At the side of the road, the Jeep sat, steam and smoke rising from the engine. Fuck. Double fuck. I didn’t have to pop the hood to know that my reliable Jeep had run its last mile. Fortunately, the road was clear as far as I could see in both directions but it wouldn’t stay that way. Night would fall.
I had my backpack and my canvas bag full of what I needed just in case the worst happened – and it just did. I had plenty of fire power and as much ammo as I could carry, as well as my trusty katana sword for when the ammo ran out. The sun was high but night would come. Night was when they hunted.
I began walking north, always north. The probe had fallen in the south, two and a half years ago. It had crashed in the jungles of Central Mexico. NASA had sent it into the Dickering-Piedmont comet to pick up samples from the comet halo for reasons nobody fucking cares about except some science geeks who’d never gotten laid and were compensating by bringing in some alien biological material that fucked things up big time on the guidance system of the probe, causing it to malfunction and land thousands of miles from where it was supposed to. And that same biological material began interacting with the flora and fauna of the rain forest of the high plains, mutating them into hideous monsters each more ravenous than the last. Soon most of Mexico was overrun as mankind moved down a notch on the food chain.
At first the 100 foot high steel wall on the American border kept all the monsters in Mexico but the aliens were clever adaptors. Wings were sprouted an aggressive intelligent plants sent tendrils slithering under the walls, toppling them in some cases or popping up on the other side in others. The Southwest was an alien stronghold in less than 30 days.
But there was a limit. Apparently the aliens thrived only in a narrow temperature range. The cities in higher elevations and northerly latitudes survived. Elsewhere….let’s just say that those that didn’t leave the cities got eaten.
Yes, that’s right. These completely alien life forms that managed to survive in a comet halo found a taste for human flesh. It took a lot of biologists by surprise too (although not as much as the inhabitants of central Mexico who wound up as brunch for broodmares and psychobabblers – the names these things got were facetious at best and disrespectful at worst – but nonetheless it didn’t matter if you died in the fangs of a Gibbering Idiot or at the claws of a Razorslash. Dead is dead.
I kept my eyes open and my gun cocked and loaded. Although the visibility was excellent here – it always is along the Roads – there are things that can charge at 100mph like a Hell’s Pegasus or a Demonspeed. There are things that hide and things that adopt the shapes and forms of other things, like the Lurker and the Chameleon Beast. There are a million ways to die in the Infested Zone and here I was 50 miles from the nearest border.
I’ve walked in the Zone before but only with armed columns of men armed with big time bang bang and aerial support. The common school of thought is that a lone person in the Zone won’t last 24 hours. I’ve never heard of someone who walked 50 miles alone through the Zone and lived to tell about it. Inside, I was screaming in fear but that wouldn’t do me any good. The only slender chance I had at survival was to stay calm, stay along the road and hope for the best.
I hadn’t gone 500 yards before the sweat began to pour. It wasn’t just the sun but deep down I knew that the odds are that I wouldn’t be around too long after the sun went down – and there were plenty of beasts that would do me in during daylight hours as well. I felt the shakes coming on – I’d seen a lot of good men die horribly at the hands, claws, stingers, fangs, pincers and venom of these things. I gave my own face a hard slap. I couldn’t afford panic. Panic makes people dead in the Zone, even in the company of highly trained soldiers. It was a fact that no matter how large, how well-armed the party that went into the Zone was, there would always – and I mean always – be at least a 10% fatality rate. Some battalions went in and were never heard from again.
I kept going at as fast a clip as I thought was safe. Part of me wanted to panic and sprint and keep sprinting but that would be fatal. Sooner or later I’d tire out and when that happened I’d be easy prey. My best defense was to be alert and focused. I scanned the horizons, keeping a hundred count on my steps and on one hundred I’d check the horizon behind me to see if I was being stalked. I kept that vigilance going for at least six miles.
It paid off, too. About 15-20 minutes in I heard a tell tale “ting-ting-ting” sounds coming from my eight o’clock. I turned to my left and saw it flying low over the hill. It was close enough that I could hear the buzzing of its wings. The Ting Ting knew I was there long before I knew it was there. It resembled a dragonfly with a kind of Dr Seuss-looking head that had a long protuberance (kind of like a lily stalk) with a bell-shaped chitinous mass growing out of its end. It was from here that the ting-ting sound emanated from. For some reason the acoustic properties of the mass were stupendous – you could hear it coming from a mile away. Literally.
Ting Tings are impressive flyers but not really fine hunters – they really can’t sneak up on things. Humans can easily evade them and I did. It made a lazy pass in my general direction and rather than dive to the ground (which will get you killed; once you’re on the ground for any creature you’re not getting up) I waited until the last moment and leaped aside, a game of Infested Chicken. It went buzzing off, the ting-ting-ting of its bell ringing in my ears – Edgar Allen Poe, eat your heart out!
In fact, that’s how it immobilizes its prey; the sonic wave that it produces can actually cause temporary paralysis on certain smaller animals. On a human it can cause temporary deafness if the animal is large enough. This one was more of an adolescent sized which explains why a single one of them would take on a human male. This one had about a six foot wingspan – I’ve seen Ting Tings with spans twice that. It was making another pass at me which wouldn’t do at all – I couldn’t waste all day with a teenaged monster while there were other things lurking nearby that wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of tired-out prey.
I pulled out my trusty 12-gauge shotgun and took aim. Either this creature was too stupid to realize it was in danger or it was incredibly desperate. In either case I waited until it came close enough for a can’t-miss shot. BLAM! Ichor everywhere. Dead Ting Ting. Keep moving.
I did pick up the pace a little. The noise and the stench of the dead monster would bring others, including some Mama and Papa Ting Tings and those were large enough to kill a human adult. If they came at me one at a time I could pick them off all day but a swarm of them would be more than I could handle. I kept moving.
The Jeep, like any vehicle that is permitted in the Infested Zone, had a GPS system that keeps track of the local infestations. As the sun began to move further and further west, I heard the voice activated system in my ear – I’d removed the GPS and put it in my pack, linking it to my Bluetooth receiver. “Entering Ainsworth, Nebraska zone. Bad Emmetts and Devil Walkers detected here.
I cursed. Bad Emmetts were bad enough but easily avoidable; they hung out in trees and liked to drop down on their prey. They made little nests about the size of coconuts and secreted an acid out of their mouths that melted the bottom when they detected prey coming. They’d drop down onto their prey and burrow into them. They lay their eggs and as they do they secrete another liquid, this time causing full paralysis in the victim. Three days later their eggs hatch and a thousand Bad Emmetts eat their way out of the victim who is alive and fully conscious while it happens. It’s a real awful way to go and while I’m not exactly sure why it got the name, they are bad news indeed.
A Devil Walker is worse news. They are like a centipede on radioactive steroids. A Devil Walker is about a mile long and is all legs and teeth. They walk like a centipede but each segment has a mouth with mandibles that are sharp enough to cut through a tree trunk. Once spotted by a Devil Walker, a lone human is toast. They are far too big and far too fast to get away from and killing them is a waste of time; they can be killed but you have to kill every segment, not just the head and for full-grown adults it takes a rocket launcher to kill a single segments and an adult can have anywhere from 75-450 segments.
Needless to say, I’m not eager to run into one of those. The one advantage that I have over a Devil Walker is that they’re so big I can see them from far enough away to avoid them, but if I miss one and it crosses the road in front of me or behind me and it’s smell receptors (located just above their mouths) will detect me and I’ll be spending eternity being digested.
With the sun going down I had to be careful. In the dark Devil Walkers are much harder to spot. Still, keeping to the road would be the only way I could survive this and if I could keep to the road, I might live through the night. The problem is that there is no lights on the road – lights attract critters. For the same reason I couldn’t use a flashlight or a torch; for many of the creatures that’s just like ringing the dinner bell. I do have night vision goggles but they aren’t always helpful with far-off objects. Indeed, I’ll just have to keep my wits about me and hope I can walk the 50 miles before dusk of the second day.
Much of why patrols are still sent out is to pick up human stragglers like me and to make periodic “herd” thinning inroads so that the population didn’t get so large that the food supply would dwindle, forcing them to come north where the remaining people are. They don’t like the cold but it doesn’t kill them. At least, not as far as we know.
It was with a lot of relief I saw the river in the distance and realized I was approaching the Platte. I hadn’t seen any Bad Emmetts and only one Devil Walker but it was behind me, moving away thankfully. I hadn’t seen any up close and I wouldn’t mind keeping it that way.
The smugly emotionless voice of the GPS intoned. “Exiting Ainsworth, Nebraska zone. Now entering Platte-Keller Zone. Killfish, Deathshead Wolves, Yellow Terror, Lobstermen and Decapitators all detected here.” I swore quietly to myself. All of those were night feeders and it was well past dark. I didn’t dare stay where I was – I was on flat prairie land and there was really no way to know if a Devil Walker was approaching.
But there was more forested land here. Trees. Places for things to hide. However I’d rather take on a thousand Lobstermen than one Devil Walker. However, my odds for survival in both cases were almost Nil. With a sigh I started my way into the Zone.
My hair was standing on end. I felt an unreasoning fear. I knew I was going to die and I was a sitting duck out on that road. Maybe if I got in amongst those trees I’d have a chance. They’ll offer some cover and…
I whirled around and started firing my rail gun into the trees. They exploded with a fiery bang and a shrieking Yellow Terror flew out and ambled away from the road. The monstrous creature had shaggy yellow fur and a half-formed face with large saucer-like black eyes, It had appendages but no recognizable hand or feet.
Yellow terrors aren’t physical specimens but they have powerful psychic abilities. They can project fear and curiosity and all sorts of emotions designed to get their victims to come to them. They really aren’t physical specimens but once their victims are near enough they have a spike like appendage in one and sometimes both arms that they stab their victim with which contains a toxin that stops the heart of their prey. They then drag their victim back to their lair and consume them at their leisure. They are easily frightened off.
I heard a bone-chilling howl and picked up the pace. Deathshead Wolves are the most dangerous predators that aren’t 50 feet tall. Like North American wolves, they hunt in packs. But Deathshead Wolves are far more vicious and deadly. Their skulls have no skin or fur – only gone with sunken eyes that are protected with a strong membrane that allows them to see much farther than terrestrial wolves.
They have razor sharp teeth that can tear chunks of flesh and entire limbs from their victims. They have powerful legs with sharp claws which they rarely use in an offensive capacity. No, they prefer to attack with their tails which have giant scorpion-like stingers which can be used as a sword and go clean through an adult body, or as a toxin which causes an agonizing feeling of pain that simply incapacitates their victims before being eaten of course. All these damned things eat us.
The woods were beginning to get closer and closer to the roads. Forested areas are far more dangerous than the plains. The trees can shelter and hide; things can attack without warning and the element of surprise can finish you off. I looked at them nervously, dreading an explosion of fur and fang charging from the woods. I’m a pretty accurate shot but at night it is far more dicey to hit a charging animal than it is during the day.
Nothing came charging out though and I continued to move at a steady pace. Fatigue would be setting in; I took brief 5 minute breaks and sometimes slowed the pace a bit when there was more distance from the treeline. I had a long distance sniper rifle loaded with phosphorous tipped tracer bullets. Those were pretty lethal to anything that lived in this hellhole.
When I got to the Platte River it was nearly 2am and I was cold even in the warm clothes and armor I was wearing. I could see Killfish wriggling in the river from the bridge. I kept in the middle of the bridge – Killfish could leap high enough to grab someone from the side of the bridge and pull them down into the river. Also Lobstermen liked to hide under bridges and attack. I thought I could hear the clicking sound of their claws but so far none o those horrors had made their way out onto the bridge.
Crossing the Platte was nerve-wracking and twice I saw movement which led to shots being fired. I knew there were all sorts of things just under the bridge, but the sound of gunfire made them a bit more wary. However, near the end of the bridge I saw three of them emerging from under the side of the bridge. They were bipedal with large claws, two additional arms, a red carapace and a flat head with eye stalks protruding from the top. They were close so I pulled out my 12 gauge and blew off the heads of the first two. The third was on me before I could reload and was far too fast to outrun so I dropped the shotgun and pulled out the katana. The creature didn’t feint but came straight at me as most of these monsters always did.
I swung head on and severed one of it’s secondary arms. It shrieked, an unearthly sound but I’d been trained to ignore their noises. It came after me again and lost a claw for its troubles. When I took one of its eyestalks as well it decided to cut its losses and ran off but I knew its cousins would be making an appearance soon. Fortunately, I was close to the end of the bridge and crossed without further incident. When I looked back I saw a swarm of creatures including lobstermen feeding on the corpses that I’d created. Better them than me.
Daylight broke as I was passing from the Platte area and the terrain reverted to prairie. It would be a scorcher for sure. I began to think that I had a shot. After the bridge I’d seen a couple of Decapitators gibbering and lurching along like they usually do but I knew enough not to approach them. They lull their prey into thinking they weren’t a serious threat but once the victim came close enough they’d pounce and pull off their heads with terrifyingly lethal speed. They didn’t come any closer and I continued on my way.
The border was within reach. My feet ached and I was bone weary; I’d been walking for nearly 24 hours straight and I was conserving energy as much as possible. I was OK on supplies – my 12 gauge was gone but most of my other weapons were available, but that bag was getting heavy. I might have to lighten my load soon.
This was some of the more dangerous territory. Unkels roam this territory – ant-like creatures the size of a grizzly bear with a caustic acid that secretes from their mandibles. Not that hard to kill one at a time but they hunt in groups of hundreds and thousands.. You run out of ammo sooner or later and once that happens, they take you down to the nest and let the queen digest you. While you’re still alive from what I understand although how they figured that out I have no idea.
Some of the bigger monsters were out here, 50, 100 feet tall some of them. So tall they barely took notice of us humans but they could still crush us like a bug without even noticing. Many of my compadres have ended up a squashed bug on the bottom of their feet. And there were a few of the big ones who could be counted to take on a human battalion just for shits and giggles.
The day wore on and I was running low on water. I’d seen a few Pickle Groovers, little green buggers that love to find unprotected skin and burrow in. Get enough of them in you and that’s all she wrote but thus far none of them have been able to find a spot on me (thank God for head-to-toe body armor) and I was dripping sweat. I knew dehydration could be an issue but there was hope; on the horizon I could see the wall. I set my locator beacon on and hoped that someone was listening. Maybe they’d send a car out to pick me up. I started walking faster.
That’s when I heard it. The sounds of a thundering herd except it was no buffalo I was hearing. It was Unkels and from what I could see there were thousands of them. Heading my way, too. I said a few words that my mother were she still alive wouldn’t have approved of and started off at a gallop. I knew it wasn’t going to save me but there was a little rise a few hundred yards off. I could make my last stand there.
I wondered if the bastards watching this were enjoying the show. I figured there’d be no aid from the fuckers on the wall. I hope my horrible death would give them some entertainment.
I made it to the rise and ran up it, turning to watch the tide of Unkels heading towards me like a living carpet. I took out my Laws Rocket and clipped it into the shoulder launcher. I’d get only one of these before the herd reached me. I aimed it carefully and fired. A moment later fire and dirt and Unkel parts rained down from the sky. Calmly I dropped the launcher and pulled out my AK-47s, two of them and started firing. This was going to be some last stand. I didn’t let up and the pile of Unkel corpses had to be daunting for the Unkels although who knew if they thought anyway.
They were getting closer. 300 yards. 150. 100. 75. 50. I could smell the acid and I was down to my last clips on both the AK-47s. Then something amazing happened. The bastards turned tail and ran. I was so surprised I didn’t fire into the backs of the departing horde. I started to laugh. Maniacally. I was going to live. I was going to live! Then the earth shook and I turned around and there was a Sentinel behind me, 150 feet high with a scythe like tail that was swinging for my head. Oh Shi–