/ Language: English / Genre:sf_postapocalyptic, / Series: Dead Earth

The Green Dawn

Mark Justice


Mark Justice,David T. Wilbanks

The Green Dawn

1

September 1, 2048

The sky wasn’t supposed to be green.

Jubal Slate may have been a small town guy but he wasn’t a dumb hick. He was educated, for God’s sake-two years at New Mexico State University up in Las Cruces. Of course, his?eld of study was law enforcement, not science, but he had watched enough New Mexico sunrises in his twenty-two years to know that their breathtaking displays of colors never included green before, unless maybe a bad storm was imminent.

He stood next to his cruiser at the edge of Serenity by the empty boot plant and stared at the sky with growing apprehension.

The sunrise wasn’t completely green. The color didn’t even dominate. Jubal saw the familiar red and orange, even purple, the way the sun had risen-and set-his entire life. But there was a plentiful helping of green there, too, and that’s what was worrying him.

That, along with whatever had happened two weeks ago in Las Vegas.

The worry had wormed its way into his dreams and forced him out of bed far earlier than he would have liked. Images of a tall?gure, dressed in crimson, haunted him upon waking, but now the dream’s events had faded from his memory like the morning fog seared away by the sun. With the sheriff down, Jubal had more than enough on his plate. Sleepless nights wouldn’t help him deal with the work. But Jubal had never been one to wallow in self-pity. Once he was sure sleep had eluded him for the night, he had showered, dressed and gone to work.

He had left the house as quietly as he could, hoping that he hadn’t woken his mother. It wasn’t likely. She had been down with something for a couple of days, just like Damon, and had been sleeping heavily.

It was a little disorienting having the two authority?gures in his life out of commission at the same time. Though Jubal would be married soon and, hopefully, have a family of his own, he felt strangely adrift, as though the world was changing and he was being carried along like an insect buffeted by a strong wind, helpless, without choice.

All he knew for sure was that something nasty had happened in the Nevada desert and no one-the feds, the white house, the military-was talking about it. There was lots of speculation on the news and in town, but that’s all it was: speculation.

He shook his head and chuckled.

Silly, dark thoughts. His mom had always accused him of having too much imagination. “And I sure don’t know where you get it from, Jubal Slate,” she’d say, “because it doesn’t come from either side of this family.”

Jubal climbed back into the cruiser and started the old combustion engine.

He longed for one of the sleek new models with the large solar-powered motors. The city cops had them in Santa Fe and they were very popular on the TV cops shows. But not in Serenity. The county commission had twice turned down Sheriff Ortega’s request for upgrades, deeming them unnecessary expenditures. Jubal could see their point. Maybe it wasn’t necessary in a?yspeck on the map like Serenity.

But it sure would be cool.

Jubal chuckled again, his voice sounding loud in the emptiness of early morning. He took a sip from his coffee and turned the cruiser around. He had a pile of work waiting for him at the of?ce and he aimed to put a dent in it before lunchtime.

How could a sheriff’s department in a county where nothing happened produce so much goddamned paperwork?

That’s what Jubal wanted to know as he stood up from the old chair with the broken leg and tried to ease the knot of pain from his back.

Of course, if his mother or the sheriff were here, they would remind him that Serenity wasn’t always so uneventful. He didn’t need the reminder. If he wanted to recall how things in a small town could go horribly wrong very quickly he just had to walk over to the cemetery behind the Baptist church and stare at his father’s headstone.

He frowned at the forms scattered across the desk: payroll, delinquent property tax records (since the primary duty of the sheriff’s of?ce was still to collect the county’s taxes-a job Jubal loathed with a passion), subpoenas to serve, a passel of documents from the state requesting veri?cation of of?cer training and continuing education requirements.

Jubal swept the last of these into the trash.

Screw the state. If they wanted to send someone down here to check on him, he’d welcome the company. Denny and Rafe, the other two deputies, both called in sick today, as did Nora, the of?ce’s dispatcher-cum-receptionist.

On top of everything else, the air conditioning in the old concrete building had gone out overnight. Jubal pulled his sweat-drenched shirt away from his back and decided to head to lunch.

He locked the of?ce and stepped outside, where it seemed ten degrees cooler than inside the of?ce.

It was nearly 11 o’clock. He could get a bite to eat at Conchita’s, then take lunch to his mother and Damon.

Later, if the day were still as quiet as it had begun, he would slip over to the Rite-Aid and?irt with the cute pharmacist. He was pretty sure she’d?irt back.

He drove to Conchita’s, mostly so he could feel the air conditioning against his face. He would also need the cruiser for his lunch deliveries.

Conchita’s Grill was half full. It was usually packed during the morning and early afternoon. In addition to being the only restaurant in the city limits proper, it was Serenity’s best source of news and gossip. Since the credit card collection center closed down four years ago most of the town’s residents had little more to do than hang out downtown or stay home and drink. Jubal knew all the people in the restaurant and he imagined they did both. When the lunch crowd thinned out, he could picture the aging population of Serenity heading back to their modest homes and trailers, turning on the AC and the TV and opening a bottle.

Several of the patrons greeted him by name. He took a seat at the counter.

“What’ll it be, Jube?” Patty Felder ran the diner. Jubal?gured there must have been an actual Conchita long ago, but for as long as he could remember the place had belonged to Patty.

She was a large woman with short steel-gray hair and a body like a block of wood. She wore her regular uniform of jeans and a man’s white t-shirt. Her right sleeve was rolled up to display a faded tattoo of Elvis Presley’s face.

“What’s the special?”

“It’s Wednesday, boy. What do I always have on Wednesday?”

“Lobster and Roasted Red Pepper Salad?”

Someone once told Jubal that Patty had a laugh that sounded like a chainsaw stuck in a redwood. He decided that was an understatement. She bellowed out that painful noise, then slapped Jubal’s arm. “You always crack me up, Jube. You always have.” She wiped a dish cloth across her eyes. “So you want the roast beef and mashed potatoes?”

“Yeah. And two to go.”

“Your ma?”

“And the sheriff.”

Patty nodded. She pushed through the swinging door to the kitchen area.

Jubal felt comfortable here. When his dad was sheriff, Jubal’s mother would sometimes allow him to ride his bike downtown to the station. Then he and his dad would walk to the diner and sit at the counter. Little Jubal would beam with pride as everyone came up to his father to greet the big man and thank him for some small service he’d performed.

At his father’s funeral, no one had cried longer or louder than Patty.

She was back in a minute with his plate. It smelled wonderful and his stomach growled in response. It may have been the only restaurant downtown, but the food was always good and Patty never gouged you on the price.

“I’ll keep the other two dinners warm until you’re ready to go,” she said.

“Thanks. Hey, where is everybody?”

Patty shrugged. “The?u or whatever it is. Half the town’s got it.”

He nodded as he used his fork to cut a chunk off the roast beef and the toast beneath it. He dragged it through the mashed potatoes and gravy before putting it in his mouth. He enjoyed the experience for a moment before he noticed Patty staring.

“What?” he mumbled.

“Have you heard anything about…you know?” Patty nodded her head in the approximate direction of Nevada.

Jubal shook his head. There was nothing he could do about Nevada, even though it worried him. For now, his boss, mother and half the town falling ill was his top priority. Besides, the Vegas incident was probably some sort of military mishap, even though the President himself put the blame on terrorists, but then he always did. If the powers-that-be wanted to keep it quiet, there was nothing little ol’ deputy Jubal Slate could do about it. The government, even the county government-his employers-always liked to keep their little secrets.

“I heard you can’t call anywhere up there,” a voice said from down counter.

It was Pops Perez who had spoken, the oldest citizen of Serenity, who always had time to share his opinion with whomever would listen. Today, he wore his fancy straw hat just as he had every day for as long as Jubal could remember. He never removed it: not to eat, not for anything-not that anyone in the diner would care; the town had grown used to his eccentricities. Nothing ever changed with Pops, and that went for his carefully groomed white moustache too; he was a dapper little man and a town?xture who everyone loved and watched out for, just as he had watched out for them when they were children.

Jubal recalled Pops handing out quarters to the kids when Jubal was a boy. Whenever he’d see the old man, he’d run up to him, knowing a shiny quarter would be his reward for a friendly chat. Not that he minded chatting with him; he was a funny guy who knew a lot of jokes, tricks and stories.

Jubal wondered what the old man handed out to the kids these days. Five-dollar bills?

“You mean to the military?” Patty said.

“No, not only the military. I’m talking anywhere in Nevada,” Pops said, lighting one of his thin brown cigars. Hardly anyone smoked these days, but that didn’t stop Pops Perez from lighting up. He was the only person Patty would allow to smoke in her diner.

Jubal had a college buddy who lived up near Vegas, in Pahrump. He made a mental note to call him later. Pops’s statement could be accurate or it could be another of his wild stories. Like the time he’d said a UFO landed in his back yard and he’d spent the whole night teaching the skinny little aliens how to play poker; it seems that aliens love betting games. So sayeth Pops Perez.

“I don’t know no one up that way anyhow,” Patty said, wiping down the counter. “Maybe whatever happened up there-some explosion or something-knocked the phones out of commission.”

Pops picked up his cup of coffee, and a saucer he used as an ashtray, and moved closer to Patty and Jubal. He sat on the stool two down from the deputy.

“Did you see the sky this morning?” the old man said.

“What’s the matter with the sky?” Patty said, her eyes widening.

“It was the wrong color.”

Patty looked toward the front window, that funny look still on her face. Jubal knew she could only see the dry cleaner and hardware stores across the street from her vantage point. And even if she could see the sky, the green had faded…for now. Jubal hoped he’d never see it again.

“Now don’t get Patty all riled up. That could be pollution making the sky green,” Jubal said through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

The smile on Pops’s face told Jubal the old man knew he was full of shit.

“Pollution? When was the last time you saw the sky green, my boy?”

Jubal chewed his potatoes for a while, as if taking time to contemplate the question. “Never, but there’s always a?rst time…”

“‘Never’ is correct. We are out in the middle of nowhere here. In all my years living in Serenity, I have never seen a green sky. But today at dawn? Today was very different, si?”

Jubal shrugged.

Patty had moved her bulk from behind the counter and was at the front window now, looking at the sky with her mouth open. A couple of the diner’s patrons did the same. They swiveled their heads back and forth, looking for green.

“See what you did, Pops?”

The old man smiled at Jubal, but the smile did not reach above his cheekbones. The deputy could not bear the emotion caught in Pops’s dark, brown eyes. He looked away. Jubal had never seen fear in Pops’s eyes before, but a trace of it was there now.

“I don’t see no damn green in the sky,” Patty said, walking back to the counter. “I think it’s another one of Pops’s crazy stories.”

“Sure,” Jubal said, standing up. “Pops is pulling a fast one on us.”

Pops swiveled his stool away from them, puf?ng on his cigar.

“So, Patty. How about those dinners for Damon and Ma?”

“Sure thing, hotshot. I’ll be right out with them.”

After Patty left, Pops swiveled his stool back to face Jubal.

“I also heard they’ve closed the roads into Nevada, Jubal,” the old man said in a tiny whisper of a voice that the deputy did not like one bit. Pops Perez scared? He couldn’t fathom it.

Jubal had heard that the roads into Nevada had been closed, but like any rumors these past few days, he couldn’t get con?rmation. The newspapers only guessed at things and so did the talking heads on TV. Everything seemed to be going to shit all at once, but Jubal refused to let it frustrate him. Sheriff Damon Ortega wouldn’t get his feathers ruf?ed in a situation like this, so neither would Jubal. He’d take things a step at a time.

He leaned on the counter, his head close to the old man’s.

“Listen, Pops. Everyone in Serenity is under a lot of stress right now due to the weird rumors?ying around. On top of that, everyone’s getting sick, and poor Doc Mitchell has his hands full trying to keep up. What would really help me would be if you could keep these wild speculations to yourself for a while. Just until everything settles down a bit, which I’m sure will be any time now. Can you do that for me?”

“Wild speculations? So you are saying the sky was not green this morning?”

“No. You and me know it was, but there’s no sense in working folks up about it. Not until we determine there’s a real reason to inform everyone.”

“Sure, Jubal, I’ll keep quiet. I’ll do that for you. I am sorry if I caused any problems.”

“No, you’re?ne. Just keep these things to yourself for now. And try to show a strong face; do it for the town. Do it for Serenity.”

“Okay, okay. It’s no problem for me.”

Jubal laid his hand on Pops’s back. “Good man.”

“Here’s your grub,” Patty called, bursting from between the swinging doors. “Now you tell your mama and the sheriff to get well real soon and that I’ll be keeping them in my prayers.”

Jubal took the dinners from her and winked at Pops. The old man puffed on his cigar, a sad, worried look on his face.

“I’ll tell ’em, Patty.”

Jubal stood outside Conchita’s with the Styrofoam-encased meals cradled in his hands. He looked at the sky, relieved to see endless blue surrounding the blazing sun. There was nothing as beautiful as a New Mexican sky, and he’d hate to see anything ruin it.

“This will all blow over,” he said aloud, then abruptly shut up. He’d been talking to himself a lot this past week, not that there was anyone around to hear him. They were all in bed, waiting for Doc Mitchell to pay a visit. But from what the doc had told Jubal, he wasn’t having much luck determining what ailed everyone. Some sort of virus, he’d said, trying to keep a smile on his red, sweating face but failing miserably. There are lots of viruses going around, he’d said.

So, maybe the sickness would blow over soon, the sky would remain blue and everyone would go back to town business.

Or maybe not. Jubal wanted to be an optimist; they seemed like the happiest people. But with all that life had shown him, he?gured the closest he could get was to be a realist.

His father-the real guy, not the uniform with the shiny badge that most of Serenity looked up to; the man Jubal remembered as sometimes cranky, sometimes drunk and always, at least until that last day, somewhat careful-once told him that the world could go tits-up at any moment and all any man could do was be prepared. Danny Slate’s glass was always half empty. He would routinely stave off his pessimism through charitable acts, while secretly suspecting that mankind’s innate badness would someday be the ruin of everything.

Forcing a smile, Jubal tried to be cheerier.

As he drove the mile to his mother’s house, he turned the cruiser’s radio to a classical station; the music always soothed Jubal. He needed a break from the news about the aggressive talk from the new China-Russia Consortium and the endless speculation about Nevada. Somehow, the knowledge that all of the classical composers and many of the musicians he was listening to were long dead calmed him, gave him hope that something good could survive what increasingly looked like bad times.

He turned into his mother’s driveway and found the house exactly as he had left it that morning. The porch light was on and the curtains were drawn.

A fresh knot of anxiety bloomed in his stomach as he rushed up the steps, but when he stepped into the living room he found his mother on the couch watching TV.

She slowly lifted her head and gave him a faint smile.

“I brought you some lunch, Ma.”

“Just put it on the table. I’ll feel like eating later.”

She looked worse than she had the night before. Her skin was pale and the circles under her eyes were the color of day-old bruises. Strands of white hair stood out in sharp relief to her original, lustrous black. Surely the white hadn’t appeared overnight; he must have missed it before. She wore a frayed housecoat and was covered to the waist by a thick comforter adorned with Navajo artwork. She’d had it since Jubal was a child.

“Ma, have you had anything to eat today?”

“I had that soup you?xed me.”

“That was last night.”

“And it was good.” She smiled to let him know she was playing with him. She sat up, sighing with the effort. “Hand it over, Tex. And get me a fork.”

Jubal hurried into the kitchen to fetch silverware and napkins.

“Want some water, Ma? Or juice?” he hollered.

“Just coffee. I made some this morning.”

He poured her a cup, added a little cream, then returned to the living room. His mother had opened the Styrofoam box and was staring warily at the contents.

“I guess it’s Wednesday, huh?”

“Eat some of it. Please.” He handed her the fork and napkins. He set the coffee on the end table.

She ate a forkful, chewing slowly. She looked ten years older than she normally did and it broke his heart. His mother was always so active, so vital, volunteering at the church’s day care, and at the Red Cross. Now he could see the deep lines etched into that kind face, and she looked as though she’d lost 20 pounds in the past week. He could not remember her having an illness more serious than a slight cold.

He sat on the couch next to her. She had been watching a disc of one of his father’s favorite shows: an old Western called Gunsmoke. Dad had loved it as a child and had tried many times to get his wife interested in it. It wasn’t until after his death that she watched it, and now hardly a day passed without a viewing.

They sat silently, his mother chewing as they both watched Miss Kitty pine for Marshall Dillon.

Finally, Jubal said, “Ma, I’m calling Doc Mitchell.”

She swallowed, then set the Styrofoam box on the coffee table. She picked up the coffee from the end table and took a drink. “No, you won’t. This is just a little bug. I’ll be?ne in a day or two.”

“Ma, it’s all over town, like some kind of epidemic. I’m calling Doc.”

She waved the suggestion away. “Just sit a bit and tell me what’s going on.”

Jubal shrugged. “Same old stuff. The diner was only half full, ’cause of the virus.”

“Is Damon still sick?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m going over there next.”

She patted his arm. “And how is Fiona? She’s not sick, too, I hope.”

“No, she’s?ne.”

“Well when you stop by that drug store, you tell my future daughter-in-law that I need something to kill this bug, okay?”

“Sure, Ma.” Speaking of his?ancee made him feel a little better. And maybe Fiona would have a suggestion that might ease his mother’s symptoms.

“And what about this thing up in the desert? Anything new?”

Jubal shrugged again, just as he had always done when talking with his mother. He was aware of it, but helpless to do anything about it. “Nothing but gossip.”

“They say it’s terrorists, though nobody’s taking any credit for it. That right there is enough to make me suspicious.”

Jubal rolled his eyes. Here we go.

“I was just a girl when they hit us the?rst time.”

“I know, Ma.”

“And I never forgot the sight of those people jumping from that burning tower, knowing they were going to die, just wanting another second or two of life. I never forgot it.”

Jubal patted her hand. “I know.”

He expected her to be at least a little teary-eyed, as she usually was when she told the story. Yet when she turned to face him, he could see anger there. “That’s why it’s sacrilege to lie about a terrorist attack. It’s bullshit, Jubal. The army or the CIA has screwed the pooch again and the bastards are covering it up.” She pointed at the remainder of her lunch. She had eaten maybe a fourth of it. “Now put that away and let me nap. Then go see about that fat old sheriff.”

Jubal put the rest of her lunch in the refrigerator before he went to his room and shut the door. He called Doc Mitchell’s of?ce and left word with Rosario, Doc’s long-time secretary, that Jubal would appreciate it if Doc could drop by the house to check on his mother.

There were advantages to living in a small town.

Jubal opened a drawer and withdrew a small notebook. He?ipped through several pages before he found the name he was looking for.

Luke Dressen had been one of Jubal’s best friends at NMSU. Luke had kidded Jubal constantly about his plan to return to Serenity to work. As far as Luke was concerned, big cities were where the excitement was, and he planned to join the FBI in one of their major?eld of?ces. Jubal would never forget Luke’s aw-shucks grin on graduation day when his friend had said he had accepted a job with the Pahrump Police Department back in his hometown.

Jubal punched in Luke Dressen’s number. They hadn’t spoken for nine months or so, but still kept in touch via email. In fact, Jubal had received a packet of Luke’s patented so-bad-they’ll-make-you-groan jokes three weeks ago.

Instead of a ring, Jubal heard a?at metallic voice informing him that all lines were unavailable until further notice. The announcement was followed by a fast busy signal.

He hung up and thought about what Pops had said at the diner. Were the roads into Nevada really blocked by military vehicles? Jubal had a suspicion that he might have to call a friend on the state cop force and ask a few questions.

But that would have to wait.

He returned to the living room and found his mother dozing, while on the screen Festus was trying to explain to Matt that he wasn’t sleeping; he was just resting his eyes. Jubal pulled the comforter up to his mother’s shoulders. He heard her murmuring, the words too faint to understand. She must have been dreaming, and for some reason he could not understand, this disturbed him.

He turned off the TV, locked the door and went to his cruiser.

Beethoven’s third symphony, the “Eroica,” played on the cruiser’s radio. As he pulled out of the driveway, Jubal began whistling along with the second movement-until he realized it was the funeral march portion of the symphony. He abruptly stopped whistling, but left the radio on anyway; you didn’t shut off Beethoven.

A sharp static burst interrupted the music for a moment, but then the signal cleared again.

Sheriff Damon Ortega lived clear across town from Jubal’s mother, which wasn’t actually that great a distance in a town the size of Serenity. But Jubal took Lone Peak Road instead of Main Street. Lone Peak was a dirt road which ran parallel to the town on its east side; Jubal admitted to himself that he was taking it so he wouldn’t have to drive through the middle of town again. He was avoiding the business district although he knew it was his job to patrol up and down the main thoroughfare, but all those near-empty sidewalks made him nervous. Besides, Lone Peak would take him out to Damon’s a lot quicker.

The conditioned air in the car felt good, and out here, amid the wide-open sun-drenched desert beyond the town’s edge, he could almost imagine that things were just?ne.

Jubal turned up the radio and pressed down on the accelerator.

In a short while, the deputy pulled up in front of a silver-paneled house built into the side of a small hill. Parked in the dirt yard in front of the house was a shiny, black Dodge Beamrider truck: Damon’s pride and joy. Hell, the solar-powered vehicle, which Damon washed every day religiously, probably cost more than the solar-powered house the sheriff was so proud of.

Jubal turned off the radio with some reluctance; he did not want to face the silence. Usually he didn’t mind the quiet; in fact he cherished his quiet times. But today, he felt down and lonesome and he knew the silence would only intensify these feelings.

A mourning dove cooed its particular song as Jubal rang the doorbell.

No one answered, so he jammed his thumb against the button again.

The door swung open.

“Okay, okay,” said the large shadowy shape inside the door’s frame. “Don’t break the damn thing. C’mon in.”

Jubal removed his sunglasses and entered the house.

“Man, it’s dark in here. You’d think a fancy all-solar house would be lit up like…the sun,” Jubal said.

“I need it dark in here. Me and the sun aren’t getting along too well just now; it aggravates my symptoms.” As if on cue, Damon barked a lung-rattling cough.

Jubal winced. “That sure doesn’t sound good, Damon.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

The old guy sounded weary and rundown.

“So, what did you bring me?” Damon said.

Jubal’s eyes adjusted to the dim light. He could now see the sheriff dressed in a red and white striped bathrobe. His unkempt graying hair was a nimbus around his square head and dark bags hung beneath his watery eyes.

“This is something Patty made for you, Damon. I think if you eat it, it will make you feel better.”

“If it’s Wednesday, it must be roast beef.”

“Damn, that’s pretty good, chief; Ma did the same thing. I can never remember what food they’re having on which day at Conchita’s.”

“Well, you should try to remember. How are you going to become sheriff someday if you can’t remember details?”

Jubal nodded sheepishly.

“Now let’s sit down in the living room before I fall over and you have to pick my fat ass up off the carpet.”

Damon dropped onto the wide sofa. The coffee table in front of him was covered with Kleenex boxes and used tissues.

Jubal set the carton on the table in front of Damon. “I’m going to get you a fork, chief.”

“Nah. Not right now; I can do that later. Sit. Sit.”

Jubal sank into the indicated leather chair; it was very comfortable. Damon sure had some nice things. Not bad for a small town sheriff. He must certainly know how to invest his money.

“Don’t tell me you came all this way just because I had the snif?es? You and the other boys have a town to patrol.”

The other “boys” called in sick too. But Jubal wasn’t ready to tell Damon that yet.

“I brought my ma some lunch, so I thought I’d swing by and drop some off for you too.”

“Thanks, son. How is your mother by the way?” Damon said.

“Same as you. Really down with some bug. Did the doc make it out here yet?”

Damon shook his head and whooped out a cough that made Jubal cringe. The older man grabbed a handful of tissues and rubbed them against his forehead.

“I don’t need a doctor; I’ve had worse than this,” Damon said. “God, is it hot in here?”

“Do you want me to turn up the air conditioner?”

Damon sat still and didn’t respond for a while, then: “I hope Rafe and Denny aren’t out delivering meals on wheels too. Crap, who’s watching the town?”

“Well…”

“C’mon. What is it?”

“Rafe and Denny called in sick this morning too.”

“What the-? Nora?” Nora was the dispatcher-slash-receptionist.

Jubal shook his head, staring down at his hands, where they wrung in his lap.

“First, my kids. Now this.”

Jubal’s head came up. “What’s wrong with your kids, chief?”

“Oh, nothing I know of, but I can’t call them for some reason. The satphones seem to be down, and my old cell phone doesn’t work worth shit.”

Jubal noted the despondent tone creeping into his boss’s voice. And like the fear he’d seen in Pops’s eyes earlier, it worried him. The sheriff, his greatest hero after his own father, should not sound like this. Jubal sat up straighter in his chair.

“Listen, chief. I have everything under control. I feel?t and so do Fiona and Patty down at Conchita’s. And I saw Pops Perez at lunch, and he looks strong as ever. There’s no beating that old guy, is there?”

Damon said nothing, his head hung low, and Jubal began to think he had fallen asleep. Then the sheriff coughed again.

“Jubal, I think I need to rest a little. If you see Doc Mitchell, be sure he takes care of everyone in town before he comes out here. You hear me?”

“Sure, but Serenity needs you on your feet…”

“Shit, boy. You know that little sweetheart of a town pretty much runs itself. Everything will be?ne; don’t worry.”

“Sure it will, chief. I’ll take care of everything.”

Damon was silent again.

“Chief?”

The sheriff began snoring.

Jubal stood and watched the man for a moment. He had a lot of love for Damon. The man had been his father’s best friend and one of his most loyal deputies. When Sam Heironimous had robbed that bank in El Paso, he thought Serenity would be a nice, safe place to hide out. He hadn’t counted on a small town having real law enforcement. But Sheriff Danny Slate had been following the news and recognized Heironimous’s truck the instant it turned down the lake road. Jubal’s father had been heading down there with Damon to drown a few worms. When he spotted the truck, the sheriff had pulled his old. 45 from the console and asked old Damon to call it in.

If Heironimous, that dumbass, recidivist lowlife, had just kept the scattergun inside the car, he would still be alive.

And so would Jubal’s dad.

Sometimes it was hard for Jubal to look at Damon without remembering the big man coming to the house to deliver the bad news. He’d always had a big, round baby face and that morning it was so contorted with grief that Jubal and his mother immediately knew what he was going to say.

In the ten years since, Damon Ortega had done everything he could to be there for Jubal and his mom. While Damon could never replace his father-at home or on the job-Jubal appreciated the effort and he knew most of Serenity did too.

Jubal quietly closed the door. It seemed he’d spent most of his day trying not to wake people.

He started the cruiser, cranked the AC and turned the radio down. He satphoned the NMSP District Three Post in Roswell, and he recognized the dispatcher who answered.

“Dooley? Jubal. How you doing?”

“It’s hotter than the ass end of a bitch in heat, son. Other than that, I’m tolerable. You?”

“I’m okay. ’Bout the only one in town, though.”

“Y’all got the bug, too, huh?”

“Yeah. Don’t tell me it’s spread to Roswell?”

“Hell, Jubal, half the post is out. They’re so desperate they’re talkin’ about givin’ me a gun.”

Jubal laughed. “Remind me to stay here.”

“I talked to Larry Jeffers at the Albuquerque post this morning. They got it bad up there.”

“I feel their pain,” Jubal said. “Everybody in the of?ce is out today except me.”

“No shit?”

“Nope. That’s why I’m calling. I’ve got to run some errands and we don’t have a dispatcher, so-”

“Sure, ol’ buddy. If I hear anything, I’ll ring you. Still got the same cell number?”

“Yep. I appreciate it, Dooley.”

On the other end of the line, Jubal heard a series of loud coughs.

“Dooley? You okay? They didn’t give you that gun already…”

“Funny,” Dooley said, then coughed again. “It’s my allergies or somethin’. Anyway, go take care of your, uh, errands.”

“Something you want to say?”

“Naw. I just heard y’all got real good service down there at your Rite-Aid.”

“Dooley?”

“Yeah?

“Bite my bag.”

Dooley laughed until he started to cough again. Jubal punched the END button on the satphone.

The Rite-Aid did have good service; they just weren’t very busy today.

Jubal walked past the greeting cards, magazines, laxatives and sinus medicines until he reached the pharmacy. A tall woman in a white lab coat and jeans was sprawled in one of the customer chairs in front of the counter, a paperback book in her hands. On the cover a shirtless man with long blonde hair and large arms was embracing a woman in an old fashioned low cut gown.

“Hey,” he said, “I heard that crap gives you an unrealistic expectation about romance.”

Without looking up from the book, the woman said, “I tried to?nd one about a short deputy who falls in love with the most beautiful pharmacist in the state, but they were all out.”

“I’m not short. You’re just freakishly tall.”

She stood up with the grace of a ballerina. A very tall ballerina. She was an inch taller than Jubal, so she didn’t really have to bend down to kiss him. She just liked the effect.

For a brief moment, all of Jubal’s worries vanished. She tasted like honey and peppermint and he felt the same way he always did when they touched: like nothing could ever harm them.

Jubal had known Fiona Huerta his whole life. She had been the next-door neighbor who had picked on him when they were kids. An unapologetic tomboy, Fiona could run faster, jump higher and throw farther than any boy in the neighborhood. After he stopped hating her, he was in love with her.

Fiona’s parents had been best friends with his folks. Her father had come from Torreon; her mother was a native of New England. From grade school on, Fiona enjoyed introducing herself as New Mexico’s only Mick Spic.

They were in high school before she showed any interest in him, but after she?nally said yes to one of his constant date invitations, they had been inseparable.

When she left for UNM in Albuquerque, he didn’t sleep for a week, worried that she would?nd someone else.

He shouldn’t have worried. They stayed in touch by phone and email nearly every day. Every couple of weeks he would borrow his roommate’s car and drive up to Albuquerque or she would come to Las Cruces.

In their sophomore year, he had picked her up and driven her back to Serenity after her parents died in a house?re.

During spring break of their junior year, he proposed. She accepted on spring break of their senior year.

Fiona always had to do things her own way. That was okay. He was content to wait. There had never been anyone else for Jubal and there never would be. She was simply the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and she was his other half.

“You’ve got that warm and fuzzy look again, Jube. You’re not going to say something sappy, are you?”

“Your ass looks great in those jeans.”

“You can’t see my ass.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You have a superior posterior.”

She rolled her eyes. “I think I would rather hear the sappy stuff.”

“For a town where everybody’s sick, you’d think this place would be hopping.”

“It has been all week,” Fiona said. “Until today.”

“Maybe they’re all getting better.”

“Have you seen anybody who’s better?”

“Good point.” Jubal picked up a package of cough drops from a rack by the counter. He thought of Dooley and his nasty hack.

“Speaking of that, how’s your mom?”

Jubal sighed. He sat down next to her in one of the customer chairs and leaned his head against the counter.

“Is she worse?”

Jubal nodded. “Damon, too.” He pointed at the shelves full of bottles behind the counter. “Ma wants to know if you have any miracle drugs back there.”

She sat next to him, taking one of his hands in hers. “I wish. This is one nasty bug. I had an alert this morning from the state department of health. This is the worst outbreak of…whatever it is…in thirty years.”

“So I guess that’s a no.”

Fiona smiled at him, and Jubal suddenly found it hard to concentrate.

“Make sure she stays hydrated. Give her something for the fever. Get her to eat a little.” She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I’m sorry, babe. That’s all I can do.”

“As long as she’s feeling good by the wedding,” Jubal said. “So she’s got four weeks to whip this thing.”

He expected her to laugh. Instead she muttered a sleepy “Mmm-hmm.”

“Am I keeping you up? It’s getting to be a specialty of mine.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Hey.” He used his free hand to gently shake her shoulder. “You’re not getting sick, right?”

Fiona sat up and rubbed her eyes. “I’m?ne. I just didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Hell, I hope you’re not getting this shit…”

“No, no. It was…bad dreams.”

Jubal didn’t think he had heard Fiona mention having nightmares before; she always seemed so upbeat and happy that he?gured her dreams consisted of?owers and bunnies.

“Want to tell me about them?”

Jubal didn’t like the way her complexion suddenly paled.

“It was so strange…yet so realistic. Whenever I’d wake up,?guring it was okay to drift back to sleep, I’d have the same exact dream again. That’s never happened before-ever. Finally I just gave up and got out of bed around four AM.”

Fiona’s grip tightened on Jubal’s hand.

“So,” Jubal said. “Do you want to tell me about it? My ma always says if you tell someone your nightmares, they’ll go away.”

“It was so weird. In the dream…the air all around is smoky. ”

“Smoky?”

She nodded. “And yellow.”

“Holy shit.”

“What?”

“…Nothing…go on.”

“In the distance,?gures move toward me across a barren plain. For the most part, they appear to be people, but they are people who seem to have problems walking; they sort of…shamble and shuf?e forward.”

The skin on Jubal’s neck tingled.

“Maybe you’re dreaming about all the sick people in town.”

“No…this is different. Anyway, among these people are stranger shapes, inhuman shapes. There are only a few, but they are nothing like I’ve ever seen before, even in my wildest imaginings. I guess they’re…monsters.”

Jubal chuckled. Maybe this dream wasn’t so prophetic after all. Monsters?

He stopped laughing when he saw the hurt in Fiona’s eyes.

“It was very realistic, Jubal Slate.”

Jubal felt like a heel.

“I’m sorry. Really. Go on.”

“The most terrifying part of the dream-the part that always scared me awake-had to do with the?gure that walked out in front of this group. Like, he was the leader or something.”

Damn, there went Jubal’s hairs again, standing at attention. What was wrong with him? He wasn’t some little kid who was frightened by ghost stories.

The silence in the store seemed ominous now. Some part of Jubal wished Fiona would stop, but he said nothing to her.

“This guy was taller than the others, except for maybe one or two of the monsters. And as he moved closer, I could see he was dressed in red,?owing robes. And in his hand, he held some sort of weird walking staff, or something.”

Jubal watched the clear tan skin on Fiona’s arm suddenly break out in goose pimples.

“His head…well, he had a large helmet on his head that was disproportionate to his body. It was like one of those Aztec masks. And as he drew closer, I saw that he moved in an odd manner; it wasn’t noticeable at?rst compared to the way the others staggered and shambled about.”

“Then what happens?”

“Then he raises his staff above his head and makes some sort of shrieking sound, but I think it’s some sort of freaky language…”

“Then?”

“Its voice is so horrible that I wake up.”

Jubal put his arm around Fiona and patted her far shoulder. She laid her head on his shoulder.

“Damn, that’s some wild dreaming you’re doing there, Fee. It’s bad enough you had the nightmare once, but to have it all night long-maybe you are getting this?u or virus or whatever the hell it is.”

There was a jingle and a bang and then someone was running down the aisle of the store straight toward them.

Jubal recognized Billy Owens, a local teenager.

“Jubal! There’s something going on outside.”

Jubal bolted out of his chair and ran, nearly knocking Billy over in the process.

Down the street, at the western edge of town, a trail of dust plumed. A car. Judging from the sound it made: it was a solar. And it was moving fast into town.

Too fast.

Before Jubal could even leave the sidewalk, the car whizzed by down Main Street. Jubal watched it shriek into a sharp turn and pull into an abandoned car wash.

A thwooping sound, unnoticed until now, grew louder as a black helicopter?ew low above him, rattling his shirt and sending his hair into disarray. As it cleared town, it barely missed smashing into the billboard atop the auto shop across the street.

“What’s going on?” Billy said from behind him.

He looked back at Billy. Fiona and some other townspeople gathered on the sidewalk around him, watching the sky and the abandoned car wash.

Just as Jubal was about to respond, the solar car pulled out of the car wash and sped back down the street in the direction it had come from, racing past them at full speed.

Jubal started round his car to give chase.

Fiona called out, “Look!”

Someone was crawling, hand over hand, out of the car wash.

Jubal jogged down the sidewalk toward the crawler. The others followed close behind.

The person stopped moving. As Jubal approached, he saw something that made him halt in his tracks. He turned around toward the trailing crowd.

“Okay, everybody. Don’t move any closer; I want you to stay back. This is of?cial police business.”

Everyone stopped, some nearly running into the person in front of them. They all looked at him with blank faces. Some nodded their heads in response to his instructions. Others tried to look around him at the person on the ground.

“I mean it, now,” Jubal said, then turned away.

The Wet ’N’ Dry wash had been abandoned for a decade. Once the Amoco down the street had set up its own drive-through car wash, business had dwindled. Dry weeds surrounded it now and graf?ti covered its graying cement walls.

“Oh, my god.”

The woman on the ground had rolled onto her back. She whimpered through dry, parted lips. Her exposed skin-face and hands-was as gray as the car wash’s cement walls and covered with large, ugly blisters. She was so dis?gured, her face a swelling mass, that the only way Jubal knew it was a woman was from the large breasts beneath her buttoned shirt. As he watched, one of the blisters on her cheek popped-he could hear it pop-and yellowish pus splattered across the woman’s face.

“Jesus,” said someone from behind Jubal’s right shoulder. It was Fiona.

“I thought I told you…”

The woman on the ground mumbled something.

“What’d she say?” Fiona asked.

Jubal leaned his head closer.

“Dead army…” she hissed, then passed out.

Dead army?

Was it some sort of military accident that had caused this woman’s terrible dis?gurement?

But then, everything clicked into place and Jubal did not like the result: this woman, whoever she was, obviously had an extreme case of the sickness that was spreading throughout Serenity. He hoped to God his logic was inaccurate and that it was something else entirely-anything else.

Jubal felt faint.

“We have to get this woman over to the hospital in Carlsbad. Right away,” Fiona said.

Snapping out of his spiral of despair, Jubal said, “Okay, but get the hell away from her, Fiona. Now!”

Fiona looked shocked for a second at Jubal’s harsh outburst, but then moved away from the unconscious woman.

Jubal ran past the retreating Fiona, toward his patrol car. As he passed the small group of gawking townspeople, he shouted, “Stay away from that woman, godammit!”

He swung the car door open and plopped into the driver’s seat, banging his head on the roof of the car in the process.

“Fuck.”

Rubbing the pain in his forehead with one hand, he called up the state police on the radio beneath the dash. After several failed attempts, during what seemed like the longest minutes of his life, he?nally got someone. It wasn’t Dooley; the voice told him Dooley had gone home sick. Jubal explained the situation to the dispatcher.

“I’m sorry, deputy, but we’re short-handed beyond belief. Everyone seems to have the?u lately…”

“Well, what can you do for me? This woman doesn’t have long.”

“I’ll try patching you through to an ambulance service.”

Jubal stared out the windshield as the dispatcher put him through. The townspeople of Serenity stood about, staring at the woman on the ground. With gratitude, Jubal noticed that at least they were staying well away from the sick woman. He felt awful for having abandoned her there on the ground by herself, and wished there was some way he could help her. But he had to think of the people who were still healthy, too.

His radio crackled.

“Man, if you’re looking for ambulance service, you are fucked, buddy!”

Jubal punched the button.

“Who the hell is this?”

“Red-E Rescue Ambulance. And who in the name of the sweet baby Jesus might I be speaking at?” The young man, whoever he was, sounded drunk.

“This is the Mescalero County Sheriff’s Department. We got a real sick lady in Serenity and we need a transport now.”

The ambulance service dispatcher cackled. Jubal clenched his teeth so hard his jaws made a popping sound.

“What’s so goddamn funny?”

“Well, I’ll explain it to you, of?cer-”

“Deputy.”

“-so listen careful like, so I only have to talk to you once. See, even if I could get there, we would be faced with a whopper of a dilemma, which is to say, where the fuck would I fuckin’ take her?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I’m sayin’ is that there’s no room at the inn. The hospital at Carlsbad is full up. More than full. They’ve pitched tents on the lawn and they’re stackin’ ’em and rackin’ ’em. Now ain’t that some crazy shit? And the punch line to this particular joke is this: There ain’t nothin’ the docs can do. I haul ’em in so somebody in a white coat and a mask over their face can stand by with his thumb up the ol’ poop chute and watch ’em. It’s some ugly stuff, too. It starts out like the?u with a fever and maybe a cough. Then the circus really comes to town. The skin turns gray and they develop blisters on their faces.”

The dispatcher made a soft sound and Jubal pictured the man shivering. Despite the heat, he felt like shivering himself. He glanced at the woman on the ground.

“What about other hospitals?” he said.

“I guess I didn’t make myself clear. Carlsbad is havin’ a good day, compared to the rest of the state. It’s the end of the world, Deputy Fife. I suggest you drink up.”

The whole state? Jubal felt his lunch go sour in his belly.

“What about El Paso?”

“My cousin Randy drives an ambulance down that way. Let me just say this: you are fucked up the old tail pipe, podna.”

Texas, too? But how could Jubal looked at the hills that comprised the walls of the valley that Serenity sat within. Could the same natural structure that had often protected the area from seriously bad weather have slowed the progress of whatever this was?

He wasn’t a geologist or pathologist. For all the good he was doing the town, he wasn’t even much of a law of?cer at the moment.

He noticed movement all round him. The crowd that had gathered to gawk at the sick woman had inched closer to his cruiser. Jubal realized that they could hear the radio, could hear what the drunken ambulance dispatcher had been saying. He pulled the cruiser’s door closed. Within seconds the interior of the vehicle turned into a furnace. The keys were deep in his pants pocket. He’d have to climb out again and stand up to reach them, so he let it go, hoping the conversation would be over soon.

“What am I supposed to do?” he said, painfully aware of the desperate note in his voice. “This woman has the symptoms you described, only ten times worse. And I’ve got a town of sick people getting sicker.”

For a few seconds, Jubal heard nothing but static. Then the voice of the dispatcher returned and he sounded sober. “Buddy, let me tell you a story. A year ago, there’s this kid graduating high school. Not a genius, but not a dummy, either, right? So he knows a guy who knows a guy who gets him a dispatching job at an ambulance company. This kid wants to do more, though, so the boss-who’s not a total asshole-gets the kid some EMT classes and he gets the kid licensed to drive the bus, so the kid can go on runs and make some extra cash. Now the kid is close to getting certi?ed. See, the kid could never get into medical school, but doing this-man, it’s like bein’ on the front lines, you know? And when he has his ticket, he’ll get a big bump in pay; the boss has already told him that. Good thing, too, ’cause this kid got his girl knocked up and he-he’s gonna be a dad. Only…only she’s not answerin’ her phone today and I’ve got such a terrible fuckin’ feelin’-”

The voice was replaced by static. Jubal couldn’t move. Even with sweat freely pouring into his eyes and down his sides, he sat there in the heat, holding the mic and waiting for the next words to come through the speaker. He thought about Fiona and their plans together.

“You still there?” the dispatcher said.

“Yeah, man.”

The unknown man sniffed. “I’m gonna take off. I’m the only one who showed up today and I’ve been stickin’ around like a fool, even though there’s nothing I can do.” He paused to take in a deep breath. “If you believe in God, pray. If you got any Indians left down there, get ’em to do a blessing. I got a real bad feeling that this won’t have a happy ending. Good luck to you. I got some things I gotta do.”

“Wait,” Jubal said. “You still there?”

The rattle of static was the only thing that he heard.

Jubal wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his hand. It was a futile effort, since he was perspiring faster than he could clean it away.

He had a hand on the door handle, ready to step out, when the radio came to life.

“What is it, man? I really have to go.” The dispatcher now sounded very tired.

Jubal keyed the microphone. “Earlier you said ‘even if I could get there.’ What did you mean?”

The man sighed. “You been on the highway lately?”

“No.” Jubal had spent the past couple of days in town, not wanting to be too far from his mother or the of?ce. He hadn’t been on the county back roads.

“When you get a chance, you ought take a look. Head up toward Carlsbad, if you like. Now I’m sorry for your troubles and I’m sorry for the way I acted when I?rst talked to you. I was raised better than that. But I’ve been drinkin’ some. That’s not an excuse. I’m just tellin’ you how it is. I hope things work out for you, but I suspect they won’t.”

The voice was gone.

Jubal got out of the cruiser, thankful for the small breeze. The air smelled funny, though. It might have been his imagination, but the back of his throat burned and his sinuses felt raw. He thought about plague germs, manufactured in some secret government laboratory in Nevada, now drifting down to Serenity.

No. This was not the time for that kind of thinking.

“Blankets.”

It took Jubal a moment to realize that someone had spoken to him.

“Jubal, I need blankets.” Fiona was next to him. She looked calm but serious.

“Why do you need-”

“I don’t know what’s going on, but everybody saw you close the door, and I can see your face. I’ve known you a long time, Jubal Slate. It’s getting worse, isn’t it?”

He nodded.

“Okay.” She ran a hand over her mouth. Jubal had seen her father make the same gesture many times. “Okay. You can tell me later. Right now I want the blankets in your trunk.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s the sickest person I’ve ever seen and she’s laying on dusty blacktop while half the town-the half that isn’t sick-gets to stand around and watch. I have to do something.”

“Fiona, no. What she has, it’s catching.”

Fiona handed him a pair of surgical gloves. He saw that she wore a pair herself.

“We’re not the kind of people who stand around and watch. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

He swallowed. “I’m marrying one tough broad,” he said.

“You bet your ass. Now open your trunk.” She turned to the dozen or so people who were still milling around. “Taylor, Red. Get over here.”

Two middle-aged men shuf?ed over to Fiona.

Jubal dug the blankets out of the trunk. “We carrying her to the drug store?”

“And do what? Take her off the street and lay her on linoleum? Uh-uh. Put her on those blankets and put her in your car. We’ll take her to my house.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

She tossed him the box of surgical gloves and walked back to Rite-Aid.

“Here,” he said. He handed the box to Taylor and Red.

“Jubal, I got a bad back,” Red said.

“And she looks mighty bad,” Taylor said.

“Put on the gloves,” Jubal Slate said, “or as God is my witness, I’ll shoot your dicks off.” To press home his point, he rested his hand on his holster.

The two men slipped on the thin gloves in record time.

“The rest of you people, go about your business.”

They stared back at him; some with tears rolling down their cheeks.

“Are we all going to die, Jubal?” Billy said, barely able to get the words out through his constricted throat.

“What? No! We aren’t going to die. People get sick all the time, sometimes lots of them all at once. That doesn’t mean they’re going to die. Or that you’re going to get sick. Or you other people here.”

I just handed that boy a?ne line of major bullshit; I’m going to Hell now, for sure.

“Now everybody just…go about your business while we take care of this sick woman.”

No one moved.

Red and Taylor, standing next to the cruiser, held the woman stretched out between them. Red had her arms and Taylor had her legs. They looked at Jubal pleadingly for help with the door.

“C’mon! Let’s go.” Jubal clapped his hands at the milling people, who?nally walked away with many a backward glance at Jubal and the sick woman. Some of them looked extremely upset; some looked stunned.

“Jubal,” Red said, wincing.

Jubal sighed. “What is it?”

“One of this lady’s pimples popped all over my rubber glove.”

“Christ, hold on while I open the back door and lay the blankets out, then you guys can set her in the cruiser.”

With looks of disgust on their faces, the two men hurriedly positioned the woman in the back seat so that she sat straight up. Then Red and Taylor backed way-fast, holding their hands away from their bodies.

After being released, the woman toppled over onto the seat.

“Okay, you two sissies. Go ahead and take a breath now.”

“Are we?nished here, Jubal?” Taylor whined. “My wife is waiting for me at home, and I’d sure like to get these contaminated gloves off.”

“Yeah, you two get out of here.”

They both walked off at a brisk pace yet slowly enough so it didn’t appear they were running away.

Jubal slammed the back door of the cruiser as Fiona came out of the Rite-Aid.

“All closed up?”

“Yes,” she said, jingling her keys in the front door lock. “Meet me back at my place?”

“See you there.”

Jubal got into his cruiser and took off toward Fiona’s house-soon to be his own, too, after the wedding. She lived in a small tangle of a neighborhood on the south side of Serenity. Many of the town’s older citizens lived there, too-Pops Perez for example-and Fiona liked to visit and help them when they needed it. They all loved Fiona and were always cooking dinners for her-and Jubal, too, when he was visiting.

Jubal wrinkled his nose. What in God’s name was that smell-like something had died? It had to be the woman in the back seat. Maybe, in her delirious state, she’d shit herself. Jubal hoped she hadn’t gotten any on the seat, then chastised himself for being so sel?sh.

The woman moaned as if to let Jubal know she was still kicking.

Man, he’d smelled better aromas on road-kill duty, which he had to perform on the town’s back roads.

Jubal rolled down the windows of the car. Too bad if it was two hundred degrees outside; he couldn’t stand much more of that god-awful smell.

Then the woman’s words came back to haunt him…

Dead army.

He couldn’t get that phrase out of his head no matter how hard he tried; it worried his thoughts like a dog at a tasty bone. Maybe he was wrong, but he could have sworn that’s what the woman had said back there at the car wash: dead army. He wondered again what she had meant. Had she seen US soldiers die of this strange sickness, or from some other type of terrible accident? God, he hoped not.

And then there was the drunken ambulance dispatcher, who had told him everyone for hundreds of miles around was a victim of the sickness, too.

It was a goddamn epidemic.

Jubal wiped sweat from his brow with his stained shirtsleeve.

As the deputy drove his car through town toward his?ancee’s, the blazing sun began to descend along its arc.

He wondered what color the sunset would be this evening.

Much later, back at his mother’s house, Jubal slowly swung the front door open, stepped inside and closed it.

His mother snored on the couch in the same spot he’d left her earlier this afternoon. The Navajo comforter was still pulled up to her neck.

He wanted to turn on the wall-TV and?ip channels to see if there were any updates on the situation, but the remote control was gripped tightly in his mother’s hand, and he did not want to wake her. He would have to use the TV on his bedroom computer.

The room dimmed as night fell.

He stretched, lifting his arms; his back popped. He rotated his head on his stiff neck. For a man of 22 years, he felt three times as old; the day’s events had taken a lot out of him, with his trip to Fiona’s being the last straw. He’d had to carry that sick woman all by himself into his?ancee’s house, exploding boils, road-kill stench and all.

He still wished Fiona hadn’t asked for the woman to be brought there. What if Fiona caught the illness? He didn’t know what he’d do if something bad happened to her, and right before their planned wedding day. But that was just the way his sweetie was: a caring, nurturing type.

“Festus?”

Man, she must really be out of it.

“It’s me, Ma. Jubal.”

Silence.

“Ma?”

His mother began snoring again. Jubal decided to leave her there. She looked comfortable enough, if a little more thin and pale…

Gray?

It was dif?cult to see in the dim light leaking through the curtains from the porch lamp outside. And so he couldn’t be absolutely certain of his mother’s complexion.

He had wanted to check on his mother, then go back to Fiona’s. But seeing her like this, he just couldn’t leave her alone. What if she called out in the night and he wasn’t there to answer?

Jubal went to the kitchen and microwaved some chicken soup for himself.

It took him no time at all to slurp the hot soup and noodles from the mug; he was starving.

When he had?nished, he set the mug and spoon in the sink, grabbed a bottle of beer from the fridge and walked to his bedroom.

He turned on the light, sat down at the small desk near his bed and punched up his computer’s TV link, but all he got was a blue screen. He messed with it some more, but he wasn’t the world’s top computer genius, and no matter what he tried, he could not get a picture.

“Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”

He covered his face with his hands, resting his elbows on the desk. The day’s events began to run across the screen of his mind’s eye. But it was too much; he just couldn’t take anymore right now. He closed out his computer, stretched and yawned.

“Maybe things will be better tomorrow.”

Fat chance, bud. And you’re talking to yourself again.

His comfortable form-?t bed beckoned with soft pillows.

Taking a pull from the beer bottle, Jubal rose from the desk and went to his bed. He set the beer on his nightstand, pulled off his boots and sank back against the pillows.

He had intended to turn on his bedside sat-radio and listen to some news or music because he felt too upset to sleep. But as it turned out, he wasn’t. The stress of the day had been too much for him. He managed to clap his lights out before falling into a heavy slumber.

Jubal Slate fell asleep atop his bedcovers, fully clothed.

2

September 2, 2048

They weren’t human. Some of the silhouettes were too tall and oddly shaped, and by the way they stumbled forward, he knew they were dead. Dead and hungry…

The chirp of the cell phone woke him from the dream. At?rst, he couldn’t?nd it. When he?nally realized it was still in his pocket, the call had ended. He checked the display and saw Fiona’s number. Fully awake now thanks to a nice dose of adrenaline, he hit the redial button.

“Jubal?” She didn’t sound sleepy and he suspected she’d been up with the woman. He glanced at the clock.

2:30 a.m.

“What’s wrong?”

“How fast can you get over here?”

He rubbed his eyes with his free hand. He could use another few hours of sleep.

“Do I have time for a shower?”

“No.”

He sighed. “On my way.”

He used the bathroom and washed his face. Next, he checked on his mother. He wasn’t surprised to?nd her still sleeping. As much as he wanted to wake her up, turn on the lights, maybe?x her some toast and turn on another Gunsmoke episode, he didn’t disturb her. He tried to tell himself that it was simply because she needed her rest. But he knew that wasn’t true.

He was afraid he would see blisters on her face, and he didn’t think he could handle that right now. He closed his eyes. He had never been particularly religious, but now he said a silent prayer, asking for his life to return to its boring normalcy.

Jubal slipped out of the house as quietly as possible.

The stench of the sick woman still lingered in the cruiser, so he had to drive with the windows down again, but it was a typical cool desert night; the breeze felt good after the scorching hot day.

When he pulled into Fiona’s driveway, he saw lights on throughout the house. It would soon be his house, as well. He had already moved some of his clothes and personal belongings in, and Fiona had allowed him to set up a woodworking space in the garage. She had asked him if he needed space for any hobbies. He hated to admit he didn’t have a hobby, so he decided he was a woodworker. The birdhouse he started back in February still sat on the bench, covered with dust. Fiona never mentioned his lack of progress and he knew she never would. It was just another reason he loved her.

Since she was expecting him, Jubal didn’t knock.

He smelled the sick woman before he crossed the threshold.

He had carried her to the couch in the front room. Fiona had suggested the bed in the guest room, but Jubal didn’t think he could carry the woman that far and still hold his breath. And if he didn’t hold his breath, he thought he would have thrown up.

Kind of like right now.

Fiona met him in the foyer and hugged him tightly. The stench of the sick woman was in her hair and on her clothes. She was still wearing the clothes she had on yesterday, as he was his.

“Jesus,” he said. “How can you stand it?”

She sighed against his chest. “You get used to it, I guess.” She sounded very tired.

“Is she dead?” Jubal was already running through the options in his head. If she had died, Jubal had decided he was going to wrap her in blankets, put her in his trunk, take her to the edge of town and burn her. Fiona wouldn’t like it, but he would insist.

“Not yet. But it won’t be much longer.”

Jubal nodded and tried to breathe through his mouth. “You wanted me to be here when she passed?”

“No. I wanted you to hear her story so you wouldn’t think I was crazy.”

She led him into the front room and he saw how quickly the woman had deteriorated. Her swollen face was gray, bloated and wet from the?uid that had leaked from the boils and blisters. Her lips were as cracked as if she had wandered for days in the desert.

Maybe she had, if his suspicions about where she had come from were right.

Her chest rose and fell only two or three times in a minute. When her eyes?uttered open, he could see that the whites were now yellow shot through with streaks of red.

“Renee,” Fiona said, “are you still with me?”

The woman moaned.

“Renee?” Jubal said.

“She told me her name is Renee Spencer. She worked for the government. In Nevada.”

Jubal felt the room spin. Everything he feared was coming to pass.

“It wasn’t a weapons program,” Fiona continued. She was speaking to Jubal but she was watching Renee Spencer. “It was something called-”

“Magellan.” The voice was ragged and full of phlegm and sounded as if it came from a thousand feet below the earth. Her tongue was as cracked and cratered as the surface of the moon. As she spoke, a tiny stream of blood ran down from each corner of her mouth. “Project Magellan.”

“What was it?” Jubal said.

“It was weapons development…at least at?rst…that’s what I heard.”

“You’re a scientist?”

She laughed. The laugh turned into a cough, which sprayed blood down her front and onto the blanket. Jubal and Fiona took a step back. When she could breathe again, she seemed to have more energy. She said, “I’m Army. Systems Analyst. I was assigned to Groom Lake Proving Grounds to assist on the project. They were trying to develop something called a quantum bomb.”

Oh, that sounded promising.

“What was it?” Fiona said.

Renee shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what happened?” Jubal felt the?rst?ares of panic in the back of his mind.

“I know what happened,” she said. “I just don’t know what a fucking quantum bomb is. It doesn’t matter. They couldn’t make it work.”

The woman closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. She didn’t speak.

“It’s okay,” Fiona said. “She does this sometimes.”

Jubal rocked back and forth on his toes. He wanted to grab her and shake her awake, to demand answers, to?nd someone to blame. But he stood there with his?sts clenched at his sides.

“Renee?” Fiona said. “Are you still with us?”

The yellow and red eyes opened again. She stared at Jubal for at least a full minute. “You’ve seen them, haven’t you?” she said. “The dead army.”

“What? No-”

“Yes. In your dreams. Just like her.” She nodded to Fiona.

His dreams? Two nights ago he had dreamed, but he didn’t remember much. Something about a?gure in red, maybe. And this morning, hadn’t there been a dark group of?gures marching across the desert, like A dead army.

He looked at Fiona.

She wouldn’t meet his eyes.

Jubal shook his head. Two or three people dreaming the same thing wasn’t possible. He didn’t believe it.

“Forget about my dreams,” he said. “What’s the dead army?”

“First I have to tell you about the lab,” Renee said. “About the work.” Her face glistened in the low-wattage light from the lamp on the end table. As he stared at her, Jubal could see blisters swell and burst, leaking yellow?uid. She didn’t seem to notice. He wondered if she even felt it at this stage of her illness.

“Do you know anything about string theory?” Her voice had lost a little volume. He had to strain to hear.

“I thought you weren’t a scientist,” he said.

She tried to smile, which caused further cracking of the skin on her lips. Blood oozed out from the new wounds.

“I’m not. But I’m not a dummy, either. A lot of the folks at the lab talked. And I listened.”

“String theory has something to do with gravity and black holes, right?” Fiona said.

“You’re teacher’s pet today,” Renee Spencer said. “It does, indeed, concern black holes and gravity and quantum physics. Imagine a guitar string stretched across all of space and time, connecting everything there is. Now imagine playing different notes on that string, accessing different times and different universes.”

“That’s string theory?” Jubal said.

“Hell, no. I’ve barely given you the outline of the outline. I don’t understand all of it myself. And I don’t think I have a lot of time left to explain it, do I? No, don’t bother to answer. I can see it in your eyes. I can feel it, too. So let’s get to the point.

“When the scientists at Project Magellan tried to build their little quantum bomb, I think they were trying to develop something that would explode over an enemy force and just send them…somewhere else. They couldn’t get it right, though. But one failure leads to another discovery, and they found a way to build a gate.”

“What kind of gate?” Jubal said.

Renee coughed up blood, runny with pus. Fiona wiped Renee’s lip with a tissue. The coughing grew worse, becoming a hack that Jubal thought would never stop. But?nally it did.

“Renee?” Jubal said.

“I don’t know what kind of gate, but it sure wasn’t made of white pickets.” She laughed weakly at her own joke, then coughed some more. The woman breathed shallowly, her eyes?uttering.

“I…in the control room when…it happened.”

Renee swallowed repeatedly. Discolored drool ran from her lip. A boil on her neck burst, the liquid running onto a bath towel that Fiona had placed beneath the woman’s head.

“Explosion. Yellow…smoke. Or mist.”

Jubal and Fiona waited expectantly.

“Screams. Terrible screams,” Renee said, gulping her words. She continued, her voice growing fainter as she spoke. “I ran to my car. I ran faster than I’ve ever run in my life. There were more explosions, terrible ones, but I got out of there. Then…”

“Yes?” Jubal said, pitying the poor wreck, no longer aware of the worsening smell of decay and sickness.

“The rest is…hazy. My car broke down, so I hitchhiked anywhere to get away. Got sick. So sick. So…”

Renee’s eyes closed. Her breath hitched in her throat.

“The dead army,” Jubal said. “Tell us about the dead army.”

Her eyes opened to yellow-red slits.

“Your dreams…are real.”

Jubal turned to Fiona. “What does that mean? My dreams are real?”

“Just what she said, Jubal. She thinks there’s an army tromping around somewhere. An army of…the dead.”

“What?”

Fiona nodded, her arms crossed, looking very serious.

A burst of laughter erupted from Jubal. The laughter continued for some time until he noticed the tears on Fiona’s face.

“Shit. I’m sorry,” he said, wrapping his arms around his?ancee and patting her back. “I just?nd it hard to believe; I mean, c’mon. Zombies? Maybe ‘dead army’ just means the US Army is out rounding up the dead from this epidemic.”

Fiona’s head shook on Jubal’s shoulder. “You heard her. She had the same dream that I had. And that you had; I know you had it-I saw it in your eyes when she mentioned it. Something weird is de?nitely going on, and I’m so scared, Jubal.”

Jubal held her tighter and let her cry into his shirt. He happened to glance over her shoulder at Renee.

“Oh, shit.”

Fiona pulled away. “What?”

Jubal went to the woman on the couch and stared into her face.

“Renee’s dead.”

“How do you know for sure? Feel her pulse.”

“Hell, no. I ain’t touching her. But I know dead when I see it, and she’s dead.”

“What’ll we do, Jubal? What is going on?”

“Let’s go to the kitchen. You can get some coffee brewing, and we’ll think this thing through.”

They both shambled into the kitchen like lost souls. Jubal was beginning to feel numb from too little sleep and too much drama. He felt as if the world around him had become surreal, as if he were walking through some strange nightmare version of Serenity.

I hope I’m not having a nervous breakdown. Not now, when everyone needs me.

Then he thought of his dad, and Damon. They would never panic in a situation like this. At least he liked to think they wouldn’t. But he doubted if they’d ever had to deal with an emergency of this magnitude.

Jubal pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and slumped into it. He watched Fiona go to the counter upon which sat the coffee maker. As she swung a cabinet door open for the can of coffee, her hair swung aside for a moment and Jubal glimpsed a lump on her neck.

“So, what are we going to do with Renee, Jubal?”

The sight of the blister or boil on Fiona’s neck had stricken Jubal silent. He couldn’t tell her about his plan to burn Renee’s body somewhere in the surrounding desert.

“Did you hear something in the other room just now?” Fiona said.

He had heard something…

There was a moaning sound, then Renee Spencer lurched into the room, arms outstretched, heading straight for Fiona. She made a whining sound as if she were in pain…or hungry.

Fiona screamed and sidestepped out of Renee’s path.

But she was dead. I could have sworn…

Renee swung around toward Fiona. She made an angry sound from the back of her throat. Jubal could see her eyes now. There was no light there; there was nothing. Yet this dead woman was in Fiona’s kitchen, attacking her.

Jubal leapt out of his chair and punched Renee in the stomach. The undead woman let out a surprised grunt and tumbled backwards onto the tile?oor.

Oh my god. She looks dead. She smells dead. She looks dead. She smells- Renee was on her feet again and Fiona was still screaming in the corner of the kitchen. Jubal grabbed Fiona’s sleeve and yanked her toward the doorway.

As Fiona was pulled across the room, Renee clawed at her but missed.

Renee emitted a hunger-fueled wailing that chilled Jubal to the bone.

He yanked his Glock and shot the undead woman in the stomach.

Then Jubal and Fiona?ed across the living room and out the front door, slamming it closed behind them.

Jubal opened the passenger door of the cruiser and pushed Fiona into the car. Then he ran around to his side as Fiona swung her door closed. Jubal got in and switched on the radio.

Fiona was whimpering like a baby.

“Sh, baby, shh,” Jubal said as he tried to raise the state police. But all he got was static and hum.

“Shit!”

Jubal started the cruiser.

Fiona screamed. Jubal turned his head and, through Fiona’s window, saw Renee lurching down the front walk, her shirt spattered with blood. She reached out toward the cruiser with outstretched arms and groping?ngers, her jaw working up and down.

“Quiet, baby. We’re getting out of here.”

The cruiser tore off down the street, leaving the hungry zombie behind.

Fiona would not stop screaming. He’d seen hysterical people slapped in movies, but couldn’t bring himself to hurt Fiona-ever. Even if it was for her own good.

Halfway to the sheriff’s house, Fiona’s screams died down to sobs.

“Don’t worry, baby. Don’t worry…”

“What…what happened back there?” Fiona said, sliding across the seat until she was right up against him. “You said she was dead. You said you were sure she was dead just by looking at her.”

Those dead yellow and red eyes. That blank stare. And the smell…

“She was dead, baby. I’m not going to lie to you. She was dead, and she was walking.”

“Nooooooooooo.” Fiona moaned the word.

“I shot her right in the stomach at point blank range, and she was up and at ’em-at you — in no time at all. And I saw her eyes, Fiona. I saw her dead, staring eyes right above her hungry, gaping mouth.” Jubal knew he shouldn’t be talking like this but couldn’t stop himself; he was babbling like a lunatic.

Fiona grew silent. And then Jubal knew; she had seen the woman’s dead eyes, too.

As they neared Damon’s house, Fiona said, “What about my neighbors? What about poor old Mrs. Sanchez and the Alberts?”

“We can’t worry about them right now. This is too much for me to handle alone. I need to talk to Damon. I need to know what he thinks of the situation. He’ll know what to do.”

“But isn’t he sick, too?”

“Yeah…” Jubal wasn’t thinking straight and he knew it. Which only angered him.

He realized he was chewing on the inside of his lower lip, something he hadn’t done since he was a child. It had always been a reaction to stress and he had torn up his lip pretty badly on occasion, causing his mother to coat the wounds with a foul tasting antibiotic paste. Back then the tribulations he dealt with included math class and getting the crap beat out of him by Tommy Brainard. Today was a mite tougher. He spat out the window, tasting the coppery tang of the blood.

Blood.

In the past few minutes he had seen more of it than he had in his entire life. The thought of it made him a little lightheaded and forced him to consider for the?rst time if he was cut out for this line of work.

On the other hand, was anyone cut out for a job that included facing down walking dead women? Jubal seriously doubted it. This wasn’t some horror disc from his collection at home. In those?lms, the heroes easily absorbed anything that was thrown at them, while spouting off funny lines and kicking ass. He was discovering that real life was different. In real life, your brain could only handle so much before it threatened to shut down. He was worried that Fiona wasn’t going to recover from what had happened. Also, he wasn’t very con?dent about his own stability.

The woman had died. He had no doubt about that. Yet the truth of what he had witnessed con?icted with his instinct. Could he have been that terribly wrong?

No.

She had been dead. She then got up and chased them. That was the truth, no matter how much he wanted to deny it or?nd a way to make it?t into some sort of nice package that would make sense.

Nothing made sense now, except that Renee Spencer had become a soldier in the dead army. And she was still marching back there, dead but hungry.

Holy Christ, what had happened down in that secret lab?

He turned into Damon Ortega’s driveway. Except for the rooftop solar cells that glinted in the moonlight, the house was dark. Jubal yearned for dawn. Even a strangely colored morning sky would be preferable to this sti?ing gloom and the horrors that might be hiding in the shadows, because it had occurred to him- and what im-fucking-peccable timing you have, Jubal, to be spooking yourself now — that maybe there were others like Renee Spencer in Serenity, shambling into town during the night, mindless, soulless, with only their need to feed propelling them. Or maybe the sickest residents in town, the ones he hadn’t seen for days, maybe they were also dying, shedding their humanity and getting ready to sign up for a hitch in this new unholy army.

He shivered in the cool of the pre-dawn morning.

“What’s wrong?” Fiona said. She almost sounded normal, which in itself seemed a bit cruel. Jubal suspected they had last seen normal in the rear view mirror.

“Nothing. Just got a chill.” He opened his door. “You coming in?”

“I’m sure as hell not staying here.”

In the dome light Fiona looked drawn and pale. He glanced at her neck, looking for the lump he had thought he’d seen back at her house. Her hair covered the spot, though, and he was grateful that he didn’t have to deal with it, at least for now.

Just a few minutes, Lord. Just a few minutes without another night-mare.

They held hands as they climbed up the front porch steps. Jubal rang the bell, but he didn’t really expect an answer. He turned the knob and swung the door open.

Damon may not have been the cop Jubal’s dad had been; still, he was pretty good and he always locked his door partly because he had a large gun collection that was his pride and joy. As they entered the house-Jubal in front, Fiona close behind, hanging on to his hand-Jubal drew his own weapon.

“Damon? You here?”

There was no answer. They moved down the short hallway to the living room, which was softly illuminated by the blue light from the screen of the silent TV. A large shape was stretched out on the couch. A large, motionless shape.

“Damon? It’s Jube. You okay, podna?”

Damon snored, causing Jubal to jump back and Fiona to emit a frightened squeal.

“Dead,” Damon said. “All dead-dead-dead.”

Jubal stepped closer to the couch and the smell hit him. It was the same fetid odor of rot that?lled Fiona’s house. It was the scent of Renee Spencer as she died and rose again.

Jubal turned on the lamp next to the couch.

Damon Ortega was covered with oozing pustules. The smell was coming from the yellowish?uid that leaked from the blisters.

“Aw, God.”

“Wha-Suze? That you?” Damon’s eyes?uttered open. Susan had been his wife. When Damon was still in high school she ran off with an economics professor from the community college in Carlsbad. Damon had never remarried. “I was too dumb for her,” Damon once told him. “You need to roust a drunk, I’m your man. But I wouldn’t know a?oating exchange rate if it jumped up and bit me on the pecker.”

“It’s me, boss.” Jubal couldn’t halt the tremor in his voice.

“J-Jubal?”

“Yeah. Fiona’s here, too.”

“Hot in here. Is the goddamn furnace on?”

Fiona moved next to Jubal, getting her?rst good look at the sheriff. She began to sob.

Damon squinted against the light.

”What’s wrong with her?”

“Oh. Well, it’s, uh, her time of the month, you know?” He tried to put a cheerful note in his voice, but he was afraid his attempt fell?at.

“Oh, I know,” Damon said. “Lock ’em outside and toss ’em some chocolate, that’s what my old man always said.” Damon started coughing. Jubal closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see the color and thickness of the liquid that ran from the lips of the older man.

“What’s wrong, kid? Am I uglier than usual?”

Jubal opened his eyes. Damon was no longer squinting. The older man’s eyes were shot through with streaks of red and the whites were now yellow. He owed this man, this second father, nothing less than the truth. But as he stared into that diseased face he saw that the knowledge was already there, streaked with crimson.

“Naw,” Jubal said. “Just the usual level of ugly. Sometimes it still shocks me, that’s all.”

Damon chuckled-without expelling any?uids this time, thankfully. “How’s that woman you found at the car wash?”

Jubal could only stare at him.

“Don’t look so shocked, squirt. I’m still the sheriff and I still got contacts. My feelers are everywhere.”

The sickness momentarily forgotten, Jubal crossed his arms over his chest. “Who was it? Taylor or Red?”

“Pops Perez,” Damon said.

Jubal hadn’t even seen Pops out in the street. He wasn’t surprised, though. As much as the old-timer liked to gossip, he could also be as sly and quiet as a cat sneaking up on a bird.

“How much he tell you?”

“All of it, I reckon. She had blisters all over her face.” Damon ran his?ngers over his own face, feeling the pustules like a blind man reading Braille. “He said she was babbling some crazy talk, too.”

“Yeah,” Jubal said. “What about you, boss? You were doing a little talking when we came in. Do you remember?”

Damon looked away from his deputy, and Jubal was grateful that he didn’t have to see those yellow and red eyes.

“Just a dream I was having.”

“About what?”

Damon sighed. “Something was chasing me. It was a bunch of fellas, only they weren’t quite men.”

“What do you mean?” Jubal could feel his pulse throb in his temples.

“Well, they were shaped awful funny. Their heads were too narrow and long. Their arms were long, too. And…”

“What?”

“They were all tore up, like they had been killed by an animal or something. And some of them had parts of their faces torn off or big holes in their stomachs.” Damon met Jubal’s eyes again. “Some crazy shit, huh?”

“Yeah. Crazy shit.” Fiona walked back toward the front door. He couldn’t tell if she were still crying.

“So how is she?”

“Fiona?” Jubal said.

“The sick woman. Where’d you take her anyway?”

“Oh. To Fiona’s.”

Damon’s yellow eyes didn’t blink. “And?”

Looking his boss in the eyes as he spoke his next words was possibly the most dif?cult thing Jubal had ever done.

“Fine, Damon. She’s really coming along.”

Damon closed his eyes and rested his head against a pillow. If he recognized the lie, he didn’t show it. Perhaps he was even grateful for it. It wasn’t long before he began snoring again.

Jubal decided to let the sheriff rest. Maybe the old dog was strong enough to whip this thing. If anyone could do it, Damon could. After all, Jubal felt?ne. He would?gure this mess out on his own. He had no choice, really.

“Let’s go check on my ma,” he whispered to Fiona.

Growths covered his mother’s face like bumps on a blackberry. She?oated in and out of consciousness and was barely coherent. Each wheezing breath was like another painful needle in Jubal’s heart. This woman, his best friend really-whom he had loved all his life-was dying.

Jubal turned away, unable to look any longer, hiding his?owing tears from his?ancee.

Fiona stepped up behind him and laid her hand gently on his shuddering back.

“We have to get help for her, Jubal.”

Jubal sniffed hard and nodded his head. “Let’s get her into the car. We’re going to save her, Fee.”

“Sure we are, babe,” Fiona said.

They soon had Jubal’s mother in the back seat of the police cruiser…

Just like Renee.

…and were on their way out of town, heading north towards Carlsbad. The sky to the east showed a lighter darkness. Soon it would be dawn.

“She’s such a good woman, Fee. She’s always been a best friend to me.”

“I know, Jubal. We’ll do whatever we can.”

Jubal pressed down on the accelerator. He glanced at the gauge and saw he was going nearly 100 miles per hour. He’d have activated his siren if he thought it would do any good, but state highway 285 heading north was barren.

“This is damn spooky,” Jubal said.

“What?”

“The highway. It’s still early, but there should be at least some semis on the road.”

“There’s plenty of oncoming traf?c.”

“Yeah, weird.”

Some of the people in the oncoming cars waved their arms out their windows, but Jubal was moving too fast to understand what they wanted. He was in too much of a damned hurry to care.

“Why complain? The less traf?c heading north, the faster we get help for your mother.”

Jubal glanced into the back seat. His mother didn’t appear to be moving, but it was hard to tell anything driving this fast.

“Keep your eyes on the road, please, Mr. Deputy Sheriff,” Fiona said. “I’ll check on her for you.”

Jubal drove while Fiona leaned over the back seat. Soon she was sitting back down and fastening her seat belt.

“Her breathing’s erratic and she’s sleeping.”

Or unconscious. Or about to die.

Jubal slapped his palm against the steering wheel. Fiona shot him a worried glance, but he ignored it. His only concern right now was for his mother, and if Carlsbad told him there was no room at the hospital, by God, he’d make some fucking room. He wished there was a medical facility closer to Serenity, but all they had was Doc Mitchell, and apparently he was next to useless in this situation.

In the distance, something was happening on the highway.

Fiona gasped.

Jubal glanced at her. She had her hand over her mouth and was looking out her side window. At the green light of dawn.

Soon enough, they found out what the obstruction was in the road.

Traf?c. Cars at a complete standstill. Several people walked around on the highway, which indicated to Jubal that this long line of cars wasn’t going to move anytime soon.

Up about a hundred yards, alongside the highway, was a large silver tent that looked like a prop from a science?ction movie.

Then Jubal noticed the armed soldiers in HAZMAT gear. Some stood at attention while others herded citizens back into their vehicles at gunpoint. Several more stood around the silver tent.

Far ahead, the vehicles were being rerouted over to the southbound lanes. That explained the southbound-only traf?c on the way up here.

A gunshot cracked. Jubal?inched. Fiona squealed. Jubal could not see where the shot came from.

“Stay here with Ma. I’ll be right back.”

As Jubal slammed the car door shut, two armed soldiers approached him. He could not see their faces behind their protective masks, but the weapons were menacing enough.

“Get back in your vehicle, of?cer. All vehicles are restricted beyond this point.”

Jubal was afraid they were going to say that. He stood his ground.

“But I have to get up to Carlsbad on of?cial police business.”

“You have no jurisdiction here, sir. Please turn your vehicle around and go back. It’s for your own good.”

Jubal felt his face?ush and knew if he had a mirror with which to see his re?ection, it would be beet red. He pointed back at the cruiser.

“We have a deathly ill woman in that car that needs to get to the hospital now, or she’ll die. Do you hear me, soldier?”

The soldiers turned their heads toward each other as if conversing in a silent language.

“If you’d just clear a path…” Jubal said.

“We are going to have to take a look at this sick person,” one of the soldiers said.

Jubal stepped aside, hoping the soldiers would see his mother’s condition and let them through. He walked behind them as they circled the car. As he passed Fiona’s window, he noticed she pulled up her shirt collar.

One soldier swung the back door open while the other stood away.

“You see,” Jubal said, “She’s…”

“We have a corpse here. Everyone stand back while we remove it from the car.”

The soldier farthest from the door approached to help his partner. Jubal stepped in front of him, risking harm and not caring one fucking bit, and bent to his mother. He placed two?ngers against her neck, momentarily unconcerned about the damned blisters or boils or whatever they were on her neck.

His mother was dead.

A heavy hand landed on Jubal’s shoulder. “Move away from the car, of?cer. We must quarantine the body.”

Quarantine?

Jubal stood in shock as the two soldiers walked past him, carrying his mother between them towards the silver tent at the side of the highway. Fiona stared at him through the window with tears running down her cheeks.

Jubal sprinted after the two soldiers, who still hadn’t reached the quarantine tent yet.

Three other soldiers, who had been policing the nearby area, saw him and ran over, blocking his path.

“I want to see my mother,” Jubal said, hand falling instinctively to his Glock.

Three barrels lifted, pointing straight at him.

“Throw that gun down, of?cer, or we will shoot to kill. This is not a threat; it’s a fact.”

Jubal reluctantly drew his Glock with two?ngers and?ung it toward the soldiers. One of them swooped his hand down, scooped it up and stuck it in his belt.

From the direction of the quarantine tent, a shot rang out.

Jubal lunged at the men blocking him, attempting to break their line, but they expertly grabbed his arms and pulled him to the ground.

“No! They shot her. They shot my mother! Let…me…go!”

The three men held Jubal on the ground while he continued to struggle. One planted his knee in Jubal’s chest, cutting off his breath.

Jubal looked up into the soldiers’ blank helmeted faces, looking for sympathy or mercy, but all he saw was his own re?ection. A man in agony and despair.

“Mister,” said a soldier. “You have two choices: go back home or die.”

Jubal stopped struggling.

Suddenly Fiona was there. “Please, leave him alone. We’ll go back. Just let him up.”

The soldier who had his knee on Jubal’s chest rose. “You better hope so, ma’am. We don’t have time to fuck around here.”

The men released Jubal, who stood up, brushing off the backs of his legs. He suddenly felt very empty and tired.

“How bad is it?” Fiona asked the soldiers. “What’s happening in Carlsbad?”

“Ma’am,” a soldier said. “Carlsbad is dead.”

Under the careful watch of the soldiers, Jubal shuf?ed back to the cruiser like a man defeated, with Fiona in tow.

Fiona placed her hand gently on Jubal’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off. When his mother had died, something within himself had died along with her. And now the government had her corpse, probably keeping it for dissection instead of a proper funeral. And how would he ever retrieve her body for burial?

The world had gone mad and it seemed civilization was fucked.

He allowed Fiona to lead him back to the cruiser. She took him to the passenger side of the car, and said, “Keys.” He didn’t question her. He handed over the key ring, then slumped into the passenger seat.

The gunshot still echoed in his mind.

They shot his mother. They said she was dead and they shot her anyway.

You know why.

No. He didn’t want that disturbing picture in his head.

They shot her because she was becoming one of them.

“No,” Jubal whispered.

The dead army.

Fiona looked his way, but didn’t speak. He knew she wanted to?nd a way to comfort him, as he had tried to do for her after Renee Spencer died. That moment seemed to have happened months ago. Fiona turned the car around and headed back toward Serenity.

Maybe she couldn’t?nd the words; she was likely still in shock herself.

Jubal closed his eyes and tried to think of a time-was it just a day ago? — when the sky wasn’t green and corpses didn’t rise from the dead. Instead, a series of images?ashed through his thoughts.

His mother comforts him after he started a?ght with the tall girl who lived next door and received a busted nose for his trouble. She tries to look concerned, yet every now and then a smile slips through.

His mother sits up all night next to his bed when he shivers with a fever, frequently pressing a cold washcloth against his forehead and murmuring silent prayers; he isn’t scared but, rather, comforted by her presence.

His mother, dead only a few minutes, stands up and tears through the HAZMAT suit of the soldier nearest her and chews through the man’s stomach. When she stands up her entire face is covered with blood and small pieces of?esh and muscle. Rivers of scarlet?ow down into her empty, cold eyes.

“Stop the car! Pull over!”

Fiona stomped on the brake pedal, forcing Jubal to throw up a hand to brace against the dashboard. “What?”

Before the car was completely stopped, Jubal was out the door and throwing up on the blacktop. He fell to his knees; it felt like his body tried to eject everything he had eaten since he was twelve. When he was?nally?nished, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and climbed to his feet, wincing at the new soreness in his stomach.

Fiona was standing next to the car, her arms folded across her chest. She studied him with a look of exhausted concern.

She hugged him close and helped him into the car again.

When they were about a mile farther down the road, she said, “Would it help to talk?”

“No,” he said. But in less than a minute, he blurted out, “My ma…they shot her. She was turning into one of those things.” Jubal felt the hot tears?ll his eyes. He turned away from her and stared out the car window, blinking until he felt like he wasn’t going to cry.

Fiona placed a hand on his arm.

“I loved her, too,” she said.

He put his own hand over hers. In the midst of this madness at least something good remained in his life. “I know,” he said.

She released his arm.

“Fee?” he said. “When we were kids, why did you punch me in the nose?”

He turned to her in time to see the faint smile play across her face. “You called me Stork Girl.”

He remembered. Jubal had been a smart ass when he was a kid. He had deserved that punch in the nose.

“You always were a tough broad,” he said.

“You bet your ass.”

Jubal sighed. “I have to do something pretty tough now and I could really use your help.”

She took his hand. “We’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

Damon Ortega had been the second most important man in Jubal’s life. He’d tried to be a good role model for the boy, had taken him?shing, made sure he kept up his studies. Damon had even been the one-at the request of Jubal’s mother-to give the boy “the talk.” Jubal and Damon still laughed about that one, about how the older man’s face quickly reddened and stayed that way when he learned the depth of the boy’s knowledge.

“You can really do that?” Damon had asked.

Repeating that line never failed to make the sheriff blush all over again.

There were so many good memories, and some that weren’t so pleasant. Like when Damon crawled into the tequila bottle for a few months after his wife left him. That dark episode culminated in an ugly night at Conchita’s when a drunken Sheriff Ortega pulled out his service revolver and shouted incoherent threats at a-thankfully-small group of townspeople. Pops and Red had talked him down, taken the gun away from him and then poured a gallon of coffee into him before driving him home. The next morning Damon emptied every bottle in his house into the kitchen sink.

There was no investigation, no charges?led. Everyone knew Damon and the pain he was in. For his part, Damon recognized his second chance and took it. The people of Serenity took care of their own like they usually did. It was one of the reasons Jubal never wished to live anywhere else.

Now he had to make another unpleasant memory.

When they rolled up Damon’s driveway, Fiona said, “You need a minute?”

“No.” And it was true. Jubal had somehow managed to lock away his emotions so he could focus on what had to be done. Later he might turn into a quivering mess, but for now he had managed to achieve a bit of distance from today’s events.

As long you don’t count sweaty palms, a dry mouth and a stomach so messed up that it might explode out the back of your pants any second.

He climbed out of the cruiser and walked back to the trunk. Locked into a brace on the inside wall was a Mossberg. 12 gauge shotgun. Jubal removed it and checked the load. He pumped a round into the chamber and shut the trunk.

Fiona was waiting for him by the front of the car.

“I know it won’t do any good to ask you to stay out here,” he said.

She stared at him.

“So I won’t. But this could take a while, Fee. If he hasn’t…you know…”

“You think I’m going to let you go through something like this by yourself?”

He forced a smile. “Come on, Stork Girl.”

They walked to the porch and through the front door. Jubal didn’t hesitate. With the shotgun raised, he walked quickly to the living room.

Damon wasn’t in the room. The couch was a mess. The cushions and the pillow were speckled with blood. Jubal remembered the coughing?t that Renee Spencer suffered through before she passed.

“We have to search the place,” he said. “Stay behind me.”

They went through Damon’s house room by room. It didn’t take long. Jubal led the way, checking behind each door and around any corner that didn’t offer a clear view. Fiona was close by, with her body at a 90-degree angle from him, so she could keep an eye on Jubal and anything that might try to sneak up behind them.

When they reached the small kitchen, Jubal saw a small pool of blood in the sink.

“He was in here.”

“Not anymore,” Fiona said. She pointed at the small window over the sink.

Damon had built the gazebo back in his married days with the help of Jubal’s dad. Susan was already making noise about the limitations of being married to a small town cop, so Damon was trying to?x the place up a bit to appease her. These days he sat out there on occasion, sipping a can of beer, but nothing stronger. Sometimes Jubal would join him.

Now a dark form was slumped across the gazebo’s bench.

Jubal stepped through the back door. It was suddenly hard to breathe, as though a band of steel had tightened across his chest.

He took a couple steps toward the gazebo. He could hear the crunch of Fiona’s shoes on the dry soil behind him. She was keeping a bit of distance between them.

Good girl. If there were trouble, maybe it wouldn’t take both of them.

Jubal took two more steps. He was?fteen feet from the gazebo. He could clearly see the back of the prone man’s head. It was de?nitely Damon.

Damon sat up and swiveled his head around, farther than Jubal thought possible.

“Damon?”

Fiona gasped.

Damon was through the gazebo’s screen door and running at Jubal.

Jubal froze, his shotgun held loosely in his hands. He could not accept that Damon had turned into a monster. This was a man he had looked up to his whole life. And loved-something he’d never told the older man.

Now the dead sheriff glared at him with orange eyes. Folds and?aps, where the blisters had burst, covered his gray skin. Off-white saliva stretched between his upper and lower teeth. His hands were curled into killing claws. Sheriff Damon Ortega snarled, sounding more animal than human.

“Damon, stop,” Jubal said, as the zombie sheriff barreled into him, knocking him to the ground. Jubal rolled onto his back and pulled the trigger of the shotgun.

The blast hit Damon squarely in the chest,?inging him backwards to the ground.

Jubal got to his feet. “What have I done?”

“You had to do it, Jube. He was going to kill us,” Fiona said.

“Man, this is crazy. I don’t know if I can take much more…”

Damon sat up, grinning, with a gaping hole in his chest. His mouth dropped open and he made a sound that reminded Jubal of Jurassic Park pterodactyls.

“F-fuck,” Jubal said.

Damon got to his feet, swaying a little. Then he took a step forward. His bright orange eyes were stretched wide open, and the orbs looked as if they had no lids. His mouth gaped and emitted a croak.

Jubal could do nothing as Damon took slow, staggering steps toward him. It was as if it were a dream that he’d soon wake up from.

Yeah, that’s it. All I have to do is wake up. Just wait a few seconds and it’ll be over.

Damon’s head burst apart into gray chunks and red mist in what seemed like slow motion. His headless body dropped to its knees, then keeled over.

But Jubal hadn’t pulled the trigger of the shotgun. He looked down at his hands. The shotgun was gone. He looked over at Fiona.

She had taken it from him and he hadn’t even noticed. The barrel still smoked from the killing shot.

This wasn’t a nightmare; it was real. Why did he have to keep reminding himself of that?

Jubal’s face felt funny. He reached a hand up; it was coated with tears. He looked at his wet?ngers as if the substance upon them was some alien liquid.

“C’mon, baby. Let’s get out of here,” Fiona said, grabbing his upper arm. “There’s nothing you could have done.”

They made their way around the house, their feet crunching in gravel. By the time they had reached the cruiser, the rising sun had dehydrated Jubal’s tears.

“We need more guns,” he said.

It was another scorcher in downtown Serenity. But unlike most mornings, Main Street and its sidewalks were completely empty. Not even Bubba, the old dog owned by Phil Marx over at the Amoco, was to be seen; the mutt usually roamed up and down the sidewalks, looking for affection or handouts. He always had a wag of the tail for everyone.

Fiona made a low moan in her throat.

Jubal ignored it. The numbness in his mind had returned and he felt like a wooden puppet only loosely controlled by its own wooden brain.

He rolled the cruiser to a stop in front of the sheriff’s of?ce.

“You stay in the car, Fee. I’ll leave it on with the air going. Use the shotgun if you need to. I’m going to get more weapons.”

Fiona nodded weakly, staring out the windshield at nothing much.

Jubal laid the shotgun on the driver’s seat as he left the car. He slammed the door and paused, listening.

A mourning dove cooed somewhere. There was a muf?ed crash and clatter, as if from a toppled piece of furniture in a far off building. Then nothing.

Ignoring the piles of reports on the desk, which no longer meant anything to him-or to anybody-he walked straight to the gun cabinet. Jubal unlocked it and withdrew a Glock to replace the one the soldiers had con?scated, and two more shotguns just like the one in the car, along with an armload of ammo boxes. Looking around, he saw nothing else he thought he’d need.

What do you need when the world is ending?

What entertaining thoughts his mind conjured.

Outside, the car door slammed.

Jubal thought he heard Fiona say something. He laid the weapons and ammunition on the over?owing desk except for the Glock.

He left the front door open and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

Fiona stood behind the opened car door, sighting along the Mossberg laid across the top of the door.

Jubal looked where she was aiming.

Far down the street, the walking dead creature that had once been the lab worker Renee shambled towards them. She held something loosely in her grip. Jubal squinted against the light and saw that it was a severed hand. As he watched, she put one of its pale?ngers into her mouth and bit it off with a snap that Jubal could hear quite clearly even from this distance.

“Are you okay?” Jubal asked, not taking his eyes off Renee.

Fiona grunted assent, still sighting along the shotgun.

“You know,” Jubal said, sliding on his sunglasses. “It’s just a matter of time before the whole town ends up like her.”

Fiona turned her head towards him with an astonished look on her face. “Mr. Sensitive now, are we?”

“Just the facts, ma’am,” Jubal said in a monotone, lifting his Glock and taking aim. “Die, bitch.”

Jubal shot once and Renee’s head snapped back. She wobbled around a bit, as if beginning a waltz step, then toppled over onto her face.

Jubal had the sudden urge to blow the smoke off the barrel of his gun, like an old-time movie cowboy, but then thought better of it. He barely understood what he was doing; it was as if some cold, primitive part of himself was taking command of his actions. “Bullseye,” was all he said.

“Jubal, are you losing it on me?” Fiona said, sitting down on the passenger seat with the shotgun propped between her legs. “I need you.”

“Shoot ’em in the head. They go right down. Plop.”

Jubal knew he shouldn’t be acting like this, that he was freaking Fiona out a little, but he just couldn’t help it. Maybe he’d feel like his old self after a rest.

“I’ll get the additional weapons, then let’s go home, Fee. We need to plan shit out.”

Fiona slammed her door closed without answering.

Jubal turned towards the sheriff’s of?ce, saying, “Oooooh-kay,” under his breath.

He went inside and collected the weapons. He brought them out and threw them in the back seat of the cruiser.

Again behind the steering wheel, he?ipped on the car and revved the engine. “It’s okay Fee. We’re going home now.”

He put the car into drive and sped off down the street.

“Look out, Jubal. You’re going to run over…”

With a thump and a bump, Jubal drove over Renee and continued on.

“Dead bitch.”

“Jubal?”

“It’s okay, Fee. Everything’s going to be okay now. I can feel it,” Jubal said.

He even smiled.

They carried all the weapons into his mother’s house, laying them on the coffee table, and locked the doors and windows.

“I have got to sit down and rest,” Fiona said, plopping down onto the couch.

“I’ll get you a glass of water. Be right back.”

Jubal returned with two glasses of ice water. He pushed aside the shotguns and set them on the coffee table. “Some wedding we’re going to have, huh?”

She didn’t answer.

“Hey, we could have Renee bring the?nger food,” he said and immediately regretted it. Fiona kicked the coffee table, spilling both water glasses and knocking one of the shotguns to the?oor. Jubal hadn’t engaged the safety of either Mossberg and he prepared himself for a blast that never came.

He picked the gun up off the?oor and heard the slam of the bathroom door.

You’re an idiot.

He just had to show his?ancee how calm and cool he had become, how he was dealing with this unholy crisis like a wisecracking movie character. He wanted her to know he was strong and he would protect her, because if he could convince Fiona, maybe he could convince himself. And maybe he could erase from his mind the image of Damon Ortega’s head bursting like a melon.

He cursed himself under his breath. He was 22 years old, shouldered with huge responsibilities, and he still acted like a kid.

Jubal stood outside the bathroom door for several minutes. He expected to hear Fiona’s sobs, but she made no sound.

Finally, he tapped his knuckle on the door.

“Fee?”

She didn’t answer.

“Fee, I’m sorry. I…I’m an ass. It’s so hard to act like I’m strong when I’m so goddamned scared.” He swallowed. That had been a tough thing for him to say. Now that he had, he felt better. Fiona loved him. She would accept him just as he was. After all, she had known him longer than almost anyone.

Actually, he realized, she had known him as long as anybody left alive.

“Fiona, did you hear me? I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

The voice was very small and came from a place near his knees. He pictured her sitting on the bathroom?oor, her head against the door.

Jubal leaned against the wall and slid down until he was sitting by his side of the bathroom door.

“I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m just stupid.”

“You’re not stupid. You’re a guy,” she said, as if that explained everything. Jubal supposed it did.

He pressed one side of his face against the door, hoping it was near Fiona’s. “Fee, we’ll get through this.”

“Don’t.”

“Just listen-”

“No, Jubal, you listen to me.” Her voice sounded on the edge of tears. Before yesterday, Jubal had seen Fiona cry two or three times in?fteen years. Now the sight and sound of her sorrow had grown too familiar. “I know you want to save me. To save Serenity, I suppose. But pay attention to what I have to say. Are you listening?”

“Yeah.” He pressed harder into the cool wood of the door, dreading what she was going to say, yet needing to hear it.

“You can’t save me. You can’t save this town. You need to leave. Just get in the car and drive somewhere else. Try to?nd a place where this disease hasn’t reached.”

“What? Fiona…no. We’ll stick it out together. I’m not leaving you.”

“You have to, Jubal.” She spoke slowly and clearly, as if addressing a child. Somehow that made her words sting even worse.

“It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

Through the two inches of oak, Jubal heard her sigh.

“Don’t lie to me, Jubal. You’ve seen the blister on my neck, and now there’s one on my leg. Whatever this is, I have it. I’m sick.”

“No!” Now he was the one who was near tears. Again.

“I know it’s hard to hear, baby. But it will go easier if you accept it.”

Jubal turned the doorknob. It was locked. Still, he rattled it several times.

“No. You’re not going to die. We don’t know anything about this thing. Maybe it doesn’t kill everybody. Look at me, Fiona. I feel?ne.”

“I know,” she said. “And I think you’re right. Maybe it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Like any other disease, it progresses at different rates in different people.”

He latched on to that. “See? You might-”

“And some are probably immune to it. I think one of them might be you.”

He opened his mouth but nothing came out.

”Jubal?”

His?rst thought was one that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

It won’t kill me. I’m going to live.

He felt the guilt slam down as if it actually had weight.

“You can’t know that,” he managed to get out.

What if it was true? What if he was immune to this awful plague? Would life without his friends and family be worth a good goddamn? Could he go on without Fiona?

“I know it, Jubal.” She began to cough, and while it wasn’t as wet or drawn out as the sounds Renee and Damon had made, it wasn’t a sign of good health either. When the coughing?t ended, Fiona said, “I don’t know how to explain it, but something is changing inside me. I can tell you’re?ne. You stand out like a splash of color in a black and white drawing.”

Jubal decided that Fiona must have a fever. She was starting to talk crazy. Of course that meant the stuff about him being immune was just bullshit. The brief disappointment he felt was enough to tighten the screws on the guilt.

He had to get her out of the bathroom and put her to bed. Maybe get her some Tylenol to bring down the fever. He thought there were antibiotics in the bathroom from that ear infection his mother had suffered through last year.

“It would have been a nice wedding,” she said.

Jubal stood up and moved to the small curio cabinet his mother kept in the hall.

“Still will be,” he said.

“I would have loved Egypt.”

The airline tickets were in the desk in his bedroom, but Jubal couldn’t dwell on that now. He felt like a mountain climber hanging by one hand over a bottomless precipice. If he allowed himself to think about everything that was going on-and how it was likely to end-then he just might think about putting the business end of one of the shotguns in his mouth. He could never do that to Fiona.

“Egypt will still be there when we get to it, Fee.”

He opened the drawer at the bottom of the cabinet and felt around.

“Sure, it’ll be there,” she said. “Full of plague victims and the dead army.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“Where are you going, Jube?”

He knew she meant why had he moved away from the bathroom door, but he couldn’t help but think of the question from a larger perspective.

Where was he going? Where Fiona was. That’s all that was important now. He had to keep them alive for another day, another hour.

His?nger touched something thin and metallic.

Got it.

He removed the bobby pin, black and shiny in the hall light. His mother had kept it in the drawer after a couple of moody pubescent episodes on Jubal’s part.

“Get away from the door, Fee.”

“What, you’re gonna shoot it open?”

The bobby pin had been bent into one long metal strand. Jubal slipped one end through the small opening in the doorknob and felt a satisfying click as the lock disengaged.

He opened the door and saw Fiona standing in the dark bathroom. Illuminated only by the hall light, she looked as sallow and insubstantial as a ghost. He thought he saw the shadows of small eruptions across her forehead and cheeks. He didn’t look too closely.

“Where did you learn to pick locks?”

“I used to lock myself in here when I was a kid. It’s how Ma and Dad got me out. Besides, it’s not a lock that’s really designed to keep anybody out.”

“I never had someone pick a lock for me before.”

“Come on,” he said, offering his hand. “Let’s go to bed.”

She smiled. It was a?eeting expression, gone as quickly as it appeared. “That’s the best offer I’ve had all day.”

And the rest of the day, they made slow, passionate love. Jubal made a point of caressing Fiona’s neck to show he was not disgusted by her illness-to show that despite it all, he really cared about her and always would. But after a while, he no longer had to make a point of it. He was lost in the depths of a love so strong that nothing mattered but each other’s pleasure and happiness.

Sometime in the middle of the night, long after they’d fallen asleep, Jubal vaguely registered Fiona getting up and going down the hallway to the bathroom, coughing the whole way. Then he drifted back to sleep, afloat on the memory of their beautiful lovemaking.

3

September 3, 2048

When he awoke, Jubal looked over at Fiona, who had scooted to the other side of the bed. All he could see of her was a strand of hair sticking out from beneath the covers. He smiled, patted her bottom through the blanket and got out of bed. He wanted to surprise her with breakfast so he slipped on his robe and tiptoed out of the room.

As he scrambled eggs and brewed coffee in the little kitchen, Jubal wondered what their next steps would be. They could not go north to Carlsbad; that was for sure. Maybe they could go east through Texas or south into Mexico. Maybe the farther away they got from Serenity, the better Fiona would feel. Maybe there was hope somewhere, after all.

He set two plates of hot eggs on the table and poured two cups of coffee. He set one cup next to a plate of eggs and carried the other down the hallway towards the bedroom.

“Breakfast is served, my princess,” he called.

Fiona didn’t move.

“Lazy old cow,” Jubal said jokingly.

He went to her bedside and whipped the blanket off her head. He nudged Fiona’s shoulder with his?nger.

He stopped.

Her shoulder felt wrong. And she wasn’t moving.

Jubal dropped the coffee. The hot liquid splashed across his bare feet, but he didn’t feel it. He placed three?ngers against Fiona’s blistered neck.

“No…”

He took her shoulders and shook her hard. Her head lolled from side to side and back and forth, but she did not awaken. He did this for some time before he?nally made himself stop.

That’s when he noticed the empty vial of his mother’s sleeping pills on the nightstand next to a glass of water.

Jubal snatched the glass and sniffed it. Not water. Vodka.

She must have taken them sometime before he woke up.

“Wake, up, Fee, baby!” he shouted into her unresponsive face, knowing deep down that it was no use. “Please?”

Tears flooded his eyes; he could barely see. They spattered against his dead lover’s face.

Jubal took the pill vial and threw it across the room, where it ricocheted off the wall. Beneath the vial had been a small square of the scratch paper his mother kept next to the phone in the kitchen. There was writing on it.

Jubal read through tears:

Baby,

I didn’t want to burden you with watching me slowly die and turn into one of those things. I wanted us to end on a happy moment that we both could treasure forever, no matter where we were.

I dreamed again about the dead army last night and their leader in red. Their leader is not one of them. He is not dead. And he’s not from here. He’s from a darker world. I’m not sure how I know this, but I do. It’s as real and true as my feelings for you.

I hope this helps in some way, but I can’t imagine how. I wish that you would read this and flee. Go far from here.

I’m sorry it had to be like this, my sweet, sweet Jubal. But I had been thinking about it and knew it was the only way for me-and you.

Please forgive me. And I’ll see you again in some happy place.

I’ll be waiting.

All my love,

Fiona

Jubal pressed the note to his lips, dripping tears on it, and placed it on the nightstand.

He reached down and drew the blanket up over Fiona’s face.

Picking his clothes off the?oor, he put them on slowly as if performing a sacred ritual. Then he took Fiona’s note and slid it into his uniform’s shirt pocket, over his heart, patting it after he was?nished.

He went to the living room and strapped on his Glock. He arranged the shotguns neatly on the coffee table and stacked the ammo next to them.

He removed a stack of sewing magazines from the seat of an old wooden chair that had always sat next to the front door and set them on a chair in the living room. He carried the wooden chair to the doorway of his bedroom where he set it down gently and sat on it, facing the bed.

He removed his Glock from its holster, crossed his legs, and waited.

He wasn’t completely convinced it would happen, but it didn’t take long. As…

Fiona.

…the blanketed?gure on the bed began to rise with a muf?ed groan.

It only took one shot.

Hours later, Jubal emerged from the house carrying the shrouded?gure and a shovel.

He looked at the sky; the sun’s heat caressed his face. It was going to be another hell-hot day.

Jubal carried Fiona’s body to the backyard, and though the ground was dry and hard, he set her down gently and began digging near a cactus plant she had always admired.

A few hours later, Jubal was standing over the fresh grave, dripping sweat, grasping for a few words to say. But he really couldn’t?nd any except, “I love you, Fee.”

He heard a footstep in the yard behind him.

Swinging around, shovel in hand, he saw three zombies walking quickly toward him. He recognized all of them.

One was old Pops Perez, his straw hat still perched jauntily on his head. The other two were a fat woman named Bertha Benson and her husband, Bob. They looked hungrily at him with their horrible red-yellow eyes.

Jubal reached for his Glock, but realized he had left it in the house, on the?oor in his bedroom. He had lost track of it after…doing what needed to be done there.

Charging the undead intruders, Jubal slammed the blade of the shovel against the side of Pops’s head, wincing as he did so. After all, this was the nicest old man in the world.

Was.

Pops did a spin on one foot and toppled to the ground.

The fat Bensons were still coming at him.

As the Bensons groped for him and Pops got back to his feet, Jubal ran around them and out to the front yard.

Glancing up and down the street, Jubal saw that the whole town had turned up for a visit. Old neighbors, friends and acquaintances shuf?ed about, some falling over as if not able to control their bodies. One or two noticed Jubal and turned towards him, moaning to others, who turned towards him as well.

“At least these fuckers are slow,” he said to no one, as he ran into the house, slamming the door behind himself. “And I’m talking to myself again.”

With reluctance, he went to the bedroom of tragedy for his Glock. Someone-some thing was pounding on the bedroom wall. He ignored it. He made his way back down the hall to the living room. He checked the shotguns-they were loaded and ready.

Multiple?sts pounded at the front door. It shook in its frame.

Jubal reloaded his Glock, holstered it, hung one shotgun from his shoulder and gripped the other one in his hands.

The front door, tearing from its hinges, slammed straight down against the?oor, as the crowd of undead fought to be the?rst one to get hold of Jubal. They wedged against each other in the doorway, blocking their own progress. Their antics reminded Jubal of a Three Stooges routine.

He put his back to the hallway. If things got real bad, he could always run down the hall to his mother’s bedroom, where there was a window into the front yard, giving him better access to his cruiser parked at the curb. He was thankful he didn’t have to go through his own bedroom. The sooner he forgot about that room, the better.

Jubal began shooting zombies.

Randy Minear was?rst. He and Jubal had played little league baseball together down at the city park. Randy had been an amazing short stop. He still moved pretty quick, faster than any of the walking dead Jubal had seen. He was almost on Jubal before the shotgun was raised. The blast removed most of Randy’s head, splattering bone and brains and gore onto the undead behind him. The headless corpse toppled backward, causing several of the zombies to trip and become tangled up.

Jubal took a few steps back to give him some room to maneuver. As he did, he pumped another round into the chamber of the Mossberg. Seven shots to go. Then he had the other shotgun on his back and the Glock in his belt.

A nude?gure struggled past the mass of zombies on the?oor, rolling over the other bodies and landing in front of Jubal. The dead thing stood and he recognized the decaying form of Margie Gilmore, the?rst woman he ever saw naked. When he was 13, he had chased a baseball into her backyard. After he retrieved the ball, Jubal glanced at the sliding glass door and saw Mrs. Gilmore-the mother of his friend Kent-standing there in the nude. Her breasts were quite large and sagged more than a little. Jubal didn’t care. He was frozen in place, blushing over his entire body as he stared at the brown areolas and incredibly large nipples. She held a drinking glass in one hand and she used the other to rub her belly, which served to direct his eyes toward the unkempt thatch of black hair below her navel. Jubal managed to get his body moving then, and he sprinted back to the city park. He never told anyone about the encounter, perhaps because he found it both disturbing and arousing, and he took care to stay far away from Mrs. Gilmore after that.

Now she was within a foot or two of him. The thought of her touch made his stomach do a nauseating?ip. He pointed the Mossberg and removed the left side of her head. Her right eye stared at him as she toppled to the?oor.

Six shells left in this one, Jubal. Choose wisely.

Three of the disgusting creatures squeezed through the door, two pushing the one in front. Jubal didn’t recognize any of them. All three tripped over the two bodies on the?oor, and one of them?ew through the air and struck Jubal before he could?re the shotgun. He was knocked onto his back with the zombie on top of him.

It had been a man of medium build. His face was pockmarked by the ruptured boils, and the familiar odor of disease threatened to choke Jubal. The thing swiveled its head toward Jubal’s neck and snapped its jaws. It made a tuneless humming sound, just like Jubal’s father had done when he puttered around in the garage.

The shotgun was pinned between them, its barrel aimed across Jubal’s chest. He worked his left hand up against the zombie’s side and shoved at the snapping monster. Beneath the creature’s t-shirt, the?esh shifted and rolled like the meat on a roasted chicken. As soon as he had enough room to move the Mossberg, Jubal squeezed the trigger. The recoil threw the zombie into the air and drove Jubal’s right elbow into the hardwood?oor. He felt something crunch in the joint and a searing jolt of pain exploded in a white?ash that threatened to drive him to unconsciousness.

The zombie wasn’t dead. That thought was enough motivation to force Jubal to his feet. His vision swam in and out of focus, but he could see the creature also struggling to stand. Part of its chest and left shoulder were missing. The humming had turned into an angry howl. At least it sounded angry.

Jubal brie?y wondered if the dead things felt anything, whether anger or fear. He decided he didn’t care. He switched the shotgun to his left hand and ended the creature with a headshot.

He had used four shots and there were still so many of them trying to pour in through the door. The pain from his right arm was excruciating. He thought retreat might be a prudent course. He pumped a shell into the Mossberg with a one-armed gesture.

Just like a movie hero.

Cold, dead hands closed on his neck from behind.

How-?

He spun around, though it meant turning his back on the others. The zombie turned with him, so he assumed it was a child or a small woman. He still couldn’t see it but at least he knew how it got the drop on him. The picture window in the living room had shattered. It must have happened when he was down on the?oor. He had almost blacked out and his ears were ringing from the shotgun?re, so he wouldn’t have heard it.

He used the barrel of the Mossberg to swat at the thing on his back. His effort had no effect.

Something tore into the?esh at the base of his neck. Jubal screamed and threw his body against the wall. The grip on his neck loosened and he spun around. His attacker was a girl, probably 13 or 14 years old. Her long blonde hair was braided into pigtails.

Jubal’s blood decorated her lips.

He screamed again as he shoved the tip of the barrel under her chin. He pulled the trigger, and the ceiling was painted with the contents of her skull.

Oh sweet Jesus, it bit me!

He backed toward the hallway, keeping his eyes on the advancing dead.

He kept the shotgun level in front of him. With his right hand he felt around on the back of his neck. The pain in his arm made him whimper.

The wound was small, but it was deep and the edges were ragged. His body went cold.

Am I going to change?

He didn’t know if Fiona had been right when she said Jubal was immune to the disease. Even if he were, would the immunity hold up to a direct bite? He imagined the virus or bacteria or whatever it was making its way through his bloodstream, tweaking him as it went along, soon to materialize as ugly, pus-?lled blisters. The next step would be his induction into the dead army.

No fucking way. It wasn’t going to happen.

If it came to that, he would take Fiona’s way out. He would never become one of those things.

Several of the monsters had worked their way past the bodies on the?oor and were getting close to him.

“Motherfuckers,” Jubal said. He started toward them.

He shot the?rst one in the head.

“Fuck you.”

Two more of the things approached, taking its place. One of them was Patty from the diner. Her smile had been replaced by a hungry grin. Her black tongue played across her swollen lips in a disgusting parody of seduction. Patty hadn’t even been sick two days ago. Was this plague working faster the longer it was in the air?

He did another one-handed pump to ready the shotgun.

“Sorry, Patty.” The blast tore through her face and removed the back of her head.

A crazy thought entered his mind: No more Wednesday special.

Laughter welled up in his chest, the crazy kind that you couldn’t let out. Once it took root it would never stop. He jacked another shell into the chamber and killed Patty’s companion.

The?rst shotgun was empty. He dropped in on the?oor and swung the other Mossberg off his shoulder.

The next zombie through the door was Mr. Handley, his high school math teacher. Handley had given Jubal a particularly hard time in school, apparently owed to an old encounter Handley had with Jubal’s dad. It wasn’t hard to pull the trigger this time.

A shadow fell across the?oor.

Jubal whirled to see two teenagers-a boy and a girl-nearly upon him. He had forgotten about the broken picture window.

There was no time to pump the Mossberg. Jubal swung the shotgun like a ball bat. He knocked the girl to the ground. He struck the boy in the face, driving the zombie to its knees. Jubal hammered at the creature again and again until the thing’s head was pulped and it lay unmoving. He pumped another shell into the chamber, praying the barrel wasn’t ruined.

The girl was twitching on the?oor as if she were in the throes of an epileptic seizure.

He stood over her and?red the shotgun.

The barrel seemed to be in good shape. The girl’s brain matter was spread around her like an unholy aura.

There was no movement near the picture window, so he turned back to the front door. Some of the creatures must have moved on. Only two remained in the doorway. The larger of the two, Damon’s old friend Red, shoved his way past the cute cashier from the Amoco station. Red held his arms in front of him,?exing his?ngers, seemingly anxious to get a grip on Jubal. The dead man made hooting sounds that sounded like some great ape.

Jubal raised the shotgun to pump in another shell. He was covered in blood and other bits of his former neighbors, and his right arm was screaming at him. The wound on the back of his neck didn’t hurt anymore, but it throbbed in time with his pulse.

He sprayed Red’s head across the room. Bits of blood, bone and brain spattered the walls, dotting the Amoco girl, who hungrily licked the gore off her lips with a long gray tongue.

After he blew the Amoco girl away, he walked to the broken picture window and took a peek outside. In the middle of the street, the zombies had a screaming teenage girl pinned down. Her distressed cries reached a fever pitch when one of the larger zombies tore her arm from its socket with a loud pop. An arc of blood squirted straight up from within the swarming mass of dead. The girl’s screaming was muf?ed, then gone. The fresh glistening blood that had splattered the zombies looked like wet red paint.

There was nothing Jubal could do for the girl now. He wondered if she had been the last living townsperson besides himself. It sure seemed like it. The dead were walking everywhere. Jubal never knew the town had so many people. He’d never seen this many at the monthly town meeting-ever.

Several zombies wandered about in Jubal’s front yard. One was amusing itself by repeatedly skewering its?nger on the long needles of one of Ma’s favorite cacti.

Jubal stepped back into the house and reloaded the Mossbergs. As he worked, he happened to glance up at a shelf on the wall next to the TV. There sat an old picture, one that had been there so long that Jubal had stopped noticing it until now. It was of himself as a child with his mother and father standing proudly behind him. His Dad had his hand on Jubal’s shoulder. Everyone was smiling for the photographer and looking quite happy.

They had been happy.

Jubal took the picture down and removed the photo from its frame.

Rubbing his neck, which had stopped bleeding, he went to the kitchen and put the picture along with some non-perishable food into a sturdy grocery bag. He would have used his backpack, but that was in his bedroom and he wasn’t about to go in there ever again.

The picture reminded him of something he hadn’t thought about in a long time. He went to his mother’s bedroom and opened her closet. Moving aside dresses and blouses, Jubal reached to the back corner and felt the item he had been searching for. The closet smelled of his mother’s perfume and it made him dizzy with memory, so he quickly pulled the item out and slammed the door closed.

In his hands he held his father’s Tango-51 sniper ri?e. He wondered if there was extra ammunition for it in the closet but he couldn’t bring himself to open that door again. Once was enough. He’d keep the memories trapped there. They were of no use to him now.

There was a thud. Something large was moving down the hallway toward the bedroom.

He leaned the ri?e against the bed near the grocery sack and slid the Glock from its holster.

A lone zombie, its face ruined by disease, saw him and lurched toward him. It moaned hungrily.

Jubal shot it in the head.

A gray-green goo streamed against the hallway wall as the thing fell to the?oor.

Jubal listened for more intruders but didn’t hear anything except for the ones outside, voicing their strange mewlings and groans.

He went to the bedroom’s front window.

Zombies wandered the property, blocking his path to the cruiser. One was sitting in the dirt of the front yard, staring into the face of a severed head, mumbling to it. The head didn’t belong to the teenage girl that had been attacked in the street. It was someone else’s.

“Fucking horror movie,” Jubal muttered as he slid the window open.

He poked the Glock out, aiming at the seated zombie. He pulled the trigger and made a hole in its forehead. Toppling over, the zombie lay still as the severed head rolled back and forth in the dirt.

The other zombies looked around, wondering where the shot had come from.

Jubal pulled back into the room so they wouldn’t see him.

After a moment, he glanced out and saw the zombies standing around the one he’d just killed, staring. One of them kicked the severed head into the street.

Jubal shot them in quick succession, with ammunition to spare. Grabbing the sack, and quickly glancing around the room to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, he exited the house through the open window.

With three guns strapped to his back, the Glock and grocery sack in his hands, Jubal squatted down and moved quickly towards the cruiser. He unlocked the car using the keyless entry. As he swung the door wide, several of the zombies moaned loudly, having?nally taken notice of him.

Jubal shot at the nearest one, but missed. He shoved his equipment and supplies into the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel, slamming the door closed behind him. He turned the car on and it roared to life.

The gas gauge read half. That would get him well out of town and hopefully to a station along the highway.

Something slammed against the driver’s side window. Jubal turned to see Doc Mitchell with his dead face pressed against the glass. Slime oozed from his lips.

Jubal showed the doctor his middle?nger, then stepped on the gas.

Doc Mitchell spun around and fell on his ass in the street as Jubal sped away.

“That’s what you get for being such a lousy fucking doctor.”

The zombies wandering the streets of Serenity proved a worthy obstacle course. When Jubal couldn’t maneuver around them or nudge them aside with the car, he drove straight over them with a satisfying bump. He had to use that tactic sparingly, as long as he needed the car.

As he rounded a corner, he slammed on the brakes.

Previous to this moment, every zombie Jubal had ever seen had either wandered aimlessly or attacked like a rabid animal.

The cruiser faced east. Spanning the road ahead of it was a line of zombies standing at attention. Behind this row was another. And another.

Jubal put the car in reverse as other zombies joined the formation, and as, all at once, they began to move.

Like a dead army.

Jubal turned the car around and sped back down the road, knocking aside any stray zombies in his path.

They were bad enough as feral beasts of the dead, but this new thing seemed even more unnerving. Organized zombies.

It struck him that he was leaving town for good, a town he had loved and hated (but not really). Serenity was his home and he was going to miss it. And he was going to miss all the people who had made it a home. Who had made his life worth living. Ma, Damon, Fiona, Pops Perez and the rest. All gone now. All dead.

Was his life worth living anymore? Was he alone in a world of zombies, or were things okay in Texas or up north? Out east? He wouldn’t know unless he found out for himself. Who was responsible for all this? There were so many questions. And Jubal wanted concrete answers. Not rumors, theories and half-remembered snatches of dreams.

He took a side road west, which led to Highway 285. He knew he couldn’t go north. That way was blockaded, unless the zombie army had gotten to the soldiers. Maybe he could go south.

But Jubal didn’t reach the highway.

Ahead of him stretched regiments of zombies, all facing west, all in?le. They trudged along, keeping in perfect step with each other. They must have come from other small towns in the area.

There were thousands of them.

Something glinted in the bright blue sky.

Jubal stopped the car and looked up through his windshield.

Some sort of silver vehicle, like an airborne jet-ski, buzzed over the army of zombies. At one point it hovered in place. Then it buzzed around again, herding the undead towards the west-towards Nevada. It was too far away and Jubal wished he had remembered binoculars so he could have a better look. But it was close enough to see the color of the rider’s clothing.

Red.

For a brief moment he thought it might be some new military craft. Then he recalled the dream, the half-remembered details suddenly and sharply in focus.

The?gure in crimson strode across a sea of dead bodies, waving a silver staff, urging the corpses to rise and obey him. As the cadavers struggled to obey, the man in the robes turned to look at Jubal. It wasn’t human. The head was too tall and very thin, as if a giant had squeezed it between its?ngers. The eyes were black, deep set between the angular cheekbones. There was no nose to speak of and the mouth was nothing more than a cruel gash. Behind the creature, yellow mist billowed and rose like stage fog in a magician’s show. Jubal knew it to be poison, a foggy messenger carrying the plague of the dead army.

He snapped to full alertness. He wasn’t sure how much of the memory had actually been in his dreams, or if his subconscious had embellished the scenario. He quickly decided it didn’t matter. The dream-the memory — had the feeling, the texture of truth.

And if it were true, the implication was monstrous. It meant this wasn’t an accident. It meant there was a design here, a hand responsible for the death of all he had ever known and everyone he loved.

And if it wasn’t true, Jubal decided he didn’t care. He had endured more than any person could rightfully expect in a lifetime. It was time for a little payback.

He stepped out of the car, leaving the engine running.

He estimated the dead army was less than two hundred yards away. The odd?ying machine that carried the red-robed?gure darted over the lurching creatures, looking as harmless as a?re?y from this distance. There seemed to be no reaction to Jubal’s presence. They either didn’t know he was there or they didn’t care.

That was about to change.

Jubal calmly removed the sniper ri?e from the cruiser. His father had purchased the Tango-51 though the sheriff’s of?ce, so he could get the professional discount. He had called it the?nest ri?e ever made. Jubal ran a hand over the green and black?nish. His father had taught Jubal to always care for his weapons so he would be able to rely on them. Jubal had followed that advice. It was close to two years since the gun had been?red and Jubal had cleaned it afterward, as he always did. He knew it would?re accurately. He slid back the big bolt action and made sure it was loaded. He didn’t think he would need more than one round.

Using the roof of the car for a rest-and trying to ignore the pain in his right elbow-Jubal put his eye to the scope and searched for the crimson?gure.

It took a few seconds, but he found it. At?rst, he could only see a?eld of red, but the scope’s resolution was amazing. He shifted the ri?e a fraction of an inch and he found its hideous face.

It was exactly as it had been in his dream. The black and bottomless eyes seemed to stare straight into his mind. He could feel the power radiating from this strange being, power that would eventually overwhelm everything on the planet. Fighting back was a lost cause. It would be so simple to put the gun down, to give up No.

Jubal gasped. That thing had noticed him. Jubal didn’t understand how, but the creature on the?ying machine had connected with him like two satphones communicating.

It had to be the plague. It not only changed humans into those undead beasts, it also linked everyone together in unexplainable ways.

I’ve tuned into the dead frequency.

Jubal ran a hand over the wound on the back of his neck. Though the bleeding had stopped, the bite was sticky and it ached.

That thing could talk to me. Maybe not with words, but I understood the surrender message it was sending out. Does that mean that I’m turning?

Other than the pain from the bite, and the ache in his arm, Jubal didn’t feel different. But if the disease was transmitted more quickly through direct contact, his transformation could begin at any time. If it happened, he could?nd himself unable-or unwilling-to?ght.

He couldn’t take that chance.

The strange glider was still hovering over the army of the dead. He felt an odd tickling deep within his skull, a gentle hand sifting through his thoughts.

Fuck that.

He leaned forward with the barrel of the sniper ri?e again on the cruiser’s roof. Jubal closed his eyes. He exhaled, as his father had taught him. His opened his right eye and found the non-human pilot through the ri?e’s scope. He squeezed the trigger.

He thought he saw something resembling surprise?ash across that alien face before the bullet left the barrel.

Maybe this communications network travels both ways. Maybe I sent my own greeting across the dead frequency.

The message may have been delivered, but not as he intended. The 7.22 mm shell tore through the creature’s shoulder, knocking it from its?ying machine.

Jubal had aimed for the head.

The strange craft began to slowly spin,?oating away.

He lowered the ri?e. The orderly lines of walking dead broke formation, each cut free from the robed thing’s control.

It was time to go.

Jubal climbed back into the car. He propped the Tango against the passenger door and picked up one of the shotguns.

The zombies were spread out, both in the road and on the cactus-strewn desert that surrounded it. There were too many of them to avoid, so Jubal decided to use the largest weapon he had. He stomped the accelerator.

The?rst zombie he hit rolled under the car and provided a satisfying crunch. The next one?ew into the air and landed against the windshield before spinning off to one side. The safety glass cracked but did not break.

He managed to clip several others with the edge of the front bumper as he tried to in?ict the most damage possible without destroying the cruiser. As he drew closer to the spot where the undead had originally been lined up, Jubal saw a?ash of red.

He slowed the car and rolled down his window.

The creature he had shot was lying in a twisted mess next to the road. Seeing it through the ri?e’s scope had not prepared him for the size of the monster. If it had been standing it would have been close to eight feet tall. The thing’s arms were very long and were now bent into unnatural shapes. If it had anything resembling a human skeleton, its back was broken. Its left shoulder was leaking a black gelatinous?uid.

Jubal checked the perimeter around the car. There were plenty of zombies, but none close enough to pose an immediate threat. He stepped out of the cruiser.

The alien creature studied him with those insect-like black eyes. They seemed to have sunken even further into the elongated skull. Jubal could now see that the thing’s robe was decorated with hundreds of odd symbols, all delineated in golden embroidery. He could smell something like exotic spices, and beneath that scent was the unmistakable pungency of rot.

The creature’s breath came in shallow, whistling gasps.

A wave of terror passed through Jubal as he stood so close to a being that came from somewhere other than Earth.

“Can you understand me?”

The creature made no sound save for its labored breathing. He thought he felt the tickling in the back of his mind, but the sensation quickly passed.

“My name is Slate. I don’t know where you came from or why you’re here, I just-” Jubal’s voice broke. He had to clear his throat before he could continue. “I just know what you’ve done. You’ve killed us all, haven’t you? You’ve taken away everything decent and good in my life and you’ve probably taken me, too. But before I go, I want you to deliver a message for me. If you have any friends out there, send ’em one of your mind bulletins or whatever they are. You tell ’em Slate did this. Jubal Slate.”

He raised the shotgun.

If the creature understood what was happening, it did not show it.

“Do they believe in Hell where you come from? I hope so.”

The thing’s thin, lipless mouth twitched.

Jubal pulled the trigger. The alien head exploded in a geyser of thick, black blood.

He shot it again for good measure.

His eyes burned with hot tears, but he had no time for remorse. The dead army was getting closer. He returned to the cruiser.

Before he climbed into the vehicle, the sun glinted off something metallic. A few feet from the corpse of the alien thing, a strange silver rod lay among the rock and sandy soil.

He didn’t know what it was, but it made his skin crawl just looking at it.

It belonged to that thing. That’s what he used to control the dead army.

Jubal got into the car and backed over the staff. It broke into many pieces.

He put the cruiser in drive and drove away, clipping a few more zombies along the way.

The zombie demolition derby had damaged the cruiser’s radiator. He kept going long after the temperature gauge climbed into the red. Just outside of Van Horn, Texas, the engine seized up with a grinding crunch and a cloud of smoke.

He gathered his weapons and supplies and walked into town.

The streets were deserted, but he took no chances. The?rst building he saw was a Rexall drug store. He hammered the glass door open with his Glock. There was no alarm. He let himself in and shoved a heavy cosmetics display case against the broken door. At least it would give him some warning. He curled up behind the checkout counter and slept for a long time.

4

September 4, 2048

When he awoke he was parched and his neck wound and elbow hurt worse than ever.

He located hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic cream and bandages.

Why go to the trouble if I’m turning into a zombie?

He dressed the wound anyway.

The power was still on in the store and he found a fully stocked soda case and plenty of candy bars and chips. He ate until he was sick, then slept again.

5

September 5, 2048

The next morning, he shoved the cosmetics case away from the door and watched the brilliant emerald strip running across the horizon.

Gathering his supplies, augmented with several cans of Coke and a dozen candy bars, Jubal went out into the empty streets.

He found a used car lot two blocks down. He blew the lock off the door of the of?ce with one of the shotguns, no longer afraid of drawing anyone’s attention. The town was dead. He could feel it. He didn’t know where the zombies were, but he would worry about that later. Jubal grabbed a handful of keys from a pegboard in the small of?ce and unlocked vehicles until he found one with plenty of gasoline. It was an old truck. He tossed the guns and the rest into the passenger seat and drove away.

Sometime that afternoon he crossed into Mexico.

He slept in the desert that night, stretched out in the bed of the truck.

The sky was clean and clear and full of stars. Jubal wondered how many people were left to wish upon them.

He dozed for a while, only to jerk awake for no apparent reason. He couldn’t remember any dreams.

Then he heard it. A nearly silent hum.

Jubal lay quietly in the truck’s bed, afraid to move. High above him something passed over the face of the moon.

It was one of the alien?ying machines.

He held his breath until the hum was long gone.

6

September 6, 2048

The next day he drove to the Gulf. He waded out naked into the warm ocean until the salt water burned the wound on the back of his neck, as if scalding it clean. He?oated for a long time, allowing the ebb and?ow of the water to carry him away from the beach.

It would be so easy to just give up, to allow the sea’s embrace to deliver him down to a peaceful surrender.

After a while, Jubal rolled over and swam back to shore.

7

September 12, 2048

The plague hadn’t reached this far. Not yet.

Jubal found a small house on the beach. It had no power, but there was a bed and a lot of canned food in the kitchen.

He also found others who were still alive. More arrived every day.

He had been here nearly a week. The wound on his neck had scabbed over. It looked like Fiona had been right. He didn’t have the disease and apparently wouldn’t get it.

The newcomers had all seen the zombies. Most had to deal with family who had changed. One man from Del Rio had to put down his own wife and kids. After he told his story, he didn’t say much more.

Every night there were more?res on the beach. It had become a regular refugee camp.

But Jubal couldn’t forget the sight of the alien?yer in the desert.

They couldn’t stay here much longer.

Most of them wanted to keep moving, stay on the run, hide until there were no more safe places.

There were a few who felt like Jubal, who had nothing left but the screaming in their heads that could only be silenced through vengeance.

It was something he could use.

They would travel to the Paci?c, then make their way through California. Eventually they would reach ground zero. Nevada.

He hoped they would pick up others along the way. It was a suicide mission; they all knew that. Jubal just wanted to take as many of those red-robed alien fuckers with him as he could.

For his mother and Fiona and the rest.

For Serenity.

He sat on the porch of the cabin and cleaned his guns, watching the sun set in the green sky.