Through Those Dark Doorways

Since the Change, everything has fallen apart. Pockets of humanity survive against all odds, raiding the surrounding areas for food and supplies, in constant danger from the innumerable 'Changed' - diseased, deranged and deadly creatures that were once men. Still, those who remain face an even greater danger: themselves...

But something is happening among the Changed. They are mutating, becoming faster, stronger - better. And their lust for fresh meat cannot be slaked.

Humanity's last chance has presented itself. But with the Changed roaming the streets at will, psychopaths rising to power and end-time cults putting their own plans into action, can the last dregs of mankind pull together? Or will they be destroyed by the Changed?

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2. Chapter One - Art

The light of day doesn’t chase away the shadows. It simply outlines them.

                You’d think that the sun would burn away your fear like it would a morning mist, but it isn’t so. In the day, the darkness is deeper, blacker, contrasting with the white light. At night, it’s absolute: everything is cast in monochrome, each colour just another shade of midnight blue. At night it’s usually dark enough to warrant use of the night vision specs and the thermal imaging goggles. They’re a bonus. With them, you can see a body’s heat through a wall. With thermal imaging, you know where you stand. Even with night vision, everything is clearly outlined.

                It’s in the daytime you see the least. When the sun is approaching its apex, when the infernal heat of that fiery ball beats directly down on your back: that is when you’re at our most vulnerable. Ironically, it’s in the day that you can see the least.

                As a child I used to be afraid of the dark. Now the tables are turned. As an adult, I loathe the day.

                I rest my fingers on my handgun, the cool in direct contrast with my hand. I twist my head abruptly to one side, seeking out the demons that dance at the corners of my vision. But there’s nothing there: just my mind, playing tricks on my jumped-up brain.

                I’m as safe as can be. Nothing with any semblance of intelligence would dare attack us: an eight-strong team, armed to the teeth and alert to every movement. We’ve been through this before – raiding the towns and villages where there are less of them to deal with, taking what we can and getting it back home safely. We’re always on edge during a raid; always elated when we get away with it. Some of us do it for the adrenaline rush, others because we feel a sense of duty towards the community.

                Every man, woman and child still alive has to be protected. It’s the cardinal rule, the one we never break, that most sacred of commandments. There is no ‘every man for himself’ sentimentality. It’s ‘leave no man behind’. We trust one another with our lives. We have no choice in the matter. If we don’t trust one another completely, then we all die.

                “I bet there’s a nest in the hardware store,” comments Nick. “They flock to places like that. I wonder what makes them go there. What’s the appeal in a room full of DIY equipment?”

                “Maybe they’re suicidal,” proposes David. He grins widely, staring past the street “Back in the beginning, I smashed up a fair few of ‘em with a two-by-four and it’s difficult to forget the day I drilled a hole through the centre of one’s forehead. That must’ve been back when the energy grid was still up...”

                “Shut it,” hisses John, voice low. “Do you want us to have to fight our way out of here?” He glares at David, ice-blue eyes boring into him.

                “Relax,” he assuages. “They’ll be asleep this time in the day. Even if they are awake, they aren’t going to come outside. You know how they are with sunlight: they practically develop melanoma at the sight of a clear blue sky.” He smirks, but no-one else appreciates the humour. Most of us just aren’t in the mood.

                 As always, the street is empty and broken. It’s the same across the country, maybe even across the world: shop fronts smashed from the riots, cars abandoned by the curb, houses bleak, radiating lifelessness with a quiet malice. No matter what town we visit, they’re all identical: ghost towns, every one of them, the inhabitants either dead or changed.

                Changed.

                I shudder as I recall the changing: the outbreaks, the newsflashes; the panic. I screw my eyes shut tight, shutting out the memories. I can’t afford to become distracted now. There’s too much at stake for that.

                “What’s taking them so bloody long?” seethes John. I grimace. John’s a strange one. He gets angry anytime he’s skittish and takes it out on everyone. A remarkably sour character, he is. But one can’t fault him: if we don’t deal with the nerves somehow, guys go mad – women too. I’ve seen it happen. Some folk just can’t handle the violence or the brutality. Others revert to their old view of the world, choosing to believe that everything is as it used to be.

                “Relax,” I say to him. “They’ll be out soon. Just watch the streets. Wouldn’t do to let one slip past, would it?”

                John registers the point, but doesn’t seem in the mood to verbally accept it. It’s funny how different we are, me and him: we may be the same age, but we’re hardly typical eighteen year-olds. Then again, can anything really be labelled ‘normal’ anymore? It seems redundant to tag anything like that now. Normal... Ha! I would give my left ear for a day’s worth of normality.

                I know why he’s uneasy – we’re all a little twitchy just now. Just last week, they took Caleb; dragged him away into the dark interior of a burnt-out building, snatching him from the dying light of the evening. We had to leave him. There was nothing we could do for him. We had to leave him there, in the dark, out of sight. But we all heard his screams.

                A crash resounds from a side street all of ten metres away. My left hand flies to my handgun in its holster, fingers twitching around the trigger. My right grabs the grip of the hunting knife strapped to my leg. I check the others, see that they’ve done the same: Nick has his baseball bat hefted high, as if ready for the bowler’s throw; David’s AK is tucked in against his shoulder; John’s thin arm holds his own handgun a distance from his body, the barrel levelled at the entrance to the side street.

                We stand in silence, holding our breaths in apprehension, eyes focused on the entrance to that shadowed alleyway. But nothing presents itself to us, neither man nor beast. But still we poise, ready to unleash hell on whatever horror the street may hold. And then it rolls out: a dull metal trash can lid, powered onwards by the wind.

                The disc of silver settles in the middle of the street with a clang. David laughs nervously. “Ha! Are we men, or are we mice? We just got spooked by a bin.”

                “Shut it, Dave! I very nearly dropped my guts,” attacks John. I could see it in his eyes: he had been well and truly scared. But there’s no room for fear anymore – not today.

                “Man up, Johnny boy,” snaps Nick, voicing my thoughts for all to hear. “This is the way we live now. Get used to it. Quit being afraid of your own shadow – it’s inevitable that we’re going to have to fight sometime, so stop fearing the idea.”

                John fixes him with a murderous stare, and Nick sighs. Adopting a lower, calmer tone, he continues: “Look, we’re all on edge. But if you continue going down the road you’re walking along, you’ll lose your mind. Seen it happen before. I don’t want another insane kid on my hands.”

                The boy drops his eyes, nodding in reluctant agreement. I’m finding myself in agreement with Nick, too: there’s nothing worse than paranoia. I’ve experienced my fair share of it in the past. But maybe Nick’s wrong. Complacency will get you killed. Paranoia might just keep you alive.

                There’s a muffled bang from inside the shop we’re guarding. We all twist around, alert once again to danger. Through the dirtied windows, we catch glimpses of dancing silhouettes. There’s a crash and a clamour to follow – a voice yelling.

                “Oh, we’re deep in the doo-doo now,” mutters David, and raises his assault rifle once more.

                The door flies open, and out rushes a sweat-streaked woman, her face set in determination. “Come on, get out!” she yells, abandoning stealth and subtlety. There’s only one reason that any of us would be shouting in a place as dangerous as this. A shiver passes down my spine.

                Another forager – a man this time – charges through the doorway pushing a trolley loaded with supplies. Nick turns to him.

                “Where?” demands Nick.

                “At the back,” he responds, gasping for breath. “Half a dozen.”

                “Damn,” he curses. “The others?”

                “We can’t wait for them,” David points out. “If they got caught, they haven’t a chance in hell of surviving. All we can do is hope they die quickly.”

                Nick doesn’t say anything for a moment. Shouts resound from within the store, acting as catalysts to his thoughts. He faces a decision here – a tough call. But there’s really only one remaining option left to us: get the hell out of here. The only question is how long it’ll take him to reach that conclusion. Get a wriggle on, Nick, I think desperately. We haven’t the time!

                “No,” he says, startling us all. “We leave no man behind. David, John: stay here and guard the others. Art: you’re with me.  Shoot anything that moves that isn’t us.”

                “This is suicide, Nick!” argues David. “We need to-”

                “We can’t lose them!” yells Nick. “We simply can’t afford for people to die any more. You want to leave? Fine – you have the key to the truck. But you’ll have our deaths on your conscience forevermore if you go now.” And then he’s off, vanishing into the shadows.

                I groan. “To hell with it all!” I declare, and then I too am gone: running into the lion’s den.

                I always did hate Mondays.

*

The interior of the store is dark and dusty. Long-forgotten crisp packets sit beside corrupted bags of sweets on shelves in the abandoned aisles. It is strangely dead and lifeless. In fact, it’s like entering a long-sealed tomb - except for the shouting.

                Angered cries echo back from ahead. Nick stalks forwards quickly, his baseball bat at his side, a beam of light shooting from the torch he holds in his left hand. The torch slices through the dark like a knife, cleaving it in two with ease.

                Nick gestures to me, and I pad across to him as quietly as speed allows. “What’s the plan?” I whisper to him. This was his call – I’m kind of hoping that he’s had some sort of inspiration.

                “You run through the door and shoot everything that isn’t one of our own.”

                That’s a little worrying. “And what are you going to be doing...?”

                “I’ll follow, finish off those you managed to down and then lead the others out,” he states.

                “You made that up on the spot, didn’t you?” I ask, suspicious.

                “I’m not denying it,” he says, flashing me a slightly hysterical grin. But his amusement is short lived. “On my signal, we go. You ready?”

                I nod uncertainly. I can still hear them – yelling, crashing around. It sounds like they’re struggling with something. We have to act now, or there’ll be no-one left to rescue. David was right, I think: This is bloody suicide.

                “Now!” says Nick, loud and clear. I shoot off, rushing at the door leading through to the storeroom, Nick right behind me, the torchlight shining over my shoulder. I unconsciously flick the safety off. My weapon is ready to use. The good Lord knows that I’m going to need it. And then we’re in.

                 A pair of fallen torches illuminates the scene for us. A pale-faced woman is locked in combat with an all but unseen figure, using her long dagger to beat it back. By her side is an older man, trying to fight off another one of the shadowy figures with a length of lead piping – a cruel parody on the classic murder mystery game. There are several more faceless figures stirring in the corner. It’s now that I realise that Fiona was right: we’ve disturbed a nest.

                “Down!” I yell, catching the man and the woman by surprise. I can’t wait for them – I fire, taking down an attacker. It collapses to the ground in a pool of blood. They get the point now, ducking down as I sweep the barrel of the Beretta across the room, firing as I go. Another snarling creature bites the dust, a bullet taking away the side of its face.

                I jerk my head backwards. The old man gets the message: he drags himself and his companion back, out of the storeroom. Nick’s laying into the fallen monsters. But there are more of them – and by now, they’re quite active.

                I swear and load another clip into the Beretta. “Fall back! Retreat! Turn tail! Oh, damn it, just get out!” I back away, gun held ready to fire. I may have a clear shot, but I hold back all the same: I can’t afford to waste bullets. With no-one around to make them anymore, we’ve got to conserve everything we can.

                I sweep up one of the fallen torches and shine the beam at the knot of things in the corner – and catch my first glimpse of the Changed.

                There are five of them – three male, two female – their skin torn and peeling. Like wallpaper in a long-forgotten bedroom it flakes. These guys are far gone. One of them, a male, stumbles forwards. It’s the face I fixate on, the horrible apparition searing its image into my mind: his face is rotting away, the flesh an incomplete pale sheet drawn across his face. Where there should be a cheek there is a gaping hole that reveals chipped and broken teeth, diseased gums oozing blood and nameless substances. A tangled, matted lock sticks to the raw red flesh, plastered with plasma. His scalp is all but gone, held there by but a few remaining clumps of dark hair. His forehead is swollen, a hideous growth covering half of a bleary eye. All the same, those awful pupils fix on me, burning with cold, dumb hatred. A rivulet of saliva runs down his chin to join the snot that falls from his nose.

                The Changed fixes on me, utters a slobbering growl that slips out past his cheek. It reaches out towards me, torn fingernails clawing at the space between us. My face sets, hard as stone. I feel no pity for this deranged thing that was once a man. But I’ll do something for him anyway: despatch him.

                The impact spins him around, smashing him into the main body of his companions. I note with satisfaction that the bullet’s taken the side of his head with it.

                A hand clamps down on my arm – strong, warm – not one of the Changed. “Get a move on, Art! You want to die?”

                I turn from the destruction that I’ve wrought and run, hot on Nick’s heels. But I can hear the Changed following after me, blistered feet slapping against the floor. I twist as I run; fire backwards. There’s a muffled screech and something hits the floor with a heavy thump. I pump my arms, run on, a patch of light skittering across the walls, the shelves and the floor as the torch shakes in my grasp.

                Nick stops abruptly a few metres ahead of me. “Duck!” he yells, and I’m quick to respond. I slide past on my knees, just able to catch the sight of a baseball bat connecting with the nose of a Changed, smashing it to the floor.

                Through the doorframe, I see the light of day, bright and beckoning. If I pass across that threshold, I’ll be safe. The Changed won’t follow us if we get fully into the light. I power forwards, my feet pounding the floor, advancing along the aisles, past the cashier, over the welcome mat...

                And then I’m safe, spilling out into the day. I fall to the ground, rolling back. I feel strong arms pulling me back as I gasp for breath, a voice shouting out.

                Nick. Where is Nick? He was right on my tail – where is he, damn it!? Through the doorway, I can see nothing – but I hear what’s going on just fine. The crack of bone funnels itself down my ear canals, the shouts of a man and the hissing snarls of the Changed a hellish choir. “Nick! Get out of there, damn it!”

                That second stretches out seemingly forever. In that moment, all I can see of Nick is a moving patch of shadow, a shadow that I imagine to be wielding a bat as a club. But then that shadow’s moving, getting closer, closer, closer...

                The AK’s pointing into the black again, and I know why. Nick may already be dead. What’s coming towards us might be a diseased monster as opposed to a loyal friend. We can’t take any risks. And still the shadow figure gets closer, until the light is upon him.

                David tightens his grip on the gun.

                “Hold your fire! It’s me!”

                Sweet relief washes over me as I take in his grinning face, his fine, smiling features glowing in the light. There’s not a scratch on him: he’s completely unharmed.

                He raises the baseball bat and points to the assault rifle. “Careful where you point that thing – I wouldn’t want to be a colander, now would I?” He grins manically, hyped up from the action. “Now, let’s see about getting back to-”

                He never gets the chance to finish his sentence. A gnarled, blood-washed hand curls round and digs its claw-like fingers into his neck and wrenches back, tearing an impossible gap in his throat. A ragged gasp of pain and shock escapes his frothing mouth as Nick collapses to the ground. And then we see it: the Changed, the awful vehicle of that hideous virus, its jagged teeth bared in a growl of defiance.

                Even as I empty the clip into its bloated chest, I know that the action is futile. With every twitch of my finger, I release another projectile powered by hate and anger and sorrow. But it all amounts to nothing as the thing topples to the floor, lifeless eyes staring into infinity; falls to the ground, to lie beside him; spills its blood to mix with his.

                I can do nothing to help. Nick is dead.

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