With gritted teeth, Jackson watched jets of fire spurt from the nozzle of the flame thrower while his eyes watered behind his windowed mask. He didn’t need to look at the target to know whether he was hitting his mark, but he couldn’t help himself. It was hard not to focus on the body that lay dashed across the mound of broken bricks, its limbs alight in a burning pyre whipped by the wind.
Coils of smoke slid over the rubble, following a lonely path through the ruins. Jackson doused his flame; he hadn’t snuffed a twitch in twelve days, and he would eat well when he reached the Meekon settlement, which was just ten clicks away. If he wound up with an extra allotment of rations, he might trade them for a pleasure ticket; the Meekon girls were worth it, even if they did smell like goats and cheese. There was one girl in particular he might go back to, a well-built woman he’d bedded the year before—but first, he had to mark his prize.
Without removing his mask and gloves, Jackson stripped off his pack and wiped down the muzzle of the flame thrower, which was still too hot to stow. Then he dismantled his crossbow, slung it in its leather pouch, and removed a bright red beacon ball from his pack. As he squeezed the ball, it lit up like a hot coal pulled from a blazing fire, but it gave off no heat; its light was cold.
Jackson approached the body. Leaning over, he gently lobbed the beacon at the mound of smoldering rubble, and he watched it bounce once before it came to rest in a well of clay shards. The little light began to flash, sending a signal that would let the Givers know that Jackson was responsible for this kill.
He turned away. He was pleased with himself, happy to have eradicated another twitch. He was halfway to his pack before he spotted the boy who was standing near his flame thrower.
Jackson froze. The boy was shirtless, clad in leather breeches, and he was crying. In the hours Jackson had spent tracking his prey through the ruins, he hadn’t seen another living soul. He doubted that the boy was a scavenger, since he wasn’t carrying a satchel or pulling a cart. Could he be the dead man’s son, perhaps? If he was, he would be twitching soon as well.
“Is that man your father?” Jackson bellowed through his mask.
Without answering, the child began to gesture in an odd fashion, creating strange signs with his hands. Jackson had never seen anything like it, but he gathered that the boy wasn’t playing a game; the earnest look on his face suggested that he was trying to communicate something that couldn’t be said out loud.
“Back up,” Jackson commanded. “Step away from my pack.”
The boy dropped his hands and stared.
“I told you to get back!”
Squatting down, Jackson grabbed a rock that was large enough to stop a wild dog in its tracks. Hefting it, he showed the rock to the boy, and then he lunged forward, feigning a pitch. The boy jumped back; repeating the gesture, Jackson forced him to retreat a second time. While the boy stared at him, he stowed the flame thrower and wondered what he should do next. He couldn’t prove that the boy had had any contact with the man he’d just killed, but he couldn’t prove that he hadn’t, either.
“I don’t know who you are or where you come from,” he said, “but you’re not showing the signs, so I’m not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”
The boy’s face remained a blank slate. His drying tears made dark tracks in the dust that covered his face.
“I won’t hurt you, but I can’t help you. You’re on your own. Got it?”
With his arms dangling at his sides, the boy kept staring at Jackson.
“Are you soft?” Jackson asked, pointing at his own head.
There was no response. Grunting, Jackson strapped on his pack and started for one of the footpaths that had been worn into the rubble by travelers passing through the ruins. He was sweating under the mask and the gloves cuffed his wrists, but he would keep them on for the time being, until he knew what the boy was going to do.
A few minutes later, he looked over his shoulder. The boy was following him; Jackson imagined a response that involved nipping the hard ground between them with an arrow from his crossbow, but the boy wasn’t enough of a threat to justify the gesture. Jackson walked on.
As he neared the outskirts of the ruins, he stopped to remove his mask and his gloves. The boy stood still and watched him with the same perplexed stare, sparking an uneasy feeling in Jackson’s chest.