What’s Next?

I promised that I would keep writing, and I know you all are eager to find out what’s coming next. Well, I’ve mentioned to a couple of curious readers that my next book is going to take us away from the Kingdom — and it certainly is. We’ll be heading out to Dallas, Texas, year 2522.

For those of you who have been waiting for more, I am very pleased to offered you the following excerpt. It is a sequence that I believe will give you all a taste of what life is like for our new MC.

Have a wonderful week! 🙂

The world is not what it used to be …

 

“What are we doing here, exactly?”

“Don’t talk to me, freak,” Walter grunts. “I’m trying to concentrate.”

Concentrate on what, I have no idea.

We left the bike about half a mile outside of town. Walter wedged it inside a crop of towering, spiny weeds. Then he made me cover up what was left showing with even spinier branches. He offered no instruction, except to say that I should pull my head out of my backside and use it.

When I said that it was anatomically impossible for a person’s head to fit inside their own rear end, Walter replied with a sneer:

“You want to bet on that, freak?”

I did not.

And so I finished covering the bike and followed him the whole dusty half-mile into town.

Town is not a fitting word. A town is a place full of people, and noise, and light. What I am standing in are the bones of a town: the lights are out, the streets are silent, and the people are very likely dead. It’s been almost two weeks since the convoy attack and I have yet to run across another soul.

Despite all of his stories, I am beginning to wonder if Walter and I are the only ones still out here.

It’s about an hour after noon. Buildings stretch high enough to choke the beating sun, but they are altogether empty. Their windows are smashed and their sills look as if they’ve been weeping soot. Many have tops that have collapsed or been worn jagged by the weather. Now all they seem good for is making a little shade — and giving Walter something to stare at, apparently.

I have no idea what he’s doing. We’re waiting inside one of those empty buildings: I am keeping watch at the door, while Walter stands splay-legged in front of the far wall. He’s been standing there, unmoving, for the better part of two minutes.

“What the heck are you doing, anyways?”

“Can’t say,” he grunts.

“Well, do you need help?”

“Huh. Not from you. It just takes time, all right? Now shuttup and let me focus.”

It’s so dark back there that I can’t see what he’s doing. Something that’ll get us into trouble, more than likely. But I know that my heckling will only make things take longer. So I bite my tongue and try to stay busy.

This building has got a bit of a lean to it, like it’s almost rotten enough to tip over. The floors were probably concrete at one point, but have since been eaten up by thick layers of dirt and grass. There’s a rusted metal staircase set against the right hand corner of the room that leads to the upper floors.

I can hear them creaking. They moan like they’ve got something heavy sitting on them, and every once in a while there’s a loud pop — which is disturbing, because there’s no wind today. Not even a breeze. Nothing natural that could possibly be causing the building to make noise.

It puts me on edge. In the long silences between the creaking, I can hear my own heart beat. It thuds inside my ears, hums inside my throat. I try to keep from breathing too much. Even the slight whistle of dragging air into my lungs seems unnecessarily loud …

The silence is broken by the sound of liquid splashing violently against the far wall. I hear Walter’s triumphant grunt, and the horror of what he’s been trying to do finally hits me.

“Oh my God! Are you —?”

“Ha! Yep.”

“It takes you that long? Is that natural?”

“Hey, stuff like this starts to happen when you get old, freak. Not that you’ll ever know what that’s like,” Walter calls as the splashing continues. “Used to, I could go whenever I needed. Now, it’s a process.”

After a period of time far too long to be healthy, Walter buttons up and saunters out of the darkness.

“All right. Your turn.”

“What?”

He jerks his thumb behind him. “Go take a leak.”

“No.” The word comes out before I even have the chance to fully comprehend what he’s saying — it’s like a reflex, or something. “No. There’s no way I’m doing that.”

“Why not?” Walter plucks a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and tucks it between his lips. His bushy gray brows slip over the tops of his eyes in a scowl. “You shy or something? Don’t worry about it, freak. I’ll be out here keeping an eye on things. Scavs won’t stick around if they don’t see anybody to trade with. We’ve got to stay visible.”

He holds my eyes expectantly. But I just can’t do it: my insides curl up at the thought. “I’m fine. I don’t need to go.”

“We’ve been on the road for four hours straight. And you drank dang near a gallon of water before we left. There’s no way you don’t need to go.”

He’s right. I am experiencing a fair amount of discomfort, as well as some numbness that could eventually lead to quite the damp reckoning. And the more we talk about it, the more desperate my situation becomes.

Still, I can’t bring myself to strip half-naked inside a building that could collapse at any second. If I am going to die, I would at least like to be fully clothed. “I’m fine,” I say again.

Walter’s mouth twists around his cigarette, causing all of his wrinkles to run to one side. “Look, freak: I know what they did to you. I know they locked you up inside a truck and made you piss in a bucket, but you can’t —”

“Wait — how do you know that?” I sputter. “I never told you anything!”

Walter splits into a grin so wide that I can see all of his missing teeth, and I suddenly figure it out.

“I’m never doing feather again.”

“Good!” He cackles. “More for me. But seriously, kid: you’ve got to go.”

“I don’t need to,” I say back. It’s more about pride now than embarrassment — and mine is considerably bruised.

Walter just shrugs. “If you don’t go, it’s going to grow mold.”

“What …? No it won’t!”

“Oh, yes it will. Thick green mold, too. You’ll have to squat in a barrel of whiskey for two weeks to get rid of it. I swear,” Walter holds up a hand, cutting me short, “I knew a girl whose mold got so bad that it climbed up inside her stomach and killed her. God’s honest truth — you can ask anybody west of the Trinity, and they’ll tell you the same thing.”

He’s lying. I am almost positive that Walter’s just trying to scare me. But the way his face looks like a wadded up pair of pants often gives him the illusion of wisdom. It’s confusing.

I finally decide that it’s better to be safe, than succumb to a deadly crotch mold.

“Okay, then. I’ll be right out here. And hey,” Walter grabs me roughly by the front of the shirt and pulls me onto my toes, “I left ol’ Josephine back there in that corner. The Scavs don’t like it when people come out waving guns — makes the prices go up. But just because I have her sitting back there doesn’t mean you’ve got to touch her. You leave her alone, you hear me? Can’t have your little freak fingers scuffing up her finish.”

It looks to me like the rust and the weather had their way with Josephine’s finish about a decade ago. But Walter’s got at least seven shades of crazy in his eyes, and I’m not about to set him off.

“I won’t touch it — her,” I say quickly.

Walter pushes me down. “Darn right, you won’t,” he mumbles as he shuffles towards the doorway. “Don’t want to lose any fingers, that’s why …”

He’s not my favorite person in the world. I don’t think he’d even crack the top ten. But right now and for the foreseeable future, Walter’s all I’ve got.

The second he’s out of sight, I rush for the back wall. My situation has progressed from desperate to imminent, and it’s everything I can do to get my buttons undone. No sooner do I brace myself into position than I hear the growl of a pickup truck heading our way.

Anything that was going to happen shoots right back up and hides. I try to convince myself that I’ve got time: that truck is probably a good minute away. We’re off on a side street, and I’m tucked so far inside this building that if anyone were to stick his head in, he wouldn’t see me.

Besides, this is likely going to be my last chance for a while. I know how long Walter goes on when it’s just him and me. I can’t imagine the kind of wind he’ll get if there are multiple people to talk to. We could still be here tomorrow.

But no matter how I try to convince myself, my body just won’t cooperate. Maybe Walter is right: maybe I’m shy.

The pickup turns down our street. I hear Walter hollering for it to stop, and know that my time’s run out. I guess I’ll just have to cross my legs.

I’m reaching down to pull my pants up when someone from the truck hollers back. And he’s not speaking Texan. This is the worst possible thing that could go wrong, happening at the worst possible time. I’ve literally been caught with my pants around my ankles.

There’s a split second when I hope that they won’t attack us … but then the shooting starts.

I count five. The hum of no less than five high-powered rifles swells inside the alleyway. They charge, filling their chambers with a stream of concentrated energy. Their buzzing climbs to the point where my head’s rattling and I feel like I’ve got hornets wedged between my teeth. Then they let loose.

Everything changes in a blink. One minute I’m just trying to relieve myself —and the next, I’m diving, half-naked, for the nearest block of cover I can find.

Outside is complete and utter bedlam. White-blue flashes light up the street; chunks of brick and mortar rain from the walls. An errant beam licks its way through an empty window and cuts over the top of me.

I can feel the heat on the bare backs of my legs — it’s like taking a turn into the sun. The beam strikes the wall and explodes, leaving a scorch mark the size of my head.

These aren’t junker rifles: they’re the real thing. We’re pinned down, outnumbered. Walter’s in serious trouble — if he’s not dead already. To stick my head through the doorway would just be an invitation to have it blown off. My best chance is to get to the roof.

I rip my pants up my legs and start to crawl. I head for the corner where Walter’s beloved gun sits, ducking beams and wincing against a hail of smoldering gravel. Dust coats my tongue; the air reeks of smoke and burnt plastic. I’m trying to keep track of how many rounds the vagrants fire, trying to guess about when they’ll lose their charge. But I can’t concentrate.

For the first time in a long while, I am truly afraid.

Josephine is leaning against the wall, its oversized barrel pointed toward the roof. It weighs more than I thought it would — more than it should, in fact. A part of me worries about what’s wrong with it, while the rest of me charges up the stairs.

I take them two at a time. My boots slap hard against the rusted steps, and I can feel the whole rig as it sways from side to side. The streets are loud enough that I don’t think the vagrants can hear me.

By the time I reach the third floor landing, I am completely out of breath. Sweat rolls down my face and my lungs feel like the devil’s got a grip on them. While I try to catch my breath, I chance a look out the window.

The vagrants are parked at the bend of the street, just out of my sight. Their shots have no direction: beams erupt from the truck bed in a fan, blasting through the gaping windows and leaving charred marks on the brick. There’s no sign of Walter. If he’s smart, he’s on his belly somewhere with his hands over his head …

Nope.

I can’t believe it, but here he comes: loping down the street with his hands in his pockets, puffing on his smoke — completely unperturbed by the fact that the vagrants are blasting everything all to hell. There are chunks of building falling all around him, and beams flying close enough to singe the top of his hat. But Walter doesn’t seem to care. It’s like he’s been struck blind, deaf, and dumb.

Goddang it, Walter.

God. Dang it.

I find enough breath to make it up the last flight of stairs. There’s a door between me and the roof, but it’s so rusted that it doesn’t take much to kick through. I stumble out, squinting as the sun whips me across the eyes. And it is perhaps because I’m blinded that I don’t notice the rotted patch in front of me.

My left leg punches through the roof, tearing my pants and scraping me right up the thigh. Josephine pulls me down into a gut-busting fall. My teeth snap together; I land hard on my chin. There’s a second when I hover at the edge of consciousness — but somehow, I hold on.

Slowly, I pull my leg out of the roof. There’s a long cut down my inner thigh. It’s shallow, but it stings like fire. Something warm tickles my throat, and I realize that I’ve split my chin wide open. I press my sleeve against the stream of blood and try to staunch it.

It hurts. I’m cut and I’m bruised, but the pain wakes me up — it clears my head.

Something cools my blood as I get back onto my feet. Everything below has gone quiet: no more gunfire, no more flashes. Just a few weak tendrils of smoke. I move for the edge of the roof in a crouch, careful to keep the sun on my back. The light will give me some cover if any of the vagrants think to look up.

One of them speaks. I can’t understand him, but he sounds like the leader. I am relieved when I hear Walter reply.

Josephine was not designed for someone my size. I loop my arm through its moth-eaten strap and use it to cradle my elbow in a brace. Then I ease her long nose over the ledge and try to make some sense of what the vagrants are doing.

They’ve left their truck parked behind them and have closed Walter into a ring. He exchanges a few sentences with their leader, as calm and unconcerned as ever. The vagrants wear helmets with dark shades and black cloths over their mouths. I can read neither their words nor their expressions. But despite having set small fires all over town, they don’t seem interested in hurting Walter.

Not yet, at least.

While they talk, I take a few moments to settle into Josephine. I’ve never had a chance to fire it, and my only point of reference is that time I saw Walter try to shoot a buzzard off a fence post. He missed pretty badly — and I hope that was just because he was drunk, and nothing to do with Josephine.

I would’ve liked a little while longer to get comfortable. But things with the vagrants are close to getting out of hand: the leader is pacing towards Walter, his voice growing louder with every step. He jabs a finger into the middle of Walter’s chest — likely hoping to scare some sense into him.

But all he gets is a chuckle.

Yep. Things are about to go very, very badly for someone. And I suppose it’s my job to make sure that someone isn’t Walter.

I find my mark quickly: a vagrant at the far side of the ring who hasn’t moved an inch. The others pace or sway, but he stands like he’s got poles for legs. I take a deep breath and ease Josephine’s sights onto the middle of his chest — trying to ignore the fact that there is a long line of Walter’s homemade glue running down a crack in its barrel.

God help me.

The vagrant is wearing armor. A shot to the chest won’t kill him, and probably won’t even hurt. But it’ll give me a good idea of how true Josephine fires. Then once I’ve figured that out, I can go for the throat.

A sharp yelp draws my eyes away from the mark. Walter has somehow gotten the leader’s arm in a lock. The other vagrants drop their sights onto him immediately, but not a one seems confident enough to take the shot.

They stand like that for a handful of seconds. No one blinks. No one moves. Then their leader screams something that must’ve been quite profane, because it takes Walter about two seconds to pluck the cigarette from his lips and jam it — ash first — into the sensitive crook of his arm.

He screams, and that does it.

The vagrants flip their rifles into a charge.

The only advantage I’ve got is time: the ten seconds it takes for them to charge, versus Josephine’s one. I pump its lever, stumbling backward as its chamber fills with a deep thrum. That’s never happened before. And it makes me nervous. If there’s recoil in Josephine’s charge, what the heck is the fire going to be like?

I can’t worry about it. I can’t afford the nerves. I take my aim and hold on as tight as I can.

Click BOOM.

It’s like cradling a canon. The whole piece lights up and releases a beam as big around as my arm. The force is so strong that it jolts the nose skyward. I don’t think that even a Normal could’ve held Josephine without bruising the first time.

I’m going to be sore for a week.

Someone screams, and I see that my mark is clutching at a huge, smoldering divot in his left arm. I take aim again, this time adjusting for the stray. The thrum of the charge vibrates against my shoulder. I hold Josephine’s nose in the air to the right of his throat, and feel my body relax.

I know before I pull the trigger that it’s going to be a hit.

Click BOOM.

The vagrant falls, groping weakly at the cauterized hole in the middle of his neck. Everyone else breaks off and spreads out. I catch another vagrant mid-stride — a shot that, I am not too proud to say, was at least sixty percent luck.

It doesn’t take them long to find me after that. The two remaining vagrants lock onto my position. They start shaking their rifles, trying to speed up the charge. Meanwhile, Walter and the leader have gotten into some kind of a fistfight: they are alone in the broken circle, rolling around and trading swings.

It distracts me. I miss the next vagrant’s throat and take out his lower jaw instead.

The beam vaporizes the cloth over his mouth and gives me a full, gruesome view of the damage I’ve just done. Part of his throat is exposed. Steam rises from the deep red burns along the ridges. He’s choking on his tongue; I can see blood bubbling into dark clots around the ragged edges of his skin. But the worst part is that the shot didn’t sever his cords — which means that he doesn’t go quietly.

I hear his dying shrieks.

Every last one.

I am so shocked, so paralyzed with horror, that I forget my count. I don’t realize that the last vagrant’s rifle is charged until he already has it leveled at my face. The chamber is full. The first of about ten rounds of white-blue beams swells inside the barrel.

And I am completely frozen.

I watch his finger curl around the trigger, and I still can’t move. I close my eyes —

“Argh!”

For whatever reason, Walter’s yell thaws me out. I duck just as the vagrant fires and wrap my arms around my head, shielding my face as the ledge explodes. He gets in two more shots before Walter takes him down. I hear a crunch, a body striking the ground, and then the noise of someone emptying a rifle clip at extremely close range.

“Hey! You all right, freak?”

I ease my head over the smoldering ledge and see Walter, bloodied and bruised, standing over the charred remains of the final vagrant. “Yeah,” I choke.

“Uh-huh.” His eyes narrow onto Josephine. “Didn’t I tell you not to touch my gun?”

“If I hadn’t, you’d be dead,” I say back. “You’d better just thank me and move on.”

Walter chuckles. He props the vagrant’s rifle over his shoulder and surveys the damage with a slow turn. Then he whistles. “Dang. You’re a pretty good shot.”

“I told you so.”

“Well, I guess I forgot. Speaking of: what did you say your name was, again?”

“Charlie,” I growl through my teeth. “For the hundredth time, my name is Charlie.”