II. The City in the Forest
Sky wandered for a long time, hiding and waiting. For a while, wherever he went, people with bodies like his sister's limped along, begging for anything that would free them from their suffering. Animals wasted away from within. He could offer them nothing, so he kept his distance from them. The only food that was safe to eat became scarce quickly. He resorted to eating expired canned and boxed foods, or fish if he was lucky enough to catch any. No new food came in at stores. No one worked at all. In each town he visited, he saw people in government vehicles round up the healthy looking people. They were heavily armed, and killed anyone sick who tried to get into the vehicles. He saw on their vans, next to federal logos, the name of the company his father used to own and run, Moone & Wolfe Corp. From his father's notes, his aunt, Edith Summerfield, should be the one running the company now. Sky kept his distance from the armed people too. They couldn't be taking people anywhere good. He stumbled upon the buildings they took them in every now and then. Fences twenty feet high surrounded mostly white and metal buildings. Armed guards stood at the gates of them. He watched the people inside from afar. Everyone dressed in white clothes, with some people occasionally wearing white and black. They mostly stayed indoors. In the mornings, all the people moved from one fenced area to another. At dusk, they repeated the process in reverse. He assumed one was a living area and one was an area for work, but as to why they were in two separate fences, he didn't know or understand. It went on like this every day, he saw no matter where he went, except for Sundays when only a few left the fence. Sky presumed these were what his father's notes referred to as "facilities". These buildings were where those who were deemed worthwhile were reprogrammed to live in the "right" way, as his father told him. Some facilities had a mix of people, others were uniform by race and other features. Sky wrote down everything he saw and recorded it later on his laptop. As time went on, he got used to hiding his hunger behind work. His stomach always growled louder than the sounds of his keys or pencil, but he tried to convince himself both sounds were from typing or writing. He never ran out of paper to hide within the lines of. Unlike food, pencils and papers were still plentiful in the abandoned stores. Food and water, knives, guns, bows, arrows, ammo, medicine--these shelves were typically wiped clean. Other items, like pots and clothes, were picked over but relatively plentiful. No one was hoarding clothes or pans. Weight mattered. There was no room for anything more than what was absolutely needed. Sky kept track of time, but focused little on his age. He knew when his birthday was, July 7th, and his laptop let him always know what day it was. The date was for recording information with. How old he was didn't matter anymore. His mother wouldn't be gifting him anything on his birthday behind his father's back anymore while his father would give him more difficult work to study. There was no one left to care about his age. All that marked his aging was the discarding of clothes too small to fit and the taking of new, bigger ones. At some point, he would be an adult. Even that word didn't mean anything. An adult by finishing growing, by brain development, what did it matter, he thought. There was no world for that to matter in. Sixteen, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty. If he reached those numbers, he doubted anything would change. What did the words "child" and "adult" mean now? Time, memories, meanings, everything blurred in his mind. He recorded endlessly, often with nothing in his mind. Something was slipping away from him, but he couldn't name it. When he was especially hungry and couldn't distract himself enough with recording, he reviewed his father's notes to look for clues on his intentions and plans. In these moments, he was able to remind himself again why he was recording anything at all. He wanted to expose what his father and the company had done to everyone, in as much detail as he could. When he first left his old home, he was furious and eager to shout everything to the world. As years passed, and he saw less people and more emptiness, he questioned if any of it mattered. Those thoughts were quickly hidden under renewed rage at his own emptiness. This was another trick, like the sound of his keys. If he didn't have a reason to be angry and recording, he didn't have a reason to be at all. Without that, there wasn't a point in getting food and water. He could lie down somewhere, close his eyes, and wait for something to end him. With everything collapsed around him, a tiny sliver of desperation remained inside him that refused to let his weary mind end his life. Whatever it took to survive, his mind and body did. Some days, that required rage, some, emptiness. He didn't cry anymore or scream. He learned to be as silent as the does that once roamed the fields behind his forgotten home and as vicious as a lone, hungry wolf. Sometimes, when he woke early in the morning, he wondered how long he could keep doing this. On those days, he went to reviewing right away. His father's writings disgusted him the longer he wandered and saw the distant, dwindling people moving about. According to his father's notes, there were a set of physical features set to be phased out. Red hair, all eye colors outside of brown and blue, excessive freckles, more than a single skin tone per race, and any physical deformities or abnormalities. As he thought about that, Sky glimpsed at himself in his laptop screen. Was he the right skin tone for "white"? His eyes and hair were brown, but were they the correct shade? Even something as insignificant as that was marked for "uniformity". A single shade for everything. As he sat in the woods, surrounded by flowers unaffected by the poison his father's associates let out, he wondered what his father would think of them. He likely would see them as useless, Sky thought. These weren't plants humans typically ate. A distraction, that was how he saw vibrant colors. Sky picked one of the wild roses beside him and put it in his front coat pocket, then went back to work recording his findings. The more he wandered, the more he wanted to know--why did his father leave their family on the outside? If all of this was to "fix" mankind, and everyone "needed" to be controlled and "corrected", why did his father quit the company and isolate his own family out here? Did he have a change of heart? That didn't seem right. To the end, his father still lauded all the ideals of the company. He was actively training Sky in those thoughts; on productivity, on avoidance of distracting things and behaviors, on how people should be and what made a person worthwhile. His father did that until the end, a death his father didn't plan for. So why was Sky here and not in there with his aunt? He found no clues in anything his father left behind. Sky read over his father's diary many times hoping for answers, but his father wrote in riddles, half truths, and words too adult for him to understand. It was in times like that, the word "child" held some meaning again. Without guidance, Sky wondered if he could become an adult at all. Eventually, Sky started working his way back towards his old home. He wanted to check if he left some piece of information somewhere behind. Finding his old home was more difficult than he expected. Maps were somewhat useful, but more and more, anything that could be seen as a landmark vanished under kudzu, bamboo, English ivy, and tall grass. He continued to lose track of time as he wandered around. Late spring, summer, and the beginning of fall were all hot. At its worst, in late July and early August, Sky drenched through any clothes he wore. He wanted to wear shorts and go shirtless, but it was too risky. He bundled up every part of himself he could and learned to deal with the sweat and heat. When he bathed, he always saw the outline of his goggles on his face from wearing them so long. In winter, it snowed once, but the winters only became warmer each year. Some days in winter, he sweated through his clothes then too. Heavy rainstorms followed year round. He watched the dark clouds when they came through. There was no emergency alert system anymore, unless he was near one of the facilities. Pines were quick to be taken down by a strong wind, and they were everywhere. When he traveled west and crossed into what was Alabama, he saw more tornadoes. As buildings collapsed and debris was left scattered around, the damage a storm did only grew. He became grateful for the houses with basements, though one night he found himself needing to take shelter in a ditch when no houses were anywhere nearby and everything else had long collapsed. Dixie Alley lived up to its name, he thought, and the weather seemed to be getting worse. The first time he saw one, he thought the trains were running again. He realized he was wrong quickly. Tornado season seemed to never end. No months, as he noticed from his own field notes, were safe anymore. This was a land of tornadoes now, as much as it was a land of kudzu and rusted metal. One morning, he took shelter under a cherry tree from a light rain. The white-pink petals covered the ground around him. He checked over plant information he'd copied out from books in abandoned libraries. These were native to the land, but he recalled reading years ago that Japan had given the United States many cherry trees of their own. The place that was once Georgia used to hold a cherry blossom festival in Macon, holding more cherry trees than anywhere else in the United States, and other celebrations used to occur that celebrated Japanese culture elsewhere around the state. Japan was an ally of the United States. Where were they now? Surely, the world had to know what was happening in the United States. Was Japan still a country? Was everywhere like this? Where was the Canadian government? The United Kingdom? Were the people he passed in his travelings suffering alone, or was the world itself sick? He didn't know. That day, under the cherry tree, he discovered something his father had only mentioned vaguely in his notes. At first, he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. A sinkhole shouldn't be that massive. It took Sky a day to get down from where he was at to reach the location. Sky had nothing large enough to measure with, but the sinkhole was so big it stretched out to the horizon when he stood in front of it. He couldn't see the bottom of the hole. Sky threw rocks into it to listen for how long it took them to hit the ground. He didn't hear anything no matter how big the rock was he tossed in. He trekked back to the cherry tree to look out from there again. His eyes told him again the sinkhole reached the horizon. His father's diary referred to this as a "minor accident" when testing how to control weather conditions. "This is a minor accident?!" Sky mumbled aloud. "What did you consider a major one?" Something dawned on Sky after seeing the sinkhole. His father's company worked on controlling a lot of things--people, memory, business. Weather was one of the things they wanted control over. Did they achieve that, he wondered. The weather was getting worse, but did it affect their buildings or only things around it? Were they making things worse for people outside of their safe locations on purpose, or was the weather already getting worse and they were shifting it to be nicer where they were? Sky checked his own field notes. There was nothing in his notes about a facility being hit by a tornado, though many came close. Shifting the weather so greatly across such a large portion of land seemed too implausible. He suspected, more likely, they were altering the weather some in small patches of land to protect themselves while everyone else was left to deal with another disaster. Sky was even more perplexed by his father's decision to keep them on the outside. "What were you running from?" Sky looked up, speaking to no one. Sky failed to find his old home again. For all the years traveling, he had barely covered any more than much of north and west Georgia, about half of Alabama, some of South Carolina and Florida, and a small amount of North Carolina. Most of that time had been in Georgia, simply sifting through empty grocery stores and hiding. The others, he only stayed in briefly to take notes, but he found little of value anywhere. Sky had no way of getting to the people he wanted to meet with, without handing himself over and making himself very vulnerable. Sky stayed in Georgia, giving up on finding anything new and mostly wanting to go home to see something familiar. Sky wasn't sure why he wanted to see his old home at all. Not much of anything good ever happened there. Then again, he thought to himself, not much good happened anywhere. His wandering eventually took him to a metal barrier. Sky saw these from time to time, but never crossed one. This went out in both directions as far as he could see. He tried walking along one side for a few hours only to still see no end to it. He worked up the courage to climb over it. The barrier itself was only about four feet high, but much of the metal was covered in rust and sharp edges. Sky climbed over it very carefully. There was no risking getting even a single scratch. He soon discovered that the other side of the barrier was far more terrifying. There were few government vehicles, but he did encounter plenty of people, more than were on the other side. Most were traveling in groups for safety. The first group he encountered robbed him of all the food he had on him, then dumped him outside their hideout. He did his best to hide from the other roaming groups he saw. They attacked each other for supplies. He saw one group kill all the people of another group. Others threatened death, or beat people near close to death. He saw all of this the first day. With the sun at his back, Sky looked for somewhere hidden and safe to sleep. He took refuge in an abandoned house, hoping to not encounter any more people. Sky chose the basement for his sleeping location. He could block the door and there were no windows in it. Being in the basement meant he didn't have to worry as much about the weather either. There was no edible food in the house. He went hungry that night. Sky was used to going days without food. What worried him more was that the group he encountered took all of his water too. Finding water tomorrow would be his number one priority. During the night, he heard frequent bangs against the door he blocked. Sky kept quiet and hid himself as far away from the door as possible. The banging turned to scratches followed by screeching. The noises he heard above him weren't anything he recognized. It didn't sound like it came from a human nor any animal he knew of, but the noises were definitely coming from something alive. The noises were so loud he covered his ears. By morning, Sky was too terrified to leave the basement. He heard noises throughout the day, none of them human-sounding. He stayed through the night again. The screeching kept up and continued through the night. The next morning, it was finally quiet. Sky was scared to open the basement door, but he had to leave. He couldn't stay down there much longer without any food or water. Sky decided to take his chances during the quiet time and run. He opened the door and looked out. Nothing was there. Sky walked lightly across the floor toward the front door. When he got to the the front door, he heard a noise upstairs. Sky listened closely. Loud thuds came from the area where the stairs were. There was nowhere to hide. His choices were to run out the door or stay still and hope whatever it was wouldn't come his way. He stayed still, one hand on the doorknob. He noticed the sounds of the thuds suggested something walking on two legs. He hoped it was only a person being really loud. The thuds stopped at the bottom of the steps. Sky watched the space where the stairs ended at. The stairs were hidden away by the wall from where he stood. He didn't know how much time passed in between when the quietness started and he ran out the door, but it felt like half an hour. In retrospect, he was certain it couldn't have been more than a minute. Long fingers, with claws longer than his small hands, stretched out and clamped down on the side of the wall with a loud click. The texture of the skin was strange, not unlike the way the sick people were. It seemed bloated and wet. Stretched too thin, something about it appeared almost rubbery and fake, like a cheap costume. It didn't seem like it could be real. Through the thin, oily skin, he saw something liquid moving inside. It sloshed back and forth within the hand. The proportions of the hand were like a human's, only far too large to belong to the tallest adult. The head came out next, about three feet above where the hand was. The creature stared at him with its head horizontal. The neck wasn't bloated like the hand, but stretched out in length. It wobbled like a snake climbing against a wall. The head had no hair except for a few patches of fuzz near the top. The face, like the neck, was elongated. It formed a snout-like shape, which made the mouth much longer than it should have been for a person. The eyes of the thing on the other side of the wall were red as blood. Tiny pupils stood out against the red. He couldn't distinguish where the iris ended. The red covered everything within the eye sockets. He saw through the skin on the head the same moving liquid. It gave all of the body a reddish-brown undertone to its pale skin. Inside the eyes, he saw a different movement but he was too far from the stairs to see clearly what it was. The pupils, fixated directly on him, expanded and contracted rapidly, moving at the pace of a steady human heartbeat. Sky saw as its pupils shifted, veins in the neck bulged out in rhythm with the motion of the eyes. The mouth opened wide, the jaw fully unhinging to reveal thin, pointed teeth on top and bottom. Saliva dripped out of the mouth. With one lunge, it was halfway towards him and he was out the door. Sky couldn't process the rest of its form until later. He ran through the woods. The shrieking behind him let him know that whatever it was easily got out of the house. Running straight, Sky ended up in another neighborhood when the part of the woods he was in ended. He saw cars abandoned on the streets. Sky hid behind one, hoping the thing chasing him couldn't smell him out easily. He was wrong. The creature hopped on top of the car he hid behind and let its long neck hang over the side. Sky got a good look into its red eyes. Inside the eyes, he saw something small, thin, and black swimming inside them. There were at least three visible per eye. Closer up, faintly, he saw some of them moving under the skin back and forth between the eyes and the top of the head and the ears. He saw something else moving elsewhere on the body, but it was harder to tell what was moving under the skin there. The creature opened its mouth again. He saw the same black thing moving inside the tongue. The odor of its breath was so strong Sky nearly vomited. Sky pulled the gun from his coat and shot into the mouth with the gun pointed slightly downward in the mouth. Blood splattered across the car and him. Sky stumbled away from the creature as its neck went limp and fell down. He waited to see if it would move again. The creature, whatever it was, was dead. Sky wiped his face off. He tossed the bloodied clothes to the ground. Sky's father's records mentioned another virus aside from the one his sister was infected with. What he read in that file was that it caused mutations of the body and mind. Sky presumed the thing before him must have been caused by that and the creature was likely once human. His fathers records weren't very detailed about what the mutations were, but he knew the blood could infect him if it got into an open wound or any orifice. He was wearing goggles and covering the rest of his face already to lower his risk of being infected from the other virus. If he hadn't been, the shot he had just made would have likely caused him to be infected. He examined the body more closely. Sky destroyed a large portion of the head with his shot, but from what was still inside, there didn't appear to be much brain left in general. Deep inside, he saw more black, some of the black mass still moving. Sky grabbed a stick and poked the black mass inside the skull. The moving portions scattered out. Sky jumped back. He watched and came closer when he didn't see any more movement. Sky wondered what the black, worm-like things were. Viruses couldn't reach such a size nor would they have looked anything like what he saw. He shouldn't be able to see something so small. If those were not the virus itself, what were they, he wondered. He considered what he was seeing might be an intermediate host used by the virus as part of its reproductive cycle, or perhaps the effects of the virus caused the body to be susceptible to infections by parasites a human might not normally be at risk for. He didn't have the tools on him to research that. Sky took out a notebook from his backpack, checked if there was any blood on it, and wrote down his thoughts for later. He circled the corpse for anything else he could make a note of. The body looked to be twelve feet in length, but the curvature of the spine and the way he saw it move earlier suggested the infected human was no longer capable of standing fully upright. The arch of the foot was unusually high, but the foot was overall proportional to what a healthy human's foot would look like. While the hands were bloated, most of the body seemed stretched out. With the stick he used earlier, he probed along the body to feel for the bones. They were longer too. He tried lifting up one of the legs with the stick to test its weight. To his surprise, he was able to lift it up more than he expected. Sky looked around for a thicker stick to test more and get a better look at the body. He found one and tried again. This time, he was able to lift it up over a foot off the ground. The liquid moving inside the body fell downward inside the skin, hanging below the stick as far as the skin would allow. It did this across the entire part of the leg that was lifted. When the liquid moved down, little remained above the stick. There appeared to be muscle tissue, but there was very little. Sky couldn't be certain without cutting into the body, but the bone itself didn't feel as if it weighed very much. Most of the weight of the leg seemed to be coming from the liquid inside it. He lifted the leg higher to get a better look at the upper part of the leg and to see the sex of the person. At the crotch, he saw a patch of darkened skin. There was no opening for a vagina. Sky carefully used the stick to roll the body over. The placement of the patch was more suggestive that the person should have been biologically male, but something happened to the penis and testicles. Sky looked farther back. Where the opening of the anus should have been, there was another dark patch over it, sealing that opening. He saw no opening on the body for the urethra either. Sky was completely perplexed by this discovery. The body's only openings appeared to be on the head. Sky poked at the dark patch on the front side of the body. It was spongey compared to the rest of the skin, and thicker. Sky jotted down every detail about the body. While he worked on examining the corpse, the liquid inside started to pool down at the legs. The body was pulled down slowly until it dropped off entirely in a matter of seconds. Sky ran back away from it. The skin popped open at places. He finally saw the liquid inside. It was dark blood. The blood soaked the ground. Sky ran along the other side of the car to grab his backpack before it got soaked through. He watched the body bleed out at a safe distance. The black worm-like creatures writhed around in the puddle. A few swam out of the blood and onto the concrete. These didn't get very far before stopping and beginning to shrivel up. Some moved again if blood touched them, only to shrivel up once they exited the blood. Sky grabbed the stick again and poked around. One of the areas the skin opened up at was the abdomen. He was shocked again by what he saw inside. He couldn't get a view of the heart or lungs, though probing over the top of the skin suggested they were there and a normal size for a human adult. Other organs were missing entirely. There was no stomach and no intestines. He couldn't find the kidneys or liver either. "How was this functioning? This makes no sense..." Sky stared in bewilderment. When most of the blood had spilled out, he saw how very empty the body really was. Most of the organs and muscle tissue were missing, elongated skin and bones, and no way for the body to eliminate waste the normal way a human would nor any way to reproduce--Sky didn't know what to make of the body before him. He peered in at another opening. "Why was the blood floating out like that? You should have already been dead." Sky finished up with his notes and went looking for an opened door to find new clothes. He found a house he could get into and took what clothes he could fit. The shoes he put on were hot pink and glittering and the shirt he wore underneath the coat he chose was just as loud. The jeans were covered in embroidered flowers. He didn't care about designs. Anything that kept his skin covered was good enough. Sky put his goggles back on after cleaning them off as best he could. He checked the house's water. It was turned off, like most of the places he was able to get into. He'd have to wait until he found bottled water, a stream, or was able to barter with someone else. There was a box of stale crackers and a can of beans in the pantry. He ate that and kept walking. With his new knowledge about the other virus, he kept a closer watch over his surroundings. Sky soon discovered it wasn't only humans who were infected, much like on the other side of the border he crossed. He killed a few four-legged creatures before the day was out. They were small enough he could take care of them with his knife. By sunset, he took shelter in another house. In the morning, he set out again, still looking for water. Sky stumbled upon a creek by midday. He took the time to bathe, drink what he could, and fill up the empty bottles he found in the last house. Toward the latter part of the day, he encountered another human group. This one seemed more friendly than the last one. The leader, an older man around forty, saw him and invited him to join their group. "Are you alone, kid?" The man asked him. Sky nodded. "Why don't you come with us? We're on our way to the Sanctuary." The man said. "What's the Sanctuary?" Sky asked. "It's a safe place for people who are out here, like us. They have food and medicine there." The man said. "And those bastards can't wipe our brains there. I'm Joe Greene. What's your name?" "Sky." Sky answered. "What's your last name? We might be able to find some of your family members there, if any of them made it there." Joe said. Sky almost said it, but he stopped himself. He didn't know how much this man knew. He said, "I can't remember anymore." "Awe, that's okay. Maybe someone will recognize you." Joe smiled at him. Sky didn't bother pretending he cared. He stared blankly at Joe, wondering what trap the man may be laying for him. Sky had managed to get a lot of clean water earlier. He wasn't going to part with it easily. Joe's group consisted of ten adults and four children, excluding Sky. One of the adults was clearly seeing Joe, though Joe insisted he was going to find his wife one day. The children belonged to the other adults in the group. Joe was very friendly with him and offered him some food he claimed he got from the Sanctuary. Sky wasn't certain the place actually existed, but he stayed with them to eat. Joe's group also had a lot of guns and ammo. Sky snuck some bullets for himself. Traveling with the group made things a lot easier. The guns were good for killing the infected creatures. Sky made notes along their journey about every creature he saw. The more he observed them, the more he started to understand what each creature used to be. He noticed humans had more "types" of appearances than others that were infected. Some became more dog-like, others dragged themselves along the ground, and some were fast and lean. He wondered why there were differences and what about each person caused that to happen. He ran through ideas in his head. Was there a difference in the way they were infected? Was it genetic? Sky read over his father's files on his laptop, but found nothing to give him a hint about that. One morning, Joe told the group they would be at the Sanctuary sometime tomorrow afternoon or night if they didn't make any long stops to rest. The group discussed whether they should wait until the day after tomorrow if it got too late in the day. The infected creatures were always more active at night. During the discussion, Joe's girlfriend who he claimed wasn't his girlfriend, Sue, argued against the group. She wanted to travel through the night. Her and Joe got into a shouting match over it that ended with Sue storming off from the group for a while. Joe chased after her and brought her back. Sue's behavior continued to get more erratic as the day went on. She hurried everyone through breaks and stormed off two more times. Around sunset, her behavior changed again. She stayed stuck to Joe whenever she could and made passes at him in front of everyone. Joe rejected her, still angry about her earlier behavior. When Joe wouldn't pay attention to her, she latched onto another one of the men in the group. Joe and Sue argued again, and Sue ran off another time. Joe didn't go after her this time. She came back on her own the next morning, clawing at the door of the house they had hid out in. Joe wouldn't let her inside the house. Sky looked at Sue through the living room window. Her body was covered in blood, but the blood looked like it was splashed onto her, not her own blood. Her eyes were red. "You're not coming in here! No! You have the madness!" Joe yelled at her. "Please, let me in! Please, we're almost to the Sanctuary! They can cure me! We still have time!" Sue pleaded with him. The group discussed it, and allowed Sue in. Sky learned from Joe that there was a time frame in which the infected person could be cured for one of the viruses, and the Sanctuary had the means to do it. Three days from when the person was first infected was the maximum time frame, according to Joe. If they made it to the Sanctuary in time, Sue's odds of being cured were fifty percent. If she couldn't be cured, they would kill her there. Joe warned Sky to keep his distance from Sue until they reached the Sanctuary. "When they have it, they won't tell you how long they've had it. It messes with the mind. She could already be at three days now." Joe said. "Why lie?" Sky asked. "So they can infect us." Joe said. "When someone gets infected, they start craving blood and the first person they'll come after are the ones that person's already close to. They'll start clinging to you and trying to get you alone so they can attack you. She's already acting like that now. She can't have been bitten last night. Symptoms like that usually start after a full day has passed, and her eyes are already red. She's not gonna make it." "What do we do if we can't make it in time?" Joe showed Sky his gun. "There's only one thing you can do at that point. She'll get more aggressive soon in trying to get close to anyone she can. Do not be alone with her under any circumstance." Sky nodded. "What is that? What she has?" "They call it the Red Madness. If you see anyone with red eyes, don't go anywhere near them." "How long is it before they end up looking strange?" Sky asked. "That doesn't take that long. By the fourth day, the body starts changing. They still have some consciousness until around the fifth day. By then, they can't talk anymore. The body is completely changed after two weeks. From what I heard at the Sanctuary, they'll be dead within a month. They can infect you anywhere in the first three weeks, but by the fourth week, the body's too destroyed to go on and dies. They're most likely to infect people within that first week though. The longer it stays in their body, the more aggressive they get until they end up outright killing the people they attack." Sky wrote down what Joe told him in his notebook later. Just as Joe predicted, Sue's strange behavior continued. Sunset came, and Joe led Sue away from the camp during one of her attempts to get his attention. Sky heard a gunshot. Joe came back alone. "We're not going to travel through the night. We'll stay here and finish the last part of the trip tomorrow morning to be safe." Joe said. No one in the group said anything about Sue after that. They reached the Sanctuary in the morning after an hour of walking. The building was in the center of what was once the city of Atlanta. The massive structure was heavily guarded. At the front entrance, armed men and women met with them. They were checked for symptoms of the Red Madness before being let inside and taken to a special room. There, they had their blood taken. Sky assumed they were testing for one or both viruses. Once everyone was cleared, the group split up to look for relatives. Sky didn't have anywhere to go, and Joe wasn't looking for anyone either. Joe asked Sky if he wanted to stay with him for the time being. Sky agreed to share a room with him. He didn't like the idea of being alone in that place for long. The person who ran the Sanctuary was a man named Alan Winter. Sky planned on learning more about the man. His last name was one of the surnames that frequently appeared in his father's records, but he couldn't get close to him. Joe introduced Sky as his son to people and became more affectionate towards him the longer they stayed. Sky never once smiled at the man. His gut told him not to trust this man in particular. No one he had encountered in all his time outside wandering was ever nice to him for no reason. He didn't see why he should think Joe was any different from the others. One night, Joe snuck some food from the pantry and shared it with Sky. What Joe brought him was food that typically wasn't served in the cafeteria. He managed to get a hold of some vodka too, and offered Sky some. Sky pretended to drink a little of it. "You drink and eat as much of that as you want. You won't get many chances to have stuff like this, even here." Joe said with a smile. Sky was leery of eating the food he was given. He ate a little of the chips from a bag he made sure to open himself. "How'd you get this stuff?" "I got a copy of the key to the pantry. They have all kinds of goodies in there they haven't been handing out to everyone. Bet the guy running this place gets to take whatever he wants." Joe laughed. "Probably." Sky said. He put the food down. "You're not eating much. Eat up. This stuff is fresh, unlike what we've been surviving on out there." Sky pushed the food away. "I'm really not hungry right now. I'll eat later." "At least finish your drink." Joe said. Sky pretended to take a small sip. "Should you really be giving me alcohol? I'm twelve." "So what? It's not a big deal. There's no law against it now." Joe grabbed the glass and pushed it up to make it spill into Sky's mouth. Sky spit it out. He wiped his face off. "You'll get used to the taste. This is good stuff." Sky narrowed his eyes. He felt over the pockets of his coat to make sure his gun was there. "I don't think I like it. It tastes bad to me." "It's because you're a kid. You haven't gotten to taste stuff like this yet. Drink some more." Joe said. Sky put his glass down on the table in front of them. "I don't want to." Joe put his arm around Sky's shoulder. "You'll get used to it. Trust me." Sky stared at the hand on his shoulder. "Why are you giving me all these treats?" "It's to celebrate us surviving." Joe said. He handed Sky a cookie. "You were out there a long time, weren't you? Do you know if your parents are still alive?" "They're dead." Sky said. He held the cookie, but didn't eat it. "Do you know if you have any other family?" Joe asked. "I have an aunt, but she's not out here." Sky said. "They rounded her up and put her in one of those places, huh?" Joe patted him on the back. "I don't know what happened to my wife and my kids, but I'm going to keep looking for them. Do you want to come with me?" "Are you leaving soon?" Sky asked. He didn't correct Joe about what his aunt was really doing. "I won't be going too far out, but I hear there might be another place like this farther south. I was thinking of heading that way soon. Might be nice to have some company along the way." Joe said. Sky's shoulders tensed unconsciously. "I don't think I want to travel out there again yet. I want to learn more about this place first." "I see. Scary out there, huh?" "Yeah." Joe poured more vodka into each of their glasses. "Why don't you try drinking a little more? It'll make you stronger." Sky picked up the glass. "It'll make my mind weaker." "Nah. It gives you courage, and makes you funner to be around. Let's have a toast to our survival, and our coming farewell." Joe raised his glass. Sky raised his. Joe downed his drink. Sky let the liquid drip down his face as he pretended to drink it. Sky put his glass down. "I think I want to go to sleep now. I don't feel good." "You can make it. Just another hour. Let's have some fun. Don't you think we should spend more time together if we're going to part ways soon?" Joe put his hand on Sky's wrist. Sky pulled away. "I don't think I can tonight. Maybe tomorrow." "Don't you think you owe it to me? I practically saved your life by getting you here. You didn't know this place existed." Joe said. Sky got up from the table. "What do you want me to give you? My water? My knife? What do you want out of my bag?" "I don't want anything in your bag." Joe stood up. He leaned down and touched Sky's face. "Don't you think you owe me something for all the help I gave you?" Sky looked at Joe dead in the eyes and took his gun out of pocket. He shot Joe in the face. "No." The blood splashed on him. The body hit hard against the floor. He watched the blood pour out. The way the body looked reminded him of something from a long time ago. Sky stared down at his own body, but he seemed so far away from himself. He was like a puppeteer controlling a marionette. His thoughts controlled the body, but he felt no connection to it whatsoever. The room grayed, then his skin. The only color that remained was the red staining his skin and the concrete floor beneath him. He barely noticed Joe anymore. Joe faded into the background, becoming fuzzier in his mind. Sky heard someone screaming. The noise was loud and annoying. He hated it. Fifteen minutes later, he was escorted to the leader of the Sanctuary, Alan Winter. Alan was a tall man with light brown hair and blue eyes. Alan waited for him with two other men who appeared to be in the middle of discussing something unrelated to Sky. All three of the men stood up from the table. The guard who escorted Sky said. "I've brought him, Alan." "This one? He's just a kid." Alan stared at Sky. He asked the guard. "And the man? Did you identify him?" "Joe Greene, age 42. Came up clean on blood work. They came in together, according to our records. The boy was listed as his son." The guard said. "I am not his son." Sky corrected him. "You're not?" Alan asked Sky. "Then who are you?" "He picked me up when he was traveling here, like everyone else we came in with." Sky said. "Someone shot him in your room, and you were there. Did you do it or did someone else?" Alan asked. The man beside Alan, who had black hair, said. "You killed him, didn't you? Why?" "That's none of your business." Sky answered coldly. "If you won't tell us why you did it, we're going to have to force you to leave." Alan said. "No, you won't." Sky said. The black haired man crossed his arms. "And what are you going to do about it, kid?" "You won't throw me out." Sky reiterated. "You think I won't throw a kid out for breaking the rules?" Alan asked. "I'm sure you would, but you aren't throwing me out. I'll leave when I want to leave, not when you decide." Sky said. He stayed calm. "Who do you think you are?" Alan raised his voice slightly. "I'm Sky Summerfield." Sky announced. He held up his bag. "And I have data you want." "Summerfield?" The black haired man's eyes widened. He exchanged looks with the brown haired man beside him. "What's your proof?" Alan asked. "It's in here. I have all the records my father kept." Sky said. He pulled out the laptop. "Why didn't you tell us that earlier?" The black haired man asked. "I don't trust anyone." Sky held tight to his laptop. "Show me your data, and I'll give you a copy of everything I have." "So you're not going to bother telling us why you killed a man, huh?" The black haired man said. "It's personal. It's none of your business." Sky said again. "You can't just..." The black haired man walked closer to Sky. Sky pointed his gun at the man. "I'll kill everyone I have to to leave this place, if you stand in my way." Both of the guards pointed guns at Sky. "Kid, you need to calm down. We'll negotiate with you. You don't need to go around shooting people." Alan said calmly. He was unimpressed with Sky's display. "Lower your weapon and come sit with us." "Why should I? What if you shoot me and take everything?" Sky kept his gun aimed at the black haired man. Alan pulled out a gun and pointed it at Sky. "Because if we wanted you dead, we would've already killed you. If you really are who you say you are, you're far more valuable alive than dead. Put the gun down and come sit with us." Sky dropped the gun. He kept his knife on him, hidden in his back pocket. He joined the three men over at the table. The gun was left on the floor. "I want my gun back when we're done." Sky said. "I'll decide if you can have it back, boy." Alan said. Sky pushed his chair in some. He kept his back straight to make himself look taller, but all the men were already much taller than him. "Fine. But I want that one back, not a different one." Alan laughed. "Bossy." "Alright, kid. Let's see what you have." The black haired man said. Sky opened up his laptop and turned it on. "What's that thing running on? Almost no one has electricity out here outside of places like this." The brown haired man asked. "It's solar powered. My father wanted to make sure I could run it anywhere." Sky said. He opened up some of his father's files and turned the laptop to face the men across from him. "This is my proof. I have records on people, locations, research--whatever he bothered keeping a back-up of at home, I have it." "Why are you out here? I would've thought you'd be in one of the facilities working with your family. Where's your father?" Alan asked. "My father is dead. He killed himself after being infected with the VC-14-R virus right after he killed my mother for the same reason. My sister is also dead. She was the source in our household." Sky said. The words came out of him like he was reciting a fact from a textbook or the headline of a news article. He felt nothing in saying it. "I don't know if my aunt knows any of that, nor do I care. I intend to kill her." "Why would you want to kill her?" Alan asked. "Because I can read." Sky said bluntly. "I don't trust you, and I don't expect you to trust me, but we're not enemies at the moment. I have no intentions of going into one of those places. I read about what they're doing to people in there, and I know why everyone out here is sick. He did this. They did this on purpose. But who are you? The name Winter shows up several times in my father's research notes." "My family was involved in researching for your family's company, Moone & Wolfe, for many years, but I wasn't. My mom divorced my dad, and I didn't find out what he was planning on doing until much later. He left me a lot to protect myself with, but he ended up killing himself because he was too much of a coward to live in the world he was setting into motion. I am the same as you. I want them all dead." Alan said. He slid a thumb drive across the table. "Copy what you have onto here. When you're done, I'll give you our notes." The black haired man asked. "When did you last have contact with anyone at Moone & Wolfe?" "The last time I talked to anyone associated with the company was my parents. They've been dead for years now." Sky said. He copied the files over. "So, you've been out here since then all by yourself? You're so young. How did you survive?" The brown haired man asked. "I don't know. I did whatever I needed to." Sky pulled out several notebooks. "I have notes in these too, field notes. I don't know if they'll be of any use to you. I have other ones I've already transfered to text files too. I'll copy those over." Alan took one of the notebooks. He handed it to the black haired man to read through. The black haired man got up from the table and got out a camera. He took pictures of the pages in the notebook. Sky checked how the files were coming along. When the files were done copying, he handed the drive back to Alan. Alan passed him several thumb drives. "Do you keep everything on these?" Sky asked. "We use whatever we have available." Alan said. "We have paper copies and back-ups of those copies. And these digital files also have digital back-ups. Now you have copies too." Sky felt like he was regaining himself. He cleared his throat. "A body, do you have a body of any of those infected? I want to examine one myself." "He's definitely a Summerfield." The black haired man laughed. "And who are you, exactly?" Sky asked. "My name is Alex Linwood. I am the head researcher here, for the moment." Alex said. He continued to take pictures of the notebook pages. "So, you're Yoo's son. I remember you from my father's notes. You were supposed to replace my aunt, Edith, as the head of the company. What are you doing out here?" Sky asked. Yoo was a promising researcher, one that his father killed for trying to leave the company. Sky's father had his son tracked since birth, hoping the son inherited his father's unusually high intelligence and that he could serve as someone to take over once his aunt stepped down. His father had everything planned out. His father could stay as head until shortly before the plan was enacted, then his aunt, Edith, was to take over. Next, the plan was for Alex to take her place, and then eventually, Sky would take the company. With the both of them on the outside, that part of his father's plan was already ruined. Sky wondered who Edith would choose as her replacement. He suspected his aunt had plans her brother was never aware of. His memories of his aunt were of her being both too close and too distant towards his father, and he was the same way to her in return. Something about their relationship unnerved him even back then. "Yeah, that was never going to happen. Even after wiping my brain, they still couldn't get me to be their little toy." Alex grinned. 'Then they did capture him at some point.' Sky thought. He made a mental note to record that information down later. "My father's reports did say you would need a lot of mental alterations to be really useful because you were too...disappointing otherwise." "Disappointing? In what way exactly?" Alex asked. He raised an eyebrow. "Well, as he put it, your brain is filled with more lust for men than logic in spite of being a genius." What his father wrote was actually much more rude than that. Sky decided giving Alex a watered down version of it would be better than directly quoting. The brown haired man laughed. He leaned over to Alex and said. "Yeah, if that's the definition of disappointing, you're really disappointing." Alex rolled his eyes. "That's the dumbest fucking shit I've ever heard." "I didn't say you were disappointing. I'm just telling you what he said." Sky shrugged. He looked over at the brown haired man. "And who are you? What's your name?" "My name is Eric Linwood." Eric said. "Are you a cousin? I don't know that name." Sky asked. He didn't recall anyone else named Linwood in the notes. Alex got the name Linwood through his mother, who was single at the time he was born and unrelated to the company outside of having dated Alex's father. "I'm his husband." Eric explained. He had a silly grin on his face. "We got married last month, actually." "Oh." Sky blinked. "But I'm sure I'm in your father's records. Before I married, I went by Eric Thomas." Eric said. Sky did recognize that name. He was the younger brother of an important research test subject, Idris Thomas. Idris had been a crucial part in developing the two viruses the company eventually spread out into the general public, VC-14-R, the virus his sister was infected with, and VC-15-RM, the one that he first encountered when he crossed the metal border. He was cut open in the same lab as Sarah Winter, the girl whose memory was forever captured on the photograph in his bag. According to his father's notes, Idris and Sarah were likely dating but his father could never confirm it. There was a sexual relationship, but Sky's father couldn't sort out if there was anything more to their relationship than that. Idris died not long after his father stepped down from the company, cut down to little more than a brain, heart, and half a lung by the end of it. Sky's father's notes suggested Edith wanted the younger brother, Eric, experimented on as well, but his father had been against it for some reason. Sky couldn't find any logical reason within his father's journal or research notes. But his father was not in charge of things now, and Edith wanted him before. Sky was surprised that he too was out here and not currently being experimented on. "They didn't take you?" "They did, but we escaped." Eric said. "Our memories were too strong. They couldn't keep us from forgetting who we were for long enough. It always came back." "How long did they keep you for?" Sky asked. "Six years. We've only been out here a year." Alex said. "I don't remember two of those years at all. No one who got their brains screwed with can. None of that comes back. The only reasoning I can come to is the way they screwed with our memories meant for a couple of years, our brains weren't storing any memories at all. The next year after those two, we were stumbling along trying to relearn to function normally while they force fed us educational material to quickly train us for our assigned jobs." "My father's notes mentioned you were already interested in Eric. Surely...they didn't put you in the same facility. Wouldn't that increase the odds you'd remember your pasts?" Sky asked. He recalled how his father had to stop his mother from viewing anything related to her past for long. The smallest of things could bring back a stray memory. "They did. I don't know why. That's not something I was allowed to know about." Alex said. "We may have...taken out the majority of the staff at that facility when we escaped. That's one less of their facilities brainwashing people." "Did you organize that?" Sky asked Alan. "I did. Alex and I were in communication in secret while he was on the inside. We've managed to destroy ten of their facilities since it all started, but they've been building up more of the domes now, the Bubbles, as they call them. Those are a lot harder to get anyone in and out of." Alan said. "Shouldn't they run out of people to put in there?" Sky asked. Sky made a note to read up on what the 'Bubbles' were. From his father's notes and his own traveling, he only knew of the facilities. He assumed these 'Bubbles' must be his aunt's idea, or his father didn't keep notes on them. "They don't round up people outside anymore unless there's something special about them. If someone gets out, they leave them outside. There's no getting in or out of the country. We're trapped here and they've made sure of it." Alan pointed to one of the USBs. "You'll read about it on that one. They've moved on to their goal of 'perfecting' the human race. They collect sperm and egg cells from all the people they have and match up the two based on what traits they want the person to have. The people inside there are sterilized after they've collected enough genetic material from each person. There's no natural birth occurring in those walls, but there are plenty of babies being made in there." Sky looked over at Eric and Alex. Alex answered him before he asked. "Yes, they did it to both of us, but I doubt they'd use anything they collected from me. Eric seems more likely. We'll never know what they did with that. As it stands, unless we can snatch some of what they collected and store it, the only people who can currently have children are people who weren't collected up in the first place and managed to survive the initial outbreaks. That number is, as you might assume, very low. But we did learn something useful recently. They don't begin the collection process until a person reaches seventeen, and then at eighteen, they're given a vasectomy or a tubal ligation. We might be able to undo some of that in adults, but getting out minors are our best bet for repopulating. We plan on saving as many adults as possible, of course, but we really need people who can have children. From the places we've managed to connect to across the country, we estimate our population is currently at roughly three percent of what it was in 2016, seven years ago, and a large portion of that three percent can't have children. That is...not good." "Three percent. They went lower than I expected." Sky said. "I don't think they realized how...effective this would be. The viruses can be transferred between humans and other animals. The only animals that seemed mostly unaffected are invertebrates, fish, amphibians, opossums, and vultures. We've seen evidence of infection through all branches of Reptilia, birds being included in that. As I said, the only exception to that is vultures. The same goes for Mammalia, except for our single marsupial, the opossum. Vultures are already immune to a lot of viruses and bacteria, so that one's easy to explain. We haven't figured out why opossums are immune. There are a few other species that seem to be bouncing back too, but a lot of wildlife is gone now. We're working on building up food sources at different locations, but we really need a vaccine for at least one of these viruses to get anywhere." "What about an antiviral drug?" Sky asked. What Alex said matched with what he had observed himself while wandering. Fish and frogs were, from his experience, safe to eat wherever there was clean water but harder to get than a can of beans most days. "I'm having even worse luck with that. We don't have many qualified people to do this, or much equipment. I'm not qualified enough to really be the person leading this, and the guy who was in charge before me was even less qualified." Alex said. He let out a heavy sigh. "We spend more of our resources making simple drugs, like aspirin, and other daily essentials, like soap. I'm working constantly, and studying when I'm not working. But I still don't fully understand the life cycle of the Red Madness and I'm completely lost on the Rust." "But I heard that there was a way to survive it, the Red Madness, and that you all had the ability to do that." Sky said. "We do, but it's not a drug and it's not a 'cure' really either." Alan said. "There's a critical point where the worms carrying the virus can die inside the infected patient before either the worms or the virus begin irreparably destroying the body. A person can recover from the initial damage. If the worms die before reproducing, the virus dies with them." "So they were worms that I saw. What species are they?" Sky asked. "I don't know. We haven't been able to identify them. Was there anything about any worms they may have experimented with in your father's notes?" Alex asked. "Not that I recall. He kept summaries of that kind of research more than detailed notes. His most detailed notes were about people and human experiments that weren't related to biological warfare." Sky said. He asked. "What do these worms have to do with anything?" "They carry the virus. That I'm sure of." Alex got up from the table. "You wanted to see a body, right? I have some in the lab, from what we've collected outside to run tests on. Let me take you there." Alan raised his hand. "Hold on. I can see you're excited about using him as a little researcher, but I'm not letting the kid run free just yet. I have some questions of my own before I let the son of Tom Summerfield enter our research area." "What do you want to know?" Sky asked. "What's your goal? What are you planning on doing, Sky?" Alan asked. Sky thought over his answer. "I want to expose everything, and then destroy them." "I'll ask you one more time. Why did you kill that man you were sharing a room with?" Alan asked. Sky balled his fist. "It's personal. I'm not saying anything more than that. I gave you what I have. Let me see the lab." "And what will you do if I don't?" Alan asked. "I'll take the data and leave. I can do research without you." Sky said. "I'm going to do what I'm going to do, and no one's going to get in my way. We can keep sharing information, or not. I don't care." "What do you think, Alan?" Alex asked. Alan sighed. "Very well. Take him to the lab. Eric, make sure you stay with Alex. Take one of the guards with you just in case." "Got it." Eric said. Eric signaled for one of the guards to come with them. He picked up Sky's gun and put it in his pocket. "Well, let's go, kid." Alex said. He put away the camera. Sky packed up his laptop. He followed them out into the hall and down to a part of the building he had never seen before. He saw people through glass working in different labs. Alex stopped at the end of the hall. He pointed to an emergency shower beside it. "Well, get in." Alex said. "I can't have you coming in there covered in blood." Sky stripped down and showered. Alex handed him a towel and clothes to wear. Alex and Eric put on lab coats, goggles, gloves, and face masks. Sky put them on when he was done dressing. The guard stayed outside. Alex prepared one of the bodies they had collected to be examined. Sky glanced over at Eric from time to time, hoping for a chance to pick his pocket and get his gun back. He watched Alex more closely. "What does it look like after a person's survived the Red Madness? Are there any visible marks or behavioral changes?" Sky asked Alex. "Look for yourself. We've both had it. Eric had it twice." Alex said. "Twice? You can get it more than once..." Sky wrote down the information in a notebook. "So, you're able to get it again. Then are there..." "There's several strains, but what Eric was infected with the second time was a modified version of the virus. It was meant to kill humans faster, from the notes I was able to get while I was on the inside, but Eric's body didn't react how they expected." Alex said. "Interesting." Sky said. He looked at Eric. "I don't see anything different about either of you." "There's nothing you can physically see, but you can test if someone's had it before with a blood test. You had one of those done when you came in." Alex said. "When they pricked my finger?" Sky asked. "Yes." Alex said. "We don't need much blood to test if you have it." "Can the test tell the difference between someone with an active infection and someone who's had it in the past?" Sky asked. "Yes, but it requires extra analysis. We only bother with that if the person claims they have had it before and survived. They're still quarantined until the second results come in." Alex said. "We've had infected people claim they were infected in the past to try and get past that. You'll tell all kinds of lies when it's fucking with your brain." "Did they get in?" Sky asked. "No." Eric answered him. "Someone's word isn't good enough to bypass security. A couple of people tried to get out of getting tested at all. No one's allowed in without being tested and cleared, or being quarantined until they are cleared." Sky scribbled everything down in his notebook, nodding along as he listened to them. "How long ago did you both get infected?" "I was infected last year. Eric was first infected six years ago, and again last year. The second time was intentional, an experiment from above that even I wasn't aware of at the time. We're actually working on a vaccine using Eric's blood specifically." "What about the other infection? VC-14-R? The one that rots away the body?" Sky asked. "Nothing. The Rust has a 100 percent mortality rate. No one survives that, and no research we've done into it has gone anywhere. If we had more people, we might have made more progress by now, but since we've been having more luck with the Red Madness, we've put most of our efforts into researching that." Alex said. He let out a heavy sigh. "Currently, our only suggestions for people entering areas where the Rust exists is to wear several layers to protect the body, avoid contact with contaminated individuals, and avoiding unprotected sex even with people not displaying symptoms. Unfortunately, we learned that it's contagious through sex about two days before symptoms appear on the skin." "What's the longest survival rate you've seen in that?" Sky asked. "Nine days was the longest we've seen, but typically the person will die in under a week." Alex said. "An undisturbed corpse will explode after two hours, on average, but can explode from physical contact at any point after death. We've found the best method to stop some of the spreading is to burn the body, whether it's exploded open or not. The black pus around the body can still infect you for up to six weeks after death. It's sad that we can't give those people a proper funeral, but it's the only way. It's the best option for both viruses, actually." "And the Red Madness...you mentioned something about worms and reproduction..." Sky reminded him. Alex cut open the body on the table. He opened up the neck. Sky could tell by its shape that what was laying before them was human. "Honey, can you shine a light right here for me?" Alex said. Eric did as he asked. "Here?" "Yeah. Thank you." Alex said. He glanced over at Sky. "Come look here." Sky looked inside the body. He saw a large, black mass along the spine. The vertebrae were elongated like the body. Alex used a small, metal pair of tweezers to pick up one of the black worms. He placed the worm in a petri dish with warmed blood. Alex then placed the dish under a dissecting microscope. Sky sat down in front of it and adjusted the microscope. Closer up, the worm's body was clearly rounded and the body wasn't pitch black. He could see through it slightly and see its internal organs. The worm swam around the dish, occasionally ramming into the sides of it. Alex cut more into the body. He brought over a piece of muscle tissue cut from the arm and put it in the dish. The worm swam towards it and latched on. It ate at the meat. "We never find much in the bodies when they die on their own. These little bastards eat everything, but they're not what causes most of the symptoms. They carry the virus that does. When someone infected attacks and breaks the skin or has sex with a non-infected person, blood, vaginal fluid, and semen can all been used to carry the eggs of these into another human. They disperse from the infected eggs into the body and make their way up to toward the brain. The eggs can only hatch once they reach the bloodstream. They eat away at the body until the body dies. If the virus wasn't altering the body the way it does, a human infected with these should die much faster, but it takes a full month before the body dies." Alex explained. "How do they reproduce? The worms?" Sky asked. "Sexual reproduction, but I haven't worked out the exact conditions or timing." Alex said. "We do know that it takes around three days before the worms reproduce, but it can happen earlier than that. Since the virus replicates inside the eggs, if worms fail to reproduce after entering a new host, the virus will go with it. As I'm sure you already know, viruses can't replicate on their own. If they can't get in the eggs, that's it for them." "What do they need the human body for if they already have the worms?" Sky asked. "The worms are parasites. They see us as a food supply. The virus infects our bodies to help the worms get food and reproduce, so the virus in turn can use the worms' eggs to replicate. Then they mess with our brains to get us to pass the new worms onto someone else." Alex explained. "Well, that's what we think is happening, anyway." Sky looked away from the microscope and over at the body on the table. This one appeared to have no genitals or anus either. "I examined someone up close before, and I noticed there's no genitals. Do you know why?" "I haven't sorted out exactly why, but that's the virus's doing. Anything external, like the penis or the labia, will deteriorate and fall off while openings like the urethra close up. Even the ear canal may close in the final week." Alex pointed to one of the spongey spots. "This person was female originally. This happens around six to eight days into the infection under normal conditions." "Have you seen anything outside of that?" Sky asked. "An infected person not displaying normal conditions when infected, I mean." "Yes, with Eric. Symptoms took longer to appear and Eric retained control of his mind for far longer than any other known person. The first time, he didn't display day two symptoms until day three, and the virus died in his system in under ten hours. The second time, he was able to survive despite having been infected for well over a month and hadn't passed the initial symptom stages by that point." Alex added. "He could conceal his eye change to a degree. I've never seen that happen with anyone else." Sky was fascinated by this information. He suspected Eric's resistance must have been related to him being Idris Thomas's younger brother, who, along with Sarah Winter, had initially be used in research to create the two viruses. "How do you survive the infection?" "You'll need another person to help you." Alex said. He brought out a big tray. Alex uncovered it to reveal a decapitated head cut open. Sky wondered what Alex was going to show him with that. "This works best on the first or second day, but it can be done up to the third day. The infected patient is strapped down to a bed to prevent them from attacking anyone. They're fed someone else's blood, about two pints initially. It has to be fresh, warm blood. The amount of blood is reduced over the span of twenty-four hours. During that time frame, the person eats and drinks nothing else. Blood must be given orally, but we haven't worked out why yet. After twenty-four hours of this, the virus and worms both die, in about half the patients. It's a little higher of a chance if it's the first day, and lower if it's the third day. If unsuccessful, the virus will die out, but the worms will kill the person within a week even with their breeding cycle being disrupted. If we know it's failed, we offer assisted suicide for the patient. If the patient chooses to wait it out, we'll give them care, but it's...most will eventually choose suicide." "How do you know if the worms died or not?" Sky asked. "If they didn't, they'll be visible in the eyes by then." Alex said. "I wish I knew what they were. I haven't found anything about parasites like these before in humans. I really wish you had research notes on them. That would be so helpful. I'm sure Moone & Wolfe has a way to keep their own people safe from this." "I know they do. My father mentioned they were working on vaccines in his diary. I bet I could get them." Sky said. He was sure the company must have completed them by now if they went through with releasing the viruses. There was no way his father or his aunt would be so careless as to not do so. Alex and Eric having been infected after being in one of their facilities meant that they weren't given one. Sky suspected that must have been reserved only for the most important individuals in the company. "How?" Eric asked. "How will you get in and out? We don't even know where they keep that kind of information." "No, but I have some ideas about which people in the company might. I told you, my father mostly kept records on people and who knows what." Sky said. "What do you have the head out for?" "Oh, I was going to show you something. Look inside." Alex pointed inside the skull. Sky looked. There was very little brain at all inside. "What happened to the brain? Was this person shot?" "No, this is what is left at the end." Alex walked away from the head. He opened up the midsection of the body on the table. "It's the same in here. So little is left. The bones are stretched or warped, and very brittle. Some of it is from the bones changing, some of it is the worms eating at the bone marrow. Both the Red Madness and the Rust, in the end, destroy everything inside you. Even the heart is eaten at before the victim finally dies. Like I said, most people who survive the virus but still have the worms in their body choose suicide over enduring several days of excruciating pain. Some of the patients told me the worst part was that they could see and feel some of them under their skin, eating them alive. That's why I've been working constantly...if I can succeed in making a vaccine for this, at the very least for human use...but I need more help. I only have four assistants other than Eric. The guy who used to head the research here got infected himself and died." "What about the worms?" Sky asked. "Wouldn't they still be around even without the virus?" "If they're primarily being spread because of the virus causing people to attack each other, then the worms will go with it. I haven't seen any case of someone having these worms in them that didn't also have the virus in them. They go hand in hand." Alex said. "You're a smart boy, Sky. I know you're young, but do you want to help me? I need every bit of help I can get." "That's not why I'm out here. I told Alan my goal. For the time being, I can help you, but I will be leaving again eventually once I work out what I'm going to do next. I need to review all the documents Alan gave me. Until I'm done with that, I can help you." Sky said. "That's fine. Any amount of time you can give is more than enough." Alex said. Eric interrupted them. "I know you two sound like you've worked everything out, but I think you're forgetting something, Alex." "What?" Alex asked. "Sky, how old are you?" Eric asked. "I'm twelve." "Right." Eric said. "Per the rules of the Sanctuary, anyone under sixteen has to have a guardian assigned to them." Sky stepped back. "What does that mean? I told you, I'm not following anyone's orders. I'll leave." "It's just one of the rules. It doesn't mean someone's going to be telling you what to do constantly. But someone has to keep an eye out for you, decide if you go to school, sign off on your papers. Stuff like that." Alex explained. "I don't need to go to school. I can read and write." Sky was getting nervous. He wanted his gun back. "I don't need anyone to sign anything for me." "Look, if you're staying here, you have to follow the rules, but it's not like we've got really strict requirements on that. When you were staying with that guy you shot, he was put down as your guardian, you know. That's why you were allowed to be in the same room together." Alex said. He looked over at Eric. "Eric, would you be okay with...?" "It's fine. We need all the help we can get." Eric said. "I don't want to share a room with anyone." Sky slid his hand across the table near a pair of scissors. "You don't have to stay in a room with anyone. Given how big an asset you are, I could convince Alan to let you have your own room. But you have to have at least one adult listed." Alex sighed. "Look, I know you don't want this, but rules are rules." Sky thought it over. "Fine. Which one of you is signing the stupid form?" "We're married, so we'd both sign." Alex said. "I'm not going to make you go to school. All you have to do is follow the rules and help us. You're free to leave whenever you want. I can't hold you here. I'll be your guardian for now, but only a parent can force a child to stay within these walls." "Aren't those the same thing?" Sky asked. "Usually, but within our rules, parents have more say so than a guardian. A guardian is simply appointed, but since they're not family, we'll let children leave if they want. Some of the children we pick up do have family members out there they've been separated from. If they want to search for them outside of here, we don't stop them. We do heavily discourage it though. It's hard for anyone to survive, especially a child by themselves." Alex explained. Sky was somewhat relieved to hear that information. "Then no one here can stop me from leaving. My parents are dead." "Well, not quite. If you're adopted by someone, those people would become your parents." Eric added. "Wait, what? No one...can do that without me agreeing to it, right?" Eric and Alex exchanged looks. Eric continued. "Haha, well, there's rules about that too. Children under thirteen don't get a say in if an adult adopts them, but only adults who were their guardian or a blood relative may adopt them. Children who are thirteen and older are allowed to reject their guardian's wishes for adoption. How old are you, Sky?" "Twelve." Sky narrowed his eyes. "And you will not be adopting me." "You don't need to worry about that. We weren't planning on it. This arrangement is solely so we can work together." Alex said. "Good. Now, when do I get to research in here?" Sky asked. "Tomorrow morning. We'll sign the papers tonight and get you a new room." Alex said. From that day, Sky became one of Alex's assistants. He worked directly under Alex during the day, and spent the evenings reading through the files Alan gave him. He learned more about VC-15-RM, the virus they all called the Red Madness. Initially, only the iris turned red before the rest of the eye did the same. Among teens and adults infected, sex was as common as biting as the primary method used to infect another person, while for children the primary methods were biting and clawing. Pupil dilation, like what he saw on his first day on this side, was only seen in patients in the fourth week. The longer a person was infected, the more bloated with blood they became, in part from drinking it from other victims. Once the patient became aggressive to the point of killing victims, the infected individual may eat parts of the victims, passing it along for the worms to feast on inside the body. The skin thinned from both changing shape and from gradually filling up with blood. If bones were consumed by the infected individual, the bones could sometimes rip open the skin and kill the infected person sooner than four weeks in. Alan's researchers classified five types of human forms. Diagrams of them were carefully sketched out with descriptions. The long form he first encountered was given the nickname "demons". They all had unhinged jaws and elongated limbs. Bones were extended, rather than extra bones being grown. They primarily moved by running and lunging on all fours, but stood hunched over on two legs when examining their surroundings for potential victims. The next type was called "dogs". They looked like oddly proportioned, hairless dogs; having a very canine-like snout, long ears, and a wiry tail covered in thin skin. Their skin turned a dark reddish-gray and had thicker skin than other types of human forms. These were somewhat less aggressive. Dogs were known to retain more intelligence than other forms later into the month and would stalk victims for longer than other types when they were aggressive. The ones he saw dragging themselves on the ground were called "ghouls". Ghouls were "demon" forms that lost their legs early in the month. The lower half where the legs used to be and the abdomen would be completely spongy, and the arms would be longer than the demon forms. This form was relatively fast on the ground, and faster if they got into a tree or found anything else to climb on. The lean ones were called "runners", as that was primarily what they did. These forms had an upright posture and ran on two legs rather than four, having the most human-like appearance of the types. Like the dogs, they had a long, hairless tail as well, but it was thicker and seemed to be used for controlling direction while running. The head of the runner was elongated and had sharp teeth, but didn't fully unhinge. The last type was known as "water dogs". Sky had never encountered these himself, or at least, not that he was aware of. These remained largely stationary in bodies of water, hunched over and often covered in plants or anything else that fell in the water. Like the "dogs" and "runners", they had a tail, but this tail was used like another arm and had a hand-like appendage on the end of the tail. These types would wait in the water and scream or make a chirping noise to attract the attention of someone nearby before wrapping its tail around an arm or leg and dragging them in. A note near the end of that type's information stated: "As of recently, most only chirp. We suspect this is because more people run now when they hear screaming instead of investigating. The chirp is softer than it used to be, enough to get the attention of someone passing by, but not loud enough to distinguish the source of the noise. The recommended method for working near water sources and hearing anything strange is to glance to the side, but not turn the head and slowly move away if you do not see anything. Water dogs only attack if the person looks in their direction. If you are facing the water already, quickly step backwards away from the water. They will not leave the water more than a foot to come after you." Three out of five forms had tails. Sky found that odd at first, but with all the other strange changes to the body, he wondered if some of those changes inadvertently caused the tail growth. Humans were primates, he thought, and all mammals have a tail during development for some duration of time. Humans, like all great apes, simply lost them really early on, long before birth. He had read of cases where human infants sometimes were born with very tiny tails. But why would a tail develop after being infected, Sky wondered. All other animals in the notes he read through appeared to have only a single form as well, but humans had five. What could be the reason? Nothing in what he read gave him any clues. Other animals were given similarly detailed descriptions. The size a crow changed to disturbed him. He hadn't encountered anything that enormous yet. The information on alligators was equally disturbing. Archosaurs in general, he read in the notes, reached extreme sizes after being infected that no other animals did, but the reason why was unknown. "Unknown" was listed as the explanation for a lot of things. The other reptiles didn't undergo such dramatic growths after infection. Snakes and lizards only increased slightly in size, and turtles didn't change size at all, only changing shape. Sky read next on the animal species growing in population. Felines and canines faired better than most other animals at surviving. It appeared some cats and dogs were immune, but how many was unclear. Rodents were beginning to thrive too, especially mice and rats. Deer were returning, but only albino and melanistic deer. He finally learned what the metal barrier was too. According to those there when it was placed down, it was dropped in sections overnight in early June 2016 by unmarked helicopters and military planes. People recalled hearing the pieces drop down as early as one in the morning, and the barrier went through houses and other buildings. Hundreds of bodies had been found underneath the dropped pieces. There were multiple barriers across the country, and a larger outer one blocking the border to Mexico and to Canada, as well as both coasts. The outer barrier and small, inner barriers were regularly dusted, leaving behind black clouds. The black particles tested at the borders were positive for VC-14-R, the Rust. The outer border had spikes at all sides and went up forty feet. While attempts were made to dig under it, the area was so contaminated compared to the smaller barriers that no one could stay near it for long without getting sick. The other barriers, like the small one he crossed over, marked the end of one contamination zone and the beginning of another. VC-14-R never existed in the same location as VC-15-RM. Those infected with the Rust would refuse to cross the barriers, claiming that being near it made them feel dread, terror, or paranoia. Those infected with the Red Madness, including those who had passed the point of losing all control of themselves, likewise, refused to go near the barriers. No one knew why. The more he read, the more frustrated he became. No one out here knew the why's or how's about much of anything. Sky buried his frustrations by working longer hours in the lab with Alex. Months passed. Sky didn't get many chances to talk to Alan Winter. He was always busy with something. Sky spent most of his time around Alex. He saw no reason to socialize with anyone at the Sanctuary. Every friendly wave and 'hello' was a trap in his mind. When he wasn't working, he took his food from the cafeteria and ate in his room. Aside from a few rooms, none of the rooms had their own bathroom. He showered in the closest public shower at hours when few would be there, and kept his distance from anyone who was. The only person he was somewhat comfortable around was Alex, and only because Alex was so focused on research. He didn't trust Alex's husband, Eric, at all. Though he wanted to ask him questions about Idris and Sarah, he couldn't get himself to bring up the topic. Being around Eric irritated him, but he couldn't pinpoint why. Eric annoyed him most whenever he interrupted a conversation Sky was having with Alex to talk to Alex about something else. Eric didn't notice Sky's annoyance with him, and was always friendly with Sky. Eric's kindness made Sky trust him even less. One day, when the other researchers were on break, Alex and Sky worked through lunch. Alex turned a radio on to drown out some of the silence. The music sounded familiar to Sky, but he couldn't place why. When the song ended, the same woman who had been singing announced the weather. Sky asked Alex. "You have radio here?" "Yes." Alex said. "Who was that singing just now? She sounded familiar to me." Sky said. Alex looked over at the radio. "That was Kathy Beaumont. She used to be the lead singer of Hounding Rain. That's probably what you're thinking of." A chill went down Sky's spine. He recognized the band's name. She was the woman his mother reacted to on TV, the one who went by 'Basset'. That woman had to have known his mother once, he was certain. "She's still alive?!" "Yes. She lives here. Did you want to meet her?" Alex asked. "I can take you to see her later." "Yes, I have some things I want to ask her." Sky said. His heart raced. He never thought he would ever meet that woman. As promised, Alex brought Sky to see Kathy after work. Kathy was in a small room playing the piano by herself. She looked a little older than when he last saw her. Half her hair had gone gray, and her eyes carried a heavier sadness than before. A silver basset hound on a long chain hung from her neck. Kathy stopped playing when she noticed them there. "Hello, Alex. Who's this?" Kathy said. "I don't know if Alan told you about him or not, but this is Sky Summerfield. He's Tom Summerfield's son, and he's been helping us with research right now. He wanted to see you." Alex said. He pushed Sky forward a little. "Go on." "And what does Tom Summerfield's son want with me?" Kathy stayed seated in front of her piano. Alex decided to give them some privacy. He didn't know why Sky wanted to see her, but he sensed Sky wanted to talk to her alone. He left. Sky sat down beside Kathy in front of the piano. "I don't care about what my father wanted." He felt over the keys. "I wanted to know...if you knew my mom." "Who is your mom?" Kathy asked. "My mom's name was Pamela, but dad always made her go by Pixie. Sometimes, when she remembered things she wasn't supposed to, she called herself Pam." Sky let his fingers press down on the keys. "That happened a lot when she listened to music. She'd remember things. It happened when she listened to your music." Kathy went quiet. She put her hands to her mouth and held back tears. Kathy blinked several times to push the tears back. She swallowed hard. "I'm sure I knew her once, a long, long time ago." "The mom I knew wasn't really her real self. My father altered her memories. I read it in his diary, that he did that and he used to stalk her before he kidnapped her. But sometimes I knew her, when it faded away a little and she remembered something real. I want to know who my mom really was. What kind of person was she?" Sky played with the keys, trying to sort out the sounds and replicate something he only vaguely remembered. "She was a headstrong woman, smart, and didn't take shit from anyone. She'd stay up till dawn telling me about different research papers she ran across one night, then the next night she'd show me all the poems she wrote that week. I'd make a melody for them while we sang along." Kathy said. A little light shined in her eyes, but it did not dull the sadness. "I used to beg her to join us up on stage, but she always had her lab coat half on." "Sometimes, Mom would sing for me when my father wasn't in the room." Sky kept at it with the keys. He was getting closer. "Was it only the three of you?" Kathy asked. "No, we were four." Sky said. "I had an older sister, Crystal. My father didn't like her much. She never studied like he wanted her to or cared about stroking his ego. Following his demands was all I ever did, but I was little then and she was almost an adult." Kathy asked, in a quiet voice. "What is that number at now?" "One." Sky said. The word almost caught in his throat. "They all died the same day. First, my sister died. She had what you all call the Rust, and it ate her away. Mom wanted to hold her when she died, and she and my father were both infected right after that. Mom didn't care. She wanted to be with my sister, some place where my father wouldn't be there. But my father was always bitter. He couldn't allow anyone to decide his death for him, or let anyone go unpunished for making him choose to do anything. He shot my mom, gave out one last demand at me, then shot himself." The words came out, and the images of that day came with them, but not quite how they happened. He recalled the scent of the room and his father's voice. He couldn't remember what he actually said back to his father that day, but he remembered the window was red and he was far away. He felt far away right then. His hands slipped away from the keys. Kathy put her arm around him, but he didn't feel it. His body didn't seem real. "I'm sorry, little one. It's not your fault that happened." Kathy said. "I know." Sky picked up the scent of Kathy's clothes. Faintly, he smelled something floral. It reminded him of his mother, when she would hold him, and of the fields his sister always disappeared through in the morning light. "Mom and Crystal were always sad. I didn't know it then, but I think I was too. Right before she died, Mom told him 'I'm free of you'. I think she remembered herself then. I think she died as herself." "I think you're right." Kathy held him closer. "She's with your sister now, somewhere he isn't. I know that without a doubt." "When I was home...everything was happy when my father wasn't home...when it was only Crystal or my mom and me, or when I was by myself. But there was something awful about it too, this feeling that something bad could happen at any time. When I think about home, I get nostalgic and miss it, but it shows up in all my nightmares." Sky wanted to stop talking, but the words kept coming out. He didn't feel in control of himself at all anymore. He only saw images of other places around him, suffocating the picture before him of himself and Kathy. He saw the living room bathed in blinding sunlight, his bedroom just the same as it was in the early mornings with his sister's back to him in the window running halfway across the field, the lingering scent of coffee made and drunk before he got out of bed, the way the cracks in the ceiling made shapes out of shadow and sunlight--all of it came forward to the present, unreal and too real, overpowering everything and sickening. Where the happiness should have been in all those quiet spaces surrounding him, he felt that same feeling from back then, the negative sensation always creeping up his spine. Something bad was sure to happen. If he turned around, his father was surely standing there. If he wasn't quiet enough, if he didn't blend in with those shadows dancing on the ceiling and fade away from his father's rage, if he didn't drown out his mother's cries in the kitchen, if he didn't look away from his sister's trembling shoulders--in any moment, anywhere, at any time, surely, he'd be there even now. He'd rise up, as if his bones were never bleached by the sun and his skull never broken open in a hundred tiny pieces all scattered underneath the window, standing there like it was any ordinary morning, expecting all eyes on him and only him as he opened his mouth to give out the daily poison to everyone in the room. They weren't there, as they couldn't be, but he felt his sister and his mother's fear on his skin. Kathy pulled away from Sky. The notes from the piano merged with the sounds of summer mornings from long ago. He heard her humming the beginning of something familiar. His gaze shifted from the surreal nightmare closing in around him to the way her fingers moved across the keys, hitting all the notes he was searching for. "You're making rain, and you're just in reach, when you and sleep escape me..." Kathy sang. Sky's eyes widened. "How did you know what I was trying to play?" Kathy continued to play. "Because Pam always asked me to cover this song. Kate Bush, 'Cloudbusting'." "Did my mom like that singer?" Sky asked. More and more the half over-remembered ghosts hovering around him floated away from him and he was sitting closer to himself. "She did." Kathy said. "My dad did too. He heard about her when my mom told him some lady did a song about Wuthering Heights. He was obsessed with that book. That's why he named me Katherine, but spelled with a K because he thought it would throw my mom off about why he did it. But she knew. She always knew when he lied." "Where are your parents now?" Sky asked. "Your father took them away from me, like he did with everything." Kathy hummed along with the notes she played. "He took my father away in front of me, and told me later what he did with him. My mother, he had someone run her car off a cliff while she was driving home from a performance. I knew, and my grandmother knew, but no one believed us. That was the kind of power your father and your grandfather had. That's the power your aunt has now." "I'm sorry. He took everything from me too." Sky said. He wasn't quite himself again, but he was closer now. He could feel himself shivering in spite of not quite being connected to his body. "Was your father nice?" "He was, but he wasn't a completely good man either. For a long time, he held strange beliefs. It took me years to sort through, after he was gone, what was normal and what was Moone & Wolfe coming through. He hated himself and he was paranoid before he decided to leave the company. He was always a paranoid man, but he did his best to be a good father and a good husband. He bought me my first songbook when I was five, and every album I ever wanted. Sometimes, he left work early so I could go to Mom's shows with him. Perfect people don't exist. You'll never find that." Kathy sang a few lines from the chorus for Sky. "Could you tell me more about your parents?" Sky asked. "How did you know what was normal and what was the company brainwashing? I always think I know, but I really don't." "You'll have to be around other people. Listen to them, their experiences and see their norms. You have to reshape yourself. You may not agree with what the average person does and what Moone & Wolfe and the Summerfield family want. Test yourself and your beliefs. You're Sky Summerfield, but who is that really?" Kathy said to him. Sky stared at his face reflected in the piano. "I don't know. I don't think I'm anyone at all." "What do you want to do?" She asked. "Do you want revenge?" "I think..." Sky said. "I have to...do something. My father caused this. I'm his son. I have to..." "Do you?" Kathy asked. "Is there anything you want that isn't about your father?" Sky thought about it. He sifted through his pockets and pulled out a photo. Sarah's memory, the rainstorm in July. He felt over the cold photograph. "There is one thing...I want to see this in person." Kathy glanced over at the photograph. "Do you know where that is?" "Yes, but I don't want to see it like this until I've exposed everything. I want the truth to be out there before I see this, and I want it to rain like I've never seen it rain before." Sky said. "Because...I don't want to think about him when I see it." "Are you sure that's what you want? You may not succeed, and if you do, that place may not exist anymore." Kathy said. Sky stared at the photo. "No, it definitely will. It will be there when nothing else is." "Well, if you say so, then I suppose it will be." Kathy said. She finished the song. "But don't get too caught up in your father's shadow. I spoke for years about the truth, to avenge the sanitized version of my father in my happiest memories, and I didn't get anywhere. All his secrets he gave me, I have them, but I can't do anything with them." "Could you tell me?" Sky asked. "I know you think it's pointless, but maybe it's something that will take a long time. Maybe one person's lifetime isn't enough time to do it all in. You've done this for decades. I'm young. Let me keep all of the secrets." "Are you sure you want that kind of burden? You are young. You can be anything." She said. "No." Sky shook his head. "No one can be anything anymore. Not while things are like this. Alex can't be anything other than what he's stuck doing. Alan can't either. For anyone to be able to be anything they want, someone has to make that possible. And maybe I won't get to see it, but maybe I can be a step on the way there with you." Kathy looked at him with weary eyes. Her hands slipped from the keys and silence filled the room. She reached inside her coat's left pocket and pulled out a pouch. "It's in here." Sky examined the pouch. It was purple with golden stars, suns, and moons printed on. Near the top, "KB" and a small basset hound were embroidered in orange-gold thread. Sky took the pouch out of her hand and opened it. Inside were a deck of tarot cards. The backs of the cards were identical to the ones on the deck his mother had. Sky turned the cards over. The pictures were faded. Some cards were bent near the corners. Words were scribbled across every one of them. The major arcana had words written on the front and back. His eyes lingered on the Moon and the words written at the bottom of the card. In his mother's handwriting it read: "You're making rain and you're just in reach when you and sleep escape me" It was the same words in the song. He recognized the handwriting. Sky looked up at Kathy. "Yes, your mother wrote that." Kathy said. "I found that card propped up on the piano the day she disappeared. I knew then I'd never see her again. I told her about my secrets back then, about how my father used to write his secrets on cards in coded messages. That's why she left it like that, because he did the same just before they took him away." "Which one was his?" Sky asked. Kathy pulled the Hanged Man from the deck. The words written at the bottom of the card were lyrics from the same song. It read, "so I bury it and forget". Kathy held the card with both hands. "He was telling me to give up and not look any deeper, but I was young and foolish. At every chance I got, I found a way to get in front of cameras, on the radio, in front of a crowd--and I yelled out the truth. Your father once told me, 'Go on and howl, howl all night long, bitch, but no one will believe a dog when a wolf is near'. He was right, no one believed me, but he was no wolf either." "Why this song?" Sky asked. "Both these lines are from the same song." "Pam chose that song because my dad chose it first, to tell me what had happened to her. My dad picked that song because he knew I'd understand the lyrics meant he wasn't returning." Kathy spread out some of the cards across the keys. She picked up the Emperor. On the card were written the words "The old oak's roots extend across the seas", "Not Alice, at the golden afternoon", various other phrases he didn't grasp the meaning of, and a poem. Sky read over it: "Gather water in the field, in the deep earth, in July, in the dark of night when the moon is high, and to the north, where the lights dance Drink it now against the branches broken by the sea, black water, poisoned sweetly by a child's laughter drink in her words, drink in her power Once golden, the old crowns adorned with rowan and holly, by the lion's shield we scattered the berries, red, in the field and declared ourselves little kings Drink up the words, red and black, let them spill from your lips to the earth and wait, under the night sky, for the birth again and again, join hands and bow Drink the red against the black, bathe in the storm that comes when the moon and the lights vanish, then, if you are lucky, the crown is yours" Sky looked up at Kathy. "What does all of that mean?" "My father used the Emperor card to write notes about the Summerfield and Blackwell family. A long time ago, they were one. This was a poem written by my father, mocking the way the families do one of their ceremonies. The two families and the families that work for them are bound together by a cult. Your aunt is currently one of the heads of that cult. Moone & Wolfe, the company, is an extension of that cult. They see themselves at the top of this hierarchy, and everyone else is meant to be their subjects. They've always believed they could determine who was of 'value' and who wasn't." She said. Kathy glanced over at the window. "Now, they've succeeded in controlling the government, and everything else with it." "I've never heard of the Blackwell family." Sky said. "They're separate from the company, but I don't know where they are now. We lost contact with the rest of the world, and most of the Blackwells left America before 2016. They knew what was coming. They knew they lost here and ran away." Kathy put the card back down. "But my father placed them together on the same card for a reason. No one connected to that cult is inherently good. I have a lot to tell you about everything. Alan's focused on collecting research notes, but he doesn't really understand their motives." "What do they want to do?" Sky asked. Kathy picked up the Strength card. Another poem was written on the card along with the words "the oath of twenty". Sky read over the poem written across the side of the card the lion was primarily on. "O, goddess, divine in right and blood, our oath to you we've sealed in our own across twenty, and forever, twenty bound in the field, we come, waiting for your birth O, goddess of the field and storms, giver of life, of power, of might bless us again with the moon's light and the rain's howling tears Bless us with your strength, your words lead us through your roots to our throne Crown us, in your glory, let us own the world beneath our feet, your kingdom We gift you, maiden of the storm, with red and black--we, in love, adorn the field, the place where you were born dress us now in black and gold" Sky looked up at Kathy, unsure what he was supposed to get out of what he had read. "What does this mean?" "What you must know about the cult is that they are first and foremost, a cult, not simply a crazed group of people running a company. Their beliefs are inherently religious in nature." Kathy said. She handed the card over for Sky to hold. "Long ago, according to the legend the families tell, in a place called Blackwell, a small farming and mining town, strange happenings started. All the crops died, the water was poisoned, and a spectral woman came to them demanding blood in exchange for prosperity. The leader of the town and owner of most of the land, Leon Blackwell, demanded a sacrifice from every family in the town--a child sacrifice. Twenty families, including the Blackwells, killed one of their own children to appease the spectre. The families who did not were thrown out, or some say they were all found dead. One child rose from the dead, Delilah Blackwell, and claimed the spirit woman now spoke through her." "Is this a ghost story? I don't understand. I've seen the name Delilah in my father's notes before, but it was the name for someone else currently alive." Sky said. His father was an atheist. He couldn't be part of some strange religious cult. That didn't make any sense. His father would ridicule him for believing something so absurd. "The story is likely made up, though some parts are probably true. There's more." Kathy said. She played an instrumental song while she told the story. "Delilah gave orders to everyone in town. The waters cleared up and the crops came back. Everything was plentiful, and the twenty families swore loyalty to the ghostly woman, who had chosen Delilah Blackwell as her vessel. Because Delilah was chosen, the Blackwell family was regarded as the most important of the twenty families. Supposedly, upon her deathbed, Delilah claimed she would return again. The families stayed together, seeing themselves as chosen by this spirit, and kept watch for when she would return. Every so often, they choose a girl to claim is Delilah. They attribute meaningless things to her. Delilah must have dark hair and dark eyes, she must be white, she must be female, and she must summon the rain. Once they choose a girl who is Delilah, she is supposed to bless them with more power each time she returns. Currently, the Delilah in your father's notes, Heather Smith, is the one they think is the chosen vessel." Sky blinked. This was too absurd to accept. "This can't be right. All of my father's teaching materials were about logic, rationality, and productivity. This is superstitious nonsense." "One doesn't have to believe in something to use it to gain power for themselves." Kathy said. "The poem on that card is recited at the choosing of Delilah, when another twenty are sacrificed by those who've remained tied to the twenty families." "They...do they do a human sacrifice?" Sky shuddered at the thought. "Twenty children...Each time?!" "Yes. Twenty children. Some of the old families have died out since then, so now some families are expected to give more than one. They do it with poison. Any child that stands back up while it rains is deemed Delilah. Heather Smith didn't actually accomplish this, but they tell people she did. They've used the excuse that the Blackwells won't participate in the ritual with them anymore, so she showed herself to the Summerfields on her own. But this isn't true either. The Blackwells, before they left, did come to meet with the Summerfields and the other families once every ten years to search for Delilah. No girl has proven to be the one in decades." Kathy hummed a tune. "In decades...so does that mean girls were confirmed before?" Sky asked. "Yes, quite a few girls. My dad discovered in old records that if a girl wasn't chosen after a while, they would give less poison to one of the children if it looked like it might rain that day." Kathy said. "When did they do this?" "Summer. It's always July 7th." Kathy said. "There's good odds it might rain in July, but if they knew it might not rain, old records say they would postpone it to the following year by claiming a sign was given. They've been cheating for a long time. The problem is something kept going wrong the last batch of sacrifices. No girl stood up, and the rain never came down. Bad luck, I suppose. That's why they went ahead and claimed Heather is the one. But she's just one of their test subjects. Apparently, any girl they could manipulate would do." "What happened with the Summerfields and Blackwells? Why did the family split apart?" Sky asked. "Internal power struggle, nothing more. To keep up the illusion of magic about Delilah, parts of the family became obsessed with why Delilah Blackwell was chosen. Some argued there was already magic in her blood from her father, Leon Blackwell, and others argued it was from her mother, Primrose, who's maiden name was Summerfield. Really, this was about two brothers fighting over who got to be in charge of the family, and the newly formed company, Moone & Wolfe Corp. The Summerfield side kept the company, and the Blackwells founded a new company, Aurora, to compete with them for power. No one at the top cares about magic or Delilah, except in 'possessing' the girl who is seen as being Delilah. Delilah is their 'savior'. She's an illusion, a puppet whose words are fed to her by whoever happens to own the company claiming to have her. In a way, you could say Delilah is currently Edith Summerfield. Before her, your father was Delilah, and before him, your grandfather, Alexander, was Delilah. The only people who believe in Delilah are their pawns, the subjects they've brainwashed or reprogrammed into following them." All of that sounded more like what Sky expected out of his father. His father would never believe something so ridiculous as a reincarnating supernatural being. "What do you think really happened at that Blackwell town?" Kathy gathered her thoughts. She said. "I think something poisoned the land, and the people got spooked by it. Leon Blackwell used that as an opportunity to seize more control. You see, after the sacrifice, all the townspeople who were killed or thrown out had their land seized by the Blackwell family. The other nineteen families who participated in the sacrifice willingly handed their land over to the Blackwells. In less than a week, Leon Blackwell came to own everything around him and had a child he could use to take anything else he wanted out of those families. The original Delilah is Leon Blackwell. As for the rain, it was the beginning of July. There's nothing strange about a rainstorm in July. I doubt he poisoned Delilah Blackwell at all. Some of the other families saw through the nonsense then. Five of the twenty families sacrificed the child of a slave, counting their slaves' children as their 'family' to avoid giving up one of their own. That's how I am connected. Because slave blood was given and counted as part of the family, all the slaves of the Beaumont family, the Devin family, the Morris family, the Lowell family, and Lobo family were counted as part of the pact. Of course, we were excluded from the start as ever being part of whose family Delilah can be born into. She must be white. How convenient." "Heather Smith, I read that she was a very unstable person because of the experiments done on her. Why not choose someone more stable, like my aunt?" Sky asked. "Your aunt doesn't fit the description. Her hair is wrong." Kathy said. "Heather was chosen because they keep her mind numb at all times. She's unstable, but easy to control. They parade her around for the people on the inside as their little savior. She distracts them from what's happening. She's sweet and pretty, and everyone from above tells them she's perfect. Thanks to your grandfather's and your father's research, they've stopped her from aging too. They may be able to hold onto their little Delilah for far longer than before. A puppet, unaging, free to be passed down to whoever takes over from the last person...with the Blackwells shut out, they have no one to challenge that either. But knowing your aunt, I'm sure she has a back-up 'Delilah' in the works as well." Sky paid close attention to everything Kathy said. He needed to record all of it later. He remembered something. "My father mentioned in his diary that he thought my aunt had another child created in secret from Heather Smith and her favorite employee at the time, but my father couldn't prove it. If she exists, she was probably born three years after me." "Heh. So even after splitting, the siblings couldn't cooperate with each other." Kathy laughed under her breath. "Well, then this girl must have dark hair and dark eyes, but...if her favorite employee is who I think it is, her back-up Delilah won't be quite as racially pure as they would want. But I'm sure she would pass enough." "Who is the father?" Sky asked. "I used to be in contact with him. He was a triple agent. Your father and your aunt both loved him, as did the head of Aurora. He didn't care about any of them, but he sided with Aurora to keep his family safe." Kathy said. "He's not here now. But the man you'll need to look for in documents is Jake Corbin." "Jake Corbin." Sky repeated the name. He had heard it before, but he couldn't remember off the top of his head anything about the man. "Do you know why they became obsessed with the things they did? Why do they care about productivity and how people look?" "Classifying people into 'good' and 'bad' is a tool that can be used to gain power. When those things are inherent to the person, it's even easier. You can automatically label someone as an enemy or lesser without them having to do anything, and likewise, you can deem yourself superior without actually doing anything impressive. Once someone's been given that superiority, they will cling to it. To let it go would require that person to admit they didn't do anything special to get the things they were handed for being 'extraordinary'. For the people who already know it's an illusion, they don't care. They just wanted to keep power. For those who came to base their identity off of superficial traits, that realization may be too painful to face. Being overly productive gives the illusion of goodness as well, but the real reason is to keep people too tired to think. They assign people more work after they finish work, and they're required to do after work activities on their single off day every week. Their work schedule requires most people on the inside to only get five hours of sleep instead of eight. All of this is on purpose. Having given them something to cling to, in Delilah and in their 'chosen' status, and having kept them constantly tired and working, they have no time nor desire to see what's actually being done to them." Kathy played louder on her piano. She sang a few lines from a song Sky didn't know. "It's illusion after illusion. No one at the top of their organization cares about anything, but those beneath them drink up every bit of brainwashing." "What about the people who used to run the government? All the trucks and helicopters I've seen have federal logos on them." Kathy laughed. "Money. It doesn't take much money to do that. The others they used their brainwashing tactics on. You have three types of people in there now--those who know it's all a lie, those who are part of the cult and believe every bit of it, and those who had their memories altered to make them part of the cult. The ones who know aren't the ones working every day. They sip champagne and enjoy how much love and devotion they receive." Sky balled his fist. Every thing Kathy told him made him sick. For a moment, he wondered if the world would be better off without humans. "We could be here for days talking about them. I'll tell you, piece by piece, but didn't you come here to hear about your mother?" Kathy asked. Sky's mood shifted. "Yes...Mom...how did you meet my mom, anyway?" "I met her at a club I was performing at." Kathy said. She grinned widely as she played. "Your mother was nearly up at the stage. She was watching me the whole time. I had a drink with her after my performance, then she came home with me and never really left until your father showed up." Sky didn't understand. "You went home together? What for?" Kathy laughed. "Well, you are young, aren't you? How old are you, Sky?" "I'm twelve." He said. "I suppose you're old enough to know about this." Kathy said. "Your mother was my girlfriend." Sky's eyes widened. "What?" "Your mother was a lesbian." Kathy stated. "She had no interest in dating men. Your father must have had to alter her mind a lot to get her to repress that part of herself." "I..." Sky's stomach turned. He thought about things he never considered. "Why would my father marry a lesbian? He hated gay people." "Oh, I don't think he cared about anything related to her beyond using her brain for research and, given that he had two kids with her, her womb for children." Kathy said. "I don't know what you know about him or the company, but sex outside of reproduction is seen as unproductive and wrong. He probably saw that as something in her that was 'broken' and best ignored." Sky felt sick. He didn't think about things like that often. He didn't understand that part of adult life very well anyway, but he used to tell himself when he was younger that despite how they acted around each other, surely his parents had some degree of love for one another. Once he learned his mother's memories were altered to make her stay with his father, he still assumed she at least thought she loved him. What really went on in her head, he wondered. His father had no qualms against ranting on about homosexuality in front of the rest of the family. Useless, he used that word a lot. Sex was to make children, and children should only be made if they were made to the right parents. Sky wasn't sure what to think about that sort of thing. He was a child. It wasn't like he knew what it was like to have sex. His parents, he was certain, probably didn't have sex outside of when he and Crystal were conceived, and he only presumed for the former as his father never mentioned anything related to Sky's birth. He had plenty to complain about with Crystal's birth however. His father made a point in saying that was the only reason to do that, because the act itself was awful. His only other experiences related to sex were seeing what happened between Crystal and her boyfriend, Joe's girlfriend trying to infect Joe, and when Joe made a pass at him. At least, he thought that's what Joe was suggesting. Thinking about ever having sex at all made him feel ill. "Then...I shouldn't exist and my mom was supposed to be with you." Sky said. Kathy patted him on the head. "Don't say that. The way you were born wasn't a happy situation, but none of that is your fault. You're here, and you don't have to continue the cycle of pain your father was part of." Sky hugged her. He didn't know why entirely, but some part of him wanted someone to hold him back. He buried his face against her. "I wish...I wish I'd killed him myself before he killed..." "Shhh..." She hugged him back. "He's gone now." "No, he's not. He's everything, in everything around me." Sky cried. "Everywhere I go...everywhere, he's there, because he did this. Nobody has a place to be safe, nobody has anything because of him. And I'm..." "Sky, it's going to be alright." "How? Everything's destroyed!" "For now." Kathy brushed away his tears. "But we're not all dead yet. It may take a few generations, but we can rebuild. So long as we're alive, we can work to fix things. You said earlier some things may take more than one life. That's true. For someone else's children, years after you and I are gone, would you fight for their future?" Sky wiped the rest of his face off. He nodded. "Then, let's make it happen. Do what you think is right, help others, and together, we can all move towards that future. For the children of the future, who we may never know. Let that be our legacy, rather than we let ourselves fall to despair and fade away." Kathy smiled at him. She put the cards away and played another song. "Sing with me." "How will singing help people?" Sky asked. "Oh, singing always helps." Kathy said. "Music is like rain, it washes away everything." "But I don't really know any songs." "I'll sing a simple tune. Listen to the words of the chorus. That part will repeat. Sing that part with me, hum until you know the words." "Okay." Sky listened to Kathy. Her voice made him forget about the things they talked about. It was a strange feeling for him. He was always focused on remembering everything he heard to store it away for later. Right then, he only paid attention to the lines in the song and nothing else. He started humming. Humming turned to quiet singing, then his voice matched the volume of Kathy's. As they sang, it rained outside. The rain started as a drizzle and quickly became a thunderstorm. When the song ended, it softened to a light rain. "Uh oh, Delilah might be here." Kathy joked. "Do you think we summoned her?" Sky laughed with her. "It is July 7th." She said. "Is it?" Sky had lost track of time again. "Then, I'm not twelve anymore." "Oh, did your birthday pass?" "My birthday is today." Sky said. "I forgot about it." "Happy birthday, Sky." Kathy reached in her pocket. She handed him a candy bar. "Here. I can't get you a cake, but how about some candy?" Sky took the candy. He ate a piece of it. "Thank you. Where did you get this?" "Sometimes Alan gives everyone little treats like that. Sweets aren't a priority. They're for special occasions." "Are you sure you want to give me this?" He asked. "It's alright. Stuff like that is more for kids anyway. Enjoy." Kathy said. Sky ate the candy. "Do you like rain?" "Hmm? I do think a nice summer storm is peaceful to watch. What about you?" She asked. "I think I do." Sky said. "I haven't thought about it much. I haven't thought about much of anything but surviving and recording." "You should rest from that for a while." Kathy said. "Tell Alan it's your birthday. He'll give you some cookies." "It's fine. This was enough." Sky shook his head. He watched the rain through the window. "My mom always told me she loved rain, even when she was herself. That's why she made my middle name Rain. Father didn't like it, but it sounded plain enough. He only cared about our first names." "That's a pretty name." Kathy said. "Kathy, would it be okay if I came here sometimes...not to talk about my father and the company, but...to talk about other stuff." Sky finished the candy bar. He let the wrapper dangle from his hand. "If you want. I'm usually in here. I work the radio. A lot of people on the outside around here can pick up this station. I hope it gives some people a little comfort who might be out there all alone." Kathy said. "Can you show me how to pick up this station?" Sky asked. "Of course. We should get you a radio for when you go back out there." Kathy said. "But right now, please, rest." Sky nodded. He watched the rain with Kathy until late into the night. Sky accidentally fell asleep against her. In the morning, he woke up in his room. He found an envelope on the bed. Sky opened it. Inside was a note and a heart-shaped locket. The note read: 'Your mother gave me this a long time ago. I want you to have it'. Sky assumed it was from Kathy. He opened the locket. There was a picture of his mother and Kathy in it. His mother was smiling. She was wearing brightly colored clothes. Kathy was doing a silly pose beside her, with their faces pressed against each other. In the photo, they were both much younger. There was no gray on either of them, nor any wrinkles. Their eyes were full of light. He kept his back to the door and quickly wiped away the tears. Sky put the necklace with the photograph in his bag. Before heading to the lab, he showered. The conversation about his parents from yesterday made him more anxious than usual about his body. He avoided looking at himself in the full-length mirror near the front, especially below the waist. He went to work after his shower, skipping breakfast. Eric greeted him right away. "Hey Sky! I heard your birthday was yesterday. Why didn't you tell us?" "I forgot about..." Sky went quiet. His voice sounded strange. "Is something wrong?" Eric asked. "I..." Sky's face went red. "Are you okay? Do you have a sore throat? If you're sick, you don't have to come in." Eric said. This got Alex's attention. Alex came over. "What's going on? Is he sick?" "No, I'm not sick. I..." Sky started to say, before touching his throat. He cleared his throat. "I'm not sick." "Oh, I guess it is about time for that, huh?" Alex said. "You should start eating more. You're going to be growing a lot soon." Sky didn't want to talk. "Oh. Okay." Everyone else in the lab went about work. Sky said little. He didn't want anyone to bring up the topic again. He had already noticed for a while now his body was changing. He understood the process from the lessons his father made him do, but experiencing it wasn't pleasant. His conversation from yesterday only made him more anxious about the idea of becoming an adult. Sometime after lunch, an accident occurred in the lab. Blood splashed all over Alex. Eric rushed him over to the emergency shower just outside the lab. The other assistants in the lab got to cleaning up. Eric called Sky over to come with him. "Shit." Alex stripped his clothes, careful to keep his eyes closed. Eric turned on the shower for him. He gave Alex a light push in the direction of the water. "Get in!" Alex washed his hair and face off first. "Sky, stay right here. Help him if he needs anything. I'm going to get him some clothes." Eric said before running off. Sky nodded. He kept an eye on Alex. The blood flowed down his body into the drain. It didn't take long for all of it to vanish. Alex washed for a while after the blood was gone to be safe. Sky didn't understand it. He couldn't stop looking at Alex. His body felt hot. Alex noticed him staring where he shouldn't, and turned around. He didn't say anything to Sky. Sky felt his face burning. 'What am I doing?' He felt ashamed of himself. Eric returned with a fresh set of clothes for Alex. While Alex dressed himself, Eric noticed Sky's face. "You okay? Do you have a fever? Come here. Let me check." Eric said. Sky shook his head. "He's fine." Alex said, buttoning his lab coat. "What's the damage?" "There's a lot to clean." Eric said. "We'll have to get you tested tonight." "Yeah." Alex said. Sky cleared his throat again, worried about how he might sound. "Does Alex need to be quarantined?" "No, but I did inform Alan already about what happened. Don't worry about it." Eric said. Not much work was done after that. The entire lab had to be decontaminated. Alex was cleared as not infected later that night. The test could only be done after at least an hour from when the person was possibly infected. In the morning, things went on as usual. Sky felt awkward around Alex. Alex accidentally brushed against Sky at some point while Sky was looking at a sample under a microscope. Sky's heart raced and his face flushed. "Sorry." Alex apologized to him. "I didn't mess up anything, did I?" Sky shook his head. His eyes lingered on Alex's face. He noticed features on him he didn't pay attention to before. Sky felt Alex was looking at him. They locked eyes for a moment. Alex raised an eyebrow. Sky averted his eyes. His body was hot all over. Sky excused himself to go to the bathroom. He rinsed his face off. "What's wrong with me?" He asked his reflection. It went on like that for over a week. Sky couldn't concentrate on anything he worked on. His mind returned to Alex, and seeing Alex in the shower. He couldn't think about anything else. Sky avoided speaking to and looking at Alex as much as possible. His body felt strange, and his mind even stranger. When he lost focus at work, his mind pictured himself in that shower with Alex. Sky forced the thoughts away as best he could, but they wouldn't stop. He started dreaming about it. Another week went by. Sky hadn't done any research on his own in that time, and he was mostly useless in the lab. Soon, his thoughts turned to Eric and Alex. His mind wandered for far too long on what might go on between them behind closed doors. He wanted to know, and he didn't want to know. He didn't want Eric to touch him. One morning, Sky skipped getting breakfast to avoid Alex. Alex happened to also skip breakfast that day and was already at the lab. Sky went straight to work and hoped anyone else would come in soon. At lunch, Sky skipped to continue working with the sample he had. He assumed everyone else would leave. Alex stayed behind too, also working on something. Sky hoped Alex would be too busy with what he was doing to make any small talk. He didn't want to talk to Alex at all. "You should get something to eat, Sky." Alex said, looking through a microscope. "I'm busy. I'll eat later." Sky said. "You shouldn't skip meals at your age. Finish up what you're doing and go eat." Alex said. "I'm okay. I'll eat a lot later." Sky said. "Shouldn't you eat something?" "I have coffee in the other room." Alex said. "That's not food." Sky said. "Agree to disagree." Alex said as a joke. "Besides, Eric will save something for me anyway." "Why don't you get it yourself?" Sky asked. "I'm busy." Alex said. "He's my husband. He's doing me a favor. What's the problem?" Sky didn't know why, but the conversation was irritating him. "I don't understand the point of being married." "Huh? What brought that up?" Alex looked up from his microscope. "Eric. I don't see why you bothered getting married. This world isn't getting any better any time soon. Why get married now?" Sky pretended to be working with the sample in front of him. "So? Why does that mean I can't get married?" Alex asked. "What's the point of making a family like that? You can't even have kids, even if you hadn't been captured." Sky said. His face burned hot. "I wasn't planning on making a family that included anyone else but us to start with." Alex said. "I don't get adult relationships. I don't get how you can be nice the way you are, and Eric's nice, but you..." Sky rambled on. His thoughts shifted between his parents, his sister and what he saw that day with her boyfriend, and the way the water hit against Alex's body in the shower that one day. He was overwhelmed by a lot of thoughts, and they were all going in different directions, strangled together by a single word. "What are you on about?" Alex looked at him strangely. "I'm not on about anything!" Sky yelled. He looked up from his microscope over at Alex, then covered his face. 'What am I doing?' "Is something bothering you, Sky?" Alex asked. "No." Alex got up from where he was sitting and walked over to Sky. 'Please, no. Go away. I don't want to talk to you.' Sky rested against the table and hid his face with his arms. "Leave me alone." Alex took a seat beside him. "No one will be back for another forty-five minutes. What's wrong?" "I don't know." Alex leaned against the table. "Moody?" "I'm not moody!" Sky sat up and raised his voice. His voice cracked when he yelled. He blushed and looked away from Alex. "It's okay. That's normal." Alex said. "I don't want to be normal." Sky said. "It'll pass. Puberty won't last forever." "I don't want to go through this." "No one does. It sucks, but it's gotta happen." Alex reassured him. Sky stared down at the space in between his legs. "I don't want to get older." "Why?" Alex asked. "I don't want...to be a man." Sky felt stupid saying those words. "Uh...do you mean that you want to be a woman or...?" "No, I don't want to be a woman either! I don't want to be an adult!" Sky clarified to him, raising his voice again. "Why? What are you worried will happen?" Alex said. "Trust me. Being an adult is better than being a teenager." Sky glanced up at Alex, then away. He mumbled his words too quiet for Alex to hear. "What? Can you repeat that?" Alex asked. "I don't want to have sex." Sky said. Alex stared at him for a moment. "Okay. Then, don't?" Sky looked at him strangely. "Don't you?" Alex nodded. "Yeah." Sky shifted his gaze between Alex and the table. "But...I just don't get...why you'd want to. You're not trying to have kids. And..." Alex sighed. "You are Tom Summerfield's son. I have a feeling you have some misconceptions. What do you think sex is like?" "I don't know. My dad said it was bad, and my mom didn't really have a choice. He altered her memories. My sister's boyfriend made her do stuff...and you can get both the viruses from it and...when I got here, Joe..." "Joe...wait, do you mean Joe Greene? That guy you killed?" Alex asked. Sky nodded. "He was trying to get me to." "Why didn't you tell us that? We wouldn't have thrown you out for that. It's self-defense." Alex said. "I didn't want to." Alex took a deep breath. He ran his fingers through his hair. "You know, why don't we talk somewhere else? Let's go up to the roof. We won't be disturbed there. There's a lot of things I need to talk to you about." Alex left a note on the table and took Sky up to a part of the building he hadn't been to before. He led him up a long flight of metal stairs to a door. On the other side of the door was an open area covered by a fence at all sides. It reminded Sky of a birdcage. Alex sat down at a bench that was near the edge of the building. He motioned for Sky to come sit with him. "Did we really need to come out here?" Sky asked. "No one will bother us here." Alex said. Sky's thoughts ran wild with ideas about what was about to happen. Many of the thoughts made him feel dirty. "What did you want to talk to me about?" "I guess someone's gotta do this. You don't have any family now." Alex took a deep breath. "Okay, I know this is gonna be an...awkward conversation, but please be honest with me about everything. I don't want you to stay confused about anything. Okay?" "Okay." "So, I take it from what you've said you haven't had sex, right?" Alex asked. "I haven't." "Okay. And you do know...the uh, at least the general idea of what it is, right?" "Sort of." Sky looked away. "Um, my dad made me do a lot of school lessons really early on. Human reproduction was covered, and...uh...he made comments about...some stuff about men with other men before, in a disgusted kind of way." "Like what kind of stuff?" "Um...I don't want to say it." Sky wanted to be anywhere else right then. "Alright, we'll skip over that. The main thing I wanted to get across to you was less about what sex is and more what it isn't." Alex said. "You know what rape is, right?" "I don't know that word." Sky said. Alex went silent. He looked over at Sky in shock. "Is that bad?" Sky asked. "Uh, well, no. You're not bad if you don't know something. I'm about to explain it to you. Most people would know what that was by now, but it can't be helped. You were alone for a long time." Alex said. "Rape is when someone makes someone else have sex with them against their will. What happened with your mom...I'd probably call it that, though when you get into memory altering, it can seem...well, let's not complicate things here. It's pretty clear cut with your sister. That was definitely rape. And what Joe was trying to do to you, that would've been rape too. Rape isn't normal sex. It's violence." "What is normal sex supposed to be like?" Sky asked. "My father always acted like everything about sex was really awful." "I don't know what his deal was with that, but it's not supposed to be. It's supposed to feel good." Alex said. He rubbed his chin. "You know, like kissing feels good? Have you ever kissed anyone?" "No." Sky shook his head. "Well, uh, all that stuff feels good. If you're doing things right, sex can feel really good." Alex added. "And there's plenty of things you can do that don't have anything to do with reproduction. Covering only that is missing a whole lot of information. Though I don't know if I would've done an in-depth reproductive lesson with a little kid in the first place...That seems way too young..." "Do you, um, have any books on that? I think I'd rather read a book about it." Sky said. "We should have something like that in our library. I'll find you something educationally focused. You're going through puberty anyway. Might be good to find you a book on that as well." Alex said. He looked up at the sky. "I know what happens during puberty." Sky said. "You know it from a very clinical sense with material given to you by a man who hated sex and sexuality. I'm sure there were some issues with that too." Alex stretched his arms. "Anyway, I know you're worried about it, but you don't have to go out and start having sex just because you're getting older. There's no age where you have to have sex by. You don't need to worry about that." "How old were you...when you..." Sky asked. His face burned. "I was eighteen." Alex said. "Were you nervous?" "Very nervous." Alex said. He laughed. "And excited." "Really? Why were you excited?" Sky asked. "How much TV and movies were you allowed to see as a kid?" Alex asked. "I was only allowed to watch certain shows at night when at least one of my parents were home, and I wasn't allowed on the internet. My mom mostly watched talk shows, some documentaries, and the news." Sky said. Most of what his mother watched didn't interest him at all. He heard bits and pieces of what was on only because he liked sitting beside her or near her on the floor. "Not much romance stuff, huh?" Alex said. He gave Sky a pitying look. "I'm gonna guess he homeschooled you too, right?" "Yes. We weren't allowed to play with any other people who lived nearby either, but there weren't really many people anyway. When my parents went to work, my sister would run off and I'd be alone." Sky said. "That sounds really lonely." Alex said. "And then you were all alone after that." "Yeah..." "You're a tough kid, and really smart too. You survived all that time by yourself, but being alone isn't healthy. You'll miss a lot of things. I'll pick out some other books for you to read, some fictional books, that might give you a better idea about the world." "Shouldn't you give me nonfiction for that?" Sky asked. He didn't understand how something fictional could broaden his mind. "No, for stuff like this, fiction is better. You'll understand once you read some. We have a couple of TVs in some of the open areas and for renting. I could rent out some movies for you to watch." Alex said. "I'd rather have the books. I don't like sitting through things." Sky said. Alex laughed. "You should really learn to relax some. I think you should watch some movies. You'll get a better idea of things if you see how it looks. Have you not seen anyone around the Sanctuary kiss before?" "I've seen people kiss, but it always made me feel weird." "Well, that's not surprising. You've probably been presuming a lot of intentions behind what you saw that weren't there. Tell me, and you don't need to be embarrassed, but what did you think happened between Eric and me?" Alex asked him. Sky fidgeted with his hands. "Um, well, at first...I didn't really like you, so I thought you were the aggressive person. But then I saw you differently, and then I told myself you didn't have sex, but then I remembered what my dad said and what Eric said, and I thought, then maybe it's Eric and you...like being treated like that and...I don't know." "Wow. That's some...interesting logic. But it's like I said...it's not violent. Things can get passionate, but that's very different. Neither Eric nor I would ever force each other to do anything the other person didn't want to do. It's something we decide to do together, because we both enjoy it. That's how it's supposed to be." Alex said. Sky was embarrassed by everything he had said to Alex. He wanted to hide. "Um, how do I know if I'll actually like sex anyway? Do I have to do it to find out?" "Not really. It feels like...touching yourself. That's pretty similar to what it's going to feel like, but instead someone else will be touching you and you'll be touching someone else." "What do you mean touch myself? What am I supposed to touch?" Sky asked. Alex bit his tongue. He glanced away. "Oh, wow. Um, huh. Okay. We gotta go more basic than I assumed. That's okay. Um...how do I put this? You know, uh..." Sky realized Alex was now the one blushing. "Did I say something weird?" "No, no...I, um...never thought I'd have to have this conversation." Alex tried to compose himself. "You know what parts of the body are involved in reproduction. It's the same parts." "What would I do with it?" Sky asked. "I'll get you a book and it'll explain it. Yeah. I'll find you one that explains all that kind of stuff." Alex didn't want to answer him. "Is this really that embarrassing for someone like you to talk about? You didn't have a problem explaining anything to me when we were in the lab." Sky said. Alex scratched the back of his head. "This is...different. Anyway, I'll get you something to read and you don't need to worry about all this stuff. You're not even dating anyone. Don't worry about having sex right now. Besides, you just turned thirteen." "Is that too young?" "I mean...it's pretty young." Alex wrinkled his nose at the thought. "You clearly don't want to right now, so don't. I think you have a lot to learn about that kind of stuff before you seriously consider doing that anyway. Why are you so worried about this suddenly? Are you thinking about asking someone out?" "No, but...I keep thinking about it lately. I don't know why." Sky slouched his shoulders. "I don't get it. I don't want to do that. I just keep thinking about what happened to my sister every time I think about sex. But I keep thinking about sex. How do I make it stop?!" "Uh...well, I have bad news for you. You're probably going to think about it even more." "Why?!" Sky yelled. "Welcome to puberty." Alex shrugged. "There's another thing that's been bothering me. I'm sorry...I don't know why this is happening, but I feel weird when I'm around you now and I didn't before." Sky said. "I guess we might as well get this conversation out of the way too." Alex laughed. He looked visibly uncomfortable. "Why are you laughing? I feel awful!" Sky raised his voice. "Every time I'm near you, everything in my body feels weird and my heart won't stop ringing in my ears. Why is this happening?" "It'll pass." Alex said. "It's not a big deal. You have a crush on me." "A what?" "You like me." "I know I like you." Sky said, missing what Alex was telling him. "Sky, not like that." Alex said. "It's okay. It'll pass." "What do you mean that I..." What Alex was saying hit him before he finished talking. His face went a deep shade of red. "No, that's not right. Why would I like you like that?" "Why indeed." "But that's not logical. Why would I..." "And there it is, the Moone & Wolfe programming." Alex snapped his fingers. "I'm married to a man, remember? It's more common than you think." "But...maybe I'm confused. What if I really like girls?" Sky asked. He didn't like hearing Alex call what he said that, programming, but he knew Alex was likely right. Sky thought about asking Kathy about some of what he and Alex talked about, but that was too embarrassing for him to consider. Alex shrugged again. "That's not really going to help you. There's another option there. You can like both. Look, don't worry too much about that either. You'll sort it out in time. There's no need to try and slap a bunch of labels on yourself as soon as you get the hint of a feeling. Relax." Sky looked over at Alex. He stared up at Alex's face to test himself. Now that Alex had told him all of that, he realized the feeling overwhelming him was exactly what Alex said. That was why he was so anxious about sex. He wanted Alex to touch him. Sky didn't have a good concept of what that actually entailed, but he knew he wanted it in some way, even if that only meant a kiss. Sky cleared his throat. "Hey, um...what if I did change my mind at some point about wanting to have sex? Would you ever..." "Ever what?" Alex asked. "With me..." Alex recoiled away from Sky. "Hell no!" "Why not?!" "Jesus, no." Alex shook his head. He looked disgusted. "One, and this is a big one, you're thirteen. I'm twenty-six. I'm double your age. Two, I'm married. Even if you were my age, that's still a no. No, not ever." "Is my age really a big deal?" Sky asked. "It's a huge deal. If you want a boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever, find someone your own age." Alex said. "Someone my age is way too old for you. You're thirteen. Look for someone twelve to fourteen to date. Somewhere in that range." "Okay. I'm sorry." Sky apologized. He wondered if something was wrong with him. Alex quickly clarified a few more things to Sky. "Oh, no, you're misunderstanding me. It's okay for you to have a crush on someone older, that happens, but it's not okay the other way around. Not with that kind of age difference and you being a child. You can't date that person. That's not an appropriate relationship. But you'll probably have lots of crushes on people you can't be with. If I were your age, I'd still be off limits because I'm not single." "But why would I feel like this about someone I can't be with? There's no point in that." Sky complained in frustration. "Haha, sorry. It doesn't work that way. You can't control who you're attracted to. It happens." Alex patted him on the back. "It'll pass eventually. You'll fall for someone else, and at some point, one of those people will be someone you can actually date." "How long will this last?" Sky asked. "Dunno. It could be any amount of time really, but it probably won't be that long." Alex said. Sky sighed. "I hate this. Wait, how did you know so easily what was wrong?" "It was...really obvious." Alex said. He put a finger up to his lips. "I won't tell anyone about any of this. It'll be our secret." "Okay..." Sky looked to Alex for reassurance. "Uh...if I do want to do it one day...it feels good, right?" "Really good." Alex said with a grin. "Don't rush into it, and don't worry about it. But it is fun. I don't think you'll hate it." Alex took him back downstairs when lunch was over. After work, he picked up some books from the library and brought them by the room Sky was staying in. Sky thanked him, and quickly put the books away while the door was open. The book at the top of the stack was about puberty aimed at a pre-teen to teenage audience. He read over the sections for boys and girls, with more of his attention on the boys section. Sky learned there was a word for what Alex referred to as touching oneself, masturbation. The book had a message assuring the reader it was normal and healthy. He finished that one quickly, as the book wasn't very long. The next book in the stack was a sexual education book. What was covered in it was far more comprehensive than the lessons he did on reproduction under his father's watch. To his shock, he discovered women could have sex with women. From his father's words and the things he saw, he presumed sex was a male-focused activity. Sky knew about condoms as a preventative measure against pregnancy, and recalled being told the viruses couldn't infect someone if they used a condom during sex, but he wasn't aware other infections and diseases existed. He was surprised to learn about different types of sex, though his book was on the more vague side in regards to that. He had previously only knew of two types, and not in great detail either. The book gave him enough description to get the general idea about everything. Underneath that book was another book about puberty and sexual health, this one specifically targeted towards pre-teen and teenage boys. It covered similar material to the first one, but included a section about what to expect when first beginning to have sex with suggestions on how to avoid some common problems. The book eased his fears about a lot of things. There were three novels on the bottom half of the stack, but he didn't want to read them yet. That night, Sky decided to perform an experiment. He wanted to see what it might feel like. It felt better than he thought it would, and then it felt really good. Sky thought about how it felt, and about someone else doing that to him. That didn't sound awful at all, not like how his father talked about it. But he couldn't see himself doing that with anyone then. Thinking about that made him more nervous than being around Alex. Sky imagined what his father would say if he knew about any of this, what he did that night and how he felt about Alex. He could already hear in his head what nasty words his father would choose as his insults. If all that was so awful, why did it feel good? Sky thought about the company's pamphlets and manuals he was made to read as a young child. Sex was to be avoided, except for procreation. Sex was unproductive. Non-reproductive sex was outright wrong, as it served no purpose. It was unnatural, illogical. The company's end goal was to have children created without any need for sex at all. From what he was told about the 'Bubbles' and what happened at the facilities, Moone & Wolfe had finally achieved that goal. This served another purpose. One of the things the company and his father stressed was that relationships should only serve a reproductive function. Marriages should be based on what would result in the best children, and romance was a waste of time. It distracted a person from reaching their full potential. His father's main gripes with Alex years ago was in regards to his love for Eric. His father's diary referred to it as lust and obsession, but much of the things he complained about didn't relate to sex at all. Sky remembered some of the things he read. 'He's giving that boy rides to work in the morning on his way here. Time lost for no gain.' 'So much concern over the well being of a worthless boy. Such a shame his lust tricks his mind into envisioning love in a dead end road. We'll have to fix him.' 'He becomes more broken the longer he concerns himself with that boy. When we are working together, I can see his mind wanders back to that boy. He always has a pitiful look on his face. He is as weak as his father in that regard.' Sky stared up at the ceiling, barely awake. As he fell asleep, he thought about kissing. He'd seen people kiss before, but didn't understand it. When he thought about it now, he wanted to try it. It didn't make him as nervous as the idea of sex. Holding hands was something else he wanted to try. He saw lots of couples doing that, Eric and Alex included. Sky didn't know what the appeal was, but he wanted to find out. That night, he dreamt of the field and a lonely oak under a brewing storm. The wind pushed him back. Tall grass swayed in the heavy gale. Sky stepped forward. Droplets hit against his face. He heard a voice from somewhere. Then, to his right, someone grabbed his hand. He looked over to see who it was. Sky saw a woman standing beside him. She was dressed in white. The woman was looking to the side, away from him. She had long dark brown hair. Standing next to her, he appeared to be taller than the woman though he shouldn't have been in reality. The woman turned to him, but he woke before he saw her face. Sky forgot the dream not long after he woke. He read through one of the fiction novels Alex brought him at breakfast. It didn't interest him, but the movie playing on the TV in the cafeteria did. He watched the couple in the movie closely. 'Is this normal?' Sky asked to himself. He wasn't sure. He went on to work. At lunch, Alex stayed behind with him in the lab. They eventually went to talk on the roof again. Alex asked. "Did the books help you any?" Sky nodded. "Yeah. Um, thank you for getting them for me." "No problem." Alex sipped some of his instant coffee. "I know it was awkward, for both of us, but I couldn't let you go around thinking a lot of those things." "I sounded really stupid to you, didn't I?" Sky lowered his head. "No, it's not that I thought you sounded stupid. It's, well...you're really smart for your age. I guess it kind of shocked me that there's such big gaps in your knowledge on things that are more...basic." Alex said. "That's not your fault. It's just how it happened. If you're worried about something again, you can come talk to me. You've been here a while. You're no stranger, you know. And I am your guardian. If you need anything, you're supposed to come to me." "How long have I been here?" Sky asked. He hadn't kept track of time. "Hmm...well, you got here near the end of last year. Eight or nine months. Something like that." Sky got up from the bench. He went over to the edge of the building and looked down through the fence surrounding the top of the building. Some people were down below, being led inside the building. Sky gripped the side of the fence with his hands. Beyond the Sanctuary and the area around it where expansions were being built, everything else was left in an abandoned, destroyed state. The empty skyscrapers stood taller than the highest kudzu vine, but that didn't stop the vines from suffocating the bottom portion of the buildings. He felt over his face. He only wore goggles now when he was in the lab. Sky hadn't left the building once since he arrived. He was starting to feel restless, but he didn't know what he should do next. Alex stood beside him. "Hey, I don't work tomorrow. Do you want to go with Eric and me on a walk?" "A walk? Outside? Is that safe?" Sky asked. "Yeah, usually. Nothing's ever completely safe, but this area is pretty heavily guarded." Alex said. He leaned against the side of the building. "I haven't been outside in a while. I think I'm getting cabin fever." "I think I am too." Sky said. "But it's really hot out. I forgot how hot it gets in summer." "Wear some shorts. You don't need to worry about protecting yourself as much here. I'm gonna be in shorts myself." Alex said. "Really?" Sky didn't like the idea, but he was already sweating from being out for a few minutes in the heat. "I don't have any." "I'll get you something to wear. You know, you can get more clothes from the supply rooms if you need them." Alex said. "I don't like to. I already went earlier this month to get new pants." Sky said. "Do you remember your size?" "I don't know. I just wear whatever fits on me." Sky said. "How do I know the size?" Alex was already behind him. He pulled back Sky's shirt collar and looked at the tag. "Unzip your pants a little. There should be a tag somewhere on the inside. Either in the back or on the side, probably near the pocket, with some numbers on it." Sky checked the side first. He found a tag with two numbers and an X between them. "Is this it?" "Yeah." Alex said. He scribbled the information down on a pocket notebook. "You'll probably have to trade in those soon. They look like they're already starting to fit tight on you." "They are." Sky said. "I don't think I've had to change my clothes this much before." "You're growing a lot. It's normal." Alex said. Sky fixed his pants. "Um...I think I'm going to need new shoes too." "There should be a size on those too, somewhere." Alex said. Sky took one of his shoes off. He found the size on the sole. Sky held up the shoe to show Alex the number. "This?" "Uh huh. I'll pick you up some shoes too." Alex wrote down the shoe size. Sky put his shoe back on. His face felt hot. The way Alex was acting reminded him of his mother. No one had taken care of him like that in a long time. Sky turned away from Alex. "Hey...why are you helping me?" "Huh? What do you mean?" Alex asked. He put the notebook away. "I know you signed those papers and all, but...I'm not your kid. Is this so I'll stay and keep researching with you?" Sky asked. Alex leaned over to face Sky. "Is that what you think?" "I am Tom Summerfield's son, and Edith Summerfield's nephew. My family..." Sky started to say. Alex interrupted him. "Eric's parents did a lot of bad things too, and so did Alan's father and Kathy's father. You aren't your father, Sky. I don't blame you for anything he did." Sky pressed his forehead against the links of the metal fence. "But you don't really know me either. What's there to gain from helping me?" "I'm not interested in gaining anything." Sky couldn't see him, but he knew Alex was staring at him. "Then why are you helping me?" "Because..." Alex put his hand on Sky's shoulder. "You're a kid. Someone has to keep an eye on you." "It doesn't have to be you." "Yeah, but I see you here and I can't not help." Alex laughed. "Leave it to the adults to take care of everything, okay? You're too young to worry about all these things." Sky turned and hugged Alex. He was embarrassed to do it, but he was too overwhelmed not to. "I can't. You say I'm not my father, but he's here in me. The only reason I'm useful in the lab is because of him. The only reason I've survived this long is because of him. The only reason I'm getting to work in the lab at all is because of him. How can I owe him all of that and absolve myself of being responsible for everything he's done?" "Because you're his child, you're not him. Children don't choose their parents or the conditions they live in. I don't care that he may have done things that helped you survive. That doesn't take away what he did, nor does it mean you owe him anything. All parents are supposed to do everything they can for their child. If all he taught you was how to survive, he did the bare minimum. You don't owe his memory anything, and you don't owe us anything either." Alex hugged him back, worried about Sky's sudden change in mood. "You're a good kid. You don't need to go and try to fix everything he's done. That's not on you. You're already doing a lot helping me in the lab. No matter what you see out there, or what you've learned about your father and those people, don't forget that you are a child." Sky wanted to cry. He was too embarrassed to. He held it back. Sky listened to Alex's breathing and heartbeat. He'd heard his own before, when he was scared or nervous, but he hadn't listened to anyone else's before. At least, he couldn't remember doing so. He probably heard his mother's before. The sound was strangely soothing to him. He could hear his own heart too then, racing from being so close to Alex. "Alex...I know you don't think it's my responsibility, but I have to do something." Sky said. Alex asked. "What do you want to do?" "I want to destroy them." Sky said. Alex held him tighter. "I do too, but I don't think we can do that yet. And you don't have to. You can leave it to us. Tomorrow, spend the day the with me and Eric. We'll have fun together. I'll take care of everything. You don't need to do anything but have fun, okay?" "But..." "Shhh...no more worrying today, or tomorrow." Alex said. He patted Sky's hair. "Let's go back inside." "Okay." Sky pulled away from him. "Um, where should I meet you tomorrow?" "You know where my room is, right? Meet me at my room. I'll give you your clothes then." Sky nodded. He went back to the lab with Alex. Sky was embarrassed about his outburst earlier. He didn't mind Kathy seeing him like that, but he didn't want anyone else to see him so vulnerable. Sky felt so childish and ashamed afterwards. He worried he might be getting too comfortable there. Letting his guard down too much, he told himself, was still risky. As nice as Alex was, could he really trust him? He wanted to believe he could, but he couldn't no matter how much he liked Alex or how nice Alex was. Sky couldn't bring himself to trust anyone. He did have to admit though that he felt much better, at least for a moment, when Alex hugged him. There wasn't much progress that day. After work, Sky went to see Kathy. He played on the piano with her. Kathy taught him how to use one of the radios the Sanctuary gave out. Then, she let Sky do the afternoon weather announcement. He was nervous, but he had fun doing it. Sky played a few notes at the piano after the announcements. "Kathy, can I ask you some more questions about my mom?" "Sure. What did you want to know?" Kathy watched him play. "What things did my mom like? What was her favorite color and her favorite food? We weren't allowed to have thoughts like that at home." Sky said. Kathy played beside him. "Well, let's see. Favorite color. Blue. Favorite food...pizza. Oh, she loved pizza. Green peppers, black olives, and mushrooms on top, thin crust. She liked cuddling on rainy days, and staying up late talking about nothing." "How do you talk about nothing? What does that mean?" Sky asked. "It's talking about whatever pops into your head. There's no direction to the conversation." "Oh." Sky copied Kathy's motions on the keys. "This is a strange question, but did you and my mom kiss?" "All the time." She said. Kathy laughed. "Mom never kissed my father. I don't think I ever saw them kiss at all. They didn't hug either. I don't think they cuddled. They had separate beds and they didn't cuddle on the couch." Sky stopped playing. An uneasy feeling hung over him. Then, a thought popped into his head. "Hey, before all this happened, was there any way to get a woman pregnant without having sex?" "Yes. There were ways, like artificial insemination. Why?" Kathy asked. "You don't think they did that either?" "I don't think so." Sky felt over the keys, but didn't press down on them. "Maybe they did. I don't know. I think if my father could find a way to do it without that, he would. It's like they were two strangers sharing a room together." "That's what it sounds like." Kathy said. "That's how the company wanted marriages, so that sounds right. The purpose was for you to be born. Does it bother you they weren't doing those things?" Sky pressed hard on one key. "Yeah. I've been watching other parents here. Most of them look happy together with their kids. Alex told me stuff that happens between couples feels good. But my parents weren't doing those things. They didn't have me because they were doing something happy together with someone they loved. I exist out of an obligation." "There's a happier way to think about it." Kathy said. "Your mom was having her memories altered. In a way, it's better if she wasn't forced to do those things." "I know he had to have at some point. He used to talk about how much he 'suffered' when they were trying to have my older sister. But he didn't really talk about anything like that about me. So, I think he did do some of that stuff with her at first, then stopped. I don't get it. Alex says it's not bad, so why did he hate all that stuff? Do you hate it?" Sky asked. "What? Do you mean sex?" Sky nodded. "I've never done that, but I don't know...I've been wondering if there was something wrong with him. Why was he so repulsed by it?" "That can happen for a number of reasons." Kathy said. She took a deep breath. "I think I may know some of it, but I don't know if you want to hear it." "Why wouldn't I want to?" Sky asked. "This a very...adult topic, and it's about your father. We could have this talk when you're older." Kathy suggested. "I'm old enough." Kathy took a breath. "Alright. We can stop talking about it if you get too uncomfortable. Do you remember Heather Smith, the lady they're currently using as Delilah?" Sky nodded. "A long time ago, she used to be a singer. Her stage name was Tina Tiffany. We met through a music festival. I got to know her pretty well. We both had connections to Moone & Wolfe. I'm sure you already know from your father's notes that she was originally born as part of an experiment and used for their research. Heather wanted so badly to gain her own freedom through her music, but they never let her go. One of the ways they did this was by your grandfather pushing your father to date her. That way, he could keep an eye on her at all times. She learned a lot about your father in return." Kathy played a song for Sky while she told the story. Her face was full of pain. "You may not want to hear this, but your grandfather was a very abusive man. Before Heather was dating your father, your grandfather was sexually abusing her. She couldn't do anything about it, because as far as the public knew, she didn't officially exist and your grandfather was the highest person in the company. She learned from Tom and your aunt Edith that she wasn't the only victim. Both of them were too." Sky froze. "What do you mean?" "Your grandfather didn't touch your father, but he made your father do sexual things with your aunt when they were young. He used to film it, and give it out as something to blackmail other staff with. It was worse for Edith. When Tom wasn't around, Alexander would abuse her himself. At some point, she got pregnant. Her father had the pregnancy terminated, and neither of them ever knew which one of them was the father. Heather told me when she was dating your father, he didn't just regularly refuse to sleep with her. He avoided touching her in general. She only managed to get him to do anything with her a few times. Edith would chastise her and other women pretty cruelly for having sex when people could hear her, but she slept with a lot of people. Edith told Heather she did it to try to erase those other memories, and to hurt herself because she hated it. Prior to your father taking over the company, while the company always had a negative view on sex and romance, it was nothing like how it was once your father took over. The pain of that abuse is being pushed down across everyone they've captured." "Why make other people think like that if it's about their own pain?" Sky asked. "Because, Sky, it is easier to cast your problems as a fault of the world than to admit you were a victim of someone you loved and trusted. It's misplaced blame. It's not that their father was evil. No, it's sex is evil instead. The way relationships are is fundamentally wrong. Love is bad. Facing the truth, as obvious as that truth may be, can be very difficult. No one wants to see their father in that light." Sky went quiet for a moment. If everything Kathy was telling him was the truth, then his father and aunt knew the same pain his sister and mother went through. They knew the same pain he felt. Why then did his father go on and hurt someone else the same way? Why didn't he notice Crystal's pain? Why didn't he protect her? Sky felt sick. He understood what his father felt then, and the only reason he understood that feeling is because his father let their home be another setting for abuse. He wanted to throw up. "Why is Heather going along with all this if she knows?" "Because the woman I met back then is gone. They did to her what they did to your mother. She doesn't remember any of that anymore." Kathy said. "We dated for a little while." "What?" "Heather broke up with your father and started dating me. I was trying to help her escape, but if the company wants you, they'll get you. I couldn't protect her anymore than I could protect my parents or your mom. Poor Heather is so broken from them. They have a special program to switch her into different designated personalities with different memories for whatever they need her to be. She doesn't know she has a child, or that we ever met. Heather only knows what they want her to in that moment." Kathy said. "And then that child will end up being whatever they want too. That's the plan, isn't it?" Sky asked. Kathy nodded. "I don't know anything about her. She should be about ten or so right now. I'm sure they're already working out how to program her." "What about that girl's father?" "Oh, Jake. I thought I told you he's gone. He left with the Blackwell family and the rest of Aurora. I never trusted Aurora, but while they were here, they did stop Moone & Wolfe from seizing too much power. Now, we're left with no one to fight against them but us." Kathy sighed. "Jake didn't trust them either. He left with them to protect his family. Would've been nice if he stayed at least. He was good at getting both your father and your aunt to reveal secrets he shouldn't have known. I don't know how he got out. Anyone else who left the company got a death sentence. Do you know?" Sky shook his head. "I haven't read through my father's diary in a while. There might be something in there about that. He didn't keep a detailed file on hand about Jake Corbin, but I vaguely remember him being mentioned in his diary. Do you know why he didn't take his daughter with him?" "I don't think he saw her as his daughter. His only role in that was providing sperm. There was no connection between him and Heather, and he didn't see the girl often either." Kathy glanced over at him. "Are you alright?" Sky nodded. "I'm fine." Kathy smiled at him. "Alright. I wanted to make sure. We talked about some very upsetting things. How are you feeling?" "I don't know." Sky's shoulders dropped. "I think I understand my father more, but somehow...I feel like I understand him less at the same time." "I'm sorry." "No, I wanted to know...I didn't know about any of that stuff with my grandfather. I never met him. I'm glad I never did." Sky said. He put his hands together. "Something in me wants to feel sorry for my father, for what happened to him, but the idea of feeling any sympathy for him makes me want to die." "What your grandfather did to your father and your aunt is disgusting, but it doesn't make what they did after that right or justified. Plenty of people experience horrifying things, and they don't go around hurting other people because of it. There are healthy ways to work through that kind of pain. Your father didn't take that route." Kathy said. Sky stood up. "Alex invited me to hang out with him and Eric tomorrow." "That's nice. You should spend more time having fun." Kathy got up. "Are you looking forward to it?" "I don't know." Sky said. "Alex thinks I should try playing with other kids my age too, but I don't want to." "That's alright. Why don't you go on and head to bed?" Kathy walked with him to the door. Sky hugged her and went back to his room. He wanted to sleep but he couldn't. Sky turned on his laptop and opened up his father's diary. He read over the words of disgust in there again. He couldn't grasp why his father didn't see the source of his pain the way Sky so easily knew where his own came from. While he was reading through the diary, he made note of entries related to Jake Corbin. He couldn't grasp what Jake's position in the company was, beyond whatever Jake wanted it to be at that moment. His father's first mention of him was with glowing praise, but everything about the man suggested his father should have hated the man, or the very least, not trusted him. The man was biracial--already a negative for the company, open about his one-night stands and other casual sexual relationships, worked for both Moone & Wolfe and Aurora, married a former employee of Aurora who also didn't fit the company standard for a white woman, and had no ties to any of the twenty families. His only connection to the company was that his younger brother once went to one of the company's mental hospitals for treatment. It was bizarre, Sky thought. Who was this man? Sky found the entry in which Jake asked his father if he could leave the company. He read over it. Like in most entries, his father referred to Jake as 'Coyote', a nickname he gained at both Moone & Wolfe and Aurora. 'Coyote will be leaving us. He assured me he wouldn't do anything to betray us. He knows what is coming and wants to move his family overseas. Aurora would allow him that opportunity, but we do not. I've decided to let him go. The lights of the north have lost. They are wounded and fleeing to the old lands, no longer a threat to us. We don't need to damage them any further. He has served us well over the years, and there is no place for him in the new world we are creating. For his work, I've allowed him to go. Of course, I required a final task of him to prove his loyalty one last time. Loyalty reaffirmed in darkness is the highest honor. In some ways, I fear I have become like our followers to Delilah, drawn to a flame burning too bright for my eyes to bare. That is the way he is. It is a shame he cannot stay with us, but it must be. I offered him some of the land I own to build his own home and watch the birth of the new world with me, but he declined and told me he didn't want to risk my family running out of supplies. Tomorrow, he leaves. I hope he changes his mind before then. The ending will be beautiful. Such a shame that he will not be here to see it with me.' Sky read over the words again. He couldn't grasp what 'loyalty reaffirmed in darkness" meant. He assumed it must be related to something the cult did. On the days he visited Kathy, he sometimes talked about the cult with her and the differences between the ideologies of Moone & Wolfe and Aurora. While Moone & Wolfe only allowed three approved colors in clothing and decor--white, black, and gray, Aurora avoided those colors. The month of July was seen as the most sacred month, and many families on both sides tried to plan births to be during the summer months. The names of the children sacrificed during the original pact were common names to give children. Sky's own name came from one of the children, Sky Ó Rinn. Variants or similar sounding names were common too. Kathy explained to him that her father's research into the families showed the twenty families had been connected for a long time before the founding of the Blackwell town, and some of those names were already common across the twenty families because they frequently intermarried. Continuing a name tradition like that was easy to push. Once he learned the twenty names, he saw them everywhere in the records. The only exception was Delilah. No one named their daughter Delilah anymore. Delilah became a title, reserved for a special girl. The other nineteen names were Sky, Leon, Eric, Zachariah, John, Alexander, Edith, Lorena, Thomas, Dale, Hope, Robin, Rose, Ashley, Christopher, Rowan, Snow, Sarah, and Julia. Rowan overtime became Anna and later, Hannah, from Rowena and Rowana becoming popular in the families. Robin was traded out for Robert. Edith stayed for girls, and became Edward for boys. Zachariah typically became Zackary or Zachary. There were many variants across the names. Sky wondered if his father may in part have been drawn to Alex because of his first name. Yoo had no input in Alex's name and was already leaving the company by the time Alex had been conceived. His name being part of the twenty special given names was purely coincidence. Another thought came to him. Was the name of the girl Edith was keeping hidden as a back-up 'Delilah' among those names? Sky ran the possibilities in his head. His own name was unisex, but he doubted his aunt would choose that name specifically because Sky already had it. Edith would also be out, and he doubted Edith would use any feminine variant of Alexander either. Sky couldn't think of a feminine form of Thomas, but he crossed that out as well, since that was his father's name. "Anna, Ashley, Hope, Julia...what kind of name would she pick?" Sky asked aloud to himself. He sighed and turned his laptop off. He wasn't any closer to understanding anything than he was before. Sky stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. He wasn't going to get anywhere with what he read over, but he wanted to know. Who was the girl? Who was this Jake person and how did he manipulate both his father and his aunt? If no one could get out of the country, there was no way to contact Jake either. He sighed again. Once he was done with sorting through everything Alan gave him, he needed to go back out there and track down anyone he could to get more information. He wasn't looking forward to that. As suffocating as it was staying inside this place, it was far safer than anywhere he had been in a very long time. Sky thought about Alex again. His heart sped up a little. Tomorrow, he was supposed to go outside with him and Eric. Sky didn't understand why he was invited at all. He rolled over in the bed, and thought about Alex for a long time before he finally fell asleep. In his dream, it was raining out in the field. The wind warmed him, but he couldn't hear anything over how loud it was. He was searching for someone. Morning came. He stopped by the cafeteria before heading to Alex and Eric's room. Eric greeted him. "Hey Sky. Come in." Eric said. He was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Sky asked. "Where's Alex?" "Oh, he's still in the shower." Eric pointed to an open door in their room. "You have your own shower?" Sky asked. "How'd you get that?" "Perks of us being in charge of the virus research." Eric said. "Does that mean if you step down, you lose this room?" "No." Eric closed the door behind Sky once he was inside. "Actually, in the expansion building they're working on, all the rooms will have private bathrooms. We'll be moving more people over and then redoing this building. Soon, every family will have one." "Seems a trivial thing to be concerned over." Sky said. Eric sat down on the bed. "Privacy and dignity are very important to people. And you spread less disease when you have private showers. As clean as we can keep them, the public showers will never be as clean as the best kept private bathroom. We'll still be providing access to those too, for the exercise and gym area, and there will still be public restrooms on each floor. The more access, the better." "The gym seems unnecessary to me as well." Sky put his food down on a desk. He looked it over. Medical books were piled all around it, filled with color coded bookmarks. Notebooks were lined up along the wall, at the back of the desk. Diagrams were pinned to the wall with sticky notes written on them. A calendar hung on the wall nearby displaying the word "August" in big letters. "Is it alright if I put my food here?" "Yeah, that's fine." Eric said. He leaned back. "Don't like the gym, huh? I don't think I've ever seen you play with the other children." "I don't want to play. There's no point in that." Sky sat down at the desk to eat. "There's more important things to do. I've seen adults playing too. Shouldn't they be working?" Eric laughed. "Sky, people have to take breaks or they'll lose their minds. And exercise is an important part of staying healthy. We don't have everything we used to before all this happened. Living as healthy as possible is one of the few things we can do to keep ourselves safe from getting really sick." Alex walked out of the bathroom. He was fully dressed, but still drying off his hair. He was dressed similarly to Eric. Alex looked over at Sky. "Oh, Sky, you're here already. I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd get here so early." "Should I leave?" "No, of course not." Alex picked up a brown bag. He pulled clothes out of it and handed them to Sky. "Here, these are for you. Why don't you try them on?" Sky took them from him. "Should I really have these? I can't wear them in the lab." "You don't work 24/7, Sky. Wear them when you're not at work." Alex shook his head and smiled at him. Sky held the clothes against him. He looked over at the bathroom. "Could I use your shower?" "Oh, sure." Alex said. "Don't like the public ones?" "No, I hate them." Sky said. "Shy?" "About what?" Sky asked. "I just don't like being around a lot of people. The showers are always crowded in the morning." Sky walked into the bathroom. He set his new clothes down on a counter. Alex followed him into the bathroom and got him a towel from under the sink. "Here." "Oh. Right." Sky took it and put it on the counter. Alex closed the door behind himself as he left the bathroom. Sky turned on the shower. He undressed and got in. He hadn't used a private shower in a long while now. Most of the houses on the outside didn't have running water. The water felt good on his skin. Sky looked himself over. He noticed marks on his skin that weren't there before he started growing a lot recently. His legs ached. Sky wondered how tall he would get. He only knew his father, mother, and aunt. Sky never met any of his grandparents, or his estranged aunt, Sable, who died a long time ago around when he was born. Edith and his mother were both short for women, but his father was taller than average. He didn't want to share his height with him, as trivial as it was. Sky hoped he'd be short instead. After a few minutes, he got out of the shower and tried on his new clothes. The shoes and shorts fit well, but the tank top was a little baggy. He finished drying off his hair. Sky held the towel to his face. It smelled a lot like Alex. He smelled it for longer than he should have. Embarrassed, he quickly tossed the towel into the laundry basket. He opened the bathroom door. As he walked, he felt the air on his skin. "I feel kind of naked..." "Everything fit okay?" Eric asked. Sky nodded. "I haven't worn shorts since I was five." "Well, look at that. You have hair on your legs. A little, anyway." Alex pointed out. "You've grown a lot since you got here." Eric said. "I wish I wasn't. My legs hurt." Sky complained. "I'll get you something for that later." Alex said. "Let's go. It's not too hot out today." "Are you sure this is safe?" Sky asked. He took a sip from the glass of water he brought. "It's pretty safe at this point. There are guards patrolling all over the city." Alex reassured him. The three of them left the building. Alex led the way. This was the first time since he arrived that Sky had gone outside beyond the fence. Anxiety rose in him. He wanted to cover up his body immediately. So much of him was exposed. He walked in between Eric and Alex. He saw various people near the building. Several buildings were under construction for the Sanctuary, being crafted from parts available nearby. A lot of the city had severely decayed over the years. Most of the abandoned cars had been either reclaimed by Alan's people, dismantled for parts, or were used for their metal. The roads in the city were completely devoid of cars now. In their place remained dust, kudzu, and English ivy creeping across. Debris was cleared out, and some paths had the kudzu cut back. He noticed where the roads were completely cleared out, kudzu was already inching its way back in. Other roads were unusable, full of too many large cracks and holes to travel across. Plants grew wildly in the spaces opened up. Where the kudzu couldn't reach, Sky saw that at the top of the buildings all the glass had broken out, but most buildings were completely draped in the vines. Green and purple hid away all the designs of the old buildings, making many nigh indistinguishable from the trees in and outside the city that were already strangled since before he was born. Kudzu beetles buzzed around the vines, eating away at the plants eating the city. Sky had only once been to Atlanta before everything happened. He couldn't clearly remember what it originally looked like. The farther they walked from the main building, the more anxious Sky got. He brought his gun with him, but he forgot his knife. Alex sensed his anxiousness. He hopped up onto a fallen board on the sidewalk. "Hey, I betcha I can walk across this." Eric and Sky watched him. Alex hopped down when he got to the end. Eric did it next with less grace. He nearly fell off halfway, but managed to balance himself the full distance. He joined Alex and looked back at Sky. "You try it." "What for?" Sky asked. "I can walk around it." "Because it's fun." Eric gave him a funny look. "What's fun about trying not to fall off a piece of wood?" Sky raised an eyebrow. Alex and Eric walked back to him. Alex said. "Come on. Try it." Sky sighed. He accepted he would have to do it or they wouldn't move on. Sky got on top of the long, narrow board. "Why are you making me do this?" "Because you're a kid, and you have a lot of catching up to do." Alex said. Walking across was a lot harder than Sky expected. He could barely balance himself at all. "I can't do this. I'm gonna fall." "Here. Hold my hand." Alex offered him his hand. Eric walked around to the other side and did the same. Sky took both their hands and walked. It was easier, but he still struggled. Sky hadn't needed to do much balancing on anything before. Near the end, Sky lost his balance and fell off. Alex caught him. He put him down. "Not bad." Alex said. "I still don't get it." Sky said. "That wasn't fun at all." "Hmm...maybe a game would be better. We have a basketball court and a four-square area inside." Eric suggested. "I'm not interested in playing with anyone." Sky rejected the idea. "You should try it anyway. You need some friends your own age." Alex said. "It's not healthy to..." Eric shoved Alex and Sky up against the wall. He pushed them behind some rubble. "Get down." Alex grabbed Sky and held him against himself as he knelt down. Eric hid behind the large slab of rubble with them. He got a device out of his pocket with a number pad on it. Eric put in a series of numbers. "What is it?" Alex whispered. "Crow." Eric whispered back. Alex pushed Sky down further, using his own body to hide as much of Sky as he could. Eric stayed sitting higher up, himself partially covering Alex. Sky couldn't see anything. He was positioned in a way he could only see the ground and what was a few feet ahead of them. "Is it flying down?" Alex asked. "No...it's going ahead..." Eric started to stand up. He pushed Alex again. "Get inside the building. Go." The three of them passed through the kudzu into the building where a glass pane used to be. Eric lingered near where they entered to watch the bird outside. "It's flying down. Look for somewhere to hide." A loud screech caught their attention. On the opposite side of the building, at the bottom of the stairs, a demon type infected person stared straight at them. The head tilted sideways as the neck struggled to keep it up. "Eric, the stairwell." Alex said. He kept Sky close. Eric shot it in the head immediately. The demon went down, blood gushing out on the floor. Eric pressed a series of numbers on the device again. "What is he doing?" Sky asked. "Distress call." Alex looked around for somewhere to hide. Going anywhere near the stairwell was risky with them wearing so little. Outside, a loud thud hit down near the building. The noise the crow made was much louder than the demon. Sky covered his ears. Eric backed away from where they crossed in. A long beak covered in blood pierced through the kudzu and ripped the vines off. It moved its head to look into the building. Sky hadn't seen one of these before. He remembered reading archosaurs grew to extremely large sizes once infected, but this was far larger than he imagined. The eye alone was bigger than his head. Inside its red eye, he saw hundreds of black worms swimming around. The crow tried to force its beak inside, but the space wasn't big enough. It went around the building looking for a way to stick its head in. It ripped through the kudzu, revealing every possible opening. There was no way for it to get in, nor was there a way for them to leave without the bird seeing them. A loud shriek came from upstairs. It was the sound of another demon. "God damn it. Why isn't anyone answering me?" Eric put in the string of numbers again. "Sky, do you have a gun on you?" Alex asked. "Yes." Sky said. "Get it out." Alex kept one hand on Sky. He got out his own gun. They heard several more shrieks coming from upstairs. "Fuck." "Do you think we could make it if we ran?" Eric asked. "Not with that thing outside." Alex removed his hand from Sky for a moment to get his radio. "Alex Linwood, requesting assistance. I'm in zone one. No one is answering our distress call." "What's your emergency?" Someone said back over the radio. "I have a crow outside and I don't know what's upstairs. We've already got a dead demon down here, so at least two more of those. I have two people with me." Alex said. "How long can you hold out? What weapons do you have on you?" The person asked. "Handguns, knives, and a grenade." Alex said. "Can you safely use the grenade?" The person asked. "No, I am inside a building and we can't get out. I'm at the bottom floor of a skyscraper." Alex replied. "We've located you. Help is on the way." The person said. "Got it. Please hurry." Alex put the radio away. Alex saw another demon coming down the stairs. He shot it. It went down, but got back up again and lunged for them. Sky shot it in the head. It was too far away for the blood to hit him. Eric shot another one coming down the stairs. Through one of the patches of kudzu along the wall, another that had been hiding leapt out at Eric. Caught off-guard, Eric stepped back and tripped over an empty bottle laying on the ground. The creature landed just before him and fell through the weak floor into more kudzu. The demon was unable to balance itself and get out of the green mess. Eric shot it twice for good measure. The crow bit at the building itself in frustration. "How far away is that help?" Sky asked. "Ten to fifteen minutes, if we're lucky." Eric said. Alex asked. "Eric, can you see if anything's blocking the next building over's entrance? If we time it right, maybe we can make it. Crows are slow on the ground." "I doubt we'd make it. And that damn bird is watching us." Eric said. "Shit." Alex moved Sky out of the way as a ceiling tile fell down above them. The crow pulled its head out of the building and shrieked loudly. Outside, a man yelled. "Get out of the building!" All three of them ran out in the opposite direction of the bird. An SUV was waiting in the road. "Get in." A man whose body was mostly covered told them, running out from the other side of the building. They all got in the SUV. Sky looked back and saw the crow was on fire. "Damn, you got here fast." Alex said. He sat in the back with Sky. "I'm not who they sent out. I heard your distress signal and came on my own." The man who came to their rescue handed his flamethrower to Eric. He buckled his seatbelt, then floored it. "Did any of you get bit?" "No. We're okay." Eric said. He took the front passenger seat. "Thanks, Zack." Alex said. Sky turned to Alex. "Who is he?" "Oh, he's an old friend of ours. We've been friends since...forever." Alex said. "Slightly longer than you two have been into each other." Zack added. Eric and Alex laughed. Eric asked. "Should we let them know we got out?" Alex said. "Send them a message we're on our way back." Eric took out the small device. He punched several numbers. Zack glanced back at Sky. "That's Summerfield's kid, right?" "Yeah. This is Sky." Alex said. "When did you get back?" "Last night. I've got some stuff for you guys to work with." Zack said. "How'd it go on the mission?" Eric asked. "You could say it was...not quite a failure nor a success. We didn't get anyone out, but we stole a lot of supplies." Zack took his goggles off. "You guys ready for some omelets? Cause I got a lot of eggs." "I haven't had eggs since we got here." Alex said. "Is it safe to eat them?" Sky asked Alex. "Yeah, those eggs are. None of their chickens are ever infected." Alex said. "Did you get any live birds? I'm positive they have to have given them something to make them immune to getting sick." "No, we couldn't get any live animals out. Oh, I got some more instant coffee and some bacon." Zack said. "Bacon? How much?" Eric's eyes lit up. "Not enough to go around. Alan's going to do a drawing and pick someone at random to have it. But I think he's going to keep a little to the side for himself and friends." Zack said. "Damn, I hope he shares some of that with us. I am so tired of eating fish and kudzu." Eric said. Sky watched the crow burn until it was out of sight. He never wanted to go outside in shorts ever again. When they returned, they were tested again. Once they were cleared, Alan wanted them all to report to him about the supplies Zack's group were able to steal. When that was over, Alex apologized to him. "I'm sorry about today. Normally, there's nothing to worry about." He said. "Do you want to do something else today? We could play a game." "I don't really want to play anything." Sky said. Alex sat with him. "Are you okay?" "Yeah." Alex unwrapped something. He handed it to Sky. "What's this?" Sky asked. The smell was familiar. "It's bacon. Alan had some of it prepared. This was my portion." Alex said. "Why are you giving this to me?" Sky asked. "I really am sorry about today. I wouldn't have taken you out if I thought there was any danger." Sky looked at the strips of bacon. "Are you sure? Isn't this really rare to get?" "Yeah. Go ahead." Alex said. Sky took one of the pieces and handed it back to Alex. "We can both have some." Alex smiled. He accepted the piece. "Thank you." Sky bit into it. It tasted better than anything he'd eaten in a long time. "Thank you for protecting me earlier. You didn't need to do that." "What?" Alex gave him a strange look. "Sometimes, you say the strangest things." "Am I really that strange?" Sky asked. "It's not your fault. You've been through a lot." Alex patted him on the head. "But you know, I do care about you. I don't want anything to happen to you." "Why? You haven't known me that long." Sky said. Alex teased him. "And you liked me long before now. I haven't forgotten." Sky blushed. "That's...I don't understand why that is! And anyway, I don't see what that's got to do with you being concerned about me." "Because you're a kid, and you've grown on me. I can't let anything happen to you." Alex grinned widely. His grin disappeared soon after. "Sky, we don't know how much time we have with people. Sometimes, the time we get to spend with others ends up being really short. You should try to make the most of every moment you get, and don't forget anyone. It's not the time that matters. It's what you do with it." "You've lost a lot of people, haven't you?" Sky asked. "Yeah. My parents are dead. Moone & Wolfe had them listed as deceased on my records. I lost friends before they captured me." Alex lowered his head. "When I turned eighteen, I had all these plans. My main fear was if I was going to drift apart from my friends after we went off to different colleges. Most of the people I knew in high school are dead now. Instead of going to college, I got my mind wiped and reprogrammed to work in some building I was forbidden from leaving for six years." "Were you close with your family?" Sky asked. Alex nodded. "After helping Eric get away from his abusive parents, I used to think I was really lucky to have a family that loved me so much. Once my memories came back, and it really sunk in that they were dead, for a while I wished they had never loved me at all. Because then it wouldn't hurt so much. But I don't think like that anymore. That was a reaction to the pain." "I think you were lucky. Even if they're gone, they were good people. At least it ended with you all still loving each other. I don't think my father ever loved me. I don't know if anyone loved me." Sky said. His chest hurt thinking about back then. "You'll find other people who do, but you can't keep isolating yourself. You should play with other kids sometime. You don't know how much time you have either." Alex put his hand on Sky's shoulder. "I'd make as many friends as you can. Have fun. Don't think about tomorrow." "Did you have a lot of friends?" Sky asked. He didn't want to play with the other kids. He didn't want to play at all. Sky couldn't relate to other children, he thought. He knew too many things and he had too much to do. Alex nodded. "Some of my friends are still here. I'm lucky in that regard, but I lost others. One of them died protecting me. That death hurt me more than all the others." "What happened?" Sky asked. "It was when it all started. We were on the run as a group, trying to find somewhere safe from everything. He diverted the attention of several demons away from me using a bloodied shirt of mine as a lure and blocked the only exit back out." Alex rested his chin against the palm of his hand. "And then he blew himself up, along with everything around him in that building. When I was in one of the facilities, most of the memories I got back were about Eric and Zack, but when I had nightmares, they were always about that moment." "Why did he do that?" Sky asked. "Juan was a really good friend of mine, but you know, I think he would have done that for anyone. He always cared about people." Alex forced a smile. "It's probably for the best. I don't know if he could've handled living in this world. He was too nice. This reality would break his heart." "I'm sorry about your friend." Sky said. "I've spent so much time running and watching people hurt each other, it's hard for me to imagine anyone really cares about anyone else. But if he really did that, then maybe there's more good people out there than I thought." "There are a lot of awful people in this world, but don't forget there are good people too. You have to learn to sort out who's who." Alex said. "I think you will in time." In the evening, Sky went back to his room. He thought about what Alex told him. As nice as Alex was to him, he could never fully trust him. Some part of him remained suspicious of everyone. There may be more good people out there, Sky thought, but he found it hard to believe that most people could be good. Alex might be an exception. He replayed the days events in his head. Alex and Eric both protected him. Was it because they cared or because he helped them in the lab? How would he ever know? Was having him in the lab worth risking death? He saw Kathy the next day. She was the only person he trusted. He played the piano with her for a couple of hours. Near the end of the lesson, they sang a song together. Outside, it started to rain. He was excited about the rain. Sky always felt a little better when it rained. Playing with Kathy cheered him up, but it made him miss his mother. "Do you think she loved me?" Sky asked. "Your mom?" She asked. Sky nodded, watching the rain from the window. "I'm certain she did." Kathy said. She joined him by the window. "Do you want to do the evening weather report with me?" "Yeah." Sky said. He announced the forecast for the next few days, then played along with Kathy on another song. He was getting more confident about playing that he no longer felt embarrassed about it being broadcast over the radio. Sky fell asleep listening to Kathy play late into the night. He woke up in his bed the next morning underneath his blankets and with his shoes neatly left by the door. Sky assumed Kathy must have brought him back. When he was really little, sometimes his mother did that when he fell asleep in the living room. Sky got out the locket and looked at the picture of his mother and Kathy. He had no photo of his sister. He was so young when they all died. Without a photo, would he forget his sister's face soon? If Kathy didn't give him this photo, would he forget his mother's face? Should he ever be caught by his aunt, would she make him forget who was in the photograph? Would he forget Kathy too? He thought about his talk with Alex from the other day. Alex and Eric spent six years inside of a facility. How many years went by, Sky wondered, where the two lovers looked into each other's eyes and only saw a stranger before them? If someone was young enough, they would likely never remember their parents' faces. He wanted to see his mother again. He had a hard time remembering what her voice sounded like. Soon, he knew he would forget. "Mom, are you out there anywhere?" Sky touched her face in the photo. "I found the lady from your dreams, but you're not here for me to tell you that." Sky came into work late. He did his best to hide how red his face was. Alex noticed, but said nothing. For a few weeks, Sky couldn't look through the research notes at all. He didn't want to see anything connected to his father. Sky spent his time after work playing songs with Kathy and watching the rain outside. Kathy told him it wasn't uncommon, but it rained every afternoon he spent with her. Sky took Alex's advise about time. He didn't think about tomorrow. Sky enjoyed the rain as it came and let his voice get lost in the wind. His wish to see his mother never dulled. The more he played and sang, the more he wanted to see her. Every hour spent in the lab blended together. They were making progress, but not fast enough. Sky often zoned out while working. One day, he stood in front of a centrifuge for several minutes, completely forgetting why he came over there in the first place. Eric tapped him on the shoulder. "Sky?" Eric said. "Are you okay?" "Huh?" Sky blinked several times in a row. "What did I do?" "Um, nothing. Why don't you take a break and step outside for some air?" Eric said. "You look a little pale. Are you feeling alright?" "Yeah." Sky said. "Alright, but go take a ten minute break anyway, okay?" Eric suggested. "It's almost lunch time now. Actually, why don't you go ahead and get something to eat? We'll manage without you." Sky shook his head. "I'll eat then. I'm fine." Lunch came thirty minutes later. Everyone headed off to the cafeteria except Eric and Alex, who went to the roof. Sky watched them leave. He wondered why he wasn't invited up. Usually, when Alex went to the roof, he always invited Sky to go with him. He ran to the cafeteria to get something, then went back to the roof, assuming he would be welcome. He didn't announce himself as he came up the stairs. Sky stayed quiet when he saw them. They were making out on the bench. Sky's face went bright red. He froze. He couldn't decide if he should say something or go right back down the steps. As embarrassed as he was, he was a little curious too. He wanted to see what this was supposed to look like outside of the glimpses he caught in the movies people put on. Sky's cheeks burned hotly. He knew he shouldn't be watching them. Eric did something Sky found strange. He kissed down Alex's neck. Alex smiled and laughed. "Is that tickling you?" Eric asked. "Yeah, quit it." Alex said, laughing. Eric slid his hands up Alex's shirt and touched Alex along his hips. "Maybe here instead." "No, no, no...haha, stop." Alex tried to move back. "Hehe...your skin's so sensitive today. What if I touch you here..." Eric touched him farther up. "No, not there..." Alex squirmed underneath him as he laughed louder. "Please...please, stop..." Eric stopped. They exchanged looks before kissing again. Eric pulled away. He caressed Alex's face. "I love you." Eric kissed him on the cheek. "Don't work so hard today, okay?" "I'll be alright." Alex touched his face. Eric leaned down and whispered something in Alex's ear. Sky couldn't hear what he said. Alex blushed and grinned in response. He looked over and noticed Sky. Sky ducked down. "Sky?" Alex said. Eric got up from the bench. Alex sat up. Sky poked his head up enough for Alex to see him. "Hey." "How long were you there?" Alex asked. "Not long. Um, I'm sorry. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be here." Sky said. He felt wet underneath his arms. Alex walked over to him. "Well, we didn't exactly pick a place that other people can't get to, but you shouldn't watch people like that. It's creepy." "I'm sorry." Sky said again. "I'm not mad. Just don't do it again." Alex said. Sky wanted to run away. "I didn't mean to...I didn't know what I should do and I couldn't say anything..." "Panicked?" Alex asked. Sky nodded. "Well, uh, lesson learned. Next time I go with Eric somewhere during our lunch break and I don't invite you, uh, don't follow me. I probably want to be alone with Eric." Alex said. Eric laughed awkwardly. "Sorry you saw us." Sky started to go back down the stairs. "I-I'll leave you alone now..." "Sky, wait a sec." Alex called to him. Sky stopped halfway to the door. He looked back. "Yes?" "Are you feeling okay? You look really pale." Alex said. "Uh, I'm fine." Sky said. He hurried down the rest of the stairs and spent the remainder of lunch in the lab. He couldn't think about anything else but what he saw. His body felt hot as he replayed what he saw in his mind. He didn't understand what he saw, but he didn't want to stop thinking about it either. The rest of the work day was awkward. Sky couldn't deal with being around Alex or Eric for long. He isolated himself at one of the computers, analyzing data. Alex came over to him about two hours before they finished for the day. "Sky, come with me for a sec." Alex said to him. Sky followed him outside of the lab to the stock room. Alex handed him one of his spare shirts and a lab coat. "Change into these." "Why?" Sky asked. "Look at your armpits." He said. Sky held up one of his arms. He had sweated so much he completely soaked through both his shirt and a good portion of his lab coat. It was the same on the other side. He hadn't sweated this much since being on the inside. Normally, this amount of layers and temperature wouldn't cause him to sweat like this. Alex leaned down and sniffed him. He winced. "Wow." "Do I smell that bad?" Sky sniffed himself, then gagged. "Why?! Is this normal? I know the book said I'd smell more, but this is..." "Yep." Alex shrugged. "Did you forget to wear deodorant today?" "We have deodorant here?" Sky asked. He wiped himself off, then changed into one of Alex's shirts and put on a new lab coat. Alex nodded. He put Sky's shirt aside for him to take with him to wash later. "It's not exactly like what we used to have. We have limited supplies of everything, so we simplified where we could. It'll be a bar without any packaging, like how you get your soap." "Okay. I just rub it on, right?" Sky finished buttoning up his lab coat. "Yeah." Alex looked at Sky's face. He leaned in closer. "Actually, come with me later. We should get a couple of items for you. I'll teach you to shave too. We'll do some lessons tonight on a few things." "Like what?" Sky asked. He felt over his face. Some hairs were growing in. "Like how to use a condom." Sky's face went red. "Do I really need to learn that? Isn't it self-explanatory?" "There are some things you need to be careful about to make sure you don't break it." Alex said. He wrote down a list in a small notebook and put it back in his pocket. "Is this necessary? Can't it wait until I actually need to use one?" "You should know how to do all this stuff before you need to. It won't take long." Alex said. Sky didn't want to go, but he agreed to anyway. After getting some things, Sky went with Alex to his and Eric's room. Eric was already there, laying on the bed reading. Sky didn't like the scent of the deodorant, but they only made it in one scent. He always hated the smell of limes. Alex showed him how to shave. Sky hoped Alex would forget the other thing he said he would show Sky, but Alex didn't. Alex gave him a lesson in that too. Sky held an unopened condom packet in his hand and read over the expiration date on it. "Are we making these? There's no brand." "Another place like this is. We're exchanging stuff with them." Alex said. Sky looked over at the unrolled one Alex used for the lesson. He picked it up. Sky briefly imagined what it might be like to have sex. The thought of that was too embarrassing for him. His stomach turned. He put it back down on the table along with the unopened one he picked up earlier. "Uh, thank you for showing me all this stuff today." Sky said. "Sorry you had to waste that." Alex shook his head. "It wasn't wasted. You learned how to use it correctly." Sky's mind wandered to other thoughts. He pushed them away, as they embarrassed him more than what he was thinking about earlier. Sky went back to his room shortly after, with a bag of items from Alex. Sky didn't think he needed to shave yet. The hairs were only just coming in. He was curious how thick it would get. His father always kept his face clean-shaven. Many of the men in the building didn't shave their faces, he noticed. Those in the lab, however, kept their faces shaved. He assumed it was to limit contamination. Sky didn't have much reference for this, as it was so long ago, but he recalled his mother and sister shaved more than most of the women here did too. He wagered lack of supplies and rationing items played a heavy factor in who was doing it, and where anyone bothered shaving at. Many of the women kept specific shapes to their eyebrows. There were women and men who tried to keep their appearance a certain way with whatever they had, but it was nothing like the people in the few movie scenes he glimpsed at or what he saw when his mother watched TV. In his room, Sky looked at himself. More hair was coming in everywhere. Sky wasn't a patient person. He wanted the whole process to be over with already. Having to start shaving to keep working in the lab and wearing deodorant to cover up the smell of all the extra sweat he wasn't sweating before were more inconveniences of becoming an adult. He wished he could reverse time and stay young. Sky couldn't imagine ever trying to have a relationship with anyone. Everything felt like a distraction on the way to his real goal. He rolled over in bed. His body felt cold. Sky assumed he was coming down with something. He hadn't gotten sick in a while. He hoped whatever it was would pass in a couple of days. Getting sick was another inconvenience. The following day, Alex wasn't there in the lab. In his place, Eric was in charge. Sky approached Eric and asked. "Where's Alex?" "He's with our friend, Noelle, today. She's having a baby. He's helping deliver the baby." Eric said. He was already running some tests. "Why?" Sky asked. "He wanted to be trained on that too. We've run into pregnant women while out giving supplies. The plan is to have at least one person with some degree of training in that whenever we send a team out in the field." Eric explained. He added. "But he also wanted to be there for her. He's her closest friend." "Where's the father? Did he die?" Sky asked. "No, she got pregnant through artificial insemination, but she wasn't single when she got pregnant. Noelle's girlfriend died three months ago on a supply run. She doesn't have any family left. That's why Alex went." Eric said. He turned on a computer in the corner of the room. "That, and he personally wanted to test the baby for the viruses." "You test newborns too?" Eric typed on the computer while he ran something in the background. Sky didn't get a good look at what Eric was doing. "There've been a couple of cases of a pregnant woman with RM where it passed on to the baby during birth or through breast milk. We haven't really studied this much, for obvious reasons, but depending on how far along a woman is, her body will either abort the fetus or the virus will go dormant until she enters labor. Sometimes our test will pick it up, sometimes it fails. The infant is tested shortly after birth. If the infant gives a positive reading, they both get quarantined and are given treatment." Sky got out a notebook and wrote the information down. As many months as he had been there, Sky still hadn't gotten through all of the information Alan gave him. "I don't think I've gotten to that in the research notes yet. What's the survival rate for the mother and child?" "We've only had it happen here...it was twenty-eight times, I think...so take these numbers with a grain of salt. The babies had worse odds than the mothers. Mothers were around the usual rate, half of them survived. A quarter of the babies survived." "So, did the mother's lie about being infected?" Sky asked. Eric opened up a spreadsheet. "Some did, some didn't." "But why lie?" "We have a lot of people who could've been infected, but turned out to not have been lie to us too. People lie a lot." Eric continued typing, not looking at Sky. "Now, we test all babies, just to be safe." "What about the worms?" Sky asked. "The virus causes them to become inactive as well." He said. Eric's radio made a noise. Eric picked it up. "Eric, you there?" Sky heard Alex's voice through the radio. "Yeah. Any updates?" Eric said back. "Congratulations. You're an uncle to a little girl." "Really? How's Noelle?" Eric asked. He smiled. "She's doing okay. The baby's negative." Alex said. "Take a picture for me." Eric said. "I already took a few." "Are you staying there tonight?" Eric stopped working on the document. "Yeah. I'm staying with them overnight to keep an eye on them." Alex said. Sky noticed he sounded tired. "I'll come by after work." "How it going in the lab?" Alex asked. "Same as usual. On the plus side, no disasters. But it is early." Eric joked. "That's good. I'll see you tonight. Think I'm going to take a nap." Alex said. "Alright, have a good nap." Eric said. "Bye." "Bye." The radio conversation ended. "Uncle?" Sky looked at Eric. "Noelle and Alex are really close. They have a sibling kind of relationship, and they've always joked that they're brother and sister. If Alex is the baby's uncle, then I am too." Eric said. He had a big grin on his face. "Can a family really be like that?" Sky asked. He didn't understand it. "Why not?" "None of you are blood related." Sky said. "That doesn't matter." Eric went back to work. He glanced over at Sky. "Hey, do you want to see the baby with me?" "But I'm not family." "That's okay. You don't have to if you don't want to. Just thought I'd ask." Eric said. Sky thought it over. "I'll go. I haven't really seen that part of the building too much anyway." "She might not be over there anymore. If she's well enough, they'll have her moved to her room. I'll check with them before we go." Eric said. "Do you still want to go?" "I guess." After work, Sky went with Eric to Noelle's room. He didn't know her well himself, but he vaguely knew who she was. She was part of the team of people responsible for supplies, but he hadn't seen her leave with the main group in a long time. Typically, he saw her when he needed to get something from the floor all the supplies were on. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't seen her in a while there either. Inside the room, Noelle was in bed breastfeeding the newborn baby. Her skin was pale and her eyes heavy. Alex was sleeping on a cot beside the bed. Sky thought to himself. 'I thought you were only taking a nap?' Eric announced their presence. "Hey!" "Hey. You're late." Noelle gave him a weak smile. "Sorry, she came too early. One of us had to work." Eric pulled up a chair beside her bed. He sat down in it. "Heh. I know. That kid...he's Summerfield's, right?" Noelle asked. "Yeah. This is Sky." Eric said. He then pointed to Alex. "How long has he been out?" "He woke up at least once. I'm not sure. I fell asleep for a while too." Noelle yawned. "Can I see her?" Eric held his hands out. "Yeah, in a sec." Noelle waited for the baby to finish eating. She handed the little girl over to Eric. "Careful." "I've got her." Eric cradled the small child. Sky peeked over his shoulders. The little girl stared back at Sky with wide eyes. Eric asked. "Have you named her yet?" "Tamara Ashlynne." Noelle said. "Did you give her your last name or Ash's?" Eric asked. "I'm having her keep mine, so there's a piece of each of us there." Noelle said. Sky assumed Ashlynne must have been the name of the girlfriend who died. He wondered who Tamara was. "Do you need anything?" Eric asked. "I'm alright right now." Noelle covered up herself. Eric turned to Sky. "Do you want to see her?" Sky shook his head. "I don't want to drop her." "You don't have to hold her. I've got her." Eric leaned closer to Sky and held the baby up higher. "Oh, she's looking right at you." "She's so small. I've never seen one so small before. Is that normal?" Sky leaned down some. The baby had very little hair on her head. "Yeah, she's average size. All babies are really small when they're born. You were probably this small too once." Eric said. "I remember reading about sizes in my father's lessons, but...she looks so much...smaller than I imagined." Sky reached out and touched the baby's face out of curiosity. He pulled his hand back quickly. She was soft, and seemed so fragile to him. He was terrified of hurting her. "Why don't you try holding her?" Eric suggested, sensing Sky's unspoken curiosity. "I don't know..." "I'll help you. I won't let you drop her." Eric said. He helped Sky hold her. "Like this." Sky held the baby close. "Am I doing it right?" "Yeah." Sky's hands trembled. The little child in his arms didn't weigh much of anything. He was terrified of dropping her. The baby's eyes were heavy as the child let out a small yawn. In that child's eyes, a horrifying realization washed over him. When the day came, the night all the barriers dropped down and the two viruses swept through the country, how many helpless children were there? He barely survived on his own. If he were a little younger, could he have made it without help? The child in his arms couldn't walk or feed herself. If the parents of an infant or toddler died, the child's death was likely ensured unless someone else took the child in soon after. Countless people were attacked and killed, but they might stand some chance of fighting back and surviving. Someone so young's only chance would be the protection of an older person. His father knew this, Sky thought. His father knowingly did something that ensured the most defenseless portion of the population would die horribly for no reason. Humans weren't like many other animals, he thought. Humans possessed no claws or fangs, no venom, no quills. A human baby was entirely helpless. Sky thought back to those hazy days of surviving after his family died. Most in his age range likely died easily too. Him being alive despite how young he was when it started was sheer luck. Children, the elderly, and the sickly had to have had higher death tolls than healthy teenagers and adults. Sky held back his tears. He handed the baby back to her mother. "Thank you for letting me see her." "Are you hungry?" Eric asked Noelle. "Yeah. I couldn't eat earlier." She nodded. "But I don't think I can stomach much. Can you bring me some soup?" "Yeah." Eric hugged her. He walked around the bed and woke up Alex. Alex rubbed his eyes. "What? What happened?" "I'm here. I'm going to get something for Noelle to eat. Do you want anything?" Eric asked. Alex sat up. He stretched his arms. "Whatever looks good. I could eat anything right now. Oh, some coffee. I need coffee." Eric laughed. He kissed Alex. "I'll be back soon." Sky followed Eric to the cafeteria. It ran 24/7 with rotating staff. There was always food available no matter what time someone was working or arriving. After work, Sky typically went there later in the day to avoid interacting with others and he never ate in the actual cafeteria. At this hour, there was no line for anything. Eric and Sky split up as they got food. Eric didn't go too far from Sky. He snuck up behind him and asked. "Are you coming back with me or going to bed?" "I don't know. Should I really be there?" Sky asked. He filled his plate up. Lately, he had been so much hungrier than he used to be. "Why not? You should spend more time around people outside of work." Eric said. Sky faced the ground. "But I don't know Noelle. I'm sure she doesn't want me there." Eric sighed. "I'm not going to force you to come with me, but don't pretend we're the ones pushing you away. You're the one doing that." "I'm sorry." Sky stopped in place. "Maybe I should leave." Eric went quiet for a moment. "Sky, don't run away from people who are trying to help you. That won't get you anywhere. I know from first hand experience. Come with me." Sky followed him, but he didn't know why. The walk back was long and quiet. When Sky wandered alone, he got used to silence. Too much noise was always a bad sign. Right then, he wanted anything to hear a loud noise. Sky broke the silence. "About Noelle and the baby..." Sky said. "If she's alone now, she'll have to take care of the baby by herself, huh?" "No, Alex and I are going to help her." Eric said. "Do you have time for that?" Sky asked. "We'll be switching off." Eric explained. "Alex won't be returning to the lab for a couple of weeks." "Is that a good idea, given what he's studying?" "I can cover for him in that time." Eric said. "But the vaccine..." "Sky, people have to take care of their families too. I'll cover for him while he's helping her. Don't worry about it. We'll get a vaccine made eventually. We have several people working in the lab. One person taking time off isn't going to really slow things done. Research and testing take time regardless. We're working in a team. We cover for each other." Eric said. He smiled at Sky. "I know you're worried about it getting done. We'll get there." "But will the human population be able to bounce back by then?" Sky asked. The longer he wandered, the less people he saw. "If we're at three percent, how much does Moone & Wolfe have?" "They have seventy-five percent, we have twenty-five, roughly speaking." Eric said. "What is that in raw numbers?" Sky asked. He couldn't conceptualize where that really put them at. "In total, we estimate there's around 9.54 million people still alive within the US. Moone & Wolfe has a little over 7 million people captive. What remains, less than 2.4 million, are outside." "That's...a lot more people than I thought." "We had a lot of people here to start with. In 2016, the population of the United States was around 323.4 million people. We don't know what's happened to parts of the US outside the mainland, so we'll subtract the populations of those areas' roughly five million or so. That leaves us with about 318 million. That's the number we're calculating our three percent off of. At three percent of 318 million people, that leaves us with 9.54 million people. Populations aren't evenly distributed of course, but if you were to space all those people out across the forty-eight states, that's about a little under 200,000 people per state." Eric used one of his hands to do calculations in the air. "We have a larger portion than that here, because Georgia was one of the more populated states to start with and we have better means to support people here. Some states, as far as we can tell, have under a thousand." "Did...you just do that math in your head?" Sky asked. "Yeah. It's pretty easy." Eric nodded. "I know 9.54 million sounds like a lot, but you have to remember, what was once the United States is a massive amount of land. It might be lower or higher than that. Moone & Wolfe lies about everything, even in their records. Don't forget too, they're sterilizing all adults and they have 75 percent of the population. While they are constantly making more children, if we get people out of there, we can't necessarily do that if the person has already been sterilized." "Is there any way to reverse the sterilization?" Sky asked. "For females, no. The method they use makes a tubal ligation reversal impossible. We can try with males, but here's the thing. Doctors weren't exactly something we had a lot of to start with compared to say, fast food workers, and then there's the matter of having the right kind of doctor or surgeon. Moone & Wolfe swooped up as much of the scientific, medical, and pharmaceutical talent they could both before and after their takeover. We don't have the resources to do it to everyone we get out of there at the moment." Eric explained. "For every doctor and surgeon we have, they're having to split their time between training and practice. That's why Alex is learning how to deliver babies and do field research and run supplies on top of leading the viral research team. We don't have enough people everywhere to fill in all the gaps. Most of the kind of jobs people had before taught people skills that are entirely useless for our current situation. The average person in 2016 didn't know basic first aid." "Does Moone & Wolfe not have doctors at each location to do all the sterilizations?" Sky asked. Eric shook his head. "No. There's a few locations they do it at, from the records we got out of them, but they're really secretive about where those locations are. They really don't want us to touch those doctors." "Do you think we'll make it?" Sky asked. "Don't lie to me. Tell me the truth." "I don't know. I want to believe we can." Eric said. Sky found it hard to believe. He wondered what the rest of the world was doing. Were they thriving? Why was no one coming to help them? Did they not care or were they suffering from something too? Was there a point in trying at all? He couldn't see society ever recovering to what it was before within several lifetimes. Should he bother with fighting against his father's company? Hadn't they already won? His fantasies of revenge seemed more and more like just that, an impossible fantasy. For the weeks Alex was gone, Sky didn't want to come to the lab. He didn't want to do anything. He forced himself to work through lunch, but he struggled to focus. One day, Eric wouldn't let him in the lab. He required Sky to take a day off. "Why don't you go play today?" Eric suggested. "I don't want to play with anyone." "Then, how about you go see Alex? He should be in Noelle's room." Eric said. "What for?" Sky asked. "Trust me. You've been working too hard for someone your age. Take the day off. I'm requiring it." Eric smiled at him. Sky begrudgingly left. He went to his room first, but felt restless. He went to Noelle's room after about an hour of moping around. Noelle was asleep when he came in. Alex was feeding the baby with a bottle. "Hey. Haven't seen you in a while." Alex said. "Where'd you get the milk?" Sky asked. "Noelle pumped it earlier." Alex said. He pulled the bottle away as the baby started to fall asleep in his arms. "How come she's still in bed? Is she sick?" Sky looked over at her. "No, she didn't get much sleep last night." Alex said. "Did anything happen in the lab?" Sky shook his head. "Eric made me take the day off." "He did, huh?" Sky sat down beside him on the cot. "He says I've been working too much for a thirteen year old." Alex laughed under his breath. "He's right." "Why are you doing so much for that baby? She's not yours." Sky asked. "That doesn't matter." Alex got up and put the baby in a small crib. He sat back down. Sky watched the baby sleep. "Is there a point to having babies now? Is anything really going to be better in the future?" Alex looked over at him. "Strange to hear you say that. Weren't you going to take down Moone & Wolfe? What happened to your plans?" "What can I really do about any of this?" Sky slouched down. "For every day we're not done with the vaccine, more people get sick. If they don't get one of the the viruses, they could get all kinds of other things. No one's coming to help us. And if they tested another strain on Eric, they're probably preparing to wipe out the rest of us. Wouldn't it be better if we all just died now?" Alex's eyes widened. "Wow. This has really been eating away at you, huh?" "Why do you bother?" Sky looked at him with weary eyes. "That's easy." Alex said. "Because I'm angry." "I don't understand." Alex got back up. He motioned for Sky to come with him. Alex walked over to the baby crib. "Look at her. I want her to have a happy future. I want everyone I love to, and I know I'll probably fail, but I don't care. You don't survive by rolling over. I'm going to keep fighting back until I die. Maybe it won't give anyone I know a better life before I die, and maybe it won't be enough for the next few generations either. But there might come a day when all our work done before that will give someone a good life. I want it to be in the near future, but if it's not, I'll keep fighting for everyone coming after me because I am angry. I am angry for all the suffering we've endured and all the people we've lost. Every day, I get angrier and I want to work harder." "Your driving force is anger?" Sky asked. He reached down and touched the baby's hand. "It's still...it's so unfair...How many decades will it take?" "If we're lucky, only a few." Alex said. "It's not like we're rebuilding the world from nothing. We do know how to do a lot of things already. Our main problem is lack of resources and medical care. If we could fix those issues, we could speed all this up a whole lot more. That, and destroying Moone & Wolfe. And we'll get them one day." "How can you be so certain?" Sky asked. "We may be outnumbered, but our people know exactly what's going on. On the inside, even their best scientists and soldiers know so little they're only moderately more useful than the rest of their pawns." Alex said. "I was in there for several years. Their hold on people's minds limits them in other ways mentally, and they're so brainwashed to love Delilah and the company that they think of little else besides that and their assigned job. We can definitely outsmart them." "How ironic. So much for their obsession with logic." Sky said. "Ah, but Sky, you can't idolize a human like a god and maintain yourself as a completely logical being at the same time. It was always either love Delilah or love the company's guidelines. You can't adhere to both equally, because they contradict each other." Alex chuckled. "How much do you know about Delilah?" "They think she's their savior, right? But she's just a mouthpiece for whoever runs the company." Sky said. "That is true, but do you know why they love Delilah?" Sky shrugged his shoulders. "Because they tell them to?" "Well, that's part of it." Alex said. "In cults, people gravitate around a key individual or select few. I don't know if you knew about this or have gotten to that in the notes Alan gave you about their brainwashing plans, but they had a children's show, books, adult movies, everything. They've created their own mythos around Miss Delilah. Getting close to her, to them, is like being close to a goddess." "Wait, adult films? Like pornography? Why would they make films like that? That's against their ideology." Sky didn't understand. That made no sense with anything he had read about the company or the things his father said to him. "In cults, these kinds of inherent contradicts are common. It's different when it's Delilah, because Delilah is special." Alex explained to him. "I've heard that in some cases, they dangle the opportunity of a night with Delilah for special tasks amongst those in the cult." "But...but that makes no sense!" Sky wanted to bang his head against the wall. "Shh...don't raise your voice." "Sorry." Sky apologized. He lowered his voice. "I don't understand. How can they think sex is bad and simultaneously use sex as a reward for excellent service?" "Because it's special then, in their minds. It ceases to be dirty or unproductive if it's with Delilah. Then it's earned." Alex said. He walked over to the door. "Why don't we go on a walk for a bit while they nap?" "What if the baby needs something?" Sky asked. Alex opened the door slowly. "Don't worry. Noelle will wake up. Trust me." Sky followed him out. Alex lightly closed the door. "Are you sure it's okay to leave them alone?" Sky asked. "Yeah. It's fine." Alex walked with him down the hall. "Do you want to get something to eat?" "I'm not hungry." "Do you mind if I do? We can talk in the cafeteria." Alex said. "I don't like being in there. There's too many people." Sky said. Alex shook his head. "That's exactly why we should talk there. You need to get used to being around people again." "Being around big groups of people has never helped me before." Sky said. Whether someone was sick or out to steal his supplies, nothing good came of it. He was more comfortable around a few individuals within the Sanctuary, but he didn't trust that the rest of the people staying there were good people with good intentions. They were there because it was safe and there was food. That was the only thing that brought them all together, food and shelter. All humans needed those. If someone else had those things, he doubted many of the average people staying there would defend this place or the main people keeping it running. It was convenient. Cold as it was, Sky wouldn't defend it himself. He would wander on to wherever else had food. "I understand your concerns, but you're a lot safer here. Come on. You'll be fine." Alex told him. Sky didn't want to, but he went with Alex anyway. He got something to eat even though he wasn't hungry. It was too awkward to sit there without some food. The cafeteria was filled with people at this time of day, most of them children. Sky kept his eyes on Alex or his food. Children made him more uncomfortable than adults. When he watched them, he couldn't comprehend their minds at all. They played all the time and laughed, going about their day in a carefree daze. He saw that on the outside when he passed groups. The children were unconcerned with everything. Many died before their parents. He saw lots of parents leave their child's body behind with little pause once the child died. Some parents killed their sickly children right away, to spare them the physical agony of the Rust. Children saw the deaths of their family members, shrugged, and kept playing and making demands. It was completely foreign to him. The idea of relying too much on anyone for anything terrified Sky. He eavesdropped on what the other children were talking about in their small social groups. One group beside them was talking about some girl breaking up with a boy, then planning a party on the outside of the building. The group of little children to his far left were talking about a game they played with each other and something that happened the previous night. Another group was talking about movies and TV shows, complaining their lives weren't like what they saw on the TV. They didn't get to have all those normal "fun" things anymore. Some wished they could attend school and discussed what type of social group they would be in if they had access to clothing stores. Sky couldn't understand caring about any of that. He struggled to find any meaning in his life as well, but he had enough self-awareness to know all the things they were discussing were meaningless under any circumstance. At the very least, he was alive and healthy. That was better off than many. Not being brainwashed in one of the facilities was another thing he was grateful for. He wanted to hit one of the girls who complained that life out here was hard and wished the Sanctuary would be attacked so that she could be put on the inside of a facility. It sounded more "fun" to her. Their clothes were nicer there. Sky shot a glare in the direction of the teenagers discussing that. Some of them looked back at him, in confusion or with an equally disgusted look. "Don't let them get to you. They're young." Alex said as he scooped up some leaves with his fork. "They're not bothering me." Sky put his hand against his head and slyly flipped them off while looking in the opposite direction. "I can hear them too, you know." Alex said. "I know it makes you mad. Don't worry about them. Teenagers care about the dumbest shit sometimes." "I'm a teenager." Sky said back. "You worry about dumb shit too." Alex laughed. "I do not!" Sky raised his voice slightly. Alex gave him a pitying look. "Right." "How can they be like that? Most adults act stupid, but kids are even dumber. They don't care about anything." Sky forced himself to eat something off his plate. "Oh, I'm sure whatever they're concerned with is really important to them right now." Alex took a sip of his coffee. "How can it be important to them if it's not actually important? That doesn't make sense." Sky ate more. He hated the taste of the salad they had out that day. They had this same salad the last two weeks. The one he usually preferred to eat hadn't been put out in that same time frame. Though he wasn't very hungry, he considered going back up to get something different to eat. Then, he caught himself on that thought. He didn't used to hate foods, not since he lost his family. Food was food. Any he could get was good enough. Sky's shoulders dropped. "Something wrong?" Alex asked. "No." Sky rested his face against his hands, both his elbows on the table. "What did you want to talk to me about earlier?" "Oh, right...What were we talking about?" Alex scratched his head. "Delilah. Why Delilah is a reward." Sky said. "I don't really get the contradiction with their beliefs and using Delilah like that, but something else is bothering me about that. What about sexual orientation and preferences? Surely, every single person can't want to do that with her. That doesn't make sense." "Their preferences become irrelevant. The only thing that matters is adhering to the group's beliefs. Above all is that Delilah is godly and perfect. If Delilah chooses you for a night, you've received the highest honor. Sexual pleasure isn't really important, at least not for the chosen person. The whole event is meant to positively reinforce the beliefs and behaviors of the cult." Alex said. He took another sip of his coffee. "It's more like winning a medal. Afterwards, they get to say 'Delilah touched me, I am special now'. This sort of thing isn't really uncommon in cults. Power, intimacy, specialness...under the cover of darkness, they show Delilah the highest loyalty and in turn receive higher loyalty from those who haven't been chosen." "So they override their own self in hopes of gaining a higher status in the group." Sky said. He rubbed his chin. He found it disturbing, but more understandable in that light. "You said they had a children's program too? I remember my father wrote some books, though I never read them. Was all that really necessary?" "They used every avenue they could. Websites, TV shows, books, music, anything really. All cults do that. They don't care what they use to get you in. They'll tell you anything so long as you'll sit and listen a little longer. Once you're paying attention, then they start feeding you their weird bullshit." Alex explained. He sighed. "Though they don't need to do that as much now. They can alter memories with a machine and emotions with a drug. You don't have to lure people in at all. They still use repetitive propaganda on the inside, but it's nothing like before." "Doesn't anyone see through it?" Sky asked. "Some do. Some don't. Tell me, how much did you see through?" Alex asked. Sky went quiet for a moment. He didn't know. "I was a very young child when I was given their material. I can see that happening, but why does this work on adults?" "It doesn't work on all adults. That's why we're where we are now." Alex said. "But people are pretty easy to manipulate. We don't let the average person in here even look at the material Moone & Wolfe used for recruiting from back in the day. It's too risky." "Really?" Sky grabbed Alex's coffee. He drank some of it, curious what it tasted like. He always saw Alex drinking it. Sky nearly spit it back out. "Ugh, this is gross!" Alex laughed at him. "I didn't offer it to you! Thief." "How can you drink that? It's awful." Sky wiped off his mouth. A girl walked over to the table. She was the one complaining about living at the Sanctuary. The girl looked down at Sky. "Hey, um, my friend wanted to know if you'd come hang out with us later." Sky looked over at the group. One of the girls and two of the boys were laughing. The girl who came over was smiling at him. He recognized it as the same smile he remembered his aunt had whenever he saw her. "What for? I don't know you." Sky said. He kept watch on the group. "We've seen you around a lot. We were going to go outside later today. And my friend thinks you're really cute." The girl said. "I think she likes you." Sky looked at the girl with a dead expression. "Do I look like I give a fuck?" Alex held his coffee up to his mouth to hide his laughter. "I guess not! Whatever." The girl wrinkled her nose and stomped back over to the table her group was sitting at. Alex shook his head. "That wasn't nice of you." "They wanted me to come meet with them so they could have fun trying to humiliate me. I'm not stupid." Sky dug into his food. "You're probably right, but you know, you can diffuse situations in ways that don't involve being rude or threatening." Alex laughed again. "You really need to work on your social skills." "I don't see why I need to be nice to people intending on being assholes to me. I'm not here to suffer for someone else's entertainment." Sky tried to sound tough when he spoke, but he ended up sneezing all over his food shortly after. "Ugh..." "Thanks." Alex held his plate up. "I didn't..." Sky sneezed again, and then again. He wiped his nose off on his sleeve. "Sky..." Alex put his plate aside. He handed Sky a wash cloth. "Don't wipe off on your sleeve. That's gross." "I don't care." Sky wiped off with the cloth. He sneezed into it. "Ugh..." "Are you okay?" Alex asked. Sky's nose dripped with snot. He couldn't breathe through it. "What? Why now?" Alex reached across the table and felt Sky's forehead. "Are you hot or cold right now?" Sky blew his nose. "I don't know...I feel pretty cold, but what's that matter?" "Why don't we go back to your room? You should probably get some rest, and you really shouldn't be around everyone else." "I'd much rather be in my room than in this place." Sky said. Alex walked him back to his room before heading out. Sky rested in bed, though he didn't really want to. He felt restless again. Sky turned on his laptop to read through the files Alan gave him. He hadn't wanted to look at them in so long. His motivation had completely vanished. Listening to the kids in the cafeteria and his conversation with Alex rekindled his interest. If he was too sick to be in the lab, he might as well review notes and documents in bed. He could rest and still do that kind of work. Sky read over the information about the viruses and infections. The information was mostly the same between them for how people were infected. The effects on the body were drastically different, but they were similar in many ways. High mortality, even after years of spreading around through humans, and a very short life expectancy for anyone who was infected. The end result was the same in many ways too. The body was destroyed from the inside out, though one rotted the body while the other actively caused the body to be eaten from within. There was no getting the virus from saliva to saliva contact. However, saliva to blood was possible and relatively common as biting was one of the primary ways RM was spread. It was possible with the Rust too, but that was less likely as that virus didn't cause any aggressive symptoms. Blood to blood was one way. Fresh blood outside the body could infect someone with RM. With the Rust, even dried blood could infect a person. Any surface was good enough. Anything that came into contact with an exploded corpse or dusted area could if it touched a cut or orifice. For the Rust, it survived inside spores. Sky wondered how the spores were connected in the virus's replication. Viruses don't make spores, he thought. 'Is it a bacteriophage?' Sky made a note on a piece of paper to look into that in other notes. "If it is, then what bacteria is it using?" Sky kept reading. Sexual fluids could transmit both viruses, whether that was in contact with other sexual fluids, saliva, wounds, or orifices. He didn't want to know how they found that out about eyes. Sex was a common way the Rust was spread, but coming in contact with a contaminated area was the primary method of infection. For RM, amongst adults, sex was the most common way a person was infected, though biting was nearly as common. The methods used by the Sanctuary came about in response to this. Condoms became a high priority item. Bodies had to be burned to prevent spread. Aggressiveness could not be tolerated. Testing was constant. Getting a vaccine was placed further down in importance. To get to the point where one could be made, everything else needed to be as under control as possible. For all the information Alan's people collected, there was very little research information about the two viruses. Sky wasn't surprised. He doubted his aunt would let something like that get out so easily. What they had were notes by the researchers at the Sanctuary. Sky recognized the way of speaking in some of the notes made it obvious which documents were written up by Alex. Sky came to a document with an interesting title, "On Eric Thomas: Infection and Symptom Deviation". Sky read over the information inside it. This document was also written by Alex. "In regards to RM, symptoms have been consistent across all patients except one, Eric Thomas. Prior to the incident, the patient's family was tied to research at the company. The exact nature of their research is not known, but after the patient's memory returned to him, he recalled that they were involved in vaccine research. From what the patient recalls, while there were others before, the research ended up focusing on only two individuals: Idris Thomas, the older brother of the patient, and Sarah Winter, the daughter of two of the other researchers involved. The patient recalled being given a vaccine by each of the research subjects independently of each other, but was not told what the vaccines were for nor was this action one done at the direction of M&WC. It is suspected that these were early versions of vaccines M&WC is likely currently using on upper level staff against Ru and RM. This, along with him being the brother of one of the test subjects used to create the vaccine, is likely why symptoms were drastically different in this patient compared to others. The patient was infected with RM twice. The first time was during the initial incident via a bite by a demon in 2016. The second time was six years later, in 2022, by an injection during a routine physical performed by a M&WC doctor. From what records that were recovered from the facility, the patient had been selected for an experiment on a new strain of RM. This strain was expected to be much deadlier than the current known ones, with death to occur in under a week. It is unknown how many others were intentionally infected with this new strain, if any, or what research is currently being done into it. First Infection: During the first infection, the patient was infected with strain A, the most common strain seen in humans. There was a delayed response to when the patient began experiencing all symptoms, and the duration of how long both the worms and the virus stayed in the patient. Symptoms after treatment was given lasted hours less than average. Prior to treatment, day two symptoms took three days to appear. The virus appeared to have died after seven hours of treatment. The patient was able to maintain some degree of self-awareness much longer than the average patient. Normally, when the eyes begin turning red, the patient begins losing self-awareness and control over their actions. The patient was able to fight back against the aggressive symptoms to a degree and express awareness and fear over the loss of self control. Normally, once restrained, adult patients will attempt to have themselves freed by bargaining with sex, and then when rejected, will quickly resort to aggression in an attempt to free themselves of the restraints. The patient did not begin any bargaining attempts until two hours after being restrained. While very afraid, the patient was neither demanding nor aggressive at first. After two hours, the patient began bargaining for sex and pleading for any affection. A unique technique was seen after this phase. Rather than switch to an aggressive tactic once the patient was rejected, the patient feigned physical pain and begged to be released while claiming the restraints were injuring him. The patient cried and accused the one administering the treatment of 'hating' them and used other phrases to induce guilt in the other person. After an hour of this, the patient started to become aggressive, though the patient was disturbed by their own aggressive. After two more hours, the patient was no longer able to maintain any self-control. When at his most aggressive, the patient continued to cry. The patient cannot remember this period of time. Typically, once treatment begins, regardless of when within the three day treatment window the person was infected at, patients will lose all self-control in the final five hours before the virus dies. The patient only lost full control for two hours. Compared with other cases, in both children and adults, there were several unique behaviors. Crying for help when restrained is seen commonly in children, but rarely in adults. The type of crying for help in children does not last very long before the child becomes aggressive and spends the duration of the time screaming. In adults, any cries for help will be brief, if at all. Aggression takes slightly longer to set in with adults, but the majority of the time the patient will be extremely aggressive and nonverbal. The patient also claimed something during the treatment that no other patient has ever verbalized nor recalled. During the treatment and afterwards, the patient recalled an intense burning sensation across his body and pain across the joints and groin. The body is hot to touch during the initial changes and typically, patients have a very high fever then. It is common for the body to be overly excited sexually. The patient recalls having an erection that felt like, in his words, his genitals were being "burned off" and that he felt intense arousal without any logical reason as to why. The patient recalled his last semi-clear thoughts were of feeling the worms crawling under his skin all over his body. He remembered hearing a buzzing noise in his head, but was not sure if it was real or if he was completely delirious at that point. No other patient has mentioned feeling the worms while they were receiving treatment. Patients typically only report this afterwards if the treatment has failed. No one has ever reported hearing buzzing noises before, during, or after treatment, nor mentioned a feeling of burning across their body like this. Second Infection: During the second infection, the patient was infected with what is currently being referred to as Strain U. Though this strain should have affected his body faster, it took significantly longer. According to what little research information that has been acquired about Strain U, the patient should have died in three days but was able to manage with the virus for thirty-three days before symptoms began. The patient maintained almost total control of himself during the majority of the time he was infected. The patient recalled noticing when his mind was being altered and fighting back the impulses caused by the virus. He stated that his sex drive increased significantly during this time frame, but it isn't clear if this was an affect of the strain or a side-effect of the patient ceasing to take Aequa, which is known to dramatically decrease sexual urges. It is more likely an affect of the drug, but it is also possibly this may have been enhanced by the virus as well. Aggressive urges remained, but were minimal compared to the first infection. The most unique behavior displayed was the ability to control eye color. The patient was able to disguise the red eyes in public, and do so consciously. Control of this was maintained until shortly before treatment. Due to this ability and the high level of self-control of typical behaviors, when the patient did fail to stop the impulses, the behavior was not noticed as unusual. The patient, under the influence of the virus, was able to succeed in convincing another person to have unprotected sex with him and subsequently succeeded in infecting the other person. The individual infected displayed expected symptoms and showed them at a quicker speed than the known strains, but was able to recover by the usual treatment method. Treatment was given after a day of being infected. Day three symptoms seen in other strains were displaying by the end of day one. From what is known about the other strains and the window of time for a recovery, twenty-four hours may be the maximum time a person could be treated in before it would be too late. During the patient's second treatment, the patient never lost full consciousness and retained a sense of self awareness the entire time. Aggression and bargaining were limited. The patient did not fight being restrained and remained calm, though afraid, most of the time. The patient was able to carry on a normal conversation during this time and describe his symptoms to the individual who administered treatment. The patient heard the same buzzing noise again, reported feeling the worms crawling under his skin, and stated at some point that he felt the worms behind his eyes. The same burning sensation returned. Temperature was not taken at the time, but the patient's body was hot to touch and the patient was sweating profusely. The patient asked for manual stimulation in an attempt to reduce the pain to the genitals. This request was done, as it carried no risk of infection to the other party. The person administering the treatment had already been infected by the patient earlier the same day. This reduced the pain significantly at first, but the patient then felt that same crawling under the skin sensation in that area afterwards. The patient expressed regret at asking within minutes. The patient also complained of intense abdominal pain, something that has not been mentioned by any other patients. The patient described the pain as being akin to a severe muscle cramp. After administration of the treatment, the patient was then able to give the same treatment to the person he infected not long after his own recovery. Comments: It is unknown how this patient would react to Ru. Using the patient's blood, the Ru appears to remain dormant, but that does not mean it would remain that way inside the patient's body. What the sensation of feeling the worms under the skin could mean is something that will need to be explored. The assumption was that by the time a patient could feel the worms at all, it was far too late for recovery. The virus would be dead, but the worms would eat the person alive. The patient's comments during both infections suggest the worms may be active much earlier than we expected, but the other patients were not able to express this because they had already lost all control of themselves by then. For both treatments, the patient recalled at some point it also felt like something was pricking him with hundreds of tiny needles on the inside of his body. What this could mean is beyond current research. More research needs to be done, but without more information from M&WC, little progress can been made. With the limited equipment available to the Sanctuary, nothing unusual has been discovered about the patient's body. Better equipment and more knowledgeable scientists are desperately needed." Sky leaned back against the headboard of the bed. He had been avoiding looking into Eric, in part because he didn't particularly like him. He wanted to quickly repress some of the details of the document he just read. That aside, he knew he couldn't avoid this forever. It was time he looked deeper. Sky was interested in the information about Eric receiving a vaccine from both Idris and Sarah. What were they planning by doing that? Clearly, it didn't give him immunity to the viruses, but he at least appeared to fair better with RM than the average person. Sky searched for information on Sarah, Idris, and Eric in the documents. Sarah and Idris were both placed permanently in tanks in the early 2000s to have research conducted on them full time. Neither of them reached their eighteenth birthday before they were taken forever out of society. Sarah did not make it to see adulthood in the tank. She died a year after being placed in, her body unable to handle the tests done on her. A year of inescapable agony for a girl barely older than Sky was now--he wondered if she dreamt then or if she was trapped in a constant state of awareness about everything around her. Sky couldn't decide which fate was worse. Prior to being placed in, due to the experiments done on her in the womb, Sarah displayed a special ability. She could make flowers grow with her feelings. No seeds or bulbs were needing. Life could appear in her hands if she felt strongly enough. Sky wished he could see what that looked like. It sounded beautiful. Rather than appreciate that beauty, Sarah's abilities were deemed worthless as they couldn't be used for violence. Research was done on why she could do this. She wasn't alone. From a different research project, one that Heather Smith had been born as a result of, other children were born with her ability too. Some children could make fire. The abilities varied, but most born to those experiments died young. Sarah and Idris's parents were originally working as part of that research department before splitting off to try a different method. It was only once both were deemed likely to survive to adulthood that the nature of their research shifted almost entirely to testing for a bioweapon and a vaccine to counter it. Once Sarah was placed in the tank, she never made any more flowers. Idris was similar to Sarah. He had a special ability too, but what exactly it was wasn't fully understood until after he was placed in the tank full time. He was originally written down as possibly having no abilities, but had an unusual immune system and high level of pain intolerance. He hid his abilities from them as best he could, but once he was unable to control himself anymore, his ability was left for them to see. Like Sarah, his ability was seen in at least one other child, but his ability was far more rare. At night, blue lights appeared in response to emotional reactions. While he was sedated in the tank, his mind remained active to some degree. The researchers didn't focus too much on what was going on with his mind, only his body. Records were unclear about what the lights really were. Forms varied. Most appeared like dust particles or around the size of fireflies. Others resembled animals common to the area. Every now and then they saw a human. A relatively frequent appearance came in the form of a girl. Her identity was not listed. The lights were presumed to be illusions created by Idris's mind. This idea was heavily pushed by Sky's own father. Others in the company thought they might be ghosts or impressions of people who once lived but not actual spirits. This line of thought was somewhat discouraged, but not entirely. If they were not to believe in ghosts or the supernatural, the entire story of Delilah and the pact would fall apart. His father let these ideas spread throughout the company, but maintained officially that the blue lights were merely illusions. According to him, spirits would be associated with red, as Delilah herself was associated with red and black, though she wore black and white in most of their propaganda. Delilah was the only person in the company allowed to wear any red because she was the spiritual vessel of the goddess. All others could only wear white, gray, and black. Research on Idris after he was placed in the tank was done exclusively by Sarah's parents. The reason was not stated, but Idris's parents left the company at the same time Idris was place in the tank. Idris's parents and Eric had their memories altered to forget Idris existed. The memory altering didn't surprise him. There was a note that Sarah's parents requested to forget their daughter existed at that point. As to why Idris's parents left the company after having their memories altered was not clear. The family also moved to a different county. That didn't sound right. 'Why didn't my father have them killed for that? What was special about them?' Sky wondered. He sneezed, then coughed. Sky reached over to get something to wipe off his screen with. He coughed several times before he could. Chills went through his body. He wiped the laptop off and got under the blankets. Sky kept reading. Idris lasted much longer than Sarah. He died not that long before the incident. As with Sarah, by his death, he had been reduced to almost nothing. Sarah's year of suffering in the tank seemed merciful in comparison to over a decade of the same treatment being done to Idris. Sky was amazed Idris lasted as long as he did. The Winters were listed as deceased. There was no tracking them down for more information. Idris's special power was shared with only one other person from the child experiments, a test subject known as S16. This subject went missing in 2015, during the sinkhole "accident", along with a few other test subjects and a handful of researchers. The head of that research was Dr. Robert Giovanni. He was also listed as missing, presumed dead. S16 was given the nickname "Allen" by Giovanni. Another missing pair were Dr. Juliet Marsh and S13, a female subject with the same ability as Sarah. There were a few others, but these four were ones he wanted to track down first, if possible. If they escaped the company and stayed on the outside, they may all be dead by now, but there was a chance at least one of them might still be alive. Another child experiment conducted was one on aging. Children were created for the sole purpose of altering the speed at which they aged, with the goal being to discover a way to stop the aging process entirely. Given what he had learned about the current Delilah, Heather, that goal had been achieved. Subjects were artificially aged to various points in development. Aside from a single subject, none lived past the age of five. The process was too exhausting for the body and had unexpected health problems. Several drugs were made since the beginning of the project for slowing down the aging process. Trials of the drugs were done on his aunt, Edith, and Heather Smith. The early drugs had severe side effects. The immune system was greatly weakened and the heartbeat became irregular. Respiratory infections were more common in Edith and Heather when taking the drugs than before. After decades of research, a drug with few side-effects was produced using data from the final batch of test subjects for the aging experiment. With the drug, the project wasn't needed anymore and all remaining test subjects were killed except for GH43, the only healthy subject left. He was transferred over to the son of the head researcher, Dr. Patrick Winter. Why this request was allowed was not clear. GH43 was listed as alive and currently going by Evan Winter. Sky looked for if his location was known. It was. Evan Winter currently lived at the Sanctuary. Sky wrote down to ask to see him. He coughed several times again. Sky finished up reading about Evan, then kept looking for information about Eric and his parents. He found a few files. Eric received multiple memory alterations and visits to one of the company's hospitals prior to the incident, but was not used for any research until after the incident. Sky's father was very against using Eric. No reason was given why. Edith had different thoughts. The company judged Eric as being above average in intelligence, but kept him in a lower ranked position in the facility he was kept at and was tested on at. Clearly, Eric had no status among the twenty family in spite of his last name. Edith saw him as a lab rat to keep around for use whenever necessary, the same as Idris and Sarah. He wondered why these children were different than the other members of the twenty family. Then again, he thought, they didn't seem to mind testing on Edith either. What he gathered is that the cult and the company placed no value on children whatsoever. Edith managed to gain power, but she was meant to be temporary. Sky's grandfather and father never saw her as a real leader for the company. She was meant to be the head until Alex was properly trained for the position, and then it would be Sky's turn. Edith too was disposable. Sky wondered, did his father see Crystal as disposable? Why was he special? He wanted to sympathize with Eric, but he still disliked the man. He couldn't explain to himself why. Eric hadn't done anything to personally offend him. If anything, he had already been very helpful to him. He felt a little bad about it, but Sky presumed his gut must have picked up on something for him to dislike Eric so much. He reasoned that it had to be something like that, because there was no other logical answer. Sky tried to read through more of the files, but his eyes felt heavy. His face was hot. Sky curled up under the blanket, telling himself he would get back up in a few seconds. The laptop slid over to rest beside him on the bed. He fell asleep shortly after that. In his dreams, he was reading files. He read over another document related to Eric and Idris, but he forgot what he read after each line. He reread it repeatedly until the letters on the screen disappeared one by one and nothing remained. Sky's laptop shut off. He tried to turn it back on, but it wouldn't come back on. He kept pressing the button. It would turn on for a second, then cut back off. In frustration, Sky smacked the computer. It started up. The screen didn't look right when it came on. The colors were off. Everything was red, green, and blue. He managed to log onto his account. Sky looked for the file he was reading earlier. The information was gone. There were no documents anywhere on the computer. He put in a thumb drive. It was empty. Then another. That one was empty too. He tested more drives than he would actually have access to in reality. Every single one was empty. Sky yelled at the computer. He tried to see what was wrong with the laptop itself. The computer froze on him. From the sides, water flowed out of it. Sky attempted to clean it up, as illogical as that was. The water filled up the room he was in. Sky lifted the laptop up in the air. Water kept pouring out of it. The water got so high he was floating. Everything became submerged in the water. Beneath himself, he saw a body floating in the water. A girl, appearing to be a few years younger than Sky, with medium length brown hair in a green dress rested at the bottom of what was previously the concrete floor. Now, sand and rocks covered that area. Above Sky, he saw the grey of a storm. A current carried the laptop away. Sky swam down to the girl at the bottom of the river. Her brown eyes stared empty at the blue above. Red flowed from the back of her head. Sky lifted her up slightly and turned her over. She was resting on sand. The injury couldn't have been caused by falling in the water. Sky held the girl and brought her to the surface. He found himself at the edge of a forest, looking out at a mostly dead wheat field. Sky got out of the river and put the girl on the banks. He closed her eyes. She was dressed strangely. Sky had never seen clothes like hers before. She wore a long white apron with roses embroidered along the edges and the pockets. Something silver fell from her pocket. Sky picked it up. It was a heart shaped necklace. Sky felt someone's eyes on him. He turned around. Someone stood there. He couldn't tell if she was a girl or a woman. Her age was ambiguous, but he presumed she was a teenager. She was dressed in blue from head to toe. Her hair was long, going all down her back. She wore a bonnet in her hair. Sky could see right through her. The spectral young woman came over to the dead girl. She sat down beside her and cried. 'What happened to her?' Sky asked. The ghost cried, attempting to hold the girl. Her hands went through her. 'My friend...Now you too...' 'Who killed her?' Sky asked. The ghost cried loudly over the body. 'No, no...why has this happened to you?' 'Who are you?' Sky asked the ghost. The ghost looked over past Sky at the field. Sky heard screaming in the field. He looked over. He saw a crowd was gathered in the distance, but the people were so far away he couldn't see what was going on. Sky stood up. Suddenly, he was in the crowd of people and the two dead girls were far away. A pile of small bodies lay before him. Adults surrounded the children. Blood drenched the field. At the center, a man holding a bloody knife stood with a girl. The girl had brown hair, recently cut, and brown eyes. She dressed in a pale green dress and wore a crown of dogwood flowers in her hair. The apron, embroidered with pink dogwood flowers, was ripped slightly in the center. Red soaked the bottom half. Sky's body felt strange. He was wearing different clothes and his height had changed. He couldn't see himself, but when he spoke, his voice came out higher. He said to the girl in green. 'Rosie, why are you wearing my apron?' No one heard him. His body moved farther away. There was some sort of commotion, but Sky couldn't tell what was going on. Then, the man in the center set the field on fire. Everything burned away as the clouds overhead darkened. He turned to face the river, the burning field at his back. There was howling behind him and a strange wind. Sky walked over and knelt down at a different part of the river's edge. He looked in the river, but couldn't see himself. The heart-shaped necklace was in his hand. It turned into the locket Kathy gave him. He opened it and saw himself, older. The other half of the photo was of a young woman, but he couldn't see her face clearly. Rain drenched through his clothes, as did the blood. In the river, Sky saw a woman standing behind there, though he still could not see himself. The woman was holding something in her hand. Sky said to the reflection. 'Mama? What are you doing?' She raised the object in the air. Sky turned around. He opened his eyes and was back in his room. The laptop was still on beside him, left on the same document he had open before. His body was covered in sweat. Kathy was sitting beside his bed. "Did you have a bad dream, little one?" She asked him. Kathy wet a wash cloth and wrung it out. "I don't remember falling asleep." Sky wanted to sit up, but he was too tired. "What are you doing here?" "Eric told me he thought you might be sick. He asked me to check on you." Kathy said. "You're running a fever." "I'm sorry. You don't need to take care of me. I'm sure you have important things to do." Sky said. He could barely keep his eyes open. He was already drifting in and out of consciousness again. Kathy put the cloth on Sky's forehead. "Nevermind what I need to do. You've been working hard even when you should be resting." "I haven't been working hard enough lately. I'm sorry...I..." Sky apologized. "Shh...No more. Go back to sleep. You need to rest." Kathy said. She turned off the laptop. "What did you dream about?" "I don't know...it was a bad dream...I think I dreamt about that story you told me...something about the original pact, but I don't know. Something wasn't right." Sky said. "Trying to sort out what really happened?" Kathy asked. "Yeah...I think that's what my mind was doing, but I'll never really know. That was a long time ago." Sky rubbed his eyes. "The girl was wrong..." "What?" Kathy raised an eyebrow. "The girl...that wasn't Delilah Blackwell...at least, that's what happened in my dream." Sky said. "I think Delilah was already dead before the sacrifice. But that's probably not real. I've been thinking about all this too much." "Do you remember what girl was there instead?" Kathy asked, giving more weight to the dream than Sky was. "I don't know..." Sky tried to remember anything from the dream. "The wrong apron...The girls were dressed the same except for the apron. One had dogwood flowers and the other had roses. What would that mean?" "Did you say roses?" Kathy's eyes widened. "Yeah, is that odd?" Sky asked. "It was just a dream. Why are you getting so freaked out?" "No, you're right. It's only a dream, but...Delilah did have two sisters, Heather and Rose. Rose went missing. The family rumor was the spirit took her." Kathy was unnerved by the information. "No, that can't mean anything. Why would they switch out the girls?" "Who knows. I guess my brain thought it would be interesting." Sky stretched. "The spirit...I ran into her too. She didn't seem malicious. But that's probably just my mind thinking that Leon Blackwell was always planning to do something awful." "Perhaps so. We can create elaborate fantasies in our sleep. And you do have a very high fever. It's likely nothing." Kathy smiled at him. "How could it be anything? It was a dream. Dreams can't show you anything you don't already know." Sky said. "Don't tell me you believe in supernatural stuff." "Well, I don't know. I've seen a lot of strange things in my life. The only thing I'm certain of is that I know very little about much of anything." Kathy said. "It'd be nice if I could see the memories of people from the past. That'd make this a whole lot easier." Sky joked. "So there is a Rose, huh? That is weird. Wouldn't it be something...if they did switch the girls and even the first Delilah wasn't Delilah at all? Then their idol would be fake from every angle. Hey, do you know what Delilah and Rose looked like?" "Actually, there are records of that. There were some sketches and portraits done of the Blackwell family from that time period. When you feel better, we can go look at them together." Kathy said. "I think I'd like to. I can then debunk the dream as being anything real. I doubt I managed to imagine what everyone looked like correctly." Sky nodded off for a moment. He saw his mother in his mind, tucking him into bed in his old house. When he opened his eyes, he saw Kathy doing the same. "Good night, Sky." She said. Sky wanted to say something back to her, but he was too sleepy. He fell asleep and woke the next day. Sky didn't remember any dreams he had. Alex was there when he woke. "Hey, you finally woke up." Alex said. "Alex...what are you doing here?" Sky asked. He was too weak to get up. Alex put a thermometer in his mouth. "Checking up on you. Keep that there until it beeps." "But..." "Don't talk until it's done." Alex said. "Kathy said you had a high fever yesterday." Sky waited for the thermometer to finish reading his temperature. As soon as it beeped, Alex took it out of his mouth. He opened a bottle of medicine that was on the desk beside Sky's bed. "What'd it say?" Sky asked. "Hundred and three." Alex said. He handed Sky some medicine. "Here, take this. That's a little too high. If it gets worse, I'm taking you to the third floor. That's our medical floor." Sky took the pills. "What did you give me?" "Ibuprofen." Alex said. "It's one of the medicines we've been able to make pretty easily." "Couldn't you give me aspirin?" Sky asked. He rolled over on his side. "Better not to at your age." Alex sat Sky up against him. He then stacked Sky's pillows and propped Sky up against them. "That's better. You don't want to lay straight down on your back right now." "Do I really need to see a doctor if it gets higher? It's just a fever." Sky said. He repositioned himself to get more comfortable. "If it gets any higher, it can get dangerous real fast." Alex said. He handed Sky a glass of water. "Drink up. You need to keep fluids in you." Sky drank some. He felt over his laptop. "Is Kathy busy right now?" "She's probably doing the midday announcements right now. Why? Did you want to go see her?" Alex asked. "I wanted to see her, but I don't want to get out of bed." Sky said. He put the glass back down. Alex rubbed his chin. "You know, we could set you up a cot in that room if you wanted to stay over there. I can bring you back later." "That sounds like a lot of work." Sky said. "It's not a big deal." Alex said. He asked. "Are you hungry?" Sky shook his head. "Not really..." "I'll get you some broth." Alex said. "How do we have broth anyway? Where are we getting it from?" Sky asked. "You always have questions." Alex smiled. "They may be past the best by dates, but a lot of the chicken and beef stock and broth left behind in stores has been usable. We've been using up whatever we can and stealing the rest. If we can figure out how they're keeping their livestock safe, we could really improve things here." "Do we really need more animals?" Sky asked. "Couldn't we manage with stuff like plants and fish?" "Food is limited everywhere, in different ways. Any extra food source we can get, no matter what it is, is absolutely something we will try to take. If we can eat it, we're gonna get it." Alex said. He added. "If I have to put up with eating catfish, damn if I'm not going to try and get some chicken." Sky laughed a little. "It's pretty gross. Not the worse thing I've eaten though." Alex laughed with him. "What was the worst?" "Hmm...I tried maggots once. Live." Sky said. "I threw up." "Ugh, that's one thing I can't do. They can make you sick anyway." Alex said. "Eating worms took a lot of getting used to." "Those aren't that bad to me." Sky said. He tried to sit up. "Actually, I think I am getting kind of hungry. Better get the cafeteria trip over with. Ugh." "No, you stay right there." Alex gently pushed him back down. "I'll get you some food. You stay and rest." "Ugh, but I don't want to be in here all day." Sky coughed several times. "Why don't I take you to see Kathy? It's really not a big deal. Then, I'll bring you by some food." Alex suggested again. "I want to, but I don't want to get up either." Sky forced himself to sit up again. Alex said. "I'll carry you." "I'm too old to be carried around." Sky said. "On my back. It's fine." Alex said. Sky thought it over. He did want to get out of the room and see Kathy, but he didn't like the idea of anyone carrying him. It seemed too childish for him and he didn't want to be in any sort of vulnerable position. But it was Alex offering. After some thought, he agreed to let Alex take him there. Alex helped him get ready and carried him down the hall. Sky rested against him. His body ached all over, and he was still tired. He struggled to keep his arms around Alex, drifting in and out of sleep again. Sky, half-asleep, was less careful with his words. "I wish I was older...I'd steal you from Eric." "Oh, is that so?" Alex laughed under his breath. "You know...if you let other people in more, you might find someone." "I don't want someone...I want you." Sky mumbled. He couldn't open his eyes anymore. "Don't leave me alone." Sky felt summer heat on his skin. He smelled sunshine in the air and the hint of rain to come. The sound of June bugs and frogs caught in the light, warm wind. It was distinctly early morning, he thought, not long after the sun had risen. Sky felt droplets of dew from nearby branches hit against his exposed arms. He was small again. Rather than black hair, Sky saw long brown hair against his face. The scent was different from Alex. He watched the ground. No one was wearing shoes. The trees went away until there was only one, the oak tree at the center of the field. If they kept going that way, not far from there would be home. Where were they coming from? He couldn't remember. 'Dad never built that tree house.' Crystal said as she looked over at the oak tree. Sky looked at the oak. He wanted to climb it, but he couldn't move. He rested there against his sister's back. The wind blew their hair and brought the scent of wild flowers closer to him. He couldn't distinguish one plant from another. They merged into one familiar smell. The taste of the air was golden in his mouth, like honeysuckle and syrup. 'Let's go back.' Sky whispered. 'I don't wanna go home.' Crystal was as silent as the flowers swaying around them. He knew she would bend and break the same as stems under careless feet. With her thin arms, she readjusted Sky on her back and turned around to walk into the forest they came from. Sunbeams danced through the impossibly green leaves. The farther in Crystal went, the greener the world became. Sky heard someone singing. The voice was familiar, but he couldn't place it. The woods grew thicker until the sun was blocked out. Everything glowed a bright green. He could smell the dirt underneath Crystal's feet and the bark of the trees. The sound grew louder. Sky opened his eyes. Kathy was playing piano beside him. He was laying in a cot nearby. Sky sat up slightly. "Kathy?" Kathy stopped playing. She looked back at him. "You're awake. Did you sleep well?" "Hmmm...I had a dream...about my sister." "What happened?" Kathy asked. "She was taking me somewhere, but we never got there." Sky held his head. It ached. He noticed a bowl of warm broth and peach juice were sitting on a small, fold out table beside the cot. "Is this for me?" "Yes. Alex brought it for you." Kathy said. "Are you hungry?" "Not really." Sky sat up fully and positioned himself in front of the bowl. He picked up the spoon. "Will this really help?" "It's not going to cure you, but it should help your body recover. When you can't eat solid foods well, you at least have to get in some fluids." Kathy said. Sky put the spoon down. He picked up the bowl and put it to his mouth to drink it. He drank about half of it, then drank the juice. "Ugh, I'm gonna have to pee soon if I drink all this." "The bathroom's not far from here. You know where it is by now." Kathy said. "I know, but I don't want to get up at all." Sky downed the rest of the broth. He felt a little better afterwards. "Where'd Alex go?" "He left to help Noelle." Kathy said. "Does she really need all this help? Are babies hard to take care of?" Sky asked. He sipped on the rest of the juice. "They can be, but she needs a little extra help. The last couple of months of her pregnancy had a lot of complications and the delivery wasn't easy either. Noelle is recovering herself." Kathy explained. "Will she be okay?" Sky asked. "Yes, but she needs time to rest and recover, the same as you do. Alex is keeping an eye on both of them. When his off-time is over, Eric will help them for a while after that to make sure they're both alright." Kathy said. She picked up a bag off the floor. "I didn't expect you'd be here today, but I'm glad you came. I have something to give you." "What is it?" Sky asked. Kathy put a few cassette tapes on the table. She held up a cassette player and headphones. She connected the headphones to the tape player and put one of the tapes in. Kathy started the tape. She listened to it for a moment before putting the headphones on Sky. "What is this?" Sky asked. "Listen." Kathy said. Sky heard Kathy's voice on the tape. Her voice was a little higher pitched. "Are you recording this?" She said. Another voice joined hers. "Maybe, maybe not." Sky's eyes widened. He looked over at Kathy. "Is this?" She nodded at him and smiled. On the tape, he heard Kathy and his mother talking while someone played the piano. Someone else played a guitar. The women sang a song together Sky didn't know. Sky paused the tape. "What song is that?" Kathy smiled sadly. "It's a song I never ended up recording. We were working on it together back then. After I lost her, I couldn't finish it." "How come you brought these for me today?" Sky asked. "I had to get something to play them on. There used to be more tapes, but these are the only ones I have left that she's on." Kathy said. Sky hit play again. He asked. "Is she playing the guitar?" Kathy nodded. "I didn't know she could play an instrument." Sky said. "She could play piano too." Kathy said. "There were a lot of things she could do I'm sure your father never let you see." Sky lay back down on the cot, listening to the tape with one side of the headphones. He pushed the other side slightly back so he could hear Kathy talking to him better. "You know...my dad always talked about how dumb my mom and my sister were. It never made sense to me. Why did he marry her if he thought that way? And if she was so dumb, why was she involved in so much research for the company? And Crystal...he raised her. If she was dumb, wouldn't that be his fault?" "Your father thought he was better than other people. He belittled everyone around him, unless they happened to be someone he wanted to use for something special. If he didn't do it to you, it's because he had plans for you and you hadn't challenged him yet. I'm sure your sister was special to him once, until she grew older and became too much of her own person." "Yeah, I started to think that...If I didn't do what he wanted me to, he'd throw me away too. Sometimes, I wondered...There's a big age gap between my sister and me. I used to wonder if there was at least one more child in between us, and that child wasn't good enough, so Dad got rid of them." Sky stared up at the ceiling. The light from the window moved in a way that made his skin crawl. It was too familiar to some morning he only half remembered. "You know, I think he would do something like that. I know I had two aunts, but no one ever talked about my aunt Sable. When they did, it was never anything good. Did you ever know her?" "Sable Summerfield? No, I know of her, but I never met her. From what I heard, she ran away from home as a teenager and lived out somewhere far from the rest of the family. She didn't join Aurora and the Blackwell side. She didn't want to be around any of them." Kathy said. "I don't know why she ran away, but given the things I know about Edith and Tom, I would imagine she was probably abused as well." "She's dead, isn't she? I remember being told that." Sky said. "Yes, she died a long time ago." Kathy said. Sky listened to his mother laughing with Kathy on the audio. "Do you think, if there was another child, that they ran away or that my dad did something worse?" "I don't know. Your father was a cruel man." Kathy stared out at the window. "If there was another, more than your grandfather Alexander, I think Tom would get rid of the child. Tom was good at killing." Sky expected Kathy would say that. He wanted to feel hatred, but he felt fear instead. The lights on the ceiling danced as the wind blew outside. He was certain it felt like morning several years ago. Sky wanted to leave his body and disappear. "Why do you think my grandfather wouldn't? He did all that other stuff." "I don't think he could kill one of his children. He never killed Sable." Kathy took a deep breath. "There are more stories I could tell you about your family. Do you want to hear them?" Sky stopped the recording. He didn't want to hear his mother's voice while listening to whatever Kathy was about to tell him. "I should know as much as possible. I have to understand everything I can about my family to stop them." Kathy checked the temperature of his forehead. "Do you need anything more to drink?" "Not right now." "Alright." Kathy sat at the edge of the cot. "Well, I suppose we should talk about your great-aunts, Maria and Margaret. I heard these stories from my father. Your grandfather Alexander had two sisters, and he got to witness both of them die." "What happened to them?" Sky asked. "Margaret was chosen in advance to be the next Delilah. They did the ritual when she was ten, but it didn't go right. Margaret died during the ritual. All of the children did. Your great-grandfather, Thomas Summerfield, was furious over the mistake. He blamed it on one of his sisters for messing up the poison and killed her. Maria wasn't a good choice to use as Delilah. She was too rebellious. Eventually, Maria ran away with a man she fell in love with. By this point, the family was well into their racial purity ideas. The man Maria ran off with was a black man. Your great-grandfather had them both killed. He intercepted them on the way to their secret wedding and had the man murdered in front of her. Then, he...This next part is very disturbing. How are you feeling? I don't want to overwhelm you." "I'm fine." Sky said. "Well, he...had Maria raped by several of the men there as a punishment. He was the first to do it. Afterwards, they tied her down over the train tracks, just her legs. My grandfather was at this event. Most of the key family members were, but he didn't participate, for obvious reasons. He told my father they tied her legs so they would be cut off by the train, but also so she wouldn't die instantly. Thomas told her she wouldn't be able to run away anymore after that. By the time they tied her down, she was barely conscious, but she tried to free herself as the train came. My grandfather remembered she kept screaming for her father to help her, and then to her brother when her dad wouldn't answer her. The train cut her legs off at the thighs. Maria managed to drag herself over to her father and beg him for help, but he kicked her away. Then, she tried Alexander again. Thomas kicked her away then too. She was dying too slowly for them, so they left her there alone." Sky sat up. His body shook. The image in his mind horrified him. He wanted it gone. It was conjuring up memories he didn't want to see. His mind was filled with blood and summer wind. "What...what kind of man was my great-grandfather...Why would he do that? He made his own daughter's death a spectacle for other people to enjoy?!" "It wasn't for entertainment. If even Maria was not exempt from following the family's orders and she was given a horrible punishment, then anyone would be. This was about control." Kathy held Sky close. "Your grandfather saw all of that. He was the youngest child out of his siblings. He was around your age when he saw that happen to Maria. I think those deaths broke your grandfather in a way. He was already living in a world of violence and suffering before then, and that was what pushed him over the edge. He became twisted and hurt his own children, but I don't think he could ever bring himself to kill them either. He remembered that pain too clearly." "But I don't understand. If he could grasp that, why did he do such awful things to his own children?" Sky asked. Kathy put her hands together. "I asked my father that when he told me that story. He said he thought your grandfather's view of serving the family was one he thought was less severe than your great-grandfather's. Once he took over the company, he saw it as his role to control everyone, which included their bodies. He was more prone to controlling people through sex, though he did have people killed. Your grandfather ordered my parents' deaths, but it was your father who carried them out on his behalf." "I don't think I understand." "To put it more simply, as head of the families and the cult, he knew he needed to control people and to do that, he needed to use violence. But in his mind, using sex was a 'lesser' violence than other kinds of physical violence. Maria survived the rapes, but she didn't survive the tracks and the train. Margaret couldn't withstand the poison put into her body. I think he had an aversion to outright killing or committing those types of violence." Kathy explained to him. "I heard from my father that when they did the ritual for Delilah the last time before they eventually settled on Heather, he had your father and Edith do all the work. Edith led the incantation and Tom gave out the poison. They burned the bodies. Your grandfather gave the orders, but couldn't do the acts himself. He could have made Edith fit Delilah's appearance if he wanted, or used Sable, but he never offered up his own daughters. He was a very disturbed man who caused a lot of pain to everyone around him, but I do think that he was different than your father. If he lived his childhood somewhere else away from those people, I don't think he would've become such a monster. But everything I've heard about your great-grandfather...I think he was going to hurt people regardless. But maybe I'm wrong, and there's things I don't know about his life that caused him to become so awful." "I hate this." Sky balled his fist. "Sky?" "I hate them all. I hate that I understand it, and I feel pity for them. I don't want to feel sympathy for them. I just...I don't understand how you can endure so much pain and then go around and want to inflict so much pain on other people for no reason. I don't understand that. I hate them all so much." Sky yelled. The more he learned about his family, the more pain he felt. How many relatives did this go back? His father, his aunt, his grandfather--they were all victims, and they all became monsters. "I'm not a monster. Why are they?! What's their excuse?!" "Some people get caught in these cycles, but it is ultimately on them to break free of that. Sable and Maria took their chances and ran. Maria didn't make it, but she didn't die a monster. Sable lived out her life quietly. I heard she raised two children by herself. My father did his best to break free, and because of that, they couldn't get to me at all. At least, not like that. I pity their child selves. They couldn't do anything then. They were innocent and abused. But I don't pity them as adults. They made their choices. And you can make yours. If your father didn't like your sister, she was probably already trying to find a way to break away too." Kathy put her hands to Sky's face. "Promise me you won't ever become a monster." "I won't. I'll never be like that." Sky said. Kathy reached in Sky's back pocket and took out his pocketknife. "You are more at risk than your realize. Sky, tell me, what is it you want to do?" "I want to destroy them." Sky said, eyes full of determination. "More than I ever have before. They have to pay for all the pain they've caused." "The path ahead of you is filled with blood." Kathy handed him the knife back. "In your pursuit of justice and revenge, be careful that you do not break and become a monster too." "I won't." Sky said. "They can't break me." Kathy held back words she knew were too much for Sky to hear. She put the headphones back on Sky's head properly and hit the play button on the cassette player. "Here. We've talked a lot today. Why don't you listen to more of this?" "I can handle more." Sky said. "I'm sure you can, Sky. But I think it's enough for now. You should rest now." Kathy lightly pushed him back down on the cot. "But..." "Shh...listen. Can you hear her?" Kathy asked in a sweet voice. Sky listened more closely to the recording. "She's singing again." "Why don't you just listen for a while? We've talked about a lot today. It's enough for now. Listen and rest. You should make time for thoughts about her too." Kathy said. Sky lay back against the cot. He watched Kathy play on the piano while he listened to the tapes. His mother sounded so happy on all of them. There were other voices on the tapes, ones he didn't recognize but he guessed from context must have been the other members of Kathy's old band. He tried to picture it all. Sky heard thunder in the background of the recording. He recognized one of the songs and hummed a long. Outside, he thought he heard thunder too, but Sky was already falling asleep again and couldn't tell anymore what was real and what he was dreaming. Soon, he saw himself there with his mother and Kathy. Sky muttered in his sleep. "Mama..." Kathy pulled up the blanket more. "Look at you. You always act like you're grown, but you're still a baby. Poor thing. Keep dreaming. Don't let the pain reach you there. There's already too much here." When Sky woke again, Alex was putting him down in his bed. "Kathy?" Sky asked. "No, it's me." Alex said. He put a blanket over Sky. "How are you feeling?" "What time is it?" Sky asked. "It's ten at night." Alex said. "Already? Ugh, I've been sleeping so much. I didn't say goodbye to Kathy." Sky said. "That's okay. Your body's fighting off something. It's normal to sleep a lot. I don't know how you managed alone for so long. Did you not get sick very often?" Alex asked. He propped up a breakfast tray on the bed with food for Sky. "I don't know." Sky said. "I don't remember most days. Most of my memories blur together." Alex sat down at the edge of the bed. "Do you have a lot of memory problems?" "I don't know." Sky ate some of the food. He felt strange. He wanted to spend more time with Kathy. How could the day already be over with? Alex watched him for a while. He remembered something. "Oh, Kathy told me to give these to you." Sky looked over. Alex pointed to a cassette player and a stack of tapes on the nightstand beside the bed. "Why did she give me those?" "She said you needed them more than she did." "Thanks for bringing me to see her." Sky said. He was hungrier than earlier. He ate all the of the food Alex brought for him. Sky didn't say anything else about the tapes. He didn't want to talk about that with Alex. Sky wondered what Kathy told him was on them. Alex took his temperature again later. "No fever. That's good. Looks like all your sleeping paid off." "How can sleeping be helpful?" Sky asked. He was restless again. Knowing it was now nighttime only made that worse. "It always is. Sleep is a kind of medicine." Alex laughed at himself. "One I don't get enough of myself." "Is it because of the baby?" "No, I wasn't getting good sleep before either." Alex said. He put the thermometer away. "Don't think I've really slept right in years." "How do I know if I'm sleeping right?" Sky asked. "You're supposed to get about seven to eight hours of sleep every night. I think I get three to four." Alex yawned. He rubbed his eyes. "When I was on the inside, they had us all sleep deprived on purpose. We worked so many hours of the day, whether it was summer or winter, we only saw the sun on Sundays. It was worse for the lower ranked employees. They had to walk or use a bike to get to our work building. I had a car, which meant I actually had some time to cook breakfast. They give instant food for everyone else because they intentionally don't give them time to cook. After work, we had to do more work. On Sunday, we had more work at home, but I could sleep in at least." Sky asked. "No windows?" "No, but we did have some natural light in our apartments. The sunlight could come in through the screen doors on our balconies, but we usually weren't there during daylight hours, so that didn't matter much." Alex rubbed his face. "Why are you still not sleeping right? You've been out here for a while." "Because there's not enough hours in the day to do everything." Alex said. Sky noticed the heavy bags under his eyes. "You should go to sleep." Sky said. Alex laughed again. "I know. And you need to keep resting too. I know you're going to get to working on something as soon as I leave." "What makes you think that?" Sky asked. "Because," Alex said with a grin. "You're exactly like me. Don't work too hard, okay? You're just a kid. I know I asked you to work with us, but I only meant that as an assistant. You don't need to take on the role of an adult with all of us here." "I can do as much as an adult." "I know you can. That doesn't mean you should." Alex messed with Sky's hair. "Hey!" "Work on being a kid for once, Sky. It'd be nice if at least one of you listened to me." Alex got up. "One of?" "He's not here right now, but there's another boy like you out there right now swearing up and down he's going to take down Moone & Wolfe. Kid's as stubborn as you too. He's the son of one of your dad's top scientists. I told him to stay here, but he's gone out again looking for leads." Alex sighed deeply. "I hope he's okay." "What's his name?" Sky asked. "August Glenwood." "Glenwood...Dale Glenwood's son?" Sky recognized the last name. Dale Glenwood sometimes came to their house, though Sky didn't remember him ever bringing any children with him. Alex nodded. "He's your age, actually. Maybe if I can convince you to not run off, I can get you to convince him." "I can't stay here forever. I have to go back out again." Sky said. Alex shook his head. "Then maybe the other way around. You might actually be more stubborn than he is. Well, I'm gonna head to bed. Rest up. If you need anything, call me on my radio." "Night." Sky waited for Alex to leave before turning on his laptop. He opened up the files that Alan gave him. Sky opened up a text file and looked over what files he finished reading through and what was left. Along with some files on experiments he hadn't gotten around to yet, his father's novels and much of the other pre-take over propaganda material was left. There was also the children's TV series involving Delilah and the porn films. Sky wasn't looking forward to watching either of them, but he planned on doing so at some point to get a feel for what visuals they used to brainwash people. Sky read through some of the novels first. There were ten in total. The first one was titled Bridge Gate Hollow. He recognized the name as the location of an experiment Moone & Wolfe did on an entire neighborhood's population. It was one of their earlier memory experiments. The whole project was deemed a failure, and every person in the town was killed or convinced to kill themselves. The news reported it as the neighborhood being taken over by a death cult, and over time, the company worked to make sure as many records of the town as possible were destroyed. Sky was curious how the novel tied into the experiment. He was shocked to see no mention of the experiment at all. Not only had his father not mentioned the experiment, he'd rewritten the entire narrative of what occurred in that town. Rather than an experimental failure, Bridge Gate Hollow was described as a utopian paradise where only perfection existed. Delilah was there along with a character called the doctor, who Sky assumed was a stand-in for whoever the head of the Summerfield family currently was. They controlled everything there, and everyone was so happy that they brought their teachings to other places. Delilah was perfect in every way and the mother figure for all who followed her despite her perpetual youthfulness. Sky skimmed over the sex scenes. He didn't expect that kind of content to be in there either, but there was quite a lot between Delilah and the doctor. Given his father's hatred of sex and the cult's negative outlook on it, he found it odd that kind of content was there at all. He wondered if the sexual content was meant as a metaphor for becoming one with Delilah and the cult or something else along those lines. Sky skimmed through the other novels. All of the novels followed the characters of Delilah and the doctor as they encountered different people and either led them into their fold or watched them get "punished" with death by unusual circumstances. One novel was different than the rest, the novel Nobody Goes to Blackwell Forest Anymore. While this one still included the doctor and Delilah, they were not the primary focus. Delilah and the doctor were telling their followers of Delilah's true origins, according to them. It was a retelling of the story Kathy told him about the sacrifice and Delilah's continuous rebirth every few generations. Here, the doctor figure was painted as filling role of the original Delilah's father, Leon Blackwell. A sketch was included at the end of that novel of the original Delilah. Sky's body went cold. It was the girl from his dream, the one in the field who was wearing the ripped white apron. He stared at the sketch for a long time. "I'm misremembering." Sky said to himself. "It's only a sketch. It's not that detailed anyway." Sky closed the last novel and opened up the folder containing video copies of the children's show. He watched a few episodes. They all had the same format, from what he could tell. The show was in black and white, with a few parts were in red. The doctor was not a character in the show. It was only Delilah and her animal helpers. Every episode, the stuffed bear named Bad Bear would be punished for doing something trivial. Delilah would give lessons on productivity, implied eugenics and segregation, and the evils of relationships. Sky found the program to be boring. He couldn't fathom what kind of person would be entertained by the show. Clearly, plenty were though. From all the information he read about the company's ventures into various media, all outlets led to recruits. Somebody was brainwashed by the show. Whoever that target audience was, Sky didn't belong to it. He assumed the rest of the episodes were the same as all the others. Repetitive messaging was one of the key ways they indoctrinated people. That left the adult films. He sighed and opened up the first film. Sky wasn't sure what to expect. He had never seen a film like that before. It was the length of other films Sky had caught at the Sanctuary. The plot of the first film seemed to overlap with the first novel, but included more "bad" people who needed to be punished. There were several death scenes, some in the middle of sex scenes. The sex scenes themselves disgusted Sky. It reminded him of what he saw with his sister and her boyfriend. The first few sex scenes involved characters in the Bridge Gate Hollow neighborhood. The deaths were very realistic. Sky thought they looked too real, but he didn't know much about film and what was possible with special effects. He told himself they probably weren't real deaths. Then, he got to a scene with Delilah and the doctor. Sky paused the video when Delilah greeted the doctor and Sky saw who was playing him. It was his father. His stomach turned. He worked up the courage to hit play and prepared himself for what he might see. If the films were following along with some of the content from the novels, he knew what to expect next. His fears were confirmed shortly after. At first, he wanted to throw up. Then the nausea subsided and he was filled with rage. The rage was quickly replaced with another feeling. Sky paused the video again. He pulled his knees in and buried his head down against them. Sky kept his voice low. He was ashamed of it, but he couldn't stop crying. He wanted to scream. "How could you do that?" Sky muttered under his breath. "How could you trap her and then you go do this with some other woman? What are we all to you? How could you yell at my mom while you were doing this?!" Sky cried alone in that room, wanting so desperately to yell at a man whose bones had long been covered with clay. When he had calmed down some, he skipped ahead in the video. Sky skipped through parts of another one, then gave up. He couldn't watch any more of it. He got up to go to the bathroom to wash his face off. Sky didn't feel right in going in the closest one. Instead, he changed his path and went to Alex and Eric's room. Sky knocked on the door. Eric answered him. "Sky? Is something wrong?" "Can I come in?" Sky didn't know why he was there. He didn't want to be alone right then. That was the only thing he knew. "Yeah, come in." Eric turned on the light and stepped aside for Sky to come in. "Are you okay? Your face is red." Sky wiped his nose off. He sat down at Alex's desk and looked over at Alex. Alex was deep in sleep. He wanted to talk to him, but he didn't want to wake Alex, not after Alex told him how little he slept. Eric asked him again. "Sky, what's wrong? Did something happen?" Sky wanted to say something. He didn't know how to say it. He couldn't get the words out. All he could do was hold back the tears. Every time he tried to open his mouth, everything in him wanted to pour out. Sky couldn't hold it in. He was too overwhelmed. Rather than words, all that came out of him were tears. His face burned hot with embarrassment. Sky didn't know why he was crying, but it wouldn't stop. The longer he cried and the more he wanted to stop it, the more it came out of him. Eric knelt down and hugged him. "It's gonna be okay. Shh...I don't know what's wrong, but you're safe right now. Okay?" Sky unconsciously buried his face into Eric's shirt. He clung to him in search of something he couldn't acknowledge he wanted. Eric stayed with him, gently patting his back and telling him comforting words. Sky's crying eventually woke up Alex. He asked. "What's wrong?" "I don't know. He won't tell me. I think he's too upset to." Eric said to Alex. Alex got out of bed. He went over to them and crouched down on the floor. Alex looked at Sky. "Sky, what happened? You can tell us. If we can help in any way, you know we will." Sky only got more embarrassed and upset at himself now that Alex was awake. Alex suggested to him. "Hey, if you can't talk to us, do you wanna talk to Kathy?" Sky managed to shake his head. "No? Okay. Do you think you could tell us what happened?" Alex asked. Breathing became difficult. Sky was getting too worked up. He was getting dizzy. Alex pulled Sky back from Eric slightly. "Sky, you're starting to hyperventilate. Please, breathe slowly. Come on. Follow my lead. Breathe in, breathe out." Sky did as Alex told him. Alex led him through that for several more breaths. Sky started to calm down. Eric took a hand towel from the desk and wiped Sky's face off. Alex got up. He brought Sky a glass of water. Sky felt empty and drained. His chest hurt. His hands were covered in sweat, shaking uncontrollably. "Drink some water. That might help a little." Alex said. Sky took a sip of water. He rubbed his eyes. "I'm sorry I woke you up." Alex shook his head. "It's okay." "I thought you were supposed to be with Noelle." Sky said. "She doesn't need me at night anymore. Besides, her room's not far from here and we've got the radio. I can get there pretty quickly." Alex said. "But if you thought I wasn't here, why did you come here? Did you want to see Eric?" "I don't know what I was doing." Sky said. His eyes were heavy. He somehow managed to cry even more than he had after seeing that scene in the film. "Well, you know. That happens." Alex smiled to cheer him up. "Do you think you can tell us now about what's upsetting you? You don't have to right now. You can tell us whenever you're ready." "I...I don't know why it's...I already got upset about it earlier. I don't know why I'm upset again." Sky said. He drank more of the water. "I saw...I watched those adult movies my dad made." Eric and Alex exchanged looks. Alex grimaced. "Ooh...I am so sorry. I didn't even think about that being in there. Shit, we did give you everything. Oh my god. So then you saw..." "I saw my dad and Delilah." Sky said. His stomach hurt. He felt the water coming back up. Sky got up from the chair. "Excuse me." Sky ran to their bathroom. He just barely made it to the toilet to throw up. The food Alex gave him earlier came up, then nothing but stomach acid. Sky threw up four times. He washed his mouth out and rinsed his face off before going back into the room. Alex met him in the doorway, hugging him. "I'm sorry you saw that. That must have been really shocking to you. I'm sorry. I really am. We weren't thinking then. We shouldn't have handed that over to you." Alex said. His face was red. Sky leaned into him. "I don't understand why he was in it. It doesn't make sense. None of that makes sense." "I don't understand it either. He was a very strange, confused guy. You don't need to understand it." Alex said. Sky pulled away. He sat back down in the chair. He wanted to say something about his parents, but he couldn't get himself to do it. Sky changed the topic to something else that was bothering him. "You guys have seen them, right?" Eric nodded. Alex said. "Unfortunately, yes." "Um, remember when we had that talk a while back about...stuff. Um, are those movies, uh, what I should expect or are they weird?" Sky asked. Eric looked over at Alex in confusion. "Oh, uh, that. No, those movies are weird. It's not like that." Alex said awkwardly. Eric raised an eyebrow. "What are you two talking about?" "I, uh, had to give him a talk...a special talk." Alex let out a deep breath. "Oh. Oooh. Oh no, not those movies are not what it's supposed to be like. Dear god, no." Eric winced. "Definitely do not use that as your frame of reference. Those films are nasty." "So, it's really not like that?" Sky asked. "No. I mean, it's not supposed to be. You get what I'm saying." "So it's...normal if watching the parts without my dad grossed me out too?" Sky asked for more reassurance. Eric nodded. "Yeah. Those were some really weird movies." Alex said. "Porn in general isn't a really good reflection of the real thing even when it's not that out there. They're, uh, very unrealistic." "Oh? But why?" Sky asked. "Um, a lot of porn was made really cheaply, and when it's not, well...back in the day, a big time actor wasn't likely to do a role like that. Same with the writing and direction. The highest quality porn could never compete in quality to the best of the regular movies. But no one makes movies anymore." Alex said. "We've got the entertainment we could save, but getting back to a point where we can make stuff like movies again...we're not there yet." "Kathy is still playing her music." Sky said. "Yeah, she is. We do have a lot of musicians and storytellers, but it's different." Alex patted him on the head. "And I know you've been contributing. I hear you singing on the radio with her." Sky blushed. "Um, that was Kathy's idea. I don't know if I sing very good." "You sing better than I can, that's for sure." Alex grinned. Eric said. "I can't sing at all. You sound good. Kathy wouldn't've put you on the radio if you sounded bad." A small smile appeared on Sky's face underneath the red. "Really?" They both nodded at him. Alex asked. "Are you feeling a little better now?" "Yeah...I don't know why I...I don't know what happened. What was that?" Sky asked. "I'm not sure. Could've been from the shock of seeing that. Or maybe something about it brought some other memories and feelings to the surface, and that's what you were really reacting to. I don't know. We have therapy and psychiatric services here. Do you want to see someone?" Alex asked. Sky shook his head. "No, I'm fine. I don't think I need to see someone like that." "It's okay, Sky. I drop by sometimes. It's not a big deal." Alex said. "No, I'll figure it out on my own." Sky got up from the chair. "Sorry for waking you both up. I know it's really late." "You don't need apologize for that." Eric said. "I should get back to my room." Sky walked to the door. He lingered there. His feet were as heavy as stones. "Um, Alex, where did you get that cot from?" "From the supply room. Why?" Alex asked. "Oh, uh, nevermind then." "Sky?" Eric called out his name. Sky put his hand on the doorknob, but he couldn't turn it. "I don't know why, but I don't want to go back to my room right now." "I'll stay up with you, if you need someone to. Eric, you can go ahead and go back to bed. You have work in the morning." Alex said to both of them. "I don't really want to stay up. I'm tired again." Sky looked back at Eric and Alex. "Could I sleep here?" "Um..." Eric glanced over to Alex. "We don't have anywhere for you to sleep. We only have one bed." Alex said. Sky clutched the doorknob more tightly. "Please? I know I'm too old to ask that, but I really don't want to go back to my room." "Are you afraid of something there? What if I walk with you there and stay until you fall asleep?" Alex suggested an alternative. Sky shook his head. "I don't want to be alone in the morning. That's the part I'm..." "Sky, what are you afraid of will happen in the morning?" Alex asked him. "I know I'm going to have a weird dream. I know it." Sky's hands were shaking again. Alex walked over to him. "I'll let you stay, under one condition." "What's that?" "I'm going to take you to see the therapist later this week. If you agree to go, I'll let you stay tonight." Alex said. "Why do I need to do that? I'm fine." Alex put his hands on Sky's shoulders. "I know you feel that way, and I'm not a doctor, but I was originally studying a lot about mental health. That's how I met your father. I think you might have PTSD. A lot of people have it now." "I don't have anything wrong with me." Sky repeated. "Sky, I have PTSD. So does Eric. It might not be that. It could be something else, but you've been through a lot and you were alone for so long. It's okay to get help from other people. Isn't that what you're doing right now?" Alex spoke softly to him. Sky looked away. "I'll go to my room." "Alright, how about a compromise. Would you at least do some exercises with me? Will it be safer if it's me?" Alex asked. Sky looked back at him. "What kind of exercises?" Alex explained. "There are techniques you can use to help with different symptoms that come up. I don't know if you have PTSD, but I've seen you display some symptoms I've had to deal with myself. Even if you don't have it, learning how to deal with that kind of stuff is still helpful. If I let you stay tonight, would you do some of the exercises with me?" Sky thought it over. He really didn't want to go back to his room. "Um, could we start with only one at a time? I don't know...what if I can't do it?" "We'll go one step at a time. When you're ready, maybe we can get you to see a therapist one day. For now, let's go to sleep. We're all tired." Alex said. Sky walked away from the door. "Is it okay? I'm too old to be sleeping in someone's bed because of bad dreams." "Well, you kind of are, but it's just this once. You had a really bad experience tonight. Let's pretend we're camping instead." Alex said. "Camping?" Sky asked. Eric got in bed. "Yeah, I guess you probably never went camping. But you know, a lot of times, everyone has to sleep right up against each other in the tent. There's not a lot of room." "I don't know anything about camping. What is that?" Sky got in bed. He looked at the pillows. "Oh, where should I sleep?" Alex opened up the closet and got another pillow down. He tossed it onto the bed. "Here. Use this one." "Camping is something people used to do for fun...back when it was safe to go out. People used to get tents or RVs and go out into the woods for a couple of days. I wasn't a big fan of it, especially the bears." Eric said. "You're still on about those bears after all these years." Alex turned the light off. He got into the bed. "Bears are scary." Eric said. He leaned over and turned on a projector sitting on the headboard. It projected tiny dots of light onto the ceiling. "I liked this part though." "What kind of light is that?" Sky asked. "It's a starlight projector. Someone found one while looking through an old electronics store." Alex said. He changed the settings slightly. "What's it for?" Sky watched the lights move slowly on the ceiling. "For fun. A lot of these were made for kids, but Eric wanted it." Alex got comfortable on his pillow. He pointed to a part of the ceiling. "This pattern is set for the constellations. Do you know them?" "I remember my mother told me about them once. She had a notebook with the constellation of...um, it was some fish, I think? Father hated it, but he let her keep it." Sky said. "That was probably Pisces. Was your mother born in late February or March?" Alex asked. Sky nodded his head. "She was born February 25th. How did you know that?" "Pisces is one of the Zodiac signs too." Alex said. "Oh, that. My dad always said that was nonsense, and I hate him, but isn't it?" Sky asked. "It is, but it's fun. There's no harm in being into it a little." Alex said. He pointed to another set of stars on the ceiling. "Eric and I are both Aquarius. I was born January 29th and Eric was born February 5th. It's this constellation over here. When's your birthday?" "It's July 7th." Sky said. "Oh, a Cancer." Eric said, half asleep. "Cancer? That sounds awful." Sky said. Alex laughed. "Not that kind of cancer. Cancer is a crab constellation. It's that one right there. I'm pretty sure that's a water sign and the moon is your ruling planet." "The moon isn't a planet." Sky corrected him. "I know, but it's counted with them in astrology. Eric, was the moon...is he awake?" Alex looked over at Eric. "No." Sky said. Eric's eyes were closed shut. He drooled on his pillow in his sleep. "Hey, I know this stuff isn't real and all, but what about April 4th? That's my sister's birthday." Sky said. "Um, let's see. That'd be Aries. That one's a ram. It's this one over here." Alex pointed to a different part of the ceiling. "Hey, why do people care about this stuff?" Sky asked. "My mom had to have bought that notebook at a store. Did they really make stuff like that back then?" "Zodiac stuff? Oh, yeah. You could get things like that pretty easily. They used to sell stuff like keychains with names on it and all kinds of personalized things. People like having things to show their differences and sameness to other people for fun. None of it really matters or means anything, but it was something people liked doing as a way to say 'look, here's something about me'. Everyone has a favorite color. It's irrelevant, but it's something that is different from person to person. What's yours?" Alex said. He reached back and changed the setting on the projector to a rainbow wave pattern. "Favorite? How do I know what that is?" Sky asked. "Oh, I guess you probably never thought about it much. It's just a color you prefer more. My favorite color is blue. That shade, right there." Alex pointed to a royal blue color. Sky looked out at all the colors above him. "I don't know...I'm not sure." "Well, I'm sure you'll discover what it is eventually." Alex said. He asked. "How are you feeling?" "I don't know. I don't think I'm as upset as earlier." Sky said. He watched the waves of colors moving on the ceiling with the constellation pattern. "Have you ever been to the ocean?" "Mm...Yeah, but I haven't been there in a long time. It's all blocked off now." Alex said. "The border?" "Uh huh. I've been hoping a hurricane will knock down part of it and drag it into the sea, but it's stayed up." Sky was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. "Why not blow it up?" "We've thought about it, but we're worried about getting the attention of Moone & Wolfe. If we cause too big of a mess, they usually retaliate and they have better weapons than us." "Hey Alex," Sky said. He rubbed his eyes. "I don't think I have it, but um, that thing you said you have, could seeing my dad be what made me act like that? I was really upset that he did that, but I don't know...if that was the only reason I was so upset." "Could be. Eric avoids talking about his parents at all." "How can I trust a therapist? My father had a lot of them on staff, and psychiatrists, and they..." Alex stared at the lights. "Every job is done by a human being. Some people do good things, some do bad. It's not the profession itself that creates anything good or bad, though some jobs are more enticing to certain kinds of people. The therapist we have here is a good one. You can trust him." "Did Kathy tell you what was on the tapes?" Sky asked. "No, she didn't." Sky sunk deeper into the blankets. "They're of my mom." "So you heard your mom's voice for the first time in a long time, and then you saw your father for the first time in a long time later the same day. Yeah, I can see why that might stir up some bad feelings." "I don't want to see him in my dreams." "Then let's not talk about him. Remember, we're out camping tonight." Sky's eyes became heavy. "What else did people do when they went camping?" "They'd sit around a campfire and tell spooky stories, about ghost and monsters...go fishing...hiking...eat s'mores..." Alex named off whatever came to mind. "What are s'mores?" "Oh, well, first you get a marshmallow, a really big one, and you put it on skewer and toast it over the campfire. When it's nice and toasted, you put it in between some graham crackers and some chocolate. I liked my marshmallows kind of gooey, but Eric liked his extra crispy. We could..." Alex looked over at Sky. He pulled the blankets up more. "Goodnight, Sky." Sky couldn't keep his eyes open. He heard Alex, but he couldn't say anything back. The lights on the ceiling changed to shades of blue. Beneath him, he saw blue, glowing water. Sky couldn't touch the water. He watched it flow underneath him. An invisible force kept them apart. Blue flowers grew along the edge of the river. Sky's hands passed through them. Sky called out for Alex and Eric, but two others came to him. Where Eric should have been, he saw Idris instead, his body unharmed and the same shade as everything around them. Instead of Alex, he saw Sarah in the same blue. No scars covered her. Sarah offered him her hand. Sky took it and walked with her to the edge of the lights. He asked her where they were going. Sarah vanished. He couldn't see Idris anymore, or the river. Tall grass sprung up around him. The sky rumbled and flickered. In the center of the field, he saw the lonely oak illuminated by a lightning strike. Rain poured down on him. He sensed someone standing to his right. Sky uttered a name he could not recall in the morning. When Sky woke from the dream, Eric was getting ready for work in the bathroom and Alex was eating breakfast at his desk. Sky stretched and pulled the blankets back. "Morning. How'd you sleep?" Alex asked. "I had a weird dream." Sky said. Alex got up and handed him a plate and a glass. "A nightmare?" "No, just weird." Sky took the plate. He felt hungrier than yesterday. Sky shoveled the scrambled eggs into his mouth. "We have eggs today?" "Yeah, we snatched some more supplies from them. We got a lot of eggs this time and some almond milk." Alex said. Sky took a sip of his milk. "Huh, flavor's a lot different than the rice milk." "I'm not big on almond, but I like it more than soy." Alex sat back down at his desk. Sky peeled the orange on his plate. He liked oranges, but he rarely got to eat them when he wandered alone. Sky looked over at a bottle sitting on the floor by the desk. "Is that alcohol?" "Oh, this? It's muscadine wine. I plan on drinking a little after dinner." Alex handed him the bottle. "Muscadine? What's that?" "You wanna smell it?" Sky opened the bottle and sniffed. He recoiled and handed the bottle back to Alex. "I don't think I'd want to try that." "Yeah, it's kind of an acquired taste. You're too young to be drinking this stuff anyway." Alex put the bottle back on the floor. "How can adults drink that stuff? All of it smells awful." Sky said. He ate his orange pieces. "Eh, you might like it more when you're older. Or you may not. Not everyone likes drinking." Sky picked up his toast. "Hey, did you get a knife?" "Oh, here." Alex handed him a butter knife. Sky took the knife. He used it to scoop up some of the kudzu jelly on his plate and spread it onto his toast. Sky ate the toast quickly. He liked this form of kudzu a lot more than the kudzu salad served at lunch. Sky drank the rest of his milk. "How come you get a whole bottle of wine?" "If we have it available, most adults can get a bottle. Of this stuff anyway. Some of the other stuff is only brought out for celebrations." Alex drank some of his coffee. "What're you planning on doing today? You look like you're feeling better than yesterday. Did you want to rest some more?" "No, I'm tired of sleeping. I was going to see Kathy about something. Um, Eric, is it okay if I don't go to work today?" Sky asked. Eric leaned out of the bathroom with a toothbrush in his mouth. "Uh...uh huh. Das fi'." "What did he say?" Sky asked. "He said it's fine." Alex said. "What were you going to do with Kathy?" "She told me there's some old paintings and stuff of the family. I wanted to see what the original Delilah looked like." Sky said. "Oh, yeah. We have those records in a special room. I doubt Alan wouldn't give you clearance to get in, especially if you're going with Kathy." Alex said. Eric came out of the bathroom. He sat down beside Sky on the bed and put his shoes on. "Are you sure it's okay if I don't go in today? I don't think I'm sick anymore." Sky said. Eric looked up and smiled. "Yeah. It's fine. Do what you need to do." Sky's gaze lingered on Eric's eyes. His face felt hot again. He didn't notice before that Eric had very pretty eyes. Eric checked the temperature of Sky's forehead with his hand. "Hmm, you look a little red, but you don't feel like you have a fever. It's probably a good idea for you to take it easy today anyway." "Okay." Sky said. His heartbeat sped up. Eric got up from the bed and went over to Alex. He leaned down and kissed him. "I'm gonna go ahead and go now. See you at lunch." "Alright. Good luck." Alex said. Eric took a pocket notebook off the desk and a pencil. He stuffed them in his back pocket and left. Sky watched him leave, forgetting about what he was going to tell Alex about his plans with Kathy. "Hey Sky, I'm headin' out soon. Are you gonna be okay by yourself?" Alex asked. Sky didn't catch what he said. His mind was somewhere else. Alex waved his hand in front of Sky's face. "Hello?" "Huh? Sorry. I didn't hear you." Sky looked over. "You okay?" "Yeah." "Alright. I'm gonna be going now. If you need me, call me on the radio." Alex said. He walked to the door, then stopped. "Oh, and I want you to delete those videos you watched yesterday." "Why?" Sky asked. "We shouldn't have given you that. I know we said we'd give you all we had, but it's really not appropriate for you to have those files. Delete them. You shouldn't look at them at all anyway, what with your dad being in those movies too." Alex said. "But I want to keep every piece of data I can find. What if there's something useful in there?" Sky asked. "There isn't. You've seen one, you know enough about it. Delete them. That's not a request. Do it." Alex said. He was firm with his words. Sky bowed his head slightly. "Okay." "It's for the best. You don't need to be looking at that, for a number of reasons." Alex said, leaning against the doorframe. He ran his fingers through his hair. "It's our fault for not thinking about it. I'm sorry you saw that yesterday." "I would have found a way to watch them anyway." Sky said. "Doesn't matter. It's still my responsibility to make sure that didn't happen. I'm sorry." Alex shook his head. "If you're feeling up to it, do you want to do one of those exercises with me later today?" Sky thought it over. "I might. I'm not sure." "Okay. Give it some thought. After you see Kathy, why don't we get something to eat together? Maybe we could try an exercise then." Alex suggested. Sky agreed to meet up with Alex for lunch. They parted ways after that. Sky went to see Kathy. He found her in the middle of the morning announcements. Sky sat down beside her and quietly waited for her to finish. "Good morning, Sky." She said. "How are you feeling today?" "Better." Sky said. He kicked his feet. "That's good. Did you get the tapes?" She asked. Sky nodded. "I haven't listened to them all yet, but I will. Are you busy today?" "Not for the next few hours. Did you want to talk about something?" "Could we still go see those paintings?" "We can. I'll need to let Alan know we're going in that room. It's usually locked." Kathy said. She took Sky with her to see Alan, who handed her a key to the room. She took him to the room. Sky wasn't sure what waited for him on the other side of that door. His heart raced. He wiped his palms off on his sleeves. "Ready?" Kathy asked. Sky took a deep breath. "Let's go."
III. The Hellhound