Thursday, 19 November 2009 - 10:46 pm

Out of ashes

We’re almost to the University. So close, and yet struggling to make headway. A mechanical fault delayed us this morning, with painful results and stretching out our travelling time yet again. A bullet had wormed its way into an engine during our escape and leaked fuel all over it. How it didn’t catch fire before now, I don’t know. We never noticed it using more fuel than the other bikes, and no-one smelt the fumes coming off it. I guess we were just too busy to notice before it was too late.

It was Thorpe’s bike. He swung on and kicked it started, and there was a strange ‘whoomph’ sound. The next thing I knew, there was a flare of light, he was rolling on the ground and people were shouting. Someone called for a blanket; I was rolling up my bedding when it happened and ran to the bikes to throw it on him. Between a couple of us, we put him out. He wasn’t hurt badly, thank goodness; only his hands were exposed, and they’ve been cleaned and bound carefully. His jeans are toast, though, and his boots didn’t survive well either. I don’t think the burns are too bad, though it’s always hard to tell with him.

The bike was harder to put out. A couple of the boys sprinted off to look for a fire extinguisher. The rest of us could do nothing other than watch as it burned, trying not to think too hard about what was strapped to the back of it. They were supplies we couldn’t afford to lose but the heat was too high for anyone to try to save them. The fuel cans strapped to it ruptured, sending a gout of flame up and spilling the mess into a puddle. We all skittered further away from it, shying from the pool of light and shoving our untouched gear along with us. I noticed Dale quietly holding the blankets around Thorpe, asking him for the sixth time if he was okay.

The first extinguisher brought back to us was just water, useless on an oil-based fire; it would only have spread the problem into a wider area. The second one promised it would work, though, and Thorpe gave the boys instructions on how best to use it. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that he used to be a fireman until something like this happened. I get the feelnig that if he hadn’t been hurt, he would have had the blaze out long before the others managed it. After much fighting and shouting, we were left with a foamy, blackened bike and a dispersing pillar of dirty smoke.

If anyone was still looking for us, that was a big pointer over our location. I saw Jonah exchange glances with the other cutouts and asked him what was wrong – he’s the one who pointed that out to me. I told him that we couldn’t worry about that just then – we had more important things to be doing.

It was a while before the bike was cool enough to touch. We salvaged what little we could from the bike, but there wasn’t much left. The perishable parts of it had melted and the dials were cracked. The packs on the back were a twisted mess, their contents spilt and ruined. So that was it: a burned bike listing to one side in a charred puddle, smoking slightly.


There are too many of us to fit on four bikes. We were back to looking for other vehicles, breaking into cars and offroaders, looking for one that we can get going. We had been reluctant to spend that kind of time before, not with Haven’s pressure driving us forward. It took most of the day, but we wound up with a station wagon that runs just fine and is big enough to take most of our gear.

It forced us to reshuffle the pack. Thorpe, Matt and Warren rode in the car with their various hurts and Iona in the back. Jersey, Dale, Bobby and Jonah drove the bikes, and I took a break to ride pillion. I wound up behind Jonah, my old escort. Thorpe gets all frowny when someone else rides with Dale, Jersey is prickly, and Jonah is familiar.

We didn’t get far but I felt like we made progress. The injured were more comfortable and the cutouts got a bit more freedom, as if perhaps we might trust them. We couldn’t move as fast, as we had to find paths through the abandoned vehicles for the car to get through. We’re getting there slowly, one step at a time, days trickling under our tyres.

It’s strange how quickly we fell back into our old, familiar patterns. Today, we felt like Seekers again.

Friday, 20 November 2009 - 9:35 pm

Motives and open mouths

We don’t scrape ourselves out of bed before dawn any more. None of us can be bothered to stir up the fire so we can see what we’re doing, and we don’t have flashlight batteries to waste. Too many cracked shins and bruised elbows have punctuated our mornings, and with no signs of pursuit, we’re allowing ourselves to relax a little. Just until dawn oozes over the horizon, sending ruddy light stumbling into wherever we’re holing up.

There’s resistance to the movement towards complacency. Haven looms large in our rearview minds, sending out posses of Scouts to track us down and bring us back. Or just shoot us in the street, like they did to those people asking them for help. No-one wants to risk being caught.

It doesn’t seem like they’re coming. Not after so long – it’s been over a week now. They know we’re no threat to them – at least, I can’t imagine what we could do out here that would make any difference to them. We might send more people their way, but they’re equipped to deal with that. Shamblers don’t take directions. So what do they lose by letting us go free? Other than what we’ve already taken? What would they gain? Some retribution, perhaps? Is that worth the fuel they would have to spend to get to us now?


I was determined to talk to Jonah today. He was packing up with the other two cutouts this morning, and I noticed that they are still segregated from the rest of us. They’re getting closer to us a little at a time, but they still keep themselves separate.

I shouldn’t call them ‘cutouts’ any more. That’s not what they are – they turned their back on that when they asked to come along when we left. They have names now: Jonah and Bobby and Warren. They’re starting to have personalities beyond military stiffness and duty, though we don’t know them yet. They don’t talk to us much but we’re growing used to them anyway.

Before today, I hadn’t noticed the erosion in their uniforms. In Haven, they were always very proper in their dress, identical shirts, t-shirts, and combat trousers, tucked in just so, with neat creases and the belt’s shiny buckle fastened just right in between. Since the escape, that has been slipping away. We’ve all been appropriating clothes from the homes we use at night and they’re no exception.

Jonah’s belt was used to lash packs to a bike when one of the ropes snapped. He has a leather one now, old and scarred. Warren’s t-shirt was thoroughly bloodstained after he got shot, so he’s wearing a new one, covered in very un-military slogans. He wears his shirt unbuttoned over the t-shirt, mostly because of his injured shoulder. Somehow, Iona ended up with Bobby’s shirt and wears it like a jacket, with the cuffs covering her hands and the tails reaching almost to her knees. Bobby has a denim jacket now and thinks himself very cool.

Their belts and hands haven’t borne weapons since we left Haven – we don’t trust them that far yet. They haven’t asked for their guns back either, which is good. It’s a battle no-one wants to have.

They’re all crumpled, and a couple of them bear streaks of ash after yesterday’s adventure with fuel and fire. Their military lines are blurring and I like that. They seem more like people. They feel closer to being future Seekers, but this morning I stopped and looked at them, and wondered. Is that even what they want now?

So I went to Jonah and asked him. I picked a moment when his friends were off packing their vehicles; for some reason, I feel uncomfortably outnumbered when they’re all together. I’m familiar with Jonah. I feel like we have some kind of connection. And now that my debt to him has been paid – by allowing him and his friends to escape with us – we’re on a more even footing.

“What are you guys looking for out here?” I asked him. Everyone was busy, so I lent a hand while he tied a pack to the back of his bike. It was sadly empty.

“Same as you,” he said. He barely looked at me, but when he did, there was curiosity.

“Are you looking to join us? Permanently?”

“Maybe. Depends what that means.”

He seemed to be looking for terms, but it’s not like we have a contract all drawn up and ready. We make this stuff up as we go. I had to stop and think about that.

“It’s what you see. We look after each other. We share everything.”


I caught the twist in his tone and clarified. “Supplies.”


“Everyone’s equal.”

“Except you.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You haven’t seen us argue yet.”

“So we get a say?”

“If everyone agrees you can stay, yes.”

“And the weapons?”

I suppressed a sigh. Of course he had to ask. I hate that they’re so important. “We don’t know you guys, Jonah. We don’t know if we can trust you or not. Who’s to say you won’t call Haven down on us? Or decide to take everything we have?”

“We say.”

“And we’re taking you on your word. But we’re not stupid enough to let you be armed until we’re sure.”

He scowled, not liking that at all. It occurred to me that we had continued with these guys for far too long – this conversation should have been had days ago. Tomorrow, we’ll reach the University, and we’ve talked about what we’re hoping to find there, right in front of the cutouts. If they were going to leave, we should have kept quiet on all of that. We’ve led them right to our friends. The cat is not only out of the bag – it’s had time to screw the tomcat, get fat and have kittens.

I looked at Jonah and then laid a hand on his forearm to make him look at me. “We’ll talk about it all tonight. All of us. Okay?”

“You think that’ll make a difference?”

I shrugged and pulled my hand back. “I hope so. We can get stuff out into the open. You too.”

Jonah didn’t look too happy about that and I was abruptly frustrated with him. I was trying! What more did he want?

“It would help if you guys said something. About why you left. Right now, we don’t know anything about you or your motives. Why don’t you help everyone out and say something for a change?”

“I thought you liked it when I kept my mouth shut,” he said, words like a slap.

“This isn’t Haven. We do things differently.”

That’s when I walked away, before words I’d regret fell out of my mouth. Ten minutes later, we pushed the car started and climbed onto the bikes, and were on our way. True to form, the cutouts – ex-Havenites? Ex-soldiers? I need to think of a better name for them – have continued to keep their own council. Soon, it’ll be time for dinner and the Talk about them.

Here’s hoping that something better comes of that.

Saturday, 21 November 2009 - 8:01 pm

Seeking affirmation

I managed to get everyone together last night, and keep them together long enough to talk. It wasn’t easy – we were all tired and yearning for our beds, as hard and uncomfortable as they might be.

When I gathered my courage to start, the flutter in my chest knew it wasn’t destined to go smoothly. Maybe I should have listened to it, but I think I’m glad that we went ahead with it anyway. It needed to be done.

After dinner was the best time – everyone was grouped together anyway and relatively comfortable. I stood up and they all looked at me in that way they always used to – the Seekers to listen and the cutouts with their impatience and wariness. I’m not sure which of those expressions was the hardest to face.

I explained why we needed to talk: we had to decide whether the three soldiers were going to stay with us or not. I turned to Jonah first and asked him whether they wanted to stay – that was the first hurdle we all had to get over. There was no point in us all arguing about it unless the men actually wanted to become Seekers in the first place.

Jonah looked at his friends, then stood up.

“You all know why we left Haven,” he said. I was afraid that he was going to stop there but, to my relief, he continued. “It didn’t have the future it claimed and it was starting to come apart. I don’t know if any of you saw it, but there was a lot of unrest in the ranks.”

I hadn’t seen that, not until I found out that I was Jonah’s punishment. The soldiers did a good job of being faceless cutouts, homogenous in intention and action. I wondered how many unhappy soldiers hadn’t come with us.

“We’re sick of the ‘accidents’ that kept happening. We’ve all been caught up in it.” He gestured to his friends to clarify his ‘we’. “Or know someone who was hurt by it.”

I looked at the scar on his jaw and wondered if that’s how he got it: some fake accident to hide the fact that the Converter is nothing but a device to keep everyone too busy to notice the end of everything. I wondered if they knew the guys killed in the last Converter ‘accident’. They must have.

“We’re looking for something better. You were leaving anyway, so we thought we’d come along.” Jonah shrugged. “We might find that something better on our own, but we’re far more likely to find it with you. We have a lot to offer the group.”

He didn’t list their abilities; he didn’t need to and we all knew it. Everyone was perfectly aware of what they could do.

He gave me a pointed look and said clearly, “We’d like to be equal members of the group.”

It was a dig at me but I let it go. He said what needed to be said; personal stuff could wait for later. Instead, I looked around at the Seekers, trying to gauge their expressions. They were mixed, showing doubt and distrust, and a hefty share of wariness. Iona was smiling blissfully but that’s nothing unusual.

“We’ve all seen what Haven’s soldiers do outside of its walls,” Jersey said. Trust her to be the first to weigh in with something negative. “How do we know you won’t be like that?”

The soldiers were confused at first – we had to explain the incident by the food depot, the gunning down of innocent people.

“We don’t do that,” I said and gestured to Iona. We had no children with us this time, but she was a good example. “We protect those less able than us.”

She nodded cheerfully and responded by saying something about lambs and lions. I wasn’t really paying attention.

The trio on trial scowled. They said they weren’t keen to do stuff like killing innocents – it wasn’t what they were here for. They didn’t say if they were involved in the food depot incident and I thought it best not to ask. This was about the future. Our future.

“So if we tell you not to attack something, you’ll listen?” That was Thorpe, doubt riding on his words.

“Listen, yes,” Warren said. He’s older, senior to Jonah, I think. He has an indistinguishable age about him and an air of experience.

“And act anyway?”

“When it comes to battle tactics, I really think–”

“We’re not talking about when we’re in battle,” I said. “We’re talking about before then.”

“We don’t want any of that pre-emptive strike crap,” Jersey put in.

The trio closed their mouths and considered it. There was reluctance in their nods. They thought they knew better than all of us when it came to violence, and maybe that’s true, but we’ve fought hard to keep our morals intact. It’s all about when we let ourselves do violence and how far we let it go – that’s what makes the difference between us and the Pride, and even the Wolverines. When we find mirrors, we’re able to look ourselves in the eye. We’re trying not to succumb to the dog-eat-dog nature of the After. We don’t want to be dogs.

Even with all that struggling, I have trouble looking myself in the eye. Even us Seekers do things we hate sometimes, when we’re forced to. When there’s no choice. But we’re not lost yet. We want to stay as free of that burden as we can be, even me, as bloodied as I am.

So we can’t have them shooting up everyone we meet. There’s always that risk of them turning on us, deciding that we’re not worth the supplies and killing us in our sleep. Or maybe siphoning off the weak ones, picking off those who can’t pull as much weight as the rest. We have to believe that the risk of that is small if this is going to work. We all have to make compromises to live in this world – the question was whether this was a compromise that the soldiers were willing to make.

Finally, they agreed to our restrictions. That had to be enough. It wasn’t long before another issue cropped up, and another. Each one came back to the same thing: you’re dangerous and how do we know we can trust you? With our lives, our loves, our futures? Are we safe with you?

It’s strange – none of the Seekers have talked about this before the cutouts. Not in so many words. We’ve never laid out our ethos so thoroughly before, placing words on the ground in the middle of the group as if scratching out a contract. This is what had grown between us over the months. This is the basis of the lives we’ve chosen to live.

I’m more than a little proud of it. Things don’t always go the way we want them to. We try, we slip, and sometimes we fall down. But we keep trying. We look after each other and we try to hold onto the shards of who we were Before. We try to be something better.

In that meeting, we laid out the people we want to be and asked everyone to agree to it. With each round of questions and answers, the Seekers solidified behind the banner of words. Our own manifesto.


What it came down to is that the three soldiers agreed to our terms. They weren’t comfortable with all of it and I don’t think it will go smoothly, but they’ve agreed to try. We have agreed to let them stay and be Seekers.

We’ve given them their rifles back – possibly not the smartest move, but after all the talk about truth and trust, we didn’t have a whole lot of choice. We kept the handguns with various Seekers, so everyone is armed. I haven’t got a gun at all – I don’t want one – but I’m now guardian of the ammunition. For now, it’s working well enough.

Today, we were due to show them one of our secrets: the people we left behind at the University. One of the bikes lost a tyre – almost disastrously for Bobby, but he managed to skid to a stop before bike and rider tumbled into a mess of metal and limbs. We lost time putting more gear into the car and rearranging passengers. Now, we’re three bikes carrying double and the car bearing three injured, stopped only a few blocks away from the University by the rain.

Tomorrow, we’ll reach the others. They don’t know we’re coming and with the cutouts sorted out, I’m starting to get nervous about what we’ll find. Who we’ll find.

I wish it was a better kind of homecoming.

Sunday, 22 November 2009 - 8:28 pm


I never imagined the circumstances of our return to the University before. I always knew it would happen one day – of course it would. We didn’t say goodbye forever, just for now, just until we had found that something better we were looking for. We’d be back for them. I had promised.

We thought Haven was our something better. I had dreams of calling them on the radio and telling them to load up and come on over, because we had found everything we needed. A safe place, food, shelter, water. A sustainable future. What we found was a sheet of tissuepaper laid over the problems we faced everywhere else. It was pretty tissuepaper but so easily torn.

We still haven’t found that place to stop, the nirvana the Seekers keep seeking. Not even a scrap of hope to bring back and show them for all the time we’ve been away. All we have is more bodies to tend, more mouths to feed, and bad news.

When we left, I was glad to go. After all that happened with Ben, I wanted to get far away and forget about what he had become and what I had done. I didn’t want to be in the room where the gun went off or to look at the place where the acid finally destroyed him. I wasn’t eager to look into the eyes of people who had seen it happen and haven’t known me since.

But I had missed them, too. I wanted to know how they were, if they were all right, if they had forgotten about us after not hearing from us in so long. I wanted to know how many were left, because the After has a way of erodiing a group.

I had to struggle not to think too hard about the group that left the University with me and the shape of the one returning. I failed and remembered Dillon, so worried about me, so ready to make me smile. They knew what happened to him – they had been told over the radio – so I wouldn’t have to explain all over again, but I knew they’d see his space in our circle. Along with Tia and Terry and Dan. Gone but not forgotten.

And Dad. It was hard not to think about how he was missing from our ranks, too. Those at the University might not miss him, but I did. I twisted his ring on my thumb and tried not to think about what it meant. I had to smile for them; I had to be pleased for the ones still with me.

It looked exactly the same when we pulled up in front of the biochemistry department. Pipes twisted into a metal wreath around it and the windows were all closed. I thought I saw a fllurry of movement up in the building somewhere while we parked the bikes and the car spilt its passengers onto the tarmac. Then we were there, gathered and looking up, wondering who and what might be there for us to find.

We had to stop the cutouts from leading the charge. Don’t go up to the door, we said. They’re not expecting us and the place is booby-trapped. With acid. That was enough to stop them.

We had to shout a couple of times before one of the upper windows opened. A familiar white-haired head popped out – Professor Kostoya is looking more and more like a crazy scientist as the weeks add inches to his tameless mane. He squinted at us and then burst out in a grin. Come in, come in, he said.

When we approached the front door, we could hear the thudding of feet on the other side. The kids beat us there – Nugget and Estebar flung it open and came barrelling out. The little girl went straight for Thorpe – whose face promptly went red while he patted her back – and Estebar hugged the waist of the first person he came to, which happened to be Jersey. She looked nonplussed by the whole thing and covered up her confusion with a frown when he let go.

We made our way inside slowly, stopping to greet those coming down to meet us. Introductions were made between new faces. Janice hugged everyone. Masterson stood by, nodding and clapping shoulders if we strayed close enough. Kostoya got hugs that bewildered him, which made them more irresistable. Conroy was all grins for us. Bree looked pleased to see us, though I kept my distance from her. Things felt far too complicated between us for me to fathom just then. Mira was a good little shadow to my one-time friend and greeted us shyly. The kids hung off everyone, and Nugget rode inside on Iona’s back. It’s the most I’ve seen Iona grin since I’ve known her.

We wound up in one of the larger teaching rooms, where everyone could gather and talk all at once. After the loneliness of the road, it was loud and busy and so full of people that I didn’t know where to look next. But it felt good. It felt right. Better. It was the kind of clustering that Haven should have been.

If was inevitable that the missing pieces in our groups started to be noticed. Someone asked after Tom, and Janice immediately looked strained. Masterson was the one who told us that he’d fallen Sick a month ago. Janice was still grieving for her husband and no-one asked if his shambler was still around.

Other names came up. Old Iris, so sad since her husband Norman went missing, disappeared as well one day. I get the feeling that she might have followed him into the rain. Scott is gone too – a victim of a shambler attack, he’d died defending the building when the acid curtain had failed. Kostoya went quiet when that came up; he obviously believes that was his fault.

I was afraid to ask where Sally was, knowing that she had been acid-burned. The baby must have been due some time ago, too – the baby we all feared would have been twisted and warped by the poison in its mother’s veins. I wasn’t the only one looking for her in the group, though, and it was Bree who picked up on it.

“Sally’s upstairs,” she said. “Resting.”

So she wasn’t dead. That was a relief, though one greeted with reservation considering the circumstances and caveats on her condition. Masterson told us to leave her sleeping, so we decided to bring in the gear and settle in before we bothered her. Everyone helped and there were so many hands and bodies that we wound up getting in each other’s way. No-one minded, though. We laughed and stepped around our obstacles, high on the reunion.

We’re still getting ourselves settled, but it’s good to be back. It’s good to find out friends again.

Monday, 23 November 2009 - 10:05 pm

The lyrics of reunion

Part of the relief of being back with the others is having a doctor to treat the injured. Masterson grumbled up a storm but he didn’t waste any time in seeing to the wounded we had carried back to the University yesterday.

I went along to act as a nurse, partly out of habit after my time in Haven’s infirmary, but Masterson wasn’t interested in having my help. He shooed me away and called on Janice. His form of shooing is to tell me to get the hell out of the way, but that’s all right. As long as he sees to them, I can put up with that. I trust him to be a good doctor, even if he’s not a nice person.

Matt’s leg is doing fine – just needs proper exercise and for him not to overdo it. Sitting in a car isn’t good for it: he needs to flex it to retain mobility, but now we’re not travelling, that’ll be easier.

Thorpe’s hands are a worry. The burns aren’t deep but they are easy to get  infected. We’ve been keeping them as clean as we can – a painful process that none of us enjoys – and we’ve been lucky so far. Masterson gave him some salve that he said should help. I saw Dale hovering worriedly, taking in the doctor’s directions, so at least Thorpe has someone to badger him into looking after himself.

Iona’s bullet-wound was a glancing injury and seems to be healing up all right. Masterson gave her some antibiotics – I couldn’t get a straight answer about why, but I think there was something wrong with the colour of the wound. The girl seems happy enough, but she always does. I think she would smile if someone hit her with a brick.

Warren was the most serious problem. We’ve been keeping him as comfortable as possible, but we didn’t dare dig around in his shoulder to get the bullet out. Instead, we washed it out regularly with disinfectant in the hopes of keeping it clean. He has been in a lot of pain and we haven’t had any painkillers to change that. Masterson looked at it and shook his head. Then he closed up the room so that he could cut the wound open and remove the bullet.

We all heard the screaming, but there was nothing any of us could do about it. The bullet had to come out; if it festered, it would kill him. Afterwards, the doctor said that it had lodged in the workings of the shoulder and there might be nerve damage. It was hard to tell what long-term implications it might have.


Those here at the University have had as much trouble with supplies as we have of late. Neither group had much, but we put it all together and had something of a feast. We all felt like celebrating: those of us left; those of us who had made it this far. We told stories about what had passed since the Seekers left the University. Then we started to relay the tales of those who didn’t make it to this meeting and the evening descended into a sombre mood.

Matt told everyone about what happened to Dillon; a fuller account than the one passed over the radio waves. I couldn’t form the words – just listening put a lump in my throat that was impossible to speak past.

I didn’t tell them about my dad, either – none of them had known him and it was too fresh. No-one asked, so it wasn’t an issue.

Janice told us about Tom, about when they met when she fell out of her father’s fishing boat and he picked her up. They had struggled to be together and wound up eloping in the middle of the night. They hadn’t looked back since, hadn’t spent a night apart since she climbed out of her window with a suitcase clutched in her hand. She didn’t talk about how he died.

Jonah spoke up and told us about his friend Jason. They had joined the military at the same time, two boys who had gone off the rails and had been sent to sign up before they wound up in prison. They met in boot camp and had been best friends ever since. The bombs and what came in the After had bound all of the unit closer together, and then it had started to unravel. Jonah had been caught up in one of the accidents that damaged the Converter and Jason had been the one who found out the whole thing was a farce.

Jason was the cutout who had been on the bike behind Dale when we busted out of Haven. He had fallen at the gates. None of us had noticed him go down, not even Dale at first. Even we had known about it, we couldn’t have gone back for him. No-one expects him to have survived it.


When the stories were done, an uncomfortable silence fell. We were all thinking about the gaps in our circle, the faces missing from our lives now. We had lost so many along the way that it was hard to keep track of them all.

There was one thing that tied them all together – them and us – and it was me who started it this time around. I just started singing quietly into our silence. One by one, the group picked up the song, lifting the lyrics of Amazing Grace towards the ceiling and beyond. As if they might hear us, wherever we are now. Even Iona and the ex-cutouts joined in, though no-one explained it to them. They got it. We remembered our dead.

I couldn’t help it: I thought about my dad. I didn’t want to sing that song for him – to me, he was still alive somewhere, waiting for me to come back and fetch him. My throat was thick by the time the song finished and I wasn’t the only one with damp eyes. To everyone’s surprise, Iona started singing the next song, some 80s number that I can’t remember the name of and yet everyone seemed to know the words for. At least the chorus.

At some point, someone found a bottle of vodka, or ‘firewater’ as Warren liked to call it. There were no more stories, just songs, whatever scraps we could remember. Dale found a small wooden box somewhere and used it as a drum.

I’m tired, in that good way, and ready to curl up in bed. I hear Matt coming. Just the sound of his boots makes me smile tonight. Time to go.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009 - 9:17 pm

Baby in waiting

I finally got to see Sally today. Masterson has had her shut away in a room upstairs, tucked up in a bed and waited on.

She’s huge. Overdue by a week or so, she thinks. Masterson has her on enforced bed rest and is keeping a close eye on her. He doesn’t let many people up to see her – I snuck in on my own when he was getting breakfast. Everyone is worried about her, waiting for the labour to start.

The baby is fine. Masterson and Kostoya have been checking on it, and they’ve said that it seems all right. Everything appears to be normal with the pregnancy, though she had some issues with mineral balances at one point. She started to get faux contractions and random pains, and Masterson responded by confining her to the room and then to the bed. She has pills to take – she’s not sure what they are, but she trusts her doctor and takes them anyway.

She looks so strange, still small and thin apart from the swell of her belly, which dwarfs the rest of her. But she has smiles to give away and is more eager to chat than she used to be. She’s read every magazine in the place, she said, and even started on some of the textbooks out of sheer boredom. She gave up after a few pages when she spent more time sounding out the words than taking the information in and now she has nothing to keep the boredom away. She claims to have expanded her vocabulary and recognises some of the terms the scientists toss around, even if she’s not sure what they actually mean.

The most curious thing is that she hasn’t had the Sickness. It has been months – more than six, I think – since she was burned. That’s more than long enough for the poison to fester inside her and to bring on the dangerous fever. But her body doesn’t seem to have succumbed to it at all, and it’s not trying to fight it off.

“Do they know why?” I asked her.

She shrugged and shifted to sit up a bit straighter, sighing against her pillows. “Not really. They just say that I seem clear of it.”

I wondered if Kostoya had tried to explain a theory to her and she hadn’t understood it, but that was unkind so I didn’t ask.

“David says that if I don’t go into labour soon, he’ll have to try to induce me,” she said.

It took me a minute to realise who ‘David’ was – that’s Masterson’s first name. For some reason, it’s endearing that she calls him by his first name. They’ve been together for a long time now, though neither of them will admit it, and I like to see those little indications of intimacy. I think they both deserve it.

“Well, we’re all here for you,” I told her. “We’ll do what we can.” And we had brought some medical supplies, drugs that the others haven’t seen for a while. Hopefully that would help too.

She put a hand on her belly and smiled at me. “Maybe it was waiting for you to come back.”

She meant all of us, the Seekers, not just me. The idea made me smile back at her. Then she got excited and waggled for my hand, wanting to put it on her swollen abdomen. A couple of seconds passed, and then the baby kicked and we both giggled. Strangest thing I’ve ever felt, that little foot nudging through her to bump my hand.


I stayed and chatted with Sally for a while. Masterson came back and scowled at me, and then left again. I stayed – we might not have been the closest of friends before, but I had missed Sally. I had worried about her and the baby.

It was good to see her. I have so few female friends, and it’s good to talk to a girl for a change. She asked about who I was with – she knew I was with someone last night.

“You have that look about you,” she said.

I blushed and said it was Matt. She was happy for me and encouraged me to tell her all about it. I haven’t put it into words before except here in this blog – relaying my relationship and feelings to another person is different. But Sally was receptive and excited on my behalf. I got to be a girl about it. I’ve missed that more than I realised.

I wound up staying until lunchtime, at which point Masterson finally shooed me out, claiming that the pregnant girl needed to sleep. She did look tired, the poor thing, and I gave her a hug before I left. She’s all baby and bone, so fragile that I barely dared to touch her at all. She seemed to appreciate the contact, though. I promised to come back and see her soon, and that made her perk up.

I’m looking forward to the baby being born. We don’t even know if it’ll be a boy or a girl yet. I just hope that it’s as healthy as everyone seems to think it is.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 - 7:27 pm

Saviour in the belly

After my visit with Sally, I made a point of collaring Masterson and asking him about her. He had come downstairs to go through the medical supplies and I leant him a hand.

He didn’t want to speak to me. At first, I thought he was grumpy about me taking up so much of Sally’s time and energy, but it was more than that. I asked him point-blank what his problem was and he rounded on me. He’s nasty but at least he didn’t shut me out completely.

“You leave us, and then come back and expect everything to be fine. Things aren’t fine. And you want to be into everything, always asking questions like it’s your right. Well, it’s not, you nosy bitch. It’s none of your business. Why don’t you just leave us alone again and we’ll all be happier?”

I hadn’t expected the attack, though I should have – I knew what Masterson was like. Time had softened the memory but he was only too quick to hit me with the reminder.

I won’t lie – it hurt. I’ve taken a lot of knocks lately and for a moment, I didn’t know what to do with it. Hit back or bend under it?

“We were always coming back,” I said, off-kilter.

“Right, right. And what were the chances of that happening, huh? What if that place you found was everything you wanted it to be? You’d have forgotten about us, that’s what would’ve happened. And we’d have been left here to rot alone. Instead, we’re rotting here with you. That’s so much better.”

I haven’t had such a tongue-lashing since Bree tore strips off me at the bookstore, way back in the time Before. It stung, just like it had then. I had taken it from her, swallowed it down and tried not to choke on the bitterness. But I’m a different person now. I wasn’t going to absorb that kind of thing like it didn’t matter.

“We would not have forgotten about you. The reason you didn’t know about Haven is because we were protecting you – we would have called for you if it had been safe. But it wasn’t. And now we’re back and we want to help. We want to find something better.”

“There is nothing better! There’s just this.”

“I don’t believe that. If that’s true, what’s the point?”

“The point is that you’re deluded, and you always have been. Faith and her Seekers, looking for the gold at the end of the rainbow. This is all there is, so get used to it already.”

“How can you say that? Sally’s up there, ready to have your baby any second. That doesn’t give you hope?”

His expression changed as soon as I mentioned Sally and the baby. It turned his fury up a notch and he took a step closer to me. He’s several inches taller than me and wanted me to feel small. It worked. “You stay away from her.”

“She’s my friend!”

“Just stay away! She doesn’t need you, and she doesn’t need your idiotic ideas!”

I opened my mouth to argue but he was already walking away. I turned to watch him and saw Thorpe standing by the door, scowling in our direction. I’m not sure why, but it made me feel worse, knowing we had had an audience. It’s also possible that Masterson only left because the big fireman turned up, in case he got involved too. Thorpe didn’t say anything, just turned and stepped out again, and I was left feeling ashamed of myself.


Masterson had left all the medical supplies on the counter when he stormed out, so I tidied them away. I made him a list of everything in case he wanted it and left it there. A part of me wanted to mend things, and making things right with the supplies seemed like a good place to start. It was the only thing I could do at the time.

That’s where Kostoya found me, quietly packing bandages into a cupboard. He’s a kindly thing and came up with a cautious smile for me. He’d heard the raised voices and seen Masterson thundering off down the corridor; it hadn’t taken him long to put the pieces together. He can be oblivious to a lot of things, but if he puts his mind to it, he understands more than we might expect.

Kostoya patted me on the shoulder, reminding me of my father so sharply that I almost pulled away. It wasn’t his place or his right, and I didn’t want to accept that kind of comfort from anyone else. It was too soon, too fresh. I swallowed back the reaction and tried not to think about Dad. Move on, Faith. It’s not the professor’s fault. He’s trying to be kind.

“He’s just worried about the baby. If it doesn’t come soon, he’ll lose them both.”

I sighed, feeling awful again. Masterson is having a bad time at the moment; I shouldn’t have shouted at him. I’d like to think that he’s more sensitive on the inside than he seems, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe he is. And another part that chirps up to add that it doesn’t excuse him from taking it out on me like that.

“I just wanted to help,” I said.

Kostoya nodded and told me that he knew that about me. “In a good way,” he felt it necessary to add.

He went on to say that they believe the baby is the reason that Sally didn’t get sick. Something about amniotic fluid, gestation, pregnancy, and the baby filtering Sally’s blood. They can’t find a trace of the poison in her system any more – the scar on her arm is the only evidence that she was ever bitten by the rain.

“But we’re not sure what it might have done to the baby,” he said. “Everything seems to be in order, but… well. We won’t know until we see it properly.” He sounded every inch the scientist that wanted to put the baby under a microscope as soon as it was born. At the same time, he was smiling wistfully, as if it was his grandchild that we were talking about bringing into the world.


While we were talking, it occurred to me that I should have asked him in the first place. Kostoya has always been more approachable than Masterson. I gave myself a mental kick and felt sore all the way through. I guess I asked for abuse by going to the doctor. I think he still blames us for the fact that there aren’t any fun drugs around and he can’t get high any more, and he blames me in particular because I lead the group. Coupled with that, he always covers his fear with anger and waspishness.

I’ll keep my distance to keep the peace. We’ll soon find out what the poison might have done to the baby, one way or another. Poor Sally – she didn’t say a thing about it when I talked to her. She must be terrified, not knowing what this thing in her belly is, big enough to crawl out on its own now. I’m scared, too.

She seems to have some hope for it, though. She loves it already and can’t wait to meet it. Somehow, that makes me sadder, knowing all that might go wrong.

I will hope for her. Her and the baby. We all need hope like that right now.

Thursday, 26 November 2009 - 5:24 pm

Same old situation

The soldiers are making themselves at home and have started to teach some of the others how to use their weapons. We don’t have much ammunition, but rifles are good clubs too.

They asked me if I wanted to join in and I declined. From the look that Bobby gave me, they think I’m one of those girls who lets the boys do all the fighting. The truth is that I don’t want to hold a rifle again – it just makes me think about Ben, and I don’t want to be in a position to have to make that kind of decision again. Give me a stick and I’ll take on a shambler, but keep guns away from me.

The training is something to keep the others busy and that’s a good thing, too. We all need a distraction at the moment: from hunger; from the pregnancy about to burst overhead; from the lack of a place to go from here.

The supply situation is getting drastic. The group was struggling here when we left, and since then it has descended towards dire. Those we left behind here always found enough to get by, but only just. They’re thinner than I remember.

A foraging group goes out every day, using fuel recklessly in the hope of finding something to keep us alive; there’s no point saving fuel if there’s no-one here to use it. Every building in a ten-mile radius has been scoured for supplies – sometimes, the group of scavengers might be gone for days at a time, braving the shamblers to search further and further afield.

They were glad to see us but now reality is setting in. We brought little with us – enough for the first few meals but that’s all gone now. There’s so many of us. We’re more mouths trying to bite out of the same shrinking pie. Every time I look at it, I know that this isn’t sustainable. We can’t stay here, none of us.


The University seems to be dangerously close to inertia and hopelessness. I think they were dwindling dangerously when we got here; our return energised both halves of the group. That’s a good thing but it isn’t lasting. We’ll settle into a rhythm again, get comfortable – or as comfortable as we can be with little to no food – and then we’ll start to stop. Just stop moving, stop hoping, stop looking for that next scrap of something to eat. The days will turn over and our numbers will shrink and one day there won’t be any of us left.

It’s terrifying when I think about it like that. The walls of this place start to close in on me and I remember why I left in the first place. It wasn’t just Ben, it wasn’t just the awfulness of the days leading up to that terrible incident – it was all of it. The whole thing, piling in on me all at once. I had to get out, get somewhere else.

I want more than this. I have Matt in my life and my heart now, and that only makes the desire stronger than ever. We need a life to live and share. We need a future to build. I don’t want to just fumble in the dark and share scraps with him. I don’t want our lovemaking to be mutual comfort and a place to hide when everything else is awful. I want to have reasons to hope and laugh again.

He makes me smile just by putting his arms around my waist and kissing the side of my neck, and I’m afraid that this life will drive that simple joy out of the gesture. I don’t want the After to spoil this, the way it has spoiled everything else. I want better for him.

After everything we’ve been through to get here, I think we deserve it.


I hear shouting. Have to go.

Friday, 27 November 2009 - 10:19 pm

We are one more

Can’t stay for long. I’m so tired.

We are one more now. The disturbance last night was Masterson shouting for help – Sally had finally gone into labour. Real, water-breaking, belly-rippling, screaming labour.

The whole building was in chaos. The boys were put on finding cloths – sheets and towels – and boiling water. They were kept out of the room where the birthing was happening, and if their faces were anything to go by, they were fine with that. Except Conroy and Matt – they kept asking if we could see the baby yet and trying to peek in. Conroy got an uncomfortable eyefull and stopped asking, but Matt wasn’t squeamish, it seems. He seemed more excited than anyone else; most of the group looked somewhere between worried and terrified.

They tried to keep me out of the room, too. At least, Masterson did. I almost let him but then Sally cried out and I couldn’t stay away. She’s my friend and she needed help. She needed all the help she could get. She has always been a small thing and pregnancy didn’t change that. Overdue by almost two weeks, the baby was big. She struggled right from the start, and it wasn’t long before she was crying and begging to know if it should hurt that much.

A few of us were there to help. Janice was the solid one through it all – she was at her cousin’s birth, she said, and it was nothing to panic about. Sometimes these things just took a while. Bree was there too, looking pale and uncomfortable. She mostly fussed around Sally’s head, trying to keep her sponged-off and quiet, and avoided looking at the business end as much as possible. Jersey wanted nothing to do with it and Mira fainted in the doorway. Someone carried her off out of the way.

I ran around between people, doing whatever needed to be done and letting Sally squeeze the stuffing out of my hand in between tasks. My time as Simon’s assistant in the infirmary helped – I’m used to taking directions in a hurried situation and my squeamishness has a much higher threshold than it used to.

Masterson bossed everyone about with short, sharp words, until Janice snapped at him about Sally needing some reassurance. He gestured to the rest of us, saying that she had plenty of people to reassure her, and I thought that Janice would actually smack him.

“She needs you, you bloody idiot.”

He stared at her and I could see the arguments queueing up in his head. He’s the doctor, he has to run this whole show and make sure everything happens as it should, blah blah blah. But he didn’t make it that far. He looked at Janice and then at Sally, and I saw him give up.

That was when I remembered about his wife and child, the ones who had been killed at the first rainfall. The ones who had driven him to grief so deep he buried it in drugs, preferring being high to looking at the world. He has been here before, with a struggling woman and a baby trying to come into the world, and he didn’t know whether to be doctor, or husband, or father. He might lose them both, all over again. That’s what I saw when Masterson went to the head of the bed to talk to Sally. The rest of us drew back to give them some space.

She was too exhausted to cry any more and looked so hopeless. He took her hand and leaned over to speak quietly to her. We couldn’t hear him but we could see her nodding. She was listening and whatever he said to her seemed to help. He stroked her hair off her forehead and then another contraction interrupted them. She screamed and he excused himself to carry on with the delivery.

It went downhill from there. I completely lost track of time between running for this and fetching that. Calling encouragement and telling her its all right, rest a bit now, save your strength. I think she ran out of that after the first hour.

We were up all night and through the next day. At one point, Janice started sending us off to eat one at a time. Masterson refused to leave the room and wouldn’t eat what we brought for him even when it was right there. Sally wouldn’t eat either but we did make her drink water.

I don’t know who fought harder: Sally or the baby.


The rain had just started hitting the windows when a cry slapped the inside of the glass. The baby was streaked in blood and fluid and hiccupped before it shrieked again. It didn’t stop until Janice wiped it with a towel and wrapped it up in a blanket. It came out furious, wrinkled and beet red, as if all the struggling had offended it. It was the ugliest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

With the hard part over, Sally deflated, weeping softly. She looked like she might pass out right away, but then the baby was placed on her chest and she had to move her arms to hold it. She was shaking and weak, but she still managed to cradle it against her and place a trembling kiss on its smeared, soft-skulled head.

“It’s a boy,” Janice told the new parents. They took it in numbly. Masterson’s expression closed down when he looked at the baby – one moment, he was barely holding himself together, and the next he was all business. Sally smiled with vague euphoria, just glad that it was over and she had her child in her arms. I’m not too proud to admit that I was teary as I watched them, for the beauty and sadness of it.

I didn’t have time to dwell on it; there was still a lot to do. The sheets were ruined – there was so much blood. I exchanged glances with Janet when we changed the bed and her expression seemed to agree with me: that’s enough blood to cause concern. An awful feeling curdled in my stomach as we folded the bedding over, hoping that Sally wouldn’t see it.

I looked at Masterson, but he was busy sewing her up – something I never hope to see again in my life. It’s the sort of thing you hear about and don’t want to believe is a part of childbirth. Once that was done, he fussed over everything we did and checked on Sally every couple of seconds. She fell asleep eventually and Janice took the baby off to be washed and checked.

He looked normal. Despite all our fears, despite the unknown effects of the poison he helped clear from his mother, he looked like a normal baby, if somewhat raisin-like when he screwed up his little face to cry, all angry red wrinkles. Masterson finally peeled himself away from the mother to check on the little one, and he shrugged at the end, saying he could find nothing obviously wrong with him.

The baby was put down to sleep in the crook of Sally’s arm and we left them all to their exhaustion, Masterson included. I don’t think he left that room after the delivery started and he’s still there now.


Downstairs, things were quietly jovial as everyone waited hopefully for news. They had all heard the baby cry and Bree had disappeared at some point – I think she had told them the sex of the baby before she went to collapse in her bed. She had been strange through that whole ordeal, though I do’nt know Bree very well any more. I was honestly surprised she leant a hand at all – she used to act like that kind of thing was below her.

Janice and I told the others that the baby was healthy and normal and doing well, and the little family upstairs was resting. There was a cheer – quickly shushed in case the sound carried – and a descent into grins and a smattering of claps. Estebar looked puzzled and asked what was going on, and Kostoya was lucky enough to be the closest adult. The professor flushed red and cleared his throat, then straightened his shoulders, drew himself up, and came over all fatherly. He started on the ‘when two people love each other very much’ speech and was drowned out by a round of laughter. Not unkind, just amused and relieved.

I was glad when I finally found Matt. He put his arms around me and said he’d missed me last night, warming a little ball in my chest. It’s strange how much a little thing like that can make such a difference to me, but it does. Sometimes, love sneaks up and surprises me with reminders like that. I kissed him and promised that I hadn’t slept a wink without him. Then I went to curl up and didn’t even know if he was there or not, too deeply asleep. I think he was, though. At least, he was the one who woke me for dinner a couple of hours later.


The mood in the building is convivial now. New life in the After is so rare and it lifts all of us. I see smiles and feel like sharing them. I can see the edges of hope wrapping around people again, warming them. I’d almost say that we’re cheerful.

I think I’m not the only one looking towards tomorrow and hoping, now.

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Saturday, 28 November 2009 - 9:21 pm

Breaking it down

I talked to Kostoya again today. He has relaxed a lot since we left, losing much of his shyness. He’s used to having people around now, used to sharing thoughts with them rather than pottering around on his own. Sometimes he gets effusive and starts talking in technical terms that I don’t understand, but his enthusiasm always makes me smile. Some people will just never be put down.

His water filter works wonderfully, turning poisoned acid into clean, perfect drinking water. The biochemistry building hasn’t been short of water in months. They’ve even started using some to wash things – mostly sheets and bandages, wounds and clothes. We’re starting to splash a little on ourselves now, though that seems like a crazy luxury after all this time. Hot showers are a fable I heard once as a child. I wonder if anyone has suggested that to him yet – he’d probably rig something up while we were sleeping.

I wanted his opinion about how we should move forward, how we might be able to get out of this lean position we’re in now. I asked him what he thought we should – or could – do next. What do we need to do to make a future for ourselves?

“Need to find a way to grow food. Sustainable, hmm?” He rubbed his frizzy bald spot as he started to noodle through the possibilities. We needed sun and soil that hadn’t been tainted by the rain. A way to protect plants from the rain. Water isn’t a problem – that’s a matter of scale more than anything else. Animals – well, they need food too, and protection. Probably harder to find than seeds. Maybe we should start with plants. Soil. Soil was going to be a problem – it wasn’t easy to find some that wasn’t soaked in poison. And of course, we’ll need to find the seeds somewhere.

I watched his ramblings with bemusement and thought that I should have brought a notepad with me. Someone should write it all down so that we knew what we were looking for.

I never thought I’d ever want to be a farmer. But that’s what it came down to – that’s what we needed. A way to grow food for ourselves, and then maybe for livestock. Kostoya had the right word for it: we needed to find a sustainable way of living. Not in a green, planet-hugging way, but in a way that sheltered us from the world’s evils. This wasn’t politics; it was survival.

“Definitely a challenge,” Kostoya said, finally turning from his musings to look directly at me. “It will take some work, but it’s not impossible. We just need to figure out the how. Yes?”

I couldn’t help it: I smiled at him. “Yes.”

I like Kostoya. He can be offhandedly callous if he needs to be – like with the acid barrier around the building, ready to spray on anyone who strays too close – but he means well. He wants things to work and he loves nothing better than figuring out this sort of problem. With a brain like his on it, we’re bound to come up with something.

I’m going to talk to the rest of the group about it as well. Maybe someone has an idea that will fix one of those problems. Conroy has been acting as Kostoya’s right hand and he’s often full of good ideas.

At least now we have a list of smaller problems to solve, rather than one big one. With this kind of thing, you need to break it into pieces before you can start to put it together. Like a jigsaw.

I always liked putting jigsaws together.