It turns out the zombie apocalypse wasn't the end after all. Mother Nature had other ideas.
The twig cracks under my feet and I freeze, heart hammering. The woods around me are silent, but that doesn't mean anything and can change in a second. Too many of us have died proving that. Don't be the next one, Sarah.
I turn my head, making sure I have a clear field of vision. Ahead, just visible through the trees, the gates to our compound are open. There's a moat cut into the ground directly beneath the gates, deep and wide. Thick ropes hang from above, tied off to one side.
Everything seems clear, so I continue forward. Today's hunt didn't turn up anything, but the tingle up my spine tells me there's still a chance. My nerves clatter, competing for attention with my adrenaline. No matter how many times I do this, it never gets easier.
I move through the trees, arrow notched into my bow. We can still perform blood transfusions but don't have the ability to manufacture guns or ammunition. I don't get that.
Pausing beside a tree at the edge of the forest, I strain my senses outward, as if I have some kind of radar. I know there's at least one out there, maybe more. But I can't see it. A hundred yards of cleared ground stand between me and safety. I think I can make it, but some of them are really fast and I'd hate to die because I stumbled.
After a few seconds, I realize that there's only one way to do this, so I bite the bullet.
Exploding from the trees, I sprint forward, yelling at the top of my lungs.
In an instant, the race is on. The ghouls can't help themselves. They track mostly by motion and their primal instincts force them to react.
Two of them come at me from side angles; pale white, whip-lean muscles rolling through the remains of their clothing, moving fast. There isn't much left of their former human intelligence, but they can still think like predators and do simple things like track, wait and attack.
I just hope I'm faster.
Up ahead, Ronne sees me coming. She darts out and unties one of the ropes, letting it dangle over the moat, before scurrying back inside the protective wall.
This is going to be close.
The ghoul on my right is closer. It once was male, probably early 30s, judging by the remains of a ragged suit jacket and tie. It's been over 20 years since the outbreak, which means he might be an original, which means he's very dangerous. He hasn't survived this long by being easy prey.
The one on my other side is less threatening, a young girl; still fast, still dangerous, or she wouldn't be alive (as if we can use words like that to describe undead creatures.) She's not as close and her angle on me is poor.
I duck under the man's grasp as he lunges for me. This is too close, I'm only halfway to safety. The panic starts to swell inside but I fight it back. If I don't win here, no one will. I'm still the fastest in our camp, there's no one who can outrun these things. I need to win.
Plus, I don't want to become one of them.
The ghoul scrabbles in the dirt, trying to gain traction and catch up to me. He's faster than I thought, a severe miscalculation on my part. One eye is completely missing, and the claw marks tracking down that side of his face tell the story of why.
Without breaking my stride, I pump my feet faster, aimed straight for the rope doing its slow sway over the moat. It's not going to be enough.
The ghoul closes the gap between us. I can almost feel his cold fingers reaching for me, to drag me down from behind, feel his rotted teeth as they sink into my flesh. I don't scare very easily, but that's changing with every breath of hot air that rips from my mouth. C'mon Sarah, just run.
Something catches my heel. The ghoul. He leapt forward and managed to swipe one hand at my feet.
I go down in a tumble. Both of us are on the ground and it's a race to see who gets up first. He has nothing to lose, except a lunch. I have everything. Even as I hit the ground, I'm rolling and trying to come up running. But my feet snag against each other and I go down again.
I've just lost.
The ghoul charges at me, mouth stretched wide. He's so focused on me he doesn't see his own threat.
I do, coming up fast from behind. The realization is instant. I'm not going to go down to this ghoul, but I'm far from safe.
The mountain lion bounds forward, leaps high into the air, and comes down on the back of the male ghoul. I don't stick around to watch, there's the girl ghoul, still coming at me and getting closer. Plus, the mountain lion is just as dangerous, if not more so.
Abandoning my bow, I dodge the girl's attempts to grab at me and tear off for the gates. Her I can outrun. I hope the lion decided not to give chase but I don't dare look back to find out.
When I get within ten feet of the moat, I launch myself forward, flying through the air. I grab the rope and swing. At the apex I release it and land safely on the other side, next to Ronne. I spin back to see what happened.
The girl doesn't even slow down. In her mindless hunger, she charges forward and falls into the moat without a sound. That removes her as a threat, now we can put her down at our leisure.
On the other hand, the mountain lion isn't through. It pauses with both paws atop the ghoul, strip of flesh hanging from its yellowed teeth. Then it charges at us. This one must be starving to give up downed prey like that.
It hisses as it runs and I take a few steps back, pulling Ronne with me. I've never seen one clear the moat, but there's a first time for everything.
Just short of the edge it skids to a halt, fixing us with a feline stare as it starts to prowl back and forth along the edge. Where the girl didn't have enough sense to stop running, this predator recognized the trap. That's why it presents the greater danger.
That's how Mother Nature balanced the scales.
When the outbreak happened just a year before I was born, hundreds of millions of people died at the hands of zombie ghouls, only to rise back up and join the growing army. But in an odd quirk of Darwinism, there came a shifting of the natural order.
Suddenly, wolves, lions, feral dogs and every other kind of predator discovered that ghouls made for easy dinners. They were slow, they had little reasoning capacity, and they were nearly endless. It was a buffet line across the nation.
Over the last two decades, creatures of the wild blunted the effects of the outbreak, reduced the zombie population to nearly zero. But that didn't mean humans were out of danger. In fact, it meant more.
Unchecked, the predator population exploded as a result of such a vast food source. They grew in numbers, and they grew in aggressiveness. Anything on two legs became prey, human or ghoul. In fact, some suspected the animals preferred humans. The meat was better, not rotted; like a freshly cooked steak versus week-old leftovers.
But it didn't stop there.
The ghouls adapted too. Natural selection emerged with a vengeance. Darwin's Law took hold and became the law by which we lived. Where the animals evolved, the ghouls did not. However, the strongest and most cunning were the ones to survive. The slow, shambling creatures portrayed in the old movies fell easily. Those that remained did not.
Now humans are no longer the dominant species. We're caught between two superior predators, a food source for either. It's reduced us to scattered outposts like this one, where a handful of us hide behind thick walls. We're still smarter and more evolved, we possess logic, reason, but it doesn't matter as much when we're outnumbered and outgunned, so to speak.
The mountain lion gives one last huff and turns back to the male ghoul. He's still "alive", scrabbling towards us. The lion had already ripped off one leg below the knee so he couldn't walk, but that didn't matter. The hunger propels him forward, a mindless enemy. When the lion paws at him like a cat playing with a mouse, he doesn't even acknowledge it.
I turn away. I've seen the wild cats eat before and it's not a pretty sight. From the moat comes scrabbling sounds, the girl trying to claw her way up.
Mr. Franklin comes to me the next morning as I sit by myself atop the wall. Nothing remains of the male ghoul. The wild cat would have eaten its fill and once darkness fell, the scavengers emerged to drag away the rest. The only signs left behind were stains in the dirt, the thick black ichor that flowed through ghoul veins.
"You did well yesterday, Sarah." He settles into a squat next to me, staring out over the forest.
"Thanks. He was fast, maybe the fastest one yet."
"I saw. Perhaps the only time you've been happy to see an animal, I'd venture."
"You got that right."
I turn my eyes from the forest to meet his. "You had a chance to inspect the girl?"
He nods, his eyes heavily crinkled at the corners, his beard now completely white. I remember when it used to be dark. "I did."
Mr. Franklin doesn't answer for a moment. It seems he's choosing his words. "I was thirty-five when it all started. I still remember reading articles on the news sites about this mysterious virus that started in the Pacific Northwest. No one knew what it was, or how to cure it. Within a year the tone of those articles changed from understanding the disease so we could find a cure, to escaping the disease so man could survive. It wasn't long after that the internet just disappeared, along with electricity, grocery stores and everything else we'd come to know as civilization."
I wait, patient. His speeches usually have some kind of message in them.
"As a genetics researcher, I never lost sight of the original efforts to understand the disease. When you were born, I remember looking into your mother's eyes after examining the blood sample and giving her the results. The look of relief she gave back is still with me to this day. I just wish I could have done more for her."
"I know. It's been a long time, Mr. Franklin. I'm okay now."
He pauses, looking long and hard at me. But he's not really looking at me, he's looking at the memories across his youth, at the changes that have been wrought in the world. He knew something different once, I never have.
"I was right, Sarah. It's in the male blood only, not female."
Now it's my turn to nod. The pieces click together. I know what my immediate future holds.
He continues. "If we are to survive, if humans are meant to live on, we cannot keep sacrificing our newborns. Only one in every three is born free of any disease traces. That's not getting us anywhere. I know I can create a cure, even with the rudimentary lab tools I still have. If I can do that, then we can start building up our species, start growing once again. That is our only chance."
"And to do that, we need male ghouls, so you can harvest their blood. Or whatever it is they have in their veins," I reply.
"Yes. You are our best hunter. The fastest and most deadly with a bow. I need you to lead the hunt."
I don't say anything back at first, processing thoughts. He doesn't speak either. I can sense the guilt.
Finally: "So I need to take a group of us outside the walls, into the wild. If we manage to evade the wolves, lions and all those feral dogs, we have to go after ghouls who also want to eat us."
"That is a correct summary."
"And I'm assuming we can't just kill them and bring back pieces. You need them alive and whole."
He nods, eyes reddening. He knows what it is.
"It's a death sentence, you realize," I say anyway.
"It's also our only chance at life."
We both stand, looking out across the thick forest. There's nothing more to be debated. I'm certainly not going to argue against his logic.
"The five of us will leave tomorrow morning," I say, before turning away and descending the stairs.
Out past the wall, the lone cry of a wolf rises up.