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Alive and Well
- But Why?

Another body on the truck. Just ahead the wide sidewalk held another pile; even from a distance Chris could tell that some of it was beginning to smell. They were all victims of The Death, except one on the top of the heap. He looked about fifty, and had been shot. Was the wound self-inflicted? wondered Chris. Probably.

The Death had progressed so quickly. Last week looters had taken advantage of global chaos. Now no one even bothered to take valuable items off of the dead before throwing them on the truck.

Why had Jan been the first?

The Holt Gene Institute had not been spared, though it held little of material interest. Its solitary red brick building had been ransacked, many offices had had their furniture overturned, and its laboratory was littered with broken glass.

Chris Tilman spent a second day in the room marked "Records," sorting through the rubble. The contents of many of the file cabinets lining its walls had been dumped on the floor. The old manila folder marked H02214 -- Tilman contained only a single sheet of yellow paper, which he removed and put into a small tan backpack. Clipped to the folder was a small piece of paper with an address; he pulled it off and put it into his pocket.

The plain-looking white metal desk in the corner resembled one he had used at med-school just a few short weeks ago. Yesterday he had dragged away the file cabinet which was tipped over on top of it and cleared away enough of the paper to determine that it was relatively undamaged, but locked.

This morning he had brought back a crowbar retrieved from the remains of a hardware store, and forced the lock. The desk top lifted up to reveal a computer. It was undamaged except for the dents made from the prying of his crowbar, but totally useless without electrical power.

Since the computer seemed to be his last hope, he closed it all up as well as he could. Now certain that nothing more could be found in the knee-deep paper on the floor, he closed the door to the records room and went back to help the others work.

Next to Chris worked a fifty-ish looking man.

"I'll be riding the truck in another week," the man said.

"You just got it then?"

"Yep. Four days ago I was thirty-two. Today's my last work," he grunted as they heaved the shot corpse onto the truck. "My strength's gone. It gets you that way, you know. I may look forty, but I feel seventy. Time to retire." They heaved on the last of the pile, stopped for a breather while the truck moved ahead. "It was just like they say, the first sign is you can't get it up. That started about a week ago. Soon my face showed the signs. Ain't easy to take, the Death I mean."

"You should save your strength," Chris suggested.

"For what?" laughed the man, as he dabbed a sleeve at the sweat dripping down his forehead. "My old age?"

"They say it's going to get everybody."

"Death always has. Just not so soon. Don't know what the kids are gonna do though. I'm one of the oldest left," said the still nameless man. "The kids'll have to carry us away. We gotta work right up to the last, to make it easier for them. They got enough to take care of, let alone have to pick up the dead."

"Yes, I guess so," replied Chris.

"How old are you? Really, I mean."

It was the question Chris feared most. "Nineteen," he lied.

"Yeah?" Chris felt the man's eyes scrutinize his face. "It'll get you soon. Maybe started already."

"Could be," murmured Chris. Sometimes he wished it would. He thought of asking the man how he'd escaped the Death for so long, decided not to, fearing the man might respond with the same question.

It was time to work again; they walked down the block towards the next pile of bodies. It was hot and humid, and the smell was rapidly getting worse.

On the street corner sat two old looking men in wheelchairs. Just past them was the next pile of bodies. There were two other trucks, already loaded with dead, waiting with their crews at the end of the block.

The two old men stared from their wheelchairs as the workers walked past. One of them said, "Hey Ed, you gotta light?" Chris' companion stopped to oblige.

Trying not to look at the old men, Chris walked on. The voice had sounded disturbingly familiar. He was sure it was that of someone he had met several days ago.

The crew of sweaty men had worked its way to the last pile of bodies at the end of the block by the time Ed caught up again. Chris wondered what had taken so long. Feeling apprehensive, he started trying to think of a way to excuse himself from the work crew.

Instead of rejoining them, Ed walked straight across the street to where the crews from the other two trucks were sitting on the curb.

Chris was just heaving on the last corpse when he noticed that the other crews had risen from where they were sitting and were following Ed back across the street. They're all looking at me! Chris took a step backward involuntarily, hoping that it was just his paranoia. They began to run for him!

Chris spun and ran back down the sidewalk, his heart in his throat.

They're old, he thought, I can outrun them.

Glancing over his shoulder, Chris crossed the street towards the other sidewalk. They were so close! His feet seemed to barely even touch the pavement as he ran with the effort fear compels. His backpack whipped his back as he ran, as if to spur him on.

His ears told him they were still close behind as he rounded the corner to the left. He crossed the street again, this time to the right. If only I can get some distance on them, he thought, I can duck into an entrance after I turn the corner at the end of the next block.

Without looking back, he knew he had pulled away by the time he turned right at the next intersection.

Through the broken glass front door of a department store he flew, into the cool darkness. Making his way through the isles, he tried not to stumble on the rubble while his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He searched ahead towards the back wall for the shape of a doorway, found the outline of one against a lighter shade of blackness. He pushed through, thankful it made no squeak.

As the door swung shut behind him there was absolute darkness and the smell of mildewed concrete. Reaching both arms out to his right, he felt around for a wall, tripped on a stair step. What now? he thought. He turned around and felt about carefully with his foot; found the steps leading down. He was on a small landing in a stairwell; the last wall was blank.

As he hesitated, Chris felt a wave of desperation sweep over him. He had hoped for a back door. While not really wanting to go up or down, he certainly did not want to go back the way he had come. He decided he would rather go up and started climbing quietly, carefully in the dark.

He tried to figure out what the others would be doing. He had heard no one enter the store after him, but they would figure that he had ducked into some doorway, and would certainly check this building. There were many stores, many doorways however, and they wouldn't know whether he had escaped out some back door.

He passed a landing and continued on up. When his feet found the next landing he felt for the door handle, pulled, stepped back from utter darkness into dimness. Now he was on the floor two flights up from street level. The small rectangles of sunlight coming through the windows across the room were so bright they blinded him to everything inside the room.

There was a clear area at the center of the floor with display cabinets filling the rest of the area. If I can just find a cabinet or something to hide in until night time, he thought. He crept over to a window and carefully looked out at the street, wary that someone might be looking up at the windows. All three trucks had moved to the intersection directly below him, but he could see only a handful of men. They're all searching! he thought, panic beginning to gnaw at him again. Where can I hide?

When he turned back from the window to look for a hiding place though, he found that his eyes had readjusted to the daylight. The inside of the store had become darkness again. He cursed as he waited for his nightvision to return.

Still feeling panicky, he began wandering around, crashing noisily into the debris on the floor, trying to see through the lingering afterimages on his retinas. His legs found a display table. Suddenly there was a glow of light over to the left; he thought his eye caught some movement near the floor. The moving object seemed to be someone's head sticking up out of the floor! As his terror took form, so did the glowing shoulders which rose from the floor beneath the moving head.

Finally he realized that the man was walking up out of an escalator, holding a flashlight. Chris knelt down, searched desperately for a door to the cabinet, found it already half open, slid in as quietly as he could. His backpack hung; with a twist he got it unstuck. There seemed to be an insufferable amount of noise involved. He tried to pull his feet inside without any more rustling of the paper the cabinet seemed so full of.

He didn't dare leave the cabinet door open, hated to risk the noise of closing it. He found the edge with the fingers of his left hand, began sliding it slowly shut, gauging his speed by the noise that it made.

Then he listened, trying to control breathing which seemed loud inside the cabinet. He hadn't heard a sound since he had ducked behind the counter. Had the man come on up? Were others with him? Why is it so quiet? worried Chris.

Next Chapter
Taking Charge

Copyright ©1995 R. Verner

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