They were trying to kill him.
Orrin floated in a sea of darkness, sinking ever further away from what was left of the waking world. It would be easy. The world wasn’t much to go back to: Acid rain, the ashes of North America falling like snow deep enough to swallow whole towns, failing crops, riots, starvation, and the ever-present zombie-like ravers. A lot of people had let themselves drift away, maybe too many.
The whole thing had been a fucking trap.
That idea, and the rage that went with it, drove Orrin crawling out of the darkness and back toward consciousness. His will and rage stretched taught, dragging him back to life. Every breath was wracked with pain and his body pulsed like a living bruise. Orrin cracked one eye open, the other welded shut with dried blood. The world swam around him and the smell rotting meat filled his nose. He gagged hard, lifting a swollen hand to wipe blood from his eyes. He had to get moving. Staying here meant death. He opened his eyes again, locking his gaze with the rotting eyes of a long-dead human face.
Startled, Orrin flung himself backward, crawling over piles of lumpy, decaying flesh. Bodies tumbled everywhere, the world reeling around him. The mound of bodies he was on gave way, dropping him into a shallow stream of fetid water.
He clambered backward, wedging himself against the sandy bank. He was in a long sand-filled creek bed about twelve feet across and filled with rotting corpses as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was a raver bed. Since the fall, smaller towns would lay out their dead in these long canals. The infected would gather here and feed without moving further. The rotting dead kept the town safe from the half rotten living. Oliver, one of Orrin’s men, had called it a ‘corpse eat corpse’ kinda world.
Orrin struggled to sit up, trying desperately to clear the pain from his mind so he could think. They were trying to kill him. He kept thinking it, but he didn’t know who ‘they’ were supposed to be or why they wanted to kill him. He looked down, taking stock of his injuries. His legs and hands were tied with lengths of heavy rope. He had enough slack in his legs to walk, but not enough to run. His left knee was swollen bad and pain seared his right side with every deep breath. His fingers probed the thick knot on the back of his skull and came away bloody. Someone had wanted him to be alive when the ravers came.
He blinked again, biting back on the pain and forcing himself to think. The rope binding his legs and hands was thick but old, if he had something to cut with he could… Fuck.
Orrin crawled away from the bank, stopping at the first corpse he came to. There was no telling how long the body had lain there, but the ravers had already taken most anything that could be identified as flesh. Orrin bit back on the impulse to gag and shoved the heavy rope into the corpse’ mouth, sawing his wrists back and forth. He worked fast, ripping half a dozen teeth free from the jaw before the aged rope snapped.
Orrin sat straight up, ripping the last of the rope free from his wrists. He’d been carrying something when they’d thrown him in the canal. He was sure of it. He looked around, careful not to let his head rise above the lip of the bank.
The duffel bag stood out like a sore thumb on top of the pile of rancid corpses. It was green canvas, the civilian equivalent of an old U.S. Navy sea bag. Orrin pulled it carefully down to him and unclipped the folds at the top.
Four severed heads stared up at him from the bottom of the bag: Ferretti, Oliver, Gomez, and Queen. Four of the men in his unit, at least, the makeshift unit he’d put together after the fall. Frank Oliver had been a military friend for years and had invited Orrin to his bachelor’s party at the famous Brazilian Carnival. They’d only been in the city a couple days when the asteroid hit Colorado. The resulting explosion caused a limited eruption of Yellowstone’s super volcano, limited in the way that it had only destroyed most of the U.S. The rest of the world got to slowly suffocate under ash and rain. Gomez and Queen had both been riot cops in Rio and Ferretti had started off as a journalist. They’d taken Orrin and Oliver’s offer of help without question and outfitted the whole bachelor party to help quell the rioting that had started when the ash clouds had grounded all air travel. Three months later, Rio had run out of water and the first of the ravers had started attacking neighboring towns. There hadn’t been enough left of the local governments to even try to stop those riots. Orrin had taken the survivors he trusted and gotten out of the city as fast as possible.
Orrin stared into the lifeless eyes of his people, feeling the cold rage twist in his belly. He lay the bag gently in the tepid water and crawled backward into a hollow in the bank, working to undo the knots around his ankles. He still didn’t know who wanted him dead, but he knew how they were going to make it happen now. They were sadists. They were watching. If they saw him try to rise out of the bank they’d shoot to wound, bringing the ravers down on him all the faster.
The sun was settling low over the horizon and ravers feed at sundown. Orrin hunkered low and crawled slowly along the bottom of the canal, knowing that anyone watching for him would be on high alert. When he’d gone a few hundred yards he paused, listening. The wind blew lightly across the Mexican desert but for now there was no other sound. Orrin glanced at the sun, he didn’t have long.
He tied a loop in one end of the rope and snugged it around the ankle of the nearest corpse. Ravers would eat anything but, like sharks, they preferred thrashing limbs. He strung the length of line around a pair of bodies to act as a lever and crawled back as far as the rope would allow. It wasn’t more than six feet, but if he was lucky it would be enough.
Only a few minutes later the first of the ravers dove over the rim of the canal, landing on the pile of bodies, snarling and tearing into the dead flesh. The man was maybe six feet tall, or who have been if he’d stood erect. He was bone thin, red eyed, and skittering across the ground on all fours like some mutated spider.
The next wave of the horde followed within seconds, swarming over the lip of the canal like locusts. Orrin yanked on the rope in his hand and the corpse on the other end danced like a broken puppet, drawing the attention of every snarling raver. One of them shrieked a mindless cry of hunger and pounced, tearing flesh from the arm of the body.
Orrin tensed and yanked the rope twice more, heaving against the added weight of the half dozen ravers. Maddened shrieks of hunger filled the air and Orrin dove forward, hauling himself over the rim on the opposite side of the bank. Some of the ravers shrieked and turned, racing after him like starving beasts. Orrin had run almost twenty yards before the sound of the first gunshot echoed over the cries of the ravers. The bullet tore through one of the ravers on his heel, sending it tumbling to the sand, gushing blood. The rest of the horde pounced, driven wild by the scent fresh blood.
Orrin threw himself to the sand, crawling forward on his elbows as a rain of gunfire rippled over the desert sand. The writhing wall of ravers behind him took most of the rounds, blocking Orrin from the eyes of whoever was after him. Only a few dozen yards further on the ground opened, a rock-walled crack in the sand, barely wider than he was. Orrin flung himself over the edge, scraping down the rock wall to land at a heap in the bottom.
Pain lanced through his injured knee, but Orrin bit off his grunt and forced himself up, running along the narrow crack as fast as he could. With each step the crack grew wider and more shallow until, again, Orrin was forced to crawl to stay out of view. Finally, near the bottom of the rock wall Orrin found a gap. Rocks had been shoved sideways to form a narrow opening like a massive animal burrow. A raver hole. A den where the plague ravaged shreds of humanity spent the daylight hours and dragged their meals for long term storage. Orrin skittered through the narrow opening without thought.
The stench inside the den was horrible, somehow worse even than the smell from the raver bed. Gnawed sections of bone clattered away down the narrow incline as Orrin swept them out of the way and forced himself deeper into the burrow. Every raver den had a pit, he knew, a place where the ravers threw their scraps. It was the only chance he had.
Ravers ate flesh, not clothes or supplies. Anything they couldn’t eat they tossed in a heap. They were plague riddled and savage, but not every one of them had a trash heap.
Hard packed sand crumbled away beneath him and Orrin dropped a few short feet onto the bloody pile. Orrin swore through clenched teeth, struggling to look around.
Very little light made it this far in, but after a few minutes Orrin could make out the vague outlines of items surrounding him. He crawled to the far side of the heap, putting his back away from the entrance to the burrow and started tearing his way through the meaty pile. His hands came away gooey with rotting flesh, but he forced himself to keep going. After several minutes his fingers scraped against something metal. He grabbed the rough edge and yanked, pulling a battered collapsible shovel from the bottom of the pile.
It wasn’t much, but it was definitely something. Orrin scraped filth off the old wooden handle and used the shovel to tear through the rest of the pile, praying for more: a gun, or maybe a sealed canteen.
Orrin grinned despite the pain, pulling the rot-covered holster to him. “Jackpot!”
The massive revolver was ancient and covered in sand and rotting meat, but it was loaded and the cylinder spun. The gun was probably older than he was and there was no telling whether or not it would fire, but it was better than nothing.
“Captain Viner!” A high-pitched voice sang across the sand. “Oh, Captain Viiinneerrr!”
Images flashed through Orrin’s mind and suddenly he knew who was trying to kill him.
They’d found the fat man and his entourage a few weeks prior. ‘Travelling salesman,’ the man had said. He had been nearly four hundred pounds of sweating fat, but his heavy trucks were loaded with trade goods and people. None of Orrin’s unit had liked it much, but attractive men and women were doing anything to stay fed.
The trucks had needed work, but in exchange the fat man had agreed to resupply them with food and water, and given them a ride north through the worst of the Mexican desert. Orrin’s men had tossed the question between themselves for the first hour until the trade goods they’d brought out of Argentina had drawn the attention of the whores in the truck. Orrin had abstained for the duration of the ride, chewing on the question: How the hell does someone stay that fat more than two years after the end of the world.
The answer had been more simple than he’d wanted to guess at the time. People stay fat because they have a lot to eat.
The slow sound of heavy diesel vehicles rumbled across the sand. “Captaaaaiiiinn Viiiinneeerrr…” the voice sang out again. The screeching voice reminded Orrin of an old movie, he could almost hear the rattle of glass bottles and a villainous gang member screaming, ‘Warriors, come out to play!’
Orrin pulled in a prayer-filled breath and worked the heavy revolver cylinder again. Metal ground against sand, but the hammer spring seemed strong and the cylinder locked in place. He gently lowered the hammer and tucked the pistol in his waist band, holding the shovel and crawling out of the trash heap.
He moved toward the front of the raver hole, jabbing upward with the shovel, collapsing the overhang and sealing the burrow around him. He took a final deep breath as the light died and crawled back down the slope. He could still hear the trucks rumbling in the distance, but the screeching voice was largely blocked.
The roar of the trucks grew until the ground shook around him. Sand fell from the walls and ceiling and Orrin wedged tighter against the burrow’s furthest wall. The ceiling collapsed around him as one of the diesel’s heavy tires punched through the roof of the burrow, landing hard an arm’s length from Orrin’s chest.
The massive engine roared and the diesel jerked, rocking back and forth as the driver tried to work it free. Orrin swore, curling into as small a ball as possible. With each massive heave the burrow buckled further, dumping sand over Orrin’s body. Shouts and gunfire echoed above the roar of the truck’s engine. The words were too garbled for Orrin to make out at, but the massive tire spun furiously in the loose sand until a thunderous crack drowned out all sound. The massive wheel bucked upward, catching on the lip of the cave-in and heaving the truck into the clear.
“Jesus Christ!” Orrin shouted through clenched teeth, curling tighter. The crazy bastards had used one truck to ram the other free.
Automatic weapons fire sounded nearby. Someone a few feet away was desperately pumping rounds into something, probably the horde of ravers attracted by the noise of the trucks. The massive diesel engines drown out all other sound, leaving nothing but the heavy vibrations and the weight of falling sand and stone.
* * *
Orrin woke several hours later into darkness and quiet. He lay buried in the heavy sand, breathing hot, fetid air. His head ached and the rock that had put him out still lay against the back of his head. Panic fought through him, but he clamped it down, listening intently. The massive diesels were gone, that much was obvious, but he could hear nothing else. Finally, he started to move. It must have rained while he was out. The ground was hard packed and heavy, making progress difficult, but eventually he broke the surface with the bladed shovel and lunged into free air, gasping.
It was still raining. The light droplets ran freely through the mud and sand caked against over his body and burned slightly where they touched skin. Dozens of corpses lay half buried along the sand. Ravers lay alongside soldiers, both sides riddled with bullet wounds. Orrin crawled across the sand. Each of the the soldiers had been stripped of gear and weapons, but Orrin managed to tear away several strips of cloth to wipe himself clean and rebandage his wounds.
Orrin drew the heavy revolver and considered it in the soft light. The barrel was clear, as far as he could tell, and the action seemed to work fine, but there was no way to tell if the ammunition was any good. He struggled to standing, flexing life back into his joints and wiping mud and rain from his face and beard, before limping into the night, following the tire tracks and the trail of raver bodies back toward the village.
* * *
The village was hidden on three sides by low hills that blocked both noise and firelight. The raver bed had run parallel to the largest set of hills, letting the ravers gorge themselves while keeping the village in relative safety.
Orrin slowed and turned as soon as he saw the river of shadow marking the shallow canal. He bent at the waist, trying to mimic the predatory lope of the ravers. He knew the village left spotters on the hill, but they weren’t supposed to fire unless a raver crossed the canal.
In the distance ahead of him he saw the flare of light from a cigarette lighter and let himself sink to the sand. Even over the splattering sound of rain against sand he could hear a muffled conversation and watched the cherry red glow of the cigarette bounce slowly closer.
The rain wasn’t heavy enough for thunder to cover the roar of the pistol so Orrin hefted the sturdy shovel, waiting where he was. By the time the cigarette flipped end-over-end into the dark the guards were only a few yards away. Orrin rose silently and lunged, swinging the blade of the shovel like an axe. Blood sprayed from the man’s neck as the shovel wedged itself into his spine. Orrin shoved the man backward, leaping for the second of the two guards. The smoker scrabbled for the strap of the rifle he had slung over his shoulder, but Orrin hit him first, tackling him to the ground.
The pair rolled through the sand, scrabbling for purchase until Orrin managed to yank the guard’s heavy knife free from his belt, heaving his weight against the hilt and burying it deep into the guard’s chest.
Orrin yanked the heavy knife free and stripped the guards, leaving their corpses naked in the sand for the ravers to find. He swung one of the heavy AK-47s across his back and cradled the other, jacking a fresh round into the chamber and hunting for a plan. The fat man had at least a dozen armed guards and a full hundred people in the village dependent on him for food. Orrin snarled in the night. Two heavy trucks loaded with supplies and whores. That’s what the Fat man had as his bonafides when they met. Whores the Fat man had gotten cheap because they were starving, used up, or addicted. Whores no one would ever care about missing.
Orrin crested the second set of hills and could hear one of the whores screaming against her gag. How does someone stay that fat more than two years after the end of the world? Orrin had once asked himself. After they’d gotten to the village the answer had become too abundantly clear. People stay fat when they have enough to eat.
In this village, that had meant whores.
To the Fat man they were cattle, pliable and willing cattle that could be bought with a minimum of food and vegetables, some clean water, and a few empty promises. Orrin and his men wouldn’t have even known except that a few of the villagers had gotten drunk and overzealous one night, looking for a fresh meal. Orrin’s unit had killed seven people to get out of the village alive, but the Fat man and his people had caught up two days later. The whole village had hit them out on the open desert sand.
Orrin checked the AK’s magazine. I can’t kill them all, he thought, but then, I don’t want to kill them all.
The Fat man stepped into the firelight, shirtless, holding a cleaver high as the villagers cheered him on. Behind him a pair of guards dragged a gagged woman into the clearing. The Family Dinner.
The range was a couple hundred meters. It was a long shot for an AK and Orrin hesitated, unsure. Another set of images flashed through his mind: Oliver at Carnival, Queen and Gomez laughing, Ferretti’s constant note taking, and finally the heads of all four, staring wordlessly out of a duffel bag. The rifle bucked against Orrin’s shoulder before he took another breath. Most of the rounds went wide, spilling into the surrounding crown, but at least three flew straight, blasting through the fat man and one of the guards exposed in the light.
Orrin flipped the weapon to automatic and sprayed the crowd. He didn’t expect to hit very much, but even well-trained people run from full-auto machine gun fire. When the clip ran dry he dropped the gun and threw himself off the rocky ledge, scrambling toward one of the buildings below. The people of the village exploded in chaos. Most of them swarmed the surrounding hills, looking for him until the nearest truckload of slaves pushed themselves free of their corral.
It would be a massacre as soon as the village got organized, but until then it was a nightmare. Two dozen people fought for their lives against a hungry village armed with knives. Orrin didn’t stop to watch. He raced toward the line of waiting diesels at the front of the village. Their engines were still warm, ticking over from the earlier hunt. Orrin ran toward the nearest, swinging the second assault rifle off his shoulder.
Three men ran at him out of the shadows and the heavy rifle clicked uselessly on a dud round. Orrin swore, yanking the massive revolver free and thumbing the hammer back as the first man fired. He felt the wind whistle as the bullet seared past his ear. The massive pistol roared in his hand and the heavy round knocked the guard sprawling. Orrin fired until the revolver clicked empty, the last of the three guards groaning around a belly wound on the wet sand.
Orrin hit the cab of the first diesel, cranking the key hard. The truck roared to life, jouncing forward as Orrin slammed it into gear. The last of the perimeter guards opened fire as the heavy truck trundled forward. Orrin returned fire, ripping open the action on the jammed AK and forcing another round into place. The rifle bucked wildly, spraying bullets everywhere, but it bought enough time for the truck to get up to speed. Orrin slammed through the heavy gears, roaring away into the night.