Blazing sunlight beat down from a cloudless, pink sky. Steep formations of smooth brown stone sloped to form a long valley. Orange sand smoothed out the floor of the shallow canyon, with an endless amount of broken boulders poking up like tiny islands. A slender figure cloaked in black rags walked along one wall of the valley.
James scanned the area through cracked, tinted goggles. The heat slowed his steps, but he knew he was close. In one hand, the tip of his shotgun swung just past his knee. Twelve shots sat in its drum magazine. Whether it could hold more or not didn’t matter, that was all the ammunition he had.
With an exhausted double-take, he realized he had found the cave mouth. He clicked the flashlight on at the end of the barrel, and stepped inside. James raised his goggles from his tired green eyes to rest atop his full brown hair. Looks pretty deep. James put his goggles back on, clicked the light off and stepped out. He walked a few meters directly from the cave opening to one of the larger rocks on the valley floor. James leaned his weight on it in a few spots to test its stability.
Satisfied, James set the shotgun down and removed a two-sided harpoon gun from under his cloak of rags. With a good anchor point, he fired one end into a deep crack and flipped a switch on the rusted plate on his left wrist. He could feel the cable vibrate as the harpoon drilled itself tighter into place. Then he flipped another switch that would keep the line loose. Underneath his cloak, he securely snapped the rest of the gun to a harness in the middle of his back.
James wasn’t a scout, but he had had enough training to know that you needed an exit plan. He gave the cable a good tug with his gloved hands, satisfied the winch would reel him to the rock, not vice versa. The slender man finally reclaimed his pistol grip, stock-folded shotgun, and walked back to the cave mouth.
This time James pulled the cloak down from his clean shaven, narrow face. It was much cooler already. Feels good. The floor was smoothed out by sand, while the ceiling and walls were formed by many naturally smooth stones. The tunnel didn’t go far before twisting out of view. It was wide enough for two normal men to walk shoulder to shoulder, but just barely.
James discovered a few forks, always choosing left to avoid confusion. He also estimated he had just under thirty meters of cable before he’d have to remove the harpoon frame to go further. The young man tried to stay quiet as he searched, fighting the growing shake in his hands and the lump in his throat. Can they hear my heartbeat? He was a mechanic, not a hunter. Either way, he was the only one here to help.
The first few dead ends were just simple, empty pockets or holes and cracks no human could enter. James began to wonder if had found the right cave, until the next dead end. Dozens of dry corpses in tattered clothes were thrown over each other in a pile. Fighting the vomit, James looked for her. She’s not here. I wasn’t that far behind. He turned around to continue the search.
A frail, pale frame ran out of view. James nearly dropped the gun as he realized how long it could have been watching him. The flashlight’s beam shook against the far wall. Shit. It was slowly gathering the cable, ready to pull him into the open. In panic, he yelled, “I’m not here to hurt you.”
Frizzled blonde hair slowly crept around the corner, red eyes refracted with the light. It seemed feminine, then she disappeared behind the corner again. She continued pulling the cable. James felt the line get tight and planted his boots. She tugged, with no movement from him. She tugged again, and again, faster and faster, grunting with uneven, high pitches.
James finally grabbed the cable and yanked back. A squeal rang out; the cable dropped. He saw a section of it had fresh blood smeared through it. They don’t bleed that easy, is it Deb’s blood?
Then it was quiet. Guttural screaming filled the tunnels before she bolted for the mechanic. Pale claws raised overhead, naked and dirty, her teeth looked like razors. James’ trigger finger twitched more than it pulled, but it was hard to miss, even with a hip shot. The deafening shot echoed endlessly.
The blast flung blood and dust into the air. The feral woman was on her back, and James was on his knee, holding his ringing ears. Should’ve known better. He quickly reclaimed the gun as he reached in his pocket for a handkerchief. Shooting from the hip had nearly sprained his right wrist, but his head felt like it was in a vibrating vice. The mechanic quickly rolled two ends of the rag into earplugs for the next blast. If that helps.
Confident that his attacker was staying down, James reached for the top of the gun to fold out the weapon stock. He planted the gun properly above the armpit and inched his way to the intersection. The woman was missing everything below her rib cage, but she still tried to find a way to stand on her hands. James put his boot on her left wrist, “Where is she?”
The creature just snarled and tried to lazily claw him once more. The man sighed and planted his other boot to the other wrist. He let the shotgun dangle as he drew his melee weapon. Just beneath the average arm length, he held a polymer-titanium alloy rod as thick as a thumb. He heaved it overhead and bashed her skull in. The rotten egg smell was almost as bad as James’ headache.
Something moved from another intersection. James snapped his gun up as another naked beast appeared. This one was a muscle bound man with fresh blood coating his lower face and shoulder length hair. James’ eyes opened wider than ever before. He fired a shot that barely slowed the beast’s charge.
Bits of flesh flew from the attacker’s torso and face, but he still tackled James with ease. The shotgun slid from his grip, but the alloy rod kept the monster from chewing James’ face off. The mechanic knew he had no chance to win this fight, so he fumbled for his wrist and flicked the second switch. The winch on James’ back reeled instantly, dragging his body across the crooked, bumpy cave floor.
The bloodthirsty vamp wasn’t letting go. James didn’t plan on him latching on so tightly. Every corner they turned flung them forcefully against the opposite wall like ragdolls. Sunlight finally illuminated part of the tunnel. James expected the beast to let go, but he was still snapping his jaws, mad red eyes locked on the mechanic’s throat.
Direct sunlight burst into view, causing the monster to shut his eyes and release his prey. James surprised himself by grabbing the monster’s long hair, dragging him further out. The winch finally reached its destination, landing the pair against the rock with a solid thud.
The naked blood drinker let his hair tear away from his scalp as he scrambled away from James’ grip. The mechanic quickly detached the gun and aimed the second harpoon at the wild runner. Wait. Shoot where he’s going to be. James took a knee and aimed for the cave mouth. When the runner realized its way back, James barely had to aim at such a broad target. The harpoon went through his foe’s chest and automatically expanded its three grappling hooks.
James let go of the gun and flicked the second switch at his wrist. The behemoth slammed against the anchor. His skin reddened immediately, but the beast was more concerned with removing the harpoon. His dark red skin was peeling instantly; a pale yellow slime arose within the cracked skin’s crevices, especially in the spots James had hit with the shotgun. James raised the rod as he circled behind his attacker, he also removed his improvised earplugs. The feral monster was tearing his rib cage apart, slowly releasing himself from the trap.
The mechanic took a deep breath, and pummeled the back of his foe’s skull. Strong bursts of steam erupted from the opened skull. James swung until his enemy stopped writhing. The mechanic plopped on his ass, processing the situation. Can’t stop. She’s still in there. With a deep sigh and a huff, James pushed himself back up. He reclaimed his slimy harpoon gun with some effort, and anchored it into another small boulder.
Back in the tunnels, James had counted his turns, though he could easily follow the trail of sand he had drawn on the way out. The decapitated woman was twitching. Barely audible, he told her, “Sorry.” The mechanic finished the job by removing the feral woman’s head completely. He hadn’t known a blunt weapon was capable of removing limbs. He dry gagged as he reclaimed his shotgun.
The gun’s flashlight illuminated its way down the tunnel where the large vampire had emerged. James controlled his breathing as he entered just a bit further. The cable softly yanked James’ harness. He felt himself sweat as he quietly removed the harpoon gun from his harness. He laid it gently and pressed on.
Deborah lay sprawled and naked in a dank corner. James froze. She had always been fit, though no one had ever called her skinny. Now she looked gaunt, with dull skin peppered in fresh bite marks and splattered in blood. Deborah’s shoulder length, dark blonde hair covered her upper face. Her fingers were curled into the sand beneath her; her mouth agape.
He gripped his shotgun tighter. Did she turn? James circled her side, and raised his sights to her covered eyes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.” James’ finger slid over the trigger, and he knew he couldn’t pull it.
The young man dropped the gun and stumbled backwards against the nearest wall. I should’ve stayed in the village. This isn’t what I’m supposed to be. He sat in silence, blinking repeatedly as his eyes watered.
Deborah broke the silence with a prolonged, dry gasp. The slight echo forced a shiver down James’ spine. He hesitated, then lunged for the shotgun. Rush me. Don’t let me think about it.
Deborah arched her back off the ground, gasping a longer, shriller breath. The only parts of her on the ground were her heels, wrists and the back of her head. Her scalp twisted until she seemed to gaze at James. His finger returned to the trigger.
Her eye lids fluttered from trance to awareness. Deborah lay flat again, covering her eyes from the flashlight. Most people in the world had hoarse voices from borderline dehydration, but Deborah’s voice was gratingly drier than before. “Get that damn light off me.”
James felt his chin and lips quiver, then he lowered the gun. “How, uh, how do you feel?”
Deborah rose her head. “Could use some clothes. Not that I don’t trust you.” She forced herself to sit up and wrap her arms and legs around her naked form. “What happened?”
James felt a lump in his throat. She felt the bite marks and blood, and it seemed she didn’t need a flashlight to see clearly.
“I’m sorry Deb.”
She looked dizzy, ready to vomit. “No. They didn’t. James…”
He couldn’t respond. Deborah lunged on top of him, fighting to get the shotgun under her chin.
The woman screamed, “Kill me! Kill me! I won’t be one of them!”
James clicked the safety on before wrestling his way to her rear and tossing the gun. “No!” The mechanic managed to subdue her with a good hold, falling on his back. Deborah thrashed with every part of her body she could move. James screamed back, “I can’t kill you, and I won’t let you do it either! We’re going to figure this out!”
The gun’s flashlight gave a weak glow around the dead end tunnel. Just enough light for James to adjust his eyes to. Within a few moments, he realized Deborah was crying. “I hate them! I hate them dammit! I’d rather die!”
James lowered his voice, though it didn’t stop him from rambling, “It’s okay. This doesn’t make you a monster. You’re still the person you choose to be. Your life doesn’t end here. We can go home. They’ll understand.”
Deborah finally went limp with her sobbing. “I don’t want this.”
“I know. But it’s been done. You’re not a monster. You’re just, on a liquid diet now.”
A weak chuckled slipped between the sobs. “I don’t think you ever made me laugh before.”
James loosened his grip into a hug. “Yeah, we’ve never really gotten along too well have we?”
“Sister-in-laws are supposed to be bitches, right?”
James sighed a small laugh, and sat up. “Here.” He slid his backpack to his lap and felt for the loose clothes on top. “I found most of your clothes on the way here. Couldn’t find your, uh, bra.”
The baby vamp sat up. “They’re not that big to begin with.”
“I… wouldn’t know.”
Deborah wiped her eyes with a small grin, “Shut up.” She reached for her tattered black t-shirt, navy cargo pants and combat boots. The two slid into silence for a while. James grabbed the gun and pushed himself to his feet. Deborah sat for a bit, eventually accepting James’ hand to rise.
He knew she’d lie, but asked anyway, “You good?”
The pair knew each other enough to leave it at that. Then James led Deborah out of the small labyrinth. When they reached the cave mouth, Deborah hesitated. James was confused at first, then felt stupid as he unwrapped his black cloak.
“Is this, uh, light-tight enough?” There was enough light to make out her face. He tried not to stare at her red eyes as he handed the garb to her.
Deborah squinted as she accepted the cloak. “Yeah.” She wrapped the loose mass of dusty black cloth around her neck and shoulders.
James missed his cloak already. He didn’t know what material it was, but it didn’t hold heat in the slightest, and his bare arms never reddened.
The large vampire corpse smelled like burnt meat over a strong fire, mixed with spoiled eggs, and didn’t look much different. Yellow slime and blood bubbled and oozed from the opened skull and other crevices of cracked skin all over. “He hasn’t been out here long. You sure you’ll be alright?”
Deb was already standing beside him, her skin completely shaded. “The steam is actually the bacteria burning in ultraviolet light. See where you cracked the skull wide?”
James gave her a sidelong glance. “Yes. I’m aware of that area.”
“The bacteria already replaced my natural pigment. I’ll get sunburn quicker, but as you can see, they—I won’t erupt in flames or anything.”
James turned Deborah to exit the valley. “The buggy’s back here.” He wanted to keep the silence at bay. “So, why mess with your pigment?” He wondered how many of these little facts she would know as a medic.
Deborah walked slower than usual, but managed to keep a steady pace. “Well, this… infection, only cares about keeping its host’s plasma intact. To do so, it mutates itself to make the host stronger, in a sense. It focuses on thickening veins and skin. You may have been told about your shotgun loads. Steel BB pellets would knock a vamp back, but not much else. Now, fill a shot shell with shards of scrap metal, now you’re slashing rubber apart with a thousand tiny scalpels.”
“I thought it was just easier to load junk than find proper BBs.”
“I’m sure that helped in the development of shredder rounds.”
“So bleeding a vamp is more effective than the sun?”
“The bacteria constantly feeds off of plasma. When the sun starts steaming the germs alive, they’ll feed faster, and faster. Without the extra hydration, the infection cannibalizes itself, basically turning into a flesh-eating disease. As you can see with our friend back there, there’s not too much left after that.”
“You make them sound so, vulnerable.”
Deborah didn’t say much more after that. James decided to keep his mouth shut.