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Authors: William Todd Rose

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BOOK: Apocalyptic Organ Grinder
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Angered by their treatment, there came a day when The People could take no further indignities.  Though the metallic thorns ripped at their flesh, they advanced as one and the wire walls toppled before their might.  With a cry like thunder, The People ran toward the homes of the clear skins, wanting only food for their bellies and water to cool their burning throats.

Yet it was not to be …

 

V.

 

         Tanner Kline felt as if his lungs were on fire.  Every breath, every gasp of air, drove needles of pain deep within his chest.  Part of his mind reeled at how easy that Spewer bitch made it look:  she moved through the forest as if the logs and obstacles didn’t apply to her, as if she could pass through them like a phantom if she so chose.  Bobbing and weaving, ducking and leaping, completely fluid and in control of every action … if not for the fact that her blood carried dormant poison, he could have almost respected this woman.  But she did. 

Like all Spewers, the disease ran rampant in her body, manifesting the symptoms of sickness without ever claiming its just reward.  Which is what made them so dangerous.  Left to their own devices, these savages could live until they were old and wrinkled, erupting with geysers of putrid death for years to come.  Anyone who may have known why the Gabriel Virus didn’t outright kill them like it did so many others had died with the Old World.  There were no answers to be found, no great mystery to unravel … there was simply the threat of infection and the pain of death.

Sometimes, Tanner bolted awake in the middle of the night with a sheen of sweat plastering the thin sheet to his body.  He’d gasp for air as his hands scrambled in the darkness, seeking out the warmth of Shayla’s small body curled up beside him.  The dream was always the same:  his beautiful little girl marred with blisters, seeping infection and stinking of sickness.  Tears streaked her face as she reached for him with trembling hands. 
Help me, Daddy … it hurts.  It hurts, Daddy, it hurts so bad …

Which is why he had to ignore the stitch in his side that felt like a knife was being plunged beneath his lowest rib.  Why he had to continue running even though he scrambled over the stony ground on legs that felt as if the muscles were about to snap like rubber that had been stretched too tightly.  His little girl depended on him and as long as there were Spewers in the world, she’d never be safe.  Never be allowed to simply be a kid.  There would always be the chance that his nightmare would become reality.

Tanner skidded around a bend and suddenly she was there.  The infected animal he’d been chasing was boxed in on all sides.  Unable to continue her flight, she clutched her spear in both hands and her eyes were as cold and unfeeling as the gray stone that trapped her.  Her body glistened with sweat and disease, the stink so overpowering that it seemed to waft from the boulders and rocks that huddled at the base of the cliffs .  Maybe it was because of the chase, the adrenaline that must have surged through her body as she ran;  or perhaps his senses had simply heightened to superhuman acuteness.  Whatever the reason, it smelled as if he’d stumbled into an entire nest of savages and his eyes watered behind their protective goggles.

Stopping so suddenly that he nearly stumbled over his own feet, Tanner snapped the rifle to his shoulder.  Dry leaves crunched beneath his feet and his heart slammed into his chest as if attempting to break free.

“It ends now.”

As his finger began to tighten on the trigger, however, Tanner realized something was horribly wrong.  Rather than taking moves to defend herself, his prey simply stood there with a crooked smile on her face that lacked any true warmth.  It was almost as if she possessed some secret knowledge.  No fear or anxiety, nothing but calm composure.

He’d been so focused on the pursuit that he hadn’t seen what, at first, looked like vines snaking out from beneath the bed of leaves.  He was peripherally aware of them now, of how they scaled the side of the cliff as if stretching toward the sun-warmed rocks overhead.  Not vines at all, but ropes.  Twisted and browned with age, they crept out from four sides and draped over rocks high above.


Now!
” 

Four large rocks tumbled down the sides of the cliffs, dislodging smaller stones and pieces of shale in their wake.  Each one was wrapped in the same rope he’d spied beneath the leaves and before Tanner’s muscles even had a chance to flex, his body was yanked into the air.  Falling backward, the net which appeared through the shower of leaves kept him from crashing to the ground but his rifle tumbled end over end as it flew from his hands.  Before it had even clattered against the hard ground, the net had cinched tightly around him.  He swung back and forth like a pendulum, writhing within coarse webbing that seemed to tangle around his thrashing arms and legs.

From all sides, he heard trilling and whooping as Spewers rushed out from their hiding places.  From behind boulders, rising up from darkened fissures in the face of the mountain;  like roaches scuttling toward a crust of bread they surrounded him.  The tips of spears jabbed through the gaps in the net, crinkling his Tyvek suit and tapping against the goggles with half-hearted thrusts.  Tanner snatched at the weapons but the dizzying spin of the net left his gloved hands sliding ineffectually over the smooth wood.

How many were there?  Seven?  Ten?  Impossible to tell with the rotation of the net and the way they darted to and fro.

“Hunters of the tribe of Clay!” The voice boomed above the din of hoots and cheers.  A female voice that resonated with power.  “This is not the animal which we thought we’d snare.”

Laughter rippled from below him, but at least the spears no longer tested the durability of his clothes.  Now that they had begun to calm, Tanner twisted within the net and counted.  Seven.  Eight counting the bitch who’d led him into this trap.  All of them seeping fresh pus and covered with the crusty residue of dried infection.  He’d rip them apart with his bare hands if given the chance, would leave their primitive brains splattered against the rock as their disgusting bodies crumpled at his feet.

“This Sweeper,” the voice said more loudly, “killed Myra and Jarnell.”

The laughter cut off as quickly as if it’d been severed with a cleaver.  He felt their eyes upon him, their boiling anger penetrating his suit like a raging fire.  For the first time since he’d been snared, Tanner felt fear twinge his gut.  He closed his eyes and pictured Shayla, patiently sitting by the window and watching for a father who’d never return.  He’d failed her.  Had failed his community.  Humanity, for that matter.

“We were meant to flush out game and instead I stand before you alone.  The spirits of our brother and sister demand justice.  They cry for retribution.  This …
clear skin
,” she spat the word as if it were a piece of rancid meat, “must be brought before the Elders.  He must be made to face his sins according to the way of The People.”

The hunting party roared approval and Tanner took a slow, deep breath.  The fear was now a knot that squeezed his intestines and caused his throat to feel as if it were closing shut.  His muscles quivered with a tremor that seemed to originate somewhere deep within him and his eyes stung with the threat of tears.

“I’m sorry, Princess.” He whispered.  “I’m so,
so
sorry.”

 

By the time they’d made it to the village, Tanner’s white suit was tattered with ragged holes and his body felt as if he’d been swept up in an avalanche.  Arms, legs, back and torso – all were mottled with bruises that pulsed and throbbed as if miniature hearts pounded just beneath the skin.  The plastic goggles had cracked and blood stained  the particle mask.  Behind the soaked cotton, his split lips felt so swollen he was sure they were on the verge of popping and teeth wiggled loosely in the metallic saltiness of his mouth.

They’d drug him the entire way, letting his body tumble and topple within the net as he bounced over uneven, stony earth.  Briars that crept over the earth scratched at his clothes and skin, leaving perforated dots of blood that stung like pinpricks of fire.  Across rocks and logs, pine needles and patches of poison ivy, never stopping for rest, never giving a moment of respite.  It almost seemed as if he’d died back there within the cliffs, as though he were now suffering through an eternity of torment to atone for failing his daughter.   Minutes and hours alike bled into an unending tapestry of pain, agony so intense and constant that he’d been forced to fumble with the mask in an attempt to keep vomit from being trapped against his face as he wretched and heaved.

By the time the hunting party finally stopped, the sun had set and the heat of the day had turned into the coolness of evening.  Tanner felt dizzy and nauseous and everything he saw seemed to shift into multiple, wavering ghosts of the original image.  Torches staked into the ground flickered in and out of reality while buckskin tents and lean-tos wavered like mirages.  Even if they hadn’t been accompanied by transparent, shimmering phantoms it would have been impossible to count the Spewers that clustered around him.  They murmured to each other in a wordless drone and the lull faded in and out of the high pitched ringing that filled Tanner’s skull.

Infected hands untangled him from the strands of the net with no regard for his well-being.  He spilled across the ground like a carpet that had been unrolled, landing before feet that were so callused that they almost looked as though they sprouted from the ground.  Unseen hands grabbed his armpit and elbows, pulling him roughly to his feet.  Fueled by a revulsion that felt as if his skin were sloughing off the muscle, Tanner wrenched free of their grasp.  He stood by his own by pride and stubbornness alone , teetering on legs  whose knees threatened to buckle at any moment.

A sea of faces surrounded him like curious children staring at a snared beast and he glared at each one through glassy eyes, silently daring them to approach.  Curiosity and fear rippled through the crowd as the collective murmur rose in volume and cadence.  There were no sentences or individual words as far as Tanner could tell, just the excited chatter of a hundred voices blending into one.

As he stood there, a hush fell across the group and the ring of Spewers directly in front of him parted.  In the orange glow of torchlight, three savages hobbled forward with bent backs and claw-like fists wrapped around gnarled walking sticks.  Their faces were marred with deep wrinkles and looked as tough and tanned as old leather, contrasting sharply against manes of flowing, white hair.  Two males, one female, each decorated with necklaces formed of bone, feathers, and cogs.  As they entered the center, the ring of Spewers closed around them and Tanner fought through the waves of dizziness in an attempt to appear defiant and unafraid.

Night insects cheeped and peeped in the surrounding forest and an owl hooted in the distance, its forlorn question going unanswered.  It was so silent that Tanner could hear the crackling of fire, the scuffling of feet as the tribe of savages shifted position.

“Why has this clear skin been brought into our midst?”  The voice was like a raspy croak and came from the old female.  She studied Tanner through her good eye, the other being clouded behind a milky cataract that contrasted with her dark skin.

The bitch he’d chased through the forest pushed her way through the crowd and bowed low as she rose one hand in a closed-fist salute.  She held the pose like a woman frozen in time, her averted eyes staring at the tips of her feet.

“Lila, chosen wife of Tolek, the Council grants permission to speak.”

The woman rose then and looked each of the ancient Spewers directly in the eye as she spoke.  While her words had the hushed tones of reverence, it was also tinged with a conviction that made each syllable seem like a proclamation.

“This
man
, this Sweeper from beyond the forest, has been brought for judgment, oh Wise Ones.  He has slaughtered our brothers and sisters, has ushered them too soon beyond the Veil.  This very day he has murdered by Myra and Jarnell, not far from the River of Life.  I have seen their lifeless bodies with my own eyes and stand witness again him.  I swear this by the honor of my ancestors, may they always walk with me.”

A collective gasp arose from the crowd and one of the male elders waved his hand toward the congregation as he stepped forward.  His face was marked with the scars of infection, twisted into a mask of craters and blemishes;  he studied Tanner through eyes that were watery and blue, perfectly veiling any emotion that may have stirred within.

“What have you to say for yourself, clear skin?  How do you answer to these crimes charged against you?”

         Tanner smirked at the old man and his back popped as he ignored the pain and straightened his posture.  The crowd leaned forward and seemed to hold their breath in unison.  Though his voice was nothing more than a harsh whisper, the silence was so complete that not a single word was lost.

         “What would you do,” he asked, “if there was a rabid wolf in your village?  Just let it wander around?  Or would you kill it where it stood?”

The Spewer called Lila stepped in front of him with her nostrils flaring wide.

“These were not wolves.” She hissed.  “These were my people.”

Tanner sniffed once and cocked his head as his chest swelled with bravado.

“They were a threat to my daughter.”

Lila’s head whipped forward, so close now that their noses nearly touched.  With a brow furrowed by anger, her rancid breath washed over him as she shouted, “
And you are a threat to mine!”

Hands pulled the woman away from Tanner, but her gaze remained linked with his.  For a moment, the rest of the village faded into an indistinct blur:  there was nothing more than Lila’s blue eyes, burning with a hatred matched only by his own, and the scowl that distorted her face into a nightmare mask hungry for blood.

“Why should we not find you guilty of the charges brought against you, clear skin?  Speak now and sway our judgment if you can.”

BOOK: Apocalyptic Organ Grinder
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