Authors: William Todd Rose
APOCALYPTIC ORGAN GRINDER
William Todd Rose
This is how our world died …
Once upon a time, in a kingdom called the United States, there lived an evil wizard who thought he was good. He lived in the middle of a vast desert and spent most of his days seeking guidance from a book of stories. One of his favorite tales in this book told of a time when the kingdoms of Earth would be overrun by the wicked. During this time, sickness and death would hang over the world and herald the coming of a great hero. The hero, it was said, would vanquish evil and lead His people into a land far, far away where they would live happily ever after.
The wizard believed in this story so much that he wanted to do everything within his power to help the foretold events come to pass. Because he was a wizard, he was able to cast spells with his words. The frightened, the lonely, the broken, and lost: these were the ones who most easily fell under his spell. Leaving loved ones and possessions behind, they journeyed to the desert on a sacred pilgrimage just so they could stand by his side and learn from his teachings.
It came to pass that the wizard stood before his congregation one foggy morning and announced that the great hero had come to him in a dream. The hero whispered in the wizard’s ear, sharing with him divine instructions and repeating them over and over until they had been committed to memory. So the wizard kissed his wives upon their mouths, closed the oak door on his workshop, and was only seen by his most trusted knights for nearly two cycles of the moon.
When he finally emerged, the wizard had grown a bushy beard and held aloft a vial of magic liquid. What made this liquid magic was that it was actually alive. Tiny creatures, much too small to be seen, swam within the container and the wizard told his people how these organisms were actually bits of the angel Gabriel, who would cleanse the world with his fiery sword.
The magic liquid was then transferred, a little at a time, into other containers that were called cigarette lighters. Cigarette lighters had a little button that, when pushed, would cause fire to jump out of a hole on its top. The wizard’s special cigarette lighters, however, produced no flame. Instead, there was a small tab that could easily be pulled out. Once the tab had been removed, the liquid turned to gas and seeped out through a crack in the plastic that was thinner than a human hair. The gas then carried the pieces of the angel Gabriel into the air, where they could be brought into the body through breathe.
In this time, there were also giant metal birds that flew all over the world. The birds would land at nests where people, like you and me, would climb into their bellies and be carried away to distant lands. And it was to these nests that the wizard and his disciples went.
Instead of allowing the metal birds to eat them, however, they stood outside the nest and watched for people who had normal cigarette lighters that had stopped working. Using a decoy lighter to produce fire, they then swapped it out for one of the Gabriel lighters and told the weary travelers to keep it as they had many, many more. So in the course of a week, bits of the angel had been sent out to every kingdom of the Earth.
And that, dear children, is where the fucking fairy tale ends.
Tanner Kline crept through the forest with the stealth of a mountain lion. Placing one foot in front of the other, he was acutely aware of every brittle twig and dry leaf. The worn soles of his combat boots hit the moss covered earth heel first. His toes then followed suit in a rolling motion so smooth and practiced that the sound of his steps were no louder than the wind rustling the trees overhead. He breathed as slowly as he walked, pulling air through the cloth particle mask that covered over his nose, and then exhaled it through his mouth so measurably that the dirty cotton didn’t so much as bulge.
On cooler days, the mask was the worst piece of his uniform. The elastic band held it so snugly to his face that the metal band across the nosepiece felt as if it were grinding into his bones. In addition to this, the air within the mask always felt warm and moist, which lead his skin to itch in the places where the concave piece of cloth rubbed against his cheeks and chin. On this particular day, however, it wasn’t the mask he mentally cursed –it was the white Tyvek suit that crinkled like a tarp with every move he made.
Originally, the suit had been designed to keep chemicals from leaking onto the clothes and skin of workers unfortunate enough to spill a barrel of sulfuric acid or caustic. As such, the material was so tightly woven that not even the smallest drop of contaminant could seep through its pores. The inverse, however, was also true. The suit trapped body heat like the glass walls of a greenhouse, even within the shade of trees.
Tanner's back and chest were slick with sweat and he knew he'd have to stop for water soon. But first he had to ensure the immediate area was clear: it simply wouldn't do for him to unzip his naked body from the protective shell and take a long pull from the canteen slung over his shoulder only to have a Spewer come along. He'd be as defenseless as a baby bird with a broken wing, his entire body exposed to potential infection. As a Sweeper, it was his job to be cautious and methodical, to patrol the forests surrounding his settlement and eliminate threats to the community. Dying out here, in what should have been his realm of expertise, would be a dishonor that would taint his family for generations to come. So he had to be certain he was completely alone before he'd so much as pull the mask from his face.
He stalked through the clearing, circling the perimeter as birds chirped overhead, and clutched his antique thirty-ought-six in gloved hands. The wind whispered through the boughs of trees as sweat trickled down his spine. Even more than a drink of water, he wanted to feel that breeze on his bare flesh, to relish the coolness of evaporating sweat and let the stink of his body be buffeted away. When on patrol, he usually hoped to stumble across a Spewer; besides the swell of pride that accompanied a clean kill, there was a certain satisfaction that came with knowing he'd made the world a little safer for his daughter. He dreamed of a day when she could run and play in the fields without the escort of an armed guard, when she could just be free to be a kid. But, at least for now, he prayed that there was nothing out there but plants and wildlife.
From the other side of a dense thicket of underbrush, Tanner heard a scuttling sound and froze in place. He stood there for a moment, as motionless as the rocks jutting through the earth, and listened with his head cocked to one side.
“Rabbit” he thought. “Maybe a squirrel?”
Perhaps. But the forests were also the realm of the Spewers, which is precisely why settlements needed Sweepers such as him. They hid within the trees and hills like the savage animals they were, scavenging, hunting and poisoning the world by their very presence. Amassing in writhing hives of filth and disease, they rarely traveled alone. So if it was a Spewer, chances were good that more were close by.
Tanner pulled the particle mask away from his face just far enough to feel the relative coolness against his chin and lips. Behind the goggles that protected them, he closed his eyes and breathed in so slowly that it seemed as if his flared nostrils were analyzing every scent. There was the earthy, old vegetation smell seeping from toppled trees whose rotting wood was speckled with moss and the fan-like blades of mushrooms. A hint of honeysuckle and pine stirred by the breeze tickled his nose and he opened his eyes again.
Maybe it really had been nothing more than the wind shaking leaves and branches against one another as it wove through the forest Nothing more than Nature's practical joke. But still ... he wasn't convinced.
Tanner inhaled again, even more slowly than he had before. And there it was. Faint, but unmistakable. It was like the stench of a bushel of potatoes that had rotted to the point that dark gunk oozed from the shriveled spuds. It was the scent of infection.
Tanner's heart galloped with the cadence of a runaway horse and he allowed the mask to snap back against his face. Flicking the safety off the rifle, he advanced, feeling as if he were moving in slow motion. The green fronds of ferns seemed deeper and richer now and he could make out the faint gurgling of a brook he hadn't heard before. It was as if all of his senses had shifted into predator mode and he pictured himself as a tawny mountain lion slinking through the pools of light and shadow that dappled through the canopy of leaves.
Cutting straight through the underbrush wouldn't work. Besides being so noisy that his prey would've scattered long before he reached the other side, the thorns that weaved through the thicket would also have pulled and ripped at his protective suit. Instead, Tanner skirted around the edge, each step as silent as a leaf falling to the forest floor.
As he grew closer, he heard something that sounded like sighing. The tremolo that vibrated the voice, however, destroyed any doubt that it could have been the wind. No, this sound was definitely made by a living creature. A Spewer.
Near the edge of the brambles, the stench of infection was so pungent that it seeped through his mask and seemed to hang in a thick cloud around his nose and mouth. Experience had taught him that this indicated multiple targets; a single Spewer simply wasn't enough to produce a reek that intense. There had to be at least two, but no more than four.
He peeked around the corner of the bushes, his face so close to the vegetation that leaves tickled the fuzz on his cheekbones. And there they were –two Spewers, one male and one female. The dirty rags the savages used for clothes hung from the low branches of a sapling and their naked bodies were sprawled at the base of an evergreen.
The female lay on a bed of pine needles and her matted hair was tangled with leaves and small twigs. With eyes closed and legs spread, she cooed as the male Spewer thrust into her body with quick gyrations of his hips. Even though his back was facing Tanner, the man in the Tyvek suit could clearly imagine the bloodstained gums that would outline his yellowed, decaying teeth. He could picture the jaundiced tint to the eyes and the scabs and scars that pockmarked the face.
His stomach churned in a concoction of disgust and excitement and he rolled his head to one side as he pressed the stock of the rifle against his shoulder. Squeezing shut one eye, Tanner peered through the scope. Between the crosshairs, the Spewers were magnified to the point that bile shot through his esophagus and stung the soft lining of his throat. Choking back bitter revulsion, his muscles tightened as he made minute adjustments to his aim. His best bet would be to take them both out with a single shot, which shouldn't be too difficult.
Through the scope, the Spewers appeared to be so close that it looked as if he could reach his hand and tap the male on the shoulder. He could see the greenish yellow pus within the stone-sized blisters that covered their bodies. The blisters were membrane thin and the pressure of infection made them pulse and throb as if tiny hearts were submerged within the cloudy liquid. Portions of the Spewers' bodies were marked with deflated blisters that had yet begun to scab over; directly below these festering wounds, new bubbles of flesh filled with contagion and strained against the skin.
Filthy fuckin' bastards.
Tanner took a breath. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger, a blister on the male's shoulder blade gave way to the forces that pressed against it. A pinprick hole burst through the center and a stream of pus arced through the air, splattering his back and the trunks of neighboring trees with the thick goo. Tanner instinctively winced and his stomach felt as if it were attempting to turn itself inside out as he watched the eruption lose its power. Now that the initial pressure had been relieved, the pus simply oozed down the savage's back like a glob of watery mucus. Within days, new blisters would form wherever the infection had touched; they would balloon out, stretching the skin thin as more and more discharge gushed into the makeshift reservoir. And then they, too, would burst, beginning the cycle anew.
Think of Shayla. What would happen to her if she got near one of those things? If one of them spewed when she was playing or . . . .
The thought of his daughter was all it took. Before his internal monologue even completed, the disgust had been washed away with cold resolve. He held his breath and pulled the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot boomed through the forest and a flock of startled birds took to the air with a flurry of wings. The bullet tore through the middle of the male Spewer's back and a spray of blood spattered against the female's breasts. The shot should have pierced the male's heart and went on to strike the female as well. But something had to have went wrong. As his body collapsed on top of her, her shrill screams echoed through the hills and valleys as she tried to squirm out from under her dead lover. One hand clawed at the ground, raking furrows into the earth with her fingernails, while the other pushed and shoved at the corpse pinning her.