Authors: Michel Savage
It was when I turned the edge of the stairwell at the bottom landing when my heart stopped. I was used to seeing dead bodies, but what I saw before me put me in shock. In the narrow light from the lamp my eyes pieced together the image of desiccated human arms and legs that intertwined in a layer of filth. As hardened as I was to such scenes, I still jumped when I saw a leg twitch, then an arm, and the huddled pile of Weeper's slowly began to stir. One after another, they wriggled up from the tangled mass to shade their bloodshot eyes from the glare of my light. One of them hissed in annoyance as glared into the blinding light just as their putrid stench hit me like a brick wall. Lying their there coiled in their own feces, more than a dozen infected began to shamble to their feet. Flying up the stairs, I ran faster than I ever had in my life.
All of which events happened nearly an hour ago since I had disturbed the nest of weepers which had chased me relentlessly through the wet forest. Most of the time the duck and hide techniques are efficient enough when trying to escape their pursuit, but from the gaunt looks of this hive, it was rabid hunger kept them lingering on my trail. No matter how much ground I gained, they would not give up. I assumed I had lost most of them among the thick layer of tress and rocky terrain, but there were still two or three I couldn't seem to shake.
It was by sheer luck that I had stumbled upon this collapsed office building; and realized I might a better chance of finding a way to barricade myself in, rather than running blind through the sheets of rain during a violent electrical storm on open ground. That is when I dove behind a massive broken pillar for a spare moment to catch my breath, shivering from the cold. As I huddled there in exhaustion, I peered across from me to notice an old oil painting of a merchant ship by an ocean dock with three girls standing near a grassy shore; the damaged canvas sitting crooked in its cracked frame against the far wall where its corner had been exposed to the rain. Time seemed to stop for me in such moments; it was the way my mind seemed to cope with the stress of what my life had become and what little of it I had left to cling on too.
I cannot count how many times I have asked myself; "is it even worth it all?" Honestly, I don't actually think there's anyone who didn't ask themselves that question a hundred times over since the day of the impact. Understandably, there were no rulebooks to go by and very few 'intact' families had managed to survived this long; everyone knew the definition of loss in one form or another by now. Watching a close family member or friend turn into a dysfunctional cretin or a raging lunatic was tough, but showing sadness or distress over their suffering would only put you on a watch-list as a suspect of also being infected. Any emotional signs of remorse or sadness mirrored the early stage symptoms and people would treat you like you were a rabid animal until a medical diagnosis could be administered to test your health; that is, if they didn't shoot you stone dead first.
Due to these symptoms mimicking emotional grief, the human race quickly drifted into becoming calloused and unfeeling; in ways making us worse than the poor victims who contracted the disease itself. In its wake, mankind lost an important sliver of its own basic humanity.
I gathered my strength and scrambled up the side of the shattered wall, finding the smooth concrete was dreadfully slippery in the pouring rain. Daring to look over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of one the weepers standing in the muddied clearing staring back at me. Whether its sex denoted it as a he or she was unclear, for its skin was covered with grime and tangled hair. It just stood there in a hunched pose, as if in pain; and I could feel its glare wash upon my face as a low growl issued from its broken lips. I was a little astonished that they were able to pursue me this far through the storm. Human sense of smell is pretty weak compared to most animals, especially so in such harsh weather; but they might have retained their more predatory traits that enabled them to track my path through the woods. In my haste I hadn't exactly been as quiet as I wanted, snapping several branches as I pressed through the forest undergrowth after losing my balance more than once in the slick mud and brambles.
I was guessing there were two, maybe three still on my tail. There was no guarantee what would happen when they eventually caught someone. Sometimes a victim would just be stripped of their food and belongings or would be beaten senseless if their prey struggled. In the rare cases, they were killed violently and their bloody bits and pieces consumed if the infected were exceptionally hungry. Humans were scavengers after all, and have been since the dawn of time. Regardless, any type of physical contact whatsoever signified a high chance of contamination, so when you saw a Weeper you either hid or ran.
There were more than a few isolated cases where gangs of survivors assembled hunting raids to clear out the dangerous weepers who had escaped their isolation camps. Ethically, in my point of view the infected were still people, and it still made me sick to my stomach whenever I saw them shot in cold blood and the callous execution of the ones that were clearly unthreatening and helpless. Some people accepted it as a form of mercy, but it was outright murder in most cases, especially when they put down the children. As far-gone as they were, there were still those who looked scared in that final moment before the end; ad if it was some vile act of betrayal by their own species. After the government staff had abandoned the clinics, hospitals and quarantine camps, everyone began to assume there was no actual cure nor ever would be.
Truthfully, it is that loss of hope that weighs so heavily on your shoulders and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. All I knew at this moment was that I didn't want to die like this; cold and wet in the middle of nowhere. Understandably, for most people the thought of catching the disease was even worse than death; cursed to be left alone to survive like a crazed animal or waste away as your mind turned to mush and losing all sense of who you were.
The suicide rate across the globe has skyrocketed and continued to climb after the outbreak. In many areas there were survivor camps run by religious groups who preached empty hopes and offered salvation. In many instances, these fanatics were more dangerous themselves than the disease itself. I even heard strange tales of newcomers in their midst who would argue with them why any God of theirs would allow this blight to befall them, only to end up murdered in their sleep for their blasphemy.
Personally, I never fell for all that fraudulent steaming pile of crap they fed to the mindless masses. Religion was for the weak who desired to blame their actions on anyone or anything but themselves; or to use as a personal excuse to harm another human being under the guise of some holy cause as if to justify their conduct. People killing one another over
was a type of insanity I didn't want anything to do with.
* * *
In an adjacent building far above, a dark figure was watching from an open balcony, a hooded image that clung to the shadows, only outlined by the brief streak of lightning that crackled through the dark skies. He watched the drama unfold below as the lone survivor was scrambling through the ruins of the office building towards a fenced arena with a pair of weepers in close pursuit. From his position he could see the creatures were cornering their prey who was fleeing towards a dead end. From the forth floor of the building that loomed above, a crack of gunfire resounded and the flash of an aiming laser glistened through the heavy rain, taking down a third weeper that had emerged from the dividing tree line.
* * *
Hearing the shot, I was startled and lost my footing; painfully twisting my ankle as I stumbled and cut my hand upon the broken concrete. Suddenly the bright flare of a laser sparkled in the puddle at my feet and I ducked for cover behind a pile of rubble. I tried to peek through the cracks, aware that there was someone in the main building above putting me in their sights. I quickly realized that the sniper had thought either I was one of the diseased or that I was an easy target for pilfering my supplies. Stuck out in here the open, I had no place to go.
Doubling back to the forest meant that I would have to take my chances with dodging the group of weepers on my tail, and after nearly a full hour of running, I had no more energy to play cat and mouse with them. My prospects of making it this close to dusk were close to zero. A few yards ahead there was a large fenced area that opened up beyond. Next to the gate I could tell there was a small opening that had been jarred loose, inviting me a way in. From there I could find shelter in the ground floor of the building where I had spotted a large pair of double doors moments before.
Jumping out from behind the broken wall, I sprinted for the hole in the fence; strafing as I went to avoid the sniper, but a shot rang out as a flash of green light traced the ground in front of me. The bullet ricocheted off the cement just a few feet from my head, sending stinging shards of stone into my face. Whomever it was on the trigger had been waiting patiently for me to show myself. In a panic, I crawled back under cover from the gunfire just as I heard the familiar growl of the weeper that had followed me onto the upper wall. As a distraction, I leapt out and faked a jump out towards the fence again, and pounced back the opposite direction towards the corner of the building where I saw a wide-open balcony. Another shot cracked the air as I made my way to the edge of the wall, my twisted foot throbbing in pain.
Almost losing my balance, I came upon a sudden drop off. With too much momentum pulling me along, I leapt for the top of a loading truck that sat with its rear up towards the wall. Hearing a metallic thump behind me, I turned to see the weeper had also scrambling its way on top of the roof of the truck behind me, struggling in its fevered attempt to gain its footing on the slick steel. A quick glance told me that I had grossly misjudged the height of the balcony. It was much farther way from the edge of the vehicles shell than I had first hoped.
At this point, I realized I didn't have a choice. If the creature behind me even got close enough to touch me, the game was over. I almost faltered as the stab of pain shot up my calf when I took a running leap for the balcony, my numb hands grasping for the exposed rail. It was just too slippery, and time seemed to slow as I dug my nails into the metal, it was just too wet and the pack I had on was too heavy. I gasped for air as the rain pelted my face in the fleeting moment when my grip finally slipped away, knowing I likely would not survive the fall to the hard pavement below.
As gravity was pulling on every ounce of my being, my attention from the dark void looming below was turned back up towards the sheets of pouring rain that pelted my face as streaks of lightning lit up the cloudy sky. A strong arm had grabbed mine; I went dizzy, fearing my worst nightmare had come true and that I had finally been caught by a weeper. To my surprise, I could still hear the infected growling in anger behind me, its boney hands swooping in the air just a few feet shy of my rear. A thick gloved hand pulled me up to the edge of the balcony from where I hung in limbo, coming face to face with someone wrapped in a heavy mask and goggles holding a sniper rifle as they leveled it over my shoulder.
"Don't look at it, hold still!" a man's voice ordered.
I turned my head into the railing as instructed as the kick of the rifle jabbed into my collarbone. Holding me up with his left hand on the edge of the rail, he had fired with his right, using my shoulder as a muzzle rest to get a proper aim. Seeing its prey was about to escape, the infected ghoul had made a leap for my flailing legs; a ploy that would have worked if not for the force of the rifle blast that split its head wide open, sending its lifeless body skidding backward across the top of the truck. It's blood spraying upon my back and across the balcony.
"Fucking filthy creatures," I heard the figure mutter to himself, "Keep your hands where they are, don't touch the blood!" he warned, "I will pull you up." the man stated as he laid down his rifle and took my other hand to help me clear the rails edge. In a daze, I stood there a brief moment, a bit stunned that I was still alive. The shock of it wouldn't stop there.
"Don't move, you're going to need to strip." he demanded as he secured his rifle and stood back while wiping some bloody muck from his goggles with a rag he threw to the ground and proceeded to do the same with the scarf that had covered his face.
"What?" I merely stuttered innocently, still startled by the turn of events; slowly coming to realize that I had been saved, only to be promptly robbed of my possessions and gear.
As his scarf fell away it revealed the man had a slight beard, several days unshaven, but left his goggles on. Leveling his rifle at me, he clicked off the laser sight with one hand, but kept his finger squarely on the trigger.
"It's not what you think," he stated, though with a slightly apologetic tone, "there is contaminated blood on your pack and outer clothing; I need you to drop everything right here, right now," he ordered gruffly once again, "...you can keep your undergarments on." he added.
That would have been all fine and dandy ...if I actually wore underwear. As I undressed, he finally lifted up his goggles; and I could see by the dumbfounded expression that washed across his face that he was not expecting to find a girl underneath all the layers of gear and boyish exterior. I took care not to use my cut hand, which made it more of a struggle than an embarrassment as I stood there in nothing more than a soiled tank top and socks. Taking off my hat, my long blonde hair unfurled down to my waist. He just stood there gawking at me for an awkward moment.
"Is this good enough?" I finally asked as I rolled my eyes, "And, I should thank you ...I guess," I offered, still assuming he was the one who had been taking pop shots at me while I was down in the courtyard, but he had still saved me from breaking my neck, "...If you don't mind, I'm hurt and tired, and it's
fucking cold out here!"
Presuming it was the freezing stutter of my lips that got his attention back on the situation at hand. He threw down his gloves in the pile next to mine as he checked himself over a second time for any splatter of blood from the dead Weeper. Satisfied, he took one last scan of the open courtyard below as lighting crackled angrily through the sheets of heavy rain, then escorted me inside the dark building.
"Try to watch where you step," he cautioned with a measure of concern, noting I was down to wearing mismatched socks, and even those were filled with holes, no less, "there's broken glass around here."
I was still shivering as we made it down the long turn of hallways, it appeared this had once been an industrial office building at one time; its adjacent sister structure had collapsed sometime in the recent past. It was dark in here and waning light from sunset had fallen fast due to the raging storm, but a welcoming warm yellow light flickered at the end of the corridor where we were heading. Upon hearing hushed voices trickling down the hall, my host ran ahead and thankfully came back with a thick blanket to cover me up just as we turned the doorway into the startled gaze of several shocked faces.
All eyes in the room turned on me. Nearest the door was a black man with muscled arms and an interesting array of dreadlocks nestled upon his head. His smile was followed by a girl with dark brown skin and long raven black hair. Across from her a middle-aged red headed male with a buzz cut who was whittling away at something in his hand with a pocketknife. Behind him was an older man with a receding hairline of ashen gray; within his sullen eyes one could see many years of hardship that had shaped his view of the world. To the far right, just out of the light of the miniature gas stove sitting in the middle of the room; slept a young boy, curled up on a cot, fast asleep.