This Mortal Coil
IT’S SUNSET, AND THE SKY is aflame, not with clouds or dust, but with the iridescent feathers of a million genehacked passenger pigeons. They soar across the sky like a live impressionist painting in brilliant swirling arcs of tangerine and gold. Their strange cries sound like pebbles tossed against a window, and they move in perfect unison, blocking out the sun.
Amateur coders in Nevada rebuilt the long-extinct pigeon’s DNA, then spliced it into something new and bold. Razor-tipped beaks. Metabolic hijacks. Color-shifting feathers to signal danger to the flock with a single muscle twitch.
Through years of work, they crafted the pigeons to be stronger than their ancestors. They’re leaner, smarter, fiercer.
And they made them look like fire.
I lean out over the cabin’s porch railing, my hips pressed into the wood, squinting through the scope of my father’s rifle. Without magnification, the flock is just a blur of stippled color, but through the scope, with my ocular tech sharpening my vision, the colors resolve into the wings and chests of individual birds.
“Come on, little birdy,” I breathe, squeezing the trigger. The shot echoes off the mountains, and the scent of gunpowder fills the air. That’s homemade powder. Low sulfur, fine grade, nanoprinted in the basement, rigged to fire a tranquilizer dart and bring me down a bird without killing it.
The dart whistles through the air, a mere blur even with my tech. My audio filters peg it at Mach 2, which is far too high. My calculations were wrong again. I look away too late and see the dart hit a pigeon, blowing it into a puff of colored feathers.
“Dammit,” I snap, dropping the rifle, not bothering to flick on the safety. It’s now a thirty-pound paperweight, since I’m officially out of ammo. Well, not if you count the bullet swinging from the chain around my neck. But that’s my insurance bullet, and it only comes off as a last resort.
The dead bird drops like a stone, tumbling down to land on the rocky shore of the cabin’s tiny private lake. The flock shifts direction instantly, letting out a deafening warning cry that echoes off the steep mountain slopes like a hail of gunfire.
“I know, I know,” I mutter. The flock scatters angrily, their plumage twitching to crimson, telegraphing the attack. I didn’t want to hurt it. The bird was supposed to be a present. A little genehacked pet for my neighbor, Agnes, to keep her company. Now I’ll have to bury it, because I sure as hell won’t eat it. Barely anyone eats meat anymore, not since the outbreak.
The last two years have taught us what we could not forget: that animals taste a lot like people.
The porch’s wooden railing squeaks as I launch myself over it and jog through the yard to the circle of feathers near the lake. A breeze dances through the knee-high grass, sweeping in across the water, carrying the cries of the pigeons, the chill of the evening, and the rich, deep scent of the forest.
It’s wild out here. This secluded valley nestled deep in the Black Hills has been my home for the last three years and my sanctuary from the outbreak. Steep, forested mountains rise on either side of the lake, and my ramshackle log cabin sits just a short walk back from the shore. It’s so well-hidden that you almost have to know where it is to find it, but it’s close enough to town that I can ride in on my bike. All things considered, it’s a perfect place to spend the apocalypse, with only one down side: The comm reception sucks.
“Hey, Bobcat. This . . . Agnes . . .”
I tilt my head as Agnes’s elderly voice crackles in my ears, blasting through my subdermal comm-link. She checks up on me nearly every day but refuses to text me. Always calls, even though I can’t hear her. I close my eyes, drawing up the mental interface to send a text, but her voice breaks through in a burst of static.
“Urgent . . . danger . . .”
Her voice cuts out. No static, nothing.
I spin around, bolting straight up the side of the mountain.
“Agnes?” I shout. Damn Russian satellites. They’re a century old, but they’re all we can use now that Cartaxus has taken over every other network on the planet. My comm-link can get texts in the cabin, but every time I want to take a call, I have to run half a mile uphill.
Static fills my ears. “. . . reading me . . . Bobcat?”
“Hang on!” I yell, racing up the rocky slope. The path between the trees is still wet from last night’s rain. I skid as I race around a switchback, scrambling to keep myself upright.
She might be hurt. She’s all alone. The old girl is armed and tough as nails, but there are things in this world you can’t fight. Things that have no cure.
“Almost there!” I shout, forcing myself up the final stretch. I burst
into the clearing at the summit and double over. “Agnes? Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
A beat of satellite-lag silence hangs in my ears, and then Agnes’s voice returns. “I’m fine, Bobcat. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
I drop to my knees in the grass, trying to catch my breath. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“Sorry. But I guess I figured out how to make you answer your comm.”
I roll my eyes and push the sweat-soaked hair from my face. “What’s so urgent?”
“You up on your hill?”
“Well, I am now.”
She chuckles, her voice popping with static. “I just got a call from one of the locals. They spotted a jeep out near your place. Big black thing. You see anything from up there?”
I push myself to my feet and scan the forest. From this outlook, on a clear day, I can see for miles. The Black Hills roll out before me, tumbling granite draped with pines, dotted with the flash of lakes and a web of leaf-strewn roads. This time of day two years ago, the highway to the east would have been lit up with a steady stream of headlights from the evening commute. There would have been planes flying into Rapid and the glow of houses through the trees, but instead the hills are dark, and the highway is an empty stretch of black.
All the houses are shuttered, and the land is dotted with craters. It always makes me sick to see it like this, but it’s the only place I can get reception.
“No headlights,” I mutter. “They might be using infrared. You sure it was a jeep?”
“Brand-new, they said. Has to be Cartaxus.”
The hair on the back of my neck rises. I’ve never seen a jeep out here before. Cartaxus always sends its troops out in camouflaged trucks, with whining drones for air support. I scan the forest again, straining my ocular tech until my vision starts to glitch.
“I tried calling you,” Agnes says. “A few times, the last couple of days.”
“I’ve been in the lab,” I mutter, scanning the roads. “Trying to make gunpowder.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
A half smile tugs at my lips, and my fingers twitch instinctively, running over the sensitive, newly regrown skin on my palms. “There were some minor explosions. Nothing my healing tech couldn’t handle.”
Agnes clicks her tongue. “Bobcat. When did you last eat?”
“Um . . . yesterday?”
“Do you have clean clothes?”
I glance down at my filthy sweater, my dirt-encrusted jeans. “Uhh . . .”
“Get yourself over here right now, young lady. I don’t like the sound of this jeep, and you need to get out of that godforsaken lab for a night. Right now, you hear me?”
I bite back a laugh. “Okay, Yaya. I’ll be there soon.”
“Damn straight you will. And bring your dirty clothes with you.”
The connection clicks off in my ears with a hiss, leaving me grinning. Agnes isn’t really my yaya, though she certainly acts like it. We don’t share DNA, but we’ve shared food and tears, and ever since the outbreak, that’s all that really counts. Sometimes I think the only reason either of us is still alive is that we can’t bear the thought of leaving the other alone.
I stretch my arms over my head, scanning the forest one last time before dialing my ocular tech back down. The embedded panel in my forearm that powers my tech chews through a few hundred calories a
day even on standby, and food isn’t exactly plentiful anymore. My vision blurs as my eyes refocus, and it takes me a second to realize there’s a plume on the horizon that wasn’t there before.
I freeze, counting the seconds until the crack hits my ears. The plume rises before spreading, mushrooming out across the sky. The flock of pigeons fragments into wild, panicked streams, racing away from the billowing cloud. The sound takes fifteen seconds to hit me, which tells me it’s three miles away. Too far to make out the details, but I can tell the cloud is a sickly shade of pink.
That’s the color of a human body when its cells are ripped open, blown into mist, and spat into the air.
A Hydra cloud.
My stomach lurches. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, this distant cloud just might kill me. One breath is all it takes. One lungful of swirling, airborne virus particles that will swarm through every cell in your body. You’ll get a fever; you’ll incubate; then two weeks later you’ll go off like a grenade, infecting everyone in a mile-wide radius.
There’s no cure, no treatment. There’s one way to get immunity, but it’s been twenty-six days since I last took a dose.
Agnes’s voice crackles in my ears. “That . . . near you?”
I close my eyes, using a mental command to switch my comm over to text mode. It’s slower—I have to focus harder, bringing up each word separately in my mind—but it doesn’t need a clear signal.
3 miles, I send. Blowing further east. Probably out of infection radius.
haul out quick, she replies.
I will. She doesn’t need to tell me twice.
I pause as I turn back to the trail, watching the cloud drift. It’s twice
as big as the clouds I first saw in the outbreak, two years ago. The virus is evolving, and the blasts are getting stronger. If they keep growing, pretty soon there won’t be anywhere left to hide.
I push the thought away, jogging back down the mountain, trying to dodge the worst of the mud. There’s no need to panic about a cloud as far away as this, but without immunity, I can’t help but feel a little nervous.
I glance back as I descend into the trees, telling myself that it’s miles away, that I’ll be fine. I’ll go to Agnes’s place, and she’ll feed me lentils and her disgusting licorice candies like she always does. We’ll fire up her woodstove and play a game of cards. Simple. Easy. But just as the cabin comes into view, another crack tears through the air, and I jerk to a stop.
A second plume shoots up, pink and leaf strewn and terrifying. Close enough that I forget to count the seconds that pass until I hear it. The mist billows into the air like a living, heaving thing, unfurling through the forest, sending the pigeons scattering. The wind is dragging it away from me, but the wind can change in a heartbeat.
This cloud is far too close. I’m going to have to run.
Agnes’s name pops up in my vision as I race down the mountain.
I KNOW, I reply, skidding to the bottom of the hill.
dont like this bobcat, she says. shdnt let ur immunity lapse.
There’s nothing I can say to that because I know she’s right; it was reckless to let myself run out of doses. There was a reason, but thinking about it now makes my cheeks burn with its sheer stupidity.
I bolt up the cabin’s stairs to the porch and grab my rucksack and knife, picking up the rifle before throwing it back down. Dead weight. I race out to my bike, an old BMX with a rusted frame that can handle
dirt trails like nobody’s business. I sling my rucksack over my shoulder, slip my knife into my belt, and haul the bike out from the bushes I keep it hidden in. One leg is over it, my grip tight on the handlebars, when an alert from my audio tech sends me flying into a crouch.
Rustling. Nearby. An unenhanced ear wouldn’t hear it, but my filters sharpen the sound into slow, heavy footsteps. Labored and staggering. The way people move when they’re infected.
They’re just beyond me, in the trees, and they’re coming my way.
“Oh shit,” I breathe, my hands shaking.
near me, I send to Agnes, my mind spinning so fast that I can barely form the words.
HIDE NOW, she replies.
The command is so unlike her, so frantic and bizarre that I don’t even pause to question it. I just drop my bike and run.
The cabin is too far, but there’s a willow near the lake, and I haul myself up through the branches, my newly healed palms scraping against the bark. I kick and claw my way to a high branch in a matter of seconds, flying up the tree on sheer adrenaline. As soon as I find my balance, a man crashes through the bushes, and I hold my nose at the exact moment he splashes into the lake.
It’s a blower, no doubt about it. He falls to his knees in the shallows, sucking in a wet, labored breath. He’s badly wounded. Scarlet rivers run down his arms, trickling from innumerable gashes and bite marks covering his skin. It looks like a mob got him. I can see his teeth through the stringy hole in one cheek, and his eyes are swollen shut, his ears reduced to stumps of cartilage.
He’s bleeding out and feverish. Definitely infected. Second stage, probably a day away from detonating. Even with my fingers clamped over my nose, I can still feel my body starting to shake in response to his scent.
There’s nothing quite like the scent of infection. No odor or perfume matches the sharp, sulfurous clouds that roll off a Hydra victim’s skin. Some people liken it to the scent of burning plastic or the air after a lightning strike. I’ve always thought it smelled like the hot springs I visited as a child. Whatever the comparison, nobody gets much time to think about it, because as soon as the scent hits you, it takes your breath away.
And that’s not all it does.
I grit my teeth, fighting the response building inside me. My fingers curl instinctively, clawing into the bark of the tree. Breathing the scent won’t hurt me—blowers aren’t infectious until they detonate—but the scent will crawl into my mind, igniting a response that’s impossible to control. Even forcing myself to breathe through my mouth, I can still feel it whispering, rising inside me like a curse. It wants me to grab the knife sheathed at my thigh, to drop from my perch in the tree.
To unleash the monster that wakes in me at the merest whiff of infection.
But I don’t want to yield to it. I tighten my grip on the tree, shake my head, and invoke my comm-link. In . . . tree . . . above him, I send to Agnes.
The man tries to get up, but he’s too weak. He falls to his knees, letting out a moan. The wind lifts his scent into the branches, and it hits me like a punch.
u must do it, Agnes replies.
I blink the words away. My chest is shuddering, my vision starting to blur.
no choice bobcat. its the only way
I won’t, I write, then delete it, because she’s right. Or maybe it’s because the scent has me by the throat, shattering my self-control. Either way, there’s a cloud less than a mile from me, and there’s only one way to
guarantee that I’ll make it out of this alive. I need immunity, or I’ll die. The math is simple. I draw my knife, my stomach turning at the thought of what I have to do.
The man below me starts to cry, oblivious to my presence. The blood flowing from the bite marks on his skin forms swirls of scarlet in the lake’s clear water. A single mouthful of his flesh, choked down in the next few minutes, will give me immunity from the virus for the next two weeks. This is the Hydra virus’s cruelest side: It forces the healthy to eat the sick. To hunt and kill and feed on each other to save ourselves. Nature designed this plague as a double-edged sword: It either takes your life, or it takes your humanity.
I shift on the branch, staring down at the man, my knuckles white on the knife. My other hand is still locked on my nose, holding back the scent in a desperate attempt to fight it for just a moment more. My comm-link hisses wildly in my ears. Agnes knows me well enough to guess that I’m hesitating, and she’s trying to call me, screaming that he’ll be dead soon anyway, that he’d want me to do it.
But I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to justify this, to keep the circle of death going. This is why I stopped taking doses, why I let my immunity lapse. I just wanted a few precious weeks of something like a normal life, without someone else’s blood itching in my veins. I wanted to keep the monster locked away, to rise above my instincts.
But deeper down, the hunger is growing.
This man’s sharp, sulfurous scent has clawed its way into my lungs, and my hands are already shaking. It’s a neurological response. The scent pounds against my mind like fists against a cracking wall until I can’t hold it back anymore.
When I finally drop my hand from my nose and let the smell sweep into my lungs, it feels like drawing breath for the first time.
For a moment I’m free, weightless and euphoric, like the moment at the top of a roller coaster before you hurtle down.
Then it hits. A jolt. A cataclysm of rage, rocketing through my muscles, curling my lips back in a snarl.
My eyes snap down to the man below me, the knife gripped in my hands.
The world blinks to scarlet, and I launch myself into gravity’s arms.