The second group to arrive already wore green wristbands as they filed out of the bus, their snorts and howls subsiding as they emerged. Wilson Rose looked up from his own wrist, with its pale yellow band, toward people who were three weeks closer to death than he was.
Once the Greens reunited on the asphalt, the noise started again, no longer filtered by their metal shell. Contorted mouths spoke, accompanied by laughter that seemed alien, but tickled distant memories. Wilson shuffled back a step, away from the oncoming group and into the long shadows of the morning sun.
Pushing through the chaos of the group, one man overpowered the rest – in size, as well as volume. A disturbing grin revealed more gum than teeth.
“Come on, you newbies! Sing! You still have four weeks before you go tits up, so let’s hear something!” Seven words of an old rock song made it out of his mouth before he doubled over in laughter.
The final bus pulled in, brakes grinding until the wheels finally gave up and stopped turning. It was another group of Yellows. Forty more men and women, invisible bonds holding them together as they edged their way toward the pack.
A long, steady whistle pierced both silence and chaos. “That’s all of you. Time to head inside,” the host said. Wordlessly, she led them past ornate flower beds, neglected and overgrown with brush.
The shapeless mass of bodies funneled through a brick underpass until gray metal rails split them into four narrow chutes. One at a time, they pushed ahead as a barrier counted their entry with an audible “click.” A young woman jabbed at the metal arm with her hand, then rushed through. Click. The big man had the routine down, turning his bulk sideways to squeeze across the threshold. Click. Wilson held his breath before stepping into the new world. Click.
“You’re a Yellow, but you've already got a spark in you. I can see it.” The giant clapped a hand on Wilson’s shoulder. “I’m gonna adopt you as my own personal project.” The shift in trajectory of other Yellows was almost imperceptible, but Wilson felt the distance grow.
“So, my new friend, what was it that scared the shit out of you enough to put you here?” That grin was softer now, but still looked more wrong than right.
“I had a nightmare.”
“Fuck, man, that sucks. No dose of Prax can stop your brain from screwing around while you’re asleep. Was the dream worth it?”
“I don’t even remember. I woke up shaking and sweating and immediately knew it had killed me.”
“Probably clowns or some shit. They always freaked me out when I was a kid.” He grabbed Wilson by the shoulder, stopped him and looked down into his eyes. “Listen, I know you’re new to this. But Hell, I’m happy it’s over. It’s way past time. Look at all these fuckers standing around.” He waved his arm toward the hosts lining the pathway, human stanchions guiding us through the park. “These are the ones who are supposedly still alive. What a joke.”
He laughed, more calmly this time.
“You know I couldn't even cry when my wife died? After everybody got infected, she and I kept ourselves from gettin' scared for five years. Then, one day *BOOM* she ALMOST gets hit by a car. Her adrenaline blows through her Prax and that was all she wrote. Stupid, right?”
As they rounded a curve, The Beast rose into view. They had heard about it at orientation, but it was bigger than he’d ever guessed. Gnarled beams of steel, coiled and waiting, with thick, wooden beams framing a cavern at the base. By this time, the Greens were leading the pack, except for Wilson’s guardian. Even the Blues and Oranges pushed ahead, disappearing into the darkness one by one.
The Yellows slowed their pace, detaching even further. Wilson hadn't seen fear in nearly a decade, but now it spattered across the faces of his peers, spreading like yet another contagion. It gave him his own knots of terror, the first he’d consciously felt since the world fell.
“Hey, buddy. We’re here.”
As they passed beneath the arch, a sign warned them to turn back if they had any medical conditions. They pressed ahead.
The clatter of motors, gears and clanking chains was almost overpowering, even for the strongest of the group. Ahead, there were screams from those who had led the way. Those screams were soon in stereo as the man behind them collapsed, wailing and sobbing, curled into a ball.
Within seconds, four hosts filled the corridor, each brusquely taking a limb to drag him away from the group. “The rest of you keep moving. He’ll join you when he’s ready.”
A massive hand shoved Wilson forward. “Come on, man, you wanna waste time like THAT guy or you wanna live while you can?
“Here’s the thing. Bottled up emotions? It’s like when you wait too long to take a piss. You finally get to the head and it’s hard as shit to uncork it. Just relax and let it happen.”
Somewhere to the left, screams faded and turned to laughter.
“Your turn. Go ahead.”
Wilson stepped down into the vehicle, taking one final look at the others on the platform. He barely noticed as the host lowered the restraint across his lap. The chain started its rhythmic clanking, much louder now, as the car pushed forward into the light, immediately beginning its ascent.
Within a few seconds, he could see the whole complex in every direction. Far below, dozens of colorful structures bloomed out of green landscape. Even the beat-up buses in the distance seemed brighter.
The car reached the top of the hill and paused, gathering courage before plummeting toward Earth. Wilson raised his arms and began to scream.
And then he smiled.