Authors: Paul Antony Jones
Book one: The End
Paul Antony Jones
© 2012, Paul Antony Jones
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author / publisher.
ALSO BY PAUL ANTONY JONES
Dangerous Places (short story compilation)
This one is for my Mum and Dad.
I miss you both more than I could ever tell you.
I’d like to say a very quick thank you to a couple of people who helped make this book a reality. First, I’d like to say an extra big thank you to the members of the Goodreads’ Apocalypse Whenever group (especially Gertie, the group moderator) who were kind enough to tell me what they really wanted in a post-apocalyptic novel. Hopefully, I’ve delivered.
I know she’s heard it a thousand times before, but I really could not have written this book without the help and support of my wife, Karen. You are my inspiration, sweetheart. Thank you for all that you have done.
And, of course, I would also like to thankyou, the reader, for taking a chance on an unknown self-published author and buying my book. It is truly appreciated.
Okay, on with the show.
“Wild dark times are rumbling towards us.”
~ Heinrich Hein ~
“Who died and made you king of anything?”
~ Sara Bareilles ~
The waiting room was small and cramped.
Emily hated it. The drab off-white colored walls, lined with cheap folding chairs, only added to her sense of claustrophobia. At the opposite end of the room, a bored-looking receptionist tapped at a keyboard with a single, neatly manicured finger. Her jaw worked a piece of gum; it appeared occasionally between the young woman's lips as a pink bubble before popping nosily and disappearing again.
A gray haired man and a teenage boy sat waiting for their turn to see the doctor. The kid was absorbed in a cellphone, his thumbs flying over the tiny keyboard, while the man flipped through the pages of a tattered magazine, pausing now and then to raise a hand to his mouth to cover a dry, rasping cough.
Emily glanced at the magazine in the man’s hands: DOG GROOMING MONTHLYthe title read.
Why do these offices always have such weird tastes in magazines?Emily wondered, as she made her way over to the receptionist's desk.Was there some obscure magazine subscription plan especially designed for doctors, dentists and accountants waiting rooms?
The receptionist was too engrossed in whatever was going on with her computer to notice Emily as she patiently waited in front of her desk. After a half minute of standing there with not even a glance from the woman, Emily cleared her throat loudly. "Hi! I'm Emily Baxter from the Tribune. I have an eleven o'clock appointment with Doctor Evans," she announced.
The receptionist, her constant chewing paused momentarily so she could push the gum to one brightly rouged cheek, glanced up from her computer (which Emily could now see had some kind of game running).
"I'm sorry," said the woman, "what did you say your name was?" The chewing gum put in another brief appearance, flashing a glimpse of pink against the girl's white teeth.
"Emily... Baxter," the young reporter repeated slowly, just to make sure the receptionist got it right. "I'm from theNew York Tribuneand I'm here to interview your boss about the clinical trial he’s working on."
The receptionist made an obvious pretense of checking her computer then picked up the cheap phone sitting on her desk and punched in a pair of numbers.
"Doctor Evans, I have an Amelia Bexter here for you. Yes, shesaysshe’s a reporter... okay." Emily matched the woman’s disingenuous smile at the obvious mangling of her name. "His office is just down there," the receptionist continued, gesturing towards a corridor behind her desk. "Third door on the left."
"Thank you," said Emily as she moved in the direction the woman had indicated, but the receptionist's attention had already returned to the pressing issues of her computer game.
"Bitch!" Emily muttered under her breath and knocked.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, Emily allowed the door to the doctor's office to swing shut behind her. She let out a small sigh of contentment as the sounds and smells of New York City washed over her. Emily loved this city. She'd grown up in Denison, Iowa. A small backwater farm-town that was as unremarkable as the hundreds of other towns surrounding it. Looking back, it seemed like she had spent most of her youth just waiting for the moment when she could get out of town and move somewhere, anywhere, as long as there were people... lots of people.
She had nevermeantto be a reporter; in fact, she had fallen into it by luck rather than design. Like many small towns, hers had an even smaller local paper. It published an issue once a week covering everything from the county Sheriff's arrest record to the usual small-town politics. They had been looking for an entry-level reporter to cover the local town-board meetings and Emily had, on a whim, decided to apply for the position. Hal, the editor, interviewed her. He was a grizzled old man who looked eighty but could well have been one-hundred, for all she could tell. He had been in the newspaper business since the Second World War where he had served with the U.S. Marine’s Combat Correspondent Corp. He’d told her he would try her out and pay her as a stringer for a couple of weeks. "If you fit in, we'll see about something permanent, young lady,” he had told her.
Emily had taken to the job in a way she never imagined possible.Comfortable as a tick on a dog's ass, Hal had eloquently described her success, and within a month, Emily had secured her place as a staff writer for the little local paper. Two years later, Emily found herself promoted to lead-writer. She stayed with the paper for another five years before she felt she had enough experience to take on the extra challenge of working for a bigger publication. She'd been pleasantly surprised by the number of requests for interviews she received, but had finally decided to accept an offer from theNew York Tribunethat was just too good to pass up. It was her ticket out of the small town she had longed to leave for so long.
She'd been working the Metro Desk at theTribunefor six years now and loved every single minute of it. The job would never make her rich but it paid enough that she got by without having to worry about when the next paycheck was due. She lived alone, so she didn't have a lot of the overheads other reporters had, like a family to take care of.
Emily never learned to drive, there never seemed to be a need for it. Back in Denison, she could hop on a bike and be anywhere she needed to be in less than ten minutes. In New York City, she would have spent more time stuck in traffic jams than she could afford, so she stuck with her trusty bike. For longer jaunts, she would usually just take the subway.
Of course, no matter how much she loved the job and the city, there would always be days like today. It was sweltering hot, 92 degrees with 65% humidity. When you coupled the coma inducing humidity and heat with the idiot receptionist and her equally annoying boss, you had the makings of a less than perfect day. But Emily didn't mind too much, it was almost noon and she had her first story for the day in the bag, which meant she was already ahead of the game.
She had a choice now; head back to the newsroom or grab a bite to eat at a local café and then write-up her article. Emily pulled her smart-phone from its holder on her belt and checked her itinerary for the day. She had another three hours before her next appointment, so the choice was hers.
There was a small Internet café a couple of blocks away that she knew also did an astoundingly good BLT sandwich. At the thought of it her stomach gave a little grumble. Well, that decided it then. Emily unlocked the chain securing her bike to a NO PARKING sign, slung her backpack over her shoulder and set off in the direction of lunch.
* * *
Emily brought her bike to a stop in front of the café. Glancing through the large storefront window into the interior, she could see the place was deserted. She had her pick of tables to set up her computer and spread out her notes, leaving enough room to eat her sandwich. She chained her bike to the security rack the store had courteously installed just outside and walked into the café.
Emily felt the sweat under her armpits chill uncomfortably enough for her to give a little shiver as she entered the air-conditioned interior of the café. The mellow sound of smooth-jazz, smell of roasted coffee and fresh baked bread immediately grabbed the attention of her senses. Her stomach gave an anticipatory grumble.
In complete contradiction to her reception at the doctor's office, a warm and honest smile from the café’s owner greeted Emily as she walked to the counter. "Good afternoon, young lady. What can I get for you today?" he asked, a slight accent betraying his Italian origins.
"I'll take a Cappuccino," Emily said after looking over the chalkboard list of coffees, "and a Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich to eat in, please."
The café was deserted, the lunchtime rush still an hour away, so she had her pick of tables. She chose a four-seater near the window where she could keep an eye on her bike while she ate. Emily pulled her laptop computer from the backpack and hit theonbutton. It only took a minute for the computer to boot-up and locate the café's wireless Internet signal. Emily clicked on her email-client and waited for it to load any emails she'd received since going incommunicado over the past couple of hours. There was a message from her editor at the paper reminding her to get her stories in before deadline along with the usual collection of spam promising to increase her penis size and offering cheap prescription medication imported directly from China. Nothing important.
She pulled up her web browser and checked CNN. There was the usual potpourri of stories on the news website’s front page: conflicts still raged across some Godforsaken third-world country; a politician had been caught with his pants downagain; reports of some weird weather throughout Europe, and some thoroughly uninspiring stock-market numbers that meant her 401k was going to be worth even less than it was yesterday.
Emily clicked on the weather article and began reading.
TheAssociated Presswas reporting strange phenomena throughout most parts of Europe, the article said. Local government agencies were reporting an "unknown red precipitation" with no apparent meteorological cause. The first case had been reported in Smolensk, Russia over twelve-hours ago with similar reports of what the news agencies had conveniently, if somewhat unoriginally, labeled 'red rain', coming in from Finland, Sweden, Poland, Germany, the UK, and Spain as the day had progressed.
"Anything interesting going on in the world?" the café owner asked, as he placed the plate with her sandwich next to her steaming cup of coffee.
Emily looked up and smiled, "Not unless you want to talk about the weather," she said. Apparently, that didn't appeal to the café owner as he fired another smile her way before walking back to his counter. Emily took a large bite from her sandwich, careful not to let any crumbs fall on her keyboard—it was absolutely delicious—and continued reading the news report.
CNN had decided to eschew the European press' red-rain nomenclature and labeled the phenomenon Blood Rain, instead.Right, her reporter's brain thought. Good move; give an arbitrary weather phenomenon a scary sounding name and it makes the whole non-event sound that much more frightening and threatening. It virtually guaranteed a front-page article and would probably give the writer a chance at a couple of follow-up stories, too. Lucky bastard!
The news piece also had a selection of quotes from eyewitnesses to the 'Blood Rain' epidemic sweeping across Europe. The witnesses reported the rain had begun falling at around 12:30 pm, seemingly from nowhere. "It smelled funny and when I licked it, it tasted like sour milk," one witness in Smolensk had said.
Why the hell would you stick that stuff in your mouth?Emily wondered. The level of some people’s intelligence never failed to amaze her.Who knew where it came from?
There was no denying it was an interesting story, she had to admit, but the probability was that some unknown chemical plant in an equally unknown part of Russia had gone all Chernobyl and was spilling this toxic red shit into the atmosphere. And, knowing the former Soviet Union's track-record for reporting these kinds of accidents, well, it would probably be months or even years before the offending chemical plant was located. Even then the Russians would maintain theirlie, lie until you diepolicy of non-admission. Some things just never changed.
Emily took another large bite from her sandwich and glanced at the clock on the wall behind the counter:12:28the digital display showed.Time to get my ass into gear. She began the process of shutting her computer down and packing it away for the bike ride back to the paper.
Outside the café, she could see the daily bustle of life in New York City continuing as it had for countless years. The people changed, the buildings got dirtier and taller, but it all really just boiled down to folk getting on with their lives, doing the best they could to stay in the rat race.
Emily loved it.
"That'll be eight-seventy-five," the Italian man behind the counter said. Emily swiped her debit card and typed in her PIN, pocketing the receipt in a small pouch she carried with her. Come tax season every little bit would help.
"Have a great..." He stopped mid-sentence, his eyes looking over her left shoulder, out into the street behind her. "What'daya thinks’ going on out there?" he asked almost to himself, and Emily noticed a slightly confused look cross the man's face as she twisted around to see what he was talking about.
Through the store window, she could see heat-shimmer playing off the sidewalk and the asphalt covered road. Instead of the usual hustle and bustle she had noticed just a few minutes earlier, she saw many of the pedestrians were now simply standing still. Most were shading their eyes against the bright sun as they looked skyward.
"What the...?" exclaimed Emily, taking a step closer to the window.
From the cloudless New York sky, a crimson rain had begun to fall with the force of a light summer shower. The drops pattered onto the scorching sidewalk, and began collecting into small bloody red puddles.
A thick glob of the red liquid splashed against the store window. Emily watched it slide slowly down the glass; it seemed far more viscous than normal rain and she suddenly had an inkling of how appropriate the label 'blood rain' was. In the space of a few seconds, the light drizzle increased to a heavy shower. Rain pummeled the sidewalks, roads and buildings beyond the sanctuary of the café. It clung to the glass of the window like mud, or, more appropriately, like blood splatter at a murder scene. Gravity slowly pushed it down the windowpane, leaving a bloody trail of the viscous liquid behind. More drops hit the window, these ones were larger and hit with enough force she could hear thethumpof the impact against the glass. It was almost as loud as hail.
Pedestrians, who had until moments before stood staring in confused fascination at the bizarre spectacle, scattered and ran for shelter, some holding briefcases or clutch bags over their heads as they sprinted under awnings or into doorways and stores. Within seconds, anyone caught outside looked like a victim from a slasher movie, their thin summer shirts stained carmine and any exposed area dripping with the blood rain, which seemed capable of adhering to anything it came into contact with.
This was unbelievable!
Emily strained her neck to try to get a better view. It was hard to see clearly because the buildings were so tall, but she could just make out a patch of clear blue high above the rooftops. There were no clouds that she could see and no sign of any aircraft that could have been dumping this stuff. Just a pincushion of red dots dropping from an empty sky. So much was falling now that large pools of the gunk had formed on the pavements, fed by the overflowing gutters of the buildings that spewed bloody waterfalls onto the streets below like severed arteries. Streams of the rain ran into the gutters and along the sidewalks.
A suddenTHUD! caused Emily to give a yell of surprise and leap back from the window. Something large had hit it and fallen flapping to the pavement just outside. It was a pigeon, covered in the red rain; the half-blinded bird had flown straight into the store-front of the café. The bird, its one wing obviously broken, flapped and convulsed in a circle for a few seconds, twitched twice and then lay motionless on the sidewalk.
As Emily stood mesmerized by the final moments of the pigeon, she heard the storeowner exhale a single heavily accented expletive. "Merrrrrda," he hissed under his breath, reverting to his native Italian in disbelief.
Emily looked up from the dead pigeon in time to see more birds dropping from the sky. They spiraled down like autumn leaves, bouncing off car roofs or hitting the sides of buildings, then falling into the road where some were promptly crushed beyond recognition under the wheels of the few cars still moving. Emily wasn't sure, but she thought she saw crows mixed in with the dying pigeons. Something even larger—was that a seagull?—crashed into the windshield of a parked car across the street, setting off the anti-theft alarm, which whooped and wailed in protest.
And then, just as suddenly as it had all begun, the deluge began to slow. The harsh patter faded away to nothing, leaving behind congealing pools of the strange red liquid clinging and dripping from every exposed surface, and eight-million utterly perplexed New Yorkers.
* * *
Within minutes of the red rain stopping, people began to abandon their shelter, tentatively edging out from wherever they had managed to take cover. Some, in typical New Yorker fashion, seemed totally unfazed by the event, interested only in continuing on with whatever they had been doing before the interruption to their day, apparently unconcerned with the unprecedented phenomenon they had just witnessed. Others, in complete contrast, decided to bide their time, choosing to stay exactly where they were rather than risk being caught in another downpour of blood. Emily could see their wide eyes peeking out from under awnings, others had their faces pressed to windows staring up at the sky, their mouths agape or relaying back what they could see to those who had sought shelter with them.
Emily’s heart rate slowly began to return to its normal level, as she continued to watch, choosing to stay behind the safety of the café's front door, unwilling to leave the shelter it offered. Those of a more inquisitive nature had begun examining the remnants of the bloody storm, which, from what Emily could see of the puddles outside the café, appeared to be slowly evaporating into the early afternoon heat.
"Jesus!" Emily exclaimed, her natural reporter's inquisitiveness finally getting the better of her as she cautiously opened the door of the café and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Dead birds lay everywhere, hundreds of them, their bodies littering the road, sidewalks and parked vehicles. Each tiny body was silhouetted by a halo of the slowly dissipating red goop. It took another couple of minutes for Emily to realize she was missing a perfect opportunity for a story. She unslung her backpack, pulled her Nikon from its case and began shooting a panoramic HD video of the scene. After she’d recorded enough footage she switched the camera to regular photo mode and began firing off close-ups of the dead birds, the pale shocked faces of bewildered locals and, most importantly of all, extreme close-ups of the now fast disappearing remnants of red rain. A few globules of the red stuff still hung from the handlebars of her bike and she took a few photos of it as it dripped obscenely into a small puddle around her front tire.
Through the macroscopic zoom of the camera Emily could see the rain, or whatever the hell it actually was, was not simply evaporating or being absorbed into the pavement like normal liquid. Instead, the red goop looked as though it was breaking apart into smaller pieces. As Emily continued to shoot footage of the puddle she saw one piece simply disintegrate into hundreds of tiny red particles that flipped and somersaulted on the street's warm currents of air like an aerosol spray, before spiraling away like the Dandelion seeds she used to love to watch float on an evening breeze as a kid.
"What do you think that was?" said a young man, startling her from her observation. The kid had been sheltering under the awning of a bookstore next to the café, streaks of red stained his white business shirt and Emily could see droplets of the rain still clinging to his hair. "I mean, where did it come from? There were no clouds at all."
Emily considered his question for a moment before replying; "I have no fucking clue," she finally said. "No clue at all."
Emily stepped back into the café.
“So, whad’ya think it is?” the owner asked. He had chosen to stay safely behind his counter and Emily couldn’t say she blamed him.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” she answered. The old Italian seemed to take her reply in stride, nodding as if she had confirmed something he’d already known.
“Is not natural,” he said to no one in particular.
Emily had been meticulous about avoiding the remainder of the red rain, carefully stepping around the puddles on the sidewalk and avoiding any kind of skin contact with the crap. But there was still a splatter of the stuff on her bike’s handlebars and she wasn’t going to risk touching it if she could help it.
“Can I grab a couple of these?” she asked the Italian, pointing at a container of disinfecting wipes on the side counter.
“Sure, sure,” said the old man. “Help yourself.” Emily pulled five of the wipes from the plastic dispenser and walked back out to her bike. She carefully wiped down the handlebars, leather seat, and then the cross bar and frame, making sure to toss the used sheets into the trashcan outside the café.
Satisfied with the job she had done of the cleanup, Emily climbed into the saddle of her bike, gave the café owner an a-okay thumbs-up accompanied by her brightest smile, then began peddling back in the direction of theTribune'soffices.
Already the daily routine of New York City had begun to swing back towards normal, as though the downpour of red rain from the afternoon’s empty blue sky was an everyday occurrence and not something that should stop the city dead in its tracks. On the streets, the usual sluggish flow of vehicles continued much as it did every day. Horns sounded in outrage as pedestrians chanced their luck at jaywalking and drivers’ tempers began to fray. Tourists wandered aimlessly, staring in store windows and snapping pictures with expensive looking cameras, apparently oblivious to the dead birds littering the sidewalks, while the occasional kamikaze cyclist tempted fate hurtling between vehicles.
But, here and there, Emily spotted remnants of the red rain: in puddles on the sidewalk, on stained clothing and the occasional worried face of a passerby. And, she noted, the air now seemed full of barely visible particles of red dust, floating on the warm eddies wafting past her like pollen.
While the majority of the city seemed to have already shrugged off the event, Emily sensed this was no normal day. She knew, with a concrete certainty that sank deep to the bottom of her stomach, the world would remember this day, and those that followed it, for as long as there was still a human race left.
* * *
There are few things more disconcerting to a career reporter than to walk into a paper's newsroom and find it silent. It's where the stories are made, put together and researched. On any normal day, no matter what time you walked in, the room should be a controlled commotion of reporters running back and forth, consulting in corners or answering ringing phones; the newsroom is the beating heart of any newspaper.
And as Emily pushed through the double doors into what should be a room full of chaos and noise—especially given the incredible meteorological events she had just witnessed—what greeted her instead was the sonic equivalent of a library reading room.
Pausing for a moment, she scanned the room. While the day-shift of thirty-plus journalists and editorial staff all seemed present and correct, instead of being at their workstations eagerly putting together that evening's edition, they had gathered in groups around the five 50-inch TV screens mounted on the walls of the room. On a normal day, each TV would usually be tuned to a different major national or international news channel, ready to catch any breaking stories that may have escaped the paper's ever-watchful staff. Right now, every screen showed CNN. The reporting staff, all the way up to the senior editor himself, stood silently watching as others reported on a developing story that, on any other day, they would be tirelessly pursuing.
No one noticed Emily as she entered the newsroom. There was none of the usual banter or greetings from her friends and comrades, in fact, not one pair of eyes shifted from the TV screens to Emily as she moved to her cubicle, and dropped her backpack on the desk.
There were only a couple of possible reasons for the paper to come to a grinding halt, especially this close to a deadline. The first was that no one had witnessed the event that had happened less than an hour ago. Emily instantly dismissed this theory, as it was obvious everyone must be aware of what had just happened. She could see from the crimson stains on her workmates clothing that some, like her, had been away from the office when the red rain struck.
The second reason, and Emily found thisveryhard to believe, was a news event even more earthshaking had supplanted one Emily thought would be the biggest event to demand a paper's headlines since the 911 attacks... and that idea frightened Emilyverymuch.
"Emily? Where have you been? You okay?" The barrage of questions from Sven Konkoly, one of the paper's sub-editors broke her from her introspection.
"Yes. Out. Fine," she fired back before taking a deep breath to calm nerves she hadn't even realized were frazzled. "What's going on? Did you see what just happened?" she said, her hand fluttering towards the window.
Sven ignored her question, "Come on over here," he demanded. "You need to take a look at this, right now." Not waiting for Emily to comply, Sven grabbed her by her elbow and guided her to the group crowded around the nearest TV. On-screen, a female CNN news-anchor was talking to a young man via a laptop videophone connection, his frightened face filled a box in the top right corner of the screen giving the appearance he was talking over the news anchor's shoulder. A caption under the image of the man readFRANCOIS REVEILLION. Emily estimated he was no more than twenty-six,maybetwenty-eight, tops. His eyes were bloodshot and betrayed a barely restrained panic that belied the calmly delivered answers he was giving to the news anchor’s questions.
"—exactly is going on there? Can you describe what you're seeing?"
When the young man spoke it was with heavily accented English, Emily guessed he was either French or maybe Belgian.
"Everyone is very, very sick," Francois said, his face so close to the lens of the camera Emily could see the pale, almost translucent quality of his skin. Red veins stood out on his forehead and a spider’s web of tiny broken blood vessels seemed to be spreading from his left temple to his cheek, terminating just above the man's blond mustache. Emily could see beads of sweat pooling on his forehead and begin to drip slowly down his face. When he turned his head and looked away from the camera for a second she saw more of the ruptured blood vessels on his neck. His eyes were striated with thick lines of red and deep pockets of blood had collected in the corner of each eye until little of the normal white remained. He looked like a boxer who'd just taken a twelve-round pummeling.
"People are dying here," he said. "Many people. They are becoming sick and then they just die. I see them on the streets, in their cars. There are many, many dead here."
"When you say that there are many deaths, how many? Can you tell us?"
The man paused for a second before replying: "Everyone," he said. "Everyone is dead." His voice stuttered slightly as the terror everyone knew he felt, momentarily flashed across his face.
"Look, I will show you," he continued. The screen wobbled as he picked up the laptop and carried it a short distance before turning the lens to face out through a second-story set of bay-windows. It was dark wherever Francois was broadcasting from, but light from several street lamps cast enough illumination for those gathered around the TV to be able to make out a tree-lined street with rows of two-story houses on either side. The houses, nothing but dark square-shaped silhouettes, looked European in design, like some of the pictures Emily had once seen of villages in Provence. There seemed to be several cars randomly parked in the road; a white compact was resting half on the sidewalk, its rear end straddling the curb of the road, a telltale plume of exhaust fumes floated up from the vehicle’s still running engine.
"What are those?" a reporter next to Emily asked, pointing to several dark almost indistinguishable shapes scattered randomly on the sidewalk and in the road. One of the shapes seemed to be slumped against a streetlight.
"Are those bodies? Fuck! Those are bodies." The panic in the young reporter's voice made his words rise in pitch as he uttered each expletive.
Emily quickly counted at least fifteen unmoving shapes lying in the street. It was impossible to distinguish their sex from this distance, but she could see one that definitely looked small enough to be that of a child. Next to the child a larger form lay spread eagled on the pavement, one arm seemingly reaching out to the motionless body of the child.
This was bad, she realized. This was probablyverybad.
The view on the screen switched from the street back to the face of the young man and a gasp of astonishment mixed with horror escaped from many of those watching. In the few seconds the camera was focused on the unfolding disaster outside, the striations in the man's eyes had spread until no white could be seen at all; his eyes looked like two pools of congealed blood. The network of veins Emily had noticed earlier had doubled in thickness and now extended across his entire face. A delicate web of veins appeared suddenly on his cheeks and a steady stream of thick bloody mucous began flowing from both of his nostrils.
Perhaps it was just her own fear reflected back at her but, despite the obliteration of his eyes, which were now nothing but black pits, Emily thought she could still see the terror he was experiencing captured in them. As the group continued to watch in morbid fascination, Francois’ mouth opened and closed once as though trying to speak, instead of words a thick gush of red liquid exploded from his mouth. Droplets splattered against the camera lens and he dropped from view, replaced by the image of a chair-leg as the laptop computer toppled from his hands and fell to the floor. A low, gurgling moan filtered through the TV speakers but it was quickly silenced as the newsfeed cut back to the CNN presenter.
The female presenter was visibly shaking, her skin so pale even the layer of makeup she wore could not hide it. She pulled herself together and continued her narration. "If... if you're just joining us..." Her words were lost to Emily as a petite blond standing next to her suddenly began to sob and grabbed for Emily’s hand.
"Oh, no! Oh, no!" the woman, whom Emily did not recognize, gasped repeatedly. The pretty young girl's voice was tinged with a growing tone of panic, and Emily felt the woman’s grasp on her hand tighten as tears began to stream down her face. "Is that going to happen to me?" she bleated, her voice barely audible as she clutched at her own crimson stained blouse with her free hand. "Am I going todie?"
Emily squeezed the woman's hand back as firmly as she could. "No, of course not," she said, although she could hear the lack of conviction in her own voice. "We're going to be just fine," Emily reassured her, mustering as much faith to her voice as she was able and reinforcing her weak words with a forced smile.
Sven pulled Emily aside. "Do you believe this shit? Jesus Christ!"
"What about the other news outlets? What are they saying?" Emily asked.
"The same: first the red rain comes and then people die. There's been no news from anywhere East of Germany for hours. It looks like the whole of Europe's fuckingdead."
* * *
“So, just what are we supposed to do exactly?” asked Frank Embry, one of the crime-beat reporters. Embry was in his late sixties, and looked as though he had been plucked right out of the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel. His hair was always slicked back and he would never be found without his gray raincoat (Frank insisted on calling it a mack) which he wore in the winter and slung over his arm in the summer. He’d always carry a rolled-up copy of the previous daysTribunein his free hand. “It adds to the mystique,” he would tell anyone who asked why he chose to dress like that. Most every other reporter thought he was a little nuts but Emily thought it was quite charming.
The full staff of theTribunecrammed into the lower floor meeting room. Senior editorial management had decided to call a conference and pulled everyone in twenty-minutes after Emily arrived back at the office. A feeling of dread permeated the little meeting room, not helped by the overbearing smell of sweat as too many people crowded into too small a space. Senior staff members were already seated around the eight-person conference table when Emily joined the meeting. The rest of the paper’s employees were either standing or leaning against the walls.
“It’s really up to you guys,” said Konkoly. “On any other day, I’d say we stay at our posts, I mean, shit, everyone remembers 911, we didn’t leave for three days. But this? This is a whole other bucket of fish.”
Under other circumstances, Emily—along with the majority of the staff—would have laughed aloud at Konkoly’s unintentional slip of the tongue. He had a habit of mangling idioms when he was nervous which was endearing and often hilarious, but his mistake went unnoticed today.
“I’ve spoken with both the senior editor and the publisher,” Konkoly continued, “and, while they would obviously like to see today’s paper go out, they’re watching the TV too. They told me to tell you it was your choice whether we stay or we go.”
“You got that right,” a voice piped up from the far side of the room.
Konkoly looked around the room at the grim faces staring back at him. “I’m pretty sure I know what the result will be already, but let’s see a show of hands for those who want to call it a day and get out of here.” Everyone except Frank raised their hands. He continued to lean against the wall, his hands folded in front of him. He’d left his mack at his desk.
“Frank?” The sub-editor’s voice was tinged with concern for the eccentric crime reporter.
“I’m staying,” Frank replied stubbornly. “I’ve been with this paper for almost thirty years and I’ll-be-damned if I’m leaving now.”
“Jesus, Frank, were you watching the TV? You saw what’s happening in Europe. What do you think this town’s going to be like if that happens here?” Emily couldn’t see who had spoken but judging by the thick Brooklyn accent it was probably Janice one of the paper’s legion of proofreaders. “You have to go home. Who knows how long this is going to last. It could be days before everything gets back to normal.”
“Thisismy home,” replied Frank. “Besides, there’s no one for me to go home to. At least if I’m here I can do some good. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. And when this all blows over, I’ll be the first to tell you ‘I told ya so.” He added a half-hearted smile to his last statement that seemed to convince everyone he was resolute about staying put.
“Alright people. It’s decided, this paper is officially closed until this all blows over. I’ll see you all then. Keep your cellphones close; we’ll call you when we need you. In the meantime … don’t you all have homes to go to?”
The paper’s staff began filing out of the meeting; what little conversation there was, continued in hushed, subdued voices. Emily stopped at her cubicle and waited, pretending to check through her mail while the rest of the staff grabbed their belongings and headed towards the exit. Finally, when only Frank and Sven were left, she walked over to them. Frank’s back was to Emily as he talked with Sven. She pulled the elbow of his tweed jacket to get his attention.
“Emily, my dear,” he said, turning to look at her. “I thought I saw your beautiful face in the meeting room. What a day, eh? What a day.”
“It truly sucks, Frank. Listen, why don’t you come home and stay with me? I’ve got the room. There’s no need to stay here alone.”
Frank smiled at her, his gray eyes twinkling, “While I appreciate the offer, I’m going to man my post. Besides, I won’t be alone; Mr. Konkoly here has decided to keep me company, haven’t you?”
Konkoly just nodded, and while his mouth smiled his eyes were unconvinced. “Yeah, someone’s got to make sure this old coot doesn’t run off with the computers.”
“You’re sure? The both of you are more than welcome to stay with me.”
“While the offer is tempting,” said Frank, “we’re staying. You’ll find us right here when you come back. Don’t worry.”
Konkoly simply smiled and shrugged. Both men looked at her reassuringly and she knew they wouldn’t budge.
“Take care you two,” she said over her shoulder as she turned and walked back to collect her belongings from her desk. “You know where I am if you change your mind. Just give me a call and let me know you’re on your way, if you change your mind. Okay?”
She smiled as she caught Frank’s whispered words to Sven, “Oh, if only I was thirty-years younger, I might just take her up on that offer. Life is just so damn unfair.”
* * *
Emily pushed through theTribune’srevolving doors and stepped out onto the street. The day seemed just like any other. The streets filled with people and vehicles intent on getting wherever it was they were headed. She couldn’t detect any hint of panic or even an undercurrent of unease as she stood for a moment watching. It looked like the news of the deaths in Europe had not reached the majority of the city's occupants yet. Everything looked and sounded so normal. Down the street, near the intersection, Emily heard the screech of brakes followed by a burst of profanity. While the world was falling apart around them, the people of New York continued with their day, either oblivious or uncaring of what was happening across the ocean in Europe.
Occasionally, someone would pass her with a look of worry fixed to their face, a cellphone pushed firmly against their ear as they spoke in low concerned tones to the person on the other end of the line, maneuvering their way through the crowd and on to some unknown destination. Emily thought she was probably witnessing the slow dissemination of the news as it gradually filtered down to the city's inhabitants.
At some point the spread of information would reach a tipping point among the city’s inhabitants, a critical mass that Emily knew would turn this city inside out and upside down. As news of the deaths across the Pacific became common knowledge peoplewouldpanic, and then New York would become a very dangerous place to be caught out in the open. It was imperative she got home as quickly as possible. She needed to prepare for whatever was heading her way. Emily had seen enough disaster movies in her time to know whatever came next was not going to be pretty.
She moved out into the crowd, cutting diagonally against the flow of pedestrians so she could reach the bike. She released the lock and unthreaded the chain from between the bike’s wheels, stowed the chain in her backpack, checked there were no taxis using the bike-lane as a shortcut, and, when she saw it was clear, began peddling towards home.
* * *
Forty minutes after leaving theTribuneoffices, Emily pulled up outside her apartment block. She locked her bike to the security stand out front and headed inside.
The lobby was busier than it should have been at this time of day, a sure sign, she thought, that news of the deaths sweeping across Europe had finally begun to filter on to the general populace's radar. A group of five people waited nervously in front of the elevator. They looked scared, more scared than she had seen anyone since leaving theTribune'snewsroom. She wondered how much information had actually trickled down in the time it had taken her to get home.
Emily recognized a couple of the tenants waiting in front of the elevator and almost said hello, but she noticed stains from the red rain on their clothes and thought better of it, choosing instead to simply nod, smile and keep what was hopefully a safe distance between them and her. She had managed to keep herself free of any contact with the red rain so far. She did not know if that would matter in the long run, but it was probably better not to take any chances and to remain as far away from those who had been caught in the deluge as much as she possibly could.
She had no way to tell how the agent or pathogen or whatever this red rain turned out to be had killed those people in Europe, or how it was spread. For all she knew, it could be airborne and simply breathing the same air or touching a doorknob used by an infected person could mean the difference between living and dying. In fact, it was probably a good idea to avoid enclosed spaces like the cabin of the elevator and avoid any contact with possibly contaminated people, period.
"Jesus!" she said aloud, surprised at how little time it had taken her survival instincts to label everyone a potential threat to her life. She felt shitty for thinking that way, but how else was shesupposedto think? Less than two hours ago, she had witnessed a man die horribly, live on TV. And if that was what lay in store for the people of New York, well, she was sure as hell going to do whatever it took to guarantee it didn’t happen to her.
With that thought still burning brightly in her mind, Emily opened the door to the emergency stairwell and began climbing the stairs up to her apartment.
Emily knew how lucky she was to have snagged her apartment. Perfectly placed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it was just a stone’s throw from the Hudson River and some of the most amazing restaurants in the area. It was also handy for the 66th Street and Lincoln Center Subway station, if she needed it, which was rare, but sometimes her stories took her outside of her comfortable biking range.
The kind of rent her apartment usually went for was well outside of what Emily would normally be able to afford on a journalist’s salary, but she'd landed it for an unbelievable price after she'd written a flattering piece for the owner of the complex. Her article had helped him fill vacant units and he’d been very happy with her. To show his appreciation he had given her a sweet discount; that's how it worked out sometimes, just one of the perks of the job. Who was she to complain?
The apartment was a one-bedroom, one-bath studio on the seventeenth of twenty-five floors. She knew a couple of the other tenants on her floor; most were single professionals, but there was a married couple in one of the apartments and a single mom with a eight-month-old little boy—his name was Ben and he was just so adorable—a few apartments down from Emily's. While the majority of her neighbors were friendly, she knew them on nodding terms only; everyone kept to themselves for the most part, which was fine by her.
The complex had its own gym in the basement area and a covered community pool on the roof. Not that Emily ever had the time to use either, of course, but it was nice to know they were there if she ever decided to take advantage. One day, maybe when she retired, she'd get to use them, but until that day she was just too busy and far too committed to the job to be bothered with minor distractions like staying healthy. Besides, her daily bicycle commute was more exercise than the majority of people got in a month.
Emily grabbed a diet soda from the fridge and walked into the living room. The far wall was framed by a large bay-window that looked out over the nearby rooftops toward the Hudson River and beyond. She was secretly in love with whoever had designed the apartments because they were smart enough to include a seat beneath the window where she could sit and watch the world pass by. Emily called the little area her roost. It was just a wooden bench with a thick layer of padding and a pastel blue microfiber cover, but it was one of her favorite places to sit and unwind from the many and varied stresses her job had a tendency to throw at her on a daily basis.
Emily kicked off her shoes and sat down on the bench. Pulling her legs up to her chin, she took a long pull of her soda and stared out over the city. While most of her view was blocked by a row of equally tall buildings positioned between her apartment block and the Hudson, she could still see the tree lined shore of West New York in the distance.
Until today Emily had always thought of the sprawling metropolis of New York as a microcosm of the US, a multi-cultural machine with very different parts that, despite their differences, worked together for the common good of all. It was loud, it was brash, and it was unapologetic. It had always seemed to unstoppable in its continual forward movement. That all changed today. Not since the dark days of 911 had she seen so much fear on people’s faces.
Emily looked down at the street. The buildings were mainly older office blocks, but sprinkled here and there was the occasional small store. Within walking distance, a hungry office worker could find a coffee shop, a florist, and just across the street from her place, a small corner convenience store that kept a stock of canned goods, newspapers and candy.
As Emily’s eyes roamed the buildings, she saw a flurry of motion in the street. A group of about twenty people had gathered outside the convenience store. At this distance, there was no way she could hear what the group was saying, but their body language was unmistakable; they were pissed. Fingers were being pointed, fists clenched and people were being pushed. Most of the anger seemed to be directed at a single man, he stood in the doorway of the store, his hands raised to the side of his head, palms out, as though trying to tell the angry crowd to stay back. The crowd, which seemed one wrong word away from being reclassified to mob status by Emily, apparently wasn’t having any of it.
Emily thought she saw a fist connect with the man in the doorway’s face and then he disappeared in a mass of flailing arms and bodies as the crowd pushed their way forward, surging through the narrow doorway and into the little store. Seconds later, she watched as people began running from the store, their hands full of the shop’s stock. She watched a man trip and fall, the cans and bottles of water he carried spilling from his hands, as he sprawled into the road, narrowly avoiding a speeding SUV as it barely managed to swerve around him. The vehicle didn’t even try to brake, Emily noted. By the time the man raised himself to his feet and dusted himself off, others had already grabbed everything he’d stolen. He stood dazed in the middle of the road for a moment, then took off running up the street, quickly disappearing from Emily’s view.
Emily had seen plenty of disturbing incidents during her time at the paper, but there was something uniquely upsetting about the scene she had just watched play out beneath her window. She felt … impotent. It was like watching someone she loved dearly succumb to madness, and there was no one and nothing that could help.
The sound of someone knocking at her apartment door dragged Emily from her thoughts. She wasn’t expecting company so it could only be Konkoly and Frank. They must have changed their minds and decided to take her up on her offer to stay with her. But if that was true why hadn’t they called ahead to let her know they were on their way?
“Coming,” she called and walked to the front door.
The owner of the building was big on security, so every apartment was equipped with a peephole that gave the occupant a fish-eye view of the corridor directly outside. When Emily placed her eye to the viewer it wasn’t her colleagues from the paper, instead she saw a police officer standing outside her door.
* * *
Emily unlatched the security chain and opened the front door. The cop was a good six-two, with sandy brown hair cut so short most of it was concealed beneath his cap. A nametag over the left breast pocket of the cop’s uniform jacket readMEADOWS.
"Nathan? Thank God you’re here,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek. “Have you heard what’s going on? Do you know anything?"
The cop didn’t answer; instead, he pushed past Emily into the apartment entrance then turned to face her.
"Shut the door, " he said brusquely, his usually calm voice laced with an edge of panic she had never heard before.
"Jesus, Nathan. Not even a hello?" she replied, allowing anger to creep into her voice, more to cover her own uneasiness than because she was truly annoyed at him.
“I’m sorry, Em.” he said and leaned in to kiss her firmly on the mouth. When he finally released her, she took a single step back and stared up into the face of her boyfriend.
“I thought you were on duty today?”
“I’m supposed to be,” he answered as he walked towards the kitchen, “but Em, it’s crazy out there. I couldn’t even get within ten-miles of the precinct. Everyone’s leaving Manhattan and heading out of the city. The roads are jammed, people are going crazy.” He stepped around the counter to the sink, took a glass from the cupboard and filled it from the faucet.
“I tried calling the Captain,” he continued, as he sipped at the water, “but the lines are all busy. I thought I’d check on you and hold-up here for a couple of hours until the roads clear, and then I’d head in.”
They took a few minutes to talk about what they knew. Nathan had seen the same newscast as Emily and had no more information than she had.
“How bad do you think it will be?” Emily asked eventually, trying to keep her voice from betraying the panic she could feel in the pit of her stomach.
“Honestly, I don’t know, Em. But shit, did youseethe red rain? I was on my way out the door when it came and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. You’re the reporter, how do you explain that?”
She couldn’t, of course. She’d seen the same phenomenon and had no idea how the rain had fallen from a clear sky. “I can’t,” she finally said, and moved around the counter to join him. “All I know is that I’m glad you’re here.” She reached out and took hold of the lapels of his jacket, pulled him to her and kissed him again.
As she released him, Emily felt something wet beneath her fingers. She glanced down at her hand and gasped, feeling the world shrink until the only thing that existed were the tips of her fingers... and the dapple of red covering them.
"Oh!" she said in disbelief, and, as realization of what she was looking at sank in, added a sharp: "Shit!” She turned and ran to the kitchen, throwing open the cabinet beneath the sink, she grabbed the bottle of Clorox bleach.
"Shit! Shit! Shit!" she whispered through panic stretched lips. She rammed the plug into the drain then emptied the entire liter container of bleach into the sink, tossed the empty bottle onto the counter and plunged her hands into the bleach. She counted the seconds off in her head: one-one-thousand... two-one-thousand... three-one-thousand…
Only after she was sure her hands had been submerged for at least thirty seconds did she pull them out, just long enough to grab a scouring pad from the counter and begin rubbing furiously at the remaining red stains on her hands.
This cannot be happening, she thought. After all the precautions, after managing to avoid contact with that fucking rain all day and everyone who might have come into contact with it, she'd been tripped up by something as simple as wanting to kiss her boyfriend?
How fucking fair was that?
Emily began to sob quietly to herself as the full weight of the day finally broke through the crack of her consciousness, delivering an emotional sledgehammer blow against her chest.
"Jesus, Em. Are you okay?" Nathan was at her side, a hand resting gently on her shoulder.
She spun around and knocked his hand away. “Why didn’t you tell me you had that shit on you?” she yelled, spittle flying from her lips. Nathan flinched and took a step back. While they’d had their arguments since being together, he’d never seen her as upset or as angry as she felt now. “You should have told me, goddamn it. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I … I’m sorry, Em,” he stuttered. “I didn’t even think …”
Emily looked up at Nathan’s horrified face, his concern for her was so obvious and his reaction to her fear so like him. It was a big reason why she loved him.
They had met just over two years earlier at the scene of a multiple car pileup. The accident claimed the lives of a young family of three along with two other drivers. The guy that had caused the crash—smashed out of his gourd, of course—had walked away with just a couple of scratches.
"How romantic isthat!" she would usually tell people who asked how two seemingly polar opposites had got together. But the truth was, Nathan was the only cop Emily had met in all her years on the job who was still moved by the arbitrary nature of destruction, loss of innocent life and the pain he witnessed on a daily basis. Unlike other cops, Officer Nathan Meadows still knew how tofeel,he retained a human heart, and he wasn’t afraid to allow it to show. And in the often-dark world both she and Nathan inhabited, well, that was a trait she found very attractive.
Oh yeah, and he had no problem with her use of ‘language’, as her Mother would call Emily’s ability to swear like a proverbial sailor. Dating was hard enough in this town; finding someone to put up with her inordinate knowledge of cuss words was even harder.
Emily felt the anger leave her. She stepped in close to Nathan and threw her arms around his waist, sinking her head onto his chest, aware that she was probably opening herself to more contamination with this simple act of intimate contact, but not caring anymore. She knew she had deluded herself into a false sense of security from the moment she set foot outside the safety of the café after the red rain had fallen.
How did that happen exactly, she wondered.
The world was literally falling to pieces and she was trying to act as though it was all okay, as though she was somehow outside of it? When had she become so unnerved? At what point in the day had her subconscious started to delude her into ignoring the obvious, terrifying probability that the world was about to suffer through a catastrophe unlike any in modern history? Howdidthat happen?I mean, this could be as bad as the Spanish flu, it could kill millions across the globe,she thought. Maybe even more.
Fuck, her mind shouted at the thought of all the suffering this could bring. She buried her face deeper into Nathan's chest, smelling the musk of his sweat through the layers of his uniform, fighting the urge to cry. Dark waves of fear smashed through her body. Weakened by the panic that held her firmly within its grasp, Emily felt her legs turn into so much jelly. She just couldn’t hold back anymore, hot tears welled up and began to trickle down her cheeks.
Nathan let her lean against him, resting his cheek against the top of her head until her sobbing gradually began to subside.
* * *
Emily could not think of any other time in her life when she had been quite as scared as she felt right now. Her fear was a gnawing uncertainty whittling away at the lining of her stomach, it seized every bone, nerve, and muscle in its ice-cold grasp, demanding that she stop, right now, and curl up into a ball until everything was back the way it should be.
She had never been one to simply give in to fear, and she certainly wasn’t going to start now she told herself, despite what had just happened, but her body was in the grip of an ancient, primal survival instinct and she found it very hard to resist.
Nathan had finally managed to reach the precinct and he had spent the last ten minutes stalking back and forth through the apartment while he spoke in a hushed voice to whoever was on the other end of the line. When he was finished, he snapped his phone shut, slipped it back in his pocket and joined Emily in the living room.
“They’re pulling everyone’s leave,” Nathan said, sitting next to her on the couch. “They aren’t telling us much other than the city’s going into full lockdown.”
“Is that just here or throughout the state?” she asked, blowing her nose in a tissue Nathan handed her from a supply he kept in his jacket pocket.
Nathan considered her question for a second, she knew him well enough to know when he was pondering whether he should divulge some piece of private info or not.
“Christ, Nathan. It’s not like I’m going to run off to the paper and publish your every word. You can’t hold out on me with this. Not now. Not today,” she said, unhappy with the whiney tone her voice had taken on.
“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” he said, “it’s just that I don’t want to scare you any more than you already are. Besides, the intelligence we have isn’t much more use to you than what you’re seeing on the TV. The Captain told me the word is they’re prepping for massive casualties. The CDC has absolutely no idea what to do. They can’t even fathom what the red shit is, let alone what it’s going to do to us, so there’s no chance of a vaccine. They don’t know how it’s communicated or why it does what it does, Em.”
“So what are we supposed to do while these guys sit on their thumbs? Just wait and hope for the best? Shit!” Emily jumped up and began searching for the TV remote. She found it sitting on the kitchen counter and pressed the ON button.
The TV was tuned to a movie channel from the night before, it was playing some fifties science fiction flick, so she quickly tapped in the number for the local news station. Unsurprisingly the presenters were talking about the red rain.
"—seems to be confirmation that the news out of most of Europe is as devastating as we have heard. The President issued a statement just a short time ago stating, and I quote: 'while there is no reason to expect the same problems here in the US, I recommend that you practice an abundance of caution and avoid anyone who has come in to contact with the red rain until the Center for Disease Control has had time to analyze samples and can determine exactly what we are dealing with.' The President went on to say that he thought it best if all citizens return to their homes and remain inside for the next twelve hours. Reports are also reaching us that National Guard units across the country have been mobilized to help deal with any unrest and to ensure the security of major population centers. Going back to our main story, all contact with Europe and the Russian Federation appears to have ceased approximately eight-hours after the first reports of the so called ‘blood rain’. However, news agencies across the US have received numerous videos and messages apparently depicting mass casualties from countries including Britain and France.
Similar incidents of the red rain phenomenon have been reported across the continental US, Canada and South America. Again, if you’re just joining us, the President of the United States has announced that …”
Nathan turned the TV off. “I’m not reporting for duty,” he said. “Fuck ‘em. I think it’s better if we just ride it out here. “
“They’ll fire you, Nathan,” she said, surprised that he would be willing to risk losing his job.
Nathan thought about what she said before answering. “I don’t care,” he said finally. “Besides, I don’t know if there’s even going to be a job to go back to.”
* * *
“How much food do you have, Em?”
Nathan’s question left Emily stumped for a moment because she hadn’t even given her supply of food a thought. Her job wasn’t your standard nine-to-five, so most days she would eat lunch at her desk or at the nearest café, as she had today. When she got home, she would usually grab something light like a salad or a sandwich. She didn’t exactly keep a well stocked pantry.
She checked the shelves, inventorying what food she did have: a six-pack of instant soup, two six-packs of V8 Juice, a couple of cans of tinned fruit, a tin of peas and one of mixed vegetables. There was a half a loaf of eight-grain bread in the breadbasket on the counter. The fridge held the remains of a quart of skimmed milk, an almost full bottle of orange juice, half-a pack of honey-roast ham, enough fresh vegetables to make a couple of decent salads, some leftover vegetable lasagna from two nights earlier, and four cans of Bud Light beer. It wasn’t what anyone could call a stockpile, but it would be enough to last them a couple of days until this all blew over.
It couldn’t take any longer than that, right?
Nathan apparently didn’t agree with her assessment because when he saw how much food was left, Emily had to stop him from leaving and heading out to the store to pick up more supplies.
“You can’t,” she said. “It’s not worth the risk. We have to minimize our exposure, and you traipsing off to the store is only going to heighten our chances of getting sick. We can survive for a couple of days on what we have; we’ll just have to be careful.” She paused for a second then added with a coy smile, “We’ll just have to find ways to take our mind off the lack of food.”
Nathan seemed on the verge of going anyway. Emily reached out and took his hand in hers, she could see the frustration written across his face; he was a man used to acting in situations, to being in control, a solution-finder who was now faced with an insolvable problem. “It’s okay,” she said, squeezing his hand. She saw the look of resignation on his face now, but that quickly transformed into a smile. He leaned in and kissed her gently on the lips, then placed both hands on her shoulders and held her at arm’s length, looking deep into her eyes. “I love you, Emily Baxter,” he said.
She thought about it for only a second: “I love you too,” she said then pulled him close and kissed him again.
* * *
There was little real news on any of the TV channels. Most of what was being broadcast was just speculation or reruns of video and audio collected from webcams and phone messages recorded at the time the effects of the red rain hit Europe. And, of course, there was sensationalism, lots of it. Depending on who a reporter was interviewing, it was either the Rapture, a Chinese backed attempt to exert a stranglehold over the world, or just a big hoax to try to frighten the American people into paying more taxes for healthcare. No one actuallyknewwhat was going on, it was all just so much speculation, but mainly it was depressing and incredibly frightening. So, after an hour of staring at the same talking-heads, Emily switched channels and searched for anything that would take their minds off what was going on outside the apartment. She settled for a rerun of an old black-and-white movie.
Emily and Nathan sat next to each other on the sofa and allowed themselves to be soothed into a sense of normalcy, her head resting against his shoulder, his hand resting in her lap. Her eyelids became heavy and, rather than struggle against it, she allowed the gentleness of the moment to sweep over her. Within minutes, her eyes closed and she was asleep.
* * *
Emily awoke with a start, unsure of where she was. It took her a moment to realize she was stretched out on her sofa, Nathan’s jacket was lying over her chest, but he was no longer sitting next to her. For a brief moment, she thought he had decided to chance a trip out to the stores for supplies but, as she sat up, she heard his voice from behind her.
“Hey there, sleepy-head. How you feeling?” She turned in her seat to face him, he was standing in the kitchen working on a cup of coffee.
“Want a cup?” he asked.
“No. Thanks,” she replied, then stretched and stood up, placing his police jacket on the arm of the sofa. She glanced at the stove’s digital clock: she’d been asleep for almost two hours.
At some point during her impromptu nap, Nathan had switched the TV back to CNN. He had lowered the volume to just above a whisper.
The news anchor spoke in an urgent rapid tone, but he didn’t have anything new to add and was just repeating the same news she had already heard. Emily was reaching for the remote to switch the TV off, still tired of feeling terrified, when she noticed something odd. The presenter was bleeding from his nose; it started with just a few drops splashing onto the pile of loose paper he held in front of him then quickly turned into a rapid drip. It took him a couple of seconds before he realized he was bleeding. He dabbed at his nose with his right hand, a look of surprise and embarrassment crossing his face as it came back bloody. He began to apologize for the unscripted interruption but stopped mid sentence as the blood suddenly streamed from both nostrils, his hand fluttered up to his face to staunch the bleeding but the blood was flowing so quickly it ran straight over the back of his hand and between his fingers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I … I’m terribly sorry about this …” He began to cough, pulling in huge gulps of air, then to choke, his face turning as white as the blood splattered sheet of paper he still clutched in his free hand. Emily could see the fear in his eyes as he and probably several million people across the state realized what they were witnessing. With a sudden spasm, the man's head flew back, exposing his throat and the thick bright-red engorged veins pulsing beneath the skin. A violent muscle spasm snapped the presenter’s upper-body forward, his face and chest smashed into the desk, sending a spray of blood flying across the room, one globule hit the camera and slid slowly down the lens leaving a pink translucent smear behind. The man convulsed again, his body flying back into the upright position; his eyes stared directly into the camera as a slow wet gurgling escaped from his throat.
The man's microphone picked up screams of terror from the studio staff but they were barely audible above the sound of the TV presenter as he slowly drowned in his own blood, his body gripped by violent convulsions as though he was in the midst of a grand-mal seizure. A thick red stream of blood exploded from his mouth, sloshing across the news desk. He continued to shake violently for a few seconds then abruptly stopped. His jaw fell open and he exhaled a long sigh as his head slumped forward until his chin came to rest against the lapel of his bloodstained shirt.
The screams the microphone picked up as the presenter died had been replaced by the sounds of faint gurgles and cries.
Emily realized she was shaking. "Oh my God," she cried, through hands clasped tightly to her mouth. "Shit! Shit! Shit! Nathan? Are you watching this? Dear God almighty, it's here."
Emily turned to look back at Nathan. Her boyfriend was still standing in the kitchen, his face pale with shock, bloodshot eyes locked on hers as a stream of red gore exploded from his mouth, flooded onto his shirt and began to form a crimson pool on the carpet.
Nathan was dead on the kitchen floor.
His body lay slumped against the wall next to the refrigerator, a large pool of blood slowly congealing next to him and on his gore covered uniform.
Emily wasn't sure how long she had stared at Nathan’s lifeless body, it must have been a while, because the screams and cries of the dying she heard filtering through her walls from surrounding apartments, had finally, mercifully, stopped.
She had registered the suffering of her fellow residents only in passing, her attention caught completely by Nathan as he collapsed and began to convulse, his left foot banging spastically against the refrigerator. Each time his shoe struck the refrigerator door the cuff of his jeans inched up a little, revealing the almost translucent skin of his leg. Bulging veins pushed against the skin; engorged with blood they looked ready to burst out of his body.
The blood-splattered walls of her kitchen told the story of the violence of Nathan’s final seconds on earth.There was so much blood, she thought. It looked like someone had gone to work on him with a knife. Streaks of blood covered the counter, the cabinets and the floor. But there were no wounds on Nathan's body, just his open mouth from which a slowing stream of blood still dripped. His wide-open eyes, black with hematoma, stared off into nothingness. Clots of blood collected in the corner of each eye, dark droplets trickling down his cheeks like tears.
Emily noted all of this with a dispassionate eye as she waited for her turn to die.
Death was coming for her, she knew and waited. It was just a matter of seconds before she joined Nathan and the millions of victims across the world who had already succumbed to this violent, insidious red-plague. What was strange though was with the inevitability of her death came a serenity of sorts, a calmness within her mind as everything complicated in her life ceased to matter. Her only responsibility now was to wait.
The cold honesty of her situation, the simplicity of it all, was a welcome relief.
So, she waited.
The clock on the stove showed the minutes ticking away: first one, then five, then twenty. Each time she managed to rouse herself from the almost hypnotic state that had overcome her, Emily would catch another glimpse of the clock and see that time was still passing and she was still breathing. Her hand periodically drifted to her nose to check for the telltale nosebleed that would herald her coming death. The first time her hand came back bloody, she began to sob quietly. She absentmindedly wiped the blood away with the sleeve of her blouse, waiting for the pain to grip her.
When next she checked, there was nothing but dried blood on her skin, and somewhere in the back of her mind she began to realize it wasn’therblood, it was Nathan’s, splattered across her face in his final seconds as the convulsions seized control of his body and he slumped lifeless to the floor.
Her next coherent thought was that she had done nothing to help him.
But what could she have done, she asked herself. It was all over in seconds, not even enough time to have picked up the phone and dialed 911, and certainly too fast for him to have been saved by paramedics who would have been thirty minutes out, at least, if they even showed up at all. So, she had stood there paralyzed and watched the man she loved die.
She was certain some of the screams she had heard echoing through the apartment had been hers, but she could not be sure; the event was already becoming a blur as her mind struggled to grasp the unreal nature of what had just happened. Everything seemed so dreamlike, so distant to her, she couldn't even be sure who she was anymore, whether this was reality or just some terrible, terrible nightmare from which she was unable to wake herself.
Apart for the laconic whir of the apartment's ceiling fan and her ragged breathing, there was nothing left but silence now. The constant background noise city dwellers become so accustomed to became conspicuous by its very absence. The stomping feet of the couple above her apartment, the distant grinding metallic whoosh and whir of the elevators as they moved from floor to floor, the constant roar of rolling tires on tarmacadam outside the apartment had all ceased. As the city’s inhabitants died, its essence had died with them; all that remained was this crushing silence.
It was so very strange, thought Emily, as she realized this was the first time she could remember ever hearing her own breathing, or the noise of the icemaker in the refrigerator as it pushed neatly frozen cubes into the dispenser. Even on those rare sleepless nights when she found herself awake at two-a.m., the city still seemed alive. She had still been able to hear the traffic outside the apartment, or the sound of TVs drifting to her ears from other apartments.
Now there was nothing.
New York, the city that never slept, had been silenced forever.
An hour had passed since Nathan died. The feeling of calm Emily had felt began to evaporate as, slowly, she began to surface from her mind’s self-imposed fugue state.
She was alive!
Emily tried to stand but her legs cramped and she flopped back down on to the floor, pain spiking up the calves of her legs. She felt as though all her energy had been sucked right out of her.
She crawled over to the coffee table and picked up her cellphone, trying to ignore the cramps in her legs that felt like a dog nipping at her ass.
Flipping the phone open, she punched in 911. "Come on," she whispered. "Please. Come on. Somebody pick up."
The phone rang and rang. No one answered,
She hung up and immediately dialed the number for the front-desk of theTribune. It rang four times before a woman’s recorded voice answered and said "If you know your party’s extension, please enter it now."
No one had picked up at the front desk, which was okay, she hadn’t expected anyone to be operating the reception area; everyone except for Konkoly and Frank had left, after all, so the system had defaulted to afterhours mode. She entered Konkoly’s extension number. It rang twice before she heard his voice in her ear. “Hi, you’ve reached the desk of Sven Konkoly. If you’d like to leave a message …” Emily hit the # key on her phone and the system returned her to the main menu. “If you know your party’s extens—” The recording cut off when she tapped in the two-digit number for Frank Embry’s extension.
It went to message, too.
Emily carefully worked her way through every extension number she could remember. Each time the voice of her friends and colleagues greeted her and asked her to leave them a message, they would get back to her when they could. Emily had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. She stared at the phone in her hand, willing it to ring, for somebody, anybody to call her back.
The pain in her legs and bottom had turned into tingling pins-and-needles. She flexed her legs a couple of times hoping to get the blood to flow a little faster, it helped a little but they were still twitchy after so much time spent in one position. She tried to stand again, and found her legs were once again willing to obey her. She raised herself to her feet, and moved over to the window. She couldn’t see Nathan from there, his body blocked by the counter and the sofa.
There was one more call she needed to make. Slowly she dialed the number for her parent's home.
Mom and Dad had retired ten years earlier. After selling the farm, they had packed up and moved to Orlando, Florida. “Gonna get while the getting’s good,” her dad told her in his best John Wayne drawl during one of her annual trips back home. “We’re craving some sun and sea,” he had gone on to say. “After sixty years of living here, I think we both deserve it, don’t you?”
Emily had agreed, it was the best move they could make, but she still felt a pang of sadness at the loss of the home she had grown up in, and, despite her childhood desire to leave Denison as soon as she was physically able, the idea of never going back there had been painful.
Listening to the phone’s distant ringing she remembered how happy her parents seemed the last time she had seen them. They both sported a deep tan from too many days on the beach. They were like a couple of teenagers, holding hands, cuddling-up on the sofa together as they had talked with their one and only child. When Emily heard the answering machine click on she let out a deep sigh, fighting back a rush of tears at the sound of her father’s voice: "Hi, you've reached Bob and Jane. We can't get to the phone right now but if you'd like to leave a message we'll get back to you as soon as possible."
At the beep, Emily spoke softly into the phone: "Mom? Dad? If you get this message, I'm okay. I'm alive. I think... I think everyone else here might be dead. I love you.Pleasecall me." She left her cellphone number on the machine before hanging up. As she flipped her phone closed, she was left with the disconcerting feeling she had not left a message for her parents but a goodbye note.
* * *
Emily stepped into the corridor outside her apartment. She had left her keys sitting on the countertop in the kitchen. The idea she might accidentally lock herself out made her nervous, so she stood in the doorway with her right foot resting against the bottom rail of the door to keep it from closing.
"Hello?" Emily called, her voice echoing along the empty corridor. "Can anyone hear me?" There was no answer, just the gentle hiss of the air conditioning and an annoyingly familiar sound from further along the corridor she could not quite identify.
From somewhere on the floors above her, Emily thought she caught the sound of music playing but she couldn’t be sure. She had already tried flicking through the local TV channels but found nothing but empty desks and preprogrammed shows. At least the TV was still on the air, she reasoned.
“Hello?” she yelled again, louder this time, but still no one answered her.
Emily stepped back inside the apartment and started toward the kitchen. She grabbed her keys and placed them safely in the pockets of her jeans then turned and retraced her steps back to the front door, opened it and stepped outside.
The click of the lock engaging as the door closed made her heart pound a little faster as panic gave her system a little tweak. She shrugged it off and started down the corridor towards the elevator.
There were forty apartments on each floor of her building. Emily made her way to her nearest neighbor. She knocked loudly and rang the apartment's doorbell.
"Hi?" she called out. "Is there anybody in there? Can you hear me?" Placing her ear against the cold wood of the door, Emily listened for some kind of an answer, something that would tell her she was not alone. But there was no reply, not even the warning yap of one of the Chihuahuas or Shih-Tzus she knew some of her neighbors kept as pets.
Emily moved on to the next apartment and repeated the process. After the sixth door remained closed, she stopped knocking.
Hiss. Clang. Thump.There was that sound again, so damn familiar but Emily just couldn’t identify it. The sound grew louder the further she moved towards the center of the corridor.
Hiss. Clang. Thump.
Set back in an alcove off the main corridor, the waiting area for the elevator remained hidden from view until Emily rounded the final corner, following the sound.
Hiss. Clang. Thump.
The body of the dead woman lay half-in and half-out of the elevator doorway. Every few seconds the automatic doors would try to close and then spring back open as they thumped loudly against the unmoving woman. This was the source of the sound she had been hearing.
Hiss. Clang. Thump.
Each time the doors collided with the dead woman, her body would give a little twitch that Emily found incredibly unnerving.
The corpse lay face down, her head and upper torso resting on the linoleum floor of the corridor. A halo of congealed blood spread out around her head while the woman's lower body remained in the elevator compartment. Two brown paper bags of spilled groceries lay at her feet, their contents—mostly canned peaches and plastic gallon-bottles of water—had escaped from the bag when the woman died and now lay scattered over the floor of the elevator. The dead woman was dressed in an expensive looking gray business suit, the jacket and white shirt beneath it had ridden-up around her middle, exposing the small of her back and the myriad of tiny engorged veins creating an ugly latticework across her pale skin.
One of the dead woman's hands lay outstretched in front of her, her fingers cupped as though she had died while trying to drag herself out of the compartment. Her other arm was pinned beneath her body.
Emily had seen her share of dead bodies in her time in New York; it went with the territory of being a reporter. Most had been the result of accidents, suicides, or the occasional murder victim. She thought herself inured to the dead, but there was something incredibly disturbing about this corpse’s involuntary movements every time the door banged against it that reminded Emily of the zombie movies she used to love to watch. There was that, and the fact that the continuoushiss,clangandthumpof the elevator doors’ opening and closing was head-achingly loud in the confines of the elevator alcove.
No way was she going to leave the poor woman just lying there. It was just too disturbing. Emily stood over the body for a few moments before deciding what she needed to do. She placed the heel of her right foot against the corpse's shoulder and pushed. The body moved a few inches, leaving a red smear of blood, but then stopped as the friction of the escalator’s rubber-lined floor made it impossible to push her any further. There was only one way this was going to happen and that was for Emily to pull the corpse into the elevator by its legs.
She stepped gingerly over the body, carefully avoiding the congealed pool of blood and avoiding the doors as they once again tried to close and then sprung back open. Emily half expected the woman to suddenly reach out and grab her foot. She had a mental image of herself being dragged kicking and screaming into the compartment and the elevator doors sliding silently shut, her screams slowly fading down the empty hallway as the elevator moved on to pick up more undead riders to feast on her flesh.
The dead woman didn't grab for her, she just remained where Emily had pushed her. Emily grabbed the woman's legs by her blue pumps—Christian Louboutin, if she was not mistaken. Whoever this woman was, she had tasteandmoney—and pulled. The body made a disturbingslurpingsound as she dragged it feet-first the remaining distance into the elevator compartment.
Emily was surprised at how much flexion there was in the corpse. Wasn't rigor mortis supposed to have set in by now? She lifted the cuff of the woman's trouser and pushed it back, exposing the woman's ankles and a few inches of the calf of her leg. Although the skin was certainly pale, it did not have the gray cast she had seen in other dead bodies. Also, there didn't seem to be any noticeable lividity either, the natural pooling of blood to the lowest point in the body that leaves corpses looking bruised and battered.
She was no doctor, but she was sure that was part of the normal course of decomposition. Apparently, she was wrong. Or the rules had changed.
So involved in her thoughts was she, Emily failed to notice the corpse was now completely clear of the elevator doors which promptly began to close again. She thrust her hand between them just in time to stop them from trapping her in the traveling metal coffin with the dead woman. As the doors opened again, Emily leaped from the elevator cabin to the safety of the alcove. Free of their obstruction, and with the woman’s body curled fetal-like in the corner of the cabin, the elevator finally clanged shut and this time the doors stayed closed. Emily watched the glowing LED numbers on the floor-indicator rise through 18 then 19, before finally stopping at floor 21 to pick up a passenger Emily was certain would never take the ride.
* * *
The door to apartment #32 was ajar.
Emil’s heart began to beat faster as she approached. Maybe there was someone alive in there.
Not wanting to walk into the apartment unannounced, Emily leaned towards the crack of the door and called out “Hello? It's Emily. I live in apartment number six. Is there anyone home?” As she leaned in, her shoulder nudged the door open further and the sudden squeak of its unoiled hinges caught her momentarily off guard, setting her heart racing even more. It took her a second to gather herself before she pushed the door wider and stepped into the apartment.
The hallway lights were on and from where she stood Emily could see the curtains pulled closed in the living room at the opposite end of the corridor, shrouding it in darkness. The apartment was tastefully furnished, an expensive looking vase rested on a sofa-back table in the hallway holding a fresh bunch of oriental lilies. Beneath the scent of the lilies was another, not so pleasant smell. Emily recognized the unmistakable odor of vomit mixed with the metallic, heavy tang of spilled blood. It wasn’t strong at this end of the apartment but the open door allowed the air-conditioned corridor to pull the scent towards her.
Emily moved further into the apartment’s hallway, not bothering to announce herself again, as she already knew what she would find. Where the corridor opened into the living room area Emily saw a small shape spread-eagled on the floor: it was a child, no more than four or five, a little boy. His dead, blood-black eyes stared at the ceiling and a tiny fist gripped at the blood soaked t-shirt he wore. In the dead child's other hand was a small brown teddy-bear. An oval pool of flakey blood had dried around the boy's head, leaking from his nose and his mouth, which hung loosely open, forever locked in a state of shock and terror.
Emily stifled a cry of horror. Trying to avoid looking at the little boy, she stepped around him, keeping her eyes fixed instead on a painting hanging on the far wall as she moved into the living room.
The bodies of two adults lay nearby. The man was still sitting upright on the living room sofa, his arms hung loosely at his side and his head drooped toward his left shoulder. A stream of dried blood and congealed vomit cascaded from his mouth running down the front of his business suit, forming a black pool in his lap. The dead man's eyes stared sightlessly at the equally black flat-screen TV fixed to the far wall of the apartment.
A woman, Emily assumed it was the boy’s mother, lay crumpled on the floor in front of the man. When she collapsed, she had fallen through a glass coffee table, smashing it into a thousand pieces. Shards of broken glass were everywhere, covering the floor in front of the sofa and jutting from between the threads of a beautiful oriental rug the table had sat on. One large fragment had penetrated through the woman’s left arm.It must have severed an artery, Emily thought, because the lake of blood around the woman was much larger than she had seen from the other victims of the red rain.
Curled up in the corner of the room, she saw another small shape motionless on the expensive carpet. Not a child this time; the family cat, Emily guessed. It too was dead, dark red clots of blood congealing at every orifice. This sickness, this red plague, did not seem to discriminate between species and Emily was pretty sure that that was averybad thing. Viruses were not supposed to transfer between species. It was supposed to take time or bad luck for it to mutate into a form where it would be able to jump across, but this one seemed more than capable of killing anything it came into contact with. She remembered the dead birds she had witnessed falling from the sky when the red-rain first came.
This was bad, Emily realized. It probably meant the situation was far worse than she had first thought. If the rain was able to kill across species then where would it stop? Would it mean every creature on Earth was affected or just those that had come into contact with the red rain? The idea was terrifying.
It was also something she simply was not willing to contemplate right now. For all she knew this was a localized event and help was already on its way. If it was, then she wouldn’t have to worry about what kind of a threat the rain was. She could leave it to the experts to figure out, not her; she was just a journalist. Emily knew her line of reasoning was tenuous at best, but it was all she had, and she was going to hang onto it at all costs.
There was nothing more for her here. Emily began backtracking towards the front door, careful to avoid looking at the bodies of the family who had once lived here.
Outside, as the cool of the air-conditioning washed over her, Emily considered moving her search to the other floors of the apartment building. She got as far as the elevator and almost pressed the call button before she caught herself from summoning the dead woman back to her floor.
She already knew what she would probably find if she left the safety of her floor. If the footage she had seen of the devastation in Europe had been anything to go by, Emily’s survival was an anomaly. Everyone else was most likely dead, both here in the apartment building and throughout the city, probably even across the country and maybe—as hard as it was to allow herself to even contemplate—the world.
And if there were survivors in her building, surely she would have heardsomethingfrom them by now. Someone would have been moving around, looking for others as she was. There was no way she was going to put herself through the pain of finding more bodies like those of the elevator woman and the poor family she had just left.
It was all just too … sad. Yes, that was exactly the word to describe this situation. It was all just too goddamn sad.
Emily stood in front of the door leading into the emergency stairwell. She pulled open the door and yelled into the open cavity “Is thereanybodythere? Can you hear me?” She waited a few seconds for an answer—none came, just the hollow sound of her own voice echoing back to her and the metallic clang of the door as she let it close behind her.
There had to be another way to get the attention of anyone left alive, she thought as she walked back towards her apartment.
Strategically placed at key points on each floor of the apartment building were four bright-red pull-station activators for the complex’s fire alarm system. Emily had passed two of them before she grasped she had the perfect solution and stopped at the one nearest her apartment.
Emblazoned with the word FIRE in large white letters on each case, the alarm could be triggered by simply pulling down on a small plastic handle. If there was anyone left alive in the building, or even nearby for that matter, this would be the way to let them know there were other survivors or at least flush them from their apartment.
Still, Emily was reticent to activate the alarm system. It wasn’t like she was yelling fire in a crowded cinema, she argued with herself, thiswasan emergency and the only way of guaranteeing she would get the undivided attention of any survivors left in the building.
Emily gripped the handle with her fingers and pulled it down.
Instantly, a white strobe light set high up on the wall began flashing. It was accompanied by an ear splitting alarm so loud it forced Emily t o throw her hands to her ears in pain.
“Ouch,” she exclaimed while simultaneously allowing herself a weak smile of triumph. Ifthisdidn’t get someone’s attention she didn’t know what would.
With her hands still firmly over her ears, Emily sprinted back to the entrance of the emergency stairwell. She opened the door and positioned herself half in the doorway where she could see anyone who came down the stairs while still giving her a clear view of the elevator floor display. If the lights of the display changed it would mean someone was using the elevators to head to the ground floor.
The piercing electronic wail of the alarm quickly induced a throbbing headache in the front of Emily’s skull, but she waited almost fifteen minutes in the stairwell, hoping someone might appear. But the illuminated floor number above the closed elevator doors did not waver and no one met her on the stairs. Still, she gave it another five minutes before allowing herself to let go of the hope of others being alive within her building.
Fighting back a steadily growing surge of despair, Emily allowed the door to close behind her as she walked back to the refuge of her own apartment.
Emily unlocked her apartment and stepped inside, made her way to the kitchen for a glass of water and froze when she saw Nathan’s body lying there.
It was as though she had completely forgotten about him the second she left the apartment. It was the trauma of the whole event, she knew that, but this was just too much for one person to be able to handle. How was she supposed to cope with this? There was no one to help her. So what was she supposed to do now? She had the dead body of her boyfriend in her kitchen, a bad enough scenario on any other day, but today it was simply a nightmare.
The sound of the fire alarm was squelched somewhat by the walls of her apartment but it was still loud enough to be a constant distraction, especially as the headache was blossoming into a face-numbing migraine. She knew now she hadn’t thought the whole activate-the-fire-alarm plan through quite as well as she should have, blinded by the hope of finding somebody else alive. Sure, it was loud enough to attract attention but how the hell was she supposed to turn it off? The incessant screech was beginning to drive her just a little insane.
It was all just too much for her overwrought emotions to deal with and she felt her consciousness begin to spiral back down toward that nice, safe place, deep inside the recesses of her mind. It wassotempting to just let go of reality. To allow herself to regress and forget about the whole god-awful mess she found herself in. But Emily knew if she allowed herself the luxury of skipping out on reality, the chances were she would never come back. She could feel herself standing on the very brink of madness, all it would take was a single mental step off that precipice and it would all be over for her.
And, oh God, it was so very, very tempting.
“No,” she said through teeth gritted so firmly she could feel the pressure waves rolling up through her jaw. “That’s not going to happen.”
She dismissed any thought of giving-up from her mind. She was a survivor. She hadalwaysbeen a survivor, and she sure-as-shit wasn’t going to change now just because it looked like the world was ending.
Emily started purposefully towards the bedroom, doing her best to push the sound of the alarm from her mind and concentrate on what she had to do next. Opening the linen cabinet, she pulled out a spare pair of bed sheets. She tossed the top sheet back in the cabinet, choosing the elasticated fitted-sheet instead. Thankfully, it was a queen size, anything smaller probably wouldn’t have worked for what she had in mind.
She took the sheet back to Nathan’s body and considered exactly how she was going to do what she needed to do. He was sitting upright which would help, but he weighed close to one-eighty and she wasn’t sure she was physically strong enough to carry that kind of weight—dead weight, her mind cackled at her, but she ignored it—if this didn’t go as planned.
Emily allowed most of the fitted sheet to drop to the floor while keeping the top hem stretched between both her hands. She looped the edge over Nathan’s head and forced it down between his shoulders and the refrigerator his body leaned against. She had to press her right knee against his chest so he wouldn’t keel over, not just yet. Emily pulled the elasticated edge of the sheet first over Nathan’s left shoulder and then the right, being sure to push it down as far as she could until both the right and left edges met. She tucked the side edges of the sheet underneath his elbows and pulled the remainder of the sheet down over the feet. With the sheet securely in place, Emily moved off to the side of Nathan’s body, grasped the edges of the sheet together as tightly as she could then pushed against his shoulder.
Nathan’s body slowly slid sideways down the refrigerator until he lay flat against the floor. Emily had to give the edge of the sheet a couple of tugs to pull the right side free so it met the opposite side. She grabbed his legs at the ankles and straightened them out, then moved back to his shoulders, still holding the edge of the sheet together, and pushed.
Nathan’s body rolled over to rest face down on the kitchen floor, completely encased within the fitted sheet like some modern day Mummy.
Emily had already figured out exactly where she was going to have to take him. She had considered the elevator but she just couldn’t bring herself to do that. Instead, she decided to take Nathan’s body to the apartment where she had found the dead family. It was further but it also seemed more fitting somehow.
There was a roll of twine in the kitchen utility drawer and Emily cut several four-feet long lengths of it. She slid the first piece under the sheet near Nathan’s head and wiggled it down until it was parallel with his wrists then tied the two loose ends together, securing his arms to his sides within the shroud. She repeated the procedure again to secure his arms at his shoulders and then to lock his ankles together.
When she was finished, Emily scrunched together a handful of the fabric near his feet until she had enough to give her a secure handgrip. She tied that off with a shorter piece of the twine. She gave the shroud a couple of careful tugs just to make sure Nathan’s body was secure within the sheet. Satisfied with her work she took hold of the handgrip with both hands and began to pull the corpse of her boyfriend toward the front door.
It was relatively easy to slide Nathan along the smooth tiled kitchen floor, but when she hit the carpeted area of the hallway the friction of the cotton sheet against the carpet made moving his body much more difficult. By the time she pulled his body through the front door and out into the 17thfloor corridor, she was sweating hard and breathing even harder. She dropped Nathan’s feet to the floor and took a minute to get her breath. The alarm, so much louder out here, beat Emily’s head like it was a tribal drum, she could feel a vein begin pulsing in her forehead as the pain banged against the front of her skull.
When she reached the halfway mark near the elevator, her head felt as though it would explode, and the muscles in her arms, back, and neck were burning. Her fingers ached in every joint where she had gripped the fabric so tightly to avoid it slipping from her grasp. Emily was half-tempted to leave the body there for the night but the idea of facing this first-thing in the morning was unthinkable. She interlocked the fingers of both her hands and flexed them until her knuckle joints popped, then reached down and began hauling her grisly load towards the waiting door of apartment #32.
* * *
Emily bumped the door of the apartment open with her butt. She pulled Nathan’s body down as far into the entrance corridor as she could before her hands finally told her they could take no more and she had to let go. His sheet covered feet clumped to the carpet and Emily slumped down right after them, her back resting against the wall as she fought to catch her breath. Her blond hair had matted to her forehead and she pushed it back out of her stinging sweat filled eyes. Her head was thumping with the mother of all headaches, her vision was swimming and her heart pounded in her ears. She had never felt so exhausted in her life. It took all her will power not to close her eyes and sleep right there. Instead, she raised herself to her feet, ignoring the pain in her back and the objections of her knees, and hobbled out of the apartment.
At the door she paused momentarily and stared at the shrouded form of Nathan. “Bye, baby,” she whispered and pulled the door shut until she heard the click of the lock engage.
She had taken two steps toward her apartment when the wailing of the fire alarm suddenly stopped. There was a second or two’s pause and then Emily heard three short, sharp beeps as the system had either shut itself down or reset.
“Thank you, God,” said Emily, and staggered the remainder of the distance home.
* * *
She was utterly spent.
The pain in her head eventually began to fade but only after she washed down a couple of painkillers with one of the remaining cans of beer from the fridge. Neither the beer nor the painkillers did much to help her back which spasmed and shuddered every time she moved. And no amount of alcohol or pills was ever going to ease her numbness over the death of Nathan.
She sat facing the window of her apartment, sipping the remainder of the Bud Light while she stared out at her little slice of the city, watching dusk slowly descend over the buildings. Emily had never experienced such a profound silence before, both outside the apartment and within her heart.
Who knew such absolute stillness existed.
The streets were free of cars and people, the sky, usually buzzing with aircraft and birds, was vacant and clear. It was quite beautiful. A light brown haze of smog still swirled high above the rooftops, the only reminder of the millions of lives that had traversed the streets and alleys below, just hours before.
As dusk gradually edged toward night, she watched the streetlights begin to flicker silently on, casting long shadows that stretched and grew before being swallowed up in the descending darkness.
The silence quickly became intolerable, and Emily abandoned her spot at the window for the couch instead. She switched on the TV, more for the comfort gained from filling the room with any sound other than her own breathing. She felt as though her head had been stuffed full of cotton balls. It wasn’t a bad feeling, not really, kind of like a shot of Novocain for her spirit, buffering her against the pain of the reality of her situation.
On the TV screen the image of the dead news presenter stared back at her, his eyes as black and blank as she was sure hers were. She returned his stare for several minutes, then switched off the TV and dragged her sorry excuse for a body to the bedroom.
As she passed through the kitchen, Emily glimpsed the blood stained pool where Nathan’s body had lain and the splatter on the counter. She was just too tired to take care of it right now; it would have to wait until the morning. She trudged into her bedroom and collapsed on top of the comforter.
Within minutes, she was asleep. Mercifully, she did not dream.
Emily woke an hour before dawn and watched the birth of the day from the same window she had watched its death, this time with a cup of black coffee in her hand instead of a beer.
Her body still complained at her for the abuse she had put it through the previous evening but it wasn’t so bad this morning, just the dull ache of stretched muscles unused to having to work. Her head still ached though. She wasn’t sure whether that was the stress of the previous day’s events, the fire alarm induced migraine, the beer or, more likely, a combination of all of them. She still had the strange head full of cotton balls feeling, there just wasn’t so much of it this morning.
Her eyes had opened right on time for her to get up and get ready for work. She felt a subtle sense of relief as the vague memory of what was surely just a terrible nightmare fluttered from the dark cave of her unconscious mind. But as those first few groggy seconds between sleep and full wakefulness fell away it erased the cobwebs shrouding her mind and the previous day’s events cleared into terrifyingly sharp focus.
Reality had chased Emily from her bed and she had all but run to the living room window.Just in case, she had told herself.Just in case it was all a dream. As she passed by the kitchen, she glanced down at where, in her nightmare, Nathan’s body had lain and where the bloodstain should be … it wasn’t there. It was gone. Not a trace left.
Just a dream,she thought and raced on to her roost at the window. Throwing back the drapes, she pressed herself against the cold glass and stared out at the still empty streets and sky.
Emily stood at the window, watching what should have been, even at this early an hour, a bustling city filled with office workers, joggers, dog walkers and everything that made New York the only place in the world she would ever want to live. She glanced back over her shoulder at the kitchen and the spot where the bloodstain should be, the blood was definitely gone. Not a trace remained. Was it possible she had dreamed Nathan’s death, maybe even his visit, all together?
That just wasn’t a possibility. His police issue bomber-jacket lay on the sofa where she had left it yesterday, his cap sat on the kitchen table. Hehadbeen here. Hehaddied here. But that didn’t explain why his blood had disappeared from the floor.
Emily examined the floor and the walls in the kitchen where she thought the bloodstain had been. There was no trace. It was as though it had never existed, as though not a drop was spilled.
She was sure she hadn’t cleaned it up, but, maybe in her stress induced fugue state, she had left her bed in the middle of the night and removed it. Possible? After what had happened yesterday, she supposed anything was possible. Was it likely? She didn’t think so. It certainly hadn’t cleaned itself up and she was a little old to believe the elves had done the job for her during the night.
Coffee, that was what she needed.
She opened the cover on the coffee maker, pulled out the old filter and tossed it in the trash then replaced it with a fresh one. She spooned in a couple of scoops of ground beans, and filled the carafe with enough water to give her four cups of coffee—she was going to need at least three to get her going— and emptied the water into the reservoir. A few minutes after flipping the machine’s ‘on’ switch, the smell of fresh brewed coffee began wafting enticingly around the apartment. Emily filled a mug with the steaming coffee before the machine had dripped even half of its precious liquid into the carafe. She walked to her perch at the window, sipping the delightfully strong brew.
Outside the window, the dawn sky was a fiery red above the city’s rooftops. With each passing minute morning sunlight pushed back the shadows that had claimed the streets, but there was little consolation for Emily. The streets were still empty.
With caffeine finally beginning to flow through her veins, Emily began to feel the last of the cobwebs clear from her foggy brain. She needed a plan, she decided; some kind of strategy for figuring how to get in touch with authorities and let them know she was alive. There had to be other survivors out there, it was just a case of finding them or leaving enough clues to help them find her.
She walked back to the kitchen and placed the coffee cup down on the counter, found her backpack nearby and pulled a steno-pad and pen from within. For the next hour Emily worked on compiling a comprehensive ‘to do’ list. Telephone numbers, email addresses, physical addresses, social media sites; anything she could think of that would help her reach out and locate other survivors. She would need to stick to a strict timetable of calling the numbers on the steno pad every few hours. She could use the time in-between to check news-portals and social-media websites. If she stuck to that plan it would only be a matter of time until she foundsomebodywho could help her, she was sure.
There was no way to tell how long it would take for the cavalry to come riding over the horizon, so she’d need to find some supplies to get her through the next couple of days. She toyed with the idea of checking out some of the apartments on other floors but she thought the chances were high she would only have the same result as she had on her own floor yesterday. Empty, locked apartments with nothing but the dead inside. If there was anyone alive in the building, the fire alarm would have surely brought all but a deaf person running.
She wished she had been clearheaded enough yesterday to grab what supplies she could from the dead family’s apartment. That was not an option now as she had clearly heard the door lock behind her when she closed it after dropping off Nathan’s body. She was going to have to take a trip outside and grab what provisions she could. It would waste time she would rather spend running through her contact list, but it should only take a half-hour or so, if she was fast. Besides, she could use some sunshine. That would have to be later though. Right now she needed to make a few calls.
Emily had compiled a list of numbers to try and listed them in order of priority of their likelihood to answer. She picked up her cellphone and dialed the first number on her list, listening as the phone at the other end of the line rang three times before picking up.
“You have reached the Whitehouse. If you know your party’s extens—” Emily hung up and tried the next number. No one answered at the Pentagon either. She tried the numbers for the FBI, the CIA, the Smithsonian Museum, every police precinct and hospital within a fifty-mile radius. When she exhausted New York State’s political party HQs, she moved on to numbers in California.
The only voices she heard belonged to ghosts.
Right around two in the afternoon the three cups of coffee took their toll and she had to stop what she was doing and use the bathroom. She was beginning to get hungry, too, so she decided to take a break and grab something to eat. She warmed up a can of clam chowder on the stove and added a few saltine crackers to it. She ate her lunch quickly and quietly then returned to her phone calls, choosing key numbers in Kansas this time.
By three-thirty, both Emily and her cellphone were precariously close to empty. She hung up from her last call, snapped the phone shut and almost threw it at the wall in utter frustration. Instead, she walked into the kitchen and attached it to the charger she kept permanently plugged into a wall socket. It would take a few hours for it to fully charge, so now was as good a time to go grab those supplies she needed. When she got back, she could start working on checking the social networking sites for any signs of life.
Got to keep your chin-up girl, the ghost of her father said inside her head as she grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter and headed out the front door.
Emily stepped onto the concrete terrace outside the apartment block and stared up at the clear sky.
Even though the shadow of the building protected her from the full glare of the sun, she still found herself squinting at the dramatic change in brightness. After a day of being cooped-up in the apartment with just artificial light, this sudden exposure to actual sunlight was a shock to her retinas and she quickly found herself raising a hand to her brow in a semi-salute to protect her strained eyes.
For the first few minutes, as she allowed herself time to acclimate to being outside, Emily could almost believe that nothing had really changed; that maybe, just maybe, yesterday really had been just a dream. But, as the seconds ticked by and her eyes became accustomed to the daylight, she began to sense just how truly profound a change had swept over her beloved city.
Besides the gentle rustle of a flag on a nearby mast, there was no sound at all: no cars, no people, no music, no birds twittering, no dogs barking, no arguing couples or babies crying. None of the background noise of a city full of people chatting on phones and to each other, nothing but the rhythmic thumping of her heart and a stillness that seemed to triple the weight of the air around her.
When she was a kid, Emily had gone on a school trip to a bird sanctuary over in Black Hawk County. The school bus was packed with kids and all the way there and all the way back the bus was filled with the constant innocent chattering of the children, the bus had buzzed with conversation and life. When the trip was over, the school bus driver dropped the kids off directly outside their homes. Emily lived the furthest away and hers was the last stop. By the time the driver pulled up outside her parents' home, the bus was empty save for herself and the driver, who wasn’t particularly chatty on the best of days and even less so after spending four hours with a bus load of over excited kids. The noise of forty chattering kids that had filled the bus quickly evaporated, and young-Emily had felt the first disquieting sense of absence, of how life can suddenly change.
Now, as she stood in the sunshine of what should have been a beautiful New York day, Emily had the same sense of absence she felt when she was the last kid on the bus, magnified a million times. All sound had left the city and in the vacuum it left behind there was nothing but peaceful, pure, perfectly terrifying silence.
The city smelled different, too. It smelled clean. Yes, that was exactly it, she thought. That quintessential aroma of New York—a mixture of carbon monoxide, burgers, hotdogs, dry cleaners, and bakers, mixed with the sweat of eight-million people—had also vanished.
Sometimes, after a heavy rain, the city almost smelled this way, like crisp fresh linen. It would linger for a few minutes, but even then, there was always an underlying flavor to the air that never really disappeared—until now. This morning the city smelled pristine and the air tasted sweet, free of all pollutants, dirt, and everything else that made it so special to her, that gave it its unique character. It was all gone.
Emily’s sense of scale of the previous day’s events suddenly exploded.
Her apartment had acted as a buffer against the desolation that now covered her hushed city like a shroud, insulating her from the power of the true gravity of the emptiness that surrounded her. Nobody and nothing but Emily Baxter remained alive for miles around.
She could feel the void of its passing deep within her core. She was a single cell flowing through a city that was now nothing more than a dead heart lying within an already decaying body. A profound sense of solemnity snatched her up into its grasp. Emily knew that she was, quite possibly, the sole witness to something few other humans had ever experienced before: the passing of an entire civilization, maybe the entire human race.
"Fuck!" she said aloud, surprising herself with how loud her voice sounded on the empty concrete terrace.
That single expletive was not exactly what she would describe as the most profound statement on the world's passing, but it summed up her feelings quite succinctly, she thought.
"Fuck!" she said again, glancing around at the empty street. "Oh, fuck!"
Except for a few scattered and presumably abandoned vehicles, the roads were empty. Had everyone managed to get out of the city before the plague, or whatever it was, hit?
She supposed it made sense, there had been enough warning in the hours after the red-rain had fallen for even the most technologically unconnected of New York's residents to learn what was happening in the rest of the world and decide whether to stay or go home. Who could blame them? After all, wasn't that what she had decided to do? And she didn't have any family here to speak of.
In the hours after the rain, the news would have quickly percolated down to every level of the city. People would have been faced with the same decision: stay or go? It looked like most of them had decided to go home to their families. Somewhere they felt safe, protected.
Of course, there could be other survivors holed up around the city or maybe even some that had hunkered down in their offices. There could be hundreds or even thousands of others just like her who'd survived and decided to wait it out for a couple of days, see how things panned out, in the hope of rescue. It was such a seductive, comforting thought, but surely, if there were survivors, they would have tried to make others aware they were alive, right?
It didn't feel right to her. As weird as it sounded even to Emily, she had no sense of anyone else being alive in this city; there was a distinct lack of what? Spirit? Life? The very air—so crisp and clean now—felt bereft of energy. It was as though the very life force of the city had suddenly gone AWOL. She didn't know why she felt the way she did, but with each passing minute, she was growing certain she was the last living person left for many miles. Life as she knew it had come to a very abrupt stop on good old planet earth.
Directly across from the apartment block was a row of offices and stores, and as Emily scanned the buildings for any sign of life, her eye caught an indistinct shape curled up in the recessed entranceway to the florist. It was hard to make out exactly what it was from where she was standing so she took a few extra steps closer. Stopping at the curb, Emily instinctively looked both ways before stepping into the road.
She stopped in the center of the road, and stared at the shape in the doorway. It was a body. She was pretty sure she could see a pair of scuffed black boots sticking out from beneath a blanket.
"Hello?" she called out, her voice surprisingly squeaky to her ears."Can you hear me? Are you okay"
There was no reply and no movement from the blanket covered shape. Emily took a few more steps towards the doorway, stopping when she was about ten-feet away. It was definitely a person; she could make out the shape beneath the ragged, dirt-stained, blanket covering everything from the head down, except for the aged boots. It looked as though whoever was under it had simply curled up in the doorway, and pulled the blanket up over their body, like a child trying to hide under the sheets.
"Are you okay?" Emily repeated as gently as she could. Again, there was no answer from the bundled form. With a deep breath Emily walked the few remaining steps until she was standing next to the huddled shape. She reached down and slowly lifted one frayed edge of the blanket.
The man beneath the blanket was dead, of course. He looked to be in his late forties; a thick beard streaked with gray covered his lower jaw echoed by a smattering of stubble across his cheeks. His skin was tanned leather brown from too many years exposed to the elements and a skein of tiny blue veins extended like a road-map over his nose and cheeks. The vagrant’s black, blood clotted eyes regarded the equally dead and wilting flowers of the florist’s window display. The dead man clutched a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka to his chest with both hands, like a child holding onto their favorite toy.
There was something not quite right with the scene though.
It took Emily a minute to realize it was an absence that had caught her attention, there was no blood anywhere on the dead man. Instead, a nimbus of fine red dust outlined the man’s head where she thought the blood should be.
The same red dust coated the blanket covering the man and, as she pulled it back further down the corpse, the tiny particles floated gently up into the air then slowed and began to fall back toward the dead man, settling on his exposed skin. As Emily watched, she saw more dust float down and settle on the pale skin of the dead vagrant, as though the corpse was attracting it with some weird magnetism. In fact, it wasn't just the red dust she'd disturbed on the blanket that Emily could see moving towards the body, more of the red dust was floating in from outside the store’s entryway. If it hadn't been for the afternoon sunlight streaming in at just the right angle she wouldn't have even noticed it moving towards this man's impromptu burial plot. Her memory recalled the way the red rain had dissipated yesterday, how it had seemed to break apart and float away rather than evaporating.
An impulse overcame her and before she knew why she was doing it Emily exhaled a long strong breath aimed at the particles floating around the cubby of the florist’s entrance. Her breath pushed the tiny red specs back out into the street but, instead of being drawn away from her, the particles slowly began to float back toward the dead man. They weren’tjustfloating, Emily corrected, they were actually moving horizontally, as though powered by some inner force, drawn towards the dead skin. But not to her, she noticed, only towards the corpse beneath the blanket.
"No way," said Emily in disbelief. "No. Freaking. Way."
Fascinated, Emily continued to watch as, in a matter of minutes, the entire exposed portion of the man's face became covered by a layer of the red dust to the point she could no longer make out any of his features. It looked like he was wearing a red mask.
Once the dust touched the man’s skin the particles seemed to jostle and jiggle with each other for position, rearranging themselves so they filled in any exposed areas of skin.
Just like iron filings on a piece of paper when you move a magnet underneath them, she thought.
Emily resisted the urge to touch the red layer of dust. She was beginning to come to terms with the probability that, by some strange twist of fate or good fortune of her DNA, she was a survivor of whatever this event was, but she didn't feel the need to push her luck. It was bad enough that she was probably inhaling this stuff in with every breath she took.
Of course, there could be any number of reasons for what she had just seen happen.Maybethe dust was attracted to the man's skin by static electricity. The blanket was made of polyester, so when she pulled it back it could have generated enough static to cause the red dust to be attracted to the man's skin. Surely though, if that was the reason, wouldn't the dust just have headed to the blanket instead of the dead man?
Still not one-hundred-percent convinced what she just witnessed was real, Emily carefully pulled back the rest of the blanket from the body, listening for the tell-tale crackle of static electricity while exposing the man's hands to the open air. Instantly, she saw the red motes of dust still circulating in the entranceway begin to head towards the exposed leathery skin of the body. There was no mistaking it this time; the dust was making a beeline straight towards his hands. Emily watched a dust particle that had, until moments earlier, been heading out towards the street perform a meandering u-turn, before descending slowly down toward the corpse and settle into place on the man’s left hand. It had been about four-feet away from her, too far to be affected by any kind of static she was sure. It had unmistakably changed its course and headed methodically down before joining the other particles that moved gently back and forth on the dead skin like the gentle swell of lake water, as they rearranged themselves into a uniform layer.
More particles fell towards the man’s hand and Emily decided to test her experiment a little more. She pulled the blanket back up to the vagrant’s chin, careful so as not to create even the slightest disturbance to the air, while keeping her eyes on the descending particles of dust.
As soon as the blanket covered his hands, the dust that had been heading toward them slowed then turned leisurely in the still air and began moving back out in the direction of the street again.
What did I just see? The thought lodged in the center of Emily's brain like a splinter and throbbed almost as painfully. First the red rain, now this weird dust. She had the feeling something far larger and far more complex than a simple virus was responsible for this strange new world she found herself in.
While she might be the last living human for God-knew how far, Emily had an uneasy sense that she was no longer alone.
* * *
As hard as she tried, she could not shake the idea something intangible was becoming aware of her. Maybe it was paranoia, but Emily felt as though a million hidden eyes had focused suddenly on her, watching her, examining her every move. Although she knew it was impossible, the feeling of disquiet it created proved just as impossible to shake. There was no explanation Emily could think of that could adequately explain the events taking place around her.
She felt bad for leaving the dead vagrant in the doorway but what could she do? She supposed she could drag him somewhere and bury him, he looked like he weighed less than she did, probably even less now that he was a regular at the great barroom in the sky. But bury him where? There wasn’t anywhere she could put him for miles. That would be a job for the rescue services if they ever came …whenthey came, she corrected herself.
So, she had left him to the red dust that swarmed and whirled around him like flies. Wherewerethe flies? She hadn’t seen one since the red rain. The thought flitted across her mind for a second but she dismissed it. All she could do now was carry on with her plan, she had already lost enough time trying to figure out just what she had observed with that freaky flying show the red dust had performed. She had bigger problems to worry about and it was time for her to pull herself together and to get back on track.
Two buildings down from the florist was the corner convenience store where she had witnessed the near-riot the day before. The street was clear now. There was no sign anything untoward had happened except for a few crushed cans of what had probably been green beans on the road outside the store. The door to the shop was unlocked; she pushed it open and stepped inside.
Emily let out a screech of surprise as the electronic door chime activated. For a second she thought she was going to pee herself with fear. Her heart was pounding hard enough to shatter her ribcage as a sudden surge of adrenalin pumped through her veins.
She wasn't sure how many more scares like this she could take before she simply went into cardiac arrest and keeled over. To be honest, the thought wasn't so bad, she admitted. The idea she may be the last living human was petrifying and made a sudden death seem almost attractive.
"Don't be stupid, girl," she said aloud and then began to giggle. The giggle turned into laughter as the full weight of what had transpired over the past two days and her growing realization of her predicament finally hit her.
It was an absolutely absurd situation to be in. Emily had spent the majority of her life feeling as though she was prepared for anything, confident in her own capabilities and focused on moving forward, just like everyone else she knew, but now, here she was; completely alone and unprepared. At a complete and utter loss as to what she should do next. And, wasn't it truly ironic, that the sole surviving human—that's what she felt like, after all—would be a journalist? The biggest news-story ever and there was no one left alive to tell it to. It really was just too much.
Emily's legs felt like they were ready to give way as the laughter suddenly turned to snuffling tears and a hot well of fear and desperation bubbled up from inside her. She tried to force the emotion back but she didn’t stand a chance. Emily covered her face with her hands and began to weep at the thought of everything she had lost .
Everything dear to her was gone, swept away from her in an instant. Her parents, Nathan, music, TV, the theatre, her friends and workmates, her job even; everything that made life worth living had been stolen from her in just one day, leaving her alone and wrecked. She may as well have been on Mars for all the good being alive without all of those things meant.
Her sobbing turned into a wail of despair as she realized that none of those things would ever be coming back, either. It wasn't like the human race had stepped outside for a quick cigarette break and normal service would resume when it got back; humanity was gone, finished, snuffed out in a single day. She knew it with a certainty as strong as she had ever felt anything.
"Dear God, what am I supposed to do now?" Emily mumbled through lips trembling with the unburdening of the pent-up emotion. Her shoulders heaved and shuddered as she collapsed to the cold floor of the store, knocking over a stand of magazines and sending them slithering over the tiles. She picked a magazine up and tossed it at the door, screeching in pure frustration. She felt her body sink to the cold floor again, curling herself into a fetal position as the pain just kept coming.
A few minutes later, emotionally washed-out, her body exhausted, Emily fell into a deep sleep, hoping she would never wake up.
* * *
Emily's eyes flickered open.
The cramp in her shoulders from lying on the chilly tiled floor of the store meant she must still be alive.
She felt better. At least, as better as she was going to feel under the circumstances. Ridding herself of her emotional burden had released her from its weight and allowed her mind, and her heart, to expel the pain. That was a good thing.
Emily pushed herself to her feet, stretched her stiff legs and flexed her aching arms as she looked around the small store's interior. How long had she been asleep? It must have been a couple of hours because the inside of the market was much darker than when she first entered. In fact, as she stared out through the storefront window, she guessed it must be close to sunset because the streetlights were beginning to flicker on one by one, their sodium-vapor bulbs casting a warm glow across the street.
Emily's breath caught in her throat. Outside the store, illuminated by the glow of the nearest light, she could see a mass of red dust. The orange flush turned the dust an ominous black, but what truly disturbed her was how much of it she could see as it floated past the light. Uncountable dots of the dust moved along the street, silently flowing in a bizarre rhythmic undulation, driven by what exactly? No wind disturbed the leaves and branches of nearby trees. It was almost as though the dust had combined into a single giant creature, and that creature was now roaming the empty streets, searching for something only it knew.
The cloud of dust moved like the giant dragon puppets she had seen in Chinatown when they celebrated the New Year; up and down, a sinusoidal wave of dust undulating past the window. It was a mesmerizing sight, but at the same time, the implication of what she was witnessing chilled the blood in Emily's veins.
She walked to the window and stared out at the whirling dust on the empty street. Just yesterday she had stood in the café and watched as the red rain had fallen; the world had changed so much since then, as clichéd as it sounded to her writer's brain, it truly seemed to have been a lifetime ago. And, Emily supposed, it may just as well have been a different life, because when the rain fell, her old world, the one where Emily was just another woman trying to make it through the day as unscathed as she could, had died too.
Okay, pull yourself together. You've got to get a grip on this situation, she chided.
She was resisting the urge to speak her thoughts aloud. The temptation to talk to herself was almost overwhelming. It was less than a day since she had heard another human voice but she never would have imagined the effect it would have on her.
Whatever was happening outside the shop's window, there must be some kind of explanation for it. She was looking at the greatest story of her life; hell, for all she knew, while she may not be the last human left, she may well be the world's last reporter. So if she didn't document this, and if she didn't at leasttryto figure out what was going on, then who would?
So, no! No talking to myself just yet. Not until I've figured out exactly what's going on here.
"Damn right," she said aloud, allowing a flicker of a smile to cross her face as she turned her attention away from the strange red storm raging on the other side of the window, and back to tracking down supplies.
The store had been stripped clean of almost everything. Two rows of metal shelves had once held an assortment of tinned food and bottled water. One of the shelves had toppled over and now leaned against a wall. Both shelves were empty save for a torn packet of instant mashed potatoes which had spilled most of its contents over the floor.
Emily carefully picked her way through a minefield of shattered liquor bottles and crushed cans, their contents spilled and worthless after a day’s exposure to the air. Scattered pages from a broadsheet newspaper spread over the tiled floor, moving gently in the breeze of a fan whirling quietly on the counter.
Behind the cash register was a recessed pigeonhole where the owner had displayed his stock of cigarettes. It was empty now but Emily glanced behind the counter anyway. On the ground were a couple of crushed soft-packs of Marlboro Lights and an occasional orphaned cigarette. Emily wasn’t a smoker, so the cigarettes held no interest for her but what did catch her eye was a can of condensed soup—it was tomato, shehatedtomato soup—which she picked up and placed on the counter top. Emily moved back behind the counter into the clerk’s area and opened a couple of small storage cupboards the looters had apparently missed. There were a couple of cartons of cigarettes that looked like they were well past their sell-by date and … score!! Pushed almost to the back of one cupboard Emily found a package of two gas-fueled lighters.
She added the lighters to the soup on the counter.
A small room at the back of the store acted as the stockroom. The wooden door was wide-open hanging from a single hinge, the imprint of a large boot near the broken lock.
Emily poked her head into the storeroom; it was dark inside so she felt around on the wall until she found the light switch. A single shade-less bulb hung from the ceiling but it was sufficiently bright to push the darkness back far enough for Emily to see there was little left to scavenge. The room had been picked over and it was as much of a shambles as the front of the store; the floor was covered in torn cardboard packaging and broken bottles of Budweiser and Miller Light.
A plastic pint bottle of water caught Emily’s eye. It had rolled against the far wall of the stockroom. She retrieved it and slipped it into her pants’ pocket. She pushed a few of the larger pieces of cardboard aside and found another can of soup—this time it was vegetable, not her favorite but a step-up from tomato, at least—and a four-pack plastic pod of mixed-fruit. Two of the pods had been crushed, so she pulled those off and tossed them away.
A couple more minutes of searching turned up a blister-pack of six C-type batteries, a tin of SPAM, another plastic four-pack of mixed fruit and, tucked away beneath a shelf, a pound bag of jerky strips. She also found a box of chocolate-chip cookie mix but she discarded that, knowing the chances of her finding fresh milk, butter or eggs was going to rapidly head toward zero.
Confident she hadn’t missed anything else Emily left the stockroom and headed back out to the front of the store. She placed everything she had just found next to her stash waiting on the counter then loaded it all into a bright blue plastic shopping basket from a stack located next to the door.
It wasn’t much of a haul, she thought, but it was better than nothing. It would buy her another day and give her time to formulate a better plan or for the authorities to show up. She knew she would have to head to one of the larger food stores soon and see if she could find a bigger supply… assuming the other stores hadn’t been wiped clean too. The power was still up and running, but who knew how long that would last? As soon as the electricity went down her water supply would disappear right after, as would her heat and any way of cooking her food, so it was imperative she find a stock of water and anything she could eat out of a can that didn't need to be cooked to be consumed.
Emily picked up her basket of trophies and headed to the exit. A small refrigerator near the door hummed quietly to itself. She hadn’t bothered to check it when she came in, sure it would be empty but as she passed it she stopped and pulled back the sliding glass top, peeking inside. Emily fished out a pint tub of Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream. “You’re coming home with me big boy,” she said with a smile, and added it to the basket.
Outside the store, full darkness had descended on New York but Emily could still see the storm of red dust swirling in the glare of the streetlights. In fact, the storm seemed to have only increased in intensity. She could barely make out the vague shape of her apartment block across the road. The building’s external security lights created a beacon that she could orient herself by, but only just. There was still just enough light to see and she knew there really wasn't anything in the road she could stumble over, but if this red storm was going to keep getting worse it was best if she left now.
Carefully, Emily cracked open the door to the street, holding onto the door handle to keep it from being ripped from her hands. She had readied herself to be pummeled by a burst of wind, but there was nothing, not even a hint of a breeze.
Motes of red dust rushed through the gap in the doorway and into the empty store, whirling around her. Within seconds, the cramped space of the convenience store filled with a whirling storm of tiny red particles.
Emily stood still, her eyes blinking mechanically as ribbons of dust flew towards her but inevitably swerved around her, continuing into the store as if she did not exist. As she watched, the dust seemed to maneuver its way through the space of the building. The dust’s movement reminded her of a dog when it first entered a new home, methodically moving around the room as though it was searching for something and, not finding it, flowing back out through the doorway again, only to be replaced by more dust.
Emily raised a hand to push an errant lock of hair from her face. Amazingly, as she moved her arm towards her forehead, the flow of red dust maneuvered around it like smoke in a wind tunnel blowing over a car, completely avoiding contact with her. She tried the same thing with her other arm and then stepped to the side. The flow shifted with her but never touched her, leaving an inch or so of space between her body and the mass of whirling particles.
My God,it’s as if it’s intentionally avoiding me.
The thought of the dust she had seen earlier attaching itself to the skin of the dead vagrant leapt to the forefront of her mind.
Was it searching for the dead?
The idea made her flinch. That just could not be. Ithadto be a coincidence. Therehadto be some other explanation. Yet, as she stood in the doorway watching the continuous stream of dust enter on her left, whirl around the room for a few seconds then exit on her right, with not even a hint of a breeze to propel it, Emily had the unsettling feeling that that wasexactlywhat was happening.
If—and it was a very big if—she was correct then she truly was observing something far more profound than a simple chemical spill or natural disaster. If—there was that word again—the phenomenon she was witnessing was actually real then it could only mean there was some kind of intelligence behind the event, driving the dust to seek out the dead. That meant it was synthetic. That thought was even more terrifying and yet, on some level, predictable to Emily. That humanity had screwed itself over once again, this time apparently permanently, did not surprise her. It had been on the cards for years, she supposed. And after the ineptitude she witnessed on an almost daily basis, well, it came as no great surprise that someone, somewhere, might have screwed the pooch big time.
With a sigh of resignation, Emily dipped her head against the flow of red dust. She picked up the plastic shopping basket from the floor, stepped out onto the pavement, and began heading back in the direction of the apartment block.
* * *
The trip back was not nearly as strange as she had expected. It was however more difficult than she anticipated. The twisting eddies of dust made it almost impossible to see more than a few feet in front of her. It was like walking through one of those snow globes she'd had when she was a kid, eerie but also strangely beautiful. The dust still kept its seemingly self-imposed distance from her, whipping past in twirling ribbons of red as it scoured the streets in search of only it knew what. It was almost as if there was some kind of shield surrounding her that the dust was just unable to penetrate. The dust made a lowshushingsound as it passed her, like sand dropping onto paper.
Very fucking weird.
While the contents of the basket were not heavy, the basket itself was another matter. The thin metal handles dug into the palm of her hand and the plastic cage of the basket kept banging against her thigh as she tried to maneuver her way through the thick swirls of dust. Half-blinded by the storm of red surrounding her, Emily did not see the raised curb of the pavement, clipping it just hard enough with her shoe to send her sprawling onto the sidewalk, spilling the basket and sending half her supplies spinning off into the darkness.
A few frantic minutes of searching recovered everything but the can of tomato soup.No loss there. Completely disoriented during the search, she wasted another ten minutes heading in the wrong direction, ending up a block away from where she thought she was.
Almost thirty minutes after leaving the store, a frustrated Emily finally pushed the door to the apartment open and stepped into the building’s lobby, a streamer of the red dust following her inside before the door closed, severing it. The stream of dust whirled around for a second within the lobby then dissipated.
She dropped the basket to the ground and stared at the white welts left by the handles on the palm of her hand. She could barely feel her fingers. She flexed them a few times to try to get blood flowing back into them before she made the long climb up the stairs to the apartment.
The elevator still held the body of the woman she'd found on her floor and Emily wasn't interested in spending anymore time in the presence of dead people, thank you very much.
Giving her fingers a few extra flexes for good measure, Emily picked up the basket and began to climb the stairs to the 17th floor.
* * *
Emily stood at her window looking down over the streets below. She had already put her precious supplies away, taking stock of exactly how much food she had collected with what she already had in the pantry. It wasn’t much. She estimated there was maybe three days worth of food and enough drinking water to last her a minimum of a week, longer if she rationed it.
She had decided to fill the bathtub with as much water as she could before she went to bed—just in case—along with a couple of empty plastic gallon containers she could use before she broke out the bottled water. She would use the water in the bathtub for cleaning herself and her clothes; she could transfer it to the washbasin from the tub as needed. Emily didn’t know whether the purification process the city used to sanitize the water they supplied would function for long without human interaction, so it was probably best to err on the side of caution and not drink water from the faucet anymore after tonight. Who knew what was happening out there or what contaminants could have entered into the supply with several million dead people just lying around. It wasn't worth the risk of drinking tainted water when there was so much bottled water available from local stores and other apartments in her block. But she was going to allow herself one final indulgence before she resigned herself to austerity and caution.
Emily moved from the living room into her bathroom and turned on the bath’s hot and cold faucets, filling the tub until the water lapped precariously close to the brim. She threw in some bath-salts, grabbed the tub of Häagen-Dazs ice cream she'd liberated from the store, stripped off her dirty clothes and climbed into the steaming bath.
She soaked her tired muscles for forty-five minutes. By the time she climbed out the water was tepid and she was as wrinkly as a Shar Pei dog. The tub of ice cream was empty, but Emily felt almost human again. The bath had been a luxurious treat that she was knew she would not be able to look forward to for a very long time.
She emptied the bath water and then refilled the tub with cold water while she toweled herself down. She pulled on her favorite pink flannel dressing gown and walked back into the living room.
Now, she stood staring down from her lofty perch into the darkness. The street below was virtually invisible, even the streetlights were barely perceptible beneath the thick river of red dust that seemed to be growing larger by the minute. It had been too dark to confirm it by the time she arrived, sweaty and exhausted, back at the apartment, but Emily would bet her last dollar what she had witnessed from the confines of the little corner store was happening throughout the city, maybe even across the whole of the country.
A sense of relief settled over her as she sat entranced by the whirling spirals of dust moving through the street. This was something so massive, so completely out of her control that it was actually quite liberating to know there was not a damn thing she could do about it. All she had to do was sit back and watch the show, see what happened and hope she was able to get out the other side when the dust—pardon the pun—finally settled.
The shucking of responsibility felt good, she admitted, to be just an observer, unbridled by the politics or angles she usually had to fight through for almost every story she had ever been involved in. This was simple, even pure in some respects.
Emily watched the ebb and flow of the river of red dust as it surged through the streets for almost an hour before she felt her eyelids beginning to droop. She let out a long yawn, pulled the drapes closed, and walked to her bedroom, closing the door on both the world and the day.
Emily woke with a start.
She popped her head out from under the covers and glanced at her bedside alarm clock; it showed 8:23 am in bright red numerals. The bedroom felt overly warm, the air conditioning should have kicked in by now. Obviously, the power was still on because her alarm clock was still working,. Maybe there was something wrong with the thermostat?
She climbed out of her bed, pulled on her dressing gown from the hook on the back of the bedroom door, walked out into the living room and emptied enough water into the coffee maker to brew six cups. She had the distinct feeling this was going to be a six-cup kind of a day.
She had slept well and this was the first morning since the world ended she actually felt normal, clear-headed enough that she could turn her mind back to figuring out how she was going to reach whoever was still alive out there. It was obvious from her efforts yesterday that simply calling locations she thought might be the logical centers for an organized rescue just wasn’t going to work. She couldn't be the only person left in the world, she was certain of that; the law of averages made it next to impossible for her to be the sole survivor. So today was going to be the day she figured out how the she was going to contact them.
Grabbing a fresh mug from the cupboard above the sink, she filled it with coffee and wandered over to the living-room window. The question burning in her mind was how was she supposed to locate other survivors when there were no clues to who they are, their location, or whether there was even anyone alive to contact.
How? How? How?
Emily reached out and drew back the drapes from the window.
Outside her window—she corrected herself; outside herseventeenth-storywindow—was nothing but a whirling mass of the red dust. Emily could not move, could not look away, the swirling flow of the red storm was mesmerizing.
It filled the entire skyline, silently blocking the view of everything for miles. Below, she could vaguely make out the very dim glow of the streetlights; their light detecting circuits deceived into thinking darkness had arrived early by the dense swarm of red dust. It crawled over the exterior of the window like flies on a rotten carcass. In fact, now that she stopped to think about it that was exactly the analogy she had been looking for. The behavior of the dust was just like a swarm of insects methodically searching for its collective next meal.
Could she have been mistaken? Was this stuff she thought of as dust actually some kind of animal? She leaned closer to the window, trying to follow one of the motes as it hit the pane of glass, but it moved across the glass too quickly for her to follow, whisked away before she could get a good look at it, only to be replaced by another, slightly larger piece. In the few moments she was able to briefly track the larger particle of dust she could see it certainly didn't resemble any kind of bug she had ever seen. It looked, well, like dust. Actually, it was more like plant pollen. It had an irregular bulbous shape with sharp points sticking out at odd angles, but rather than appearing solid the particle she was staring at was diaphanous and almost as delicate as the dandelion seeds she'd seen floating on the wind, back home in Iowa.
It was impossible to tell with the limited perspective the window offered just how much of the city was enshrouded by the dust storm. If she wanted to do that, she was going to have to leave the apartment. Hopefully it was just some kind of localized effect that had caused the dust to collect on her side of the building. The idea this might be happening all over the city was unnerving.
Emily unlatched the security lock on the apartment door and opened it, but stopped dead before she even set a foot outside the entrance.
Running along the ceiling just outside her front door was a tendril of the red dust. Emily poked her head outside the apartment doorway and glanced quickly down the corridor towards the elevator. The dust spiraled and twisted about an inch below the ceiling, it seemed to be coming from the direction of the exit to the main stairwell. A few feet into the corridor, it split into two branches, with one tendril heading toward the apartments right of the stairwell and the other inching its way in her direction. But that wasn't all it was doing, the dust was also splitting off at each doorway. Branches of the dust spiraled down over the doors of each of the corridor’s apartments like smoke pulled along by some unfelt breeze.Or, like the tentacles of some giant monster, Emily thought, with a creeping sense of horror. As she watched, she saw a strand of the dust break off from the main root and descend down to the door of Mrs. Janowitz's apartment just three apartments down from her own. The strand descended over the doorway, the tip making small movements left and right as though it was feeling its way. When it found the keyhole, the dust disappeared into the tiny opening as a second strand continued down to the base of the door. When it reached the floor, the tendril began to probe at the narrow space between the base of the door and the floor, as it looked for another entrance into the apartment.
That was it, Emily decided. This was just too fucking much. She slammed her own door shut and sprinted to the linen closet. She flung the closet open and snatched up a handful of the thickest towels she could find then ran to the kitchen, almost slipping as she rounded the corner but recovering enough she didn’t fall head-first into the corner of a cupboard. She threw the towels into the sink and turned on both faucets full force. Sure the towels were absolutely soaked, Emily raced to the front door and threw the sopping wet towels down onto the floor to block the crack, pushing them tightly into place as though she was trying to stop smoke from a fire. The edge of the door where it met the doorframe looked secure; the apartment owner had installed a plastic dust excluder that sat between the door and the frame, so she wasn't worried that anything could get through that. The keyhole was another matter though, it was too small to block with a towel and she didn't want to plug it with wet paper because that would be a bastard to get out and there was no way she was going to risk not being able to lock her door, or worse, trapping herself inside.
Emily ran back into the kitchen and began pulling out each of the draws. She knew she had a roll of duct-tape around here somewhere. She found it after she pulled out the contents of her third drawer, tucked at the back behind a bunch of plastic carrier bags she always meant to return to the local market.
Racing back to the front door, she tore off two eight-inch strips of the gray industrial-strength tape with her teeth. She pressed the pieces over the keyhole just as the first few particles of the red dust began to float through the hole. She watched the dust float away from the door towards the kitchen. Emily tore off a third piece of tape and stuck it diagonally across the other two she had already applied:just to be on the safe side, she thought.
She stepped back from the door and gave it the once over, taking care to look for any telltale signs the dust might have found some other way through she hadn't seen. But there was no indication she'd missed any gaps and, after a tense minute of double-checking, she exhaled a heavy breath.
"Shit!" she said aloud as another thought struck her. The air-conditioning had failed to kick-in this morning. The apartment block used a central forced-air system that fed all of the apartments in the building from two external industrial-sized air conditioning units on the south side of the apartments. The two massive units fed the apartment block through a series of ducts that interconnected throughout the walls of the building, supplying the ceiling vents in each room. Of course, it could just be a simple technical problem with the machinery, a couple of days of human free intervention may have created some mechanical problem causing them to overload and stop working. But, after witnessing the methodical way the dust had seemed to search out every possible entry point into the rooms on her floor, Emily doubted it was anything as simple as mechanical failure. The unit’s sudden demise was more likely because the red dust had found some way into the machinery, overloading the air conditioning unit somehow and even now it could be making its way through the miles of heat-ducting, looking for a way into every goddamned apartment.
Grabbing the roll of duct-tape, she raced back down the corridor to the living room. The vents were too high for her to reach so she had to double-back into the breakfast nook and grab a chair. A vent sat directly over the glass table in the breakfast nook, so she climbed up onto the chair and pushed the thumb-slider to the closed position sealing it. Even with the vent closed, she could still see a small gap between each of the vent's oblong fans that she was sure was more than large enough for the tiny particles of red dust to make it through. Also, the cover of the vent was held in place by two flat-head screws and she could clearly see a black line of shadow between the edges of the vent cover and the white paint of the ceiling. That meant the vent casing wasn’t sitting flush with the ceiling.
She began tearing off strips of duct-tape and sticking them over the exposed seams between the vent cover and the ceiling, carefully pushing them into place with her finger tips to make sure it made a tight seal. Emily tore off more strips and attached them across the panels, completely obscuring the vent. She hoped she had enough tape to cover all the apartment’s vents. If she didn't, well she'd be up the goddamn creek without the proverbial paddle.
Twenty minutes later, Emily placed the final strip of tape against the vent in her bedroom. She'd managed to cover all of them and, glancing at the roll, it looked like she still had enough left for a couple of strips to patch up anything she might have missed, but she was confident she had effectively made her apartment airtight.
That was going to be her next problem, she realized. With no air conditioning the apartment was going to get warm quickly, in fact, she thought could already feel the temperature in the bedroom beginning to rise. It could just be her imagination, after all she'd just spent the last thirty-minutes or so rushing around like a mad woman and she was sweating profusely. Imaginary or not, she was going to use up all the air in the room and things would get very uncomfortable. At some point, she would have to open up the apartment to the outside and allow some fresh air in. When she did would depend on how long the dust decided to hang around, of course.
She had managed to cover all the possible ways into the apartment she could think of, and Emily felt her panic finally begin to subside. She began to run the mind-bending events she had just encountered back, analyzing everything she saw, or thought she had seen, through the filter of her reporter’s brain.
To her mind, the obvious intelligence the red dust had exhibited to coordinate entry into the apartments was incontrovertible proof that what she had observed over the past forty-eight hours or so was not some coincidental cluster of unrelated events but actually part of a far bigger phenomenon. That phenomenon was itself a part of a larger process or plan, she was not sure which yet, but she could sense that the answer was just out of reach of her senses. Whatever the answer was, Emily understood something massive had been set in motion with the fall of the red rain, and it was moving methodically and systematically toward its final goal.
* * *
Emily quickly tired of checking the window to see if the maelstrom of dust had receded. Each time she pulled the curtains aside and peeked out it seemed the storm had only become worse. It was so thick now that glancing down toward the street she could not tell if streetlights had simply stopped working or if the cloud of dust covering Manhattan was so thick the light just couldn't make it through.
As the hours passed, Emily paced the apartment, turned on the TV and scanned every channel in the hopes that some station somewhere would be broadcasting something, anything to give her a clue or an indication there was somebody else alive. All she found was static from channels that had gone off the air or emergency service broadcasts that did nothing but loop, warning people they should stay in their homes until the crisis was over. Oddly enough, many of the satellite channels were still broadcasting. She guessed that was because the systems had been preprogrammed weeks in advance, so the computers controlling the broadcasts would probably just trundle along until the power went out or the satellites fell out of orbit.
She decided to try her luck with the Internet. Pulling her laptop from its bag, she connected it to the docking station she kept on a small desk in one corner of her bedroom. She expected the Internet would be down, but to her surprise, when she plugged the Ethernet cable into the connector on the side of her computer, she saw the connection indicator in the bottom right-hand corner of her monitor turn from red to green. She was online!
Emily tried all of the major news sites first. CNN was still up but displayed the same headline it had the day of the red rain. The same was true for MSNBC and Fox. Up, but no new news. When she tried to load-up the website of one of the local TV channels all she got was a 404-error and the message "The page you are looking for cannot be found." Undeterred she began working her way through the list of social networking sites she had compiled the day before, looking for any hint someone had posted a message they were still alive. It was like looking for that proverbial needle in a haystack, only this haystack spanned the entire globe.
She logged in to her Twitter account and read the messages she'd missed. She hadn’t accessed it from before the red rain had first fallen, so the bulk of the messages expressed concern or fear over the then upcoming event. Some messages explained their authors were hunkering down and hoping to ride out the storm, there were even one or two that dismissed the threat as nothing more than mass hysteria.
How'd that work out for you? Emily wondered.
There was no sign of any new messages posted to Twitter since the red plague had hit, though.
On each social media website or platform she visited, she left the date, her telephone number, and a simple message:I am alive. Please, contact me!!!She did not think it would be a good idea to leave her exact address, so she just wroteNew York City.That was close enough.
Emily spent the next four hours checking in to every website and web-hang-out she could find, looking for any sign of recent activity that might indicate someone, somewhere, was watching. She found nothing. She left her message on every one of them and, where possible, activated the option that would notify her if there were any new updates to her post.
By the time she exhausted her list of websites Emily’s eyes had begun to ache from the strain of staring at the screen for so long. She could feel beads of warm sweat dripping down her back and across her chest from the steadily growing humidity in her sealed off apartment.
She headed into the bathroom. The bathtub still held her emergency supply of water, which meant she would have to drain it if she wanted to take a shower. Instead, she filled the basin with water, stripped out of her clothes and rinsed herself off with a face cloth. The cold water felt wonderful against her clammy skin. Refreshed, she threw on a fresh tee and panties.
She was beginning to feel her hunger pangs howl so she pulled a can of soup from her cache and heated it on the stove, raising the temperature in the apartment even further, butHey!She had to eat. Sitting cross-legged on the sofa, she devoured the soup with the last few slices of bread she had left. While she ate, she turned on the TV and found a movie channel that was still broadcasting.
Restless and unable to focus, Emily switched the movie off before it ended and went to check the window one final time. The red dust still beat against the glass and she'd be damned if she could tell whether it had gotten worse or stayed the same. If she was perfectly honest with herself, at that particular moment, she didn’t care whether it had or not. She'd felt the depression begin to set back in after she'd logged off from the last website. It was hard to fight off the nagging feeling that, despite her best efforts to remain upbeat and reassured, she really was the only person left alive on this lump of rock the human race had called home.
The steadily growing temperature in the apartment and her own agitated nerves slowly sapped away at Emily’s energy, darkening her mood even further. There was little more she could do today, other than sit and brood the rest of the evening away. That wouldn’t help. She wanted to rest, but the clammy heat made her sticky and uncomfortable, besides she was tired but not sleepy. She grabbed a bottle of over-the-counter sleep aids she kept in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, popped two of them into her mouth and swallowed them with a swig of water before climbing onto her bed and burying herself in the welcoming coolness of the comforter.
Outside the apartment window, the red dust continued to scratch against the glass, blindly looking for a way in. Emily didn't care. Within minutes, the stress of the day and the sedating effects of the sleeping pills pulled her down into sleep.
Emily awoke to the faint but unmistakable sound of a baby crying.
At first, as the sound penetrated her Diphenhydramine induced sleep, Emily thought she was simply dreaming.
She felt damp and she could sense tiny pinpricks of perspiration all over her skin. With no air conditioning to cool her, the temperature had continued its gradual rise overnight. She’d kicked the comforter off at some point and now lay spread-eagled diagonally across the bed. The medication she’d taken to help her sleep had left her feeling woozy while it continued to try to drag her back down into sleep.
Of course it’s not a baby. Just a dream. Go back to sleep. No need to wake up yet, her addled mind whispered to her.
Then the sound came again. A drawn out wail that was unmistakable. Adrenaline instantly pumped into her body negating the pills effects and she bolted upright, listening intently to make sure she was not just hearing some sound created by the building.
The sound floated to her again. It was undeniable now. That was the sound of something alive; distant, but definitely in the building and somewhere above her. Maybe on the next floor up?
The cry sounded stronger this time, and her ears were sharp enough to distinguish it did indeed sound as though it was coming from the floor above hers, possibly the one above that. It didn't really matter; she hadn't a second to lose. All this time looking for survivors and it hadn’t even crossed her mind there might be kids out there. A child wouldn’t understand the implications of a fire-alarm and a baby couldn’t let her know it was there other than doing the one thing it instinctively knew would attract attention: bawling its eyes out!.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! All this time and I was so sure I was alone in this place. How fucking dumb am I.
The poor kid must have been on its own from day-one of this disaster. It sounded young, probably no older than a year. God knew what it had gone through for the past few days, stuck in the room on its own, its parents surely dead.
She would have to move fast if she was going to help, but first, she needed to check on the red dust.
While she was still 99% convinced the dust wasn't interested in her and that probably extended to the baby too, she didn't want to risk over exposure to it, just in case. She was dealing with indeterminables here and this situation was all so freaking weird, who knew what the long-term effects of contact to that shit would do to her. That was the least of her concerns, right now though, what mattered was finding that baby and finding her quickly.
Emily threw on a pair of jeans and tucked in the tee-shirt she'd worn to bed while she stumbled her way to the living room window. Throwing back the drapes she was greeted by a beautiful blue sky and a view of the city that stretched for miles... and not a sign of one piece of dust—nothing. Just sunny skies.
She stood, mouth agape, staring at the view outside the window. Not a trace of the dust could be seen, at least not from up here. What was going on? It was as though the storm she'd witnessed over the last two days had never happened. If she was—
The baby’s cry broke Emily from her thoughts and she immediately dragged her attention away from the dust-free sky to the finding the child.
Of course, just because the outside of the building was clear didn't mean the dust wasn't still lurking inside the apartment complex somewhere. She jogged back to the bedroom, grabbed her sneakers from beneath the bed, quickly laced them together and then started to make her way to the door, but before she got there she had another thought. She needed a blanket. Who knew what the poor kid had been exposed to; she needed to make sure she had something she could wrap the child in when she brought it back to her apartment. Emily rummaged through the linen closet and quickly found what she was looking for; the baby-blanket her mother had swaddled her in when she was a child. There was something very poignant in grabbing this particular blanket, Emily had never expected to have kids of her own and, at her age, the prospect had looked pretty bleak. It was something her mother and father had hinted at whenever she visited them. She laughed for a second at the thought of her mother's not so subtle probes about her love life and whether there was anyone special.
Who knew, Mom? All it took was the end of the world for you finally to get a grandchild.
Looking through the apartment’s spy-hole out into the main corridor, Emily could see no evidence of the probing red dust that had caused her to turtle-up the previous evening. Of course, the spy-hole only allowed for a limited view of the hallway and the dust could be sitting just out of sight, like some coiled snake waiting to strike, for all she knew. That, of course, was just her nerves playing havoc with her mind. She'd been in contact with both the red rain and the red dust with no ill effects—yet, she cautioned herself mentally—but that didn't mean she should start getting careless.
Even though the adrenalin pumping through her body was urging her otherwise, Emily decided to take her next step cautiously. Instead of pulling away the towels (now long dried out, she noted) from the base of the door and tearing the tape from the keyhole, she decided to remove just the towels first. She did this, making sure she kept them within easy reach in case she needed to throw them back in place. With the towels out of the way Emily slid the security chain off its fastener, thumbed the button on the door latch and gently twisted the door handle.
The door swung open just a crack and Emily felt a refreshing wave of cool air sweep over her. Thank God, the air conditioning was back on again. That’s a good omen, she thought hopefully.
Emily allowed herself a few short seconds for the air to cool her while she peeked through the crack. Her eyes quickly scanned up and down, first checking the ceiling then the floor of the corridor. No sign of anything. She opened the door an inch more, her eyes fixed on the corridor for any movement, ready to slam it shut at the slightest hint of trouble; still nothing. Emboldened, she pulled the door wide enough to slip her head outside far enough so she had a full view of the corridor in both directions.
There was no movement. No sign whatsoever of the strange red tendrils that had seemed so intent on insinuating themselves into every nook and crevice of the apartment and the city. Except, that wasn't entirely true. Here and there, scattered over the floor of the corridor was a fine red residue that stood out against the light blue carpeting. While it retained some similarity to the red dust, it was now more of a pink color, and seemed to have lost the diaphanous structure that had allowed it to move so easily. Whatever this residue was, it seemed brittle, granular even, and nothing like the delicate structures she had seen propelling themselves through the air. It reminded Emily of the pink Crystal Light powdered drink she would sometimes mix-up over the summer.
Emily stepped out of her apartment, quietly closing the door behind her, listening all the time for any indication of the baby. It was only a few seconds later and she heard the telltale wail of the infant. In the corridor the baby’s cry was much louder and was definitely coming from somewhere above her. She began jogging towards the stairwell.
The sound surprised her and, as she looked down at her feet, Emily saw she had stepped on a pile of the seemingly inert dust, shattering it with a sound like crisp autumn leaves. Lifting her foot she saw the residue of the dust had turned to powder under her foot, leaving bits stuck to the soles of her sneakers. She had no idea what this signified, but she got the impression that whatever had happened while she was asleep, this powdered residue was all that was now left of the dust.
Doing her best to ignore the constant crackling of the desiccated dust under her feet Emily continued on her way to the stairs. She would head up to the 18thfloor first and listen for the child there. If she could not pinpoint where the plaintive cry was coming from exactly she was going to have to start going door-to-door and listening.
A sudden thought struck her as she climbed the stairs up to the next level: what if the kid wasn't the sole survivor? What if there was someone else alive? That would explain how the kid had survived all this time without access to food or water. The thought excited her more than she would ever have expected.
For most of her life, Emily had been a loner. That she had gone into a profession bringing her into contact with people on such a regular basis had surprised both her parents and her few close friends. She had explained it easily enough; as a reporter, contact was always onherterms. She dictated the start and finish of her interaction with every person she interviewed. It was simple really, she maintained complete control of the amount of exposure she had with people and when she tired of them, she just ended the interview. Easy, really.
So, why was she so excited at the possibility of seeing another human being? She couldn't answer that, she was a reporter not a psychiatrist, but the idea of being no longer totally alone, of having someone, anyone, to talk to was the most astonishingly important thing to her right now.
Emily smiled widely at the thought. It had created a brightness in her that she had not known had left her, and as she opened the door onto the 18th floor landing she began calling out.
"Hello?" she yelled as loud as she could. "Is there anyone else alive here?"
As if in answer to her yell she heard the cry, this time louder and definitely somewhere on the same floor with her.
She paused for a second to try to identify which direction the cry was coming from.
From her left, definitely. And not too many doors down either by the sound of it.
"Hello," she continued yelling. "I'm here to help. Can you hear me?"
Waggghhhg!Waggghhh! The reply came, doubled to match her own urgency, and luckily too, because she had passed the door to the apartment where the cry was coming from. She doubled-back and stood outside the door. Placing her hand flat against the wood of the door she gave it an experimental push: locked! Of course it was, what had she expected?
Emily slapped her hand twice against the door.
"I'm outside your door,” she yelled. “You don't have to worry, I didn't get sick. I can help you. Please, just let me know that you're okay. Please." The sentence came out almost as a single word, she was speaking so fast, babbling with excitement, she realized.
As if in answer, the cry sounded again, this time it was a single, long, drawn out syllable.
It was then that Emily realized with an abrupt certainty that the kid was in there on her own.How do I know she's not a he?She thought, but it sounded better than calling her 'it'. Somehow, she had survived for all this time on her own and now it was up to Emily to help. She had to rescue the child. But how the fuck was she supposed to get into the room?
She could try kicking down the door but she didn't think she'd have much luck with that if it was anything like the entrance to her own apartment. Years of cycling had given her strong legs, but she knew she was not strong enough to break down a secured door. No, this was going to take a more focused application of force to open.
"Of course!" she said and ran back to the stairwell. On either side of the doorway was a large red fire extinguisher, housed in its own box behind a front of glass. Next to the fire extinguisher, on the opposite side of the doorway, was a similar red box and behind its glass was a large and equally bright red fire-ax. A small metal hammer, about the size of an icepick, hung from a metal chain on the right side of the box. She grabbed the hammer, turned her eyes away and hit the glass with as much force as possible. It shattered with her first strike crumbling to the floor. Gripping the ax with both hands, she pulled it from its retaining clasps and sprinted back to the apartment.
The apartment complex owner hadn't skimped on anything when he built the complex, and that attention to detail also extended to the doors of each apartment. They were made of a high-density wood-mix that could withstand a fire for up to an hour. Hacking her way through the door would probably take her a month of Sundays so there was no time to spare.
Rather than try to chop a hole large enough to fit through, Emily decided to concentrate on disabling the actual locking mechanism of the door instead. If she could get to the lock, she should be able to gain access to the apartment.
Emily planted her feet shoulder-width apart with enough room between herself and the door she could put some real momentum behind her swing. The ax weighed about thirty-pounds but she managed to heft it up to head-height and take aim at the lock tumbler. She drew in a deep breath and brought the ax down with as much force as she could muster against the face of the door. The impact transmitted waves of pain through her arms and up to her shoulders but she was rewarded with the satisfying sound of wood splintering and saw the ax head bite deep into the wood. She had to wiggle the haft of the ax up and down a few times to free it from the door, but once it was out she could see a six-inch long, inch-deep gash just to the right of the lock.
As if in encouragement to her attempt at breaking and entering, the child inside the apartment let out another mournful wail. As the cry reached her, Emily raised the ax again and sent it down into the door, this time the shockwave of pain was worse as she felt the tip of the ax hit the metal shaft of the lock's cylinder. Sweat had already begun to trickle down her forehead and she felt an uncomfortable wetness under her armpits, but it was worth it because she could see the lock was canted at a slightly different angle than when she first arrived outside the door.
This explains why I became a reporter and not a firefighter, she thought as she felt the dull ache of the pain in her muscles.
Emily summoned her energy again and drew the ax back up above her head, holding it there for a second, she sucked in as big a gulp of air as she could before exhaling it in a scream that was half frustration and half anger. The ax plummeted down, scoring a direct hit on the lock, dislodging it from the receiver and sending it whistling towards her, missing her head by mere inches.
"Jesus Christ," Emily exclaimed as she turned to follow the trajectory of the six-inch piece of metal as it clattered to the floor behind her after rebounding off the opposite wall. When she turned back, the remainder of the lock lay on the floor too.
The door to the apartment was now ajar.
The line of work Emily was in had long ago taught her to trust her gut instinct. For some unknown, subconscious reason, she hesitated at the threshold of the apartment, the flat of her left hand resting against the door, her right hand clenched so tightly around the shaft of the ax she could feel her nails digging into the flesh of her palm. Something did not feel right, she realized. She couldn't put a finger on it, but she had a definite sense ofoffnessabout what she was hearing. From the dark apartment beyond the door the wail of the child sounded again, louder now she was so close, breaking through her indecision.
A scene from the movieThe Shining—the one where an insane Jack Nicholson chops down the door to his kid’s room with an ax—leapt unbidden into her mind, sending a shudder of unease down her spine, but she dismissed it as just nerves.
"Here's Emily," she croaked as she pushed open the door and stepped into the apartment.
The stench of ammonia hit Emily the second she eased the apartment door open wide enough for her to slip inside. It filled her nostrils and seared the back of her throat, instantly triggering her gag reflex. She spent a full minute trying not to throw-up before she could move any further into the apartment.
The smell was not what she had expected, it wasn't the bittersweet stench of putrefaction, this was more like a hundred cats had spent a week peeing freely in the apartment and then sealed the place up for another week.
Waves of heat rolled out through the open door. Emily felt beads of moisture condense against her skin. What had the kid’s parents been keeping in here? Were they running a meth lab or something?
How had the kid survived so long breathing this air?
If she had a towel or a rag on hand, Emily would have soaked it in water and used it to filter the cloying, ammonia-laden air. She was tempted to use the blanket but decided against it. Instead, she untucked her tee-shirt from her jeans and pulled it up until it covered her nose and mouth, keeping it place with one hand. It wasn't perfect, she knew, but it should help keep some of that vomit inducing stench at bay. Gritting her teeth against the smell, Emily stepped into the apartment’s entranceway.
It was dark inside but she quickly found the light switch and snapped it on. The overhead lights revealed an empty corridor with just a single painting on the right wall for decoration. The humidity in the apartment was almost as overwhelming as the smell of ammonia. Within seconds of her entering, she was soaked through with sweat and moisture from the air.
"Hello?" she called out, lowering her hand from her mouth and instantly regretted it. She sucked in a huge gulp of fetid air and she felt the chemical burn as it scorched the roof of her mouth and back of her throat. Emily tried to resist but the stink and stinging irritation was just too much this time. She vomited onto the white shag-pile carpet. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and quickly brought the tee-shirt back up to her mouth. The ammonia was biting at her eyes now, raising tears that blurred her vision so badly she had to wipe them away every couple of seconds with the baby blanket. She wouldn't be able to handle this for very long without passing out, going totally blind or choking on her own vomit. She needed to find the kid as quickly as possible and get them both out of there. She had to move fast.
The apartment was the next model up from Emily’s. It had the same basic layout but came with an additional bedroom. She knew the kid’s parents would have put the child in the smaller second bedroom, so she made her way to it, pushing the door open while fumbling for the light switch. She flicked the switch and revealed what was definitely a nursery. A cute crib sat against the right wall, and suspended from the ceiling above it was a child's mobile. Large pink plastic animals hung from the main frame of the toy;lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!White wallpaper, decorated with colorful flowers and butterflies, covered the room’s walls. Across from the door, she could see a changing station and a high-back chair where the parents could sit and spend some quality time with their kid. Emily walked over to the crib and pulled back the expensive looking wool blanket. There was no child hidden beneath it.
As if sensing her presence, Emily heard the child’s wail echo into the room. Instead of immediately rushing towards the source of the cry, Emily stopped mid-step. Her gut was trying to tell her something that her brain did not want to hear;something is not right here, it screamed at her, and this time she listened to its advice.
The cry came again, more insistent and, Emily noted, now that she was so much closer to the source, she could hear an odd trill to it that made it seem far more complicated than the simple cry of a child. It almost reminded her of the tones she’d hear when she was forced to use an old-fashioned dial-up modem to connect to the Internet. The sound was, what was the word? Mechanical? Yes, that was close enough. Now she could hear it clearly, without the layers of flooring and walls to filter it, the cry sounded less like a child.
Of course, it could just be her imagination and the strange edge to the cry she heard was just the result of the kid being stuck in this toxic room for so long, but Emily had the sudden overwhelming urge to quietly leave the apartment and never come back.
As strongly as her instincts might be telling her to leave, she couldn't do that, she had to find out what was making that noise.
There was more caution in her step as she exited the child’s bedroom and began creeping toward the master bedroom directly across the corridor. She nudged the door open with the tip of her shoe and cautiously reached inside for the light switch. She poked her head in and quickly scanned the room: a king size bed, neatly made and waiting for sleepers who would never lay their heads down on the pillows again. A bookcase filled with paperbacks, a dresser and a tallboy, but no sign of the apartment’s tenants.
Emily turned her back on the room and made her way down the corridor, heading in the direction of the kitchen and living room areas. The curtains were drawn closed filling the living room with gloom. With every step Emily took she felt the temperature increase and the cloying smell of ammonia become stronger, until it was almost unbearable. Even though the area was dark, Emily had a sense ofsomethingmoving in the living room and she froze, the hairs on the back of her neck bristling like spines on a porcupine.
A sense of panic had crept almost unnoticed up her spine and, as she moved unsteadily through the apartment, it had begun knocking on the back of her skull like a hammer, yelling at her to get the fuck out of there, pronto. But her journalistic inquisitiveness and her overwhelming need to rescue the child overrode her sense of self-preservation—again, she thought—so Emily began blindly running her hand along the wall looking for the switch that would turn on the living room’s overhead lights. The wall’s surface was sticky with something that Emily didn't even want to think about at that moment, it felt like someone had sneezed big-time. She wasn't sure which was worse; the stink and the wave of heat or the idea that she'd just put her hand in a huge pile of snot. Neither was terribly appealing she thought just as her fingers found the wall-switch and filled the room with light.
It took just a second or two for her eyes to adjust to the brightness but when she finally stopped squinting Emily started screaming.
It seemed as though she had turned on a light that shone directly into the center of a nightmare. In the middle of the room, covering what had probably been the family couch was something that looked as though it had crawled right out of the deepest, darkest corners of hell.
What she was looking at was the source of both the cat-piss smell and the apartment’s incredible humidity. That much Emily’s brain was able to process, but it stalled when it tried to make sense of what her eyes were relaying to it.
Therewasa child, or at least she supposed that it must have been a child at some point, and the parents were with it. The three had merged into a single mass of fat and tissue that hung from the ceiling in the far corner of the living room. The bottom half of the child's body had disappeared, subsumed into the pulsating bulk of the mass, but its torso and one hand were still free. The hand moved feebly back and forth, almost as though it was waving a friendlyHello! to its new playmate. But that was impossible too, because Emily knew the child couldn’t see her; it had no eyes after all, they were gone, replaced by empty black sockets. It was from the kid's mouth that the eerie ululation was emanating. As she stood transfixed, its mouth opened wide and the bone chilling sound of its cry spilled out, filling her ears.
The parents were barely recognizable within the pulsating bulk. If it hadn't been for a disconnected foot with a man's shoe still attached to it that lay a few feet (pardon the pun, she thought) from whateverthisthing was, and an obviously female arm that dangled limply from one flank, Emily would not have known what the damn thing was made of.And that would have been fine by her.
Thick gobs of redstuffmoved over the skin of the mass, pulling pieces of the main body with them and then moving them to other parts, almost as if it was putting together some kind of puzzle. As she watched the bizarre rearrangement, her mind just a single step from insanity at the utter horror before her, a large globule of the red substance left the body and reached out for the severed man's foot. It deftly surrounded it, shoe and all, and began moving it back to the main body; just like she'd seen ants transport leaves and other dead bugs back to their nest.
This was utter madness, she realized. What she was seeing simply could not exist, it was impossible, so she must be dreaming. But, as she continued to watch in horrified amazement as the foot was dragged back to the main mass, the child's head began a gradual clockwise rotation until it had moved through 180-degrees. The eyeless sockets now stared at her from where the kid's chin should have been, the mouth opened wide and let out a long piercing ululation that resonated off the apartment walls and cut through her skull with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel.
Emily's courage finally gave in. She exhaled a piercing scream and ran for the door.
* * *
Emily exploded from the apartment.
Her normal cognitive processes had been superseded by a blind animal survival instinct of the most primitive kind; instincts most humans had not felt since their caveman ancestors first began exploring their new world.
Her feet slid out from under her as she hit the corridor and she went down hard, knocking the air from her lungs, but she was up in a heartbeat, arms flailing as she sprinted towards the stairwell. She took the stairs down to her floor three steps at a time, her feet working on autopilot. Somehow, miraculously, she did not stumble or trip.
Emily kicked open the door leading from the stairwell onto her corridor so hard it slammed back against its hinges, the aluminum handle taking a chunk out of the interior wall. Still sprinting towards her apartment, Emily found the door keys in her jeans and pulled them free. She tried three times to slot the key into the lock but her right hand was shaking so violently and the key seemed so massive by comparison to the tiny receiver she had to steady it with her left hand. Finally, the key found its mark and the door opened. She leapt inside, slamming the door shut behind her with aboomthat echoed throughout the entire apartment complex. She fumbled the security chain into place, quickly followed by the thumb-lock and then she sprinted down the hallway.
Emily’s mind did not register any of those events because all it was concerned with was the dreadful baby-thing that lived in apartment number twenty-six on floor eighteen. Caught in a processing loop as it tried to assimilate exactly what this latest assault on her sanity was, her mind refused to do anything but force her feet to move.
When Emily’s brain finally returned control of her body, she found herself standing in her bedroom, leaning rigidly against the door. Her first thought was:how the fuck did I get here? Her next was that she needed to change her underwear and jeans because, apparently, for some reason she just couldn't fathom, she had wet herself.
With control of her mind and body now returned to her, the full, terrible truth came flooding back to Emily. She understood why she was bracing her bedroom door closed. She knew why she had peed herself. It was because the thing upstairs should not,couldnot, exist.
And yet, it did.
Her eyes drifted to the bedroom’s ceiling. Thatthingwas up there, just feet above her head.
Another terrifying thought struck Emily like the proverbial thunderclap from on high and, given the absolute insanity of the last few days, this latest thought most certainly did not seem to be outside the realms of possibility: What if what she had just seen in the apartment upstairs was able to get out of the room? And what if there was more of them out there too? What was she supposed to do about that? What if she, Emily Baxter, really was the last human being left on earth, the sole surviving woman in a world full of monsters?
What if shewascompletely and absolutely alone?
It was at that very moment, with so many questions exploding in her brain like dark fireworks, Emily heard her cellphone ringing on the table in the kitchen.
I'll call them back later, Emily thought, her mind still trying to wrap itself around the events of the last thirty-minutes.They can leave a message.
Only after the third trill from her cellphone did the fog filling her brain clear sufficiently enough for her to grasp what she was hearing. Emily was out the bedroom door and halfway to the kitchen before she even realized she was moving. Grabbing the phone from the table, Emily flipped it open, pressing it to her ear.
There was silence on the other end of the line.
"Hello?" she whispered, her voice barely a croak. "Please, be there. Please." She was no longer surprised at how desperate her voice sounded.
The silence continued for a second but then Emily heard someone take in a deep breath and a man's voice broke through the silence: "Is this Emily Baxter?"
Emily had been sick once when she was a kid. Really sick. The doctor had informed her parents it was probably just food poisoning, but to Emily it had seemed as though she was dying. The pain had been excruciating; two days of vomiting and diarrhea had left her exhausted and dehydrated. She had eaten nothing and drank little but cool water fed to her by her mother with a spoon. On the third day, as she began to recover, Emily’s father brought her a can of her favorite orange soda with a cute pink straw in it. It was one of those straws with a concertina section two-thirds of the way up, so you could bend it towards your mouth. She had drunk that same soda a hundred times before she had become sick, but this time, this time the soda tasted like pure liquid heaven to her parched throat and deprived taste buds. The flavors were so intense, the bubbles so exciting on her tongue, and the cold rush of the soda as it exited the straw and hit the back of her mouthsoexquisite, it was as though she was experiencing it in a completely new body.
The smooth resonance of the stranger’s voice in her ear had the same effect on her now. She felt as though she had received a call directly from God himself.
"Yes, this is Emily," she managed to blurt out before she broke into a flood of tears.
* * *
"It's okay! It’s alright!” the man’s voice on the end of the telephone line said softly. “You’re not alone."
At that moment, if the stranger had asked how she was feeling, Emily would have been unable to articulate the rush of different emotions she felt sweeping through her. Gratitude, fear, happiness, sorrow, all simultaneously took hold of her body; but greater than all of those emotions combined was an overwhelming sense of hope. The flood of emotions coalesced into an immobilizing mixture which, for the first ten minutes of the conversation, such as it was, refused to allow Emily to respond to the man’s questions other than with a faint, bleated “yes” or “no”. Attempting to say anything more than that was futile, the second she tried she dissolved into a huffing bout of tears.
Until this moment, Emily had no inkling she was so totally and overwhelmingly terrified. Even the memory of the horror she had witnessed minutes earlier seemed to have diminished as she allowed the relief of knowing she was not the only person left alive to wash her fear away. Finally, as the rush of endorphins subsided and her self-control began to exert itself again, Emily found her tongue and began answering more fully the patient questions her caller was asking.
His name was Jacob Endersby, he told her. There were eleven other people with him; eight men and four women in total. They were a team of scientists, techs and support staff working at a remote climate monitoring station on a tiny, frozen island off the northern coast of Alaska, part of a small cluster known as the Stockton Islands. Their group was, at least until the red rain came, a research team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Climate Research Center, and they'd been stationed at the Stockton's for just over three months, gathering climatological data as part of a semi-annual study.
Jacob explained that no red-rain had fallen anywhere near their base in the Stocktons, but Jacob's wife, Sandra, who was stationed several hundred miles south of his team’s location, back at the University in Fairbanks, had reported the phenomena falling as far North as the Noatek Preserve, which was about 180-miles South West of Jacobs research team’s location.
Jacob became silent for a minute at the mention of his wife. Emily listened patiently, a light static hiss buzzing in her ear, not sure whether he was still on the line or not.
Eventually, she spoke quietly into the receiver: “Jacob? Are you still there?”
“Yes,” he replied, just as quietly. Emily could hear his barely concealed pain vibrate in his voice. This man was carrying a burden of loss as great as any she was feeling over the passing of her family and friends.
“We had a TV satellite feed, so we were following what was happening throughout Europe after the rain had fallen,” he continued. “Sandra said the rain had fallen all around the university; not much, just a smattering, but that I shouldn’t worry because she hadn’t been in contact with it. The university was going into lockdown and they were quarantining everyone who had any contact with the rain, as best as they could.
“Sandra said she’d managed to contact a few other weather and climate monitoring stations scattered south of her and across the border in Canada. They all reported significantly decreased amounts of the red-rain the further north they were. Eight hours after I last spoke with my wife, I tried calling her again on the shortwave but she didn’t answer.Nobodyanswered.” Jacob whispered the last sentence between a barely restrained sob and a ragged intake of breath.
The climatologist paused again as he collected himself before continuing. “We have a couple of satellite-phones, so we all took turns calling family, friends, and colleagues at other research sites around the world. We called everyone that we could think of, but no one picked up. Since then, our tech guys have been scouring all the major websites and listening on the shortwave, trying to find someone, anyone who is still alive. That was how we found you, Emily. And we are so very glad to hear your voice.”
No one on his team had a solid theory for what exactly had happened, Jacob told her, just some wild conjectures. They were, for the most part, baffled. But one thing did seem quite obvious to the team of scientists: from the data they had managed to collect before losing contact, the red-rain phenomena covered a significant portion of the globe, and in Jacob’s opinion, it seemed to be an almost directed action against the most populated areas of the planet. As far as they could tell, not one country was left unaffected; there was not a major city, town, precinct or village anywhere south of latitude sixty-eight-degrees-north that had not been decimated.
Emily was the first person his team had made contact with. They'd picked-up a few fleeting messages on the camp's short-wave receiver but the signals had been too weak and too garbled to make any sense of, but it was a good indication, Jacob said, that others had survived the catastrophe, somewhere.
"Of course, logic dictates theremuststill be pockets of survivors out there; probably small groups like us who live in the colder areas. Maybe there are some military installations left. I guess submarine crews are the most likely to have been unaffected by all of this, but who knows what will happen to them when they surface," Jacob explained.
“What about you and your team,” Emily asked. “How do you think you survived?”
"There's no way for us to understand whether this phenomenon is virus based, a nerve agent, or something else completely. We’re guessing that, for some reason, whatever kind of agent the red-rain is its ability to multiply and spread is affected by the cold, which is why my wife reported so little of it in Fairbanks and the other stations north of her. Of course, it appears that even minimum exposure to the rain proves fatal. Unless we can contact other survivors in colder areas across the globe we won’t be able to confirm that hypothesis. For all we know, the moment we set foot inside the contamination zone, we'll drop dead. Same could happen to any other survivors outside the areas where the rain fell. You can probably guess no one here wants to put that theory to the test. ”
Emily listened intently to everything Jacob had to say, but in the back of her mind she found herself wondering whether she should mention what she had experienced with the red-dust storm or the thing she had seen in the apartment on floor 18. Would he think she was crazy? If she was in his shoes, she sure as hell would. Telling him she had seen some kind of a monster made up of the young family that once lived in the apartment wasn’t exactly going to lend any kind of credence to her story.
“I saw… something, Jacob,” she finally blurted out before she even knew she had made-up her mind. “Something strange. Not normal.”
Jacob stopped midsentence. “What do you mean ‘not normal’, Emily?”
Oh, shit! Now I’ve done it, she thought, doubt filling her mind again. But sheknewshe had seen what she had seen, it wasn’t a figment of her stressed out brain. She just had to tell him.
“There’s other stuff that happened after everyone died, the rain turned into some kind of autonomous dust and…” she paused, drew in a deep breath and then blurted out, “something is happening to the family in an apartment on the floor above me. They’re dead but …they’re … changing into something else.”
“Ooo-kaaay,” said Jacob, his voice taking on a confused tone.
“Look,” she continued, “I know this will sound crazy. I know you’re going to think I’m out of my mind. I mean, I’m questioning my own sanity right now, but I swear I’m not making up what I’m about to tell you.”
Emily told Jacob about the strange storm of red dust she had seen, how it had seemed to be attracted to the dead vagrant and then later attempted to invade her apartment. She thought to gloss over how she had heard what she thought was a baby crying, tracked it down to the level above, broken down the door and what she had found inside, but the truth was, everything she had already told him sounded crazier than a soup sandwich anyway; so why not?
When she was done recounting her story, Emily waited to hear the click of the phone as Jacob hung-up. She could imagine him wondering how on earth he had managed to connect with the last crazy person alive in New York.
“Interesting,” he said finally.
Well, that certainly wasn’t the response she’d expected.
“You believe me?” she asked, still not sure what to make of his response. “I’m not crazy?”
“I can’t speak to what you’ve experienced since the red rain, Emily. And, to be totally honest, I think we both know that if you’d told me the same story before everything that’s happened over the last couple of days, my response would probably have been different. But, after what you … whatwehave all experienced? I can’t discount any evidence, no matter how subjective it may be.”
There was silence for a few seconds as both strangers considered what to say next. Finally, Jacob spoke.
“I told you we really only have conjecture to work with, but we’ve had little else to do around here than run ideas past each other since everything…” he searched for the right word, “…ended. We’ve parsed every possibility we could think of as a group, no matter how far-out-there it might seem, and eliminated the majority of them as either impossible or highly improbable. What we’re left with is, well, to quote you Emily, is ‘crazy’ sounding.”
Emily heard Jacob take a swig of something, swallow and then carry on the fast-paced delivery of his idea.
"What we’re sure of,” Jacob continued, “issomethingfar outside the realms of probability has happened across the globe. That ‘something’ is so unlikely it might just as well be defined as a random event because it’s so far off the scale of probability. When we throw in the new data you’ve supplied us, it pretty much removes the possibility of the red rain being a manmade event; there’s no way human technology could have the kind of rapid effect on a human body you described, which means we’re back to trying to define that elusive ‘something’again. So, if we rule out manmade technology then we’re left with only two probable causes for the red-rain and what you witnessed. The first is that our ‘something’is a part of the natural cycle of the earth, an extinction level event, similar to the ‘great dying’ in the Permian-Triassic period. That one event wiped out about seventy-percent of land animals and ninety-six-percent of marine life. And there’s plenty of data to suggest mass extinctions happen—on a planetary timescale, at least—pretty regularly,andwe’re long overdue for the next one. So, maybe the red-rain is part of a cycle that kicks in every few-hundred-million years or so and wipes the planet clean. It’s just the delivery of this event that’ssostrange, so unexpected. It just doesn’t seem likely that we would have missed some kind of evidence of it in the fossil record.”
“And what’s the second possibility,” asked Emily, not sure she really wanted to hear the answer.
“Well, again,” said Jacob, “you can call me crazy but the only other possibility we can come up with is that this is some kind of extraterrestrial event.”
Emily was stunned. “What? You mean like ET? We’ve been invaded by little green men or something? You’re kidding me, right?”
“Yes, well, kind of. It depends on your definition of ‘invaded’. What we could be experiencing here is a kind of extraterrestrial biological entity. Our planet is really just a massive super-organism, the red-rain could be the equivalent of a virus, but one that existsout therein the vastness of space and affects planets instead of individuals.” Emily could imagine Jacob energetically waving his hands towards the roof of his office all those thousands of miles away from her. “It just floats around until it randomly lucks on a suitable host planet and thenboom… mass-extinction’s the result. The theory is really kind of fascinating when you look at it dispassionately.” Jacob seemed to realize getting excited over the reason for the almost total extermination of humanity may not seem quite so attractive to anyone else outside of his small band of colleagues.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, “I didn’t mean to sound so enthusiastic about it all. That’s what happens when you spend too much time cooped up with scientists twenty-four hours a day for months on end.”
“It’s okay,” Emily told him, “I understood what you meant.” And, if she was honest with herself, Jacob was right; itwasa fascinating concept. Terrifying, but also incredibly interesting.
“So, that’s just two of the prime possibilities we came up with,” the scientist continued. “Hell, for all I know we could have been on the receiving end of the equivalent of a galactic bug-bomb. We just don’t know and I don’t believe we’ll ever find out the real cause. But what we are sure of is that something unprecedented in the entirety of human history has occurred, and all the old rules, well, they’ve been thrown right out the window. And, if we factor in your encounter, then the logical conclusion would seem to be that something far greater than a simple random catastrophe is at play here. Which means that ‘something’is probably much more complex than we can even begin to estimate at the moment.”
There was a long pause and then Jacob’s voice filled her ear again, crackling with static. “So, what are your plans, Emily. How are you going to get out of New York?”
Jacob’s question caught Emily completely off-guard. “What? I’m not planning on leaving my apartment, let alone New York. Why would I need to get out of New York?”
The earlier excitement Emily had heard in Jacob’s voice vanished, replaced by a patient, quieter tone that she thought he probably reserved for first-year students at the university and kids … and now he could add crazy reporters to that list.
“There are a couple of good reasons for you to get out of the city: first and foremost, you’re surrounded by several million dead bodies that are already well on their way to decomposing. At some point, that’s going to bring you into contact with God-knows how many potentially fatal pathogens; cholera, typhus, you name it, it’s all going to be floating around out there. It is not going to be a very healthy place for you to be.”
Jacob hesitated before continuing, but when he did Emily could sense his words were couched by a level of misgiving bordering on reticence, but she couldn’t tell whether it was directed at her or Jacob’s doubt at voicing his own thoughts.
“If you’re right about what you saw then who’s to say it’s not happening everywhere? It’s not my intention to scare you, Emily, but maybe we need to consider this event will have even farther reaching effects than we’ve imagined so far. I hear myself say the words and I know how screwy I sound, but have you considered that the transmutation you saw with the family might be happening elsewhere? Because if it is, then we’re talking about an unprecedented shift in the biological hierarchy of this planet, and to be quite frank, that scares the living shit out of me.”
”But that’s just—” Emily started to answer but Jacob cut her off as if she had not even spoken, his voice insistent.
“Either way, you need to get out of there, Emily. And If I were you, I’d be heading North as fast as I could.”
"So what am I supposed to do? I can't drive and I'm pretty sure you guys aren't going to volunteer to come pick me up. How do I get out of here and where am I supposed to go?" Emily could hear the whine of desperation—or was it panic—begin to creep back into her voice again.
"How do you get out of New York? That I can't really help you with, but where you need to go, that's simple; you need to head as far north as you can, come to us, we’re not going anywhere. The colder it gets the better your chances probably are of surviving this. But you have to prepare and you have to go soon, Emily."
From upstairs, Emily heard the wailing of the thing in the apartment. The idea that there could be who-knew how many more of them all around her turned her blood to ice. It was all she could do not to throw the phone to the floor, rush to the closet and hide until she woke up from this nightmare.
"Okay," she said before she even realized that she had consciously made the decision to leave. "Tell me what I need to know."
* * *
"First things first," said Jacob. "The power's not going to stay up forever and we need to make sure that you have some way to stay in communication with us. Do you know where you can lay your hands on a satellite phone?"
As it happened, Emily did. The paper had a pair of them they handed out to correspondents covering foreign events or who had to head out to remote areas where regular cellphone coverage was either poor or nonexistent. The paper had put all their reporters through a two-hour long training course when they'd bought them; Emily had even had a chance to make a couple of calls, so she knew how to operate one. These units were state of the art and even came with a small 12-Watt portable solar-panel which could be setup in a couple of minutes and used to charge the battery when there was no access to a regular power source.
"That's excellent," Jacob said when she told him. He gave her the number for their sat-phone. "Just in case things start shutting down faster than we anticipated."
"I'll head over to the paper once we're done. Keep your fingers crossed nobody was using them when the shit hit the fan."
The difficult part wasn’t going to be getting out of New York, Jacob explained. There was close to 4,500 miles between Emily and Fairbanks; that meant months of hard travelling just to reach the university. Then, once she arrived in Fairbanks, there was another four or five-hundred miles of travel over some of the coldest and roughest terrain in North America, with no major roads, to reach the Stocktons. She'd either have to complete that last leg on foot, or hope the snow-mobiles Jacob told her she would find at the University were still where they should be and in working order.
"Don't worry about that right now," Jacob told her. "Worst case scenario, we can come and get you once you make it to the University. What's important is that we get you out of New York while this event is still in its early stages. We can narrow down a better plan once we know you're safe."
They talked for another hour, exploring plans and ideas for the best course of action to get her on her way. Eventually the conversation turned to personal protection and the need to defend herself. "Who knows what’s out there Emily. You need a weapon of some sort. Do you know where you can lay your hands on a gun?"
Emily's mind instantly flashed back to Nathan. His service revolver had still been in its holster when she dragged his body into the apartment down the hall. She mentally kicked herself for not grabbing the pistol when she had a chance to, but, she reminded herself, she had other things on her mind at the time. And how was she supposed to have known she would even need it? She had been so sure help was going to be on its way. No one in their right mind would have guessed she would need to defend herself against some freak of nature made up of a dead baby and its parents. And what if what she'd witnessed upstairs was also happening to her dead boyfriend too? Did she really think she could handle that? So, no; no way was she going to try to get into that room and put what was left of her sanity at risk. She'd worry about a weapon when she had to.
"I'm going to have to get off this phone if I want to get to the paper and back again before it gets dark," Emily told Jacob, finally.
"Okay, well, you have the email and the sat-phone if you need us. Just remember you're not alone, Emily. You can call us anytime; someone will always be up, okay?"
"Okay," she replied. The idea of hanging up, of severing the only connection she had had with anyone for the last few days was excruciatingly hard to do. Jacob must have sensed that; "Emily, don't worry, everything is going to be just fine, I promise you. We'll speak again soon, okay? Good luck and be careful." Jacob hung up, leaving nothing but dead air between them.
Everything was going to be just fine he had promised her.
Emily doubted that very much.
Emily closed her phone and glanced over at the clock on the stove. It was three-thirty in the afternoon. That gave her about four hours of sunlight still, which should be more than enough time for her to make the ride to theTribune’soffices and get back before sunset.
Emily went to the closet in her bedroom, raised herself on tiptoe and started feeling around on the top shelf. Eventually her fingers found what she was looking for and she pulled out a large military style bergen. It was basically an oversized backpack with several extra-large storage pockets, a relic from the one time she and Nathan had taken a weekend camping trip up at Bowman Lake State Park. They'd bought the bergen from a military surplus store in Chinatown.
It had rained the entire time at the lake, but that hadn't mattered, it had been great, and she smiled at the memory. It all seemed so very distant now.
Emily shook her head to dispel the melancholia she sensed creeping up on her. The bergen would be useful; if she was going to make the trip out to the paper, she may as well make a stop at one of the big stores nearby and grab some supplies while she was out.
She took the bergen and left it near the front door while she grabbed her jacket. She was reaching for the door handle when a thought stayed her hand. Emily walked back to the kitchen and pulled a twelve-inch long butcher's knife from the block she kept on the counter next to the cooker. She wasn't sure how much use the knife would be against the thing upstairs—or any of its relatives, for that matter—but as she hefted the blade in her hand it at least gave her some reassurance.
She slid the knife into the inside pocket of her jacket, it wasn't a perfect fit but she didn't think it could fall out and the jacket was loose enough she wouldn’t end up accidentally stabbing herself.Better to be prepared, she thought, as she grabbed the backpack, swung it over her shoulder then opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.
The hallway was empty, but as she made her way to the stairs she paused as the sound of something shuffling on the floor above her echoed down the corridor. It was a low rumbling sound, like something was being dragged across the floor. Emily paused for a second, her heart beating loudly in her ears. She waited to see if the sound came again, but there was nothing. Taking a deep breath Emily commanded her legs to walk, they objected for a second but then she was on the move again.
There was no denying it, she was spooked.
Emily knew she was no longer alone, but the closest human being she was aware of was several thousand miles away. If the thing upstairs was moving around, how long would it be before it decided to leave that stinking apartment and explore the rest of the building? What if it was already wandering the hallways? She gave a little shudder as she reached the door to the stairwell, pausing only to peek through the glass security window and make sure the passageway beyond it was empty. Seeing nothing, she pulled the door open and headed down to the ground floor.
* * *
Emily’s bike was exactly where she had left it; chained to the security stand out front of the building. She unlocked it and swung herself into the saddle, glad to be free of the confines of the apartment block. Once she was comfortable she used her feet to get some momentum going and freewheeled down the steps in front of the building bump by bump.
There was no sign of the red dust storm from the day before, other than a few drifts of the same glass-like residue piled up against walls and collected in the entranceways to the shops and offices she passed as she pedaled north towards theTribuneoffices.
She passed a few abandoned vehicles, all of them empty. In fact, during the entire trip she did not see a single corpse. Even the dead birds that had littered the roads and sidewalks seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Maybe they'd be blown away in the red dust storm, she thought. As much as she would like the explanation to be true, it didn't make much in the way of sense, because, from what she had experienced during her trip back through the storm, there had been no wind propelling the dust.
So that left what? They’d somehow magically walked away? Or was there a more sinister explanation to the lack of dead on the streets? She sure as hell didn't want to think about it right now and shifted her focus back to concentrating on her riding. As she rode through the deserted streets, she started running back over some of the plans she and Jacob had talked about during their phone call. She'd need supplies: fresh water and non-perishable food would be the most important items. And of course, the further north she travelled the colder it was going to get, so she'd also need to pull together a suitable wardrobe too; warm clothes, boots, maybe even skis or snowshoes.
She did not think she would have much of a problem finding shelter on her trek north; there would be so many empty—hopefullyempty, she amended—buildings between here and her destination in Alaska that she could use to hole-up for the night. Her biggest problem, the one she had no real idea how to overcome, was how she was going to transport all of this stuff on her bike? So caught up in the minutia of planning her trip as she rode, Emily soon found herself just a block away from the paper having travelled the majority of the distance on autopilot.
She pulled up out-front of the building and set her bike down in her usual spot. She instinctively went to lock it but decided against it; she didn't think it risked getting lifted any time soon. It was also doubtful she was going to need the bergen just yet either, so she swung it off her shoulders and hung it by its straps from the seat of the bike.
The door to theTribune’soffices was unlocked.Thank God for that, she thought as she pushed through the set of revolving doors and stepped into the deserted foyer.
The place smelled musty, as though it had been deserted for years; like an old, empty, library. She supposed that was what the place was now. Emily very much doubted there would be any more news coming out of this building ever again. That realization struck a poignant note of discord within her; the paper had been her entire world for so long she hadn't really given any thought to its passing. It was almost as painful for her as the loss of her family and friends, more so really, as the paper represented so much more than any individual could, it was an integral part of civilization as a whole. Without it, who would write this world's epitaph?
Jesus, when had she decided to start waxing so lyrical?
"Hello," Emily called, hoping that she might here Sven or Frank reply. Her voice echoed through the once bustling reception area. There was no answer to her greeting so she began to make her way to the stairs leading up to the second floor and the secure storage area where the paper kept all the expensive gizmos it loaned out to its reporters.
The staircase was one of those circular affairs, winding up to the second floor like a corkscrew. Made from ornate wrought iron, it was easily wide enough to accommodate four people standing abreast of each other and must have cost a small fortune to have built and installed. Emily had always thought it was quite beautiful, but as the metallic echoes of her feet rang around the empty building she began to feel a sense of unease nibble at her mind and a cold rivulet of sweat roll down the small of her back.
Paranoia came as part of the territory for every reporter Emily had known; she'd received enough threats over the years from the targets of her stories to know a little suspicion was actually a healthy thing. How did that old saw go?Just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, right? And after everything she'd witnessed and experienced over the last few days, well, a hefty dose of suspicion might just be what was needed to keep her alive.
The top of the stairs opened out on to the second floor landing and a small waiting area. A row of comfortable looking seats where visitors could look out through the glass windows overlooking the street lined one wall. At least that was the idea, but since Emily had worked for the paper, the windows had always been too grimy to see much of anything. An office lined corridor led away from the landing; this was where the editors had their suite of office and also where the main meeting room and the publisher's office could be found.
The security locker was in the Editor in Chief's office, the last office on the right, almost at the end of the hallway. For the entire time Emily worked at the paper she had only actually been ‘upstairs’—as anyone who wasn't a member of senior staff called the second floor—three times; once for her initial interview and the other times for staff meetings. It wasn’t a place a staff reporter ever felt comfortable visiting. If you found yourself on that floor, it usually meant you’d been summoned by the editors, which in-turn meant you had probably screwed up.
Emily padded her way down the corridor. She found the door she was looking for at the end. A brass plaque fixed to the door had two lines of text embossed on it:JUSTINE GOLDBLOOMand below thatEDITOR IN CHIEF.
Justine was—had been—a great editor and boss. She kept out of the way of her reporters for the most part, giving them just enough freedom to feel like they weren't chained to their desks, but she was always willing to get down in the trenches with the rest of the staff if the need ever arose. Justine had started out as a stringer with theTribunethirty-odd years before Emily had arrived, clawing her way up to the top. Emily regarded her very highly. She had managed to keep her femininity intact while still commanding the respect of both her male and female staff. That hadn't made Justine a pushover by anyone's measure, she was still more than capable of busting your balls if the transgression called for it.
Tough but fair; that was Justine. She would miss her.
Emily pushed down on the door handle and stepped into Justine’s office. A large mahogany desk occupied the center of the room and three matching mahogany bookcases, filled with old copies of theTribuneand reference books, satoff to one side. On the wall behind the desk, Justine had framed and hung some of the awards she had won over the years. A cubby room sat adjacent to the main office area, set back slightly off to the right. This was where Justine kept the security cupboard and where Emily hoped she would find the sat-phones.
The cupboard was far less imposing than she had imagined it was going to be. In fact, it was just a large metal storage cabinet with a tough looking padlock looped through the handles to make sure no one walked off with the cabinet’s contents. Emily gave the padlock an experimental wiggle just to make sure it was locked; it was.
“Great,” she sighed.
She felt around the top of the cabinet to see if the key was there but found nothing but dust-bunnies. It wasn't pinned to the wall or anywhere else in the cubby that she could see so Emily moved back into the main office and began systematically searching Justine's desktop, and when that turned up nothing, she began rifling through the drawers.
No luck there either which meant she was going to have to resort to other, more primitive methods
She wished she had thought to bring the fire-ax she had used on the door to the apartment with the baby-monster. It would have made short work of the lock, but it was still sitting where she had dropped it outside the apartment that housed the monstrosity. The knife in her jacket pocket would surely snap in an instant if she used it to try to pry the doors apart, of that she was certain, and the cabinet's hinges were securely located behind the doors, safely out of reach of any pry-bar or screwdriver. Her only other option was to find something heavy, and try and bash the lock off.
There was a janitor's closet on the ground floor where the cleaning crew kept their brushes, mops and other equipment. If Emily was going to find anything capable of opening the cupboard it would likely be from there.
She left the office and retraced her steps back along the corridor and the stairs, heading down into the main news-desk area. As she opened the door into the newsroom, Emily was struck by a pungent, yet strangely familiar smell: ammonia! She stopped with one hand still holding the door ajar.
“Oh shit,” she hissed.
There was one of those things in there. The urge to turn and run was overwhelming, but the smell, while unmistakable in its cat-piss aroma, was nowhere near as strong as she had encountered in the enclosed space of the apartment, but it was definitely in the air, tickling at her nostrils like week old laundry.
Emily looked around the expanse of the newsroom. Everything was just as she remembered it. In fact, it looked like everyone had just left for the day, which, she supposed, they had;never ever to return, her mind sang to her. The rows of L-shaped desks, neatly lined up like soldiers on parade, still held paperwork and notes, there were even a couple of laptops exactly where their owners had left them, their monetary importance trumped by the need of whomever had owned them, to get to the safety of their homes or to be with someone they loved. The TV screens she watched the breaking newscast from Europe on, now showed nothing but gray and black dots of static.
A wild sensation overtook Emily. She was tired or being alone, tired of being afraid and even more tired of not knowing what the fuck was going on. It was time to take charge, to take back some control of her life. She pulled the kitchen knife from her coat pocket and stared at it for a second. If it came down to it, could she really stab whatever was in here with her?
"Fuck yes," she said aloud, and kicked the door closed behind her.
* * *
Emily moved over to the right side of the newsroom. Her sneakers squeaked against the vinyl-covered floor with each tentative step she took. She was tempted to slip them off, but the idea of having to make a rapid shoeless exit did not really hold much appeal for her.
The wall on her side of the room was pretty much clear of obstructions, except for a large photocopier and a table used for collating next to it. If she kept her back to the wall, she would have a clear view of each row of cubicles and still give herself some protection.
Emily inched her way along the wall, one hand flat against its cool surface, the other, the one with the knife, extended out in front of her to ward off any swift attacker. With each crab-like sidestep she forced her eyes to scan the dim recesses and shadows of the cubicles, watching for any movement or sudden explosion of motion. She'd seen enough horror movies in her life to know the threat always came when the character least expected it; no way was she going to fall forthattrick.
She had just passed the midpoint of the room when the dim outline of a shape across the far side of the room caught her attention.It was impossible to tell what it was exactly, but Emily was familiar enough with the layout of the room to know that, whatever it was she was looking at, it hadn’t been in the room when she left the day of the red rain. It had been invisible to her while she was in the doorway, attached just out of sight to one of the large silver air-conditioning ducts that ran along the room’s ceiling and down the opposite wall. Emily stood motionless, her eyes locked on the indistinct shape, waiting to see if it would move. It was difficult to get a clear view of what it was exactly because of the deep shadows surrounding it. Just enough of it was visible to have caught her eye. If she had been focusing solely on the cubicles she would probably have walked right past it.
Emily took a tentative step forward. There was no sign of movement from the thing on the wall but she kept her arm extended out in front of her anyway, pointing the steel tip of the blade directly at the shape. If it leapt off the wall at her she was going to make damn sure it hit the knife first.
With each step closer to whatever this thing was Emily was able to make out a little more detail: it was about six-feet long and two-feet wide. The head—if you could call it that—was rounded, almost bullet shaped, while the body tapered off to a flat base at the opposite end. It’s skin glistened a pinkish-red, shot through with brighter red veins that crisscrossed over the entire length of it. As Emily took another step closer, she could see the veins periodically pulsing as some kind of liquid pumped along their length. The skin was translucent and she could make out the shadow of a darker shape inside periodically flexing and rotating. It kind of reminded her of an insect pupa or a chrysalis.
Emily’s feet caught on something lying on the floor. Her attention was so focused on the thing on the wall that she hadn't paid attention to where she was stepping and she went sprawling, her hand instinctively letting go of the knife and grabbing for the nearest desk to steady herself. She missed and instead struck the edge of the desk with her right forearm, sending a lightning bolt of pain shuddering up her arm and into her shoulder. Her mind registered the sharp edge of a desk flashing toward her and she willed her body to roll as she continued down. Her head barely missed the corner of the desk and instead hit something firm yet yielding. She let out a mutedOomph! as the rest of her body hit the floor, forcing the air from her lungs and sending another bolt of pain down her arm.
Confused, Emily’s mind tried to reorient itself to her sudden relocation from upright to horizontal. She pulled in a deep breath of air sure that she had cracked a rib when she fell and, knowing her luck, punctured a lung. She was going to drown in her own damn blood, she just knew it.
How could she have been so stupid not to look where she was walking?
She lay motionless on the floor for a few moments trying to regulate her breathing and slow her throbbing heart while she listened to the signals from her body. There was none of the telltale pain that she knew would come with a broken rib, no wet rattle of a deflated lung, just a sharp sting in her wrist and an even more painful, but thankfully dull, throb in her shoulder. Emily flexed her fingers a couple of times while she extended her damaged arm in a slow reaching movement; nothing broken either. She had been lucky this time. She raised the arm to eye level and examined the skin, it wasn't cut but already a dull looking patch of blue and brown was spreading from her wrist towards her elbow. It was going to develop into one hell of a bruise she was sure.
Emily craned her neck back over her shoulder trying to get a visual of the thing on the wall. It was still, thankfully, exactly where it had been before her little trip.
Emily used her good left arm to push herself to an upright position, careful to feel for any other signs she had broken something or otherwise hurt herself, but there was only the pain in her shoulder and wrist. Once she was in a sitting position and sure nothing else was damaged, she rolled over onto her knees, that way she would be able to use her left arm and the desk she had almost collided with to help pull herself back to her feet.
Emily stared at what had caused her to trip.
It was another one of those things, a pupa. This close to it she could feel warmth spilling off it, nothing like the dense waves of heat the thing in the upstairs apartment had exuded, this was more like the warmth of a naked human body. She could clearly see the thick viscous fluid as it pumped through the arteries just below the surface of the skin. In fact, this close to it, she could see an even finer network of veins, like spider webs or varicose veins, spread across its entire surface. And beneath that surface, another shape moved slowly, churning in a light pink fluid filling the interior cavity behind the pupa’s thick outer layer.
Before she realized what she was doing Emily reached out her unhurt arm and placed her hand against the pupa's shell. She had expected it to feel slick or slimy, instead, it was surprisingly dry and smooth, hot beneath her fingers. The dark shadow inside the husk gave a sudden twitch and Emily pulled her hand back, abruptly aware that she was touching something that had once been human and was now in the process of becoming something else entirely. She doubted anyone had simply wandered in from the street to take refuge here, so this … this changeling … had been someone from the paper, someone she had known. Her mind sped back to the day the rain arrived. To a conversation held in this very room.
“Oh no,” she said aloud. “No.”
These two obscenities were all that remained of Konkoly and Frank Embry?
“No,” she said again as she looked at what she knew could only be the remains of one of her friends. This had once been someone she had worked with, talked to, interacted with on a daily basis. Now he was this... this... alienthing.
The red rain had arrived from nowhere. Killed everyone she knew and loved, tearing her world right out from underneath her. But that hadn't been enough, no; now it was changing them into something else, something alien, with no resemblance to the person they had once been. The idea revolted her.
Emily looked around for her knife. It had spun out of her hand when she'd fallen, but she thought she had heard it clatter off into one of the nearby cubicles. She used her good arm to push herself upright, her eyes unable to break away from the monstrosity at her feet, fascinated by the rhythm of the fluid pulsing through the thing’s veins, and the oddly slick looking yet surprisingly dry skin. Finally, she managed to tear her eyes away, turned and stepped into the cubicle where she thought she had heard the knife land.
She found it lying near a next-to-dead potted palm-tree the owner had placed in their cubicle. Grabbing the knife's hilt, she checked the blade, it looked more or less fine except the tip was broken, snapped off during its unexpected escape attempt. Still, she was sure it would be more than up to the task she had planned for it.
Exiting the cubicle, Emily stepped over the pupa on the floor and placed a foot on either side of its strange bulk. She stared down at it for a few seconds—it really was quite fascinating, almost hypnotic, to watch—then raised her good arm to shoulder height and plunged the knife down into the thing.
There was a wetPop! as the blunt tip of the blade punctured the shell of the pupa. Emily was hit by a nausea-inducing stench of ammonia as a spray of thick red mucous exploded from the body, splattering across her face, chest and arm. Some of it managed to land in her mouth and she quickly batted at it with the back of her gore soaked hand, but that only served to push more of it into her mouth.Tastes like month-old rotten fish, she thought just as she felt her gag reflex kick in for the second time that day. She continued to spit the crap out of her mouth, the taste of vomit preferable to whatever that was she had just swallowed.
Emily forced herself to grab the hilt of the knife and push the blade even deeper into the casing of the chrysalis. When it was plunged all the way to the hilt she began drawing the blade down the length of the pupa. The thing inside the shell began to convulse violently, bucking and writhing beneath her as she methodically drew the knife—this time using both her good and injured arm—down the length of the shell like she was gutting a deer. Pink stinking fluid oozed out from between the lips of the gash and the stench of ammonia became even stronger as the creature trapped inside writhed and twisted in pain.
Something glistening and dripping red goo rose from within the bifurcated shell with a wet slurp. Emily watched in horrified fascination as a red tinted tentacle extended from within the shell. The tentacle whipped back and forth through the air spraying more of the red crap over the floor and Emily. It was about two-feet long with three thick cords of flesh coiled around each other to form a single helix shaped appendage. The tentacle was tipped with what looked like a black beak but as she watched, Emily saw the beak break open into three triangular pieces, articulated by a fleshy joint at the base that attached each piece to the tentacle. The tentacle ceased its thrashing and suddenly turned to face Emily, the weird beak-that-wasn't-a-beak opened even wider until she could see, nestled snugly in the center of the three triangular pieces, a lidless eye that regarded her with a cold malevolence.
A fucking eye!
It looked nothing like a regular human eye, or that of any other Earth born creature she had ever seen, but she was equally sure that it was still most definitely an eye. And it was staring directly at her.
Emily tugged the knife from the shell of the monster, the pain in her arm and shoulder forgotten temporarily, replaced with an anger-fueled bloodlust. With a flick of her wrist she severed the tentacle in two. The end with the eye fell, bounced once off her knee and hit the floor with a wet splat. The bottom half, presumably still attached to whatever was growing inside the pupa, snapped from side to side, spraying more of the disgusting red goop before disappearing back within the protection of the shell. Emily raised the knife, and then plunged it deep into the pupae, aiming for the black shadow hidden inside it. The knife found its mark and the rolling of the creature became more violent as its sanctuary suddenly became its execution chamber.
Again and again she stabbed at the thing hidden in the pupa, ignoring not only her own pain but also the stench and taste of the fluid that sprayed from it. When at last there was no longer any movement from whatever was hidden at the center of the shell, Emily dragged herself to her feet and let the knife fall to the floor. She stood over the now dead thing like some ancient blood-splattered gladiator over his defeated opponent.
“One down, several billion to go,” she mumbled and spat the last of the bloody crap from her mouth.
Emily glanced at the other alien pupa; if she had the time (and a ladder) she would take care of that one too, but right now she needed to complete what she had come here to do. The pain in her shoulder was already beginning to filter through the adrenalin high and Emily knew if she didn't break into the security cabinet soon and get on her way, she'd have problems making it home before dark.
An open box of tissues sat on the desk of whoever had owned the deceased potted palm-tree. She pulled a handful of the tissues from the box and batted at the gore she could feel splattered on her face. When she was done, she balled up the pink stained tissues and tossed them at the remains of the cocoon on the floor before heading towards the back of the office to find the janitor's closet.
* * *
It took just three strikes from the ball-peen hammer Emily found in the janitorial closet to snap the padlock from its receiver, but that was more than enough to set her injured shoulder on fire. Emily was beginning to suspect the fall might have done a bit more damage than she had first suspected.
With the lock dealt with, she dropped the hammer and pulled the metal cabinet doors apart. Inside she found what she was looking for on the top shelf: a canvas carryall about the size of a handbag with the wordIRIDIUMstenciled on the sides in large white letters.
She pulled the bag from the cabinet and lowered it to the floor, unzipped it and began pulling out the contents, laying them next to the bag: a sat-phone, charger, operating instructions, a spare battery and a solar charger in its own impact resistant case.
Emily quickly repacked the components back into the bag, and gave the cabinet another once-over for anything else that might be of use. There was nothing left but a cashbox that probably contained a couple of thousand dollars. No use to anyone now.
As Emily closed the door to the cupboard, she spotted the hammer she had used to break the lock lying on the floor where she had dropped it. She grabbed it by the shaft, dropped it into the bag with the phone equipment and zipped it closed again.
Picking up the bag with her uninjured hand, Emily retraced her steps back along the corridor and down the metal staircase. She winced in pain as, unthinking, she used her injured right arm to shoulder through the main door out onto the street. If she had thought about it she should have looked for a first-aid kit, or some painkillers at least, but it was too late now. The adrenalin rush from her little chainsaw-massacre moment had worn off and the throbbing in her shoulder had evolved into a sharp teeth-clenching pain that Emily suspected might be a torn muscle or—and she hoped to God this wasn't the case—a dislocated shoulder. She was still able to move her arm before the pain really kicked in, so she suspected she could disregard the dislocated shoulder theory, but her first-aid training was minimal and the last class she had taken was back in her high school days.
There was no way she was going to have the time or the ability to do any of the extra-curricular shopping she had planned, not today. What was most important now was to get home without doing any more damage to herself and treat her injured shoulder and arm; the supply run would have to wait until she was feeling better.
She lifted the bergen from its resting place around her bike's saddle and pulled open one of the pouches, slotting the sat-phone bag into it she secured the pouch and hefted the bergen onto her left shoulder. This next part was going to hurt, she knew, but there was no way she was going to leave the bergen behind on the street.
Her right shoulder screamed at her, the pain bringing tears to her eyes as she gingerly manipulated it through the bergen's shoulder straps. She had to keep her elbow akimbo and slide it through, while pulling the strap across her chest with her good left hand. Without the injury it would have taken her mere seconds, instead it used up precious minutes of daylight and left her sweating like a horse that had just run a steeplechase.
The buildings threw long shadows across the street as the sun dropped behind them. A row of streetlights had already begun to brighten as she swung her leg over the top bar of the bike, settled herself into the saddle and used her feet to kick some initial momentum into the bike. She had to keep her right arm bent and resting against her chest as though it was in a sling, as she could no longer extend it far enough in front of her to reach the handlebar. That made the bike less stable, so she also had to fight her instinct to pedal at her normal rate. Instead, Emily reduced her speed to a safer, but far slower level to ensure she wouldn't fall off the damn bike and do even more damage than she already had.
It took her almost three times as long to get home than it had taken her to get to theTribune’soffices. As twilight slowly edged toward dusk, Emily slowed her speed even more as the pain in her shoulder became a second-by-second distraction to her. She had to avoid any kind of bump or rut in the road, hitting one caused her shoulder to explode in agony, sending spots of blackness across her vision that would in turn send her careening off course. Twice her vision had cleared just in time for her to narrowly avoid slamming into one of the few parked cars still left on the empty streets. The second time she'd almost gone over the handle bars when she pulled the brake lever too hard, forgetting she only had her front brake. The bike had reared up on its front wheel in a reverse wheelie and she had tottered there for a second before the back end had bumped jarringly back to the road.
As Emily rounded the final corner before the apartment complex, she let out a sigh of relief and began to relax, in spite of the pain. When she got home, she was going to risk draining the water she'd collected out of the tub and running another hot bath. She was going to soak in it for as long as she needed.
Purposely overshooting her destination by a half-block, Emily rode the extra distance to a pedestrian crossing where she knew she would find a disabled-ramp she could use to get her bike off the road and onto the pavement, avoiding the guaranteed pain of jumping the bike up the curb. She circled back towards her building and pulled up in front of it: exhausted, bloodied, but alive and still in one piece.
Dismounting as carefully as she could, Emily left the bike lying on the pavement in front of the entrance and headed towards the welcoming warmth of the brightly illuminated apartment block. She pushed through the building’s front door, careful to avoid her damaged shoulder this time, pulled the door to the stairs open and readied herself for the seventeen-floor climb ahead of her.
And that was when all the lights went out.
Emily had never been afraid of the dark.
When she was a child she had laughed at the other kids who insisted they sleep with a nightlight on. She had never believed there was a monster hiding in the dark recesses of her closet and she definitely had no problem taking a wander out into one of her parent’s fields after sunset, just to sit in the long grass and stare at the moon and the stars.
But this was a very different kind of darkness. It was so deep and absolute, she might as well have been blind as she cautiously maneuvered her way up each level of stairs towards her apartment, carefully feeling for the landing at each new level so she could make the 180-degree turn needed to continue up the next flight of stairs.
The stairwell was a completely enclosed space with no windows. There was supposed to be an emergency generator down in the basement that should have kicked in and turned on the back-up lights when the power went down, but that, apparently, was not going to happen.
No light meant no floor numbers either, so Emily had to count each level as she climbed and hoped she didn't make an error in her calculation and end up a floor above or below her apartment’s level.Especiallynot a floor above.
It was incredible to her how the removal of a single sense, albeit the one she relied on completely, could have such a profound impact on her interpretation of the world. Alone in the mine-black darkness, with only her four remaining senses to guide her, she became acutely aware of how ironic it was that she was now in exactly the position she had once relished as a child: alone in the dark, surrounded by the unknown. Back then it had been exhilarating and inviting; right now, with the events of the past few days and the stench of the creature she had killed earlier still filling her nose, she was absolutely and profoundly terrified.
It wasn't often Emily wished she could go back to being a kid again, but she could use an ounce or two of that childhood bravado. Of course, being surrounded by some unknown menace didn't exactly help, either.
To distract herself Emily began counting each flight of steps out loud. It wasn't long before the sound of her voice echoing up the empty shaft of the stairwell began to make her more uneasy than the silence, and she reverted to counting the steps off in her head instead.
By the time she reached what she was 99%-positive was her floor, Emily was barely able to put one leg in front of the other. The strap of the bergen was digging into her right shoulder and felt more like a knife than a foam padded support strap. Her head ached from the overdose of adrenalin and her back and knees objected to every step she asked them to take.
She felt around for where she thought the door should be. It wasn't there, so she moved her hands to the right and found the crack where the door met the frame. A few inches in, her hands found the coolness of the pane of security glass in the door’s center panel and she inched her hand down from there until she located the aluminum bar-handle.
She was about to pull the door open when a faint noise dragged her attention back to the stairwell. It was distant, but definitely coming from within the building somewhere, she was sure of it. The sound was a warbling ululation unlike anything she had ever heard before, it echoed eerily through the stairwell, bouncing off the walls. Emily had the unnerving thought that she might be the first human to have ever heard this strange, unearthly, cry.
The sound came again, a lone voice probing into the darkness. As she listened, more warbling voices joined the first, answering the call and, as Emily stood mesmerized by the strange chorus filling the blackness of the stairwell, a final voice joined the choir and this one was much closer.
This one was in the stairwell with her.
* * *
Emily flung the door open and stumbled blindly out into the lightless corridor, rushing headlong into the opposite wall, her face impacting painfully with the drywall. Luckily, she had been in the process of fishing her keys from her pants' pocket so her head was turned just enough to the left that she didn't hit nose first. A busted nose would just have been the icing on a perfect day. Instead, her cheek and, of course, her injured shoulder took the brunt of the collision. The pain was so intense she literally saw stars; tiny white motes of light that danced around her sightless eyes. She felt like a cartoon character and wondered whether those same stars bouncing around her vision were circling around her head.
No time to think about that, her panic driven brain reported to her.Got to move. Got to get to safety.
The braying cry of the unseen creature again echoed up from the stairwell, puncturing the darkness and paralyzing Emily for a second before her brain regained control over her feet and forced them to move. She was totally disorientated, the corridor was almost as dark as the stairwell and she had no idea whether she was facing towards or away from her apartment.
She had to stop for a second and reorient. Convincing her brain that this was a good idea was next to impossible, the primal flight or fight instinct had kicked in and her brain had made its decision quickly and decisively:run like fuck! But if she followed that impulse she could end up in completely the wrong half of the corridor, so she forced her feet to remain rooted to the spot.
Emily’s heart crashed in her chest, reverberating in her ears; unfortunately, it wasn't loud enough to drown out the cacophony of calls that now seemed to fill the night. Emily could hear other noises too, shuffling and clunking sounds that filled the empty air, seeming to come from every floor of the apartment block. Emily’s mind instantly imagined the unimaginable: all around her came the sounds of creatures emerging from their cocoons and beginning to explore their surroundings for the first time. The strange cries and warbles belonged to things that weren't of this world and whose bodies were designed for other, far distant planets. They had woken from their slumber and were even now moving and shuffling as they called out to their brethren.
She was surrounded. Emily Baxter, until just a couple of days earlier a reporter for a mildly respected newspaper, was now the last living woman in a city that might as well be on another planet.
“Screw that,” she breathed, barely able to hear herself above the growing cacophony of calls.
She reached into her jeans and pulled her apartment keys from her pocket. These were her lifeline. Even though she couldn't see them, the reassuring jangle of metal against metal was a welcome sound of normality and, if she could just find her door, a promise of safety. The reassuring feel of the keys in her hand was enough to force her body back under her control.
Emily drew in another deep breath and reached out with both hands, ignoring the pain in her shoulders and the twinging throb in her cheek. Her hands connected with the plasterboard of the wall and she took a step to the left, feeling her way along the surface of the wall, looking for something that she could use to orient herself within the corridor. She took another step and repeated the process but didn't find what she was looking for so she turned around until she was relatively sure she was facing the opposite wall and took two tentative steps forward until her palms again touched a wall. She reversed the process she had begun on the other wall, taking baby-step after baby-step until, finally, her hands found what she had been searching for: the solid bulk of the stairwell door she had exited through. Now that she was oriented, Emily knew which direction to head, but she was going to have to rely exclusively on her sense of touch to locate her apartment.
From the other side of the stairwell door, Emily sensed rather than heard something large move. It was just the tiniest of sensations, a disturbance in the air brushing against the small hairs of her face, a vibration transmitted through the door and to the tips of her fingers. In the pitch-black hallway, her remaining senses had switched to a heightened state and Emily knew that the owner of the cry she had heard in the stairwell earlier was nowmuchcloser.
As if to confirm her thought, an ear-piercing scream exploded from the thing in stairwell, battering her remaining senses. The sound was so strong and so close the vibrations of its ferocity ran through the door and flowed up Emily's arms resonating and buzzing in her brain like a swarm of angry wasps. This time the sound had the opposite effect, instead of freezing, it galvanized Emily into movement. She turned her body in the direction of her apartment, clutched her keys firmly in her hand and pushed her thumb through the loop of the key-ring, just in case she stumbled or fell.
She began walking as quickly as she dared toward her apartment, her left hand trailing behind her as it traced the contour of the wall. She let out a sigh of relief as her fingers felt the sudden lift and then dip of the frame surrounding the door of the first apartment.
"One," she counted off and began moving forward again through the darkness.
Her fingers touched the frame of the next door and she whispered "Two", her voice almost drowned out by the cries of the thing in the stairwell. It seemed to be closer still. Just two more doors, she told herself as terror began to creep back into her heart, just two more.
More steps, this time rushed, gauging her chance of falling versus remaining in that haunted corridor a second longer than she had to.
"Three," she said as her fingers found her neighbor's door. Emily ran the last few steps, the skin on her fingers tingling with the friction generated as she felt along the wall. Her hand contacted with her door just as she heard another click and the unmistakable squeak of the stairwell door opening.
Emily stopped, listening.
The squeak of the door’s hinges opening further reached her ears and then… another noise. Emily’s breath froze in her throat as the sound of something large squeezing itself through the doorway echoed down the corridor. It was followed by another noise, like stiletto heels on tile, the sharpTap Tap Tapof multiple feet drumming against the floor as whatever had just entered the corridor began moving in her direction.
She was no longer alone, Emily realized with a growing sense of horror.
Tap... Tap... Tap... the rapid staccato sound edged closer to her, then stopped for a second before continuing.
Emily’s mind frantically worked to make a familiar association with the sound of the fast approaching creature but she came up blank. While her imagination could not piece together what was in the corridor with her, her instincts had no such qualms and screamed at her something she already knew: whatever was drawing closer in the darkness was searching forher.
She began quickly feeling around the door for the lock. Finally, she felt the cold metal of the tumbler beneath her trembling fingertips. Her fingers, clammy with sweat, tugged at the keys looped over her thumb. They were stuck on the knuckle of her thumb and would not budge. She gave an extra hard tug and felt the key-ring pull free of her thumb. Emily let out a small cry of dismay as they slipped from her damp fingers and clattered to the floor, invisible in the darkness. She dropped to her knees and began to feel around for the lost keys. How could it be so damn hard to find them? They had to be right in front of her.
... Tap... Tap...
The sound was closer this time. Her breath began to come out in short ragged bursts as her heart played a drumbeat behind her ribcage while she frantically felt around in the darkness for the lost keys.
As if the creature at the other end of the corridor could sense her panic, Emily heard a sudden acceleration to its movement.
The thing skittered even closer to her through the darkness.
Then—thank you God—she felt the shape of the key-ring beneath her finger tips. She snatched it up, feeling for the telltale rubber cover she had placed over her front-door key. The fingers of her right-hand searched for the keyhole again, and, as she felt the outline of the brass receiver beneath her fingers, she brought the key up and guided it into the lock. Turning the key, Emily was rewarded with the familiar click of the lock’s tumblers falling into place, the weight of her body pushed open the door and she stumbled into her apartment. She pulled the key from the lock, slammed the door shut with all her remaining energy and searched for the thumb-lock. With the thumb-lock securely in place, Emily patted around above it until her hand swatted the security chain, which she fumbled into its receiver on the door.
In the total blackness of her apartment, Emily Baxter crawled along the corridor on her hands and knees until she found her bedroom. She crept inside, still on her hands and knees, over to the walk-in closet on the far side of the room. Opening the door to her closet, she pulled herself inside and closed the door securely behind her.
That night, cowering in the corner of the closet, Emily listened to the calls of an awakening world.
Emily did not know what time the creatures stopped their wailing. As the night wore on, her mind gave her the only protection it could, providing her with a buffer against the overwhelming sense of dread that gripped her as she listened to the cries of the creatures calling to each other.
Her mind retreated into itself, filtering out the strains of the alien dissonance that pummeled her senses. Emily found herself regarding the situation from a place where, if she had cared to try to explain it, she could only describe as the center of her mind. It was so quiet there. Not the scary quiet she had experienced after everyone else had died, this was a peaceful, warm, quiet. Her pain, both physical and mental, became a distant distortion, more fascinating to her than distracting.
At some point during the night, her body, shocked and in pain, had demanded to shut down and, despite Emily’s best efforts to remain awake in that beautiful island of peace her mind had taken her to, she had slept.
When she awoke, the memories of the previous night came flooding back to her, and they brought with them a new fear: that while she slept the creature she had heard in the corridor might somehow have made it into her apartment.
She had no idea how long she had hidden in the closet or even what time it was. Her closet-sanctuary was almost as dark as the corridor she had fought her way through the night before, but a bright line of light filtering through the crack at the bottom of the door could only mean day had arrived, and that at least helped to alleviate some of the fear gnawing at her courage.
As her head began to clear, her injuries also began to make their presence known. Emily winced as she eased her body away from the wall she had been leaning against, her legs complained as she unfolded them from beneath her.
She gave her injured right arm a cautious experimental flex. A dull throb, starting in her deltoid muscle and continuing down into her tricep, pulsed with each movement she made. It hurt but it wasn’t debilitating. Next, she tried lifting her elbow to shoulder height but only managed a few inches before a sharp burst of pain in her neck made her grimace and decide it probably wasn't such a good idea to try that again for a while. Looking on the bright side though, the pain level wasn't as bad as last night. It was just an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, instead of a 15. Hopefully, that was a good indicator her injury wasn't as severe as she had first thought. Still, it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch and was going to slow her down for sure.
“Okay, on the count of three,” she whispered. “…Three.” She used her left arm to help push herself to a standing position, coddling her right arm, keeping it tight to her body, but the pain was still enough to force a hiss of air from her as she raised herself to her feet.
She allowed herself a moment for her strained muscles to relax. As she stood in the darkness, she turned her thoughts to her next problem: whether she had picked up a new roommate overnight. It could have been her imagination, of course, but the thing in the corridor had seemed very interested in her last night. Emily was sure the sound of her door being broken down by some multiple-legged freak that used to be one of her neighbors would have gotten her attention, even given the almost catatonic state in which she had spent the night. Still, given the magnitude-ten on the weirdness scale of the past few days, it was better to err on the side of caution from now on. She was hardly in a fit state for another fight, after all.
Emily reached for the closet's doorknob and, ever so cautiously, twisted it, cringing as the latch squeaked back. Keeping her hand firmly on the handle, Emily pushed the door open until a crack large enough for her to view her bedroom and the door leading into it was visible. She was ready to snatch the closet door closed again if she spotted anything out of place, but everything looked normal to her. There wasn't any sign of a disturbance, so she pushed the door open a few more inches until the gap was large enough for her to stick her head through. She scanned the rest of the room and the back of the door, just in case anything was lurking out of sight back there—nothing.
With the coast apparently clear, Emily cautiously slipped out of the closet and into the bedroom. Only when a loose tie-down caught on the door handle did she realize that she was still wearing the bergen; she had slept with the damn thing on her back all night. With a little luck, she hadn't damaged the sat-phone while she was asleep. She’d check later but right now she needed to recon the rest of the apartment.
Emily crossed over to the bedroom door and looked out into the hallway, but again, there was nothing. The front door was in one piece with the thumb-lock and security chain both still in place. She began to breathe a little easier, but she'd need to do a full survey of the apartment before she could relax fully.
Pushing the bedroom door closed with a click of the lock, Emily moved to her bed and undid the quick-snap belt from around her waist dropping the bergen onto the comforter. She winced as a jab of pain shot across her shoulder like an electric shock.
She had left the knife next to the remains of the pupa back at the paper, but the hammer she had used to break the lock of the security cabinet was still in the sat-phone bag, so she quickly undid the flap covering the main compartment of the bergen, pulled out the sat-phone bag and located the hammer. The weight of it in her hand felt good, even if she would have to carry it in her left hand. It wasn't as comforting as the knife but it sure would put a dent in the day of anything that might be lurking elsewhere in the apartment.
With hammer in hand, Emily opened the door of the bedroom and began searching the remainder of her apartment. Quickly moving from room to room it was soon clear to her that whatever had been lurking in the corridor had apparently lost interest in her and had failed to breach her apartment’s defenses. The place looked exactly as she had left it; nothing waited for her in any of the closets or behind the breakfast nook or even under the bed
Her place was clear.
Returning to the bedroom, Emily unpacked the sat-phone and accessories, inspecting them all for any damage. Everything looked to be in good shape, but when she pressed the ‘on’ button for the phone the display remained black; the battery was dead. She popped the plastic back-panel off the phone, pried out the old battery and inserted the spare, hoping there might be some charge left in it, but it too was spent. She would need to charge them both as quickly as possible.
Emily glanced over at her bedside alarm clock. The alarm’s display was blank. She walked over to the light switch on the wall, flicked it on and off a couple of times but the light above her head remained dark.
With the power still down—and with little chance it was ever coming back—she going to have to use the solar charging unit she had picked up with the sat-phone to charge the batteries.
It was imperative that she reestablish a line of communication with the scientists in Alaska as quickly as possible. They had to know what was happening.
Emily unboxed the solar-charger and scanned over the instructions on how to operate it. The device came with a separate battery unit that plugged into the collapsible solar panel. This separate unit would hold a charge up to six-times longer than a regular battery and would allow her to then charge the phone’s batteries from the unit. This meant she would always have an extra charge available. Simple. The only problem was it was going to take about nine hours to fully charge the solar-unit and then the phone. Emily took the battery-unit and solar panel into the living room where it would get the most sun. On the way in she checked the clock on the cooker, realizing she had no idea what time it was. With the power off, though, that clock was also dead, so she had to backtrack into her bedroom to read the battery powered analog clock on the wall: 11:07 am the hands showed. That was good; it gave her at least seven hours of sunlight, which should be enough to get a full charge.
Using the instruction book to guide her, Emily made quick work of assembling the unit, snapping each piece into place and then moving the completed unit to the sideboard close to the window where the solar charging panel could gather the energy it needed. Almost immediately, a small red LED indicator on the top of the unit began flashing to show it was indeed charging.
Emily’s stomach grumbled loudly. She had ignored her hunger pangs while she worked to get the unit up and charging. With that chore out of the way, she figured she had time to grab something quick to eat.
She opened the refrigerator, the air was still cool inside but that wouldn't last long now the power was down. She had half a pack of honey-roast ham left and decided it was best to use that up before it spoiled. She pulled a couple of slices from the packet, rolling them into a tube before biting a chunk off the end. The remaining meat she put between two slices of bread, smothered them in some mayo and chowed-down, savoring the flavors while wondering whether this would be the last time she ever tasted any of them. She chased the sandwich with the last of the milk along with a couple of extra-strength Tylenol from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom,
With her belly full, Emily turned her mind to the next looming item on her agenda: how was she going to get out of New York?
For anyone else, she supposed the option would be clear: grab any of the tens of thousands of vehicles left abandoned on the side of the road or parked in apartment garages, and head out of town, but Emily had zero driving experience. She had never had a need for it. She supposed that she could try and learn to drive but there was always the chance that she'd crash the damn car and end-up dead, or worse still, trapped in a wreck with no hope of rescue and only a slow painful death to look forward to. Besides, while the roads were pretty much clear around her patch of Manhattan, who knew what they were like on the routes out of the city. She could spend the time hunting down a suitable vehicle, trying to learn to drive while not killing herself only to find the roads blocked somewhere along the way. She’d be in a worse position than she was now and without the security of her apartment, the mobility of her bike, and the chance to plan far enough ahead. Besides all of those reasons, Emily had a creeping suspicion last night's chorus line was only the beginning of a totally new act in this bizarre show. She could not afford the time she would need to spend screwing around with learning to drive when she could be using it to gather supplies and start on her way. No, when she left, it was going to have to be with the help of her trusty bike and her own two feet.
Her first objective then, was to gather more supplies. She was confident that when she left the city,ifshe chose the right route, she could avoid the major population centers. If she stuck to the rural areas, she could still scavenge for food and find somewhere safe to rest each night while lowering her chances of running into anything nasty. If she could do that then she wouldn't have to worry about carrying more than a few days worth of food and water with her, which meant she could move faster. Of course, she would have to take the time to track down provisions and shelter on a daily basis but she was confident that would not be too much of a problem. When you are conceivably the sole remaining human being left on the east coast, the world was pretty much your oyster.
Most homes, she thought, would have a supply of tinned goods in their pantry. She was sure those nonperishable’s would last for months, if not years, before spoiling. She would collect food as she travelled. The extra space she gained from carrying minimal provisions would be taken up with other essentials like a medical kit, spare parts for her bike, the sat-phone equipment and extra water... and, of course, some kind of weapon. At some point she was going to have to address that, the sooner the better she supposed, but the idea of entering the apartment where she had left Nathan with the dead family frightened her. She wasn’t afraid to admit it. The possibility he had become one of whatever she had encountered in the darkness last night, well, that was not something she was sure she could face.
The one thing that could prove to be a problem was finding spare parts for her bike; a punctured tire, snapped brake-line or a broken chain could be hard to fix and slow her down by days if the bike hit was damaged in the middle of nowhere. And, she suspected, the less of a reason she had to travel into major population areas the safer she would be.
If she was honest with herself, her current bike was not exactly in its prime anymore. It might be worth paying a visit to her local bike store one last time. First, Emily needed to change her clothes and wash-up because she stank worse than a pissed-off skunk on a summer’s afternoon. Her clothes were torn and covered in whatever the thing she had killed in the newsroom called blood.
Just because it was the end of the world didn’t give her an excuse to start acting like a bum.
* * *
The image that greeted Emily in the bathroom mirror was unnerving, to say the least. She raised a tentative hand to her cheek and touched the purple bruised skin beneath her right eye. The throbbing pain in her shoulder had distracted her from the fact her face looked like she had gone a couple of rounds with Manny Pacquiao. While she lightly probed around the puffy broken skin with her fingers, Emily’s mind drifted back to the events that had caused her to run headlong into the wall. Looking back at it now, in the clear light of day, she began to wonder whether the creature she thought was chasing her had been nothing more than a phantom created by her stressed out, over excited mind. She hadn'tactuallyseenanything, right? But it had been too damn dark to see anything in that corridor, and what about the caterwauling that had caused her panic in the first place? Emilyknewshe hadn’t imagined that.
She smarted as her fingers pressed against the inflamed skin of her cheek a little too hard. An inch long cut just below her right eye stung every time she blinked. It wasn't too deep and had already scabbed over. Emily was confident she would live.
It was okay to joke but Emily knew she was going to have to be extra cautious when treating any open wounds she suffered from now on. A minor cut could easily become infected and, with no access to a doctor, she would be on her own. She made a mental note to try and find a supply of antibiotics before she left.
And what was with her hair? It was a matted mess and looked like a family of sparrows had built a nest back there. The final addition to her end-of-the-world makeover was the flaky streaks of dirt slashing diagonally across her face like camo-paint from some war movie.
"Well don't you just look lovely," she told her reflection, before bending to the cupboard beneath the bathroom sink and pulling out the small first-aid kit she kept there. She unclipped the lid and rifled though the contents until she found an antiseptic pad, which she set on the glass shelf underneath the mirror. She'd need to clean herself up before she used the pad, but the idea of washing in cold water held no appeal for Emily. Instead, she chose the next best option: wet-wipes. She pulled the plastic packet from the medicine cabinet on the opposite wall and began wiping as gently as she could at the dirt and dried blood on her face. It took most of the pack before she felt she looked presentable again and had cleared the dirt and muck away to reveal the full extent of the abrasion on her cheek.
"Son of a goddamn bitch!" she yelled as she wiped the antiseptic swatch across her the grazed skin, the pain in her shoulder forgotten for a moment, as the sudden burning of her cheek demanded all her attention. She hoped the extra abuse she was putting herself through was worth the effort, she’d cut her cheek over eight hours ago and wasn't sure her late attempt at first-aid would actually do her any good. But, in the spirit of her earlier commitment to an overabundance of caution when it came to medical issues, she wiped the antiseptic pad across the gash on her face a couple more times.
With her bout of self-torture finally over, Emily slipped out of her disgustingly dirty shirt and jeans, pulled off her panties and socks, balled them all together, and tossed them into the far corner of the bathroom. With no electricity to wash with, she wasn't going to be wearing them again but Emily was confident she also wasn't going to be here long enough to worry about cleaning up after herself.
The air was cool against her exposed skin as Emily moved from the bathroom into her bedroom. She pulled a clean tee-shirt and jeans from the same closet where she had spent the night. As she pulled on her fresh set of clothes, she caught a whiff of her own body odor, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. She would need to figure out a way of heating water at some point. She didn’t think she could handle her own stench for too many days.
A few minutes later, wearing her fresh clothes and another pair of sneakers –whoever came up with the idea of replacing laces with Velcro strips was a genius– Emily felt she was finally ready to start moving forward with the next part of her plan.
* * *
This time, she would be ready for any trouble. She gathered together a collection of essential items: her trusty hammer, a large bottle of water, several snack bars she found hidden behind a bag of flour in the pantry and, determined to never be caught in the dark again, a six-cell Maglite flashlight she kept in her bedroom tallboy in case of a brown out. The flashlight would also double as a baton if it came down to it. She packed everything except the hammer into the bergen and shouldered it, slotting the hammer into the waist belt.
The pain-pills she had taken with her late breakfast had kicked in and the pain in her strained muscles was already beginning to fade to a sufficiently ignorable level. Feeling as ready as she was ever going to be Emily checked the corridor outside her front door, looking through the security spyhole for any sign of the creature she thought she had heard in the darkness. It looked clear, but she decided to err on the side of caution and pulled the hammer from her belt before slowly opening her front door.
Nothing lay in wait for Emily outside her apartment. The corridor was as empty as she remembered it being when she left the day before. There wassomethingdifferent though. On the opposite wall from her apartment, a number of ragged holes punctuated the wall. They were spaced almost evenly apart, and as she looked closer, Emily could see they left a trail that extended along the wall back towards the door to the stairwell before curving up onto the ceiling and ending at the stairwell entrance. She leaned in to get a closer look at the holes ; they were large enough for her to place her pinky finger in and looked to have been cut by something sharp enough that it left a clean hole with no rough edges.
They were track marks, she realized.
Somethinghadcome up through the stairwell last night. While she had struggled in the darkness, it climbed along the corridor wall after her and stopped outside her apartment. The hair on the nape of Emily's neck stood erect. Emily wasn’t sure she felt any better knowing she hadn’t imagined the incident, because now she was truly unnerved. Instinctively she looked up and down the corridor again, double-checking to make sure whatever had made these tracks was not hiding somewhere nearby.
The divots in the drywall were spaced in two parallel arcs, six on each side. Emily placed her left arm in the space between the two sets of tracks, her fingertips touching the top set of holes; her elbow didn’t even reach the center of the gap between the two tracks. Whatever had come through that door was big, at least four-feet across, if her rough measurements were anything to gauge it by.
Her grip on the shaft of the hammer grew tighter as her imagination spiked into overdrive, conjuring up images of what could create the kind of marks she was looking at on the wall. Emily quickly dismissed the thoughts. She knew whatever imaginary creatures she created, the reality was going to be far more alien than her tired mind could produce.
She had always considered herself willing to confront anything—a reporter who wasn’t able to face down opposition wouldn’t last very long—but this whole situation was just too far out, too strange. The drive to hide and pretend it was all okay was overwhelming, but if she gave into it, Emily knew she would surely die. Her only hope of survival was to move forward with her plan. That meant leaving this city and heading north as quickly as she could.
* * *
Emily's trip down the stairwell was far simpler this time than her previous night's adventure. She followed the tracks she found outside her door as they continued along the wall of the 17th floor and eventually into the darkness of the stairwell. Her flashlight illuminated her way down each flight of stairs as she tracked the holes down another two floors until they disappeared when the spider-thing, as she had come to think of it, presumably decided to stop using the wall and instead jumped to the stairs like any other self respecting New Yorker would.
The foyer of the apartment block was clear. Nothing looked disturbed or out of place, but she did notice three more sets of tracks leading from the ground floor and out through the building’s main doors. That could only mean there were more of the spider-things on the loose, but at least the tracks appeared to be heading out of the building and away from her.
Stepping into the open air and the beautiful day that greeted her, Emily felt her spirits surge. The apartment, now that she was fully committed to leaving, had gradually become more and more claustrophobic and stuffy to her, but out here in the sunshine, it was simply glorious.
The sun shone brilliantly, framed by a clear, cloud free sky, much the same as the day the red-rain had fallen. Emily didn't care about the similarity; the warmth of the sun against her skin felt fabulous and she paused for a moment, closed her eyes and allowed herself to simply bathe in the radiated warmth of her planet's star. For that moment, as she stood rejoicing in the simple act of sun worship, the orange warmth permeating through her tightly closed eyelids, she could imagine that this was just another day. That the sights and sounds that were this great city's heartbeat had simply paused for a moment to allow her these few seconds of bliss and, when she opened her eyes, the world would be as it once was, as it had always been, as it should be.
Of course, when Emily finally allowed her eyes to flutter open again, the world was as empty as when she closed them. It was okay, she supposed, because she was still alive, she knew that she was not the only survivor, and today would most likely be the final day she would have to spend in this vast city of ghosts and scuttling unseen monsters.
Emily let out a sigh of resignation. Her aching body was already complaining about the prospect of this latest jaunt, the painkillers she had taken earlier were still doing their job but they weren't powerful enough to blunt the pain completely.
Her bike was where she had dropped it the night before. For some reason she thought it would be gone, spirited away by whatever she had heard awakening in her apartment complex last night. In fact, there was no sign of any of the owners of the fricative alien voices that had serenaded the city, and Emily pondered whether they had some kind of aversion to daylight.
Maybe they were just late sleepers, she joked to herself. She didn’t laugh.
Bending over to lift the bike caused a warning spasm of pain to quiver through her shoulder. Even though the discomfort was numbed by the painkillers, she had to keep in mind her body was beat-up, and her injuries could easily be exacerbated if she overexerted herself. Any other time and she would put herself on light-duty, but time had run out for both Emily and the human race, she could no longer simply take to her bed for a couple of days while she healed.
She had to be extra careful from here on out, she reminded herself again.
Emily scooted her bike around until it was facing east, mounted it and began peddling at a leisurely pace, resisting the urge to pick her pace up to her normal cruising speed. There was no need to rush today, it was more important to ensure she didn’t put her recovering body under any more stress. Besides, at her current speed she could also keep her eyes open for any of the owners of the strange cries she had heard last night.
There were several bike shops within a few miles for her to choose from but she decided to head to her favorite, the oddly namedSTEALS ON WHEELSover on Lexington and 75th. It wasn't one of those mega-store we-sell-everything emporiums where you could buy just about anything but no one knew you from Adam. This was just a small-time boutique bike shop, owned and operated by a life-long cycling enthusiast named Mike Stanley who stocked what he liked to call ’the best bargains on two wheels‘. Despite the store's name and Mike's sell-line, the bikes he sold were anything but cheap, but they were most definitely some of the most robust, reliable and well made bikes you could pick up anywhere in the city. Plus, it was only a block or so away from a Whole Foods Market that had opened up just a few months earlier. With a little luck she could find a new bike plus all the spare parts she could carry at Mike’s store, and then head over to the market and stock up on the supplies she would need for the first leg of her trip.
She pedaled south-west on Amsterdam Avenue, past the eerily empty stores and businesses and the equally deserted sidewalks. When she made the left onto West 86th Street Emily had to swerve and brake suddenly to avoid a huge delivery truck jutting out from the semi collapsed building it had collided with. The road was littered with kegs of beer. They lay scattered across the road like mines, their silver casks glinting in the sun and mixing with the debris from the decimated building.
The cab of the truck had buried itself deep inside the shattered building. Splintered floorboards, pieces of ceiling and plasterboard hung from the mouth of the decimated building reminding Emily, oddly, of the Christmas decorations that had always seemed so appealing to her when she visited Santa's Grotto as a child. Strange how the mind works, she thought as she slowed to a stop.
Emily dismounted and propped her bike up against the curb using the flat of the left pedal. The truck's cab was barely visible through the tangle of fallen debris. She had to pick her way towards it, carefully avoiding the sharp splinters of wood jutting like stalagmites and stalactites, seemingly from every angle. She reached the front of the vehicle unscathed; the doors to the truck were both closed, but the driver's-side window had an almost perfectly circular hole in it measuring a couple of feet across. Emily used the truck’s footplate to step up and examine the hole; it looked as though someone had taken a circular saw and cut through the glass. She ran her fingers over the edge of the opening. The edge felt sharp, serrated almost, as though whatever had made it had gnawed through the glass.
Peering through the hole into the cab, Emily could see nothing remained of whoever had been driving the delivery truck, they were gone and in their place was the remains of one of the giant pupae she had seen—and splattered, she reminded herself—at the paper yesterday.
Both doors of the truck were still locked from the inside of the cab, which meant whatever had emerged from the pupa could only have escaped through the circular hole in the glass. The hole was just too neat to have been caused by the crash, so the logical assumption, Emily concluded, would be it could only have been cut by the thing trapped in the cab. The transformed driver was, she hoped, long gone, because Emily did not even want to imagine the kind of being that had climbed out from the cocoon and then been able to bore through the truck’s window with such precision to escape.
Emily turned her attention back to the remains lying on the floor of the truck’s cab. The pupa had split open along its middle like a giant clamshell. The inside was a dull brown now but Emily could make out several slimy looking tubes that she guessed had acted like umbilical cords to feed the creature the nutrients it had needed. The faint reek of ammonia still filled the truck’s cabin.
She climbed down from the truck and cautiously made her way back out into the sunshine, but even as the warmth of the sun welcomed her back, an icy tentacle of fear wrapped itself around the base of her spine and began to tighten its grip.
* * *
Emily sped across the junction of Central Park West and 81st, her head instinctively flipping right and left despite the dead traffic lights and mostly empty road.
A single police car, its front driver’s side and passenger seat windows wound all the way down, blocked the right lane of the entrance onto the 79th Street Transverse, positioned to stop any traffic continuing past it, she guessed. Emily could imagine the cop sitting in his car, arm resting on the sill of the open window, but she had no idea why he would have chosen to stop there.
Emily had already cycled several hundred yards past the abandoned police car when she had an idea. She slowed the bike and circled back to the cop car. Not bothering to dismount from the bike, she pulled up alongside the driver’s side, opened the door and leaned in, her eyes quickly searching the interior of the black-and-white. She found what she was looking for secured between the passenger and driver’s seat.
Emily mentally crossed her fingers before giving the shotgun a sharp tug.
“Yesss!” she yelled in victory as the Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun pulled free of its security rack. A bandolier of spare shells rested in a recess beneath the weapon, alongside a full box of extra shells. The shells would be useful but the bandolier would be uncomfortable to wear with the bergen so she pulled the cartridges from their individual holders and added them to the box, tossing the empty bandolier back into the cab of the patrol car.
The previous summer, Nathan had insisted on teaching Emily how to shoot and had taken her out to the gun range. While she had enjoyed learning the ins and outs of firing a handgun, she hadreallyenjoyed shooting the shotgun. She liked the heft of it but most of all she enjoyed knowing that whatever she pointed it at she was probably going to hit. It could effectively hit a target out as far as seventy-yards or so, but at close range, it was absolutely deadly. The Glock 15 Nathan had handed her was cute and had left neat little holes in the paper target she was firing at, but the shotgun, well that had cut the paper target in two.
Dismounting from the bike, Emily quickly removed her backpack and pushed the spare shotgun shells into a side pouch. Once she had fastened herself back into the bergen she looped the strap of the Mossberg over her head and across her chest. It wasn’t particularly comfortable but it would do for now.
While she wasn’t sure just how effective the shotgun might be against the creatures roaming her apartment’s corridors, she certainly felt more secure knowing she now had something to defend herself with.
* * *
The shoulder-high sandstone retaining walls on either side of the two-lane road were almost entirely obscured by a green waterfall of plants that clung to every inch of the gray stone. The lush foliage spilled over the cold stones and drooped towards the pavement. The road Emily was riding cut directly across Central Park and avoided what would normally have been paths crowded with pedestrians and tourists. Emily slowed her speed slightly, marveling at what a couple of days of no traffic could do for the air. Despite her many trips down this same road over the years, this was the first time she could actually smell the park and its plant life. The air was thick with the fecund aroma of vegetation; it tickled her nostrils and filled her mind with images of sweeping fields of grass. It was intoxicating.
Under any other circumstances, this would probably rank right up there on her list of perfect days: the sun, warm and welcoming on her skin; the road empty before her; the heady aroma of eight-hundred acres of grass, trees and flowerbeds. If it had not been for the rest of the city’s occupants lying dead around her and in the process of being consumed by some strange menace, then yes, this would certainly have ranked right up there.
Despite the obvious drawbacks, Emily allowed herself to bask in the simple illusion as she pedaled onwards. The road dipped beneath a footbridge and she swept past a row of dilapidated storefronts on her right. She could be anywhere in the world right now, she thought. The old stone architecture reminded her of pictures she'd seen of Europe and she allowed herself to imagine she was riding through the back-roads of Provence, or maybe Tuscany; she had always wanted to take a trip to Italy.
Her daydream ended when she rounded the final bend approaching the exit onto 5th Avenue and 79th. Three cars, or what was left of them at least, had collided at the junction. Two were full-on yellow, withNYC TAXIstenciled on their doors. The third was a white Nissan Pathfinder SUV. One of the taxis had T-boned the Pathfinder, the second taxi had apparently careened into the back of the first taxi effectively blocking the junction. Three police cruisers, one at each junction, had positioned themselves to stop traffic from getting past.
The accident must have happened just as the majority of Manhattan’s workers learned of the approaching disaster, because in the lanes blocked by each patrol car were row upon row of empty vehicles. Most bore the same yellow livery as the crumpled taxi’s involved in the accident, but Emily could see the occasional delivery truck, a couple of tour busses, and even a motorcycle or two here and there, lying on their side in the road.
Caught up in this traffic snarl, every driver had undoubtedly been sitting impatiently behind the wheel of their vehicle, unaware that that would be their final resting place.
The exit lanes leading away from the lights were more or less empty, apart from the occasional car caught in the process of making a u-turn, hoping to head in the opposite direction of the accident before it was too late. Emily saw one car that had run through a bus-stop, scattering bits of the decimated shelter across the sidewalk and road. There wasn't any sign of an ambulance, so the accident must have happened just minutes before death stepped into the city.
Emily slowed her bike to a walking pace, and made a wide curve around the debris field of the accident. The vehicles engines must have all been running at the time the red plague struck because, in every vehicle she looked into, the keys were still in the ignition. Most had their doors closed and locked, she noted. Some of the unlucky drivers had apparently managed to get their doors open before succumbing to the effects of the red-rain (or maybe they had simply opened them to yell and scream at the drivers in front of them in true New York fashion). But every locked vehicle Emily passed as she free-wheeled slowly down the center divider between the two lanes had one thing in common: they all had the same almost perfectly round hole in one of their windows as she had seen in the beer delivery truck, minutes earlier.
The crush of cars disappeared as she crossed over Madison Avenue. The road was virtually clear of vehicles as she continued heading east along 79th street, except for a few stragglers who must have managed a u-turn before they got caught up in the traffic snarl ahead. When she hit the Lexington junction she hung wide right and continued down the next four or five blocks until the road met with 72nd Street.
STEALS ON WHEELSwas another block further on, nestled between a Wells Fargo bank and a Starbucks. Emily pulled to a halt with a squeal of brakes in front of the bike store. She pulled her bike up onto the pavement and leaned it against a parking meter just outside.
The door to the bike store, unsurprisingly, was locked. She could see a bunch of bikes in the window, all neatly arranged in order of price, but Emily knew the bike she was looking for would be inside, safely away from the window just in case somebody decided to do exactly what she planned to do next.
Emily was getting a little tired of having to commit B&E every time she needed something, but she guessed she would have to get used to that from now on. The majority of storeowners, Emily thought, would probably have shut up shop and headed home as quickly as they could, locking their stores behind them. Emily wondered how many of them had really believed they would ever return.
Pulling the hammer from the pack, she flipped it over so the ball-peen would act as the business end. She was going to have to use her damaged right arm for this little exercise in vandalism. She still couldn't raise that arm much above seventy-degrees and she needed to cover her eyes from any flying glass, just in case. Only her left arm was flexible enough for that.
She slid out of her jacket and rolled it around her right hand until only the shaft of the hammer and the head were visible, then, turning sideways to the plate-glass window, positioned her feet in a wide stance. She turned her face away from the window, burying it deep into the crook of her elbow.
Emily struck the window with the hammer with as much force as she could muster.
The glass shattered with the sound of a thousand icicles smashing to the ground, amplified to a nerve jarring level by the empty streets. As Emily took a step back to escape the rain of shattered glass, she felt something tug at the leg of her jeans. Looking down she saw a four-foot long triangular shard from the shattered window protruding from the cloth of her jeans. Just an inch or so to the left and the spike would have speared her leg instead of the hem of her jeans. She reached down with her gloved hand and took careful hold of the lance of glass while she held the pleat of her jeans with her other hand. She tugged at the glass. It came away after a few pulls with a ripping sound, leaving an eight-inch hole through both sides of her jeans leg. Emily tossed the deadly piece of glass away and cringed as it smashed to pieces on the sidewalk, shattering the silence of the dead street once again.
Mental note: need more jeans.
Turning to look at the front of the store Emily examined her handiwork. Almost half of the window now resided in a million pieces on the pavement. A few stubborn fragments of glass protruded here and there from the metal surround that had held the window in place, but they disappeared under the might of Emily's hammer.
The broken glass crunched beneath her sneakers as she stepped up and into the front display area of the store. If the power had still been on, the alarm system would have been screaming bloody-murder at her and the cops would be there in, let's say, thirty minutes, give or take an hour?
Instead, only the sound of broken glass crunching beneath her sneakers accompanied Emily as she edged past the display of bikes and stepped down onto the main floor of the store. She was glad she had brought the flashlight with her as the interior of the store gradually became darker the further back from the front of the shop she walked.
She fished the flashlight out of her bergen, switched it on and twisted the beam-adjuster until it gave off a wide angle of light that pushed back the remaining darkness. There was almost enough light to see by without the flashlight, but the weight of the Maglite in her hand added an extra sense of security she welcomed and meant she didn’t have to unstrap the shotgun from around her chest.
Spare wheels, frames, and bicycle forks lined the walls on either side of the store. Everything a cycling enthusiast would need to build her own bike from scratch or replace a broken part was available somewhere in the store. On the main shop floor, two rows of bicycles formed an honor guard on either side of a wide strip of industrial strength carpet that stretched down into the darkest end of the store. From her previous visits, Emily knew Mike liked to keep the cheaper bikes at the front of the store, and the deeper into the store one walked the more expensive the bikes became.
The bike Emily wanted was about three quarters of the way down and on the right. She'd been eyeing it for months, slowly stashing away a little bit here and there from each paycheck. By the time the red rain came, she was still a couple of months shy of having the twelve-hundred-bucks she needed to buy it. Of course, money was no longer an issue for her now, she could choose whatever bike she wanted, but there was something about this particular model that just spoke to her. She followed the carpet pathway toward the back of the store, sweeping the flashlight left and right as she walked.
Emily didn't think there would be any kind of threat in the store; Mike was too smart to have stayed. He would have gone home and died with his family just like millions of other Americans probably had. But she was learning to be cautious, so she made sure to check out the entire store, poking her head warily into all the corners and cubbies where one of the creatures could have gestated. She needn’t have worried because, just as she had expected, there was no sign of any kind of a threat. Satisfied she was alone in the shop, Emily headed back towards the center of the store and quickly located her new bike.
It was the perfect bike for the grueling trip that lay ahead of her: aNovara Randoneetouring bike in dark green with FSA Wing Compact handlebars and a Shimano Deore LX derailleur. It had a saddle that was the closest thing to a La-Z-Boy recliner, puncture resistant inner tubes and, most importantly for her, it weighed less than thirty-pounds.
Emily pulled the bike from its stand, giving it a quick once-over to check the tires were inflated. She lifted the back wheel off the ground and used the pedal to get it spinning while simultaneously running up and down all the gears, checking for any slippage. Satisfied everything worked just as it should, she pushed her new set of wheels to the front of the store and leaned it against the cash desk.
Next she walked back along each of the walls and grabbed everything she thought she might need for her journey: puncture kits and spare inner tubes, brake-blocks, a hand pump, a can of WD-40, a rain smock, a set of pedals, brake cables, a couple of plastic drinking bottles she could fit to the crossbar of the bike, a multi-tool, and finally, a GPS unit. The GPS had a specially designed clip to mount it on the handlebars of her bike. By the time she collected everything she could think of, a large pile of items had collected on the glass counter of the cash-desk. Emily had to draw the line at a spare pair of wheel rims, though, there really was going to be nowhere for her to carry them. She would just have to hope she wouldn't need them. However, she could deal with that pile of spare parts she had accumulated.
Emily walked to the furthest end of the store, shining her light into the darkness until she found what she was looking for; a display rack of panniers. She picked out the two largest sets she could find; one to fit over the back wheel and a second, smaller pair that would fit nicely over the front wheels. The addition of the two pairs of modern-day saddlebags would greatly increase her ability to carry extra supplies.
Emily fitted both pairs of panniers to the new bike using the multi-tool she had found earlier. Then she placed all of the spare parts she had collected into one of the rear carrier's pouches. She gave a final mental run through her list just to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything; once she was on her way, she didn't want to find herself without the means to fix her only form of transportation. She was sure she hadn’t forgotten anything—apart from those spare wheel rims; leaving them really irked her—so she hefted the bike onto her left shoulder, marveling at how light it was, even with the panniers and extra parts she had picked up, then carefully made her way out of the shop. When she was clear of the debris field of broken glass, she set the bike down, leaning it against its kickstand.
Emily looked at her old bike, battered and bruised after so many years of use, and a tinge of betrayal touched her heart. She felt like she was about to shoot a faithful but old horse while picking up a younger replacement.
"Don't be so damned ridiculous," she said to herself and started to wheel her new bike away. But after just a few steps, Emily dropped the bike’s kickstand again and, with a resigned sigh, walked back to where she had set her old bike to rest, picked it up—good God it was heavy by comparison to the new one—and carried it into the store, setting it down in the space left by her new Novara.
"You're a bloody idiot," she told herself, then turned and climbed back through the broken window, leaving the last vestige of her old life behind.
* * *
The new bike handled like a dream and Emily found herself quickly shifting up through the gears, as she sped east along 79th Street in the direction of the Whole Foods Market. The tires made a satisfying purr of rubber against macadam, and the efficient metallic whirr of the drive-chain complimented it perfectly, creating a simple tune of efficiency that was perfection to Emily’s ear.
She pulled over in front of the Whole Foods store.
Outside the store’s entrance, a confusion of plastic shopping carts lay scattered on the pavement. Spilled bags full of food had emptied their contents onto the sidewalk and road, dropped by their owners as they fled the market or maybe in a crush of looters, like she had seen at the little store next to her apartment.
The store's automatic doors were closed, and for a moment, Emily thought she was going to have to smash yet another window. They weren’t locked, and Emily was able to slip her fingers between the rubber seals and push one apart until there was enough room for her to squeeze through into the entrance area.
The stench of rotting meat and vegetables greeted her as she walked through the entrance and headed towards the produce section. Where there had once been rows of apples, organic tomatoes, and other assorted veggies, was nothing but a rotting mass of almost unrecognizable decay. There were no flies buzzing around the decaying food, Emily noted. The place should have been black with them and Emily began to wonder just how far along the food-chain the red rain’s impact had been felt.
There was obviously nothing worth scavenging in this section, and even if there had been, Emily wasn't going to spend any more time breathing in that stink than she had too. She pulled a shopping cart from a row stacked in front of a checkout and pushed it towards the opposite end of the huge store. The front left wheel seemed to have a life of its own, it squeaked insistently and refused to go in the same direction as the other three. The world as she knew it had apparently ended, humanity was on its knees, and an inscrutable menace threatened her very survival, butstillshe managed to choose the one wonky cart in the store. Typical!
As Emily squeaked her way up the aisles, she spotted a pallet of gallon bottles of drinking water on an end-rack. She pulled four of them from the pallet and set them down in the aisle. She would pick them up on her way out of the store. If she limited herself to a liter or so of water a day she would have enough drinking water to last her almost two weeks, as long as she didn't exert herself too much. She made a mental note to grab some of that instant energy powder, too. She could add it to her water for when she was riding.
Next stop, tinned goods. The aisle was mainly full of soups, so Emily grabbed as wide a selection as she could. She wasn't a soup fan but it would be easy to prepare, hot, filling, and most importantly, had a long shelf life. Worst-case scenario, she would simply drink it right from the can. She made sure only to grab the cans that had the pull-tab tops so she wouldn't have to worry about a tin opener. She spotted a selection of canned meats and added four cans of organic corned beef.
She pushed the cart up and down the rows of aisles, grabbing cans of vegetables, tinned fruit—no peaches though, definitely no peaches—, and chili.
Then it was on to the health supplements aisle. She pulled out enough bottles of multi-vitamins to last her a year. It couldn't hurt to start adding them to her daily regimen; she wasn't exactly going to be eating a balanced diet from this point onwards. On the same aisle, she also found the powdered energy supplements. She added a handful of boxes to the basket.
Emily snatched-up two large boxes of oatmeal, placing them in the rapidly growing pile of food in the cart. The cartons were bulky and the oatmeal would need to be heated before she could eat it, but Emily thought it would be worth the extra space the packaging took up. Hearty and filling, it would be a good way to start her day and a great source of energy; she was going to need as much of that as she could get over the next few months.
Her final stop was at the feminine hygiene section. She added enough boxes of tampons and panty liners so she wouldn’t have to worry about that particular problem; at least, not for a couple of months.
Emily maneuvered the cart in the direction of the front of the store and picked up the four containers of water she left there earlier. As she moved toward the exit, she spotted something she had forgotten near one of the checkout lanes... candy. She pushed the squeaking cart to the checkout and grabbed a handful of chocolate bars, chewing gum, and mints, and tossed them into the cart with everything else. She took a final moment to think about what she might have missed. Satisfied she had everything she was going to need for at least the next week or more, Emily squeezed the cart between the exit doors and back out into the sunshine.
* * *
Emily had never ridden a bike carrying as much weight as she was about to. She guessed the secret to assuring she stayed on the road, instead of ending up in a ditch, was to spread the load as evenly as possible and ensure the bike stayed balanced. The last thing she wanted to do was change the dynamics of her new ride and find out about it when she least expected it. She unpacked the provisions she had collected from the shopping cart and loaded the majority of them into the bergen. The remainder went into the panniers. Emily made sure to distribute the weight evenly over both sides of the bike. When she was finished, she buckled down the tops of each pannier and then pushed the bike-stand up with her foot, testing the bike’s balance with the extra weight. The addition of the supplies certainly made a difference to the feel of the bike, she wouldn't be taking corners anywhere near as sharply as she was used to and it was going to be harder to get it rolling from a dead stop. Overall though, she was happy with the feel of it.
She swung her legs into the saddle and started in the direction of her next stop. The bike felt a little unsteady at first. Now that she was on the move, the dynamics were harder to gauge than she had expected, but after a few minutes she became accustomed to the changes and barely noticed the difference.
There was one final place she needed to stop before heading home. The power was down, most likely gone forever, but that didn’t mean she had to suffer through cold meals for the rest of her life. A couple of blocks further on from the Whole Foods Market was an outdoor sports and camping store. She was hoping she could pick up some camping gear to help make her trip just a little more comfortable and that was where she pointed the bike.
A few minutes later, she pulled up outside and leaned her bike against the storefront window. Emily didn’t plan on wasting any time inside, she knew exactly what she wanted, but she took the shotgun with her anyway.
The door to the camping shop was, surprisingly, unlocked so she stepped inside. A large sign hung from the ceiling by fishing wire directed Emily to the back of the dark store for camping gear. She followed the sign’s instructions and was soon rooting around a selection of portable propane-gas fueled cookers. She was tempted to take the largest one but it was just too bulky and would add far too much weight to her pack. She settled for a double-burner model that was one-third the size and half as heavy. A couple of shelves up from where she found the cooker was a row of the small green propane gas tanks that powered it. She grabbed four of them, then added a lightweight pot and pan and a utensil set. She was tempted to take some dehydrated food supplies with her but decided against it. She had enough food to last her and she was still confident she could scavenge whatever she needed as she travelled. On her way back toward the exit, she spotted a box of long stem candles and picked up a box of twelve.
Emily left the camping store and packed the cooker and fuel in the bike’s rear set of panniers. When she finished tying the panniers’ flap down, Emily mounted the bike and pushed off in the direction of home.
* * *
She found herself making much better headway than she had expected as she again approached the traffic jam of empty vehicles on 79th street. Rather than take the same route she had arrived by, Emily decided to cut through Central Park instead and test her new bike’s performance on the weaving paths that interlaced it.
She zigged off the road to her left then up onto the pavement using the curb-ramp, aiming her bike at the park entrance between two five-foot high pillars of sandstone. She passed by an abandoned hotdog stall, the stink of rotten meat fleetingly filled her nostrils, then she was into the park and the welcoming smell of grass and trees quickly replaced it.
The concrete path forked after a couple of hundred feet and she followed the branch curving off to the left. Emily allowed the bike to tilt gently into the curve, applying the brakes just a touch. She continued down the path, past empty benches, and the occasional abandoned picnic lunch. She deftly maneuvered around an empty baby-stroller resting on its side in the middle of the path.
The pathways through the park were convoluted affairs, designed more for the walker to enjoy than to quickly get you from point-A to point-B. Whoever had designed their layout did not believe in straight lines, apparently. Emily eased her bike to the right and cut across the grass, slowing her speed sufficiently she had to drop down to second-gear and pedal just a little harder. She maneuvered through a copse of trees and then slanted left until her tires found the asphalt of East Drive, one of the main arteries running through the park. She planned to keep heading south until she reached Terrace Drive where she would make a turn, cut across the path and then back up West End Avenue.
Off to her right Emily could see the park's boathouse. The paddleboats and rowboats had all collected on the far bank like a flock of lost sheep. As she followed the curve of the road, leaving the building and boats behind her, Emily saw something she had never noticed in all her trips through the park; there was some kind of structure in the open grass about 300-feet south-east of the Boathouse. As Emily zipped along the final curve of the road before turning onto Terrace Drive, she caught a longer glimpse of the structure through a break in the line of trees edging the path.
What she saw made her pull back so hard on both brake levers it sent the bike into a sideways slide, the break blocks squealed in protest as she fought to keep the bike from toppling over and spilling her and her precious cargo of supplies into the road.
Barely avoiding a nasty crash Emily reined in the bike as if it was a headstrong horse, finally bringing it to a safe, if wobbly stop. Slipping forward off the saddle she planted both feet firmly on the ground and stared at the sight in front of her. Rising above the tree line to her left was a tower-like structure reaching towards the sky. It was hard to make out any real details from this far away, but she felt a flutter of nervousness in her stomach as she looked at the obviously out of place object.
Using her feet to propel the bike forward, Emily scooted closer, heading towards the break in the tree line surrounding the open field. As she approached, Emily could see that what she was looking at was colossal and certainly not a natural part of the park vegetation. Leaving the road, she lifted the front tire of her bike up onto the grass verge of the field and headed through a natural corridor between the trees. In front of her the sun was beginning its descent toward the western horizon, its light reflecting off the still surface of the ornamental pond known as the Conservatory Water. The pond was—had been—a favorite hangout for model boaters from all across the city.
The sun’s rays bounced and scintillated off the lake’s surface, sending bursts of light through the gaps between the trees. The light was so bright Emily had to squint and shade her eyes to avoid the dazzling reflection.
She couldn't see a damn thing from where she was standing; she'd have to risk getting closer, she decided. It was probably better to do it on foot, if this developed into a situation, she would be faster on the grass using her own two feet rather than trying to pedal the bike across the field. She leaned the bike against a nearby maple tree. She was tempted to drop the bergen too, but if something unpredictable did happen then she needed to get out of there as fast as she could. She did not want to risk having to leave the bergen and its precious contents behind.
A break between the trees where she stood led into the open field, beyond that there was another line of trees and beyond those, was the structure. She started through the break, cautiously heading towards the object. Emily was still two-hundred feet away from the structure when the light breeze ruffling through the branches of the trees shifted in her direction and she caught the faint, but now familiar smell of ammonia.
She stopped, her head pivoting from side to side, looking for any sign that she was not alone, but she could not see anything she considered a threat. The aroma of ammonia was so faint it could be from anywhere; in fact, for all she knew, the smell might just as easily be the millions of gallons of water of the Conservatory pond slowly stagnating. Her better judgment told her to just turn around, get back on her bike and ride away as fast as she could, but her natural curiosity got the better of her, and she decided to press on.
She was glad she hadn't left the shotgun with the bike. Her hand unconsciously reached out and caressed the black metal of the weapon slung across her chest.
Emily took a few steps closer, shading her eyes as best she could from the glare. She guessed it must have been a cloud drifting across the face of the sun for a moment that finally gave her the chance to see the object clearly. The light from the pond suddenly dimmed, her vision cleared and the towering structure swam into breathtaking focus. As her eyes roamed over the object, Emily knew that if she had a week to stand there and stare at the sight before her, there was no way she would ever be able to understand what it was she was seeing.
It stood at least forty-feet in height; a towering, incongruous amalgamation of red flesh. Three intertwining limbs as thick as Emily's torso twisted together and reached towards the sky. The base of the structure swept out into hundreds of interweaving duplicates of the main shaft; where they met the grass of the park Emily could see mounds of dirt kicked up like gopher holes, as the thick tendrils burrowed into the ground.
The main trunk seemed to be made of scales, large red scales that overlapped each other like armor. The structure gave Emily the impression of a piece of artwork, as though it had been specifically designed to look like a natural structure but made from the leftover bits and pieces of something unnatural. Its symmetrical appearance was ruined as Emily's eyes took in the top of the trunk; it looked unfinished, as though the designer had simply stopped midway in its creation. It was a mess of irregular angles and crenulations.
Emily began edging her way closer, her eyes fixed firmly on the imposing structure, oblivious to the low hanging branches of trees she pushed through as she moved nearer. She maneuvered around the left flank of the structure, placing the water of the pond behind her and it. From this vantage point, Emily could see a mass of translucent tendrils, each shot through with mottled spots of pink and red, growing from the base of the structure. They crept across the grass, between the thing’s roots, over the concrete boat dock and then dropped down beneath the surface of the pond.
Emily stepped down onto the concrete landing area of the boat-dock and took a few careful steps nearer to the mass of tendrils. Standing just a few feet from them, she knelt and leaned in closer. Through the transparent outer skin, she could see the tendril contained some kind of clear liquid within it. Itlookedlike water from the pond, but this giant plant—it was hard to categorize exactly what phylum she was looking at—must be filtering out the dirt and other crap from the lake, because the water in the tendril looked crystal clear to her, while the water in the Conservatory pond was green and brackish. Running through the center of each gelatinous tendril was a second smaller tube, as thick as Emily's thumb and filled with a darker fluid. This other liquid was a mass of different shades of red ranging from bright red to dark congealed-blood brown.
As Emily watched, the tendrils periodically expanded and then contracted, squeezing the water further up the tendril towards the trunk, and with each pump of the water heading towards the 'plant', Emily could see a smaller amount of the mottled red fluid in the inner vein pumping out towards the pond.
Emily got to her feet and followed the tendril to the lip of the concrete dock where it disappeared into the water of the pond. She looked out across the expanse of the water, shading her eyes with her hand as the sun was once again bouncing uncomfortably off the water. Towards the center of the lake Emily could just make out a thick red sludge forming on the surface, but the sun and the distance made it difficult to focus on it.
Emily turned in the direction of the structure, began walking back across the dock toward the grass verge... and froze. From the corner of her right eye, she caught something moving fast along the concrete toward her.
Emily’s head snapped to face the source of the noise. She instantly regretted her decision.
The creature skittering across the hot concrete landing toward her was like something out of the tortured dreams of an insane-asylum inmate. The thing had eight long spider-like legs; each leg was articulated by four bulbous joints that gave the creature a lopsided, almost limping gait. The end of each leg was tipped by a scimitar shaped claw, tempered to a point, and made the creature look as though it were standing on tiptoe. The top of each leg attached to another bulbous extrusion much like a human shoulder joint, and that joint was in turn attached to a long corkscrew shaped body. The head was nothing but a burgundy colored bulb attached by a short neck of concentric rings that allowed the head a small degree of pivotal motion. Positioned at 12-and 6- o’clock on the creature’s featureless head was a long fleshy stalk. At the end of each stalk was a black bulb and Emily realized with horror that she had seen that same strange appendage before. She knew that if either of those black bulbs were to open, each would contain a single eye.
Just below the bottom eye, where the creature's chin should have been, a third limb sprouted, swaying left and right as the monster scrambled over the concrete. This limb ended in a pair of serrated blades that whirled periodically like a rotary saw. At the tail end of the creature, Emily saw a wavering set of diaphanous red streamers, similar to the poisonous stinging arms of a jellyfish but much finer. As the creature loped towards her the streamers undulated and flowed in a sinusoidal rhythm that was, to her stunned mind at least, absolutely beautiful in its elegance, and the exact opposite of the rest of this repulsive monster’s body.
Emily recognized that, up until that exact moment, she had not fully accepted the whole extraterrestrial virus idea Jacob had postulated in their phone call. Now, as she stood defenseless in the shadow of an otherworldly tree, as a horror on legs sped toward her, Emily realized his theory was totally and utterly true. She was staring at the proof. This … this? What was it exactly? She may as well call it an alien because, although it may have been born here, it surely was not from this planet.
As the creature ate up the last of the space between itself and her, a single surprising thought passed through Emily’s mind:Finally!
She closed her eyes tight-shut and waited for the monster to fall on her and extinguish her sad little life.
The rapid staccato beat of the creature’s spike-tipped feet on the concrete grew louder as it rushed headlong toward Emily, then, just as quickly it had passed her by.
It didn't stop. It didn't tear her to pieces.
Emily opened her eyes and twisted her body to follow the creature as it continued along the boat dock. It ignored her as though she was not even there. It just kept on running.
Run Forest, run! She almost yelled the movie quote aloud, and had to stifle a burst of terrified, relief fueled, laughter.
Abruptly, the creature made a ninety-degree turn. Its right legs simply stopped moving while the right side continued;just like the tracks on a tank, Emily thought. It moved on its new course up the grass embankment toward the alien tree. When it was within twenty-feet of the main trunk, the bizarre creature’s body suddenly dropped towards the ground and then it was flying upwards, launched into the air by its spindly articulated legs. It landed halfway up the trunk of the huge structure. There was no reduction in the creature’s forward momentum as it continued its lopsided leg-over-leg scuttle around the circumference of the tree until it reached the top of the structure.
Only then did it stop.
The highest point of the tree—at least one-hundred, if not a hundred-and-twenty feet up by Emily’s estimate—was nothing but a ragged unfinished edge, totally at odds with the natural flowing outline of the rest of the structure. It was almost as though whatever had built it had simply stopped midway through its construction.
Emily watched, her chin drooping almost to her chest, as the freakish thing began to crab-walk along the uneven lip, its eyestalks swiveling back and forth as if it was searching for something. After about a minute of scuttling along the lip, the creature reached out with its two spindly front limbs and pulled itself up into a space between two protruding crenellations on the ragged edge. It immediately began working itself down into the space using the fine streamers of its tale like an extra set of limbs until it seemed content with the fit.
Then something even stranger happened. The creature began to melt.
At least, that's what it looked like to Emily. The eye appendages went first, dripping down over the creature’s body like glue. The liquid filled the few small gaps of daylight Emily had been able to make out in the spaces between the creature and the surrounding edges of the tree’s upper lip. Then the legs splayed out, grasping onto the protuberances on either side of it with its wicked looking claw tips. The spider-like creature gave a final wiggle as if it was ensuring it fit just right and then the legs melted into the structure. The tail was the last to vanish, fanning out in a final flourish before it too dissolved, vanishing into the main body of the trunk just below it.
It was all over in less than thirty-seconds. The creature had added itself into the tree, become a part of it completely, as if it had never existed. In its place was one more part of the structure sprouting up against the Manhattan skyline. Emily wondered just how big this thing would actually grow. Or was it being built?
Emily decided it was not a question she was interested in hanging around and answering. Her inquisitiveness was well and truly satiated; a human mind could only cope with so much information, so much change in one sitting, she realized. She gave the alien tree growing before her a final glance, then turned on her heels and began walking as quickly as she could back to where she had parked her bicycle.
* * *
Emily readjusted the bergen, the shoulder pads had shifted as she walked back to her bike and now the webbing of the right strap was digging uncomfortably into her shoulder. The painkillers had long ago worn off, and the dull throb had slowly returned. She turned her thoughts to what she had just seen to try to take her mind off the pain.
Where the alien-thing on the dock had appeared from, she had no idea. At the time it showed up her attention had been focused solely on the latest addition to her growing list of weirdness. It could have been wandering around the park for God-knew how long, gestating from some dead park visitor. Hell, there was over eight hundred and forty acres to choose from in the park alone. Or maybe it came from the city's sewer system? With more than six-thousand miles of tunnels running under the city, it would seem like the perfect place for those things to congregate and move around.
How ironic was it, she thought, that in every alien invasion movie she had ever seen, every sci-fi book she had ever read, the aliens were always either intent on eating us or just misunderstood. No one ever seemed to consider the possibility they might just ignore us completely; that the survivors of the human race might be so very inconsequential to their plan.
Could it simply be that the creature had not been able to sense her presence? Emily didn't think so. When she’d stabbed the one still in its cocoon back at the paper's offices, she was sure it had seen her. It had, at the very least been aware of her, and yet, now that she thought back to that moment, it had not tried to stop her, it hadn't even fought back. It had simply tried to get away from her.
Now that she had seen what had crawled out of one of those cocoons with her own eyes, there was little doubt left that what she had witnessed over the past few days was connected, part of some unfathomable plan. None of it made any kind of sense to Emily. Her head ached from trying to wrap her brain around the implications of the events, let-alone attempting to fathom any kind of structured motive to why this was happening or what the outcome would be.
The size of the assault on her planet was fantastic in its scale, she realized. The ease of its implication, the complete destruction of humanity and its replacement with this new life form, seemed to be as calculated and unemotional as she would feel calling in a pest-control company to rid themselves of a colony of termites or kill off a hive of bees.
Shewas just an insignificant survivor.
With the bergen strap once again resting comfortably against her shoulder, Emily swung her leg over the bike and placed her butt back on the saddle.
Her heartbeat slowly returned to its regular rhythm as she began riding once more toward home. Emily pedaled as quickly as she could, following Terrace Drive in the direction of the 72nd Street west-side exit, eager to get back to the apartment and put as much space between her and the park as possible. As she drew alongside the Bethesda Terrace, with its terra cotta stonework and now silent fountain, Emily again brought her bike to a stop.
This time it was only for a few brief moments, long enough to take in the view in front of her. Just beyond the Bethesda fountain, where the Terrace met with the body of water someone in their wisdom had simply called The Lake, Emily could see the shore was lined with more of the giant red, alien structures she had come to think of as trees. She counted twenty-three of them stretching out along the lake's edge. There could even be more, she reasoned, but the ones she could see were so closely packed together it was impossible to see past the first row of them. Each one of the towering red alien monoliths was in a different stage of construction; some were far taller than the lone one she had seen earlier, with wispy leaf-like additions protruding from their summits, others had progressed little past the base.
While she watched, Emily saw movement, the blur of fast moving limbs as more of the spider-things scuttled along the ground in the distance, heading toward these newest additions to the park’s flora. There was movement around the base of the trees too; Emily saw more creatures clambering up the trunk of one of the strange, exotic plants, on its way to sacrificing itself to the structure.