- VACANT -
"Well, this was a great idea," Harper said under her breath, seeing the fallen door that had been ripped off the hinges. Ronan must have heard, but only grunted a response before moving in towards the house. She wiped the humidity from her brow and followed. The place was small--maybe three rooms--and run down, but the jungle around it was kept in check. Someone lived there. Or, had lived there. Harper guessed from the dried blood on the doorjamb the home was probably vacant. Ronan lead them over the threshold, sweeping his shotgun across the empty living room. Harper realized her tight grip on her machete was hurting her palm. "Let's just go."
Ronan shot a look at her. "Someone could've made it. Might still be here."
Harper clenched her eyes long enough to steel her nerves and followed him to the next room. It was pointless to argue with Ronan; his orders were set. The house was old. The walls were painted, though the colors were indiscernible under the grime and water stains. The kitchen--the second room--even had a relic of a sink that presumably had running water at one time. Blood stained the floorboards there, a streak where something had been dragged.
Ronan lowered the shotgun to check the pantry. He slowly swung open the cabinet door, then started. Harper jumped back from the flash of gray fur, her machete raised in a show of defense. A moment later, when the rat had scurried off through a hole, Harper let out her breath. Ronan simply frowned before continuing his investigation. He found something in the pantry and pointed for Harper to see. A half-eaten bunch of bananas, the remaining fruit black and withered in spots, but not decayed. Ronan's eyes became more intent over the barrel of the gun, and they moved through the next door.
The boy was ten, maybe eleven, with the tan skin and dark hair of the natives. He froze where he stood by the bed, his frightened stared fixed on the towering dusky man with the gun. They stood still just a moment--time enough for Harper to see the gore-stained bed had been the spot where they had been killed, and eaten--before the boy bolted for the window.
"Wait!" Harper yelled at his back. Ronan crossed the room quickly, but his grasp just missed the boy's foot as it disappeared out the window. "Shit!" Harper scrambled back through the kitchen and living room, her shoulder ramming into the wall as she made a fast turn to the back door. She skidded to a halt on the porch and spotted the boy, sprinting and nearly to the trees. "Dammit, wait!" But he was about to be gone, hidden in the foliage, and a pain in their ass to track in the jungle.
"Muerte es fuera hay!" Harper heard Ronan's voice, noticed him hanging out the window in her peripheral, and the boy stopped. "Only death is out there. You won't make it,” Ronan continued. The boy put his head down, defeated, and slowly turned back to face them.
- BESTIAS -
"Are you sick?" Harper asked the boy. They sat at the table on the porch. The boy said nothing, still in his chair. She saw no signs of infection, so she moved on. "Was it your parents?" She stamped down her own fear and tried to sound nurturing, but the boy responded with an inscrutable stare. She pulled her chair close to his, bending down level with his eyes. "It's okay. Do you speak English? Habla--"
"Has it came back?" Ronan interjected from behind Harper "¿Ha regresado?" He gave the boy only a moment before his patience disappeared. He slid to his knee by the chair and took the young one by the jaw to face him. "What happened, boy?"
The boy, his head still caught in Ronan's grip, cut his eyes to the forest and pointed. "Bestias."
Ronan's face went grim as Harper waited for translation. "What is it?" she asked. "Bestias. That's plural. He's saying there's more than one?" She scanned the jungle, felt her hairs stand on end. "Ronin, we need to go."
Ronan kept his eyes on the boy, as if studying him, but let go his jaw. "There's a base nearby. American. You can come with us. Lead us there. We have food." Seconds passed with no response. "Speak!"
His eyes flinched, but then the boy stood and indicated a trail through the brush. "That way."
- THE TRAIL -
The sun was high, steaming and pulling the moisture up from the forest floor. Ronan walked point while Harper and the boy--Lucio, he called himself--trailed behind. "We should be getting close, eh?" Harper asked, smashing yet another mosquito on the back of her neck. Lucio nodded without looking up from his feet. She rolled her eyes at his incessant silence at tried again. "Do you go to town much, or did they kick you out for talking?" This got her only a puzzled stare.
Overhead, a brightly colored bird Harper didn't recognize called out as it crossed the path. Lucio glanced up, and Harper decided to mimic the shrill 'Ca-haw!' as the bird disappeared into the trees. The boy shot her a quizzical look. She thought she saw an inkling of a smile before she nearly collided with Ronan, who had halted in the path.
"Quiet!" he said in a whisper. He indicated the ground at his feet, where Harper saw tracks in the slick clay. Her first thought was jaguar; she saw the ball of a foot with clawed toes. Then she found the front prints, knuckles pressed deep in the mud under substantial weight, the rainwater still standing in the depressed earth.
"Is this--" Harper began as she looked up, but found Lucio, his worried stare darting from the tracks to the jungle around them. "It's okay," Harper lied. She pressed a finger to her pursed lips and gestured that he follow.
- THE TOWN -
The jungle had begun to reclaim the small town. Vines crept up the low buildings, piercing the cracked plaster. The main strip was somewhat clear, though trees grew in the storefronts and weeds were breaking apart the asphalt. The place was silent, the air stagnant in the blinding sun. Across town, Harper could see the largest building at the end of the street, an industrial thing with sheet metal siding and red-iron beams. Harper shared a nod with Ronan that confirmed it was what they were looking for.
"There's nothing left," Harper said, then looked to the boy. "They were infected. How did you avoid it?"
"I got sick, but they gave me a shot." Ronan's shotgun wheeled on Lucio before he finished speaking, and Harper lunged between the two.
"Wait a minute." She stared down the barrel, but Ronan kept it aimed at the boy behind her.
"Move," he said, as if there were no debating the matter.
"Look at him!" Harper's thoughts raced. "The town. The villagers have been gone. It's been years since he was vaccinated. It took. Otherwise, he'd be turned already." She slowly raised a hand to the barrel, but wasn't sure if Ronan was going to relent. "He's fine, Ronan."
There was a sound, a guttural growl, and Harper saw something move before it disappeared behind a broken down vehicle far down the street. Ronan spun, forgetting the boy, and searched the horizon for a target. "Go," he whispered urgently. Harper took Lucio by the collar and they moved out of the open. The door on the nearest building had fallen off the jamb. Dragging the boy inside, Harper saw the general store had been converted into a makeshift hospital. The goods and shelves were stacked on the walls, the floor opened up for crude table beds and dirty medical trays.
Another growl, closer, told Harper something was coming down the street. Ronan stopped and scanned the room, frowned at the large storefront windows that had them exposed. The creature, still out of sight, let out a deep whine, anxious and grinding. "Hide," Ronan said. "It's got our scent." Harper pulled the boy behind the store counter and they ducked down. She looked out through the packages on the open shelves and saw Ronan frantically searching. He found something, set down the gun, and pulled two liter bottles out from under a medical table. He ripped the tops off and poured the contents onto the floor, circling the room and covering the store in the stuff. The sting of ammonia hit Harper's nostrils and she felt she would choke. She pulled Lucio's shirt collar over his face and gestured he keep it there. Her eyes began to water.
Ronan set down the bottle quietly and started for the counter. Then he froze. Harper heard scratching outside the door, could see the sweat dripping from Ronan's motionless face. It stepped inside on all fours, leading on its knuckles and walking on the balls of its clawed back feet. It was the first one Harper had seen up close. It was large, but clearly female. A thin layer of dark hair covered her naked back. The thing sniffed, then recoiled from the cloud of ammonia, shaking its head and baring fangs. It snorted, and Lucio startled. Harper pulled him close and covered his mouth.
It advanced into the room, toward the prone Ronan, who stood perfectly still, barely breathing, his gun on the floor two steps away. Harper gripped her machete. The creature creeped, flaring its nose and making choking sounds as the fumes assaulted its senses, but it didn't charge. It seemed to grow frustrated, tossing its head back and forth and searching with coal black eyes. It couldn't find him. It's squinting gaze turned toward the counter and Harper's breath caught. She could see it was thinking, confused. Intelligent. Seeing the remnants of humanity in its face filled Harper with an eerie disgust. A sneezing fit came upon the thing, and with a frustrated grunt it spun and scrambled out the door.
Ronan remained frozen a moment longer, then retrieved his gun and he was with them. "Let's go."
"How did you--" Harper began.
"I didn't. I only knew they were nocturnal. They're out now; they must be hungry. But they can't see in the light." He looked around, motioned to the roof access ladder. "C'mon."
- ROOFTOPS -
They stayed low, away from the parapet edges facing the main street as they leapt the small gaps between buildings. Lucio seemed to take it as a game. The gravel roofs radiated the heat back at them as they picked their way around the soft spots of rot. After a few jumps, they came to a wider alley. It would take effort from Harper and Ronan to clear the distance, but the boy...
Harper and Ronan were considering the jump when a blur rushed between them. Lucio, in full run, planted a foot on the parapet and launched himself through the air. He rolled when he hit the far roof with a couple feet to spare.
"Jesus," Ronan said. Harper though she heard worry in his voice. "So he's athletic," she offered with a forced grin.
She backed up to give herself room, bolted and flung herself across. She landed clumsily and turned back to Ronan, who tossed the shotgun over. Then the large man was running. His thick muscles seemed to slow his momentum, and he looked to heavy to make the gap. Harper reached for the nearest thing, the overhead line that had torn from the electrical pole and fell to the roof. Ronan leapt. She whipped the cable around as Ronan's boot reached the parapet, then his toe slipped. He grasped at the line as he slid over the edge. Harper threw her body down to the roof, braced her legs as the cable went taught and drug her across the gravel, slamming her feet into the parapet. She gritted her teeth, stifling a scream as the bare ground cable slid through her hands and ripped open her palms before it caught.
"God dammit!" she growled as quietly as possible. "Hurry!" Ronan climbed the line, pulled himself over the parapet, and Harper felt every tug before she was freed of his weight. He fell to the roof beside her and nodded his silent thanks.
Ronan got to his knees and ripped off his sleeves. He began tying them around Harpers hands. "Anything to show off your arms," Harper smiled, trying to ease his apparent guilt. Ronan paused, but lowered his head back to his task without humor.
They crossed the roof and ducked out of site when they saw the creature from the general store in the street. There was one last building between them and the research facility, its low gable roof covered in corrugated metal.
"It's gonna be loud," Harper said, kneeling down beside Lucio.
"Mhm," Ronan grunted and flipped off the safety on the shotgun.
She studied his stare toward the facility. "You're not going alone." Before he could respond, a snarl, almost excited, came from the road. Ronan half-stood, craning his neck to see, then knelt back down. He looked at Harpers bandaged hands, then back up to her, and she knew the thing had caught her sent.
Harper suddenly noticed Lucio was no longer standing beside her. She turned to see him returning across the roof with a short length of galvanized pipe in his hands. "What are you..." she began, but he simply reached out and pulled the slack sleeve of one of her bandages. He gestured to Ronan's belt knife, and Ronan obliged by cutting the fabric loose. Harper and Ronan watched, puzzled, as the boy took the strip of blood-soaked sleeve and knotted it around the middle of the heavy pipe. He walked to the roof edge facing the street. "Wait!" Harper said, but Ronan remained silent. Lucio wound back his arm, then chunked the pipe--incredibly far--down the road and away from the facility. The metal pinged heavily against the blacktop, bouncing and ringing until it rolled under a car. Both Harper and Ronan peered over the edge. The creature spun, its tendons rippling. With surprising strength and agility, it bounded down the asphalt, only slowing as it approached the car to sniff the air. It pinpointed the smell in no time, and began inspecting the vehicle, scratching and thrashing its claws underneath the fenders.
Before Harper and Ronan knew what to make of it, Lucio sped past them. As soon as his foot hit the parapet, Ronan was moving. "Go, go, go!" They followed the boy across the jump, all three landing seconds apart with one long clatter of trampled roof tin. None of them stopped, none looked back. They clambered over the roof and dropped off the far side. A few steps across the street and they were at the side entrance to the research center. "Don't be locked. Don't be locked." Harper blew out a breath as she snatched the door open and they fell inside. She heard an infuriated roar over the clawing footsteps as Ronan slammed the metal slab shut and slid the heavy latch in its catch. A half-second later, a thud vibrated the wall.
- INSIDE -
They felt their way through the dark of the corridors, Harper leading Lucio by his collar. She kept one hand on the wall as they turned corners and backtracked dead ends. Once, Harper was searching a door for its handle when the boy grabbed her hand. "Es el baño," Lucio said. After a moment of silence, he clarified. "The restroom." Harper turned back from the door. She heard a noise from Ronan, no doubt wondering how the boy could read a door plaque in such blackness.
Finally, they espied a dim light at the end of a corridor and followed it into what appeared to be the lobby entrance to the building. The windowed steel doors that lined the front wall sent in rays of light as the sun sank lower outside. Ronan walked up to the panes and peered out. He jumped back as the female creature pounded its maw against the thick glass, snapping her teeth at the air. "Bitch."
"Oh, now," came a voice from somewhere in the lobby, from the back of the room where the light failed to reach the corners. "She's not all bad." Harper pulled Lucio close to her as footsteps drew near, and a silhouette formed in the pale brown light. The man approached the receptionist desk in the center of the floor and took a seat, just out of the light. "Why are you here?" There was a tired indifference in his words. "Food? Sanctuary?"
"You're American," Harper observed. "Did you work here?"
"Do, miss. I do work here. And yes, Irish-American. Dr. Stephen Pierce," he tipped an imaginary hat, “genetic engineer. Dysgenics specialist.” The dark shape of Pierce propped his elbows on the desk. "Why did you come?"
"There was a rescue mission sent to a ViGen facility in Mexico," Ronan began. Harper noticed him straighten out of habit, as if reporting to an officer. "In debriefing, one soldier claimed he'd found documents that mentioned a cure. A cure to the influenza strain. It listed this place, center Alpha-6, among the successful runs. It said you could stop it."
"Cure?" Pierce paused, cocked his head. Then he nodded. "Yes. We surely made a cure." He sounded perplexed with Ronan's reasoning.
Ronan relaxed visibly. "So it's over. You can stop the flu. You can save people from turning."
"Ah," Pierce said in humorous revelation, "I see." He leaned back from the desk, and a faint light reflected humor on his face. "You're here to kill the flu virus that causes the animalistic mutation." A guttural chuckle arose, then swelled to hysterical laughter. Ronan and Harper exchanged a confused glance. Pierce finally settled, wiped his brow. "You believe the infected become the animals. Well, we made a cure for the flu." He leaned forward, bringing only his solemn green eyes into light. "The animals are the cure."
"What do you mean?" Harper felt a dread in her chest. "Who are you?"
"I am what's left of the research team," Pierce began. "We were in this shithole for a year. 'Can't do this kind of experiments in the states,' they told us. We were supposed to stop a super virus, an influenza that had become untouchable by modern medicine. A strain that had evolved quicker than us. So, in the end, we decided we must devolve it. And we did! We reverted it back to the strains we knew and killed it. It worked so well and the need was so urgent. The virus had jumped continents and... well, let's just say the FDA didn't give a shit about further testing and side effects."
Ronan’s head dropped. He spoke more to himself as he stared at the floor. "The vaccine mutated the virus, but it changed us, too."
"Bingo!" The man seemed to revel in Ronan’s despair. "We didn't isolate the devolution hormones to one species. It took longer with us, of course, but after a while, our DNA shifted. We reverted to more primal versions of ourselves. Not to something in the fossil record, but such is the chaos of nature."
"Why did the mutation spread so far?" Harper asked incredulously. "You didn't vaccinate that many people."
"No, no," said the man in the dark. "'Course not. No, we saw the effects and the project was put on halt. Later, we found out the mutated--after the vaccine had worn off and they'd caught the super flu again--could transfer the hormone stimulus by spreading the virus. They could spread the devolution." He chuckled at some irony Harper didn't register. "We created fucking were-apes!"
Harper looked to Ronan for guidance. He was standing limp, staring at the floor tiles. She'd never seen him so resigned. She wasn't giving up. "You said you work here, still. You're working on the mutation, a way to reverse it."
"God, no," Pierce laughed. "Not with the flu still around. No, you can't survive the virus without the mutation. We're prone as humans."
"Then what the hell are you doing?!" Harper demanded.
"Learning to control the situation!” Pierce snapped, then he gathered himself. “And, bettering us as a species. You see, devolution is a relative term. That's exactly what we were attempting, yes. But who's to say these creatures aren't a step up from what we were as humans. They were dying, being stamped out by a micro-thing. Now, they're thriving.
"I'm simply taking another step. Finding a middle ground between the species. And it's working out well. In rare instances, it even occurs naturally. Ask your friend there.”
Harper’s breath caught. She looked down to the brown-eyed boy at her hip. She thought back to all the things Lucio had done a little too well. She remembered the worry on Ronan’s face.
Pierce got up from the desk chair and sauntered to the back wall. "Yes, he doesn't have the same scent as you two." He began flipping light switches, and the rows of halogens flickered on one by one, though he still stood in shadow. "But don't chastise him for being a creature of survival. It's quite advantageous, you know." A switch flipped. The last row of lights came on, and they shone on Pierce for the first time. He grinned at Harper with bared fangs. She could see thick mats of red hair running from underneath his sleeves and down his forearms. He raised a clawed hand near the switches and pressed a bright red button. Harper heard an alarming siren sounding outside the building. Ronan, head lowered and staring at the floor tiles, seemed to barely register the conversation. "They've learned to listen to me," Pierce said, his grin curling into malice. "Feeding time."
Harper left Lucio's side and walked to the doors. She looked through the glass and saw the female creature on the steps. It was pacing with newfound anxiousness as the alarm wailed. Behind it, along the main street of town, hulking figures were leaping from the jungle. They snapped and growled at one another as they scurried toward the siren.