08 Jan “Infected!” Short Fiction – You Won’t Believe The Ending!
Some of you may recall that I ran a competition for Infected! when the Kickstarter was on. There were quite a number of good quality entries, and it was rather difficult to judge because of that very point (learnt some lessons there, I can tell you!). I was talking to one of the entrants today, and he mentioned that it would be a good idea to post up some of the entries so others could see them, and enjoy what had been created. So, with his permission, I am now posting up his story entry here.
It is a great, eerie short story, working through the mind of someone who has lived through the outbreak and the years beyond… and you won’t believe the ending!
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
RULES OF THE WORLD
By: JJ Parus
He knew they were getting closer. They had been chasing him for the last two days. When they are in numbers and you are alone, must avoid, hide, escape, sneak, run, run, get away. If you can’t then you have to try to turn it around. That’s what he had been doing.
Never know if it will work or not. Doesn’t really matter. It will or it won’t. You make it or you don’t. Rules of the world. Even now, even here. Wherever “here” was.
The weather had swung wildly back and forth over the past several moons. Days of storms and torrential rains followed by days of burning sun. Today was sun. It was the part of the day when the sun was highest. With few clouds above, the sun illuminated all beneath it, save for where the cover of woods or buildings helped you hide. On days like being in the open was potentially deadly, too easy for you to get spotted. Motion made it much more obvious. He wished it was dark. He loved the dark, especially with fog. They were like a cloak he could almost gather around him. He became better at hiding over the time. Those hunting him were more dangerous when the conditions favored them. Sight, sound, and smell all seemed to work better for them on the hunt in the light. Take the dark anytime. The dark and the fog. Protection if I need to hide. Cover if I decide to strike. Depends on the numbers of them. Was it always a numbers game?
More numbers for him was a mixed blessing. He found it easier alone. On his own. He had groups before, likely would again. Only as good as the weakest of the group. Slowest, weakest, least capable, lacked the ability to stay focused – any were enough to make that member more of a burden than a help. Burdens did not help you survive, did not help the group to survive. Just the way things were now since it all happened, changing everything. All changed, all gone. No laws, just the Rules of the World. He had learned them more quickly than most. It was why he was here and so many others were not. He did not know why he was here, or if it mattered to anyone else. It did not matter to him. Survive today. Plan so you can survive tomorrow. Stop when you can, hide if you need, move when you must. Always, each day. Rules of the world.
It had kept him safe from them for all this time – how long had it been? He didn’t know, didn’t even consider it a question. That was past. It was a new sun, a new day. It was now. He was here. Today was important. Worrying too far ahead was never part of his routine and least of all now. They were chasing him. He was alone.
He’d been alone for weeks. His last group, once nearly a dozen, was gone. One here, two there. Caught in the open and killed. Trapped and then abandoned for the good of the group. Always other problems too. Even the smarter ones often seemed like sheep. Too stupid for their own good. Never capable enough to survive on their own. One would step in the wrong place, another pull on the wrong thing. Lose their balance and fall – even short falls could make it so all they could do is crawl. Longer falls might do worse. Getting stuck beneath something as the weight shifted. Ice too thin. Careless near fires. Too much noise. Move too soon. He’d never counted numbers in the group, never tried to know anyone. They were just part of the group for as long as they were useful. Survival. Today. Now. Here. Rules of the world. Could they help you survive? Could they help the group? Only things that mattered. Now…it was down to just him.
He kept a steady pace, regardless of the terrain. Past the point of caring, his calloused foot was cut and bleeding as he worked his way further into the woods. The sole of his left shoe had finally worn to the point of non-existence. Seemed strange that it was just the one shoe. The other one still held together, but it had been so long. The way of the world meant there were no shops, no malls, no stores. Salvage what you could scavenge. Survive on your cunning, or what was left of it now. How many years? The question would spark in his mind sometimes, and like a flashbulb, be gone just as quickly, unanswered.
Close enough now that an occasional sound, indistinct, unidentified would break the silence and let him know they were still coming. Good, he thought. You get them, they get you. Didn’t matter. Rules of the world. He was alone, but not unprepared. Anywhere he found that was a suitable haven, at least for as long as any spot could be, he would always prepare. Safe for today. Plan to be there tomorrow. It was why he was still here, despite everything else. His shelters were never much, just always enough. they gave some protection, but were hard to see. It was enough. His defenses were the same. Nothing fancy, just simple and effective. Quick to set up. Easy to leave behind if you had to run. Not like a home back then (when was “then?”) where it hurt to leave it behind. So much time, so much effort. So much life. Not here…
These “welcomes” likely would not get them all. Hard to tell when you don’t know how big the group was or how they hunted. But he knew he’d get some. Maybe he’d get lucky. Kill the leader, kill the group. His traps would get some. Stop them, slow them. Circle back and see what was left. Look. Listen. Decide. Slink away or get them to run? He would know which once he saw the numbers and how well his traps had worked. He could also tell sometimes from the group if it was strongly led or all sheep. Get them running, get them chasing, didn’t matter. Rules of the world. Get them running. He knew they were less likely to notice things, where other traps were set if they were running. They would make mistakes. Spread out enough in the rush that there might be chances to take one down. Or two. Or more. Never know for sure. How many, how well they hunt you. Some seem clever, but they aren’t of the wild. Most are like sheep herded by the head dog. Alone? They were just sheep. After all this time, he was of the wild now. He avoided settlements. A group with him made it that much harder. The ones from the settlements did not belong in the wild, in his wild.
He passed his first trap, a simple deadfall. Likely just get the one up front, but it rarely failed him. One down, the rest to go. Would they slow? Some would, some would not. More surprises waited. The blood from his foot seeped out slowly. With each step he left a footprint in the mud, or blood when crossing stone. It mattered not. The pain was of no consequence. He had endured much worse. At this point, he wanted them to follow, needed them to follow. Further and further into his wild. The clearing ahead was getting closer. He could see the sunlight, bright as compared to the woods. He knew that his eyes reacted when going from dark to light and light to dark. He assumed theirs did as well though he gave it no conscious thought. He had seen it in animals though. Stop before you cross the threshold. Scan. Let your eyes adjust. They’d group together while they did that – instinct? He didn’t know but he’d seen it more often than not. Their waiting would buy him time as he continued towards the stream, and he might get lucky. He noticed some hives of stinging insects – bees? wasps? Hornets? He’d tossed a light line around them on their tree branches, and led the string down to where he staked them across the path. Crude tripwire, but effective. If he was lucky. If they hit the string. He’d run the trip lines where it seemed they might pass through. One more surprise as they pursued him. Sometimes they would give up. What went through their minds? When focused on the hunt they could be dogged. Other times they’d seem to just change like a breeze would. What went through their minds?
He was across the clearing and entering a short stretch of trees that lay before the stream. He tore off a bit of the rags that used to be a shirt once (when?) and snagged it on a thorn bush so that it would be easy to spot in the sunlight. Even without the breeze that made it flutter when it caught it just right, they would see it. So easy to follow. They would follow. His signs his scent, his blood. They would follow.
He continued to the stream. Big stream, small river? Who knew what maps might call it. He knew there was a path to cross, but it wasn’t the obvious one. Never straight across to the opposite clearing. He stepped into the cool water. It was rushing more than usual from the heavy rains of the last few days. He stood there, knee deep, eyes closed, perfectly still. There was something special about the water. Its feel. Its sound. This was as close to peace as he could find. Even better than thick fog at night. Bits and pieces of memories rolled through his mind, like an incoherent tumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces being poured onto the table. Not connected together but representing a bigger picture, no longer there. While he was here, alone, listening to the rush of the water over the rocks, feeling the cool water rushing he wanted to stay there. Rooted like a tree. Half buried like the rocks. No more running, no more hunting, no more groups of less capable ones – just peace. There were noises off in the distance and he knew they had just tripped the deadfall. Time to move.
He loved the river, here in his wild. This, he would hate to leave. Maybe if he was lucky and they were few enough he could survive and stay here longer. The river had at least two surprises even without his additions. The larger rocks, good for stepping stones were covered with moss which made them slick. Too big of a step, an off-balance step, and your feet would go out from underneath you. Bust your head on the rocks like a dropped watermelon. The current today would make things even harder. The water was deeper than usual, faster than usual, all from the recent rains. Harder to see the rocks, harder to maintain your balance against the current. There was that one place just over half way across where the bottom just dropped out. He never knew what caused it how deep it was or how wide. He learned of it when one of his group blindly tried to go straight across. Gone, drowned he assumed. The body never came back up.
He studied the ripples of the current that first day and somehow he sensed where to go and where to not go. He crossed with relative ease that day, though with his group, he had to take them and lead them two or three at a time to cross. Since then, he just “knew” how to cross.
Those behind him did not know. For some, it would be their end. There was still sound in the distance, but he had some time yet. He used it to his advantage. He moved larger loose stones atop the larger boulders beneath. Some men would slip because of the slick moss. Other stones were rigged so that the stone was overbalanced on smaller stones beneath. If not stepped upon perfectly square, the large stone would become unbalanced and dump the one crossing. One less. Maybe more if I’m lucky. He rigged some lines under the water at about ankle height between some of the larger movable rocks to snag the feet of pursuers. Might trip another. The stream would certainly give them pause as they decided whether to chase him across. There were no bridges. It would be cross here or look for a better place to ford. Risk losing the trail, might not be a better ford. The day was wearing on, the sun already much lower than when he noticed his foot was bleeding. Shadows dance, and your eyes play tricks in the darkness and light. Would the stream end the chase? Would they press ahead, trying to get across before they lost the remaining light and try to maintain his track? Would they stop on the other side but pick back up in the morning? He never knew how they would be thinking. He never tried to guess. Guessing leads down bad roads. Watch. See. Listen. Observe. Smell. Decide. Slink away? Hide and wait to ambush? Here or there? He knew he had left enough of a trail to lead them into the stream and deal with what crossed. He knew he could double back undetected. Hit them late at night. Kill one more, two more? Kill what you can do what you must. Move. Survive. Rules of the World.
Now out of the water, he had only taken a few steps into the darkening woods and he froze. He saw movement in the brush just ahead. The sound of flesh being ripped and eaten. The smell of blood, still warm as the breeze wafted it towards him. Low growling sounds as well. He could not stay rooted to one spot indefinitely. He wasn’t yet so far in that the chasers would not see him from the other side. Yet he dare not move or make a sound lest whatever was in the bushes notice him. It did not occur to him but the breeze blowing towards the stream was also blowing his smell away from whatever was there. That alone may have saved him so far, but for how much longer? His hearing warned him that although not yet to the stream bank, the chasers were getting closer with each passing moment. The noises in the underbrush lessened, but did not stop. He was stuck between two threats. A part of him, almost rationally weighed the chances as if to estimate with insufficient information what the lesser of two evils would be. Another part of him was equally aware of both threats but did not care. Now or later. Here or there. Eventually it ends. Rules of the World.
The movement and noise in the underbrush became more active as if there was a struggle over whatever was remaining. However bloody, however little was left, there was often at least one of them who wanted to drag it along. How alike that was with his groups. Always one who does not understand the group must survive. Anything dangerous to the group could not be tolerated. A sudden cry (of agony?) came, the rustling sounds changed. He could tell they were moving away. He slowly lowered himself to the ground, easing the stiffness in his legs.
The sun was almost a memory now, and another moon was about to begin. It was more dark than light as the ones chasing him forged ahead into the clearing just before the stream’s bank. In the dark of the trees shadows from the sinking sun, and the shimmer of the final daylight dancing across the tops of the rushing stream, he was invisible to them. He waited. He watched.
Sound carried across the rush of the water, words indistinct, but tone unmistakable. The group was not united. One who was larger, stronger, louder than the others seemed to be leading them? Other tones came from the group. Each time the loud rumble of the big one’s tone made it clear that he was the alpha dog there. They would follow him. They appeared to be stopping for the night. Good. He’d rest too, in his wild, in his darkness. He’d be awake before them and decide once he could see them. Slink away before they could cross or leave a trail and set more traps? He could escape now if he wanted but the opportunity to take down a group of them, especially with one like their leader was always a good thing for survival. Rules of the World. He crept away almost like a beast of the forest and found his spot. He would not cross back over tonight.
Hours passed. Across the way, the group was spread about, and dormant, licking their proverbial wounds as they rested. One crushed to death. Two others so badly stung their swollen features made them unrecognizable. The venom from so many stings was lethal.
The big one awoke with a start, not realizing that his snore and stopped breathing was what woke him. Uncertain, he stayed motionless waiting for any indication that there was anything to cause alarm. When his senses eased his mind he thought to himself:
“This one is a smart one. All the more dangerous. Can’t lose many more and still take him down. Charlie, Reese, and Davis. Carol won’t be happy that Reese is gone, but I always thought he was worthless. He proved me right. Kill this Alpha and bring back the head in a Sani-bag, that will prove me right again to the town. Can’t have smart ones out here starting up groups of them damned walkers so close to home.”
Across the stream, the hunted Alpha* Infected waited and slept. Rules of the World.
*Alpha – An Infected who has retained much more sentience than most other Infected. The leaders of the Infected packs. Some of whom can even create traps, use tools and plan complex ambushes. They are greatly feared by settlements (and rightly so) and when one is discovered survivors will often hunt them down at any cost.