Cara set out from camp before sunrise. She ate a bowl of thin gruel and drank a shake of amino acids and vitamins. Fuel for the bacterial system she wore as a scout working from Camp Hope, made her immune to the bad shit still floating out there.
It tasted like chalk and bile, sat like a ball in her stomach as she set out.
She had traded the location for two blocks of ammunition, so she had only gone out with one. Five hundred flechette rounds generated from a stable block of nanites but where she was going, she needed all the ammunition she could carry.
The rifle looked like an arthropod, a purple bladder which glistened like latex in the first light of dawn. Its shape defined by the lengths of forming the butt and the whorled barrel, like a narwhal horn with streaks of light pulsing down it.
Scouts kept what they found. Cara had found a lot out here.
Brought most of it back.
She breathed in the warm, rich air of the morning. The bacteria on her skin converted sunlight into proteins and carbohydrates, absorbed into the stack of nutrient-rich clay which sat in her stomach. Cara had not eaten a meal out of necessity for five years. She ate for pleasure if at all.
The bunker sat recessed into the side of a bank of earth two miles from camp. The entrance was an ovoid portal, devoid of any features. She withdrew the wand from her hip and waved it over the surface, calling reams of information, rainbow streams of data as she manipulated lines of code with a turn of her hand.
It surrendered with a hiss and she caught a burst of stale, sweet air.
The promise of rot.
She shouldered her rifle, blinked to activate the targeting and heads up display, casting the interior of the bunker into sharp relief.
The woman sat there, staring out at nothing. Mere feet from the door.
Long, dark hair, thin at the crown and torn out at the temples in chunks, the skin long since darkened where the blood had dried up. Her lips pulled back over her teeth as though death had left her poised to say something cruel. Cara noted the play of blotches on her skin, the scales gathered on the crook of her elbow.
A beige gown covered the rest. Cara’s senses revealed a serpentine heat in the abdomen and the rusted gold glow of breath in her lungs.
The possibility of how long she had been down here resisted rational analysis.
‘Miss, can you hear me?’
Cara’s voice was sharp, trembling with fear. She sought out strangeness, seldom found it. This was an incursion into a reality beyond the strange times she lived with.
A hand clutched at her ankle. The small black tube clattered against the tiles and Cara stepped backwards, finger against the trigger.
‘Pick it up. I got the antidote out.’ the woman said.
Cara bent down and picked it up, tucked it into a small pouch on her right hip.
‘Antidote to what?’ Cara said.
The woman coughed. Cara stepped backwards, skittish with concern as she aimed the rifle downwards.
‘What’s coming up.’ she said.
Her voice was a small bird’s prayer. The gloom of the bunker spared Cara the worst of whatever ravaged her.
Cara’s head throbbed with horror. Proximity sensors went off in her head, like fireworks made of anxiety as something in the bunker moved towards her.
‘It’s poison. We made something out of poison.’ she said.
Cara’s eyes bulged in their sockets as her heads up display displayed the need to get the fuck out.
She stepped backwards. The woman tried to smile at her, but it frightened Cara to look at her. In the shadows, something flickered, wet and rippling.
Cara’s mind tried to make sense of it. It had too many eyes to look at. A panoply of emotions, but underneath, one thing.
Madness. Unrelenting madness.
She stepped outside, sealed the door as the thing elongated and whipped forwards, too fast to register on the heads up display.
The dull thump of its attempts to open the door stopped.
Perhaps it got bored, Cara thought.
She sat down on the dirt, picked the canister out from her pocket and turned it between her fingers.
Cocoa butter. aloe vera. Cochineal extract. Amino acids. Strange proteins which gave off a wireless signal, offering her onboard system valuable information.
She unscrewed the lid. Twisted the rich, inflamed nub of lipstick up and sniffed it. A faint, medicinal scent. Her system did not trigger anything.
The butter tingled against her lips. Her heart raced and she finished the first draw along her lower lip.
The antidote flared into being, the kind of idea which drew Cara out here in the first place. Her thoughts gained substance as the world grew bright.
She felt like she had too many eyes.
Too many eyes.