Everything seems louder when you’re the last human alive. Your footsteps echo in the empty spaces, and your whispers linger too long. Your breathing is heavier, but it seems insignificant as it disappears into the air around you.
They’re all dead, I think as we shuffle through the empty commissary in compound 119. Dead.
The jarring snap! of something metal makes me jump, and I wheel around just in time to see Celdon pry open the control panel and flip several oversized switches.
An electric hum fills the deserted atrium, and neon lights flicker on at all the booths around us.
Apart from the lack of people, the commissary looks just like ours back home. The shelves are stocked with anything you could possibly want or need: shoes, lamps, lingerie, computer monitors, children’s toys, handheld vacuum cleaners. It even smells the same: a mix of expensive cologne, synthetic coffee, and fruit-flavored lip gloss.
A loud blast of music from a booth on my right nearly makes my heart give out, and an overenthusiastic male voice starts to play through a hidden speaker.
Are you tired of waiting for results in the gym? Are you ready to kick-start your weight-loss journey?
The image of an overtanned male model appears on one of the enormous ad screens and flashes a smoldering grin.
Suddenly his voice is interrupted by upbeat club music as another ad starts to play two booths over. A peppy female voice joins the din: All the latest club looks at an affordable price . . . tops, bottoms, accessories . . . you name it!
Two more ads start, the canned voices melding into an indistinguishable racket as they bounce off the high ceiling. I throw Celdon a sharp look.
“Sorry,” he groans, examining the control panel and toggling a few switches. The lights flicker off and back on again. When he finds the correct switch, the ads stop abruptly, and I see spots in my vision as the bright screens shut off. I let out a breath to calm my racing heart.
Celdon and I have walked every level of the compound from Recon up, trying to find someone with a heartbeat to tell us what happened. The supply train departed for our home compound hours ago, leaving us stranded until the next supply run — assuming there will be another supply run.
My insides are a tangled knot of dread and disgust. Even though 119’s deceased are contained to the dead level, I can still taste the decay of thousands of corpses in the back of my throat.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to banish that horrible sight from my mind: thousands and thousands of people — all dead. And we never even heard a whisper of the tragedy back home.
The Operations workers sent to loot supplies from 119 must be part of Constance. If the board knew, they must have helped cover it up to avoid a panic.
How long did they plan to keep this up? I wonder. Until supplies ran dry? Until Bid Day?
Bid Day. That sends a fresh wave of horror crashing over me. The new recruits who didn’t accept their original bids would have been sent here.
“Do you think this was happening last Bid Day?” I ask aloud.
“The other recruits — the ones who left 112 . . . Do you think the board would have sent them here if they knew what was happening?”
Celdon snorts as he rifles through a rack of clothing at the next booth over. “I wouldn’t put anything past them.” He picks up a banana-yellow tank top with the words “Let’s Bang” written across the chest. “Wanna stock up while we’re here?”
I shoot him a dirty look.
“What? Fire sale. Everything must go.”
“What is wrong with you?”
“Well . . .” Celdon shrugs, looking around the empty commissary. “No one here is going to buy anything.”
I just stare at him for several seconds, and — before I can stop it — a choked laugh bursts out of my throat. It sounds much too loud in the empty space, and as soon as I hear it, it makes me think of all the people who will never laugh or joke again.
My fit of hilarity triggers something else inside me, and I feel it morphing into a sob.
Celdon’s smile disappears when he sees the change in my expression, and he drops the tank top guiltily and crosses to where I’m standing.
“Hey . . . hey . . . it’s okay,” he murmurs, draping his long, skinny arms around me.
Loud, ugly sobs roll through me, and we sink down together onto the dirty tile in an awkward embrace.
I’m angry at myself for losing it, but I can’t stop crying. Everything is hitting me all at once: Our only hope of escaping Constance is gone, we’re trapped here for at least another day — maybe longer — and no one at our compound has any clue that one of the largest human settlements in the country has been completely wiped out.
A few hours ago, I was devastated that Eli lied about joining us at 119, but now I’m grateful because it means he doesn’t have to confront this horrible reality. Eli would handle it better than I am, but he’s faced so much tragedy already. He deserves to be spared this.
“Do you wanna . . . talk about it?” Celdon asks. He never really knows what to do when a girl starts crying on him, but he tries.
“Okay, good. Me neither.”
We sit in silence for several minutes. I’m desperately trying to pull myself together, and Celdon falls into a strange rocking motion that makes me feel a little sick.
“What if we’re stuck here?” I whisper.
He lets out a heavy sigh, and I feel his narrow chest puff out and deflate abruptly. “Well, I guess . . . free T-shirts for life, huh?”
“So am I!” A dark laugh rumbles through him. “I don’t know. There’s probably enough emergency rations to last us a lifetime. And as long as the solar grid holds out, we’ll probably be good on power.”
“You’re thinking of staying here?”
“Well, it isn’t ideal. But we might not have a choice.”
I shudder. “We can’t stay here.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m sure they’ll be back. They won’t stop until they’ve picked the carcass clean.”
“That’s a little harsh.”
“No, it’s not. That’s exactly what they’re doing . . . opportunistic bastards.”
“How long do you think they’re going to keep pretending everything’s fine over here?”
Celdon snorts. “Probably as long as they’ve been pretending that the drifters don’t exist.”
I take a deep breath and wipe my nose with the back of my sleeve.
“Let’s keep moving,” I sigh. “We can at least figure out what killed them all.”
Celdon is purposely trying to keep his voice light, but I can sense his relief. We’re both exhausted, and every level we explore without finding another living soul just adds to our despair. Going straight to the source fills me with anxiety, but it also gives me a sense of control.
Celdon hops to his feet and pulls me into a standing position. Now that I’ve been sitting for a while, my legs feel a little wobbly from all the walking we’ve been doing. But I take one last gulp of cologne-laced air and force my feet to move.
It’s stale and damp inside the stairwell. I know it isn’t possible for the stench of decomposing bodies to travel this far, but being in the dark enclosed space intensifies my memory of that odor. As long as I live, I’ll never be able to forget the smell of all those dead people.
On the next landing, we hit a small puddle of cloudy water, and Celdon swears as the grime stains his loafers.
“If we stay here, I’m going to have to read up on plumbing. This is fucking disgusting.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I murmur. I can’t imagine Celdon trying his hand at compound maintenance. I’ve never even seen him hang a picture. If the two of us have to keep this place running on our own, we’re screwed.
I still want to investigate all the tier-two sections and confirm that there aren’t any survivors left, but right now, finding out what killed everyone seems like a more pressing priority.
We keep climbing until we reach the medical ward, and I steel myself for the possibility that whatever killed them could kill us, too.
There could have been a massive radiation leak. Or maybe the groundwater got contaminated. After Owen’s warning to stay away from 119, there’s a small part of me that wonders if one of the drifter gangs had something to do with it, but there’s no sign of an explosion or forced entry — not exactly the drifters’ MO.
The deserted medical ward is still just as creepy as it was when we first arrived, but this time my feet lead me confidently around the long line of gurneys pushed against the tunnel wall.
Celdon stays near the front desk to try to boot up one of the computers. If we can gain access to 119’s network, we can view the news feeds and possibly hack into the compound’s medical records. Then we should be able to discover what killed everyone.
As he works, I check the patient rooms for any lingering evidence of what transpired. Unfortunately, the medical ward staff didn’t leave us much to go on.
All the beds have been stripped of their linens, and the waste receptacles inside the patient rooms are empty. There are no medications lying around — no nurses’ interfaces conveniently loaded with patient notes.
After a few minutes, I find one supply closet that hasn’t been looted yet and feel a surge of relief. If there are things in here we could use back home, there’s a strong chance our Operations workers will return for another load of supplies.
I flip on my interface and focus the beam of blue light on the shelf just above my head. Most of the medication bins are fully stocked, but there’s one that’s completely empty.
A tag on the bin reads “Bartrizol,” and I wish Sawyer were here so she could tell me what it’s used for. Whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to have worked. But if we knew what it was intended to treat, we would know what killed everyone.
Celdon’s echoing voice jerks me out of my thoughts, and I fly out of the closet to find him.
He’s still behind the front desk, swiveling from side to side on the tall stool. When he sees me, a wicked grin spreads across his face, and his eyes flash with pride.
“Are you in?”
He claps his hands loudly and flexes his slender fingers. “Oh, I’m in. Their security ain’t for shit.”
“It’s because they didn’t have you,” I say, feeling free with compliments now that we’re one step closer to solving the mystery.
“Can you hack into the compound medical records? I want to know what Bartrizol is used to treat.”
Celdon looks up at me and quirks an eyebrow. “Riles . . . look who you’re asking.”
I roll my eyes. “Just do it so we can get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”
Celdon’s fingers start flying, and his eyes narrow the way they do when he’s deep in concentration.
Time seems to slow down as he works, but then his eyes light up again. “I’m in.”
Taking a deep breath, I step around the desk to look over his shoulder. Most of the patients in the admittance log were brought in a few weeks ago, and my heart sinks at the sheer number of them.
Celdon clicks on one of the names — a male patient in his early thirties. His compound ID photo pops up in the left-hand corner of the screen, and I get a chill at how healthy and normal he looks.
There’s a hasty physician’s note typed into the box under his last visit: Patient was admitted with more of the same . . . high fever, respiratory problems, chills, and vivid hallucinations.
The diagnosis: unknown virus.
Before I can say anything, Celdon clicks out of the window and selects the next patient in the admittance log. The symptoms match, and the diagnosis is the same, too. Desperately, he clicks on several more patients.
Unknown virus. Unknown virus. Unknown virus.
Fingers flying, Celdon performs a search for “unknown virus” and clicks on the first patient listed by date. He was from Health and Rehab himself.
This man’s file is much more detailed, and it’s clear the puzzled doctors were more diligent in gathering a complete list of symptoms. The virus first presented with a fever, progressing into a wheezy cough that began whenever the patient took the stairs.
Within a day and a half, he was having trouble breathing at all. That’s when he was admitted to the medical ward, where they put him under observation. The physician thought it was bacterial pneumonia. He prescribed antibiotics, but the patient’s condition only deteriorated.
Within twenty-four hours, the hallucinations started. At this point, the physician’s notes start to get more frantic. He called in another doctor to consult.
They ran tests. They tried other drugs, but nothing seemed to help.
The patient’s lungs filled with fluid, and every breath cost him great effort. They drained his lungs and put him on a ventilator. His heart rate slowed.
Four days after being admitted, patient zero was dead.
Feeling desperate, I nudge Celdon out of the way and pull up the compound news. The current feed is empty, but I scroll down to the week before the last wave of patients was admitted to the medical ward.
All the headlines are just variations of the same message, growing more frantic each day: Unknown virus claims hundreds more lives.
Celdon clicks out of the window and sits back on his stool. He looks just as shocked as I feel.
“It was a virus,” he murmurs. “A damn virus killed all these people.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” I say. “How would a virus like that get in here?”
“It had to come in from the outside. Recon, maybe.”
I shake my head. “Recon operatives are always contained in the postexposure wing for a few days at least. They would have caught it.”
“Maybe ExCon, then.”
“I guess it’s possible . . .”
“What about another compound? Do you think it could have passed to 119 during a supply transfer?”
In one swift motion, Celdon highlights all the entries in the log and beams the data to his interface.
“What are you doing?”
“Saving these files so Sawyer can tell us what the hell is going on.”
Why didn’t I think of that?
“There was a drug they were using to treat it,” I say. “Bartrizol.”
“Well, obviously it didn’t work so well.”
I ignore this comment. “Their supplies were totally depleted, but maybe Sawyer knows what it’s for.”
Celdon follows me back to the supply closet, and he’s tall enough to read the label on the bin without standing on his tiptoes. He takes a picture of the label and saves it to his interface for Sawyer.
“It’s pretty bleak, you know?” Celdon mutters. “Whatever this stuff is, they just kept prescribing it even though they knew it wasn’t working.”
My heart aches as I imagine what it would have been like to be stuck here as my friends and former classmates all grew sick and died.
“They probably just did it to keep people calm,” I say.
“It wouldn’t have kept me calm. I’d have locked myself in my compartment and never come out.”
I shiver. Even though the last infected citizen died weeks ago, being in the medical ward after a viral outbreak puts me on edge.
Logically, I know all traces of the virus must be gone. Our Operations workers have been traipsing in and out of here for weeks, but it still makes me uneasy.
“Let’s get out of here,” says Celdon.
I nod and shuffle out of the closet behind him. Our footsteps echo loudly in the pristine white tunnel, and a feeling of hopelessness swamps me when I realize how powerless the compound was in the end.
Just as Death Storm wiped out nearly everyone on the outside, a tiny organism brought down thousands of people in a matter of weeks. The best treatment money can buy was no match for nature. She swept through with a vengeance, killing every human nearby.
We bypass the megalift and take the stairs up to Systems. The freedom to move on our own two feet feels reassuring, plus neither of us wants to get stuck on the lift if it malfunctions.
Celdon leads us down the nicest residential tunnel and heads straight for the corner compartment. The door opens easily, and he shoots me a guilty look.
“I went ahead and overrode all the door codes in the compound,” he mutters. “Just so we can access what we need.”
Any other time, I might chastise him for flaunting his skills, but I can’t unstick my throat. We’re about to enter a dead family’s compartment — the place where they lived and ate and slept.
I bet they never thought that when they left for the medical ward, they wouldn’t be coming back.
As soon as I step inside, I’m blinded by daylight streaming in through the tall windows. The stark white walls magnify its intensity, and it takes several seconds for my eyes to adjust.
This place makes Celdon’s studio look like a closet; you could fit ten compartments the size of his inside the expansive living area. Sunshine bounces off the polished floor, and all the furniture is sleek, modern, and extremely uncomfortable looking.
The windows stretch all the way up to the vaulted ceiling, which tapers down in sharp lines to a loft with a sitting area and several upstairs bedrooms.
On the second level, I can see a tiny staircase winding up toward the ceiling, and I get a pang of envy when I realize that the compartment has its own private entrance to the observation deck.
“Whose compartment was this?” I ask.
I throw him an admonishing look, but I guess it doesn’t matter whose compartment we choose. Everyone is dead.
“We should get some sleep,” he says.
Judging by the sun’s position on the horizon, it’s just past noon, but I’ve been awake for more than thirty hours.
Suddenly that furniture doesn’t look so uncomfortable. And if everything in the main living area is this nice, I can only imagine how great the beds must feel.
“You think one of us should stay up to keep watch?” I ask.
Celdon snorts. “Watch over what? There’s nobody here but us.”
That thought should put me at ease, but it just makes me sad. “Right.”
We make the odyssey up the narrow staircase, and as soon as I catch sight of the massive bed in the first room, sleep starts calling me.
I should brush my teeth, but I realize belatedly that we left our rucksacks in the medical ward. Without turning on a light or even glancing around the room, I collapse onto the fluffy comforter and fall asleep.
I awake in total darkness and instantly panic.
I’m not in my compartment. The bed is much too large and comfortable, and there’s a huge window to my left with a breathtaking view of the starry night sky — a stark contrast to my streaky window overlooking the Underground platform.
It takes several seconds for my fuzzy brain to catch up to reality.
I’m in 119, sleeping in a dead stranger’s bed.
I reach out for the lamp on the nightstand. When I touch it, a warm glow illuminates the room, and I realize I didn’t wander into a guest room as I’d thought. There’s a soft-looking sweater draped over a high-backed chair and a cluster of beauty products crowding the bureau.
Whoever lived in this room could have been my age — maybe the president’s daughter or a favorite niece. And now she’s gone.
I sit up quickly and slide off the bed. Careful not to make a sound, I open the door and tiptoe down the stairs to the living area. A shadow moves in front of the massive window, and I let out a little yelp of surprise.
The figure turns. It’s only Celdon.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I take several breaths to calm my racing heart. “What are you doing up?” I ask.
“Couldn’t sleep.” His voice sounds very far away, but when he turns to me, it’s the same old Celdon. “Dead guy’s compartment and all.”
“They’re all dead guys’ compartments,” I mutter.
“True. But that doesn’t make it any less creepy.”
I can’t argue with that.
Flipping on my interface, I’m startled to see that it’s almost twenty-three hundred.
“Do you know what time it is?” I ask, feeling a little frantic.
“You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long! The supply train will be here soon.”
“I was going to wake you up, but I thought you could use all the sleep you could get.”
“Well . . . we should get moving.”
Celdon clears his throat. “Yeah, we should.”
The silence that stretches between us is heavy with unspoken fears. Neither of us wants to acknowledge that the supply train might not come. We don’t have time to dwell on that possibility.
Taking one more look around the luxurious open floor plan, I promise myself that I won’t have to spend another night in a dead man’s compartment. And I’m certainly not going to be stuck here for the rest of my life.
Did you enjoy this sneak peek? Don’t forget to visit Amazon to pick up your copy on July 14.