Fermi's Progress: Descartesmageddon Sample

by Chris Farnell

Rows of kitchen implements hung in the same place they'd hung for years on the wall of the Shady Spring. Spatulas, skewers, forks and cutters, sorted by size and frequency of use, even as that frequency had returned to zero. Something about them drew Travers's attention. Hanging up like that the commonplace tools became strange, their shapes became abstract. It was only the context of a busy restaurant that made this flat bit of metal, or those ceramic blades into tools or objects with any kind of meaning. Even now that meaning was eroding away.

"Cold room's been cleaned out," Campion said, stepping into the kitchen and brushing the ice from her cap. "Still, they missed a couple of tins." She hefted up a pair of unlabelled metal cylinders on arms wrapped in muscle. Probably enough to keep the camp going for another couple of days. "You find the keys to the supply cupboards yet?"

Travers shuddered, willing herself back into the moment. "No, sorry. Got distracted."

Campion regarded her quizzically. Campion wasn't the sort to get distracted. Her life was a string of immediate goals to be achieved with more or less difficulty, interspersed with periods of untroubled rest. "By what?" she asked.

"Just remembering when this place was still open," Travers said. "On holidays Foreman used to get a whole fungulate and just roast it, right out there among the tables. Then, as it was getting just right, he'd lop off great big slices of it and slap them onto customer's plates, even as it was still cooking. Then Cramer, you'll remember Cramer, she got turned just after you arrived, she'd get up and start singing and we'd all pelt her with rolls until she stopped."

Travers let out a breath and the edge her cap shivered and purred. "This used to be such a nice town."

"So did a lot of towns," Campion said, not unkindly, and began hefting her finds back to the truck. There was tiniest "tink" of two pieces of metal touching, and she froze. So did Travers. Travers and Campion both tensed, to better feel any shift in the air.

Another tink, and a clank, as something moved out from the pans and trays in an alcove at the far end of the kitchen. Where the back door was. The thing moved like a person. That was the worst part. The way it moved, the textures of its skin, the noises it made, everything about it was almost human.

Travers reached for her mother's old hunting rifle but found Campion's hand instead.

"Too loud," Campion whispered through her fingers.

Travers squeezed back in apology, then let go. Campion was already turning to the rack of kitchen implements, reaching over a stove for the largest of the knives. As her fingers took the handle, it gained context.

The thing had noticed them now, was moving towards them, three sets of fingers untwining and reaching out, but Campion wasn't going to give it time. She hopped over the counter that bisected the kitchen, dropping one of the tins and catching a stray skillet with her rear hand. By the time she reached the thing, she was already swinging. The skillet barely made a noise as the thing's cap crumbled beneath it, sending the monster reeling sideways. Campion met its fall with a swipe of the knife, digging it deep into the thing's mycelium cluster, then stepping back neatly as it fell.

"To the truck," Campion said, but Travers was already moving, picking up Campion's dropped tin as she went.

The truck was already occupied. There were five of them, but they never reacted to or even seemed to perceive each other. Every cursed one of them had gravitated towards their own bit of truck, rooting around under the stools or inside the glove compartment or around the covered pallet at the back. As Travers and Campion stepped out the back door the things rose as one, turning towards the scavengers. When they began to move Travers backed into the kitchen, holding the door just long enough for Campion to join her, then slamming it shut.

"How far are we from the Arcade?" Campion asked.

"Too far," Travers said.

Campion left Travers leaning against the door, then came back carrying two stools and one of the smaller tables. She jammed everything she could beneath the door handle, which started rattling the moment Travers released it.

"What's the play?" Campion asked.

Travers took in the kitchen, remembered the layout of the restaurant, the streets around it. The Shady Spring had been a focal point for the community, really the only place this side of town that wasn't houses. That's why she'd guessed the supplies here might be untouched.

Any route on foot between here and the Arcade would seem quiet, but as soon as there was any noise those figures would come lumbering out of the shadows. They moved like people, it made Travers sick just how much they seemed like people, but there was no missing the emptiness in them, the horrifying sense of animation driven by a void.

"Upstairs," she said. "Foreman used to announce her cook-offs over the wireless. We get up there, we call for help."

Campion gave a little salute, and the pair of them crossed the kitchen, into the restaurant proper. Clay menu-glyphs and long-extinguished paper-lanterns hung from the ceiling. The drinks cabinets behind the bar had been emptied long ago. Once again Travers was hit by how utterly abstract the place felt.

The open front of the restaurant was hidden from the street by curtains, so Campion and Travers didn't have to hide as they crossed the floor to the stairs leading into Foreman's apartment.

"The zombies did a number on this place," Campion said, prodding a pile of listening cylinders with one foot.

"This isn't them," Travers said. "Foreman kept a clean kitchen but was an absolute slob at home. Her sleeping area in the Arcade was turning into a complete tip by the time she turned."

She waded across a pile of years-old laundry and swept some packets off a desk, revealing a wooden and metal box with two long, curved handles poking out of the top. Travers took the listening handle in one hand, the speaking handle in another, and with the other cranked up the winding handle and began twiddling the frequency dial.

There was a crackling of static, a couple of frequencies haunted by things that sounded like, but were not voices, and then the steady hum of the Arcade's home frequency.

"Scully, are you there?" Travers asked.

"Travers! We were starting to worry."

"That might be a good plan," Travers said. "They've overrun the truck. We've found a couple of tins of food, but we're not going to be able to make it back on foot. Any chance of an extraction?"

"Um. Only a low one," Scully said solemnly. "The other truck's still in the garage, and well, they tell me it's missing critical parts. We, um, we won't make it out to you tonight."

Travers let go of the speaking handle and used her free hand to punch the desk as hard she could while yelling an old curse. Before she could take the speaking handle again, another voice broke onto the airwaves. It sounded familiar.

"Hello? I'm talking to the speakers identifying themselves and ‘Travers' and ‘Scully'. Please respond."

Travers snatched the speaking handle and words tumbled through her fingers in a buzz.

"Travers here. Who's speaking?"

"Name's Kellogg. You folks in Sclerotium?"

"Yes!" Travers said. "We're holed up in the Shady Spring. Do you have transport?"

"Wait, Kellogg, as in, um, the Kellogg?" Scully butted in.

Yes, now Scully had said it, Travers recognised the name and the voice. If she could just find time to place it.

"One and only I know of!" Kellogg answered, her voice trilling in amusement. "We've got transport alright. We've been travelling some time and were hoping to rest up. You got somewhere safe we can stop?"

"Well, um, well, Sclerotium Arcade would be ideal. We're, um, as safe as you could hope to find this side of the Pilgrim Peaks!" Scully said excitedly. "We've got shelter, and food, and defences…"

"Yes Scully, that's enough," Travers interrupted. "You're welcome to stop with us a while, but first, do you mind giving us a lift?"

"Where's Shady Springs?"

"Third Street on Fourth Side," Travers said. "It's the only restaurant on the street."

"Get yourself somewhere prominent, we're coming for you," Kellogg said.

"Well?" Campion said as Travers released the handles. "Are we getting out?"

"We're getting out," Travers said. "This way, Foreman has a rooftop garden."

The garden was in no good state. The grasses had died, and the saprophytes had overgrown to the point where they were starting to dig into the brickwork itself, but with her rifle butt Travers beat a path through their fleshy vines to the edge of the roof facing Third Street. It was deserted. Everywhere was always deserted. Once again, Travers found herself wondering if a street with no people in was even a street anymore. With nobody walking up and down it, living their lives, it just became a gap between walls.

But the approaching engine noise was drawing the things out of their hidey holes. Some even ventured as far as the centre of the street. They were the first to die.

The bus came screeching around the corner of Fifth Side, ploughing through the zombies in the centre of the road. It was a monster. The front of the driver's cabin was hidden behind a dune plough, while its flanks bristled with improvised pokers and cutters on sticks. A shallow, wide-brimmed cap poked out the top of the driver's cabin. Then a figure rose up beneath it holding guns in two hands while waving up to Travers with the third.

She wore a long coat that was a patchwork of pockets, with two bandoliers beneath it and a holster on every leg and arm. She was exactly like she was in the radio serials.

"Come on down!" Kellogg called.

Travers hopped onto the fire escape and slid down, closely followed by Campion, ran across the road and climbed up the rope ladder Kellogg had unrolled down the side of the bus.

"It's really you?" Travers asked.

"Last time I checked," Kellogg said, and all doubt disappeared. That was the voice that Travers had heard in a hundred newscasts and documentaries before the fall.

"Aren't you supposed to be out in the wilds searching for the answer to all this?" Travers asked.

"I tried," Kellogg said. "In the mean-time, it turns out there's enough wilds for everyone right here."

"Well, we're glad you stopped by," Travers said. "I'm Travers and this here is…"

But Kellogg was already pointing both pistols past Travers's shoulder. She followed the direction of the barrels, and there it was again. Tools that stopped being used were just shapes, a street without people living on it was just empty space, and then there was a set of body parts, clambering up the side of the bus, devoid of the thing that had once made them Campion.

"Do you…?" Kellogg asked.

Travers raised her back hand in the affirmative, and with her other two hands lifted the rifle and shot the thing that had once been Campion square through the centre of its cap. Chunks of spongey flesh exploded over the roof of the bus, and the headless body slumped and slid back over the edge.