As Sam and August drove away from the decrepit store, Ted turned to Claire. "So what are we after?" he asked.
Claire smiled widely as they walked into the dark interior, past the shattered windows of the front. "First thing I always go for is flashlights, batteries, and camping lanterns. Sometimes I get lucky, but not lately. Then we look for other things we need - clothes, weapons, tools and the like. We'll take them out front so we can load them into the truck when Sam gets back."
"These big stores are all the same. The sporting goods are toward the back." Ted made a small noise in his throat. "In the dark." Ted paused and took a deep breath. "What's that smell?"
Claire looked at Ted. "You know as well as I do. Something dead."
"Or dying?" Ted used the bright flashlight in his right hand and gripped his black-handled machete in his left.
Claire glanced at him. "Lefty, huh? Watch out for your right side if we need to fight back to back." Her black sword hung in the scabbard at her waist, the flashlight in her left hand. "Make sure your gloves are tight. I'm worried about your machete, though. If you used a baseball bat the blood wouldn't splatter and put you at risk."
Ted grunted. "I'd rather have something tougher than a ball bat." He looked at the machete and back at Claire. "That's a good point about the blood, though. I'll come up with something better when we get back to the ranch."
Claire chuckled. They moved deeper into the gloom of the superstore.
"This is pretty creepy," Ted whispered.
"It's always creepy. Sometimes we find places where the ceiling is caved in. That's a mixed blessing. We can see better, but the weather and critters get in and ruin a lot of good stuff." She shrugged. "This place seems intact, so we might find a lot that's usable."
"Toilet paper, perhaps?" In the dim light, Claire noticed the slight smile on Ted's face. She laughed, the sound echoing through the vacant store interior.
"Wouldn't that be nice!" Claire smiled brightly at Ted. "I think you made a joke."
His grin was broader. "Maybe a little one …" Ted stopped, aiming his circle of light toward his left. Tiny red eyes stared back at him from floor level. The eyes disappeared from the beam and they heard the scuttle of small feet, long claws scratching against the torn linoleum floor.
"Rats," Claire whispered. "There's always rats…"
"Those were fast, too. Real fast," Ted said.
The scratching noises increased in front of them and to the sides. "Rats are always fast, Ted."
"Not that fast. I grew up with rats and that doesn't sound quite right. Too many, too fast..." said Ted.
Ted could feel Claire nod her head beside him. "Entirely too many…" she replied. She looked at Ted. "I think we should leave," she said, as the skittering of rats on the tiled floor increased.
Ted and Claire moved back to the front of the store, again standing in the bright sunlight.
"That was…odd." Ted stood next to Claire, the two of them staring into the dim interior of the store.
Claire cocked her head, listening intently. "I think I still hear them in there." They backed up another twenty feet, leaning against a rusted out Chevy, one of over a dozen abandoned cars sitting on the cracked black parking lot.
"Look." Ted whispered and pointed at something moving in the dark shadows by the edge of one of the doors. "That isn't right…"
The dark shape moved jerkily, sniffing around the edges of the broken glass, but avoiding the direct sun. Claire watched it for a few seconds then pulled her pistol from her holster.
Ted scowled. "You plan to waste ammo on a rodent?"
In response, Claire fired a shot and the head of the small beast disappeared. She ran forward, pulling a cloth from her back pocket. As she neared the fallen creature the scrabbling sounds of dozens of feet sounded louder, and rats appeared as vague shapes in the near-darkness of the inside of the store. Some ran forward and started to gnaw on their dead comrade as Claire reached its corpse. Her sword rose and fell three times in swift succession and three small bodies fell to the pavement, but now dozens of red eyes moved toward her and the bloody bodies.
Claire grabbed the nearest corpse using the cloth, turned, and ran, not looking to see if the other rats followed, but yelling at Ted. "If they follow me, climb on the car." Ted stood and stared, his own pistol pointed past her.
"I'm not a good shot," he said. He climbed on the hood of the car, picking his feet up from the ground.
Claire leaped to the top of the trunk, turning to look, her sword still in her hand. "Which is why I didn't suggest you shoot," she said. None of the rats followed, though they swarmed over the bodies of their companions, gnawing them. When they moved away, nothing but a few bloody bones remained.
"And why did you do that, if I might ask?" Ted looked at Claire as he hopped down from the car and placed his feet on the warm pavement.
"I had to check something…" Claire also stepped down, moving to the other side of the car where she could watch the front of the store. She laid her prize down on the hood and flipped it over using the rag.
"That is disgusting," Ted said, turning away.
"Yes, and fascinating. And terrifying," Claire said.
Claire used her knife and sliced the rat's body open from sternum to tail, the razor edge of her blade leaving a straight, even cut. She looked around and walked a few steps away, picking up a small branch, which she then used to probe the interior of the rat.
"Claire?" Ted's brows knitted together and he looked at the small body on the hood of the car. "This looks…"
Claire's voice lowered and she muttered in a strange tongue. She looked at Ted, her voice firm. "It's infected. It's a zombie rat." She pointed at the building. "And that place is full of them."
Ted shook his head. "But the virus doesn't affect animals."
"That's right. Not the virus we know. It's mutated and the rats carry it." Claire said some words in the other language as color rose in her cheeks as she fell silent.
"Well, I don't know what the words are, but I do have a question." Ted stood straighter, looking down at her with a knowing smile on his face. "How is it that you can swear in ancient Egyptian?"
Claire looked at him in surprise and he laughed. "I taught ancient languages, remember?" he said. "A colleague of mine at the university specialized in Egyptian. We taught each other swear words." He grinned, a far off look in his eyes. "Those were some amusing times."
"Most people don't notice." She looked back at the rat. "They assume it's a dialect of my home country in Africa." She paused. "Let's leave it at this; my grandfather spoke it to me and I learned it from him."
Ted started to ask another question, but Claire waved him off, a frown on her face. "Not now. We have much bigger problems." Claire pointed at the rat with her stick.
Ted looked at the large building. "Please don't tell me you want to go back in there."
Claire looked at the forbidding structure, the darkness inside now ominous. "Well, I don't want to. How many do you think are in there, Ted?"
Ted leaned against the car, watching the storefront. "It sounded like hundreds, but who knows? Dozens, at least."
"Why so many in one place?"
"It's dark. I'm sure they've created little rat dens for themselves. So they're in the dark and warm and cozy…"
"Food source? I don't see why here instead of one of the other stores."
Ted was quiet for a minute. "I don't know. Big field behind them, so they can get seeds and such, I suppose. These seemed to like chewing on each other, though."
Claire picked her sword up. "Now the big question. What's the source of the infection?" She headed for the other side of the parking lot, walking in the bright sunlight, parallel to the storefront. Ted followed.
"I don't know," said Ted.
"There's the rub. How contagious is this? Does it affect more than rats now? I suspect a bite from them would be as bad as a bite from a Z, and that's a fair assumption."
Ted cleared his throat. "I don't volunteer to check that assumption, so let's take it at face value." They came to the end of the parking lot and started walking east, toward the area behind the store. Ted looked nervously at the tall grass. "What if they are in the fields?"
In answer, Claire lifted her sword and sliced through some of the grass. "If they're in here, I doubt there are many, Ted. You're wearing boots, so you shouldn't be at risk. We'll be careful. On top of that, they seemed to hate sunlight, which is a deviation from the original virus as well."
As they came to the back of the large store, Ted pointed at rusting rail cars, one toppled on its side. "That looks recent. Looks like a small sinkhole under the tracks gave it the push it needed."
The pair approached the rail cars, eyes sharp for rodents. Birds flew away from the toppled car as they approached.
"Grain." Claire put her hand on Ted's chest to halt him. "It's rotting grain. This entire set of cars is carrying grain. When it collapsed, it split open, which drew the rats. The store is the closest large habitation."
Ted looked around nervously. "Aside from the rail cars themselves," he said.
Walking away, Claire sliced through the tall grass mechanically. "Still, that might help explain the rats, but not the infection."
The breeze shifted and the smell of decaying flesh assaulted them. Gagging, they stopped and tied bandannas across their faces, looking at each other.
"Whew," said Ted. "These don't help much, do they?"
Trudging further east, they came to marshy ground, where they had to move more carefully toward the source of the stench. The breeze shifted back and forth and it took a long time for them to reach the edge of a small riverbank.
"Oh my…" Ted whispered.
Tangled among branches and debris were the remains of cattle and goats. Dozens of animal corpses littered the sides of the small tributary. Among them were the partial remains of humans. Even from this distance, many showed signs of the Z infection.
"So those torrential rains we had last week swept through somewhere and brought these here," said Claire. "I get the cattle and goats. I even understand humans, caught in a flash flood. I don't understand why some are Z's."
"May we leave now?" Ted asked, trying to straighten the bandanna over his nose and mouth.
Claire and Ted remained silent as they trudged back to the store parking lot. They went back to the old Chevy and sat in the weathered seats.
"We have to wait for Sam to come get us. I hope he found a cycle for August." Ted yawned and pointed at the car shadows on the parking lot. "It's getting late."
Claire looked toward the sky glumly. "Yes, it is. I don't want to be here when it gets dark."