breathed out like the poisoned breath of a dying planet. Here and there, in a mockery of life, bright beautiful orange-red flames licked at what was left of something once living, cleaning the bones of the carcass.
Anna brought her eyes back down from the ruined hillsides. She had deployed her shelter downstream of a fork in the creek. Above where she and LeFleur stood she could see a boulder the size of a trailer house that had originally divided the creek in two. To the right was a silver-black corner of fabric where someone else had deployed. Whoever was within didn't move.
John laid a hand on Anna's arm. She didn't grab onto it but she wanted to.
"Where is everybody?" she asked.
"Some are downstream, I think," LeFleur said. "And there's a branch over there." He pointed south across a hump of devastated ground oozing smoke and heat. "Not far. Five or six yards. It joins the creek at the boulder. Most are there. I think."
For a moment longer they stood without moving. The only two people on this desolate world.
"Let's go," LeFleur said.
Time to see who had lived and who had died.
WIND SWIRLED ASH around their ankles. In places the sand was completely hidden. Flakes of soot eddied down on air currents as wild and changing as Medusa's locks. Cold drafts struck icy reminders of the storm front yet to come. Warm whirlwinds, sudden and smoke-filled, attested to the firestorm just past.
Clouds and smoke pressed close and the visibility in the bottom of the canyon was limited. Anna had yet to shake the feeling that she walked on an alien planet. Plowing through air so mobile and viscous, it wasn't a great leap of imagination to think it had a will—or wills—of its own.
She wanted to hold John's hand and, from the drawn look on his face, she doubted he'd mind. Too bad they were grown-ups. Side by side, shoulders almost touching, they trudged through the sand. Ahead, where the creek split at the boulder, wind curled around the stone in a sudden gust and formed into a shape that was almost human.
"Hold up," John said quietly, and Anna was afraid. The shape continued to shift and settle. Finally it coalesced and she caught a flash of yellow.
"Hey!" she shouted as Stephen emerged from the choking mist. They ran and hugged and pounded backs and laughed like old friends meeting after long years.
"Looking good. Looking good," Stephen said over and over. His eyes were too wide. Whites showed all around the soft hazel pupils. Soot and dirt obscured his skin but for a racoonlike patch over his eyes where his safety goggles had clamped out the worst of the grime. This delicate flesh was stretched tight and the same dirty gray color as the ashes that made up the world.
Shock. Anna reminded herself to be on the lookout for the symptoms in herself and the others. If there were others. Shock would kill as surely as fire but it was a cold death.
Lindstrom grabbed Anna's hand, holding it so tightly the roasted pinky throbbed. It would have taken more than that to persuade her to pull away.
The tinfoil hut by the boulder began to stir and they stumbled over it to drag Howard Black Elk from his aluminum cocoon. Howard was in bad shape. The hasty bandaging job Anna had done on the run down the slope had been scraped away by his struggle to keep his shelter down. Without gloves, his sleeves in rags, the man's hands and arms to above the elbow were badly burned. How much of the charred-looking flesh was third-degree burns and how much dirt, Anna couldn't tell without water, light and a closer examination.
"It don't hurt much," Black Elk said, and Stephen and Anna exchanged glances. When a burn didn't hurt the news was bad. The nerves had been destroyed.
"We'll get you fixed up," Anna said, and was appalled at how halfhearted the promise sounded.
"You're looking good," Stephen repeated. He didn't sound any better than she did.
"Thanks for talking," Black Elk said. "On the radio, I mean. It was better than being