Chapter One: Unwelcome Visitor
“Sara,” Jonathan shouted. “We have a visitor.” He breathed a quick, silent prayer that this was one of his wife’s good days.
Sara responded from the front room of their cabin. “Oh, shit. I’ll get the rifles.”
The security monitor alert flashed over the novel Jonathan had been reading on his pad’s screen, and he hit the “acknowledge” key before it sounded the klaxon. The video showed a ragged-looking figure at the tree line bordering their mountainside farm. Long black hair stuck out in unkempt tufts, but there was no facial hair. “Report,” he said to the computer.
“A single intruder just emerged from the white pines at the northeast perimeter. Probably a woman. Possibly a boy. She’s limping and may be carrying a rifle.”
Jonathan zoomed in on the image as the computer spoke. Even at maximum zoom, he couldn’t make out features. Whoever it was carried something that might be a rifle. He ran his fingers through his short-cropped, graying hair, then stood to get his tactical helmet. “Any others nearby?”
“I’d have said if there were. There are none within either visual or infrared range.”
Sara met him in the hallway and handed him a 30.06 hunting rifle. She took another one with a telescopic sight and climbed up to the sniper’s nest in the attic.
Jonathan set the rifle aside while he strapped on his ballistics vest and put on the helmet. He activated its heads-up display, retrieved the rifle, and stepped outside. “Plan view,” he sub-vocalized. The helmet display brought up a stylized map of his mountain hideaway, showing his position with a glowing green icon and the intruder’s with a red one.
He’d decided that it probably was a woman. She hadn’t moved since the security monitor had detected her. He made his way toward her position, keeping the tool shed between himself and her until he reached it. Then he slid along the side of the shed with his back against it, moving toward the corner. He paused to take a few deep breaths and slow his heart. He worked up some spit and swallowed.
“Video,” he commanded the helmet display. It showed the view from the camera mounted on a mast above the cabin. “Zoom in on the person.” She was still approximately where she’d been when the motion detectors first sensed her. She appeared to be surveying his makeshift mountainside farm. Her rifle, if that’s what it was, rested with the stock on the ground while she gripped the barrel like a walking stick. It might actually be a walking stick, but he didn’t want to assume that. It was too far away to be certain.
He raised the gun to his shoulder and took another deep breath. “Display off,” he commanded. He didn’t want to be distracted while aiming.
He spun around the corner, the rifle leveled toward her. “Drop your gun,” he said, shouting to be heard over the distance, about thirty yards.
She turned to face him and froze.
She shook her head. “I don’t have a gun.”
“Whatever you’re holding, drop it.”
She let go of the stick, and it fell beside her. She wore a blue and green plaid shirt and tan pants, both of which were stained and torn. A small black belt-pack hung around her waist. “I need food,” she said.
“Don’t we all. Turn around and walk slowly away, and I’ll let you live. If you come back, I’ll shoot you. No second warning.”
She sank to her knees. “Please! I hurt my ankle. I can’t walk without the stick. You’re the first person I’ve seen in more than a month.”
Jonathan caught his breath and looked at her above the gun’s sights. If she was telling the truth, she was free of the virus. It had an incubation period of less than a week.
Then he shook his head. There was no way to know if she was telling the truth. He looked back through the sights. “Not my problem. On your way.”
She struggled back to her feet. After a second’s pause she tried taking a step. As soon as she put weight on her right leg she fell, crying out in pain. “Just sh—shoot me,” she said through her sobs. “Go ahead. Everyone else is gone.” She dropped her face into her hands.
Jonathan set the sights on her forehead, but he had trouble keeping a steady aim. His hands shook, and his heart pounded. This wasn’t like the last man he’d killed, more than six months ago. That one had been in the act of raising his rifle, a clear, immediate threat. This would be murder. Assisted suicide at best.
He lowered the rifle. “Wait there, and I’ll try to help you. Don’t move. I have cameras monitoring you. If you so much as twitch in the wrong direction, I’ll kill you.”
“Video on,” he sub-vocalized to the helmet display. “Monitor the intruder, and sound an alarm if she moves toward the house.”
“Program set up.”
He backed around the corner of the shed and then jogged back to the cabin, careful to keep the shed between himself and the woman as long as he could.
“Jon, what are you doing?” Sara asked in his earpiece.
“Were you monitoring?”
“Yes, but you’re not planning to bring her inside, are you?”
“No. But I can’t just kill her in cold blood, and I can’t leave her to starve to death either.”
He entered the cabin and opened the storage closet. After a brief search he found a tarp and a length of rope. He brought them out to the kitchen and opened the tarp a couple of folds, spreading it out on the floor. From the pantry he took a summer sausage and a bag of dried apple slices and placed them on the tarp. He filled a two-liter bottle with water and added it to the pile. Finally he found an old blanket that was destined to be cut up into rags and added it as well. He rolled it all up in the tarp and tied it together with the rope.
“We need that stuff, don’t we?” Sara asked.
He looked up. Sara stood in the doorway to the kitchen, arms folded, her rifle leaning against the doorframe. Her tactical helmet hung from one hand; her wavy gray hair had been disheveled by it.
He checked the video feed in his helmet display. Their visitor hadn’t moved. “If she really hasn’t seen anyone for a month, then she’s virus-free. In a week we’ll know. She’s not a threat otherwise, with that bad leg.”
“You don’t know that she isn’t faking that injury.”
“No I don’t. That’s why I need you to cover me when I take this to her.”
Sara’s eyes went wide. “Don’t you dare get that close to her! We don’t know if she’s virus-free or not. She’s too far away for me to be sure of a fatal shot from the cabin if she tries something.”
“You’ll need to come out with me. I’ll throw the package to her. I won’t get closer than twenty yards or so, and I’ll stay upwind.”
Sara scowled and tilted her head. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“No, but unless we’re going to live the rest of our lives here alone, we have to start reaching out at some point. I’m not ready to declare the human race extinct yet.”
Sara dropped her gaze to the floor. “Oh, so that’s it. She can give you children.” A tear trickled down her cheek.
He paused as he tied the package and looked up at her. “Sara, you know good and well that I had a vasectomy. There surely aren’t any surgeons left who can reverse the procedure at this point.”
Sara shook her head hard, as if trying to dislodge something stuck to it. She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. Of course I remember. I apologize for the implication.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“It’s okay.” He checked the knots on the bundle to give himself something to do. These mental lapses of hers were becoming more and more frequent. “Let’s take this out to her, okay?”
Sara put on her helmet and ballistics vest, then picked up her rifle and cradled it like a pro, holding it safely in control, so that she could quickly bring it up to aim. Jonathan slung the bundle over his shoulder and picked up his own rifle. Sara went out first, cutting across the vegetable garden to the tool shed, with Jonathan close behind.
Then, stepping out from behind the shed, Sara leveled her rifle at the intruder’s position. “Lift your arms over your head where I can see them and stand up.”
The woman lifted her hands in the classic, reach-for-the-sky gesture. “I’m not sure I can stand without using my arms to steady myself.”
“You’d best make a good try. Don’t give me an excuse to shoot you. It won’t take much.”
The intruder managed to get on her knees and push herself up with her left leg, gasping and whimpering as she steadied herself with the right leg. She wobbled a bit but made it upright.
Sara cast a glance toward Jonathan and said softly, “My God, Jon, she’s just a girl.”
Jonathan nodded. He tested the wind direction and set out with the bundle to get upwind of her. The intruder looked at him, then back to Sara, then back again as he walked partway around a circle with her in the center. When he judged that he was directly upwind of her, he approached to where he thought he could throw her the provisions and stopped, twenty or twenty-five yards away.
“Here are a few provisions. It’s not much, but it might help. If you’re still here and alive in a week, we’ll take a look at that leg and see if there’s anything we can do.”
He swung the package a couple of times and threw it toward her. It landed four or five yards from her position.
“Can I get my stick to go over to it?”
“What do you think,” Sara asked, keeping the woman in her sights.
Jonathan unslung his rifle and aimed it at the intruder. “No sudden moves. Slowly pick it up by the barrel end with your right hand, and hold it out where we can both see it.”
“I swear, it’s just a stick.”
Jonathan checked that his rifle’s safety was off. “Show us.”
She gave a little hop to get closer to where the stick lay, then slowly bent over, balancing on one leg as she grasped it. With the end in her hand, she straightened up and held it out.
Sara had an eight-power scope on her rifle. She spared a glance at Jonathan to be sure he had the intruder covered, then shifted aim to look at the stick.
“It’s a stick,” Sara said. “Go ahead and use it. But no sudden moves.”
“Thank you,” she said, and hobbled toward the bundle. “My name’s Rita. Rita Ballard.”
“If you’re still alive in a week, we can do introductions,” Jonathan said. “We’re going back in now. Don’t come any closer to the cabin than you are now. We have a camera monitoring you, and it’ll sound an alarm if you try to get to the cabin. It’d be the last mistake you ever make. It works in both visible and infrared, so don’t think you can sneak in after dark. We’ll have no trouble seeing you, regardless of how dark it is.”
“O—okay,” Rita said.
“You must have a pack somewhere. Where is it?” Sara asked.
“I lost it when I fell crossing a stream two days ago. That’s when I hurt my ankle too.”
“Oh. Sorry to hear that. Where are you from?”
“New York. I was on a backpacking trip in the Smokies when the plague hit.”
Jonathan returned to Sara’s position. Throughout her conversation with Rita, she had kept the gun aimed at her chest.
“Okay, let’s get back.” He moved behind the shed.
Sara joined him, keeping the rifle aimed at Rita until the last moment, when she ducked behind the shed too.
“Do you think she’s telling the truth?” Sara asked as they walked back.
“It doesn’t matter at this point, but I have no reason to doubt her. If she’s virus-free, then it’ll start to matter.”
“I guess so.”
They re-entered the cabin, and Jonathan opened his laptop to set up the alarm. “I hope she lives,” he said. “Especially if she has information about other survivors.”
Chapter Two: Quarantine
“She’s built a fire,” Sara said. She stood by the table, watching the monitor over Jonathan’s shoulder as she sipped her morning tea. “Did you give her any matches?”
“No. She must have some kind of fire-starter in that belt-pack of hers. I noticed she’d built the fire not long after you’d gone to sleep.”
“We should have made her show us the pack’s contents. She might have had a gun in there.”
Rita had pitched the tarp into a crude shelter, using some poles she’d collected from the white pines at the field’s edge and some smaller sticks to stake down the tarp’s edges. A small campfire burned in front of the shelter’s opening.
“Too late to worry about that now.” He reviewed the video on fast reverse and found the place where she’d made the fire. “Looks like she had a magnesium block and a sparker. That’s a common backpacker’s gadget.”
Sara shrugged. “Well, so far she seems to be doing okay.”
Jonathan picked up a bow and a quiver of arrows. “I’m going to see if I can get us something for dinner. Should be back soon. I’ll take a walkie-talkie and give you a call on it before I come back in. I’ll be out of range pretty soon, though.”
“Why don’t you just take your cell phone?”
He winced and stifled a sigh. “The cell system stopped working a year ago, remember?”
Sara shook her head again. “Oh, yeah, right. Guess I forgot.”
He slipped on a shoulder holster containing a .22 semi-automatic pistol. He checked the clip and chambered a round, then put the pistol back in the holster. “I’ll be back soon. Stay inside and keep a gun handy, okay?”
Rita had been camped at the edge of the clearing for five days when the perimeter alarm jolted Jonathan awake. It was after two in the morning, and he’d dozed off while sitting up, supposedly keeping watch while Sara took her turn to sleep.
The monitor showed a bright infrared glow where Rita’s campfire embers burned, but there was another, dimmer figure moving along the tree line in her vicinity. “Infrared signature and image consistent with a black bear,” the security program said.
Jonathan rolled his eyes. “Yes, I can see that.”
“Just being sure.”
The bear approached Rita, wary of the fire. It raised its head, sniffing the air.
Jonathan grabbed his helmet and activated it. He took his rifle. “Sara! There’s a bear after Rita.” He stiff-armed the door and checked the safety. “Night vision,” he commanded the helmet. He left the cabin at a dead run.
He passed the tool shed and saw the bear standing opposite Rita. She’d crabbed around to keep the little campfire between herself and the bear. It turned toward Jonathan as he came around the shed. He dropped down on a knee and aimed. His first shot missed, but the gun’s report startled the bear, and it ran back toward the trees. He got off another shot and hit it. The bear turned and reared up on its back legs, bellowing its pain and rage, its front legs spread out. Jonathan aimed carefully and fired two rounds in quick succession. The bear fell to the ground.
Rita had been screaming for a while, but he’d been too preoccupied with the bear to notice before. He stood, took his time to aim, and shot another round into the bear’s skull, even though it lay still. Then he clicked on the safety, squeezed his eyes shut, and blew out the breath he’d been holding.
He opened his eyes. “It’s dead. You’re safe.”
Rita continued screaming, an inarticulate wail. She sat by the fire, her fists up by her face shaking, her eyes wide.
“Jonathan, get away from her!”
He turned. Sara stood some twenty yards away, her own rifle cradled in her arms, her nightgown blowing in the breeze, her face obscured by her helmet. He looked back at Rita. She was less than fifteen feet away. Suddenly feeling shaky, he walked over to join Sara, choosing his steps carefully.
Sara looked him up and down. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Stressed, but okay.”
Rita still screamed.
“It’s okay.” Sara shouted to be heard over the distance. “The bear is dead.”
“A bear killed David! Oh God, I couldn’t help him. It knocked his head right off. It killed David, and I just ran away. Oh God, I ran away from him, oh God, I’m sorry—”
“David wants you to calm down. You have to keep in control to survive. David wants you to survive.”
Rita stopped yelling and stared at Sara. For a moment there was no sound but the chirps of crickets and tree frogs, and the wind rustling in the white pines. She heaved a sigh and said, “Thanks,” just loud enough for them to hear. She gave a loud sniffle and wiped her eyes. “David was my fiancé.”
Sara nodded. “Our condolences. We’re both terribly sorry.”
“How’s your leg?”
“A little better. I still have to use the stick to walk.”
“If I bring out some tea and leave it over here, can you get it?”
“Y—yes, I think so. Thanks.”
“I’m Sara Rillman. My husband’s name is Jonathan.”
“Thank you for saving my life.”
“You’re welcome,” Sara said. “Two more days of quarantine. If you’re still alive then, you can join us in the cabin.”
Chapter Three: Then There Were Three
On the morning of the seventh day, Sara and Jonathan went to Rita’s camp together. They stopped by the spot where they’d been leaving her tea and plates of bear meat, and Sara called out to her, shouting over the distance. “Rita, are you awake?”
For an uncomfortable few seconds nothing happened. Sara turned to Jonathan, and he met her gaze, then cast his eyes downward.
Sara was about to try again when the blanket moved as Rita rolled over.
“I’m awake.” She pulled back the blanket, wiggled out, and yawned. “I’m still alive.”
“Cough hard into a bandana or something, and then show it to us,” Sara said.
Jonathan said softly, “Is that necessary? Everything we heard said the incubation period was less than seven days.”
“It can’t hurt.”
Rita searched around and then pulled up a corner of the blanket and gave a couple of good coughs into it. She held up the corner for Sara and Jonathan to see. The pale blue cloth of the blanket was unstained.
Sara nodded. She and Jonathan helped Rita back to their cabin. She was still rail-thin, but generous helpings of bear meat over the previous two days seemed to have improved her health. Her color was better, and her cheeks were less hollow than when she first arrived.
Sara helped Rita wash up and wrapped her ankle, which didn’t appear to be broken but was still badly sprained. She found some clothes for her that were only a little too big. The shirt ballooned around her, and the pants had to be cinched at the waist, but they’d work until they could get her own washed and mended.
Jonathan spent most of the day outside, tanning the bearskin and tending the smoldering fire that was smoking strips of bear meat.
Sara gave a final check of the Ace bandage on Rita’s ankle and rolled an oversized woolen sock onto her foot. “How’d you find us? We’ve made an effort to hide this place.”
Rita nodded. “You did a pretty good job of that. A few days before I got here, before I sprained my ankle, I climbed an antenna mast to get a look at the country. I noticed the clearing and the smoke from your chimney. The black of your solar panels showed up in the distance. It still took me a long time to find it. Spraining my ankle didn’t help, of course.” She gave a humorless little laugh. “Or maybe it did.”
Sara was washing her hands at the kitchen sink and turned to Rita. “What do you mean?”
“If I’d been able to walk, you’d have just chased me off, right?”
Sara dried her hands, stepped over to the window, and sighed. “I’m truly sorry about that, but we have good reason to be cautious. We used to have neighbors across the hollow, more than a year ago. Zeke and Linda Anderson and their two little boys, John and Mike.” She turned back to face Rita. “They were good folks—kind-hearted, down-to-earth hill people. Some time not long after the plague hit, a couple came up the road, fleeing the city, and stopped at their house, asking for shelter for the night. Zeke and Linda took them in, fed them, and gave them couch space.”
Sara ran fingers through her graying hair and looked out the window. Rita could still see her face as a ghostly reflection in the window glass.
“The next morning, Linda found them dead of the plague. Zeke panicked. He called Jon and asked him what to do. I was in the kitchen when he took the call. He said, ‘Oh God, Zeke, no.’ Then he started crying. We knew by then that there was nothing to do. In about five days the hemorrhaging would begin in their lungs, and they’d drown in their own blood fifteen or twenty minutes later. Zeke was a strong man, both in spirit and body. A lesser man would have just dissolved. He and Linda spent the next five days clearing trees away from their house. Then they let the cows and horse out into the pasture. Linda died first, by a couple of hours, and then the two boys. When Zeke started coughing up blood he called Jonathan to let him know, doused the place with gasoline, and lit it, still inside.”
Sara closed her eyes tight, then grimaced and opened them again.
Rita shook her head. “How awful.”
Sara nodded. “Yes. All the more so because it’s compounded by billions of other awful deaths.” She sighed. “We’ve had a handful of people stop by since then. We’ve chased them all off, or”—she pursed her lips—“or shot them. Last spring Jon used Zeke’s tractor to break up the driveway entrance at the road, and we moved some rhododendron bushes in front of it. That seemed to help. Or maybe everyone else is already dead.”
I’ve found myself interested in the possibilities of a post-apocalyptic story for a while, but it took a long time to come up with an approach that I felt hadn’t been done to death. I’ve written a few pieces before this one that are set in this universe, though about a thousand years later. One of my original goals for this one was to write a piece that explained how those stories’ circumstances had arisen. I thought it would be a novelette, perhaps a novella. Well, I lost control of the project, and by the time it was done it was a little more than 100,000 words.
In this case, the apocalypse takes the form of a world-wide plague, which the characters think was due to a biological weapon that backfired. None of them really know that, however. The plague is universally fatal, but there are no animal vectors, and the virus causing it can’t survive outside a living person more than a few minutes. Only ones who avoid all contact with infected victims survive. More than 99.99% of the population perish before the plague burns itself out and the virus goes extinct. After a while, the survivors come together to try to rebuild civilization and salvage what technology they can. Not everyone has the same idea of what civilization should look like, though. Conflicts arise.
In addition, around a year before the plague, baby boys started dying and no one knew why. Girls weren’t affected, and boys older than a year were safe. Riots over the assumed government cover-up had nearly paralyzed society before the plague started. Overall, before the plague, more than eighty percent of boys less than a year old died, and this pattern continues for the survivors afterward. They have to contend not only with a population reduced from millions to dozens by the plague, but with the additional pressure of a severely skewed gender ratio.
The growing band of survivors continue trying to preserve civilization and technology in the face of disasters natural and man-made. Leaders they’ve come to rely on sicken, and they have to find new leaders. Finally they are forced to abandon high-tech tools for technology they can construct and maintain by themselves.
Steven Smith lives in Newark, Ohio. He is a published poet and flash-fiction writer, and a retired mechanical engineer. Some of his poems have appeared in Pudding Magazine, 300 Days of Sun, and The Plum Tree Tavern, and he has flash fiction in Children, Churches and Daddies. His engineering background proved helpful for writing many scenes in this novel. You can find more information at sksmithwriter.com.
Embark, Issue 9, July 2019