Authors: Paul E. Cooley
He shivered in the cool morning air as his brain tried to process what wasn't there. A fresh round of coughing brought him back to the present. He hurried to Steph's tent.
As he walked in, he saw her nails dragging across the pulsing sores on her cheeks. "No, Steph," he said. "Don't touch them."
She lowered her hands and stared at the bloody skin beneath her short nails. "Won't stop itching."
John dropped the medkit, unlocked its latches and opened it. Bandages, a tourniquet, plastic boxes of pills, and a few syringes stared back at him. He scanned through the labels until he found what he was looking for. He opened a plastic box and palmed three pills.
"Okay, Steph. I need you to take these." She held out her palm and he dropped the three oblong, blue capsules into her hand. Steph placed them in her mouth with shaking hands. He handed her the water bottle and watched as she took a long gulp.
Another cough escaped her lips sending spittle and water onto the side of the tent. John flinched away from her and turned back to the med kit. "Need to shoot you up. You're having an allergic reaction to something."
She tried to take a deep breath and set off a fresh coughing spree.
John picked up an EpiPen and turned to her. Steph's left hand was raised to her cheek again. John glared at her. "Leave it the fuck alone, Steph."
He pulled off the EpiPen's cap. "This is going to hurt." He jabbed the short, sharp needle into her thigh.
Steph hissed between her teeth. Her right arm started shaking. John watched as the pulsing sores paled to match her skin. He reached and held her right hand. "It's okay," he said. "Just let it do its thing."
Tears slipped down beneath her scrunched eyes. Her fingers squeezed down. Her arm spasmed once more and then ceased. Steph's eyes fluttered open.
"Better," she said.
John nodded and forced a smile. "Rest for a sec. I need to go check on the others."
She pulled him closer. Her breath smelled of rotted meat. "You'll come back?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Of course." He squeezed her hand again before turning and exiting the tent.
A gust of wind rippled the sides of the tents. The tarp flapped. He looked toward the canopy. The sheets and plastic that had covered the mummy were on the desert floor. A chill wracked him.
"Alonso?" he called as he made his way to the next tent. There was no answer. Frowning, he placed his hand on the zippered entrance. "Al? I'm coming in, man." He waited a beat, but there was no response from inside.
John took a deep breath and unzipped the entrance. The smell slammed into his nostrils and he gagged. He held his nose and spread open the flap.
Alonso lay sideways on a sleeping bag. His face was barely recognizable. The flesh had slid off his bones in a gray ooze. His left eyeball lay on the pillow beside him. Bones protruded through the gaps in the dissolved flesh.
John pulled himself out of the tent and vomited. He coughed, wiped his face, and stumbled backwards. He peered toward Blanco's tent. Gut roiling, John walked on rubbery limbs to the blue and orange housing. "Blanco?"
He unzipped the tent, but didn't peer in. The same charnel house stench hit his nostrils. Choking back his gorge, he rezipped the tent. He dropped to his knees and panted.
The tents rippled and waved as another gust of wind rose. John forced himself to stand. "Steph?" He barely recognized his own voice. She didn't answer.
He walked to her tent and stuck his head in. Steph's eyes were closed. "Steph?"
Her eyes opened and John started. The corneas were yellow and her pupils had shrunk to dots.
"J--John? I can't see," she coughed.
He stepped further into the tent and squatted beside her. A thin line of blood escaped the corner of her mouth.
"Stay with me, Steph." He pulled a dirty shirt from her laundry pile and dabbed at the blood. "Stay with me."
"He visited me last night."
John cocked an eyebrow. "Who? Linton?"
She shook her head. "No."
A runner of blood ran down her from her left nostril. She licked her lips and groaned.
"Eyes," she whispered. "The eyes. The smell. God, John. I've never been so scared."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"The Utukku," said said in a broken voice. Steph coughed and a spray of blood hit John's chest. "It was here."
He shivered, but managed to keep his face calm. "What do you mean the Utukku?"
"It came into my tent." Steph's face scrunched in pain. A roadmap of blood vessels burst in her right eye. The whites slowly disappeared as the crimson flooded its surface. "It was here."
John shook his head. "No, darlin. That was just a hallucination."
She coughed again and a foul odor escaped her lips. He recoiled from the smell of rotten meat and diseased tissue.
"No." Steph spat a tooth to the side. "Real." Her left hand, flesh sliding off the bone, rose to point at a spot behind him.
The big man whirled around and stared where her fingers indicated. His breath froze in his lungs. On the inside of the tent was a small black and grey hand-print. It looked wet and dried at the same time. He turned back to Steph.
Her lips were open in a pained grimace.
She exhaled in a deep rattle of breath. She did not take another.
"Steph?" John shook her body. The skin on her left shoulder peeled off like rotted bark. Blood and black fluid oozed out. Through the sludge he could see the white of bone.
"STEPH!" he screamed in her face. Her eyes continued to stare at the handprint on the tent and her pupils had disappeared completely. John shuffled back from her on his knees. Her cheeks started to cave in, exposing rotted teeth and a black tongue. He stepped out of the tent and stumbled into the morning light.
THE black blanket which once wrapped the mummy lay on the ground. It was covered in a dark, dried ooze and free of sand. The sigils were scattered across the ground and the caps had been shattered.
John's cough was a rattle in his chest. Lamashtu. The diseased one. He shook his head. "No, that's crazy," he mumbled to himself. "Linton?"
There was no response from the man's tent. John turned and walked carefully to the tent. He fought to keep his balance and managed to keep from falling down twice. The third time, his foot hit one of the tent pegs and sent him sprawling to the hard dirt pack.
He spit sand and blood. A rattling groan escaped his lips. He turned over and stared up into the sky. Birds were soaring on the wind. A mixed flock of condors and albatrosses swirled and twirled around the campsite. John's ears caught the sound of their calls. It was nearly a voice.
The sun's light seemed to pound into him, but he felt a little better. He rolled to his side and managed to push himself up. On one knee, he stared into the blue sky and watched the birds. The Caral guardians, he thought.
"Linton?" he croaked. Another cough shook his body and tears of pain flowed from his eyes. He crawled to the tent's entrance and unzipped it. He stared in and blinked. The man was gone. The mummy's body was at the side of the tent, but there wasn't much left of it. The dried, desiccated flesh had turned into a puddle of liquid leaving old bones behind.
John wiped blood from his mouth. Linton's clothes were ripped, torn, and spread atop the sleeping bag. Strips of flesh had peeled off and adhered to the fabric. John shuffled back from the bedrolls and returned to the sunlight.
He walked back to the equipment crate that lay beneath the tarp. The steel box was open. Its contents were smashed. The laptop had been torn in two pieces. Bloody fingerprints stained the plastic and rubber. The sat phone lay at the bottom. The antenna had been broken off the handset and the plastic housing was destroyed. John blinked at it and fell to his knees.
There was no way to call for an evac. The expedition wasn't due to check in for another two days. John idly scratched at his arm. He wouldn't last two days. His only hope was to make it to the next camp, but that was kilometers away across the valley.
John stumbled back to his tent. He emptied his backpack except for his emergency tools and filled it with first-aid supplies. It was going to be a long walk and he wasn't sure he'd make it. The equipment crate still held two things he needed--a canteen and a machete. He filled the canteen with bottled water and then stuffed the pack with more. He held the pack up by its straps and felt its weight. It was heavy, but he thought he'd be able to carry it.
With the machete in his hands, he walked past the tents and into the desert. Far across the desert floor, he saw a dot. It was the temple where he'd found the map leading to the mummy's burial site.
He started to leave the tarp and head into the desert when his foot kicked something. He stared down. The wooden bird-sigils littered the ground near the table. He wiped blood from his nose and then began packing the wooden carvings. He managed to stuff all 33 inside. When he picked up the pack again, he groaned beneath the added weight. John shrugged into the shoulder straps, took one last look at the wrecked equipment, and headed out into the desert.
THE third time he fell down, he wasn't sure he could get back up. The navy blue sky was incredibly bright. John lay on his back and splashed his face with water from the canteen. He coughed and a spray of blood erupted from his mouth.
When he'd set out from the dig site, he'd made a bee-line for the distant temple. An hour later, he felt like he was no closer. The dot would get larger, and then seem to shrink. He knew it was an optical illusion, but that didn't help much.
Even in the cool high desert, the sunlight was hot and uncomfortable. Or, John had thought as he stripped off his shirt, it was the fever. The sickness was creeping through his chest making it hard to breathe. As he'd traveled farther and farther from the dig-site, each step had become a fight to stay upright.
After a kilometer or so, the hard-pack dirt gave way to soft sand. John had stopped when he'd seen the marks in the sand. They were human footprints. Linton had either stripped off his boots in the tent, or left them somewhere far behind and John missed them. The footprints were spattered with red and black ooze.
John followed the prints for some time. They were definitely headed toward the temple. After what seemed like forever, he'd given up trying to follow them and instead focused on the distant structure.
John closed his eyes against the bright blue sky and rested. His chest rattled with each breath. The shock of what he'd seen at the dig-site was finally settling in. Steph and the diggers were dead. The mummy had infected them all, and now it was inside Linton. It was heading for the temple and he had no idea why.
The squawk of a bird interrupted his doze. He flicked open his eyes. An Andean condor stood a few feet away. The bird's beak clicked together as it spread its long black and white wings. Its red comb seemed to glow in the light. The male bird folded its wings and stepped toward him.
John tried to raise his arms to ward off the creature, but he was simply too tired to fight it. If the bird attacked him, he wasn't sure he could do anything about it. The bird hopped onto his chest and knocked the wind out of him. Its sharp talons stung against his bare chest and he hissed through his teeth. The bird squawked again.
"Make--Make it fast," he gasped.
The condor scratched at his chest and a shot of blinding white pain wracked him. John tried to scream, but only a whisper of air escaped his mouth. He looked down as the condor scratched into his flesh. Black and red liquid oozed from the rents in his skin.
He managed a deep intake of breath, and then the condor's beak dipped into the deep gashes. This time, the scream belted out of his throat and shredded his vocal cords. He shook as waves of fiery pain engulfed him.
The condor lifted its head and stared at him with a single eye. Blood ran from its beak and its comb had turned black. It wavered on its taloned feet, stepped off his chest and onto the desert floor. The creature vomited a stream of black ooze and then fell on its side. Its wings spread one last time and then it lay still.
An icy sensation crept through his veins. The fever disappeared. The incredible pressure that had built up in his chest subsided. John took a deep breath and felt little pain. A gurgling sound caught his attention and he swung his gaze back to the motionless condor. Its body was dissolving into the sand. As he watched, its flesh dripped off in a black and red sludge.
John sat up and rubbed a hand across his chest. The rents and slashes in his chest were dry, the skin puffy and white. The desert erupted in bird squawks and keening, piercing cries. He looked up and toward the temple. A mix of condors and albatross stood on the desert floor, their heads all turned to the side. Their collective gaze skated over his body and their heads bobbed as one.
He tried to stand and managed to find his feet. The burning fever had abated leaving him feeling cool and calm. The pain from the bird's ministrations was a memory. He rubbed sand off his bare chest and stared at the mixed avian flock. The birds turned from him and stared off into the distance. John looked out into the desert. The temple was closer than he'd thought. Through the heat shimmer, he could make out its rough, triangular shape.
He bent to pickup the pack and stopped. The bird carcass was nothing but bones. Its yellow beak had fallen off the skeleton. It seemed to glow in the harsh sunlight. He didn't know why he did it, but he reached down and grasped it between his fingers. The beak felt warm and slick. He slipped it into the pocket of his jeans, strapped the pack to his back and stared at the temple.
The flock turned to him and spread apart. With tentative steps, he began walking again. The birds on either side of him bobbed their heads as he passed by them. John found his pace and continued putting one foot in front of the other. The flock took flight behind him and the desert echoed with their sharp, keening cries.
He wiped cool sweat from his brow and loped toward the temple. A flush of energy started in his chest and slowly spread across his body. His steps turned into a run, the backpack slapping against him in time. The temple was up ahead. So was Linton. John pulled the machete from his belt, the rustle of bird wings at his back.