Day Twenty-Four

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WHEN SHE AWOKE, A dim light had begun to creep up into the sky, muted beneath the thick plumes that hovered over the dump. She lay still, staring at the roof of the vehicle, listening to the sounds of breathing. She had even blocked out the munching. The sunlight rose on the tractor, casting long shadows across it and tinting the leftover shards of glass a soft pink beneath the black film. She turned her head to the others and froze.

Scattered around the tractor, watching her with strange black eyes, were the animals. Their furs, looking so much like the needles they had passed, spanned the length of her fingers, rigid on top of slick, rough skin, coated in black. Her eyes widened but she did not dare move. She barely dared to breathe.

Rance stirred. He turned his head to face her, still lost in sleep, and squinted against the fresh sun rays. Slowly, he opened his eyes, looking right at her.

"Don't move," she mouthed. As the haze faded from his eyes, they widened, he stiffened. Kieran, pressed close beside him, still dozed soundly. Rance prodded him with a finger in the slightest of wrist movements, and he snapped awake. Raina turned her head, as slowly as possible, craning her neck to see Maeve.

She was already awake, her skin ashen.

For several minutes, all was still. They stifled their breathing, as quiet as could be as they stared at the creatures and the creatures stared back, trapped in a stalemate. The sun shone brighter into the cabin of the tractor, streaming directly onto Raina's face, and even more into Rance's. She felt a familiar itching sensation in her nose and held it in, but one glance at the panic in Rance's eyes and her heart dropped.

No, she thought.

"Achoo!"

The sound broke the spell. In an instant, the creatures launched into movement, and Raina, startled, could only jump back as they snarled at Rance, who sneezed again. A creature lunged at him and he cried in pain as it dug its fangs into his leg, and then another into his forearm. He kicked them off as Maeve slashed at them with her knife, and Raina kicked at them with her boots, searching the ground outside for a blade, a rock, anything. 

They beat them back, out of the truck, and then they clambered onto the roof, nursing bite wounds. Rance had a hole in his shin where the flesh had been torn right away. Blood gushed onto the roof. Raina could feel a tingling where the needle furs had poked her—her hand, covered in small red puncture wounds, began to swell and lose feeling. "Don't let them stab you!" she called. 

The creatures still overwhelmed them, slithering around them with that horrible munching noise. Raina glanced to the hole in Rance's leg and felt her stomach roil.

The tingling in her hand worsened, almost all sensation lost. She began to feel it in her neck, and in the puncture wounds on her thighs. Her legs felt like they were turning to cotton. 

The animals advanced again, and Maeve vaulted off the top of the tractor, crumpling to the ground beside it. Raina called her name, but she bolted into a pile of garbage, some of the animals peeling off in hot pursuit. She heard Maeve's screams just as the animals jumped onto the tractor again and pounced. 

Bang

The gunshot echoed out across the dump, deafeningly loud. The creatures startled and dispersed. Raina looked up and saw Maeve, stumbling out of the garbage, a rifle shaking in her hand. Filth streaked across her face, her hands blackened, as she approached them, her eyes empty. "We need to get out of here before they come back," she said. Her words came out slow and thick. A puncture mark swelled on her cheek. 

"How did you--" Kieran began. 

"I saw it last night. A weapons cache, sealed in a box."

"I can't believe it still works," Raina breathed. 

"We should hold onto this," Maeve said. She hesitated, looking down at the weapon in her hand, before stumbling over to Raina. She offered it to her. "Do you want to carry it, Captain?" 

Raina looked her in the eyes. She reached out a hand and touched it, and it burned under her fingertips with the weight of its own history, and all she could see were the stories, endless stories, of the collapse of their world. Her eyes flicked to Maeve's hands, steadying as the adrenaline wore off, gripping it with a confidence she could not have with such a work of destruction. "No," she said, pulling her hand back. "It's far better with you."

Maeve only nodded.

"Raina," Rance whispered from behind. He gasped in pain. 

"Oh no. Rance." Raina slid over to him as fast as her numb hands could drag her, leaning over the bloody mess that was his calf. Trails of blood spiderwebbed across it, and the closer she looked, the deeper the hole grew, gauged out with sharp fang marks on the side. She slid back down into the cabin and grabbed one of their two last bags, using Maeve's knife to slice a strip off and bind it. "You're going to be okay," she said, but worry gnawed at her. Those creatures survived by eating garbage, chemicals. And they had sunk their teeth into him. 

The munching sound resumed around them, but the sun was up, and creatures kept their distance. Another wind blew in, dispersing the smog, and Raina took as deep a breath as she was able. "We can't spend another night in here." 

She slid down the side of the vehicle. The moment her feet hit the ground her legs crumpled, and she dropped hard into the black film. Her legs refused to listen, her orders a distant, muffled cry as the poison from the puncture marks disrupted her nerves. If Maeve had not found the gun, she would have been nearly defenceless. Her left leg was numb from thigh to ankle, all sensation gone, while in the right she could feel all but her knee. She looked around. Nearby lay a long plastic pipe, and she crawled over to it, feeling her fingers squish into the black film, ignoring the contamination of her ankle. She braced it against the ground and pushed herself up, leaning the entirety of her weight on it as she adjusted her stance and managed to take a small, shaky step. 

The others joined her, Rance the worst of them all, and hobbling, they resumed yesterday's trail. The ground sucked at their boots. The heat from the sun intensified the stench. And the munching was still there--it was always there.

And Raina could not possibly walk any slower.

She cursed the numbness in her body, her hand so swollen that she could barely bend her fingers. She glanced around. No one had fared any better. Beside her, Maeve had been poked at the base of her throat and her breathing was laboured, pain evident when she swallowed, and her cheek swelled to close one of her eyes. But they walked, and they walked for an entire day at a pace drastically slower than before, agonizing and nerve-wracking as they felt the eyes of the creatures follow them. 

"There's no way we'll make it out tonight," Kieran said. "We'll have to organize watch shifts with the rifle. Fire if they get too close." 

The idea of firing the weapon again made Raina's skin crawl.

They had run out of water, and soon ate the last of their food, barely a handful of nuts. As night began to fall, they took refuge amidst piles of twisted, blackened metal. Raina lay down, slowly regaining feeling in her body. She rolled over, searching for the least painful position as her body throbbed, and her eyes fell on a block of wood, in perfect condition. Her throat was dry but she managed to speak. "How did that survive?"

Rance looked over. Confusion dawned on his face too—it was buried under at least three tonnes of metal, and looked like it had not moved for a long, long time. It too was coated in that same black film. "I don't know," he said.

They fell silent again. They did not have the luxury of wondering at their surroundings anymore, not when they could feel death creeping in again, pushing at the air around them. They were so tired. Raina rolled over and winced. 

She looked down at her body. She had always had a bigger body, and yet her ribs protruded grotesquely, her hip bones jutting out. The change, not just in her but in everyone, had become so gradual that it had nearly escaped her notice. The others bore sunken eyes, and their cheeks had begun to sag inwards. Even Kieran, with his massive bulk, had shrunken to a frail echo of himself. As the last of the day's light faded, she looked into their eyes. They were glazed over, aching with hunger and pain and exhaustion, each bearing a look of... she could not put a name to it. Maybe it was just the light. Maybe she was too tired. But the looks in all of their eyes, the look she knew was in her own—it was desperation. And beneath that, an acceptance of hell.

She could not fall asleep that night. 

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