THE BUCK FELL WITH THE FIRST SHOT, AND ZACH EMORY couldn’t help being impressed with himself. From his deer stand, it looked like an eight- or ten-pointer. If the weather stayed cold, he’d be able to make it last for several weeks’ worth of meals.
He climbed down from his deer stand and pulled up the collar of his jacket. It was so cold his ears were numb, and his fingers had begun to ache. But it was worth it. Even in the pre-outage days, Zach had spent many mornings sitting in a deer stand freezing to death, just for sport. Now it was a matter of survival.
He jogged toward the animal that lay dead twenty yards away. His brother Gary would be crazy with envy. They had a competition going, and Gary was two up on him. Zach hoped Gary had heard the gunshot and would come to help him move the deer. It would take both of them to lift it into their rickshaw.
He bent over the buck. Ten points. And a perfect shot right through the heart. His dad would finally be proud, and if he was lucky, his mother would drag herself out of bed to get a look.
He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see a man emerging from the trees, walking toward him. Zach squinted, trying to place him. He’d seen him before, but he couldn’t remember where.
“Did I score or what?” he asked as the man came closer. “He’s a ten-pointer. Got him in one shot, right through the ticker!” The man didn’t look like he’d come to celebrate. He stopped about thirty feet away . . . and raised his rifl e. Was he going to shoot? Zach’s hands came up, as if that would stop him.
The gun fired — its impact propelling Zach backward, bouncing him onto the dirt.
THE BUILDING SMELLED OF MOTOR OIL AND GREASE — A SCENT Deni Branning associated with progress. A symphony of roaring engines brought a smile to her face as she rolled her bike inside. Oh, for the days of noise pollution and hurry — of bumper-to-bumper traffic, honking horns, blaring radios, and twenty-four-hour TV.
All over the large warehouse, mechanics and engineers with black-stained fingers worked at converting engines. The building had been purchased by the feds a few months ago, when they instituted the draft. Instead of drafting soldiers, the government had conscripted all of those with experience as mechanics. Later, they’d added others to the conscription list: electricians, scientists, and engineers. Many of them were allowed to live at home and work in the local conversion plants, but others had been sent across the country to serve where they were needed.
Pushing down the kickstand on her bike, she reached into her bag for her notepad and looked around for someone in charge. She saw Ned Emory, from her neighborhood, standing nearby with a clipboard, instructing a group of mechanics with a disassembled engine laid out in front of them. She headed toward him.
“Excuse me,” she yelled over the noise. “Mr. Emory?”
He turned. “Yeah?”
She could see that he didn’t recognize her, even though his son Zach had been close friends with her brother for years. “Deni Branning. Jeff’s sister?”
Recognition dawned in his eyes. She reached out to shake hands with him, but he showed her his greasy hands. “Better not shake. What brings you here?”
“I’m writing an article about your work here. Do you have time for an interview?”
As if he hadn’t heard her, he turned back to the men, barked out some orders that she couldn’t hear, and started walking away. Glancing back over his shoulder, he said, “I heard the newspaper is back up and running. They hired you, did they?”
She caught up to him and tried to match his steps. “That’s right. the Crockett Times. They liked what I’d been doing on the message boards around town. This’ll be the cover story for next week’s issue.”
He didn’t seem impressed, so she pulled out her big guns. “You guys are like rock stars. Everybody wants to know what you’re up to.”
Pride pulled at the corners of his mouth, and she knew she’d struck a chord. “Sure, I can give you a few minutes. What do you want to know?”
He started up a staircase, and she blew out her frustration as she followed him. “Is there someplace we can sit down?”
“I don’t have time to sit down.” He reached the top of the stairs and headed across the concrete floor to an area where a dozen mopeds sat in various stages of completion. “Hey, Stark! I need at least four of these done by the end of the day. Get Bennett over here to help you.”
Deni’s gaze swept over the bikes. “Wow. How can I get one of those?”
“You can’t. They’re not for the private sector.” He was walking again, but she hung back, unable to tear herself away from the coveted mopeds. She stepped toward one and touched the seat.
He turned back and gave her an impatient look. “Do you want to do the interview or not?”
She shook off her longing and forced herself to focus. “Of course.”
He led her past a table filled with generators, and again, her longing kicked in. “Do those work?”
“They do after we harden them against the Pulses.”
Her heart quickened. If they were making hardened generators here, it wouldn’t be long until they actually had electricity. Could there really be lightbulbs at the end of the tunnel?
“When will those be available for the public?” she asked, catching up to him again.
“Our illustrious supernova will burn out before we can finish supplying the hospitals. They’re priority number one for the generators right now. Without robotics, assembly lines — electricity, for that matter — we have to do everything by hand, one at a time. And even if we could produce enough for the public, there’s one missing ingredient.”
“Gasoline,” she said.
“You got it.” He reached a series of offices with glass walls, overlooking the work on the floor below them. “We can’t get enough gas without operating tanker trucks, and once we get it here, we don’t have electricity to work the pumps.”
She was well aware of the chain of problems. “But aren’t you guys all about creating work-arounds?”
“Right now we’re just trying to help critical ser vices operate. Like I said, the star will likely burn out before we get caught up with that. Then we’ll shift our objectives from sustaining to rebuilding.” He headed into one of the offices, dropped his clipboard on his desk, and motioned for her to take a seat. As Deni sat down, something outside the glass caught Ned’s eye, and Deni turned to follow his gaze. Someone was running up the stairs.
Ned frowned as his son Gary came running toward his door.
“Dad, Zach’s been shot!”
Deni caught her breath and got to her feet.
“We were hunting at the Jenkins’s place. I heard some gunshots and . . . when I found him . . .”
“Is he dead?” Ned blurted out.
“I don’t think so. I got help and somebody went to get an ambulance.
They’re taking him to University Hospital.”
Ned grabbed his son’s shoulders. “What condition was he in when they took him?”
Gary trembled as he raked his hands through his hair. “There was blood all over his shirt . . . front and back.”
Deni’s heart stopped. Her brother’s best friend . . .
Ned raced out of the office and hurried down the stairs, Gary on his heels. Deni followed them as far as the top of the stairs, then waited there as they hurried through the building. All the engines went quiet, and everyone stared as Ned ran to a beat-up Buick.
“The keys!” he shouted. “Where are the keys?”
Someone tossed them to him, and he got in and started the engine. Gary jumped in beside him. Two guys pulled up the garage door and the Buick rumbled out.
Deni muttered a prayer for Zach as they drove off — and then a thought struck her. Jeff, Deni’s brother, sometimes hunted with Zach. Could they have been together? What if he’d been hurt too?
She had to get to the scene of the shooting. She ran downstairs, grabbed her bike, and pedaled out behind them.