Once Bitten

Firstly, there’s Alex.

He was born, like me, during the first decade of recovery. Neither of us remember much of that in itself, having to reconstruct our own interpretation of history from what our parents told us, and the scarce evidence we were allowed to find online.

Our parents are quite alike — in fact, they all seem to be, all those who had to live through it and survived. They just seem to have this air of quiet surrender about them, a darkness behind even their most convincing smiles that professes the reality of what they’ve seen, what they’ve done. But they have done their part, so we let them rest in peace.

So without much in the way of familial guidance, we found each other as young boys, and have been side by side ever since.

Then there’s Abigail.

Jesus Christ, there’s Abigail.

She was the first person Alex met when he moved across the city, into a house on her street. She was older, cooler and was full of twisted little fantasies that she’d peddle into Alex’s mind as they sat out in her back garden after lights out, a twinkle in her eyes that didn’t come from the moonlight. She’d been only 13 when she killed her first one. Alex was 15 when she showed him how.

Lastly, Dwight. We met him in the forums. Before Abigail showed us, we had no idea that there were other people like us out there, people who were so desperate to find out more. If you got caught talking in that way about it at school you were punished in a way they thought most cruel; subjected to hours of haunting true stories of loss and pain and suffering from those few remaining alive who had witnessed it all themselves.

To them, it was a punishment most fitting of the crime. To us, it was a paradise beyond that which we could fathom, and we listened intently with hungry hearts and swelling minds drinking, in each and every syllable as sustenance.

Of course we’d attempted to do our own research online, but the New World has that shit on lockdown. When the physical world had lain in tatters beneath, a pristine and perfectly intact mirror of us lay imprinted in the galaxy above, free for anyone who should wish to do so, to tune in. It mocked us, an archive of all that we’d just lost. After the plague, one of the first steps of recovery was to quarantine many portions of the internet and safeguard a ton of information, to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again.

Eventually, public access became more or less prohibited unless under strict supervision, and what was left of worldwide authoritative bodies united to release an international statement to declare that the majority of the servers which had constructed cyberspace had been destroyed anyway, so the internet was as good as dead.

But we knew better than that. Come on, we all knew better than that. And we all knew now better than ever, not to trust the word of anyone who continued to wear a pristine shirt, tie and blazer while the whole world burned.

So when Abigail showed us how she’d managed to bypass the government firewalls with a proxy she’d constructed, we spent days on end feasting our senses on all that we could now learn about the world before. And in doing so, we eventually found the forums.

Here, an online community of hackers and truth seekers had found one another and come together, united by their mutual plight and sickly fascination.

Because the war might have been won years ago, but in the deepest darkest cavities of human existence, forgotten pockets of anti-civilisation and distant, long since desecrated battlefields - although few and very far between - some walking fatalities remained.

The craze was all the rage in the first years of recovery.

Once humanity and restored some of it’s dignity, and a new found ‘survivors ego’ began to take hold, little secret bands of anonymous men would steal away from their homes in the dead of the night and ride out to these carefully mapped locations. The extermination which followed the plague had wiped out 98.8% of the creatures, and thus of the global population too, but in the process of organising worldwide genocide, some small villages and settlements dotted across nations were innocuously overlooked in sight of the bigger picture; islands, capital cities, continents.

And so some remained. Far enough away as to probably never encounter a human being in their dismal non-existences, but in the jolly fashion in which they seemed impervious to any forms of death bar deliberate decapitation, they pottered on through a putrid, inescapable, relentless existence.

So these men would venture out into the unknown to exact some form of revenge upon these left-overs, subjecting them to all kinds of twisted torture and macabre ritual, and if the brutal desecration of these former men could justify the unspeakable horrors that infected the world at the hands of the others of their kind. These Hunters knew the plague was still viral, and just one little misjudgement would have the fragile world falling to pieces once more, but they revelled in the danger of it.

But soon, their own personal culling had exhausted the last remaining swathes of creatures, and after months of fruitless ventures to find new tribes, the men were forced to hang up their pick axes and bloodied boots for good, fat with the smug satisfaction of believing they had just saved humanity that little bit more.

Then, years later, as the internet was returned to the people when the hackers laid waste to the gateways, the past-time was reignited, and Hunters found a way to collaborate worldwide to share their most prized tales, and organise premeditated cross-country raids. These forums even ranked its members, with the Hunter with the most kills under his belt held in the esteem of gods.

Currently ranked at the top is a Hunter that goes by the username ‘ReaperKing76’, and before me now he stands, in reality a small pale boy barely out of his teens, with awkward glasses and a penchant for bloody murder. Dwight.

And for years, the four of us dominated The Hunt and the forum rankings, hailed almost as celebrities in our own hidden online cult, whilst all those who knew us in reality remained blissfully unaware of our twisted secret.

*

Thursday 17th May, North Gate 4, Quarantine Zone B.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Abigail’s boots crunched against the stones as she stepped forward, staring unfalteringly at the stranger. Without taking her eyes from the girl, she lit a cigarette, inhaled and blew the smoke into her face.

I always found it funny how even when humanity had lost so much, we still reserved our own little ways to keep killing ourselves, as if our own self-destruction was the only rebellion we had left; to take the privilege away from everyone — and everything — else that really, really wanted to kill us.

“Well?” The girl stifled an almost imperceptible cough and Abigail laughed humourlessly before snapping once more. “I asked you who the fuck you are.

“This is Erin,” He stammered. “She’s my… girlfriend.”

Abigail raised a single eyebrow, head tipped coyly toward Dwight. “Is that so?”

“Yes.” Erin interjected finally.

In one painfully and deliberately slow gesture, Abigail turned back toward Erin who automatically shrank back a little at the ferocity of her gaze. Abigail looked the quivering girl up and down in one movement, then turned on her heel toward the gate.

“Let’s go then,” She said in a sickly sweet tone “Lovebirds.”

As everyone moved on, Erin remained almost frozen to the spot. Dwight had scampered on ahead obliviously, still unable to refuse anything Abigail commanded of him. I couldn’t help but pity the girl.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I stepped alongside Erin and led her forward with my hand against her back, “Alpha female.” I joked but she didn’t smile.

We slipped through the gates and began our descent into the night.

I remember the first time we ever did it, the fist time we killed together.

I was so terrified of getting caught, but Abigail was so effortlessly confident, and Alex so captivated under her influence that like hell I was going to let them know how scared I was. As according to the rules of The Hunt, no vehicle of any kind can be used for transportation as it might raise attention, so you go by foot, and I recall so clearly how hard I was fighting to keep my knees from shaking and my legs from buckling as departed from the quarantine gate on the outskirts of the city.

I could see myself then all too well in Erin, and I didn’t even need to ask if this was her first time.

I couldn’t help but wonder where she’d come from and why she was here — she certainly didn’t look like a Hunter. But then I guessed she was probably another from Dwight’s forum fanclub, and as a little massage to his ego he’d let her come along to see him in his glorious action.

It took us 3 hours to reach the town.

It was evident this place was not unknown by Hunters, all around you could see the marks of those who had come before us, their unique signatures emblazoned on the walls in blood next to a tally of how many they’d killed.

“No way ‘CorpseSlinger’ got 6 here” Alex breathed in awe, “That’s so rare,” He turned to us shaking his head fervently, “You never find a tribe as big as that altogether like that these days.”

But it was not the town we were interested in, it was one particular building. We made our way through the desolate streets until we came to the Museum. In this situation a few years back, even a few months back, we’d have been huddled together back-to-back with our weapons poised and ready to fight, but we weren’t so lucky these days. It was true, the creatures were nearing absolute extinction, and humanity would once more be truly free of them. But this wasn’t something anyone seemed to look forward to. The plague had left so many scars and the fear had finally subsided our differences and bought us all together. In probably less than a decade, there would no longer be a mutual enemy. And for peacekeepers and Hunters alike, what happens after that, is something we didn’t bare thinking about.

“Got your radios?” Asked Alex, and we all held our handsets up in response. We pushed open the splintered wooden door, and entered the Museum, marvelling at the grandeur of it. It almost looked entirely unscathed from disaster.

“Get your bearings.” Commanded Abigail, and we knew what to do. She and Alex climbed the sweeping staircase to the right and I the one on the left, whilst Erin and Dwight explored the hallway and foyer. Once we’d scoped the area, we all returned to the bottom of the adjacent staircases, focusing our torchlight in a pool in the middle to avoid blinding anyone.

“So we all know why were here. The ‘Rumours’ thread said that there’s apparently an entire lab full of test subjects, doctors and scientists…” A twisted smile crept across her face. “All dead, walking, and ripe for the taking.”

The others let out murmurs of excitement.

“First one to find it gets first dibs.” In a dramatic stroke she extracted her machete from its sheath by her waist. It glinted menacingly in the torchlight. “Alex and I will take this floor, Dwight you go with… her to the basement, and” She pointed the great knife at me “You head upstairs.”

I nodded, then something else caught my eye, glinting just momentarily in the light. I located the source of the reflection to a little silver pendant around Erin’s neck. As the beam of light passed it became invisible again and I frowned. After the plague, there was a hell of a lot things which become more precious than metals, and wearing jewellery or any kind of ‘display of wealth’ grew to be deemed highly insulting to the sacrifices our ancestors made to ensure our survival.

But I felt my expression soften. She didn’t exactly seem like someone who’d be deliberately trying to cause offense. Plus, she was younger than us all… Maybe times were beginning to change. I guess as each generation had passed, the harder it had become for the youth born into this world to try and empathise with the horrors that originally made it. After all, the world has changed so much since those days, the truth is almost another world away already.

We split up and I began my way, alone, into the darkness.

There wasn’t much to be found, and to the tune of the others buzzing about nothing intermittently on the radio, I found myself dawdling along the corridor, gazing at the various exhibits. When I arrive to the evolution section I paused. The crude, hairy little Neanderthal man with his beady little eyes looked so innocent, so naïve to me. Little could he know what mankind would evolve to do, the monsters we created, the demise we bought upon ourselves.

Just then, like a lightning bolt of realisation that turned my stomach sour.

I’d been wrong. Oh god. I’d been so, so very dangerously wrong. No-one wears a necklace by accident.

One evening, whilst searching through the darkest, most illicit parts of the forum, I’d stumbled upon something far worse, far more dangerous and horrifying that anything we’d been doing.

They called themselves ‘Sympathetes’, a pseduo-religious sect of people who sympathised with the creatures and believed that they were the ones who deserved to inherit the world. Who believed that humans needed to die at the hands of their own creation for any chance of spiritual salvation.

In horror, I realised several things at once.

Erin wasn’t oblivious, she was a Sympathete.

And we were all in grave, grave danger.

I sprinted out of the exhibit, frantically calling on my radio, kicking myself for not having listened to the past twenty minutes of seemingly mindless chatter. I knew I had to be careful what to say because she’d be listening too, but that concern never came into relevance — all the radio channels remained silent.

I began to panic and as my feet tumbled across the marble, I cared not that I might stumble across this apparent caste of creatures, and my crossbow jingled uselessly on my back. I skidded into the main entrance hall and a horrifying dread began to seep into my bloodstream, until I heard the radio buzz.

“Everyone, come to the basement. We’ve found them” Abigail’s voice whispered, and relief clouded my senses.

If only I’d had the foresight to wonder why Abigail was in the basement.

Before I realised, it was far too late.

Acid swelled in my stomach and shot up to my throat as I reached the bottom of the stairs. As my feeble torchlight illuminated the scene, I cried out silently and put my hand to my mouth to fight the urge to throw up.

In that moment, I realised just how far from being extinct these creatures truly were.

In the cavernous basement, hundreds if not thousands of the creatures lay dormant, humming and moaning softly as they lay undisturbed in the gloom. It was unnatural. We’d studied them for decades, and they’d never been known to accumulate like this, seemingly docile. They had been gathered. Their blind heads were cast downward, and the very air vibrated with the power and stench of pure death.

And in front of me stood Abigail, her own machete held against her throat by Erin, while the others stood as desperate onlookers, projecting their silent pleas to the girl holding out a knife almost as big as her body. In Abigail’s hand lay the lying radio and a small line of blood trickled from a gash in her cheek. Her defiant eyes bore into Erin’s with hatred the force of a supernova.

“It’s too late,” Erin whispered with a quivering voice, “How can you have been so blind to the truth?”

“Please, god, Erin, don’t do it” Dwight protested, tears pouring down his pathetic cheeks. I felt fury flare in my heart. Not only had his ego lured the most efficient Hunters in the world straight into a trap which could destroy everything once more, but here was the so called ‘ReaperKing76’ — who’d established a professional contract with death through an infamous enthusiasm for slaughter — now unable to find even a shred of dignity in the face of his own.

“There is no god!” She snapped, her voice echoing around the chamber, and my heart almost stopped dead as the throng of creatures shuffled and groaned, threatening to wake. “There is only a balance, an equilibrium that must be restored.”

“You’re one sick son of a bitch.” Abigail spat as the blood reached her lip.

All it would take was one bite.

Just one bite and the restored shadow of humanity would be sent crumbling to ashes as the viral plague took hold again.

Erin’s expression softened into a watery smile and her lip quivered as she cocked her head to one side, a single tear sliding down her cheek.

“Can’t you see we’re all sick?” She whispered.

Suddenly Abigail lunged forward and three things happened at once:

She tore the machete from Erin’s grasp.

Erin let out a piercing scream and her hand shot to her sacred pendant around her neck.

And silence fell sharp as hundreds upon thousands of undead eyes turned instantly and precisely to the five very living humans standing before them in the dark.

by Katie Oldham — my blog