Gil A. Waters lives in Washington, DC, and likes to write. Read him at www.gilwaters.com.
It didn't look like the kind of place that might hold the key to salvation.
In fact, it was little more than an unsightly growth along an otherwise unblemished stretch of highway. Four small buildings of sand-blasted
brick and sun-blistered wood, each marked by a single generic sign that announced its purpose: "Gas" and "Diner" on one side, "Motel" and
"Bar" on the other. Between each pair of buildings lay a gravel lot large enough to accommodate the tractor-trailers that accounted for much
of the traffic in this corner of the world. Two were parked next to the diner, while a decrepit brown station wagon and a couple of dusty
motorcycles languished next to the bar on the other side.
Rik slowed his car and pulled into the gas station alongside the lone gas pump. An unkempt little man wearing oil-stained overalls and no
shirt emerged from the shadow of the open garage bay and approached as Rik stepped out of the car and surveyed the desolate landscape.
Nothing but scrub and sand in all directions, occasionally interrupted by a tiny silver trailer baking in the sun - a nighttime home for one of
the few mummified souls who actually lived here.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" said the man, noticing the grimace of displeasure on Rik's face.
"Lovely," Rik replied, exhaling the word as if he were expelling smoke from his lungs.
He didn't bother to look at the man, but continued to gaze at the horizon, perhaps waiting for the heavens to open and the gods of irony to
give him a sign.
"Yeah," the man continued, "what we have here is what you might call your archetypal southwestern shithole."
Rik's frown transformed into a smile as he turned to face the man. He hadn't expected such a philosophical flourish from someone who
looked as if he could barely scratch his own name in the dirt with a stick.
"I don't believe I've ever considered what an archetypal shithole might look like."
"Take my word for it, this is it. This is the kind of place that exists only because it's halfway between someplace and someplace else."
"Well, I suppose that means I'm getting somewhere," Rik said.
The man smiled and nodded in return.
"Shall I fill 'er up?" he asked.
"Why, yes, thank you."
The man unscrewed the gas cap and began to fill the tank of Rik's car: a 1970 Hemi Cuda with heavily tinted windows and several coats of
dull black primer; the perfect muscle car for the man with few muscles.
"What did you do before?" asked Rik.
The man winced at the question and stared down at the ground for a few seconds, then raised his head.
"I find that it's best not to dwell on the past," he replied.
"I didn't mean to pry," said Rik. "It's just that you don't speak as if you've spent your whole life pumping gas."
The man raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.
"I'm what you might call a 'closet intellectual'," he said.
"Really? This doesn't seem like a very intellectual kind of place," Rik said.
"To the contrary! There's only two things to do out here: read and fuck. Seeing as how I'm not the kind of man who attracts a lot of
women, the choice seemed obvious."
"That's probably a wiser choice anyway," Rik said, trying to be kind.
"Maybe. But it takes a whole lot of books to keep you warm on a cold night."
Rik looked up at the mid-day summer sun and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm.
"Not much chance of it getting cold any time soon," he said.
"Exactly," the man replied. "And that's why I'm here."
Rik laughed and handed the man a generous portion of the stolen cash in his pocket.
"You're not wearing gloves," Rik observed. "You don't even have a gun."
"I suppose I like to live dangerously - just like you."
Rik looked down at his own bare hands, through which infection conceivably could pass into his body from any tainted person he might be
unlucky enough to touch. Then he wrapped his right hand around the grip of the 9mm Glock holstered under his left arm.
"You're not afraid of getting shot?" Rik asked.
"With my bad aim, a gun wouldn't help me avoid that fate anyway," he said, turning back toward the garage.
"Thank you kindly," he said as he walked away, holding up the money Rik had given him.
Rik got back in the car and drove the three-hundred or so yards to the diner across the lot, coming to a stop in the shade of its low, over-
hanging roof. He grabbed his duffel bag from the passenger seat and headed inside.
The drivers of the two trucks parked nearby were perched next to the entrance on a couple of the tiny stools that lined the counter.
Looking like grotesquely distorted versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, each had managed to elevate morbid obesity to a patriotic art
form, cramming oversized heads and bodies into tiny caps and shirts proudly emblazoned with images of the flag. As soon as Rik walked in
the door, they looked him up and down as if he was naked, sizing up his gun in comparison to their own absurdly large .44 Magnums.
"Howdy, gentlemen," said Rik as he walked to the booth at the rear of the diner.
Each trucker responded with a barely perceptible nod of the head.
Rik sat down with his back to the wall and tossed his duffel bag over the table into the seat on the other side.
An ancient, skeletal waitress with bleached, bee-hive hair and what looked like an elephant gun strapped to her side emerged from the
kitchen. Hands clad in stained surgical gloves, she thrust a scrap of paper in a dirty plastic folder in front of him. There were only five items
on it, each of which seemed more nauseating than the next.
"You know what you want, or you need more time to look it over?" she asked.
"Well, it's a tough choice," Rik replied, "but I think I'll have the Coyote Platter."
The waitress yelled over her shoulder in the general direction of the kitchen, "Juan! Gimme one caca coyote."
"Caca coyote?" said Rik.
"It's a private joke," she said in a voice so devoid of humor it would have made a clown cry.
"Anything to drink with that?" she asked.
"A cup of your finest coffee. Or, should I say, one caca cafÃ©."
She fixed him with a stony gaze. "You're a funny guy," she said as she walked away from the table.
The waitress disappeared into the kitchen and returned almost immediately with a plate and a cup, which Rik took to be a bad omen. What
she set before him looked as if it might once have been a steak, alongside a pile of what might have been mashed potatoes, all covered in
something resembling gravy.
Rik let out a sigh and started to eat, willing his taste buds into submission.
He was only into his third bite when he sensed it. Even before he could hear the roar of the engine, he felt the tingling along his spine that
meant another like him was drawing closer. He looked out the window and across the gravel lot as a 1978 Harley Low Rider pulled into the
gas station. The rider was a woman, tall, with straight black hair that flowed to the middle of her back. She jumped off the bike and started
to put gas in the tank, waving off the little man as he reemerged from the garage to offer his assistance. Then she brusquely handed him
some cash, got back on, and sped towards the diner in a cloud of dust. The truckers were already staring and drooling as she brought the
machine to a stop beside Rik's car, grabbed the saddlebag hanging on the back, and came inside.
"My, my, my," said one while the other laughed. "What do we have here?"
She ignored him and turned toward the row of booths.
"That is fine!" he persisted, stretching out one bloated arm and gently patting her on the ass with a glove-clad hand.
That was a mistake.
She spun around, hair twirling like a Spanish dancer, and in one fluid motion took the .357 Desert Eagle from the holster at her side, pulled
back the hammer, and pressed the muzzle into the soft flesh between his bewildered eyes.
Rik couldn't suppress the wide smile that spread across his face. There were few aphrodisiacs more powerful than the sight of a beautiful
woman with violent tendencies.
She stood silently for a moment and pressed the gun a little harder against the man's forehead. Then, in a voice colder than death, she
said, "If I ever see either of you again, anywhere, I will kill you."
The trucker under the gun began to stutter, "I, I, I'm sorry... "
But she raised her free hand, put her forefinger to her lips, and whispered, "Shhhhh." Then she took a few steps backwards, continuing to
point the gun at him, and sat down at the booth closest to the entrance. She laid the gun on the table in front of her and said simply,
"You're both leaving now."
The truckers pulled out their wallets with hands that trembled like those of a drunk in need of a drink, threw some cash on the counter, and
ran out so fast they almost tripped over each other. The waitress stepped from behind the counter, where she had stood quietly watching
the drama unfold.
"What can I get for you, killer?" she asked, holding a menu in front of the beautiful gunslinger's face.
"Coffee. And water," the woman replied, pushing the menu aside.
The waitress returned with a glass and a mug just as the truckers gunned their engines and pulled out of the lot. Rik picked up his plate
and his coffee cup and sauntered over to her table.
"Hi!" he said in a loud voice as irritatingly perky as possible as he sat down across from her.
She froze, mouth half open, arm in mid-air, cup of coffee in hand.
"I recommend the Coyote Platter," he continued with the unnerving familiarity of a stranger who somehow knows your darkest and deepest
She slammed her cup on the table, spilling about a third of its contents in the process, as her brow furrowed above her sunglasses in a look
of annoyed disbelief.
"Are you out of your fucking mind?" she asked rhetorically, gesturing toward the gun that still lay before her.
"Why, yes, I am out of my fucking mind, as a matter of fact."
The waitress returned to the table, probably trying to head off the unspeakable carnage she was sure was about to ensue.
"Something to eat?" she asked, once again holding out the menu.
Now it was Rik who pushed it aside.
"Like I said, get the Coyote Platter. It's a culinary experience you won't soon forget."
The woman stared at him for several more seconds, her brow becoming ever more furrowed as she tried to make sense of the lunatic seated
"Okay. Fine. I'll have the god-damned Coyote Platter."
"Juan! Another caca coyote," yelled the waitress as she walked away.
Now the gunslinger looked doubly perplexed.
"Did she just say... ?"
"It's a private joke," Rik answered with authority. "Something to do with local legend concerning the curative powers of dog shit, I believe."
The woman put her head in her hands and began massaging the back of her skull with the tips of her fingers.
"You okay?" asked Rik.
"You're giving me a headache."
"Sorry to hear that. If you want some painkillers that'll knock an elephant on its ass, let me know. I get headaches that would rip your brain
Her head shot back up and she studied his face for some clue. Her mouth opened slightly, forming around an unasked question that she
swallowed back into silence.
The waitress returned with a plate and set it in front of her.
The gunslinger glanced down at it and, in a barely audible whisper, muttered, "Oh my god."
"See, what did I tell you," Rik said. "Unforgettable, isn't it?"
He sawed off another piece of meat on his own plate and put it in his mouth.
"Seriously, though, it's not as bad as it looks," he added as he chewed.
She said nothing, but started to eat, quickly devouring everything on the plate. It seemed as though she hadn't eaten in a while.
"You've got quite an appetite," said Rik as he continued to pick at the remnants of his own meal. "I guess that means you're a healthy girl."
She pushed the empty plate away and stared out the window at nothing in particular, slowing sipping what remained of her coffee.
"What do you want?" she asked in a voice that now sounded more tired than annoyed.
"Nothing, really. I've just got some time to kill in this hellhole. Besides, you look lonely."
She let out a bitter laugh. "Really? So you thought you'd do me a favor and keep me company? You want to be my friend?"
Rik paused before answering, waiting until she had once again raised her coffee cup to her lovely lips.
"Well, not exactly," he replied. "I wouldn't mind fucking you, though."
Rik watched with amusement as she choked on the coffee and two small streams of liquid flowed from her nostrils. He grabbed the cup from
her hands before she spilled the rest of it on herself and set it back on the table.
Once she'd stopped coughing into her napkin, she stared at Rik with a kind of hopeful curiosity.
Rik continued, "You see, I had a conversation with the local philosopher at the gas station. I believe you've already met him. He's a
remarkably well-spoken gentleman who hasn't bathed in about a year."
She nodded her head.
"He wasn't very talkative with me," she noted absent-mindedly.
"Ah, well, you probably scared the shit out of him. Besides, he and I had the benefit of male bonding. Regardless, he informed me that
there are only two things to do around here: read and fuck. I don't have a book on me at the moment, and the only other woman I've seen
so far is as old as my great-grandmother, so that leaves you."
He took off his sunglasses and looked at her with a desperate weariness as deep as her own.
"So, you want to fuck?" he asked.
She paused for only a second before responding.
"Sure, what the hell?"
They each laid some cash on the table and got up, not bothering to wait for the waitress to present them with a bill. They grabbed their
respective bags, stepped back into the blinding sunlight, and walked together across the empty highway to the motel; five tiny rooms
attached to an even smaller office. Inside was a gray-haired old man seated behind an empty wooden desk who barely acknowledged their
presence by momentarily glancing up from the newspaper he was reading.
"Me and the missus need a room," said Rik.
The man silently pointed to a sign on the wall indicating the cost per nightâ€”or day, as the case might be.
"I'll get this, honey," he said to her as he handed the man a few bills and accepted a room key in exchange.
"Are you always such a jackass?" she asked once they'd stepped back outside.
"Most of the time," Rik replied. "I once had a therapist who told me that it's a defense mechanism to mask my deep-seated insecurities."
They walked to the room farthest from the office and Rik unlocked the door. They stepped inside, threw their bags on the floor, tossed their
guns and sunglasses on the nightstand, and stood facing each other by the side of the bed.
With the fingertips of his right hand, Rik brushed her left cheek and then made his way down the side of her neck and across the sweat-
soaked t-shirt clinging to her breasts. A smile began to break across the stony veneer of her face as she felt the nearly electric charge of his
touch. She grabbed both sides of his head and pulled him towards her, pressing her lips against his and hungrily intertwining her tongue
with his own. They fell onto the bed as they pulled off each other's clothes. Once they were naked, she stretched out on her back and
spread her legs, inviting him in.
Rising to his knees, Rik paused as he looked down upon her. Like him, she was thirty-something, with a face hardened and worn beyond
her years. But she also had a lean, muscular physique that put his own body to shame. He slid on top of her and then slid inside, losing
himself in the currents of pleasure that rippled through their skin at every point where their bodies came into contact, culminating in luscious
orgasms that nearly rendered them both unconscious.
Afterward, they lay side by side, spent and dripping, and stared up through the ceiling into their own silent fears.
"I'm Rik, by the way."
"Nice to meet you."
A minute passed before he asked the obligatory question. "How long have you had it?"
"About a year and a half," she replied without emotion. "And you?"
"Damn. From the beginning. There aren't many of you old timers left."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"And I'm guessing you can sense," she observed.
"Yeah. That started happening about a year ago."
"That makes you a valuable commodity in some circles Â¾ and dangerous."
"My momma always told me I was special."
He rolled on his side to face her. "What did you do before?" he asked.
She stared at him, eyes full of lonely suspicion, and said nothing.
"Hey, I'm just trying to make conversation," he said. "But if you want to keep this a straight fuck, that's fine with me."
He got up and went to the window, opening the blinds just enough to unveil a tiny sliver of the world. A couple of dusty drunks were
stumbling out of the bar, barely distinguishable from the tumbleweed that rolled past them.
At first he didn't notice the blood beginning to drip from his eyes like tears of crucifixion.
"You'd better not do that by the window," Dez said, sounding a little more relaxed at the sight of his disintegration.
He snapped the blinds shut. "Shit!" he muttered as he headed for the bathroom. "I can usually feel when it's about to start."
Now the blood was beginning to flow from his nose and ears as well, and the pain was building deep within his head like a knife trying to
push its way through his skull. He turned on the shower and crouched beneath the stream of hot water, holding his head in his hands and
rocking back and forth like an autistic child. He was only vaguely aware of Dez getting into the shower and sitting down across from him,
leaning against the cracked ceramic wall that long ago had been white. The blood flowed for ten minutes or so before coming to a stop as
abruptly as it had started. Rik raised his head, nearly blinded by the pain that had not yet begun to ebb.
"I haven't had it this bad in a while," he said in a whisper.
"You want me to get you something?" Dez asked.
"In my duffel bag. There's a black case."
She got up and disappeared into the bedroom, then returned with the case. She sat on the toilet and opened it.
"Morphine," she said jealously. "I've been eating oxycodone for weeks."
Rik smiled. "I've gotten pretty good at ripping off hospitals."
She took out the syringe and the morphine bottle. "How much?" she asked.
"A hundred milligrams should do it."
Dez pulled back the plunger until a hundred milligrams worth of air filled the syringe before pushing the needle through the rubber stopper of
the bottle. Then she injected the air into the bottle, turned it upside down, drew the proper dose into the syringe, and withdrew the needle.
She handed the syringe to Rik, who proceeded to add one more wound to the track marks that perforated the veins of his feet and ankles.
His eyes grew heavy and his head fell forward to his chest as the morphine saturated his body. But, unlike an ordinary junkie, he regained a
semblance of normalcy in a matter of seconds. He got up, returned the syringe and morphine bottle to their resting place, then went back to
the bed, propping himself up against the headboard with a pillow as Dez lay down beside him. Rik grabbed the remote from the nightstand
and turned on the tiny television that sat on the dresser at the foot of the bed.
As the television came to life, a car commercial was just ending and a scantily clad young woman was leaning over the hood proclaiming her
love for the automobile's big, powerful engine. Then a little girl appeared on the screen, as white as the dress she wore, sitting on an
impossibly green lawn playing with a blond-haired doll.
"Oh, good! This one's my favorite," said Rik, settling into his pillow.
The camera slowly panned back to reveal a clichÃ©d suburban paradise: a white picket fence encasing the child in a metaphor of safety, a
housewife with garden shears and a broad-brimmed pink hat trimming hedges, a mailman whistling as he made his rounds, an overweight
man in baggy white shorts and black socks trailing after his lawnmower. Suddenly, a darkly clad figure of some indeterminately dark ethnicity
appears, skulking along the sidewalk. The camera zooms in on his grim, razor-stubbled face as a single drop of blood trickles down his
cheek from his left eye. The camera pulls back again and the suburban warriors have sprung into action, closing in on the intruder from all
sides, guns drawn, ordering him to lie face down on the ground. The scene then dissolves into darkness, and the symbol and acronym of
the Department of Terrorism Eradication materialize on the screen: an all-seeing eye perched atop two swords crossed like the bones on a
pirate's flag, superimposed on bold red letters proclaiming the ubiquitous presence of "TeRad." A somber voice intones, "Remember.
National defense is everyone's responsibility. Be prepared."
"Does that capture the spirit of this country or what?" Rik asked rhetorically. "Paranoid, racist, self-righteous, and totally fucking obsessed
with guns." He reached over to the nightstand and lovingly caressed his own weapon.
"Turn that crap off before I shoot you," said Dez in a voice that was only half serious.
Rik turned the television off and put the remote back on the nightstand. "Just trying to pass the time," he said. He closed his eyes and
placed one hand on Dez's thigh.
After a few minutes of silence, she answered his question. "I was a TeRad officer," she said.
For a moment Rik forgot how jaded he'd become. "No shit?!" he replied, sitting up and turning to face her. This conversation was starting
to sound like something more than just the pillow talk of the damned. "You mean I just fucked one of the motherfuckers who are trying to
"Doesn't that make you feel special?" she asked.
"I guess you could call it 'poetic justice,'" she continued in the bitter voice of someone who, in one horrendous moment, had been knocked
from a perch of moral superiority and reduced to nothingness.
"You could say that," Rik replied. "It must have been quite the career stopper in your line of work."
"I was out with my squad one day, hunting Biological Terrorism Agents like you, when blood started dripping from my eyes."
"Charming. I'm guessing your fellow TeRads were more than a little surprised to discover that you too were a BioTag."
"I killed all three of them on the spot. And then I ran."
"So maybe you want to kill me now," she said, almost sounding hopeful that Rik would grab his gun off the nightstand and put her out of
Instead, he leaned over and kissed her lips. "No. I'm a fucker, not a fighter," he said. "Besides, I think fate has leveled the circumstances
"What did you do before the Outbreak?" she asked.
"I was a high-school English teacher, believe it or not."
Rik laid back and again closed his eyes for a few minutes before looking at his watch.
"If you're here for the same reason as me, it's nearly that time," he said.
Dez sighed. "I hope this doesn't end up being another dead end," she said.
Rik tried to be nonchalant. "Well, it's not like we have anything better to do with our lives anymore."
They got up and dressed in silence. By the time they stepped back outside and headed toward the bar, Dez's emotional armor was back in
place and she wore the same impervious expression she'd had when he first saw her.
The bar was a typical southwestern dive, stale and black. A few lonely silhouettes briefly turned to face them as they entered, then melted
back into the shadows. A generic country song played on an old jukebox lit by dull, flickering lights, while a bartender with a big, bushy
beard and an even bigger belly cleaned glasses with a dirty rag. Dez and Rik walked to an empty table in one of the corners furthest from
"What you having?" asked the bartender from behind the counter.
"A bottle of vodka and two glasses," Dez called out, not bothering to consult with Rik.
As they waited for their 80-proof nectar to arrive, they surveyed the clientele. Four barflies sat at the counter; three greasy men revolving
around one plump woman squeezed into a neon-red dress as tight as a sausage skin. A couple of bikers were seated at a table in the
opposite corner. And a TeRad poster adorned an otherwise empty wall, as required by law in this and every other commercial establishment
in the nation. Rik's eyes lingered on the poster as he contemplated its juxtaposition with the newfound sexual companion seated at his side.
"Almost as good as having a TV, ain't it?" asked the woman in red, her erstwhile companions looking on jealously as she turned her glassy-
eyed gaze in Rik's direction.
"Almost," Rik replied.
"Hey, Mel, when you gonna get a TV in this shit hole?" she asked the bartender with feigned anger as he set the bottle and shot glasses
before Rik and Dez.
"As soon as we get a TV station out here," he replied.
"Ain't you never heard of satellite TV - like Bud's got in every room at the motel?" she asked.
"Sure, I heard of it. You gonna pay for it?"
"Hell, no, I ain't gonna pay for it. That's your responsibility as the proprietor of this establishment. You gotta give customers like this
gentleman and his lady friend here something to look at besides that piece of shit."
"What's wrong with you. Ain't you patriotic?"
"Yeah, I'm patriotic." She paused for dramatic effect. "I've got a red, white, and blue ass from sitting on this stool all day." She let out a
long, phlegmy laugh until she was literally choking on her own sense of humor.
"Hell, Sally," said the bartender. "We don't need no TV. We got you for live entertainment."
"You go to hell!" she said between coughs.
As soon as she'd recovered, she took a cigarette from the pack in front of her and lit it with a long, theatrical drag. "One good thing about
all this," she said, pointing to the poster. "Ain't no one afraid of dying from smoking no more."
"That's looking on the bright side," said Rik.
"I mean, why worry about cancer when any one of us could be a BioTag? Hell, even one of these sorry bastards right here could be a
walking biological weapon," she said, waving a dismissive hand at her brooding companions.
"Hey, baby, I got your biological weapon right here," said one, grabbing his crotch.
"I seen you naked, Sid. You ain't even got a biological water gun," she screeched, forgetting about Rik and resuming deliberations with her
Dez and Rik had finished about a quarter of the bottle when Rik sensed the impending arrival of their first unwilling comrade.
"Heads up," he said to Dez.
A couple of minutes later, in walked a grizzled old man with wild white hair that fell to his shoulders and about a week's worth of stubble on
his face. He wore baggy brown trousers and a long-sleeve flannel shirt that looked nauseatingly hot in the summer heat. The man paused
for only a moment to survey the bar's denizens before his eyes fell upon Dez and Rik. He walked over to their table and, in a low voice,
asked, "Is this a private party or is anyone invited?"
"Anyone who has been marked for death is free to join," Rik replied.
The man nodded and pulled a chair up to the table, letting out a heavy sigh as he sat down. He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of
"When you getta chance, I'd be much obliged if you'd bring me your tallest, coldest beer," he said.
Rik studied the man's absurdly hot flannel shirt. "I take it you shoot up in your arms," he observed.
"Yeah," the man replied, "though my veins are pretty much gone by now."
The bartender set a mug of beer on the table and the old man drained nearly half its contents in one long gulp.
"My name's Moss," he said as he set the glass back on the table.
Rik and Dez replied with their own names.
"Any sign of the mystery man?" he asked.
"Not yet," said Rik.
"Where'd you meet him, anyway?"
"In New York, about four months ago. I was stealing a car when he tapped me on the shoulder. I nearly blew his head off. I didn't even
sense him coming up behind me."
"You can sense!" Moss said in surprise.
Rik nodded in reply.
Moss looked over at Dez, posing the same questions to her with raised eyebrows.
She hesitated for a moment before providing her own succinct responses. "L.A. Two months ago. And I can't sense."
Moss stared at her for a few seconds with a puzzled expression. "Well," he said, "I was in Santa Fe a few months back. I'd just spent five
minutes bleedin' out in a gas station toilet. When I finally got cleaned up and pulled myself together, I opened the door and there he was,
standin' right in front of me with that stupid smile on his face."
Moss paused to finish his beer in another long gulp, raised the empty glass above his head, and called out, "Another, please, if you'd be so
"You know anything about him?" Moss asked.
"Just the card," said Rik. The card. A thick, cream-colored business card with the words "NeuroVont, Inc." printed in the middle in Gothic
script. Nothing else.
Rik looked up at the door. "We've got more company," he said.
Soon afterward, in walked a waif of a woman no more than twenty years old. She had long blond hair, scared blue eyes, and was wearing a
tattered summer dress. By lascivious reflex, Rik smiled widely in her direction.
"Down boy," said Dez.
The other male eyes in the bar drifted in her direction and lingered for more than a moment.
The waif quickly made her way to the table and haltingly began to ask, "Is this, uh â€” I mean, are you â€”?"
"Have a seat, my dear," Rik offered.
"I'm Lia," she whispered after taking a seat next to Dez. Rik and Moss offered their own names in return, but Dez declined.
"How long you had it, girl?" asked Moss, incredulous at her excessive youth.
"Three months. I was living at home. My parents would have turned me in if I hadn't run... " Suddenly, she started to cry, drawing
attention to the group that definitely was not welcome.
"Pull yourself together," Moss growled.
Added Dez, "If you don't stop that right now, I'll take you out back and blow your fucking brains out."
Lia's tears were quickly dried by the fear that Dez so skillfully inspired in others.
"I'm sorry. It's just that I've never been away from home before. And sometimes I don't have enough money to eat because it's so hard to
keep a job when - when it can happen any minute."
"Why would you try to get a job?" asked Moss, unaccustomed to such naivetÃ© in the company he kept.
"How do you survive?" she asked.
"I deal drugs, mostly," he replied.
"I've gotten pretty good at car theft, breaking and entering. You know, that kind of thing," Rik offered.
"I don't know how to do any of that," Lia said glumly.
Rik reached across the table and patted her hand. "I'd be happy to teach you some tricks of the trade."
A deep frown etched itself into Dez's forehead. Lia had enough common sense to doubt the sincerity of Rik's offer and withdraw her hand
despite the pleasurable sensation of his touch.
Before the exchange could continue, the door opened and their unnamed host stepped inside. Aside from the cryptic and unnerving smile
plastered on his face, he was so average looking as to be nearly invisible. Neither old nor young, short not tall, fat nor skinny; just
somewhere in-between. He walked to their table, pulled up a chair, and studied each of their faces one by one.
"I see you've all gotten acquainted," he said, "although not necessarily on the best of terms." He paused for a moment before continuing.
"But that's alright. We don't have to like each other. What bonds us is something much stronger than personality. We share something in
common that is, shall we say, rather unique."
"Yeah," Moss chuckled. "We're all diseased and dying."
"All living things are at some stage in the process of dying," the man replied. "And I'm sure you've realized by now that what we're dealing
with here is not your typical disease. In fact, how do we even know that it is a disease?"
Everyone else seated at the table stared at the self-styled guru as if he were stoned.
"It sure as hell feels like a disease," said Moss. "And bleedin' from your eyes and ears don't strike me as particularly healthy."
"Just because something is painful doesn't mean that it's injurious," the man responded.
"I've always assumed it was some sort of fucked up military experiment that escaped from its test tube before it was finished," Rik said.
"Maybe some specially engineered gene-therapy kind of deal where you try to create a super soldier by enhancing human sensory abilities,
which is why some of us can sense â€” although that doesn't explain why I can't sense you coming."
The man's expression betrayed a hint of pride. "That's certainly possible," he said. "It's definitely an affliction with a purpose, wouldn't you
say? But after three-and-a-half years living under a dictatorship of fear and silence, it doesn't seem as if an answer is forthcoming from the
government any time soon."
"Does that mean you actually have an answer or not?" Dez asked.
"The powerful fear what they can't control, and try to control what they fear," the man continued. "But that doesn't make them immune to
whatever it is that's happening to us. There are very powerful individuals who have been personally affected by the Outbreak, including
some at the highest levels of government. Individuals not content to await an official 'cure' for their loved ones to be handed down from on
high. Individuals with the resources to create their own research facilities, like NeuroVont, that are sanctuaries of a sort for people such as
"It sounds like you're looking for lab rats," said Dez. "And asking us to trust people who aren't exactly our friends."
"The line between friends and enemies isn't always clear," said the man. "The truth is, a place like NeuroVont couldn't remain secret for long
without the covert assistance of at least a few people in positions of authority. But others are involved as well. Wealthy families whose
members have been afflicted. Scientists not willing to be muzzled in their search for answers. As for being 'lab rats,' unless we study
ourselves, we're not going to learn why we're - changing."
"So are you trying to convince us to join a cult, check into prison, or start a revolution?" asked Rik.
"What I'm doing is offering you an invitation," the man replied. "An invitation to come with me to a place where we can search openly for
answers without fear of TeRads or police or soldiers."
"How do we know the feds aren't just outsourcing to places like NeuroVont to round us up and keep us out of sight?" asked Rik.
"You don't," the man said. "At least not until you see for yourself. But what's the alternative? Running year after year with no end in
Everyone at the table grew silent. Moss was the first to speak. "Well, hell. It's not like we've got much to lose. Sure, I'll go."
"I'll go," said Lia, fighting back a resurgence of weepiness. "I don't want to run anymore."
"You're right," said Rik. "It's better than nothing."
Dez nodded her assent at well.
The man's perpetual smile grew even wider. "Then let's be on our way. We can be there in about... "
The shooter must have had a silencer attached to his weapon, because the bullet that blew out the back of the man's head made scarcely a
Rik, Dez, and Moss instinctively dove for cover under neighboring tables, hitting the floor at the same time as the man's lifeless corpse. Lia
took the time to scream in surprise, making her the next target of the unseen assassin. As her body fell to the floor beside Dez, everyone
in the bar, from the bartender to the woman in red, pulled their guns and unleashed a barrage of firepower into the shadow-strewn corridor
at the back of the bar from which the shots had originated. If the shooter hadn't retreated quickly, he â€” or she â€” was no doubt reduced
to a piece of bloodied Swiss cheese.
Dez rose to her knees and flipped over a couple of nearby tables for cover. Rik took her lead and did the same, then they pulled the tables
together to form a shield against any more gunfire from either the corridor or the front entrance. Moss was about to join them behind the
makeshift barricade when an explosion ripped through the front of the bar, sending bricks and pieces of wood slamming into the metal
tabletops that sheltered them. Before the dust from the explosion had even begun to clear, a fusillade of automatic-weapons fire erupted,
followed by the dying moans of those who had survived the explosion only to be finished off by bullets. Dez and Rik huddled behind the
tables, firing their guns blindly over the barrier in the general direction of their invisible assailants.
Rik ran out of bullets first. He rolled onto his back and scrambled to load a fresh clip into his gun. As he let the spent clip fall, he saw a
shadow out of the corner of his eye; someone approaching along the wall to his side. There was no way he'd be ready to fire again in the
split second before the assassin was upon them, and Dez still had her head down, shooting over the tables.
For a moment, Rik felt the peculiar combination of fear and relief that comes with the realization that death is about to end your suffering.
Then another feeling came over him; a sensation of power, of understanding; as if he'd suddenly discovered a muscle that he had never
used before, but that was so simple to control once he realized it was there.
"Lower your gun," he said just as the shooter came into view and was about to unleash a volley from the 9mm machine pistol in his hand.
The man â€” a TeRad, judging from his black paramilitary garb â€” stopped and let his arm fall to his side.
Dez, now aware of the impossible scene unfolding before her, had stopped shooting and was staring in disbelief, her mouth hanging open.
"How many are with you?" Rik asked the agent, who had a look of absolute terror in his eyes as he realized he'd lost control of his own body.
"Kill them; then yourself."
Without the slightest hesitation, the agent turned around and fired his weapon in one long, continuous burst. He stopped only long enough
to put the muzzle to his temple and pull the trigger one last time.
Rik and Dez stood up and surveyed the destruction before them, silently contemplating the enormity of what had just transpired. The wall
that once had framed the entrance to the bar was almost completely blown away; bloodied bodies were strewn everywhere in the rubble amid
splintered tables and chairs: Moss, Lia, their nameless host, the two bikers, the bartender, the lady in red and her companions - and the
three TeRads shot by the fourth, whom Rik had somehow persuaded to commit a murder-suicide.
Dez looked at Rik with an expression that betrayed more than a little apprehension.
"I guess I'd better stay on your good side," she said.
For once in his life, Rik was at a loss for words. "I wouldn't hurt - I mean, I wouldn't make you - do things."
Dez nodded her head and looked away.
"I suppose we should try to find NeuroVont," said Rik.
"I guess so," Dez agreed.
He reached over and took her hand in his own. "We should probably get out of here now," he said.
"Yeah," she replied. "That's probably a good idea."
Rik and Dez retrieved their bags from the motel room and headed across the street to Rik's car. A few suspicious faces gazed out at them
from inside the diner, while the little man at the gas station stood calmly by the gas pump and waved goodbye. Rik waved in return. Then
he and Dez drove away into an arid wasteland of death within an endless expanse of possibility.
Gil A. Waters