Mar 2, 2012
Whispers (Parts I - XX)
Archbishop Romero moved as quickly as his age, weight and the unruly purple robes would permit, down a long, shadowed and faux-columned corridor, scanning every frescoed alcove attentively for the appearance of the one man who would be able to help him. His sweat, in the humidity, oozed from his pores, dampening his garments and covering the exposed skin of his face and hands in a sheen of perspiration.
The leather satchel strung from his left shoulder, misshapen from the emails and briefs hastily ensconced within its weathered envelope, bobbed and swayed annoyingly against his hip, impeding his free movement. Rounding a corner, breathless, he found himself at the edge of an inner courtyard. On the periphery of the garden, two men spoke while each watched over the others shoulder for interlopers. At the appearance of Archbishop Romero, they fell to immediate silence and one darted quickly away, escaping into the obscurity of the shadows.
The Archbishop stopped short, feeling the rush of urgency, but also a strong need to settle his pulse which now clicked conspicuously at the sides of his neck and sent waves of heat toward his forehead. He absently unloaded the bulky satchel from his shoulder and switched its cumbersome weight to his right. The man in the passage, now standing alone, regarded him with sharp eyes narrowed to evaluating slits.
“Chamerlengo, posso avvicinare?” he said in a whisper that scarcely traveled the distance – Houseman, may I approach?
“Venga, Arcivescovo Romero,” hissed the man, stealthily – Come. “Sono tanti anni che non ci siamo più incontrati - non ero sicuro di chi fosse,” - It's many years since we've met, I wasn't sure who it was.
The two men embraced traditionally and stiffly – bridging, for only a moment, the theological gaps that had kept them on opposite sides of tables and on separate continents for a very long time. The Archbishop broke away and pressed on urgently with his mission.
“Chamerlengo, ho bisogna di parlare direttamente con Sua Santità, il Pontefice, al più presto.” He whispered close to the other man's ear, conscious that, even the echoes of whispers can travel where they may be intercepted by those unwanted who listen – Houseman, I need to speak directly with His Holiness, the Pope, as soon as possible. The Houseman feigned surprise but not his disdain for the liberal, American Archbishop.
“Ma, Romero, lo sapete assai, Sua Santità non sta bene,” - Romero, you know altogether enough that His Holiness is not well. It was as close as one came with the Houseman to the ending of a conversation before he simply walked away. It was a disaster in the offing for Romero because, without the ear of the Houseman, access to the Pope himself, would be impossible. Romero fidgeted desperately, deciding what to do while the Houseman impatiently consulted, giving due notice of expired time, the platinum Patek Filipe watch that gleamed on his wrist.
“Veramente, Romero, ho degli affari da amministrare,” - Really, Romero, I have some affairs to administrate. He made to quickly rebuff the flustered Archbishop.
“Aspettate!” Romero's exclamation escaped him too quickly and too loudly – Wait! The Houseman looked at him askance for his outburst breach of protocol as though regarding an ill-mannered and filthy, country cousin, unwanted on the premises.
“Vi prego, Chamerlengo - un solo momento. Leggete.” Romero, in a move of desperation, crossed his own Rubicon, deciding that, if this was necessary, then he would reveal the documents that he had intended only for the eyes of the Pope – I pray, Houseman – only a moment – read this.
He fumbled with the satchel hanging against his hip and withdrew a single sheet of printed paper that had been repeatedly read, folded and re-read. He pressed it to the briefly unresponsive hand of the Houseman who, as though to entertain the rantings of the deranged, then took it and quickly scanned the text.
After his eyes ran, sharp and lucid, over the print on the creased page, he looked up at Romero, his eyes a little wider. He then turned back to the document and, more slowly, read it again. When he finished it, he faced Romero and, with his voice clipped and precise, asked:
“Che cos'è?” - What is this?
Romero answered as best he could, short and concise.
“Sono le anime, Camerlengo,” he said between short breaths, “stanno tornando,” - It's the souls, Houseman, they are returning.
Jonathan Mintobu, the Ghanaian president, planted his fist heavily on the desk sending a small stack of folders and various objects askew. He closed his eyes, briefly covering the yellowed and blood-shot sclera beneath paper-thin, very dark lids. Opening his eyes again, he spoke, fixing his Chief of Staff and first General.
“Do you wish to inform me, gentlemen,” he recited to the two men who stood as still as sentinels before the broad expanse of desk, “that we cannot put an end to this outbreak? I do not need to tell you, now, as I did not need to tell you before, that failure is not an option which I am prepared to entertain.” His English emerged, carefully enunciated and heavily accented with his native Ashanti tongue, effused by French and clipped by Oxford. The Chief of Staff, by protocol, was the first to respond.
“Mr. Mintobu, sir, we have indications from ground operations – although these are still being analysed – that this is not Ebola, Marburg or some other heamorrhagic fever. Yes, granted, that was our initial direction and the CDC in Atlanta seemed to confirm but, now, we are concerned for other, previously not conceived and more difficult, scenarios.”
“If it is not Ebola, then what is it?” President Mintobu asked the question that was patent in everyone's mind. “Whatever sort of malady it is, it must be contained and I have given you the authorisation to do it.”
It was the turn of the General to face the wrath of his president.
“Monsieur Président, si je puis parler,” stated the General with military deference – if I may speak.
“Bien sûr, mon Générale. J'attende les votre rispostes,” fired back the President, his words hinting of sarcasm – Certainly, I await your answers. The General, Joshua Alikemba, launched his summary.
“Mr. President, with all due respect, we have been on the ground, without hesitation, since beckoned, by you, to respond to this threat and we have spared no man and no effort to make our response effective: my daily reports to my superiors and addressed also to you are testimony to my reckoning of the severity of this situation.” The President nodded, acknowledging the veracity of the statement but still disturbed by the lack of solution.
The General paused and glanced, nervously, at his superior, the Chief of Staff, who nodded, before continuing and leveling his stern gaze at the President.
“Sir, without the help of the CDC, we have made, through interviews and collected intelligence, certain inroads into the source of this infection. It seems to be our cemeteries – it is breeding there.”
“Have these been isolated, as per the protocol that was distributed?” queried the President. “You are aware that I have a populace, whose folk mentality is excitable, to reassure, are you not?”
“Absolutely, sir – yes, sir,” answered the General. “In addition, sir, we have assurances from some of our allies locally that this outbreak is not isolated – both Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire have reported similar incidents.”
“Then, General Alikemba, why has isolation of the cemeteries not stopped the spread of the infection?”
“It is not a matter of keeping the living out, sir.”
The Toronto Star.
Friday, July 2, 2010.
Plague erupts in Toronto.
Richard Corrigan (special to the Star).
After only days from the first reports of a mysterious plague appeared on wire services around the world, officials with the Ministry of Health have reluctantly confirmed that this, as yet, unidentified and uncontrolled illness has arrived in Toronto.
In a short news conference held behind locked doors at Toronto's Centre for Forensic Sciences, Aileen Smitherman, a spokesperson for the Ministry, read a brief statement and took few questions from reporters before concluding the meeting. Reporters were escorted from the facility by armed guards.
In her statement, Ms. Smitherman reported that, due to it's rapid appearance and dissemination, there are currently no real epidemiological data about the plague or its effects. When questioned about the expected mortality rate, Ms. Smitherman stated only that the infection rate is currently set to the unprecedented level of 100%.
The infection rate for such epidemic diseases as bubonic plague or Ebola is known to be far less than 100%, even in the case of extremely 'hot' outbreaks.
The Ministry spokesperson went on to state that the prospects for mass immunisation were currently minimal considering the brevity of onset and the completely unknown contagion. Asked about the symptoms of the illness, Ms. Smitherman stated that victims display a strong and repulsive odour.
Despite that this announcement was official only as of 8 pm. on July first, the city's populace has been alarmed since reports began surfacing. Panic buying has been reported by many food chains who have been unable to keep up with demand. Most services, such as subway and bus, GO train, post and waste removal have been suspended by city hall. Mayor Miller's office was unavailable for comment. Major disruptions of landline, cell phone and internet services are occurring.
Many urban communities have formed local, armed militia and are in the process of isolating their homes from intruders. On a tour of the deserted city at 6 am. today, this reporter, despite displaying his journalist credentials, was told by men patrolling one such barricade in Toronto's Cabbagetown to 'get away or be shot.'
Incidents of vigilantism have been reported. Also observed, first hand, this morning, was a disease victim who had been lynched from a light standard. Inexplicably, police in the vicinity refused to rescue the individual who, after some hours, was still fighting to escape the rope that had gone nearly through his neck.
A colony of many thousand disease carriers has reportedly taken up residence in Toronto's largest and oldest cemetery: Mount Pleasant. On attempting to investigate, our news crew was turned away by a line of Canadian Forces soldiers in full biohazard protection.
Chief Bill Blair of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Services, tossed the section of newspaper on the desk and directed his attention to Inspector Harrison.
“I got a communiqué from the Prime Minister's office, Ed,” he said to his old friend and comrade.
“I heard, Bill,” answered the other, sitting on the opposite corner of the desk and dressed in civvies. “You gotta hand it to them though. I have no idea how they managed to publish and get it distributed.”
“Yeah, you're right,” responded the chief, still dressed in uniform but showing the effects of an endless shift of duty by the stains under the arms. “They've always supported us and we owe them a lot of thanks.”
“I know, but difficult times...,” the other man trailed off and studied his hands which toyed with a tiny, Toronto police car replica recovered from the desk surface. Chief Blair sighed.
“We've been told to shut them down – arrest the publisher, editor-in-chief and the journalist, if we can find him. I'm not liking this.”
“Just 'The Star', Bill, or 'The Sun', too – 'The Post', 'The Globe'?”
“All of them, my friend.” The Chief drew his pistol and checked the magazine. “If you don't have enough men available, then I guess we can go down there ourselves.”
General Alexander Craig, US Army, tramped heavily, his boots leaving severely treaded impressions in the damp ground of what had formerly been a small park but, now, with the repeated passage of the troop carriers, guns and tanks, it resembled exactly what it had become: the staging area for a large military operation. Here and there, amidst the desecration that had been wrought on this tranquil place, a small patch of grass remained, clinging for salvation to the trunk of an alder or maple but, now spattered with muck.
Squinting upward through dark tinted Ray Ban shades, the sky, that only hours before had been a violent, cloudless azure in the first rays of the dawning sun, was now streaked with plumes of pungent smelling, black, greasy smoke from the many fires that now burned and would continue to burn until the Commander in Chief, himself, let it be known, based on the success of ground-ops, that they could stop.
Arriving at the forward command tent, inside, he could hear the bustle of activity: all incoming reports from the stage of battle were processed in real-time, GPS located and simultaneously uploaded to Pentagon servers for further analysis. This ensured that the field commanders were constantly updated regarding troop risk, casualty probabilities, and had every assistance possible based on current data. Standing outside the tent, while the canvas door flapped, half-heartedly, in the murky breeze, he filled a cup from a giant thermos of coffee and, imagining he would be hungry in an hour or so, selected an apple from an overflowing basket, polished it out of habit on his vest and sequestered it in a pocket of his fatigues. He threw back the door of the tent and, ducking slightly from his six and a half foot stature, entered.
“Ten-shun! General in the tent!” shouted the command sergeant, snapping to ram-rod stiffness; he was an over-anxious Marine but, nevertheless a good, efficient and competent fellow. The General nodded and, cursively, returned salute. He briefly took in the staff who were now immobile, at attention, while their computers continued to scroll vital data.
“As you were, ladies and gentlemen,” he instructed. Their activity resumed as though a paused second hand had, once again, begun to move.
General Craig began to circulate among the staff, interviewing them and gathering data for his own reports to Washington. He immediately recognised, while in quiet and relaxed conversation with these highly trained men and women that their stress level was extreme – dangerously so. It was, he also knew, not in the least bit surprising.
General Craig had been 18 when drafted to Vietnam. He knew much of the stress of battle having done four tours, been wounded and taken prisoner by the Viet Cong. The battle at Phong mi Tieng had been, he still considered, the hardest two weeks of his life. When he was silently taken prisoner by a roving band of guerrillas, it was not that he had despaired for his life but, he reasonably thought that the probability of his survival would be slight. For six days, he had been tortured and tried, to the best of his ability, to maintain his mindset, reciting an endless litany of 'Craig, Alexander M. - private, first class.'
Just before dawn on the seventh day, the Airborne of the 157th, based on intelligence from friendlies in the area, had defied orders to patrol south toward the Trang delta; they appeared as silently as a whisper of chopper blades over the canopy and torched the small enclave of huts and tunnels. He had never been so happy, when they found him tied in his own filth and covered with vermin, to see a bunch of cowboys from Montana.
The experience had brought him to a new concept – a personal truth – about what it meant to be in the military. He realised that somewhere, over there, possibly unbeknown even to them, some native Vietnamese – ordinary, honest folk with no stomach for war but only a desire to raise their families in peace – had saved his life. Whereas, as a young soldier in the field, he had considered that it was all about blowing things up and killing bad guys, he now knew that it was about assistance to people in troubled areas: help them to help you and the problems will end very quickly. After leaving Viet Nam, he entered the intelligence services.
In seeking to make his philosophy into a reality, he had, in retrospect, not always made the best choices. In Nicaragua, his activities had been tutored by shape-shifting, CIA operatives whose personal and political agendas seemed to change with the direction of the wind and be guided by those who had the largest purse-string.
As a career officer, Craig had seen many other hotspots: Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the occupied territories, Afghanistan and the first Gulf war.
He had not, however, ever imagined, in whatever doomsday scenarios that might have passed through his mind or across his desk, to see himself deployed in active combat to Fairview, Pennsylvania.
He beckoned with his hand to the muster corporal, standing by.
“What is our situation?” he queried. The other fumbled nervously with some print-outs and then reported.
“We have four more casualties, General. All suicides.”
The General sighed. He aimlessly flipped some pages in his notebook and then corrected the statement.
“You mean 'accidental deaths', don't you, Corporal?”
“That is exactly what I meant, sir.”
“Were the bodies... dealt with correctly?”
“We had no choice, sir. The ashes will be returned to the families.”
Craig nodded and, with sadness, dismissed the man. His mind traveled over the scant miles to where his wife with the twin boy and girl were currently closed up in the sprawling bungalow that was their family home in a sleepy suburb of West Virginia.
If the buffer-zone around Washington was not a success, he knew they would, within days, be over-run by plague. He silently whispered a prayer for those who, overcome by the horror, terror and tragedy of what was happening, simply tried to escape it.
“Graham? Graham! Are you still in the kitchen?” Lois stood inside the screen door of the ranch-style, white-painted home which she shared with her husband and an occasionally returning son. Her ears scanned intently both for her husband's response and the dull, metallic impacts which had first caught her attention. Outside, she heard the sound again and her eyes watched the meandering, tree-lined approach to the house in the thin, purple stained light which remained of dusk.
“You know I'm here, dear,” came the reluctant and soft spoken reply.
Graham looked over his handiwork and shook his head. He put the screwdriver down on the counter and, twisting the dismantled and uncooperative faucet with a wrench, cursorily rinsed his hands. In the same fashion, he closed the faucet which, ironically, continued to drip, and left the kitchen.
“What's going on?” he said, approaching his wife down the broad, central hallway of the home.
“I'm not sure,' she answered and trailed off, sounding uncertain. “Listen.”
Graham came up beside his wife and, as was his habit, slid his arm protectively around her waist, drawing her a little closer. Graham stood silently, as instructed, with his wife at his side, cocking his head slightly in animal imitation of attentiveness.
Altogether, the small town of Grandbrook, Arizona, had been their home for over 20 years on the generous property purchased after, in a tragic night of smoke and flame, they had escaped from their previous home in another state with only what they could carry. Grandbrook, however, after the relocation, had proved a hospitable, peaceful place and, with due concern for water management, Graham's mechanical inclination and Lois' flair for the imaginative and whimsical, their property had blossomed over the years to a flourishing oasis of spreading, shade trees, exotic flowers and abundant fruits and vegetables. Aside from the songs of nesting birds, the property was isolated and, along the rural road that passed 200 yards away, beyond the iron gate and tall fences placed for security, there was little traffic to and from the scattered houses and, a half mile away, a small cemetery only occasionally used or visited.
“That sounds like someone hammering on the front gate.” Graham blinked his clear blue eyes and his mouth creased into a frown.
“If someone wanted our attention, why wouldn't they just call up from the intercom?” queried Lois to her husband.
He stepped from her side and, with a purposeful move, flipped a switch on a little panel beside the door. Immediately, beyond the deeply shadowed foliage along the drive, a glow of electrical light emerged as an island of day in the deepening night.
“I have no idea,” answered Graham. He felt an uneasy, knot of tension growing in his belly and acknowledged, an incipient sense that something was not quite as it should be.
“I'd better go down an have a look.”
Together, they stood another moment, listening intently, but the unexplained noise had apparently ceased. Graham shook away the sense of apprehension that crept in waves of tensing muscles across his shoulders. Finally, he stirred himself into action and turned back into the house.
Lois watched his figure, clad in black khakis and matching shirt, hanging open at the neck, move quickly down the hallway. He turned into the small, side facing, studio.
“What do you want me to do?”
She heard and recognised the sound of padlocks being released and chains falling from the large cabinet in the studio.
“You're going to stay here and lock the door after I'm out,” came the flat response. The echo of a bolt being drawn and then locked on a cartridge drifted up the spacious hallway. He re-emerged carrying a powerful shotgun and a handgun; the smaller, he handed to his wife upon joining her at the door.
“The safety is off, Lois,” he instructed and she nodded, implicitly trusting her husband's instincts.
“If anyone approaches the house that isn't me, shoot for the legs first and, if they don't stop, then the head.”
“Be careful,” said Lois, taking Graham's arm. “What do think is happening?”
“I don't know, dear, but we'll know in just a minute. I'll call you from the gate.”
They kissed, the concern now permeating both of them, and Graham stepped out into the darkness, following the halo of light beyond the trees. Lois, closed the heavy wooden door and bolted it while, in her right palm, she fixed the butt of the pistol under her clenching fingers.
Graham moved with slow determination away from the house and into the dimness that would enclose him before he emerged from the trees into sight of the gate. His mind was fixed on his destination, clear and alert, with the powerful shotgun tucked into the crook of his elbow. His boots, with each footfall, ground on the packed gravel surfacing of the drive and, now and again, were deadened by the presence of tufts of inexplicable herb that sprouted in little islands. The lights of the house grew more distant and he was englobed in shadow. Overhead, the sky relinquished its last hold on daylight.
Graham reflected as he made his progress down the drive. He didn't know why that sound, the metallic ringing on the gate, had struck him the way it did. There was a quality in it that had pierced to his basest instincts, like a warning or a death knell – something that appealed to sense for survival and for that of his wife.
Nearing the gate, Graham hefted the gun, aiming it from hip level, his finger against the trigger guard. He stayed to the last shadows as the powerful, overhead lamps cast their luminescence in a wide arc. Coming around a large tree, and stepping, unavoidably, into the brilliance, Graham stopped, vomited, and immediately understood what had happened.
Stepping into the white, pervasive light from the high, halogen lamps, Graham blinked, momentarily blinded by the brilliance but, closing his eyes again and then re-opening them on the scene of bloody butchery in front of the gate, his stomach first roiled uncomfortably and then cast up the leisurely and delightful supper he had eaten on the shady, back patio with Lois only an hour before.
It was not the case that Graham was 'too sensitive' a man or unfamiliar with the visual impact that brutal perversions of the human form can have on the psyche of the observer; on the contrary. He had first seen such things as only a young man when, drafted into the military and sent to a far off county called Vietnam, he had quickly seen what no person should, in a world of reason and common justice, ever be put in a position to see. He had also learned to control, while stepping over body parts and mangled internal organs, his own psychological response to what he was seeing. Some of those scenes still haunted him, causing him to awake in a bed dampened from his sweat, a scream locked in his throat, and the animal 'fight or flight' instinct humming, like high-tension cables, through his body. He knew, however, bathed in the light from above the gate, that was then.
This was now and, not only that, in front of the gate of his own home in Grandbrook, Arizona where, 200 yards behind him, his wife was now alone in the house, albeit behind a locked and bolted door, with only a handgun and her own wits to protect her. The juxtapositions with a scene from battle and the concept of a distant, almost unattainable position of safety seemed to pile one upon the other.
Graham knew the white Tahoe stopped before the gate; it was owned by Bob Hillier who lived in the last house at the end of the street, near the cemetery. Graham was used to seeing him, going this way or that, behind the wheel of the enormous vehicle with his wife, Edwina, and their gaggle of kids that ranged in age from 5 to 17. Graham had always suspected that, in their past, there was something dangerous or unsavory – possibly Mob connections – that had, in the end, brought them to Arizona and likely as guests of the witness protection program. Whatever belonged to their history, they had been kind and respectful neighbours. Also, nothing under Heaven made them deserving of the end that had been visited upon them.
Graham was aware of his own response to the situation; he had reverted to himself as a 21 year old on patrol with his squad in the jungle. His eyes were in constant motion searching for movement and his head pivoted mechanically to provide a wider field of vision. His ears were tuned to perceive any sound and, even the squawk of a night bird, brought a thrill of nervous tension through his body. His nose had closed against the fetid stench of intestinal contents that permeated the air. There was also something worse – a smell of rancid decay like an animal left to feed maggots at the side of a freeway. His finger no longer posed against the guard but, now, was gently applied to the trigger, threatening to let fly with minimum provocation. Graham was painfully aware, in this state of extreme nervous energy and feeling the powerful, rapid beating of his heart against his sternum, that he was no longer 21, in fact, far from it, but he also knew his priorities by rote: survey the scene for survivors and radio to base for Med-Evac; detain and question, where possible, any and all hostiles encountered; return to base safely for debriefing. Graham arrived before the gate and studied the scene of human desecration.
It was clear that the Tahoe had arrived at a high rate of speed; the gutters left by the tires in the gravel as it veered from the road to the base of the drive were evident even in the glaring light. What had brought them here was not clear. Bob had probably been the first to descend and approach the intercom to call the house. He had possibly thought himself to be safely away from immediate danger. The family had been ambushed as soon as he descended.
Now, all four doors of the powerful and sturdy vehicle were open. The victims, as far as Graham could tell, the entire family, had been dragged out and torn to pieces on the spot, their bodies opened, scattered and half-consumed before, maybe, the lights had come on and frightened off the demented souls who had consummated this abomination.
The voice, from outside the gate, caused his finger to twitch nervously on the shotgun trigger and then retract. Graham moved silently to the side pillar of the gate and, reaching through the bars, he pushed the intercom button.
“Lois,” he whispered, “it's grim down here. Call the Grandbrook police and tell them there's been an ambush. I'll call them myself as soon as get back to the...”
Distracted, Graham stared at the base of the gate. The Blackberry had been battered to pieces against one of the verticals and then left, streaked with blood, in the dust.
“Are you still there?”
It had been no more than a flash, to the right, in his peripheral vision but, not doubting his instincts for a moment, the shotgun fired in his hands and it kicked violently against the strength of his shoulders.
The movement had been on the inside of the fence, not the outside.
Graham scarcely dared turn and extend his arm, again, through the gate to the button.
“Lois!” he shouted, holding the gun level with his right hand. “They're inside! I'm coming up on the run!”
“Oh my God!” was the last he heard from her. He sprinted away from the gate and quickly left the relative safety of the pool of light. His shadow disappeared and he was swallowed by the darkness.
Running in battle stance, he cocked the rifle to reload it and, mentally calculated about forty-five seconds to a minute to reach the house. He had, he realised, no knowledge of the numbers of the enemy hidden among the shrubs and trees but his sensation was that many, many eyes were watching him. Further up the incline, he caught a brief and reassuring first glimpse of the glow from the house lights.
Rounding a dog-leg in the driveway, Graham encountered the first of his pursuers and stopped short. The thing emerged from cover onto the gravel about eight feet in front of him but, before it even appeared, he became aware of it's presence from the rancid stench of rot which hung thick and nauseating in the air. In the darkness, barely obscuring the hideous aspect of the thing, Graham's disgust nearly prevented his reaction but some voice of reason and self-preservation screamed itself hoarse goading him to fire as the human mockery came closer. Graham leveled the rifle, drew the stock tight against his shoulder and fired. The rifle kicked forcefully and the creature's chest exploded outward through its back in a shower of grey, gelatinous filth. As Graham cocked the gun again, the creature's chest, deprived of its spinal support collapsed on itself but the thing did not even seem to notice. Graham acknowledged what he had already suspected and, rather than waste more ammunition in futility, he dodged around the thing and its feebly outstretched arms, his legs again pumping and driving him toward the house and Lois. As he distanced from it, he glanced behind and saw that many – 50, a hundred or more - of the things had emerged and more were appearing every second.
Finally, his exertion paid it's dividend and only 20... 15 yards in front was his refuge. Another creature, seeming oblivious to the security lights on the house blocked his approach – standing directly between Graham and the door. This time, Graham had no hesitation. He pulled up the gun and sighted on the thing. In that moment, the front door opened and Lois appeared.
“Lois! Get back!” screamed Graham and violently jerked the barrel away for fear of the dismal possibility of an error.
When the creature turned toward Graham, he understood its indifference to the light; its eyes had decayed from their sockets becoming, instead, streaks of black slime down the rank, discoloured flesh of its cheek and neck. In spite of this impediment, it now bore down upon him and with his wife potentially in his sights, he was helpless to fire. It was Lois' voice, clear and imposing, that removed from him his mounting state of confusion and fear.
“Graham! Drop now!”
Graham did not hesitate. He dropped heavily to the gravel, instinctively covering his head. He turned and watched the scene unfold in slow-motion.
Lois raised the gun in both hands and at arms length. She paused, slowly exhaled, and fired – once, twice and then three times. The creature's head exploded in a fountain of revolting decay, bits of greasy tissue and blackened bone. Graham rose to his knees and, as the creature fell, he scampered away, tumbling onto the lawn to avoid contact with the subsiding mist. Then, with only a brief glance toward the thing – and what he saw imprinted forever on his mind in a way that would have driven a lesser man to madness – he was up, running to his wife, and the door closed heavily behind him.
The creature remained, momentarily, on its knees on the drive, the neck become a filthy, rotting, open stump, where fragments of teeth and jaws hung by fetid strands of ligament onto its chest. Then, as though newly accustomed to its changed state, it slowly rose to its feet and began to walk toward the house.
Archbishop Romero disliked flying. He always had but, there was something about this flight, in particular, that was causing his aging body to twitch with a level of emotional excitement similar to panic.
The disembodied voice intoned calmly, echoing down the concourse; 'This is the final boarding call for Alitalia flight 568 from Rome Fiumicino to Washington Dulles. All passengers should now be at Gate 74 for departure. The time is now 5:14pm. Questa è l'ultima chiamata per il volo Alitalia 568...'
The Archbishop tuned out the continually droning messages and, awkwardly shifting his satchel of documents, handed his passport and boarding pass to the young lady at the desk. She smiled graciously at him and, diverting her eyes which, like everyone else's in these difficult days, showed nothing more than worry and fear, scanned the documents. She immediately reacted to the information on her screen.
“You are a priest?” she said, almost aggressively – an accusation, heavily accented with Italian. Romero balked at the tone, ceding briefly to his own edginess, before reigning in his excitability and spoke softly to the girl.
“Archbishop, actually. Washington diocese,” he corrected and smiled slightly.
“Thank God,” said the girl, appearing to relax. “I am so glad you will be on board. Please pray that we will be safe. This plague has me so frightened.” Her gaze darted, moving with the unease of sleeplessness, over his shoulder to scrutinise the long concourse that, with perspective deceit, narrowed away in both directions. It was, for the most part, a terrifying open space dotted with few passengers and, here and there, soldiers armed with flame-throwers and charged with keeping the airport open and secure.
“We are all worried,” affirmed Romero and nodded gravely. “If you have time during the flight, come to me and we will pray together for strength, child,” he added and his hands closed gently over hers as she returned his documents.
“Thank you, Father. Thank you.”
This is a test.
I'm only postng this to see if anyone else is out there.
I just hope that my connection holds out loong enough.
I am in Toronto, Canada. If there is anyone else out there, pls contact me. Im really scared – not sure what to do anymore.
I think eveyone here has the plaque except me. I've been loocked in my apartment for over two weeks now and i'm running out of food. I'm afraid to go ouot but if I don't get out of here i'm going to die of starvation. They are in the building I hear them at night.
Yesterday the electric went out. That means that the water pumps have stopped too.I haven't seen a car on the street in four days, i thik.
If I can get to my pickup in the parking colonnade, I'm going to try to drive to my sister's place in Fairview, Pennsylvania. I think itll tak me about 14 hours.
I'm going to stop now to save battery on my compputer.
My name is Jerry, by the way. I'm 27 and hope to make it to 28.
It's a sunny day outside so i'm going to go for it.
wish me luck...
[posted by ScaredToDeath on 2010-08-08 at 7:32 am EDT]
There was no response.
“Graham?” Lois called louder. Her voice echoed through the rooms and corridors in the house that had, with furniture now stacked against the windows and doors, become a cave and a bunker. Finally, she sighed in relief and her hand drew away from the loaded shotgun propped against the computer desk.
“What is it, dear?” was his weary answer. “I was in the garage.”
“Graham, there's a boy out there.”
Graham's face flinched with concern as he entered and he looked sharply toward a covered window. He hefted the shotgun which he had kept conscientiously by his side since re-entering the house from his perilous sprint from the gate to the safety of the house.
“No, no,” rejoined Lois - “not out there.” She gestured toward the computer screen, indicating the message that had been posted.
“He's some young fellow and he's all alone. He's trying to drive from Canada down to Fairview to find his sister.”
“Poor fella,” quoted Graham, frowning and shaking his head sadly. “I hope he can make it and find her.”
“That's what I told him – to just keep going.”
“You've always had your heart in the right place, Lois,” he said and bent briefly to place a quick, loving kiss on his wife's cheek. Then he stood abruptly and consulted his watch, regaining a more efficient tone.
“It's 6:45, Lois. You should shut this thing down” – he indicated the laptop – “and make sure that everything you need is in the truck.” Graham yawned widely and continued. “We need to be out of here at first, full light.”
“I know,” said Lois and sighed wearily. The thought of abandoning the beautiful home she had created for herself and her family was almost too much to withstand. She sighed again, sounding more than a little forlorn but knew, looking back over the night's events, that there was little else to do.
Night, in the the rural north of New York state, came quickly – far too quickly for Jerry's liking. Now, driving on a state road to avoid the impassible highways, he regretted not having stopped much, much sooner.
The escape, in the early morning hours, from Toronto - become a festering sore of rot and urban destruction on the face of the globe - had been nothing less than a white-knuckle nightmare. At times, he had despaired of being able to leave at all as each turn, on either broad or narrow streets, seemed to bring him to some unforeseen obstruction and the inevitable fear of becoming trapped, as well as, the need to retrace and find a new route. By time he had emerged onto Lakeshore Boulevard, near Mimico, he had been close to relinquishing himself to the panic and desperation which built and clawed within him, threatening his reason and even his ability to drive the big pick-up.
There were, he knew, many aspects of what he was seeing that had the ability to drive him from his senses and to simply give up – descending, unprotected, from the truck and into the street to meet whatever manner of awaiting, horrid demise.
The scenes which he witnessed while picking his way slowly through the encumbered streets were nothing short of what could now be generated digitally for a film and brought to life. The problem with it, quite simply, was that it was the reality facing him. What is more, in a city of the size and diversity of Toronto, it was the sheer, unending, unabated volume of the vision that caused the mind to flutter anxiously like a butterfly at a window and the senses to reel searching for the comfort of familiarity where there was none left to be found.
Jerry kept up a constant dialogue with his own mind, attempting, where possible to keep it, as though an errant, unleashed dog that would wander off on it's own path, in check and alert for danger if it should arrive.
“I can't stop now,” came his own spontaneous assertion. “It's too dark – too dangerous to get out.”
The croak of his voice in the silent cab of the truck startled him and he recalled the advice of the anonymous stranger, 'madandnottakingit', on his computer before he had shut it down and carefully stowed it behind the seat – 'put the pedal to the metal' and, with darkness already fallen betwixt his desire to escape and that to be somewhere else, that choice had finally been removed from his options.
The truck whispered over the greyed and cracked asphalt. Jerry worried about the darkness, yet, could not bring himself to turn on the headlights.
“While I leave them off,” he said aloud to his loneliness, “I'm invisible but, if I turn them on, then I announce my presence. I shouldn't do that but, damn, if this darkness isn't getting on my nerves!”
He tried, with the quip, to lighten his own mood but, at the same time, realised two things. First, his loneliness was, indeed, a debilitating factor. Through a solid day of travel, he had not seen a single other person; no other car moved, no glimpse of a person as he passed through several small, white painted and picket fenced towns. Nothing. Second, his fear was growing again. Even with his eyes adjusted to the scant light, the sparse trees of a new growth forest pressed against the sides of the road and the feeling of imminent threat only grew. Unable to resist his mounting trepidation and, frankly, fear of the dark, he reached forward and flicked on the headlights.
The girl was only 100 yards in front of the truck, immediately illuminated, in jeans and a red hoodie. Her face was white and contorted and her arms rose before her ending in clawed fingers. Responding to ingrained instinct, Jerry's foot crashed into the brake and the heavy pick-up began to skid toward the lone figure in the night.
“We need to secure the house now, Lois,” Graham had said as soon as his stocky body had moved inside and the door crashed closed behind him. Several hours later they had sat, softly talking and listening to the soft, whispers of movement that came from outside, while sitting on kitchen chairs brought to the front entrance. Graham had recounted his story.
“We can't stay here anymore, can we?” Lois' voice, she knew even at the moment, must have sounded plaintive.
“No,” asserted Graham. He looked away, unsure. “But, honestly, I have no idea where to go – where we could be ... safe ... away from this.”
“Then we need to find out where, don't we?” Lois brightened, seeing a positive swing. Graham nodded.
“Let's get the truck ready to leave. I'll help you. Then, while you finish, I'll do some research to see what I can find. How does that sound?” Now it was Graham's turn to brighten. He longed to have something to do – a task to occupy his mind and body. They both jumped at the sound of a dead weight bumping into the outside of the door frame and they glanced at the shotguns on the floor within easy reach. The sound slid away.
Hours later, Graham, exhausted from stocking the truck and checking all the mechanics, shuffled into the side studio and slumped into a chair to hear his wife's results.
“I've got coffee brewing,” reported Lois. She raised her tired eyes from the computer screen and regarded her husband with affection. He smiled weakly in return.
“Fairview,” stated Lois.
“Nice little town. Jim Meyers is from there.”
“Not Fairview, Arizona – Fairview, Pennsylvania.”
“That's a long way off, dear.”
“I know but, it seems a lot has been happening there. It's the home of the 'Church of God's Resurrection Today', run by Geoffrey Kimbel, a discredited genetics professor from PennU. It seems he had a bit of a religious psychosis.”
“Genetics and religion. That's an interesting combination.”
“Yes, there were allegations of illegal, human genetic experiments being done on the members of the 'Church' – but I can't tell if the FDA ever investigated.”
“Strange if they weren't all over that.”
“I agree. There's another thing.”
“It's dropped off the map. The military moved in to sanitise it about two weeks ago – at the beginning of the outbreak.”
“OK, Lois. You've got me. Fairview, it is. If this thing is going to drive us from our home, then let's, at least, find out why. I'm gonna go finish and then have a shower.”
“OK, dear. Don't hurt your back again, please. There doesn't seem to be any online activity anywhere but I'm going to keep looking – someone must be reporting the ground truth.”
Deep in the elongated night that is the westward journey over the Atlantic, while the airplane flees the chasing sun, Archbishop Romero was lost in meditation with eyes closed, seeming to sleep and his hand worked autonomously over the worn, ebony beads of a rosary purchased many years previously when on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and he was still just a novice priest.
There was a rustle of movement nearby and someone cleared their throat. The Archbishop slowly returned to thoughts of this world and his eyes focussed on the young woman first seen at the departure gate in Rome. He smiled slightly at her in the way that jet-lagged travelers do.
“Would you like to join me, child?” he asked and gestured vaguely with the hand holding the rosary. “I was contemplating other things.” Again the aimless hand gesture, this time upward toward the great beyond. The girl smiled, a fleeting parody of the sentiment and her eyes looked momentarily down the aisle toward the tail section. Something was not right.
“Actually, Father,” she hesitated and then returned, “I wonder if you could help us. We have a passenger who has become ill.”
She leaned closer over the vacant seat beside the Archbishop and whispered.
“We're fairly certain that he's having a massive heart-attack but we're too far to turn back to Rome. The head steward, who has medical training, doesn't think he'll make it to Washington.”
Archbishop Romero blanched.
“He can't die during the flight,” he insisted to the girl. “You can't let it happen.”
In his mind, he fled back to Rome and his audience with the Pope but, his body was already heaving out of the seat, drawn by fear and compassion, to follow the girl to the rear of the plane.
The big pick-up truck careened across the night-dampened pavement toward the figure that flickered in and out of the headlight beams with Jerry fighting to control its course and his mind, already sickened with the fear of the past weeks, tried desperately to rationalise the sudden appearance, in the road, of this pale shadow of a girl.
He knew she likely had the plague but his reaction had spoken for itself and he knew that he simply could not bring himself to injure someone – living or ... infected.
With the wheels locked and the truck beginning to side-swipe, the distance – in slow motion – decreased and the pungent odour of rubber invaded Jerry's nostrils. He pulled slowly at the steering wheel, trying desperately to bring the vehicle back in line with its direction to avoid a roll-over.
The conclusion was there in his consciousness before he realised it: if he injured himself or wrecked the truck, he would be even more helpless and alone. A cold sweat broke out over his face and down his arms that strained against the momentum of the truck.
In a moment – without the sickening, soft, dreaded impact, the vehicle came to a stop, rocking on its high-tension struts. It stopped it's movement and, Jerry, terrified of what was about to happen, sat motionless in the cab. Silence descended and the headlights illuminated only the tree-line to the side of the state road.
The sound that his ears lached on to was soft – vanishingly quiet – somewhere near. The sound of sobbing. Jerry opened the door and slid down to the asphalt.
“Archbishop Romero! It's far too long that you haven't come to see me,” said the Pope rising weakly from an ornate divan and approaching him.
The Archbishop noted the debilitated condition of the Holy Father, silently cursing the effects of time and the degradation wrought by disease.
'If there was one person to spare,' he reprimanded God, 'could it not be this good man who guides all of us toward Your Light. Why do this to him?' He felt the bitterness of bile on his tougue and knew the depth of his sin. He knelt and kissed the ring of the Pope. Rising, he spoke.
“Holy Father, I bring news of some serious matters affecting the Kingdom of God.”
The Pope looked sidelong to the Houseman who stood silently and apart – present but not participating in the affairs of the Papacy. Houseman nodded, confirming the assertion. The Pope acknowledged.
“Come then, my son. Let us talk seriously of these things.” He took Romero's arm and, together, they moved toward a small sitting room and seated themselves on a pair of wing chairs.
“Now then, Romero,” stated the Pope sounding stronger, officious and in control, “I need to know what you know.” His small, aged hand moved in a broad arc toward a table between them.
“Yes, Holy Father,” announced Romero and, one by one, he began to extract the documents from the satchel lying in his lap.
“A number of these are Top Secret communiques that I received through avenues of my own. Others are commonly available. They point to a terrible truth: the dead – both recently dead and those of the past – are not leaving this domain as is their righteous path but they are returning and ... ah ... sustaining themselves upon those who remain living.
“As You are the Vicar of Christ on Earth and heir of Saint Peter in the formation of the Holy Catholic Church, I have brought these documents to You in the hope that some intercession with God, with the Holy Mother through her beloved Saint Dominic or through Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, may be possible.”
Archbishop Romero paused and studied the reaction of the aged Pope who, far from alarmed or nonplussed by these assertions, gazed cursorily at the documents splayed across the table and the fingers of one hand idley toyed with a tassle that hung from the neck of his robe. Finally, he sighed and began.
“Romero, you know how old this state is, don't you? I don't mean, these apartments in which I currently reside. These were designed by Bellini, to whom I am grateful.”
“Yes, of course. The Papal State dates precisely back to the founding of the church.”
“That is only part of the story, my friend. We have indications that this little state was a zone apart for a long time before – possibly from the very origins of Republican Rome. Some of our scholars have hypothesized that, after the death of the monotheistic Akhenaton, in 18th dynasty Egypt, his devout followers fled: first, to the nearby area that we call Israel and Palestine, then outward from there and into Europe and Asia.
“There are catacombs beneath Vatican city which have never been seen or are even known by the public. Some, at great depths, contain artefacts that predate Republican Rome.”
Romero sat with his jaw hanging loose, unprepaired for the history lesson but even less prepared for what was to follow.
“My friend, Romero. You have done us a great service in bringing these documents to our attention. I will immediately have them studied for clues that might guide us, God willing, to a solution in this sorry affair. However, the fact of the matter is that, over the past weeks, the Swiss Guard have been decimated by these horrid dead – in seeming ceaseless numbers – that have been rising out of the catacombs below our feet. All of Rome is silent. Do you not hear it?
“Yes, my friend. It is true. The 'caput mundi' is dying only to feed again on itself. This weak, old man believes there is little that mere mortals have the power to do in the face of this.
“But, Romero, I will not have you leaving so distraught. Come now ... come. We will enter my chapel and pray together for strength and wisdom while yet there remains time.”
The heavily armoured HumVee, emblazoned with 'US Army' insignia, careened into camp just as dawn was breaking in the east. Far from being quiet at the early hour, troops were in frantic motion as the 'night' squads were replaced by day squads to continue the mopping-up operations.
The military courier fairly flew from the vehicle once it had rolled, rocking on its suspension, to a stop and was greeted by the heavily armed Marines of the watch guard.
“I carry priority papers for General Craig!” announced the courier. “I must present them to him immediately.” The Marines stood down as the imposing figure of General Alexander Craig appeared, stooping to exit from the command tent and then rising to his full height.
The courier studied him for a moment and, then, satisfied, snapped to attention with the manilla envelope tucked under his arm.
“I am Craig,” he announced walking toward the saluting figure. “Stand at ease.”
“Sir! General, sir!” responded the soldier and spread his feet automatically. “Priority papers from the Commander-in-Chief – eyes only, sir!” He extended the envelope to the General's waiting hand.
The General received the flimsy package and studied it quickly. It was, he thought, reflecting on the military absurdity of it that, with the numerous seals and signatures on the envelope, this could be called, in the least way, 'eyes only'. It seemed half the world had already seen it. He confirmed, in his mind, the signatures of the Commander-in-Chief and his own superior in the Pentagon. He broke the seals, extracted the single sheet and began to read, his face contacting with tension.
TOP SECRET – EYES ONLY – TOP SECRET
TARGET: CRAIG, ALEXANDER M., GENERAL, 5-STAR
FILE: X-34598: OPERATION FAIRVIEW.
OBJECT: TROOP ALLOCATION
THREAT LEVEL ASSESSMENT: RED (HIGH ALERT) - NSA, PENTAGON SOURCES, EVALUATIONS
CONTENT: COMPANIES A, B, F, H, 23, 47. IMMEDIATE DEPLOYMENT TO CHECKPOINT VICTOR-HALO FOR ACTIVE COMBAT.
REPEAT: IMMEDIATE DEPLOYMENT TO CHECKPOINT VICTOR-HALO.
Jerry stepped to the pavement on unsure legs.
There was a voice in his head that was screaming, 'Drive on! Get back in!', but, while the glow of the headlights punched a hole in the darkness of the northern New York night, he felt that he had to know. He goaded himself on, fancying that, if he was wrong, he could make a quick escape.
The only sounds that came to his ears were sobbing and the whispers of the wind in the trees that pressed tightly to the shoulders of the state road – neither sound made him more comfortable.
His gaze darted erratically in every direction as though, at any moment, the plague victims would materialise out of the thin air and converge upon him. He knew that being out – unprotected – in the dark was not a good decision. His hand trailed over the warm hood of the pick-up, trying to steady his trembling legs. Despite the heat against his hand, his body had grown chilled and prickled with cold sweat and tension. He rounded the front of the vehicle and the glare of the driver's side headlamp blinded him. He looked away, blinking again and again to clear his vision. There was nothing there. Still, the sobbing was closer.
He crossed the front grill and looked away to protect his sight, passing to the passenger side. The sound was there. He tilted his head away to clear the light from the headlamp from his field of vision. He looked down at the crumpled heap of red hoodie, jeans and white tennies on the pavement.
“Are you...?” he began.
The hooded head indicated, 'No.'
“I'm not either,” he said.
The form slowly expanded from the asphalt. A face appeared beneath the red hood, the eyes too wide and the expression strained with terror.
“They got my family – everyone. I escaped and ran through the woods. That's when you came.” She erupted in a new flood of tears, rocking and pressing her hands to her face.
Jerry looked nervously into the darkness. He felt his body begin to buzz with anxiety – something of a primal warning.
“Umm...,” he suggested, “I don't think we should be here. If you get up, we can drive and talk. We'll figure it out then.”
The girl's breath came in hitches but, leaning against the fender of the truck, she slowly rose to her feet. She looked at Jerry and then beyond him. She began to scream.
They had emerged in silence from the tree-line; hundreds – a horde. Stumbling and shambling, they were making their way up the embankment and onto the paved surface. Jerry hesitated, shocked into action by the piercing scream in his ears. In a violent movement, he grabbed her shoulder and pulled. She stumbled and fell to her knees, become immobile for panic. Undaunted, Jerry yanked her to her feet and hauled the stiff, trembling figure bodily to the driver's side door and pitched her in. He crawled in after and pulled the door violently shut, locking it.
In the darkness, shying from the headlamps, they had appeared on both sides of the state road. Now, the state road was slowly filling with their numbers. The girl continued to shriek. Jerry's hand twitched uncontrollably against the key. He pressed the pedal and turned the key. The engine balked, failing to start. Jerry felt himself losing control of his own breathing which came in rapid, short gasps. He turned the key again, pausing, and then gave the big truck some gas.
The engine roared to life. He jammed the shift directly into second and let the clutch go. The truck bucked into life, first, aiming directly into the mass of horrid creatures. One and then another of them bumped off the front grill or fell below it. The truck, gaining speed, began to swerve, bumping over bodies. Then, gripping the wheel, his fingers clenched and white-knuckled, Jerry jerked the wheel right and the headlamps indicated the open road ahead. He quickly ran it into fourth and, while the girl sat hiccuping breath at his side, he pushed the truck to over 100.
“I'm Jerry,” he said. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the whistle of passing wind.
“I think we gotta talk. I'm headed to Fairview, Pennsylvania to try to find my sister. What's your story?”
The girl studied him, still collecting breath, in the glow of the dashboard lights. Finally, she spoke.
“I'm Katey,” she said, “Katey DeYoung.”
Slowly, haltingly, Katey began her own story.
General Craig called to his 'Movements Officer' after memorising the information, signing the memo and returning it to the army courier.
“Lieutenant. Checkpoint Victor-Halo. Where is that?”
The Lieutenant appeared at his side with his code-book already in hand. He paused and looked at the General.
“Victor-Halo, sir? Are you sure?” The Lieutenant looked uncomfortable and continued to flip the pages of the code book.
“Victor-Halo,” confirmed General Craig. “Is there some problem, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir. No problem. It's just that...”
“Just what, soldier?”
“It's just that... it's Arlington, sir. Arlington, West Virginia.”
Jerry Quinn, the 27 year old fugitive from the plague decimated city of Toronto, guided the big pickup truck down the centre line of the New York state road heading south and nearing the divide with Pennsylvania. He was worried and, in his own mind, the fact that he knew precisely the cause of his worry, did nothing to alleviate it; it was the story that Katey had told. The fact that his mind was wandering because of want of sleep only increased his stress.
He shook his head to return to alertness, reminding himself that only a moment's distraction could lead to disaster and worse things than he cared to consider. He cracked the window a little wider and shivered in the cold draft that entered. He turned his head to inhale some of the invigorating, damp air but kept his eyes and their wavering focus steady on the road cut out of the dark, New York night in an arc of twin, amber, headlight beams.
Beside him, cried out and exhausted but now sleeping fitfully, was Katey DeYoung, the young woman who he had almost, it pained him to admit, run over. By the time she had finished her story, she had been rambling, her sentences disjointed and confusing. Jerry was unwilling to conceive and internalise of what she had been through. He suggested that she sleep and, reaching into the space behind the seats while driving with one hand, retrieved two bulky blankets, passing them to her.
She twitched violently and opened her eyes to look at him but before he could acknowledge, she drifted to sleep again. Jerry kept the pressure on the gas and his hands locked on the steering wheel, his eyes, reddened with weariness, scanning the road.
“My father was there,” began Katey.
“Where? You mean 'now' - when you escaped?”
“Yes ... I mean, no.” She stopped and wiped absently at the tears that continued to drain liberally down her face. “Yes, he was there now but, I mean in Fairview.”
“What was he doing there? Do you think we can find my sister?”
“Um, Jerry, I don't know if we'll find your sister.” Katey's words were hesitant.
Jerry, perceiving the hesitation, turned his glance to her briefly. Her face was drawn, pale and illuminated in the unsure, cold, blue light from the dashboard. He returned to scour the road.
“What? What do you mean?”
“Didn't you know? That's where it started.”
Jerry stiffened and felt his will collapse, his fingers tightening on the steering wheel.
Charlotte – 'Charlie' he had always called her – 7 years older than he, became his legal guardian from the time he was 14. Their parents had both passed with shocking rapidity, and far too soon, in the space of few years. Her action – becoming his guardian – had prevented him from going into foster care. In the following years, while he had grown into a man and before she had moved away to marry, she had maintained a job and an apartment in order to give him a home with family. It was a fact that, over the course of those years, many of his memories of his parents had been substituted with those of his sister: his sister holding him as a baby; Charlie telling him to clean his room; Charlotte talking to him when he had problems at school.
'Hey, Jerry-berry!' Her voice was bright over the phone.
'Charlie, you know I'm not 5 anymore, right?' Still, he couldn't help laughing. It had been their last phone call.
'Yeah, but 'Charlie' is a guy's name. So if you persist then I will, too.'
'Well, you know I'm going to call you Charlie, so suck it up,' he retorted, still laughing.
'Well, OK, then. I won't fuss much. Guess what?'
'In seven and a half months, you are going to be an uncle.'
The plan emerged that, around her due date, he would join Charlotte and Dan in Pennsylvania to await the arrival of his new nephew. Then the plague had come.
The thought of losing her was too much and, unconsciously, his hand lifted from the wheel and pressed tightly to his mouth.
“I'm sorry, Jerry. I don't really know what we'll find – maybe it will be OK,” suggested Katey.
“But, if it was there ... what do you know about this?” Jerry mumbled from beneath his fingers.
“My father is ... was Reg DeYoung – a genetics researcher at PennU. Several years ago, he was lured away from there by a company called 'GenTech Global Research'. He told me, himself, that, if he had known what the project really was, he would have denounced it to the FDA, the DEA, FBI or anyone else who might have listened.
“There was a leak at a research facility.”
“A leak,” Jerry whispered to himself, reviewing in his mind all that Katey, now a shapeless, dozing bundle under blankets in the passenger seat, had revealed to him.
In the moments before the first, dim light of dawn had appeared far in the east, the truck had sailed past a sign that proclaimed, 'Welcome to Pennsylvania!', and Jerry had raised his eyes to thank – someone – that, not only was he still alive and had made it so far but that he no longer felt the pitiable weight of his loneliness. Even in the worst of situations, he reasoned, something good can happen. His concern now was for his sister, Charlotte, and what sort of horrible situation they would discover in Fairview.
“Wha – What sort of leak are you talking about?” In the darkness of the truck's cab, Jerry's eyes flashed, reflecting the electric blue instrumentation.
“My Dad didn't know. I'm sorry, Jerry. He worked in research, not in development. What he told us was this: He was in a secure, level 4, laboratory when the biohazard alarm went off. What that means is that containment has been breached.”
Katey began to rhyme off the facts as she knew them.
“Now, he was already in a safe suit with independent air supply but, the problem isn't really one of being inside the suit – it's of getting out of it if the environment has been contaminated and not getting contaminated, yourself.”
“Geez!” Jerry answered. “You couldn't get me working with some kinda dangerous bugs. I was interested enough in plagues when I studied history in university but, to actually have them in front of me? No way.”
“Wait, you studied plagues – you're an expert?” Katey stared at him, incredulous.
“No,” stated Jerry, flatly. “I did my honours thesis on the plague of 1652 in Italy – the Baroque plague. I also did a lot of reading on the Medieval plague; the Black Death.”
“What did you discover?” Katey was leaning forward in her seat to study his face.
“Mostly nothing. It was just a Bachelors thesis so it was a lot of research and reporting but not much investigation, if you know what I mean. It's just that any plague – an infection that's not in equilibrium with its host – has to flame out at some time. If it kills all its hosts, then it runs out and dies.
“Even back then, people recognised that. They would wait for a change of season or the weather to break and chart the decline in the deaths. I remember a citation that I found and I really liked it.”
“What did it say?”
“It said,” and Jerry recited the passage from memory, “ 'Hodie, secondis dicembris, millesimo seigentesimo quinquesimo due, cessavit pestis' – on this day, the second of December, 1652, the plague ended.”
Katey was silent for a moment and stared out at the darkened landscape. The new growth forest had given way to rolling hillsides, what, back home, Jerry would have called 'horse country' with its neat white fencing and open paddocks. When she spoke again, it was tentative and strained.
“But what if it doesn't end? What if it can't?”
“I think it has to – at some point,” offered Jerry but, he looked across the cab to her, expecting there was more. He was not incorrect.
“Now, I only know what my dad told us before... before they...” She paused, collecting her thoughts and visibly recoiling from the horrible recent memories.
“He managed to find a safe room which still had the green light that means no contamination. He showered and got out of the suit and the filters were still not picking up anything so he figured he was in the clear. From there, he followed the tunnels until he got out. He thought we might be safe at a distance, so we drove up here to my grandparents cottage.
“He didn't know what was leaked. He suspected it was either a virus or a nanobot...”
“Sorry. A nanobot: it's a man-made, molecular sized machine that's programmed to perform specific tasks.
“It's what he discovered later researching online that permitted him to put some of the story together. He found that GenTech was a wholly owned subsidiary of a Church which was run under 'freedom of religion' by Geoffrey Kimbel. According to my dad, this guy was a complete whack-job who wanted to bring about the resurrection and judgment, as soon as possible.”
“Jesus,” swore Jerry.
“It's got nothing to do with Jesus,” affirmed Katey. “Have you ever seen any bodies, Jerry? I mean, if this is a plague, there should be piles of bodies, right?”
Jerry thought. The fact that he could not specifically recall seeing any during his escape from Toronto didn't, he considered, mean that he hadn't seen them. It was not, after all, something that he wanted to see. He was quite certain that he had seen many but, in the urgency of the situation, simply rejected that information from his memory.
“I must have seen them,” he suggest, unconvinced.
“No. There aren't any,” stated Katey and turned to face him again.
“Whatever this thing is – my dad was inclined to think it was a virus because the biohazard filters picked it up – it is designed to restore bio-mechanical integrity to the body. It also restores electro-chemical reactivity. In short, the bodies don't die. All they need is a supply of organic raw materials and they will just keep going.”
Jerry rubbed his eyes and focused anew on the road ahead. His exhaustion was mounting along with the emotional distress and, yes, feelings of hopelessness.
“If that's the case, then how can we do anything?” Now it was his turn to feel like crying.
“I don't know, Jerry. We're just two but, if there are any answers, then they are in Fairview.”
Katey glanced at him with a vague smile of reassurance and then sighed and collapsed back into her seat.
The distress call from Alitalia flight 568, from Rome and bound for Dulles International Airport, was picked up at 4:56 a.m. in Saint John's, Newfoundland, as the plane was tracking southward along the coast of Labrador. The signal was promptly retransmitted by the Canadian authorities to their counterparts in the FAA.
As is normally the case with communications over the north Atlantic, there was a heavy static overlay caused by solar radiation but that was not sufficient to obscure totally the dire message delivered by Captain DeAngelis. He carefully pronounced his position and heading, wind speed and direction and affirmed that he was still in control of the large jet and on course.
Instead, it was one word and, one word only, was sufficient to cause beads of sweat to explode onto the foreheads of aviation officials on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. Within minutes of 5 o'clock in the morning, senior planners and administrators received urgent phone calls rousing them from otherwise peaceful sleep.
The problem, of course, was what do with the plane. Simply put, it is not possible to take a Boeing 747 and send it wherever you want. Nearing the terminus of a trans-Atlantic flight that has taken it up the coast of Italy, across continental Europe, past England and Ireland and then over to the tip of Greenland to begin heading southward across Canada and into the United States, the jet has a finite supply of fuel with which to reach its destination.
At 5:05, two Royal Canadian Air Force fighter jets were scrambled from Canadian Forces base in Gander, Newfoundland to act as escorts while the jet remained in northern airspace. Flying at Mach 4, the two intercepted the Alitalia flight only a short time later and made contact with the pilot.
Steve Jackson, head of FAA 'strategic situations' sighed and looked at the clock. As of 5:11 a.m., he had only been up for seven and one-half minutes but had already placed and received several calls. The one he was about to make would be, he was acutely aware, the most important. He was not worried about how his colleague, Clive Dougherty, in Ottawa, would receive his call. Indeed, he and Clive had come up through parallel ranks and met on numerous occasions at FAA training seminars. One time, they had even managed to get into some minor trouble with the law in Atlantic City. Instead, between them, they needed to negotiate where the plane would go and he knew that Canada was as eager to be rid of it as his country was unwilling to have it.
“No time like the present, Stevie-boy,” he said out loud in the den of his home. He picked up the phone and poked at the numbers. The call hesitated – made difficult by the general breakdown of services. Finally, the line clicked through and rang. It was immediately responded by a weary voice.
“Clive, it's Steve in Washington.”
“Hi Steve. I was expecting you. Just a second.”
Steve listened and heard background voices. Clearly he was also on another phone as well as speaking to someone. He heard;
'Yes, Mr. Prime Minister. I have every confidence in my FAA colleagues. You, too, sir. Bonjour,' followed by, 'Thanks, dear – I hope it's strong.'
A moment later, he returned.
“I'm sorry about that, Steve. I was on the line with Mr. Harper and trying to get a coffee from my wife.” He began to laugh slightly but without much humour.
“I wish I could be calling you under better circumstances, Clive.”
“Don't worry about it. This was bound to happen. What's the stance from your higher-ups?”
“They're telling me that it's not going to touch down in Washington.”
“Damn,” said Clive. He sighed and continued. “I was hoping you were going to tell me we could just fly it over the boarder and have your boys take it off our hands.”
“I wish I could but we've got major plague issues here. We're barely managing to keep the government safe – even with all of the Army and the Reserve out protecting the buffer zone around D.C.”
“Jesus H.,” came the response. “I thought we had it bad.”
“Do you think we can get her refueled in Toronto or Mirabelle, Montreal?”
“Toronto has gone off radar, Steve.”
“Yeah. Five million people and we don't know how they are or ... if they are.”
It was Steve's turn to curse.
“How about Mirabelle, then?”
“I was hoping we could do something like Newark.”
“Newark is grey – not enough fuel for the few flights that are still moving.”
“OK, but we're gonna have to let her set down somewhere, Steve. What if we move her west on a suitable radius and away from hot-spots – Champaign, Illinois? Gary, Indiana?”
“They're dead and don't have runways for a 747.”
The negotiations continued.
Elena Todroni was seated in 12C of Alitalia 568, frightened beyond her wits and shivering beneath the meagre comfort of an airline blanket. Had it not been for the promise of meeting her first great-grandchild, she would have been content to remain in her beloved homeland until the end of her days. At 74 years, she had never left Italy – even during the horrible days of the War when she was just a girl. Those memories still haunted her: the blackshirts stomping around; the Roman Jews rounded up to calls of 'Raus Juden!' and shipped off to die at Treblinka, Mathausen and, the dreaded, Auschwitz. She even remembered that, after the American occupation when rations had fallen off to nothing, eating rat had not been so bad if it was cooked through.
Nothing, however, in her mind, compared to being locked in a flying coffin at 35,000 feet with an undead beast and having nowhere to go. The unearthly howl of fury emerged again from the rear of the plane and Elena cringed, whimpering, against the bulkhead of the fuselage. A single tear drained slowly down the creased, pale skin of her cheek.
The American Archbishop, Romero, passed again along the aisle, reciting prayers;
'The Lord is my Shepard,
I shall not want...'
With Graham at the wheel, the big SUV, stocked with provisions for the journey to Fairview, Pennsylvania, launched itself from the garage just after sun-up and, Lois, in the passenger seat, could do little but watch as, in the rear-view mirror, the home they had built together grew smaller and more distant – finally disappearing as the vehicle rounded the dog-leg in the drive and, a moment later, the gates scarcely open sufficiently, it careened onto the rural street, swerving around the abandoned Tahoe, and turned south heading toward the state road.
Once on the gently curving road, Graham relaxed a little. He glanced over at Lois and, seeing the distressed look on her face, his hand extended, taking hers and squeezing it tightly.
“Look at the bright side, dear,” he offered. “We haven't been on a road-trip together in years.”
Lois looked back at him and, despite her distinctly dismal mood, smiled, squeezing back on his hand.
“That's right! And since I'm in the passenger seat...”
“... you're the Navigator,” joined in Graham, laughing. “You had better tell me where the heck Pennsylvania is, or we'll end up on the Baja for our vacation!”
Lois laughed, her spirit rapidly restoring and, releasing her husband's hand, put herself to work. Her documents – directions downloaded from the internet - and maps that she had found around the house offering views, in varying detail, of the continental United States, had all been carefully stowed in the glove-box. These she extracted and glanced quickly at a page that had been folded and paper-clipped to the top of the stack.
“So far, it's easy,” informed Lois. “Once we hit the state road on the other side of Grandbrook, we turn east – not west.”
Graham grinned, shifting in his seat and adjusting the shoulder harness. He lowered his sunglasses from his forehead onto his nose as, rounding a curve in the road, the brilliant Arizona sun, still low, glared across the hood of the vehicle.
“You're the boss,” quipped Graham.
The day had dawned slowly under a clouded sky making them both all the more nervous about their departure, safety and the threat of rains. After all, many roads in southern Arizona are build along – or even through – dry arroyos that, when the rain does come, which is not often, can become deadly, churning flood basins in only minutes. Thankfully, as the hours progressed and the heat accumulated, the clouds dispersed and the sun emerged in all its glory making both relax just a little.
The plan that Lois had devised, would take them on a meandering trek through the south-central and south-eastern states and, only gradually, on an arc and into the north-east. Her reasoning in this was relatively simple: the south tended to be less densely populated than the north. In this way, the course could be charted so as to bring them close to small towns and very small towns but, at the same time, hopefully minimising the risk of unwanted encounters. On the downside, she had reasoned that it would also keep them quite isolated but, they were well stocked with provisions and would use their wits as best they could.
They were, Lois knew, neither of them 'survivalists' but, she was implicitly confident of some of the skills that Graham had learned as a soldier, as well as, his extremely sharp and practically oriented mind. Her own mind, she was aware, was somewhat less organised – the result of the creative flair with which she had been endowed – but, at the end of the day, she conjectured, creativity also has its merits and leads to novel or, even, odd solutions; any solution is a good one when the situation is severe enough. She was certain that they would make the journey to Fairview but, what they would find once there, was anyone's guess.
Lois turned on the satellite radio but, as much as she scanned and re-scanned the feed, the Bose speakers distributed around them only returned the randomness of white noise. Lois frowned.
“Someone has to be broadcasting... somewhere,” she asserted but continued to find nothing.
Graham thought while, behind his sunglasses, his pale, blue eyes remained fixed to the desert highway which shot straight, like an arrow, before them to the horizon.
“I suppose there are any number of reasons why the feed wouldn't be up,” he conjectured. “Maybe without maintenance, the satellite goes into hibernation. Or there may be sunspots which interfere with transmissions. But, I suspect that, if you are just not finding anything, then it's the satellite not the fact that there's just no more...” He stopped himself.
“Yeah,” he answered. “We're here and there's that young fellow from Canada. We also know the army is out around D.C. No, there's still lots of people – they're just lying low for now.”
“You're right. It's easy to get carried away. It all seems to have happened so quickly.”
Graham nodded sternly and studied the instrumentation, noting gas consumption and mileage, as well as, the vehicle indicator lights.
Graham shook his head but answered, 'I'm not sure'.
“It's just feeling a little sluggish – like the timing is off.”
“That can't be. You had it in just last week. Or was it two weeks ago?”
“Two weeks, I think, but still, it shouldn't be having any problems.”
It was 2:45 in the afternoon and Grandbrook had been left behind them 400 miles ago. The next target was Las Almas, Arizona, just 60 miles away. Lois had hoped to stop and, she suggested, try to get some information from the locals if they could. Graham had agreed but, pressing the accelerator to pick up the flagging speed, the big SUV bucked and backfired, loosing even more velocity.
Graham slowed the vehicle to a crawl and then inched it off the highway and onto the sand-flat to the side. The engine coughed, chugging fitfully, with Graham attempting to regulate the gas flow and finally, it stalled out.
Graham looked at Lois and she back. The implications of a dead vehicle in the current situation were all too evident.
Graham nudged the accelerator and then turned the key. The engine sputtered and refused to turn over.
“Lois?” Graham spoke while stripping off his jacket.
“I don't think this went so smoothly as we might have wanted.”
He rolled up his sleeves, preparing to look under the hood. Lois took up a handgun and a rifle.
“I'll stand watch.”
Graham's progress with the SUV's engine had been, over the ensuing hours, non-existent and, for reason's which were clear to both of them as the sun continued its long arc across the sky and gradually descended, his frustration had reached a fever pitch. He stepped down from the front bumper of the of the vehicle, his shirt soaked through with sweat and stained to his elbows with oil and engine grease. He entered the cab and tried the engine again where, now fearing for the charge in the battery, his attempt was tentative and unsuccessful. He descended and spat an epithet which the hot wind picked up and whisked away over the desert to offend some stranger's ears.
Lois, standing watch about 20 yards away, where she had taken up residence on a small hillock, did not hear the word he pronounced but, the years of marriage had taught her the significance of his posture and attitude. She frowned, unhappy for his frustration but, knowing there was little she could do but encourage him, she turned away and began to scan the barren, irregular landscape for movement as she had done for hours. Finding nothing, she stared briefly at the ground and, noting a shard of Native pottery, she poked it with the toe of her dust-covered, tennis shoe.
This is an essential truth of the desert: time has a way of ceasing to exist – aside from the eternal passage of the sun and the moon. The shard of pottery, with its burnished impasto and traces of a geometric pattern in red could, reflected Lois, still toying with fragment, have been there for a week or a millennium; it made no difference either to the ceramic fragment or to the desert.
Graham made his way wearily across the expanse of rock and sand that separated them. Lois looked up from the ground and studied his expression which was fixed and grim. Arriving beside her, he place his arm heavily across her shoulders.
“Any ideas?” Her question was non-committal.
Graham sighed before answering and studied the landscape, his eyes narrowed to tired slits against the sun and exhaustion.
“Ten years ago, I would have been pretty sure it was the distributor,” he offered. “Then I might have been able to take it apart and fix it.”
“I'm not even sure where it is. I can hardly get access to the engine block. With all the electronic controls that are on engines these days, you need to be a computer engineer just to know which way is up.”
He kicked at the sand with his own shoe, venting his frustration. Distracted, he saw the pottery fragment that Lois had previously been toying with. He stooped and picked it up, letting its smoothness, warm from the heat of the day, slide over his palm. He studied the geometric patterning in red lines.
“Anasazi,” he said with conviction. “It's beautiful stuff.”
“Who knows where they went,” stated Lois, made impressionable by the space around them and time which separated them from the hands which had created that utilitarian masterpiece.
Graham looked at his watch.
“I guess there's about an hour of daylight left.”
“We'll sleep in the truck tonight. Maybe you can have a fresh look at the engine in the morning and you'll see something that you missed today. First, some rest.”
Lois smiled encouragement at her husband and, showing her own weariness from the hours spent on watch under the sun, rested her head against his shoulder. He gave her a squeeze.
“We'll need to sleep in turns,” he suggested.
“I know. I'm hoping that... out here... we'll be safe from unwanted guests.”
“I hope so, too.” He gave Lois a brief kiss on the forehead. “I'm going to have another shot at it. Call me around six and we'll get ready for sun-down.”
“OK. Good luck.”
Graham grimaced and then smiled. Five minutes later, after a pause for a drink of water, he was, again, half-buried in the engine compartment of the SUV.
The sun was sinking rapidly.
“Millennia,” whispered Lois and her gaze, distant and lost in thought, travelled over the terrain where, with the lowered sun, the slightest relief now sent long shadows.
The south-west had become desert, she knew, over a long period of time when many different groups of people were already living there. They had been there for a long time because pictographs in various locations showed images of hunting ice-age mammoths. Clearly, at that time, it had been a far more hospitable place. The climate change brought on by the retreat of the ice which had covered, miles thick, the majority of Canada and the northern, United States, meant that the water, so abundant previously and leading to a verdant environment, dissipated. The process of desertification was already begun.
The Anasazi had been brilliant in their adaptation to the climate become severe: they had constructed catch basins, reservoirs and collection conduits, from high above the cliff dwelling where they retreated, to ensure a supply of the vital water.
Lost in her thoughts, Lois did not notice the sun continuing to slip lower and lower in the sky and the light, fading from orange to red, illuminating her shadow cast yards beyond her. At her foot, a tiny vortex opened in the sand – only a quarter of an inch wide. The sand continued to slide away into an unknown opening below and the vortex widened by increments as the light diminished.
'A wolf-spider', thought Lois, absently.
Her expression had settled into one of confusion where, it seemed to her, there was something about 'time' that needed to be recognised but it continued to elude her.
The sun became a fraction of a red crescent resting on the horizon.
Lois hefted the rifle that had grown heavy in her hands.
“Graham!” Her shout was weak and unconvinced.
Graham was lost in the engine compartment and his arms moved. He did not respond.
In fact, though estimates varied for the period of human occupation in the New World, they went from about 11,000 years to over 25,000 years – it all depended on models of sea levels and the availability of the Bering Sea land bridge to permit population movement from Asia, down the ice-free corridor on the leeward side of the Rockies and, into the temperate regions of the south.
“25,000 years,” whispered Lois. In her mind, something made a connection.
“Four generations or more per hundred years,” she was thinking, now focused, on the thing that, previously, she had been unable to identify.
The vortex in the sand continued to widen. The sun dipped, its light become vague from just beyond the horizon, although the sky continued bright.
“That's 100,000 generations of people. Oh, my God! Graham!”
Graham's body jerked and his head appeared, turned at an awkward angle toward her.
The hand that emerged from the ground was shrunken and dried to a husk, the skin crumbling but, beneath, there were tendons that moved supply and the fingers, reduced to jointed matchsticks, locked around her ankle. Lois screamed and tried to pull away but an unnatural force imbibed those desiccated digits – the grip was like a vice closing.
“Graham! They're everywhere! Get in the truck now!”
The sun, in an instant, lost its hold on the day and its light disappeared. The desert erupted in a sea of bodies rising.
... the sensation of movement.
Jerry's eyes flew open and his body jerked, incipient with panic.
In the netherworld that was between sleep and wakefulness, Jerry remembered only the horror of the previous day and the weeks of solitude before: Toronto become a tomb of plague victims, his escape from that despolation and, finally, his dramatic encounter with Katey and their flight as those horrible creatures flooded onto the night-darkened, state road in upper New York.
His most recent memories were of sailing past the sign that proclaimed, 'Welcome to Pennsylvania!' and, with the dawn and Katey sleeping fitfully in the passenger seat, he had crawled into the space behind the seats, torn by his desire to get what sleep he could after his near 24 hour marathon and worries for the safety of himself and his new companion. Sleep had won out, as it will when simply become necessity.
The pickup truck was moving. Jerry's first conscious thought was for the emergency brake which hadn't been regulated since before he could remember. His mind, slowly rousing from its exhausted torpor, imagined the truck inching along an incline, gaining speed while, within, the occupants slept, oblivious.
Jerry sat upright, preparing to reach through the seats to grab the brake lever and steering wheel.
Katey screamed and the truck swerved.
“What are you doing?” Katey turned to stare at him accusingly and then back to the road.
For Jerry, the connexions fell into place for, at the wheel, leaning forward anxiously and gently guiding the big truck at a low rate of speed, was Katey DeYoung.
“What are you doing? You're driving my truck!”
“You didn't have to scare the crap out me. You could have just asked.”
Jerry sighed and rubbed weariness from his face and eyes. Shunning the blanket that had been his comfort and protection, he slipped through the space between the seats and flopped into the passenger seat. The driver eyed him warily.
Jerry looked at the speedometer and had to smile. Katey was holding their velocity to precisely 30 mph and leaned forward to the wheel giving the impression of a senior citizen at the wheel of an ancient but well-preserved Cadillac sedan.
“I thought you'd still be sleeping. I wasn't prepared for the truck moving,” said Jerry, feeling ashamed of his rapid rise to panic.
“Sorry,” answered Katey. “After the sun came up, I felt a little better and woke up.
“Not a lot better – just a little. I needed something to do but I don't actually drive much.”
Katey glanced to the side and Jerry could see the loss on her – her eyes still red-rimmed from tears and the tense cast of her mouth.
“How many?” Jerry felt a desire to know the extent of her grieving.
“Them or us?”
“Five,” said Katey. She blinked a few times and then pulled to the shoulder, stopped the truck and extinguished the engine. The seconds lengthened to a minute, or more, while Katey stared fixedly at her hands still gripping the wheel.
Beyond the silence of the cab, the northern Pennsylvania day had dawned clear and, as anyone knows, after a night of despair and sadness, with the daylight comes hope. In fact, the sun, in a cloudless, piercing azure sky, illuminated a terrain, open but, grown more rugged and, in the distance, the rise of the southern extent of the ancient Appalachians could be seen. It was beautiful country-side but, then again, most country-side is beautiful where it has not been scarred and leveled by human occupation. Jerry took all of this in and looked back toward Katey.
“They were two brothers – older – my parents and my younger sister,” Katey said finally.
“Oh... wow...,” Jerry frowned and glanced away, studying but not seeing his hands, the dashboard, the hood of the truck and the sun-lit stretch of highway.
“My sister was only 11.” Katey's voice began to hitch and her eyes moistened.
“I heard her screaming as I ran,” the words poured from her mouth, “but I already knew there was nothing I could do. I'll never be free of that. Oh, Beth, I'm so sorry I couldn't save you. I'm so sorry.”
Katey collapsed over the wheel, her body heaving with sobs and wails of misery escaping her. Jerry extended his hand tenuously, gently touching her shoulder which moved with the rhythm of her heaving breaths.
Humans need contact; we are social animals. When deprived of interaction and contact with others of our kind, humans grow lonely, despondent and depressed for what is a necessity of existence. Jerry's touch to Katey's shoulder was the bridge that spanned the chasm between his own loneliness and her isolation and loss. In a moment, their arms locked around one another's bodies tightly, clinging for safety and companionship.
Jerry said, “It's going to be OK.”
Katey nodded, her face buried in his shoulder.
Lois swung the butt of the rifle down hard and, colliding with the hand which had emerged from the sand as the last rays of light had failed, there was a sickening crunch of bones but, freed, she had more things to worry about than just that. Many more things.
Night had fallen with the stunning rapidity that is its nature in the south; it seemed that from one moment to the next, the sun, pouring its heat down over the parched land, had simply lost its grip on sky and slithered down, past the horizon, to wherever it goes once lost to view. In that divide, the seconds between the fading light of day and the dark cool of the night, the desert had begun to move, expelling, vomiting, from centuries or millenia of desiccation, the dead – the population of a city instantly materialising - of all who had come before.
Lois screamed out Graham's name and, as she was swarmed, saw him clambering down from the engine compartment of the SUV for his guns, stumble and fall. That was the last she saw of him.
The hands which came out of the darkness were smooth and dry, their texture almost that of velvet but, their insistence – pulling at her clothing, her skin, trying to pin her down – bore nothing of the pleasure of luxuriant fabric.
Lois swung the rifle again, sluggish, her exhaustion from the heat of the day, standing watch, beginning to show. The heavy metal and burnished wood sliced through extended arms, some shattering and crumbling to dust and, others – more resilient – fingers splayed, attempting to grab at it and disarm her. She tugged the weapon back from those clasping hands and brought it down over the dry, insubstantial bone of a head. The thing went down and was trampled over by the oncoming mass.
There were also the teeth. They came at her from death transfixed visages where eyes held no hint of the light of life, only a hunger for living flesh. Lois pulled the pistol from her belt and fired. Another head evaporated in a mist of dust and greasy, decayed tissues. Hands were on her ankles, her shoulders, pulling. Lois lost balance. She fell.
There is a strange immortality which imbibes the human spirit. It will not give up – where life and love are concerned – until all possibilities and all hope are drained, ground down and tossed to the wind like a fistful of ash. Some conjecture that it is 'hope' alone that drives survival because, endowed with foresight as we are, even in the most dire of situations, a vision of a future which is different can be conjured. Love, too, is an extremely powerful emotion, capable of driving individuals to feats that would, under less extreme circumstances, be considered completely impossible.
Lois knew she had to get to Graham – to fight with him or to die with him.
From her position of disadvantage on the ground, the foul things were like a cloud of flies collecting on carrion. Their numbers seemed ceaseless. She kept the rifle close to her body and, instead, used the butt of the pistol, jabbing, whipping it at the end of her arm while limbs and rib cages collapsed under its heavy onslaught.
“Graham!” She called out once, her voice grown weak with fatigue. “I'm down.”
The whispering sound of so many paper-thin bodies made impossible any sound from without but, she thought – imagined – she heard a voice distantly, his voice and, though her eyes clouded with tears of hope, she renewed her fight, against all odds, trying to gain her feet.
What was strange, observed her mind, was that the sun, impossible though it was, seemed to be rising.
It began as a distant glow, a scarcely perceptible shift from darkness to something 'other' – not quite darkness and, though she could not turn to look around, it was accompanied by a sound like thunder as if the Gods from Olympia, themselves, had descended to join in the battle. The light grew stronger, hesitated and then became a glare, sending the foul, stinking dead cowering, fleeing and seeking the shadows.
The eighteen-wheeler ground to a stop in a hiss of air brakes, its high-beams illuminating the desert like a movie set. The driver's door opened.
“Howdy, Ma'am,” said the driver, a large bodied senior, descending to the ground. He wiped a stray wisp of long, grey hair from his good-natured, ruddied face and hefted a double-barrel over his shoulder, approaching.
“I recon y'all could use a spot of help. I'm Charlie.” He extended a massive, calloused paw.
On the ground and freed suddenly from the clasp of the interminable horde, Lois could do little but look around, skittish, and allow herself to be hauled bodily to her feet.
“Graham,” she whispered, collecting the rifle from the ground. “Graham!”
“Weren't that the boy down by the truck, Ma'am?”
“Yes... my husband.” Lois stared into the darkness, scanning for movement.
“Yeah. He restin' now,” said Charlie and the toe of his boot drew an arc in the sand.
“He's...?” Lois choked. “Did you see him?”
“See him? Of course, I did! I helped him into the back of my cab. Y'all can see him for yerself, if y'all want. The way's I sees it, y'all got about two minutes to make pretty afore them things start pushin' back, then we gotta skee-daddle.”
Lois broke into a run.
“Where was y'all headed afore yer truck broke down?” Charlie posed the question and it hung in the air of the spacious cab as, with experienced and efficient movements, he ignited the engine and the massive rig rumbled to life, the headlights brightening and illuminating the desolate expanse of desert where, only minutes before, Charlie had been responsible for ripping Lois and Graham from what must, certainly, have been their last moments.
Now, in the large and comfortably cushioned seat to Charlie's right was Lois, blanketed against the chill of the desert night and, from beneath the heavy folds, her arm extended backward to tightly clasp the hand of Graham, seated behind amidst supplies hastily rescued from the SUV, and his eyelids drooped from the combined effects of the day spent under the sun's heat and its frustrations.
Beyond the cab and scarcely reckoned from their position of relative safety, in the blackness of the night and lit only by starlight made feeble by the haze of evaporating heat, the desert was a sea of slowly moving, shifting, shambling bodies converging on the big truck and the scent of life that resided there.
“Las Almas, Arizona,” whispered Lois, finally, and turned her gaze from where it had rested, listless, on the roof of the cab to fix Charlie.
“We were trying to avoid major centers and thought that, maybe, we could get some information there before continuing on.”
Lois sighed and Charlie nodded gravely. As if in punctuation, he jammed the shift down into first and, slowly releasing the clutch, the rig heaved into motion, turning away, under Charlie's guidance, from the abandoned SUV with the hood and doors still open and the gravel shoulder, the headlights cutting a swath in the night toward the open stretch of black-top.
“No, I mean, where was y'all tryin' to git?” The truck inched forward and the front wheels climbed onto the highway. Charlie scanned the rear-view mirror to gauge the list of the trailer in the dark by the position of the running lights.
“Fairview, Pennsylvania,” said Graham, weakly, from the rear and squeezed his wife's hand. Lois turned briefly and a smile fleeted across her face.
“Before we left, Lois did some research on the internet and, what she found, suggested that it might have started there.”
“Well, dang it!” Charlie shouted and laughed. “Them Yanks is always causin' somethin'.” His laughter rolled out of him and Lois and Graham both smiled, infected by its joviality. The remainder of the cab bumped onto the asphalt and Charlie began to swing the wheel right.
“I can't help y'all with Fairview but, here's what I'll do,” Charlie informed.
“I'm headed down to Tampa. I drop m'load there, pick up another and head back toward Tacoma, Washington. Y'all can ride with me 'til we can git y'all a new...”
Charlie stopped speaking and his jaw clamped shut. When he spoke again, it was a hiss of restrained ferocity escaping from between clenched teeth.
“Hoo-boy. We got us some company.”
Lois and Graham, rising from their lethargy, slowly followed his line of vision and their hearts sank.
As night had closed it grip over the American South West - in only the minutes that it has taken to recount these events - the dead had come and, as the headlights swung back to align with the highway, as straight as a knife slash across the desert surface, they picked out the hideous, wretched gathering that, now, formed a ring hundreds or thousands deep around the big rig and, in the light beams, with the perversity of imagination, resembled a throng of concert goers reveling in the glow of stage spots.
“Je-sus,” said Graham and twin furrows appeared between his eyebrows. “So many.”
Lois recoiled from her recent recollection – reduced to being a cat on its back – of being on the defensive before the onslaught of that stinking horde. Instinctively, her nostrils closed and she clutched the blanket closer as though its thick roughness, scented with the air of open space, could protect from the nightmare become real before them.
“Can't we just drive through them?”
Charlie glanced at her, incredulous.
“Dang it,” he exclaimed. “Them things'll gum up my engine faster 'n you can spit – sorry Ma'am.
“No. The way I see it, we gonna have to soften 'em up.”
He turned to Graham.
“Y'all think you can drive m'rig, son?”
Graham quickly scanned the instrumentation and mechanics. He nodded, encouraged by the enthusiasm of this elder, irrepressible man.
“Now, what I'm proposin' is this – pass me one of 'em boxes of shells, would ya?”
Graham fumbled behind the seat and passed forward the requested item which Charlie then ensconced in his quilted and zippered vest.
“If I climb up on the hood, I can pop them as you inch my baby forward. As we get closer, the lights will also help.”
Neither Lois nor Graham could think of something better, inasmuch as it made them queasy to think of the venerable trucker exposed to the sheer mass of risen dead that blocked their path.
“OK,” they answered in unison and Lois quickly rejoined, her hand falling lightly on the sleeve of his plaid, flannel shirt, “Be careful out there, Charlie – we already owe you so much.”
Graham nodded from the rear and Charlie patted Lois' hand.
“Now, don't you be worryin', Ma'am. Old Charlie's still got some life in 'im.”
Then he took up the double barrel and turned to business; checking the chambers and putting extra shells in his front pocket.
“Once I'm out,” he said without looking back and his hand resting on the door release, “take my place and get 'er in first. I'll signal you to start moving.”
Then he opened the door and climbed down to the running board. Lois and Graham had a glimpse of him for a moment before the hands converged, clasping and tearing and, with a scream of desperation, he was pulled into the darkness leaving the door hanging open.
“Charlie! No!” Graham called and began to climb through the seats but, before he could, there was a deafening explosion within the confines of the cab. Lois leveled the handgun and fired again as skeletal faces with lidless eyes crowded into the frame of the open door.
'I've got to get to the door,' thought Graham, his ears ringing with the report of the handgun. Lois fired again and a spray of thick, black blood spattered like November rain across the inside of the door.
The implement, rescued from the SUV was on the floor. He scooped it up and, squeezing to the left, slowly extended the hooked end toward the arm-rest. Lois paused firing and raised the barrel of the gun, her glance quickly flickering toward Graham before returning to the insistent threat without. Clasping hands wavered in the air attempting to latch onto the tool, Graham's arm. Finally, the hook settled into the arm-rest and he began to pull.
Graham felt, though he could not see, the fingers, cold and dry, close with surprising force around his wrist and begin to pull him forward. He latched onto the back of the front seat and, with what remained of his force, yanked strongly with his left arm.
The door slammed shut and the hand released – severed at the upper arm – and fell onto the front seat where the fingers continued to clasp and re-clasp, searching for purchase.
In the semi-darkness of the tent, mottled as it was by the camouflage shadows of the canvas cast by outside spot lights run on diesel generators, keeping the night-time at bay, a walkie-talkie emitted a series of electronic beeps and repeatedly glowed a diffuse green.
On the field cot nearby, a form, made irregular by numerous drab blankets to guard against the autumn chill and damp, stirred and then promptly rose to sitting. A voice intruded.
'General Craig, to Command. Repeat. Craig to Command.'
Alexander Craig blinked several times, attempting to clear the cob-webs from his sleep clouded mind. In only a moment, he would be fully awake. He glanced briefly at the luminescent bezel of his watch and noted the time – 3:21 am – before swiping the walkie-talkie from the table and pressing the 'call' button.
“Craig,” he answered, cursorily. “Copy.”
His mind was already abuzz with eventualities as he leaned and pulled on heavy socks and then his boots, carefully tucking in his fatigues before lacing them up tightly. He rose to his full height and his bristle-short hair, greying at the back and at the temples, brushed the sagging canvas ceiling. He quickly pulled on shirt with, at the collar, the shining stars of his rank, vest and, finally, a heavy flack-jacket. Quickly checking his side-arm, he left the tent without further preparations.
Crossing the parade space at a quick march, the General was immediately aware that something was going on – the air, cool under a smoke shrouded sky, was electric with tension. He watched additional troops being mustered under spot-lights while armoured carriers stood by to take them to the staging area only a half mile away. Overhead buzzed with passing helicopters.
His face, on approaching the Command tent, creased with concern. Overall, the progress of the 'Arlington campaign' had been dubious – a fact, for which, he had received no little amount of chastisement from the Pentagon and the President, himself.
The problem, as he saw it, was the volume of 'the enemy' although it pained him dearly to use that reference. He was aware, as were his troops – and their morale reflected it - that these were the heroes of the past; those who had fought and fallen to build and defend the United States of America.
At the same time, he recognised that these were not 'them' but, rather, their forms, called and animated by whatever force and having suffered for so many years, the depredations of time, to rise against their brethren in arms. Still, it did not make anything easier when the attacker wore the tattered and stained remains of the uniform of a Confederate soldier.
The whole of Arlington had been cordoned, principally by stationary positions of reservists heavily bunkered and commanded by high ranking, active servicemen and women.
Additionally, with the shield around D.C. gradually being eroded and falling back to stable positions around 'the Hill', the attacks were coming both from inside the cordon and without. Normally secure in the face of any, well-planned engagement, General Craig felt his own creeping doubt.
Without hesitation, he drew back the flap of the Command tent, ducking from his six and one-half foot stature and, entered, ignoring the Marine's call to attention. Instead, he answered with one word – 'coffee' – and proceeded directly to communications.
“What have we got, Corporal?” His hand settled on the shoulder of the communications officer. He pulled up a metal chair and settled his bulk onto the uncomfortable seat. The radio crackled with troop communications.
“Situation with Platoon F, General, sir,” responded the other. “They are on the verge of being overrun.”
“What's their current position and status?”
“Heavy losses, sir.” The operator glanced toward the General and his eyes were wide, driven by adrenalin.
“They are falling back and trying to regain defensible position at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
The voice coming over the radio was excited, verging on hysteria.
“There's too many of them! They're coming at us on all sides. Losses extreme!”
It was accompanied by a soundtrack of bursts of machine-gun fire and the violent hiss of flame throwers. General Craig grabbed the handset and spoke into it with authority.
“Craig, here. Have you gained position?”
“Negative, sir. Ten yards but we're pinned.”
“Do you require Evac?”
“Affirmative, sir. We can't hold.”
“Copy that. We're coming to get you. Hold on, son.”
The coffee arrived but, already, General had no need of it. In the tent, the attending soldiers grew silent. He barked his orders to the radio operator. The responses arrived in rapid succession.
“This is Big-Bird, responding, already in the air. Coordinates received.”
Overhead, there was a roar and the swish of chopper blades cutting the air, flying low and fast, nose down and the glare of a spot-light quickly traversed the Command tent.
“Get in quick and come home safe, Big-Bird,” instructed the General.
“That's what we do, General,” answered the cocky helicopter pilot.
“This is Ernie, flight checked and taking air. We're on our way.”
“Thank you, Ernie. Get my boys out of there.”
The acknowledgment was interrupted by another field communication.
“May-Day, May-Day. We're being swarmed.”
It was accompanied by shouts and screams. A chill of apprehension filled the tent.
“Evac Big-Bird arriving at coordinates. Reconfirm.”
There was silence as the operator retyped the numbers and pushed, 'send'. The silence stretched out. General Craig fidgeted and watched the feed. The operator's mouth hung open and his lips formed silent syllables. Unable to wait longer, the General again grabbed the handset.
“Big-Bird. Evac status now!”
There was a pause before the pilot's voice returned, subdued.
“Negative, General. That position has been overrun. No survivors. Returning to base.”
General Craig's shoulders slumped and the operator allowed his face to fall into his palms, slowly shaking his head. A female data manager nearby began to sob softly and turned away.
Craig's eyes narrowed and he spoke with stolid determination to the operator who raised his eyes from his palms to regard the General.
High above, in constant patrol near D.C, refueled in air and loaded with their deadly cargo of combustible, the Viper jets were like their name-sake, fast and lethal.
“Call the air strike – my authority.”
The operator, moving slowly from shock, called the ground troops to move back.
“All ground troops – immediate retreat to safe sector Alpha-Bravo. Repeat: Alpha-Bravo. Confirm.”
On the ground, troops, so close but beyond the help of Command, began to break formation and run, each man to his own wits. The communicated responses were sparse, leaving those in the tent, drawn to a breaking edge and wishing fervently for the safety of those trapped in the night.
“They'll probably court-Marshall me for this,” mumbled General Craig.
“Hail-Mary, Hail-Mary,” the operator began the call, giving the coordinates. The call back was immediate.
“This is Hail-Mary – we're ten seconds out and about to rain down. Get your boys out of the way.”
The jets were a streak above, screaming and splitting the air with their velocity and, as they arced toward the sky, the horizon burst into orange, as bright as the rising sun.
Katey spoke, breaking the calm silence that had descended in the cab of the truck as it whispered, through deserted country-side, across the miles of cracked and greying asphalt.
“Do you think we should be stopping for the night?”
Jerry glanced across at her, his eyes bleary from the road.
“I'd hoped to make Fairview by nightfall,” he suggested. “I think we're only about 20 to 30 kilometers out.”
Katey looked at him and a smile appeared briefly on her face – a pretty smile. Jerry noticed it and liked it.
“You mean 'miles', don't you?” Katey's voice held a hint of teasing.
“Oh!” Jerry grinned. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
In the silent cab, Katey had been alone with her grieving and the vivid memory of her sister, Beth, calling to her as Katey, alone and exposed, escaped, panicked through the woods. Her eyes were a blank, revealing little of her intense sadness and regret, scanning the unfolding State road, but for the occasional tear which descended her cheek and was quickly, shyly, wiped away.
She had, however, noticed the passing time and, as the minutes turned into hours and the sun continued its arc across the sky in the shortened, autumn day of the north-east, she had watched the shadows gradually lengthening out of the west and the sun was, now and again, pierced by a passing telephone pole or church steeple.
Their stops had been few. They raided a Target in a small town for fresh clothes for Katey although, in the vast, empty and silent space of the chain retail store, all either one wanted to do was return safely to the truck and get away. Jerry found a Louisville slugger and, after testing its weight, decided it was his safest option, considering that he was adverse to guns and didn't know how to use one. They stopped for some food and water.
“Jerry,” Katey paused. “I know you want to find Charlotte and know that she is OK but, wouldn't you rather get to Fairview in the morning so we have the day on our side?”
Jerry's thoughts had been of his sister and, of his desperation to know her fate. At the same time, he was struck by the fundamental truth of Katey's words. He knew how lucky – only luck – they had been so far and that the chances of escaping a similar situation to that of the previous night were vanishingly small. He hoped that his single-minded desire to proceed and gain their destination had not, newly, placed them in danger. He studied the lengthening shadows across the road and felt his pulse run a little quicker.
“You're right, Katey.” He gingerly squeezed the peddle and nudged the speedometer up a notch. “Let's find a place to hole-up for the night. If worse comes to worse, we can sleep in the truck.”
Katey nodded, relieved, and began to scan for a likely safe-haven but, the country-side was open – too open. Already, in the small creeks and undulations of the topography, the shadows were gathering and deepening. Presently, the truck slowed and stopped at a country cross-roads. The road-side signage indicated Fairview at 25 miles and, to the right, Burroughs Corners at a half-mile.
Jerry looked at Katey for confirmation and, in response, she hooked her thumb to the right.
“Burroughs Corners it is, then,” he answered and slowly accelerated the big pickup around the corner and onto a fresher stretch of blacktop with the descending sun gayly illuminating the interior of the cab and the warming rays through the wind-screen gratefully received.
“I could really use a bed and a washing up,” commented Katey, grimacing.
“I suspect that I could, as well,” answered Jerry, feeling awkward.
Burroughs Corners, it turned out, was a typical small town in the North-east having, evidently, a single, slatted and whitewashed church with its associated cemetery and, a short main street offering up the usual businesses; from a solicitor to a plumbing and electronics shop and, further along, a grocery and feed store with a small pharmacy adjacent. Beyond, the few streets showed a limited residential area.
Katey and Jerry, however, followed the sign – the one with a bed with a roof over it – the universal symbol for hospitality and, in only minutes, the truck bumped off the road and into the parking lot of 'Watson's Family Motor Hotel', inching forward around a single light-standard, already flickering on stroboscopically and, finally, stopping in front of a unit, labeled with metal numbers screwed into the door and running downward on an angle, 107. Jerry turned off the engine and withdrew the keys, placing them in the pocket of his jacket. Silence descended and Jerry and Katey turned and regarded one another, their eyes wide.
“Geez,” said Katey. “It's so quiet.” She looked around, nervously, studying the closed doors of the hotel and the front windows of the rooms shut off by curtains.
“Do you think anyone's around?”
In the North-east, come autumn, the days rapidly diminish only because, unlike in the south, the evening – with the low position of the sun – begins already in the afternoon. In this way, four o'clock begins to look like 7 or 8 o'clock and the process of fewer and fewer daylight hours continues, technically, until the winter equinox but, only slowly loses its grip on the day and begins to recede perceptibly in the late winter or early spring.
So it was that, in the space of a half-mile – despite that it was only 4:30 in the afternoon – the sun was already sinking below the tree line and, though the sky was bright, a glow of pale pink showed on the gathering clouds, indicating that the day was ending.
Jerry nervously eyed the deepening shadows but some little voice in his mind whispered to him that they were still OK.
“I hope not,” answered Jerry. “Grab your bag and we'll scoot to the office and try to get a key.”
Katey confirmed and grabbed the 'Hello Kitty' backpack from behind the seat, sliding the neon yellow straps over her shoulders. Jerry did the same with his, more serious, khaki patterned backpack, shrugging it onto his shoulders. Lastly, he took up the Louisville slugger.
“Let's be quick and stay close,” he suggested as Katey regarded him, her eyes now wide with incipient fear.
Simultaneously, the doors of the truck clicked open and their running shoes descended to the decayed pavement. Together, they ran, hunched and silently along the front of the motel to where the 'Office' sign hung from an overhang, gently swaying in the rising breeze and squeaking on the suspending metal links. With Katey hovering at his shoulder, Jerry brandished the baseball bat and poked the office door. With a loud creak on the hinges and the startling ring of an overhead bell, the door swung open on darkness.
To be continued...