Still Life Chapter 3: Ce n’est pas une personne

“At first, I thought it was some kind of biological weapon. 28 Days Later style. My dad built the bunker back in the 60s, and ever since that whole dream bullshit back in September, I’ve been refurbishing it. Went to sleep in it one night, woke up, and, pfft. Everyone gone. Whole world gone silent.” Stacy sighed. “But there were no traces of biological contaminants, nothing that showed up in the bunker’s filters. Then, I figured, maybe it was some kind of cosmological phenomenon. Like in that movie, Night of the Comet? Something gets introduced to Earth from space, some kind of chemical, bam, turns people into mannequins.”

“I see,” I said, though she probably didn’t need encouragement to keep talking. I looked out the window. The dashboard was equipped with three screens, displaying the view from closed circuit cameras. Floodlights had been mounted on the behemoth of a military vehicle, lighting up the surrounding area. It must absolutely chew through gasoline, which was presumably the function of the sizable tank in the back of the car.

“But, nothing in chemistry that would explain the mannequins’ behavior. They’re mobile, but only when unobserved- And the weird thing is, that includes by recordings. I couldn’t ever catch any of them moving on video, even when I wasn’t watching at the moment. Like, even if there was the possibility that they would be seen. Non-recorded mediums, though, that doesn’t work. If they walk in front of one of these cameras, and I’m not watching, they can sneak right up. Had to rig up a hard drive to capture the feeds while I’m away from the car, to make sure that they don’t sneak up on me. Make sure they don’t sneak into the car. That’d be embarrassing, wouldn’t it?”

“Something like that happened to me, just outside of Pennsylvania. Though it turned out the mannequin just wanted to hitchhike. To Sturgis, in fact.”

She frowned at me, an eyebrow raised. “You brought one of them here?”

“Is that a problem?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I can’t believe you trusted them. Let one of them into your car. You’ve seen how dangerous they can be.”

I ran my fingers across my throat, wincing. “Yeah. One of them nearly strangled me. It’s just- They weren’t like this, where I was. It was weird, they could be a bit odd, but mostly, they just seemed focused on keeping things in order. They didn’t bother me much.”

“They didn’t bother me much at first, either. But when I did anything that disrupted their little orders- took anything, got in their way- they started to get violent. Fast. You ever experience anything like that?”

I thought of the gas station. The ominous sensation. The mannequins gathering around me on the highway. “Yeah,” I murmured, softly. “Yeah, kind of. It’s just- They weren’t bothering me. I didn’t bother them.”

“How long do you think that can go on?” She looked across the divider at me. We were driving down the highway. The big truck didn’t move fast, but it kept up a steady pace. I noticed that there were no mannequins showing up. The cars were all abandoned. They appeared to keep a very generous distance from the car.

“Uh. I mean, at the rate of resource extraction-“

“That’s not what I mean,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I mean, if you’re going to rebuild society, you need to start expanding at some point. At some point, humans and mannequins are going to have to come into conflict. What if they decide to attack us? We’ve got an advantage in being able to stop them with a glance, but they outnumber us, six billion to two. Who knows if there are even any other humans.”

“That brings up kind of a problem,” I said. “This isn’t something I really had to confront until I met you, but… You know the 50/500 rule?”

“Is it about probability, or something?” she asked, frowning over at me.

“It’s a measure of a species’ risk of extinction. See, the whole ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ thing- it doesn’t work. Inbreeding, all that stuff. The minimum viability level is being able to go 1000 years with less than a 1% chance of going extinct. Below that, it gets chancy. Basically, if you have less than 500 members of a species, there’s a long-term risk of them going extinct because of genetic drift, inbreeding.”

“And the 50 part?”

“Less than 50 members, and you’ve got an immediate risk of extinction.”

She stared out the window. “Maybe there are other people out there.”

“Maybe,” I hedged.

“So, what, we should just put a gun in our mouths and get it over with?” she asked, and my eyes flicked down to the pistol. She’d had me remove the ammo and empty the chamber, but it was still a reminder of how low I’d gotten.

“I don’t think so. Just… whatever our long-term plans are, ‘bringing humanity back from the brink’ probably isn’t going to be one of them. If we decided to go that direction, we might make it another couple of generations, but-“

“If?” she raised an eyebrow, looking across the divider. “What, you’re not sure you want to? You’ve got some trepidations about this?” She drew a hand across her body.

It was true. She was quite attractive. Warm. Soft. She was human. She was clearly taking good care of herself in the post apocalypse, and without the heavy, concealing body armor she’d been wearing, there was a lot to be appreciated. Any healthy, red-blooded young man would be thrilled to share a post-apocalypse with her.

My thoughts went back to Dolly.

“Guess it’s a little sudden,” she said, and there was a distinct hint of disappointment in her voice.

“Yeah. Sorry. I’m still getting used to the idea that I’m not going to die. It was… really, really terrifying, there. I’ve never seen them act like that before.”

“They’ve been getting worse,” she muttered, frowning. “Maybe they were just holding onto normalcy like we were. Maybe they’re starting to lose hold of it. Like… Did you ever read that Stephen King book, Cell?”

“I can’t say I did, no.”

“Usually, the way these stories work is, there’s some big collapse. The Living Dead series did the same thing. The disease turns everyone feral, and they spend a while being mindless killers before they start to regain some sense of themselves. They start rebuilding civilization of their own, some sort of weird pseudo-hopeful thing where the monsters turn out to be people all along. What if this is more like real life?”

“Well, it is real life.”

“Sure. But what I mean is, when there’s a disaster, at first, everyone holds together. Keeping things moving as best as they can, clinging to what they remember, like… Like a head, cut off, still blinking because that’s the last command it was given, even though the brain is already dying. The mannequins were doing their best to follow up on how they’re supposed to behave, trying to keep acting like civilization was still a thing. But it falls apart. Everything falls apart in the end, people turn on one another, they start going nuts. You’ve seen what the town looks like. That’s just the beginning of it. This entire world is going to collapse. And that’s not even getting into the rain.”

“Yeah, about the rain… I’m not quite sure I understood that.”

“I’ll show you. I have to show you, I think. It’s a bit too crazy to believe, otherwise.” She smiled. “We’re almost home.”

Home. I thought of Dolly. Of her presence, of her calm, steady demeanor. Of the time I’d spent with her. Was she just a delusion? I couldn’t think about that at the moment. So I focused on something else. “So, you said you didn’t think this was chemical, either. What do you think it was?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” She grinned. “The Atlanteans. Those filthy fucking fish screwed up the first time, and hit us with a follow-up punch. This is their kind of bullshit. Some kind of… I don’t know, invasive meme, or a curse, or for all I know a fucking god. This is their kind of attack. They might still be around. Hell, we might need to deal with them. Fight them. Or something. Oh, god. Oh, shit, that makes so much sense. The fucking rain. It must be something to do with them.” She tapped the wheel with her fingertips. “Yeah. I think we’re really onto something, here.”

She turned off the road, onto a gravel path. To either side, I could see warning signs, and barbed wire. There were also about half a dozen large craters. “What in the hell…?”

“Landmines. Barbed wire, warning signs, then about a hundred meter of randomly placed landmines. After the first couple of incursions failed, the mannequins stopped trying to get in that way.” She pointed forward, and I saw a small concrete building. “There it is. Home sweet home.”

She climbed out of the truck, and locked the doors behind us. I felt a slight tension at that. If I should wish to escape, there was one path out, into an unknown area of hostile creatures, with one vehicle, that she controlled.

“So, you hungry?”

“Huh? Uh.” I realized that, indeed, I was ravenous. I hadn’t eaten since that morning, and had spent the entire time in a rather panicked situation. “Yeah. Starving, actually.”

She smiled, and pressed a hand against a square pad. The door let out several loud thunks, and swung slowly open. “Part of the security. I’ll add your prints to the database.” She entered the room, a small and barren cube whose only feature was a steel hatch in the floor. She lifted it up, and led me into her base.

“What in the absolute fuck did your father do?” I asked, my voice slightly stunned as we walked through the underground base. It was- luxurious was not quite the right world, but it was shockingly pleasant. We were walking through a small, but well-appointed library of technical manuals, household guides, and what appeared to be combat manuals.

“He was part of Raytheon. Got spooked by something he saw there, became a doomsday prepping guru. He always said the world would end. Here.” She directed me into the next room. There was a frankly very nice computer, and a large chair. “Been keeping track of things. The global rainfall patterns, solar radiation, the oceanic conveyor belt…”

“You didn’t check Reddit? I’ve been posting there every day for a month.”

“What?” She frowned, and reached down, taking the mouse, opening a new tab. “What’s it called?”

“Reddit. You- Seriously, you’ve never used Reddit?”

“It seemed nerdy as hell, honestly,” she said, and looked aside at me. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s nerdy as hell. So-“ She opened up the website. “Uh, you might not want to read these, I had a tendency to ramble-“

“I’ll read them later.” She changed tabs, back to the screen. A series of ocean monitor buoys. “These are from the NOAA. The sea level’s risen about three feet in the last two months, at an increasing rate as you made broadcasts. If it continues like this, the majority of the planet’s going to be covered in about two years. The last dry land, the peak of Everest, disappears in about five years. The whole world drowns.”

“How is that possible?” I said, frowning. “There’s not that much water on Earth.”

“Yeah. It’s raining, all over the world, and there’s no damn sign of where it’s coming from. The only people who have that kind of technology, or at least techniques, are the Atlanteans. They’ve got to be responsible.” She stabbed with a finger at the map. “Maybe we can do something about them. So, beef, or bacon?”

“Huh?”

“Which MRE do you want?”

“Oh. Uh, Beef sounds good.”

MREs are supposed to be famously bad. This has any number of reasons; Lack of variation, made by the lowest bidder, designed for supporting life rather than being delicious. This was, I was given to understand, one of the basic laws of any institution: People complained about the food. No matter how good it was, people complained about it, because it was one of the things they could complain about to everyone.

In this case, the law was supplanted by one deeper. Hunger is the best condiment, followed closely by survival. My body had been convinced that I was going to die, and as such, I ate two MREs in rapid succession, gulping down water. Stacy sat across from me in her chair, one leg crossed over the other, leaning her elbow on her ankle, her cheek resting on her hand. “You still had a lot of ammo in that gun. Why didn’t you take a shot at one of them?”

“Uh. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it would work. Can they be killed by a bullet?”

“I don’t know about killed. They can definitely be incapacitated. They might writhe around a bit on the ground, but they don’t get back up after you put a hole through center of mass, or the head.” She smiled. “Not so threatening once you know that. I gathered up every gun I could find in the town, put them all together here in the armory. But I confess, I worry about that. All it would take is one of those things with a gun, and…” She shook her head. “That’s why I wear the body armor. Gotta watch out. The whole world’s pretty hostile.” She chuckled. “So how have you been surviving?”

“I’m… I’ve got to be honest with you, I didn’t know about any of this. I was just continuing my life on like I’d been living before. Ate at the cafeteria, just… sort of went around normally. Did a few disruptive things, stole a car very rarely, but I always returned it. Everything seemed… calm.”

“Hmm. Sort of like that Sean of the Dead scene. You were kind of indistinguishable from the mannequins, weren’t you?” She grinned. “Maybe that’d work for a bit. But I bet it’d build up over time, the little mistakes. I’m glad you came here, so at least we can be safe.” She looked over at the screen, her brow furrowing. “At least for now.”

“I’m not sure we can do anything.”

“We’ve got to,” she said, gritting her teeth. “We’ve got to make them pay, at least. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t just go quietly into the night. Humanity can’t just vanish like this. If we can’t survive…” She was quiet for a moment. “Anyway. Are you okay?”

“Tired,” I muttered, rubbing my eyes. My head felt heavy as a rock. The food had been good, but now that my body wasn’t in immediate danger of starving, it was in immediate danger of passing out. “Need some sleep.”

“Of course,” she said, lifting my arm over her shoulder. It was stunning how fast the sleepiness had come on. Like I’d been drinking too much, or something like that. She led me through the base, and I leaned on her a bit, closing my eyes to enjoy the sensation of her warm body. My eyes were closed when she lay me down in a soft bed. I was aware of a warm presence in the bed, soft skin pressing against mine.

I thought of Dolly as I fell asleep.

I woke the next morning, to find the bed empty. I climbed out of it, and frowned as I went to a dresser. There were clothes, but exclusively feminine. That was going to be a problem. I could also smell the scent of beef cooking. There was the sound of sizzling, promising something- if not tasty, at least sustaining. I walked through the base, and then stopped.

The base consisted of solid metal corridors, vaguely rounded, claustrophobic. Reminiscent of a submarine movie, or something similar. The doors from room to room were hatches, locking with a pad. The one to the bedroom had been left open. This door was closed. A soft tapping came from the room behind. I frowned, as I approached it. The tapping was arrhythmic, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It almost sounded like morse code. Three quick taps, then three slow, three quick. Three quick again, three slow, three quick. It kept repeating. If I knew something about morse code, it might have told me more.

I reached out, slowly, and rested my palm against the pad. A buzzer filled the air.

“You don’t want to go in there.” I jumped, spun around, breathing hard. Stacy stood behind me, a smile on her lips. She’d moved so softly on the gratings I hadn’t even heard her in the silence. She was carrying a frying pan in one hand, an MRE sizzling.

“Uh. MREs again? There’s a lot of fresh food out there…”

“Might be poisoned.” She winked. “Gotta be careful. Never know what those bastards might have sprinkled in the food up on the surface. It’s not like the fucking things eat.” She stirred the frying pan, smiling. “Don’t go in that room.”

“Uh. Why?”

“Cave system. Was originally supposed to be a secondary entrance. The place is a warren. Filled with those things, hundreds of them. Tried clearing them out at first, but more kept coming, and it’s dangerous in there. Lots of corners and crevices for them to hide in. Besides, they can’t get through the door. And you don’t want to let them in.” She met my eyes, her expression cold. “Seriously.”

“Course not,” I said, and frowned down at my clothes. “I could use an extra set of clothes. The extra clothes I brought got destroyed by a caltrop on the roads in Sturgis. Did they do that?”

“Probably. Fucking bastards. I visit there a lot. They probably set it up to try to catch me. Not that it’d do much good against those tires.” She grins. “Let’s hit up Sturgis, then. Come on. We’ll pick up some guns, go for a trip, visit the Motorcycle Museum, find you some nice new threads.” She held the frying pan out to me. “Breakfast?”

I looked back at the door one last time, and shivered a little bit. Life under assault. It was a hell of a state to find oneself in. I wasn’t sure how you could keep sane, surrounded by things that wanted to kill you all the time, that were just waiting for your guard to drop.

“So… What’s with the naked thing? When did they start doing that?” I looked over the weapons. I picked up the small caliber pistol.

“Not sure, exactly. A couple of weeks after I started going out on expeditions, I noticed a lot of them getting naked,” said Stacy, as she took the gun from my hand, putting it back down on the rack. “That thing’s got way too small a caliber. They need a fairly big hole to incapacitate them. You sure I can’t persuade you to take a rifle? Better to take them from a distance.”

“I’d prefer not to shoot any of them. This won’t just, like… attract their attention?”

“They’re not zombies. They’re not people, either, but they’ve got self-preservation.”

“That doesn’t seem-“ I tried to think of the word. “You don’t feel wrong, about shooting them?”

“You’ve seen what they do. You tried being diplomatic with them. Tried giving them a chance. What did they do?” She nodded towards my throat. “Tried to strangle you. Don’t make the same mistake twice. They’re dangerous as all hell. And bring something large caliber.” She grabbed a revolver, sliding it into my hand. “Hell of a kick, but excellent accuracy, and enough stopping power to go through several of them.” She placed it in my hand.

The Behemoth- her name for it- crunched over the gravel as the two of us drove. She was silent as we rumbled along, her eyes on the road ahead of us. I didn’t see any mannequins, again. The big diesel engine growled like a bad-tempered tiger. Stacy didn’t seem to have much to say as the two of us drove.

“You seem… pensive,” I said, as we passed by a small stand of trees.

“Just thinking.” She was watching the road. “It’s lucky you were okay, you know. That the mannequins didn’t hurt you, all that time. I mean, hell, I’ve been fighting for my life here. Watching. Adapting. Surviving. Keeping my guard up. It’s lucky you didn’t have to go through all of that.” She looked across the divider at me, her expression unreadable. “Right?”

“Pretty lucky,” I said. “I’m sorry that you had such a rough time of it.” I didn’t say that it sounded, to some degree, like she’d been making things harder for herself. She seemed tense enough without being chastised, and I was being brutally reminded of how bad I was at talking with people. I opened my mouth, trying to think of something to say, to express my sorrow for how bad things were, but nothing came to mind. So we kept driving on in silence. “Thanks for saving me.”

“Hmm?”

“Last night. Thank you for saving me from that mob. I wasn’t really… prepared, for that. I was dead if you hadn’t showed up. It saved my life. Thank you.”

“It’s what one human owes another,” she said, her voice staying even, as she watched the road ahead. The sign flashed by, Sturgis, 20 miles. I sighed, and leaned back in the chair.

“What do you think the rain is about?” she asked, suddenly.

“Uh? Well.” I frowned. “I… honestly don’t think it’s the Atlanteans. If they were powerful enough to just make everyone disappear, I don’t think they would’ve needed to be here for a few months beforehand. If things went wrong again, they’d definitely all be dead. And their queen seems… alright enough, you know? Besides, they’re supposed to have a severe inbreeding problem, too. A lot of biologists said their only hope was interbreeding with humans. It’s hard to imagine why they’d kill us off if that wasn’t an option.”

“Interbreeding,” she said, and shuddered. “Can’t imagine why anyone would do that.”

“Mmm,” I said, not commenting further, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“Right? Like, who would want to do something like that outside of their own species?”

“Mmm,” I said again.

We drove in silence the rest of the way. She took us into Sturgis, and I frowned as we drove down the main drag. Quite a few of the cars had tires damaged. “What are you looking for?” Stacy asked.

“It’s just a bit weird. All of these tires were shot out. It doesn’t seem like the mannequins use guns much. Why would they do that?”

“Who knows why they do anything?” she said, a bit tersely, as she stopped the car, in front of a strip mall. “Come on. We’re going to want to stay close together, keep our eyes around. Clothing stores are death traps. Lots of sight lines being blocked. Real easy to get surrounded in there. Two people means a lot more safety. Right?” She looked at me for a long moment, her eyes on mine, her tone challenging.

“I guess?” I said, frowning. “I haven’t really thought much about this kind of thing.”

“Of course,” she said, and chuckled. “So. Who’s Dolly?”

My stomach clenched a bit. “What?”

“You said her name last night, in the bed, while you were holding me.” She was holding the rifle in both hands, in a relaxed pose, but there was something threatening about her posture. Something ready to move. “Girlfriend?”

“Sort of.”

“From before the apocalypse?” she asked, her eyes on me. I couldn’t meet her gaze. I looked down, and to the side, my head lowered. “That’s disgusting. That’s fucking disgusting. What the fuck would you see in one of those things? What would drive you to look for… comfort in some fucking monster?” she asked, her voice growing harsh, shrill, her expression angry. I felt my fists clench slightly. “What, was it that she couldn’t say no? That she couldn’t turn you down? Did you get off on forcing the mannequin down, messing around with it?”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said softly.

“Fuck! That’s even worse! What, you thought you were in love with a hunk of fucking plastic? You thought that you were- what? God, I don’t even know. You were into something like that? What did you do with- God, I don’t even want to know.” She turned sharply away. “That’s the fuckery of the apocalypse, isn’t it? You don’t get to choose who else survives it.” She shifted, and I saw the gun’s barrel raise slightly. “Well, not without doing something… unforgivable.”

“Stacy?” I said, my voice soft.

“It’s fine. I’m fine. I wouldn’t kill you for fucking around with a mannequin, Patrick, Jesus. I’m not a lunatic. It’s just…” She sighed. “It’s weird. Okay? But we’re the only ones left. We have to get along.” She turned around. “I need a little time to cool off. Okay? Just a few minutes. Just… keep an eye on your sight lines. Keep looking around. Keep aware. I’ll meet you back here in twenty minutes. Just need to…” Her expression tightened. “Just need to blow off a little steam.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling deeply shaken. I didn’t know how to deal with this, what to do. I didn’t know how to deal with people. She looked as though she wanted me to say something, to tell her to stay. I didn’t. And with a soft sigh, she turned, and walked away from me, along the street. “Is- Is it going to be safe?”

“I’ll be fine. And you… I’m sure you don’t have anything to worry about,” she said, her voice just a little tense. She walked away, leaving me standing in the bright Dakota day, the sky above clear, but distant clouds visible to the north, growing slowly larger. More of the increasing, impossible rain. I walked towards the clothing store.

Inside, the store proved to be fairly spread out, with few display racks. I could see easily through the place. I walked through, checking out the items, choosing a few articles of clothing. I stopped at a line of dresses, and reached out towards one that would have looked good on Dolly. Then I stopped. I couldn’t think like that. For all I knew, Dolly was really nothing but a mindless drone, something without personhood, without any kind of personality. I was fooling myself.

A hand grabbed my shoulder. I spun, gasping hard, backing away, going for the gun. A mannequin stood there, arm outstretched.

A mannequin wearing a hoodie, a pair of jeans, and a pair of sneakers.

“Mannfred?” I asked, softly, staring. Then I blinked. When I opened my eyes again, the mannequin was flashing a thumbs up. “Look, it’s not safe here. The Mannequins here are nuts, you might have met them already. I can talk with Stacy, get you out of here.” I blinked again, and Mannfred had moved several steps down. “Hey, man- What are you doing?” I blinked once more. The mannequin was standing at the edge of a line of shelves, head peering out, crouched down. I followed, and crouched down, closing my eyes for a moment.

I heard the scratchy sound of static, dead air. I opened my eyes, and found Mannfred holding out a smartphone. It was opened to a video, playing slowly. A video of a room, seen through horizontal bars- It took me a second to realize it was a closet. A mannequin was on its knees, its hands up, wearing a sweater and a pair of sweat pants. A female mannequin, I noticed.

“Who is that, a fam-“ I froze, as another figure stepped into the screen. A familiar figure.

“Well, well,” said Stacy, her voice soft, amused. She had the gun in one hand, a video camera in the other. “Look at this. Clothes? I’ve told you about those, haven’t I? Did the others not spread the word? Did I not leave enough of a message about it? Clothes are for humans.” She raised the gun, and fired a single bullet through the mannequin’s head. It fell backwards, quite anticlimactically, striking the ground and bouncing once before coming to a rest, smoke rising from the barrel slowly.

She put the gun away, then, and took out a knife. A combat knife, nearly twelve inches long, wickedly hooked.

“I wonder where he is. I wonder when he’ll get here. I wonder if you were planning anything? I mean, I don’t want to be… manic, you know, when he gets here.” She approached the mannequin, and smiled, closing her eyes once, opening them again. “All frozen with fear? A shame. Like a mouse trying to play dead so the cat doesn’t play with it? This is going to leave me all pent up.”

The knife slammed down, hard, with a shockingly large thunk. It stuck up out of the mannequin’s chest, as Stacy moved to straddle the frozen mannequin.

“It’s not quite as fun to do this to a mannequin, you know? All of those little things… Just my luck that an apocalypse would happen, and there are no humans left.” She sighed. “But, it’s a good thing, too. It’d be vile if I did this to a person. To a human. But a mannequin, that’s a very different thing.” She slowly drew the blade out of the mannequin’s chest, drawing its edge down the plastic stomach. Then she began to slash. Stab. Cutting. She laughed hysterically, taking the knife painstakingly across the mannequin’s body. It left me feeling slightly nauseous to watch the methodical dissection, even bloodless as it was.

Then Stacy looked up slowly, frowning.

“Is someone watching?” She looked at the closet for a moment, eyes meeting the camera. She lifted the knife, and stood up, backing off. The video ended.

“That can’t be,” I said, more out of numbed shock than anything else. The sight had been… more than a little bit nightmarish. I shook my head. “Get out of town. I’ll… figure something out, I don’t know, but you’re vulnerable, she could kill you. Get out of here as quick as you can.” I closed my eyes.

When I opened them, Mannfred stayed in the same squatting position, phone still held out. There was a crack of thunder from somewhere outside.

“Well,” murmured Stacy, right behind me. I spun, trying to stand up. She had the gun levelled at me, her expression soft, sad. Her clothes were soaked with rain, but she’d moved quiet as a mouse while she snuck up on me. Even quieter than the mannequins. “No wonder you survived so long. With friends like those, huh.”

“Stacy- Look, whatever happened- They’re not our enemies. They’re not bad. You don’t have to do this-“

“Shut up,” she hissed. “I’m not going to kill you. But him-“ She shifted the gun towards Mannfred.

“No!” I moved in front of him. The gun leapt in her hands, spinning around, and the stock cracked me hard against the jaw, sending my head spinning as stars burst and pinwheeled before my eyes. The last thing I heard before the darkness took me was the crack of a gunshot, and plastic hitting the ground.

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