I knew better than to stop but I could not go on. Hunger chewed like rats as I put my head down on the icy ground beneath the starless sky but at least there was no sign of her.
A few intact houses loomed over frosted piles of rubble. All were dark but not all were abandoned. A lingering smell of ash, ozone and burned flesh warned me I had wandered into a zap zone. If I woke up before daybreak, I’d be okay. The collection crews couldn’t risk working in the dark.
I could tell myself I didn’t mean to hurt that twelve-year-old girl, as if that made it all right. But it wasn’t true. I did exactly what I meant to do.
Now my plan was simple; run hard until I found food then run some more. Somehow justice had gotten sharper, more urgent, more relentless since the biological menace from space had just about finished off the world. The last cop on Earth would crawl over broken glass to shoot me down, coughing up blood and dropping body parts as the parasites of the red rain from God knows where ate him alive.
The squirming parasites killed almost everybody they infected, some slowly, most instantly. But evidence was mounting that they had an even more disturbing effect on a few humans with an extremely rare blood chemistry. Super immunity. Tremendously extended life span and rapid healing. All that science fiction stuff. The super-immunes might just be the key to the survival of humanity.
Guess what kind of blood I have?
A mound of frozen mud that smelled like dead fish was my pillow for the night. Humanity could take care of itself. I didn’t care about saving humanity. I cared about saving me.
A couple of tears dried on my cheeks as the black world vanished around me.
I landed with a sickening crunch. A man in a haz suit stood before me in a circular hatchway where flies streamed in with brown daylight then stopped buzzing.
“I’m not dead!” I screamed at him. “I’m not dead!”
“Yes you are,” said the crewman. He climbed in after me and pulled off his helmet as the hatch slammed behind him. “So am I.”
“Wait!” I scrambled over the pile of bodies, tripping over the fallen crewman who was already convulsing through the last seconds of his life. “Let me out!” I shouted, pounding at the steel hatch until I broke some bones. “Let me out!” Muffled voices outside moved toward the front of the truck. Doors slammed and we were on our way.
Once a collection crew crossed into a zone there was no going back to the “clean” world. The risk of contamination was too great so they drugged up and rode with their cargo to the bitter end. The crewman’s suicide told me there would be no more stops.
I was in for good.
The smell was beyond description and I wretched till I passed out. When I came to the parasites were all over me, hoping on and off like fleas, wriggling across my eyeballs, swarming into every possible opening.
I changed my mind! I was glad when I learned I was immune. Not anymore!
Why won’t they kill me?
The truck hit a bump and bodies started convulsing with lazy serpentine motions. It sounded like big snakes in the dark. I don’t know how the biology works but the parasites somehow entangled themselves with the nervous system in order to establish a symbiotic relationship with their host. This almost always failed, killing the intended host immediately but the creatures were adaptable. Their ability to stimulate dead bodies had evolved over a short period of time. They would eventually succeed in controlling living people.
I think I probably screamed for a while. When I stopped I groped through the moving bodies until I found the crewman and ransacked his gear for rations. He didn’t have any. I cried until I nearly fainted and wished I’d never heard of cannibalism.
The air in the truck was hot and thick. We didn’t have far to go but I hoped to God there was still time to die of suffocation.
I hoped I could die of suffocation.
We were headed for Two Mile Pit, so called because it was allegedly ten thousand feet deep. It would be filled in with dirt and concrete and sealed off from the human race once all the bodies collected from the zap zones were dumped. Collection crews patrolled the zones after they’d been flashed over by high-voltage arc blasters and irradiated. Any bodies found in a zone were loaded into specially constructed trucks which were then driven down quarantined roadways and directly into the pit. The zone was blasted again and placed off limits for the foreseeable future, maybe the rest of time.
It was hoped that this strategy would at least postpone the end of civilization but there was no guarantee. As far as I knew there was only one guarantee of survival for the good people of good old planet Earth and he was starving in the back of an isolation truck picking up speed on its way to the edge of Two Mile Pit.
The only thing I could see in the dark was a little girl’s face. If I could, I’d kill her again to make her go away.
We’re moving faster now. We must be on the downgrade into the pit. I’ve heard the drivers always open up the throttle and dive in full speed. I can hear them screaming in the cab. I can’t tell if they’re scared or glad it’s all over.
I can’t tell if I’m scared but I know it’s not all over. The truck will fall hundreds of feet, maybe thousands, then crash. Maybe the parasites from space will keep me alive but I hope not. Not counting on it. I’ll probably be killed and wake up in a brand new place more horrible than anything imaginable in this God forsaken hell of a dying world. I don’t know what goes on in the afterlife but there’s one thing I’m sure of; a little girl will be there, waiting. This time she won’t be alone and defenseless. She won’t be at the mercy of a vicious, calculating beast. Her soft brown eyes won’t be wet and wide with fear.
Constable Calon Frant stopped and listened, hoping to hear the telltale whine of a prosthetic leg. The bandits were active again along the stretch between Hunktown and Yarbin. He’d been tracking one for the last hour but the crook vanished as soon as he crossed the boundary into Deadfield.
That put Frant on edge. The vast, brown expanse was virtually lifeless, affording few places to hide. The suspect’s disappearance was unnerving.
Frant’s cybernetic brain interface buzzed softly at the back of his head, keeping his thoughts orderly as he swept the horizon with one natural eye and one robotic sensor. The interface was standard equipment for all humans born since the end of the Thousand Years’ Horror, when disease and radioactive contamination reduced humanity to a gibbering, mutant shell of itself. The Horror commenced soon after the fall of the Red Rain, leaving few alive and none able to function without the aid of prosthetic body parts and the mental organization provided by the interface.
Something moved in the distance. It was a man, stumbling toward him. Frant drew his truncheon and waited.
The man was unlike anything Frant had ever seen. He was grotesquely un-mechanical. No prosthetic limbs. No eye replacements. No brain interface.
“Stop there,” ordered the constable in a flat, official voice. He was relieved by the man’s obedience. Deadfield was full of ghosts and ghosts had no reason to fear law enforcement.
The man’s skin was blue and green and yellow and he stank like the bottom of a latrine. At first he seemed dazed and bewildered. He opened his mouth full of black teeth and spoke with a voice like rusty door hinges. Frant couldn’t know that conversing with the dead was the only practice he’d had for the last sixteen hundred years.
“Where am I?”
“Deadfield. Who are you?” The constable was pretty sure this man was not his suspect. “What are you?”
“Survivor,” the man answered. He couldn’t possibly characterize the centuries spent healing from catastrophic burns, shattered bones and lacerations, digging through the airless darkness till his fingernails were torn away, gnawing the bones of the dead. He tried starving himself to death. He tried the most gruesome injuries. He tried everything imaginable not to survive.
Now he was free on the parched brown earth with the gray light of a damp, overcast afternoon stinging his ancient eyes.
“Survivor,” repeated Frant impassively. “You climbed from the pit?” Such a thing had never happened. It had never even been imagined but Constable Frant was sharp and lacked any facility for amazement. No interface meant pre-Horror and the wretched thing standing before him was no ghost. The constable knew every inch of the county except the inside of the pit. There was no place else for the man to come from.
“I choose not to answer,” said the man. A cop was a cop after all.
“Come with me,” ordered Frant.
“Oh no,” resisted the man. “I know my…”
When he came to he was in manacles. There was a knot on the side of his head and the big cybernetic peace officer had him by the ankle, dragging him through the dirt.
“Officer,” he called weakly.
“Constable,” corrected Frant. He did not stop.
“Constable. May I walk, please?”
“If you resist further I will incapacitate you irreparably,” warned Frant, dropping his foot. “Tell me your name.”
“Dennis Sharkey.” What harm could there be? It had been centuries…
“Dennis Sharkey, you are under arrest for the murder of Alicia Fein, the last unsolved crime of the pre-Horror era. You have no rights. Cooperate fully or accept the consequences.”
“My God! How…?”
“Your file was found in the ruins of the Pennsylvania State Police Headquarters during the re-establishment period following the Thousand Years’ Horror. The case was left open as a memorial to the past. Now it will be closed.”
“I want a lawyer.”
“What is a lawyer?”
“Great,” said Sharkey. “What happens next?”
“Confinement, arraignment, trial, disconnection, burial,” answered the constable.
“Disconnection?” laughed Sharkey. “What the hell does that mean?”
“The brain interface is disconnected and removed. Death is usually instantaneous. The prisoner is then placed in a casket and buried.”
“I don’t have a ‘brain interface,’” said Sharkey. “So I guess I can’t be executed.”
“You are correct,” agreed Frant. “That step of the process will be passed over.”
“Damn right!” gloated Sharkey. Life in prison was a walk in the park compared to what he’d been through. And how long would it really take him to escape?
The stench of the pit was clearing from his nostrils, giving way to the fresh, ozone laced air of the outside world. It was amazing how quickly the centuries of confinement rolled away like a bad dream. In the distance he saw trees, brown and shriveled but trees nonetheless, with little white houses spread beneath them.
He wondered how long he had actually been in the darkness. He wondered what kinds of people he would meet. He wondered if the parasites were still at work.
He wondered what the children were like.
“Dennis Sharkey, this court finds you guilty as charged.”
No surprise there. His barrister told him what to expect. They were called barristers instead of lawyers, hence poor, dumb Frant’s confusion.
Sharkey had lived among the cyborgs long enough to know they were deeply crazy. When you expected them to act like people, they acted like robots. When you expected them to act like robots they threw logic out the window and behaved like mental patients. He was getting the hang of it but it would be some time before he could be a functioning member of their bizarre society.
“The court will now pronounce sentence,” continued His Honor, a waxen faced specimen with a fringe of white hair and two large, black sensor orbs serving as eyes. “The prisoner is hereby sentenced to execution by disconnection and removal of the brain interface at dawn tomorrow, as mandated by law. However, owing to the prisoner’s unique physiology the sentence cannot be carried out. Interment to commence at 6:05 tomorrow morning. Court is adjourned.”
Down came the gavel.
“Congratulations!” effused the portly barrister as he struggled out of his wig and robe. “I’ve never seen Judge Yornt un-execute a convicted murderer. An historic day, old man! An historic day!”
“Thanks,” said Sharkey. He was cleaner now, a little fatter and a little more at ease in his new world. His natural color was slowly returning. The county lock-up hadn’t done him a bit of harm.
“So I guess they’ll be moving me to another facility tomorrow?” he asked the barrister.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Internment to commence at 6:05 tomorrow,” repeated Sharkey. “Imprisonment at another facility, right?”
“Yes,” affirmed the barrister. “Exactly. There’s a small plot at the edge of Deadfield they use.”
“Plot? What… what do you mean?”
“Well, old man,” said the jovial barrister, still tickled with himself for his victory before the judge. “Just because they can’t execute you doesn’t mean they can’t bury you! The law requires it!”
Sharkey collapsed onto the hard bench behind the defense table.
“Oh yes,” the barrister went on. “An iron casket covered with signs and symbols to keep your ghost nice and quiet. Iron rusts through eventually, of course, but not to worry! You’ll be deep enough, encased in poured concrete! The ground will be sown with garlic and wolfsbane and the priest will come and a woman with flowers…”