A Cure for Loneliness
by Jeff Dosser
Blake was shaken awake as the truck bounced his head off the passenger side window and nearly deposited him into Sadie’s lap. He rubbed at the painful bump on the side of his head while giving the truck’s driver a squint-eyed look of disapproval. “What the hell was that?” he asked.
“Sorry,” Jim shot Blake a harried glance, “The road’s been pretty rough the last couple miles.”
Blake noted Jim’s white-knuckled grip on the wheel as the familiar rumble of the road sang through the truck’s frame.
“You look pretty worn,” Blake said, “you wanna let me or Sadie drive?”
Jim tore his gaze from the road long enough to give Jim a tense smile before he returned his attention to driving.
“Thanks. I’m good. We’ve only got a couple hours left.” He spared him another quick glance mixed with a smile. “Besides, I couldn’t sleep anyway.”
Blake pulled a bottle from his pack and took a swig of stale hot water as he stared absentmindedly out the window. Beside them, a never-ending corridor of abandoned vehicles streamed past, while on the horizon, skeletal trees stood sentry over a dead, brown landscape.
Here and there, dust devils whirled towards the scorched heavens, but nowhere else was there any sign of movement, or life. No colors tinted the world beyond the window, just shades of brown darkening from the dusty tan of the sky to the dark umber of the earth.
The truck they rode in was a modified army issue 1952 Deuce and a Half. It rolled off the factory floor the same year everything went to hell. Now, five years later, it had been modified for trips through the Bad Lands. It was equipped with a dozer blade welded to the front bumper, oversized tires and the entire cab able to be pressurized for over an hour in case they encountered a swarm.
In the center of the dash, just above the radio, sat a circular glass screen the size of a dinner plate. Inside, a dark arm spun in slow revolutions, painting a fading green glow with each pass. It was state-of-the-art radar and gave them a twenty-mile view of the sky.
Blake watched the black arm swing around the gauge before he reached over to brush away a smudge at the edge of the screen.
“That’s not dust,” Jim glanced over with a frown. “I noticed it creeping in about an hour ago.”
“Maybe it’s a sandstorm,” Sadie suggested, but the unspoken certainty was that it wasn’t a sandstorm. It was a swarm.
Five years ago, before swarms, and death, and misery swallowed his life, Blake was part of an insect virology team working out of Los Alamos labs. They’d been doing research on a viral-based pesticide to kill off crop infestations in South America.
He’d found out later a group of entomologists with the Defense Department attempted to weaponize insects native to countries controlled by the Commies. This group had gotten hold of his mutated Baculoviruses and modified them with radiated isotopes before swapping out their original formula with the altered variant.
When the test sprays had been deployed, the initial results were beyond anything Blake’s team hoped for. There was a ninety-nine percent fatality rate of the target insects. But then the results got weird. The radiated poisons had mutated and were killing roaches all across the target zone.
Blake thought they’d stumbled onto the perfect pesticide, then things got even weirder. The roaches that died from the virus didn’t stay dead. Within twenty-four hours, they re-animated. Only they were hungrier dead than they’d ever been alive.
Inside of a month, he was getting panicked calls from Washington. The virus was spreading. In areas of infection, every roach that died came back…hungry. To make matters worse, there was something about the virus that made the dead insects not only unpalatable to predators but also slowed any decay which might eventually destroy them.
The normal breeding rate of roaches, already high, combined with the spread of undead insects to create a population explosion beyond comprehension. Soon, most of South America was quite literally choking on the creatures. They ate everything, crops, grass, forests, and any living creature, including people, that didn’t keep moving long enough to keep from being devoured.
There were riots over the remaining food supplies. Regional squabbles grew into border wars and eventually into a world war. It didn’t take long before the nukes were falling, and civilization was dragged to its knees.
Blake heard there were regions where life still thrived, places beyond the reach of the zombie roaches and radiation storms, but the stories of Easter Island, Java, and Whittier Alaska were probably only fantasy. If non-zombie roach life stood a chance, it was in the packages they carried.
Blake and Sadie’s team worked from the beginning to find a solution to the zombie roach outbreak. Then, last month, there’d been a breakthrough. A microbe, which feasted on the unique polysaccharides of the roach’s exoskeleton, had been exposed to various levels of radiation and the latest mutations proved ravenous, hardy and prolific. They were the perfect solution to the zombie plague picking at the world’s bones.
Their goal was simple. Reach the nuclear missile silo outside of Emporia Kansas, load the modified ballistic missiles with the microbial packages and disperse them across the US, South America, and Europe.
Blake picked up his pack and examined the green, metal canister inside; the arm of the pressure gauge was pinned to the left, in the red. Blake flicked the glass with his finger, and the fine metal arm rebounded into the green.
“I hope they loaded this right,” he said, setting down the pack. “My pressure gauge keeps dropping to zero.”
“I’m sure they’re fine,“ Sadie said, bending over and checking her own canister. “They threw the gauges on as an afterthought, so it’s not unlikely you got a bad one.”
“We better hope so,” Blake added. “The microbes will survive in the container for forty-eight hours but only under constant pressure. If one of these canisters fails, then an entire continent will die.” His gaze rose to stare out the window. “And it’s not like we can throw together another batch … now that the labs are gone.”
They rode in silence, each casting glances to the spinning screen on the dash. They all saw the growing bulge pushing in from the top of the screen.
“Can we pick up the base radio station from here?” Sadie asked, clicking the knob on the radio.
Sudden static rolled through the cab as she dialed through the frequencies.
“No, we lost Tinker not long after you fellas drifted off,” Jim said, “why don’t you try 1330 on the AM dial. There’s someone alive around Wichita who plays reruns of baseball games.”
Sadie bent over, eye to the dial, and twisted the red arrow to 1330. Immediately the cab was filled with crowd noise and the excited voice of the announcer, “There’s a liner, just over Robinson’s head, dropping into right center for a base hit. Carl Furilo throws it back in to Robinson…”
“Hey, this is game six of the Yankees versus Dodgers 52’ world series,” Jim said, a smile cracking his weathered face.
They listened until the Dodger’s took the field and Sadie said, “No, this is game seven. I remember Barry and I were at a picnic listening on the radio.” She sighed. “We had chicken salad.”
Blake stared unseeing into the distance while the game played, and wind howled. He thought about his wife Jane and their two children, Bobby and Cindy. He remembered this game as well. It had been a chilly October, Wednesday, and he’d taken off to help Jane shop for his sister’s upcoming wedding. He’d listened to the game on the car radio while Jane tried on dresses. Now, just four years later, they were all gone.
“Blake! Snap out of it.” Jim said, breaking his reverie.
“Yeah, yeah, what is it?”
The sky behind them had grown dark and the wind scattered rippling curtains of dust across the road. On the radar screen, the dark blob had worked its way to the spinning center. Outside the truck, Blake didn’t see any immediate danger.
Jim slowed to a crawl and pointed ahead. In the distance, Blake saw an overpass, and the typical rows of cars pushed off the highway by army engineers.
“There’s a car blocking the road about a mile up,” Jim said. “The road teams cleared this for us last week, which means it’s probably an ambush.”
Blake leaned forward, gripping the dusty dash, and squinting into the gloom. Jim’s eyes were obviously better than his. Then he saw it, a dark shape blocking the road.
“So what’s your plan?” Blake asked.
“When we get about a quarter mile away, you and me jump out. We’ll stay to the sides but follow behind the truck. When whoever it shows themselves, we waste em’.”
Sadie gasped and looked at Jim. “Isn’t that a little harsh?”
Jim ran a hand through his crew-cut hair. “The fate of humanity itself is riding in this truck. To ensure our species carries on justifies any actions.”
Sadie gnawed at her lip. “I guess you’re right.”
As they approached, Blake spotted the big, blue Plymouth sprawled across the road. The hulk’s wheels had been removed, and it squatted on its frame, the doors and trunk open.
Blake reached behind the seat and pulled out two environmental helmets, handing one to Jim. He lowered the helmet and clicked home the latches that secured the airtight link to his suit. They all wore the same formless gray environmental suits. With the helmets attached, they looked like high-altitude fighter pilots.
Blake clicked the dial on his belt, activating the suit’s power. A soft whish of air blew along his neck as the fan started up. Over the helmet’s speaker, he heard Jim’s voice.
“Okay, let’s go,” Jim called. He grabbed an M1 carbine and opened the door. “Good luck,” he said before jumping out and disappearing from sight.
Sadie scooted into the driver’s seat and yanked the door shut. Blake opened the glove box and removed a 1911 pistol and tucked it in his belt. He opened the door and stared at the concrete creeping past then turned back to Sadie.
“Be careful.” Her lips curled into a worried grin and she held out her hand.
“I will,” he said. His voice sounded as hollow as he felt. He reached over and took her hand, giving her a reassuring squeeze.
Blake slammed the door before he jumped from the running board and dashed to an overturned Ford Crestliner. Blake’s breath echoed inside the helmet as he jogged along the side of the highway, using the abandoned wrecks as cover.
As Sadie eased up to the blockade, three men jumped atop the grounded Plymouth. They each wore a bandanna covering their face, dusty goggles beneath green army helmets and coveralls. The center man leveled a bazooka at the truck, while the other two raised rifles. Blake could see movement among the nearby cars on either side.
“Drop your weapons and get out of the truck,” one of the men yelled.
“Wait for my signal, then open up,” Jim said over the radio.
Blake crept to the roadblock and ducked beside a burnt out Chevy. The only sound was the rumble of the truck’s diesel engine and the windblown grit chittering off its sheet metal door.
Blake peered through the Chevy’s broken windshield and saw the men on the Plymouth, heads together as they discussed what to do. Then the center man raised the bazooka to his shoulder.
Blake took it that Jim’s signal must be blowing the guy’s head off because a spray of red mist exploded from bazooka man’s head. He tumbled backwards, out of view. Two more rifle cracks and Blake heard bullets zing off the Plymouth. Another of the men pitched to the dirt while the third dove behind the Plymouth and came up firing.
Blake moved in, rounding the side of the Chevy. Gun raised, he confronted two men and a woman firing at the deuce. Blake took aim and fired. His first shot spun the closest man around. The second sent him flying across the car’s hood. The other two spun on him, eyes wide behind their dusty goggles. Blake’s next shots exploded like crimson flowers across the second man’s chest and sent him slamming into a rusty truck bed. His rifle clattered from his grip.
Blake drew a bead on the woman. He’d killed before, especially during the war, but this was a woman, the weaker sex. He hesitated.
The female bandit didn’t suffer the same compunction. Before he could breathe, Blake found himself staring into the barrel of her shotgun. He saw the flash, an impact, like a horse kick, hit him in the head. Blake landed on his back, gazing up at a dusky sky through a pane of shattered glass. Rolling onto his shoulder, he saw the woman rack the gun and take aim. A sudden whoosh of the truck’s flame thrower exploded the world into a yellow furnace. Blake curled into a ball and covered his exposed face as a river of hell washed over the cars. He heard the woman’s screams, felt her heavy footfalls as she raced past.
Blake scrambled to his knees as the bandit stumbled away, wreathed in flames. She didn’t go far before collapsing into a smoldering heap.
Blake stood and examined the carnage. Besides the two he’d shot, there were four more burning bodies beside the Plymouth.
Jim came striding up, M1 slung across his shoulder. “Just like old times, huh?”
On the other side of the face plate, Blake could see the grin on Jim’s face.
“Yeah, except for the army of zombie insects descending on us,” Blake said.
Jim looked over his shoulder at the darkened sky. The oncoming swarm stacked into the heavens like a hellish thunderhead, blotting out the sun.
Around them, hundreds of roaches were scurrying from beneath the graveyard of vehicles, drawn by the sudden activity and heat…and death. Despite the flames still flickering along the bodies, roaches flitted and crawled across them. Blake knew that in a matter of hours there would be nothing left but bones.
“How bad are you hurt?” Jim asked.
“I think I’m Okay,” Blake told him. “Let’s just get the road cleared and get out of here. If the swarm arrives before we get to the silo were done.”
Blake followed Jim to the Plymouth, and with their hand signals to guide her, Sadie soon had the derelict pushed off the road. Jim crawled into the driver’s seat while Blake climbed back in on the other side.
He saw that two large holes had been drilled through the windshield by the gunfire. Sadie scrambled to cover them with tape and cardboard she had fished out of the back while Blake pulled off his helmet. He felt the scratchy legs of a large roach slip down the front of his suit.
“Gawwd!” Blake’s forehead wrinkled in disgust as he dug a gloved hand into his suit and drew it out.
He held the two-inch-long insect between pinched fingers before crushing it. The dark body collapsed with an audible crack as the hollow shell collapsed. He threw the tiny body to the floor, but it crawled slowly towards his boot. Not until he’d ground it into the dust of the floorboard did the creature stop moving.
Blake looked at Sadie. She studied him; her brows knit with concern. She already had a wet rag in her hand when she handed him the water bottle.
“You’ve got some pretty bad cuts,” she said, “Take a drink, and let me clean those up.”
As she dabbed at his face, Jim stole a glance, giving Blake a knowing wink.
“So what the hell happened out there?” Jim asked,” How did your shatterproof face-plate get shattered?”
“That’s what happens when you take a blast in the face from a shotgun.” Sadie added, “I saw the whole thing before I hit’em with the flames.”
Jim gave a low whistle, “Shotgun huh? Well, you’re one lucky bastard Blake, that’s all I gotta say” His face darkened as he examined the scope. “Is I sure hope your luck holds out.”
As if on cue, a powerful gust rocked the truck and a deeper darkness enveloped them. On the radar, the blob of black settled across the center of the screen as surely as a closing eye.
“How much further?” Sadie raised her quivering voice above the wind.
“This is the turnoff now,” Jim said spinning the wheel and racing onto a gravel road. “The silo is only a mile ahead. “
Sadie grabbed her helmet out of the back seat and slipped it on. She looked at Blake, her eyes wet.
“What are you going to do without a helmet. You’ll never make it.”
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Blake said, putting on his best Rhett Butler accent.
Sadie smiled, tears streaming down her face. “That was awful,” she laughed.
“I don’t know,” Jim said, glancing over. “I think he’s improving.”
Outside, the darkness swirled about them; a trillion tiny, hungry bodies buzzing past. Jim had slowed, the headlights barely illuminating the gray gravel of their route. As the tires ground past a chain link gate, the lights revealed the rounded concrete sides of a silo. Beside it, a flight of stairs led up, lost in the twisting maelstrom. They skidded to a halt and Jim slammed the truck into park.
“Okay, the silo door is at the top of those stairs.“ He leaned into the wheel and pointed into the dusty air. “The launch team is waiting inside to let us in; we just have to make it to the door with our packages. “
Jim drew his pack from behind the seat, while Sadie and Blake worked their own onto their backs. Blake slipped on his broken helmet and clicked it shut. Sadie eyed the shattered face-plate, her mouth grimaced with worry.
“Maybe it will help,” he shrugged
“Why don’t we stay until the swarm passes?” Sadie asked.
Blake reached over and tapped the radar. “Because this is just the edge of the storm. By the time they pass, the packages will have lost pressure. They’ll be useless.“
“Then how about you stay here,” she suggested. “Jim and I can take your pack and you’ll be safe.”
Blake met her damp eyes, “That patch on the windshield will never hold. “
They both looked at the taped cardboard pressed against the glass. It quivered beneath the gnawing jaws of a thousand invaders.
“They’ll be inside in a few minutes.” Blake said, “Besides, if you take my pack it’ll slow you down. You might not make it. Each of these canisters spells survival for an entire continent.”
Blake heard her sigh.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”
Jim studied them with stony eyes. “You guys ready?”
Then both nodded.
“Okay. On the count of three,” he said.
Blake gripped the door handle, his heart hammering.
Blake swung the door open. He dropped to the ground. The howl of a billion wings engulfed him. In the dim glow of the headlights, he helped Sadie down, then hand in hand they raced for the stairs.
Ahead, Jim leapt up the stairs taking them three at a time. Across his face, Blake felt the smaller roaches blown in through the shattered glass. They crawled along face-plate, found the opening in his helmet. At first, the dry clinging things crawled in one by one, then by the handful, then by the dozens.
Eyes squinted, he peered through a forest of tiny legs and hungry mouths. They groped for every opening. Wormed into nostril and ear. He tried to blow them out, but a gasp of air through gritted teeth sucked in a cloud of choking dust.
With a howl of panic, Blake let go of Sadie’s hand. He spit out the insects clogging his throat; Shook his head to dislodge those burrowing into his ears. Already hundreds crawled deep into his suit. Tiny mouths gnawed at his flesh. A living-dead acid etched away the skin, feeding on every nerve as they gnawed their way in.
Sadie’s frightened scream echoed through his helmet as he tilted back arms pinwheeling for balance. With a jolt, his foot slid from the step and sent him tumbling down the stairs. For an instant, he saw her turn and race after him. Then the wailing tempest shuttered him in its shroud.
Lungs choked and burning for air, Blake rose to his knees. He stripped off his helmet, wiped the crawling filth from his lips. He drew a great, frantic breath. Mouth clogged with dry squirming bodies, small, dusty forms fluttering down his throat, crunching between his teeth.
Collapsing to his side, Blake expected death. He even welcomed it as an end to his torment. Then a cool white cloud exploded around him. At first, Blake thought he must be dead, his first encounter with the hereafter. Then the creatures covering his eyes, his mouth, they dropped away, tumbled to the ground in a twitching, quivering mass. He raised to an elbow, gawking in wide-mouthed awe as an alabaster vapor jetted skyward, infusing with the maelstrom like so much cream dumped in a cup of coffee.
Around him, insects dropped to the earth like rain. In seconds, their dry, desiccated forms were nothing more than so much goo squishing beneath his gloved fingers. Then the wind shifted, and Blake saw the source of his salvation. It was Sadie. She stood in the center of the staircase, legs planted, the high-pressure canister gripped in her hands. From its mouth, a stream of gas jetted out like water from a hose as she guided the torrent this way and that.
As he watched, the flow of white petered out and she let the canister fall. It clattered noisily down the steps in a world suddenly devoid of sound. Then she turned and spotted Blake lying on the ground before her. By the time he pushed to his feet, she at his side, diving into his arms.
“Oh, my God!” she cried. “I thought you were dead.”
He swallowed hard, heard the dry click at the back of his throat. “You and me both.”
“That was damn quick thinking,” he said. “Using the canister to destroy the swarm.” He scanned the dusky horizon and spotted Venus rising in the east. “Wish I’d thought of that.”
Sadie’s cheeks flushed behind the helmet’s protective plate. “Well. It just came to me.”
Through his boots, Blake felt the ground tremble. The low throaty growl exploded into a crackling roar as a rocket clawed into the heavens behind them. The heated wave of the ship’s passage blew them to the pavement. It covered them in a cloud of dust every bit as blinding as the swarm’s.
As the haze cleared, Blake stood and pulled Sadie to her feet. “There goes North America’s last hope for the future,” he said. “With my canister, we’ll be able to save Europe as well.”
Sadie’s helmet hissed as she snapped open the seals and dropped it to the ground. “Are you angry?” Her eyes filled with emotion as she met his gaze. “Are you mad I used my canister to save you.” She looked up and he noticed for the first time how her eyes sparkled when she smiled.
He reached out and pulled her close. “I should be.” Looking to the star-studded sky, feeling the miracle of each breath, each heartbeat, Blake knew he wasn’t.