I climbed up a large rock with a hunting rifle slung across my back. It was early in the morning and I was searching for an elk. I was a hunter and the elk often roamed on my ranch. I looked through my binoculars, but all I saw were vultures picking at a rotting elk corps. This was the third one this week. I couldn't figure out what was happening to my elk. A little bummed out, I headed back home, trying to figure out what was going on.
I lived in a single story log cabin my grandpa and I had built together. It was a sturdy cabin and I kept it in good repair. My grandpa passed away a couple of years ago and I now live in the cabin alone, well, almost. I was greeted at the door by the frantic barking and shuffling of Rika, my four year old tan and black German Shepherd. Immediately after I opened the door Rika jumped on me and started to lick my arms.
"I know you wanna go huntin', but you're just no good at it," I said as I rubbed her ears.
Rika cocked her head and whimpered. "How 'bout some breakfast?" She immediately perked back up and wagged her tail.
Hunts didn't always go as planned so I kept a large stock of food just in case.
"Scrambled eggs and bacon, doesn't that sound good?" I always made extra for Rika.
After enjoying a filling breakfast, I decided to just take it easy for the rest of the day. I hung my gun back on the wall next to some awards and pictures. One of them was my high school diploma, James Cross was the name on it, but everybody called me Jimmy. Next to it was a picture of my grandpa and I building the cabin.
Later that night, I woke up to the sound of Rika barking and snarling at the front door. I cursed under my breath as I walked to see what was going on. The dull wood floor quietly groaned under my feet as I walked down the hallway. Rika rarely barked at night and it was too late in the year for bears. Whatever it was it was scaring her. I grabbed the soft leather handle of a metal baseball bat I used to scare the occasional crack head off. As I opened the door a cool breeze of night air came through, but there was something else with it. Rika backed away with her tail between her legs. When I looked at Rika something grabbed my leg and pulled me to the ground. The hard wood of the porch knocked the wind out of me. I kicked at the shape pulling at me until I heard a crack. When I got back up I saw what had grabbed me. The man's jaw was wide open, apparently broken by my kick. The mans legs were missing and his entrails were dragging behind him. The foul stench of death wafted from him. The light from the house illuminated the man's decomposing face. It was my neighbor Larry, who went missing a week ago. Larry kept crawling toward me when I remembered my baseball bat. I swung the bat as hard as I could. The man's head exploded, sending gore across the porch. I dropped the bat and ran inside, locking the door behind me. I rushed Rika into my bedroom and slammed the door shut, crumpling in terror at what I had just seen. There was no way I could sleep tonight.
The early morning sun lit up my bedroom, reveling some blood that had splattered on my shirt. I took a couple deep breaths and gathered the strength to stand up. I was to sick to eat so I went into the living room and turned the TV on. Every channel was an emergency broadcast and I mean every channel. Curious, I loaded Rika up in my pickup truck and grabbed one of my guns to see if anything happened in town.
I lived near the town of Leggett in California. It was a small town, but it was my home. It was a short drive into town and to my surprise it was deserted. There was usually at least one person at the store, but today there was nobody. A further drive into town reveled mostly the same except this time there were cars completely abandoned and left in the road, still running. My initial reaction was one of confusion, but after I saw that there was blood in the cars and on the road it quickly turned to fear. My mind suddenly thought of what had happened to Larry. Was this an isolated incident or was this happening every where? My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Rika's barking and the frantic shouting of a man being chased by three figures in the Caltrans yard next to the school. I quickly drew the pistol I had brought with me as the man started to run toward me.
"Move! Move!" I yelled.
The man tripped on a rock and tumbled to the ground. The three figures that were chasing him jumped on top of him and violently tore him to pieces. I fired at one of the figures which turned out to be somebody I knew from town. My bullets impacted the figure in the torso and it recoiled backwards only to jump back on the man and continue to bite off chunks of flesh. I jumped back into my pickup truck and started to pet Rika to calm my nerves. One of the creatures slammed its self into the side of my truck to try and get to me. His eyes were cloudy white with a horrible expression of anger on his face. I sped away with my heart racing. I was so distracted I didn't even see the creature in the road. I kept my foot on the gas and didn't look back to see what had become of that, monster.
It didn't take long for me rush home and get Rika in the house. I knew I couldn't stay here, it was too dangerous. I gathered up all of my guns: two pistols, one revolver, one shotgun, my grandpa's hinting rifle and all of the respective ammo. I boxed up as much canned food and water as I could. I loaded Rika up with a tactical dog vest to lighten my ammo load. Years of survival training kicked in like clockwork as I gathered some bug-out bags I kept tucked away. The truck was loaded up as full as I could get it. The stench of Larry's corps filled the house, it was almost unbearable. I turned to take one final look at my house before I left, the once beautiful porch was now covered in blood. I started to think of places to go. If this was happening everywhere, I couldn't go north to Eureka or south to Ukiah. I would have to go east. It wasn't the best plan, but it was all I could do. To get there I would have to take the freeway south through Laytonville and then get on highway 162, after that I don't know where I'll go, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Driving back through Leggett was haunting. The creature that I had hit was gone and so was the man that had tripped. I couldn't get out of town fast enough. Once I got onto the freeway the carnage only got worse. There were cars on their sides, completely flipped over and even a bus that hit head on with a big rig, it was full of people. I looked over at Rika and pet her.
"It's ok, we'll be safe soon." Rika just groaned as she exhaled.
I reached into the glove box and grabbed a bag of dog biscuits and she immediately perked back up, she loved her treats. Now that Rika was happy I was able to pay attention to the road and the car I almost hit.
It was a twenty minute drive to get to Laytonville and I was afraid of what I might see along the way. The cold and cloudy November sky didn't help the mood one bit. The once busy freeway was now hauntingly empty, aside from the occasional abandoned car or truck. I checked the radio to find out what was happening, but all I got was static and emergency broadcasts. After about fifteen minutes into the drive I spotted a cop car in the road. I told Rika to stay as I got out to investigate the car to see what I could find. I drew my gun and slowly approached the car, its door wide open. There was blood in the back seat, but there was nobody there. Further inspection reveled that that the guns and ammo were gone, but the police scanner was still there, better than nothing. I was startled by the sounds of gunshots further down the road. I sat in my truck for a minute and went back over my map. I started to think that my plan wasn't the best. Highway 162 would take us through Covelo and that place was dangerous before all of this. The only thing I could do would be to double back and find the Hermitage property along the old 271. The Hermitage had been abandoned for years and with any luck some of the houses could still be there.
I was about to start the engine when something hit the back of my truck. Rika started to growl and it did it again. A little curious, but mostly scared I decided to grab my shotgun and investigate. I slowly inched toward the source of the sound, my boots barely making a sound on the cold pavement. I peered under the truck and there was somebody standing behind the truck. I slowly moved to the other side of a car next to my truck. The creature was standing behind my truck pounding at the tail gate. I tapped the top of the car to get its attention. When it looked at me its white expressionless face turned to anger like the one from Leggett as it stumbled and ran toward me. I fired a shell of buckshot directly into its chest, tearing it open, but it barely phased the creature. I started to panic when I fired the second shot with the same results. My third shot impacted the head which stopped it instantly.
"Head-shots," I whispered under my breath.
I looked over at my truck and saw Rika looking at me through the window and I managed to force a smile even though I was terrified at this point. I was so paranoid I nearly had a heart attack when thunder boomed overhead and it started raining. Rika licked the water off my arms when I got back in my truck. My hands were trembling so bad that I could barely put it in gear, let alone keep it straight on the road. Within minutes it was a total down pour. Further down the freeway I saw a pair of headlights weaving erratically through the road. Behind it was another car, but this one had people hanging out of the windows firing guns at it. I pulled off the road to avoid the mess. I guess in these times there was no law and people just did what they wanted to do.
It didn't take long to get on the old 271 and by that time the rain had stopped. I haven't been to the Hermitage in years and wondered if I could even still get to it. Rika was so tired that she just couldn't stay awake. Her sleep didn't last long, however. While driving past Cummings, several explosions rocked the truck and a piece of shrapnel even cracked the driver side window. Fire and smoke shot up from some of the buildings. I didn't stick around long enough to find out what had happened. I slammed my foot on the gas just in time to avoid another, bigger, explosion.
Highway 271 hasn't changed much since the last time I drove on it. A few small rocks had slid off the mountain onto the road along with a couple branches from the wind. It was all normal, a nice change from what I had seen so far.
Well, here it was, the Hermitage. The road wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be, considering it had been abandoned for so many years. The road was mostly grown over with poison oak and buck brush, which again, was normal. Something wasn't right though. There was fresh tire marks on the dirt.
"Something's not right here," I looked at Rika.
She just stared at me. Once I got to the bottom of the driveway it was apparent that I wasn't the only one here. The vehicle that made the tire tracks was parked in the middle of the main flat, it was a military Humvee. A little relieved, but still cautious I stepped out of my truck and walked toward it. I heard a terrible gurgling moan from behind, but before I could turn, an immensely powerful boom came from one of the houses followed by a gory splat. My first reaction was to drop to the ground while two marines in their BDUs came running from the other side of the Humvee, guns drawn and yelling at me.
"I just want to know what the hell's going on here," I pleaded.
"Let 'em go," a tall man wearing BDU pants and a dirty white t-shirt holding an M82A1 sniper rifle over his shoulder walks out of the main house.
"Yes Lieutenant Malone," one of the soldiers said to the tall man.
"Jimmy, is that you?" Malone asked. "Get over here you S.O.B.!"
John Malone and I go way back to the third grade. We were best friends all through out school, right up until he enlisted as a sniper and left for Afghanistan, then we lost touch. I turned and looked at the bloody mess left by the massive .50 caliber bullet.
"You've gotta be careful, they'll follow you for miles," Malone's voice went from joyous to depressed as he looked at the pile.
"What are they?" I asked.
"We're not too sure ourselves, but there's a scientist here who knows what caused it."
I let Rika out of the truck and she greeted the soldiers with her usual barking and sniffing. They were pleased to finally see something that didn't want to kill them.
"Meet me around back," Malone said, "and bring that old hunting rifle."
I grabbed the old rifle from the truck, the walnut wood stock was old, but in good shape. It was chambered for .30-06, obsolete by military standards, but still perfect for hunting.
"God, I remember this old thing," Malone was looking the rifle over, inspecting every detail.
Our families used to go on hunting trips together and this was the rifle my grandpa would use. Malone took aim at a metal plate across the river and fired a single shot, bulls-eye.
"It's a beautiful thing," Malone muttered.
A marine opened the door to one of the houses. "Lieutenant, she's ready to see you," he said.
"Good, looks like we'll get our answers after all," Malone said to me.
We gathered in the makeshift laboratory and were greeted by the scientist. She was fairly short, about 5'2", and her brown hair was tied up in a tight bun. Her white lab coat had some blood on the bottom.
"James, this is Miss Ashley Bradson. She's the one who's been trying to figure out what's happening," Malone said.
"Dr. Bradson, thank you lieutenant," she said with a hint of condescension in her voice. "Without better lab equipment I can't make any better connections between this infection and the source."
"Which is?" Malone interrupted.
"If you would let me continue, the source of this pandemic is a black-market 'miracle' drug called Vita Nova. As for how, I have no idea," Dr. Bradson continued.
"Is that it?" Malone was disappointed.
"Not everything can be solved overnight you know," Dr. Bradson said.
Obviously annoyed by Malone, Dr. Bradson went back to work. Malone and I walked back into the front yard, unsure of what to do.
"What's up with her?" I asked.
Before Malone could answer, we heard the faint rumbling of a helicopter and the roar of jets in the distance. Malone looked through a pair of binoculars and saw two black A-10s and one black Apache gunship.
"Those aren't ours," Malone muttered.
The A-10 'Warthogs', as they were known, circled back and fired bursts from their massive 30mm main cannons. One soldier was vaporized by the high explosive bullets and another was blown in half.
"Definitely not ours!" Malone shouted. "Everybody evacuate now! Let's move people!"
I rushed to find Rika and Malone went to retrieve Dr. Bradson. The black Apache swooped down upon us and launched a fiery burst of rockets that erupted in a hellish explosion. One of the houses was leveled. I found Rika and put her in the truck, but Malone was nowhere to be found. Suddenly, out of the smoke, Malone walks out carrying Dr. Bradson. She must have been knocked unconscious in the blast.
"Hurry, to the coast!" Malone shouted.
He loaded Dr. Bradson, who was slowly coming to, into the Humvee and along with the last two soldiers, sped up the driveway. I was close behind.
As we raced toward the freeway, the Apache spotted us, but the Warthogs were nowhere to be seen. One of the soldiers emerged from the Humvee and shouldered an AT-4 launcher. He took careful aim at the Apache, as he only had one shot. The helicopter fired a burst from the 30mm chain gun, but luckily missed because of our erratic driving. The soldier fired the rocket. The explosive warhead flew toward the helicopter, it struck the main rotor, sending it into an uncontrollable spin ahead of us.
We stopped at the smoldering wreckage of the black Apache. Malone and I got out to investigate, but were quickly disappointed.
"There's no markings!" Malone exclaimed.
He was right, not a single number or symbol.
"So, who are they?" I asked myself.
"Sir, we've got a situation here!" one of the soldiers shouted while firing his gun.
We turned around to see an entire horde of those 'walkers', as Malone calls them, stumbling toward us.
"Ah, crap!" the other soldier exclaimed as his gun jammed.
He was quickly overtaken and ripped to shreds as the walkers advanced on our position.
"Retreat!" Malone shouted. "We need to get to the coast."
Without asking why, I jumped back in the truck and we sped away from the horde. Rika looked back and barked at the stumbling shapes.
To be continued...