Ashleign Devroe jolted awake, covered in a cold sweat. Her hands shook and she could feel her heart hammering, as the familiar images of her recurring dream, played over again. Franklin Jones, appeared before her. His imploring eyes stabbed through her soul as he fell. It happened in slow motion, long and drawn out and he wasn't falling off an abandoned train car. He was falling off a fifty foot cliff into the dark abyss that only had Infected at the bottom.
Amongst the abominations, waiting with relish, was a familiar face; one that she had once loved. Warren Jackson, now distorted by infection, seemed somehow insignificant compared to Franky’s terrified gaze boring into her as he fell. Just before the impenetrable darkness swallowed him, a mask of inky smoke took the place of his face and engulfed him.
Then the scream begun.
Not even in her waking moments would that scream leave her. She knew she would always hear it. Even as she shook off the remnants of the flashback, the shrill sound reverberated in her head, as clear as it was on That Day, four years ago.
She rolled over, feeling stiff from lying on the cold, hard floor boards all night. She glanced at the pile of disheveled blankets beside her and found them empty. Peering around the small room, her eyes found what they were seeking. He was sitting near the boarded- up window, staring out through a small hole cut into the ply wood. Her teammate, turned companion, turned lover. Greg Carter.
His steel eyes were fixed on something down in the yard. Ashleign could guess what; they were always there. She watched him for a moment, taking in his toned figure, running her eyes over the slight curve of his back up to his rough, sandy blonde hair. She had never really been attracted to him before, but spending four years with someone, trying to outrun the apocalypse, worked in strange ways.
He felt her gaze on him and he turned, showing her the shrapnel scars on his left cheek, which were half buried now by stubble. He was still an attractive enough man, although looks didn't matter much to Ashleign at this point. He had her back, and made the long nights a little less lonely.
"Is it always the same one?" He asked quietly, watching her crawl out from under her blanket. She nodded, pulling on her ragged army jacket against the cold draught that filtered up through the floor. " The details change sometimes. It might be exactly how it happened, like a flashback, or it might be strange and surreal,"
"Which version was it this time?"
"He fell into a fifty- foot gaping black hole and sort of hung in the air staring at me. Then his face turned into black smoke as he fell,"
Carter raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.
Ashleign screwed her eyes shut, trying to clear that image from her mind.
"You were moving around a bit," he said, leaning back to look through the hole again, "I had to hold you still,"
"Sorry about that," Ashleign retorted, sitting beside him and resting her arm on his knee.
"Ah, I was awake anyway,” he shrugged.
Ashleign let out a deep breath. “This time I saw Jackson,” she said finally, “he was Infected,”
Carter turned to her again and watched her quietly for a moment, his expression unreadable, then asked, “do you see him often?”
“This was the first time. I don’t know why I saw him now,”
“You’re still feeling guilty I suppose,” Carter guessed.
Carter went to speak again, but stopped, considering his words.
“You know, there was nothing you could have done to stop that from happening, right? He made his choice,”
“I do know. I have made peace with that, at least until now I thought I did. What I can’t get past is killing my teammate in cold blood,”
“Was it really cold blood though?” Carter frowned down at her.
“Yes, it was,”
“Well, did you want to kill him?”
“No, but I was angry, I don’t know what I was thinking at the time,”
“I would have said it was an accident. You got angry, pushed him, he slipped and fell,”
“You would have to be blind to miss that I kicked him off that train car!” She nearly yelled.
Carter gestured with his hand to quiet her. “Okay, okay, but there’s really nothing you can do about that now. You can’t keep blaming yourself forever,” he shrugged, “it’s likely the coward would be dead by now anyways,”
Ashleign wanted to scream at him for his callousness. It was something she certainly disliked about him. She wasn’t sure if she wanted sympathy from him, but she definitely didn’t need his lack of concern.
“Do you even care that he’s dead?” She growled without looking at him.
He sighed. “They’re all dead, Ash. There’s no point in dwelling on a past you can’t change,"
“That’s not what I asked,”
“It doesn’t matter!” Carter argued. “Why won’t you just let this go?”
“I can’t just let it go, I- ”Ashleign stopped abruptly as Carter clamped a hand over her mouth.
“Sh, it’s back,” he said, peering through the hole in the ply wood.
"The Infected?" Ashleign frowned at him.
"Nah, a dog. There's something off about it,"
"I haven't seen a dog since That Day," Ashleign replied curiously despite her irritation.
She leaned over him to peer through the hole. The yard beyond the old farmhouse was blanketed in a veil of thick fog, limiting the visibility to only one hundred metres. Ashleign squinted down at the unkempt, half dead hedge below the window. She watched as the dog, some sort of black and tan sheep dog breed, trotted into her view. Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed that it wasn't a normal dog at all. It was deformed, with patchy, matted hair and appeared to have a broken back leg.
"What the hell?” She whispered, frowning as she slowly realized what she was looking at.
As if it heard her small voice behind the ply wood, the beast turned its ugly head towards her. She froze.
Images of the grotesque faces of the Infected, forever etched into her memory from That Day, and every day after, stood stark in the yard before her. It was unmistakable. The beast's muzzle was split unnaturally at the front, as if someone had taken an axe to the jaw bone. Its teeth were jagged, protruding out at odd angles, while black, soulless eyes that were weeping blood, sought her out.
Ashleign shrank away from the ply wood, replacing the strip of black rag, blocking out the small stream of light.
"What's wrong?" Carter asked, startled by her ashen face.
"That's not a dog," she trailed off into silence.
Carter watched her sit back against the plasterboard, before he peered out into the fog. He too quickly covered their spy-hole. He glanced at Ashleign, who in turn, met his disbelieving gaze.
"So, it also affects dogs too. Well, that's great to know," he said, his usual sarcasm creeping into his voice.
"I think it saw me," Ashleign said.
"It can probably smell us,"
Ashleign paused for a moment, contemplating the implications of that. Usually, the Infected were quite easy to hide from if you were quiet. If it affected dogs, then hiding wouldn't be so simple.
As they spoke, the beast circled back around to the barricaded door and begun ramming into it, trying to get inside. After a few failed attempts, it let out a keening shriek that didn't belong to any dog Ashleign had ever heard. She shuddered.
"We secured all the entrances right?" She asked in barely a whisper.
"We double checked every point of entry. The front door, back door, windows; they're all barricaded. They've been that way the entire time we've been here, you know that,"
"But maybe we missed something,"
"Ash, it won't get in here," Carter sighed.
"What happens when we run out of food?" Ashleign continued on the edge of panic. "We had two weeks’ worth, and we've been here nearly that long. We'll need to leave soon to find more,"
She watched Carter stand and walk over to his weathered army pack, rummaging inside. He pulled out half a dozen ready-to-eat camping meal packets, they had taken from a camping store. His pack had been full of them.
"We have a few days left. What do you have?"
"I've only got one of those meals and maybe two cans left,"
"We can make it last a while. We'll wait him out," he said, taking one of the packets and tossing the rest back inside his bag.
Ashleign pulled her own pack towards her and wrinkled her nose when she pulled out the curried chicken packet. Again.
She glanced at Carter. "Got anything else? I'm sick of chicken," Carter chuckled and swapped for his roast beef.
"They all taste the same anyway," he said.
"Who knew the apocalypse would be so bland?" Ashleign quipped.
Another crash from outside made her jump. She peered outside again and swore. "There's more of them!"
"What? How many?"
"There's five. It called its damned pack!"
The five beasts were all now trying to get inside.
"They definitely know we're in here," Ashleign observed. "You still think we can wait them out? Infected don't get bored,"
"They will make it interesting when we need to get more water from the tank," Carter replied, glancing at the ten litre plastic water container in the far corner- it too was nearly empty.
"We should deal with them before they attract others. We don't want a whole horde at the door step," he suggested.
"These aren't just regular Infected, Greg. They're probably much faster, and they'll be able to smell us,"
Carter thought for a moment, while the Infected dogs continued their assault on the front door.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
There was fierce barking now.
"They really want in," Ashleign breathed, anxiously.
"The chicken coop," Carter said suddenly.
“What about it?”
"It has a roof. They won't be able to jump or go around it. We can shut the door, make some noise to bring them over and take them one at a time when we're ready,"
Ashleign nodded slowly. It was a good plan, but she had no motivation to enact it. They would be taking a huge risk and one of them could get bitten. If human Infected could infect dogs, then the dogs could easily infect them.
"We can do this, Ash" Carter told her, reading her expression, "I've got your back, you've got mine. We know how this works. We'll sneak out the back, and make our way to the coop. Once we're inside, we'll make noise- tap on something with the axe- then, we take them out, just like we said. Easy,"
It sounded easy when said like that, but Ashleign knew it would be far from easy. She nodded anyway and Carter gave her one of his half mouth smiles. The one that always warmed her from the inside. Damn him. She really had become attracted to him.
She inexplicably dreaded the thought of something happening to him, but before she had a chance to stop him, he was already picking up his axe and heading for the stairs. She had no choice but to do the same. She joined him downstairs where he was waiting for her with another smile. He was as calm as always, while Ashleign held her own axe in a trembling hand. There was just something about Infected dogs that terrified her.
There was another crash and more manic barking at the front door. At least the dogs were still there. Maybe they could actually make it to the coop in the back yard before they were noticed.
"Ready?" Carter asked her, moving to the far corner of the sparse living room.
"No," Ashleign admitted, anxiously glancing at the boarded up front door that quaked with the dogs' attempts.
"We'll be fine, Ash," he reassured her, holding out a clenched fist.
She clenched her own and touched it to his in a show of comradery, then watched as he pulled up some loose floorboards and set them aside. He jumped into the dark cavity under the house. She exhaled deeply before following.
They emerged at the back side of the house through an access panel into an enclosed yard. The garden was overgrown and knee high grass stretched out to the perimeter fence and into the paddocks beyond. The fog was still heavy in the moist air as they waded quietly through the sea of grass. Ashleign constantly glanced over her shoulder, paranoid that the dogs would see them, but they reached the abandoned chicken coop without interruption.
Carter stopped at the door to the coop and waited until Ashleign ran inside. He secured the door from the inside using a short length of rope and a carabiner clip that he attached to the wire mesh.
"Okay, you hold them back with the door and I'll be ready with the axe. One at a time. We've got this," Was he trying to convince her or himself?
Ashleign nodded, unsure. She took hold of the mesh with a white-knuckled grip, watching Carter exhale a sharp breath. His calm was unravelling, she noted.
"Just be ready with that axe!" Ashleign said, on the edge of panic again.
"Don't worry about me, they're going to come fast. Make sure you hold it. Okay, here we go," he swung the blunt end of the axe into the metal post holding the door.
Ashleign cringed as the loud, metallic ping echoed through the fog. The barking around the front, immediately stopped and they were plunged into a suspenseful silence. They waited, eyes fixed on the fog, for the inevitable rustle of racing paws, for the monsters to busrt out of the veil.
Ashleign’s heart hammered and she felt Carter tense up his axe arm, as a broad chested, Infected Rottweiler, came charging through the old wooden gate beside the house. It was followed closely by the black and tan sheep dog that deftly jumped the ruined gate.
Ashleign swore. A Rottweiler, of course it had to be.
"Ready?" Carter yelled.
No! Of course she wasn't ready! This was insane!
She had to force herself to pull the gate open as the Rottweiler launched at it. Quickly, she wrenched it shut again, catching the monster's thick neck. It snapped its ugly, deformed jaws, growling and spitting black blood. Behind it, the sheepdog ploughed into the mesh, and Ashleign thought for a horrifying moment, that it would break straight through. The mesh held though and the second beast crouched, ready to lunge again.
In the second that Ashleign managed to trap the Rottweiler, Carter slammed his axe down into the black flesh of its neck with a loud grunt. The edge of the axe had been dulled from previous use, and caught in the beast's neck. Dark, semi-coagulated blood sprayed from the jagged wound. The Infected mutt yelped, but still crashed against the gate as Carter tried to wrench the axe free.
"I can't hold it!" Ashleign screamed, pushing against the gate with her whole body.
Carter snatched up Ashleign's axe from the ground where she had dropped it, and cleaved in the Infected's skull. He pulled his axe free when the Rottweiler's body went limp. He kicked it out of the gate. As Ashleign went to close it, the second beast forced it open again, catching her off balance. She staggered back, dazed as the edge of the gate caught her in the face. She barely had time to clear her head, before it cornered her, growling.
Carter grabbed it from behind as it jumped for Ashleign, tackling it to the ground.
"Get the gate!" He yelled, as he wrestled the dog monstrosity, struggling to avoid getting bitten.
Ashleign bolted past him, securing the gate just when a third Infected dog came at her. It instead got a face full of wire.
That was close!
Ignoring it, Ashleign returned to help Carter. He had the devil pinned to the ground, but even with his entire eighty-five kilogram body pinning it down, the Infected still trashed around wildly. Ashleign grabbed one of the axes from the ground.
"Greg, move!" She commanded, raising the weapon above her shoulder to strike. He let go and rolled out of the way as the axe came down, with a meaty thud. The Infected yelped then lay still, blood spurting from the wound in its skull. Carter lay on his back for a moment, panting, immediate threat eliminated.
The third dog butted furiously against the chicken wire with its jagged teeth, trying to get at them. Ashleign eyed it nervously as she helped Carter to his feet.
“Are you okay?” She breathed, glancing over him to check for bites or scratches.
“Yeah, it didn’t get me,” he retorted in relief.
He focused on her face as she wiped a hand across her forehead, smearing blood. “But what about you?”
“I caught the gate when the mutt rushed me. I haven’t been bitten,” she replied, seeing his concerned expression.
He nodded, “I’ll take a look at in when we get back inside, but first we have to deal with our friend here,”
The mutt had worked a small hole in the wire and blood dripped from its ripped mouth. Still, it persisted, seemingly oblivious to the damage it had caused itself. As they watched, the beast pulled up a section of the wire, making a hole large enough for it to squeeze its head through. Its shoulders caught and Ashleign strode over, pointedly kicking it in its split muzzle. She felt the teeth grate against her boot, but it couldn’t get a grip so it withdrew its head, growling wetly.
“Let’s get this done,” Carter said, frowning from the coop door. He hefted his axe, readying himself. Ashleign nodded solemnly, taking up position behind the door again. She exhaled sharply, steeling herself for another fight. Carter nodded to her to say that he was ready, and Ashleign pulled the door. The mutt leapt at them immediately, but they knew what to do. Carter brought the axe down as quickly as Ashleign forced the door shut on the dog’s torso. In a brief moment, the third dog fell limp.
Ashleign relaxed her grip on the wire and looked around.
“Why are there only three? Where are the other two?”Carter frowned, scanning the yard.
“Maybe they ran off?” Ashleign shrugged.
“Infected don’t just run off,” Carter tapped the axe against the gate post.
The sound reverberated through the fog. They waited several minutes, but nothing emerged from the front of the house or anywhere else in the yard. They exchanged glances. There was nothing left to do but to leave the coop and face whatever waited for them outside.
Ashleign listened hard to the yard around them, squinting nervously through the soup of fog, as they waded through the grass. She knew Carter was doing the same behind her.
After a few minutes, Ashleign said, “let’s just go back inside, my head hurts,” She clenched her teeth through the onset of the aching in her head.
“I’ll take a look at the cut,” Carter agreed, walking backwards so that he faced back towards the chicken coop.
His eyes scanned the unkempt shrubs that lined the perimeter of the yard. He backed into Ashleign as she had stopped to steady herself against a half dead plum tree. His question died on his lips as he noticed the ghostly pallor of her face.
“You got hit hard, huh?” He slipped an arm around her waist, letting her lean into him.
“Harder than I thought,” Ashleign replied weakly.
Blood still dripped from the gash in her forehead, and as the embrace of adrenaline begun to wear off, the effects of the impact were making themselves apparent. Nausea clawed up her throat, as a wave of dizziness made her stomach churn. She had to work hard not to vomit. She could not afford to lose what little she had eaten.
Carter steered her gently to the access space beneath the house. He was just helping her into the crawl space when a rustle and a low growl behind him, turned the blood to ice in his veins. He slowly glanced over his shoulder, already knowing what it was. He saw the two dog-shaped figures in his peripheral. Had they been waiting for them to turn their backs?
“Ash, get inside,” he urged in a low voice.
“What is it?” Ashleign asked groggily.
“Just go!” Carter pushed her the rest of the way into the crawl space.
At the same time, he threw himself on to his back as one of the mutts rushed him. He kicked it hard in the head as its teeth gnashed at him. He kicked again, this time at the second, brown mutt. It slid back, colliding with the first, giving Carter time to scramble under the house. The two Infected mutts tried to enter after him simultaneously and collided again.
Dazed, it took Ashleign several moments to understand what was happening. She felt Carter tackle her to the ground under the house, then heard a scuffle and snarling. The world spun. Darkness pressed in at he edges of her vision. She was overwhelmed by nausea and this time she couldn’t stop herself.
She wretched in the dirt as Carter crawled up beside her.
“What happened?” She asked, wiping her mouth.
“They picked a perfect time to appear,” Carter retorted, looking at her sympathetically. “Sorry I had to push you, but we had to move in a hurry. They both decided to come at me at once,”
“They’re gone now?"
“Yeah, both dead. This axe is getting a work out, don’t know how much longer it will stay sharp,” he wiped the thick blood off the weapon onto the body of the nearest mutt.
The Infected quivered, growled and suddenly leapt at him, blood still dripping from its wounds. He threw himself back, only just managing to avoid the horrible teeth. The axe tumbled out of his hand, as the Infected flew at him, pinning him to the ground. He shielded his face from the ravenous beast, holding it at bay barely inches from his face. He strained under the weight and sheer force of the mutt, struggling to avoid having his face bitten off.
Momentarily forgetting her poor condition, Ashleign retrieved Carter’s fallen axe. Dizziness muddied her head and she was concerned that she’d miss, but the axe struck true. The axe split the mutt’s head open and the abomination lay still on Carter’s chest, oozing blood. He quickly pushed it off, swearing. He ripped off the soiled shirt off in disgust, letting it fall in the dirt.
“Don’t want that on me,” he screwed up his face. He exhaled sharply, glancing at the now dead Infected.
“Well, that was closer than I wanted,” he commented casually, as if he hadn’t just been looking death in the face.
He turned to Ashleign, who was sitting in the confined space looking pale. “Thank you,”He said earnestly.
“Of course,” she said miserably, but her voice was full on honesty.
“Come on, let’s get you inside,”
They made their way gingerly through the hole in the living room floor, only pausing so that Carter could replace the boards. Once upstairs, he helped Ashleign down onto the sleeping mat. He retrieved the first aid kit from a pocket in the front of his pack and sat opposite her. He handed her his water canteen, insisting she drink. She took a small sip to rinse her mouth. Her stomach protested so she handed it back.
“Keep it,” he said, unzipping the kit, “you should drink,”
“I can’t I feel too sick,” she closed her eyes as the room spun around her.
“I know, but keep sipping as much as you can,”
He took hold of her face, washing the dried blood from her ashen skin as gently as he could with some saline solution. She winced as his fingers brushed her tender forehead.
“It doesn’t look deep. It will be fine,” he dabbed at the cut with some antiseptic and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“Thank you,” Ashleign said as he helped her lie down.
He smiled, but said nothing as he pulled up the ragged blanket around her. She closed her eyes, feeling the rolled up fleece jacket she was using for a pillow, under her aching head.
“Try to get some rest. I’ll go clear those dead mutts from under the house and get some more water,”
“I won’t be long,” he replied, retrieving his axe and mask from the floor. Ashleign watched him leave the room, staring at the open door until his footsteps faded down the stairs.
After some time, another wave of dizziness pulled her from her broken sleep. She noticed Carter sitting propped up against the wall nearby, carving something from a small lump of wood with a stubby knife. He had taken to the hobby in their downtime and had become quite adept at hewing out figures. Ashleign thought about the little horse he had carved her a while back and smiled.
“How long was I asleep?” She asked him, turning on her side to face him.
“Maybe an hour,” he replied, pausing his carving to look at her.
“Are you feeling any better?” He asked.
“A little, my head still hurts, but I’m not feeling so sick anymore,”
“Good. You should drink,” he told her, returning to his carving.
Ashleign watched the small knife scrape flecks of wood onto the floor. Finally she reached for the canteen.
“What are you making this time?”
“What, like those things down there?” She wrinkled her nose.
He frowned up at her. “No, like they were before,” He put his knife on the floor next to him and stared at the wall opposite him, lost in thought. “I grew up with dogs,” he finally said.
“Of course, you were a farm boy,” Ashleign shrugged.
“Yeah, but they were like family to us. They even stayed inside. My Mum always brought strays home. Dad hated it, but eventually she started a small rescue on the side,”
“Oh, I never knew that,” Ashleign smiled.
“Yeah, I don’t talk about family much. It didn’t end well,”
Ashleign nodded and sighed. “Yeah, there was a bit of that going around,”
Carter lifted his eyes to meet hers. “You mentioned your brother before, the one that taught you to hot wire cars?”
“I only have one brother,” she paused. “Well, I did before this. Who knows now?”
“I feel like he’s a sore spot,” Carter observed.
“Yeah, you’d be right. He was always being arrested for something every other week, but he wasn’t the worst of it. Kyle was just a product of his up bringing,”
“My father was an alcoholic, an abusive one. He would beat Mum after one of his all night benders, for something so insignificant as making noise in the kitchen that woke him up. If he caught us watching, he would turn on us. I escaped most of it by hiding, but Kyle took the brunt of it, because he would fight back when he was older. I guess it got to him and petty crime was his outlet,”
“You turned out okay though,” Carter said.
Ashleign half smiled, “I joined the army basically straight out of school. Any bad habits I picked up were soon ironed out,” Carter nodded. “Yeah sounds a bit like me,”
“Why’s that?” Ashleign asked after a few minutes in silence “What happened?”
“Lots of things happened,” he mumbled, “but I guess none of it matters now that everyone is dead,” he shrugged. “I joined because I would probably be dead now if I didn’t,”
“What?” Ashleign stared at him in horror.
“Before all this, the country was in a drought,”
"Still is by the looks of this place,” Ashleign agreed.
“Yeah, well, being a cattle farmer is tough at the best of times, but add a severe shortage of water and a government that didn’t care, and it’s damn near impossible. Add a failed marriage and loneliness to the mix, and you have a broken man,”
Carter sighed heavily, avoiding her gaze. “Having to shoot your cattle because they are too weak to stand and sell off the others because you can’t keep them, is not easy. He was never one to talk much about how he felt, and it finally got too much for Mum. I don’t really blame her,.but not so long after that, I found Dad had hung himself from the old oak out behind the house,” He lapsed into silence and Ashleign didn't press for more.
She watched him staring at a spot on the wall and felt despair wash over her. She was so caught up in her own family problems that she failed to think that there could be worse things. She was about to speak, to offer some sort of apology, when Carter spoke first.
"Mum had threatened to leave on several occasions for reasons I don't remember, it never phased him that much. He'd just take me and my brother out on the farm and come back and she'd be there again,"
"No, I don’t think it was Mum. I think he could have dealt with that. But, when Mum left, she took all the rescue dogs with her and I chose to stay with the dogs. My brother, Cameron, had already moved away to live closer to his would-be wife. We all left him. I think it was that loneliness that tipped him over the edge. I realized that too late. I was going to tell him I was moving back when I found him,"
"I couldn't live with the knowledge that I might have been in part responsible for his actions. I needed a purpose, or I would have gone the same way as Dad. There were plenty of times that I seriously thought of it. I was in a bad place. Joining the army gave me the distraction I needed,"
After a long moment, he added, "Perhaps training to improve myself would help me to forget how I failed him,"
They lapsed into a long, uncomfortable silence, neither offering words. Ashliegn's thoughts turned to her frail mother, who before the outbreak had been in a care home. What her fate had been after that, she could only guess. After they realized that the rest of the surrounding areas suffered the same as Perth, all hope of finding her alive, fled. As for the rest of her family, she couldn't even begin to imagine where they were. For all intents and purposes, they were dead. She had to find a way to accept that, even as she was powerless to stop the knot of despair from growing in her stomach at the thought of never seeing anyone she loved, ever again.
After what felt like eternety, Ashliegn's head had finally begun to clear, and she could sit up without the room spinning around her. She suddenly found herself contemplating how they came to be here. She remembered that after they decided that the built up areas around the coast were best avoided, they begun East, only to find that the further they went inland, the more arid it became. Eventually it would turn to desert, there was nothing for them that way. They knew that the coast meant cities, and cities meant a concentration of Infected, but also a wealth of resources they couldn't hope to find inland; food, water, shelter. With their scarce water and food rations they would never survive if their path continued East.
Their decision to circle back around Perth, while giving the dead city a wide berth, and head for the West coast, had been unanimous. It had taken several slow weeks, in which they fought both Infected and human foes daily, to get to the place they now took refuge.
Their abandoned farmhouse lodgings was in a small, dusty, rural town South-East of Perth, that had lost it's name with the passage of time. They judged it to be some one hundred and twenty kilometres from the coast, and so far, it had been relatively quiet. It seemed a good shelter and they found it at a time where their water rations had basically run dry.
They had been lucky to find a place with a half full rain water tank and a kitchen well stocked with canned goods. There, they lived for nearly two weeks without much disturbance, in a place free of infectious spores. Which, for them, was a very good thing. Ashleign shuddered as she thought of them.
They had learned quickly that being bitten, wasn’t the only way one could be infected. When the infection within a host entirely took over, it would turn into a sort of fleshy pod that existed only as a vector for releasing spores. These spores would then be spread by wind and when breathed in, would cause further infection, with an incubation period of minutes to hours, varying between hosts.
In the early days, Ashleign and Carter found a small group of survivors who had a settlement, no more than a village of tents and tarps propped up by poles. They had stayed for a while, found it comfortable and affable, even improving on their security by erecting a string line of steel cans around their encampment to act as an alarm system.
They never knew about the spore pods in the dry river bed a kilometre from their camp.
After some weeks, there had been a vicious wind storm and a few hours later, their settlement was lost to the fine particles that spread readily on the wind. The spores found their way into the respiratory system of their compatriots and got to work on their bodies.
It begun with irritable behaviour that quickly devolved into uncontrollable trembling and chaotic convulsions. Blood soon erupted from the mouth, nose and eyes. Then, the victim seemed to take on a whole new, vicious and powerful demeanour, as if they had been possessed by a demon. Their outwards appearance changed dramatically, into a deformed, disturbing countenance that only slightly resembled their former self.
Ashleign and Carter only avoided a similar fate because they happened to be away from the camp at that time, collecting water from a nearby creek, with the wind blowing away from them.
They returned to find a horrific and bloody tableau. Using shreds of cloth to cover their mouth and nose to stop the spores from infecting them, they fought off the abominations that had once been amicable companions, and fled.
They eventually found the remains of the pods, broken open by a tree branch that had fallen in the wind storm.
They decided from that point on, staying away from large groups of people was best. Not that there had been a lot of other survivors after that. Those they did encounter, were less than friendly, often hostile.
Nothing like the break down of society to bring out humanity's true colours, Ashleign thought, as she glanced at Carter opposite her. He had his eyes closed as if sleeping, but she knew he was likely dwelling on what he had previously divulged to her. She certainly would be herself.
She sighed before standing slowly, making her way to where he sat. She wrapped an arm around him and rested her head on his broad shoulder. He opened his steel blue eyes to regard her. Ashleign immediately saw what she knew to be pain. The first glimpse of it he had let her see. He had hidden it expertly behind his brash bravado and it finally cracked. She kissed him lightly on his cheek and they sat in silence for a long time.
The next few days passed without trouble. It was relatively comfortable, but their food had all but run out, save a few tins of chickpeas that neither of them relished eating. They used up all the non-perishable food that had been left in the old kitchen, and had taken to cooking over the open fire place in the living room, as the last of the butane gas for the camp stove had run out as well. They would need to find more food soon and based on the lack of buildings that had been left untouched in the small town, it was unlikely they would find anything of value.
The only grocery store they had seen in the area had been ransacked long ago, and had nothing but dust and miscellaneous junk to offer. Indeed, many of the houses had been gutted by a large fire that had at some point came through the town. All that was left was blackened bones.
"Where should we go?" Ashleign asked one morning, as she shared a tin of cold baked beans with Carter.
He thought for a moment, then pulled his pack toward him, retrieving a well thumbed map of Western Australia from a front pocket.
Unfolding it, he said, "I believe we are here," he touched a name on the map that meant nothing to Ashleign.
"If we go South-East, there's another slightly larger town here," he traced his finger across the map, "where we can look for food and shelter, maybe hold up for a while if there's no trouble,"
He gestured to a blue smear on the paper that denoted a lake. "And there's a good water source nearby," He sighed. "There's nothing else for us here. I reckon we should leave first thing in the morning,”
Ashleign nodded. "We should check that creepy old shed before we leave. There might be something useful, a melee weapon or something,"
The next morning just as the sun peeked over the horizon, the pair set out after packing their meagre supplies. In the back corner of the fenced yard, past the chicken coop, there was a decrepit stone shed that they had avoided until now. Its walls were painted in an off white colour that had flaked off in large patches, revealing the bare grey stone underneath. The corrugated iron roof was a mess of rust and had partially collapsed in the middle, where a carpet of ivy spreading up from an overgrown garden, had further weakened the metal.
Ashleign followed Carter up to the rough wood door. Glancing around nervously, she waited as he tested the wrought iron handle. He slowly pushed the door inwards and they were immediately hit with the musty smell of old leather and decaying plant matter.
Carter paused for a moment, wondering if he actually wanted to step inside. He opened the door wide, illuminating the contents with day light.
As he took a step inside, something in the raw timber rafters stirred and made a commotion. Carter stumbled back in panic before he realized that several small black birds had taken up residence in the quiet shed and had taken fright at their intrusion.
He worked to calm his frayed nerves, shooting Ashleign an apologetic expression over his shoulder. She nodded, tapping him on his shoulder. He stepped slowly inside, ducking under a dusty, long abandoned spider's web. By all appearances, the shed had been used as an overflow storage of miscellaneous junk and broken furniture. Ashleign glanced around with curiosity as she walked around a rough wood table, piled high with old cracked leather goods, plough harness and saddles.
"Ah, these might come in handy," Carter said, drawing her attention. He was holding up a large meat hook in one hand and an ancient looking claw trap with years of rust over its surface. Ashleign studied the wicked looking teeth, wondering how many creatures it had tortured in its time.
"We need to clean some of this rust off, but we could get ourselves some fresh game,"
Ashleign screwed up her face into a scowl.
"Hey, we don't have the option of being picky anymore. It's either this or live on cold baked beans if anything. At least we have a decent chance to eat this way,"
She sighed, "I know. I was campaigning against the use of these things when I was in high school. Old habits die hard, and all that,"
"I didn't have you marked as a greenie," Carter remarked, stowing the hook and trap in his pack that he had dumped near the door.
"I wasn't really, but things this inhumane shouldn't exist,"
Carter shrugged. "Yeah well, I'm not entirely sure the word humane, even exists anymore, this being the end of the world," “The end of the world doesn’t mean we have to be assholes,” Ashleign mused, as she rummaged through a pile of hardened leather scraps.
She picked up a long piece and studied it, thinking she might be able to fashion it into bite protection for her forearms. She slipped it into her pack as something in the far, shadowy corner, caught her eye. She glanced at Carter who was digging through an old wardrobe with missing doors.
"Talk about hoarding," he said to no one in particular, pulling out garbage bags of old clothing that should have been taken to charity years ago. "But, they might come in handy. We could tear these into strips to use as bandages,"
onsly half listening, Ashleign walked slowly towards the source of her new interest, with an odd sense of foreboding chilling her blood. She frowned at the strange lump and found herself gripping her axe a little tighter.
In the gloom, she wasn't quite sure what she was looking at. It first appeared to be just another pile of junk covered by some sort of red material, but as she drew closer, she noticed long, worm-like growths projecting up the stone wall and on to the ceiling.
Then she realized what it was was; not a pile of junk, but a heavily infected corpse, with the infection growing up the wall. Its features were completely obscured, forming a solid mass that only vaguely resembled a human figure.
She scrambled backwards, fumbling for her respirator. In her panic, she knocked over the stack of leather scraps that clattered noisily to the floorboards, making Carter whip around to face her.
Ashleign didn't hear him. She was too busy trying to fit her mask over her face with trembling hands.
He took a step in her direction.
"No, don't come over here!"she yelled at him.
"What is it?" He asked again.
Ashleign gestured to the abomination in the corner. Carter frowned and took out his flashlight, pointing it where she indicated. His face paled. "Shit,”
They both immediately knew what it was.
“I’ve never seen one like that before,” Carter said, peering up at the long, horrendous appendages that reached up the wall. “Must have been here a long time,” His curiosity seemed to override his disgust and he took a few tentative steps closer. He pulled on his own mask and stopped just in front of it, despite Ashliegn's protests.
"Poor bastard must have been the owner of this place," he said calmly. "That would explain why there was so much food inside, he was stock piling and didn't have the chance to use it,”
“Glad it’s still in one piece,” Ashleign added. “Let’s go before something happens to it. We both know how easy these things break,”
Carter nodded quickly.
As if somehow prompted by her words, the birds they had startled earlier, chose that moment to launch into the air from the roof, knocking debris through the hole in the iron. Plant litter, sticks and dust rained down on them, and to their horror, the spore pod. The jagged end of a large stick fell onto the pod and tore a small gash in the fleshy membrane. An all too familiar inky black cloud, like a puff of smoke, drifted past them into the air. Ashleign watched as it wafted slowly towards the open door in horror, thankful for her mask.
"We have stayed here way too long," she remarked in a quivering voice, muffled by her mask. She looked back over her shoulder, watching the cloud of spores float on the breeze above the paddocks.
They retreated hastily from the damned shed, abandoning their search for supplies and hurried back towards the house. They would put some distance between them and the property then stop when it was safe, to figure out their next move. Maybe head to one of the other towns they had located on the map.
Ashleign pulled her water canteen from the pocket on the side of her pack and was about to take a sip when Carter pushed her hastily into the side of the house, sloshing the precious water over her. "What the-" she begun to protest when Carter quickly silenced her.
“Listen,” he breathed in barely a whisper.
Ashleign stopped. Immediately, she heard the low growl of a diesel engine and the crunch of gravel under tyres.
The last thing they wanted now was to encounter people. People were as dangerous as the Infected, potentially more so. With the Infected, if was always one thing; kill. With people, it was never clear. They could pretend to be friendly, until they decided otherwise, then turn hostile.
They had experienced this when they had shared their supplies with another lone traveller. He seemed amicable enough at fist, until he tried to stab Carter in the back with Carter’s own knife that he leant him to cut up some dried meat. Instead of sharing it with them, the man decided he wanted to take all of their supplies for himself.
Ever since, Ashleign had hated people. She wasn’t about to let that happen again.
She glanced quickly at Carter, who was intently watching the front corner of the house. “Come on, lets see who they are,”
Author Notes: It's taken me quite a while to write this, as I have struggled with motivation....again, but I seemed to have found the writing spark again and I hope to continue writing this story, as I am looking forward to seeing where it will go from here. As always, I hope you enjoy!