I wake up in the perfect darkness of Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue-Anne's ranch house, and there's a split second where everything is fine. I'm six years old, and life is good. And then I remember.
My parents are dead.
The reality crushes in on me. My throat closes, and for a few minutes I struggle to breathe in the inky black of the guest room. It's not that I'm about to cry — I've done plenty of that already. It's that I can't seem to find any air.
It was their anniversary last week, and they'd gone to Stark Peak to celebrate. They'd been drinking, probably too much. Depending on which version you heard, Dad ran either a yellow or a red, and a muni bus nearly broke their Chrysler in half.
It had to be a closed-casket funeral.
I finally figure out how to breathe again, and I roll over on the couch and look down at my big brother sleeping on the floor beside me.
People talk about sibling rivalry, but you should know right away that Patrick is awesome. And not in the dumb slang way, like when people talk about new pop songs and high scores on Call of Duty. I mean, like what the word actually means. He's big for his age, but it's not just that. Patrick is the kind of tough they don't make in real life. He's never lost a fight. I've never seen him cry, not even at the funeral. He can herd cattle already and ride a horse like the horse is part of him. He wears a black cowboy hat, and it doesn't look like he's playing dress-up; it looks like he's a friggin' eight-year-old cowboy.
He's asleep, but barely. He's really lying there to watch over me because he knows that while I'm tough like kids around here have to be, I'm a long ways from awesome like him, and when you're awesome like him, you protect your kid brother.
I think of a brown box on the kitchen table downstairs.
The one with the STARK PEAK POLICE DEPARTMENT stamp on it.
I slide off the couch as quietly as I can and step over Patrick's body. He stirs but doesn't wake up. Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue-Anne have ordered twin beds for us, due to arrive any day now. They're gonna turn their guest room into our bedroom. I know I should be grateful, but instead it just makes me feel all gray and bleary inside.
Once those beds show up, that means it's final.
I sneak out of the room and creep down the hall. It's an old ranch house, and the floorboards creak, so it's slow going. I take the stairs even slower.
The brown box waits, centered on the table like a pot roast.
The cop who dropped it off today said it holds Mom and Dad's "personals," whatever that means. We'd agreed to leave it be until morning. I'm not supposed to be here.
But I need to see.
My heartbeat thrums in my ears. I lift the lid, half expecting something to jump out at me. A smell rises. Lilac perfume — the smell of Mom. And something worse, an iron tang that reminds me of the way the air hangs heavy around the Braaten slaughterhouse. I take a moment to think about that one and try to keep my heart from clawing out of my chest.
The box is mostly empty. Just a few items are nestled in the bottom.
I pick it up. The face is cracked, the time frozen at 10:47.
The minute my life changed forever.
My lips are quivering, and I think about how Patrick's lips would never quiver, not in a million years.
I set the watch down. Thanks, Dad, for drinking that extra martini. I hope it was worth it.
Something black in the corner of the box catches my eye.
It's soft to the touch. I lift it to the dim light.
It's Mom's fancy clutch purse.
The outside is stiff and stained, reeking of lilac from when her perfume bottle cracked open. I think about the force of a muni bus hitting a perfume bottle. And then I think about it hitting other stuff.
I gather my courage and unsnap the purse. I tilt it to look inside.
A trickle pours out, like tiny diamonds. No — glass. At first I think they're shards from the perfume bottle, but there are too many of them. As they brush my fingers, I feel that they're not sharp, not sharp at all, and I realize that they're pebbled glass from the shattered windshield.
They tumble onto a spot of moonlight at my feet, and I see that they're tinted crimson.
Somehow this brings it all home. I am a six-year-old kid without a mom or a dad. This is who I am now.
I am alone here in the kitchen, holding the last relics of my parents. I am alone in the world. Even inside myself I am alone, a tiny spotlit figure in a giant dark warehouse.
My face twists. My cheeks are wet. My shoulders shudder.
I don't realize I'm crying until I hear Patrick's feet thumping the stairs behind me, and then I'm turning around, and he's hugging me, and I hear his voice in my ear. "I got it from here, little brother." My face presses into his arm, and I cry and cry and think I'll never stop, and he knows not to say anything else.
I feel like I'm coming apart, my insides gone jagged, shattered into as many pieces as there are bits of glass at my feet. It's not just the worst I've ever felt.
It's the worst anyone has ever felt.
Until nine years later, when it would feel like a Sunday stroll through town square.
* * *
Light seeped in around the edges of darkness, like morning peeking around curtains. But there were no curtains.
Rings of fire ignited my wrists. My ankles screamed. Were they tied? A crunching sound scraped my eardrums at intervals.
The woods came into focus.
Only problem was, they were upside down.
Blinking, I sourced the crunching sounds. Sleek black boots walking in concert, packing down dead leaves.
Alien life-forms wrapped head to toe in flexible black armor. Their suits were human-shaped, as seamless as if they'd been poured on. You couldn't see anything beneath them. Each one was as airtight as an astronaut suit, right down to the polished helmet. Which made sense, since the things that inhabited the suits — the Harvesters — seemed to exist in gas form.
Fighting through my fear, I tried to find my bearings.
I was suspended from a sturdy branch, carried through the woods like a fielddressed deer dangling from a sapling. My shoulders throbbed like you wouldn't believe. I craned my aching neck and peered up at the nearest Drone. All I saw was my own pale face reflected back from the dark-tinted face mask.
I was big for my age, decently strong from years of baling hay and chopping wood and all manner of ranch chores. But I didn't feel big now.
The tips of pine trees swayed against a clear blue sky. As we headed upslope, I noted the position of the sun. Slowly, it dawned on me just how screwed I was. The Drones were taking me back to the Hatch site.
The Hatch site at the old cannery, where all the kids and teenagers from Creek's Cause and the neighboring towns had been taken. Everyone under the age of eighteen had beenrounded up. Caged. Strapped to a conveyor belt. Their bellies used as pods to incubate some new life-form. They floated now on slabs of sheet metal, their eyes rolled back to white, their bodies stretched beyond recognition as something alien grew inside them. That's where I was headed.
What I would have given to be back in that kitchen crying over my dead parents.
It's hard to say what was worse, the pain or the terror.
Let's hope you never find yourself debating that question.
My circulation was cut off, my arms and legs gone all pincushiony. My head bounced around, jarred with every goose step that the Drones took. It ached like it had never ached before. My hands and feet, bound to that branch, felt like they might just snap off.
Despite all that pain, the answer to the question finally came clear.
The terror was worse.
I needed some way to distract myself from the jagged ball of dread gathering in my stomach. To distance myself from ... myself.
Okay, then. Pretend you'll get yourself out of this mess.
Pretend you're gonna live.
That you'll find another notebook.
Start a fresh journal.
Write down what happened to you. What is happening to you right now.
What would you say about that guy?
* * *
My name is Chance Rain. I'm fifteen years old. I would say nice to meet you, but I'm a little busy right now, you know, dangling from a branch being carried to my death and all that. To say that things suck would be an understatement.
And I don't just mean that they suck right here, right now. I mean, things globally suck.
It's hard to believe that it's only been a month since fragments from a broken-up asteroid hit Hank McCafferty's fallow field and buried themselves deep in the earth. But these weren't just meteorites. They were seeds.
Stalks shot up quickly and then burst, releasing spores into the air. McCafferty inhaled those spores, and they took him over, spreading through the white matter of his brain, controlling him as sure as a bulldozer operator controls the blade from inside the cockpit. McCafferty's belly bloated up, and his legs carried him to the water tower by Charles Franklin's farm. He climbed to the top of the tower, and then his stomach exploded, releasing a new kind of spore.
A second generation of spore that rode the winds right into town.
Every single adult in our town was transformed. Us kids and young teenagers, we were fine. The cutoff age, it turned out, was eighteen. As in precisely eighteen. If you were seventeen, then on your next birthday at the exact instant of your birth you'd turn, too. You'd take a single breath and then — boom.
Your eyes would shrivel to ash and blow away so you'd have tunnels straight through your skull. Your eyeholes would grow transparent membranes, virtual screens that fed information back to the Harvesters.
So we all have that to look forward to.
Except for Patrick, who had already turned eighteen and stayed exactly the same. As far as we knew, he was the only person in the world with immunity. Which made sense because, you know, he's Patrick.
So that's how they attacked us, the Harvesters. From within.
And in case you thought we were special in our little farm-and-ranch town of Creek's Cause, we found out soon enough that they'd sent thousands of other asteroids into thousands of other towns and cities all around the planet.
The Harvesters were clever, you see.
They made the human adults do their dirty work for them, made them lay the foundation for the invasion. Once you turned, you were nothing more than a remote-operated Host with a hijacked brain. Our very own aunts and uncles and shopkeepers and teachers ran us down, captured us, and delivered us to the Hatch sites.
Unless we killed them first.
And we'd killed plenty. Me and Patrick and Alex and the others who'd holed up at Creek's Cause High School, hiding from the living terrors that roamed our town.
Alex Blanton was Patrick's girlfriend, between us in age. The three of us had been best friends since forever, and then she and Patrick had turned into she and Patrick, and she and I had stayed best friends. She had long dirty-blond hair and a wide smile that I tried not to think about too much, because ... you know, we were friends. Like I said.
A couple of weeks ago, she'd been taken by the Harvesters. I'd rescued her from the Hatch site, and afterward she'd kissed me.
I tried not to think about that too much either.
Especially after I brought her back to Patrick.
Yesterday the three of us had snuck to the Hatch site again to kill the Queen Harvester, who was impregnating all the kids.
We'd known it was a suicide mission.
While Patrick and Alex created a diversion, I'd shot the Queen from four hundred yards out with a bolt-action Ruger M77 Hawkeye.
As you can imagine, her Drones freaked the hell out.
When I tried to escape, I hid inside a hollow tree where someone else was also hiding. He said he was a Rebel. He looked like a Drone, except his armor was battle-worn, scuffed-up charcoal instead of polished black. He was badly injured. He told me that the Rebels had been mostly killed off by the Harvesters. He'd been looking for me.
As in me, Chance Rain.
He told me that Patrick and I had to carry out some sort of mission. That we were the key to the survival of the human species. That the Harvesters knew who we were and were looking for us everywhere. That if we were killed, everyone on earth would die.
No pressure there.
And then he died before he could give me any specifics.
I fled to a cabin on Ponderosa Pass. It was supposed to be our meeting place. Except Patrick and Alex never showed up.
But the Drones did.
Like I said, a suicide mission. When we'd said our good-byes, Patrick had taken his shotgun, Alex a revolver. We'd made a vow not to be captured alive. It was either the cabin or the business end of a gun, and I'd been the only one to make it to the cabin.
And so now here we are. Patrick and Alex are dead. I'm hanging from a branch like a gutted deer, about to be delivered to the Harvesters. When I die, the last hope for humanity dies with me, though I have no idea why.
Basically, everything is as bad as it could possibly be.
And this little exercise of trying to find distance from my predicament isn't working very well. In fact, I think it's safe to say it's failed abysmally.
* * *
The Drones quickened their pace. I jounced along, a sack of firing nerves. Sprigs poked my cheeks. Underbrush scraped my ribs. I thought I might pass out.
The Drones hiked the slope of Ponderosa Pass with ease. Each jolting footstep brought a fresh agony. We moved up, up, up.
At last we reached the brink.
The Lawrenceville Cannery was in a valley that topped the pass like the gravy dimple you smush into a mound of mashed potatoes. It had been in the middle of a massive expansion before the Dusting. Among the dense trees were pieces of construction gear, mounds of rubble, slumbering backhoes.
We passed fallen trees that the Drones had razed in their pursuit of me, that first furious chase. Stumps poked up out of the earth like shaving stubble. As we made uneven progress, it lurched into sight through the trunks, an upside-down blur way below that finally came into horrific focus.
The Hatch site.
The huge cannery doors rolled back to expose the inside of the factory. The cages and crates stacked against the back wall, many of which still held kids. The reconfigured conveyor belt, designed to carry strapped-down boys and girls to their end. It snaked across the factory floor before continuing through a hole cut in the wall. The Hosts stood around like windup toys whose batteries had run out, eyeholes bored through their skulls. There was Mr. Tomasi, my former English teacher, his shaggy hair looking even shaggier, his corduroy blazer worn through in patches. I could see right through his eyeholes, right through his head. Like the other Hosts, he seemed to be waiting for the operation to resume.
The operation that had been shut down when I'd shot the Queen.
The Drones carried me forward through the trees, past a storage warehouse, into a copse of pines. My breath quickened, jerking my chest.
The trees thinned a bit, and I corkscrewed my head, seeing inverted flashes of the Hatch site flickering through the branches, growing closer. I caught a glimpse of where the conveyor belt emerged from the wall of the cannery. The belt ended at the edge of a massive foundation that had been poured for a construction expansion — a job that, like every other job, had been interrupted by Asteroid 9918 Darwinia. Dozens of Drones stood shoulder to shoulder. The Queen's sprawled armor lay at their boots. Even from this distance, I could see the hole I'd put through her helmet.
The foundation itself was covered with a thousand slabs of sheet metal that floated above the concrete plain by some magnetic force. The slabs were arranged in rows — a sea of dominoes. Each slab supported the body of a kid who had been implanted with offspring by the Queen. All those boys and girls laid on their backs. Giant humps rose from what used to be their stomachs and chests. Their bodies had literally been turned into cocoons. Husks, the Rebel had called them. The bulging growths inside had split the kids' clothes. Their skin, stretched to the breaking point, was translucent. Through it I could see the hard edges of broken bones ... and something much, much worse.
Another life squirming inside each dead-to-the-world kid. Feathering the skin with stretch marks. Pulsing.
Almost ready to hatch.
More Drones patrolled the aisles between the slabs, tending their depraved crop. That's what it all resembled — some kind of gruesome farm.