Horror Action/Adventure – Split Brain 2 –
Three days after an incident transforms half a city into psychotic killers, a disgraced military sniper teams up with a man who, because of a rare neurological condition, is half human, half monster.
|Publication Date||June 15, 2013|
|Series||Split Brain, Bk. 2|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
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Latest posts by Jameson Kowalczyk (see all)
For my dad, Jeff.
The city was still at sunrise. Narrow pillars of smoke rose from the dying fires of the night before, leaning east in the wind. Silent traffic gridlocked the streets and intersections, some cars nothing more than gutted husks of blackened metal. No pedestrians moved along the sidewalks, which were encrusted with infinite shards of broken glass that glittered as sunlight reached between the buildings.
For Scout Sniper Jason Pine, it was a beautiful sight.
He was perched on a 24-story building near the city’s heart, high above the leftover carnage of the night before. The past hours had been quiet, but there was a tension in the air; the battle wasn’t over, it was merely catching its breath. He’d felt this tension before, in other battles, in other cities, in other parts of the world.
He didn’t recognize the city he was in now, and its name hadn’t been included in the mission brief—it was referred to only as the quarantine zone, or QZ. He knew he was on U.S. soil. He knew there were two major highways and a bridge leading in and out, along with a dozen smaller entry/exit points. He knew a wide river ran through it on the east, and that the skyline backed up against a large body of water on the north. Key geographic features had been part of the briefing, although their mission was not rescue, or containment, but extermination.
Jason also knew the city had a population of 500,000, and that two nights earlier, at least half of that 500,000 had been affected by something called “the incident.”
Incident and affected where soft words for what had happened. The incident was some kind of electronic pulse that had been broadcast across TVs and computers citywide. The pulse scrambled the nervous system of anyone exposed. Those affected experienced a sudden physiological and psychological change: violent muscle contractions gripped the person’s body, breaking blood vessels and damaging veins, giving the skin a ropey, red appearance. Simultaneously, a psychotic episode erased any rational thought, leaving them disposed to homicidal aggression, cannibalism, and the adoption of a pack mentality—it turned them into monsters that attacked, ripped open, and ate anyone who wasn’t like them.
Jason had seen the affected firsthand the day before. Mostly, he’d seen them through the scope of his rifle, but at one point the battle had surrounded him, and he’d been forced to fight with his sidearm, his knife, his fists and boots. The incident did not discriminate based on race, gender, or age. Some of the affected he’d killed had been men. Others had been women. Some had been elderly. Others had been children.
He recalled the words of their warden during the briefing:
“You’re all here because you are, each and every one of you, a disgrace to our nation, your families, and the human race. The only reason we’ve kept you alive is because one day we might not want to waste good soldiers on something that’s more fucked up than any of you. Well, that day has come.”
Jason had watched the briefing while standing at the bars of his 6x6x8 cell. The warden wasn’t there in person. His lined face and hard jaw filled the screens of a dozen monitors mounted to a central column that rose the full height of the cellblock. Stretching as far as Jason could see, men nearly identical to him stood at the bars of their own cells. They could have been clones. Each had a shaved head, thick muscles, and a barcode tattooed on his forearm. Each was dressed in white shorts and a white t-shirt.
The warden’s jaw line was replaced with footage of the city, the QZ, its streets lit by flames and overrun with mobs of people who looked like they’d been possessed by demons. The warden’s voice remained, explaining the incident, the affected, and of course, what was expected of Jason and the other prisoner-soldiers. When the briefing was finished the monitors went black and there was a dull, deafening clang as all six hundred cells were unlocked simultaneously. The men stepped out, forming a line. Almost in unison, they turned left and walked forward. There was something in the air that Jason had not felt, ever, during his two years inside the prison: excitement. After years locked inside 6x6x8-foot rooms, the men were being handed weapons and set free on a feral city.
Jason moved his feet, following the man in front of him, still trying to process what had just happened, convinced he might, in a moment, wake up back inside his cell. It didn’t feel real.
Perched on the roof of a 24-story building, watching the sun rise over the city’s fractured skyline, it still didn’t.
Movement below. Jason lifted his binoculars and looked down to see a dog limp around a corner, padding forward on three legs. The fourth leg was held off the ground, broken or injured. The animal’s coat was wet with blood that oozed from multiple wounds. It took a moment for Jason to recognize the breed—a golden lab.
An affected stumbled into view a few steps behind the dog, stooping low to grab at the animal’s tail. The affected was male, and looked to be about eighty years old. Had it been any younger, it would have caught the dog already.
Jason put his binoculars aside and took aim with his rifle, placing the crosshairs at the man’s chest, then aiming slightly in front of it, anticipating where the stooped ribcage would be a few steps later.
The weapon was a .50 caliber Anti-Material Rifle, or AMR. The bullets were made from depleted uranium and capable of punching through two-inches of steel. On soft targets, the pressure wave created by a bullet’s speed was enough to burst a human body the way a firecracker would blow apart a piece of fruit.
The shot sounded like a thunderclap over the quiet city. As the rifle kicked, Jason lost sight of his target. When he found it again, the affected man was little more than a pair of legs and a giant splatter of red.
The dog continued forward for a few steps. When it turned to see its pursuer was no more, it stopped. Jason watched it pant for a minute, before continuing on its three good legs. Half a block later it disappeared into the broken door of a coffee shop.
He thought about going down to help the animal, but didn’t. He’d only have to abandon it later. He told himself he’d done enough by killing the thing that had been chasing it.
Jason turned his attention back to the skyline, and the task his mind had been working on all morning: escape.
He’d spent two years in the prison. This was a suicide mission. That was the only reason he and the other men in his cellblock had been let out. They were a few hundred against approximately a quarter million. They needed to thin out the number of affected to buy time, to let any survivors get to the checkpoints at the south end of the city. When there were no more survivors, Jason fully expected the people in charge to bomb the whole place to the ground with him and his fellow prisoners still inside. It’s what he would do in their position. Why risk re-arresting a group of heavily-armed violent criminals?
He needed to get out before that happened.
One by one, Jason went through his potential avenues of escape. There were the checkpoints where survivors were being directed, but every person that passed through was questioned and photographed. He’d observed this during the night, before the battle with the affected had pulled him away. There was the body of water to the north. He’d thought of stealing a boat, but the docks had been bombed during the early stages of the quarantine, before Jason and the rest of his fellow prisoners had been let loose in the chaos. And even with a boat, he’d have to make it past the military watercraft stationed on the open water.
An idea started to formulate as he sat and watched the sun lift a little higher. A plan.
The first thing he needed to do was find a phone book.
Jason walked to the edge of the building and scanned the streets below through his binoculars. Clear. No sign of any affected. He shouldered his rifle and drew his sidearm, a semi-automatic pistol with a silencer attached to the barrel. He exited the roof through an emergency door, and descended 24 stories down a dark, empty stairwell.
Up close, the streets were different. There was no illusion of peace like there had been when he was on the roof, looking down. There was blood pooled in the gutters and well-gnawed bones discarded on the sidewalks. Vehicles and walls of buildings were scarred from bullets and shrapnel. The streets stank of death and burnt fuel.
Something hummed three times against Jason’s right hip. He reached into a pouch on his belt and removed his comm device. He flipped open the case and read the message waiting for him.
Ammo drop, 20 min. Wiley Hotel, roof. Need sniper support, north side.
Jason hesitated. He wanted to get out of the city as fast as possible, without getting mixed up in the ongoing mayhem, but he only had seven rounds left for his rifle. He’d been carrying over 100 when he arrived. And the single clip that remained for his sidearm would not save him if he found himself faced with more than a few affected. If he wanted to survive, he’d need more bullets. He tapped REPLY and spoke into the device.
“Pine. On my way. Will provide sniper support, North side.”
He tapped send.
The comm devices had microphones, but no speakers. All communication among the task force was done by SMS or speech-totext applications. The pulse that had scrambled the neurological wiring of half the city’s residents had been some combination of audio and visual stimuli. Because the comm devices had no audio, they couldn’t be used to broadcast another pulse.
The message also included a string of numbers, coordinates for the location, encrypted. Jason touched the string of numbers and waited for the location to de-encrypt. When they did, a map filled the screen. The Wiley Hotel was three blocks north, highlighted in green.
He looked at his GPS and then at the streets ahead of him, identifying which building was the Wiley Hotel. Then, he looked at the building to the immediate north, a tall stone structure with a ring of gargoyles crouched just below its roof. It was taller than The Wiley by about a dozen stories. He’d get into position there.
Jason traveled the four blocks to the building without incident. He wondered if the affected were nocturnal. He ignored the front entrance and moved down an ally. A side door had already been forced open. He listened for any sound of activity from within, heard none, and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him.
The building was 18 stories tall. That meant there were 36 flights of stairs to the roof. By the time Jason reached the top he was gasping for breath and trying not to throw up. The muscles in his legs felt like rubber. The equipment he carried felt like it had tripled in weight. He’d spent countless hours working out in prison, but they were a poor substitute for military training. He and the rest of the prisoners were just cannon fodder, cheap labor. No one cared if they lived or died. They were only needed to do the kind of job they wouldn’t think of giving a real soldier.
At the top of the stairwell, Jason pushed open a door. The earlymorning sun was blinding. He shielded his eyes, letting them adjust. He tested the door, and found that it would lock when it closed, trapping him on the roof, so he propped it open with a fire extinguisher that hung on the wall at the top of the stairs.
The conditioning, the endurance he’d built in his 8 years in the Marines had faded during his time in the prison, but the mentality was still there. He knew if he wasn’t late already, he was close to it. He shrugged off his pack, leaving it in the shade next to the doorway, and ran to the edge of the building with only his rifle.
He took a knee at the building’s edge and looked down at the roof of the Wiley Hotel. Empty. No movement, not even a scrap of garbage moving in the breeze. Not on the roof, not on the streets surrounding the hotel.
There was no way he was early. Had he missed the drop completely?
“You’re late,” a voice behind him bellowed.
The sweat on Jason’s skin chilled.
He turned to see a lone figure standing above the doorway he’d come through, on top of the flat, concrete structure that housed the stairwell. The man was in his mid forties, but his bald head and lined face made him look ten years older. He was dressed in boots and black fatigues, the same as Jason. And like Jason, he’d shrugged off most of his gear, and carried only a rifle. Not the scoped, .50 caliber AntiMaterial Rifle that Jason carried, but a standard assault rifle—a better choice at the thirty-foot distance between the two men.
“Let’s not do this, Marcus.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jason.” Marcus grinned. Without warning, he jumped from the platform and landed in a crouch on the roof below. Jason raised his rifle, putting its stock against his shoulder. He aimed without looking through the scope—this close, it would be like trying to look at a TV through a telescope.
Marcus laughed. “That cannon’s a bit unwieldy for this range, don’t
“It fires a fifty-caliber depleted uranium dart. Even if I graze you, it’ll be enough to take off a limb.”
Marcus shrugged, not seeming concerned. “How about I just… here how about this,” Marcus said, and let go of his rifle, letting it hang from his body by its shoulder strap. He moved the gun behind his back.
Jason’s rifle weighed nearly 40 pounds, and it was difficult to keep a steady aim. If he pulled the trigger while holding it like this, the kick would be enough to knock him off his feet. He regretted not dropping the rifle and drawing his sidearm when he’d had the chance. It had been over two years since he’d been in any kind of combat situation. The simulations he’d been allowed to play in prison were no substitute for actual training. His decision-making skills were rusty.
“It wasn’t easy setting this up,” Marcus said. “I mean, hacking the comm channel was easy enough, but finding a computer to do it with, that was a challenge. Any computer or TV that was turned on during the pulse was completely fried.
“I thought of sending out a distress signal, but I didn’t know if you’d show. I figured you’d be low on ammo, though. I figured that would get you up here. And I figured you’d shoot from this building. I also made sure the door downstairs was open. If you’d gone for a different building, I just would have shot you in the head from up here. But since you actually walked into my trap, well, you get something special.”
“What are you going to do? Lock me up here? This rifle can fire through a tank. You think it can’t cut through that door.”
“For you, the problem isn’t going to be getting the door open. It’s going to be getting from where you’re standing now, all the way over to here.”
Marcus raised his left hand and pushed a button on a small plastic device strapped to his wrist. Twenty yards away, a concrete wall exploded. Instinctively, Jason knelt and tucked his head to his chest, shielding his face and skull with his left bicep. But the blast didn’t reach him. Cinderblocks tumbled across the roof. When the dust cloud thinned, Jason could see a jagged hole leading into some kind of utility room. A figured emerged from the dust. Then another, and another, and another, until they totaled ten. All affected.
Marcus stepped into the darkened stairwell, kicking away the fire extinguisher Jason had placed as a doorstopper. The door slammed shut. It didn’t matter—Jason had no chance of reaching it. The affected were already charging.
Still crouched, Jason took aim and fired the AMR at the nearest affected. It was—had been—a man, its age impossible to determine. The bullet hit its potbellied torso, and the thing was cut in half by the pressure wave that trailed the high-velocity projectile. The metallic dart passed through the first body and continued through the phalanx of affected, shearing off limbs, shredding organs and tissue.
Jason pulled back the rifle’s bolt to chamber another round, but wasn’t able to squeeze off a second shot before one of the affected reached him. He turned the rifle sideways and held it like a staff, slamming the barrel into his attacker’s throat, holding the snarling, bloody face at arm’s length. It was female and had been young. She was dressed in running clothes that left nearly all of her pulpy red body exposed.
As she pressed into him, he was forced to take one step back, and then another. A second affected reached him and Jason used the other end of the rifle—the stock—to shield himself. He was pushed back further, and all three went over the edge of the roof.
There was the sudden loss of solid ground, of uncontrolled gravity taking hold.
Jason had just enough time to think, I’m dead, before the air was knocked from his lungs. The edge of the roof he’d gone over was only ten feet above him. He’d landed on the wide, stone back of a gargoyle. The female affected was still on top of him, still snapping at his face with red teeth. She had the strength of a cornered animal or a psychotic person. The other affected—a boy no more than ten years old—clung to the rifle stock, feet dangling in empty space, eighteen stories above the street.
Jason rolled one way, then the other, trying to shake his enemies off. The boy lost his grip on the rifle, and the sudden loss of resistance almost sent Jason rolling off the other side of the gargoyle. There was no scream as the affected boy plunged to its death, only the distant thud as it arrived on the sidewalk eighteen stories below.
Jason felt his back scrape against the gargoyle’s stone skin. The monster on top of him throttled the rifle, trying to rip it from his hands. He pulled his knees to his chest, putting his legs between their bodies, then kicked hard, throwing her over the side of their ledge.
Her body fell but her grip on the rifle stayed tight. Jason found himself on his stomach, holding the gun by its strap, the affected dangling from the end of the barrel, the muzzle aimed directly into her face.
Jason screamed. He braced his right shoulder against the rifle stock and pulled the trigger with his left hand. The kick nearly snapped his wrist. The gun suddenly felt weightless. He hauled it onto the gargoyle’s back and found the affected’s arms still dangling from the barrel, torn off at the shoulders, the hands clamped just above the muzzle. He pried them off one finger at a time and tossed the severed limbs down to the street.
Jason lay on his back, looking up at the four bloodshot faces peering over the roof’s edge. Their expressions were hesitant; they had no way to come down to get him, and there was no way for him to climb up. He needed a moment to think, and before that, he needed a moment to catch his breath.
He laid back and closed his eyes, feeling the adrenaline of the fight and near-death experience fade.
He woke to the sound of a scream.
It took a moment to realize where he was and that he’d fallen asleep. He forced himself not to think about how easily he could have rolled over and off the back of the gargoyle—about waking up mid-fall, with only seconds to live and powerless to save himself.
Another scream drove the thought away. It came from the roof and it did not sound human. Jason pushed himself into a squatting position.
The scream grew louder—whatever was making the sound was moving closer to the roof’s edge. Jason drew his sidearm and moved close to the building.
A body—a male, affected—toppled over the edge. It fell past Jason, its head leaving a wet stain where it banged against a gargoyle wing. A few seconds later, Jason heard the body thud against the ground. He didn’t look down. He kept his eyes and gun aimed up, waiting for whatever had thrown the thing from the roof to show itself. He listened. Someone was up there with the three remaining affected Marcus had corralled into his trap. Either that, or the affected had turned on one another.
Jason watched and listened, and when it sounded like the fight was over, he kept his gun steady, unsure of whether he would see a man or a monster look over the edge.
But it was both.
The thing that looked down at him had been divided down the middle. One side of its face was clearly affected, with traumatized, bloodshot skin. But the other half was still human.
The half-man, half-monster held up its ruined right hand as if to say, “Wait,” and walked away from the roof’s edge. When it returned a moment later, it lowered something over the edge, toward Jason—a rope.
Bodies were scattered across the roof. In addition to the four affected Jason had dismembered with a single, devastating shot from the AMR (and minus the three that were on the sidewalk below), there were the three corpses his new friend had killed.
He took a closer look at the half-affected man.
He was in his late 20s or early 30s, roughly the same age as Jason. He was taller than average, with awkward posture—one half of his body seemed to stand straighter than the other. He wore boots, dark jeans, and a long-sleeved, dark green shirt. Around his waist was a thick leather belt with a sheathed knife on one hip and a claw hammer holstered on the other. Both weapons were stained with blood.
He wasn’t noticeably athletic or muscled, but he’d had an easy enough time hauling Jason and the 40lb. sniper rifle onto the roof. And he had taken on four of the affected in a hand-to-hand fight. Jason wondered if his friend’s strength came from the affected half. The affected were unnaturally strong. Jason had experienced this firsthand.
“Thank you,” Jason said, thinking that he should have said it sooner. He was a bit in awe. Why had the incident affected only half of this man’s brain and body?
His new friend nodded, but didn’t speak in return. Jason looked him in the eyes and realized that the singular friend might not be an accurate way to describe this person. Not only did the eyes look different—one was bloodshot, full of broken capillaries, while the other was unstained, with a blue iris—but they seemed to be windows to two different minds. They were two different beings sharing one body, one skull.
With a wave of a veined, red hand, the man with two minds motioned for Jason to follow. Jason’s pack was still lying by the door to the stairwell, where he’d left it earlier. He stopped to pick it up as he followed his new friend (friends?) through the door. As they descended 18 stories of dark steps, Jason thought about Marcus.
This was the second time Marcus had tried to kill him. The first time had been in prison.
Every inmate in Jason’s cellblock was a murderer, Jason included. Many had knowingly or willingly killed civilians. Jason’s story was a bit different—he’d killed two fellow Marines, members of his squad. He’d had reason to, but that reason hadn’t been enough to keep him from being issued a death warrant. For 90 days he sat in a cell, waiting for his execution, and then, unexpectedly, he was told he’d been pardoned, and he was transferred to a new prison.
He had no idea where this prison was, only that it was in the middle of a desert, surrounded by mile after flat mile of empty land and relentless sun. Even with the survival training and experience some of the inmates had, their chances of crossing that landscape and making it more than a day were almost nonexistent.
Early on in Jason’s two-year stretch, a guy who was rumored to be a former SEAL managed to escape and evade capture for 72 hours. A helicopter spotted his body on the third day, burnt red by the sun and half-eaten by coyotes. They brought it back to the prison and left it in the middle of the exercise yard for a full week, until the smell reached the towers and started to annoy the guards. Two prisoners were given trowels and allowed to bury the man’s body in a hole in a corner of the yard.
Another time, two inmates went at one another with makeshift knives. Each took several wounds, serious but not fatal. Instead of taking them to a hospital, the guards put a bullet in each man’s head, and again had two inmates dig a hole with trowels and bury the bodies.
Jason understood the message: if you were in here, you were already dead.
But they were being kept alive for something. The inmates were given time each day to exercise and train on computer simulations. Simulated combat was no match for live fire drills when it came to keeping skills honed, but at least it gave him something to do. He figured they were being kept in reserve for some kind of suicide mission, some problem that could only be solved by feeding bodies into it. Why waste living soldiers when you had a stockpile of dead ones ready and waiting?
Jason didn’t share these opinions with anyone. His plan was to keep his head down and try not to draw attention to himself. The men who ran the prison might think he and every other inmate were already dead, but as long as he was still breathing, there was the chance they were wrong.
This worked well the first six months. Then, Marcus arrived.
The interior of the prison was dominated by the color blue. The walls were painted a pale blue. The concrete floors were gray-blue. The jumpsuits the prisoners wore were dark blue, and reminded Jason more of hospital scrubs than prison uniforms. He’d read somewhere that the color blue was supposed to have a calming effect, and thought this might be the reason behind the choice—to keep the prisoners calm. It seemed to work. The handful of altercations he’d seen since his arrival were a fraction of the daily violence he’d encountered in the previous prison he’d called home, where he’d awaited his execution.
Jason sat alone at one of the dull metal tables in the cafeteria. In
front of him was an empty glass, its inside covered in a layer of white film. There was no solid food served in the prison. Sustenance came in the form of four daily servings of a flavorless, milk-like substance. He had no idea what was in the foodstuff, only that it sated hunger, that it was enough to maintain weight and strength—Jason had actually bulked up a little since arriving—and it was miserable slurping the stuff down, day after day, as the hope of ever having actual food ever again became smaller and smaller.
The foodstuff added to his theory of why they were being kept alive —you didn’t waste good food on cannon fodder. The mystery drink was the cheapest way to keep the inmates alive and healthy until there was a reason for them to die.
Someone sat down across from him, grumbling, “Any idea what’s in this shit?”
Jason looked up. He’d never met the man before, but there was something vaguely familiar about him. The barcode tattooed on the man’s forearm was fresh.
He was a new arrival.
“Not a clue,” Jason said.
The man was older than him by a least a decade, maybe more, and judging by his looks, none of those years had been easy. The lines around his eyes looked like the fossilized imprint of some boney, longextinct fish. A thick scar split his right eyebrow. Black and gray stubble covered his chin and balding head.
The man had only taken a few sips of his lunch and didn’t seem interested in what remained.
“Been in here a while?” the man asked.
“Six months. You’re new?”
“Yeah. Been here a week.”
Something about the man nagged at Jason. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
The man smiled. “You’re Jason Pine. I was at your trial. I testified on behalf of the two men you murdered.”
“Walk away,” Jason said. “Wherever you transferred from, it’s different here. You do this, both of us are going to end up buried in the sand outside.”
“You shot those two boys in the back. Those were my boys. I did everything I could to teach them how to stay alive in that worthless country, and you went and shot them in the back from two hundred yards away.”
“Three hundred yards.” Jason immediately regretted the words.
The change on the man’s face was instant. His chair shot out from under him and he sprang over the table. He may have looked old and broken-down, but he was quick.
Quick, and strong.
Jason moved out of the way, but the man managed to get a hold of Jason’s arm and apply a basic wristlock. Jason let himself be pushed to the floor, then kicked the man’s legs out from under him, breaking the hold on his wrist and sending his opponent crashing into the table they’d been sitting at a second earlier.
“Stop!” Jason shouted.
The man didn’t listen. He reached into his pocket and drew a thin blue object—a toothbrush with a sharpened handle.
“Please,” Jason said.
The man lunged, trying to grab Jason with his empty hand, then follow through with the toothbrush. Jason kicked a fallen chair into the man’s shins. It was enough to halt the attack and give Jason a chance to counter. He took control of the arm that held the weapon and wrenched it, driving the man to his knees. The toothbrush fell to the floor. Jason looked up to see three guards aiming assault rifles at him.
“That’s his toothbrush. Not mine. Check our cells. Mine is still in my cell!” Jason pleaded. He’d never heard a voice sound so desperate.
The guards said nothing. Each was dressed head-to-toe in black and wore a helmet with a dark visor that covered his face. Jason was pleading with his own reflection. He wondered if anyone was even inside the helmets.
He still held the man by the arm. Another inch of applied pressure, and he’d break the man’s wrist. Instead, he let go, and shoved the man away with his foot.
“I’m going to go wait by the door to be taken back to my cell,”
Jason said to the guards. And that’s what he did. They didn’t shoot him.
They didn’t shoot the other man, at least not inside the cafeteria.
Three days passed, Jason constantly alert to who was around him whenever he was outside his cell. The man who’s attacked him in the mess hall was nowhere to be seen.
A guard appeared at the bars of his cell that night.
“Jason Pine,” the guard said. Jason stepped off his cot and toward the bars.
“Not too close,” the guard said, raising a hand. Jason stopped in the middle of the cell. He saw that the guard was unarmed. No rifle, no sidearm.
“This is about what happened the other day?”
The guard raised the faceplate on his helmet. This was the first time Jason had seen the face of one of the guards. It was also the first time he’d spoken to one.
The guard looked like your average soldier, fresh out of basic training. He was younger than Jason, almost baby-faced, with smooth dark skin. Jason thought he heard a slight trace of a New England accent in the man’s voice.
The guard spoke. “The man who attacked you yesterday is Marcus Dunn. He’s an ex-Army ranger and intelligence officer. Most recently he was employed as an instructor in urban warfare and survival. Like every other man in this prison, he is a murderer—he’d killed two men in a barroom brawl in Texas, then attempted to kill a key witness to his crime by planting a dime-sized amount of plastic explosive inside her cell-phone. He is particularly adept with explosives, electronics, and computer systems.
“It has been decided that Marcus will be given a pass for his actions in the cafeteria. Measures have been taken to keep you apart from one another. Know that this is not how these situations are typically handled in this facility. I’ve come to ask that you take no retaliatory action against Marcus Dunn, and warn that if you do, you’ll either be quietly executed or made an example of for the benefit of the other inmates.”
“I will not retaliate in any way. I hold no grudge. I want to be as cooperative as possible.”
“We thank you for your cooperation. I was also asked to acknowledge how you handled the situation in the cafeteria. Many men in here would have escalated the violence. You chose to defuse it. The people in charge of this facility have their actions closely scrutinized. There is a great deal of pressure on them to make this facility a success. The people they answer to do not look favorably on the death of any inmate. While there will be no reward, my superiors do acknowledge your good judgment.”
“Tell your superiors it’s appreciated.”
The guard offered a slight bow of his head. “Goodnight.” He turned to walk away.
“Wait,” Jason called out.
The guard turned back toward the cell.
“Why are we being kept alive?”
The guard smiled. He said nothing, and walked away.
Jason stayed awake most of the night, replaying the conversation with the guard over and over again. What he found most puzzling, most intriguing, was the guard himself. Up until now, Jason had assumed the guards in here were only slightly better off than the prisoners. But the man he’d spoken to was obviously intelligent, obviously educated. He was the opposite of someone whose life had spiraled downward. If anything, he projected ambition.
What was this place? he wondered. What was their goal?
The people who operated the prison kept their word. Jason did not cross paths with Marcus during the next 18 months, and Marcus was largely forgotten in his mind. At least, until they were dropped into the doomed city.
Because Marcus had not forgotten about him.
The man with two minds walked through the city. Jason followed.
The streets were empty. Mostly. There was no sign of human life, and none of the large packs of marauding affected Jason had seen the night before.
Twice they encountered individual affected, stragglers wandering alone. Both times the man with two minds stepped forward to attack. Jason stood back, his pistol ready if it was needed. It wasn’t. The man with two minds quickly and savagely struck down the affected with his hammer and knife, while Jason watched in fascination.
The two halves of the man’s body were not perfectly synchronized: it was as if one half moved and the other followed. Sometimes it was the normal, human half that moved first. Sometimes it was the demonic, affected half.
If it hadn’t been clear earlier, it became more clear as they progressed through the city: this was not one mind, but two working together. Combined, they were far more deadly than either half alone.
In wiping their minds, the incident unlocked a primal strength in the affected, but it also ruined their coordination, their reaction time. It turned them into dumb brutes. If they managed to get you on their initial attack, you were likely dead. But if you managed to dodge or parry, you had a wide opening in which to counter.
The man with two minds had one half that could match the brutal strength of the affected and one half that could react quicker. Having half his brain cooked had made him almost superhuman.
Jason had no idea where the man was leading him, but didn’t give the matter too much thought. The man had saved his life.
They walked for an hour before they arrived at an apartment building. Stairs led them to the third floor. They stopped at a door halfway down a dark hallway. The man with two minds knocked a simple pattern on the door, first with one hand, then a slightly different pattern with the other. Someone on the other side answered.
All power to he city had been shut off—a precaution, out of fear of another incident—and the interior of the apartment was pitch black. The windows had been covered with heavy drapes. The person who had answered the door was a girl, younger than Jason, in college or recently graduated. She carried a burning candle. More candles glowed further in the dark apartment.
“The sun’s been up for four hours, we were worried,” the girl said, talking to the man with two minds.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head, a gesture that seemed to be an apology.
The girl looked at Jason, noticing his clothing, his rifle. “Who are you?” She seemed scared, high strung. Considering what was going on outside, she had good reason to be.
“Are you part of the rescue mission?”
Jason shook his head, “No.”
She looked at him another moment, but didn’t ask another question.
He followed her and their mutual friend into a living area where two other survivors, a man and a woman, sat on a couch. Both looked terrified. A candle burned on a coffee table in front of them. Jason said hi.
“They don’t speak English,” the girl who’d answered the door said.
Jason left them alone and unshouldered his pack and rifle, which he leaned against a wall. He followed the girl and the man with two minds into the kitchen.
“I didn’t get your name,” Jason said.
Jason and Sarah watched their friend, the man with two minds, as he took a candle from the kitchen table and carried it to a wall, where the glow from the flame illuminated a map of a city, their city, pinned up like a poster. A grid had been drawn over the map, dividing the city into twelve squares. Two squares were crossed out with red Xs. A red marker hung from a pushpin by a piece of string. The man with two minds took the pen and put an X through a third square, leaving nine more areas of the city to be searched. He let the marker hang by its string and carried the candle across the room, to a cupboard.
“What are you doing here?” Jason asked, speaking to Sarah. “The streets are pretty quiet. You know they have exit points set up for survivors, right? Now might be a time to try and get to one.”
“It’s not safe for him to move around in the daytime,” she said. “He looks like one of them. Someone like you might shoot him. And it’s safer to have him to protect us at night than it is to go out alone during the day. When night falls, he’s going to take us to the edge of the city and see us out.”
“He rescued all three of you?”
“He saved the three of us, and a whole lot of others, I think. Four of those things had me trapped inside a bathroom. They were cutting through the door with an axe when he showed up and stopped them. I was with him when he rescued the couple over there. I saw him take on three of those things, alone.”
“Do you have any idea who he is? Why only half of him was affected?”
“I have no idea, I’m just glad he’s here.”
“What about his name? Did you check his driver’s license, or look around for a piece of mail?”
“Do you usually walk into someone’s home and start going through their stuff?”
“Sorry,” Jason said. “I’m just curious.”
The man with two minds sat down at the kitchen table with a bowl of cold soup. One of his arms motioned for Jason and Sarah to join him.
They sat down. Jason felt his mouth begin to water at the sight of the soup.
The man with two minds stopped eating and looked at Jason. He stood from a table and walked back into the kitchen area. A minute later, he returned with a second bowl of soup, along with half a loaf of bread. He placed the bowl on the table, in front of Jason.
At first, Jason just stared at it. The soup was nothing special— chicken, rice, vegetables. It was cold, poured directly out of the can, since there was no gas or electric to heat it. Cold or not, it was the best food Jason had seen in two years. He ate a spoonful. The flavor was overwhelming. He looked up at the man with two minds. The humanlooking half of his face smiled, the other half seemed to have a look of curiosity.
“Th-thank you,” Jason said.
“I don’t imagine most soldiers mist up with gratitude at a bowl of cold soup,” Sarah said. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Jason sighed. He thought for a moment, about what to tell them. “I’ve spent the past two years in prison. Military prison. I was scheduled to be executed, but I got pardoned and transferred to another prison, some facility out in the desert—I don’t know where. Yesterday they let me and everyone else in my cellblock out. They gave use weapons and dropped us in here and told us to kill anyone that had been affected by the incident.”
“The thing that caused all this. That’s what they’re calling it, officially. At least to us.”
“We’re all military criminals. All killers. The incident affected women and kids, and they won’t order a real soldier to shoot women and kids, not even women and kids who’ve been turned into monsters.
So they stockpiled a bunch of us who’d already done stuff like that.”
“Is that what you did? Killed women and kids?”
“No. I killed two fellow soldiers.” He paused a moment, deciding how to continue. He realized he’d never told anyone the full story. Not like this. “On my last deployment, I learned these two guys were killing civilians, for fun. They had a whole flash-drive full of pictures and videos they took of themselves doing it. They found out I knew and said they’d kill me if I reported them. I believed them. I couldn’t report them because they’d kill me, and I couldn’t let them keep doing what they were doing, so the next time I got the chance, I shot both of them. I was—I am—a sniper. I shot them both in the back, from three hundred yards away.”
“And they sentenced you to death?”
“All I had was my word about why I did it. Someone erased their pictures before the investigators got to it.”
Jason took another spoonful of his soup. The man with two minds pushed the plate of bread closer, encouraging him to eat.
Jason’s eyes had adjusted to the dim apartment, enough to get a better look at his surroundings. Having spent the past three years either overseas or inside a prison cell, the place seemed alien to him.
He took a piece of bread and looked at his new friends.
“Another reason they’re using prisoners,” he said. “We’re easier to clean up. When there are no more survivors to evacuate, they can just level the city with bombs, and they don’t even need to extract us.”
“You really think that’s what they’ll do?”
“It’s what I would do if I was them. Come in here to collect a bunch of murderers—armed murderers? Why take the risk.”
“Can you sneak out? What if you changed your clothes and went through one of the checkpoints?”
Jason shook his head. “They’re photographing and fingerprinting everyone who goes through there. And then everyone gets placed in quarantine. They explained it to us in the briefing, and I saw it for myself. They’re doing it to look for whoever caused this, but they’ll catch any jailbirds in the process.”
“So what are you going to do? Wait here to die?”
“I’ve got an idea.” He looked at the man with two minds. “Do you have a phonebook I could borrow?”
Though the man with two minds couldn’t speak, he could listen and understand. He left the table and returned a moment later with a thick yellow volume.
“Thank you,” Jason said.
He opened the phonebook and found what he was looking for almost immediately.
As dusk fell over the city, Jason made the difficult decision of leaving his rifle behind when he left the apartment. While the AMR offered devastating stopping power, it was cumbersome to carry and unwieldy to fire at close range, and he only had five rounds left. Besides, he wouldn’t be able to carry it once he left the city. His sidearm was a better weapon for the task ahead.
He’d slept through most of the afternoon. When he woke, he had Sarah let him out. He felt a pang of guilt about leaving without saying goodbye to the man with two minds, who was asleep.
“Tell our friend I said thanks.”
“Good luck,” Sarah said. There was no warmth in her words. She closed the door. Jason heard the locks click into place. And for a moment he stood in the hallway, staring at the door, hesitant to leave. There were three people in there who needed help getting out of the city, and a fourth who could use help protecting them, not to mention the countless others hiding in other buildings, other neighborhoods, fearing the night ahead, wondering if they’d live through it, if they’d escape or be torn to pieces.
He had a gun, he had training, he had experience fighting in urban settings. He knew he could help.
But then what happened to him? He’d sat rotting in a cell for two years, and this would be the only time he was ever let out. If he didn’t escape now, he had no hope of escaping, ever. He’d die in this city.
It was enough to convince him to walk down the hall, down three flights of stairs, and out of the building.
The night was already beginning to show its teeth. As he moved away from the building, he heard the distant sound of an explosion.
Screams and gunfire followed.
A helicopter crossed back and forth through the sky, broadcasting a message at deafening volume:
“This is the United States National Guard. A terrorist attack has occurred and the city has been quarantined. If you can understand this message, report to the checkpoints located at the city limits. Proceed on foot. Avoid major streets and main roads. Avoid any large groups of people.”
Jason traveled north, toward the waterfront.
He navigated using the GPS on his comm unit. The device was continuously humming with new messages, as the other soldiers coordinated attacks. Jason used the messages to avoid any battles in progress. When he encountered affected, he avoided them as well, hiding until they passed or changing his route to circumvent them.
Only once was he forced to use his sidearm, on a group of three that he had no way around. He took down the first two with bullets to the back of the head. The third turned to look at him and caught a bullet in the upper lip.
It took Jason two hours to reach his destination, a storefront with a sign that read: Deep Blue Dive Shop, with a logo that depicted two people in wetsuits, smiling inside their scuba masks. Metal gates covered the front doors and windows; it was one of the few places that hadn’t been broken into.
Jason left the front of the store alone, instead following an alley around the building to a back entrance, where the door was still locked. Jason broke the lock with two shots from his pistol, then forced the door open.
He clicked on a light and found himself in a stock room. Shelves and stacks of plastic crates lined the walls. A clothing rack held dozens of different wetsuits in all manner of sizes. A dozen air tanks stood in one corner. He could tell at first glance that everything he needed was here.
He pushed the door closed behind him. The lock was busted, but there was a deadbolt that was still intact. He slid it into place, sealing himself from the city outside.
Jason’s planned route of escape was the lake to the north of the city, just six blocks away from where he stood. He’d swim as far as possible, past the patrol boats, then make his way towards land. It didn’t matter what land, as long as it wasn’t the city. If he managed to make it that far without drowning, he’d worry about what to do next.
He took another look around the room with his headlamp, and noticed something strange: near the door to the back office, a shopping cart full of diving equipment—air tanks, fins, a floatation device. All the things he needed, waiting, but not for him.
Jason clicked off his light and moved behind the rack of wetsuits. Someone else was in the store. Someone who had the same escape plan.
He waited. He listened.
There was plenty of noise outside the store: helicopters chopped through the air overhead, the God-like voice blaring from the speakers, directing people to leave the city; packs of rampaging affected smashed windows and doors in their search for fresh victims; gunfire chattered as Jason’s former fellow inmates enjoyed their own murderous rampage.
Inside the store, Jason could hear only his own heartbeat, his own soft breathing. And then, something else.
The door to the stockroom swung open. In walked a man wearing a headlamp, carrying something in his arms. He was dressed in a wetsuit. Jason ducked lower and moved along a wall in a crouch. When he was behind the other man, he stood and aimed his gun at the back of the man’s head.
“Don’t move. I’ve got a gun aimed at your head. Stop what you’re doing.”
“Oh, fuck. Seriously?”
Jason recognized the voice.
Jason almost laughed. “Looks like we had the same idea.”
“Shit minds think alike,” Marcus said, letting out a defeated sigh.
“Go ahead. Shoot me in the back.”
Until Marcus said it aloud, Jason had intended on doing exactly that —shooting the man in the back. But hearing it spoken was enough to make him hesitate.
And that hesitation gave Marcus enough time to try to kill Jason, again.
Marcus spun, blinding Jason with the bright light from the headlamp. Jason pulled the trigger, already knowing he missed. There was a short, loud hiss of compressed air and Jason felt something shoot past his left hip and strike the wall behind him with a thunk.
He was already darting to his right when he realized that Marcus had fired a spear gun at him.
Jason held his fire. He had so few bullets left, he was reluctant to spend a one on the chance of a lucky shot.
He shoved the rack of wetsuits toward Marcus, rushing up alongside it as another spear tore through multiple neoprene torsos.
He slammed into Marcus. Both men crashed into the shopping cart. Air tanks banged on the floor and rolled. Jason felt his right wrist seized and bent at a painful angle, forcing him to drop his gun. He kicked the pistol across the floor—if he couldn’t use it, he wanted it out of the fight altogether.
Marcus continued to bend Jason’s wrist. Jason moved with the hold, falling onto his back, pulling Marcus down with him and twisting out of the wristlock.
Marcus pulled away. Jason rolled to his side just as a chunk of metal slammed into the floor next to him, clanging as loud as a cathedral’s bell—Marcus had tried to bash his skull with one of the air tanks.
Jason sat up, fast, swinging his fist as he did. His knuckles connected with the inside of Marcus’s knee, and he felt the joint yield to the impact. Marcus let out a scream, dropping the air tank as he fell, and the fight was over.
Jason stood and picked up the speargun Marcus had been carrying. He examined the weapon before throwing it across the room. “Where’s your rifle?”
“In the other room, with my clothes. I put it down to carry all this stuff in here. You broke my fucking knee, you know that? I’m fucked!”
“You’ve tried to kill me three times. And your sidearm, where’s that?”
“Gave it to some poor schmuck who was trying to get his family out of the city. Did you do anything nice for anyone today?”
Jason said nothing, trying to think of what to do next.
“We’re both cowards, you know that,” Marcus said. “Just kill me already. It’ll be better than drowning or being eaten alive. Or rotting in that goddamned cell drinking that fucking slime for three meals a day.”
Marcus laughed. “You think you’re better than the rest of us in there because the people you killed were murderers? You didn’t kill them to avenge the people they’d murdered, or protect the people they were going to murder. You did it to save your own skin, because they were going to kill you. Don’t pretend you’re a vigilante. You’re a coward who shot two of his fellow soldiers in the back to save your own skin. And now you’re going to kill another.”
Jason opened his mouth to defend himself, then stopped. He realized something.
Marcus was right.
No one had ever said it to him, and he’d been too scared to ever let the thought form in his own internal dialogue. For a moment, he stepped back and looked at himself—where he was, what he’d done, what he was about to do. At first it seemed hopeless, and then he thought of the man with two minds. What hope did that man have? Half his mind was gone, turned into a monster. Half his body, too. The man with two minds had no chance of getting out of this alive, and no illusions about it either. The people he helped, he did it to save their lives, not his.
And what am I compared to that? Jason thought.
Jason clicked on his headlamp and walked out of the room, into the front of the store. Marcus’s rifle and gear were on top of the counter. Jason took the weapon and the four extra ammunition clips. He looked around, deciding if there was anything else he could use. Nothing jumped out at him.
He walked back into the stockroom. Marcus was still on the floor.
“Did you see an extra key to this place?” Jason asked.
“Check the office.”
Jason found what he was looking for hanging from a peg above a desk.
“Where are you going?” Marcus asked when Jason stepped out.
Jason looked down at the man. “I’ve got a few things to take care of before I leave this city. Do us both a favor, and don’t try to kill me again.”
Jason left through the front of the store, locking the door and gate behind him.
Jason walked away from the store with good intentions, but not much in terms of a plan—he knew he wanted to help people, but had no idea who they were or where to find them. He searched a nearby office building, finding no humans, only affected. He chose to avoid confrontation and conserve ammo. As he left he sent out a message on his comm unit, telling any other soldiers in the area that there were targets waiting in the building.
He moved southwest, away from the lake, toward the glow of fire above the skyline. The battle seemed to be migrating towards the edge of the city, where the exit points were located, as the city’s predators pursued their prey.
He walked for hours, searching and finding no one. Then, Jason remembered something, someone who needed help.
It took him several hours, but finally he found the building where he’d watched the sunrise that morning. Then, three blocks further, he found the cafe. He stepped through the broken door and clicked on his headlamp. Tables and chairs were overturned. Bones lay scattered on a floor that was smeared with dark, dried blood.
Jason found the dog behind the counter, curled up on a low shelf. Jason extended a hand. If the animal had any reservations about him, it was too weak to protest. He pet the dog’s coat for a moment, mindful of the wounds. He stepped back and encouraged the injured animal to come out of its cubby. It took a few minutes, but eventually the dog moved out far enough for Jason to lift it in his arms.
He’d survived another night, and so had the unknowable thing that lived in the left half of his skull. They walked alone.
Much earlier, they’d led the three people who’d spent the day in his apartment to the edge of the city. After that, they’d found another group of survivors and led them to the checkpoint. And then another group, and another. He wasn’t sure on the total number—the half a brain he had wasn’t the half that was good with numbers. But he knew he’d spend the next night doing the same.
Dawn was approaching, and the blocks leading to his apartment were calm, giving him time to think. He wondered what the dark half of his brain thought of their situation. He wondered what its thoughts were like, if it had thoughts, if it didn’t operate purely on instinct. Trying to understand the left side of his brain was like looking into an aquarium filled with black water, and seeing only glimpses of the predatory thing that lived inside.
During the first few hours after the change, that thing had been fully in control of their body. He’d been forced to not only witness, but to feel, to take part in, every terrible thing his left brain did to the survivors they’d encountered. Then, in a moment of rage and fear, he’d been able to take control.
He had seen enough of the hunters—the people who had been changed all the way—to know that they were followers, not leaders. They watched what the other hunters around them did and followed. He wondered if that was what his dark half was doing, following his lead.
The hunters they passed ignored them, seeing only the half of their face that was like theirs. But as they passed, he sensed a change in body language from the thing inside his left brain. It seemed to know it was different than the others, even if the others didn’t realize it.
Did it feel like an outcast? Did it feel like a criminal, having helped him kill a countless number of its own kind during the past three nights?
Did it feel some kinship with him, because he was an outcast too? Or did it stick with him, fight by his side, because of some base instinct for survival? Half a hunter’s face might be enough to save him from the other monsters, but half a human face wasn’t enough to save him from the soldiers that guarded the checkpoints. Or the soldiers that roamed the streets. Some of the survivors he’d tried to help had been terrified of him, and run in fear. What did the dark half of his mind think about all this, if it thought anything? Could it interpret his body language the way he could interpret its?
Dawn was just a few minutes away as they climbed to the third floor of his apartment building. He felt the right side of his body—the side wired to his left brain—tense as they stepped into the hallway, and he instantly knew that they weren’t alone, someone else was there.
He pulled the hammer from its holster on his hip, prepared to fight.
But as he stepped closer, the person ahead of them clicked on a light, and he saw that it was someone he knew, the solider who had been here this afternoon. The soldier had a dog with him.
Marcus cursed as he tried to push his shopping cart over the charred bodies strewn across the sidewalk. There was no way to go around them—the same errantly aimed bomb that had killed them had blown a thirty-foot crater in the middle of the street. To get around it, he’d have to backtrack half a block and find a parallel street.
And he was so close. He could see the water up ahead. He could smell it. He’d have been in that water hours ago if Jason hadn’t busted his knee. Marcus had done his best to tend to the injury: he’d immobilized it with a homemade splint, taken a handful of painkillers he’d found in a drawer in the back office of the dive shop, and he used the shopping cart as a walker. Still, it looked like a grapefruit had been stuffed down the leg of his wetsuit.
He grunted, resisting the urge to scream, as he shoved the cart forward, forcing the wheels to roll over a dead leg.
He pushed again, and found that he was stuck, the wheels caught in a piece of torn clothing on the body.
Marcus gave up. He leaned forward on the cart, beaten and out of breath. His knee throbbed. He needed to find a place to hide. Even if he got to the water, trying to swim in his current state would be suicide. He needed to rest and give the swelling in his knee a chance to go down before he tried. Dawn was breaking and he needed the cover of night to sneak past the patrol boats guarding the waterfront.
And he couldn’t stay out in he open. He only had six rounds in the pistol Jason had left him, and he had no way to run if he encountered any affected.
He was surrounded by buildings. One of them would offer a place to hide.
Marcus stood upright and turned around.
Three people were there, waiting for him. Each was dressed in tight black clothing, plated with body armor, and a black helmet with a solid black visor covering the face, almost like a motorcycle helmet. He could tell by the shapes of their bodies that two were male, one was female. The female held something in her hand. It looked like a tablet computer, but had a handle on its back, so the screen could be held forward like a shield.
They stood still, watching Marcus through the black mirrors that hid their faces.
There was something terrifying about them.
The female stepped forward and raised the device in her hand, holding the screen towards Marcus. The screen was flat black, just like the mask worn by the person holding it. Then, it changed.
It began as a dull orange that grew in intensity, like a metal plate being heated in a blacksmith’s forge. It was accompanied by a dull, steady hum. As the glowing screen peaked in intensity, the hum changed to a high-pitched whine. It was painful to look at, painful to hear, but Marcus found he was paralyzed. He felt like his head was being squeezed in a vice.
Then, suddenly, there was an explosion inside Marcus’s brain. He felt a sensation like falling down a well, the world getting smaller and darker until there was nothing but the pull of gravity, and then there was not even that. There was nothing at all. Marcus was gone.
His body remained. The change was almost instantaneous. Every muscle went rigid, every joint locked. There was the audible crack of bones fracturing. Veins bubbled against the skin. The whites of the eyes turned red as capillaries burst and blood pooled.
The body of Marcus collapsed, blood spewing from its mouth. Every few seconds it shook with a convulsion, but other than that, it did not move.
The three black helmets turned and walked away.
Hours passed, and sunlight filled the street. Gradually, the thing that now lived inside the body of Marcus lifted its head and shielded its eyes from the light. It pulled itself to its feet. When its knee wouldn’t bend, it tore away the splint that was taped there and limped toward the center of the city.
The joint hurt, but that didn’t matter. There was pain all throughout its body, and the ruined knee wasn’t the worst of it.
The worst of it was the empty, gnawing pain in its stomach.
It walked through sunlight that felt like fire on its skin. It needed to eat, and to eat, it needed to hunt.