Aphelion Issue 262, Volume 25
June 2021
 
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Voids

by Jason Arsenault




"So, where were you when it all happened?" the man called Mark asked her. Julie ignored the question and continued to stare at the endless flicker of the BMW's signal light. The battery had lasted all this time. The car had stalled and she could see the driver leaning against the steering wheel. Good thing the weather was rather chilly because she could already smell it from here. The lot was deadly quiet apart from this constant ticking. She didn't want to recall the scene when the event occurred, so she only shrugged.

Of all the people she hoped to find, this one only made her feel increasingly alone. She sighed and sat down on the cement block marking section L. "Are you Ok?" he asked with what looked like honest concern, but it wasn't, or rather in a normal world, he wouldn't have been. From the way he ogled her, talked to her with eye contact to her breasts, Julie knew he was already contemplating the last-man-and-woman-on-earth romantic scenario. She wouldn't have it, ever. It wasn't because he was ugly or stupid, or clearly the douche bag that he was. He wasn't unpleasant or idiotic and his level of douchebaggery was mild in comparison to what she remembered about those who had already died. But the real reason was that she would not be Eve in a world where something like this could happen again. The tears swelled in her eyes.

The man came closer trying to comfort her but she pushed him away. She barely had the strength to do that. The man, dejected, frowned then paced besides her kicking at random pebbles. After a few minutes he hesitated, then said, "Look, I know how you feel. But it's getting dark so maybe we should go inside, yea? There'll be food, supplies."

She wiped her face with the sleeves of the large wool sweater she had found inside a residential house a few blocks away. The door had been wide open. The owner must have been stepping out when it happened. She took a breath then said, "You're right—look, I'm sorry, let's go inside."

The mall was as she remembered, aside from the droves of dead shoppers littered around the grand walkway. Like flies lying upturned under a bug zapper they had fallen immobile wherever they stood. Good thing that the doors were stuck open when the power went out or the odor would have been much worse. Minus the wind, it was the same temperature as outside. Mark was walking ahead and prodding random fellows as if they might be asleep. "Wake up buddy, it's a good joke. You got me," she imagined him saying. But it wasn't a joke and it wasn't funny. He turned to her like he didn't know what to do. She motioned to the corner with her head and he saw. The sliding doors to the grocery store were jammed open by a wayward trolley before the power went out. If they hadn't been, she would have gotten him to break through the glass—might as well use his insecurity-compensated weightlifting biceps for something constructive.

Inside she was still cold. She stepped over an old lady whose face had been victim of animal predation. Whatever had happened had spared animals, at least some of them. She had heard dogs barking earlier today, no doubt scavenging for whatever they could find after their masters had taken the long nap. At least those that weren't unlucky enough to be locked inside or chained to a post. But there were still a great number of them that had died, as did birds and squirrels—but not so many of them.

The store looked like it would have looked if it had been spontaneously neglected. Pirate anarchists hadn't raided the canned beans. Nothing indicated that there had come anyone else alive before them. Boxes of ice cream had melted and collapsed out the freezers. The fruits and vegetables weren't sorted and drosophilae swirled and matted like there was no tomorrow—maybe there wasn't. A little girl who had could have been yelling "Mommy mommy, can I can I," had fallen dead into the cake she had been begging for. Julie regretted coming here; she realized she had no appetite.

"Can we go?" she asked Mark, who looked two shades paler. He mumbled something and grabbed a few containers of she didn't care what. It seemed that he didn't want to linger around the produce aisles either and they were out soon enough. If the incident had occurred before Christmas instead of early March, this mall would have been more cluttered than the Paris catacombs—the pits of the Walmart holocaust.

She must have walked dazedly for a few minutes because she saw Mark sitting in a quiet, empty corner near the bookstore. Did people still buy books these days? She wondered, but by the visible absence of patrons inside, she didn't think so. She slowly walked there and sat four seats away. He had opened a bag of peanuts and gorged them down faster than the drosophilae feeding on the rotting fruit stand.

He asked if she wanted some. She shook her head but he reached over and awkwardly stretching, he placed a bag of almonds next to her. "Protein, it's good for you."

She almost laughed but only smiled then took the bag. She had hardly eaten anything in days. The salt content and artificial flavors hurt her taste buds but her mouth was definitely glad to have something to do.

"I know it's not your favorite topic," he started, "But why do you think we were passed over?" He flinched at his poor choice of words.

"Don't know," she replied with a low voice that could only have been heard in such a deserted place. She really didn't. It was almost the only thing she had thought about for the last few days. But from everything she could conceive there was no explanation.

"Maybe we were immune to it," he speculated.

"Disease doesn't work that fast," she said immediately.

"How would you know, you a doctor or something?" he said defensively as she shattered his main theory.

"Biologist," she replied. Not that the world needed such scholars anymore.

"So what, God just waves his hand and bang," he said while shooting with his finger, "Screw you world, but oopsy, I forgot a couple over there."

She wished he hadn't used the word couple. "I don't know," she replied louder.

"OK, OK," he said then sighed. He ate greedily, like someone would swipe his meal away. But they had access to enough preserved food to last them a lifetime.

Julie stood, brushed off the meager flakes of almond shells that had fallen on her wool sweater and walked into the bookstore. It was eerily empty—too empty. There was no one inside, no customers, no employees, just books, rows and rows of unread books. In the corner she sat on a large comfortable sofa, then turned and laid down, putting her feet up on the coffee table. There must be innumerable books she would normally have read but she couldn't remember when she had last stepped inside a book store herself; easier to buy things online—well, not anymore. Either way she didn't feel like reading right now.

***

Since it happened, it seemed time stood still. Her list of priorities had fallen to nil like everything else. Before the event she barely had time to do anything: running to work, going to the gym, finishing her research papers—no one cared about marsupials anymore (or so it seemed before this even happened)—cleaning her dishes, even reading! But now the days slowed down to a crawl. She had taken the last few to try to find someone else, anyone else.

So she had broken into a security supply store. The irony had been palatable but she wanted a sound amplifier and she found one. She paid the six hundred dollars plus tax with an I.O.U, as the limp cashier didn't object, so she quelled her misgivings and spent the rest of the day on the roof, pointing the dish at wherever she thought there could be noise. She kept telling herself that it wasn't possible that she was the only survivor, that this was all some kind of mistake, and that the army or FBI or the President himself would come to her rescue any minute now. The electricity had gone out a few hours after the workers fell at their posts. So fragile was their system that, if left untended for the briefest moments, it fell apart improbably fast. The charred houses, where inhabitants had been cooking, or whatnot, when they died, could be seen like pock marks in the tranquil New England scenery. If the rain hadn't come when it did, the fires could have spread far wider. The water pressure still brought water—for now. But that would fail too. Who knew how many people had died in the shower or while using the faucet. The drinkability of that water was also suspect; Julie didn't know how clean it would remain without the city's normal water management services. Without anyone at the controls it certainly wouldn't last forever. So she helped herself to the plentiful supply of the bottled variety.

Inside the store there had been a surprising amount of useful equipment pre-prepped for the next Armageddon. Maybe the paranoid had been right after all, and the end had been nigh. She also took a flashlight, a survival pack, first aid kit, a flask, batteries, and a flare gun. The battery powered radios she found received only static, but she packed one nonetheless.

She heard a whole lot of nothing before she heard Mark's car in the distance and by that time she had already lost most of her already diminishing hope. But by then she had grown strong misgivings about actually trying to contact whoever that was. Sci-fi and horror had perhaps stimulated her imagination and she couldn't be certain that the person driving that vehicle had already turned into a bandit hunting for plunder—or worse. But it had only been three days and there was enough canned food in Boston to feed them for ages—despite the recent atrocities, it was a time of plenty. She fired the flare towards the mall parking lot and lo, he turned towards it, weaving through the sporadic crashed cars and literally interminable traffic.

***

She sat up straight as she heard wood cracking and saw Mark outside preparing a makeshift spike from an old man's cane. What, did he think they would turn into zombies or vampires? He practiced swinging it in the air then lunged forward like he held a foil. She laughed and as he heard her, turned and smiled.

"What are you doing?" she yelled.

"We—we might need to defend ourselves."

She shook her head with dismay and asked, "From what?" He didn't seem to know, or rather, he didn't want to say. She didn't feel it necessary to tell him there were probably real weapons freely available in the general supply store upstairs. Of all the people on Earth to be marooned with ...

Shortly afterwards he started to push the heavy benches in front of the bookstore, forming a barricade to stop the werewolves and mummies, no doubt. But the thought of being locked in did disturb her. Being the last person on Earth, free to walk anywhere, kind of changes one's perspectives about confinement. "Don't do that," she said forcibly as if talking to a child. Indeed she realized that she saw him as one. Barely a few years his senior, she did think of him as a grown up child, spoon fed and spoiled. But he was also afraid, and if left to his own devices, his fantasy took charge. He honestly thought that was what they needed. But it wasn't.

"OK," he said after he contemplated arguing.

"There's another couch over there, we can stay here for now. And Mark, if you're worried, those doors are hinged. Close 'em. We'll hear if any monsters come through."

"OK," he said again. He looked pensive, almost painfully so, then nodded and walked over to the other sofa. He tested the material then jumped and almost broke the frame. He smiled, raised his eyebrows, and said, "Well, good night then." As he shifted to find a comfortable position he relaxed and closed his eyes, all the while cradling his anti-vampire spike like it was his last means of survival.

Julie was in no mood to sleep, and meeting this stranger only assured her that the situation was direr than she ever thought possible. There was no help coming. There might be others, sure, two people out of seven hundred thousand might be statistically hopeful in a world of seven billion, but they might also be a fluke. Two insignificant people overlooked by God's wrath—if it, he, or she had anything to do with it. Werewolf mummies were far more likely, she thought.

***

"Would you like whipped cream?" the coffee boy had asked her. With a mountainous exertion of the will she declined; it would have annulled her thirty minutes of elliptical that morning. She thought she was getting a little fat, but in a college town full of energetic freshmen, it was hard not to compare tummies. He nodded and got to it.

She must have fallen asleep, it was the only thing she could have dreamed of, and it was happening all over again. She tossed and turned on the couch but got no respite.

He gave her the cup and she perused her purse for the necessary change. She thought she would sit quietly and work on her manuscript with a nice cup of fair-trade, but then, all too suddenly the world changed. As her coins fell into the tip cup the cashier's eyes rolled up into his head and he fell back. The espresso portafilter went with him and splattered a black cloud over the floor.

Julie turned and yelled for someone to call an ambulance, but as she looked at the man behind her—head slouching into a downward stupor—she froze. The older woman behind joined him. A clatter of dishes and coffee cups followed suit and as she about-faced to look, their heads were already plastered against the tables or tilted painfully backwards. Over the period of less than two seconds everyone had fallen. Some face first on the floor while spilt auburn liquid inundated the coffee shop tiles. She turned again and saw more of the same. Everyone was down and everything was lifeless.

She didn't know what to do, and it occurred to her that she must be on camera. Any second now, she assured herself, some TV show announcer would pop up from behind the cashier's counter and yell, "Surprise, you're on Candid Camera," or "April fools," a few weeks in advance, like it was all fine and dandy to play tricks like this for the audience's amusement. Well, she would not accept it kindly when they did show up. It wasn't amusing, not at all. But all she heard was the startling timer of the stove heater that would have told the attendant that someone's overpriced reheated pastry was lukewarm enough. Everyone stayed down and no one regained consciousness.

Her mind wouldn't accept it. They hadn't been shot or stabbed, yet all around her, people had fallen dead while nothing had happened, nothing at all. No noise or light or smell. The only thing that came to mind was that terrorists must have released some type of odorless poisonous gas, so she clamped her hand over her mouth to prevent her breathing and to quell the screams that were itching up her larynx. But she was already hyperventilating. She turned around again and everyone was as they were. As she looked outside and saw pedestrians lying on the sidewalk, the traffic stopped and cars parked effortlessly into the ditches, she realized that this wasn't a joke. The inexplicable horror of it all was too much. Julie fainted and was cushioned by the following customer's pot belly.

She had awoken feeling out of place, but it was the world that had changed. Not knowing how much time had passed, she pushed herself off the man and saw that nothing inside the store had moved. These people weren't asleep, they were dead. No heartbeat palpitation check was necessary as their bluish coloration told her surely enough. She had to get out. In a confused daze she rushed into the barely-above-freezing temperature leaving her laptop and coat behind.

***

Mark was jostling her when she came to and, frightened by the surprise, she hurriedly pushed him away. "Sorry, I thought you were having a nightmare." No answer was necessary. "It's morning, you want some coffee?" After she calmed herself she couldn't help but laugh at the sight of the butane stove with a camping coffee pot. Coffee: despite it all she still wanted some.

"You've been busy," she said. "What time is it?" she inquired instinctively but then realized it didn't matter.

"I think it's around ten," he replied nonetheless. The sun was coming through the central archway. "I also cleared the men's washroom but I didn't have a chance to get to the lady's yet."

She laughed, "Don't worry about it. I can use the men's room." What difference would it make? These kinds of taboos were nonsensical now.

They heard a thunderous crash. Mark grabbed his spike and they ran into the hallway. More light illuminated the somber mall than there should have been and they saw the front entrance totally demolished. Where those glass doors had been, a military tank crunched over the debris and bodies. It was horrendous to watch as the titanic weight of the vehicle squished those remains like spoiled pumpkins. Mark, with useless gallantry, held her back while pointing his wooden armament towards the military might. She was about to note the futility of his actions when the top hatch of the tank popped open and a masked man stood out. Looking at him she saw he did not inspire the greatest confidence so she stepped back behind Mark.

She would have felt hope seeing this new arrival of army personnel, but below the gas mask the man was clearly not a service member. The man was anorexically skinny and wore tattered overalls cut at the shoulders. His wrists were adorned with bands and charlatan alternative medicine bracelets. The dichotomy from head to foot was shocking. He looked like a failed farmer transformed into a vigilante hazmat technician, except someone should have told him that bare skin absorbs chemicals. But the scariest part was not the strangeness of his attire but the fact that he was also equipped with two guns. Evidently he had not come here to rescue them.

"Ahoy there," he yelled as if they were the best sight he had seen all his life. Mark stayed unperturbed and continued to point his vampire killer towards the very much alive man. He climbed down the tank and headed towards them, ignoring the pathetic weapon Mark held shakily.

He came about two meters to them, then leaned aside to get a better look at Julie. "Hi," he said. "The air is safe here?" he then inquired, mumbling through the mask.

"There's nothing wrong with the air," Julie whispered then said, "Put your guns down." The man nodded then turned a switch on the gun but he did not place them aside. She hoped that switch was the safety but her knowledge of firearms was limited. She then turned to Mark and gently urged him to lower his stake. "Don't be so belligerent," she said then regretted her choice of word. He probably didn't know what it meant but he lowered his weapon nonetheless. Men could always get everyone killed, she thought.

"Name's Bucephelus, but call me Buck," he said then reached over. Mark hesitated a second then shook his hand and Julie introduced them. "So you two also survived the terrorist attack, huh?" he said.

"So you know what happened?" Mark asked right away.

"Yeah, SARS or Ebola, I'd guess, maybe ricin gas," he said assuredly.

"No it's not," Julie jumped in as Mark looked at her for confirmation.

"What was that, little lady?" Buck asked leaning to the side.

"Respiratory viruses like that or Ebola need to stay incubated in the body for some time; there's no way it would affect so many people at exactly the same moment. Ricin poisoning symptoms also take longer and are—somewhat dirtier than what happened here. Diarrhea and vomiting, for example. In fact, we can probably rule out any gas, because everyone around me—died. If it was gas I would have as well, but I didn't. Plus, it would have diffused by now."

"What, you some kind of doctor or something?" he asked with a derogatory tone like he was talking to an infant. His facial expression seemed to say, let the men talk, missy.

"Biologist," she said.

"She's a biologist," Mark added at the same time.

He looked at her with surprise. "Botulism?" he then inquired.

"Well that's faster, but not quite fast enough," she replied assuredly, having already considered all these possibilities before. There was nothing in fact that she could think of that would account for it. The life was simply taken away from them. Some animals too, but many more survived.

"So what did all this then?"

She shook her head. "She doesn't know," Mark replied.

"Well shucks, then," he said and pulled off the army gas mask. Mark sighed with relief as he saw the man's face. Knowing he looked like he did, Julie would certainly choose him over Buck, he thought. The man sniffed at the air as if he still didn't believe it was safe, but then, despite the barely refrigerated scent of those that had died, he took deeper intakes.

"W-Where did you get the tank?" Mark asked fearing it was on a need-to-know basis but he also realized that this man was probably not military.

"From Dorchester; I'm the groundskeeper at George Wright. When all this gone down, I got my end-of-the-world cache from home and headed to the military base. Figured it'd be safe there, but they'd all died too, so I helped myself. How else could I cut through traffic 'niways? Figured I'd find others and help to form a civilian government and find out what to do. Find out what happened."

Mark laughed awkwardly then said, "Yeah I was on I93 myself and good thing the traffic was light cause there would have been a nasty pileup, in fact I got pissed when all the cars slowed down then stopped, so I waited a bit, then honked at the slow asses but no one moved. Didn't know what happened so I slowly made my way to the city and looked around. A few cars had picked the ditch so the travel wasn't too bad. Not as many crashes as I would have thought either, but there were a good bunch, so I knew something was badly fubar."

"Aye, crazy stuff," the old man agreed. Julie pictured the scene where Mark followed dead drivers careening off the streets with his arm raised in anger at their stupid driving. "Get off the road," she imagined him yelling at the faces pressed against the steering wheel honking incessantly. How fast did it take him to notice everyone was dead, she wondered?

"See anyone else alive?" Mark asked.

"Nah but someone shot at me yesterday, heard two shots against the carriage. Didn't seem too friendly so I kept going. Good thing I was inside the tank."

"They probably shot at you because you were in a tank," Julie whispered. Most the survivors would have thought it was a terrorist attack, the rest would have thought it was an inside job, that the military was responsible, a false flag operation. Conspiracy theorists would have jumped on that explanation thinking the illuminati, the NSA or the new world order had made a superbug to wipe out most of the world population, and everyone knows the military is their pawn. So there was at least one other man—as she seriously doubted a woman would shoot at a tank—alive in the Boston region. Well, at least the NSA or the NWO had more chance of being responsible for this whole affair than werewolf mummies and the big G.O.D.

"What was that?" he asked her.

She just shrugged then asked, "How did you find us?"

"Find you?" He looked surprised, "I just wanted some food."

"You could have used the door," she added.

With the addition of their new eccentric friend the survival rate seemed a little more optimistic. For reasons still unexplained they had managed to survive through the mysterious incident that left almost every human dead. But the fact that the survivors were arming themselves was no assurance to her and only brought additional unease. Would society degenerate to barbarism again? She seemed to be able to rationalize with these two. At least under relatively calm situations. But a few moments ago things had been tense and if Mark had been armed with something more deadly than a stake, Buck might not have been so friendly. She continued to speculate about the possible survival rate and tried to estimate the number of people that could be alive in North America and the world—if this was a worldwide incident or not—as it certainly seemed to have affected everything within radio distance, and with technology these days she was sure that was pretty far—when something dawned on her.

"There must have been someone else alive in this mall," she said. The two men comparing their weapons and surreptitiously weighing their alpha male status looked at her. "The cashier in the book store, he or she, must have survived. He might have cleaned up the place of bodies too." Mark raised an eyebrow so she went on, "Even if it was rather empty, the door would never have been opened with no one at the cash register or inside the store. Managerial policy would never have left it vacant during store hours when this happened. So someone, at least one worker, walked out."

"There was no one inside the bookstore?" Mark asked rather than said.

"Completely vacant, cash register unattended and stockroom empty," she confirmed. "We should look for evidence that shows someone was here after the event." It seemed like something to do, so they agreed. Buck started the search by heading into the grocery store to no doubt help himself to lunch at the same time. Mark started in the other direction and Julie walked up the escalator.

The second level was like the first. People had fallen in their shopping stupor holding bags and boxes of tricks and trinkets. Someone with an electric scooter had driven off a minor stairwell and lay in a heap, fat leaning out of his grease stained shirt. She thought she would never get used to seeing dead bodies no matter how many thousands she had seen in the past few days, when she heard Mark scream her name. Julie raced down the escalator and jumped over the side to avoid the pile of bodies that had tread-milled at the bottom. Buck arrived with a box of Mae West and looked at Julie who pointed towards the women's bathroom.

Inside Mark was standing above another dead body, legs dangling out of the stall, and said, "Look." Indeed, this one had not gone the same way as the others. One of the doors was blocked open and a puddle of coagulated blood spread out from underneath. The large mirror in front had been smashed by the metal trashcan cover. The woman inside, wearing the bookstore's logo on her red shirt, had cut her wrists and had fallen pinned between the toilet and the frame. Now she was dead like the rest.

Julie felt ashamed at the thought that came to mind. No matter what had happened to this world, she now realized that there was always a way out. If ever she was brave enough to do what this woman had done. Beyond everything, there was a way out.

No one spoke for some time, and later that day Buck decided to finally break the silence. "You know the bookstore is large and clean and this mall has a bunch of resources. Why don't we hold out for a while? Till we figure out what to do." Mark, who had been of the same mindset, now seemed reluctant. Being alone with her was definitely part of it, but she thought he seemed threatened by Buck. She, on the other hand, felt oddly reassured. Not that Buck was any safety valve to anything, but having another man might temper whatever either of them might want to do. It was inevitable, she thought, that Mark would try to bed her; Buck might, as well, but for the time being she was the brains and they didn't seem to want to abandon her. For that at least, she was thankful.

Mark took a deep breath, sighed, and then agreed, "But I get the green couch."

"Also, since the internet is down," she said, "We have access to one of the best sources of info around. There might be something useful in those books that could give a hint to what happened."

***

Days turned into a pseudo-normal routine where they cleared out bodies, foraged for food in the grocery store, used the washroom—with a makeshift shower system holding 5 gallon water bottles—and read books. Or at least, Julie saw the boys look through them. The store was saturated with mainstream novels that took way too much shelf space, and Julie realized that the amount of useful information compared to the big fiction authors was embarrassingly small. There were a few interesting finds, such as an anthropology book concerning the Mayans' disappearance, where the scholars tried to explain what could have happened to them so suddenly, but it was all speculation. There were a few other noteworthy works, such those pertaining to mass animal death, but again it was mostly speculative or brought forth explanations she had already ruled out, such as ecological pollutions. A book about cattle mutilations pointed her towards aliens and other unexplained UFO activity that was, despite being completely intangible in evidence, the likeliest explanation she thought she could dwell upon. With such possibilianism and wide horizon contemplations, she couldn't rule out alien interference, other extra-dimensional effects, or weird paranormal events. And although keeping an open mind—she certainly needed to do so given the way things had turned out—she couldn't categorically dismiss these possibilities. There was, objectively speaking, no evidence pointing towards them either. High-energy sun storms might have done some damage too, but she ruled that out flatly since they had not observed any electrical effects. Overall, in the past two days she made no significant headway in her research. But was there any other reason to exist than to find answers to all this?

"If you rule out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," she had said to Mark the day before and felt a little cliché about it. But improbability was so open to wild speculations that it led them absolutely nowhere. What had caused this was unknown, thus believed impossible or not even conceived, to be completely out of reach by even the wildest improbabilities. Indeed, there were many explanations she could cross off their list, but nothing tangible and realistically probable enough that remained possible. From all the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle she had read (some recently and some in her previous life), she never once recalled Sherlock Holmes stating that aliens could have been the crooks, but given the immensity of the universe, it certainly wasn't absolutely impossible, despite being extraordinarily improbable.

She sighed and placed another book onto the already disheveling pile she had placed to one side. Giving up for today; if she felt re-energized she would look again tomorrow. Otherwise, the other two seemed to have their hands full. The lobby had been cleared out pretty well and a large pile of bodies, as disheveled as her books, had been erected in the far end of the parking lot outside. The tank was ideal for moving a large number of them while bleach cleaning solutions got rid of the leftover gunk and smell.

Relatively speaking, Buck and Mark were getting along despite a few word skirmishes. Buck still often carried his guns and once or twice a day he went out for target practice. Today Mark had joined him and it seemed they were playing nicely but she also felt that there was an underlying jealousy. Someday things might get out of hand. How few men would there need to be for war to be avoided? She thought more than one was already pushing it. She would try to deal with their testosterone battles when it happened but she hoped it wouldn't be resolved with bloodshed.

Just as she thought things had calmed down she heard more shots fired then Mark cursing at Buck. She ran outside; her study library tumbled to the side. The wind caught her by surprise as it was overly chilly today, but she saw the burning incendiaries right away. One of them must have gotten to her flares. A few burned in the distance and another had started a fire in a nearby house. They must have seen her angered face because both went on the defensive immediately.

"Told him not to use up the flares," Mark started.

"There has to be more people out there," Buck pleaded over Mark's voice, "We can't be the only ones left." His face was pale and she saw, despite the cold, that he was sweating. He seemed overtly agitated and derisively defensive. Julie tried to calm him down, saying it was ok, that the fire would put itself out and that there were more flares to be plundered. Buck took a few steps back and loosened his collar. Then he collapsed and fell uncomfortably hard on the parking lot pavement.

Mark's hands rushed to his temples and he said, "It's happening again." The shock and terror returned. She would see everyone fall and she, cursed, would be left alone in the barren world again. Julie felt her blood pressure drop and her vision dimming but she forced herself to breathe. As her rushing heart rate counted off the beats she realized that she had been spared once again. Mark didn't fall and neither did she. He started swearing at the cruelty of the world and it looked like he would uproot all his blond hair. Something wasn't right.

Julie rushed over to Buck and felt for a pulse. It was faint but definitely there; his breathing as well. He's not dead. Her hands still shaking, she felt down his new coat till she touched his numerous bracelets and pulled up his sleeve. Beside the chestnut and the ionic ring bracelet she saw what she hoped to find. He wore a MediAlert bracelet. She flipped it over, read the inscription, then raced towards the mall.

Mark, still panicked, looked at her for advice. "Lift up his legs," she yelled back and hoped the grocery store pharmacy was adequately supplied and that what she needed hadn't spoiled already. She passed the order counter in haste and painfully hit her hip. As she flinched she saw that the pharmacist's body was leaned against the refrigerator. Holding her breath she pulled at the legs and the body unstuck almost toppling her with the effort. The smell was atrocious and she thought that if Buck survives this he's going to have cleanup detail in the pharmacy.

She almost tore the door off its hinges but inside it was still cool; good thing it wasn't mid-July. She toppled a few bottles of what a junky would call a treasure horde till she found what she was looking for: Glucagon. Above the counter she also saw some allergy epi-pens filled with adrenaline and took some as well.

Outside Mark had done as she said, using his thick jacket to support Buck's legs, and was leaning over him trying to slap him gently back to consciousness. Julie would jolt him much harder than that. "That's why he's been eating sweets all the time," she said then looked up towards Mark. "He's hypoglycemic, he fainted. He was probably in a stupor; that's why you thought he was being crazy." She opened the packet for the glucagon shot and faltered after seeing there were numerous vials. "Damn," she added, "It can't be this complicated." So she tried to calm herself and looked over the instructions till she saw a numerical procedure. She had to mix two of the vials. Buck looked as pale as the dead ones around. "Where do I inject?" she asked aloud as much to Mark as herself. He just shrugged. She had never given a human an injection before. She took the instruction sheet and perused it fast for keywords she knew, then saw it and jammed the needle in his thigh.

They waited a tense moment but neither of them had a watch. "Is it working?" Mark asked.

She shook her head. "He's not coming to." Before she had finished the thought she opened the epi-pen and jabbed it into his other thigh. There was no time to consider any possible drug interactions. But Buck woke screaming like a bat out of hell; his arms and feet flailing. He crawled back rapidly while they themselves fell back in surprise. He was almost up and stumbling before his eyes cleared and he saw them with renewed awareness.

Mark asked if he was alright and Julie let out a sigh of relief. Looking over the instructions she saw more explanations that she had been too hasty to read. Patient should regain consciousness within fifteen minutes or contact your healthcare professional. She doubted they had waited more than one. "Ohhhh, my bad," she whispered. Buck was brushing himself off and Mark told him to take it easy. He still looked spooked but his breathing returned to normal. But she didn't want to guess how fast his heart rate might be. "Well, I hope you'll be fine," she said without volunteering any more than that.

"You sure you're not a doctor?" Mark said. She only sighed, realizing she could have killed him. But she felt elated.

"Thanks, missy," he said. "Been a while since I fell into the potatoes like that." Yet Buck's face turned to worry as he looked into the distance. Mark turned as well and Julie realized that during their emergency they had started to hear the sound of a motor growing near. She hadn't consciously considered it till now. But as she turned she saw it already veering into the lot. They must have seen the fire.

It was another military vehicle, this time a jeep carrying four people. They weren't in uniform and they seemed to have helped themselves to some weaponry paid for by the late US taxpayers. Julie felt a new surge of anger and worry. Why did people run for guns when there was an emergency? There was no necessity for any of it.

At the sight of them Mark and Buck reached for theirs and stood ahead of her with their muzzles pointed. "There's no need for this," she pleaded, "You'll get us all killed." But at the sight of the manned turret mounted atop the jeep she realized there might be a need to protect themselves from the craziness of others. She was about to curse the phallic gender when the jeep stopped a good distance away and the man sitting in the passenger seat stood with his hands up. He was clad in black with the addition of the stereotypical clerical collar. "Ah God damn it," she said.

Beside him, the driver was an average looking man with thick glasses that indicated he was badly farsighted. His hair was cow licked and partly combed over making him look like he had not seen a mirror in days. Probably given up all hope of impressing the girl that sat behind him, beside the other man standing at the turret. The girl was strikingly beautiful in a surreal way. She wore mostly black and it looked like she had found all the mirrors the other had missed. Her face was meticulously prepared not only with makeup but with pasted jewelry. If it had not been the end of the world she looked like she was heading to a socialite ball. She smoked a long cigarette. The big man behind the turret looked anything but friendly; muscular arms adorning tattoos that looked like they were picked in a prison parlor, rugged chipped beard growing patched over scar tissues on his chin. He looked upset the zombies had never showed and that he still had nothing to carve through with his trunk full of ammo. His gargoyle grin and trigger fingers seemed to beckon at them to try something funny, try anything at all. The priest stood ahead of him and seemed to act as their leader; it was he who first spoke for them.

"Survivors," he proclaimed rather than inquired. Julie's stomach sank. Of all the people she didn't want to see, a zealot was on top of the list. "By God we are lucky to find you three."

"Damn, it's a stereotype class reunion," Mark whispered. Julie almost giggled but kept her composure. The priest seemed happy to find them but they still looked very dangerous. The engine was stopped and the woman was the first to come out. She ignored them and walked towards the mall. She still wore high heels despite the fact that no one told her that fashion had died with the rest of the world, yet she calmly walked over a carcass like it was a broken tree branch and then vanished inside.

"Please put your weapons down," the priest asked. Mark and Buck lowered their weapons but didn't put them down. "We are pleased to see others have been spared."

The man behind the wheel just waited and said nothing either. He was evidently subordinate or introverted. The other man on the turret hesitated then reluctantly stepped down. She saw inside his jacket and he was packing more guns than she cared to count. They introduced themselves amicably enough. The priest was Father Thompson, the driver was Robert—not Bob, but Robert—and the mercenary fellow said his name was Sam. Somehow she doubted that was his real name, given that he had contemplated it for an inordinate amount of time. But what did it matter? He could call himself Captain America for all she cared. But it felt off. Some vibe of all this was off—aside from the apocalypse, of course.

After a minute the woman walked back, and Father Thompson said her name was Bea. She had lit another cigarette and Julie thought that was what she might have gotten inside. Well, now with unlimited cigarettes the world was her ashtray and she could smoke herself to emphysema like there was no tomorrow.

The next person to speak was Sam. "How's the tank packing?" he asked towards Mark but Buck broke in and said it was out. They seemed disappointed.

"Look, there's enough food for everyone, and it's getting chilly," Julie started after an awkward pause. "We cleared out most of the arcade, so it doesn't smell as bad anymore." She thought that if she wasn't welcoming they might want to get at what they had. There was no need for all these guns. Except for a few stray dogs, she had not seen anything remotely dangerous—apart from this one most dangerous of species, of course. But there was no need to fight for resources anytime soon. The provisions inside this mall alone would keep them well fed for months, years. "We can discuss what to do next."

The gist of it was that most of them—those that chose to talk about it—had similar stories. Everyone around them had simply croaked. No reason, they just fell down dead. The priest had said it was God's doing—no surprise there—and Bea let out a sardonic laugh. Julie broke in saying, "Even if it was God, he would supply the means and not be the direct cause. There would still be a logical explanation even if he was the decider; locusts, pestilence or whatnot." Bea and Robert remained quiet while Thompson and Sam brought other possible explanations while Julie dismissed them all. Terrorists and gas and Ebola were easy to discount.

Robert caught her glance during this exchange and she saw a glimmer of insight in his enlarged irises in return. He knew more than he was making it appear, but volunteered no explanation of his own. Sam sneered at her longwinded rhetoric and said, "So, what, you're some kind of doctor, you?"

"She's a biologist," Buck said while he was eating his Joe Louis near the fountain that didn't squirt. Robert, still quiet, visibly agreed with a slight nod at what she said. Despite his apparently retarded facial expression she saw that he was much more intelligent than the others had taken him for. He might have tried to express his opinion earlier and might have been cut short by Thompson or Sam.

Bea didn't seem to care in the slightest one way or the other; she did as she pleased and didn't speak to anyone. She hadn't stopped smoking either and she still wore her dark shades despite the growing darkness inside the place. Mark had found a few oil lanterns but they could still barely see across the arcade. Thanks to Buck and his tank, the front entrance could still not fully be closed, and winter's last effort to hinder the appearance of New England's spring was drifting inside with audible rustles. The shadows flickered from the moving lamplight.

Father Thompson spoke with charismatic intent; that he would help rebuild the world. He seemed to think that it was his destiny; building a new righteous mankind. Sam replied with a worrisome "Here, here." The road to salvation would be long and arduous but with their intention and dedication they would rebuild society. Buck seemed to be taken by this and Mark generally agreed with it, despite her belief that he was mostly agnostic—God or not, he might at least want to get the night clubs going again. But either way it seemed to him in his confused mental state to be the right thing to do. Julie realized that her initial perceptions of the group had been wrong, the most dangerous one wasn't Sam; it was Father Thompson, and his weapon was charisma, not firearms. She didn't think he would take too kindly to opposing views of his type of societal rebuilding. Objectively, she wasn't against society, but she realized that his fervor would ultimately garner the rest of them to praise him as the savior he thought himself to be. Despite her apparently higher intelligence, he still took charge and adopted his role as leader and overtly dismissed her opinion while he had adorned an understanding smile and genially agreed with her. The more she heard him speak, the more she regretted inviting them in. She knew now there would be bloodshed, somewhere, somehow.

Robert caught her gaze again and she thought it almost telepathic. He knew that too and he was worried; deeply worried.

"You see," Thompson started, "Our scientist here has dismissed all known possible causes. God cannot be dismissed!"

Great, now he took her objective uncertainty as proof that it was divine intent. Her jaw stood open and she realized that those televangelists she thought were all nose powder and gimmick where real flesh and blood characters after all. Just like paranoid delusional minds that contorted facts and connected coincidences, he had heard what she had said but twisted it around to reinforce his already troublesome and self-serving sermons. Confirmation bias aplenty. Was there any point in arguing? The more she would contradict him the more it would harden his faith. She had nothing tangible to bring forth anyways.

"Don't know," she said pitifully, "Maybe."

He smiled almost menacingly with wide open eyes that shone from the lamp light. From his point of view he had won hierarchy. She had been pushing objective uncertainty but he was unwaveringly assured. Certainty was the primary cause of ignorance, but this was not the time to debate solipsism and man's place in the cosmos. "Werewolf mummies," she whispered.

"What was that, young lady?" Thompson asked with a demeaning tone.

But she just shook her head, stood and walked away. She wanted to be by herself—well, at least now there were a lot of places for that. As she walked past, she noticed Mark looking worriedly at her, and again, Robert caught her glance. He knew something, she was certain now. She would have to talk to him in private sometime.

"Perhaps it is time for some shut eye," the self-proclaimed ruler ordained.

His new Utopia lasted less than a day.

***

That night Julie, Mark, and Buck slept in the bookstore. The other quartet went elsewhere. She saw in the morning that they found something much more obvious and far more comfortable than they had. One of them had pointed out that the department store had beds, pre-made and on display. Why hadn't she thought of that first? No one seemed to have cared at all about home decor. Why would they? If they had wanted to use beds, they simply would have needed to break into someone's abandoned house, but the grocery store had the food and resources. Or so was their reason to stay.

If Father Thompson had led them to comfortable beds, it would already have brought him some more adoration. She thought he already had way too much.

Someone had raided the pharmacy. After she saw Bea's drunken walk she didn't doubt who had. At first Julie wanted to scold her for her selfish waste of useful pharmaceuticals, but after a moment she thought it wasn't warranted. Perhaps Bea was coping as best she could and her previous life's taboo about drug use was outdated in this new world, she thought. Nevertheless, she decided to hide some of the more useful analogues in case someone got hurt and needed analgesics. Drugs were drugs, and a few nights ago Buck and Mark had drunk quite a few brewskis, and so did Sam, yesterday; empirically, this was no different. But for the group, Bea seemed to be rather useless in this state. She caught a glance at her eyes when her glasses lazily slanted down her nose. Bea kept her expressionless gaze fixed on Julie, then pushed her glasses up and ventured into the vast painless voids within her mind.

Julie heard repeated gunshots from outside so she walked to the widened entrance. In the parking lot Buck and Sam were playing with their dicks; those metal ones that fired bullets. But it sickened her immensely more after she saw they had been firing at long dead drivers and passengers; each taking turns daring the other to splatter brains further and further away. She was about to demand they stop, but again her—perhaps too objective—mind told her that there was no harm. They too were coping as best as they could and perhaps it was better that they released whatever pent up aggression filled their loins. Buck still looked somewhat uneasy to aim at some people, but Sam then pointed to another car and Buck readily shot at a dead old man instead. His third bullet splattered more than glass. Somehow she doubted that Buck had initiated this choice of target.

"Don't mind the republicans," Mark said sneaking up on her. His wittiness surprised her and she wished him a good morning. He had found a new shirt that seemed to painfully cut the circulation in his biceps and kept it partly unbuttoned despite the rather frigid temperature. He also had a gold cross she had never noticed before and her stomach sank again. She hoped it was just another player affectation rather than having been religiously converted.

"I hope they use up all their ammo," she said pessimistically. But in a country like this she thought they would more quickly run out of food than bullets; and despite their abundant ammunition this had been a progressive blue state.

She hadn't seen Father Thompson yet and she hoped he went off looking for Jesus. But she knew she would not be rid of him so effortlessly. No, parasites like him grasp at the vulnerable fears hiding deep within one's heart and continue feeding despite being fully gorged. They fed on and cultivated insecurities.

The sun was shining rather forcefully today and the contrast made the interior of the mall look like a forgotten cave. Father Thompson appeared seemingly out of these shadows like he had materialized from the darkness itself. Julie, with her unease, thought this rather accurate. He turned directly to Mark and spoke to him as if they were alone.

He said, "There are gas operated generators in the supply store, and since we have seemingly unlimited gas now—" he waived towards the lot, "It would be great to reactivate some utilities. And while the water is still running, we simply would need to boil it. There would be no need to waste more of the bottled gallons inside. Later we could reactivate some well pumps; there should be a good number of them outside the city. Why don't you find a jerry-can and syphon some gasoline?"

Mark hesitated a moment then said, "Sure, sure I can do that."

Julie saw that he evidently didn't appreciate being dismissed so readily but he was also eager to help with whatever he could do. Thompson turned to her grinning with a wide politician's smile. "I was speaking to Buck earlier and he said you would be a natural in medicine."

"I have a PhD, but I'm not a doctor," she replied.

Foreseeing her procrastination, he nodded as if he contemplated her words but he simply waited the proper amount of time before continuing. "We've all been through a terrible ordeal, but each of us has to have new responsibilities in this world. We have to have a reason to live, and by working for the group we will have purpose."

"So you want me to cure boo-boos and for Mark to suck gas," she said but then regretted her words.

He was visibly shocked at her candor but smiled and chuckled lightly. Yet he recomposed and continued his monologue, "Since you have a great deal of knowledge in biology, I would suggest you brush up on your medical textbooks."

She sighed, but said she would look into it. He was about to leave so she added, "By the way, so to let you know, and for my new role as surgeon general, Bea's been popping barbiturates and opiates. She probably knows what her body can take more than me so I don't think it's very dangerous, but she's not much use to us when she's half-passed out, and those supplies won't last forever. So you know."

He considered this; for once it actually seemed as if he heard her. Thompson frowned, his lips tightened. "All of us have our demons to deal with. I will handle it." He nodded then departed. So did she.

Julie spent some time walking in the neighborhood. The bodies were still strewn about and the scenery was reminiscent of how things had been when the incident occurred. She saw a deer in the distance walking down the street. It saw her, then lazily turned and walked in the opposite direction. Vultures had pecked at an older gentleman lying on his front porch. They cawed and flew off when she neared. The body was badly mutilated but such things didn't faze her much anymore. Curiously, seeing everything untended and the flowering process beginning, it dawned on her that nature was already trying to retake what man had stolen from it long ago.

When she returned a few hours later, Mark was upset that she hadn't been accompanied or armed. "Who knew what could be out there?" he said. Well, there was a whole lot of nothing out there and she wasn't very afraid anymore. In fact, she felt safer away from some of these people. She told him she was careful and brushed him off. She wondered if he had managed to fill the jerry-can yet.

"Where's Robert?" she asked Sam, who was frying sausages on a gas stove. He was shirtless, exposing his hairy chest and she hoped this wasn't his customary afternoon ritual. But it was slightly better than the shooting range, at least. He pointed above, towards the department store.

She found him toiling with a radio and asked what he was working on. "Ah, Julie," he said with a smile. His eyes were still somewhat too strange to accept but she would get use to them, she thought. "I'm trying to boost the carrier range so we can pick up further. The satellites might still be operating, you know."

"That's right. They have self-sufficient power supplies."

"Thompson and Mark were worried about you," he said. "They thought you might have run off, but don't tell them I said that. Everyone likes you, you know, despite some of their attitudes. They're grunts, but we're all human."

"You think Thompson will get us out of this mess," she started casually.

He frown, hesitated, then said cryptically, "He can gather people in support yes."

"And God did all this?"

He simply laughed but looked around to see that no one else was there. "It's easy to accept and impossible to disprove."

"You've known him longer than I have," she said, waited a moment than added, "I don't seem to be able to trust him very much. Reminds me too much of puppy dog politicians before an election. They turn into wolves after they're elected, and we're pretty much unanimously electing him president of the world. Well, maybe it's just me. Oh, and please don't tell him I said that."

He laughed again but said very sternly, "I don't volunteer information to them anymore, unless it's pertinent to my own safety—or yours."

Not sure what he meant by that, she simply said "Thanks."

"Don't worry," he added. "But I'll tell you something else."

"Oh?"

"He's not a priest."

She raised her eyebrow and waited for more.

"He probably pulled the robes off a dead guy or raided a convent, but the night after he found me, we took shelter in a large warehouse on the south side, he had a wedding ring."

"Well that's not evidence enough; protestant pastors marry. Did he tell you he wasn't?"

"No, but there's more.

"That same night he wanted us to do a type of ritual, said it would permit us to cut our ties with the sinful lives of our past that led us here. I didn't care too much about burning my own wallet by that time, didn't need my credit cards or cash, my driver's license or MIT access card, so what the hell, I chucked it in the fire. Well, he did too. And as I watched his wallet burn, I had to ask myself, why would a priest need government employee ID? He was Air Force. They must build 'em IDs with special material, because that sucker barely melted by the time the rest of his wallet was black and dripping. Maybe the Air Force wanted them to be still readable after they dragged their bodies out from a napalmed field. But when he saw that too, he quickly pushed more kindling on top of it. I saw him bury the evidence right then and there. Don't know if he knows I know, but he never mentioned a thing about it."

"Huh. So you're volunteering information to me?"

He laughed, then said, "It would seem. The day after, we found Sam, then Bea."

After a moment of thought she said, "Do you think they had anything to do with all this?"

"NO—No," he said hastily, "no, no, don't think so." He was so categorically dismissive that Julie thought about asking more.

"So there you are," Thompson said, walking up the escalator.

"I just went for a walk; don't make a big fuss about it," she said, immediately on the defensive. She hoped he had not heard anything more.

"No not at all, my dear," he said, "We were simply worried about you. We do care about you, Julie. But if no one knew where you were, it would have been unforgivable if something nefarious were to have happened to you."

"Undoubtedly," she replied hesitantly, then looked at B—Robert. Robert simply smiled, then went back to his work. Such a dramatic change in attitude when Thompson was around, she noticed. But she realized he knew something, something big.

Down in the bookstore, she was surprised to find herself perusing the medical books. Had Thompson surreptitiously affected her in a way that made her want to be a medical professional? After all, she had started her bachelors with the intent to transfer to medicine, but the obsessive competitiveness that it required to get accepted had dissuaded her from even trying. Evidently, now she was among the top candidates. Despite Thompson's insistence, she was the logical choice to turn to for medical advice. She sat down and eventually fell asleep with the book open on her chest.

***

Mark or Buck must have closed her lamplight because the room was pitch black when she heard groans coming from outside. Buck was snoring in the storage room, which he had converted into his bedroom, and she heard Mark breathing; he was sleeping as well.

In the arcade some faint moonlight crept through the domed roof, and she felt a chill from the front entrance. She looked around but still couldn't see very much. Julie inched onwards, tentatively looking for the source of those noises. Then she saw him; it was Sam. He stopped and looked at her. As her eyes cleared she saw Bea lying there as well and realized her dress had been rolled up. Her cheeks immediately flushed as she saw what they were doing. Julie was about to apologize for interrupting them, but something was wrong. Bea's body was limp and was undoubtedly unconscious.

"Get the hell out of here," Sam said.

"You—you're raping her," she said taking a step back. She was about to yell, but something frightened her immensely more. The dark shadow that was the priestly pretender emerged out of the darkness. He had been there all along.

"The species must procreate," he said. "Everyone has their purpose in our new society to—"

"The hell with your society, she's not consenting to this."

"Beatrice will have the honor of being the first mother to bear a child in this new world," he continued despite her.

"Help," she yelled, as forcefully as she could. Sam dismounted and ran after her; Bea, lifeless, drooped off the bench and fell to the floor. Before Julie reached the door Sam grabbed her and chucked her aside. She turned and saw Sam, pantless, illuminated by two flashlight beams that shone through the bookstore display windows. Good; she had awoken them both. Now for the first time in her life she hoped they had guns.

"What the hell's going on here," Mark said, holding his vampire stake. Buck followed but only waited for an explanation to his rude awakening. Mark's flashlight beam roamed around till he saw Julie on the floor braced against the marble bench by the fountain. Beside her stood the half-naked Sam; face scowling with rage. Mark didn't hesitate to connect the dots and understood the situation for what he thought it was. "God damn mother f—," he whispered as his own face twisted in anger. He ran at Sam.

But the mercenary wannabe was in no mood to dance and withdrew a pistol from his shirt. He shot Mark; he shot him in the face. Buck was swearing behind them and didn't know what to do. He stood frozen, his light shaking over the figure of Sam, beside Mark on the ground. Sam wasn't so indecisive and raised his gun towards Buck. Seeing this, instinct kicked in, and Buck shot him in the chest with the semi-automatic he held hidden behind the blinding flashlight. Sam fell and his gun fired; ricocheted into the dark. Sam was groaning in pain. "Oh god, Oh god," Buck repeated incessantly. Julie was about to warn him about Thompson but it was too late.

Thompson was out of the direct glare of the light and Julie now realized the full impact of what Robert had revealed to her. "He's not a priest," she remembered him saying. Thompson tired of this and executed Buck with a bullet expertly placed between the eyes. Buck had only been defending himself against Sam, but he fell lifeless to Thompson's hideous will; his flashlight spun wide arcs till it stopped, illuminating a dark corner across the arcade. A priest shouldn't have been such a crack shot and wouldn't have slayed needlessly; Thompson was a trained killer as well as a charismatic sociopath.

Aside from Sam's incessant cursing she heard slow and steady footfalls coming towards her. She was trembling and awaited the flash and the bang that would be her end; she waited but she would not plead. She shielded her face and averted her gaze. Then the steps ceased and she opened her eyes, he was standing atop of her in his stolen robes; Halloween costumes for the criminally insane. "You just couldn't take your place. Now look what has happened," he said in a voice that was monstrously casual. Sam, voice choked with pain, had started pleading for help. Thompson sighed, turned towards him and told him to shut up. He did, but his agonized breathing continued like a wounded animal trying to be quiet in order to hide from a predator. She couldn't see his face but it sounded like he was sobbing. Buck must have wounded him pretty bad.

Thompson took a deep breath then said, "Go get some medical supplies and help him."

"I won't," she said still trembling. She heard the click of his cocked gun.

"We all need a reason to live and without others your life is meaningless." He then said fatalistically, "Choose your path."

She didn't respond; she remained defiant. He thought a moment after realizing that threatening her was not enough.

"Help him or I'll put him out of his misery."

Compelled to begging by the attention given to him, Sam said, "Please, I don't want to die." Then he swallowed his groans to be as quiet as he could.

She wanted to curse them both to hell but said, "I didn't believe in God before, but you convinced me. You convinced me by showing me how truly evil some can be. That Satan exists. You hide behind other's fears, cloak yourself in righteousness. But you, you, Thompson, are the devil."

She heard him laugh then she shook violently as she heard the next shot. After the tightness in her abdomen released, she realized she hadn't been hit. But Thompson, in front of her, fell to the ground; his gun clanged on the marble floor. She heard footfalls coming down the metallic escalator. It must have been Robert. She felt a rush of exhilaration, then disgust from feeling such relief that Thompson had been shot. But he wasn't dead, as she heard choked gurgling coming from him. Now he was trying to get up, and palmed the floor to locate his weapon.

Julie rushed to her feet then kneed Thompson in the ribs as hard as she could. He gasped and fell. Sam had started pleading for help again. Someone grabbed her and when she saw his face she almost screamed. The man had a metallic face with what looked like a single protruding eye that glimmered in the faint light. She tried to break free but he said, "Julie, relax, it's me, Robert." She looked again and saw that it was a type of goggle mask. "We have to go now," he added with urgency. He pulled at her wrist and she followed, trusting his footsteps. Then they were out and she saw clearer. "Night vision and rifle with scope, found it in wholesale hunting supplies, God bless America," he said. He still pulled at her and then motioned her to their jeep. He had the keys in hand and the motor was started before she could ask if they were all dead.

The gunshots told them they weren't. The mirror beside her shattered and she ducked lower. Robert did the same and pushed the gas, blindly hoped for the best, trying to distance them from the wounded Thompson. Still half blind, he replaced his glasses while the car careened towards a hummer parked across two spaces. His big eyes came to view through his normal glasses and he turned towards the exit.

Robert readjusted the rear view mirror to his lowered angle then said, "Ah crap." Thompson, followed by Sam holding his stomach, had entered the tank. Robert swerved around desolate cars and veered narrow angles as best as he could. He hit his side view mirror on something then said, "They'll outrace us if we get stuck in a bottleneck."

She lifted her head and looked behind but then laughed. "It's out of gas. Buck said it yesterday, too much joyriding. The keys are inside but it's out of gas." They turned fast out of the parking lot and headed south. She laughed again despite herself. Robert was still unsure and kept looking behind, certain they would be on their tails, but no one came. Thompson could perhaps find some keys that would unlock a car in the parking lot but who knew how long that would take. She imagined Thompson angrier than the fires of hell smashing his hands on the tank's stalled steering column. Then she felt pity for Sam, who would have to live through that-or he might not. "Poor Bea," she whispered but knew they couldn't go back.

A few kilometers away she said, "Slow down. They can't catch up to us anymore." Robert didn't listen and gunned the gas pedal, swerving amidst the stranded cars. Annoyed that still, through everything, no one listened to her, she pulled the hand brake. The car slid sideways and Robert was forced to brake.

"You stupid bitch," he said and slapped her across the cheek, leaving a red mark. She turned towards him, angrier than she ever remembered—pent up anger from all this unnecessary nonsense—and punched him squarely on the nose.

"No, you listen to me," she said forcefully to Robert, who held his bloody nose dripping profusely onto his shirt, and his big-eyed glasses slanting crookedly on his face. "They are so far behind that they won't find us. Perhaps ever. You don't need to get us killed with your reckless speed."

"I—I'm sorry," he said trying to find his breath. He turned to look behind, still uncertain if they were followed or not. She saw how afraid he was. He desperately wanted to get away from them. His slap was almost forgivable.

"I'm sorry about your nose," she said, "But now we need to talk." She waited a moment and saw that Robert had recomposed to a manageably milder panic. He nodded. "What happened at the mall. You did the right thing." He just looked ahead of the vehicle without acknowledging anything. She waited another moment then asked what she had wanted to know yesterday before they were interrupted by Thompson. "You know more about the incident than you told anyone, don't you?"

He looked startled. "I'm not certain," he begun, "But I can tell you what I know." He waited a moment and rubbed at the blood on his face with his shirt. "I'm a professor in Astrophysics."

"MIT," she finished. He nodded.

"A few months ago our collaborators at NASA had picked up a few interesting blips using their deep space exploration satellites."

"Oh, don't tell me it was aliens, now," she said.

He giggled gawkily. "No, aliens would be a non-explication as self-satisfying to the irrational, like God would have been to the faithful. Despite what you might have seen on YouTube or whatever, NASA has no knowledge of any intelligent extra-terrestrial life," he added cryptically.

She was not fully convinced, but told him to continue nonetheless.

"Using their own scanners, they had picked up something that could be evidence for WIMPS; those are weakly interacting massive particles; essentially they would have proven dark matter and dark energy exists."

"You mean the theoretical particles that philosopher physicists conceived to explain the inadequacies of relativity?"

"Exactly," he said with a smile, "So in the last few decades, some evidence had been published, but later retracted. So when NASA got this data they were immediately enthusiastic, but understandably skeptical. That's why they contacted our department for us to confirm their data. Promised co-authorship and all. What they had seen was a darkened region that absorbed light but didn't have the qualities inherent to normal matter." It wasn't her field but she understood most of what he said, and waited for him to continue. "Well, they jumped the gun, because what it seemed to us was that it was simply a region of space void of energy—no energy at all—that somehow absorbed our signals. A black hole would have come to mind but it was too close to our solar system and this exerted very little gravitational force. Reviewing the data, we could only conclude that it was unlike anything we had seen before, so to a physicist that means two things: that one, the instruments were faulty, or we would be looking at a Nobel Prize caliber discovery. It's almost never the second category."

"So what was it?" she asked.

"We still don't know," he said and she sighed with dismay. "But, it got stranger. When we scanned it with another satellite—I'll spare you the technical details—it also showed an odd pseudo EM absorption capacity, that most of the starlight wasn't getting through except for a small percentage of the emissions. So it certainly wasn't completely opaque but we determined that the mass of the phenomenon—at that point we weren't calling it an object anymore—was absolutely nil. Zero, zilch, less than the average cosmic density. This was technically impossible according to the standard models of physics. A void that blocked out electromagnetic waves."

She was slightly astonished but didn't know what to make of it.

"And it was big. About one hundredth of an A.U."

"How big is that?"

"About five times the distance between the earth and the moon." Size in space was all relative, she thought. He looked ahead, paused a moment, then said, "But we were also in luck with the timing of our observations, since another satellite in orbit of Titan was in an almost direct line of sight with us and the phenomenon."

Julie looked shocked, "It was inside our solar system."

"It was in the direct path of Earth's orbit around the sun." She waited a moment thinking this over. It had to be a factor for the incident that wiped out most of the human race, but she couldn't yet conceive how. "What we did was to communicate with our satellite around Titan and order it to return a transmission. A post-doc in my lab decided to transmit the longest sequence of pi our radio waves could broadcast, relay it, then check the feed."

"Pi?"

"Yes, you know, three point one four one—"

"I know what Pi is," she said, "But why transmit Pi?"

"To see how much of the transmission would degrade."

"And you didn't get anything back."

"No, it was more eerie than that, the number we got back was—one."

She shook her head.

"Don't you see, all that entire string of numbers comprising megabites of carrier wave returned to us, completely deconvoluted. We got the signal back, almost the entire energy package, but the number was one. The message, the entire information within that package was suppressed." He waited a moment then added, "So we didn't know what to make of it, but we knew we were getting closer to the phenomenon day by day. Well, apparently NASA had a round-table discussion with the president, the NSA or whatnot—we weren't invited, of course—and it seems that they decided to do nothing. That there was nothing to do, they couldn't conceive with any reasonable certainty that it was any danger at all. By our comparative speed and its apparent width, the planet would pass through it in only a few minutes. They might have fretted over banking data and credit card information, but no one knew what effect it could have on human life. So, to avoid panic and prevent a stock market crash, they must have decided to keep it all quiet. We honestly had no idea of what could happen either."

"So we were going to fly into this void, and no one bothered to tell us anything."

"You mean, announce to the population of the earth that the planet was heading through a patch of space with nothing inside, that might or might not do anything to them? Imagine the extent of non sequitur remarks. To say that we were worried because we didn't know what could happen but that they should remain calm and go about their daily lives unperturbed."

She sighed and thought about what had happened. She had seen everyone fall down dead, immediately and all so suddenly.

"The earth could have passed through these voids innumerable times before, but only in the last few centuries would we even have noticed such an important demographic decline. Mass deaths have occurred before, and this phenomenon could help explain strange archeological records, such as the apparent anachronistic technology and human knowledge seen at the dawn of accepted cultural emergence. It could have almost wiped us out ten thousand years ago. The reason I speculate this is because—" he paused to take a breath then added, "We saw numerous others of them in the satellite's far fields; there could be hundreds more coming our way next millennium, next year, or next week."

There was a lot to take in and Julie tried to synthesize this new information with what she had read in the book store.

"Did you try to use a lap top after the incident?" he asked.

Dazed, she had left her lap top in the coffee shop. "Actually, I haven't. Power and internet was out by the time I thought of it and it didn't seem like a priority."

"Well most of the hardware components were still good, but the software was wiped."

After a moment she said, "So everyone died because their minds were wiped," she whispered incredulously.

He looked at her gravely. "It was the one thing I thought of that scared me the most. When you think about it more objectively, a brain is a reservoir of stored electrolytes held against a gradient designed to respond to a stimulus with an information cascade. To fight against entropy, the brain reacts to counteract the tendency towards disorder. It's information hardware holding a massive amount of potentiated energy."

"If it were to equalize all neuronal polarization to the same voltage, all neurotransmission would be impossible. If the difference in potential is zero, then the gradient has nowhere to travel, and the signal to beat the heart, to contract the diaphragm, the awareness to remain conscious, everything stops."

He nodded gravely. "So why weren't we affected?" he asked her. She had expected him to bring all the answers but the question surprised her.

She shook her head, she didn't know. "Maybe the void was porous, or maybe we have been affected far more than we realize."

"I don't think I can say I have been the same since, but who would be, given the situation?"

"I actually don't remember things very clearly after it happened. I was dazed, wandered confused, half aware, till a few days later, I suppose." She thought over all the dead bodies she had seen throughout the city during her wanderings. "The animals," she started, "They survived more frequently than we did. Their brains are less complex; perhaps this—this deconvolution of their brains was less arduous."

Deep in introversion, Robert only nodded.

"So what now?" she asked. He just shrugged. "Could we possibly identify more of those voids if we had the precise equipment?"

"In theory, we could reinstall all the deleted software to the computers and uplink it to the satellites." He thought about it a minute. "We would need to go to Houston, and it would take a lot of manpower. And at this moment it would be an astronomical endeavor, pardon my pun. We don't even have power. Plus we were only six at the mall and almost killed ourselves."

"We have to try," she pleaded.

"And even if we succeed, then what?"

"We could find a way to survive the next encounter."

"And how would we do that," he asked her with a cocked eyebrow.

"Bea," she said. She regretted leaving her behind at the mall. "But it might have been why she survived. I can't explain why you and I did, it might have been our particular mindset at the time, that we have a particular mutation that makes us resistant to this deconvolution, or random luck that we seeped through some pore in the void." She thought of saying divine intervention, but it could have been aliens, too. "But since animals survived to a much higher degree, then the amount of neuronal activity might inversely correlate with survivability."

He looked at her, still unsure. They could both have been considered geniuses in the previous world, but they had both survived somehow. Maybe this was just arrogant thinking; they could have been at a particular point of low brain activity, exactly at the right moment. But that wasn't something you could think about when it would matter.

"She was a barbiturate addict. It shuts down neurotransmission. Like if you're drunk, maybe if we pinpoint when the next incidence will occur we can slow our brain activity to as low as possible to ride it out. We might have a better chance."

"Well," he started but then simply ignited the engine and drove the car steadily south. Houston would be a long road trip from here, and their chances at success were slim, but out of their hopeless existence, it was a reason to live they both desired.

She needed a purpose. It was that, she thought, or she would end up sprawled in a puddle of her own blood in some decrepit washroom, like the clerk from the bookstore; a better fate than letting devils like Thompson get a hold of her again. They had to try.

THE END


© 2015 Jason Arsenault

Bio: I am a research scientist in neurobiology, working at the University of Toronto. I have published over a dozen scientific publications in neuroscience fields. My main scholarly endeavors are to study neurological disorders, trying to understand brain function and to discover how consciousness emerges out of the complexity of these neuronal networks. For me, speculative fiction is an important and necessary outlet to reach beyond the current views of scientific investigation.

E-mail: Jason Arsenault

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