This is a short story I wrote last year that I hope you will enjoy. It’s 1700 words or so – short enough to be read over a cup of coffee!
At the end of the world, there is a zombie outbreak on a refugee ship. Adam is bitten and falls overboard, beginning a long walk to redemption…
The flight deck echoed with a cacophony of sudden, deafening noise and movement. Breathless, direction-less panic. Scattered shots ringing out. The screaming of the terrified; sobbing children howling for their parents; warning shouts from the crew.
The frenzied feeding of the infected.
Nowhere was safe. This former-warship-turned-refugee-lifeboat had put half an ocean between the living and the infected. It wasn’t enough.
Adam grabbed his young son, sweeping him up into his chest with one arm and running for the lifeboats, joining a crush of people with the same goal. “Just hold tight to me, Joey. Keep your eyes closed, and hold me tight.” Joey cried pitifully, gasping, but held fast to his father, eyes screwed shut, head nestled into his chest. Adam elbowed and fought his way forward. They were almost to the raft, when a group of infected attacked them from the side, biting, scratching, savaging. The crowd scattered in blind terror.
Adam and Joey were thrown to the floor, the crowded deck slippery with fresh blood. Adam scrambled to his feet without releasing his grip on his son. Two infected grabbed him from behind, one biting him on his shoulder, teeth tearing through shirt and flesh. Adam screamed in agony, as the other grabbed at Joey, scratching him across his face and drawing blood, the child howling in fear and pain. The father lashed out, punching them away with his free hand, before another one attacked, driving them towards the edge of the ship. More appeared, an advancing wall of snapping teeth and grabbing hands. Edging backwards towards the raft at the edge of the boat, he half-slipped again, and another surge pushed father and son overboard, into the freezing cold water of the Atlantic.
They hit the water hard. Joey slipped from his grasp on impact, and vanished beneath the surface, with no time to reach for his father, or even to cry out.
The shock of the cold water jolted Adam. “Joey. Joey!” he shouted, frantic. He dived under the water, searching for his son, coming up for air at intervals. Others were falling overboard now, living and infected, the ocean foaming as their battles continued into the water, a handful of brave souls trying desperately to rescue those going under. Adam dived again and again, going deeper each time; utter panic setting in, heart pounding manically. He gulped in air at each brief return to the surface. He dived again, deeper this time, deep as he dared. Out of air, he made for the surface to take a relieving breath. One of the infected floated right past him, still snapping underwater. Adam gasped, shocked, taking in a mouthful of filthy, salty water.
He scrabbled and flailed instinctively, trying to climb a ladder that wasn’t there. With one final, fruitless scramble, he succumbed, and was still. Wrapped in death’s warm embrace, he floated slowly and serenely into the silence below.
Later, Adam woke on the sea floor in total darkness. He arched his back as his body convulsed in agony, every limb and muscle and sinew on fire. He would have roared in agony, but his mouth and lungs were full of water. The spasm passed, and Adam felt no pain. He felt completely numb, oblivious to the dense freezing water around him. The darkness had enveloped him; he lifted his hand up in front of his face, but could not see it. Yet he felt no fear, or panic. Only one impulse remained: feed.
He rose to his feet and started walking, direction irrelevant. Every stride was slow and measured, against resistance from the water. He had a flicker of memory of swimming, and tried to use his arms to propel himself forwards, but lacked the co-ordination. He shambled forward, unsteadily, through the abyss, stumbling over unseen obstacles, rocks and bones and decay.
He walked for a long time in the dark, taking one slow step after another. Days, weeks, months passed. Adam kept moving forward, seeking food. He never paused, never needed to sleep or rest, never felt fatigued, as the hunger drove him onwards. Time had no meaning in the deep. There was only the search.
Occasionally, Adam sensed something crawling or swimming past his face, and his jaws would automatically snap in that general direction. Sometimes, this resulted in an impromptu, if small, meal. More often, the curious creature would escape unharmed.
Sometimes half a memory would pop into his head, before vanishing again, like a bubble popping as you cup it in your hands.
He walked over a mountain, rising slowly from sea floor to summit. At the peak, the water became light enough to see some of the creatures who shared his space. Glowing and sparkling with luminescence, the more he looked, the more life he saw, in every direction around him. He stopped and simply stared for a long time.
Hunger drove him on again, jaws snapping at a passing fish. Having crossed the ridge, he tumbled down the mountain slope, losing his footing on some unstable rocks. He fell awkwardly, leaving his right foot at right angles to the ankle joint, but felt no pain. He hauled himself back to his feet and continued making progress, one small step after another, shuffling onwards through the black.
He walked on. Days turned into more weeks, more years. If he focused now, he could catch one of those bubbles of memory, and hold onto it for just a few seconds. As long as the bubble held, he remembered feelings, thoughts. Loss. The bubbles became stronger as time passed, old neural pathways rebuilding themselves.
He remembered his name. “Adam,” he mouthed.
Then he remembered Joey.
He sat on the ocean floor in impenetrable darkness, and did not move for a long time.
Then the hunger lifted him to his feet and on again.
He came across a geothermal vent. Illuminated by the hot magma, he stared at the beautiful black clouds of smoke glowing in the gloom. He walked towards it, holding his right hand over one of the flumes. The skin melted away instantly. Adam retracted his hand slowly. He stood and watched the creatures huddled around the warmth of this fire, holding his skeletal hand with his left.
He walked for many more days, the water becoming lighter around him as he ascended into the twilight zone. He saw silvery shoals of bizarre and beautiful fish, dancing effortlessly through the water. He heard the love songs of whales, diving in the deep. He saw the twinkling lights of bioluminescent creatures all around him. Such beauty, such wonders.
He reached out to touch the light of a passing anglerfish. The fish bit into his left hand, assuming he was prey, and did not let go. Adam studied the fish for a few moments before biting it in half, feeding on its life blood.
With every fish that he ate, he felt another sliver of humanity return. He started to think.
Is that the answer? Time, and fish?
In the faint half-light at the bottom of the ocean, he became aware of another infected nearby, wearing the remnants of an orange lifejacket, no longer providing any buoyancy. She saw Adam, and followed him. Adam studied her decomposing face for a sign of intelligence, a sign of life, but saw none.
Time and fish.
They walked on. Other infected joined them on their long march, forming a slow herd all heading in a common direction. Some had obviously been in the water for a long time. Their clothes had rotted away, and fish and other creatures had attacked their skin, leaving them decrepit, skeletal, but still driven by the hunger.
Adam taught them how to catch anglerfish, demonstrating his technique of allowing the fish to bite your arm before devouring them.
The silent army grew.
They marched on. They could now tell when the sun was high in the sky, and when the moon was dominant. As the sun set one night, Adam felt something brush his hand. He looked down, and saw an infected child pulling at his hand.
Time and fish.
The child had been in the water for some time. Whole sections of skin were missing from its face and scalp. Even its gender was impossible to judge, and its clothes were ragged, in tatters. Its eyes were cold and lifeless, but the child pulled again.
He held the child’s hand, and they walked on together.
As the world got lighter, Adam could hear strange noises in the water, an intermittent pinging following them day and night. He did not understand, but marvelled at the return of regular sound after so long in silence, his senses alive.
Fish proved trickier to catch at this depth. Some of the infected would work together, corralling the fish so others could feed. Crabs were a good source of food, as the infected felt no pain as the crabs tried in vain to defend themselves with snapping claws. Techniques were refined and shared by demonstration across the group, quieting the hunger temporarily.
Maybe we can co-exist.
They fed, and they grew, walking onwards, Adam and the child holding hands.
Another cycle of night and day passed, and Adam felt the sea floor tilt upwards. They had reached the shore! Stepping from the water, Adam experienced a moment of pure bliss as the sunlight of a bright spring morning fell upon his face for the first time in many years. Hope welled within him. He felt ten feet tall.
He never heard the first bullet zip through his skull, or the thousand that followed at his companions.
“Captain, we’ve engaged the super-herd. They’ve started to emerge from the water,” the young officer calmly reported over the radio, directing his snipers from the metal bunker that stretched the length of the shore. He’d been training a long time for this. His finger traced the scar on his face. Payback time.
“Very good, Joe. Remember your training now. Our latest estimate is there could be as many as ten thousand infected coming to shore. If we clean this lot up, our waters may even be safe one day. Make every shot count, kid.”
Bullets pinged with monotonous regularity, each one a guaranteed kill shot through the skull. Necrotic bodies washed up on the shore, as the living took their revenge. Wave after wave of infected emerged from the ocean, blinking in the light of an unfamiliar sun for a moment or two before the lights went out for the second, and final, time.
In that rising mountain of corpses, of life re-born and destroyed anew, Adam and the infected child remained hand-in-hand, face down in the sand, bobbing gently on the tide.
flickr.com/photos/maxgag/15567640590 / Creative Commons