The Great Wasteland Train

THE GREAT WASTELAND TRAIN

BY ADRIAN

A magnetic levitation railway system that connected the seven seeds together. The idea seemed impossibly ludicrous. The world outside of the seeds was harsh existence and attempting to cross it required courage and a ton of money. Fast or heavily armored transportation and a whole lot of guns were needed to safely cross the wilderness. Bandits and raiders were an ever present danger. Then there were the beasts of the wastelands that some viewed as “monsters”. In order to safely lay the foundation for a train that connected the new world together, it would require hundreds or even thousands of men. Trained mercenaries would be needed to fend off outside attack and some of the sharpest engineers the world had to offer would be needed to install the track to exact specifications. Barry Jackson had none of those things.

“They’re here.” A kid in a suit came and handed Barry some paperwork. The kid was Barry’s project management assistant and tasked to keep notes on the train project. He was pale, skinny, wore glasses, and generally gave Barry a vibe that he was not a take-action kind of guy. He was a follower, not a leader. Barry vowed to change that. If this guy stuck with him, Barry would take him straight to the top. Right below Barry, of course.

“No thanks, Champ. I don’t need paperwork for a simple meet and greet.” Barry handed the folder full of papers back to the kid. He had started calling the kid “Champ” and rather liked the new nick name. The kid’s actual name was Bary, but the nickname should prevent any confusion on who was being addressed.

“Hold on just a moment.” Barry quickly took a peek at a nearby mirror to see if he looked like the boss he should be. Of course he did. A suave business suit that he took from his father, short black hair, a $200 haircut, a little bit of make-up to hide the blemishes on his face. He was good to go. The one thing that bothered him were the hairs on his chin. He had missed a few spots in the shaving process. He ran his hands over his chin and felt sparse black hairs poking through the skin, taunting him. He had tried several times to remove them, all in vain. He hoped that no one would notice. Barry turned away from the mirror and back to Champ.

“Follow me, let me show you how business meetings are done.” Barry said as he stood up and left his office. Champ followed behind him. The rest of the building was damn-near vacant and that wasn’t just because it was a Friday. Times have been hard, but Barry vowed to change all that.

Barry worked for The Solar Corporation which had long since stopped doing anything with solar energy. With ether so abundant and energy-dense there was no need for alternative fuel. At least not in the seeds anyway. Barry gradually rose through the ranks as the company fell apart around him. With the prospect of bankruptcy looming overhead Barry’s ingenious idea was finally greenlit after years of rejection. This was an opportunity to change the world. No more would the seeds be small scattered pockets of humanity. Human kind would be able to reclaim its spot at the top of the world, and Barry wanted to be there, the man who made it all happen.

Barry entered the meeting room in a way he hoped would convey authority. When he made it big he would hire someone to play music every time he entered a room. Maybe even shoot off fireworks. He would have money to burn. His boss was talking with the contractors he was meeting with today. Barry didn’t like the idea of hiring waste-landers to do the work, but they were cheaper than hiring within the seed.

 “Ah, here he is now. The man of the hour. I’d like you both to meet Barry Jackson.” His boss directed him toward the waste-lander his boss had been talking to. This waste-lander was a large-framed 6’8 man that looked like he regularly lifted weights, or possibly cows. His face was a dark tan and scarred in places. Bordering his face was a dark scruffy beard.

“Ah yes, greetings.” Barry did a slight bow and extended his hand. “You must be Mr.…” Barry blanked out for a moment. Shit! How could he have forgotten his name already?

“Burke.” His boss mentioned.

“I knew that, of course. That was a joke.” He shook the gruff man’s hand. “I gotcha didn’t I?”

“Hilarious.” The man said dryly. Barry would have to make sure to wash the hand later before touching his eyes, nose, or mouth. He wouldn’t want to catch some wasteland disease.

“Barry may be a bit…” Amazing? Awesome? Superb? “…well, he’s a good manager.” Odd way to finish that statement, but Barry would take the compliment just the same. “We have complete faith in his ability to see this project through. We’re putting everything behind him.”

Barry’s mind wandered as his boss continued to speak to the contractor whose name he had re-forgotten. He day-dreamed about the sky mansion he hoped to one day own. He could see himself with a super-model girlfriend in each arm, enjoying the fruits of his labor and occasionally dropping pennies onto the peasants in the streets below. His peers would finally be forced to respect and acknowledge him.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have another meeting to attend. I’ll leave you in Barry’s very capable hands.” Barry snapped back to reality. His boss exchanged pleasantries with the waste-landers and left the room.

“Excellent! Let’s get down to business. Please have a seat.” The two sat across from one another at a large oak table. Champ continued to stand, without any acknowledgement of his presence. “I trust you’ve been informed of the plan and the necessary arrangements have been made?”

“Yes” said the waste-lander whose name eluded Barry. Barry decided to call him Scruffy, not to his face of course. “I’ve had many meetings with a lot of executives over the past month. Why am I just now meeting you, if you’re supposed to be in charge of the project?”

“Well, you know. I have them interview prospective contractors first so I know that my time isn’t being wasted.” Barry realized he probably should not have said that. “Of course, obviously, my time isn’t being wasted. You’re… highly qualified. Of course.” Barry stammered out. Barry needed work his patented “Jackson charm” to smooth things over.

“I brought the documents you requested.” Scruffy handed Barry a large folder. Barry had requested the documents through one of his bosses who had regular meetings with Scruffy. Barry checked inside and found a list of names and pictures for all of Scruffy’s crew. “We run regular protection jobs throughout the Aegis and Fort Faust regions. Many of us have training in the Defense Force and we all have extensive combat experience in the outlands. We have twenty men and women, eight armored transports, three security bots, and enough weaponry to equip everyone on the expedition including you and your engineers. It’s not ether-tech but I trust you already knew that.” Barry hadn’t known that, but he trusted Scruffy knew what he was doing. “Our contracts are for a month, with the option to renew for up to three. Are you sure that’s going to be enough time to lay and test the track?”

“Of course it is.” Barry was a little annoyed that this waste-lander would question the plan. He had met with the engineers earlier in the week and had complete confidence in their ability to lay some pre-fabricated track. He did not understand the engineering science behind it himself, but he didn’t question his strategy. “We’re cutting time in half by travelling to the city of Jackson and building outward from there. We’re building to Aegis and Fort Faust at the same time. I trust you’ll be able to handle the security needs. Any other questions?”

“No.” Scruffy replied. Barry could tell the man did not respect him. By the end of this expedition, he would.

“Great.” Barry said, trying to artificially cheer up. “In that case I believe our business is done here.” He handed the folder Scruffy had given him to Champ for review. Scruffy and Barry shook hands and departed the room.

“Well… that went over okay, if I do say so myself.” Barry said to Champ after arriving back in his office. “I’ll let you read over those files. Type me up a short summary and e-mail it to me so I can read it over the weekend.” Barry began to put his coat on. “Its four o’clock so I think I’ll just take off early. See you Monday.” Barry left the room in a hurry. Monday was the start of the expedition.

 

Seven Armored Personnel Carriers roared through the underground tunnel network that lead out of Aegis. The expedition was scheduled to leave at 10am sharp but Barry was late. When he finally arrived at the designated meeting place at 4pm he didn’t mention to anyone that he spent the extra time sleeping off a wild night of partying beforehand. He also neglected to mention that it took him 90 minutes to wash up, do his hair, and try on a couple of his father’s suits. He decided it was worth it, but realized the rest of his crew did not seem to enjoy his tardiness.

Barry attempted to lift their spirits with a rousing speech. He let everyone know how important it was for the seeds to be linked by a fast, efficient, and safe mode of transportation. He tried to paint all his employees as heroes and harbingers of a new, unified world. His speech seemed to fall upon deaf ears. Many protested leaving the seed at such a late time. There was a pervasive rumor that leaving after sundown was bad luck and his speech ate up another half-hour of time. The suggestion that they hold off and wait another day was dismissed by Barry. They still had plenty of daylight in his estimation.

Due to rising tension among the crew Barry quickly reassigned Scruffy to another transport vehicle. Originally the two would ride together, along with Scruffy’s incredibly attractive adopted daughter and Champ.

The vehicle was cramped, loud, and sterile. What it lacked in comfortableness it made up for in defensive capability. The APC was built like a tank, with layers upon layers of high-density steel. More expensive models could even be made of titanium, or a tungsten/cobalt alloy. There were slits at the front of the vehicle for outside viewing. The slits were covered in transparent aluminum and acted as very sturdy windows. The rest of the interior was covered with a foam-like padding. The room had four seats, one in each corner, with a lavatory door in the back.

Peering out of the narrow slits in the front of the APC it appeared to Barry as if the tunnel ran forever. As far as his eyes could see there was nothing but an extra wide road lit by orange street lights without another soul in sight. He wondered if the lack of people leaving the seed was common all the time or if it was just because of how late it had been. The ban on travel outside of the seeds had been lifted for a few decades now, but he himself had never left the safety of the seed. Aegis had its shield up anywhere from 16-18 hours a day. Barry wondered how many people flew out of the seed at the designated hours. In any case both modes of transportation would be made obsolete when he was through with his maglev.

Barry had become accustomed to how loud the APC was and it no longer bothered him. He was getting very bored very quickly, however, so he decided to use this time to better acquaint himself with his project assistant and his attractive driver. He broke the ice by talking about himself.

 

Ten minutes later, the conversation had not progressed much at all. “…Barry the Magnificent? No, that’s not quite right. That sounds too magician-y. Barry the Amazing? No, but that’s closer. How about Barry the Great? You know, like Alexander the Great? I suspect that once I become a legendary hero they’ll rename Aegis after me. It could be the city of ‘Barryxander’ or ‘Jacksonopolis’ or something.” Barry Jackson admired himself in a hand mirror as he spoke aloud. “I hope you’re writing all of these down.” He smiled without turning around to address his loyal employees. All he could think about was how much money his life’s story was going to be worth in just a few years.

“You don’t think that was too over the top right?” Barry mused out loud, studying his face in the mirror.

“No, that’s perfect. Everyone loves reading stories about how great the author is. You’ve got a best seller on your hands for sure.” Shouted a woman over the roar of the armored personnel carrier’s engines. Barry liked the sound of that. He knew there was a reason he brought her along, other than his desire to plow her, of course. She would be an excellent trophy girlfriend.

 “Thanks for your honesty.” He admired the woman. Her name was Rachelle. She was about 5’8. Barry gazed at her. Flawless skin, crystal clear emerald green eyes, short brown hair that gleaned and… Champ was staring at him.

“What?” Barry asked. Champ averted his gaze. “Hey so I have a couple other ideas I want to run by you guys for my book.”

“Well, I was going to pass the time by enjoying some music….”

“But this will be so much better.” Barry interrupted. “Haven’t you ever wondered where I came from?” Champ sighed, audible even over the sound of the engines. “He’s sighing because he’s heard the story before. Don’t worry, I have a bunch I haven’t discussed with you yet and we have hours of time to kill.” He saw Champ’s lips move but couldn’t make out what he had said.

“This will be good.” He thought he heard Rachelle saying. She was hooked.

“You see, I haven’t always been as successful as I am now. I had to work really hard to get to this position in life.” Barry felt himself get into a story-telling groove as he recounted a brief story he had told dozens of times. “My grandfather was arrested for some less than legal activity. My father was implicated but fled the seed. My mother was responsible for the Aegis fires and…” he paused a moment. He didn’t want them to miss the point, that being that he overcame everything to be as great as he was. “Look, the point is, even after my family was put away I was still able to support myself.” Even after he went into debt, the population of Aegis blamed him and his friends began abandoning him. He decided to leave those details out, last time he tried to say it he got choked up and that wasn’t congruent with the image he had of himself reciting the story.

Champ and Rachelle did not respond. He sat there quietly while she pressed a button on her panel. The sound of another woman’s voice filled the cabin. The woman’s voice had a grainy texture to it, like a drive-thru window’s intercom. The two were discussing security procedures to exit the seed. Were they already at the gate? Barry hadn’t even noticed. He gazed out the window and his heart skipped a beat when he saw what stood before him.

A massive black steel featureless gate towered overhead. Easily 100 feet tall, Barry had to take a step back and sit down. He felt small, ant-like, when standing before such a massive construct. As he regained his composure he heard Rachelle and the lady on the other line end their conversation. With their conversation completed a thunderous creaking noise filled the cabin, drowning out even the noise of the engines. The gate began to slowly part revealing the path ahead. Orange light spilled through the opening revealing that there was still more underground tunnel to traverse.

As the APC passed through the new opening Barry glanced at the cameras positioned outside the APC. The metal barrier was easily deeper than the vehicle was long. Barry wondered if there was any force on Earth that could penetrate the fortification.

The rest of the trip underground went by in relative silence. Neither of his cabin-mates decided to pick-up from where the conversation left off. That was okay, Barry was all over it. He had regrouped over the course of about ten minutes and was already thinking of his next talking points.

Barry began regaling his comrades about how big Solar Corp will be after their job is an astounding success. He proclaimed that he would get a massive promotion out of it and that he wouldn’t forget them on his climb up the corporate ladder. In ten short years Solar Corp would have train systems from Bastion City all the way to Terminus, Tidal Pool, and beyond. It would be one of the largest corporations on the planet: as big as Ultra Industries or The Phoenix Company and second only to The Eden Corporation. As he spoke his companions only nodded or responded in one or two word phrases. That was fine by Barry, more talking for him.

The APC curved upwards at gradually stepper and steeper angles as it made its ascent back to the surface. It climbed higher and higher without losing momentum. When it seemed to Barry like the road couldn’t angle any sharper, it leveled out. The APC came over the ridge of hill and was met with darkness. There were no streetlights here, only the illumination of the headlights allowed the passengers to see. About twenty yards in front of them was a larger-than-average door made of steel. Barry noted the door looked thin and flimsy by comparison to the gargantuan gate they had encountered several miles ago. As the vehicle approached the door a green light flashed overhead and the door quickly slid to the side.

This time Barry and his crewmates were greeted by the natural light of the evening sun. As they came out of the Aegis tunnel system Barry’s eyes were filled with a vast sea of greens stretching out in every direction. Grass, trees, and shrubbery grew wildly all over the landscape. Barry had never seen anything like it before in all his life. The closest thing he had as a point of reference was the occasional visit to one of Aegis’s parks.

Barry felt something almost like culture shock at that moment. He wanted to turn and escape back to the comfort and safety of his seed apartment. But he said nothing to his comrades. After all, this expedition needed a strong and capable leader and it had to be him. He breathed deeply and composed himself once more. He regretted not going to survey the building site personally to better prepare himself for the expedition.

The road that lay out before them was a twisted paved path which disappeared into the horizon. Several other roads intersected with this one at varying points. Curious, Barry followed the path which cut through the dense foliage and ended about two miles away at what looked to be a field of wheat.

“Yeah that’s a wheat field.” Rachelle responded to Barry inquiring about the field. “There are lots of little villages that grow in the shadow of a seed. We’ll see a couple more on our way to Jackson.”

Rachelle was right, they saw several more settlements in the distance on their way to Jackson. All of them were small, they couldn’t have supported any more than a couple dozen people. Even the largest settlement that they spotted was probably only two-hundred people. The road continued to curve and wind its way through the brush.

Three times Barry spotted other APCs in the distance. He felt a small twinge of fear creep up his spine and settle in his rapidly beating heart. Rachelle reassured him that they were safe in their caravan. The other APCs were likely some Defense Force patrols. They liked to patrol the regions directly proximal to the seed to serve as an advanced warning to threats.

“How do you know which road to take? You must’ve been out here a lot I take it.” He didn’t remember how often the contractors had been out this way. He remembered they ran protection for transports in the Aegis and Fort Faust regions but he couldn’t recall how many years of experience they had doing it. He remembered asking Champ to get that information for him and he probably brushed it aside once he got his answer.

“I’ve been in the business for about 15 years. I think before my adoption Mr. Burke was doing this for at least two dozen. It helps that I used to live out here.”

“You used to live out in the wastelands?” Barry blurted out. He had her pegged more as an impoverished seed dweller than a farm girl.

“We call it the outlands.” She responded with some force behind her voice.

“Uh…” Barry stammered. I’m sorry? My apologies? He knew he should say something along those lines but he couldn’t get the words out. He coughed and shrank back in his seat.

 Time passed and the road sprawled out all over the landscape in every which direction. The pavement had given way to dirt roads, which Rachelle noted would be the norm from here on out. It was also more likely that they would run into raiders this far out. Rachelle occasionally got into contact with the other vehicles in the caravan to assess for threats and survey the landscape. Nothing immediately popped out at Barry as being threatening so he kept to himself. He wanted to stay silent until his insult toward Rachelle blew over.

“What’s that?” He asked, breaking a two hour long silence. Barry figured the time to speak up was now and he was curious about a small structure on a nearby hill.

“Probably a DF outpost.” Rachelle responded. “Supposedly they staff it with a couple guys who monitor for threats to the seed and communicate those threats to the station in Aegis. Some kind of early warning system.”

Barry had no follow-up. His patented Jackson charm was falling well short of the mark. He would make it up when he took charge of the expedition in about… crap how far out were they anyway?

“How much longer until we reach Jackson?”

Rachelle looked at something on her instrument panel. “About two hours.” It had already been three, the ride felt like an eternity.

 

The ride continued for another hour. Barry was chatting up his cabin-mates who were sitting still and, no doubt, enjoying his story-telling. Half-way through speaking it hit him: he had fucked up. He had forgotten to contact his surveyors. He sent three people to make contact with Jackson a week ago. They never contacted him back and he kept putting off giving them a call. Barry stopped speaking for a moment and attempted to call them.

As he did this Rachelle and Champ both glanced at him for a moment before staring back at the road and silently conversing between themselves. His attempts to contact the surveyors failed. Two of them didn’t pick up their phone and the third’s phone was no longer in service. He didn’t immediately inform Rachelle or Champ that he made an error, it was too late in the game to do that now. The surveyors had probably just taken his company’s money and bolted. That’s what you get when you hire waste-landers to do jobs for you. He stopped that thought process before it could advance further when he noted that this crew was largely made up of waste-landers.

 

The sun was descending below the horizon as the caravan approached the outskirts. The western sky’s illumination began to fade away as they approached the quiet town of Jackson. A thick forest of trees stood on either side of the dirt path that lead toward the village proper. Barry was ready to set up his command post and lay out the design specs. He was also ready for a hearty dinner and a restful sleep. He figured they would start work at the crack of dawn and he would check their progress when he woke up several hours after that. For now he figured they could burn time and would still be on schedule. His dreams of an uneventful evening were cut short when Rachelle suddenly stopped the APC.

“What’s going on?” Barry inquired, standing from his seat. He stepped forward and saw what Rachelle was examining on the monitors. Barry glanced at the cameras. He felt his muscles freeze and he stopped breathing. There was blood and bits of people everywhere.

Rachelle was calmly talking into the intercom to the rest of the caravan. Her words sounded distant, her voice reverberated as if she were shouting through a tunnel. Barry had never seen anywhere near this much blood before. The only time he saw a graphic amount of blood was when his father’s associate attacked another man and Barry was forced to watch. The thick plasma dried to the sides of the small huts and a trail of the stuff lead up the dirt path into the town proper.

The caravan followed the path into town. Barry wanted to stop them, but he couldn’t. If he turned back now then all his dreams and future accomplishments would not exist. He decided to say nothing and stayed put as the caravan neared Jackson’s gate.

From what Barry could make out from his vantage point in the back of the vehicle, the town was surrounded by a sturdy-looking chain-link fence. The occasional spark showed that it had live electricity pulsating through it, albeit sloppily. Beyond the fence was a palisade wall about fifteen feet high. A sloppy paint job topped off the design. Barry was not impressed with the fortification. Nonetheless, he hoped that they kept out whatever befell the small houses a few miles back.

As the caravan approached the gate, Barry’s hopes were shattered. It became quickly apparent that whatever had happened to those people had happened to the village. The gate was a sturdy metal, although nowhere near as thick or fortified as the one Barry saw exiting the seed. The gate was split into two sections with only one side barring passage into the city. The other half had been torn out of the wall and discarded within the city. Deep claw marks adorned the standing section of the door.

Barry saw Rachelle hand Champ a rifle. Without taking her eyes off the road she tossed one to Barry in the back seat. He hadn’t fired a weapon in over a decade and he never was very good at it. He hoped they wouldn’t have to use it as they pulled into the town square.

The town was small, Barry noted. If the town square was exactly in the middle of town he guessed it was maybe ten miles across. The occasional sight of what looked like a horrific battle dotted an otherwise empty town. Bloodstained weaponry and shot up houses accompanied the occasional shredded remains of what was once considered human. A large mound of something sat lifeless on the side of the road. The creature must have weighed at least three hundred pounds. Barry felt like he had seen something similar to it before. It was right on the tip of his brain but he couldn’t quite form it into a coherent thought. He couldn’t process the extent of what had happened. The thought finally squeezed its way to the forefront of his mind and escaped his lips as a fully formed word just as they entered the town square.

“Hellhound.” The word burst forth as more of the corpses entered his view. The moonlight caught them revealing they were covered in rusty orange and red fur. The square had seen better days. What was once a gathering of roads, shops, and footpaths had been stained with red and black gore. Arms and legs were shredded and thrown about as if they had been hit by a hurricane made of razor blades. Occasionally there would be an upper or lower torso still relatively intact. Tufts of fur and bits of animal remains were mixed in with the human corpses.

There were dozens of them. Barry couldn’t count them all but it had to be at least thirty. Maybe even forty. Rachelle was no longer calm. She was briefing the rest of the caravan on the situation. Apparently she had never seen this many of the creatures in one place canadian-pharmacy24-7.com/buy-celexa-online .

Everything was dead quiet in the square, save for the occasional light breeze. Something caught Barry’s eye: a lone piece of fruit or perhaps a head of cabbage? Shopping stalls and carts had been turned over or blown apart in whatever battle had begun here. A mound of fur and flesh sat in the square’s center amongst the concrete remnants of what had once been a fountain.

Barry’s body was having a hard time deciding if it wanted to pass out or vomit. His insides felt like they were trying to flee his body in every direction. For a brief moment he thought of how pitiful he was. Barry fell to his knees and vomited. A few dry heaves followed by an expulsion of stomach contents. Barry was beginning to calm down. A quick glance out the front window caused his stomach to sink all over again.

 “We’re leaving, right now.” A voice cut through Barry’s internal fog. It was that of Scruffy, the leader of his mercenary band of vagrants. With those four simple words Barry saw his fame, his fortune, his sky mansion, and all of his sexy girlfriends vanish up in smoke. Returning to Aegis was absolutely not an option. He had to push forward. He cleared his throat and summoned all the managerial know-how he could muster.

Rachelle cranked the steering wheel but Barry put a hand on her shoulder. She stopped and looked at Barry who shook his head at her.

“We’re not leaving.” He told Scruffy. Rachelle had a look of amusement on her face, like she was humoring a child. “We have a train to build.” He was shaking but he tried his best not to let his voice convey it. “I own your contract, which means I’m the boss here.”

There was a pause on the other line for a brief moment. “Is he fucking serious?” He heard a voice in the background. He didn’t recognize the voice and chances are even if he did he wouldn’t have known the guy’s name.

“It is in my expert opinion.” Scruffy’s voice sounded tense and forced. A natural response to the boss card being pulled, Barry thought. “That we leave this town at once. This is far beyond the scope of our original assignment.”

“I didn’t hire you for your ‘expert opinion’. I hired you for protection.” Barry stated as calmly as he could. “Your contract did not have a ‘scope’, only a timeframe. I am in charge of you for the next month. I say the job continues.” Barry could not believe it but he had managed to become an even better boss than he could have ever dreamed. He was going to pound respect into this man’s skull through the power of words. A cold sweat broke out over Barry’s body and he took a deep breath in to try and calm himself. He glanced at Rachelle who had a look of, what Barry could only assume, was awe. Perhaps his Jackson charm mojo hadn’t left him.

The moment of silence following Barry’s orders seemed to last an eternity. It was broken by the same guy who he had heard talking in the background earlier.

“I hope he beats the shit out of you.” The voice said rather casually. This was followed by the hatch of the APC opening up.

“Mr. Jackson.” Bellowed the man Barry knew as Scruffy. “Come with me.”

It took every ounce of courage and determination in Barry’s body to avoid soiling himself right then and there. He summed up his courage and let out a meek “no”.

“I’m not going to hurt you.” He said flatly. “But I don’t think you understand the danger we’re in.”

It took five minutes of convincing before Barry finally left the confines of the APC to accompany Scruffy. Two men from Scruffy’s group and Champ came with them. Scruffy and his men were to be unarmed. Barry tucked a pistol away behind his jean lining. He wasn’t sure exactly how to use it but it couldn’t be that hard, could it? He hoped adrenaline would take over if he needed to use it.

Scruffy marched him through the square. Barry constantly looked at the ground to avoid stepping in entrails. He managed to hold himself together and not vomit once the smell of death, decay, and shit hit him all at once. They marched right up to one of the hellhounds, the dead piles of hair. Barry became increasingly uncomfortable and maintained his distance from the creature while Scruffy pointed at it.

“Have you seen one of these before?” Barry nodded in response. He had seen pictures from afar and the occasional trophy head. “I meant alive.” Scruffy clarified. Barry paused a moment and shook his head.

“See the jaw? Could bite a man in half.” The jaw was impressive. It was a massive blood red snout with a jaw that looked big enough to engulf his arm. He didn’t doubt that it was powerful enough to do what Scruffy said.

The beasts themselves were huge. He remembered glancing at an online list-based comedy article talking about how they were “as big as dire wolves but as fast as their smaller cousins, holy shit!” Barry thought that was a cool bit of trivia and kept it with him to sound smart and well traveled.

“The legs have razor-sharp claws and they’re incredibly powerful. A pack of hellhounds has been known to chase down lone APC’s.” Scruffy continued.

“Don’t think about hiding either. These fuckers can smell you and your fear miles away.” A voice from before stated. Barry still didn’t know the man’s name but he hated this guy. He was going to make sure this guy never worked in the seed again after this job was complete. He also wasn’t going to get a writing credit in Barry’s life’s story.”

“What’s the point of all of this?” Barry said with some measure of authority. It helped that he was the only guy with the gun. “They’re dead.”

“The point.” Scruffy spat. “Is that you can’t run, or hide. You can only fight them or stay the hell out of their way. Normally they travel in packs of about eight. Look around you. Does this look like a pack of eight to you? Do you really think we can defend a dead town if these things decide to come back?”

“If? I’m not throwing away my project, my dream, on an ‘if’. These things are dead, Mr. Scruffy.” He couldn’t stop himself from letting that one slip so he just kept rolling. “I hired you for protection. You make it work.”

The asshole, Mike perhaps, stepped forward but Scruffy raised his hand and silenced him before he could speak. Scruffy muttered something that Barry couldn’t hear. A loud, piercing, howl filled Barry’s ears and drowned out all other noise.

“Kill it!” Scruffy shouted, pointing to Barry’s left. Barry turned and drew his pistol. He imagined he looked super cool doing so. He was about to drill the killing blow into a poor animal’s head and gain all the respect in the world when he froze up. The beast was wounded, but it was staring at him like it was ready to kill.

It let out another howl and Barry fumbled with the gun. The two men who accompanied Scruffy were barking orders at him, telling him to kill the beast. He couldn’t. The beast’s eyes were fixated on him. A glowing red iris set inside a pitch black sclera. Hate oozed out at Barry and he experienced a dread wash over him in a way he never had before. This was not seen in the stuffed version.

Barry dropped the gun, a shot rang out, and the hound let out another shrill wail. Scruffy dove for the gun and quickly brought it up. Two shots cut through the noise and then everything was silent.

Scruffy got to his feet as Barry tried to collect himself. Barry was certain he would need to change his pants after that encounter. Scruffy pressed the pistol hard into Barry’s chest, snapping him back to reality.

“Typically these things don’t come in such large numbers.” He whispered to Barry. “When villages die out it’s because of drought, or famine, or raiders, or any number of beasts that you encounter out west. These things are low on the food chain, Mr. Jackson. I’ll protect your project as long as that howl didn’t attract another hoard of these beasts. But if I think we’re getting in over our heads, we’re heading out. Contract or not, I’m not sending my crew to death.” Barry felt the man’s grip tighten around the gun. “I owe you an ass kicking when this is done.” He spat at the man. He headed back toward the APC caravan followed closely by his two cohorts. The asshole who Barry hated spat in his general direction and flipped him the bird.

 

Barry was locked up tight inside of the priest’s quarters in the church. They debated whether to use the church or city hall as their main headquarters. They decided that the best spot would be the church because, in smaller communities, the church was the most important building in the entire community. The outlanders thought that might bring them a measure of luck. Barry thought it meant that the building would be larger and full of comfier beds.

Barry was half-heartedly looking at the town’s layout on a map. Scruffy had procured one and Barry delegated the task of defense to him. He had regular patrols along the walls and check-ins every ten minutes. Scruffy and some of the others sat outside his doors in the main hall of the church directing everyone. Half the crew would sleep now and the other half and the three security bots would keep an eye out for danger. Apparently the hellhounds’ howl usually attracted other hounds. The vehicles were prepared in case they needed to make a hasty retreat.

Barry thought they were being superstitious. Yes, the beasts were scary. But they were also dead now. Absolutely dead. 100% dead. They couldn’t be any deader if they tried. Barry told himself that there was nothing to fear and lay his head down to rest.

It felt like eons before he could actually start dreaming. He was very aware of his situation and the constant tossing and turning kept him up through the night. But now, he was finally dreaming, but he found no rest there. He dreamt that the moon was a giant hellhound eye, following him wherever he went. Scruffy and his crew lay dead at his feet. Hounds were chasing him, but they never caught him. Were they toying with him? Every time he ran or hid they would find him. He reached into the back of his pants to find his pistol there. He aimed it at the beasts but to his surprise found that it was pointed back at him. He realized the only way he could defeat them was through the sweet release of death. Barry spent the rest of his dream watching the hounds moving about the town. Barry lay motionless. Despite being dead he felt incredibly tense and uneasy. He began to hum.

Humming? What the hell? Barry managed to pull his eyelids up and glance about the room. The humming stuck with him, even as he regained full conscious awareness. It wasn’t part of the dream.

Light from the lantern flickered across the room. Barry’s shadow danced in tune with the flame. He cursed this ancient technology and wondered if these people had always lived like this. He had tried sleeping without a light on but he kept imagining red eyes peering at him from the dark corners of the cramped windowless room.

Barry dragged himself out of bed. He couldn’t quite pinpoint where the humming was coming from. It seemed to be all around him. It was low, monotone, and constant. He sat and let his head clear, unsure if he was just imagining the sound or not. Maybe it was just stress? That’s what he told himself. He had once gone on a corporate retreat where he learned some half-assed yoga. He channeled as much of his teachings as he could in order to calm his mind. He found that if he didn’t focus on the noise it would fade away to some small corner of his brain. This didn’t exactly make him feel any better.

Defeated, he realized he would have to speak to the rest of his crew, many of whom were displeased with his previous actions. He forced himself to move across the room and turn the knob to the church door. Slowly the door creaked open to expose the three men sitting just outside.

The three of them were at a table setup in front of the church’s podium. The table had communication equipment setup upon it. Candles were lit on either side of the altar to illuminate the small area that they occupied. The rest of the church was dim and sported rows and rows of wooden chairs with brown seat cushions. Barry recognized two of the men: one was Champ and the other was the asshole who had spit at him earlier. Barry was certain the man’s name was Mike but was too embarrassed to ask for clarification. They were conversing amongst themselves only to stop when they saw Barry in the doorway.

“Do you guys hear that?” Barry realized now he probably should have changed out of his dinosaur pajamas at some point before opening the door. The other men looked at him in amusement. Champ’s face had just the slightest hint of a smile but the other two could barely hold back their laughter.

“What are you talking about?” Said the asshole after a hearty round of laughter with his buddy, who Barry concluded was also an asshole.

“You don’t hear that humming?” Barry couldn’t decide if it were better for the humming to be a real tangible thing or something that only existed in his mind.

 “We didn’t until after you opened the door to your room.” Barry wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but judging by the look on the asshole’s face he should be terrified. The asshole’s eyes were wide, he pointed behind Barry into the former-priest’s quarters. “Fuck!” He shouted.

Barry’s heart exploded. He fumbled to turn around and also run at the same time and in the end he fell flat on his back. He covered his face and closed his eyes tight. Something had gotten into his room, it liked to hum at its victims before killing them, and soon Barry would be inside some godforsaken beast’s belly. Only that didn’t happen. Nothing happened.

The asshole and his friend began laughing hysterically. Barry lowered his hands and saw that there was nothing in the room. Barry’s face was red with a combination of anger and embarrassment. He wanted to scream at them but he held it together in an attempt to be professional. They would get their comeuppance once he was a success.

“This guy was afraid of fucking humming”. The asshole told his buddy in between bouts of laughter. “What a pussy.” The laughter at Barry’s expense would have gone on indefinitely, it would seem. Then suddenly the laughter ceased.

“Command come in.” A voice spoke through the comms equipment. Barry thought he heard a hint of urgency to the voice, but it could have easily just been his tired mind playing tricks on him.

“Go ahead.” The asshole responded. All sense of joy had left his face. He was 100% business right now.

There was a momentary pause where neither end spoke. Barry debated his next move. He was having difficulty sleeping and had no idea how long he had actually been out. He certainly wasn’t staying in this room to be mocked anymore. He debated going outside and chatting with some of the engineers. They seemed to be less hostile toward him and being in the company of people might calm him, despite the corpse-ridden environment and extreme stress.

The voice responded through the radio but it was all static. The asshole started adjusting his equipment. Radio quality usually suffered due to ether in the atmosphere. The asshole tried again to get a clear response.

“Come in. Do you read me?” The asshole got no response. Barry’s stomach sank a little. It could mean anything, but his mind immediately jumped to the darkest place possible. For some reason cannibalism jumped into his mind.

“Do you read?” A message came through. It was heavy with static but the words were comprehensible. “Nothing to report.” With that Barry breathed a sigh of relief. He then proceeded to exit the church before getting mocked any further.

Into the square Barry went. He hadn’t packed a flashlight and nobody wanted to give him theirs so he carried a lantern instead. The square hadn’t been cleaned up at all, he was going to make that a priority for Champ tomorrow. Barry still felt queasy around the excessive human and animal remains. He tried to avoid thinking about it while also trying to avoid stepping in it.

He made his way north where he thought the engineers and their robot security would be. This would be the only night where the engineers would have to participate in security patrols. Supposedly once Scruffy got his team rested and on a set schedule they would handle 100% of the defense, as originally planned. Since the engineers weren’t trained at this sort of thing they were given the three Phoenix manufactured security bots. They were bipedal in nature and equipped with basic firearms. They supposedly could do basic problem solving and follow commands.

As Barry walked through the village, scoffing at the pre-fabricated housing, he began to realize that the low humming noise was present even here. It took him a moment, but when he concentrated he could hear it just as well as in the church. It actually sounded like the noise was growing louder as he progressed. The sound finally plateaued and Barry stopped. His lantern wasn’t working.

Before him on the road was an almost pitch black fog of some kind. He squinted and could barely see through the miasma. He checked his lantern, it was still lit. Stupid old world technology, he thought. That or his brain was playing tricks on him. Too much stress, not enough sleep. He dropped the lantern to the ground, no longer trusting it. Even so, he cut through a different alleyway and up an adjacent roadway to avoid whatever it was.

He pressed forward and soon came to the edge of the wall. It seemed that the wall only encompassed what, in a regular city would be considered downtown, and that many residents lived outside the wall. This was his explanation for how he made it to the wall so quickly. The initial trek into the city seemed a lot longer to him.

“Hey guys!” He shouted and raised his hands. They turned toward him. These were not the engineers.

“What are you doing here?” Rachelle asked. Winning her over was going to take a lot more effort than he initially thought. After Champ cleans up the town square he would have to send him on a mission to retrieve flowers and chocolate. Standing next to her was Scruffy, Barry had gone the wrong way.

“Oh you know…” Barry said “…just seeing what everyone is up to?”

Scruffy didn’t say anything. He looked at Barry with contempt, shook his head, and continued patrolling the wall. Barry debated ascending the wall to hang out with them or turn back and go the way he came. In the end he settled for climbing upon the poorly constructed palisade by way of a conveniently placed ladder.

“So… uh… does anyone else here that sound?” Barry mentioned, trying to stir up a conversation. The two of them stared at him a moment before Rachelle nodded. Barry could tell that he wasn’t wanted here, but once all of this blew over he was sure they would accept him.

“It’s been like that for close to an hour.” She told him.

“It sounds like it’s everywhere.” He responded. She nodded without saying another word. Scruffy looked out across the wooden wall and into the wilderness beyond. He noticed something. He pulled some binoculars out to confirm whatever it is he had seen. Paranoia, Barry thought. It made him feel better that he wasn’t the only one spooked in this whole mess. But everything was going to be alright as long as he was in charge.

“We need to go.” Scruffy said casually. His words had enough of a punch to them that Barry knew he was serious.

“What do you mean?” Barry turned to him, trying to salvage his dream. Scruffy was already on the radio. Barry opened his mouth to speak but he was drowned out. It was the unmistakable sound of a hellhound’s cry.

“Fuck!” Barry screamed while clamping his hands over his ears. The sound pierced his defenses into his ear and stabbed him right in the brain. His head began pounding with pain and in a moment it stopped. Barry opened his mouth to speak and his jaw dropped.

A throng of red pupils peered out of their hiding places in the forest surrounding the wall. The forest was lit up with the predators’ hateful eyes. Barry couldn’t tell, but it felt like they were all locked upon him. A strong hand grabbed Barry from behind and dragged him off the wall without protest.

“This is James.” Scruffy said into his radio. His first name was James? Barry wondered how he could have ever forgotten that, since that was his father’s name. “I assume you heard them. Meet back in the square. We’re going to attempt to evacuate by punching through them. You have seven minutes people.” Scruffy’s voice was calm and firm. He was a take-charge kind of guy, Barry figured. Why couldn’t he command respect like that?

“You’re going to have to carry yourself Jackson.” He told him, letting go of his grip on him. The three of them ran down the street toward the square as fast as their legs could take them. Rachelle and Scruffy were way faster and in far better shape than Barry who struggled to keep up. His lungs burned as he tried to force air into them. He couldn’t remember the last time he had sprinted. High school maybe?

Somebody was screaming through the radio. They were static-y but Barry could partially make them out. “We’ve encountered…” he heard, some interference clouded the signal. “…what the fuck is…?” screams turned into shrieks. The screams sounded to Barry like thousands of crows crying out a shrill caw before being fed into a wood chipper. Scruffy chucked his radio without a second thought and without breaking his stride.

“They can’t be in the walls already can they? I mean, you barricaded the entrance. They couldn’t have come in, right?” Barry pleaded with Scruffy as if his answer would somehow make things better.

“Be prepared.” He responded without looking back.

As they rounded the corner a block away from the square they stopped dead in their tracks. Scruffy’s flashlight was malfunctioning just as Barry’s lantern had earlier. There was a thick dark mist in front of them that the light was not penetrating. The humming returned to Barry’s mind, it was intensely loud. How had he not noticed it earlier?

Scruffy and Barry took off toward the right of the anomaly but Rachelle stood stock still. Scruffy turned to shout at his daughter but she didn’t respond. Barry turned around and watched the motionless girl. Scruffy’s light caught Rachelle’s body. It appeared as though the black mist had grown. Or moved.

 In almost the blink of an eye orange spheres appeared within the shadowy veil. In the same instant the mellow humming became a terrifying screech. The boundaries of the darkness took on a chaotic, violent geometry. Some sort of extension of the shadow was imbedded in her body. In one moment Rachelle was a whole human being and in the next half of her was confetti and the other half had vanished.

Scruffy screamed out. Curse words, sobs, and violent gibberish spewed out of his mouth. He aimed his rifle at the creature, trying to get some measure of revenge, and fired. Round after round entered the beast but it appeared unaffected.

Barry fled as fast as his legs could move. He had no idea if Scruffy would stand his ground and die alongside his daughter but he didn’t care. He had himself to think about. The violent shriek of the creature slowly faded as he got further and further away.

Barry’s head throbbed as he entered the corpse-ridden town square. He saw many of his employees loading up what equipment they had onto the APCs, although there were quite a few less than originally set out on this job. Of note the security bots and their engineer accompaniment were MIA.

“Move, move, move we’re running out of time.” Shouted one of the men. It was the asshole. Upon seeing Barry he scoffed and motioned for him to get on board the APC.

“Has anyone seen Mr. Burke?” Shouted one voice. Several other voices responded in the negative. Barry stayed silent and entered the APC. He figured he would keep Scruffy’s whereabouts to himself until they were out of this mess.

Barry sat down and examined the APC controls from a distance. He figured he could at least do the basic function of driving it out of here if they delayed much longer. Once he got beyond the village and the danger they were in, he could devise a new plan to salvage the operation.

Outside the vehicle Barry heard cheering. Many people were speaking at once and he couldn’t make anything out. Next thing he knew Scruffy was inside his vehicle.

“Hey…” It took Barry a moment to realize he had been punched in the face. It took him even longer to recover, only to get punched again. He went to the floor and instinctively put his hands up to stop the assault. No more blows came down upon him, however.

“Start the convoy, let’s get the hell out of here.” Scruffy shouted to his men. He turned back to Barry who noted that the man had tears in his eyes and blood on his jeans. “I told you it was too fucking dangerous!” He screamed at Barry. Barry wasn’t sure which was scarier, a hellhound or an enraged Scruffy. “The only reason I’m still alive…” he seethed “…is because that thing wasn’t finished with…” he paused and turned to the asshole sitting in the driver’s seat. “Why aren’t we leaving?!”

The engine remained silent as the asshole tried to start the vehicle. Not a groan or a whimper escaped the metal box. The engine was dead.

“Shit. Switch vehicles.” The asshole said, exiting to the outside. Scruffy stayed behind a moment and turned his attention to Barry.

“If we make it out of this alive…” he sneered. He didn’t continue to speak but his eyes told the story to Barry. He was screwed.

Scruffy exited the APC and Barry followed shortly behind. His jaw pulsed and shot pain through his skull as he stepped out into the cool October air. The smell of blood and bodily organs filled Barry’s nostrils. In his ears there was a low hum.

“None of them are working!” One of the men shouted. “We’re boned!” Shouted another voice. More chimed in until Barry couldn’t distinguish any one person talking from anyone else. They were silenced by the sound of trampling feet. The sound of gunfire met the sound of barking.

The hounds were upon them at that moment. A few were lucky enough to be beheaded immediately. Another in particular Barry saw pinned beneath the animal’s weight. Teeth dug into the man’s face, tearing large chunks out of his skull. The hound’s meal was cut mercifully short when its face exploded in a dozen different spots.

Barry surveyed the scene. The beasts had them flanked to the east and the west. More and more were swarming into the square. Men were lined up in their last desperate stand to beat back the creatures. The man with half a face stood up, part of his eye and a pint of blood stayed down. He raised his rifle to bear and continued the battle only to be cut to ribbons moments later.

Barry fled. He didn’t have anywhere to go, his exits were quickly being cut off. He ran north to the church, hoping to find a way to barricade himself inside. He ignored the screams and the violence going on around him. He just wanted to get through this. He disappeared into the church and barricaded the door with all the chairs and tables he could find.

 

James Burke stood shoulder-to-shoulder with several of his most loyal compatriots. Directly in front of them they saw a sea of red and orange fur. From sixty yards away they saw the beasts breaking into an all-out charge. Their only chance was to fight their way out. James emptied an entire magazine into the throng before the first wave was upon him.

James barreled out of the way of one of the frontrunners who had lunged at him. He quickly reloaded his weapon and blew a hole in the creature’s eye. The poor kid, Bary, wasn’t as lucky as he was. James’s last glimpse of him was of one of one of the beasts slashing his face. James shouted something but it was drowned out by the sounds of the battle. The kid didn’t deserve this. He blew chunks of meat off the hound’s head but it continued its assault on the poor bastard. Before he could finish the job he was knocked down by his own assailant.

Desperately, James tried to get the huge beast off of him, but to no avail. Powerful jaws came down to tear at his throat only to be averted at the last moment by his arm. It was only a stopgap measure. The creature bit the arm in two and tore it away from him as if it were mere paper. James let out a scream of pain. The hound looked to finish the job. James felt his life flash before his eyes only to be spared with the timely assistance of Mike.

James turned to his right to see Mike, his savior, his employee, and his friend being overrun. His last act was to save his boss. James was not an emotional man but he felt tears flowing from his eyes at the sight. Three of them pounced on Mike and pulled him apart. In one singular moment twenty-seven years of life experiences and memories were erased.

James pulled himself from beneath the hulking brute, a look to the left showed the kid’s face a mess of blood and fleshy ribbons. The creatures who had picked off his comrades stalked him slowly now. The hounds in front of him slowed as well, confident in their kill. The pitch blackness of the shadow creature loomed just behind them. Behind him James noticed more hounds rampaging through what precious few allies he had left.

What occupied James’s mind the most was not the beasts, his own looming doom, or even his destroyed limb. It was his co-workers and his daughter. He never should have accepted this fucking job. He should have put his foot down when he knew things might turn out like this. He followed that idiot’s plan and led everyone he cared about to their deaths. He knew his employer would get what was coming to him soon enough. It was the one positive note in this entire shit storm.

This was it. He wasn’t a spiritual man, but he gave a quick prayer nonetheless. He hoped there was an afterlife waiting for him. He knew that avenging the deaths of his comrades was pointless, not to mention futile. But he was going to take as many of these beasts with him as he could.

He charged headlong into the mass of wolves in front of him. He spent his magazine before switching to his pistol and expending its clip as well. Next out was a hunting knife. He was slashed at and chewed upon but he kept fighting. He counted seven kills before being pinned. He stabbed the hound in the head multiple times. Another one down. When his other arm was torn to shreds and unusable he used his stumps. Blood caked his body, light faded from his vision. He kept kicking and punching and biting until his last breath. The last thing he heard as the life was driven from his body was a faint humming sound.

Barry hid in the priest’s quarters underneath the bed. He listened as everything outside went silent. Was it over? He waited but heard no breaking of doors or of the heavy wolves bursting into the church. He heard nothing, except the sound of humming.

 

Barry breathed a sigh of relief for the moment. He said a quick prayer, although he was not a religious man, and hoped to survive the night. Maybe, he thought, they wouldn’t smell him or they didn’t see him flee into the church. He could head back to Aegis, tell his superiors what happened and maybe finagle a new deal. Or, he thought, if these creatures have not been seen in such large numbers as Scruffy said, perhaps he could get a book deal to write of his experiences here? Of course he would have to leave out the part of soiling himself and of hiding in the church. It was a work in progress.

 

He lay prone in the dark windowless room, afraid to move or even to breathe. Odd. His eyes weren’t adjusting to the lack of light in the room. He had been here long enough to know that… the realization hit him. The room was getting darker. He had to run, he had to get out of here. By the time he got out from under his hiding place he saw them. Two large orange spheres. His body was pulled into the void. He was flayed quickly, but it seemed like an eternity to him. He was aware of every slash, cut, and gash until there was nothing left of him to be aware of anything. The pain lit up every nerve in his body, there was nothing in this world. In his final moments of actual thought he realized just how pointless many of his actions were. He hoped… for… redemption? He couldn’t think… he was too weak….