Tragedy caught up to them in Kansas.
They’d managed to avoid five roadblocks and cross the state border in the dead of night, but after being forced to cut through a small town, their luck had run out. Either someone had reported a suspicious duo filling up at a gas station, or the military was on the hunt for their stolen vehicle. It was five o’clock in the morning now, the sky desperately trying to lighten but failing under the weight of the nuclear cloud cover, and they were being pursued by six Humvees and a helicopter.
The spotlight glared off the hood of their truck, nearly blinding Lily, and she clutched her pack tightly against her chest, looking to Darragh. “What do we do now? You have any magic tricks up your sleeve?”
Darragh, eyes darting between the rearview mirror and the road before them, shook his head. “I don’t have enough power to get us out of this jam. We’ll have to try some more conventional methods.”
“Like what? We can’t fight our way out. We have a few guns, but that’s nothing compared to their fire power.” Lily’s heart was racing, and she couldn’t help but look over her shoulder, count off the vehicles filled with soldiers that would almost certainly shoot them on sight, even if they surrendered. They were fugitives from the freehold, and Lily was the daughter of a now martyred activist. There was no way they’d survive a confrontation. The moment the Humvees caught up, it was over.
It’s been a good run, Lily thought darkly. She dug her nails into the fabric of her pack, growling under her breath. She’d tried so hard to get away from these fascist maniacs, and this was how it was all going to end? With a vain shootout on a back road in fucking Kansas? With a whimper that wouldn’t even make the news? With nothing to show for herself?
Darragh sighed. “I was thinking more along the lines of a trick.”
He nodded to his own pack, which was tucked between them on the seat. “I’ve got smoke bombs. It won’t be enough to deter the copter, of course, but if we can obscure the road long enough…”
“Then what? The Humvees will just drive through the smoke and catch up again. I mean, sure, one or two of them might drive into a ditch, but these are military vehicles. That won’t shut them down.” She didn’t understand where he was going with this. But she often didn’t understand him. He thought in rather oblique ways sometimes. Nonhuman ways, she reminded herself.
“My intention isn’t to stop them. It’s to ensure your escape.”
“What?” Lily’s throat tightened. “You make it sound like you’re not planning to escape with me.”
He gave her a pitying look. “I’m not. There are too many of them, Lily, for us to pull off any sort of miracle. We have to be practical about this.”
“I’m not leaving you behind!” She couldn’t. She didn’t want to be alone again, wandering through the wilderness in utter silence, nothing but the gray sky and the empty woods to keep her company, all the animals dead or dying due to altered weather, all the people hiding or gone plum crazy. “I need you, and you need to help me. Your job is to help me get to Shoshone. Isn’t that what you said? Isn’t that some kind of duty?”
“Lily…” He gripped the steering wheel tightly as he pressed the pedal harder. But the accelerator was already at max. They were flying down the narrow back road, risking an accident at any moment. “I never expected to survive this job. No guide ever survives until the end. They all fall trying to protect to next queen. Some last longer, some last hardly any time at all. That’s just the way it is. And you need to accept that. There’s no way both of us are getting out of this situation, and you are the more important person.”
“I don’t want to be—”
“It doesn’t matter,” he snapped. “You are. Now grab the smoke bombs from my pack and listen carefully. Because if it’s the last thing I do—and it probably will be—I’m going to save your life this morning.”
Lily hesitated, fists clenched, but eventually acquiesced. She gathered up three smoke bombs and sat them in her lap, shifting her bag around to slip it onto her shoulder. “Now what?”
“I want you to activate them and toss them into the bed of the truck on my signal.” He pointed ahead, at a small patch of trees that separated the road they were on from a second back road that curved off in a different direction. “I’m going to drive through those trees, and when I tell you to, jump out of the truck and hide behind a tree. Wait for all the pursuing vehicles to pass, especially the copter, and then run the other way. I’ll lead them all on a wild goose chase while you escape. There’s another town not too far from here, about five miles north. Go there. Restock your supplies. Head west. Get to the geyser. Release the last queen. Okay?”
No, it wasn’t okay at all. But Lily was forced to say, “Yes.”
Again, she had no other choice, at least no choice she could live with. If she died here, the world died with her. I can’t let that happen. Everyone’s counting on me, even if they don’t know it.
Lily readied the smoke bombs. “Tell me when.”
Darragh slowed the truck as they approached the trees, just enough to prevent the truck from flipping when he made a hard left turn. As he said, “Now,” he swerved hard, and Lily had to brace herself as she activated the smoke bombs, then tossed them into the bed of the truck through the small window in the back windshield. The truck jostled wildly as it raced over uneven terrain, Darragh yanking the wheel right and left to avoid trees. Suddenly, he pulled the truck into a hard U-turn, taking them back into the expanding trail of smoke they’d left behind. He looked at her and said, with a tone of finality, “You can do this. Go.”
Lily tugged the door handle, and the door flew open. Then she leaped from the vehicle, into the cloud of smoke, and landed in hard roll on the damp earth. a She kept rolling until she found herself in a dip in the ground at the base of a wide tree, where she huddled, making herself as small as possible.
The helicopter roared overhead, following the truck as it returned to the road and then sped off. A few seconds later, the Humvees blew past. None of them slowed to check the woods. Between the darkness of the early morning and the thick smoke, not even the copter crew had spotted Lily’s escape. Darragh’s ploy had worked.
Lily waited for a hundred quick heartbeats before she dared to peek around the tree. She held her sleeve to her mouth, eyes watering in the thick smoke, and stifled a couple coughs. Through the haze, she could just see the retreating bulk of the truck, followed by the Humvees, the whole scene illuminated by the wavering copter spotlight; then the line of vehicles disappeared around another scrawny patch of trees, and that was the last Lily saw of them. That was the last Lily saw of Darragh.
Lily didn’t allow herself to cry. She simply adjusted her backpack, turned around, and walked the other way. If she spotted a mysterious plume of smoke an hour later, rising from the direction in which Darragh had fled, easily large enough to be from a vehicle fire, she simply pretended it was a chimney and left it at that.
She had a very long trip ahead of her.
She couldn’t afford to be sad.