Smoked - Mari Mancusi




Year 190 Post-Scorch

“Emergency. Emergency. Dragons incoming. Please proceed calmly to the nearest flame shelter. This is not a drill. I repeat: this is not a drill.”

Sixteen-year-old Connor Jacks watched as the hallway erupted in chaos, doors bursting open, bodies spilling out everywhere, not a single soul seemingly interested in proceeding with any level of calm whatsoever. Instead, hands were clawing and eyes were bulging as howls of panic nearly managed to drown out the warning sirens above. All around, red lights flashed angrily, effectively capturing the mood as neighbor shoved neighbor, friend trampled friend.

In the dragon apocalypse, it was every man, woman, and child for themselves. A crush of the worst humanity had left to offer.

“Dragons incoming. Estimated arrival time: fifteen minutes,” droned the computerized female voice over the loudspeaker, not exactly helping matters. “Fourteen minutes fifty-nine seconds. Fourteen minutes—”

“Move, damn it!”

Large hands shoved Connor in the back, out of the doorway he had been standing in and into the violent sea of people who crashed over him in waves and knocked him off balance. His hands slammed against the concrete floor first, followed by his knees, and he oomphed in pain as heavy boots trampled his fingers without apology. Biting his lower lip, he struggled back to his feet, grudgingly allowing himself to be swept along with the mob.

He felt a pulse at his side, a slight heat indicating an incoming message on his transcriber. His eyes darted around the hall, finally settling on an empty doorway a few feet ahead. Lunging forward, he managed to traverse the mob and dive through, landing in the entryway of a now-empty home of some Strata-C family. Like most Strata-C homes, this one was small, carved out of rock, and contained only the most basic of belongings. A crude kitchen table and chairs. A few cabinets. Hammocks to sleep in. Only a small, pink plastic teddy bear, abandoned in the middle of a concrete floor, gave any indication of the makeup of the family who might have called this place home.

Well, that and the giant full-color poster of Connor himself, one of the limited edition “Dragon Hunter Heroes” series that the Council had released a few months back and given to school children under the age of ten. He made a face. The artist had exaggerated his physique to the point of caricature, as well as the size of the gun-blade in his hands. The caption read Hasta La Vista, Dragon Spawn!—which they’d embarrassingly assigned as his catchphrase even though he’d protested that he’d never say anything so corny in real life. But the Council had insisted catchphrases increased morale, and so what could he do? Whatever gave these poor people hope, he supposed. Though if the fate of the known world really was relying on catchphrases, the world was totally screwed.

He pulled his transcriber from his belt, running his fingers across the smooth side. A hologram popped up, and an image of his friend and fellow Dragon Hunter Troy looked back at him, his face pale. “Jacks!” he cried in a hoarse voice. “Where are you? Are you anywhere near Subterra A? Damien up at the watchtower counted five headed your way, and we’re all stuck over at E, working the peace rally you bailed on. We’re headed back now, but we won’t be there in time.” Troy scowled, and Connor couldn’t help but remember his friend’s catchphrase—You feeling lucky, dragon punk? “The Council is recommending nukes.”

Connor cringed. Of course they were. He pressed the record button to send a reply to his fellow soldier. “Tell them to stand down,” he barked. “I’m not far. I’ll handle it.”

He sent the message then reattached the transcriber to his belt. Brushing his hair from his eyes, he exited the home and stepped back into the hallway. The once-crowded passage was eerily vacant now, with all the people of Strata-C hopefully safe and sound in the flame shelters below. Waiting for him to get the job done so they could get back to their everyday lives.

Connor ran down the hallway, his footsteps pounding to the rhythm of the flashing red lights as he made his way to the surface ’vator that would take him where he needed to go. But as he took a corner too quickly, he found himself nearly tripping over something on the floor. He looked down.

Make that someone.

The little girl couldn’t have been much older than six, and her grubby face was stained with tears as she sucked on the