the runner cover

I used to run marathons. Every year, like clockwork, I ran the Comrades, the Two Oceans…if it required you to run until you dropped, I ran it. I even ran the London Marathon, the year before it all went to shit. I loved it, you know? The feel of your feet hitting the pavement like drums, your heart in your ears…

Well, I still run, but nobody’s giving medals anymore.

It’s been six years now, since the dead rose. Well, not ‘rose’ because technically they’re not dead – pulse, respiration, all of that is still there. But all of what makes them human…well, that’s gone. That’s all gone and all that’s left is a ravenous husk with barely the coordination to keep on its feet.

South Africa did better than a lot of countries. For a change, our paranoia and history of institutionalized violence served us well. We had walls, and we had guns, and most of all we had a history of watching our neighbours so, so closely, just in case. Not just in case they turned into the ravening undead, but just…you know, just in case. Just in case they were a murderer or a rapist or a drug dealer or whatever. So when people started attacking each other and uninfected humans turned into the local equivalent of a Happy Meal on legs, we were more or less ready.

We gathered the uninfected in safe spaces – in the case of our town, there was a half-completed walled estate just outside of town. The walls were finished even if the houses weren’t, and we had dozens of people in there who could build serviceable houses out of the most unlikely of materials.

We raided for petrol and medicine and food from the farms and the centre of town. After a year we expanded the walls so that we could start planting, and added more houses.

Two years later the garages were dry, and we’d run out of cars to siphon, and that’s where people like me came in. We were in contact with other similar compounds – Modimolle and Lephalale to the north, and a crowd who’d moved into the high school right here in Bela-Bela. They were using the rugby field to grow tomatoes and maize, keeping themselves fed and making enough extra to trade, now and then. Now I wouldn’t be able to run trades like that but little things? Medicines and the broadsheet that the school guys were printing using an ancient hand-cranked printing press, keeping everyone up to date on the gossip because even after the end of the world there’s nothing that we like more than a good gossip? That, I could do.

So I did.

I still remember my first run. I’d been training for months by then, running the walls with as much as I could carry until I was exhausted, and then the next morning doing it all again. I was as fit as I’d ever been in my life.

“Are you sure you don’t want some body armour?” Anne asked, watching me get my gear ready. It was simple enough, really. Running shorts and a t-shirt in the least obtrusive colours I could find, and the best running shoes we could loot. My pack was a true find. Someone had dug it out of a pile of corpses on the outskirts of Pretoria and handed it over to Central when they arrived. It was military, the kind of pack soldiers wear on long deployments, and sat so comfortably that it was almost possible to forget that I was carrying nearly my own bodyweight in homemade medicines and biltong. I had a small hatchet shoved in my belt, but if I needed more than that I was dead already. The only thing that would save me was the fact that I was fast, that I could outrun most of the infected.

“It’s too damn hot for body armour, Anne,” I said. “I’m no good if I collapse from heat stroke halfway there, am I?”

She shrugged.

“Your funeral, I guess,” she said.

This first trip, I wasn’t alone. There was an old block house on the mountain between Bela-Bela and Modimolle, and I would be dropping off a four-man team to stay there to keep the road as clear as they could. I’d be dropping off another four at the top of a hill about halfway between the block house and Modimolle, where there was a farmhouse with a good view.

We couldn’t leave town by the main road, of course, because that went past the township, and one of the other routes was blocked by the police station, which was a natural hotspot. Churches, I had to avoid as well – and you wouldn’t believe how many churches there can be in such a small town. The uninfected flocked to them in times of need the way they didn’t in better days, and this was not Europe. Churches here had never been built to withstand sieges – they were houses of God, not fortresses. In the aftermath, they had become epicentres of secondary infection, the infected consuming the faithful, who wandered outward to spread the infection anew. The three largest churches made a pretty solid wall of infected closing us off from most of the middle of town.

All of which is to say that we went the long way round, throwing a wide circle to avoid the township and the churches and the cop shop, passing around the dam before heading back to re-join the road just short of the block house. By the time we reached it, the eight of them and me, it was nearly dark, and we who would be moving on in the morning stayed over for a bit of a rest. We couldn’t risk much of a fire, but we had some canned food to share and I think that the four who stayed were grateful for a last night of company before they were left to themselves. The plan was that they would be a way station for runners, the last before Bela-Bela, keeping their stretch of road as clear as they could, and in return they would be supplied from what we carried. It was a good plan. Today we have four small fortresses on the mountain road, and we have maybe one runner lost a year.

I was the first runner on the route, though, and once I dropped off the second team at the farmhouse, I would be alone.

I’d only be alone for the last few kilometres until I reached Modimolle.

Everything went dead smooth until that point. I slept over at the farmhouse with the team and the next morning I set out. It was quiet enough. We’d cleared the immediate area of infected before sunset the day before, the combat team quiet and efficient with their assegais.

I didn’t run, not really. Running made noise, and noise attracted the infected. A quick walk is much quieter and nearly as quick, and has the added bonus of not being nearly as tiring.

I’d never run the mountain route, not even before the end of it all. All the ups and downs, they were killers on the legs. I preferred going around the mountain but then, so did everyone else. The Eersbewoont road was clogged with the infected past the first set of turns. There had been a shantytown on one of the farms. All it takes is one infected, you know? I guess if you’re reading this you do know. One infected can go through a township like a hot knife through butter.

I walked along, just my heartbeat and my feet for company, my eyes flickering from side to side, waiting for something to jump out at me.

The infected still took me by surprise, lurching around one of those damn sharp turns without so much a moan to give me warning.

It took me too damn long to get the hatchet loose, but how long had it been since I’d been outside the walls? How long had it been since I’d needed to defend myself, needed to be fast enough to stop an attacking infected?

I went down hard, snapping teeth centimetres from my face, but I managed not to actually scream as I closed my eyes and smashed the hatchet down as hard as I could. There was a sound like someone dropping a watermelon and blood sprayed into my face. The infected went limp on top of me. He’d been a fat bugger in life, and it took not a bit of heaving to get him off me. Doing all that without breathing in was a hell of a job, but I got it done, and spat several times as I wrenched the wipes free of my pocket and wiped every exposed inch of skin, and then my goggles for good measure. There wasn’t much on my actual face, what with the goggles and all. It hadn’t got anything in my mouth, thank God. We weren’t sure whether the infection could actually spread by ingesting infected material, but best not to take a chance. Also I’m not a vampire and I don’t fancy drinking any blood. Not again.

By the time I was back on my feet the rest of the herd had come around the corner and there was nothing for me to do but run. This was where the only piece of armour I’d consented to carry came into play. I unhooked the police riot shield from my pack, keeping my eyes on the approaching herd all the while. There were only five of them. I could do it, I thought, if I was fast enough.

My husband had always called me his little tank, because I took a while to get started but once I did, I was unstoppable. I proved it that day, as I charged the little herd with the riot shield in front of me.

I hit them with a thud that echoed in my bones. None of them were as big as the one who’d attacked me first, and they went down like bowling pins.

I kept running, hooking the shield onto my back without breaking stride. The shit had well and truly hit the fan now. I wouldn’t be able to stop, not even for a moment. The infected can be fucking fast if they want. If they sense fresh meat, they can move like fury. And they’d seen me now. They didn’t know anything but the hunt and the endless hunger, and they wouldn’t stop until they caught me. That was always their strength, the way they could keep going. They didn’t have to stop to rest, they didn’t have to eat. They never slept.

I checked where I was. Not much farther now. I could do it. I could have done it easily, if I hadn’t had the pack, and if I hadn’t been all bruised up from the tumble I’d taken with Fat Zombie. But without the pack I might as well not have left the compound, and there was nothing I could do about the fall now.

I was taking a chance. There was no way to know whether there was another herd on the road ahead and if there was, I could run into them before I saw them, without any warning. I could run right into anything.

I kept running, counting the steps, keeping them steady. No panic, I told myself. Panic would get me killed. Panic would make me blind and deaf, and I was in a bad enough position already, with the infected moaning behind me and my own footsteps in my ears.

I’d seen too many people run straight into herds they hadn’t known were there, to allow myself to panic now.

So I kept my eyes open as I ran. I saw the animals shy at my approach and birds take flight. There was more wildlife around these days. The infected seemed to ignore animals, and animals ignored them in turn.

I could also see and hear the infected noticing me. There weren’t that many. Maybe one or two a kilometre, standing around in that way that the infected had, staring at leaves or the waving grass or wandering animals. And as I passed it was almost like they came alive. Purpose came into their movements and they turned to follow me. Jerky, awkward motions, as they turned their faces in my direction and shuffled after me.

They couldn’t hope to catch me. I’d finished the Comrades seven times. I mean, I hadn’t placed, but I’d finished it. I could keep going as long as I needed to.

I could keep going, and as long as I kept going they hadn’t a chance in hell to catch me.

The road was still good. That was something, at least. The road was still smooth underneath me for the most part and I could see, clearly enough, where the cracks were. I could avoid those easily enough, avoid the cracks in the road that wanted to reach up and trip me, as long as I didn’t look back.

I looked back.

Of course I looked back. There was a growing herd of infected behind me, moaning like the lost and hungry souls they were, of course I bloody looked back.

And, because Lady Luck is a harlot, of course I bloody tripped as well. I skidded for a step or two, the road gripping and ripping at my knees and hands, and scrambled to my feet with a whimper. I glanced over my shoulder as I started running again. They were closer than they’d been before I fell, of course. Hands outstretched, classic zombie shuffle, but of course now I was bleeding as well. They were almost tripping over themselves trying to get to me.

I checked the sun as I ran. Not even noon yet. Thank god for that – I need the light to run. The infected have a natural advantage over uninfected humans in the dark – they don’t care if they can’t see, as long as they can hear, or smell, or make use of whatever whacked-up ESP they use to sense the uninfected.

I forced down the panic in my throat and focused. Not even at this new, faster pace could they catch up to me. I made myself slow down a bit, until I was moving at an almost leisurely trot.

The road was empty aside from me and my entourage, and for a while I strolled along, feeling a bit like the Pied Piper. I was leading them to their deaths, after all. There was nothing to left for them now but a merciful end.

I grinned to myself as I passed the broken-down, empty school bus by the side of the road. This was the home stretch, then. If I’d been in a car, I would have been in town five minutes after that, but I wasn’t in a car and on this approach there was a hospital right at the edge of town. I mean, it wasn’t exactly a big hospital. When we still had vehicles we’d gone past there every time, but I didn’t have a gun and I certainly didn’t have a car, did I? I sped up a bit anyway. I had a plan – well, not much of a plan, to be fair. If I could get far enough ahead…

The turn-off to the dirt road was just where it was supposed to me, just where Anne had told me it would, and I swung onto it with what could have been a sigh of relief, had I not been concentrating on my breathing.

I didn’t look back this time. I’m not stupid enough to do the same stupid thing twice, and if I’d been far enough ahead that the little herd hadn’t seen me turn off, I would know soon enough.

The silence told its own story. Before long the moaning of the herd faded into the distance and I slowed to a walk again, watching the heat haze on the road wobble and distort as I walked. The cicadas were in full throat, soothing in their normality. This was what the world should sound like, I thought as I walked along. Just the crunch of footsteps and the buzzing of the insects, and in the distance the lowing of a cow who was having a bad day.

The sound was unusual enough that I turned off to investigate. Shouldn’t have, of course, but I’ve never been one to let ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,” and before long I was at the gate of a farm. It was open. Not the best of signs, but it could have been worse – it didn’t look like a huge herd had trampled it. Maybe one? Two, at most, really. And ahead, the sound of a steak dinner calling my name.

The house came into view not long after the gate. Nice enough place, I suppose. White, with those fancy twirls on the walls that apparently had something to do with the Cape. Don’t ask me, I know Greece, Rome, and running. Architecture is not really my area.

As I suspected, the door had been smashed open, and there was definitely no more than one infected inside. I could tell, because I could hear the movement and also see what was probably the original attacker just inside the door, his head a pulpy ruin, and from there a trail of bloodied footprints leading into the house.

I closed the door as quietly as I could. I was sore, and I was tired, and I was most certainly not in the mood to deal with a fresh infected who would still be full of vim and vigour and eager to pass the virus along. I turned away from the door and came face-to-face with the last thing I wanted to see. I should have smelled it coming, old blood and filth and unwashed body. I was certainly smelling it now as it lurched at me with a gurgling groan, filthy hands clawed toward me.

I managed not to scream, clinging to the fading hope that I could avoid the attention of the one inside, and lurched backward as I swung my trusty little axe.

It caught the infected just below the eye and went up, cutting a long slash across its face. I reversed the stroke as soon as I could, bringing the back of the hatched down on the top of its head. It went down like a sack of flour, crumpling to a heap at my feet.

I may or may not have done a little victory dance next to its corpse. I was exhausted and filthy, but I’d been quick enough this time, and I’d taken down an infected in the field without being taken down for the first time in over a year. I felt more alive than I could remember in a long time. The cow, who did not care about my sudden lust for life, lowed again, long and mournful.

The cow was in a tiny camp, fenced in and gated, and had run out of water. Solving her problem was as simple as opening the gate and leaving. There was no way to take her with me, especially considering my huge expertise with cattle.

I don’t have any secret cattle expertise, by the way. Cattle, like architecture, is one of the things I treasure my ignorance of.

“Right,” I said as I pulled the outer gate – well, it was a bunch of sticks tied together with barbed wire, I suppose it qualified as a gate? – up and tied it closed, “no more stops. No more detours and if I could get through this without any more infected showing up that would be just grand. You listening up there?” I cast my eyes heavenward, as the saying goes, but there was nothing to see but clouds and the sun, wobbling across the sky and beating down on me. Certainly no heavenly hand reaching down to scoop me up and move me to my destination in an instant. Dammit.

I wished for some shade while I was at it, but that didn’t appear either. I kept moving, dust becoming mud from my sweat, running into the scrapes on my hands and knees and elbows and setting them on fire.

About a kilometre past the farm I ran out of water and had to continue on with my hot breath whistling through my parched and scratched throat, dust clogging my mouth and making grit on my teeth.

Honestly, that I didn’t die on that first run was a miracle.

I’m pretty sure that a miracle was what I looked like, when I stepped from the wild land onto the street that ran straight into the school. I had the flag ready and was waving it as I came, black and red and green and yellow streaming behind me like a symbol of hope as I headed for gates of the town, sliding slowly open at my approach.

Victoria Olivier was the first runner to complete the Bela-Bela – Modimolle route. She pioneered the riot shield tactic now common for runners in unsecured areas. She also opened the routes to Lephalale and to the former military base on the outskirts of Polokwane.

Following the success of the first run which Ms Olivier related for the archives, the route between Bela-Bela and Modimolle was eventually secured. No casualties have been reported on that route for more than a year by the time of publication.

Ms Olivier continued her career as a runner, opening new routes and often acting as an advance scout in unsecured or questionable areas, until her disappearance one year ago. An infected female wearing her shoes and carrying her last reported cargo was put down by a runner on the Radium route two months ago, and she is now considered INFECTED/DECEASED. In her honour, the curators of the Waterberg Report have ordered that this account be disseminated throughout the area on the anniversary of her disappearance. 

Ms Olivier was a survivor of the Rising and a hero. Long may she live in our memories.

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