Authors: Steven Novak
Shots fired, many at once. Something whizzed past my head, so close it flipped my hair. Any closer and I would have been dead. The shoulder of the woman beside me opened up, sprayed blood across my cheek and down the back of my neck. Suddenly the crowd was running, sprinting, charging into the hanger, gunfire echoing. They were too close together, tripping over each other. A forearm hit me in the spine. Four different feet kicked my legs. If someone fell, they were trampled. I stepped on a man’s head, felt the cartilage in his nose turn to dust. I broke some poor woman’s fingers, knocked some guy to the ground and kicked someone else in the face. If I’d known where I was running, I might have stopped, let Walker put a bullet between my eyes.
It certainly would have been easier.
The moment we entered the hanger the crowd spread out, doors closing behind us. There was more room to maneuver, to breathe. I looked back in time to catch Walker’s eye, watch him grin before shuffling away. A second later, we were trapped. Steel doors slammed shut. Locks locked. More locks after that. I even heard chains.
We weren’t getting out.
The hanger was massive, dark, and dimly lit, beams of light from circular windows along the ceiling. The first thing I noticed was the stench, like fence duty, like my night spent burning bodies. Then I heard the moans. For some reason I moved toward them, through the remaining crowd and deeper into the hanger. They were already shuffling from the shadows when I reached the front of the pack: gimps. One after another the darkness spread open, spitting them out, milky eyes catching the light. When the shadows were through spitting, they belched. There were at least a hundred, probably more—too many to count—decayed hands grabbing air, rotten teeth chomping. Behind me the group began to beat on the hanger doors, screaming, begging to be let out and accomplishing nothing.
We weren’t going anywhere.
Staring into the wall of dead eyes, I froze. Everything slowed, stretching like taffy, cold along my spine. Patrick squirmed in my arms. His face contorted, covered in sweat, damp strands of hair clinging to moistened flesh. A part of me considered dropping him, letting him go and being done with it. In this new world it made sense. Trying to save him was silly, almost as silly as trying to save myself. All I had to do was open my hands. He wouldn’t have lasted a minute, easy pickings for the advancing horde. They would have engulfed him, made a feast of his body and left nothing behind. It would have been ugly. He would have died slowly, in pain.
He was used to pain.
My arms relaxed. The wall of gimps was just feet away, leathery skin peeling like chipped paint. When they moaned I could swear they were crying. The one in front looked so hungry. They all looked hungry. I understood hungry. I closed my eyes. My grip softened. The next time Patrick squirmed, I didn’t pull back, felt him roll forward. It was better. It had to be done. It was easier for us both.
That’s when I noticed the watch, that stupid-incredible watch. It caught the light, dangling from decaying flesh, so pristine against the ugly.
It was Fred Felchus. Fred Felchus was first in line. Fred Felchus would have first dibs. Fred Felchus would be the first to sink his teeth into my brother and swallow his insides.
Fred Felchus wasn’t going to eat my brother. That wasn’t going to happen. Fred Felchus didn’t get to have everything.
Fred Felchus didn’t get Patrick.
My hand returned to Patrick’s mouth. I pulled him close. Instead of turning for the door I ran to the left, to the shadows. Working the fence taught me a few things about gimps. While they weren’t blind, their eyesight sucked. There were times when I was right in front of them, moments from sliding a stick into their eye and splitting their brain in two. They still didn’t see me. They smelled well and listened even better, but they’re lazy. They would go for the obvious kills. If we could get to the corner and keep quiet, we might have a chance. It was a long shot.
It was the only shot
I didn’t stop running until I hit the wall, dropped to the floor, crawled under a table and behind some crates. When Patrick moaned I mashed his face to my chest, smothered him with my shirt. He needed to shut up. When the rest of the group realized the door wasn’t opening, most decided to fight. What choice did they have? Fight or die.
A few decided to die.
Five seconds later they got their wish.
The fighters grabbed what they could: bits of cracked concrete, rocks, one guy even found a wrench. It wasn’t much. They were weak and needed every advantage they could get their hands on. It wouldn’t be enough. The horde engulfed them. For every gimp they put down, two more emerged. There were so many, some dressed in civilian clothes, some in camouflage. A few were naked. All were angry. The two groups met and merged, folded into each other, punching, screaming, and dying, and dying again. At some point it became impossible to tell the difference between monster and man. There was only hunger, the overwhelming desire to continue being. From my vantage point I only saw hands, arms, and teeth, pools of blood joining on the floor and spreading from the center, everything drenched red. Their specific sounds joined together, the awful noise of ending. There isn’t much difference between the snarl of a gimp and a human, at least not that I can tell.
Everything sounds the same when it dies.
Outside the hanger something else was happening. I could hear guns, yelling. Something exploded. Then came the howling, lots of howling. Something very large ran across the roof of the hanger, nails scraping steel. When it passed a window it blocked out the sun, opened its maw and yelped at the shadows inside. Apparently the howlers had enough. They were attacking.
Maybe we were safer inside.
I sat curled in that corner with Patrick for five minutes. It might have been ten, seemed longer. Instead of fighting or dying, I waited. I was doing what I did best, playing with imaginary numbers, percentages. I let them kill each other, watched from a darkened corner. No matter who won, there would be less to deal with. I didn’t care if it was heartless; it didn’t matter that I’d suffered with these people for a year. They weren’t my friends. They were chess pieces, doing what I needed them to do, sacrificing themselves for the greater good.
Instead of watching I focused on keeping Patrick quiet. When my brother pissed his pants I wanted to smack him and prayed they gimps didn’t catch the scent. A man from my barracks, Christopher Something or other, was trapped against a wall, four gimps approaching. His hands were shaking, blood-soaked arms struggling to lift a slab of stone. He was crying. I didn’t know Christopher very well, couldn’t even remember his last name. I suppose that’s strange considering all we’d been through, the time spent together.
I should have at least remembered his name.
Christopher swung at the nearest gimp, missed, and nearly fell over. The next time he hit it on the shoulder, knocked the creature off balance, stone slipping from his fingers. The gimps were on him before he could retrieve it, handfuls of his shirt, dirty fingers inside his mouth. He punched one of them and jammed his thumb in the eye of another. They didn’t care, couldn’t feel any of it. Christopher fought until his last breath, clawing at his attackers, screaming and kicking. He even pulled the nose from one of their faces. A pair of them latched onto his neck from either side, teeth meeting in the middle. It was an ugly death. He was still alive when they opened his belly, dead hands groping his insides, guts dangling from their teeth. His head fell my way, neck muscles chewed, eyes wide. He looked right at me.
He didn’t stop.
For a moment I actually felt ashamed over what he must have thought of me. He probably called me a coward, cursed himself for trying to fight when he could have hid. He hated me. He had to. So what? He was dead.
His opinion didn’t matter.
At some point it became clear my fellow prisoners weren’t winning. I knew they wouldn’t. They were outnumbered. They were weak. They weren’t very tough to begin with. They were CEOs and CFOs. They were expensive suits and expensive cars, egos twice as large as their arms. They were silly people from a silly world that no longer existed. They were getting what they deserved.
We all were.
The surviving gimps were growing restless, moving away from the pack, bellies bloated yet hungry for more. They would find us eventually. It was only a matter of time. My fellow prisoners hadn’t done enough damage, barely made a dent. Patrick and I were as good as dead.
The gunfire outside was louder, bullets ricocheting off the walls of the hangar, occasionally blasting through, beams of light crisscrossing the darkness. A window on the roof shattered, tore away when something exploded. It was getting brighter.
The gimp with his face in Christopher’s belly looked up, mass of tangled mush dribbling from its chin. There was something different about the way it grabbed his face, fingers dragging lightly across his cheek and up his forehead. When it felt his hair, it cocked its head, mouth hanging open, face slippery with blood. For the briefest moment it wasn’t just eating. It was looking, examining the position of Christopher’s head and drawing conclusions in its useless brain. The creature’s fingers moved along his face, fell to his eyes, and stopped. It leaned closer, sniffing, paying special attention to his eyes, the eyes that were looking at me. The son of a bitch was thinking, reasoning, putting things together. I’d never seen one of them thi—
It looked in my direction.
When it moaned, they all looked. Fifteen pairs of eyes emerged from the shadows, maybe more, impossible to tell. I wasn’t counting.
We were done.
My heart stopped, clogged, and sputtered. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Patrick slipped from my fingers. Maybe I let him go. Doesn’t matter. My first instinct was to run. There were less gimps, spread out. The hangar was large. The darkness would cause a problem, but I’d deal with it. If I kept moving I could avoid them for a little while. Patrick was going to slow me down, couldn’t carry him. They’d snag one of his limbs. They’d grab his clothes or hear him screaming. He’d just get me killed. Curled on the floor at my knees my brother began to cry, body jerking, fingers scraping concrete.
He knew, somehow he knew.
The gimps were getting closer. When I stood, Patrick grabbed the legs of my pants, pulled himself close, and mashed his face against my boot. I could have picked him up. We wouldn’t have survived, but I could have tried. Instead I stepped on his hand and crushed his fingers until he let go.
Instead I ran.
I headed for the darkness, for the shadows and the black, for the things I knew and the places I belonged. When Patrick screamed I pretended not to hear him. It was easier than you might think.
I had a lot of practice.
I was ducking between two gimps when the roof exploded. I’m not entirely sure where it came from or who shot it or even what it was. The sky just opened up, swallowed by a wall of orange, belching red. My eardrums exploded, capillaries burst. The hangar moaned, super-heated steel cracking, exploding inward. Something slammed into my spine, knocked me from my feet, and sent me skidding face-first across the floor. A cloud of black engulfed everything, coated every inch, wormed its way into my lungs, and spread like a disease. Instead of breathing I choked on dark mucus, throat on fire, flames like water spraying everywhere. When I went unconscious I wasn’t sure I’d wake up.
I probably didn’t deserve to.
I’m not sure how long I was out; it felt long, too long. I could hear the fire before I could see it, crackling, cooking the dead and dying. I felt my shoulders, arms, and hands in that order. There was a hint of cold, concrete against my face. When I inhaled I swallowed soot, dead smoke, and burnt flesh. The first time I tried to stand my body refused. Everything hurt. My leg was twisted and shrapnel jutted from my arm in three places. It took five minutes to get to my knees, another five to my feet. The hanger was collapsed and on fire, smoke like fog, peppered with ash. I couldn’t get my bearings. Everything was the same, broken, directionless. I shuffled through the smoke and debris, lungs clogged, choking on the air. When I ran into fire, I changed direction. When I came across the remains of a gimp I turned the other way. Somehow I found an exit. The smoke parted. Sunlight hit my face.
The base was a mess, buildings burning, bodies strewn across the dirt riddled with bullets, torn to pieces. At first glance I counted six howler corpses, mountains of bloody fur and cracked bone, two engulfed in flame. There were probably more. Most of the surviving soldiers were huddled into small groups, spread out and tending to the wounded. Others limped aimless through the aftermath, faces sunken, heads low. Everyone was yelling, looking to place blame.
He was standing beside the corpse of a howler, kicking the monster in the belly and firing rounds into its face when I spotted him: Walker. His right arm was torn to shreds, dangling from his side, camouflage soaked red. My body moved before my brain, reacting. The shuffle of an injured man transformed into a jog. A jog became a run. A run became a sprint. I didn’t know what I was going to do and didn’t care. It didn’t matter. I was done. I’d had enough. My hands turned to fists, chest heaving, mouth spitting smoke. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to smash his face like I’d smashed Patrick’s fingers. I wanted to open him up like Christopher, play with his insides. I wanted to do something.
I needed to do anything.
When I slammed into Walker it was with the full weight of my body. I tackled his legs, lifted and knocked him to the dirt, hands immediately going for his gun. We rolled, a cloud of dust rising around us. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I was on top. Before he could toss me off I smashed my head into his so hard I nearly blacked out. The blow opened a gash on his forehead, mine as well, both spitting blood, dripping into my eyes, everything turning red. The gun slipped from his fingers and I cracked him again. When he punched me in the chest I drove my knee into his injured arm, punched it with my fist, dug my fingers into the flesh and squeezed. When he screamed I sank my elbow into his teeth, knocked three down his throat.