Winter Tree

I wrote this quickly upon waking up from a nightmare. I only remember parts of the nightmare but decided to write 1000 words as soon as I got up. Enjoy :)

No one knows exactly when hell came to Earth, but it began in the early 21st century. Initially it presented as patients coming down with a fever and progressively getting worse, but the true horror showed itself on their death bed.

The poor patient would be in their final moments, almost always comatose despite all that medicine could offer, when they would suddenly wake up, arch their back and start shrieking like a new-born baby. And this is what it truly was, the soul leaving the body before whatever came next occupied it.

If you were unfortunate enough to be in the room with them, you had at most a minute before you either died a brutal death or your life changed forever. The final shriek was followed by a moment of silence, as the body fell back on the bed and its eyes rolled back in its head.

And then a low guttural growl would emanate from the body, a few octaves below what a human body should be able to produce. A sound so deep you felt it vibrate deep in your chest, and it made your hair stand on end. A truly terrifying sound. A harbinger of the horror to come.

And then the formery comatose patient would leap out of bed with super-human strength, landing on all fours, ripping out any IV lines they had. They would almost invariably lunge for the person nearest them, and rip out the unfortunate individuals throat with their teeth, and proceed to feed on them as the unfortunate victim chocked on their own blood. Nothing could dissuade them from their task, not kicks, not blows, not even gunshot blasts unless they were directly to the head. There would just be the gurgling cries of terror from the unfortunate victim, and the sound of flesh ripping and cracking bones. And above it all, the slurping and smacking sounds of the feeding creature.

Occasionally, rather than rip out their throat, the creature that had been moments before a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a child, a lover; would just inflict a deep wound with their teeth. And the person thus bitten was infected, and they too would fall ill and be on their deathbed within a few days.

In the early days of the scourge, many a doctor and nurse were taken by surprise, as were family members. Many died or were infected before the rules of this new, terrifying reality revealed themselves. And then when they did, everything collapsed.

A society on the cusp of interstellar space travel crashed back hard almost into the Stone Age. In this new world, there was no need for scientists, because many suspected the scientists of having brewed up this terror in a bio-weapons lab in the United States, or in China, or in North Korea, or in Europe. It also had no need for religion, for religion could not adequately explain why God, Allah or whatever deity one worshiped had chosen to abandon humanity so absolutely. In fact, this new world had little use for anything other than the farmer or the soldier. Guns and spears, for that matter, any weaponry simple enough not to require specialized knowledge or maintenance became the new currency, along with food and farming knowledge.

In the beginning, the militaries of the nation states tried to fight this scourge, but a military is only as good as its supply chain, and that supply chain was collapsing around them as society itself collapsed. Cities were abandoned because the infected hid around every corner, every dark alley. The infected never seemed to die of natural causes. Their only mission was to eat. And they ate anything and everything they could get their hands on. In the early days before the internet collapsed a video circulated showing a pack of the infected taking down, killing and eating a grizzly bear.

Once the true scale of the terror revealed itself, society did what it always does best; blame the other. Xenophobia spiked, as it became the fault of the blacks, the immigrants, the jew, the Roma, the other tribe, the gays etc. All over the world mini genocides were happening, adding to the absolute misery. When winter hit the global North, many froze to death or starved. Famine after famine rocked most of the world. Humanity died. But the infected did not, they displayed a truly terrifying adaptation. They went into hibernation in winter or if they ran out of food, and came out of it when winter ended or prey became available.

And thus the final hope of humanity, that the infected would freeze or starve to death; was dashed. In fact, nothing seemed to kill the infected other than a shotgun blast to the head. They did not starve, they did not freeze. Their clothes fell off and their skin began sloughing off in places, exposing flesh and tendons, but they kept going. They were incredibly strong and cunning, and they hunted in packs that were eerily coordinated. No one knew how they communicated, but communicate they did. The only sounds they made were low guttural growls and occasional shrieks, but they seemed to understand each other just fine.

Humanity abandoned cities and huddled into easily defensible hamlets, ringed by armed guards and high fences (electrified for those lucky enough to have the equipment). A lot of these small communities adopted new measures. A common one was the daily communal shower, where everyone showered together and people were tasked with looking closely to make sure no one had any wounds that would indicate they had been bitten by one of the infected. A wound without a clearly documented explanation was an immediate death sentence by shotgun blast to the head. An unexplained fever or illness also met the same fate. This new world had no need for mercy or compassion either. To be merciful or compassion meant to join the ranks of the infected.

Books disappeared, for books only reminded the living of a time when life did not consist of moment after moment of sheer terror, all energy consumed by the simple act of survival.