Estimated reading time — 46 minutes
This is a continuation of The Fort, so please read that story first!
Ryan opened his eyes and squinted against the brightness of the hot, desert sun. He was dazed, and for a moment he struggled to remember where he was. Lifting his head slightly, he groaned as a trickle of something warm ran down his face. He sat up and as a flash of pain shot through his head, he remembered.
He was sitting in the middle of a narrow road. It was straight, and disappeared into the distance with hardly a bend or turn. He was sure it must have been wider at some stage, but the desert had reclaimed much of the road’s surface.
He inspected himself for any serious injuries, and was relieved to find that he only had the one minor gash on his forehead. Slowly, he got up and trudged over to his bicycle. Ryan lifted it onto its wheels and groaned.
“Fuck.” he sighed.
The front wheel was buckled. He wouldn’t be able to repair it.
He cursed himself for his own stupidity.
Ryan had been making good time, going along at a steady pace, until he had seen the sign that the next town was only 15 kilometres away. Short on water and almost out of food, he had excitedly sped up, hoping that the small city would have what he needed. He had passed through a couple of small towns the previous days, but they had offered the bare minimum. One town had been functioning fairly normally and had even had electricity. But the locals were suspicious of strangers and unwilling to help. He didn’t blame them. He had nothing to offer in exchange for supplies or shelter. Eventually an old man had given him some food and fresh water and politely asked him to be on his way.
Ryan had hardly sped up before he had struck something which had been buried in a pot hole and covered by sand. The impact had sent him flying over his bike and this object was what had crippled the front wheel.
He removed his rifle from the makeshift holster he had attached to the bike and tossed the mangled bike aside. He inspected the rifle for any damage and cursed again when he saw a large scratch on the butt. He would test it later to make sure it still worked. Taking off his pack he sat down again, deciding to take a break.
He took a few mouthfuls of water and looked into the distance. He thought he could see smoke rising in the direction he was heading. It was probably coming from Karasburg which he was approaching.
It was late afternoon already and he’d prefer not to have to sleep under the stars again. The cold desert night was not a nice place to be – not to mention the pack of jackals which he thought had been following him for the last couple of nights. He didn’t think they would attack him, but their calls and scurrying in the darkness, just out of reach of his campfires light were deeply unsettling.
Getting up and shouldering his pack and rifle, Ryan started in the direction of Karasburg.
He walked at a brisk pace, beginning to see more and more dirt roads turning off to farms and smaller settlements. A few abandoned cars were next to the road or sometimes in the middle of it as he neared the town, and he gave each one a cursory search for anything useful, but they were all empty – long ago searched and stripped of anything remotely valuable.
It had been 17 days since Ryan had left Prieska, peddling his bicycle for between 4 – 6 hours a day. He never pushed himself too hard, going at an easy pace – sometimes not travelling at all on some days – preferring to conserve energy and making camp long before nightfall each day. He always tried to find a hill or higher ground, which gave him a better view of his surroundings and he always camped a good distance from the road. Some nights he heard people passing down the road with vehicles or motorcycles, and though they might have been able to assist him on his journey to his father-in-law’s farm, he had always deemed the risk too great to show himself. It was a brave, new, fucked up world, and you just couldn’t assume that anyone had anyone else’s best interest at heart. It was about personal gain. Survival. Hadn’t he himself shown that to be true time and time again?
So he would kick out his fire and hide, out of view, watching as sometimes up to 6 vehicles passed at a time. He could never really see the occupants in the darkness, but he could sometimes hear their voices, laughing or talking, drifting over to him in the still night air.
Sometimes he would hear or spot a vehicle coming towards him in the day, and he would jump off his bike and scramble off the road, taking cover behind the nearest bush or hill. It was on one such day that he had almost lost his life for the hundredth time since the world had gone to shit.
He had been cycling like all the other days before that, just a couple of kilometres after entering Namibia through the Nakop Border post. He was quite content, having found a rifle with ample ammunition after using almost all of his at Prieska. The rifle had been hidden away in a back office at the border post, probably some official’s personal hunting rifle. The official had likely been planning on going hunting after work or over the weekend and had brought his rifle with, before something had changed his plans – had changed the world’s plans.
After Ryan had despatched a lone lurker which had been trapped inside the building with his brand new small axe he had found on the outskirts of Upington, he had searched every room. The rifle had not been in the safe – which was open – but rather had been cleverly stored beneath a desk. The desk was hollow underneath and Ryan had accidentally dislodged the weapon after slamming the drawer shut looking for anything useful.
He was pleased to see that it was also a Remington, though it fired a larger calibre and was much newer than his old rifle. It was in excellent condition and Ryan guessed that the previous owner had cared for it well. It also had a scope and after rummaging around a bit more underneath the desk, he found five full boxes of ammunition. Either the official was planning on shooting a lot of animals, or he had been a terrible shot.
He had cleaned and checked all the rifle’s components then and there to make sure it was in good working order. He didn’t want to pull the trigger an hour down the road and then nothing happened.
He was peddling along deep in thought some time later when he heard the groan of an engine behind him. Ryan cursed, realising that he should have heard it sooner, but that he had been deep in thought, thinking about the hunting trips his father had taken him on.
Jumping off his bike, he turned and saw an old Toyota bakkie coming along rather quickly. There was no time for him to hide, so he placed his old rifle on the ground and drew the new one, letting his bicycle fall to the ground.
The driver of the bakkie saw Ryan and slowed. Ryan chambered a round, but did not raise the rifle. It came to a stop about ten meters from Ryan.
Both front doors opened and two men climbed out. The driver was middle aged, with thick gray hair and a big beard while his passenger was much younger, no more than twenty three – his son, most likely. Both of them had fire arms, the older man carrying a type of shotgun and the younger one a pistol.
“As mens in vandag se dae so in die pad staan met ‘n geweer, is die kanse goed dat jy vrek geskiet gaan word.” the older man said in Afrikaans. Ryan’s Afrikaans had never been great, but he understood what the man said: “If a man stands in the road with a gun in today’s times, the chances are good he’ll be shot dead.”
Ryan looked at each in turn before replying in English. “That may be true, but the people doing the shooting better be damned sure they don’t get shot first.” He knew that he shouldn’t be combative, that he should try to de-escalate the situation, but Ryan had never responded well to threats.
The older man looked at the younger one and smirked. “Nogals ‘n soutpiel ook. ‘n Windgat soutpiel.”
Ryan’s eyes flashed. He responded even worse to insults. The man had called him arrogant and a slang term used to insult English people in South Africa. Soutpiel roughly translated to salt dick, implying that the person had one foot in the UK and one in Africa and that his penis was dangling in the Atlantic.
“I’d be more careful about insulting strangers when you have no idea what they are capable of.” Ryan replied, this time in Afrikaans, and the older man’s smirk faded.
They stared at each other for a few moments more, neither looking away or backing down.
“I think we’ll take those weapons of yours, boy.” the older man finally said when he realised Ryan wasn’t backing down.
Ryan cocked his head to the side, as if he couldn’t hear him.
“Just lay down the rifle, take ten steps back, and we’ll be on our way.” the man insisted, taking on a soothing tone, as if he was trying to calm down an upset friend.
Ryan cocked his head to the other side and smiled. It was a genuine smile, an excited smile. A smile of someone who knew what would happen next – and looked forward to it.
Ryan had by now accepted that confrontation was unavoidable, but he was for some reason looking forward to it. The long hours on the road, the boredom, the loneliness and the demons that he was still trying to best had reached a breaking point. And he decided that it would not be him breaking. He theorized that a fight, however unnecessary, might be just what he needed to refocus after what happened in Prieska – and before.
“Tell you what.” Ryan said, still smiling. “You put both of your weapons on the seats and start walking back the way you came, and I’ll let you live. I’ll look after your bakkie, I promise.”
It seemed as if the older man was about to laugh, but something in Ryan’s eyes gave him pause. He looked over at his son who gave the slightest shrug and then back at Ryan.
“Well? I’m waiting.” Ryan said.
“Let’s just go dad, leave him.” The younger man said nervously and for a second it seemed as if his father would oblige, but something kept him there and made him turn to Ryan once again. It was probably pride.
“I’m going to count to five.” the man said, cocking his shotgun. His son looked at him uncertainly, but also snapped the safety off of his pistol.
“One-” he began.
“Two.” Ryan said, not moving, though the smile had now disappeared.
The man hesitated, but then lifted his shotgun. “Three.” His son had now also taken aim with his pistol.
“Four.” Ryan said and turned his rifle slightly so that it was pointing forward, though he did not raise it.
The man hesitated again, but after a moment opened his mouth to say the final number.
“Wait!” Ryan cried, lifting his arms and holding the rifle in one hand. “Wait, I give up, I don’t want to die!”
Both men tensed, but then relaxed and lowered their weapons somewhat. The older man smiled smugly and was about to speak when Ryan interrupted him.
“Five.” he said quietly and the man’s smile was replaced by confusion. Ryan brought down his rifle and fired at the older man, but it was not his rifle. It was not the rifle that he had been firing since he was twenty one. It was a new, more powerful rifle. The shot missed, hitting the top of the windscreen. The man cried out in alarm and stumbled backward, falling over and firing into the air involuntarily. At the same time, the pistol of the younger man cracked and the round slammed into the ground at Ryan’s feet – also an accidental shot. The younger man seemed to recover and pulled the trigger again – but nothing happened. The pistol had jammed. Ryan needed to get out of the open before the old man could fire again and he set off at full tilt, bearing down on the younger man.
He struggled with the pistol, trying to un-jam it, and stealing glances at Ryan as he came sprinting at him. Finally he dropped the pistol and raised his arms in surrender and as Ryan reached him he struck him with the butt of the rifle in the stomach. The younger man collapsed, curling into a ball and coughing loudly. Ryan quickly scooped up the jammed pistol and shoved it into the back of his pants, then, ejecting the spent cartridge and chambering another round, he pointed the rifle at the young man’s head.
“Your son is on the ground and my rifle is pointed at his head. Try and be a hero and he’s dead. So, slowly come around the back of the bakkie, with your hands in the air.”
A few moments went by when all was silent, save the young man’s whimpering and coughing. Then, slowly, Ryan heard the footsteps of the older man approaching from the back of the bakkie. He appeared, holding his arms above his head, with the shotgun in one hand.
“Toss the shotgun into the back and then move away from the bakkie.” Ryan said and the man obliged. When Ryan felt he was far enough, he told him to stop.
“We weren’t out here alone you know. We have more people that should be coming by any minute.”
Ryan looked at the old man, but said nothing.
“Just let us go. Take the bakkie and go.”
“What’re your names?” Ryan asked.
“I’m Frik and this is my son Jannie.” Frik seemed eager to cooperate now. Perhaps he thinks if he can build a rapport with me they will get out of this alive, Ryan thought.
“So where were you headed and where were you coming from?”
“We’re headed to Ariamsvlei. There were no children there, so the town remains almost completely unaffected. Most days there is even electricity. We happened upon it a year ago. Right now we were coming back from Upington. We needed things that small towns don’t really keep.”
Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Such as?”
“Ammunition, tools for farming and engine parts for our vehicles and tractors.”
Ryan looked into the back of the truck and saw nothing. He raised his eyebrows even higher.
“It wasn’t a very successful trip. We struggled to get into Upington, it was crawling with swarmers.”
Ryan cocked his head at the word. He decided it described the lurkers well.
“Once we finally got in, we could hardly find anything. Everything was looted or burnt to the ground. And then we wasted too much time – we got caught after dark in an old auto shop. We couldn’t really defend it, most of the doors were damaged and they got in real easy. We lost six people that night.”
He looked down and Ryan could see he had trouble keeping his tears at bay.
“We spent a week crawling along back roads into every small town between here and Upington, but it wasn’t a very fruitful week. We lost two more people. We lost so much more than we gained on this donnerse trip.”
Frik was about to speak again when they heard another vehicle approaching. It was a Land Rover Defender and it was flying. Looks like Frik wasn’t lying, Ryan thought.
The Defender slowed as it neared, and then abruptly stopped, coming to a stop with screaming tyres and skidding over the built up sand on the road. Ryan guessed the occupants had seen the situation – a stranger holding their friends at gunpoint. Ryan quickly moved so that the Toyota was between him and the Defender, all while keeping his rifle pointed at Jannie.
“You better tell them to not do anything rash, or this day is going to go from bad to worse for you.”
Frik nodded and moved to go to the Defender, but Ryan stopped him.
“They’ll be able to hear you from here, you don’t need to go over there.”
Frik was about to argue, but stopped. He nodded and turned to the Defender again. Three men exited the vehicle. They were all middle aged, but looked younger than Frik. They were all carrying firearms – two pistols and a large revolver.
“Frik? Are you ok? What’s going on?” the driver called over in Afrikaans. He was tall and muscularly built. He had a full, black beard and wore a Stetson hat and sunglasses.
Frik looked at Ryan questioningly, his eyes asking how Ryan wanted to handle the situation. Ryan’s mind was racing. His odds of getting out of this alive were steadily declining.
“Tell him I’m taking the bakkie. I’m taking your son with me too and the Defender’s keys. I’ll leave them both five kilometres down the road, giving me a good enough head start. You get your son, I get better transport, everybody wins.”
Ryan could see that Frik hated the idea of letting his son go with him and probably also the thought of losing his vehicle, but he dutifully relayed the message over to the man in the Stetson whom he called Darren.
“That sounds fair.” Darren called back and Ryan breathed a small sigh of relief.
“I have a counter offer, though. If you come out right now and drop your gun, I’ll just shoot you in the head and you won’t suffer. But if you don’t, I will make it my mission for the probably limited time I have left on this earth to cause you the utmost amount of pain possible.”
Something in Darren’s voice scared Ryan. He believed every word that he had said. Ryan had leverage, true, but he was greatly outnumbered by armed men and his entire plan hinged on the assumption that they actually cared about Jannie.
“Give me the keys.” Ryan hissed to Frik.
“They’re in the ignition.”
“Get up and get in the driver’s seat.” he commanded Jannie, and he slowly got to his feet. He forced him to climb over the passenger seat and was doing so painfully slow until another hit with the rifle got him moving faster. Ryan quickly followed into the passenger seat and told him to start the Toyota and drive. He did as he was told, but not fast enough for Ryan. He turned to look at Jannie and scowled.
“I told you to drive, for fuck’s sake, now drive!” he growled and the frightened Jannie floored it. The engine roared, but almost immediately another sound was heard above the protests of the engine. Bullets were slamming into the back of the truck. Ryan looked back and saw the three new arrivals all firing at them, while Frik was waving and protesting, obviously concerned that his son might be hit. Ryan was about to lift his own rifle to return fire, when one of the tyres blew. It must have been hit by a round from the firing men, and although they could limp along, Jannie seized the opportunity and violently jerked the steering wheel right. Ryan was flung against the door and it was soon apparent that Jannie had lost all control. They flipped. They had not been going fast enough yet to cause a serious accident, but the sand covered road caused them to slide for a great distance on their side before finally coming to a stop.
Jannie had ended up on top of Ryan, and while his face was close to his, Ryan struck out with his head one, two, three times, breaking Jannie’s nose and cutting his lip. Blood spurted from his lips and nose.
“You little shit!” Ryan screamed, delivering another head butt for good measure.
Ryan quickly clambered out from underneath the dazed Jannie and recovered his rifle and the jammed pistol which had tumbled from his pants. Replacing the pistol and slinging the rifle over his shoulder he climbed to the opposite door and awkwardly clambered out. Just as he poked his head out of the Toyota, more rounds slammed into the chassis of the vehicle and he quickly ducked back inside. Unslinging the Remington, he took a deep breath and leaned out again, but this time he kept low. More rounds zinged about him, but he kept his hands and his breathing steady, and got one of the men shooting at him in his crosshairs. They were running toward the flipped vehicle, firing as they ran. Holding his breath, he squeezed the trigger and the rifle roared. The man dropped, and the other two quickly turned and ran back, ducking behind the Defender.
Ryan pulled himself up and dropped onto the ground, getting behind the Toyota and keeping it between himself and his would be killers.
He took a few moments to think and to settle down. There were about a hundred meters between him and the shooters, which meant that their small arms would be less accurate. At least there he had the advantage. His bicycle was about eighty five meters away. There was no way he could get away. He would have to deal with the shooters before leaving in any way or form.
He leaned around the flipped bakkie and peered through his scope. Nothing stirred around the Defender. Frik had also taken cover. He would need to eliminate them if he was to get away alive. He especially wanted to eliminate Darren. He intimidated him. He looked like a killer. Ryan had come across a few people like him since he left Johannesburg. People like him didn’t care who suffered or who they had to hurt to get what they wanted. They only cared about their own survival and gain. Confrontations with people like him rarely ended with both of them walking away.
Ryan thought he heard the Defender start. He looked through the scope again, but could see no one in the vehicle. They must’ve climbed in through the back door and were keeping low. The Defender started crawling forward. They were trying to close the distance.
He fired a shot through the windscreen, but the Defender kept coming. Ejecting the spent cartridge, he fired another through the windscreen, lower this time and he could see the headrest of the driver side shake as the round slammed into it.
Ryan took a moment to consider his options and then fired a shot into the engine. He quickly reloaded, and upon looking through the scope again, he could see what looked like water pouring out from underneath the engine. He hoped he had struck something important.
This time he aimed for the front tyres, and after four more shots, both had burst.
The Defender stopped, and as Ryan reloaded again, he saw it turn around slowly. Ryan gave a wry smile. They were retreating. He thought that they realised they wouldn’t be able to cover the distance without the Defender getting too damaged, or one of them getting shot.
Suddenly, he felt the Toyota he was leaning against shake, and looking up, Jannie was staring down at him. He jumped down, and Ryan could not raise the rifle quickly enough. Jannie landed on him, using his arms to shove Ryan away. He went sprawling, dropping the rifle. He was up quickly, and he sprang forward to prevent Jannie from picking up the rifle by landing a savage kick to his midsection. Jannie grunted and stumbled back, but in the same movement turned and ran to where the Defender was slowly retreating. Calmly, Ryan picked up the rifle and took aim.
He was angry at how things had gone, and Jannie had especially pissed him off by causing the Toyota to flip and by attacking him.
He held his breath and fired. The round struck him high up on the back and red mist lingered in the air as he fell.
He did not move again.
Lowering the rifle, he saw one of the Defender’s doors open and Frik jump out. He ran to where his son lay and Ryan had an internal debate.
He thought the Land Rover was crippled. There would be no point in trying to take it anymore. He could kill Frik easily as he came running, but he wasn’t angry at Frik and the Land Rover was heading in the other direction. He saw no point. Though, Frik might want to kill Ryan for killing his son.
Ryan pondered for a moment longer before lifting the rifle and firing again.
The round jumped next to Frik’s feet and he stopped. He looked up at Ryan and he could see through the scope the hate and anger on Frik’s face.
“Go back and bring my bike.” Ryan called cheerfully. Frik didn’t move. Ryan fired another shot and this time the round nearly took his foot off. Frik jumped, and glared at Ryan for another moment, before turning and jogging back to where his bicycle was lying on its side. He lifted it onto its wheels, and through the scope, Ryan could see Frik debate about whether or not to pick up Ryan’s old rifle.
Ryan held his breath.
A moment later, Frik was jogging toward him with the bicycle. When he reached Jannie, he sent it rolling toward Ryan before kneeling next to his boy. He gently turned him over, and was soon sobbing loudly.
The bike had fallen over a few meters away from Ryan and he cautiously moved toward it, keeping his rifle trained on Frik. He had almost reached it when he heard the sound of feet shuffling on gravel to his left. He snapped the rifle toward the sound, but could not see anything. A row of shrubs and bushes obscured everything a few meters back from the road.
A low moan rose from behind the shrubbery and Ryan’s blood ran cold. His breathing quickened and his heart pounded. He panned the rifle left and right, trying to look everywhere at once.
Frik had not heard anything through his sobbing, and he continued to cradle his son’s body.
Another moan came from behind the bushes and a moment later a single lurker emerged from the bushes. Ryan had not seen many lurkers since Prieska – a few in small towns here and there which he was able to easily avoid and the one at the border post. He guessed that this one had been around sixteen. The black veins covering its ashy grey skin seemed to suck up the ample sunlight, and its feral, yellow eyes were unfocused.
It spotted him, and quickened its pace somewhat. Images of the hundreds of lurkers charging at him in Prieska flashed through his mind and a small groan escaped his lips. It was late afternoon, and the sun was still shining bright, but Ryan remembered the frenzied insanity with which they had pursued him that awful night with frightening clarity.
“Shoot it!” Frik screamed. He was standing now, between the lurker and his dead son, as if protecting his body.
Ryan lifted the rifle, and was about to fire, when the bushes behind it seemed to vomit lurkers. Dozens emerged. Their moans and cries combined into a terrifying crescendo and all of them turned toward Ryan and Frik after spotting them. The commotion of the afternoon must have caught their attention and lured them from wherever they were coming from. Frik looked as if he would run, but glancing down at his dead son, he seemed to steel himself. He widened his stance and pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath at his side.
Ryand had time to think, Idiot, before sprinting to his bike. The lurkers were much slower and clumsier in the day – almost lethargic. Ryan always thought they looked drunk or high. They were fairly easy to get away from in the day, especially if you had a head start, and Ryan meant to do exactly that.
He quickly lifted the bike and holstered his rifle in the sheath he had made. Then, he started running next to the bicycle, building up some speed before finally jumping on and peddling furiously.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw that Frik had already taken down two lurkers, but that he was struggling with two at the same time and four more were quickly closing in. He has about one minute left to live, Ryan thought. He could also see the Defender slowly moving away from the scene in the distance. It almost seemed to be skulking – ashamed.
Looking ahead again, he screamed in frustration. Ahead, about ten or more lurkers were slowly heading his way. They were apparently coming from all sides. He thought about taking out his axe, but then remembered the pistol he had repossessed from Jannie. He stopped and took it out. The lurkers ahead were steadily making their way toward him, though he had a little time before the closest one would reach him. After removing the magazine and the spent cartridge which had caused the jam in the barrel – stopping the slide from moving – he checked how many rounds were in the magazine. Only one had been fired, which meant that he had fourteen more.
He reinserted the magazine, pulled the slide back to chamber a round and took aim.
The pistol cracked and the nearest lurker dropped, a chunk of its forehead missing. He fired again at the next closest lurker, putting it down as well. Firing a third time, he missed, but pulling the trigger again brought the third one to its knees. Ryan now had some space before the next batch of lurkers was upon him. Deciding that it really was now time to get out of there, he again started running next to his bicycle. Jumping on, he had kept the pistol in his hand and was soon flying toward the monsters that wanted to kill him.
He swerved between them, dodging and ducking as they lunged at him. He shot those he deemed to close before nearing them, but soon the pistol was out of ammo. A lurker almost got hold of his shirt, but its hand slipped free at the last second. Ryan had screamed when it had touched him, and another image of a lurker with its hands around his throat flashed through his mind.
Finally, he seemed to be in the clear. There were no more lurkers in front of him or to either side of the road. He kept up the furious peddling though. He wanted to put as much distance as possible between him and the scenes behind him.
Ryan looked back a final time before the scene was blocked out by a low hill. He could not see the Defender or Frik, but he could see a group of lurkers gathering on the ground near the flipped Toyota. Many of the lurkers seemed to be following Ryan, in their slow, almost lazy gait, and this made him peddle even faster.
Ryan peddled and peddled some more, until long after sundown. After sundown he had wanted to stop and thought about making camp, but a collection of shrieks in the quiet night air had encouraged him to keep going. Though Ryan knew that the screams had come from a long way behind him, he had not felt comfortable stopping yet.
It was almost midnight when he came upon something that he hadn’t seen since his initial exodus from Johannesburg. In the distance to the right off of the main road was a town. And the town had lights. The power was on.
That must be Ariamsvlei, Ryan thought, unable to stop a smile from spreading across his face. I’ll have to get in and out before Darren and his lackey gets back.
That was of course if these people would even allow him to enter.
Peddling much slower now, he turned onto the smaller side road which led to the town. The road was smaller but in a significantly better condition. It had been cared for.
Slowly, he approached Ariamsvlei. It had a single road leading into it, and Ryan saw that a flimsy looking chain link fence had been raised around what seemed to be the entire town. A large gate was closed across the road, and a Ford Ranger bakkie was parked there, with two men sitting in the back of the truck on camping chairs.
He called ahead, not wanting to surprise the men into possibly shooting him.
The two men quickly jumped up, the one lifting an assault rifle and the other switching on a mounted spotlight. Ryan stopped, impressed by the fire power. He blinked into the light, momentarily blinded.
“Don’t shoot please.” Ryan said calmly.
“What do you want?” the older of the two men asked.
“I was just passing on the main road and noticed the lights. If I could have shelter for the night that’d be great, but really I’m just looking for some food and water and then I’ll be on my way.”
The men talked amongst each other for a few moments and then the one jumped down and headed into the town.
“Stay there.” the other said firmly. The one with the assault weapon was left behind.
Ten minutes went by, and finally the man that had left returned with another, much older man. Ryan guessed him to be in his late seventies.
“If you would be so kind as to lay your belongings on the ground and approach the fence?” the old man said.
Ryan obliged. He was exhausted, and if there was even a small chance that a soft bed waited for him, he would be as friendly and cooperative as he could manage.
He stepped up to the fence and when he was about two meters away the man asked him to stop.
“What’s your name?” the man asked him.
“Ryan.” he said.
The old man looked him up and down, taking in the dirty clothes, the shoulder length hair, the wild beard and all the cuts and bruises.
“What brings you way out here Ryan?” the man asked.
“Just out for a stroll, mr…?” Ryan tried, not enjoying the fact that the man knew his name but he didn’t know his.
“Sebastian. I used to be the mayor of Ariamsvlei, though we only had about five hundred people. We were mainly here as a rest stop for trucks on their way deeper into Namibia.”
He paused. “Out for a stroll, hey?” he said and chuckled. “Well, you look a little worse for wear. I suppose you’d like to come in? Perhaps have a bath, some food and some rest on a soft, warm bed?”
Ryan’s heart soared and he couldn’t help but smile.
“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.” Sebastian said. Ryan was about to say something, to protest, perhaps even to beg, but Sebastian spoke again.
“We are not in the habit of letting strangers into our little slice of heaven, and we’ve never let anyone in after dark. I am sorry, but these are our rules and those rules have kept us safe over the last couple of years.”
Ryan’s shoulders sagged and he looked down at his feet.
“We are however, not cruel people. We will give you food and water to hold you over for a while, but I’m afraid that is all we can offer you.”
Ryan wanted to plead to stay the night, only one night, but something in Sebastian’s eyes told him that he was not the kind of man who changed his mind often. Besides, maybe it was better this way. Darren and his friend might be back at any moment, and Ryan figured that he would not like to be in Ariamsvlei when that happened.
So all he said was thank you.
Another fifteen minutes passed after Sebastian sent a man to get some food and water. Sebastian stared at Ryan, but said nothing. His grey eyes made Ryan uncomfortable and soon he turned away, staring into the darkness. He thought he heard another scream coming out of the darkness, but he couldn’t be sure.
Eventually the man returned with a black bag full of supplies. There were ten litres of water and various canned foods, along with biltong and bread. Dried fruit rounded off the supplies.
“Thank you.” Ryan said again and Sebastian nodded and gave a small smile.
Ryan hesitated before returning to his bike. He thought about telling them about the lurkers – that they might possibly follow him this way, especially if one of them had managed to find his scent after dark. But suddenly he was angry. And tired. He was sick of this world – sick of monsters trying to kill him and even sicker of people trying to kill him after he survived the monsters. But most of all he was angry at Sebastian. He was angry that he wouldn’t allow Ryan inside his little fortress. He was angry that he thought it safer to send a man out into the wilderness, most likely to his death, than to let him stay one night and get some rest.
So Ryan didn’t tell him. It was petty, but he didn’t care. He figured that with their fence and automatic fire power they would be able to handle it.
He thanked him again and walked over to his bicycle. He peddled back to the main road and then found a hill about two hundred meters from the road. He laid out his sleeping bag, but didn’t start a fire or even take off his shoes. He could still see Ariamsvlei in the distance, and that provided some comfort, but he knew he would not get a lot of sleep. Ryan kept his rifle close. It was loaded and a round was chambered.
He munched on some of the biltong he had received and sat in the darkness. Eventually, his head became too heavy and he lay down. He went over the day’s events, and finally drifted off to sleep. He had dark dreams, filled with large castles and pretty girls falling from them. Lurkers jumped out from everywhere, lunging and grasping at him, even calling his name. He had nowhere to run, and the largest castle of all would now be his grave. He was trapped. Suddenly he was atop the castle, and the lurkers climbed, slowly, but with purpose. He had nowhere to go. He had no weapons. Ryan screamed at the top of his lungs. His ear drums popped. Then the bricks of the castle started cracking and popping. A lurker jumped to the roof and screamed, jumping at him.
The sharp pop of automatic gun fire and hysterical screaming woke him from his nightmare.
He sprang up, quickly taking in his surroundings. He looked in the direction of Ariamsvlei, but all he could see were shapes and shadows. Lifting the rifle he used the scope.
Ariamsvlei was under attack. The flimsy fence had been torn down, and dozens of lurkers were storming into the small town. He could not say whether they were the same ones he had encountered that afternoon.
Ryan watched as a woman and a man exited a house close to the gate, running to their car and being pursued by a lurker which had gained entry to their house. The man ripped open the door for his wife and ushered her into the car, but after he slammed it, they were upon him. Ripping and biting and gnashing their teeth, they tore him limb from limb. They punched and kicked and bit and after there was almost nothing left, they rounded on the car with the woman inside of it. They banged on the windows and kicked the doors and shook the car.
Ryan at first wanted to help. He picked a lurker to eliminate and was about to squeeze the trigger when he stopped. It was a long way. He wasn’t sure he could even make the shot. Add to that the fact that if those were the same lurkers from the afternoon, they would now be off his tail and firing a loud rifle in the quiet night could put them right back on it.
He removed his finger from the trigger.
Ryan stopped beneath the sign welcoming people to Karasburg. It was mid afternoon and darkness was still some hours away. He had made good time, walking quickly and hardly stopping. He missed his bicycle though – walking wasn’t much fun at all.
Looking down the road leading into the small city, it looked utterly deserted. Many buildings had been ravaged by fire, and cars were haphazardly parked about the street. Lifting his rifle, he slowly started forward.
He had considered staying the night and going down into Ariamsvlei the next day to scavenge for more food and the assault rifle the guard had had, but had decided against it. It felt like an unnecessary risk. So he had packed up camp, and with the howling, screaming chaos of the town being decimated for background noise, he had moved on again.
Ryan cautiously moved up the street, looking into doorways and alleys before continuing forward. A strange smell hung in the air. Like a braai with meat that had gone bad.
Building to building he moved, and any hopes he had of finding water or food slowly evaporated. The town was empty and destroyed.
Reaching a large intersection, he spotted smoke rising to his right. Turning up the street he headed toward the smoke, the strange smell became more pungent, and he became nauseous.
He reached another intersection and saw that it bordered on what used to be a small park. It was also where the smoke was coming from. Creeping closer, Ryan realized that this was also where the horrible smell was coming from.
A massive mound of bodies was piled in the centre of the park beneath an old, dead tree. The bodies were blackened and crispy, completely destroyed by fire. Moving closer, Ryan saw the tell tale veins and ashy skin colour of lurkers on some of the bodies that were not completely charred. Someone had been killing lurkers and piling them there to burn. Or somehow catching them and then burning them. A gust of wind brought the pungent smell to his nose again, and it was so much stronger this close to the pile.
He retched. He had always considered himself to have a strong stomach, especially given the things he had seen the past couple of years, but this it seemed, was just too much. After a few moments, and with his stomach empty, he wiped his mouth and stood upright. The fire had burnt all of the lurkers, but some hardly seemed touched by it. Ryan noticed a boy who looked to be about eleven years old. He thought that if you took away the veins and the ashy skin, the boy almost looked peaceful – as if he was only sleeping.
He thought back to the day when the first reports of children attacking adults in Johannesburg had surfaced. They had heard about these stories from across the globe, but somehow you always managed to shrug it off, because ‘it’s happening in another country’ or ‘it won’t happen here’. He had just returned from the gym, and Carla was busy with dinner.
He had kissed her and then something had caught his ear on the TV which she liked to keep on for background noise while cooking. He had turned the volume up. The news was reporting a large attack of some kind. Though the reports had been unconfirmed, it seemed that a large group of children had attacked and killed several people in a local settlement not far from the airport. They had viciously attacked and killed over ten people with their bare hands and police had been forced to use lethal force.
Ryan had remembered the previous week’s news, about the same sort of thing happening in the US.
“Where is Kyle?” he asked Carla.
She looked up from the TV, concern etched on her face.
“He’s still at cricket practice.” she said. “Do you think we should go and get him?”
Ryan was silent for a moment. “No. I’m sure he’s fine.”
A noise brought Ryan back to the present. He turned to where he thought it came from, and saw a Land Rover Defender heading down the street toward the pile of burnt flesh. He crouched low, quickly ducking behind the pile of burnt bodies.
“Give me a fucking break!” he hissed, looking around for an escape route.
It was the same Defender that Darren had been driving several days before. He immediately thought that they must be looking for him, but that was crazy right? They were probably just moving on, trying to find a new place to settle down after the destruction of Ariamsvlei.
Right, he thought, because you’re the luckiest guy on earth.
He crept to the edge of his disgusting cover and peered around. The Defender had stopped and three men and a woman exited the vehicle.
He took cover again and keeping the pile and tree between him and the Defender, he crept away, heading to a small shop that used to sell what looked like jams, chilli’s and other delicacies. The door was ajar, and he managed to squeeze inside and slowly pull it shut behind him.
The store front had a large floor to ceiling window, which was somehow still intact, and he moved behind the counter. Again peering out, he saw through the window that they were now inspecting the pile of bodies. He recognised Darren, with his cowboy hat and sunglasses. He had an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. Ryan could now see that it was an AK-47. It was the guard’s from Ariamsvlei.
The others were also armed, either with pistols or revolvers.
Ryan wanted their vehicle. They had obviously managed to fix it and found new tyres. It would make his trip easier and safer. He wouldn’t have to sleep in the open and he would be able to cover a lot more ground each day.
He was going to kill them all.
He didn’t feel bad about it. He knew Darren would kill him in an instant and as for his three followers – well, they were here, so he assumed they would kill him too. He thought about firing from the shop, but there was too much cover for them to get behind after the first shot sounded. He would then be trapped in that little shop with a large window. They would be able to either storm the shop or wait him out.
Darren said something to them and Ryan watched as they spread out, weapons ready, investigating the area. They seemed to be heading to the different shops and buildings surrounding the park. They were looking for something. And he would bet his rifle that they were looking for him.
They weren’t stupid. They were moving together in two’s, obviously not wanting to give him an opportunity to get the jump on one of them. How did they even know I was here? Ryan thought to himself. They’re just making sure, another thought tried to comfort him, but it didn’t work.
He moved backwards into the shop, quickly taking in his surroundings. He noticed a back door, and found that it was unlocked. It led into a narrow alley which they had probably used for storing their refuse and taking deliveries. It was long though, and if he was caught in there it would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
He saw the two other men move into the store next to the one he was hiding in. Ryan was indecisive: did he move out to the alley and try to flank them? Or hole up in another building which provided more cover and wait for a better opportunity? Or did he stay put, take out as many as he could and then use the alley as an escape if necessary?
His decision was made for him. The two men – who he had dubbed Mad and Max due to their stained, torn, leather jackets – emerged from the store next door and immediately moved on to the one he was hiding in. It was a small shop, with the counter taking up most of the space and with no more than six meters from the counter to the front door.
Ryan crouched behind the counter and drew his axe from its sheath. If he could take them out without alerting the others, it would be a major bonus. He laid his rifle and pack on the ground and picked up a jar which he assumed was filled with what was once jam – now though, it was a green, almost black congealed substance which he would have done many things to avoid smelling. With his axe in his one hand a heavy jar full of disgusting jam in the other, he tensed, as he waited for the door to open.
He heard one of them grasp the handle of the front door and it slowly creaked open. Ryan waited. He heard them enter the store and he heard them close the door behind them, probably in some misguided attempt to stop Ryan from sneaking out past them. He waited until they had taken a few more steps into the store and then sprung into action. Ryan was crouching at the farthest end of the counter from the front door and the back door. He hurled the bottle of jam to the opposite side of the counter, being careful for the bottle to stay out of their line of sight, so as not to alert them of its origins. As soon as the bottle struck, it burst and at the same time Ryan jumped up.
Both Mad and Max were half turned away from him. Their guns were up and ready and their eyes were wide. Ryan pulled back his axe and flung it with all his might at Max. It struck the side of his head with a sickening thud, impaling itself in his temple and he collapsed almost instantly. Ryan was already over the counter by the time Mad had turned and Ryan tackled him to the ground with a flying dive. Ryan heard Mad’s pistol go flying, and he was on top of him throwing punches in a flash.
Ryan wasn’t a very tall man, and not very muscular either, but he was extremely quick and stronger than he looked. This soon meant nothing, as Ryan had underestimated Mad completely. After at first attempting to block Ryan’s blows, he now shot out a single blind fist, which struck Ryan on the chin. He was knocked off of Mad and his head spun. Mad was much stronger than Ryan had thought. He had failed to capitalise when he had him on the ground. Ryan shook his head and stumbled to his feet. He would have to figure out a way to take him down before he alerted the others.
But as Mad slowly got to his feet, Ryan got the impression that he needn’t worry. This was the type of man who relished a fight, and he would want to end Ryan himself.
Ryan looked into his eyes. Shit. I think I’m in trouble here, he thought as Mad spat blood.
Ryan quickly turned and ripped his axe from Max’s head and his confidence grew with the weapon firmly grasped in his hand.
Mad smiled, and reached behind his back, pulling a very large, almost machete-sized hunting knife from under his coat.
Well, shit, Ryan thought again. I just can’t catch a fucking break.
Mad rushed forward, violently swing and slashing his knife. Ryan ducked underneath the first swipe and was able to turn his whole body to avoid a downward slash. He dodged Mad’s knife attacks fairly easily, he was much quicker and Mad had no real technique. Ryan thought that he might try and tire him out a little, until an opening for a counter attack presented itself.
Ryan avoided another flurry of attacks, until he overstepped once while retreating, and his foot struck an overturned stool. He lost his balance for only a moment, but Mad was relentless.
Ryan was now on full defence, bringing the axe up to ward off Mad’s vicious attacks. He was no longer in a position to only dodge the onslaught but was forced to parry and fight back to avoid the large knife. He was on the back foot, and constantly off balance, causing openings in his defence, and although he knew it, he was powerless to do anything about it.
Again Mad brought the knife down in an aggressive stab, and Ryan raised his axe to block it. But this time Mad was waiting for him. He quickly brought up his other hand and clutched Ryan’s axe and hand in his large frying pan sized fist. Ryan was trapped. With his free hand, he tried landing punches, but even those that connected had little effect. Mad wrenched the hand that held the knife free, while still holding Ryan’s axe and hand tightly in the other. He tried stabbing Ryan, but he still had some mobility, and he managed to avoid the large blade. But after another successful evading manoeuvre, Mad jerked the hand holding Ryan’s back and up, pulling Ryan closer. He almost lifted Ryan off the ground as he ripped his hand back, and at the same time he brought the knife forward.
It plunged into Ryan’s side.
He gasped as pain shot through his body. Mad pulled him closer, until their faces were only an inch apart. He looked into Ryan’s eyes, grinning like a child on Christmas morning.
Ryan snapped his head back and head butted him three successive times. On the third time, Mad released him, stumbling backward and pulling the knife free. He had somehow come away with Ryan’s axe. Ryan collapsed to his knees, but looking up, he saw that Mad was already recovering, wiping the blood from his nose and spitting it from his mouth.
Ignoring the pain in his side, Ryan jumped up and dived over the counter. Mad was after him, but he was too slow. When Mad reached the counter, Ryan stood up, the rifle aimed right between Mad’s eyes at point blank range.
Mad froze, and raised his arms, dropping the axe and the knife.
“Wait, I -”
Ryan pulled the trigger and Mad’s head disintegrated. Blood and gore flew in every direction as the bullet shattered the large window in the front of the store. Mad’s body tumbled to the ground, falling with a heavy thud as his blood quickly soaked the floor.
Ryan almost collapsed, but grabbed onto the counter with his free hand to hold him up. He inspected his wound. It was deep, and serious, but not as serious as he had initially thought. He was losing a lot of blood though. He needed to try and curb the bleeding, but first he needed to get out of the store. He quickly slung his pack over his shoulders and then limped around the counter and collected his axe and Mad’s pistol. He then headed for the back door of the shop. Ryan limped as fast as he could down the alley, expecting to hear gunshots behind him any second. He actually gritted his teeth more in anticipation of the gunshots than the pain.
But he made it safely to the end of the alley, and taking a quick look in all directions, he headed to the former butchery across the street, mainly because the front door was wide open. He couldn’t afford to get caught out in the open now.
He stumbled through the door and headed into the back. He found a small office, with a table and two chairs. Closing the door behind him, he was disappointed when he saw it couldn’t lock, but moved one of the chairs in front of it. He peered out of the window through the old fashioned blinds, but could see no movement.
Working quickly, he removed the first aid kit he always kept with him from his pack and cleaned the wound as best he could. He would need stitches, but for now he used all the bandages he had, binding them tightly around his torso. He would need time to stitch himself up and somehow Ryan knew this day was far from over. He reloaded his rifle and cleaned his axe and then, pulling another chair to the window, he took a seat and watched.
At first he saw nothing, but after half an hour he saw a couple of lurkers shambling up the street. It looked like they were coming from the other side of town – the way he had been going when he arrived.
Soon more and more of them appeared, and Ryan was amazed at how a single gunshot could lure so many, especially since the shot had gone off almost two hours prior. Ryan could not see the park or the alley from the window he was seated at, but he could see the road that led to the park and he thought he could just see the spare tyre of the Defender sticking out from behind a building.
Darkness was not far off, and he thought he needed to come up with some kind of plan.
He decided that if Darren and the woman did not show themselves, he would hole up here for the night. He didn’t have much of a choice, as it was too late to go looking for better shelter. The fact that the streets were slowly filling up with lurkers and that he was injured, ruled that idea out completely. He was concerned that they might pick up his scent and track him to where he was hiding, but he thought that unless a lurker went right up to the alley and butcher’s door, he would be ok.
As darkness crept over the streets, he saw the lukers’ mood and demeanour change. They had been wandering around aimlessly, as if in a dream, but as darkness set in they all started moving faster. Spasms seemed to ripple through them one by one, causing them to hunch over as it passed. They became more vocal. Where earlier, moans and soft cries were all you heard, screams, hisses and shrieks were now heard more often than not. Some of them started sprinting up and down the streets, sometimes running into each other, which caused them to lash out, hitting or kicking each other violently. This only lasted a second though, before they again continued with their roaming of the streets.
A lurker came right up to the window he was sitting at, as if it wanted to look inside. Ryan hunched down in his seat, holding his breath and gripping the pistol so tight his knuckles turned white. It started sniffing around the window, as if it had found an interesting scent.
A gun shot went off in the direction of the Defender and the lurker’s head snapped up. It gave a screech that set the hairs on the back of Ryan’s neck on end before sprinting off toward the park.
More gunshots followed, and soon Ryan could see every lurker running toward them. A scream rose, but it was not a lurker. It was a woman’s. Ryan assumed it was the woman companion of Darren.
Ryan was restless. He thought he was fairly safe in his hide out. But he was also afraid that Darren might make it to the Defender and escape.
For the second time that day, the decision was made for him. As he stood up to move to another window to try and get a better view, he bumped the butt of the rifle against the window. It had been hanging from his shoulder and as he turned away from the window it had made contact. Unfortunately this happened just as a lurker was speeding by. Ryan froze as it stopped and looked straight at the window. Ryan felt as if it was looking straight at him. Holding his breath, he willed the monster to move on, but it came closer to investigate. Ryan thought it was about to move on, but suddenly it started pounding on the window. It must have seen the slightest movement through the blinds, because it was going crazy. Ryan back away slowly, keeping the pistol trained on the creature. He pulled his pack on with one hand and retreated to the door of the office.
Two more creatures joined the first in its pounding of the window and a second later it shattered. The first one was through in a flash, getting tangled in the blinds and falling, pulling them from the wall. The other two screamed at Ryan and jumped through. One of them couldn’t have been more than five and it was the first one through.
Ryan fired, and the small monster collapsed instantly, a red blotch appearing on its filthy shirt. Ryan fired at the second one, dropping it only a meter from Ryan’s feet with a neat hole in its head. The third one was still struggling with blinds, so Ryan took the opportunity to run. He kicked the chair in front of the door aside and wrenched it open, quickly pulling it shut again. He could still hear gunshots echoing in the distance. Hopefully because of the frequency and the fact that they created more noise the lurkers would be drawn to them rather than to his two shots.
He limped away from the door and initially looked for a back door. But as the pursuing lurker slammed into the closed door behind him, he saw that the door had a huge padlock on it.
“Fuck’s sake!” he cried softly and headed to the front door.
The streets were chaos. Lurkers were sprinting toward the gunshots at break neck speed, stumbling and falling over each other. There must’ve been at least sixty that Ryan could see. He remained unnoticed for the time being, and kept low and close to the building. He waited until a large number had passed, and then crept forward. He was headed to the alley that he had exited earlier that day, but he would have to cross the street – meaning that he would be completely exposed and in the open.
He was weighing up his options, when the lurker which he had trapped in the office emerged from the butcher, screaming and foaming at the mouth. It spotted him instantly crouching next to the building. Ryan had no choice.
He fired and the lurker fell.
A sudden silence filled the street, and Ryan turned to see dozens of lurkers looking at him. The world seemed to be paused for a moment, and then all hell broke loose. Screams erupted all around him, and they charged. Ryan flew up and made for the alleyway. There were four lurkers coming straight at him and he put them down with one shot each. He now had an open road to the alley, but at least forty creatures were chasing him, and due to his injury, they were gaining fast.
Ryan reached the alley, just as the closest lurker reached for him, but firing two quick shots it fell, its hand brushing harmlessly off of Ryan’s chest. Though Ryan was still in deep trouble, the lurkers could now only attack from one side, and there was only room for a few to move abreast.
Ryan now walked backwards, firing as they came.
Six shots later the pistol was empty and he chucked it at the closest one, hitting it on the chest. Quickly unslinging his rifle, he brought it forward and fired. Two lurkers dropped as the round passed straight through. Ejecting the spent cartridge, he fired again, this time dropping three as their heads erupted one after the other in a shower of blood. Ryan fired once more, this time only pulling one down.
He was in deep trouble. After the fourth round he would have to reload, but there would be no time for that. They kept coming, mindlessly charging at him. He would never be able to reload in time. Firing the fourth round, two more fell again.
Ryan swung the rifle over his shoulder again and drew his axe, preparing to make his last stand. He would never make it to the small shop before being overrun.
He killed the first one that came within reach with a single strike to the head, and managed to duck beneath a second one’s lunge a moment later.
As Ryan stood upright again, a horn sounded. It sounded as if it was coming from the direction of the park. The rippling, excited lurkers in front of him paused, and soon those at the back began running toward the sound of the horn. The confusion gave Ryan the opportunity to bring down four more lurkers, viciously hacking at their necks and heads.
Most of the creatures had left the alley by now, and Ryan was able to deal with the last remaining, almost indecisive few. He had brought scores down with the pistol, rifle and axe and the alley looked like a war zone.
Panting, he headed to the door of the jam shop, reloading as he walked, but constantly looking over his shoulder, afraid that another lurker attack was imminent.
The horn was still wailing and as Ryan entered the shop, closing the door to the alley behind him, he crept forward to the counter.
Peering over it, it looked like dozens of lurkers were gathering around the mound of torched bodies in the centre of the park. More and more seemed to enter the park every second, and it was then that Ryan realised that the blaring horn was coming from the dead tree. More precisely, it was hanging from the dead tree close to the mound of bodies.
Confused but intrigued, Ryan looked through the scope of his rifle. He found what looked like an air horn hanging from a low branch. It had been fiddled with – the button had been taped down with duct tape, to ensure it blew continuously. Someone was luring the monsters to the park. The gunshots had ceased for the moment, and as Ryan watched more and more lurkers entered the park. The jostled and fought each other to get as close as possible to the air horn and once at the front, they seemed confused and angry when they could not pin point the origin of the sound. This in turn caused them to fight amongst each other, sometimes killing each other in their anger and insanity.
Ryan thought he saw something move in the branches of the tree and suddenly a liquid fell, spraying the lurkers. Five more times this happened in different branches and other smaller trees, covering all the creatures beneath them.
Ryan was confused. The lurkers paid the liquid that covered them no mind, and continued to fight each other to get closer to the blaring horn, only to fight each other again when they managed to get underneath it.
A small, bright light caught Ryan’s eye off to his right. He looked over and saw that it was a single person. The light seemed to be a Molotov cocktail which this person had lit. Ryan could not see much more. The person was a dark silhouette, his shadow dancing back and forth in the bright light of the small flame. Across from him on the other side of the park, a second flame sprang up as another person lit another Molotov. They each lit two or three more. The lurkers seemed disinterested in them, the air horn attracting their full attention even as more entered the park which was now filled to capacity.
At a sign from the first person, the two people tossed their flaming bottles into the crowd of lurkers and as the bottles broke on the ground and the head of a lurker, a fire erupted with a great whoosh. They each threw the rest of their makeshift napalm into different areas of the group, and soon it looked as if all the creatures were on fire. The fire blazed and grew and it spread to lurkers that the Molotov’s hadn’t even touched. Ryan realised that the liquid which was dropped onto them, was probably fuel of some kind, rigged to be spilled somehow.
The noise of the burning creatures was horrific, as they shrieked and moaned in their frustration and what Ryan liked to think was pain. But the noise was nothing compared to the smell. The sickly sweet, pungent aroma drifted on the wind toward him and he had to fight not to retch again. Moments later, the lurkers started dropping. The horn kept them in the park, even as they burned to death. Ryan cautiously exited the shop, looking for the people who had orchestrated the mass purge, but they were nowhere to be seen. He slowly moved around the park, heading toward where the Defender was parked. He was relieved to see it parked in the same spot as earlier in the afternoon.
The horn stopped, either because it was out of gas or damaged by the fire, but still the lurkers entered the park, drawn to it by the others’ screams and the brightness of the fire. As Ryan neared the Defender, he kept his eyes peeled for Darren. He reached the Defender and tried the door, and it was open.
“You leaving?” a voice said and Ryan spun around, lifting the rifle. It was the person who had lit his cocktail first. He was dressed completely in black, with a scarf of some sort wrapped around his face and a hoodie pulled low over his head.
He lifted his hands as Ryan pointed the rifle. They were empty.
“Whoa, whoa!” he said.
Slowly he pulled away the scarf covering his face, to reveal a young man, no more than twenty five. He was clean shaven and underneath the hoodie he wore, Ryan could see short blonde hair.
“I don’t want to fight man.” he said, again raising his hands above his head.
“Where’s your friend?” Ryan asked, looking around.
“I told him to hide until I give him a signal. Just for safety reasons, I’m sure you understand.”
Ryan gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“The people who came in this car, where are they?” Ryan asked, again looking around as if they might appear at any moment.
The fire was still burning brightly, but it had settled down a bit, becoming smaller as it ran out of fuel. Still lurkers ran into the park, soon catching fire.
“We saw them stop, yeah. The two guys got taken out by you. The lady got ripped apart by the screamers and I don’t know where the cowboy went. The last time we saw him he ran into that building. He was still shooting from there when we rigged the horn to go off, but I think he might’ve bailed.”
He turned and nodded in the direction of an old looking brick building behind him. It looked like the town hall or something similar.
“Look, man. We’ve been in this shithole town for more than a year. We left Windhoek, thinking that smaller towns would be safer. Recently we started luring the screamers into the park and setting them on fire, taking out a whole bunch at a time. We did it mostly in the day, it’s easier, but we thought you could use the help tonight.”
He smiled and Ryan gave an appreciative nod.
“It kept the town safer than most, especially since we didn’t have any weapons. We take out a bunch every couple of weeks. It’s dangerous though, my brother and a friend…”
He looked down, seemingly unable to continue.
“We just wanna get outta here. We’re out of supplies. Our car broke down months ago and we can’t get any of the cars here to run, we’re not mechanics. When we saw you take out those two guys and then later how you fought the screamers, we thought you might be our chance to get out of this place. We can’t fight like you, but we have other skills.”
Ryan looked him up and down. “Like?”
“My friend – the other guy – he was an EMT. He knows his medical shit and if I’m looking at you, it looks like you might need some medical attention.”
Ryan grunted, self consciously touching his side. The blood had started to soak through the bandages and his shirt.
“And you?” Ryan asked.
“I’m smart. I’ve come up with a lot of ideas that’s kept us alive longer than most.”
Ryan thought for a second. One thing was true – he did need help with his wound. And it might not be the worst thing in the world to have some company.
“What’s your name?”
“Jeremy. My friend is Tim. But I call him Doc. He’s patched me up a couple of times as well. I burned myself pretty bad a couple of weeks ago.”
He pulled the hoodie from his head and turned his face, revealing burn scars running from his right ear down his neck.
“Call your friend. Let’s see if the cowboy left the keys so we can get the hell out of here.”
“Good call. When the fire burns out, it’ll be business as usual.”
He turned to a small building on the other side of the Defender and gave a wave, followed by a couple of quick, intricate hand gestures.
Ryan looked inside the Defender and saw that the keys were in the ignition. He also saw blood on the seat and floor. Jeremy saw him looking at the blood.
“That’s the lady’s blood, she made it all the way to the car and opened the door before they got her. If she had three more sec-”
Jeremy’s faced exploded and blood smattered into Ryan’s face as a gunshot rang out. Jeremy collapsed, and Ryan took cover behind the Defender. He heard a wail as Tim came running over. He knelt next to his friend, loudly screaming in anguish. Ryan jumped up and pulled him behind the Defender, even as more gunshots rang out, the bullets ricocheting on the ground around them.
Tim fought him, he wanted to go to his friend. He broke out of Ryan’s grip and was about to leave their cover, but Ryan turned him by his shoulder and hit him in the throat with the palm of his hand. Tim gurgled and coughed, stumbling to his knees.
“Stay behind the fucking car if you want to live!” Ryan said with such ferocity, that Tim immediately settled down, holding his throat with both hands.
Ryan had seen the muzzle flashes of the gunshots when he had pulled Tim back. The shots were coming from the building Jeremy had said Darren had entered. He had probably been waiting there for either a chance to escape or for Ryan to show himself. Why he hadn’t taken a shot at Ryan earlier was anyone’s guess.
Ryan crept to the back of the Defender, and leaned out, looking at the window where he had seen the flashes. It was about forty meters away and even as he looked, another flash appeared and he ducked back behind cover.
Ryan thought that they might be able to get in the Defender and speed away, but he didn’t want to risk too much damage to the vehicle. He thought that Darren might be the type of person who’d rather completely destroy the Defender than have someone else take it.
“Tim, listen to me.”
Tim looked at Ryan. He was terrified.
“If we have any chance of getting out of here alive, I’m going to need your help. The fire is also almost out, so we have to be quick.”
Tim was still coughing, but he frightfully nodded after he had looked over at the waning fire.
Ryan gave him an open, stern look.
“I need you to run out and draw his fire.”
“Are you crazy?” he wheezed.
“Do you know how to shoot this thing?” Ryan asked, gesturing to his rifle. Tim shook his head.
“Well, then there’s not much point in me running out there and you shooting, is there? This is the only way to get him. You run out and draw his fire, and I’ll shoot the motherfucker – the motherfucker who killed your friend.”
Tim’s face hardened and a moment later he nodded.
“Ok then. When I say so, you run to that building over there. Run as fast as you can and maybe turn and change direction a couple of times, but not too much – don’t be predictable. Don’t stop, don’t pause, don’t hesitate. Run like the devil is behind you.”
Tim nodded again and got on his haunches. Ryan again moved to the back of the Defender.
“Are you ready?” he asked Tim and he nodded.
Tim took three quick breaths and then launched himself forward.
Ryan waited for a moment, then rolled out from behind the tyre. He saw the first flashes of the assault rifle firing before he could even take aim, but the shots were all directed at Tim. The window was dark and he couldn’t see anything but the muzzle flashes. He would have to guess where to fire.
Ryan aimed just above the muzzle flash. Steadying himself, he took two deep breaths and on the third he held it. Squeezing the trigger, the rifle fired and the muzzle flashes stopped. He waited for a few moments, but nothing stirred. Tim returned a minute later, sweaty and out of breath, but unharmed.
“Did you get him?” he panted.
“I’m not sure. He stopped shooting, but it might be a trick.”
“Should we go check?” he asked. Ryan was wondering the same thing.
“Yes.” Ryan pulled his axe and handed it to Tim and he took it without a word.
“Move quickly and try to stay in cover.” Ryan said.
They left the cover of the Land Rover and jogged over to the closest building, aiming to use it for extra protection. Ryan’s jog was more of a stumble, and his shirt and bandages were soaked with blood. The pain was also getting worse as time passed.
They reached the doorway of the building Darren was last seen entering and they paused on either side. Taking a deep breath Ryan stormed inside, kicking the half open door from its hinges. He quickly moved to the room that he thought the muzzle flashes came from and sure enough, there was Darren.
He was propped up against the wall opposite the window in a sitting position, blood gushing from a gunshot wound in his neck. The bullet had hit him halfway up and to the right of his throat. The assault rifle was lying forgotten at the window next to a bloodied cowboy hat.
Darren looked up as they entered and smiled. Blood stained his teeth.
He tried to speak, but he only managed a gurgle and was then overcome by a coughing fit.
Ryan crouched next to him.
“We’re taking your car, asshole.”
He stood and took a step back. Raising his rifle, he squeezed the trigger.
“Get the machine gun. Let’s get out of here.” Ryan said, turning to leave.
Ryan let Tim drive and they stopped twenty minutes later next to the road. There Tim cleaned Ryan’s wound again and gave him stitches. He was professional and efficient and he did it with minimal effort and pain to Ryan.
“Thanks for saving me.” Tim said when they were back on the road again. They had a full tank of gas and the Defender was also stocked with lots of food, water and ammunition for the assault rifle and another pistol they found in the glove compartment.
Ryan said nothing. He didn’t say that his friend would probably still be alive if it wasn’t for him. He had taken a bunch of pain killers and was drifting in and out of consciousness in the passenger seat.
“So where are you headed?” Tim asked, but Ryan didn’t reply.
“Sorry. Get some rest. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Don’t stop.” Ryan mumbled.
“What?” Tim asked.
“Don’t stop for anything.”
Tim looked over at Ryan and sighed.
“You’re the boss.”
Ryan’s head rolled over and he stared out at the darkness. The darkness was covering a harsh landscape, but somehow in this new world, cities and towns were where the most people seemed to die. Bodies kept piling up, and Ryan was frustrated by the fact that even in humanity’s darkest hours, they still found reasons to kill each other. He was definitely not without blame – god knows he had done his fair share of killing. Ryan wondered if there was a way to come back from that – if there was a chance at redemption.
Maybe there was one way.
I’m coming Carla, Ryan thought and closed his eyes.
Credit: Pablo Dickens
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