Hadean 3: Completely Forked, Chapter 6

SmashwordsChapter Six

Brent Zindell lay flat on his belly in the dirt, a bat at his fingertips. Moving his head from side to side, he could see through the slats concealing the crawl space. The white paint had blistered and peeled from the fire that had nibbled at the cluster of buildings. Glass glittered on the scorched earth. Most of the buildings had collapsed, but the crawl space remained secure, shielded by debris.

He peered into the darkness, not seeing so much as feeling them. His people. The Chosen. Twenty or so slumbered in the crawlspace. Another fifteen sheltered in the remains of an old cabin. And twenty more in the triangle left standing of the museum. He had led them here, to safety. To Payson. He hadn’t expected the small town northeast of Phoenix to be bombed. He should have known better. The government destroyed what it couldn’t control or understand. He’d once worked for Child Protective Services, worked to repair broken children and family.

Now, he had a new mission—to keep this family alive.

After all, family mattered more than anything. And God had given him a second chance to protect his family. Brent scanned the street through the slats again. Nothing moved. Not that he’d expected it. Under his leadership, his people had learned quickly to travel at night. They’d arrived before dawn and had watched the school all day, not seeing a sign of the enemy—the crazies.

The crazies had driven Brent’s family from Camp Verde, then hunted them to Strawberry and Pine. The crazies had cost him his daughter, Cheyenne. Not that Cheyenne was dead.

At least he didn’t think so. His daughter should be safe with the Robelskis. Brent picked at his frayed cuff. He wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Robelskis. They had shoved Cheyenne into their van and driven off instead of standing and fighting with him.

Ungrateful assholes.

Didn’t they know only he could keep them safe during this time of tribulation? The mantle of power closed around Brent like a noose. The bite of autumn wind mingled with the smoke and charred meat. Not meat. Human corpses. Brent peered through the slats again, this time focusing on the bomb crater eating away at the parking area. White bone gleamed in the moonlight. Beyond the crater, suburbia decayed.

The soldiers had been very thorough with their destruction of the town.

Too bad it hadn’t stopped the spread of the crazy. Now, all that remained of civilization was him and his followers. And he needed to find them food and water. His nose wrinkled at the stench of dead fish. Water was surprisingly easy to find in the desert. There was an entire lake full behind them. As for food… He stared at the school.

There should be a smorgasbord in the school across the street.  Asphalt shingles littered the gravel landscaping. School books, backpacks, and parts of children radiated from the crater to the right of the administration building.

So the crazy had struck the last day of school here, too.

He hoped that this place had remained untouched since then. The Chosen needed food. Crawling on his knees, he pressed his head against the wood slats. Bits of blistered paint rained down like soiled snowflakes. He shivered in his thin suit jacket. It wouldn’t be long before they would need to find shelter for the winter. At least, his daughter Cheyenne would be safe and warm on the Robelskis’ farm.

Fabric swished. The sweet scent of roses surrounded him.

His wife was awake. Brent glanced over his shoulder.

Kelly’s pale face was hazy in the darkness. “Is it time to go, yet?”

“Nearly. Mary should be signaling soon.” Brent checked the school parking lot again. With all the abandoned cars and downed trees it was hard to see Mary and her husband, Jeffrey, returning from their scouting mission.

Kelly scooted closer and curled her body against his back. She shivered in her cotton shirt and slacks. “Do you think there is still food in the cafeteria?”

“I hope so.” Brent’s stomach echoed the sentiment. “I am hungry.”

“Aren’t we all?” Kelly kissed the back of his neck before shifting to sit beside him. She caressed the slight bump of her stomach. Their second child would be born in February.

“How is he doing?” He stroked her stomach. I promise you will never go hungry, son.

Kelly set her hand on his and squeezed. “I know there will be food. Lots of food.” She winked. “Of course, it’s cafeteria food, so it may not be fine dining at the Pointe.”

His mouth watered at the thought of steak. Meat. He hadn’t had meat in forever. “If there’s not plenty, you know our people will sacrifice a portion so that you can eat your fill.”

“You need it more than I.” She jerked her head toward the crowd of people in the crawlspace. “They crave your leadership, trust your judgement. Since they have none of their own.”

Brent’s shoulders bowed under the weight. None of the Chosen spoke, except his wife and his lieutenants. And yet he knew their thoughts and feelings. At the moment, hunger gnawed on him like a wild beast. “I won’t let them down.”

He couldn’t. Their trust was exhilarating and exhausting.

She caressed his cheek. “You’re not alone.”

No, he wasn’t. He kissed her palm then folded her fingers around it, holding it close. He had done better than most. In fact, the three days without food had been the longest stretch. But finding food was getting harder, and the crazies more skilled at fighting.

A twig snapped.

Kelly tensed. Brent grabbed for the bat near his thigh and raised it to his shoulder. The wood settled into his palms easily. Too bad it wasn’t a gun. He would love to have a gun.

Moonlight glinted on the bald head of the man running across the street.

“It’s Jeffrey.” Brent rested the bat on his shoulder and duck-walked toward the exit.

“Do you see Mary?” Kelly crawled behind him. The scrape of metal against rock indicated she kept her golf-club close.

“No, but Jeffrey isn’t signaling for help.” Brent lowered her weapon then curled his fingers around the panel to exit the crawl space.

“Must you go?”

“Yes.” Brent could not ask others to do what he could. He must prove himself worthy of the responsibility given to him. After a quick glance at the lake beyond the sloping yard, he moved the panel aside and slid out. “I want you to say here.”

“No. My place is at your side.” Rubbing her stomach, Kelly crawled under the floor joists. “Our place is at your side.”

Brent stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “It could be dangerous. We do not know what is in there.”

His heart raced and his palms were slick with sweat. They had been ambushed before. They’d numbered over a hundred when they had fled Camp Verde.

Kelly drew her legs against her stomach and frowned at him. “Is this because I’m pregnant? Because you know, I was pregnant before and it never stopped me from doing what needed to be done.”

Brent bit back his retort. His wife had never been forty-four and pregnant. The first time, she had been twenty-six, and it had taken them five years of medical intervention to conceive Cheyenne. Kelly had nearly miscarried at three months, and had bed rest for the last two. Releasing his wife, he quickly eased the panel back in place. “Yes, of course it’s because you’re pregnant. I will not endanger our child. And working in an office is not the same as surviving an apocalypse. Stay. Put.”

She wrapped her fingers around the slats. Dirt filled her chipped nails and ash smudged her cheek. “I love you.” She pursed her lips through the opening.

He quickly kissed her.

“I know you can do this. And I know there will be food. Enough to last for weeks.” She wiggled her fingers goodbye.

Brent turned away from her. Weeks. He needed more than weeks of food. They needed months of it to get through the winter. He turned up his collar against the cold.

Jeffrey crouched near the curb, hiding in the shadows of an overturned Mercedes.

Brent reached him just as his wife, Mary, appeared. He released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

Mary’s black eyes flashed in her dusky skin. The moonlight turned the white streaks in her black hair to silver. “The school, it is deserted. I check the back. I check the front. Nothing.”

Her words had the rolling staccato of her Columbian heritage.

Practically poetry. Brent had stumbled on the couple north of Strawberry, just as the silence nearly crushed him, just as he would have given his life to experience the verbal sparring with his teenaged daughter one more time. He’d begun to fear he wasn’t as unaffected by the crazy as he believed. Mary and Jeffrey had quickly pushed that notion aside.

It was the weight of making all the decisions that ground him down.

“We should cross the street in small groups. If anyone is watching, we don’t want them to get a tally of our numbers.” Brent eyed the distance to the school. A three lane street, a clearing, then the parking lot. Two sandbag bunkers provided cover before the last sprint to the building. It was almost too easy. “Any sign of weapons or ammo?”

He’d seen cops and soldiers mingling with the crazies. None had carried their weapons. They’d probably forgotten how to shoot. God knew his followers depended on him like children. He’s shook off the negativity. Soon his luck would change. No, he would change his luck.

“No weapons or ammo.” Mary and Jeffrey shifted.

They would change their luck.

Starting now.

“Let’s sweep the building before we send for the others.” But they shouldn’t all go. If something happened to him, he would need them to look after his wife. “Jeffrey, you stand guard here. We’ll take Rachel and Ashley with us.”

Mary shook her head. Her curly black hair bounced around her shoulders. “No Ashley. She is with the child. Rachel and Juliet, I thinks will work.”

Brent blinked. That made the third pregnant woman among the Chosen. Women who must be protected at all costs. Their children would populate the world they would inherit. He should have her sleep in the center of the group, offer her more protection. No sooner had Brent thought it than movement animated the crawlspace.

Ashley’s floral dress dragged behind her as she crawled into the middle of the sleeping group.

Rachel tucked a tattered scrap of blanket around her, then crawled to the opening. Juliet brought up the rear. Sometimes it was good they didn’t need words.

Jeffrey shifted aside the panel and allowed them out. They squatted on the slope, twisting their hands around the golf clubs.

Mary removed a stick from her back pocket and gouged the dead grass into rectangles and circles. “This is the school. Administration is gone. Classrooms. Cafeteria. All the buildings, they are damaged, but not looted, yet.”

She stabbed the rectangle corresponding to the faux stone building closest to them and removed her hand from the knobby end of the stick.

Brent swallowed. Not a stick at all but part of a shattered leg bone. All those years of working for abused children, he’d seen as many x-rays as most doctors. At least now he had the power to right those wrongs. Too bad, he did not have the muscle to back it up. Why couldn’t the military have left a few machine guns behind? What had they done with them?

Jeffrey removed the broken femur to carve a little square out of the cafeteria. “The kitchens are in the back. This is the storage room. Not damaged. You will need more than the four to carry all back.”

“We’ll stay with the food if the area is defensible.” He’d had food snatched from their raiding parties before, because he hadn’t sent enough people. “Suggestions?”

“Natasha and Kris.” Mary spoke for her husband. In a short time, both women appeared at the panel. Jeffrey let them out before he slipped inside.

Brent knew that some crazies hid their women, but he had superior humans. When his women went up against a crazy, they won nearly every time, because they used everything as a weapon. Brent almost felt sorry for the enemy. Or he would, once the crazies were all dead.

Mary glanced at Brent. “Kris and Rachel. Then you, followed by the others. I’ll cover us.”

Crouching, Kris sniffed the air. Her fingers dug into the dirt before she and Rachel sprinted across the street. They scrambled under a beater truck in primer gray, then jogged to the shaggy detritus of landscaping.

Brent chased after them, but skirted the truck. A crispy hand scraped his cheek. Blackened flesh peeled off white bone. He rushed across the street. The soles of his dress shoes hit the gravel as the girls dove into the sandbag bunkers. He sensed the others moving behind him, felt their heartbeats sync. Adrenalin coursed through his veins. His muscles heated. The wind ruffled his hair.

Kris popped out of the bunker, sniffed the air. She froze.

Fear spiked. He hit the asphalt. Pebbles and brass cartridges greased his landing and his arms slid out from under him. The impact shoved the air from Brent’s lungs. What had she smelled? Someone? The good thing about the apocalypse was no one showered. Everyone reeked, making the crazies easy to detect if they were upwind.

Kris and Rachel leapt from the bunker and crossed the parking lot in a serpentine pattern and flattened themselves against the cafeteria.

The constriction in Brent’s chest eased. They were safe. His hard-soled shoes tapped the asphalt as he hurried to join his two scouts. Bits of bone crunched under his feet. Brass tinkled as it sailed to the curb. He touched the building just as the two women rounded the corner. The stone façade scratched his palms as he crept away from the door under the collapsed portico.

He rounded the corner and caught his breath. The rafters of the cafeteria’s roof stuck up like pick-up sticks. Across a crater the size of three minivans, the front of the two-story building had sheared off, exposing the classrooms like a dollhouse. The administration building to the north had taken a direct hit, turning it inside out and shattering the windows of the schoolrooms on the opposite side of campus.

Kris and Rachel scrambled over the debris and sniffed. Nothing. But the enemy could approach from three other sides. Still the women had scouted for him over the last two months and excelled at their job. He trusted them. Given that Kris was the same age as his daughter Cheyenne, that said a lot about the state of the world.

The corner where they stood remained upright. That had to be the storage room and kitchen Jeffrey had marked. Brent crawled over the mound of stone and concrete, then ducked under a rafter and slid down the other side. The stench of rotted food assaulted his nostrils. His stomach heaved. They were too late. The food was no longer edible.

Mary leapt to the floor beside him. She removed a cylindrical device from her belt and shook it. A beam of light bounced around the room. Dust motes danced in front of the stacks of folding chairs and tables. I-beams blocked the crumbled metal shutters of the kitchen. The spotlight stopped on a closed metal door. “There.”

Natasha and Juliet rushed forward. Juliet tugged on the handle. Turned it then tugged again. Nothing.

Brent gritted his teeth. He would not make his people eat the dead fish in the lakes.

Mary reached into the pocket of her wool coat and removed a set of keys. “I was the health inspector for the district. School cafeterias, they were my area of expertise.”

The girls scuttled to the side. Mary inserted the key and twisted it. The door opened easily.

Juliet crept inside. Natasha followed, then Mary.

Brent waited. A burst of joy hit him. Food. They had found food!

Mary appeared in the doorway, waving him in with her flashlight. “Freezer’s been raided.”

He stepped into the kitchen, then buried his nose in his sleeve. The body of a lady decomposed on the floor. Rats and mice poked through her stomach before scurrying for darker parts of the kitchen. Natasha and Juliet each offered him a can of peaches. Two cans. Two! His fists clenched. This was supposed to be food for his people. They needed it. His wife needed food. And he had promised her… Now he would have to break his promise. Again.

Natasha and Juliet cringed before him.

Brent patted their shoulders. “You did well.” He held up the restaurant-sized cans. “We shall eat tonight.”

The girls scraped the corpse onto a few fallen ceiling tiles, then carried it away. Brent explored the rest of the room. Four more cans of peaches sat on the counter. The shelves above the oven held baking soda and pots.

“Not all of us will eat, unless…” Mary bit her lip and stared at a Baker’s rack shoved against the wall. A stack of chairs wedged it in place. “Can you help me move this away?”

“Sure.” Brent didn’t have anything else to do while he starved to death. Starting in the middle, he levered half the chairs upright.

Mary huffed and righted the other chairs. With a shimmy and shake, she pushed the Baker’s rack out of the way, revealing a metal door. Placards in white with black lettering proclaimed ‘storage’ and ‘authorized access only.’ She sorted through her keys then inserted one in the lock.

Brent held his breath.

Mary opened the door. Row upon row of shelves lined the walls. Many had restaurant-size cans of food.

Brent nearly fell to his knees in gratitude. This bounty would see them through two or three weeks. More than enough time for them to come up with their next course of action. He raced into the cafeteria.

Kelly poked her head under the fallen roof. “Is it all we hoped for?”

“Nearly a month’s supply.” Brent helped her find her footing.

Others scrambled over the rubble. Soon the cafeteria was full of the Chosen. A few sorted the sleeping arrangements. One man helped Ashley to a pallet in the center of the room then lumbered toward the kitchen. Zachary had been a chef before the crazy. He coasted to the oven and selected a soup pot. He drifted into the pantry and retrieved two cans of crushed tomatoes, which he offered to Kelly.

Brent shook his head. How strange he could remember some tasks, yet others remained beyond him.  Perhaps cooking and eating were so elemental, the memory remained.

Kelly searched the drawers, finding the can opener on her third try. The man disappeared into the pantry, returning with vegetables and a box of potato flakes.

Soup again. Brent’s mouth watered at the thought of meat. Not this meal, but at least they could have the soup with mashed potato dumplings.

“We should stay here a few days, I thinks. If any of the crazies, they try to attack, those metal doors, they will hold them back.” Mary pointed to the intact wall of the cafeteria. “They must to stick the heads in first, and then crawl over the debris there. And while we beat them on the heads, we can to exit through the loading door in the store room.”  She yawned.

“I’ll keep watch.” Brent liked the plan and the location. But first, he’d do a little investigating. Schools still taught geography, didn’t they? If he could find a map, he could find the Robelskis’ ranch. He’d bet there was plenty of food on the ranch.

Chef Zachary selected a few knives then handed the rest to Rachel for distribution.

Good, his people were arming themselves with better weapons than golf clubs and bats.

Kelly took charge of the pantry, counted the supplies.

Brent joined her as she placed a can of peaches on the white tub of oatmeal flakes.  “If we stick to eating two meals a day, we have a month’s worth of food.”

“No point in being greedy.” He nodded. On bad days like yesterday, only the children and pregnant women had eaten, but they wouldn’t waste food.

He entered the kitchen, ignored all the appliances made useless without electricity. The scent of tomatoes filled the air. Chef Zachary removed sprigs of plants from his jacket pocket and sprinkled them in the steaming pot balanced over the propane burner they’d brought with them. Saliva pooled in Brent’s mouth. The soup would be ready soon. He had to move quickly.

Entering the cafeteria, he scrambled over the debris and stepped outside. Kris and Juliet rose from their hiding spot.

He motioned them back down. He wasn’t going far and didn’t need an escort.  Brent checked left then right before crossing the quadrangle and reaching the breezeway. Glass crunched under his shoes as he approached the classroom building. He stepped through the bent doorframe. Digging out his flashlight, he flicked it on.

Rats and field mice scurried along the corridor. A breeze streamed off the lake and whistled through the twisted metal blinds that remained. Above the putrid odor of rotting fish, he detected crayons, chalk, and paste. Every school must smell the same.

He reached the first door, stopped, and listened. Nothing. A quick peek inside revealed toys and cubbies. Too young for maps. He made his way down the hallway. His skin prickled in the silence.

One more door, then he’d head back. He peered inside. The death mask of King Tut stared back. Yes! He’d found it. He yanked open the door.

Cold metal pressed against his temple. A pistol cocked.

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Is Cauliflower the New Kale?

Kale. It’s spinach and cabbage’s weird hick cousin from the sticks. You know you’ve thought that. It looks weird, it tastes even weirder, but a few years ago lots of people decided it was healthy for you so eats lots and lots of kale.

And I do eat it—little bits chopped up in a salad with lots of other veggies because I find it bitter, hence not appetizing. It works well in a smoothie for that same reason. And I can get all the vitamins without actually suffering through the taste of it. Win!

I never wondered why kale went from the weird Tuscan soup ingredient into the visa card of the leafy green world. But all things were made clear when I watched a comic explaining how the folks at Whole Foods had an excess kale problem and decided to rebrand it and market it to everyone. Ahhh, it all makes sense.

And now I see the same thing happening to my old friend cauliflower. It was on some blogs I follow. Then Lida made a tomatoey-cauliflower (that looked like a brain, perfect for halloween), and I heard recipes on the radio. Unlike kale, I’ve liked cauliflower since I was young. And I love it’s versatility—raw and cooked.

But it is kinda bland.

And then I found these:

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/239616/buffalo-cauliflower/

which I plan to try this weekend. And this from A. C. Cokerill:

https://accockerill.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/picoblog-question-2016-post-59/

So do you think the cauliflower invasion is real or something I just cooked up?

Until next time.

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Hadean 3: Completely Forked, Chapter 5

SmashwordsChapter Five

Rosa stared at her computer monitor. Her heart raced, fear soured her mouth, and her hands shook. Twenty minutes. She had twenty minutes to justify her existence, or else she would be ejected from the top secret facility, or… Air locked in her lungs. Or she could find herself a lab rat in one of the other scientist’s experiment.

Solange’s experiment.

The perky ’50’s housewife would probably demand it, rejoice in using Rosa as a control subject. The witch.

The screen flickered to life. This satellite feed was in color. Verdant forests. Gray granite patches of bald mountain. Snow-capped peaks. Longitude and latitude coordinates scrolled like gibberish along the bottom. Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The camera focused on a meadow, then backed out. Motion disturbed the dots of clearing in the woods.

Here we go again.

Two opposing forces raced toward the pasture. Her fingers twitched. She should mark the tribes, allow the computer to distinguish them in the upcoming battle. And for what reason? To learn nothing. Again.

Rosa stabbed the mouse button. The video paused. She needed something that would make a difference in the hearing to come. Anything. Heck, she’d settle for a mothership or gray aliens. She propped her chin in her palm and hit the play button. If she discovered the reason why the crazies rushed headlong into battle, maybe she could save her neck, along with the rest of her.

The northern crazies jumped the zig-zag line of wood fence bordering the pasture. The wind blew, whipping through pine boughs. Sunlight sparked on metal. A shed. They were racing for a shed. Big whoop.

She minimized the video. She was so screwed. Hanging her head below her shoulders, she clutched it between her palms. Squeezing counteracted the pressure threatening to blow the top off her skull.

Tears burned her eyes. She blinked then scrunched her lids together to hold back the moisture. She was a Robelski. She would not give anyone the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

The door lock clicked.

Throwing her shoulders back, she straightened and raised her chin. She was ready.

The light on the black box by the door shifted from red to green. A smile fled Marcus Westmoreland’s face as he stepped into the lab. “What is it? What’s happened?”

Marcus. He was the reason she was here. What would happen to him if she got voted off the island? But she knew. He would remain at the mercy of one black-haired witch.

“Solange.” The woman’s name was a razor blade in Rosa’s throat.

“Solange?” Marcus wrinkled his nose. “I thought I smelled something foul. What did that bitch want this time?”

Closing the door, he leaned against it. If only he could keep the world out forever. But the world, or more importantly the council, waited for her in ten minutes.

“Rosa? What did the cow want?”

“Oh, you know. The usual.” Rosa went for casual, but her voice cracked like an egg dropped from thirty-thousand feet. “My head on a platter.”

Snorting, Marcus reached for her hand. “Like that’s going to happen.”

She tucked her hands under her armpits. Touching him now, just when she was about to lose him, was cruel beyond words. “I don’t see how you can prevent it.”

“Is that a challenge? You know I always rise to a challenge.” Marcus was not the kind to accept no for an answer.

Being armed with gobs of money must do that to a person. How many people had actually told a Westmoreland no? Few, she’d bet, even during the apocalypse they still wielded power. But this time she didn’t see how he would have a choice.

He dropped to his knees in front of her. Gently, he pried her hands free then clasped them in his own. “Tell me what happened, then we’ll brainstorm our options, weigh the pros and cons, then win the battle, and maybe banish that dragon Solange once and for all.”

Her lips twitched. The fool always had to introduce a nerdy element into every serious conversation. “I’m being asked to give a presentation on my research in front of the general and the others.”

Lines appeared in Marcus’s forehead. “And?”

And? And? Wasn’t that enough? Didn’t he understand? “Hello. My research isn’t currently producing results. Not a one. You heard the rumors. Budget cuts. My project may be cut.”

She flinched at the harsh word and deadlier repercussions.

“O-Kay.” He drew out the syllables, indicating he clearly didn’t see. “Lots of us have been asked to give updates on our work.”

Pushing out of her chair, she paced the lab. The soft soles of her sneakers snicked along the linoleum. She milked her fingers, prayed for inspiration. “Yes, but you have numbers. Hard data. Graphs and pie charts. Bullshit to bamboozle them with.”

She had videos. Showing the same thing time after time.

Marcus shadowed her movements. “DNA doesn’t actually lend itself to pie charts. And even then, I haven’t crunched most of the data. I’ve just been generating it.”

“Yes, but you’re generating numbers. Stuff.” She shook her hands. Why couldn’t he understand? He was normally smarter than this. “My study hasn’t gone anywhere. They’re going to kick me out. You know what happens if I have to go out there?”

She froze. God, it didn’t even bear thinking about. Stars twinkled in her peripheral vision. Great. Now, she’d forgotten how to breathe.

Marcus wrapped his arms around her. Bracing his feet apart, he anchored her in place. “Hey, now. You aren’t going anywhere. And what is with this talk about your research not having produced any results? Balderdash. Pure and simple balderdash.”

She flapped her arms. If only she could fly way from this place, all her problems would be solved. Right. That was crazy talk. The loco-train wouldn’t stop running just because she could fly. She folded her arms over Marcus’s. Breathe. She had to breathe.

Marcus pressed a kiss into her hair. “That’s better. Now, what did Solange actually say?”

Rosa inhaled deeply. Keep to the facts. Don’t mention the need to pile drive the woman into the last century.  “She said I’m nothing more than a glorified secretary, and they have enough secretaries. She said the council wants to see me.”

“But she didn’t mention anything about projects being cut?”

“Not in so many words.” Rosa pursed her lips. Really? She needed his support, not him poking holes in her theories. “But she did point out that I’m not a doctor with a fancy string of letters behind my name.” Or maybe that was the janitor. Same difference. “Why not get rid of me?”

Marcus kissed her ear, then shifted away. “You’re the only one whose research has produced anything concrete.” He flapped a hand at the DNA sequencer sitting on the lab bench. “I have been so busy running samples that I haven’t actually had time to process any of the data. Or look for meaning in the gobs of information I’ve produced. And I’m hardly the only one.”

She stepped away then pivoted about to face him. “Yes, but—”

“No, buts.”  Marcus shook his finger at her. “We’re a team. If they’re crazy enough to cut your project, then I have plenty of work for us to do together. No secretary can do that.”

Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she planted her fists on her hips. “So you think they will cut my project because I’m not producing results?”

He stared at the drop ceiling and moved his mouth as he counted to three. “Why do you keep letting Solange get to you?

“Why? Why?” She wanted to ram her elbow into his gut or stomp on his instep. “You’ve seen her. You know what she’s like.”

Beautiful. Smart. Manipulative as all get out. But the thing that really stuck in Rosa’s craw was that it worked. Almost everyone in the facility rushed to do her bidding.

“I see an ugly, manipulative bitch, who uses people then discards them like dirty underwear. And so does General Simbury.”

She grunted. The general had actually snapped at Solange a few times. Perhaps…

Marcus opened his arms. “Now come here. We need to be calm for the upcoming meeting and holding you usually works.”

It did, but… She tapped her foot. Damn it. If this was their last embrace, she didn’t want to ruin it by being stupid or having a temper tantrum. Stumbling forward, she landed in his arms. “So, General Simbury is immune to her dubious charms, but what about all the other men with brass on their shoulders?”

Her fate lay in more than one set of hands.

Marcus held her close, then stroked her back. “If they kick you out, I’m going, too. I can have a plane on the tarmac before we pack our stuff. After four months buried ten times deeper than a corpse, I fancy some sunshine. What do you say to an all expenses paid vacation on my family’s private island? We can go skinny dipping without fear of encountering any crazies.”

“Sounds like paradise.” Closing her eyes, she buried her face in his neck.

“Or we could join your family in Arizona.”

Her family. Her family? God, they would know she was a failure. She was not a failure. She straightened in his arms.

He flashed her wicked smile. “There’s the fighter I fell in love with.”

Love. Love? Neither of them had ever mentioned love before, not once in the four months they had been together. She swallowed. Hard.

“What?” He leaned back, snaring her in his gaze. “Did you think this was just an end of the world fling?”

Had she? No, she’d thought… Now was not the time for this conversation. But they might not have another opportunity. She gripped his firm buttocks and squeezed. “You have the worst timing.”

“Me? I have the best timing ever. Doctor Who envies my timing.”

Tension unlocked her shoulders. “You asked me out on a date when the apocalypse began. And now just as I’m about to be fed to the crazies, you tell me you love me. That’s bad timing, or you want a relationship but not one that lasts for very long.”

He exhaled slowly. “I did not hear you love me back. Maybe, you’re short-timing it.”

Doubt played havoc in his hazel eyes and his fingers spasmed along her shoulder blades.

For a man who could be so cocky at times, how could he doubt that she loved him? She mentally slapped herself upside the head. “I love you.”

He smiled. “Took you long enough. A whole two minutes after I said it. You do know that little delay will cost you.”

She pinched his butt, hard, to pull his attention back to the task at hand. “What is the plan of attack for the committee meeting? I don’t have anything.”

“Sure you do. I’ve seen you scribbling in your notebook every time you watch a video.”

Sighing, she stepped out of his embrace and removed the little green book from her desk. Maybe he could see something she didn’t. “It’s just the same old observations except…” She sucked on her bottom lip. That last video, the leader had yelled.

He snatched the book and thumbed through the pages. “Ah, ha! You found something.”

“I don’t know if it means anything.” She flipped to today’s notes. Her finger bumped over the ridges and valleys of her writing.

“Everything means something.” He winked, letting her know he spoke of more than just her research.

Rising on tiptoe she kissed his cheek. They had always meant something. Funny how the end of the world clarified so many things.

Marcus flicked the page. “Start with that.”

She didn’t even know what the scream at the end of the battle meant, and she was supposed to be the behavior expert. “But—”

He pressed his lips to hers. There and gone before she could respond. “No buts.”

“You don’t—”

He kissed her again.

This time she managed to open her mouth before he pulled away. “—even know—”

His lips lingered.

Screw it. She couldn’t change the results of her research. She might as well enjoy the time she had left. She clutched his shoulders, stood on tiptoe, and leaned into him.

Breathing hard, he broke off the kiss but licked the taste of her from his lips. “You do realize that every time you speak down about your research, I will be forced to kiss you?”

“Forced?”

“I do suffer to make this relationship work.”

“Kissing me is not an incentive to stop a certain behavior.”

He waggled his blond eyebrows suggestively. “I know.”

“You should kiss me properly.” Clutching his head, she angled his face just so and held him in place. This kiss wouldn’t end until she was ready. Her heart raced; heat spiked through her. She broke away. “Thank you for the distraction.”

“Anytime.”

And he meant it. Seems like lately, they could only provide solace as their work hadn’t discovered a single answer.

He squeezed once, then released her. “Ready to face the committee?”

She slipped her hand in his then picked up her notebook. “Together.”

Was it wrong of her to want him by her side? He wasn’t the one who controlled the men with their fingers on the triggers.

#

Taking a deep breath, Rosa cleared the sliding doors. She paused, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. Slowly, hulking shadows separated into oblong tables and high-back office chairs. The classroom set up followed the curved walls of the amphitheater.  Blank computer screens sat on the table of four desks. The fish-eye cameras on the top blinked red. Someone was watching.

Chewing on the earpiece of his reading glasses, General Simbury scrolled through his tablet. He didn’t glance up.

Rosa’s stomach tightened. Had they already made their decision? Was this hearing about her research just a formality?

Marcus brushed his fingers down her spine before retreating to the corner to stand just inside her spotlight.

The door sighed shut. The silence drummed on her ears, beating back the thud of her heart. Her nose twitched. The room stank of despair, of lost hopes, and rotted dreams. Squaring her shoulders, she crossed to the table and woke up the tablet to enter the time stamp of the last video. She would not fail her family. They needed her to find a cure.

General Simburg hooked his wire rim glasses around his ears and glanced up. Atop his square head, his salt and pepper buzz cut twitched. “Rosa. Dr. Westmoreland, I do not believe I asked you to attend this meeting.”

Rosa inhaled. God, she hadn’t thought of that loophole. Fraternization was against the base’s policy, but if the general wanted to make an issue out of it, he should have done so four months ago when they had first shacked up. Surely no one thought they played Dungeons and Dragons behind closed doors? Well, not all the time, anyway.

Marcus clasped his hands behind his back. “Rosa and I are a team. I plan to use her insights to target my own research.”

General Simburg leaned back in his chair. “It’s nice that some researchers are cooperating.”

The screens fanning out alongside the general blinked to life. Five of the images were in silhouette.

On the sixth, a woman squinted. Her dark brown hair was restrained in a severe bun on top of her head. Understated make-up accented her tilted brown eyes and high cheekbones.  White letters at the bottom of the monitor identified her as Admiral Minerva Shelley.

Great. This was even worse than Rosa had thought. Her faceless executioners lined up on a raised platform with coliseum steps. She had seen how this ended; and it was never good. She shook her fingers to get rid of the anxiety.

Marcus cleared his throat.

Right. She would take the offensive. They may have called her here, but she would not go quietly into the crazy outside. “General Simbury. Admiral Shelley.” She addressed those with the guts to identify themselves. “I’m glad I have the chance to brief you on my research.” She tried not to gag on the lie. “I found something interesting in the videos just this morning.”

The general squinted.  “You have discovered something new?”

“Yes, sir.” Rosa licked her lips, glanced down for a glass of water. Nothing. They meant to keep this hearing short. “I do not know quite what it means but I think it has potential. Maybe enough to give us a small edge.”

Instead of crossing her fingers at the lie, she aligned the bottom of the tablet with the lip of the desk. A second later, she tapped the play arrow.

The screen on the general’s right blinked out the silhouette and replaced it with the end of the battle.

“As you can see, this man is one of the alphas of his tribe.” Opening the side menu, she activated a pointer and settled it over the figure in the center with a red crown. The battle ended. Many of the tribe fidgeted and panted. “Typical of other battles, we see the tribe still on high alert, ready to face a new threat.”

And in this state, they were more dangerous, more violent, than during the initial attack. Too bad she’d spilled that finding in an early meeting.

Rosa set her thumb and index finger on the leader and zoomed in. The leader threw back his head and screamed silently. The hair on Rosa’s arms stood on end. There was something primal happening, something that eluded her. She changed the camera to focus on a few members of the tribe. “Notice their breathing has slowed. Their posture is relaxed.”

“And they’re verbalizing again to communicate with their field soldiers.” The general cut his attention to Marcus. “Sit down, Dr. Westmoreland.”

A guard stepped out of the darkness.

Goram! Rosa jumped sideways, knocking her kneecap against the table leg. Pain blitzed her nerves, clarifying her thoughts. Where had he come from?

The guard’s lips twitched as he set two scarred plastic chairs in front of the table, then disappeared into the distant corner.

Plopping down, she rubbed the sting. She would have a bruise tomorrow.

Marcus pulled his seat closer to hers. “We know the leaders retain the ability to speak.”

Rosa jabbed him in the gut. She could have passed that bit off as a new finding, but her lover had gone and reminded the brass. “While we have experienced the alphas talking before, this is the first time they’ve vocalized to their own people. And had a response. Perhaps the speech centers aren’t as dead as we thought.”

The general smiled. “Well, well, well. This is a very good development Rosa.”

She leaned back in her seat. Thank God. They were impressed. She wouldn’t be booted out.

“Do you think the tribe will respond to commands from others?” General Simbury smoothed his fringe of gray hair. “Or is this a sign this pandemic is waning and citizens might be returning to their senses?”

Well, frak, he did have to ask the hard questions. She took a deep breath, time to begin the verbal song and dance. “I’m afraid, we’d be premature to draw any conclusions based on one isolated incident. I haven’t observed this behavior in other tribes.”

Admiral Shelley straightened in her chair.

She was going to interrupt. Rosa had to make her point, prove her study’s continued worth. “Which is why I propose to observe them as much as possible. We need to know how important this vocalization is, how frequently it occurs, and if it produces other responses. Only then, will we know if we can use it to undermine the alphas and take back control.”

Admiral Shelley glanced down. The edge of a tablet appeared in the frame for a second. “As you say the affected don’t speak, so how do the alphas control their tribe?”

And they were back to that. “I—”

Marcus set his hand over hers. “There hasn’t been any concrete scientific evidence to prove one theory over another.”

When Admiral Shelley put down her tablet, the camera backed out showing her laced fingers clenched on her desk. “So the telepathy theory is still on the table.”

Rosa mentally smacked her head. The telepathy idea had some fanatical supporters. She hoped the admiral wasn’t among them. “I am sorry, ma’am, but I do not have access to the data on those conducting that research. Personally, I highly doubt humanity spontaneously developed telepathy.”

“Then what is your theory of communication?” The admiral leaned forward.

Frakin’ A. Rosa licked her lips. What she wouldn’t give for a glass of water to stall for time. “Body language must be part of it. Not the overt signals the military is accustomed to, but something more subtle. For so many to have been affected in such a short period of time, I would think it was a latent gene that could have been activated, or maybe a chemical trigger. I’ll talk to a few of the animal behaviorists to learn how other species communicate and look for those patterns.”

The general tapped on his tablet. “You now have access to the findings of every research project in this base, Ms. Robelski.”

Rosa pushed back in her seat. Every scientist closely guarded their research after the disappearances of Parker and Patel. Especially after it had been rumored, they had been exiled when they’d produced no new data.

“So you don’t know how they’re communicating?” The admiral pushed for the admission.

“Nothing concrete. Yet.” Marcus’s shoulder brushed hers.

Rosa inhaled a whiff of pine and her tension eased. She blinked. Holy crap! Could it really be so simple? So basic? She faced Marcus. “What if it is by scent?”

“Scent?” The admiral used her stylus to scratch her scalp. “We know they stink but…”

“And why would they need to develop a new language?” The general shook his head. “Body language makes better sense.”

Marcus gripped her hand. “Scent. It is only one of our senses that doesn’t need to be processed before eliciting a response.”

Her heart raced. Could she really have hit upon the key? Could it really be so simple? “That must be how they tell each other apart in battle. And the sniffing, and why some tribes will fight others, but a few merge without blinking an eye.”

“And why so few are able to wield weapons in battle.” Marcus raised their clasped hands between them. His body shook with excitement. “Their lizard brain is in control. Smashing, pounding, and beating don’t require much brain power.”

Rosa bounced on her seat. She would revisit the videos, find out which way the wind was blowing and who was the aggressor. She could find proof! “The our army can use smoke bombs, or even stink bombs to throw off the crazies.”

Marcus nodded. “We can also see what damaging the olfactory centers in the brain do.”

“Brain damage?” Rosa didn’t to go that far. Not yet.

Marcus held his thumb and index finger close together. “Just a little damage.”

“Scent?” The admiral snorted. “Preposterous.”

Cripes! Rosa had forgotten their audience. “Humans are animals. Highly social, herd animals. We each have a unique scent which allows dogs to track us.”

Marcus slowly lowered their hands but didn’t release her. “The chemical receptors in our brains are highly developed. If the alphas emitted chemicals in their scent, others with matching receptors would respond. Hence the tribal definitions.”

“As for why they’d need a new language, humans are the most adept at stealing ideas. The societies which have the densest populations also have the most variety of languages and dialects. India, for example. And I think in New Guinea there is a new language for every square mile.”

Marcus grinned. “We speak of the scent of fear. And we have proven that pheromones elicit a sexual response.”

Rosa blushed. He would have to mention that.

“Then why aren’t we affected?” The general drummed his fingers on the table.

Rosa shrugged. “We must not have the receptors. Making us oblivious to their scent.”

“I’ll look for a mutation. It might not be a big one, just enough to change a receptor a little.”

“How do we use this scent to bring the crazies back into the human fold?” The general removed his glasses and stared down at his tablet.

“The mutation could be fixed with gene therapy.” Marcus leaned back in his chair.

“Or, we can find another chemical to bind with the receptors, stopping all communication. We don’t know what consequences that will have.” At best, Rosa knew they might end the crazy. Or kill everyone in the process.

The admiral pointed at them through the monitor. “That is all very interesting but how does that fit in with the new video?”

“What new video?” Rosa scooted forward on her seat. They had a new video?

With his tablet in his lap, General Simbury spun in his chair. “This was the reason we asked you here.”

He tapped the screen.

The image of the screaming alpha disappeared. In its place, a large group of twenty to thirty people headed toward a farmhouse. They threaded like snakes through the fields of grain that stretched out like shag carpeting. A silver sphere identified a silo. A patch of white revealed a barn. The brown square behind a green roof gave evidence of a garden recently harvested.

Rosa peered at the screen, but held her tongue. What was she supposed to see? She had weeks worth of footage showing the crazies attacking. Even their battle technique was simple.

This tribe ran straight toward the farmhouse.

Light burst from near the house. Someone was firing a gun. The crazies did not slow or change tactics. Two more fell. Three. They disappeared under the cover of trees. Then two raced up the porch and ran inside.

Others funneled around the house and invaded the barn.

Muzzle reports flashed. Crazies fell. More filed in to take their place and swarmed the outbuilding.

Rosa’s stomach clenched. “The crazies are attacking a group of those unaffected.” She swallowed hard. The unaffected hadn’t been attacked since the outbreak. “Wh-Where is this?”

The general checked his screen. “Somewhere in Missouri.”

There had been plenty of hold outs in the wheat belt. So many that helicopters had taken blood samples to see if they were immune. Perhaps they were wrong. Wiping at the sweat on her upper lip, Rosa found her voice. “What town is closest?”

“Poplar Bluff.”

A moment later, the crazies emerged from the barn and house with people struggling between them.

Rosa rose from her seat. “Are they taking prisoners?”

The crazies gathered in the dirt patch where a garden must have stood. They pushed and shoved their captives to the ground, then formed a solid wall around them.

Two men burst through the wall of crazies. The man on the right motioned with his hands. In his shadow, Rose watched his mouth open and close. “He’s speaking.”

“We think they might be forming an alliance.” The general pinched the bridge of his nose.

“We have monitored this particular cluster of survivors for two weeks.” The admiral frowned at her desk.  “Their numbers have been dwindling by ones and twos during this time, picked off by this tribe of crazy.”

The people in the garden shifted. Some glanced at the barn over their shoulder. “They are talking.”

“Yes. We’ve already established that.” The admiral rolled her eyes.

Rosa blushed with embarrassment. “Not the crazies, the captives. The crazies and the captives are having a conversation.”

On screen, the alpha on the right raised his rifle and aimed at the head of the woman closest to him.

Rosa held her breath. Would he shoot?

The screen filled with static, then darkness.

She shoved back her chair and walked toward the general. “What happened next?”

“We do not know. The satellites moved out of range. “The general tossed his tablet onto his desk. “You don’t think they’re drafting one big bad, crazy army, do you?”

“No, I don’t think so. I think those farmers were not affected by what is going on.” Rosa milked her fingers. “They seem pretty self-sufficient. But we know that the crazies have turned into raiders after eating all the food in the cities and towns. ”

Marcus joined her to stare at the blank screen. “How did the crazies find them?”

The general puffed out his cheeks then sighed. “This particular set of survivors headed into town in search of medicine. They could have been followed.”

Rosa paced to the first row of desks then back. She needed more information. “When will the next satellite be over the area?”

“In too damn long.” The general checked his watch. “Three hours, ten minutes. Does this change your theory?”

“No. People spoke multiple languages before the outbreak, and we’ve always known the alphas could speak.”  But three hours was definitely too damn long to wait to find out if the farm family had survived. Because her family needed to go into town for supplies.

And the nearby town was full of crazies.

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New Release: Hadean 3: Completely Forked

Yay! It finally went live last night at amazon.

When safety means starvation, one man will risk everything to ensure his family’s survival.

Four months after the crazy apocalypse turned ordinary people into homicidal maniacs, Andrew Whiteangel is living the dream— he has the girl, a nice place to live, and the respect of those around him.

But winter is coming and food is scarce.

To save his family, Drew will head into a town overrun with crazies bent on carving out their territory and killing any outsiders. If his supply run is successful, he’ll be the hero. But one wrong move could lead the crazies to his home. Or unleash the enemy already under his roof, waiting for a chance to strike.

Sometimes dreams turn into nightmares.

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I’ll post the links when the book goes live at Nook, iBooks, and kobo.

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Tracks to Nowhere

So the other day, I had to take my daughter to school (college) while her car’s air bags were being replaced. Given the 2 hours between me dropping her off and picking her up, I decided to wait in the student union and write instead of leaving and coming back.

While on my way to the building, I was walking behind two young women. They were laughing over a remark their teacher had made. She asked the class if their choice of music addressed any social issues. Both of them sneered at the thought of rap music talking about recycling.

Really?

I’ve read over and over that the millennials don’t consider themselves children of one nation but of the world. But if that were the case, then why didn’t they consider social issues a valid topic for music?

Injustice, hatred, homophobia, bigotry, environmental contamination, and war haven’t stopped and each generation of music should unite people of like mind to work to end these social issues.

So here are a few of my favorite songs the deal with these issues and that brought folks together to deal with them in a positive  and (mostly)  peaceful manner:

War:

Famine:

Farm-aid, concert for America (The man in black was my first crush):

Inequality:

Music has a power all it’s own. Why can’t it be used for more than fun? And whoever decided that raising awareness had to be boring?

Feel free to share your favorite song. Until next time.

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Head versus Heart

Over Labor Day weekend, I gave up caffeine. I’ve done it before, I just never enjoy it. There is something magical about Dr. Pepper. About how it causes my brain to race and make connections that are perfect for stories.

But this time I had to choose my heart over my head. You see, I’m allergic to caffeine. If I have more than 2 sodas I break out into hives. Always a fun time. But I could take a pill to deal with that.

This is where my heart comes into play. My heart beats to a different drummer sometimes not always in sync and sometimes it goes fast or really slow for no apparent reason, other than genetics. So in order to stave off getting that pacemaker for another few years, I gave up the caffeine.

I miss it, and we’ll see how the writing does without it.

Until next time.

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Sneak Peek: Hadean 3, Chapter 4

SmashwordsChapter Four

“Head, torso, arms, and toes. Severed toes.” The man’s sing-song voice echoed in the empty hall.

Rosa Robelski hummed along to the children’s song. Her office chair creaked as she leaned back. Hitting the pause button, she rubbed the grainy satellite images from her eyes. Einstein’s count was off by one. This Third World War was being fought with sticks, stones, bats, and fists. Apparently the crazy pandemic affected the infected’s higher brain function.

She stared at the computer monitor.

Arms and legs tangled in a frenzy of action and spilled blood pooled in glossy black puddles. Red and blue marked the opposing bands of crazies. Crowns in matching colors picked out the leaders of the groups.

So did the presence of assault rifles and the blasts of heat from their muzzles.

Only a few crazies retained the ability to use sophisticated weaponry.

God help everyone if any of them learned to use a nuke or chemical weapons. Rubbing her neck, she stretched. The kid’s song slipped past her lips. “Heads. Shoulders…”

No. That hadn’t been what she’d heard. She’d heard a new apocalyptic version, complete with chopped up body parts. In the four months since she’d been airlifted from a country club in Cave Creek, Arizona, she’d let herself get comfortable, deluded herself with ideas of safety.

That was the fastest way to end up dead.

The crazy hadn’t slowed down. If anything it was accelerating.

And spreading.

Twice now, bullets had sprayed the halls while she’d been locked down in the lab for hours. Officially the military hunted escaped subjects. But rumors circulated. And scientists like her had disappeared.

Keys jingled. A shadow drifted across the opaque glass at the front of her laboratory.

Heart lodged in her throat, Rosa hooked her finger through the drawer handle and eased it open. Only the military personnel carried guns on Area 51, but she was far from helpless. The fire extinguisher three feet away would work in a pinch. So would the array of scissors in her desk drawer. She shook her head.

She was safe.

The lab was accessible only by key card. A metal door and bullet-proof glass separated her from the hall. The crazies didn’t use reason. And if they tried to smash their way inside, she’d have plenty of time to exit through the drop ceiling or garbage chute.

She slipped her hand into the drawer. Cold steel bit into her fingers as she wrapped them around the scissors. Still, it was better safe than sorry.

The light on the black electronic pad above the fire extinguisher switched from red to green. The door locks clicked.

Mouth dry, she eased out her weapon. Stab out the eyes. Slash the throat. Whatever it takes to survive.

Keith Gills shouldered the door open. The thirty-something janitor stopped singing mid-severed toes. The meaty, fetid stench of decaying corpses infiltrated the lab despite the higher air pressure in the room, thanks to the bin of body parts in the hall and waiting to be taken to the incinerator. Real human garbage.  Pale green eyes blinked at her from under ginger eyebrows. Gel darkened the spikes on his oval head to golden brown. “Dr. Robelski. You’re here.”

Obviously. Rosa forced her lips into a smile, the better to stop everyone from spreading rumors about her. “It’s Rosa, Keith. And I’m not a doctor.”

Red washed Keith’s cheeks subsuming his freckles in the tide of embarrassment. “Sorry. I keep forgetting.”

“No problem.” The base was stuffed with Ph.D.s. Even her boyfriend had two. She was one of the rare exceptions with her bachelor degree.

“Any word on a cure?” Sidling inside, he retrieved her waste basket and dumped it into a larger garbage can on wheels.

Rosa rubbed the goosebumps pressing against her lab coat. “I wouldn’t know. I’m studying how the disease works, why some people are unaffected, and why not all the crazies are treated the same.”

She stared at the screen. The crazies tagged in red had no obvious phenotypic similarities—old, young, man, woman, European, Asian, African. They blended together, fought as one unit. Despite millennia of dividing ourselves in artificial categories, the crazy recognized only one thing—human. True equality. And no one would be around to enjoy it. Yippee.

“You know, you’re the only one to talk about what you do.” Keith dragged the trash can into the center of the lab. “Guess everyone thinks a janitor is too dumb to understand what’s going on.”

DNA sequencing machines hummed on every bench top. Racks of blood filled vials crammed the two fridges in the back. Cables tethered the sequencers to the main frame before the data popped up on the screen. She glanced at her boyfriend and labmate’s computer, catching a whiff of Marcus Westmoreland’s pine soap.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with you being a janitor.” Returning the scissors to the drawer, Rosa spun around on her chair and faced Keith. “The disciplines being studied are pretty unique, few outside the field would understand the work.”

Keith pulled a yellow and white pipette tip box from the next bag and set it aside. “Then many doctors could be researching the same thing, but no one would know?”

“General Simbury oversees all the projects, redirecting those that need it where he thinks it might do the most good.” Unlike her project that hadn’t produced anything worth her presence in the top secret base.  She rested her hands on her thighs. “I doubt anyone’s duplicating any research.”

Resources were tight and getting scarce. The daily announcements had stopped reporting the number of patrols lost on hunting expeditions.

“Good to know. Good to know.” Keith removed another tip box and stacked it on the first one. “You think they’ll find a cure for the crazy?”

Rosa sighed and sank deeper. It had been four months. Four. No one could find a specific vector and most poo-pooed the notion that the genetically modified food had contributed anything to the pandemic. Worse, the research she and Marcus had collected over the years had disappeared, putting them at square one.

And they were still at square one four months later.

Keith scratched his nose, watching her, waiting for an answer.

She’d like to say yes, but didn’t like to lie. “I hope so. My family is out there.”

Safe so far. But until the crazy was cured, no one was safe for long.

Nodding, Keith tugged the bags from the remaining two baskets, tied them off, then chucked them into the bigger garbage can. “How come your research doesn’t end up with bodies?”

Rosa blinked. Bodies. She’d been given subjects to study. The thirty people lay in chemically induced comas on slabs four stories below. And that’s where they’d stay if she had anything to say about it. Just because they went a little nuts, didn’t make them less than human. She didn’t experiment on humans, but she could watch them. “I study how the crazies act toward each other. Their tribal dynamics. And how they form societies.”

And they were forming societies. Independent fiefdoms. Unfortunately, she hadn’t figured out how to join one tribe. Those that tried ended up with crushed skulls. It was a hell of an initiation…

Tucking the stack of pipet boxes under one arm, Keith rested his free hand on the edge of the garbage can. “You and Dr. Westmoreland are the only ones that don’t have a body count. The others… The others, they’ve been taking bets on who survives the arena.” Keith opened and closed the top box lid. “No one survives. They kill the ones that survive.”

A chill snaked down Rosa’s back. The classrooms in the basement were supposed to be used to see if the crazies were teachable, able to be redeemed by learning basic skills. Instead it was a private coliseum with battles to the death.

Not all monsters were crazy.

And she had to work with them. Thankfully, she and Marcus spent most of their time together in the lab or their personal quarters. Enough of that. Half of survival lay in the attitude. Boxing up her gloomy thoughts, she shoved them in a corner of her brain where they could pop out just as she drifted off to sleep. “So what are you collecting the boxes for?”

“My daughter. She—” Keith paled. His freckles flashed like stop lights on his pale skin. “I… I mean…”

Poor guy. Good laboratory practices forbade picking through the garbage. He probably thought he’d be fired from his job for the safety violation. A death sentence for him and his family. She wouldn’t report him. In fact… Pushing from her seat, she crossed the lab and stopped by the hood holding Marcus’s reagents. She opened the drawer on the right and scooped out four more boxes.

“You can take these.” After handing them off, she returned to her desk and removed red, green, black, and blue Sharpies. “And she can draw with these.”

Keith blinked. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem. According to my mom, my niece and nephew are going a little nuts with so much time on their hands. Thankfully, they’re starting a school. Not an option here. I think you have one of the few kids…” Except the ones experimented on. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Rosa glanced at her desktop computer. A miniature Kokopelli sat next to a doll-sized tea cup. She bit her lip. If her computer didn’t have a totem, bad things would happen to her work. But did she need both of them?

She filched the flute-playing green lizard before she changed her mind. “And she can have this, too.”

Keith’s mouth opened in surprise. “Are you sure?”

“Just until the crazy is over. Then I’ll want it back.” Rosa laced her fingers together before she snatched it back. The tiny teacup was enough.

“Thank you.” He tucked the toy into his pocket next to the pens then patted it. Shuffling toward the door, he perfumed the air with a touch of body odor. “I—thank you.”

“You bet.” She rubbed the smell from her nose. If she hadn’t had a back-up deodorant in her bug-out bag, she’d be stinky, too. God help her.

The wheel of his garbage can squeaked as he pushed it out. The door closed quietly behind him just as he started signing again. “Head, torsos, arms, and toes. Severed toes.”

Reaching up, she shifted aside the vertical blinds.

Keith pushed the garbage can ahead of him while pulling a bin.

Through the clumps of hair and brownish smears of blood, she made out an eyeball, a cheek, and part of a nose. The head perched like a cherry on top of a body part sundae. Gah. She let the blinds shut her inside. Scrubbing her hand down her face, she plopped into her seat. “The crazies are everywhere.”

And speaking of crazies…

She tapped the mouse.

Violence erupted across her screen as the two tribes of crazies battled it out. The two men marked with red crowns fired their assault weapons into the melee. Heads exploded like watermelons. Some turned their faces into the fountains of red and gray. Arms swung, punched and battered their opponents. Even without sound, she knew no one screamed or cried out. Everything was in silence.

Bile rose in her throat. Same crazy; different city. Her hand twitched on the mouse and she hit fast forward.

Victims fell. The red tribe dog piled onto the enemy still standing. The crowd thinned. At twenty minutes, only the red tribe remained on their feet. Most panted. Their hands clenched and relaxed.

Adrenalin still coursed through their veins, needing an outlet. Rosa picked up her pen, tapped it against her lab notebook. Nothing new in this battle. She scanned the pages. Nothing new in any battle for the last month. So much for her learning theory.

One of their leaders climbed a pile of corpses. He opened his mouth and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.

Okay, that was new. She turned up the speaker then mentally smacked herself. This satellite feed didn’t come with sound.

The crazies relaxed. Tight shoulders bowed. Arms swung loosely at their sides.

Holy crap. Were they communicating? She replayed the scene. Pen scratched paper as she recorded the time code. They were communicating. She palmed her chin, staring at the screen.

The leader trudged into the camp of their fallen enemy. He paused by a pile of cans. The crowd shifted, dividing itself in groups. Young women and men in one line. Children next. Everyone else last.

She pinched her bottom lip. What did it mean? The young adults ranged in age from sixteen to maybe thirty. The last four months had made most lean, but there were still a few heavy set people in the tribe. Heck, they weren’t even the best fighters, the older ones had more kills. But many crazies sorted themselves this way when it came time to divide up the spoils of war.

“Why? Why are you giving these people the food first?” She glanced at Marcus’s workstation. Genetics had confirmed these weren’t the children of the older people. So what was up with the sacrifice? Without their genes surviving onto the next generation, altruism was an evolutionary dead end.

She noted the pattern in the lab book. This behavior was becoming the norm amongst the tribes instead of the exception. She’d have to ask Marcus to look for a genetic component. Maybe by focusing on this group, his research would have a breakthrough.

They needed a breakthrough.

Desperately.

The red button on the electronic key pad switched to green.

The man always did have the best timing. “Hey, Marcus, I—”

Solange Poole sashayed into the lab, dressed in her trademark vintage 1950’s housewife chic. A frilly white apron covered the blue checked dress poured over her curves. Perky breasts pointed like arrows at Rosa. Her glossy jet ponytail slapped her rounded shoulders. “Marcus isn’t here?”

Rosa’s knuckles flashed white. She dropped her pen and carefully closed her lab notebook. Stabbing one of those silicone floatation devices on Solange’s chest was the best way to get evicted from the base. “No, he’s getting us dinner.”

To enjoy in their room. Alone together.

“Oh.” Solange’s puffy lips puckered into a scarlet hole. “I was sure he would be here.”

Just as the perky bimbo thought he’d fall for her charms. Not gonna happen. Marcus was Rosa’s and she was his. Her fingers clenched into a fist itching for just one punch. Just one. Was that too much to ask? She tamped down the anger. “Do you want me to give him a message?”

Solange’s perky nose wrinkled. “That really is all you’re good for, isn’t it? Taking messages.”

Rosa bit the inside of her mouth. She wouldn’t give the woman the satisfaction of rising to her bait. Instead, she jabbed the mouse, halting the video stream on her monitor. How could someone be so mean and not be crazy?

Folding her arms across her chest, Solange hoisted her breasts almost to her chin. “We have enough secretaries. We don’t need you, and….” Her black eyes twinkled maliciously under her fringe of bangs. “And finally the general understands.”

A hard knot formed in Rosa’s stomach. If Solange was happy, then somewhere puppies wept.

“Projects are being cut.” White even teeth flashed between Solange’s crimson lips. “Useless, stupid projects. And your first up for the hearing scheduled in twenty minutes.” Ponytail bouncing, she sauntered to the door. “Once you’re gone, I’ll take care of Marcus and your lab rats.”

A rush of lavender perfume hit Rosa in the face as the other woman left the lab. Oh God. Oh my God. With shaking hands, she scanned her notebook. Nothing. She had nothing to justify her presence in the facility.

She was as good as dead.

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