Friday, 17 July 2009 - 9:03 pm


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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