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The Dead Have Ruled Earth For 200 Years



1

 

            Dix was listening to The Pink Cure’s “Dark Side of Dissolution” as they made planetfall. He’d never heard it before. In fact, he hadn’t listened to a lot of Paleo-Earth music in his life. He remembered hearing Michael Jackson, Mozart, Beethoven, Wham, and of course Elvis, in school and at the formal parties, but he had never spent any quiet time with the ancient songs. The accents were strange and he didn’t understand some of the words, but as he listened to Dark Side he was surprised at how personal it sounded.

When the singer sang about time, Dix found himself in the words. He had wasted most of his life “In a careless way.” He didn’t know what “frittering” was, but he knew what it was to “waste his heartbeats in a careless way.”

It took almost two hours for his suit to drop him down through the radiation, and into the brightly colored clouds of the old world’s sky. He had to turn up his helmet’s shading to keep the sun’s light from blinding him. The album repeated twice in his suit before the robotic feet touched the surface of the paleo-homeworld. By that time he was thinking what a shame it was that no other recordings by that singer had survived. Could there be any more on the surface of the planet itself again after all that time?

“Home, going home again,” the primitive musician sang sadly, like it was both what he badly wanted and yet also something he was afraid of.

The night before re-entry, Dix had watched two old Paleo-Earth films. The first was a big and exciting movie about some imaginary aliens attacking Paleo-Earth. He had really enjoyed that one. The second was a documentary about small black and white flightless birds called penguins who lived in the ice and snow. He was amazed as he saw how the baby birds were able to find their fathers out of crowds of hundreds of birds. They knew their parents and found their way to them simply by instinct. He wondered if he would get to see a Penguin while he was on the planet.

He removed the shading from his helmet right away so he could see where he was. The wretched dead were already coming at him. The voice in his head told him that an estimated four hundred infected were approaching. Up above he could see Greg and Anya were still descending. Dix activated the automated turrets on his shoulders and authorized them to begin their passive defense cycle. The internal speakers adjusted themselves to muffle the sound from the gunfire, but all the same he could hear the screaming. It was far louder and higher pitched than in the simulations.

Anya’s suit came down on top of the horde. Arms and leg-bones snapped and cracked beneath her. A head burst like a balloon filled with red and black fluid.

“I fell asleep!” she laughed. “I actually fell asleep for about a half-hour on the way down. Can you believe it?”

Her turrets roared into action. Bursts of light exploded from the barrels until she turned her unit towards the monsters. The voice in Dix’s head updated the numbers of the approaching infected down to 190. That meant they had already destroyed more than two hundred of them. His cannon began its warm-up cycle in case one of the compound creatures found them.

“Why are there so damn many of them?” Greg’s voice was quiet as he touched down. His suit was almost toppled by the unsteady footing of the corpses beneath him. They had already begun wriggling and attempting to reform. He steadied himself. “There can’t have been this many humans on Earth, and it’s been so long.”

“Where are we?” Anya asked.

“The system is still calculating. I think we’re somewhere in France, maybe Berlin?”

It was just getting dark. Where the sun was dipping beyond the horizon, great billowing purple and black clouds were interrupted by the orange and red of a sky thick with pollutants. Having never been on a planet with a full atmosphere before, Dix and Anya were in awe of the sight before them. As their suites mowed down the last of the initial wave, it was the sky they kept their eyes on.

A splash of infected fluid coated Dix’s screen momentarily, but the system automatically hit it with a high-level burst to evaporate the liquid. If he had blinked, he would have missed it.

“Berlin wasn’t in France.” Greg corrected her. “Berlin was its own country.”

“Does it matter?” Dix snorted. “That’s a little like debating what part of the jungle was owned by what monkeys.”

Greg’s voice cracked in shock, “Monkeys? Dix, if the Paleo-Humans were so dumb and we were so smart, then what are the three of us doing here? They invented all kinds of things that have never been duplicated.”

“They made the virus,” Dix argued.

“Yeah, they made good and bad things; that’s what you get to do when you’re more advanced than we are.” Greg sounded like a professor lecturing his students. Dix hated when he did that, mostly because he got the feeling that Anya liked it. He got sick and tired of Greg acting like he was smarter than everyone.

The monsters had stopped advancing. The three invaders could see a few stragglers wandering back and forth, limping, crawling, and staggering, but none of them were moving with any purpose or heading towards the three humans anymore. The automated systems in their suites reflexively took samples of the mutated flesh beneath their feet. The air was tested and recorded. None of the infected biological or environmental material was actually kept, or would be taken off-world, but it was tested. Great care was taken to make sure that none of the diseases on Earth might escape with the team. They would only take what was essential with them when they left, and the suits would be sterilized before anyone was allowed out.

“They don’t seem that dangerous, do they?” Anya said, meaning the dead.

“I don’t think you’d feel the same without our suits.” Greg replied.

“Yeah, but I mean, why don’t we just wipe them out? If a couple hundred of us came down here I bet we could mow them all down in a couple of weeks. I mean, I dunno. How big is the world? How many of them are there?”

“The Earth is very big. It’s larger than the Mars and people used to live everywhere. Beyond that, the infected have babies a lot more often than humans do, so there are more of them now than there were people living here in pre-history.”

 Dix’s turrets started automatically firing again at the wriggling mass beneath them. He added, “And they don’t stay dead. Half of the ones we just flattened will be up and moving again.”

“Maybe in just a few minutes,” Greg agreed.

A woman came suddenly running towards them. The light hit her face just so that all three of the explorers got a nice clear look at her. Her skin was pink and clean and smooth. Not only didn’t she look infected, but she was beautiful. “Like a movie star,” Anya thought to herself.

But the turrets fired at her automatically and her body was ripped this way and that from the different guns. Her torso was torn to soup and the red liquid painted the ground beneath her to a distance of maybe five meters. Her torn mouth opened and she looked like she was screaming, though no sound was picked up over the guns.

“Oh My Paleo-God!” Anya gasped.

“Was she alive?” Dix shouted loudly and accusingly into the speakers. He stung his friends’ ears. If they could have, they would have cupped their hands over their ears. Greg did raise his arm halfway, as if trying to do just that.

“My God. My ancient God!” Anya continued. “Do these systems scan to make sure we aren’t killing any pure humans?”

“That’s impossible,” Greg replied. His voice was adult and skeptical. “There hasn’t been an uninfected human on Earth in over two hundred years. Some of them are more obvious that others, but you can be sure she was a monster, just like all the rest. Wait a bit, and her bits will start to move again, just like all the others.”

“Yeah, but there’s no time for that.” Dix stated the obvious.

They set up a beacon at their landing position, to make it easier for them to return to the ship, which was waiting for them up in orbit. There weren’t any more attacks while they locked the beacon in place, but as they finished, Dix used the telescopic function to see farther into the city. Hundreds of infected were beginning to make their way towards them.

 The three suits lifted up off of the ground and soared in an arc to a new position two kilometers away from the drop point. It might have once been an outdoors eating area, either a part of a restaurant or a park. There was a building nearby. It had collapsed beyond the point where they could easily see what it had once been. Two figures were laying on the benches and another four or five were walking around aimlessly in the general area. As they landed, the locals began screaming and contorting their faces. One of them managed to get close enough that he actually wrapped his teeth around the metal of Greg’s suit. One of the figures lying on the benches never got up at all. It appeared to be already destroyed. The automated defenses turned the other infected to juice and streamers before the people in the suits even got a good look at them.

Greg took a moment to replay the visual at half speed. The looks on their faces were horrible. He’d never seen anyone so spastically angry. He couldn’t help but think it was a good thing to end them. No one should have to feel so much pain. He took a moment to set the remains on fire, to make sure that these ones didn’t reform. He regretted not thinking of doing it to the initial horde.

“How far are we?” Anya asked. She said it like she was asking both of them, but Dix understood that the question was really meant for Greg. He would have paid more attention to the briefing.

“We don’t know the exact location. It should be possible to find it in one of the larger cities.

“Right, but only the ones which were more advanced are likely to still have any,” Anya corrected.

“Right, if it’s still anywhere.” Greg sounded professorial.

“Is fire the only way to permanently destroy them?” Anya asked Greg.

“No,” Dix answered. “If you put enough bullets in them, sometimes they will get up and sometimes they won’t. Like that pile of bodies from before? Maybe half of them are wriggling by now and they will eventually get up and start shambling. The other half will stay dead. There’s no reason to it. You can shoot ‘em in the head or the heart or the stomach and they’re just as likely each time.”

“That’s right, Dix. They say that in tests there have been some infected that have been killed a dozen or more times and keep getting up. A few fall down the first time. While no one is sure why, Cohen’s theory is that the difference is the willpower of the infected. He wrote that they had to want it.”

“Didn’t Ledwell hypothesize that the difference was who the infected were when they were alive?” Dix showed off his knowledge.

But Greg laughed softly, “No one credible believes that. And really it doesn’t make any sense when you think about it. When a baby is born infected, what kind of a person was she before she was born?”

Dix frowned, but didn’t answer. In the distance he saw a female figure shambling along. This one looked like a classic corpse. He magnified the visual. Half of the skin on her face was missing and the muscle beneath it was visible. It looked like she had a crack in her front incisor. She walked with a limp, and her neck was bent at a hard angle to the concrete below. She had once been wearing some kind of a business suit, but the front of it had been torn open as if someone had done it specifically to get at her breasts. The left nipple was framed by a ripped baby-blue bra cup. Her areola looked pink and healthy and normal.

She was beyond the range of the automatic turrets, so he reached for the hand cannon and took aim at her. Moments later she was caught in an explosion powerful enough to tear a crater in the street below her. The woman was disintegrated in a white burst of flame. Pebbles began to fall from the sky.

“Shit, Dix!” Warn a girl?” Anya barked at him.

“Sorry,” He barely pronounced. He kept his eye on the spot where the woman had been standing. There was a deep hole in the street. He could see one of her legs. It lay there, gently burning like a darkening marshmallow, not showing any sign of moving ever again.

He felt a little better.

 

The three suits marched right into the center of town. They were too wide to walk more than two abreast, so they went one at a time instead. Dix went first. Anya was in the center and Greg followed behind. As they walked, Greg started to tell them about the buildings and structures they were passing. He pointed out which vehicles were cars and which were “taxis.” He explained the difference between a restaurant and a supermarket.

The three of them stopped and gasped when a flock of a hundred or more black birds flew over their heads. None of them had ever seen an animal outside of captivity. A single one of those animals would be worth more than any town back on the Mars. To see them flying free and un-captured, un-owned, was like seeing diamonds and precious nuggets used for pavement.

“How come they get to live on Paleo-Earth still?” Dix asked rhetorically.

“The disease is limited to humans and a few primate species,” Greg explained.

“I know that. I just mean, it isn’t fair. I have to pay my air bill every month. They just fly through it like it’s water. I just mean it isn’t fair.”

“It’s their world now,” Anya’s voice sounded like she was smiling. She said it like she thought it was beautiful that the world belonged to the birds.

Dix would rather it belonged to people, people like him.

The voice in his head warned Dix that one of the larger infected was approaching from in front and below. It must be in the “subway.” He had read all about the vast train systems that ran underneath all of the Paleo-Earth cities.

The three explorers stopped and braced themselves for the fight. They prepared their suits’ real guns, the manual ones. So far, only Dix had used his cannon since they landed. The monster began breaking through the road before Anya’s gun was finished cycling on, so Dix and Greg had to start the battle without her.

When the infected flesh lost its shape, it was usually pretty good at returning to a reasonable approximation of what it had been previously. If an infected man’s arm was cut off, that arm would find its way back to its body. If his head was crushed, then the cells would attempt to reconstruct the face and teeth and hair and look like the person they had used to be. But sometimes it went wrong. Sometimes the reconstructing cells would get carried away and try to build something out of the cells of more than one person. During the evacuation there were reports of more than fifty people being joined together into a single compound nightmare being. One of the bigger monsters could have any number of parts, dozens of arms and legs, heads. Sometimes the extra cells would assemble into giant parts. There was a report of a head once as large as a car supported by more legs than a centipede. Double-sized arms or feet were not unusual. Rarely, the ancestral memories of the cells would activate and vestigial tails, flippers, and other useless body parts would also come into the mix.

Never the mind though, all those many confused cells had never managed to create a brain capable of anything more than anger and hunger.

This monster stood at about ten feet. Three torsos had grown together. Where they met, a pair of useless withered legs hung down, thin, hairy, almost skeletal. They were like children’s legs by comparison. A beating mass which looked like it was trying to remember what shape a head was sat on the top. It was wet and glistening. What looked like a couple of dozen pink and brown tails hung from the forehead. There were no primary eyes or nose or mouth, although random human sized ones were visible sporadically throughout the body. It wasn’t clear which, if any of those, were functional. Did all of the various minds link up, or were there multiple people in the monster wrestling for control?

One giant arm and fist stood out, perfectly formed and as long as the body was tall. The nails were dark and extended. Stone could be seen caught underneath one of them. A dozen or more dark and hairy rats escaped from the underworld as the monster emerged. The rodents look terrified. They looked more like panicked victims than diseased vermin.

It took a good ten seconds of firing for the infected mass to fall back down into the underground and break up into its individuals.

“Damn! Why was that so hard?” Dix asked rhetorically.

“The compound infected were always unusually sturdy and dense. Their secretions have unusual properties, which are very different than the single subjects,” Greg answered.

Anya’s suit moved forward a few paces, so that she could peer down the hole. Another rodent emerged, no less terrified than the ones who had come before. “What’s down there?”

“That’s the subway,” Dix answered.

“Actually, it looks like the sewer system,” Greg corrected him. “They used to run water beneath the streets to carry their excretions away.”

“The infected?” Dix asked, repulsed.

“No, the regular paleo-humans. We’d probably still do it on the Mars if it was practical. The method worked fine for hundreds of years.”

“It doesn’t seem very sanitary,” Anya turned her nose up. “But I guess they couldn’t sterilize it back then.”

“That’s right. It was actually after we left Earth that we figured that trick out. We had to if we were going to rebuild the population with limited resources.”

Dix was getting sick of Greg showing him up and thinking he was smarter than he was, but he kept quiet.

They marched into the city center facing only minimal opposition. Their guns tore the undead apart and their heavy metal feet crushed over the wriggling pieces. A part of Dix couldn’t help but think of them as people. He understood that the disease destroyed their minds. He’d read about it and seen the films. The infected were nothing but hungry animated flesh. They weren’t human, but they looked it. As hard as he was, Dix couldn’t help but grimace as the bullets sunk into the flesh of what looked like men and women. It was easier when their faces were flushed with anger, when they looked evil. But not all of them did. Many of the infected looked quiet and peaceful. Some didn’t even look up as his suit mowed them down, as their skin burst and they broke open.

It bothered him more than he expected. He kept that to himself too.

Greg led them to the hospital. Anya and Dix positioned themselves around him to defend while Greg took some time to scan the area. He had to find out if what they were looking for was there, and if it was, what entrance they needed to use.

He asked the voice in his head to play the Paleo-Earth album again. It made the violence seem less real when it was scored. He could pretend he was in a movie-game instead of really being on Earth itself and blowing up real people. But after a few songs, it began to have the opposite effect. The lyrics were about the passage of time, getting older and closer to death. He felt like the words were written only to be played right then, to talk to him about what he was doing. He turned it off again.

 

“Do you wish we could stay?” Anya suddenly asked.

“What do you mean? Now?” Dix replied.

“I guess. I mean, wouldn’t it be better to have a whole planet? Wouldn’t it be better if we could go outside sometimes?”

Her question was ridiculous. “I guess, but then we’d have all the dead trying to eat us all the time.”

“I mean if we could kill them first.”

“Well then yeah, of course. Who wouldn’t want to live on Paleo-Earth? You know, it’s funny.”

“What?” Anya asked.

“You’d think that our living in outer-space would mean that we were freer and our lives were more…open. There’s so much space down here. Not even the governors get the kind of living space the paleo-humans had.”

Anya laughed.

“What?” Dix asked.

Living space? Dix, Earth is beautiful. We’ve lost a lot more than living space.”

In the distance, Dix saw more monsters moving towards them. He adjusted his suit’s stance to make it easier for the automatic guns to get a bead on them when they drew a little closer.

“I’d like to see an elephant,” Dix said, almost just to himself, but the mic was on. “They say there might be some still in the wild. No one knows.”

Anya laughed. “They’re probably extinct. I read they were probably all extinct.”

“Nobody knows, so they might still be alive. Even if there aren’t elephants there would be lots of different animals. Maybe there are a few bears or lions or rhinos? I’d love to meet a rhino.”

“He’d eat you,” Anya teased.

“I taste horrible,” Dix smiled as he answered. Just at that moment his guns roared back to life firing into the undead, the infected.

“Tell them!” Anya whispered over the microphone.

 

It was just a few moments later that Greg finished his scan. “Alright. It isn’t here, but I found out where it probably is. They used to have a facility in Kentucky, in America. I ran a boost through the old outernet signal and a got a response. The systems were unintelligible, but on.”

“So, the power there is on?” Anya asked.

“That seems to follow,” Greg confirmed.

“How could that be after all this time?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be cheap, but they had the technology. You probably won’t find a dozen buildings on the planet with the lights still on, but this one is still pinging,” Dix answered

“Were there a lot of infected in Kentucky?” Dix asked.

Greg’s voice suggested he thought it was a stupid question. “Kentucky is in America, so yes. There were a lot of infected in America.”


End Chapter One. Full story available soon on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and everywhere you wanna be!

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