PART I

 

BETTER RUN THROUGH THE JUNGLE

 

TUESDAY, 5:49 AM

 

In the distance, trees fell in slow motion. Their roots squealed in protest, their massive trunks striking the dewy forest ground with sodden whumps, sending wildlife scurrying for new shelter. The long segmented legs of something simultaneously arachnid and human made its way over them. The beast toppled more trees in its path, looking for food, searching for flesh. Behind it, a dozen more spider monsters followed like an army, their legs a mesh of once-human torsos and appendages, now fused together by some psychotic god with a superglue fetish. They moved almost as a unit, on a primal hunt to eat, like a battalion of spider crabs along the ocean floor. As the night’s purple bands gave way to morning’s pink striated clouds, one could hear the spider monsters moaning with famine.

Whump. Another tree down.

Crack. Whump. Skreeee. Yet another.

They’re getting closer, Connor thought, pulling himself tighter into the hollowed-out pine trunk he had spent the night in. He watched as a brown rat took off in flight, terrified of the approaching demolition noises. He could have stayed up higher in the limbs, what with the hissers still running at random through the woods and nearby distant towns, but he’d decided that being able to take off and sprint without having to leap down three stories of branches gave him better odds in the long run. Besides, the spiders were knocking over the trees and anything resting in the tops of those trees was getting thrown violently to the ground. A broken leg wouldn’t do at all.

It had rained throughout the night, and his clothes were soaked. He took off his shirt and rang it out, let some of the water drip into his mouth, swallowed it. It tasted like sweat, dirt, and blood. The bandage on his leg was coming apart again, the adhesive nullified by the moisture in the air. He yanked it off and scrutinized the wound. It was getting better, thank God, the skin finally closing up. It still hurt to walk on, but any trace of infection seemed to be going away.  Chalk that up to the military’s medical supplies. One good thing they did.

Whump.

Rings spread out in the puddles around him. It sounded like giants were coming.

 “Too close,” he whispered to himself. “Time to go.”

He stepped out of the tree trunk and put his shirt back on. Reached into his pocket and withdrew a handful of acorns he’d collected. He chewed them, swallowed hard, winced at the taste. Awful. Squirrels were nuts to eat this crap.

Overhead the birds were scouting, looking for their morning worms, acting as if the world was still the same as it had been a week ago. Acting as if dead people weren’t running around eating everyone, as if mutated, hissing monsters from a child’s nightmare weren’t deforesting the region at an alarming rate.

He checked his other pocket, felt the flash drive secure inside. He still had no idea what it contained or if it even worked anymore. Assuming it did, and that it did have pertinent information on it, would it even matter this late in the game? The world was ending, and it was going out in a blaze of undead glory. He’d spent last night not only listening to the spiders off in the distance, but also the rat-a-tat anthem of the military trying their best to get the situation under control. Judging by the amount of hissing that still carried on the wind, they weren’t doing a very good job. He hadn’t heard a single gunshot since the horizon had rolled over red.

WHUMP!

Shit that was close, he thought. Turning, he saw dust rising from the forest floor just a few hundred yards away. The tree lay on its side, leaves fluttering, birds even now flying out of its boughs. Not far beyond, he saw a massive shape cut through the shadows, move off to his left. He made out human hands and feet melded together, a woman’s high heeled shoe, a man’s ripped pair of jeans, fingers with rings on them.

Then, movement to his right. A sibilant hiss that raised the hairs on his neck. He turned, went wide-eyed, saw the creature, a bearded man in a tattered suit, racing straight for him. Where one of the man’s eyes had been there now grew half a foot.

Connor slithered out of the tree, broke out into a sprint, running now for his life, leaping logs and ducking branches. The hisser saw, cut into a sprint behind him, its footfalls slapping through the forest’s muddy puddles, its body crashing through bushes and thicket, oblivious to the lacerations it received from the walls of overgrown thorn bushes.

Connor glanced back to gauge his distance, saw the zombie’s arm reach out and snatch at his shirt. He rolled into a ball; the gray, undead fingers caught nothing but air. Rolling up again off to the side, he cut into a zigzag run, his heart in his mouth, his wounded leg burning hot with pain. He stumbled in a shallow gulley, felt his knee hyperextend, and crashed to his face with a cry of surprise and agony. Behind him, the hisser also hit the gulley and flew forward, landing against a small boulder, breaking its own leg. But this did not deter its need to hunt, and it leaped up and found Connor a few feet away. With its first step on its broken leg it fell down again, gave up trying to walk and began to scramble forward on its arms and good leg, like a maniacal three-limbed dog. The foot fused to its eye socket kicked up and down as well, as if it too were running.

Adrenaline coursed through him so fast he couldn’t breathe. He found a good-sized rock at his side and hurled it at the hisser. It struck the creature’s mouth and sent teeth spraying into the air like chaff from a piñata. But it did not stop. At the last moment, he reached into his waistband and pulled out the two shivs he’s fashioned last night in the tree, and drove them out and up just as the bearded undead thing fell on him. The sharpened sticks drove up through the chin and into the hisser’s brain. It twitched, tried to bite him, swiped at his head. He caught the thing’s arm and held it back, yanked one of the shivs out and jammed it into the zombie’s eye, felt cold red goo rush down his hand. In one swift move he rolled the monster off him and dove for the nearest puddle, threw his hand into it to get the blood off. He still didn’t know what all could transmit the virus. Bites for sure, scratches maybe, and blood…well he couldn’t be too careful. Behind him the thing was still hissing like a steam train, but as he jumped up from the puddle, Connor could see he had blinded it. Which was only a minor blessing since he knew they had incredible olfactory senses. It snarled and sniffed the air, trying to get a bead on him, but seemed to not know exactly where he was.

Must be the mud and leaves all over me, Connor thought. I smell just like the forest.

The hisser slid forward now, getting closer. One shiv in its eye, the other jutting down from under its chin. He hadn’t killed it but he’d disabled it. Only, he knew it wouldn’t be long before it got up and ran again, he’d seen too many of them run until the brain was destroyed. You couldn’t just put them down with a shot to the chest. It had to be the brain, however you could get to it.

The pain is his knee was passing now, or at least was lessening enough to trot away, which he did, tears running down his cheeks. Rays of bright morning light were stabbing through the trees now, beckoning him forward. God’s rays, he’d heard them called, though where God was now he didn’t know. He’d been traveling west for days, but this chase had him turned around. He’d need to find his bearing again soon. But first he just wanted to find an edge to the forest, get out of the mud and dirt, find himself some roads, and hopefully, some humans.

WHUMP!

A massive pine crashed to its death just yards away. Then, like a high school football captain running through a homecoming banner, a massive spider crashed through the trees, headed right for him.

He turned and ran. Felt the beast right behind him, felt the impact of its body on the ground. There was no time to turn back and look, nor did he need to know how close it was; he expected to feel its teeth in his back any second.

Bang.

Something whizzed by his ear. Bang. Another. The report came again and again. More buzzing by his ears, the telltale sound of bullets passing right by him. Then the monster hit him, drove him to the ground, carried forward over him, pinning him into the mud. Its weight was massive, the combined heaviness of ten or eleven people fused together. The air squeezed out of his lungs and spots danced before his eyes. Panic set in, and he tried to wiggle free but could not move. He screamed.

“Give me your hand! Now!”

A voice. A human voice, nearby.

“Kid, c’mon. Hurry!”

Connor pushed his arm out from under the monster, felt someone take it. With a sudden lurch he was yanked out from under the spider, hauled to his feet in front of a woman in blue jeans, black jacket, and a black baseball hat. In her right hand she held a rifle. He barely noticed the genesis of crow’s feet around her eyes before she was pulling him into the trees. “This way. Run!”

The sounds of his pursuers were audible once again, still after him, hissing, crashing through the trees. Now he risked a look back at what chased him, felt his knees quiver at the sight of so many undead coming at him.

“Kid, you need to run faster than that. Let’s go.” The woman cut through the forest like a woodland creature and it was all Connor could do to keep up. “My leg,” he said, “I can’t run like this.”

“Then you’re going to die because I ain’t carrying you. Duck.” She spun back, aimed the gun at Connor's face. Instinctively he dropped down, heard the gun fire above his head, felt something wet hit the back of his neck, heard a body slump down beside him. But before he could look at it the woman was yanking him up again, and they were running.

“This way. I ain’t gonna have time to unlock your door. You just jump in the truck bed and stay down. C’mon pick up the pace!”

Man oh man, Connor thought, she would have made a good soccer coach, if the world of high school sports even still existed. He was pretty sure it didn’t.

“There it is! See it! My truck!”

“Yeah, I see it.” They were coming out toward a dirt road, most likely some kind of access road for rangers or utility people that had to run wires through the woods. The black Ford pickup sat in the middle of it, covered in brown dirt and mud, and even at this distance, the familiar spatter of dried blood.

“Duck again!”

Connor swooped low, felt the breeze of the rifle as the woman swung it over him like a baseball bat and crushed the skull of the hisser behind them. This time he didn’t need to be yanked up, he was already moving to the side of the weapon’s arc and running again. The hisser, a blonde girl maybe his own age, fell face first to the ground. A second later a dozen more were jumping over her body.

The woman reached into her coat pocket as she ran, pulled out her car keys, found the ignition key and held it out like a knife.

“Truck bed! Now!”

Bursting out of the trees and onto the road, Connor leapt up over the side of the truck and hit the corrugated metal bed with enough force to make his teeth chatter. Out of the corner of his eyes he watched as the woman rounded the front of the truck, took another potshot at the nearest zombie, missed completely, and threw herself in the front seat. The engine started and the tires spun out, kicking up dirt like a mushroom cloud. Visibility dropped to nothing as it engulfed them. And then through the sudden haboob, a hisser hit the truck to Connor’s left, made an attempt to get over the side of the bed just as the vehicle lurched forward, and ended up getting dragged for a hundred feet before it lost its grip and flipped head over heels along the dirt road. Connor sat up and watched as the spiders emerged onto the road behind them and gave chase, their multiple human heads shrieking in rage. But the truck was too fast and soon there was distance between them.

From the rear window there came a knock. The woman was beckoning him, bloody knuckles on glass. “Door’s open now, sport. Climb in.”

She didn’t stop as he made his way over the side of the truck bed and into the front seat. After a second of catching his breath he said, “Thanks.”

“You bit?”

“No.”

She pulled a .45 and pointed it at his face. “Take your clothes off.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Now! I want to see you’re not bit.” She shook the gun to emphasize her point.

“Okay. Okay.” Connor took off his wet shirt and shorts, followed by his shoes and socks, embarrassment coursing through him as he watched this woman scrutinize him in his underwear.

She pointed the gun at his groin. “Those too. Then do a quick spin so I can see you all over, make sure I’m not carrying a flesh eater-to-be.”

“But—”

“No buts, do it.”

He hesitated, began to pull down his boxer shorts and stopped, visibly embarrassed.

“Kid, I’m thirty, I’ve seen it all before. I’m not interested in anything but making sure you didn’t get nicked when you were under that piece of shit thing.”

With a gulp, Connor took his underwear off, goose pimples blooming as his nakedness went on display for this stranger. No girl had seen him naked since hitting puberty. Not even his mother. He’d figured one day soon in high school he might have this kind of a moment, but he’d hoped it would have been with a girlfriend, at least someone else his age. But of course the one girl he’d suspected this might happen with was dead, and dating was not on his calendar anytime soon.

Quickly, he stood up hunched over in the truck cab and spun around.

“Okay,” the woman said. “Get dressed. You’re clean.”

As quickly as he could muster, and now mildly embarrassed, Connor put his clothes back on.

The truck continued down the dirt road as the sun rose fully in the sky now, almost blinding them. “You from Castor?” she asked.

“Yeah. I’m Conn—”

“Shit. Hang on.” The woman pulled the wheel to the right, spun around two hissers standing in the middle of the road. As soon as the truck was past them they began to give chase, sprinting like marathon runners near the finish line. “Take the wheel,” the woman ordered.

Connor leaned over and tried to keep the truck steady on the dirt, but it swayed a lot and it wasn’t easy. The woman leaned her whole body out her window and fired off six rounds.

“Got ’em,” she said, taking the wheel again. “My trailer is up here a bit. We’ll stop in and assess the situation. I got more ammo there as well. I can probably find you a dry shirt too. You look like hell, kid. Your leg hurt?”

“It’s getting better. It was worse but the army patched it up a bit.”

“Were you a DP at that encampment near Victorville? You must be.”

“DP?”

“Did you get out before they nuked Castor?”

Connor started. “What? Nuked? I didn’t know—”

“Figure of speech, sport. They bombed the living shit out of it though. I had a gig there on Saturdays a few years ago, bartending. Place called The Saloon Door.”

“Oh yeah, I know that. Knew it, anyway. I heard Maynard Drake used to drink there with his fake ID.”

“Yeah well it’s gone now. Them planes came in and shat fire all over it. Just as well, the owner was a dick. Where’s your family?”

“Dead,” Connor replied.

“Sorry to hear it, kid. I really am.” She put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

He liked the feel of her hand on him, liked to know someone, even a stranger, cared about him right now. He’d been alone these past several days and wasn’t sure there was even a normal person left in the world. Tears welled up in his eyes but he knuckled them away.

“Thanks,” he said. “And my name’s Connor. Not Kid.”

She smiled at him. “Okay. Connor it is. How old are you anyway?”

“I’m fourteen.”

“Connor who is fourteen.” She said it like she was practicing for a test.

“What’s your name, miss?”

“Miss?” She laughed out load. “No no no. None of that old lady shit. Name’s Olivia. My friends call me Olive.”

“Like Popeye’s girlfriend? Wasn’t that her name?”

She chuckled. “Yeah. Olive Oyl. Bane of my existence when I was your age. All my friends called me Olive Oyl. But I got over it. Now I kind of like it. Or maybe I’m just used to it. At least the Olive part. Not the Oyl. Who knows. Of course, I haven’t heard from my friends in days. Not sure who’s alive and who ain’t. Not even sure what’s left out there. TVs and Internet stopped a while back. No cell phone service now. Nothing. We watched Castor go up in flames on the news—Internet news at least—right before the rest of the country’s communications were cut. End of the world they were sayin’. Well, the nutjobs were saying it, anyway.”

They drove in silence for another mile or two before Olive spoke up. “You know how to shoot?”

“Yeah. I got a couple of them between the eyes already. I know what to do.”

“Good. Take this. Keep it close and don’t fucking shoot me.” She handed him the .45. “You shoot me, I will come back and eat you. Got me, kid?”

“Got you, miss.”

She smiled. “Wise ass.”