Numbness hung thick in the air, a cloud above the crowd of people. For long minutes, they stood together, silent in contemplation. Some of them, individually, had broken down over the course of their stay, but the majority of them had held strong. Now, they were all starting to lose it. It was just too much. Too much to comprehend. Too much to handle. Too much to sort out. Just too much.
Dee was lost in her own reflections. Even if they managed to die of cancer or old age, they were still probably doomed as a species. If her guess was right, the parasite worked microscopically in the same way that the zombies worked macroscopically: surround and overwhelm. It was the only way she could make sense of the fact that the parasite could grow on stone, yet seemed able to infect only from the lungs or the stomach, apparently unable to penetrate unbroken skin (though, to be fair, she had never actually seen a person turn due to an infected wound). The way Dee figured it, more air and fluid passed through the human body than went around it, so that was probably the only way the parasite could get a foothold against the onslaught from the human immune system - but she was with adults right now, whose immune systems had been tempered by years of struggle against viruses, bacteria, and fungi of varying strains and strengths.
Newborns were not nearly so well-armed.
"Well," Seamus said, after minutes of silence, "As fun as this is, I'm gonna get back to work." The crowd dispersed into smaller groups at that point, going about their daily tasks as with weights upon their shoulders.
Days later, Shep had showed no variation in his speech or behavior. The vegetables who had had the parasite removed showed no change in their condition. The survivors experienced no improvement in their mood.
Dee was on watch detail one night when Jack came up to the roof.
"What's up," she asked as he approached and sat down on the rooftop next to her.
"Hey. Can I bum a clove?"
"Sure. Free to all. Didn't cost me a dime."
"Yeah, that's right. Thanks." He took a cigarette and her Zippo and lit up. She did the same a moment later.
"That it, then?"
"No. I've been thinking lately, and, well, I'm back to my plan to kill myself."
"You've thought it over?"
"And you're sure?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Well, then. I don't tell you how to live, I won't tell you how to die. Heh. I hope it's everything you expect."
"Ha. Yeah, so do I."
They smoked in silence for a while. Dee eventually spoke up again.
"I think I'm gonna head out soon."
"You plan on hitting the hospital?"
"No, I mean for good. This is - well, shit, no sense in sugar-coating it to you. It's pointless. I just want to go somewhere else, do something else."
"Just travel until you die?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I want to stop by my parents' place in Wisconsin, see if I can find out what happened to them. After that, well - I guess I'll see where things go from there."
"Yeah. Well, have a good trip."
"Heh, I'll try, thanks."
Another long moment passed before Dee asked Jack when he planned to do himself in.
"Oh, I dunno. Maybe I'll watch the next sunrise. I was hoping to read more books, but really, every day that goes by just gets me more depressed. There's just - well, no point, like you said. I thought about traveling, too, but I didn't want to have to worry about zombies everywhere I try to sleep. I'd rather kill myself than be one of them, but on the road, I might not get the chance."
"Yeah. Good call, I guess. Do you know how you're gonna do it yet?"
"Well, I wanted to jump from the top of a really tall building. I've always wanted to know what that would feel like. But I can't think of any that I could safely get to, and I don't want to risk surviving the fall from here and becoming zombie food. I'm probably gonna shoot myself in the head."
"Y'know, if you want, I could drive you to a radio tower in town or something."
"Nah, I'd be too worried about you not making it back."
"No, I'll do it when I'm leaving town. No worries."
"Really? When are you leaving?"
"Dunno. I've been thinking about it all day, but I haven't talked to Rosie yet. I guess it all depends on her."
"Well, yeah, if you're gonna leave in a couple days or so, let me know." After a moment, he added, "You know, you're really fuckin' bad at suicide prevention." Dee shrugged her shoulders and took a drag.
"I figure that part of being human is being able to determine the course of your own life. If you can't do that, you may as well determine your death, right? I think a lot of suicides are stupid people who can't see past their invented problems, but this is a different story. I actually see you as trying to claim some of your humanity with this."
"Yeah, that's kind of what I was thinking, too. I mean, not exactly like that, I was mainly thinking that this was really the only statement I could make. I'm not gonna wait for something to kill me, I'm taking matters into my own hands, you know?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I know. I've given it some thought, myself."
"Huh. Never would've pegged you for it. Well, then." Jack stubbed out his cigarette, stood, and dusted off his pants. "I'm gonna walk around for a while. Let me know after you talk to Sam."
"Sure thing. Actually, can you grab watch for a sec? I'll go ask her now."
"Of course. See you in a bit."
Dee descended the rope ladder and found Sam cleaning the zombie pens. She was the most interested in what the currently- and formerly-infected could tell them, and so took it upon herself to do the most maintenance work. She found it relaxing, despite the constant nearby moaning. It inured her to the far-off moaning of the zombies outside as she tried to sleep, and so she took it in stride. She raised her head as she heard Dee approach.
"Hey, sweetie. What's shakin'?"
Dee looked around before answering. "I'm thinking of clearing out. But only if you come with. What do you say?"
"Just - taking off? For good?"
"Shit, I thought you'd never ask."
"Yeah. I mean, you got your whole zombie-survivor-fortress thing going here, I didn't think you'd want to walk away from it. And I sure as Hell didn't want to leave you, but - well, shit. This sucks. Here. I mean, it probably sucks everywhere, but I need a change of scenery, y'know?"
"Well, you wanna take off tonight, then?"
"Shit yeah! Let's fuckin' blow this joint!" Sam jumped to her feet and put away the tools she was using. "Night-time escape into the great unknown! I'm all for it!"
"All right, then. Let's say our goodbyes."
They went to find Seamus first. He was reading in the hammock he'd set up as a bed.
"You two look like you're up to something," he said, looking up from his book.
"Yeah," Dee said. "We're gonna leave."
"Hm. I've been thinking about that, myself. So you're just going to run around until you die or something?"
"Yeah. That, or until we decide we'd rather do something else. We figure, this really can't go on forever. I mean, we've made our stand, but even if we tried to restart civilization, I don't think any babies we have would really have immune systems strong enough to fight off the parasite. And besides, what the Hell kind of world is this to raise kids in, anyway?"
"I was kind of thinking the same thing. Didn't wanna say anything, though. I didn't think it would help."
"Yeah," Sam agreed.
"Anyway, we're taking off after we say goodbye to everyone. You might wanna go up to the roof and say goodbye to Jack, too. He's planning on killing himself at sunrise."
"Huh. Poetic. Hella timing, too."
"Why'zat," Dee asked.
"Well," Seamus said, looking at his watch, "In about twenty minutes, it's gonna be the Fourth of July."
"Oh. That's neat." Dee nodded her head in solemn contemplation. A statment, indeed. "I hadn't been keeping track."
Seamus headed up to the roof, and the girls made their rounds. The others were fairly unsurprised to hear of their departure; most expressed the desire to leave themselves, but simply hadn't worked up the gumption, while others reflected that others would probably start following suit. Bill said he was going to try to stick it out to the bitter end, but he wished them well on their journey. Then they returned to the roof to find Seamus having a last cigarette with Jack.
"He tell you when we're heading out," Dee asked.
"Yeah," Jack replied. "He said you were going tonight. He also told me that it just now turned July Fourth. I actually think that's kind of cheesy, but just a coincidence. Not like I planned it or anything."
"Heh, right. Well, it's basically up to you, now. You wanna wait for sunrise, or you wanna watch it from the tower?"
"Yeah, a radio tower sounds good. Let's wait a few hours. I'd like to watch it from the top, but I don't want to have to wait too long."
"Sure thing. It'll take you a while to climb it, though."
"Yeah, I figured that."
About four AM, the three of them headed out in the black truck, loaded with some tools, water and a few days' food. Jack rode in the bed, the wind running through his hair. They arrived at a radio tower in the center of town, and broke through the fence surrounding it. Jack was dropped off at its base, and when he started going up the ladder, he turned to say goodbye.
"Have a good life, you two."
"Have a good death, Jack," Dee responded. "We'll miss you."
"Yeah. I miss living. I have for a while now."
"I know what you mean," Sam called from the cab. The zombies were getting nearer the truck.
"Love to stay and watch," Dee said, "But I don't think Zed's gonna tolerate our presence too much longer. I don't wanna get caught in the mob. I hope your climb goes well!"
"Thanks. So do I." He started climbing as Dee pulled the truck around to leave the fenced enclosure surrounding the tower. "Hey," he shouted after them. The truck stopped. "If there just so happens to be an afterlife, I'm giving God a piece of my mind, and then I'm gonna track you two down. So, uhh, don't do anything stupid and wind up in the wrong monotheistic afterlife region, OK?"
"Sure thing," Dee shouted back with a laugh. "We'll look for you, too. Don't be a stranger!"
"Right!" With that, Jack resumed his climb up the ladder, and the truck drove off into the distance.
Jack August realized during his climb that radio towers are a lot taller than they seem when you look at them from a ways off. He had to stop a couple times, despite the fact that he was in the best shape of his life due to the fitness regimen of the past few weeks. Once at the top, he stepped off onto the grate and braced himself against the railing surrounding the walkway. Jesus, but it was windy up here. He could see for a long damn way, too.
After a few minutes, the sky began to grow pale in the East. Jack took in every minute of it, savoring the colors as they developed, relishing the feel of the wind against his body, the sensation of freedom this high up, even enjoying the dizziness he knew he was feeling for the last time. The Sun burst over the horizon, bathing the land beneath him in light and warmth. Jack closed his eyes and concentrated on the feeling on his skin. He waited a few moments to mentally prepare himself one last time.
Finally, the Sun fully over the horizon, Jack figured it was time. He maneuvered himself carefully around the railing, not wanting to hit the tower all the way down, and was almost overcome by vertigo as the empty space beneath him threatened to swallow him up before he was ready. He smiled, shook out his shoulders as best he could while holding onto the railing, then jumped away from the tower with all his strength.
His eyes were open the whole way down.
The drive North was quiet, serene. The women took a route that went almost straight up into Wisconsin, bypassing Chicago and the suburbs, where there were likely to be tangled knots of traffic. Dee and Sam didn't see a single moving vehicle the whole way up. The two towns they passed through on the way showed no signs of life, only the dispersed zombies. With no reason to travel slowly, Dee kept the truck at a steady eighty-five. As they got further from each town, they noticed that the zombies thinned out in the rural areas.
At some point, Sam noticed a blackened crater off to their left, in the middle of an open field. She pointed it out to Dee, who had been keeping her eyes on the road the whole time.
"Huh. What do you suppose that is?"
"Dunno," Sam answered. "You wanna go check it out?"
"Hmm." Dee considered this for a moment as she took her foot off the gas. "Sure, why not? Zed's pretty thin out here." She slowed the truck to twenty and took it off the road, looping back around to the crater. Pulling up to the mess, they saw a piled wreckage of something in the middle, with scraps of whatever it was scattered about. The closest zombies were a hundred yards off, so they got out of the truck.
"Shit. What do you make of it," Sam asked.
"Dunno," Dee said, poking at bits with her crowbar. She looked around, then up at the sky. Sam wandered about the crater, examining the shrapnel. Dee resumed prodding at the mess in the center. "Holy shit."
"What is it?" Sam turned to what Dee was looking at, a chunk of something embedded in the ground. It looked vaguely grid-like, but whatever impact there had been had severely warped it. Dee's crowbar was pushing chunks of blackened stuff around which made a tinkling noise, like glass.
"These bits - they're ceramic. I think - I think this might be part of a solar panel. There's not much of it left, but - son of a bitch, I think this might be a satellite."
"Get outta town. Wouldn't a satellite vaporize before it hit the ground?"
"Mostly, maybe. Eh, probably. But not if it was big enough. Especially the ceramics and whatnot. I don't know how they're constructed, really, whether it's to burn off during reentry or to survive it, but - yeah, I can't think of what else this might be."
"Aren't most satellites around the equator, though? How would it get this far North, do you think?"
"Well," Dee mused, "If something else bumped it, then it could have fallen out of orbit. If it was just winged, it could have wound up pretty much anywhere. But - I don't know. Maybe I'm just making this up. But I think that whatever bombed all the power stations, whatever delivered the parasite, I think it did this, too." Sam paused to think for a few moments before responding.
"So, if aliens are attacking, then where are they?"
"Probably waiting for us all to die off."
"I dunno. I mean, I can't think of anything else, but - Jesus, it just seems so far-fetched. You really think whatever did this - you think it came from space?"
"I can't think of anything else, at the moment. And - well, I mean - dammit, I don't know if I'm losing it or what. But it seems right. I can't get my head around it."
The zombies were getting within a few dozen feet of them now, so they got back in the truck and headed off. The rest of the drive passed fairly uneventfully.
Tom Morrigan lived with his second wife, Linda, in a fairly rural town close to the Illinois-Wisconsin border. They had moved there after Tom's entire department at the University of Chicago had been axed due to budget cuts. Until the blackout, he had worked in instructional design for a motor company who happened to need almost exactly the skills he had used years before at Yamaha, and his experience with the university's media department was beyond reproach. The only other applicant was a quarter-century Tom's junior, and had a fancy degree or two that Tom lacked, but was a bit "modern" for the company's traditional tastes. On his new salary, he and Linda were able to make a down payment on a house that was nearly twice the size of their old residence in the Chicago suburbs. As Dee pulled up into the driveway, she realized that she could probably count the number of times she had been there on one hand - just holidays, which she alternated between here and Sam's parents, who still lived near Chicago. The two of them had agreed that the city meant certain death, and if they decided to go in there, it would be their last stop.
Zed had only a token presence in town, with most of the zombies spread out among the fungus-ridden fields. Dee saw that all the windows of the house were boarded and assumed that the doors would be barricaded, too. She tried to stop herself from hoping that her parents were alive. She went around to the West side of the house to climb the antenna tower to the second-story window - those on the front had not been boarded up, and she guessed that they wouldn't be in back, either. Keeping her center of gravity close to her, she advised Sam to do the same.
"Y'know, Rosie," Dee said, reaching her leg out to the roof below the window she planned to enter, "I told my dad when I helped him move in that this house wasn't ninja-proof. All it takes is one asshole to climb this antenna tower - or, as I call it, a 'ladder' - and bam, all your samurai are dead."
"Whatever," Sam said, laughing. "It doesn't matter whether your house is ninja-proof or not. What you need to worry about are the pirates, and there's no proofing against them."
"What about cowboys?"
"No, dammit! The Pirate-Ninja-Cowboy pantheon is a hierarchy, not a triangle like Rock-Paper-Scissors. We've been over this before."
"Sure, sure." Dee tried a window; locked. She forced it up with her crowbar, not wanting to deal with broken glass.
Inside, things smelled awful. The air was still and stagnant, and Dee abandoned both worries about squatters, and hope for her parents. This was the smell of death. She went immediately across the landing at the top of the stairs to their bedroom and stared in shock at the scene before her.
Sam joined her shortly, and immediately reached for Dee's hand at the sight of Tom and Linda, dead in each other's arms in bed. At Sam's touch, Dee began to tremble, and then broke into sobs as she fell to her knees.
"They were - fucking - shit! They were safe! They could have held out! What the fuck?!" Tears streamed from her eyes, and her shoulders heaved as Sam began to weep with her, arms around her lover. "God-fucking-dammit! Why couldn't they - wait, or go somewhere, do fucking something - anything! Why this? Why like this?!"
"I don't know, honey. I don't know. But - they were good people, OK? Just - just let it all out. It's - it's not OK, I know, but - but that's OK. They lived their lives, they saw you grow up, and they made their decision."
"But I - son of a bitch! I never - I wanted to say goodbye! Why didn't they say goodbye?!"
"I don't know, baby."
"What the fuck?! This - this isn't - fucking - it's not -" Dee just shouted into the air, unable to finish the thought.
"I don't know, baby. But I know Tom, and I know Linda. They were good people, and you know that. They knew what they were doing. Whatever they did, there was a reason, OK? And - I mean, maybe - maybe if we look around, we can find something, OK?"
Dee moved from her knees to a sitting position, leaned against the door. She and Sam cried together for a few minutes, and then Dee started trying to compose herself. After a couple false starts, they held each other for a while, and then got to their feet together.
"You're - you're probably right. They probably did something, left something behind. You're right. We should look around." Wiping at her eyes, she made for the stairway. She used her Zippo to look around downstairs - there wasn't much light that got in around the boarded windows, but she found a flashlight in the basement and started looking around. The generator was hooked up, but other than that, the house looked normal, and Dee couldn't find anything out of place or looking even vaguely clue-like.
Back upstairs, she found the empty tequila and beer bottles that she presumed Tom and Linda drank before heading to bed for the last time. She hoped that the liquor wasn't what brought them to do it - then crushed the thought, for the scene showed far too many signs of premeditation. They were in each other's arms, in bed, the bottle of sleeping pills on the nightstand, and - shit, she hadn't noticed it at the time, but the remote had been on the nightstand. They usually kept it next to the TV itself. She went back into their bedroom, Sam right behind her, and crossed the room to get to the other side of the bed.
Dee nearly tripped over the box of videotapes. Most of them were dated from when she had lived in California, and beneath them were stacks of paper and various black binders.
On the nightstand, on top of the alarm clock, was a note written in Tom's inimitable scrawl. It took some concentration, but Dee was eventually able to decipher it. It was short and to the point:
We're so sorry, honey.
You were right.
Love, Dad and Linda