November 1, 2015
A dream after the end of the anthropocene. Civilization has collapsed and mankind lives like rats in the bones of cities.
I find myself in a stone castle, a vanity fortress built by an obscenely rich man. His bones lie unburied and scattered in the yard. Did I kill him? No. Do I care that he was dragged from this home and murdered in front of his family? Not one bit.
The stone halls are sterile and cold, what glass occupied the narrow slits long ago shattered by marauders. In the beginning they came in droves–roving bands of the desperate, the crazed, the ones driven mad by the brutal cost of survival.
Attacks are less frequent now, winter’s cold and starvation doing most of the work for us. But for years, it was bad. I did things. Things that taught me how to win, how to endure, how to protect what is mine. There’s strength in these arms I never had before, a hardness that was honed to cut through anyone who would try to kill and steal. But when I look on the bleached bones in the courtyard, I’m reminded I can’t live long enough to undo what I’ve done. Just a matter of time before the past catches up and I meet the same ignoble end.
Decades after the collapse I serve a larger purpose. Drawn to the safety and shelter I had hacked from the wilderness, people built a community around me. I’m not their leader, as such. I make their hard choices. Spare them the pangs of conscience and the horrors of memory. Though they dread my gaze, they are grateful I will do the things they cannot.
Right now, I’m training assassins. Early on I realized if a group is plotting your demise, there’s usually one person calling the shots. Grease that prick and the group melts. Infighting, confusion can bust up an assault before it comes and there’s no need to waste people or bullets. Few enough of either these days. So I take the young ones, ones I can mold, shape, and grind and I turn them into razors.
This sort of training takes an emotional toll, especially on the ones who can’t hack it. So I save the bloodier parts until the end and start every candidate with a useful skill…a skill that won’t leave them haunted, staring up at the ceiling every night. Today, we work on stealth.
I’m stalking a girl through these cold castle halls. Others, I found easily. They don’t get it yet, don’t see the importance of remaining invisible. Spoiled by doting, loving parents who aren’t old enough to recall how bad it once was, how bad it could be again. I gave them back to their parents without damage or disgrace. This girl, though, I’ve searched through every room, hall, and closet. At only thirteen years of age, she gets it.
I descend a stairway and emerge into a bare room with shallow recesses on each side of the steps. Sunlight streams in through window slits, diffuses off the pale gray flagstones, and splashes the walls and ceiling. I look left and right, seeing nothing but the room I’m in. I wait and listen. No sound but the whistle of late Autumn wind. But I know she’s here.
I point to my right and tell her to come out. No movement. Good.
I finish descending the steps, keeping my eyes on the shallow recess to my right, and I find her squished into the nearest corner. Arms over head, standing on tip toes, breath held. She managed to fit herself into a nook only six inches deep. Already, she has learned a bright room lures a victim into confidence, and she fit herself into a space no one would believe a person could fit. And she didn’t give herself away when I called her out.
This is the one.
She knows herself, feels her environment and where she belongs in it. The predator spirit is in her. In time, she will bring death as swift and inevitable as a force of nature. For now I congratulate her on eluding me, tell her what she did well, and that it was only her thudding heart that told me where to look. That, too, can be controlled.
I patrol the woods most nights. That’s when they come, usually, and it’s been years since I’ve been able to sleep without startling at every bump or snapping twig. Never been able to trust anyone else to keep an all night watch, either, so the black watch has become a habit.
The forest is peaceful at night. Cool Fall air. Nocturnal creatures hoot and call to one another. Lonely souls. It’s a pleasant break from the petty complaints back at the compound. Or it would be, at least, if I could figure out where all the larger game was going. I find deer sign, tracks that end suddenly. No fur, no blood, no sign of a kill. But the emptiness of these woods means something is driving them off, or killing them off. I mean to find out.
The following day, I set off before sunset with a long blade and the clothes on my back. I’ll forage what I need, even if it means pigeon and squirrel. And with bullets so rare, firearms only get in the way now. The people are anxious I’m leaving, but they’ll have to stand on their own someday. Might as well start today.
The fallen leaves are still pliant, bright with color. Makes it easier to move quietly. From the cloudless sky, it’s going to be a clear, cool night. New moon. Will be as dark as it gets.
I trek out past my typical range. There are animal signs, infrequent. Not a matter of local over hunting. This is something systemic.
There’s a bridge over a dry riverbed ahead. The road connecting it on each end has long since been covered by downed leaves and overgrown foliage, but the span is clear. Only a few spots of rust cut the green paint.
When I walk beneath, I feel an instant menace above. Looking up, I see only hints of the structure, but something is there. I feel it’s stare and that’s all. No breath, no pulse, no feeling of life. If not for the last few rays of sun filtering through the branches, it might have had me.
I point up at it, telling it without words I know it’s there, and back out the way I came.
No wind in trees. Stillness like I’m inside some kind of enormous terrarium. Where are the night birds? The frogs and crickets?
Meters away, a rustle in the leaves. A wet grunt of something dropping to the ground and the squeak of a small thing dying. In the dim starlight I can see a patch of black squatting on the leaves. Crunching of tiny bones in its mouth.
I pull my blade and test my grip when all my hairs stand on end. Behind me.
I leap to one side as something dives out of the trees and crashes where I stood. I hack at it, but the blade bounces off overlapping scales.
Another races from around an old oak trunk. Black from head to foot, running on toes, hands extended like raptor claws. I sidestep and jam the blade upward. It slides under a scaly plate, slips between ribs, and cleaves the heart.
I rip the blade free and whirl to face two more, just dodging pointed claws and a lunging bite. With a backhand swing, I lodge my blade under a collar plate and yank it back, cutting to the vertebrae. Cold spray on face and arms. It falls.
The last is gone. Fled. I pivot, peering into the boughs, still on the balls of my feet, blade raised with cold dark blood running over my hand. Silence.
At my feet sprawls something reptilian, something humanoid, something neither. Something its own mother would reject. A wide, elongated jaw is thickly planted with translucent needle teeth. Its thin tongue lolls, too long to fit inside the mouth. Even in death, its leer is hideous.
Surprised to find it has a tail. Too short for balance, too thin to be prehensile. It looks like something vestigial. A throwback of de-evoloution. With my boot, I turn its bald, earless head then stand on its cheek. Blade in hand, I chop the rest of the way through the neck so I can tote the head back. The others, they won’t want to know about these things, but they’ll have to.
I’m not the only one who ranges the wilds, of course. I couldn’t possibly provide for everyone on my own. Besides, assassins make good scouts. Even the ones who couldn’t go all the way through the training know how to move without being seen. They make good eyes in our woods. And that’s becoming more and more important as time goes on.
We’ve picked the bones of our neighborhood clean, which means we have to range farther each year for the rare supplies. Even though we have some crops to keep us going, we depend on game to keep us healthy. If it doesn’t return, we may have to leave this fortress.
Until then, we push out into surrounding towns, cautiously entering buildings and homes, turning over rusty tin cans with labels long since degraded away. Almost every can I pierce oozes rotten slime. Sometimes I get lucky and find a can of peaches or green beans. Too few to cart back, so I gulp them down for safest keeping.
Everything in plastic has been chewed through by rodents and roaches. Entire pallets of grains. Store aisles of cereals and pasta. Heart breaking.
Found a box of shotgun shells. Only one of them hadn’t been nibbled, but all the brass was shiny, at least. Decided to cart the whole pack.
Most of the homes in this town are flooded in a couple feet of scummy green water. Algae and vines climb vinyl siding up to sagging shingle roofs, as though some bog monster is pulling them all down in slow motion. There could be treasures in the upper floors, but the structure below is guaranteed rot. Just opening the front door is enough to collapse them sometimes. Found that out the hard way and caught a few rusty nails for my trouble. Left scars, though i’d be hard-pressed to remember which. Got plenty these days.
A structurally sound house can be even more dangerous. Never know what or who has taken residence. Manners come in handy. Say, I’m sorry, and just back away. Other times, I find them huddled in a corner, eyes wide, shivering. I talk to them to see what’s left of their mind. If there’s enough, I invite them to come back with me to the compound. But when I find someone surrounded by ribs and long leg bones, it’s better to just get it over with. No one comes back from cannibalism.
The house I’m inside has altogether different occupants. They look normal, aside from the slouching, plodding gait, and the cuts on their necks that leak yellow down to the waist. The first one comes at me from the kitchen pantry, drooling, moaning like a zombie. Cloudy eyes, ashen skin, dark teeth. I grab a chef’s knife from the block and zip it across its throat. The person falls, gurgling, but there’s no blood, just more yellow ooze.
Others shuffle in from the garage, more from the living room and dining room. Exits blocked. I slash through neck after neck until the floor becomes a shifting mass of bodies underfoot. Hard to stand.
Vault over the counter top to the breakfast nook and onto clean linoleum. Only then does it occur to me that this house was, until recently, maintained. These people, whatever happened to them, couldn’t have been any more than a week earlier. If only I’d been sooner…
Another lurches at me. I grip it by a pate of oily hair, haul back, slit the throat, and drop it. Glance over the shoulder…open ground beyond the window behind me. An escape route…
Another shuffles near, and I nearly slice but for the words written on the shirt:
Help me, I’m not one of them!
I look up at the face, and I see his eyes are clear, wide with fear. I elbow him aside and carve through the last two shuffling at me.
The man is tall, slim, early forties. Tells me he’d been living with this group a while. Then some things came at night. While the rest were outside around a cooking fire, he had gone inside for his coat. There were screams, and he went to the second floor window. Outside, scaly black creatures tackled his friends, bit them at the neck and drained them until they went rigid. Too scared to move, he hid upstairs.
The next morning, he looked out the window. His friends were not there. Movement downstairs made him wonder if he had dreamt it all so he started toward the stairs when he opted for caution, just in case. From the top of the staircase, he peeked down. Saw his friends shuffling around, bleeding bile yellow from the bites at their throats.
Hunger made him desperate. He dropped a piece of paper to the first floor with a written message, something with big bold letters they couldn’t miss. His friends shuffled right over it without a second glance. Only movement excited their attention, like mice, squirrels, birds. But they ignored each other. So the man decided he would try to blend in with them so he could get to the food in the kitchen downstairs.
He figured worst case they’d only last a week without food or water, since they never seemed to take any. But they showed no signs of weakening. Worse, yet, those black scaly things were out there somewhere. At least in here, he could hide and still get to the food supply. Someday, he would have to break out, he knew, but until then, he wrote a message on his shirt in case anyone happened upon him. Said he was a nurse once upon a time and he’d be glad to help any way he could.
I’ve always got a place for useful people. So I hand him my pack and tell him to fill it with anything he wants to take, because he’s coming back to the compound with me. All smiles, no hesitation.
One of the scouts said she heard a burglar alarm going off in a neighborhood far to the North-East. She marked a map for me.
A burglar alarm means two things for certain: there’s power, even if it’s only batteries, and there’s something worth protecting. The down side is lots of things can hear. Who knows what the alarm’s attracted? This one’s going to be dangerous, so I’m going alone.
The trip out is uneventful. Finding the town is easy enough, and I pick a high point to scope out the objective. The house was right where it was marked. The alarm even rang three times in confirmation. That bothers me. Is that a call for help? Or a trap? I assume the latter and wait for nightfall.
Threading my way through town. Careful. Crouch, listen, and creep. The home is in good repair. Dry. Solid construction from a well-to-do family. Solar panels on the roof. We’ll need a crew to cart them off, but definitely coming back for those.
Getting all the indicators this place is lived in. Not just recently, I mean right now. With all this tech on the outside, chances are good there’s more inside. And the only reason it’s still here is because they’ve probably got the weapons to keep it. Have to check it out, but not going to come off as some common scav. Gotta find out about the alarm, first.
The immediate surroundings are too quiet, especially considering the alarm just blasted a few hours ago. No movement that I can see. Damned strange.
I approach the house, expecting booby traps, pits, and trip wires. Probing with a screwdriver in the dirt ahead as I crawl, looking for claymores, mines. Takes me all damn night. Found nothing.
Waiting in some overgrown shrubs across the street. The house looks fucking new. Undefended. No guards. Shades pulled over every window. Hell, even the brass knocker on the front door is shiny. This ain’t right.
Time for manners.
After checking under the porch for explosives or pressure plates, I go up to the front door and rap my knuckles against it.
“May I come in?” I ask.
An electronic deadbolt clicks and multiple bolts slide aside.
“Thank you,” I say, knowing there’s an unseen microphone somewhere.
I test the door handle with the back of my hand. Not electrified. I grip the knob only at the edge, fearful a poison dart might shoot out of the keyhole. The knob turns. The heavy door swings on oiled hinges.
Inside are urethaned hardwood floors, no tracks or dust. Oriental rugs, not the cheap kind, either. Mahogany handrails leading up polished wood stairs. But no lights on.
I close the door and listen while my eyes adjust. Nearly silent, save the background whoosh of central air. And I notice a freshness, like laundry. Immediate transport back to times before…before an X-class solar flare smashed the feeble data and power networks we’d built and sent aurora as far south as the Carolinas. Without the strands of digital money society collapsed, and the only things that had worth were what you could hold in your hands. If you couldn’t hold onto it, too bad. I watched the mobs for a while, then, once I’d already lost too much, I started taking back.
Here, in this place, the weight of lives strangled, crushed, and bludgeoned lands full on my shoulders. Such civilized normalcy throws the barbarism of my life into sharp relief. I swore I’d never look back on those times. One of many things I promised myself I’d never do.
The hallway ahead of me leads to a furnished kitchen. Tempted to raise the shades and let some light in, but this isn’t my home. Not my rules. So I feel around instead. Beyond the kitchen, the darkness is total. Not gonna let myself blunder into something. No choice but to pull out my flashlight.
Family photos along this hallway. Dignified, well-dressed couple, the man many years older than the woman. Jewelry of gold and platinum. A diamond on her hand of at least three karats. In the light it must’ve shined like Venus.
Another staircase ahead. Not as grand as the one at the entrance. Simple and functional with oriental rugs tacked to each step. I risk it, hoping the home will be as free of traps inside as it was outside. No creaks. Solid.
I shine the light behind me, always watching for someone sneaking up. No one there. So I continue down the second floor hallway. Bedrooms in this wing. Master bedroom, guest room. Kid’s rooms, one blue, one green. A linen closet stuffed full of clean white towels. Nothing to see here.
Back downstairs. Past a study, past a living room with large flat panel TV and electrostatic speakers. Deep couches that shame my cot back home. Another office with real walnut desk. A craft room/studio.
Behind a simple interior door, stairs leading down. Painted steps, no attempt at decorating the stairwell. Heading down to a basement…
The stairs bend near the bottom and I stoop under drop ceiling of a basement apartment. Hand-me-down couch, CRT TV, old punk rock posters and banged-up sports equipment. The bedroom is rammed with toys, so full there were no walls visible, just cabinet after cabinet overflowing with stuffed animals, model airplanes, robots, spaceships, and action figures. Really wanted to flick the lights on and look around. Not ready to disturb the setting, though. Not yet. But there is something important in this room, I know it.
About to leave the toy filled room when I notice a wider gap between the bed and the wall beside it than is necessary. I check the mattress for knives, or devices, then carefully place a knee on it. It creaks with old metal springs. Leaning over, I shine my light into the gap. Swaddled there is a baby, asleep.
This is why I’m here…
I pull the bed away from the wall so I can pick up the child. He’s warm. Borderline malnourished, but all right.
I rig my jacket into a kind of sling, leaving my hands free, and it occurs to me if his parents came home right now it would be impossible to explain. I am packing up someone else’s child. To me, it’s rescue. To them, it would be kidnapping.
With the boy snugged into the coat, I leave the room and immediately notice an orange glow at the far end of the basement. It wasn’t there before. It flickers gently, and I catch a whiff of smoke. The scent isn’t heavy, telling me this isn’t the smoldering start of a new fire. This one has been going for a while. It also tells me that glow must be coming from a door that just opened.
I creep toward it and find a false outer door meant to hide a heavy vault door, both of which are ajar. This is a safe room.
Through the crack, I spy a scene in foul contrast to the rest of the home. Grungy men dangle from the left cinderblock wall, crucified by meat hooks through their forearms. Their heads loll against their bare chests. Greasy brown bones are scattered at their feet. Long leg bones and ribs…
“These men came to take,” rasps a female voice just out of sight to the right. “They came to kill and steal. You’re not like them, are you?”
I look down at the child in my coat, think about it, and answer, “No, not anymore.”
A glimpse of movement in the room, something scaly and black.
“I saw your caution on the way in,” the voice says, “the way you sneak like a snake in tall grass. Someone doesn’t live to your old age without slitting throats. But you still remember the times before. You knocked and asked permission. No one does that anymore.”
There is a long hiss of dried flesh being stripped from bone.
“They came at night,” the raspy voice continues, “all fangs and claws. Got my husband. Two of my sons. I thought I had gotten away with my third.”
Snapping of jaws, clomping bites, and a deep gulp.
“Some they bleed. Others they eat. Depends on the hunger, as I’m finding out. I tried to hold out a long time. But, you see, if they sting you, you become one of them.”
A metal chair screeches against the concrete floor and a meatless arm bone is hurtled at the men on the wall. Their heads lift in terror, and they all blubber in pointless pleas.
“I HATE these men for making it so easy to succumb to these instincts,” the voice explains. “Now, I fear there will be a time when even my own son is not safe from me.”
“I can take him to my people,” I say. “I can nourish him, raise him, teach him to be strong. And I can remind him every day how much his mother loved him.”
Another gulp and a sniff.
“I’ve found the right man, then.” She exhales a held breath. “I want to see him. But I don’t trust myself.”
“He’s beautiful,” I say, “exactly how you remember him.”
She gasps, then, on the verge of tears, screams with rage, “GET HIM OUT OF HERE, NOW!”
“Yes, ma’am. I hope something of you remains, so you can admire the man he will become.”
With her precious parcel, I returned to my people, and told of what I had seen. All except the end, and how the captured men were made to scream.