What happens when the apocalypse happens and all the charming, handsome heros are dead? Just hope you don't have to rely on a old, balding, over weight ex-jarhead with poor eyesight and an even worse attitude.
The old man sat quietly in the shade of an awning made of a brittle blue plastic tarp. There was a gentle breeze that morning and it felt cool on his craggy, scarred, brown leather-like face. He wore a poncho made from a wool blanket so ancient that it was barely recognizable as such or even green for that matter. He held in one hand his walking stick; a polished knobby thing that he had found years before in a dried creek bed and its sheen only came from his nervous habit of constantly running his hands up and down it's length, squeezing and twisting it as if he were trying to rub away a stain only he could see.
He had had a nice breakfast, his youngest grand-daughter had made him corn meal mush with butter and a tablespoon of precious wild honey. She spoiled him, he knew it, but he did not try to take advantage, he only tried to make her know how much he appreciated all that she did for him.
“Soon enough” he thought, “she will be married and I will be gone, what harm in letting such a loving girl dote on an old man?” He swirled the last of his reddish tea in a white chipped enamel cup and drank the last of it as the first of the little ones began to appear. They came in ones and twos, laughing and playing, skipping about the way children do. The old man smiled, such a beautiful thing to see, he wondered if he had ever been like that.
The children gathered around him, sitting “Indian style” on the ground, their skin tinted blue by the bright morning sun coming through his awning. He counted as they arrived and after a few moments and no more came he asked “where is Malory?” The children began to quiet down and a delicate but clear voice spoke up from the back; “Malory has a icky tummy and her mama kept her home today.” He nodded sagely looking very seriously at the curly haired 5 year old who had delivered this very grown up message. “I see, thank you, Candi.” he sat up straight and and said “Well, nothing to be done for it, the rest of you will have to listen very carefully and tell her what we talk about eh?” and a cheeky grin crossed his face.
The old man leaned forward as if he were about to reveal a secret and in someways he was, but he had told this story man times to many children. It no longer hurt to tell it, and he had learned what parts to explain and what parts to gloss over. They needed to know these things, but they did not need to wake screaming in the night from that knowing. The children leaned forward almost as one in anticipation of what was surely going to a good story. Old man and children, teacher and students, not so different from when Socrates did it 2,500 years before.
“Children.” he said “Today I am going to tell you a story of the Deadtime.” A shiver of frightened delight swept them. Goosebumps and chills quite common among the young children. For them the Deadtime was a scary story old around the nights fire. It was a distant threat that the parents assured them they were safe from. But for the old man it was memory, Painful, tragic, vivid memories that framed his entire life. He wondered if he was the very last human being to actually recall those fateful days, to have been there on day 1, the last one to have seen things unfold at the dawn of the Deadtime.
He cleared his throat and said “Before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you about the Beforetime.” He paused a moment as a mix of reactions went through the gathered observers. Some were excited to hear about that long ago, others rolled their eyes as if they were getting ready for a childish fairy tale, others just wondered what the Beforetime was.
“In the Beforetime, there were lights everywhere. Bright lights that turned the night into the day, not just dim yellow ones like in Mr. Bernard's metal shop or in the meeting room. But all colors: red, blue, white, green, every color that you could imagine and then even more.” There were “oohs and ahhs” as he began his story, everyone settling down into the “tell me a story mode.” “And there were cities much bigger than our village, bigger even than Crossroads.” This time the “Ohs” were met by nearly as many “no way”, “uh un” and “nowhere is bigger than Crossroad”s. The old man waved his hand gently to get them to settle down again. “I remember quite a bit about the Beforetime even though it was a very long time ago.” The children laughed as the old one leaned forward and wiggled his bushy eyebrows to emphasize his claim.
“Now lets see, where was I?” he scratched his chin as deep in thought. “Oh yes, oh yes, do you all know of the far-away ruins? “ The children murmured, one said his brother had been there, another said he saw them from far away once. The old man ignored them and continued. “In the Beforetime those ruins were one of those great cities I was telling you about. It was called Palm Springs. Those tall buildings were filled with people.” He saw some level of disbelief in their eyes. “Trust me children, I am certain of this, there were thousands and thousands of people there.” He paused then added “and Palm Springs was only one of thousands of such villages across our land.” One child raised his hand and asked: “How could so many live in one place teacher?” “Good question” the old one said. “I really don't know but I do know there were many many shops and trades there. Shops of every possible kind you could imagine and then some.” He looked about, they were starting to buy into this, he knew this because the pushing and playful shoving had dropped to almost zero.
“There was one place there, called STADIUM, and on certain feast days many thousands would go there to watch other people play sport.” with this they all laughed, even the old man for it was indeed a silly thing to do. “The paths and roads there were all flat and black, smooth as can be. I think they had teams of workers that walked them, kept them clean and made sure no bush or tree grew in those paths. “You know, I member my favorite shop, it had nothing but TOYS in it.” The children were rapt now. “There were all kinds of toys, they had toys for little boys and toys for little girls and games with pieces and such that a lot of people could play at once. I loved that place.”
The old man's grand-daughter took his tea cup and filled it with some water from an clay urn that she kept in the cool shade. She gave it back to him, he smiled and nodded to her then continued his story. “Now, finally there comes a day, the day, the first day of the Deadtime.” He looked around and the excited faces had grown more serious. “I don't member my mommy's name I just called her mommy, but she was pretty and soft and she smelled good and she made me very good food.” The old one looked into the sky just for a moment in remembrance. “My mommy she took me to Palm Springs to have a lunch with a friend of hers.” He sipped again and said “Her friend was an important person, I don’t member how, moving pictures I think, she did have a beautiful voice so maybe she did music, I don't really remember. Anyway she was very very important. Her name was Tina and was very pretty, I member that and she had a dark man with glasses that stayed near her all the time. I think he was a guard and I didn't like him but I liked Tina.”
“We ate outside around a big round table and there was an umbrella that gave us shade and it was all different colors. I do not member what we ate but I do member I had a drink of chocolate and it was very cold and very good.” The old man shifted and prepared himself for what came next for now the true story began.
Chapter 1, The War.
He slowly let out his breath and said “I member laughing and being tickled both mommy and Tina were paying a lot of attention to me.” He swallowed hard and said “and then there were sirens, so loud those sirens. And they did not stop, someone said that it must have been a really big fire.” He hated telling this part, how the Before became the DEAD. “The sirens got louder, so loud they hurt my ears and I pressed my hands to my head. No one could talk. And there were different kinds of sirens:
“WEE EEE EEE EEE EEE EEE”
“WHEE onnn WHEE onnn”
And those kinds came and went. But there was one that never went away:
The children relaxed a little as he imitated those sirens and some even giggled at the funny faces he was making. He made them on purpose it seemed to make things a little more tolerable.
“Tina leaned over and spoke into my mommy’s ear and then we all got up and went into the tower just next to where we were eating. People were very nervous and a lot of people were leaving. They had bags and such and many of them were crying. We got into an lift that used a motor to take us up high in that tower. Tina said 'my sweet is on the top floor' and I got excited until I found out that a sweet is a kind of fancy room in an inn!” Everyone laughed at such a silly name. The old man laughed with them but he knew they would not be laughing for long. He had told this story many times and he knew how important it was to not let the fear get to these little ones.
“When we got to the room I was very tired and they put me in a big big bed and I fell asleep. When I awoke it was nearly dark and the bed was shaking. Mommy and Tina were screaming and the guard man was standing over by the windows just staring outside. I walked over to stand next to the guard man. I could see fires coming out of the windows in building all over the city. There were flying airplanes zooming this way and that. They would shoot at each other with streams of red fire and if the streams hit another flying plane they would explode. I looked over my shoulder and saw Tina trying to use a phone. Do you member what I told you about phones?” Some said yes, some just nodded, others pretended to flip open a phone and held their hands to their ears. “Yes, yes..that is exactly right” the old man said.
The old one continued, his voice level as he tried to just state these events not go back to them in his mind. “Sometimes one of the planes would crash into a building and we watched several of them just fall down. I don't know if the screaming I heard was the tearing of steel or from people trapped inside.” He shifted slightly, uncomfortable but unable to not tell the story, it was his job, it was so no one would forget.
“I hear different kinds of noises, kinda like “whump whump whump” and flying airplanes with their propellers on their roofs came. They dove down towards the street but I could not see what was happening. I was very confusing. The guard man said 'its the army, they have tanks it looks like they are pushing them back along every street' he sounded excited almost as if he were going to jump up and down clapping all the way.” In his minds eye he could see the huge M2A3 tanks creeping up the streets, their guns flaring, lighting up the dim night. It was far below them and he could barely hear the sounds but he could see the carnage. Men were running away from the tanks only to be cut down by the tank's machine guns or by rockets from the helicopters. Thousands were dying on the streets below them and in the buildings all around them.
“I don't know how long I slept but I don't think the others did at all. The sun was coming up so it must have been nearly all night but I was very very tired. The guard man had a tiny radio and was listening to it. Saying loudly what he could hear so mommy and Tina would know too. 'They say LA, San Fran, and Seattle are gone, but we have responded, Pyongyang, Mecca, Beijing, Shanghai and others have been destroyed by missiles launched from our subs. ' My mommy came and held me I did not understand that a tremendous war had begun and while I slept half of the people of the Earth had died in one night.“ One of the children asked “How many was that?” The old man played with his chin whiskers for a moment, “well I don't know exactly but someone once told me what a million was. Probably none of the children knew what a million was. The old man was ready: “okay this is what I was told, you put 100 pebbles in a bucket, you and nine of your friends all had such a bucket, that would be 1000 pebbles. Now if each one of you and your friends had 10 friends who did this then that would be 10,000 pebbles. If each and every one of you could find 100 MORE people that would do that same thing, well, that would be a million pebbles. If all those people and all those buckets were in one place, one village, I was told that the number of the dead was the same as 3,000 such villages.” The concept was hard to explain to a four and five year old’s. Many of the children had trouble imagining such a big number. But the message got through that a lot, a very big lot, of people had died indeed.
The old man continued “It was not long after that the electric went out and the beautiful apartment was suddenly very close around us. The day went on with more flying airplanes zooming by and troops and big tanks going by far below us. The day silently went by, fear growing in our hearts, but thankfully not so many close by explosions.” Some of the children wondered if that was the end of the story but the old one continued. “We ate all the food that was in the room, mostly cheese and fruits that I have never seen since, strange things they were, but they were good I remember.”
What the old one did not remember, and in fact no living person on Earth ever knew was that as the nations of the Earth, the people of the Earth were being incinerated and launched into the sky as cinder and ash. Some nations did not have a nuclear arsenal with which to participate in such massive scale destruction. But one of that group did have a weapon they could use, one stolen from a test island off the English coast years before. A bacteria that they had modified over countless, tiny generations to grow ever more deadly, ever more resistant to defense. It was their “Doomsday” weapon. This nation had an enemy, the United States and of course their colonial lackeys. So it was that the United States, Russia, England, India, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Australia were the target of “sleeper” terror groups. Already in place, already armed, located in cities such as Des Moines, Darwin, Tel Aviv, and Bangalore. The suicide groups detonated their bombs with cries of “Allah Akbar!” and a new horror was unleashed.
At first the bio-weapon worked as predicted, better than predicted. The air dispersed bacteria quickly infected millions of the shocked survivors, killing them in 24 to 36 hours. But there was one thing the scientists of that nation did not predict: the effect of radiation on those bacteria. At first as the cloud of living death met the cloud of radioactive poison, the radiation won, killing nearly all of the bacteria. “Nearly all” being the pertinent phrase. Some bacteria survived and their offspring were different from their parents. The rate of change accelerated, enhanced by the radiation. That generation reproduced, and those offspring were different again, over and over rapid evolution caused by the nature of the modified bacteria combined with the effects of radiation was creating something new, something never before seen on Earth, something more terrible, more devastating than mankind could imagine.
The old man stretched a little and then continued “there were others in that building and from time to time people would knock on the door to see if mommy or the others knew anything different. The guard man always answered the door. The things they said were always the same, no one knew anything more.” What the old man could not express, could not describe was the growing dread. The fighter jets no long screamed through the sky, tanks now were gone from the streets, having carried their fight outside of the city. The silence somehow worse than the sounds of battle.
“The next day, mommy and the rest of us walked down the stairs hoping to find something to eat. It was a long, long way down to the street.” The children could somehow sense by the tone of the old man's voice that something ominous was coming next. Just what, they could not say, but a growing feeling of dread began to fill each and every one of them. “There were many other people there, men and women, old and young, all colors and shapes. There were so many people and they all asking questions of the poor man behind the desk. But he didn't know anything that they didn't know. Mommy held my hand very tightly.” The old man held one hand in the other and shook them to show just how tight his mother's grip was.
The old man seem to look off into the distance as he continued, “Then outside there was a commotion, and everyone in the hotel turned to look out the glass front. There were people were running in one direction, running in panic. Everyone went to look out the big doors of the hotel. Then we heard the guns. Many guns. All the people were running from them I thought.”
The children looked confused, this story didn't seem to make sense to them Some of them were uncomfortable with the old man's expression. It made them squirm in their seats. “The guard man stepped out onto the side walk and Mommy took one hand and Miss Tina took the other and they pulled me along behind them. “Brent, where did we leave the car?” Miss Tina asked. “In the garage, top floor” he said. “Can you bring it down to us?” He didn't answer right away, but with his eyes wide watching the throng run towards them, the gun fire growing louder and louder in the distance, he finally nodded and said “I'll try.” The Guard man moved slowly along the sidewalk.
“Come on over here Miss Tina said and she pulled us over against the wall so the crowd would not crush us. The crowd just grew larger and larger. They grew more and more frantic and the gunfire grew louder and louder. We could here lots of rifles and some smaller bangs from hand guns and then we could here the rapid fire of machine guns.” In his mind's eye he could see the panic, the fear in the faces of the people. He remembered a woman, carrying a baby, she was running and then she fell. He watched her as she tried to stand, but holding the baby in one arm and the constant press of the people made it impossible. She fell again and there was a scream and a cry from the baby but the crowd did not seem to hear, or see, or care. A moment later the woman's voice was gone. Only he kept watch where she had fell. Only he knew where the woman had died. This he did not share with the children. This like so many other things were his to bear, no one else would be so burdened.
“The crowd began to thin, and in the distance we could see soldiers firing in the distance, backing towards us. There was a big armored thing, not sure exactly what it was, but it was big and there were machine guns firing from the top of it.” He held both hands up and shook them as if he were firing a machine gun. The children oo'd and ah'd in response. Several of them doing it as well, trying to imagine what it would feel like to fire such a weapon. “There were only a few people standing around by then, we watched as the soldiers continued to back up towards us. Every once in a while there was an explosion as one of them threw a grenade at their enemy. There were two soldier men carrying a stretcher, there was another soldier laying on it.” The old man could see that as well, indelibly burned into memory. The wounded man turning and looking at the boy, pain and fear evident. His green cami's black with blood, his right arm torn from the socket. His face was pale, a greenish tint around his sunken eyes. The soldier locked eyes with the boy's and mouthed “run”. The old man/boy panicked.
“A few minutes later the guard man came back, he said that their was a wreck and he couldn't get the car out. Mommy said that we should go and we started down the street. No one even mentioned our things up in the room. But the soldiers were backing up faster than we were moving. Faster and faster we ran and finally the soldiers were running too and the gunfire trailed into just one's and two's, then to nothing.” The old man looked up at his charges, they weren't ready, they never were, but they would never be. So he swallowed hard and steeled himself and he told the truth.
He kept looking straight ahead, not looking at the children, not looking at anyone. His voice flat, emotionless. Making his statement all the more horrible to the children around him. “That's when we saw them, Mommy, Tina, the guard man and me, for the first time we saw them. The dead.”
Chapter 2, Birth of the Deadtime.
“Mommy screamed and snatched me up in her arms.” The long ago boy had an image of the other woman and her baby flash through his mind. “Miss Tina took Mommy's hand and ran with us. The guard man ran ahead of us, we all kept looking back over our shoulders. We saw the dead running fast and they were grabbing the soldiers, we heard them scream.” Again the old man self edited and left out everything but the most basic truth. He omitted the sounds, the tearing of flesh and breaking of bones. The screams and whimpers of the soldiers and civilians caught by the dead. The sight and smell of people voiding their bladders in fear, their bowels in death. These things he kept to himself. What he had to share was bad enough.
The old man attention was caught by the murmurs of the children:
“I thought the dead were slow?”
“They wouldn't catch me!”
“What about the warriors and their guns?”
“SOLDIERS, not warriors.”
“They are slow, I don't know what teacher is saying.”
The old man waited a moment before going on. “The dead you have seen ARE slow, they can barely move. But back then at the birth of the Deadtime, they were fast. Very fast. As fast as any person and they were not afraid and they never got tired.” He had to raise his hand to quiet them as the children began to be frightened by this story, one or two began to sniffle. They didn't like to imagine fast dead, the one's they had seen were awful enough.