It was as if a giant magnet had passed across the earth and erased the collective hard-drive of humanity.
The woman woke from fitful sleep, her hair drenched with sweat, the visions of the dream world still fresh in her consciousness.This was the most important time. Only in sleep could she remember the past. Only in the dream world did she truly know who she was and what things were. But there was a danger, for in the dream world, dead men walked.
“Dead men walking. Dead men walking. Dead men walking.” Her breath came in short gasps, racing in rhythm to the quickening beat of her heart. She began to shake violently. She felt as if she were about to die, alone in a dark empty world. She was about to scream out into the darkness when strong arms wrapped around her from above. They held her tightly as if to squeeze the fear out of her heart and the breath out of her words. She remembered the arms. They were her lover’s arms. Slowly, her lips stopped moving and the fear ebbed from her like water from the shore.
Three nights ago, she saw the city out her apartment window. It was alive with the sound, motion and purpose of ten million souls. It pulsed to the rhythm of their heartbeats. It breathed with the inhale and exhale of their lungs. Until, in a moment, in the first moment, the once vibrant city was thrown violently into chaos. She didn’t know why it happened or how. In fact, she knew almost nothing at all–not the time of day, not the meaning of a word, not even her own name, only the warm touch of her lover and the unspoken knowledge that they must stay together. As they huddled in terror, the city died all around them, and dream by dream their memories came back–frightened birds returning to their cages.
“I saw them again,” Lyra began.
“Hush.” Her lover rocked her slowly. Darren—that was his name. She remembered.
“No, Darren.” She tried the name for the first time in three days. “I must tell you. They’re real. Their skulls are white like…like the moon. Their eyes sunken in. No skin, but their hearts are still beating. They walk, and when they catch you, they drag you down to death, and they burn you with fire, and you can’t get away, no matter how hard you fight.”
“Just a dream.”
“No.” Lyra pushed his lover’s hands down and reached into his pocket for the picture box. It was one of the few things Darren had on him before zero hour and until a few minutes ago Lyra had not known how to use it. Her fingers paused over the light emitting paper for only a second before touching the icon and bringing the ghoulish apparition to life. “I saw this.”
Darren looked at the ghoul with distaste. She knew her lover had not yet dreamed of dead men walking, but she knew others had. She saw them in the night, huddled under benches or in doorways, shaking and screaming until their hearts stopped and their last breath wheezed out of them.
“Just like before. Just like the first time.” She looked into her lover’s black, sunken eyes–blank eyes that seemed to know only fear and confusion. Over his shoulder, the first rays of sunlight were snaking their way into the bowels of the dead city. Lyra and her lover stood, viewed the giant green woman over the water as she moved into the light, and once again set off in search of something, anything they could remember.
Hours passed. Lyra grew hungry like she had yesterday and the day before that, but not knowing what food was, she could not satisfy her hunger. She became thirsty, but knew nothing of drink. They came to an intersection where, three days ago, the cars had crashed into one another or slammed into bewildered pedestrians who had wandered into their path. Dead bodies, some with dried blood caked on their faces and in their hair, sat peacefully in the cars and under them. The traffic light was still changing from green to amber to red with undaunted precision. The smell of death choked at Lyra’s lungs and tugged at her empty stomach until she gagged. She remembered the horror of zero hour and dragged her lover away.
Over the last three days and nights, Lyra had watched without understanding as, depending on their size and condition, people began to die. The small ones were the first to go as their fathers and mothers wandered aimlessly away forgetting the once familiar sound of their children’s cries and leaving them to starve helplessly. Lyra was more fortunate than most. On that first night, she had dreamed of her lover, the burn of his unshaven face and the odor of his unwashed body. Lyra had awoken from her dream to find her lover nearby, quietly watching the bugs gather around a streetlight. Since that time, they had never been apart.
Even now, baffling visions from the dream world were cycling without meaning through her mind. A woman, her mother, her soft lips, the warm touch of her hand.
They stopped at the corner before the next intersection. Large buildings rose on either side of the street blocking all sunlight. She remembered seeing a woman at this intersection two days ago. The woman was not her mother. She was screaming in terror at the sight of a cat or a fallen bird that had forgotten how to fly. Cat. Bird. She remembered these words although she did not know them two days ago, or yesterday.
Her birthday cake. Ten candles. The smell of chocolate. Hot dogs. Her mother’s quiet, sad voice. Turkey in the oven on… on Christmas. Burned meat. The smell of burned meat.
Lyra was not dreaming now. She smelled burned meat and remembered. She remembered the taste. She remembered cutting the flesh and feeling it warm her tongue. She remembered chewing and the cold splash of ice cold Coca-Cola as it ignited sparks down her throat.
Lyra pulled her lover down Park Avenue in the direction of the smell. She stopped in front of a shop window. Inside, the blackened flesh of some animal was still turning and smoking over a skillet. Lyra walked blindly into the window, bruising her forehead. She banged on the window with her hands. Her blows grew fierce as the scent of burned meat grew and burned in her nostrils. The smell of burned meat. Frantic, now, with memory, she smashed at the window with her hands and knees. The window shattered. With bloody hands, Lyra ripped at the blackened carcass. The taste of ash and flesh.
“Dead men walking. Dead men. Dead men.”
Lyra woke from the deep sleep without dreams. The room was dark but warm. She heard screaming, her lover’s scream.
“Dead men. Dead men.”
Lyra fumbled in the darkness until she’d found her lover’s shaking body. Lyra tried to put her arms around him, tried to squeeze the fear out of him, but she was pushed aside by his strong arms.
“Dead men. Dead men.” Darren’s chanting grew louder and more urgent. Lyra struggled to hold him down. She pulled on the big man’s arms and legs. She grabbed her lover’s hair and scratched at his face trying desperately to wake him, only to be thrown down again and again until one final blow knocked her head savagely against the wall. In the distance, she heard her lover’s frantic screams grow to a crescendo and then stop. Exhausted and badly beaten, Lyra crawled across the cold pavement in the direction of the last scream until she found Darren’s motionless body. Lyra was just in time to feel her lover’s heart stop and the last breath wheeze out of him.
Lyra stayed with her lover’s lifeless body for two days. There was hardly anything left alive, now, in the city, except flies and maggots. She awoke on the sixth day to see them feeding on her lover’s eyes. She tried to brush them away, but they were coming out from the inside. Lyra couldn’t breath. The smell. The pain of hunger gripped her once again.
Lyra returned to the store with the burned meat, but the meat had been almost completely devoured by bugs. Lyra smelled burning once again, but this time the smell did not bring to mind memories of food. It was an unpleasant smell, a repulsive smell. The narrow streets were filling with smoke. Lyra’s lips were bleeding.
She pushed on, falling from time to time but feeling no pain. She found herself in the trees when the lights went out.
Lyra was still alive when her picture box began talking. They were there on her picture box. The ghouls.
“Unit thirteen, take the next block on Park Avenue to the trees. Clean it top to bottom. Should take the rest of the morning.”
There was silence again and the box went dark. Then another ghoul appeared.
“I hope not. This place is beginning to stink.”
The box went black again. Lyra listened. Light was cutting a wedge on the grass. She could not move. She’d dreamed again–skating in the snow in a place she remembered–two blocks away. She was only seven or eight. It was cold.
“Dickie, hold up.”
Another ghoul appeared on Lyra’s picture box. The ghoul reached his white hands up and took off his white, eyeless, faceless skull. Lyra was surprised to see another head underneath, a human head.
“Dickie, I know we’re at war, but this is… I mean, look at all these people, all these bodies. What did this—a bomb?” The ghoul spoke. His voice was deep and his speech slow.
“Well, it’s not actually a bomb. It’s a virus, a computer virus.” The second ghoul appeared on the box. He, too, had a human head under his white skull.
“A computer virus did this?”
“A special computer virus–the first computer virus to be successfully transmitted from hardware to wetware. These poor suckers caught the virus from the ultra low frequencies emitted by their digital equipment–their computers, their cell phones, their calculators–and they died.”
“Yeah, but how?”
“The virus counts down in their brains to zero hour, then it savagely attacks the fear centers of the brain with visions of death so terrifying that either their heart stops or their brain, in defense, wipes the slate clean. It wipes out their memories. They forget how to eat and walk and talk, and then they just die. Either way, they die.”
“What if they’re not all dead? I mean, what if we see some survivors?”
The second man shook his head. “We can’t take a chance of it spreading.”
“So. What do we do?”
The second man shrugged. “Dead men walking.”
The first man put his helmet back on. “Tough way to go,” he said and flamed another body.
Lyra looked up from the picture box to see smoke rising from the trees. They were coming closer.