Sun, 12 July 2009 - 6:10 pm

Trust

It’s been a strange couple of days here in the Department of Chemistry and Biological Sciences. We’ve been trying to catch our breaths and get a handle on what’s here at the same time. It has been like snatching a lungful of smoke when you’re drowning.

The cold outside is winching down on the world. The rain is falling more as sleet than water and the ice is taking longer and longer to melt away in the mornings. We haven’t been eager to go outside in all of that, even if the shamblers weren’t out there. They’re still wandering around the campus, searching for prey they can’t get to thanks to the watery barrier latched onto the exterior of this building.

Inside, it’s much warmer. There’s a boiler somewhere in the bowels of the building, and there’s fuel enough to heat at least some of the rooms. Dr Kostoya, the denizen of this particular haven, has given us one of the teaching rooms to squat in while we wait out this freezing weather. We’re enjoying the chance to sit around without a few of our many layers on. No need to chance an indoor fire here or sit huddling in blankets.

We’ve been able to take stock. Masterson says that the injured are doing all right and none of us appear to have the Sickness right now. The runners are getting their strength back, and Bree’s little group are still tagged onto our edges. The Seekers are still making decisions for everyone but I don’t know how long that will last. As people get comfortable, they get confident and start to question. I don’t blame them but it does make things more complicated for all of us.

Dillon is doing better. He’s spending as much time on the crutches as he can, practicing moving around on them. I told him to take it easy, but he looked at me and said that he didn’t want to slow us down.

“Look after yourself,” I told him. “That’s the best thing you can do for everyone. We won’t leave you behind, hopalong.”

He seemed relieved but he did another circuit of the room anyway. “Just because,” he said.

Dale seems to be getting stronger, too. He hasn’t been up and about as much as the kid, but he’s shifting for himself more. Thorpe continues to keep an eye on him, though he doesn’t need to carry him any more. I’m starting to wonder if Thorpe is busying himself with the Wolverine as an excuse to stay away from Matt.

Ben is still frosty whenever my friend hangs around me for too long. I’m doing my best to ignore it; I’m not going to let his insecurity dictate who I can and can’t talk to. I don’t like to upset him but Matt and I have done nothing wrong.

Ben has been snappish since we got here, and it’s not just because of his trust issues. I noticed after we got inside that his ears were bright red, along with a stripe on his neck where his scarf had slipped. I tried to check it but he wouldn’t let me; he kept saying that he was fine. It looks like sunburn – and we were outside for most of the morning – but it still doesn’t quite make sense. We used to wander around all day when it was warmer and no-one got burnt, not with the constant cloudcover and orange sun-filter. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want me to make a fuss and it’s not worth fighting over.

He said something cryptic today about not everyone being what they appear. He was looking at Jersey when he said it, and then his eyes followed Sally as she passed in front of him. I know she’s keeping herself bundled so that no-one notices her baby-bump, but I have no idea what Jersey might be hiding. Maybe he didn’t mean that. Whatever he meant, I don’t like the taste it laid on the back of my tongue.

We have enough mysteries to keep us busy right now; we don’t need them swelling up within our own ranks.

 

Dr Kostoya has been elusive. He visits us every now and then, mostly to berate us about straying outside of the room he’s allowing us to stay in. He’d like us to stay in this room or leave – preferably the latter. He knows that he can’t evict us forcibly, so he’s making do with putting up fences around us. I can’t say that I blame him.

We haven’t seen anyone else since we got here. It’s possible that he’s here alone; that thought saddens me and it’s no wonder he doesn’t trust us. I keep trying to catch him for a conversation, but he’s here and then gone again. It’s like he knows that I want to talk to him and is doing his best to avoid it. I have no idea why.

The others want to explore the building, but in an effort to exhibit good faith, I’ve been keeping everyone as close as possible. I don’t know if it’s working; I can’t be everywhere.

I just realised why I don’t like how this is going. It’s politics. I hate politics, with its power struggles and promises to keep people happy. Compromises of the sort that leave me feeling dirtied. Checking familiar faces for the lie I’m starting to think is there.

Things were simpler when we were on the move, all heading in the same direction.

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Mon, 13 July 2009 - 7:15 pm

Defence

The circling undead were spotted rotating in our direction just before dawn. I woke to hear the sounds of quiet chortling from the windows. There were a couple of the guys on watch; they hadn’t bothered waking anyone. I don’t know where Ben had got to – I think he was checking the other sides of the building.

I got up to see what they were looking at: distant shamblers struggling to move towards us. It was like a sad version of dead deer ice skating. Feet slid out from under them every other step and they fell hard. Their instincts were so dented that they often didn’t put their hands out to stop themselves. I don’t know if I imagined it, but I’m sure they were leaving blood behind on the ice.

They just kept getting up. Over and over, like a mouse too stupid to figure out the maze. Fall, get up, fall again. I expected at least one of the group to give up and start crawling, but none of them did. Perhaps the ice repelled them, the way the rain did. Maybe they knew, in some part of their off-sparking brains, that they were falling onto rainwater and they shouldn’t stay on it.

I winced when they fell down. The boys – Jersey and one of the siblings, Terry – laughed, and I have to admit that after a few times it did start to be amusing. It was so ridiculous that I couldn’t help myself. I pulled away before I grew callouses to match the boys’.

 

People started to get up not long after that and I got distracted by the necessary business of organising food and water for everyone. There’s so many of us that we’re burning through our supplies at a shocking rate; we’re going to need to venture out soon to search for more. I counted heads before most of the group woke up (it’s the only time everyone’s still enough to do it), and there’s twenty-two of us now. Wow.

It wasn’t until after the morning rounds of supply-sharing had finished and people were getting restless that I realised they were gathering by those windows. Returning there, I saw that the shamblers were still making their painstaking way towards us. They were much nearer by then, across the street and closing in.

We’ve grown complacent here behind these walls with the protective fall of acid water. More and more of the group were laughing at the shamblers’ trials, at their slip and fall. Two fell down at once and a cheer went up.

They were close enough to see clearly. Their skin was scorched red and black, peeling and cracking. Underneath that, they were bone-white and blue, bitten by the frost. None of them had more than a layer of torn clothing on. Their claw-like hands seemed stiffer than usual, frozen in place. My stomach turned over uncomfortably as I wondered if they would shatter if they fell too hard.

 

They were stumbling over the kerb before the building when we heard Dr Kostoya clattering down the stairs towards our room. He was calling out something incoherent, his accent twisting words in his haste. I was closest to the door when he stopped there and told him to catch his breath and try again.

He looked at me with eyes starting to go rheumy. I felt his terror slide right down into my belly and went cold all over.

“It’s frozen. In the pipes. The water’s frozen.”

The meaning dominoed in my head as I stared at him. Then all of a sudden I was shouting for everyone to arm themselves. The pipes were frozen and there was no protection for us, just a gaggle of shamblers about to crawl in through the windows we were pressed up against. I had to explain it twice before the idea caught fire and raced around the room, leaving us all scrabbling for defences in its wake.

Those who didn’t have weapons broke furniture for legs to wield. Dale was told to lock the door behind us, shutting himself and the kids away. It was the best we could do for them. I looked at Kostoya and shoved him into the room as well; he was still struggling for breath after running to us and shaking all over. Better he stay where he’ll be safe.

We had to hurry to get outside before the shamblers started to pound on the door – in close quarters, they had the advantage. Our best advantage was our speed and staying out of their grasp; theirs was their persistence and strength.

It was a mess. Our footing was only marginally better than the shamblers’; I think the only one of us who didn’t fall down was Ben. My hips and knees are bruised from it. My left arm, the one that was scored by a shambler in the last big throw-down we had, had to be forced to work, mostly by adrenaline. It aches all the way through now and I can hardly lift it.

At one point, a falling shambler knocked me down and then started to crawl up me, stretching its mouth wide. I screamed and shoved at it, but it was too heavy to dislodge. My heart was climbing up into my throat in panic when it was suddenly lifted off me and tossed aside. I scrambled to my feet to the sound of a bat rising and falling on it, over and over until it stopped twitching. Then Ben turned around and asked if I was all right.

I got off lightly. Several of the others were bitten or torn; their screams pulled the rest of us over to help. I was surrounded by painful voices and the sound of bats crunching flesh and bone, and the low, hungry moans of the shamblers. It’s the sort of situation that circles my nightmares until I’m devoured by it.

The sudden silence at the end of the fight was like a slap in the face. None of us could quite believe it; we kept looking around for more and finding none. There was blood splattered on us, some of it our own, and our breath misted in front of our faces.

I realised then what was missing from the shamblers when they were coming towards us. Their breath didn’t mist. I don’t know if they had breath at all, except to moan with. What they did have was too cold to condense.

 

We retreated back inside to the kids and the injured, locking all the doors behind us. I wasn’t the only one shaking as I sank to sit down. There was no time to rest; there were injuries to see to. Only a couple were serious and required Masterson’s attention; the rest were cleaned and bound, using up the last dregs of our supplies. I felt Ben keeping an eye on me the whole time, and that was comforting.

When we were done and resting, Dr Kostoya came over to where Ben, Matt, Dillon and I were sitting. He thanked us for beating them and said that he was going to work on the problem, washing his hands over and over each other. We offered our help and he looked at us for an uncertain moment.

“Perhaps yes. I will look at the situation and… let you know.”

He excused himself and hurried back up the stairs to whatever part of the building he resides in. I think he’ll be back. I hope he’ll be back.

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Tue, 14 July 2009 - 9:18 pm

Rising Tide

There were a few developments overnight, none of which were good for any of us.

The first one was Jersey’s trouble in getting up this morning. He was hurt far worse than he told anyone yesterday – I bandaged a bite on his arm, but he’s bleeding under his shirt. He wouldn’t let anyone help him, but disappeared off to deal with it himself. Masterson tried to look at it and got a fist in the face for his trouble. I’m worried about the Wolverine and now our doctor is too grumpy to look at anyone.

Ben told me a couple of days ago that Jersey was hiding something. Now I’m not the only one that suspects there’s something going on with him.

And then there’s Ben. By this morning, he had another red stripe on his neck, extending up over his jawline this time. He wouldn’t let me look at him but it certainly looks like sunburn to me. It can’t be – we couldn’t have been outside more than an hour. He seems to be in some pain with it and it’s making him snappish. I tried to talk to him, so he got up and went on patrol around the building. I wanted to chase him but I can take a hint.

 

About the time that Ben made his abrupt departure, I caught the drift of an intense conversation in the rest of the group. A clump of about ten of them were facing off and the volume of the discussion was escalating. I went over to see what was going on and had to shout to get them to shut up long enough for someone to tell me.

“They want to throw out everyone who got bitten yesterday,” Matt said. He was so tense that his hands were curled into fists, even his bandaged one. He had fallen on it badly on the ice; he wasn’t bitten.

When I asked why they wanted to get rid of the bitten, Tom, one of the runners, spoke up. “They’re afraid we’ll turn into those beasts outside.”

I can’t say that I blame them. We’ve faced that threat from within, we’ve seen our own rise up in mindless hunger, lunging for people once called friends. It’s terrifying; no-one was denying that.

“Do we know that’s how it works?” I asked. “Those we’ve seen with the Sickness weren’t bitten.”

“We’ve seen some who were.” I can’t remember who spoke – another of the runners, I think.

“What about the priest?”

“Plenty of us have been bitten and haven’t got Sick!” That was Matt again, I think.

He had a point, but it spiralled the argument up until I had to shout for silence again. I felt so small, standing in the middle of the group – I think everyone was gathered by then, except for Ben, and Bree’s little troupe. It was a few long seconds before the voices died down and then I was pinned by every pair of eyes in the room.

“We’re not going to throw anyone out for being bitten. If people start getting Sick, then we’ll talk about it. But we’re not acting on paranoia, and we’re not going to kill people.”

Jersey started to say that they weren’t talking about killing anyone, and I had to point out that yes, that’s exactly what they were talking about. Throwing them out, injured and without supplies, to fend for themselves on streets infested with shamblers – they’ll die. We all know it.

“We’re stronger together. Let’s stay that way as long as possible,” I told them.

No-one spoke up to argue with me that time. The resistance was there, riding under the atmosphere in the room, but it didn’t form into words. I waited a few nervous heartbeats, then I walked out of the circle. My hands were trembling and I went to repack my gear to have something to do.

Janice and a couple of the others thanked me. That helped. Then Matt came to see if I was all right and I was grateful for the support. I started to feel like I’d done something more than just push back the tide. I’m too scared to feel comfortable, though.

That tide is going to come in again. As soon as someone gets sick, it’s going to blow up worse than it did today. I’m dreading it. I don’t know how long I can keep hold of control here, or even if I should. If it comes down to a real debate, will anyone listen to me?

I don’t feel qualified; I just feel strongly. And very, very small.

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Wed, 15 July 2009 - 9:14 pm

Changes wrought

Today, a group of nearly a dozen of our amalgamated number went out to look for supplies. I stayed behind with the kids and the injured, along with Sally and a couple of the boys for security. My arm’s still not working very well after the fight, so I’m taking the chance to rest it while I can.

Dr Kostoya showed his face to report that he has been pouring hot water on the pipes and they’re all unfrozen now. So we can try to feel secure again. It was nice of him to try but very much too late. We keep our watches and weapons close.

 

Ben stayed behind too. He said that he wanted to make sure that we were protected here, but I have my suspicions. I think he stayed because he didn’t want to go outside and get burnt again.

I managed to catch him alone and asked him what was wrong. He keeps himself separate from everyone else and barely talks to me at all. He doesn’t even talk to Thorpe, his fire-fighting buddy he’s known for years. I don’t remember the last time I saw the two of them sitting together, laughing at some private joke. Certainly not since Ben got the Sickness.

He shook his head in answer to my question but he didn’t walk away like he keeps doing lately. I took a chance and pressed him.

“The Sickness changed you,” I said. I had meant it to be a question but it didn’t come out that way.

He looked at me and I couldn’t tell if the shadow was on or in his eyes. “Yes.”

“How? I mean, in what way? Is that why you got burnt?” He still bears the red stripes across his cheeks and neck.

He nodded but he didn’t say anything. I couldn’t read him; he has become good at closing off his expression.

“Ben, I want to help you. But I can’t if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”

“It doesn’t scare you?”

“That you’ve changed?” It’s not a reaction that had crossed my mind. “No. Should it?”

He touched my cheek gently. “No, not you.”

As answers go, it wasn’t a very comforting one. There was a warm, happy spot in my belly that wasn’t sure if it should be there. “Then let me in, Ben. Tell me what’s happening with you.”

He hesitated, then shook his head. “I will, when I have it figured out.”

I wanted to help him figure it out. He could see it in my face and the shutters were down; the words died before they fell out of my mouth. The answer was no and that was that. I never could change Ben’s mind about anything – that much of him was the same as ever.

He kissed me on the forehead by way of apology, and that was the end of the conversation.

 

The foragers didn’t find much today. They came back to the chemistry building in high spirits but with empty hands. At least the chance to get out seems to have done them good and they didn’t see any shamblers.

I talked with Matt about the situation with Ben. He was supportive but had no answers either. What can any of us do? There are nervous flies in my belly looking for a way out. I felt a little better after talking to him, though; I can always count on Matt for that.

I guess we’ll find out the truth soon.

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Thu, 16 July 2009 - 10:17 pm

Filtered water

Dr Kostoya allowed a few of us upstairs today. We caught him sneaking around downstairs when the foragers were heading out and he asked if we would give him a hand with something. I went up with Ben, Sally and Conroy.

He has settled himself in his lab with a bed of piled blankets on an old couch in his office. “My home away from home is now just home,” he told us with a shrug.

We were much more interested in the things he had set up in the lab. So many pipes and tubes, tubs and bowls and vats. At first, he didn’t want to talk about any of that stuff – he asked us to help him hook up a new pump to a nest of pipes in the corner. It was a big, heavy thing that had to be held up while it was propped in place and attached to the system.

We struggled to get it into position, but it seemed a lot lighter than it looked. Kostoya was surprised while he hurried around us, fastening things. I couldn’t help but notice that Ben didn’t seem to strain under it as much as the rest of us did, but maybe that’s just yesterday’s conversation colouring things. I’m looking for changes now, so maybe that’s why I’m seeing them.

Kostoya explained the pump after it was dealt with: it would stop the water in the defensive pipes from freezing. He babbled something about convection but I missed exactly what he was saying. I did catch that he has a rainwater tank on the roof that he’s using to supply the system.

That’s not all he’s using the rainwater for, either. Conroy and I peeked at some of the things he has on the counters and were quickly shooed away from them.

“You’re investigating the rain?” Conroy asked him. Of all of us, he’s the one most likely to understand the professor’s mumblings.

“Yes! Of course. What else would I be doing here?” Kostoya was flustered and defensive, but not enough to chase us away. I think he liked that we seemed interested; we reminded him of his long-gone students.

“What have you found out about it?” I said. I didn’t know what I hoped for; it has been so long since we had any chance of discovering anything about the rain that I had given up on answers.

A lot of things, he told us. He’d discovered so many things, and yet he had barely scratched the surface of it. It’s not organic, he said, and it’s not just laced with acid. It’s more than that. And despite it bearing a faintly green tinge, it’s linked to the orange taint to the clouds.

But it can be filtered clean. With the right mixture of stones and soils and enough time, the acid can be sifted right out of the rainwater. It can be made safe.

“Won’t even make you sick,” he said, holding up a glass of water that looked muddy but brown rather than green.

It took me a long moment to realise what he meant. Ben was silent and Conroy’s mouth fell open just a heartbeat before the penny dropped inside my skull.

“The Sickness is linked to the rain?”

“Yes, yes of course.” Kostoya seemed surprised. “What did you think caused it?”

None of us knew what to say to that. It makes an awful kind of sense. I went through the list of those I had known with the Sickness: Sax, with his burnt arm; Ben, with the acid splatter over his chest; Alice, with half her face missing; and, more recently, Steve with his bandaged arm. Of the others – the priest, the Rats – I don’t know if they had ever been burned by the rain, but it’s entirely possible.

Our stunned silence was broken by Sally’s abrupt departure. The lab doors flapped in her wake.

Kostoya decided that was a wonderful idea and shooed us all out. Down in our teaching room again, things were strange. Conroy was fascinated; Ben was silent and internal; Sally was curled up and apparently asleep. I turned it all over in my head until the others got back, my feet carrying me in restless circles around the building. It’s hard trying to keep watch with such a distraction.

I think the rain just got a little more terrifying.

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Fri, 17 July 2009 - 9:03 pm

Poison

Yesterday’s revelation spread around the group like fire on a wet log: in sputters and with much smoke. A new word attached itself to the rain and rose out of the ashes: poison. It’s not just acid: it poisons us, makes us Sick, and twists our bodies into those empty shells stumbling around on the ice outside.

Conjecture ran around like a scared child, pinballing from one possibility to the next and failing to find safe arms to hide in. I didn’t hear all of it, and I didn’t understand some of what I did catch. I strove to stay out of it all, and managed to do that until I heard the voices rising towards paranoia and hysteria. I wasn’t the only one calling for sanity and sense.

Give people a little information and they’ll make up a host more to fill in the blanks, truth be damned. Most of what they make up is frightening.

I had to promise to prevail on Dr Kostoya for more answers; it was the only way I could shut up the maybes and what-ifs. Today, that’s what I went upstairs to get. I managed to convince most of the group to stay downstairs – I didn’t want the entire mob turning up and freaking the poor old fella out. The shamblers outside are terrifying for their hunger and my group are no different.

Kostoya wasn’t pleased to see us, but when we explained that we wanted more information from him, he relaxed. I could see it slipping into his expression – relief and the familiarity of the teacher’s pose.

“We have a lot of scared people downstairs,” I told him. I asked if he’d come down to talk to all of us, because the Chinese whispering was giving me a headache. I was afraid that I’d misunderstand the science and get it all twisted.

He hemmed a bit and bustled around the lab in his nervousness, but we pleaded and eventually he agreed. He followed us down and hovered by my elbow until everyone was seated and ready for him.

Standing off to one side, I looked at the room and felt suddenly off-kilter. It was so familiar and yet not at all what it should have been like.

Here were all these people – my friends and strangers who might become friends – gathered behind the desks, students waiting for the professor to speak. They were bundled up in various types of clothing, a mishmash of leather and cloth, felt and suede. Jackets and scarves and the occasional hat pulled down over ears to keep them warm. Thin and worn, with a thread of toughness in all of them.

There were no pens and paper, no notes waiting to be taken. But their expressions were open and expectant as well as guarded, doubtful, hopeful. In one or two, there was downright derision, but they were at least silent about it.

It was a strange classroom in the time After. Standing up by the blackboard, Dr Kostoya stood with his elbow-patched jacket and white hair sticking out in random directions. He didn’t take up the chalk and start writing. He looked like he wasn’t sure whether to dive in or bolt from the room when he took a deep breath.

He dove in. He told us about the bomb scorching the sky, about chemicals suspended in the atmosphere and the conditions that bring it raining down on us. He told us about how the acid interacts with the human body, how it works like a poison in the bloodstream, corrupting the cells it comes in contact with. It takes a long time to build up to a noticeable state – months, in most cases. Sometimes it takes less time, but the chances of absorbing enough acid to do that without dying are fairly slim.

He wasn’t so sure about exactly what it did to the human body to make it into a shambler – he’s a chemist, not a biologist, and he hasn’t had a ‘live’ subject to examine. From his observations, he suggests that there’s a deadening of the neural system, along with most brain functions. They’re left with basic motor functions and base survival – eating. He suspects they’re trying to assuage a chemical imbalance by seeking fresh meat that hasn’t been tainted by the rain; that’s why they don’t just eat each other.

His words turned my stomach over, but they made sense. Kostoya looked at me when he was finished to see if he had covered everything, but I had nothing for him. The others were ready to fill in the gap.

Jersey asked if the Sickness could be caught by being bitten. Kostoya replied that it was possible, but unlikely – exposure had to be above a certain level for it to have any real effect. He said that there would probably have to be blood transfer.

Terry asked if the Sickness could be caught from others suffering from it. The answer was the same: not impossible, but probably required direct blood contact.

Conroy asked if there was a cure. Kostoya spread his hands and said that he wasn’t a biologist or a medical doctor. He didn’t have the knowledge or the resources for that kind of thing. Masterson spoke up to say that it was unlikely someone could be brought back from the shambler state; it’s difficult to return brain function to a person at the best of times. This was far from the best of times. It might be possible to prevent the changes wrought by the poison, but not to undo them. If one had the knowledge and resources to figure it out. And the time.

 

It was a lot for us all to mull over. The room descended into shards of conversations as the new information was turned over, like rocks, to see what crawled underneath. There is always something crawling underneath.

I caught Kostoya before he could slip out of the room. I asked him, “Is it possible for someone to recover from the Sickness without becoming one of those things?”

He looked at me and shrugged; he thought Masterson was a better person to ask. “I suppose it’s always possible that someone could have a natural immunity. It’s a very virulent chemical compound, according to my observations. It hasn’t left any organic material unchanged in my experiments. But it’s definitely possible.”

I thanked him and he fell out of my fingers before I could think up anything else to ask him. Hasn’t left any organic material unchanged. If someone could be immune to it, then they could be resistant. They might not be changed at all, or they might be changed… differently. Ben was watching me when I looked across the room at him and my innards went cold.

 

I didn’t noticed Sally until much later, after the foragers got back with some supplies. Her eyes were red from crying and she was hurrying away from Masterson, her head ducked down.

Even with all the talk of the rain, I hadn’t even thought about who might yet get Sick. Who had been burned. We’ve all been wrapped up lately, so it has been easy to forget about the bandages and scars.

Sally’s arm was burnt on the boat while we were visiting Dillon’s house. There was a nasty splash of acid scored across her forearm; I helped her dress it when it was fresh. I don’t know if it’s enough to make her Sick, but I don’t think that’s all that’s upsetting her. I’d ask her about it, but I don’t think she’d talk to me and I have no comfort to offer her.

I need to go and see Kostoya again. I need to ask him what the rain’s poison might do to an unborn child.

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Sat, 18 July 2009 - 7:01 pm

Savaged

I didn’t get a chance to talk to Kostoya today.

Caroline went missing. The shell-shocked runner has been wandering around in a daze since we picked her up. She went out with the foragers yesterday and was more hindrance than help, they told me. They gave her things to carry and had someone keep an eye on her the whole time. She definitely came back to the chemistry building with them last night before the sleet started.

There was no sign of her this morning. Those on watch didn’t see her wander off and her cluster of blankets is still all ruffled up from when she got out of them. We’re sure she didn’t disappear while it was still raining, so we’re searching the building in case she just found somewhere else to curl up for the night. It was cold last night, but not enough to kill her on its own.

The search of the building proved fruitless, but we had more luck when we widened the net. We found her in a maintenance shed, lying amid defunct machines that haven’t moved in six months, covered in dust and a faint sheen of ice.

No-one said anything. There wasn’t much to say. I felt my mind ticking through the details, clinking coldly as I tried to make sense of it. She didn’t freeze to death: her neck and a few other body-parts looked like they had been chewed on. She was a sad, broken collection of meat turning blue, staring blankly at the ceiling. Next to her, there were a couple of dead rats, also torn up.

Someone threw up – I think it was Conroy. Thorpe kept most of the others away so they wouldn’t see her. Dale asked if she would get up again and the general consensus was no; she didn’t die of the Sickness, and that was how it worked, right?

So what killed her? It could have been shamblers, though by all accounts, there’d be nothing left of her if they were responsible. They tend to tear people up, not take bite-sized chunks out of them. And there was so little blood; usually there’s a lot more blood than this. It terrifies me that I know that.

It could have been an animal – canine, feline, there are some running around. It could even have been a pack of hunters. None of us heard anything last night, but the shed is outside on the far side of the building: too far for us to hear most things. Even screams, though I don’t know if Caroline got much of a chance for that.

We covered her with a piece of old tarp and dragged her outside so that the rain will take her. None of us wanted to leave her body in the shed, partly because of the animals and partly in case she did rise and come after us with empty hunger. It might be unlikely but fear doesn’t always listen to reason.

There’s no sign of what did it. There wasn’t much doubt that it was probably what stole Norman from us, too. We all agreed to be more vigilant and to go nowhere alone. There wasn’t a lot else for us to do and that was the worst part of it. We had just started to unravel one threat and another one reared its head, faceless, nameless, hovering in the shadows to claw us down in our weak moments.

Matt walked back to the building with me and asked if I was all right. I said no and he put his arm around me, hugged me lightly.

“Me neither,” he said. We leaned on each other all the way back to the teaching room.

Ben was there, scowling as I went over to him and explained what we’d found. He didn’t ask me about Caroline or the beast that killed her; he asked me about Matt. I snapped at him that we were just friends and he made it clear that he didn’t believe me. The look on his face said everything. I don’t know how I’m supposed to prove it to him when he doesn’t respond to my attempts at intimacy.

I won’t give up my best friend. We all need to keep each other close these days. I wish that Ben understood that.

We should sing for Caroline tonight. None of us knew her very well but it feels important to do it anyway. For us.

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Sun, 19 July 2009 - 8:39 pm

Snow

Today, there wasn’t any rain. It didn’t even fall as sleet. Instead, the foragers ran back under a light drift of white flakes.

I hadn’t seen snow before today. It’s oddly beautiful, deceptively gentle dancing, settling into thick blankets. When the foragers got inside, they threw their hats and umbrellas aside. Within seconds, the melting snow had dissolved all of them. It was a duality that sent an uncomfortable tingle up my spine.

Even with that stark reminder, the kids thought the snow was amazing. They wanted to go out and run in it, but they were too used to this time After to ask so they sat at the windows and watched it instead.

It never gets this cold around here – or, it never used to, anyway. I guess all those rules have changed. Now I’m wondering just how must colder it’s going to get. I’m wondering if the ice will ever recede, or if it’ll just keep creeping over us.

I wonder if the orange sky will lighten enough to let some warmth through.

 

I went up to the lab today and spoke with Dr Kostoya. I asked him about the rainwater and the effect it might have on an unborn child.

He was flustered, but he answered the question in his roundabout way. He said that it could have any number of effects, most of them killing or mutating the baby. It didn’t sound safe for the mother, either. The short answer was that he didn’t know what it might do.

“I don’t know why you’re all coming to me about this,” he told me. “Didn’t your friend talk to you about it?”

“Someone else asked you about this?”

“Dr Masterson came up earlier.” He eyed me closely. “It’s not for you, is it?”

“No! No, it’s not.”

“But it’s someone, isn’t it?”

I looked at him and didn’t want to lie. He seemed so harmless. “Yeah.”

He frowned at me, churning over the thoughts. “She’ll need help.”

I couldn’t argue with him. I sighed and shrugged, and thanked him for his help.

 

I was surprised that Masterson would go to the trouble of talking to Kostoya about this. But I’m pleased. I don’t have to be the one to worry about all this, and he is trying to look out for her. At least, I hope that’s why he was asking.

I can’t imagine how Sally is feeling right now. Masterson has been sticking close to her and she was in tears again earlier. I think I’ll go talk to her when I get the chance. All I can do is let her know that she’s not alone in this.

Maybe she won’t turn me away like Ben does.

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Mon, 20 July 2009 - 8:02 pm

Three little words

I managed to talk to Sally last night while Masterson had gone to fetch them some dinner.

She’s more scared than she’s showing. She’s hardly eating and her nails are gnawed down to nubs. She looked at me warily as if I might turn on her at any moment, and said that she didn’t want to tell the others about the baby.

Especially not now. Who knows what they might do if they know she was poisoned and might be growing a mutant baby. I can see Conroy bleakly lining up the movie references, and a few of the others fetching weapons to drive her away. I don’t think anyone would attack her – not directly – but desperate people do crazy things. And Masterson’s mouth would only make things worse for everyone.

I told her we’d work this out. We’d do what we could to fix things. She knows as well as I do that there’s little we can do, but I hope she believed me when I said that I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. She nodded stiffly and suddenly I could see she was a hair away from crying. So I hugged her, knowing it would break that last bit of self-control but hoping the release would make her feel better. It’s all right to lean on me, it’s all right.

“I don’t know what to do, Faith,” she said into my shoulder. She was shaking and I could barely make out the words. “How’m I going to get out of this?”

She’s too far along to abort safely, so the simpler, bloodier option was gone. She has to bear the baby, and the threat of the Sickness is still swinging over her.

“We’ll figure it out,” I told her. “You’re not alone.”

I seem to be saying those three words so often these days. They feel empty and overused on my tongue, like a candy sucked to a thin shell. All we have is each other here; it’s the one thing that we don’t have to fight and scrape and search for. And I don’t want to let anyone go, not even the strangers among us, the ones we’re just starting to know.

This isn’t a case of keeping your enemies closest: it’s keeping the strangers close, your friends closer, and your enemies at arm’s reach so you can swing a bat at their head.

 

I left Sally when she was feeling better and Masterson came back. He scowled at me and snapped something about me sticking my nose in again. It hurt more than I like to admit.

“I’m just being a friend to her,” I said. “I want to–”

“Help, yeah, we know.” The derision in his voice twisted in my chest. “We don’t need your ‘help’.”

I stared at him, stung into silence. I’m used to his sharp tongue but not in that way. I don’t know what might have prompted him to slash at me that way. I managed, “What–” before he cut me off again.

“Look at your own house before you go fixing up other people’s.” And then he walked away.

All things considered, I would have preferred a punch in the face. Now Sally is miserable and Masterson is as angry-faced as ever, and I have no idea why I’m suddenly to blame for everything. Maybe it’s because I’m in charge, the one that everyone follows. Maybe it’s something closer to home. I get the feeling that he was talking about Ben when he mentioned ‘my own house’. Unless he’s under the impression that there really was something between me and Matt and this is his way of disapproving. If that’s true, he’s a horrible hypocrite: I remember the way we found him at the hospital.

 

I feel heavy today. Leaden and useless. I stayed behind when the foragers went out; watching the kids bat Dillon’s soccer-ball around almost managed to cheer me up. His leg is still too sore to kick a ball (or take his weight), but he’s getting better at whacking it with his crutches.

I’m starting to feel stuck here. We’re learning a lot, unravelling mysteries, but we’re treading water. We have to strike out for somewhere soon or we’ll get pulled under and end up cold and hungry.

I think there’s a part of me that wants to run away, too. There’s too much being uncovered, like Caroline’s corpse in the shed. Don’t look, don’t look, stay back, get away.

Now I wonder: have we been running away from the truth all this time?

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Tue, 21 July 2009 - 7:36 pm

Words on the waves

Last month, our radio caught the whisper of a voice in the air. We couldn’t make it out but it was definitely there. We’ve been searching for that signal ever since.

Today, we went up to the roof to try our luck again, hoping that elevation might help. Maybe the crisper air was a good thing too. We wrapped our aerial wire around the big metal fork stapled to the roof and started to scan, searching for a breath of something. Anything.

I was up there with Scott and Conroy and glad to be out in the open air. We had to be careful about sweeping the snow away from our feet in case it ate through our boots, but it was still better than being stuck downstairs. I could have gone out with the foragers, but they know what they’re doing and I’m more use here.

Besides, the view from up there was amazing. With the snow’s frosting, the scorched, denuded earth was less obvious. It reflected back the orange glow of the sky, tinting like a lens that wasn’t quite screwed on properly. Buildings stood out in sharp relief, hard lines under the snow’s softer wrap. There were no trees with crazy branches or hidden lumps of bushes. Just the poke of manmade structure above the roll and swell of the land, unadorned except for its frosted fur coat.

The strangest thing was that there was no movement at all. Not a flutter or a stumble, not even in the distance. I stood there for a long time, just looking, searching for a sign of life out there in this strange, pristine, tainted world.

The sign came from behind me. A screech and a crackle, and Conroy’s fiddling finally came across a gap in the static. Sound slipped all over the radio’s speakers until he tuned it more finely. Then there it was: a male voice, speaking calmly and steadily, passing words out across the tide-swelling air to us.

“…for survivors. We’re gathered… …mount. We have supplies. If you can… …message, come to the Greenberry J… …hope you are out there. Good….”

The signal stopped, drifting back into the empty waves. Conroy scrabbled with the controls of the radio and stuttered out a reply to let them know that we’re here, we’re survivors, we hear them. Scott and I bounced on our toes, straining to hear a reply come through. He spoke and waited and spoke again, and then looked at me.

“Am I doing it right?”

I was standing beside the radio and shrugged; he looked like he was doing it the right way to me. There was no response, though.

When Conroy gave up, Scott picked up the handset and tried his luck, though he soon stopped too. The Wolverine and I tried to work out what the message had said, what it meant and where these senders are. At least there shouldn’t be many Greenberrys on the map and they had to be relatively close for the signal to reach us at all.

Then we heard it again. Scott blinked and rocked back from the radio in surprise, turning to look at us.

“I didn’t touch it,” he said, then hushed to listen.

It was the same voice, the same calm tone, the same words riding the radiowaves. Exactly the same. I felt my stomach roil itself into a tight knot.

“It’s on a loop,” Conroy said, confirming what I suspected but didn’t have the technical terminology for. It was a recording; we weren’t listening to a real person at all.

I have no idea if the person we heard is alive or dead now. Is it the same message that we caught a whisper of last month? Anything could have happened in that time. What about the supplies it mentioned? What if they’ve run out by now? How long has the message been running for?

I think of all that has changed in the last few weeks alone and shiver. The message could be no help to us at all.

“Someone has to be there. Otherwise there wouldn’t be power to send it any more,” Conroy pointed out.

That helped. That loosened the knot in my gut and let me hope a little. Someone was keeping that message going. Power meant people, so someone had to be there. That was worth smiling about, and I did.

The boys ran downstairs to spread the news, telling the story of the message in loud, excited voices. They repeated the performance when the foragers returned ahead of the daily snowfall. There were smiles all around, belated and tentative in places, but present. A couple of backs were slapped and Conroy and Scott beamed like the best puppies in the world.

We got out our map and searched for Greenberry. There’s a Greenberry Junction out west a way – no short distance from here but no further than anywhere we’ve been before. We have added a dot to it, another marker on our list of places to go.

Looking at the map, at all the ground we have yet to cover, my heart lifted. South to the Emergency Coordination Centre, to Dillon’s family, and now west to Greenberry. The Seekers still have a long way to go and I’m not the only one ready to move on.

It feels good to have something to strive for and look forward to.

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