They were a few days from Arcadia when they came across the dying guy. He was on the side of the highway, leaning against a guardrail, mostly concealed by a huge clump of weeds that had pushed its way through the bitumen. The four of them would have missed him - just walked right by and left the man there - had it not been for all the screaming and begging et cetera.
The dying, thought Ryan as he came to a stop, were the worst. The dead you actually got used to after a time, but the dying? The pleading, the wrath, the outstretched arms and grabby hands. No thank you. The dying heebied Ryan's jeebies.
And the man was really going for it, howling-wise. He clutched his stomach and kicked his legs against the road, taking ragged breaths through gritted teeth. When he spoke, he could only manage short bursts. Hey. Over here. Please. Things like that. Then more howling. It was difficult stuff to ignore, not least of all because he was the first person they'd seen since leaving the city almost a week ago.
A whole week they'd been on the road. Dave had puzzled out the walk to Arcadia at four days, walking eight hours a day. The fourth day passed without comment from anyone, which Ryan thought was pretty mature, under the circumstances. And now they where - where exactly? A stretch of highway that looked identical to the stretch of highway they'd hit on the first day. A mash of cars - better not to think about what was in them - stretching on to the horizon. The one novel aspect in all of this was the dying guy.
'Let's just hold our horses on this' said Ryan. He'd noticed he'd been saying a lot of stuff like that lately, since he'd decided that he was probably the leader of the group. He wasn't sure if he was nailing it - whether "let's just hold our horses" made him sound like a leader or a dickhead, but he decided that the best thing to do was lean into it. If he was sounding like a dickhead, Aimee would certainly tell him,
'You think it could be a trap?' Dave next to him. It actually hadn't occurred to Ryan that it could be a trap - the hold your horses bit was really just affect - but it was a good point and so he nodded. There were rumours of gangs along these roads, and the dying guy could well be part of an ambush. This didn't seem enormously likely, as the man did look to be in a lot of genuine pain and if there were bandits after their gear, well they'd probably have taken it when the four of them lay down on the road for a nap an hour ago. But still.
'Keep our distance for now.' Nice. 'And guys? Stay frosty'. Nope. Too much, move on from that quickly.
'I'm Ryan', said Ryan by way of introduction. 'This is Aimee and Dave - and this is Louisa'.
They'd found Louisa three days before they'd left the city. She was living in a display bedroom in the middle of a David Jones, surrounded by tins of food and protein bars. Something had happened to her, something quite obviously bad, but Ryan hadn't asked for specifics. Nor had Aimee or Dave, as far as he knew. When they first saw her, she was so still they thought she was dead, until her eyes, those huge blue eyes, snapped open in alarm. Aimee had sat on the bed next to Louisa - who'd stared ahead, knees tucked under her chin - and given the introductions. Ryan and Dave had kept their distance.
Aimee explained that things were getting bad in the city, that they were going to leave, head west along the M1 on foot. Aimee didn't consult Ryan on any of this, on inviting someone to join them - which obviously he would have said was fine if she'd asked but that wasn't even the point. He looked at Aimee, thought about pulling her aside, and decided it was probably healthier to just seethe about it.
It looked like it was going to resolve itself, in any case, that Louisa was too far gone to respond, and then she'd gotten up with a surprising speed and began to put her belongings in a calico bag. She didn't have much; a pair of jeans, some t-shirts, a parka - she took a battery operated radio from the side of her bed, held it gently in her hands for a moment before slipping it into the bag. She didn't speak for another two days.
Now Louisa approached the man.
'I think I'm dying,' he spat, and even from where Ryan was standing he could smell that it was true. The wound in his gut, however it started, was now septic, no doubt about it.
Louisa put her hand on his face and looked back to the group.
'He's burning up.'
'You have to help me'.
'What happened here?' asked Dave.
'Here? No. I -' The man took his time to catch his breath. 'I fucking - scraped myself climbing a fence, two weeks ago. I didn't think -' his voice trailed off and he gave an embarrassed shrug.
'Yeah,' said Dave.
'Yeah,' the man nodded.
The four of them stood around, waiting for the dying man to speak. Aimee asked the man's name. He told them and Ryan immediately forgot it. Fuck. Every time.
'Where are you going?', the man (Chris?) asked.
'Arcadia,' said Louisa, before anyone could stop her.
Technically, they weren't meant to keep Arcadia a secret. In fact, technically, keeping it secret was the exact opposite of what the broadcast told them to do. Fine.
It had happened four days ago, over Louisa's radio. When she'd packed the radio, the three of them had shared a look. Nothing had been broadcast over the airwaves in well over two years, which she had to know, even if she was clearly a bit demented. They chalked it up to some personal token from the time before and moved on. But it turned out that she used the white noise to sleep. She'd prop it up next to her bedroll, crank up the static and be out within minutes. No one else seemed to mind, and after a few days everyone had forgotten about it. Until one morning, a week ago, they'd woken to music.
Music. Recorded music coming out of a radio. Ryan started awake to find Louisa holding the radio in both hands, wide eyed. He'd woken Aimee and Dave and the four of them sat, wordless, listening to the impossible music. It was old. Not Smooth FM old - older. 30s or 40s. A high reedy voice accompanied by piano and what Ryan guessed was a banjo. The four knew the song more or less by heart now, as it played at the top of every hour. The chorus went:
Turn your radio on (turn your radio on)
And listen to the music in the air
Turn your radio on (turn your radio on)
Heaven's glory shared
Turn the lights down low (turn the lights down low)
And listen to the master's radio
Get in touch with God (get in touch with God)
Turn your radio on.
After that, every time, a voice.
We began our fishing project today. A boat, big enough for three, patched up and pushed out past the breakers. Snapper. Some whiting. Whiting's a good eating fish, too. Bit of lemon from our trees...
Or something like that. It was different every time, but the message was the same. Rebirth. A new community rising from the ashes. They were farming. They had electricity. They were building homes. The settlement was already one hundred strong. These claims were, of course, completely insane, and would have been ignored if not for the fact that they were coming out of a fucking radio. That this group of people had gotten a radio transmitter to work, a proper radio transmitter, strong enough to broadcast across multiple frequencies, was enough to convince the four of them to change their rough plan of "heading west" and follow the directions at the end of each broadcast. And so that's what they were doing.
And so yes, technically Louisa was just doing what the broadcast said, spreading the word, but did she have to spread it to this guy specifically?
'Take me with you. Please.'
See this is what happens. It was completely out of the question, regardless of what the broadcast said. The man would be dead long before they got there and in the meantime he'd only slow them down. Even if he did survive, turning up to the gates of Arcadia (because Ryan had already begun to imagine big beautiful gates at the entrance to the property) with a half dead guy, stinking and rambling and who knows what else - not a good look. Not a good introduction. Of course, if he said that out loud, he'd be criticised. Aimee would call him cold, and heartless and 'the world's biggest fuck head', things like that. Dave would, as always, side with Aimee, and Louisa would just give him that look. Nevertheless, this was the sort of thing that he, as the leader, should really nip in the bud.
'Listen,' he said, and was surprised to hear his voice falter. That was the other thing about the dying. It was impossible to talk straight to them. Christ. The living: fine. The dead: also fine. The dying? Pick a lane.
'Listen,' he repeated with a little more conviction 'none of us are doctors. You're hurt very badly. You said yourself, you're dying...' he let that hang in the air, hoping that his meaning was clear, but the man, whose name Ryan really wished he'd caught (Charles? Something with a Ch) just nodded along, waiting.
'What I'm trying to say, is that you're just going to be in more pain if we move you. We don't have any way of carrying you, for starters,' he looked at Aimee - he didn't feel like he was absolutely crushing this chat, if he was honest, but he had to keep going. 'Arcadia is several days off - if we ever find it at all.' Louisa made a barely audible noise. 'And I'm sorry. I am. But you know that we can't take you with us.' This was getting better. 'But if there's anything else we can do for you, right here and now, just ask it.' He liked the sound of the last bit. 'Just ask it' Leadery. Sort of Lord of the Rings. Maybe he could start saying "I shan't" and "what would you have me do?". Potentially on the nose? He was considering this when the man spoke.
'Alright. Please kill me'.
It wasn't that Ryan hadn't seen a lot of violence since everything turned to absolute dogshit, he certainly had. Things fell apart at a terrifying pace. It took just two months from the first confirmed case of the virus in the city to when the lights went out. Two months. It could have been the that power plants needed that much upkeep or there was a failsafe switch that no one knew how to turn back on, but for whatever reason, the lights went out across the city and the violence pretty much started immediately. Ryan spent a lot of that early time living in an office building in downtown. In the first six months or so, you couldn't go anywhere near the residential zones on account of the smell, and so people mainly lived in the financial district. From the office block, Ryan would peer down onto the street and watch loose-knit gangs prowl for whatever resources any unaffiliated person was stupid enough to be carrying after dark. Once, he saw four young guys attacking an old woman for a tube of condensed milk. He thought about running down to intervene but instead found a half brick and, from his elevated position, threw it at the gang. It didn't hit the attackers but it also didn't hit the woman, so call it a wash.
He'd also been beaten up, quite badly, around a year ago while foraging in a suburban pharmacy. This was before he met Dave and Aimee, and he was ambushed by his attacker coming out of a ram-raided Priceline alone with an armful of diarrhea medication. It still hurt to think about. No one likes being kicked in the head repeatedly, least of all when you have diarrhea. After that he decided he'd better find some companions.
He'd been privy to violence, been the target of violence, but - in the three years since things had turned - had not metted it out himself, least of all killed someone.
'We need to discuss this,' said Ryan.
'Take your time,' said the man.
And so they talked. Ryan began.
'Okay so, obviously I have no, you know, moral or philosophical issue with doing this.'
'Oh for sure,' said Aimee
'Right. No, yeah,' said Dave.
'It's actually the moral thing to do.'
'Do we think he's of sound mind? That feels important.'
'Yeah no you're right'
Ryan turned to the man, who he had assumed, until this point, was out of earshot.
'Sorry, this is a talk the four of us are having.'
Aimee said, 'He seems pretty lucid, doesn't he? And he's definitely in a lot of pain.'
'Sure,' Dave hesitated 'I don't think he'll get better.'
They ignored that.
'Okay,' said Ryan, 'so now we just have the how.'
'I actually hadn't considered that,' said Aimee.
'I should be the one to do it,' said Ryan.
'Because,' Ryan mumbled, 'you know, I'm -' Ryan considered that leaders don't typically do things like mumble "I'm the leader" and decided not to finish that thought aloud.
'Yeah but how? Have we really thought this through?' asked Dave.
'Of course we have. There are dozens of ways.'
Aimee said 'It'd be good if we had a gun.'
'Aimee - if we come across a gun, I'll be the first to pick it up and give it to you. But we haven't. I've been looking. Okay? So it's not particularly helpful -'
'You don't have a gun?'
'We don't have a gun,' Ryan snapped.
'Oh,' said the man, 'I sort of assumed...' there was an embarrassed silence.
'No hold on,' said Ryan, with more force than he'd expected. 'We don't need a gun to, you know, help you…' It was pride, wasn't it. 'There are lots of ways we can -'
'Yeah,' said Aimee.
'Yeah?' he said, unsure.
And so there followed a discussion between the four of them and the man about all the ways they could painlessly end his life without the use of a gun.
Hitting him in the head with a 'huge rock' was floated early and immediately rejected by the man on the grounds that it 'sounded fucking horrible'.
'Well sure,' Dave had said, 'but we're talking about a really big rock'. He mimed holding what - even the man had to agree - would be a very big rock, lifting it over his head and dropping it. 'It'd be over in a second.'
The man remained unconvinced, but Ryan thought Dave was onto something and made a mental note to circle back to the "huge rock" idea.
Aimee suggested carrying the man somewhere high up - maybe one of the scenic lookouts dotted along the highway - and letting him fall to his death. This, too, upset him.
'So, throwing me off a cliff.'
Aimee said,'Well sure if you want to put it like that. But it would be instant and potentially quite peaceful,'
'Being thrown off a cliff.'
'We're just trying to help,' said Ryan.
'By throwing me off a cliff.’
The five of them fell into a moody silence. The man was entitled to be upset with the hand he'd been dealt, thought Ryan, but all they were trying to do was help, and it's not like he had any suggestions of his own. Just as he was thinking of a way to tactfully articulate this - the man perked up.
'An OD? Do any of you have anything I can OD on? Sleeping pills?'
'Aimee has Valium,' said Dave. Aimee shot him a quick look.
'Yes. That's it. Givvus.' said the man, stretching out his hand.
'Well hold on,' said Aimee 'Obviously yes, sure. But do we know if you can even OD on Valium? What if it just makes you sick? Then we're in a worse place than we started.'
'You can OD on Valium' said the man.
'How do you know?'
'It's a thing. And what does it matter anyway?'
'Well, you know, like I say it could just make you sick'
'I'm already very unwell, just give us the fucking pills'
The slightest of pauses.
'Okay sure but - and I know I'm going to sound like an asshole - but these are what I use to sleep. So that's that gone.'
'I just feel like that's not necessarily being recognised here.'
The man nodded and swallowed.
'Okay I recognise that.'
'Right. So how many do you think you need?'
'How many do you have?'
'That wasn't the question.'
'Jesus Christ just give me the fucking pills!'
The man let out a horrible kind of groan. Aimee handed him the bottle. He shook it.
'Fucking hell there are like 60 pills in here. It's a full bottle. What the fuck is wrong with you?'
'Hey,' Ryan stepped forward.
'Oh shut the fuck up!'
'Hey!' Dave this time.
'What? How fucking selfish can you people be?! I'm dying!'
'Yeah and whose fault is that?' said Aimee.
'Oh what it's my fault my wound got infected?'
'Yeah it's called Dettol you stupid bitch,' Aimee again, snatching back the bottle.
'We were trying to help you,' - said Ryan.
'Well you know what? Thanks for the help but I'm fine. Why don't the four of you just fuck off down the r -'
He stopped talking and looked at Louisa, who'd just taken a knife - where the fuck had that come from - and driven it into the man's chest. He tried to speak but couldn't. He reached for the knife but she gently pushed his hand away. He looked to the other three, eyes wide, and no one moved. Louisa made some shushing noises and put her free hand on the back of his head, lowered him to the ground. She took out the radio and turned it on, pressed it close to the man's face. It was a quarter past the hour, that familiar voice was speaking.
...where there's going to be no more pain, no more terror. No more fighting and no more fear. We're raising crops. You can see them grow every day. We've built silos to store the grain and homes for people to live and nurseries for the children. Believe it. The lights are coming back on.