Final Impact
Cover art copyright
by Stephen Youll
An Excerpt
Final Impact
Cover art copyright
by Danielle Tunstall

JUNE 4...

Day by day.

Lily never imagined it would be this hard to get back to Chicago. Guthrie Center and her family were a month and a day behind her and fading fast from her head. She knew the date only because she had a pocket calendar and she'd been X-ing out the days as they passed, careful not to miss one; she didn't think she was going to make it back to the townhouse before the big hit, but at least she would know when it was due and be as far out in the open as she could get when it happened.

Getting the pocket calendar a few days ago had been a trip in itself, a lot harder than coming up with the small, used motorcycle that had choked and sputtered her toward the Illinois state line. For that she'd only had to blank out her mind and let the dealer and his son use her body for a couple of nights. They hadn't hurt her--much, anyway--and she'd insisted on wearing her jacket the whole time, never forgetting the reassuring feel of the switchblades strapped to each wrist. On the third day, she'd gotten up, dressed, and walked outside; waiting in front of the building was the battered blue Suzuki, its tank full, the engine running like a grumpy old cat. A compact lesson in how to work the clutch--she learned fast and it wasn't that different from farm equipment--and she climbed aboard. The younger guy's hand on her wrist had stopped her; when she met his eyes, he shoved a fistful of cash at her. "For gas," he said tersely. She'd nodded her thanks and sped away, thinking that maybe he wasn't such a bad guy after all. Sometimes the good guys were dressed up like the bad guys, and vice versa.

And sometimes you couldn't tell the difference.

"Hold it right there."

Lily was standing in front of the busted out picture window of a drug store in the remains of some tiny, no-name town. There wasn't much left of either the store or the town, not even a metal sign announcing what it had been called. There, just inside the windowsill, was what had caught her eye-- the silver shine of a plasticized booklet the size of a playing card. She could see the year 2000 printed in white across the top with the words Calendar and Planner centered beneath it. And suddenly she wanted that calendar, had to have it so she could figure out how much time she and all the rest of the world had left.

All she had to do was step over the glass-encrusted metal sill and pluck it from the ruins of the display.

Looters will be shot on sight.

For some reason, her mouth went dry. The drug store was already trashed, the town was empty... if she took this tiny booklet, would it make her a looter? She didn't think so... but what if someone else did? Someone she couldn't see?

"Hold it right there."

Lily blocked the urge to whirl and stayed where she was, staring at the pocket planner in the debris a few feet away. Its silver coating expanded and filled her vision momentarily: Did she want this thing so badly that she would die for it?

She let her head turn in the direction of the voice and saw the soldier. His eyes were dead and cold, the eyes of someone who liked to kill and only needed a reason to make it legal. He didn't wear a name tag and his gun was leveled casually at her waist, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. It dawned on her that it was natural for him; he'd probably done the same thing a thousand or more times over the past month. "Hi," she said.

"What're you doing there?" He was good-looking and young, maybe twenty-five, a National Guardsman pulled into service for his country from some job at a record store or gardening center. He punctuated his words with little jerks of his rifle. What was it Called? M-40? M-80? Don't be stupid, Lily thought. That's a firecracker. The old Lily would have given this guy the finger, then rushed him; the old Lily would have died. The new Lily wanted very much to live for whatever time was left in the world. Wait--he'd asked her a question. If she didn't answer, he would get pissed. "Just... looking." She glanced back into the drug store and spoke again in a voice that was so much calmer than she felt, beating his next words. "Do you know what the date is?"

"June first." His voice had a flat, trained quality that was dimly terrifying. His eyes narrowed as he studied her. "What're you looking at?"

Lily raised one hand and carefully pointed. "That. The little calendar in the right corner."

"That's all?"

She nodded. Her heartbeat was thudding in her ears. Careful, careful... but it was such a small thing. "Do you think I could have it?"

He was too smart to ask why. "Take your coat off," he said harshly. "I want to see your arms."

He thinks I want to go inside for drugs, Lily thought. If she took off her leather jacket, she was doomed-- the same as if she refused. She swallowed and did what he'd ordered, moving slowly so he wouldn't get spooked. Thirty seconds later there she was with her leather on the ground at her feet; to beat the heat under the daytime sun, she wore a mesh shirt above her ripped leggings and nothing else. It was easy to see everything--her small, bare breasts and rib cage beneath the nylon fabric, the skin of her arms that was free of needle tracks, the switchblades taped to the insides of her wrists. Knowing it was idiocy to try and hide them, instead Lily turned her hands palm up so he could see at a glance how they worked. She was helpless before the rifle, anyway.

"I could shoot you for being armed," he said softly.

Lily nodded. "It's just me, by myself. I don't have a gun or anything else. I'm alone." She couldn't think of a better explanation.

He didn't say anything, but he didn't lower his rifle either. After a few moments he stepped around her; she stayed still, listening to the crunch of his boots through the debris behind her as he stepped through the drug store's window. A moment later his hand came over her shoulder. She flinched without meaning to, but all she saw was the small calendar. "Take it," he said in her ear.

She didn't need to be told again. Her fingers closed eagerly around it and she couldn't stop herself from opening it, flipping backwards through September and August--months that might never be--through July to June. There, June first; Thursday, just like he'd said. "Thanks."

He stepped in front of her again, then glanced over at the cycle. "Where'd you find that?"

"I bought it." His eyes fixed on her again, merciless, disbelieving. "I paid for it with my body," she finished. "I did what I had to."

The soldier looked away again, strangely appeased. "We all do. You can put your jacket back on."

Lily wordlessly gathered up the leather and slipped into it, then stood waiting. Finally he motioned toward the Suzuki with the barrel of the rifle. She'd left it running--it was a bastard to restart after it heated up--and her hands were trembling with tension as she walked past him and climbed onto the seat. He stepped close and peered at the odometer for no reason, then plucked the calendar from her hand. She had to bite her lip to keep from protesting, but he only flipped it open to May and drew a big "X" across the whole month with a pencil he pulled from his shirt pocket. After a second, he paged over and drew a shaky circle around July 2nd.

"The end of the world," Lily whispered. The words slipped out before she could stop them.

The soldier closed the calendar and gave it back to her, then handed her the pencil. "You'll need this."

Nodding, she slipped both into her jacket's breast pocket. She could smell the dirt and perspiration on his skin, the oil along a scalp nearly shaven under the fatigue green hat, all scents of fear and desperation. "Thanks again." Lily revved the engine lightly, but before she could slip it into gear he shouldered the rifle and pulled her close, closing his mouth over hers in a kiss that stopped just short of being painful. Too surprised to fight, she felt his tongue press against her lips; an instant later she opened her mouth and let him probe. It wasn't long before he pulled away, but she never closed her eyes. In the days to come, she would remember the look of pained concentration on his face and wonder if he'd been trying not to cry. When he let her go and backstepped, Lily felt his saliva on her lips but didn't wipe it away.

"You taste like chocolate," she said impulsively.

His mouth stretched into a genuine smile, startling her. Beautiful, clean teeth, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. He shoved a hand into one of the thigh pockets on his pants and came up with two candy bars. Lily caught both automatically when he tossed them. "Enjoy," he said. "Now go on and take off."

She tucked away the candy and raised the kickstand as he started to walk away. "Wait," she called. "What's your name?"

He stopped and turned back, and Lily's heartbeat jittered when she saw that his eyes had gone dark again, twin black holes in his rugged, handsome face. "My name?" The soldier laughed hoarsely. "I don't have one anymore. It's been blasted out of me--just like this town."

I was right, Lily thought. No-Name, U.S.A. He stared at her and she felt like she was sliding back in time. Was it really ten minutes ago and would she have to convince this dangerous man all over again not to kill her?

"I-I think I'll leave now," Lily said.

"That's a good idea. I'm walking my rounds and I don't think you should be here when I get back, because I don't know who I am from one minute to the next anymore. You won't, either."

She nodded and took a shuddering breath, then eased the Suzuki into gear and slowly rode away. Too petrified to look back, her mind was filled with the image of him bringing the rifle to bear and taking careful aim at the center of her back--

Then Lily was on the four-lane that led to the interstate and opening the throttle as wide it would go, wanting desperately to put as much distance as she could between the soldier and herself. Not much time left before curfew, and something stupid would probably stall her anyway--there were wrecks and homemade roadblocks to go around, more idiots to hide from who weren't, thank God, as dangerous as the man she'd left behind in No-Name.

The end of everything was on its way, and the country was filled with men who had dead eyes and the desire to help speed it along.

Lily thought about the soldier a lot over the next few days, especially each morning when she carefully X-ed out another day. The thought crossed her mind once or twice that maybe she should go back, talk to him, keep him company. And then what? Lily Randolph, Saver of Soldiers' Souls? She sneered at the notion and kept going. Leave the saving to Mercy.

By the time she reached Savanna, Iowa, Lily was wrung dry. The thing with the soldier had cost her more than she'd realized--an erosion of confidence, a double shot of unexpected fear. Who would have thought that crossing the farm country of Iowa could be so difficult? She'd been shot at twice by genuine American good ol' boys, and one of the bullets had gouged her a good one across her upper back, leaving her bruised and stiff. The only thing that'd saved her was the heavy jacket, and she'd still loss a few ounces of flesh. Dressed like a punk, riding a whining motorcycle like a small, skinny hellion, no weapons but two trusty-rusty old switchblades, and never stopping--shit, why bother to waste ammunition on her? Target practice, she thought grimly. Something that moved fast enough to be a challenge and was a sight more interesting than a chittering squirrel or terrorized rabbit.

Savanna reminded her of Guthrie Center in a roundabout way. Small, close-knit, it hadn't quite deteriorated into a shooting gallery and seemed a few months away from becoming a ghost-town like No-Name. There were soldiers, of course--they were everywhere--and they watched her constantly, but she stayed away from the stores with carelessly boarded windows and made a point of openly going to the only still-functioning grocery and filling station, a sad-looking mom 'n' pop outfit dead center in the town. She used the rest of her money to fill the Suzuki's tank, emptying every pocket she had to find the last nickel. The elderly woman behind the counter nodded and swept it away without comment, then studied her as Lily shuffled her feet nervously in front of the counter.

Lily knew she was a mess--her face and hands were streaked with road dirt and mud, the shoulder of her jacket was crusted with dried blood from the skim wound across her back. On top of everything else, she had a head cold--who could've believed that such normal things like that would still pester people at a time like this? She sniffed and wiped her nose on the back of her hand, then cleared her throat and tried to remember how to talk politely. "Uh...ex-excuse me, ma'am." Her voice was hoarse from disuse--she hadn't talked to anyone since that nightmarish soldier. "I-I guess I'm, uh, out of money." She glanced around the store and saw that the shelves were almost bare; she'd get no charity here. She hesitated, then kept going. "Is there anything--I mean, anywhere to get something to eat? I could work for it... sweep up, or wash dishes...." Lily looked at her fingernails, rimmed with black dirt, and felt like a fool; the old woman was cleaner than her, but not by much. Who cared anymore?

"The army," the woman rasped, surprising her. "They got a tent with a soup kitchen on the east edge of town." Lily nodded her thanks and noted that the shopwoman's small, watery eyes were still bright blue, sharp with intelligence. "But they'll only feed you once," she warned. "I've heard they get a might... nasty to roadie civilians if'n they don't move along after the meal."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Under a canvas tent erected to hold back the hot noon sun, Lily shared a table with a half dozen soldiers and one other roadie, a jumpy little man with skin that sagged under his jawline and along his arms, evidence of a lifelong plumpness quickly depleted by his new existence. She didn't talk to him and he didn't try to talk to her. Lily made herself eat slowly and concentrate on her meal, determined to savor the feel if not the taste of the food in her mouth. Her bowl was filled with a sort of soup-stew made up mostly of potatoes and onions; a few chunks of unidentified meat floated in it and she ate those too. It might be pork, it might be horse or dog; as long as it wasn't human and it was cooked, she didn't care.

Curfew was a problem. Pushing the cycle to the tent to ration her gasoline, standing patiently in line, then eating had taken nearly three hours, and somehow Lily thought it might be a bad idea to ask the soldiers at the table with her where she could go for the night. There were just as many female soldiers, but they seemed worse than the men, more suspicious and sly, better at disguising the viciousness inside. No, she would have to find someplace to go on her own, without making it any more obvious to the military around her that she was a stray, a roadie without shelter for the coming curfew.

Lily finished her food and obediently carried the metal bowl and spoon back up front, where some flunkie in a stained apron took both, dunked them a few times in a bucket of soapy gray water, then tossed them back at the front of the food line. She walked back to the Suzuki, her gut uneasy about the coming evening. Usually she was on the open road when curfew hit, where it was easy to hide herself and the cycle amid the overgrown thickets and bushes that edged the farms along the interstate--all she had to do was be careful she didn't encroach on someone else who was doing the same. Today, however, hunger and the need for gasoline had driven her close to too many people; if she rode out of town now, a couple of the soldiers would probably follow her, just for the fun of bringing her down when four o'clock hit.

Lily steered the bike back toward town without starting the engine, knowing she was being watched and that her choice of direction would make it seem like she had a place to go. Heading up the main street, she turned off as soon as she was out of sight of the soup tent, pushing the cycle and putting as much purpose into her step as she could. With her stomach filled for the first time in days, the roadwear was finally weighing her down; right now all Lily wanted to do was sleep. A great concept--but first she needed a safe place to do it.

Four blocks off the main drag put her in a mini-industrial area, blocky single-story buildings that in better times had housed machine shops and small businesses. Lily turned the Suzuki down an alley and trudged along for another third of a block, then veered into the back parking and loading area of one of the bigger buildings. A car, a dirty white Ford, was already parked there, but no one was inside and the doors were all locked. When she walked around the beat-up vehicle and placed her palm on the hood, she found it was warm--the engine had been running not so long ago. She peered through the driver's window again and considered breaking into it. Risky, but this time she was sure no one was around... then again, maybe this Ford was someone's home. She could see nothing on the front seat, no clothes or food wrappers, the kind of travel shit that travelers always ended up with, yet Lily had the oddest feeling there were people inside, and that she just couldn't see them....

She shrugged and let it be. Who was she to break into someone's car, anyway? If she was caught, they'd probably shoot her and she couldn't blame them. She'd worn a watch, a cheap generic thing, since the curfews had gone into effect, and checking it showed there was only twenty minutes left. The patrols would start at four sharp, and she needed to be inside somewhere by then. Scanning the small parking area, Lily stopped when she saw a couple of the big trash bins by the corner of the building. She hurried over and threw the lid back on the one closest to the wall; the dry, stale smell of old paper and dust filled her nostrils and made her sneeze--bingo! No rotting food garbage, just old packing materials like cardboard, crumpled paper and foam nuggets. As far as she was concerned in was in, and what did it matter if her "in" was a Dumpster or a building? A couple more minutes to rearrange both bins so that they'd have to be moved before they could be picked up by a loader, then she stashed her cycle behind one where it couldn't be seen from the street and climbed inside.

Lily woke in the morning feeling like a baked potato. Her sinuses were thoroughly plugged and the air inside the bin was heated and stifling--apparently the back of the building faced east and the sun had crested the roof across the alley. She lifted the heavy metal lid and peered out cautiously, thinking she finally knew what a rat felt like as it nosed its way out of a garbage can, always watching for a prowling tomcat. The Ford still sat twenty feet away--

But now there were people in it.

An entire family, man, woman, two quiet kids. Lily watched them narrowly, wondering how the hell they could've gotten out of wherever they'd been hiding and into that car without her hearing them. She'd slept well, but not deeply--sound sleep was a luxury she'd lost and doubted would ever be regained. Something would have roused her--a soft footstep, a cough, the quiet sound of a car door latching. Unless... they'd never gotten out of the car in the first place.

The alarm nerves were singing in her head, but they were tinged with a deep, uncontrollable curiosity. She had to know how these people had eluded her, had virtually passed right under her nose. Damn it, if she couldn't find out any other way, she'd go right up and ask them.

Without taking her eyes from the Ford, Lily raised the metal lid on her trash bin. If she could get it most of the way open before they saw it or before she had to let it drop back against the wall, she could cover the distance from here to the Ford before the man could start the car and take off. There were four of them and one of her... she was clearly outnumbered, so maybe they'd be willing to talk for a minute. An inch, then two, while the man and the woman talked animatedly in the front seat; to Lily, their words were vague murmurs floating across the small lot. When she tried to bring the lid up another few inches, Lily was dismayed to hear the metal hinge behind her screech in response. In the car, all four occupants froze.

Then, in front of Lily's disbelieving eyes, they simply... faded from sight.

"What?!" She pushed the lid all the way back and clambered out, not caring when it crashed against the wall behind her. Never losing sight of the now-empty car, she jumped down and sprinted to the driver's door. Empty.

"This is crazy," she said out loud. She circled the car, then did it again. "I know what I saw." But did she?

Frustration made Lily yank futilely on the driver's handle, which was as locked as it had been last night. "Damn you, I know you're in there!" She leaned forward and gazed through the window again, but there was nothing--only the unbroken expanse of the stained white vinyl seats. Backing up, Lily spied a fist-sized rock next to the loading dock and picked it up. Returning to the Ford's driver side window, she hefted the rock thoughtfully. Should she break the window? She had no real compulsion to do so except--

Something moved beyond the glass, the faintest shadow. Lily caught a glimpse of a man's face, staring forward, deep in concentration--the only giveaway was a tiny, scared movement of his eye as it followed the up and down movement of the rock in her hand. She stared, fascinated, and spied the outline of his body; then it filled in with the background of the car's interior, like seeing a tide roll in on a beach using faint, time-lapse photography. "Oh!" she said in surprise. She dropped the rock and put a hand to her mouth. Jesus--they were like... chameleons or something, lizards that could take on the colors of their surroundings! She stood there indecisively for a few minutes, wondering if they'd realize she posed no further threat, wondering if they cared. On her cheek and arm, the sun's heat quickly built. It had to be hot in the car... surely they wanted to get out, walk around, stretch, pee, something. Were they so afraid that they'd risk heatstroke rather than face her?

Lily shook her head and turned away. It didn't have to come to that--she had no use for the information, but she'd found out what she wanted to know. The ability to camouflage themselves--certainly an amazing, useful talent. She forced the trash bins aside and rolled out the Suzuki, her gaze going back to the car time and time again without conscious will. Once she thought she saw something shift in the back seat--it must be harder for kids to stay motionless. Within five minutes of her discovery, she was comfortably astride the motorcycle and headed east and out of Savanna forever.

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