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Authors: Edward W Robertson

Breakers (9 page)

BOOK: Breakers
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By morning, the street was impassible, a rubble of abandoned cars and hovering flies. A rat crouched on the pinned man's corpse, eating his nose. From his window, Walt took this for a sign. The ultimate metaphor for what happened when you tried to do good.

It rained that night, a steady beat that washed the blood and debris into the drains. Maybe the fish would get sick, too. Gunshots popped every few minutes, dampened by the mist. On the sidewalk below, a man shuffled forward, dropped his umbrella, and collapsed to his knees, phlegmy blood dangling from his mouth in strands.

Jets rattled his windows that morning, jarring him awake. The pain of his hangover felt right—the stabbing temples, the slow crush of his stomach, the sluggishness that made everything look less real than it already did. Heavy squeals and metallic shudders echoed between the buildings. Walt leaned out the window. Upstreet, a platoon of camo-wearing, rifle-swinging soldiers jogged across the intersection. With a rumbling, ear-wrenching shriek, a tank followed them down the street, pluming exhaust.

They came for him the next day.

The door pounded. His head did, too; he sat up from his blanket-nest on the couch, gum-eyed, parch-mouthed. "What?"

Quick, muffled talk from behind the door. "Open up! U.S. Army!"

Walt rose, naked except his underwear, and draped a sheet over his shoulders. He leaned his mouth against the door. "What can I do for you?"

"We're here to take you to a safe place."

"I'm pretty safe in here."

"What about your family? Any roommates?"

"I think they're pretty much dead. Let me check." Walt sniffed, gazing dumbly at the floor. "Yeah, all dead."

"Sir, I need you to step outside and come with me. In the event of noncompliance, we are authorized to break down your door."

"Authorized by who?" He unbolted the bolts, unlocked the locks. A pair of armed soldiers stood in the doorway, helmeted and vested, protected by gas masks and rubber gloves. "I appreciate your belief that you can keep me safer than I can keep myself, but I'm doing fine here."

The taller soldier shook his head. "We're authorized to round up all the survivors."

"The fact we are survivors might just imply we don't need your help."

"Sir, we don't have time for this. Come with us or we'll drag you down the stairs."

"Doesn't sound like either of us would enjoy that," Walt said. "Just tell them nobody was here."

The shorter soldier passed his rifle to his partner, grabbed Walt's wrist, and twisted until the bones rubbed each other sideways. Walt wilted to his knees. Stitches tugged his gut. The soldier clamped his wrists together, tying them tight with a plastic strip-cuff.

"Drag him out."

"I'm in my underwear here," Walt said from his knees.

"There's no time."

"At least put on my shoes. You expect me to walk through fucking New York City barefoot? People were shitting, bleeding, and puking in the street. And that's
the Panhandler."

The soldiers exchanged gas-masked glances. The one who'd hogtied him swore. "Where are your shoes?"

They let him pull on some pants and his Converse, then draped his coat around his shoulders and fitted him with a surgical mask and thin, transparent gloves.

"What's this about?" he asked on the way down the cold stairwell.

"Rounding up the survivors to keep you safe," said the soldier who'd cuffed him.

"Brilliant, gather us all together. The best way to guarantee that if we
get sick, we

"Has anyone told you you stink like whiskey, sir?"

They exited the building to an overcast noon. The streets smelled of smoke and blood and sour biology. Walt thought about running—he doubted they knew New York any more than he knew whatever non-New York backwater they'd coagulated in, and if they truly intended to scour the entire goddamn city for survivors, there was a fair chance they wouldn't waste time coming after him—but then again, they had guns. And tanks. And troops on the corners. Helicopters ruffled the clouds overhead. The soldier led him to a high-roofed truck and gestured him up a ramp. Twenty-odd other survivors sat on the truck bed, surgical masks in place, eyes bored rather than glassy or watery, no coughing or blood staining their masks. Only two of them were handcuffed. Walt sat down and leaned his back against the truck's side, glad for the shade. His stomach twisted, wringing itself like a beery old sponge.

They sat there a long time. The soldiers brought down an old woman in a black coat and led her into the truck, then a scruffy bearded guy around Walt's age. The soldiers cracked a can of paint, splashed a bright red X across the door, and moved on to the next building.

A woman asked to go to the bathroom. The soldiers told her to hold it. She asked again and a soldier glanced down the street, smashed in the door of Starbucks with the butt of his rifle, and gestured her in. Walt napped, woken constantly by the truck bed jostling with new arrivals, by the whirr of choppers and the sky-tearing sound of jets, by people sobbing, the crackle of radios, the squeak of tank treads, by his own headache. Sometime midafternoon—he'd left his cell beside the couch—the truck grumbled to life and weaved slowly down the street, dodging abandoned cars, sprays of glass, sometimes a body.

Earlier, he'd asked a soldier where they were headed and gotten a vague non-answer. He didn't bother asking the other passengers. They rocked in the truck bed, staring blankly, as unresponsive to the contact of their neighbors' shoulders and knees as if they were down on a cramped 4-train to Yankee Stadium. The truck hooked south down Lafayette and rumbled through Chinatown, where shutters barred the stalls and seafood markets and t-shirt shops. Goods carpeted the sidewalks—shirts, wallets, belts, toys in cheap bubble plastic, sunglasses, squashed bananas, trampled cabbage, crushed crabs, some still waving their claws from the gutters. It stunk like old fish and rain-sodden greens. The truck turned down a street Walt didn't recognize and stopped cold. Radios squawked from up front.

Truck doors thumped. Boots hit the sidewalk. Ahead, metal scraped asphalt. Men swore, chattered over radios.

Out past the tailgate, three strangers wandered toward the truck, a slow shuffle punctuated by coughing jags. They wiped bloody fists on their pants and continued closer.

"Stay where you are," a loudspeaker blared from the truck.

"We're sick," a tall, thin man called from the trio. "We need help."

"Wait on the corner," the soldier replied. "Help will be sent as soon as it's available."

"You're the third truck that's told us that!"

Windows opened from a handful of apartments. Two more people turned the corner, leaning on each other for support, and joined the trio. Up front beyond Walt's sight, something heavy and hard grated over the pavement. He took shallow breaths. He'd been thinking he might throw up for a while now. At least the truck was canvas-topped, open around the sides. Fresh air.

Down on the corner, the crowd grew to a dozen. Five minutes later, with the soldier still struggling to clear whatever was blocking the road, and Walt wondering why they didn't just take a different street, the gathering of the sick swelled to more than thirty, shivering, coughing, spitting wads of blood on the sidewalks.

"Where are you taking them?" a squat woman shouted. "Do you have medicine?"

"My apartment's full of fucking corpses," a hefty guy hollered in a Brooklyn accent. "How about you show us a place to sleep that doesn't smell like a Red Lobster's Dumpster?"

"Help is on the way," the soldier said. "Stay where you are."

"Like hell!" The hefty guy started forward. After two steps, the crowd followed in one of those strange mass movements, muttering, shouting, crying for answers and aid.

"This is a quarantined vehicle. Stop where you are and turn around."

Two soldiers ran to the back of the truck and knelt, raising assault rifles to their shoulders. The hefty man sneered and limped on.

"You're taking them to the cure!"

"Please don't leave us!"

From the advancing crowd, a thin blonde woman staggered away, hugged a lamppost, and sicked blood across the gum-dotted sidewalk. Someone in the truck moaned.

"Stop now or we will open fire," the loudspeaker blared.

Fifty feet away, the man laughed and broke into a run. Others lurched to keep up.

"Oh fuck," one of the kneeling soldiers said. Gunfire battered Walt's ears. The hefty man's chest puffed in three places, blood misting the people to either side of him. They fell alongside him, holes in their foreheads, chests, legs. Those in back screamed over the gunshots. One woman froze, clamping her arms to her face. Holes burst in her elbow, the back of her hand. The others turned and ran, stumbling and shrieking, disappearing around corners and through open doorways. The gunfire stopped dead. A dozen bodies lay bleeding on the pavement, some gurgling and clawing the asphalt, others as still as the streets beyond. Pale faces watched from windows. In the truck, people moaned, scrabbled their feet on the floor and pushed their backs against the walls, gagged, prayed.

"Shit," the first soldier to fire said.

"Hold your fire!" A man with stripes on his shoulder jogged from the side of the truck.

The soldier stood, shouldering his rifle. "Sarge, they charged us. Another two seconds and—"

"I know." The sergeant leaned in, grabbed the younger man by the neck. "You followed the protocol. You remember that tonight. Those people were already dead."

"Key word
," Walt called, dazed, tingly, jarred free from himself. "Not some goddamn zombies."

The sergeant turned on the truck, vaulting up onto the bumper. "Who said that?"

Walt shrunk against the side of the trunk, suddenly paternalized, pinned down by the authoritarian bark of a teacher quick with the detention. Across the truck, a dark-haired woman pointed him out. The sergeant clambered in over the tailgate and stuck a finger in Walt's face.

"Listen up. People are dying out there. You want us to leave you with them, just say the word."

Walt lifted his cuffed wrists. "This look like I volunteered?"

The sergeant grabbed him by the belt and frogmarched him to the tailgate, where he shoved Walt's front half over the ledge and planted a boot on his ass. The pavement waited below. "Just say the word!"

"At least cut my cuffs!"

"Say the word. You know how many bodies I seen the last week? Say the word and over you go."

"Okay," Walt said. "Please set me down. Please, officer."

"I'm not a fucking officer."

The man shoved him aside and jumped out the back. Walt eased himself back against the truck's side, stitches tingling. He flushed, furious. Why not jump? He was cuffed in the front; he could run home, get inside, find a knife to saw through the plastic. The truck juddered to life, pulling forward. But what if he snapped his wrist in the fall? Cracked his head? Were there any hospitals left? He hadn't kept up with the news. The city had fallen overnight, becoming a cemetery instead, its dead memorialized by the mausoleums of skyscrapers, the catacombs of the subways, the island-tomb of the unknown citizens. The military's plan, that was dead in the water. What would they do, ship everyone to Antarctica to trade stocks from their igloos? The plague had already taken the world. It had come too fast, spread too far to be stopped now. Everything else was delusion.

If he knew that much, why hadn't he jumped?

The truck rolled into a broad garage with red axes and thick fabric hoses strung along the walls. The soldiers waited for the doors to creak shut, then offloaded the civilians, split them by gender, and shuffled them into two locker rooms. An armed soldier ordered them to strip and deposit their clothes in a wheeled canvas cart.

"What are you doing with them?" a chubby guy said through his thick black mustache.

"The same thing we're about to do to you," the soldier said. "Now get in the showers."

"Oh Jesus," said the lanky young Jewish guy next to Walt. A soldier clipped Walt's cuffs. He showered, got dusted with a sharp-smelling powder by two anonymous people in full rubbery biosuits, then got ordered to shower again. In a tight benched room, a soldier passed Walt a pair of sweat pants and a loose white t-shirt that billowed past his waist. Dressed, a man in a mask and a lab coat called them one by one into a room that until recently had been a personal office; photos of somebody's daughters hung on the walls, with bowling trophies occupying a corner shelf. The doctor drew Walt's blood, checked his breathing, his pulse, pressed his fingers to the side of Walt's throat and made him swallow, examined his stitches and told him they looked good.

"What's going on?" Walt said.

"We're seeing if you're sick."

"I wasn't before I got hauled onto that truck. Couldn't tell you for sure

The doctor smiled with half his mouth, skin crinkling around his eyes. "If you aren't already ill, chances are you never will be. Besides the cold, the flu, and cancer, of course."

"If we're doing fine, why scoop us up at all?"

"In the hopes you can help those who aren't so lucky."

"I can think of safer places to base the world's salvation than an old fire station in downtown Manhattan."

The man laughed, tapping his nose. "That's why we're shipping you to Staten Island. We've already disabled the bridges." He flicked his fingers apart. "Kablam!"

A short man with angry blonde brows led him in silence to a small dorm and locked him in. Walt paced the tiles, fuming and muttering, castigating himself for not asking the doctor why they needed so many subjects, for not pulling the old man's lab coat over his head and punching him in the back of the skull. If Walt didn't want to be here—and he'd already begun to consider clocking his head against the wall until it or he cracked—why hadn't he done
to get himself out? Were the solutions to his desires supposed to manifest themselves by magic? Did he expect, when he silently asked the universe to return him to his apartment, it would give him a thumbs-up, a grinned
, and poof him back to his ratty couch?

BOOK: Breakers
8.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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