some were cleared out, empty, but there was still enough left to give her hope.
“En!” she called quietly.
A trill of meows came from somewhere near the back of the store and she cursed. “Great, what has she discovered now?” She hoped it wasn’t another one of those angry stray dogs. That hadn’t been a fun incident. Being chased by a hungry, angry dog wasn’t her idea of fun. She rounded a shelving unit and found the cat sitting primly before a door that probably led to a back office.
“And what exactly do you want from in there?” she asked the sleek black and white cat.
En mewed again, placing her left paw with the white sock up on the door.
“Uh-huh, is there a mouse in there?”
The cat meowed again and placed her other front paw on the door. Brinda sighed. The cat had saved her behind more times than she cared to count but there were times the persnickety cat was stubborn, like now. She reached down and scratched the cat between her ears, the white tips twitched. Her back-left paw also had a white sock and there was a white triangle on her chest.
If her usual luck held then a mouse would scurry out the door when she opened it, though it would probably be followed by something awful. She crouched before the door and set her gun on the floor within easy reach and pulled a leather roll from the inside pocket of her jacket. She untied the string, laid it on the floor unrolling it before she chose a set of lock picks.
“You could work that lock all day and you’d never get it open.”
The picks clattered to the floor and her fingers wrapped around the gun before she spun to face the boy who had spoken.
He was leaning against the shelving unit that was directly behind her, arms folded loosely across his chest. Everything about his stance screamed casual. Even when he spoke his voice had been casual. When she spun to face him, he hadn’t even flinched. The man moved silently, slipping up on her, which was a talent to be certain. Then again, she’d been slightly distracted by En’s interest in the door.
En trotted over and wound her body through his legs as she purred loudly. He dropped into a crouch with a grin, scratching the cat between the ears. That settled it she supposed. She holstered the gun and turned away to replace her lock picks and put them away. She rose gracefully, turning back to face the boy. Her eyes narrowed on him, watching as he continued to pet the cat. He wasn’t as young as she first believed, he looked around the same age as she was.
He looked up at her. “Beautiful cat.” En purred louder at the compliment.
“She says thank you,” Brinda answered for the cat.
The guy arched an eyebrow at her as he rose from his crouch. “Would you like to tell me what you’re doing in here?” There was an underlying threat to his words and all his casualness was gone.
Perhaps putting her gun away was a mistake. Her eyes went to En who only purred louder. She sighed and looked back at the man. “I’m just passing through. I came in to look around because I thought there might be some ammo. I’m running low.”
His eyes narrowed as if he were looking for a lie in her words. As he stared at her, he reached up and rubbed at his temple.
Her eyes snapped to the window and the deserted street beyond it.
“Why do you want ammo? Who sent you here, what are you after? Who are you looking for?”
Her eyes came back to him with a frown, watching as he pressed the heel of his hand tightly against his temple. “I’m passing through, that’s all. Are you all right?”
The fur on En’s back stood on end and she made a low, distressed sound. Images jumped into Brinda’s mind. Trucks. A convoy, soldiers … she cursed. She understood the man’s pain now.
“Who sent you?” he asked again, teeth gritted against the pain he was obviously in.
When she reached for him, he raised a hand to ward her off and she took advantage, slipping beneath his raised arm, settling it across her shoulders. “No one sent me, you fool! If we don’t get you somewhere fast, you’re going to collapse, there’s a convoy coming! Open the door to that room, we need to hide.” She struggled beneath his weight. “You’re a Concealer, do you want to get caught in the open?” she snapped as she dragged him closer to the door.
He slapped his palm flat against the wall beside the door. There was a quiet click. She reached out and turned the knob, shoving open the door. Once inside, she kicked the door shut behind her and lowered him to the floor.
He groaned and held his head between his hands, moaning.
“En, take care of him,” she ordered the cat.
En mewed and curled her body atop his chest, purring loudly. The man quieted the moment the cat began purring.
“I swear if is this is some trick you’ll regret it,” he ground out.
“Seriously? I just saved your ass from a convoy!”
En’s purring increased and the man fell silent.
A two-way radio atop the battered desk in the corner of the room crackled to life and a man’s voice filtered out from the speaker. “Pren? Are you there, can you hear me?”
She glanced at the man on the floor. Probably Pren. She reached out and snatched the radio off the desk, depressing the button on the side so she could speak into it. “If you mean the guy in the hardware store, he’s fine. I got him into the back room. We’re locked in, I suggest you shut the hell up before the Rounders find you!”
“Who is this? Are you this girl who went into Pren’s place?”
She ground her teeth. “I am not some little girl, I’m twenty-five! Now, shut the hell up!”
Nothing more came from the radio. Well, at least the guy had some brain cells. En’s head popped up and a slideshow of images sprang into her head. The convoy was in the street outside the store. Rounders were pouring from the truck preparing to search the city. President Kus’ men were efficient, they would haul everyone they could find back to the camps.
Pren’s body became stiff and he groaned when En stopped purring.
The Rounders were the President’s foot soldiers. They did exactly as their name implied, they rounded up people in the cities and dragged them back to the camps. The Rounders were long on muscles and short on manners. Convoys like the one outside roamed all over the country, searching cities for those who refused the generosity of the President’s camps. The truck convoys consisted of several vehicles. At the front was one of the gunner trucks, with a man manning the massive fully automatic large-caliber gun mounted atop it, these sharp-shooters were known as Gunnies. Behind the lead gunner truck, was the containment truck where they put those they rounded up. Next in line was the Dish truck, mounted atop it was a satellite dish that poured out a jamming signal that messed with any Concealers in the area. It was what was putting Pren in pain. If a Concealer didn’t heed the warning headache and hide, they would drop the moment the truck got close enough and they’d be caught in the open. A second Gunner truck brought up the rear.
En continued shoving images into her head. The Rounders were pulling people from the buildings, shoving them into the containment truck. Her eyes went to Pren where he lay on the floor. These were his people. She wasn’t certain how she knew that, perhaps it was En’s doing. Pren was their leader and if they were taken, he’d blame himself. Her eyes slipped shut on a groan.
“Enough, En!” she screamed.
The cat lowered her head quietly and began purring again.
“Dammit,” she muttered as she moved around the room. “Chair.” She grabbed the desk chair and hauled over near the door. She turned a circle. “Boxes,” she muttered as she grabbed several of them and stacked them beside the chair.
She turned to stare at Pren on the floor. “All right, your turn now.” En scurried from her perch on his chest and Brinda bent and dragged him up from the floor and settled him in the desk chair before using a length of rope to tie him in place so he wouldn’t slip from the chair.
With a meow, En leaped up to sit atop the boxes, watching Brinda.
“Stay here no matter what? Do you understand?”
The cat meowed.
“If … if I don’t come back, you stay here with him. Got it?”
The cat let out a small mew as if she were saying, “Don’t be ridiculous of course, you’re coming back.”
She turned and grabbed Pren’s hand, pressing it against the locking mechanism. The lock clicked open. “You know what to do,” she told the cat before she stepped out and shut the door. A minute or two passed before she heard the lock click back into place. She hadn’t been certain En could press Pren’s hand to the lock, but the cat always seemed to amaze her.
“All right, here I go, being stupid once again.” She moved between the shelves, picking up things here and there, dropping them into her messenger bag as she headed for the front of the store. She dropped into a crouch beside the front doors before slipping out into the street and the encroaching darkness that was beginning to wash over the broken city. The Rounders were moving through the increasing shadows, hauling people from buildings. The men were good at ferreting out where people were hiding.
She moved up beside a small hatchback and pulled a bottle of lighter fluid from her bag. With a hum, she pulled one of her knives and stabbed several holes into the top of the plastic container.
“Hmmm, rag … rag … I know I snatched one from a shelf. Ahh, there you are!” She stuffed the end of the rag into one of the larger holes and set it aside. She pulled a small container of lawn mower motor oil from her bag, unscrewed the cap, and poured it into the bottle of lighter fluid. She tossed the oil bottle aside. She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a road flare. She lifted herself and peered through the window of the car. The lead Gunnie was leaning lazily on his gun, watching the Rounders as they pulled people from their hiding spots while he puffed on a cigarette.
Her toes relaxed and she dropped down below the window and lit the flare, it burst to life, the bright flash blinding her. “Idiot,” she muttered. “You know better than to stare at it.”
She grasped her little lighter fluid surprise from the ground and touched the flare to the tip of the rag. The flame caught and she flung the bottle over the top of the car. It flew through the air in a wide arc. The Gunnie gave a startled shout when the bottle bounced into his little perch before exploding in a burst of flames that spread quickly, covering him as he screamed in terror, arms flapping as he tried to avoid burning to death.
She shook her head at the man. “Fool. Didn’t anyone ever teach him to stop, drop, and roll?”
Fingers pressed against the cool metal of the car’s body, she prepared to creep away from her current hiding spot. “Oooh, hello there.”
Her eyes fixed on the little locked door of the gas tank. Nice of them to lock it up, maybe no one had bothered trying to get it open and siphon the gas out of the tank. Chaos now reigned around her as she used her knife to pry open the little door. Though no one seemed anxious to try and put out the Gunnie who was on fire, they were scattering as they attempted to figure out where the firebomb had come from. It was only a matter of time before someone spotted the glow of the road flare. Time to ditch it, she thought with a grin. She snatched the still burning flare from the ground and dropped it into the gas tank before hurrying away from the vehicle.
Nothing happened and she thought she’d been mistaken about the gas in the tank. She kept moving, looking for another good spot to attack from. The hatchback exploded in a spectacular ball of flame and debris. The chaos increased as the car burned. The men in the convoy were trying to figure out where the attack was coming from.
“Time to end this party.” She pulled her guns and looked through the window of the car she now hid behind, picking her next target. The Gunnie in the rear truck was poised, hands on his gun, looking for a target to take down.
It was game time.
“Well, ain’t this sweet, I found me a female Antag. The Prez is gonna like it when we bring you in, girlie.”
She spun away from the window to stare up at the Rounder. He was big and, muscular, but then again weren’t they all? Most carried no weapons, they depended on their muscles. This guy was no different, muscles bulged from the tight sleeves of his shirt.
“Yeah, lucky you,” she grumbled.
His hands rested on his hips, a large grin on his face, and the unlit stub of a cigar clamped between his lips. “You’re coming with me, baby.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you, ugly.” Before he could make some sexist reply, she raised the 45 and put a bullet between his eyes.
“Holy shi … you shot Doug! You just shot him!”
Great, just what she needed. Another one. She spun to face the new Rounder. Where did they keep coming from and why was she missing it?
He shook his head, letting go of the shock of his fellow Rounder’s death. In his grip was a large billy club that he swung downward, aiming for her head. There was no time for internal debate, she raised her gun and fired, putting a bullet in his chest. He staggered back a step and she added several more bullets to his person. There was no time to contemplate the deaths of the two men, the remaining Gunnie had registered her position and began firing on her. She hit the ground, rolled and belly crawled several feet to a large SUV before rolling beneath it. She shuffled closer to the street side of the vehicle, staring at the Gunnie.
“Bye-bye,” she muttered as she took aim and fired, he remained upright for a split second before toppling from his perch. She rolled from beneath the truck, running for the other side of the street, firing at a Rounder who came charging at her. A single shot and he was done for.
As she ran, she holstered her handguns, reached over her shoulder for the shotgun that hung crosswise over her back. The Dish truck was close now, she leveled the gun on the dish and let loose a volley of shots from the pistol grip shotgun, destroying the dish atop the truck. It shattered as she raced past, jumped the curb, and surveyed the street. Yeah, this side was about the same as the other side. Crappy.
“I don’t appreciate the trouble you’ve caused. You have destroyed government property. I doubt very much President Lukus will appreciate it, either.”
Brinda swung around, raising her shotgun as she did, facing the man who had spoken softly from the mouth of the darkened alley behind her. This man was no Rounder. Dressed in a very fine, expensive suit, he wore a silver circlet around his head, the white-blond of his hair curled over the edges of the silver band in an almost lazy fashion. Fancy engravings circled the silver ring. His piercing, clear blue eyes bore into her deeper blue-green ones.
En pushed into her mind, urging her to get away from the man as quickly as she could.
“Right, time to go.” She spun away, running back into the street, pausing only to shoot the lock from the hasp on the containment truck and fling the doors open. Her work done, she turned and ran back toward the hardware store.
A Rounder exited a nearby building, a young boy held in his arms. Blood matted the boy’s sandy-colored hair. A woman followed, tugging urgently on the Rounder’s meaty arm.
“He’s just a boy, please let him go! He’s done nothing wrong!” the woman pleaded.
Rage scorched through her as she watched the woman begging the Rounder to release the boy. The boy had probably resisted and the brute hit him to subdue him. A quick change of direction and she was racing across the pavement toward the Rounder as she holstered the shotgun and pulled her 45. Beside the massive bulk of the Rounder, the woman appeared small and helpless. He shook the woman free and she stumbled, falling to the pavement. She rolled to her hands and knees, preparing to rise, when she spotted Brinda charging toward them and cringed back, terror lighting her eyes. Brinda sighed; the woman probably believed she was another Rounder coming to the aid of her fellow soldier. Though she knew that she in no way resembled the big, beefy Rounders. The gun came up and she fired, the bullet struck the man in the head, killing him instantly. Her movements were smooth as she holstered the gun, caught the boy before he fell from the Rounder’s arms, and spun away running back toward the hardware store.
“Come with me, now!” she called out to the boy’s mother. She sprinted through the doors into the store, running until she reached the back door and pounded at it with her elbow.
“En, it’s Brin open the door quickly!”
The door opened and to her surprise, the man named Pren was standing there, a smile on his face until he noticed the boy in her arms.
“Bryan! Quickly, bring him inside,” he told her, stepping aside. The woman followed her in and Pren shut the door behind them, locking the door once more. “Lay him on the floor.” He retrieved a first aid kit and cleaned the boy’s wound before bandaging it.
“Is he going to be okay?” the boy’s mother asked.
“I think he’s going to be just fine, Glenda,” he answered. He glanced at Brinda. “Why did you leave the room, that was dangerous!”
A small shrug was her answer. She didn’t need to explain herself to him. En crawled atop the boy’s chest, curled into a ball, and began purring loudly.
The radio on the desk crackled to life. “Pren, you there, answer me dammit!”
With a grumble, he went and picked up the radio. “Yeah, Steve, I’m here. How many did those damn Rounders get?”
“No one!” he answered excitedly. “Man, you should have seen that woman. She’s an army all on her own!” He paused and when he spoke again the excitement was gone. “We need to get everyone together for a meeting. We’re gonna need to move again. You know they’ll be back after that mess. Pren … Sorian was with them,” he finished quietly.
“Get them to the meeting spot then.” He slammed the radio down on the desk and spun to face Brinda. “What in the hell did you do?”
She allowed herself another shrug.
Glenda stepped forward and spoke up. “She saved Bryan, Pren. If she didn’t shoot that Rounder, they would have taken him. She ran up and just … shot him. Like it was nothing.”
His response was a small grunt before he turned and headed for the door. “Fine, whatever, let’s go to the meeting.” He paused looking at Bryan with a frown.
“Don’t worry, En will take care of him,” Brinda told him.
He looked uncertain but nodded and led them from the room.
“So, uh … what about this meeting?” Brinda asked.
Pren glanced at her. “We need to discuss moving. There’s a department store down the block, we’ll meet everyone in the basement.” He stepped out of the store and stopped, his eyes sweeping the destruction in the street. He shot her a glance, shook his head, and continued down the street, stepping over the body of one of the Gunnies. The President’s people didn’t clean up after themselves and they certainly didn’t bother taking their dead with them.