"Let's make popcorn," I said, because why not? It wasn't like there were any more notes to write.
"All right," said Bill, and Vijaya nodded behind him. "Even academics have to eat."
I shambled to the small kitchen off the staff lounge to microwave the popcorn. It was the stuff with the fake butter mixed in, and gave the whole room that smell, a phony version of a movie theatre. When I returned to the lounge, Bill was pouring bright green liquid into clear plastic tumblers.
"It's one of those sports drinks," said Bill, raising a tumbler to me in a mock toast. "I couldn't find anything fizzy." The drink caught the light from the "no signal" notice the TV monitor was displaying, making the liquid fluoresce. "Perhaps it's a little too appropriate for this, ah, meeting."
"It'll be fine," said Vijaya. I set the bowl of popcorn on the coffee table, picked up my tablet, and set the file to play.
The norm with my old colleagues had been to talk over films. They were arenas for competition: who had spotted which reference to The Third Man, symbolism lifted from Norse mythology, or a particularly interesting edit. Films, to us, were self-documented constructions for us to decode, with extra gold stars given if you could out-decode everyone else in the room. I'd forgotten; Bill was a biologist and Vijaya was a physicist. To them it was just entertainment, and something the artsies mysteriously made careers from while the scientists made the "real" advances.
"There!" I said, hitting pause just as Brendan Gleeson snorted, "Irradiated" and lifted the create of apples from the display case. "See? They knew!"
Vijaya sighed. "Well of course they knew irradiating food preserved it," she said. "That's why they were irradiating it."
"But the context," I said, waving the tablet around. "28 Days Later is about a zombie apocalypse brought on by disease. And in the middle of all this death and rot and mayhem, the one thing that lets the group of good guys get fresh food is radiation. The exact thing that was the bad guy in a whole subgenre of monster movies dating back to the 1950s!" I set the remote control down on the coffee table and sipped some energy drink in triumph.
Bill and Vijaya just watched me swallow my bright green drink.
"I don't know much about film criticism," said Bill. "I ran away from English class as soon as I was done my comps. But I think you're applying a little too much hindsight to your interpretation." He fished a phone out of his shirt pocket and showed me the wallpaper image on the screen. "That's a Big Mac and fries under glass in Iceland," he said, "the last McDonald's meal that was ever bought there before the restaurant chain left the country. That food had been sitting out for three years when the photo was taken." He shrugged. "Things stopped rotting a long time before we got to the present circumstances. My parents used to toss food out of the fridge because it was dried out, not rotten. I remember having to buy organic for a science fair project so I'd grow enough mold on my experiment in time for the presentation."
Shrieks of laughter outside made us all jump. Vijaya twisted in her seat to peer at the windows. "They can't —"
"They're new windows," I said. "They're bulletproof. They should be able to handle a few rocks. Plus there's the bars, outside and inside."
Vijaya looked at me and frowned. "They're new?"
I shrugged. "New as in installed just after all this became... official."
A scream, obviously from someone standing right by the building, four stories below. "It's a shame they won't sit still for a blood sample," said Bill. "We might be able to fix this, at least for them." He reached for his glass of energy drink, pressed his lips together, and added, "Some of the plants in my greenhouse still grow. If nothing else changes I'll have fresh tomatoes this summer." He turned to me. "Do you mind if I ask how old you are now?"
I didn't keep track of the number anymore, so I said the current year out loud and made a show of counting on my fingers. "143," I said.
Vijaya leaned forward. "And the last visible signs of aging, you were what?"
"Around thirty-seven," I said, picking up my tablet and switching the video output to the original Dawn of the Dead. "You?"
"Twenty-nine," said Vijaya.
"I was forty-one," said Bill. Outside, the screams started up again, a small pack from the sounds of it. Bill held up a finger to stop me from starting the playback, then slipped to the floor and crawled around the room, turning off all the lamps. Vijaya and I didn't react; we'd done the same ourselves in times past. It was to keep from being silhouetted against the windows. It would get worse than noisy if the young ones out there spotted us directly.
Bill turned off the TV monitor last and felt his way back to the couch. He didn't touch me, but I could sense his body heat just before he found the middle sofa cushion and sat back down.
I held my breath for a few seconds, and heard two people breathing nearby, so I figured Vijaya hadn't left the room. At least, that's how we always used to check back when the film department was still more than just me. "The film I was going to show, most of it takes place in a mall," I said, keeping my voice low. "So, you know, processed goods, plastic, the artificial lifestyle —"
I heard Vijaya stifle a gasp, and Bill clenched my hand so fast I wondered if he could see me in the dark. He clenched harder as the thunk they'd both noticed while I was talking sounded again. The stairs; it had to be on the stairs.
I ran my hand up Bill's arm, found his ear, leaned forward until I was nearly kissing it. "There's knives in the kitchenette," I whispered. "I'll get them." Bill stroked my hand in agreement, and I slipped from the couch as a thunk sounded again.