Creatures - Novelette 3 - Buck by Mark Pantoja

I didn’t actually see the bull come out of the water. I was in the Jeep, filling out chain-of-custody forms for the samples Percy was collecting from the little lake we found outside what used to be Yakima, Washington. Ally was snoring softly behind the steering wheel. Sandy was ten, maybe twenty yards from the water, automatic rifle resting on her hip, keeping an eye for xenos.

That’s when I heard Percy scream.

By the time I looked up, Percy was already tangled in the bull’s feeding branches. It stood two stories high against the dusk sky. Water poured through its black-skinned tubular body, down its piston legs.

Percy fired wild: the air, the ground, the beast, the Jeep. I jumped from the passenger seat, clear of his fire, and was struck by the stench of rotten eggs wafting from the bull as it barreled down on the Jeep.

The world spun and everything went dull, muted. I heard muffled thumps and saw the creature streak past over me, moving faster than I expected.

I thought about shooting, but everything was so heavy. For a moment all was calm and I remembered: when you stopped smelling them, you’re being poisoned. I grabbed the breather at my belt and took a deep drag of oxygen.

Sound rushed back: yelling, gunfire, crashing, the bull’s horn-blasts dwindling.

Sandy yanked me to my feet.

“Where’s Ally?” she screamed in my face.

“What?”

“Ally! Where is she?”

“She’s—”

But the Jeep was gone. It lay on its side a hundred feet from where it’d been, white paint smeared with sooty mud, tossed aside by the beast. I followed Sandy to the crumpled Jeep, where Ally hung half out of the vehicle, tangled in her seatbelt, twisted like a rag around the lip of the door. Sandy cradled Ally’s head.

The beast blew a thick dull note when it crested the blackened hill. I think I saw Percy against the evening sky. He’d just been getting a few water samples. It’d been my turn, but I was being lazy, and made him do it. It could have been me in those branches. Should have been.

The beast was gone, but what if there was another in the water? I cradled my rifle, my hands slick with fear.

“Doc!” Sandy yelled at me. She was trying to pull Ally from the wreck. She was broken, blood and bones poking out from her fatigues. But she breathed. Ragged. Her eyes fluttered and she moaned. She mumbled a name. “Dan,” I think. That was her husband’s name. From before.

“Shhh, baby,” Sandy said, trying to get a better angle to lift her out. She pulled a knife from her belt and cut the seatbelt. Ally gasped and then bit down with a chomp. I think it smelled like she shit herself. My stomach rolled and every time I swallowed my throat would catch. She started jerking, bucking, and then stopped just as quick. Her eyes glazed over.

“Doc,” Sandy said. “Climb up top and lift her shoulders. Doc!”

I took a quick look back at the lake to see if the sloshing waves would reveal another xeno-bull. Nothing. I turned and climbed atop the fallen Jeep. I kept glancing back at the water.

Lex and Miri came around in the other Jeep. They’d been on the far side of the little blackened hill past the lake, making sure nothing flanked us.

It took us about ten minutes to get Ally out. By then she was unmoving. I felt for a pulse but found none. I’m not that kind of doctor. I’m not a doctor at all. I got the name because I work for Ecology.

Sandy tried mouth-to-mouth. She beat on Ally’s chest for a full minute. Blood bubbled from her lips. She was gone.

Sandy stopped. We stood over the body, staring. No one spoke.

I tried to feel bad, I wanted to. She was part of their group, their field team, but I barely knew her, and I just felt... glad I got out of the Jeep. Giddy almost, that I’d been that close to a bull. I tried not to show it.

They were horrible creatures, but gorgeous in a way. It was hard not to admire them. They’d been carved by evolution into a perfect infectious life form, hopping from planet to planet and out-competing native life.

“Lex, Miri,” Sandy said. “Salvage what you can from the Jeep. Gas, ammo, water. Doc and I will bury her.”

“Bury her?” Miri said. “Why aren’t we taking her back with us?”

“We’re not going back,” Sandy said. Since the xenos emerged, since the whole world went to shit, two types of people have survived: those who run and those who fight. Rats or lions. I was a rat. I knew it. I ran, I hid, I survived. But Sandy, she was a lion. She was a killer. So, I wasn’t surprised by what she said next. “We’re gonna kill that fucker.”


***

We’d raised our daughter near here, Laura and I, before the asteroids, before the conflagrations, before the attacks, before that bull killed Percy and Ally. Eastern Washington. Our GPS said we were near the Horse Heaven Hills. I couldn’t tell. All the Contaminant Zone looked the same: charred rolling hills, ash valleys, clumps of pale green earth vegetation that struggled to survive the xeno-ecological onslaught. The small lake was the largest body of water we’d found, so far. Pond or lake? I can’t remember the difference. Something about being able to see the bottom.

We were on our last stop, out here to measure the effects of the Toxics Program on xenobiotic life. Three more water samples and then back up North.

The xenos came crawling out of the oceans after the asteroids hit six years ago, infecting the seas and then the land. Herds of exotic extraterrestrial life inhabited the coasts and started out across the continental U.S. We North American survivors had gathered up in Northwestern Canada under the Emergency Authority, and we’d grown pretty desperate. After the ground war failed to stop the infection of xenolife, we’d turned to nukes. The explosions wiped out everything in the blast zone, but the xenos just swept right back in. Radiation and fallout didn’t seem to bother them at all.

Just look at California. Once the cities fell, the Air Force bombed the whole state to slag, but the xenos just crawled out of the ocean and made themselves at home. And bombing the oceans wouldn’t really do much.

Now we’ve moved on to the Toxics Program, deploying contaminants to poison the soil and groundwater. Don’t know why they thought it would work. We’d poisoned the oceans already, and that didn’t seem to faze the xenos. But in desperate hours people need to do something.

We’d left Enclave, the southernmost EA Lab/Outpost, three days ago and hadn’t encountered anything until the bull. We heard some xenofauna calls, spotted a land-whale outside Spokane, xeno-gliders swirling around the massive creature, a mobile ecology. We steered clear of Spokane, another city reduced to chunks of concrete and blistered roads.

The Authority had been spraying most of the Pacific Northwest for months now. After poisoning the oceans with toxics, pesticides, metals, even PCBs with no effect on the xenos, the Authority was now trying to poison the soil and freshwater in the Zone. It was ecological suicide. The poisons were starting to show up in Northern aquifers and the seasonal snows were showing contamination as well. And yet xenolife marched on. It was hopeless fighting them, though few of us would say it out loud.

We were running out of places to run. The xenos tended not to like the cold so much, but they dominated the temperate and equatorial zones. Most of temperate Alaska was theirs, along with the Canadian coast. All we had left was Northwest Canada and the arctic regions. And those little anti-freeze bugs were creeping north, making themselves right at home in the snow.

We had sporadic digital contact over what was left of the Internet, along with satellite and some shortwave, and the story was the same across the globe. The equatorial band was lost, and people everywhere were trying to survive the invaders and the collapse of civil infrastructure. Southeast Asia was a bloodbath before it was a wasteland. We’d lost contact with South America, but the satellite photos showed some signs of human habitation on Antarctica. No one knows how long they’ll last.

This was ecological conflict, natural war, and we were outmatched. But people need a target, something to fight, if just to give them a little hope. Even me. I knew these samples wouldn’t tell us anything, and so did Ecology. Not the samples, not the satellites, not the remote viewing stations, not the flyovers, not the Toxics Program. The xenos were a phage, an interplanetary locust. They’d probably evolved in space, been to countless worlds, done this to millions of ecologies. They were swatting us off our own planet. We were their pests. And all we could do was collect samples, gather evidence of our apocalypse.

Sandy buried Ally at the sandy edge of the lake, piled under ashy dirt and rocks. She didn’t say anything when she finished, just stood in the headlights of the remaining Jeep. It was after midnight. I hadn’t eaten since lunch but wasn’t hungry; I was just scared and wanted to get away from the water. But I stayed quiet and kept a sad look on my face.

We should have started back then. It was an Ecology Field Project, I was in charge. But I didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t matter if I had. Sandy was going after the bull, a wild animal she could hold to the fire for our ruined Earth, something she could kill.

For once, I wanted to be a lion. I wanted to kill something.

Miri and Lex siphoned a few gallons of gas from the wrecked Jeep, along with the recoilless, a case of 20 mm rounds, some water, and Ally’s ammo.

We had enough gas to chase the bull for a day, maybe two, then we’d have to bee-line it back to the southernmost fuel depot, one of the few compounds outside Enclave, about five hundred miles from here. The less fuel we had, the less distance we could afford around the cities, which the xenos flocked to like a coral reef.

The Emergency Authority had lost contact with Hawaii two years ago. Satellite photos revealed islands covered in huge black leathery xenobiotic “leaves,” some kind of xenoflora. Such categorizations are meaningless when it comes to the xenos. They seem to switch back and forth between plants, animals, and life modes we’ve never seen before.

Each year it got worse. The xenolife pumped oxygen-rich spores out from the oceans. The spores rode seasonal winds onto land where they turned wildfires into conflagrations, clearing the land for xenofauna to sweep in and fill vacant ecological niches. All the while, aquatic xenos culled hydrogen from the waters and produced hydrogen sulfide gas, which oxidized and turned into sulfuric acid, which poisoned our lands with acid rain. At first the aliens stayed in the equatorial band, feeding off the heat and sunlight, but they were adapting and creeping north. Like those glycol-blooded antifreeze xeno-beetles.

The photovoltaic bulls moved slow at night, saving energy until daylight. That was probably what it was doing in the lake, insulating itself until dawn. During daylight, bulls moved pretty quick, covering up to a hundred miles a day.

I found one of Percy’s spent shells while we were packing up. Besides his signature on the chain-of-custody forms, it was all there was left of him. I placed the shell on top of Ally’s grave. Two less humans on Earth and all to show was a broken body and empty brass. I couldn’t dwell, though. I sprinkled some soot over the shell and grave.

We traveled through the night. Sandy was determined to stay on the beast’s trail. It was a tight fit with four of us and the gear. I shared the back seat with Miri and the recoilless, the shoulder firing anti-tank, now anti-bull, rifle. We stopped only for piss breaks and to check the bull’s trail.

Being the resident xenobiologist, I inspected our Buck’s tracks. That’s what Sandy started calling it: “Buck” or “Our Buck.” I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I got the job in Ecology because I’d worked in the environmental field. Before. My background was in estuary-morphology. I didn’t know anything about xenobiotic life. Until all this. Sandy was much better at tracking, but at least I felt like I was contributing.

“Jesus,” Sandy said, squatting down in front of the Jeep, examining the spoor I found in the breaking sun. Bulls don’t eat much, getting most of their energy from the sun. They mulch everything they scoop in their feeding branches, using some of what they eat for growth and repairs, and the rest for shit-flowers. Which is what we found sticking out of one of Percy’s tennis shoes Buck had shat out.

I poked at the shit-flower. It shied away, bending its stalk and closing up its blossom. The black-red petals had a fleshy feel to them. It had the typical xeno fragrance: rotten eggs. Hydrogen sulfide. Toxic to Earth life. The shit-flowers were pumping it out. The Contaminant Zone was littered with them.

“Atmospheric processors,” I said. “It’s what they are.”

“I know,” She said. She stood up and stomped the flower and shoe. Black ichor oozed out from under her boot. “Monsters.”


***

By late afternoon Buck’s trail led us to another lake. Or pond. It was little more than a puddle, though big enough to hide a bull since the xeno body plan is hydraulic and modular. They can spread themselves flat, an effective way of soaking up sunlight and hiding, and pump into their mobile form in a flash.

There were a lot of tracks going to and from the water. Sandy stopped us to make sure we stayed on the right trail.

Lex parked a ways from the water. Miri covered the rear, while Sandy grabbed her rifle and slung a gear bag over her shoulder. She took a few location flags.

“Cover me,” she said. She started off to the puddle.

“Should one of us go with her?” I asked.

Lex shook his head. “Bulls mostly keep moving during the day, so there’s prob’ly nothing in there, but we were sloppy once. If something’s in there, we can hit it from here with fewer of us in the line of fire. Help me with this.” I helped him get the recoilless from the Jeep. The basics, how to load and shoot it, were required for all field personnel. But I’d never actually fired one. I’d never shot a xeno.

Lex laid the rifle on the hood, checking latches and switches on what was basically a shoulder-mounted tube with a scope, grip, and trigger. He told me to get the 20 mm rounds. I grabbed a case from the back and placed it on the hood but missed the edge, spilling the large caliber rounds. Sandy turned back, hearing the clatter. Lex waved her on.

“Jesus, Doc,” Lex said. “Why don’t you honk the horn, let everyone know we’re here.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Just keep it down.” He watched me as I picked up the rounds. “How did you end up out here, man?”

“Leave him alone, Lex,” Miri said, from behind the Jeep.

“Just saying, not really the field type. How’d it happen?”

“I volunteered,” I said. I turned my shirt into a hammock to gather up the rounds. “I’m from around here. When I heard there was gonna be a run through Washington I, well… I guess I needed to come back. See for myself. At the end we had to flee, we—” Left our daughter behind, I almost said. “My daughter went to the University of Washington. She was there when Seattle was overrun. We tried to get to her. No one was allowed in, only out. We couldn’t...” My wife and I spent weeks living out of motels and then our car during the evacuation of Seattle. We barely slept during that time. The glow from Seattle burning kept us up. We scoured the evacuation rosters for Greta’s name, but never found her. We went north, my wife and me. I guess I needed to see.

“Laura never stopped looking, asking other survivors if they were in Seattle, looking for some sign of Greta. Before the Rot took her.” But it was the not knowing that had killed her months prior.

No one said anything. No sorry, no sympathy. No supply and no demand. We all had our share of loss that solace couldn’t lift.

Lex opened the rear chamber of the rifle, popping in a round and closing the latch. He rested the rifle on his shoulder and looked through the scope, covering Sandy as she neared the puddle.

“I lost my parents to the Rot,” Miri said over her shoulder, still watching our flank. “Fucking bugs. Ate up my mother’s lungs. I’ll never forget the coughing.”

“But why you, man?” Lex asked, still looking through the scope.

“Authority wanted someone from Ecology,” I said. “Mostly I work on protein cultivation. It was Percy’s first time outside.”

Percy had been so excited. He was a child when he came to Enclave. He was still a child, barely sixteen before Buck got him. It always hurt me to think about him growing up at all, about his future, or lack of it, on this planet. Part of me was relieved he was dead.

Sandy knelt down at the water’s edge and read the tracks.

“Is it true y’all are trying to farm the xenos?” Lex asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “But their flesh makes people sick. Anaphylactic shock. They aren’t really made of meat. More like pipes with tendons and sinew. All hydraulics and pressure sacs.”

“Yeah,” Miri said. “Shoot them right and they deflate. Shoot them wrong and the bullets go right through them and just pisses them off.”

Sandy planted a flag at the shore, marking one of Buck’s tracks.

“I heard they taste just like they smell,” Miri said. “Rotten eggs.”

“We have to scrub what little protein we get off them so much just to make it safe to eat that they don’t taste like much of anything,” I said. “Just a squishy gray paste.”

“Don’t sound too much different from what the Authority’s feeding us,” Lex said. He looked out from the scope and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, the kind made from greenhouse tobacco. It’s just weeds that Ecology sprays with nicotine. It was the best we could do. He popped one into his mouth and held out the pack, offering me one.

Sandy stood up and started walking at a tangent to the puddle.

“Don’t smoke,” I said.

“Oh?” he said between lips holding the cigarette. “Think you’ll live long enough to get cancer? It’s just a time game now, man, before the real aliens come and kick us off this rock.”

“Assuming there are ‘real’ aliens,” I said. They both looked at me. It was an old argument. Six years old. “What if there aren’t? What if no one’s in charge? Maybe the xenos are just some kind of space phage, infecting world after world.”

“Well, how do they get from world to world then?” Miri said.

Sandy followed a trail for a minute, until she dropped another flag, marking Buck’s outgoing trail. She turned back to the water.

“Same way they got here.” I said. “Asteroids. Maybe they use volcanoes to get off-planet. Maybe they’re turning the Earth into a launcher, some kind of blister that will pop them into the void, burst this rock like an infected blood cell.”

As Sandy passed the water on her way back to the Jeep, she pulled out a stick of dynamite, lit it, and tossed it in.

“Doc,” Lex said. “That’s depressing. There’s got to be someone to blame for all this mess.”

Sandy never missed a beat as the little pond exploded skyward, turning mud and water into mist.

“I thought we were being quiet,” I said when she got back to the Jeep.

She shrugged. “Had to be sure.”


***

We’d parked the Jeep, unable to follow Buck’s trail after dusk, when the air was filled with a chorus of church organs. A bull pack call-and-response. Meaning: bulls, close by.

Lex had left the side of a large burnt hill, marked with a handful of tree stumps.

The horn calls continued for a while, and we tried to triangulate their location.

We were close.

I was nervous. Excited, even. I kept breathing and tried to ignore my churning stomach.

Why had I come out here? Was it just guilt about Greta? We’d stayed to the last minute, one of a hundred or so families living out of our car in the refugee processing area during the final stages of the evacuation of Seattle. The city was falling. During the day, xeno-gliders and landers, the large “troop-carrier” dirigible models, kept aloft by balloon sacs of hydrogen culled from the sea, circled the dying city. Hindenburg landers only floated a single time. Once grounded they planted roots and all the xenos hitching rides disembarked. They could hold hundreds of xenos. Every morning the Guard found twisted leviathans that had beached themselves and disgorged varying species of xenos.

A week before the National Guard withdrew out, a xeno entered our camp during the night and made off with a child. No one heard anything; we only found bodies of two people it left in its wake. They had the telltale sign of what I would later learn were xe-cat tongues, huge tentacle like appendages with hardened barb tips they could shoot out from their central mouth. I’ve seen one punch through a car door.

Laura and I vowed to stay until the last possible minute. Which was the morning the National Guard pulled out.

The rifle and tank fire woke us at dawn. The Guard had planned on staying a few more days. The city was mostly empty. They were going house to house looking for corpses as much as survivors. But the xenos had advanced in a huge wave during the night. Leviathans, land-whales, gliders, landers, bulls, herds of unknown xeno-classes poured from the ocean and air. I was told that the Sound was filled from one side to the other with black xeno-forms.

We saw the retreating line of the Guard.

A caravan of supply trucks and personnel carriers came through our camp first. The commander, a Major I think, told us that he was under orders to arrest us if we didn’t leave immediately. He never got the chance. A lander sailed overhead and dropped overripe shit-fruit that exploded on the ground, sending up clouds of hydrogen sulfide. They gassed us.

Even then Laura and I wouldn’t leave. Wheezing and coughing we watched as the Guard shot down the Hindenburg. At least they burn easily. They had to wait for them to pass otherwise they’d fall burning onto us. Even still, a mile out, the heat as they burned left our skin red and tender.

The xenos continued to bash against the retreating line.

You can’t reason with them. They just keep coming.

Wave after wave was broken by tank blasts, flamethrowers, and ceaseless machine gun fire. But a few came through. I watched a small herd of adolescent bulls swarm over a tank. Scores of them clawed the tank with little effect, until they figured out to tip it over, no small feat. They learned. Soon they were doing this to other vehicles.

If I hadn’t been there, I think Laura would have walked into the horde screaming for Greta. If she hadn’t been there, I know I would have.

But we had to stay alive, in case Greta had made it out. We couldn’t just leave her alone. During the chaos of the fighting and the burning of the lander, I held Laura’s hand so tight. There was no way I was going to lose her. 

We got to our Prius and drove. We watched out the back window as the Air National Guard bombed the horde.

But I wasn’t running this time. This was my chance to get back. For revenge. That’s about the only thing I had left to hope for. The xenos had taken everything else. 

I felt with dizzy with fear and excitement, almost high. Is this what Sandy and Lex and Miri felt? I tried to stay dead inside, and just go on to the next action. After a while it wasn’t too hard.

We climbed up the hill but stopped before the crest. Sandy sent Lex to peek over the top.

We waited for what seemed an eternity, just listening to each other breathe, until Lex came crawling out of the dark.

“A group of them,” he whispered. “In a valley on the other side.”

“You’re sure Buck’s there?” Sandy asked.

“Pretty sure. They all look the same, but there’s a big’un and two smalls.”

“Good,” Sandy said. She did a brass check on her rifle.

“Wait, what’s good?” I asked. “You’re not talking about attacking them?”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Sandy said.

“You heard him,” I said. “He said there’s three of them up there. You saw what just one of those things did to us.”

“We were caught unprepared,” Sandy said. “This time we’ll have surprise on our side.”

“Let’s at least discuss this—”

“Doc, you wanted to see how the xenos were doing after you dropped all that shit on them, right? Well, look around. They’re doing fine. They’re making themselves right at fucking home and Ecology hasn’t been able to do a goddamn thing about it. But there’s something I can do it.” She lifted her rifle. “Now, my tactical command supersedes your project authority. We’re staying and we’re going over that hill and we’re going to waste those fucks. Got it? Now, let’s go take a look.”


***

We belly crawled over the crest and I smelled them before I saw them. Three blacker-than-black shapes in a little valley below, their joints glinting in the moonlight. I found myself smiling nervously in the dark. So close to living xenos.

They don’t sleep. At night they just slow down and huddle. Or hide in lakes.

They called to each other intermittently, pipes blowing softly or branches scratching dry ground.

Sandy nudged my shoulder and we all slowly backed down the hill.

“Perfect,” Sandy said when we got back to the Jeep. “They won’t see us coming.”

“You’re talking about attacking them tonight? In the dark?” I asked.

“You’d prefer we started shooting them in the light? When they’re soaking up the sun? Don’t think so. It’s dark. We’ll catch them while they’re sluggish.” She started to clip on passive night vision goggles. “Let’s get the recoilless out. Lex and I will scout ahead and find some good firing points. Our coms will be turned down, so we won’t be able to hear you. Bulls don’t usually travel at night, but if they do we’ll squelch the coms twice and meet you back down here. If they start coming your way, you’ll just hear shooting. We’ll meet back here in about an hour. Doc, you’ve never been on a hunt, right? Just remember: when things start happening, stay close to one of us and shoot the big fuckers. And if you shoot me, I’ll kill you.”

We broke out the soft-glow sticks and dug out the recoilless, ammo, and some protein bars. Bulls and other large xenofauna, especially xe-cats, are attracted to light, even though they lack true eyes. They sense light with their skin. This led to the hyper-aggressive creatures attacking cities, houses, and cars when they first emerged from the waters. The glow sticks were a dim blue wavelength the aliens couldn’t sense over a few feet away, ample enough for us to prep. I watched Miri and Lex field-strip the recoilless. I sat down against the Jeep’s tire to check my ammo.

Three bulls. One bull killed two of us. One was enough to kill all of us. But we had guns and bombs. It’s not like I didn’t feel the anger the others felt. Percy and Ally dead. Our planet, Earth, raped. Turned from a pale blue dot into a black cinder. Perhaps we’ll find a way to hold them off, carve out a little piece of Arctic real estate, retain a pocket of breathable atmosphere, hide like rats, while they xenoform the rest of the planet. More than likely we’ll kill as many of them as we can before our end. I put an extra ammo clip in my backpack.

I must’ve dozed off, because when I woke Sandy and Lex were gone and Miri was sitting on one of the sample coolers, smoking a synth-tabac cig and rooting through a box of protein bars. She caught my eyes.

“You’re hardcore, Doc,” she said. I could almost see her eyes in the dim blue glow.

“What?”

“Sleeping before a hunt. You ain’t nervous?”

“I’m not sure. There’s nothing left they can take from me.”

“Ah, the nothing-to-lose, look-death-in-the-eye type.”

“And you’re any different?” I asked.

“Never said I was.” She took a drag from the cig. “Takes a special type to survive out here.”

“Rats or lions,” I said.

“What now?”

“Nothing,” I waved her off. “I just think she might get us killed.”

“Sandy?” Miri asked with a laugh. “Maybe. But we done this a hundred times.”

“A hundred? Really?”

“Stop worrying. All you have to do is shoot the monsters. And don’t shoot Sandy. She’ll kill you.”

“Seems she’s as dangerous as they are.”

“More so. Which is why we’re lucky to have her on our side.” Miri took a drag from her cigarette. “One time, and this was early on, few years back, we were part of the militia down in New Mexico. Little more than vigilantes really, but we had badges and the law. This when New Mexico was under martial law, see. One day we were out on patrol looking for Mexican fence jumpers fleeing the shit-storm that was Central America then. This was right after Mexico City burned.

“We came across this… well, it was a cave set in this little hill out in the desert, but the guys who ran it, about seven of them, they set it up like a compound. Bunch of cars tipped on their sides covered in razor wire, surrounding the cave like a siege wall. There were only four of us in one car. Me, Sandy and two rancher boys, both good with a rifle. Anyhow, the front gate was wide open, so we drove in.

“See, we thought maybe they were setting up for a stand against the xenos. Wanted to say ‘hi,’ let them know where the nearest refuge was, case they had to flee. ‘Cept as soon as we made it through the gates, we learned they weren’t packing in for a fight with the xenos, no. They were picking up wet-backs, like us. Only they weren’t escorting them to processing or refuge centers. They were keeping them. Doing whatever they wanted with them.

“Right on the other side of the gate there was a row of women chained to the car-wall, eight or nine of them. A little kid was going up and down the line with a bucket and ladle. The kid waved at us when we pulled in, like this was business as usual.

“I saw this person lying next to a chopping block, axe sticking out of the block. We parked and I got to the person first. It was a woman, still alive. I remember the chopping block covered in blood and bits of flesh. They’d cut off her hands and feet, see. It’s what they did to those who tried to run.

“Right then, two guys with rifles came out of the cave shooting. Before I could even register, we were in a fire fight and Sandy had already dropped one. I ducked and saw one of our boys had fallen. I thought he dove for cover but then I saw his throat in tatters.

“It all happened so fast. I ducked behind the stump, but it couldn’t fully cover me. They shot me through the legs, here and here.” She pointed to her thigh and calf. “I tried to crawl back to the car, but I was lucky and didn’t make it. One of them tossed a hand grenade under the car.  The blast stunned me. I still can’t hear out of my left ear very well.

“When I came to, there was this fucking guy smiling. He had his boot on my chest and put his weight on me. He was tossing and catching a grenade. He was talking but I couldn’t hear over the ringing in my ears. I assumed the blast had killed Sandy and the other boy. I was the only survivor. I hadn’t even got a shot off.

“They drug me to this little shack. I could start to hear through the whine in my ears. They told me all the things there were going to do to me and showed me the knife they were going to do it with.”

She said nothing for a moment.

“Eventually, I passed out. When they splashed water on my face I woke and heard shouts and gunfire outside.

“Sandy had survived the blast, see. She hadn’t ducked behind the car. The explosion did get the other boy, though. And while they were going through the wreckage and dragging me off, Sandy was skulking through their compound. I don’t know all how she did it. She took them out, one by one. By the time she made it to me she was out of bullets. The guy guarding me started shouting about how he was going to slit my throat. Sandy kicked in the door and the guard started shooting. And then we both saw it. Sandy had tossed in a grenade. I thought maybe she didn’t know I was in the shack, that I should let her know. But then I realized it was too late. So did my guard. He dove into the corner and we both waited for the blast. It never came. She’d thrown the grenade with the pin still in, distracting the guard, so that when he looked up, there was Sandy standing over him holding that axe from the chopping block high above her head. She buried it right in his sternum.”

She flicked her cigarette onto the ground and crushed it under her heel.

“Later on we found a pit where they dumped bodies. They killed the men and boys right as soon as they could. There was thirty, maybe forty of them rotting in a pile. I’ll never forget the smell.” Miri stopped for a moment. “I don’t tell that story much. Not the most pleasant of memories. But we’re out here together and I thought you should know who you’re out here with. You can count on Sandy, one hundred percent. See, she could have run. Could have got reinforcements. Anyone else would have. I would have. And if she had those guys would have wasted me and all the others and run for it before she got back. But not Sandy. She don’t leave anyone behind.”

Greta, I thought. I had left her behind. I left her to the monsters.

The radio at Miri’s belt squelched once. We both looked at it.

“What does one squelch mean?” I asked. “Are they up on the—”

“Shh!” Miri stood up and looked into the darkness at the top of the hill. She grabbed the walkie. “Sandy, Lex. You there? Over.” The radio was silent.

I looked away from the glow-stick, trying to keep my eyes dark adjusted.

“How long have they been up there—”

“Doc, shh! Sandy, Lex. Are you there? Over.” She paused for a beat. “We heard a squelch. Over.”

“Their walkies are turned down.”

“One of them probably rolled over on—”

Horns sounded from the ridge and the darkness was broken by a flash from the recoilless, burning into my eyes. I remember the briefest gap before the rifle’s thunder arrived.

Miri was already in the Jeep, hitting the headlights and kicking on the engine. I jumped into the passenger seat and she gunned up the hill, swerving around stumps.

In the dark I could see a ghost of the recoilless’ flash. The headlights only revealed blackened earth. Then I saw more flashes off to the left and heard rifle reports. I felt something between nausea and excitement.

The headlights glinted off the joints of a bull spread out on the ground at the top of the ridge. Miri slammed on the brakes. The ruined xenofauna lay in the headlights. It was massive, even spread flat against the ground. It twitched everywhere, pipes dilating, sacs filling and deflating, twisting and pumping. Sandy or Lex had shot it through the hindquarters, pulverizing its back half and leaving pipes and muscle in tatters.

I slipped out of the passenger seat while Miri kept the Jeep running. It might have been Buck, or one of the smaller bulls, but all spread out it was hard to tell.

“Shoot it, Doc!”

“Wait,” I said. I heard a moan and grabbed the flashlight at my belt.

The recoilless lay on the ground next to the creature. Its body reached for the light wherever it landed on skin.

A bull called from the valley.

I heard another moan and caught Sandy in the light, twisted and run through, in a cage of feeding branches. She bled from her mouth, ears, nose, throat, chest, everywhere a branch stabbed through her.

“What is it?” Miri asked.

I turned to Miri. “It’s—” But she was looking at me, not behind her, not at Buck towering over the little vehicle. “Breather!” I screamed and grabbed mine.

The bull blasted out hydrogen sulfide. I could smell the wet stink before I strapped my breather on.

Miri slumped behind the wheel, breather dangling from her fingers. Buck rose up higher, raising its forward piston legs, smashing them down onto the Jeep. Again and again. Crushing the roll bar. And Miri.

I turned off my flashlight and stood still. Buck didn’t notice me, distracted by the Jeep’s lights. I inched closer to the recoilless. When it was at my feet I eased down and slipped off my rifle, while Buck continued to pulverize the Jeep.

The rear bolt was in the loaded position, but I could only trust it was chambered. I stood up and hoisted it on my shoulder. I looked through the scope and saw Buck. He loomed above me, like an old pitch Victorian house, sharp angles and crawling pipes against the bright points of early morning stars. I squeezed the trigger and fire and thunder boomed from the barrel.

The bullet hit Buck right down the middle and he was gone from the sky.

I heard a faint trickling of liquid pouring out on the dry ground through the whine in my ears. The beast lay on the ground, dissipating.

The bullet had spalled, breaking apart and shredding Buck down the center. He out-gassed, his stench creeping through my breather. His smell was heavy and black. Just an animal.

I reloaded and waited for the third bull. But nothing came.

Sandy was still breathing through pierced lungs, her eyelids fluttering.

I pulled at a branch that was working its way into her leg to try and free her. She winced when I pulled, her eyes opening in the breaking dawn light. She mumbled. I leaned in, small twigs-stalks of the bull’s branches gripping my lapels and pant legs. I brushed them aside.

“…shoo… shoot me, Doc… don’t let them…” She struggled for breath.

I told her to be quiet.

I retrieved my rifle and leveled it at her. She waited while I hesitated. She tried to nod her head and winced.

I shot her. Twice in the chest, once in the head.

After that I sat watched Buck and the other bull twitch in the morning sun.

I looked for Lex but found no sign of him. I thought I heard a boom in the distance. Dynamite, maybe? Maybe it was a horn blast.

The xeno carcasses had started sinking their branches into the ground, beginning the tree-phase of their life-cycle: they would grow high and gestate a few bull-pods if I didn’t take care of it.

I walked down to where we left our food, sleeping gear, and extra gasoline.

I couldn’t pull Sandy free from her cage and Miri was encased in her Jeep-coffin, so when I returned I poured gasoline over all them, one big pyre.

I found some matches in the emergency kit and lit the pyre. I watched the flames for a while. Was this all that was left for humanity?

I felt dead inside, with just a heavy stomach, like in the center of me there was just a lump.


***

I’m not even afraid anymore.

I can hear bull calls close by. The third bull? Calling its fallen comrades? Reinforcements? I think it’s circling, stalking me. Maybe Lex is out there.

The southern outpost is hundreds of miles away. My supplies are short, and the water out here is contaminated. A rescue party won’t be sent for weeks, if ever. By then the trail will be cold and the xenos will have gotten me. But I have my rifle, the recoilless, and about a dozen shells.


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Copyright Mark Pantoja 2019

Mark Pantoja is a musician and writer and graduate of Clarion West 2011. His work has appeared in Lightspeed, GigaNotoSaurus, and has been adapted into a radio drama for Wisconsin Public Radio. He currently resides in San Francisco. When no one is watching, he reviews books, music, and movies. He also likes whiskey.

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