Chuck’s challenge this week: Random Song Title.
My song was off of Muse’s latest album, titled “Dead Inside”. The story is not particularly based on the song, just the title.
The sound of a million shuffling feet and untold thousands of voices clanged back and forth between the skyscrapers like the streets themselves were coming to life. Hundreds of strangers jockeying for position, shoulders nudging her this way and that, shoes coming down on her cold feet, soundless shouting in her ear.
It was enough to make Lara wish she were dead for real. Soon enough, she thought, and immediately pushed the thought out of her head. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. She could survive today. She wasn’t even sure she was actually dead. The disease was still young in Lara: she had none of the usual symptoms, she even still had a heartbeat. The disease affected everybody differently, and — and this was the important part — it mutated quickly. There were over four hundred categorized variations of ZuF2 already, and another hundred projected already for the next week. It had sprung up so quickly, they didn’t even have a proper name for it. Who’s to say one of those variations might not be non-lethal? Who’s to say you couldn’t learn to live with it?
Spurred by the crowd, Lara inched forward, trying not to imagine the taste of the big, beefy shoulder in front of her. Shoving her appetite down into her feet was not easy; the man wore a tank-top, and in the ninety-degree sun a thin sheen of sweat glistened just there, so inviting she could practically feel her teeth sinking into it… but no, take a bite out of a human and she’d be dead within seconds, and probably kick off a riot besides. She could master the hunger. She might pass by the scanners undetected. She might be all right, as long as she could keep from eating anybody. And if they didn’t look too closely at her skin. The long-sleeved, high-necked shirt she’d put on was a gamble: it hid the shapes but it would draw attention. Only the dead could walk around fully covered up in this heat and not sweat like sweltering hogs.
The beefy-shouldered man stepped to the side for his scan and the man in full tactical gear beckoned to Lara, reaching his hand out for hers with all the care and concern of a bus driver holding the door open for you at the end of a thirteen hour shift.
“Next. Come on, sister. Let’s go.” The crowd at Lara’s back began jeering too; ordinary, living and breathing folks, who wanted to get their negative scans and go back to their televisions and air conditioning. She felt hands shoving her forward, into the grasp of the guard. She did her best to stand up straight. As he was inspecting her left hand for signs of rot, she noticed a dark shape flit across the back of her right, a bubble dancing up through ice cubes in a cool glass of tea. She shook her hand briefly and then clapped it to the back of her neck.
“Hot, isn’t it?” Lara smiled at the man, who just glared at her through his visor filmed with sweat and condensation.
“Hands are clean. Eyes wide.” He held up the scanner, a forked device attached to a tiny touchscreen which he thrust toward her face.
Lara bit back a mouthful of vomit. A subconscious part of her had, just for an instant, meant to douse the man and everybody around her in bile, and had nearly succeeded. She told herself she had just felt repulsed by the scanner, and forced herself to keep her face neutral. It wasn’t difficult, actually. The bile hadn’t tasted of bile, but rather like a mouthful of sand: tasteless and irritating, but harmless. She wondered if that was a good sign or not.
Beep beep. The iridescent green flash from the console lit up the man’s visor, and he was already motioning for the next person in the throng. “Next.”
Lara was clean. She laughed out loud and threw her hands in the air, suddenly thankful for the sun on her skin, even if she couldn’t feel its warmth.
“What the hell is that?” A panicked, female voice cried from behind her.
Lara whirled to see the man who’d just scanned her advancing toward her, shouldering his rifle.
“What did you see?” He barked.
The girl was just a kid, fifteen or so, sweating through a loose purple-striped halter top, but she was pointing at Lara with unmitigated revulsion and terror in her eyes. “I don’t know, it was her arm… something moved!”
Lara’s heart stopped. She actually felt it beat its last beat. So she was dead, after all. The sleeves of her shirt had fallen to her elbows when she raised her arms toward the sun, and there, squirming like a mass of leeches, was a bundle of shadowy shapes beneath her skin.
“Infected.” The man whispered it to himself, then he shouted it. “Infected!”
Like the tide going out before a tsunami, the crowd withdrew from her: she was standing all alone as eyes of all shapes and colors and guns of all sizes trained themselves on her. “Wait. He just scanned me, I’m not –” But the first bullet came quickly, tearing through her upheld hand and entering her head just below the eye. Others, which she did not feel, riddled her body in the space of a heartbeat.
But she didn’t die. Rather, it was like her consciousness passed through a prism. She suddenly felt like she had split into thousands, and each facet of herself rushed toward an onlooker with all the haste of a hawk in a prey-dive.
The body of Lara exploded like a bag of beef stew, and out of the gristle and gore leapt thousands of tiny dark blobs, wingless, legless roaches on the wind. They splattered into the crowd, squirming into noses and eyes and mouths as gunfire erupted throughout the throng and previously civil people began trampling each other in a panic.
Lara was the last mutation of ZuF2. Or at least, the last one that mattered.