About a month ago, we left Houston writhing in the jaws of an all-out zombie invasion. It feels like I abandoned my home in its time of need, but my home abandoned me. No one wants to camp out with the grey girl for the apocalypse. Maybe it’s because they know I would gladly light up a fire, rip out their kidneys and wolf them down, like franks and beans, without the beans—or the campfire for that matter. I don’t blame them. It keeps me up at night knowing my idea of fast food is a kid on a scooter.
Our Aircraft Carrier docks at the island of If in the early hours of the morning. The dying hum of the engines wakes me. I open my eyes, startle, and then exhale a sigh of relief—Amber still has all her vital parts. My brain didn’t deteriorate in the night and uncage the savage animal I keep locked inside. I wake up to the same nightmare every morning, the fear that the Z-Virus hijacked my brain in the night. Surrounded by French marines, at sea where the virals can’t reach us, protected by Lieutenant Ryan Samson, this boat should be a haven in the storm of the apocalypse. But what I fear is not on the outside; it’s on the inside. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to control it.
On this floating paradise, I’m the biggest threat to my little sister. I used to be the force keeping her alive—well, me and Greyson, but he’s gone… No, I absolutely cannot go there. My whole chest collapses in on itself, and the screaming inside overwhelms my brain every time I think of him. I have to keep a clear head—for Amber. Here, on this boat, I almost believe she’d be safer without me. Then again, is anyone safe without love or is love the thing that makes us feel safe? If it is, I should feel safe with Ryan, but I don’t. I haven’t felt safe since the bombs on the Knight compound shrouded Grey in a cloud of smoke.
Every time that image replays in my mind, I shiver and grit my teeth against the sob of rage it raises. Alone in our cabin, I let two fat tears dribble down my cheeks before I wipe them away and pull myself together. To face what’s coming today, I can’t be a pathetic puddle of emotional soup.
My little sister snores in our bunk, curled into a ball and plastered to my chest. She only woke up drenched in sweat and screaming twice last night. Progress. Her fragile fist clings to the leather handle of a knife—a Glauca G1—her PTSD therapist. Along with a custom blade, the knife features a plastic handcuff cutter and window breaker, the perfect apocalypse teddy bear. Multi-tool of French bad asses, it’s a gift from Ryan, or maybe one of his marine buddies. She’s got the entire platoon of camo-clad nannies wrapped around that coquettish little pinkie of hers.
Amber’s au-pair flavor of the week is Clément. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s a giant among French men—a 6’ 4,” ripped killing machine with a snuggly bearhug, a shoulder perch heads above the crowd, and an unlimited supply of Skittles in his pocket. Why wouldn’t she feel safe with him covering her weak side?
After only weeks of onboard basic training, Amber is tiny but lethal. Ryan’s squad gets a kick out of teaching her new tricks. Her baby hands can assemble a FAMAS assault rifle faster than some of the privates. I don’t cringe at the sight of a six-year-old toting military grade weapons anymore. We’re past that. She’s alive and NOT infected; everything else is irrelevant. Amber is hope in skin. And to survive these days, hope needs to know its way around a variety of weapons.
My stomach grumbles. I’m starving for human organs, but I’ll happily settle for some bloody cow liver. On this ship, the menu choices for greys like me are more à la carte than prix-fixe à la zombie.
Slipping a pair of camouflage pants over my marine issue briefs, I grab an elastic and restrain my hair in an unruly, loose knot on the top of my head. In the corridor, leather boots slap against the metal floors. Here they come.
Inhaling, I brace myself. Meeting the new boyfriend’s dad is always about as fun as approaching the judgement bar of God. I can’t see how meeting Ryan’s dad, General of the surviving French military, can end in anything short of being cast down into Danté’s fourth circle of hell.
There’s no way General Samson is going to welcome an infected American teenager into the Chateau d’If, especially not one that has her teeth sunk into his son’s heart—figuratively and possibly—eventually—literally. The Chateau is the only sterile zone in southern France. Kind of ironic since, for centuries, plague-ridden ships were quarantined here to stop the infection from reaching the mainland.
Ryan assures me his dad is a reasonable guy. But Ryan hasn’t seen reasonable people take to bat bashing the heads of their own infected sons and daughters. Can’t really blame them. How can they be sure their grey teen won’t wake up one morning, decide to cheat on her self-inflicted “vegetarian” diet of animal organs, and sneak a snack of spicy, hot brains straight off the skull of the nearest trusting, overly confident loved one? Ryan’s dad is going to want to save his son from himself. No question.
To the tune of heated French in the hall outside my door, my fingers race through the twists and turns of lacing up my combat boots. Roughly translated from French Military to American, the argument goes something like this:
“Do you have shit for brains, Lieutenant Samson? What were you thinking, bringing an infected predator like that onto this ship?”
“You don’t understand, Dad…”
“You don’t understand, General—Sir!”
“There’s nothing to understand. She’s a threat.”
“Didn’t you hear a word Dr. Pêsqué said? Dr. Vadlamani is a grey, like Evelyn, but Dr. Pêsqué is still bringing him to the lab. Nicolas Vadlamani’s research is invaluable. Who cares if he’s infected? He’s close to a cure.”
“We’ve already shipped Pêsqué and his infected pet specimen off to a secured lab in Paris. Gérard can risk his own butt up north. The Chateau d’If is a sanitary zone. No exceptions.” I can’t see it, but I hear the response of weapons jostling and assume they’ve been ordered with the jerk of a thumb to target my door. A dull thump against the portal intervenes. “Stand down, Lieutenant,” General Samson growls.
I slip a camo shirt over my tank and bend over to kiss Amber’s forehead. A stray sob convulses my chest, but I stuff it back where it came from. God, this hurts, like ripping out half of my insides. But I have to do this even if it kills me inside. I can’t be with Amber until I’m not a threat. How is it possible that the right thing to do feels so wrong? She stirs and whines and the knife jerks in her fist. I won’t wake her, but if things go the way I think they’re going to, I might not see my little sister for a while. They’ve already voted Nicolas Vadlamani and his research off the ship. It’s a sure bet I’m next.
General Samson won’t bother to run the idea by his son first; he’ll have my brains plastered to the wall the minute he gets me in an isolated room. Not that I blame him. I am a risk. I know it better than he does. If it weren’t for the fact that I know Nicolas has made a breakthrough on the cure, I’d be the first one to suggest my elimination—for Amber’s sake. But since there’s a chance out there, I’m going to survive to take it—for Amber’s sake.
If I have to leave my baby sister somewhere, this is the place. She has Ryan and half a dozen special ops officers to babysit her. She’ll be safer with them on this island than with me on the mainland. Months before all hell broke loose in Houston, the virus waltzed through airport security in Marseille. The city already has a full menu—alphas, greys, simple ZV infected virals, and plain, old-fashioned zombies.
“Look, dad.” Ryan’s voice has gone quiet—son to father. I can only hear him because my hand grips the wheel that opens the portal. Amplified senses of a predator, just one of the many perks of being a grey. “Evelyn is not a threat. If anything, she’s an asset. She can take down a target and run decoy better than any man on my team.”
That’s what is so irresistible about Ryan—I mean besides the French accent, smoldering eyes, and coffee cream cheesecake voice. He still sees me beneath the grey—the Homecoming Queen, the AP student, the track star.
“For God’s sake, she was ground zero for the virus and she’s never taken a bite out of anyone.” That’s not 100% accurate, but it wasn’t the virus that drove me to it. It was justice.
“She was a vegetarian before the outbreak. We only know that’s what causes the grey mutation because SHE figured it out. No one knows more about the virals…” For all his military training and skill, Ryan is a romantic at heart. He hasn’t loved me long enough to see me for what I really am, for what his dad knows I am—a threat, an infected specimen. His hormones are messing with his vision.
“That’s because she IS a viral. The greys are unpredictable. She’s infected. Period. Too risky.”
The handle groans when I turn it. Safeties unlock and automatic guns shift in a chorus of metallic clicking as I step into the corridor. Pushing past the shield of Ryan’s body, my boots stomp against the metal floor. Ryan grabs my arm to pull me back.
Shaking my head, I unlatch his fingers and dust off my rusty AP French—it’s in my best interest to appear non-threatening, as minimally foreign as possible. “Il a raison, Ryan. Je suis un risque.”
The general is a shorter man than Ryan, and fairer—I didn’t expect that. A look of loss warps the skin around his eyes. Ryan’s are wider, brimming with audacity.
“Alors, Général,” I nod down the corridor, “on y va?” Calmly, I push through the gauntlet of the General’s guard.
He didn’t bring just one or two men. He knows what a grey can do. I don’t recognize any of the dozen or so soldiers, but I recognize the look behind their eyes. I’ve seen it on brutes packing blood-stained bats on the streets of my hometown in Salt Lake’s suburbs. These soldiers don’t see grey. They take in my pale skin, the purple tint of my lips, the spider veins in my eyes, and they only see the monster that devoured their loved ones. Hoping none of them get twitchy, I stroll past the biting end of their automatic rifles. Ryan hustles to follow. He still believes they’ll spare me for his sake. Adorable.
We reach the open portal to the stairs. Ryan ushers me past. Our eyes meet as I duck through, one leg on his side, one leg in the metal stairwell. He knows what I’m going to do. He doesn’t approve. His lips compress into a straight line.
“Amber?” I whisper, my hand on his cheek, my lips brushing the skin of his ear.
He nods, his eyes tight.
I shove him away. The door slams shut on his face as he stumbles backwards into the corridor. I spin the handle before clanging up the stairs, three at a time.
I’m on the deck before boots and shouts stampede past Ryan into the stairwell. Locking the portal behind me, I run for the starboard side and vault myself over. It’s the Mediterranean, but it’s February. The chill saturates my camo. Thank God the virus doesn’t just enhance my predator skills. It dampens my pain receptors and lowers my body temp so I’m immune to cold. It’s the drag of my wet fatigues and boots that worries me. Fifty strokes out, I’ve become Edmond Dantès, swimming towards the Marseille coast.
No one wastes bullets on me.