TWO MONTHS AFTER THE PULSE
EMILY Rosen dropped the can of dog food into her backpack and shivered, her breath making little white puffs in the cold air inside the stairwell of her building. Her own apartment had gotten too cold to keep living in, and her systematic search through the other apartments yielded only a few cans of precious food. No one had a working fireplace, and without fire sheâ€™d freeze to death.
Sheâ€™d have to venture outside her building and find someplace warm to squat in. Emily survived this long by avoiding the military camps and living off scavenged foodâ€”but she couldnâ€™t live without heat, not in a New York winter.
The heat had been off since the power went out with the Pulse, followed by running water two days later.
Footsteps sounded in the hall outside the stairwell door. Emily gasped and paused with her hand on the doorknob to her floor. Soldiers.
The sound of spray paint hissing onto the buildingâ€™s once immaculate white walls permeated through the thick stairwell door. Sheâ€™d seen the mark before, like a big circle with an X through it. Something about how many alive, how many dead.
The door swung open and she cried out in surprise as two soldiers loomed above her. She turned to run even as an iron grasp gripped her forearm, forcing her to stay put.
â€œDonâ€™t run,â€ one soldier said. â€œWe have food for you at Grand Central.â€
â€œNot Grand Central,â€ she said, her voice sounding raw and foreign to her own ears. â€œNo way.â€
â€œItâ€™s the only FEMA camp left in the city,â€ the soldier replied. â€œForget it, I donâ€™t have the time for this bullshit.â€ He let her go and turned to the soldier holding the spray paint. â€œJust change it to say we found three dead on this floor, zero alive. Itâ€™ll be true soon enough anyway.â€
At the sound of the spray paint marking her fate, Emily realized he was probably right. Sheâ€™d die if she didnâ€™t take actionâ€”and she couldnâ€™t die. Not today, not like this. â€œOkay. Iâ€™ll go with you to the camp. I just need to get my thingsâ€”my stethoscope.â€
Of course not. If they were taking her to Grand Central, they werenâ€™t planning on using her as a nurse. Not if the rumors were true.
Christopher Mason stomped his feet to warm them up, trying to ignore the growl in his belly. Food was available only three blocks east at the military camp at Grand Central Station, but with martial law in place Mason had to avoid anyone wearing a uniform.
He pulled a dirty recycled soda bottle from his jacket pocket and sipped deeply. The water would fill him up for now. The drops of bleach he poured into it made the shit-water taste like a chlorinated pool kids pissed in, but all that mattered was that it didnâ€™t make him sick. Cholera packed a fatal punch and scared him worse than the soldiers did.
If the army caught him and found out who he really was, theyâ€™d shoot him, just like they shot everyone else on lock-down at Rikers after the Pulse. It was pure luck the corrections officer chose that moment to escort Mason to the prison infirmaryâ€”that moment right before the power went out and the gennies never kicked on.
No power. No phones. No computers. No backups. No generatorsâ€”no cars, even. Everything just wham, fried. And no hope of fixing it.
It wouldâ€™ve been kinder of the terrorists to hit them with a direct nuke. This EMP shit hurt them way worse. The deaths were slower . . . except for the deaths caused by the soldiers. Those were quick.
Mason absently touched his thigh where the twisted scar lay under his cargo pants. The fences at Rikers may no longer be electrified, but the barbed wire that covered them was still a bitch.
His stomach rumbled. The abandoned cars used to have the occasional food item hidden inside, but Mason had long since scavenged through all of the vehicles down Broadway. He didnâ€™t like going into the apartments if he could avoid it, because of the corpses that stared at him with sightless, glassy eyes and made him gag with their stench.
A lot of people hadnâ€™t made it through the winter without heat, running water, or electricity. The survivors living at Grand Central got federal rations and some semblance of order, but Mason didnâ€™t have the luxury of asking for a handout.
The empty street stretched out before him, cold and unforgiving. A desert made of skyscrapers with no oasis. The rumble of a single engine starting somewhere up the block broke the silence. Mason froze, hefting his rifle up. So much for being alone.
Old trucks worked, anything that didnâ€™t have a modern computer chip in it. The army commandeered all the fifties junkers in the tri-state area, like the one the soldiers drove now.
Ducking behind a stalled taxicab, he held his breath as if he had spotted a tiger on the loose instead of an old pickup truck carrying human cargoâ€”two men with guns and their catch of the day. Three women sat in the back of the truck behind the soldiers with blank faces and distant stares.
â€œWill you let us eat first?â€ one of the women asked, her voice carrying easily over the silence in the street.
Mason couldnâ€™t make out the mumbled reply from the soldiers, but the men laughed.
The truck passed Mason without spotting him and he stood, aiming his rifle at one of the soldiers, the laser sight centered over his heart. Mason kept his finger off the trigger. He didnâ€™t kill unless necessary, not anymore.
One woman in a rumpled purple sweatshirt looked back over her shoulder.
Late twenties, perhaps, or maybe younger. Hard to tell with her gaunt face, still beautiful despite the fear creasing her brow. Dark circles deepened her eyes, outlined by a thick black fringe of lashes he could see half a block away. Her dark hair fell to just below her shoulder.
And she looked directly at him as he hid behind his rifle, watching her.
Mason lowered the gun and lifted his finger to his lips in a silent plea that she not give him away. She nodded almost imperceptibly as the truck drove on, zigzagging around the stalled cars.
Poor girl. It wasnâ€™t rightâ€”a woman like that carted off to a FEMA camp to be gang-raped in exchange for some federal rations. Just a couple months ago it would have been unthinkable.
The urge to rush forward and grab her, to protect her as his own, nearly overtook him.
But she belonged to the soldiers nowâ€”the moment to act gone forever. And heâ€™d never see her again.
Grand Central Terminal, the Tracks
ONE YEAR LATER
Emilyâ€™s purple sweatshirt hung off her, loose and dirty.
A man walked toward their subway car and she closed her eyes, as if in sleep. Maybe heâ€™d go by. But if he did, sheâ€™d go hungry. She gave up pretending to be passed out.
Jenna, her roommateâ€”if roommate was the appropriate term for the other woman who shared the subway car with herâ€”had taken to the idea of prostitution with remarkable ease. It didnâ€™t seem to bother her that everyone had been reduced to only what they had to barter. Money was useless. Possessions were long gone. Now, many single women had only one thing leftâ€”their bodies.
Right now Jenna stood in the doorway of the car, her shirt pulled open to reveal the tops of her full breasts, smiling to the soldiers walking down the tracks.
A tall man with dark skin and a freshly shaved head grinned at Jenna and stepped into the car.
â€œWhatcha got?â€ Jenna asked brightly.
The man handed her a dirty Styrofoam cup filled with what smelled like stew. â€œExtra ration,â€ he said.
Jenna started to grab for it but the man stopped her.
â€œFirst you gotta take care of me,â€ he said, â€œ â€™fore I take care of you.â€
Emily scowled in their direction. â€œJesus Christ, just let her eat the damn soup first,â€ she muttered.
The soldier apparently hadnâ€™t noticed her until now. Shit. He walked over to her and lifted her up by her arm. â€œYou got something to say?â€
Emily shook her head, frightened. She really needed to learn to keep her mouth shut, especially if she was trying to be invisible.
â€œDidnâ€™t think so.â€
But keeping her mouth shut wasnâ€™t really her thing. Emily cursed under her breath and averted her eyes, but she could hear the sounds of the man unzipping his pants, and Jenna lying down on the old mattress box. It squeaked for a few minutes, Jennaâ€™s moans indicating she was either getting off or pretending to.
When the soldier left, Jenna picked up the stew and drank most of it noisily. Emily could smell the food and she took a deep breath, wishing she could inhale calories.
â€œHere,â€ Jenna said, walking over to her with whatever was left in the Styrofoam cup. â€œYou better eat this.â€
â€œAre you sure?â€ Emily took the cup from the girl, who nodded. â€œThank you.â€ She swallowed it quickly. It didnâ€™t exactly taste good, but it was food. She couldnâ€™t afford to be picky. No one could.
â€œHon,â€ Jenna said. â€œYou really canâ€™t go around pissing off the soldiers, you know that.â€
â€œIâ€™m going to see if I can scrounge anything up,â€ Emily said. â€œI need to get off the Tracks for a while. Clear my head.â€
She stepped onto the cold concrete platform and walked briskly past the subway cars, keeping her gaze focused straight ahead to give the other women some semblance of privacy.
The entrance to the main terminal loomed before her, people milling about. But those werenâ€™t the voices she heard.
Emily trembled in the dark, trying to breathe as quietly as possible. She could hear two soldiers in a closed room off to her left talking, but more importantly, she could hear . . . a radio.
A radioâ€”after a year of zero communication with anyone outside of the city.
How had it not been destroyed when the EMP hit?
She looked around furtively. The wide hallway was empty, although she could see the main terminal ahead. Pressing her ear to the thin wooden door, she held her breath, trying to be as still as humanly possible.
American troops overseas . . . Static blocked out the next words coming from the radio. Shit. Something about rebuilding. Help is available on the federal level . . . Even the soldiers who must be stationed by the radio were silent now. She imagined they were like her, trying to hear the tinny voice from the radio. She hadnâ€™t heard anything electronic in over a year, but how long had this been kept a secret? How long had the higher-ups known about this, and kept it from the people living in Grand Central?
The first notes of The Star-Spangled Banner burst through the radioâ€™s speakers, sounding like a scratched old-fashioned record or something. If whoever was on the other side of that transmission wanted her to feel patriotic, then mission accomplished. She was filled with anger at whatever country had brought America to its knees with its damned Pulse. She wanted to scream at them, the invisible enemy, and tell them they couldnâ€™t keep her country down, that America would fight back.
But it wasnâ€™t true. As far she could tell, there had been no counterstrikesâ€”at least none the military cared to tell anyone about. Everyone struggled to survive and nothing else got done. Survival took every second of time and ounce of energy.
But how could they hide a radio? A fucking radio. Communication was all anyone wantedâ€”just to know what the hell was going on.
She wanted to bust into the locked room and tell those soldiers she knew the truth, that despite what Colonel Lanche had told everyone . . . there was news from the outside.
To think there might be a place outside the city where she could be safe. She needed to hear more, to learn more. How exactly was America rebuilding? What did that mean? If she could escape and find a better life for herself, for her friends, and for everyone suffering at the camp, it would be worth it. Any cost was worth it.
Fear had kept her in place for too long. They had broken her. But this . . . this news would cause a revolution amongst the women on the Tracks.
Which is why Colonel Lanche would want to silence her if he found out she knew about the radio. A radio that wasnâ€™t supposed to exist.
Her only hope was to get that radio in her possession and escape the military camp. Without getting caught.
Emily awoke hours later, curled up across the hard plastic subway seats, with her mouth covered. Her scream of surprise was muffled by the large, calloused hand.
The darkness kept her from being able to see anything, but she could feel the manâ€™s erection hard against her leg as he lay on top of her.
She bit down hard, tasting blood, and the man yowled, reaching his hand back and slapping Emilyâ€™s face.
â€œWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ her roommate Jenna cried out in the dark.
â€œShut up, Jenna,â€ the man growled. It was the Colonel with his hand over her mouth. Emily moaned in recognition.
â€œDonâ€™t bother with her, come to me,â€ Jenna purred. Bless her. Emily held her breath, wondering what would happen.
The Colonel didnâ€™t even respond to Jennaâ€™s words. â€œYou cunt, you bit me,â€ he said, his voice a low growl. He jerked Emily upward until she was standing.
â€œCome with me,â€ Colonel Lanche spat, tugging her out of the subway car. He leaned into her ear, his voice low and menacing. â€œThis is what happens when you snoop around.â€
He knows. Emily shrieked and kicked at him in mindless fear, earning herself another slap. He threw her down onto the cold concrete subway platform.
How could she convince him she didnâ€™t know about the radio?
A garbage fire burned brightly, and the women standing around it suddenly quieted. Another soldier stepped out of the neighboring car, straightening his clothes. â€œSir?â€ he asked, looking at Lancheâ€™s bleeding hand. A third soldier joined him.
â€œThis bitch attacked me,â€ he said.
Emily jumped up, scraping her palms as she stumbled again. His words made her tremble. â€œI wasnâ€™t snooping around, Colonel, I swear. You got bad informationâ€”whoever told you differently is a liar.â€
As soon as the words flew from her mouth she wished she could take them back. She shouldnâ€™t have said thatâ€”not to him, and certainly not in front of his men.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, I justâ€”â€ she said, taking a step backward.
A cry escaped her throat as Lanche nodded to one of the other soldiers. â€œRestrain her.â€
A broad-shouldered man in camouflage took her by both arms, effectively holding her in place. Panicked, Emily tried to bolt out of his arms, but he held firm despite a few well-landed kicks to his shins.
â€œBring her to the main terminal for punishment,â€ Lanche ordered.
Emily shrieked as the soldier half-dragged, half-carried her up the ramp to the broken clock by the information booth where disciplinary action was traditionally carried out.
It seemed to take forever to reach the clock and still they were there too soon. Dawn was breaking now and light streamed in through the huge dirty glass windowpanes.
â€œGet the cane,â€ Lanche said.
Emilyâ€™s throat went dry. She started crying before the cane ever came near her, hating herself for being a blubbering fool. What happened to the strong Emily sheâ€™d been before the Pulse? Where had that girl gone?
Lancheâ€™s loud voice and her shameless protests had gathered an audience. â€œFor the crime of insubordination, ten strokes.â€
The soldier holding her lifted the back of her shirt roughly, exposing her bare back. The cane was actually the plastic rod from a window blind, she had seen it used on others before. They kept it in the information booth for easy access.
The cane whistled down, hitting her skin with fiery pain.
She squealed without meaning to, then bit her tongue as the cane came down again. The soldier holding her was counting off. She could hear his deep voice reverberating through her body as the Colonel struck her over and over again.
The thought flashed through her mind that she shouldnâ€™t have fought Lanche, but damn it, what else could she do? He couldnâ€™t do that to her.
Of course he could. He was proving it right now.
â€œTen.â€ The final strike felt like it cut her skin. She wailed, exhausted and utterly humiliated as the emaciated faces of the onlookers watched her.
The soldier who was holding her hauled her up onto her feet, letting her shirt fall back over her stinging flesh.
She had to escapeâ€”and if she got out of there, the radio was coming with her.