We’d been passing abandoned cars and empty houses the whole time, but for the most part, the lack of light had kept me from really looking at what was around us. Now, the sun was rising, and there was no way not to see the wreckage of the world. Not without closing my eyes, and part of me felt responsible enough for what had happened that I couldn’t bring myself to do that. This was the world my species had made. It didn’t matter that I had never willingly hurt a human being, or that I had actually killed multiple sleepwalkers, thus putting myself firmly on the side of my creators. This was still my fault. Somehow.
The cars on the bridge weren’t alone. The streets of Vallejo were equally choked, although the vehicles had been carefully pushed to this side or that, creating open channels in the motionless traffic. A casual observer would have thought those channels were organic, arising naturally as the drivers had succumbed to their invertebrate attackers. From the way Fang swung the car from one clear path to the next, it was clear that they had been created to allow for occasions just like this one.
It might have been okay if the cars had been empty, or at least intact, but both those things were too much to ask. Windows were smashed, or smeared with streaks of long-dried blood, or both. Bodies were still belted into the seats where they had died, while others had fallen in the street, dried out by the elements or picked clean by predators. Every time we came around a corner it seemed like we dislodged another flock of crows, sending the urban scavenger birds flapping into the early morning sky. They’d clearly owned the streets long enough to turn bold, because they came back as soon as we rounded the next corner; I could see them returning to their prizes if I looked behind me. And I couldn’t stop looking back.
The lights were still on in half the city, with flickering streetlamps and incongruously well-lit storefronts on every street. Nathan saw me looking and said, “Not all systems fail at the same rate. Enough of the city is on solar or hydro power that it’ll be months before Vallejo is completely dark.”
“Even then, a few of the power stations are still pumping,” said Fishy amiably. “We could go around and shut everything off, but if this place goes dark before it stops being a bright spot on the grid, someone could figure out that we’re here, and we’d rather avoid that for as long as possible.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because Doctor C is wanted for terrorism, naturally,” said Fishy.
Nathan didn’t say a word.
I twisted in my seat to look at him, eyes wide, and asked, “Is that true?”
“She did help create a creature that is now in the process of destroying the human race,” said Nathan. “Whether that was her intention or not, it doesn’t look good.”
“Oh,” I said, and then the vast, primary-colored shape of Captain Candy’s Chocolate Factory came into view ahead of us, and conversation died, at least for the moment.
Fang drove across the largely empty parking lot and through an open gate into an underground garage that had probably been used to house delivery trucks, once upon a time, before the end of the world. Most of those trucks were gone now, except for a few parked against the far wall. Fang drove across the garage to the row of spaces right in front of a pair of sliding glass doors. Soft white light poured through the glass, bathing us in radiance, welcoming us home.
“You parked in the handicapped space again, asshole,” said Fishy amiably. He opened the car door, picking up his rifle as he slid out. “Dr. Cale’s going to have your head.”
“Dr. Cale doesn’t drive, and like I keep telling you, humanity is a handicap,” said Fang. “How else can you explain the things we’ve done to ourselves? Sal, I’m glad we were able to recover you. Now don’t get lost again.” He got out of the car, pocketing the keys, and went striding toward the door.
“Asshole,” repeated Fishy, and trotted after him.
I stayed where I was, my legs suddenly feeling like they were frozen to the seat. I’d wanted nothing more than to get back to the people I’d lost since I was taken, and now that safety seemed like it was within my grasp, I was terrified. What if Dr. Cale was angry with me for letting myself get grabbed? What if they tried to lock me up to keep me from going missing again? I couldn’t handle another cage. I just couldn’t.
“Sal.” Nathan’s voice was gentle. I turned to face him, and he reached out to rest the back of his hand against my cheek, smiling just a little. “It’s all right to be frightened. I’m pretty sure that I’d be scared too, if our positions were reversed. But you’re home now. Mom isn’t going to be mad at you. To be honest, she thinks you’re some kind of miracle. None of us thought we were ever going to see you again.” His voice broke a little on the last word. That, more than anything, told me that he was telling the truth.
I leaned forward and kissed him. He kissed me back, and for a few minutes, all the rest didn’t matter: we were actually alone, and together, and no one was trying to pull us apart. That was worth everything in the world. So I kissed him, and he kissed me, and then he was undoing my seat belt and pulling me into his lap, and I was exactly where I was meant to be. Where I should have been all along, and would have been, if we’d been just a little bit more careful.
Nathan’s cheeks were flushed when he pulled away, and his glasses were fogged, making him look young and wild-eyed and a little lost. “I thought you were gone, and I was trying to make myself believe it,” he said. “I am so sorry. I am so sorry I was ready to give up on you.”