Strain

Strain, by Amelia C. Gormley
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-071-0
eBook release: 
Feb 17, 2014
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-070-3
Print release: 
Feb 17, 2014
Word count: 
104,300
Page count: 
375
Type: 
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Ebook $6.99
Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
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In a world with little hope and no rules, the only thing they have to lose is themselves.

Rhys Cooper is a dead man. Cut off from the world since childhood, he’s finally exposed to the lethal virus that wiped out most of the human race. Now his only hope for survival is infection by another strain that might provide immunity. But it’s sexually transmitted, and the degradation he feels at submitting to the entire squad of soldiers that rescued him eclipses any potential for pleasure—except with Darius, the squadron’s respected, capable leader.

Sergeant Darius Murrell has seen too much death and too little humanity. He’s spent a decade putting plague victims out of their misery and escorting survivors to a safe haven he can never enjoy. He’d rather help Rhys live than put him down, so when Rhys can’t reconcile himself to doing what’s necessary to survive, Darius is forced to save Rhys in spite of himself.

But with each passing day, it looks less and less likely that Rhys can be saved. And that means that Darius might soon have to put a bullet in the head of the one person in years who reminds him of what it means to be human.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

CHAPTER ONE


Priorities

Death smelled like old wooden pews whose varnish and cushions had become saturated with acrid layers of dust. It smelled like mildewing carpet rotting from rain that had leaked through a roof he’d never had the skill or resources to repair. The hymnals had long since been used for tinder, but the musty scent of old books—once so comforting but now vaguely nauseating—remained.


It was dim, too. The dust dancing in the speckled sunlight that filtered through the filthy stained glass windows could more accurately be described as sheets rather than motes. In the absence of any other light, it lent the room a dusky quality that would have been beautiful if Rhys hadn’t despised it.


He took all this in during what he knew would be his final heartbeats. He brandished his useless shotgun like a baseball bat and scowled at the splintering door. A revenant started clawing through the hole, and Rhys used its struggle with the shattered timbers to strike the first blow. The moist, sickening crunch of the heavy stock smashing in the bones of the revenant’s face was a sound he didn’t think he’d forget, assuming he lived to remember. He wanted to puke all over the howling body that fell to the floor, its tangled hair streaming and its grime-caked breasts swinging. Even if it—she—was trying to eat him, she had once been a person.


He wondered if he should ask God for forgiveness while he bashed the still-struggling body into the aisle runner, which was so dark and dingy a red that, in the faint light, it looked like a river of dried blood flowing down the middle of the chapel. He hoped to snap the revenant’s spine or pulverize the brain or at least blind it before the other revs that rampaged outside were attracted by the noise. If Father Maurice was to be believed, revenants weren’t actually undead, despite the name. He’d said that rumor had only started because everyone had assumed the Rot to be fatal without exception. When the virus had mutated and began turning some of its victims into animals, people had panicked and made up wild claims about zombies. But no, the revs were alive, and if they were alive, they could be killed just about any way a living, breathing person could. They were just strong, insane, and impervious to pain.


Rhys was splattered with blood by the time the revenant stopped thrashing. A drop itched as it chilled and dried on his lip, its weight irritating.


Don’t lick. Don’t lick. Don’t lick.


He supposed it didn’t really matter. Even if he managed not to become dinner, he was still a dead man. He had been from the moment he’d breathed the same air as the revenant.


Knowing that made it easier, in a morbidly reassuring way. He had a small knife in his pocket, its faux-ebony handle cracked. It was useless as a weapon but enough to slit his wrists. If he managed to get out of here, he might still die a clean death. If he was smart, he’d do it now, before they got through the door.


But then they might still turn and go after Cadence and Caleb.


His chest heaved and his arms ached as he stared down with dispassionate curiosity at the caved-in face of the rev he’d killed. It was all about priorities. He could see that with a remarkable clarity he’d never had before. First, keep the revs from chasing his sister and nephew. Second, take them out and avoid being eaten. Third, kill himself before the Rot set in or he became a revenant. Knowing what to do had never been so easy.


Now, should he stay and wait, or try to bolt? It was taking the other revs longer than Rhys had anticipated to stampede in. He didn’t feel like cowering in the chapel waiting to be eaten, though, so he tried to make a break for it.


It turned out to be a mistake. They caught him in the narrow stone corridor, where he didn’t have as much room to swing his makeshift club as he’d had in the chapel. He sprinted down the hallway, gasping desperate breaths, trying to reach the outside door that would lead him to the courtyard between the building and the gates. Where he would go after that, he had no idea. The nearest town was a good ten miles away from the monastery nestled in the rolling hills that had once been the vineyards of the Willamette Valley wine country. Aside from a few scattered farmhouses and wineries, there was no place for him to hide.


It was a moot point, anyway. If the others were heading east toward Newberg, he’d have to go west, which meant it would be a lot farther than ten miles to another town. What had once been the city of McMinnville lay in that direction, if he remembered the old map correctly, but he didn’t have a prayer of reaching it with revs on his tail, and he didn’t dare try to meet up with the others until he lost them.


Besides, Father Maurice and Jacob probably wouldn’t wait around to see if he could meet with them. After all, Father Maurice had forced Rhys’s mother to give up on waiting for his father at their chosen rendezvous point, seven years ago when his dad had done the same thing Rhys was doing now: using himself as a lure to keep a pack of revs away from his family.


Rhys heard growling behind him and turned to face another pair of revenants. Hadn’t there been more? Rhys could swear he’d seen at least four coming through the falling-down gate outside the monastery. These two had fresh blood on their faces, and he could only hope it was from Father Maurice or Jacob.


The pair snarled like rabid dogs and stank to high heaven. Their wild manes reeked of oil and dirt. The revs who had once been men had beards even more ragged than the facial hair that grew in haphazard patches around Rhys’s jaw. Clearly hygiene wasn’t high on the revenant list of priorities.


Rhys giggled madly. He was losing it. His senses were aflame, singing; his awareness of everything had sharpened to a keen point. His heart raced, and his muscles quivered. In those moments before death, he felt more alive, more vital, than he had in the past seven years. He could almost thank the revenants for smelling so foul because it made his last breaths into something that actually had an impact.


For one instant, he considered not fighting. Let them kill him. Let his final moment of this delicious sensitivity be the excruciating pain of their teeth rending his flesh.


In the end, though, his survival instinct was too strong. He swung his useless shotgun-turned-cudgel with what limited momentum he could muster, knocking the first rev back as a spray of blood erupted from a cut on its brow. Its head snapped back toward him, its eyes narrowing in fury. So human and yet so lacking anything resembling humanity.


The other maddened creature charged him before he had a chance to draw the blood-smeared shotgun back for another blow. It knocked him to the stone floor, driving the breath from his lungs. The club flew out of his hands. He managed a lucky blow to its throat with his elbow, winning himself a moment more of existence as it recoiled, gagging. Then it pressed down on him again, yellowed teeth snapping.


The world exploded in a series of percussive blasts that bounced off the stone walls. A hot spray he thought must be his own blood washed over him. In the next second, everything was eerily silent except for the high-pitched ringing in his ears. The revenant above him was still, its weight crushing him until it was hauled away.


His first thought when he opened his eyes was that his final prayer had been answered. He’d died before the revs could begin to eat him. God appeared before him, stern and mighty enough to justify all the fuss people made about Him. His dark face was concerned in a detached sort of way. That made sense: Rhys had never seen any indication that God actually cared for him. He didn’t know why God would be wearing camo fatigues or why He had His holy hair pulled back in a ponytail, but who was Rhys to question the Almighty? Instead, he accepted the proffered hand, and it pulled him to his feet as though he weighed nothing.


Then things got weird. God patted him down in brisk, hurried thumps as He mouthed something. He shouted, and Rhys could almost make out the words through the humming in his ears. It was like trying to listen to someone speak underwater. God ripped Rhys’s blood-soaked shirt open. When Rhys stared mutely, unable to answer the questions he couldn’t hear, God’s expression turned grim and He frowned with merciless pity. He shook His head, and His nearly black eyes went cold. Then He turned away from Rhys to gesture to someone.


Rhys caught sight of the woman behind him, who held a shotgun in her hands. A startling streak of white threaded through the thick black braid that hung over her shoulder. Muffled and indistinct, as if from a great distance, the man’s words pierced the ringing in Rhys’s ears.


“He’s not answering. He could already be going catatonic if this wasn’t his first exposure. Put him out of his misery. We can’t take him with us and risk exposing the others.”


“No!” Rhys’s shouted reply was muted in his own ears. “I’m not infected! At least I wasn’t until—” He gestured to the corpses at his feet and the blood coating his skin.


“Call the others. Tell them to bring water! Soap!” the dark-skinned man shouted to his companion, then whirled on Rhys. “There’s a wind pump outside. Is there running water here? Showers?”


Rhys began to sprint before he remembered to nod, dashing up the stairs to the communal bathroom. He didn’t even bother to strip before he turned on the shower and stepped under the frigid spray. The man who’d saved him followed only a step behind, tearing away the remnants of Rhys’s shirt with a wet snarl, then swiping the rivulets of crimson water away from his lips, which Rhys pressed closed.


“You have soap, son?” The man had to repeat it twice, louder the second time, for Rhys to hear.


Rhys shook his head and closed his eyes for good measure. They’d used the last of their supply of soap years ago. He inhaled only when the need for breath was undeniable, afraid of snorting some of the bloody water up his nose. The man began to scrub him with something harsh and pungent smelling. Rhys startled when unknown hands shredded his ratty jeans like they were tissue paper, not bothering to strip the tight, wet denim down his legs.


Only when someone shut off the water and pronounced him clean did he realize that he was naked in the presence of God knew how many people. Blind and still partially deafened, he’d hardly been aware of others coming into the bathroom.


“He’s still been exposed,” said a low, female voice behind him. Rhys blinked water out of his eyes to get a better look around. The man who’d washed him still stood in the shower stall with him. His fatigues were soaked, and water beaded on his ebony hair. His dark eyes were pitying. He patted Rhys down again, looking between Rhys’s fingers and lifting his arms to peer underneath.


“Guess we’ll wait and see, then,” he said with an edge to his voice.


“Darius—”


He growled. “Don’t, Xolani.”


She sighed. “Well, there’s no harm in taking him with us, at least until he starts to show symptoms. We can keep him isolated, hope for a miracle. There’s nothing left here for him anyway.”


Take him?


Rhys pulled away from the strange hands on his body, mustering every ounce of defiance he could, and scowled at the newcomers. “I’m not going anywhere with a bunch of strangers. Where’s my sister?”

###

Darius had to hand it to the kid. With his shoulder blades visible beneath his skin, ribs jutting out like the bars of a xylophone, and his hazel eyes bulging with shock, he still had fight in him. No sooner had the question left his lips than he pushed past Darius.


Cady! Cady, are you okay?”


Darius’s stomach sank, and Xolani’s normally stern expression softened with sympathy. The kid darted out the door before Darius thought to intercept him.


“Where is she? Cady!


Shit.


“Keep searching the rooms.” Darius stretched his neck to one side, then the other, trying not to growl. “Find me that last rev Jamie reported, and get him some damn clothes!” He took off after the survivor, his long strides carrying him down the stairs where he caught the naked, dripping young man almost out the door. He might as well have been trying to hold an angry badger. The survivor thrashed and flailed, and Darius finally had to push him away when he started scratching and biting. Last fucking thing he needed was for the kid to draw blood.


Not that it mattered.


Suddenly free, the survivor didn’t pause but charged the final few steps to the door, against which Darius slammed him, chest first, to eliminate the hazard posed by the kid’s teeth and nails.


“Settle down, son. There’s still a rev on the loose, and we gotta find it. My scouts reported four. I’d hate to think you fended off those other ones just to run smack into the last.”


“My sister might run into it!” The flurry of struggles renewed. “Cady!”


Darius growled to himself and tried to make his tone at least somewhat sympathetic. “There ain’t anyone left alive out there.”


The thrashing came to a shuddering halt.


“They got away?” The plaintive hope in the kid’s voice probably made a whole host of angels somewhere burst into tears.


Darius was no angel, but he didn’t want to be an asshole, either. “I’m sorry, son.”


“But the revs were supposed to come after me. I was going to distract them.” His voice cracked with desperate confusion. “They were supposed to get me!”


Oh fuck. This was why he hated dealing with survivors. Especially traumatized ones.


Futilely brave, fucking heroic traumatized ones.

“They probably heard the baby cry, and it was all over.” As comfort went, Darius was pretty sure it fell short, but he didn’t know what else to say. “Revs are predators, and like any predator, they know babies are easy prey. You couldn’t have got their attention no matter what you tried.”


To the kid’s credit, he didn’t cry. That would have put the perfect cap on Darius’s afternoon. Instead, the boy drew a few quavering breaths and said almost calmly, “Let me go.”

Darius sighed. “You don’t want to see what’s out there, son.”


“Darius.” Xolani spoke from behind him, and Darius almost jumped. Shit. He’d been so distracted by the kid, he wasn’t even watching his six. “Kaleo and Gina are reporting the rev still at large isn’t in the building or courtyard. Jamie says Titus is out on his bike. He suspects the last rev ran off from the pack, and Titus gave pursuit. We’re still looking for clothes, but for now here’s a blanket our survivor can wrap around himself.”


Darius reached back to take the scratchy woolen blanket. “If you promise not to bolt, I’ll let you loose so you can cover up.”


The tips of the kid’s ears turned red, and he gave a stiff nod. Darius eased his weight off him and stood back, proffering the blanket. Avoiding Darius’s eyes, the survivor wrapped it around himself, then opened the door and dashed out.


“Fuck this noise.” Darius threw up his hands in defeat. “It ain’t my job to baby the civvies.”


He heard Xolani sigh. “The profundity of your compassion makes me weep.”


“They teach you those big words in med school?”


“Taught me a few short ones, too. The kind with four letters. Want to hear them?”


“Go saw some bones or something, and get off my ass.”


She snorted and brushed past him, following the boy out the door. Growling, Darius went after her.


The survivor was standing before a row of four blood-soaked blankets lying over the victims Darius had seen in the weed-filled courtyard on his way into the monastery. One blanket-covered lump was the size of an adult. Another was only a foot and a half long, and from beneath a third trailed long, tawny hair that was nearly the exact shade of the kid’s own. The fourth blanket lay over someone not much smaller than the girl.


For all his professed lack of compassion, Darius sent a mental thank-you to whichever of his people had thought to cover up the mangled bodies. That was probably Joe.


Xolani stopped a few feet from the survivor, giving him space. “You have a name, kid?”


The boy stared down at the lumps with an almost eerie lack of expression, as if he’d simply shut down. “Rhys Cooper.” There was no inflection in his voice. He might as well have been a robot.


“Good to meet you, Rhys. I’m Xolani, and the big guy who was manhandling you is Darius.”


The kid nodded, not speaking. He didn’t even glance her way.


“She was your sister?” Darius wasn’t sure what Xolani thought she was doing, prodding him to talk about it like that, but better her than Darius when the bawling began.


The young man nodded again.


Xolani’s voice softened. “Was that her baby?”


Another wordless nod.


“Who was the father? The old man? There, under that one?” Xolani’s question came a little cautiously. Darius grimaced, aware of what she was really asking. It wouldn’t be the first time adolescent siblings cut off from the world had turned to each other when the impulses of puberty took over. It also wouldn’t be the first time a patriarch had made a harem of the girls in his group.


Delta Company had pretty much seen it all.


The survivor shook his head. “No, it was—” He looked up from the bodies at last, glancing back and forth between them and Xolani. “Wait. If that’s Father Maurice, where’s Jacob?”


“These are all we found.”


“He’s Father Maurice’s son. Late twenties? Tall, longish brown hair and beard?”


Xolani shook her head. “We’ll keep searching.” Her eyes flicked to Darius, and he nodded curtly. They couldn’t leave an unaccounted-for—and possibly infected—survivor running around.


“I’ll tell the rest of the squad to be on the lookout.” Darius turned toward the building, glancing back over his shoulder. “We’ll start gathering wood to burn the bodies. Two piles. One for the revs, the other for the casualties.”


The boy turned his head, looking at Darius with that almost-empty expression. “There’s wood in some of the damaged rooms. Broken furniture. Old timbers that fell in the last earthquake when part of the roof collapsed. You can even use the pews from the chapel, if you can find a way to break them up. Just leave the orchard alone. Someone might come along and need it for food someday.”


Darius couldn’t help but be impressed with the kid’s composure. Most survivors they found would have been hysterical by now. Of course, there was always the distinct possibility he’d melt down at any given moment, but so far he’d kept his head fairly well.


Fucking shame the boy was toast.


Darius nodded and went back inside. Encountering one of his men at the door, he paused. “Kaleo, do another scan of the whole building. We’ve got a civvie at large.”


“On it, Big D.”


Darius checked the rooms until he found the ones where the roof had collapsed and gathered up fallen beams and boards, easily snapping the ones that were too long before heading back out to the courtyard.


Would Xolani break the bad news, or was she going to make him do it?


As Darius emerged with his armful of wood, Titus came through the gates, on foot, hauling a blood-splattered civvie by the collar. His motorcycle was nowhere in evidence.


“Had to chase this pecker down.” He spat into the dirt, flinging the guy away. Darius frowned. Titus didn’t usually give a shit about most people enough to dislike anyone, much less handle a survivor so roughly. “That last rev went tearing after him. Would’ve caught him, too, if I hadn’t taken it out in time. Now I gotta haul my happy ass a half mile back to get the corpse and my fucking bike from where I dropped it to save this dipshit.”


“This the guy you said was missing?” Darius asked, trying to remember the kid’s name. Rhys Cooper. Right. As if it mattered. It was never a good idea to get too familiar with the civvies, and especially not with one who was already exposed.


“Yeah.” The kid sounded like he was chewing glass. Darius glanced at him to see his mouth twist in scorn as the newcomer got a look at the lumps beneath the bloody blankets. The man bent over, spewing his guts up.

“Whose blood is that on him, Titus?”


“Fucked if I know. Could be rev. He might’ve caught some splash when I blew a hole in the thing.”

Shit. “Well, get him over to the pump, then.”


With an irritated grimace, Titus dragged the civvie—who was still retching practically on top of the bodies—to the spigot at the base of the windmill-driven pump. These survivors had gotten lucky; they’d had indoor plumbing and showers, albeit cold ones. Titus dropped the guy onto the ground and opened the faucet while Darius jogged back inside for the soap he’d used on the kid. Just as he reached the doors on his way back out, he heard a reedy voice scream something and then shouts and the sounds of a fight.

Fuck. This day just kept getting better and better. 


CHAPTER TWO


Saviors

Cadence and Caleb were dead, and Jacob had managed to live.


Didn’t that just suck? If the revs weren’t going to chase and kill Rhys the way he’d intended, the least they could have done was gone after Jacob instead.


Rhys spared his so-called brother-in-law a disgusted look when he keeled over and began puking, then went back to contemplating what had been the last of his family. In a moment he’d start moving again. He’d help gather wood so he could do the proper thing and lay his sister and nephew to rest. The prevailing wisdom from back when the plague first began was that revs weren’t above scavenging fresh graves, so cremation was the best way to spare a loved one the indignity of becoming carrion.


He heard the guy in charge, Darius, bark something about getting Jacob washed off, but Rhys couldn’t be bothered to care. If the Rot took Jacob, Rhys wouldn’t waste any tears. Jacob had agreed readily enough, after all, when Father Maurice had tagged Rhys to be bait, writing him off to save their asses.


“Don’t know why we’re bothering,” he heard the grizzled guy over by the pump—had Darius called him Titus? What was with the Roman names, anyway? Was it a theme? Jesus, why couldn’t he focus on a single thought?—grumble to the woman who’d introduced herself as Xolani. “More trouble than this shit stain’s worth. It could just as easily be the girl’s blood as the rev’s. They were on her when the fucker ran off.”


It took a moment for the words to make sense, and then everything went hot and cold all at once. Sweat prickled and chilled as it erupted from pores all over Rhys’s skin. He could feel it running down his back to the crack of his butt. He clenched, like that flushed, crampy moment when your entire body seized up just before the first wave of a bad case of the runs. He whipped his head around to stare at Jacob.


“You ran away?” This was it, then. This was what it felt like to lose his mind. Wow. You really do snap. Rhys was pretty damn sure he felt something physically break inside him. “They were being attacked and you left them?”


Then he was flying at Jacob, the half-healed cracks on his knuckles breaking open as he swung his fists. He drove Jacob out of the pump’s stream and into the muddy soil beneath it, screaming obscenities and trying to pummel him with far more rage than skill. Only Jacob’s shock and the insane force of Rhys’s anger gave him any advantage; he certainly didn’t have the stature, weight, or skill to take down Jacob otherwise.


“Get off me, you cocksucker!”


“You left them!” Spittle flew from his lips, and he didn’t care that he was screeching. His arms flailed, fists driving toward the body beneath him. He couldn’t even see Jacob for the red rush of fury blinding him. “I’ll kill you! You left them!


Jacob managed to flip them, driving the breath from Rhys’s lungs as he hit the ground. He didn’t bother to throw a punch; he just grabbed Rhys’s head and slammed it against one of the bolts on the thick steel pipe coming up from the well. Rhys saw stars, though he kept swinging blind punches toward Jacob as blood trickled down the side of his face and into the shredded, mud-churned bed of moss beneath him. He growled and snarled—sounding, he realized in some disconnected portion of his mind, like a revenant himself. His upper lip and chin were wet, and he wasn’t sure if it was from the pump or if he really was foaming at the mouth. “I’ll kill you! I’ll fucking kill you!


“What the fuck is going on here, Titus?”


He barely heard Darius’s roar before Jacob bashed his head against the pipe again. Then everything went black.

 

###

His head throbbed, and his scalp stung above his left temple, followed by a gross rasp of something tugging on his skin. Rhys tried to bat it away, and someone grabbed his hands.

“Hold still, Rhys. I’m almost done suturing. You couldn’t have stayed out of it a few more minutes, could you, kid?”

That was a woman’s voice. For a mad moment, he thought it might be his mom. But no, it was that olive-skinned lady with the thick braid. Xolani.

“Did I kill him?” He blinked up at her, and she came into blurry focus. He lay on the floor surrounded by green tile. The bathroom. The light coming through the windows was too damn bright. It felt like daggers stabbing him in the eyeballs.

She snorted. “No, though not for lack of trying. I take it that guy’s not a friend of yours?”

“Father Maurice made my sister marry him. If you can call it that. Said they needed to be fruitful and multiply, like the Bible commands.”

“Ah.” Another sting and a tug, and then something snipped. “There. All sewed up. You’re gonna have a fucking wicked headache for a while. You’re probably concussed.”

He tried to lift his head, and it felt like it might fall off his shoulders. “Ow.”

“Yeah, come on.” Her arms slipped under his shoulders and helped sit him up as though he weighed nothing. “If you think you can stand, you can take a quick shower. Darius has sent Jamie and Titus back east to Newberg on their motorcycles to find some clothes for you. They shouldn’t be long. I can get you another blanket in the meantime.”

Rhys looked down and groaned. The sound made his head hurt worse. For the second time that day, he was naked in the presence of strangers, his skin covered in streaks of drying mud.

“How long was I passed out?”

“Maybe half an hour. We’ve got most of the wood gathered and have started burning the revs, but we decided to wait for you before we lit the fire for the others. We need to do it soon, though. It’s almost evening, and we have to secure the gate before dark.”

“Okay.” Rhys swallowed and looked away until his eyes stopped stinging. His mouth tasted metallic, and if he’d had anything in his stomach, he might have puked.

“What happened to your knuckles? That’s not all from trying to punch out that other guy.”

Rhys looked down at his bloodied hand, red meat showing raw through cracked, bruised skin.

“Doesn’t matter. Won’t be happening again.”

“Think you can stand? Otherwise, if you want to sit in the shower, I can turn it on for you while I go find a blanket.”

“I can stand.” With her help, he pushed himself to his feet and staggered into the shower. The shredded remains of his clothing still littered the bottom of it. Jesus, his jeans must have really been threadbare if they’d managed to rip wet denim off him like that. He leaned against the tile of the mildew-spotted wall and let Xolani turn on the cold spray.

“I’ll be right back. Try not to fall over.”

Nodding hurt too much, so Rhys just grunted and began scrubbing off the mud. The longer he was on his feet, the steadier he felt, until he got brave enough to bend over and pick up a clean scrap of his T-shirt to use as a washcloth.

She came back a moment later with another blanket like the one he’d lost when he attacked Jacob. Rhys turned off the water and wrapped it around himself.

“Interesting couple of marks there on your hips and thighs. Last time I saw a set of bruises that looked like that, they were on a guy who’d been beaten with a cane.”

Rhys flushed but said nothing, clutching the blanket tighter.

“The old man had a cane beside him where he died.”

He glowered and stomped out of the bathroom, trying to ignore her when she followed.

“I noticed that guy you tried to clobber the shit out of wasn’t wearing rags like you were.”

“Yeah, well, he didn’t outgrow all of his clothes,” Rhys muttered. “I was twelve when we got here.”

“And how long ago was that?”

“Seven years.” Why was she following him, much less asking all these questions?

“So, it was—what? Just you and your sister, and Jacob and his father?”

“No.”

“That’s right, there was a kid, too. Who else was here?”

He sighed in annoyance. He shouldn’t be so unfriendly to her—after all, she did help save his life and stitch him up—but he really wished she’d stop probing for information about things that weren’t any of her business.

“My mom died a couple years ago,” he answered shortly. “We think it was cancer. She had some, uh, lumps. Gabe—Gabriel—ran away about a year before that, and his parents went to try to find him and never came back. Guess they must all have died, too.” Rhys grimaced, trying not to think of why Gabe had run off. “The eleven-year-old boy you found out there today was Gabe’s little brother, Jeff. When they went after Gabe, they left him behind here, where he’d be safe. There was another family, too, in the beginning. The Merkles. Holly got appendicitis, we think. Her dad committed suicide. Her mom was stung by a bee. Now we’re all that’s left. Anything else you wanna know?”

Xolani shook her head and took his arm without asking, helping him down the stairs. Her grip was really strong, but then, her shoulders were broad even though she wasn’t tall, and she had a solid, muscular build. A scar ran down her cheek, a light line puckering and pulling at the skin and making her look tough. Even without it, she wouldn’t have ever been called pretty. Darius was a lot bigger than her, but something told Rhys that if it came down to a fight between them, she could probably hold her own.

And she didn’t try to apologize or sympathize as he cataloged their losses. He appreciated that.

“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a jerk, and you’re being nice and all, but my head hurts, and can we just not talk about all that?”

“Okay,” she said with perfect equanimity and fell silent.

Darius was outside—along with some of the others whose names Rhys hadn’t gotten yet—standing beside a large pile of scrap wood. Father Maurice, Jeff, Cady, and Caleb were lying on top of it, and Rhys swallowed hard seeing them just draped limply like that with their throats torn out. On the far side of the pyre, Jacob was watching him with eyes that glittered with hatred, but Rhys couldn’t be bothered to care. All he could do was stare at the dark gold of his sister’s blood-matted hair hanging down.

When he drew near, he could smell kerosene fumes.

Darius grabbed a length of wood and lit it from the fire still burning the remains of the revenants. But before he could touch it to the other pile, Jacob lifted his head and intoned, his voice loud and dramatic, “Dear Lord, we commend to you these loved ones: my father, wife, and son . . .”

No mention of sister or nephew, of course.

“Oh, shut up.” Rhys snatched the torch out of Darius’s hand and set the pyre ablaze. The last damn thing he needed to hear was about God and heaven and salvation. After a moment of glaring, Jacob continued droning on, but Rhys didn’t hear the trite platitudes over the roar and crackle of the flames.

He stood there staring into the embers long after everyone else, even Jacob, had drifted away. The wind blew smoke in his face, stinging his eyes. He watched it burn until the bodies were charred beyond recognition and the disgusting smell of seared flesh had stopped twisting his empty stomach, making him gulp against dry heaves.

“It’s getting late, son.” He turned when Darius spoke behind him. “We gotta close the gates, so you need to get inside. Not safe to be out in the open after dark. My people brought some clothes for you.”

Rhys’s throat tightened at the idea of leaving Cady and Caleb, even now, but he nodded, blinking rapidly and hanging his head as he turned to go inside. Darius fell in step beside him.

“Can you not call me ‘son’?” Remembering how snippy he’d been with Xolani, Rhys made an effort to be a little more polite. “Father Maurice used to call me that.”

“Okay.”

“There a reason you’re following me?”

“Gotta make sure you don’t haul off and attack anyone else.” Rhys couldn’t tell from the soldier’s wry expression if he was serious or not. “Bags of clothes are in the chapel. Didn’t know which room was yours, and my people had to get to work locking things down.”

All but the front row of pews had been stripped from the chapel to make the fires, just like he’d suggested. Rhys wondered briefly what they’d used to break them down into scrap wood; he hadn’t seen any saws or sledgehammers. Against the wall was a garbage bag full of clothes and a large backpack that looked military issue.

“Find a few changes that’ll fit you,” Darius said, gesturing toward them. “Leave the rest; you won’t have room to carry it. Choose big. You could stand to put on some weight, and if you do, you might need something larger than what’ll fit you now.”

“Okay.” Rhys nodded and tried not to feel self-conscious over Darius’s presence as he tried on the clothes, since he had no idea what size he wore. He chose two pairs of jeans that were just a little too large. They had to be belted to keep from dropping off his hips. Most of the T-shirts hung loosely, but he took some anyway, as well as a pair of sweats. There were a bunch of socks and several pairs of hiking boots that looked almost new. He found the ones that fit him best, figuring he couldn’t outgrow those.

He also took every pair of underwear, regardless of the size. Despite the grief of this abysmal day, he couldn’t help but be pleased at the presence of those. It had been years since his last pair—so small the elastic had bit into his skin and left blisters—had fallen apart.

“So, who are you people?”

“Used to be Army, back when there was an army. Now we look for survivors and hunt revs.”

When he was dressed, Rhys followed Darius to the industrial-grade kitchen where the monks—who had fled the monastery before Rhys had ever arrived—had once made the cakes and confections they’d sold to keep the monastery self-sustaining. That operation had been the reason Father Maurice had urged them to seek shelter there; they had staples laid away in large quantities. With careful rationing and supplements from the garden and orchard, those staples had lasted Rhys and the others almost seven years.

Darius’s people were perched on the stainless steel tables and counters, eating a combination of vegetables and fruits from the garden in the courtyard and dried rations they had brought themselves. For once there was light in the monastery after sunset; they had brought lanterns with them and placed a few around the kitchen.

Jacob was there, as well, turning on the charm, yukking it up with several members of the squad as if he hadn’t just lost his family hours before. The sound of his voice made the throbbing in Rhys’s head worse. Jacob paused only long enough to give Rhys a scathing look before ignoring him completely. Rhys dismissed it as someone offered him a strip of smoked meat, the smell of which turned his stomach. He murmured a polite refusal and stuck to a handful of nuts from the trees in the orchard.

He turned his attention back to Darius after he’d swallowed, picking up the thread of their conversation. “What do you do once you find them? Survivors, I mean.”

“Quarantine ’em, make sure they’re not infected with Beta or Gamma before sending them on to join the rest.”

“Beta?”

“What you’d call the Rot,” Xolani explained. “Gamma’s what makes the revenants.”

“I’ve never heard them called that, though I knew they were different versions of the same virus.”

“How much do you know about where they came from?”

“I was just a kid when we went into hiding. Father Maurice just said it was God’s punishment for, you know, immoral . . . stuff.” He blushed, unwilling to get into what particular sins Father Maurice had claimed the plague was punishment for.

Xolani and Darius scoffed in unison.

“My father—God rest his soul—was often confused about many things.” Jacob looked almost sheepish. “Rhys has apparently been paying too much attention to him.”

Rhys turned his head with an incredulous stare. Seven years at the monastery and Jacob had never once said anything that indicated he wasn’t in perfect lockstep with every one of his father’s opinions.

“Well, that’s bullshit,” Xolani said flatly. “Beta’s a mutation of a virus known as Bane Alpha. Gamma’s a second mutation that sprang from Beta. The Beta and Gamma strains coexist in an infected person, though only symptoms of one will manifest, which means exposure from revs can spread either one.”

Rhys frowned. “So . . . there’s a third virus? The, um, Bane Alpha?”

Darius and Xolani shared a tense glance Rhys couldn’t interpret, and the rest of the conversation in the kitchen quieted.

After a moment, Xolani narrowed her eyes at Darius and set her jaw almost defiantly, turning away as though ignoring some silent argument he’d made. “Exactly,” she answered Rhys. “Though technically it’s the first virus. The wellspring, as it were. McClosky’s Bane, named for the general in charge of the R&D brain trust at the Pentagon whose brilliant idea all this was.”

Rhys blinked. He recalled reading about those sorts of things years ago, back in the bunker before they’d left Montana. The neighbor who’d owned the bunker had been something of a conspiracy nut, and his books had been a lot more interesting than the ones Rhys’s mom had brought for his homeschooling.

“It was a weapon?” He tried to remember what the books had called it. “Bio—Biolog—”

Xolani nodded. “Biological warfare. Yes. It started with a bit of genetic engineering called Project Juggernaut. It was an attempt to engineer a virus that—when it delivered its genetic payload and began replicating in the RNA—would rewrite certain genes to make the infected subjects superhuman. They would have radically increased in strength, stamina, reaction speed, and so forth.”

Rhys set the remaining half of his handful of nuts aside, uneaten. The pounding in his head was making him queasy. “Wait. They gave that to their enemies? Why would they do that?”

“No, not the enemy. Well, not entirely. Bane Alpha was meant for our troops. They wanted more effective soldiers, see? They were having a recruitment crisis that started way back in the early twenty-first century. More than twelve years in Afghanistan. Nearly as many in Iraq. Syria. Iran. Venezuela and Guatemala. Libya. Palestine. Iran again. Russia, and so on.” She sighed tiredly, packing up the uneaten rations. The soldiers who were finished eating began to do likewise. “There wasn’t a day in over a century that we weren’t occupying at least one country, and often more. The economy was shit, the national debt was astronomical from more than a hundred years of insupportable military budgets, and people were tired of us fighting wars we couldn’t win in places they couldn’t give two shits about. Unless they reinstated the draft—which would have been political suicide for anyone in charge—the military had to make do with fewer troops than they actually needed.”

Rhys nodded slowly. That part, he knew. His mother had covered history—particularly recent history—thoroughly. “Did they succeed? In creating the super soldiers?”

“After a fashion.”

“I don’t understand. How would that turn into the Rot?”

“Because the virus was designed with a second purpose—to weaken the enemy. Imagine you’re one of these super soldiers, and you’re wounded in battle. Maybe even killed. Any force strong enough to do that needs to be weakened, either to slow their offensive or cripple their defense. So when the infected troops were wounded, the Alpha strain in their blood would mutate into a Beta strain, which would infect enemies within contact range—and part of the mission was to make sure they got into contact range.”

Rhys’s eyes widened. “How is that possible?”

“Short version is that exposure to air and the clotting agents in an open wound would trigger the mutation. It was an utterly idiotic plan destined for disaster, but they thought they could keep it under control.” Xolani shook her head, a long-suffering sigh expressing her opinion of that idea. “At any rate, enemies would then take it back home with them to infect their comrades. Beta was airborne as well as blood-borne and highly contagious, which meant they could spread it easily. It wasn’t supposed to be permanent or fatal. Just a bad rash and a flulike malaise for a while, nothing more. Enough for our guys to get in, wipe them out, and leave or set up shop and take over while they were weakened.”

“Oh.” Rhys hesitated, trying to make sense of it. The kitchen had gone virtually silent, the attention of the strange soldiers a little disconcerting. “But wouldn’t that end up making our soldiers sick, too?”

Darius shook his head, giving Xolani an irritated look. “Alpha gave them immunity.”

Rhys took that in, his mind still churning to process all this new information. “But the Rot is deadly. It’s not just a rash and a flu.”

“Yes.” Xolani looked grim, zipping her pack shut with a hard jerk. “That’s because in that hundred-plus years of nonstop warfare, standards at the top got pretty damn lax. Someone cut corners to rush things through the testing phase, so the live trial went to shit once it was deployed in the field. No one really knows what happened. There wasn’t ever time or manpower to figure it out. Best theories are that it was influenced by another virus, something local to the region of Russia where Alpha was first administered to a battalion of test subjects—who ended up calling themselves Jugs, for Project Juggernaut. Or possibly it was affected by radiation from all the uranium that ended up floating loose around there. At any rate, it didn’t do what it was meant to do. The rash became necrotic lesions, and what was intended to be an exhausting malaise was so severe and debilitating that the infected victims were left pretty much catatonic, trapped inside their bodies while their tissues decayed.” Rhys wiped a hand over his mouth, the nausea redoubling. He’d known the Rot was bad, but hearing it described that way sounded a lot worse.

Xolani continued. “But before all this became apparent, some wounded, Alpha-infected troops brought it home when a bureaucratic snafu sent them back to the States to recuperate instead of into quarantine, so Beta started spreading back here, as well. That’s when reports of the Gamma mutation first appeared. There were probably revs in Russia, too, but the military just managed to hush it up.”

“Well, it’s wonderful you folks came along when you did!” Jacob said brightly, right on schedule. Obviously Rhys had been the center of attention for longer than Jacob found tolerable. “Who knows what would have happened to me—us—otherwise?”

Rhys managed to avoid rolling his eyes. Barely. “What is going to happen to us? Are you going to quarantine me and Jacob like you do the other survivors you find?” That would be just great, stuck with Jacob alone, without even Cady there.

Darius sighed. “No. We’re not taking you back to base and putting you with the other survivors.”

Something in his voice made Rhys’s head snap up. “Why not?”

“Because there’s very little chance—statistically speaking, zero, really—that you’re not infected.” Xolani’s eyes passed between Rhys and Jacob, gentle and full of pity. “I’m sorry. You took a faceful of blood there, kid, and even if you hadn’t, your proximity to those revs was too close. Both of you.”

“Oh.” Rhys swallowed hard. The voices became fainter as a low humming grew steadily louder in his ears. His headache kicked up another notch with the increased force of his pulse in his temples. “I’m still going to die. Okay.”

There was something wrong with his numbed acceptance of that fact, though he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. After all, he’d known he would die from the moment Father Maurice ordered him to use himself as bait to distract the revs so the rest of them could get away.

Then he looked up in alarm, and the humming in his ears became an unnerving drone. A cold sweat prickled his skin. He felt dizzy, and his head throbbed mercilessly. “You have to kill us. Both of us. Now. We’re endangering you.”

Everyone shuffled.

What?” Jacob squawked in alarm and started protesting, but Rhys had no attention to spare him. His eyes were fixed on Darius and Xolani, who were having another silent conversation made up of glares. His knees felt weak, and he gripped the edge of a stainless steel table for support.

“Don’t worry.” Xolani never took her eyes off Darius, though she spoke to Rhys. “You won’t infect us.”

The droning turned into a deafening claxon, and dark spots began to spread across his field of vision. His whole body tingled like every part of him was falling asleep, except his head, which hurt so terribly he almost wished they would kill him.

“Oh. You’re the Jugs.” He gave a short, hysterical giggle. “Guess that explains how you broke up the pews, then.”

The terra-cotta tile floor leaped up to smack him in the face before he could decide what he thought about that.

 

CHAPTER THREE


Hope

 

“If you won’t do it, Darius, Titus will.”

Rhys awoke on a pew in the chapel with the same old odors of decay filling his nostrils. From the way Darius towered over him, he didn’t have to wonder how he’d come to be there. Xolani stood almost nose to nose—well, nose to shoulder—with Darius, though she broke off arguing as soon as Rhys opened his eyes. Titus was there, too. He was barely taller than Xolani, and he looked to be in his late forties or early fifties. He leaned against a wall, scraping under his fingernails and paring them down with a pocketknife.

Darius’s jaw flexed. “Why are you so fucking set on this?”

Rhys blinked as Xolani gave Darius a glower. “Because he’s just a kid.”

“What’s going on?” Rhys tried to push himself up on the pew, mortified at having passed out again.

Darius glared back at Xolani, his gaze dropping to Rhys for a second. “Nothing. How are you feeling?”

“Fine. Sorry about that. I don’t know why—”

Xolani turned and shushed him, her mannerisms brusque as she reached down to check his pulse and then lifted his eyelids to examine his pupils. Her touch was gentle despite her calloused fingertips, not to mention her irritation. “It’s the concussion. And you’ve had a lot of shocks today, Rhys. I’ve seen bigger, tougher guys than you face-plant under less stress.”

The solicitude felt good. It brought to mind his mother again, and for a moment, Rhys was humiliatingly certain he would start to cry. He blinked it away, shaking off her touch.

“You were talking about me?”

“Yes, we were.” Xolani ignored Darius’s frustrated growl.

“You’re trying to decide who’ll kill me.”

“We’re trying to decide whether or not to attempt to save you. Or more specifically, who’s going to do it.”

“Save me?” Rhys bolted upright, the motion setting his head throbbing again as he stared at them in astonishment. “There’s . . . there’s what? A vaccine? A cure? Tell me!”

“Not a vaccine, no.” She sighed, tugging at her braid. “Look, this is all purely hypothetical. We’ve never had an opportunity to test it. But, like we said, people infected with the Alpha strain are immune to Beta and Gamma. Problem is, there’s no stockpile of Bane Alpha left. That was lost or destroyed years ago. And there’s no use exposing you to our blood because then it’ll just mutate into Beta.”

Darius stalked away, pacing the chapel, then spun to face off with Xolani again, ignoring Rhys. “There’s also the question of whether or not we want to make any more Jugs. I mean, how many superhumans can we have running around before some psychopath ends up infected and tries to take over everything?”

Xolani gave him a long look that Rhys couldn’t read. “A valid point, but you can’t stick your finger in the dam on that one, Darius.”

“Fine. But it’s not a good life. We don’t get to have homes and families, except the ones we make with each other.”

“Oh, don’t you dare talk to me about the lack of family. You’re not the one who takes care of our people when they get knocked up.”

That seemed to give him pause. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Still, the fact is, we’re too dangerous. But if we can destroy everyone who’s infected before we die off ourselves, well, then Bane’s gone. It’s over. Eradicated.”

Rhys tried not to be hurt. “You’d rather let me die than make that take any longer than it has to.” It was the second time today someone had summarily decided to sacrifice his life for the greater good. He should be getting used to it by now. Maybe it would be selfish for him to expect Darius to do anything else. He blew out a resolved breath when Darius didn’t respond. “I guess that makes sense. Not like it matters anyway, if there’s no, um, Alpha strain left, right?”

“Oh, there’s a way. Again, hypothetically.” Xolani patted his knee. “But we have to start now if we’re going to do it. Tonight.”

Darius snorted. “What’s this ‘we’ shit?”

“How?” Rhys demanded at the same time.

“The Alpha virus only mutates to Beta when it’s blood-borne and exposed to air and an open wound. That was a deliberate choice on the part of the virologists who designed it. They didn’t want friendlies accidentally exposed to Beta by, say, kissing or sex. In fact, the Jugs were to be quarantined except for combat situations. We weren’t supposed to have contact with civilians at all because it’s transmissible as Alpha in semen and vaginal fluids.”

Rhys stared at her, blushing to hear a woman talking about semen. Then he went cold and dizzy. “What are you saying?”

“She wants me to fuck you,” Darius snapped.

“Or me.” Titus shrugged, tucking his pocketknife away, as though Xolani had volunteered him to make dinner, not . . . do what Darius had just blurted.

“This is our best hope if we want to save your life.” Xolani’s fists were tight at her sides, as if she wanted to punch something. Rhys suspected “something” was Darius. “But we didn’t come out here with a squad equipped for recruiting. We’ve got two subjects to try to expose and only so many males who aren’t either in strictly monogamous relationships or inflexibly heterosexual. Gina doesn’t sleep with men. I could do it, or at least try, but female-to-male transmission of just about any viral infection found in sex fluids has a far lower rate of incidence than male-to-female or male-to-male. Same problem with Jamie. He’d be willing, but he’s anatomically female.”

“Not to be picky, but I’m in a committed relationship, too,” Titus drawled, still relaxed and sounding slightly amused. “And I’m not queer.”

Xolani smirked, and her aggressive posture eased. “Yes, but luckily you’re an open-minded man who will do what it takes, and your woman is a wonderful, caring person who understands this sort of thing.”

Rhys stared at them all as if they’d gone insane—which he was fairly certain was the case. “You people are sick. Jesus! You know, this is a really shi—crummy time to be playing a stupid joke!” He flinched, pure instinct telling him to expect a hard cuff or a rap across the knuckles for even beginning to utter a swear.

“It’s no joke.” Xolani strode up and down the aisle runner. “We need to get the Alpha strain spreading through your body before Beta starts to work. We caught a break, there. Alpha was engineered to replicate in the RNA faster than Beta, because Beta has a long incubation period to ensure maximum contagion before anyone caught on. What we need to do is expose you to Alpha, immediately and repeatedly. We have no idea just how much of the virus is present in sex fluids, so we need a lot of it. Daily exposure, multiple times a day. Multiple partners would be even better.” She reached the end of the aisle and pivoted on her heel to face Rhys. “Five or six weeks at least, which is on the long side of the amount of time it takes to see if someone is infected. It’s not perfect, and the longer we wait, the less likely it is to work. It could be that your exposure to Beta and Gamma already has you producing antibodies to Alpha, especially if we delay. You need at least one male sex partner, and you need him tonight.”

“This is crazy.” Rhys’s fingers tingled, and his head buzzed. He wasn’t certain he wouldn’t pass out again. He should pray, he thought distantly. If Father Maurice were alive, he’d be shouting a sermon at the top of his voice right now, telling them to repent of their wickedness and condemning Rhys for allowing himself to be led into temptation, even if he hadn’t done anything.

Of course, Father Maurice had been full of crap most of the time. Rhys still recalled the burning shame and resentment he’d felt each time Father Maurice had berated him about unnatural lust and perversion after he and Gabriel had been caught almost kissing. Gabe had felt right. Safe. Closest to him in age—except for Cady, of course—Gabe had been Rhys’s best friend and constant companion in those first few years at the monastery. That near kiss had been the most thrilling moment of his young life. He’d never understood how it could be considered a sin.

Rhys stared at them all but mostly at Darius. Was he honestly supposed to have sex with him? Or one of the others? He didn’t know Titus or those other men. He didn’t really know Darius, either, but—

“It should be you, Darius.” Xolani gave Rhys a sympathetic look. He struggled to know how to respond to it. His outrage and annoyance over what still felt like a horrible prank were at odds with his gratitude for her kindness. “Titus or someone else will do it if we have to. I’ll do it if we have to, though I’ll give him long odds for success if it comes down to that. But look at him. It’s you the kid’s imprinted on. If anyone can make this easier on him, it’s you.”

“I’m not a kid,” Rhys snapped.

“Well, I’m not doing the honors with that other guy,” Titus muttered.

Darius overrode them both, his voice cold. “And if I don’t think we should be spreading the Alpha strain?”

“You want to sentence him to die unnecessarily?” Xolani stared him down. “Fact is, Darius, Bravo Company may be onto something.”

“I can’t believe you’d argue in favor of that.”

“I’m trying to survive in a world that’s gone to shit. We don’t have time to be squeamish. We’ve lost people. We need to begin replacing them if we want to keep our fighting force effective. This kid’s going to die anyway if we don’t help him, so really, where’s the risk?”

Darius looked grave. “At what cost, Xolani?”

She crossed her arms over her chest and set her jaw. “We do what we have to do.”

Rhys would have been more annoyed at being left out of a conversation that concerned him so intimately if it had made any damn sense. His eyes ping-ponged from one to the other as half their words went over his head.

Who the hell was Bravo Company?

The muscle in Darius’s jaw jerked. “Fine. Someone find me a cup and a goddamn turkey baster, then.”

“Dammit, Darius!” Xolani looked like she wanted to punch something again. “We have no idea how long the Alpha virus will survive in sex fluids once exposed to air. Beta’s short-lived when airborne. Moreover, it’s an unstable virus prone to radical mutations. Even if it doesn’t die prior to transmission, there’s no predicting what it will do under those sorts of uncontrolled circumstances.”

Darius looked back and forth between Titus and Xolani.

“Get out, both of you. Let me talk to the kid alone.”

Xolani looked like she wanted to argue, but Titus gave her a tight shake of his head, and she swallowed it down. Pulling her scarred face into what Rhys suspected was meant to be an encouraging smile, Xolani ruffled his hair in a quasi-maternal gesture, as if she hadn’t just moments before suggested that she’d have sex with him if necessary.

Then they were gone, and he was left alone in the dark chapel with Darius’s forbidding presence. He wasn’t sure if he was grateful for the lantern someone had brought into the room; it made the shadows even creepier. The rev he’d bludgeoned to death earlier had been removed and burned with the others, but the bloodstains remained on the floor. In the dim light, the brownish-black smudges looked oily and ominous. They filled Rhys with a horrified fascination. Short of this bizarre scheme and Darius’s good graces, that blood might end up killing him.

“You’re a virgin, aren’t you?” Darius sat on the altar with an utter lack of reverence, the same altar at which Father Maurice had made Rhys kneel during prayers for seven years. Rhys’s mom and Gabriel’s parents had tried to protest Father Maurice’s insistence on religious observation, but no one had been willing to fight over it once he’d grown volatile.

They’d tolerated a lot for the safety of numbers.

Rhys had listened at that altar three times a day from the time he was twelve as Father Maurice went over well-told tales emphasizing the importance of obedience to God’s will, of chastity and purity and self-denial. He’d listened to endless rants about how immorality and sexual deviance had resulted in the destruction of civilization as they knew it.

He’d listened as Father Maurice had all but blamed him personally for a plague that, if Xolani was telling the truth, had seen its first scattered cases not long after Rhys had mastered a two-wheeled bike.

Now his only hope of survival was to agree to be part of the wickedness Father Maurice had condemned.

With Darius.

He swallowed hard, trying and failing to see Darius’s dark shape as something other than terrifying. “Of course I’m a virgin.” At nineteen years old, with no eligible partners and no prospect of ever encountering any, he’d resigned himself to living and dying that way.

Darius drummed his fingers on the altar in a rhythmic patter. “Do you want to do what Xolani is proposing?”

“I don’t want to die.”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“Well, then, no, I don’t want it. I think it sounds sick. But I don’t want to die, either, so what am I supposed to do?”

The drumming stopped, and Darius rapped his knuckles against the wood in a hard, sharp strike. “Well, I don’t want to fuck an unwilling kid, so I’d say this is a shitty situation for both of us.”

Rhys folded his hands in his lap, as much to stare at them in embarrassment at having insulted Darius as to hide the fact that, despite himself, he was getting a boner. Wasn’t that pathetic? Even as warped as the whole situation was, apparently all his body heard was sex.

“Sorry.” He was glad for the shadows that kept his face from looking as red as it felt.

“Sick, huh? I suppose that means you don’t even like men?”

Oh, God help him, could his head actually explode from too much blushing?

“Actually, I do.” He squirmed on the moldering velvet padding of the pew, thinking of Gabriel. Daring, defiant, larger-than-life Gabriel, who’d left him behind. “I mean, I know some people think it’s a sin and all, but . . .”

Darius waved him off with an impatient flap of his hand. “Shut that down. I don’t want to hear what your preacher had to say about it.”

Rhys looked down at his hands again. His erection wasn’t subsiding. “Sorry,” he repeated.

“Is there . . .?” Darius sighed, running a hand down the ponytail that hung to his shoulder blades. The altar creaked as his weight shifted. “Shit. I wish this could wait until we get back to base. If there’s somebody else here you’d rather have your first time with, I could talk to them. See if they’d be willing to do it. If I can at least give you a choice in that . . .”

The rest of them were even less familiar to him than Darius, who was a complete stranger himself. The rest of them hadn’t saved him seconds before he was about to die. They hadn’t been so concerned with his safety that they’d climbed fully clothed into the shower with him to try to get the blood off.

“No.” He looked away, suddenly feeling vulnerable, humiliated by the fact that, twisted as it was, some part of him—a very singular part, at least—wanted this. It shouldn’t be arousing. It should be the least arousing thing imaginable, because it was sick. What Xolani had proposed was a humiliating, degrading farce, but his cock didn’t seem to care.

If and when he had sex, he wanted it to be for a better reason than being forced into it because he had no choice other than dying. Now he understood what had offended Darius earlier. After all, Darius was only considering doing this to save him, not because he wanted to. He didn’t want Rhys. That stung, pricking his vanity for some absurd reason. It would have been nice to at least be desired. Maybe Darius didn’t even like men as a rule. “I don’t want anyone else.”

“Then this is how it’s gonna go down.” Darius paused. That measuring gaze pinned Rhys, stripped him down to all his deepest secrets. “You need to understand: If you’re not infected with Alpha, you’re infected with Beta or Gamma. Either you become one of us or you die. We can’t have you running around, no matter what strain you’ve got. The reasons you can’t be let loose infected with Beta or Gamma are plain, but even if it’s Alpha, you’ll still be too dangerous to leave uncontained. One cut and you could infect any survivors you come across. You’d be strong enough to take captives and set yourself up with a harem and slave labor somewhere out of the way. So no matter what happens, boy, you’re with us until you die, whether that’s a few weeks from now or when you’re an old, old man. You understand what I’m saying?”

Rhys shook his head. “I don’t— No.”

Darius glowered. “I’m saying if you back out, I’ll kill you. I don’t like it. It’s a little too close to raping someone under threat of death for my comfort. Hell, I suppose that’s exactly what it is. I don’t consider that much of a choice to give someone. But if you don’t agree to this tonight, or if you agree to this and back out, sooner or later I’ll end up putting a bullet in your head. I’ll have to. Now do you understand?”

Worried for a moment that he might faint again, Rhys waited for the dizziness to pass and nodded, his mouth dry and the sour taste of terror on his tongue.

“All right, then.” Darius pushed himself up off the altar. “We’re all in, both of us, or we’re finished. So for the next five or six weeks, or however long it takes, your ass is mine. If I give the word, you drop everything and do what I say. I don’t care if we’re in the middle of the fucking mess hall. If I tell you bend over, you do it. We clear?”

Rhys didn’t know which reaction was the strongest: offense or fear or, God help him, arousal. His heart hammered in his chest as he stared at Darius wide-eyed. He should protest, he thought, licking his dry lips. He should tell Darius to go to hell, and then he should go pray for the serenity to accept his eventual death.

Problem was, he wasn’t sure he could actually walk just now, much less kneel.

“We’re clear,” he heard himself agreeing. His pride groaned in protest, and the thrill of terrified arousal redoubled.

“Then come here.” Darius beckoned him toward the altar.

“What, here?” In his head, Father Maurice’s voice screamed condemnation and accusations of debauchery and blasphemy.

“Don’t question me, boy.” Darius’s eyes narrowed, somewhere between challenge and annoyance. “Come to me, or I’ll come get you. Think I can’t do it?”

Of course he could. He was a Jug, right?

His face burning with shame, Rhys pushed himself from the pew and came.

Literally.

from The Novel Approach

[A] wonderful blend of sci-fi, horror and gay romance.

from Gravetells

[V]iscerally realistic and emotionally compelling. [A] must read.

from Pavariti K Tyler's Blog

If you're ready for something meatier than the average erotic bedroom romp . . . [T]his book is for you.

from On Top Down Under Book Reviews

 Strain will be on my Books of the Year list for 2014.

from Boy Meets Boy Review

The writing is exquisite. I was captivated.

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