A Sorta-Milestone

Nobody’s Daughter (Wattys 2022 Winner – Science Fiction), reached 1K reads! To celebrate, I’m going to post the first few chapters over the next few days. If you like what you read, it’s still free on Wattpad.


One minute, seventeen-year-old Renata's breaking curfew. The next, she's regaining consciousness in a strange place with no idea how she got there or why-only that she'll have to fight her way out if she wants to survive... And that's just the START of her problems!

Chapter 1

Hokkaido, Japan. June 2049.

“Get back here!”

“Sorry.” Aya glanced back at me, looking sheepish. “I thought I saw something. Over there.” She nodded at the abandoned storefront’s soot-stained façade and splintered door.

“All the more reason to stay off the street.”

As ideas went, breaking curfew to hunt kufugaki was one of the stupidest ideas ever. Why’d I let Satoshi talk me into doing this? Breaking curfew was breaking the law, although that didn’t bother me as much as having to work in a damned group. I preferred to hunt alone. I was better on my own and he knew it. If he hadn’t been such a pushover, we’d all be in our respective bunkers right now, safe and sound. But no, his new girlfriend said she’d seen a pack of kufugaki near the Ruins on her fly-over. Five at least. Too many for me to kill on my own, so she said.

“What’s going on back there, Renata?” Satoshi hissed.

“False alarm,” I replied, urging our noobs back to the shadows. If there’d been anything in that building, we’d have been attacked by now.

“Well, get a move on! We need to stay together.”

If Juno was right about the headcount, it meant a bounty for each of us—provided the diseased, marrow-sucking mutants didn’t jump us, or a sky patrol didn’t snuff us out first. Though our neighbors knew about the hunt, and the Ruins were only a stone’s throw from the village bunkers, it didn’t matter. Around here, people didn’t ask questions after dark. Kill without question: that was the only rule.

To make matters worse, this wasn’t the first time Juno had said jump, and he’d complied. Gone along without question, hesitation, or even a moment’s contemplation—which, if you knew my older brother, wasn’t like him at all. Paranoid and obsessed with conspiracy theories, when he wasn’t hunting or hacking the regime’s communication systems: that was the Satoshi I knew. Before she showed up, yes was not his knee-jerk response to every proposition.

What have you done with my brother? I wanted to ask, mystified how one woman—older than Satoshi, horse-faced, thick-thighed, and with an even thicker swath of white in her long black braid—could turn a grown man into her personal lap dog. Were all Shinu women so adept at feminine wiles or had she been studying kodoku on the side, extracting poison to turn him into her personal slave?

I made a mental note to sweep the bunker for signs of dark magic when we returned—vials and insect carcasses—then immediately felt ashamed for harboring such unkind thoughts. After all, Juno was the niece of one of our oldest friends. All things considered; I suppose he could’ve done worse. Still, whenever we were together, something about Juno made my stomach knot.

Heads low and with weapons at the ready, we skirted pools of water and patches of moonlight, preferring to skulk in the shadows than to cast one. Most of us had chosen clothes to match the color of the night to better blend with our surroundings. We made our way slowly, creeping past the crumbling husks of shuttered houses and fire-gutted shops, staying close to the retaining wall that ran along one side of the deserted street.

For the sake of the noobs, they had elected me rear guard, but pulling them away from potential danger was quickly becoming a full-time job. Curiosity always got the better of these two, beckoning them to investigate the dark voids behind broken windows, doorless entries, or the interiors of supposedly deserted vehicles.

Keep to the shadows. Stay off the street. I’d lost count of how many times I’d had to repeat the same damned thing! Simple enough information, you’d think it would’ve sunken in by now. Though I’d just turned seventeen and was only a few years older than the two of them, I’d never had the luxury of being such a scatterbrain at their age!

When the retaining wall ended in a heap of moss-covered stones near an intersection, we paused. The Ruins—the remains of an old medical complex abandoned during the nokuru pandemics—weren’t very far from here. As the moon peeked through the clouds, I could see the dejected outline of its crumbling silhouette. What nature hadn’t battered with earthquakes and torrential rains; neglect had stepped in to finish. Places like this were perfect nesting sites for kufugaki.

Nokuru, the disease responsible for the kufugaki, had been raging across Japan almost as long as I’d been alive. No one knew where the virus had come from, though it seemed everyone had their own theory. Some sounded logical enough: an accidental mutation, the byproduct of pollution, or biological warfare from preceding decades. Others, conspiracy theories, each more outlandish than the next, spread like wildfire, consuming anything in their path that even remotely resembled common sense.

According to the latest and most outrageous one of those, the virus had originated in a lab in New Edo, the nation’s largest holodome, an enormous enclave that sprawled over the site of former Tokyo like a bloated terrarium. Speculation about it ran the gamut from its use as a weapon to force civil obedience, to a population control measure, to an outright bid for world dominance.

With no cure and as yet, not even a vaccine, public opinion had had plenty of time to spiral out of control. The virus mutated so fast that researchers couldn’t pin it down. Mapping its genome should have been simple enough, but nokuru mutated with a sinister singularity of intention, always transforming into a more rapid-acting variant of itself. For nearly two decades, its mode of transmission hadn’t changed, nor had its symptoms. They just came on faster, and the outcome was always the same.

Wherever Satoshi started in on his latest theory, the product of his too-frequent online discussions with like-minded doomsday junkies, I just sighed and rolled my eyes. With nokuru, all you could hope to do was survive. Kill the kufugaki before they took a chunk out of you or suffer a fate worse than death. Once the virus took hold, everything decayed, slipping away until there was nothing left of you but a jittery bag of bones, slush for brains, and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Nokuru was a death sentence. But sometimes, death was better than living with the consequences.

Clouds obscured the moon, plunging us into momentary darkness. I pressed myself against the wall while waiting for his signal. The stones felt cool against my sweaty back, and the moss had a spicy, slightly musty scent. No sky patrollers dogged our progress: we’d been lucky so far.

My gaze flicked to the spot where Tobi and Aya huddled together. Please, just keep it together, I prayed. Don’t move or speak or do anything stupid.

“Okay, the coast is clear,” Satoshi, who’d been surveying the converging streets, whispered. “Let’s go!”

The Ruins sat just outside of our village atop a small knoll whose gradual rise was just gradual enough to give us a hard time. Parched earth, made slick by recent rain, made it difficult to gain purchase. Too many clouds blotted out the moon, casting too many shadows among heaps of rubble overgrown with saplings and thick vines, and too many damned leaves rustled in a breeze that seemed constantly at our backs. At this rate, the kufugaki would smell us coming long before we got there.

“Darkfell, look sharp!”

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