The 5th Wave
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I know I’m dying. Nobody has to tell me.
Chris, the guy who shared this tent with me before I got sick, tells me anyway: “Dude, I think you’re dying,” he says, squatting outside the tent’s opening, his eyes wide and unblinking above the filthy rag that he presses against his nose.
Chris has come by to check up on me. He’s about ten years older, and I think he looks at me like a little brother. Or maybe he’s come to see if I’m still alive; he’s in charge of disposal for this part of the camp. The fires burn day and night. By day the refugee camp ringing Wright-Patterson swims in a dense, choking fog. At night the firelight turns the smoke a deep crimson, like the air itself is bleeding.
I ignore his remark and ask him what he’s heard from Wright-Patterson. The base has been on full lockdown since the tent city sprang up after the attack on the coasts. No one allowed in or out. They’re trying to contain the Red Death, that’s what they tell us. Occasionally some well-armed soldiers well-wrapped in hazmat suits roll out the main gates with water and rations, tell us everything will be okay, and then hightail it back inside, leaving us to fend for ourselves. We need medicine. They tell us there’s no cure for the plague. We need sanitation. They give us shovels to dig a trench. We need information. What the hell is going on? They tell us they don’t know.
“They don’t know anything,” Chris says to me. He’s on the thin side, balding, an accountant before the attacks made accounting obsolete. “Nobody knows anything. Just a bunch of rumors that everybody treats like news.” He cuts his eyes at me, then looks away. Like looking at me hurts. “You want to hear the latest?”
Not really. “Sure.” To keep him there. I’ve only known the guy for a month, but he’s the only guy left who I know. I lie here on this old camping bed with a sliver of sky for a view. Vague, people-shaped forms drift by in the smoke, like figures out of a horror movie, and sometimes I can hear screaming or crying, but I haven’t spoken to another person in days.
“The plague isn’t theirs, it’s ours,” Chris says. “Escaped from some top-secret government facility after the power failed.”
I cough. He flinches, but he doesn’t leave. He waits for the fit to subside. Somewhere along the way he lost one of the lenses to his glasses. His left eye is stuck in a perpetual squint. He rocks from foot to foot in the muddy ground. He wants to leave; he doesn’t want to leave. I know the feeling.
“Wouldn’t that be ironic?” I gasp. I can taste blood.
He shrugs. Irony? There is no irony anymore. Or maybe there’s just so much of it that you can’t call it irony. “It’s not ours. Think about it. The first two attacks drive the survivors inland to take shelter in camps just like this one. That concentrates the population, creating the perfect breeding ground for the virus. Millions of pounds of fresh meat all conveniently located in one spot. It’s genius.”
“Gotta hand it to ’em,” I say, trying to be ironic. I don’t want him to leave, but I also don’t want him to talk. He has a habit of going off on rants, one of those guys who has an opinion about everything. But something happens when every person you meet dies within days of your meeting them: You start being a lot less picky about who you hang out with. You can overlook a lot of flaws. And you let go of a lot of personal hang-ups, like the big lie that having your insides turn to soup doesn’t scare the living shit out of you.
“They know how we think,” he says.
“How the hell do you know what they know?” I’m getting pissed. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m jealous. We shared the tent, same water, same food, and I’m the one who’s dying. What makes him so special?
“I don’t,” he answers quickly. “The only thing I know is I don’t know anything anymore.”
In the distance, a gun fires. Chris barely reacts. Gunfire is pretty common in the camp. Potshots at birds. Warning shots at the gangs coming for your stash. Some shots signal a suicide, a person in the final stages who decides to show the plague who’s boss. When I first came to the camp, I heard a story about a mom who took out her three kids and then did herself rather than face the Fourth Horseman. I couldn’t decide whether she was brave or stupid. And then I stopped worrying about it. Who cares what she was when what she is now is dead?
He doesn’t have much more to say, so he says it quickly to get the hell away. Like a lot of the uninfected, Chris has a bad case of the twitchies, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Scratchy throat—from the smoke or…? Headache—from lack of sleep or hunger or…? It’s the moment you’re passed the ball and out of the corner of your eye you see the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound linebacker bearing down at full speed—only the moment never ends.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” he says. “You need anything?”
“Water.” Though I can’t keep it down.
“You got it, dude.”
He stands up. All I can see now is his mud-stained pants and mud-caked boots. I don’t know how I know, but I know it’s the last I’ll see of Chris. He won’t come back, or if he does, I won’t realize it. We don’t say good-bye. Nobody says good-bye anymore. The word has taken on a whole new meaning since the Big Green Eye in the Sky showed up.
I watch the smoke swirl in his passing. Then I pull out the silver chain from beneath the blanket. I run my thumb over the smooth surface of the heart-shaped locket, holding it close to my eyes in the fading light. The clasp broke on the night I yanked it free from her neck, but I managed to fix it using a pair of fingernail clippers.
I look toward the tent opening and see her standing there, and I know it isn’t really her, it’s the virus showing her to me, because she’s wearing the same locket I’m holding in my hand. The bug has been showing me all kinds of things. Things I want to see and things I don’t. The little girl in the opening is both.
Bubby, why did you leave me?
I open my mouth. I taste blood. “Go away.”
Her image begins to shimmer. I rub my eyes, and my knuckles come away wet with blood.
You ran away. Bubby, why did you run?
And then the smoke pulls her apart, splinters her, smashes her body into nothing. I call out to her. Crueler than seeing her is the not seeing her. I’m clutching the silver chain so tight that the links cut into my palm.
Reaching for her. Running from her.
Outside the tent, the red smoke of funeral pyres. Inside, the red fog of plague.
You’re the lucky one, I tell Sissy. You left before things got really messy.
Gunfire erupts in the distance. Only this time it’s not the sporadic pop-pop of some desperate refugee firing at shadows, but big guns that go off with an eardrum-thumping puh-DOOM. The high-pitched screeching of tracer fire. The rapid reports of automatic weapons.
Wright-Patterson is under attack.
Part of me is relieved. It’s like a release, the final cracking open of the storm after the long wait. The other part of me, the one that still thinks I might survive the plague, is ready to wet his pants. Too weak to move off the cot and too scared to do it even if I wasn’t. I close my eyes and whisper a prayer for the men and women of Wright-Patterson to waste an invader or two for me and Sissy. But mostly for Sissy.
Explosions now. Big explosions. Explosions that make the ground tremble, that vibrate against your skin, that press hard against your temples and push on your chest and squeeze. It sounds as if the world is being ripped apart, which in a way it is.
The little tent is choking with smoke, and the opening glows like a triangular eye, a burning ember of bright hellish red. This is it, I’m thinking. I’m not going to die of the plague after all. I’m going to live long enough to be wasted by an actual alien invader. A better way to go, quicker anyway. Trying to put a positive spin on my impending demise.
A gunshot rings out. Very close, judging by the sound of it, maybe two or three tents down. I hear a woman screaming incoherently, another shot, and then the woman isn’t screaming anymore. Then silence. Then two more shots. The smoke swirls, the red eye glows. I can hear him now, coming toward me, hear his boots squishing in the wet earth. I fumble under the wad of clothing and jumble of empty water bottles beside the cot for my gun, a revolver Chris had given me on the day he invited me to be his tentmate. Where’s your gun? he asked. He was shocked to learn I wasn’t packing. You have to have a gun, pal, he said. Even the kids have guns. Never mind that I can’t hit the broad side of a barn or that the odds are very good I’ll shoot off my own foot; in the post-human age, Chris is a firm believer in the Second Amendment.
I wait for him to appear in the opening, Sissy’s silver locket in one hand, Chris’s revolver in the other. In one hand, the past. In the other, the future. That’s one way to look at it.
Maybe if I play possum he—or it—will move on. I watch the opening through slits for eyes.
And then he’s here, a thick, black pupil in the crimson eye, swaying unsteadily as he leans inside the tent, three, maybe four feet away, and I can’t see his face, but I can hear him gasping for breath. I’m trying to control my own breathing, but no matter how shallowly I do it, the rattle of the infection in my chest sounds louder than the explosions of the battle. I can’t make out exactly what he’s wearing, except his pants seem to be tucked into his tall boots. A soldier? Must be. He’s holding a rifle.
I’m saved. I raise the hand holding the locket and call out weakly. He stumbles forward. Now I can see his face. He’s young, just a little older than I am, and his neck is shiny with blood, and so are the hands that hold the rifle. He goes to one knee beside the cot, then recoils when he sees my face, the sallow skin, the swollen lips, and the sunken bloodshot eyes that are the telltale signs of the plague.
Unlike mine, the soldier’s eyes are clear—and wide with terror.
“We had it wrong, all wrong!” he whispers. “They’re already here—been here—right here—inside us—the whole time—inside us.”
Two large shapes leap through the opening. One grabs the soldier by the collar and drags him outside. I raise the old revolver—or try to, because it slips from my hand before I can lift it two inches above the blanket. Then the second one is on me, knocking the revolver away, yanking me upright. The aftershock of pain blinds me for a second. He yells over his shoulder at his buddy, who has just ducked back inside. “Scan him!” A large metal disk is pressed against my forehead.
“And sick.” Both men are dressed in fatigues—the same fatigues worn by the soldier they took away.
“What’s your name, buddy?” one of them asks. I shake my head. I’m not getting this. My mouth opens, but no intelligible sound comes out.
“He’s gone zombie,” his partner says. “Leave him.”
The other one nods, rubbing his chin, looking down at me. Then he says, “The commander ordered retrieval of all uninfected civilians.”