The cat was surprisingly relaxed about being shoved into Felix’s duffle bag.
“Do you really have to take that with us?” asked Gretel.
He scratched the cat’s ears. “We can’t just leave it. It might be the only other living thing on Earth.”
“Ants are alive.”
“The last living thing that doesn’t want to eat us,” countered Felix.
“If you died, that cat would eat you,” said Gretel.
“I’m pretty sure if it came down to it, you’d eat me,” he said.
He didn’t expect her to deny it.
And she didn’t.
“We can leave it here,” she said. “We’ll leave it plenty of food. We’ll barricade the door to keep the zombies out. The tin foil should keep the robots away. And we’ll leave some radios—”
“I’m taking the cat.” He pushed its head down and zipped up the duffel. “No point in arguing.”
“Fine. Take the cat. But don’t bitch to me when it gets out of the bag and gets lost.” She hefted on her backpack with a change of clothes and some snacks. They didn’t see a point in weighing themselves down with supplies until they made it farther out of town.
Originally, they’d struck upon the plan of going to a car dealership and taking the keys to a vehicle. That idea ended as soon as they’d discovered that while the dealerships had cars, the key racks where they were empty.
It was becoming obvious that someone didn’t want them leaving the city.
That was why they had to do it.
Neither of them believed they’d make it far. Whatever cosmic force was manipulating this city, playing with them like toys, was bigger than anything they could understand.
They had to try anyway. They had nothing to lose.
They walked east. Or so Gretel claimed. Without a sun or stars in the sky, direction was difficult to determine. Every compass they’d found at the sporting goods store hadn’t been working properly either.
Along the way, they talked about what they might find.
“My money is on nothing,” said Felix. “A great big wall of it at the city limits.”
“What’s a wall of nothing look like?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Guess we’ll find out.”
“Computer code,” she said. “That’s what we’ll see. I’m telling you this is all some sort of weird computer simulation gone wrong. We’re plugged into some virtual reality machine right now. Hell, maybe we’re just brains in jars. Or maybe just me. You could just as easily be a simulation too.”
“I’m not a simulation,” he said.
“That’s exactly what a simulation would say.”
“Maybe you’re the simulation.”
“I know I’m not a non-player character, Champ.”
“What if we’re both simulated, and we just don’t know it.”
“That’d be stupid,” she said. “Next you’ll tell me that the cat is the only real thing.”
“No, I’m not. Though we can’t disprove that either. We can’t disprove anything, really. Holograms. Virtual reality. Living batteries for evil supercomputers. Prisoners of evil aliens. A bad dream I’m having that I haven’t woken up from yet.”
“Can’t be that battery thing,” she said. “It violates the laws of thermodynamics.”
“How the hell do we even know the laws of thermodynamics are a thing? How do we know that every single thing we’ve ever learned is one great big lie?”
“Guess you got a point there, Champ.”
They paused at an intersection. The world seemed so incomplete now. He wished for a street sign. Something to orient themselves. Something to indicate they were making progress. He was positive they could just turn around and see his old apartment building right behind them. It was why he didn’t turn around.
Across the street, an empty coffee shop sat. It just had the word Coffee Shop on its marque. No brand name. Nothing to give it any distinction.
Gretel nodded toward some shuffling zombies in the distance. “Company.”
He wasn’t too worried. He had his bat. He had Gretel.
“This has to mean something,” he mumbled to himself. “It can’t be some stupid simulation. I think it’s a test.”
Felix said, “To see if we have what it takes to escape.”
“I thought you just said you thought there was a big wall of nothing around the city.”
“Remember that woman we saw on the TVs?”
“Not likely to forget something like that.”
“She made it out. Somewhere, there’s an exit out of this place. I know it.”
Gretel chuckled mirthlessly. “You don’t know it. You believe it.”
“You saw it too,” he said.
“I saw a woman walk through a door. I didn’t see where it went. Anyway, the whole show could’ve been a trick.”
“Who would want to trick us?”
“Who the hell would want to drop us in the middle of a ghost city filled with deadly ants? Give me an answer to that, and I’ll answer your question.”
Felix was about to respond, but she interrupted.
“And don’t give me any more goddamn guesses. Guesses aren’t worth a damn. We could guess all day and never get it right. And even if we did, we’d never know.”
“But the exit—”
She whirled and grabbed him by his shirt. “I don’t want to hear another word about that fucking exit.”
The nearby zombies groaned, shuffling with more speed toward them.
Gretel released him. “We need to keep moving. Stay ahead of these damned things.”
He nodded. There was an unusual number of walking dead trudging after them. They also seemed more alert, more focused, as if drawn by the tension between Felix and Gretel. The undead threat was minimal, but there was no need to get sloppy.
They kept walking. Neither said a word. Felix had thoughts. Plenty of them. So many, he couldn’t organize them into any reasonable framework. He wanted to talk to Gretel about it, if only to help him do just that.
She obviously wasn’t interested. He wondered if she had the same questions and simply wasn’t ready to ask them. Or if she didn’t have them at all. He thought about the years he’d spent alone in this city, living day-to-day in a haze he wasn’t aware enough to recognize. It wasn’t a great way to exist, but it was simple. Now everything was messy. He couldn’t blame her if she preferred it to drowning in a sea of unanswerable questions.
An hour into their trek, the zombie hordes thinned. Felix unzipped the duffel and petted the cat. The city blocks passed by. Coffee shops, hotels, apartment building, supermarkets. All shaped out of the same all-purpose towering gray buildings. A bus every six blocks. No more. No less. It was like they were trapped in one of those endlessly repeating backgrounds in old cartoons, walking past the same pattern.
He started scratching lampposts, fully expecting to see the same mark repeat itself after a while. It never did. The pattern varied enough that you might not notice it if you weren’t looking for it. Except for the bus. Every six blocks. Every time.
“It never ends,” he said to the cat.
Gretel grumbled. “We haven’t walked that far.”
His attempts to calculate the distance were hampered by a number of factors. He wasn’t sure how long they’d been walking. He didn’t know how fast they were traveling. He didn’t know how big the average city block might be or how long it might take to traverse by foot.
It still seemed too damned far. He tried remembering seeing anything other than the city, but aside from movies, he drew a blank.
“There’s no end to it,” he said, again to the cat, who never seemed irritated with him.
“We just have to keep walking,” replied Gretel. “We’ll reach something eventually.”
“I thought you didn’t believe there was a way out.”
“I didn’t say we’d escape. I said we’d reach the end. That giant wall of brick or computer code or whatever that’s waiting for us.”
He didn’t ask why she kept going if she thought the edge of an inescapable cage waited them. She had to keep going. Just like he did. They were both looking for answers. Gretel wanted confirmation of what she already knew. She’d given up on looking for a way out but not on proving there was no exit. She was an explorer convinced the edge of the world was just around the corner but determined to sail over it to prove some kind of point.
Gretel stopped suddenly, and he bumped into her.
“What now?” he asked.
A woman stood a few feet away. She’d snuck up on them because, distracted by their own conversation, they’d mistaken her for another shambling dead thing. But up close, it became obvious she was another survivor.
It wasn’t her face. That was covered by an odd gasmask. Something out of a science fiction story. It hissed and clicked with her every breath.
It wasn’t the bag of groceries she carried. Some zombies carried such things with them, artifacts of their living days. Felix had once seen a zombie hauling a box full of office supplies, trudging along as if he’d just gotten fired and had to clean out his desk.
What separated her from every zombie Felix had ever seen was her pistol. He’d seen zombies carrying guns, but none of them had ever pointed them at him.