Authors: James Harden
It’s been months since the fall, since the outbreak.
It feels longer. And it feels like an
eternity since I entered the Fortress. It feels weird being outside, back in
the desert. It feels weird being in such a huge and open environment. I feel
like I can breathe a little easier, like a great weight has been lifted from my
shoulders. I can’t describe how amazingly breathtaking it is to look out at the
horizon and see endless space, to look up at the sky, see the sun, the moon,
the changing colors of the heavens, from blue to purple, to pink and orange and
There were times, trapped in the Fortress,
when I thought I would never see the sky again.
Daniel once told me it was the little
things, little things can break you, or little things can save you. He told me
it was the little victories that keep us going.
I tell myself that seeing the sky is a
Kenji is leading the way. He walks at a
pretty fast pace and as a result, we’re all struggling to keep up. Dusk is fast
approaching. This is a good thing because we will need to do the majority of
our walking at night. It’s still too hot to move around during the middle of
the day. I suddenly realize that we’ll be walking for the next twelve hours or
so, only stopping briefly to rest, to drink a few mouthfuls of water each.
My feet already ache.
“So why did you leave?” Kim asks Sarah,
cross-examining her, interrogating her. “Why risk it?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Don’t you dare lie to
You do know
. Why did you leave? Why
did you leave that safe haven? Why risk going back into the desert?”
Sarah takes a deep breath. She opens her
mouth to answer but she hesitates.
She is obviously uncomfortable talking
about this. But she needs to tell us, she needs to tell Kim. She needs to be
completely honest with us, because if she’s not, no one will trust her.
Eventually she says, “I fell in love.” She
answers quietly, softly. “Again, I know it’s stupid. But… I thought I was going
to die out here. My sister and I, we were all alone. We had escaped from a bad
situation. So when we made it to the town, when we were finally safe, I let my
guard down. I let myself relax. I let myself believe we were safe. For some
reason, I truly believed that all of this, this virus, this outbreak, was just
temporary, that everything would eventually go back to normal. And that’s when
I met him.”
“His name is Ryan,” she says, pausing.
She trails off because this is painful for
her. Because this is not a happy story.
“Anyway, he had been taken in as well,” she
continues. “He had been saved. We had both lost so much. And it was through
this shared… trauma… that we bonded… or fell in love. I guess. And it happened
so quickly, you know?”
She pauses again and collects her thoughts.
“It’s so stupid,” she repeats, cursing
herself. “So goddamn stupid. He left one night. He kept talking about it. He
said the rest of his family would’ve gone to Adelaide, or maybe even Perth. He
talked about going to search for them one day, when he had built up the
strength. He was convinced they were still alive. I didn’t know how to tell him
otherwise. And in the end, I just couldn’t do it. I mean, how do you tell
someone that their family is dead? How do you tell someone to give up? I
couldn’t do it. Even though, I probably should’ve.”
“So he left?” Kim asks.
“Yeah. He left in the middle of the night.
Not sure how he got out. Maybe someone let him out. Maybe he snuck out. I’m not
sure. But I do know it’s all my fault. I should’ve talked him out of it. I
should’ve convinced him not to go. As harsh as it would’ve been, I should’ve
told him that his family was dead. Just like mine, just like everyone else’s
family. But I didn’t tell him. It was my fault he left. And now he’s dead too.”
“You don’t know that,” I say. And as soon
as I said it, I regretted it.
Because she did know. We all knew.
Sarah doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t
dignify my foolishness and naivety with a response.
“So that’s why I left the town,” Sarah
says. “I wanted to find him. Bring him back. I wanted to save him. I left
because I was reckless and stupid. I left because I let my heart, my emotions
get the better of me.” She lowers her head. “I will never let that happen
I can’t tell if Kim is satisfied with this
response. I don’t know if she will ever be satisfied. Maybe once we’re behind
the walls she’ll be happy with Sarah’s story.
“What’s the name of the town?” Kim asks,
continuing her aggressive line of questioning.
“I can’t tell you that,” Sarah says.
“Because I’m not allowed to. If word gets
out about this town… people, survivors, they would come from all over. We
wouldn’t be able to handle it. The town’s not big enough. It would be too
Another mouth to feed. Another nail in the
coffin. This is the reality of our situation.
We walk in silence for a few more hours. Eventually
Maria breaks the silence and asks Kenji for a drink of water.
But we don’t have enough.
Sarah has a couple of bottles. But she says
we should save this for when we really need it.
I see the look on Maria’s face. It’s right
about now that she realizes how truly screwed we are.
Apart from our lack of water, we also have
a distinct shortage of food. Our supplies are ridiculously, dangerously low.
Other than Sarah’s precious bottles of water, she also had a few cans of food.
Baked beans. Peaches. Canned tuna. This is all the food that Sarah had been
carrying in her backpack when we escaped from the Fortress. None of it sounded
appealing, even though I was starving.
And weapons? Forget about it.
We have one gun with one magazine.
Two EMP grenades.
This is not enough to defend ourselves
At some point, we will need to find a town
and scavenge for supplies. We will need to find something.
I am reminded of the mad soldier who
greeted Maria and myself when we had unknowingly arrived at the Fortress. The
mad soldier had been exiled to the desert by General Spears. This was his
punishment for questioning the authority of the General. As a result, he had
suffered heat stroke and dehydration. He had suffered insanity brought on by
pressure and isolation.
is nothing in the desert…
He had buried himself in the red dust, in
the dirt, he had set a trap in the small chance that someone, anyone, would
stumble across his hiding place. What kind of headspace does a person need to
be in to do something like that? How far gone? How desperate?
And I can’t help but wonder if this will be
us in a few days’ time.
Or maybe we are already there.
No way back.
While I’m thinking about water and food and
whether or not we’ll die of thirst and heat stroke and insanity, Kenji stops
suddenly and I almost walk up the back of him.
He tells us to stop.
“Why?” I ask. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s something out there.”
“On the horizon.”
Kenji has amazing eye sight. But I can’t
see a damn thing. No one else can.
“What is it?” I ask.
Kim puts her hand over her bruised face,
shielding her eyes from the setting sun. “Where? What are you talking about?”
Kenji points at the horizon, to the south.
He is pointing dead ahead.
“I don’t see anything,” Jack says.
I finally see something, but it could just
be a heat mirage. I look closer. The heat waves give the impression of
movement. The whole thing shimmers and distorts. The optical illusion reminds
me of a nano-swarm.
“Trust me,” Kenji says. “There’s something
I believe him.
“Please don’t tell me
infected people,” Jack says.
“Or a nano-swarm,” Maria adds.
Sarah reaches into her backpack and
retrieves an EMP grenade. She hands it to me. “We’ve only got two of these
“No,” Kenji answers. “I don’t think it’s a
nano-swarm, or infected people. It could be a car. A Humvee. It could be a
“Might have supplies,” Kim says.
“What do we do?” Maria asks. “Do we go
around it? Do we avoid it?”
“I think we need to check it out,” Kenji
Maria doesn’t like this idea at all. She
tightens her grip on Jack. “And what if there are infected people hiding
inside? What if there’s a goddamn nano-swarm?”
Kenji thinks it over. “If there are
infected people inside whatever the hell this thing is, and they can get free,
they’ll eventually come running after us. It’s better if we get the drop on
them. I’d much rather take them out first. It’s better than having them sneak
up on us in the middle of the night.”
Kenji answers Maria’s questions calmly and
methodically. He understands why she is afraid. She is afraid because if we get
attacked, Jack won’t be able to run.
“And what if it’s a nano-swarm?” she asks.
“We’ve got EMP grenades,” Kenji says. “If
there’s a nano-swarm close by, we use the grenades. This usually causes the
nano-swarm to disperse. It usually causes them to take evasive action.”
Yeah, that’s what usually happens. But
there’s a first time for everything. It wouldn’t surprise me if the nano-swarms
had started to figure out how to completely avoid, or even survive an EMP
blast. And there’s always the chance of human error. There’s always the chance
that I’d completely screw up. Maybe I’d drop the grenade. Maybe I’d throw it in
the wrong direction. Who knows?
I suddenly start to feel nervous. I
suddenly start to feel
“Kim is right,” Kenji says. “Whatever it
is, it could have supplies. We need to check this out. It’s too good an
opportunity to pass up. But Jack, you might want to keep your distance. I think
you should stay back, just until we know it’s safe.”
Jack doesn’t argue.
So we keep walking, and slowly the object
comes into view. It starts out as a shimmering dark blob. The heatwaves make it
look bigger than it actually is. At one point, the thing appears to tower over
the horizon. But the closer we get, the smaller it gets, and the more solid it
becomes. For a second I think that maybe it really is a nano-swarm. But it
appears to be stationary. It isn’t moving.
It begins to take shape, until finally, it
makes sense in my mind.
“It’s a helicopter,” Kenji says. “A
“Are you sure?” Kim asks.
“How do you know it’s a Blackhawk?” Sarah
“I just do,” he says, turning to Kim. “Give
me the gun.”
Kim hands over our one and only weapon to
Kenji. He checks the magazine. “Stay close,” he says. “Stay behind me.”
We move quickly and silently towards the chopper. Jack and Maria hang back. I
have given them an EMP grenade just in case.
The rest of us are moving up, directly
behind Kenji. Kenji has the gun armed and ready. He is holding it with two
hands. Finger on the trigger. The safety is off.
He is not taking any chances.
The chopper is covered in a large, dark
green tarp. But I know it is not just a tarp. It’s an invisibility cloak. Just
like the one Daniel’s team used to cover and conceal their camp with, back when
they needed to hide from the military and from everyone and everything else.
And just like that invisibility cloak, this one had long run out of power as
well. Or maybe it was just broken.
We move in close to the chopper. Kenji
slows down. It appears that the chopper’s nose is partially buried in the
ground, like it has nose-dived. Kenji pulls back the cloak, revealing a scene
of carnage, a scene of destruction and chaos.
The chopper had crash landed. The rotor
blades are crumpled. The windows of the cockpit have shattered.
The pilot is dead.
The co-pilot is dead.
There are two dead Evo Agents in the back.
Their NBC suits did nothing to protect them.
There is one other passenger. He has a
black hood over his head. He is, or rather was, a prisoner. And now he is a
dead man. There is a long and sharp piece of metal, part of the helicopter;
that has pierced his stomach.
No one could’ve survived this.
Jack and Maria have joined us. And Jack
says, “Is that who I think it is?”
I’m not following. I’m too distracted by
the dead bodies, by the scene of carnage in front of me. By the smell of it.
“What do you mean?” I ask. “Who is it?”
Jack points at the prisoner. He doesn’t say
anything. He just points.
The person wearing the black hood, the
passenger, the prisoner, they only have one hand. The other has been hacked
It was Doctor Hunter.
The parasite is finally dead.
For some reason I take a deep breath. And
then I realize I had been holding my breath. And then I exhale slowly, and I
feel relief. I don’t know why I feel this way.
I scan the scene before me. I take it all
The dead pilots.
The dead Evo Agents.
I look closer. Their necks have been
pierced and sliced open, torn open, ripped open.
This chopper is brand new. State of the
Why did it crash?
How did it crash?
Relief quickly gives way to fear…
Doctor Hunter was a prisoner. The Evo
Agents came for him. They told us, lied to us, that they had no room in their
chopper, in this chopper, that they couldn’t extract the rest of us. They told
us to stay put, that a rescue was coming.
Their other prisoner was the man in the gas
Doctor Kumar Singh.
is Doctor Kumar Sing?
Where is the man in the gas mask?
primary objectives are still at large…
The recon team, the extraction team, they
never made it back.
My exhausted brain finally catches on. We
are standing around the wreckage of a state of the art Blackhawk helicopter. We
are standing over five dead bodies. Four soldiers. One doctor, a prisoner.
We are one prisoner short.
We are shocked into silence.
is Doctor Kumar Singh?
“This is the rescue team,” I whisper.
Kenji looks at me. “What?”
“This is the rescue team. They came for the
man in the gas mask. And Doctor Hunter.”
I point to the body, to the passenger with
a spear sized piece of shrapnel sticking out of his stomach. “Jack is right.
That’s Doctor Hunter.”
“No way,” Kim says. “How did this happen?”
recon team never returned. They never made it back to base.
“He did this,” I say. “The man in the gas
mask. He escaped. He crashed this chopper. He killed the Evo Agents. He killed
the pilots. He’s still out there.”
“Who are you talking about?” Sarah asks.
Jack fills Sarah in on the man in the gas mask.
On everything that he has done. On all the chaos and death he has caused. He
tells her that despite all the killing, despite the fact that he had caused the
outbreak, caused an Extinction Level Event, the company still considered him a
still considered him a very
valuable target. This is why the company had sent in a special team to rescue
him. YoshidaCorp wanted him alive, they wanted to capture him, they wanted to
imprison, instead of kill.
Or maybe they still wanted to use him.
But the man in the gas mask is a ghost. He
is a demon. And he cannot be caught.
He cannot be caged.
And I’m starting to believe he cannot be
“There’s no way the man in the gas mask
killed two Evo Agents,” Maria says. “He was handcuffed. He was dying. There’s
“Look at their necks,” I say. “Their
throats have been cut. I don’t know how he did it, but he got the jump on them.
He strangled them, slit their throats.”
“These soldiers,” Sarah says, looking at
their protective NBC suits. “They’re not regular soldiers, are they?”
Kenji shakes his head. “No. They’re Evo
“From the company,” Sarah says, catching
on, piecing bits of a puzzle together. She must’ve heard the rumors.
“Not even a super soldier can survive a
helicopter crash,” Jack says. “I wonder how high up they were when they came
“I don’t think the crash killed them,” Kim
“What do you mean?”
She points to their necks, their suits.
“Rebecca is right. Look. Their throats have been slit. That’s not from the
crash. Someone did that to them. Someone bled them out.”
I notice what appear to be black scorch
marks on their NBC suits. Kenji notices as well. He then looks over his
shoulder at the ground surrounding the chopper. Scattered all over the place
are bullet casings.
“There was a struggle here,” Kenji says.
“The soldiers, or the pilots, they’ve been shot at. Close range. They were shot
with a high powered assault rifle.”
“That wouldn’t have killed them,” I say,
remembering the time I was shot square in the chest while wearing an NBC suit.
The force of the bullet knocked me off my feet, it crushed the air from my
lungs. But it did not kill me. The suit saved my life.
“No, the suits are bullet proof,” Kenji
says. “But at this range, the shot would’ve stunned them. It would’ve knocked
them off their feet. Assuming they were shot with an assault rifle.”
“And then he would’ve slit their throats,”
I say. “Or maybe he slit their throats mid-air. Shot the pilots. Crashed the
chopper on purpose.” I’m talking to myself, picturing in my mind the sequence
of events carried out by the mad man.
Jack moves towards the cockpit. “The pilots
have been shot,” he says. “They’ve been shot in the back several times.”
“So, wait a minute,” Maria says. “The man
in the gas mask… he’s still alive? He’s still out there?”
I nod my head slowly. “Yes. He escaped. He
was waiting to be rescued from the Fortress. He was waiting for the perfect
Again, I’m thinking out loud.
I remember back to the Fortress. The man in
the gas mask was handcuffed. He was a prisoner. But he was calm. Like a
psychotic Zen Master. He didn’t care that he was handcuffed. Or blindfolded. He
didn’t care that he had been stabbed.
He didn’t care that he was slowly bleeding
He knew they would come for him.
He knew they would underestimate him.
He was waiting for the perfect time to
He waited until he was out, until he was
free from the Fortress.
He waited until he was back in the desert,
until he was mid-air.
He waited for the Evo Agents to drop their
guards… just a little.
And then he made his move.
He crashed the chopper. He took his
He rolled the dice.
And he survived.
He got his hands on a weapon.
He slaughtered the Evo Agents. Executed the
And now he has disappeared into the desert,
like a ghost.
I turn to the horizon and my heart beats
just a little bit faster knowing that he is out there somewhere.
The architect of the apocalypse.
Creator and destroyer of worlds, of life.
“I can’t believe Doctor Hunter is dead,”
Maria says. “He survived so much. He got out of North Sydney…”
“Who is Doctor Hunter?” Sarah asks.
“He’s one of the people responsible for…
for everything,” I answer. “He helped create the Oz virus.”
Maria motions towards the body with her
head. “Are we even sure that’s him?”
I point to his severed hand. “Yeah. That’s
Kenji reaches forward and removes the hood
just to make sure the one armed man is Doctor Hunter, to make sure that he is
And I am right.
It is Doctor Hunter.
But I am wrong.
Because he is not dead.
He opens his eyes slightly.
His lips move.
And he speaks.
He says, “I was wrong. I was so wrong. You
should’ve killed him. You should’ve put a bullet in his brain.”