Meet the Author
About Orbit Short Fiction
Table of Contents
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When Oscar stopped, ears pricked and one paw slightly raised, even his breathing gone almost silent, I did, too. Remember those stupid movies where the animal would warn about impending danger and an asshat of a human wouldn’t listen?
No, nobody remembers those movies. Everyone’s dead, over ninety percent of the population, probably more every day. Anyone left has more to worry about than the fact that you can’t get a DVD player to work anymore. Or a microwave.
Popcorn. Just one more thing to miss. Except right now I was more worried about toilet paper. Finding something to wipe your ass with after the apocalypse gets ranked in importance behind food, shelter, ammo, and antibiotics, but it’s still up there. I hate wiping with leaves.
I hitched my backpack up and unlimbered the rifle instead of the machete. Distance is always better.
If the problem was other humans, Oscar would’ve been looking up at me with that you make the call, alpha expression he’s so good at.
Nah, if he was looking like this, it was likely animals, not people or Others. Not sure if Others are strictly people, really, for all the stories you hear about them wearing people-skins. Before the Thing—the Turn, the Event, the Great Fuckery From the Stars What Put Us Here, whatever—passed the tipping point, everyone called them Others. You could hear the capital letter in front, too. Every damn time.
I strained my only-human ears. That’s another thing about the apocalypse; it gets pretty damn deafening sometimes. Packs of feral dogs, birds yapping all goddamn day, and all the sky’s immense echoing. Sometimes you can go a little crazy, you know—start thinking the entire blue lens is a big eye, watching the way the Others probably did before they came down.
Some people said they were magic. Other people said government secret. Me, I’m voting on aliens, because I remember the lights in the sky getting too far south the winter before things went all pear-shaped. And the lights in the sky over my own town before what had only been a problem in the big cities came to rural America.
Not that anyone cares what I think.
Oscar moved away a couple steps. Eighty pounds of blue merle Australian shepherd, and I named him before I knew what a sweet guy he really is. It’s not his fault he looks like a Muppet. Or that when I let him out of that goddamn cage the fat fuck had him in, he was hungry and frightened enough to be a little crazy.
Anyway, just up over the hill was today’s sort-of-destination, some tiny podunk that, from the look of the two-lane highway ribboning into it, might have been unlooted. We’d camped a few miles back at the freeway interchange, just to be safe, so we could approach it at noon. Sunlight was always best.
Oscar’s ears were perked as far forward as they could go, and his hackles rose a bit. He looked even fluffier that way, and he gave me the well, okay, now what? look.
That was when I heard it. If I hadn’t…well. I don’t know.
It took me a couple seconds to place the sound. Long, drawn out, and high-pitched. For a second I thought it was Others, and my skin chilled all over, everything from nipples to nape drawing up high, hard, and perky. I tasted copper, but then another instinct kicked in, and I recognized what it was.
“What the hell?” I looked down at Oscar, who gave the canine equivalent of a shrug.
I pointed, and he set off trotting off to my left; I drifted onto the overgrown shoulder, loping forward with the rifle held easy. At the top of the rise I’d be visible, but the sun wasn’t behind me, so I wouldn’t be too easy to spot. I stopped just before my head would pop up over the rise, though, dropped down to my knees, and worked forward in a basic-training crawl.
It pays to be cautious. Before the Event I would have called the military part of the problem with society, and after…well, the Others took out bases and installations even before they did the cities. Still, it wasn’t a bad idea to use a military mind-set while carrying around a damn rifle you could kill yourself or anyone else with. Or when you were dealing with things that hid in the night and ate people like they were popping a can of Pringles.
Now there was a good thought. A nice big can of overprocessed potato, probably still crispy.
The sound kept going, with breaks for breathing. Sobbing, moaning, but why hadn’t Oscar alerted me to humans? It was high noon, there shouldn’t be an Other out. Besides, their ululating cries and click-hisses don’t sound in the least human.
I peeked up over the edge of the rise. It was a one-stoplight town, Oscar was working around to the left, taking advantage of overgrown bushes, just where he wouldn’t be visible to whatever was making the noise.
I could see movement now. I squinted, glad I’d had Lasik before the world went to crap—trying to clean glasses would be goddamn impossible in these conditions—and finally scooted back and stood up.
What the hell?
A sharp bark, Oscar’s all-clear. I went on over the rise in a rush, running for the nearest building—a hardware store, with plate glass in front. Unbroken plate glass, which was a good sign. Trash had built up on the sidewalk, but it was covered by dust, dirt, and growing weeds; juicy green also thrust up through the worn roadway’s cracked face. Ole Ma Nature certainly was doing a grand old job at taking everything back. Maybe I should blame her for the Others.
Anyway, the sounds were coming from the middle of the road, and I stepped out from cover and stared.
That was how I met Huck.
Skin and bones, dark hair crusted with filth, he looked about ten years old. Stark naked and rolling on the ground, clutching his stomach and wailing. I glanced around—a trap wasn’t out of the question, I still remembered the roving gangs of armed men when everything started breaking down. I’d almost been caught once or twice, and I’d seen the bodies they left behind plenty enough. Funny, how those were pretty much always worse than the Others’ kills.
The Others don’t mount their prey on pikes, or rape them to death, or flay them, or anything else inventive little human brains can come up with.
I finally squatted, easily, once I was fairly sure there wasn’t anyone hiding on a rooftop or in one of the few alleys. Gas station, all-and-sundry, Laundromat. All dark, all with unshattered windows. Except for the trash and the greenery, it could have been Before.
The kid was throwing a right purple-faced fit. Oscar snaked out from some corrugated tin leaning against the side of the all-and-sundry and lolloped up, grin-panting. He looked very proud of himself, as usual, and it was his appearance that shut the kid up.
There was fifteen seconds of pure blessed silence, and I checked the sky. Sun still high, plenty of time.
The kid’s face was a ruin, covered in dirt, tears, and slobber. He curled over like a worm, hugging his belly, and stared with huge dark mournful eyes. That wasn’t all, though. His upper lip had a scar—a harelip, they used to call it; looked pretty ragged. He got his hands and knees under him and shrank back, cowering, and the sight did something funny to me.
“Morning,” I sai
d, my voice cracking because I didn’t use it much. I talked to Oscar, you know, but it wasn’t the same. “Or maybe afternoon.”
Could this kid talk? It was a pure miracle he was even alive. The really young, like the really old, mostly went first. Was it appendicitis? If it was, he was dead. I didn’t know enough about surgery, and forget sterile conditions.
Oscar sat down, licked his chops, and looked so fuzzily self-important I was hard put not to laugh. I was conscious of the kid watching, though, and wondered again how he’d gotten through the winter.
The kid made a gurgling sound deep in his throat. I nodded as if he’d greeted me. Oscar wiggled a little, and the kid shot him a terrified look. The whites showed as his eyes rolled like a startled horse’s.
“That’s Oscar. He doesn’t bite.” Do you understand English, kid? I checked the sky again. I should look for supplies and get the hell out of here, hole up in camp safely for the night. After a couple days of work, it would be time to move on with whatever I could cache safely buried and whatever I could carry in the trailer weighing me down so I didn’t fly away. The kid didn’t appear much of a threat. “Neither do I. We’ll just look around and be on our way.”
Did he understand me? When I slowly levered myself up, he went quivering-still. Oscar got up, shook himself, and ambled between us. He circled the boy, watching him sidelong, and I could swear he was saying something. He didn’t have a tail, like most Aussies, but if he had one it probably would have been straight up, a take-no-shit posture.
I left them to it and walked away. The all-and-sundries store was locked, but a few minutes fixed that. I don’t break windows unless I’m forced to, but I’ve gotten pretty good at locks.
Inside, the reek of spoiled and rotten food wasn’t too bad. Last winter and rats had probably taken care of that. I avoided the dairy and the sandwich section, looked longingly at a display of Twinkies—they stopped making those before the Event, and I couldn’t afford the tooth rot now—and got down to business. Canned goods, multivitamin packets, bottled water—now that was a good find, and I’d bet the gas station had even more. I wondered if the toilet worked, and glory hallelujah it did. It even filled up again, and that was a wonder and a half.
It was enough to make a body think about staying in one place for a little while.
Except that was a sure way to bring Others.
So a couple hours later I eyeballed the sky, took stock of the wind, and whistled for Oscar.
When he came lolloping along, the boy came with him, half naked and slinking. I stood there as Oscar performed his usual I haven’t seen you in five minutes, thought you were gone forever, can I crawl under your skin? dance, ending with his rubbing up against me while I scratched behind his ears and told him he was a good boy. I took my time with it, and he was in ecstasy while I sized up the boy. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what the kid wanted.
He was dirty, but he didn’t smell. He rubbed at his belly, rubbed and rubbed it, and I was having those thoughts of appendicitis until he looked up at me, dark eyes wide and guileless, and pointed to his mouth, making a piping little sound.
I thought about it while he stood there, just outside my reach. I knew that sort of posture—he didn’t trust me, which was mutual, and also smart. Most people, when the apocalypse went down, tried to help others. The ones who didn’t were in the minority—a ruthless and usually well-armed one. It ended the way those things always end: with the helpful and kind getting gunned down.
If you did travel temporarily with someone, there were the stories. Even accounting for hyperbole and the end of fucking civilization, those stories were…well.
The things at night, the lights in the sky. Creatures in the rivers, and in whatever forests had survived mankind. The things striking at campsites, leaving only scattered bones and blood among the trample marks of feet neither human nor animal. The marks on bodies when the…feedings…were interrupted.
There were also whispers of towns and cities being put back together, usually in some faraway corner it would take months to get to. Other, darker whispers.
Like crying sounds in the night, and people riding to the rescue, missing until sunrise revealed their entrails spread over a large distance. If there was a body, it was only in pieces.
Whoever had come visiting, they understood basic psychology. Or maybe the Others just hunted, like gun nuts and rednecks before the Event. Pretty ironic that now they were finding out it wasn’t so goddamn fun when you were the deer.
Except the rest of us had to live with it too.
So I looked the kid over. Rail thin, too thin, on the ragged edge of starvation. Nonverbal, probably from trauma. If the Others were looking to use him to lure someone out, they might have prepared their bait a little more carefully. Maybe bait was disposable—but there couldn’t be that many kids wandering around.
“You want to go with me.” I sounded dubious even to myself. “Not sure, kid. Hard enough to feed me and Oz here.”
The kid just stared. The sun was going to start sliding toward the west soon. Would I hear screaming outside the trailer tonight?
The smart thing to do was not to care, and not to take on anything that could drag you down.
But there was Oscar, leaning against my leg, his pelt nice and glossy now. He’d lost the habit of flinching when I stroked his head.
The all-and-sundry had clothes, too. I’d eyeballed the sizes. They were weighing down my pack even now—two pairs of jeans, underwear, wool socks, a packet of white cotton T-shirts and a hoodie; they’d probably fit him.
It was a foregone conclusion, really.
He was a little younger than I thought, probably eight or nine. Third grade, I could have even had him in a class, Before.
He pointed at his mouth, again. Maybe my expression wasn’t that kind, because he also stepped back, nervously, and his filthy feet with their claw nails were horribly battered. Getting him clean was likely to be a chore and a half.
What did I have but time, though?
“What do you think, Oscar?”
The dog just looked up at me. Whatever you say, alpha. He looked so damn pleased with the entire situation, again, that I had to smile.
“All right.” I hitched my pack higher, my hand worming into my jacket pocket. The kid skipped back another step. I didn’t crouch, just fished out the can of evaporated milk and my Swiss Army knife. Two punctures, I lifted the can and held it to my mouth, pantomiming drinking. “Mmmmm.”
Then I extended it, looking gravely at the kid.
It took a little while. Finally, he sidled forward. Snatched the can from my hand and started sucking at it, greedily. It was one of the little ones, so he probably wouldn’t sicken himself on it, but still. I backed up and turned around.
There wasn’t time to lure him. If he came along, that was fine, and I’d do what I could.
There was doing the right thing, and then there was being stupid.
Oscar took care of it, circling back to get the boy and hurry him along. Something other than me to herd just about did the dog in with sheer satisfaction. We took the road out of town, and I longed to glance back. Didn’t.
It was sort of how I’d led Oscar home the first time, away from the burning wreck of that fat fuck’s shack and the cages. Most of the animals there had just vanished into the undergrowth, but not Oscar.
The freeway was clear for miles in either direction; it only got clogged around major cities with rusting hulks sitting back on their springs, the drivers fled or bleached, picked-clean skeletons draped in weird attitudes they had probably died in—it was better to go around the edges. It bothered me, how the bones would just sit there, naked and cold, not scattered as if animals had been at them.
No, they were just…left, like used toothpicks. One of the many mysteries since the end of the world, I guess.
Anyway, I liked the empty space all the way around the cloverleaf, scrub bushes not yet creeping up to the c
oncrete. The forest was petering out into plains, and the edge was the best place to be. Might even be time to turn south for the winter, but dry south instead of wet. I hated the damn humidity.
Still, I scanned with the binoculars as Oscar brought the kid up. I felt more than heard them—the kid was quiet, and Oscar, well, you spend enough time with a dog and you end up just knowing where he’s likely to be.
Nothing stirring around the trailer, not even a shimmer of heat off the pavement. Clouds coming in from the north, it meant misty mornings. The cloud cover was good, but it also meant sunlight wasn’t the usual insurance. The truck sat placidly, and none of the traps had been disturbed.
I looked down to find Oscar pressed against my leg. “Well?”
He gave me a big doggy grin. Nothing out of the usual, so it was safe to approach. If he’d been tense, or even perk-eared, it would have been time to be really, really careful.
Now I let myself look back. The kid was crouched by a clump of blackberries, watching me with the sort of intensity only children are capable of. He still clutched the can, and raised it hopefully as our gazes locked.
Those dark eyes were huge. Snot greased that scarred upper lip, and he scratched with his free hand under his filth-stiffened rag clout.
I hitched the rifle higher on my shoulder. “Come on, then.” I didn’t think he’d follow me.
But he did.
The solar panels had done their work, and pretty much everything had a full charge. The kid submitted to a washcloth scrubbing to get the first few layers of grime off. Stippled thornscars crisscrossed his skin, and he would have made himself sick on water if I hadn’t firmly taken the bottle away. He looked ready to snap at me, but Oscar made a low sound, not quite a growl, and the boy subsided.
“Do you have a name?” I was going to have to shave his head to get the mats out, if I couldn’t get him to dunk his head in the trailer’s tiny kitchen sink. That or a lukewarm shower was about all I could manage, after a week of sunny days to charge everything to the max.