The 5th Wave
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Other topics: the status of the rescue and winnowing operation (code name Li’l Bo Peep; I’m not kidding). What news from the outside? When will we hunker full-time in the underground bunker, because obviously the enemy can see what we’re doing down here and it’s only a matter of time before they vaporize us. For that we get the standard-issue reply: Commander Vosch knows what he’s doing. Our job isn’t to worry about strategy and logistics. Our job is to kill the enemy.
8:30 P.M.: Personal time. Free of Reznik at last. We wash our jumpsuits, shine our boots, scrub the barracks floor and the latrine, clean our rifles, pass around dirty magazines, and swap other contraband like candy and chewing gum. We play cards and bust each other’s nuts and complain about Reznik. We share the day’s rumors and tell bad jokes and push back against the silence inside our own heads, the place where the never-ending voiceless scream rises like the superheated air above a lava flow. Inevitably an argument erupts and stops just short of a fistfight. It’s tearing away at us. We know too much. We don’t know enough. Why is our regiment composed entirely of kids like us, no one over the age of eighteen? What happened to all the adults? Are they being taken somewhere else and, if they are, where and why? Are the Teds the final wave, or is there another one coming, a fifth wave that will make the first four pale in comparison? Thinking about a fifth wave shuts down the conversation.
9:30 P.M.: Lights-out. Time to lie awake and think of a wholly new and creative way to waste Sergeant Reznik. After a while I get tired of that and think about the girls I’ve dated, shuffling them around in various orders. Hottest. Smartest. Funniest. Blondes. Brunettes. Which base I got to. They start to blend together into one girl, the Girl Who Is No More, and in her eyes Ben Parish, high school hallway god, lives again. From its hiding place under my bunk, I pull out Sissy’s locket and press it against my heart. No more guilt. No more grief. I will trade my self-pity for hate. My guilt for cunning. My grief for the spirit of vengeance.
“Zombie?” It’s Nugget in the bunk next to me.
“No talking after lights-out,” I whisper back.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Close your eyes and think of something nice.”
“Can we pray? Is that against the rules?”
“Sure you can pray. Just not out loud.”
I can hear him breathing, the creak of the metal frame as he flips and flops around on the bunk.
“Cassie always said my prayer with me,” he confesses.
“I told you.”
“Cassie’s my sister. She’s coming for me.”
“Oh, sure.” I don’t tell him that if she hasn’t shown up by now, she’s probably dead. It isn’t up to me to break his heart; that’s time’s job.
“She’s promised. Promised.”
A tiny hiccup of a sob. Great. Nobody knows for sure, but we accept it as fact that the barracks are bugged, that every second Reznik is spying on us, waiting for us to break one of the rules so he can bring the hammer down. Violating the no-talking rule at lights-out will earn all of us a week of kitchen patrol.
“Hey, it’s all right, Nugget…”
Reaching my hand out to comfort him, finding the top of his freshly shaved head, running my fingertips over his scalp. Sissy liked for me to rub her head when she felt bad—maybe Nugget likes it, too.
“Hey, stow that over there!” Flintstone calls out softly.
“Yeah,” Tank says. “You wanna get us busted, Zombie?”
“Come here,” I whisper to Nugget, scooting over and patting the mattress. “I’ll say your prayer with you, and then you can go to sleep, okay?”
The mattress gives with his added weight. Oh God, what am I doing? If Reznik pops in for a surprise inspection, I’ll be peeling potatoes for a month. Nugget lies on his side facing me, and his fists rub against my arm as he brings them up to his chin.
“What prayer does she say with you?” I ask.
“‘Now I lay me,’” he whispers.
“Somebody put a pillow over that nugget’s face,” Dumbo says from his bunk.
I can see the ambient light shining in his big brown eyes. Sissy’s locket pressed against my chest and Nugget’s eyes, glittering like twin beacons in the dark. Prayers and promises. The one his sister made to him. The unspoken one I made to my sister. Prayers are promises, too, and these are the days of broken promises. All of a sudden I want to put my fist through the wall.
“‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.’”
He joins in on the next line.
“‘When in the morning light I wake, teach me the path of love to take.’”
The hisses and shushes pick up on the next stanza. Somebody hurls a pillow at us, but we keep praying.
“‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Your angels watch me through the night, and keep me safe till morning’s light.’”
On angels watch me, the hissing and shushing stops. A profound stillness settles over the barracks.
Our voices slow on the last stanza. Like we’re reluctant to finish because on the other side of a prayer is the nothingness of another exhausted sleep and then another day waiting for the last day, the day we will die. Even Teacup knows she probably won’t live to see her eighth birthday. But we’ll get up and put ourselves through seventeen hours of hell anyway. Because we will die, but at least we will die unbroken.
“‘And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’”
THE NEXT MORNING I’m in Reznik’s office with a special request. I know what his answer’s going to be, but I’m asking anyway.
“Sir, the squad leader requests that the senior drill instructor grant Private Nugget a special exemption from this morning’s detail.”
“Private Nugget is a member of this squad,” Reznik reminds me. “And as a member of this squad, he is expected to perform all duties assigned by Central Command. All duties, Private.”
“Sir, the squad leader requests that the senior drill instructor reconsider his decision based on Private Nugget’s age and—”
Reznik dismisses the point with a wave of his hand. “The boy didn’t drop out of the damned sky, Private. If he didn’t pass his prelims, he wouldn’t have been assigned to your squad. But the fact of the matter is he did pass his prelims, he was assigned to your squad, and he will perform all duties of your squad as assigned by Central Command, including P and D. Are we clear, Private?”
Well, Nugget, I tried.
“What’s P and D?” he asks at morning chow.
“Processing and disposal,” I answer, cutting my eyes away from him.
Across from us, Dumbo groans and pushes his tray away. “Great. The only way I can get through breakfast is by not thinking about it!”
“Churn and burn, baby,” Tank says, glancing at Flintstone for approval. Those two are tight. On the day Reznik gave me the job, Tank told me he didn’t care who was squad leader, he’d only listen to Flint. I shrugged. Whatever. Once we graduated—if we ever graduated—one of us would be promoted to sergeant, and I knew that someone would not be me.
“Dr. Pam showed you a Ted,” I say to Nugget. He nods. From his expression, I can tell it isn’t a pleasant memory. “You hit the button.” Another nod. Slower than the first one. “What do you think happens to the person on the other side of the glass after you hit the button?”
Nugget whispers, “They die.”
“And the sick people they bring in from the outside, ones that don’t make it once they get here—what do you think happens to them?”
“Oh, come on, Zombie, just tell him!” Oompa says. He’s pushed away his food, too. A first for him. Oompa is the only one in the squad who ever goes back for seconds. To put it in the nicest way, the food in camp sucks.
“It isn’t something we like to do, but it has to be done,” I say, echoing the company line. “Because this is war, you know? It’s war.”
I look down the table for support. The only one who will make eye contact with me is Teacup, who is nodding happily.
“War,” she says. Happily.
Outside the mess hall and across the yard, where several squads are drilling under the watchful eyes of their drill sergeants, Nugget trots along beside me. Zombie’s dog, the squad calls him behind his back. Cutting between Barracks 3 and 4 to the road that leads to the power plant and the processing hangars. The day is cold and cloudy; it feels like it might snow. In the distance, the sound of a Black Hawk taking off and the sharp tat-tat-tat of automatic weapons’ fire. Directly in front of us the twin towers of the plant belching black and gray smoke. The gray smoke fades into the clouds. The black lingers.
A large white tent has been set up outside the entrance to the hangar, the staging area festooned with red-and-white biohazard warning signs. Here we suit up for processing. Once I’m dressed, I help Nugget with his orange suit, the boots, the rubber gloves, the mask, and the hood. I give him the lecture about never, ever taking off any part of his suit inside the hangar, under any circumstances, ever. He has to ask permission before handling anything and, if he has to leave the building for any reason, he has to decon and pass inspection before reentering.
“Just stick with me,” I tell him. “It’ll be okay.”
He nods and his hood bounces back and forth, the faceplate smacking him in the forehead. He’s trying to hold it together, and it’s not going well. So I say, “They’re just people, Nugget. Just people.”
Inside the processing hangar, the bodies of the just-people are sorted, the infected from the clean—or, as we call them, the Ted from the unTed. Teds are marked with bright green circles on their foreheads, but you rarely need to look; the Teds are always the freshest bodies.
They’ve been stacked against the back wall, waiting for their turn to be laid out on the long metal tables that run the length of the hangar. The bodies are in various stages of decay. Some are months old. Some look fresh enough to sit up and wave hello.
It takes three squads to work the line. One squad carts the bodies over to the metal tables. Another processes. A third carries the processed corpses to the front and stacks them for pickup. You rotate the duties to help break up the monotony.
Processing is the most interesting, and where our squad begins. I tell Nugget not to touch, just watch me until he gets the idea.
Empty the pockets. Separate the contents. Trash goes in one bin, electronics in another, precious metals in a third, all other metals in a fourth. Wallets, purses, paper, cash—all trash. Some of the squads can’t help themselves—old habits die hard—and walk around with wads of useless hundred-dollar bills stuffed in their pockets.
Photographs, IDs, any little memento that isn’t made of ceramic—trash. Almost without exception, from the oldest to the youngest, the pockets of the dead are filled to the brim with the strangest things only the owners could understand the value for.