Jul 11 2013 12:30pm
Wave of Infection
In anticipation of Jason Hough’s upcoming novel The Darwin Elevator, out July 30th from Del Rey, Tor.com is proud to present “Wave of Infection,” a never-before-seen prequel story that introduces the novel’s protagonist and sets the stakes of the global plague.
Dispatched to Africa to combat an unknown disease, Lieutenant Skyler Luiken instead becomes an eyewitness, and sole survivor, of the outbreak of a deadly global plague. As the world falls apart, Skyler races to find his family, in the hopes that something of the life he knew can survive this devastating infection.
Wave of Infection
The aircraft rested in a windswept field a few hundred meters up from the beach. Her crew, a pilot and co-pilot, sat nearby. Gulls wheeled overhead, their occasional calls as lazy as the Mediterranean whitecaps stretching north as far as Skyler could see.
He could see a long way today. The clear sky, blue and even from one horizon to the other, was marred only by the blazing white disk of the sun directly above. On any other day, in any other circumstance, the afternoon would be among the most pleasant he’d ever experienced. That wasn’t saying a lot, of course. Other than a rail trip to Rome two summers back, for his twenty-fifth birthday, he’d kept mostly to the colder portions of Europe.
Until this week. The week from hell.
And it was only Wednesday.
“They’re late,” Finn said.
Skyler had thought the pilot asleep. He glanced at the man. Captain Finn Koopman lounged in a foldout chair, one of two he kept in the plane for just such “hurry up and wait” scenarios. Skyler sat in the other, perched on the rough fabric edge, hunched over a slate he had split between newsfeeds and a map of the continent.
Finn’s posture couldn’t be more different. Shoes and socks off, feet propped up on a sun-bleached rock. Hands folded across a belly a bit rounder than was really appropriate for a pilot of the Luchtmacht. Finn had earned that, though, Skyler supposed. The man had ten years and a few thousand sorties on Skyler. He didn’t need to pore over flight plans anymore. That’s what co-pilots were for. He’d said as much when they’d met.
“Maybe I should check in,” Skyler said. “They might have moved us again.”
Finn cracked a half-grin. “Relax, Luiken. Can’t get any more north than this, assuming they’re trying to contain this thing to Africa. My guess? They’ll set up a naval blockade next and wait it out.”
“I just wish they’d tell us what’s happened.”
At that Finn shrugged. “Some kind of nasty flu, probably. Or, hell, maybe a clever new seed that fell into counterfeiters’ hands.”
“They’d shut down a whole continent over some engineered grass?”
Finn shrugged. “A flu, then.”
“Hmm,” Skyler said. He didn’t like the information on the newsfeed half of his slate. Or rather, the lack of information. If command wouldn’t tell them what all the medical supplies were for, surely someone in the quarantine zone could slip a note about it out through one of the HocNets. Something should have leaked by now. It’s not as if the informal networks could be locked down. Jammed, maybe, but surely not on this kind of scale. Skyler had connected to every one he could find, despite military protocol. Damn the protocols—he didn’t want to catch whatever bug had plunged half of Africa into a media dead zone in just four days.
They’d made their first flight in two days ago, a joint op at the UN’s request, dropping private corporate doctors plus a mountain of “unspecified” equipment into Chad. The orders were simple: Fly in, drop the goods off, speak to no one. Maintain silence on all channels and nets, no exceptions.
Sixty klicks from the landing site in Chad they’d been rerouted, told to turn west and land in a hastily erected staging area in the desert outside Nyala. There’d been soldiers there. Soldiers from many different places, looking just as confused as Skyler had felt. Finn took off ten minutes after landing, ordered to make haste for the port in Rotterdam. Another load of gear, though no doctors this time. They’d dropped that off a day later outside Aswan, another redirect. Another staging zone, huge this time, blanketed with white tents and people in bulky hazard suits. Skyler and Finn hadn’t even stepped out of the cockpit that time.
And now, Alexandria. The third mission, the third change of plans. They were supposed to land at a university in Cairo, only to be told to avoid Cairo’s airspace when they were already two kilometers inside it. The new coordinates brought them to this desolate strip of land with orders to wait. They’d be met by . . . someone. In the confusion no one seemed to know who.
The air controller, a woman with the Egyptian military, had started laughing then, just before the connection died. There’d been no humor in that laugh, nor much in the way of sanity, Skyler thought.
Beneath the sound of seagulls and the gently lapping sea, Skyler heard the crunch of soil beneath tires, then the distinct whine of ultracaps discharging.
“About time,” Finn said. He came upright and went to work putting his socks and shoes back on. “Open her up. I want to be off the ground the instant they’re done.”
“Sure.” When Skyler stood and turned, the sight of the approaching vehicle drove all such actions from his mind. Despite still being a half-kilometer away, Skyler could see the flames licking out the back windows of the huge white vehicle. The smoke plume hid within a massive dust cloud being thrown up behind. It was some kind of mobile laboratory, moving fast. Careening as if driven by a child. Not slowing.
Skyler broke for the aircraft. In through the side hatch and forward to the cockpit in seconds. He palmed the unlock. “First Lieutenant Luiken,” he growled.
The controls lit up, recognizing him. Skyler flipped to systems ready state and tapped the preflight warm-up sequence, urgent departure. The sound of turbofans whirring to life filled the cabin.
Through the window he saw the van storming toward them. It swerved off the dirt road and began to hop awkwardly over the uneven ground, then pivoted hard right back toward the road, almost rolling on its side in the process. Flames consumed the entire back half now. The nose dipped suddenly, sending a huge spray of tan dirt into the air almost in time to obscure a body being propelled through the front window.
Unable to look away, Skyler slipped into his co-pilot’s chair and pulled on his helmet. Finn came in. The captain did not sit. He just stood, hunched to see the spectacle outside.
“Stay put, Lieutenant,” he said.
“I thought they were going to ram us.”
“Me too, but they’re not going anywhere now.” The captain’s voice sounded tight, strained.
Skyler chanced a glance over his shoulder in time to see Finn pinching the bridge of his nose, grimacing. “What’s wrong?”
“Migraine or something. Look, keep the fans hot. I’m going to see if I can help.”
Skyler watched as Finn jogged toward the stuck vehicle. The pilot hefted a fire extinguisher in one hand. Black smoke rose in a plume now as the fire ate its way toward the front of the mobile lab.
A person in a white jumpsuit climbed through the hole in the shattered driver’s window. He or she—Skyler couldn’t tell—scrambled down into the dirt and began to run toward Finn. This was not a rush to greet a rescuer. There was terror in those steps. The person was looking back at the burning van, not at the pilot. When he—it was a man, Skyler saw now—finally turned and saw Finn, he almost stumbled. Turned, ran in a perpendicular angle now. His face was contorted in a scream that seemed never-ending. Finn stopped, waved to no avail.
Skyler swallowed with difficulty. Without looking down he switched the aircraft into liftoff configuration. The engine note shifted higher.
Another man emerged from the crashed vehicle. His jumpsuit was white, too, or had been. Most of it was charred now, one sleeve completely black and in tatters, revealing a badly burned arm beneath. He sprinted away, too. Not following the first, Skyler thought, but chasing.
Finn was shouting.
“Get back in here, Captain,” Skyler said under his breath. “Let’s go.”
The burned man saw Finn. He halted, dropped to a crouch more animal than human. An unnatural pose that sent a cold chill up Skyler’s spine. The pause lasted barely a second before the man charged forward. Before Skyler could think to breathe, the white-clad figure had closed half the distance to Finn and showed no sign of slowing. This was not flight, like the other, but aggression. A snarl of pure hatred contorted the man’s face.
Finn saw it, too. He spun and raced back, dropping the fire extinguisher and raising his index finger in the air. He twirled it in a tight, fast circle.
“Way ahead of you,” Skyler said.
“Take the stick,” Finn commanded once they were out over open water.
The textured metal of the flight controls was cool to the touch and somehow reassuring, as if Skyler could draw reason and clarity from the emotionless machine after what he’d just witnessed.
He struggled with what it all meant. Africa, or at least North Africa, was lost. There could be no other explanation for the burning van and its two deranged inhabitants. Whatever calamity Finn and Skyler had flown equipment in to fight—disease or chemical weapon, it made little difference—had spread from the south of Chad to Alexandria like the wind, driving people insane.
He glanced over his shoulder, east toward the massive city on the horizon. A blanket of smog marked its location—he’d seen that on the way in—but there were smoke plumes now as well. That meant fighting, or perhaps looting. A breakdown of society in a matter of hours. Skyler’s gaze drifted north to the blue waters of the sea below. He thought of Finn’s comment about a naval blockade. Even if such a tactic could contain whatever this was, Skyler knew it would be too late.
There were boats in the water below, all moving away from the coast, headed toward Italy, Greece, or Turkey. Spain. Christ,he thought, damn well anywherebut here. His stomach tightened at the thought that these may have been the last to flee. But surely there’d been smarter people who’d left earlier, who’d flown or driven . . .
Beside him, Finn leaned back in his seat and pinched the bridge of his nose again, wincing. He’d said nothing since returning to the aircraft, except the order for Skyler to handle the controls. The veteran did not give up that task easily or often. The minimum required, in fact.
Skyler flew to Naples, only to receive an automated message that the airport had been placed on emergency lockdown. Terse orders from home compelled him toward Madrid instead. He landed there, without approval from local authorities, at the far end of a dark and empty landing grid.
Engines off, he left Finn in the cockpit and went outside. A warm breeze carried the smell of smoke. Skyler studied the windows of the distant terminal. There were bodies in some of the seats, unmoving. Someone ran from one side to the other, another chasing.
“No thanks,” he muttered.
Finn had barely moved. Skyler patted him on the shoulder and settled back in. He reported their status. The orders that came back instructed him to take off, get to cruising altitude, and circle while awaiting further instructions.
That, he thought, did not sound good at all. “They have no idea where to land us,” he said to Finn. The pilot just grunted.
At altitude, Skyler pulled the slate from his pocket and palmed it. The screen lit up with information. He eyed the connection status. An ad-hoc link had been made, but with zero participants. Skyler swore inwardly. There were the usual slew of commercial options, and of course his military band, but he’d been trying those for two days only to find his access locked down. Not surprising given the nature of their mission.
HocNets were another matter. Their topography was transient, amorphous. Swarms of personal devices talking directly to one another without any underlying infrastructure or membership requirements. Silence there unnerved him even more than the deranged lab worker who’d charged Finn on that windswept field. Silent HocNets meant a digital blockade of incredible sophistication. Or it meant no one was talking. Not even in Madrid below. There should be thousands in a city that size. Millions. Someone should—
At first Skyler didn’t know what he’d heard, so shrill and high was the sound. Then the pilot started to kick wildly at something below the dashboard.
“What is it?” Skyler asked, unbuckling himself. “Snake? What?” Something nasty must have crept aboard while they’d been sitting outside, waiting.
The pilot kept screaming between desperate sucking breaths. His boots mashed frantically at the pedals in the footwell.
“Knock it off,” Skyler rasped. “You’re going to break something—” He placed a hand on the captain’s shoulder. Finn recoiled so violently his head cracked into the low ceiling. The man thrashed now, clawing at his harness, pushing Skyler away. Kicking all the while at something in the darkness of the footwell. A kick grazed the rudder control, lurching the aircraft to the left and throwing Skyler off balance. He fell, caught himself on the armrest of his own seat.
“Captain, get ahold of yourself! Go in back, I’ll take care of whatever’s down there.”
A flicker of recognition in terrified eyes. The pilot had his legs fully outstretched now. He drew breaths like a man deprived of oxygen. Lurching heaves of the chest, followed by almost childish whimpering exhales.
“Go,” Skyler repeated, more forceful now despite talking to his superior officer. “I mean it.” He tried again for the shoulder. This time Finn only flinched at the grip. His breaths were coming easier now, too.
“My . . . my . . .” the pilot said between rapid inhales. “My shoes . . .”
“A scorpion? Spider?”
“I, I . . . Please . . . help.”
A goddamn spider. Skyler fought the urge to slap the man. He activated the autopilot and leaned, awkwardly in the cramped space, to untie Finn’s boots. A bead of sweat dripped off his brow as he pulled the first one off. The pilot was holding his breath.
When the shoe came away Finn exhaled.
Skyler peered in. Held it upside down and shook. Nothing. He glanced at Finn. The man was pale. Sweating visibly, lip quivering. His gaze met Skyler’s, only for a second but, in it Skyler saw profound terror and something else, too. Embarrassment.
Grimacing, Skyler took the other boot in one hand and pulled, ready to drop his fist on whatever nightmare fell out. The boot resisted, then gave. A centimeter, no more, but Finn flew into hysterics unlike anything Skyler had ever witnessed before. He pulled away so fast the boot in Skyler’s hands flipped upward, spinning before it slammed into the ceiling.
Finn flailed as if fighting invisible restraints. Skyler just managed to keep focus on the falling shoe as the other man made a frantic scramble from his chair. He was out through the rear of the cockpit before the boot landed, slamming the door behind him.
Through it all Skyler had never taken his eyes from the shoe. Nothing had come out. He tipped it over, cautious until his patience ran dry. Finally Skyler lifted and shook it as he had the other, one fist raised and ready.
“Empty,” Skyler shouted toward the door.
No response came. Then something thudded against the door.
“Captain? The shoe was empty. Relax, okay?”
Skyler heard Finn speaking then, difficult to discern thanks to the door and the low, fractured voice. Skyler pressed his ear against the cool barricade.
“. . . don’t . . . want . . . to be like this. Like them. Like me. I will save you.”
Save me? Skyler turned the handle and pushed. The door didn’t budge. He put his shoulder into it and managed a few millimeters, just enough to get a crack of light through from the galley space and the cargo bay beyond. Not enough to see his pilot, or what blocked the door.
“Stay away!” Finn shrieked. “It’s all . . . falling.”
“Open the door, Captain. I’ll help you.” Sedate you, more likely. Skyler racked his mind, unable to recall the contents of the medkit onboard. Surely there must be something suitable in there.
“The door,” Finn said. “The door.”
“That’s right. Come on now, everything’s—”
Hydraulics hissed to life, then an incredible rush of air that sucked the cabin door open enough for Skyler to get his hand through. Frigid wind buffeted his hair and clothes. He should have acted more quickly. Should have known instantly what Finn intended. With all the shocks that afternoon—the crazed workers and their burning truck, Alexandria burning, the captain and his damn boots—sudden loss of cabin pressure just left him numb, baffled. Frozen for precious seconds, tugged against the door by a violent sucking rush of air out through the back of the plane. By the time Skyler had the presence of mind to override the cargo door and seal the aircraft, Finn was long gone.
Skyler found himself standing alone in an empty cargo bay. The pilot and everything else had been yanked unceremoniously from the aircraft, four thousand meters above Madrid. All parachutes accounted for, still in their locker. Captain Finn Koopman had committed suicide. Skyler swayed on his feet, unable to concentrate. Nothing that had happened this day made sense.
And yet it did. The realization hit him so suddenly he felt his knees buckle. Seated on the floor, Skyler forced himself to say the words aloud. It was the only way he could believe it.
“It reached us. The disease. Finn . . . we both were exposed.”
I’m a dead man,Skyler thought over and over. The next few hours went by in an erratic blur. He took the co-pilot’s chair—couldn’t bring himself to sit where Finn had. The radio he turned off. To check in now, to report what had happened, would probably result in the aircraft’s immediate destruction. He wouldn’t blame them, either. He didn’t want to be the man who brought this ailment home. But he could see beyond that, could see himself differently. A sample, racing ahead of the infection, that could be studied.
He set to work.
Two hours later an aircraft set down in an empty field three kilometers outside Volkel air base. A message, automatically sent upon touchdown, brought swarms of soldiers in hazmat suits and a small armada of vans emblazoned with disease-control logos.
When the engines cooled sufficiently a huge tent was erected over the quiet vehicle. Quick-drying cement sealed the special structure to the ground.
The rear cargo door opened. Soldiers readied their weapons. Orders were to take the single occupant alive, if possible.
When the heavy door finished its rotation downward and crunched into the dirt, the warriors in yellow suits hesitated.
The man inside—a Lieutenant Luiken, co-pilot with a spotless service record, noted for his levelheaded conduct—crouched on the floor of the aircraft with his hands chained and locked to a tie-down. A set of keys lay a few meters away, well out of reach. He wore a full-face mask attached to a tank of air. When he spoke, his muffled voice sounded apologetic. “False alarm, perhaps,” he said. “I feel fine, but take all precautions.”
One of the suited people came forward, carrying a small tube instead of a rifle. “Sorry about this,” she said, and pressed the cylinder against Skyler’s neck.
The world melted away.
When his senses returned, Skyler found himself lying on a bed of white sheets in a white room. The air smelled like plastic. Brilliant LEDs on the ceiling brought tears he blinked away. His neck hurt, as if something had bitten him. The tube, he recalled. Sedated, then, which meant they’d taken him seriously. “Good,” he said aloud. More of a croak, really.
Skyler turned toward the woman’s voice. She stood nearby, wearing the white and blue uniform of the medical division. Unsuited, unmasked. He wanted to shout at her for her carelessness, until he realized what it meant. “I’m okay, then,” he said.
“Yes. How, exactly, we’ve no idea.”
He tried to scratch the bruise on his neck only to find his hand, both hands, cuffed to the gurney. The chains rattled when he yanked. “I suppose these are unnecessary?”
The doctor stared at him. Karres, the name on her uniform read. “Are you one hundred percent sure you were exposed, Lieutenant?”
He’d explained what happened in his message. It dawned on him suddenly they might not believe it. They might think . . . “Ninety-nine,” he said. “I don’t know how it spreads. I was in the cockpit with him, though. We were both in Africa—shouldn’t you have your mask on?”
“The tent is sealed.”
“But you’re inside.”
The woman’s lips tightened. She came closer. Her voice fell to a whisper. “Not just Africa, Lieutenant. It’s . . . spread.”
He studied her face, saw fear and fatigue.
“They’re calling it SUBS,” she said.
“How far, dammit?”
Her lower lip quivered. She bit it, then stood and crossed the room. “I’ve maintained the seal on the tent because I don’t want it to get in.”
The weight of the words seemed to press him down on the bed. “Uncuff me.”
“Not yet,” she said.
She turned back to him, another tube in her hands. “Because I don’t want you to try to stop me.”
“What? What are you doing?”
She stepped closer, priming the syringe. “Listen to me carefully. You’re immune. You may be the only such person, so you must survive. You have to get to the WDC facility in Abu Dhabi.”
Before he could speak again she jabbed the tube against the side of his neck.
He woke to an utterly silent room. The cuffs had been removed. A note waited for him on a rolling table beside the bed:
The worst may be over, but now there’s little time. I’m sorry for that. I had to keep you from leaving too soon.
Survive. Remember the WDC in Abu Dhabi. They can study you. It might help.
Please, Skyler. Hurry.
She lay on the floor a few meters away, head propped against the wall, chin resting on an unmoving chest. Her lips were blue, her face unnaturally pale beneath the splay of blonde hair that hung across her cheeks. She’d cuffed herself to a cabinet rung on the wall, and an open bottle of pills lay on the floor beside her.
Skyler lay still for a long moment, letting a wave of nausea and grief pass.
On a chair opposite the doctor’s body lay Skyler’s neatly folded uniform, boots on top. He swung off the bed and lifted the footwear away. Beneath lay a set of keys and a hand-drawn map of the nearby air base with one hangar circled.
Skyler dressed in silence, trying not to look at the dead body. She’d killed herself rather than breathe air from the outside. The idea made his gut twist.
Clothed, he lifted the first boot and paused just before inserting his foot. The memory of Finn, of the panic attack he’d suffered, rushed in. He’d leapt from the plane because of some imagined terror in his goddamn boots. The disease, SUBS, had turned the most casually confident man Skyler had ever met into a gibbering maniac in mere hours.
Whatever was happening outside, this woman had judged it so dangerous that she’d sedated Skyler to prevent him from rushing outside to help. He would have, too. She’d seen it in him.
Mind reeling, Skyler pulled the boots on.
He left the room, which turned out to be a portable unit mounted on a flatbed truck. His aircraft still rested where he’d landed it, under a massive white tent just like those he’d seen in Africa days earlier. They’d sprayed it with something, leaving a milky residue on every surface.
He left it there. The airlock at the edge of the tent lay open, unguarded.
Outside he found bodies. The sun had just risen, and the air was cold. Soldiers and doctors alike lay in the grass. Many had pressed their hands to their heads before succumbing. Those with their necks exposed showed signs of a rash on either side of the spine.
Skyler went to the nearest soldier and took the man’s assault rifle.
Lotte’s note rattled in his head. He should listen to her. Fly to Abu Dhabi and help if he could.
His eyes were drawn north, though, toward Amsterdam, where his family lived. He couldn’t just flee. He had to know if they were like him. Immune, a genetic trait. It was possible, wasn’t it?
Somewhere in the darkness a person screamed with almost inhuman terror. Another sound answered. It could only have been called a roar, yet he knew this to be a human as well. Both sounds ended abruptly. Then a third, further off, just at the edge of hearing. Laughter.
If his family shared the immunity, and they were stuck in a city with sixteen million diseased . . .
Skyler stole the nearest truck and drove toward Amsterdam.
The world had fractured.
Fires dotted the landscape. Flames no one fought. Bodies were everywhere. Splayed out on the road or still in the seats of smashed cars run astray.
Not everyone had died, though. The dead outnumbered the living, but the surviviors . . . something was horribly wrong with them. Most that Skyler glimpsed were either fleeing, terrified at the sight of his truck, or rushing toward him with snarled features and blood on their clothes.
He swerved away from the aggressive ones at first. But their numbers were too great, and the roads were already crammed with the crumpled husks of vehicles. Eventually he just focused on avoiding the cars.
Each thud of a body against his truck drained a little more of his compassion until he felt cold, almost robotic, in his quest to reach home.
On the outskirts of Amsterdam the expressway became too clogged. He left the truck and moved on foot along a canal. Away from the hellish landscape of the road, his numbness began to fade. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. The weight of the calamity lurked behind it, anxious to crush his determination. He paused at the bank of a canal and stared at the gentle current.
You may be the only such person . . .
He had no idea what he would do if that were true. It was not, he found, something he wanted to consider. Not something he would accept until he’d searched every corner of the globe for another like him.
A splash in the narrow canal focused his attention. An elderly man crouched on the opposite bank, one hand thrust into the murky water. He had filthy grey hair matched by an unkempt beard. Sores dotted his face and arms. As their eyes met, the ragged man pulled his fist from the water, drew it high over his head, and slammed it down again. The water that splashed into his face did not break his intense, icy gaze.
“It’s leaving me!” the old man cried.
“What is?” Skyler asked.
“Everything . . .”
He toppled forward into the lazy current, emerging a heartbeat later in a dog-paddle swim, steel gaze utterly locked on Skyler. The man’s lips curled back in a snarl, revealing crooked yellow teeth.
Skyler raised his rifle, then stopped. Despite the malice in the old man’s eyes, he swam slowly. He might not even make it across. “Forgive me,” Skyler said, and ran north along the bank.
He kept to the canal, relying on his mental map of the city to guide him. The sloped embankments became concrete walls, with a narrow walkway just above the water line and the occasional stairwell leading up to the streets above.
A riverboat floated by, its lone occupant sprawled facedown on the foredeck. Closer to the city he began to see corpses drifting along in the current, too. At one bridge be saw a city bus, nose in the canal and tail end resting against the concrete span above, clasped by the twisted wreckage of the railing.
Skyler couldn’t bring himself to look inside the vehicle. Doing so might force him to acknowledge what his heart already knew: The scope of this, the scale of death and destruction, was absolute. He focused on the narrow passage between the bus and the canal wall, turning sideways to squeeze through..
As he passed the bus a mewing sound came from inside, barely audible, like a wounded animal. Skyler sidled past. Shards of broken glass crunched under his feet. In the shadow of the bridge, darkness enveloped him. He kept going until the sound of glass beneath his boots ended, and then rushed to the far end of the underpass.
The mewing turned into a feral cry. Skyler surged forward, turning back only at the edge of the bridge’s shadow. Behind him, a body slid out one of the shattered windows and fell to the concrete with a grunt. He could see only a silhouette. It looked—
Another body slid from the bus, then a third. The trio stood in unison. They all faced him, waiting as if sizing their prey. There was something primal in the way these diseased behaved. The old man’s words came to him then.It’s leaving me! Everything…Everything that made him human?
The trio rushed Skyler together. One ran low, using its hands like two extra legs, an odd way for a person to move, yet somehow it looked natural.
Skyler raised his gun, but thought better of it once again. He’d never shot anyone before. So he turned and fled, racing along the walkway, the sound of baying savages closing behind him. A stairwell ahead. He sidestepped into it and bolted up the steps three at a time. At the top he turned, intending to shoot the lead pursuer and hopefully trip up the other three. A better use of ammo. But his foot caught on a crack in the pavement as he spun, sending his right leg slapping against his left, his body twisting as he fell to the ground in an awkward roll. The gun clattered away, sliding beneath a van.
Skyler crawled to the vehicle. Lying on the asphalt, he reached into the darkness underneath, toward the rifle. The people chasing him were close. He glanced toward the stairs in time to see the leader’s head appear above street level. Panic gripped him. His fingers probed for the weapon, his mind caught between the ancient instincts of fight or flight.
His fingers brushed the gun, and in his haste he only pushed it further away. There were footsteps on the street now, and new grunting sounds coming from somewhere else. Abandoning the rifle, he stood and ran. Across the bridge, dodging slumped bodies, toppled bicycles, abandoned cars. At the end of the bridge he turned and bolted down a narrow walkway that lined the apartments along the canal. Footsteps followed him like unwanted applause. He slipped into an alley, glancing back as he ran. Six followed him. Seven.
At the end of the alley he leapt over a bike that lay on its side, limp rider still on it, hands clasped over the sides of a white helmet. A policewoman, Skyler realized. He skidded to a stop, rushed back and looked for her holster. Her dead body covered it. Skyler heaved with one arm, grunting with the strain as he fumbled along her belt for the holster. The diseased were silhouettes in the dark alley, racing forward.
His fingers found the gun. Skyler stumbled backward as he hefted it, thumbing the safety as he did so, silently thanking his firearms training. He could barely see the approaching people in the alley, but the space was narrow. Whip-cracks echoed along the passage as he unloaded the clip. The lead pursuer tumbled and rolled, limp. The one behind it went down. The third leapt over the first two, landed in a crouch. It made no effort to dodge the gunfire, as if it had no understanding of the weapon. Skyler shot it in the throat, saw the life vanish from its eyes even before it hit the pavement just a meter away. The realization that he’d killed would only hit him later.
The gun clicked empty on his next trigger pull. In the alley the infected still barreled toward him. And there were more now. Skyler had emerged on a wide avenue, lined with restaurants and boutique shops. Dead bodies were everywhere, part of the landscape. Here and there, though, some moved. They emerged from below shady awnings or from the doors of smashed storefronts, glass crunching beneath their feet.
They’re not attacking their own kind, he realized suddenly. They know I’m different.
He heard the electric motorcycle before he saw it. The sleek bike burst into view on the sidewalk between Skyler and his pursuers just as the next one emerged from the alley. The rider leaned at the last second, rear tire skidding along the concrete until it slammed into the shin of the diseased person, who lurched backward from the impact, arms flailing, crashing into those behind.
“GET ON!” the rider shouted as the skid ended, the bike facing back in the direction it had come from.
Skyler leapt on. He slipped one arm around the rider, his empty pistol pressed awkwardly between them.
The man twisted the accelerator, producing a shrill whine as electricity flowed from the caps to the motor. Skyler almost lost his grip as the motorcycle surged into motion. Immediately the rider swerved left, then hard right, dodging obstacles in the road. The motorcycle barreled through a thick plume of smoke that spilled from a burning shop. Beyond the smoke a baby stroller lay on its side, mother and father sprawled behind it. The sight hit Skyler like an enormous weight. Everything he’d seen up until now suddenly became very real. The scope of it all, crashing in. World’s end. Has to be. This is it, and I’m . . . I’m . . .
He focused on gripping the man’s torso as the nightmare blurred by.
The man wore no helmet. His hair, a mess of long dreadlocks, whipped in Skyler’s face and smelled of incense and pot. “Name’s Skadz!” the man shouted over the roar of wind. He spoke in English, London-accented.
“You a cop?”
“Air force. Pilot.”
“Good.” Skadz made a sharp left, tilting the bike low and accelerating out of the turn into a narrow alley. A stray dog snapped at Skyler’s knee as they roared past. The animal had blood on its jaw. Somewhere an alarm wailed.
The bike lurched, flew up a ramp. Darkness engulfed them. Skyler glanced back in time to see a metal gate rolling closed across the entrance to a parking garage before Skadz turned again. He slowed their pace now, rolling between rows of identical sedans parked over wireless charging units. The vehicles were all white, with blue and orange stripes on the side panels. Police cars.
Skadz rolled into an open elevator door, bringing the bike fully inside. He swiped a card through a reader on the wall, then tapped the button for the eighteenth floor. The compartment lurched to life. “I was here when all these blokes started acting strange,” he said. “Some were laughing or crying, most were screaming about the headache.”
“You’re a cop?” Skyler asked.
The man turned to him, an eyebrow raised. Then he chuckled and shook his head. “Never mind what I am. What madness made you enter the city?”
Skyler swung his leg over the seat and stood back as Skadz dismounted. “My parents live here. I thought they might be . . .”
“I hoped maybe it was genetic. What about you? No symptoms?”
“Zilch. I feel fine. Well, as good as I can with all this shit going on.”
Skyler studied the man. “How’d you know I came from outside the city?”
A chime sounded their arrival. Instead of answering, Skadz rolled the bike out and left it leaning beside the elevator door. He led Skyler down a long hall between cubicles and offices. There were no bodies here, Skyler noted, but things were in disarray. Blood stained the carpet in many places.
At the end of a hall was a door propped open by a roll of toilet paper. A large biometric reader on the wall beside it had been smashed to pieces.
“Holed up here since the madness started,” Skadz said, leading the way inside. “Figured it’d be good to get a proper picture of what’s going on.”
The massive room contained row upon row of dual-screen monitors, laid out auditorium-style with desks in front of each. Again there were no bodies.
On the far wall, which rose ten meters from the floor of the room, was a series of huge sensory-quality displays, already adjusting to provide depth based on Skyler’s position in the room.
All of the screens displayed images from around the city. Security and traffic cameras, Skyler realized. “That was smart, coming here,” he said, genuinely impressed.
“I’d about given up hope until I saw you walking along that canal. I don’t know the city that well so it was something of a bitch to track your path.”
Skyler sat, leaned back. “You saved my life out there. Thanks.”
The man shrugged. “Had to. You’re the first sane person I’ve seen, Skyler, and I’ve been watching the city all bloody night.”
To that the pilot had no response. If true, and if the disease kept spreading at the rate Skyler had witnessed so far, then he may well be witnessing the world’s end. He told the man his story, from the encounter near Alexandria to the nurse who protected him from the initial wave of infection.
“You’re a lucky bastard,” Skadz said, “and that nurse was wise. The first few hours . . .” He fell silent, shuddered. “Almost everyone just died. Hands clasped around their heads, screaming like you can’t imagine. A right fucking mess. The rest, the survivors, are like animals. They flee or fight. Alone or in packs. I watched from here while I could stomach it.”
“One spoke to me.”
“Yeah,” Skadz said. He nodded sadly. “Some can still string a few words together, though that particular skill seems to fade pretty fast. Care for a pint?”
The question caught Skyler off-guard. He mumbled agreement and studied the room’s monitors as the other man busied himself with a camping cooler stuffed below one of the desks. Every screen seemed to offer a window on death and chaos. Bodies were everywhere, so many the ground itself could barely be seen. The diseased moved among them. A pack perhaps fifty strong roamed the left side of one screen, picking their way through the dead. One pulled a half-eaten pastry from the hand of a woman, sniffing at it as if it had never seen such a thing before, then tentatively took a bite.
Without warning all of the diseased froze, dropping slightly. They glanced off to the right in eerie unison, toward a light-rail station. Then they started to move back.
An automated streetcar rolled into view, pushing aside bodies like a boat through water. The train powered through the corpses with relentless, mechanical drive.
He couldn’t look at it, this ocean of death, any longer. He let his eyes drift to the background, to the beloved skyline of the city. A skyline ablaze. He imagined the disease sweeping through, catching millions unaware, and millions more who tried desperately to flee. They’d left food cooking, fireplaces lit. Knocked candles from restaurant tables as they fell. Lost control of cars, spilled down stairwells or from balconies. Airplanes must have fallen like rocks.
Skadz walked over with two bottles of golden liquid, handed one to Skyler, then sat again. “What part of town are they in? Your parents.”
The man tapped some controls on one of the screens. A map appeared. “I don’t know the city well. Point it out?”
Skyler did. His new friend—possibly his only friend in the world—traced a circle around the area, and the screen zoomed inward. Little camera icons popped up all around the neighborhood. Skyler pointed at one.
While a connection established, Skyler tried to picture his elderly parents sitting on their balcony or strolling in the garden square behind their simple apartment, oblivious to all this chaos and death. Then he tried to imagine them, immune, fleeing the city. Skyler’s gaze flicked to the horrors displayed on every other monitor in the room. He knew in his gut they would not have stood a chance.
An instant later the camera view from a traffic signal on Herenstraat appeared on the screen. Skyler leaned across Skadz, panned and zoomed along the quaint block of retirement flats until he found the building his parents lived in. The door stood open. Bodies lay on the steps leading to it and on the sidewalk below. He scanned each but none looked like his parents.
After a few minutes of searching the street, he found them. They were side by side in the end, in their car a hundred meters down the road, boxed in on all sides by others trying to flee. Skyler zoomed in, and the enlarged picture, though grainy, left no doubt. His father had pulled his mother’s face to his chest so she wouldn’t have to see. They’d died there, in a traffic jam.
Skyler slumped into a chair and stared at the high-resolution image for a long time. He waited for the grief to come. Craved it. Needed it after everything else. It never came. There was only emptiness. Eventually he reached up and flicked off the display.
“Sorry, man,” Skadz said. “Honestly.”
“At least they didn’t turn into those . . . animals.”
Skadz said nothing. The room became very quiet.
“What’s your plan?” Skyler asked.
The other man drained his bottle. “Survive,” he finally said. “Haven’t thought about it much beyond that. Why? Got a plan?”
Deciding he could trust this man, and not keen on being alone, Skyler told him of the disease-control facility in Abu Dhabi. “I intend to fly there. I think this nurse was right—there might be something about me they can study.”
Skyler nodded. “Come with me. You seem resourceful. And, Christ, there might not be anyone else.”
The other man stood abruptly. “There’s something else you need to see.”
He led Skyler to an office a few floors up. Inside he gestured to a wall display. On it, two news anchors sat across a table from Neil Platz, the famed business tycoon. All three looked at once tired and yet hyper-alert.There was no sound.
“What’s this?” Skyler asked. Then, “Shit, you didn’t record them as the infection set in, did you?”
“Nah, man, this is live.”
Skyler glanced from the screen to Skadz, then slowly back. “Live? So it hasn’t spread that far—”
“It has. No need for sound to tell you what they’re talking about. They’re saying Darwin is safe. That bloody alien cord, the Elevator, is protecting the city.”
“What? You’re joking.”
“No, I am not.”
“But that means . . .” Skyler said, and stopped, the words too ridiculous to voice.
“That means the disease and the space elevator are related,” Skadz said for him. “Fucking Builders, man. Mental, isn’t it?”
Neither spoke for a long time. The image shifted from the interview with Platz to live scenes shot around the Australian city. The streets were packed like Amsterdam’s, but not just with the dead or infected. Skyler saw anxious crowds praying in front of a church, then a shaky shot of a running street battle. The camera cut to the now-famous sight of Nightcliff, where the Elevator connected to the ground. A line of riot police stood between the complex and a throng of citizens.
“It’s no picnic there either, mind you,” Skadz said, “but if Abu Dhabi doesn’t work out you’ll want to head there.”
Skyler looked away from the screen and regard the man standing beside him. They couldn’t be more different, yet they shared the immunity. “Come with me,” Skyler said. “It’s possible we can help.”
Skadz cracked an unexpected grin. White teeth in stark contrast to his dark skin. “Beats hanging around here, I suppose. But if they want to poke us with needles, I’ll volunteer you for the job.”
“Wave of Infection” copyright © 2013 by Jason Hough