by Eric Del Carlo
Moonup, and hear the bastards yowling. Squawk is there’s movement on the south edge of town, down by the burnt shell of the KFC. I got clear memories of when I was way young going there with my daddy, eating crispy-crispy chicken that was like nothing I can describe to anybody who hasn’t tasted it themselves. Now it’s canned beef and Relief corn and whatever you can grow in a backyard, but at least we eat. I’ve been hungry and seen starving, and both are better than being what’s ate.
“They gonna get through, gonna get through, gonnagetthr—”
Jinny swings her gloved palm, barely looking, pops Buck on the back of his head, shutting the little squeak up. I don’t want Buck with us. He’s too young, too scared, but he’s one more trigger. And maybe he’ll surprise me. I hope he does.
It’s been a month prepping for tonight, getting patrols ready and everybody else locked down in town. A year or two back we’d still spend part of the month mounting into the hills. But the bastards are too wily, even when they aren’t furry, and we don’t got the manpower to spare. So the hunts don’t happen no more.
Right now kids and old folks are barricaded inside, and us out here, lives in our hands. We beat back the bastards and live, or don’t and won’t. It’s simple, and if I like anything about this, it’s that simpleness. The world, I sort of remember, used to be a hell of a lot more complicated. People too young to know call them the Good Old Days, but they don’t really know what they’re saying. They’re just scared, like Buck here, sweaty hands on his gun, eyes wide and white, twitching at every sound, not just the howls that started up about twenty minutes ago.
“Let’s head,” I say, catching Jinny’s calm steady eyes. Her I’m glad to have along, real glad. She keeps her red hair chopped short, almost stubble, and both earlobes are pierced over and over. She’s pure badass but not stupid, and I think she’s beautiful.
I lead our patrol down the street. The fat full moon actually gives us shadows, and ironically I’m grateful for the light, even with what that lethal moon means. I remember what this town looked like lit up at night, with electricity glowing everyplace. It must’ve been a crazy amount of that lightning juice running through here. Now there’s two generators in town, one at the doctor place and one kept as backup. It’s been explained by the older folk how they work, but I can’t make it make sense for me. Precious gear, though; once those generators are gone, they’re gone.
I get new squawk on the walk-talk (more precious equipment that can’t be replaced), reports from the other patrols. Pop-pop comes from the south of town. There’s more movement, says Dugger’s group out at Holland Road, and we can all hear plain that the howls are increasing. Wilderness rings the town, trees and hills, and it’s what they used to call “picturesque.” Now the furry bastards are pouring out of those woods, coming out of the night, hungry and wild.
We’re approaching the old highway that skims the town and along which Relief trucks used to come with reassuring regularity. But that was ten years and lots of moonups ago, and things are way different now. A kid like Buck doesn’t even really remember when things were less horrifying than they are these days.
The weedy ribbon of the highway is clear under cloudless moonlight. These will probably be the last quiet moments for our patrol tonight. I try to enjoy them. I catch Jinny’s eyes again and give her my smile, hoping to warm her, to pass her my feelings. I’m good with a gun and sharp enough to lead all these triggers, but Jinny… well…unnerves me. In a good way. I think.
Her eyes shoot back at me. She holds still a second, then winks my way. My heart goes fluttery.
There’s a yowl. Close. I put the rifle butt to my shoulder, eye the nightviz scope, steady, steady, there’s the bastard. I squeeze. Across the crumbling road comes a new sound, a single short bark of pain.
I fan everybody into positions. I make my own fast report, then keep an ear out for more squawk. This is a coordinated effort, the best we can do. We’re just people, but this is our town and we’re going to hold it. Whatever else is happening out there in whatever’s left of the human world, we—will—stand—here.
Or die doing it.
Or worse than die. We all know what that means.
We’re popping off shots now. Most of the patrol have shotguns, because that’s what people mostly owned here in town and because we can make the bullets for them in workshops. I’ve got the scoped hunter’s rifle, but I make my precious shots count, virtually every last one.
The bastards are animals (no matter whatever else they are too) and they aren’t organized. If they ever do coordinate, it’s over for us because there are way-way many of them, and every moonup just seems to brings more. During the month-long prep we make plans and pore over maps and formulate strategies and do drills, but every full moon it comes down to this, finger on trigger, hot stink of powder, howls in the darkness.
I keep an eye on my group. Everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. Even Buck, the little squeak, is firing, pumping, firing, like he’s been shown. He still looks scared, but he’s got a right to. So long as he does the job, he can wet his pants if he likes.
I’m not saying I’m not scared. Get real. The furry shapes are charging across the old roadway, on all fours, teeth bared. They aren’t actually bigger than we are. The Change can’t make more of a body, just alter the structure, redo the bones and muscles, grow all that fur. That’s something that’s been explained to me that I actually understand. What the bastards are, more than anything, is ferocious. Naked animal fury— that’s what they got, and it’s what they use when they attack, when the hunger drives them at us. It’s that primal frenzy that is so frightening, that tightens my innards even as I pick off one after the other.
Some of the buildings here along the highway are burned out. There are also some stripped cars. Inevitably the bastards come too fast, too many, and I call a fall-back. We’re still putting shots into them, but some will get through into town, same as every full moonup; and we’ll coordinate a mop-up and hunt down the strays, hopefully—but not probably—before they cause harm.
The skeleton buildings and cars give us something to put between ourselves and the onslaught. They don’t have weapons; they’re not returning fire. But if one gets on you…
They howl and bark in pain when they’re shot and dropped. Dozens coming now. Dozens more. Eyes flash in the moonlight. Teeth drip. My heart is going faster than when Jinny winked at me. Someone in the patrol is gibbering a Hail Mary, getting the words wrong, not that it matters.
I miss a lead attacker and slug the one that’s twenty yards behind. I have to dive behind the rusting bones of a station wagon car, chambering a fresh round, just as that bastard vaults up onto the roof of the old vehicle, squealing its springs. I’m rolling on the street. I smell the bitter animal musk. I see the fur rippling, see the evil muscular shape of the creature, its legs like a dog’s, its nails grown out and hooked…and the face, with nobody human there at all.
The rifle, badly braced, kicks wildly, and it’s a shot that should go wide nine times out of ten. But this is the tenth, and the sleek hunter’s bullet goes in under the jaw as the bastard rears above me, ready to pounce. The fat moon makes a nightmare silhouette as brains, scrubbed free of all trace of humanity, erupt out the top of the skull. Beautiful.
Gunfire keeps up. I get a knee underneath me, blinking away the shock, knowing damn well there’s no time for it. A hand hooks me under the arm, and suddenly I’m on my feet. Face to face with Jinny. There’s the tiniest of instants then, frozen, silent, when I’m looking with total longing into her eyes, communicating wordlessly the way deep feelings I have for her, their intensity having stopped me from telling her everything I’ve wanted to say for so long it rips my heart up. And I see—I really think I do—some kind of answer there, something warm and lovely and sweet.
Then she turns, fast-shoulders (she has the patrol’s other rifle, being a hell of a shot herself), and fires into the growing wall of furred shapes racing over the highway. I get back to work too, our fleeting intimacy breaking and thrilling my heart at the same time. I fire and fire. I call more fall-backs. The bastards stream in among the derelict cars and buildings, even climb onto the roofs, infringing on the town proper. The squawk I hear on my walk-talk tells me it’s about the same everywhere else.
I don’t panic. I don’t give up. Like I said, this is simple. Very not complicated. We’re humans and smart, and they’re animals and dumb. I shout out orders. I rally everyone. Two patrollers are missing. We set up a crossfire at an intersection, and it gets us a lot of attackers. Buck is working his scattergun better than he ever did during drills.
We hold. We hold. We reload in alternating cycles. Wounded howls fill the nighttime, a splendid music. It’s the song of our revenge against the monsters. We never picked them as our enemies; they chose us…or at least it’s us they’re hungry for. And so it’s war, and we might never wipe them out, but I’m only worried about this town, about this street corner, about the bastard in my nightviz scope this very second.
A dead sound. Flat. A misfire. Maybe a jam. But the bullet that should’ve left my barrel hasn’t.
I start to wrestle the rifle, but they’re coming on, fast and thick. They’re animals, I know, but they see the break in fire. They charge me. The other patrollers try to take up the slack, and I’m yanking the bolt with breath spitting between clenched teeth, desperate but still holding off useless panic, even as one furry form gets out ahead of the others. The muscled creature, leaping along, makes its pounce—up and up, blocking the moon, all claws and teeth and violent hunger.
The impact is brutal. I’m spinning. My rifle careers away, clattering across the street’s asphalt. But I’m not through, I’m not done, I’m still—
Scrabbling, scrambling, the bastard’s just glanced me. If I can get to my feet, if I can retrieve the rifle before…
But a great hot furry figure falls over me. I feel fury strumming its taut musculature. A clawed paw pins me. My nostrils fill with that feral reek. And the mouth comes down, jaws around my shoulder, teeth puncturing, sinking. Steamy breath, a crazy growl in the throat. Its weight is awful. It’ll hold me, tear me.
Blood rains over my face. I’m blinded. I’m tasting the warm sickly stuff. The heavy body collapses on me. I gasp to breathe. I blink furiously. I’m not blind. Sounds of gunfire go on and on. Howls swim in and out of my consciousness. My shoulder oozes blood.
Later—I can’t tell, not at all, how much later—that body is rolled off of me. I can’t even lift my head and so I’m left staring up into the sky, into that damned looming moon. I hate it. And I hate the bastards. But I can’t tear my eyes away. It holds me, like Jinny’s eyes did earlier.
There she is, leaning in. She looks so worried. She looks like a little girl. Is she crying? Even with the cropped hair and pierced ears she doesn’t look badass now. Her gloved hand strokes my cheek.
She’s saying something, first to me, then somebody else. I can’t hear any of it. There’s this roaring in my ears, like blood rushing, like something starting to gather. I feel weird.
Then she’s gone and a new face hovers above me. I see hate on those features. It’s intense; it’s real. He’s changed tonight. No, not the Change; but he’s not a little squeak anymore, not after this.
I see Buck’s hate and know it’s not for who I am, but for what I’m going to be. The barrel of his gun swings into view. At least I won’t ever have to see another moonup.
Wasn’t that terrific? Maybe you’d like the whole issue!