Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
And then she had no choice.
As an organ-quivering bellow swept over her, Ella jumped into the truck bed. The roar merged with the sound of screeching tires. Ella looked back as the truck pulled away, and her scream joined the chorus.
The shrill scream coming from Jakob’s voice would have embarrassed him in most situations. But not that day, at that moment, when the inhuman emerged from the road, staring him down, hunger in its eyes...in
eyes. It helped that he wasn’t the only person vocalizing a cocktail of surprise and terror. Ella, the scientist turned hardened survivor, let out a cry, as well.
The two large creatures were built like rhinos, but covered in matted, thick brown fur clumped into muddy dreadlocks. Emerging from the snout wasn’t a horn, but what looked like a large antler with four prongs on either side, ending in razor-sharp, spoon-shaped tips. The creatures’ large, black-pupiled eyes were peeled wide to reveal jaundiced, bloodshot orbs. Tendrils of frothy drool dangled from gaping, panting maws—and that was where things really got freaky. Inside each creature’s mouth was a large wooden bit, attached to leather reins, the kinds Jakob was accustomed to seeing on horses. The reins rose up, clutched in the hands of a smaller creature sitting atop each beast. The riders had clearly once been human, but were now something else.
The one that caught his eye was, or had been, a woman. It was in those intelligent, feminine eyes that he saw more than hunger. He saw hate. Loathing. Abject and barely contained ferocity. And something familiar he couldn’t quite place. Her face was stretched out, elongated to make room for teeth so long and curled that they pierced back through her mud-covered cheeks. The woman was naked, her body emaciated, but twitching with lean muscles. A mane of hair flowed from her head and down her back. She was a primal thing, hungry and hateful, but with still-human eyes...eyes that held his gaze a moment while the truck’s tires spun over dirty concrete.
Did I know her before?
he wondered, but he lost sight of the woman when the tires caught and the truck lurched onto the road. Jakob was thrown down to the floor, caught by Ella, whose wide eyes reflected his own.
“You okay?” Ella shouted over the roar of the truck’s acceleration.
Before Jakob could reply, the pair slid forward, crashing into the metal supply case. Tires squealed as the truck came to a sudden stop. The back window slid open and Anne’s face appeared. “Hold on! We’re surrounded!”
Jakob moved to sit up and look, but Ella held him back. “Not yet!”
He wanted to argue, but her point was made a moment later, when the truck shot backwards, braked hard again and spun 180 degrees, sending them back the way they’d come, back toward the pair of gargantuans filling the road.
Why would we go back?
he thought, and then he sat up, looking behind them. Six more of the creatures, each with a naked rider—flowing haired and big toothed—charged from behind.
Anne’s face returned to the window. “Shoot the gas! Peter says shoot the gas!”
While Jakob wondered why they would shoot the gas strapped down to the truck bed, Ella jumped up behind the machine gun, spun it around so it was facing to the front, and opened fire. The rattling bullets drowned out the sound of the pursuing monsters, their broad feet pounding, their mouths breathing heavily. Jakob clung to the side of the truck bed and looked down the road toward the approaching gas station and the two rhino-things, holding their ground, welcoming them back to the slaughter house.
For a moment, he was surprised to see how poorly Ella was missing. The monsters were big targets, but her stream of bullets was nowhere near them. Instead, she was shooting at the gas station. At the concrete ground.
At the line of gasoline leading toward the reservoir.
Jakob’s eyes widened as a white hot, orange tracer round struck the concrete, sparking and igniting the spilled fuel. The line of fire streaked across the blood stains and then descended into the still-open reservoir hatch. “Oh...my...oof!”
“Down!” Ella shouted, tackling Jakob to the truck bed’s floor.
The shockwave and sound hit them just milliseconds apart. The front end of the truck was lifted off the ground, sending Ella and Jakob sliding toward the back. Jakob slammed into the rear hatch, while Ella became tangled in the mounted machine gun’s tripod legs. Debris pinged off the armored sides of the truck, pocking tree bark and shredding corn stalks around them. Flames swirled around the truck, twisting in toward Jakob, the heat scalding, and then all at once, the blast contracted.
The truck fell back to earth, the rear vaulting up as the front end landed, throwing Jakob forward again. His head struck one of the tripod legs, the impact setting his vision spinning.
“Hang on!” his father shouted, his voice muffled and distant.
An impact like a second explosion struck the vehicle from the side. Ella was slammed into the side, her body falling limp, still tangled in the tripod. Jakob was flung upwards again, but this time when he fell, he didn’t land on the hard metal truck bed; he fell several feet further and toppled onto pavement.
Onto the road.
With the wind knocked out of him, Jakob found moving difficult. He was sitting in the road, sucking air, his lungs desperate for more. The truck was in front of him, tearing away from the monster that had struck its side—one of the six that had been chasing them—its rider thrown by the impact.
The truck sped away, swerving around the ruined and burning body of the rhino-thing that had been nearest to the explosion—the one that had held the ExoGenetic woman with the familiar eyes.
They’re going to make it,
he thought, feeling glad for them, while resigned himself to his fate.
I knew I would be first.
As the pavement beneath him shook, he looked back and saw the remaining mammoth creatures, and their riders, charging toward him.
Not toward me,
Past me. They’re going after the truck.
He didn’t know if they saw the truck as larger prey or simply believed he couldn’t escape on foot, but he wasn’t going to ignore the opportunity. Spurred like a hot brand was being held to his side, Jakob scurried to his feet and sprinted for the side of the road. Before entering the corn, he heard a grunt, looked back and wished he hadn’t. The Rider,
with a capital R
, he decided, who had been thrown from his mount had recovered. The ExoGenetic man ran on all fours, like an ape, his arms long and muscular, the long hair on his head and back bouncing with each lunge forward. The man’s mouth hung agape, the long curved teeth jutting forward to impale.
Jakob lost sight of the Rider when he entered the wall of corn stalks. His pace slowed as the vegetation slapped against him, the oversized heads of corn striking like fists. He tried to move between the plants, but this wasn’t a farm with neat rows, it was wild and aggressively growing corn, the distribution dense and random—impossible to find a clear path through. So he took the beating, knowing that the man behind him, with broad shoulders, running in a crouch, would have to carve his own wide path...unless they’d already adapted for running through corn.
But he didn’t think that was the case. The Riders had somehow formed a symbiotic relationship with the giant—
what would Anne call them?
. Hunters united. Sharing prey.
Sharing me if I don’t get the hell out of here.
Unable to see more than a few feet, Jakob navigated by sound. He could hear the Rider behind him, huffing and snapping corn stalks with each lunge forward. Further away, he could hear the roar of an engine, so out of place in the world now, and the thunderous impacts of the Woolie herd giving chase. One of them bellowed, sounding frustrated.
, and Jakob angled to the left, on a path that he thought would take him behind the gas station and roughly in the direction of the highway. If he could reach that stretch of open road, there was a slight chance he could reconnect with his family, after they found another way around the roadblock.
“Utchaka!” a shrill voice screamed from behind.
Jakob couldn’t tell if the man had shouted an actual word in another language, or if he was just spewing nonsense. Either way, the shout announced the man’s arrival and his impending attack.
Jakob changed direction, cutting behind a tree.
The Rider emerged from the corn into the path hewn by Jakob’s flight, swinging his thick-nailed hand out. Bark and tree flesh burst away from the impact.
Jakob thought, looking over his shoulder.
The Rider hissed in aggravation, slammed his thick fists on the ground twice and launched himself after Jakob again, moving at an angle to close the distance. Jakob zig-zagged through the corn forest, running in and out of as many trees as possible, while staying on a roughly northward trajectory. He glanced to the left and saw the gleaming white back of the gas station. A column of flame and smoke rose up from the ruined concrete out front.
His eyes lingered on the fire. He knew, in his heart, that he couldn’t outrun the Rider chasing him down like a cheetah after a gazelle. This gazelle had been trapped inside a house for two years, and despite being skinny, he was already getting winded. Eventually, he’d have to stop and fight.
More like fight and die
, he thought.
But the fire...mankind’s oldest weapon... Maybe he could use it.
He cut hard left, making for the gas station.
“Cheepita!” the Rider shrieked, and Jakob felt sure the man was just shouting unintelligibly, once again announcing his assault. But this time, despite the warning, there was no avoiding the man. Four claws raked across Jakob’s back. He felt hot streaks of blood running down his skin, followed by a burning pain that drew a scream from his lips.
But he didn’t stop running, and the Rider, off balance from his strike, fell a few feet behind. As the cornstalks thinned at the edge of the parking lot, Jakob reached out and tore three stalks from the ground, carrying them as he cleared the forest and stumbled into the parking lot. He surveyed the area and found it empty, save for the dead Woolie burning in the road.
Super-heated air wicked the moisture from his skin and made him squint. His run became a jog, as acrid smoke swirled around him. He coughed and winced, but pushed forward, toward the flames he thought might give him a chance against his hairy and flammable adversary. When he noticed the front of the gas station was burning, too, he hurried to the smaller flames and held the corn out, roasting them. The lush plant sizzled, dried and caught fire.
Jakob whirled around, holding the burning corn toward the attacking Rider. The man flinched to a stop. He hissed and stretched his jaw, fully revealing the four-inch, needle-like, lower teeth and the shorter, but equally sharp, upper teeth. And then, the Rider almost looked bored, craning its head one way and then the other.
Jakob thrust the corn out like a spear, hoping the flames would set the thick, greasy mane of hair on fire. Instead, the Rider simply swiped one of his arms out and swatted the flames away, not frightened, intimidated or aflame. The man’s muscles coiled. He lowered himself to the ground.
He’s going to pounce,
and I’m going to die.
“Rrrootacha!” the high-pitched scream from behind Jakob made him, and the Rider about to lunge at him, flinch in unison.
Jakob spun around to find the female Rider, her hair smoldering, her eyes locked on the male, teeth barred, a throaty growl reverberating from her chest. Jakob hadn’t seen it before, but she was larger than the male, who was closer to Jakob’s size. The male barked at her, hissing. And then she lunged. With a yelp of surprise, the male Rider bolted, plowing a new path into the corn, with no signs of stopping.
The female bounded once after the fleeing competitor, but her second leap spun her around. A small fraction of a shout escaped Jakob’s lips before the Rider struck, slamming into Jakob’s chest, knocking the air from his lungs, and then crushing him down on the parking lot, heaving out any air that remained. Jakob’s vision quickly tunneled. He longed for unconsciousness, to not see what was about to happen, but that sweet bliss never came. Instead, he stared up into the eyes of the Rider woman.