The old truck stopped on the crumbling blacktop of what had been a two-lane highway when Victors had controlled the world. The faded, tattered map showed a small town on the other side of a row of hills, dark in dawn’s gloom—five thin, grey lines intersecting three others with the label “Beckley.”
Perhaps a cure for NickJennyPhil’s husband and son waited there. For two weeks, all he and the others had found were empty towns. Some collapsing and deserted, others burned flat.
As if no more Victors remained.
The thought made NickJennyPhil go cold, a vestige of his inherited physiology. No Victors did not just mean no cure, but no new Adams.
Beside NickJennyPhil, DonaldCharlotteKellie shut off the engine and gave him a slow nod. His eyes—one blue, one brown—held the same hope NickJennyPhil felt. DonaldCharlotteKellie grabbed his rifle from the rack behind their seats and got out.
NickJennyPhil left his bag of surgical gear on the seat. Its metal instruments knocking together made too much noise.
AmyJonTom and LeahFritzChung were already out of the truck’s canopied bed, leaning against the spare tire secured to the bumper. Clubs hung from their belts, sacks with ropes and gags over their shoulders. The others’ seven foot frames dwarfed NickJennyPhil, a reminder he had not been created for this.
“Nice and quiet,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said. “Don’t spook these wet-borns.” He led the way up the wooded slope, rifle in hand.
NickJennyPhil hated that DonaldCharlotteKellie’s had brought the weapon. In the beginning, when the Creator had flowed His lifeblood into the first Adams, He had decreed that a Victor could only be harmed to create a new Adam. Needlessly killing one wasted His bounty, and needlessly wounding one rendered it an abomination of His perfect image.
To say nothing of medical concerns. Victors were fragile. If one survived the gunshot, NickJennyPhil would have to keep it alive during the twelve-hour trip home. Anything dead longer than two was useless tissue.
It took twenty minutes to reach the crest. The rising sun revealed a town much like theirs: twenty-odd houses surrounding a handful of shops and commercial buildings. Except here a rust-spotted dump truck and bulldozer blocked the road into the town centre. A patchwork of split rail, barb wire and chain link formed a half-completed perimeter fence. No lights burned, nothing moved on its streets, no sounds carried up the hillside.
NickJennyPhil’s hope faded, nudging him closer to a precipice over which lay despair.
“Same as always,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said. “We’re just here to look. No stupid chances. I’ll come get you in a few hours. Go.”
AmyJonTom and LeahFritzChung shared a quick I’ll-see-you-soon kiss before moving in opposite directions.
“Best we’ve seen,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, eyeing the town.
“Those defences could be decades old,” NickJennyPhil replied. “I doubt Victors are capable of that coordination now.”
“Maybe not.” DonaldCharlotteKellie held up his rifle. “Still. Be back in a few hours.” He disappeared into the trees.
NickJennyPhil’s concern over DonaldCharlotteKellie’s potential blasphemy gave way to the usual doubts of his own usefulness. He had been assembled to be a surgeon, not a harvester. The Creator’s lifeblood made Adams stronger and more durable than Victors, but they did not heal as quickly or wholly. Even a simple laceration rendered an Adam an abomination, risking his ascension to merge with the Creator. So, his fathers made him the size of a small adult Victor, able to manipulate delicate nerves, veins and sinew. Flashes of memory from the Victor whose brain NickJennyPhil carried surfaced from time to time, an identity not entirely erased by NickJennyPhil’s lifeblood. It had been clever, intelligent and contemplative. A brain suited for diagnosis and plans of treatment, but not a harvest’s brutality and tenacity.
Yet that had been its life.
NickJennyPhil conjured memories from his own—the patchwork hues of LeoZhaBert’s body, his voice calling NickJennyPhil to bed, his touch on NickJennyPhil’s skin. The joy when LeoZhaBert had agreed to have a son when a Victor encampment had been found.
A harvester son, strong and brave.
That had been then.
Only the shortening shadows moved below.
How different this town was from that Victors encampment. Makeshift structures and crude lean-tos had dotted the forest clearing. Primitive sanitation, no medical facilities. Their undisciplined, panicked defence had collapsed within minutes. Those not caught fled into the forest.
Then the screaming—that joyful sound of new life—filled the encampment.
LeoZhaBert had caught, tied and gagged six Victors for most of their son—strong arms, graceful legs, a robust torso. For the brain, they had laid claim to a Victor armed with a machete who, rather than fleeing, launched sudden attacks and then disappeared back into the dense foliage.
LeoZhaBert had admired its determination.
NickJennyPhil had admired its cleverness.
LeoZhaBert had passed NickJennyPhil his harvesting club. Trembling but determined, NickJennyPhil followed his husband into the trees. They would do this—every step of it— together. The Victor burst from the underbrush, slicing at them. LeoZhaBert shoved NickJennyPhil back, bringing up his other arm in defence. The blade buried itself in the bone and muscle of LeoZhaBert’s forearm. Yanking to free its weapon, the Victor did not see NickJennyPhil charge. He swung, wild with fury, and knocked it unconscious.
It never awoke, even as NickJennyPhil severed its head from its body.
Gunfire pulled NickJennyPhil from the happy memory. He dropped flat on the forest floor.
Nothing moved in the town.
Motion to his left. A figure emerged from the trees, limping, a hundred feet off.
Two more shots. A bullet sliced the air next to NickJennyPhil’s left ear. His heart hammered uselessly in his chest.
A third shot and AmyJonTom collapsed, clutching a knee. Two smaller figures emerged from the trees. Victors. Each carried a rifle and wore camouflage patterned clothing. One kicked AmyJonTom’s injured leg while the other drew a hatchet from its belt. “Where’s your town?” it screamed, the high voice of a female. It swung, nearly severing AmyJonTom’s foot at the ankle, rendering him an abomination. “Where!”
Panic surged like a living thing. Helpless, useless, NickJennyPhil sprinted toward where DonaldCharlotteKellie and LeahFritzChung had gone.
He did not know how long he had been running when he skidded to a stop. LeahFritzChung lay face down on the forest floor, the back of his skull blown out.
“Hey there.” A male Victor knelt in the brush wearing frayed camouflage clothing, a yellow-on-black patch reading “RANGER” on the shoulder. Dried mud caked its long, white hair and beard. It levelled a rifle across the stump at its left elbow, aiming with its left eye. A savage mound of scar tissue filled its right socket.
“Never seen one of you so small,” it said, moving toward him. “Something wrong with you?”
“I’m a surgeon,” NickJennyPhil managed to say, more shocked by such an abomination of the Creator’s image than its gun.
“I’d say your friend’s beyond help. So where’d you come from? Where’s your town?”
That question. Like the female with AmyJonTom.
The Victor nodded to a hatchet on his belt. “Should I take you apart? First your fingers then your toes? Hands and feet go next.” He waved the stump of his arm. “I’ve been your guest. Know your faith. You all descend from your creator. If you’re too far from his perfect image, he won’t recognize you. Won’t let you ascend to become part of him again.”
This Victor was nothing like the panicked animals at the encampment. Was this what the Victors had been like in the beginning? Scripture told of Victors’ numerous sins enraging the Creator, so He had replaced them with something more perfect to His image. Victors had attempted to slaughter the first Adams, but the Creator’s will had been done and Adams had inherited the world the Victors had built, passing His lifeblood down through generations.
“Answer me quick,” it said, “and die whole.”
“NickJennyPhil, get down!”
Thirty feet away, DonaldCharlotteKellie leaned against a tree, rifle aimed.
The Victor spun and fired.
Fear gave way to hatred, then rage. NickJennyPhil charged and tackled the Victor. It twisted and maneuvered in his grasp, precise and purposeful movements to leverage itself free.
DonaldCharlotteKellie slammed his rifle butt into the Victor’s face. “Wet-born!” It went limp, eyes rolling back in semi-consciousness.
DonaldCharlotteKellie ripped the rifle from its hands before his right leg buckled and he collapsed. Blood stained three finger-sized holes in his pant leg.
NickJennyPhil ripped the fabric open, exposing bullet wounds in DonaldCharlotteKellie’s thigh. If he had his tools, NickJennyPhil could have removed the bullets and rewoven the muscle. Or, with time, grafted muscle from LeahFritzChung.
“Leave it.” DonaldCharlotteKellie pushed him away and took a gag from LeahFritzChung’s pack. “They knew we were coming.” He fitted in on the Victor, silencing its moaning. “I got one, but this one killed LeahFritzChung.” He removed lengths of rope from the pack.
“Two more are out there,” NickJennyPhil said. “I think AmyJonTom is dead.”
“Creator’s sacred name,” DonaldCharlotteKellie cursed.
NickJennyPhil winced at the blasphemy.
Limping, DonaldCharlotteKellie pulled the Victor behind a fallen tree, secured its right hand against its thigh at the crotch and bound its feet while NickJennyPhil kept watch. DonaldCharlotteKellie found additional ammunition along with a photo of a female Victor around the age of sexual maturity in the Victor’s pockets. He hurled its hachette into the trees before loading ammunition into the Victor’s rifle.
“Take my gun,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, pointing up the slope. “Fifty feet or so. Crossfire.”
“I—” He tried to find the words.
Killing the Victors would be blasphemy. The Creator had given no exemption for self-defence. Even if they merely wounded them, getting all three to the truck would be impossible given DonaldCharlotteKellie’s injury. They could secure them and NickJennyPhil could retrieve his tools to repair DonaldCharlotteKellie’s leg, but one might free itself.
That was assuming victory. The Victors knew this forest. NickJennyPhil had no experience with firearms.
Retreating with the Victor would be dangerously slow, but leaving it would render AmyJonTom’s and LeahFritzChung’s deaths meaningless.
That left a single option.
DonaldCharlotteKellie’s nod showed he had reached the same conclusion. He held out his rifle. “Go.”
NickJennyPhil ignored it, tying a length of rope at the Victor’s ankles.
“Long road home.” DonaldCharlotteKellie took cover behind the tree. “You might have to fight to see your husband and boy.”
Accepting the logic, NickJennyPhil slung the rifle over his shoulder.
“If I get them,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, “I’ll call out.”
“Thank you.” Words as useless as NickJennyPhil felt.
NickJennyPhil grunted, taking the rope’s other end and dragging the Victor behind him. He prayed the Creator would forgive DonaldCharlotteKellie’s blasphemy and let him ascend despite the injury rendering him an abomination. After all, the blame lay with NickJennyPhil.
Each step added to that guilt.
Following the harvest at the Victors’ encampment, NickJennyPhil had attached LeoZhaBert’s new forearm, taken from a Victor they had claimed, returning him to be made in the Creator’s perfect image. Then, together, they had assembled their son.
A son with a severe brain injury caused by his panicked blow. A son who breathed but did not awaken as they fed their lifebloods into him.
Several weeks into their grief, a twitch began in LeoZhaBert’s new forearm. NickJennyPhil has seen this before. A disease that had lingered silently within the Victor inexplicably springing to life when exposed to an Adam’s lifeblood. With all the Victors from the harvest partitioned, they lacked another limb to replace it.
Twitches became spasms that leaped across the sutures at LeoZhaBert’s elbow. After two months, LeoZhaBert’s bicep and tricep quaked while his hand hung cold and limp. If it jumped the sutures at his shoulder and reached his brain, it could be fatal.
LeoZhaBert had asked—then begged—NickJennyPhil to remove his arm, but NickJennyPhil would not render him an abomination.
So LeoZhaBert had proposed taking their son’s arm and, as a mercy to prevent him from being an abomination, stilling the life within him.
The argument had lasted hours.
In the end, DonaldCharlotteKellie had organized this small harvesting group. He and LeoZhaBert had been lovers, once. Whether an act of charity or overture of renewed affection, NickJennyPhil did not know, and he surprised everyone when he insisted on going. Yet even he was uncertain if it was to fight for his husband’s life, to make up for what he had done, or some form of competition with DonaldCharlotteKellie.
Now three more lives had been lost and Victors’ bounties wasted.
Gunfire popped above him. Startled, NickJennyPhil lost his footing and gravity claimed him, sending him tumbling.
A collision with a fallen tree jarred him to a stop.
The Victor’s rifle was gone.
Below, through the trees, was the truck.
Far above, the gunfire ended, but ten steps above the Victor sat up, fully conscious.
So clever, it was, biding its time.
It brought its knees to its chest and shoved its bound wrist down between its legs to work at the knot at its ankles.
“No!” NickJennyPhil scrambled up the slope, but the Victor had the knot undone and slipped the coil at its wrist over its foot. It stood and charged up the hill. Higher still lay the rifle.
NickJennyPhil turned and loped down the hill for the truck. Terror did not occlude the realization of his complete failure.
Reaching the road, a shot kicked up chunks of blacktop near his feet. He rounded the truck to the passenger side and leapt in its cab, searching for a weapon if the Victor pressed its attack once its rifle was empty.
“I just wanna know where your town is!” it called out.
Its words gave the burned towns they had found new meaning. Had those towns been populated by Adams? This Victor used Beckley as a trap to catch Adams and torture them into betraying their towns’ locations. Towns the Victors somehow destroyed.
Yet NickJennyPhil was forbidden from killing something so dangerous for such a sin.
All he found were his surgeon’s tools.
“One of your creator’s rules should’ve been ‘Go slow’,” it continued. “You spread so fast. You’re wiping us out.”
A shot shattered the driver’s side window.
Anger and panic swirling, NickJennyPhil grabbed his bonesaw. Fatal if he struck a blow, but perhaps intimidating enough to force its retreat. He slid out of the cab and moved to the truck’s rear to peer around the other side.
The Victor stood at the driver’s door.
NickJennyPhil retreated, a bullet whining past.
“My daughter will take you apart when she gets here,” it said. “She was eight when she saw one of you saw off her mom’s legs and cut out her ribs. And she lived through most of it, screaming.”
A bullet came under the truck, nicking NickJennyPhil’s boot.
He leapt onto the bumper.
LeoZhaBert would not hesitate, a courage NickJennyPhil both loved and fretted over. And the Victor whose brain went to their son had attacked against futile odds.
But his rash actions had cost too much.
He was no harvester. Let the Victor come. Let this end. NickJennyPhil used the tire to steady himself.
The tire, with its thick, metal hubcap.
He dropped the saw and threw the tire’s release mechanism. It fell and NickJennyPhil caught it on the bounce, hefting it up so the hubcap protected his face and head, and charged.
Shots popped. Pain seared through his leg, his chest, his gut.
NickJennyPhil ran blindly toward the gunfire. His collision with the Victor sent it sprawling. NickJennyPhil dropped the tire, limped to where the Victor had fallen and straddled its chest.
The gun lay out of reach.
NickJennyPhil wrapped his hands around the Victor’s throat.
“You forget I know your faith?” it said, attempting to twist away to free itself. “You can’t kill me.”
“You forgot,” NickJennyPhil said. “I’m surgeon.” He squeezed.
When it stopped thrashing, unconscious but without permanent damage, NickJennyPhil retrieved his tools.
The sun touched the treetops when a female Victor stumbled from the trees. Face ashen, a scarlet bloom darkened its jacket at the abdomen.
It nearly retched when it saw the remains of its father.
That DonaldCharlotteKellie wouldn’t stop the Victors was a risk NickJennyPhil had accepted. Timing critical, he continued his work.
The male Victor’s arm hung below NickJennyPhil’s left, his nerves and veins woven into it. NickJennyPhil now knitted its head’s nerves and veins into his abdomen, the gunshot wound feeding his lifeblood into the new brain for his son.
A brain both clever and determined.
“I was going to butcher you,” the female Victor said, breathing rapid and shallow. It could not hold its rifle steady. “This is better.”
Connected in a way NickJennyPhil did not understand, the male Victor’s consciousness—fighting to retain its identity—stirred at the female’s voice.
“You have forfeited your life to take mine?” he asked. “Kill me rather than seek treatment?” Unless, NickJennyPhil considered, no Victors survived to aid it.
“Ready for hell, abomination?”
“I am not,” NickJennyPhil replied. “I am as the Creator. I carry more than my own life within me.”
His words stirred a new idea. This was, after all, a female. “Your wound renders you an abomination,” he continued. “I should treat you.”
Its eyes shut heavily and snapped open. “So you can cut me up?”
“No. Your father was correct. Harvesting all Victors condemns future generations of Adams. We must let you flourish again.”
Its knees buckled and it landed on its side. “I’ll kill…” Unable to raise its weapon, it placed the barrel under its chin, stock between its legs, thumb on the trigger. “I won’t…”
Its eyes rolled back.
The male Victor’s head secure to his abdomen, NickJennyPhil treated the female’s wound and transfused a mixture of the male’s and, to prevent an incompatibility reaction, his own blood into it.
If they found another male, they could breed them and produce a menagerie of Victors. Clever, dangerous—they would need to be contained, perhaps restrained, but providing limbs and organs for new Adams to be made or injuries treated. And with his skills, they need not die, able to be further harvested when a need arose. They would live on as abominations, but they seemed able to accept such a state. Surely rendering a Victor as an abomination so that an Adam could reflect the Creator’s perfect image was a necessary and just act in the Creator’s eyes. Had not the Creator already deemed them less perfect than his Adams?
Awkward with his new limbs, he heaved the female into the back of the truck and tied it down.
When NickJennyPhil started the engine, the Victor awoke.
Such a joyful sound.