Traditions are wonderful things. People find great comfort in the routine. I can only hope that the survivors hiding inside the mountain are suckers for tradition. It is my only hope of escape.
I glance at the cracked LCD screen of the cheap watch I salvaged. I’ve crammed myself into this weathered nook every night for the last several weeks, perched above the giant metal doorway carved into the mountainside. It’s almost a new day, but I’m waiting for one day in particular. January 1st, the start of a New Year. Unfortunately my watch doesn’t track the date, so I’m left guessing. It should be any day now. Or perhaps the New Year has already passed, no different to any other day. Maybe what I saw last year was a one-off. I truly hope not, I’m running out of time. I won’t survive out here much longer, even armed with the knowledge I have. I’m so tired and hungry. I need to rest.
I shake my head. I can’t think that way. This plan will work. It has to.
I turn my attention to the figures down below. They used to be human, before the parasites got them. Now they are hollow puppets that know only the desire to infect, an endless hunger for fresh victims.
I watch as the hollows scratch ineffectively at the giant metal door. There are less of them every day. Their moans are getting longer, their shuffling more urgent. I’ve witnessed this type of behaviour before. These are signs of desperation. Food is running out. I haven’t seen another survivor in months. I must be one of the last left outside.
I’ve only survived this long because I discovered the secret to repelling the parasites. I stroke my bright red notebook reassuringly, my life’s work, condensed into a few dozen pages of my chicken scratch handwriting. Sometimes I can’t even read it, I have to concentrate really hard to make out the words. If only I could share this information, think of how much quicker this invasion could be defeated. Imagine what I could do with access to a lab. The lives that I could save! It’s too late for my darling wife Nancy, but there’s still hope for the millions that are left.
I study the groups below, scribbling more observations. Before the world collapsed I was part of the team of scientists researching the parasites. We learned a lot about how they spread, passing on through infected blood. We were the first to discover the parasites’ ability to manipulate their hosts. Back then there was only a handful of victims. They were hard to find. Most didn’t even know they were infected. Some swore the parasites played tricks on them, made them see things. I think they were just making excuses for the terrible things they had done, while there was still a part of them human enough to care.
My thoughts slowly drift to Nancy. I can barely remember her face anymore. The memory is fuzzy around the edges, like an old photograph. She would be proud of what I’ve accomplished. She always said I was the most stubborn man alive. It was my stubbornness that made me work long into the nights. It was my stubbornness that wouldn’t let me believe she was infected, even though I saw all the signs. It was my stubbornness that convinced me I would find the cure, that I could save her. It was my stubbornness that caused me to stay behind when the others fled to safety. I couldn’t leave her. All I can do now is get inside the mountain and pass on everything inside my head, to destroy these creatures once and for all. For Nancy.
My self-pity is interrupted by a faint beep as the time ticks over from 11:59 to 0:00. I hold my breath and pray to a god I long stopped believing in that tonight is the night. I’m waiting for a sound, a rumble of motors coming to life. Instead there’s a deafening silence, punctuated only by groans from below.
I’m about to pack up my things when a red light flashes to life above the doorway. The hollows are drawn to it, the movement must trigger their hunting reflex. My heart races. This is it. Tonight is the night.
There’s a loud whoosh as pillars of fire erupt from invisible holes in the ground, engulfing the crowds below. I can feel the heat all the way up here. The hollows stumble around ablaze, until one by one they fall to the ground, the parasites extinguished. I wipe the sweat from my face and wait to see if there are any more surprises.
After thirty seconds I hear the high pitched squeal of rusty hinges protesting. The door slowly swings open and a solitary figure steps out. He’s in full hazmat gear, his bright yellow presence brightening up the endless grey. He’s fiddling with a handheld device of some kind, it pings and bleeps as he waves it around. I wonder what he’s testing for. He’s so busy staring at it that I slink down from my hiding spot without catching his attention. I try to run through the open doorway, but a second metal door blocks my path. How stupid of me; of course they would use an airlock, it’s standard quarantine procedure. Those inside will never open the internal door if they spot me, they will assume I’m infected. They will sacrifice their scout without a second thought. Better to lose one person than risk the entire colony. I can feel my body tensing up, preparing to run or fight. I didn’t squat in that hole for months to fall at the last hurdle. There has to be another way inside.
I quietly creep back into the shadows and watch the yellow figure perform more tests. Perhaps I can explain the situation to him, make him understand that I possess the cure, that I’m trying to help. There really isn’t any other option. I sneak up behind him, so as not to startle him. That’s when I see the holster strapped to his leg. I won’t have time to explain. He’ll shoot me before I can string three words together. I can’t let that happen. I carefully reach out and snatch the gun from the holster, purely to protect myself.
He jumps as he feels me brush against the suit. His first instinct is to reach for his weapon, but I already have it. We make eye contact through the visor of his helmet, but before I can speak he turns and runs for the airlock. I shout after him, my chances of rescue rapidly escaping.
Without thinking, I level the gun and command him to stop. When he doesn’t, my finger twitches and I pull the trigger. He falls to the ground and doesn’t move. The gunshot echoes off the mountain, forcing me to relive the moment over and over again. I never meant to shoot him, it was an accident. What’s done is done though. I don’t have time for remorse, that sound will draw every hollow for miles around.
I rush over to assess the damage. There’s a gaping hole in the back of the suit, but the front is still intact. I pull off his helmet to find myself face to face with a young woman. I wait for the guilt to wash over me, but none comes. I’m about to remove the rest of the suit when she suddenly gasps for air, a deep, raspy breath. It’s the distinctive sound of a punctured lung. She won’t survive out here, her only hope is back inside the mountain. Unfortunately I can’t take her there. I can’t leave her outside like this either, she’ll be fresh food for the parasites, a slow and agonizing death sentence. Without hesitation I place the gun against her temple and pull the trigger. I’m shocked at how calm I am. I reassure myself that it was the humane thing to do.
I quickly put on the rest of the suit. The helmet should obscure my face enough to get me inside. Once they know I have the cure they will understand why I did what I did. The death of one innocent weighed against the countless lives we can save. It’s a small price to pay.
I swagger confidently into the airlock and smile as the door closes behind me. There’s a fierce hissing sound and a thick yellow foam fills the airlock. I find myself wondering what they are using to protect themselves if they don’t know the cure. The answer comes quickly, there’s a roar as the room fills with flames. The foam is highly flammable. The suit must be fire proof, but that was before I put a hole in it. I can feel the flames licking my back and smoke slowly fills the suit. I close my eyes and hope the flames die before I do.
Eventually the fire stops and the inner door swings open. I can’t wait any longer, I dart inside and rip off the helmet, gasping for fresh air. The people in the room all stare at me confused, before someone starts screaming. I hear the word gun and hold out my hands. Firearms appear from every drawer. I’m certain the end is nigh, until I hear someone shout, “Hold your fire! Frank? Is that you?”
I squint through the tears in my eyes to see a long lost friend, one of the scientists I used to work with. For some reason I can’t recall his name. I try to respond, but the smoke has charred my lungs. Instead I let out a cough, followed by a nod. He doesn’t look overly pleased to see me. He says, “What happened to you? How are you still alive? Where did you get that suit?”
I still can’t manage full sentences, I stammer between gasps, “Wife dead…found cure…save mankind.”
His expression changes to one of confusion, “Wife? You weren’t married when we left you.”
That can’t be right, he’s clearly mistaken. I was married to Nancy long before the outbreak. Surely I mentioned her at work? I loved her so deeply, I must have talked about her all the time. About her pretty smile, her infectious laugh and her long blonde hair. Wait, was she blonde or brunette? My mental image of her slowly shifts, her hair shimmering between shades. The harder I try to picture her, the fuzzier she becomes, until she’s a mere silhouette.
Frustrated, I try to change the subject. I pull out my notebook to show them what I came here to share, the cure they’ve all been waiting for. I try to explain, but instead my throat constricts with a grunt. I stare at my most treasured possession and watch in horror as it slowly fades from bright red to muddy brown. I frantically flip through the pages, finding only a procession of random addresses in someone else’s handwriting.
For the briefest of moments clarity returns. Something clicks deep inside my mind and I finally realize the truth. I’ve never been married. I am infected. The parasites concocted a suitable motivation to get me inside the mountain, to the last available food. They knew mankind wouldn’t be able to resist the symbolism of performing their annual tests today, on the dawn of a New Year. Damn traditions.
My hand involuntarily reaches for the gun stashed in my belt. Everyone in the room raises their weapons in response. My vision slowly falters as I feel the barrel press against my temple. My puppet master wants maximum spray, to get my blood everywhere. Billions of tiny parasites, just waiting to find a host.
I am not mankind’s salvation, I am the instrument of its downfall. One last thought goes through my head before the bullet does.
What’s done is done.