Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Peter fought the urge to swing the barrel around at the three Stalkers charging from the right. He knew they were still coming. Could hear their squeaking pants as they neared. But the three monsters on the left were closer. And airborne.
The stalkers led with their long hind legs extended, claws splayed wide. If they made contact with prey, the talons would sink into the flesh underneath as the full weight of the creature slammed into the victim. If the unlucky prey wasn’t killed by the impact, the claws would finish the job.
He made momentary eye contact with the Stalker leading the way. He saw intelligence in its gaze, but it was masked by rage and hunger. If the creature was smart enough to understand what the machine gun could do, its raw emotions kept it from really comprehending the consequences for its actions.
Or maybe it did understand?
Maybe all this rage and hate seething from the thing was because it could remember what it once was and loathed him for it. His very existence might mock them. He didn’t think the creature could comprehend all this, but back in the part of its brain that was once human, it might remember, and feel...
For a moment, he pitied the thing.
And then he shot it, punching three holes in the center of its gray chest, which was lined with bulging ribs. The shots kicked the monster back, flipping it over through a cloud of pink gore. The tumbling body stumbled the two Stalkers behind it, and Peter cheered inwardly as he turned the gun barrel to the right.
He pulled the trigger, but the angle of the gun barrel was blocked by a Stalker’s body as it landed on the side of the truck, the hot metal sizzling against the creature’s skin. The truck shook and skidded from the impact, but Jakob managed to keep it moving and on the road. Somewhere in the back of Peter’s mind, he heard Anne screaming. Or was it Ella? He couldn’t tell, but then his voice joined the chorus.
He shouted in surprise and abject horror as the Stalker clinging to the side of the truck stretched out its sinewy neck, opened its needle-tooth-filled maw large enough to clamp down on his head like a bear trap and lunged for him. Peter leaned away from the gaping jaws, but the elastic holding him in the truck also kept him from diving away.
The jaws snapped just an inch from his nose with such force that the colliding teeth snapped, spraying his face with bits of enamel and spittle.
Peter winced, but years of training and field operations—though now distant memories—had honed his reactions into something closer to instinct. Action without thought. He dropped back, letting his weight stretch the elastic band back until the stored potential force in the band propelled him back up. As his feet rose first, he kicked hard with both legs, catching the Stalker in the chest. He felt ribs break. The monster roared in pain. But it held on, a look of determination on its face...until a shotgun blast removed the expression, along with the rest of its bald head.
As the shotgun blast rang in Peter’s ear, he felt glad that Ella had remembered his discarded weapon and had the wherewithal to use it. Not many people would have thought or moved as quickly. Of course, anyone unable to do so was probably already dead. The world was now a twisted version of Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest. Now it was survival of the most savage, which didn’t bode well for his son’s future...or his daughter’s.
The shotgun-propelled gore blasted back and slapped a second Stalker in the face, blinding it before the creature could lunge forward. But the third monster leapt up to take the now headless beast’s place. The first thing it did was demonstrate its intelligence by slapping away the shotgun before Ella could chamber another shell. Then with a quick swipe of its claw, the Stalker severed Peter’s rubber band. The black band, freed from one side of the truck, snapped away, striking Peter in the gut while the still-attached side of the cord, still wrapped around his waist, yanked him off his feet and slammed his head into the bed’s side wall.
Vision spinning, Peter tried to right himself, but the loose floor of spent bullet casings rolled under his feet. There was nothing he could do to help Ella, who was still held in place by her rubber band, and she wasn’t heavy enough to lean back very far.
And then, in a flash of vicious motion, everything he thought he knew about Ella changed. With a battle cry she reached forward, meeting the Stalker’s reaching head, and as the creature tried to sever her head with its teeth, she clung to its face and buried her thumbs into its eyes. There was no hesitation in the action, no squeamish flinching. The motion was fluid. Practiced. Without remorse or revulsion.
The Stalker shrieked, twisting its head upward. Ella’s thumbs slipped out of the ruined eye sockets with wet pops. And still, she didn’t stop. While the monster had its head turned skyward, letting out a tortured wail, Ella punched the thing in the throat, connecting with what once might have been an Adam’s apple. There was a crunch of cartilage and flesh that cut the Stalker’s cry short and left it thrashing and gasping. Ella ducked as the creature’s writhing claws passed over her head. And then it was gone, spinning over the pavement behind them.
As he starred at Ella, bewildered by what he’d just witnessed, she turned down to him, gazing hard at him, and shouted, “Ten o’clock!” The words snapped Peter back into action. There were still three Stalkers left. While Ella stretched against her rubber band, trying to recover the shotgun, Peter found his feet, latched onto the machine gun and swung the barrel left to ten o’clock.
He pulled the trigger, unleashing four rounds, but the nearest Stalker had anticipated the attack, ducking and dodging to the side faster than he could track. While he followed it, the second moved in for the kill, leaping up to be met with a hail of buckshot. At a distance of fifteen feet, Ella couldn’t miss. However, as the buckshot dispersed, it also lacked the lethal efficiency of a close range shot. The metal balls punched into the Stalker in a wide spread, creating many small, non-lethal wounds rather than a big hole. But the impact and pain generated by the shot caused the Stalker to fall short of the truck and stumble upon landing, craning its head down to look at the rivulets of blood now running down its body. In the long run, the wounds could prove lethal from infection, but in the short run... The wounded Stalker rejoined the chase, lagging behind, less of a threat, but determined to join the feast.
Peter fired a second volley at the Stalker to his left, missing once again, but forcing the monster to retreat into the trees. There were four of them now. Another had joined the hunt. Two on the right, one on the left and the injured creature, slowly falling behind.
Maybe some of the buckshot pierced a lung?
The situation was improved, but he was also dangerously low on ammo. He’d lost count, but knew there wasn’t enough to miss again. He swung the barrel right as the two Stalkers closed in. He lined up the shot, prepared to send a single round in the head of the nearest Stalker, but then the truck rounded a corner. No longer held in place by the rubber band, Peter was flung to the side. Instinctively, he gripped the machine gun to stay upright, but that also meant squeezing the trigger.
Bullets raged into the air as casings rattled to the truck bed. Peter tried to pry his finger away, but his falling weight had wedged it in tight, nearly to breaking. Ella ducked as the barrel swept over her head, narrowly avoiding the chaotic barrage. The only thing that saved Jakob and Anne from being mowed down by their father was that the machine gun ran out of ammunition.
Ella stood back up, lifted the shotgun, fired, pumped and fired again.
Peter pulled with his arms, using the mounted machine gun to lift himself up. He expected a Stalker to be leaping at him, but found the two on the right lying in the road, separated by fifteen feet.
“You got the first one,” Ella said, revealing his accidental barrage had yielded at least a small measure of success. It also implied that she’d killed the second, and he wondered if she might be more fit to lead this cross-country expedition through hell.
Movement pulled his vision back to the left, where the still healthy Stalker paralleled the truck, staying in the trees. Peter looked ahead and saw an approaching right turn.
That’s where it’s going to hit us,
he realized, and he saw the second Stalker, perhaps sensing the impending kill, charging up behind them, no longer slowed by its wounds.
of a shotgun being pumped turned his eyes back to Ella. She frowned. “It’s spent.”
He had shotgun shells in the backpack on his shoulders and shirked it off, but he already knew it was too late. Neither of them could reload in time.
Ella must have realized this, too, because she said, “Go for the eyes and throat. If it gets on top of you, and is a male, a kick in the nuts still does the job.”
In the moment before the attack, something in the air changed. The crashing of the Stalker charging through bushes was joined by a rumbling. It was subtle at first, but then it rose through the air like an impending tsunami. If the Stalker heard the sound, it either didn’t register a threat or was lost in bloodlust.
“What is it?” he asked.
Ella just shook her head.
The truck reached the turn, tires screeching. The Stalker moving parallel dove out over the road, which brought it right in front of them. The truck swerved hard to the left, but not far enough. Peter thought Jakob might have been trying to swerve away from it, but when a flash of pink moved past them on the right, he realized the boy had just been avoiding something else in the road.
The source of the rumble charged past with something akin to a squeal of delight, high-pitched, but with the volume of a fog horn. For a moment, it appeared the object had collided with the airborne Stalker, but the notion was obliterated when the giant creature stopped and shook the already dead Stalker in its mouth. The new creature was the size of an elephant, with thick pink skin sprouting tufts of wiry black hair. Its tubular body lead to a neckless head with a long snout, which was tipped by a beak that now severed the Stalker in two. A shield of flesh-covered bone rose up behind its eyes, giving it the appearance of a hornless triceratops. Peter noted the scars lining that shield and didn’t like what they implied. The new monster pinned the Stalker’s torso to the ground with its cloven hooves, split in two, the black halves looking more like over-sized spear tips.
The second, wounded Stalker, wisely skidded to a stop, its claws scratching against the pavement. Without pausing to watch, it turned tail and ran. There was no meal here, and it knew it.
Predator had suddenly become the prey.
As the monster devoured the Stalker, now little more than shredded meat, Peter caught site of a pattern on the muscular side of its hind thigh. For a moment, he thought it might be a scar or birth mark of some kind, but then he recognized it.
The truck rounded the bend, leaving the horror behind, or at least out of sight. Feeling numb, Peter lowered himself to the crate, sat down and looked into the window. Anne had buried herself between the seats, head down. Jakob, hands on the wheel, ten and two, kept them on course, but the boy’s arms were shaking.
“You did great,” Peter said. “Take us a few more miles. If nothing is chasing us, I’ll take over.”
Jakob just nodded.
When Peter stood again, he set himself to the task of switching out the machine gun’s ammo drum. He pointed to the backpack. “Shotgun shells are in there.”
Ella quickly opened the pack and took out the box, pausing when she saw what was below. “What’s this?”
“A change of clothes and gear for you and Anne,” he said, discarding the empty drum. “Packed it last night.”
“You knew this would happen?” she asked, surprised.
“If I was certain, I wouldn’t have shaved your heads. But I like to be prepared.” He allowed himself a grin. “You always were trouble.”
She shook her head. “I have no idea what that was, by the way. The pink thing.”