Short Stories

The Initiation

A white tattered cloth punctured through a jagged wooden stick hangs overhead like a proud banner. The cool night wind gusts through the tears of the dirty white cloth creating a flapping noise snapping it back and forth. The wrinkled letters begin to unfold as the cloth catches the wind and sways upward, revealing the sloppily written letters of R.I.P. The red lettering looks rough and jarring exhibiting that blood was utilized in the propaganda. The crackling and popping sound from the large bonfire acts as a song to the terrifying noises and cries of the people dancing around it. A ritual of acceptance and fearlessness soothes them to their soul.  The fire provides an orange glow underneath the radiant stars and luminous full moon hovering over the chaos of the infected world. The screams and moans of Freakers in the distance add to the ambiance of their ritual.

“Get Low!” one calls out in low a gravelly voice.

A large bald man gets shoved from behind toward the fire and thrown down to the ground forcefully by two other Rippers. The ritual around him continues to proceed as the people dancing are blinded to their surroundings. Both Rippers resemble each other along with the people around them with their shaven heads and covered with slander and scars all over their bare bodies from self-inflicted cuts. One mark is distinctive on each person, the letters R.I.P engraved onto their foreheads. The Rest in Peace cult began growing and making a name for themselves after the outbreak. They worship the Freakers and believe that becoming infected is a gift. Most of these Rippers were junkies, criminals, people with schizophrenia and suicidal in the previous world. Some however, were people that could never get their head above the poverty line and struggled in multiple areas of their life causing depression. Now, they feel more alive than they ever felt.

Another bald man, this time leaner with multiple scars covering his body heads toward the man being pinned down. His scars seem different, like they have been there longer than the others. The word “sacrifice” is cut into his arm starting at his shoulder and running down to his wrist. As he reaches him, the scarred man holds a bloody machete in his hand and hovers over the unscathed man on the ground. Drops of blood slowly drip off the sharp tip of the blade and onto the man’s forehead. The light from the fire reveals the letters R.I.P on the scarred man’s forehead with the shadows concealing the rest of his face. The man reaches in his pocket and shoves his hand up to his nose taking a deep breath, releasing leftover white particles floating in the air around him. The noises that come out of his mouth next sound animalistic as if he just regained life. He begins to clench his fists and pound at the air like he is preparing for a boxing match. He holds the machete right up to the middle of his face seeing the blood trickle down the shaft and the reflection of the flames on the steel. He bends over the helpless man on the ground staring into his soul for a moment with a slight grin on his face.

“Lost One, I see your pain, but I also see your want to let go of your ego. Don’t struggle because here you will find peace and you will be Free. Your sacrifice comes at a cost – but you will know Freedom the way we do,” explains the confident leader.

The large man on the ground screams out in pain as the scarred man begins to engrave the letter “R” onto his forehead with the blade of the machete. The blade cuts into the flesh as blood erupts from his forehead and trickles down the corner of his right eye. The letter “I” is carved next with a quick vertical slice in the middle of his forehead. Lastly, the letter “P” is cut above his left eye with the stem of the letter reaching just above his eyelid. Blood flows down the man’s face like a slow-moving waterfall. The man continues to kick out of instinct but is held against his will while the leader pursues to cut the flesh of the man in several other places. Some damage has already been done to the man’s body from his initial visit to the Ripper camp. Other Rippers tortured him and shaved him prior to this night to make sure he was ready to go on the Path. Before he continues, he blows more of the white powder into the wounded man’s face to lessen the pain.

“Time to get low,” the leader shouts.

Next, he cuts his arms – flashes of his childhood begin to pop into his mind. A quick slice to his chest – brings him back to the playground with his father. A slash to his stomach – he feels his mother’s hand stroking his hair as she reads him a bedtime story. Finally, multiple small slices are done to the top of his head – he hears his guardian shout his name repeatedly, “Justin! Justin!” At this point, the large man has gone unconscious with blood spilling out from several cuts on his body forming a large puddle of blood encircling him. The leader holding the machete screams out to his fellow Rippers sending their chants even louder. With each cut inflicted on him, it motivated the others to inhale more of the powder and use their own blades to create marks to celebrate. They take pleasure in the pain with the extra dose of powder kicking in. They kick, and they leap as they dance overtop of the unconscious man’s body. They begin to lose control of their bodily movements during their ritual causing them to eventually collapse staring up into the night sky.

The flames seem to mimic their dance and their shadows come alive. The haunting sounds of Freakers play as a lullaby in their heads and the blades of their weapons act as their lovers. The tall pine trees of the Pacific Northwest unroot and shoot up toward the sky like rockets. The stars spin around and around to form memories and future thoughts. So many names bounce around in their heads, but they can’t place them. Maybe it’s their friends, family members, themselves? The ground begins to shake creating a vortex in the Earth sucking anything in its radius in. The Rippers fall into the fiery abyss where they reach out with hope calling for the Freakers to join them in their eternal home. Bodies of the Lost are lifeless and tied up as sacrifices with their feet dangling and their wrists bonded by jagged wooden sticks. Ragged t-shirts are balled up in their mouths causing suffocation. The sacrifices are lined up forming a long and narrow path leading to a dark cave. The Rippers begin to shuffle down the path grouped together like a horde as their bare feet drag across the gravel. Once they reach the cave, screams of monsters become deafening and their minds become distorted. Thousands of Freakers come barreling out of the darkness and engulf the scarred Rippers until each one of them has been devoured piece by piece.

Then, the world turns black.

****

The rain rapidly taps at the large man’s head slowly waking him up. He tries to adjust his eyes by blinking excessively but his focus is lost with the bright morning sun trying to peek through the trees. He struggles to lift his head up from the soaked ground trying to look down at the damage of his body. Dried blood sticks to the back of his shaven head as dark red gooey strings dangle to the ground. He stretches his fingers to feel every cut laid upon his arm. He tries to push off the ground with the palms of his hands, but loses traction sinking into the mud causing him to fall back down. He attempts to sit up one more time using a little extra movement from his sore body and successfully gets upright. His throbbing head hangs down with his chin touching his chest. He slowly lifts his head to scan his nearby surroundings and sees the other Rippers lying passed out on the ground with their weapons placed next to them.

His focus starts to become a little clearer the more he squints and moves his head. Sitting there in an unusually peaceful moment, he realizes that he isn’t Lost anymore. Last night was his initiation and waking up this morning proved he has reached Freedom. This realization hits him right in his stomach. He doesn’t feel a sense of fear or remorse but feels a sense of purpose and strength. He takes his finger and gently outlines each of his new cuts given to him by the leader himself. He traces the “R” engraved on his forehead and releases a slight grin. Flopping back down to the ground with the puddle of rain and blood splashing up on his bare back, he looks up to the sky and shouts, “get Low!”

****

The old world was never for him. Surviving out in the shit for over a year now has made him realize that he hasn’t lost anything. He didn’t have a family, a career nor a home. He was in-between homeless shelters and sleeping outside at parks just trying to get by, conning people in town along the way to get some extra cash. At 13 years old, both of Justin’s parents died in a car accident and was given up to foster care where he remained until he was 18.  Due to his parents passing and his living situation, he never seemed to fit in anywhere. He could never make friends in school because he was always being bullied by the rich snobby kids. Whether they would make fun of him for living in a house full of kids that no one cared about or being the loser that no one sat with at lunch, the harassment continued his whole middle school and high school career until he dropped out. From there, Justin went down a lonely path of recklessness and lost any ambition to make something of himself. He tried a few times to take his own life, but never had the courage to completely go through with it. So, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol and drugs to escape society.

Fast forward a couple years and the world went to hell. Luckily enough for him, the day the outbreak occurred he was sitting on a bench at the park looking out toward the mountains just before his afternoon ritual of downing a bottle of cheap whiskey. Sirens started to sound, people at the park were scrambling and a loud crash involving multiple vehicles was heard up the road. He marched toward the noise until he saw people running wildly and viciously attacking emergency personal. Justin paused, then immediately began to run the opposite way where he found a group of people trying to flee the area. He was fortunate that day to run across this group who eventually built up a small camp and became sustainable in a world where you count the number of days gone. Nevertheless, when you are a man of little ambition and could care less for the people around you, you don’t last long in a place like this. He used them to survive when he needed it the most, and since that obstacle has passed he was just there to once again get by. Not too long after people started doing jobs to keep the camp running, he was kicked out. Each person needed to contribute, or you were worthless to the camp. One of the campers was kind enough to slip him a few credits before he left, which was the currency used to buy food, weapons, etc. This helped him get to the next camp, and then the camp after where he started to repeat his old lifestyle.

Of course, he had to get his hands dirty by killing Freakers during his travels but somehow, he continued his lucky streak of surviving. He had one poorly conditioned pistol and a hatchet that he received from the first camp to help him survive amongst the vast Oregon wilderness. He would then steal or con his way into getting a little extra ammo here or there at camps to get to the next place. Justin found his way to a camp located in Hot Springs where he stayed for a short time. This was a slave camp where it was required to work each day for long hours for little to no credits. Plus, the so-called “security” would beat on you if they felt bored. To bide his time, Justin volunteered to do supply runs to get outside the gate because it felt freer to be out in the shit, then stuck working in the camp. The crazy old woman in charge was happy to use him as an errand boy because right before he came in their supply group was ambushed and killed.

During the night before falling asleep on his thin cot underneath a small tarp roof, Justin would eavesdrop on stories being told from campers around the fire. Multiple stories were told about a group of people called the Rippers, or the Rest in Peace cult. He would hear snippets of their conversation before dozing off:

“They all follow their leader Carlos…”

“They live as a unite of some sort and wish to be Freakers themselves, it’s crazy…”

“I saw them cutting themselves with machetes man, and then dancing like a possessed person…”

“The Rippers take some sort of PCP drug I think, sending them all bat-shit crazy…”

From the moment he heard these stories, he became fascinated by how they lived. Surviving wasn’t living, and he was ready to move on once again but this time to a place he could call home. A place where people are like him, a place where you can start anew and a place where the meaning of home could be something he hasn’t felt for a very long time.

One morning, a drifter came into camp to take a job. As Justin was walking by him, he overhead the drifter talking about a location of a Ripper camp nearby. Immediately, he knew what he had to do. He quickly met up with Brad, the other guy who does supply runs with him. Brad is a good guy who wouldn’t even hurt a fly. A goofy looking man with a tall and slender build, legs longer than his torso with a bad receding hairline making you think he is bald by looking at the front of him. He takes any shit given to him and always tries to look at the positives of a situation. How the man survived until now is a mystery to Justin. He also knows how to ride a motorcycle, which comes in handy for longer distance supply runs and – for this situation. Justin convinced him that they need to hurry and follow the drifter because he overheard him talking about an abandoned camp with loads of supplies. Brad went along with Justin’s plan in hoping to gain some extra credits and trailed the drifter out of the gate. They followed him all the way until they started seeing the sigils of the Rippers, then pulled the bike over.

“Ok, that’s far enough man. I’m not going into Ripper territory,” said Brad.

“Let me just get off here then,” said Justin.

“Are you crazy? Those supplies aren’t worth it. Let’s just get back to camp,” suggests Brad.

“I can’t go back. I can’t stand it there. I’m not being a slave for that woman anymore. Leave me here, I’ll be ok. I’ve survived out in this before,” said Justin.

Brad didn’t take no for an answer and shut off his bike. He unmounted and approached Justin to talk some sense with him. Gently, he nudged Justin toward the bike to insist that they start moving before Freakers come around.

“I said no! I’m not like you people. I’m looking for more and staying at the camp isn’t it. This is how I want to live, so please let me decide my own fate,” Justin pleads.

“This is a suicide mission, you know that right?” says Brad.

Both men pause, look down at the broken road, look toward Ripper territory then back at each other. Justin’s mind is already made up with one foot pointed in the direction of the sigils. Brad can tell in his eyes how determined he is to move on and try whatever he is going to try. In Brad’s heart, he can’t seem to justify leaving this man to venture into Ripper territory alone. If he died, it would haunt his conscious for the rest of his days.

“No man, I can’t let you do this. I’m sorry but if you die, which you most likely will that is on my hands. Now, I need you to get back on the bike,” begs Brad.

Freakers begin to roam toward their direction from the top of the tree covered hill. Their voices carried through the desolate air now capturing the Freaker’s attention. Justin and Brad look up to see about ten alerted Freakers running wildly down the hill letting out their haunting screeches. Out of instinct, Brad lunges toward Justin and grabs him by the arm to try and pull him toward the bike.

“We need to move, now!” yells Brad.

“No!” screams Justin.

Brad doesn’t let up on the grip he has on his friend’s arm. The Freakers get closer to them, chopping at the bit on their next prey. Their hands spread wide with pointed black fingernails reaching toward the men. The smell starts to become intoxicating with the combination of rot, blood and shit. Eyes bloodshot and bulging from their skulls seem to be staring into the men’s souls. The pattern of their feet sounds unorthodox with a fast and rapid pace as they come stumbling down the hill. Justin looks at the Freakers, then looks down at Brad’s hand grasping his arm. He realizes this man won’t leave him alone and if he doesn’t go with him they both will die. In a spark of rage, Justin grabs his hatchet from his belt and swiftly chops down on Brad’s arm slicing it in half. The hand loosens its grip and slides down Justin’s arm and plops on the ground. Blood sprays from the decapitated limb directly onto Justin’s face. Brad screams out in terrible pain and drops to the ground in shock looking at the other half of his arm on the ground. Justin stands still for a moment, looking down at all the blood. The noises of the Freakers and Brad’s screams are completely blocked out as he stands there shuddering. This was the first human being he has ever killed. He dropped the hatchet that was dangling from his shaking hand. His vision was fuzzy with adrenaline and remorse. Out of survival instinct, he jumps out of the way from the impending Freakers. They go straight toward Brad and begin devouring the man’s body. Justin peeks back and realizes that Brad is a distraction for him to get away seeing the group of Freakers piling around his now dead body. Justin looks forward and shambles through a new world of meticulously placed jagged wooden sticks, bonfires and banners of Ripper propaganda.

****

“Welcome friend,” a deep voice rings out from behind him.

He gradually turns his head and shields the sun with his hand trying to look up at the man walking behind him. The leader crouches down in front of him to meet him eye to eye, like a catcher waiting to receive a pitch. With the bloody machete still in hand, he scans the man’s body and points the tip of the blade at each cut relishing in his work.

“Do you know who I am?” The leader hisses out like a snake.

“Of course, you’re Carlos. I’ve heard many stories of you,” mutters the wounded man.

“And what is your name?” Carlos asks.

“My name? I – I don’t have one,” the man stutters.

“Good. I can see you understand. I have a place for you here, and I am pleased that you chose to come to me. I will show you the Path,” says Carlos.

Carlos stands up and turns with his back facing the man revealing a large burn scar covering his whole back. He raises his arms and looks out toward the other Rippers as a preacher would at the altar in front of his congregation. The Rest in Peace cult give him their full attention. The wounded man finally musters up enough strength to stand on his own two feet to give Carlos the respect as the others do. He stands mere feet away from their leader with a slight hunch in his back due to his injuries. Carlos expresses such gravitas, that it captivates the man the instant he starts speaking.

“My followers! You have given up your names. You have given up your memories. You have all felt pain and life has brought you Low in the previous world. You were Lost, but now you have joined me, each one of you. We walk the Unnamed Path and we do not fear. One Mind brings us together and One Mind keeps us safe. We protect the Free from the Lost, to protect the world. Today, another one is Found and joins us as we prepare for the Rising. It is coming my friends, and our work is not done yet.”

After the speech, the Rippers scatter and the man who once had a name is no more. He stands still looking over his body, each cut he can still feel from the night before. Blood covers his face as the day he chose to go on this path. He looks up at that R.I.P banner flying in the wind and feels proud. He continues this life not as a beaten down camper, not as a lost foster boy or a drunk homeless man. But a man who embraces this world, protects this world and lives free as One Mind.

He can now, Rest in Peace.

A Look at the Other Side: Entry 1

The next few blog posts that you will be reading are part of a new mini-series I am writing titled, “A Look at the Other Side.” This mini-series will be written as journal entries aimed at showing you the life of an ambush camper trying to survive in the harsh wilderness of Days Gone. As you read these entries from a camper’s viewpoint, discover a different side of the ambushers that you didn’t see in the game. Read snippets of their past life, along with their struggle to survive in this post-apocalyptic stage and decide for yourself if the ambush campers truly are the “bad guys.”

635 DAYS GONE

A world filled with emptiness, and yet it feels so crowded. Everything is different, and nothing is different. We look after our own, we eat to survive, and we fight to live another day. Sounds a whole lot like the time before this all happened, at least for me anyway. Now the world has crumbled, and the government still doesn’t care about us. Every day we run for our lives, scavenge what we can find and kill just to do it all over again the next day. We all tell each other the same stories repeatedly to pass the time. If its not about the worthless government, it’s the survival, the killing, what supplies we need and so on. So, here I am writing down my own thoughts to try and keep sane. It’s funny though because I didn’t imagine myself being this type of person to write in a diary. Well, journal sounds a little more sophisticated. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re out doing the same shit every day. I had to spice it up a little!

It all started earlier today when we took a small supply run to Crazy Willie’s and I stumbled upon this dirty notebook and pen sitting on the backseat floor of an abandoned car. I swear I’ve searched this car before, but I must have been looking with a different lens today. I honestly don’t even know why we went to that place again. It’s been searched a thousand times from people all over the area. By us, marauders, rippers, drifters you name it! Not to mention, there are a few Freaker nests there that I don’t care to be around. I asked Clark one day if we should try and burn them to get rid of the Freakers in that area, you know to create safer travel for us. I guess that was a dumb idea because he shot me a look and said, “we can’t spare the supplies.” I wasn’t going to argue though, I am just here trying to get along like everyone else.

It was actually an easy day today. Its nice to have those days occasionally. We got in and out of Crazy Willie’s without no one dying, and now I have this awesome journal to write in. That’s a success in today’s world! I had to take down a couple Freakers in our path, but nothing I couldn’t handle. A few swings of the ol’ hatchet seems to do the trick. Plus, we found two kerosene cans and some rags for future use, along with some gas to help us get back. Supplies become scarcer as the days go by, but hey we have some deer meat being held over the fire right now to get us by for the next couple of days. Thanks to our good friend Roger. I don’t know if I would really call him a friend, more of an acquaintance I guess. He’s a quiet man, but he always lends a helping hand for the camp. I had a conversation with him once, and he told me he used to be an avid hunter before all of this. Luckily for us, that is one skill that is needed now. Well, the cook just called us all over to eat. I better go before someone takes my ration.

Until tomorrow,

Katie


A Look at the Other Side: Entry 2

650 DAYS GONE

A lot has happened these past couple of weeks. We lost some people, but I’m still here. The question I have been asking myself lately is, do I want to be here? Maybe, I’ve been in this shit too long now. Let’s face it, I could care less about this group of assholes in this camp. They only help me survive and that’s all I need. Sure, I’ve met some decent people along the way, but no one I would jump in front of a bullet for. The only thing I cared about was lost some time ago. I thought if I kept going I could honor her in some way, but that was just a fantasy. Honestly, I should have blown out my brains that day and saved myself from all this.

Enough of my sob story.

We had to be proactive today. There is this group of riders that we call the Raider Patrol. They continue to ride in our area looking for god knows what. They think they’re like the damn police of the apocalypse I guess. Anyway, one of the guys came up with an idea to cut them off because not only are they sending Freakers toward us with their loud motorcycles, but they could have some supplies on them that we need. We’ve done things like this before when we become desperate and today was one of those days. The Raiders have been taking the same route each day for the past few days. Only one rider would travel the road during the day, so we sent three of us out to make sure the job gets done. A couple of days ago, Big Ed came across a junky sniper rifle found at an abandoned camp. Who knows what happened to those people. He cleaned it up the best he could and ensured us it was functional for our plan today. Long story short, it was.

Big Ed decided to climb up a tree to get a better vantage point he said. A little unorthodox I thought, but hey the plan worked. Jim hid in a bush just off the road a little ways not too far from the tree Big Ed was in. I ducked behind an abandoned car on the road. The trap was set and behold, that idiot rider came right into our trap. Big Ed took one shot with his sniper rifle and threw the rider right off his bike. Jim and I jumped out of our hiding spots and dashed toward him. I was carrying a wooden baseball bat and Jim had a hatchet. The rider was a little dazed from being shot in the shoulder, but he got up and fumbled for his weapon attached to his hip. I met him first and took a nice swing to his chest before he could pull his gun up. He bent over from what I assume took the wind out of him. Then I swung at him again, this time hitting him square in the back sending him to the ground. Jim rushed right up behind me and stuck the hatchet right in his spine. He ripped the hatchet out of his back and then struck him again and again until I had to pull him off. I’ve seen this too many times when a man loses control of his feelings and unleashes all his anger on a helpless corpse. It’s disgusting.

I understand the situation of these ambushes we conduct. It’s the survival of the fittest. I just wish so many people didn’t have to die. Freakers are another thing, we kill them because we must. People can be talked to, negotiated with, maybe even helped sometimes. As much as that Raider was annoying me with his motorcycle, there should always be a better way in getting the things we need to survive. I know I’m not myself anymore, but each time I see another man or woman die I lose the good memories. The smile from my daughter’s face, the smell of fresh baked cookies coming from the oven and the holidays we would share with friends and family. All that vanishes with each kill and now I see their eyes. The eyes of the people we have had to kill to survive. The puddles and puddles of blood. All that for what, a little extra meat or some bandages to last us a couple more days. That’s what we got today. That’s all we got.

Until tomorrow,

Katie


A Look at the Other Side: Entry 3

693 DAYS GONE

I am a survivor. I have always been a survivor. I survived for my daughter Alyssa. I survived as long as I could out here for her. The longer I survived, the longer her memory would remain in me. But now, a part of me knew it was going to end like this…

After years of abuse from my piece of shit husband, I would hide the bruises and the tears from Alyssa each night. Of course, she heard the yelling and screaming, but I stayed strong for her. She was so young and pure. I stayed with him because I thought it would be better for her. I didn’t want her to grow up in a broken home where I would only see her every other holiday. One day, I had enough. He went out to a bar like he normally would, so I told Alyssa we were taking a long trip. I had our bags packed and we left and never looked back. I started a new life with just me and her. That’s all I needed. Unfortunately, my time with her was cut short. The world came to an end and I lost her.

I pushed forward to make her proud. It sounds silly because she’s not even here, but it was the one thing that kept me going. Being able to still remember her laughter or her soft voice made my life worth living. That’s why I made it this far. Now, I became a different person. A person that I wouldn’t want Alyssa to meet. That fact alone makes me despise myself. Each day the memories of her faded. Each day got darker. Each day I would do something worse than the last.

So, here I am. Leaning against this tree struggling to even write down my last words. I got shot in the stomach and my blood is everywhere. Some drifter came into our camp and killed us all. I was the only one that survived. I guess our reputation got around of our ambushes and this time someone ambushed us. Survival of the fittest.

It’s getting dark now and I can hear the Freakers coming from all directions. Ironically, I have only one bullet left. Like I said, a part of me knew it was going to end like this.

For my daughter,

Katie


The Defector

A large black shadow hovers over the desolate mountainous region of Oregon. The pouring rain rapidly knocks on the metallic roof of the helicopter. The long propeller blades cut through the dense fog throwing debris up from the wet ground. A white beam of light shines from the front of the helicopter to provide safe passage. The engine is muffled by the sounds of the rain and wind creating an ideal time to get boots on the ground.

Another day at the office and another day for this dramatic weather. The world has gone to shit, but the northwest weather remained the same. Private McCormick can barely see out of the small bullet proof window as the rain diminishes any visibility. This is about his tenth mission or so and each one gives him more temptation to run.

“Nero, who the hell gave you authority to rule the world?” Private McCormick thought to himself.

“Each and every day I guard this so-called scientist, to give us the same damn answers. Why does he matter more to them than me? He’s in white and I’m in yellow? There are people down here lost and barely surviving while we make our little field trips down to this shit to protect one guy,” McCormick continues to be lost in thought.

“Private, do you read me?” says Corporal Franklin.

“Private McCormick, copy?” Franklin repeats.

“Private!” yells Franklin.

“Yes sir! Sorry sir! My mind…was on the mission sir,” McCormick stutters.

“That’s good kid, but next time you answer me on the first damn call,” says Franklin.

“Of course, sir,” says McCormick.

“My job is to make sure each one of you are prepared for each mission. Do you know your route Private?” asks Franklin.

“Copy sir,” answers McCormick.

The black helicopter with NERO written across the side in white lettering descends to the ground with multiple soldiers quickly jumping out of the bay door. Each soldier armed and protected by military grade armor begins to encircle the area where the helicopter has landed to scan for any nearby threats. Private McCormick is the last soldier to hop off with the barrel of the gun firm against his shoulder, head tilted slightly as he aims down his sights, finger on the trigger, and knees slightly bent ready to engage in any oncoming enemies.

“All clear over here!” shouts one of the Nero soldiers.

“Clear, sir!” another one calls out.

“O’Brian time to move, sir,” Corporal Franklin commands.

A tall skinny man steps down from the helicopter in a white hazmat suit that covers every inch of his body from head to toe. He’s protected with a full-face self-contained breathing apparatus, chemical resistant gloves and a two-way radio attached to him. The white sleeves fit loosely on his scrawny arms. McCormick stands about an incher shorter than O’Brian with broad shoulders and an athletic build. He brushes past O’Brian to ensure the path is safe to the dark mucky cave handing him off to the lead soldier in charge of protecting the cave entrance. O’Brian walks past both soldiers in preparation to analyze the area, while Private McCormick begins to take his routine path to protect the perimeter. Each soldier is placed in a specific spot pertaining to the circumference of the helicopter. Their flashlights are on and attached to their bullet proof vest to help visibility through the rainy night sky.

“Lieutenant O’Brian field note 2…” O’Brian begins to talk as his voice fades away the farther out McCormick scans.

McCormick continues to walk his route making sure no one gets through, the same thing he has done every single mission and yet the Corporal asks the same question every time. He pauses for a second and looks out toward the tall trees through the rain. Drops of water trickle off the brim of his helmet onto his goggles. He hears the haunting shrills and groans from Freakers off in the distance as they constantly pursue something to feed on. The smell of rotten flesh with scents of mold, burning and rancid waft through the wind sending him back to the day of Pillette Bridge.

“The day where I was doing this same exact thing I am doing right now, checking the fucking perimeter. The only difference… I had friends there on Highway 97 and I abandoned them in that box, while I ran like a coward,” McCormick mumbles under his breath.

NERO Checkpoint, Pillette Bridge. One Year Ago.

“Do you hear that sir?” asks McCormick.

“What the hell is that?” says Sergeant Bullock.

“Sarge, look,” says McCormick pointing ahead.

Both men stand on the opposite side of the bridge looking on at the largest horde they have ever seen. The noise coming from the Freakers becomes almost deafening making it hard to even think. They are a few hundred yards away and the smell is atrocious, even through the mask. The Freakers were on a slow shamble milling down the highway, until something caught their eye. Now, they have picked up speed and the whole horde is moving rapidly toward the checkpoint. In this moment, between hearing and seeing the horde, it felt like an eternity for the two men. There is now a sudden burst of gun fire coming from two automatic weapons echoing off the mountainside. McCormick sees multiple Freakers drop. The men look at each other realizing what is happening. They spring forward to the other side of the bridge holding their guns across their chest. Two more Nero soldiers are seen running away from the horde toward the checkpoint shooting behind them as they go.

“No, no, no, no! What are they doing?” shouts McCormick.

“Diane! Vince! Do you hear me? Get inside the trailer!” yells McCormick through the two-way radio.

The radio stays silent. McCormick and Bullock continue their pursuit toward the trailers. The horde is on the tail of Diane and Vince as they get closer to reaching the door. McCormick pulls up his submachine gun that resembles a MP-5 and tucks it tightly against his shoulder and under his chin. He stands with his legs squared to his shoulders and with one quick breath, unleashes his extended magazine clip at the front row of the horde creating just enough space for his friends to reach inside. Bullock quickly follows his lead, but abruptly ceases fire. The trailer is overrun with Freakers. They jump frantically on top of the trailer pounding their hands on the roof. Others gnaw and claw at the steel door creating a pile of Freakers as they continue to pile on top of each other trying to get in. They look like mindless creatures trying to escape their own bodies. Part of the horde deviates due to the previous gun fire from the two men and one by one the Freakers follow each other heading in the direction of McCormick and Bullock.

“We can’t just leave them there Sarge!” McCormick yells.

“We have no choice!” Sergeant Bullock says frantically.

With a pause of hesitation from McCormick and a glance back toward the trailer, it takes every fiber in him to not charge through that horde to at least try and save them. Both men make a 180 degree turn with Bullock already ten feet ahead of him, sprinting as fast as they can back across the bridge.

“HQ come in. HQ do you read? We need an immediate evac at Pillette Bridge! We have a large horde trailing us,” Sergeant Bullock says into his radio.

McCormick runs with one hand stretched behind him with his gun upright firing away on the oncoming Freakers. He manages to take several of them down, but they are relentless in their pursuit of the men.

“Hear you loud and clear Sergeant. Our bird will be at the emergency LZ in ten minutes. Good luck sir,” replies the woman on the radio.

With one smooth motion, Bullock unclips a frag grenade from his belt and launches it over McCormick’s head reaching about thirty yards into the horde. Luckily, the grenade lands right next to a flammable red barrel taking out a good chunk of the Freakers. McCormick slams in another clip and sprays bullets to the front of the horde that wasn’t affected by the blast. This creates a little wiggle room to gain some space between them and the Freakers. Bullock looks up and spots a trail of black smoke rising into the sky up the hill in the trees.

“Look! We need to make it there and fast!” shouts Bullock as he looks back at McCormick.

McCormick knows exactly what his sergeant is planning, but this world comes for you and if you can’t adapt you won’t make it. They continue to fire their weapons behind them as they run. The grenade may have helped to gain separation but compared to the size of the horde it looks like it made no difference. They struggle to run up the steep hill as they are already exhausted from trying to get away, but adrenaline kicks in knowing they might just have a chance at surviving this. The sound of their gunfire echoes around them and through the trees alarming anything and anyone within a half mile. They are almost to the top of the hill when marauders start running down the hill toward them away from their fire to take out the trespassers. All five of them stop dead in their tracks seeing the horde trailing behind the Nero soldiers. They immediately turn around to head back to their camp with shotguns and hatchets in hand. The marauders don’t get far as bullets penetrate the back of their heads dropping to the ground in a rapid succession. Smoke rises from the barrels of McCormick and Bullock as they continue the trudge toward the camp. Nero soldiers have been around long enough to know camp fires bring people and people bring motorcycles. Both men ran past the dead marauders fallen face first onto the ground as they reached the top of the hill. The Freakers stop their pursuit of the men for a moment to feed on the freshly dead campers that were gunned down. This buys just enough time for McCormick and Bullock to steal the motorcycles and get out of dodge to meet at the LZ.

Present Day

Reminiscing about the past only brings trouble for McCormick as he continues his internal struggle of living under the government’s boot. Since the beginning, his day to day tasks remain the same. Answers remain the same. Friends lost and part of himself will never return.

“What is all of this for? There are too many questions around Nero and we get told nothing in return. It’s them or no one,” McCormick mumbles under his breath.

“Time to head back everyone,” calls Corporal Franklin over the radio.

Each soldier begins to head back to the helicopter continually scanning their surroundings. McCormick still stands in his same position lost in thought. He runs the pros and cons quickly through his head knowing which side he already is leaning on. The rain becomes a nuisance with its persistent tapping on top of his helmet. He can hear his name constantly being called through the radio while he slowly moves his hand upward to turn off his flashlight.

“Private McCormick, do you read me? We are leaving!” says Corporal Franklin.

He reaches down to his hip to turn off the radio, closes his eyes and lets out a sigh of relief. For the first time in a long time, he felt free. He knows what this world has become and still he rather be let loose in the shit than feel trapped. He can feel the presence of the soldier’s guns being pointed at him from the helicopter, giving him one last second to turn around and jump on.  He opens his eyes and suddenly dashes forward through the trees. The helicopter ascends with two soldiers firing in his direction. The bullets ricochet off the trees splintering the wood as McCormick weaves his way through the forest. More bullets impact the ground directly behind his feet causing dirt to spray in the air. The helicopter gains more altitude now as it hovers right above the trees shining its light through the dense forest where he ran. The tops of the pine trees sway from the force of the wind coming from the propeller. After a few minutes of the helicopter encircling the area trying to find him, it ascends farther into the sky leaving McCormick behind.

McCormick sits on the wet ground with his back leaning against a tree. The sound of the helicopter becomes fainter. He peeks around the trunk of the tree and looks up to see the helicopter flying away. His head flings back and lets out a small laugh realizing he somehow survived that. His laughter doesn’t last long as he tries to catch his breath and coughs instead. He fumbles around to take his flashlight off his vest and turns it on to shine it around him. He quickly points the light to the left of him where he hears twigs snapping. A faint humming noise follows coming from the right. He rushes to turn off the flashlight and drops it on the ground directing the beam down his leg and past his foot. The light catches a large splotch of blood against the yellow backdrop of his pant leg. He leans forward to touch the area right above the knee cap on the left leg and realizes that one of the bullets got him. McCormick tries to stand up bracing himself against the tree and quickly falls back down to the same position. He picks up the flashlight one more time thinking he saw movement up ahead. On the edge of a small cliff overlooking the edge of the forest where McCormick lies, three Runners stand with blood dripping from their teeth. Patches of fur can be seen missing from their body, as if they were burned alive. Scars run across their face as they stare back at him. The humming noise becomes louder now as it gets closer to him. A shadowy figure appears with long hair and a skinny physique. It stands about twenty-five feet away between the trees. The white glare of the moon hits the body just perfectly for McCormick to recognize the rotten and torn female Freaker known as the Screamer. As soon she sees McCormick, her jaws open wide, wider than any normal human could open their mouth. It lets out a loud and piercing scream causing McCormick to cover his ears as tight as he could. Muffling the sound made no difference though, as his head started to ring causing a temporary vertigo effect. Once the scream was finished, he heard feet running all around him. Ravenous cannibalistic monsters were coming for him and there was nothing he could do to stop him. This world comes for you, rings in his head one more time as it did the day the horde at Pillette Bridge came through.

“Well… damn it,” says McCormick.

The End