The planetary scout pushed the two prisoners into the controls module to face the waiting officers and commander of the starship, which hovered in space beside the planet’s moon.
The Master Intelligence had taken on the appearance of the ship’s crewmembers—just as the scout had replicated the planet’s inhabitants so it could spy on them undetected.
The insectoid officers walked around the captives, examining and poking. The captives recoiled at the touches.
“I wanted you to see the grotesqueness of this planet’s inhabitants,” the Master told his crew in a language of clicks, humming sounds, and hisses.
The Master turned to the science officer. “Report.”
The officer bowed. “Modification of the miasma is complete, Master. It will not harm anything except these monsters, their planet’s dominant species. The few of them who survive will pose no threat when we eradicate all their electrical technology at the same time.”
“What do these creatures call their planet?”
The Master looked with its three eyes at the man and woman. It extended one of its four arms. “Dispose of them,” the Master said. “They are of no further use.”
Turning toward slaves at the control panels, the Master Intelligence ordered, “Begin the attack.”
Within three days, almost everyone on the planet died.
The Aftershock Time
The man knew horrors waited for him in the small town, but he needed to go there for supplies.
He stood on a high hill looking at the quiet Iowa town. The cinnamon haze softened the scene in the glow of summer’s early morning light, and through gaps between trees he could see streets laid out in blocks, a business district in the middle with shops and the town’s lone four-lane street, and green patches of parks and ball fields. Poking through the treetops were roofs, church steeples, schools, and a water tower.
“Time to go into town,” he said out loud. Talking to himself no longer seemed odd after three years alone in the empty world. Most of the time he felt like the last person on Earth, so the sound of a human voice, any voice, even his own voice, helped keep him sane.
He coasted his mountain bike downhill on the two-lane highway with his assault rifle clipped across the handlebars.
He dismounted the bike once he reached the town limits sign and laid the bike behind shrubs beside the road. Easier than leaving a horse behind, he thought. He’d switched from riding a horse to thirty-speed carbon-fiber mountain bikes.
Tame horses were getting hard to find, but he could repair or replace a mountain bike in any town, and the roads were still good, although weeds were coming up through cracks. With a mountain bike, he could even travel off the roads.
He didn’t want to be caught on the bike if trouble occurred in the town. He looked at the limits sign, hesitating, and then he walked down the middle of the highway since there would be no traffic.
A wooded area on the town’s east side extended from a park he’d noticed from the hilltop, and the highway parted the trees to each side where he crossed a bridge that spanned a wooded gorge about twenty feet deep. Beside the guardrail he looked down, curious about such wildness on the edge of town. He saw nothing moving except the cinnamon-scented wisps wafting through the gorge, and he felt reassured as he listened to birds chirp in the branches. The danger came when birds stopped singing or flew away.
Sensing a presence, he turned to look behind him and saw a shadow move in the dim light between trees and underbrush on the highway’s other side. The shadow crunched leaves as it passed.
He took a deep breath, calming himself with the realization that if it were them, they would have shot him already.
Twenty-six, Joel Birchard was five-foot-ten and weighed one hundred and eighty pounds. He was broad-shouldered with a thick chest and flat belly. Because he was not a large man, he relied on intelligence, his military training, reflexes, strength, and weaponry. He’d spent much of his time over the past three years in fitness centers he found, building his strength and practicing the martial arts skills he’d learned long ago.
He walked forward and flipped the safety off the M4A1 carbine he’d taken from his lifeless Army base. He kept an M&P .40-caliber pistol holstered on his right hip, and he carried a knife in a metal sheath on his left hip. A bandoleer with extra clips of ammunition crossed over his chest from his right shoulder to the left side of his waist. He wore camouflage fatigues like a hunter or soldier because sometimes he had to blend into the landscape, but he wasn’t much of a hunter, and he was no longer a soldier, having concluded the Army didn’t exist anymore.
Joel looked back to the other side again to make sure the shadow had left the trees where the mist-weakened sunlight couldn’t filter through.
A deer crossed the road twenty yards ahead in the haze. It glanced at him and hurried toward houses….That must have been the shadow I saw….
The highway curved and became the main street through a three-block business district with vehicles parked in front of stores. He saw a key in one pickup’s ignition, and he opened the door and turned the key. Nothing, but he hadn’t expected it to start. It was like the others he found along the roads that he often tried to start. The fog deactivated all electricity, even batteries, when it descended, and regardless, the batteries would have discharged and be dead now after three years, but he kept turning ignition keys anyway. He wasn’t sure why he continued such a hopeless task.
He grimaced and entered a pharmacy for supplies. The air inside was stale with a musty odor of rot.
A woman sat in a chair by the door wearing a blue dress and low heels with her black purse on her lap. Joel stepped around her skeleton and walked up the aisle gathering toothpaste, razor blades, dental floss, and other necessities.
It didn’t take Joel long to walk around the small town. He saw two coyotes, several rabbits and squirrels, and a large German shepherd dog that looked as if it could take care of itself. He stayed away from the dog and it stayed away from him. He saw a bobcat sunning itself on the hood of a car, and he noticed where a bear had scratched its claws six feet high on a front-yard tree in one neighborhood, while in another a flock of turkeys rummaged in an old garden.
No humans, of course. Clothed bones lay in crumpled piles on the sidewalks, inside buildings and vehicles, and here and there in the playgrounds and parks. Young trees and bushes had invaded the hip-high grass and shoulder-high shrubbery in yards. He’d avoided towns for the first months because the stench of decay from bodies was unbearable, and he still didn’t go into the tomb-like houses.
He preferred staying in Realtors’ model homes when he could find them because no one had ever lived in them, and so there were no clothed skeletons he had come to call bone people. He believed in the bone people’s ghosts, but he always thought of them as sad and tragic, to be pitied, not feared.
The next best places to stay in towns were homes with sold signs in the yards. He always looked for ones with furniture still in them, but he wouldn’t stay if he found any bone people inside.
He chose a furnished model home in a new housing development on the town’s west side, entering the house by breaking a window next to the lock’s latch. The town was so small that he was four blocks from the business district even though he was on the edge of town.
Beside a bed he set his waterproof backpack, which bulged with dry clothes, an olive-drab Army blanket, more ammo, the little wild game meat he’d smoke-dried, and cans of food wrapped in socks and underwear to avoid rattles. The stores of his unpeopled world were his supply bases.
Well, nearly unpeopled, he’d come to realize.
Every town’s water tower held all the gravity-fed water he needed for essential hygiene. Water flowed from faucets, so he used it with soap he always carried with him to keep clean, and the toilets even flushed. Fearful of the debilitating effects of bad health, cleanliness was a large part of his strategy to protect himself from illness or injury. Abscessed or rotted teeth could kill him as surely as a bullet, so he was diligent about brushing his teeth, although he never used faucet water for brushing, drinking, or cooking because he didn’t trust its algae scent. Instead, he used water from two quart canteens on his belt after sterilizing it by boiling or with purification tablets.
He always slept in his clothes and boots, ready for fight or flight. His only concession to comfort, whether in a bed or in camp, was to remove his canteen belt and his camouflage vest with its pockets for supplies, ammo clips, and the six grenades he hung on it.
After blowing out his candles, he turned the pillow over so it wouldn’t smell dusty and laid his head back, adjusting the pillow until he was comfortable. He held the pistol in his right hand and leaned the M4 against the wall next to him, habits that saved his life more than once.
He exhaled a long breath. He never became used to skeletons scattered through every town, but he’d learned to relax among them.
Joel lay in bed, waiting to go to sleep and thinking about that first day’s terror when the world died around him three years earlier….