Star could feel the thunder in her joints. She had been among the first to receive the new genetic treatment for diabetes, back when the work was still in once piece, and it'd had some unexpected side effects. Of course, her diabetes was gone. It was a good thing too, she knew. Those with dietary disorders had been among the first to sicken and die when first rations and then starvation hit the population. She was lucky; she was a survivor.
But she could still feel the thunder in her joints. It wasn't real thunder. Everyone knew that it was just the bombing, a series or breathtakingly beautiful and devastating colored lights that rained down on the country night and day. But nobody called them bombs: they were just 'the thunder'.
It made her shiver as she crouched at the mouth of the tiny cement-and-rebar cave she had stowed in with her friend, Judas. She had had another name some time long ago, but it had been lost before even the bombing and was surely forgotten to anyone except Judas herself now. Star hadn't really known her before the bombing, except in passing between classes, but they'd wound up together in the aftermath the day their school was finally bombed into paint chips and rusting pipe. They'd worked well together, and things had worked out for a while.
Now they relied on one another. Star stared through the rain. The bombing was a long way off, and had been for several months now. Not even the remnants of the Guard came around anymore. There weren't enough supplies for the troops, and nothing to forage in this sector of what used to be a city. Judas and Star were both glad; the Guard was as much an enemy to their survival as the bombing, and things were finally starting to grow back. Judas would have been checking on the nearest patch of green during the day, Star knew. She was always anxious to see how much it had grown and how long it would be until she could plant a garden or something.
Now it was night, however. Star could see little enough in the flashes of multicolored lights, and she'd never see the patch of peach-fuzz green that Judas sighed about every evening.
Her hands were shaking. The thunder was starting to work its way deeper into her bones, they both knew. Soon she'd be shaking too hard to do anything—and Judas would have to leave her. Neither of them spoke about it much. The tremors had gotten better once the thunder moved off to the north of them, but after her initial recovery she had begun to deteriorate again.
She tapped her fingers against the cement she was leaning against, trying to ignore the faint numbness at the tips, to mask the involuntary twitches. Judas was sleeping somewhere behind her—she had been out foraging while the sun was up.
The thunder was the worst during the day. Star was forced to hide deep in the bowls of the cement jungle, where the concrete spared her from the reverberations. If she were to go out during the day… she would probably have a seizure and never recover. The threat had gone unspoken when they'd realized the seriousness of the shaking, but Judas had begun taking more and more of the day shifts.
Slowly, Star collected herself mentally. She stood and glanced back into the safety of the cave, the warm den where her companion lay dreaming, and then set off slowly into the rain to look for some remaining store of food or clothes or medicine that hadn't been picked over months ago or been spoiled. Every now and then she would hide under a concrete overhang for a few minutes, convincing herself that she was just warming up while the tremors subsided.
When Judas awoke, the first thing that she did was gather Star's customary pile of soggy clothing and to spread them out across the concrete. They would be baked dry in an hour or so, and warm when it was time for Star to awaken. Then, after grabbing her scrap-and-rags knapsack and giving the area around their hole a precursory scan, she slipped off between the slabs of unforgiving grey and black.
The thunderstorms had let up at dawn, as usual. Neither of the pair was sure whether the strange new weather pattern, which was begun about a year ago, was the result of a climate change, some new enemy weapon, or just a strange act of god. Judas considered it a godsend, though. It kept Star from pushing too hard during the day while letting Judas gather just enough to get them by. She didn't tell Star that she went outside their city sector, into the places where there were still a few intact buildings to scrounge from—rather than just foundations and walls.
As she worked her way across the wasteland—carefully, because they didn't have any resources to spare over infected cuts and scrapes—she kept an eye on the low-laying clouds above. They lingered each day, making the heat feel all the more oppressive while filling the girl with pervasive paranoia. She had no way to see or hear the aircraft coming until she saw the flashes, heard the thunder. But the lights were always miles away in the distance, no matter how frequently she scanned the skies.
Eventually she reached the landmark she struggled to anew each day, the remains of a lightening rod. It had been stricken on the first day of the attacks. She could remember strolling past it each day on the way to school. It had been melted and bent into a curlicue, but remained tall enough to be seen most of the time. Next to it, a stretch of unmaimed road, complete with yellow and white dotted lines, began. It didn't go very far, but it was always a relief after the arduous journey from the cool, shady cave. As per her routine, Judas paused in some shade near to the lightening rod and pulled out her lunch. On this day, it was half of a granola bar and a bottle of some brackish water, collected each night in a tarp and bottled each dawn by Star.
After her repast, Judas finished her journey into the good foraging areas. They were mostly run by gangs now, but one girl didn't attract much notice, especially when she was so emaciated that she hardly seemed female.
She quickly made her way past the fronts of picked-over, half-demolished shops until she found some unfamiliar buildings. The thunder was louder here, and she was starting to get nervous. She ducked into the unfamiliar former shop she found.
The inside was disappointing. It looked to have already been squeezed dry, full of nothing put empty aluminum shelves and litter. Judas had thought about gathering up some of the shelves, to reinforce the jumble they lived in, but they were deceptively heavy, and she had not been able to find a clear path she could carry one along—even with Star's help.
She was losing time fast, she realized as she wandered up and down aisles, eyeballing the trash carefully. She couldn't keep making these kinds of trips much longer. Soon she would have to make them two-day trips, and then she'd have to tell Star, or she'd come after her, all worried and protective. Even if she did tell Star, she would doubtlessly insist on tagging along. The trips took her closer to the epicenter of the thunder every day, though. Judas sighed in frustration and kicked a shelf with a mangled boot before turning a corner.
Waiting for her at the end of the next aisle was a person.
Judas froze and stared. It was the closest she had been to a person other than Star in she wasn't even sure how long because she generally scurried off when she saw anyone else. Just because she didn't necessarily look like a girl didn't mean that the gangs would hesitate to rape her—or even just kick her around for fun.
He didn't look like he would be doing much kicking, and he didn't look like he numbered among the recently kicked either. His coat was too large, but well-repaired, and he wore decent-looking boots. He didn't look starved, either, which was a rarity. He was probably a few years younger, she figured. He had the especially haunted look of those who had been just on the verge of young adulthood when the thunder came. They had especially blank eyes.
Both paused, standing and staring. Finally, he began to walk slowly towards Judas. When she saw him move forward, she crept backwards, until her back was against the wall. He sped up, and she did, too, scuttling sideways a few feet before turning and running.
"Hey! Wait!" he yelled. She could hear the flap of his boot falls, even over the sound of the thunder and her own feet. "Just hold up! Wait!" She didn't. She ran until she was out of breath and her lungs and sides were sending shooting pains through the rest of her body. Then she began to make abrupt turns, one after the other, doubling and re-doubling back and forth until she wasn't sure where she was, or how to get home. The whole time she could hear him behind her.
Eventually she reached a dead end and spun around sharply, skidding on litter and shit. He stood at the end of the pseudo-alley—formed by the remaining walls of two buildings and the rubble from another—and panted heavily. She was laboring to draw her own breaths slowly and evenly. After a few minutes he seemed to have gulped enough oxygen, and he began to walk towards her. Still breathing heavily, she backed up until she had a wall of jagged cement at her back, and then froze. She was surprised that no other gang members had appeared yet.
"Are you okay?" he asked, still breathing heavily. His voice sounded out of place and artificial after over a year of no voices but Star's and her own. She could only stare at him. Everything about the situation seemed out of place and fake. His hair was too clean, she could see now. So was his skin. His tone was light and careless; the question was superfluous. Even the alley itself felt wrong—the right angles were where they would have been in a real alley, years ago. She hadn't seen right angles like that in a long time, let alone amidst rubble. The boy was smiling faintly and she hesitated; survival dictated suspicion.
Survival wasn't everything, she decided in a split second, and shuffled forward. The boy's smile broadened and he stuck out a hand. It took Judas a moment before she remembered this now-antiquated greeting and grasped his hand. "Hello."
"Hi! I didn't realize there was anyone left in this area," he said. "I think most of the gangs have left now. There isn't exactly much left to survive on." She couldn't help but stare a little at a person who could chatter so brightly about a dead zone.
"There's enough left," she replied slowly. "But I don't live here. We—I," she corrected herself, remembering caution, "live around—"she gestured vaguely. Even if she had still been sure of which direction the dead plain laid, she wouldn't have said. He nodded. "And there's enough to live on. Here and there you find the stuff that other people miss, when you look." She shrugged. He was still nodding politely.
"I'm Eric," he said, and then looked at her expectantly. A beat later she replied
"Judas." He gave pause for a moment when he heard he name, but went on nonchalantly.
"Judas. Pretty name. You look like you'd be pretty, too, if you weren't half-starved." He smiled. She scowled.
"I'm not joining a snarking gang," she snarled. "Honestly, you're all the same. It's harder to feed more people, anyone with half of a brain knows that—and I'm not interested in starting as the pretty toy of the lowest ranking member." He blinked a few times at her outburst but kept smiling.
"It's not a gang—of any kind. I swear," he said hurriedly, and grabbed her arm as she was turning to leave. "It's run by the government, sort of—wait!" Judas pulled out of his grasp and darted out the mouth of the alley, down the street.
She wasn't as fast now as she had been a few minutes before, but she was fast enough—she thought. She soon heard him behind her again, however, and this time he caught up with her before she reached a dead end. He pulled up level with her and grabbed her arm with a much harsher grip than before. "Hold on!" he yelled at her as she began to struggle and thrash. "Just a few minutes! Just a few!" He let go of her arm and she stopped, staring at him through the snarled locks of hair hanging in her eyes.
"What?" she hissed, drawing herself up and shoving her hair back behind her ears.
"Just listen," he said slowly and quietly. She almost couldn't hear him above the thunder. "It isn't a gang and it's not the army. It's a community, of sorts. We have a government subsidy to try to put a neighborhood back together, and we need people. We're stable, I swear. We get food from outside, but we're working on producing our own, on rebuilding homes- we even have a school!" He sounded genuinely excited, like Judas hadn't heard—like she had never heard, really. She stared. "We won't force you to come. You can come just to look one day, and leave any time you like! But at least come look! We want to rebuild. We think the thunder is gone in this area, and we want to save what's left before the last people leave to follow the food. Please?" His voice had turned sweet and entreating, and Judas almost couldn't help but nod. She would have anyways, she realized later.
They made arrangements to meet a few nights later, in the store where they had met. Then Judas watched him leave, picking his way through the debris, before she began to look for a familiar landmark to direct her home.
Star was starting to worry. That is, she was always worrying, but Judas was late. Twilight had fallen, and now Star was crouching in the dark by the cavern entrance, watching for shapes in the misty rain.
Finally she heard some scuffling off in the distance, and saw form in the mist. Judas arrived, soggy and distressed, and Star was waiting. They nodded to each other as Judas entered. Star hovered outside at the mouth while Judas stripped off her soggy scraps inside and wrapped herself in the blanket. She came back out and both sat, back to back, watching the grey drizzle sweep across the panorama.
"I saw someone today," Judas said after a few minutes.
"What, out on the 'scape?" Star asked after a few seconds.
"Yeah," Judas lied. "He was just out there. I tried to hide, but he'd already seen me, and found me." She could feel Star shuddering against her back, and wondered if it was from the thunder or from fear. "He didn't touch me or anything. He was with the government. Not gang." Star pulled away from her companion and stared over her shoulder at her.
"Same difference." Judas blinked, and then nodded.
"Not the guard. Some new project, he said. Kinda like a gang, only we won't have to look for food all the time. We can stay in one place."
"You make it sound like we're going," Star said. "And if we don't have to forage, what was he doing on the 'scape?"
"He didn't say." Another lie. Judas winced. "But I thought it might be worth a look. I mean, it can't hurt, right?"
"We're getting along." Both were silent for a few minutes.
"Barely," Judas finally muttered. "Just barely. I told him we'd meet him at one of the buildings near the 'scape—"
"I can't get there and you know it," Star replied. She turned to face Judas full-on and glared. "I can't leave during the day. You know it. I know it. If you want to leave, just say so and be honest, because that's okay. I survived before you and I can do it again." They both knew she was lying, and Judas felt a twinge of guilt.
"It's at night, actually. We can leave again if we want! We can stay for just a day! And it's not like anyone will touch this hole in a god-forsaken wasteland." She finished with a snarl. She could feel Star staring at her.
"I don't like it," she said finally. "I don't think I'll want to stay. I think you know that. But if we go, and you want to stay—I will too." Judas looked up sharply. She couldn't see Star's eyes in the dark, but her shoulders were hunched and shivering.
"You've stayed here longer than you should have," she interrupted. "I can do this much. It's not as big a thing as I'd have you believe." She laughed ruefully in the dark. "I survived people before, right? And you'll be there. That's something. We can't forget our allegiances, even in these dark days," she murmured.
"Thanks," Judas whispered into the dark. A few minutes later, Star had left, stepping with a tremor-wracked foot through the wreckage. Judas stayed up a while longer, watching the thunder in the distance, before she crawled inside to sleep.
There were people. That was all that either of them could think of when they first arrived at the camp—there were so many people. Men and a few women, everyone middle-aged and younger, and yes—there were even a few children. They darted through and over and around the adults, now smiling and now somber. At first both had watched kids intently, narrowly, but now only Judas watched; Star was focusing on her trembling legs. They were closer to the thunder now, much closer, and every misstep was a blow to her pride. Their guide—Eric has been dragged off by a chattering young man upon their arrival—turned to stare at her now and then, as though she was a freak.
But she had also noticed that she was, here. Among the gangs, the whores, the scavengers, her affliction was a common enough sight, but here nobody trembled, and nobody else's teeth chattered as hers did, in spite of the heat. Not even the children flinched at the thunder, and even Judas, so recently bowed by the heat and rain and thunder, walked straighter. She even laughed. Star had never heard her laugh before, not even before the thunder. Star blinked as the thought hit her, held on to it for a moment, and then let it go as she struggled to keep up with Judas and the guide.
They would be staying with the other young women. The girls they saw didn't have the hollow-cheeked, sooty-eyed expression that Judas always saw on Star and always suspected would be on her own reflection. They were thin and grim, but not lost, and they flocked around the new pair like only young girls in a limited environment can, clucking and fussing over shredded clothes and matted, filthy hair.
They got to have baths. There were now showers or hot water, of course, but there was an old swimming pool that had been cleared of dibris and filled with clean water. After they were done one of the girls, Heather, gave them new clothes and trimmed their hair. They were almost shaved by the time all the snares and matting were gone, but Judas was just happy to be clean.
"Eric should be by this evening to tell you what you'll be doing tomorrow," Heather said as she led them back to their quarters. "You'll be paired up with someone that knows what they're doing until you learn, of course. But you'd be amazed how simple most of the chores are." She hovered in the doorway a moment, watching Star unpack in a corner while Judas rearranged a rag-stuffed mattress. "We even have our own garden. That's my favorite," she said dreamily.
"Oh, I hope I get to work there," Judas said, looking up. "I used to have a garden, you know. Before."
"I'll ask for you, then," Heather said cheerfully. "Most people don't like working out in the open." She lingered a moment longer, watching the pair, before Star finished and looked up, staring at her. After a moment she nodded quickly and left.
Star admitted that she liked the community, albeit grudgingly. It was tidy and orderly and quieter than she remembered her neighborhood being, back before the bombs. They had let her work at night, too. The first night she had wandered out of the building while Judas lay asleep. It was a warm, sweet night, and there was a bonfire in the street. Eric had invited them to it, but Judas was used to sleeping after nightfall, and Star had declined naturally without Judas as company. But she had sought out the fires after all, and talked some with Eric. His eyes had gleamed in the harsh light, and his smile had been more than a little twisted. She approved, in her own way. The world was twisted, so the people ought to be, too. But he had listened to her quiet words, and called over the laughing boy he had left with earlier, and made arrangements.
The kitchen wasn't a favorite place to work, but the chores were very simple—peel roots, dice vegetables, mind or stir what the cooks—a trio of dark-eyed and angry young women—told her to. Mostly she peeled tubers on the stoop, watching the children flirt down dusky streets like moths.
She cut herself more than a few times. The first few nights one of the cooks had always been scolding her for carelessness. But they lost interest or gave it up for lost soon enough, since she didn't complain and washed the blood off everything quickly. The important thing was that she wasn't cutting herself any more often. The progress of the tremors, at lest, seemed to have slowed, and each night Star caught herself thinking that the thunder was a little farther off, now—a little more distant.
Judas, too, seemed more distant. Now that their schedules were regulated and timed by others, they barely passed greetings in the twilight anymore. Each evening Star felt a sun-warm body next to her own, just before she rose, and each morning she lay close to the cool, still form of her companion, but otherwise they scarcely crossed paths.
And that was the limit of her life. To be sure, now and again she crossed paths with one of the girls from her building, but mostly the worked during the day. Now and then Eric would drop by the kitchen to say hello and watch her carve a few tedious spuds, but just as before she had her thoughts. The only difference was that now she watched the children play by the fires, rather than watching the bombs.
The concrete and rebar were shuddering all around her, and the thick dust wracked her with deep, hollow coughs. Judas gagged and squeezed her eyes shut, pulling her shirt up over her nose. Star was watching nearby, she knew, shuddering so had she might as well have been having a seizure, but vigilant. She felt a hand pressed into her own and squeezed it, holding it steady through the paroxysms.
The bombs hadn't been expected. They had been moving steadily farther away, everyone agreed. She had talked to Heather about it as they picked peas and weeded, laughing. The weather had made a change to more frequently sunny, and the earth had been warm and musky under their feet. Judas hadn't worn shoes in weeks.
Heather, she was pretty sure, was dead. Star and Judas had been housed on the bottom floor of the building, in a rock-steady corner. That evening when she had gotten home, Star had been waiting for her in the farthest corner of the room, wrapped in all of their rags and her own convulsions. Judas had been too worried to leave and get help, and it had proved fortunate enough. As she sat and rocked her friend, the bombing had begun—and it was only through a miracle, either chance or Star's good planning, that the walls happened to collapse just so: on every side and above, but not directly on them. Now Judas inched closer and they held each other, shuddering in unison as the world around them shivered into oblivion.
Things were different after the collapse—that was what they called it, not the bombing. There were still enough intact buildings that all the survivors had shelter—and there were quite a few, as a scavenging part had been out, and back in time to dig out a number of survivors. There were still enough supplies to go around, although the garden had been decimated. But the children were gone, and all of the younger women Star and Judas had died in the building. Judas had found Heather with her skull crushed as they had picked through the rubble.
One of the cooks, the youngest sister, had died, but the other two slaved on. A little more tight-lipped, a little more harsh, but whole. Star had kept working in the kitchen, too, although Judas frowned each morning to find fresh gouges up and down her arms. The tremors were getting worse, even though the thunder was gone. Even in her sleep, she had to be held still.
And now Judas followed Eric on his missions—scavenging and recruiting, mostly. She fed other young girls the same lines Eric had bribed her with, although she had never met a single government man. She didn't see much of anyone outside the community anymore, not even a roving gang or two. Just the occasional teenager, most half-starved and shivering.
The bonfires were gone, and where there had once been laughter there were only half-hummed dirges, songs that had survived and thrived in worse times. Every now and again she caught Star staring off at the clouds where the thunder had once been, humming tunelessly.
Judas spent a lot of time where the garden had once been, tending the rotted weeds.