Nero stepped down from the rock, located the path, and headed up again, the others practically clinging to his back. It was colder, darker, steeper than before. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to be home. In bed. Half-studying an algebra text while the comfortable background sonata of the television hummed beneath him. The reassuring patter of sound effects and three-button combinations. Pixel death. Graphics violence instead of graphic violence. The option to pause. The luxury of start over. Replay the level. Snap off the off and make the screen waver, turn the entire horizon into a calming and non-fatal blue.
Nero pulled down the sleeves of Petal’s coat. The seam of one armpit split. He wanted to take the whole thing off and hold it up to his face, breathe her scent in. But he knew it wouldn’t smell the same.
The Petal smell would be there, but faint.
Now it was mixed.
With someone else’s smell.
Someone who’d held him in the cave.
They stopped at the next rise and watched as the horde of Infects emerged from the cave mouth, like dirty sausage shoved through a dirtier grinder.
Falling onto one another in stacks.
Tangled into a dim, groaning pile.
Getting up. Sniffing the air.
Moaning and lurching forward again.
"Man, I can’t run no more," Idle said.
"This routine is getting old," Billy agreed.
"No fuel left in the tank," Yeltsin said, holding out his hands, which shook from hunger. "It’s not fair. Why does survival have to be so…primitive?"
"I would seriously kill someone," War Pig said. "For like three almonds."
From within the cave came a high-pitched caw, almost like a bird’s.
A large and taloned and angry beast.
A woman’s high moaning could be heard above the cracking of branches down the trail.
"Sounds like blondie’s getting close," Estrada said.
Yeltsin made a whiny noise through his front teeth.
The mention of Swann was all it took.
The joking stopped.
And then they made like animals.
Taking off in a flat-out, tail-up, snout-first run.