From the author: A new virus spreads through a major city leaving the government a terrible option for containment!
We were taxiing out to the runway when the pilot’s soothing, southern drawl came over the intercom telling us that we’d been called back to the terminal. A collective groan went up from the full plane. But we all knew why: Z.
Everyone de-planned and gathered outside Gate 113 where an airline rep, a frumpy lady in a navy-blue uniform, confirmed it. Because of Z, the city had been quarantined. All flights in and out were cancelled. She directed us to ticketing for free room and meal vouchers at one of the hotels near the airport. FEMA was paying for it. Shuttles would take us to our assigned hotel.
I had flown into the city yesterday morning for a two-day law seminar at a hotel conference center downtown. I had taken only a carryon packed with a change of an extra polo shirt, dress pants, underwear, toiletries, my laptop and the Foster motion. The seminar ended by three that afternoon and I had hustled out of there and grabbed a cab to catch the four-thirty flight for a mere hour and fifteen-minute jump home. Instead, here I was, stuck in the city.
On the way to ticketing, I stopped at a bar near the main concourse and tried to catch the latest news on the quarantine on the small TV on a shelf above the bar. I couldn’t hear much above the chatter of the bar crowd and clinking of glasses and ice. I wondered why everyone was drinking and laughing as if nothing mattered. As if we weren’t stuck in the city and Z wasn’t happening.
I finally backed out of there and took an escalator ride up to ticketing. There, I joined an already long line of grumpy stranded passengers waiting to get their hotel and food vouchers. In line, I called my office. Jenna answered, said she was sorry I hadn’t gotten out.
“What’re they saying?” I asked. “How long?”
“Nobody’s sure,” she said. “Few days, I guess.”
I gave her instructions for the next couple of days, what to adjourn, reschedule. Then, I had her patch me into my partner, Chris Brewer.
“It’s like being stuck in a third world country during a revolution or something,” I told him.
“Well, at least you won’t be on the street,” he said and assured me he’d take care of things back at the office.
After the call, it took another half hour to get to the harried ticketing agent. She was a fortyish, attractive blonde wearing the airline’s navy-blue uniform that was long past crisp. After taking my boarding pass, she furiously clacked on her keyboard and a moment later, her printer was churning out my vouchers. Without comment or smile, she handed them to me and I went outside the terminal to stand in another line for the hotel shuttle.
Twenty minutes later, I entered the lobby of my assigned hotel along a main highway straddling the airport just as a news conference of the Mayor was being broadcast on a large flat-screen TV hanging on a wall in a nook just beyond the reception counter. People were sitting on couches and chairs or standing shoulder to shoulder anxious to get the latest news.
The Mayor started off by assuring everyone that there was no cause for panic. The quarantine had been imposed only upon an abundance of caution. He then denied that Z had spread outside the districts where it had previously been reported and chastised the media for saying otherwise. “Let’s be responsible, people,” he scolded.
The Mayor announced that the Governor couldn’t get into town before the quarantine was imposed but thanked him for his complete support in this crisis. He then took questions from the reporters in the crowded conference room.
“How long do you expect the quarantine to last?” was the first.
“Two days,” he said flatly. “Three at the most.”
“And it’s your position that the stories about Z spreading to the northern districts is false?” the same reporter asked.
“Absolutely false,” the Mayor snapped, glaring at the questioner.
“Bullshit!” some guy shouted from the other side of the nook.
That was all I could take. I walked over to the registration line that snaked out from the front counter. Ten minutes later, I handed my vouchers to a desk clerk. After checking my name against his computer screen, he nodded and pulled my room key-card and meal ticket from a rectangular, cardboard box. Handing them to me, the clerk told me that there weren’t enough rooms to accommodate everyone so I had a roommate. Skipping the crowded elevators, I took the back stairwell four flights up to Room 413. I used the key card to open the door and found the room empty. My room-mate had not yet arrived and that was alright with me. I had the bathroom to myself.
After a shower, I stretched out on the queen-sized bed nearest the window and clicked on the TV on top of a dresser. Nothing new was being reported, just the same loops of what appeared to be Zs roaming dark streets exhibiting the horrific symptoms of the disease – the wild, bug-eyed look, the idiotic screeching and, of course, the frightening, clichéd desire for human flesh.
After a time, I got off the bed, went over to the window, spread apart the heavy, cloth curtains and looked down at the parking lot. Beyond it was an expanse of high grass and beyond that, the airport terminal and a runway. Silent and dark. No planes in, no planes out.
I fetched the remote and started scrolling through the channels. CNN and Fox News had continuous coverage of the quarantine with names like, “No Way Out!” and “Q-Day 1,” while the major networks had resumed regular programming. Not much new was being reported and I soon grew tired of the talking head “experts,” on this and that, and the human-interest stories like a dad trying to get home for his sick daughter’s birthday (she was in a cancer ward of a Children’s hospital somewhere), a bridegroom unable to get to his wedding and an Army guy returning from Afghanistan whose wife was expecting. Finally, I clicked off the TV and decided to get down to the Lassiter Ballroom for my meal, a turkey sandwich and chips in a white cardboard box.
I took the stairs and walked down a long corridor to the lobby. Toward the back of it was another hallway leading to the hotel bar from which wafted voices and the thump of music. Halleluiah! I thought, and headed down it, feeling more the need for a drink than a bland sandwich.
I wasn’t surprised to find “The Take-Off Lounge” wall-to-wall with my fellow stranded guests. I edged through them to the wrap-around bar with two overwhelmed bartenders and one barmaid trying to keep pace with the orders. After a minute or so, the barmaid acknowledged my raised arm, came over and took my order for a double seven and seven. She was back within moments and when I asked for a bill, she told me it was on the house, courtesy of Uncle Sam. I was liking the government more and more.
I left her a five-dollar tip and drifted over to the far corner of the bar where a morose looking guy was staring into his drink on the last barstool next to the wall. I backed against the wall behind him and scanned the crowd, scouting for a decent looking woman.
“Fuck it,” the morose guy blurted and I turned to him.
He swiveled around and lifted his drink as if toasting something. He was in his late fifties, a gangly, long-faced man with short, gray hair and a devious glint in his eyes. “To the end of the world,” he said.
I lifted my glass and with a shrug, said, “Sure, to the end of the world. And getting laid.”
The guy took a healthy sip of the dark, brown liquid in his glass, pure liquor, I suspected. After a wince, he glared at me.
A moment later, a dark-haired woman about thirty-five, slightly overweight, on the tall side, squeezed in toward the bar between me and him and bumped my arm spilling my drink on my wrist in the process. “Oh, sorry,” she said.
I looked at her and was immediately struck by dark, intense eyes. She had a pretty face, with reddish freckles spread along her nose and forehead. “No problem,” I told her. “Can I help you get in there?”
“That would be great,” she said.
“What’s your poison?” I asked her.
“Gin and tonic,” she said.
I moved toward the bar and after a time, a bartender came over and took my order. Next to me, the morose guy was mumbling to himself. Finally, the bartender brought the gin-and-tonic. As I squeezed back out and handed her the drink, I leaned into her and said, “Name’s Paul. What’s yours?”
“Cindi,” she said. “With an i.”
“Nice to meet you, Cindi, with an i,” I said and shook her hand.
“Pleasure’s mine,” she said and smiled which got me to thinking that this certainly was starting off well.
From behind us, we heard the morose guy say, “Fuck it.” He called the bartender over for another drink. Cindi nodded at the guy and smiled at me as if to say, what’s with him? I shrugged and asked her what got her stranded in the city. She was a real estate agent, she said, here for a conference.
In the next moment, the morose guy swiveled around. “You wanna know why I’m here?” He shifted on the barstool and looked me straight in the eye. “I’m CIA.”
“CIA?” I said and smiled. “Okay.”
But now somebody at the bar looking up at the TV was shouting for all of us to shut the fuck up. Then everyone was looking up at the four flat screen TVs hanging a few feet apart above the bar. Whatever game that had been playing was interrupted by a banner blaring, “Breaking News!” “Turn it up!” someone shouted, and a moment later, the barmaid was aiming a remote at the TV and pressing the volume button. The voice of an anchor boomed through the bar that had quieted suddenly to almost nothing.
“And there you have it,” he said. “The head of the CDC has just confirmed that Z has mutated and can be spread by airborne transmission. I repeat, Z can be spread by airborne transmission. That means, Z germs can be spread from an infected person through the medium of the air, like the common cold. Previously, it was thought that Z could be spread only by an exchange of bodily fluids – sweat and saliva, for instance, and, of course, through Z bites. Now, it appears that it is a lot easier to catch, and therefore spread.”
A collective groan went up from the bar crowd like hearing someone famous had died.
“Well, that’s fucking it,” whispered the morose, self-proclaimed CIA guy.
“What’s it?” I turned to him and asked.
“It,” he said. “The end. The plan.”
He looked at me with heavy eyelids and a smirk. “What do you think what plan,” he said. “Nuke us. That plan. Take care of Z.”
“What?” I gave him a dubious frown. “Sure pal. I think you need a break from that.” I nodded to his drink.
“I don’t care what you fucking think.”
I shrugged and turned away from him. Cindi was looking up at the TV, more reporting on this bad new turn of events. Z could be spread easier. Fucking great. Finally, the bulletin was over and the station resumed coverage of the basketball game. When I looked back at the purported CIA guy, his barstool was empty.
“Where’d he go?” I asked Cindi.
“No idea,” she said. “Good-riddance.”
I tipped my drink to that and drank down the rest of it. Seeing that she had already finished hers, I said, “I think we should eat. Another one of these, I’ll be CIA.”
She smiled and said, “Yeah, me too.”
We left the bar and made our way to the Lassiter Ballroom. Naturally, there was a line to a long table had been set up where a couple bored hotel clerks were handing out box dinners. As we edged forward, my cell phone rang. It was Susie, my ex.
“Why didn’t you get the girls?”
It was her demanding, snarky voice, the one I had to listen to for eighteen years until I couldn’t take it anymore. It was almost a good thing that I was stuck in the city because, in truth, I had forgotten my promise made a week ago to take Ciara and Morgan off her hands for the night. She had a book club meeting or something. After telling her I was caught up in the quarantine, she softened a bit, said she didn’t know. Though still sounding annoyed, she told me to take care of myself, and hung up.
“That was pleasant,” Cindi remarked.
“My ex,” I told her.
“I’ve got one of those, too,” she said and winked. “Two in fact.”
We laughed and finally reached the front of the line where a tired looking clerk handed us boxes containing bland turkey sandwiches with a small bag of chips and a bottled water. We took them to the lobby and, as all the chairs were taken, sat on the floor and watched TV. The throb and general din from far down the hall off the lobby told us that The Take-off Lounge was still hopping.
“After this, want a night cap,” I asked and nodded in the direction of the bar. “Lot more fun than sitting here, watching that.”
“Sure,” she said. “I could use another.”
In the next moment, the anchor was breaking away from her talking head guest to a young, pretty female reporter who was interviewing some guy in the Hanover District, wherever that was. “I’m standing on the corner Geddes Avenue and Swan Street,” the reporter said into her microphone while staring at the camera blaring light in her face. “With me is Douglas Keane. An hour ago, Mister Keane took some extraordinary video on his cell phone of a Z attack from his third-floor apartment and we’ve been able to patch that video into our studios.” She looked to the cameraman. “Is it uploaded? Yes.” Now, she looked out as us. “I warn you that the images are quite graphic.”
After a moment, the screen morphed from a crystal-clear picture of her standing before us to a bouncy series of frames. The guy taking the video, Douglas Keane, added narration from time to time, his voice rushed, panicky.
On the street below was a group of fifteen, twenty Zs, hunched over as they edged forward down the street below Douglas Keane’s apartment, with one or more of them emitting that annoying screech like a bird caw everyone now and then. They were closing in on a small group of civilians who had somehow become cornered by these Z scavengers.
“Run,” the Keane guy kept whispering to himself. “Run.”
But the people below him seemed confused, rudderless. Or maybe, they had nowhere to run. The Z approach was relentless and deliberate. Some of the people were shouting, taking up defensive stances, waving at them, and finally, pushing them back. A few screamed. Others just stood there mesmerized.
“Get away,” Keane whispered. “Break through. Run.”
Some of them tried that. It didn’t work. The Zs latched onto them and bit into their necks and arms and faces and thighs and feet. The screaming of the bitten was horrific.
Keane aimed his smartphone at the mayhem and slaughter taking place below his apartment for a few seconds longer, enough for us to realize that every single person in that hapless crowd - men, women and children - were being ripped to pieces, eaten alive.
Everyone in the lobby was quiet after the video stopped.
The TV reporter was back. The “authorities,” she told us, estimated that fifteen people were killed in the videoed Z attack, and that a National Guard unit had been dispatched to eliminate the pack of Zs responsible.
I threw what was left of my turkey sandwich into the box on my lap and turned to Cindi.
“I lost my appetite,” I told her. “I need a drink.”
“Me, too,” she said.
The Take-Off Lounge was still hopping. I led Cindi to that same corner where we’d met and saw that our self-proclaimed, morose CIA acquaintance was back in his seat sipping another drink. He spotted us and waved us over with a scowl and, with my arm over Cindi’s shoulder, we approached him.
“You’re back,” he said. He held up something and waved it at me. Squinting in the dim light, I saw that it purported to be an official CIA badge in a leather case. It had a name on it.
“That’s me,” he said, pointing to the name. “George Reed.” He burped and wavered to his left, clearly feeling too many drinks after however many hours he’d been occupying that corner seat. “You can call me George.”
“Nice to meet, George,” I said. “I’m Paul. This is Cindi.”
“Sorry for being such a crab before,” he said. “Let me buy.”
He raised an arm and yelled over one of now five bartenders serving the still overflow bar. The Z epidemic was definitely good for business. We gave him our orders and the bartender was off and back with them in no more than a minute. George Reed turned to us, lifted his drink and made a toast: “To survival.”
Cindi and I raised our glasses. We took long sips. George was drinking straight whiskey. He winced.
“I wasn’t bullshitting you,” he said. “What I said before. They have no choice.”
“Nuking us,” I said with a hint of incredulity in my voice. “The whole city.”
“To save the world, why not?”
“Why are you telling us this? If you’re CIA?” I asked him as Cindi leaned into me and whispered, “Let’s go.”
“I can’t be part of it,” he said as he held his drink on a precarious angle. “All the killing, the excusing. A lifetime of compromise.” He looked at me, then at Cindi standing with a frown against my left shoulder, still wary of him. “Like, look at you two. Why should you go up in flames? And you know, I can help you.”
“Help us?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “See, there’s a way out. A secret passage.” He swiveled around and plucked a small, square drink napkin from a holder on the bar, then looked at me. “You got a pen?”
Cindi fished in her purse and handed one to him. He started to draw something on the napkin. After a time, he handed it to me and said, “This is the way out.” He’d drawn a series of lines in thick, blue ink with neatly printed names of streets identifying the lines. In the upper right-hand corner, in a clear space, he had drawn an arrow and next to it, “Zone D.”
“Zone D?” I asked.
“That’s where you have to get out,” he said. “Couple days ago, we identified several soft spots in the quarantine. Dark areas. You go through Zone D, you escape. You run fast enough after that, you escape the nukes.”
“So why don’t you leave?” I asked. “Save yourself?”
“I got no reason to leave,” he said with a shrug. “My life has been this, the Company. No family. No wife. No kids. I gave them everything. And anyway, I’d never make it there.”
He pointed to his wrist and said, “The implant.” He took a long sip of his drink and swayed a moment. “We all get them now. Let’s them keep track of us. They know I’m here. That I quit and settled here, in some hotel bar, drinking myself to oblivion. So, I’m no threat. They’re come and get me when they’re ready. Or not at all. Won’t matter when the nukes fall.”
Cindi leaned into me again. “Let’s go,” she whispered.
I looked down at the napkin with the scribbled map and stuck it into my jeans pocket.
“I wouldn’t wait,” he said and nodded up at the TV. “Z’s spreading. Pretty soon, it’ll reach the tipping point and they’re start dropping the nukes.”
“What a nut,” Cindi said after we left the bar with our drinks and strolled the long hallway back toward the lobby. She laughed. “Nukes.”
I looked at her as we walked.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “But somehow, it makes crazy sense. And he had that badge.”
“Any nut can fake a badge,” she said with a laugh. “You really think the CIA gives out badges?”
I shrugged. I truly didn’t know. I put my hand inside my jeans pocket and felt for the napkin with a crude map he’d drawn that, crazy as it seemed, promised to save our lives.
As we approached the lobby, I suddenly pressed Cindi to the wall and kissed her and she kissed me back. Maybe it was the drink, the excitement of becoming lovers in a crisis. Whatever. We let our passions race as the kiss lasted and I soon found my hands all over her. We were oblivious to other guests walking by until some guy let out the comment, “Get a room.”
I backed off at that point and said to her, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.”
But that wasn’t happening. Our assigned rooms had roommates, certainly moved in by now, and every other room in the hotel was taken. Instead, we ended up in the stairwell at the other end of the first-floor hallway. We started necking again and at some point, I snuck a hand under her blouse. Finally, breathless, she backed away.
“Maybe we can find a janitor’s closet or something,” she gasped and laughed.
“Or,” I said, “a room in a motel outside the city.”
“Escape through Zone D?” she said with a sarcastic frown.
“Why not?” I shrugged.
“You serious? You believe that guy?”
“What’s to lose?”
“There are Zs out there,” she said.
I shrugged. Or nukes dropped on the city, I didn’t add.
The stairwell began to be a source of considerable traffic after that. Some guy stepping over us told us apologetically that the hotel elevator was out-of-order.
With a sigh, Cindi and I decided to head back to the Take-Off Lounge. As we approached, we heard what sounded like a scuffle or fight coming from inside with people avoiding whatever was happening by spilling out in the hallway. We edged through them to get a look at what was going on.
At the entrance, we saw that it was George Reed in the middle of the altercation. Three or four guys in dark suits and thin, black ties had latched onto him, trying to escort him out of the place.
“Bastards,” George shouted as he struggled to free himself. “They’re going to kill you all!”
After that, I saw one of the guys place something across George’s mouth. A moment later, George went limp. No more struggling. They simply dragged him out of the bar and down the hall toward the lobby and, presumably, out of the hotel.
I turned to Cindi and said, “See that?”
She swallowed, nodded.
I pulled her out of the bar into the hall, no longer wanting a drink.
“Maybe he isn’t crazy,” I said to her.
Cindi turned and stared at me, her eyes wide, wondering.
A couple walked out of the bar just then with the guy telling the girl, “Now there’re carriers.”
“Hey, what?” I called after them.
The guy stopped, turned. He frowned as if to say, me?
“What’d you say? Carriers?”
“That’s the latest,” he said. “Just on the news. Zs mutated again or something. Some people just carry the disease, spread it to other people. Like that lady, Typhoid Mary. Could be you, could be me, could be her. Fucking carriers - people who are immune infecting other people.”
He made a face, turned to his date, locked arms with her and off they went down the hall toward the lobby.
After that, I led Cindi to the same stairwell and we sat trying to determine what was what.
Finally, she asked, “So how much time do you think we have? If it’s true.”
I looked up at her and shrugged. “Not much, I don’t think,” I said. I stuck my hand in my pocket and felt for the napkin. I took it out and examined it for a time.
“This looks pretty straight forward,” I told her. “I mean, he marked the streets. We just follow them to this open area. Zone D.”
“How far is it?”
“I have no idea.”
Echoes of steps came toward us and another couple was stepping over us.
“Bad place to sit,” the guy, a burly, scowling fellow said.
When he had opened the door to the first-floor hallway, Cindi said, “Everyone’s so tense.”
“Maybe they can sense the worst,” I said.
“So, should we try it, go?” she asked. “Listen to that nut. It still sounds…”
“Crazy,” I said. “I know. But, geez…”
We both settled into our thoughts. A few hours ago, I didn’t even know her, and she didn’t know me. Now we were plotting to evade a federal quarantine, no doubt a serious felony. Then, I came to a decision. “I think it’s real,” I said. “Those guys who took out George Reed didn’t look like hotel security to me.”
Cindi nodded. “Me neither.”
I waved the map at her and said, “This is our ticket. Let’s use it.”
She had a small carry-on bag where we’d store some bottles of water for the walk. I decided to leave my belongings behind, not wanting to carry anything we didn’t have to. It was Cindi who thought of a weapon - steak knives from the restaurant or something.
She’d get the carry-on while I got the knives. Twenty minutes later, she was standing by the stairwell door waiting for me. Her face filled with relief as I approached from the other end of the first-floor hallway. “I thought you’d left without me,” she whispered as she grabbed hold of me.
“It was tougher getting the knife then I thought,” I told her, keeping my voice down. I held up a white cloth napkin holding the two. “But I got them.”
As I placed them in her carry-on, Cindi said, “Well, let’s hope we won’t need them.” “Ready?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said and held onto my hand. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
We burst through the exit door by the stairwell into the chilly night.
The CDC had only theories as to why and how Z had started in the city. It had been established that the first Z patient was fifteen-year-old, Sarah Ambrose who, about a month ago, inexplicably lapsed into a coma. Her parents took her to the emergency room at St. Barnard’s Hospital in the Gross Pointe District and she was given antibiotics and intravenous meds. A couple days later, she was declared dead but then, within the span of minutes, she woke up, or seemed to.
She was described by the attending nurse as having a wild, ravenous look after her gaunt dark eyes opened. When the overjoyed girl’s mother went to hug her, the girl bit her, tearing a deep gash out of her shoulder and neck. Blood splattered everywhere. Somehow, the nurse and the woman’s husband pulled the mother away and restrained the savage girl.
The mother was hospitalized and within hours, she lapsed into a coma. Like her daughter, she was given a regimen of meds, but soon appeared to have died. And, like her daughter, minutes later, she woke up in a savage state, and bit her husband, a nurse and an orderly. Her daughter in another room had bitten a doctor. Within hours, anyone bitten by the mother and daughter had contracted what one CDC doctor had termed a “zombie-like” disease. The spread of Z was textbook after that.
Some news reporter picked up on that and started calling the strange, new disease, “Z.” And shortly after that, anyone who contracted it became known as a Z.
There were unconfirmed reports of Z epidemics having occurred at various times in the dark corners of Africa, or in under-developed areas of South America. It was noted that Sarah Ambrose and her parents had recently returned from a safari in central Africa. How those Z outbreaks had been contained, or if they had been, was not explained. Perhaps the disease simply ran its course and fizzled out. But Z had never gained a foothold anywhere else.
What was especially disturbing, of course, was that, as recently confirmed, Z could now be spread by airborne transmission. And even worse, though unconfirmed, it had been reported that some humans were carriers – that is, they could spread the disease but not develop its horrible symptoms. Though scientists were working furiously on a vaccine, to date there was no known cure or antidote. The only way to stop a Z was to kill its brain – that is, shoot or stab it in the head. All the zombie movies ever made had gotten that part right.
Thankfully, by all accounts to date, Z had been confined to the city. And the quarantine was meant to ensure that.
Once outside, it felt as if we had left our space capsule untethered and had entered a dark, remote void. Fortunately, Cindi was wearing a leather jacket and I had on my sport coat to fend off the damp, chilly night.
“This way,” I told her, pointing right. And off we went.
We followed the napkin map as best we could, stopping every few blocks under a street lamp to figure out where we were. The streets were deserted, dark and silent, adding to our dread. Then, we headed onward in the same direction. After another few blocks, we feared that we were hopelessly lost.
“This map is worthless,” Cindi said waiting for me to figure something out. “That guy was crazy and we’re crazy for listening to him. Let’s go back.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not an option.”
In the next moment, I heard the skittering of steps or something along the asphalt from out of the darkness beyond the glare of the streetlamp.
I took Cindi’s arm and moved us out of the light into the shadows of a storefront. After a few moments there was no more skittering and I pulled her back onto the sidewalk.
“This way,” I said.
We hustled up the street hugging the storefronts in a direction I hoped was the right way according to the napkin map. Then, after a few blocks, we ran into a National Guard platoon. As we approached them out the darkness, the skittish soldiers turned and pointed their M-16s at us.
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted and raised my arms. My voice bounced off the dark, silent buildings around us along the entire street. “Don’t shoot!”
The platoon trotted up to us and its captain stepped forward. He was a nervous looking guy around thirty-five who’d gotten way more than he had bargained for on this assignment after signing up for duty some years ago.
“What the hell you doing out here?” he whispered. “Almost got yourself killed. This sector’s infested with Zs.”
“We got lost,” I told him. “We’re at one of the hotels. We were going stir crazy. Went out to get some fresh air.”
“Fresh air?” he laughed. “The airport hotels are five clicks that way. That’s three miles that way.” He gestured behind us. “You really got lost.”
“Look, man,” the captain went on. “It’s not safe out here. There’s Zs everywhere just north of here. Where you’re heading, where we’re going. You really need to turn around and head back the way you came. Now.”
“Yes, sir,” I told him. I turned and nodded toward the airport hotels, three miles east of us.
He gave me one last nod then waved to his platoon to head out. Off they went, double-timing it, their boots echoing over the asphalt road, leaving us alone on the dark street corner.
“We going back?” Cindi asked.
“No,” I told her. “Let them get ahead of us. That’s the way we need to go.”
“But he said there’s Zs that way,” Cindi said. “We’ll be heading right into them.”
I sighed. There was no answering that. It was either death by Zs or death by A-Bomb. “We’ve got no choice,” I said and waved the napkin map at her. “C’mon.”
We starting walking in the same direction as the National Guard platoon had just marched. A couple blocks up, the map indicated a right turn and just as we turned that way, there was a flash followed by an explosion. We stopped a moment, getting down on our haunches.
“What’s that?” Cindi asked.
At first, I thought it was too late. They were already dropping the nukes. But then came another flash and explosion came again from where the National Guard unit had gone.
“Artillery,” I guessed. “Rocket launchers maybe. Let’s go.”
We got up and quickened our pace down the dark, narrow road for about half a mile until it intersected with another. After squinting at the map, I pointed right and we followed yet another narrow, deserted road for a while longer until turning right onto “Jergen Street.” There was a yellow “Dead-end” sign posted just after the street sign. Jergen Street ended after about a quarter-mile, becoming, as the map indicated, a nameless gravel road leading through a short grassy strip into thick woods.
“There it is,” I told Cindi and pointed to the map. “Zone D.”
We ran down the gravel path to the trees and, after stopping a moment, went for it. We kept walking, scattering the brush with our arms, ducking to avoid branches. After an indeterminable time, we came out of the woods into a wide field. To the east and west of us, we saw helicopters lighting the ground below them. For some reason, none of them patrolled the open field that we just had stepped into.
“I have to rest,” Cindi said, panting, bent over with her hands on her haunched.
I stood and lifted her. “No,” I said. “We have to keep going. We’re still too close.”
She nodded and we started moving again. After a hundred yards of so, we entered another space of trees and brush. We edged through it like before, brushing away or ducking under low branches. My legs ached and feet burned and I was thirsty and winded and knew Cindi must be as well as she trailed maybe ten yards behind me. Finally, we stumbled into another clearing with the interstate running through it. The helicopter patrolling the quarantine perimeter were no longer visible.
“Thank God,” Cindi whispered as she stepped forward even with me.
We had to climb a high fence and somehow made it over without breaking an arm or leg. We drank some water and stood there a moment as I tried to figure our next move. I vetoed hitchhiking along the interstate as we might draw attention to ourselves as escapees from the quarantine. Instead, we kept in the shadows far off the shoulder heading north away from the city.
The hours passed. As I checked my watched, Cindi asked, “How far away do you think we’ve come?”
I checked my watch. It was close to two in the morning and we’d found Zone D around eleven. “I don’t know,” I told her. “Fifteen, twenty miles.”
“I’m so tired,” she said. “I can’t feel my legs anymore.”
“Me too,” I said. “Next exit, we’ll get off, find a hotel. I think we’re far enough.”
It took us another hour to get to the next exit. We trudged along the shoulder of the winding ramp onto a state road that had some gas stations, a McDonald’s, Burger King, and an inexpensive chain motel near the interchange.
“Thank God,” Cindi said as we limped to the motel office.
“Hope they have a room,” I said. “I could use a bed.”
We entered the office and found the clerk munching a candy bar behind the counter while several guests were glued to a small TV up on a shelf in the corner of cramped lobby. The clerk turned to us as we walked in but quickly turned back to the TV.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
The clerk nodded at the TV. I looked up and saw the President seated behind his desk in the Oval Office.
“…and so, my fellow Americans,” he said, “after considering all options, we have no choice but to take this drastic action to avoid a larger tragedy. With great sadness, I have ordered that five nuclear weapons be dropped at various strategic points of the city.” He hesitated a moment, swallowed, then, still staring straight into the camera at us all, continued, “The astronomical loss of life is unfortunate, of course, but cannot be avoided. For the greater good, indeed to save mankind, we must do this. I beg God’s forgiveness.” He sighed and added, “God Bless all of you, and God Bless America.”
The screen went blank until an anchorman with a stunned expression popped up and tried to clarify what the President had just told us. In the next few minutes, Air Force bombers would drop five, five-hundred megaton nuclear bombs on various strategic locations in the city. Three million people would die in the initial blasts with another million severely injured. In the resulting fires that would follow, and blasts by more conventional bombs, those million and more would die. No rescue missions would be sent. In short, every last living person in the city would die. And with them, it was hoped, so would all the Zs, and the disease with them.
“Holy mother of Jesus,” the clerk said as he turned to me. “Those poor saps.”
Cindi gave me a dumbfounded look as the guests with numb expressions ambled out of the small office. I held her then turned to the clerk.
“We’re safe here?” I asked him. “I mean, far enough away?”
“Think so,” he said as he took a bite of his candy bar. He was a tall, lean guy in his forties. After another bite of his candy bar, he added, “At least, that’s what they said. The blast zone is forty miles or something. We gotta be at least seventy miles out. And, these are clean bombs or something. Minimal radiation but with lots of blast and heat to kill people and Z germs.”
“Jesus,” I said and looked at Cindi.
The clerk put down the candy bar, stretched back and asked, “So you want a room?”
“Yes,” I said. “Our car broke down on the interstate, few miles back.”
“Okay,” said the clerk.
He slid a registration card over the counter and I filled in my name, address, cell number. When I got to the car information, I told him, “Car’s on the side of the interstate.”
“I’ll need a credit card,” he said. I took one out of my wallet and slid it over to him. He typed the numbers into the hotel registration site and booked us the room. It cost $69.
“You’re all set,” he said as he handed me a key on a blue plastic holder.
In the next moment, there was a flash over the hills miles from us. A few moments later, we heard the blasts. Each of us ducked down below the counter and stayed there while several more blasts came. Then, the ground shook.
“Holy shit!” I heard the clerk say.
Cindi nudged close to me on the floor and I held her. And then, it was over and we stood and stumbled out of the office. Birds were chirping and there was the rumble of aftershocks. The sky was lit like daylight had bloomed over the hills in the direction of the city. I noticed that dozens of guests were outside staring that way, lost in the enormity of the tragedy, the simultaneous death of four million people. For some reason, I wondered what the stock market was going to do today and wished I had pulled all my money out my 401k.
Room 211 was cramped and musty. The bed was narrow and lumpy and musty as well. I nodded to the small TV on the dresser. “Wanna watch?”
Cindi shook her head and replied, “I wanna sleep.”
We’d been on the run five hours. Sleep sounded good.
Cindi slipped out of her jeans and shirt and got under the covers wearing only a bra and panties. I stripped to my boxers and climbed in next to her. I thought of turning to her, taking her into my arms, and finally making love.
“We can’t go home,” she said out of the darkness.
I thought about that. She was right. Everyone knew we’d been in the city. To our family and friends and co-workers at this moment, we were dead. If we went home tomorrow, they’d know we’d escaped, had violated the quarantine. And that Z might have escaped with us. Once the authorities found out, we’d be arrested.
“I know,” I said. “Not right away.” Then, an idea came to me. A resolution of sorts. “Maybe after a few days, weeks. When the dust has settled and there’s no more Z. Then, we surface.” In the next moment, I asked, “Do you want to make love?”
But by then Cindi was asleep.
I woke up on my back and turned to look at a small, digital alarm clock on the night table on my side of the bed. But the clock wasn’t plugged in so I sat up and reached for my watch on the table and saw that it was five minutes after eleven. I slipped out of bed and spread open the musty, tan drapes of the small window looking out to a dingy parking lot on a gray, misty day.
I got back onto the bed and turned to Cindi who was laying on her right side still asleep. I wanted to celebrate our freedom, our very lives. I was thinking that I was in love with her, and I wanted to make love to her. I crawled back onto the bed and licked her right earlobe. When that did nothing, didn’t even make her flinch, I moved down to her lick her neck with the same result. Then, I got to my haunches and leaned over the top of her head.
“Cindi?” I shook her. But still she didn’t move. Then louder, “Cindi?” I pushed harder at her shoulders for a time, then turned her onto her back. “Cindi!” I called to her.
Finally, her eyes opened. They were blank, lifeless. After a time, they widened. And then, she began to snarl. She licked her lips and started to lift herself while I moved away and jumped off the bed.
“No,” I whispered. “This can’t…”
She sat up and her snarling became a growl. Her face was tense and twisted as she moved forward and got off the bed. I looked at my carry-on bag on the small loveseat in the corner of the room. She was off the bed and stalking me as I went for the bag and searched for the steak knife I had taken from the hotel restaurant. By the time I found it and was lifting it out of the bag, she had grabbed my shoulders about to bite.
There was no doubt. Cindi had turned Z.
In the next moment, I whirled around with the knife tightly gripped in my hand and without another thought, thrust it into her forehead. Part of it broke off, but enough of it had sliced into her brain that she fell backwards, then down to her knees. I went for the night table and lifted it. The lamp and alarm clock fell off as I brought it over and smashed it down onto her skull. She fell forward onto the carpet, her head a bloody mess.
I staggered back and sat on the edge of the bed, all the while staring at Cindi’s corpse. I still held what was left of the knife in my right hand and started sobbing.
A few moments later, I heard the bird-like screeching of Zs on the hunt. Then, it occurred to me. All of this was my fault. I must be a Z carrier. How else had Cindi contracted it?
After an indeterminable time sitting in the dark room, listening to the screeching of Zs roaming outside, I heard sirens. Cars screeched to a halt in the parking lot of the motel. Then, shots rang out and the cops were shouting out there.
I looked down at the knife. I knew what I must do, but could not do it.