Brink of Extinction
By Andrew Black
Originally Published in SNM Horror Magazine, August 2010
Gary Lincoln looked down from his platform on the wall of the Reformatory, a former prison turned fortress, into the pen, a square courtyard where a dozen or more wild-eyed beasts prowled under the dim lights. The animals were after the meat hanging from hooks suspended over the pen, bait for the trap the dimwitted creatures stumbled into. One of them tried to climb the chain link wall and Gary turned his shotgun toward the climber. A special taser shell blasted out of the smooth barrel and into the chest of the filthy animal. The little device pumped enough electricity into the climber to send him tumbling back down to the courtyard, and Gary slung the shotgun over his shoulder.
He took a long drag from his hand rolled cigarette, the tobacco grown in a patch over by the west wall, and studied the crowd below him. There were three females, which was a good enough haul for the night. With a wave of his hand, he ordered the gate sealed, trapping the animals. The meat was lowered, allowing them to feast on the tainted bait. The sedatives laced in the flesh would knock them all out after a few bites, and then the processing could take place.
“Got us a redhead!” Smitty yelled from the opposite platform. Gary couldn’t tell through all the filth, but he nodded with a forced smile. Redheads were popular, of course, but as far as he was concerned, it was more about survival than looks.
The beasts in the pen were, or had been, human before the H2NX virus. The airborne pathogen had infected ninety-nine percent of the Earth’s population in a matter of a few weeks, and about eighty-five percent of those infected actually contracted the symptoms, which manifested rapidly once the infection took hold. Parts of the brain shut down, the adrenal gland stepped up production, and the victims became feral and cannibalistic. The media dubbed them “ghouls,” which became the accepted term. Efforts to contain the disease failed spectacularly, and only a few pockets of humanity remained, mostly behind walls like those of the Reformatory.
Gary was one of the lucky ones infected but with no symptoms. He had been a prisoner, nineteen and serving time for a liquor store robbery, just a poor black kid with little hope for the future. When the virus hit the prison, the ensuing riot killed almost as many people as the ghouls. He remembered vividly being woken up by the sounds of screaming and the scrape of his cell door opening. He knew what the infection was; it had been all over the news channel the warden allowed prisoners to watch. He expected a slavering madman at the door, but instead saw Evan, the big, barrel-chested guard who rarely spoke. The large man tossed a shotgun to the scrawny kid and told him to get up and help.
That had been the turning point for Gary. He followed Evan and the two of them freed another two dozen prisoners. They systematically worked through the prison, killing ghouls and any rioters who were too violent to be of any help, and sealed off the wards one by one. When they were finished, the Reformatory, their new name for the prison, was completely secure from exterior threats. In the following weeks, straggling survivors from town showed up, drawn to the lights that still functioned thanks to the coal powered generators. Many didn’t make it through the horde of ghouls that nightly tossed themselves against the walls and fences, but those who did were given the chance to live in peace.
It was another prisoner, the one they called Doc, who came up with the idea for the pen. He was an old veterinarian who’d been caught selling animal tranquilizers to teenagers. “It’s a matter of survival, folks,” he’d said in his address to the council, the seven member board that ran the Reformatory. Evan was the chairman and Gary also had a place on the council. He remembered how unbelievable the plan had seemed at the time.
“We have six women in our population who are of breeding age, and thirty-two men. That’s not enough for a stable gene pool, and even if it was, we’re all carriers of the infection. It is likely offspring of two survivors would produce a ghoul more often than not. Even if we could find pure, uninfected humans, it wouldn’t help matters as they would just contract the disease. No, what we need are ghouls. A fetus should inherit the disease in utero, and, I believe, would also inherit a sort of immunity to the virus. It’s a theory, of course…”
“Are you suggesting we catch some ghoul women and…breed with them?” one of the other council members, a weasel-faced man named Sinclair, who had been a lawyer, asked with a mix of revulsion and disbelief.
Doc beamed a smile, “Yes, that’s exactly it! We do it all the time with animals.”
“Humans aren’t animals!” Sinclair protested.
“We are now,” Evan said with his trademark deep, rumbling voice. “The man is right. We have to think about the future. Right now, the human race ain’t got one. We have to do whatever is necessary to keep our race alive.”
The debate raged into the night, but in the end Doc’s plan was instituted on a four-to-three vote. The pen was built the next day, really just a modification of the main gate, and that night they made their first catch. At first they just released the males, but someone pointed out that there really wasn’t enough meat to continue to use it for capturing ghouls, and the processing took on a new and far grislier aspect as the captured males were recycled into bait for their fellows. It wasn’t long before some of the extra meat produced from the captured ghouls found its way into the survivors’ food supply too. They told themselves that the ghouls weren’t human, that they were just animals, but for a while it was still hard to deal with a hamburger that once had a Social Security number.
The breeding cells were probably the worst thing about the whole process as far as Gary was concerned. While they might have come up with some system to do artificial insemination, the “natural” way was preferable and far less time consuming. They had rigged up prison beds with shackles and restraints, and the female ghouls were muzzled with leather bite guards that reminded him of an infamous movie madman named Lechter. The ghouls were tested, checked for venereal diseases or other defects, and cleaned up as best as possible before the selected stud was shown to the cell. They would spend an hour or so in the room, completely secluded, and they were told exactly what was expected – three insemination attempts minimum. Most had to have a sheet draped over the ghoul woman’s face to avoid her angry glare as he raped her. Gary had been selected three times, and all three times he had puked his guts out after he was finished. It wasn’t surprising that the cells were unofficially dubbed the “rape rooms.”
The program worked. Once inseminated, the ghoul women were kept in regular cells, fed and kept clean, checked regularly by Doc and his two assistants, and generally treated like the prize brood mares they were. The first child proved the success of the plan. Named Adam for obvious reasons, the little boy tested positive for the virus, but showed absolutely no signs of any symptoms. While it was possible they would manifest later in life, the program forged ahead. After the first year and a half, eight out of the eleven children were born with the “virus tolerance” that would hopefully ensure the survival of the human race, including Gary’s own daughter.
After birth, the mothers were returned to their cells and cared for until they would again be ready for insemination by another man. A few died in childbirth, and thus the capturing in the pen continued, both for more breeders and more meat. Doc wanted to study the children who were born with symptoms, but both Sinclair and Evan forced him to destroy the infants out of mercy. By that point, Gary was so inured to the horror of what they were doing that it didn’t much faze him when he and Smitty had been given the task of tossing the euthanized little bodies into the coal furnaces. He focused on his newborn, Elizabeth, ignoring the circumstances of her conception, and reminded himself that what they were doing wasn’t for his world, but for hers, and for her children’s.
As Gary walked down the steps from the wall, he lit up another cigarette and watched as the three females were strapped to gurneys and wheeled away. The males were carried by two burly guards in heavy leather aprons and gloves over to a metal rimmed hole and tossed down into the pit below. The chamber, an old sewer, would be flooded and the ghouls drowned while still sedated, and then the butchers would go to work. Gary had only once visited the meat processing room in the basement of the Reformatory, and that brief excursion had given him nightmares for a week. He didn’t know how the workers could deal with the smell, let alone the horrific images of skinned humans hanging from meat hooks. It turned his stomach to think about it.
Smitty loped over to Gary and flashed a toothy grin. “I’m up tonight! Gonna rape me that redhead!” He grabbed his crotch and made a rude thrust as he laughed.
Gary shook his head. He’d seen that sort of attitude too often. He had begun to wonder if in trying to save the human race they were giving up what it meant to be human. He watched the lecherous guard trot into the main building and took a long drag from his cancer stick. He was about to follow, his shift over now that the pen was cleared out, when he noticed a furtive shadow moving near the east crop field.
He moved quietly toward the field. He wasn’t particularly stealthy but he knew how to keep his head down, and as he followed the dark clad figure, he slid his shotgun off his shoulder and clicked the safety off. The field had once been the prison garden, a project the old warden had put in place as a means of prisoner control. It had been expanded greatly since the infection, producing food for the survivors instead of baskets for a farmer’s market in town. Stealing food was one of the biggest crimes in the little community, and anger rose in Gary’s face as he watched the shadowy form flit between the rows of corn near the edge of the high stone outer wall.
“Hold it right there!” he demanded as he cornered the thief, noting the bundle in the man’s hands, likely a bag filled with stolen food. The man stepped forward into the moonlight and Gary gasped. “Doc, what the hell are you doing out here?” he asked in a harsh whisper.
The man held out the bundle in his arms, showing the sleeping form wrapped in an old sheet. It was a baby, no more than a few days old. “I have to, Gary,” the veterinarian replied in a calm voice. “There’s already so much death here, so much blood spilled because of me and my plan. I am saving us, yes, but at what cost? This little one has the symptoms. I should have injected him, let him die peacefully and had his tiny body tossed into the flames, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t know if the ghouls reproduce, and I don’t know if they will do anything more than tear his little body apart, but I can’t…I just can’t…” Tears flowed down the old man’s face. “He’s mine, Gary. He’s my son.”
Conflict raged in Gary’s thoughts. He knew what Doc meant to do, to release the infant and hope for the best. It seemed cruel, leaving such a helpless thing outside the walls, but was it really any worse that killing it and burning its corpse for fuel? He understood the man’s pain, and his thoughts drifted to his own daughter. Would he have been able to kill her if she had been born a ghoul? It tore him in two, his duty to protect the others and his desire to make some small token of repentance for the sins they all bore, and at last he realized that if no other bond would hold, the connection between a parent and their child must. He lowered the shotgun. “If we’re caught, we’ll be tossed out.”
“Yes I know,” Doc said as he laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I think we’ve all learned that sometimes to survive we must do things that are wrong. Maybe it’s time to do something right.” Gary nodded and the two men walked over to the heavy iron gate in the stone wall. It was locked tight, with both a metal bar and padlock holding it closed. Doc produced a key, stolen from Evan’s office, and unlocked the door. “Don’t come with me. No, it’s not because I’m selfless, but because someone needs to keep the door open. I planned to use a rock, but you’re a lot more intelligent, or at least I hope you are! You’ll know to shut me out if…well, if things go badly.”
Gary nodded and opened the door. Doc slipped out, carrying his small package to the edge of the woods that surrounded three-quarters of the fortress-prison. The little one gave a small cry and Doc froze, fearing the sound might attract any ghouls prowling nearby. Gary gripped his weapon firmly and watched for movement, but neither man could see any danger. Doc put the bundle down in a soft thicket of pine needles, kissing his infant son lightly one last time, and then rapidly backed away. He was almost to the door when the first dirty face swam into view from between the trees.
The bestial man ignored the squirming infant and leapt at the old man backpedaling towards the gate. The feral creature snarled and Doc was certain it would reach him before he could get to safety. A heavy hand fell on his back and hauled him away from the ghoul’s lunge just in time. Gary fired a tazer shell into the monster and yanked himself and Doc back through the gate, slamming it shut before any more ghouls could arrive. He locked it tight and replaced the metal bar while Doc shivered on the ground.
“Too close,” he said as he helped the older man up. “So do you think this will work?” A sound from the other side of the wall drew their attention and they both went to the small slit in the door. They saw four ghouls, two near the gate trying to see if there was a way in, and two others, females it appeared, examining the infant. One of the filthy figures lifted the tiny form from its swaddling, and Gary was certain she was going to bite the child’s head off. Instead he was amazed to see her cradle the fragile baby gently in her arms. It was then that both men noticed the swollen abdomen of the other female.
“Survival,” Doc said, a tear rolling down his cheek. “It’s what makes us human.”
Gary watched as the ghouls disappeared back into the woods. He turned to his friend and followed numbly. They wandered back towards the complex, neither speaking a word. The two men stopped when they saw Evan watching from the observation booth above the door. He looked down at them and nodded in approval, having witnessed their transgression. He turned and disappeared from view, and they looked at each other and nodded as well. From somewhere far away, a baby’s cry sounded in the night.