It was the Inoculation's town now. Even the most stubborn of Flint Creek's mulish residents had fled that cursed ground. Evacuating towards the faint hope that their few Users told them the city of West Hills offered.
Mathew considered the peaceful looking town one last time before turning away. It looked normal enough at a glance, even to his familiar eye. Still exactly the same as when the United Support Machines had shown up just a few days ago.
Felt like longer. Much longer.
He'd quickly signed up to become a User, not from greed but fear, for himself and his family. He was no longer a young man, his oldest children were old enough to look after themselves. He worried for his youngest though.
Seeing that alien machine sprout from the ground overnight like a mushroom, he'd felt the winds of change on his face and was old enough to recognize the inevitable. Power was being offered and he had reached for it, caring little for what it cost him. As long as he could protect those dear to him he would pay almost any price. No one tried to stop him or any of the others from using their town's only Pandora Machine. He just walked up to it, answered its strangely mundane questions and munched on the candy bar it spat out. A few folks looked disapproving but others just seemed jealous. No doubt they had tried and failed to become Users.
The next morning he was one of the two dozen men and women chosen to be a User in their town of a few hundred. He'd been offered no fancy choices though, receiving the role of Fighter by default and the Enhanced Hearing trait when he'd too honest and told that blasted machine his hearing was his greatest strength. How he quickly came to regret that decision.
What few sources of news remianed told him that other cities and towns had been attacked by monsters and zombies. That they had burned and crumbled as the streets ran red with blood. Users had stood and fought, armed and organized by the System. He'd expected to be defending the town from monsters with his shotgun, like some extra from a western movie. He had even bought a machete from the System to defend himself with, ready for war.
Flint Creek had died a quieter death than that, but no less horrible for it.
It had started fittingly enough, with the crops. The day after those damned System machines had showed up, when people had just began to receive notifications from the System, most of all the local crops had withered and died. Some had survived but were now... different.
Spurred by the System, the Users of Flintcreek had investigated. They'd half expected the damned things to grow teeth and bite but they didn't. No, they were just plants still, simply tougher and no longer edible. That was the point as far as he could tell.
The System began demanding they round up the citizens and evacuate the town immediately. The Inoculation, it called this strange wave of death and mutation. The mayor's son was the unofficial leader of their team of Users; a mix of Hunters, police and the local roughnecks.
He told them that the System would protect them but the Inoculation could spread to people if it encountered them and that no non User would survive its touch. The rougher sort of users were tasked with keeping people in town, whether they liked it or not. Mathew had just stayed quiet and did what was asked of him without complaint. Worried about what this “Inoculation” would do.
It was a disease from some blighted star. A weapon turned against the Scourges and humanity both. It saddened him that the first time something from beyond their world touched his life, it was to spread death and tragedy.
The System gathered it's Users and sent them into the fields, not to fight but to dig. To search for the Inoculation Core, some kind of brain from space that was creating the disease. Without it, more dangerous strains couldn't be created. The idea was to destroy it before it birthed something that targeted humans.
They organized an old fashioned caravan to take half of the people to the city. Sending two Users to lead the way and keep the refugees safe. The rest stayed and searched. Even with the strange tools the System gave them, they'd failed to find anything. As they worked, the countryside became quieter. Crickets stopped chirping, birds no longer sang.
Overnight, mold spread like fire through the area, killing trees and devouring them before burning itself out, disappearing as fast as it appeared.
It was so quiet now. The only sound, the wind blowing through the trees. The rustle of leaves.
In just three days people began to grow sick, dying in just a few hours. Users were immune, so it was their job to bury the bodies. The mayor's son told them it wasn't airborne but he didn't know how they'd gotten infected. Small comfort that. They might as well have been fighting the wind.
Horror after horror, people began to go missing. Run off or taken? No one knew. Just gone from their houses in the morning.
The remaining people began sleeping in the community centre and church, with Users and a small militia guarding them at night. Mathew sat outside the church, straining his ears for signs of anything but heard no signs of life.
The caravan returned to warn them that the roads were no longer safe. Things moved out on the deserted roads, picking people off. Dead trees and fallen power lines littered the roads. They went with more weapons and tools this time. They couldn't leave anyone here. It wasn't a place for people anymore. Too quiet. Too still.
Damn the wind. The endless rustling was driving him mad.
Mathew went with the caravan this time, armed with his shotgun, machete and a chainsaw. He got good use from the chainsaw. Cutting through a dozen fallen trees that blocked their way.
He could hear trees falling in the woods, dying and rotting with unnatural speed. Not all of them of course, some looked healthier than ever and just a little stranger. Their leaves just a slightly different shape, the bark just a slightly off pattern.
Still no birds, not so much as a chirp.
They passed through a neighbouring town, even smaller than theirs. Empty. He hoped they had made it to West Hills. The barricades they'd built and left abandoned spoke of a different end for them though.
The Caravan had to stop for the night. Funny that. It was just a hundred miles to Westhills but the way was so littered with obstacles that they couldn't make it in a day. Roots were bursting through the road now. Tough buggers too. Their chainsaws dulled quickly on them. The Users found it easier to hack away with their System weaponry.
No one wanted to sleep in the abandoned town. So they slept on the road. Running searchlights off a generator to keep the now terrifying dark away. Mathew kept watch with the other Users, it was surprisingly easy to stay awake. Staring into the darkening sky, he saw a pillar of dancing light in the distance and at first thought it was the lights of Westhills. He felt a chill travel up his spine as he realized that was in the opposite direction. There was no city up that way. Whatever was casting that light had arrived in the last few day and had been built by inhuman hands.
As a User, he didn't seem to need quite as much sleep. He felt more alive than he could remember being since his youth. Afraid but well. Alert and capable.
It was a good thing too, as those Grey Legion devils attacked them in the night. More than a dozen of them separated from the shadows at a full sprint, announcing themselves with a hail of gunfire. Four of the human guards fell right away, the recruits of that Scourge did not seem to need light to see anymore.
Mathew, luckily, wasn't holding his shotgun when the bullets hit his allies. They definitely aimed at anyone with guns first. They didn't shoot to kill though and they weren't much as fighters. No better at brawlin than the people they used to be. Mathew had been in more than a few dustups during his life, though they were rarely serious. So, he found himself holding his own.
The fight was brutal, even the roughest of the caravans defenders had never murdered someone before, especially anyone who needed quite so much murdering as those grey bastards did. It was not uncommon for fallen enemies to rise, smiling, to throw themselves back into the fray.
He let his fear guide him and met the attackers with shotgun and machete. It was bloody but they ekked out a draw, barely. The Legion retreated into the night with theirs and a handful of Flintcreek's wounded. No one tried to chase them or save the taken townsfolk. They just watched the monsters smile as they dragged people he'd known his whole life into the now alien owned darkness.
They were left almost defenceless now, most of their defenders too wounded to help out.
Mathew himself, was fine, not even the aches he used to get from a hard days work. The worst thing afflicting him was the fear. In the unnaturally quiet night, he couldn't shake it. All it would take was an attack a quarter of that size and they would fail. He would fail his family.
One never came. The next morning, they had barely began travelling when he heard the chirp of bugs in the grass. Not long after that, he was blessed with the sound of birdsong. The others failed to notice the difference but it lifted his spirits.
Only a hour after that, they arrived at West Hills. Hope filled the tired eyes of his neighbours, wife and daughter as they took in the familiar sight and its armed defenders.
They were asked where they came from and offered food and a place to stay for the night. He was told that there was still fighting in the city but that they were winning. The citiy's thousands of Users were beating back the Scourges and they were safe now.
The smiling young man who said this seemed to honestly believe it.
He looked at the gleaming towers of the city and felt little relief. He did try to smile though, let people enjoy themselves and their accomplishment. He knew the Inoculation had hurt them in the same way as it did the Scourges. He thought back to the barren fields. The easiest way to kill something isn't fighting it, it's to starve it.