“Is he gone? You got the card? Can we go home?”
The pain of speaking isn’t slowing her questions any. She coughs and holds her bruised throat.
The drawn out word covers it. With luck, the same word expresses my profound mortification. After all, I can’t apologise profusely for every tiny mistake, we’d be here all day.
I hand the precious, blood-streaked rectangle to her, chewing over the implications then spitting them out. Fortunately the road ahead is straight and largely clear of debris. The fuel gauge depletes faster when watched, so I don’t.
We’re making good time as you do while heading in the wrong direction. The area has a very high Creeps density. It's a place to be widely circumvented at all costs. And we’re heading into the centre of it.
Impressive skyscrapers gleam with reflected sun. Pity they aren’t receding at our backs. Residential side streets either side of our thoroughfare are no use to us. They’re lined with hosts and damaged cars, dumped by overworked tow-trucks during the mass exodus.
There are few roads suitable for trucks laden with domestic goods.
I’m tempted to blame someone else for our situation. Any lessening of culpability for the current series of mistakes would relieve my conscience. I keep quiet and concentrate on the immediate problem.
Risking a blocked back street is suicide. And we can’t return the way we came in. And I shouldn't be travelling at high speed into this slowly closing trap.
My head spins like a top at the end of a mad twirling session. Brain power is dim from the last slap-happy plan. It restricts the supply of further help pending recharge via drugs.
Digital numbers on the dash clock winds the day down. Three-fifteen.
Breaking news. The Creeps we dust in our wake no longer shun us. They actively seek gawking tourists. Slow bodies stay off our course. Thickening knots converge in roadside cluster ahead. They could cramp our style if Parasites decide to forfeit their hosts as speed bumps. I increase velocity to stay ahead of their limited telepathic warnings. Unfortunately the truck doesn’t travel at the speed of thought.
I switch off the irritating CD.
“Get the map book. Find out where we are.”
Kristine pulls down her seat belt in response to a sudden swerve off the road around a burned out wreck. Some inconsiderate cripple has left a wheelchair on the sidewalk. The truck bulls it aside.
She flips pages when I spy a street name.
“Douglas Street and Elm Avenue”
A stop sign at the next intersection is not obeyed.
“Okay. Straight run west…then back streets to highway…not far from our place.”
“No back streets. There’s too many red pen marks.”
“The whole page is marked in red!”
“We’re kinda deep in enemy territory, in case you didn't notice. Those roadblocks marked around the edges are from ages ago. Probably the start of that Great Wall of China they’ve built since then. Join the smaller red circles together. It’ll give us a perimeter. I need an idea which streets are no good.”
“That’ll take me a while.”
She swallows painfully.
“You want me to pull over? I’ll get us a burger while you turn it into a work of art. Just scratch a fucking square around the city centre!”
If looks could kill.
The truck growls over a crest in the road demanding gear changes.
The sight that greets us from the top is beyond terrifying.
“Woah, what the fuck?”
The road passes into the congestion of small businesses. Low-rise buildings spreading in every direction. The ground between the buildings literally swarms with Creeps. A thickly roiling throng, covering every flat surface. Bobbing heads interweave in a never ending pattern of movement.
Then they all stop. Like a DVD on pause.
Lifeless eyes rotate in every face. Every head turned our way.
They stand immobile, waiting in deathly silence.
The air vibrates with malevolence. I’m aware of a force. It pushes at an envelope of resistance closely covering me.
A clammy, invisible tentacle breaks through and caresses the front of my mind.
Powers of inquisition turns my bowels to slush.
“There’s something feeling around in my head.”
The horrified whisper comes from Kristine, confirming the reality of what I sense.
Something wicked this way comes.
Air brakes hiss. The truck comes to a complete stop. My foot is jerky with partial control. The engine rattles impertinently at late depression of the clutch.
Our eyes are everywhere. The tense stand-off stretches, molecule thin. A subtle move for the electric window switch causes it to whine softly, raising the glass.
A small girl steps forward. I assume she carries a Crawlie inside of high rank. Host defer space to her. An extended finger points at me. The slick appendage sifts muddled instances of every Creep I’ve killed and, in particular, the Parasite.
I think I’m on trial.
The tentacle finds no solid form to wrap around in the fuzz of grey. It hesitates then delves further. I push slightly and it leaves. The finger moves to Kristine. She bows a heavy aching head.
“Yuck! That feels...slimy...and weak. I can poke holes in it. Oh, they hate you, Sam. It's...hating me too. It’s so clumsy. Holy Crap. They're showing me pictures of you being torn apart.”
“Kick it out. And I’d rather not know things like that, thanks.”
“Now...it’s going through my thoughts. It’s looking for more of us. It's tracing our route back...GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”
Her shout triggers a massive reaction.
The little girl buckles then straightens calmly. Her arm rises and swings away from us. Hosts rustle apart, leaving a runway along the track of her pointing finger to the dark mouth of a subterranean stairwell. An inky blackness within shifts in liquid motion. It takes a few seconds to make out what the black flood is.
The specks scramble over each other, spilling across thousands of uncomplaining Creeps as they spread out. They leap from heads and shoulders, staying clear of feet, lashing and biting the air in youthful exuberance.
Mummy has let the kids out to play with the visitors.