And Let This Feeble Body Fail
Maybe your friends think I'm a stranger
My face you'll never see no more
But there is one promise that is given
I'll meet you on God's golden shore
- From A Man of Constant Sorrow, traditional American folk song
Lucy’s little face was red and distorted from her tears, and all Joel wanted to do was pick her up and comfort her, but the large bite wound on her stomach meant that he couldn’t go near her. Ellie sat back on her heels and looked desperately up at Olivia.
“Liv, what do I do?”
“Oh god...Lucy…” Olivia was looking down in horror, her hand over her mouth.
“Olivia!” Joel shouted.
Olivia jumped and shook herself. “Right. Yes. First get her shirt off. We need to clean the wound right away.”
Lucy took a deep breath and reached out for Olivia. “Mama!” she wailed.
Ellie’s face twisted for just a second, but she rubbed Lucy’s shoulders and said, “Your mama can’t touch you right now, honey. But she’s gonna tell me what to do to help you. It’s only gonna hurt for a little bit, I promise. Let’s get your shirt off, now.” She gently took the stuffed giraffe from Lucy’s hands and set it on the floor, then raised the pajama top up over Lucy’s head.
“Lie down on the floor, baby,” Olivia said. “Auntie Ellie’s going to treat that bite for you.”
“It hurts!” The tears were still streaming down Lucy’s face, but they had slowed somewhat.
Olivia and Joel looked on impotently while Ellie cleaned and bandaged Lucy’s bite wound and cleaned up as much blood as she could. “There,” she said, as she pressed the last piece of tape into place. “You know, you’re going to have a really bitchin’ scar, just like mine.” Ellie pushed her shirt up to show Lucy the ugly bite scar on her arm.
“Gross!” Lucy said, staring at Ellie’s arm in fascination.
“We’ve got to get her out of here before Esteban sees her,” Joel said. He didn’t doubt that Esteban would shoot Lucy as quickly as he’d shot Simon, once he knew she was infected.
“Joel’s right,” Olivia said. “No one knows she’s immune, and they’ll just think I’m lying if I tell them now.”
“Take her back to the cave?” Joel said.
“No.” Ellie shook her head. “You know what it’s like up there. I barely have rudimentary medical supplies. When I got bitten, I got really sick. That’s going to happen to Lucy, too, isn’t it, Liv?”
Olivia nodded reluctantly. “Yes.” She looked like she was going to add something else, but stopped herself.
“How old was the youngest immune survivor you ever saw?” Ellie asked.
Olivia looked at Lucy, who was sitting up and sniffling, once again clutching her stuffed giraffe to her chest. Her eyes were anguished when she said, “Twelve.”
Joel’s heart dropped into his stomach. Were they saying that Lucy wouldn’t survive the infection? “What can we do?”
“Take her to the only place that might possibly help her,” Ellie said, grim determination on her face. “Back to Roswell.”
Olivia gasped. “No! Ellie, they were going to kill you! What do you think they’ll do if you just march in there and deliver yourself to them?”
“It doesn’t matter, Liv,” she said fiercely. “Can you think of any other place within a day’s driving distance of here that we could take her?”
Olivia didn’t answer her.
“I’m not just going to let my daughter die. Not when I can do something—anything—to help her.”
Olivia nodded. “Fine. Then I’m coming with you.”
Ellie stared at her for a long moment. “You know they’ll probably put you up against a firing squad for mutiny or something.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Olivia folded her arms over her chest.
Joel looked down at Lucy. Her thumb was in her mouth, and she was watching the exchange between Ellie and Olivia with huge green eyes.
“I’m comin’, too,” he blurted.
Both women turned to look at him. Ellie shook her head. “Joel…”
“The trip will be less dangerous with three of us, and you know it. You’re gonna have your hands full with Lucy.”
Ellie finally nodded. “Okay. Thank you.”
“Now, what exactly are we drivin’ up there?” he asked.
Joel whistled low through his teeth. “That’s one hell of an escape plan.” The Humvee was heavily armored, with a fifty-caliber machine gun mounted on the top. “You stole that? From FEDRA? I am impressed.”
Ellie grinned at him. “Misspent youth and all that.”
They were crouched behind a dumpster twenty yards away from the Humvee, which was parked at the top of the road leading into the camp. Joel must have seen the thing a hundred times, but it never moved and he’d assumed it was just a derelict. Turns out it was how Ellie, Lucy, and Olivia had arrived at the Chisos campground, and their donation of the vehicle as a permanent machine gun emplacement had gone a long way toward their acceptance in the community, even with Ellie’s infected status. But they’d run out of 50-cal ammo for the gun over a year ago, so the thing had just been sitting there, mostly useless, ever since.
When they’d told him about the Humvee back in Ellie’s room, Joel had said, “What the hell makes you think that thing will still run? The battery might be dead. The tires might be rotten. There’s probably no diesel in the tank.”
“Casey,” Ellie had replied. “He’s a total gearhead, and he kept it in working condition. He liked to take it down to Terlingua occasionally, for scavenging runs, until Esteban decided it was too dangerous.”
Joel strained to hear any sound of movement between them and the Humvee. There were still sounds of chaos from the camp below, but it sounded like the residents had managed to organize themselves and were starting to rally.
They’d made their way up here by sneaking past the group of infected runners that had been lurching around in front of the lodge. Now they had a big open area to cross and no cover for twenty yards before they got to the Humvee. Joel didn’t see any infected, and he hated to take the chance of being spotted, but he didn’t see any other option.
“Okay, this is the plan. Liv, you take point. Stay low, but move fast. Ellie, you’re carrying Lucy, so you stay between me and Olivia. I’ll bring up the rear.” Joel kept his voice low. He looked at Lucy. “How you holdin’ up, kiddo?”
Her eyes were already glittering with fever, and she shivered, pulling her arms inside the too-big t-shirt she wore, one of Ellie’s spares. “I don’t feel good.”
Ellie hugged her tight. “We’re almost to the truck, sweetheart, and then you can rest.”
Joel turned to both of them. “All right. Everybody ready? Let’s move.”
They moved cautiously out into the open in single-file. Olivia was carrying Joel’s shotgun, loaded and ready, and Joel’s .357 revolver was in his hand. He swiveled around occasionally to walk backwards, making sure they weren’t being tracked by any infected.
When they got to the Humvee, Joel barely had time to register the shadow that rose up from behind the machine gun mount before a heavy body tackled him, striking him a glancing blow on the shoulder with some kind of edged weapon and knocking him to the ground. His gun went flying out of his hand, and then he was grappling with someone, a man from the sound and feel of it, rolling over each other on the dirty asphalt. Joel got in a good cuff on the guy’s ear and when he recoiled in pain, Joel pushed him down and knelt on his chest. His thumbs were pressing down on the man’s windpipe when Olivia’s urgent tone finally cut through the fog of adrenaline that was buzzing in his head.
“Joel, stop it! It’s Casey!”
Joel’s hands released before his brain had time to recognize the face of the man he was choking. Good thing, too; Casey’s eyes were already starting to bulge out. Joel rolled off Casey and sat on the pavement, just starting to notice the sting from the shallow cut on his shoulder. That asshole fucking cut him.
“Goddamn it, Casey,” he grated. “What the fuck do you think you are, a fucking ninja? Why the fuck did you jump me?”
“Hey, fuck you, Joel,” Casey coughed. “What was I supposed to do? You three were acting sneaky as fuck. You wanna tell me what the fuck you’re doing up here, instead of down at the camp, helping fight off fucking infected?” He stood up and offered Joel a hand.
“I could ask you the same question,” Ellie interjected. She was holding Lucy tightly.
“Ow, Auntie Ellie!” Lucy started to cry again. “You’re squeezing my bite!”
Casey’s face went white. “Did that kid just say…”
Olivia pointed the shotgun at Casey. “You’re going to forget you heard that. In fact, you’re going to forget you saw us at all.”
Casey stuck out his jaw. “The fuck I am. You know the rules, Liv…”
“Bill.” Ellie’s voice was quiet, but Joel could tell she was on the edge of losing her calm. “Lucy is my daughter. That means she’s like me. And if you think I’m going to let you harm one hair on her head, you’re seriously fucking mistaken.”
Casey stared at her in silence for a long moment.
Olivia said, “Casey, she’s already getting sick. I need to get her back to Roswell right fucking now. And we need the truck for that.”
Casey’s face was inscrutable. Finally, he said, “I came up here to get the cache of nail bombs I have stored in the back of the truck. You wouldn’t believe how pissed I was when I saw someone had driven her off already.”
Ellie gave a little sigh of relief. “Thank you, Bill.”
Casey gave her one nod, and then turned and jogged back down the hill toward the camp, his machete ready in his hand.
The trip to Roswell took just under ten hours. Before the outbreak it would have taken six, but they were driving on roads that hadn’t seen a maintenance crew for over six years. The Humvee was built for rough country, but they still had to slow down when the asphalt got too cracked and pitted, or where the road had been washed away completely by flash floods. They also had to stop and siphon more diesel whenever they saw abandoned tractor-trailers and gas stations, just to make sure they had enough fuel on hand for the gas guzzling behemoth.
Fortunately, in addition to Casey’s box of nail bombs, the back of the truck also held thirty gallons of diesel, in six five-gallon jerry cans. It wouldn’t be enough to get them all the way there, not by a long shot, but it was a nice cushion to have, nonetheless.
With Olivia navigating, Joel avoided Fort Stockton and skirted around Pecos, TX. They reached Carlsbad, NM, 75 miles south of Roswell, around seven in the morning. Joel’s eyes felt like they were full of sand; he’d been driving all night. His reflexes weren’t as quick as they normally were, which was why the first runner took him by surprise.
“Joel!” Olivia’s warning came too late; the infected woman crashed into the side of the Humvee and bounced off, flopping like a rag doll in the road behind them.
“Shit!” A group of seven more runners skidded around the corner of a building. The highway ran through the middle of the town here, and he didn’t have much room to maneuver. He gritted his teeth and said, “Everybody hold on.”
“What are you…” Olivia’s question transformed into a scream as he gunned the engine and plowed into the crowd like they were bowling pins.
Fuck, there were more of them in front of him. This was gonna get ugly, fast. I really wish we had some ammo for that 50-cal.
In the end, even a large group of infected was no match for an armored vehicle with a supercharged diesel V8. There was a moment of meaty, smacking impacts, another moment of sickening crunches and bumps on the road, and then they were through, the remaining infected running after them, but too slow to catch them once they reached the open highway again.
When the last runner had dropped out of sight in his rear-view mirror, and Joel’s heart had stopped hammering, he slowed the Humvee to a crawl. “Everybody all right?” He was shocked by the evenness of his own voice.
“Jesus,” Olivia said.
“Yeah,” Ellie’s voice sounded too strained.
Joel looked back over his shoulder. “How’s Lucy doin’?”
Ellie shook her head. “She’s too hot. She’s burning up.” Her distress was evident in her voice.
Olivia dug in her pack, and then handed Ellie a plastic bottle of water and a rag. “Here. Wet the rag and swab her skin with it. The evaporation will cool her down a little.”
“How much further, Olivia?” Joel asked.
“The turnoff is south of Roswell, just past Artesia. But after that,” she jerked her thumb back in the direction of Carlsbad, and shuddered, “we might want to skirt around Artesia, just to be safe.”
“You just tell me where to go,” he said.
About an hour later, Olivia directed him to turn off onto an unmarked dirt road. “You sure about this?” he said.
Olivia’s face was worried, but her mouth quirked in a smile. “You don’t think a secret military base has a bunch of signs telling you where to find it, do you?”
The first sign Joel saw that they were on the right track was a plain white sign that said, in big red letters, “RESTRICTED AREA. NO TRESPASSING BEYOND THIS POINT.”
“There should be a security post just over this hill…” Olivia stopped when the little building came into view. The barrier across the road was broken, and the building itself was shut up tight. It looked like it had been abandoned for years.
Joel brought the Humvee to a halt just inside the broken security barrier, and left the engine running. “What now?”
Olivia frowned. “I don’t know. They always had guards posted out here. It didn’t look like this when we left.”
Joel said, “I’m gonna check it out. You two stay put.”
Olivia nodded, and for once, Ellie didn’t protest either. He approached the security post cautiously, his pistol loaded and ready, and walked around to the far side where the door. He turned the handle, expecting it to be locked, but it turned easily beneath his hand. He pushed the door to the little building open.
The sudden change in air pressure sent a cloud of earthy dust swirling into Joel’s face, making his eyes water and making him sneeze violently. Great. Just what I needed, he thought. A faceful of dust…
And then his eyes fell on what was lying on the floor. It was a rainbow of reds and oranges and yellows, not even recognizable as a human body anymore, except maybe by general shape and the placement of the large, bowl-shaped fruiting body where the head should have been. An ascocarp, he thought remotely. Somebody told me once, those are called ascocarps. This ascocarp was puffing spores into the air by the millions, making a faint hissing noise.
Not dust. Not dust at all. Spores. And he’d just breathed in more than enough of the things to kill him.
Joel stared at the death sentence on the floor in front of him. He didn’t feel any panic. It had happened too quickly for that. He closed the door with weary resignation and slumped against it, running one hand over his face. He’d been so lucky, up till now. He’d known death would come for him, but when he finally bought it, he’d expected to go violently, torn apart by runners or clickers, or in a gun battle with other humans who wanted to kill him for ammo or food. Hell, he half expected to have been killed in Carlsbad, when he made the run at that big mob of infected. Not this. Not by just breathing. It was such a tiny, stupid mistake.
I’m infected. I’m fucking infected. He felt fine now, but CBI moved fast. How long did he have, a day? Two at the outside. He straightened up and squared his shoulders. He wasn’t going to let himself turn, especially not where he’d endanger his friends. But they needed him right now. Lucy and Ellie still need my help. I got at least few hours left. I’ll help them as long as I can, and when I feel it start to happen, I’ll take care of it.
When he got back to the truck, he said, “Nobody there.” It was the truth.
Their footsteps echoed eerily in the empty hallway. There hadn’t been a guard at the entrance to the cluster of buildings proper, and the building security seemed to be offline, the doors unlocked.
“What the hell happened here?” Olivia said.
Ellie, carrying an unconscious Lucy in her arms, said, “Liv, are we going to find what we need here? Can we still save her?”
“I think so. The circuits to the hospital and the labs were all connected to the solar grid, so there should still be power there. As long as they weren’t destroyed or damaged, we should still be able to…” Olivia stopped talking abruptly as she entered the first lab.
Joel looked over her shoulder. The room was trashed. It looked like there’d been a hot gun battle here; shell casings were everywhere and all of the equipment was riddled with bullet holes. Bodies in military uniforms lay on the ground, mummified by the dry air. It was hard to tell, but it looked like they’d been there a few years, at least.
“Joel.” He looked over to where Ellie was pointing. A body in a white lab coat was slumped against a cracked refrigeration unit. There was a large bite on its arm, and its lips were pulled back from its teeth. Lips that were bright cobalt blue, just like the body he’d seen in Alpine.
Joel looked around carefully for blue dust, but he didn’t see any. “Olivia, what do you make of this?” She came over from where she was scavenging for unbroken bottles of medication and knelt down to inspect the body.
She looked up at Ellie in surprise, brandishing the man’s badge. “Ellie, it’s Dr. Singleton!”
“Holy shit,” Joel said. “The guy who ran everything here?”
“He was bitten,” Ellie said.
“Yeah,” said Joel, “but nobody else here was. They were all gunned down. And what’s with the blue lips on the good doctor? None of the other corpses have them, and there’s no blue dust around, but it looks just like what I saw in Alpine.”
Olivia spread her hands. “I have no idea what happened here.”
Ellie said, “I bet we can find out if we search Singleton’s office. It’s…” Lucy moaned, and Ellie looked down at her, putting her hand on Lucy’s flushed forehead. “Shit. She’s really burning up. Liv, you find anything useful in here?”
Olivia shook her head. “No. What I need is more likely to be in the hospital wing anyway.”
“Let’s hope it’s in better shape than this lab,” Joel said. “C’mon, let’s move.” I don’t have much time left. He breathed deep, testing his lungs, but so far the fungal intrusion hadn’t caused any physical symptoms.
He led the way through the next set of doors, his pistol ready, and followed the signs down the empty hallway to the hospital. Fortunately, it looked like the firefights hadn’t gotten this far, and while dusty, the hospital rooms were relatively undisturbed.
“Lay her down on one of the beds.” Olivia pointed, and Ellie carefully set Lucy down on the least dusty bed, cradling her head as it came down on the pillow.
“Mama.” Lucy’s eyes fluttered open, her voice tiny and pitiful. “Mama.”
Ellie smoothed Lucy’s hair back and kissed her forehead. “Shhh, sweetheart. I’m here. I’m here.”
Olivia wheeled an IV stand over to the bed and hung a bag of saline from it. “She’s dehydrated. We need to get some fluids into her.” She pulled on a pair of latex gloves and picked up an IV needle.
Ellie said, “Can’t I do that? It would be safer…”
“No,” Olivia said firmly. “I don’t have time to teach you. You’d just end up hurting her. I promise I’ll be careful.” She looked down at Lucy. “Okay, sweetie, this is going to sting a little.” She wrapped a tourniquet around Lucy’s arm, and then expertly slipped the needle into a vein on the back of Lucy’s hand. When the catheter was inserted, she pulled the needle back out and dropped it into a plastic sharps container. “See? Careful.” She taped the catheter down to Lucy’s hand, and then attached the IV tubing.
As Olivia started the IV, Joel said, “What can I do?”
Ellie, holding Lucy’s hand, looked up at him in mute distress.
Olivia tossed Dr. Singleton’s badge at Joel and said, “I need Ellie’s help with Lucy, but why don’t you check Singleton’s office and see if you can find any clues about what happened here. It’s just at the end of the hall.”
Joel went reluctantly. Knowing that his remaining life could be measured in hours, not days, he wanted to spend as much of it as possible in the same room as Ellie. He’d ransack the office as quickly as he could and get right back.
He had to use Dr. Singleton’s badge to open the locked office door, but the small room wasn’t exactly a treasure trove of useful information. The desk was clean, other than a layer of dust, and the file cabinets were locked. It looked like the good doctor had just shut up shop one night with every intention of coming back. Well, that told him one thing: whatever had happened here had been a surprise to the administration. The desk drawer held the usual office supplies, paper clips and pens and staplers, a letter opener, a notepad, and a couple of voice recorders; Joel pocketed the recorders for Olivia, and then took the letter opener over to the filing cabinet. He jimmied the lock with a few judicious movements and pulled out the drawer.
“Patient files,” Joel muttered as he thumbed through the neatly organized and labeled folders. The second drawer was full of more patient files, some an inch or more thick, others just a few sheets of paper. At the back of the drawer was Ellie’s file, one of the thick ones, and there was Lucy’s file right behind it. Joel hesitated a moment before pulling them out. What the hell. Olivia might want them. He set the folders on Dr. Singleton’s desk, and opened the third file drawer.
It was empty except for a laptop with a power cord. “Bingo. Maybe Olivia can find something useful on this.”
He pulled the computer out and set it on top of Ellie and Lucy’s files. He took another deep breath, but his chest felt normal. He still had some time, then. He gathered his spoils and headed back down the hallway.
When he got back to Lucy’s hospital room he could see that she was sleeping again, her tiny head surrounded by a frizzy halo of gold curls. Jesus, she looked so small lying there in that bed, all hooked up to the IV stand.
“How’s she doin’?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Ellie stood up and stretched. “Better. Liv found some baby aspirin, and the fever is coming down. All we can do now is keep pushing fluids into her and hope she can fight off the infection.”
Joel put his arm around Ellie, and it was a measure of her distress that she leaned into him instead of pushing him away. He kissed the top of her head and said, “She’s gonna be okay. She’s a fighter, just like her mom.”
Ellie gave him a watery smile. “Thanks. To be honest, I’ve never been more scared in my life.”
He gave her shoulder one last squeeze and let her go. It hurt, knowing it was one of the last times he would touch her, but he kept his voice calm. “I know.” He turned to Olivia, who was sitting on the other side of Lucy’s bed and held up his loot. “Might be some answers on these things.”
Olivia’s eyes lit up. “Hey, good work! Let’s take a look.” She took the laptop and the two voice recorders. The first voice recorder was a disappointment; the batteries were long dead. They’d have to dig some new ones up if they wanted to listen to anything on it. But the batteries were working on the second recorder.
Olivia pressed the play button.
“Dr. Brenham left us yesterday, and took the Williams girl and her daughter with her. I’ve called off the search. They stole a Humvee; at this point they could be anywhere.”
She pressed pause, looked up at Joel and said, “Dr. Singleton.” She forwarded the recorder to the next entry.
“There’s been another development. The patients were suspicious of our cover story about Dr. Brenham. Javier Orosco managed to break into my office. He saw my files on the antemortem tissue studies.” There was a long pause. “He found out that Maya was one of the subjects. He...he was upset. I…”
Olivia pressed the forward button again.
“Javier has been telling the other patients that we’ve been removing the brains of otherwise healthy infected. It’s not...This is why we were keeping it secret in the first place! We’ve placed him and a few of his friends in lockdown until further notice.”
She held down the forward button. Dr. Singleton’s voice sped by in a high-pitched squeal.
“...broke into the armory last night. Colonel Esposito tells me enough weapons are missing to arm the entire ward. They bit private Willis. They bit him! I can’t believe it’s come to this.”
“Jesus,” Olivia muttered. She forwarded the recorder to the next entry.
“Javier came to see me this morning. He had a whole list of demands, but chief among them was for the immune to be granted the freedom to come and go from the facility as they pleased, and for us to stop all experimentation involving the removal of living brain tissue. It’s insane! They have no idea how close we are with our research, or how dangerous it is out there. They don’t understand we’re protecting them here, and trying to protect all humanity!”
“What research is he talking about, Liv?” Ellie asked.
Olivia shook her head. “I don’t know. They were nowhere near formulating a cure or a vaccine by the time we left, and this seems to have happened pretty soon after that.” She forwarded to the next entry.
“They’ve taken over the entire facility past the cafeteria, and they’ve taken fifteen hostages. So they’ve got me over a barrel, here. But I’ve got them over a barrel too. They can’t get out, and they’ll run out of food eventually. I’ve called a meeting with them for tomorrow morning. I’ve decided to tell them what they want to hear, while Colonel Esposito and his men will infiltrate the patient quarters from the rear through the blast doors. With the meeting, our bet is those doors will be only lightly guarded.”
“That’s the last file on the recorder,” Olivia said.
“Guess that meeting didn’t exactly go as planned,” Joel said.
“Liv,” Ellie said, horror in her voice, “do you think one of us—I mean, one of the immune—bit Dr. Singleton?”
Olivia shrugged helplessly. “There’s no telling, Ellie. If they were deliberately infecting the guards or the support staff, it could have been any of the infected. I hope not.”
“Shit.” Ellie shuddered. “Now I’m really glad we got out of here when we did.”
“Still doesn’t explain the blue lips, or why Singleton didn’t turn after he was bitten, though,” Joel said. He coughed. Shit. Now his chest was starting to ache, which was probably a sign that his own infection was starting to take hold.
Olivia plugged in the laptop. “Maybe we’ll find something on this.”
As casually as he could manage, Joel said, “Hey, before you get started with that, would you mind takin’ a look at my shoulder? I don’t think Casey’s machete was all too clean.”
“Oh, sure.” Olivia stood up. “Of course.”
“It’ll probably be easier if I’m sittin’ down. Why don’t we use the next room over? Don’t want to disturb Lucy.”
“Yeah, all right. Ellie, you mind holding down the fort here while I check Joel over?”
Ellie waved them off. “Course not. Sorry I’m missing the strip show, though.”
Joel grinned at her, a pang of happiness spearing straight through him. “I’ll see what I can do about a private performance later,” he said.
Ellie’s smile lit up her face, and the tension around her eyes eased. “Don’t tempt me. Go on, get out of here.” She was still smiling and shaking her head over Lucy’s bed when Joel closed the door to the adjoining room.
“God, you’re good for her,” Olivia said. “I wish you two…”
“Olivia,” Joel interrupted her. “I need you to test me for CBI. I think I was exposed.”
“What?” Olivia’s face was blank with shock. “When?”
“Back at the guard station. It was full of spores. Now, my chest is startin’ to hurt, so there ain’t much question in my mind, but I’d like an official diagnosis before I go take care of myself.”
“I…” Olivia shook her head, unable to finish her sentence. Silently, she went through the motions of getting the tester out of the drawer, checking the batteries, and loading a fresh lancet. She pressed it behind Joel’s right ear, and he felt a tiny prick.
Maybe I’m wrong, he thought. Maybe I didn’t breathe in enough spores to get infected. Maybe…
The tester clicked to indicate that it was done processing.
He didn’t need to see the screen. The look on Olivia’s face, gray with horror, told him plenty.
Joel nodded. “That’s what I thought. I just needed to know. I’m gonna go…” He stopped. He couldn’t bring himself to even say it. “You won’t have to worry about me,” he said finally.
“Joel, I’m so sorry…”
“Don’t tell Ellie. I don’t want her to feel like she’s responsible for me.”
“But...don’t you want to say goodbye?” Olivia was fighting back tears.
He shook his head. “I’d rather leave her with a smile on her face. God knows she deserves it. Just...just tell her I went lookin’ for more batteries.”
“You know she’ll go looking for you when you don’t come back, no matter what I say, right?”
Joel’s smile was strangely soft. “I know. You can tell her then, if you have to. Just don’t let her come after me. I don’t want her to see me.”
Olivia passed a tired hand over her eyes. Lucy was stable, but they could still lose her. She hadn’t told Ellie that yet, didn’t want to worry her too much. And now Joel…how the hell was she going to tell Ellie about that?
She needed to keep her mind busy, before she lost it completely.
She cracked open the laptop that Joel had brought her and hit the power button, giving a satisfied nod when the thing booted right up.
To a password screen. Shit. She stared into space for a few moments, trying to remember any details about George Singleton, a man she’d respected for his intellect but never really liked. She sighed. There wasn’t much to remember. George had been a quiet man, and not overly generous with details about his personal life before the outbreak. The only thing that stuck out was that damn cat he was always moaning about...what was its name? Something like...Goliath, or...no, Gilgamesh! Olivia remembered thinking to herself that people who gave their pets outrageous names of mythical figures were maybe anthropomorphizing a little too much.
She typed “gilgamesh” into the password field and hit the Enter key, crossing her fingers.
There was a tense ten seconds while the computer worked to authenticate the password, and Olivia was afraid she’d have to just start guessing random words when the hard drive whirred and the operating system started to load on the screen.
She breathed a sigh of relief, and then said, “Thank you, George, for having such shitty security on your laptop.” She clicked open a file browser and thanked George again; he may have been a prick, but he was an organized prick. She scanned the list of folders. Most were self-explanatory: a folder titled “Patient Records” held subfolders with names of the immune survivors. Another, titled “Genetic Profiles,” were George’s notes on the best genetic matches for the breeding program. “Antemortem Study” also held subfolders with familiar names; infected patients and infected immune alike, people who’d either turned or outlived their usefulness to George’s breeding program. Olivia’s mouth hardened. Ellie’s name would be there too, if she hadn’t escaped when she did.
A folder titled “Project Blue” caught her eye. What’s this, George? It wasn’t familiar, but the folder was dated several years before she’d left the facility. She thought she’d known about all of the research projects going on here. She clicked on the folder, only to get a password prompt.
Huh, that’s weird. None of the other files, not even the sensitive patient files, had been password-protected. She sat back and chewed her lip, then shrugged. What the hell. She typed “gilgamesh” into the password field again.
The folder opened. “You’ve got to be kidding me, George” she said under her breath. “That’s almost as bad as just using ‘password’ for your password.”
She selected the first file, titled AlpineTX_FAILURE, opened it, and started to read.
“Oh, my god.”
Ellie looked up from Lucy’s bedside. “What is it, Liv?”
Two minutes later, Ellie was running down the hallway. She needed to find Joel and stop him. She only hoped she wasn’t too late already.
Joel had slipped through a partially blocked door into a large cafeteria. Apparently this part of the building wasn’t powered by the solar cells, because it was pitch black, and quiet as a tomb. Which was appropriate, now that he thought about it. He didn’t see signs of any infected, but the overturned tables, bodies, bullet holes, and shell casings revealed by the beam of his flashlight told him that this was where the major skirmish of Javier’s revolution had gone down. Joel padded cautiously through the old carnage, but only dust stirred at his passage.
He spent the next quarter hour or so getting himself lost in the warren of hallways beyond the cafeteria, looking for a decent place to do himself in. The place was like a maze. The doors on this corridor were labeled with people’s names; the rooms appeared to be living quarters for the immune survivors. They locked from the outside, not the inside.
Christ, these people were basically prisoners here, havin’ all manner of medical experiment run on them. No wonder they wanted to make a break for it, he thought.
He stopped in front of a door that read, Williams, E.S. and Williams, L.A. Ellie and Lucy’s room. I guess Javier’s little revolution happened so soon after Ellie left that they never even took her name off the door.
Joel cracked open the door and let himself into the room. It was tiny, barely big enough for the twin bed, dresser, and crib that was squeezed into it. A door on the right side led to a small bathroom with a cubicle shower.
Joel sat down on the low bed. The quilt was nice, if dusty, and it looked homemade. Maybe it was a family piece that she brought from home, he thought. Granny Miller used to have a huge cedar chest full of quilts, some she’d inherited from her mother, and some she’d made herself. When she’d died, Joel’s father had sold the quilts and the chest to an antique store.
He was sitting on something lumpy. He lifted up the quilt and found an old, floppy stuffed beaver. Sarah had owned a large stuffed animal collection, but her favorite, a little stuffed rabbit, had looked a lot like this; it was missing most of its fur and one eye, and the stuffing had long ago repositioned itself into the doll’s extremities, making its overly bulbous legs and tail dangle from its body. It was well-loved, something a little girl had slept with and cherished for most of her life.
He coughed again, feeling a tearing pain in his chest. Damn it, he probably didn’t have much time left. At least his head was still clear.
Sitting up, he gently set the stuffed beaver on the pillow. He’d originally thought that this would be an ideal place, surrounded by things Ellie had touched and loved, but he knew that he didn’t want her to find him that way, dead among her childhood treasures.
He went back out into the corridor and pulled the door shut behind him, then chose another patient's room at random. Jones, S.T.
S.T. Jones had been a man, by the look of the room. There was an assortment of men’s clothing in the dresser, and a University of Texas Longhorns poster on the wall. Joel smiled faintly. A man after his own heart. Yeah, this room would do.
He took his backpack off and leaned it against the foot of the bed. Shoulda just left this and my other guns with Olivia, he thought. There’s stuff in there they could probably use. He dug in the front pocket. Where did that thing go? I know I had one left...Ah. His fingers closed on the one hollowpoint round he still had left. The frangible bullets were better than gold when it came to trading, and just one could drop a clicker in its tracks. This one would be more than enough to make sure he finished the job with one shot.
He pulled his revolver out of the holster on his hip, and cracked open the cylinder, then loaded the hollowpoint bullet and advanced it to the first firing position.
He took a deep breath. I should have said goodbye to Ellie.
The barrel of the pistol was cold against his temple, and the trigger was heavy beneath his index finger. It was a double-action .357 revolver. All he had to do was pull the trigger.
Another tearing cough racked his body.
Ellie ran down corridor after corridor, growing more and more panicked with every step. She had lost track of Joel’s footprints, and now she was just picking hallways at random, hoping she’d come across him before she heard the gunshot that ended his life. “Joel!” she shouted. “JOEL!”
She was running down one of the hallways that ran through the living quarters for the immune survivors—her old corridor, she realized, hallway B6—when she heard the shot.
She was too late.