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The Clubhouse

Justin didn't answer; dispite the warm humid night he felt a sudden chill and shivered. There was something about all this that lay across his emotions with a palpable strangeness, like a blanket in which you have just felt the crawl of a spider. How could the Death have started with this man, and yet leave him the only one alive?

The man's gentle face drooped with sadness; it looked as if the terror in his eyes had turned to resignation, as happens when one reaches that point beyond fear, once the end has been accepted. "Whenever I try to figure it out, I just end up wishing the Death had gotten me too. It would be better that way."

"No! Don't say that!" Justin grabbed Chris' hand, then leaned against him. "You're the last one left, don't die!"

It was too much--the heavy, strange cold air which had filled the loft when the man began to talk, the words which were the scariest that could possibly be uttered. Yet this man seemed so gentle, so caring. If the words were true, how could he possibly have endured the burden? How could he bear to live?

The man's hand felt right, and the physical contact was a haven of reassurance after the creepiness of the man's story. Justin began to cry, for the first time since the whole ordeal had begun.

Chris put his arms around the sobbing young boy and held him close, feeling the boy's face wet against the skin of his neck, the clinging arms wanting some security from the madness. He stroked the boy's hair; slid his fingers into it and soothed the taut neck muscles below.

After a time, Justin wiped his eyes, turned around, and leaned back against Chris' chest. "If it's true, then we have to figure it out." He sniffled, and with a deep breath added firmly, "There has to be a logical reason."

"I have to be at the center of any logical reason, and I don't know that much about my background. I never knew anyone in my family except my mother. Jan and I were friends while I was in medical school. The only thing that could be related to the outbreak of the Death, that I know of, happened in class a few days before Jan got it.

"A container of a mutagen got broken, and I helped pick up the pieces of broken glass."

"What's a mutagen?" asked Justin.

"It's any chemical that causes cells to mutate. We were studying some of the common ones."

"That's it!" Justin sat up and wiped his tears off with both hands. "That explains it!"

"It doesn't explain anything. Jan wasn't exposed, I was. So were a lot of other people. They all got the Death later, long after Jan. I never got it."

Justin leaned back against Chris again. "There has to be a logical reason. Didn't anyone, doctors or something, study you to try to find out why?"

"The Death spread so quickly, and I didn't realize at first that Jan's case really did occur about a week before any others were reported. Then they began saying it had originated in our town, and I knew Jan had been the first. I started trying to find someone to listen, but people were dying so fast... everyone but me."

Chris felt himself shy away from what came next. Someone had finally taken an interest, and he had been studied, but Chris wasn't ready to tell it yet, or even remember it.

"But you're different, somehow. I mean your family." Justin leaned over to a dark corner of the loft, found a flashlight, then dug out a tan backpack. "This is yours, right? My father brought it home the day you were caught, and I, uh, read some stuff," he added guiltily.

"Hey!" Chris opened the backpack and inspected the contents with Justin's flashlight. "I never thought I'd see this again," he said in a muffled voice, his nose buried in the backpack. At last he found the yellow paper. "I never got to finish this."

The final entry was several years old, but seemed important. He read it aloud:

23 September 1995

H02214 inoculated with pattern-specific virus to invert the function of DNA location A6L21. (Mild side effects noted; see Medical Records:H02214)

"That stuff is about you, right?"

"That's right."

"I was thinking... maybe your mother's still alive."

"No. She died the first week of the outbreak," said Chris.

Justin leaned back again, yawned. "There has to be something," he said sleepily.

Chris held the candle to the open window, and put it out. He suddenly realized that he felt comfortable now, for the first time in weeks. So comfortable that he was asleep before Justin was.

Justin waited alone at dawn, his back to the hillside, his face eastward to the valley. A slight breeze gently blew his hair. He stared directly into the orange sun as it rose above the horizon at a just perceptable rate. When its bottom edge came into view, it revealed a speck that rapidly grew to the silhouette of a man, and as if stepping out of a long bright tube, the man stood on the hillside in front of Justin. It was Chris. He turned his back and Justin quickly jumped on. As Chris carried him into the tube, Justin smiled.

Chris awoke the next morning as soon as the sky began to lighten. He saw Justin smile in his sleep.

The pleasant but disconcerting discussion at bedtime had left Chris' head filled with strange dreams, and now he felt the need to try and sort out his feelings. He quietly retrieved his backpack from where it lay by his feet, and took out a pen and notepad.

He knew there was a part of his immediate past which he must face, no matter how painful it was. He was aware that people were apt to find it convenient to deny and avoid things they would rather not deal with, and he knew that he couldn't afford the luxury of forgetting.

But could he begin to face it? He was responsible for killing everyone on the earth. For the children still alive were dying as soon as they reached puberty, and there would be no more generations. Everyone. He might outlive everyone else, and then he'd be the last. There was little hope now, but then there would truly be no hope.

Chris spent most of that first day lying in the loft, thinking, writing a bit, and trying to relax. Carey came in a couple of times to bring him little snacks, and around mid-afternoon Chris went down to the kitchen and got together some lunch. Justin took Carey off to Tony's shop for a while, then to look at some place where there was a generator; Travis had ideas of getting electric power for the house.

There had begun to be some talk about what would happen with the group once Travis died. It was an issue which Travis hadn't addressed at all. He seemed to think that he wouldn't really die if only he believed hard enough that he wouldn't. This approach, while perhaps somewhat predictable and comforting to him, kept him from dealing with the reality of preparing for the day when the group would be without him.

The only people Travis was really close to were Justin and Tony. Travis had been in repeated trouble with the school authorities; in fact, he was apt to be in trouble with any authorities which were available.

Travis had never been popular with his peers; his position as leader of the Jets following the onset of the Death had come about as a result of other kids joining in with the trio. Travis had proclaimed himself leader, which Justin and Tony tolerated on the condition that he not try to tell them what to do. (He could try, as he always had, but he knew better than to expect them to do it.)

He spent time telling the newer kids what to do, but considered Justin and Tony the only members of the group whose talents were irreplaceable. The other members were important to him only by virtue of being the followers Travis had always wanted.

In contrast, Justin and Tony had no interest in spending time being administrators. They wanted to pursue projects which were interesting and had survival value; not just survival for themselves, but for what was left of humanity. They saw the current world situation as an opportunity to do something really valuable. This was a quality which their lives had lacked before the Death, condemned as they were to a life of completing ritual tasks for the approval of school authorities and parents.

When it came to projects with survival value, none was more important than the pursuit of a method which would enable reproduction to take place, and they spent a great deal of time talking about the situation and coming up with various plans and experiments.

Boys seemed to survive long enough for ejaculation to occur, but died before really completing puberty. Justin had managed to obtain semen samples from Travis. The most recent sample seemed to consist mostly of fluid; there were only a few active sperm visible under the microscope. A sample from another boy, obtained less than a week before his secumbing to the Death, contained a low but existant sperm count, but with a very low rate of motility.

There were as yet no girls in the group, but from what could be learned on the street, females were not faring much better. There was said to be no girl alive who was a year beyond her first menstrual period.

While it was perhaps possible that some child could be conceived and born under such conditions, the fertility rate would be so far below replacement level that extinction would be the certain outcome.

Justin was hoping now to get Chris to devote effort to these questions, and the man had already suggested some book titles he could search for at the library. But the only project Chris seemed really interested in was his own sanity. This seemed to be a full-time project for him. Of course, Justin realized that there was some possibility of this search leading to an understanding of how the Death had come to pass, which might in turn lead to finding some way to bring about an end to its effects. He was determined to pursue this with Chris at the fastest possible rate.

Previous Chapter
Prisoner of the Dead

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The Circle's Begin

Copyright ©1995 R. Verner

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