Aphelion Issue 238, Volume 23
April 2019
 
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Death Valley

by Ariana Rodrigues



The infected barely looked human up close, strings of black drool slipping between their teeth, raw and bloody fingers hooked into claws to tear blindly at Esme's skin. She wielded her machete like a scythe in a field; the blade, already notched from previous encounters, cleaved through flesh and jarred off bone. Blood sprayed against the wall. Severed limbs twitched on the ground. The yowling surrounded her so completely it seemed inside her head.

An explosion shattered the cacophony, and she whirled; a man was standing on a powder blue Porsche, pumping a shotgun. He kicked an infected woman in the face and stove in her head with the stock of the weapon, and one more swing of her machete decapitated the final beast. She did not look at the way the body jerked as it fell.

He was breathing hard. No older than twenty-seven, with tousled dark hair and bone structure utterly wasted on the end of the world. Clear green eyes swept the area with military efficiency, and he nodded. "Kelso."

She could only stare. "Esme."

####

God is dead, someone had scrawled on the wall. There were so many messages that almost every available surface had turned into a mural of sorts, chronological layers of writing spinning darker and bloodier stories of survivors who were probably all rotting in the streets now, still alive but no longer human.

Over faded mentions of evacuations, someone had written

NO HOPE

and

im so sorry mom.

It was a virus, or a prion, something perfectly scientific and biological and so tiny it could only be seen through an electron microscope. But it might as well have been Death himself come to take the world.

"Where did you come from?" Kelso asked her.

"East. Fifty miles, maybe," Esme said. "I hoped to overtake it, but it was too fast. I guess it's everywhere now."

"No way to tell." He stood, wiping his hands on his jeans. "These people came here from every direction on the compass, and all of it was already shot to shit. There's nowhere for us to go now."

"I'm not staying here to die."

"By all means, we can die somewhere else instead."

Kelso was danger, she had learned that pretty quickly. He was lethal with both the shotgun and the aluminium bat he carried, and whatever he had been through had marked him. Unless, of course, he had always been entirely driven by self-preservation with little room for sacrificial behavior. He would aid others only if it posed no threat to himself, which she was supposed was how the human race was supposed to operate, but at the same time that probably helped to account for why she hadn't seen another uninfected person in the three days since they'd met.

"We might as well keep moving. There's no merit to staying here." She pawed through the debris of cupboards in the kitchen, hoping to find an overlooked can. She could not remember the last time she had eaten. Her belt was two notches tighter than normal, and even that was beginning to feel loose.

He tossed her a badly dented tin of sausage and a crumbled granola bar, and asked, "What did you do...before? Were you at college?"

"Yeah. Law." She laughed. "I used to skip class to watch horror movies. Zombies were a favourite of mine. Guess I ended up studying the right thing after all."

"How did it start for you?"

"The cruise ship docked while I was at school. I read about it in the papers online, how they had to spread out the passengers among all the hospitals because there were so many of them. It was a big talking point, but everything was normal for another couple days until some students got sick. They took them to the campus medical centre, and the next day the news broke about just how bad it was, how the infected were attacking everyone. Human rabies. They quarantined campus, and, well, it was all over after that."

He ran one hand through his hair. "Did they ever figure out how it was spread?"

"All kinds of ways, apparently. What I last read said that it was mutating faster than they could keep up with it, changing the ways it could be transmitted, building new defences against whatever they threw at it. But then the radio stopped broadcasting, and the power went."

"What happened after they quarantined campus?"

Esme sighed. "The infected students attacked the medical staff, the volunteer student nurses, everybody. It was like a wildfire, and they wouldn't let anybody leave to try to save themselves. There were riots, soldiers versus students, and the ones with guns won. In just a couple days almost everybody was infected. I locked myself in my room and stayed there, even when I heard things..."

"We have to be immune, otherwise we'd definitely be infected. I've been up close and personal with them, bodily fluids, everything. No matter how it spreads, if I was going to get it I'd have gotten it by now." Kelso rolled up his left sleeve and turned his forearm. There was the unmistakable semicircle of human teeth on the inner surface, halfway between his elbow and his wrist. It was a dull, half-healed red.

"Lucky you didn't get staph or something."

"Wasn't luck. I took obsessive care of it. Antiseptic, rubbing alcohol, antibiotics, the works." He looked at her. "Did you lose anyone?"

The question was deceptive. She had no one with her, he had no one with him; they had both lost everyone. What he meant was if she had watched it happen, seen someone she loved lose everything that made them human and descend into blind instincts and rage.

"I killed my roommate," she said flatly, and then her voice trembled slightly. "I don't know where anyone else is, my parents, my brothers...I don't know if it's better not to be sure, or if my need to know is greater than my fear of what the answer might be."

Kelso did not speak for a long moment, and then he said, "The infected that bit me used to be my mother. But it wasn't her by the time it happened. There was nothing left of her in there. Her eyes were empty. Just a shell, driven by neurons that wouldn't stop firing, or something...no mind, no humanity..."

Esme was silent as she remembered.

Shannon had been gone for twenty-two hours when Esme finally barricaded the door, muscling her desk between it and her bed so it couldn't open. She stood at the window, looked across the field behind the dorms. In the distance she could see vague mounds that birds were pecking at. Corpses, from the most recent clash between the terrified and angry students and the equally adamant military. And maybe not only from that.

Below her window, under a tree, a boy she knew from her tort class curled into a shuddering ball and moaned. She shivered violently at the sound, and as she reached for the window to close it, someone knocked at the door.

Esme startled, and stared at the barricade with fear and mistrust. She didn't know what to say, or if it was better to remain silent. She took a couple steps forward and then stopped, undecided.

"Esme?" came the voice, and a phlegm-filled cough. It was Shannon, but it sounded nothing like the sprightly, energetic Shannon Esme had known for the past seven years. "Esme, are you there?"

She moved to the foot of the bed. "I'm here."

"Please, you have to let me in." Another cough. "I'm not bitten. You can't leave me out here with them."

"I can't let you in," Esme said, and guilty tears came to her eyes. "You have to understand. You're infected, I can hear it. It won't be much longer...if I let you in...you've seen them, haven't you?"

"Esme, it's fucking batshit out here." Shannon never cursed. "The medical centre is overrun, infected people are everywhere, I saw Professor Campbell fucking rip out someone's throat. I don't want to be eaten. Goddammit, this is my room too! Let me the fuck in!"

Esme was crying now, shoulders shaking. She put one hand on the desk, but she knew she wasn't going to move it. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."

"I don't forgive you!" Shannon screamed, voice cracking through whatever unknowable fluid was in her throat. She kicked furiously at the door, but it was well and truly reinforced. "You fucking coward! You're going to burn in hell, Esme Sutherland, you're fucking killing me!"

Esme sank to the floor next to the foot of the bed, hugging her knees to her chest and sobbing quietly. The sun slid down in the sky, as outside Shannon screamed, coughed, swore, and eventually began to cry. Eventually the shadow under the door widened as she sat down, and then, hoarsely, "Esme?"

Esme wiped her eyes. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry. You're not going to burn in hell. If it was me I probably wouldn't let you in either. But I still don't want to die." She coughed, and then there was a horrible retching noise. Blood pooled under the door.

Esme scooted backward, away from it. "Shannon?"

Her roommate sounded like she was vomiting up her stomach and coughing up a lung at the same time, and the puddle of blood grew, spreading into the apartment. There was scratching on the door, and then then silence.

Esme sat there in the silence for almost five minutes. "Shannon?" she whispered.

The answer was a growl that raised every hair on the back of Esme's neck. Whatever was outside hurled itself bodily at the door, shaking it in the frame, and rained a series of inhumanly powerful blows on the wood, battering it with feet and fists and God knows what else. The desk jarred and began to slip where it was braced against the foot of the bed.

Esme lunged for the six-inch knife on the bed and flipped it open. It was pretty sharp, but she had only bought it for its coolness factor; Esme had never so much as kicked a dog in her life, and she could not imagine plunging this blade into her roommate's flesh, even if she was one of those things.

The desk crashed down on the floor, and the door splintered under the attacks. A fist punched through the broken wood, gouged and bleeding, and then Shannon, or what remained of her, was tearing at the wood, yowling fiercely.

Esme could not move. Her mind was racing in a thousand different directions. She thought about jumping out the window, but even if she didn't break both legs it was still certain death if outside was anything like Shannon had said. The room had nothing in it that she could protect herself with; the chairs were large and wooden and too heavy for her to use as a weapon, which left only the knife in her hand.

Shannon's upper body jammed itself through the hole in the door and she scrabbled at the desk for purchase to haul herself into the room. Her once dusky skin was an ashen grey, she was splattered in blood, and chances were that not all of it was her own. There were claw marks on the side of her face, and Esme did not have time to notice anything else because she tumbled through the hole and staggered to her feet, shards of wood stuck in her like porcupine spines.

The thing wearing her roommate's skin -- because that was not Shannon, not anymore -- snarled in a voice from the abyss and ran straight at her.

Esme was too stunned to do much, but by pure instinct she thrust the hand holding the knife forward and the blade slipped almost easily between the infected's ribs. It had no effect.

Former-Shannon lashed out at her just the same with preternatural strength, sending her stumbling back into the chair.

Esme brought up her legs to plant her feet in her roommate's chest, and former-Shannon fell back. She jumped up from the chair, but the infected was up and it clawed at her, fingernails digging into her neck.

Esme jerked back, felt warm blood on her neck, and the rational part of her mind gave way to the part that screamed survive, survive, survive. She kicked former-Shannon in the chest again, so that the infected landed on her back on the floor, and she dropped on top of her, one hand grabbing a handful of hair and yanking her head to the side, and then Esme raised the knife above her head and sunk the blade straight through the fragile bone of her roommate's temple and into her brain.

The body beneath her went slack even before Esme twisted the knife. Every muscle tensed and blood roaring past her ears, she looked down at the infected, but there was no movement. She staggered up and over to the far side of the room, and threw up on the floor, retching and gasping until tears streamed down her face and there was only bile left. Then she sat down in the corner, but this time she did not cry. Instead she felt strangely empty.

Shannon was still there, and Esme still empty, when she left two days later.

"I'm sorry," she said, with feeling. Probably too much, because he gave her an odd look. "I guess this is the end of the world, and it's not going to be easy for anybody. But I kind of wonder..."

"Wonder what?" he asked when she did not continue.

"I wonder whether we're immune, or whether we're carriers."

"Carriers?"

"Like Typhoid Mary."

He paused. He did not like this idea, she could tell, but nonetheless he also seemed to be considering it. "Jesus. I figured that maybe if we were immune we would be valuable to the military or any authority left, that they could synthesize a cure from our blood or something, but if we're carriers..." He trailed off, clearly taking that thought to its logical conclusion. "We're screwed."

Esme nodded slowly. "Yeah. Pretty much."

Kelso exhaled. "I think we should go to Whiskey Valley. I've been there. Fertile soil, clean water, and an old military installation on a hill that may or may not have weapons, but would be a perfect spot to defend."

"That's twenty miles from here. We'll need a vehicle. And we only have a few hours of light left."

####

It was almost four o'clock, and the roads were empty but for a few bodies and some debris. They turned north into the light breeze that carried the smell of decay and began to pick their way through the broken maze of abandoned cars on the highway. None was suitable for their purposes; they were holding out for a 4x4, something all-terrain that could go anywhere.

"We should check these for supplies," Kelso said.

The fifth car in the line had bags in the backseat. Esme opened the door and rifled through them, pulling out a bottle each of Vicodin and rubbing alcohol, and a huge bag of trail mix from among the flotsam and jetsam. Kelso found a two-pound bag of beef jerky in the passenger seat of an old Cortina, and a small case of surgical instruments, which they kept just in case.

She pulled open the door of a dented Mustang and a body hit the asphalt with a sickening splat. The ripe stench that exploded from the car made her recoil and turn aside to quiet her stomach; she couldn't afford to throw up her small trail mix and jerky meal. The woman -- or maybe it was a man, the corpse was so bloated it was hard to tell -- had been stewing in the convection oven of the car for a long time, and there were dark fluids on the seat and floor.

But the backseat was what had interested Esme. There was blood on the upholstery, and a teddy bear sat in the midst of what looked like entrails. Grimacing, she reached down behind the passenger seat, lifted out a heavy canvas bag, and unzipped it to find the holy grail of guns, ammunition, canned food, bottled water, energy bars, vitamins, penicillin, and hand sanitizer. She stared open-mouthed at the find for a few moments, and then sobered. It was sad and a little scary to think that someone so prepared still hadn't survived.

They spread out the weight of the supplies between them, and continued to walk. Night met them still among the labyrinth of vehicles; they found clean cars, locked themselves in, and slept.

####

It was half past six when she heard a car door open and close, and she got out to see Kelso stretching. He seemed to be well rested. "Did you sleep at all?"

She blinked. "Who, me?"

"No, the invisible girl in front of you. Yes, you." He frowned. "You look like shit."

"Tactful as always." Esme put on the backpack, adjusting the straps to fit a little tighter. "I'm fine. We have a lot of walking to do."

The pack made her shoulders begin seriously aching half an hour after they had set off, but Esme said nothing. She looked back from whence they had come. The road snaked and glimmered in the heat, almost like a galactic belt dotted with sparks -- car windshields reflecting the sun. Ahead of them, the hillside fell away on the left into a gorge and the blackened wreck of an overturned gas tanker blocked the road. Beyond it the asphalt was clear of vehicles. She wiped sweat from her forehead, dull pain radiating through her upper body, and kept walking.

Around the bend she saw it, a Ford pickup with big studded tires, the driver's side door open. They approached it cautiously, but it was empty. Keys still sat in the ignition. The engine started after some brief sputtering, and there was almost a full tank of gas.

Kelso looked at her. "I can't drive stick," he muttered guiltily.

She smiled. She hadn't known her face was still capable of the movement. "I can," she said, and climbed in, cranking the air-conditioning.

The road stretched before them, flat and featureless, and the truck chewed up the miles. Here and there were the shells of cars, some wrecked, others simply abandoned. As Esme drove carefully around a sharp bend, three zombies hove into sight, stumbling blindly along the asphalt. They were more pitiful than anything else, grey skin stretched tightly over skeletal frames and splintery bones jutting from the rags of their clothes. One snarled half-heartedly as the truck passed, head jerking in a kind of unconscious response. Esme wondered at them. What must it feel like to be literally falling apart and yet unable to rest?

"We're almost there," Kelso said. "It's a right, should be coming up soon."

Esme slowed, watching for the break in vegetation, and spotted it a little too late. The back end of the truck slewed out, and fishtailed a moment before jolting off the road and onto the trail. Kelso let out a curse, but before he could even begin to berate her for her sloppy driving, they slid to a halt in a spray of gravel.

The perimeter of the outpost had been fenced and laced with barbed wire, but parts of it had been destroyed and there was a vast dark bloodstain on the ground just inside the damaged gate. The exterior wall was pockmarked with bullet holes, some windows shattered. There was an eerie silence, no birds chirped, not even wind dared rustle the leaves. This was a place of the dead.

Kelso picked up his shotgun and opened the door. "Stay here," he said.

"No." Esme grabbed her pistol and climbed out. "I want to know what the hell happened here." She walked through one of the gaps in the fence, gave the building a wide berth. The door was bolted from the outside. Kelso moved ahead of her, rounded the corner, and stopped abruptly.

"Mother of God," he said hoarsely.

Behind the building, beneath the trees, was a carpet of white and red. Esme's dazed brain did not immediately recognize it for what it was, but as she stared, the image resolved itself into neat rows of bodies wrapped in sheets spotted with blood. She did not count, but there were easily hundreds, the stink of death so thick in the air she had to turn aside.

Esme retched helplessly into the grass beside a tiny sheet-wrapped figure no more than four feet long. Tears streamed down her face with the effort. Tiny loafers were barely visible beneath the blood-stained edge of the sheet, and Esme had just enough to register that there was no blood at the other end before the figure twitched and small hands imprinted on the sheet, struggling to free itself from its bindings.

She stumbled back, startled out of her nausea. She had seen zombie children before but had done her best to avoid having to kill them. This one would take some time to free itself, it was hardly dangerous. They had plenty of time to get back in the pickup and leave.

Kelso, apparently, was not following the same line of thinking that she was. He walked up to the little mewling corpse, planted the mouth of the shotgun against its head, and blew its brains all across the gravel.

Esme flinched, but not so much at the sound as at what the sound meant. Zombies were attracted to loud noises, like car alarms and gunshots. And probably not all of those sheets in the back there were bloody at the right end.

"Kelso," she said, and ice-cold snarling erupted from the forest.

"Move." He shot past her in a blur, and she only caught a glimpse of the movement among the rows before she was hot on his heels. There was no bravery, only insanity-inducing terror. Her shoes slipped on the wet grass, and her run came to an end when she rounded the corner and almost collided with Kelso, who was standing very, very still.

Their truck was covered in zombies. Not one or two, but easily twelve or fifteen. They seemed to be sniffing it, pawing at the seats, making thick grunting noises. One raised its head and turned it in their direction, and she saw that its eyes had long since dissolved and its face was little more than a naked skull. It huffed once, twice, and as though on cue, the others swivelled toward them too, interest drawn away from the vehicle to the smell of fresh human.

Kelso raised his shotgun. "I'll distract them," he said grimly. "Go for the truck. Don't argue with me."

He fired into the approaching crowd, and Esme broke into a hard sprint, so much adrenaline surging through her blood that for a moment all she could hear was her heart. She darted around the pack, lunged for the driver's side door, and her fingertips were just about on the handle when there was a frenzied howl almost in her ear and a bony arm locked around her throat. She elbowed the zombie in the ribs, but they felt little pain so it made no difference. She reached back, grabbed its head, fingers skittering on slimy half-melted flesh, and dug her fingertips into its eye sockets to give herself leverage.

The thing gave an inhuman yowl, and she spun herself out of its grasp and bashed its head against the hood of the truck hard enough that it left grey matter behind on the black paint.

She could hear Kelso shouting to her, but she couldn't distinguish words over the clamour, and she climbed into the truck, scrabbling at the keys in the ignition. Foul breath whispered across the back of her neck, and then teeth sank into her shoulder. She punched the zombie in the face, driving her fist into it over and over, bloodying her knuckles on broken stumps of teeth.

Another hand reached in through the window and grabbed her arm, wrenching it away, and bit at her fingers, severing two. She cried out in pain, white-hot fire searing that first bite in her shoulder as the infection began to work its way in. They were everywhere, pulling open the door, reaching for her, moaning, shambling dead things all seeking to welcome her as one of them.

Esme managed to get her pistol out of the waist of her jeans and fired into the backseat. The crack of the gunshot made her ears ring and her head spin; she aimed it at the crowd and pulled the trigger, headshot after headshot, perfectly accurate at point-blank range, but she could not thin the crowd as they swarmed to her. She buried her foot in the clutch and managed to turn the key, but in the chaos she could not tell if the engine growled to life.

There was a click. Her gun was empty, and suddenly heavy in her hand. She dropped it.

Agony flared along every single vein in her body, spasms jerking her limbs as she dimly felt them clawing into her flesh. She looked dazedly through the windshield for Kelso, but there was nothing to see, just grey skin and cloudy eyes and the endless meaningless howls of the dead.

Kelso wedged himself further up the tree and watched as they dragged Esme's body out of the pickup. It was idling there, free of zombies, driver's side door open. Even as they were tearing her to pieces she had somehow found it in her to start the truck. He took a deep breath, and dropped out of the tree.

He rolled, bruising his shoulder on a rock, and sprinted across the grass and past the mass of zombies. They were slow to react, distracted by the fresh meat, and he dove into the cab, slamming the door and powering up the windows. He stepped on the gas, made a wild stab at the clutch and pulled second, was gratified when the pickup did not mysteriously shut down, and as he barrelled down the trail he decided he could figure the rest of it out from there. Clearly Whiskey Valley had been a bad idea, and Esme had paid for it with her life. He was not about to do the same.

A crow swooped down from the sky and alit gracefully on the remains of a woman in the grass. It cawed once, then lowered its head and busied itself tearing into what had once been her face. A hand, missing two fingers, rose and made an unsteady grab for it, but the bird took refuge in the sky and watched as its former meal clambered to maimed and broken feet. It was the great circle of death and life -- another zombie had been born.

THE END


© 2012 Ariana Rodrigues

Bio: Ariana Rodrigues is a coffee-drinking writer, law student, and avid gamer who enjoys both writing and reading mainly supernatural, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy.

E-mail: Ariana Rodrigues

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