The first thing that welcomed Corporal Jared West to the waking world was a horrible, wretched stench.
Jared tried to open his eyes, but found the effort cost him too much. Moving around was out of the question, too. So he merely laid there, his mind slow and sluggish, but further along than his body. He tried to marshal his thoughts. Through the mental muck that clung to his psyche, he asked himself the simple question of: Where am I?
He couldn't answer it, not at first. Instead, Jared focused on the things his senses were telling him. He could see nothing but utter blackness, the color of deep, starless space. He felt cold, and slowly realized that he was lying on his back against something hard and chilled. Gently, with incredible difficulty, he moved his fingertips. They moved across a cloth, laid over a hard surface. A sheet over metal.
He could hear something. A soft, regular beeping noise. And something else, a consistent dripping. Jared tried to swallow, but found his mouth dry. Worst of all, he decided, and most prominent of his senses, was that smell. It reeked. He tried to place it as his mind and body came back online from whatever mysterious event had rendered them so depleted. The closest he could come was that of rotting meat.
Jared tried opening his eyes again. This time, he had regained enough of his lost strength that he managed the simple task. He was greeted by a dull gray ceiling overhead. It was vaguely familiar. Jared still couldn't remember why he was here, wherever here was. All he knew was that he was weak and exhausted.
Somewhere in the room he was in, something shifted. He heard a soft rasp of breath. Jared tried to call out, but nothing more than a muted, awkward croak escaped his throat. He grew frustrated and tried to will more strength to his muscles. His fingers twitched and his foot shifted slightly. He took a shallow breath, trying to deepen it, and relaxed. Time would grant him strength, but who was in the room with him?
Jared briefly retreated into his own mind, dredging up the memories. He began to recall things. He remembered himself, a Corporal of the United Nations Marine Corps. And a shit job of 'defending' the UNSC's assets on some distant planet called Xerxes. He remembered boredom measured in months. He remembered-
Something moved again, this time with more clarity. This time, closer. The breathing was coming more consistently now, harsh and ragged. Jared tried again, desperate for contact. The smell was setting off all kinds of internal warning alarms, making him clench his muscles. His combat instincts were flaring up, demanding attention.
"Who's there?" he managed, his voice sounding weak and disused.
There was a quiet noise, something like a growl, and more shuffling feet. Jared realized, with something like terror, that the scent was getting worse. Whoever, or whatever was in the room with him was now coming closer. Jared tried to move. He could feel his limbs responding sluggishly, shifting slightly beneath a blanket. The noises, shuffling footsteps, were closer than ever. Just as Jared was beginning to be able to lift his hands, something came into his peripheral. He shifted his head to the side, and froze.
Terror, shot through with raw, panic-laced adrenaline, flooded his system. What stood before him, advancing slowly on him, had once been a human being. Now, it was something much different. The flesh had turned sallow and pallid, the veins blackening and pressing tightly against the skin, as if trying to burst out. The teeth had grown, ruining the gums, turning into sharp things. There were too many of them.
But it was the eyes, the eyes that so captivated Jared. He felt as if he were asphyxiating, captured by those twin obsidian pools that seemed to adsorb light instead of reflect it. The creature let out another low groan, louder this time, and reached for him. The terror granted Jared's system a much needed kickstart.
He rolled off the thing he was on, away from the inhuman beast, feeling something rip painfully from his arm and crashed to what he quickly recognized as the infirmary floor. He hit something on the way down. There was a sharp, metal clang, followed by many others as several instruments fell to the floor. Above him, the thing bumped into the examination table he'd been lying on.
Jared groped blindly in the dim gray light, his eyes fixated on the face of the thing that had reappeared, bending over the table, reaching for him. His own eyes were wide and wild with pure fear. His fingers found something, closed around a circular metal handle. Unable to look down at whatever object he had grabbed, Jared brought it up before his own eyes.
Something gave and the trance of fear that so paralyzed him snapped and shattered, falling away like a wet cloak. With a quick, fluid motion, he jabbed upwards, driving the tip of the scalpel into the thing's blackened eye. The creature let out a large roar of pain, twitching. Jared palmed it hard, forcing it another few inches in.
The thing slumped forward onto the table, sliding down slowly. Blood spilled out everywhere, black like oil, thick like tar. Jared's breath came raggedly, but his heart eventually began to slow down. He stared up at the now truly dead face, which still looked more intimidating than hell, and tried to get his mind out of lockdown.
It was difficult, but not impossible. Jared finally, shakily, rose to his feet. He backed into a wall and jerked with fright, still staring at the corpse he'd made. Nothing else moved in the infirmary. He might have been terrified, but his instincts were still fighting to keep him alive. He began looking around for another weapon, preparing for another attack.
His eyes locked onto another medical instrument, something not unlike a butcher's knife. He knelt quickly and scooped it up. The blade was flecked with black blood. It gleamed dully beneath the nearly dead lights of the infirmary. Jared scanned the room, managing to take his eyes off the...the whatever it was. The creature.
The place had seen better days.
One of the windows had been broken out, shards ringing the frame, coated in a dark fluid. From outside, rainwater spilled in. Distantly, Jared could hear thunder. A couple of the examination tables were still occupied with unmoving forms. Medical instruments and supplies were scattered across the floor. Blood, some of it red, some of it black, sat in pools on the floor. It also occupied the walls in dried sprays.
Jared felt his control coming back. His head began to ache, a low, pounding sensation laced with pain. He winced and reached up, touching his scalp. It was tender, and hurt when he did so. It also unlocked a memory: working in the garage, shifting crates...someone shouting a warning, and then something heavy and solid crashing down onto him.
And then nothing, until now.
Jared felt the need to move, but parts of him were still sluggish with lethargy. He felt utterly drained. The situation before him was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He'd need a clearer head to figure it out and survive.
Where was everyone?
Jared remembered his outpost. He'd been assigned to a little communications relay station tucked into the end of a valley. There'd been a dozen of them stationed there, mostly technicians, dedicated to making sure the array didn't break down. A terrible job if you're a soldier. An even more terrible job if you were a soldier that had an itch for activity.
Something banged against the exterior of the infirmary. Jared licked his lips in tense dread. He hurried to the far door, the only way in, and secured it. The pad gave an affirmative chime and a red light pulsed gently. Jared let out a small sigh of relief, then eyed the broken window. It was higher up, and small. It would take effort to crawl in, and these things, whatever they were, didn't seem capable of subtlety.
Jared decided that he needed answers. He hurried over to the sole computer terminal in the room and sat down in a lightly padded swivel chair. He quickly brought the thing to life, overjoyed that it had survived the event. He brought up the most recent documents, surprised to find that the date had advanced five days since he'd 'gone to sleep'. He found a few reports pertaining to himself, that he had slipped into a coma.
That explained the thing that had been torn from his arm: an IV. They were keeping him hydrated. He read through more of the reports, finding something about a lack of communications from the other outposts in the area. And then, something even more disturbing: someone came wandering in from the outside.
He'd been in a deranged state, the report said, and had attacked the base personnel on site. This was three days ago. After biting two of the men, Thompson and Parks, two of the men he actually got along with, they had to put the guy down. But it took six shots, five in the torso, one finally in the head, before he went down.
Jared swallowed nervously, his throat still dry, making the effort painful. He read on, not at all liking where this was going. That night, the two men bitten passed out. They were rushed to the infirmary. They woke up at some point during the night and, in a disturbingly similar manner to the other man, attacked the others. This time three other members were bitten. One committed suicide. The other two were placed in quarantine.
Things became confused after that. All Jared got out of the final report was that someone had sabotaged communications and more of the monsters were showing up. Sitting back, Jared heaved a weary sigh. He started thinking about what to do when a sudden wave of lethargy hit him so hard he nearly passed out.
Coming out of a five day coma was nothing to be ignored. Jared needed stimulants, and he knew it. He hunted through the infirmary, coming up with an injection of stimulants and sticking himself. He felt the drugs go to work almost immediately, his vision and his head both clearing up. He felt a lot more alert and concise.
A plan began to formulate in his mind. First, he needed to search the outpost, see if anyone was still alive. The reports hadn't led to any solid conclusions on what was causing the infection, Doc Pomroy hadn't had enough time to properly investigate. Jared couldn't imagine him doing so anyway. Doctor Pomroy was old and, as he said on several occasions, looked at his posting to the outpost as an early retirement.
But there were conclusions to be drawn. Speculation. And even Pomroy had been going down the same path that Jared was currently going down. However it had been achieved, by flaw or by design, the residents of Xerxes were now facing down a horde of undead monsters that could pass along their sickness with the greatest of ease.
They were facing zombies.
Jared shuddered at the thought. He was no stranger to fiction. When he wasn't working out or wasting rounds on target practice, Jared read. He'd come across the idea of stumbling, drooling undead in more than a few novels. From the clues he'd gathered so far, these ugly things were a dead-on match for a traditional zombie.
Jared knew he needed to act fast. He was nothing if not a survivor. He didn't get to be a Corporal and survive three years to see the end of the Human-Covenant War for nothing. Working quickly, Jared gathered up some medical supplies. It became immediately obvious that someone had come in and cleared out most of the supplies. He managed to get a single, full medkit together. Heading over to the door, Jared unlocked it and stepped out.
It was near the end of the day outside. Rain slicked everything and the skies were overcast, a uniform iron gray. The infirmary had been tucked in the back corner of the base. The few other structures lay spread out before him: dorms, the mess hall, the generator room and the relay itself. Jared hurried forward, towards the relay. That's where what was laughingly referred to as the armory would be hidden, within the security center.
Jared saw no other zombies about in the misty twilight. That didn't mean they weren't there. Jared didn't relax his grip on the medical instrument. He hit the access button and slowly made his way into the relay building. It was dark and quiet. Most of the lights had failed. What few that were left flickered.
Jared checked the radio room, just to be sure that it really was useless, and found it to be dishearteningly true: the place was a wreck. The equipment bled sparks periodically, and most of it looked completely dead and trashed. With a sigh, Jared turned away from the radio room and hurried down the corridor to the security center.
It, too, had been shot to hell. Bullet holes marred the far wall, which was a bank of monitors. They were all dead or showing static. Jared ignored them, instead making for the pair of weapon lockers across the room. The first was open and obviously empty. He popped the second one open and found it in a similar state.
No weapons. Jared swallowed nervously. No weapons and there were probably zombies about. Nervously, he glanced over his shoulder. The room remained empty. Outside, thunder rumbled. The storm was building. Hope was not yet lost. Jared left the relay, hurrying towards the dorms. The weapon lockers might have been cleared out, but he kept his own piece in his dorm. No one else knew about it.
Jared didn't like to think of himself as paranoid...more like well-prepared. He stepped into the dormitory building, sweeping his gaze across the central corridor. Nothing there but a single body, the head mostly torn away in a spray of blood and gore that stained the wall. Jared hesitated by the corpse, kneeling by it.
Live with a group of people for long enough, and even an antisocial like Jared West would get to know them. Maybe even like them. He'd liked these people. Ralsen was one of the technicians who maintained the vast array of equipment in the relay. He was a bit on the skinny side, young, had never seen the war. Despite their differences, Jared had taken a liking to him. Almost started seeing him like a little brother, even took him to his impromptu shooting range when the kid asked if Jared could show him how to handle a piece a little bit better.
And now he was just another corpse. He recognized the skull tattoo on the body's right bicep. Jared had seen too many of the dead. It looked like now he was going to be seeing a lot more. Jared stood up from the body and pushed on into his bedroom. It was exactly how he'd left it: neat, orderly, untouched.
He hurried over to the bed and groped for the M6G stashed underneath the mattress.
It was still there, fully loaded, safety on. Two magazines to spare, even. Jared grinned. He stared at the meat cleaver of a medical tool. He hated to abandon it, but didn't want to keep it on him either. It wasn't exactly a combat knife that could easily be concealed. It was bulky and unwieldy, and he might end up hurting himself.
He dropped it and secured the pair of magazines in his pocket, pulled the one in the pistol out and checked it, then slid it back in and disengaged the safety. Jared hurried back outside. He kept his eyes open, something had banged against the exterior of the infirmary not too long ago, but he found the place still vacant. He hurried over to the garage and glanced inside. His hopes fell. No vehicles left. He'd have to do this the hard way.
Jared decided to do a quick search of the outpost anyway, for extra supplies or other survivors. He moved with swift precision through the buildings, hunting in every nook and cranny for anyone else. Amongst the dead he found half the staff, as well as a collection of people he didn't recognize. He expended three rounds taking down a trio of zombies haunting the mess hall and searched for food or water after securing the area.
No food, but the plumbing still worked. Quickly, he filled a canteen and drank deeply, nearly emptying it. He refilled it again, secured the cap and slipped the strap over his neck. Feeling a little bit better, Jared finished his reconnaissance of the outpost and came up empty: no more guns, no more ammo, no more people.
Just the aftermath: a litany of death and decay. Jared left the outpost then, making for the front entrance. There was nothing more for him here. He knew of another complex, a larger, more important communications facility, only two miles north. It was one of many radio-oriented facilities in the region. While he had lived at this outpost for a few months, it had never really been his home. More of a place to simply exist. To pass the time.
With minimal regret, Jared set off down the valley, away from the structures.
Up ahead, things lurked, and he could hear distant growling.