Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 16 and Epilogue

In the next few weeks, the air traffic above them increased. At first it was a little alarming; but the aircraft they saw seemed extraordinarily high in the sky, and there were no more instances of being buzzed on the ground. There seemed to be nothing immediately threatening about the activity they saw, and they simply got used to it, and went on about their business. Daily chores resumed, and so did the grumbling among the younger kids about having to take regular baths in the creek. The older kids weren't a problem. Richie and Jeremy, at least, were happy to be able to end a hard day with a relaxing dip in the creek's cool waters.

But Marnie was not having any stinky feet or armpits in her house, and with the resumption of all duties came the exertion needed to fulfill them. That, and the warming of the weather as summer headed for them, ensured that bathing was necessary for all of them. Only Mom was exempt, because she refused to go outside. But she was usually quite good about washing up, and Marnie helped her on the days when she wasn't.

Life without the zombie around grew to feel relaxed again. It took several weeks for their nervous edge to wear away, but when it did, it was gone pretty much completely. There was a brief period of waiting, a feeling as if something else was bound to happen; but it never came about. The grave remained undisturbed, and showed no new life, other than a few spring wildflowers that insisted on growing there. The weather was mostly peaceful, the world bright and beautiful, and life at the camp felt safe once again.

Richie and Jeremy noted the smiles and bright eyes, and the ready laughter, and marveled at how quickly danger could recede into memory, once peace was restored. The kids were even pleased to be back doing the difficult chores again, and there was a sense that everyone had seen how important it was to cherish what they had. The older boys went back to their hunting routine, and it was nice to have fresh meat on the table again, and deer jerky back in their stores. Life was good.

Summer came in, and the evenings grew warm, and the nights less comfortable for sleeping. They ran the little fans, but sleeping against another body was tough. Richie and Jeremy found themselves bathing each morning as well, and washing their bedding every few days. Once again the basics of living were taking up their days, but everyone seemed happy to have a regular life going again.

It was one afternoon while they were doing their laundry that Bennie showed up by the washer. His Winchester was slung across his shoulder, leaving his hands free to hold the binoculars hanging about his neck. His normally cheerful expression was mostly hidden under a frown, as if he seemed slightly mystified by something.

"Got a minute, Richie? I wanna show you something."

Richie was using the 'washing machine' to do their sheets: a fifty-gallon oil drum and a hand agitator. Once he was done stirring the bedding around in a mix of powdered detergent and water for ten minutes, he would place the sheets in a wire box with legs that Jack had built, and Jeremy would pump water from the wellhead through it to rinse them. It was a process wasteful of water, but there had been ample rain this year, and the water table had remained high. The alternative was to wash them in the creek, which always left them smelling just a little like an old fishbowl.

Richie drew his forearm across his brow, and glanced up at the sun. They were largely in the shadow of the camp just this minute, but that would change as the afternoon lengthened. It wasn't even the hottest part of the day yet, and they were already sweating.

"Sure, I guess." He smiled at his boyfriend. "Take over a minute?"

Jeremy laughed. "Oh, sure. You planned this, didn't you? How much is he paying you, Bennie?"

The younger boy laughed. "I won't keep him long, I promise." He turned, looking at Richie, who nodded and waved a hand at the younger boy.

"You're running this show. You lead, and I'll follow."

Bennie smiled and turned to pass underneath the camp. Richie followed, wondering now what the boy had been looking at through the binoculars. They turned and exited facing east, and Bennie pointed a finger at the sky above the horizon. "What do you see?"

Richie squinted that way, studying the sky. The east had been filled with a thin white haze for a couple of weeks now, but that was not unusual at all. Clouds had a life of their own, and who could predict their ways?

But...it was kind of interesting, the way the clouds seemed to hug the horizon, and spread up into the sky, and then just stop. The border between clouds and blue sky was unusually sharp and regular. And they never did seem to move on overhead, as clouds usually did. But...he didn't have time for games. He smiled at Bennie. "Clouds. So? They've been there a lot lately."

Bennie shook his head. "No. They've been there every single day, all day, for going on a month now. I've been noticing them, but not really paying attention to them."

"Okay. I've noticed them, too. But they're just clouds, right?"

Bennie compressed his lips a moment, as if choosing what he wanted to say next. "It really hit me this morning that they seem to be getting a little higher in the sky each day, and I just suddenly felt that that was kinda weird. So I got the binoculars to take a closer look."

Richie turned to gaze again at the lacy patterns in the east. "They're just clouds, right?"

Bennie pulled the strap of the binoculars from around his neck and held them out. "Have a look."

Richie accepted the glasses, noting the expectant look on the other boy's face. He nodded, turned back to the east, and raised the glasses to his eyes. He spent a moment focusing them, and then simply stared at what came next.

The binoculars had good optics, including a decent prism, affording a sharp, corrected view. The moment he focused them, the clouds became clear.

They were not clouds at all.

A grid of fine white lace hung in the sky, starting at the horizon and moving upwards, and from one side of the eastern horizon to the other. There was a depth to the view that was somehow unnatural. The binoculars made it immediately plain that the grid was composed of rhombus-shaped trapezoids, with each trapezoid like two triangles, one upright, one inverted, next to each other. The grid was not in the near sky, but quite beyond it altogether, above any place where clouds had any right to be.

Beyond the atmosphere, even, out in space.

Not on the earth at all.

Tiny, nearly invisible points of light moved among the grids, adding new sections even as he watched. It took a moment to understand what he was seeing, and then he gasped.

Someone was building a cage around the earth, a sphere in the form of a grid. The tiny lights he saw, out there, had to be spacecraft of some sort, doing the job of assembly.

"That's kinda how I reacted," Bennie said. "What do you think is going on?"

Richie dropped the glasses from his eyes and simply looked at the sky, shaking his head. "I have no idea. It looks like the earth is being encased in a shell of some kind." He dropped his eyes to Bennie. "My first thought was that it looked like a cage."

Bennie's eyes widened. "A cage? You mean to keep us inside?"

"Well...or to keep something from getting in. Cages work both ways, right?"

Bennie licked his lips and turned his eyes to the east. "Does this have something to do with the Changes?"

That idea was startling, but then immediately apparent, and Richie felt a tiny quiver of anxiety run through him at the idea of it. All along he had assumed that the Changes were the result of something natural, or maybe even something that humans had done to themselves. But --

He gazed at the sky again. Could humans do what he was seeing now? Build such a structure completely around the planet? It seemed such a herculean task, quite beyond the space technology that Richie was aware of. Unless the government really had captured a flying saucer or two and deciphered the technology involved, the project he could now see taking shape in the sky above was beyond what human tech was currently capable of achieving.

So what did that leave?

And then that quiver of almost-fear ran throughout him again, as some other connections were made. Airplanes that bulleted across the sky and climbed at amazing rates. Airplanes that flew so high and so fast that they were just tiny winks of light in front of contrails racing across the blue of the sky. The sonic booms had become a feature of every day now, so commonplace that they scarcely noticed them anymore. Most were so far off that they just sounded like distant thunder on a lazy afternoon. None of the aircraft they had been seeing were anything close to low in the sky. Nothing close to really observable. Nothing close to seeming...normal.

Could it be...could it be that what they had been seeing were not airplanes at all? Could it be that they were not even human aircraft at all?

"Holy crap."

Bennie nodded, his eyes going back to the horizon. "Scary, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Richie considered these new facts a moment, and then nodded. "Don't say anything to anyone just yet, okay?"

Bennie looked wary of that. "The others are going to notice it, eventually."

Richie laughed, and gave Bennie's shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "I don't mean to keep it a secret, Ben. We'll tell them at dinner, okay? And let each of them have a look through the binoculars. I just don't want everyone going wild right at this moment. We'll have a pow wow, and discuss it properly."

The younger boy looked relieved. "Okay."

Richie cocked his head to the side then and gave Bennie a pointed look. "Weren't you and Mike and Sherry going to check traps?"

Bennie snickered. "Mike and Sherry are on gun-cleaning detail. Marnie said that the pistols looked like they'd been dug up out of an old Indian grave. They've got them taken apart on the kitchen table, and are cleaning and oiling them."

Richie's jaw dropped. "I inspected those forty-fives myself just yesterday. They were spotless."

"I know. It's make-work. Marnie's making them pay for something."

Richie laughed. "Making those two clean guns is hardly punishment. They love that stuff."

Bennie shrugged. "I don't think Marnie knows that."

Richie considered that a moment, and then smiled. "Or, maybe she does."

Richie handed the binoculars to Bennie, winked at him, and held a shushing finger to his lips. And then he headed back to where Jeremy was still stirring the sheets in the washer. He filled in his boyfriend on what he had seen, and some of his speculation on what it might mean. Jeremy listened quietly, and then nodded.

"Makes a weird sort of sense, doesn't it? I thought that air traffic was kind of unusual. Especially that we never saw anything low down, even a helicopter or two. The air force would be looking for survivors, or at least looking for supplies, don't you think?"

"Maybe. It all depends on what the Changes are about." Richie shook his head. "But I don't think they'd just zoom around at the top of the sky and never be interested in what happened down here."

At dinner, they let the others in on what they knew, and were not terribly surprised when they took it well. Ever since the zombie had appeared, the group had become used to expecting the unusual. After they were through eating, everyone took a turn peering at the eastern sky through the binoculars. And then someone thought to look west, and the fine, lacy pattern of more squares were found in the sky there, reaching upwards. It soon became clear that the two construction efforts would eventually meet in the sky somewhere overhead, closing the cage and sealing them inside.

They went back inside the camp, and they all ended up at the kitchen table. They sat, and everyone looked at Richie and Jeremy. But the mood seemed anything but fearful, and Richie was relieved to find them all looking calm.

"So, another weird thing happening," he began.

"It's not any crazier than anything else that has happened," Sherry immediately pointed out.

"So you think these are spaceships we're seeing in the sky?" Will asked, not looking at all horrified at the notion. "That's kinda cool."

"I just don't know," Richie said. "But I find the idea that our people could tackle such a project as that sky grid while most of the world has been turned into blue crystal statues just a little hard to swallow. The manpower they would need just to support that kind of work would be incredible."

"Maybe they aren't ships with people in them," Marnie suggested. "They could be automated, like factory robots."

"We thought of that, too," Jeremy returned. "It would still be a huge project, even if it was mostly done by machines. All that junk would have to be launched into orbit. The world just couldn't do it as it stands today."

"And we have to come back to why our people would even build such a thing around the planet in the first place," Richie continued. "There's something important here we don't know. Without that information, all we can do is guess."

"I wish --" Tina began, but then she broke off and smiled. "No, it wouldn't matter."

Jeremy smiled. "It's a pow wow, hon. Speak your piece."

The girl smiled. "I was going to say that I wished that Jack was here. But then I saw it wouldn't really matter. You and Richie have done such a good job of taking care of us, I don't think Jack could do better."

Richie felt surprise, and then a slight lump in his throat. "It's easy to look out for such a great bunch of people, sweetie. You guys make it easy."

Mike grinned. "Am I gonna need a hanky for the rest of this?"

"No. I think we've all been through enough now to know where we stand with each other." Richie pointed at the roof above him. "I don't really care what's going on up there, as long as it doesn't affect our ability to survive down here. I just wish I knew more, is all."

They decided that all they could do for the time being was to watch, and wait.

It was only two weeks later that the waiting ended, on another bright and peaceful day.

They were just finishing breakfast and lining up the day's projects when Tina, at watch on her window, suddenly gasped. "Someone's coming!"

Richie and Jeremy were on their feet in an instant, and Mike and Sherry were at the gun rack, already checking their Thompsons.

"All clear on this side," Will said, his Winchester at the ready.

Richie and Jeremy went to the window next to Tina's and looked out. Someone was indeed coming, walking up the drive towards the camp, and very leisurely, too, their hands held outward and open to show they were empty. Richie squinted, trying to make out more details, but the person was still too far away for clarity.

"It's a woman," Marnie said quietly, from beside him. Richie turned to look at her, and she smiled and held out the binoculars. "Here. Take a look."

Richie laughed, but took the glasses and trained them on the visitor.

It was a woman. She was young, much younger than Mom, but also older than Marnie. Her hair was cut in a short bob, and her face looked pleasant. She was even smiling. Richie quickly examined her clothing - loose-fitting gray slacks, and a short-sleeved gray top - and could see no place where weapons could be hidden.

She continued to come, slowly, peaceably, until she decided she was in earshot of them, where she stopped. "Hello, the house!"

Richie leaned out of the window a little so that she could see him more clearly. "Hello, yourself. What can we do for you?"

The woman smiled. "Well, I thought we might talk a little. My name is Farla."

"You come from the city?"

Again, the smile. "Oh, no. I come from up there." She pointed at the sky.

Richie stared at her. "Up...where?"

The woman's eyebrows rose pointedly. "May I lower my hands, and I'll tell you? I promise you, I am unarmed."

That seemed obvious now. In fact, that the woman was out strolling about the countryside without so much as a canteen of water on her - let alone a weapon - seemed ridiculous to him. No one who had been living on the ground after the Changes would be so bold - or so careless.

He turned to Jeremy. "What do you think?"

Jeremy shrugged. "That you and I should go out and talk to her. I don't think we should invite her inside just yet."

Richie nodded. "Okay. Um...pistols only? And let's not draw them unless we think we have to okay?"

Jeremy grinned. "That's why you're the boss. Always thinking."

Richie laughed, but squeezed his boyfriend's arm affectionately. "Just shut up, and let's go."

They belted on a pistol each, and undid the flaps at the top of the holsters, just in case. Then they checked the ground beneath the hatch through the peep, saw it was clear, and opened the hatch.

Bennie had pulled a scoped Winchester from the rack, and nodded to them as they went to the ladder. "I'll be watching, okay?"

"Okay. Just don't use that thing unless you're sure you need to."

Bennie nodded. "I'll be careful. You be careful, too."

The two older boys descended to the ground, and waited for the hatch to be dogged shut before stepping out into the morning sun. The woman hadn't moved, and extended her open hands again as they approached her. They stopped about ten feet away, and Richie nodded at her. "I'm Richie, and this is Jeremy."

The woman smiled at them. "As I said, my name is Farla." She examined them then, and gave a small, sad shake of her head. "So young you are. So many I have spoken with lately seem to be of the young."

Richie gasped. "You've talked to other survivors?"

"Oh, yes. Several hundred in the last few days. It's my job at the moment."

Richie and Jeremy looked at each other. "Several hundred survivors, close by?" Jeremy said. "I don't believe it."

Farla nodded. "Oh, if you are on foot, or even driving a vehicle such as that" -- she indicated the truck parked nearby --"they are not so close." She smiled then. "But if you can fly, they are, as you like to say, 'only a hop, skip, and a jump' from here."

Richie nodded. "You said you came from the sky."

"Yes." Farla looked suddenly very serious. "And from beyond it, too."

The shock of that statement was almost physical. That the woman was telling them she had come from...what? another planet? seemed unreal. Richie didn't want to believe, but found that something within his mind had already added up the facts and laid the foundation for the idea, and that it was not so hard to accept after all. Maybe.

Knowing who and what to trust in this world was no longer easy. He needed to know more. "Okay. Is there a reason you're here?"

The woman smiled, and waved a hand around them. "To explain...all of this."

"Why?" Jeremy asked, pointedly.

"A fair question. Our mission here is a desperate one. There are not that many of us, and it has taken some time to train a group to make contact with you. We are only arriving at this part of your planet now. We started our work in the southern hemisphere, because that is the direction in the sky where the danger comes from, and so where we first started building the enclosure." She looked to the east, where the lacy white pattern of the grid had by now climbed high into the sky. "You've seen it?"

"Yes. A cage, is what we thought it might be."

Farla nodded. "A fair analogy. But it is not one meant to contain this world, but rather to shield it from harm from the outside. You must believe that our mission here has a good purpose."

Richie briefly chewed his lip, trying to decide where this was going. "I'd like to." He took a breath, let it out. "Are you responsible for the Changes?"

Farla nodded. "Yes. If you mean the things that have happened here on your world in the last two years, then yes."

Jeremy grunted, laying his hand on the butt of his pistol. "You want us to believe that you're here for a good reason, after you've killed millions...billions of people?"

The woman blinked at him. "You mean those of you that seem of crystalline form now?" She smiled. "They are not dead."

Richie's heart suddenly leaped. Not dead! He turned his head, and he and Jeremy stared at each other in disbelief.

"What?" Jeremy breathed. "They're not!"

"No." Farla gave a very human sigh. "I suggest that either we go inside, where all members of your group can hear, or that they come out. It will be a lot easier for everyone if all can partake in this discussion. I would like to answer all of your questions in one session, so that I can move on to the next group."

Richie looked at Jeremy. "What do you think?"

Jeremy looked like he hated to admit it might be a good idea, but nodded. "Seems best."

Richie looked up at the camp, not wanting to ask the others to leave its safe confines, but also hesitant to have their visitor inside.

Farla seemed to divine his thoughts. "I assure you, Richie, if I meant your people harm, these walls would not protect them." Her voice was quiet, but the assurance it held in her abilities was clear.

And somehow, Richie believed that. A leap of faith was needed here, and he suddenly felt very at peace with the decision he had to make. "We'll go inside."

He turned to look up at the window. "Marn? We're coming in."

There was only a second's hesitation before the girl replied. "I'll get the hatch open."

The two boys and their visitor climbed up into the camp. The woman looked about with curiosity, and smiled at what she saw. "You have done well here."

Richie pointed to the kitchen table. "Have a seat?"

They sat. Richie introduced the other kids, and Farla smiled at each in turn. "It is a pleasure to meet all of you."

Jeremy laid his hands flat on the tabletop. "We're listening."

Farla nodded. "We have come a very long way to be here. My kind have been traveling the stars for quite some time. Centuries. When we first left our own world, we had high hopes that we would meet others out among the stars." She frowned. "We did, but not like we expected. Life flourishes on many worlds, but intelligence of the sort that produces civilizations is apparently somewhat more rare. So far, in all of our travels, we have found only six civilizations, and only two of them advanced enough to leave their own worlds."

"That's not that many," Marnie offered.

"No, it is not. Admittedly, the galaxy is large, and we have only seen a small part of it. But the comparative rarity of intelligent life - or the kind of intelligence that your race and mine seem to share - has left us feeling protective of those we have found. For even the more advanced civilizations we have discovered, those that can send machines into space, are limited thus far to their own solar systems. Only my own people seem to have achieved star travel. At least, in the part of the galaxy we have so far explored."

"How does that affect us?" Sherry asked.

Farla gave a small sigh. "My people are spread out now. We have found numerous worlds in numerous systems where our species can live, worlds solely inhabited by animal and plant life, but no intelligence as we know it. It would be almost impossible for some disaster to befall us that would cause the extinction of our race." She shook her head. "This is not the case for those races still confined to a single planet. Or a single solar system."

Richie suddenly understood where their visitor was heading. "We're in some sort of danger?"

"Yes. In your southern sky, there once existed a very large, very massive star, part of a binary star system. It was just one of the many visible from your Earth, although this one was greatly obscured by intervening gas and dust. We assume your scientists would have been aware of it, but we are not sure that was the case. It doesn't matter, really." Farla let her eyes move from one face to the next. "This star no longer exists as such. It went supernova a very long time ago."

"How far away is it?" Tina asked.

"About a thousand light years."

Mike laughed. "That's awfully far away to hurt us, isn't it?"

"Yes. Normally, that would be so. At that distance, a supernova would simply be a pretty sight in the evening sky. But this situation is a little different."

Richie sighed. That figured. "How so?"

Farla shook her head. "This was a special type of core collapse event, called a superluminous supernova, or a hypernova. When a massive star of this type explodes, it can emit a gigantic pulse of gamma radiation. These pulses are channeled outward along the star's rotational axis in a beam, which travels out into space in a straight line, at nearly the speed of light. In the case of the star we are talking about, the energy of this pulse was equivalent to the entire output of your own sun over its ten billion year lifespan, but emitted in a burst no more than ten seconds in length."

"And it's coming this way," Marnie surmised.

"Yes. Your solar system lies directly in the path of this beam of gamma rays, which will arrive in a very short period of time. Your kind would have had no warning whatsoever, no time to prepare, no way out at all. By the time that beam gets here, it will have widened to encompass your entire star system and some hundred light years beyond. Your neighboring stars within that area will also be hit. There would be no safe place for your kind to go."

"What will happen to us?" Will asked, for the first time sounding slightly afraid. Marnie dropped a hand on his arm and smiled at him. Farla noted that, and smiled herself.

"Along with the burst of gamma radiation, there will be an intense barrage of cosmic rays. Energetic particles of immense power. Normally, given distance, the magnetic fields present within the galaxy would deflect these particles, and strip them away from the gamma beam. But such was the intensity of this supernova that a substantial amount of cosmic rays will still remain when the gamma beams arrives here. This would not be good for your world."

Farla sat back in her chair. "The southern hemisphere of your world will be irradiated as if from a nearby nuclear detonation. The burst will be of such intensity that your planetary magnetic field, which normally shields your world from cosmic ray bombardment, would be overwhelmed. Life in the southern hemisphere of your world will experience radiation sickness, perhaps even death. The gamma rays will also induce harsh reactions within your atmosphere, depleting your planet's ozone layer by twenty-five to thirty-five percent, and allowing your own sun's ultraviolet rays to ravage your planet. There will be species extinctions, and food chain collapses in the ocean, and a sufficient loss of your agricultural production to induce starvation among those that remain. The high energy particles of the cosmic rays will destroy your power grids, all unprotected information systems, and your electronic technology on many levels." Farla's eyes were now grave. "The complete collapse of your civilization will be the likely result."

"You mean kind of like now?" Jeremy asked, sounding a little bitter. "If you people are responsible for the Changes, didn't you accomplish the very same thing?"

Farla shook her head. "What we did, we did because we felt it necessary to save your people. Not destroy them."

"Just what did you do?" Richie asked.

The woman looked sad. "By the time we discovered what was happening, there was only slightly more than three years before the blast would strike your Earth. An emergency session of the government of our worlds was convened, to try to find a way to save your Earth." Farla's eyes roved among them, as if she were weighing the impact of her words. "Here is where the difficulty came in. Our studies of your culture convinced us that, if we simply showed up and presented the problem to your governments, and announced our intention to build the enclosure, that we would not be believed. Your people would interfere with us by military means. With no way to prove the oncoming danger, they would look out into the night sky and see nothing but apparent serenity. They would not be convinced, and would consider the enclosure some form of deception. It might take years to convince you otherwise, and we did not have years. We had to begin construction of the enclosure immediately. To have delayed would have been to invite failure. And failure might mean the loss of your species as an intelligent race."

Richie and the others simply watched Farla, waiting for her to go on.

She looked about at them, her eyes pleading for understanding. "It was decided not to ask your permission to save you. Specialized equipment was brought here and placed in orbit about your Earth, and your entire race was put into stasis, a form of preservation that causes the flow of time to pass around the preserved object. This occurred in a single moment, all over your planet. Your people - the crystal ones - are not dead, or even aware that anything has happened. All of this - these past two years - has happened between the merest fractions of a nanosecond in their time. When the emergency is over, they will be removed from stasis, none the worse for the experience."

The table erupted into excited conversation as the kids realized that their families were not dead. Richie could not help feeling elated himself, and the joy on the faces of the others only added to that. Richie smiled around at them, seeing the light of new hope in all their eyes. Farla watched them all, too, looking slightly relieved herself.

But then Jeremy raised his arms and waved his hands. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, be quiet a minute, everybody." He looked at Farla. "What about us? What happened with us?"

The woman spread her hands. "Well...we aren't sure. The physics of stasis is a mature science in regards to my own people, but with yours...there are apparently some differences we were not aware of. A genetic template is used, so that the vast machinery in orbit overhead only processes a single species. We expected that process to work on all of your kind. But it did not...for some reason." She moved one hand to indicate those seated at the table. "Some of you obviously escaped conversion entirely due to some anomaly in your genetic make-up. This was...unforeseen."

"And the zombies?" Jeremy persisted.

Farla produced a sad smile. "Oh. Those ones. You mean the ones caught in transition." She looked around at them. "I don't know. We've never seen anything like this, either. These unfortunates seem to be suspended somewhere in the middle, between normal human life and complete stasis. For them, time has ceased to move in the same direction it does for you and I. They are caught somewhere between, in a time frame that interacts with ours, but is part of some other."

The woman looked unhappy. "There seems to be some completely new physics involved in this as well. Their intelligence, and some of their personality, apparently remains, and most, or even all of their knowledge. But how their minds work has been severely altered. Their perceptions of reality, and their processes of reasoning - both are severely distorted by their existence between states of being. The very physics of their structures has also changed, the strange matter of their altered bodies subject to different laws of mass and inertia than are our own. Some processes of their biology seem to be accelerated as well, while others would appear to be slowed. We have no explanations as yet for how this could have happened." She shrugged. "Our experts actually say that what happened is not possible."

Richie and Jeremy both laughed at that. "Well, it definitely is possible," Richie said. "We had one around here for a while, and he was a very tough guy to deal with."

Farla's eyebrows briefly arched. "You defeated it?"

Jeremy nodded. "Blew it up, more or less."

Farla closed her eyes a moment. "I'm sorry. Their aggressiveness is unprecedented." Her eyes opened again, and she gazed at them a little wonderingly. "Their altered physics endows them with considerable ability. Considering their bellicosity, you were quite fortunate to survive."

"You mean they're mean as crap," Will translated.

"Yes. We have examined several, trying to understand the basis for their aggressiveness. The level of change varies in each one, and some are considerably more reasoning than others. Different areas of their brains seems to exist in several states in time, just as do portions of their bodies, and this has resulted in a distorted view of the world around them. Combined with the aberrations in their reasoning processes, it seems to leave them all along the spectrum of violence towards other life. Some we have examined are simply brutes, destroying as if by reflex, while others seem to have retained a remarkable portion of their intelligence. All seem unable to comprehend much more than the basics of the physical world around them, however, which has resulted in an inability to utilize most technologies. We only brought two specialists in stasis with us - enough to operate the equipment involved in the process. They are studying these problems, but it will take time."

"So they aren't zombies at all," Jeremy said, giving a little sigh of relief. "We just had no idea what had happened."

Farla smiled at that. "It is of note that all your people I have spoken with thus far have called the transitional ones by that name."

Marnie rolled her eyes in response. "I guess it was sort of a natural thought. They sure looked like zombies, anyway."

Richie frowned then, remembering something. "We buried the remains of our guest afterward. The body was simply unbelievably heavy. The skin felt like rock. What was that about?"

Farla shook her head. "As I said, the make up of their bodies conforms now to other physical laws. They become very massive, very dense, which makes them very hard to injure; yet they also possess a rather amazing speed and strength, products of their altered time reference. I don't even know more myself, because these changes are still being studied."

Jeremy shook his head. "Do you know what they eat? We figured out that they didn't eat like we do any longer, but we didn't know what had replaced food as their energy source. " He smiled. "One suggestion made was that they operated on sunlight."

"That's not so far off," Farla returned, smiling. "There is some sort of thermal conversion process going on within the structures of their bodies. They operate on heat energy, as far as we can tell."

Richie frowned. "They stop moving at night. Is the difference in heat between day and night that significant?"

"Apparently, the threshold is quite fine with these creatures. We have not found any of them at all operating in the cold weather regions of your world, even in daylight. The ones that exist in the equatorial regions are faster and stronger than the ones that operate farther away from the equator. Had your zombie survived, you would have found its speed and strength growing as the summer progressed. At least until it ceased functioning, anyway."

Richie could barely imagine their zombie stronger and faster than it already had been.

Marnie sighed, and shook her head. "It hasn't been fun for us, let me tell you."

For a moment, Farla's face showed her upset. "I'm sorry. It was not foreseen that some of you would be left unchanged, or that some would be caught in transition. We only became aware of both sets of animates - maybe survivors is more a word to your liking - as time passed by. After your kind were placed into stasis, our attentions were above your world, not down on the surface."

Richie nodded. "Any idea how many of us there are?"

"We are aware now of about twenty thousand of you, all over the surface of your world. Both types of survivors seem to be grouped in areas, perhaps based on genetic pooling. Both groups - those who escaped stasis totally, and those in transition - are widely scattered about your world. In some cases those two groups overlap, with the unchanged and those caught in transition together, while in other cases they are widely separated." She tried to smile. "Most of the unchanged have formed groups like your own."

"Are they all kids, like us?" Sherry asked.

"No. People at every age were affected. The complexity of this event is so deep as to mimic the randomness of chance. Why some people in the middle of millions of others escaped stasis completely, or were somehow caught in a transitional phase, is not known. Our science people would be excited about this, were not the results of the error so grave."

Richie nodded. "I'm not surprised the survivors got together. It's what people do in times of crisis."

"But not the zombies," Jeremy countered. "They don't even seem to get along with each other."

Farla shook her head. "No. They tend to disperse, just as you normals seem to come together. But in the areas where both sorts eluded complete stasis and interacted, there was apparently some violence."

"You think?" Jeremy asked, sounding just a little bitter.

Farla raised a hand, palm upwards, fingers splayed, in an odd gesture, but one which Richie took to be conciliatory. "Please understand our position. There were seven billion irreplaceable sentient lives, and an entire, living world at stake. We had to act fast, or not at all. As it is, the enclosure is expected to be completed only a month before the gamma ray burst arrives. Your world, and your civilization, will live on. But it will be a very close thing."

"What's this cage thing you're building?" Sherry asked.

"It has several purposes," Farla explained. She smiled then. "I do not know your level of understanding in these matters."

Marnie returned the smile. "Keep it simple, if you can."

"I must, anyway. My specialty lies elsewhere, and the physics of these processes are complex. We are dealing with two dangers: the penetrative power of gamma radiation, and the destructive power of high-energy cosmic rays. Cosmic rays can be deflected by intense magnetic fields, and that is how the enclosure will deal with them. It will multiply many times your planet's natural magnetic field."

"That works?" Jeremy said, sounding surprised.

"We think it will, yes."

"What about these gamma rays?" Richie asked.

"They are a different story. Gamma rays will not be affected by a magnetic field. Gamma rays are stopped by interaction with simple high electron densities per unit volume - in other words, by materials that are very dense. That is why your own scientists use elements like lead to shield against them. Gold is even more effective, but of course is a scarcer element, so not practical for this type of application."

Richie glanced up at the roof of the camp. "You're not telling me you're going to cover a sphere that size with lead, are you?"

Farla looked amused by the idea. "We would never have the time, even if that was our plan. Instead, the enclosure will utilize a variant on the technology we use to shield the power sources of our own starships. The enclosure will create a field that borrows its strength from the momentum of the mass of your planet itself. This field will use gravitational curvature to compress an electron flow and mimic matter of extreme density, which should prevent the gamma ray blast from penetrating."

Marnie's eyebrows went up at that. "Should?"

"Well, our mathematics people say yes. Our physics people say probably. The intensity of the burst is mathematically inferred, not directly measured, and simply known to be massive. The enclosure is expected to be ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent effective in both areas of protection. Your own atmosphere can be expected to handle any leakage that occurs without sustaining critical damage."

Richie shook his head. "It's almost...unbelievable."

The table was silent for a moment.

Tina raised a hand then, looking at Farla. "When will all the people come back?"

Everyone nodded at once, a new excitement visible in their faces.

The woman smiled, and leaned forward. "Well, we are still trying to decide on how to handle that. I'm afraid I cannot say just now." Her smile softened. "The enclosure will be completed in two month's time. The gamma burst will arrive one month after that."

"What can we expect?" Richie asked.

"There will be nothing to see, and nothing to hear. For ten to twelve seconds the enclosure will do its job, and then it will be over. A probe has been sent towards the supernova along the path of the burst, and will report back any follow up radiation that may have been emitted. The enclosure will deal with this, too, if there is any."

"And this cage thing?" Mike asked. "When will you take that down?"

Farla shook her head. "We will not. It is engineered to last many thousands of years, in a self-sustaining, stable orbit about your world. Sunlight will pass with only the most minor of reductions, and your people can pass through the grid in spacecraft if they so desire. But the protection of the enclosure will remain until your people are capable of removing it themselves." She smiled. "By that time they will understand its protective nature, and perhaps desire to keep it in place."

Marnie looked amazed. "You mean, we might need it again?"

"Yes. We live in a busy universe, bursting with activity. Your solar system has been very fortunate not to encounter any problems during the rise of your species. That fortune cannot be expected to hold true forever, as we have already seen."

Jeremy glanced up at the ceiling. "So if something else comes along, the cage will protect us?"

Farla stood, and smiled at them. "Your solar system will be surrounded by a network of detection devices beyond the outer planets. These devices will remain in touch with the artificial intelligence that operates the enclosure by an instantaneous communications system not bound by the speed of light. Should another danger of this nature arrive, the enclosure will have warning, and your planet's defenses be activated."

Richie stood, too, aware that the woman would be leaving soon. "What do you get out of this, if I may ask? Building this enclosure of yours must be fantastically expensive."

Farla nodded. "Your kind and mine are different, Richie." She indicated herself with a wave of her hand. "What you see is a representation, provided only to make you comfortable with contact. We are physically dissimilar to you. Different, too, are some of our ideas about the nature of things. Life is very precious to us, and especially intelligent life. No price can be placed upon that. We consider the effort of maintaining your kind a bargain. Some day, you will see that."

"You still didn't say what you are getting out of it," Jeremy said, as if unwilling to believe in the idea of getting something for nothing. "There must be something."

Farla nodded. "There is. Company."

Richie shook his head. "Company?"

Farla moved toward the ladder now, and Richie and the others followed. "Yes. The knowledge that we are not alone. The knowledge that someday, we will have someone to share...everything...with." She smiled. "It is a very large universe out there, too big for one species to properly enjoy. Some things are best when experienced with friends."

"Wait." Richie raised a hand, but did not touch the woman. "Will you be back?"

"Yes, at some point. I will return to let you know what will happen next. Be patient, is all that I can ask."

Richie nodded, not knowing what else to add. "Thank you for coming."

Sherry and Mike got the hatch up, and Farla stepped onto the ladder. "Oh...one last thing. It may please you to know that there are no more...uh, zombies, anywhere close to your home."

Richie gaped. "You know this?"

"Yes." Farla gave a little sigh. "Their lifespans seem not to be very long, and they are quickly dying out, everywhere. A few have somehow transitioned into full stasis belatedly, but we do not know if the delay has damaged them. The ones that have remained transitory seem to use up their life force extremely rapidly. Another byproduct of their altered time reference. Our specialists expect them all to be gone in a few month's time." Her eyes looked sad at that fact. "It pains us greatly that there is nothing we can do for them."

Richie's eyes briefly wandered to the window facing their own zombie's grave. He understood that sadness completely.

Jeremy, standing next to Richie, gave out a small sigh. "Well, at least we can relax." He smiled then, his eyes briefly flicking towards the ceiling. "A little, anyway."

Richie laughed, and put an arm around his boyfriend. Farla nodded, and proceeded down the ladder. They all followed, and accompanied her out to the drive, and then stood and watched as she walked away, and finally disappeared over a hill. They were still standing there, several minutes later, when something majestic and glittering, like a golden snowflake, lifted into the sky, hovered a moment, and then disappeared upward at incredible speed. A few moments later, the sky thundered above them, and the sound slowly echoed away to the distant horizons.

Epilogue

Richie walked slowly about inside the house - his parent's house - and smiled at all the familiar things. The furniture, old and comfortable, antiques before he was even born, but well-maintained, and still beautiful. The pictures on the mantel above the fireplace - of his parents, his grandparents, his brother and his sister, and of himself. Vacations, school events, birthdays - quiet snapshots of the joys of his life.

The rooms called out to him, alive with memories, demanding recognition. Until recently, he had maintained these rooms, these things, but ignored their pleas for recognition, thinking that part of his life over with, that part of his life done. But now he knew better. The gamma ray burst had come and gone, and the world was still here, ready to move on again, once it was restarted.

And that moment was coming.

Richie sighed, and returned to the front door. He had come to visit, both the place, and the people still in it. Where before he had been unable to gaze upon the blue crystalline figures of his family, thinking them dead, now he sat by each and talked to them, told them of his plans, and of his hopes for the world, and all the people in it, once they were all back. He knew the crystalline figures could not hear him, but that was unimportant just now. Richie could hear himself, and that was what mattered.

He opened the front door, went outside, closed the door, and turned and locked it behind him.

Jeremy, rocking in the wicker rocker, smiled at him and stood up. "Everyone okay?"

"Yes. They're patient, I'll give them that."

Jeremy laughed at the joke, and pulled Richie near. "I'm so glad we're still here," he said softly. "So glad that we're still together."

"Yes." Richie closed his eyes and kissed his boyfriend. "I would not change anything, even if I could." He considered that, and then shook his head. "Except for Jack. I wish he could be here, to see the world reborn."

Jack would have been the least surprised of them all at how things had turned out. He had been a man who was always saying that appearances were deceiving, that events needed to be looked at from both sides to get the gist of them. To learn that everything that had happened since the night of the Changes was not as it seemed, that the world had been saved instead of destroyed, would have appealed to his sense of humor, and made him smile.

Zombies, it seemed, were only distorted reflections of ourselves, only as real as the fears we allowed to drive them. The Changes had been a purely human event, with three different responses, but hopefully, the same outcome. Life.

They walked back to the truck, where Sherry and Mike and Tina awaited them. It was a tight squeeze, to get them all in the cab, but they were making do, and quite cheerful about the whole thing. The absence of guns beyond the pistols they wore helped to ease things a lot.

The next stop would be Jeremy's house, and then Tina's, and then Sherry's, and then Mike's. At each home, the person that had once lived there would go in and visit, while the others waited outside. And tomorrow, Jeremy would drive Will, and Bennie, and Marnie around to their homes, while Richie and the others held down the fort. Only Mom had nowhere to go. She was already where she wished to be, and didn't seem to mind it one bit. Marnie planned to take her home with her, when the time came to leave the camp behind.

Jeremy started the truck, and Richie leaned forward and gazed past his boyfriend at the house once more. Two years, the world had been silent. Two years, the sounds of life had been missing. Richie was overjoyed to know now that the world was not dead, that his old life was only sleeping, only waiting.

Soon, that old life would resume. It would be wonderful to have back, even if it could never be quite the same. They were changed, all of them.

The group had made a pact, never to forget this other life, the one they had shared together for more than two years. This silent life, when the world had been quiet. They were all family now, never to be separated in spirit. Some bonds of the heart can never be broken.

Richie and Jeremy were already planning a future together. That it would be in a living world instead of a dead one delighted both of them. They had both learned a lot in the previous two years, assets they expected now to carry them forward, albeit in a gentler place and time. They were looking forward to it, another sort of challenge to be met.

Shortly, the first of those in stasis would be brought back. They would waken to total confusion, finding the entire world changed in the blink of an eye. For some it would be jarring, reality changed in mid-step. For others - for the ones that Richie knew - they would have had gone to sleep in one world, and would awaken in another one entirely.

There would be fear, and anger, and awe; and some would simply not be able to comprehend. It would take time to make them understand what had happened. Confusion and disbelief would be everywhere. The control that humans had over the order of their societies was usually far more tenuous than they imagined. The danger of another sort of collapse was real, as all those who rebounded after the Changes found all the old and familiar safe things and safe places now changed. Farla and her people would be there, ready to open the next stage of contact, ready to assist in the rebirth.

Richie and the others had come to like Farla, and those others of her people they had met. That what the aliens felt they had done - and were still doing now - was an important thing, and well worth the cost and time, was apparent to all of them. That they grieved over those humans who had been lost in the fight to save a world was obvious, too. Compassion for friends is a gift; compassion for strangers, a true treasure.

Protecting the Earth and its fragile biosphere had been the simple part. Getting everything human going again would be the hard one. Humans, by their nature, are a rowdy lot.

Aside from the shock of their return, those reawakened people would need to eat, need basic comforts, need assistance to get their lives rolling again. They would need order. Huge amounts of supplies were already being brought in, and teams of volunteer techs were coming in from the many worlds of Farla's people to get human technology restarted before the world's billions were reawakened. Power and communications systems would be brought back online, the mega-farms cleared and reseeded, the transportation networks serviced and made ready.

The biggest challenge was the food supply, interrupted for two year's time, and already mostly collapsed without hands to tend to it. Getting the farms running again was the first priority, and Farla had said that the only way they could do that was to automate them. Everywhere, amazing new machines were already working the earth, clearing, seeding, tending, and seeing to harvesting and storage when the time came. It was a huge job, an almost impossible job; but Farla's people had at their disposal resources and a technology equal to the task.

It would not be a rapid process, nor an easy one. The world would not be ready to host all seven of her billions again at one time. In several months, the first group of those in stasis would be reawakened. Farla's people planned to do it in stages, in monthly groups, perhaps a billion each year, over several years of time, so that the world could be made ready to accept them. The reawakened would not come back into a perfect world, but at least they would come back to one ready in most ways to support them.

Proving that Farla's people had done the earth a service would not be that difficult. Those living in the southern hemisphere would have visible evidence of what had happened: a beautiful new flower of light in the night sky, the new face of a star that had exploded ten centuries past. The gamma burst had passed on, but visible light from the supernova, in the form of a star now over 100,000 times brighter than the original, could be expected to remain observable for some time to come. The supernova was so bright it could be seen in broad daylight, a beacon that would serve to remind everyone of the terrible fate they had narrowly escaped.

No, putting the world back together would not be as hard as Richie had originally thought. Most things had simply stopped, without the hand of humankind to guide them. But the power grids, the information systems, the planes and trains and buses and cars - all would operate again, once restarted. Not that much time had passed that things could not be set moving again with just a little patience and work.

Putting the people back together, the society - the order - that humans were used to by now - that would be the real job.

Those like Richie and the others - the twenty thousand others that had remained 'awake' through the Changes - they would have roles to play in dealing with that. The debates over what had happened to Planet Earth would rage on for some time to come. Those with questions would need answers. Richie smiled, looking forward to it, despite the challenges he could already see coming. It would be hard, but what about surviving was not?

And, they would have their families back. Soon there would be reunions, and that particular joy of being together again. Soon there would be stories to tell, and memories to share.

And above it all, in the sky - or just beyond it - the lacy white pattern that was the enclosure would remain, the best gift the human race had ever received, from the best sort of neighbors they could ever hope to have.


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead

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