When Carlos had said that he wanted more time in the field, he hadn't counted on this.
The helicopter gives a sickening lurch sideways - the pilot is still speaking fast and clear into her headset, maydaymayday, our tail rotor's gone, two souls on board - it's all he can do to hold on to his seat and try not to throw up, and then the ground's rushing fast towards their windshield and the radio's cut out, she's bundling him out of his seat and out of the door, wait wait he hasn't trained for this, all he can see is the ground - he yanks on the cord, and tangles up immediately in the trees. There's no sign of his pilot: Carlos unclips from the chute, shaking, and lands heavily on a grassy bank.
He sits up, shaking off the dizziness, and then realises that the radio headset he'd been wearing is still speaking: it's the voice of the operator that had been guiding in the helicopter. He finds the volume control on the side of the headset, and listens.
"... -copter, supply copter, can you hear us? This is the Night Vale comms tower calling - look, Dana, they can't hear us, they must have fried the equipment in the crash - "
Something unintelligible; a hiss of static.
"Okay, listen, um, look: this is Night Vale calling, this is, eh, Cecil Palmer from the Night Vale comms tower, and - look, I'm just the radio operator, I'm not meant to handle this kind of thing - if anyone's alive, you've come down in a nest of hostiles. There's... thirty. No, forty. There's forty hostiles approaching fast and you've got a safe path to that tower: if there's anyone alive there, you've got to run. Run!"
Carlos wasn’t prepared for this. He's a scientist - or, well, he was. Before the plague, he was a scientist: he worked as an astrophysicist in a gleaming lab, analysed data and taught sometimes, drank a lot of coffee. It wasn't bad, really: he remembers feeling bored, and sometimes frustrated: the slow pace of the work, the time it took the academy to approve basic funding requests. When the infection had spread, and the labs, and then the cities, were closed down; when the ragged survivors drove and then walked out to find what shelter they could; then, he'd remembered how feeling bored was the worst of his troubles.
He's made himself useful: in a couple of small settlements, and then the military base. He'd worked on making their generators more efficient, or their kitchens run more smoothly, and in the base, his supervisors had him locked down in the lab. They were stil holding out hope for a cure: they had two dozen scientists there with the last of their equipment, disciplines ranging from volcanology to psychology, all quickly retrained in disease control and doing what they could. Increasingly, they'd felt useless: the power the labs drained, the resources they ate up on empty hope. Eventually, the lot of them had asked for relocation: couldn't bear to keep working while the others went hungry. Carlos was among the last to be relocated: he'd be briefed when he landed in Night Vale, they'd said.
Carlos runs, and the voices go in and out of static - "they can hear me! They heard - look, they're moving towards the tower now, just look at them go!" The radio operator is joined by a new voice: female, slower-speaking, more precise. "Cecil, I think we have two - no, three - three sprinters out towards the east. We can ask the runner to twist around by the southernmost side of the hospital. Hopefully they can lose them there - "
Carlos is already changing direction: he's never seen a sprinter in reality, but the pale looks of the radio operators back at Mullins, every time a scout had been lost to one, have told him enough. This wasn't something he wanted to encounter.
His legs are aching, his heart's pounding: it's not that he's unused to running, it's just that he doesn't usually run this fast, or this far, or, well, zombies. He pauses, wondering whether he should risk taking a short cut through the hospital.
As if on cue, Cecil's speaking again. "They haven't yet seen you, if you can still hear me - yeah? Maybe? - you should be fine to just come around and - oh! Major: an unexpected - "
There's a new voice now, brisk and commanding. "Palmer here tells me you're coming towards Night Vale from a helicopter crash: is that right? You're very welcome here, of course, but we have to tell you: we run an efficient township here, with everyone doing their part and working together. Look, whoever you are. Runner Eight has informed us she's heard about some unusual documents from one of the runners in a township further along Route 800. I'm sorry to ask you this, so soon after the crash, but: if you're able to take a short cut through the hospital, see if you can't get into Office 32 and pick up their last reports from the CDC. We think there's something important there. And - runner? As we said: everyone here in Night Vale pitches in, and pulls their weight. It works. I'm sorry to have to say this, but if you're not able to find those files, we may not be able to let you in."
Well. It's not as though the policy's a surprise - many of the little isolated towns had adopted efficiency after learning that sentimentality could be fatal - it's just that... he'd thought they were expecting him. The way the Major was speaking, it sounded as though they thought he was just some traveller helicoptering through the wilderness.
Carlos hears the muffled sounds of Dana speaking with the Major, and a door closing, and then Cecil's back again, speaking in conversational tone. "Okay: can't see you any more, now - you're out of range for the remote mic pickup as well, even if you had one. Well, for all I know, you may already be being eaten by the zombs... I hope not, of course."
He tails off, and Carlos, making his way cautiously through unlit corridors, poking his head into the offices that line the space, hopes he comes back soon. He is so very alone out here. That voice had at least given the illusion that he had company.
There! Office 32, and there's a filing cabinet, still upright, wedged behind a desk. One drawer's open, and he can see the distinctive bright yellow, used for all CDC correspondence, clear in the gloom. Carlos takes a deep breath, hefts a length of pipe he'd found outside, and steps in: scans the room, and finding it empty, goes straight for the cabinet. It's packed with yellow files: he has no idea what he's looking for, so he stuffs the whole lot into his backpack, hoping that at least one will be enough to buy him entry.
A door clicks behind him, and he turns, raising the pipe - no, it was his earpiece, and now there's Dana's voice. "How's that runner doing?"
"Hello - they're doing really well! The Major sent them to cut through the hospital - do you think they can still hear us? Um: keep going, you can make it! File or not, they'll have to let you in, they wouldn't mow you down at the gates or anything like that - would they?"
"Look!", Dana says, excited. "I can see them: they've made it out of the hospital, they've just come past those trees! Look, they're going at such a strong pace - oh, Cecil, do you think...?"
"Hmm? Oh, them? Well, there's an idea... we'd have to let them in then, right?"
"Keep going!", Dana says. "Listen: just for now, we're going to call you Runner Five. We have runners, you see, here in Night Vale: they find us supplies and information and anything else we need, and the number system makes things easier for the operators. I'm just in radio training myself. We'll call you Runner Five, because the old Runner Five, well - "
And here, for the first time, Carlos hears Dana's voice, so sure and precise, falter.
"The old Runner Five. Well, just last week, she went out to the motorway, and, well. There's no sign of her back yet. It's been - six days, and just over four hours, since we lost radio contact. But - ", and here, she sounds as though she's shaking herself a little, putting on a cheery, encouraging air - "you can be our new Runner Five! If... if you can get here, that is. It's another two miles to the north-east, then down the hill: you should be able to see our main communications tower from where you are, now. There's a big group behind you, but they're all shamblers, so you can outrun them easily. One moment, there's something else on the radar - okay, Five, there's another smaller group coming in from the west. They're faster, but they're not sprinters. They're moving to cut you off to the town, but if you move fast, you'll be able to beat them here. Just: yes, that's great, keep going!"
The bag's weighing heavy on his back, and his hair is falling into a mess all over his eyes, when Carlos clears the hill and gets his first good look at Night Vale. It's small: there's a group of ramshackle buildings, crowded around a farmhouse from before the infection. There's a communications tower at the north-east corner, from which he presumes Cecil and Dana are transmitting, and there are large roll-down gates in the wall facing him, with a smaller, ordinary door beside them. A guard tower stands over the gates, with mounted guns aiming downwards. He waves to the tower, hoping they'll be friendly, and sets off down the hill.
He can see the smaller crowd that Dana had mentioned: the zombs seem to have caught his scent, as they're already moving with purpose towards him.
Carlos groans in frustration: to reach the town gates, he'll have to go towards the oncoming zombs, and race them there. There's no guarantee the Major will let him in. As friendly as Cecil and Dana had sounded, they were asking him to run towards the zombs based on little more than trust and hope.
He could go the other way. He's guaranteed to escape: he could climb a tree or something, find a barn with a loft, wait for them to wander off, and - oh, for goodness' sake. After all this, they had better let him in. Carlos huffs out a sigh and sprints down the hill, hoping that Night Vale's snipers are as accurate as those back home.
"Oh my God", Dana says, suddenly. "Oh - oh no. Look: there, it's her. The old Runner Five. You see? Right at the head of them. Oh, Stacey..."
"Dana, I'm so sorry", Cecil says, and then to Carlos, "that's good, keep going! You're almost there!"
"Stacey, I thought - she was so resourceful - I mean, it's not even as though we ever - "
Dana's voice is drowned out by a sudden burst of gunfire right above Carlos' head, and he trips and rolls into a ditch by the gate - he hadn't seen that, why hadn't they warned him? Maybe they had, he can't quite hear their words anymore - there's suddenly an unmistakeable moan coming from right behind him, it's cut off by a single gunshot, and then the gates - the gates, they're rising! He can see sky on the other side, coming in through the tall, imposing mix of concrete and brickwork and glass bottles that make up the main wall - and, gasping, he pulls himself up out of the ditch and through the gates.
There's cheering in his earpiece, and they're saying something else, but Carlos takes off the headset, suddenly exhausted, and falls to his knees in the dirt. People are running to him from the nearby buildings, crowding around and all speaking at once -
"We saw the helicopter go down on the comms, are you all right?"
"-have to call the Major, she said she needs to know about all potential newcomers -"
"came in from the army base? Didn't even realise they were sending someone - "
- and behind the cacophony, there are two familiar voices, two people running towards the crowd from the comms tower -
"Give him space! Go on, out the way, give our new Runner Five some space and a welcome, he's just come in through the hospital and everything - ", and that's Cecil speaking. Carlos looks up, and sees a man with a worried expression, long black hair and with his frayed shirtsleeves pushed up, revealing colourful tattoos. His companion is slightly shorter: she's got dark, red-rimmed eyes and medium brown skin, with natural, short-cropped hair and wearing a knitted sweater.
They're not sent out much, Carlos realises: they're cleaner, a little more well-groomed, than the others. Most of the crowd is scruffy: they match the town, rough around the edges, still in the stages of being built in many places. Carlos thinks back to the lab in the base he'd shared with the other scientists: it had been rough, as well - they'd made do, but it was clean and reasonably well-stocked - and, with no way back for the foreseeable future, he wonders just what he has gotten himself into.