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Authors: David Dunwoody

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Empire's End

BOOK: Empire's End
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Empire’s End

David Dunwoody

Published by Permuted Press at
Smashwords.

Copyright 2011 David Dunwoody.

www.PermutedPress.com

Cover art by Christian Dovel.

Interior art by Stephen Blundell.

 

Portions of
Afterdead: A.D. 2007
previously appeared in

The Undead
(2005) and
The Hacker’s
Source
magazine (2005-08).

 

This book is a work of fiction. People,
places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s
imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or
historical events, is purely coincidental.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without
the written permission of the author and publisher.

 

 

 

... AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH HIM

 

Prologue / Ladies and Gentleman, Children
of All Ages

 

“It doesn’t hurt?” Christmas asked. It was
the answer that most disturbed him.

Luis shook his head, cracking a smile that
split the great wound beneath his empty eye socket. Fissures opened
in the sinew over his cheekbone and bled, yet he never lost his
grin. Despite the mutilation, Luis had insisted on applying his
makeup. His remaining flesh was painted bone-white, his lips black;
a corpse clown. A velvety top hat sat at a jaunty angle on his
head, baring part of his ragged scalp.

Christmas helped Luis button his jacket. It
was difficult for the performer to do so himself, what with his
missing fingers. Turning to peer through the tent flap, Christmas
said, “Full house.” Luis snapped up his cane and used his teeth to
tug at the gloves on his hands, half of their fingers empty and
dangling.

“Of course,” he replied, his voice a hoarse
croak. It amazed Christmas that, when standing before an audience,
Luis was still able to command the room, bringing the crowd to an
awed silence so that they could hear him speak. He was a mere
shadow of the man he’d once been; as his body wasted away, he’d
given himself over completely to the performance, withdrawing from
the others, withdrawing from Christmas, his mind gradually slipping
away as he became one with his circus persona.

“I’ll announce you,” Christmas said. Luis
nodded, and Christmas stepped through the flap, raising his arms
into the air as he strode toward the center ring.

“Your attention please!” he shouted. The
audience immediately sat up and stared at him, jittery with
anticipation.

“It’s time for the man of the hour! The
dancer among the dead! The King himself—Eviscerato!!”

Christmas gestured toward the tent flap. He
waited. They waited. All was silent.

Then it began.

 

* * *

 

He started out juggling heads in Mexico City.
Standing brazenly in the middle of the street, the twenty-year-old
Luis heaved severed skulls into the air, bystanders gasping as the
heads’ rolling orbs and gnashing teeth plummeted toward Luis’ open,
fleshy hands. He’d deftly catch each one by its hair, swinging it
back up, smiling at his audience. He never looked at the heads. He
never looked for the police. The police, in fact, often stopped to
watch the show, sometimes handing Luis food vouchers and patting
his shoulder. It was the same for them as it was for everyone else:
Luis’ illegal performance stirred their spirits more than did any
singer or puppeteer. He braved the reality they were living in,
unlike the government, which hid within the city walls and
pretended that the world had not changed in a hundred years.

A hundred years since the plague had
struck—early in the twenty-first century, a virus had erupted in
the southern U.S. and hitched a ride with fleeing immigrants into
Mexico. A virus that, some believed, was supernatural in nature.
They called it the Lord’s judgment. They called it Man’s sin. They
called it the end.

Yet a century later, Man was still here. But
running, and hiding, while the undead roamed free.

Luis didn’t believe in running or hiding. He
juggled. He danced. He captivated his audiences. Then he’d met
Christmas, an American, and together they’d conceived the idea of a
traveling show.

There was no money to be made. The occasional
food vouchers, perhaps, but mostly they dealt in bartered goods—and
they set their sights on
los Estados Unidos
. For there, many
cities still stood, protected by the military. And in the badlands,
the fallen states, stubborn people still lived amidst the packs of
ravenous dead.

In those people Luis saw the spirit he
himself possessed, and indeed, the badlanders received him with
great enthusiasm. Word spread quickly of Eviscerato and his caravan
of performers. Word especially spread of the animals used in the
act. The dead ones.

The U.S. strictly enforced a law that
prohibited making any sort of profit off of human rotters. Animals
were another story, and so Christmas and Luis set about gathering a
host of creatures from the badlands: wolves, horses, even bears.
The shambling beasts were netted and dragged back to the camp, to
be placed in hastily erected cages. Then, before a packed house,
Luis danced among the creatures, taunting them, stabbing at them,
riding their backs and severing their noses and plucking out their
eyes while cheers shook the tent.

The dead animals generally posed little
threat. They fed only on their own kind—a common trait among each
infected species—and were sluggish in defending themselves.
Besides, not even a
live
bear could win against a chainsaw.
It was Christmas who came up with the notion of sewing a midget
performer inside the bear’s gut, then slicing the animal open so
that the midget somersaulted through a hail of blood into the
center ring. It became one of their most popular acts.

The dead animals generally posed little
threat. But, as Christmas warned time and time again, there was
always a risk.

It was a risk that Luis did not fear.

So, one night, when he’d stumbled and a
ragged wolf had clamped down on his arm, flaying it to the bone,
the great Eviscerato had done nothing to fight it off. Instead, he
rose and swung the animal through the air on his arm, playing to
the shrieking audience, whose horrified cries turned into applause
as he knelt and bit into the wolf’s hide, tearing loose a rotten
strip of meat and spitting it onto the ground.

“You’re infected,” Christmas whispered after
the show, kneading his hands and pacing in circles. An outsider
might have thought that the circus manager was fretting over the
loss of his biggest act, but Luis knew that he was mourning the
inevitable demise of his friend.

“It might be weeks. Months,” Luis said in an
attempt at being reassuring.

Christmas shook his head. “Days. Maybe hours,
Luis! You can never tell with the plague!”

“My spirit is strong,” Luis said firmly. “It
only depends on the strength of one’s soul, and I know I—”

“You always wanted this, didn’t you?”
Christmas snapped. “You always dreamed of becoming one of them. You
think there’s some mystery there that must be solved, some
goddamned revelation to be had. There isn’t! You’re going to die,
and the virus is going to take over and you’ll be no more.”

“I’ve seen rotters who remember,” Luis
protested, clenching his fists. “I’ve seen them try to drive
rusted-out cars. I’ve seen them use axes. I’ve seen them try to
swim in the Pacific—even though they didn’t
need
to keep
themselves afloat, they tried. They try!”

“Memory and spirit are two different things.”
Christmas slouched on a wooden stool and looked toward a distant
fire, where the others were roasting a freshly killed deer. “You,
the Luis I know, will die.”

“But you’ll live on,” Luis replied. “And
you’ll have everything you need. Because my new act is going to
sweep across this country like the plague itself.”

“New act?” Christmas looked warily at
him.

“We’ll have to restrict ourselves to the
badlands,” Luis went on, as if he already had the entire plan
mapped out. And he did. “We won’t be able to perform in the cities,
but that’s just as well. People there still trade money like it has
value. You and the others will be able to retire after I’m gone,
living off your reputation alone—I promise.”

“What is this act?” Christmas said. “Are you
talking about parading your undead body around the ring?”

“No, no. I told you, I still have plenty of
time left. I haven’t died yet, John.”

“What,” Christmas repeated, fear creeping
into his voice, “is this act?”

“Rotters.

Human ones.”

 

* * *

 

Luis was right.

The show was a runaway success.

Christmas could only cover his eyes in horror
as Luis danced among a group of chained undead, passing within
inches of their jaws and hands, laughing all the while—and then
giving himself to them. Letting them bite his shoulders, his arms.
And he bit them back. The audience always reacted to that. They saw
it as a last act of defiance against the plague. Eviscerato became
a hero.

Before Luis’ performance, there were others.
Spinner, the tightrope walker, would traverse a taut rope suspended
over a cage full of hungry dead. The mute Fire Juggler would hurl
his torches toward the tent ceiling while the Strongman, with his
massive hammer, crushed the legs and bodies and heads of attacking
rotters.

Christmas appointed Nickel to be the zombie
handler. It wasn’t common to refer to the undead as “zombies”, but
Luis felt it spiced up the show. When it was time, Nickel would
slip a noose over the neck of each rotter and lead it to its place
in the act. Chained to a rolling platform for Eviscerato, or caged
beneath the tightrope, or trussed and blindfolded to be released
into the Strongman’s playground.

The rotters were easy to find in the
badlands. Ferals usually hung around ghost towns. They often
gathered in packs, following one another as if someone had a clue
as to where the meat was. They were usually underfed and in bad
shape. Simple to catch.

It seemed all too easy, all too convenient,
that these aberrations of nature now provided the means for John
Christmas and his employees to live. It sickened him how they had
shattered their values and cut out their souls in order to fit the
undead into their wretched existence.

Spinner fell from his tightrope into a pit of
rotters. Nickel was savagely bitten. The Strongman lost his footing
one evening and was trampled before the others could clear the
undead away; his eyes and mouth filled with tainted blood, he’d
stalked without a word from the tent and never spoke again.

And Luis...

Luis only smiled.

 

* * *

 

“Your attention please! It’s time for the man
of the hour! The dancer among the dead! The King
himself—Eviscerato!!”

Christmas gestured toward the tent flap. He
waited. They waited. All was silent.

Then Eviscerato leapt into the tent, throwing
his arms in the air, eliciting a deafening roar from the crowd. He
danced toward the center ring, waving gaily.

“My dear, dear friends!” He cried, still
smiling, blood dripping from his chin. “Tonight I have such a
special treat for you.”

As the performer gave his spiel, Christmas
glanced outside the flap. He saw the Strongman there, waiting, but
oddly postured in the shadows, his great hammer dragging in the
earth behind him.

Nickel was closer. The light revealed his
face.

He stepped into the tent and pulled the flap
down, and he was dead and Christmas saw it and the audience saw it,
then the canvas began to blacken as the tent was set aflame and the
Strongman stormed into the seats for his meat.

And Eviscerato danced, and danced, and
danced. Through the fire and the smoke and the blood he performed,
in his mindless, gleeful reverie; he danced until all the colors
swirled together and swam, together, in chaos.

 

One / Dear Mom

 

February 16th, 2109

 

It’s only the third week of the tour and I’ve
already learned so much—about everything, not just the badlands and
the war but the plague itself. I’ve even learned some things I
never knew about the Great Cities. I don’t know if you’ve heard it
back home but they’ve taken to calling the safe zones the “Great
Cities” now, not just because most of them are on the Great Lakes
(save for our Cleveland) but because the Senate is trying to raise
morale among the people. The message is that America is still here.
We still have something to fight for.

You wouldn’t know it from touring the
badlands. Our convoy has passed through at least a couple dozen
ghost towns. Not a soul in sight, not even a rotter. But I don’t
guess the undead would have any use for an unpopulated city, would
they?

BOOK: Empire's End
12.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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