The 5th Wave
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“That’s my next question,” I say, fighting to stay focused. “What’s going on?”
“They’re inside us,” she answers. “We were attacked from the inside, by infected personnel who’d been embedded in the military.”
She gives me a few minutes to process this while she wipes the tears from my face with a cool, moist cloth. It’s maddening, how motherly she is, and the soothing coolness of the cloth, a pleasant torture.
She sets aside the cloth and looks deeply into my eyes. “Using the ratio of infected to clean here at the base, we estimate that one out of every three surviving human beings on Earth is one of them.”
She loosens the straps. I’m insubstantial as a cloud, light as a balloon. When the final strap comes free, I expect to fly out of the chair and smack the ceiling.
“Would you like to see one?” she asks.
Holding out her hand.
SHE WHEELS ME down a hallway to an elevator. It’s a one-way express that carries us several hundred feet below the surface. The doors open into a long corridor with white cinder-block walls. Dr. Pam tells me we’re in the bomb shelter complex that’s nearly as large as the base above us, built to withstand a fifty-megaton nuclear blast. I tell her I’m feeling safer already. She laughs like she thinks that’s very funny. I’m rolling past side tunnels and unmarked doors and, though the floor is level, I feel as if I’m being taken to the very bottom of the world, to the hole where the devil sits. There are soldiers hurrying up and down the corridor; they avert their eyes and stop talking as I’m wheeled past them.
Would you like to see one?
Yes. Hell no.
She stops at one of the unmarked doors and swipes a key card through the locking mechanism. The red light turns green. She rolls me into the room, stopping the chair in front of a long mirror, and my mouth falls open and I drop my chin and close my eyes, because whatever is sitting in that wheelchair isn’t me, it can’t be me.
When the mothership first appeared, I was one hundred and ninety pounds, most of it muscle. Forty pounds of that muscle is gone. The stranger in that mirror looked back at me with the eyes of the starving: huge, sunken, ringed in puffy, black bags. The virus has taken a knife to my face, carving away my cheeks, sharpening my chin, thinning my nose. My hair is stringy, dry, falling out in places.
He’s gone zombie.
Dr. Pam nods at the mirror. “Don’t worry. He won’t be able to see us.”
He? Who’s she talking about?
She hits a button, and the lights in the room on the other side of the mirror flood on. My image turns ghostlike. I can see through myself to the person on the other side.
He’s strapped to a chair identical to the one in the Wonderland room. Wires run from his head to a large console with blinking red lights behind him. He’s having trouble keeping his head up, like a kid nodding off in class.
She notices my stiffening at the sight of him and asks, “What? Do you know him?”
“His name is Chris. He’s my…I met him in the refugee camp. He offered to share his tent and he helped me when I got sick.”
“He’s your friend?” She seems surprised.
“Yes. No. Yes, he’s my friend.”
“He’s not what you think he is.”
She touches a button, and the monitor pops to life. I tear my eyes away from Chris, from the outside of him to the inside, from apparent to hidden, because on the screen I can see his brain encased in translucent bone, glowing a sickly yellowish green.
“What is that?” I whisper.
“The infestation,” Dr. Pam says. She presses a button and zooms in on the front part of Chris’s brain. The pukish color intensifies, glowing neon bright. “This is the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain—the part that makes us human.”
She zooms in tight on an area no larger than the head of a pin, and then I see it. My stomach does a slow roll. Embedded in the soft tissue is a pulsing egg-shaped growth, anchored by thousands of rootlike tendrils fanning out in all directions, digging into every crease and crevice of his brain.
“We don’t know how they did it,” Dr. Pam says. “We don’t even know if the infected are aware of their presence, or if they’ve been puppets their entire lives.”
The thing entangling itself in Chris’s brain, pulsing.
“Take it out of him.” I can barely form words.
“We’ve tried,” Dr. Pam says. “Drugs, radiation, electroshock, surgery. Nothing works. The only way to kill them is to kill the host.”
She slides the keyboard in front of me. “He won’t feel anything.”
Confused, I shake my head. I don’t get it.
“It lasts less than a second,” Dr. Pam assures me. “And it’s completely painless. This button right here.”
I look down at the button. It has a label: EXECUTE.
“You’re not killing Chris. You’re destroying the thing inside him that would kill you.”
“He had his chance to kill me,” I argue. Shaking my head. It’s too much. I can’t deal. “And he didn’t. He kept me alive.”
“Because it wasn’t time yet. He left you before the attack, didn’t he?”
I nod. I’m looking at him again through the two-way mirror, through the indistinct frame of my see-through self.
“You’re killing the things that are responsible for this.” She presses something into my hand.
Her locket, the button, and Chris. And the thing inside Chris.
And me. Or what’s left of me. What’s left of me? What do I have left? The metal links of Sissy’s necklace cut into my palm.
“It’s how we stop them,” Dr. Pam urges me. “Before there’s no one left to stop them.”
Chris in the chair. The locket in my hand. How long have I been running? Running, running, running. Christ, I’m sick of running. I should have stayed. I should have faced it. If I had faced it then, I wouldn’t be facing it now, but sooner or later you have to choose between running and facing the thing you thought you could not face.
I bring my finger down as hard as I can.
I LIKE THE CONVALESCENT WING a lot more than the Zombie Ward. It smells better, for one thing, and you get your own room. You’re not stuck out on the floor with a hundred other people. The room is quiet and private, and it’s easy to pretend the world is what it was before the attacks. For the first time in weeks, I’m able to eat solid food and make it to the bathroom by myself—though I avoid looking in the mirror. The days seem brighter, but the nights are bad: Every time I close my eyes, I see my skeletal self in the execution room, Chris strapped down in the room on the other side, and my bony finger coming down.
Chris is gone. Well, according to Dr. Pam, Chris never was. There was the thing inside Chris controlling him that had embedded itself into his brain (they don’t know how) sometime in the past (they don’t know when). No aliens descended from the mothership to attack Wright-Patterson. The attack came from within, with infested soldiers turning their guns on their comrades. Which meant they had been hiding inside us for a long time, waiting for the first three waves to whittle our population down to a manageable number before revealing themselves.
What did Chris say? They know how we think.
They knew we’d seek safety in numbers. Knew we’d take shelter with the guys who had guns. So, Mr. Alien, how do you overcome that? It’s simple, because you know how we think, don’t you? You embed sleeper units where the guns are. Even if your troops fail in the initial assault, like they did at Wright-Patterson, you succeed in your ultimate goal of blowing society apart. If the enemy looks just like you, how do you fight him?
At that point, it’s game over. Starvation, disease, wild animals: It’s only a matter of time before the last, isolated survivors are dead.
From my window six stories up I can see the front gates. Around dusk, a convoy of old yellow school buses rolls out, escorted by Humvees. The buses return several hours later loaded down with people, mostly kids—though it’s hard to tell in the dark—who are taken into the hangar to be tagged and bagged, the “infested” winnowed out and destroyed. That’s what my nurses tell me, anyway. To me, the whole thing seems crazy, given what we know about the attacks. How did they kill so many of us so quickly? Oh yeah, because humans herd like sheep! And now here we are, clustering again. Right in plain sight. We might as well paint a big red bull’s-eye on the base. Here we are! Fire when ready!
And I can’t take it anymore.
Even as my body grows stronger, my spirit begins to crumple.
I really don’t get it. What’s the point? Not their point; that’s been pretty damn clear from the beginning.
I mean what’s the point of us anymore? I’m sure if we didn’t cluster again, they’d have another plan, even if that plan were using infested assassins to take us out one stupid, isolated human at a time.
There’s no winning. If I had somehow saved my sister, it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have bought her another month or two tops.
We’re the dead. There’s no one else now. There’s the past-dead and the future-dead. Corpses and corpses-to-be.
Somewhere between the basement room and this room, I lost Sissy’s locket. I wake up in the middle of the night, my hand clutching empty air, and I hear her screaming my name like she’s standing two feet away, and I’m furious, I’m pissed as hell, and I tell her to shut up, I lost it, it’s gone. I’m dead like her, doesn’t she get it? A zombie, that’s me.
I stop eating. I refuse my meds. I lie in bed for hours, staring at the ceiling, waiting for it to be over, waiting to join my sister and the seven billion other lucky ones. The virus that was eating me has been replaced by a different disease that’s even more hungry. A disease with a kill rate of 100 percent. And I tell myself, Don’t let them do it, man! This is part of their plan, too, but it doesn’t do any good. I can give myself pep talks all day long; it doesn’t change the fact that the moment the mothership appeared in the sky, it was game over. Not a matter of if, but when.
And right when I reach the point of no return, when the last part of me able to fight is about to die, as if he’s been waiting all this time for me to reach that point, my savior appears.
The door opens and his shadow fills the space—tall, lean, hard-edged, as if his shadow were cut from a slab of black marble. That shadow falls over me as he walks toward the bed. I want to look away, but I can’t. His eyes—cold and blue as a mountain lake—pin me down. He comes into the light, and I can see his short-cropped sandy hair and his sharp nose and his thin lips drawn tight in a humorless smile. Crisp uniform. Shiny black boots. The officer insignia on his collar.
He looks down at me in silence for a long, uncomfortable moment. Why can’t I look away from those ice-blue eyes? His face is so chiseled it looks unreal, like a wood carving of a human face.
“Do you know who I am?” he asks. His voice is deep, very deep, a voice-over-on-a-movie-preview deep. I shake my head. How the hell could I know that? I’d never seen him before in my life.