Chapter 1: The Hunt
The rifle pressed slightly against the Advisor’s shoulder, kicking up hot, dark-yellow sand around its barrel as he fired. Hundreds of yards downrange, a barely-visible figure collapsed onto the rocky sand. Seconds later, another shot. Seated cross-legged on the ground next to the Advisor, Arthur raised his binoculars to his eyes, and scanned the horizon. This far out in the desert there were only a few shamblers – he counted perhaps two dozen. Roving the plains in search for prey, driven by whatever instincts still ticked within their long-dead brains, they sometimes got out very far from the cities. Here, where they could no longer mass on their foes or surprise them, the hunters became the hunted.
Three hundred yards away, the corpse of a man in a short-sleeved, button-up shirt turned its head in the direction of the shot. It still wore its glasses – one earpiece had fallen off the creature’s ear, and the glasses hung sideways across its face, with only one of the shambler’s white, pupil-less eyes matching a lens. For the briefest moment, the creature’s grayish face, pockmarked in places where birds had pecked at it, was turned directly at the Advisor and his apprentice. Then there was another gunshot, and thick black fluid spurted from the bridge of its nose. It fell backwards into the hot sand.
The hunt continued. The Advisor missed his next shot, clipping the ear on a shambler that had, in life, been a slender man in his eighties. Now, he looked nearly like a skeleton, or perhaps a mummy, with his tan skin rendered an unnatural shade of brown, glistening disgustingly in the sun. The shambler was still wearing something like a vest, although it seemed to have changed color a bit after having been worn by a rotting, walking corpse for several months. A vertical white stain was running down the right side of the dead man’s chest, clearly the mark of an unfortunate encounter with a pigeon or crow. The second shot hit the shambler square in the temple, putting an end to it humiliating post-life.
The Advisor fired six more shots. He missed one of them completely, put one in a shambler’s shoulder, and landed the other four precisely where he wanted them to go – in shamblers’ heads. He removed the empty magazine from his rifle, placed it carefully into his front pocket, and reloaded. Six more shots – and he was out of undead to shoot. Carefully, he replaced the half-empty magazine with a full one. Arthur removed the earmuffs from his ears.
- "I love the Dragunov,” – Martin commented as he began to walk towards the corpses.
- “I don’t understand why you insist on lugging about that old Soviet oar, Martin. It’s not even useful as an oar,” – Arthur replied.
- “I like it.” – the Advisor said as they paced the desert floor. It was incredibly hot, of course. Arthur felt the sweat roll down his cheeks. Two years ago he would have been disgusted by the smells – but he had been used to the smell of corpses now. If anything, he thought, these particular ghouls aren’t even very smelly as far as ghouls go. Maybe it was the fact that they had spent lots of time drying in the desert sun, or the fact that there just weren’t very many of them, but that sickening, sweetly smell of rotting flesh was weaker here than it often was around the ghouls.
As they approached the bodies, Martin stopped, leaning over one of the me – the man in the pressed, button-up shirt. He leaned down, and removed the gleaming watch off the man’s wrist.
- “Wha–?” – Arthur started. “A watch?”
- “Still ticking, even.” – said Martin as he inspected the bodies. – “See anything else?”
- “What would you do with a watch?”
- “It’s a genuine Rolex. Still ticking, even. One of these self-winding types.”
- “Alright, but what is the point?”
- “It’s going to be worth a fortune when all this is over. Or maybe I’m going to trade it to someone for a few cans of condensed milk, or a box of ammo. You never know.”
- “You know, you wouldn’t be having to…”
Arthur leaned over. Before it started, when he was sixteen years old, he’d probably have been frightened at the notion of picking a dead man’s pockets, or even just touching a dead man. Now it was different. Now he had spotted a multi-tool pouch on someone’s belt. Maybe the man had been some manner of technician, maybe he just liked multi-tools. It did not matter, Arthur pried the thing out of its pouch – he still shuddered inwardly to think what kind of stuff that leather might have come into contact with during the dead man’s journeys – and dropped it in his pocket.
– “Probably a better find than the Rolex, really.” – the older man said with approval.
For several minutes, they looked over the corpses. Suddenly, Arthur swiveled, his hands already reaching for the his rifle, his thumb moving as if on itself, the stock nestling against his shoulder as if it had belonged there. He saw the world, suddenly, through the circle of his scope reticle, the tiny red light at its center, the figure of a shamble approaching just a hundred yards away. He pulled the trigger the first time, the figure jerking slightly as it was hit, but failing to fall. He moved the bright-red dot at the center of the reticle just slightly upwards and fired three more shots, in rapid succession.The figure fell. Next to him, he heard the deafening crack of the Dragunov, and he knew that the Advisor had found another target.
As the sound of gunfire still rang in his ears, Arthur suddenly heard the advisor call out in cheer.
– “Look! Arthur, look!”
– “What?” – Arthur looked around. There were several figures approaching through the desert, their forms standing out against the dark-yellow. He snapped the rifle to his shoulder again and fired on the nearest one. The figure did not even budge. I missed, he concluded, and fired again, this time causing the shambler to jerk as if it had been punched, and again, the creature topping onto the ground.
– “Those guys! Over there!”
Arthur squinted. They were barely visible, those figures, their figures seeming to smudge into the sand.
– “What? I can’t see…”
– “Nevermind! Get the close ones!”
Arthur fired three shots in rapid succession, making another shambler fall to the ground. Next to him, the advisor dropped to one knee. The Dragunov rifle fired three times – careful, measured shots. Three of the figures collapsed.
– “The hunt continues!” – the Advisor called out.
Arthur took this as a sign that he needed to be calmer. He took several deep breaths and looked about, reassessing the world around him. The nearest ghouls were still rather far away – the closest war about a hundred and fifty yards. Even were the creature to break into a run right now, Arthur realized, it could not possibly reach him before he shot it down. He took aim carefully, calmly, and fired a single shot. This time, he did not need to shoot again.
Soon, the gunfire stopped once again. There were more ghouls this time – about two dozen.
– “They’re drawn to the gunfire,” – Arthur commented.
– “Yes,” – said the Advisor, as he began to pace towards the dead figures.
– “Yes, I know they’re drawn to the gunfire. Did you see those two shamblers in the desert camo?”
– “Oh.” This was why it was so hard to see them, they were wearing camouflage!
– “I’m going to bet we want to take a look a closer look at them.” – Martin said as he paced faster.
It takes some effort to sport a corpse in camouflage on the desert floor, but in a few minutes, they found the two dead soldiers.
– “Jordanian Army”, - said the Advisor as he looked at one of the corpses. It was moustached, and one could clearly see the faded insignia on the uniform’s sleeve. More astoundingly, attached at its Army belt was a flap holster with a sidearm. – “Now this makes it a truly good hunt.” – said the Advisor, as he looked through the pockets of the man’s vest. “And look. Grenades.”
Between them, the two Jordanian soldiers had carried a rifle, a pistol, and several grenades. Again, Arthur did not touch their clothes, nor did the Advisor. But Martin did something different, something that astounded Arthur almost as much as it would to see someone try on the corpses’ clothes. His hands, clad in olive-greeen protective gloves, pressed against the dead soldiers’ necks, as if he was caressing them. Within seconds, he withdrew something from the neck of the man who had the pistol, and then reached for the other corpse. As he rose, Martin was holding two sets of Army dog-tags in his hands.
– “Huh?” – Arthur stared at the Advisor quizzically.
– “What’s the problem?” – Martin raised an eyebrow, as he inspected the tags. One was a simple piece of gleaming, polished metal, the other had been wrapped in green cloth. Once upon a time, the cloth had been stitched with some logo, perhaps the emblem of the unit the two men had served in. Now it was darkened with undead ichor. Martin grabbed the cloth between his thumb and forefinger, yanked it off the tag and threw it onto the sand.
– “What are you going to do with these?” – Arthur asked.
– “I’m going to keep them until this is over.”
Arthur sighed. The Advisor seemed to have an unshakeable belief that one day, ‘this’ – meaning, the infestation of the living dead that had now covered the entire planet – was going to be ‘over’. One day, he argued, human beings would defeat the undead, clear them out from the cities, shoot them in the head, and live their lives normally. The logic itself seemed unshakeable, and to some extent, Arthur believed in what Martin said – but he was surprised to what extent the Advisor took humanity’s eventual victory for granted. He seemed to be planning his every action around the eventuality that, soon enough, he would no longer be an Advisor, but just an English teacher again. With an eye to this, Martin often took payment for his work in items that were of little value now – but that, he believed, would sell well when the apocalypse, was, at last, ‘over’. Still, this didn’t explain everything.
– “What are you going to do with… Jordanian Army dog-tags?” – in his mind, Arthur saw a disturbing mental image, of collectors trying to bid over some dead soldier’s dog-tags in the future.
– “Try to find the families. Maybe some son or nephew or granddaughter will be still alive.”
– “How are you going to find them?” – Arthur replied, trying to hide his relief.
– “On the Internet, of course.”
For a moment, Arthur looked at his friend and mentor, trying to evaluate whether Martin had been joking or not.
– “Are you suggesting there’s going to be Internet?”
– “Are you suggesting there’s not going to be any Internet? There’s probably parts of the world where there’s – EEE!!”
For a moment, Martin shrieked like a young woman who’d seen a cockroach. And as Arthur turned around, he shrieked two. Several dozen shamblers were between them and their car.
As they shrieked, the monsters turned towards them, their heads swiveling towards the source of the sound. Nearth Arthur’s ear, there was the snapping sound of the SVD being fired. Without thought, the young man lifted his rifle to his shoulder, and pushed on the selector switch, until it lay horizontal. Now it was not time for single shots. He fired a burst, aiming it at about the creatures’ necks. The bullets screamed towards the shamblers. Some missed – others hit the creatures in their necks or shoulders, where they did little harm – but two of them collapsed.
The walking dead paused – some trying to move towards Martin and his apprentice, others leaning over, to take a bite out of their fallen pack-mates. Those who had made the former choice were soon discouraged from it, as the SVD spoke again and again.
Arthur walked towards the shamblers. He was terrified of them, of course, but he realized that he would have difficulty making a shot at this distance. He paced forward, his jaw clenched, struggling not to shriek again, nor to shake as he removed the half-empty magazine from his rifle and placed it in his vest. He reloaded, shouldered, and fired a long burst – and this time, despite everything he knew about the undead, he did not aim at their heads.
The bolt clacked back and forth, the gleaming brass sailed through the air, the gun fired and fired, and momentarily Arthur did not feel the ubiquitous smell of death, but only the sweet smell of gunpowder smoke. The undead felt no pain. They continued advancing, even as the bullets struck their flesh, as they penetrated bone and muscle. They were not human – they wouldn’t be affected by blood loss.
But even an undead monster can’t keep standing on a shattered knee-cap or a broken bone. As the gun ceased firing, the bolt locked back on an empty chamber, several of the monsters had fallen, now only crawling slowly towards Arthur. Several more were lying still, their skulls shattered by the SVD, and yet more were kneeling down to feast on them. Arthur reloaded again – and, his hearing obscured by the rush of adrenalin through his brain, somewhere behind him hear heard the Dragunov rifle speak its verdict for another shambler, and yet another.
The two friends moved forward – Arthur up ahead, with his carbine, and Martin behind him, with the Dragunov. They closed, and the shamblers dragged themselves towards them. At a hundred and fifty yards, Arthur could now bring a shambler down – he was not sure that this qualified as killing anyone – with a double-tap to the head. As they closed to one hundred, he found he rarely even needed the follow-up shot. At fifty yards, none of the shamblers remained upright. They walked calmly to the ones that were now crawling across the ground.
– “See, Arthur.” – Martin said as he slung the Dragunov behind his back, and drew his pistol. It was old – older than Arthur or Martin, its blued finish ruined with many a scratch. Martin aimed it at a zombie that was still crawling towards him across the sand, and shot it in the top of its head. “This is the sort of stuff that makes me think that there’s going to be Internet again in a couple of years.”
– “Wait a moment with the philosophizing. My ears are still ringing.” – Arthur replied as he draw his snub-nose revolver and finished off another shambler.
– “You know what would be really nice to have, Arthur?” – the pistol in Martin’s hand fired again, and a shambler in a black suit, with a long white beard, became again what it should have been – a corpse of a man in a black suit. – “It would be nice to have some kind of tool to do this with. Something long.”
– “Like maybe a spear?” – the snub-nose belched fire once again.
– “Or a sledgehammer. A sledgehammer would work too.” – crack. The last shambler returned to eternal calm.
– “Damn it, Martin. My ears are destroyed. Do you think we could get, like, a silencer? A silencer would be bloody nice.”
– “Agreed, but how?” – the older man shrugged as he walked to the car. “We’re in the Middle East. There were like five hunters here even before any of this started, and the only silencers anyone had were with special forces teams.”
- “Could we make one?” – the young man asked.
The car was, in Martin’s opinion at least, the best car they could be using, under the circumstances. It was an olive-green Army Ford pickup. In the front there was seating for five people, in the rear – an enclosed cabin for all their gear and loot. Of course, Martin called it loot, straight forward.
– “Let’s get all the loot inside, Archie,” – he said now as they tossed the weapons they found into the truck. “Except for the grenades. I’ll be feeling more comfortable if they’re on my person, you know what I mean?”
– “Yeah.” – Arthur knew that it would make little difference if something went wrong, but he preferred if the grenades were on Martin’s person, too. It seemed less likely something would go wrong.
The olive-green truck turned, picking up a cloud of hot, reddish-yellow dust. As it did, the truck’s air conditioner kicked in, and Arthur smiled involuntarily as the chill air blew on his face.
– “You know, I never asked, and I really should have.” – Martin said, as the truck finally got back on the highway. “Where exactly are you from, Archie? Arthur Campbell isn’t a local name.”
– “Well, I was living here with my uncle when it happened – “
– “Oh yes, I know that part. But where are you from originally?”
– “I’m from Seattle.”
– “For real?” – Martin asked, as if there was something unusual and amazing about Arthur being from Seattle.
– “Yeah, why is that special?”
– “Well, I guess it isn’t, really.” – speeding down the highway, the pickup just barely cleared the wreckage of a large bus, flipped on its side on the road. Then, suddenly, they were driving on sand, the entire highway vanishing under its surface. Around them, the sand rose in clouds as they drove on. “But we’re both Americans.”
– “I figured that out for myself. You don’t sound like a local.”
– “I went to Madison.”
– “And you were an English teacher. Doesn’t sound like much of career… sorry.”
– “It depended, in the old world, how adventurous you were. I was rather adventurous. One thing you could do is teach English around the world. I spent a year in Lebanon, two years in the Congo. When I taught in Uganda I had armed bodyguards assigned to me by the government. Saw a principal beheaded in Chibok – something which I bet lots of men your age would have liked to witness. ”
– “All this for an English teacher?”
– “That and more. Naturally, I got paid a lot more this way. I also spent two years in Russia. Student of mine got killed in a duel.”
– “A duel.”
– “It was the dumb sort of duel.”
– “Is there such a thing as a smart duel?” – asked Arthur.
– “Depending on what you call smart. But in this case, he was arguing with someone over politics online, and they agreed to a knife duel.”
– “They what.”
– “There were still people who did that sort of thing, even in the Internet age, yes. So they argued over what weapons to use. He brings a knife… and in the end, the other guy brought a pocket flail. And somehow he agrees to this.”
– “A pocket what?”
– “Basically just a length of chain with a small weight on it. They start fighting. The other guy clocks him in the head, once, he falls on the ground, they grapple, and this Internet troll guy, he’s so pissed, he’s still clocking my student over the head again and again, until the seconds pulled him off.”
– “Yeah. In a duel, you bring a friend with you, and the other fellow, he also brings a friend, that way the rules aren’t broken. You have a witness on your behalf.”
– “So he died? Your student, I mean.”
– “Not immediately, no. He got up and walked home… then he fell over in the elevator. Parents rushed him to the hospital and he died there in a few weeks.”
– “Sounds terrible. And incredibly stupid.”
– “They were heartbroken. I was… upset. I liked the kid. He had talent. Wanted to be a diplomat. But with no student to tutor…”
– “You lost your job.”
– “I missed an appointment with another student. Lost that job. Had to go back to America. Then I got a job with the American school here. And now…”
– “And now you’re a zombie-hunting mercenary. Is it better than being an English teacher?”
– “I’d rather be an English teacher.” – Martin paused, looking at the road ahead of him. For several minutes, he was silent. “No, it’s not so much about the pay, or the students. The students are irritating, and the pay doesn’t make up for it. But I’d rather be living in a world where I have the choice.”
There was silence again, and for a few minutes the truck simply rolled forwards down the highway. Sometimes there was simple, smooth asphalt under their wheels, sometimes there was sand. After a few minutes, Martin touched the dashboard, and music began to play. There was nothing about this music that was complex or high-brow – it was simple, bouncy pop from a bygone age. Arthur smiled as he bobbed his head slightly to the tune. No doubt the singers were dead by now, or worse, undead. But their voices were here. And this was, in some way, a promise. A reinforcement of what Martin had said – a promise of a day when this was all going to be over at last.
At last, they could see a long fence at one side of the road – a long wire mesh fence, stretching as far as the eye could see. There was no sign of the living dead here – nor the shamblers themselves, nor their corpses, were anywhere to be seen. Instead, walking back and forth inside of the fence, were large, fat black birds on spindly legs, with tall, white necks, perhaps as tall as Arthur himself was. Emus and ostriches – perhaps the only ostrich farm in the world, certainly the only one in the region, still working despite the dead being all around them.
As two friends drove further, they could see at last a gate – a gate of corrugated steel, clearly added here but recently. Visible over it was a much older, decorative wooden sign, bearing the drawing of an ostrich, and the words OSTRICH FARM in three languages. On one side of the gate was also an improvised guard tower – a few pipes welded together, and platform on top, where a man was standing behind a long-barreled gun.
– “Hello!” – the man shouted. His voice carried well.
The truck came to a halt, and the two friends stepped out. Arthur felt the gust of hot desert wind brush against his face. He knew the machinegun was aimed at him, and in his imagination, it seemed as if he could feel something touch his body at the spot that the gun was pointed at. Arthur knew it was only his imagination, and he knew the machinegunner wouldn’t shoot him, but he could not help but feel a light touch against his chest as he raised his arms into the air.
– “Hello!” – replied Martin. “You know us, Moshiko!”
The man fell silent, and began to climb down from the tower. – “Just a moment!” – he shouted, as he descended, and in a few minutes, the metal gate opened with a creak, and the car went in.
The farm was a vastly different place than the outside world. There were several houses here – all wooden, all covered with thatched roofs. Wooden boardwalks were everywhere, and as Martin parked the car and the two friends got out, Martin noticed that the place was free of the terrible smell that seemed to have pursued him everywhere he went. Compared to what he had felt during the hunt, much less when he and Martin worked in the cities, the air seemed fresh, even.
There were people everywhere. Here one could see a young man in denims, a plaid shirt and a checkers-patterned headscarf walk by with two buckets of chicken feed, there – a woman in a dark-blue shirt and beige Air Force pants carrying a teapot. Arthur had visited this place before, during his journeys with Martin, and he liked it here. Before disaster had struck, the Ostrich Farm had been just that – a farm, and a tourist site for people who liked exotic animals – ostriches, emu, cassowaries. There had also been more common animals here – rabbits and chicken. There had even been a restaurant. Between the ample stock of animals, the remote location, and the fencing, Ostrich Farm became an oasis of calm as the living dead took over the cities. And it was one woman who made it happen.
– “What do you have for me this time, Martin?”
Arthur saw her then, standing on the porch of a small house in dark brown wood. She was a woman in her late fifties, tanned, her hair graying, dressed in faded denim coveralls a size too big. A carbine, much like Arthur’s own, hung at her back, and a pistol in a black holster was strapped to her outer thigh.
– “A pistol and an AK.” – the Advisor answered. “Also some mags.”
– “What what do you want me to do with a pistol, Martin? I have more pistols than people.”
The Advisor smiled. “Now, Dvora. Don’t be mean. It’s a nine-millimeter. I bet you still have people with these tiny peashooters that can’t even get through a shambler’s skull. And of course we’re all short on rifles. So you’ll take the AK.”
– “And what will you take in exchange, Martin?”
– “Oh, the usual. A month’s rent for me and Arthur here, and we get to sleep in real beds and eat real food.”
Dvora pondered for a moment. As she looked at Arthur, he looked back into her eyes – green, tired, the skin around her eyes wrinkled and cracked. – the young man expected that she would haggle.
– “That’s fair.” – she said instead. “Of course, don’t think we all eat meat and ostrich eggs here every day.”
– “I don’t think that.” – Martin said, playing along. She used the same sentence every time he visited.
– “That said. Just for today. I’m inviting you and your friend to eat lunch with me.” –she paused. “There will be an omelet, and you know what, I shall have some soda brought out of the fridge. But you two need to shower. You smell like you spent your life among the ghouls.”
Which, of course, was perfectly true.
It is difficult to describe the pleasure of taking a long, hot shower after one had not showered for days, and spent these days working hard in the heat, among some of the most disgusting smells even known. Arthur grinned like a madman as the hot water ran off his body, and scrubbed every inch of skin with care. White, delightful bubbles covered the young man’s skin, and for the first time in months he felt the smell of soap. It was an experience that was almost religious.
He got out and got dressed – in a T-shirt he had not worn before, and a pair of long, green camouflage pants. He had gotten this clothing in the same way as he and Martin had gotten most of their property – by looting it from an abandoned store. His regular clothing – dirty, sweaty, faded – he would hand into the laundry. The mere word laundry sounded like it was a magical invocation.
And so, Martin and Arthur came in for dinner in Dvora’s office.
The room was painted white, and seemed almost pristinely clean. Dvora was seated in it on a luxurious swivel chair, and behind her, on the wall, an air conditioner hummed peacefully. Standing in one corner of the room was a bright-red minifridge. She smiled and motioned the two men to sit down, and food was brought in – three triangular omelets, each on a plate.
– “I know you’re wondering why they’re this shape…” – she started.
– “We’re not!” – Arthur responded chirpily – “We’ve been here before! It’s an omelet from one ostrich egg that they’ve cut into sections!”
– “Ah, a young boy with good memory.” – Dvora replied.
– “I’m not a boy…”
– “Nonsense, Archie, I could be your grandmother. I could even be Martin’s mother.”
– “You are not even sixty, Dvora,” – replied Martin on his friend’s behalf. “Arhur might have been sixteen when it started, and seventeen when we met – but that’s basically thirty in post-shambler years.”
The woman’s eyes gleamed momentarily, but she didn’t seem to want to argue. Instead, she reached into the minifridge and brought out a large bottle of soda, which she immediately poured into paper cups for all three of them. It was transparent, fizzy, and cold, incredibly sweet to the taste. Arthur swirled the drink around in his mouth, enjoying every gulp of the drink. None of it was made anymore these days, of course, and in a year or two the last supplies of sodas would spoil, and be no more. Until this is over, he reminded himself. Until this is over. He started on the omelet, which, he had to admit, tasted much like regular omelet, except perhaps somewhat richer and more buttery. But the fact he was eating it after a hunt, and the seeming luxury of the setting, made it seem delightful.
– “I know you’re asking yourself,” – Dvora started, after the two friends have emptied two of the paper cups each, and consumed most of the omelet, “why have I invited you to lunch, and why am I feeding you ostrich omelet in my office?”
– “I’m not marrying you, Dvora.” – Martin replied with a smile. “It takes more than a beautiful lady and an ostrich omelet to win an Advisor’s heart.”
She laughed. “And you are not that handsome for me to just marry myself away to you like that. I know you’d like to be the master of Ostrich farm, but it is not that easy to be one! I bet you couldn’t hack it running the place.”
– “Nor could you hack it as an Advisor.”
– “I’m sure I could. It’s easy. You just walk about and shoot shamblers. In the head. Boom-boom.” – she laughed. “But I have a farm to run, Martin. No time to run about shooting shamblers. Which brings me to the reasons you’re here.”
– “Oh?” – Martin said, as he grabbed a mouthful of omelet and chewed it.
– “You see. I’ve got it on good authority that there is some of that to be done.”
– “Yes, I have noticed that there is a sizeable quantity of shamblers out there,” – the Advisor replied, after swallowing his food. – “Me and Arthur have had to shoot something like five dozen of them this morning.” – as he spoke, he placed his fork back on the table, and looked the farmer in the eyes.
– “What I was going for, Martin,” – Dvora continued, “is that my associate has a job for someone with your particular set of skills. You could even call it a… contract.”