Next through were the grave mites. Feeding on bodies deliberately left untreated for them, attendant handlers loading the excess remains onto their flattened carapaces and strapping them down for transport. Where to? The farms, perhaps. Or wherever the grave mites came from to begin with.
The one nearest me made such sickening noises as it feasted. Slurping, ripping and crunching its way through the midsection of some poor wasted soul. It was a meager consolation that he’d died hours earlier. Others were not so lucky, wailing in agony and flailing about in a feeble attempt to fight off the spindly-legged nightmare creatures which eagerly tore off bleeding chunks of their flesh.
It pained me to cower there doing nothing. But without a weapon, there simply wasn’t anything to be done. I’d only wind up adding myself to their feast. So I continued to wait and watch, my breathing now as shallow as I could make it. Sounds of distant screaming and gunfire echoing down the corridors gradually grew less and less frequent. Mankind’s last redoubt falling to pieces around me, given over at last to the dead.
Twice, the grave mites seemed to smell me. Came distressingly close to my fragile little shelter, sucking in the air around it in moist sounding huffs. Each time I held my breath and remained as still as I could until they lost interest. The last scrap of freedom available to me was to choose the manner of my death, and being eaten alive ranked pretty low.
If only I could get ahold of a rifle. I might then take a few with me, saving the last bullet for myself. I could’ve also beaten Dr. Fritz to the morphine, had I known then that it really would come to this. Worse than useless, at this late stage, to obsess over the what ifs. Just then, something new entered the room. I do mean new. After all these years I thought they could no longer surprise me. That I’d seen every possible expression of their sickness.
It stood roughly seven feet tall, black pulsating veins easily visible through its bone white skin. Bulging black eyes leaking traces of the oily fluid as if it were weeping. Hair slicked back, slim colorless lips pressed stoically together. Clad neck to feet in a full body garment which I am at a loss to fully describe.
The texture of the material somewhat resembled the decorative flourishes atop wrought iron fences. Or something like a black tangled mass of thorns. As I studied it, I realized the constituent tendrils were subtly moving. Sliding, wriggling, the garment itself some sort of unliving organism. I couldn’t see how it was possible to move about in such a covering without injury, but he did so effortlessly.
The air seemed to vibrate around him. Distorting the outlines of the room, pulsing, throbbing. His very presence disturbing the fabric of reality. The pale creature closely examined the partially eaten bodies on the gurneys across the room. Then surveyed the chamber as though searching for something in particular…until his eyes came to rest on me.
I held my breath. Silently praying it would again allow me to escape notice. That it was something, anything else on this side of the room which had caught his attention even as he headed directly for my hiding place. No. No, no, no. The possibilities were rapidly reduced to one as he grabbed the edge of the gurney and flipped it. In a flash, I was on my feet and making a break for the nearest corridor.
I heard a furious screech behind me. Vaguely familiar, mostly human but with a hint of something else. I cared not where I ran to, so long as I put as much distance as possible between myself and that cold, white thing in the chamber behind me. But in every sense, there was simply no place left to go. At every turn I encountered either the dead, or packs of grave mites. Not another living soul to be found.
Why, then, did I run? Like treading water after a flood has submerged all land. Burning through my last few minutes of life, driven purely by the animal instinct to survive. But the more I thought about it, the weaker that instinct became. “There’s nothing left”, I thought. Nothing left of humanity to save. Nothing of myself worth hanging onto. Even if I escaped, then what? A few decades, at best, of wandering a corrupted Earth. Only to eventually succumb anyway.
My sprint slowed to a jog. Which then slowed to a shuffle. Finally, I simply stood and waited to be taken. Better that I should go peacefully, if I could still choose. Ahead of me, I saw him approaching. Calm expression, casual gait. As if he knew from the start that I’d surrender. A medic accompanied him and, as the two reached me, prepared his rifle.
I cried softly, anxiety overflowing as my final moments arrived. Surreal, yet also hyper real, my mind racing on final approach to its end. Could things have gone differently? Might I have done this, or that? Useless navel gazing, the Captain called it.
Yet because we are wired for survival above all else, it is a herculean effort to wrestle your own mind into accepting the uncompromising reality that it will die. That for me it was not years, days or even minutes away, but already here. I tensed up and sucked air in through my teeth as the needles penetrated my thigh.
I’m down to just one thing. Only one door is still open to me. All roads lead to Rome. As I watched my own blood leaving my body through the coiled transparent tubing, despite the headset, the room grew dark. Increasingly light headed, I soon felt too weak to prop myself up and instead collapsed onto my back. The shiny black goggles of the medic were the last thing I remember seeing before I blacked out.
Silence. Darkness. I drifted through the abyss for some time before realizing I could still think. That I’d not been annihilated. Death, where is thy sting? It really wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Hyped myself up for something which, in the end, was really rather anticlimactic. As if to soften my landing, soon I found myself back in the birthday dream.
The afterlife? Or the brain’s own act of mercy to itself as the body shuts down. I didn’t care. It was just what I needed right then. I found myself beside Mom, standing before her Sunbeam oven. Shiny chrome knobs, spotless cooktop, an appetizing scent wafting down from the pot perched over the burner.
Then, slowly, the pictured widened. I could see more and more of the room at once, discovering that there was nothing more to it than the stove and a bit of the wall and floor. I stood next to Mom on that meager patch of coherent reality, as everything around it was already given over to the writhing sludge. Tendrils grasping blindly at our ankles. Seeping down the wall, into the seams between the stove panels.
“No, please” I weakly protested. For all the good it had ever done me. “I’m not asking for a lot. Just let me keep this much. Just this much” It only continued spreading. Subsuming the last precious morsel, sparing absolutely nothing. “Don’t cry”, Mom admonished. “It was always going to turn out this way.”
She looked down at me, eyes jet black, veins visible through translucent white skin. As the crawling mass finally consumed us, she ladled some of the contents of the pot into a bowl and offered it to me. I didn’t have to look to know what it was.
Stay Tuned for Part 12!