The steep sand dune wasn’t difficult to scale; Deborah was already at its peak. She twisted around to squint through the beating sun to James, meters behind. I didn’t think he was that out of shape. Oh… The fresh vamp was suddenly aware that her lungs weren’t even moving. Didn’t know the infection worked that fast.
James was panting on all fours, fighting for every step. Deborah pulled the cloak back from her left hand. She stared at the lifeless-looking thing. It didn’t seem like her hand at all. As a combat medic, Deborah had felt a responsibility to stay fit. Saving a life could depend on a few seconds she might waste on catching her breath, or not being able to run at her full potential.
Health had always been pivotal for Deborah. In the sand, no one was healthy. Malnutrition and borderline dehydration was typical. Deborah had always gone out of her way to get extra resources for herself. She knew that even an extra canteen of water in her system gave her an edge. Deborah looked at her gaunt hand with a lifeless gaze.
Her dull skin wasn’t completely infested with the vampiric bacteria yet. The sun didn’t dry her out like a raisin, but its rays felt like a torch resting on her skin. How long until I’m fully infected? She had heard of a vamp that had taken a whole week to fully turn. Myth or not, word was he went that long by refusing blood.
Every little popped vein on James’ arms and forehead seemed to taunt Deborah. As a medic, she was more than used to the sight and smell of blood, but now she craved it. The only thing she wanted more was James’ shotgun pointed down her throat. That’s the only cure.
Bits of tiny scratches on the gun glimmered in the sun. Her eyesight seemed sharper, but also more light-sensitive. She hadn’t told James about the sun’s psychological effects on vamps. When driven from the light, religious people tended to feel rejected by their deities and loved ones. Others felt a sense of timelessness, a trance of shade and shadows that went on forever.
Deborah found herself in another group. The group of infected that would rather sacrifice their bodies than let the infection win. The sun was their last grip on humanity, the last grip of true pain. The bacteria eventually eliminated pain receptors in the nervous system. Sunlight and fire could still send the infection into shock, which empathetically affected the host.
A vampire from Deborah’s past had claimed to have forgotten what normal pain felt like. She had told Deborah that when the bacteria was harmed, it shook the whole body like a vibration. “Not a physical pain,” she had said, “more like fear incarnate. A fear that forces you to flee, or suffer.”
Deborah didn’t feel anything like that yet. In fact, she still felt a stiff fatigue all over. Probably the bites. She snapped from her daze when James stumbled next to her feet. “You didn’t happen to find my canteen did you?”
James huffed as he flung himself to his back. “Sorry.”
“I wasn’t asking for myself.”
He looked briefly confused again. It seemed neither of them could quite process what had happened to Deborah. He wiped his sweat off his brow with his handkerchief. Then he turned his right wrist upward. “Do you, uh, need a drink?”
Deborah felt her upper lip twitch. “No.” She stormed off towards the short plateau where they had been ambushed. Damned idiot. Doesn’t he know that’ll only speed the infection? Probably not. Damned, ignorant idiot! It was at that point she remembered another piece of vamp anatomy: no more menstrual cycles.
Angry and irritated, Deborah leaned against the beaten but sturdy dune buggy. The airless tires had always reminded Deborah of the little pasta wheels she used to eat as a child. A tiny circle inside another circle, connected by a symmetrical web of even tinier circles. The tires reached up to Deborah’s knee, and wider than both of her feet side by side.
The chipped and scratched red frame was made up of a series of pipes, or bars, not much thicker than the average thumb. Tall enough to hide Deborah’s chest, it was wide enough for two seats, and maybe three times as long. The bed in the back was built for heavy duty hauling, but it had been comfortable enough to take a nap in once in a while.
James finally huffed his way to the buggy. His sweat was glaring, even in the shade of the towering rock pillars behind Deborah. She felt bad to see how his skin had turned bright pink, and how she could see his body pushing salt-sweat out of his pores.
Deborah pushed herself off the buggy, “Need any help?”
James barely had a grip on the shotgun dangling by his side. He barely lifted his other lanky arm to point to the bed. “Toolbox… Rubber gloves…”
The fresh vamp eyed James up and down before turning her back on him. You need water. Deborah opened the rusty, blue box and dug under a thin pile of wrenches and such for the gloves. Ah. She had cut her knuckle on a utility knife. A small red slit appeared, but was soon joined by the pale yellow bacteria. Before a single drop had escaped the skin, the infection swallowed it back in. In a day or two, that same blade wouldn’t have gotten that far.
Deborah turned back; James was face down in the sand. She ran to him in two strides and a slide, and rolled him to his side. The medic dragged her brother-in-law closer to the buggy where the sun wouldn’t touch for a while. Deborah scrambled in and around the buggy for her supplies. A trail of belongings lead down the opposite side of the plateau.
She finally found her camel pack a few meters from the buggy. Wet sand was underneath it; a small stream of water still flowing. Deborah covered the hole the best she could and ran back to her patient.
A solid slap shot James awake. Before he could say anything, he just tilted his head up and welcomed the last gulps of water to leak from the pack’s bladder. Deborah made sure to cover the hole in increments so James didn’t drink too fast. After a few good swallows, the pack was empty.
Deborah grabbed James’ head for his undivided attention, “Rest.”
He warily nodded with heavy eyelids. Deborah lifted his head and piled some sand underneath for a quick pillow. He needs more than that. She proceeded to replay the ambush in her mind, and searched for her first aid kit.
Deborah vaguely remembered being dragged down the dune where her supplies were scattered. Before leaving, she claimed James’ shotgun. The plateau was fairly level rock, and the sand piled around the base seemed shallow. Her white machete handle poked out of the slope, her sheathe just beside it. She was thankful that the rest of her belt, and its attachments, stayed connected as she pulled her sheathe from the sand.
Only the tip of her soft-case med kit poked out of the sand. In the corner of her eye, somebody was lying down. Deborah carefully snapped her belt on beneath the cloak. She could see enough to know it was a vampire husk. Baked for half a day.
She was more worried about James, but made a slight detour on her way back to the top of the plateau. Yellow liquid and blood had crusted together in a loose sculpture of a head and a few other body parts. There was no skin left, except for pink pieces of ash mixed with the sand. Without a second thought, Deborah continued upward.
Back at the buggy, Deborah saw James fiddling under the buggy already. Never seen him this focused before. Most of their time together had been spent at Tsara’s dinner table, and occasionally in James’ garage. He had worked on every vehicle in the village, all eleven.
Buggies and trucks would come back from their missions, usually one towing the other. Aside from the paint, when they left James’ shop, they ran like new. Deborah’s buggy had never needed much maintenance, or at least, none that she had known of. I guess that’s how people break down out here.
Deborah called out, “How is she?”
James looked up so fast he hit his head. Deborah cringed at the thud, and how the buggy hadn’t shimmied at all. After he swore, she curled her lips in to prevent a laugh. He was always thorough, but Tsara had said he was easily distracted.
James slid out from under the frame, rubbing the top of his head. “She’s fan-fucking-tastic. I was almost done before… you know.”
Deborah pulled a neon green patch out of a thin pocket of her med kit. “You should take this.”
James stood well enough, though he looked a bit dizzy. “Electrolytes? Nah, I’ll be fine when we get going. The wind always wakes me up.”
Deborah laid her kit and shotgun in the back of the buggy. She tore open the plastic wrap for the patch and offered it. “It’s open now. Don’t let it go to waste.”
The mechanic sighed and grabbed it with a weak laugh and slapped the patch on his exposed left shoulder.
Deborah leaned against the bed and glanced at the shotgun again. “I just like to keep people alive.” Two seconds. I could put that barrel in my mouth and end it… Tsara should understand, I think.
James clasped Deborah’s shoulder. “Thanks.”
She shrugged, “I’m a healer, right?”
He must have noticed what she was looking at, “I almost took the shells out of the gun.”
Deborah nodded, “Would’ve found them easy enough. And I bet you woulda felt bad if I needed it while you were passed out.”
“Crossed my mind.”
Deborah felt James wanted to say more, but they sat silent for a while. James finally slapped the rim of the buggy. “You driving?”
“You better. I can’t see too well.”
James nodded and pulled the key from his pocket. “Alright, the truck should be just over—”
“No. We’re going home.”
“Deb, we’re almost there. They could still be alive.”
“If they were, they would’ve checked in on the radio.” I just want to see Tsara one last time.
James leaned in the buggy and grabbed the CB handle, “Come in Muscle and Slingshot. This is Repair Man reporting.” He waited for a response, tried again, waited, and turned back to Deborah. “We should at least see what happened to our people.”
“James, you got lucky in the tunnels. Out in the light, we have enemies that can think, coordinate and be creative. We need to get back home before nightfall… Before you start to look like a meal to me.”
He stared back. “We’re not getting back by nightfall. You are not sick. Our people need us.” He leaned closer, “And I’m driving.”
Deborah shook her head, “You killed three vamps, now you’re a badass all of a sudden? We started this mission with four people. Now, two of us might go home. We need to cut our losses.”
James looked very confused, “I only killed two, in the tunnels.”
“I found a husk down the slope, that wasn’t yours?”
James slowly shook his head. “I ran straight down that hill when I heard you scream, and I only killed two vamps below.”
Deborah kept her face still, scanning the horizon with her eyes. “Walk with me.” She led James to the edge of the plateau and showed him the husk. “Did you see that body before?”
“Could you have missed it?”
“That’s practically the path I took down.”
“Get in the buggy, we’re leaving.” She turned to leave.
He called after her, “The fuck’s happening?”
“I’d rather not find out.”
James stormed after her, “We’re not leaving our people.”
She snapped back, “Fine. We’ll go. If their truck works, I’m leaving you.” Deborah jumped in the passenger seat.
James wasn’t far behind. “We’ll see.”