Read Hunger (The Hunger Series Book 1) Online

Authors: Jeremiah Knight

Tags: #Action & Adventure

Hunger (The Hunger Series Book 1) (2 page)

 

 

2

 

Five Years Later

 

“Sometimes I hate my life,” Kevin Travis said, as he looked through his pair of forward-looking infrared (FLIR), thermal binoculars. He tracked a blob of heat moving through the field. From a distance, it looked like one massive organism, but he knew the truth, even before zooming in. They moved like a shoal of fish, shifting one way and then the other, all following the few individuals in the lead. They would stop to feast on the endless sea of food before moving on, sometimes sticking to the wilderness, but most often heading back to where they were most comfortable: the city.

“Could be worse,” his understudy, Cliff Foster, said. Foster was a glass-half-full kind of guy, but that was just because he’d only been on the job for a few weeks. Travis had been at it, waging a war no one would ever see or know about—if everything went right—for the last three years. And every year, he lost ground, just like the hundreds of other exterminators now in the employ of ExoGen.

At least it pays well
, Travis thought, focusing on the blob’s head. He zeroed in on a single target and confirmed its identity.

A rat.

There were more than a thousand of them.

In the years following what was now called the Farm Bomb, several things had happened. ExoGen’s aggressive GMO crops—more than two hundred varieties of fruits, vegetables, fungi and legumes—had spread across the country, and then the world. The plants grew everywhere there wasn’t pavement, concrete or steel. The company had been the target of countless lawsuits, first from competitors, and then from land owners and governments. But that had stopped when it had become clear that ExoGen had solved one of humanity’s impending humanitarian crises before it began.

Hunger was no more. No one would ever starve again.

That was when the counter-suits began, and thanks to the legislature already passed and the lawsuits against farmers already won by Sancio, anyone who grew and ate ExoGen’s food—everyone—owed them a small monthly fee. The company kept the payments low so that even the poorest people could afford it, and ExoGen quickly became the most powerful corporation in the world. After the food problem, they tackled fossil fuels, their endless corn and sugarcane crops making ethanol production efficient and cheap. While all farms and seed companies were put out of business, their skilled laborers were absorbed into ExoGen and were paid better than they had been before. Few people complained. The world had been remade into a prosperous place for everyone and everything.

Animal populations boomed.

At first, this was seen as a drawback because vehicle collisions increased, but then the federal government removed the hunting season restrictions. Every day of the year was fair game for prey animals. And a year later, when the predator population increased, all animals became targets. As a result, a large number of people went off the grid, living solitary lives in the woods, surrounded by endless food.

But there were still some problems no one wanted to face. Like rats. Who hunted rats? No one. Unless they were paid for it, like Travis and Foster.

“I think it’s fun,” Foster said. “Aside from the military, where else can you get paid to throw grenades and use flamethrowers?”

“The military doesn’t use flamethrowers anymore,” Travis said, lowering the FLIR binoculars. He glanced at Foster with a grin. “Though you do make a good point.”

“Hell yes, I do.” Foster pulled a shock grenade from his vest. The device wasn’t designed to kill rats, though the overpressure wave would certainly kill those closest to the device. Its primary function was to knock the rodents unconscious. For a group this large, they’d probably have to lob four grenades in an even spread. Some of the critters would probably escape, but most would fall to the ground, motionless if not lifeless, and that’s when it would be time to move in with the flamethrowers. The surrounding crop would burn as well, but they had extinguishers to prevent its spread. And even if it did spread, there were large fires all the time now. A few C-130s loaded with water could be called in to douse the fire before it really got legs.

“You were in the military, weren’t you?” Foster asked. “It’s why you have the buzz cut and serious personality, yeah?”

Travis’s smile faded. He
had
been in the military. An Army Ranger. But he didn’t like to talk about it. “The new world doesn’t have much need for soldiers. Best it stays that way. Now, let’s get this done.”

He put the FLIR back up to his eyes and tracked the pack of rats through the stalks of corn. They were headed toward a patch of raspberries a hundred yards ahead, no doubt their intended meal, but the thorny brambles would make their job harder. “Let’s hit them before they—”

Travis stopped as he panned between the raspberry patch and the rodents. There was a single heat signature. A lone rabbit. While rabbits were now one of the most common animals on the planet, they rarely ventured into cities, making them a lower priority than the rats. But they were still an approved target. What was odd about this rabbit was that it was alone.

Not for long
, he thought, as the rat horde closed in.

The rabbit seemed oblivious to their approach. Or perhaps it just didn’t care? The species shared the same habitat, and there was more than enough food to go around.

He watched the rabbit lift its head, ears straight up.
It can hear them
, he thought. The rabbit hopped out of the pack’s path, but the rodents adjusted, following the hare.

“What the...?” Foster saw it, too. “Are they chasing the rabbit?”

“Rats are territorial,” Travis said, “but usually only when food is scarce. But it’s possible that—”

The rats launched themselves at the rabbit, which sprang up into the air at the last moment, avoiding the rodent cascade. It then outpaced them, running in wide circles. The tactic wouldn’t work for long, though. The rat pack was breaking up, spreading apart and flanking it.

“This is more like watching lions hunt,” Foster observed. “Rats don’t do this normally, right?”

“Not that I’ve seen.”

Travis was locked in place. He could see how it would end. The rabbit had maybe ten seconds before it was surrounded by the now loosely packed rat horde. And then what?

They’re going to kill it.

“Holy Watership Down,” Foster said, watching the scene unfold through the lines of corn stalks. They were just a hundred feet away from the action, close enough to lob their shock grenades and put an end to all of this, but they remained rooted, fixated and distracted.

And that was when everything changed.

“What’s that?” Foster asked. “On the hill.”

The flat plain, where the rats pursued the rabbit, was fringed by rolling hills topped with fruit trees. A moment before, those hills had been a cool blue in the FLIR’s thermal vision. They were now a torrent of heat, moving downward, toward the rats.

Travis zeroed in on a single heat signature, tracking it. It took just a moment to recognize the shape. Rabbits. Thousands of them. “They set a trap.”

Foster lowered his binoculars. “What?”

“The rabbits set a trap. For the rats.”

He watched through the FLIR as the horde of rats, now detecting the onrushing rabbits, changed course, heading uphill, while the solo rabbit stopped running and engaged a single rat. The two heat signatures meshed for a moment, wriggling and twitching, and then, a hot red spray of blood burst into the air, followed by the first rabbit, as it launched itself into the fray.

The two lines of small furry mammals collided like two medieval armies, hacking and slashing, killing and maiming.

Travis lowered the FLIR. He couldn’t watch. There was something unsettling about this behavior. Rats and rabbits didn’t wage wars on each other. They didn’t use the hunting tactics of lions or wolves. “This is bad,” he said.

Foster was still watching the fight, a smile on his face. “This is
awesome
.”

“You don’t understand,” Travis said. “They shouldn’t be acting this way. Something is wrong.”

“All I know is that they’re doing our job for us in the most entertaining way. This is something I can tell my kids about. Hell, this is something I can tell my grandkids!”

Travis was about to switch on his phone and call it in, when he heard a hiss. He recognized the sound. You couldn’t move through a corn field without the large dry leaves rattling against your body. But it was the volume that was strange.

He looked behind them and saw nothing but corn. “Foster, who’s winning the fight?”

“Looks like a draw so far. Man, so much blood.”

Travis put the FLIR to his eyes and looked behind them again. Fifty feet away, the base of the cool field was lined with a writhing mass of heat closing in on them, and on the rats, from the far side. The rabbits had flanked them.

“Foster!” Travis shouted, getting to his feet.

The younger man spun around, FLIR to his eyes, and saw the rabbits swarming toward them. “Oh, fu—”

He fumbled with the shock grenade in his hand, pulling the pin and cocking his arm back to throw it. It wasn’t a bad strategy. The concussion might have given them time to get out of the small army’s path...if he’d thrown it just a few seconds sooner. The first of the rabbits to reach them launched itself in the air, landing on Foster’s chest and burying its long incisors in his neck.

A flash of
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
shot into Travis’s mind, but it was wiped clear when the dropped shock grenade detonated. The blast instantly killed Foster, liquefying his insides. But Travis, who had begun to run, was simply knocked to the ground, unconscious.

He woke, five minutes later, his body wracked by unimaginable pain. Shock set in quickly, numbing his agony, but fogging his mind. He tried to stand, but couldn’t.

What’s wrong with me?

He remembered the grenade. Had the pressure wave snapped his back? He tried moving his arms to his pocket and the phone, but he couldn’t feel either limb. With rising anxiety about being paralyzed, he lifted his head and looked down.

“Oh no... Oh, God, no...”

The rabbits feasting on his gut looked up, their muzzles coated in blood and bits of his entrails. Beyond them he saw his legs, gnawed down to the bones.

One of the rabbits stepped onto his chest, its white fur coated in blood, its red eyes gleaming with menace. Its nose twitched a few times, and Travis remembered a time, as a kid, watching a rabbit’s nose and thinking it was the most adorable thing he’d seen. Then the rabbit pounced, landing atop his face, muffling his scream and feasting on his nose.

 

 

3

 

One Year Later

 

Bacon sizzled in a black, cast iron pan. A whole pound of it. The sweet and salty scent filled the small, two-bedroom apartment. Dressed in overly tight sweatpants with the word ‘Juicy’ across her backside, Jenn Waters danced back and forth, humming a tune of her own creation. Her tightly pulled-back pony tail swished back and forth. She watched the twitching, pink and white, marbled meat, leaning her face over the particles of steam rising up, absorbing it.

Until six months previous, she’d been a vegetarian. Not because meat disgusted her, but because of the way animals were treated—kept in crates, force fed antibiotic-laced food and abused in ways that no civilized world should tolerate. But then, literally overnight, her taste for meat overpowered her revulsion.

There had never been a better time to be a vegetarian. The world was overflowing with food, and for years, she had devoured her fair share of the crops, happily paying her $8 a month fee to ExoGen. But now...it was like that saying: too much of a good thing. In high school, she’d been obsessed with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Ate it every morning for breakfast, for nearly four years. Until one day the smell of it made her gag. She couldn’t even eat real cinnamon toast. That was how she saw fruit and vegetables now. Not quite as repulsive, but if she was going to even consider eating a green bean or apple, there’d better be a steak next to it. Rare, thank you very much.

Lost in thought, she let out a whispered curse when she saw the bacon start to crisp. Like her steaks, she liked her bacon chewy and meaty. If bacteria weren’t a real concern, she might even try it raw. But she knew better, even though there were few smells more intoxicating to her now than a freshly opened package of ground beef.

She turned off the stove and plucked the wriggling bacon from the pan, depositing the slices onto a plate. She then poured the hot grease over the top. Later, when it congealed, she’d scrape the plate with a fork, leaving nothing behind.

With the crackling bacon silenced, she could hear the TV again. The shouting voice of some newscaster instantly set her nerves on edge.

“You left the TV on!” She picked up a slice of bacon, almost too hot to hold, and put it in her mouth, slurping the long strand inside and licking the grease from her lips. She chewed and chewed, letting out a moan of delight. How she had been a vegetarian for so long she’d never know. There were few things in this world more pleasurable than animal fat.

After swallowing, she shouted, “Hey asshole! The TV!”

When no reply came, she gripped the kitchen counter and squeezed. Logically, she knew this wasn’t a big deal, but it was just one of many recent irritations. Tony, her boyfriend, was really getting under her skin. They’d been fighting all month. In fact, she’d been bickering with most everyone she knew. The world had become full of assholes, but chief among them was Tony.

When she let go of the island, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. If Tony didn’t shut that damn TV off, she was going to crack him over the head with the cast iron pan.
One good whack, and he’ll shut the hell up forever
. She looked at the pan, considering it, but then realized there would be cool grease to eat later on, if she let it be.

Consoled by this knowledge, she picked up the plate with her pound of bacon and stepped out of the kitchen and into the living room. Tony was nowhere in sight. He wasn’t even watching the damn thing. “Tony!”

Silence.

“So help me God, Tony, if you don’t—”

The images on screen caught her attention. Two men fighting. But there was something off about it. This wasn’t news footage of a brawl or a foiled burglary—this was happening in studio. She recognized the two men. One was the morning host along with a woman who wasn’t on camera at the moment. The other man was the weatherman. And they weren’t just trading punches like most men fought, they were tearing into each other, clawing, biting, drawing blood.

A smile spread across her bacon juice-laced lips. “This is more like it.”

She sat on the edge of the couch, slurping up long strands of bacon, reveling in the twin guilty pleasures of meat and violence.

Some distant and quiet part of her mind thought,
Who am I?
How did I get like this?
But then the weatherman bit off the host’s finger. Blood sprayed. The host cocked his head back and screamed in pain. And then...the weatherman swallowed.

Oh my God, he ate that guy’s finger!

She wondered how it tasted, and then she shoved more bacon in her mouth.

Then the host kicked himself free and caught the weatherman with a right cross that shattered his nose. She stood up. “Kick his ass!”

As the weatherman reeled back, the host picked up a laptop computer, yanked it from its cord and then brought it down on the stunned weatherman’s bloody head. The force of the blow broke the laptop in two at the joint. Keyboard keys launched into the air.

Waters took a handful of bacon, crushing it between her fingers before shoving the mass of flesh into her mouth. She chewed, moaning, swaying back and forth, waiting to see what would happen next.

The host let the laptop fall to the floor and stood over the weatherman. He seemed confused or stunned.

Probably because he’s missing a finger
, she thought, but then she understood what held the man in place.

Indecision.

“Do it!” she shouted at the TV, a chunk of bacon slipping out only to be slurped back in. “Freaking eat him!”

The host dropped to his knees, lifted the weatherman’s arm. He looked it over the way one might select a steak from the butcher’s. Then he opened his mouth and—a woman dressed in a blood-soaked power suit ran into the frame, dive-tackling the host.

Waters flinched back in surprise.

The woman’s face was covered in thick, tacky blood. A tendril of gore—meat dangling from connective tissue, hung from between her teeth. With a primal roar, the woman dove for the host’s jugular, biting deep, unleashing a spray of thirst-quenching blood.

That was when the power went out.

“What. The. Fuck!” Waters screamed at no one and everyone. She nearly threw the plate, but noticed the few remaining bacon slices. Energized by the carnage she’d just witnessed, she shoved the remaining bacon in her mouth, swallowed without chewing and then licked the cooling fat from the plate with fervent urgency, like it might suddenly disappear. When she was done, the rage and a new kind of hunger, returned.

She screamed and flung the plate. It struck the living room window, shattering it, letting in the sounds of the city.

Sirens blared.

Tires screeched.

People screamed.

A high-pitched wail rose up from the street below. She ran to the window and looked down. Two men were in the street. The man on top tore at the man below, while a pool of blood formed around them.

She recognized the man on top. “Tony!”

“Fuck off!” he shouted back.

“The fuck did you just say?” Her voice became shrill. Tony did
not
talk to her like that. He didn’t dare.

Tony never turned around, but lifted one hand back behind his head and flipped her off.

He’s dead
, she thought, and she charged to the apartment door. In the hallway, she could hear other arguments under way. A crash from above tugged at her interest, but—

Tony...that asshole
.

He was going to pay for talking to her like that. She took the stairs two at a time, never thinking twice about the fact that she was barefoot, wearing ‘Juicy’ pants and a tight tank top with no bra. She hit the lower landing, and without losing her stride, she pushed through the front door.

She could sense chaos around her. The world coming undone. But she remained solely focused on her prey.

“Tony,” she said, following up the word with something close to a growl.

Her boyfriend didn’t reply. Instead, his six-foot, muscular form, worked over the dead man beneath him. When his hands came up clutching coils of intestine, she didn’t flinch. Didn’t slow. Instead, she hooked her fingers, only casually noticing that her fake nails had fallen away to be replaced by longer, thicker, black talons.

“Baby,” she said, looking at his muscular arm, licking her lips. “Don’t you ever—”

Tony dove forward with surprising speed and agility. He rolled over, spun around, low to the ground, on his hands and feet. His face was covered in chunky gore. He hissed at her, circling the dead body.

“It’s mine,” he said, glancing at the body.

“I don’t want it,” she replied, moving around the body, hunched forward, ready to spring.

He squinted at her, then licked his lips. He tilted his head to the side, making a show of checking out her ass. He grinned. “You
are
looking juicy, aren’t you?”

With a roar, Waters sprang forward, stepping in the dead man’s open gut to reach Tony. She lashed out her hooked fingers, lacerating her boyfriend’s cheek and then tackling him to the ground. Inhuman shrieks rose up from the pair as they rolled over the pavement, snapping jaws, scratching, gouging and eventually—for one of them—feasting.

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