Bernard Kittridge, known to the world as “Last Stand in Denver,” realized it was time to leave the morning the power went out.
He wondered what had taken so long. You couldn’t keep a municipal electrical grid running without people to man it, and as far as Kittridge could tell from the nineteenth floor, not a single human soul was left alive in the city of Denver.
Which was not to say he was alone.
He had passed the early hours of the morning—a bright, clear morning in the first week of June, temperatures in the mid-seventies with a chance of blood-sucking monsters moving in toward dusk—sunning on the balcony of the penthouse he had occupied since the second week of the crisis. It was a gigantic place, like an airborne palace; the kitchen alone was the size of Kittridge’s whole apartment. The owner’s taste ran in an austere direction: sleek leather seating groups that were better to look at than sit on, floors of twinkling travertine, small furry rugs, glass tables that appeared to float in space. Breaking in had been surprisingly simple. By the time Kittridge had made his decision, half the city was dead, or fled, or missing.
The cops were long gone. He’d thought about barricading himself into one of the big houses up in Cherry Creek, but based on the things he’d seen, he wanted someplace high. The owner of the penthouse was a man he knew slightly, a regular customer at the store. His name was Warren Filo. As luck would have it, Warren had come into the store the day before the whole thing broke to gear up for a hunting trip to Alaska. He was a young guy, too young for how much money he had— Wall Street money, probably, or one of those high-tech IPOs.
On that day, the world still cheerily humming along as usual, Kittridge had helped Warren carry his purchases to the car. A Ferrari, of course. Standing beside it, Kittridge thought: Why not just go ahead and get a vanity plate that says, DOUCHE BAG 1? A question that must have been plainly written on his face, because no sooner had it crossed his mind than Warren went red with embarrassment. He wasn’t wearing his usual suit, just jeans and a T-shirt with SLOAN SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT on the front. He’d wanted Kittridge to see the car, that was obvious, but now that he’d allowed this to happen, he’d realized how dumb it was, showing off a vehicle like that to a floor manager at Outdoor World who probably made less than fifty grand a year. (The number was actually forty-six.) Kittridge allowed himself a silent laugh at that—the things this kid didn’t know would fill a book—and he let the moment hang to make the point. I know, I know, Warren confessed. It’s a little much. I told myself I’d never be one of those assholes who drive a Ferrari. But honest to God, you should feel the way she handles.
Kittridge had gotten Warren’s address off his invoice. By the time he moved in—Warren presumably snug and safe in Alaska—it was simply a matter of finding the right key in the manager’s office, putting it into the slot in the elevator panel, and riding eighteen floors to the penthouse. He unloaded his gear. A rolling suitcase of clothes, three lockers of weaponry, a hand-crank radio, night-vision binoculars, flares, a first-aid kit, bottles of bleach, an arc welder to seal the doors of the elevator, his trusty laptop with its portable satellite dish, a box of books, and enough food and water to last a month. The view from the balcony, which ran the length of the west side of the building, was a sweeping 180 degrees, looking toward Interstate 25 and Mile High field. He’d positioned cameras equipped with motion detectors at each end of the balcony, one to cover the street, a second facing the building on the opposite side of the avenue. He figured he’d get a lot of good footage this way, but the money shots would be actual kills. The weapon he’d selected was a Remington bolt-action 700P, .338 caliber— a nice balance of accuracy and stopping power, zeroing out at three hundred yards. To this he’d affixed a digital video scope with infrared. Using the binoculars, he would isolate his target; the rifle, mounted on a bipod at the edge of the balcony, would do the rest.
On the first night, windless and lit by a waning quarter moon, Kittridge had shot seven: five on the avenue, one on the opposite roof, and one more through the window of a bank at street level. It was the last one that made him famous. The creature, or vampire, or whatever it was—the official term was “Infected Person”—had looked straight into the lens just before Kittridge put one through the sweet spot. Uploaded to YouTube, the image had traveled around the globe within hours; by morning all the major networks had picked it up. Who is this man? everyone wanted to know. Who is this fearless-crazy-suicidal man, barricaded in a Denver high-rise, making his last stand?
And so was born the sobriquet, Last Stand in Denver.
From the start he’d assumed it was just a matter of time before somebody shut him down, CIA or NSA or Homeland. He was making quite a stir. Working in his favor was the fact that this same somebody would have to come to Denver to pull the plug. Kittridge’s IP address was functionally untraceable, backstopped by a daisy chain of anonymizer servers, their order scrambled every night. Most were overseas: Russia, China, Indonesia, Israel, Sudan. Places beyond easy reach for any federal agency that might want to pull the plug. His video blog— two million hits the first day—had more than three hundred mirror sites, with more added all the time. It didn’t take a week before he was a bona fide worldwide phenomenon. Twitter, Facebook, Headshot, Sphere: the images found their way into the ether without his lifting a finger. One of his fan sites alone had more than four million subscribers; T-shirts that read, I AM LAST STAND IN DENVER were selling like hotcakes.
His father had always said, Son, the most important thing in life is to make a contribution. Who would have thought Kittridge’s contribution would be video-blogging from the front lines of the apocalypse?
And yet the world went on. The sun still shone. To the west, the mountains shrugged their indifferent rocky bulk at man’s departure. For a while, there had been a lot of smoke—whole blocks had burned to the ground—but now this had dissipated, revealing the desolation with eerie clarity. At night, regions of blackness blotted the city, but elsewhere, lights still glittered in the gloom—flickering streetlamps, filling stations and convenience stores with their distinctive fluorescent glow, porch lights left burning for their owners’ return. While Kittridge maintained his vigil on the balcony, a traffic signal eighteen floors below still dutifully turned from green to yellow to red and then to green again.
He wasn’t lonely. Loneliness had left him, long ago. He was thirty-four years old. A little heavier than he would have liked—with his leg, it was hard to keep the weight off—but still strong. He’d been married once, years before. He remembered that period of his life as twenty months of oversexed, connubial bliss, followed by an equal number of months of yelling and screaming, accusations and counteraccusations, until the whole thing sank like a rock, and he was content, on the whole, that this union had produced no children. His connection to Denver was neither sentimental nor personal; after he’d gotten out of the VA, it was simply where he’d landed. Everyone said that a decorated veteran should have little trouble finding work. And maybe this was true. But Kittridge had been in no hurry. He’d spent the better part of a year just reading—the usual stuff at first, cop novels and thrillers, but eventually had found his way to more substantial books: As I Lay Dying, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby. He’d spent a whole month on Melville, drilling his way through Moby-Dick. Most were books he felt he ought to read, the ones he’d somehow missed in school, but he genuinely liked most of them. Sitting in the quiet of his studio apartment, his mind lost in tales of other lives and times, felt like taking a long drink after years of thirst. He’d even enrolled in a few classes at the community college, working at Outdoor World during the day, reading and writing his papers at nights and on his lunch hour. There was something in the pages of these books that had the power to make him feel better about things, a life raft to cling to before the dark currents of memory washed him downstream again, and on brighter days, he could even see himself going on this way for some time. A small but passable life.
And then, of course, the end of the world had happened.
The morning the electricity failed, Kittridge had finished uploading the previous night’s footage and was sitting on the patio, reading his way through Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities— the English barrister Sydney Carton had just declared his everlasting love for Lucie Manette, the fiancée of the haplessly idealistic Charles Darnay—when the thought touched him that the morning could only be improved by a dish of ice cream. Warren’s enormous kitchen—you could run a five-star restaurant out of the thing—had been, unsurprisingly, almost completely bereft of food, and Kittridge had long since thrown away the moldy take-out containers that had constituted the meager contents of the fridge. But the guy obviously had a weakness for Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie, because the freezer was crammed with the stuff. Not Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia or Phish Food or even plain old vanilla. Just Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Kittridge would have liked some variety, considering there was going to be no more ice cream for a while, but with little else to eat besides canned soup and crackers, he was hardly going to complain. Balancing his book on the arm of his chair, he rose and stepped through the sliding glass door into the penthouse.
By the time he reached the kitchen, he had begun to sense that something was off-kilter, although this impression had yet to coalesce around anything specific. It wasn’t until he opened the carton and sank his spoon into a soft mush of melted Chocolate Fudge Brownie that he fully understood.
He tried a light switch. Nothing. He moved through the apartment, testing lamps and switches. All were the same.
He paused in the middle of the living room and took a deep breath. Okay, he thought. Okay. This was to be expected. If anything, this was long overdue. He checked his watch: 9:32 A.M. Sunset was a little after eight. Ten and a half hours to get his ass gone.
He quickly packed a rucksack: protein bars, bottles of water, clean socks and underwear, his first-aid kit, a warm jacket, a bottle of Zyrtec (his allergies had been playing hell with him all spring), a toothbrush, and a razor. For a moment he considered bringing A Tale of Two Cities along, but this seemed impractical, and with a twinge of regret he put it aside. In the bedroom he dressed himself in a wicking T-shirt and cargo pants, topping this off with a hunting vest and a pair of light hikers. For a few minutes he considered which weapons to take before finally settling on a Bowie knife, a pair of Glock 19s, and the retrofit ted Polish AK with the folding stock: useless at any kind of range but reliable close in, which was where he expected to be. The Glocks fit snugly in a cross-draw holster. He filled the pockets of his vest with loaded magazines, clipped the AK to its shoulder sling, hoisted the backpack over his shoulders, and returned to the patio.
That was when he noticed the traffic signal on the avenue. Green, yellow, red. Green, yellow, red. It could have been a fluke, but he somehow doubted it.
They’d found him.
The rope was anchored to a drainage stack on the roof. He stepped into his rappelling harness, clipped in, and swung first his good leg and then his bad one over the railing. Heights were no problem for him, and yet he did not look down. He was perched on the edge of the balcony, facing the windows of the penthouse. From the distance he heard the sound of an approaching helicopter.
Last Stand in Denver, signing off.
With a push he was aloft, his body lobbing down and away. One story, two stories, three, the rope smoothly sliding through his hands: he landed on the balcony of the apartment four floors below. A familiar twang of pain shot upward from his left knee; he gritted his teeth to force it away. The helicopter was closer now, the sound of its blades volleying off the buildings and echoing through the empty streets below. He peeled off his harness, drew one of the Glocks, and fired a single shot to shatter the glass of the balcony door.
The air of the apartment was stale, like the inside of a cabin sealed for winter. Heavy furniture, gilt mirrors, an oil painting of a horse hung over the fireplace; from somewhere wafted the stench of decay. He moved through the becalmed space with barely a glance. At the front door he paused to attach a spotlight to the rail of the AK and stepped out into the hall, headed for the stairs.
In his pocket were the keys to the Ferrari, parked in the building’s underground garage, sixteen floors below. Kittridge shouldered open the door of the stairwell, quickly sweeping the space with the beam from the AK, up and down. Clear. He withdrew a flare from his vest and used his teeth to unscrew the plastic top, exposing the igniter button. With a combustive pop, the flare commenced its rain of sparks. Kittridge held it over the side, taking aim, and let go; if there was anything down there, he’d know it soon. His eyes followed the flare as it made its descent, dragging a contrail of smoke. Somewhere below it nicked the rail and bounced out of sight. Kittridge counted to ten. Nothing, no movement at all.
He began to descend. Three flares later he reached the bottom; a heavy steel door with a push bar and a small square of reinforced glass led to the garage. The floor was littered with trash: pop cans, candy bar wrappers, tins of food. A rumpled bedroll and a pile of musty clothing showed where someone had been sleeping—hiding, as he had.
Kittridge had scouted out the parking garage the day of his arrival. The Ferrari was parked near the southwest corner, a distance of approximately two hundred feet. He probably should have moved it closer to the door, but it had taken him three days to locate Warren’s keys—who kept his car keys in a bathroom drawer?—by which time he’d already barricaded himself inside the penthouse.
The fob had four buttons: two for the doors, one for the alarm, and one that, he hoped, was a remote starter. He pressed this one first.
From deep within the garage came a tart, single-noted bleep, followed by the throaty roar of the Ferrari’s engine. Another mistake: the Ferrari was parked nose to the wall. He should have thought of that. Not only would this slow his escape; if the car had been facing the opposite way, its headlights would have given him a better look at the garage’s interior. All he could make out though the stairwell door’s tiny window was a distant, glowing region where the car awaited, a cat purring in the dark. The rest of the garage was veiled in blackness. The infected liked to hang from things: ceiling struts, pipes, anything with a tactile surface. The tiniest fissure would suffice. When they came, they came from above.
The moment of decision was upon him. Toss more flares and see what happens? Move stealthily through the darkness, seeking cover? Throw open the door and run like hell?
Then, from high overhead, Kittridge heard the creak of an opening stairwell door. Kittridge held his breath and listened, parsing the sound. There were two of them. He stepped back from the door and craned his neck upward. Ten stories above, a pair of red dots were dancing off the walls.
He shoved the door open and ran like hell.
He had made it halfway to the Ferrari when the first viral dropped behind him. There was no time to turn and fire; Kittridge kept on going. The pain in his knee felt like a wick of flame, an ice pick buried to the bone. From the periphery of his senses came a tingling awareness of beings awakening, the garage coming to life. He threw open the door of the Ferrari, tossed the AK and rucksack onto the passenger seat, got in, and slammed the door. The vehicle was so low-slung he felt like he was sitting on the ground. The dashboard, full of mysterious gauges and switches, glowed like a spacecraft’s. Something was missing. Where was the gear-shift?
A wang of metal, and Kittridge’s vision filled with the sight of it. The viral had bounded onto the hood, folding its body into a reptilian crouch. Kittridge’s heart jolted. For a frozen moment it regarded him coolly, a predator contemplating its prey. It was naked except for a wristwatch, a gleaming Rolex fat as an ice cube. Warren? Kittridge thought, for the man had been wearing one like it the day Kittridge had walked him to the car. Warren, old buddy, is that you? Because if it is, I wouldn’t mind a word of advice on how to get this thing in gear.
He discovered, then, with the tips of his fingers, a pair of levers positioned on the undersides of the steering wheel. Paddle shifters. He should have thought of that, too. Up on the right, down on the left, like a motorcycle. Reverse would be a button somewhere on the dash.
The one with the R, genius. That one.
He pushed the button and hit the gas. Too fast: with a squeal of smoking rubber, the Ferrari jolted backward and slammed into a concrete post. Kittridge was hurled back into his seat, then tossed forward again, his head smacking the heavy glass of the side window with an audible thud. His brain chimed like a tuning fork; particles of silver light danced in his eyes. There was something interesting about them, interesting and beautiful, but another voice inside him said that to contemplate this vision, even for a moment, was to die. The viral, having tumbled off the hood, was rising from the floor now. No doubt it would try to take him straight through the windshield.
Two red dots appeared on the viral’s chest.
With a birdlike quickness, the creature broke its gaze from Kittridge and launched toward the soldiers coming through the stairwell door. Kittridge swung the steering wheel and gripped the right paddle, engaging the transmission as he pressed the accelerator. A lurch and then a leap of speed: he was thrust back into his seat as he heard a blast of automatic weapon fire. Just when he thought he’d lose control of the car again he found the straightaway, the walls of the garage streaming past. The soldiers had bought him only a moment; a quick glimpse in the rearview and Kittridge beheld, in the glow of his taillights, what appeared to be the detonation of a human body, an explosive strewing of parts. The second soldier was nowhere visible, though if Kittridge had to bet, he’d say the man was surely dead already, torn to bloody hunks.
He didn’t look back again.
The ramp to the street was located two floors above, at the far end of the garage, which was laid out like a maze; there was no direct route. As Kittridge downshifted into the first corner, engine roaring, tires shrieking, two more virals dropped from the ceiling, into his path. One fell under his wheels with a damp crunch, but the second leapt over the roof of the barreling Ferrari, striding it like a hurdler. Kittridge felt a stab of wonder, even of admiration. In school, Kittridge had learned that you couldn’t catch a fly with your hand because time was different to a fly: in a fly’s brain, a second was an hour, an hour was a year. That’s what the virals were like. Like beings outside of time.
They were everywhere now, emerging from all the hidden places. They flung themselves at the car like suicides, driven by the madness of their hunger. He tore through them, bodies flying, their monstrous, distorted faces colliding with the windshield before being hurled up and over, away. Two more turns and he’d be free, but one was clinging to the roof now. Kittridge braked around the corner, fishtailing on the slick cement, the force of his deceleration sending the viral rolling onto the hood.
A woman: she appeared to be wearing, of all things, a wedding gown. Gouging her fingers into the gap at the base of the windshield, she drew herself onto all fours. Her mouth, a bear trap of blood-lined teeth, was open very wide; a tiny golden crucifix dangled at the base of her throat. I’m sorry about your wedding, Kittridge thought as he drew one of the pistols, steadied it over the steering wheel, and fired through the windshield.
He blasted around the final corner; ahead, a shaft of golden daylight showed the way. Kittridge hit the ramp doing seventy miles an hour, still accelerating. The exit was sealed by a metal grate, but this fact seemed meager, no obstacle at all. Kittridge took aim, plunged the pedal to the floor, and ducked.
A furious crash: for two full seconds, an eternity in miniature, the Ferrari went airborne. It rocketed into the sunshine, concussing the pavement with a bone-jarring bang, sparks flying from the undercarriage. Freedom at last, but now he had another problem; there was nothing to stop him. He was going to careen into the lobby of the bank across the street. As Kittridge bounced across the median, he stamped the brake and swerved to the left, bracing for the impact. But there was no need; with a screech of smoking rubber, the tires bit and held, and the next thing Kittridge knew he was flying down the avenue, into the spring morning.
He had to admit it. What had Warren’s exact words been? You should feel the way she handles.
It was true. Kittridge had never driven anything like it in his life.