My dad used to tell me stories about people who could go into space—astronauts, I think they were called. I lived for those stories. They were so lucky to leave this world to a place where you couldn’t see what it became. My dad said, if I wanted to, I could be an astronaut when I grew up.
What a lie.
He probably thought the world would be different by now, something better, like how it used to be Before, or how he remembered it anyway. I’m a “wasteland baby”: a kid born After.
On my back, on my cot, I stare through the mesh. The moon is high, surrounded by stars. What I wouldn’t give to be that far away, to be the astronaut my dad promised I could be.
Someone yanks the tent’s zipper and whacks the thin door open. I raise my head enough to see a girl with frizzy, curly hair step inside, her light tan skin appearing darker in the glow of the lantern, then I go back to staring at the night sky.
She clears her throat, but I don’t respond. After making a frustrated noise, she says, “Jay, seriously?”
I sigh. “What, Maisy?”
“What do you mean ‘what’?” She sounds annoyed. “Get your head on. It’s our shift.”
I sit up and frown. “Already? Man, I didn’t even get to sleep…” I press my palm to my forehead, feeling the exhaustion of having to do something before actually doing it.
Maisy rolls her eyes and folds her arms. She doesn’t have her coat on, showing the dingy tee-shirt she’s wearing. A baseball bat is slung across her back. The end of it sticks out over her shoulder, and the straps of the sling criss-cross her torso. She carries the weapon with her everywhere.
“That isn’t my problem,” she says. “Get up. Get dressed. I don’t want to be late.” With that brief encounter, she flicks herself around and leaves.
Falling back to my cot, I groan, “I never asked for the night shift.” I roll over and glance at the open notebook sitting on the nightstand, automatically counting the twenty tally marks along the top line. I reach out and slowly glide my finger over each of them.
“Jay!” Maisy shouts.
I spring up, yelling back, “I’m coming,” before mumbling, “Stupid schedule.”
Swinging my feet to the ground, the cot creaks, and as I stretch, I feel the knot in my back the generous bed gave me. It beats sleeping in the forest, but a cushion or two wouldn’t hurt. After slipping on my boots, I grab my coat from the chair. The Teddy bear sitting on the corner of my small desk catches my eye. It’s missing its nose, and its once dark brown fur is faded. Even the seam on its left foot is torn open, but I’ve kept it. It was a gift from my mom. The stuffed toy and I have gone through Hell and back together.
Hells I don’t want to think about before heading into one of the most dangerous Ranger shifts.
I frown and turn away, shrugging my coat over my shoulders as I leave.
Dozens of tents fill the courtyard, most of them zipped up for the night, while a few remaining kids huddle around fires. Lit torches that stay lit day and night run along the walls. It’ll be curfew soon, which means the camp will go dark. Everyone will be asleep except for Lookouts and Rangers.
I’ve been with the camp for a few years now. After my dad died, it was my mom and me for a while. Then it was just me, before a group of Supply Runners found me in a warehouse. I never would’ve thought kids had a chance in a world where the cards are stacked against them. But since I’ve come here, though there’s been casualties—there’ll always be casualties—I’m starting to think kids can fight back, especially since we’ve been given a chance we never asked for.
My dad told me, when the crawlies first sprouted, adults around the country started dying or turned into creeps. Either way, kids were left alone. The ones lucky enough to survive—if you call something like this lucky—grew up with the wasteland, waiting for their Threshold—the age the crawlies’ toxin becomes poisonous. It isn’t the best kind of living, but at least you’re alive.
You’d think a bunch of kids in one place without any adults would go up in flames. “No more rules” and “we can do whatever we want”. Maybe that’s how it was at the beginning, I don’t know, but that time is long gone. It’s actually pretty calm around here. Everyone has a job that keeps the camp running. We even have water, though it needs to be filtered—something I’ll never understand since I’m not an Engineer. The only reason any of us knows how to do anything is because older kids teach the younger kids, and the cycle continues whenever a new kid comes in. It’s a good system.
As I round the last group of tents and head into the small clearing in front of the gates, I spot Maisy with her hands on her hips. Her famous “you’re wasting my time” scowl makes an appearance. What a sweetheart.
“Took you long enough,” she says.
“You’ll live.” I cover a yawn with my hand, wishing I had gotten at least some rest.
She rolls her eyes. “Where’s your club?”
I pause mid-stretch to pat myself all over, coming up empty handed. I’m off to a great start. “I forgot it.”
“You knew this was your shift.” She shoves a finger in my face. “It’s on the schedule. I can’t say I’m surprised, though.”
“I didn’t sign up for this,” I say, putting my hands in my coat pockets.
Maisy laughs. “Louie’s spot needed to be filled, and you were picked to fill it. Don’t be such a wasteland baby.” She takes her bat from its sling. Handing it to me, she says, “You can use Lincoln.”
I accept the metal weapon, letting its head drop to the ground. “You’d let me use your boyfriend? Really?” I raise an eyebrow and smile. “This is a surprise.”
She squints at me, the shadows from the torches making her face even scarier. Maisy’s sixteen. She isn’t the oldest in the camp, but she’s older than most.
“Just don’t make me regret it.”
I nod and lift the weapon, resting its head in my hand.
“Good. Let’s go.”
She turns around, but I stop her. “Wait. What will you use?” I look her up and down.
At first glance, Maisy isn’t intimidating. Not many of us are, even past first impressions. Most kids in the camp don’t bother with Ranger shifts. They enjoy their walls, and they’ll do whatever job they can that lets them stay inside them. Everyone, if old enough, is assigned a job, and being a Ranger is one of the most dangerous, Supply Runner being the other. As unintimidating as a bunch of children are to other survivors, we’re especially not a threat to the monsters we’re scouting for during our shifts. Maisy needs something more than her scowl for protection.
She pulls out something from behind her back. “Don’t worry about me, Junior.”
“Don’t call me that,” I snap, but the weapon she holds catches me off guard, stopping my frown.
The camp doesn’t have many guns, but Supply Runners scavenge a few here and there. They even find ammo sometimes, too.
“You’re cleared to carry?” My eyes widen. “Since when?”
She shrugs. “Everyone on Night Shift gets one.” Her tone is matter-of-fact.
“Then why don’t I get one?”
She raises an eyebrow, then quickly turns away, tucking the pistol in her pants. “Don’t know,” she says. “Maybe it’s because you’re a stand-in and haven’t trained with a firearm. A gun in your hands and you’d be more of a liability than an asset.” She laughs before continuing, “Let’s go before we get reamed for being late.”
I want to continue arguing, but she tilts her head back and whistles, shutting me up. I look to watch the kids stationed at the crows’ nests yank chains, setting the pulley system in motion. The gate rises with a rumble and stops about five feet from the ground. It never goes any higher, and it doesn’t really need to. We’re kids. We’re all pretty small, and the higher the gate goes, the more exposed the camp is.
“Come on,” Maisy says as she ducks under the gate. “I’m done waiting around.”
“Good luck, guys!” one of the Lookouts shouts down to us.
The current Lookouts, Simon and Sam, are twins, and I can never tell them apart when they’re up there, especially when it’s dark. To save both him and myself the embarrassment, I wave back without a word and follow Maisy.
I’ve always wondered if the twins know their job has them cornered; or do they think being that high off the ground gives them more of an advantage? Maybe that’s why they agreed to do it. I wouldn’t. One entrance and exit? You’re stuck. And creeps can climb. Poor guys. I’d take my chances running. Then again, I’m the one leaving camp every day to scout for the monsters forcing us to hide behind these walls in the first place.
Once Maisy and I are outside, the gate lowers, the grating sound more noticeable without the crackling fires and murmuring voices within the camp.
Caught in the quiet moment, I yawn, then say, “So—” My volume shocks the exhaustion out of me. With how calm the night is, my normal voice sounds like I’m shouting with hopes of hearing my echo. I wince, and at a whisper, start again, “So where do you go on Night Shift? Normal route?”
Maisy clicks on a flashlight and shines it around. “Yup. Circle the perimeter and make sure there’s no unwanted visitors. Nothing fancy.” She looks back at me, her expression lost in the dark. “Did you bring a flashlight?”
She groans. “What is wrong with you?” She doesn’t mind not whispering. “You didn’t come prepared at all.”
“It slipped my mind.” I put up my hands. “I’m sorry.”
She shoves something at my chest. “That’s all I got. I didn’t expect to have to pack for two. But I guess that’s my fault.” As she walks away, she mumbles, “This is what happens when I get stuck with children.”
I press the button on the small plastic object Maisy gave me, and a thin beam of light appears.
“Thanks,” I say, but she’s already halfway to the trail. I hurry to catch up. The yellowed grass is as tall as my knees and sounds scratchy as we walk through it. “So what’s Louie sick with?” I look around, dragging Maisy’s bat behind me. We haven’t seen a single thing yet. Maybe Night Shift isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be.
“Kelly said it’s a cold. Nothing too bad.” She twists to shine her light at my face, stopping me in my tracks. “Don’t drag him,” she barks, before flicking herself back around to scan the light on the ground. We continue.
I pick up the bat and lean it on my shoulder. “So it’s not the toxin then?”
She scoffs. “Don’t be daft. Louie’s fourteen.”
I roll my eyes and shake my head. It’s hard to keep track of everyone’s age, but then again, that isn’t my job. I’m not a Nurse, like Kelly.
Everyone’s Threshold seems to be different. Some kids say eighteen. Others say twenty. I’ve heard a story about someone’s fifteen-year-old brother dying. To me, that might be the scariest part. It isn’t dying or turning into a creep. It’s not knowing when. If you know when, you know what to expect, but we’re all living on our own clocks. Nobody has heard of anyone younger than fifteen getting sick, though. I’m a year younger than Louie, so I have nothing to worry about for another couple of years, if I make it that far anyway.
As random as Thresholds are, the only thing that’s certain is the effect of the toxin, and that’s something everyone knows too well: You breathe it in, get sick, and either die or turn into a creep, then die. The process isn’t a quick one either. We’ve tracked some creeps for months before they wind up dead, and they were living long before we started tracking them.
I laugh, then say, “Yeah. If the toxin started hurting kids as young as fourteen, there’s no way we’d—“
I catch myself before bumping into her. “What?”
She shushes me. “Did you hear that?”
I duck and look around, shining my light between the black blobs I thought were trees the entire time. I could have been wrong. “What is it?”
There’s a sound nearby.
“There!” she says, pointing to the bushes close to the forest. She runs and draws her pistol.
“Maisy, wait!” I strain a whisper and chase after her.
The sound gets farther away, deeper into the overgrown grass. Maisy stops at the forest line, scanning her light from tree to tree. “We lost it,” she grumbles.
I make it to her side. “Did you see what it was?”
She grunts. “Could’ve been an animal. Could’ve been a creep. Who knows?”
“We shouldn’t be this close to the Outlands,” I say. “It isn’t safe.”
The Outlands are “no-go” territory—fair game for animals and creeps alike to hunt and rip each other apart. Not to mention it’s where most of the crawlies sprout. It’s always one good gust of wind away from being nothing but a toxic cloud asking to be breathed in. The strict rules about the Outlands explain themselves if you know what you’re dealing with, which we had to learn the hard way. Like I said, there will always be casualties.
Maisy shoots me a look. “Don’t lecture me about the rules. I know the rules.”
I frown. “Let’s just get back to the route,” I say, turning around. “I’m not a fan of following things that go bump in the night.”
“Yeah, well, it could’ve—”
She’s cut off with a yelp, and when I glance over my shoulder, the words “are you okay?” barely leave my mouth before I realize she’s gone.
I whip around, pointing my light at the trees. “Maisy?” There’s rustling. I wince, gripping the bat as tight as I’m clenching my teeth.
Maisy screams and gunshots go off, quick flashes sparking the black forest. Then silence.
The beam from my flashlight shakes with my hands. “Maisy?”
There’s movement. I point the beam to my right and ready the bat, but there’s nothing. The sound comes from my left. I shine the light that way. Nothing again.
Every advice I’ve been given says to run in situations like these. But Maisy was here—she was just here.
I couldn’t leave her.
I swallow the tickle in my throat threatening to escape as a scream and ask, “Is anyone there?”
Something answers, not in a voice but as a growl.
From the darkness, between trees, whatever made the noise, whatever brought Maisy and me here, comes out. My light catches the pale glint of skin before I drop the flashlight, and a warm sensation streams down my leg, into my sock. I run, fast—as fast as I can to the point my heartbeat suffocates my eardrums. If that thing is chasing me, I can’t hear it. And I’m not looking back to find out.
Read the rest of The Outlands, parts 3-5, on Neovel
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Cover art designed by me.