Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Dry Bite

Dry Bite by Will McIntosh

Josephine had been up all night, her heart pounding, thinking about this day, about whether she would survive it. Now, out on the road and exposed on all sides, she was so scared she could barely breathe.

Down,” Bella hissed.

Josephine dropped into the weeds lining the road. She stayed perfectly still, except for her chest, which was rising and falling as quickly as a butterfly flapping its wings. Bella’s face was inches from hers, the barrel of her M16 between them. “On the hill,” she whispered. She moved her eyes to the right, to indicate direction.

Ever so slowly, Josephine lifted her head, looked past the brush and scattered trees toward the top of the hill.

There were five of them, just standing there, looking around as if they were out admiring the view. Two were men, or had been when they were alive. One had foot-long yellow spines where his fingers and toes had been. The back of his head was a huge bald dome. The other man was stretched, maybe eight feet tall, and most of his body was covered in thorns. The three women weren’t any easier to look at. At least, thank God, none of them had wings.

Josephine couldn’t help but study their faces. She’d lived in Burlington her entire life, so, often, she recognized someone among the stingers. They were never who she was looking for, though; never Stan or Michael.

And what if one time they were? Would that be a good thing? No, it would be a nightmare. Yet she couldn’t help looking.

One of the stingers squatted, grabbed some vines, and started sliding down the steep slope leading to the road. The others followed, their movements fluid, almost graceful.

Shit,” Josephine whispered.

Bella looked up the hill. “I say we run for it. This isn’t great cover, and it’ll take them a few minutes to get down that slope, so we’ll have a head start.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t a hard decision; every cell in Josephine’s body was telling her to run.

“Go.” Bella sprang up and took off down the road, her rifle bouncing against her back. Josephine was right behind her, sprinting for all she was worth, barely feeling the pavement under her feet. She waited for the shriek of discovery that would alert other stingers to their presence, but it didn’t come. When they’d been running for a few minutes, Josephine risked a glance back, expecting to see the stingers chasing them, but the road was empty.

“They’re not following,” she called to Bella.

Bella looked back, then slowed to a walk, gasping. “That’s lucky.”

Josephine stopped, rested her hands on her knees. “This isn’t fair. There are people in the compound who are much better shots than we are. There are ex-soldiers, ex-cops with big forearms who can handle the recoil on these things.” She slapped the M16 draped over her shoulder. “I can’t control it. At all. The recoil knocks me on my ass. What are we doing out here?”

Bella looked down the road. Josephine envied her broad shoulders, her muscular thighs. Once upon a time, being scrawny like Josephine had advantages. Not anymore. “I don’t know. I guess if the big, strong people make all the runs, their odds of getting killed are pretty much a hundred percent. That’s not fair either.”

“Yeah,” Josephine said, grudgingly. “But they should have to draw twice or something, to even things out.”

Bella grinned at her. “You want to tell them that?”

“No, not really.” She turned to look at the road ahead. They were at the top of the rise; poking out of the treetops in the valley below, she could see the bell tower of the Episcopal Church, and the top few floors of the glass and steel Prudential Building. “Let’s just get this over with.”

***

They stepped out of the woods, past a rusted swing set in the backyard of a little Cape Cod. It reminded Josephine of her own house, or what had been her house once upon a time.

Stan, Michael, and her, huddled in the living room, the door and windows boarded up, even though they knew that was completely useless. The TV news blasting reports of attacks everywhere. They weren’t sugar-coating it. You couldn’t hide, they said, because the awful black slits could open anywhere. And when they did, the quills would whip out before you had a second to react, and they’d sting you. And you would die.

And as the newswoman was saying this, speaking quickly in a hoarse half-whisper, a slit opened beside her, like someone had sliced a wound in the air, and a half-dozen long, long spines burst out of it and sank into the screaming woman’s neck and shoulder. A moment later, they were gone, and there was only the newswoman, howling in pain and fear, saying over and over again that she didn’t want to die . . .

“Josephine? You all right?”

Josephine snapped out of it, like waking from a nightmare. She’d stopped walking without realizing. “Sorry. Yeah, I’m all right.”

They padded around the side of the house, clutching their rifles. Josephine scanned the sky. People tended to watch for the ones on the ground, expecting them to jump out at any minute, but it was the winged ones that usually got you.

She followed as Bella jogged across the street, down a driveway, then into another backyard. This one had a pool, and it was filled with stingers. Josephine and Bella steered clear; the swimmers rarely left the water unless you wandered too close. She couldn’t help glancing once as they passed, to check their faces. One was watching them, a doughy-faced man with close-set eyes; the other three were swimming, their faces in the water. Two of those were women, their long hair skimming the surface as huge paddle-shaped limbs combed the water. The third was an old man; the skin under his arms flapped as he swam.

They peered through the bushes in front of the house, down Exeter Street. A dozen or more stingers were standing around as if waiting for a bus. Between the bank and the Century 21 office, Josephine could see a sliver of the main drag. It was crawling with them, even more than the last foraging group had reported. For some reason, they clustered close to the business districts, but Josephine had never seen this many.

There was no way they could go farther without being seen. If it was up to Josephine, they’d turn back right now. Let the others get angry if they wanted.

“I’ll shoot,” Bella said. “Just cover my back, keep an eye out for the fliers.” Without waiting for a reply, Bella stepped out, leveled the M16, and started firing.

The report was deafening. Josephine resisted the urge to stick her fingers in her ears as she followed Bella, occasionally turning in a full circle to make sure nothing snuck up behind them.

Stingers buckled and fell as Bella delivered tight volleys at each in turn, starting with the closest. They didn’t bleed, didn’t clutch their wounds or cry out in pain. They simply went down. If they were only wounded, they immediately tried to get back up. They did die, though; there was that, at least.

Three stingers sailed over the treetops. “Fliers!” Josephine screamed, but Bella couldn’t hear her over the roar of the M16. Josephine slapped her on the back; Bella stopped shooting and spun around. “Fliers.” The last of them was disappearing over the rooftops of downtown. Josephine and Bella watched it go.

“There’s no way they didn’t see us,” Josephine said.

“They had to hear us, at least. Christ, you can hear an M16 a half mile away.”

Two stingers stepped out of the front door of a house behind them, one with a big, colorful sail jutting out of its back. Both looked at Josephine, then started down the porch steps. They were walking, though—not running. More came through the front door, cutting off any hope of retreat.

Shoot,” Bella said. She pushed forward, toward downtown, her M16 barking, stray bullets battering cars and smashing windows. Josephine raised her rifle, pointed at the stingers coming out of the house.

The thing was, they weren’t coming at her. They weren’t charging with spines raised. They were sort of cringing, or walking away. She’d never, ever heard of a stinger walking away from someone.

Hold on,” Josephine shouted. She tapped Bella’s shoulder. When Bella looked her way, she held up her palm, mouthed, “Stop.”

Looking bewildered, Bella stopped shooting. “What? You’re going to get us killed.”

“They’re not coming after us. Look.” She pointed at a cluster of stingers coming down Market Street. After glancing their way, the stingers actually turned right, away from Josephine and Bella.

Bella squinted. “It must be a new trick.”

That hadn’t occurred to Josephine. She eyed two stingers cutting a wide berth around them, going to join the group that had just turned away from them.

Bella was watching; she kept lifting her rifle partway, then hesitating.

This was insane. It was impossible.

Standing back-to-back, they watched the stingers as a mockingbird twittered and peeped in a nearby tree. They must have stood there for half an hour, neither of them so much as shifting their feet. Josephine was afraid if she moved, it would break the spell.

Finally, Bella said, “Let’s go get the damned respirator before they change their minds.”

***

“You see?” Josephine said.

The others stood in a tight line, weapons raised, but the four stingers sunning themselves several hundred yards away, in a rolling field, made no move.

“Maybe they don’t see us?” Daniel said. He clapped his hands, shouted, “Hey.” One of the stingers, who’d been a child of about twelve (Michael’s age, but this child was white), lifted his head and looked their way, then set his head down and went back to sunning.

“How can this be?” Paula asked.

“How can any of it be?” Bella asked. It was a good point. Aliens had opened wormholes from a billion miles away, infecting millions of people with a fatal virus. The dead who weren’t buried in time had morphed into freaks, rose, and infected just about everyone else. Given that scenario, should any turn of events surprise them?

“I’ll bet it’s temporary,” Jake said, eyeing the stingers. “Some sort of hiccup. They’ve killed off ninety-five percent of the population. They’re not going to stop now.”

“You sound disappointed,” Bella said.

Jake barked a laugh. “Yeah, I’m devastated. I love running for my life.” He studied the stingers for a moment, then shook his head. “It just seems too good to be true.” He sighed heavily, turned back toward the compound.

***

Josephine walked down the double yellow lines, her heart hammering. They were everywhere, and they were all watching her. But look was all they did, as if Josephine was a curiosity, nothing more.

Main Street was littered with trash and broken glass—reminders of the panic of the invasion—but it was silent, the stingers flowing along in inscrutable patterns of pointless movement, each of their heads swiveling to watch her as she passed.

She turned onto Asbury Avenue, staying on the yellow lines, watching the faces, occasionally spotting a familiar one. There was Larry Noble, who’d worked with Stan. Not twenty feet beyond Larry, she spotted Larry’s wife, Claudia. Paul Crakovia, Michael’s sixth-grade math teacher, crossed in front of her. Paul was walking on all fours and had razor-sharp tusks.

At the bottom of the hill, Asbury Avenue crossed the railroad tracks. Past the tracks Josephine turned right onto Sycamore and stopped in front of the third house on the right. Her house. She hadn’t laid eyes on it since the day Stan got up from under the sheet Josephine had pulled over his body and stiff-armed their son in the face. His palm had been covered in spines, like the rest of him.

The front door was wide open, but Josephine had no interest in going inside. There was nothing in there but pain. Just seeing the house hurt, and not simply because it triggered memories of that last day. Those memories played out all the time, wherever she was. What hurt were the good memories the house triggered. Michael, practicing for his green belt in Tae Kwon Do on the front lawn while Stan watched from the stoop. Michael and his best friend Chris, playing whiffle ball on the side lawn for hours. The weeping willow she and Michael had planted after they moved in, now grown to majestic size. All memories hurt—the good ones and bad, the mundane and the landmarks. It hurt to remember her past, period.

She turned away and was startled to find a stinger standing behind her, studying her. She nodded to it, then felt foolish for doing so and left, cutting a wide berth around it.

There must be some reason they’d stopped infecting people, although the reason could be so alien they’d never understand it. And as Jake said (over and over), the stingers might go back on the attack any day. It might be temporary, their version of a mating season or something. The thought gave Josephine a prickly sensation as she wound her way through hordes of them.

Dozens of stingers were filing out of Grice’s Photography Studio. Josephine smiled, imagining them posing for glamour shots—

—and stumbled, almost fell, as Stan stepped through the door.

His face was still her Stan’s face—the warm brown eyes, the long, crooked nose. Even his posture, the slump of his shoulders, was as familiar as Josephine’s own hands. The rest of him, the porcupine quills jutting through his ruined clothes, was an abomination.

The air went out of her as Michael stepped out, right behind Stan, his neck stretched a foot long, his fingers replaced by thick spines that split into dozens of finer ones at the tips.

Michael,” she called. She reached out, but her feet wouldn’t move. She wanted to go to them, yet wanted to get as far away as possible.

Stan and Michael headed into the street, toward Josephine. She watched their faces as they came closer, seeking some sign of recognition—a glance her way, a nod, a smile. They looked at her as they passed not six feet away, but gave no indication that they recognized her. It was torture, having them only a few steps away. They were right there. Right there.

And they were together.

That’s what got her. They were staying together. Some part of them must still be working, must know they once meant something to each other.

Yet they hadn’t recognized her, didn’t know that she’d meant something to them, as well. Josephine suddenly felt so empty, so alone. She held her stomach and sobbed, wiped her eyes as her vision blurred. Stan and Michael went on walking, down Main Street, leaving her behind.

When they were out of sight, she headed back to the compound. It felt so strange, seeing her husband and son head in one direction while she headed in the other. She felt like a character in the wrong story. They were supposed to be together always.

And then there’d been that moment in the kitchen. Stan opening the refrigerator, the unspeakable darkness inside. Three long yellow spines darting out (connected to something awful Josephine couldn’t—or didn’t want to—see), stabbing Stan in the chest before he could slam the door shut. The look on his face, as he turned to her, clutching the puncture wounds.

Someone in the fields called her name. Josephine looked over, saw Bella standing beside a basket among the potatoes. “You all right?”

Josephine gave her a thumbs-up and kept walking. Everyone thought she was out of her mind for going out there for no good reason. A few, like Jake, seemed to hope something bad would happen, to prove they were right about what a fool she was. Others, like Bella and Daniel, were just worried. She was an adult, though; no one could tell her where she could and couldn’t go, as long as she did her share of the work.

“What happened?” Bella fell into step beside Josephine, hands stuffed in her back pockets. All Josephine wanted right now was to sleep, even though it was still the middle of the afternoon.

“I saw them.” Her voice was thin and tight.

They walked for a minute, through the gate of the compound, their feet crunching on the gravel road. Maybe Bella was thinking about the time she’d spotted her sister Maura, breaking the surface on Lake Champlain, or imagining what it would be like to bump into Luis, her father, who’d been killed a few months earlier in the compound. A flier had swooped down at him from behind, speared him so hard in the back the spines had poked through his chest. The stinger had carried Luis fifty feet into the air before the spines slid out and he fell. At least it had been quick, and relatively painless. Compared to dying from a sting, anyway.

“You saw them both?” Bella finally asked.

“They were together.” She glanced at Bella, saw the bald surprise on her face.

Right together, or just close to one another?”

“Michael was following Stan. Right on his heels.”

Bella digested this.

“Come to think of it, I saw one of Stan’s colleagues as well, and his wife wasn’t twenty feet away.” Until the recent turn of events, no one had had the time or interest to notice which marauding half-alien corpses were in proximity to one another. Everyone had assumed it was pretty much random.

“Did Stan or Michael seem to notice you?” Bella asked.

Josephine shook her head.

“What are you going to do?”

Josephine frowned at her. “What is there to do?”

“I mean, are you going back out there?”

They stopped in front of the door to Josephine’s apartment. “I’m not sure.”

***

With the straps of her backpack digging into her shoulders, Josephine fell into step behind Stan and Michael. Michael turned to look at her, his eyes clear and focused, but inscrutable. He turned and continued walking.

Now that the light was waning, she was having second thoughts about this. In the sunlight, it had seemed perfectly reasonable to spend a few days in the wild, among their new neighbors, as it were. Now a cold, stark loneliness tinged with terror was sinking in. She wanted to see Bella, Daniel, the rest of her little clan, to sit in front of a fire.

Instead, she followed Stan and Michael inside Macy’s. They headed toward the back, the thick gloom growing ever darker. When they stopped in the Juniors section, Josephine could no longer see their faces, only their spiny, inhuman outlines.

They did nothing. Stan stood beside a rack of miniskirts, Michael facing a checkout counter, as if waiting to pay for something. He was still wearing the remnants of the black pants and button-down shirt he’d put on for Stan’s burial.

Josephine set her pack down, pulled out her sleeping bag, and unrolled it at the foot of a sweater display. At least if she got cold during the night she could reach up and pull down a few sweaters. Lying on her side, she watched Michael and Stan.

After some time, Michael sat against the counter, pulling his knees up to his chest. Stan went on standing. They didn’t sleep, but they seemed to be resting. Someone must have noticed that along the way—that they rested. Maybe one of the generals directing tanks and fighter jets, when there was still an organized military. But Josephine hadn’t. There was so much they didn’t know about stingers.

An idea came to Josephine with such clarity, such force and certainty, that she jolted upright. She wanted to start right away, but it would have to wait until morning, when she could locate a pen and paper.

Between the adrenaline of her idea, the darkness, and the presence of Stan and Michael, Josephine was sure she wouldn’t be able to sleep. But she did.

***

There are patterns to their behavior, even if they make no sense. They have routines. Stan and Michael walk in specific patterns for hours. Sometimes it’s nothing but a circle, sometimes it’s far more complex, but whatever the pattern is, they repeat it.

Josephine looked up from the page, watched Michael for a moment. He was walking in a circle with four other stingers, all of them watching their feet.

Sometimes they fall into a trancelike state. Their eyes glaze over, they stop looking around, they get clumsy. Then, suddenly, they’re alert again, clear-eyed, looking around.

Josephine watched Michael; on the far side of the circle, Stan stood watching him as well. If not for the quills and sundry abnormalities, they could still be two parents watching over their son. She dropped her gaze, jotted another note.

What if they’re still part of the aliens who infected them? Maybe they’re limbs that are still somehow connected over all that distance, that the aliens stretch and move, but sometimes forget.

“Joe.” Josephine jumped. Bella was walking toward her, head down.

She set down her pen. “How did you find me?”

Bella shrugged. “I just walked around until I spotted you. It’s not such a big town.” She squatted, elbows resting on her thighs. “What are you writing?”

“The great post-American novel,” she said, closing the notebook.

Bella smiled. “No, really.” When Josephine didn’t answer, she added, “If it’s personal, I understand. I’m just curious. You’re spending so much time out here.”

Josephine turned her head from side to side to loosen the kinks in her neck. “I’m trying to learn about them.”

Bella gestured toward Stan. “About Stan and Michael?”

“About all of them. We should be learning about them, trying to understand them.”

Bella nodded slowly.

Josephine studied her face. “Is there something you want to say?”

Bella sighed. “Yes. I came out here to warn you. People are starting to grumble that the next time you come back for supplies, we shouldn’t give you any, because you’re not contributing anything.”

That sent a jolt through her.

“Needless to say, I don’t agree with them,” Bella added.

“So understanding the dominant species on this planet doesn’t have any value? It isn’t a contribution?”

“Is that what you’re doing?” Bella laid a hand on Josephine’s knee. “Sweetie, nobody knows that. You just show up at the compound, pick up food, and turn right around.”

Josephine looked at her notebook, which had nothing at all profound written in it, nothing of tangible use. “I wanted to wait until I learned something useful before I told people.”

“Have you?”

Flustered, Josephine waved at the circling creatures. “These things are completely foreign; I can’t figure them out in a couple of days. It’s going to take time.”

Bella stood, folded her arms. “Josephine, I have to admit, I’m a little worried about you. You’re spending an awful lot of time alone out here.”

As if on cue, Stan turned and headed out of the park. Michael broke off from the circle and followed him.

Josephine wanted to follow as well, but maybe it was more important that she have this conversation. “Are you worried because I’m alone, or because I’m with Stan and Michael?”

Bella didn’t answer.

“I’m still grieving for them. Maybe following them around seems ghoulish, but it’s part of my grieving process.” Stan and Michael disappeared behind a copse of trees, reappeared on the far side.

“I guess I’m worried that you think you’re grieving, but really you’re hoping they’re still in there somewhere.”

Josephine gasped; it felt as if Bella had accused her of something incredibly perverse. “I saw them die. You think I’m hoping one day we’re all going to be back sitting around the table eating dinner together?”

“No,” Bella said immediately. “That’s not what I meant.” She struggled for the right words. “I’m afraid one day I’m going to come out here and find you walking in a circle with them.”

Josephine picked up her pen and notebook, stuffed them into her pack, zipped it closed, and went after Stan and Michael.

“Josephine,” Bella called. “Sweetie, please.”

Josephine refused to believe what she was doing was obsessive, or immoral, or pointless. She couldn’t put it into words, but felt instinctively that staying near Stan and Michael was a good thing. She felt that right to her bones. As for watching the stingers more generally, they should have a whole team out watching them. Other communities probably did.

The talk of cutting Josephine off for not doing her share scared her. She couldn’t survive the winter on her own. She’d have to start alternating days, one day working her ass off in the compound, the next studying the stingers. It would be a grueling schedule, but no one could accuse her of being a freeloader, and she would get to continue her study. So everyone would win.

She spotted Stan and Michael cutting across a weedy lawn and hurried to catch up.

***

A beetle scurried across the oil stained floor of the service station bay. It paused close to Michael’s foot, which had the remnants of a Nike clinging to it. Michael reached out, picked up the beetle, and slipped it into his mouth. He chewed.

Josephine watched, wide eyed. She retrieved her notebook. They eat. She underlined “eat” five times. They eat. I’ve never seen one eat, never heard anyone mention seeing one eat. Is this a new behavior, like the armistice?

Surely it was. Maybe their human side was breaking through. Josephine thought of what Bella had said to her last week. Maybe she was looking for hints of humanity in these creatures. Was it so inconceivable, that some of their humanity survived death and assimilation? Maybe they hadn’t wanted to even entertain that possibility while they were at war with the stingers, because it would have made it that much harder to kill them.

Whatever the reason, Michael had just eaten a bug. That much she knew for certain.

It was getting dark. Josephine unzipped her pack to get her sleeping bag, pushed aside a zip-locked bag of pork jerky.

She froze with her fingers on the jerky. They eat.

She unzipped the bag and took out a stick of jerky, set it in front of Stan.

Stan studied it, picked it up, and took a bite.

***

Off in the distance, someone shouted. She and Bella stopped working, turned, and scanned the flat green crop fields.

Bella pointed. “Over there.” It was Marco, a few hundred yards away in the tomato fields. He was backing up slowly, his pistol pointing toward dozens of stingers coming out of the woods, pushing into the field.

The compound gate swung open; Jake and Paula stormed out, each carrying a rifle. Josephine took off toward the tomato field.

“Joe, hang on,” Bella shouted. “You’re not armed; you’ll just get in the way.”

As Josephine ran, she watched a stinger with tall, narrow wings attached to its arms bend and pick a tomato. It took a bite. Others were spreading into the field, eating tomatoes, ignoring the people racing toward them.

Jake and Paula reached the field before Josephine. Marco stepped back as Jake raised his M16. Gunfire tore the silence.

Stop!” Josephine screamed. She ran faster, shouted again, her voice drowned by rifle fire. The stinger closest to Jake bloomed with red wounds and dropped. Jake stepped forward, choosing targets farther out. Finally reaching him, Josephine grabbed the stock of his rifle and tried to yank it out of his hands.

Jake stopped firing, gripped the rifle and tried to pull it free. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Am I out of my mind?” Josephine screamed, twisting the rifle. “You want to start another war with those monsters for eating tomatoes?”

By now a dozen others had reached them, with half the compound on their way.

“If we let them eat our food, we starve.” With one mighty jerk, he pulled the rifle free, turned back toward the stingers.

Josephine ran right out in front of Jake, between him and the stingers. Only, now there were a dozen rifles pointed at the stingers.

Stop,” Josephine said, glaring at Jake. “We have no idea what might set them off again. You don’t have the right to make this decision on your own.”

“I’m responsible for defending the compound.”

“You’re not defending the compound, you’re defending tomatoes. And if these things have decided they need to eat, and we try to stop them . . .” Josephine trailed off. “Wait a minute.” She watched the stingers, their faces smeared orange. “This is why they stopped infecting us.” She swept her hand toward the crops, the stingers. A few were heading back into the forest; evidently it didn’t take much to satisfy them.

“What is?” Bella asked, joining her, ignoring the rifles pointed their way. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Josephine clutched Bella’s hand. “They stopped killing us because they need us. They like being indoors. They eat. If they wiped us out completely, eventually there’d be no buildings, no crops.”

“And you arrived at this conclusion how?” Jake asked.

Josephine wheeled to face him. “Because it makes sense, Jake. There has to be a reason they stopped infecting us. They didn’t do it to be nice. What advantage could there be in letting some of us live? We must have something they need.”

A dozen muttered conversations broke out. At least she had them thinking, wondering what these things wanted.

“You make them sound like a bunch of geniuses. Look at them.” Jake swept his hand at the retreating backs of the stingers. “If they were smart enough to think all that, they’d be smart enough to grow their own food.”

“The aliens who made them were smart enough to poke holes in space.” Looking at Jake, who was scowling, Josephine realized she was never going to convince him. He wasn’t a bad guy, if you were just sitting around a table talking, but he wasn’t good when it came to disagreements. She stepped past him, faced the others standing among the knee-high crops, and opened her arms, as if inviting them in. “We’re never going to wipe out two or three billion stingers. Our only chance is to get along with them, now that they seem willing.”

“Maybe we should set aside some of our harvest and leave it by the gate,” Jake said. “No, hang on.” He touched his fingers to his temples. “I’ve got it: We can have a Thanksgiving, like the Pilgrims! We’ll set up picnic tables and feed the stingers hamburgers and corn on the cob. Get to know our new neighbors.”

Some of the onlookers laughed.

“We could have a square dance,” Jake added, milking a few more laughs.

Josephine folded her arms. “I think that’s a terrific idea.”

“Oh, come on,” someone called. “You’ve got to be joking.”

“No,” Josephine said, “I’m serious. They made the first move; let’s make a gesture, and see how they respond.”

“They won’t respond,” Jake said. “They’re vegetables. Anyone can see that.”

“That’s not true,” Bella said. She touched Josephine’s shoulder. “Joe’s been studying them. Tell them. Tell them what you’ve found.”

Josephine didn’t feel like she’d found much of importance, but she told them everything she’d learned.

***

Bella smiled at her, clearly trying to buck up her spirits, as they watched rainwater dribble off the tents they’d set up on the lawn of a grand white house on the edge of town. Josephine looked around, counted twenty-two people. Some who’d agreed to come had used the rain as an excuse to back out; others had peeled away as the hours dragged on, saying they had work to do back at the compound.

They’d waited six hours for the stingers to show. The corn was cold, the biscuits soggy.

Although she’d gotten her way, it was beginning to look like Jake had won. In the end, Jake and his friends hadn’t stopped them from taking some of their share of the stores and doing with it what they chose, though they could have; they tended to be the gun people. When it came down to it, Josephine and her small cadre probably got their way because Jake’s people didn’t have it in them to shoot fellow humans after all they’d been through.

Bella rose from the bench. “Look.”

Her hopes soaring, Josephine stood to see what Bella was looking at. So did some of the others.

Stingers were coming up the lawn. Josephine’s breath caught when she saw Stan and Michael among them. Josephine grabbed plates, started heaping food on them and setting them at the edge of the table.

Stingers approached the table, eyeing the food. A teenage girl with unnaturally elongated arms and legs took a biscuit from one of the plates. An old man covered in quills that shifted in the breeze picked up an ear of corn. Josephine grabbed a plate and headed toward Michael, who was standing toward the back of the crowd.

Michael turned, saw her approaching with the plate. He reached out. Her heart soaring, Josephine pushed the plate into his hand.

She felt a sharp sting between thumb and forefinger as one of his quills caught her. Crying out, she yanked her hand away.

Michael walked off with the plate clutched among the sharp quills that comprised his fingers.

“Joe!” Bella cried out, rushing toward her.

She was afraid to look. Eyes closed, she whispered, “Please, oh please,” as she raised her hand. She opened her eyes.

A bead of blood had welled up in the tiny hole. It had broken the skin. She’d be dead in half an hour. She’d be one of them by nightfall. What had she been thinking?

Bella grabbed her wrist, examined the tiny wound. “Oh, no. Oh, God. No.” She looked at Josephine, her eyes filled with pity.

Everyone huddled in a circle around Josephine. Bella took Josephine’s uninjured hand, squeezed it. “What can I do? Do you want us to take you back to the compound? Do you want to stay here? I’ll stay here with you, if that’s what you want.”

Josephine wiped away tears. “Please stay.”

Bella nodded.

“I’m so scared.”

“I know,” Bella said. “We’re here for you.” Someone pushed a blanket into Bella’s hands; she wrapped it around Josephine’s shoulders.

“I’m so stupid,” Josephine said. “How could I be so stupid?” Everyone else had been setting the food on the table; why had she felt compelled to hand a plate to Michael?

“You were excited,” Bella said. “You wanted this to work so badly.”

Josephine studied the tiny wound. It had stopped bleeding, was just a round red spot on her brown skin. She wondered if she’d join Stan and Michael, if the three of them would wander together. Maybe, deep down, that’s why she’d done it?

No, that was bullshit; she didn’t want to be like them.

What would she become? Would she have paddles for arms? Or wings? The thought made her dizzy and nauseous. Or maybe these were the first symptoms of the infection. If not, they’d be kicking in any minute. Abdominal pain, muscle spasms, then hemorrhaging—blood pouring from her mouth and nose.

“You warned me this would happen,” she said to Bella.

Bella looked confused.

“You said you were afraid you’d come back one day and find me walking in a circle with Stan and Michael.”

Bella shook her head. “No, I meant I was worried you’d get too caught up in your study of them, that you’d take it too far.”

“Well, I took it too far.” It was comforting to have Bella by her side. “You know, I really wasn’t staying close to Stan and Michael because I was hoping they’d come back.”

Bella shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”

Josephine clutched her hand. “But I want to tell you. I want you to understand.” Bella leaned in closer. “I did it in case there’s some part of them still in there. I wanted them to see me, to know I was there, that someone still cared. I thought it might comfort them.”

Bella nodded, blinked away tears. “I understand. I really do.”

That was reassuring, that Bella didn’t think she was unbalanced. “Will you do the same for me?” She whispered. “Will you come and find me, and spend some time with me once in a while?”

Bella swallowed, nodded. “I promise.”

Somehow that was comforting, too, to know someone she cared about, someone human, would visit from time to time.

Jake’s face appeared over Bella’s shoulder. “Oh, Josephine. Jesus.”

“Go ahead and say it. You know you want to.”

“I told you this would happen,” he whispered. “But I wish I’d been wrong.” He pressed his palm to his face, shook his head.

***

“How much time has passed?” Josephine asked. She didn’t feel sick yet, and she’d seen how the stings affected people. It was always fast.

Jake looked at his watch. “At least an hour.”

She was afraid to move. It might break the spell, set the virus loose in her blood stream.

“I’ve never heard of anyone surviving a sting,” Jake said, looking stunned. “It kills everyone. Twenty minutes, thirty tops.”

“It’s a dry bite,” Bella said.

Jake turned. “A what?”

“Poisonous snakes can withhold venom when they bite you, if they want. It’s called a dry bite.”

“Holy shit,” Jake whispered. He studied Josephine. “You really feel okay? You don’t feel sick?”

“I feel fine.” Tentatively, Josephine stood. She examined the spot on her hand, rubbed it. Now that she was standing, she could see into the street. Michael was still there, in front of the house, with Stan and a dozen others.

Josephine could have sworn he was looking right at her.

© 2013 by Will McIntosh.

Will McIntosh

Will McIntosh

Will McIntosh’s story, Defenders, was the basis for a novel published by Orbit books in 2014, and was recently optioned for film. Will’s third novel, Love Minus Eighty, was based on the Hugo Award winning short story, Bridesicle. His debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, was a finalist for both a Locus award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Will lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with his wife Alison and twins Hannah and Miles. He teaches psychology as an adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary, after leaving his career as a psychology professor in southeast Georgia to write full time.