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
"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
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
"That stuff is about you, 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
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
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
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
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.
Prisoner of the Dead
The Circle's Begin
Copyright ©1995 R. Verner