The 5th Wave
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He tucks the blanket around me, and with one fluid motion heaves me out of the bunk and over his shoulder. As a definitively infected civilian, I’m pretty shocked.
“Chill, zombie,” he tells me. “You’re going to a better place now.”
I believe him. And for a second I let myself believe I’m not going to die after all.
THEY TAKE ME to a quarantined floor at the base hospital reserved for plague victims, nicknamed the Zombie Ward, where I get an armful of morphine and a powerful cocktail of antiviral drugs. I’m treated by a woman who introduces herself as Dr. Pam. She has soft eyes, a calm voice, and very cold hands. She wears her hair in a tight bun. And she smells like hospital disinfectant mingled with a hint of perfume. The two smells don’t go well together.
I have a one-in-ten chance of survival, she tells me. I start to laugh. I must be a little delirious from the drugs. One in ten? And here I was thinking the plague was a death sentence. I couldn’t be happier.
Over the next two days, my fever soars to a hundred and four. I break into a cold sweat, and even my sweat is flecked with blood. I float in and out of a delirious twilight sleep while they throw everything at the infection. There is no cure for the Red Death. All they can do is keep me doped up and comfortable until the bug decides whether it likes the way I taste.
The past shoves its way in. Sometimes Dad is sitting next to me, sometimes Mom, but most of the time it’s Sissy. The room turns red. I see the world through a diaphanous curtain of blood. The ward recedes behind the red curtain. It’s just me and the invader inside me and the dead—not just my family, but all the dead, all however-many-billion of them, reaching for me as I run. Reaching. Running. And it occurs to me that there’s no real difference between us, the living and the dead; it’s just a matter of tense: past-dead and future-dead.
On the third day, the fever breaks. By the fifth, I’m holding down liquids and my eyes and lungs have begun to clear. The red curtain pulls back, and I can see the ward, the gowned and masked doctors and nurses and orderlies, the patients in various stages of death, past and future, floating on the gentle sea of morphine or being wheeled out of the room with their faces covered, the present-dead.
On the sixth day, Dr. Pam declares the worst over. She orders me off all meds, which kind of bums me out; I’m going to miss my morphine.
“Not my call,” she tells me. “You’re being moved into the convalescent ward till you can get back on your feet. We’re going to need you.”
“For the war.”
The war. I remember the firefight, the explosions, the soldier bursting into the tent and they’re inside us!
“What’s going on?” I ask. “What happened here?”
She’s already turned away, handing my chart to an orderly and telling him in a quiet voice, but not so quiet I can’t hear, “Bring him to the exam room at fifteen hundred hours, after he’s clear of the meds. Let’s tag and bag him.”
I’M TAKEN TO a large hangar near the entrance to the base. Everywhere I look, there’re signs of the recent battle. Burned-out vehicles, the rubble of demolished buildings, stubborn little fires smoldering, pockmarked asphalt, and three-foot-wide craters from mortar fire. But the security fence has been repaired, and beyond it I can see a no-man’s-land of blackened earth where Tent City used to be.
Inside the hangar, soldiers are painting huge red circles on the shiny concrete floor. There are no planes. I’m wheeled through a door in the back, into an examination room, where I’m heaved onto the table and left alone for a few minutes, shivering in my thin hospital gown under the bright fluorescent lights. What’s with the big red circles? And how did they get the power back on? And what did she mean by “Let’s tag and bag him”? I can’t keep my thoughts from flying in every direction. What happened here? If the aliens attacked the base, where are the dead aliens? Where’s their downed spacecraft? How did we manage to defend ourselves against an intelligence thousands of years more advanced than ours—and defeat it?
The inner door opens, and Dr. Pam comes in. She shines a bright light in my eyes. Listens to my heart, my lungs, thumps on a couple places. She shows me a silver-gray pellet about the size of a grain of rice.
“What’s that?” I ask. I half expect her to say it’s an alien spaceship: We’ve discovered they’re the size of an amoeba.
Instead, she says the pellet is a tracking device, hooked into the base’s mainframe. Highly classified, been used by the military for years. The idea is to implant all surviving personnel. Each pellet transmits its own unique signal, a signature that can be picked up by detectors as far as a mile away. To keep track of us, she tells me. To keep us safe.
She gives me a shot in the back of my neck to numb me, then inserts the pellet under my skin, near the base of my skull. She bandages the insertion point, then helps me back into the wheelchair and takes me into the adjoining room. It’s much smaller than the first room. A white reclining chair that reminds me of a dentist’s. A computer and monitor. She helps me into the chair and proceeds to tie me down: straps across my wrists, straps across my ankles. Her face is very close to mine. The perfume has a slight edge today over the disinfectant in the Odor Wars. She doesn’t miss my expression. “Don’t be scared,” she says. “It isn’t painful.”
Scared, I whisper, “What isn’t?”
She steps over to the monitor and starts punching in commands.
“It’s a program we found on a laptop that belonged to one of the infested,” Dr. Pam explains. Before I can ask what the hell an infested is, she rolls on: “We’re not sure what the infesteds had been using it for, but we know it’s perfectly safe. Its code name is Wonderland.”
“What’s it do?” I ask. I’m not sure what she’s telling me, but it sounds like she’s telling me that the aliens had somehow infiltrated Wright-Patterson and hacked into its computer systems. I can’t get the word infested out of my head. Or the bloody face of the soldier bursting into my tent. They’re inside us.
“It’s a mapping program,” she answers. Which really isn’t an answer.
“What does it map?”
She looks at me for one long, uncomfortable moment, as if she’s deciding whether to tell the truth. “It maps you. Close your eyes, big, deep breath. Counting down from three…two…one…”
And the universe implodes.
Suddenly I’m there, three years old, holding on to the sides of my crib, jumping up and down and screaming like someone’s murdering me. I’m not remembering that day; I’m experiencing it.
Now I’m six, swinging my plastic baseball bat. The one I loved; the one I forgot I had.
Ten now, riding home from the pet store with a bag of goldfish in my lap and debating names with my mom. She’s wearing a bright yellow dress.
Thirteen, it’s a Friday night, I’m playing pee-wee football, and the crowd is cheering. Going deep.
The reel begins to slow. I feel like I’m drowning—drowning in the dream of my life. My legs kick helplessly against the restraints, strapped in tight, running.
First kiss. Her name is Lacey. My ninth-grade algebra teacher and her horrible handwriting. Getting my driver’s license. Everything there, no blank spaces, all of it pouring out of me while I’m pouring into Wonderland.
All of it.
Green blob in the night sky.
Holding the boards while Dad nails them over the living room windows. The sound of gunfire down the street, glass shattering, people screaming. And the hammer falling: bam, bam, BAM.
“Blow out the candles”: Mom’s hysterical whisper. “Can’t you hear them? They’re coming!”
And my father, calmly, in the pitch black: “If anything happens to me, take care of your mother and baby sister.”
I’m in free fall. Terminal velocity. There’s no escaping it. I won’t just remember that night. I’ll live it all over again.
It has chased me all the way to Tent City. The thing I ran from, that I’m still running from, the thing that’s never let me go.
What I reach for. What I run from.
Take care of your mother. Take care of your baby sister.
The front door crashes open. Dad fires point-blank into the chest of the first intruder. The guy must be high on something, because he just keeps coming. I see a sawed-off shotgun in my father’s face, and that’s the last I see of my father’s face.
The room fills with shadows, and one of the shadows is my mother, and then more shadows and hoarse shouts and I’m tearing up the stairs cradling Sissy in my arms, realizing too late I’m running toward a dead end.
A hand catches my shirt and flings me backward, and I tumble back down the stairs, shielding Sissy with my body, smacking down headfirst at the bottom.
Then shadows, huge shadows, and a swarm of fingers, pulling her out of my arms. And Sissy, screaming, Bubby, Bubby, Bubby, Bubby!
I reach for her in the dark. My fingers hook on the locket around her neck and tear the silver chain free.
Then, like the day the lights blinked out forever, my sister’s voice abruptly dies.
Then the punks are on me. Three of them, jacked up on dope or desperate to find some, kicking, punching, a furious rain of blows into my back, my stomach, and as I bring up my hands to shield my face, I see the silhouette of Dad’s hammer rising over my head.
It whistles down. I roll away. The head of the hammer grazes my temple, its momentum carrying it right into the guy’s shin. He falls to his knees with an agonized howl.
On my feet now, running down the hall to the kitchen, and the thunder of footsteps as they come after me.
Take care of your baby sister.
Tripping on something in the backyard, probably the garden hose or one of Sissy’s stupid toys. Falling face-first in the wet grass under a star-stuffed sky, and the glowing green orb, the circling Eye, coldly staring down at me, the one with the silver locket clutched in his bleeding hand, the one who lived, the one who did not go back, the one who ran.
I’VE FALLEN SO DEEP, nothing can reach me. For the first time in weeks, I feel numb. I don’t even feel like me. There’s no place where I end and the nothingness begins.
Her voice comes into the darkness, and I grab on to it, a lifeline to pull me out of the bottomless well.
“It’s over. It’s all right. It’s over…”
I break the surface into the real world, gasping for air, crying uncontrollably like a complete pansy, and I’m thinking, You’re wrong, Doc. It’s never over. It just goes on and on and on. Her face swims into view, and my arm jerks against the restraint as I try to grab her. She needs to make this stop.
“What the hell was that?” I ask in a croaky whisper. My throat is burning, my mouth dry. I feel like I weigh about five pounds, like all the flesh has been torn from my bones. And I thought the plague was bad!
“It’s a way for us to see inside you, to look at what’s really going on,” she says gently. She runs her hand over my forehead. The gesture reminds me of my mother, which reminds me of losing my mother in the dark, of running from her in the night, which reminds me I shouldn’t be strapped down in this white chair. I should be with them. I should have stayed and faced what they faced. Take care of your little sister.