When my momma was young and I was younger, I used to try and go out into the desert. She always told me no, but did I care? Of course not. I hardly gave a shit. I was an explorer at heart. An adventurer. I wanted to see the big wide world, no matter the cost. I wanted to take it in with my own eyes, even if it meant getting myself killed.
That was before I became a homebody, of course. Before I realized my momma was an imbecile, my little sister was too young to help, and there was a baby on the way. That was when I buckled down, realized that if nobody else was gonna be responsible, I had to be. I accepted it. Didn't even ask who the baby’s daddy was, or why Momma once told us she didn't know.
If that wasn't enough to stop me from wanting to go into the desert and see the big wide world with my own eyes, this is more than enough to make me wish I'd never once set eyes on sand in my life.
The bike bucks beneath me and the man behind me curses in a low, deep voice. “Joanna?” he says, in a voice that sounds thick, foreign, so heavily accented it takes me a moment to recognize my own name.
“That's me,” I say.
Without moving his head, he reaches back with one arm and grabs something big from behind him. I know it's heavy from the way his muscles bulge, and I tense for a moment – is he going to attack me? Knock me out? But instead he just hands it to me, grip pointing towards the bike handles in front of me.
I close my fingers around it, staring. It's a gun. A big one, too. It feels heavy in my hands.
“You'll need something to defend yourself,” the man says.
I swallow. “Thanks.” But aren't we… why’s he giving me this now? We're riding away from whatever caused us to abandon camp, aren't we?
My stomach tenses into a tight, anxious coil. Again, that feeling of being helplessly blind, left in the dark, not knowing what we're doing or why we're doing it. I swallow against it.
“When we stop the bike, grab a belt off the back,” the man instructs me, his voice low. “Extra cartridges in the black one looped over the back. Grab a pack, too. Explosives.”
I raise my eyebrows. Cartridges? Explosives? They're trusting me with weapons now?
Weapons. Weapons mean I could –
“Don’t even think about trying to run,” adds the man. “Without us you'd die in the blink of an eye, and nobody’d even miss you.”
Shit. Well, there goes that plan.
He could be bluffing. But somethin’ tells me he’s probably right.
And then, before I have a chance to think of anything else, the bike is jolting to an ugly, guttural stop, and we're in the middle of another town – a city of low-lying houses of heavy glass and worn stone – and around me, the alleys and the streets are so filled with darkness that it's almost suffocating. I put the helmet over my head and suck in a breath. It tastes metallic. Stuffy. But it's better than being unshielded from the sand, vulnerable to whatever else is out there. I sling the belt across my body, shoulder to hip, and the pack of explosives on my back.
Now I look more like a junker.
My clothes are still soft, though, and bright beneath my cartridge belt, and my pants rumple awkwardly. They're a tough khaki that slumps lazily at the waist, pools above the tops of my boots. I'm hefting the gun when the man – Marcus, I think – suddenly grabs it from me and slings a couple more belts across me, like an X, and attaches the gun to my back. “You aren't gonna use the gun, not right now,” he mutters. “You gonna use this.”
He slaps a long stick into my hands. It's got bulbs at either end, and it's sort of tan colored. I stare at it awkwardly. A stick? Is it just a stick?
My fingers slip against something. A button, I think. I press it, on instinct.
The ends flare. Marcus recoils, eyes wary.
So that's how it works.
“Fire works well on the undead,” Mariah hisses to me. She's materialized next to me somehow. I don't know how she managed to navigate through all the bikes without bumping into one, or tripping over herself. “That's what your staff is for.”
When I look, she's holding one, too, but longer, and the ends are flared more, almost like oversized flames. She flicks a switch along the handle and it sparks longer, louder, and brighter than mine. I blink, and spots dance across my eyes.
Then she reaches over to my staff, holds the button down for a good five seconds. When she moves her hand away, the ends don't stop glowing or sparking. I spin the staff experimentally in my hands, trailing sparks through the air. Even though the ends are a good three feet from my face to either side, I can feel their heat pressing against my skin, like a cloud of almost-oppressive warmth.
I look up – and that's when it happens.
Fireflies. That's what they look like, pairs of oversized fireflies blinking into existence all around me, one after another after another. And as soon as they do –
One of the women at the edge lets out a shriek, dropping her staff. Suddenly she's tangled with another body, a body darker than hers that doesn't glint in the firelight, and the lights are coming together, converging on her –
There's another shriek, but this one is unearthly, inhuman, and the dark creature is scurrying away, one spindly arm shielding its eyes.
A man’s voice. Maybe her lover. Do junkers have room for love in their hearts? I always heard they only cared about loot.
Then, suddenly, one of them is next to me.
I don't know how it got there, how it managed to get there so silently – maybe it and Mariah share the same genes, who the hell knows? – but I'm swinging my staff in a wide arc, scared shitless, and my heart is pounding and the others are converging on me and –
I stop. It's not undead. It's one of us.
One of our younger ones, too. A young man, his eyes glinting in the dark. He looks up at me, his pupils dilated – with fear, probably – and I nearly drop my staff. “Oh,” and I back up, biting my lip. My heart isn't pounding so hard anymore.
Then someone says, “Idiot,” and a boy – a boy who looks exactly like the boy on the ground in front of me – pulls out a gun and shoots the helpless one straight through the head.
The air seems to sizzle. The boy on the ground gives a strange shriek and withers suddenly into a mess of muscle and bone and blood. After a few seconds, he's nothing but a small pool of sticky black liquid. I'm pretty sure normal people would leave a body behind –
“The undead are impostors,” the dead boy’s lookalike says to me.
“They imitate real people.”
I raise my eyes to him slowly. “Then how do you know which one to kill?”
He laughs. “You don't, always.”
I laugh a humorless, shaky laugh. “Shit.”
He opens his mouth to say something, but Mariah speaks instead. “The eena are around us,” she says softly. “Closer than we thought. We must take care.”
I glance back at the boy. “Eena?”
He nods. “It's the junker word for zombies.”
Oh. Junker word. I remember how Momma always told me junkers talk different than we do. I have a feeling I'm beginning to get a faint idea of exactly why she said that. Eena. I file it away into my mind. Eena. Undead. Zombies. All the same thing.
Then she makes a sudden, strange clicking noise.
There's no doubt in my mind that what she means is, run.