“What happened?” The question came from a pale, sweaty man who stood just a little over two meters tall. Beside him an Hispanic man with a scruffy beard raised his eyebrows, he too was looking a little pale, the reasons why were entirely different. Both were dying, of that there was no doubt. One of a zombie bite, one of what was called ‘Power Sickness’ from when just too many super zombies were killed by one of the living.
“Some local wannabe came in and tried to kill Max.” Gus said. “Happens every few months, Bill. Seem like it really annoyed Max this time though.”
“So, he’s gone into seclusion?” Bill asked.
Gus nodded. “Jane’s still working though, you can chat her up and tell her what you two learned.”
Bill slid into the booth across from Gus, “I guess I’d rather not.”
“Don’t blame you. She’s got resting bitch face going.”
“Reminds me of my ex-wife.”
“Most men don’t learn from such mistakes.” Gus said.
“Juan here has been a good influence. You ever been married, Gus?”
“No, I was born wise.”
Gus just shrugged.
“Not that we care in this post-apocalyptic age or anything.”
“Si.” Juan added.
Gus looked up after the man spoke, “Something on your mind, Juan?”
“Oh, yeah, he has a whole tassel of questions. Of anyone here you, Max or Jane might be the only ones who can answer him.”
“Has anyone gone into the hole?”
“Yes.” Gus answered.
“Y?” Juan prompted.
“Only one guy came out.”
“How many went in?” Hank asked.
“Two squads of Navy guys, a half-dozen civilians.”
“What happened to them? What did they find out?”
“It’s a dead world. Mostly. It’s just like ours otherwise. Their outbreak, it was earlier and faster than ours was. There were a few other differences too. Elvis died in Vietnam.”
“Yeah, Morrison lived into the 90’s. Had a huge resurgence in the mid-eighties, practically worshipped as a God. President Bush declared a national day of mourning when he passed. This was during his second term in office.”
“No shit?” Hank said.
Juan echoed with “Mierda.” A split second later.
“The place is empty now?” Hank asked.
“No. I didn’t say that.”
“Full of zombies?”
“Not exactly. There are just a few of them left, maybe twenty in the entire world. They run all over the place, there are, or were, some people left, but zombie wise, nope, they were all absorbed.”
“Absorbed?” Juan asked this time.
“Yeah, apparently they could eat each other and got more and more powerful when they did so. I guess the soul to devour rate was better on their side of the curtain.”
“So…what you’re saying is that their super zombies all killed each other until only twenty were left? And those twenty are super, super powerful?”
Gus nodded very slowly, “Extremely powerful. That’s what Sentry does. Ironic, isn’t it? He guards this world now.”
“Ironic because he destroyed it?”
“Well, not that so much as because of his name.”
“Oh, yeah, missed that.” Hank ran a hand through his greasy, sweaty hair.
“He fights them?” Juan asked.
“Not if he can’t avoid it. I think he mostly just tries to keep them from coming through to this side. We have an advantage though. They can’t assimilate our zombies. Eating ours doesn’t make them more powerful.”
“How do you know?”
“One came through a couple years ago, despite Sentry’s efforts.”
“Really? What happened?”
“It was bad.” Gus said.
“How did they get through?”
“They followed the lone survivor back. It was touch and go there for a while.” Sentry needed Max and Jane and the Navy and even some of the Cubans to help destroy the fucker.”
“Hank!” Juan admonished.
“A lot of people died.”
“So, the guy that made it back…”
“No one knows. Max thought it best not to mention his name to anyone.”
“But you know, don’t you, Gus?”
“There are very few things I can’t find out.”
“Who is he?”
“I will not tell you who they are. What do you want to know for? What good will it do? He was debriefed. It was a ‘he’, by the way.”
Juan and Hank looked at each other, then Juan asked, “What is the world like, in bad shape?”
“Well, like I said, their apocalypse happened earlier and more forcefully than ours. Our world is shitty now, in the time since the outbreak, theirs is worse. More bridges are gone, more destruction has happened and everything is being reclaimed by nature. Geographically the place looks like it’s the same, but honestly no one really knows. They didn’t see any dinosaurs or aliens or anything and in some places the cities and towns are almost pristine.”
“The hole opens in their Florida?” Hank asked.
“What about their stores and cars and things?”
“They said the stores were almost fully stocked still, so canned goods and glass stuff was still viable. They mentioned `Charlie’s Beans` as being everywhere, and delicious. Car wise, the rubber was in pretty rough shape, but yeah, they had their Fords and Chevy’s and Toyotas. No gas would be good, after this long. Why you asking?”
“I…just a thought me and Juan came up with. Hear us out.” Hank said.
“Si.” Juan added.
“We move over there. Settle it, get out of this place.”
“Everyone who wants to go. Defending one gate would be easier than dealing with what Max told us of the thousands of supers coming out of California. We could send word up to Iowa, tell them to beat a retreat to here. Go through, loot what we can to get set up and maybe settle on the other side somewhere nice.”
Gus shook his head, “Aren’t you forgetting their super zombies?”
“How bad was the fighting when one came through?”
“Well, you remember the lake you had to boat across to get to the portal?”
“There used to be more than thirty thousand undead around it. You see, I didn’t mention this yet, but they can’t feed on our zombies, but something about the portal feeds ours. Slow, stupid zeds would become smarter after a few months around the portal. Some of them had been sitting around the portal for years. Can you imagine how strong they got in that time, just basking in the glow of that trickle of power?”
“Their one zombie killed them all?”
“It was over in less than three minutes. Every zed within about five kilometers of the portal was killed. Those three minutes bought the rest of us a breather and we counterattacked. Everyone in the area owes those thirty odd thousand their lives. Or unlives. Even after their sacrifice it was a close thing. You have no idea how close you came to being killed that day. About how many zombies were around it when you left?”
“A lot. Not tens of thousands, but maybe a thousand. They didn’t mess with us. Didn’t talk to us, didn’t ignore us, just let us pass.” Hank said.
“They don’t need you, not anymore. They still come, but there are not as many and they are not as strong.”
“There are other portals.” Juan said, “Tel him, Hank.”
“Denver. There’s one in Denver too.”
“I know. There are seven, as far as I can tell.” Gus said.
“Do they all lead to the same place?” Juan asked.
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I can imagine a future where I travel to each one of them and go through. And what I’ve found is no better than the rift we have here. In some cases, it’s worse, most of the time it’s about the same. I am sort of glad that’s the way it is though.”
“Because if they had had an easier time of things, the creatures there would be busting into our world to colonize it. It looks like we were the only ones to make these bombs.”
“Do we have more? Bombs that is?” Hank asked.
“Perry isn’t saying.”
“But you know, don’t you?” Juan asked.
Gus looked at Juan for a minute, “How are you feeling Juan? You aren’t looking too good.”
Hank leaned back as Jane dropped a plate of toasted chips in front of him, “Thank you, darling.”
She favored him with a withering look and marched back to the bar.
“I think she likes me.” Hank said.
“She likes everyone.” Gus nodded.
“I am okay. Still sick. I wasn’t supposed to be sick anymore.”
“You were given the Maxson strain, weren’t you?” Juan nodded and Gus continued, “Not a lot of people take it when they are suffering the power sickness. You were, from what you told us, a fairly advanced case. It might take a while.”
“It might not work.” Juan said. “You can see the future, what do you see for me?”
Gus nodded, “That didn’t take long, asking me to see into your future. That is pretty hard for me to say.”
“Doesn’t everyone ask?”
“Almost always. Some of you come at it sideways, some of you just asked outright. I am much better at telling you my future. I can look down that path more reliably. To see your future, I must imagine gluing myself to your side, something I could, in theory, do. And it takes times. I get all catonic if I try to see too far. I’ve gotten better the last few years; I don’t go so far.”
“So now you don’t tell anyone what happens to them anymore?”
“I can approach a person’s future sideways too. Like I see you and Hank in most of my futures, my near futures. Don’t get cocky though, there are plenty of futures without either of you in them too. I see future interactions is all. Potential future interactions. If you survive tonight I see us talking tomorrow.”
“You’re yelling at me, Hank. Juan is more level headed.”
“So now I can throw caution to the wind and I know I’ll live to be mad at you tomorrow?” Hank asked.
“That’s the danger. I only see you mad at me in most of my futures. I can take a different path and that anger will never manifest, if I choose. You can drink yourself into a stupor and they’ll be hauling your zombiefied ass off the beach too. Those are both possibilities. I must play the odds on what is actually going to happen, will making you mad at me server some purpose? Will that purpose be worth it in the end?”
“Nothing is set in stone.” Juan said.
“See?” Gus said, raising his drink to Juan, “He gets it.”
“I think I do too. It’s why you’re still alive, isn’t it? Because you can see futures where yours stops?”
“Bingo.” Gus called out, “Cubans over here, Jane!”
“Fuck off.” Her voice sailed over the crowd and brought a laugh from some of the people in the bar.
“She’ll bring them.” Gus predicted.
“What you see is always shifting, always changing?” Hank asked.
“Always. It’s easy to get lost. I can reset to certain points, so I can play the twenty questions or actions game and keep trying new things. It’s faster than living real life, I mean it’s the speed of though, but that doesn’t mean it takes no time at all.”
“It must be very hard to be you.” Juan told Gus. He finally raised one hand to take a couple of the chips from the basket in front of them.
“You better eat those!” Came Jane’s voice as she slapped down three cigars and a cutter on the table in front of them, “I have paying customers who would have taken them.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hank dutifully reached out and took some chips.
“Si.” Juan added.
“What’s her story?” Hank asked Gus.
“She’s pretty tight lipped. I though you knew her, from before?”
Hank shook his head, “No. I ran into her group, with Max out in Denver, like the day the outbreak started. We didn’t trade much in the way of stories back then.”
(author's note: I do have to check this, I think Max was actually unconscious, as it was after he was shot and at the doctor's getting stitched up.)
“Oh? I’d heard otherwise.”
“Wait.” Juan said, raising one hand, “Why do you talk to us? You would know everything you want by having these discussions in your head.”
“True.” Gus said with a shrug of his stocky shoulders, “But then you wouldn’t learn anything would you?”
“Oh. Yes, I see.” Juan said.
“I get it now, what you said, Juan. He’s gotta be bored out of his mind.”
Gus trimmed off the cigars one by one and handed them out to the others. Once they were distributed he used the candle on the table to light his and then passed it to Juan who lit his and Hank’s cigars.
Hank coughed after taking in a lungful. “Ah, not used to smoking.”
“Well that and you’re dying from a zombie bite.” Gus said.
“Gus!” Juan said, “You shouldn’t say such a thing. Hank is doing fine.”
“Well he won’t turn tomorrow, if he survives the night. He isn’t a zed when he gets mad at me. What’s wrong with having this on the table?”
“It’s just…not polite.” Juan said.
Gus laughed and coughed and took a huge swig of his drink, “You’re dying of power sickness, he’s succumbing to a zombie bite and I’m blind and have crazy living in my own little world. Any other secrets that need to be on the table? I think it’s better if we just show our hands so we can plan better.”
“I think you’re right, Gus. No, he is right Juan. A little honesty never hurt anyone, if applied in the right manner. In that vein, how about you tell me why Max wanted me and Juan to head up north to see the portal and crater?”
“We keep tabs on it.”
“If I’m not mistaken, didn’t we meet you on the road coming from the portal? And isn’t there a Navy watch station with five very, ah, nervous men in it at all times?”
“Yes, and yes. We like to keep very close tabs on it. There is almost always someone going up there at Max’s urging, he sent two guys up there just today. It’s like a rite of passage; it’s just a couple hundred klicks, but it isn’t a cake walk. If you can do it, then maybe you’re worth doing other things for him. For us.”
“I brought his kid from Iowa, over a thousand miles, um, sorry kilometers. I don’t think I have much to prove travel wise, not to anyone.”
“Have you looked at yourself lately, Hank? You still might have a thing or three to prove. I mean who knows when your heart is going to give out and you’ll turn?”
“You said not before tomorrow.”
“If you live.” Gus added.
“If I live.” Hank took a long draw from his cigar, then puffed out a couple of smoke rings above the table.
Gus laughed, “See? No matter how much I can see into the future, I miss some things. Who knew you could blow smoke rings? Not me. It’s these trivial things that make me happy; that keep me from being bored.”
“Well, you are probably focused on the bigger picture.” Juan said.
“I am. Right now, it is consuming most of my time.” They smoked for a while in silence, letting the waves of noise and commotion from the bar wash over them without adding to it.
“Do you ever see your own death?” Hank asked eventually.
Hank looked at Juan, then back to Gus, “Just yes?”
“Yep, just yes.”
“How much time do you spend avoiding it?”
Gus thought for a moment before he set his cigar down in the ashtray in front of them. He held up his hand with all ten fingers splayed out, “These are my thoughts, everything I have.” He wiggled his fingers. Slowly he pulled one thumb back into the palm of his hand, so only nine digits remained facing Hank and Juan, “This much. I spend this much time just trying to stay alive. All the paths lead to darkness, my friends, every single one of them. Keeping myself off of those takes a lot of my effort.”
“Ninety percent. Are you really in that much danger?”
“I am lately.”