“You’ve got to kill the guards,” Simon hissed.

“I know,” Peter said, over the bong-bong-bonging. Damn bells had started up eight days ago, right after the Rule mine blew, and just wouldn’t quit. Naked as a jay, he sat cross-legged on the chilled concrete of his corner cell, trying very hard not to look around for Simon. No point. That little bugger—


was fast. And Peter certainly didn’t want to linger over the others, who watched from the remaining nine cells: glittery-eyed Changed, their faces pressed to the bars like monkeys in a zoo. The only thing they didn’t do was hoot. Peter thought there had to be at least sixty kids. Knowing Finn, there were probably a lot more Changed stashed in other cages throughout the camp.

The thing that got to Peter? Well, besides Simon and the bong-bongbong of the bells and being naked and stewing in his own shit? Some of these Changed had names. He knew these kids, and that freaked Peter out, big-time. For example, in the cage directly opposite, that honking big kid with the Neanderthal brow? Lee Travers: Forest Road, third house on the right. His squirrelly grandma spent all day whacking furrows with this wicked-sharp Warren hoe, whether that garden needed to be dug up or not.

And what about this very pretty, doe-eyed brunette in the cell to his left? That girl who made him hungry in ways he couldn’t hide well without clothes? He was pretty sure that was Kate Landry: sixteen, liked cats, and oh my God, those lips, those br**sts. Peter got these flashes, the two of them, naked, thrashing in the snow . . .

Stop it. Peter’s breathing had sped up, his mouth gone dry with desire. Get control. Think. Why is Finn snapping up these particular kids? Their friends?

“You know, instead of thinking about sex,” Simon said, “you should be figuring a way out.”

“I understand that, Simon,” Peter muttered, averting his eyes from the very luscious Kate, those lips, her br**sts. At times, another idea floated into his brain, something right out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes: kill the guards, open the cages, and they’d surge out to conquer the world. Or The Wizard of Oz: Fly, my pretties! Fly, fly! But first: sex. Lots and lots of sex, in the snow, on concrete, anywhere; take Kate, bend her back, and take her and take her and take—

“Don’t you wish,” Simon said. “Be lucky she doesn’t bite it off for a snack.”

“Jesus, Simon, shut the hell up.” Christ, he couldn’t have even a good fantasy in peace.

“Make me. You’ve got way more important things to worry about, like me and Penny, not to mention Finn and why he’s rounding up Changed, kids from Rule, the mine, and all you can think about is hooking up with some girl? We need you!”

“Yes, I know. Stop, Simon, please.” Moaning, he rolled onto his belly, away from Kate’s eyes, her hunger, his thoughts. Simon was a spike in Peter’s right ear, like those needles they used on frogs back in . . . God . . . junior bio.

And look who’s the frog now.

Stunning but true.

The Rule mine had blown eight days ago, and when Peter wasn’t screaming or raving like a crazy person because of the bells, those damn bells in his head, those bong-bong-BONGs . . . when he wasn’t doing that, Peter was either awake and dreaming awful nightmares that clung like burrs—water and a dark fan of sea grass and the boat and eyes in stone—or he was awake and not dreaming but thinking, hard, the thoughts bubbling in the pressure cooker of his skull: Get out of here, Peter, get out, get out, got to get out! If he didn’t find a way out, his mind would go ka-BOOM. Nothing left but a drippy red socket.

Because there was something in there.

Yeah. For real. In his skull. This red . . . scuttling behind his eyeballs, spidering over the soft pink cheese of his brain. He thought maybe it had crawled in through an ear. Or boogered up his nose. He wasn’t sure. But he felt it all right. Sucker was growing.

He tried getting rid of it. Once, he used his shirt. He remembered only snatches: slowly strangling from his own weight; the raw pain of it; that wild, frantic moment when his vision blacked as he ran out of air and his lungs imploded; the knot so taut the noose sawed his skin like a length of fine piano wire. Another ten, fifteen seconds, he’d have cut through his carotids.

So, they took his clothes. Nowadays, he wallowed, naked as a baby, in his own filth, because they took his crap bucket, too. His fault, but taking the shot was worth it. The raw, primal satisfaction of drenching Lang—that traitor—with rank piss and runny shit . . . Oh Jesus, that was good.

But those bells were killing him. They were so damned loud. When he could think about it, Peter suspected the water. Good delivery system. When those first few muted clangs started up, Peter tried rationing himself. Just a swallow here and there, until his tongue was so thick it clung to the roof of his mouth and breathing got too hard. Eventually, Peter drank because he had to, and then the bells just bellowed. Shrieking at Finn—JESUS, GOD, WOULD YOU TURN THESE DAMN THINGS OFF?—only earned him cryptic mumbo jumbo: Don’t you find it fascinating, boy-o, that the people who call on God the most believe in God the least?

In quieter, more rational moments, Peter understood how tempting it was to see Finn as a crazy, broken-down old Vietnam vet turned militia leader: a creepily intelligent and sadistic son of a bitch with a bug up his ass about Rule; a guy who’d arranged an ambush seven weeks ago so he could take out his frustrations on Peter first. If that were the only truth, then Finn’s conclusions, his methods and experiments, would be much easier to dismiss.

But Peter had gone to college. Hadn’t graduated for . . . reasons, ones that had to do with eyes in stone and orange water. And Penny. And Simon. And that damn boat. He didn’t talk about any of that, not about college or the accident. Not even Chris knew. No point. But Peter had studied genetic rescue and evolution and endangered species. Once upon a time, he’d had big ideas and grand dreams, too. He was going to save the world. So, sometimes, Peter really understood where Finn was coming from. There was a ruthless logic to Finn’s madness that a true Darwinian might find very appealing.

Then, again: bong-bong-BONG.

Peter wasn’t exactly sane.

“So, when?” Simon pestered. “You’re just sitting on your ass.” This was the literal truth. “It’s a little more complicated than that,” Peter said, still trying to hold it together, keep it down. “Just give it a rest, Simon. Okay?”

“Who the hell’s he talking to?” That was the new guard, a jowly oldster with a hound-dog face and jug handles for ears in a standard, olive-drab uniform. Sidearm on his right hip, expandable baton in a cross-draw, slide side-break scabbard on the left. Jug Ears and the other duty guard were behind a plain wooden desk squared before a deep hearth in which a fire crackled, all the way down at the other end of the prison house.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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