Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Those familiar eyes.
She stared right back, hungry. Drool dripped from the long teeth, running down his cheeks. The woman tensed, about to bite, and then...she didn’t. The fight went out of her like she’d been stabbed. Her jaws closed shut, the long, lower teeth sliding into deep, scarred pockets in her cheeks and nose.
Her blue eyes remained on his.
Her irises widened.
And then, all at once, they filled with a deep, welling sadness that Jakob knew.
She spoke slowly, testing the word. “Ja-kob?”
Jakob’s heart nearly seized in his chest. His lungs burned for air. But he managed a single whispered word.
Peter squinted as fire exploded up out of the gas station reservoir. “Get down!” he shouted to Ella and Jakob in the back, but he doubted they could hear him over the thunderous clap and the pressure wave that lifted the truck’s front end off the ground. Shards of concrete assaulted the truck’s armored shell, deflecting away or shattering. Had the truck not been lifted up, the windshield would have been torn apart,
and me with it.
Flames expanded out, engulfing the truck’s cab. The interior glowed orange, the heat seeping in through the vents. He let out a scream of anger, knowing his son was in the back of the truck, fully exposed to the heat, to the danger.
This God-damned world!
The flames dissipated, and the truck dropped. The frame rattled as the front shocks tried and failed to absorb the blow. Peter caught a glimpse of the road ahead, burning and open. One of the giant creatures had been torn apart by the blast, a massive chunk of concrete embedded in its burning side. Its rider was nowhere to be seen. The second creature and its rider were nowhere to be seen. Then the airbag deployed, erasing his view and stalling his response.
The airbag fought against him as he reached for the knife on his belt. Before he could reach it, a rumbling caught his attention, and he glanced out the driver’s side window, where one of the rhino-like creatures charged toward them, its massive head lowered, its split horn leading the way.
“Hang on!” he shouted, not knowing if anyone could even hear him.
The creature struck hard from an angle, knocking them sideways, but also propelling them forward. The creature’s head struck the armored driver’s side, impaling its face on one of the many savage spikes he’d welded to the exterior, and shearing a few prongs from its horn. The stunned creature bellowed in pain, flinching back for just a moment, but long enough for Peter to rein in control of the spinning vehicle and slam his foot down on the gas pedal. With a shriek of tires, the truck tore away from the monster.
Peter steered with one hand. With his free hand, he recovered the knife from his belt and stabbed at the airbag, which popped and blew white, dusty air into the cab. He dropped the blade into the passenger’s seat and returned both hands to the wheel. Back in control, he directed the truck toward the gap between the stunned creature and the dead, burning one.
If we can just squeeze between—
A third, even larger rhino-thing stepped in from behind, filling the gap. They were trapped. Again.
“Into the woods!” Anne shouted. She was seated behind him, strapped in tight.
“We’ll hit a tree,” he argued.
“Steer by looking up! You can see the trees over the corn!”
The girl was right. Looking straight ahead, he’d be blind, but he might be able to see the trees above them well enough to navigate. The angled, inverted V-shaped plow mounted to the front end of the truck would make short work of the corn. Without further discussion or thought, he yanked the wheel to the right. The truck burst through a column of smoke from the burning gasoline on his right and the roasting monster on his left.
“Shit!” he shouted when the smoke cleared, turning harder to the right to avoid a tall pine. They surged past the tree, scraping bark from its side and entering the corn forest. The riotous hiss of cornstalks slapping against the exterior sounded like a jet engine. The truck withstood the barrage, its armor and plow bending the ExoGenetic plants to the old fashioned mechanical will of man. Peter found he could see better than he thought possible as the angled plow shredded corn stalks and shot them out to the sides, rather than up and over the windshield. He could also see the maze of trees, and steered back and forth, taking out saplings when unavoidable, but doing his best to dodge anything that might stop them in their tracks. The soft earth beneath the tires didn’t help, but they were moving faster than he’d thought possible.
“Here they come!” Anne shouted, her little shaved head craned back.
Peter glanced in the rearview. A column of the monsters was gaining on them, having no trouble following the path carved by the truck.
Anne followed her warning with an even more frightened sounding, “I don’t see Mom or Jakob!”
Peter turned around this time, seeing neither Ella nor Jakob in the back, but that made sense. They’d be on the floor, clinging to whatever they could find. He shouted as he turned forward and found a tree directly in their path. He turned hard to the left, the maize-slick tires slipping over the earth. The front end avoided the tree, but the rear bumper clipped it, sending a shudder through the vehicle and cracking Peter’s head against the driver’s side window. Blood trickled down the side of his face as he fought to regain control. Tires spun, hurling corn and mud, and then caught. The truck surged deeper into the woods, angling slowly back toward the road, where he was positive they could outrun the massive creatures, which would eventually tire and slow.
He glanced in the rearview again. A huge, ugly face with horrible eyes greeted him. It had a flaring, runny nose that sprayed like old faithful with each breath. The truck was seconds away from being struck from behind. The vehicle could take the hit, but it could knock them off course, sending them into a tree.
Peter searched for a solution and found it thirty feet ahead. He turned slightly without slowing, careful to keep the monster close behind him. A large tree emerged from the corn, directly ahead, its wide-spread roots fighting off the encroaching corn. But Peter was ready for it and gave the wheel just enough of a spin to narrowly avoid the obstacle. Thick roots sent the truck bouncing erratically, but they passed safely by.
The monster that had been following close behind dug its thick, stout legs into the soil, but it was too little too late. The long face careened into the immovable tree, crushed flat by the force of the collision. The rider, a hairy naked male, was flung forward, striking the tree head on, his legs and thick arms splaying out to the sides like one of those Halloween witch decorations. A second creature, following too close, rammed into the backside of the first, impaling it with the long, splayed horn. The rider was flung, but held onto the reins and arced back to the ground, while the beast tried, and failed, to withdraw its horn from its now-dead companion’s ass. Four more of the monsters rounded the scene and continued the pursuit.
Weaving back and forth, the speedometer showing a steady and reckless 40 mph, Peter carved a frantic path back toward the road. He could see a clearing ahead, stretching north and south—a band free of trees and corn.
He lined up a straight shot, ready to steer hard right and race away.
There was a slap on the back window, quickly followed by a muffled shout. He glanced back and saw Ella, her face bloodied. “We lost Jakob!”
“What!” Peter’s mind rewound the past few minutes, since they left the gas station. He couldn’t figure out when they had lost him.
“At the gas station!” Ella shouted, providing the answer.
Distracted by the news, Peter reacted to their return to the road a moment too late. The truck jounced up onto the road, spinning, shrieking and stopping, its rear end halfway off the road on the opposite side.
Peter shook his head, trying to recover from the vicious spin and impact. The blood dripping down his face was hot and irritating, smearing his vision.
, he thought,
need to get back—
But it was too late. Corn and trees peeled away as the four creatures pursuing them calmly stepped out of the forest, surrounding the truck’s front end. The riders on their backs looked smug and confident, chins lifted up. Noble savages.
Peter considered reversing into the forest, but the steering and seeing would be a nightmare. They’d be caught in seconds.
So what then?
, he thought.
Maybe not like people, but smart enough to ambush prey. They could have attacked the church, but didn’t. They chose to wait until they had the advantage
. He looked at their arrogant faces. He couldn’t tell whether the long, exposed teeth were a grin, but he sensed pride in their gazes.
Peter picked up the knife from the passenger’s seat and slid it back into the sheath. He yanked the door handle and shoved it open with his foot, sliding out of the truck.
“What are you doing?” Ella hissed.
“Just be ready with the shotgun if this doesn’t work,” he replied.
“If what doesn’t work?”
“Domesticated animals require direction,” he said. “I’m going to remove theirs.” He stepped out around the door, leaving it open, the engine still running.
The four riders looked confused by his bold actions, their confidence floundering for a brief moment. Then Peter pointed at one of the ExoGenetic men, his eyes challenging. The four riders chuffed with what sounded like laughter, and the singled-out male leapt down from his mount with little effort.
Strong, intelligent and agile,
Peter thought, watching the freed rhino-thing relax and sit on its haunches,
but not street-smart.
Peter held his ground as the once-man charged, shouting, “Oufinarg!”
I’m coming Jakob.
Just stay alive.
I’ll be with you soon.
All of Peter’s CSO training came back as muscle memory, his body reacting without a need for thought. He side stepped the attack, avoiding the outstretched claws that would fillet his flesh. He caught the creature’s left hand bending it back, sharp and fast, cracking the wrist, but more importantly, stretching and exposing the skin underneath. With a quick swipe, he yanked the knife from his belt, pulled it across the wrist and followed the cut with a quick jab to the side of the neck.
The whole attack and counterattack took a single second.
Peter stepped back, unharmed.
The ExoGen man stumbled, looking confused. He turned toward Peter, the fight in his eyes slowly draining, along with his blood. The man’s brows furrowed low enough to be impaled by the long, sharp, lower teeth extending upward. He lifted a hand to his spurting neck, his slit wrist adding fluid to the bloody fountain. Then his eyes rolled back and he fell to the road with a thud.
The dead man’s mount didn’t flinch. It stayed seated, looking dimwitted.
They might be predatory,
but they’re used to being fed, or led on a hunt. They no longer think for themselves.
The other three riders reacted to their compatriot’s death just as Peter had hoped they would. Rather than stomping him to a pulp with their mammoth rides, all three jumped down, hooting and hollering, ready to finish what the first had failed to accomplish. And this was where things got dicey. Taking on a physically superior fighter was simple one-on-one. In a group, not so much. One mistake and they could crush his skull or tear his arm off. They made it harder by running in a tight, single-file line. He couldn’t see beyond the first, and even if he managed to kill the first, the other two would just bowl them all over.
Luckily, he wasn’t alone.
The shotgun boomed, drowning out Peter’s shout and reshaping the lead man’s head into something resembling a waning moon. As the first rider fell, Peter caught sight of the second, his eyes widening with surprise, too stunned to react. Peter lunged to meet him, thrusting the knife up under the creature’s chin, through the roof of his mouth and into his brain. The man collapsed in a heap, as the shotgun roared again. Peter landed on his feet, bloody knife in hand. The third attacker slid to a stop at his feet, its neck sheared away, save for the spine. The body twitched madly, the legs still trying to run, and then it fell still.
Peter eyed the rider-less beasts. They returned his gaze, more curious than incensed. One by one, they sat, waiting for their dead riders to return and direct them. No longer fearing the giants, Peter ran to the car, jumped behind the wheel and hit the gas, passing the stationary steeds. The door flung closed on its own, and with a screech of tires, Peter headed back toward the gas station, and he hoped, his son.