Sixty years ago—before the Wardens started the war to take Earth and eliminate humans—the drive from Belfast, Maine, to Bangor had taken forty-five minutes, longer during tourist season. Today, two hours into the drive, the small convoy of Commonwealth trucks picked their path over battered roads left unmaintained for six decades.
After Mary declined her offer to take over driving, Dani forced herself to remain alert for a Warden counterattack. They could strike anywhere, anytime. Dresden sprawled in the back among the gear crammed on the seat with him. He was supposed to be standing in the hatch, manning the gun mounted to the top of the truck, but he’d bailed on that job an hour ago.
Dani’s truck was the last in the three-vehicle convoy, and she hated the unchanging scenery of the rear of the truck in front of them. She leaned forward and cast her gaze up the slope along the driver’s side as they traveled over a road carved into the hillside. On her side was a steep, tree-covered slope down to a river. She rocked as Mary guided the truck around a deep crack in the asphalt.
Mary cast a glance at her. “Jesus, Dani, relax.”
“You can come back here with me,” Dresden said. “I’ll help you relax.”
Dani’s eyes remained trained on the landscape. “You can get your ass back up to the gun.”
Dresden yawned. “God, you’re in a mood.”
Dani reached for the radio. “They’re too close. Wright needs to back off the lead vehicle.”
Mary caught her hand. “They’re fine.”
“I like the reckless Dani who tries to commandeer Warden helos by herself,” Dresden said. “This stressed out version is far less fun.”
She scowled back at him. “Fuck you.”
Mary said, “You’ve been like this since we left this morning. How are you not exhausted? I’m beat.”
Dani perked up. “Need me to drive?”
Mary waved her off. “No! You don’t have to be on duty all the time. Just be a passenger.” She softened her tone. “I appreciate your attention to detail, but we’ve made supply runs a dozen times the last couple of months with no problems.”
“I know,” Dani grumbled.
Dresden released a loud, obnoxious yawn. “As soon as we ditch this cargo, I’m going to Aunt Hattie’s for ale and women. Mary, you in?”
Mary snorted. “You can’t handle Aunt Hattie’s women or men.”
The truck rocked when it struck another pothole. Dani’s shoulder, already sore from prior collisions with the door, smarted.
Outside her window, sunlight glittered on the river’s surface. She smiled, although sunny spring days in Maine were deceptive. The temperatures crept up during the day before plummeting again overnight. The moisture in the ground from melted winter snow and ice created a mud season to remind Mainers that summer was not arriving anytime soon.
Mary shifted in her seat, and Dani realized why she was so attracted to her. Mary’s posture was perfect, and the sunlight played off her light-colored hair, elegant jawline, and cheek bones. Regal, Dani thought, finally putting a word to how she viewed Mary. When her friend’s head began to turn her way, Dani shifted her gaze to avoid being caught staring.
Dresden and Mary continued their chatter, but Dani didn’t listen; she felt a bit embarrassed. She scanned the slope between the road and river. The roads being in such disrepair might cause them to go over the edge into a catastrophic roll into the river. The two trucks ahead carried munitions and gear. Dani, Mary, and Dresden were hauling food and medical supplies from Portland to an outpost in Belfast, with the remaining contents destined for Bangor’s barracks.
“Isn’t that right, Dani?” Dresden asked.
Dani buckled her seat belt. “You should put your seat belts on.”
He scoffed at her remark. “Did you hear anything we just said?”
Dani scanned the area again. “If we go off this road, there isn’t much to keep us from rolling to the bottom.”
Mary laughed. “My driving isn’t that terrible. Why would we go off the road?”
Dani finally looked at her friend. “Maybe because the roads are shit and could fall away beneath us? Or a boulder off that hill could knock us off? Or the Wardens could attack?”
“Relax,” Mary said. “You’re making me insane, darling. You normally make me insane in a good way, except, disappointingly, it never goes anywhere.”
A flush crept up Dani’s neck anytime Mary started flirting. She shifted her shoulders to try to hide it while she moved her gaze from the hillside, across the road, and down the slope toward the river.
The truck rocked side to side, and Dani unclipped her seat belt. She twisted to face Dresden. “Dres, get on the gun or put the goddamn seat belt on.” She leaned across Mary and pulled the shoulder strap out. Dani paused, her face inches from Mary’s.
“Put your arm through.”
“That’s not where I want to put it.”
Dani sighed. “Please, Mary. I don’t want you to die.”
Mary released the steering wheel and passed her hand through the opening between the shoulder and lap straps. “I like this. A lot.”
There was no way for Dani to hide the redness she knew was flowing into her face, so she hastily fastened the belt into place.
“Mmm, so do I,” Dresden said. “Will you fasten mine?”
“Shut up,” Dani snapped back at him, and she clipped her belt back on.
Mary leaned toward Dani. “Feel free to reach across me like that again. I’ll have you right here.”
A nervous laugh escaped Dani. She leaned forward to peer out the windshield, far too embarrassed to look at Mary.
Dresden bumped the back of Dani’s seat. “You’re so tense.”
“We never caught all the Wardens that escaped Portland,” Dani said.
“So? Only stragglers were left. They’ll never come this far north.”
“And they never thought we’d go that far south. Their complacency is exactly why we were able to attack and win. I’ll be ready when they show up.”
“When they show up? If they were going to retaliate, they would’ve done it months ago. They don’t give a shit about Maine.”
“You still won’t catch me sleeping on duty.”
“You’re an alien. You get another shot at life when you die. Me and Mary don’t. You should be the one relaxing.”
Dresden understood the basics of normal regeneration by alien Echoes, but only a few people—Mary included—knew what happened to Dani with a regen. Hers wasn’t the standard process of an Echo returning to a healthy, young adult body with memories intact. Dani’s regens were more like a trainwreck where she returned to a child’s age with zero recollection of her prior lives.
Mary intervened. “Dres, shut the fuck up.”
He stretched and leaned back in his seat. He sighed. “Next time she dresses up like a Warden, she might end up shot instead of punched.”
Dani closed her eyes for a moment. Friendly fire—so she’d been told—had ended her first three lives.
Mary spoke up. “Give it a rest. Talk about something other than dying, please.”
“We’ll all end up dead at some point, right? No point looking for it out the window.”
In her peripheral vision, she noticed Mary watching her. Dani kept her gaze on the hillside.
“Die in your sleep; that’s the way to go,” Dresden said.
Mary shot him a glare. “One more word and you’re walking to Bangor.”
They sat in silence for a moment before Dani spoke again.
“I’d rather see it coming.”
Mary grinned. “You know who I’d like to see coming?”
Dani resisted the urge to meet Mary’s eyes, though a smile played at the corners of her mouth. Flirting had resumed, and Dani didn’t mind the topic change away from death. An odd shadow crept along the hill. “Shit.”
Mary shook her head and smiled. “No, not—”
Dani reached for the radio mike to alert the others, then shouted at Dresden. “Ten o’clock! Get on the fucking gun.”
Mary gasped. “Incoming!”
Dresden scrambled topside, but the shadows on the hill moved into the light and became Wardens. They attacked. The initial blast destroyed the first truck in a ball of fire, which sent the second truck airborne. Mary jerked the wheel hard to the right.
The second truck flipped and struck the road upside down, and the edge of the roadway crumbled. Dani’s truck slid down the slope toward the river. Dresden’s lower half disappeared through the hatch. Tree limbs lashed the vehicle, and glass shattered when it began to roll. Mary screamed, but Dani couldn’t do anything to help herself or her friend. The truck slammed into something that stopped the roll but sent it into a slide. The truck rolled again, then skidded to a stop on its side. Dizziness and darkness swallowed Dani’s mind.