THE WORLD NOW
The world, as it turned out, didn’t end in either a bang or a whimper, but in pus and sweat and infected men emitting unearthly cries as they destroyed woman after woman. A pharmaceutical company taking advantage of lax federal controls to work with living viruses and genetic splicing. “We have safeguards, we have procedures, we know exactly what we’re doing, we’re responsible, and if we’re not, if we do something irresponsible, you can fine us.” Yeah, right. That’s how companies worked in those days: maximize profits and weigh loss of life or health against that, a cold-blooded translation of human life into dollars and cents. Whatever their protocols, their gene vector virus mutated and made the leap from animal to human, traveling quickly, airborne. For some reason, the virus only affected males, making those men that survived the initial infection that dramatically sped up their metabolism, and made their bodies go crazy, nearly rabid, aggressive with one another, but incredibly hostile to women. Fines? Nobody was left to enforce any fines against Arcon. Society had collapsed by then. Three years later, it was still collapsed—a little hard to rebuild a society when half the people in it are rabid and trying to kill the other half. And since men are infected and all men seem susceptible, even if we could rebuild, humanity wouldn’t last more than a generation.
What do you do when you discover your species has a limited shelf life? Do you try to make the most of the time you have left? Do you try to leave evidence behind, in case something else comes along, in case some other animal is foolish enough to evolve and become the next humans? Or do you simply live one day at a time, trying to ignore the ticking clock, hoping without truly believing it possible that some sort of solution will be found? One day, and then the next, and then the next, just trying to stay alive . . .
Most of the survivors hunkered down, staying alert but never looking for trouble. They locked themselves in ones or twos in basements or survival shelters, eating canned food and drinking bottled water until they had to go outside to forage. Once outside, they usually didn’t last more than a day or two. All it took was a single feral catching your scent and then you were hunted down and slaughtered. Allie, though, had grown up hunting with Dad, and she was always one step ahead of the ferals, though every time she went out the door to try to find us something to eat I wondered if this would be the time she didn’t manage to make it back.
I remember the first time she came home soaked in feral blood and was confused at first by my concern—I thought she’d been injured. She looked at me with incomprehension for a moment and then laughed. “I’m fine,” she said, “but you should see the other guy.” It was a way to mask her scent, she explained, so that they wouldn’t know she was there.
We never did talk about what had happened with Dad. I didn’t want to, and I don’t think she did, either. I only knew the first part of it, before he’d knocked me out, but I could at least guess at the rest when I woke up in Allie’s arms with her rocking me. Dad dead, Mom dead. That’s the past. No use thinking about it. Better to remember the kitchen as it was that long ago morning, before the world went crazy.
After a year like this, Allie found something and everything changed for us. We’re now in a much different place. Better, I’d say, but I don’t know that Allie would agree.
Through the scope, she could see glimpses of the herd of deer, running and leaping through the dense forest undergrowth. They’d been flushed. They were trying to get away from something, something that was hunting them, and Allie suspected she knew what. She kept the rifle’s scope steady, let the deer run through, waited. And a moment later, there they were: a group of ferals giving chase. Three in all, running and panting hard as they pursued the deer. She kept them in the circle of the lens, watched them.
They were even more changed now than they’d been three years earlier, back when the virus had first struck. Their bodies now were lean and statuesque, hardened with muscle. The purple wormlike veins no longer writhed or jutted out and were only visible up close or when they’d been exerting themselves; they extended and spread down their faces and through their chests and limbs, like a faded tattoo just below the skin. The bloody pus that had oozed from their eyes, ears, and noses had mostly disappeared, with occasional minor flare-ups, as if the infection had reached a point of equilibrium for those that had survived it. They still ran hot, still sweated a little, but the sweat has become caked and layered with dust, drying and building up on their bodies in a grotesque patina.
They were as fast as the deer, traversing the terrain like agile wild beasts. They were hunting the deer, but Allie was hunting them.
She tracked them with the scope, following them as they gained on the deer and came down closer to the deserted town. Strange, she thought. From a distance, they looked like ideal specimens, attractive, lithe, and with rippling muscles, washboard abs, in perfect physical condition. The kind of testosterone-soaked men that all those boys training at the gym back before the world ended had been striving to be like. It was only when you got close that you began to see what they really were—the strange veins that up close marred their skin, the pus still present in the corners of their eyes marking the infection always waiting to run rampant again, the emptiness in their gaze, the way they moved their heads and sniffed the air more like wild beasts than humans. And, if you got too close and they caught your scent in the air, the way that emptiness turned into a rage, and they tried to kill you.
She took a deep breath, then let it out evenly, slowly, and took her shot.
Or, rather, three shots, one at each of the ferals, in rapid succession, with tiny precise micro-movements of the gun in between. Three head shots, and each of the ferals dropped almost immediately to writhe and die on the ground. The sound of the shots echoed through the canyon, and the deer, confused by this new threat, scattered. A moment later, they’d vanished.
Allie got up and brushed herself off. She’d been lying next to a tree, prone, waiting. Three years along, and she looked different, too. Her eyes were sullen and hard; her face was seasoned and burned by sun and wind, daubed and smeared with red mud and feral blood to camouflage it. Her hair was cut short, hacked off, so it wouldn’t get in the way. She wore layered camouflage gear and had machetes and several pistols holstered and sheathed to her belt line. She was muscled, even more so than she’d been as a lacrosse player, her body lean and lithe, and she moved with a careful determination, not a step wasted, always aware of her surroundings.
Her dirt bike was farther back in the trees, branches draped over it to keep it hidden. It was a CRF450 with the handlebars and engine and gas tank painted over in camouflage, the chrome and metal of the wheels and fork first spray-painted a dull gray and then smeared and caked with mud to keep them from glinting, and with a Q-Stealth Silencer muffler she’d salvaged from a ruined bike shop and installed herself. One of a thousand new skills she’d had to learn since the world had ended.
She slung her rifle on her back, cleared the branches off the bike, straddled it, and rode down to see the dead ferals.