Beefy's energy fl ags, I'm catching up, he's not going to make it. I glance back: Ashley June is nothing but a pile of clothes, the SunCloak useless.
Another cloud drifts across the sun. Ahead of me, Beefy regains his form. Ashley June remains behind, a discarded and motionless pile of clothes.
In the heper vil age, nothing moves. I'm close enough to see that all windows and doors have been shut closed. Then Sissy springs out, her hands quickly tying the dagger strap around her thin waist. Arms and hands from inside the mud hut reach out for her, trying to draw her back in, but she slaps them away. She races toward Beefy and me, her face a mixture of determination and fear, the fl ashing daggers in her hands pulsating rapidly like the hammering of her heart.
Her appearance rejuvenates Beefy. He picks up even more speed, starts racing toward the vil age. Even in his debilitated state, he must know. That he is fast approaching the point of no return. Even now, he can still turn around, make it back to the safety of the Institute, if not in one piece, then at least alive. But if he presses on toward the heper vil age, there's no going back anymore.
With kamikaze intent, Beefy's head snaps back, his legs pound the crusty ground, and he emits a snarled hiss from between fanged teeth. He is going for the hepers. Come what may, he is going to them. No matter the sun: he wil bound into the vil age, tear down doors and windows, rip the hepers to shreds, sink his teeth into the soft give of their necks, even as the sun burns into his skin and melts it into wax, even as his eyebal s explode and ooze vitreous juice down his sliding face, nose, cheeks. None of it matters even as he succumbs to the rays, even as he dissolves into a puddle of pus, so long as he dies with hepers in his arms and heper juice in his system. What a way to go, not so gently into the night.
Sissy, too, has picked up her speed as she sprints toward us. No one is backing off from anyone. Without breaking pace, she fl ings a dagger to my left, a ferocious sidearm thrust. The dagger shoots out, twirling as it sails across the plains, blinking with refl ected sunlight. Again, it looks as though she's missed the mark by a mile; but again, the dagger swings around in a wide arc, boomeranging toward us. With that dagger in midfl ight, Sissy, still charging toward us, fl ings another dagger, this time in the opposite direction to my right. My head tries to fol ow it. But within seconds, I've lost it.
And not just that one. I've lost track of the other dagger as well .
They've disappeared in the plains. But I can hear them: a gyrating whirr, growing louder, zeroing in on Beefy from both sides.
A second later, the fl ying daggers col ide midair right in front of me. There's a metal ic clink as blade hits blade, then a brief spray of sparks. Sissy has thrown the daggers with amazing accuracy, their joint fl ight trajectories forming a perfect circle. But not amazing enough. She's missed Beefy's head, her intended target; instead of striking the temples of his head, the daggers have clashed into each other and fal en to the ground three yards behind Beefy.
She underestimated his speed, his desire.
If Beefy notices, he doesn't slow down. Instead, he strides harder, faster. But the sunlight is doing a number on him.
His breathing is more labored, and despite his greater effort, he's slowed down some.
I'm catching up with him.
Then I hear another whirring sound. Sissy's thrown another dagger. But I have no idea from which direction it's coming, the left or the right. Panicked, I swing my head from side to side, a desperate effort to detect a fl ash of light. But I can't side, a desperate effort to detect a fl ash of light. But I can't locate it, can only hear it, the whirr slicing through the air louder and louder.
The dagger hits Beefy smack in the thigh. Sissy threw this one straight as an arrow at Beefy, head- on. But if anything, the impact, instead of slowing him down, seems to give him strength. He picks up speed and, though limping, is now leaping toward the vil age.
He'l be there within ten seconds.
But Sissy's not done. still running at us, she takes out her last dagger, gripping it in hand by the blunt side of the blade. In one fl uid motion, her arm shoots out from her waist, then up diagonal y across her chest, hand facing downward, her wrist fl icking upward with the rapid snap of a card dealer. It's a perfect under-handed throw, a reverse sidearm fl ick that propels the dagger with speed and aim. Right at us. I duck down.
Needlessly. The knife catches Beefy in front of me, impaling him square in the chest. Because of the liquefying effect of the sun on him, his body offers little re sis tance; the dagger disappears into it like a spoon into soup. For only the briefest of moments, he slows; but then he gives an ear- piercing scream and races toward Sissy with renewed vigor, the dagger lost somewhere in his body.
A glimmering halo suddenly forms around the vil age. The glass wal of the Dome. It's emerging. But too late. Beefy wil easily clear the wal in a single leap. Once inside the Dome, he will have at it with the hepers, be given free rein.
The Dome will become a sunny globe of death, a prison of violence for the hepers trapped inside and, soon after, for him. But he is beyond caring.
Beefy suddenly slows, screaming, a gurgling, swol en sound. The sun's getting to him. The gap between us closes. Just as he's col ecting his legs under him to jump over the rising Dome wal , I leap at him. I sideswipe both his legs out from under him; my arm comes away sticky. He spil s, crashing into the dirt in a heap.
His face, when he shoots me a look, is horrifi c. Pus oozes out from open sores in his skin, milky yel ow emulsions that coagulate with the creamy SunBlock Lotion. His upper lip, melted away and detached on one side, hangs on one end, fl apping against his cheek.
Without the upper lip, his upper teeth are bared now in a perpetual snarl. He wastes little time on me. To him, I am just competition, another hunter to outrace and outeat. He smacks me with the back-side of his hand, and I go fl ying backward. He is already on his feet, running to the closing Dome.
I'm col apsed on the ground, my head spinning, unable to fi nd my legs.
He's much slower. The sun is melting away not only his fl esh, but his muscles. His legs have become squishy bags of pus now, his calf and thigh muscles quickly disintegrating. With a cry, he leaps up at the closing glass wal .
He doesn't come close. His body slams against the glass no farther than halfway up. When he slides down the wal , his fl esh sticks to the glass like melted pizza. Yel ow, cheesy, fl eshy. He picks himself up, delirious with desire at the sight of Sissy, delirious with anguish at her unreachability. “I can smel you!” he hisses, and takes a few steps back and charges at the wal again. Then he is sliding down again. He slaps his open palms on the glass, hoists his body along the glass. The sticky melt of skin gives him unexpected traction on the glass, and he is crawling up with surprising effect.
He's going to make it. The hole at the top of the Dome is closing too slowly. Once he drops down on the inside, he won't have a lot of time before the sun disintegrates him completely. But the sight and feel and taste of the hepers wil give him an adrenaline boost that will let him get to at least a couple of them, if not all of them.
Sissy sees what happening. She barks an order at the others, who scamper into the mud huts. Then she's spinning around, trying to fi nd a weapon. But there is none, not that one would have helped at this point. But her shoulders don't slump; her arms tighten, readying for the fi ght she knows is coming. But her eyes: even from where I lie, I can see fear fl ood them. Her eyes fi nd mine. For a moment, through the glass of the Dome, our eyes lock. I remember the fi rst time I saw her, through the glass of my deskscreen. It's the same look. Defi ant yet afraid.
Ben comes fl ying out of a hut, tears in his eyes, gripping an ax.
Sissy takes the ax, barks him back inside. He stays, fi sts clenched.
Beefy is halfway up the closing Dome. He's going to make it, the Dome— There's no time to think or refl ect. I just react. I leap to my feet, run to the Dome in seconds. Only one way to catch up to him. I plant my hands and feet in the sticky patches of his skin left on the Dome. Rungs of a ladder made the texture of melted cheese. I scramble up, using the sticky goo for traction.
Above, at the cusp of the circular opening, he slips down a few yards. He regains his footing. Starts climbing again. My last chance.
I leap up, stretching out with my right arm as far as I can. My hand lands on his shin. Quickly, I fasten my fi ngers into a vise around his ankle. I pul him down a few yards. Then my fi ngers squeeze through his ankle as if they're going through warm butter. And then I'm sliding down on the glass, a screeching sound that fol ows me all the way down.
My grab isn't enough to drag him down, but it slows him.
He scrambles up with a scream fi l ed with lunacy and desperation, toward the closing hole, now no wider than the diameter of a street manhole. He gets one leg into it, is about to swing his body down through the hole, when— He doesn't fi t. He squirms his body, torquing it, trying to twist it into the closing hole, but it's no use. He's too big.
And it closes in on him swiftly like a no- nonsense vise, entrapping him. There's nowhere to go. He sits atop the Dome, one leg dangling down into the interior, awash in the rays of sunlight.
The Dome closes completely, slicing off his spongy leg.
The leg fal s into the interior, exploding on the ground in a yel ow spray.
His screaming is horrible; silence arrives only after his vocal cords disintegrate into a viscous liquid. And then he is no more. all that remains are yolky streaks of liquid running down the Dome on all sides, like an egg dropped on a bald head.
I pick myself up. Need to get away. Running on unsteady legs, I suddenly col apse to my knees. I'm doubled over like a beggar doing penance. My insides heave. Then I'm vomiting, all the food and liquids I'd taken in with the hepers gushing out. I get to my feet even as I'm dry heaving. My feet zig and zag against each other, wobbling. One last look at the Dome: Sissy is hurrying into a mud hut, one arm draped across Ben's back.
Minutes later, walking to the library, I'm better. I pick up the bottles of water I'd discarded earlier, wash out the sticky grime from my hands. Splash water on my face.