"You're walkin' a fine line, here, Private," the sergeant says. He's an intimidating man, with squinty eyes set deep in a square face, and a stubble-darkened chin. Right now he smokes a slender cigarette, the smoke curling and twisting like some slithering snake around his head.
You find yourself alone in the tent. The others have slunk out, sensing a heated argument broiling between you and the sergeant. He's the highest-ranking official on this side of the sea, you, the lowest.
"One more botched mission, kid, and we lose the whole damn war!" he paces now, hands flung into the air ruthlessly. The smoke slithers. "We lose to a bunch of damn zombies! Zombies!"
You want to correct him, tell him they aren't zombies, they're Infected, they're the Sickness, the Germ. Zombies are too human. But something in his snarling face shuts you up.
So you just nod, your scarred helmet visor bobbing up and down on your head. The uniform is the worst: fifteen pounds of high-energy, copyrighted crap about "protecting the nerves against the Germ", as if it's airborne, or something. A thick cotton under layer surrounded by synthetic rubber-based skin technology, or rubber skin, for short. The pads and foggy visor are just the tip of the paranoid, over-worn iceberg.
"Right," the sergeant sighs, suddenly deflated. "Right, get yer gun, kid, and some a those med kits, meet me outside the tent for the report." He rubs the back of his neck, and for a second, you can see a flint of anxious pain in his stony face.
You do as you are told. Your bunk is near cleared; just a few old comic books Batman, Thor) and a tiny, beaten transistor, which has long since ceased to give you news from home.
Ha! Home. That's a funny concept to you. Where is home, you wonder, as you quickly search your bunk for your rifle. Is it the dull gray countryside, plagued with the undead? Or is it right here, on the battlefield, surrounded by anonymous soldiers, and the rain-clogged horizon?
The rifle is next to the med kits, nestled in their shiny foil like some disturbed adopted egg. You take it in your gloved hands, and run a pinky on the shiny barrel of the gun. The surface is mottled slightly, and nicks and scratches color the metal.
Sounds of disaster radiate from beyond the cinched flap-door of the tent, making you jump as far off the ground as your uniform will allow. Your heart slides in your chest, and panic starts to sift through your cerebrum, ringing evil bells.
You take a second to steel yourself, take a second to calm. And then you shove through the flap-door, bracing your left arm against the tent pole, pushing off onto the float.
The tent itself is floating in the brackish seawater, supported by blocks of lab-grown foam, and protected by thick iron spikes protruding from the wood. You grab one of these spikes now, and for some reason, it's slick and warm, liquid dribbling slowly down its conical sides.
Sea foam whips through the black air, and you realize what exactly is secured to the spike. He smokes a cigarette, or rather, it hangs limply in his slightly open mouth. His eyes are gaping and wide, like broken windows, and his body, within the thick suit, is arched upward, his fingers splayed and grabbing.
There is no time for you to mourn the sergeants passing. They are coming, you are sure, they are coming and you're alone. Your rifle has seven bullets. Seven shots to save your damned life, floating like worthless flotsam and jetsam on a sea of death.
They come one by one. The first slithers on its tarnished stomach, red, sunburned arms, torn by teeth, grabbing at the spikes and hauling itself up. You take careful aim at it; you can't afford to miss this shot.
The bullet smacks it between the eye sockets, and it screeches, no, moans in compliance, vaulting off the float, and sinking into the sea. One down, hundreds to go.
Oh, and now there is a silence that hurts more than the panic. It sits on your chest anxiously, and you pull off your heavy uniform, rendering it useless, deciding it pointless. You stand on the wooden float, in only your sweats and your last t-shirt.
For a minute, an agonizing, excruciating minute, there is nothing but the lapping lull of the waves and your own stuttery breath.
From the dark water comes the second. It comes fast, bursting out and leaping, fingers splayed, towards the tent. It shreds the canvas as if it's made of filmy silk, and disappears within.
You don't wait. The silhouette of the Infected is like a cutout piece of wet paper. You peer quickly through the scope, and grit your teeth in expectance of the kick.
But you don't need to. Someone stumbles from the tent, blood painting their pale face. He's clutching a small knife, already stained scarlet.
"Who are you?" the darkness is too tight, too constricting. You know he can't see you, can't tell you from the diseased freak he just stabbed to death (again) in the shredded tent.
Your throat is clogged with phlegm, and your mind in numb with fear. You answer in silence. His eyes widen, and he jerks the knife above his head.
"You're one of them, aren't you?" he snarls. "One of those freaks who're twisted by the Germ," he starts to run, screaming and hissing, the knife protruding from his bloody fist.
Before he reaches you, you clear your frozen throat.
"I'm human! Human!" You shout, ducking just as his blade snaps through the air above your head.
He freezes, and stares down at you. His eyes are wide, and his face is pale and blood-specked.
You hold up your hands in apology, in surrender, and offer a tiny, forced smile.
"Private Thompson." You say, sticking out a hand. "That's my name. Annalisa Thompson."
The young man isn't a soldier. You're realizing this now, as you look at him. He's wearing civilian clothing, somewhat worn and stained. A Cal sweatshirt, jeans, red Converse high-tops. Spiky, short hair. He's skinny, but not rail-thin, and looks as if he would've had money if not for the war.
"Mark Lucey." He replies, not shaking your hand. You don't blame him. There is a sticky black substance on your palm. Wiping it hastily on your sweats, you tilt your head.
"How'd you get on this vehicle, Lucey?" you say, all business-like and formal. It was important, you thought, to let Mark Lucey the civilian know you were still in charge.
"Does it matter?" he counters irritably. He's crumpled into a defensive, crossed-armed stance and is looking around, frowning. "We're stuck on this stupid piece of crap until we either starve or get eaten by those Germ zombies."
"They aren't zombies." You sigh. "They're highly contagious, infected human beings who've gained cannibalistic qualities and are accustomed to blind acts of violence."
"Sounds like zombies to me." You give him a sideways look of exasperation. "Sorry. I'm sorry, it's just been a very stressful week for me, what with the near-death-by-being-eaten experience and all."
The water around you and Mark Lucey is still once more. The pulsating darkness has reminded you how tired you are.
"Alright, Mark Lucey," you say, clapping your hands. "This is what we'll do. I've got a loaded gun, some ammo, and experience. You've got–no offense of anything–nothing," you give him another sideways look. "Unless you've got training of some sort."
"My dad was CIA," he says, shoving his hands in his pockets. "But he never taught me any of that army crap." He scoffed. "Didn't talk to me much, ever,"
You nod. No time for pity.
"Right, I'll take first watch. Anything comes this way, anything at all, I shoot first, then wake you. Safest way. If I go down, my suit's got all the ammo you need. Just take my gun."
He gives you a sarcastic thumbs-up.
"Whatever you say, Private Annalisa Thompson," he says.
Ten minutes later, he's asleep on the float's splintered deck. You stand close by, your fingers growing numb from clutching the rifle's barrel to your body anxiously.
Questions have always come easily to you. Why was Mark Lucey here, and how did he get on this military-sanctioned, military-built float by himself, in the middle of the night, the middle of the infested ocean?
He looks more innocent when he's asleep. You stare at him for an unhealthy minute or two. He's actually good-looking, you decide, before slapping yourself with a shaking hand.
"Get real, Annalisa," you think. "You'll both be dead in twenty-four hours,"
But still, you look at him. It's been so long since you've been anywhere besides the float. Mark Lucey is refreshing. His normal outfit. His untouched accent and his deadpan slang. Refreshingly civilian.
Something slaps the float, and the wind slithers through the shattered tent. Brace yourself, Annalisa, you plead with yourself. Death isn't that bad, really.
But nothing comes. An hour, two. The moon shivers in a dusty corner of the sky. All is silent, all is steady but for the gentle rolling of the dark waves.
And then it hits you. He couldn't have swum hundreds of miles, alone to get here. Mark Lucey must be infected.
Your heart goes cold. Cold, and a little still for a moment.
You weigh the gun in your hand. One bullet. There's only one bullet left in the barrel.
You aim it carefully, and wrap a finger around the cold metal trigger. Through the scope you can see him still asleep. But is he really asleep? Can dead people sleep? And he looks so normal, so perfectly normal.
"Shit!" you shout again, hugging your rifle in your arms. You can't bring yourself to shoot him.
He wakes up. His pale blue eyes are much sharper than they should be.
"Something wrong, private?" he asks cautiously, sitting up.
"Yeah. You're a freaking zombie!" you shriek, brandishing your rifle like it's a scolding finger. "Where's your bite? C'mon, don't lie to me Mark. Or is that even your real name?"
He stands quickly, and raises his hands.
"I thought you said they weren't zombies," he says quietly. And still he stares at you with his flitting eyes.
You scoff, and edge a little closer to him. He takes a step back.
"I'm right, aren't I?" you say. You almost don't want to be right.
Mark Lucey narrows his eyes clenches his hands into fists. He glances behind you, and shuffles on his feet. Now you realize how slow and labored his movements are.
With a sudden burst of speed, he tries to sprint past you, and into the water. You swing your rifle around with the force of all your worn, wet muscles, aiming for his head. Instead, you make contact with his left arm.
"Ow!" he screams, stopping in his tracks, and falling to one knee. "Dammit! Ow…" he's clutching his arm, scrabbling at it. Bits of flaky skin have gathered around the tattered powder blue cotton of the sweatshirt, and they fall to the floor like tiny, fleshy snowflakes.
He looks back up at you with murder in his eyes.
"I hate you," he hisses. "It's just a scratch. I'm not a zombie. I hate you."
You lean on your rifle and bit your chapped lip. Yet again a feeling of painful longing erupts over you, and you find yourself wishing the float's synthetic fibers would rot and burn, allowing you to drown peacefully. Alone.
"You try to bite me, and I rip your pathetic head off, understand?" you say crisply, running a hand over your pulled-back hair.
He nods, tears in his eyes. You put out a hand, tentatively. He stares at it, disgusted, then pulls himself to his feet.
His words ring through your head, spinning and weary.
"I hate you."
It's the infection talking, you tell yourself, shivering slightly in the squeezing cool of the night. It's the fact that he's already dead, and soon to be undead.
"I hate you."
Morning is hardly welcome. Now whatever sick have waded within a mile of the float would be able to discern the gargantuan structure even without proper sight appendages. In these infested waters, you and Mark Lucey are practically done.
"Glad to see you haven't gotten hungry," you yawn, stretching your sore arms above your head.
He doesn't say anything, but instead shrugs, and pokes at a bit of rust gathered on the float, eyes downcast.
"So, how did you get bitten?" you ask, semi-casually.
He jerks up his head, and rolls his eyes at you. You notice how blood-shot they are.
"Great conversation starter, you are," he sneers. But even as he rubs a hand over the back of his neck and sighs heavily, he begins to tell you. "They swarmed Berkeley, a few weeks back. I was on campus, at a football game," he gestures at his Cal garb. "One or two managed to scale the stadium walls and get at a few fans. I was lucky–the others literally had their heads torn off their shoulders,"
He paused, looking downtrodden.
"Well, we all tried to get out, after the first went down, screaming. Football players, referees, little kids with their dads. Everyone pushing and screaming bloody murder, trying to get out. In the parking lot, one of them pulled me from my car, managed to chew off a bit of my arm. Would've gotten a lot farther, too, if the starting quarterback hadn't saved my ass by ripping off its head,"
This was when he started to get quieter, softer.
"Didn't get a chance to thank him. They took him down in two seconds, before turning on me again. I just ran. Swam out to the ocean, found out I could breathe underwater, ended up here." He smirked. "Damn shame too. We were winning."
"So they've taken Berkeley, too. California is gone."
You both realize how screwed you are. Nothing between you and Hawaii but ocean and death.
Suddenly, something rocks the float. The entire structure shivers and convulses, and sends you and Mark Lucey tumbling into one another. Black water rains down upon the floor.
"Watch out there's one coming!" you scream, peering over Mark's shoulder. You scoot away from him, poking your rifle in front of you desperately.
Before it reaches Mark, he spins around and does the strangest thing.
He jumps at it, tackling it, and taking it down in a single swing. Bleeding and flaking, it snarls and groans at him, clawing at his face and arms.
He leans over, and rips its arm off. Rips its damn arm right off its torso, and he's staring at it like he's afraid of himself, his eyes so wide and scared you can't believe they haven't exploded.
And he's got this strange look in his face.
"Mark," you say nervously, cautiously. "Mark, be careful…"
He twitches, and flinches, licking his chapped and cracked lips.
"Please, just kill me," he hisses, suddenly. "Just kill me before it does," he covers his face with his bloody hands, and shudders out a deep, weighty sigh.
"I've only got one more bullet left, Mark, this isn't the best way to solve this–"
"KILL ME!" he screams. "JUST EFFING KILL ME, ANNALISA!"
He crashes to the ground, flailing, and moaning. Then, with the force of some unknown phenomenon, he jerks his head up, and starts to crawl towards you.
Something in his eyes, once perfect, icy blue, triggers your weapon. Something cold and unreal, something inhuman. He is no longer Mark Lucey. Maybe he never was.
You have no time to mourn the passing. There are more coming over the lip of the spikes.
There will always be more.