OVER MOUNTAINS and frozen wastes, Vibeke trudged through the snow. It crunched with every step and built up before her, so deep that sometimes she had to sidestep the growing mass. She let it collect over and over out of apathy. She didn’t feel it through her Thaco armor’s fur, but she existed in those days in a constant state of frozen cold, body and mind.

She tried as hard as she could not to think. It was difficult in the near absolute silence, the muffling snow. She inevitably failed to clear her mind and focus on the vast unbroken surface, sparkling day and night even under the thick clouds.

The cloud cover was almost as bright at night as it was by day. After the sun set behind the dull gray sky, it began to glow like the fog atop a vast city. But there were no artificial lights. No city had lit up at night for weeks now. No net link had blinked. The power stations had been the first targets. Quark inversion plants, nuclear plants, geothermal wells, even solar intakes were annihilated.

Some batteries still held a charge. Anything plated in Valhalla gold was functional: her armor, her microwave, her Tikari, and the other Tikari. The Tikari that followed her like an unwanted puppy. With all the radiation in the air, it would never need to recharge. It would follow her for the rest of her life, and then…. The thought sickened her.

She thought about microwaving it a hundred times. Or sending her own to kill it, or smashing it with her boot the next time it landed on a rock. Sometimes she felt Violet’s stare emanating from its eyes. The violating stare she was so averse to seeing from her. In those moments she was sure Violet was watching her through it. That only made her miss Violet more. She had craved another month of nothingness in which they could talk, link back and forth like the trip to Mars. Finally she had it, and Violet wasn’t there. The link was offline.

She stopped under a dead tree where the snow was only half a meter deep and sloughed the icebox off her shoulders. She stretched her arms and rubbed her trapezius muscles. It was a damn heavy icebox. Hundreds of years old and made of hollow metal, courtesy of the Frasers. She opened it and dug out the old browning snow, then packed in fresh white matter from around her. Her only daily ritual in the last weeks. The snow didn’t turn brown the way it did at first when it was full of blood. The blood was almost all gone. She closed the box and set it aside.

From her chest pockets she took another slug of radiophobic gel and slathered it on her hands and face, and through her hair, the only spots her suit didn’t protect. Her training did her well; survival in a radioactive zone was second nature to any Valkyrie. She could do little about food and water, the water being snow from a radioactive blizzard, and the food being…. Well, the food was a bit radioactive too but never in short supply. Internal radiation tabs kept her healthy enough.

She reached into her food satchel and pulled out some jerky. It was one of her last pieces, so she’d be on the lookout for more. She wondered if eating nothing but real meat would give her gout. Her legs hurt enough already without acid crystals forming.

She didn’t sleep. She wasn’t tired. She wanted to keep moving, to get to Orkney and see Violet again. All other goals in her life were extinguished. There was nothing to distract her. She stood up and adjusted her scraps and satchels.

She was coming to the remains of Caithness, the radiation was growing worse, and the people were growing more frequent. She spotted them in the patches of snowless earth, around the houses and stray buildings. Fires grew more and more common, the tame kind in cans and pits along the road, the kind with animals roasting and people gathering for warmth. And the kind that devoured what buildings were still standing. Started by carelessness or by gangs, vandals for whom the world wasn’t wrecked enough. A blaze in the northern sky suggested some of the massive fires from the bombs still burned.

She assumed gangs got the Frasers sometime after she left. Lairg wasn’t a big town, but looting had already begun when she departed. She considered staying to protect them. After all, she thought, she had nowhere else to be. With the ravine vaporized and nearly everyone she knew dead, there was no rush to get anywhere. The snippet of link from Orkney hadn’t come yet. Her only discernible will was to see Violet again, and even that was corroded and rotten.

She tried to think happier thoughts. She assigned the Frasers a pleasant death in her mind, freezing in their sleep, cuddled together and as happy as anyone would ever be again. Surely they and others had met with merciful fates. Many were simply vaporized painlessly. Nothing more merciful than that. Happy thoughts.

With the fires came wanderers. Most kept their distance. Most didn’t want any confrontation—they were just walking, who knew to where. Not them. Many were just walking away from someplace worse. She knew from the tumors that some were from down south. Inverness had taken a wave bomb, or at least been in one’s range.

The tumored people were no threat. Just hideous. Monstrous, really. They wandered sullen around the landscape, their deformities sloshing or bouncing gently as they walked. Their moans were always feeble and pained. The one she’d seen up close didn’t even see her. Its eyes were gone, melted, mutating into fingers. It only caught her because she didn’t care to hide the crunching of snow under her feet.

“Have you any arms?” it called.

“Two,” Vibs muttered back.

“Weapons, I mean?”

“Plenty.”

“Would you be so kind as to use them?”

It stood before her and held out its upper extremity stumps. She pulled her microwave and asked if it was ready.

“Can you tell me a joke? I’d love to die laughing,” it begged.

Vibeke thought for a moment.

“So three guys were talking. The first said, ‘My wife read A Tale of Two Cities when she was pregnant and she gave birth to twins.’ ‘What a coincidence,’ says guy two. ‘My wife was reading The Three Musketeers, and she gave birth to triplets.’ Then the third guy gets up and runs home. They call after him, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he shouts back, ‘My wife is reading Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves!’”

The deformed creature chuckled. She fired and kept walking.

One more person, or former person, that she’d killed. She estimated her mistakes in the silo had killed about five billion and mutated five billion more. She knew it was optimistic to guess ten billion had survived the war unscathed, but she was in an optimistic mood. All she had to deal with were walking cancerous masses.

At first. As she approached Caithness her wilderness survival tactics were gradually getting replaced by her urban disaster tactics.

There were the healthier people, the survivors who got pushier with their demands for food. Uncharacteristically she gave them food when she had an excess; it was as easy a way to get rid of them as killing them. That marginal laziness had saved dozens of lives.

She killed the rude ones, of course, or the ones that posed any threat. But like any other low animal, they were most threatening in gangs, and closer to the city she found more and more gangs. Robber gangs, cannibal gangs, the common huddle for warmth gang, and the most aggressive—and Vibeke’s personal favorite—the rape gang. As buildings grew common and fires could be spotted at every street corner, she found one.

She could see the gang long before they could see her. Five men, one captive. Female, about Vibeke’s age and build, though without the muscle. They were letting her freeze naked on the ground. They were already finished with her.

She hated seeing victims. It was depressing, and there was enough depression in the air already. She tried to feel more for them but never managed it. As soon as the word “victim” crossed her consciousness, she felt nothing. The very notion of a victim was alien to her. She knew better rationally. Not everyone on earth could kill off a gang of men in a second. But she didn’t feel it in the form of sympathy. Most of the time, she felt angry at them and didn’t know why.

But victims aside, she had come to enjoy meeting rape gangs. They were in fact the highlight of her postwar life. She had to suppress a grin at seeing the latest.

She’d grown downright playful with them. The last she’d killed with completely unnecessary slowness, cutting off their feet in one swoop of her Tikari and letting them bleed, watching them crawl, cradle their legs, hope to survive. It was the hope that she relished, the darkest humor she found in their absurd expectation she would let them live. That they even wanted to live, or—if they were that far beyond stupid—that they deserved to.

Rapists tasted best of anything in the region. Most of the animals were long dead and their rotten flesh was hard to choke down. She hadn’t bothered with any of the stringy, starving men or women; she wasn’t some kind of sadistic cannibal, just a contingency cannibal, and there was no shortage of healthy bullies. They stole food from the weak and kept fat in their figures, necessary to digest their muscle. But there was something else in devouring rapists, a more psychological spice that came with ridding the world of them.

Five men, one captive. Valhalla training demanded she send her Tikari through their necks, killing the men before they had any chance to attack. That was the wise thing to do. But what had wisdom ever earned her? Wisdom had ended the damn world.

“Help! Please!” Vibeke whimpered.

The men spotted her. Laughed.

“I’m freezing,” called Vibeke weakly. “I need food!”

Their victim tried to call out to warn her. Vibeke tried not to look at her. Pale, naked, scrawny. She might have been beautiful before she had starved.

A man kicked her to shut her up. Vibeke limped closer and slid her cloak back to reveal her suit, telling it to pull in its fiber. The men wouldn’t recognize Thaco armor. They’d just see the tight mesh that clung to her skin between its metal slats.

“We can help you,” one called out as the others giggled. She approached the man who had kicked the girl. Vibeke tried not to look at her. She was pathetic. They were all the same; they were all weak, and weakness demanded contempt, or so she told herself. But above all they were to be ignored in favor of the warmth to come. Blood was always warm. No matter how cold the climate or cruel the vanquished, their blood was always hot on her skin.

“Please, I just need some food.”

“Yeah, we can get you food,” he said, grinning widely. They always seemed so happy. They thought something was funny about what they planned to do. Vibs couldn’t fathom it. At least her dad was ashamed of what he was. Violet was ashamed of what she did. But all the men in gangs were proud.

Two men grabbed her from behind and held her as the man before her tugged at her collar. She acted afraid.

“Don’t be afraid! Don’t run away,” laughed one of the men.

“No, please don’t!” she begged. “You don’t have to, just stop.”

“I… don’t think so.” More laughter. The laughter pissed her off to no end. She gave them a chance. She always did out of a perverse curiosity to see if any would ever take it. They never did.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

The men looked slightly bewildered. “Yeah. Yeah, we’re sure. How do you take this thing off?”

She sloughed off her boxes and satchels and tried to sob. “You run your finger down the back.”

One of the men holding her stepped up and pulled off her cloak, and put his finger right at the top of her neck, exactly where she needed it for Kata 17. It was so rare in real combat that she got to use a Kata exactly as she’d learned it. But two men holding her, one before her—it was the exact setup she needed.

Within two seconds she pulled her left arm free, held her hand over the right man’s grip, keeping it in place, twisted her elbow back, and snapped his arm with a deafening crack. As he pulled away, she grabbed his finger behind her and bent it backward over the back of his hand, then pushed forward, flipping him by his disjointed digit.

Then a kick to the laughing man, a punch to the fellow on the left. It was as close as she got to dancing. The other two men attacked, clumsily. Rape gangs never seemed to have any training. She hadn’t fought a person with training since she’d stunned the aus-guard at the silo.

The first oncoming idiot was quite buff and might have posed a minimal threat, so she snapped his neck up front before pummeling the last into the snow. They were all on the ground. About ten seconds from capture to victory. Not a record for her.

She knelt by the formerly laughing man, who stumbled back from her and up against a wall.

“Don’t be afraid,” she mimicked him. “Don’t run away.”

She gently brushed his legs open and unbuttoned his pants. She winked at him, and he grew confused. He didn’t resist as she lowered his zipper and reached into his underwear.

He began to resist when she grabbed his balls and pulled as hard as she could, crushing a testicle and ripping the skin. He screamed a ridiculous scream, one of the funnier ones she’d heard.

“Shush shush shush, you don’t need to scream.”

He kept screaming.

“Shut the fuck up!”

He went silent, and she loosened her grip.

“Now what were you gonna do to me?” she asked. “Huh?”

She squeezed again. He screamed his monkey-like scream. The man to her left propped himself up to attack her. Her Tikari rocketed into his head and took him down.

“Come on, what were you gonna do?”

“Fuck you,” he wept, “I was gonna fuck you.”

“How?” She pulled again; he threw up from the pain. “Come on, be specific, you suck at pillow talk.”

“I—I don’t know maybe a—I don’t know, just a blowjob?”

“You want to put this little thing in my mouth?”

“What?”

“That’s what you had in mind, your dick in my mouth?”

“Yes, yes, I—I’m sorry!”

“Ohoho, you don’t know the meaning of sorry yet.”

She pulled again as hard as she could, ripping his genitals out by their roots. He screamed a much less funny scream. Two of the men were running away. She Tikaried their necks and recalled the blade to her shoulder.

“I’m happy to oblige, you know. Your oral fantasies.”

As he watched she bit the skin around the bloody base of his penis and pulled some of his connective tissue out with her teeth. He fainted.

“Wimp.”

She threw the genitals over her shoulder and had her Tikari slit his throat. She began to carve him up along with the others, gutting them like fish. Suddenly she caught sight of their victim, cowering in a corner of icy masonry. Vibs took some of the men’s clothes and threw them her way. She began pulling them on.

“You have to act fast, you know. The trick is to get the guts out and pack the hole with snow so it brings the body temperature down quickly. That preserves the meat for a while.”

The victim covered her mouth with her hands. Vibs was disappointed by her. At least some of the victims thanked her. Maybe she was hungry, she thought. She sent her Tikari to cut off a slice of meat from the castrated man and bring it to her. She drew her microwave and cooked it thoroughly, then tossed it to the woman.

“C’mon, eat up, you’re all skin and bones.”

The woman didn’t even pick up the meat. Ungrateful bitch.

“Fine, more rapist for me.”

She picked up the fillet and took a bite. It was good. The man wasn’t too stringy nor too fat. It was much better than the last man, a lone wolf who was suitable only for jerky, which really took too long to make and wasn’t a good route at all given the lack of flavorful marinade. She’d keep the new batch cold and only cook as she consumed, and she’d try lighting a fire and cooking them instead of using her microwave directly. The microwave cooked the meat thoroughly but sort of sucked the flavor out of it.

“You’re missing out.”

She offered it to the victim again, waving the floppy meat at her, but she was already half dressed and running away. South. Vibs shouted after her.

“There’s nothing that way!”

She kept running.

“Have fun dying, ya dumb slut!”

She felt a pang of guilt for the last slur, but silenced it quickly. She was getting fed up with victims. She just didn’t understand them. She had been one too once, but those times were so far in the past; she was under two decades old, but she felt a lifetime beyond her childhood. Whatever she had grown up to be, it simply had no taste for weakness.

But rapist ass meat, that she had a taste for. She butchered only the yummiest bits from each of the other men. It wasn’t like she could drag their bodies all the way to Orkney.

She stood again, gave the laughing man’s corpse one last kick, then set out eastward, gnawing on her last old slice of rapist jerky. Good riddance to it; a fine idea but too chewy. She was certain the new batch would taste better properly cooked. She cursed the lack of salt and vowed to check for the stuff in the remains of Caithness.