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Half Life: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller (Next Book 6), page 1


Half Life: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller (Next Book 6)

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Half Life: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller (Next Book 6)


  (Next #6)

  By Scott Nicholson

  Copyright© 2016 by Scott Nicholson

  “One of the most thrilling writers working today. Miss him at your peril.” – Blake Crouch, Dark Matter

  Look for Scott’s other post-apocalyptic series, AFTER and ZAPHEADS

  Sign up for Scott’s newsletter for advance copies and giveaways


  The soft tapping might’ve been neon rain on the tin roof.

  Rachel Wheeler drowsed on. If she opened her eyes, their strange mutant radiance would repel the night and drag her fully awake. As long as she slept, she could dream of life before the solar storms. She could pretend she was human.

  Rachel rolled over in bed, reaching an arm out for DeVontay. He was an anchor in this shifting, chaotic sea of destruction. But his side of the bed was cool. She scooted beneath the blankets, keeping her eyes clamped shut. It was only when she reached the edge of the bed that she realized he wasn’t there.

  Must be on guard duty.

  In the days since escaping from the domed city built by the mutant Zaps, Rachel and DeVontay had settled in the Earth Zero Army camp. She wasn’t sure they had a choice—the makeshift troops saw her as a resource or weapon they could use against the mutants, but she was also viewed with some suspicion by many of them. She was more like a prisoner than an ally.

  DeVontay had chosen this house in the rural neighborhood in which the army had bivouacked. It sat apart from the cluster of houses, barns, and outbuildings that comprised the main camp. It was small and musty, but at least it was free of that mortuary odor that suffused many houses where the occupants had died during the solar storms. And the bed…in a world where they’d lost so many they had known and loved, the bed offered the treasured sanctuary of intimacy.

  The tapping grew louder and irregular. She tried to imagine the rain falling from those roiling, aurora-painted heavens. The atmosphere was contaminated by the mutants’ plasma sinks, a deliberate act of environmental sabotage meant to eradicate the pesky human race. As a half-Zap, Rachel likely carried some immunity to the toxins, but she dreaded watching everyone wither and die.

  Especially DeVontay.

  And her grandfather Franklin might still be out there somewhere, even though he’d probably died when the Blue City exploded.

  So many dead. Billions. But those were the lucky ones. The few survivors existed in a world ruled by Zaps. Their condition was made even worse because the Zaps had once been human themselves, but the devastating electromagnetic radiation changed them into primal and violent creatures that rapidly evolved into intellectually advanced and cunning beings.

  Rachel was caught in between those two worlds—altered by the Zaps so that she had superhuman endurance, brilliantly glittering eyes, and a limited telepathic connection with them. Yet she’d retained her emotions and memories, and her physical form was otherwise unchanged. She felt much younger than her thirty-three years, as if the same solar radiation that charged the ions in the colorful night sky also granted her surreal energy.

  Despite her strangeness, she identified with people and not mutants. As long as she was capable of love, she would stand with the human race to the bitter end.

  The tapping no longer echoed from overhead, and didn’t sound metallic. Instead there came a faint creaking of wood.

  DeVontay. His night watch must be over.

  She turned toward him, opening her eyes and immediately filling the room with a dim lambency.

  The hooded figure loomed over her, dressed in dark camouflage, the face obscured by shadows. One uplifted arm held a wicked-looking combat knife that flashed golden in her mutant gaze.

  “Die, Zap bitch,” the man grunted as he thrust downward.

  Draped in the blankets as she was, Rachel couldn’t spin away fast enough. She clutched DeVontay’s pillow with her right hand and swung it toward the descending blade. The tip pierced the fabric and ripped through, spilling a snow of feathers. Just as the blade reached her bare shoulder, she jerked the pillow. The knife traced a thin furrow in her flesh, blood welling along her skin.

  The pain fueled her strength and she rolled to her right, tugging the pillow and throwing her attacker further off balance. He released the knife that was tangled in the pillow but his momentum carried him forward. He fell atop her.

  “What’s the problem?” someone called from outside the room.

  Two of them.

  As Rachel clawed for the knife, she glanced at the bedroom doorway. The other assailant was out of sight, probably keeping watch. Unlike the man wrestling her, the other attacker likely carried a firearm. She had only seconds at the most.

  The man’s face was near hers, his two hundred pounds crushing the air from her lungs. His breath smelled of stale meat and whiskey. He didn’t have formal military training, judging by his awkward attempt to pin her and the unskilled use of the knife. Most soldiers in the Earth Zero army were civilians thrust into service by the threat of extinction. Even after five years, this one was still bad at his job.

  But he had a mouth. “She got loose—”

  Rachel drove an elbow into his chin, clacking his teeth together and shutting him up. While he snorted in pain, her fingers clamped around the knife handle.

  A silhouette filled the doorway and she closed her eyes, knowing their radiance would make her an easy target. But in that split-second, she’d seen the pistol in his hand.

  They tried the knife first because they’re afraid of making noise. This is an inside job.

  Despite the distrust and paranoia in the ranks, Capt. Adam Ziminski considered her a valuable asset. He commanded just enough authority to execute anyone who committed treason. But Rachel had no interest in being a martyr.

  She kicked free of the blankets and did a half-somersault toward the far side of the bed, jabbing behind her with the knife. It penetrated something firm and wet and she tore the blade free as she tumbled to the floor. The room exploded with two muzzle flashes and a metallic clap-clap. One of the wild rounds struck the man lying on the bed and he shrieked in agony.

  “Where’d she go?” said the man with the gun.

  Rachel crawled along the side of the bed, waiting for the man to enter the room. Her nudity made her feel even more vulnerable and exposed. She took shallow breaths, her mutant constitution pumping oxygen through her blood. Electricity buzzed through her limbs, and she wondered if it originated from the electromagnetic chaos of the sky.

  That was fine with her.

  She was part of this new world. Although she identified as a human, she was part of the change, the chaotic evolution. And damned if she was going to die until she was on the other side of the transition.

  Rachel held the knife high, blood dripping from the hilt and dampening her wrist. She heard the whisper of footfalls as the man with the gun took two steps. The bedsprings squeaked as the wounded man tried to crawl away.

  “She cut me, Ronnie,” the injured man groaned.

  “No names,” the gunman said.

  “Who cares? Bitch is gonna be dead.”

  Rachel didn’t recognize “Ronnie” or either of the voices. Not surprising, given the camp housed nearly a hundred troops. She debated sliding under the bed but decided that would be an obvious hiding place. Instead, she waited for the gunman. When his boots scuffed across the floor, she used the noise to conceal her own movement.

  Despite the stormy night, the window allowed some gray-green illumination from the aurora. So the gunman wouldn’t be completely blind. And Rachel was forced to keep her eyes closed. Her only advantage was
surprise—the coward would never expect her to attack.

  Just as she sprang, the wounded man reached from the bed and grabbed her shoulder-length hair. He yanked her backward, growling in rage. “Got her!”

  She drove the knife toward his voice, cracking bone and penetrating meat. The growl turned into a sputter, followed by a wet snort.

  Rachel had killed plenty of Zaps without remorse. People were a different matter.

  But this was about survival.

  The gun fired again.

  The bullet skimmed her back, lacing a hot line of hurt beneath one shoulder blade. She fell away from the corpse on the bed, leaving the knife buried in the victim’s face.



  He was somewhere outside the house, no doubt drawn by the gunshot. She wanted to shout a warning but that would give away her position. But the gunman’s vision had likely adjusted to the dimness, so she had nothing to lose. She opened her eyes, unleashing their full, glittering radiance.

  He was gone.

  DeVontay burst into the room, his M16 leveled, his dark skin slick with rain. He swiveled his head back and forth, surveying the room before letting his gaze settle on Rachel and the bloody carnage. “Are you okay?”

  She nodded. Her wounds were painful but not serious, and she was a fast healer—another fringe benefit of being a half Zap. “Didn’t expect to find me in bed with another man, did you?”

  “Not a dead one, anyway,” DeVontay said as he knelt and examined her.

  “I’m fine. Just a few scratches that will be gone by morning. Did you see the guy who shot me?”

  DeVontay plucked the knife from the dead soldier’s face and wiped the blade on the sheets. Then he kicked the body to the floor, where it struck with a satisfying, rubbery thud. “No. I heard the first two shots, but I thought it was thunder. That third one…I got here as fast as I could.”

  “They must’ve been planning this for a while.”

  He set down the rifle and wrapped her in a hug, careful not to chafe her wounds. “I shouldn’t have left you alone. Looks like they got in through a back window.”

  “We’d better report it to Capt. Ziminski.”

  “It can wait. This asshole will still be dead tomorrow, and the other one’s probably far away by now.” He released her and turned her around so he could examine the gunshot. He ended up kissing the back of her neck. Then he pulled a dry blanket up over her to ward off the autumn chill. “Let’s move to another bedroom. I’ll get some water to clean you up.”

  Before he could leave, she gripped his wrists and pulled him close. “It’s not my fault they have to die. That we all have to die.”

  DeVontay looked at the window, where the aurora-imbued rain fell in fluorescent pellets on the damaged ground outside. “Nobody asked for this. But the end of the world can wait for tomorrow, too.”


  Capt. Adam Ziminski pulled the bloody sheet back over the dead man’s face and stood.

  “Don’t recognize him,” the young captain said.

  “So he ain’t from this camp?” DeVontay asked.

  “No, but he could’ve been from New Pentagon. Or some rogue outfit. Or it could just be a random survivor who scavenged a military surplus store.”

  “Then how did he know about Rachel?” DeVontay glanced at Rachel, who was dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and scuffed bomber jacket. Her rifle was strapped across her shoulder. As she’d predicted, her wounds had healed so well that DeVontay couldn’t even find them when morning arrived.

  They’d dragged the body outside the house to a clearing where the troop’s three motor vehicles were parked. Although a few tents stood beneath the surrounding trees, most of the troops occupied houses along the ridges. A few of them gathered to watch the proceedings. Though most were in their twenties, their faces were strained and aged, inured to death and clinging to the dimmest of hopes.

  The surrounding forest seemed to match their mood. It was gray and brown, a thin mist wending among the dark, wet trees as the morning sun burned away the night’s rain. The hills made DeVontay homesick for the abandoned military bunker in the North Carolina mountains where they’d spent much of the last four years. But nobody could hide from this strange world for long.

  “Maybe he and this ‘Ronnie’ were watching the camp,” Capt. Ziminski said, removing his cap and running a hand through his dirty-blond curls. “They saw her eyes and decided she was a Zap.”

  “And none of our sentries spotted them?”

  Ziminski’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “You were on duty, too.”

  DeVontay nodded. He couldn’t argue with that. “Well, there’s somebody out there who wants her dead.”

  Ziminski eyed the nearby soldiers and lowered his voice. “He might not be the only one. And you can’t really blame them.”

  “I didn’t ask for this,” Rachel said.

  “Look,” DeVontay said to the captain. “We’re here to help. We made it on our own before and we could do it again. But if you want to beat the Zaps, then you need Rachel.”

  Ziminski lowered his head. “Sorry. Since President Murray died, I’ve had to…well, I didn’t ask for this, either.”

  He motioned to a couple of the soldiers and organized a burial detail. As the soldiers lifted the corpse and hauled it into the forest, Ziminski ordered DeVontay and Rachel to follow him. DeVontay bristled at the command. He hadn’t enlisted in this shitty army.

  Rachel took his hand, though, and his resistance crumbled. He couldn’t pretend the world was against him, even as a black man, not when Rachel loved him and Franklin had accepted him. Doomsday had delivered the equality that humans could never achieve on their own—Zaps killed you no matter your skin color.

  Ziminski led them to the concrete garage where he’d established headquarters. A pair of solar panels caught the weak glimmer of dawn that sifted through the clouds. The camp was three miles from the devastation of Winston-Salem, in the outskirts where the Zaps had built their peculiar organic city. DeVontay assumed he and Rachel were the only ones to make it out before an explosion shattered the dome and leveled the silver city, destroying the tiny mutant babies that vied for its control.

  That was the good news. The bad news was the hundreds of other Zap cities that dotted the globe.

  One side of the garage had been cleared to house a shortwave radio and the battery array that converted the solar power into electricity. Despite the murky weather, the array stored enough power to run a couple of light bulbs as well as the radio. A gleaming, red ’67 Mustang convertible sat in one of the garage bays, the top peeled back and the doors opened. A soldier sat behind the wheel drinking from a Dr. Pepper can, tapping the dashboard as if the radio was cranking out an early Beatles song in a romantic past.

  A map covered a section of the workbench, and a woman in a ponytail stacked bolts and washers along its surface. When DeVontay reached the bench, he saw the map was nothing more than two pages torn from a United States atlas and stuck together with duct tape.

  The woman waved her hand at the piles of rusted metal. “These are the latest reported Zap cities, sir. Locations confirmed by NORAD.”

  “Thanks, Lieutenant,” Ziminski replied, flipping her a salute as she returned to her stool before the radio.

  “You’ve had contact with NORAD?” Rachel asked.

  “Yeah.” The captain made a silent count of the cities while DeVontay wondered how humans could even dream of wiping them all out. The lieutenant worked the analog dials of the shortwave radio, raising a steady stream of hiss. She broadcast a few queries but received no answer.

  “We’re not even sure how the last city was destroyed,” Rachel said. “What makes you think we can hit all of these?”

  “NORAD has brought some extra nukes on line, so they’re up to thirty, although a couple of those are sketchy and likely to fail on launch. They’ve made contact with Minot in what used to be North Dakota”—Ziminski pointed to the u
pper edge of the map—“so that’s another eight warheads on line. The last known sub is off the coast near Norfolk and it carries two dozen ballistic missiles. No telemetry or guidance systems, so they will just have to manually aim and hope for the best.”

  DeVontay wondered why the captain was sharing this intelligence with him and Rachel. But the exhaustion in the captain’s eyes explained it. President Murray had thrust the fate of the human race upon his shoulders. There were no more secrets to protect and no chain of command to uphold. In short, there was no future to worry about.

  “So at best you have fifty nuclear weapons and the Zaps have at least a hundred cities,” Rachel said. “And we’re not even sure a missile will penetrate the domes.”

  “Hellfires launched from the helicopter pierced the shell, but they triggered a chain reaction,” Ziminski said. “As if their plasma sinks captured the energy and utilized it in a feedback loop. So all we did was make them stronger.”

  “And you’re worried they might harvest the chain reaction of the warheads and somehow turn them against us,” DeVontay said. “Because they ain’t figured out how to build nukes on their own. Not yet, anyway.”

  “That’s why I want Rachel to help,” Ziminski said, sitting on the greasy workbench and looking at her.

  Rachel shook her head, eyes glittering like a fiery constellation of stars. “I’m no good. I didn’t learn anything when I was Kokona’s carrier. Even when we were telepathically connected, she managed to hide most of her thoughts.”

  “I don’t want you to go as a carrier,” Ziminski said. “I want you to go as an ambassador.”

  DeVontay cut in. “A spy, you mean.”

  Zminiski looked at the dial of his wind-up wristwatch. “Operation Free Bird kicks off in three days, seven hours, and forty-two minutes. NORAD’s already coordinated the strike with Beijing and Moscow. And they’re trying to raise Pakistan and Israel, make it a global party. London and Paris have gone dark, so we have to assume all of Europe’s toast. But Russia’s all too happy to send some nukes their way just for old times’ sake.”

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