The Redcards: 4- The Wild Zone
The Wild Zone
Only two days after his diagnosis, Dale found himself in a line of twelve infected people, all destined for exile into the Wild Zone. He had been kept in isolation since the positive test, unable to see his family; and now he wondered if he would ever see them again. There was one small blessing, however. Marie and Julie had tested negative. At least they were safe.
‘Move up to the field,’ barked Bryce, the Head of Security. Wielding batons and tasers, he and his operatives guided Dale and the eleven others towards the shimmering blue grid that ran all the way to the beach and the sea to their right. Bryce and his men were accompanied by serious back up: one of the sentry robots newly produced in Wolf Chang’s Cyber Area. These remote-controlled machines were painted black and grey and towered over the nearby humans. Beyond the defence field lay thick forest and a high mountain; a mysterious, dangerous part of the island that Dale had never expected to see.
He’d been stupid, naïve, unrealistic. He realised that now. The infection could strike anyone and his number had come up. But with his recent good fortune, the very notion of such bad fortune had seemed unfeasible. Perhaps that was just what fate had decided: his many smaller instances of good luck were to be countered by one major piece of bad luck.
Dale glanced around at the terrified faces of his infected compatriots. Some were crying, some were trembling, some were praying. He didn’t know any of them well, though they’d all exchanged names while kept captive in a holding cell. Some appeared resigned to their fate, while others were convinced that they could somehow survive the Wild Zone. Dale had worked hard to drag himself out of a pit of depression. He hadn’t gotten his family to the island just to get himself killed and leave them unprotected. He was going to make it.
Mark Bryce took a metal card from his pocket and slid it into a nearby control panel. He hit a few keys and the defence field disappeared.
‘Put ‘em in!’ he shouted.
The black-clad, mask-wearing security operatives forced the exiles towards a narrow path. One man made a break for freedom but a rap across the legs with a baton brought the escapee down. Bryce grabbed him round the neck and threw him towards the path. For good measure, he aimed his taser at an older woman who ran from him, squealing. Dale noted that the Head of Security smothering a grin: Bryce clearly liked roughing people up.
Knowing there was no realistic choice, he followed the others towards the path. As soon as all twelve exiles were there, Bryce re-activated the security grid.
‘Have a lovely trip!’ he shouted. ‘I guarantee that you’re going to see all kinds of exotic flora and fauna.’
One of the infected men then unleashed a series of imaginative insults at Bryce, who simply laughed at him. Another in the group – a grey-haired woman named Ivanov – addressed the others.
‘Guys listen, we’re stronger if we stay together. First priority is to find somewhere safe.’
‘If there is anywhere,’ muttered a young man named Andrews.
As they made their way along the path, he grabbed a nearby branch and snapped it off, creating a makeshift club. Dale and some of the others copied him before joining the others. As they walked, they all glanced warily at the dense, colourful vegetation, waving away the flies that pursued them.
‘Is she headed for that mountain?’ asked Dale, looking up at the grey peak that rose high above the trees.
‘Who knows?’ said Andrews.
They had been travelling for less than five minutes when the first scream went up. Dale raised his club and tried to see what was going on ahead of him. He glimpsed a man being dragged off the path by what seemed to be a thick, green arm.
The truth of their predicament was revealed by the next sight: a tall plant that leaned out of the foliage and grabbed a woman, its tendrils surrounding all four limbs. The head of the plant was composed of a large red bud that suddenly snapped open, revealing a scarlet mouth and a set of needle-like teeth. Holding the woman in the air, the plant swallowed its victim’s legs and bit down on the stomach, showering those nearby with gore.
Dale was almost knocked over by two fleeing the horrifying scene, both of them covered in the victim’s blood. He watched Andrews leave the trail, push his way between two ferns and head for a clearing. Dale and three others sprinted after him, away from the chaos. In what seemed like only seconds, they were some distance from the attack, breathing hard.
‘What the hell was that?’
‘Ow!’ yelled another of their splinter group, a woman called Myers who was wearing a baseball cap. ‘Something bit me!’
She watched as another insect landed on her arm. It looked like a mosquito but it was huge; bigger than a hand. Dale actually saw the finger-sized proboscis pierce her skin and begin to suck out blood.
Myers screeched and staggered backwards before falling over a vine-covered log. Dale was about to help her but her body was already still and her eyes had rolled up into her head. These insects weren’t just dangerous; they were lethal.
When Dale felt something flying close to his head, he set off out of the clearing at a run, leaping more trees and diving under low branches. He hadn’t realised anyone was with him until he reached a stream. Andrews was there, as was a tall, slender man named Berti. The three of them splashed through the water and up the far bank before stopping. Dale looked around but could see no sign of the giant mosquitos. Shouts and screams could still be heard from the path.
Andrews wiped a sleeve across his sweaty brow. ‘This entire goddam place is a death-trap.’
‘Maybe we should keep heading for the high ground,’ replied Dale, pointing to the mountain.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Berti. ‘Find a cave or something.’
Though the vegetation was dense all around, there seemed to be a path through a grove of palms to the east.
‘We have to keep an eye out for the mosquitoes,’ said Dale. ‘Stay sharp.’
‘Got it,’ said Andrews as they set off towards the palms.
Dale didn’t allow himself to dwell on how quickly people had died; how quickly he might die. He tried to focus solely on the deadly insects. His gaze moved from left to right and back, scanning the air for any threat. He was listening carefully too; the creature that killed Myers had made a loud buzz.
‘Clear behind?’ he asked.
‘Looks okay for now,’ said Andrews. ‘But at this rate, we’ll be lucky to survive today.’
Berti replied: ‘I don’t even want to think about being here at night.’
Though he was warm, Dale felt a chill of fear when he heard that.
In the middle of the palm grove was a clearing containing many mounds of sand, each as high as a man. Dale watched as sand began to slip down the side of one of the mounds. Something was moving inside.
‘Oh no,’ said Berti.
‘What now?’ asked Andrews, gritting his teeth and raising his club in anticipation.
In seconds, another unearthly creature burst out of the mound, showering them with sand. As the thing shook itself clean, its form was revealed. It was a huge, green scorpion as big as a man, pincers as long as Dale’s arms. The purple tail was ridged with spikes, the dagger-like tip ready to strike. As the arachnid darted towards him, Dale held up his club. The scorpion’s pincers closed on the wood, easily snapping it in half.
‘Killer scorpions,’ remarked Andrews drily. ‘Of course.’
As he retreated, Dale saw three more scorpions burst from the sand. One was directly behind Berti. In a flash, it gripped his legs with its pincers, then lashed its barbed tail into his back. Berti shrieked, reaching back vainly to try and free himself. As the poison pumped into him, his body shuddered and spasmed.
Dale found himself beside Andrews as they backed away from the scorpions. The closest of the predators struck again but Andrews batted the pincer away with his club. Unfortunately, his next step took him into some kind of animal burrow. He lost his footing and fell. Dale reached for him but the scorpions were already on him, pincers sinking into his flesh. Andrews screamed for help.
Dale knew there was nothing he could do. He looked over at Berti. The poor man had been paralysed by the stinger and was now being torn to pieces. Scraps of skin and hair and clothing threw into the air.
Dale was about to run when a green energy beam sliced out of the nearby undergrowth and hit a scorpion in the head. As the dark carapace was shattered, mushy brain matter leaked out onto the sand. Three more shots was enough to kill the remaining scorpions, who collapsed into the sand, deadly tails now at rest. Only then did Dale get his first sight of his saviours.
They looked like something from a history book. The five humanoids were thin, almost skeletal, with grey, desiccated skin. The top halves of their faces were obscured by high headdresses; below these were mouths full of sharp teeth. The rest of their clothing was minimal, colourful and primitive. Strangely, their main weapons were blasters; hi-tech guns that they must have somehow stolen from Bryce’s security team. Yet each of them also carried a wooden lance on a strap across their back.
‘Thank god!’ This came from Ivanov, who’d just run into the palm grove with another woman. ‘Someone else is alive! Dale Fox, right?’ Her expression changed when she saw the dead men, not to mention the new arrivals.
‘You!’ said the tallest of the primitives, pointing at Dale’s red hair. ‘You found it.’
‘You found it.’
‘Perhaps I can help, said Ivanov, stepping forward. ‘It seems that these unfortunate beings are of limited intelligence. We could-’
Ivanov stopped to look down at the wooden lance that the primitive had just stabbed her with. As she fell, bleeding profusely, the remaining primitives attacked Ivanov’s compatriot. Both died quickly.
Stunned by yet more brutality, Dale threw up. He felt hollow, numb, as if powerless within an inescapable nightmare. He stayed still, keen not to provoke the humanoids that had proved as lethal as the Wild Zone’s creatures.
‘Good!’ shouted one of the primitives, throwing Ivanov’s blood-soaked body over his shoulder. ‘Good eating!’ One of the others claimed the second corpse.
Then a third primitive ran up to Dale. Using his wooden lance, he knocked his club out of his hands, then aimed the weapon at his neck. Dale could smell him; the odour was more like an animal than a man. The primitive poked him in the chest and the stomach; not hard enough to penetrate the skin but hard enough to hurt. Dale wondered if this was it. His life had been going to so well but now here he was in the Wild Zone and everyone but him was dead. Surely, he was next.
‘Me kill this one. Me take this one.’
The tall one approached, looming over Dale. He looked at his fellow primitive, then at Dale.
‘No. This one found it. He goes to Master.’
The aggressive primitive ground his teeth and turned his lance towards his compatriot. The tall one snatched his weapon and threw it into the undergrowth. An ominous growl persuaded the aggressive one to give in and he sloped off.
‘Come!’ said the tall primitive, beckoning for Dale to follow him. ‘Come. We go see Master.’
The interlopers clearly knew the area well. They somehow bypassed all the dangerous creatures, leading Dale towards the mountain. As they walked on, he forced himself not to think about all the suffering and death he had witnessed. For some reason he had been spared; he had to make the most of this unexpected opportunity. Dale also tried not to look at the dead bodies, or think about what would happen when they reached their destination and this “master”.
He kept thinking about the primitive’s words: “you found it”. He couldn’t understand how they’d know about the crypto-crystals but surely this was what they meant; he was famous on the island for having made the discovery. Perhaps the find had proven to be fortunate for him once again.
After walking for several hours into the jungle, they reached a clearing at the base of a mountain. Here, a surprisingly large camp had been constructed: timber huts with roofs of sprawling leaves. The camp was also equipped with a well and a circular meeting area where logs were used for seats. In the middle of it was a high, wide throne made of bamboo and decorated with flowers and coloured stones.
Dozens more of the chattering primitives emerged from the huts and surrounded them. The two dead bodies were picked up and swiftly taken away. Dale stood there alone, unsure what would happen next.
Suddenly, the primitives all made way for a large, dark figure with piercing green eyes. As he passed them, the primitives bowed respectfully, some also muttering what sounded like a prayer. Unlike the others, this individual wore human clothes, though its grey, angular face was anything but human. Around his neck was a chunky gold necklace encrusted with gems that looked to Dale very much like crypto crystals. He had no doubt that this was the Master.
‘You are the red-haired man,’ said the leader in a deep growl. ‘You are the one who found the crystal.’
‘Yes,’ answered Dale.
The primitives began to chatter with each other, only quietening down when Master raised a hand.
‘The crystal used in the special weapon.’
Then Dale remembered the vibrating emitters, the ones used by Wolf Chang in conjunction with the defence field.
‘Yes,’ he added, feeling that honesty was probably the best policy with these unintelligent creatures.
The Master’s already ugly face contorted into a disturbing scowl. He stormed forward, scattering his subordinates, and stood over Dale.
‘We hate the weapon. It hurts us. Hurts our brains. Stops us taking the island. Our island.’
‘Now wait a minute,’ replied Dale, holding up his hands. ‘I played no part in-’
‘You found it,’ stated the Master. ‘So you will feel pain. You will feel like us. You will die slow.’