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Blindness is just the beginning. Once the virus strips away everything remotely human, all that's left is a mindless, savage...
Category: Thriller and Suspense

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Published by Natthapong Toukanee, 2021-11-01 03:35:52

A Post Apocalyptic Thriller

Blindness is just the beginning. Once the virus strips away everything remotely human, all that's left is a mindless, savage...
Category: Thriller and Suspense

Keywords: Thriller

STAGE 3

Ken Stark

STAGE 3
Copyright © 2016 KEN STARK

Second Edition

All Rights Reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in
any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other
electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the
publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews
and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and
incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a
fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or
actual events is purely coincidental.

www.kenstark.ca

Second Edition published by Ken Stark, 2021
First Edition published by Severed Press, 2016

Cover Design and Formatting by The Book Khaleesi

Contents

Other Books by Ken Stark
CHAPTER I
CHAPTER II
CHAPTER III
CHAPTER IV
CHAPTER V
CHAPTER VI
CHAPTER VII
CHAPTER VIII
CHAPTER IX
CHAPTER X
CHAPTER XI
CHAPTER XII
CHAPTER XIII
CHAPTER XIV
CHAPTER XV
CHAPTER XVI
CHAPTER XVII
CHAPTER XVIII
CHAPTER XIX
CHAPTER XX
CHAPTER XXI
About the Author

Other Books by Ken Stark

STAGE 3: Alpha
STAGE 3: Bravo

Arcadia Falls
Jitters

BROWSE KEN STARK’S TITLES ON AMAZON

ABOUT THE BOOK

Blindness is just the beginning.

Once the infection reaches Stage 2, it strips away everything remotely human
and leaves a monster in its wake.

Mason never cared much for his fellow man, but now he is all that stands
between a little girl and a world gone mad, and yet, even as they fight their
way from one horror to the next, through streets running red with blood, they
both know that time is running out.

Stage 3 is coming, and things are about to get a whole lot worse.

WHAT READERS ARE SAYING

“There are numerous comparisons between “Stage 3” and other zombie
apocalypse tales, but it’s the dissimilarities of other zombie tales that put Ken
Stark at the top of the zombie author charts. Stark is a master wordsmith. His
insight into character development, realistic dialogue and the right amount
and timing of twists that keep the reader reading are second to none. I highly
recommend “Stage 3” to zombie and horror fans, but also those who enjoy a
human story embedded in an action-packed apocalyptic tale.”

~ Lexallen.com

“Imagine waking up one morning to a world that has descended into
cannibalistic chaos all around--and not have a clue as to what has
happened?! Author Ken Stark takes us into this new world order through the
eyes of main character Hank ‘Mace’ Mason, reluctant hero of a near miss
airplane tragedy, newly dumped by his girlfriend, and saved from the
proliferation of the man-eating plague by the grace of a few well-timed
alcohol binges. As Mace sleeps, power grids, communication lines, and
societal rule collapse---leaving every man, woman, child who didn’t succumb
on their own to try and survive against the newly turned zombie population.”

~ Amazon 5-star Review

CHAPTER

I

The droning was incessant. It came up from the floor, hummed through the
seat, and vibrated through his body like a shiver. Mason snapped awake, kept
his eyes tightly closed, and muttered a silent curse.

Damn! Still in the air...

While he was asleep, someone had nestled a red-hot poker behind his
eyes and wrapped a clamp around his head. It was that damned engine
vibration. How the hell did people abide that ceaseless droning? No wonder
his skull felt like it was coming apart.

Well, okay, maybe there was more to it than that, he admitted sheepishly,
the taste of scotch still strong in his mouth.

He could hear music, too. How the hell was there music? Oh right. His
iPod. He’d turned it on and slipped in the earbuds to circumvent any further
tedious dialogue with the other incessant drone next door. Then, in case the
big guy didn’t get the message, he had reclined his seat and closed his eyes.
Eventually, the charade became real, and he had actually fallen asleep. That
last part was sheer bonus. He hadn’t been sure how he’d survive another
sixteen-hour flight across the Pacific in a plane stuffed with humans, but
apparently, he had discovered the solution. Copious amounts of alcohol, a
double shot of Dramamine, and a generous helping of Pink Floyd.

Should have gone business class, he pondered idly to himself. Becks
would have liked that...

And with that single errant thought, a flood of emotions poured into his
aching brain. Grief. Loss. Betrayal. An abiding anger bordering on outright
hostility.

At last, he felt a cramping in his legs that brought his mind back to the
present. One of his feet was twisted around the other and sending shooting

pains into his calf. Not wanting to let his neighbor know that he was awake,
he uttered a vague somniferous grunt and shifted casually in his seat. Better
now. Blood flow restored, and no one the wiser. And better yet, the searing
pain in his head superseded the growing pins and needles accompanying the
return of circulation.

Keeping his eyes tightly closed, he took mental stock of his positioning.
His head was turned to the right, away from his neighbor and toward the
window. Good. He could pop an eye open without being discovered and
maybe see how far along they were. If they were over land, it meant they
were in the final stretch, and he might be able to abide a half-hour of idle
chit-chat if it meant he could properly stretch his legs. If they were still over
water, he’d have to feign unconsciousness for a while longer. Hell, maybe
he’d even drift back to sleep and give his body time to work through the last
of the alcohol to keep his skull from splitting open.

He chanced a peek and saw that they were over land. Hallelujah. Most of
the way home. SFO was a barf-bag’s toss away, so figure a half hour to
descend, another half hour to find his bag on the carousel, and a twenty-
minute cab ride home. Inside of two hours, he would have been on his own
toilet, in his own shower, and drinking his own beer in front of his own tv,
with his ass comfortably ensconced in his own goddam recliner.

Halle-fuckin’-lujah!

He cracked both eyes open and looked to the video screen on the
seatback in front of him. He’d left it tuned to the flight information channel,
and sure enough, there was the little airplane icon hovering directly over San
Francisco. Thank Christ. But according to the numbers, they were still at
twenty thousand feet, circling the airport. What the... Fog? What else could it
be. Damn! Suddenly, thoughts of diverting to another airport came to mind,
and his heart sank. Two hours to divert, twenty minutes to deplane, another
thirty for the baggage carousel, then an inglorious overnight bus ride with the
same sweaty, irritating humans he’d been cooped up with all day.

Christ, no... Just get me home!

Suddenly, the issue of keeping his neighbor from knowing he was awake
returned to top priority. Even if they had to divert, not having to speak to that
rambling boor until they were on the tarmac would be half the battle. Still, as

much as he liked his Floyd, he was growing tired of hearing the same album
on the same endless loop, but he couldn’t very well fiddle with the iPod
without alerting his neighbor. Thankfully, the cord was still lying across his
lap, so he slowly and surreptitiously twisted the cord around his index finger,
taking up slack until the earphones popped out of his ears.

One second, Roger Waters was insisting ‘there’s someone in my head,
but it’s not me.’ The next, sheer pandemonium as if a riot had broken out at a
funeral. There were angry shouts, anguished pleas, indignant cursing, and
overriding it all, a chorus of impassioned wails full of abject misery. The big
man next door was one of those crying. His pudgy face was down, his
abundance of chins were piled up against his chest like a meaty washboard,
and he was bawling his eyes out. No gentle sobs for the big man, either. His
flabby chest would rise ponderously as he sucked in a lungful of air, then
he’d release the breath in a flood of baleful tears and loud, mournful howls.

Sonuvabitch, the plane’s crashing! That has to be it. Everyone knows it
but me...

Oddly enough, Mason wasn’t frightened at the prospect, nor was he
angry. If anything, he almost admired the way the universe had managed to
stitch everything together so impeccably. His world had crashed down around
his ears, the future he’d been anticipating had gone straight down the toilet,
and now he was to be splashed across a tarmac with a few hundred members
of the species he liked the least as his final company. After the past few
weeks, a fiery death in an explosion of twisted metal and mangled flesh
seemed just about perfect. He couldn’t even be allowed the mercy of sleeping
through his last moments on Earth. Hell, no. That would be cheating.

Just then, the speaker overhead hissed. No longer concerned with
anything but his imminent death, Mason sat bolt upright.

Go ahead, he thought morosely, there’s nothing more that can happen to
me, so give it to me straight...

“Attention passengers,” the captain’s voice came through loud and clear,
but the woman’s tone was subdued, even meek. “We are over San Francisco,
and God willing will be on the ground shortly. Once we touch down,
ambulances will be on hand to tend to those who require attention. Please
bear with us, and try to remain calm. You will soon be in the hands of the

best medical minds on the planet, and they’ll have this whole thing quickly
sorted out.”

Huh? So, we’re not crashing, then? Ambulances? Those who require
attention? What the hell did I miss?

As the captain’s voice clicked off, a stewardess appeared at the front of
the cabin. It was the cute little thing who had brought him his over-
abundance of drinks, each one delivered with a sly grin and a cute little wink.
Oh, she was a doll alright, but it looked like she’d been spending her down
time sampling her own wares. She stepped to the front of the aisle looking
vaguely ceilingward and stumbling awkwardly. Finally, she grabbed the
closest seatback for stability and brought a metal tray up to her chest. A crude
message had been scrawled across the tray in bright red lipstick. The words
were printed clumsily, letters bumping into letters and words overriding one
another, but the message was clear enough.

‘If you can read this, please come forward,’ it read.

What the hell?

Mason read it again, and then again, and once again just to be sure. ‘If
you can read this, please come forward.’ Nothing more. No explanation, no
qualifiers. Just that. ‘If you can read this, please come forward.’ What in
God’s name did that mean? Was it a joke? Jesus Christ, what the hell did he
sleep through?

He watched and waited, but no one went forward. Well, if it was a joke,
the cute little stewardess was certainly committed to it. She stood there for
three long minutes, grasping the seatback for support and holding that stupid
metal tray higher and higher in the air.

‘If you can read this, please come forward.’

Okay then, if she was that determined to have her silly joke, Mason
would play along. And then, once everyone dropped the act and had a good
laugh at his expense, he’d give his best ‘aw-shucks’ expression and pretend
to be a good sport. Really, being laughed at now would be the best thing that
had happened to him in a long time.

He began to stand, assuming his neighbor would take the hint and follow
social convention by swinging his legs to the side or hoisting his big, fat body

up and out of the way, but no such luck. The man with the pudgy face and the
big belly simply cried and dabbed at his eyes with a soiled handkerchief,
heaving his ponderous chest outward every time he needed to draw in more
air for another round of wailing. Mason tried clearing his throat loudly, but to
no avail. The big man was too absorbed with wallowing in his own personal
misery to be aware of anything else. Finally and reluctantly, Mason tapped
the whale of a man on the shoulder.

“Huh? What?” the man recoiled in his seat, his goggled eyes hovering
somewhere near Mason’s crotch. “What? Who’zat? What do you want?”

Surprise, jerkhole! It’s Marilyn Monroe, and I’m here to sing Happy
Birthday, he wanted to say. Instead, he whispered quietly, “Would you
excuse me, please.”

“Huh? What?”

The man looked positively addled. He made no move to stand, or turn to
the side, or otherwise remove his prodigious bulk from the pathway to
freedom.

I thought booze and Dramamine were good, Mason thought to himself,
but maybe I should try a little of what this guy had...

He finally began to push his way gruffly through to the aisle, but a pair
of meaty hands groped at him as he passed.

“Christ, dude, I just wanna take a leak. Do you fucking mind?” he
snapped, shoving himself out into the aisle at last.

“Sure!” The big man howled, “Why not? Take a leak! Take a leak
wherever you like! The world’s your toilet now, boy!” Then he laughed and
laughed until the tears came again.

“Please, everyone!” someone spoke up a few seats away. It was an older
fellow with wire-framed glasses and a crucifix around his neck. “We must
not fight among ourselves!”

“He’s right,” a tiny woman agreed from across the aisle. “We should
remain calm and work together.”

Suddenly, a chorus of voices rose up, some agreeing, some arguing, and
some downright crude. Those who didn’t join in were either too busy

sobbing, or staring blindly at the seatback in front of them, all but insensate.
A few rows away, a baby started crying like an air raid siren, and all his
mother could do was clutch it to her breast and cry right along with him.

Jesus, you pass out for a few hours and everyone loses their shit...

Mason strolled up the aisle toward the stewardess with the tray. As he
moved, he was impelled to push one man back into his seat to get by, then he
became aware of a little old woman groping about in the aisle. A string of
rosary beads lay in a ball a few feet away, so he collected the beads and
placed them in the woman’s hands. She stared up at his belt buckle with red,
moist eyes, and held the beads to her frail little chest.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” she cooed, then she fell silent and brought
the rosary up her chin, moving her lips in silent prayer.

The stewardess had given up by the time he arrived. She had dropped her
tray to the ground and was groping her way back behind the curtain. Mason
tapped her on the shoulder, and she spun around, her face a mask of horror.

“Please don’t hurt me!” she gasped.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Mason assured her as gently as he could. He
threw a quick glance over his shoulder at the contemptuous rabble behind
him, and leaned in to whisper in the girl’s ear. “I got your message.”

The girl’s expression changed instantly.

“You can...” she began, but then she stopped herself and reached out
toward him. Her fingers played over his face, then she gently pulled herself
close enough that her lips were nearly pressed against his ear. “You can...
see?” she asked, a distinct desperation in her voice.

“I can,” he breathed in a whisper, then he stood back and waited for the
punchline and the gales of laughter.

To his amazement, there was neither. The stewardess grabbed him by the
arm and turned on her heels. She started to grope her way away from the
main cabin, but she stumbled over the discarded tray and would have fallen
on her face had Mason not caught her. He took hold of her hand, laid it gently
on his outstretched elbow, and guided her into the galley. The drink cart was
standing in the way, so he pushed it to the side, helping himself to a few tiny
bottles of scotch on the way. He slipped two of them into his jacket pocket

and snapped the third one open, downing it in a single swallow. Maybe it
would help dull the throbbing headache, and if not, what the hell. Either way,
they could add it to his bill.

“Gloria?” the stewardess called out.

An older gal was standing against a little metal sink, weeping. She pulled
herself together long enough to mutter a solemn, “I’m here, Katie.”

“Gloria!” Katie said in an excited whisper as she lugged Mason along,
then she lowered her voice until it was barely a whisper. “This man says he
can see!”

“Oh, thank the Lord...” Gloria hushed. She choked back her tears, wiped
her eyes with her hands, and stumbled her way across the galley. She reached
out blindly as she drew near, and Mason took one of her hands in his. When
she felt the grip, she nearly collapsed. “Oh, thank you, thank you...” she
gushed, “Who are you?”

“The name’s Mason,” he offered, vaguely.

“What seat number?”

“Uhhh...10B.”

Gloria managed a weak smile through her tears.

“Scotch, rocks, beer, and keep them coming.”

Mason pressed the heel of his hand against his throbbing temple and
sighed.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

Katie spoke again from behind Gloria.

“Mr Mason, we need your assistance if you would be so kind?”

It was phrased as a question, but her tone of voice declared it as an
imperative. Mason nodded back, but he quickly realized his error and
answered aloud.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” he told her honestly.

Gloria lugged him along with her and reached for a phone on the wall
with practiced familiarity. She pushed a button, waited a few seconds, and

said into the receiver, “I think we found someone.”

She hung up the phone just as a buzz sounded from the door directly
opposite. Gloria opened the door and all but pushed Mason into the cockpit.
The pilots at the controls half-turned in their seats, though neither one looked
directly at this strange intruder standing on the verge of their inner sanctum.

“Hello?” the man on the right said.

“Hello,” Mason replied, warily.

“Please come in, sir. Thank you, Gloria. Please close the door.”

They both did as instructed, and Mason found himself gawking through
the large windscreen at a clear night sky and a grid of city lights far below.

“Excuse me, sir,” the one on the left spoke up. She was older, and with
an air of authority that identified her immediately as the one in charge. “Who
are you?”

“Uhh... 10B,” Mason said awkwardly. “Scotch, rocks, and a beer.”

The captain smiled affably.

“I could use that myself right about now, Mr Tenby,” she said, and
waved him further into the cabin. Before Mason could correct her, she held
out her hand, and he took it. “Mr Tenby, my name is Katherine. This man
beside me is Aaron.”

“Hello,” the copilot repeated, looking somewhere over Mason’s
shoulder.

“Hello,” Mason said again.

“Mr Tenby,” the woman looked anxiously at Mason’s chest, “Can you
tell me how many fingers you see?”

She held up three fingers in a boy scout salute. Mason shrugged, “Three,
but I don’t understand what...”

The copilot cut him off.

“Thank God! Mr Tenby, we could use your help.”

“I don’t ...” Mason started again, but this time the pilot interrupted.

“Mr Tenby, how did you come to retain your sight?” she asked, then she

turned to her copilot before Mason could respond and said, “Maybe we were
wrong, Aaron. Maybe it wasn’t the lightning. Maybe it was the food, after all.
Mr Tenby, did you have dinner during the flight?”

“If you want to call it that. Some kind of chicken, as far as I could make
out.”

Suddenly, a knot began to form in his stomach. What was wrong with the
chicken? Had he been poisoned? Is that what was wrong with everyone? A
million thoughts buzzed through his mind, tightening the knot, but feeling a
little like he’d been called to the principal’s office, he let the others ask the
questions.

“What about the lightning? Did you see the lightning?” This, from the
copilot, Aaron.

“I’ve been asleep for most of the flight,” Mason admitted sheepishly.
“Scotch, rocks, beer, and Dramamine.”

The pilot laughed aloud.

The copilot leaned across the center control panel and hushed,
“Katherine, if he was asleep...”

“Mr Tenby,” the woman said, quelling her laughter, “Normally I would
caution against such a potent cocktail, but I count us as fortunate that you
didn’t heed the instructions that came with your airsickness pills. It’s seems
that you are the only person aboard this aircraft not suffering from a
temporary loss of sight.”

Jesus...

“We hope it’s temporary,” Aaron corrected her.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph...

The captain slumped in her seat, but her tone remained stalwart.

“Yes, we hope. But the fact of the matter is, Mr Tenby, apparently you
are the only one onboard who can see.”

The full reality of the situation washed over Mason in a wave, making
his knees feel suddenly weak.

“You’re telling me that you’re both blind?” he sighed, putting a hand to

his aching temple.

“I’m afraid so,” the captain replied.

Back came the vision of a fiery death, and Mason almost chuckled to
himself. It was just too perfect. The perfect damned ending to the perfect
damn week. He wondered if Becks would even shed a tear when she heard
the news. Then it occurred to him why he must have been brought to the
cockpit, and that new thought unnerved him even more.

“You don’t expect me to land the plane?” he fairly barked, stepping
nervously backward.

Despite the copilot’s ashen face, the man laughed. The captain joined in
eventually, but it was stilted and ended quickly.

“No, Mr Tenby, we have no need of Karen Black at the present moment.
This aircraft if fully capable of functioning without our assistance. A state-of-
the-art computer is quite handily running every system from the set of the
flaps to the flushing of the toilets. We pilots usually spend most of every
flight simply monitoring the readouts. Trust me when I say that this aircraft
can quite literally fly itself and land itself. No, Mr Tenby, thankfully for all of
us, this is not the movies.”

Mason sighed his relief and retrieved another tiny bottle of scotch from
his pocket. Then he stopped. He was on the flight deck of a jumbo jet. Surely,
alcohol was forbidden anywhere near the cockpit. But then he quickly
realized the ridiculousness of his situation, unscrewed the cap, and downed
the liquor in a swallow.

“Smells like Johnnie Walker,” Katherine smiled. “I hope you haven’t
had enough of those to blur your vision.”

Mason sheepishly tucked the empty bottle in his pocket.

“Sorry, Captain. Hair of the dog. This fortunate happenstance of yours
has left me with a splitting headache. What is it you need from me?”

“Just your eyes, Mr Tenby,” the copilot said, ominously.

“There’s a panel in front of me,” the captain spoke over her shoulder and
waved him closer to her side. “Right about here, there’s an indicator marked
A/P. Can you see it?”

“The one with a green bar? Yes, I see it.”

Both officers breathed a heavy sigh.

“Excellent,” the captain grinned. “You have no idea what a relief that is.
We were ninety-nine percent certain that the autopilot was active, but we
couldn’t be absolutely certain because neither of us can see that stupid twenty
cent light.”

“You’d think there would be an audio alert,” Mason reasoned.

“Or maybe Braille?”

Duh... Stupid...

“Sorry,” he offered, clumsily.

The copilot ignored the apology and pointed at a vague area of the dash.

“Mr Tenby, there’s a digital panel right about here. It will say HDG and
show a series of numbers. Could you tell me those numbers?”

Mason read off the three-digit number, and the officers conferred.
Apparently, the news was good. They had him read off a few more numbers
and check that certain switches were set properly, and all the while the
captain spoke into her microphone to someone stuck safely on the ground.
The voice only came through the pilots’ headset, so Mason had no idea what
was being said at the other end, but there were relieved smiles all around.

“Thank you, Mr Tenby,” Katherine said warmly. “Now, if you’d care to
strap yourself into the jump-seat behind you, there’s nothing more for any of
us to do now but wait for this big, beautiful girl to land herself.”

“What, that’s it?”

Her smile widened.

“As I said, this aircraft is state of the art. Just sit back and watch the
show.”

Sure enough, the plane started to descend all on its own, and Mason was
suddenly conflicted. It was a disturbing feeling seeing the ground rise up with
no hands at the controls, but it was endlessly fascinating as well. And now,
with little for anyone to do but go along for the ride, he had time to reflect
back on something the co-pilot had mentioned.

“You said something about lightning?” he said, trying his best to sound
casual.

“The lightning, yes,” the copilot nodded. “Didn’t you watch it?”

Mason shrugged and shook his head, then he gave himself a mental cuff
and spoke aloud.

“No, I must have been pas... uhh, asleep by then.”

The captain smiled knowingly, but said nothing. Aaron, however, grew
quite animated.

“We were over the Pacific and locked in cloud cover. It came out of
nowhere at forty thousand feet. Most clouds stay well below that altitude, so
it was strange to begin with. But here we were, just latching onto the polar jet
stream, and suddenly we were lost in an altocumulus billow!”

“Sounds like fun,” Mason said sourly.

“Well, for a modern aircraft, storms aren’t really an issue. But that
lightning was incredible! Great flashes of blues and violets. We could
actually smell the ozone!”

“Inside the plane? What did you do, roll down a window?”

Again, the captain laughed out loud. With the stress of everything going
on, it was a wonderful sound.

“In spite of what you may have heard about modern aircraft recirculating
air ad infinitum, Mr Tenby, we do actually draw fresh air in from outside.
The compressors in the engines divert a continuous stream of fresh air
through the packs... uh, sorry... the air conditioners. Typically, the air you
breathe in the cabin is a fifty/fifty mix of fresh and recirculated air. However,
it is odd for that fresh air to have an odor, I must admit. At forty thousand
feet, especially.”

“It smelled like ozone, and something else,” the copilot reflected back,
looking skyward and rubbing his fingertips together, “It had an almost, I
don’t know... I guess a sort of chemical flavor to it.”

The captain laughed again.

“You sound like one of those pretentious wine connoisseurs, Aaron,” she

affected a horribly clichéd British accent, “Woody and smoky, with just a
hint of caramel.”

All three of them laughed, and the topic was dropped. Katherine drew
Mason’s attention back to the control panels and had him call out numbers as
they descended. Altitude. Airspeed. Flaps. Throttle settings. By the time the
aircraft was lined up for its final approach, he was even beginning to
understand what some of them meant. And all the while, neither officer
touched a single control. The captain spoke into her radio almost constantly,
and Mason continued to read off numbers aloud, but both officers sat as
complacently as if they’d been on a cross-town bus. He expected a flurry of
activity as they dropped below a thousand feet and the runway lights lined up
in the center of the windshield, but there was none. Katherine and Aaron
simply sat calmly and listened as he called off every hundred-foot drop in
altitude, then every fifty, then every ten. Only when the wheels came into
contact with the tarmac did the captain make a move. She applied her brakes
carefully, and eased the throttles back under Mason’s careful scrutiny.

And they were down, just that easily. No muss, no fuss, no bursting into
flame, and no broken fuselage cartwheeling end over end. The plane stopped
in the middle of a runway, and the flashing lights of a dozen emergency
vehicles appeared like magic from either side.

“I suppose I’ll let someone else park this big, beautiful girl,” the captain
said, adding jokingly, “I’d hate to scratch the paint.”

The copilot pulled a silver cross from beneath his collar and kissed it
while Mason released his five-point harness and stood up.

“Well, if there’s nothing else you need...” he started to say, but
Katherine interrupted. She stood awkwardly and maneuvered herself over her
seat to face him. She gazed at his chest and stuck out her hand.

“Mr Tenby,” she said, “We can’t thank you enough.”

He took her hand and shook it. The copilot remained seated, but he
reached around his seat to extend his hand.

“Indeed, Mr Tenby. Thank you so very much.”

Mason shook the man’s hand and admitted awkwardly, “The name’s
Mason, actually.”

“Well, Mason,” the captain grinned broadly, “I think it’s safe to say that
you’ve earned yourself a few free air miles.”

He was about to say something about it being a cold day in Hell the next
time he got on an airplane, but he was preempted when the copilot suddenly
broke into a coughing fit. It was violent, convulsive, and left the man gasping
for breath as he sunk back in his chair.

“I don’t feel well, Katherine,” he managed through a deep rasp. “Maybe
the chicken was off after all.”

“We’ll have you sorted out in no time, Aaron,” the captain assured him
as the wail of sirens grew close. “It’s probably just a delayed stress reaction.
I wouldn’t worry.”

When the copilot descended into another coughing fit, Mason decided it
was time for him to go. He popped open the door, offered a concerned, “I’ll
see if I can direct one of the EMT’s up front,” then he stepped back into the
main cabin and closed the door behind him.

He hadn’t given any thought to how the other passengers might react at
knowing they were safely on the ground, but he could never have expected
what he now saw. There was no cheering, no jubilation, no hip-hip-hoorahs
for the gallant flight crew who had fought through a fuck-ton of adversity to
bring them back down to Mother Earth. Instead, there was sheer bedlam.

Some passengers were still in their seats, sobbing quietly, wailing at the
tops of their lungs or clinging to loved ones, but most were on their feet,
yelling, shoving, and throwing blind punches at anyone who stood in their
way. It wasn’t a mad rush for the exits, it was simply violence for violence’s
sake. He saw a big man shove another man to the floor and begin to kick him
wildly. He called out for the big man to stop, but it was pointless. Another
man grabbed a young woman by the scruff of her neck and lined up a viscous
punch that knocked her to the ground. An older woman made a grab for the
crying baby, and when the child’s mother pulled her child desperately away,
the old lady actually bit the screeching mother on the arm.

Suddenly, a bit of coughing looked like a pretty damn reasonable after-
effect of stress.

He saw cute little Katie still strapped in her stewardess seat, so he went
over to see if she was okay. He unclasped the belt, but before he could even

begin hauling her to her feet, she clawed at his face without warning, hissing
like a feral cat. He shoved her away and stepped back, cursing.

“Yeah, you’re welcome, honey,” he snarled as she fell back and
collapsed to the floor.

As he turned away, he noticed that the drink cart had rolled back into the
aisle, so he helped himself to a double handful of bottles, filled his pockets,
and shoved through the maddening crowd to the closest door. By then, the
sirens outside had stopped, and red and yellow lights were flashing through
the tiny window in the door. A few seconds later, a face appeared in the
window and the door cracked open. A set of stairs had been wheeled up, and
a gruff older man was standing on the platform.

“They’re all blind, and they’re all batshit crazy,” Mason told him plainly,
and shoved rudely past him.

“Are you Mr Tenby?” the man called after him.

Mason rolled his eyes.

“The name’s Mason. And by the way, the copilot’s sick, and those two
up front are the only people on this whole damn plane who deserve your
help.”

“Alright, Mr Tenby, we’ll take it from here. See one of the folks in the
white shirts down below, and they’ll give you the once-over.”

Mason side-stepped several men and women rushing to the top of the
stairs, and avoided the EMT’s eager to lend a hand on the tarmac. He found a
quiet little corner away from the chaos, reached into his pocket for a bottle of
scotch, and unscrewed the cap with practiced efficiency. Turning away from
the tumult, he downed the drink in a swallow. His head still ached, but now it
wasn’t all from the alcohol. Now it ached from a general disgust of his fellow
man. The derisive words of Hamlet came suddenly to his mind, and he
mentally recited them with a grimace on his face and antipathy in his heart.

What a piece of work is man...

Here, he’d just helped save a planeload of idiots from an ignoble death,
and they thanked him by beating the hell out of each other.

How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how

express and admirable...

Yeah, okay, the pilots were okay, but he’d bet money that if they ever
met again, he’d be dismissed with a fake-polite handshake and a ‘maybe see
you around.’ Hell, they didn’t even bother to know his goddam name!

In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a God! The
paragon of animals!

He thought of cute little Katie, all smiles and sweetness one minute, and
a jungle cat with a burr up her butt the next. Just like Becks.

He fished another bottle out of his pocket and snapped it open.

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.
No, nor woman neither...

With a silent toast to the creatures he had spent a lifetime coming to
loathe, he put the bottle to his lips and tossed it back with a shudder.

CHAPTER

II

He stuck around just long enough to see that he was within walking distance
of the terminal, and that everyone in a uniform was far too busy to bother
with someone who didn’t seem like he needed assistance. With one last
furtive glance back over his shoulder, he began to make his way across a
series of access roads toward the terminal and home. He came across a door
standing open, guarded by a group of guys in reflective vests and smokes on
the go, but he strolled right past them as if he owned the place and found
himself in the staff area below the terminal. No one stopped him, and no one
questioned him, so he looked around, found a stairwell, and was soon on the
main floor. Passing into the terminal proper, he saw a sign pointing to
something-or-other Bar and followed the arrows. Within minutes, he was
seated in a corner booth, drink in hand and watching the drama unfold
through a huge window overlooking the runway.

No one willing to try parking that big, beautiful girl yet, huh Katherine?

The plane was just where he’d left it. People were being helped down the
stairs to waiting ambulances, but things didn’t appear to be going smoothly.
More than one belligerent passenger was actually fighting with the people
trying to help. And, oh look, there was his big fat neighbor. No longer
weeping like a baby, the whale of a man was now as angry as a bull.

Better you guys than me... Mason concluded, and raised his glass in
salute to the nameless, faceless peons in uniforms who were just trying to do
their jobs. They wrestled the big man down the stairs and bundled him into an
ambulance just as a slim young woman appeared at the top of the stairs. She
was one of the rescue people. A firefighter, judging by her clothes. She was
cradling her hand against her chest, and the front of her shirt was red with
blood. She started down the stairs, but then a man appeared in the doorway
behind her. Mason remembered him as being one of the passengers. Blue

power-suit. Hundred-dollar haircut. Shoes that might have cost as much as
Mason’s car. Before the firegirl could reach the ground, the man tore down
the steps after her and grabbed her from behind. Then, long before anyone
could make a move to help, he grabbed hold of the girl’s hair, jerked her head
back violently, and buried his face in her neck.

What the hell? Is he trying to make out with her? Christ!

The firegirl’s knees gave out, and she slumped in his arms. Still, he kept
his face buried in her neck until another firefighter raced up the stairs and
pulled the two apart. Suddenly, the girl’s entire front was a mess of blood. It
streamed from her throat and cascaded down her chest in a river. She gave a
single gasp and fell lifelessly into her colleague’s arms, then the man in the
suit was on him. As they came together, the firefighter dropped the girl and
raised his mouth to the sky. Mason couldn’t hear a thing through the plate-
glass windows, but he knew the man was screaming. The guy in the suit had
his mouth pressed against the firefighter’s face as if he were giving him a big
sloppy kiss, but when he finally pulled back, the firefighters face was red
with blood, and the man in the suit was like a wolf standing over the carcass
of a caribou. He threw back his head, flipped a piece of meat high into the air,
caught it in his jaws, and chewed it until it was gone. Then he lunged once
more at the firefighter.

Everyone in the bar was shouting now. Gasps of disbelief. Screams of
horror. More than a few people cursing like sailors. So Mason wasn’t seeing
things, then. He was actually seeing what he was seeing. An otherwise
respectable man had just physically attacked two rescue workers, and he had
done it with his teeth. His goddam teeth! What kind of unstable freak deals
with fear and trauma by biting his rescuers? But no, he hadn’t just bitten that
poor bastard, he had actually torn off the guy’s cheek. And eaten it! He had
actually eaten it! What kind of fucked up monster does that?

The bartender of this whatever-the-fuck Bar was one of those in the
crowd, watching the drama unfold with rapt attention. He had come out from
behind the bar to join all the others with their faces pressed against the glass
to get a better look. To Mason, they looked just like all those drivers who
can’t help but hit the brakes as they pass an accident scene, hoping to catch a
glimpse of blood or a dismembered body lying in the road.

What a piece of work is a man, he thought again, downing his drink and

stirring himself out of his comfortable booth. Yeah, you guys go ahead and
satiate your bloodlust. I’m going home.

He found his way outside and stepped bodily in front of a passing cab.
The driver stuck his head through the window and made some protest about a
cab stand fifty feet back and the hell he’d have to pay if he cut the line, but
Mason had the door open and was inside before the statement could be
finished. The driver relented with a shrug, nodded at the stated address and
drove off, and Mason breathed a sigh of relief as he slumped back in his seat.
At that point, all he wanted was to be home. The airline could forward his
luggage if they wanted, or they could toss it in the dumpster for all he cared.
Losing a few t-shirts and a handful of ratty underwear was a small price to
pay to put this whole God damned episode behind him.

He laid his head back against the seat and retrieved another bottle from
his pocket. And then another. And another. By the time the cab pulled up in
front of his building, his pockets were empty and the floor of the cab was
littered with tiny empty bottles. He paid the driver handsomely, took an
elevator to the 16th floor, and thanked whatever gods there be that he’d had
the ride all to himself. Once in his apartment, he bolted the door, drew the
chain, and released a breath that he might have been holding onto for hours.

Thank Christ!

What a week. What a horrible, godawful shitstorm of a week. It was
supposed to have been wonderful. When he’d booked the flight and the
bungalow six months ago, he had done so giggling like a schoolboy. Becks
will love Thailand, he’d thought. One full week of sand and surf and umbrella
drinks and couples’ massages. Who wouldn’t love that?

Yeah, it sounded great at the time, but he’d ended up going alone. All
alone in a vacation paradise full of couples. Straight or gay, everyone was
paired up. Everyone but him and one freaky looking dude with a 70’s porn-
stache and an eye for the young girls handing out towels at the pool. And for
one full week, everyone he passed by gave him the same look they gave to
Porn-Stache. A narrowing of the eye, a wrinkling of the nose, and a barely
disguised scowl.

“Thanks, Becks,” he said, popping open a beer and draining half of it in
a single swallow.

Despite the fact that it was barely morning and he had already slept away
half of the last 16 hours, he was suddenly exhausted. He carried the rest of
the beer to the bathroom, dropped his sweaty clothes to the floor, swallowed
a handful of aspirin, and had a long, hot shower. He finished off the beer as
he dried himself, then he made his way to bed, climbed in, nestled his aching
head between the pillows, and tried to think of anything at all other than
beaches and women and airplanes.

Ultimately though, it was pointless. As he lay there pondering that finite
moment when his life began to spiral down the drain, his mind kept returning
to the more recent fiasco, and one thought kept rising to the fore. Who the
hell copes with nervous exhaustion by assaulting his rescuers? Crying, he
could understand. Shutting down, okay. Neither were his cup of tea, but both
were understandable. He could even be generous enough to explain away
cute little Katie’s feral cat routine by supposing that it might have been his
fault for not identifying himself, so she had reacted out of fear. But half the
planeload of idiots taking swings at one another? And biting? Where the hell
did that get fun? Okay, sure, Power-Suit was blind and scared, but what
bizarre path must the rush of adrenaline and cortisol have taken through his
fucked-up brain that chowing down on another man’s face seemed like a
perfectly acceptable response to the situation?

The words of Manfred Mann suddenly started to rattle around in his
brain.

Blinded by the light, revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night...

Lights. Lightning. The copilot had mentioned lightning. Blue lightning,
and the smell of ozone. Is that what had blinded everyone? Mason knew that
staring at the sun could cause eye damage, and staring at an arc-welder would
do it too, but regular old lightning? Was that even possible? No, no way, he
decided at last. Hell, if lightning caused blindness, there wouldn’t be anyone
left on the planet without a white cane.

But what about blue lightning? Was there any difference? For that
matter, could lightning even be blue? He wracked his brain, but couldn’t
recall ever hearing about blue lightning. Lightning was all white, wasn’t it?
All of those screen-saver pictures he’d seen on-line with dramatic images of
lightning flashing across the heavens; they were all white, right? If someone
had ever caught a picture of blue lightning, he’d certainly never seen it.

A side effect of the clouds, maybe? Was that possible? He couldn’t
imagine it, but he gave it serious thought before dismissing the idea entirely.
After all, clouds don’t change lightning, they create lightning. Still, he
couldn’t help but allow for one small caveat. What about a cloud that smelled
vaguely of chemicals?

Manfred Mann’s lyrics came back, but this time Homer Simpson was
singing, ‘Wrapped up like a douche, and I rolled her in the night,’ and he
knew he wouldn’t be sleeping any more that day. Well, maybe it was for the
best, after all. He looked at the clock on the far side of the bed — Becks’ side,
he thought with a grimace — and saw that it was barely nine o’clock. If he
slept now, he’d be awake all night. Better he should stay up for a few more
hours and be sure that he slept through the night. He still had a full week until
he had to go back to work, but the sooner he reset his body clock, the better.
Besides, his head had stopped pounding at last. The aspirin had certainly
helped, but there was no doubt in his mind that the real remedy had been
those little stolen bottles of Johnnie Walker.

He hauled himself out of bed with a groan and padded naked into the
kitchen. Thankfully, he’d left the fridge full of beer. And Becks’ stupid ciders,
he remembered, looking at a door shelf lined with fruity drinks. Becks liked
her cider, so he always made sure to have an ample supply on hand. Now that
she was gone, maybe one day he’d use those bottles of cider to play
dodgeball with the people walking by sixteen floors below, he considered
with a smirk. But for now, he grabbed a beer, snapped it open, and kicked the
fridge door closed.

His computer was in a corner of the living room, tucked against a
window so he could keep an eye on the ant-people scurrying by down below
as he surfed. He sat himself in the chair and toggled the machine on. Thirty
interminable seconds later, it came to life with a bing!

Forty-seven emails. Christ! He started at the top and deleted as he went.
Unless it was family or a close friend, he got rid of it. Then he started at the
bottom and checked the remaining emails one by one. A friend hoping he had
a good flight. Delete. Another friend with relationship advice. Delete. A
colleague at work, wondering if he was available for overtime. Delete. More
hopes for a safe flight and a nice vacation. Hope you can put this all behind
you. Plenty of fish in the sea. Blah, blah, blah. Delete, delete, delete.

Finally, he closed his email and brought up the search engine. He typed
the words ‘blue lightning’ and clicked through the links. To his surprise, sure
as hell, blue lightning was apparently a real thing. Something about the
excitation of nitrogen in the atmosphere. He typed the words ‘blue lightning
strange clouds’ and clicked link after link after link. Most of the pages were
the same scientific websites he had already been on, so he tried again with
‘blue lightning chemical clouds.’ It was all the same stuff, and they all said
the same thing. Yes, blue lightning was real. In fact, lightning could be just
about any color of the rainbow, depending on what was in the air. There was
even such a thing as ‘upper-atmospheric’ lightning, and other things called
‘Elves’ and ‘Sprites’ and ‘Blue Jets,’ some of which shot their bolts all the
way into the ionosphere.

It was all fairly interesting, but none of it answered the question. Finally,
he cut to the chase and typed the words ‘can lightning blind a person.’ The
first few pages were more of the same, but then he saw a page referencing
something called ‘flash blindness,’ and that’s where he found it at last. Sure
enough, lightning could cause flash blindness. It was rare, and you had to be
close to it, but just like welding torches and intense sunlight, it could actually
cause blindness. But, as he read further, he saw that it was always temporary.

Well, good for you, Aaron and Katherine, he thought. They were the only
two people on the plane who had been nice to him, so he sent them a silent
congratulations. Well, okay, cute little Katie was pretty nice too, at least until
she broke out her Selena Kyle impression. And Gloria had been all right, too.
And that lady with the rosary seemed decent enough. The one with the baby
as well, he supposed, though he had always felt that dogs and cats should be
allowed to run free in the cabin while babies were locked below in the cargo
hold.

He spared a tiny thought to the others on the plane who would now be in
the hospital with doctors shining penlights in their eyes and nurses bringing
them pain meds and Jell-O and fruit juice. Right about now, they should all
be getting their vision back and realizing what a bunch of idiots they’d all
been. And Power-Suit? That nutjob would wake up in a jail cell with a
headache, dried blood on his chin, ink stains on his fingertips, and the
prospect of lengthy prison sentence staring him in the face.

Good, Mason thought with a scowl. Throw him in a hole. This world’s

fucked up enough without goddam cannibals roaming the streets...

Hey, wait a minute. Maybe he could know about Power-Suit right away.
Surely the news would have spread by now, right? A jumbo jet landing itself
at one of the busiest airports in the country, all the passengers and crew blind,
and some poor bastard getting his cheek bitten off? Hell, it was probably
front page news around the world. That was exactly the kind of thing news
channels eat up!

He brought up the Google page, selected ‘news,’ and sure enough, there
it was. Emergency in the air. Details of near-fatal incident not yet disclosed.
Cause unknown. Mason read several linked pages, and most were the same.
They hinted at a non-mechanical issue with the aircraft, told of the bold
actions of the flight crew, both of whom had been transported to the hospital
for observation, and most made vague mention of ‘some trouble with a few
of the passengers.’

Really? Mason harumphed to himself. Some trouble? All that was
missing from that Hellfest was the fava beans and a nice Chianti...

At last, he found one page that cited an anonymous source who
suggested that the non-mechanical issue was actually the fact that the flight
crew had suffered a kind of temporary blindness, and that same source
blamed it on lightning strikes close to the plane. Mason raised his beer in
silent salute of Aaron’s spot-on analysis, and continued reading. The pilot
was a 25-year veteran with the airline and should be commended for her
quick thinking and calm demeanor, blah blah blah. Again, Mason raised his
beer, this time to Katherine the Great. Then he read something that nearly
knocked him off his chair. Apparently, just before the pilot collapsed at the
bottom of the stairs and was carted away in an overstuffed ambulance, she
wished to thank a passenger by the name of Mason Tenby who had assisted
the flight crew in their endeavors.

Again, Mason raised his beer, saluted Katherine for her kind words, and
laughed aloud, “And here’s to you, Mason Tenby!”

He drained the last of the bottle, belched his derision at the world in
general, and went back to the kitchen for something stronger.

CHAPTER

III

By morning, Mason expected his phone to be blinking to show a voicemail.
By now, they must surely have had time to identify everyone on the plane
and see that the guy in 10B was missing. He had used his passport, so how
difficult would it be for the FAA or Homeland Security or whoever to figure
out who he was and where he lived? He had gone to bed all but certain that
there would be a knock on his door sometime during the night, so he had
even gone to bed in a pair of pajama bottoms lest the boys in blue break the
door down and catch him in his altogether.

Aha! There was a voicemail. But looking at the call log, he saw that it
wasn’t from the FAA or the police or the ghost of J. Edgar. It was from
Becks. With a gnawing pain deep in the pit of his stomach, he dialed his
voicemail, set it on speaker, and hit ‘1’ to hear what his former future wife
had to say.

Barely had she begun to speak when his eyes filled with tears. Her voice
was meek and quiet, and she was telling him again how sorry she was, and
that she never wanted to hurt him.

“You’re a good man, Mace,” that delicate voice hushed through the
speaker, “But there’s something inside of you that keeps you from really
living. It’s like there’s a dark cloud hanging over your heart. Even in your
most contented moments, you can’t help but gaze out at the world with a
sense of... of... hopelessness. You’re afraid to be happy, because you despair
of that happiness ending.”

She went on a bit longer, mostly about how she couldn’t live that way,
and about how truly sorry she was, then she finished up with a dagger straight
through the dark cloud and into his heart.

“I hope you’ll be okay, Mace.”

With that, she started to cry, so she sobbed one last “I’m sorry, Mace,”
and hung up.

Mason replayed the message four times, and cried harder every time he
heard it. At last, he had a decision to make. The computer girl was telling him
once again that he could either press ‘1’ to save the message or press ‘7’ to
delete it.

Why can’t you offer me a third option, he asked the faceless voice as
tears stained his cheeks, Like maybe press’ 4’ to relive all of those great times
we had over all of those years? Or better yet, how about you let me press ‘9’
to delete all memory of that incredible girl and let me get on with my life?
Why can’t you offer me those, Siri?

He pressed ‘1’ and saved the message. Then he shut off the phone and
poured himself an orange juice with a splash of vodka to take the edge off. Or
maybe it was really vodka with a splash of orange juice. Ah, what the hell.
He still had six days of vacation time left, and nowhere to be and no one to be
there with, so why not? He downed the drink, poured himself another, and
downed that one too. Then, with a gnawing in his belly refusing to be sated
by alcohol alone, he wiped away the last of his tears, purposely drove all
thoughts of Becks and the plane and lightning from his mind, and set about
making himself the first meal he’d had since poking through whatever
rubbery thing the airline had tried to pass off as chicken.

He ate on autopilot, neither enjoying the food nor really tasting it, but
once he got some part of the eggs and toast down, he actually started to feel
almost human again. After a visit to the toilet and another hot, prolonged
shower, he could even almost imagine himself ready to face the day. Still, he
had nowhere to go and nothing to accomplish, so he flicked on the TV and
spread out naked on the couch to see what was going on in the world. He
flicked aimlessly through the channels, disregarded most with a huff, and
finally settled on the news. Maybe there would be something about the
emergency landing, he thought, and he could have a chuckle at the witless
alphabet agencies who were still unable to track down this mysterious Mason
Tenby.

But no, there was no talk of the near catastrophe at SFO. Not a word.
That potential tragedy was already old news, and all of the news channels had
gone on to the next big thing. They were talking now about some strange new

flu sweeping the West Coast. Washington State had four hundred new cases
reported since midnight. Nearly as many in Oregon. Six hundred-plus in
California. Another two hundred and fifty in British Columbia. Interestingly,
Canadian authorities were speculating that it might have something to do
with the Fukushima reactor in Japan, the one that nearly went all China
Syndrome after the earthquake and tsunami. Maybe it was back to venting
radioactive steam, they suggested, and we weren’t being told. The US
authorities maintained that it was a simple flu virus, and nothing else. But
whatever and wherever the source of this novel coronavirus was, all health
experts in the world were in agreement on one major point. They didn’t know
yet if it was temporary or permanent, but the first symptom of this
unprecedented illness was a complete and total loss of sight.

“Son of a bitch...” he muttered aloud.

The two events couldn’t possibly be related. It was coincidence, surely.
The powers-that-be had thousands of doctors and scientists and professional
analysts chained to desks whose sole job it was to find connections between
disparate events. A car bomb could explode in Venezuela, and within an
hour, someone would trace it back to some random cell-phone call made in
Azerbaijan a month earlier. A virus pops up in France, and someone would
know for a fact that it originated in a mud hut village in Gambia. They were
the goddam government, for chrissakes. If the craziness on the plane and this
flu were connected it any way, they would surely know it by now. But then a
dark thought fell across his thoughts, churning the eggs and toast in his belly.
Maybe they did know, but weren’t telling. Considering the steady stream of
lies coming out of every government mouth since the founding of the union,
was that such a stretch?

He went to his computer, woke it up with a tap, and brought up the
search engine. After some consideration, he typed ‘polar jet stream.’

...here we were, just latching onto the polar jet stream, and suddenly
we’re lost in an altocumulus billow!

He read that the polar jet stream moved at speeds greater than a hundred
miles per hour. He searched for the distance across the Pacific and saw that it
was over six thousand miles. That meant that it would take sixty hours for
anything riding along in the jet stream to make the journey from Asia to
America. All right then. He’d had a crazy and fleetingly chilling notion that

maybe the strange cloud they’d passed through had been carrying the virus
aloft, since it was really the only way the two things could logically be
connected, but that tenuous whisper of an idea nagging at the back of his
mind could now effectively be silenced. Even if the aircraft drew fresh air in
from the outside, making it at least conceivable that something else might
have hitched a free ride on the wind, the math simply didn’t add up. That was
only a day ago. Thirty hours at best. So, there went that theory.

But wait a minute. He had already been pas... uhh... asleep by the time
they flew through the cloud that smelled like chemicals and produced the
eerie blue lightning. What time did he finally unplug Jumbo in the next seat
over and plug in Pink Floyd? He hadn’t looked at his watch, but he
remembered the little cartoon plane as being about halfway across the ocean.
That would put it at around three thousand miles out, give or take.

So cut the sixty hours in half. Thirty hours. Maybe less.

Suddenly, it all made horrifying sense.

...then the lightning started up. Great flashes of blues and violets. We
could actually smell the ozone!

Okay, well, so what? So, he might have been exposed to this crazy new
flu in his sleep. He wasn’t sick, was he? If a virus had snuck its way on
board, it must have taken one look at the drooling, snoring drunk curled up
against the bulkhead and passed him by. After all, even viruses had their
standards.

The talking heads on the TV across the room were now going on to a
new subject, just in case people were getting inured to the possibility of a
world-wide pandemic. In order to keep the fear level amped up lest viewers
think about changing the channel, they left the virus behind and started in on
a more familiar and considerably more deadly topic. Apparently, word was
coming in from many of the country’s largest cities regarding a spate of fatal
assaults. Hundreds in the last few hours. Thousands since yesterday. But
what did it mean? Was it a coordinated terrorist attack, or mere coincidence?
No doubt, the US of A was more than capable of churning out its own unique
brand of home-grown nut cases, but the implications were that it was all a
coordinated attack by some nefarious, read ‘foreign’ entity. The part that
struck Mason hardest, though, was the quickly mentioned and just as quickly

disregarded fact that the assaults had not been by AK-47’s or Uzi’s or any
other weapon of mass destruction so near and dear to the American populace.
In fact, no weapons had been used at all. These attacks had all been hands-on.

Christ! Trust it to humans to be such animals. Just as well that he had a
bunch more days of vacation time left and nowhere to go. This sounded like
the perfect time to hunker down, rest, recuperate, and pursue his most
pleasurable pastime, i.e. eschewing any and all contact with his fellow human
beings. He had a cupboard full of food, a fridge full of beer, a bottle of Stoli,
another of Malibu rum, and a freezer stuffed with frozen pizzas and TV
dinners. Hell, six days alone in his private kingdom would be a joy! He could
hole-up here for a month if he’d had any more vacation days in the bank.

So that was the plan then. Six days alone in his own private paradise with
nothing to do and nowhere to be. No matter what, it was bound to be better
than that awful week in Phuket. He would stay inside, see whatever’s been
piling up on the PVR, and avoid the hell out of those crazy-ass humans. He’d
leave the phone off, ignore his emails, and not even check in on the news. In
fact, He’d turn the computer off entirely, close the blinds, and not even watch
live TV just in case there was a news flash. As far as he concerned, for the
next six days, his apartment was a desert isle, and he was Robinson-frigging-
Crusoe. For the next six days, the world outside wouldn’t even exist.

He went to the kitchen and poured himself a reasonably equal vodka and
orange. He drained half of the glass in a gulp, and sighed complacently.

Six days all alone in my private kingdom, he thought to himself, turning
of his cellphone and shoving it to the far corner of the counter. No human
contact whatsoever. Avoid all people, come what may...

He smirked at the brilliance of the plan, and tossed back the rest of his
drink.

Hell, you just watch me. I’ll avoid people like the plague!

CHAPTER

IV

He snapped awake and saw that he was in his own bed. Thank Christ! That
horrible, empty hotel room was just a lingering nightmare. But it was still
dark. He remembered going to bed around three o’clock with a book, but
unable to focus on the words through the alcohol, he’d finally given up and
let himself drift off to sleep. That much booze usually had him out for the
count, so why the hell was he awake so early? His head was pounding, but
that wasn’t it. Hell, if he hadn’t already figured out how to sleep through
hangovers, he wouldn’t have had a moment’s sleep in the past twenty years.

Had a noise roused him? Were the kids next door fighting again? He lay
there for some time, listening, but everything was quiet now. Well, he
considered, maybe one of the kids had finally ended the tumultuous
relationship with a fireplace poker, and he’d been stirred awake by the thud
of a body hitting the floor. One and done, and no other sounds forthcoming
until the police sirens started to wail. Those young kids both seemed like nice
guys, but as he lay there half asleep and thinking the worst, he considered it
oddly satisfying that gay couples could be stuck in as bad a shitstorm of a
relationship as anyone else.

He rubbed his eyes and checked the clock beside him. He made out a
dark lump that had to be the clock, but it was dead. Well, no matter. It was a
twenty buck Walmart special, easily replaced. He rolled over to check the
clock on the other side — Becks’ side, he reminded himself with a grimace
— and saw that it was dead too.

Damn! Now the total silence made sense. No hum from the refrigerator.
No whirr from the air conditioner in the living room. Power outage. It had to
be. Probably some dick with a snootful piled his car into a power pole.

Thanks, dick, he said to himself as he climbed awkwardly out of bed. He
put a finger to the blinds and had his first look at the outside world in nearly a

week, and saw that the whole city was dark. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t some
dick with an over-powered muscle car going all Dominic Toretto after
polishing off his first bottle of Zima all by himself. This shit was city-wide.
Probably some dick at PG&E had fallen asleep at the switch.

Thanks, dick, he thought again.

He went to the kitchen and instinctively flipped the light switch, then he
sighed and shook his head at his own stupidity. He looked to the microwave
to find the time, and shook his head again. What next, he thought. Shall I turn
on the TV to see why the power is out? He found his cellphone where he’d
left it in the back corner of the kitchen counter six days ago, and grudgingly
turned it on. Sure enough, it still had a full battery, but with no active cell
towers to tie into, it didn’t show the time. Still, he had thought that maybe the
clock was internal, so at least he couldn’t fault the human condition for this
one. It was a lack of understanding, was all.

Before he returned the phone to its corner, he saw that he’d accumulated
fourteen voicemails in the interim. Fourteen, for the love of God! What, the
world couldn’t get by without him for a week? He considered playing them
back one by one, but he knew that it would either be work asking him to
come back early or well-wishers calling to see how he was doing, and he had
no stomach for either. One of them might be from Becks, he considered, but
he didn’t have the stomach for that either. Besides, with the power out, he
had no choice. He put the phone to sleep to conserve the battery and went to
the bathroom. Again, he flipped the light switch, then he cursed aloud.

Rather than take a chance at splashing his business all over the floor, he
put a match to one of Becks’ votive candles on the edge of the tub. After
emptying his bladder more or less accurately, he gathered up the other three
candles and carried them to the kitchen. He lit one from the other, and soon
had a dull glow to light his way around the apartment. Sardonically, he
realized that it was the only part of the entire relationship that still had any
lingering benefit.

“Thanks, Becks,” he said aloud, “You always were the light of my life.”

Just then, he heard a faint ticking from off in the distance, and
remembered the wall clock in the entranceway. It was battery-operated. It
was still lazily ticking away the seconds in the harsh stillness all around him.

He went to the pitch-black entrance, cursed again, then went back to collect
one of the candles.

Four o’clock, it read. Okay, then. At least he could orient himself now.
He returned to the kitchen and pulled a bottle of Dasani water from the
bottom shelf. Thankfully, it was still cold. That meant that the power hadn’t
been out for long, so the stuff in the freezer would be okay for a while. He
opened the bottle and drank the cool water in one long swallow.

Four o’clock. His vacation days were gone, and he was due to punch in
to work at seven. There was no point in trying to sleep any more, and
honestly, he had spent enough time in the past few days either enjoying cat
naps in front of the TV or passed out in bed for twelve-hour stretches that he
figured he was all slept out anyway. So, okay then. Maybe he would get an
early start on the day, and maybe even show up at the works yard half an
hour early and surprise the hell out of everyone. No doubt, they would expect
him to drift in late on his first day back. So let them be astonished and
bewildered at his perceived work ethic, and let them suck on that for a while.

But just to set the record straight, the first person to mention Becks or the
wedding or the honeymoon might just get a bloody nose. And when the big
shots called him on the carpet for assaulting a coworker, he would show them
the news stories about the mystery man who had helped land a planeload of
idiots, and they could suck on that, too. After all, wouldn’t the papers just
salivate at the chance to interview the genuine hero who had helped save
countless lives and was then sacked for showing obvious signs of PTSD?

Smiling now, he carried two of the candles to the bathroom and braved a
quick shower. Once the water started to turn truly frigid, he quickly washed
away the last of the soap, dried himself, and pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-
shirt. Then he went to the fridge, found some leftover pizza, and had a
breakfast of sorts. He filled the next hour by collecting empty bottles and
cans from around the apartment and washing a sink full of dishes, and as the
sun started to rise, he finally peeked through the blinds for his first real look
at the world since arriving home.

Apparently, the ant-people were all in hiding. Everything was quiet down
below. In fact, it seemed entirely too quiet for this time of day. The street
directly below was empty most nights, so it wasn’t entirely surprising to see
it still empty even at seven a.m., but there should be some traffic visible on

the major roads a few blocks away by now. He could make out a few double
pinpoints of light at a distance, but none of them were moving. Probably
newspaper men dropping off their bundles, or cabbies picking up their fares.
It was a strange thing to see on a Monday morning, but he considered all of
those people whose alarms didn’t sound, and he shrugged it off.

As he looked out at the world beyond, he had vague memories of sounds
wafting up from down below over the past few days, but they were sounds
that he had purposefully ignored. He’d heard car horns, and raised voices,
and the odd screeching of tires, but considering the deal he had made with
himself about nothing intruding on his little island of bliss, he had dismissed
it all. He had simply cranked the music or the TV louder, and tuned out
everything beyond his four walls.

But just like it had been on the plane, he now began to wonder just what
he had missed. It was truly odd that there was no traffic visible on any of the
dozens of roads he could see from so high up, even in the midst of a blackout.
By this time of day, there should be a whole line of lights on every major
street, all streaming toward the 101 to get to work. What, had someone
declared a national holiday or something? Even as he gathered up his wallet
and keys, and slipped his cellphone into his back pocket, his mind kept
returning to the same unanswerable question that had haunted him only a
week ago.

What the hell did I sleep through?

He cracked open the door to find the hallway dark, but two pale yellow
emergency lights were still burning brightly enough that he could make out
the exit sign over the stairwell. As he passed the elevators, he noted a
smeared handprint on the wall, and threw a silent curse at whichever of his
neighbors had been such an ass, even as he wondered what kind of drunken
revelry ends with a handprint in strawberry jam on a wall.

Goddam humans... he cursed to himself.

He pushed his way into the stairwell and let the door close with a bang
behind him, then he peered down into the endless column of blackness, and
sighed. Sixteen floors. It wouldn’t be fun, but at least he was going down
instead of up. The power had just better be back on by the time he got home,
or there was going to be hell to pay down at PG&E once he got his breath

back.

He started down, and used the light from his phone to read the numbers
on the wall as he went.

12, 11, 10...

On the tenth-floor platform, the silence was suddenly broken from
somewhere down below. He heard scuffling, a curt little yelp, and a heavy
thud. His immediate thought was that someone had missed a step in the
darkness and maybe barked a knee, and had howled in pain. Taking the hint,
he slowed his descent, and held onto the railing for good measure.

9, 8, 7...

Somewhere between the 7th and 6th floor, an absolute tumult echoed up
through the dark. Sounds of a fight, close by. Two floors below. Maybe less.
Curses. Thuds. Shouts. Grunts. Then a shrill, frantic scream that went on and
on and on.

Fuck. This wasn’t someone tripping over his own feet. It was something
more. That scream was the scream of someone dying.

Despite everything that had happened on the plane, Mason had a crystal-
clear view of his own abilities and his own shortcomings. He was no hero.
Sure, he would milk that story for all it was worth, but in his heart, he was
just like everyone else. If he could save a life by making a phone call, or
reading numbers from a control panel, okay. But what was going on one floor
down was something else entirely. This was someone fighting for their life,
and losing. He had never backed down from a fight in his life, but there was
no point in stepping into a scene like that. Wasn’t that the part of the movie
where the Good Samaritan stumbles in and takes a chainsaw to the face?

He backed up a few steps and unlocked his phone, then he silently cursed
to himself when he remembered the lack of service. With nothing else to do
then, he listened.

Moans, dying away. Rough scrabbling. The moans finally dying away
altogether. Then an indistinct wet sound, like moist tissue paper coming
apart.

Whatever the sounds represented, it was close. He leaned over the
railing, but could see only darkness. At last, he brought up his phone and

aimed the screen downward. The soft, ambient glow cast a dull light over the
scene, just enough to make out two hunched figures. One was lying on his
back, and the other looked to be hovering overtop. So, he’d been mistaken
then. This wasn’t a fight to the death. Someone had fallen, and someone else
was administering first aid. If that was all it was, maybe he could do
something to help after all.

Still, something about the scene set his nerves on edge. The light should
have been enough to catch the attention of the man on his knees, but it hadn’t.
Now profoundly uncertain of what exactly he was seeing, he passed carefully
down to the next level and leaned back over the railing to truly take in the
scene taking place one short flight down.

Now, at least he could make out who was who. The man on his back was
in shorts and a t-shirt. Another man in a flowered shirt was bent over him,
performing mouth-to-mouth. So he was right. It hadn’t been a fall, after all. It
had been a heart attack, or a stroke. Well, okay then. At least this was within
his wheelhouse. He didn’t know anything about CPR, and he had no wish to
share saliva with another man, but there was something he could do.

He shone his weak light ahead as he raced down the last flight of stairs,
shouting, “Hey, keep at it! I’ll run down to the lobby and call for an
ambulance!”

The man in the flowered shirt lifted his head and turned toward the
sound, and Mason froze in his tracks.

This was no mere man. This was something out of a Wellsian nightmare.
More animal than man, this monster glared up at Mason with wild, dead eyes
and lips drawn back in a bestial snarl. Blood caked his horrid face from nose
to chin, and dripped from his grizzled grey beard onto a shirt-stained red all
down the front. Mason’s eyes went to the man on his back, and for several
long seconds, his mind struggled to piece together what it was he was seeing.
A pool of blood grew lazily out across the floor, issuing from a throat that
more resembled raw hamburger meat than anything that had ever been
human. Clearly, he was dead, and just as clearly, the cause of his death was
no heart attack.

“Jesus fuck!” Mason howled, backing up several steps.

The monster in the flowered shirt climbed awkwardly to his feet and

bared his teeth in a growl, and Mason once again froze in his tracks. The
hows and whys of what he was seeing made no sense, but that growl coming
out of that blood-caked mouth told him all he needed to know. But as horrible
and menacing as those contorted lips and blood-stained teeth were, it was the
man’s eyes that chilled Mason to the core. They were empty. Blank.
Completely devoid of anything that had ever once been human. The crazed
man looked up at Mason, his cold, dead eyes suddenly on fire, and then he
was on him in a flash.

Instinctively, Mason kicked out a leg and struck the man squarely in the
chest, knocking him back down the stairs to crash in a heap on the platform,
but he was quickly back up in a crouch, howling and spitting red froth like a
mad dog. But instead of immediately launching himself back up the stairs in
another attack, the madman simply squatted there, swiveling his head from
side to side like a radar dish looking for a signal. And at last, Mason
understood at least one tiny fraction of this entire lunatic equation. The man’s
eyes were dead. Utterly blank. Whatever color there might once have been
had turned ashen grey, and the pupils had receded into something beyond
pinpoints. Obviously, this man was blind, and now he was lost and trying to
regain his bearing. Unsure of what to do, but entirely certain that he wanted
to be anywhere but that stairwell, Mason backed slowly up a step, and then
another. But then, disaster. On the third step, his heel happened to come
down with just the slightest hint of a scuff, and the man’s head immediately
flicked toward the sound. And just like that, he was on his feet and tearing up
the stairs toward Mason, howling and gnashing his teeth like a hungry beast.

Again, Mason kicked at the man and sent him reeling back, but once
again, the creature was on his feet in a flash, and swinging his head from side
to side.

This time, Mason froze in place. He drew in a slow breath of air and held
it, and he moved not a muscle as the madman searched blindly for any sound
that might give away his prey. Sure enough, after a handful of seconds that
seemed an eternity, the monster finally either gave up or lost interest. With
one last snarl and a sniff of the air, he returned to the dead man and resumed
his meal, the wet crunching of cartilage bringing the taste of bile to the back
of Mason’s throat.

Now, Mason had a gut-wrenching decision to make. He couldn’t stand

there like a statue forever, and he sure as hell wouldn’t be able to hold his
breath until this madman ate his fill and wandered off. But what should he
do? Go back up? Somehow get down to the lobby and call the cops from a
landline? If there was a second stairwell in the building, the decision would
have been an easy one, but this was the only way down, so he had precisely
two equally impossible options. Going up meant hiding himself away, unable
to call for help, and letting this carnage continue. And what of the next poor
bastard who tried to grope his way down through the dark? No, no, there was
really no choice at all. He had to get down to the lobby and get this animal
locked in a cage. But how?

Then, he had a crazy, dangerous thought. The man was insane, to be
sure, but he was also blind. If he was careful, if he was very, very careful,
maybe he could actually sneak around the man without making a sound and
get past him. It would be tricky, but the more he considered the idea, the
more he realized that it was the only way. But to actually do it, he would
have to be at his stealthiest. He couldn’t make a single, solitary sound. No
scuffing of a shoe. No jingling of keys in his pocket. Not the barest whisper
of a breath.

His pulse thundered in his ears as he took the first step down. He moved
with excruciating slowness, holding the railing tight, and bringing the toe of
his boot down ever so gently. Once settled on that foot, he moved his hand to
a new spot, shifted his weight accordingly, and took one more step down.
Now he was just five steps above the widening pool of blood. The madman
looked up as if sensing someone near, so he froze like a statue even as his
lungs began to burn from that long-held breath. The creature swung his head
first to one side, then the other, then at last it resumed feeding, and Mason
took one more slow step down.

The sights and sounds made him sick to his stomach, but he went on,
slowly raising a boot, then lowering it ever so gently on the next step. And
then the next. And it was at that point, almost within touching distance from
the madman that he realized that this game was never going to work. Nearly a
minute had passed, and his lungs were already on fire. He would never be
able to hold his breath long enough to tiptoe all the way around the scene and
down another flight. The end was seconds away. Ten at most. Probably less.

But then another crazy, dangerous idea struck him. It was a ridiculous

notion, a clumsy take on an old movie chestnut, but he was out of options.
Slowly, he brought up his phone and took aim at the corner of the stairwell
behind the creature, then he screwed up his courage, steeled himself to run,
and lobbed the phone high over the man’s head where it crashed into the wall
and clattered to the floor. The madman immediately leapt to his feet and
charged at the sound, and Mason wasted not a second. He released his breath
in a gush, and hurled himself down to the landing and around the corner as
fast as his feet could carry him. The madman spun around and made a grab at
him as he flew past, but Mason was already around the corner and launching
himself down the next flight of stairs three at a time.

Even as he ran, he could hear the madman pounding down the stairs after
him. He reached the next platform, grabbed the railing, used it to pivot his
body in a fluid swing around the corner, and ran on. He didn’t spare a second
to look back, but he was certain that the sounds behind him were growing
louder. He was losing ground, and quickly. The lunatic would be on him any
second. But no sooner had he come to that horrible conclusion than there was
a horrible series of sodden thuds from behind, punctuated at the end with one
loud crack!

He threw himself down one more flight before realizing that he was no
longer being pursued. He ran down one more flight to be sure, and only then
did he turn to look back. Sure at last that the chase was over, he bent at the
waist, put his hands on his knees, and gasped for air as if he had just run the
marathon to beat all marathons.

Now, those other sounds made sense. The crazy man must have missed a
step and fallen. Hard. Slowly, carefully, Mason snuck back up a flight and
peeked around the corner. Sure enough, the man was crumpled up on the
landing one flight up, his head lolling at an awkward angle. He stood there
for some time before he was convinced that the madness was well and truly
over, but over it was. His head pounded, his heart raced, and his chest ached,
but he was alive.

Another win for Mason Tenby... he thought crazily.

But then another sound came to him. Subtle. Almost not even there, like
a whisper from far away. Was it coming from the man in the shorts? Could
he possibly somehow still be alive, and this was him moaning or trying to call
for help? But no. It wasn’t the poor bastard with his throat torn out making

that sound. It was the madman in a heap, one flight up, gurgling a growl and
spitting his own blood upon the floor.

Mason made ready to run, but there was no longer a need. The madman
wasn’t moving. The crazy tilt of his head told the whole story. His neck was
broken. Not only would he not be resuming the chase, but he wouldn’t be
going anywhere under his own power ever again. How he managed to keep
breathing let alone growling was a mystery, but that was one for the doctors
to figure out once the cops hauled his crazy ass away to the nuthouse.

A feeling of utter relief washed over Mason as he watched the madman
growl and gnash his teeth but move not a muscle. It was over. All he had to
do now was get down to the lobby and report this whole insane story. But
even as he turned to set out doing exactly that, an absolutely ludicrous
thought popped into his head. His cellphone. Sure, the thing was getting on in
years, but it had his whole life in it. Contacts. Addresses. Photos of him and
Becks together. Videos that Becks had sent him when he was at work, just to
say hi and tell him how much she loved him. No matter how things were
now, he couldn’t lose those treasures. Not now. Not like this. Not yet. The
cops who came to collect the nutjob would ultimately get it back to him, sure,
but they’d be in no rush. It might take weeks. Months, even. Maybe they
would even stuff it in an evidence box in a dark corner of a warehouse and
forget all about it. And so, in spite of just witnessing a murder and barely
escaping the homicidal maniac responsible, the only thought in Mason’s
addled mind now was that he wanted his phone back.

He padded softly up to the madman, and gazed down at his unmoving
body. The man gurgled and sputtered, but remained still.

It’s your own damn fault, Mason thought sardonically. That’s what you
get when you eat and run...

Even as he made a wide circle around the wreckage that was once a man,
he had to marvel at how the thing still clung to life. The man’s head was
turned almost completely around, but even as Mason passed by, he snapped
his jaws as if he might somehow get hold of an ankle. Still, Mason was
quickly clear of that awful scene and climbing two flights up to an even
worse one. He stepped gingerly over the pool of blood, retrieved his phone
from where it lay, and tucked it away in his pocket, all the while averting his
eyes from as much of the carnage as possible. Soon enough, he was once

again past the madman and making his way down to the main floor. Once
there, he stepped into a lobby as black as pitch and made his way to where he
knew a telephone sat on the doorman’s desk. Daylight streamed through the
windows, lighting the front half of the lobby, but when he heard some sort of
movement from behind and spun around with every nerve on edge, he could
see only shadows upon shadows. He aimed his cellphone in the general
direction of the sound, but the light was too weak to make anything out.

Thinking that it must be the doorman, he called out, “Harv?” and the
sounds immediately ceased. As he peered into the darkness, he had an insane
vision of another madman in another flowery shirt crouched in the corner,
stopping his feeding and slowly turning his head from side to side to get his
bearing. He backed slowly away from whatever it was hiding in the shadows
then spun around and quickened his pace.

Harv was nowhere around. The telephone was there, but when he lifted
the receiver and put it to his ear, he found that it was as dead as the lights.
Damn it! Well, maybe Harv had slipped down the sidewalk to that little
alcove where he thought no one could see him stealing a quick smoke. If so,
he would tell him what had happened and have him alert the other tenants to
stay out of the stairwell until the police came, then he’d go find a pay phone.
If the pay phones were out too, he’d flag down a cop. If a cop didn’t drive by,
he’d grab a cab and head for the nearest police station. And if no cab came,
maybe he’d just stand on the street corner and scream bloody murder.

He pushed through the door, and his mind immediately flashed back to
the nightmare on the airplane. The street outside was in utter chaos. People
were running. People were screaming. Others were running and screaming. A
woman tore past, her high heels clicking a frantic staccato on the sidewalk as
a man chased her, close behind. He had the same bloodied chin and the same
dead eyes as the madman in the flowery shirt. Without thinking, Mason stuck
a foot directly into the man’s path, and sure enough, the man stumbled over it
and fell to the ground. He skidded to a stop and climbed quickly to his feet,
his nose mashed into a bloody pulp and several teeth left behind on the
sidewalk, but he ignored his injuries and simply stood there, swinging his
head from side to side.

It was too much. This man was exactly like the madman in the stairwell.
Same cold, dead eyes. Same snarl. Same blood. The odds of two such

identical creatures in the city had to be astronomical, but again, the whys and
hows made little difference. Just like that other madman, this one was
listening. Listening for him.

He hitched his breath in his throat and stood perfectly still. Unless the
bastard could hear his heart pounding out a Gene Krupa beat in his chest, he
wouldn’t be finding his next victim here. He watched the woman in the heels
disappear around the corner, and only then did he realize that this was not the
only other madman in the city. In fact, the street was quite literally teeming
with them.

A big man across the way was on his back, throwing ineffective punches
at a face buried in his abundant abdomen, and uttering plaintive gurgles that
may or may not have been pleas for help. The madman he had tripped picked
up on the sounds and suddenly dashed across the street, and Mason felt like
he was watching a pair of lions sharing the carcass of a fallen wildebeest. The
two madmen snarled at each other, growling and gnashing their teeth, then
they both settled in and feasted.

A little man came racing down the street in the opposite direction. He
was stumbling awkwardly, flailing his hands in front of him, with two men
and a middle-aged woman on his tail. Just then, the little man stumbled over
a curb and went down. He groped along the ground for a few yards and
finally began to climb to his knees, but one of the men was on him just that
fast. The creature tore at his ankle with his teeth, but the man managed to
deliver a solid kick to the other’s face and clamber back to his feet. Hobbled
now, the other two were able to close in on him like jungle predators. Mason
took a few faltering steps toward him, but there was no point in trying to
help. The man ran directly into the back end of a parked car, and as he pawed
desperately at the obstacle, his attackers converged. He fell to the ground
under their weight, and they ripped into him like a starving family of hyenas.
In seconds, his guts were exposed, hanging out of his body like a string of fat,
greasy sausages.

Suddenly, a car skidded around the corner and roared through the scene.
The sound attracted the attention of every creature in the street, and they all
jumped to their feet and chased after it. An old gal with tears pouring down
her cheeks came out of nowhere, waving her arms and yelling at the car to
stop, but it didn’t. It raced past Mason and tore straight down the middle of

the road. The three who had taken down the little man were coming at a run,
but the car swerved directly into them and scattered them like bowling pins.
The men fell away to either side, and the woman bounced up and over the
hood, sailed cleanly over the roof, and came crashing down behind the car,
dashing her skull to bits on the pavement. With that, someone inside the car
let loose with a whoop, then the car screeched around the corner and
disappeared out of sight.

One of the men hit by the car had suffered a badly broken leg, but he was
quickly back on his feet even as the old gal with tears streaming down her
cheeks passed him by, following the receding echoes of the car with her arms
extended in front of her. With her shoes clicking loudly on the pavement, the
injured man went stumbling after her, and the last Mason saw of either was
when the woman rounded the corner barely two yards ahead of her pursuer.
Behind both of them came the other man who had been struck by the car. His
back had been broken, but he was crawling along on his elbows, gnashing his
teeth and dragging his useless legs behind him like a grotesque pull-toy.

Just as before, Mason had the crystal-clear thought that he had awoken
into a nightmare. This can’t be happening, he kept telling himself. This can’t
be happening... this can’t be happening... this can’t be happening... But there
was no denying it. It was happening. And it was happening all around him. A
scream came from an open window across the street. As he watched, two
dark forms converged, a splash of blood colored the fine lace curtains red,
and the screams died away as the dark figures sank from view. Another
scream from down the street ended in a squelched gurgle. A man emerged
from an alley a block away, staggering like a drunk and holding his intestines
in his hands, but three crazies came from three different directions and
brought him down like a wounded water buffalo.

And all the while, Mason stood against the wall of his building, frozen
like a statue and taking in shallow little gulps of air. He couldn’t delude
himself into believing that this was some kind of looting and pillaging in the
face of a city-wide blackout. This wasn’t even a full-blown riot. This was the
same phenomenon as on the airplane and in the stairwell, but on an epic
scale. This, Mason concluded without the merest shadow of a doubt, was
sheer insanity.

Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be back upstairs in his

apartment. Home was safe. Home was his kingdom. Once inside, he could
lock the door, throw the bolt, latch the chain, hunker down, and ride out this
madness.

He turned back to the door, and was just about to grab for the handle
when a face appeared inches away. He stifled a gasp and shied back before he
realized that the face was on the other side of the glass. And what a face it
was. He recognized the old man as a fellow resident, but now the man’s gray
hair was disheveled, foam drooled from the corner of his mouth like a rabid
dog, and his teeth were bared in an angry snarl. And again those blank, dull,
sightless eyes stared as if burrowing directly into Mason’s very soul.

He stepped slowly and quietly to the side and saw the eyes remain fixed
straight ahead. Breathing a hushed sigh of relief, he eased as soundlessly as
he could toward the doorman’s little smoke-break hidey-hole, but then
another face appeared out of the darkness beyond the glass, and he froze
again. He recognized this face, too. He never knew the woman’s name, but he
had smiled at her several times in passing. Tenth floor, he remembered. She
was divorced, with a couple of young kids. Now, she was in the same state as
all the other crazies, with her hair in disarray, her beautiful blue eyes now as
dead as a mackerel, and those gorgeous bee-stung lips curled up in a snarl.
But this pretty young thing dressed only in a baggy pajama top had been a
busy little mongrel. Fresh blood caked her mouth and chin, and stained the
front of her garment, dripping in little rivulets down her bare legs.

How are the kids? Mason thought witlessly. Or should I say, how were
they?

The woman pressed her face against the glass and gnashed her teeth. The
door was inches away and would open easily, but she made no move toward
it. She had lived in the building for over a year, so surely, even if she was
blind, she should be able to find the door. Clearly then, whatever had invaded
her body hadn’t just taken her sight and given her a taste for human flesh. It
had robbed her of her intelligence, too. It must be the same for all of them.
None of these people tearing through the streets were people anymore. They
were animals, with no higher brain function than that which told them to hunt
and to kill. And to feed.

Mason found himself wondering how the nameless woman had managed
to escape her apartment. If she couldn’t manage to push open a lobby door,

how could she have figured out the complexities of a doorknob? Surely then,
someone else must have let her out, he reasoned. Did her children try to run?
Did they make it as far as the lobby? At last, he realized that pondering such
things was a futile exercise and only succeeding in creating horrible images
in his mind, so he abandoned the train of thought and took a few quick steps
into the doorman’s secret alcove. Once tucked away amid the scattered
cigarette butts, he felt somehow safer, so he slowed his breathing and
concentrated on making as little noise as possible.

There may have been a dozen creatures on the street. Those that weren’t
actively gorging themselves were alternatively stumbling blindly, listening
with heads cocked, or charging headlong toward some sound or other in a
blind frenzy. And in among all of those homicidal lunatics were the
consequences of their savagery. The dead were everywhere. One man was
hanging halfway through the driver’s window of a car that had piled into the
back end of a parked SUV. Another poor bastard had actually been pinned
between the vehicles, and what was left of his upper body now lay splayed
across the hood of the car. Other corpses lay huddled up against the curb, or
spread-eagle in the middle of the road, or in crumpled heaps amid drying
pools of mire. Some were being feasted upon even now, while others had
already been stripped to the bone and abandoned. It was a scene of which
Dante himself could never have dreamed. And here was Mason, rudely thrust
into the nightmare with no idea how to logically account for any of it. He
huddled as far back as the alcove allowed, and put his analytical mind to
work in trying to make sense of the utterly incomprehensible.

The wild things were blind. Blind and insane. That much was beyond
question. But what of the others? From what he’d seen, it looked like the
whole city had gone blind. Was he the only one who could see? No.
Obviously not. Blind men can’t drive, so at least he wasn’t entirely alone. But
why was everyone else blind? Was it more of that blue lightning? Possible,
but unlikely. That new flu he’d heard about before shutting out the world?
That sounded more likely. But could a simple flu turn otherwise normal
people into mindless savages? It seemed impossible, but maybe it was more
than a simple flu. Maybe it was a terrorist plot, after all. Some new strain of
rabies cooked up in a lab in North Korea or Iran, and set loose on an
unsuspecting American public. Hell, maybe it was even a home-grown nut-
job with a PhD and an access card to Plum Island messing around in his

basement. Ultimately, though, the cause didn’t matter. In a city gone mad, the
only thing that mattered was survival.

The building across the street was an apartment building just like his.
Twenty stories of glass and stucco. Maybe a thousand residents. He gazed up
at row upon row of windows, and saw movement behind many. But how
many of those shadows were wild creatures, and how many were like him?
There was no way to tell, but if the sickness was a recent thing, there would
be a lot like him, and many of them would be as clueless as he’d been about
what was going on down below. Like him, they would awaken in complete
ignorance and go about their day as usual, getting ready for work, packing a
lunch, getting breakfast for the kids...

Christ! The kids! Any time now, parents would be bundling their
children together, preparing to take them to Grandma’s for the day, or to
soccer practice, or day camp, or wherever else parents unloaded the kids
when there was no school to run herd while the parents worked. Mom and
Dad would make sure that their little snowflakes had their bagged lunch or
soccer gear or box of crayons and coloring book, and then they’d march them
out the front door, straight into the mouth of the beast. Literally.

Was there any way he could possibly warn them, short of shouting at the
top of his lungs or running from door to door? He couldn’t imagine how. Oh,
he entertained grandiose visions of spray painting a warning in the middle of
the road, or throwing rocks through windows, but every ridiculous idea was
more preposterous than the last. Finally, he admitted that there was nothing
he could conceivably do, so he tried to sooth his conscience by assuming that
not everyone was bound to have quite his level of ignorance on the subject. If
he hadn’t been so adamant about closing off the world, a quick peek at the
nightly news might have let him avoid the situation altogether.

The irony was not lost on him, but once he silently heaped an impressive
array of curses upon his own misanthropy, he only added to the absurdity by
thinking again of those faceless shadows in the windows and came to the
only conclusion he could.

From here on in, everyone was in this on their own.

Just as he came to that determination, one of the neighbors in his own
building awoke. One of the newer residents. The discordant wail of a crying


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