We wasted so much time treating it like an illness. It wasn’t. It was an invasion …
When the plague hit, we tried treating it with the usual suspects: medicine, quarantine, observation. We wasted so much time treating it like an illness. It wasn’t. It was an invasion.
By the time we realized the sickness wasn’t natural, wasn’t even man-made, it was almost too late. The Hosts controlled the government and the media. The spores controlled the Hosts. People who breathed them in disappeared. Friends, neighbors, even family members wandered off, only to show up a few days later. People got sick when they were infected, at least for a little while. Puking their guts up as the spores settled into the soft tissue. Once the spores were dug in, the infected came back. They looked the same, but they didn’t act the same. Didn’t think the same as before. They spoke of grand opportunities and a vision for our future. A New World Order where everyone was equal. It sounded okay at first. Until you realized we would all be equal slaves.
I don’t know who first figured out the bit about the coughing. I heard it from Sarah Hughes, and she said some guy who was trying to sneak back into Mexico told her. Whoever came up with it, they were right. Something about the tar that coated the inside of a smoker’s lungs kept the spores from latching on like a parasite. Even after a person was infected, coughing would tear the spores loose and evict them from their happy home. So Hosts never coughed, and smokers never got infected in the first place.
You couldn’t really trust anyone, unless you saw them nearly hack up a lung. That’s what happened when a smoker inhaled the spores. Coughed them right back up with a mouthful of phlegm. Before the invasion, your father might knock you around a little if he caught you with a pack. After the parasites got hold of his brain, it was worse. Hosts had no use for smokers. We didn’t follow the program. We couldn’t be controlled like the rest of the population. So they had to kill us. The spores who wore your father’s body like a cheap suit might try and walk up on you with a kitchen knife in his hand when you’re out in the garage. And it might be that only one walks out.
So we ran. And we fought, when we could. But we were losing the war. Badly. We never knew who was coming after us, or when. Only now, we had finally learned where they cultivated the spores, at least for this area. They built a chain link fence on the other side of Abbot’s Field and guarded it day and night. You could see the plants that grew inside, acres and acres of snarled, thorny bushes covered with bright yellow buds. Doc figured that’s where the spores came from, released into the air when those flowers blossomed each sunset. That’s how they procreated, how they spread. And we planned on stopping them. Tonight.
I jogged down the hard tarmac, still warm from the day’s sunlight. Full dark had set in, with a sliver of a moon casting feeble illumination on my path. As I reached Miller’s Crossing and the abandoned gas station that crouched on the corner like a toothless tiger, a shape stepped into the road ten feet ahead. I slowed to a walk, coming close enough to touch her, and smiled. Her shoulder length auburn hair swayed about her shoulders as she closed what little gap remained between us.
“Good to see you, babe,” I said.
She reached down and grabbed me by the sack. “Turn your head and cough.”
I showed her my good side and hacked up a lung. “Satisfied?”
Genoa kissed me on the proffered cheek. “Not yet, but you’ve never failed before.” She nipped at my ear and I pulled away.
“After. First we torch that field. Then we get down to the real work.”
She laughed and turned, and I gave her a playful swat across the ass. The others came up to me in a group from behind the structure, five of our best fighters. Two bikers, a cop, a war vet with one hand. And a schoolteacher who had shown an affinity for carnage. Seven of us, the best we could muster for the task. One of the bikers, a leather clad walnut of a woman named Yolanda, was in charge. My job was to help my girlfriend carry the gasoline.
Genoa and I picked up the oversized cans of fuel, one in each hand, and followed our friends into the field across the road. The grass ran knee-high, snatching at our pants legs as we plowed through, raising small clouds of pollen and dust. The front five bristled with weapons: shotguns, rifles, pistols, even a brace of knives down Kirk’s left sleeve. When a thin figure rose from the weeds to one side, they nearly cut her down. It was a girl, younger than me and a head shorter. Emily.
“Lower your guns, guys!” I forced the words through strained teeth, hoping the sound wouldn’t carry. We were close enough to the compound that we might be heard. Silence was golden. I dropped the cans and rushed over to my younger sister. “What are you doing out here?”
“I want to help,” she said.
“How’d you get here?”
“You told me about it before I left. We got back early, so I asked Susan to drop me here.”
“Forget it. You’re not coming.”
“You’re too young. It’s too dangerous. No dice.”
She glared at me. “I’m almost thirteen. If that’s old enough to get the groceries, then it’s old enough to fight.” Her chin jutted out at me like a prizefighter, daring me to contradict her.
I opened my mouth to do just that when a light touch fell onto my shoulder. Genoa leaned against my arm, her eyes fixed on Emily. “We don’t have time to take her back. And it’s too dangerous to leave her here.”
I whispered into her ear. “What if she gets hurt? She’s all I’ve got left in the world.”
She slipped an arm around my waist and gave me a hug. “Don’t forget about me.”
“You know what I mean. Emily is the only family left. After Mom … and then Dad …” An image of blood on a concrete floor filled my head. I shook it away. “It’s just the two of us now. I got to look out for her. And she’s just a kid. She shouldn’t have to do this.”
Genoa shrugged. “It’s her future, too.”
I might try arguing with one of the women in my life, but when both of them team up against me? I know when to surrender. The three of us walked back over to the gas cans. “Alright, you can come. But stay behind me. And if you’re big enough to fight, you’re big enough to carry one of those.” I picked up one can, left the other for my kid sister, and drew my revolver. Another gun couldn’t hurt.
We reached the fence without incident. Tony pulled a pair of bolt cutters from his backpack and set to work. In less than five minutes, we were through the gaping hole and standing on the other side.
Yolanda drew us in. “No talking. Let’s get these plants soaked and give the Hosts something to cough on.” We nodded and were moving to our tasks when the spotlights hit us.
The night became as bright as day, at least in a 30-yard circle surrounding our position. I froze, understanding the deer’s dilemma. There was a silent pause that lasted about a million years. Then the gunfire erupted.
Bullets chewed up the ground at my feet, missing me by inches. A line of them tore through Tony’s chest and he went down screaming. Yolanda didn’t have time for that. Her head just sort of disintegrated into red pulp and white bone. Everyone else started running.
“Down!” I screamed, turning in a pivot and tackling Emily. The gas cans sloshed and thumped as they landed. We were at the edge of the light, and my momentum carried us into the dark shadows. I noticed a watchtower, only thirty yards away. They had it blacked out, and had kept it that way until we were inside. Until we were trapped.
They knew we were coming.
Genoa knelt beside us tugging at my arm as the hidden snipers picked off our remaining friends. She pulled me to my feet, and helped me get Emily upright. “Cans!” she hissed at me, grabbing her own and running towards the base of the tower.
I looked into Emily’s wide eyes. “You okay?”
She nodded. I grabbed the two remaining gas cans and followed Genoa, making sure Emily ran with me. When we closed to within five yards of the structure, I realized what she was doing. Genoa flung her two cans at the tower, and I followed suit. Then I realized I been holding my pistol when I knocked my sister to the ground, and I had left it behind somewhere in the dark. I cursed, and looked back over my shoulder.
Emily held the gun at my back, shaking in her white knuckled grip. She wasn’t even holding it right. I snatched it from her fingers, muttered thanks, then turned and pumped several shots into the gas cans.
The resulting explosion knocked all three of us off our feet. Wooden splinters filled the air like a swarm of fast-moving bees, piercing the night. I slammed into the ground and struggled to breathe. Above me, a fireball pulsed straight up into the sky like a bottle rocket. The tower burned brighter than the spotlight. You couldn’t even hear the dying men’s cries over the crackling flames.
The tower shuddered to one side and fell, taking out a wide section of fence as it crashed down. “C’mon,” I yelled, grabbing Emily’s arm as we rose and dashed for the newly made exit. Gunfire flashed and boomed from among the spore bushes as another set of ambushers joined the party. We ran low to the ground, as fast as our crouched legs would carry us.
Ten minutes past the fence we stopped. There were no sounds of pursuit. The gunfire ended soon after we fled, replaced with cries for water buckets.
I looked at Emily. Her short brown hair stood up in tangled spikes. Soot and dirt smudged her cheeks. “Did you talk?” I asked.
She looked dazed. “What?”
“The only people who knew about the raid are here. Are dead. Except for the three of us. So did you tell anyone about our plans?”
“No, of course not! I wouldn’t rat you out! Or Big Tony or Stump, not any of them. I’m not a squealer!”
I pointed my gun at the bridge of her pert nose. “Cough, Emily.”
“It’s gotta be one of us who sold out,” I explained. The barrel never wavered from her face. “Genoa has been with me the past few days, but you were out grabbing supplies with the crew. I gotta know you didn’t go through the change. So cough, and let’s be done with this.”
Her eyes darted left and right, while her tongue flicked across her bottom lip. “Maybe I did tell someone, but I knew you’d be mad at me. Yeah, maybe I told a couple of people, you know, that I trusted.”
“Good. You can give me their names right after you cough.” I pulled back the hammer on my .357.
Her eyes kept looking for a way out, right up until she opened her mouth. A weak hunh-hunh came out, sounding like a dog choking on a bone, or a gasp from a drowning man. Not a cough. Not even close.
I pulled the trigger.
– by J. Andrew Killian