Welcome To the Dead Land, David Sechrest
Man On the Moon, Kalju Lee
A Whole New World, Richard Cunningham III
The Fall of Drum City, Kalju Lee
A Boy and His Car, Clancy Smith
What Little Girls Are Made, Richard Cunningham III
Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products
of the author’s imagination or are used factitiously and are not to be construed
as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organization, or persons,
living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For information contact: email@example.com
WELCOME TO THE DEADLAND
By David Sechrest
Hatch had been fairly apathetic regarding his prison sentence until the morning his cellmate died.
The man was not so old, but frail beyond his years, always wheezing; probably spaded right down to the core. Hatch did not know what this man had done to deserve being placed in a cell, how long he had been there, or how much longer the local enforcement had sentenced him to remain. In the week they had spent together imprisoned in the cold basement prison, they had not exchanged a single word, and they each seemed to prefer it that way. Hatch did not even know the man's name.
So what did he care?
Why was this stranger’s death the catalyst for Hatch's sudden need to escape?
Because ever since he had crawled over hand and foot out of the desert wastes of the east, the Dead Land, as the locals called it, he had emerged a new man. The trial had changed him for the better and the worse. Colors were more vivid. Even in the basement he could feel the dry sand outside that had guided him here. But sharper was a damp smell, the mildew and mold, that overpowered everything at all times, and now it was laced with human rot.
It had been weeks since Mick, Dusty and he had first left Shelter 303 in an attempt to break away from the Dead Land. That had been, of course, back when they still thought that was an option, only requiring fortitude and a certain amount of sacrifice.
“Dusty, you useless sack of lizard shit! Keep moving!”
Hatch knew he never should have let Dusty have the shotgun. He was not only constantly giving away their position to predators, but he was adamant about reloading it while they were in mid-flight.
“You’re just gonna drop the ammo!” Mick screamed, “You wanna be food?”
Hatch was technically in charge of the expedition, but Mick fancied screaming at Dusty, and, in this case, was right to do so.
Father Ish, the leader and one of the last of the old ones back in 303, had once explained that coyogres, like other creatures of the Dead Land, were the product of “genetic engineering”. This made little sense to Hatch or the other young men, until Ish soon elaborated that the mutated beasts were just another example of the many abominations from the past, when man had been obsessed with using Science. This made much more sense. Although Hatch was very fond of some man-science—flashlights and mealpaks—he knew it held the capacity for evil, as coyogres, screaming lizards… and the Dead Land itself proved. He was certain that God was too benevolent a being to have made such atrocities on His own: even though Ish insisted that man was only doing God’s will. Hatch had never been too confident in his talks with Father Ish, but on his own, he had resolved that God did not disapprove of him killing the MSC’s on sight.
Hatch and Mick had, in fact, just taken down one of the coyogres in complete silence amidst the shadows of twilight. An ambitious juvenile, at least three feet tall with a wiry black pelt and gnarly teeth, had been stalking them for miles. At that point in its development the animal still resembled its ancestor; though spotting an actual coyote in the unforgiving desert was much more rare. The group had entered into a valley, while the creature rushed in for the kill, sensing an advantage over the three men. But Hatch had climbed a large rock while the others hid behind the jutting formation, and then he leaped upon the loping wad of fur as it crept toward his companions. It was the one advantage the clan noticed they had over the predators: coyogres did not seem capable of steep climbing, or even very aware of the existence of a world above their heads. Hatch brought his axe down sharply on the crown of the MSC’s skull. The beast did not even have time to whelp as Mick ran out and drove a pair of knives into its gullet. It collapsed to one side, allowing Hatch to roll off its back and safely return to his feet. Hatch was certain, as their fearsome enemy gurgle-sighed out a dying breath, that their attack could not have been executed more flawlessly.
That was when Dusty chimed in and fired two shots into the coyogre's groin.
“What the hell are you doing?” Hatch struggled not to scream.
“I hate you, Dusty,” Mick said, matter-of-factly, “I just completely hate you.”
“He was still twitchin!” Dusty shot back defensively.
The blast traveled through the valley in a series of descending replays. The three men paused in cold silence until they could no longer hear the gunshot echoing out and beyond, and waited still a moment longer for any indication of approaching danger.
Then, all at once, somewhere out in the vast desert wasteland came the choral response of coyogre howls, a truly terrifying sound.
“Why did we give him the gun?” Mick asked, “Why did we do that?”
It was an answer that everyone knew: Dusty was entirely defenseless with anything else.
“How was I supposed to know you guys would get that MSC so damn fast?”
“Look, Dusty!” Mick pointed to the nearby corpse, “Look, before you shoot, God damn it! That’s how!”
Hatch moaned, “God help us...”
Then they were running again, maintaining a quick steady pace, narrowly dodging rocks and dry brush against the last rays of sunlight.
“You know what, Dusty,” Mick continued between breaths, “Go ahead. You’re just going to waste all the ammo anyway.”
“Screw you, Mick.”
“In fact, just drop the damn gun. Slow down a little. Take a nap.”
“Quiet!” said Hatch. “Look!”
The valley narrowed and a steep cliff emerged along the wall on their left. Hatch was known among the shelter for his excellent nocturnal vision, and he pointed at what looked to be a convenient hole in the cliff edge. Even before their response, he was deftly climbing up the slope until he had reached the small opening in the earth. In seconds, he was exploring the gap with his flashlight. Inside, a mist hovered over the cavern ground, cutting apart the beams of light.
“It goes in a ways,” Hatch whispered down, “I say we wait out the night in here. I don't think any of those abominations could fit through.”
“I don't think I could fit through there,” Mick said, indeed the most hefty of the three.
“Well... I'll go in first, then I'll pull while Dusty pushes you in.”
There were no complaints at this suggestion, and soon all three men were exploring the cliff-side fissure, which proved to go back even further than Hatch had originally suspected. He led the way into the depths of the cave, where he took caution, sinking low to the ground to await the flurry of tiny blood-bats usually found in desert caves. Strangely, there were none. Instead, the smooth, egg-shaped enclosure revealed nothing more than a small pool of water, surrounded by rocks, with a steady drip that came from a crack directly in the center of the ceiling. There was plenty of space in this chamber for all three men, and so they removed their packs, set down their weapons, and relaxed around the pool.
“I think you should drown in it.” Mick snapped.
“Mick! Enough. Dusty…,” Hatch sighed, shaking his head, “You… already finished your canteen?”
Dusty shrugged, and then leaned over the water.
“It’s probably okay,” he said, “It looks clean.”
“So do the rocks,” Mick muttered, “You should eat those while you’re at it.”
“Father Ish told us not to trust any water unless plants were growing near it,” Hatch noted, and then added, “Unless you're looking to get spaded.”
Ever curious, Dusty leaned over the puddle awkwardly and reached out for one of the velvety rocks surrounding the pool.
“… I don’t think these are rocks,” he noted.
He pulled at one, and it split from the cave floor with some effort, and a long rip.
“Hey! They’re plants!” Dusty said, “The water must be okay.”
Under its hard exterior, the strange object did seem to feature a stalk. In fact their general shape resembled the edible fungi cultivated back in the shelter, growing out around its center to form a dome, its underbelly resembling an air filter cartridge. He and Mick exchanged glances.
“It's some kind of 'shroom, right?” Mick asked.
“That is not a mushroom, not one I ever read about,” Hatch asserted, “Put it down.”
“Don’t you think we should keep a few?” Dusty countered.
Dusty sometimes fancied himself a scientist, if for nothing else, to frustrate the old ones back at 303.
“I mean, if we ran out of mealpaks, I’d try eating one,” he continued, “And they weigh hardly anything.”
This brought about much arguing for the next several minutes, but in the end, Dusty had a point. If it came down to the terrible choice between nothing and something, it certainly could not hurt to eat the strange plants. Most of the other desert vegetation they knew for certain was unsafe to eat, and the plants were indeed incredibly light and wouldn't add much to the load. Each man took a few, only enough to fill the empty space in their sacks. By the same logic, Dusty decided to go ahead and fill up his empty canteen.
“Don’t worry. If we find a better source, I’ll dump it out.”
“I have a bad feeling about all this,” Mick said.
The three men settled down for the night and turned off their flashlights, only to find that the pool of water itself gave off a faint glow, as if it was reflecting the moonlight. Every drip of water seemed to warp the rock around them with rippling luminescence. They stared at it for several minutes before speaking.
Mick scoffed, “This is the devil’s work.”
“Or the spring of life,” Dusty contended, wonder in his voice.
“Drink up, fool, drink up. We can use you as a lantern tomorrow night.”
Hatch sighed and shook his head.
He listened to the dripping water and the distant struggle of coyogres trying to get inside. The predators fought with each other, even in their shared effort. Hatch closed his eyes, settling.
He dreamed he saw the sea for the first time, dreamed he walked in its foaming waters.
They slept sound through the night and the unbearable midday sun, and left the shelter of the cave as soon as the sun had begun its gradual decline, at which point there was surprisingly little evidence of coyogre activity in the valley. The giant beasts appeared to have been satisfied in scavenging the corpse of the coy that the men had twice killed. Tracks read that the creatures had run off sometime during the night, attracted to greater prospects, no doubt. Hatch pulled out an old compass from his pack and opened its battered exterior, determining west for the group with his hand hoisted in the air.
Strangely, they noticed that they had less and less contact with coyogres as they continued