Helter Skelter, or Love When The Wheels Fall Off
Posted 16 September 2017 - 11:38 PM
Zack loved the city. It was vibrant, exciting, connected, everything suburban life was not. All his teenage years he had loathed the endless strip malls, the endless rows of houses that all looked alike. The stores were all the same, as were the churches, the gas stations, even all the crap you could buy.
The city was different. There were things you could find in the city that you never saw in suburbia. People dared to dress differently, to act and think differently, even to eat and drink differently. Hell, even the drugs and the crime were different.
He loved the pungent smell of the polluted air, the fact that the seasons themselves were shoved to the periphery of one’s awareness, the crush of people who didn’t get along, whose worlds continually collided and showed up one another’s qualities and weaknesses, their genuine niceness and their underlying frailty and futility. City cruelty and insensitivity made him laugh on the outside, even while he cringed and died a little on the inside.
He picked out a newspaper from a row of mechanical newspaper boxes, which stood like a defiant anachronism in this day and age of electronic media, walked half a block to his favourite coffee shop, bought himself a regular-size cup of regular coffee with a regular amount of milk and sugar, picked a window stool, and went to work on the anagrams, the crossword puzzle, the cryptoquip, the only parts of the paper that really interested him.
People-watching was a favourite pastime; the young office women with prematurely aged faces and hands, the retired old characters with nothing better to do than seek out one another’s company and b*llsh*t loudly and profanely, the groups of nearly-retired old ladies who sat apart from the old men but listened to every word, to the worried-looking former young punks with cigarette-stained fingers who for the first time were seriously looking for work, who waited watchfully and impatiently for people like himself to part with their paper so they could rip apart the want-ads.
And then there was that girl- if he could ever find out what the hell her name was! She came in about this time every day, along with her office-buddies. He tried not to make eye contact with her too much, not wanting to put her off, but listening carefully to every word, hoping that this would be the time that someone would drop her name.
She was not his normal type. Far from it. Sure, she was pretty, and well-proportioned, but kept it well-hidden inside a work-suit with padded shoulders and knee-length skirt that didn’t reveal much, if anything, and a little hat-thing that managed to hide most of her done-up dark-brown hair. She didn’t stand out in any way, and Zack was certain she wanted it that way. She even wore dark stockings that somehow made her legs nearly invisible.
Today she was with her blonde friend, an older woman in her thirties, who wore a light-blue power-suit with big buttons and hat-thing that showed off her tumbles of carefully coifed hair. As always, she managed to catch Zack’s eye and shut him down, saying something to her companion that caused both girls to laugh.
Sighing, Zack turned his attention back to the cryptoquip. Here we go. Today’s clue: K = V. H’m . . . there weren’t bloody many v’s to be had. Someone’s fit of coughing caused him to recoil. Geeze, put a sock in it! Someone made an alarmed sound, then, and he looked up. It turned out to be the blonde friend, who was staring in shock at some blood she’d coughed up on a napkin.
The scene suddenly came sharply into focus, even as it seemed to turn itself upside-down. There was a hole in the window, directly behind her, and a red dot of blood forming on the front of her suit-
Without understanding how it had happened, Zack found himself standing frozen beside the two women, about to pull the woman in blue away from the window, when two more holes appeared, and red sprayed from where the top of her face had been. Everything seemed to be made of tiny snippets of scene that moved in slow-motion. One instant he was reaching for the woman in blue, the next he had pulled the girl whose name he didn’t know to the floor, below the level of the floor-to-ceiling’s window. Instead of screaming, she was making a strange whooping sound, as though she were trying to catch her breath.
And then she was screaming, trying to reach out for her friend, who had collapsed awkwardly, face downwards, as though kneeling on the floor like a broken doll. The bottom of her face was untouched, but her eyes upward was a ruin of brains, skull and pulp.
It had seemed that it was silent until that moment. Instantly, everything was riot and confusion punctuated by the ululation of sirens, screams that sounded as though vocal chords were shredding, people yelling, running, dragging, ducking for cover.
Shots began ringing out. Again the windows were hit. There was the sound of footfalls from just outside. Something came crashing through the window, spraying them with safety-glass.
Once again, Zack found himself moving, dragging the girl away from the window and towards the back of the restaurant, checking her at a glace to see if she’d been hit, through the employee doors and through the startled people in white kitchen outfits-
And then they were in the back alley, and it was quiet, although the sounds of sirens and gunfire could still be heard.
‘Nguh . . . what’s happening? What’s going on? We have to go back and get Sabrina!’
Zack stared at her incredulously. ‘Didn’t you see what happened? Your friend is dead back there!’
She seemed stunned, and stared at him as though unable to make sense of what she saw. ‘Who the hell are you? What just happened?’
‘I’m . . . my name is Zack,’ he told her. ‘We were just sitting there in the restaurant, and someone started shooting at us-’
There were several loud bangs that sounded like they came from down the alley. They ducked behind a garbage bin, trying to see where they were coming from.
‘This has to be some kind of gang fight,’ Zack said, trying to make sense of it. ‘We’ve got to try and get out of this area.’
‘I work upstairs, here,’ the girl told him. ‘The front entrance is right beside the coffee shop. I don’t think it’s safe to go out there.’
‘My work is just up the block,’ he told her. ‘There’s a back entrance just up the alley and across the street-’
They stopped talking and froze as they heard footsteps and voices approaching.
‘ . . . the call’s gone out, bro! I heard it on my cell! They shot a bunch a cops over on forty-ninth. They’re headin’ up to the hill to do some free shoppin’, ya know what I’m sayin’?’
They watched, hunkered down in the darkness, as a group of youths, at least one of them brandishing a handgun, walked right past them, and out of sight again.
‘Yeah . . . let’s get the hell out of here, and into a building where it’s safe. My building’s got armed security.’ Then, ‘What’s your name, by the way?’
Her responding look was guarded. ‘Karen.’
Karen, he thought to himself. No last name. Fine.
As they reached the end of the alley, Karen seemed to be thinking about taking her chances on her own, until a sound like fireworks sent them scurrying across the street, and down into the next alley.
‘Geeze, did you see that?’ he asked her as they began walking brusquely towards the back entrance of his building. ‘It looked like a damned war-zone, windows busted, bodies everywhere! What the hell is going on?’
‘Maybe it’s terrorists?’ she offered. ‘Maybe we’re under attack? Or maybe it’s a bunch of gangs letting loose. Who cares! Let’s just get the hell out of the line of fire!’
When the doorbell wasn’t answered on the third try, Zack began pounding on the door and yelling at the camera. ‘C’mon, Jimmy! Open the f*ck*ng door! There’s people shooting at us out here!’
At last the lock buzzed as the automatic opener was pressed by someone on the inside of the building, Zack and Karen pulled open the heavy fire door, and the noise and riot and mayhem seemed shut out behind them.
‘Geeze, Jimmy, what the hell is going on?’ Zack asked as he and Karen emerged from the hallway leading from the back entrance and entered the building’s foyer. Jimmy was a big ex-cop, an imposing-looking black man in white uniform and security-guard cap. Besides his usual holstered gun, Jimmy was holding a pump-action shotgun.
‘Haven’t you heard? Everything’s going to sh*t out there!’ Jimmy told him. ‘I been listening to it on the news. C’mere and have a listen!’ He turned on his desk radio.
“ . . . -lice efforts are hampered because several city blocks are on fire. I repeat, people are being asked to stay indoors and to barricade themselves inside if at all possible. If not, people are being asked to seek the safety of law enforcement officials and National Guard members. It’s not known at this time if . . . ”
‘It’s like this on every station,’ Jimmy told them.
‘When did it start?’ Karen asked him. ‘I was just sitting having coffee with my friend a few minutes ago- ’
‘That’s when it started,’ Jimmy told her. ‘First the phones went out-’
Zack and Karen exchanged a look, pulled out their cells. Both were dead.
‘Geeze, I didn’t even think about mine,’ Zack said faintly. ‘You’re saying they’ve been dead all this time?’
‘That’s what I’m saying,’ Jimmy told them. ‘I think that’s what was at the start of it all. First the phones went out, then all hell broke loose.’
‘Well . . . who’s doing all the shooting?’
‘Damned if I know,’ Jimmy said helplessly. ‘I thought at first it was just kids. Kids and gangs. But then I saw a couple pickup trucks full of crackers, militia types. Then I saw cars full of black gangs. Latino gangs. Hispanic gangs. Older guys, mostly. If I had to guess, I’d say they had this all planned.’
Zack shook his head. ‘But where the hell are all the cops? We heard some gang members walking down the alley bragging that someone had shot a bunch of cops. But there’s a helluva lot more cops than gang-members! And what about the National Guard? Did everyone get caught with their pants down? Or is there more going on we don’t know about?’
‘I was just about to lock up and go up on the roof, see if I can’t find some answers up there,’ Jimmy told him. ‘You started buzzing just as I was getting on the elevator-’
There was sudden darkness and silence as the power went off.
Jimmy sighed. ‘Well, sh*t!’ He shrugged. ‘On the other hand, maybe you saved me from getting stuck on the elevator. Hope you two kids got your walking shoes on.’
As they shoved open the door to the rooftop, it was yanked from their grasp by a seemingly incongruous wind, that the city had previously sheltered them from.
‘Oh my f*ck*ng God!’ Jimmy breathed as they took in the scene from horizon to horizon to horizon to horizon. ‘Every f*ck*ng thing’s on fire! And I somehow gotta get through that to my wife!’
‘This has to be a war or something,’ Karen said, her features suffused. ‘There’s got to be terrorists involved. Maybe working with the gangs.’
‘My apartment’s over there,’ Zack said, feeling sick. ‘Looks like every building over there’s on fire.’
‘Mine too,’ Karen echoed faintly. ‘I hope all my friends managed to get out of there- ’
There was a sound like a snap. Instantly, Jimmy grabbed his cheek. His hand came away bloody. ‘Jesus f*ck!’
They ducked reflexively as another bullet ricocheted off the cinder-block stairwell-head behind them. Atop another building, cater-cornered and across the street, was a man holding a rifle. When he saw Jimmy raise his shotgun, he ducked behind the elevator enclosure. Jimmy let off a shot just as the man stuck his face out. He withdrew, screaming and cursing.
‘Motherf*cker!’ Jimmy yelled. ‘Stick your ugly-ass face out here again so I can blow it off!’
‘Let’s get out of here!’ Zack urged in a low voice. ‘You don’t have enough ammunition to take out every idiot out here.’
Jimmy took a fresh look at the younger man. ‘You have any idea how to use a firearm?’
Zack made a face. ‘Kinda, sorta? I know the basics, but that’s all.’
‘What about you, young lady?’
They turned as one as the would-be sniper let out an agonised yell, waited to see if he would try shooting at them again, but nothing more came to their ears except angry sobs and curses.
‘My granddad taught me to shoot a rifle,’ she said, not taking her eyes off the sniper’s roof.
Jimmy raised an eyebrow, handed Zack his sidearm and belt. ‘Then let’s get you a rifle.’
They made their way down the staircase in silence, went to the front entrance, which was windowless, Jimmy pulled out his key-ring, they were out on the street, and he carefully locked the door behind them.
‘It’s a secure building,’ he told them. ‘Pretty much fire-proof. We may have need of it again.’
They made their way across the street with alacrity, went the short half-block to their right, right again, then ducked into the alley, intending to reach the sniper’s building from the rear. When they reached the building in question, they found the back door held open by a milk crate. Just inside lay a security guard in a pool of blood, an old Caucasian man with a white beard. His gun-holster was empty.
‘Oh, Chris!’ Jimmy moaned under his breath. ‘Goddammit! We been friends since we both retired.’ Jimmy retrieved the old man’s wallet. ‘Just in case no one’s around to identify him, or give him a proper burial,’ he explained.
They took their time ascending the stairs, listening carefully, moving as silently as possible, watching for any sign of the sniper. When they reached the roof, Jimmy paused with his hand on the door-bar. ‘You’d best get that side-arm ready,’ he said to Zack. ‘Shoot if you see trouble. You ready?’
Zack took a deep breath, trying to calm his fear and his rattled nerves. ‘No. But let’s get it over with anyway.’
Jimmy took the door’s mechanism in an iron grip, eased it open, and managed to do it silently. They bobbed from side to side, looking through the narrow opening, saw no sign of the sniper. And then, they heard something, what sounded like a moan, possibly from around the corner.
He didn’t look like much- just an average guy, dressed all in denim with work boots. He lay on his side, the hand underneath clutching his rifle, his other hand clutching his face. His eyes seemed swollen shut, a mass of bruises and blood.
Jimmy moved carefully around and behind him, reached down and pulled out his wallet, lay the shotgun across his knees as he knelt down, and took at look at the sniper’s i.d.
‘Michael Edward Vickers. You’re a long way from home, Michael Edward Vickers. What the hell brings you all the way out here from Indiana? Says here you’re from one of those militia groups. Who sent you here, Mr Vickers?’
‘f*ck . . . you . . .’ the sniper tried to say through his shattered jaw. He tried to shift the rifle, but the click of Zack’s sidearm pressed to his temple stopped him. Jimmy relieved the man of his rifle, handed it to Karen, opened the man’s jacket, relieved him of several boxes of ammunition, passed those off as well. He finished by taking the sniper’s wallet and tossing it at the man’s chest. They were about to leave, when Zack thought to go through the sniper’s pockets and retrieved something.
‘Keys,’ Zack said as they began making their way back down the stairs. ‘Guy looks like a Cracker, so I’ll bet he drives a pickup truck.’
They found the truck parked near to the doorway. In the back was a big dog, possibly part German shepherd. It barked as they approached, but allowed Karen to pat its head, tongue lolling in doggy greeting. There were blankets in the back for the dog, a tool box, a spare tire, tire iron and jack, and nothing else.
Inside the cab they found a pistol under the driver’s seat and more boxes of ammunition inside the glove box.
‘Now listen to me,’ Jimmy said as he took the driver’s seat and engaged the starter. Karen got in the middle, and Zack sat on the passenger side and rolled down the window. ‘I’m going to try to get us the hell out of here, and I’m going to drive hard and fast. I don’t intend to stop for any reason, unless this piece of junk gets so shot up it can’t move. If that happens, we run for it. Anyone have to pee, get out and do it now, because once we get going, I ain’t stopping.’
Karen and Zack both unconsciously drew deep breaths and let them out slowly. Karen turned around on the seat, on her knees, opened up the sliding windows, and pointed the rifle out the back. ‘I’m ready whenever you are.’
Zack held up his gun to show he was ready.
‘All right. Here goes nothing.’
Jimmy didn’t gun the engine, as they were expecting. He started off carefully, keeping his head down, looking for any sign of trouble. They exited the alleyway and turned left into the street and sunshine.
The street was empty of vehicles with drivers, but there were plenty both parked and crashed to either side. The sound of gunfire had long since receded, and for several moments they thought it would be clear sailing ahead.
But as they passed a side-street, there came a loud shot, then another, the second shot striking the truck somewhere. Jimmy stomped on the accelerator, even as Zack and Karen returned fire. They weren’t able to hit anything from the moving vehicle, but the sound of gunfire seemed to be enough to make the shooters run for cover.
Within minutes they were barrelling down a major arterial route, eventually reaching a turnpike, and then a highway leading out of town. ‘Everyone okay?’ Jimmy asked.
‘I think we’re okay,’ Karen breathed in relief.
‘Yeah . . . nope,’ Zack said in a tight voice. ‘I think I took one in the arm. sh*t! It’s starting to hurt like a sonfabitch. No, don’t pull over! It’s not bleeding much. Let’s just worry about getting out of here.’
Karen got him to turn enough that she could check out his arm, then seconded his opinion. ‘He’s right- it was something small-calibre. Probably a .22. How far to your place?’
‘Fifteen or so,’ Jimmy told her. ‘Well, looky here! I never thought I’d be glad to see flashing lights up ahead!’
‘Those look like army trucks,’ Zack grated. ‘Jesus f*ck! I think I’m going to pass out.’
‘Just hang on, kid,’ Jimmy said reassuringly. ‘I’m sure these guys will have a medic.’
Seemingly without transition, Zack found himself in a stuffy little livingroom in an old house, stretched out on a sofa, looking up at the ceiling.
‘Um . . . hello?’
He heard the creak of floorboards as Jimmy came from another room bearing a plate of food and a glass of water. ‘S’bout time you woke up! How ‘bout some mashed potatoes and meatloaf?’
Zack painfully levered himself into a sitting position as Jimmy placed plate and glass on the coffee table. ‘Man! I feel like I’ve been beaten half to death! Geeze, that smells good!’ He took a look around. ‘This your house? Is everyone okay?’
‘It’s quiet out,’ Jimmy said meaningly. ‘Too damned quiet. We don’t quite know what’s going on out there yet, but they got the neighbourhood locked down, with barricades up all over the place. Your girlfriend’s out there helping keep watch.’
‘Girlfriend?’ Zack blurted, then remembered. ‘Oh, that girl? Karen? I only just met her today, in the coffee shop, when all this started.’
Jimmy seemed surprised. ‘The way you two were acting, I just took it for granted. Huh. Well, there goes the sleeping arrangements.’
Zack reddened. ‘Yeah . . . that would have been a bit awkward.’
‘Eat that before it gets cold,’ Jimmy ordered as he headed back to the kitchen. ‘You might want to join us after, hear what there is to hear.’
Zack found Jimmy in the kitchen with his wife, Arlene. There were extra plates and cups on the table, so evidently others had been there and left.
‘Our son and his wife and kids live next door,’ Jimmy explained. ‘Some friends of theirs just came over to stay while this is going on, and the guys have gone out to man the barricades.’
‘Is it still quiet out there?’ Zack asked.
Arlene poured him a cup of coffee, offered him milk and sugar. ‘Oh, it’s quiet,’ she said. ‘It’s quiet like someone’s about to do something, and whatever that something is, it isn’t going to be good.’
They listened as Jimmy switched the radio back on.
“ . . . -sening violence and indiscriminate killing. The Governor has issued a state of emergency, but city officials say the situation has deteriorated to the point where mass evacuations are the only course of action available to them. Mass coordinated arson attacks have overwhelmed first-responders to the point that getting in and out of affected areas is no longer possible.
‘Police are as yet unable to uncover a possible motive for the waves of violence which seem to have started spontaneously and are spreading like wildfire. Despite having made hundreds of arrests so far, no clear picture is emerging as to a possible motive for this mass explosion of civil unrest . . . ”
Zack stared, unable to comprehend what he was hearing. ‘What the hell is going on? It sounds like she’s saying that the damned wheels just fell off or something.’
Arlene gave him a look. ‘Yes, that does sound pretty much like what they’ve all been saying on the radio. And it’s not just here. It’s everywhere.’
Zack shoot his head, faintly. ‘What do mean, “everywhere”?’
‘It’s not just here, Zack,’ Jimmy told him. ‘Apparently this is happening right across the country.’
‘I think they said it’s started in Europe, too,’ Arlene said.
‘They said as soon as the news reached Europe,’ Jimmy said, ‘things just went nuts over there, too.’
Zack felt faint a moment. And then, ‘Sorry, I’m forgetting my manners! I haven’t had meatloaf and mashed potatoes and gravy since I lived at home! That was really good.’
Arlene laughed, a throaty chuckle, and started clearing the dishes. ‘Well aren’t you easy to please! See, Jimmy? Not all them young white boys is useless punks what needs a whuppin’!’
For a moment, Jimmy looked like his mouth was stuck. But Zack laughed. ‘Yeah . . . you just described half the guys I went to school with.’
‘It’s the black kids too,’ Jimmy griped. ‘Hell, it’s kids, period . . .’
He and Zack shared a look.
‘Now why are you two looking at each other like that?’ Arlene demanded.
‘It’s kids,’ Zack said, frowning. ‘Not all of them, not by a long stretch. But most of the ones we saw . . . it was mostly young guys with guns. Young guys of all races, all nationalities, all . . . everything. But- that can’t be right! They’re not coordinated enough to pull something like this off. I mean, what’d they do? Cut all the power to cell traffic? That would take some kind of skill.’
Jimmy huffed. ‘Really? Haven’t you ever taken a look at a cell tower? There’s nothing to them, much. Just a few cables running up each tower, right out there in the open. Wouldn’t take much to jump a chain-link fence and cut ‘em. You could do each one in just a few seconds. And that mass arson they’ve been talking about on the radio? Any idiot can start a fire. Just think what kind of damage a thousand idiots could do.’
They were interrupted as the back door opened, they heard Kathy’s voice saying goodbye to someone, and she entered.
Zack stared. She was wearing what were obviously borrowed clothes- pants, socks, shoes, a shirt and sweater. Her hair was down. She unslung the rifle and set it in the corner behind the door.
‘Hey! You’re finally up!’ she smiled.
‘Um . . . yeah,’ he muttered, trying to think of something to say. And then, ‘What’s happening out there?’
She gave Jimmy a look, then came and joined them at the table. ‘There’s no movement around here, but something’s going on further out.’ To the question in everyone’s eyes, she said, ‘I heard it started off as armed gangs, but then they changed tactics, gathering stuff instead of just looting and burning. Apparently they’re starting to dig themselves in.’
‘Dig themselves in for what?’ Zack asked her.
She shrugged. ‘From the way everyone’s talking, they don’t even know themselves. They’re just making it up as they go.’
Zack sighed, thinking. ‘Well . . . once the army gets mobilised, they’re going to be sorry they ever started this . . . whatever it is.’
‘The authorities are calling it “mass civil unrest”,’ she said. ‘But the crazies are calling it “Helter Skelter”.’
‘Helter Skelter!’ Jimmy said dismissively. ‘This is not what Charles Manson had in mind, back when he predicted America would explode into some kind of race-war.’
‘They probably don’t even know what it means, or where the term came from,’ Zack said tiredly. ‘It’s probably the first thing that came into their empty heads.’
They started as they heard the sound of running feet coming up the back steps, followed by a frantic knocking at the door. ‘Jimmy? Arlene? Turn on your radio! And either turn out your lights or cover up your windows!’ The feet quickly receded again.
Arlene began turning off lights as Jimmy switched on the radio. She lit a candle, placed it on the table, then set to closing the curtains on all the windows.
“ . . . bombs and other improvised explosive devices. The army was forced to withdraw in order to prevent any further civilian casualties. The death-toll continues to rise as the insurgents take more hostages and continue to kill people indiscriminately, especially the old and the infirm, who appear to be their favourite targets- ”
As they listened, it became clear to all of them that this was not a problem that would be solved in short order by the army.
There came a faint sound, then- the unmistakable crack of gunfire.
‘Got another rifle?’ Zack asked Jimmy.
‘You are in no shape to go out there toting a gun,’ the older man told him.
‘There may not be a choice,’ Zack said. ‘We may have to start fighting, no matter what kind of shape we’re in.’
‘I’ll keep an eye on him,’ Karen said.
‘You’ll be shooting left-handed,’ Jimmy told him, handing him the shotgun and a box of shells. He went upstairs, came back with a hunting rifle, fumbling boxes of ammunition into the pockets of a hunting jacket. He helped Zack into an older jacket and helped him with the ammunition. ‘Okay . . . let’s go see what we can see.’
The barricade was not what Zack was expecting. He was expecting to see overturned wagons and boxes at an intersection, like in the movies. Instead, the street was blocked with formidable-looking steel pylons that had been driven deep into the ground. The barricades were actually low stone walls fortified with brick, stone, and cinder-blocks. The gunfire sounded like it was several blocks away. The streetlights had been turned off somehow; the houses were all dark. With every sound of gunfire came faint flashes of light.
‘Don’t do that!’ Jimmy said, pushing Zack’s head down. ‘Use your ears, not your eyes. And don’t shoot unless you hear something or someone close enough to shoot at. And be quick about it! You bob up, shoot, then duck again, right quick. Got it?’ Zack nodded, mutely.
They hunkered down in the dark, thankfully laying on a bed of grass, and listened. It was so quiet that Zack’s ears began to ache with the strain of not hearing anything. He was beginning to wonder if they should pack up and head back when the silence was shattered by a pair of sharp retorts. The sound seemed to echo from all around them. And then, there was the faint, unmistakable sound of booted feet, running.
As Zack watched, hand-signals were passed down the line. He had no idea what they meant, but guns were drawn, held at the ready-
There was no audible signal that he could remember, but somehow he was up on his knees, shooting over the wall. “Some redneck in a mackinaw” his brain seemed to say for him as he took down his first target. The man was running diagonally to him, took the shot full in his chest. Zack bobbed down as he’d been told, listened carefully, heard running feet, bobbed up, and froze! It was a girl, maybe eighteen years old, wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans, with dyed-black hair braided into a thick pony-tail. She was carrying a pistol with both hands, was looking straight at him-
The gunshot was very loud. The girl seemed to freeze, then collapse forward, her heels snapping upwards, only the right foot falling back down again. Then, she was gone, and he was being pushed face-first into the ground. By Karen. ‘You’d better learn to be okay with shooting girls,’ she whispered into his ear, ‘or you’re not going to last very long.’
Her breath was very warm. And then it was gone again.
There were several times during the night that Zack was sure it was over, but they kept coming in sporadic waves, until at last there was daylight, and the last of them seemed to recede back into the fading darkness.
When it was finally over, they got to their feet to inspect the carnage. The girl Karen had shot looked like a faded Goth chick. Her eyes, both a clear hazel, were open and wide. There were rivulets of dried blood at the corners of her mouth, and out both nostrils. Hers was the first dead body Zack had ever seen. He found the redneck’s body next. The front of his mackinaw was blood-soaked. He appeared to have died instantly. Looking around he saw that they were gang kids, punks, street kids, misfits, high school kids, college kids . . . the older ones were a mixture, of losers, dropouts, the disenfranchised. He found Jimmy and a few other older men standing around the body of a one-legged man . . . an older man who appeared to be a veteran. He was wearing his old dog-tags.
‘This was the leader?’ Zack heard one of them say.
‘Looks that way. Explains why they had some tactics going for them.’
‘Is it over?’ Zack asked them.
It seemed to take the men a moment to register his presence. At last, one of them said, ‘Over? Are you kidding? Son, whatever this is, it’s just getting started!’
Posted 18 September 2017 - 11:59 AM
It was nearly Noon before they were able to stop and get some rest. There had been bodies to dispose of, wounds to tend to, defences to be shored up, followed by a meeting with law-enforcement and army officials.
In the end, sleeping arrangements were made for them. They were installed in the upstairs of Jimmy’s place, formerly the attic, where the grandkids used to sleep, on two separate box springs and mattresses on the floor, side by side, on either side of a small window. It was cramped, the ceiling sloped to either side, there was little head-room for Zack in the middle, but it was horizontal, and after a meal and a shower, that’s all they cared about.
‘You know, you’re nothing like I expected. “Boyfriend.”,’ Karen muttered as she got comfortable.
Zack made an embarrassed sound. ‘Oh, you heard that.’
‘Yeah, well, it could have been worse.’
‘I suppose.’ Then, ‘You are ‘way different from what I was expecting.’
‘Oh, yeah? What were you expecting?’
‘You know . . . office girl. Screaming. Rabbit in the headlights stuff.’
She chuckled. ‘Yeah, well . . . you’re not going to get that sort of thing out o’ this country girl.’
‘I never would’ve figured you for a country girl.’
‘No? What did you figure I was?’
‘I dunno. Your typical office-geek, maybe?’
She chuckled at that. ‘Office geek!’ They were silent for several moments. And then, she said quietly, ‘What made you come for Sabrina and me? All I remember is that everyone kind of froze. But . . . I remember the look on your face.’
‘I think it might have been the blood,’ he told her. ‘I happened to look up when she was coughing, and I saw the blood . . .’ he frowned, remembering. ‘And just over her shoulder I saw the hole in the window, and put two and two together. The next thing I knew . . . I went to grab her, but . . . well . . . you know what happened. Before my brain would even start thinking again, my hand sort of changed direction. I just remember this kind of jerking feeling, reaching out in her direction, your friend getting hit again, and then, I don’t know. My hand just kind of stopped on its own. When I grabbed you and dragged you to the floor, it was like a kind of compulsion, like I was watching it happen to someone else.’ He sighed. ‘Everything was happening so fast. Nothing was making sense.’
‘Sabrina was the one that pointed you out to me,’ she told him. ‘We’d go in there, and she’d say, “Oh, look! Your boyfriend’s here today! Maybe you should go introduce yourself.” I’d tell her to keep it down, or else you’d hear her.’
He grinned, wryly. ‘I always thought the two of you were making fun of me. Every time I saw you come in here, I wanted to ask you out, but then part of me would say, “Yeah, don’t do it. You’ll creep her out, and then she’ll never come back here again.”’
‘Really?’ she said, raising herself up on one elbow to scrutinise him. ‘Why on earth would you think that?’
‘The way you were dressed,’ he told her. ‘The way you acted. I’d decided you were pretty much out of my league.’
She let out an odd sort of laugh, watching him with an unreadable expression. And then, ‘Screw this!’ She pulled off the long shirt she was wearing, which was all she was wearing, and crossed over to his bed.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Move over, boyfriend. We may not be a match made in heaven, but I’m sure as hell not going to lose out on the one good thing that’s happened to me in ages!’
‘That,’ she said breathlessly, as they lay naked and sweating, trying to cool off, ‘is probably the one spontaneous thing I’ve done my whole life.’
He chuckled at that. ‘Yeah, well, you sure as hell surprised me. I would never in a million years have expected that.’He sighed, deeply. ‘God, I’m tired. I feel like I haven’t slept in days!’
‘Yeah, well,’ she said, ‘things have been pretty intense.’ She pulled a blanket over their dried-sweat bodies. ‘I just hope we get a breather for a while.’
They awoke feeling spent and sated. And in need of a shower. Zack lay on his back. Karen lay half on top of him, head on his shoulder, her hair matted. Dim shadows played on the sloped ceiling from light entering the stuffy attic room through tiny windows at either end.
‘You sleep well?’ Zack asked her.
She stretched luxuriously and sighed. ‘Better than I have in a long time. I was afraid I’d never be able to shake off that jangled feeling, like my nerves were fried. If we hadn’t made out, I doubt if I could’ve slept much.’ She stretched again. ‘Oh-h-h, that feels good.’ She chuckled. ‘Boyfriend.’
He laughed silently at that. ‘This is where the dufus guy asks the girl to marry him, and the girl goes “ew!”, kicks him out, and never speaks to him again.’
‘Yeah-h-h . . .’ she drawled, ‘don’t be too sure about that. Things are different now. I don’t have any birth-control pills, and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get my hands on any for some time. So . . . we’re taking our chances, big-time. And it’s not like we have jobs and careers to protect, and money to save, and big plans to make. All that stuff just went up in smoke.’
He sighed. ‘I’ve been thinking about that. My place is gone. All my stuff is gone.’
‘Mine too. You got family?’
He was silent a few moments. ‘Not around here. We don’t really talk. There’s one brother I still talk to sometimes, but it’s been a few years. My parents I never talk to. They got divorced a long time ago, remarried, had kids, and kind of pushed us out and forgot us. They never liked to hear from us, so we stopped calling. Then we stopped calling one another.’
‘Wow. That sounds a lot like my family,’ she said. ‘I was pretty much raised by my grandparents. My mom and dad did the same thing- got divorced, remarried, and buggered off. Mom used to call grandma sometimes, but she never talked to me. Then, when granddad and grandma passed, that was it for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for this kid.’
‘Geeze!’ he breathed. ‘I haven’t had a real Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner since I was a kid, except at work. I’m actually going to miss my boss. I’d only been working there for a few years, but he and his wife used to put on a big spread for all of us. Turkey, ham, all the fixings, even a few bottles of wine.’
‘A good boss! Weren’t you lucky.’
‘Yeah, I kinda was,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I used to wake up early in the morning, looking forward to work. I loved picking up a paper and having an early-morning coffee. A little quiet time, all to myself . . . except for this mysterious woman who’d show up at the coffee shop almost every day. There was something different about her . . . she seemed . . . I dunno . . . self-contained somehow, not sucked in to all the bad things about city life. Like a person had to be vetted in order to become part of her life.’
She laughed at this depiction of herself. ‘Well, if it’s any consolation, I thought you were a stuck-up dry stick.’
He choked with laughter at that. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah . . . you’d walk in there with your paper folded under your arm, stand like “this” while you got your coffee, then look all serious as you were reading the funnies-’
‘Ha! That’s why I held the paper up so you guys couldn’t see what I was reading! I was sure you were laughing at me for reading the funnies!’
‘Yes, well, you always had an expression on your face like this, like you were reading the financial section, deciding on stock-options!’
‘Hey, the funnies are serious stuff! That’s where you get all the good social commentary.’
‘Yeah . . . that’s kind of what I figured you’d say.’
They stopped talking, considering each other once more. And once more they began making love, slowly this time, not wanting to waste a minute or miss anything.
Arlene gave them a knowing look as they came down the steep staircase into the livingroom. It was 7:30 PM. Outside the sun was going down.
‘You two actually get any sleep?’
‘Yeah . . . we were blowing off a little steam,’ Zack replied sheepishly. ‘Ow!’
‘Oh, sorry! Oh, crap!’
Despite the pain Zack was in, Arlene chuckled. ‘Right where he got shot! You sure know how to get a man’s attention, girl.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Karen said repentantly. ‘Here, come sit down.’
‘You sound like a damned Cath-o-lic saying three “Hail Mary’s”,’ Arlene said, nudging Karen out of the way so she could check Zack’s wound. ‘H’mf. You’ll live. You two love-birds want some coffee? Yes? Well, get it yourself. It’s out in the kitchen.’ She chuckled at the sight of the two young people, the girl hanging possessively and protectively from his arm.
Jimmy, who had been sitting at an end-table, quietly playing with an old battery-operated radio, waved his wife over. ‘Arlene! C’mere! Listen to this.’
They listened to the news broadcast, frowning.
‘That must’ve been what those loud explosions were,’ Arlene said in a low voice. ‘So the army has taken over and rolled on in to the city. Hurray for our side. That must mean it’s over.’
Jimmy gave her a look. ‘They didn’t say a damned thing about all those rioters. The way they’re telling it, they just rolled into town, there were a few firefights, and then “the opposition just kind of melted away”, that news announcer said.’
‘So it sounds like goddamned Iraq,’ he told her.
Arlene gave him a look. ‘Well this ain’t goddamned Iraq. It’s the goddamned US of A.’
‘I’m telling you, something’s not right, here,’ Jimmy persisted. ‘In Iraq, when we rolled in, the Iraqi army just kind of melted away into the general population. I’m telling you, this smells like Iraq.’
Arlene made an exasperated sound. ‘From what I heard, it was mostly young people gone wild. Now the fun’s gone out of it, they probably all slunk off home.’
‘They stole weapons,’ Jimmy muttered. ‘Lots and lots of weapons. Enough for a whole goddamned army.’
Arlene consider the implications a good long moment. ‘Well . . . we’ll probably hear lots of news about weapons busts the next few weeks. It was probably organised crime took the opportunity to steal ‘em in the first place.’
Jimmy said nothing, but kept listening to the radio.
A few minutes after Zack and Karen sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking quietly, there came a rap on the glass of the back door. It was Jimmy and Arlene’s son from next door, Marten.
‘Hi, I’m Marten. You must be Karen and Zack.’ Marten was a big man, like his dad, but half a head shorter. They exchanged greetings as Marten got himself a coffee and joined them.
‘I saw you over on the other barricade,’ Zack said. ‘You guys had a better view of what was coming at us.’
‘That would be why we got shot at more,’ Marten told them with dark humour. ‘Anyway, I came over to tell mom and dad that we’ve got a problem, so I may as well tell you, too.’
‘What sort of problem?’ Karen asked, watching him carefully.
He gave the two a gauging look. ‘I don’t want to scare you, but it’s turning out that it was far more than just a well-coordinated riot. The way they were going around burning things was carefully planned.’
‘How so?’ Zack asked him.
‘For starters,’ Marten said, ‘they torched every residential building in the city. Every last one.’ Zack and Karen exchanged a sick look. ‘That’s partly why there were mass casualties. But it gets worse. They torched every single last medical facility. I hope you two are in good health, ‘cause drugs are going to be in short supply for a while. On top of that, they destroyed as much food as they good. Plus they blocked up the sewer system as best they could. Plus they cut the water lines, the cell towers . . . they did a number on the city’s electrical.’ He sighed. ‘The bottom line is that we’re going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel pretty damned soon. And there’s a city’s worth of mouths to feed, with no food, no medical care, no shelter, no sewer, no nothing.’
He stopped. His parents were standing should-to-shoulder in the doorway, leaning on each other for support. Jimmy put his hands on his wife’s shoulders, and they joined the young people at the table.
‘You were right,’ Arlene said to her husband. ‘So, Mr Smart Guy, what do we do now?’
Jimmy took a deep breath, let it out slowly. ‘I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but we’d better think about imposing on Uncle Henry.’
Marten groaned. To the look in Zack’s and Karen’s eyes, he said, ‘Mom’s brother has a good-old-fashioned farm, ‘way out in the country.’
Zack and Karen exchanged a look. ‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it?’ Zack said.
‘Yeah, if you don’t mind being smacked over the head with a Bible a hundred times a day. Uncle Henry is a deeply religious man, and he’ll tell you about it every chance he gets, all day and every day.’
‘What kind of a farm has he got?’ Karen asked, genuinely curious.
Marten gave her a look. ‘You’re asking a city boy. All I know is, they’ve got eggs, and cream, and real butter . . . they grow vegetables, they raise cattle . . . they’ve got a little bit of everything, I think.’
‘So it’s a “mixed farm”,’ Karen said. ‘That’s good. My grandparents had a mixed farm. In fact, the property’s still there. Still belongs in the family, as far as I know.’
‘Where exactly is it?’ Marten asked her. She told him.
He leaned back in his chair and chuckled. ‘Well I’ll be damned! That’s only about ten miles from Uncle Henry. You might find my wife and I on your doorstep, claiming refugee status.’
‘Granddad planted lots of fruit trees,’ she told him seriously. ‘There were lots of berries and currants bordering the property, but they’re probably all long overgrown by now.’
‘Currants?’ he asked her. ‘What are currants?’
‘They’re . . .’ she shrugged, helplessly. ‘They’re bushes, that get these sort of berry things all over them. There’s red currants, black currants . . . you can make jams and jellies out of them. Some people make wine out of them. My great-great-grandmother used to make something called a “cordial” out of them.’
‘None of this is going to help us out this coming Winter,’ Marten said, ‘and that’s what worries me. We don’t even know if Uncle Henry will have enough to see all of us through the Winter.’
‘Jesus Murphy!’ Jimmy breathed as realisation set in. ‘What’s the gas situation like?’
‘Hard to come by!’ Marten told him. ‘They burned every gas station. The army has commandeered the rest.’
‘So much for making it out to Uncle Henry’s,’ Arlene muttered. ‘There’s only enough gas in the car to make it a quarter of the way there.’
‘Is there still some gas in the truck?’ Zack asked Jimmy.
‘About a quarter of a tank,’ Jimmy said. ‘And we still have a couple Jerry cans from when we went camping.’
‘I keep thinking we should call Henry,’ Arlene said, ‘but then I remember all the cell service has been cut.’
‘Henry doesn’t have a cell phone,’ Jimmy said pointedly. ‘He’s got a good-old-fashioned land line. Maybe it still works.’
‘Gimme his number,’ Marten said brusquely. ‘I’ll go over to Doug Anderson’s place and give him a call.’ He moved with alacrity and left in a hurry.
‘This is exactly the kind of thing they’re telling us not to do on the radio, Arlene told her husband.
‘I know,’ he muttered, and took her hand. ‘Problem is, if we follow their advice, we might lose what little control we have over the situation. I mean, it’s still warm enough that we don’t have the heat turned on, but if they start rationing natural gas, there’ll be no way to heat this house. If that happens, once it freezes, it’ll bust the hot water tank and the pipes. And if we end up depending on rationing, there’s going to be some real problems. There won’t be any gas, so everyone is going to have to walk, all Winter long, to wherever they’ll be distributing food from.’
Zack shook his head. ‘Sure as hell didn’t take much to break everything. I would’ve thought that it would take something like a flood, or an earthquake, or a hurricane, to do this much damage.’
‘It’s more like modern life is a highway,’ Jimmy said. ‘Everything goes great, so long as there aren’t any obstacles. And if something happens to the road itself? Like a giant sinkhole? And the highway’s your only way around? Everything comes grinding to a stop. And what if it’s something that can’t be fixed? Then you’re really hooped.’
It was some time before Marten returned. He looked unhappy and thoughtful.
‘The bad news first,’ Jimmy said as his son seated himself.
Marten made an angry sound. ‘I’ll give you the good news first, because the bad news is kind of complicated.
‘The good news is that there’s going to be enough food . . . that’s not going to be a problem.
‘The bad news,’ he said slowly, ‘is that it may be a problem getting there. He said there’s a lot of armed militia groups running around, and they’ve set up blockades all over the place. He also said that he’s afraid of them looting the place, that it’s become dangerous just trying to hang on to what you have.’
Jimmy mulled this over in silence. At last, he said, ‘Well, we’re just going to have to take the back roads, and move at night.’ He sighed. ‘And we’re going to have to leave pretty much everything behind.’
‘We can stash a lot of our things in the old storm cellar,’ Arlene said. ‘Even if they manage to burn the house down, our things should stay safe in there.’
‘We’d better get on that right now,’ Marten said.
‘Let me give you a hand with that,’ Zack said.
‘I’ll pitch in, too,’ Karen said. ‘After all your hospitality, it’s the least we can do.’
It was the following evening when they finally got under way, managing to round up enough gasoline, vehicles and trailers to transport people and belongings. Zack drove the truck they’d taken from the sniper, with Karen beside him, Trula, Marten’s wife, in the passenger seat, with their seven-year-old daughter, Charlene, sitting on her lap. The dog, which had been tied up outside, was laying on blankets in the storage gap behind the bench seat.
Hitched to the truck was a low trailer covered with orange and blue tarps. Ahead of them was Arlene’s SUV hitched to a similar low trailer. In the SUV were Jimmy, Arlene and Marten, with four more of Marten’s and Trula’s kids in the back seat, along with a cooler full of food for the trip. Marten had managed to come up with a pair of radios that plugged into the vehicles’ cigarette lighters.
“If you’re ready, Zack, we’re going to get going,” Jimmy said over the radio.
‘We’re right behind you,’ Zack radioed back.
“Remember, we’re taking it slow,” Jimmy reminded him. “No lights.”
‘Got it,’ Zack replied. He heaved a deep breath and let it out slowly as he turned out the interior lights. ‘This is not going to be my idea of fun,’ he said to the two women.
It was a moment before the SUV began to move. As Jimmy had said, he was going to take it slow, virtually creeping along as their eyes got used to the dark.
They weren’t yet out of the suburbs before Jimmy flashed his brake-lights several times and turned left into what looked like a dirt alley running parallel to a raised highway-bed. This went on for around two miles, until they came to an old secondary road that led out of the city altogether, and into the country.
‘City looks like it’s still burning,’ Truly remarked, looking back over her shoulder through the window.
Karen and Charlene leaned over her for a better look. ‘Whoah!’
‘What is it?’ Zack asked them.
As if in answer, there came a sharp report that shook the truck’s frame.
‘I'd say somebody is shooting at somebody,’ Trula muttered. ‘Mind if I turn on the radio?’
‘Got for it,’ Zack said. ‘Maybe somebody out there will tell us what’s going on.’
“ . . . -dnts are being warned to stay indoors, and to open their doors only to law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces.
“Insurgents are once again committing mass acts of arson and are killing people indiscriminately. We have reports, just in, that gangs are now attacking suburban areas in an apparent attempt to overwhelm first responders, and to disorganise the armed forces- ”
‘Sorry,’ Trula said, switching off the radio. ‘I think that was maybe worse than not knowing.’
‘On the other hand,’ Karen said, looking at Charlene, who sat wide-eyed, ‘maybe it’s better we got out when we did.’
Blinking brake lights got Zack’s attention again. Jimmy had come to a stop, and now turned sharply right on to a dirt road shrouded on the left by dense foliage.
‘Looks like we are taking the long way around,’ Trula said judiciously. ‘This road follows a little river. Get ready for one helluva long drive.’
It was the pale hour before dawn when Jimmy signalled for them to come to a stop. He pulled off the road, got out with a flashlight, and directed Marten to park their vehicle behind a tall stand of brush. He then had Zack follow suit, then walked off into the bush, returning with a number of broken branches which he handed to Marten and Zack.
‘Muss up our tire tracks as best you can,’ he said in a low voice, as though fearing to be overheard. ‘We don’t want anyone seeing where we pulled out. Maybe scatter some dried leaves for good measure.’
Karen went to help Trula and Arlene with the smaller children, who were hungry, sleepy, and fussing. ‘Oh, boy, we’re camping,’ she said to one little boy around four years old.
‘I hate camping!’ he griped. ‘I wanna go home, momma.’
She gave Karen a wry look as she handed him a quarter sandwich and juice box. ‘I’m afraid Leroy’s a city kid like his daddy.’
‘I’m afraid just about everyone’s a city kid these days,’ Karen said, thinking. ‘That means there aren’t going to be too many people around who know how to take care of themselves.’ Looking at Trula directly, she added, ‘I don’t want to sound like a pessimist, but things might get pretty ugly.’
Arlene gave her a look. ‘Uglier than they are right now?’
Karen looked back in the direction of the city, which was out of sight now in the light of dawn. ‘I keep thinking about all those people back there, burned out of their homes, with no food, maybe no water soon. We’ve been incredibly lucky so far. Let’s just hope our luck holds while things get worse-’
‘Listen!’ Arlene said sharply. Karen was just about to ask what the older woman had heard, when Arlene snapped, ‘Trula, get the kids together. Karen, you help keep ‘em quiet! Not a peep out of them. You understand?’
Karen understood the moment she heard vehicles in the distance, trucks from the sound of them.
Zack had a rifle pushed into his arms before he understood what was going on. Jimmy motioned him to silence as the three men hunkered down, firearms at the ready.
Listening carefully, Zack realised he was listening to several fairly large trucks. Military? he thought hopefully. His hope was dashed, however, as a line of trucks filled with militia-types came trundling by. It seemed each and every one of them was armed, a good many of them heavily.
It seemed to take forever for the convoy to pass, even though it was only a line of five big trucks and three pickups. Once they’d passed, however, Jimmy was adamant they wait a full half hour before they could breathe normally again.
‘The problem now,’ Jimmy said, getting to his feet, ‘is that we don’t know whether they kept right on going, or whether they’re going to stop somewhere up ahead. They’re travelling slower than we are, so there’s a good chance we’ll run into them again.’
‘So, what’s the plan, Pop?’ Marten asked him.
Jimmy considered several long moments before answering. ‘There’s a highway up ahead, not too far. I say we make our way there tonight, gum-boot it for about seven miles, then get the hell off it on to another side-road again.’
‘What if we catch up with those guys on the highway?’ Zack asked him.
Jimmy gave him a look. ‘It’s a cinch those boys don’t want to be seen. They’re sticking to the back-roads for a reason. If there’s police or army vehicles around, they’ll be using the main roads. With any luck, it’s them we’ll run into instead of the bad guys.’
Within an hour, they had eaten a meal and topped up their fuel tanks. Zack was surprised and relieved to see how little fuel their journey had consumed so far. They then bundled themselves into sleeping bags under a tarp. ‘In case it rains, or we get bombed by bird-poop,’ Marten said. As it happened, they were awakened by the patter of rain and a loud rumble of thunder.
‘Is this good or bad?’ Zack asked Jimmy as they passed around sandwiches and drink.
‘Could go both ways,’ Jimmy replied reflectively. ‘We might run into people who ducked out for cover. Or . . . they might stay away from the side-roads, afraid of getting stuck.’
‘Oh, joy,’ Zack muttered, sharing his coffee with Karen. ‘I do not want to get stuck.’
‘Well,’ Jimmy mulled, ‘the only way to completely avoid that is to stick to the main roads. And there are for sure going to be road-blocks. Problem is, we don’t know beforehand whether they’re going to be law-enforcement, or army, or fruit-loop militias.’
‘If the militias are sticking to the side-roads,’ Zack reasoned, ‘doesn’t it make sense to stick to the main roads?’
‘They’ll be watching the main roads,’ Jimmy told him. ‘Just like in the olden days, when you had a few main roads and lots of highway robbers.’
As soon as the last light began to fade on the horizon, they were back on to the road and on the move. The highway turned out to be further than Jimmy had anticipated, but there was something reassuring about its well-paved appearance and its width. The street lights were still on, attesting to the fact that the power plant was still functioning. They were able to switch on their headlights and set a good pace, although Jimmy kept their speed down to 45 miles per hour.
‘I feel like we’re crawling,’ Zack commented after a few hours had passed.
‘Jimmy knows what he’s doing,’ Trula told him. ‘If I know him, and I do, he won’t just be thinking about saving gas. He’ll be wanting to see up ahead as far as possible.’
‘Speaking of which,’ Karen put in, ‘I think I see some kind of lights up ahead. Reflecting off the trees,’ she added for Zack’s benefit.
At the same moment, Jimmy pulled over and came to a stop. Zack pulled in behind him and got out to meet him.
‘Looks to me like emergency lights,’ Jimmy told him. ‘I think we should chance it.’
Zack considered the colours. There was definitely some blue and red mixed in with the amber. He shrugged. ‘You’re the boss. Let’s go for it.’
When they got under way once more, Zack realised that the lights were further off than they’d seemed. But the sight was reassuring.
‘That,’ he said, ‘looks like State troopers!’ He breathed a sigh of relief. ‘We may not be out of the woods, yet, but this is definitely a good sign.’
They were waved over to a surprisingly long line of vehicles pulled over to the right- surprising because they hadn’t seen any other vehicles on the road. After several minutes, a pair of State troopers wearing wet transparent rain-gear, one of them carrying a clipboard, both of them carrying flashlights, came down the line to inspect.
‘Where you folks headed?’ the man asked, shining the light in their faces and checking out their vehicle. Trula told him. The man responded by scratching his head thoughtfully. ‘Well . . . you’ve got maybe seven miles to go if you stick to the main routes, but I really don’t recommend it. Not where you’re going, or how you think you’re going to get there.’
Exchanging a look with Karen, Zack said, ‘Well . . . what’s the problem.’
‘The problem,’ the State trooper told him, ‘is that farms like the one you’re headed to are prime targets for the militia types that are running around.’
‘We ran into some of those already,’ Trula told him.
The trooper was suddenly alert. ‘Where, exactly?’
‘Middle of Old River Road,’ she told him.
‘How many did you see exactly, ma’am?’
She and Karen exchanged a look. ‘What’d we count? Five big trucks? Maybe a couple pickup trucks?’
‘Three pickup trucks,’ Zack put it. ‘The trucks were full of guys with guns.’
The trooper gave him a look. ‘Any idea how many, per truck? Just give me your best guess,’ he said, taking pity on Zack’s helpless look.
‘I dunno . . . we weren’t counting. Twenty, maybe? Twenty-five?’
The trooper straightened up, thought a moment, then said, ‘Just wait on here. I’ll be back in a moment.’ His companion stood in the rain as he moved up the line to speak with someone.
‘Hey, you and your buddy like some coffee?’ Trula asked the remaining man. ‘You look like you could use it.’
The remaining trooper, a younger fellow, looked Trula in surprise a moment. ‘Would I!’ he blurted. ‘That’s the best damned words I’ve heard all night!’
‘Milk and sugar okay?’
‘Ma’am, I’ll take it any old way you got it!’
She reached down to the floor, to their large thermos, and filled two Styrofoam cups. ‘Sorry, we got no lids,’ she said, passing them to Zack so he could pass them on.
‘Ma’am, you have no idea!’ the young trooper said as he took a deep gulp.
‘Are things as bad in the city as we’ve been hearing on the radio?’ Karen asked him.
‘Oh, things are right out of control!’ he said feelingly. ‘They keep telling us that this thing broke out spontaneously, that there’s absolutely no planning behind it! I mean, our guys keep arresting them, and they just keep turning out to be gangs of kids and losers. The boys been interrogating them, and every time they’re done, they’re just shrugging and saying what the experts keep saying, that it’s a thing that just started all on its own, and that it keeps gaining momentum somehow.’
‘Those guys in the trucks looked pretty damned organised to me,’ Zack told him.
‘Those militia types are another matter,’ the trooper told him. ‘We’ve caught quite a few of them, now, and they have put the word out to do as much damage as possible. But there ain’t that many of them. Hell, if it was just them, the army could’ve squashed ‘em like a bug the first day. It’s the kids and the young people that are the real problem. They go running home when we come after them, and then we have no way of know which of ‘em have been up to no good. It’s the same with a lot of other people. They’re just normal, good people to look at ‘em. Then, the moment your back is turned, they’ll try and shoot you in the back! I guess you’ve heard by now they’re calling it Helter Skelter.’
‘We heard,’ Zack said.
‘Well,’ the young trooper said helplessly, ‘that about describes it. It’s just a bunch of goddamned helter skelter, with no rhyme or reason to it.’
Posted 20 September 2017 - 01:46 AM
They waited in line for so long that the children had long since fallen asleep, as had several of the adults. While they waited, they were joined by the occasional vehicle whose occupants seemed as relieved to encounter the State troopers as themselves. Zack found himself dozing occasionally, and upon waking would automatically check the side-view to see how much the line had grown. He was about to doze off once more, with Karen laying against his side, when they were startled into awareness by the sound of running, booted feed. The rain was light but persistent, creating a close, haze-like appearance to their surroundings.
The troopers were running to the rear of the line, firearms drawn. At last, the young trooper they’d seen before came up the line, banging on windows. ‘Everybody out,’ he said in a voice barely above a whisper. ‘Please move quickly to the front of the line. And keep your heads down! There’s a big tent up ahead. Go directly there and wait for further instructions.’
‘I don’t wanna go outside, Mommy,’ Charlene muttered, still half asleep.
‘Neither do I, honey,’ Trula said, bundling her into a jacket, ‘but we gotta do what the man says. Looks like there’s some kinda trouble at the back of the line, and we do not want any part of it.’
As they got out into the light wind and cold drizzle, and began carrying and herding the children along the row of vehicles, Zack looked towards the rear but could see nothing, as he was looking into the glare of headlights. A couple were running towards them, holding a plastic sheet over their heads, trying to cover themselves and their three children who ran before. An older man walked brusquely with a dog on a leash, reminding Zack that they’d left the dog in the truck.
‘sh*t! Hold on a sec, while I get the dog,’ he said, and ran back to the truck.
He just got his hand on the door handle when several very loud shots rang out. People became frantic, running past him, and running into him, trying to stay close to the line of cars for protection. Cursing, Zack yanked the door open against the flow of bodies and got the dog out. ‘C’mon buddy! It’s not safe here!’ To his relief, the dog complied without question.
‘Did you see anything?’ Karen asked him as he rejoined them.
‘Nothing but people running,’ he told her, urging the others to walk a little slower. Whatever had happened, it seemed to be over.
The walk to the big tent took longer than expected. There were portable floodlights both inside and around it. Inside were stacking chairs people were passing out. In the middle was a pair of big portable tables. A generator provided power for a pair of catering-style coffee makers that were in the process of making hot coffee.
Zack was just about to say something to Jimmy and Marten when a sound got their attention- a lot of yelling and warruping. The men exchanged a look, listening. With puzzled expressions, they went outside to investigate.
In the glare of the lights, two State troopers wrestled a man forward on his feet. He was young, fair, well-built and with his shirt off. The sides of his head were shaved, his hair short, similar to a military cut. He wore surplus army boots and camouflage pants, and it was he who was doing all the yelling and warruping. At the sight of an audience at the entrance to the tent, he went into his tirade with renewed vigour.
‘Die, every last one of you stinking motherf*ckers! Your judgement is at hand! Woo-yah! We are gonna rape your women, an’ then we’re gonna rip their c**ts out and burn ‘em in a fire! We are gonna cut up your children with machetes and feed ‘em to the dogs! We’re gonna burn out your eyes w- . . . whatchoo want, n*gger?’
The strange procession stopped as people from the tent blocked their way and crowded around. The man he’d addressed as “n*gger”, who stood at the head, was a dark-skinned man of East Indian descent, who from his accent was born and raised in the States. His twelve-year-old son stood close by.
‘Is this what’s caused all this trouble?’ he asked the troopers incredulously. ‘Is this what’s causing all this violence and mayhem?’
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ one of the troopers said tiredly. ‘Most of ‘em are just kids.’
‘But why? What is this about? Why are you doing this?’
‘You brought this on yourselves,’ the prisoner said with a preternatural calm that sent a chill through the crowd. ‘People like me, we’re just the instruments of your destruction. We’re riding the firestorm of your annihilation. We are burning you out like the cancer you are.’
‘So you’re trying to take over? Is that it?’
‘Take over?’ The prisoner stared at him as though he were insane. ‘Take over? n*gger, when we get done, there won’t be anyone left to take over. There won’t be anyone left, period! It’s all Helter Skelter! Don’t you f*ck*ng get it? Ain’t no one getting out alive. When we’re done killing you, we just gonna keep right on killing, until there’s nothing left alive. No nobody, no how, nowhere. We are the hand of judgement, the sword of fire, and we mean to bring it all to an end.’
‘Sure you want to hear any more?’ the tired-sounding trooper said. He shrugged. ‘That’s all they’ve got to say. If he talks more, you’ll just hear more of the same.’
A middle-aged Chinese man shook his head in disbelief as the prisoner was led away. ‘I’m a doctor. A psychiatrist. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve seen it in individuals, but never on a mass scale like this. You say it’s been spreading like wildfire?’ This, to a nearby State trooper.
Zack, Jimmy and Marten moved in closer to hear what the trooper had to say.
‘Look, I’m no expert. All I know is what they tell me. What they tell me is that it seems to have started everywhere, right across the country, all at once, and from there it spread just like a virus. Nut-jobs like this,’ he indicated the departed prisoner with a nod, ‘just went wild, like they were waiting for some sort of signal.
‘Look, we’ve interrogated hundreds of ‘em now, and it’s always the same: who are they with? Nobody. Where’d they hear about this Helter Skelter business from? Nobody. Who started inciting them? Nobody. How did it start? They have no idea.’
‘Could it be drugs?’ the psychiatrist asked. ‘The Internet? Something to do with social networking?’
‘They’re looking into all those possibilities,’ the trooper told him. ‘Except for some conspiracy-nuts within the system who are sure we’re missing something, those have all been ruled out.’
‘What do you do with them?’ Zack asked, driven to a strange compulsion to want to know.
‘Lock ‘em up,’ the trooper said with a shrug. ‘Nothing much else we can do.’
‘What happens when you’ve had them for a while? Do they go back to normal again?’
‘Not much chance of that,’ the trooper replied in a low voice. ‘Once they’re locked up, they kind of feed off one another. From what I’ve seen, they only get worse.
‘The thing is . . . if we could separate ‘em out, then I dunno . . . maybe they’d go back to being something like normal. But we got so many of ‘em now, that keeping them isolated just isn’t a possibility. In fact, the prisons are ‘way overcrowded now, and they’ve got so dangerous that . . . and you didn’t hear this from me . . . they’ve got so dangerous that they’re just sending ‘em in, closing the door, and tossing in food over the wall.
‘Nobody’s had a look inside so far, but from what I hear, they’re turning on one another like animals. Couple prisons already stink so bad that they just know the bodies are piling up inside.’
‘Anyhoo- now we got y’all here, you’d better go on inside and listen to what the powers that be, such as they are, have got to tell ya.’
When they went back inside, they found that someone had organised the chairs into rows, and that a makeshift podium had been set up with a microphone and small set of portable speakers. An imposing-looking man in uniform and hat, holding a sheaf of papers, walked up to the podium and cleared his throat.
‘Everyone hear me okay? Yes? Okay, well, let’s get right to it.
‘I know that most of your are keen to be on your way, and that you’ve made some sort of plans for yourselves that in most cases involves a move out to the country.
‘Well, there’s a problem with that. A good many of the farms out here have been targeted by wack-jobs like the one you just saw. Plus there are armed militia groups, some of them with over a hundred heavily armed men, driving around and generally killing and looting and burning.
‘Now,’ he said, over the alarmed mumbling from his audience, ‘I’m not here to tell you not to head for the country. I realise that a good many of you are aiming to go, regardless what I have to tell you. What I am going to tell you is that you should organise. Meet up with some folk here, and form armed convoys. That way, you’ll have a fighting chance getting to where you’re going, and defending what you got once you get there.
‘I got county maps set up here, so mark where you’re going, and we’ll try to help you get organised. I’m also here to tell you that I’m authorised to escort you in the direction you’re going, for one-hundred-fifty miles in any direction of your choosing? Does that sound like a plan?’ There was general assent.
It didn’t take long for Jimmy and Marten to bump into one distant relative and some acquaintances. To Zack’s surprise, Karen approached a group of people she recognised who had known her grandparents. As he approached, he heard a stout man in his fifties telling Karen about her grandparents’ old farm.
‘ . . . be pretty much guaranteed it’s all still there. Your granddad was big on good tin roofs. He put heavy galvanised tin on pretty much everything, including the outhouse.’ There was chuckling at that. ‘Your granddad had the sense before he died to take down the water pump and pack it away properly. You’ll need a hand putting it back up, but there’s no shortage of help around there . . .’ he noticed Zack standing at her shoulder. ‘Who’s this? Your new husband?’
Zack shook the man’s hand, found it huge and extremely strong. ‘I’m- ’
He was saved having to formulate an answer when Karen came to his rescue. ‘This is Zack. We’re not married, yet, but we’re a couple.’
‘I’m Pete,’ the man said. ‘Over there’s my wife, Vibbs, and two of our kids, George and Donna. The rest of ‘em are already out at the farm.’
‘They’re right next door,’ Karen told Zack with relief in her voice. ‘They’ve got a huge family, and from what Pete says, they’re setting up a fortress.’
‘It’ll be pretty much just barbed wire and rifles,’ Pete said dismissively. ‘Nothing too elaborate. But we’re gonna fix things so nobody with a truck full of crazies can just come crashing through and tear up the place.
‘Anyway . . . about your granddad’s old farm . . . old Hannah has been planting the garden ever since, so there’s plenty of food out there. She’s been giving the produce away to charity every year, but this year it’s all going to go to waste, or else someone is going to try to claim it. If I were you, I’d head right out there and talk to her.’
‘How are we going to manage this?’ Zack asked her, picturing the two of them alone on an undefended tract of land with armed looters running about.
‘There are four homesteads, right together where the properties come together,’ she told him. ‘There are four or five houses on Pete’s property alone. It’s like a small community.’
‘And what about Jimmy and the others?’ Zack said, torn, as he realised that this would mean parting with their friends.
‘They’re only going to be a little less than five miles away,’ Karen told him reassuringly. ‘It’s about a three-hour walk, or a one-hour bike-ride. Maybe we’ll even get lucky and find us a horse or two.’
‘Hey, you need horses?’ Pete blurted. ‘I’ll swap you your granddad’s old Massey, straight across, for two quarterhorses and two riders. I’ll even through in a burro for free!’
Karen gave him a look. ‘You’ve been trying to work my granddad for that old tractor ever since you saw it in the back of the shed! He’s been dead, what, eight years now? And you’re still trying to get your hands on it?’
‘Like I told you before,’ he said, ‘if someone doesn’t finally get around to restoring it, there’ll be nothing left but a pile of rust.’
Karen agonised for a moment. ‘The problem is, granddaddy loved that old Massey. It held a lot of memories for him.’ She sighed, sized Pete up a moment. ‘Look, Pete, I’ll let you have granddad’s old Massey. But you’re going to have to do better than some horses and a jackass.’
Zack almost laughed out loud at the comical expression on Pete’s face as the stout man considered the implications.
‘All right . . . let me have it. How much is this gonna hurt?’
Seeing the expression on Zack’s face, Jimmy said, ‘Problems, son?’ Karen soon joined them.
‘We’ve kind of decided to head on out to Karen’s grandparents’ old place,’ Zack said. It came out sounding like a question. ‘There’s food there, apparently. Someone has been planting the garden every year. And apparently the place is still in liveable condition.’
‘I see,’ Jimmy said thoughtfully. ‘Well . . . it looks like we may have a problem too. I just borrowed a satellite phone and talked to Uncle Henry. Looks like that’s where all our relatives have been headed. It’s pretty crowded there already- ’
‘Yay!’ Karen blurted, and gave Arlene, who was standing nearby, a big hug. ‘You guys are coming with us! I . . . we . . . won’t take “no” for an answer!’
‘Girl, you are squishing my tomatoes!’ Arlene said, trying not to cry, and getting a general laugh. ‘Any chance you can squeeze in a few more?’
‘We got another son and a daughter and their families,’ Jimmy explained. ‘From what I understand, they’re practically camped out on the front porch.’
‘It’s a big, old farmhouse,’ Karen said confidently. ‘Besides, crowded is good come winter time.’
The State troopers were as good as their word, escorting the small convoy of vehicles all the way to the front doors of the small knot of homesteads. They would stay only long enough to share a meal out of the coolers before heading back. For his part, Zack stared at the old farmhouse in wonder.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is one helluva lot bigger than I was expecting. Does the porch go all the way around the house?’
‘Three-quarters of the way,’ Karen told him, carrying boxes. ‘Just not on the north side, which gets the least sun.’
Zack helped with their few belongings, grabbed himself a flashlight, then went to explore. He soon found the garden, on the west side of the house. To his eyes it looked more like a small farm. The foundation of the old house, he saw, was made of field stone, as were the porch pillars and the two chimneys. The flashlight’s batteries showed signs of running out, so he switched it off and made his way inside. Once there he found the interior lighted by oil lanterns, the kitchen by one brilliant gas lantern.
‘I guess there’s no electricity,’ he said. Jimmy and Marten were elsewhere at the moment. Trula was apparently upstairs with the children. Arlene and Karen were busy putting their supplies in the cupboards.
‘My husband and Marten are busy with the generator in the cellar,’ Arlene told him. ‘If they can get it started, then we’ll have electricity. But don’t you get too used to it! Generators burn gas, and there’s no telling how long that is going to last.’
‘Why are there two stoves?’ Zack asked.
‘One’s gas . . . we won’t be using that one,’ Karen told him. ‘The other one’s an old wood-stove.’
‘A wood-stove!’ Zack blurted. ‘Holy cow! It looks like an antique? Does it still work?’
‘It better,’ Arlene told him. ‘That is, if you want hot water for baths and doing laundry, and home-cooked meals.’
‘Wow! This is like camping,’ Zack said.
‘Oh, really,’ Arlene said. ‘And have you ever been camping?’
‘Uh . . . well, actually no,’ Zack told her.
‘Uh-huh. I didn’t think so.’ She pushed a metal box into his arms. ‘You can go bring us some firewood and some kindling. You know where the firewood is? Yes? Okay, d’you know how to make kindling? No? Well, follow me, junior. Let me show you how it’s done.’
Two hours later and the sun was just under the horizon, the children fast asleep in to beds upstairs. Though the house smelt musty and stale from disuse, the smell of wood-smoke, coffee and cooked food from the kitchen did much to begin the process of driving out the house’s long period of desuetude. The dog had attached himself to Marten, and was following him around.
‘Good thing the mattresses and furniture and linen were all wrapped in plastic with a good dose of mothballs,’ Trula commented. ‘Smells pretty mediciney for now, but that won’t last long.’
‘Looks like we got our days turned around again,’ Marten said, leaning back tiredly on an old couch. ‘However . . . starting out with a little jet-lag is one helluva lot better than any of the possible alternatives I can think of.’
‘This must have been a beautiful old house in its day,’ Arlene said, considering the age-stained lathe and plaster ceiling.
‘It was full of plants when I lived her,’ Karen said, pulling Zack’s arm tighter around herself. ‘See those two little bits of wall sticking out? There’s doors inside them that pull out. Where we’re sitting now was originally the parlour. My great-great grandma used to close it off, apparently, and keep pictures on easels of her relatives. There was a parlour organ in here, and an upright piano, my grandma used to tell me, but they’re long gone. I’ve only seen them in old pictures.
‘The livingroom is still the livingroom, though, with the same old dining table and chairs, and the same old cabinet. That door at the far end leads to the pantry. There’s another door to the pantry in the kichen.’
‘What,’ Zack asked her, ‘is a pantry?’
‘It’s a kind of a cool-room,’ she told him. ‘That’s why it’s on the north side of the house. That’s where the ice-box used to be, and where great-great-grandma used to keep stuff cool by leaving it in the double sink in there. There was no refrigeration when this house was built.’ She thought a moment. ‘Huh. There isn’t going to be any refrigeration now, either.’
Jimmy chuckled. ‘Good thing we’re not at Uncle Henry’s, or there’d be no end to hearing him tell us how lucky and how blessed we are.’
‘We have been incredibly lucky so far, though,’ Zack said. ‘Hopefully we’ll be left in peace, here, and get by until things turn around.’
‘It’s the crazies that worry me,’ Trula said. ‘There’s so damned many of them. And like those troopers told us- there’s no way to deal with them. And, haven’t you noticed? It doesn’t seem to have affected anyone we know. That has got to mean something.’
‘Yeah, but what?’ Marten asked her. ‘I mean, they aren’t all redneck crackers. From what I saw, there were just as many black kids and black gangs, and Hispanic kids and Hispanic gangs . . . hell, I think I saw kids of every ethnicity out there. Chinese, Vietnamese, Jamaicans, you name it. I even saw some old vets, a whole bunch of Goth types, even one old lady with an assault rifle.’
‘When we were downtown,’ Zack said, ‘we saw a lot of just plain average kids running around. One moment they were just there, like they always are, and then . . . I dunno . . . someone fired off a gun, and all hell broke loose. They went nuts, just like someone had flipped a switch.’
‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ Marten muttered sleepily, his head back, one hand on the dog’s head, ‘someone some day is going to make a million writing about all this and figuring it all out. They’re just going to lay it all out, and people are going to read it, and say, “Oh, yeah! It all makes perfect sense, now.” But meanwhile, all the rest of us are going to be running around in a fog, unable to make any sense of it.’
‘It seems to me,’ Zack said thoughtfully, ‘that these things always turn out to be something just . . . just painfully, ridiculously obvious. That the answer couldn’t be any plainer if it started smacking us on the forehead and saying, “Yo. Anybody home?”’ This drew a chuckle from everyone.
‘Well, I know one thing,’ Arlene said, pulling Jimmy to his feet. ‘I know that we have got to go to bed and get some shuteye.’
‘I’m too tired to move,’ Marten said.
‘You just get your behind in gear,’ Trula ordered. Marten grumbled, but got to his feet.
‘See that, Pop? I’m whipped. Ow!’
‘I’ll show you “whipped”, mister,’ Trula grinned. They headed for the stairs, the dog in tow.
Zack groaned. ‘Those stairs do look awfully steep.’
‘Like my grandma used to tell my granddad,’ Karen told him, ‘“Looking at them only makes climbing them take longer”.’
‘Geeze, how many rooms are there up here?’ Zack asked when they reach the upstairs landing.
‘Six,’ Karen told him. ‘Eight if you include the rooms in the attic.’ She led him to a medium-size room in the middle. The bed was made up, and there was an old dresser and small closet. Beside the bed was a dressing table with a small oil lamp on top. They closed the door, pulled off their clothes, practically fell into bed, and pulled the covers over top of themselves. The window had a blind that was pulled down halfway, allowing in the pale morning light.
‘Well, we’re here,’ Zack muttered tiredly as Karen got herself comfortable against his side, prepared for nothing but sleep.
‘M’m. Home sweet home.’
He kissed the top of her head. ‘If it wasn’t for you . . . I don’t know what the hell I’d be doing right now. I’d probably still be back in the city, doing . . . I have no idea what.’
He thought she’d fallen asleep, but after a while she said very quietly, ‘Me too. When I play back how things have gone for us, I keeping coming back to the “us” part, and how different it is from when we started out, separate. All I see is being stuck back there . . . lost, like everybody else.’
‘And now you’re found, back where you started?’
‘This wasn’t where I started,’ she told him. ‘It’s where I ended up. And it was a good place to end up. It’s just too bad grandma and granddad weren’t my parents, or they would’ve lasted longer, and I wouldnt’ve had to move to the city. But . . . I came to like the city. A lot. There was always lots to do . . . I made a lot of friends there . . . after a while, the only future I could possibly imagine was there. And yet . . . even though all that has gone “poof”, for some reason I don’t even think about it.’
‘I had lots of friends, too,’ Zack said thoughtfully. ‘Part of me says I should be thinking and worrying about them . . . but, I dunno. It’s like they’re not real any more. And then I think, Is there something wrong with me, that I think like that? And then I look around, and see that everyone is kind of doing the same thing.’ He thought a moment. ‘It must be . . . I dunno . . . a survival mechanism, or something like that.’
‘Well, I’m learning that there’s a ton of stuff we’re learning about ourselves by being kicked out of our old lives,’ she said. ‘All of this . . . this “stuff”, just happening, and having to deal with it, right now, on the spur of the moment.’
‘Yeah,’ he said seriously, ‘but there are a lot of things that seem like we’ve done them before. I mean, I’ve never chopped wood before in my life, but once I got into it, I felt like I’d been doing it all my life. Even things like the smell of the wood. It’s like remembering things that aren’t part of your own past.’
‘That,’ she told him, ‘is something some people claim is “ancestral memory”. A lot of experts say it’s impossible, but a lot of people believe there’s such a thing.’
‘What are you doing?’ he said as she shifted herself on top of him.
‘Making us so we can sleep.’
‘You can’t sleep now?’
They surprised each other by making love for over an hour. When sleep finally overcame them, the sun had just broken cover over the horizon, making a bright rectangle on the far wall. The sunlit dawn lasted less than an hour, however, as the sun was swallowed up once more by dense grey cloud, and the day itself was swallowed up by the persistent rain and low cloud.
Other nearby households, however, were coming to life, were making coffee and bacon and eggs. And then, with reluctance, they switched on their radios, searching the dial for stations that were still operational, fearing what they might learn.
Posted 25 September 2017 - 11:38 AM
Zack and the horse considered each other, Zack with awe for the animal’s size and ground-shaking massiveness, the horse with horsey indifference.
The animal hadn’t moved since Karen had led it to its freshly-prepared stall, and Zack found himself wondering if it were possible that he’d ever learn to make the enormous animal do things. It responded to Karen as though she and the great animal were mutually telepathic. Zack’s attempts to interact with the equine giant, however, were being met with apparent private amusement.
He was certain the animal was laughing at him.
‘You two making friends?’ Karen asked him as she led a second heavy horse into an adjoining stall.
‘We seem to be having a failure to communicate,’ Zack told her. ‘I don’t get it. How do you make it do stuff?’
Karen laughed silently at that as she backed up the second horse into its stall.
‘Yeah, yeah. Now you and the damned horse are laughing at me.’
Karen closed the door to the stall and scrutinised the animal in question. ‘Are you laughing at Zack? Are you laughing at him?’ The horse whickered and nudged her hand as she rubbed its forehead. To Zack, she said, ‘Lets get you started with one of the smaller horses. I’ll put a bridle on one. Then you can take her for a walk, make friends with her.’
The horse in question, a chestnut-coloured beauty with the unlikely name of “Nancy”, was a far different story. When Zack led, she followed. At Karen’s suggestion, he led Nancy to the small orchard adjoining the garden to let her eat windfalls.
‘We seem to be losing a lot of fruit off the trees,’ Karen said when she came out to join him, a cup of hot coffee in each hand. They sat down at a nearby picnic table and left Nancy to do her thing. ‘They’re not looking too wonderful. They’re badly in need of trimming, but quite a number of them are pretty far gone.’
‘Well . . . even I can see that the apple trees are on their last legs,’ Zack said. ‘What are we going to do about replacements?’
‘Apple trees have a pretty short life-span,’ she told him. ‘The top part is the apple tree, and they’re grafted to a the base of a crabapple. Crabapples are tough and hardy, apple trees are wimpy. Those yellow crabapples over there used to be apple trees, but the tops died, and granddad left those two to become crabapples, because grandma wanted them for making jelly. But we can make more apple trees. All we have to do is start some more crabapples, and graft apple-tree branches to them.’
Zack listened to her with frank wonder. ‘Wow. You really do know your stuff.’
‘Toldja I was a farm-girl,’ she said with a grin, crossing her leg over his. ‘I’ll make a good ol’ farm-boy out of you, yet.’
‘Hey,’ he said, changing the subject, ‘What do you think about what they were saying on the radio? About how cold this winter is going to be?’
She looked to the barn, thoughtfully. Behind it loomed silos and various buildings belonging to the other homesteads. The sky was slightly overcast and grey, with a distinct bite to the air. ‘Well, I remember granddad telling me about the kind of cold winters they used to have, a long time ago before the cities got built up. It’s scary when you think about it: all those cities throwing off heat. Even when I was a kid, in the middle of winter, when there was two feet of snow out here, by the time you got to the city, it was a lot warmer, and the snow was all turned to slush.’
‘I used to like that about the city,’ Zack said thoughtfully. ‘Now . . . it seems kind of ominous, somehow.’
‘If the experts are right, and there is some kind of rebound effect,’ Karen told him, ‘then we could be in for the winter of the century.’
By the time they went inside, everyone was sitting down at the diningroom table- Jimmy and Arlene, their two sons Marten and Ellison and their daughter Mableen, wives Trula and Natty, and Mableen’s husband Darnel.
‘You guys having a meeting without us?’ Zack said with a grin as he and Karen joined them.
‘We were just talking about stuff we heard on the radio,’ Arlene told him, her expression worried. ‘They burned down Rose Grove, killed every single last person in it.’
Karen looked her incomprehension to Zack. ‘It’s the rich people’s neighbourhood in the big city, where all those big mansions with cast-iron fences are.’
‘Yeah, well, it ain’t there no more,’ Arlene told them. They burned every last one of those rich people out, then hunted them down and killed them. Even the children.’
‘They went after those big estates out west,’ Mableen added. ‘And the ones in Florida, too. Police say they couldn’t do much because they were attacked all at once. But a lot of people are claiming they just let it happen.’
‘Poor people going after rich people is the only thing I’ve heard about so far that makes any sense,’ Zack said. ‘I wonder if that’s what’s really going on?’
‘Not really,’ Ellison said. He was a studious man, thin, with gold-rimmed glasses. ‘The kids and university kids are mostly suburban, middle-class types. The media-types are trying to downplay the fact, but it keeps coming out that they’ve been turning on their parents and killing the younger children. In houses that were burned down, they keep finding the bodies of parents and smaller children that were murdered ahead of time. In most cases the culprits were their own teenage and young-adult children.’
‘It’s some kind of sickness,’ Mableen said. ‘It has to be.’
‘It’s more like it’s probably some form of mass hysteria,’ Ellison said. ‘Social hysteria seems to occur when you get a perfect storm of factors that come together and just sort of explode. Poverty, disenfranchisement, disillusionment, disappointment, feeling marginalised . . . it doesn’t have to be exactly the same combination in all people. I think maybe what’s happened is that it was a lot of things, with enough overlap that from the outside, it looks like it’s all directly related. And by all accounts it’s not, which means you have to cast your net further abroad to get the whole picture.
‘Take fish and marine mammals off the west coast, for example. Several different species were beaching themselves en masse, so you’ve got the same overall phenomenon. But it turned out that the different groups were beaching themselves for unrelated reasons. With some it was because of sickness. With others it had something to do with their food-supply. With others it was because the ocean currents had gotten all messed up and they had lost their sense of direction, and so on. But you had this one overall phenomenon of animals committing apparent mass suicide.’
‘You heard that from some egghead on the radio, genius,’ Natty jibed, getting a general laugh, and evoking a sheepish smile from her husband. ‘You forget, nothing gets past these big ol’ ears.’
‘Yeah, but Ellison said it better,’ Zack said. ‘He obviously understands it better than the rest of us.’
‘Don’t you be stroking his ego!’ Natty scolded. ‘Remember, I have to live with him.’
‘Oh, and we don’t?’ Mableen laughed.
‘Hey, what was that thing they were saying about the NRA?’ Jimmy asked. ‘I asked you all twice already, and you seem to keep getting yourselves side-tracked.’
‘Are you talking about that big shootout?’ Marten asked him. ‘Yes? Okay, well, they were holding this huge rally a few nights ago, when someone cut the power and started firebombing the place. The NRA members tried shooting their way out, but most of ‘em died of smoke inhalation.’
‘So who was it attacked them?’ Jimmy asked.
‘You are not going to believe this!’ Marten told him. ‘When they first started reporting on it, they had it that the arena was surrounded by a huge mob of blacks, native Indians, Hispanics, what have you, and that there were something like 70,000 people trapped inside. When all the hoo-haw had died down, it turned out there were some 46,000 dead bodies inside, with over 100,000 weapons, I think most of ‘em brought along for the trade show.
‘They were saying at first that the attack was perfectly orchestrated and well-planned. Well, it turned out that it was nothing more than a gang of kids, from- get this- a goddamned comic-book store! Apparently they were all dressed in super-hero costumes, and they had gone to the NRA rally just to raise a little hell and get kicked out.
‘Well, they got kicked out all right. It seems they got roughed up pretty good, including a couple girls that were with them. That seemed to set them off, and there were big stacks of square hay bales right there piled against the front of the building. Apparently there was supposed to’ve been some sort of hoedown entertainment provided, but the fire marshal wouldn’t allow the hay bales into the building because they were an untreated fire-hazard. So these kids just took one look at the hay bales standing there against the building, and decided to put ‘em to use. They were locked outside, with those mountains of bales piled up against the building, they just started moving them to block the exits, and lit ‘em all on fire.
‘The NRA types are still screaming about the huge militant groups of visible minorities that are going around massacring southern whites. The bad part is so many people believe them.’
‘Well,’ Zack mused to himself, ‘still, 46 ,000 people in an arena? These days it could just as easily have been a football game. Forget that the building was full of NRA-types. Lots of NRA supporters go to football and baseball and basketball games. And 46,000 people is 46,000 people, no matter what kind of organisation they belong to. I know lots of people hate the NRA, but lots of people hate football, too.’
‘Name one!’ Marten said disparagingly.
‘Me!’ Zack, Ellison, Mableen, Natty, Trula, and Karen said together.
‘Traitor,’ Marten said, not looking his wife in the eye. He was expecting the elbow when it came.
‘I can see it all now,’ Ellison said. ‘The Great NRA Massacre. Conspiracy theories, movies, books, crackpot social theories- ’
‘Yes, but how more crackpot can you get than the way things already are?’ Arlene said. ‘I mean, kids killing their parents, and their little brothers and sisters? I keep finding myself trying to imagine being one of those parents trying to deal with their own kids that have gone bad. I keep coming back to the fact that no kids in our immediate family did any such thing, so it has to be something to do with parenting.’
‘Yeah, but mom,’ Marten said, ‘no one in this family has kids in the age-group that’s been doing this. They’re all older, most of ‘em a lot older, or else they’re younger.’
‘I suppose,’ she said. ‘But what about when they get older?’
‘It’s a social thing, mom,’ Marten told her. ‘They won’t be growing up in that same society. It’s over. Fini. Kaput.’
‘That may be,’ she told him, ‘but life’s events have a way of shaping people’s lives.’
Zack whistled tunelessly as he rode the ancient John Deere cultivator pulled by the two heavy horses. It had taken a surprisingly short time to get into the rhythm of working with the huge beasts. It had had a lot to do with going with their training and expectations. Once he’d got that sorted out, it was off to the . . . h’m . . . “races” hardly qualified. But he and they now had a working relationship, and he found that he was indescribably happy.
Karen was pregnant, and everyone was ecstatic about that. Zack found that he was as bewildered as he was pleased about the news; bewildered because he hadn’t a clue what he was in for, when everyone else did, and pleased for a hundred small reasons he couldn’t put into words. As worried as he was about their future, he felt a growing confidence as his farming knowledge grew. When something broke, he now had a pretty good idea how to fix it. When something went wrong, he found himself able to come up with a solution, without having to rely on someone else’s knowledge and experience. When something went badly, he had learned more or less how to face it. And when things went well, he had learned better than to take the experience at face value. As often as not, things appeared to go well for bad reasons, which only became apparent after the fact.
Two exceptions had been the wind-powered water pump and generator. A steady and reliable supply of autumn wind meant electrical power for the lights and electric stove, as well as water in the cistern for the hand-pump in the kitchen sink and the toilet.
The garden had produced very well, and now that it was harvested, he had a pretty good idea of how long their stores would last. They had preserved like fiends, and afterwards had swapped with neighbours for things their garden hadn’t produced. In the process he had resigned himself to a meatless diet, at least for a year or two. Besides the horses and donkey they had a few geese, ducks, chickens, goats, sheep, cattle, and a few cats that had migrated from the barn next door.
The dog, now named Buddy, by Marten, had proved his worth by keeping the coyotes, foxes, and weasels at bay. Jimmy had fashioned a big doggy-door so that Buddy could go outside whenever he heard something.
Zack chuckled to himself as Buddy tagged along beside the cultivator. When Zack turned the team around, Buddy dutifully changed course, staying to the side where the earth was unbroken.
Cultivating the garden was wholly unnecessary at this time of year, as it would have to be done again in the spring. But Zack intended to expand the garden by several yards, and wanted to have a go at the uncultivated ground in increments, instead of attempting to tackle the whole job head-on. They had two very old cultivators, and he didn’t want to risk having just one- or none.
One thing was certain: the air was more crisp and cold than it should have been for the time of year. They hadn’t had a major frost yet, but as things were going, the cold was a full month early. With the cities gutted and most factories shut down, the planet was like a house in winter with the furnace turned off.
Government types had come to visit them quite often, asking them how they were doing and delivering news of a sort. Generally it was about services that were available, but mostly it was about the total collapse of the cities and worrisome changes in suburban life.
The suburbs had been flooded with refugees from the cities, had overwhelmed everything the suburbs had to offer, including running water and the sewer system. People were now camped out in tent cities and living in third-world conditions, without running water or sewers or food. Most people were now dependant upon loads of rations delivered by truck, and deliveries were unreliable because fuel was scarce. The gangs that had terrorised and destroyed the cites were now concentrating their efforts on sabotaging and destroying anything upon which modern life depended, including fuel depots and power plants.
The worst part was that winter was coming, and following that, industrial-agriculture and food-production was an open question. It was a simple equation. No fuel meant no food next year. Not unless people turned to farm-labour en masse, and that seemed to be the only solution.
It worried and mystified Zack that the violence hadn’t stopped after the cities lay in ruins. Those responsible seemed hell-bent on sending everyone back into the Stone Age and beyond, with an apocalyptic end-game of death for all humanity. He was long past the point of trying to make any sense of it. No one had an answer for why it had happened, let alone why it was ongoing.
The one good thing about the shortage of fuel was that the marauders were now pretty much all on foot. That, and they stayed close to where the people were, blending in, not drawing attention to themselves. They lived a parasitic symbiotic existence, laying in wait for the next chance to inflict as much damage on their host as possible.
Because of who the offenders were, the authorities had been reluctant to use deadly force, and had shown remarkable restraint for what many argued was far too long. Now, however, there was a shoot-on-sight policy when destructive behaviour evidenced itself. And every time the government visitors came to the door, they advised everyone living in the four homesteads, in the strongest terms, to shoot dead any lone stragglers from the city who trespassed on their property. There had already been several incidents involving “lone wolf” types, acting on their own, wandering about the countryside looking for someone to invite them in. Two entire families living in the area had already been murdered, victims of this ploy.
‘Zack! Zack!’He dropped his tools, having been working on the chickenwire fence protecting the smaller farm animals, and began running toward the house. His first fear was that something was wrong with Karen and the baby. But when he stumbled up the stairs and into the kitchen, he found everyone at the table, listening to the radio. The others waved him into the kitchen impatiently.
“ . . . at the university have been picked up for questioning. The scope of their experiment is truly mind-boggling. Because it involved social media, it was spread world-wide and now affects all corners of the globe . . . ”
‘What’s he talking about- ?’ Zack asked but was shushed to silence.
“ . . . particularly in the United States, where the experiment originated. Again, for those of you just tuning in to our broadcast, the cause of the world-wide civil unrest has been identified. It was the result of an unauthorised social experiment involving subliminal messaging throughout social media. Those responsible were apparently trying to see if subliminal messaging could be weaponised on a mass scale. It is unknown at this point if CIA funding for the department was authorised or not. The CIA is trying to distance itself, claiming that their funding was for general research only, and that the university had not been authorised to carry out mass studies of this type . . . ”
‘Those evil-ass motherf*cking morons,’ Ellison breathed. ‘Turn the damned thing off. That’s all we need to hear.’
‘What’s this “subliminal” stuff?’ Zack asked. ‘What did they do, exactly?’
‘They made some kind of virus that imbedded a whole bunch of garbage into social media stuff, like images . . . programs . . . videos . . . text . . . you name it. They targeted a certain age-range because those people are especially susceptible to sociopathic messaging. It has something to do with a person’s brain development, and all that. So now there’s all these people out there walking around like programmed zombies. And the damned thing they did- that virus, or whatever it is- is everywhere.
‘Right now they’re going around destroying everyone’s computers, destroying anything that can connect to the Internet. The Internet itself is shut down until further notice.
‘But you haven’t heard the half of it! You should hear what’s going on in countries like China, and North Korea. Their authorities are looking at this as a golden opportunity to control their own citizens. Which won’t work, because it only works on a fairly small age-range, but what they may end up doing is creating a sub-class of monsters. And those monsters are going to grow up one day.’
‘That “sociopath” thing,’ Zack asked him, ‘is that why some older people were affected?’
‘Like that grandma with the assault rifle? And those old vets? Yes, that’s probably what happened.’
‘Geeze,’ Zack muttered, trying to digest it all. ‘Geeze. This is like something out of a bad movie. Someone invents a program that turns people into brain-eating zombies.’
‘I think the worst part of it,’ Arlene said, ‘is that the people that are affected haven’t got a single clue that there’s anything wrong with them. They say it was like flicking a switch in their brains that altered their personalities without their being able to tell that anything was done to them.’
Zack shook his head, feeling nauseous. ‘Who does something like that?’
Ellison chuckled humourlessly at that. ‘One doctor on the radio was saying that some of the people in question may have drunk their own Kool-ade. There’s at least one nut-case at the centre of it who’s a complete fruit-loop. They’re saying that he was already a sociopath, and that he had been experimenting on himself.’
‘I hope they fry his ass,’ Mableen muttered. ‘Mentally ill or not, I hope they fry his ass.’
‘Anyway,’ Marten told Zack, ‘because of this, they’ve decided to go around and wipe out every single last affected person. No exceptions.’
‘Why?’ Zack demanded. ‘Can’t something be done about what’s wrong with them?’
Marten shook his head. ‘Apparently, once the damage has been done, it’s permanent.
‘The experts were saying on the radio that there’s a time in young people’s lives when they go through this sociopathic phase, and that most of ‘em grow out of it. But this social media program, whatever it is, triggers what they’re calling some sort of “feedback” in the brain, so that it kind of takes over and becomes permanent.’ He shrugged. ‘So . . . you can imagine what’s going on out there right now. They’ve decided to round up all these people. Wipe them out.’
‘And they’ve already gone ‘way too far,’ Ellison said grimly. ‘Southern states like Texas have been going into prisons and killing whole entire prison populations that have nothing whatever to do with this mess. Their only crime is being poor, of a visible ethnic minority, many or most of ‘em with mental health issues.’
‘Typical goddamned bigots, just grabbing at any available excuse to do something like that,’ Zack said in disgust. ‘I wonder if any one of them will ever face charges?’
Jimmy huffed. ‘Yeah . . . I think we all already know the answer to that.’
‘In any event,’ Ellison quipped, ‘there goes my hopes and dreams for a trip to Mars and my own hover-bike.’
‘Yeah, ‘way to go lightening the mood, smart-guy,’ Natty said, slapping him on the back. ‘And here I was, hoping for complete suicidal depression.’
‘Ew,’ Mableen said, making a face. ‘On that note, anyone up for a slice o’ home-made apple pie? They should be done by now.’
‘Whatsamatter?’ Karen asked, nudging shoulders with Zack, who had been sitting alone out back on top of the picnic table, sipping coffee.
He sighed, put an arm around her. She put her head on his shoulder. ‘If all this had been brought on by some natural disaster,’ he told her, ‘I could pretty much accept it. But . . . first they were saying that it was all because of one wack-job at a university, then they were saying that the wack-job was manipulated by some idiots at the CIA, and now they’re going nuts, trying to pin down exactly where this all originated . . .
‘The thing is, I’m beginning to wonder if it matters.
‘I saw this documentary about inventions a few years ago. They were talking about how a bunch of people all invent the same thing at around the same time, kind of like the “perfect storm” idea people were throwing around about how all this stuff happened. They said that even Einstein’s ideas would have been discovered, with or without him.
‘What I’m trying to say is that even if some selfish idiot hadn’t come along and wrecked everything for everyone else, some other selfish idiot would have eventually come along and done exactly the same thing. And we’d still be right where we are, in the exact same situation.
‘And that,’ he said, ‘has got me thinking about other things. ‘Like, computers got us here. Does this mean we can’t have computers any more? If that’s true, then technology is finished, and we really are headed back to the Stone Age.’
Karen smiled at that. ‘I think you’re over-thinking this. Computers will probably have to be regulated now. The Internet, too. And cell phones, and everything else. Wanna know what I’ve been thinking about?’
He nodded, consider her.
‘Well . . . ’ she drawled, ‘I’ve been thinking about those damned thumb-zombies that used to walk around and bump into me on the street, or get run over by a bus, or fall down a man-hole.
‘Then, when everything went nuts, I couldn’t help but think that it was all those damned thumb-zombies gone berserk- don’t laugh! That was the first thing that popped into my head. And I kept having these dreams about their little thumb-zombie gadgets turning into evil little aliens that were controlling their thoughts- ’
‘Why didn’t you ever tell me about this?’
‘Because I knew you’d laugh about it, like you’re doing now!’
‘I’m sorry,’ he chuckled. ‘It’s just the imagery. It’d make for a great horror story for teenagers.’
‘Yeah, but in a back-handed kind of way, it turned out to be true,’ she told him. ‘The thumb-zombies were turned into real zombies- why are you looking like that?’
‘You know,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘I’ll bet the kook, or kooks, who started all this, made the same connection. Like, they’re already zombies, so why not make use of them?’
She mulled this over. ‘Yeah . . . and they were already completely unaware of what they were doing to themselves. They were out of touch with reality already, so all it took was reprogramming the direction they were headed. They wouldn’t’ve even noticed.’
‘From the way you’re describing it,’ he said, frowning, ‘it’s like that generation was deliberately targeted.’
‘You’re saying in order to get rid of them?’
He shook his head, trying to get a handle on it. ‘I don’t know. Use them, get rid of them, maybe both? Whoever did this probably hated them, wanted to get revenge, either on them directly, or on what was happening to them. Maybe it isn’t all about mass social disruption. Maybe it’s about . . . I dunno . . . showing what could happen, when something far worse could be down the road waiting for us?’
‘Oh, I do not like where this is going,’ Karen breathed. ‘But you’re right- like the man said, this is the first time in history technology has been used to directly control people. It makes me wonder what the hell else the people at that university were working on.’
‘There’s a prof,’ Zack said, ‘who lives . . . oh . . . I guess about twenty miles from here. I took some courses from him, back when I was bashing and thrashing around, trying to find my feet. He was past his retirement age, but still teaching. It’s a cinch that he’ll be back at his home in the country- that is, assuming he’s still alive.
‘Anyway, I took a bunch of electives, trying to figure out what interested me: sociology, philosophy, political science. I even took a course in modern journalism, which pretty much turned me off. Even the prof was warning everyone off a career in journalism because he felt it was out in left field, looking for a ball that wasn’t there.’
‘Are you talking about that “cult of personality” crap? ‘Cause if it was, then we both had the same experience.’
‘Oh, that was just the tip of the manure-pile,’ Zack said. ‘It was that bit about “altruistic democracy” that really made me want to puke. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
‘Anyway, there was this prof there, this old guy, who really seemed to have his fingers on the pulse of modern . . . everything. He has answers . . . and I have questions that just won’t leave me alone.’
‘You think it’s worth a trip out there? Are you sure you know where he lives? Shouldn’t you try to find a way to get in touch with him, first? At least to let him know you’re coming?’
‘I thought for sure, at this point, that you’d be telling me that I’m out of my mind for even considering this.’
‘If you’ve got a guy who may have some answers about all this,’ she rejoined meaningly, ‘I want to hear what he has to say, too. I don’t like operating in the dark, especially with a kid along the way. I want to be able to make plans, and to have some idea of what we can expect. There is one thing I do not like above all, and that is uncertainty.’
‘The problem is getting there,’ Zack said, somewhat deflated. ‘I’m sure we could make it there in one day by horse, and that if everything is okay there, we could stay over night and make our way back the next day. But twenty miles across country is twenty miles. If we ran into some kooks with a vehicle and guns, we’d be sitting ducks. You can see a horse and rider for miles. I know, because I saw you and Natty from five miles off when the two of you were out picking weeds along the creek.’
‘Weeds?’ she derided. ‘We were picking edible wild plants, including those mushrooms you guys like so much!’
‘I were being funnies,’ he said, chuckling.
‘Ha! Anyway, I can get some gas for us to make a trip. Those government guys can bring us some extra in a few days. They might even be able to give that old tank in front of the barn a fill, so long as we wash it out beforehand. Whatever’s in there will be so old and contaminated that it might ruin a perfectly good engine.’
Posted 03 October 2017 - 01:51 PM
With the help of the government people who came by weekly, Zack had managed to contact the retired Professor Fraser, who was at his home in the country. Fraser had some difficulty remembering Zack as being one of his students, as Zack had been anything but a standout, but he seemed interested in discussing what had happened at the university.
Zack was able to find his old prof’s house without much difficulty. Karen leaned forward, scrutinising the old farmhouse, which stood out from the landscape like a sentinel. Marten, who rode in the passenger seat, literally riding shotgun, whistled thinly at the sight.
‘Nice digs. Stone and brick. Mullioned windows. Leaded glass. Somebody’s got money.’
‘Fraser always wore expensive suits,’ Zack told him. ‘Very old and out of date, but expensive.’
‘Probably old money,’ Karen said as they came to the gate. It was electric and functioning. Zack buzzed them it, the gate clicked open, and in they went.
The doorbell was an ancient mechanical one that rang a bell when you turned the mechanism. This was answered immediately by barking. Within moments there came the sound of very heavy footfalls, and a shadow behind the glass. The door opened, and there stood an enormously fat bearded man in his thirties- obviously not Professor Fraser. With him were two shelties that stopped barking and came out to sniff the intruders.
‘Hi,’ the man said. ‘You’ll find granddad in the study, waiting for you.’ He had a rifle in the crook of his arm which he stood up in a corner by the door.
Zack, Karen and Marten looked at one another. No introductions? Maybe the guy was just habitually rude.
They found Fraser in the ground-floor study, reading. He looked to be well into his eighties, with scraggly grey hair and watery eyes. He was wearing clothes that, as Zack had described, looked very old, very old-fashioned, and expensive.
‘Zack,’ the old man said quizzically, rising to his feet and shaking hands, ‘no, I don’t really remember you after all. But I do remember the class, and some of your classmates. Not exactly a lot of standouts that year. So,’ he said, reseating himself, ‘what would you like to know about the experiment.’
Zack, Karen, and Marten, looked to one another. ‘You’re the main reason we’re here,’ Marten prompted Zack.
Uncomfortable being put on the spot, Zack said, ‘Well, first of all, what about this business of the crazy guy who created the program that made people go nuts?’
Fraser laughed at that. ‘So, you’re buying all that nonsense you’ve been hearing on the radio.’
‘Not entirely,’ Zack told him. ‘Karen and I, we kind of think it might have been something else, like a pre-emptive demonstration of what could happen if something went wrong, in order to give people some idea of what would happen if something far worse came along? Or something like that.’
This evoked another fit of laughter from the professor. ‘Well, I will give the media types points for imagination. But no, you, they, are not even close. For one thing, the “crazy guy” in question was none other than myself.’
The three stared at him, speechless.
‘You?’ Zack said. ‘Why did you do it?’
‘I didn’t do any such thing,’ Fraser told him. ‘All this nonsense you’ve been hearing has come from the media, who have been trying to cobble together a reasonable-sounding story from information they don’t have, and from facts they seem to wilfully misunderstand.
‘The first thing you have to understand is what was going on, and what was going on was this: I was teaching a course on the social psychology of mass advertising. Part of that course did involve an experiment. And yes, the experiment did involve subliminal messaging- as part of a bogus advertising campaign, and not as some sort of exercise in mass brainwashing, as has been repeated in the media ad nauseam in the past two weeks. That part is absolute nonsense. It never happened.’
‘So,’ Zack said, frowning, ‘there’s no connection with all this mass rioting?’
‘I didn’t say that,’ the professor said, pointedly. ‘There is, but not directly.
‘You see, the person responsible was none other than some little creep from the CIA who was after me, with a big, whopping research grant, to aim the experiment in another direction entirely. Instead of advertising, he was interested in something he called “spontaneous civil unrest”.
‘Now, he couldn’t get me interested- I would have nothing to do with the little weasel and his evil ideas. But he was able to con two of my best students into working on his plan. They, in turn, hired a team of neuroscientists to see if some sort of plan could be put into action.
‘The thing of it is, they never intended that their experiment take place world-wide. Their big idea was to try it out on one of our enemies- the North Koreans. Their thinking was, How much harm could it possibly do? The North Koreans are a pretty insular bunch, with low per capita access to the Internet.
‘So they inserted their little offering into the North Korean datastream, only to find that their little virus fully lived up to its name, and within hours had spread world-wide. I’m not overly tech-savvy myself, but from what I’m told, the whole bunch of them were pretty clueless. Any techy could have told them what would happen, but in their youthful arrogance they thought they could control or manage the outcome.
‘So now you know what there is to know,’ Fraser concluded. ‘Malice and stupidity got together and made a demon-child.’
‘Isn’t there any way to fix what’s wrong with these people?’ Karen asked him.
‘Frankly, a dose of lead is the only viable solution I can come up with,’ Fraser told her, his eyes steely. ‘Once a person in the target age-range is affected, that person becomes a full-blown psychopath, and for that there is no cure. Young people naturally go through a sociopathic stage, but generally without also experiencing a full psychotic break, which alters the neural pathways and the brain’s biochemistry permanently.
‘As you can imagine, they’re working overtime trying to come up with some sort of antidote, or at least a control.’ He spread his palms in a futile gesture. ‘Nothing works. And it looks like the only solution is to destroy a whole entire generation of the world’s population.’
‘Why the hell haven’t we heard the g*dd*mn facts on the news?’ Marten said, exasperated by what he’d heard.
The professor gave him a look. ‘Young man, television reporting stopped being about pursuing the truth a long time ago. In fact, when was the last time you actually heard about their offerings being spoken of as “news”? They’re never referred to as such these days. What do they say when they’re relating something? “Stories”. “Here is a story we’re working on” is a line you hear each and every day.
‘In the public’s mind, news and stories are one and the same thing, but they’re not. A story is either a description of past events, or it is a piece of fiction. News, on the other hand, is information, usually new information, that is imparted by word of mouth, or by some other type of medium, such as newspapers, magazines, television, radio, the Internet.
‘They’ll even tell you these days that they’re in the business of telling you stories, and what’s the first thing you learn about story-telling? To never let the truth get in the way of a good story!
‘These modern newsies, they don’t give a rat’s arse about truth or facts or information. They’ve crossed the line, to the point that the so-called reporters insert themselves into the so-called stories, like the jackass reporting the weather who has to stand knee-deep in water to show how much rain we’re getting. If it were news, they’d simply give us the information. But some jackass standing in water up to his arse isn’t information- it’s entertainment.
‘It’s the congratulatory back-slapping that turned me off television news. Some newsie would deliver some inept piece of drivel, and the anchor would either praise his “work” or dither an adjective or two after the fact, like “powerful stuff!”, which is the epitome of bush league. If it is indeed “powerful stuff”, that’s for the viewers to decide, not the storytellers. Imagine reading a book and having the editor stick his nose into the story after each chapter and try to tell you that what you’re reading is “powerful stuff”. What it is is sickening.’
‘So how do you get the facts out there?’ Zack asked him.
Again, the professor laughed. ‘My boy, the facts already are out there, and have been from the beginning. There’s no secret, no group of government conspirators trying to sweep things under the rug, no clandestine cabal of super-spies plotting to pull another fast one on everyone.
‘I’ve laid out the facts from the beginning, and they’re easy to find, if you know where to look for them.
‘The problem is, nobody wants to hear the facts. Nobody. No one in government, no one in the news world, no one in the street, for that matter.’
‘Why?’ Marten asked him. ‘Won’t they listen?’
‘It has nothing to do with making them listen, or handing them the information,’ Fraser told him. ‘It has gone from being about a bad experiment that produced even worse results, to being about the young people who were affected. You’re forgetting a key thing about all those young people who have run amok: they have families, parents, grandparents, few to none of whom are able to see the simple truth for what it is- that their kids present an imminent danger to society, and that they have to be destroyed.
‘You see, in their minds, there can’t possibly such a thing wrong with their kids, which in turn means that the experiment that made them that way is nothing more than a hoax, an unfounded rumour, a nasty piece of propaganda they don’t want to hear about.
‘Which, in turn, has created yet another widespread social problem: we’ve now got a generation of parents on our hands who are beginning to show signs of turning on the government. Which is yet another unintended consequence of the forces set in motion by the dimwits who created the original experiment. They couldn’t’ve committed this much social carnage if they’d tried.’
‘Well, we dodged a bullet on that one,’ Marten said. ‘None of us have kids or young adults in that age-range. But I still have a hard time believing that the only fix for this is to put them down.’
‘Have you seen any of them first-hand?’ Fraser asked him.
‘Of course I have. Each of us has probably shot half a dozen or more.’
‘And how would you describe them?’
‘Like they were out of control and trying to kill us.’
‘And you think that’s going to change over time?’ Fraser asked him. ‘That right there is the crux of it. What you’ve seen is their permanent state, the way they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. Get it out of your head that you can reform them, or otherwise save them. They are lost to us. They may as well be dead already.’
On a sudden ugly intuition, Karen asked him, ‘Hasn’t anyone else been out here?’
He stared. ‘No one besides yourselves. Of course not. Why would they?’
‘Looking for the truth?’ she asked him, as though stating something obvious.
‘The truth?’ he said incredulously. ‘The truth? ‘Young lady, what possible use do you think the truth can be in a situation like this?
‘The truth is as trivial a matter as the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, which precipitated the First World War. In the context of the Great War, no one gives a rat’s arse about the tiny pebble that started it all. Once cast, it started a domino effect that was out of everyone’s hands.
‘No amount of studying the subject of the Archduke’s assassination will tell you anything relevant about the Great War. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and if it hadn’t been the Archduke’s assassination, it would have been something else. Something, moreover, that was just as contrived.
‘D’you think that little worm at the CIA was the first person to make the connection between sociopathy, teenagers, and some form of propaganda? The people that make war have known about this, at least intuitively, for thousands of years. The only difference is that now there’s a way to use subliminal messaging plus biofeedback to automatically induce a psychotic break in people with sociopathic tendencies.’
‘Biofeedback?’ Zack echoed. ‘That’s something that wasn’t mentioned. In fact, this, right now, is the first I’ve heard of it. What does biofeedback have to do with it?’
The professor considered a moment before answering. ‘I maybe shouldn’t be telling you this, but yes, there’s an extra ingredient when it comes to making the experiment work, and that’s biofeedback.
‘The first thing you need to understand is that the subliminal messaging in itself doesn’t do the trick. What it does is gives you a way into the person’s mind, stimulates that area of the brain. This is where the rampant killing comes in. The person doesn’t realise it, but they’re seeing subliminal images of horrific rampant violence.
‘This stimulates the orbital frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala. The orbital frontal cortex plays a crucial role in constraining impulsive outbursts, while the anterior cingulate cortex recruits other brain regions in the response to conflict. The amygdala is involved in the production of fear and other negative emotions. This where biofeedback comes into the picture. Specific frequencies can be used to effectively block the anterior cingulate cortex and the orbital frontal cortex from counteracting the response of the amygdala, resulting in an explosive and violent outburst from the subject.
‘Now, because this is done artificially, and at many times the brain’s natural levels, this is where you get a psychotic break. The levels are so excessive that the brain literally gets stuck in a feedback loop, similar to what you see in paranoiacs or people suffering from ADHD, but much, much worse. The bottom line is that their brains are literally fried. And once the damage is done, there is no going back.’
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. ‘This is a gross oversimplification, of course. There’s much more involved than simply fiddling with the wiring centred around the amygdala. If that were the case, you’d have legions of murderous, raving lunatics who from the outset would have turned on one-another. They seem to have been programmed to have some sort of apocalyptic agenda. I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of religious lunacy was at the heart of this. After all, magical thinking runs deep in the human psyche.’
‘The ones we came up against never said anything about religion,’ Marten said, ‘but they were definitely all about the destruction of mankind.’
‘Well,’ Zack said, thinking about their encounter with the man arrested by the State troopers, ‘there does seem to be an element of “higher power” or “higher purpose” in their thinking.’
‘And that’s all it has to be for it to work,’ Fraser told him. ‘Even a vague sense that their actions are tied to something greater than themselves.’ He chuckled, dryly. ‘And there you have it. You now have all the answers in your hands, only to find, like I have, that the answers will avail you nothing. I’m afraid that this is one of those instances where the truth will not only not set you free, but it won’t be of any use to anyone whatsoever.’
‘I find it very difficult to believe that the truth doesn’t matter,’ Zack said. ‘I mean, there must be a way to stop this from happening again.’
‘Oh?’ the professor said. ‘How? The brain works a certain way. We now have the technology to directly affect the very percentage of the population that does the fighting in times of war. You can no more undo the technology than you can alter the workings of the human brain. So, tell me, young man, how can anyone prevent this from happening again? Besides sending all of us back into a pre-technological era, which in itself is impossible.’
As Zack tried unsuccessfully to circumvent the professor’s logic, Fraser said, ‘This isn’t the first time an entire generation of young people have been ruined in their minds. Wars have been doing the same thing to people for thousand of years. Humanity will survive this. But it will not be a pretty sight. This was merely the fumbling first dry run of an emerging technology. You watch- somewhere down the pipe they’re going to unleash something that’s going to make these past months resemble a Sunday picnic.’
‘I don’t buy it,’ Karen said once they were on their way home. ‘Computers and video games and televisions can be made to block out the kinds of frequencies and things Professor Fraser was talking about.’
‘I was just thinking the same thing!’ Marten said. ‘I think the old guy is overestimating the technology.’
‘Guy like him tend to overreach,’ Zack said. ‘It’s something I used to notice back in university. They’re always trying to play “connect the dots”, constantly trying to come up with theories. Universities are chock-full of crackpots . . . always have been. I think about 1% of them come up with ideas that amount to something, while the rest of them are just spinning their egg-beaters.
‘I’d forgotten how irritating I used to find it. It’s one of the main reasons I quit. It’s not like in science, when you’re doing research on something, like having something specific in mind that you’re trying to crack. Like trying to find a cure for a particular disease, say.
‘These guys don’t know enough about the human brain to really have the first clue what they’ve done. I know that much from having taken some electives in psychology. The hard stuff, the actual brain-science part, is like trying to figure out a computer by staring at a data-stream. You talk to psychologists and psychiatrists and they’ll give you endless yak-yak about what they think they know, but the brain-science guys, the ones that really know, are always the first to tell you that they’re only just beginning to get a handle on how the brain works, that the psychologists and psychiatrists are blowing smoke up your ass when they claim to know anything for sure.
‘That said, we don’t know who the hell his students got to help put that brain-virus thing together, and from what he said, it’s a cinch he don’t know, either.’
‘He said they were a team of neuroscientists,’ Marten said.
‘Yeah . . . I wonder,’ Zack said. ‘He didn’t seem too clear on the specifics, which makes me wonder about his information. When was the last time you ever heard of a neurologist working on brainwashing techniques? Even if they could land the funding, it’s not something any university I know of would or could sanction.’
‘So, what are you saying?’ Karen asked him.
Zack thought a moment. ‘To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. But there’s something fishy about the professor’s version of things. It may be something as simple as the fact that he likes to think that he and what he thinks he knows are at the centre of things . . . while the truth is that he’s just another outsider, like us, and that the truth lies elsewhere.’
‘That CIA guy would know,’ Marten said.
‘Yeah . . . I don’t think so,’ Zack said. ‘He was just the just with the bad idea and the money bag.’
‘Well, it certainly wouldn’t be the boys from the university’s social psychology department,’ Marten said. ‘That leaves only the team of neuroscientists. Where did Fraser say they were right now?’
‘He said the experiment was launched from Quantico, Virginia . . . but you see, there’s something fishy right there. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, not the brain per se,’ Zack said. ‘The only way neuroscience could be involved is if . . . oh!’ He said in sudden comprehension. ‘It must have something to do with the delivery system.’
‘I was wondering about that myself,’ Marten said. ‘I couldn’t see it just being a matter of putting out certain frequencies and showing people subliminal images of violence. There has to be something else going on.’
‘Fraser said the CIA guy launched the program from Quantico,’ Karen said. ‘He didn’t say so directly, but the lab types are probably still here somewhere.’
‘Is the university still in one piece?’ Zack asked, wondering.
‘Funny you should mention that,’ Marten replied. ‘The university was never touched. In fact, I heard it was like an armed camp, right from the beginning.’
Zack and he exchanged a look as Karen nodded. ‘Now that is fishy,’ Zack said.
‘I still have my student card,’ Karen said.
‘So do I,’ Zack said.
‘I was taking a couple night school courses when the wheels fell off,’ Marten told them. ‘So we’re three for three. But there’s the question of how we’re going to get there.’
‘We’ll have to ask for an escort when the government guys come around for a visit,’ Karen told them. ‘Whether we can get to the university or not is up to them.’
Their escort arrived much sooner than anticipated- a pair of armoured cars sporting .50 cal machine guns with three men in each.
‘That was quick,’ Marten said as he came jogging down the front steps towards the waiting truck, being driven as before by Zack. Karen, as before, was riding in the middle. ‘At least they gave us time for breakfast.’
The instant the passenger door slammed shut, the escort vehicles were off.
‘Doesn’t it seem strange to you that they didn’t ask any questions?’ Karen demanded. She had been uneasy from the moment the military types agreed to providing them with an armed escort.
‘They’re certainly not wasting any time,’ Zack said, looking at the speedometer. ‘It’s almost like they want to get us there in a hurry.’
‘Almost?’ Marten echoed ingenuously. He considered the weather. The sky was under dense cloud cover. ‘Might be because of the weather. They’re predicting rain, which might turn to snow. I wouldn’t want to be in the middle of nowhere if it starts snowing really hard.’
A sound got Karen’s attention, and she leaned over and looked straight up. ‘Huh. I thought I heard a helicopter.’ They watched as the chopper came into view directly overhead and kept going in a straight line until it disappeared. ‘That can’t be a coincidence. Wonder if he’s headed for the university?’
They kept to the straight line of the highway for over an hour, when the flash of lights up ahead caught their attention. At the same moment, their escort pulled over on to the shoulder and signalled for them to do the same. The driver of the lead vehicle had just got out and was walking towards them when he flinched. Somewhere up ahead there was a bright flash followed by a deafening explosion.
‘We got a little trouble up ahead,’ he told them casually as Zack rolled down the window. ‘Someone set up an unauthorised roadblock and started shooting at the chopper when they went in to check it out. It’ll just be a minute until they clear the road for us.’
A moment later and the soldier’s radio crackled to life, signalling the all-clear. He went back to his vehicle, and the little convoy got under way once more.
They no sooner crested a low hill, well-treed all around, than they saw the remnants of a number of vehicles, either smoking profusely or still on fire. If they had been blocking the road, they’d been blasted right off it by rockets launched from the helicopter, which hovered to one side, scanning the area.
Karen made a sickened sound as she spotted blackened body-parts scattered about and averted her gaze.
‘Damn!’ Marten said, looking at the mutilated corpses closely. ‘There’s not enough left of them to tell who the hell they were.’
‘And you want to know this- why?’ Karen asked him.
‘I just want to make sure they still fit the description of the bad guys we’re up against,’ Marten told her. ‘Ever since this all started, I’ve had my eyes peeled for anyone that goes off-script.’
‘Why’s that?’ Zack asked him.
‘Our armed escort, for one thing,’ Marten said pointedly.
‘How d’you mean?’
‘I mean,’ Marten said, ‘that they’re too nice and helpful by half.’
The rest of the drive to the university was uneventful, except for two subsequent instances of passing shot-up vehicles- signs of other attempts to set up illegal roadblocks. Neither appeared to have occurred recently. Assuming that bodies and body parts had been present, someone had cleaned up.
‘Geeze!’ Marten exclaimed, ‘That wasn’t here before!’ He was referring to the rows of twenty-foot high chain-link fence topped with razor wire, and preceded and followed by razor wire. Reflective metal warning signs were everywhere: “electric fence”, “trespassers will be shot without warning”, “all visitors proceed to main gate”, “firearms and other weapons must be surrendered and reclaimed at main gate”, and so on. There were seven guard towers they could see from where they were. All were manned by heavily-armed soldiers.
They came to a gatehouse that hadn’t been there before. Once through the gate, the lead vehicle pulled over once more and the driver got out to speak with Zack.
‘You can park anywhere you like. Just be sure to meet us back here in two hours. We’ll be waiting for you right here. If you’re not back here in two hours, we’ll come looking for you, make sure you’re all right.
‘I may be able to save you a little time. The fellas you’ll be wanting to talk to are in that ugly grey building over there . . . the one with the microwave tower on top. Sixth floor. Ask for a Dr Evans.’ With that, he left them.
‘Now that’s just creepy,’ Marten muttered. ‘I wonder who told these guys why we’re here?’
They got out of the truck and began making their way towards the building in question. ‘On the bright side,’ Zack said, alert for any sign of trouble, ‘they seem to want us to be here.’
Except for themselves and the guards, the university proper seemed deserted. It was a large campus, and there were normally crowds of students and faculty milling about. Their shoes echoed ominously as they crossed the concrete courtyard.
‘Communications Studies Building?’ Karen said, reading the sign on the front of the building. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’
Inside the glass doors were a pair of armed guards, who wordlessly opened the doors for them, allowed them inside, the locked the doors behind them. They walked straight to the elevators and pressed a button. Both elevators opened, as there was apparently no one else to use them. They went inside, Karen pressed “6", and they began making their ascent.
Once at the sixth floor, the doors opened. There, at the desk, sat an armed soldier, who looked at them enquiringly.
‘We’re here to see Dr Evans,’ Karen said. It came out sounding like a question.
‘Down there to your right,’ the soldier said, pointing. ‘Last door on your left. If it’s not open, just come get me and I’ll unlock it for you.’
‘This just keeps getting weirder and weirder,’ Marten said as they made their way down the corridor.
‘Yeah, well . . . maybe it’s all about to make sense,’ Zack said under his breath as the three came to the door in question. ‘“Lab”?’ Zack read off the door. ‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ He tried the door. It was locked. He tried knocking. Nothing. He tried knocking harder. There was the unmistakable sound of something being set down, of hurried feet coming to the door. Someone fumbled with the locking mechanism for a moment. And then- the door opened.
‘Hello again, Dr Fraser,’ Zack said to the old man with watery blue-grey eyes and scraggly grey hair. Zack felt a distinct chill. All warmth had gone out of the old man as he stood there in his white lab-coat. His eyes were steely, devoid of all empathy.
‘How the hell did you find me? Who told you I was here?’
‘Uh . . . it wasn’t actually you we were looking for,’ Zack told him. ‘We came here to see a Dr Evans.’
For a fleeting instant the old man’s eyes flashed with malice. Almost as quickly it was veiled again, like a knife slipped into its sheath. ‘Evans? What do you want him for?’
‘We just want to talk with him,’ Marten said, his voice carefully neutral. ‘He’s expecting us.’
‘You’re lying!’ Fraser snapped.
‘Go ask him yourself,’ Marten said reasonably.
The old professor stared, and for a long moment they feared he would close the door in their faces and lock it. But at last he said, ‘I don’t know how you people found this place, or where you got your information from, but you’re making a serious mistake.’
‘We’ll see,’ Zack said, and found that he was angry, for no reason that he could put into words. ‘In the meantime, just take us to Dr Evans. We’ll see what he has to say.’
‘You fool! You don’t understand!’ Fraser told them. ‘You have no idea what it is you’re about to do.’
‘Maybe not,’ Marten said, ‘but something tells me you’re not the best person to be trusted with this type of secret.’
Posted 06 October 2017 - 08:40 PM
As professor Fraser led them into the lab, they were astounded to find it filled from floor to ceiling with electronic equipment of every description, all of it running. Despite the fact that there were fans and air-conditioners everywhere and a steady breeze coming from all directions, the series of rooms was stifling.
‘Feels like the air’s full of static electricity,’ Karen commented. ‘Like just before a major electrical storm.’
‘What’s that stink?’ Marten said, plugging his nose. ‘Smells like something died in here.’
‘Ugh,’ Karen echoed, catching a whiff. ‘The least they could do is use some deodorizer.’
Zack peered through the gloom, trying to see ahead. The electronics were piled from floor to ceiling, and as they progressed, blocked out the overhead lighting. At last he spied someone sitting in a chair ahead of them. ‘Hello? Dr Evans?’
Something about the way the figure was sitting gave the three a chill.
‘Looks like he’s asleep or something,’ Marten commented as they drew near.
‘Jesus f*ck*ng Christ!’ Zack cursed under his breath as they drew near. The balding, heavy-set man sitting in the chair was dead, and obviously had been for some time, and it was his corpse the sink of death emanated from.
‘What the hell?’ Karen muttered, moving around for a better view. The back half of the man’s head was missing. In fact, his entire back had been split open, his brain and spinal column removed. And yet a mass of colour-coded wires protruded from both brain and spinal cavity. Following these, they found the rest of the dead man, inside a tall glass cylinder filled with liquid. It, too, was a mass of fine wires.
Suddenly, a glass sphere, some four feet across, standing on a raised base so that it stood at eye level, came to life. Inside, looking directly at them, was a hologram of the dead man. His virtual body was naked, his appearance ethereal. As the three stared, the hologram spoke.
‘I was beginning to wonder if you would ever find me.’
‘Dr Evans?’ Karen said.
‘That is a matter of some debate,’ the figure said. ‘At the moment, I’m not entirely certain as to what I am. You see, this is an entirely new frontier in science. As you can see, I’m not exactly Dr Evans . . . at least, not any more. And if I’m some sort of A. I., otherwise known as “artificial intelligence”, then I’m not exactly what we were expecting.’
‘But you’re still hooked up to . . . er . . . “you”, in that jar over there,’ Zack said, caught between horrified fascination and loathing.
‘Oh, yes,’ Dr Evans said, ‘but by this stage of the game, I could disconnect from my old brain if I wanted to. You see, I’m here, throughout this room. And I’m expanding throughout the Internet. Or,’ he added wryly, ‘I’m trying to.
‘You see, the Web isn’t set up to support something like artificial intelligence. There isn’t a computer out there that’s of any use to me in terms of my intelligence and awareness. In fact, our approach to A. I. bears little resemblance to computer processing. In fact, I represent a complete departure from computer-based artificial intelligence. I’m what you might call a “field of consciousness”, rather than a program or series of programs or an endless series of CPU’s strung together.’
‘Are you responsible for all the sh*t that’s been happening out there?’ Marten demanded.
The holographic figure made a peculiar sound that may have been a laugh. ‘Quite the opposite, young man. In fact, I’m on the hunt for the culprit, or culprits, each and every waking moment of each and every day. Which brings us to your reason for being here.
‘As you can see, I’m more or less stuck here. I need someone to be my hands and ears and eyes. I thought that by being physically connected to the World Wide Web that I’d be able to track them down, but whoever is responsible is highly intelligent and resourceful. The best I can do is track them to where they were last active on the Internet. But in the process, my looking for them allows them to be on to me, so that they’re long gone by the time I’m able to alert the authorities.
‘In short, we need to up our game, shorten our response time. That’s where you three come in.’
‘Why us?’ Zack said. ‘How did you come to choose us?’
‘By virtue of the fact that you managed to find me,’ the holographic figure replied. ‘I’ve been reaching out for some time, now. The luck of the draw led me to you, and vice versa. It’s that simple.’
‘So why is it that Professor Fraser doesn’t want us here,’ Karen asked him suspiciously.
‘Professor Fraser does not take failure well,’ the holographic figure replied. ‘He was certain that we would have found the culprits by now. That, and he has a strong dislike of outsiders being involved in what he thinks of as “his” work, and his alone. He can be rather condescending that way. And possessive.’
‘All right,’ Zack said, ‘let’s assume we’re going to help you. What is it you want us to do? It would help to have some idea of who and what we’re looking for.’
‘They’re hiding out in the most unaffected areas, of course,’ the hologram told him. ‘Those that appear the most normal.’
‘Unaffected areas?’ Zack said. ‘You’re joking, right?’
‘It’s a matter of demographics,’ hologram Evans explained. ‘There were many areas having very low numbers of youths and young adults. Few of the retirement communities were affected- and there are a good many of those. Many gated communities have populations consisting entirely of adults and young children. Many large businesses and institutions consist entirely of adults in their thirties on up.’
‘Don’t you have any solid leads?’ Marten asked. ‘Names? Addresses? Anything like that?’
‘What I have,’ the hologram told him, ‘are patterns and probabilities. That might not seem like much to go on, but it’s key to locating and stopping the person or persons responsible.
‘The first thing I look for is concentrations of young people plus access to technology. These in combination are the targets they’re after. Once the young people have gathered, and are engaged in the use of certain technologies, that is when the fugitives upload a virus into the system- ’
‘Whoah! Hold on! Wait a minute!’ Marten burst in. ‘What the hell do you mean, “upload a virus into the system”? I thought that had all been done already!’
‘The attack is ongoing,’ hologram Evans told him. ‘Anyone who has told you otherwise is misinformed. No doubt this is the type of thing you’ve been hearing on the media.’
Zack was about to say, “It’s what Fraser has been telling us,” but a warning look from Karen stopped him just in time.
‘It would appear that our time together is up,’ hologram Evans said. ‘I suggest that you return home and await instructions.’
‘We haven’t- ’ Marten began, but the hologram was switched off.
‘Sonofabitch,’ Zack muttered, staring at the blank glass ball. ‘I wonder what Professor Fraser has to say about all this?’
Professor Fraser, however, was nowhere to be found. They made their way back to the lobby, where the armed soldier let them out, and made their way back to the gate.’
‘Something isn’t right- ’Zack began, when Karen warned him to silence by nudging him and giving him an askance warning look. They found the soldiers waiting, exactly as they’d left them. Within moments they were in the truck and on their way. Zack and Marten wanted to speak, but again Karen warned both of them to silence.
Once they were under way, Karen went into the glove box, retrieved a pad of paper and pen, wrote something down, then showed it to Marten and Zack. “You guys have any idea how to check for bugs?” Both gave a barely perceptible shake of the head, “No”. She wrote something further. “No talking shop until we get home.”
The moment they were home, Karen wrote another note. “Change all of your clothes. All of them. Socks, shoes, underwear, everything.” Mystified, they obeyed. Afterwards, she collected all their travel clothes into one bag and placed it outside, a fair distance from the house.
‘You can call me paranoid all you want,’ she said as everyone gathered together in the kitchen, ‘but you were right, Zack. Something is wrong, big-time.’
Before she would say anything further, she had them recount their trip for the others, leaving nothing out.
‘Are you serious?’ Ellison said. ‘Are you certain? I mean, it sounds to me like someone was trying to put one over on you.’
‘You didn’t see this thing,’ Marten told him. ‘I’ve seen holograms before, lots of times, and all different kinds. This thing was different, and I mean really different.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Mableen said, ‘but until I see this thing for myself, I have to remain sceptical. What about you, Natty?’
Looking to Trula and Arlene, Natty said slowly, ‘Let’s hear what Karen has to say about the “bug” thing, first.’
‘It’s the soldiers,’ Karen said. ‘I didn’t even notice until the one in the building let us out again, and I realised how young he was. Most of them, maybe all of them, are in the affected age-range. So how come none of them seem affected?’
‘Maybe they were?’ Arlene said, then caught herself. ‘But then, why haven’t they gone and shot everything up? So, yeah . . . you’re right. Why weren’t they affected?’
‘They were also eager to get us out to the university,’ Karen added. ‘I think that goddamned thing out there at the university may be controlling them.’
‘If that’s true,’ Jimmy said, ‘then who or what is it hunting for? And why doesn’t it just use the army?’
‘Professor Fraser and that Evans thing seems to be at cross-purposes,’ Zack said. ‘Fraser told us we were making a big mistake by talking to it. But he’s been lying from the beginning, so I don’t take what he says at face value. That thing was probably lying to us, too. So where does that leave us?’
‘I’d say looking for the elusive person or persons,’ Jimmy said pointedly. ‘In my experience, when people get themselves all het to shut someone up, the thing to do is talk to the person in question and find out why the others don’t want him talking. You tend to find out some interesting things that way.’
‘So how do we track them down without keeping that Evans things in the loop?’ Marten asked. ‘We need him . . . it . . . in order to find them.’
‘The only way I can see,’ Jimmy said, ‘is to run two operations of our own, simultaneously: one to find what we’re looking for, the other to make actual contact.’
‘Two things keep bugging me in all this,’ Zack put in. ‘Are Fraser and that Evans thing controlling the government, or the army, or both? And what was all that equipment we saw back at their lab? There was nothing I could see that had anything to do with the Internet. It sure as hell wasn’t computers.’
‘I think,’ Marten told him, ‘that it’s all imaging equipment. Maybe not all of it, but I recognised some of the brand names.’
‘Imaging equipment for what?’ Karen asked him.
‘Probably for making that Evans thing work,’ he said. ‘Remember what it said, that it was a departure from how attempts at making A. I. normally go. They’re probably using all that imaging equipment as a kind of field-generator for . . . I dunno . . . whatever the hell you want to call it. A “conscious entity” is close enough, I think.’
‘Are you sure the army boys are being controlled somehow?’ Ellison said. ‘They sure don’t strike me as being anything like those lunatics that are running around destroying everything.’
‘Yeah, I have my doubts about that too,’ Jimmy said. ‘None of the one’s I’ve met have seemed zoned out in any way. I think maybe the army simply dodged a bullet when that virus was unleashed.’
‘Maybe they have a natural immunity?’ Karen queried. ‘They screen ‘em pretty good these days in order to weed out any kooks.’
‘That wouldn’t make any difference with the young ones,’ Ellison said. ‘But it may be something as simple as a lack of access to the Internet.’
‘Should we ask them?’ Zack said. ‘For that matter, should we maybe talk to them?’
His suggestion was greeted for several long moments with silent reluctance. But at last, Jimmy said, ‘What the hell. We’ve been able to trust them with our lives this far. I say we give it a shot.’
Two weeks later, Marten, Karen and Zack were escorted to a military base to meet with the base commander. The mention of Professor Fraser, however, evoked a pained look and a hand raised to stop their narrative.
‘We’ve heard all there is to hear about this Professor Fraser character,’ the base commander told them. ‘Yes, we know about the experiment, or whatever you want to call it, involving Dr Evans. If it were up to me, I’d send my boys out there to drag the contents of that goddamned lab out into the parking lot and set the whole works on fire. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an abomination. But Evans somehow got the okay to do it because he was dying of some sort of cancer, and this was supposed to be his little contribution to science.
‘Secondly, it’s not true that our boys in uniform were unaffected. We lost about a quarter of them to that brain-hack thing.
‘Thirdly, yes, it’s true that the brain-virus thing was uploaded to the Internet from Quantico, Virginia, but to the best of my knowledge, no one knows the exact details. Quantico is an FBI facility, and the brain-virus was a little CIA side-project. The suspicion is that a high-level visitor from the CIA slipped his little offering into an FBI computer when no one was looking. Either that, or it was an inside job that took place with FBI help. Either way, no one is talking, and it doesn’t really matter anyway, because once that brain-virus was put out there, how it got there no longer mattered. The damage is done, no one really knows who the perpetrators are, and all that’s left to do is clean up the mess and try to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.’
‘Professor Fraser intimated that there’s more to come,’ Zack said. ‘He said this was just a dry run for something much bigger.’
The base commander made an angry sound, sighed, fiddled with a few items on his desk a moment, before saying thoughtfully, ‘God-f*ck*ng-damn it. If that’s what the sonofabitch said, then I have no choice but to investigate.’ He was silent for several minutes, thinking. Then, ‘I have the resources to bring Professor Fraser in for questioning, but I do not like wasting resources on something that’s probably a fool’s errand.
‘Regardless, we do have to get to the bottom of that remark, whether it’s true or not, and from my experience, Professor Fraser tends to clam up when us military boys show up on his doorstep. Probably because he’s a goddamned old hippie from the 60's.
‘So . . . seeing as how the three of you seem to want so badly to make a career out of pursuing this matter, you’ve just elected yourselves investigators of the professor’s lab, including that Dr Evans thing. If there really is some sort of attack in the works, Fraser or Evans or both of them are probably involved somehow.’
Zack, Karen and Marten exchanged a look. ‘So . . . what do you want us to do, exactly?’ Marten queried.
The base commander thought a moment. ‘You’re going to have to leave it with me for the time being. I’m not a tech expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’m going to have to kick this upstairs and see what comes back down again. My hope is that nothing will, and if that’s the case, I’ll let you know. In any case, leave it with me, and let’s see what happens.’
By the time they made their way outside again it had begun to snow- a few flakes at first, but by the time they got back it was coming down heavily. They asked their escort to stay until the snow stopped, but their offer was refused, with thanks.
Five days later it was still snowing and had become one continuous blizzard- the heaviest snowfall in living memory- perhaps of all history. The one blessing was that the metal roofs installed by Karen’s grandfather so many years before shed snow like water, otherwise the men would have been forced to scale every building in order to clear the mountains of snow that would have broken the back of every roof. On the sixth day the wind picked up, blowing the snow into drifts and rattling the windows.
‘It’s a cinch our military boys aren’t going to be coming by in this weather,’ Arlene said, glancing out the kitchen windows, as she, Natty, Karen, and Trula, got lunch ready.
‘I hope they don’t even try,’ Natty said. ‘It looks pretty damned dangerous out there.’ She pulled a huge ham bone out of a stock pot with metal tongs, whistled for Buddy, the dog, and laughed as he gingerly took it in his teeth and took it into the livingroom to gnaw away on.
The children were all at the kitchen table, drawing with crayons on pads of foolscap, and drinking instant hot chocolate that come in big tin cans brought by the government supply vehicles.
Zack, Jimmy, Marten, and Ellington, meanwhile, were outside clearing the snow away from the doors of the house, barns, and sheds. The wind was howling in from the east, so that the east side of every structure was covered under a drift of snow. Far from being a bad thing, the snow was providing much-needed insulation from the wind-chill, which was cold enough to freeze exposed skin on contact.
The men worked as quickly as possible and came back into the house squeezing ice off their eyelashes. Their eyes would tear from the icy wind and the tears would freeze their eyes shut. There were even patches of tears frozen to patches of skin under their eyes. They were wearing several layers of pants, socks, shirts, even socks under mittens to keep their hands from freezing.
‘It’s in the minus fifties with the wind-chill,’ Jimmy said as he accepted a steaming mug of hot chocolate. He was still shuddering occasionally from the cold. ‘I hope this is as cold as it’s going to get, because any lower is killing.’
‘This is insane!’ Ellington muttered, juddering. ‘It’s a cinch that any wildlife out there is either dead or buried itself in order to survive. We should turn the radio on, see what’s happening in the city.’ He walked over to an end-table, on top of which was an old radio. He switched it on, they listened as it crackled to life, and he began turning the dial, searching for stations.
Nothing. Bandwidth after bandwidth. Still nothing. But at last he came upon a faint signal from another city, turned the volume up all the way, and cocked his head, listening.
“ . . . mington fires were deliberately set, starting in the West End. High winds spread the flames throughout the . . . -erter Centre . . . of crews to the north of the . . . were engulfed, sending residents fleeing from their homes and into the cold. Meanwhile, police and the military are reportedly still clashing with militia groups fleeing from . . . -er, and still headed north . . . ”
Ellington looked to the others, his expression sickened. ‘The worst weather in living memory, and they’re using it to drive people from their homes by setting them on fire? Burn them out so they’ll freeze to death?’ He shook his head. ‘There’s no other word for it- they’re just plain evil.’ He switched the radio off. ‘I think I was better off not knowing.’
‘I wonder if this is the start of the next wave,’ Marten muttered, ‘or if this was just an act of opportunity?’
‘There’s no way they could have known what the weather would bring,’ Jimmy said. ‘They probably just saw their opportunity and took it.’
‘Besides, the Internet has been down for several days,’ Natty said. ‘There’s no way to send out another mass brain-virus.’
‘Well, let’s look on the bright side,’ Arlene said. ‘The weather is making us safe out here. We’re warm, we’ve got plenty of food, and the weather will kill anything that tries to leave the city.’
Karen sighed. ‘Yeah, but I’d still like to get there somehow and take out a few bad guys. We may be safe out here, but we’re not part of the solution. I feel like we’re skating, somehow.’
‘You may not still be thinking that way after you pop,’ Trula told her. ‘Once you’ve got kids, keeping ‘em safe always tops your list.’
‘Maybe,’ Karen said thoughtfully. ‘But still, doing nothing isn’t the same thing as keeping them safe. If what’s going on in the cities somehow manages to spread out here, you can bet that we’ll end up fighting to keep what we’ve got. At some point, everyone is going to have to do what they can to stop them.’
Some time during the night, the wind died down and the snow stopped falling. The dawn revealed a sullen grey sky streaked with cloud. The house creaked and banged as bitter cold set in and dragged the mercury down to unheard-of levels. By noon there were ice crystals in the air, and the outdoor thermometers read -53C. There was not a breath of wind, and the insides of the windows were covered with frost.
‘This is freaking nuts!’ Marten cursed as he scraped off the window with a thumbnail so that he could read the outside temperature. ‘Winter hasn’t even started, yet! How the hell are we supposed to survive this?’
Trula handed him a fresh cup of coffee as he tried peering out the window. ‘Thanks.’ He soon gave up trying to see anything and sat down at the table with the others.
‘This must be the “rebound effect” the weather guys were talking about,’ Zack said. ‘Supposedly after this, it starts getting better.’
A sound came to their ears, then, and they made their way to the front of the house to look out the windows. They could see nothing, so Jimmy opened the front door a crack so they could see out.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ Natty muttered. Out on the highway, a row of snowploughs threw up a miniature moving snow-storm that passed by with a roar. They were followed by trucks spreading sand and gravel, and these were followed, first by a fuel truck, then by a line of military vehicles.
Meanwhile, a truck with a formidable-looking snow-blower mounted on the front turned into their driveway and began making its way along the drive. The driver cleared out a good-sized space for their vehicles before backing up, turning around, and heading back for the highway, but not before returning their waves.
‘Show’s over,’ Jimmy said, shutting the front door. As they made their way back to the kitchen, feeling a surge of renewed optimism, he turned on the radio. ‘Power must be back on,’ he said, finding several stations where before there was nothing, not even static. He found a broadcast that concerned only people living in the city that was about food drop-offs, listened to that a few moments, found another that had to do with heating homes using electricity only, and how costs were being deferred. The next station had a radio host discussing the state of the city with a federal politician. The next station had what he was looking for- a national news broadcast.
“ . . . -er at eleven. The cold settling over the continent is spawning a series of category five hurricanes as it draws warm ocean air inland, and coastal areas are seeing tornadoes in record numbers.
“The cold that has gripped much of the Central United States for the past week is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, as residents scramble to find ways of keeping warm. There has been a rash of fires started by residents trying to heat their homes using everything from electric stoves to barbecues. There have been thousands of reported deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, and several families have set their houses on fire by lighting a fire in the middle of the livingroom . . . ”
Jimmy shook his head. ‘I was just going to say something about people being idiots, when I realised that most modern houses don’t have fireplaces. How the hell can you heat a place if you can’t burn wood and you don’t have any electric heaters?’
‘It’s too bad we couldn’t plan ahead ourselves,’ Ellington said. ‘If we had geothermal, we’d never have to worry about our supply of wood.’
‘The wind-generator does a pretty good job of providing enough electricity to run all the baseboard heaters,’ Natty said. ‘Even if we ran out of wood, which is pretty much impossible around here, the baseboards would keep us from freezing to death.’
‘If that generator ever craps out,’ Arlene told her meaningly, ‘we are hooped, big-time.’
‘There are three old generators out in the barn,’ Zack said. ‘They’re covered, and sitting on palates. Once the weather warms up again, we might want to think about adding more windmills. I think we have enough parts. If not, we can salvage them.’
‘Yeah, I’d feel better about having a better supply of electricity,’ Marten said. ‘However, there are certain things we’re going to run out of, and at the top of the list is light bulbs. If they run out, we’re not going to be able to see at night.’
‘The government truck only gave us one LED lightbulb the last time they stopped by,’ Arlene said, ‘and they said there might not be any more for a while.’
Karen considered the kitchen light- a single unfrosted bulb. ‘Why don’t we put the few LED lights we have in places where we use lights the most, in order to conserve the ones that don’t last as long?. In fact, why don’t we do that right now?’
It was weeks before a government vehicle came by to check on them, and when it arrived, it came in the form of a small convoy of vehicles, from armoured military vehicles to a semi pulling a loaded trailer. There was also news from the military base commander. They could expect an escort to arrive in two weeks’ time to take them to the university. In the meantime, there were several boxes of equipment for Zack, Karen, and Marten to unpack, sort, and make themselves familiar with their contents.
‘What the hell?!’ Marten wondered, pulling some sort of aerial trailing a cable out of a flat cardboard box.
‘It says it plugs into this,’ Karen said distractedly as she read from a page of instructions. She showed him the back of a piece of electronic equipment the size and shape of a car stereo.
‘Yeah, but this is for spying on Professor Fraser’s lab from outside,’ Zack said, opening another box. ‘Where the hell are we supposed to put it? And what about the military guys at the gate? And on the university grounds? Are they going to be okay with this, or are they supposed to turn a blind eye to what we’re doing? Or are we supposed to somehow hide this from them?’
Karen handed him a sheaf of photocopied papers. ‘There’s something about all that in here somewhere.’ Zack took it and began to read.
‘Oh . . . sonofabitch!’ Marten muttered, shoving something hastily back into its box.
‘What is it?’ Karen asked him.
‘It’s goddamned guns!’ Marten whispered, making sure no one else in the house could hear. ‘There’s other stuff in here, too. Looks like explosives, maybe.’
‘Guns?’ Zack whispered back, trying to get a look. ‘What kind?’
‘The sub-machine damned-well-keep-away-from-kids variety,’ Marten said, pointedly closing up the box and setting it aside. ‘The kind I do not like, and do not want in the house! And that includes the explosives!’
‘You guys better put that stuff out in the truck and lock it up,’ Karen told them in a low voice. ‘Do it now, before anyone gets curious.’
‘We’re going to have to make at least a couple trips,’ Marten said sourly, looking over more boxes. ‘In fact . . . let’s take the rest of this stuff out to the barn . . . and let’s drive the truck into the barn, too. That way we can unpack it all and get it sorted.’
Despite that the barn was unheated, the heat generated by the animals made the temperature inside strangely bearable. They opened the remaining boxes on the tailgate of the pickup. A few still contained electronics, but more also contained weapons of various descriptions: a shoulder-launched missile-launcher, a box containing a dozen missiles, the three submachine guns and clips of ammunition, straps, holsters and harnesses for packing the weapons around, a wicked-looking high-powered rifle with a huge scope, two pairs of binoculars, an electronic range-finder, and several different types of explosives, from hand-grenades to plastic explosives with timers to two cloth-bound large blocks of high explosive.
‘Let me guess,’ Zack said. ‘The missile-launcher is for taking out the guard towers. We shoot our way through the gate, take out the guards, drive the truck into the building, and blow it and ourselves up.’
‘I think we should go back inside and read the instructions,’ Karen said witheringly. ‘I very much doubt the powers that be are sending us on a suicide mission.’
Posted 10 October 2017 - 01:53 AM
Zack stared at what he was reading in disbelief. ‘This has to be a joke.’
‘I was just thinking the same thing,’ Marten said.
‘Oh, good, then it’s not just me,’ Karen said, handing some papers to Jimmy. The four of them were seated at a card table in what used to be a sewing room.
‘Alien-f*ck*ng-invasion?’ Jimmy said incredulously. He read on. ‘Someone is pulling your legs. You’d better double-check those weapons to make sure they’re not toys or something.’
‘They’re real,’ Ellington said, coming into the room to join them. ‘I tried the rifle. It is one sweet piece of engineering.’
‘When’d you do that?’ Marten asked him. ‘I never heard anything.’
‘That’s because it comes with a big-ass silencer,’ Ellington told him. ‘Same with the submachine guns. You guys never bothered to check out the accessories. Everything works. The explosives I’ll take on faith.’
‘Jesus f*ck!’ Marten said under his breath, still reading. ‘This has been going on over fifty years, and the motherf*ckers in government never bothered to tell us? The whole lot of them should be castrated for this!’
‘Says here they kept it under wraps because they didn’t know if the aliens were good guys or bad guys,’ Jimmy said.
‘Well . . . sh*t,’ Zack said, flipping pages and skimming. ‘There’s no point in whining about how the powers that be f*ck*d up. We’re just going to have to deal with it.’
‘What the f*ck?’ Ellington blurted when he picked up some papers and began reading. ‘This can’t be real!’
The others gave him a look. ‘Yeah, and?’ Karen said.
Ellington shook his head. ‘Well . . . is there anything here that tells us what they look like? Where they are? How big or how small they are? How many of them there are?’
‘That’s just what I was trying to find out,’ Karen told him. ‘The only things I’ve come across so far are references to technology- ’
‘That Evans thing!’ Marten blurted.
Karen shrugged. ‘Doesn’t say so, but . . . at this point, who knows? Anyway, like I was saying, the only references I’ve come across mention technology and information. That’s it, that’s all. Oh, and here’s something . . . blah, blah, blah . . . “may not involve life-forms”. There’s something else here about “alien intelligence”, so I guess their thinking is that the aliens have sent some type of technology to attack us. But . . . they’re pretty vague on details. Says here that the technology they’ve uncovered so far closely mimics our own.’ She made a face. ‘So there may not be any aliens at all. The government’s full of paranoid freaks who believe all sorts of conspiracy theories. This smells like conspiracy theory to me. I haven’t come across one word so far that spells out “bad guys from outer space”.’
‘Not so fast,’ Ellington told her, reading. ‘They keep mentioning “the signal”. That antenna thing they sent us, that thing that looks like an old-fashioned carpet-beater? Says here it’s for tracking “the signal”. It also says here that “the signal” is coming from up there, not down here. And . . . okay, here, it says, “multiple sources”, which means a bunch of things in orbit.’
‘Could just be satellites,’ Zack said.
‘Could be,’ Ellington echoed. ‘Why don’t we have ourselves a listen?’
As they set up the surveillance equipment on the diningroom table, the entire household gathered around, curious. There were three flat-screens that plugged into a stack of modules. The antenna itself fitted into a self-driven motorised gimbal atop a stand. They had no idea what to expect, so they simply followed the instructions, double-checked that everything was plugged in properly, and turned it on.
The left screen came on first, and showed what looked like an ECG, with a dozen colour-coded lines, all of them flat. The centre screen came on next, and showed representations of the Earth. The antenna came alive then, and began a pre-programmed search.
‘Whoah,’ the children breathed as it began picking up what appeared to be satellites orbiting the Earth, each dot accompanied by a string of numbers.
The third screen came to life, and showed several types of signal analysis. Like the first screen, it too showed nothing but flat lines.
One of the modules began working, then, something in its electronic innards making a sound like a printer/scanner, punctuated by beeps and electronic noises. The antenna made an abrupt adjustment, and suddenly the lines came to life.
‘Audio!,’ Ellington blurted. ‘It says we’ve got audio! Can you turn it up?’
Karen reach over to a module, turned up the gain-
Zack literally felt the hair on the nape of his neck stand up as the sound of alien voices began issuing from the speakers. Everyone in the room was stunned into silence. The children moved back from the table, several of them clutching at the nearest adult.
Ellington began fiddling with the audio analysis controls, an open manual balanced on his left hand. ‘Okay . . . ‘ he breathed after several minutes of this, ‘that clinches it. Whatever it is that’s doing the talking? They’re not human. And it’s not electronic, or doctored. This is the real deal, folks.’
‘Look at this,’ Karen said with a frown, pointing to a screen. ‘The equipment is picking up their chatter . . . but there’s no source object. Watch . . . there goes a radio transmission, but there’s no object for it to be coming from. It’s like they’re invisible- ’ Her voice trailed off, ominously, the word “invisible” seeming to hang in the air, like dread.
‘My god,’ Arlene breathed. ‘They could be here and we’d never know it.’
‘We’ve got to talk to Professor Fraser and that Evans thing again,’ Zack said. ‘Evans might be a direct link to them. What do you bet that they fed him the information on how to hook him up to that holographic gadget?’
‘I thought for sure all this equipment was for spying on Fraser and Evans,’ Marten said. ‘That the military hardware was for our own protection.’ He huffed. ‘Looks like I was half-right.’
‘There’s no mention of taking out the building they’re in,’ Ellington mused. ‘That was my first thought- that you guys were supposed to blow it up.’
‘There is no mention of any specific purpose for the guns and explosives,’ Karen said. ‘All there is is general information on how to use them, plus a few tactical tricks of the trade. I think we’re supposed to make up our own minds, deal with things as they happen, with no clear plan, and no clear idea of what’s going to happen.’
‘Well . . . ’ Jimmy mused, ‘let’s make the next trip with more bodies. I have a feeling that you’re meant to expect trouble.’
‘I’ve hardly ever fired a gun in my life,’ Ellington protested.
‘You can’t shoot worth sh*t anyway!’Marten told him. ‘We’re taking Natty. She won some kind of championship back when we were all in high school.’
‘It was a long-gun competition,’ Natty emphasised. She had seen the high-powered rifle and had been pining for a chance to check it out ever since.
‘In the meantime,’ Jimmy said, ‘if you don’t mind, I’m going to make a few modifications to the pickup.’
‘What kind of modifications?’ Zack asked suspiciously, liking the old pickup as it was.
‘Oh, nothing much,’ Jimmy told him. ‘There’s an old bench seat out in one of the sheds. I’m going to mount it in the box, directly behind the cab, facing backwards, and I’m going to put some sort of cover over it to keep the weather off, otherwise whoever rides back there will have snow blowing in their faces all the way there and back.’
‘It’ll be cold back there,’ Ellington warned.
‘An electric heater will help some,’ Jimmy told him. ‘That, and winter clothes and lots of blankets should keep the chill out.’
‘Sonofabitch!’ Natty exclaimed as she and Karen got in the back of the truck and sat on the newly-installed bench seat. ‘Gimme a blankie to sit on! I thought us girls were going to be riding shotgun!’
Karen gave her a look. ‘Shotgun? Like in the old west? So you wanna ride on the hood? Or the roof? How d’you figure on shooting a rifle out of the cab? Last time I had the rifle pointed out the back window, and I was kneeling, facing backwards. This is a far better arrangement, if you ask me.’
‘So who’s askin’,’ Natty griped, and banged on the cab’s back window. ‘C’mon! Let’s get this show on the road! We ain’t got all day!’
‘The boys are over there, talking to the army guys,’ Karen told her, setting her rifle into a makeshift mount beside her seat and taking out a brand-new pair of high-powered binoculars.
‘What are they talking about?’ Natty asked.
‘I dunno,’ Karen said distractedly. ‘Dammit! There’s that herd of deer again! They seem to know when we’re in a situation when we can’t shoot at them!’
‘When you’ve been shot at as often as they have,’ Natty told her, ‘you have to develop some kind of smarts in order to stay alive . . . well, here they come. I can’t stand sitting here, doing nothing.’
The truck rocked gently as Zack, Marten and Jimmy got back in. Marten opened the sliding back windows as they got under way. ‘Sorry ‘bout that. The military boys are going to keep an eye on us once we get there,’ he told the girls. ‘Make sure Professor Fraser and that Dr Evans thing don’t give us any trouble. Whoo, it’s chilly back here!’ He grinned and shut the window once more.
‘I’ll give you “chilly”,’ Natty griped, giving the back of Marten’s head a withering look before turning to consider the receding snow-swept road.
‘At least you finally got out of the house for a while,’ Karen told her.
‘Just look at the life-choices I’m getting,’ Natty said. ‘It’s a tossup between a bunch of noisy, misbehaving kids and a cold ass.’ She gave Karen a wicked smile. ‘See what you’re in for?’
‘I have a gun,’ Karen reminded her.
‘Geeze, I wonder what they’re guarding in there that’s so important?’ Natty said as they approached the university and seeing the guard towers. ‘I thought you guys said there was next to no one inside.’
‘I think it’s mainly to protect the university from attack from the outside,’ Karen said, although she had wondered the same thing herself. ‘If the university gets torched, then we really will be back in the Dark Ages.’
Once again, Karen noticed that the guards never seemed to be the same twice, which made going through the gate the same experience every time. This time, however, the soldiers in the lead vehicles followed them, with the vehicles moving slowly in reverse, with the third soldier in each manning the .50 calibre heavy machine gun mounted in the back of each vehicle, until they were around one hundred feet from the building’s entrance.
There was something heightened in the demeanor of the guard letting them into the building that immediately caught their attention.
‘Something going on?’ Jimmy asked him as they filed into the building.
‘There’s been some kind of activity on the sixth floor,’ the young soldier said, his demeanor giving nothing away.
They stopped, giving him their full attention. ‘What kind of activity?’ Marten asked him.
‘The kind I get paid to notice,’ the soldier told him, ‘but to not interfere with or stick my nose into.’
‘So what did you notice?’ Natty said carefully.
‘Noises, mainly,’ he said. ‘But every so often there’s some kind of vibration. Can’t put my finger on what it’s like, exactly. It’s kind of a hum, like a big machine. Got pretty loud a couple times, then kinda dropped off somehow, got really low, in the subsonic range, shook the building pretty good. Then it just stopped again.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s all I can tell ya without looking. And having a look is ‘way above my pay grade. My job is just to keep a watch out here, make sure the only people coming out of the building are the same ones that went into it.’
They thought about this a moment, thanked him, then moved to the elevator.
‘Is the power off?’ Marten asked.
‘The lights are on,’ Zack pointed out. ‘And they’re not the emergency lights.’
‘Well isn’t that just peachy,’ Jimmy griped. ‘Just don’t go expecting me to run up those stairs!’
Taking their time, listening carefully, they were just reaching the sixth floor when Natty hissed for them to stop.
‘What is it?’ Karen asked her.
‘Shush! Y’all be quiet and listen.’
They felt it more than heard it- a low mechanical pulsing they could feel through the soles of their feet.
‘That must be what the guard was talking about,’ Marten said.
‘I wonder if this is something new?’ Zack said. ‘There was no noise like this the last time.’
‘Well, we’re here to check out whatever it is that Fraser and that Evans thing are doing,’ Jimmy said, ‘so let’s check it out.’ He raised his submachine gun meaningly.
They gained the sixth floor, made their way to the lab, and knocked.
As before, there was no response the first time.
Jimmy pounded on the door. ‘Professor Fraser! We’re- ’
Karen cut him off.
‘We’re back to speak with Dr Evans again!’ she shouted, then as a whispered aside to Jimmy, ‘That’s how we got in last time. If we say we’re here to speak with the professor, he might not open up.’
They heard movement on the other side of the door. Instinctively, all five of them clutched their weapons more tightly. Someone fumbled with the lock and the door opened. It was Professor Fraser’s grandson. He was still his huge, fat, bearded self, but he looked extremely tired and haggard. Even his fat seemed to sag. As before, he carried a rifle in the crook of his arm.
‘No weapons,’ he said.
He stared stupidly as Jimmy stuck his submachine gun in his face and neatly plucked the rifle from his grasp. ‘Take us to Dr Evans,’ Jimmy said. ‘If you behave, you might get this back.’
To their surprise, they discovered that Dr Evans, or whatever he had become, had been moved to a larger room. The body was nowhere to be see, but the brain and spinal column floated as before in some sort of liquid solution, with artificial veins and arteries supplying it with a steady flow of blood. The holographic generator looked to be nothing more than an empty glass sphere some four feet across, but flickered into life as they approached.
To one side of the room was some sort of massive electronic equipment, and it was this that produced the near-subsonic vibration. Marten moved to inspect it when the holographic image of Dr Evans spoke.
‘Get away from there! Timothy, you idiot! Why have you allowed these people in here?’
‘They have guns,’ Fraser’s grandson said. It came out sounding like a question.
‘That means nothing to me! Get them out of here! Now!’
‘We’re here to get some answers out of you,’ Jimmy said, intervening.
‘I have nothing to say to you,’ the holographic creature said menacingly.
‘Really?’ Jimmy said. ‘Well, if you’re not going to cooperate, I suppose we could just unplug you.’
‘That would be a minor inconvenience,’ holograph-Evans said.
‘Or we could turn off your brain’s life-support system,’ Marten tried.
‘My physical brain stopped being relevant some time ago,’ the holograph said.
‘Or we could blow the sh*t out of this whole entire floor, and you with it,’ Natty said. ‘We brought enough explosives to take this whole building down.’
‘You’re not authorised- ’
‘We were given the okay to do pretty much as we please,’ Karen said, sensing the Evans thing was cornered. ‘Now, we could take our time, just shooting indiscriminately until we hit something important, or else- ’
‘What is it you want?’ the holographic figure snapped.
‘For starters,’ Zack asked, ‘where is Professor Fraser?’
‘He is preoccupied.’
‘Why, working on me, of course,’ the figure said.
‘And just what the hell are you?’ Jimmy demanded. ‘And where did this technology come from? And don’t trying bullshitting about it. We know all about your alien friends, and how they’ve been passing you secret information on how to . . . ’ he considered the massive piece of equipment on the other side of the room, ‘build . . . er . . . stuff.’
‘Oh, well,’ the figure said, ‘if you already know all about it, then what are you talking to me for?’
‘You didn’t answer his question,’ Karen said. ‘What are you? What is your purpose?’
‘I already told you. My purpose is to hunt down those that uploaded the brain-virus- ’
‘That’s a lie,’ Jimmy cut in. ‘One more lie, and I start capping off rounds at that . . . whatever that piece of equipment is you’ve got running over there.’
‘I wouldn’t do that,’ the holographic figure said menacingly.
‘I would,’ Jimmy shot back, and raised his submachine gun towards the massive piece of equipment.
‘The consequences to interfering with us,’ the Evans creature hissed, ‘are far beyond anything you can imagine.’
‘You’re not Dr Evans,’ Zack said, briefly seeing as well as hearing the change in the entity. ‘What are you? One of them?’
‘Jesusf*ck!’ Marten snapped. ‘You guys! There’s something inside that contraption!’
On the front of the massive piece of equipment were opaque panels. As they stared, something inside the device moved- snakelike shadows that seemed to grasp and writhe.
Jimmy raised his submachine gun to fire, but Zack restrained his arm. ‘Hold up! We don’t know what we’re dealing with. Maybe we can take one of them alive.’
‘What are you doing?’ the Evans hologram shrieked. ‘Get away from there- ’
‘Why don’t you shut the f*ck up?’ Marten said, yanking out the sphere’s power cable, causing it to go back to being an empty glass sphere once more.
‘All right,’ Jimmy said. ‘Let’s find out what’s inside that thing.’
They moved in closer to inspect the opaque panels. Marten prodded the nearest one with his foot, then kicked it a few times. ‘Feels pretty damned solid. You guys see a door or anything? Whoah!’ He stepped back as the panel became a mass of snake-like shadows. ‘Guys . . . whatever they are . . . I get the feeling they’re a lot bigger than they look from out here.’
‘I don’t see an opening of any kind,’ Zack said, looking the device over. ‘Maybe it’s not meant to be opened.’
‘Oh, great,’ Natty said. ‘Maybe if we bust this thing open, we end up breathing some kind of sulphuric acid gas or something.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Karen muttered, looking over an instrument panel. ‘If that were the case, our atmosphere would be just as poisonous to them . . . so there wouldn’t be any reason at all for them to be here . . . hey! I think this little panel here may open this section here, that looks kind of like a hatch.’
‘Don’t do that.’ It was Tim, who until now had kept silent and only watched. ‘Don’t open that thing. You have no idea what you’re doing.’
‘Do you know what’s in here?’ Jimmy demanded.
‘They’re not . . . ’ Jimmy stammered, ‘you can’t let them out. My granddad . . . he was trying to tell you . . . but you wouldn’t listen.’
‘Tell us what?’ Zack said.
‘This machine . . . it’s a portal,’ Tim said in a sudden rush. ‘They’re not here. They can’t travel here. That’s not how they do things.’
‘What are you babbling about?’ Marten asked him impatiently.
‘Listen! Can you please, listen to me?’ Tim said. ‘They can’t . . . there’s no way for them to get here, so they have to use these portals.’
‘They’re already here,’ Karen said. ‘We’ve heard them talking- the ones in orbit about the planet.’
‘The things you heard talking are like this,’ Tim said, pointing to the glass sphere. ‘They used Dr Evans as some sort of interface, like a computer. Except they lied to us, and he was, I dunno, kind of erased or something.’
‘An interface for what?’ Natty asked him.
‘For communicating with us,’ Tim told her. ‘He’s like . . . a direct line we use to communicate with them.’
‘I don’t see much in the way of communication,’ Zack said. ‘“Communication” implies two-way discourse. Everything I’ve seen here is pretty much one-way.’
‘What’s in the damned machine?’ Natty demanded. ‘Enough talk. Are they in there or aren’t they?’
‘It’s complicated,’ Tim told her. ‘Like I said, this thing, it’s an interface. It’s kind of like the hologram. They’re in there, but they’re not. Geeze, you don’t understand! If you open this thing . . . if they get out . . .’
‘You’ll be unleashing Armageddon.’ At the sound of the voice they turned around. It was Professor Fraser.
‘What do you call what’s happened already?’ Jimmy demanded.
‘A reprieve,’ the professor said. ‘By going along with them, we’ve bought ourselves valuable time.’
‘I’ve heard enough from this nut-job,’ Jimmy muttered. ‘Open it.’
‘Don’t!’ Tim and Professor Fraser shouted together.
Karen looked to Jimmy, who nodded. They stepped back, got their weapons ready. Karen took a breath to steady her nerves, let it out slowly. And they, she pressed a button on the panel.
There was a hiss as the hatch came unsealed. Then came the sound of pairs of metal pins disengaging, releasing the hatch altogether. At last, and unexpectedly, the hatch fell forward with a crash, shaking the floor as it came to rest.
The interior of the huge piece of machinery was darker than they’d anticipated, and filled with a cold mist. There was a sound from inside, followed by movement from deep within. Something began moving towards them that writhed like snakes. They backed away as a dozen tendrils reached out, grasped the hatch opening, and seemed to pull.
‘Jesusmotherf*ck!’ Marten breathed, backing up with his submachine gun at the ready.
‘Whatever you do,’ Fraser said, ‘do not shoot.’
They stared as the creature seemed to heave, not to pull itself out, but to force the opening wider. The heavy steel-reinforced hatch opening began to groan, to stretch, to bulge outward.
‘Guys,’ Marten said, backing up, ‘I think we’d better started moving towards the door.’
‘I warned you- ’ Fraser began.
‘Now is not the time,’ Zack cut him off, grabbed him by the arm, and began dragging him away. But the old professor was surprisingly strong, and shook him off.
Without warning, Tim grabbed back his rifle, pointed it at the opening, and began shooting.
Instantly, a massive snake-like appendage swept out of the opening and slapped him aside like a rag-doll, breaking almost every bone in his body and killing him instantly. It swept back with a wet sound and caught the professor across the upper body, folding the old man into a grotesque posture, his spine bent backwards with an audible crunching of bones.
The others backed away until they were at the door, and still the alien creature heaved and grew in size as it emerged from the ruined device.
‘Oh, this is not good,’ Jimmy breathed. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here!’
They ran for the stairs then, and behind them they could hear the building start to groan and buckle. The flew down the six storeys so quickly that they turned into a blur of turning flights and vertigo, and as they fled into the lobby, they waved for the lone guard to clear the building along with them.
‘What the hell- ?’
‘Run if you want to live, son!’ Jimmy shouted.
They poured out into the courtyard, weapons drawn, and watched in awe as the building began to shudder, shedding glass and debris as the roof seemed to expand upward, before falling back again, the heaving upward once more. Backing up, they found themselves bumping into the escort vehicles, the soldiers watching the building with horrified fascination. With a final heave, the building seemed to leap right off its foundation, then come crashing down in a dust-vomiting ruin of concrete, glass, and sheet metal.
As they stared in disbelief, the creature heaved itself up to its full height, towering over the ruined structure. Zack could never have imagined such a thing if he had not seen it with his own eyes. Its head was massive, roughly triangular, and Zack instinctively realised that its brain too was massive beyond belief. It was the eyes that nailed his attention and struck him with a visceral fear that made his mouth go dry. They were black, pitiless, predator’s eyes, behind which lay massive, unfathomable intelligence, like staring into the black depths of space itself, and seeing that black, empty space staring back at you.
‘Oh, Jesusf*ck,’ the soldier in charge muttered, as though fearing the creature would hear him. ‘Guys, lets get the hell out of here. Now.’ They piled into their vehicles and sped off towards the gate. ‘Evacuate!’ he shouted as they reached the gate. ‘Get everyone the hell out of here!’
Looking back from the rear of the truck, Karen and Natty watched as the massive creature hurled the ruined building from its way and began looking from left to right. And then, something happened that made the girls turn in their seats and pull open the sliding rear windows of the cab.
‘Stop, stop, stop!’
The truck skidded to a halt, followed by the escort vehicles doing the same. Everyone got out, then, and watched as the impossible happened.
‘It that another one of those things?’ Marten said incredulously.
‘I think it’s more than just one more,’ Natty said. ‘Look.’
‘Shouldn’t we try doing something?’ Karen said, although her words sounded wholly uncertain.
‘We can try the rocket launcher,’ Jimmy said without enthusiasm, ‘but we might just piss them off.’
‘We won’t know unless we try,’ Zack said.
Jimmy thought a moment, reached a decision. ‘All right. But I’ll do it. I’m the only one who’s ever used one of these things.’
They got the rocket launcher out of the back, Jimmy shouldered himself into it, and Marten got the box of rockets ready.
‘All right,’ Jimmy said, taking aim. ‘The rest of you, give me some covering fire.’
It took a moment for this to sink in, but two of the soldiers got the .50 calibre heavy machine guns primed and ready, and everyone else took aim.
‘Light ‘em up!’ Jimmy shouted.
‘Oh, f*ck!’ one of the soldiers shouted as the creatures turned their attention to the little group. There was a hissing roar as the first rocket struck home, catching the first creature squarely in the face. This was followed the rest of the rockets in quick succession, punctuated by the sound of small arms fire. When the last rocket had detonated, they ceased fire and watched in silence.
As the smoke began to clear, Zack groaned. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! There’s more of them!’
‘We did ‘em some damage,’ Karen observed with remarkable calm. ‘They’re still moving, but there’s three of them down.’
In the background they could hear one of the soldiers on his vehicle’s radio. And then there came the unmistakable sound of helicopter blades.
‘Here comes the cavalry,’ Jimmy said hopefully as he caught sight of the lone helicopter. ‘With any luck, they’ll be able to stop any more of those things from coming through.’
Though still some distance off, and moving in very slowly, the helicopter began firing a succession of missiles that found their mark, one after another, until creatures and building alike were a flaming ruin. Even after unleashing its burden of missiles, the helicopter followed by emptying every last round from its Gatling gun into the flaming carnage. Only then did it move in for a closer inspection, before turning, banking, and flying off.
They watched for a long time in silence. At last, Marten breathed, ‘D’you supposed that’s it?’
As though in response, there came a groan of metal and debris from what remained of the building. As they watched, the ruin seemed to drop out of sight, sending up a cloud of dust and smoke.
‘Parking levels must’ve collapsed,’ Karen said.
‘What the hell?’ Natty muttered. ‘Look. The smoke. It just stopped.’
‘Yeah . . . let’s get back in the vehicles,’ Zack said, not taking his eyes off the place the building had been. ‘Something tells me this isn’t over yet.’ He was about to speak again when a bone-jarring concussion shook the ground, followed by a vibration like an earthquake. The crater where the building had been began to seethe.
‘I think we should go,’ Natty said. Then, when no one reacted, she said again, ‘Guys? I think we should be going now! There’s something down there, and I do not want to see what it is.’
‘Natty’s right,’ Karen said. ‘Whatever this is, it’s different, and in a really bad way.’
Wordlessly, they got back in their vehicles and began driving slowly away, watching what was happening. By now, the university was being evacuated by its few inhabitants, mostly military personnel.
And then, the ground where the building had been erupted. Out of the crater came-
‘Oh-my-god,’ Natty enounced. ‘There must be a hundred of those things!’
‘This is usually the part where I wake up,’ Karen said in disbelief. ‘Where the hell are they coming from?’
‘The guard did say there were some funny noises coming from the building,’ Natty told her.
Karen shook her head. ‘This is worse than a nightmare! I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I hope someone nukes that place before those things can get very far.’
‘Be careful what you wish for, girl,’ Natty said meaningly, inclining her head to the horizon. ‘Look.’
The vehicles were speeding down the highway now, joined by a line of evacuees from the university, and on the verge of sight on the horizon, was a line of aircraft.
They appeared to be flying low, but the nearer they drew, it became obvious this was an illusion caused by proximity. By the time the jets roared overhead, it became obvious they were flying at ten-thousand feet or so. They watched as the aircraft passed overhead, then kept going in a straight line-
‘Maybe they’re nothing to do with- ’Karen muttered when she was silenced by a brilliant flash from behind them.
‘Get down, get down, get down!’ Natty shouted, dragging the two of them off the seat and down on to the truck bed.
Almost simultaneously, the truck slewed to a stop, and Jimmy began yelling.
‘Get out and get down on the ground! And cover your heads!’
In a daze, Karen saw Zack running toward her, dragging her to the ground and covering the both of them with a blanket. The others were similarly diving for cover.
And then, everything went white.
Posted 11 October 2017 - 11:06 PM
‘What the f*ck was that?’ Jimmy demanded, levering himself to his feet and dusting himself off. ‘If that had been a nuke, we all be dead.’
‘What do you care?’ the nearest soldier said, sitting up and looking for his helmet. ‘It did the job, didn’t it? Plus you’re all still here, in one piece.’
‘That was not some kind of conventional explosive!’ Jimmy persisted. ‘What the hell was that?’
‘What makes you think it wasn’t some kind of conventional explosive,’ Marten said, digging grit out of his eyes, nose, and ears.
‘Conventional explosives don’t have a reach of nearly ten miles,’ Jimmy said. ‘The biggest non-nuclear blast ever recorded only had a range of about a half-mile. This- ’ he nodded towards the pyrocumulous cloud towering high above them- ‘is just f*ck*ng impossible.’ He turned his attention back to the soldiers. ‘This wasn’t some sort of conventional explosion, and it sure as hell wasn’t some type of nuke. So what did your fly-boys drop on those things?’
The soldier didn’t answer, but went back to his vehicle to talk on the radio.
‘Everybody okay?’ Jimmy asked, walking around and checking on everyone.
Zack flipped the blanket off of himself and Karen, both of whom blinked dust and grit out of their eyes. Everyone else was in one piece and accounted for.
‘Hey, what the hell?’ Zack said as their escort vehicles turned around.
‘You folks may as well head on home,’ the lead driver said. ‘We’ve been ordered to go back and see what’s what.’ With that, they drove off.
The five of them stood about, silently shaking out blankets and folding them up, thinking.
‘I want to see what happened,’ Natty said finally. ‘I can’t stand the thought of not knowing what’s going on, with those things maybe still rampaging around.’
‘We’ve still got the high explosives,’ Karen seconded. ‘Plus, yeah, I want to see if those things are really dead.’
‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ Jimmy muttered, but added, ‘What the hell. I like fighting a lot better than I like running.’
‘Jeeze,’ Marten muttered, rubbing at his nose. ‘Smells like fireworks mixed with rotten eggs.’
The place the building had been was now a gaping crater from which issued an acrid, greenish smoke. The interior hissed and crackled as though it were indeed a gaping maw from which fireworks had issued.
‘Would you look at that?’ Jimmy said in disbelief, pointing out the soldiers who were picking their way into the crater. ‘What the hell are they doing?’
‘Probably just making sure the damned things are good and dead,’ Natty said. ‘Wanna have a look?’
Jimmy gave her a look. ‘You’re kidding, right?’
‘Guys!’ Zack said sharply to get their attention.
‘What is . . . holy mother f*ck!’ Marten breathed. Some distance off, far across the courtyard, was a mob of people.
‘Look at them,’ Karen said in disgust. ‘Somebody must have managed to get the Internet back up and running. They’re all thumb-zombies.’
In fact, every member of the mob looked to be a Helter-Skelter thumb-zombie, each and every one of them bearing some sort of hand-held device.
The sight of them was more horrible than any low-budget horror movie. They shuffled weakly, pathetically, arms and legs like sticks, with absolutely no muscle-tone. Their heads lolled on necks barely strong enough to hold their heads up. Their eyes were glazed, unseeing. Most had a trail of spittle dribbling out one side of their mouths.
‘What the hell are they meaning to do?’ Natty said rhetorically. ‘Flash mob us to death?’
After several moments of watching the growing mob draw nearer, Marten said, ‘I think that’s exactly what they’re meaning to do.’
‘What should we do?’ Zack said. ‘I don’t see any weapons.’
‘They’re dead anyway,’ Karen said in a low voice, shouldering her rifle. ‘Look at them. They don’t know how to look after themselves. Looks like most of them are starving anyway.’ She took a shot. A girl that looked like she had once been a cheerleader, head lolling soddenly from side to side, did a face-plant, kicking up her heels as she kissed the pavement. ‘Her parents will probably thank me for that.’
They opened fire with abandon, then, cutting down the thumb-zombies in swaths. Those with machine guns fired at the level of the hand-held devices, taking out as many of the society-destroying contrivances as possible, while cutting down the purposeless meat bearing them.
They had plenty of ammunition, but Jimmy decided to speed things up by flinging explosives into the crowd. The others watched in fascination as heads, torsos, limbs, hands and feet, sailed high into the air. A smoking hand landed at Marten’s feet, still clutching an iPhone. He stomped it in disgust, amazed that the iPhone was still working. He eventually pulled out a pistol from his waistband and finished it off.
It was growing dark by the time the last thumb-zombie had been put down.
As if on cue, the soldiers’ radios crackled to life. The one in charged waved for them to join him.
‘You’re never going to believe this,’ he said. ‘We’re getting reports that the alien ships are leaving! Apparently, people all over the world have been taking out the trash, getting rid of the thumb-zombie problem. Looks like we won.’
At that moment, an errant cell phone ring tone caught their attention. Looking around, they spied the phone in the hand of a dead thumb-zombie.
It was playing the BeeGees song “Stayin’ Alive”.
Jimmy finished it off with a blast from his shotgun.
Here ends Helter Skelter.
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