Vosch was sitting behind the table. He stood up as we came in. The lights dimmed and the screen lit up with an aerial shot looking straight down at a two-lane road that cut through empty, rolling fields. In the center of the frame, the rectangular rooftop of a house. A solitary, shimmering dot on the left edge of the rectangle—the heat signature of someone on the watch. A cluster of glowing smudges inside the house. I counted them first, then gave them names: Dumbo, Poundcake, Sullivan, Nugget, Walker, and one more makes Zombie.
“From a reconnaissance flight six weeks ago,” Vosch said. “Approximately fifteen miles southeast of Urbana.” The video feed went black for an instant, then popped back on: same thin black ribbon of the road, same dark rectangle of the house, but fewer glowing smudges inside it. Two were missing.
“This is from last night.”
The camera zoomed out. Woods, fields, more clusters of black rectangles, dark blotches against gray landscape, the world emptied, abandoned, lifeless. The thin black ribbon of road slid out of the shot. Then I saw them: two glowing dots far to the northwest. Someone was on the move.
“Where are they going?” I asked, but I was pretty sure I knew the answer already.
Vosch shrugged. “Impossible to know for certain, but the most likely destination is here.” The image froze. He pointed to a spot at the top of the screen and gave me a knowing look.
I closed my eyes. I saw Zombie wearing that ugly yellow hoodie, leaning against the counter in the lobby of the old hotel, that stupid brochure clutched in his hands, and me saying, I’ll scope it out and be back in a couple of days.
“They’re going to the caverns,” I said. “To look for me.”
“Yes, I think so,” Vosch agreed. “And that’s exactly who they’ll find.” The lights came up. “You’ll be dropped in tonight, well ahead of their arrival. Lieutenant Pierce is tasked with target acquisition. Your only responsibility is getting her within striking distance. At the completion of the mission, Lieutenant Pierce and Walker will be extracted and returned to base.”
“Then what?” I asked.
He blinked slowly. He expected me to know. “And then you and your companions are free to go.”
A small smile. “Wherever the wind might take you. But I suggest you keep to open country. Urban areas won’t be safe.”
He nodded to Constance, who brushed past me on her way to the door. “Take it, cupcake. You’ll want it.”
I watched her leave. Take it? Take what?
“Marika.” Vosch crooked his finger at me. Come here.
I didn’t move. “Why are you sending her with me?” Then I answered my own question: “You’re not letting us go. Once you have Walker, you’re going to kill us.”
His eyebrow rose toward his crew cut. “Why would I kill you? The world would be a much less interesting place without you in it.” He looked away quickly, biting his lower lip, as if he’d said too much.
He gestured toward the box sitting on the table. “We will not see each other again,” he said gruffly. “I thought this was appropriate.”
“A parting gift.”
“I don’t want anything from you.” Not my first thought. My first thought was Stick it up your ass.
He slid the box toward me. He was smiling.
I lifted the lid. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe a travel-sized chess set—a reminder of all the good times we had together. Inside the box, nestled in a foam cushion, was a green capsule encased in clear plastic.
“The world is a clock,” he said softly. “And the time is coming when the choice between life and death will not be a difficult one, Marika.”
“What is it?”
“The child in the wheat carried a modified version of this inside his throat, except this model is six times as powerful—everything within a five-mile radius is instantaneously vaporized. Place the capsule in your mouth, bite down to break the seal, and all you have to do is breathe.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want it.”
He nodded. His eyes sparkled. He’d expected me to refuse. “In four days, our benefactors will release bombs from the mothership that will destroy every remaining city on Earth. Do you understand, Marika? The human footprint is about to be wiped clean. What we built over ten millennia will be gone in a day. Then the soldiers of the 5th Wave will be unleashed upon the survivors, and the war will begin. The last war, Marika. The endless war. The war that will go on and on until the final bullet is spent, and then it will be fought with sticks and rocks.”
My puzzled expression must have tried his patience; his voice went hard. “What is the lesson of the child in the wheat?”
“No outsider can be trusted,” I answered, staring at the green capsule in its bed of foam. “Not even a child.”
“And what happens when no one can be trusted? What becomes of us when every stranger could be an ‘other’?”
“Without trust there’s no cooperation. And without cooperation there’s no progress. History stops.”
“Yes!” He beamed with pride. “I knew you would understand. The answer to the human problem is the death of what makes us human.”
His arm came up, his hand toward me, as if he was going to touch me, and then he stopped himself. For the first time since I met him, he seemed troubled by something. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have guessed he was afraid.
But that would be ridiculous.
He dropped his hand to his side and turned away.
THE SKIN OF THE C-160 glistened in the light of the setting sun. It was freezing on the airstrip, but the sunlight flirted on my cheeks. Four days until the spring equinox. Four days until the mothership drops her payload. Four days until the end.
Beside me, Constance was running through one last check of her gear while the ground crew ran through one last check of the plane’s. I had my sidearm and rifle and knife, the clothes on my back, and the small green pill in my pocket.
I’d accepted his final gift.
I understood why he wanted me to have it. And I knew what the offer meant: He’s going to keep his promise. Once Constance snatches Walker, we’re free.
What risk did we pose, really? There’s nowhere to hide. Months may pass before we face the ultimate choice between death on their terms or death on ours. And when we’re cornered or captured, out of all options except those two, I will have his gift. I will have that choice.