Alisa’s little Fiesta was already up to its legal capacity when they got to the dorm, but they were feeling a bit urgent about the whole thing and, anyway, they’d gotten twice that many people in it for something far less urgent. For this, for their friends…
They’d limited themselves to a single bag each, and only Grace had tried to stretch that. Kristy had taken care of that, with more force than anyone had expected out of her. “One bag, Grace, either the purse goes, or you do.” That had been that; their bags fit in places they couldn’t get another person.
Still. Alisa driving, to start, and Alex in shotgun, because she knew the area the best, tiny Deann on her lap and their two bags under her feet, Grace, Gretchen, and Jacklyn packed hipbone to hipbone in the back seat, Kristy draped over their laps like another piece of luggage, Paula and Sherry and Tisha in the trunk, with their bags and Alisa’s and the cooler with all the food they could scrounge. They’d packed every possible inch of the tiny car with people and the bare minimum of luggage, because they knew what was coming. They had to get out of town.
And then, as they were pulling out of the parking lot… Michelle Weber, Michy who’d started school with them, held their hair when they puked, bailed Kristy and Jacky out of jail. Michy who’d walked seven miles to help Sherry out in a blizzard. Michy, with one small bag and a lost look.
They all paused, waiting, waiting to see who’d say “no, drive.” Waiting to see who’d say that staying was death. Waiting to see who’d volunteer, this time, to be the bitch.
The pause stretched, Alisa’s foot on the brake. Their window for leaving was swiftly closing, and there would be no other chance. Everyone else had fled. They had to leave Michy, or they’d all die.
“Let me out.” Paula whispered it, Paula, who had always been the good one. “Let me out, let her in. I owe her too much.”
Paula didn’t waste much time; she allowed herself three heartbeats of time to watch her friends drive away, and then headed back into the dorms. The bugs were coming, and they’d be here any minute.
She grabbed a few things from open rooms as she passed – ramen, ramen would keep forever, a half-packed suitcase, a hotpot, ooh, naughty, someone’s flares. She hadn’t volunteered just because she owed Michy – although she did, and twice as much for the fact the other girl had never told anyone – they all owed Michy. Of all of them, she was pretty sure she had the best chance of survival in the city. Of all of them, she knew where the hidey-hole was.
It wasn’t a sure bet, by any means. The bugs had devoured entire cities already. There was no proof they’d be stopped by some concrete and chlorine. But anything was better than sitting around waiting to die, or trying to run away on foot.
She pushed aside the manhole cover deep in the tunnels beneath the school, and climbed down the ladder she’d found there. Michey had known she’d been hiding, but even she hadn’t been able to find her when she was in here.
“In here” was through another door, one that had been rusted shut when she found it, into a tiny, forgotten maintenance room below the pool. A small drip filled the back corner with chlorine-smelling water, but the rest of the room was dryish, clean, and stocked with a few of Paula’s treasures already.
She shoved the door closed and blocked it as best she could, then set up a nest in the dryer corner, and waited.
She had watched the news – they all had – when the bugs hit other cities. They were moving from the northeast south and west, at a slow, leisurely pace that was likened, over and over again, to locusts. Nobody knew where they had come from; the first they had been heard of was when Presque Isle had been devoured.
With Bangor, at least, they’d seen them coming, watched them rip through the city as the news cameras fled. It wasn’t much of a blessing, but they’d known what they were up against, at least – creatures the size of SUV’s, with twenty legs (or so; both size and leg number varied) and hard carapaces that seemed to repel weapons.
The National Guard could stop them, but with nothing smaller than a missile, and they seemed to gain in strength, size, and purpose as they tore through cities. Portland. Concord. Albany. By Syracuse, the military had gotten their techniques down. They were winning the war by attrition, but only because the U.S. had many more citizens to sacrifice than the bugs did.
They wouldn’t win before the bugs hit Rochester. They might before Buffalo was eaten, at least, or, if not then, then Cleveland, but Rochester was a loss. The bugs would eat every organic thing they could get their claws into, leaving behind nothing but dust, stone, and concrete, and then swarm on to the next city.
There was no suggestion that they didn’t know how to open doors, but Paula was hoping, as she sat in her quite little bunker, that their rip-on-through technique didn’t leave time for detailed searching. People had been found, survivors, if only a few here and there. She could be one of those.
It was hard, waiting. She nibbled on an energy bar, sipped a tiny bit of water, and strained her ears, wishing she could hear anything at all through the thick concrete, that she had some way of telling when the bugs were gone. The ground shook, once, and then nothing.
The silence lasted for hours, long uncomfortable, boring hours where Paula ended up humming softly to herself, reading her textbooks by flashlight, pacing in circles. Pacing again, reading again, nibbling on her energy bar. The minute hand on her watch ticked by at a glacial pace. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. She drifted off after thirty, only to wake five minutes later. Fourty-five. Fifty-five. One hour and thirty minutes had passed.
She was reading again, a dry portion of her history text that she was hoping would put her to sleep but had actually turned out to be engrossing, when she heard a scratching at the door.
She didn’t mean to scream, and didn’t realize she had until the noise was echoing through the small room. Mortified, she scrabbled back against the back wall as the door slowly swung open.
She reached for her only weapon, a hockey stick that had seen better days, and braced herself. So they could open doors. So they were coming for her. Would they fit in here? Could she hide in the far corner?
The creature that stepped through the door looked so much like a human that she nearly dropped her guard. But the arms – the arms were long and chitenous, and the eyes were glowing green.
“What…?” she whispered, even as she raised her hockey stick and pressed her back more firmly against the wall.
“You are very brave.” Its voice was human, male, but nothing about the way he spoke was natural; he sounded like a computer using human vocal chords. “You are very clever.”
“I’m just afraid of being eaten,” she admitted angrily.
“Well then.” It approached her slowly, one long arm-thing reaching towards her. “We will not eat you.”
“No?” She hated how shaky her voice sounded.
“No. We can use the brave and clever. Like this one.” The eyes blinked twice, and a human voice spoke as the eyes shifted to blue.
“It’s weird,” he admitted. “But it doesn’t hurt. Not for long, at least.”
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