's 2012 Horror Write-off:

"Infestation: Ritz"

Submitted by Olita Clark

>Be Jason Marston
>Before The Leak you were a professional burglar.
>Now you're Ritz, Hound of Vegas.
>You picked up that nickname by your habit of bringing by primarily luxury goods.
>Everything for cigarettes and coffee to fine clothing and jewelry.
>Vegas still has its upper class, after all.
>The apocalypse did nothing to dampen their refined tastes.
>Your past job experience allows you to easily penetrate the complex security in their favorite stores.
>Most places don't have power anymore.
>But a lot of those high end joints ran their systems on long life batteries.
>A few were even rigged up to solar panels as part of a 'green initiative'.
>You hate whichever treehugger came up with those damn things.
>Solar powered stores continued to chug away with green lights across the board.
>One wrong move and you'd bring every Infested in the area down on your head.
>They might not see too well, but their hearing works just fine.
>Those of them that have ears anyway.
>Some folks will pay you extra to retrieve items from their old estates.
>Sentimental crap mostly, but you never turn down a paycheck if you can help it.
>Plus the special runs have given you a reputation amongst the elite.
>Their influence allows you to get away with things most Hounds wouldn't dream of.
>Not to mention the better digs and higher rations they provide.
>These people have already spent a lifetime spoiling their pets.
>What's one more, even if his treats are on the expensive side?
>Like the military grade, combat ready Haz-Mat suit you're currently wearing.
>No second hand gas masks and three layers of clothing for you!
>You're rolling in style!
>And right now, you're about to roll into another musty micro-mansion.

>You stand amidst the ruins of a once beautiful lawn.
>Cracked statuary sits at crooked angels, overgrown with weeds.
>The twisted brown remains of an impressive hedge looms around the perimeter like castle battlements.
>This is a funny part of the Wet.
>Hounds tend to call it the “Damp Belt”.
>For most of the year it's relatively safe for human habitation.
>The three months of almost constant rain in the winter, however, transform the area into a living hell.
>The torrential storms give the Infested enough fuel to be fully active during the next few arid months.
>Not that they ever truly go into hibernation outside of proper Dry areas.
>They simply become far more active and clever in high moisture conditions.
>Coming here in, say, January would be suicide.
>It's currently July.
>You think.
>Calendar accuracy went to hell after The Leak.
>Everyone makes sure to keep track of seasons due to it being essential to survival.
>But exact dates?
>Those are rather wobbly.
>It's certainly hot enough to be July.
>You're practically swimming in your own sweat by now.
>And you haven't seen any small infested running about, so it must be July.
>Most of the mushroom freaks must be full on mummy by now.
>The little ones tend to dry up fast.
>There's a chance you could end up dealing with humans though, the only breed of Infested known as a 'zombie'.
>They're smart enough to store water for when the seasons change.
>Your hand drops down to brush the incendiary grenades hanging from your belt.
>They're another gift from your friends in high places.
>If you're doing your job right, you don't run into too many Infested.
>Or you should say that you don't draw the attention of that many.
>You work quiet and quick.
>Your car is a near-silent hybrid, allowed to rust slightly in order to better blend into the abandoned parking lots.
>You've even learned to partially mask your scent so they don't immediately pick up on your presence.
>Most breeds don't, anyway.
>Thank god the higher zombies are so uncommon.
>Dogs can still be a royal pain in the ass though.
>Anyway, when you do need to clear Infested it's generally whole packs, not just one or two.
>Like those fur coats down in Livermore.
>You nearly  torched the merchandise that time, but you'd rather fail a job then have your neck snapped.
>You still hear the flapping of their sleeve wings in your nightmares.

>After a nervous glance around, you reach into a pouch on your side and extract a small notepad.
>The details of your mission are written on this.
>You're not the type to forget important information, but better safe than sorry.
>You flip back the worn cover with a gloved finger.
>Half a page of closely packed scrawl greets you.
>The client this time around is one Martha Withers.
>She earned her status in Vegas by virtue of being a doctor.
>The item she wants you to obtain is her grandmother's wedding ring.
>It's in a safe in the panic room, which can be accessed via the master bedroom.
>Up the stairs, second door on your left.
>The switch is concealed as a false book.
>You shake your head.
>No matter how tired some gimmicks get, they refuse to fade away completely.
>You made sure to ask your usual “safety questions” as well.
>Greedy as you can be, on rare occasions even you recognize the risk isn't worth the reward.
>This particular job is fairly clean.
>No pools or hot tubs.
>No pets, alive at the end of the world or buried in the backyard in recent years past.
>No hunting trophies.
>No fur coats.
>Or fur shawls.
>Or fur gloves.
>Or fur slippers.
>Unless something moved into the house it should be straight shot to the ring.
>The good doctor was even kind enough to provide you with the necessary codes and keys.
>In and out in under a minute flat.
>You might even set a new personal record.
>You take a deep breath of filtered air and being.

>When you work, the world narrows itself down to  the task at hand.
>Not a single one of your rapid, precise movements is a wasted effort.
>Not a single swift step is out of place.
>It is, from beginning to end, a glimpse at true perfection
>A silent dance that you have learned to execute flawlessly.
>Too bad there's never anyone around to watch.
>You cross the space to the door with a carefully controlled dash.
>The key appears in your hand from unknown origins and is immediately slid into the lock.
>A quick turn brought about by an expert flick of the wrist, a dull click.
>You force the door open on creaking hinges and slink into a cavernous man made cave.
>It's even hotter in here, but you barely register the temperature change.
>There's just enough light filtering through the windows to see where the stairs begin.
>It's all you need.
>Up, up, up, two and three steps at a time.
>A sharp turn on slowly rotting carpet.
>One, two doors.
>Another key, another lock cast swiftly aside.
>You move as a blur to the far wall, to the great wooden bookcase that dominated it.
>Faded red cover, gold trim.
>Second shelf from the bottom.
>Got it.
>You grab the book and pull.
>A third door falls open to your command.
>The panic room is a compact metal tomb.
>A blank panel of monitors reflect and bend the beam of your flashlight like dead fish eyes.
>Next to them, on a thin table that seems an extension of the wall itself. sits a small safe.
>The numbers spin before your eyes.
>42, 53, 79, 10.
>You toss aside stacks of papers that ceased to have meaning years ago.
>There it is.
>The box fits neatly in you hand.
>It fits even better in your pocket.
>Now out again.
>And behold five deep holes, nigh infinite pits, overflowing with thin white stalks that wave in your direction.
>A dozen salivating jaws part, fangs glinting in the beam.
>Things thrash and writhe between its teeth.
>It growls with a volume and depth befitting a lion.
>It could very well be part lion.
>Its patchwork hide sprouts limbs of various sizes stolen from countless unwilling donors.
>The thing sports several sickly patches of fur in tan, grey, black, brown and indeterminate faded colors.
>Sickly grey-green skin stretched tight over a conglomeration of mismatched bones covers most of its narrow frame.
>It lunges.
>In your panic, your hands flail against the desk behind you.
>You feel button give way under the pressure of your hand.
>The bookcase howls inward with frighting speed.
>The thing's head is roughly severed.
>Several jets of a thick black gel are sprayed across the confined space.
>The newly orphaned body part lands at your feet with a dull thunk.
>The closest jaws immediately set to work on your boots, gnashing weakly.
>The rush wears off.
>The thrill and focus of the job wears off.
>You shriek at an impossible pitch.

>How long has it been since you entered this room?
>An hour?
>Here in this dark space, time is difficult to track in any accurate fashion.
>The company of the head makes minutes stretch far past their natural limits.
>It drags itself across the floor with a seemingly endless number of long, sticky tongues.
>It's already tried to reach you several times on your table top perch.
>But it appears as if its makeshift tentacles were never meant to bear weight.
>Several have already snapped off from its efforts.
>They aimlessly climb the walls like large pink slugs.
>They cannot make direct contact with your skin and are too weak to strangle you outright.
>For now, there's nothing they can do to harm you.
>That didn't stop them from beating at your suit for awhile after their impromptu separation from the mothership.
>They aren’t your primary concern however.
>Neither is the chimerical beast from whence they sprang.
>Not directly.
>It's what built the creature and set it after you that disturbs your thoughts.
>Infested body parts, called 'scraps', sometimes merge together to create entirely new organisms.
>However, these Frankenstiens are usually little more than senseless masses of limbs and randomly grouped organs.
>The body shape of the thing that attacked you was far too uniform.
>Beneath the extra appendages its body had a lean, predatory shape.
>The mouths on its head were carefully positioned to enable it to bite from any angle.
>In your mind's eye, you picture a zombie summoning a hoard of lower beasts, as they have been known to do.
>It commands them to sit still and quiet in even rows.
>The zombie would walk through the crowd of gathered animals and select the best of each.
>A set of jaws here, half a ribcage there.
>Numerous legs to conceal its creation's true form from the eyes of its prey.
>The it would grab an axe or a saw and chop the animals up accordingly.
>The parts would be placed in a small space well supplied with water.
>As the months went by the zombie would carefully guide each piece into place...
>It was impossible.
>You're just being paranoid.
>No one would deny that higher zombies were smart, but something like this would require human level intelligence.
>Not to mention complex planning and forethought the likes of which most living people couldn't manage.
>The chimera was probably a one time freak of nature.
>There was no denying it was following a master of some sort, but they must have discovered it as-is.
>Instant monster for all your human hunting needs.
>No assembly required.
>Whatever you need to tell yourself to slow your suddenly racing heart.
>Still, there was something with a brain out there that wanted you dead.
>It had its pet silently stalk your footsteps until you were kind enough to corner yourself.
>The zombie was probably-
>-no, definitely-
>-watching the bookcase right now, waiting for you to emerge.
>You're not sure why it hadn't opened the door itself yet.
>It's not really a point you're willing to complain about though.
>So...what to do?
>You could try to wait it out.
>But for how long?
>There's a few emergency cans of food in here.
>You can reach out and touch them from your current position, run for fingers along the pull tabs.
>They might as well be back in Vegas.
>You can't take off your mask.
>The head has been steadily spewing spores from its ragged stump since the start of you incarceration.
>One sniff of the panic room's taint air and you'd even up no better than the thing on the ground.
>You're thirsty too.
>You've been sweating nonstop since this funfest began.
>There's a case of water sitting next to the food.
>Same problem.
>The heat situation hasn't improved in the slightest.
>It must be around 100 degrees in this tiny metal room.
>Add about 10 degrees on for the suit.
>You'll cook alive if you linger too long.
>But isn't that better than being eaten alive?
>The zombie is waiting for you.
>Both it and the remains of its pet will be on you the instant you step outside.
>Or the room could be clear.
>You glare at the blank monitors balefully.
>You never thought you'd say this, but you really wish this place ran off the sun's sweltering rays.
>If the surveillance cameras were working this problem would be solved in two seconds.
>Maybe you could crack the door and roll a grenade into the bedroom?
>No, that was no good either.
>For one thing you were fairly sure the bookcase didn't “crack”.
>You've seen mechanisms like it before.
>Open or shut, no middle ground.
>For another, the resulting blaze could easily rage out of control.
>What good would it do to kill the zombie if the only path to freedom was consumed by a raging inferno?
>There's nothing in this room you could use as a weapon.
>Not that you'd want to go hand-to-hand with a zombie.
>But if you could disable it long enough to get away..
>...You'd still have to deal with the chimera.
>”This is all your fault.”
>The head give a high, reedy hiss in response and once more flails uselessly beneath you.
>You'd hoped the comment would lighten the mood slightly.
>All it's done is cast into sharp relief how desperate your situation really is.

>They're impervious to heat.
>The tongue, you mean.
>They must be.
>True, the sticky secretions that adhered them to the walls and ceiling have all dried up.
>But they're still as active as ever.
>They're currently all twisting around the head, as if seeking a way to reattach themselves.
>The head itself hasn't moved in awhile.
>There's nothing outwardly wrong with it.
>It's still spewing spores like no tomorrow.
>It simply seems to have resigned itself to the fact that its prey is out of reach.
>Every now and the it will turn the things it dares to call eyes in your direction.
>If looks could kill you'd have dropped dead ten times over by now.
>Still, you admire their endurance.
>You, on the other hand, are beginning to feel decidedly light headed.
>You toyed with the idea of contorting yourself so the sweat pooled in your suit ran toward your mouth.
>The idiotic notion was immediately dismissed.
>Space in the panic room was already at a premium.
>You're currently squashed between the monitors and the safe.
>Your back is to the former and your legs are awkwardly draped over the later.
>The bottom of your boots brushes the food cans, which sit atop the case of water.
>Directly beyond that?
>A featureless wall.
>There was simply no room for such a maneuver.
>There's a chair in here, but it wouldn't give you enough height over the head.
>You doubt it currently has the jaw strength to pierce your suit.
>Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the Infested.
>How many people did you see kick the bucket back in the early days because of stupid mistakes?
>You were never with a large group but you always trailed close to one in order to pinch supplies.
>It was easier to let someone else scrounge than do it yourself.
>They always ended up making too much noise, or forgetting their gas masks, or trying to talk to zombies.
>That last one really boggled your mind.
>So many clung to the idea that their loved ones still lurked within those shambling fungus-incrusted hulks.
>Years of experience have taught you that while the mind may remain, the soul has moved on.
>If there's even such a thing as a soul to begin with.
>”Do you believe in souls, Heddie?”
>It ignores you, but a few of the tongues wiggle their tips in your direction.
>You're not entirely sure on how to interpret that.
>There's a slight rasp to your voice.
>Your mouth and throat are incredibly dry.
>Your thoughts stray to the water again.
>Maybe if...
>You gnash your teeth.
>Thinking about it will only makes things worse.
>Well, what about thinking on the door?
>Was it safe to risk it yet?
>The zombie couldn't wait forever after all.
>Neither can you.
>And you have no intention of dying in this asshole of an oven.
>How long has it been?
>Maybe you should give it a go.
>You twist your body around until your arm is granted access to the keypad in front of the monitor.
>Rather than a fully keyboard, the pad is comprised of several large, clearly labeled buttons.
>Technology for the rich and technologically impaired.
>Your fingers lightly play across one marked “door”.
>Would it move as quickly as it did before?
>When you pulled the external switch it swung smoothly and slowly on a hidden hinge.
>Closing it from the inside must active some kind of safety feature.
>You shudder to think what the door would have done to the average human being.
>If it swung out at the same speed it might startle the zombie enough for you to escape.
>If it's standing close enough, the door will launch the abomination across the room.
>You get a halfway decent chuckle out of that mental image.
>You resume your earlier position, your hand finding a place on your lap.
>You'll wait a little longer.
>Just a little longer.
>Sure, it's hot.
>Sure, you're trapped in this damn suit.
>But you've survived Vegas for five years, haven't you?
>Five years of driving across the Mohave with no AC.
>You can survive a little longer.

>Your head pounds with a monstrous headache.
>You'd be sweating buckets right now if your body already wasn't as dry as a bone.
>On the floor, the tongues lay limp across their birth mother.
>You guess they weren’t immune after all.
>The spores are so thick in the air now you're having to wipe off your face mask every few minutes.
>Why bother maintaining visibility though?
>It's not like there's anything to see in here.
>Blank monitors, empty safe, twisted mockery of the natural order, unobtainable case of water-
>Your eyes linger on the water.
>Are you sure there's no way to take a sip?
>Maybe there's a special port on the suit to pour liquids into.
>You do a quick check, every motion sending another painful throb through your skull.
>Check it again?
>Why bother.
>You already know the answer.
>You feel foolish for even entertaining such a childish notion.
>Why would a Haz-Mat suit have a link to the outside world.
>It completely defeated the purpose.
>Door time?
>You picture yourself stepping triumphantly out of the panic room, into the angelically cool outside world-
>Only to be pounced up and devoured alive.
>But you haven't heard any movement from outside.
>Surely the zombie would have made some kind of sound by now?
>What if the panic room was soundproofed?
>It's frighting to contemplate, but entirely reasonable.
>The cameras were meant to be the link to the rest of the house.
>When you could see what the bad guys were doing, why did you need to hear them.
>With a much greater effort than before, you once more place your hand above the door button.
>One quick tap will end all this.
>It could also end your life.
>There's no relief here.
>Just heat.
>The phrase catches in your mind, forming an disjointed half-rhyme.
>No relief, just heat.
>No relief, just heat.
>Quite the macabre thing to be chanting, given current circumstances.
>That doesn’t stop you from getting caught on a loop.
>”No relief, just heat.”
>The words come out as a croak.
>The head gives a halfhearted his in reply.
>”Good, then you agree with me.”
>”I knew you were a smart boy.”
>”Can you say it too?”
>God, look at you.
>Trying to teach tricks to a severed head.
>There has to be a better way to pass the time in this hellhole.
>Like what, exactly?
>Gather up some of those old legal papers and give them a read?
>You're not sure if you want to know Martha Wither's dirty little secrets.
>You can hold out.
>Juts a little bit longer.
>You can hold out.
>No relief, just heat.

>You're not sure how much time has passed.
>There's a large black hole in your memory.
>You think you might have passed out.
>Your brain is fuzzy, your thoughts thick and muddled.
>The room seems a good deal darker than before.
>It takes you a few seconds to puzzle out that your flashlight is starting to die.
>That's odd.
>You could have sworn you loaded it up with long life batteries...
>When was it?
>Your mind slips, fades, manages to grab the correct scrap of the past.
>A week ago.
>You put in new batteries a week ago, when you started preparing for this job.
>So why are they already going out?
>Have you really been in here that long?
>It's probably time to open the door.
>But your limbs are so heavy.
>Your not sure if you can reach the button.
>You might end up on the floor instead.
>Come on now, you know this.
>What thing is on the floor?
>What bad thing?
>Oh, that's right.
>The head.
>And it's tongues.
>But the tongues don't really matter.
>No relief, just heat.
>That sounds about right.
>Is the water still there?
>You weakly shake your head in order to clear away the white glaze across your vision.
>Yes, it's there.
>Twenty four bottles neatly packaged in plastic and cardboard.
>What if you took off your helmet really quick and held your breath?
>If you were careful, you might be able to avoid the spores.
>But how would you reach the bottle?
>Somehow, you think you can make your arms work for water.
>Sweet, sweet water.
>You lick your lips.
>Your tongue feels too large for your mouth.
>You let it hang out.
>Your teeth softly brush against its sandpaper like surface.
>No relief, just heat indeed.
>And to make matters worse, there's something digging into your side.
>A sharp littler corner in your pocket.
>You manage to shift slightly in an effort to escape it.
>The pain lessens but dose not fade entirely.
>You can't have everything.
>At least it's a little more bearable now.
>The room flickers to black a few times.
>You panic.
>Your eyes, are your eyes-
>Oh, the flashlight.
>It's dying.
>Are you dying?
>You think you might be.
>Maybe when you're dead it'll be cold.
>That would be nice.
>You close your eyes, allowing a dark fog to overtake the corners of your thoughts.
>That would be a real luxury.