The scientist on TV was not nearly as scared as he should have been. He stood on the sterile, makeshift podium surrounded by cameras and armed guards, looking irritated, as if the end of the world was a minor inconvenience that happened each day between missed busses. He glared at crowd and the crowd glared back, some of them weeping, the newscasters standing like statues, microphones welded in their hands.
“Yes, but isn’t it true you had access to this virus at Cornwallis?” one of them shouted, faceless in the crowd, “That you were mutating it for this exact purpose?”
“What purpose?” the scientist snapped, looking pale and sick and in the glaring light it was impossible to tell whether he was breathing. “Infecting half a million people? On our side of the globe, no less? Sir, we are not bogeymen waiting to steal your children in the night. I can assure you our dealings were of purely scientific intent.”
Another reporter filled the gap without pause, clambering ratlike over the anxious crowd in front of her.
“Large corporations leach hundreds of tons of toxic waste into the waterways every year. Is it possible then that Cornwallis leaked it into the water supply?”
For a moment, the scientist glanced off screen, to stage left where someone’s lawyer was waiting with an expressive face and battered cell phone. Whatever direction the lawyer gave left the scientist’s face curdling like cream as he turned to face the crowd again.
“That is, quite frankly, a load of inflammatory hippy bullshit. Cornwallis is the most secure research and testing facility in the world. There is simply no possible way we leaked this virus into the water supply. Even if we wanted to—even if global suicide was our idea of a party—the vials that contain the samples neutralize all contents should they ever leave the building. And trust me, there are too many protocols in place for that to ever, ever happen. Even,” he said, glaring at a particular member of the press, “through a drain.”
Someone coughed, sick and wet with a squelch like rotting flesh on pavement and a panic broke out in the rear of the crowd. They churned away, moving as a single, wavelike mass towards the podium, away from a hunched figure in the shadow of the door, wiping something from the corner of its mouth. A rifle fired twice in rapid succession and the body was carried off by hazmat before it ever hit the floor.
The scientist looked startled. He glanced at his lawyer again and back to the crowd before removing his glasses, cleaning them methodically on the hem of his long since un-tucked shirt.
“This virus is similar to ours in basic appearance, I’ll warrant you,” he said, and there was quiet resignation in his voice. “But ours can be timed. The sickness progresses at regular intervals and can only be contracted by direct contact with the virus. But this—it seems any sort of contact with the carriers is enough. We suspect…”
He paused, returned his glasses to his face and stared out at the crowd, eyes empty.
“We suspect the virus is opportunistic and while aided by a direct path to the bloodstream, will ultimately find a host regardless.”
Someone in the seething mass of bodies laughed, high and cruel.
“You want us to believe this isn’t just some corporate game of chicken, professor?” he snarled, hyena-like and stifling giggles, wrenching a reporter’s microphone as close to his mouth as he could manage. “I can’t help but notice it seems that uh… Cornwallis stands to gain a rather tidy sum from the marketing of a cure.”
For a moment, nothing happened. The scientist only stared into the crowd, mouth fixed and grim. He did not raise his voice when he spoke and though it was barely loud enough for the mechanics to catch, everyone unfailingly heard.
“There isn’t one,” he said, and the sound of hope dying spread like brush fire in the sudden silence. “We cannot splice the virus. There is no cure.”
* * *
Cora sat quietly in the empty space of what used to be her living room, hair matted with blood that was not her own, listening as the commercial jingles between newscasts drowned in the sirens wailing outside. A hollow riot tank, she knew, hunched at the nearby intersection, serrated edges peeled back with impossible strength, torn open for its contents. She could still see the stains on the sidewalk painted on her eyelids, sticky liquid shadow in the streetlights as the sound cannon continued on in stilted, mechanical warning.
“You must dis-perse,” it intoned, its speakers badly damaged. “Imm-ediate police action will en-sue. Ex-treme measures will be tak-en. Re-main at your own risk.”
She leaned back, into the body behind her, feeling the skin cool and slick under her fingertips. After hours of waiting, the bleeding had finally stopped, but she knew it was only because there was nothing left to bleed. Cora closed her eyes, pressed her cheek into the mess and tried to convince herself she could still feel heat as the body rose and fell beneath her ear.
Tried to convince herself, as she lay there, she heard a heartbeat.
In the apartment below her, something careened against the wall and the entire house shook. Someone was crying, someone human, screams battering against the sirens, pleading, desperate…
And then someone wasn’t.
Cora sat up, listened to the single, wet smack barely heard through the stained carpet beneath her and waited. She wondered if they could peel back the floor as easily as they’d torn open the police cruisers. It was only because there’d been a mob of them, of course. Masses of lithe, writhing bodies, clawing at each other, at the steel, peeling it apart and she’d never heard a grown man scream before tonight. Had never seen a child crouched on the street corner, dark and feral, gnawing bones down to dripping marrow.
There was only one of them in the apartment below. Two at most. She was safe. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. But there wasn’t a cure—there wasn’t a cure—and the words kept playing over and over in her head as she listened, feeling sick and cold as something pounded up the rickety wooden stairs outside her door. It gurgled, warbling something like a laugh, something that could have passed for human language half an hour before and slammed a shoulder into the door.
Wood splintered in the door frame and she could see the edge of the deadlock bend towards her, but the furniture blocking the door did not move. One of her great grandfathers had made that armoire, back when war and cholera were the worst they had to look for and one sick, mutated freak was not going to budge five-hundred pounds of oak and metal. It tried again, lunged against the door and ricocheted back, over the railing and into the pile of abandoned trashcans below her door. She heard plastic snap under its weight, heard something hit the larger, metal dumpster and then nothing, only the barest metronome thud of footsteps running down the alley.
There wasn’t a cure.
Cora turned back to the TV, changed the channel with shaking hands to some cartoon, rerunning on an endless loop now with no one to manage the programming. She glanced back at the figure behind her, laced her fingers through a hand stiff with cold and something that wasn’t rigor and tried to talk. It was important to talk to people who were sick. People sat by coma patients all the time at the hospital, telling them dire, desperate things they’d never hear and Cora knew she should try it too—all those people couldn’t be wrong—but her mouth was missing.
She pressed the back of a shaking hand to her face. It was there. Of course it was. Of course. But the words still wouldn’t come and she settled for stroking the shadow behind her instead as the cartoon creature on the screen laughed and laughed, high and trilling and far, far too like the monsters outside.
Cora turned back to the news.
* * *
The newscaster was young. He’d barely graduated last year, had just gotten the job earlier this week—economy was improving, see; they’d said it would—and now this. He stood on the rooftop of one of the last few secure buildings, in the center of the abandoned helicopter pad, in a clear violation of protocol no one was left to enforce. He was ghostly pale, coughing into his sleeve, trying to ignore the howling on the streets below.
“The mayor left with his family and a select few members of the scientific community from this pad only hours earlier,” he said and all the optimism of his youth had rotted in his eyes. “Their intended destination is as of yet undisclosed and it is unknown whether or not their flight was approved. As of three o’clock today, the entire city is under quarantine.”
He coughed again, into his elbow, and it sounded like glass grinding in his lungs.
“The government assures us, however, that the situation will return to normal in a matter of days. People are advised to remain calm and indoors, barricaded and alone whenever possible. We’re not, as of yet, entirely certain how the virus spreads, only that it is spreading and that anyone—alive or otherwise—can be a carrier.”
The man paused, took a deep, shaking breath through his nose and went off script.
“To be honest, there is no real, official information coming in. All I can tell you is that no one is safe. Even…” he stopped, choked on a cough, on rising panic and bile and too much adrenaline flooding a system that could no longer process it. “Even children—especially children. It seems they were the first infected, but their metabolism somehow put the virus into a brief period of dormancy. I don’t know. I can’t tell you—I only took chemical biology freshman year—but I can tell you that it is crucial to barricade yourself alone.”
He swallowed and coughed, spat something black and brackish into the dust and looked wide-eyed into the camera.
“Once infected with the virus, adults lose their capability for speech,” he said and there was something horrible in his voice. “This is not the case with children. They will continue to cry for you—they will beg and plead and the moment you go to them, they will claw out your eyes. There is no one left, folks. This is it.”
He coughed again, brownish tears streaking down his face, and stared into the camera with something twisting like a smile at his lips.
“Love you, June-bug.”
The screen cut out, flashed for a moment to the inside of the empty studio before returning to the old footage of the remote controlled government helicopter, flying well above contamination level, blasting a cheerful, prerecorded message.
“This city is under quarantine until further notice. Please, remain indoors. Everything is under control. Normalcy will soon be restored. Have a nice day.”
* * *
Cora sat with her knees drawn up into her chest, listening to the screams outside, wanting to go to the window, wanting to hide forever and not knowing which was better. Another group of them had amassed on the streets outside. She could hear them screaming, all of them screaming, so like cats in heat, like banshees, like nothing that was ever human and louder than the sirens.
“You must dis-perse,” the riot tank announced to no one. “Imm-ediate police action will en—”
And then, in a shattering of glass and grinding metal and something that sounded far too much like bone, it stopped. The high pitched siren whine it had been emitting to control long dead crowds fell into a murmur and dissolved altogether. Something laughed under her window, chittering, scrabbling at the brick. Cora huddled in on herself, listening as it fell, clawed at the brick again, screamed and launched off down the street.
Her lights flickered—once, twice—and blinked out like an eye in darkness.
She sat there, unmoving for an indeterminate amount of time, only listening to the rasping, watery breathing of the figure behind her fill the room. She was not alone. There was no cure and she was cold, stuck together with blood, only waiting as her heart throbbed painfully in her chest. But she was not alone.
Cora wasn’t sure that made it any better.
She pulled her laptop from where it’d been left in preparation for the inevitable, carefully away from the spreading stain on the carpet, and wiping her hand on the last clean section of her dress, turned the machine on. Her homepage popped up like a familiar grin, announcing in happy, buoyant print she had three emails—all ads and weather alerts—and would she like to read them?
Cora stared at the screen for a long moment, wondered what it meant that the wireless internet was still up and wondered if it wouldn’t still be up when there was no one left with mind enough to manage it. Found herself thinking about her battery—it barely held a charge anymore, hadn’t for months—and clicked on the live feed that led to the news.
* * *
The news caster that had started out the crisis looking fresh and fashionable in her pastel pink suit and surgically corrected wrinkles looked harried and sick now. Dark circles blistered through her makeup—under her eyes, under her chin—and panic seared like electricity through the scarecrow lines of her body. She was crouched behind a barricade of wooden pallets, dumpsters and piles upon piles of trash. A blue and purple row of fingers poked from the frayed edge of a bag only inches from her leg.
The woman didn’t seem to notice. She sat on her haunches on the pockmarked asphalt, crumpled newspapers wadded up around her Prada heels. The camera angle was wrong, propped on something—no human could hold it like that—and even in the sketchy dark, the tell tale gleam had already caught in her eyes.
“They’re everywhere,” she whispered, tried to whisper, her voice quiet but piercing as nails on slate. “Everywhere. Not even people anymore. Not really. Not people like we think of people, anyway. They’re—” she broke off, giggling, sick and high and finished like it was a prophet’s secret, “They’re animals.”
The woman grinned, gnashed perfect teeth and reached for the purse at her side, dyed and spattered to match her shoes.
“Gum,” she announced. “I need gum. Never have a goddamned stick of gum when I need one. That’s the thing—that’s the thing, you know. Thieves, all of them. Thieving little bastards. Running around like the zoo just splattered all over the city. It’s awesome. Really—no, really. Awesome. Awful. Full of awe, at any rate, and horrible, just horrible.”
She stopped, giggled and choked and looked as though she were talking, unaware of the horrible, broken whinny spilling incessantly from her mouth.
* * *
Cora stared at the screen, thinking this was what corpses sounded like after the death rattle—after the rising acidity of the blood rendered vocal cords wiry and rigid. In the corner of her screen a pixelated skull and crossbones flashed over the empty shell of a battery and beeped at her. Minutes passed. The woman on the screen vomited in streams of foul, black fluid, and turned, lips stained, to claw at the camera, that horrible noise still bubbling from her throat.
“Battery Low,” her computer flashed at her. “Shutting Down.”
Cora watched, silently, knees pressed to her chest as the internet peeled away, leaving her staring at a picture of her honeymoon. They were so happy, grinning and healthy, arm in arm and flushed with sunburn. And then that too was gone, the last light winking out, leaving her not-alone in the black of her apartment. She turned, one hand groping across the ruin of her carpet, reaching for the shadow sleeping behind her, for human—not human—contact, and found only wet, empty space.
And two eyes stared at her from the doorway of their bedroom, the police car overturned beneath the window painting blood and frost on the craggy ruins of his once beautiful teeth.