A hot wind blew lightly around Leif’s face, ruffling his collar. He stood atop the town’s water tower, surveying his surroundings. In the distance, beyond the town walls, four dust devils spun crooked witch-finger columns of loose silt into the sky. The low ground to the north of the mesa atop which Mesquite City had been built used to be a river hundreds of years before. The desolate landscape was part of a wild horse refuge and had never been developed. Leif remembered driving through this part of the countryside with his parents as a boy, marveling at the Old West feel of the sandy scrub sitting low before craggy, purple mountains in the distance. He dreamt he was on the back of a racing mustang, a bandana pulled up around his face to keep him from inhaling dust. He was returning from some heroic journey, getting ready to waltz into the town saloon and fall into the arms of the pretty bartender.
The world had fallen so far, so fast. A little part of his mind had kept that dream alive through college, ran it back when he was bored in front of his computer. And then one day his biggest dream was sitting in that fucking office again, safe and bored. His biggest dream was not being eaten.
Leif’s wife, a biologist he had met in Mesquite City when it was nothing more than a few dozen dirty people huddling in the center of a protective barrier made from burning cars, had made the discovery that ignited hope throughout the southwest. The victims, brainless and bloodthirsty, always seemed to be able to pinpoint humans. Smell, everyone knew, was a large component. They followed sweat and blood and shit. Anything biological and fetid. In the first weeks of fiery chaos and crumbling governments, it was assumed scent was their primary tracking mechanism.
When wits returned to some of the deeper thinkers, they noticed not all the stories made sense. Swarms attacked CDC workers in hermetic suits, refugees in cars… but sometimes lost survivors in boiler rooms and walk-in freezers. Sometimes survivors could hear the victims on the other side of a wall, but an attack never came. It sounded like sight, but how were they so quick and sure-footed in the near-pitch darkness of moonless nights, their preferred hunting time?
Infrared vision. Leif’s wife experimented with several specimens he and the other scouts had caught shambling through the outskirts of the large metropolis to Mesquite City’s south. It was overrun with victims, their grey eyes glinting from the shadows, waiting to pounce. But it still held medicine, food, guns, and water. It was necessary to risk a run from time to time for the continued success of the colony.
But it wasn’t just infrared vision. It was infrared vision almost identical to that of the vampire bat, a species which she had studied while getting her PhD. Back when such degrees still existed. In a freshly turned body, Leif’s wife discovered, the eyes – which crusted over in the second stage of the infection – were rendered blind by the host body’s lingering heat. The neophytes hunted by scent almost exclusively. As the new organism matured, infrared became preferred as the delicate olfactory bulbs rotted away. The victims started hunting at night, especially in a hot desert climate, to use their infrared vision more effectively.
Leif lifted his rifle to his shoulder and scanned the horizon through his scope. Clear.
He let the barrel fall slightly and slowly, methodically moved his pinpoint of vision around until he found a plastic globe on the end of a wooden stake. The small green light toward the bottom of the sphere indicated it was active.
Miranda’s – Leif’s wife’s – discovery prompted the Mesquite City governing board to send riders to other townships in the area to pass the word. The governor of the state, who had taken up residence in the air traffic control tower of an abandoned air force base in another section of the desert, had ordered Miranda’s research sent to the hub of the US government in the Cheyanne Mountain complex in Wyoming. Her status as one of the world’s foremost weapons against the victims garnered her an Army escort and Mesquite City some extra supplies.
The rifle in Leif’s hands was state of the art, fresh from Cheyanne Armory less than a year ago. It was a lightweight carbon fiber design that could be carried long distances without tiring the user, but remain sturdy enough to fire. It could be submerged in sand or water and come up shooting. “Like the American people,” said the Corporal that had cracked open the crate of weapons.
Checking the horizon again, Leif spotted the uneasy swagger of a victim. It was just the top of a head, slowly rising over a ridge. Soon it would be in visual range. He tugged the aluminum bolt on his rifle and slammed a round into the chamber.
If he could see them coming, surely the lookout in the tower at the corner of the City wall could, too.
With her new appointment from the President as the Head of Wartime Research, a position created just for her, Miranda was able to order the Army soldiers in Mesquite City to find new victims for her continued experiments. She didn’t want to send Leif and his boys out again. Besides, Cheyanne wanted more knowledge, more ammunition to fight this war. Following her intuition that the victims used identical infrared sight to vampire bats, Miranda examined the disease vector maps provided by the CDC.
The first symptoms appeared in Brazil. Mere days later, all of central South America had fallen into chaos. The disease moved north with the pace of unchecked wildfire until hitting the northern borders of Mexico. There, it slowed. Not stopped, but slowed.
The rapid infection coincided with Miranda’s own graduate school maps of vampire bat habitats; South and Central America and Mexico.
Leif raised his rifle, balancing the extra weight at the end of the barrel, and took aim. The scope became his whole world.
Miranda requested DNA sequences and microscopes. Her Army escort left on a five-day mission to the university northeast of town. When they returned, Miranda spent weeks locked in her lab, running samples of victim blood. She emerged triumphant, her beautiful face shining with hope.
The victim’s DNA was mutated. Entire chromosomes had been altered and resembled that of *Desmodus rotundus*, the common vampire bat. In the final stage of the disease, the DNA was almost equal parts human, bat, and a third – unidentified – donor. Something non-organic.
Again Cheyanne hailed Miranda’s insight. Her tireless fight for the future.
Again Cheyanne demanded more.
More late nights, more work.
Miranda became tired, Leif could see it in her eyes. A tiredness he had never seen in her.
And she got careless.
She forgot to tighten a subject’s restraints one afternoon. It broke free as she leaned in to remove the grey covering from the lidless eyes. Her Army escort had been at lunch, confident that she knew her own security protocols.
By the time they returned, she was gone.
Leif pulled the trigger, the homemade sound suppressor muffling his shot. The lookout in southeast tower crumpled, his head a shattered ruin.
Leif looked again toward the plastic globe in the distance. The infrared strobe was still active, drawing the enemy near. He had found them hidden among boxes of MREs and flashbangs the Army detachment had brought and set aside as useless. Dozens of them identified easy trails up the mesa to the gates of Mesquite City. The infected followed them like demented, eyeless Hansels and Gretels.
A shout arose from one of the other tower guards. Leif spied him, pointing toward the oncoming horde. Leif wanted to shoot, to watch the man die slowly, but he knew it was unwise to give away his position. He might need to help the infected get inside the city if their sheer numbers weren’t enough.
The gates fell in minutes. The people of Mesquite City, including the Army group from Cheyanne, had become complacent. The city was too naturally defended to need much help from its denizens. As the sun fell below the purple mountains in the distance, Leif watched the sparks of gunfire and the smooth, orange roll of explosions. Mesquite City would pay for what it did to Miranda with its life.
In the morning, if he could escape the Hell he called down, he would find a bandana and a horse and race away from the burning town, living out his boyhood fantasy.
He would ride to Wyoming and do everything he could. And in the end, he would fall into the arms of his pretty bride.