GUNSLINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE
Six months ago, the Dead rose and the world came to a sudden and violent end. It was a virus and it burned across the face of the planet. In the aftermath, the choice was clear: You either learned the rules of survival or you joined the legions of the walking Dead.
“Black Magic” Jack El-Hai learned these rules; that's how he managed to stay alive in the fiery ruins of the Collapse when so many others did not. Amidst the chaos, Jack meets a young woman named Noelle Easter—tattooed, resourceful, and rowdy—they are a perfect match and soon, wild in love.
Together, they survive the end of the world.
However, staying alive means hard choices, it means spilling blood, it means killing. So when they finally find refuge in a small Midwestern town—a place spared due to isolation and a tall fence—Jack and Noelle also find a new purpose: scavenging. They spend their days among the ruins of the old world hunting for the things people need to survive. It’s a dangerous occupation, a daily battle against both the ravenous Dead and the murderous living alike, but the town depends on them.
It’s not a great life, but it’s better than most.
Lately, though, things are getting worse. Trouble is coming; Jack knows it. The Dead are gathering at the fence in greater numbers, scavengers are dying, and the shaky truce struck between the rival camps of survivors is beginning to crumble. Finally, when the town is invaded and an iron-fisted new rule threatens everything he holds dear, including Noelle, Jack quickly discovers that the true monsters are not the ones locked outside the fence…they’re locked within.
And now, the first chapter of Gunslingers of the Apocalypse, where we meet our hero...
Beyond the Fence
Fletcher’s office used to belong to the school’s principal, a man long since missing and most likely never to need it again. The name printed on the state university diploma centered above his head said: Gary Merchant.
Rest in peace, Gary Merchant, I thought, you lucky fucker.
Framed photos stood guard along the desk’s gleaming oak perimeter: mom, dad, brother, sis, all of them corn-silk blond and squinting in the sun, the missing principal’s equally long-missing family. I had no idea why Fletcher never tossed those pictures out. I would have thrown the damn things out months ago. The thought of what those smiling, happy faces might look like now made my skin crawl.
Fletcher had taken the office as his own the day he and the remnants of his unit had rolled into town, the horizon smudged in all directions with blood and smoke. The Collapse had been everywhere then, raging out of control, and it was beneath those wild and ugly skies that I found them, this town, that I found shelter.
The Collapse… I was one of the lucky ones.
“Lucky,” I muttered, thinking of poor, old, long-missing Gary Merchant as I shook a cigarette loose from my battered pack. Lucky, yeah. I stuck it to my lips with a dark-eyed grunt. Fletcher didn’t say a thing; he just sat at the desk. But I watched his eyes narrow and zero in on the bent cigarette that dangled from my lips. The man was still a fervent anti-smoker while I stood firmly apathetic in the “who gives a shit” camp. I mean, hell, living long enough to die of cancer would be like winning the lottery.
But that was Henry Fletcher -- dark skinned and mustached -- he was a shoulders forward, hardcore, little pit bull of a man. Nothing but teeth and tenacity, and after all this time he still lived by the rules: pure military. Bloody death had washed the world away, and yet his hair was still short, neat and bristle-stiff, his fatigues creased sharp as razors, and his boots polished up and shining like mirrors.
The man was squared away, high speed, low drag.
But as much as I might have admired his discipline, I certainly did not adhere to it. I had left the army behind a long time ago. I didn’t have time for that Old World shit—not anymore. I worked for a living, so even on a good day I looked like hell, and today, well, today was nothing but the ass end on a long string of bad ones. After this last week, I was worn out, ragged with exhaustion. I needed sleep, I needed clean clothes, and I definitely needed a shower. I was filthy. I reeked of ash and rot.
That’s one of the reasons I lit a cigarette in his office. The stale waft of smoke would help mask my smell somewhat. And as for the other reason, well... fuck Fletcher.
The tink and snap of my Zippo echoed off the office’s cinder block walls. He watched me cherry the tip, but he didn’t say a thing. He just sat there, tight-lipped, as a steady curl of smoke streamed up toward the ceiling. Nothing, not a word.
He just leaned back in his chair and cranked open his only window.
Oh yeah, the guy definitely needed something from me.
He couldn’t resist a long sigh of disapproval though, as he turned back toward me. He tossed his clipboard to the desk’s immaculate blotter. Above him, the cigarette smoke made slow progress, creeping across the ceiling and leaking out the slim open slit of his window. He cleared his throat.
Here it comes, I thought.
“I need you to go back out,” he said.
“Tomorrow,” he clarified.
“We’ve been out for a week. We just got back. We’re off rotation for three days.”
Fletcher shook his head. “Miller lost over half his team.”
“So fill him up from Haul or Fence-line.”
He shook his head again. “Sorry, no can do, Jackie boy. Haul’s out picking up the new people right now. Fence is strung too thin as it is. You’re it. You’re all I got.”
“Man…” I exhaled. “I lost someone, too, you know.”
“Yeah, Jared,” he nodded, slow and sad. “I heard. I’m sorry. He was a good guy. He’ll be missed. I was… I was really sorry to hear about that.”
“Yeah, you sound really sorry,” I said, wet spiking the corner of my eyes.
“…How did he go?”
I drew on the cigarette and exhaled, hearing screams in my head. “Badly…”
“I found you a new kid,” he said, changing the subject and flipping sheets on the clipboard as he read from them. “Nick… Della Costa? Delcosta? His name’s Nick. He’s in Haul. Pretty new still, but a good kid. Tito vouches for him pretty hard.”
“Motherfucker…” I snatched my Coke from the edge of his desk and drank.
He sighed, shook his head. “Don’t give me any shit, alright?”
“So I should just take it in the ass?” I asked, waving the can around.
“Whine like a bitch, get treated like a bitch,” he answered.
“That’s real nice. How ‘bout I quit?”
“Fine,” Fletcher sat back and spread his arms wide, daring me. “Quit. We need more people in the fields. The last of the fall crop is ready for harvest, I hear.”
“Fuck you. Do your fucking job.”
“We don’t get a single day off?”
He cleared his throat, agitated. “What is this? Your first day? You know the deal. You sent me fifty bodies that I have to provide for.” He counted off on his fingers, “Beds, blankets, clothes, food. We ain't got it, so you have to find it. That’s your job. You volunteered, so quit whining and wasting my God damn time.”
“Forty-seven,” I muttered and leaned back, draining my Coke in a gulp.
“There are forty-seven in the new group.”
Fletcher gave me a hard look, exhaling an irritated blast through his nose. “Now, you see…” he pointed at me, “this is wasting my time. You want a break, you got tonight. Wheels up first thing tomorrow.”
I tapped my cigarette hard into the open mouth of my empty Coke can. Errant flecks of gray-black flew off, dotting the desk’s polished wood.
Fletcher’s eyes fell upon the specks. They rose to meet my own and then very pointedly fell once again to the ash. He raised an expectant eyebrow at me. I responded with a defiant one. We waged a silent battle for a moment, our eyes locked. Neither one of us moved until finally, he sighed and sat forward, obliterating each flake of ash from the desk’s dark surface with hard purposeful stabs from his index finger.
I chuckled, dragging off my cigarette.
“Look,” he said with weary resignation as he wiped his dirty finger on his pant leg. “I will refill Miller’s team. I will put together a third. You’ll get your down time. But right now, as far as viable outside-the-fence assets are concerned, you’re it. What can I say, man, nobody else wants the job.”
“So, we get screwed,” I said, exhaling, “again?”
“You volunteered, Jack,” he reminded me.
“It wasn’t supposed to be just us.” I said. “We’re fucking exhausted, man; we just got back in… fucking today.”
Fletcher shrugged a small shrug. “Yeah, well, life sucks all over, doesn’t it?”
“Not for desk jockeys.” I snapped the cigarette into my Coke can; it hissed in the dregs of backwash and I tossed it into a black plastic garbage can set along the back wall.
“See this?” Fletcher asked, rubbing his index finger and thumb together: The world’s smallest violin. “Tomorrow at seven.” He dismissed me with a wave and bent to his clipboard, but then paused and glanced up. “And that’s A.M., as in… in the morning.”
I stood, threw a mocking salute that turned into a middle finger, and left.
I should have listened to PFC Goldie, I thought as I walked the school’s quiet, locker-lined halls. Years ago, my first formation, he had leaned over and said: “When you get to Basic, never forget… No matter what it sounds like they’re offering, no matter what you may think they’re offering: never volunteer for anything, ever.”
Day One (Six months ago)
I usually had Mondays off. It was my sleep-in day.Most weekends I worked the early shift, followed by a long night of play at the bar. By the time Monday would roll around, I wouldn’t climb out of bed until after noon, at the earliest.
That was probably how I missed the start of it all.
That morning, something woke me up suddenly. I don’t know what it was, but it was like throwing a switch, one moment I was asleep and the next, I was awake.
My eyes opened.
I sat up, groggy, struggling against tangled sheets while working the crusted night-funk from my mouth. My hands rubbed hard little pebbles of sleep from my eyes.
The apartment was quiet. Maybe there were a few new bits of dust dancing in the rays of sunlight slanting through the windows, but otherwise the place was the same as I had left it the night before: cramped, cluttered, and in desperate need of a cleaning.
The clock flashed stark red blocks at me: 12:38, 12:38, 12:38, 12:39.
The power must have gone out and come back on. I scratched at my chest, blinking in the new day’s light. The bed frame creaked as I stood. I yawned and groaned and stretched, before digging the remote out of the pile of kicked-back sheets. I snapped on the television and tossed the remote back onto the bed.
TV noise filled up the room as I padded down the hall to the toilet.
I pulled the chrome chain over my sink and squinted against the too early, too harsh glare of the bulb. The face in the mirror had seen too many long nights of late. The eyes were bloodshot, dark specks in a web of red lace and yellowing ivory. They stared at me, squeezed against the fluorescent bloom of the naked bulb. I flinched from under their frank appraisal.
Sometimes I wasn’t sure who I was anymore, or even who I ever was to begin with. Lately, it seemed like the face in the mirror had become less like the person I once thought I was and now hung on me, more and more every day, like a stranger’s. Idleness, alcohol, and apathy had begun to leave their marks. Like water wearing away at a rock; my youth was vanishing under their assault. Not for the first time, I wondered about my life, about its worth and purpose.
Where was I going? Anywhere? What was I supposed to do?
I poked and prodded at skin that seemed too slack and overly pale, especially considering my naturally brown skin tone. My cheeks felt saggy and loose to the touch, and they were dusted with a lazy stubble that had started to get out of control. Jet black hair that was too long again stood up in unruly tufts of bedhead, framing my face. Worst of all, here and there, like fugitives peeping out from the dark… lurked patches of gray.
Time was running out; my time was running out. It was time to be serious. Janet was right. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I needed to figure my shit out and I needed to do it soon, today even. There was no future in a life of part-time tedium and minimum wage drudgery, at least not for me. I should get a haircut and hit the gym, I thought. Maybe tomorrow, I amended and leaned over the toilet, fumbling open my boxers.
“…borders closed… The President… state of emergency… stay indoors…”
It took a moment for the half heard words to seep through my fuzzy-headed sleep haze and the splashing chatter of my morning piss.
What the hell did they just say?
I finished up, shook off and tucked myself away as I leaned out the bathroom door. I cocked my head, ears straining. Nothing but jumbled noise, a bunch of thuds and thumps, some shouts from a neighbor’s apartment somewhere above me. I heard a string of rattling pops. A siren warbled in the distance. TV noise, hissing, garbled.
I walked back down the hallway; the floorboards creaked beneath my bare feet.
My TV was shoved into the room’s far corner, its rabbit-eared reception rolled, fuzzed with bursts of snow. But it was clear enough, a smack to the face. I stood in the middle of the room; my mouth hung open.
At first, it was billowing black smoke. The wind swooped in, it tugged at the haze, broke it into creeping tendrils clinging to a city street. The smoke was pouring from a crumpled and burning cop car. It was rammed up hard against the red brick edifice of a Starbucks. The big wall of windows had been smashed, the plate glass cast into the street in a twinkling spray. People ran by in a froth of panic. They were screaming, stumbling over a body sprawled out and still in the gutter. They splashed through a dark red puddle spreading into the street.
A frazzled reporter shouted into the camera; the audio cut in and out, blaring, hissing bursts of static. He was pale and confused. People rushed past him. They shoved him. His eyes were wide, all whites and a slick sheet of crimson poured from a long cut across his forehead. He sopped at it with a red-sodden handkerchief and held the stained mess out towards the camera, imploring, and accusatory.
What the fuck is this?
The reporter looked American, the street looked like America.
A dark shape slammed into the man. The camera hit the street and the lens splintered; the world tumbled and spun and slowly rocked to a stop. For an instant, the screen showed a confusing angle of dirty concrete under roiling, greasy smoke and the dancing orange flicker of steadily growing flames. There were screams close by, wet and pleading screams. Running legs trampled the picture into a roaring burst of snow.
My hands dug through the piled sheets; my eyes never left the screen. I found the remote and switched the channel.
I switched again.
Bodies and screams.
What the hell?
I switched again and again. More screams. More panic. There were cities on fire and skies filled with smoke. There was blood in the streets.
An Anchor’s face filled the screen. He was pale beneath his layers of pancake make-up. His coiffed pompadour had deflated and beads of sweat dotted his upper lip. He stammered and cleared his throat. He shuffled the papers in his hand. He turned toward the wrong camera and then switched. “Ah… I repeat: Citizens are urged…” He paused and glanced to the side. He smiled a smile of momentous relief. “We now go live to the White House.”
Blue curtains, Presidential seal, a balding white man in a rumpled suit and tie stood at the podium. His balding pate was slick with a sweaty sheen. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a brief statement from the President, who is currently aboard Air Force One. There will be no questions.” He adjusted his glasses as the room exploded in a garble of attempts. “We now know that…”
Sirens rose outside my window, wailing and drowning out the TV. Three, four, now five bright red fire engines flashed past, their lights going crazy, blaring their horns. The noise was deafening. My windows shook in their frames.
“… have been federalized and all members of the military are to report to their duty stations for immediate mobilization…”
My head spun, the quick pop, pop, pop of a pistol close by. I lurched to my feet, pressed against the glass and stared out, the TV droning on.
“…stay inside. If your home is compromised, please head for the nearest public shelter or government center. Do not panic. Cooperate with law enforcement, clear the streets and obey the curfew. Looters will be shot. Order will be restored. The streets will be safe again. Thank you. God bless you all and God bless America.” The suit spun from the podium and hurried for the door. His shoulders hunched as questions were hurled at his back like spears.
“How does it spread?”
“Is this a terrorist attack?”
“Are these people alive or dead?”
The room exploded with noise at that, one clear voice cutting through the din.
“Has Congress approved a full military mobilization on American soil?”
Mobilization? Holy shit! I scooped up the phone and it stuttered at me before sliding into the expectant hum of the dial tone. Voice messages. I punched the code into the pad without thinking.
Monday… 8:30 A.M… Beep. “Hey baby? Jack? Jack, get up. I’m stuck in traffic. There’s something strange going on. Call me.”
Monday… 8:47 A.M… Beep. “Jack? Baby, it’s Janet again, where are you?”
Monday… 9:03 A.M… Beep. “Specialist El-Hai? Sergeant Griffith. The Bull is charging, I repeat, the Bull is … oh, fuck it… look, get in here, man, we’re called up.”
Monday… 9:33 A.M… Beep. “Jack, it’s Mom. Hello? Are you okay? Where are you, sweetheart? Honey, call me. They’re talking evacuation. Please, please be alright…” I heard the sound of glass shatter over the phone and then the message cut off.
A man ran past my window, stumbling and screaming for help. An angry crowd was hot on his heels. They left smeared footprints; their awkward steps streaked a viscous black fluid across the pavement. Their clothes were caked with it. They chased him into the alley across the street and disappeared from view.
More gunfire sounded from somewhere outside my window and the dry krump of a nearby explosion made the glass rattle. Car alarms blared an angry rhythmic response. “… unsubstantiated report… unbelievable… the dead are returning to life and attacking the living…” The TV anchor intoned behind me.
I spun to see his pale, sweating face. He looked like he was about to vomit.
What the fuck… I turned a slow circle in the middle of my apartment, the phone receiver forgotten in my fist. What do I do, my mind jabbered. What do I do? What do I do? I could feel panic creep up my spine, its frigid fingers rimmed with ice, threatening to freeze me in place. What do I do?
Three police cars rocketed by, sirens screaming and lights flashing.
Oh shit, I thought, oh shit, Janet. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. I dropped to the floor, slammed the phone down in its cradle and immediately picked it back up again.
Nothing. No dial tone.
I slammed it down and snatched it back up. Still nothing.
“Come on! God damn it!” Fear, anger, and frustration blinded me and I slammed the phone down again and again. “Damn it!” I spat. Chest heaving, I stopped and took a few deep breaths. I put the phone to my ear again, still nothing, not even an operator.
Crap, I thought, I probably broke the damn thing. I hung up.
The phone rang, shattering the heavy silence, and I cried out. My heart thundered in my chest. It rang twice more before I picked it up.
I heard shouts in the phone’s background as more sirens raced past my window.
“Jack? What the fuck? Get in here. We’re called up,” Sergeant Griffith again. He was shouting over the phone, the line made him sound tinny and far away.
The TV crackled: “…Remove the head or destroy the brain…”
For a moment, I could only stare at the TV, my mind still refusing to swallow what I’d just heard. It made no sense. Was I still asleep? What the hell was going on?
“Jack?” Griff shouted over the phone.
“Griff,” I croaked, “what the hell is going on?” My throat was bone dry.
“It’s the God damn end of the world, man. Get in here. We’re called up.”
* * *
I didn’t know what else to do. The phone wouldn’t let me dial out. The TV was nothing but noise and confusion. I put on my uniform and locked my apartment.
Outside, the city was full of sirens and smoke, but my parking lot was empty, creepy haunted ghost-town empty.
The hairs on my neck prickled as I unlocked my car. I could feel eyes on my back. People were watching me, hidden people. My car lock popped and I got in as fast as I could. I slammed the door behind me and relocked it. My heart was threatening to pound free of my chest. I fumbled the key into the ignition. My car roared to life.
I pulled out onto the street.
The radio was the same on every channel.
“…Emergency shelters for Hennepin County are currently unavailable. Citizens are advised to move south and avoid major roads. 35W and I-94 are shut down…”
My Reserve Center was all the way across town.
The radio was right. I-94 was definitely not an option. The on-ramp was clogged, three cars snarled into a twisted heap of metal, broken glass, and puddles of bright green coolant. A man hung out his window limp and dangling over a pool of blood.
Jesus Christ, I thought, where are the ambulances? I stopped the car as I looked up and down the empty street. Shouldn’t someone be here… doing something?
A woman crawled from the wreckage on all fours, slow and bleeding and shaking her head in confusion. Her arms shook and she fell in a heap.
I was out of the car before I could think twice.
“Ma’am,” I called as I trotted towards her. “Ma’am? Are you alright?” I dropped to my knees, reaching out, and she raised her head.
“Holy crap!” I screamed, falling back and landing hard on my hands.
Half her face had been mangled, torn into a red ruin, the white bone visible beneath. Her clothes were streaked with gore and clumps of viscera; it drip-dropped in little patters. Her left eye was gone, just a yellow, runny pulp that slid thick from its dark socket to mix with the blood staining her clothes. Her right eye swiveled up towards me, a beautiful bright blue amidst the crimson-black horror.
She screamed and lunged to her feet, lightning fast. I scrambled back on my hands, my boots scraping the concrete. Her fingers were hooked like claws.
My foot cracked across her jaw.
She fell and was up again in a flash.
I didn’t have time to stand.
My hands caught her face as she fell on me. My fingers slipped on her blood-slicked cheeks. She snapped forward, hissing through orthodontist perfect teeth. I strained back away from her. She missed and lunged again, rank breath painted my cheeks. Her fingers scrambled at me, tangled in my fatigues. I held her out away from me; my arms shook with the effort. She twisted like an animal in my grip.
Two teenagers dropped to their knees beside us. They grabbed at the crazed woman struggling in my grip.
Oh, thank God, spasms of relief flooded through me.
They threw her back and their blood caked hands dove in and grabbed me. Their wide open mouths snapped forward, biting.
“Fuck!” I screamed, swinging, thrashing and kicking, shoving them away. I scrambled to my feet. The closest kid got a soccer kick to the face. His head snapped back and he flopped over. His friend tried to tackle me and I slammed him down hard against the hood of my car.
I shoved the kid away and yanked at the door handle.
It didn’t budge.
It was locked.
Shit, where are my keys? My hands slapped at my pockets, but they were empty. A terrible thought grew in the shadows of my mind. A horrible realization threatened to take form and become reality. From inside my car I caught a glimpse of sunlight glinting off metal and I froze.
My vision narrowed to a point.
“Son of a bitch,” I swore.
The keys dangled from the ignition. You fucking idiot, I thought. The engine was still running. You stupid fucking idiot, you are so screwed.
I was slammed against the car, sprawled across the hood. Long nails dug at my neck, fingers twined in my collar and yanked me back, choking me. It was the woman. I grunted and tried to push her away. She shoved and I pushed. We fell in a pile, me on top. She was pinned, her screams muffled. I could feel her teeth against the heavy fabric of my fatigues. I flailed against her grip, peeled back her fingers and broke bone. One of the kids lunged at me and I kicked him against the car, my boots to his chest. He fell over the hood, as I broke loose and rolled to my feet. The second kid rammed into me, tangling my legs and I fell again.
The ground flew up and smashed the breath out of me.
My lungs emptied. I can’t breathe, panic like heat lightning, I can’t breathe. My chest locked up and I wheezed through a pinhole. Black spots exploded in my vision.
Fingers locked onto my ankles.
My lungs burned. I kicked, but I was tired and slow. I tried to get free, gasping for my next breath. Air squeaked in my throat, raw and painful.
Those crazy fuckers were crawling towards me, lurching to their feet.
They were coming for me.
I heard tires squeal and the harsh blurt of a siren. Car doors slammed and shotguns racked back. Gun shots thundered and scorched air blasted over my head. The hands flew from my legs.
I drew in a hard breath and coughed my throat to pieces, tasting the harsh sting of gunpowder in the air. My eyes watered and my vision doubled. I rolled onto my back and pulled in great, whooping breaths of relief.
It was a squad car; its lights flashed red and blue. Two cops stood there in full riot gear, their faces hidden behind mirrored visors. Their shotguns boomed and I heard a wet and meaty splat and a tumbling thud behind me.
“You bit?” one of them screamed, his voice muffled through his riot helmet.
I couldn’t speak. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I wheezed.
“Are you bit?” the cop screamed again.
I just stared, google-eyed.
“Answer!” the second one roared. He jacked the shotgun’s pump.
I shook my head.
“Come on.” The first one lowered his weapon and waved me over. His partner did not. “Come on! On your feet! We’re rallying.”
I glanced back.
A single black pump lay in the road; three drops of blood dotted the toe. Behind it lay a torn heap, a quivering red pulp pile with curled fingers and a smashed wristwatch. I choked back a burning rush of acid.
A thick crimson puddle crept toward me across the pavement.
The cop yanked me to my feet, his free hand slapped along my body, checking. He nodded finally, satisfied, and grabbed me by the face, turning it to his. He had opened up his visor and we were eye to eye. He was younger than me.
“Wake up!” he shouted. “Come on, mother fucker!” He dragged me toward the idling squad car. “More of ‘em will be here soon. Jesus.”
“I lost my cap,” I said as I was thrown into the back. “My car’s still running.”
“It’s all right, man. Just breathe.” He slammed the door, walked around the car and climbed behind the wheel. Through the windshield, I watched the second cop pump shotgun blasts into the pulped meat. The first cop honked, irritated. The second glanced up and walked over, climbing into the squad car without a word. We rocketed away in a blare of sirens and squealing tires. I could smell burning rubber.
“I locked my keys in my car.” I watched my car fade in the back window.
“Shut up!” the second cop snapped.
“What’s… happening?” I asked. “What’s…?”
“We’re forming a line downtown.” The first cop met my eyes in the rearview.
Three men tried to lunge for us as we passed. Two missed, the third hit the trunk, bounced off, and rolled in the street. The cops didn’t slow down; they didn’t even seem to notice. We sped past another twisted pile up. Flames blackened the windows of a corner market and oily smoke poured from its shattered front door. A man waddled ahead of us, a giant TV cradled in his arms. The squad car threaded streets clogged with wreckage and frightened people. They tapped at the windows, pleading and confused.
“If you’re bit, that’s it,” the first cop explained over his shoulder. “If they don’t kill you, their bite will, and then you become one of them… so don’t get bit.”
“And don’t fuck around with anyone who is bit,” the second cop warned. “Shoot ‘em! Right away! There’s no other choice. If you’re bit, you’re dead, that’s it. Got it?”
“So don’t get bit,” the first cop summarized.
I stared back and forth between them. “What the fuck are you talking about?” I blurted. “What the fuck is going on?”
“It’s the end of the world, man, the end of the world…” the first cop shook his head. “And it’s fucking everywhere.”
“Head shots,” cop number two muttered, loading shells into his shotgun’s breech.
“We’re forming a line,” the first cop said in a quiet talismanic tone.
The downtown skyline loomed before us, Minneapolis’s glass towers obscured behind rising pillars of black smoke.
* * *
The line was a barricade of four squad cars flanked by a pair of Army green Deuce-and-half trucks parked in front of the Government Center. It was one of maybe half a dozen or so similar defensive lines that surrounded the place.
The smoke was getting worse; the sky overhead had become dark and red rimmed. The air was a blizzard of ash and embers, a riot of screams and sirens and the sound of gunfire, pop, pop, pop, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat.
I had lost the cops in the crowd, stumbling in a daze.
Blood ran in the gutters. Clothing and papers choked the drains. I coughed, gagging on the slick smudge-smell of gasoline and burning meat. All around me people streamed toward the hastily-built line, hurrying toward the Government Center, tripping on discarded suitcases and drifts of clothing that lay strewn and forgotten in the street. I could hear barking dogs; I saw them strain and growl at their leashes. I heard pleading screams and shouts as grim soldiers yanked people out of line and forced them to their knees. Shots rang out, the sound lost in the deafening din. Blood hung in a mist; there were bodies sprawled among the gore streaked landscaping, left in untidy heaps.
The dogs didn’t bark at me. They didn’t even notice me. My uniform got me waved through the lines without a second glance. The family next to me wasn’t so lucky. I stumbled past. I didn’t look. Their sobs cut off behind me in a trio of gunshots.
Camouflage appeared in front of me, gold lieutenant bars pinned to the collar. The man that wore them shouted over the noise. He clutched my shoulder, shaking, pointing toward a line of trucks and a crowd of soldiers. The lieutenant seemed to talk forever, but the message was simple: Go over there. I nodded and merged with a milling crowd of uniformed confusion.
I found Donez and Rube in the crowd.
They waved me over. Neither had been able to make it to our Reserve Center. They told me that the freeways were gridlocked. They said that they had been forced to abandon their cars in the snarl and jump into a passing Army convoy. They had ended up here. Half our unit was peppered among the group. The rest were National Guardsmen and a smattering of active duty guys that had been on leave.
No one knew what was going on.
Sergeants moved among us, shouting and shoving us into formation. We were placed under the command of a major I didn’t know, but the guy had that familiar reserve officer look to him: soft and stoop-shouldered, like someone had hung a uniform on a dentist. He shouted squeaky, scratchy-voiced orders and waved his arms. We were tossed gear from the backs of waiting trucks and we were warned over and over: Head shots.
I got a flack vest that might have seen action in Vietnam, a helmet that didn’t fit quite right, five, thirty round magazines and an M-16 A2 rifle.
“Fucking A-2s,” Donez grumped beside me.
Donez had been active army for eight years before the Reserves and had once blown up a used car lot with an incorrect artillery coordinate during a training exercise. “God damn things are made by Mattel, you know, the same people who make Barbie. Pieces of shit,” he spat. “Be careful, the damn things will jam up on you.”
The three of us took up a position against the back of a squad car, on the south line facing up Sixth Avenue out toward the Nicollet Avenue. We peered down our rifles and into the smoky darkness.
Rube had the M-60 and he propped the big gun’s tripod open across the squad car’s trunk. “I’m lighting motherfuckers up, man. I ain’t taking no chances,” he dropped the spare barrel bag at his feet. I watched him slap in the long length of ammo, slam the tray shut and yank back the bolt, a dramatic illustration of his intent. “Anyone comes through here? Ka-fucking-POW! Know what I mean? Bet your ass I’m getting fucking home tonight! Believe that!” He nodded, fidgeting and nervous, smoothing down his moustache with a shaking pair of fingers. “Believe that.”
“Some of these people are just running,” I said. “They’re not…”
“I don’t give a fuck,” Rube assured me and braced the .60 to his shoulder.
“Target front!” the PA squalled and the Major’s voice boomed up and down the line. My eyes darted, searching, as my rifle came up; the whole of my world suddenly balanced on the tip of my front-sight.
A heavy cloud of smoke clung to the skyscrapers, a dark curtain that spun and swirled in the hot swooping gusts of air that slashed between the buildings. It tickled my face with warm fingers and carried with it the smell of burning destruction.
At first, all I heard was the terrible low bass of the moans. A shiver crawled up my spine. My hands flexed on my rifle, my palms slick with sweat. The crowd jammed up at the checkpoints, bottle-necked, shoving. They screamed, a boomeranging wave of terror, the fear feeding off itself. The people surged forward, desperate to get in. The saw-horse barricades fell, the line broke and the crowd poured between the vehicles in a rush, stumbling, trampling. I stood stock still, ignoring the jostling crowd streaming past.
I stared into the smoke, intent, wide-eyed with adrenaline and fear. I squinted and saw shapes in the gloom. I heard a crowd of running feet. It was close, getting closer. I tried to swallow, but my throat rasped; my lips were dry enough to crack.
Shadows loomed in the smoke, hunched silhouettes that formed into people, heads and shoulders, arms and legs, a crowd of people, a massive mob. They burst from the murk, hands out, fingers clawed and teeth bared. Men, women, children, young and old. They were bloody, torn up, covered in gore, stumbling, running like animals on their hind legs, their heads up and drooling. They saw us waiting and they ran for us. Bloody viscera fell to the concrete, dragged in the street. I heard the meaty splats, I saw it streak and steam. I saw it trampled, smeared beneath the charge.
Their eyes never left us—they burned, red-rimmed with hate.
Their screams drowned out the sirens.
“Holy fuck…” Any sympathy I had was gone in an instant, washed away in a sudden soaking of terror and a desperate, terrible animal instinct. These weren’t people, they were monsters. Monsters. Rube was right; there was no more time for checks.
My finger jerked the trigger.
A single pop and a body fell in the street.
The paralysis broke; we mowed them down in a hysterical roar of fire and lead.
My rifle kicked, kicked, kicked against my cheek, spent brass tumbled and spun like a metal rain. It pinged against the squad car trunk, tink, tink-tink, tink, and fell to the sidewalk. It bounced and rolled around my boots. All I heard was the chatter of gunfire. I saw them drop, a pile of dead in the streets. And they kept coming, stumbling in the heap. More gunfire, more screams, screams and gunfire and anything that crawled out of the piles were obliterated, blown into a red splatter.
I dropped the first magazine and slammed the next home. Rube’s .60 thundered next to me. I could feel the heat rolling of the automatic; its barrel had started to glow red. The monsters’ faces were clearer now, closer, with their snarling mouths and teeth strung with bits of gore.
If you’re bit, that’s it, running through my head, over and over again.
If you’re bit, that’s it.
In my mind, I could still feel that shot of wind as that woman’s orthodontist perfect teeth snapped closed scant inches from my face. There was no time to check for bites, we couldn’t take the chance. They were too close.
There were too many.
My rifle thundered, bullets punched through flesh, spraying blood. They kept coming. They wouldn’t stop. The mob was never ending. I couldn’t see. I didn’t aim. I yanked at the trigger, swept my rifle back and forth, blinded by fear and smoke, my eyes watering, my vision doubling. All I could smell was cordite and smoke.
I kept firing.
I think I was screaming.
Third magazine. The spent brass rolled at my feet.
Fourth magazine. Thudding gunfire, the butt of my rifle hitting my shoulder.
It was a flood of bodies. They fell in the street, their heads broken, blown open, leaking, every moment closer and closer. Hundreds of them darkened the street, hundreds poured from the choking hang of black smoke. They charged. They kept coming.
I fired, and I fired, and I fired.
A man slammed against the squad car; his throat hung open with a dangling flap of skin. He wheezed and hissed. His milky eyes locked onto mine. I squeezed the trigger and his head exploded in a rain of gristle and bone. I squeezed my eyes shut tight against the spray, felt the blood on my skin.
A horn pierced the noise, blaring and insistent. Headlights cut through the smoke and I heard the roar of an engine. A black pick-up with a red, white and blue license plate broke through the gloom. It had an idiot’s vanity plate that read: KICK AS.
There was a man crouched behind the wheel. He slammed through the crowd of monsters, plowing them under. He rocked and bounced over the bodies. He was aiming at us, straight for the line, a feverish intensity burning in his eyes. Bullets whined off the truck. The windshield splintered and fissured and then shattered in a storm of glass.
He didn’t stop. He was sobbing, hell-bent. He was going to ram us.
Others shoot through the windshield. I saw white fluff explode from the seats. I saw blood spurt and splash. A back tire went with a boom and the truck slalomed. The man jittered and sagged and kept on. His knuckles were tight and white on the steering wheel. Blood trickled from his mouth. He laid on his horn.
My rifle hit my shoulder and I split the gray shadowed mass behind the steering wheel with my sight peg. I was calm, I took my time. Sorry “KICK AS.”
Breathe in, exhale, and hold it.
Squeeze the trigger, don’t pull.
The God… damn… thing… jammed!
I made the decision in an instant. I tossed my rifle, spun on my heels, and ran.
Automatic fire whip-cracked behind me and I heard the bullets punch through metal. I heard the truck hit the line. I heard glass shatter behind me. I heard tires squeal, I heard the crashing screams of twisted metal and broken men.
I felt like I was running under water, like I was running in a dream. It seemed like I didn’t cover any distance at all. My legs pistoned, my feet pounded the pavement. Little jolts of pain shivered up my shins with each hammering step.
My breath rasped in my throat.
There was a fast building shriek and a sudden deep WHUMP that sucked the air from my lungs. And then, for a blink of a moment there was nothing, just quiet; nothing but a waiting silence.
The explosion roared up with fiery rage.
It slammed me off my feet, lifted me, and slapped me back down again, hard to the ground, a hot and angry hand. The air was blasted out of me and I struggled to draw my next breath, my hands clawed at the pavement. My body stung from the explosion’s slap. Hot air, like an open blast furnace, baked me, tumbling me head over heels.
Glass began to fall in a tinkling rain. Big, twisted pieces of scorched metal followed, slamming down. Broken chunks of concrete flipped into the air. I tried to curl up, tried to cover myself, wheezing. Wet chunks of burning meat splattered the asphalt.
I’d lost my helmet. Fire roared. People screamed, flailing and burning. I struggled to get up and get moving, my body aching, numb and stinging. My mouth was filled with the metallic tang of blood. I sucked in air that burned my raw throat, but my head cleared, the black pushed back from my vision. I coughed and hacked and spit flecks of blood.
Then I looked back over my shoulder and deep into hell.
The line was gone, vanished. It had been replaced by fire. The squad cars were tangled up with the pick-up, it was one long twisted, burning wreck. But hunched shapes moved through the inferno. They climbed the wreckage, wreathed in flame. They poured over the line and descended on the sprawled and injured living.
The screams and the fire spread.
I staggered up, half running, half stumbling, still coughing and blind with smoke. My whole body ached. My fatigues were scorched and smoldering.
And someone slammed into me out of the darkness.
I grabbed at a shirtfront and raised my fist. It was a slim woman, small. Her hair was red as fire. She wore ratty black Converse, her T-shirt shredded. She was streaked with soot and gore. Her eyes were almost all white and as wide as saucers.
She covered her face, cowering before my fist.
She was alive.
“Are you bit?” I screamed and shook her in my fists. “Hey! Are you bit?”
She peeked out at me and shook her head.
I grasped her hand in mine and we ran.
Continued in Gunslingers of the Apocalypse...