16 New Era, California

I’m being watched.

I can feel it like cold slime on my sun-warmed skin, but the song’s just getting to the good part, so I ignore it for a few more minutes. The little white gizmo’s only good for a song or two a day, and I’m not about to waste it. Bobbing my head, I punch up into the air, singing, “Doooooown in the blaaaaaaze of glory! Take me noooooow but—Ah, shit.” The battery dies.

It’s time to accept the harsh reality of my situation. One of these days, the magic music maker won’t turn on at all and I’ll have to find another one, because sunning in silence is boring as hell. At least the solar charging panel is still good. I fold it carefully back into its carrying case and stash everything away in the teacher’s desk drawer.

A jaunty sign in the middle of the blackboard proclaims: SHOW AND TELL: EARTH SUSTAINABILITY. It’s still readable despite parts of it being smeared off and covered by bloodstains.

Earth sustainability. What a fucking joke.

I turn toward the door where I left my clothes and just catch a subtle snuffle out in the hall as a shadow flits across to the other side. The inner debate is quickly resolved with me snatching up my sword and racing out after it, buck naked. At least I won’t get blood on my clothes. That would send Mother into major conniptions.

I’m not even supposed to be here.

But what Mother doesn’t know…

I run down the dark hallway, my footsteps echoing off the bare walls and warped metal lockers. My stalker is long out of sight, but its scent lingers. It’s hard to describe the overwhelming level of its foulness. If the ground suddenly turned into week-old roadkill that spewed up rotten vegetables and bile, it still wouldn’t come close to what I’m smelling now.

That’s good. Makes my prey easier to track.

I pass through the birthday locker hall, which puts me at the east end of the building. Here, everything is pristine, untouched by anything other than a layer of dust. One locker in the middle of the hall is decorated with glittering plastic streamers and a “Happy Birthday, Emily!” sign painted straight on the metal door.

It’s like a time capsule of high school life in the Old Era, when kids my age still got up in the morning, had breakfast cereal at the kitchen table with Mom and Dad, then shrugged on their backpacks filled with heavy textbooks and trotted out to the yellow school bus that took them to places just like this: a building full of children and portly adults, all smiling faces and tender meat.

Maybe those who faked a stomach flu that day managed to survive for another week or so, but not much more. When the convert plague swept out from underground, most places never saw it coming. People were too busy sticking their heads in the sand, ignoring all the lost pets, and blaming broken septic tanks for the godawful reek that began to permeate their neighborhoods.

The elders say that in some places, people went to sleep at night and woke up to bloodcurdling screams and monsters breaking through their doors and windows. In others, entire hordes stampeded through the town in broad daylight like a massive pack of lightning fast predators, ravenous for living flesh. By the time the government launched any sort of defensive action, half of California’s residents were dead, and the monsters they called Grays were spreading out east, north, and south.

There was no stopping them after that.

I sniff the air, turn right at the end of the hall and run straight for the basement door. Naturally. No matter that converts pretty much rule the planet now. Their instinct still makes them seek shelter in low ground and darkness. I think they might be afraid of heights.

The smell is worse in the stairwell, which tells me this is where it nests. I slow down, let my eyes adjust to the dark. It’s not a hindrance for me; I can see as well in the dark as I can in broad daylight. My heart is racing with excitement. I try to breathe it back to calm, but it’s no use. This is what I was made for: The hunt. The kill. And the harder it is, the more I enjoy it.

I step off the final stair onto concrete. The air is cold and stale down here, hard to breathe past the stench, but it’s more than that. It feels like a vise shrinking around me, like I’m walking into a trap. We hunt them in the open, Mother always says. We hunt where we can see far and wide, and where they can’t corner us. We hunt together, or not at all.

What Mother doesn’t know…

I see my prey now. A male, about my height, but despite being almost skeletal, I can still see stringy muscles twitching beneath his gray skin. He’s bald—not something I usually see on a convert—and his ears stand out from his head, flapping against his scalp as he shakes himself hard. Small, deep-set eyes glitter in his savage face turning left and right; looking at me, then looking away in an instant, as if he can’t quite figure out what I am, but he knows not to stare me down.

Dominance, like scent, is something any beast will recognize right off the bat, and this one knows he ain’t got shit on me. It confuses him. Converts don’t form groups of any kind, so he’s probably never encountered anything bigger than himself since his mother chased him off right after birth.

His fangs are too big to be contained by the flesh of his lips. As a result, he’s drooling thick strings of viscous green saliva that can burn skin and tenderize flesh before it even makes it down his gullet. His long, bony fingers are tipped with sharp, straight claws. Not like talons, but more like little daggers attached to his fingers.

“Afternoon,” I say in greeting. “Didn’t expect to see one of you here today, but I’ll take it as a present.” And happy birthday to me.

The convert sniffs in my direction, sticks out his long tongue to “taste” my scent. He won’t know what it means—they never do—but that instinct again tells him I shouldn’t be here. I am the antithesis of him. Our kinds avoid each other unless we can’t, and then we fight to the death. Converts have formidable weapons to work with: they’re super strong and fast, their claws cut through flesh like butter, and their fangs emit a paralytic venom they put to some truly sickening use.

I may not be able to counter his venom, but I have one crucial advantage he’ll never match, even if he lives a hundred years: I can think.

“Come on, then, let’s do this.” I lunge forward to provoke him, and he responds predictably, jerking and hissing a warning. He shakes his head again, snarls at me, bowing up his deceptively meager frame to intimidate me. Oh yeah, it’s on. I scrape the tip of my sword along the concrete floor, then bring it up, extending it forward slowly until it pokes him in the chest.

He screams and knocks it away, but he strikes the sharp edge of the blade and draws his own blood. Pain doesn’t register the same way to him as it would to a person, but the scent of blood makes him hesitate. He makes an odd ooooaaaaoooo noise, staring at his own palm before he licks the blood off it. He licks again, and I see the hunger take root in him. He’ll eat his own hand if the urge hits him, which is no fun for me.

I slash his opposite shoulder to get his attention again. This time, I get the reaction I was hoping for. He screeches and charges me full tilt, so fast, a human would never be able to move aside in time. But I’m not human. Dodging his assault is so easy for me, I want to yawn. He strikes the wall behind me, head first, and bounces off, falling to his back. Not knocked out—these sons of bitches are sturdy as hell. He shakes it off and gets back to his feet in a blink, charging me again.

I toy with him a bit, let him chase me around his little lair. My speed infuriates him, and arouses him, his penis distending bigger than seems reasonable for his narrow frame. A convert’s nature compels him to breed and feed—the only two drives he has, really—and he doesn’t discriminate about the order in which he satisfies them. I’ve seen male converts rut over corpses as they devoured them.

About time to make my exit, I think. I charge the back wall, run up it a couple of steps, and shove off to backflip over the convert’s head to get behind him. Spinning as I land, I extend my sword arm, and a soft snick of sound severs the convert’s head from his body. The body keeps going, slamming into the wall, bouncing off to fall on its back again. There, it flails, claws scraping at the floor, legs kicking out to run for a full minute before it bleeds out and its movements are reduced to dying muscle spasms.

But the head…

I step around the pool of his thin blood to pick it up by the ear. The eyes shift left and right, mouth still opening and closing as venom ejects from its canines in small spurts.

“Disgusting creatures.”

But ones that make neat trophies. I take the head back upstairs to one of the science labs. It’s equipped with scalpels, pins, and other nifty dissection tools, which make it easy to remove the still-shifting flesh from the skull. The brain takes a little longer, seeing as how the skull is so thick and openings into it so small, I’m reduced to scraping it out by tiny spoonfuls. Once I have the skull stripped naked, I hop out through the window and jog over to the pool, where a couple of puddles still remain after the rains two days ago for me to rinse it—and myself—off.

This one’s going on my nightstand. “Happy sixteenth, Hellraiser.” I grin and hug my present to my bare chest. “It’s exactly what I wanted!”

Task complete, I return to my Show and Tell sunroom to retrieve my clothes. I hate putting them back on; it feels so much more natural to just stay naked, but I can’t go riding back into Hopetown without a stitch on. Apparently, it’s rude.

Outside, my brown mare, Thunder, is still grazing in the former parking lot. Won’t touch the grass, but she’ll strip leaves off the trees growing through abandoned cars like there’s no tomorrow. Weirdo.

I whistle to her, and she comes trotting. “Hey, girl, did you eat enough to make yourself sick again?”

She snorts, lips my temple and tears out a few strands of hair. Chows those down, too.

“I swear, sometimes I wonder whether you’re even a horse at all.”

It’s an easy ride back to Hopetown, an hour at full sprint, maybe two at an easy trot. I take my time, enjoy the illusion of complete freedom before reality sets in again. Sometimes, the chains that aren’t made of metal chafe the worst.

My home colony of Hopetown is a testament to the survivalist force of sheer dumb luck. That’s the only way I have to explain how so many people with pre-industrial revolution era skills happened to end up in the same, strategically brilliant place at exactly the right time and managed to make it through a disaster that wiped out ninety percent of the state’s population in a matter of months.

Tucked away in a park sheltered by rolling hills on all sides, Hopetown is the site of the last Renaissance Faire ever organized anywhere in the world. It’s just far enough from the nearest town to avoid immediate detection, only a short ride from several farms and horse ranches—which became the bedrock for an agricultural revival of the new middle age. The park is surrounded by trees—which the people used to build a fortified wall around it—and has a large lake—which they turned into a fishery.

In short, when shit hit the fan some fifteen years ago, somewhere up there, God must have winked.

I whistle when I near the tree line to signal my presence to the sentries on the wall. They check me out before they get the gears turning, which means I won’t have to blister their ears again, and I wave my thanks as I ride through the gate they only opened enough to accommodate Thunder’s girth.

In the stables, I brush Thunder down, and then let her wander where she pleases. Like her mistress, she pitches an unholy fit when she’s penned in for any length of time. Safer for everyone to let her roam.

“Good hunting today?” the good hostler man, Alfred, asks, grinning his gap-toothed best at me.

“Nothing worth talking about.”

“Quiet out there, eh?”

It is now. “Just the way I like it. Hey, have you seen Oleg?”

Alfred tenses, his easy grin turning rigid. “Can’t say as I have.”

He’s lying. “I’ll just find him anyway.”

“Reckon you will, at that. But it won’t be ’cause I told ya.”

I shrug. Fair enough. “See you later, Al.”

“Reckon I will.”

I drop off my prize at home, making a mental note to scour Hollister for some hydrochloric acid on my next trip out. The skull’s as clean as water and sharp implements can get it, but if I don’t bleach it, it’ll stink to high heaven for weeks.

Making sure to tuck it out of sight for now, I go in search of the man of the hour. All that killing’s made me antsy and there’s no better way to scratch that itch than with a big Russian who isn’t overly concerned about things like age difference.

Except he’s not in his cottage, or on the lake. All of his usual haunts are empty of Oleg, which can only mean Mother is hiding him from me.

She doesn’t know me as well as she thinks she does.

I double back to the baker’s cottage and drag out Desmond by his apron. “Hey, you.”

“Helena! Uh, hi.” He wipes his hands on his apron.

“Miss me?”

“Well, I—”

I didn’t drag him away from his duties to talk. Taking hold of his arm, I pull him along farther down the alley.

“W-where are you…? Oh. Okay.”

The flour storage shed is just a couple of houses down. Nice and cool in there. Has to be, to keep the flour from going bad. “Perfect.” I pull him in, close the door, and push him against it.

“Listen, last time was really great.”

“Uh-huh.” I pull on the knotted string holding his apron in place, snap it easily and tug the fabric off him. He’s already tenting his pants underneath.

“But I had a talk with Matron and—God, that feels good… No, wait!” He pulls my hands out of his pants, takes a deep breath. “You’re only fifteen, Helena.”

“Sixteen,” I correct, leaning into him to push my breasts against his chest, then slide down. “And it didn’t stop you from screwing my brains out last time.”

He seems to have trouble speaking. “I know, and I hate myself for that. I took advantage of youuuuuuwhat are you doing?”

My mouth’s too busy to respond but, after a moment, he stops concerning himself with my answer. Or asking any more stupid questions. I push up again, tugging off my shirt as I go. “I don’t care about age,” I tell him. “It means nothing to me. You know what I care about? This.” I take his hand, put it at the crotch of my pants so he can feel how wet I am.

“Lord, I’m going to Hell.”

And that’s the last thing either of us says for the next two hours.

Best. Birthday. Ever.