This short story was written for the Infected! RPG by Immersion Games as a part of a contest with their Kickstarter.
My breathing was always so loud, especially after sprinting to cover. You would think five years of marathon walks, fast sprinting, and generally enforced cardio would make anyone an Olympic level athlete, but you’d be wrong. You’d think a lifestyle free of craft beer, pizza, and smoking anything would cure all that ails you, but you’d be wrong.
Some of us were too old and too soft when the world started it’s quick collapse into darkness and despair. Sure, everyone has lost weight. But some of us are just hungrier, thirstier, more stressed out versions of ourselves before the Infection; still dealing with a little asthma when we run, still feeling all the aches and pains of a suddenly much less sedentary lifestyle than we had ever imagined in our worst nightmares.
And make no mistake, this world had become everyone’s worst nightmare.
Wait: that’s not true. Some people, if you can call them that, saw the new world after the Infection as the best thing that ever happened to them. Those were the people that were a lot more dangerous than the Infected; those were the people who would lay cunning traps for you, or stalk you for days, or snipe you from a distance so they could make soup out of your bones. You wanted to avoid those people.
I decided to stay in Chicago after everything went to hell. I don’t know anyplace else well enough to survive in it. The suburbs seemed liked they’d be even more boring without electricity and water, and they weren’t next to a huge lake full of fresh water. Or a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh rat meat.
Was it a good decision, a smart decision? Some days, hiding in a tree, waiting for a deer or a dog or a coyote to come by so I could brain it with a big rock and eat like the kings of old, I was convinced of my Rightness. Other days, running through abandoned buildings to avoid a cannibal gang or pack of wild dogs, I thought maybe I’d made an error in judgment. Also, during the brief but hellaciously hot and humid summers, it always, ALWAYS, smells bad. Like rotting meat or garbage. Five years after the world ended, and I still spend my summers wondering if I actually live in a giant dumpster-universe that some idiot had thrown a bunch of raw meat into.
The winters smell better but it’s cold as hell and it’s hard to find food. Also, they last forever and the water freezes. And it gets hard to breathe. Especially after you’ve been running.
And I had been running, I’d just sprinted across the mossy, debris-strewn expanse of Lincoln Avenue, to slide under the remains of an SUV. I land on a rock of course, it’s digging into my bony butt, it’s not helping me breathe any quieter.
But I am highly motivated to be as quiet as possible, because there is a group of men walking down the street, being loud and careless. That is stupid of them, but they are heavily armed and look to be wearing body armor, so they may just be very confident. Or insane. Either way I don’t want them to see me.
I count six of them; big, healthy looking guys casually holding rifles that would have cost a small fortune before everything went to hell in a hand basket. My own weapons are of a more modest make, but perfectly serviceable. That’s another good-and-bad thing about staying in Chicago, instead of heading out to more abandoned strip mall type lands: it was easy to find guns. Good for me when I was looking for a way to defend myself and hunt for food; bad for me because everyone else who stuck around or migrated in later on has a damn gun too.
The down side, and it’s a big down side, is that they are loud as hell unless you’re one of those people who knows how to make a sound suppressor. And without easy access to how-to videos on the internet, there’s lots of things I’ll never know how to do.
Apparently these guys didn’t know how to make them either, because I didn’t see any suppressors. No way would they be stupid enough to fire out here on the street, where They would hear, and begin their slow, hungry, massing in response to the crack of gunfire.
I slowly pointed my rifle at them, slowed my breathing with great effort, and waited. Maybe they would walk right by and I would find an abandoned liquor store full of imperial stout and bags of beef jerky and a new dawn would rise and cast it’s warm glow on mankind.
It took forever for the merry band of probably-serial-killers to walk by my position under the SUV. Once I was sure they were past me, I waited some more, until I could barely hear them talking and laughing. Then I got up, too fast, and nailed my head against the rusted out exhaust system. It hurt, and then the entire exhaust pipe and muffler came crashing down in a clattering cloud of rust and dust. I couldn’t know if it had made enough noise to wake the dead. But I was damn sure those guys with the expensive guns had heard it.
I spun around and took cover behind a wheel, peeking out. The strangers weren’t talking or laughing now. No, now they were quiet, and crouched in firing positions, and scanning the street. I saw one of them point in my direction. Rolling quickly on to the cracked and weed-strewn sidewalk, I raised myself up and sprinted towards the inky black doorway on the building nearest the SUV. No longer a door, just a yawning, black nothingness that reeked of garbage and rotting meat. I made a point of never going into unscouted random buildings unless I couldn’t help it. It was my only chance at survival though, and these were the kind of split-second decisions I had been making for years, and which so far had kept me alive.
My heart, already racing beyond capacity, doubled in speed when I heard the staccato noise of full automatic fire. It wasn’t so much the rounds kicking up concrete chips in front me as much as the fact that these guys were making more noise than a war.
If there were any Infected in the building, they were awake now for sure, and I was going to run right into them. Alone. In the dark.
I plunged into the fetid blackness and slung my rifle. Taking a few seconds to breathe and let my eyes adjust as best as possible to the dark, I pulled out a pistol and my favorite machete, and looked back at the door. A silhouette appeared in the doorway and I shot at the head, remembering that they were wearing body armor. The silhouette collapsed and I congratulated myself; it’s important to keep your self-confidence high and recognize your successes! Especially nowadays.
Spinning back toward the darkness I started moving forward at a steady pace. My goal was the back door or emergency exit that I knew had to exist, if it wasn’t blocked by debris, or collapsed. Stay positive. Move forward.
I couldn’t tell if my eyes had started to adjust or if my optic nerves were just making up shapes and forms in the pitch blackness, creating patterns in my brain the way we’re neurologically wired to do even when there’s nothing to see. I heard shuffling footsteps and smelled decay to my left. Panic began to peel back my brain and turn me into a simple animal, it was hard to think, I started running forwards afraid to shoot in the dark, afraid of what I’d see.
The stench was overwhelming and now there was moaning all around me. I could feel grasping hands and I ran into something hard with my left shin, making me yell out and slowing me down. I was cutting at the darkness with my machete as I ran, and sometimes it hit things that made crunchy or wet noises. There was the sound of footsteps above me, many footsteps like a thousand office workers evacuating a high rise in an emergency.
I stumbled into a wall, hitting my head, biting my lip, and seeing sparks. There was a metal bar against my lower body while the stench and hands and moaning drew so very close. I pushed on the bar and the wall moved away from me, and I was blinded by bright white daylight. My lungs filled with air that smelled like it had been pumped in from the Garden of Eden, just for me, compared with the stench of the charnel house behind me. But the hands had caught up to me and grabbed me around the ankles and grasped at the back of my shirt. I turned to see a mass of bodies jammed into the doorway behind me, some crawling on the ground, others standing and reaching. I sliced down with my machete, cutting hands away from my ankles and separating wrists from grasping arms. I shot my pistol into heads, watching the falling bodies trip up the hungry dead behind them. But as always I left one bullet, one magical bullet, just in case I needed to make an emergency escape into oblivion while not being eaten alive.
Turning around I ran, swift like a gazelle, although I would have been swifter without dead hands attached to the hem of my jeans. But faster than Them, for sure, as I made my way down one alley and then another, popping out on a wide street full of rusting cars and weeds. It took me a minute to get my bearings because frankly Chicago never really was very good on signage and everything looks different now. I figured it out though, and I knew a place I could hide out until morning. A dive bar with metal bars over the boarded up windows and a thick, reinforced door with an old lock that I knew how to pick. The place was semi-infamous for being a place that two of Chicago’s worst serial killers had enjoyed drinking in, but now it was one of my Designated Safe Places. There might be others there, people who I semi-trusted, and there would be beer. In this new age, every bar is a speakeasy, but the Untouchables want the meat on your bones, not your booze.
It’s the new Chicago Way.