Chapter 8

"So why are the men always the warriors?" Kelly asked.

Daniel was wiping the sword in the grass, to get off the thick, pasty blue liquid that had built up from his battle -- raptor blood, near as he could figure. "Oh, that's easy," he said. "It's because we're expendable."

"Oh?" she said, intrigued. "How so?"

"Well, that's easy," he said, glancing up from his work. "Imagine a tribe with, say, a hundred men and two women. There's a big limit on how many kids that tribe can produce; the tribe will most likely die out. But if it was the other way around -- two men, a hundred women -- then the tribe would flourish. Assuming that they didn't have any hangups about exclusive relationships, anyway."

"Hmm," she said. "Interesting philosophy."

"Not philosophy, fact," he said. He walked over and sat down beside her, holding the flat of the sword up to the spot in his side where the raptor's claws had connected. Almost immediately, the color began to return to his face. He rested for a moment, then continued, "I don't remember exactly who said this, but there's a famous quote saying that having a baby takes nine months, and you can't speed it up by assigning nine men to the project. Although, depending on how friendly the woman and men are, it can be a whole lot more fun."

"So how does that extend to cases where there's just one woman and one man, and they're not sleeping together?" she asked.

"Oh, it's simple," he said, shifting the sword's position. "It can be either a social thing or a genetic thing, really. But any group of people that doesn't treat women and children as precious is a group of people that will die out within a few generations. So any tribe that survives for any length of time, by definition, tends to protect the women and children. It doesn't really matter whether it's part of the genetic code or the social code, it's just there, part of just about every member of that society."

"So is this something you read in some philosophy class?" she asked.

"No, not really," he said. "Most of it is just stuff I've thought through over the years."

"Hmm," she said. "Interesting."

He stared at the sky. "And, beyond all that social evolution stuff, I really think every man wants to be a hero." He smiled ruefully. "That's bitten me a few times, because not all women want to be saved these days."

"I wasn't complaining," she said. "I don't think." She gave him a sidelong glance, then joined him in looking into the distance. "I did feel like I should have been doing something other than standing around and throwing rocks."

"It's funny," he said. "That second one was harder to kill than the first one."

"Maybe you were just getting tired," she said. "You don't exactly swing a sword around every day, do you?"

"Well, no," he admitted. "Actually, the sword seemed to get a little lighter as I went on. Probably all the adrenalin and endorphins running around in my bloodstream." He glanced at the cuts in his side, the blood flow just starting to subside. "And out my side," he said with a smile. "I almost wonder if it's because the second one had just eaten, so it was a little stronger."

"I still don't quite buy that thing about them eating batteries," she said. "That's just a little too bizarre."

"Hey, none of this was my idea," he said. "I didn't invite the raptors."

"Mmm," Kelly murmured. Then she stood, pointing into the sky. "Heads up! Here come some more!"

Three raptors winged toward them. Then, suddenly, the ground rumbled, and the raptors turned and wheeled away.

"What the hell?" cried Daniel, trying to keep his footing as the ground shifted. Kelly grabbed his arm to steady herself.

Then the ground quieted. They looked frantically around, but saw nothing different.

"I didn't like that," Daniel said quietly.

"Let's get out of here," Kelly said softly. "I've got a bad feeling about this place. We can find more raptors somewhere else."

Daniel nodded slowly. He glanced at Kelly's hand still gripping his arm, and she let go and turned away self-consciously. He looked at her briefly, then turned and headed back down the road.

"So what exactly do you have against the raptors?" she said as they walked along a tree-lined street. Aside from one flipped-over car in the middle of the road, and the total absence of other cars or people, the neighborhood looked normal, even homey.

He studied the ground. "Well, I suspect they have something to do with Anna being missing," he said softly.

"You haven't said much about her," she said.

"Don't want to remind myself, I guess," he said. "If I find ways to keep myself busy, then maybe I won't go crazy."

She nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I can kind of see that." She bit her lip. "I think I may go crazy anyway. Maybe I already have. After all, here I am, going after these giant black flying things with poisoned claws that eat batteries, and I don't even have a weapon." She laughed oddly.

"Well, don't think you're taking advantage of me or anything," he said. "I told you about the whole hero thing. It's as good a way to keep from going crazy as anything."

They were passing through a commercial district, and suddenly they caught sight of someone emerging from a building about a block ahead.

"Hello?" Kelly called. "Hey! Who are you up there?"

The figure turned, surprised. She had short, spiky blonde hair and a navy-blue trenchcoat. "Stop!" she called, waving them back. "Stay back!"

They stopped. Daniel pushed the tip of the sword into the ground and watched, curiously. "What's going on?" he called.

"R-Rachel?" called another voice.

The spiky blonde looked upward and said something that Daniel and Kelly couldn't hear. Then there was another sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob.

Daniel tried to trace the blonde's gaze, but couldn't see the front of the building from where he was standing. "I'm not sure I like this," he muttered, pulling the sword back out of the ground and crossing the road to get a better angle. He was almost across when he stopped dead.

"What is it?" called Kelly, hurrying over to join him.

Then he had started to run down the road, but there was too much ground to cover and not enough time.

A shadow detached itself from the top of the building -- perhaps twenty-five stories up -- and plummeted, agonizingly slowly, toward the ground.

The world seemed to hold its breath.

Then the body hit the ground, and even from a block away, Daniel could hear the crunch. A shiver seemed to run through everything.

In the distance, a raptor screeched. Daniel set his jaw and kept running.

"I -- I can't believe you just let her jump," Kelly raged, her hands clenched into fists. Daniel knelt over the body, feeling for a pulse, but his heart wasn't in it. He could see the obvious.

Rachel bit her lip and sat down on the curb. "It wasn't my choice," she said. Her voice was the gravelly voice of a longtime smoker, despite her youthful, unlined face. "She has the right to decide to die. I can't make that choice for her." Something flashed in her eyes, and she turned away, sitting down on the curb.

"But you just stood there and watched," Kelly said in a strangled voice.

"What's it to you?" Rachel said, her voice tight. Daniel stood, and saw that Rachel's shoulders were shaking slightly.

"What's it to me?" Kelly cried. "I'll tell you what it is to me! My boyfriend killed himself a year ago!" She swallowed hard. "Just after I told him I was --" Tears were flowing down her cheeks, and she turned away and sank to the grass.

Daniel knelt next to her. "Are you all right?" he said softly. She bit her lip and nodded, then looked up at him and grimaced. "No," she said hoarsely. She looked away.

Daniel rose to his feet again, looking back at the body lying on the concrete. He shivered, and wrapped his arms around himself.

"But why?" he said in Rachel's direction, without looking at her.

"Why?" Rachel repeated in disbelief, staring at him. "Are you kidding? Can you blame her for not wanting to go on in this hellhole?" She gestured at their surroundings. "Look around you. The water gives you diarrhea. There's hardly any food to be found. There are no cars coming and going. We're in the middle of a fucking city, man. There's no food. There aren't any crops, there aren't any trucks bringing crops. There are no refrigerators or freezers anywhere. What the hell are you planning to eat? Sooner or later, you're going to run out of Twinkies from the corner convenience store. Then what are you going to do?"

Daniel tightened his arms around himself. "I don't know," he admitted.

"I'll tell you what else you don't know," Rachel went on, a snarl in her voice. "Do you know what it's like to have thugs break into your house and take everything you need to survive? Do you know what it's like to have gangs roaming the streets and threatening to kill you if you don't bring back enough food and water? On foot? Do you know what it's like to see those -- those things setting your parents' home on fire?"

Daniel stared. "What are you talking about?"

Rachel glared at him. "That's right," she said. "You're soft. The gangs haven't gotten out here to the 'burbs yet. But they will. You haven't seen what they do to you, have you?" She shifted her stare to Kelly, who had turned to listen, her face pale. "I'll tell you, they won't stop at raping you. That's if you're one of the lucky ones. You're pretty -- you might last a little longer than some of the other ones."

Daniel's hands tightened on the sword. Kelly looked away.

"How did you get away?" he asked quietly.

Rachel laughed shortly and humorlessly. "When they sent me out to scavenge, they sent one of the gang's men out with me. But he picked the wrong spot for a picnic. There were some big pieces of broken glass where I could reach them." She laughed again. "I made sure he wouldn't pull that shit on any other woman again. He didn't put up much fight after that. Then one of the little flyers got him as I was walking away."

Daniel closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Damn," he said. Without opening his eyes, he nodded in the direction of the crushed figure. "What about her?"

"I don't know her," Rachel said. Kelly looked sharply at her, perhaps catching something in her voice. Rachel, facing toward the road, didn't notice the look. She continued, "I think she was in with one of the other gangs, and just managed to run faster than they could. A lot of those gang lords are fat-assed pussies. She didn't talk much, but they didn't leave her with much will to live. All she cared about was getting away." She looked up at Daniel, her eyes blazing. "She took the only sure way of getting away from them for good."

There was a rush of air and wings, and they all turned to see a raptor landing next to the fallen woman's body and bending over her.

"Get away from her!" Kelly screamed. "Leave her in peace!"

Daniel was already running. As he passed Rachel, he glanced in her direction, and was surprised to see what looked like a smile, that flickered across her face and was gone.

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