Prologue: The Second Cycle Begins
“It’s a flyer.” Very nondescript, but Herbert Craw wasn’t wrong.
Another citizen tried to get a different name popularized, “the sky-knife,” but it failed to catch on. Craw’s instincts picked up on the object hurtling above the world, a precognitive jitter achieved through years.
Herbert followed the trail it made with his eyes as everyone else became shot with the instinctive wrench of miss in the wind. Their heads tilted back, watching the object tear the fair sky in two with its orange streak. Over the course of five minutes, their necks craned watching its progress.
In the beginning it had been called a comet. But as events transpired, the public regarded this label somewhat unfit. They recognized the problem with honest unity.
‘Comet’ simply came off too optimistic-sounding. Its label became, with a natural comfort to its syllabic rhythm, The Harbinger.
Sixteen-year-old Reggie Tix was first to notice the slanting descent it made in the air. He was running away from home, for good he believed.
He caught sight of The Harbinger. He followed the orange streak from the clearest origin point of its faded trail to the thing itself, angled down at the city spread out before him. It rolled over in the air in a clear tumble.
He watched it for thirty more seconds, his mind utterly blank. When he got up, he didn’t take into account how little breath he had recovered during his short reprieve. He began the long trek back, skidding down the very hill he’d just climbed. His family would die together a few hours later at home.
Physicists double and triple-checked their notes before confirming their calculations with the launch-strike team. Then the final approval passed through their frequencies.
A missile launched. The citizens below enjoyed a small combustion of orange, noxious fireworks as The Harbinger erupted in midair. They cheered and hugged each other, holding their chests to dole out their sighs of relief in conservative breaths.
They took in the strange phenomena of lingering fireworks afraid to dissipate in midair. Instead the thick orange fumes fogged the sky in The Harbinger’s place, spreading from their point of origin in slow crawls.
A single rock still made its way to earth, impacting with a rumble felt only within the toes and only by those nimble and thoughtful enough to be in tune with such tremors.
News reports became more prominent while Norman Burkett became more annoyed. In their mid-forties, Norman and Laurel Burkett had enough to stress about. They had three kids, and the news these days often scared them plenty when it came to details about the up-and-coming generation. They didn’t need the additional pessimistic highlights the media exclusively offered. They were fine hearing about junkies bungling their latest big score because that was justice. They usually changed channels when the junkie’s tear-soaked mother confessed to not turning her son in for earlier crimes in the hopes he’d fall out of the bad crowd and how she regretted that now.
No protest passed between them when one of them switched stations during depressing footage like that. They hated the way the world tried to bring their moods down. But even they couldn’t ignore the difference in severity with this new thing. When it first appeared on TV, it seemed too much like a hoax. Too much, too quick, to be genuine. Some anchormen talked up the apocalypse aspect of things. The Burketts only discussed the real trouble of news stations that wrote the book on bending truths.
But the ignorance still held an unspoken air between them. Like this might be something to study and stay updated on. Ignorance might be the real catalyst here, but that was only a passing thought until the channel signal rearranged to produce a light-hearted sitcom to pass the rest of the evening’s time.
The next day Norman strolled into the living room after work, flinging his tie off. He called for his wife and oldest daughter. Neither answered. He felt the eerie sting of quiet waver past him. He unbuttoned the top of his shirt and gazed around.
“Laurel?” Nothing. He walked on, winding into the short hallway before their bathroom. This silence he knew. In the movies, it was the kind of silence waiting to predictably break.
Then again, in real life that was nearly all silences.
He debated switching the TV on for a second or two. He called their names again and pulled on the knob to their thin hallway closet to deposit his tie.
The door rattled but didn’t open. He hadn’t been paying attention, noticing now a hanger had been fixed over the knobs, keeping the doors in place. He stared for a while.
He heard his wife’s voice finally. Shallow and calm from inside the closet. “Here.” Muffled, too. He discarded the hanger and opened both doors.
He found her folded in there, waiting to be uncovered. Her skin was slightly discolored, which he attributed to the darkness. Her head was lowered, her chin touching her chest. She looked like she’d slept in there. She had an apron on, the thin strings tied around her waist. This was usually a turn-on for him since those strings always fit her as snug as they had in her prime.
He patted his chest to diminish his brief shock. “What are you doing in here?” She pointed over his shoulder to nothing in particular. He stared around. “The kids?”
The rest of the house continued its silence. No wonder. Even quiet kids had the instinctive decency to disrupt occasional, stale air. He spun around. Unknown to him, his wife leaned out of the closet. Her eyes lit up, dancing as they settled on the stretched skin her husband wore over his neck.
“Jesus, what were they thinking?” Norman leaned out of the hallway, still looking back at the front door. “On the way here I saw these kids running and I thought they looked spooked. Our kids? You sure?”
Laurel’s shoulder banged against the wooden door frame, startling him. POMP!
Norman turned, his crawling mouth stretching further as he leaned backwards. His wife’s hand lashed out and her nails peeled deep layers of skin away from his throat. As he fell back, broken threads of blood hung in the air between them, tainting the air with its stench.
He crashed, seeing his wife pull herself completely from the closet. Her face was wholly gray, a full-on bleach of discoloration. In her lowered hand, the one she hadn’t slashed him with, he saw a wire hanger with its normally curved hook unbent and straight. He guessed, amid the confusion and pain, she had needed something to do in there.
She watched him. Norman saw afternoon light glint off the metal point. He pulled his head up as high as he could from the ground, feeling his collar dampen with his own neck fluid, and noticed the hanger dripped. Her other hand had thin carvings of blood streaked across the palm like she’d hacked away at it to pass the time. The blood filled up the cracks and overflowed from there.
Laurel breathed, her exhale loud and drawn out. “…Stayed inside…to save the kids.”
The hanger lowered and the grip on it tightened. Norman looked on. He tried to keep his mind clear as his wife placed a hand on his chest and raised the straightened hanger, her yellow teeth glinting. Tried to tell himself, above all things, It’s not her. Of course not. This is too silly.
“As for those infected, they move mostly out of reflex. They’ll go through the motions, keeping up appearances, making supper, cleaning dishes, etc. But trust me. They have plenty of other thoughts running in their heads. Mad thoughts, and the sight of a single other living presence distracts them so, so easily. You best take care of your family quick if you notice they have become infected, people. Lock ’em up if you have to. If you have to forget they are your family, do it. Do everything you have to. They’re gathering in numbers down south of the city. What does that tell you? You think your family’s in danger? They’re calling it the Harbinger for a reason. We’ve got worse things coming if they keep gathering.”
“D-dad?” Eight-year-old Ian raised a hand to his trembling chin and stayed within the room’s entrance, afraid to pass the boundary. His father was hunched over, sitting on Ian’s bed. The room was dark but Ian could see the graying, seemingly decaying hue of his skin from here. His father curled his back to face Ian, his body still facing the room and processing Ian’s identity with slowly-building remembrance.
“C-come ’ere, son,” Mr. Carter’s voice rumbled through his vocal cords and throat.
Ian was a little frightened, but he didn’t think to disobey. He wasn’t up to speed on the reports of the “Infected,” so he approached his father.
Mr. Carter extended a clawed hand as Ian drew closer. Ian lowered his gaze, not looking his father in the eyes as he approached reaching distance.
His fears of the stranger possessing his father’s body diminished when Mr. Carter wrapped his hand around the back of Ian’s head and drew him in for a close hug which became a warm cuddle. After a few minutes where Mr. Carter rubbed the hair of his son’s head, Ian got onto bed with him and hugged his infected father close.
With no knowledge of the coming war, Mr. Carter would’ve been appeased to know his son would survive for a time after he passed. More comforting was the fact that he was able to resist the ballistic rage that led to him killing his sister, Ian’s Aunt Jenna. Mr. Carter would not survive more than a few more days once the knowledge crashed to the surface, but the prolonged revelation was only staved off thanks to the loving interaction he shared with his son. Despite what the reports said, the Infected did gain their mind back eventually. He would die comforted that he never harmed his son, which could not be said for dozens, maybe hundreds, of others intoxicated by the Harbinger’s poison.
He cuddled upright with his son for nearly an hour, rubbing his hand through Ian’s hair and toning his previously rapid breathing rate to a low crawl. “How…was school?” He murmured with a rocky effort. “Drew a picture today,” Ian disclosed, feeling safe now that his father was back. “Of what?” “Animals. I like snakes.” “Me, too.”
“The science reports keep coming in. ‘Zombie’ is not the accurate term, because these things are not brainless! This ‘Infection’ is a full-on rage virus! There are plenty of witnesses claiming that these Infected have communicated with them, as in spoken to them, even after turning rabid! It’s a matter of control. It’s something they have to master and overcome. Then the ‘Infected’ can retain their human, familiar qualities…
“…The only problem is that, for more than ninety-five percent of them, overcoming the initial qualities of the rage virus is a gradual process. It’s not something accomplished in a matter of hours. By that point, the Infected has probably eaten through half its family members and would rather remain in its mindless state than recall the horrible urges they’ve succumbed to.
“So yeah…I’d say you’re right, doctor. We have a hell of a dilemma on our hands. Folks, all of you listening out there, anyone got a solution? You mucks wanna live? Or what?”
A young black couple, Ray Christine and Evelyn Toomes, died in their beds from asphyxiation. Most who died this way were considered lucky to have escaped the horror of witnessing dismemberment at the hands of the Infected and in their case, becoming them.
“It can’t be helped. The world’s going to find out anyway.” The voice cut back in, static clicking. “We’ve just received word that the military and government are upholding one belief above all. Not one Infected may be allowed to leave the state and risk worldwide contamination. No chance is being left of the mysterious toxin, the Harbinger’s poison, to spread further than it already has. They’ve released this statement. ’Whatever must be done, understand it will be ultimately, with all things considered, for the greater good. The good of the nation, the world, the entire human race. Only the fates have choice, now. No, that bit wasn’t part of their statement. No…that was me. Sorry about that”
A lonely Honda sailed down the highway at eighty miles an hour. “We’re almost out,” the driver, eighteen-year-old David, declared in a clear attempt to present a calm and relieving injection to the atmosphere. In the back, June and Richie held each other. June had tears sticking to the corners of her eyes. Neither responded and quite truthfully, neither felt relaxed by David’s declaration. June and Richie didn’t really know each other, but held on regardless.
In the passenger seat, Gage glared at them from the rearview mirror. A twinge of jealousy flickered over his face. “Make sure your new boyfriend’s not infected, lady.” The road had been encased in fog since thirty miles back. It had cleared up considerably now, so David reached over and punched Gage in the ribs as hard as he could with one hand. Gage retracted in his seat.
“Don’t even start,” David said before Gage could retort. He kept his fist raised, his other hand still gripping the wheel. “We don’t have time for this. We made it out, but we can still let you go if you want.” He peered over at him, an inviting expression on his face. “Want to be alone out there?” A moment of silence followed. Gage took a deep breath through his nose and stared out the window pointedly, massaging his ribs.
The distant scenery shadowed in fog blurred past him. He hardly took any of it in. “I only got out cuz they caught up to my sister.” He shut his lips tight.
David kept his face set, unsympathetic. “Guess what? The same thing happened to all of us, so fuck off with your pity stories.”
Gage shut his eyes for two seconds. When he opened them, his eyes weren’t glazed with tears, leading David to believe Gage’s method of escape wasn’t all that horrible and traumatizing after all. “Is it really only here?” David’s brow furrowed. He didn’t avert his eyes from the road.
“Yes,” Richie answered Gage from in back. The fog returned, permeating the road before them. David didn’t slow their speed down. He thought about his own experience fighting through his house just to make it to the street. His room was on the third floor. Like a video game or a movie, he’d had to fight a “boss” on each floor before reaching the goal of the street. First his father, then his little brother, both strong opponents with psychological holds over him. Through retrospective lenses, he saw himself as the hero of his particular venture, at each stage facing a monster wearing the face of a family member he recognized. He questioned whether they’d been monsters his entire life and the infection merely brought it to the surface, but cast that thought aside as mere justification for the actions he’d taken to survive them.
“SLOW DOWN!” June’s voice screeched through his eardrums. He barely saw it in time. They all lurched forward in their seats, the back couple more so because of their unused seatbelts. David and Gage slammed back up against their headrests, whipping forward again upon the car’s dramatic halt.
David studied it through the windshield. After only an exhale, he wrenched the seatbelt from his chest. Gage called after him twice, first in question, then in a shout.
Gage and June took his lead and exited to follow him out. Richie remained inside after the way his head collided with the window, groaning gently. Nobody took notice of his concussion.
The fog dropped the temperature, sending an eerie chill through their bodies while it circulated. David took several steps forward ahead of the car, admiring the great chasm before them.
The other two kept their distance, wary of getting closer.
“It can’t be…” June said, her hands raised to her mouth. David dropped to his knees, his eyes still absorbing the bottomless, fog-filled pit. Though his exterior remained expressionless, inside he swam with several dozen voices at once, each with a separate opinion.
“I don’t believe it,” Gage spoke timidly, squinting through the fog in a futile attempt to find the other side of the road. He was unsuccessful. “How could this happen? How could they let this happen?!”
The voices hissing in his head all seemed to come together in a unanimous vote. David’s conclusion rolled off his tongue. “They’ve…cut us off. From the whole rest of the world.”
Gage trembled, his eyes widening. His chest rose in large heaves. “Oh shit…Shit, it’s to contain it, right? So nobody gets out? To protect everyone else?”
David didn’t turn around. Confirmation seemed redundant. The three of them watched the fog glide through the chasm for some time, Richie still forgotten between them.
Seventeen years later.
“The Cleansing” initiative, the program enacted to rid the inner-state of the Infected breed, began seven years ago. It has reached its final stages of sweeping up. There are few known nesting places of the Infected left to raid, and insurgents are being steadily rounded up in the surrounding Zones.
A lone structure stands solitary in the midst of the wasted Dead Zone. Though it is old and decayed, it remains just intact enough to stand firmly. Two stories, disheveled and tilted, it has held its ground through the battles fought and waged in the Dead Zone all this time.
Some might say in the war’s closing days, this structure has earned the right to observe peace among the wasteland at last given the many battles it has seen.
Fate, however, has chosen it to fall this day.
A rumble permeated the structure, shaking loose strands of debris from its shelves and inclines. Only one second after, an implosion resonated outward. Some of the structure’s vital internal bridges vanished on the spot, collapsing the structure in one swift, fractured blow. Flints of dust and wood rained down in every direction. A scatter of smoke materialized into a phantom image of the structure’s original shape before fading into the wind.
A large brick of plaster shifted. Another followed suit and toppled over completely. A young girl emerged into view. She dusted herself off and narrowed her black eyes, squinting into the distance. Her mouth was a tight slit on the lower half of her face. …Uh-oh… The thought brandished itself clearly in her head. She stared down at the grimy clothes she wore. She took in the tiny feet attached to the bottom of her legs.
She knew instantly she was lost.
She surveyed her surroundings once more, breathing in the dry air the Dead Zone provided. She took another shaky step, and followed up with another. Then her trek started in full swing and she began her journey.
In a past life, he may have been called Detective. Nate Rollins had no title, only a badge signifying his allegiance with the investigative division hailing from the Brain Zone. It didn’t earn respect for him like being a soldier would, but he didn’t mind. If he had minded, then he’d probably be a soldier. And he’d probably be rotting out there somewhere.
“Out there.” Those are the words everyone used when they talked about past battles, or the Dead Zone, previously known as the “Target Zone.” It was a trend that had started a couple years ago. “Out there.” He had been ‘out there’ for a couple of years. He didn’t need any more.
He’d take the slack look the public gave him when they saw him. Investigations? Like that was a necessary job around here? Who was he helping with that?
Rollins caught himself thinking often about his past life (“past life” being his referral to the period of time before The Harbinger) a lot recently. Like now, as he walked in on the scene he’d gotten a call about. He’d actually gotten several calls the past few weeks and each time he saw the scene, he thought back to that period of time. His past life. He didn’t exactly know why scenes like this made him think about it, but he almost didn’t mind since reminiscence had been such a dead habit to him before these recent calls.
He leaned against the wall of the closed pub, waiting for his partner to charge in any second. Sure enough, Patrice nearly rammed Rollins from behind, which would’ve irked him. Patrice stopped about two feet away and halted, catching his breath.
Patrice’s breathing soon came up short. Rollins guessed he’d caught the scent of blood and stopped inhaling through his nose. Patrice stood and his upper lip scrunched under his nose in that peculiar way. He leaned away from Rollins in case he vomited.
Rollins took a step inside. To his relief, the inevitable tone of retching never followed. That meant his partner was becoming strong, he mused.
A splatter of blood painting the floor greeted him like a welcome mat. Its shape remained impossible to describe other than a straight spill of liquid seemingly dumped from a bucket at his feet. No sign of a body. He stepped around it and found the only other piece of evidence eight feet away. A piece of fleshy gum beneath a patch of soft hair. Unmistakably a piece of someone’s scalp.
“Um,” Patrice croaked from behind him. “Couldn’t it have been a…bear?”
The corner of Rollins’s mouth lifted. “When was the last time you saw a bear, Patrice?”
Patrice shut up. It occurred to him they hadn’t even heard the word ‘bear’ in a long time. Unless they were talking about bare teeth or bare feet, which conjured up images of the Infected immediately. “So now what?”
Rollins stared straight ahead, determined to move the image from his memory banks as soon as he could. Which could prove to be difficult, he anticipated. “Call the authorities. Like always.”
It was Patrice’s second time seeing this type of scene. Rollins had gone through about five or six like it now. He knew the routine.
Nate Rollins didn’t recall much of his past life, though his thoughts had been drifting to it much these past few weeks. When The Harbinger hit, every strong-armed young adult had been taken off the street, then conditioned and trained to fight off the new wave of “Infected.” It made sense at the time to him, he reasoned. The whole state was panicked and confused. Isolated from the outside world, they’d built a force from within the state to fight back despite the fact that most of the older adults made up a majority of the Infected army. Which meant most of the soldiers fighting and exterminating them were made up of the twentysomethings generation that was actually the offspring of the newly Infected. Then The Cleansing had kicked off in full swing, decimating any ideas the soldiers had about families and kin.
As a child, he’d never envisioned himself growing up to be a soldier. He hadn’t complained at twenty-one when the “government” had abducted and recruited him, though. As he casually told himself upon every reflection, it had seemed a necessary and appropriate action at the time.
He had been fortunate to fight in only a few of the bigger battles. Sometimes the outlines of those adrenaline-filled segments of memory returned more vividly than any dream could produce, but he could often control it if he was conscious. He knew the routine for that as well. Keep focused on the now. Remember the way things were back then. Chaotic and downright terrifying at some points. Kill or be killed, little realizing both drew little differences in this new world.
Most importantly, try not to dwell too deeply about the news floating around currently, the new rumors that the Infected had advanced to a point where they could blend in perfectly among the Brain and Cresson Zones with normal humans. Which meant they were being mistaken for human each time they moved and infiltrated the Check-In Zones. Fooling everyone they came across, apparently.
Which maybe meant they were human, and had been all along. That would certainly put the war and subsequent extermination campaign into a depressing light, but only if one believed such rumors.
Rollins ignored the new stuff. He had enough on his plate, like this string of murders touring through his location.
There was one image, one full segment, from that war that did stick with him through his adult years (the years he’d traded his old life for the new one of combat). The battles he’d participated in sometimes grew hazy in memory when the hours piled up. But one image did plaster itself right inside of his skull for instant recall anytime, anywhere. That was his debt to carry on for the rest of his life. But in exchange for getting off easy, for not having to live the rest of his life as a soldier being called in for every location sweep regarding Infected, he considered it not too stiff a deal.
In the midst of what must’ve been his second or third battle, he’d been using his handgun frequently. He’d wasted a lot of rifle ammo early on and part of that relieved him. The rifle had a way of completely tearing its targets in half upon impact, so the rain of blood and human matter clouding over their heads became sickening to hear patter against the ground around them. He’d had much more success putting the Infected down with the handgun, which made him ponder if the reduced bang attributed to that.
Then he’d turned, amid the roars and screams of soldier and Infected alike, to find an Infected boy staring him down from ten yards away. Most of the Infected were made up of older adults since the toxin had been particularly infectious among their weaker lungs, but the occasional teens and children sprinkled among their zombie ranks had a way of stirring the pot. They made for more interesting stories, Rollins thought at the time.
The boy raised his head from his chest, the combatants struggling and wrestling undisturbed around the two of them. About fourteen, long hair and bangs. Rollins remembered pondering how long the boy had lived as an Infected, if it was possible to be born one. Who knew where such bizarre thoughts bred from.
Something hacked across his back and he dropped forward, feeling nail streaks through his shirt. He swung his handgun around, nailing the Infected who’d knocked him down with his gun handle. The Infected had been about to bash his head with the club it wielded.
From behind, the Infected boy pounced. Rollins supposed at first he had only been intrigued by the sight of the boy, not actually intimidated by his charge. It was the revelation that brought his adrenal glands into full force that even from the age before one, each human being grasps the instinctive, offensive power that comes with biting. A boy of fourteen could certainly understand that, and a primal Infected never unlearned its ferocious offensive.
Rollins felt a piece of himself rip away at the ankle and kicked at the boy, ignoring the flaming tear. The boy rolled off. Rollins kept his handgun out and crawled away on his back, kicking up dirt and keeping his eyes trained.
The boy hesitated for a moment, then ran straight for him. He put on an unrivaled ferocity to his scowl that scared Rollins straight. His legs were parted and the boy bared his yellow teeth, his eyes trained right on Nate’s crotch as he charged. Rollins had a single moment of desperate realization where the words My BALLS! echoed across his mind in surround.
Then he fired and the boy’s jaw separated itself from his face, dangling momentarily by one sinewy string of tissue before breaking off completely with a snap that sounded more like a crack.
That was the image resting with Nathan Rollins’s soul throughout the war. Not the image so much as the knowledge that the boy didn’t appear to die right afterward. The boy’s shoes stayed rooted in the sand, standing stone still, while the rest of the battle raged on around them. Beneath his nose and first lip, a row of exposed teeth lined the gum of what remained of the boy’s lower face. His eyes slid into something like half-focus or dream-state and his fingers relaxed. He remained standing until life left him completely. Rollins watched him, his own chin bloody since he’d bitten down on his bottom lip so hard. The handgun quivered in his raised arm.
He couldn’t recall when exactly, but he believed the boy fell at some point. Not long after, maybe a minute. Later on. Sometime after the battle while the wound was being disinfected was when he lost track of when the boy’s body dropped. It bothered him back then, and still did when he couldn’t recall when exactly the body toppled over.
He had never encountered another Infected child, but plenty of men and women emerged to fill the enemy ranks. Nate Rollins was not a soldier, though he supposed many of them out there hadn’t been originally.
When the war turned drastically in their favor, some flexibility rose in the departments. An opportunity to join the Brain Zone’s new command center opened up. A forensics division, as well as an investigative one. He hadn’t hesitated. He had seen a couple major battles, supposing that was enough for his lifetime. He could handle Infected studies, investigations and research developments. He didn’t consider running messages beneath him. Even writing reports had their flair.
Then this string of murders started up, and Rollins found himself only able to get sleep if he retired early before deep thoughts could settle into his brain. If he had a thought, he tended to stay up the rest of the night dissecting similar links to said thought.
He and Patrice settled into his office, switching the lamp on. Patrice knuckled his eyes. “We don’t report to the higher-ups? Won’t they want to see us?”
Rollins planted himself in the chair and shoved some documents in his desk. “Honestly, their guys are probably already on it. I’m sure they’re not counting on us to handle this thing.”
Patrice was young, but he wasn’t used to being reprimanded. By that, Rollins meant the kid hadn’t been forced into The Cleansing, or at least a gruesome portion of it from the war’s inception point, or else the kid wouldn’t realize how lucky the two of them had it. “You sound like we’re beneath them.”
Rollins nodded, and when Patrice realized how serious he was, he leaned against the wall, getting comfortable for the coming lecture. “Of course we are. They’re not discreet about that.” Patrice stared at him and Rollins actually chuckled some. “I’ll tell you about when I first saw something like what we found tonight.
“Me and my former partner, we found the first scene like that. Except the blood splatter was right up against the wall, hardly dripping, and there was a live guy there, too. His arm, or at least from the fingers to the elbow, was missing. Curled on the ground, his mind out for a permanent walk.”
“Was he Infected?” Rollins shook his head and replied, “But he didn’t do it to himself, that was for sure. So first thing we thought-”
“Serial killer,” Patrice answered. That was the theory they had been working. Until now. Rollins nodded, but his grin remained sly.
“Told my team to fan out because the killer couldn’t have gotten far. This guy would’ve bled to death if the scene wasn’t fresh. But then someone else showed up, and said not to bother. “Somebody got there right after us, and they made it clear they were taking over. Know who was in charge?”
Patrice shook his head. Then right as he was about to answer, Rollins cut him off, taking the words right from his mouth. “You’re thinking Howser, right? Creep from the Fence Squad? Nah, but I don’t blame you for thinking that. Those Fence Squad lunatics love a good battle. But not him. Truth be told, I don’t even know who was in charge.”
“You don’t?” “No. This guy, dressed in all black like a reverend, sneers and shakes his finger at me. ‘Let the officials handle this.’ He had five other guys with him. They all wore lab coats. Members of the research team. This guy in black was bringing lab workers to investigate a murder scene.”
Patrice’s attention was fully tuned now. “Weird,” he muttered. Rollins enjoyed the floor, which he wouldn’t deny by this point. He had never thought of it all as a coherent series of events before, usually seeing it as simply one strange thing after another.
“Asked him if he wanted us to stick around, since I repeated again that the perpetrator couldn’t have gotten far. The leader raises a hand and says, ‘That’s okay. We’ll have him. We can’t overlook any details.’ And then the science team spreads out and all get right to work, examining the scene and setting up little miniature satellites. One goes and snaps his fingers in front of the loopy guy’s face to get a statement or even a reaction out of him, I guess. And we hustled off. Cuz we’d been told to. We don’t question, remember?”
“So…when you came across the next murder scene, what did you do?”
“I waited five minutes before heading out to see it myself and still ended up being first one there, so I got cocky. Thought I should dig up something on my own since I was waiting. Then more lab guys show up, maybe a minute after me. Tough break. And the presiding authority? Guy dressed in a black robe like a reverend. But not the same guy. Younger this time, had a scrunched-up face. And he didn’t want any more help from us than the first guy did.”
Patrice waited. He didn’t realize the story had come to an end. “So that’s what we do?” He asked with a note of impatience. “We call someone else in?”
“Write a report of what you find in case it comes in handy for us later. If someone else is making an effort to handle it, then we’re free to worry about things we have more control over.”
Patrice waited for Rollins to make some kind of comment on the bullshit logic of it all or unfairness, but Rollins had no such disagreements. Finally Patrice blurted it out. “You wanna let it go? Why?”
Rollins didn’t tense in his stance. He clicked his tongue and shrugged. “If you wanna keep at it, be my guest. But my answer’s easy. It’s cuz I don’t think we’re dealing with a serial killer. Not exactly.” “…Really?”
Rollins pressed a pencil to his chin. “I did catch something the third scene I was on. I never noticed it before. But I think it’s what every scene has in common and I think that’s why we have research teams investigating it, and not inspectors.”
Patrice waited patiently, scared to break the silence.
“They were early the third time. I didn’t have long to investigate. I barely caught it at the last second. Almost missed it actually, right before they showed up.
“It was right in front of me, above the splatter of blood. It was above a piece of…arm lying on the ground. A miniature-sized light dangling center of the scene.” He held up his index and thumb to show the terribly-minute distance. “Three-dimensional, too. No matter what angle you looked at it from, you were seeing it. A speck of light hanging there in the air, and I actually only caught it by a separate trick of light in the room. Like by accident. I must not have looked hard enough the other times.”
Patrice rubbed his chin with his fingers. “You think there was this…speck of light at the scene we were just on?” “Oh I don’t doubt it.” “…So what does that mean?”
At this, Rollins shrugged in the defeated matter conveying the story’s real finish this time. “How should I know? Why do you think we didn’t stick around tonight?” He raised his palms in the air, giving his best comforting smile. “What are we supposed to make of it?”
“We call them in and pass it off?” Rollins nodded, dropping his hands. He turned back to his desk, preparing to write the report up, when he became unsettled in Patrice’s petrified persistence. Like the news was a big shock. Rollins swiveled back and caught the slightly disappointed expression on Patrice’s face. Maybe the shock couldn’t be shaken so easily after all. How long had it taken him to get used to letting it go and stop asking questions?
“What?” He dropped his pencil, inviting Patrice to continue. “What do you make of it?” Patrice shook his head this time. “I don’t know,” he answered.
“Exactly. We’re not the guys to pursue this. We’d come up empty-handed. Besides…” Rollins stared off, then shook his head. “What? Say it,” Patrice begged.
Rollins almost stopped himself again, then proceeded. “We ask questions, but what the hell would we do with the answers? I just realized I’m right.” He offered a tired smile that proved he’d enjoy sleep tonight. Probably looking to Patrick like he looked forward to it. “This takes more than answers. Someone is gonna have to deal with this. This takes someone who doesn’t even understand the point of asking questions.” Patrice raised an eyebrow, wondering if they were analyzing it too much.
Rollins turned to face him the full way. “Think of it this way. There’re two sides of the line here. One side is us, the guys in the shadows. Not literally hiding in the shadows like these robed authorities. We’re in the dark, we just help out a little here and there.” “And the other side of the line?”
Rollins smiled. “The guys in the know. Guys who actually have to use the answers to resolve tihs. It’s gonna take someone higher up than us to do that.” He leaned back in his seat, feeling privileged seeing Patrice hadn’t cracked a grin yet. “Now, wouldn’t you like to hear that guy’s story?”
Four years later, Nate Rollins crossed paths with a Labrador while patrolling the deserted boundary along the Rest Zone. He only remembered seeing two dogs in the time since The Harbinger, and both times had been while marching back home from battle. Now he had one up close. This was a smaller thing, though its face looked lined and older. Worn. He pocketed his hands, watching the dog staring indefinitely at him. He wondered if a human, Infected, or another dog had taken the eye.
Rollins took out a piece of candy and popped it into his mouth. He dropped the wrapper at the dog’s feet. The dog sniffed at it, then licked it up. After a few seconds, it hacked the wrapper back at Rollins’ shoes. He laughed, intending to move one with his life.
Instead the dog posed, staring inquisitively at him again. The pose struck him. The Labrador, quite simply, was waiting for the next thing. Whatever that may be.
When Rollins walked, the dog followed a short distance behind. He let the dog stick with him for however much of the walk it could push for. No longer than the walk, however. After that, he resolved to make them part ways. But by the end of the walk, when he reached his residential building, he’d grown quite attached. Not the dog itself actually, but to the idea of companionship, the death of loneliness.
When Nate Rollins eventually heard the full story of a man named John Barky, he often thought of the dog he’d crossed paths with that evening. Like the short reel of the Infected boy he kept with him when The Cleansing got brought up. Barky’s name, and his story, became a link to that dog. After all, it’d been by his side about a year now. He hadn’t found it in him to let the dog back into the wild yet.
John Barky stood outside the bar, hands shoved in his pockets. He craned his neck up at the cooling night sky, taking in the heavenly aura that seemed to surround this particular structure. He hadn’t started drinking yet tonight. He would wait a little bit longer as the night sky passed over him. Anticipation. It would make getting drunk much better when it finally arrived.
Several emotions pulled up. He was confused. He sulked. He felt obsolete. The word purpose with a question mark stuck to its end felt plastered somewhere on him, so obvious people read it clearly when they passed him. He couldn’t seem to identify it. The label’s location on him, that is. He was far from finding purpose, which had once been so obvious and fulfilling.
Several shouts erupted from inside the bar. Only a few at first, then giving way to angrier ones. He turned his head to the bar’s entrance, wondering if he’d be forced to intervene. How strong/weak will this one be was the natural question that generally struck him at the first sign of confrontation.
Something heavy thudded out from the entrance. It doubled over, rolling on its side. Nothing followed. The doors thudded shut while the dirt dust settled around the entrance.
John Barky watched the thing tossed from the bar. His hands stayed in his pockets, though his arms tensed. He had the means to deal with anomalies in this world. He was one of the elite. Or used to be, at least.
The thing stirred and rose from its spot. John’s eyes widened.
What the hell??