The muscles in Claire’s arms strained, pulled taut, and her fingertips went numb, slipping inch by inch until she hung by almost nothing. Her vision narrowed to the man clinging to a hook on the door, swinging his boot down upon her hands. Pain shot up her arm, stealing her breath, as he crushed her nails, the bones of her fingers shattering.
He needn’t have bothered doing it. She would have fallen in a few seconds had he waited, but he didn’t wait. And because of his final action, when she did fall, her arms flailing wildly in the air grasping at nothing, she imagined the satisfying crunch of her boot upon his face when she found him again.
Her final moments, before her body shattered upon the rocky ground, were of panic, terror, and vengeance. After her spine split, vertebrae crushed into dust, her eyes opened to blue eyes above her, rimmed with tears. His red hair fell forward, tickling her skin as he shook over her body. “Dinna leave me.”
Claire woke and peeled her sweat-soaked tank off, tossing it over the back of a chair. She rubbed her fingertips, blowing on them as if relieving a phantom pain. The red glow of the light above the door made the dark creases in her skin look bloody and she swallowed the bile rising in her throat.
A creak above her shook her from her daze and she tilted her head to see Frank’s face leaning over the edge of the bunk above her.
“Mmhm. Just dreams. I’m fine.”
He rolled to his back and resumed a gentle snore almost immediately. The sweat had dried on Claire’s skin and she couldn’t bear the thought of stretching another shirt tight against her body. One of Frank’s button-downs hung from a hook on the wall. Putting it on, she quietly slipped into the hall. Red lights faintly illuminated the concrete walls and she slid her fingers along the steel rail as she walked.
Her level slept, but she could hear faint vibrations in the ductwork of life in the two levels above hers. It was their day. Her night. She couldn’t say if it was, in fact, day or night outside. Claire Randall hadn’t seen the sun or the moon in two years.
Jamie felt like his legs had been tied down. His limbs turned to stone and he moved too slowly toward the falling body. He watched in horror at the arms grasping at nothing, legs kicking at an invisible foothold. The sound of the impact upon the rocky ground rattled his ear drums and carved a morbid room inside his mind where it echoed endlessly. He slid to the ground, his pants tearing apart at the knees on impact and cradled her lifeless form.
The wind from the helicopter blades whipped his hair wildly about his face, churning pebbles and dust in his eyes. He would scream later. For days. Now he could only weep, broken.
He looked to the sky and swallowed his tears. “Dinna leave me.”
The tiny tickle of spider legs roaming across Jamie’s damp neck woke him. A nausea rolled through him at the rush of blood as he sat up, his body confused by the unexpected midday sleep. The cave had a way of doing that to him. It pretended to be protection and he played along to ease his mind for a few minutes. The back of his head felt numb where he’d slept on the cold stone, not even bothering with the wool blanket he’d recently tucked away.
A quick glance out the entry confirmed the day was passing quickly and he needed to return to the house before his absence was noticed. Before ducking out, Jamie ran his fingers over the cool metal of the carabiners hanging from his pack. It had become a subconscious habit over the years when his every breath was mountaineering. A superstitious ritual promising they would hold him, that this day would not be his last.
Jamie’s boots slid over dew-slick lichen and he grasped a branch to steady himself, wincing at the sharp ends of budding branches and razor-edged leaves tearing at his skin. Should have worn gloves.
Life had become precarious since the outbreak. Humans were tender and weak when cut off from modern medicine. A cut, infected. A limb, broken. A breath lost for want of an inhaler. The simple things everyone had taken for granted were now precious and rare. Impossible to come by if you lived in the Highlands, barricaded behind the stone walls of Lallybroch, unwilling to risk the journey to Inverness where only more danger waited.
For two years they’d hidden away here, foraging, tending crops near the home, living with a dull, throbbing fear pressing against every moment.
It took three months before the sickness found its way to them.
Jenny and Ian watched the confused and mad wandering crofters from the highest window in the house. The sickening adrenaline as the infected neared was now known by all in the home. The finger on the trigger of the gun, an arrow pulled tight and shaking with the dread of release. No one was too dear. Not even their own.
Ian had overreacted to one of the children breaking a glass one afternoon. He’d bellowed and punched a door, shocking the children who cowered against the wall. Jenny had flown down the staircase, knife in hand, fingers white against the mahogany handle. Ian had fallen to the ground, bent over in supplication and when he raised his head her clouded face remained still. Go. Offering no protest, he’d crawled to the priest’s hole and lowered himself in, locked inside for twenty-four hours. And when he ascended the next day, full of shame and his own stench, she’d kissed him fiercely and bathed him, crying for all they’d lost.
Jamie was one of the last to know. The last in that part of the world at least. The disease spread like wildfire around the globe. No one knew a thing about it. Where it came from? How it was spread? How to contain it? And by the time they started getting answers, it was already too late. Hallucinations and minds turning on their own bodies within twenty-four hours of exposure. Violence and chaos and unimaginable terror. The things people did to their loved ones. To themselves. Those who witnessed and somehow survived often wished they hadn’t.
Jamie had been on an expedition in Norway. Climbing mountains was his joy, his release, his escape. He’d lost his mother, his older brother, and his father, in the last ten years. His sister tended the home with her family, but something happened between them when they were together at Lallybroch. Like the ghosts of their family disrupted the very air they breathed. It was too much, too empty, too fraught with loss. So, he climbed mountains. His godfather managed the operations and he led the expeditions and finally Jamie felt himself at peace in the thin air of snowy peaks.
He’d gone on a vacation. His first. One week of climbing, two weeks in a cabin with no one to bother. Just books, a fire, and whisky. When he emerged from his seclusion, the world had changed. That quickly, things had fallen apart. It was everywhere, and every person became a threat.
Jamie had secured a boat back to Scotland after prolonged and tedious negotiating. It cost him every last bit of money he had and every bite of food he ate came right back up along the way. By the time he arrived at Lallybroch, in a Jeep that had been abandoned, he was met by a houseful of Murrays, weapons trained on him, and the sure knowledge that life would never be the same.
Two long years had passed since then, aging them all at least ten.Two knocks, a beat, three quick knocks. The slide of the latch, and the scent of Jenny’s stew hit him before his feet crossed the threshold. Jamie ran his hand through Young Ian’s mop of black hair, forever bed-headed. “What’re ye workin’ on, Ian?”
“Algebra. Which I hate.”
“Boy, dinna start!” Jenny’s admonishment made a modest effort at sounding stern, but her eyeroll to Jamie told him she’d not die on this hill. She tossed Jamie a small apple, a bit mottled and bruised, but entirely edible.
He raised a brow. “They’re coming in?”
“Mmhm. Lookin’ verra good. Janet and Michael brought back two dozen and they say there’s plenty more growin’. I dinna have vinegar to spare so cross yer fingers the bugs dinna have their way with the rest of the harvest.”
“Ian in the office?”
She gestured affirmatively with her chin and resumed dinner preparations. It all felt so perfectly domestic and serene. And would normally warm his heart were he not on his way to ask Ian if he’d heard any word from the outside world on the radio.
Jamie peeked in through the slightly ajar door, smiling at Ian’s wooden leg propped up on the desk. “Jenny’ll skin ye if she catches ye doin’ that.”
“Jenny doesna have an irritated stump.”
“I’ve heard her refer to you as such. I’d ha’ told her off, ‘cept it did seem rather fitting.”
Ian threw his head back laughing and pushed a chair out for Jamie. “Come join yer brother-in-law, the irritated stump o’ a man.”
Jamie settled into the chair, stretching his long legs out before him. His joints ached from the cave nap and chill in the air. He looked around the office, at the nicks and rough spots in the wood paneling. At the old desk that went back more generations than he could say. The pistol on the wall dating back to the eighteenth century.
That pistol was hidden away by his ancestors as they endured the terrors of the Highland Clearances. The starvation and fear and brutality inflicted upon his people, hiding behind these stone walls. Just as they were today. Somehow the world found ways to recycle its miseries time and again.
“Any signals today?” Jamie asked, expecting the usual answer -- Ian’s mumbled no. But instead of that he heard nothing. The absence of denial turned his blood cold. “What is it?”
Ian pushed a scrap of paper to Jamie with a series of words scribbled on it.
Northwest...gone four clicks...smoke...traps...you there
Ian nodded slightly, his eyes lingering on the door, looking at ghosts. “They canna be far. We need to prepare.”
Claire drifted silently down the still, dim halls, turning right at the cafeteria, past the gym, the library, and finally stood before the double doors leading to the labs. She came to them once in a while at night, when her circadian rhythm just couldn’t settle itself. The hum of the machines and the glow of the cabinets soothed her. These things waited for her. Their purpose found only in the maneuvering of her hands. When her skin pressed against the microscope and her vision narrowed to the miniscule movements of microbes, she could forget the horrors of the world above for a moment. A new world floating on a piece of glass.
She scanned her hand and the doors whooshed open. As she approached her lab, a flickering light at the botany lab caught her eye. Unusual to see someone there at this time. Her curiosity got the better of her. She eased the door open.
“Claire? Whatever are ye doin’ at this hour?”
“Oh, Gillian. I was just going to the lab and saw the light here. Whatever are you doing at this hour?”
Gillian’s sly smile grew and she patted the stool next to her. “You and I are guilty of evading the sandman together.”
Claire slid onto the stool and nudged it forward to lean her arms on the table. “No rest for the green-thumbed?”
“Exactly.” Gillian pulled a small plant, no bigger than a finger, out of the grow-light cabinet and set it on the table before her, tilting her head as if some secret hid beneath its leaves. “I’m trying to develop nutrient-rich greens and this one I thought was going to be my winner, but she is giving me all sorts of trouble. Sneaky little wench.”
“She knows what she did.”
“I think you might need sleep more than I do.”
Gillian’s yawn punctuated Claire’s ribbing and they both fell into a sleep-deprived giggling fit. “My husband, god rest his soul, used to say I must be a witch because I never seemed to sleep. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was his ear-splitting snoring that kept me up.”
Normally Claire would have tucked that information away and thought about it later. But now, feeling punchy and disoriented, she proceeded without her filter. “When did he die?”
Gillian scrunched her nose, leaning closer to the plant, seemingly ignoring Claire’s inquiry. When she finally answered, it was with casual disinterest. “Oh, three years ago now I suppose. It wasn’t the disease. His heart gave out on him. Quite a shock.”
Claire suddenly felt foolish and ashamed for prying, and a flush rose on her skin. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Yer husband doesna bother ye wi’ snoring, does he?”
“Wha- ah, no, I -”
“Would ye care for a drink? I’ve some horrible distilled nonsense in the back.”
Claire’s lids felt heavy as she tried to focus on Gillian’s face. “No, thank you. I think my body has finally caught up with the need for sleep. I’d best get back. I’ve got…” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “...three hours until wake-up. Don’t stay here all night.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ve witchcraft on my side. G’night, Claire.”
The walls felt colder than usual as she traced an invisible line with her fingers on the walk back to her room. Perhaps it was cold outside. Up there. Would that matter all the way down here? She thought again of the clock. Those meaningless numbers dictating her life. It could be midnight. It could be midday. Would she notice if the world stopped turning?
Jamie hadn’t told anyone about the cave. About how he’d packed away matches and water filters, knives and rope, dried fruits and nuts and a toffee bar he’d found in the glove box of the Jeep.
He felt no guilt for it. Not when they all knew what would eventually happen. That they would be found some day. Not by the sickened locals (they were nearly all dead by now). But by the nomads. The packs of men and women (but mostly men) who killed their way across the desolate towns and lands, taking provisions, using them up, moving on. It was mindless and brutal. And Lallybroch would be quite a prize.
Jamie and Ian had seen them from a distance once while salvaging books from the abandoned library in Inverness. They’d filled their packs with electrical manuals, survival guides, local vegetation references, and a handful of post-apocalyptic young adult novels for entertainment.
The smell hit them first. Wafting in through the library’s shattered windows, cigarette smoke and sweat. They’d walked right below them, swinging their axes lazily and muttering gibberish. Not one of them was untouched by madness it seemed. It was the first time either he or Ian had witnessed humans who seemed...unhuman. Jamie hadn’t realized until that moment, that there was something that existed within people that spoke to fellow humans. A marker. A beacon. We are the same. It wasn’t until he witnessed the lack of such a thing that its existence was confirmed.
He’d go to the cave at first light to prepare.