(32) Sleepers on the Road

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The three top scientists that went to Antarctica together had an office, and it's on this continent. Nevermind that it's a sixteen-hour drive away; everyone here but Patrick has their driver's licenses, so we can rotate. Ember initially wants to drive straight through the night. I point out that only Calico J and Ditzy—who managed to nap yesterday—are fit to drive at all right now, and we'll need Oreo to navigate once we're out of the state. He's nowhere near functional. Ember herself looks about to fall over. I've been awake long enough that my reaction time is little better than if I was inebriated, and I've little desire to die by car crash before we even get a chance to save the world.

We eventually come to a compromise: drive until sunset, then camp for the night so all of us can get some proper sleep. This turns out to be an exceptionally good idea for more than one reason.

I've fallen half asleep when a terrific swerve flings me against the window. Van wheels screech. Several chaotic seconds and an outburst of swearing from the driver's seat later, we've pulled over at the side of the road. Ditzy slams the brakes again, and my seatbelt locks. We almost hit a person. A woman has stepped from the forest beside the road, and walks in front of us like she hasn't even noticed our headlights. Her hair is lank, her clothing stained. She's white enough for the glare of the lights to pick out veins of Redding beneath her skin. She's a Sleeper. A Sleepwalker, but without any obvious lethal injuries. It's not just the dead ones who're walking now.

A glance out the back window reveals the cause of Ditzy's swerving. We just came around a bend and drove straight into a herd of people. They're all like the woman. All crossing the road in the same direction, walking slowly but without the incoordination of proper zombies. They're not zombies. These people are still alive. I expect them to notice us and close in at any moment, but the Redding isn't interested in repeating what it did with Psy—sending a Sleepwalker into a survivor group and attacking anyone it can to speed up the killing process. If this monster knows we're here, it knows it can't get us. At least not the way it took down the remainder of the Anport rescues.

Ember told us what happened after we left. The strain of Redding Psy brought back with him was infectious and deadly, likely picked up from Vix, then spread to the rest of the group. They all turned within the span of an hour. Too fast to kill by knife or club, which apparently cuts the Redding's control of a still-living body. The turning members attacked each other. Those who fled outside found the Redding had put their house under siege, welling up from the basement and filling the yard. Others hid in rooms, only for it to drop bodies outside, trapping them in and sending tendrils from the corpses under the door. That's what happened to Oreo. He and Ember locked themselves in the office when they realized they couldn't save anyone else. I can only imagine what they've been through.

"You okay back there?" I say, glancing over my seat. I'm met with an indistinct grumble from Oreo. Flung from the backseat he was sleeping on when Ditzy braked, he's given up trying to return to it and made himself comfy on the floor. Ember rolls her eyes and unbuckles herself to go help him.

Ditzy and Calico J are talking in quick, lowered voices in the front seats. I lean in to join them just as Calico J turns around to solicit my opinion.

"We stopping here for the night?" I say.

"That's what we're thinking. We've seen a couple Sleepwalkers on the road up until now, but this the most by far. Ditzy thinks it's downstream flow from Derbridge."

"How big is Derbridge?"

"Thirty thousand," says Ditzy, her face grim. "And it sprawls, so the road might be like this for miles. We won't make it out before dark, that's for sure."

Bloody sunset light bathes the sky. We've got an hour left until nightfall, and the forest is already gloomy. I'm with Ditzy and Calico J on this one.

I pass all this back to Ember, and we vote to just find the closest place with lockable doors to spend the night. We have the remainder of the Anport rescues' food along, mostly stuff like dry instant ramen and granola bars that didn't have enough water in them for the Redding to exploit. It all comes down to water in the end. I'd be willing to bet that if this entity knows any languages other than Old Kjóll and Morse code, it'll be stuff like Hawaiian. I don't want to know how multilingual it is, really.

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