The man pulls a large hunting knife from his boot and begins to clean the dirt from beneath his nails with its tip.
“This is faith: You grow up; you go to school. Find a job. Get married. Start a family.” Finishing the job on one hand, a nail for each rite of passage, then beginning on the other. “Your kids grow up. They go to school. They find a job. They get married. They start a family.” Scrape, scrape. Scrape, scrape, scrape. He pushes his hat back with the heel of the hand that wields the knife. “I was never what you’d call a religious person. Haven’t seen the inside of a church in twenty years. But I know what faith is, Father. I know what it is to believe in something. The lights go out, they come back on. The floodwaters roll in, they roll out again. Folks get sick, they get better. Life goes on. That’s true faith, isn’t it? Your mumbo-jumbo about heaven and hell, sin and salvation, throw it all out and you’re still left with that. Even your biggest church-bashing atheist has faith in that. Life will go on.”
“Yes,” the priest says. “Life will go on.”
The watchman bares his teeth. He jabs the knife toward the priest’s chest and snarls, “You haven’t heard a damn word I’ve said. See, this is why I can’t stand your kind. You light your candles and mumble your Latin spells and pray to a god who isn’t there, doesn’t care, or is just plain crazy or cruel or both. The world burns and you praise the asshole who either set it or let it.”
The little priest has raised his hands, the same hands that consecrated the bread and wine, as if to show the man that they are empty, that he means no harm.
“I don’t pretend to know the mind of God,” the priest begins, lowering his hands. Eyeing the knife, he quotes from the book of Job: “‘Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.’”
The man stares at him for a very long, very uncomfortable moment, absolutely still except for his jaw working the already tasteless knob of gum.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Father,” he says matter-of-factly. “I feel like killing you right now.”
The priest nods somberly. “I’m afraid that may happen. When the truth hits home.”
He eases the knife from the man’s shaking hand. The priest touches the man’s shoulder.
The man flinches but doesn’t pull away. “What is the truth?” the man whispers.
“This,” the little priest answers, and drives the knife deep into the man’s chest.
The blade is very sharp—it slides through the man’s shirt easily, gliding between the ribs before sinking three inches into the heart.
The priest pulls the man to his chest and kisses the top of his head. May God give you pardon and peace.
It is over quickly. The gum drops from the man’s slackened lips, and the priest picks it up and tosses it through the cave’s mouth. He eases the man onto the cold stone floor and stands up. The wet knife glimmers in his hand. The blood of the new and everlasting covenant . . .
The priest studies the dead man’s face, and his heart burns with rage and revulsion. The human face is hideous, unendurably grotesque. No need to hide his disgust anymore.
The little priest returns to the Big Room, following a well-worn path into the main chamber, where the others twitch and turn in restless sleep. All except Agatha, who leans against the back wall of the chamber, a small woman lost in the fur-lined jacket the little priest had lent her, her frizz of unwashed hair a cyclone of gray and black. Grime nestles in the deep crevices of her withered face, around a mouth bereft of dentures long since lost and eyes buried in folds of sagging skin.
This is humanity, the priest thinks. This is its face.
“Father, is that you?” Her voice is barely audible, a mouse’s squeak, a rat’s high-pitched cry.
And this, humanity’s voice.
“Yes, Agatha. It’s me.”
She squints into the human mask he has worn since infancy, obscured in shadow. “I can’t sleep, Father. Will you sit with me awhile?”
“Yes, Agatha. I will sit with you.”
HE CARRIES THE REMAINS of his victims to the surface two at a time, one under each arm, and throws them into the pit, dropping them down without ceremony before descending for another load. After Agatha, he killed the rest as they slept. No one woke. The priest worked quietly, quickly, with sure, steady hands, and the only noise was the whisper of cloth tearing as the blade sank home into the hearts of all forty-six, until his was the only heart left beating.
At dawn it begins to snow. He stands outside for a moment and lifts his face to a sky that is blank and gray. Snow settles on his pale cheeks. His last winter for a very long time: At the equinox, the pod will descend to return him to the mothership, where he’ll wait out the final cleansing of the human infestation by the ones they have trained for the task. Once on board the vessel, from the serenity of the void, he will watch as they launch the bombs that will obliterate every city on Earth, wiping clean the vestiges of human civilization. The apocalypse dreamed of by humankind since the dawn of its consciousness will finally be delivered—not by an angry god, but indifferently, as cold as the little priest when he plunged the knife into his victims’ hearts.
The snow melts on his upturned face. Four months until winter’s end. One hundred and twenty days until the bombs fall, then the unleashing of the 5th Wave, the human pawns they have conditioned to kill their own kind. Until then, the priest will remain to slaughter any survivors who wander into his territory.
Almost over. Almost there.
The little priest descends into the Palace of the Gods and breaks his fast.
BESIDE ME, Razor whispered, “Run.”
His sidearm exploded beside my ear. His target was the smallest thing that is the sum of all things, his bullet the sword that severed the chain that bound me to her.
As Razor died, he lifted his soft, soulful eyes to mine and whispered, “You’re free. Run.”
I SMASH THROUGH the watchtower window, the ground rushing up to meet me.
When I land on the tarmac, not a single bone will break. I will feel no pain. I have been enhanced by the enemy to withstand greater falls than this. My last fall began at five thousand feet. This one is cake.
I land, roll to my feet, and sprint around the tower, then down the runway toward the concrete barrier and the fence topped in razor wire. The wind screams in my ears. I am faster now than the fastest animal on Earth. The cheetah is a tortoise compared to me.