“I KNOW YOUR PARENTS, JOEY. Your dad, Minter.” Harris looked at Poly. “Opal is your mom, isn’t she? You look just like her.” He smiled and this time it reached his eyes. “And from that bow you’re holding,” he said to Lucas, “I’m guessing Rick is your dad.”
Poly stood next to Joey. He spotted the blade gripped in her hand. “We’ve heard your name mentioned. Are you the one that killed my dad?”
“No.” Harris sighed. “I know I’m asking for a major leap of faith, but in a minute we are going to have company. It’s too late to run now and I hope you know how to use those guns, Joey.”
Joey glanced back at the path Samantha took while keeping his gun on Harris. He wanted to trust Harris, but everything told him to run away. His parents would be there in a little bit if he could stall for a little longer. “If you really were with our parents, then how did they die?”
“We put their bodies in a bar as a cover story. I’m so sorry for your losses, but we really need to get ready.” Harris glanced at the tablet in his hand. “One’s here already.” He lowered his hand and started walking forward. “You’re going to have to make a decision right now, Joey, if you’re going to kill me.” He kept his pace toward them.
Joey tapped the trigger with his shaking finger and lowered the gun. He couldn’t kill the man. He glanced at Poly, who looked at his lowered gun. He shook his head and she lowered her knife.
An arrow hit Harris in the shoulder. He winced in pain and yanked out the arrow.
Lucas scrambled to get another arrow from his quiver.
“Lucas, no,” Joey yelled.
Blood soaked into the jacket around Harris’s wound. “Don’t do that again,” he warned.
“Sorry man, I just thought you were about to do something to us.”
Harris grimaced and took out his gun. He pointed it in Lucas’s direction.
He fired and Lucas winced. A small silver creature skid on the dirt next to their feet. A dagger fell from its limp hand. Lucas looked at it and jumped back. “Those things are real?”
Joey pointed his gun at its dead body. “What the hell are they?”
“Arracks.” Harris fired another shot into its head. He sighed and scanned the area around them. Stepping forward, he fired into a bush. An Arrack fell forward with its dagger in hand, black blood running down its chest. It scrambled on the forest floor, clawing over dead leaves and branches while black blood slid down the hole in its chest. Harris shot it in the head.
“No, no, this can’t be happening.” Julie clutched her phone in her hands and stared at the dead Arrack body.
“I wish it wasn’t,” Harris said, glancing at his tablet. “They’re concentrating the attack at our rear and they are going to do everything in their power to get to you kids.”
“Samantha went that way,” Joey said.
“I think she made it. But if we don’t get moving to the stone, they’ll have us cornered.” Harris jogged down the path toward the stone.
Joey looked at the path leading to his house before taking the other path behind Harris. His friends kept pace as they jogged. Stopping at their destination, Joey recognized the placed logs and saw the thick hedge blocking the circle from view. He turned, pointing his gun into the dense forest. Bushes rustled and fallen branches cracked in all directions, too many for him to concentrate on.
Silver streaked past a tree and then to another one. Joey fired, sending chunks of bark flying. Another silver streak, then another, they were forming a circle around them, pushing his back to the circle.
“I won’t let you take them,” Harris called out.
A man stepped out from behind a tree, dressed in a similar black uniform the other man had on this morning, but with R7 written on his chest on one side and MM on the other.
“Well done, Harris. Thanks for rounding them up,” the man in black said. He smirked and rubbed his hands together. His face contorted with joy and his eyes twitched as he gazed at each of them. “There should be six. No matter, five will do.”
Joey clinched his jaws and trained his gun on Harris.
Harris faced the end of his gun and gave him a subtle shake of his head. “Simon, you know I won’t let you take them,” he called out.
Simon laughed and placed a hand on the gun at his hip.
Joey moved his gun from Harris to Simon. His sweaty hand slipped and he adjusted his grip. The gun fired and the bullet went directly for Simon, but hit the air a foot away from him and shimmered. A spark flew off the spot it hit. He didn’t even flinch. Was that a force field?
Simon laughed. “Got a reckless one here.” He locked eyes with Joey. “I’ll have fun watching him suck the life from you.” He raised his gun at Joey.
Harris stepped in front of him, as a human shield.
“I’m not going to shoot the kids, but I have no problem ending you, Harris.”
“You shoot me and that bullet will go right through me and into him.”
Joey looked at Harris’s back and took a step back.
“Don’t move if you want to live,” Harris whispered.
Simon shook his head in amusement. “I’ll tell you what. You leave the kids with me, and I’ll tell Marcus I killed you. You can go about your life in complete ambiguity.”
“I won’t let you take them.”
Gunshots sounded from deep within the forest. Simon frowned and looked in the direction of the noise. More gunfire and Joey thought he heard yelling. He took out his second gun and kept one pointed at Simon and the other at the noise moving toward them.
A silver creature flew into view, landing on the dead leaves of the forest floor. Then, Trip jumped and landed on the Arrack’s head. Sweat poured down his face as he rose to look at them. His eyes went wide.
“They’re at the stone!” Trip yelled.
Another Arrack launched at him with its dagger extended. Trip grabbed a branch off the tree next to him and swung it at the beast.
A gunshot sounded and the Arrack fell to the forest floor. Minter walked toward it with his gun drawn, smoke coming from the barrel. Samantha was with him.
“Joey,” she shouted.
“Enough!” Simon screamed. He took out a whistle from his pocket and blew into it.
The forest around them rustled with sounds of shaking bushes and crunching leaves. Arracks emerged from all directions.
Joey spun around, looking at the hundred or so Arracks standing shoulder to shoulder. Some had necklaces and yellow stripes on their shoulders. Some sniffed the air. All of them had yellow eyes trained on them.
“As you can see, it’s hopeless. I could start a blood bath here, but I don’t want to risk damaging the merchandise.” Simon pointed at them.
“Mom,” Poly called, as Opal ran up next to Minter.
Opal whispered in Minter’s ear, as Rick ran up behind, carrying a bow.
“All that matters is the kids, Harris,” Minter said. “We don’t matter. You take care of them.”
Harris nodded and Joey stood, mouth open, looking at his dad. An unspoken plan developed. His dad stared at him, an apology formed over his face, as if to tell me he was sorry for getting me into this mess, or maybe he was disappointed I came to the forest. Minter took out his second gun and nodded to Harris then to the parents. Opal clutched a deck of knives in her hands and Rick pulled out an arrow.
Simon sighed. “Guess we’re going to damage the merchandise.” He raised his gun and shot Harris.
Joey checked his body, finding no wounds.
Harris fell to his rear and raised both guns. He fired at Simon. The bullets dinged off his face. Sparks flew around, but nothing struck him.
Joey fumbled with his gun and managed to get it pointed at Simon. He fired several shots and they too bounced off the shield.
Simon backed up, blinded by the barrage of bullets striking his face; he fired wildly into the forest, striking a few Arracks. Harris kept firing into his face.
“Get to the stone,” Harris said to Joey. “Now!” he yelled.
Joey looked back at his dad and his dad nodded to him.
Simon blew two sharp whistles and Arracks ran at them.
Joey turned and felt a chill run down his neck as he saw the Arracks charging. The sounds dulled and the Arracks froze. Joey took a step and stopped. Poly stood next to him. Her arm extended, a knife suspended in air a few inches from her hand. Lucas held an arrow back in the bowstring. Joey spun in a quick circle; everything had frozen. No, not quite frozen. He watched Poly’s knife inching away from her.
The sounds and action crushed back to him and her knife flew toward its intended target. Joey didn’t have a second to think about what happened. He pulled his gun on the Arracks and fired into them.
“Get them to the stone,” Trip yelled. He jumped on Simon with Minter. Opal stood next to the dog pile and threw knives at the Arracks as they got close.
Harris staggered to his feet and grabbed onto Joey’s shoulder. “We need to get you kids out of here.”
Joey shot two more bullets and then his gun clicked—empty. He reached into his jacket for speedloaders, jamming them in and raising his gun. The Arracks moved behind trees and scattered around. A few still ran at them though. He timed his shots and fired on them.
“Joey!” Harris grabbed his shoulder. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving my dad.”
Harris raised his gun and shot two Arracks as they ran toward them. One of their daggers skipped across the ground and stopped at Joey’s feet.
“Get to the circle and we have a chance of saving them.”
“Mom.” Poly ran toward her.
Opal gripped her arm in pain. She spotted her daughter moving toward her. “No, Poly.” She held out her hand and Poly stopped. “Harris, get them to the circle.”
Trip, Minter, and Rick pinned down Simon on the ground. Simon laughed and pushed Trip off him. Then he stood and punched Minter. Rick grabbed Simon’s neck and pulled him to the ground. Trip, Opal and Minter piled on him.
“Just kill him!” Poly yelled.
“They can’t, he’s shielded,” Harris said. “If we can get to the circle, we can save everyone.” He fired at the advancing Arracks, pushing his way through the hedge.
Joey glanced at Poly. “If this can save them.”
She nodded and followed him through the hedge. Julie, Hank, and Lucas ran through as well.
Harris grabbed his stomach and fell the ground. Blood covered his hands.
Joey ran to his side. “What do we do? How do I save them?”
“Pull me to the stone,” Harris instructed, before raising his gun and shooting an Arrack trying to jump into the circle.
“Hank, pull Harris to the stone over there.” Joey turned as Hank grabbed Harris. The hedges rustled with Arracks pushing through. He fired into each set of yellow eyes.
“Samantha,” Joey yelled. He searched for her through the hedge.
Harris’s hand touched the stone and it started to hum.
An explosion from Simon blasted past Joey. The shock wave knocked him back, sending leaves flying into his face. Through the hedge, he saw Samantha tumbling over the forest floor.
Joey ran for Samantha.
Simon ran at the hedge screaming, “No!”
Joey’s face hit something hard and fell to the ground. He couldn’t see anything. Holding out his hands, he felt the steel wall he ran into. He slapped the wall, wanting to get to Samantha. Have I gone blind? Then he heard shuffling footsteps and turned from the wall.
“I can’t see anything,” Lucas said.
“Everyone okay?” Hank called out in the darkness.
“I’m here,” Poly said.
“What happened?” Julie asked.
“Joey?” Hank called out.
“I’m here, man,” Joey said, but his thoughts raced with his last image of Samantha. He wanted to run and find her, but everything was black. Holding his hands out like a mummy, he searched for the trees and bushes in front of him. The forest floor no longer crunched with leaves under his feet. There was only soft dirt under his shoes. The sweet forest air was gone—replaced with the smell of musty, dry dirt.
Where are we?
A moan came from someone on the ground. Joey turned to the sound to find a glow emanating from Harris’s hand. He held a tablet out in front of him. It lit up the room in a soft white light.
Joey stumbled away from the metal dome surrounding them. The enclosure looked small. He avoided taking deep breaths of the stale air. How much air could be in here? He bounded to the spot he last saw Samantha, clenched his fist and hit the steel curved wall.
“Samantha!” Joey yelled. She had to be right there, just past the metal enclosure.
“Joey, what’s going on?” Poly asked as she walked in a circle, taking in the metal dome.
“I have no idea—”
“We’ve got to get out of here. Did you feel that blast? They need our help,” Hank said.
Joey was about to ask the same question and stared at the one man in the dome who might have a clue of what was actually going on.
“We can’t help them,” Harris said, struggling to get to his feet. “We’re not even on Earth anymore. We can’t get back.”
“You’re kidding, right? This is just some protective dome. Dad, we’re in here!” Lucas yelled the last bit with his face as close to the metal as he could get.
Harris touched the wet spot on his jacket with his free hand and inspected a few pockets on the inside. He pulled out a small white jar, bit the lid with his mouth, and untwisted the cap. He spit the lid away and lifted his shirt.
“They can’t hear us. We are gone. I’m sure they think they know where you are.” Harris looked at the ceiling. “Even if I don’t.” He dipped his fingers into the white goo and spread it over the hole in his stomach. Wincing, he closed his eyes. Grabbing another blob, he reached into his shirt and rubbed it on his shoulder.
“This is impossible.” Julie moved close to the curved steel wall and felt it.
Joey rapidly breathed in and out. “No! We need to get back.”
“Your parents should be fine—”
“We left Samantha back there!” Joey pointed in the direction he saw her last.
Harris grimaced. “I’m sorry. This is a one-way stone.” He held his side tight and shined his light around the room. “Opal and the rest of your parents are tough kids. Well, not so much kids now, but they are tough people.”
“I don’t know who you are or where you’ve taken us, but we need to get back to them, now,” Joey demanded.
“Yeah, some freaking psycho was all over them back there.” Poly pointed to the wall.
“I wish Samantha had come with us, but we can’t change what happened,” Harris said.
Joey paced around the stone. It had a few marks on it and looked similar to the one in Preston. He needed to learn how to use this stone and get back to Samantha.
“Your mom’s Opal, right?” Harris asked.
“Yes, I’m Poly.”
“And the rest of you?”
“That’s Joey, Minter’s son. Hank, Trip’s son. Lucas, Rick’s son, and Julie, Beth’s daughter,” Poly said, then looked around the room.
Joey knew she was looking for Samantha. It didn’t feel right not to have her here. Everything in his body was screaming to get back to her. He had to find a way.
“If we’re not on ‘Earth’. . . .” Lucas used air quotes and rolled his eyes. “Then where are we?”
Harris tapped the screen on his device, shook it and then shined the light on the stone. He let out a heavy sigh. “I’m not sure. I got bumped when putting in the code and we missed the intended destination.”
“Great, so you don’t even know where we are.” Lucas put his hands on his head.
“My Panavice isn’t getting a signal,” Harris tapped his fingers on his tablet and lowered it down in frustration.
Joey shook his head. “It’s a real bummer your Panavice isn’t getting a signal, but we need to get out of here.”
Julie stared at Harris’s Panavice lighting the room and let out a huff. She pulled out her cellphone and pushed a button. Light emanated from her phone and she raised an eyebrow. She studied the ceiling and walls with her own light as she made her way around the room. Lucas stood near her with his mouth open, looking at the ceiling.
Harris got to his feet and took a step. He clutched his side, wincing.
“You okay?” Poly asked.
“Yeah, this old body can take a lot.”
Joey didn’t think he was much older than his thirties, which is old, but not old enough to say “this old body.”
“We’re underground, I think.” Julie tapped the walls and they thudded. “It sounds solid behind this steel.” She took small steps around the dome, tapping the wall until her tap resonated through the room. She felt the wall in front of her. “There’s a door over here.”
Hank moved over to the steel door with an iron hand crank. He grabbed the crank and unlocked the door. The steel moaned as he struggled to open it. Joey rushed to the door, still hoping to see the woods on the other side. Dust stirred in the opening. As everything settled, a stone staircase, came into view—no forest.
Hank and Julie stepped through the doorway.
“There are stairs here,” Julie said, lighting upward with her cellphone.
“Okay, let’s get out of this hole,” Harris said. He walked toward the door and stumbled a bit. Poly grabbed his arm to help steady him.
In the dim light, Joey glanced back at the stone in the middle of the room. He couldn’t go back. Joey sighed and strode up the staircase.
Everyone crowded the stairs.
“Joey, take a look at this.” Hank pointed at a stone wall. Julie moved aside and gave him as much room as she could in the confined space. He studied the wall and grasped a metal handle protruding from it.
“It’s a door.” Hank pushed against it and it slid back an inch. “Help me with this?” He leaned his shoulder against the stone door.
Joey pushed with Hank and it slid back farther. A ray of light shone through the top and they pushed again until the opening was large enough to get through. He wanted out of the cave-coffin, but he waited for each of his friends to pass through. “Right behind you, Harris,” he said, motioning his hand forward.
Harris nodded and squeezed through.
Joey tried not to push Harris out as he followed behind him. Stepping from the cool confines of the cave, he raised his hand to block the rays of the unforgiving sun. He squinted, waiting for his eyes to adjust, and counted his friends as they stood on rocks surrounded by sand.
He reeled from the shock of being somewhere entirely different. There wasn’t a tree in sight, not even a bush; nothing but desert everywhere he looked.
They stood about halfway up a hill made of sand and rocks. Rock pillars jutted out of the sand, and when he looked back, the door appeared camouflaged against the landscape. He scanned the desert surrounding them. Where are we?
“Great,” Lucas said, holding out his hands. “You brought us to a freaking desert.”
Harris brought out his Panavice, held it up and tapped on the screen, then put it back in his pocket.
“Do you know where we are?” Julie held her cell phone up, as if trying to find a signal. “You getting a signal?”
“My Panavice isn’t working properly, so I’m not positive where we are. We need to get up there.” Harris pointed up the hill. “For a better vantage point.”
“You need help?” Poly asked.
“No, I’m feeling better now.” Harris threw her a fake smile.
Joey looked up the sandy, rocky hill and then to the sun. It would be a difficult climb, but if it got him closer to Samantha, he would endure much more.
Near the top of the hill, he reached back and took Poly’s hand to help her over the last few rocks. She used her arm to wipe the sweat off her red face. He hunched over, breathing hard, but was glad to be at the top.
Harris strode past them, looking composed and dry. The holes in his jacket were the only reminder of his encounter with Simon.
A small plateau on top of the hill gave them a vantage point to take in the vast desert. The rest of them looked around, but all he could do was look down the hill and control the urge to go back into the cave to find a way back home.
“We’re going to die.” Lucas paced in a circle. “There is nothing here.”
“Shut up, Lucas,” Poly beseeched.
It was hard to argue with Lucas. Joey wiped the sweat from his forehead and longed for the thick canopy of the forest.
“Look around and see if you can find anything,” Harris asked.
“Sure,” Joey said.
This side of the hill looked just like the other side, with a desert spanning all the way to the horizon. Cactuses and bushes scattered the landscape. A dried, sandy riverbed snaked its way through the desert. At the end of the dry river and over a hill, he spotted something. A glimmer of a reflection. He stepped forward, squinting, making out the straight lines of a building.
“There’s something over there,” Joey said and pointed to the horizon.
“Is there?” Harris replied, his eyes following to where Joey was pointing. “So there is. Nice spot.”
“Do you know this place?” Joey asked.
“I hope I don’t,” Harris said.
Joey didn’t understand what that meant but didn’t push for an answer. The sun pulsated and sweat rolled down the side of his face. Oddly enough, Harris didn’t seem affected by the heat. No sweat formed on his brow, even with all the layers of clothes he wore.
“Who are you?” Joey asked.
Harris stopped looking at the horizon and faced Joey. “I tried to help your parents and now I will try to help you and your friends.”
“Half our parents died.”
“I hope to do better this time.”
“What happened? How did they really die?” Poly jumped in.
“Do you all want to get back home—back to Samantha and your parents?” Harris said.
“Then we need to go in that direction.” He pointed to the place Joey found. “We don’t have time to waste on old stories.” Harris glanced back down the hill. “We can make it by morning if we keep a steady pace.”
“Wait. How is going over there,” Julie pointed, “going to help us get home if we’re not even on Earth?” she asked with her arms crossed.
Harris gave a hint of a smile and took his Panavice from his jacket. “There’s a master Alius stone in the same direction. We can use it to get out of here. On the way, we can stop at that building for supplies.” Harris pointed to the horizon.
Joey wanted to start moving. Moving meant he was getting closer to home. His thumb rubbed the small velvet box in his pocket as he took the first step down the hill.
They reached the bottom with ease, and Joey looked back at their footprints trailing down the hill.
Over the next hour, the horizon swallowed the last bits of sun light, the air cooling. Darkness enveloped the desert and the night bugs chirped. They trudged over the sandy riverbed; it was their own personal yellow brick road.
Joey walked next to Hank and Lucas at the rear, and Julie and Poly took the middle. Harris kept quiet, but Joey kept watching him. That mind held the answers to their riddles.
The desert valley wasn’t as barren as it appeared from above. There were plenty of cacti, bushes, and spikey plants with flowers on top, and the occasional bird would fly from one bush to the next as they passed.
“Can we use our lights, Harris?” Julie asked.
“Better not, might draw attention to us.”
“Like, from wild animals?” Poly asked, looking into the darkness.
“Maybe, but I would be more concerned with the human kind.”
Julie raised her hand to the sky. “I’m no astronomer, but I’m pretty sure that is the moon, as in our moon, and there’s the big dipper. And look at these plants, cactus and stuff, same as we have.” She jumped up and down twice. “And gravity, it feels exactly the same. What are the chances of all this?”
Harris stopped and turned around. “You’re smart and I won’t try to placate you, however, when I said we aren’t on Earth, I meant it. This is a similar version in another dimension.”
“Like a parallel?” Julie abandoned her jumping and looked Harris in the eye.
“There could be another group of us here?” Julie shot a glance at Lucas.
“Not likely, I just hope this isn’t the planet I think it is. We could be in danger.” Harris turned and started walking.
Julie lowered her arms and huffed, annoyed by Harris ending the conversation. She took out her cellphone and held it in the air as she walked.
Great, more dangers . . . as if Arracks and strange men in black weren’t enough.
Joey noticed Poly frantically scanning the darkness around her. He jogged to get closer to her. “How are you two doing?” he asked, coming up between the girls.
Julie nodded as she played with her cellphone. Poly smiled at him and hid the knife back in her jacket, moving close enough to rub shoulders.
“You think Samantha’s okay?” she asked.
“I hope so,” Joey said.
“Oh, I bet she got out of there just fine. I did just give her a pretty kickass driving lesson.”
“Yeah, she is probably whipping donuts as we speak.”
Poly laughed and he smiled. He always liked how she could find a way to brighten any situation. He felt relaxed around Poly, as if he could tell her anything.
She leaned in to whisper, “You think we can trust this guy?” She nodded at Harris.
“Doesn’t seem like we have a choice,” he replied. Whom else did they have?
“I have your back if anything goes bad.” Poly flashed a blade. He saw it for an instant and then it was gone.
“Same here,” he whispered, and then looked over to Julie with a questioning nod.
“She keeps texting Samantha, even though there’s no cellphone coverage.”
“I’m right here,” Julie said.
He wished it were simple as calling Samantha. He lowered his head and dragged his feet in the sand.
Poly sighed. “We’re finally seniors. It was supposed to be our year. Now look at us.” She extended her arms and looked back at Hank and Lucas. “I think Lucas is right. This whole situation is crazy.”
He didn’t know how to respond. He had the urge to comfort her, but he knew she was too smart for such things. They were on a crazy path and no comforting would change that. He smiled at her instead. “Want to take bets on what our parents will say to the school about our absence?”
“Ooh! Yes. I’ll put twenty down for Alien abduction, of course,” Poly said.
“The town’s going to be suspicious. Our families have a history,” Julie reminded.
Lucas chuckled. “The town will probably think there’s a Preston Three on the way.”
Joey glanced back at Lucas and laughed aloud, “I’ll put my money on that!” He could feel Poly staring at him, smiling. He smirked at her and bumped her arm, as he took in her brightness. She bit her lip and faced forward. He looked at her a moment longer—the softness of her smile, mixed with the determination in her eyes. She had her mother’s eyes.
“I better get back. Lucas gets scared if I leave him for too long in the dark,” Joey whispered in her ear. He slowed down so Hank and Lucas could catch up and Poly rejoined Julie.
WALKING WAS EASY, BUT WALKING with the weight of the unknown and in the thick sand of the riverbed, dragged Joey to near mental exhaustion. After a few hours, without many words spoken, he filled the silence with his own insane thoughts and theories. He refused to believe they were somewhere different from earth. Everything around them seemed familiar. They just needed to get to the building in the distance, back to civilization and a phone. A quick call could end the thick lump in his chest, if anything, a car to get back home.
“Can we get something to drink?” Julie asked.
Harris stopped and looked around. He walked close to a bank, carved back by flowing water at some point. Harris got on his hands and knees and felt around in the sand below it. He must have found what he was looking for because he started scooping handfuls of sand, digging a hole.
Julie moved in, closer to Harris.
“Hold this.” He handed her his Panavice, and continued to dig in the sand.
“What the heck is this?” Her face shone from the light of the Panavice. Her wide eyes didn’t blink. “Can I make calls with this?”
“It’s a Panavice.” Harris pulled out handfuls of sand from the deepening hole. “You can make calls, sort of like that phone of yours . . . but not here. We’re off the net.”
Her fingers slid across the screen. “What OS is this using?” she said to herself.
Harris pulled out a wet clump of sand. “Hank, could you help me out and dig this hole deeper?”
“Yeah, sure.” Hank knelt down and reached into the hole, pulling out handfuls of sand. “There’s water down here,” he said with a big smile.
“Sand is a great filter, but this bag will filter it even more.” Harris pulled out a clear plastic bag. “Hank, see if you can fill this bag up.”
Taking the bag, he lowered it into the hole and pulled it out, full of water. It looked dirty at first, but in a matter of seconds, it turned clear.
Joey patiently waited his turn for the water bag as Julie passed it to him. He took two mouthfuls of water before passing it to Lucas. Hank took the empty bag and filled it again. They continued until everyone was satisfied.
Harris took a couple of small sips, but was too busy spreading white cream on his wound to take any more. A streak of blood ran down his stomach.
“You going to be okay?” Poly asked.
“Yeah,” Harris replied, but it didn’t sound convincing.
“Do you know what happened to my mom, eighteen years ago?” Hank asked.
The group froze, as if a cobra dropped in the middle of them. Everyone stared at Harris in the moonlight.
He let out a long breath and pushed his shirt back down. “They told you nothing?”
“Yeah, that they died in a fire.” Lucas said, rolling his eyes.
“I don’t think it’s right of me to tell you what they didn’t, but I’ll admit we put their bodies there.” Harris’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, but why?”
Harris placed a hand over his gunshot wound. “We needed to protect you. That man back in the forest has been searching for you for a long time. They want what’s in you.”
Joey looked at his body. “What are you talking about?”
“So this Simon guy is after us because of something inside us?” The Panavice’s light shone on Julie’s raised eyebrow.
“He works for another man, Marcus. Marcus wants you. And, it’s not an object he is after, it’s your DNA.” Harris pushed against his wound and cringed. “If we’re on the planet I think we’re on, I can show you a little more. Basically, you are the end-line of a chain of experiments.”
Harris turned and walked down the riverbed. Joey took another swig from the pouch.
Over the next few hours, they quietly talked to each other as they walked. Occasionally, they would stop to drink and rest. Harris would not let them stop long, and would speed up the pace for a mile after water breaks to make up time.
The moon crossed the night sky. Joey felt some fatigue building in his legs, but with each step, he was getting closer to Samantha. On the horizon, the inky sky faded and morphed to a dark blue. The sun was on the urge of showing itself.
“Let’s stop for a water break,” Harris suggested.
Joey plodded over and took a seat on a sandbar, facing the rising sun. Poly passed him the water bag.
“Look at this,” Julie said. She reached down and pulled a bottle out of the sand. “It says Pemberton Cola.”
Harris grimaced as he viewed the bottle.
“Never heard of it.” Lucas looked confused when Julie handed the bottle over and he rolled it around in his hands.
“Look.” Poly pointed to the horizon, over the hill behind them. “They don’t have sunrises like that in Preston,” she said. The yellow sun crested over the distant desert mountains. Streaks of red stretched across the sky.
“There’s something I need to warn you guys about,” Harris said. “The town’s over this hill. I think it’s empty, but if it’s not . . . Don’t wander off, don’t lose one another, don’t talk to anyone, and don’t touch anything. We don’t want to disturb anything. Everyone understand?”
He hadn’t left any room for a disagreement, but they all nodded. The way he’d said “disturb” concerned Joey.
What are we walking into?
JOEY FOLLOWED HARRIS UP THE small hill. At the top, he spotted the building he’d seen yesterday wasn’t a building after all, but a large, metal water tank on a hill. It sat above a small town of similar looking houses, all lined up down a single street.
An asphalt road split the town down the middle with houses on each side. The road ended at a store parking lot on the far side of town. Sand took over parts of the black road, covering it in large patches. Something about the town just didn’t feel right.
“Let’s try that store first,” Harris suggested.
Joey nodded, letting the rest walk by as he assessed the town below. Nothing moved, no sounds, no cars or people, no cell phones ringing—just the houses and the store. He counted sixteen homes on each side of the street. But where were the people?
Harris led them down the sandy hill toward the store. As he got closer, the bright green grass stood in sharp contrast to the dead bushes and trees, many that had blown against the dirty houses. The sand reached the bottom row of the small white picket fences surrounding the backyards.
Joey brought up the rear as they walked along the backyards of the houses toward the store. Nothing moved behind the cloudy house windows. The only sign of life was the green grass. Joey stepped over the small plastic fence and onto the green lawn, and then reached down to touch it. Plastic blades flicked at his hand as he brushed the grass.
“Stick close, everyone,” Harris said.
Joey jumped off the fake grass and caught up to the group.
“I don’t think we should be here,” Poly said.
He saw the knife in her hand, and reached for the grip of his gun. He felt the same vibe. The town felt abandoned, dead. Even more than that, he felt as if someone, or something, was watching them.
“Keep an eye out for anything,” Harris said.
Joey rubbed his brow and looked at the sweat on the back of his hand. He gazed up to the sky and the merciless sun had barely cleared the horizon.
Grateful they’d passed the last house, Joey stepped onto the asphalt parking lot of the store. ShopMart displayed on a faded sign over the windows. Joey thought it was all pretty generic as they crossed the empty parking lot. It looked like any gas station he’d ever visited.
Advertisements clung to the dusty store windows with unfamiliar brands. Pemberton Cola, Twickster candy bars, Energy Volcano, and various others. The glass front door listed the hours of operation. Reaching the glass wall of the mart, Joey peered into the store, looking for any movement. Empty shelves lined the store but nothing moved.
Harris crouched low along the storefront and stopped at the door. He held his fist up as if he was hand signaling for a right turn. “Get low and stay behind me.”
They followed his instructions, watched as he opened the door, and followed him into the store. Joey crouched next to an empty barrel of Shocker Cola. Harris pointed to the other aisles. Joey shuffled his feet to the white metal shelves. He imagined them filled with every sort of candy and snacks, but nothing except a thin layer of dust remained. He passed each aisle with the same disappointment.
Harris, hunched over, moved down the last aisle Joey inspected. Getting on his knee, he held a finger to his mouth. Joey pinched his lips together and knelt close to him.
“Don’t look at it, but there’s a camera above the register. It buzzed when I was over there. Get close and see if you hear it,” Harris said and walked away.
Joey strode to the register and resisted every urge to peek at the camera. Standing next to the register, he heard a faint electrical whirring. He turned his back to the camera and folded his arms. Was the camera on some automatic mode or was someone watching them?
“Oh my god!” Julie yelled standing just inside the store.
Joey stumbled against the counter at the sound.
“What?” Lucas ran to her.
Joey darted over to join them. She held up the printed newspaper and he examined it.
“What’s the date?” Hank asked.
“July 2022,” Julie said.
“Where the hell are we, Harris?” Lucas demanded.
“A parallel,” Julie said. “There’s a theory that in the quantum world, even the tiniest of things move between all realities and every decision is played out. In some other reality, Russia got to the moon first, or all our parents lived.”
“What the heck does that mean?” Lucas asked.
“We’re on a different Earth.” Julie’s eyes narrowed and she faced Harris. “But what is it about this planet, Harris? You know this place. I’ve seen it on your face since we found that soda can.”
“I knew we were on a similar planet from the plants, but there were no planes, no distant smog, no drones, or highways. So I wasn’t sure.”
“Great, so we’re interstellar, inter-dimensional time travelers now?” Lucas threw up his hands and turned his back.
“My goal was to get you to safety at any cost. If I hadn’t been bumped by Simon’s blast wave, we’d be at my compound.”
“So where is here?” Joey asked. He looked to the ceiling and walls, then out to the parking lot and beyond. The thought of it being true made him dizzy. How could they be on another version of Earth? He turned back to Harris, waiting for the answer.
“Ryjack. A planet ruined by Isaac and MM’s failed experiment. I was afraid we might be here. That article will probably explain it.” Harris pointed to the printed article.
Julie read it aloud.
Panic crushes the world as the CDC struggles to find a cure for the ZN1 virus. ZN1 knows no borders; it has passed through checkpoints and jumped oceans. The virus’s inception point appears to be near the L.A. area, but every major city in the world is now infected. The whole world holds its collective breath as we bunker down and attempt survival.
Details continue to emerge from ERs and morgues. Symptoms of infection start with a simple cough, followed by a mild fever. As the fever sets in, the virus attaches itself to white cells, shutting down the body’s functions one by one. The time from first exposure, to time of death, is about 2 weeks. The mortality rate is one hundred percent. The President, in his Address to the Nation, called for everyone to stay home and seal their houses. The military will be stopping by each city to distribute supplies.
Making a bad situation worse, there are reports of murders in L.A. and San Diego areas, involving possible cannibalism. We have some shocking footage, at INT.OUR.TIME.MAG, showing a graphic video of multiple murders, committed by what looked to be infected people. Some are saying the fever has driven people to schizophrenia; others are claiming it is the dead rising. Please use caution when watching these videos; they are traumatic for most viewing audiences.
Julie stopped reading the yellowed paper. “How long ago do you think this was written?” She looked out the store windows.
“Nineteen years ago,” Harris said. “When I said you were the end line of experiments, this planet is where it started. Marcus Malliden wants to live forever. He and Isaac conducted longevity experiments here, changing the DNA of their victims. It didn’t work. He lost control of one of his labs and the infected escaped.”
“Infected people?” Julie echoed.
“Are we going to get infected?” Poly pulled her jacket tight around herself and looked at the air surrounding them.
“Only if you come in contact with the infected,” Harris said.
Joey looked out the store window to the empty parking lot. Still nothing moved—no signs of any life or infected. He touched the hilt of his gun. He would make sure nothing came close to his friends.
“I don’t think we have to worry about viruses because we’ll die in days without any food,” Lucas sagely pointed out.
“Yes, we do need food.” Harris nodded. “Let’s drink some water.”
Joey’s stomach rumbled, as he happily took the water from Harris. Infected or not, he needed to take some weight off his legs, if only for a bit. He sat down with his back against the wall. Hank sat next to him, the smell of sweat wafting past Joey. Poly slid in on the other side of him with her bag of water sloshing around. Lucas and Julie sat in front of them.
After a night of trudging in sand, his legs hurt. He tried to rub the pain from his legs, but when he saw Poly eyeing him with her weary face, he stopped and took another drink of water. All of his friends slumped against whatever they could find. A night without sleep came at a cost, unless you were Harris. He didn’t look beat at all, even with gunshot and arrow wounds.
“Gas station’s empty. What do you guys think we should do for food?” Harris asked.
Joey choked on the water. He assumed Harris had a plan. He stared out the windows to the houses lining the street, searching for a simple answer that wouldn’t make him seem stupid. “Uh, well, we can go to the houses in town and search for supplies. Maybe they left stuff behind?”
“Sounds good to me,” Harris said.
Lucas sighed and fell against Julie. She shoved him off with a disgusted look. “You’re all sweaty and gross.” She brushed the spot his face touched.
“Can’t we rest for a while?” Lucas asked.
“It’s only going to get hotter,” Harris said.
Joey climbed to his feet and the rest followed. He snuck a glance at the camera while leaving the store.
Outside, the heat radiated from the black asphalt as they crossed the parking lot. The bottoms of his feet felt the heat and he picked the few remaining white painted lines to walk on.
They stopped at the sidewalk in front of the first house on the street. The front porch battled against the desert, as sand covered most of the concrete. Dried weeds clung to the house in large stacks. Streaks of brown ran down the stucco walls.
“Let’s go over how we’ll search the houses,” Harris said.
He formed two teams: one outside, which consisted of Hank and Julie, and one inside the house with Harris, Poly, Joey, and Lucas. He then gave instructions on how to enter a house, covering each other as they cleared each room of any danger.
Harris opened the front door with his gun drawn. Joey, Poly, and Lucas took up the rear. He motioned Joey past him and he stepped into the entryway. A faint smell of decay and mildew hit his nose. The family room couch lay on its side with clothes and broken glass scattered across the floor. He paused, examining the black smears on the wall.
“Old blood stains,” Harris whispered. “Keep a look out for anything and be as quiet as you can.”
Joey gave the bloodstains a wide berth and tried not to think about how they got there. He half expected a creepy kid on a big wheel to come by and say, “Redrum.”
Harris moved to a door behind the family room and they put their backs to the wall on each side of the door. He rotated the handle, opened the door, and went in first. Joey followed next. Poly and Lucas mimicked their movements, as they too entered the kitchen.
The room appeared untouched compared to the family room. The tablecloth draped on the table, anchored down with a bowl of vibrant fake fruit. The white kitchen cabinets showed some aging, a yellow tint creeping in around the edges. He ran his hand on the painted cabinet door and opened it to find a stack of plates. Poly yanked open a cabinet door next to him.
“Cups,” she reported.
Harris opened the long cabinet door and pointed to the contents inside. Joey walked next to him to see the food pantry, still full of various foods. It reeked of mildew and decay, but one shelf held a few canned items. Harris pulled out a black bag from his jacket and placed the cans in it.
They went from house to house, taking turns. Most of the other houses had less in the way of can goods and nonperishables, but they still managed to find a dozen cans. There were a few more houses left on the street.
“Let’s hit one more house and get some blankets for the cold nights ahead,” Harris suggested.
Nights, as in plural? Joey sighed. Not knowing if Samantha was okay, if his parents were okay, caused fear to build. His shoulders slumped and he sighed as he stepped onto the porch of the next house. It was his turn to go in this house with Harris, Poly and Lucas. Poly and Lucas looked as tired as he felt. A cold night under a blanket sounded like a vacation.
Harris, as cautious in this house as he had been in the first, had them work in twos, clearing the house. This time, they went upstairs to retrieve blankets from the bedrooms. Dragging his feet, Joey climbed the stairs.
“Maybe we can just stay here today, ride out the heat,” Joey suggested.
“Quiet,” Harris whispered. “You don’t want to stay in these houses. Trust me.”
Joey sighed and lifted his tired legs up the remaining stairs. They hadn’t seen a single person the entire day, but at every step, Harris seemed on edge.
Harris stopped in front of a bedroom door and Joey put his back on the wall next to the door. He held up three fingers, then lowered one and then another. When he swung the door open, Joey got a peek into the dark room—blankets covered the windows, and the bed lay on its side.
Once Harris took a step into the room, a high-pitched scream sounded and made Joey fumble his gun. A man with nothing but brown-stained underwear on lunged at Harris. Two booming shots rang from his gun and the man slid onto the gray carpet near the door.
Joey’s heart pounded and his ears rang. He looked at the man lying in front of him. His skin was dark and saggy-looking, with a large portion of his arm missing. He saw more movement in the room. The woman, or at least what looked like a woman, opened her black mouth, growling, with dark eyes and gray skin. She clawed at the turned-over mattress, thrashing at the bed, trying to get to Harris. Scaling the mattress, she jumped at them. Two more booming shots cracked and the thing slid next to the man on the floor.
Frozen in place at the doorway, Joey gawked at the two bodies. He couldn’t breathe. Harris walked up to the bodies, inspecting them. He pushed the man over with his foot, revealing the gaping hole in its head. Black blood seeped from its wound.
“You killed them,” Joey said.
The sound of pounding footsteps came from down the stairs. Poly was there first, with her knives out. Lucas followed closely behind, holding his bow with an arrow cocked.
“They were dead a long time ago,” Harris said. “This is what happens if you get bit by one of these creatures.” He pointed at the bodies. “You’d become a mindless monster.” He holstered his guns. “Only a shot to the head stops them.”
“Everyone okay in there?” Hank called from the front door.
“Yeah, just killing zombie people up here!” Lucas yelled back in a sarcastic tone.
“What?” Hank ran up the stairs. “Holy cow,” he said as he reached the top of the stairs.
Joey couldn’t take his eyes away from the couple on the floor. Why were they in this room? Were they complete monsters, or did they still have some kind of humanity behind the rotting skin?
Covering his nose, he took a step back and leaned on the railing. Up to this moment, part of him wanted to believe he was still on Earth. But after looking at the things on the floor, it was confirmed. His only chance of getting back home now belonged in the hands of the man holding a gun in front of him.
“Guys!” Julie yelled from the front door. “I think you should get down here now! There are freaky looking people coming our way.”