Chapter 2
 
  

Chapter 02

There was a lot of speculation after the convoy was destroyed.  The rumor mill generated about a thousand conspiracy theories an hour for several months after it happened.  I heard everything; Earth designed the ships to fail, terrorists shot them down, and aliens sabotaged them.  The most plausible reason – the one Tricia Tanakah reported – was that the Mitsubishi anti-matter containment unit failed. That explained why the transport was coming in early and without txting air-control of its status. She even had a respectable looking CG re-enactment of how an anti-matter containment unit would fail once its primary safety couplings were compromised by the radiation of deep space.

None of these were true, of course.

The trip between our planets takes a really long time.  The number of years that pass depends on whether you are on the ship or which planet you are on… it’s complicated. For the duration of the voyage the ship’s systems are managed by an advanced Virtual Intelligence.  This allows organic life forms to be put into cryostasis.  Mind, body, and soul are protected – allegedly – and healthy colonists arrive on New Earth ready to serve humanity.

Two things were different about this transport:

1.  The humans on board were infused with a special prototype nano-technology that would regulate their various automatic organic functions.

2.  The Convoy was managed by a brand new, state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence; code named, PAT.  Note that an Artificial Intelligence is as different from a Virtual Intelligence as an F-16 Fighter jet is from a Pinto Hatchback.

By themselves each of these things was a major improvement that greatly increased the chances of survival for the travelers.  Coupled, they spelled disaster.  It took years for the Earth scientists who worked on the systems to admit that the AI team did its calculations in Metric and that the Nano team did its calculations in American Standard.  This simple difference is just one of the many possible reasons why the AI went insane and was able leach sentience from the humans through the nanobots.

I don’t blame PAT.  Who could?  It must have been hell being so alone for so long.  Nobody wants to be alone.  But the thing is, when you are alone for long enough I think you get used to it.  It becomes the norm, and even though you might want to be around others you really don’t know how to act.  So you get scared.  And you withdraw.  You get afraid, and fear will make you do stupid things.  Fear becomes your only god.

So how heavy was the fear that flooded over that AI with the sudden waking infestation of humans whose thoughts and memories it had absorbed as its own?  All those 1’s and 0’s given voice and flesh as the automated sub-routines engaged the cryo systems and caused a massive power drain.  The infant AI had been alone for so long.  It’s whole life really.  Who could blame him for giving in to fear and wanting to purge the ship and escape to safety?  Would any of us do any different if our homes were burning with disembodied voices that wouldn’t let us have the remote?

* * *

No human alive at the time, on Earth or on New Earth, had experienced an explosion of that magnitude.  Nukes, the most perfect weapon of mass destruction, had been phased out decades earlier.  Even smaller recreational nukes had been banned after the pyrotechnics malfunction of Super Bowl CXXXII.

The explosion is pretty well documented; not that it matters. There are countless videos of it on the Network, but none of them really do it justice. They don't show a massive fireball spewing a spectacular ear-shattering boom. The videos only show a bright flash of white light. Then nothing. Both the wireless power-grid and the information network were immediately fried.

I didn't see the explosion. I was inside. It doesn't matter, though. Humans, especially zombies, can’t exactly perceive an explosion like that.  Our bodies just aren’t capable of processing firepower of that magnitude.  The explosion did not go “boom.”  It was more like an “un-boom.” Debris fell in scattered showers for days; it drove the NEWS! As it Happens Doppler 9 Storm Ninja nuts.

What I remember is that everything shook. There was a violent cacophony as the walls rattled clear the dozens of heavy glass liquor bottles long since filled with water. I was thrown from my chair and landed hard on my side. My skull crashed hard against the plain concrete floor, if it wasn’t so soft it would cracked and leaked out my brains onto the floor, and my vision blurred from the from the pain.

The city was petrified.  Herrad was instantly frozen in the vacuum of hot sensory overload.  It was several minutes before there was a slow re-admittance into the world of sensory perception.  I began to diagnose myself in slow methodical intervals.

I'm alive.

I'm on the ground.

I can see.  Everything looks washed out and blurry.  I can't hear anything.  why can't I hear anything?  Can I stand?

I stood up to look around.   Lou, the bartender, was nowhere to be seen. Before I could investigate I heard the shrieking inhale of someone struggling to pull air into their lungs.  I recognized the sound as the same one I've made dozens of times alone at home as I choked on pills sucked down in a frenzy.

The choking stranger was lying in the doorway wedging the door open with a rogue leg.  If I still had adrenaline it would have been pumping hard just then.  I was not prepared for this.  I was not prepared for anything.  The person in the door had been hurt. They needed my help. I pissed myself.

I forced my feet to move.  After one or two steps I could tell that it was a woman.  I could see that she was wearing Government Issue Cleveland Browns branded Under Armor brand performance sports apparel, but her face was turned away.  I was afraid. Each step closer to her was heavier than the last as my brain raced with the horrid images of what I'd find when I reached her.

I didn't want to see what was wrong with her.

I didn't want to not be able to help her.

I didn't want to see her die.

A few more labored steps and I could see her face.  It was that cute girl, Polly, from the restaurant.  My cardiovascular system was bad.  My heart hurt; it was pounding so hard I thought that its throbbing rhythm might just pulverize the inside of my chest cavity.  I could feel my ribs flexing.

I got to her side and raised her head.  “Are you okay?  What’s wrong?”  My coffee-can voice sounded thin and empty.  Time slowed and stretched out so that each moment zipped past with alarming clarity.  I knew what was wrong.  I knew that she was not okay.  But the limited tools of language demand a funneling of information.

Her cheeks were wet, but from her tears or mine?  Her leg was jammed in the door, and the light that came through the open seam was a pure white perversion of illumination that ate up the shadows.

“What can I do to help?”

She sucked at another raspy breath and wrapped her hands around her neck.  She was choking.  I turned to the bartender for help, but he was nowhere to be seen.  It was up to me.

“Can you stand?”  I know the Heimlich, but I wasn’t strong enough to pick her up.

Together, we got her to her feet.  I maneuvered myself behind her so that I could squeeze her abdomen.  Two inches above the belly button.  Up and in.  Up and in…

Fun Fact: The day I boarded the Savage, the vessel that took me away from Earth, I stood 6 feet tall and weighed just over 200 pounds.  The day I came out of cryo on New Earth I was 5’4” and weighed 105 pounds.  My bones had the density and plasticity of licorice.

I felt Polly go limp in my arms as I squeezed once…then twice.  Nothing.  Three times.  Fuck Fuck Fuck

Fuck!

I was losing her.  I wasn’t strong enough to hold her up, and I could feel my mushy bones giving way to her weight.  I crouched a bit with my knees and pulled her back to brace myself against the door jam.  I took a big inhale of air.  And then I let it all out.  I was not giving up.  I was not letting her go.  Everything I had…All the best parts of me…All the strength I could never find when I was on Earth…I had it then.

I yelled and I squeezed and I cried and felt my bowels let loose, and I didn’t care.  I had to do something good in my life, for once.

Polly coughed and we both fell to the floor, and I could feel my left shoulder pop as we rolled onto it.  I rolled out from under her.  Her eyes and her mouth were wide open, and she was coughing violently.  With a quickness I stuck my fingers into her mouth to pull out the obstruction before she could inhale it again.  I found the mass of whatever it was and flung it.  I didn’t look at it. I threw it.  I banished it.

The two of us lay on the ground for several minutes before speaking.  I could hear her harsh breathing as she sought the return of regularity, and I could hear my own quiet sobs that resulted as much from the sharp stings of pain in my broken bones as from the overflow of emotion.

For a long time we sat and stared at one another in disbelief underneath a mutually acknowledged shunning of words.  She moved to stand up first with a slow reverence for her legs.  I moved to push myself up, but it wasn’t going to happen.  I was too weak and in too much pain.  I slumped back onto my butt with a wince and a sigh.

“Here, let me help you,” Polly said.  She knew that I was too broken, and instead of offering to yank me up with her hand she kneeled down so I could grab onto her.  It was slow and it was painful, and I was embarrassed at my weakness.  But by hugging tight to her I was once again standing on my feet.  When we were both standing I clung to the cuffs of her sleeves. Even through my pain I noticed the whispered citrus secrets of the thick black braid of hair and course scratch of her uniform against my skin.

“Thank you,” I said.

The words hung in the air like gossamer on a windy-day clothes line.  Every word was all treble; thin and ready to tear.  A good strong wind would have blown them away; nauts lost in transit. I stepped back away from her; reluctant. Timid.

She stared at me a second.  “Thank you.”

There was a moment of silence, and we were both crying.  What do you say to a stranger that you’ve obsessed over in silence for years whose life you've just saved?  Should I hug her?  I did an awkward half-step toward her, but aborted and reluctantly released my hold on her sleeves.  Her eyes were closed, tears glistened on her face, and for a moment she was somewhere far away.

“What happened?”

She shook her head.  We stood in an awkward silence.  I was such a loser.

She turned and pushed the door open.  We stepped outside.

It wasn’t easy, but we looked around to study the city.  There was very little physical damage in our immediate area. The few cars that were on the road crashed into each other, and there were charred holes where burned debris had scarred buildings, sidewalks, cars, or whatever had gotten in the way.

Our part of the city was lucky.  We were spared from the extreme destruction of the molten metal carnage that struck other areas.

Most of the damage was, indeed, the psychological stress of the explosion. All around us people were slowly coming back to their senses and checking themselves and their companions for damage.

It was quiet out there on the street.  There must have been a hundred or so people in our immediate vicinity, and the only sounds were the hushed distant voices of people all asking each other the same two questions, "Are you okay," and "What happened?"  Somewhere, far off in the distance I heard the faint wailing of a crying infant.  A rare sound, in Herrad.

“Seriously,” she wiped away her tears.  “I can’t thank you enough.  You really saved my life.

“You’re a zom…you’re from Earth?”

Most of us had taken to referring to ourselves as zombies, but it still stung when one of the Natives did it.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I only meant that you look hurt.  You haven’t been here long enough to fully recover.”

Nobody ever fully-recovers.

“I think my arm is broken.  My shoulder is too.”

“We should get you to the hospital.” She extended her hand, “I’m Polly.”

“Phoenix.” I shook her hand.

There was a moment where our eyes met, and there was a moment of realization in her eyes.

“I know you,” she said.  “You used to eat at my restaurant all the time.  I haven’t you seen there in a while.”  She smiled.  “You were one of my best customers.  Where’ve you been?”

She knows me!  I was the best customer!

I said something then.  I don’t know.  Something like words skidded out off of my tongue, and the next thing I knew we were *talking* and the rest of the world was gone.

Years ago I started going to Polly’s restaurant because nobody else from work went there.  It was quiet and I could sit there in silence and eat my three bites of food and not feel self-conscious.  Even with the medications I still had extreme social anxieties – a holdover from my breakdown on Earth – that made it difficult impossible for me to get comfortable around new people or large groups of people.

Polly’s was the quiet secluded sanctuary I needed.  That is, until the day she tried to talk to me, and the rush of words that left my mouth in reply made me sound stupid and pathetic.  I burned with self-deprecation and wanted to crawl into the deepest darkest hole I could find.

I could never go there again.  And yet, I couldn’t stop thinking of her.  She talked to me, and not because she wanted me to make coffee or print the TPS reports.  She asked me about me just because…

I never felt so alone in my whole life.

“Do you need to go to the hospital,” Polly asked in a way that re-materialized the world around us.  She touched my shoulder.  She touched my shoulder!

I flexed my neck and shoulders, and the resulting popping and creaking was a horrible pain and a welcome relief.  The popping joints were just part of my normal operating procedure, but I was a wreck of fractured bones and strained ligaments that would have been unbearable if not for the myriad of pharmaceuticals in my bloodstream.

“I just want to go home.”

“It looks like the power is out, she said.”  The traffic lights and the signs on the buildings were all dim.  “Do you need help getting home?”

There was movement in the sky behind her that caught my eye.  I followed its flight, lost it for a moment in the glare of the setting sun, and then made out what appeared to a black rectangular object toppling end-over-end.

Polly turned to see what I was watching. Someone said, “What’s that?”

There were a few people who had some sense and took off in a run to get away from the area.  The rest of us stood transfixed as the object crashed to the ground several yards in front of where we were standing.  It smashed open.  Shards of dark hard plastic zipped off in all directions and the metal hardware fasteners sheered and split.  Inside the container were dozens of glass vials that shattered on the hard gray surface of the road.  Polly and I turned to shield ourselves just in time and we were peppered with bits of broken plastic and glass, and I noticed a faint stink of ammonia.

One vial survived the crash through a heroic defiance of physics.  The assembled crowd stared in awed silence as it rolled toward us.  The rabble parted to make way for it.  None dared touch it, though no one could take their eyes off it.  It rolled right up to the toes of my Nike Pumps.

“What is it?” Someone asked.

Polly bent to pick it up, and examined it closely.  “It’s empty,” she said.

Then she held it up where everyone could see that the glass remained perfect and unblemished with the polymer seal still intact.  “It’s empty,” she yelled.  “There’s nothing in them.  They were empty.”  You could feel the collective sigh of relief as she slid the memento into one of her pockets.

The vials were, as it turns out, not empty.