“She got too close to the perimeter of the game zone. Looks like she was taken out by beta team,” The nerd at the console said as he looked over the footage again. “Very clean; she won’t have felt a thing.” Murray straightened his glasses with a morbid sense of appreciation. “They really are the best, sir”.
“Uh huh.” Evergreen’s grin shrunk a few sizes, listening to the tech gush. “It’s time.”.
“Yes, sir, beginning stage three,” the tech said as he turned back to his console.
Helicopter blades cut through a violent wind, casting rain in wide dispersal patterns as the heavy behemoths rocked back and forth.
These were military transport helicopters, for carrying battlements or vehicles to the field: four in all, carrying heavy metal containers. They looked like smooth industrial shipping containers, but both the containers and the choppers were completely unmarked.
“Roger that. We’re estimated four hours out of the drop zone. Good morning. If this rain lets up, it’s gonna be a beautiful day,” the chopper pilot said over his radio.
“You kept me waiting,” Carpenter whispered as he twisted the barbed point of the arrow under Dave’s chin. Dave grimaced, dropping his torch and kukri.
“Killing me will do you no good. I’m not a part of the game; I’m just his assistant!”
Carpenter took Dave by his shoulders and threw him down on the dirty linoleum floor. Dave offered little resistance and fell at the side of the dead woman drinking the milkshake. His fall caused her to shift in her seat, sliding down the bench until her face rested right next to Dave’s as he attempted to dust himself off. By the dim light of his torch he could see he was in kissing range of the gaping exit wound in her face.
“Oh, shit!” He gaped.
“‘Oh, shit’ indeed,” Carpenter chuckled as he picked up both Dave’s torch and his kukri knife.
“What do you want?”
Carpenter put the torch under his chin and smiled like a ghoul in an old monster movie. “A way out.”
“Why would I know the way?”
“Do you like scary movies?” Carpenter said, smiling. He poked each yellow tooth with his tongue in turn. “You don’t think there was someone like you and your butt buddy up there the last time?” Carpenter let out a bitter little breathy laugh. He shook the beam of the torch around, feigning hysterics. “It’s a sick world we live in.”
He marched up to Dave and stomped on the leg closest to him; Dave let out an anguished cry like an injured animal.
Carpenter crouched down next to Dave, shining the torch in his face and Dave cowered under the beam, guarding his eyes with his hand. Carpenter saw it immediately and snickered to himself, thinking of something poetic to say at this karmic justice he’d send on its way. “Feeling all right? Fever? Dry mouth? Itching under the skin? E-rectile dysfunction?”
Dave looked up at him and swallowed a dry gob of spit.
“There’s a helicopter. North side of town, by the abandoned railyard, but it’s guarded; you’ll never make it alone.”
Carpenter gave him that wide devil grin and turned to walk away, tossing the torch and the kukri away as he left Dave scrabbling in the dark.
“I’m not alone; not anymore.”
TJ couldn’t move. His body was rooted to the ground by chains of empty regret. His limbs felt hollow and heavy at the same time.
“TJ, it’s Sunday, I know we just met, but you have to trust me. I used you; I’m not a good person. But I can make it up to you, if you live,” Sunday whispered in TJ’s ear where he lay on the cold, damp grass of his backyard. A light drizzle was approaching, accompanied by muffled threats of dull, aching thunder.
TJ remained perfectly still. Sunday swallowed and turned him over. His eyes were open, vacant and grey. His mouth hung open a fraction and fluttered as if he was trying to say something but didn’t have enough energy. “TJ, can you hear me? We need to move. You’re gonna come with me, OK?” She hooked her dainty little hands under his sweaty pits, lifting him with some effort. “Urf, fuck, you’re heavy!”
She turned him around and dragged him in the direction of his house. “Ergh! This would be a lot easier if you just – hrrff, hrrff – stood up and, you know, walked.”
She got him back into the kitchen, which felt a lot colder now. Closing the door, she looked out the window. His mother’s body, lying there, looked almost beautiful. Sunday breathed in and out, feeling her icy breath swirling around in her chest. “It could have been worse,” she sighed as the rain rolled in.
The helicopters brought the rain with them, their cargo hanging from industrial chains and a series of metal fibre pulleys.
“We’re within the drop zone. We have our coordinates; beginning drop procedures. Bon voyage, Sage Valley,” the chopper pilot said over his radio.
The helicopters split from their formation and began to fly to the opposite ends of the town.
A handful of survivors were hunkered down in a local bookstore. Hearing the encouraging sounds of chopper blades, cutting through the wind, they came out of their little hidey-holes.
“Is it the army? We’re being rescued”
“Oh yeah, I’m never posting an anti-troop meme ever again!”
The ragged survivors poked their head out gingerly. Then, seeing the choppers, they felt reassured enough to spill out onto the streets and into the harsh light of the morning. The rain was fairly light and the sun seemed to be coming up strong. They smiled, relieved, and covered their eyes to watch the powerful-looking choppers flying towards them.
“Looks like it’s carrying… something.”
Fighting the early morning glare, they didn’t look like much: a middle-aged substitute gym teacher and his high school age kid, and the woman who worked/lived in the bookstore. She followed the teacher and kid out, looking a little worse for wear. Her wide-rimmed glasses were bent under her dull, stringy brown hair.
“Oh shit! -”
The gym teacher pushed his kid to the ground as he dove down onto the concrete. The bookstore woman ducked back into her store/home as the chopper passed dangerously low, its cargo swinging freely.
The clasps sprang open. The pulleys went slack. The chains detached from the chopper, releasing two huge metallic crates. One dropped like a stone skitting across a lake. It slid twenty feet before coming to a stop, flattening a white minivan. The second fell through the roof of the bookstore taking most of the roof with it.
The gym teacher stood up and dusted himself off “What the fuc-?”
“Shit, why’d they do that?” his son said as he peeled his skinny ass off the sidewalk.
The door of the bookstore opened and the bookstore lady walked out shakily, covered in dry wall dust. She coughed and closed the door behind her, which fell off its hinges.
“My store slash home,” she said dreamily, her glasses bent straight off her face.
A strange whirring noise stole their attention from their shared near miss. The minivan box was making strange mechanical noises. Cogs and gears shifted. A sealed popping noise, like a fridge-freezer opening, signalled the box’s release. It was the size of phone booth. The door folded open in two sections, like massage parlour partitions, revealing an oddly shaped device: all black and chrome, and what looked like rubber. Shiny and matte in patches, it was accompanied by a series of small black boxes.
“What the fuc-?”
“Shut your mouth boy. End of the world doesn’t mean you can cuss in my presence!”
“Whatever! You just did.”
The gym teacher approached the box. His son followed him instinctively. His father put his hand out, signalling for him to stop.
“Just stay there. Let me take a look. Might be food or supplies, like they do for refugees in Afghanistan or wherever.”
“We refugees now?”
“I hope not,” the gym teacher said as he cautiously approached the alien box.
It seemed to smoke and smoulder, but it was just the dust settling. White paint chips, from the crushed minivan, hovered in the air. He took a timid step onto broken safety glass. He got close enough to get a good whiff of twisted metal and paint.
He craned his neck and looked into the box. He could make out some sort of long, slender piece of equipment. Odd wires and tubes went in and out of whatever it was. It began to take shape as he got closer. The chrome had some indistinguishable writing on it, maybe Japanese or Korean. A long, cylindrical shaft, with copper coils running up its length, was encased in rubber or some strange polymer. His eye followed its curve to a grip and a rest or a stock.
He was close enough to touch it now. He leant over the broken safety glass, trying not snag his clothes. He stumbled a little and put his hands right into the box, which felt oddly cold, as if it was refrigerated. Trying to get his balance, he grabbed onto the strange device. It detached from a clip into his hand and he stumbled backwards with the strange thing in his arms.
Instantly he was surprised by the weight; it was quite hefty, which he had expected, as it was quite large, but despite that, it weighed a lot less than he had thought it would. It was almost as if he was holding a large and serious Nerf toy. As soon as he gripped the handle, muscle memory from his few short years in the marines told him to tuck the stock into his shoulder. And to his delight, he realised that it was indeed some kind of gun.
He flipped it over to get a good look at it, to see where the bullets went in, and for that matter, where they came out. He was only half sure, due to the grip, as to which end was the dangerous one. Other than that, it didn’t conform to the proportions of any gun he’d seen before. He gripped the chrome shaft, trying to get a good look into the barrel. Gripping the upper receiver proved impossible: it was freezing to the touch.
“What the hell is it, Dad?”
“You just stay over there, Junior. Don’t come any closer, ya hear?”
It had a strap, which he quickly looped over his head. He pushed the alien weapon around to his lower back. With his bulk and weight, it sat there quite comfortably. He approached the strange, chilled box again to inspect the small black boxes. He turned the gun over on his hip, looking for instructions. Seeing it in the light, he could make out a small port in the base of the handle. It confused him at first because it reminded him of a cordless drill battery port and then it made sense. He took a power pack and slotted it into the handle of the weapon. It went in with a satisfying, elegant and surreal click, like Lego pieces slotting together.
“I said stay back!”
It didn’t seem to do anything after that. He expected it to make a noise or light up, like in an eighties movie, but then it dawned on him that, in his experience with regular guns, that was never the case. He handled it with a light touch. The trigger was made up of two very light pressure triggers, like those of a cordless drill. Their tacky, clicking noise made him wonder whether some of the parts were bought wholesale from some crappy factory in China. He held the gun on its side as he manipulated the triggers. An irritable twitch caused him to squeeze a little too hard. A spasm of bright teal light gave him snow blindness for a moment before his vision returned.
The gym teacher blinked like someone had snuck up on him with a Polaroid camera.
“What did I say about cussi-? Holy shit!” he said as he noticed a station wagon-size hole in a shoe store sign on the other side of the street.
“Oh snap, dibs on the other box!” Junior said as he turned to the bookstore lady. She was still watching quietly from the door of her half-destroyed shop. She turned to him as he approached her, saying nothing.
“Err… can you like move?” he asked.
She opened her mouth, but before anything could come out, she was whipped in half by a barbed tentacle that had wrapped around her waist. A snapping, viperous tail dragged her torso back inside the building. It still clung to life, scratching at the wooden door frame in vain, before being ripped through the opening by an inhuman force. Her legs took a moment to fall onto the pavement, and began twitching. Her lower intestines spilt out, like hot sausages boiled in acidic brine.
The boy slipped and fell on the pile of entrails that sloshed at his feet. He crabbed backward, his eyes tearing up in prey-like terror, “…D-d-dad??”
“Are we leaving?” a little voice said. A little girl in galoshes splashed in a puddle gleefully. She smiled and tipped back the hood of her flowery pink raincoat, revealing a toothy grin, with a few teeth missing.
“Well, we can’t stay here; that’s for damn sure,” Carpenter said as he looked around the town. The lazy morning sun bobbed and weaved in the sky over the ruins of Sage Valley. He took a long, deep breath of the fresh air, laden with dull, smoky smells and the coppery sent of blood. He stretched his toes out in the pair of tight-fitting leather work boots he had found in the little girl’s house.
“You swore!” the little girl hissed as she pulled the strings on the hood of her jacket, sealing her face off. She made little, soppy splash noises with her feet.
“What ‘damn’? Ah, whatever, we gotta keep moving. We’ve got a chopper waitin; we’re leaving in style, Kid.”
“You know how to fly a helicopter?”
“How hard could it be?” Carpenter said as he rubbed his nose with a smelly-looking finger.
“WE FOUND ONE!” A loud guttural male voice boomed off in the near distance.
“Shhh.” Carpenter lifted the girl and covered her mouth with his dirty hands. He flattened himself against the red brick side of a department store. They were on the main high street that led out of town.
“Holy fuck, Mojang is gonna shit when he hears we found one, just like, out in the open, like this. Err, how do we open it?” A group of bikers stood dumbstruck around a metal container. It was lodged in between two parked cars.
“How the hell should I know? They usually just open up.”
“Maybe there’s, like, a password.”
“You – you know: ‘abra cadabra, open sesame, hari krishna’ – something dumb like that.”
There were three of them, all quite unremarkable. The first was a balding, middle-aged guy wearing rattlesnake-style cowboy boots. A second wore a black Nazi infantry helmet attached firmly to his head with a chin strap. The last guy was doing the whole toreador thing, with a bright red leather jacket, to be different.
They’d turned away, but they jerked back as a sudden acute, hissing sound came from the box.
“What the fuck?” Rattlesnake Boots said.
The sounds of gears and pneumatics were reminiscent of a timed bank vault. The case opened, in a concertina, from one side, as if it were in a really fucked up episode of ‘Storage Wars’. It revealed an ominous cloud of dry ice smoke.
“What is it?” Nazi Helmet said.
“What the fuck?” Red Jacket said.
“It’s just a bunch of junk!” Rattlesnake Boots said as he picked up a pair of nun chucks with golden dragon inlays.
“A thirty-eight.? I might as well throw my shoe at a zombie. Fucking bitches’ purse pistol,” Red Jacket said as he held up a small revolver in two fingers before he tossed it over his head.
“A slingshot? Now they’re fucking with us!” Nazi Helmet said, as he lifted a professional-looking aluminium slingshot. “Ooh, it has, like, an armguard and everything. I’m sure I could shoot a ball bearing up a zombie’s nose.” He twanged on the surgical tubing; it snapped back into his eye comically. “Ow, fucking piece of shit!” he screeched and tossed it into the street.
“Oh, come on” Rattlesnake Boots said as he held up a frying pan with an unimpressed look on his greasy face. “Throwing knives, couple of flick knives, a crossbow, a Pez dispenser? Ninja stars? The ‘Batman’ soundtrack? Silverware forks? This shit is useless. Where are all the machine guns and grenades and shit? Fuuuck!”
“Huh, you said a bad word,” a little voice said.
“Huh?” Rattlesnake Boots turned to look at the little girl in her floral raincoat. Turning back to poke deeper into the crate, he said, “Get away from me, Kid, you’re bothering me.”
The little girl reached down and picked up the small cute thirty-eight, remarking upon it fondly.
“Look, Kid, go play somewhere else, OK?” Rattlesnake Boots turned to tell the kid off. “Gimme that! Kids shouldn’t play with guns!” He snatched it out of her little hands, wagging a finger. “Now get lost before I give you a spanking like your parents oughta done!” He opened the cylinder and shut it again with a delicate snap. “Jesus, it’s loaded and everything! Could have blown your little face off! Is that what you want?” He looked at her sternly. “What are you waiting for? I told you to get the hell out of here!”
“I can’t.” She strained her face as if she was about to cry.
“Why the hell not?” Rattlensnake Boots said as he tucked the thirty-eight down the front of his pants.
“Because the man said I had to distract you,” she said coyly, splashing one of her little feet in another puddle.
“What? What the hell are you talking about?”
A scrambling, scuffing noise behind him was like something from an eighties cop movie. It rattled in Rattlesnake Boots’ ears. Carpenter screeched across the hood of one of the cars and landed a heavy, ill-fitting leather boot heel in the toreador’s face. Red Jacket had been minding his own business, trying to sort through junk. He fell back with a dirty boot print on his face and a healthy-looking break in his nose.
“Sit down,” Carpenter said as he put his boot on his shoulder and pushed him over.
Nazi Helmet threw a punch. Carpenter’s dirty face rolled with it, as if the grease of his cheek redirected the force around his head. He let out a breathy laugh and grabbed Nazi Helmet’s forearm in an animal-like grip. Carpenter pulled the brim of the Nazi helmet. The chin strap made manipulating his head quite easy.
Rattlensnake Boots puffed out his chest and reached for the thirty-eight. Before he could get a good grip, all the wind was stolen from his lungs. A vicious Nazi helmet hit his solar plexus like a battering ram. The small gun fell down his leather biker pants.
“Is that a gun in your pocket?” Carpenter said as he quickly spun Nazi Helmet around by his shoulder, snapping his neck with a quick clothesline-knife hand strike to the Adam’s apple. A satisfying snap was heard by all. Carpenter wrapped his arm around the winded Rattlesnake Boots’ shoulder. “Or are you just pleased to see me?” He reached a snake-like hand down the front of Rattlesnake’s pants and grabbed the thirty-eight. “Never gets old,” he whispered in his ear. A few sharp little pops went off in Rattlesnake’s pants. He fell to the ground, grabbing his bleeding, burnt balls.
“Yo mudda fukka!” Toreador spat around his nose, which had taken a detour all around his face.
“I told you to stay down,” Carpenter sneered as he popped off a couple of rounds into that nice red jacket. “What a waste,” he said, kicking one of Toreador’s limp legs. “That would have looked good on me.”
Rattlesnake writhed on the ground, trying to make himself as small and mouse-like as possible as he bled to death.
“Can I have it? For the bad guys?” Laura said sweetly.
Carpenter tongued his yellow teeth as he thought about it. Looking down at the light pocket pistol, he cracked opened the little cylinder. All the shells were fired but one. He made a face and clapped it closed with a flick of the wrist. He spun the cylinder with two fingers and pointed the cute barrel at the precocious little girl.
She looked up at him with those big green eyes and he smiled. He flipped the gun, holding it up by the trigger guard.
She took it with both little hands, biting her lip excitedly as she cradled it.
“Only use it on bad guys,” Carpenter said, raising a fatherly finger, a complicated grin on his face.