After several seconds of rare silence, he lifts his head. “No. If not for me, what about Mik and Pete?” Five pinholes of light hover several feet above our heads—a manhole cover leading to a dead end in the industrial district, near the helium plant. I picture myself crawling down the street on my elbows.
“Let’s just get to the street. We’re in the middle of town still. Industrial district, right? We’ll get to the street and play it by ear.”
“What did you just say?” I can’t believe my ears.
Leonid slaps his hands on the side of Leviathan. “Let’s get to the street. The others will be waiting—”
“No, after that.”
He hesitates, squinting at me through the darkness. “We’ll play it by ear?”
I laugh. The first laugh I can remember for months. “Leonid Founder. Did you just suggest we act without a plan set in advance?”
“I, I…” he stutters.
“If you can be spontaneous, my eldest, then I suppose I can live without my shell.”
“But you have to swear one thing to me.”
“Swear it.” I growl the command, making it unequivocal.
“O.k. I swear.”
“The moment I decide I’m a liability, you leave me.”
“Do it, or I’ll blow my brains out before I see you come to harm.”
“Now come on. We’re still taking the vodka.” We unload several bottles of Vodka into my duffle and I send Leonid up the metal rungs ahead of me. He heaves the heavy lid aside slowly allowing the ruddy light to sift into the darkness. Peering upward I wonder briefly where the blue sky has gone and if I’ll ever see it again.
“Clear.” Leonid lifts himself onto the surface before lowering a hand to take the duffle. I hand it up to him and heave myself into a seated position, my dead legs still dangling in the hole.
“These buildings are usually empty.” I adjust the shoulder straps for both my .44-40 and my shotgun and crane my neck for a look around. “We need to get there, the east wing of the plant.” As we watch the eastern sky above an abandoned rail yard, the wind suddenly shifts, rustling our clothing.
“Crackle.” Leonid stands, looking further to the east.
“I taste it.” I check the hair on my arms and count to twenty five. Finally a light blue flicker dances over the buildings, fading quickly. “The twitchers are using it to herd the refugees.”
“They’re close. About a mile.”
“Son, we won’t make it in time to divert them to the pickup zone, not with me like this.”
“Papa, I’m not leaving—”
“Wait.” I search the area for something I know should be there. “Handcar. Help me up.” He tugs me over his shoulders, and I clasp my arms around him like a kid getting a piggy back ride—like I had done with him six years earlier. “If we can parallel the main track before the Jeffery passes then we can alter the plan, switch the rails so they push north instead of east.”
“Right into the middle—”
“Of hell’s birthplace. Yes. It’ll be messy.”
“But we’ll do it together.”
I hear something behind us. “Stop.” I crane my neck, more to hear than to see. “Did you hear—”
“Moaning. They’re coming.” Leonid lopes toward the train yard and the nearest handcart, his muscles surging beneath me. I’d never noticed how strong he’d become. Suddenly an explosion ripples the air east of us followed by scattered gunfire. “It’s started.”
Between Leonid’s heavy breathing and the gunfire, I hear nothing and see just as little until he unloads me on the handcart. “Son, we’ve gotta’ go.” Dozens of twitchers stream between the buildings behind us, heading for the larger fight. But gradually heads turn our direction, and then more than just heads.
Leonid begins pumping up and down on the cart handle, but we’re moving deathly slow while a dozen twitchers lope in our direction. I slump open the duffle and use my knife to punch down the cork on a bottle of vodka. Stuffing a strip of rag into the top I strike a match and light it. The alcohol wicks up the rag until the flame begins to smoke. The lead twitchers clump, clawing at each other less than twenty yards behind us and closing fast. “Fire in the hole!”