They were living in the dead carcass of a city, Boston, and although it was summer, the sky overhead hung low and gray. Armed soldiers in full riot gear patrolled the rooftops of buildings and they moved like apathetic ghosts, making their rounds, stirring up pigeons. For most soldiers, their spark of enthusiasm had died a long time ago. A rasping melancholy settled over the city, oppressing both captors and captives. Each of the buildings, like the city itself, had become a hollow shell: no power, no running water, just a refuge for the hollow-shelled survivors inside.
Grimy buildings, broken windows, trash lined streets. This was the world in which Joel and Tess lived.
Reminders of the old life existed, but they were few and far between. An American flag, worn and faded, hung limply from the side of a building. An occasional movie poster or playbill still survived on some of the brick walls.
The world as it once was no longer existed. Within the few remaining quarantine zones left in the country, democratic rule had been replaced by military decree. The military, with its heart no longer in it, oversaw the day-to-day operations.
Two types of citizens lived under this new regime. The non-infected and the recently infected. The only way to distinguish the two was by use of a thumper, an electronic scanning device that bumped up against the base of the skull and took a split-second seismic reading of the brain. If the waves didn’t bounce from front to back without obstruction, that meant something bad: the infection had taken root and was metastasizing the brain. The military had only one mandate in these cases: to eradicate the threat immediately.
The infected didn’t have rights. Even if the symptoms weren’t evident - it took one to two days for the recently infected to turn - or even misdiagnosed, the military had strict orders to put you down. Shooting was less desirable than lethal injection because ammunition had become scarce and was a necessity against armed rebellion. Potassium chloride was agonizingly more painful than a bullet to the head, but to those in charge, much more cost effective.
Ragged awnings, cracked pavement with weeds in between. In every corner, rotting garbage piled chest high. This is what surrounded Joel and Tess as they stepped out of the building, capped by a suffocating gray sky overhead.
Tess looked up at the sky, trying to gauge the position of the obscured sun. “The checkpoint’s still open,” she said.
The broken touchstone Joel wore on his wrist had forced him to develop a keen sense of time over the years too. “Only got a few hours left until curfew.”
“We better hurry up then.”
The corner near the alley was empty save for a man and woman in tattered clothes having a water-cooler discussion by an overfilled dumpster. The green trash bin was covered in graffiti. Above the dumpster was a weathered FEDRA notice warning residents about curfew hours and the consequences of violation.
Joel caught the tail end of their conversation as he approached.
“Wait, are you serious?” the guy asked with surprise in his voice.
“I got served the damn papers this morning,” the woman sighed. “I’ve been selected for outside work duty.”
“That’s such crap. Soldiers are supposed to handle the outside.”
“I’ll be sure to tell them that.” She caught Joel in the corner of her eye. “What about you, Joel? You been summoned for this bullshit yet?”
He knew what the military was up to and wanted no part of it. “Nope,” he said simply.
“Yeah, I bet,” she said, laying on the sarcasm. No one trusted anyone in the zone. Everyone was on their guard.
But the fact was, Joel had spoken the truth.
Joel and Tess walked down a narrow alley between the two buildings and approached an open, wrought-iron gate. Someone had spray-painted the words SEEK THE FIRE on the side of one building and another FEDRA notice hung askew on the building facing the gate. As was common, most of the military warnings plastered here and there had been defaced. This particular one had the word FREE spray-painted over it in red. Graffiti in the zone was as common as the trash on the ground.
The alley smelled bad; it reeked of human waste.
This was what life in the zone had devolved to, if you could call it that. Weeds, overturned trash cans. Boarded windows. Most of the government warning signs bore the familiar Fireflies mark of rebellion: two back-to-back “F”s spray-painted in luminescent colors. Some bore the distinctive shape of an actual firefly.
They turned a corner. The main street stretched at the end of the alley and Joel could see an armed soldier patrolling the rooftop up above. As he entered the street, he noticed a short line of survivors behind a wire fence, with an armed guard blocking one end. Above the line was stretched an awning with the words RATION DISTRIBUTION CENTER printed in black faded letters.
A recording of a woman’s voice droned from overhead speakers: “Attention. Citizens are required to carry a current ID at all times. Compliance with all city personnel is mandatory.” The military had use of gas-powered generators to provide what little power it needed to keep the dwindling population under control.
An armed Humvee in green camouflage paint raced through a puddle, spraying the sidewalk in dirty water.
Tess leaned tiredly against one of the concrete barricades and motioned to the line across the street. “Look at that,” she said. “Ration line hasn’t opened yet. Must be running low again.”
People in line fidgeted with visible irritation. A woman raised her voice: “Hey! How much longer?”
The guard sighed heavily. “Lady, when the rations arrive, we’ll open the door. All right?”
Joel and Tess turned to their right and headed up the street. To their left was a section of the street that was off-limits: wooden police barricades wrapped in barbed wire with armed guards in fatigues standing between them. Joel knew what this area of the street was used for and it made his stomach turn.
Just as they passed, several men in dingy white hazmat suits with gas masks and machine guns emerged from the door of the building behind the barricade. They ushered a handful of frightened citizens into the street and in short order forced them to their knees. “Hands on your fucking head,” ordered one of the men with gas masks. “Do it.” Then he turned to his associate and said, “All right. Scan ‘em.”
His associate then proceeded to check each one, placing the handheld thumper against the base of the skull. Joel watched, his intestines twisting into knots as he feared the worst.
The machine hummed, then beeped. “He’s clean,” spoke the masked man. He went to the next, and then the next. When he reached the third, a young frail woman, the machine’s tone sounded an alarm. “Got a live one.”
The men in suits shoved the woman to the ground as she squirmed underneath their grip. “I’m not infected,” she pleaded in a horrified voice. “It’s wrong! The scan’s wrong!”
“Hold her down!”
Moving with impassive efficiency, two soldiers did exactly that while a third administered the lethal injection. The woman’s body jerked spasmodically as her muscles and organs grappled with the flow of potassium chloride in the bloodstream. In a mere matter of seconds, cruelly, the battle was over.
Joel’s stomach churned with disgust.
The soldiers quickly resumed their duties, placing the thumper against the skull of the last remaining citizen.
But after having just witnessed this military brand of justice, the poor bastard pushed the scanner away and jumped to his feet. “Fuck this,” he cried. He made it two feet before shots rang out and bullets peppered his back.
Just a typical day in the city, thought Joel, as a wave of cynicism shuddered through him.
One of the remaining survivors trembled with fear and gasped, “Oh shit!”
“Shut up!” ordered the leader of the group. “Consider yourself lucky. That’s what happens when you hide out in a condemned building.” He turned back to his associate and poked the air. “Call the clean up crew.”
One of the men in fatigues turned his attention to Joel and Tess. “All right, people. This isn’t a show. Keep moving along.”
Joel walked past the man lying in the street, stepping around the widening circle of blood.
Tess sidled up beside him and shook her head. “Seems like more people are getting infected.”
“That just means more people are sneaking out,” he said in a low voice.
He glanced up, past the concrete boundary of the zone with its tall guard towers and looked to the gray sky in the east, to what once was the Boston city skyline. It seemed surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting; buildings leaned against each other at impossible angles, seemingly in defiance of gravity.
They approached the main gate just as another Humvee came to a halt and a helmeted soldier in fatigues scurried out from behind the wheel. Up top was a female soldier with her arm resting on an M2 .50 caliber machine gun. She spoke to the man now on the ground. “They fuckin’ lynched them,” she said.
“The entire squad?” the driver asked.
“Yeah. Way I heard it, they lined them up in the street and cut ‘em up. Retribution and shit.”
Joel edged toward the gate slowly, rounding a large puddle of water. His curiosity was piqued but he didn’t want to attract any attention.
“We ever lose control of this place to the stragglers, that’s what will happen to us.”
Stragglers. A cute term for the way the military viewed Joel and the others: just a bunch of troublesome inferiors waiting for their turn to die.
“That will never go down here,” the driver assured her. Army trucks rumbled in the distance. “Any straggler even looks at me the wrong way, I put his ass down.” His eyes met Joel’s and they held each others’ gaze before the man looked away.
The female soldier snorted. “I’m sure that’s what they thought at every other QZ before riots broke out.”
“It’s those goddamn Fireflies,” the driver said excitedly. “They keep stirring the population up. We put an end to them. That’s how you solve this shit.”
“We agree on that,” the gunner said with a nod. And then, spotting the straggler, she spun the machine gun in Joel’s direction, a defiant challenge shimmering in her eyes.
Joel grunted and moved away toward the gate. The time for that battle would come, he told himself. All in due time.
Tess was hanging back near the checkpoint, waiting for him.
“I got us all new papers,” she said as he approached. “They shouldn’t give us any static up there.”
The checkpoint was a wide, double-gated barricade large enough for military grade trucks in the center and pedestrians on the right. An armed guard patrolled the walkway overhead. An American flag hung loosely from a pole at the top of a guard tower where spotlights had been affixed to the hand railing. Just beyond the checkpoint lie the main plaza surrounded by more of the same decrepit buildings.
They walked past the orange and white barrels marking the entrance to the checkpoint and Tess turned to Joel and whispered, “Just play it cool.”
The diesel engine of a camouflaged truck grumbled as the checkpoint guard waved an arm at the driver. “Drive on through,” he ordered.
Joel approached the guard dressed in full riot gear as he turned casually to Tess, motioning for the papers. Tess handed him the two passports without saying a word.
“Let me see your IDs,” the guard said tiredly. He had deep circles under his eyes, his face sagged with exhaustion.
“There you go,” Joel said, placing the passports into the soldier’s gloved hand. The man’s other hand loosely held an M-16 pointed downward. As Joel waited, he considered the soldier. The man looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
The man looked at the papers with unfocused eyes, forcing himself through the motions. “What’s your business here?” he asked. In his tone was a zero lack of interest.
“Got the day off,” Joel replied. “Visiting a friend.”
The guard nodded. “All right. Move on through.”
And just as the guard stepped aside to let Joel and Tess pass, an explosion ripped through the diesel truck that had just cleared the outer checkpoint gate.
“Oh shit!” cried Tess as they recoiled from the blast, hands instinctively going to their ears. A searing blast of heat swept past Joel as the ground beneath his feet trembled. He felt a fishhook snag his arm belong the elbow and threaten to rip it loose. His body felt on fire and a painful ringing stung his ears.
“Get out of here!” the guards shouted. “Go!”
The men rolled the gate closed as orange flames engulfed the truck. Joel was still recovering from the blast as the world spun madly around him. As he regained his senses, he turned and saw a machine gun battle erupt beyond the gate. Above the ringing in his ears he heard the muffled cry of a guard: “Close it up! Fireflies!”
He felt a bullet whistle past him and then the gentle touch of a hand upon his throbbing arm. It was Tess. Although he couldn’t hear, he could see she was pleading with him to get the hell away.
“Joel,” she said, her voice sounding as if he were submerged underwater. “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”