The mouth of the cave provided an excellent view of the rocky clearing right in front of me and the thicket of shrubs stretching toward the horizon. A man was jogging toward the clearing through the asparagus-green bushes that passed for trees in this part of the continent. I grimaced when I could make out his face. It was Mchumba, someone I knew personally. I put my rifle’s sights on him.
He slowed to a walk and came into the clearing. His eyes would be accustomed to the dazzling sunshine of the afternoon and the odds were good he wouldn’t see me lying prone in the dark cave.
I murmured, “Move on by.”
He stopped and looked down at a patch of short lime-green grass. He’d seen something.
I gritted my teeth and squeezed the trigger. The rifle produced a sharp crack and pushed on my shoulder. Blood spewed from his chest and he fell forward into the grass as the gunshot echoed across the landscape. I lowered my eyes and took a deep breath.
A woman said, “Chief?”
It sounded like Yvonne and a glance over my shoulder confirmed it. Her stringy fair hair was unmistakable even in the dim light reaching her from outside.
I turned around. “It was a single berserker.”
“You’re positive there’s only one?”
“Pretty sure. Please tell everyone to be ready to move, just in case. I’m going down to check on him.”
I made certain my sheathed knife was free of my shirt and walked down to Mchumba with the rifle at the ready. Poking him with the muzzle convinced me he was finished.
He’d seemed to be alone, but I mimicked a statue and listened for a minute. It would have been a soundless minute if not for a light breeze rustling the shrubs. I could have been the only person for kilometers.
The cave looked like a black blemish on a low outcrop of steel gray rock. Beyond the outcrop, the terrain rose at a shallow pitch to squatty dark gray mountains in the distance. The mountains met the baby blue of the cloudless horizon, producing a spectacular vista I spent no time admiring. I concentrated on the area around the cave and wished once again the magnifier of my surveillance helmet’s visor worked. After another minute, I decided no more berserkers were nearby.
Back in the cave, I pulled off my helmet and ran a hand over my face, which seemed little different from a greasy hairbrush. I hadn’t yet become used to my growing beard. My hand came away oily and I rubbed it on the side of my shirt. The oil added little to the shirt’s stains. The grime of travel had already changed its color from royal blue to dingy blue splotched brown.
I said, “We’re clear for the moment.”
Yvonne switched on our one lantern. Five dirty and smelly people were sitting by it. I still found it hard to believe I’d become responsible for what could be the last bit of humanity on Belisama. But I’d been the Chief Engineer of the ark and they’d looked to me for leadership.
Yvonne, Keesha, and Falah had tired faces and their body language screamed worn down. Anybody seeing them would have said they were almost played out. I hoped I didn’t look as exhausted.
Janice also appeared tired, but had started writing on her sketch pad using a liquid ink drawing pen. Having a purpose seemed to energize her.
Dieter was my Germanic rock and looked as stoic as ever cradling our only other rifle, which I’d given to him days before. Without operational electronics we were forced to aim our weapons using iron sights. He wasn’t an outstanding shot with such a primitive aiming method, but compared to the others he looked like a world-class marksman.
I said, “Yvonne, I’d like you to go on watch.”
Falah looked up at me. “Why’d you shoot?”
“The berserker found our trail somehow. He’d have led the rest of his pack to us in no time, so I finished him.”
“Then we’re okay.”
“Maybe, maybe not. They already knew we were around here somewhere. One shot shouldn’t give away our exact position, but we can’t take chances. We need to get going.” I paused for a few seconds to allow for the groaning. “We’ll leave in ten minutes.”
“I want to rest here longer.”
I shook my head. “That’s not a good idea.”
“Well then, do we really need to keep going uphill to the south?”
I sighed. “We’ve been over this before. They’re naked and the temperature south at higher altitudes should be a problem for them. They also haven’t been barefoot all that long and will have tender feet. We’re getting into rocks and that should slow them down.”
Keesha added, “Not to mention they’ll have more trouble finding food.”
Falah’s condescending reply sounded like a teacher telling a student something obvious. “We’ll have trouble making it in a colder climate too.”
I glared at him. “The Inuits on Earth prospered in a polar region. The high plain beyond the mountains is nowhere near as barren as that. We’ll be okay with the dietary supplements we have until the next colony ark arrives in a year or so.”
“I still don’t think …”
Keesha interrupted. “Would you quit your whining and just shut the hell up.”
Keesha’s expression reminded me of the black clouds of an approaching thunderstorm. She was a large strong woman and Falah kept his mouth shut under her intimidating eyeballing. I flashed a brief smile of thanks to her.
I looked over Janice’s shoulder for a short time as she hunched over writing with her long auburn hair spilling over the sides of the pad. Her lettering was beautiful, close to calligraphy. Although her passion was art, I’d been amazed she’d continued carrying her art supplies. We’d dropped so many non-essential items over the last few days.
I’d appreciated her passion that morning when I started her writing for a reason that should have occurred to me days earlier. We needed a log, a history. Although we had a decent chance to survive, it was by no means a certainty. I didn’t want us to simply disappear like the Roanoke colony during the first European settlement of America. I’d therefore asked her to maintain a log and to include everything that had happened so far. And instead of stating the actual rather defeatist reason, I’d implied it was my naval training reasserting itself. I remained astounded nobody had questioned that, not even Falah.
I plopped onto a rock next to Janice. “How’s our log coming?”
“I’m up to a few days ago.”
“Will it be legible for years?”
“The sketch paper is good for at least 250 years under reasonable conditions. The ink too. I expect this plasti-steel case will protect it. Would you like to read what I have?”
“We’ll be moving soon.”
“It will only take a few minutes.”
“Why don’t you paraphrase it for me instead.” I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm. We had little enough of it among us.
“We, 1023 passengers and crew, arrived from Earth in the sleeper ark Santa Maria. We settled on the coast of the southern hemisphere’s continent in the mid latitudes. The location provided a tropical climate and year-round growing season. We had two good B’years before the sun clobbered us with a monstrous coronal mass ejection. All electronic circuits blew, leaving us at a 19th century level except for simple electrical devices like hand-cranked lanterns. The nano-meds in our bloodstreams were also knocked out and an unknown disease raced through three-quarters of us in less than a day. The rest appeared immune even without their nano-meds. The infected became little more than animals. They ripped off their clothes, stopped using tools, formed into packs, and fell with pathological hatred upon the uninfected like rabid wolves.”
She paused and raised her eyebrows. She wanted feedback. I nodded and she continued.
“A group of about 30 of us took refuge in the town hall and we barricaded ourselves in. Our doctor, Pavitra Sridhar, was with us. He loved Norse mythology and named the infected berserkers. We collected supplies and all the old-style powder burner guns we could find. Our position seemed strong until a large number of berserkers attacked the town hall during the night. Only nine of us escaped.”
I considered the town hall my greatest failure, so far. If only I’d been more forceful with our leader at the time, Mayor Romanov, on the proper course of action. We should have left the town hall after gathering supplies and shot our way out of town instead of holing up. After midnight, the berserkers were in among us almost before anyone knew it. The fight became a chaotic melee of guttural howls, shrill screams, and bangs of gunfire, all made worse by the brief illumination from the muzzle flashes of guns. Nine of us slipped away into the darkness with two rifles, three homemade spears, and what we could carry.
I must have looked as if I’d drifted off because Janice said, “Chief?”
“That’s basically it at the moment. I have a little on how we traveled almost continuously for nine days, spurred on by the howls and whistles of pursuit in the distance. I’m about to write about the stream.”
She started writing again. I closed my eyes and recalled another event I’d have preferred to forget.
We’d left the jungle of home behind and arrived in rolling hills of knee-high pale-green grass. Water was babbling nearby and we were headed toward it when six or seven berserkers came over the hill behind us. Dieter and I shot several and drove off the rest while the other seven of us hurried to the water, a rocky rushing stream. However, two berserkers had circled ahead. Before they were finished by Yvonne and Keesha, Leonardo’s throat had been ripped open and a huge gouge had been bitten out of Chen’s arm. Leonardo bled out in half a minute, and he wasn’t the only loss of the day. We found Esmeralda in the water. She’d slipped racing across the stream and cracked her skull open on a rock. And three days later, we lost Chen. Without nano-meds to help his immune system, he’d died from an infection that resembled blood poisoning.
Yvonne dashed up. “We’ve got berserkers coming straight at us.”
I jumped to my feet. “Son of a bitch. That was fast. How many?”
“Only four or five, I think.”
“From what direction?”
“Almost due north.”
Falah chimed in. “So what do we do now?”
I ignored him and his sarcasm. “Everyone be ready to run. We’ve got to figure they know we’re here. We’ll try to finish them so we can walk away instead of running. Take off if more show up.”
I pointed at Dieter. “Stay at the entrance. Don’t shoot until you have to. I’ll go out to that cluster of boulders outside the entrance. They’ll provide good cover and also let me see anyone coming up from the south. We don’t want to be surprised from behind. I’ll pick off as many as I can before they get near you.”
Three women and two men were weaving through the shrubs on their way to the clearing. I crawled about 25 meters to the jumble of small boulders. A gap between two of them provided a good view of the north, but wouldn’t let the berserkers see me aiming at them until they were quite close.
Beads of sweat began rolling down my cheeks. The sun beating down and the warm temperature weren’t the only causes. I was learning what so many millions before me had. Very few things were more nerve wracking than waiting for a coming fight. I forced myself to take slow regular breaths even as my heart thumped faster with each passing minute.
The berserkers closed in and I began identifying them. A tall woman with short brunette hair named Barika was the closest. I knew her only because she published a weekly newsletter. The two men were on her right. I’d seen them around town, but didn’t remember their names. They were only average height and build, but they’d streaked themselves with mud, making them look scary. A stern-faced high IQ woman, Ming-Na, that I’d met once trailed Barika. My stomach began churning when I recognized the last woman off to Barika’s left. She was Tien, a petite black-haired lady I knew very well. She’d been on a geological survey mission for over a month and I’d been hoping she was safe.
Barika walked into the clearing, spotted Mchumba’s body, and stopped. After a few seconds of whistling, she hurried over to the body and looked down on it as if she’d found some fascinating relic.
I wanted the berserkers to converge to inspect the body, giving me a concentrated target. They spread out instead.
I aimed at Barika and fired. She screamed, clutched her left side, and fell onto Mchumba with blood pouring out from around her hands. The remaining four berserkers started sprinting toward me while I fired at them. Seven shots netted me two more hits, one of the men and Ming-Na.
The final two berserkers had come in so close that I couldn’t see them through the gap. I pointed my rifle left, expecting the last male to appear there on my side of the boulders. He instead jumped on top of one almost right over me. His chest heaved and his breathing sounded like a bellows. He went into a stance resembling a sprinter at the start of a race and his face contorted into a snarl. He’d pounce in a moment. His head became bloody pulp from a burst of gunfire while I was swinging my rifle upward. He fell back off the boulder and disappeared from sight. Dieter had fired full-auto and saved my ass. Following the clash at the stream, we’d agreed to use only semi-automatic fire to conserve ammo, but I wouldn’t say anything other than thanks.
Tien came around a boulder on my right and lunged at me. She seemed a crazed animal with her heavy breathing through bared teeth. I tried to club her with my rifle, but she dodged. I dropped it and grabbed her neck with my left hand, holding her the way I would an odious animal. She began thrashing and twisting, but I pushed her against the rock in front of me and gripped her as tightly as any vise. An incongruous thought popped into my brain when she started scratching my visor in an attempt to get at my eyes. Some vivid blue polish remained on her fingernails and the color suited her.
I plunged my knife into her side. Bright red blood spurted onto me and the ground, and life left her dark brown eyes as I twisted the knife deeper. She crumpled to the ground after I released her neck.
I lowered my head and didn’t move until Dieter touched my arm. I turned to face him and his expression was the textbook example of concern.
Dieter said, “You know her?”
“I’m sorry, but it’s not the first time for either of us.” He paused for a second or two before continuing. “We should get going.”
I mumbled, “Right,” but didn’t move.
He yanked my left arm. “Snap out of it, damn it. You had no choice. We have to go now. All this gunfire will draw every pack within several klicks. Maybe we can stay ahead of them until we get to colder regions or the weather favors us with a cold front.”
Back in the cave, I didn’t need to tell anyone to move. Nobody, not even Falah, said a word. We were trudging off to the south in short order. I hoped with every step for something, anything, to end the pursuit and death.
Lance graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.
Image by Gabriel S. Delgado C.