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Gail Davis is a writer living in Texas with her family and pets.  She has published several short stories in markets like Alien Skin, Black Petals, and others. Gail has served as an editor for the print journal Night Shopping and is currently awaiting the release of her first chapbook Blood Rain from Nocturne Press (an e-book version is available now from Creative Guy Publishing

and can be found on www.fictionwise.com). 

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Eric S. Brown is a just turned 30 year old author residing in western North Carolina.  His short fiction has been published over 300 times in the small press and beyond as well as collected into several paperbacks including his highly praised collection Dying Days.  All can be found on www.amazon.com

In addition his fourth book

will be out this April from www.permutedpress.com and his first collaborative novel COBBLE, with Susanne Brydenbaugh, will be released from Mundania Books this Oct, 2005.  He has also had numerous chapbooks published most notably a series of "zombie horror" chapbooks from www.nakedsnakepress.com the fourth of which will be released this summer. 

 

a

All Along the Watchtower

by

Gail Davis and Eric S. Brown

 

The estate was old and larger than anything Nick had ever dreamt of. Its grounds stretched for miles out into the fields and forest surrounding it. It seemed more a country unto itself rather than a patch of once well manicured lawns and fenced gardens.
            The house itself sat upon a small hill. Its outer walls were covered with wildly growing ivy that was actively picking its way under the peeling paint and taking root in the very shingles of the siding. It had a haunted air that sent a shiver down the spine but it was better than sleeping on the ground out in the cold any day.
            As Traig drove them through the massive gates, the only break in the eighteen-foot-high wall that surrounded the house like a medieval fortress, Nick could see clearly why Captain Staley had chosen this place. The enclosing walls and the open grounds beyond created an easily defensible position but those weren't the only reasons. The house had been a tourist trap before the war and was wired with electricity and modern plumbing. It was also big enough for the whole squad and all their equipment. Their two "borrowed" eighteen-wheelers would never fit through the main gates but they could be unloaded and the gear hauled inside.

            "Sure is somethin', ain't she?" Traig asked as he drove up to the front steps and parked the jeep. Warren and Nathaniel were already there, carrying boxes of ammo and rations inside. Nick could only nod in response to Traig's question. This place was more beautiful than anything he'd seen growing up in the big city.
            Captain Staley emerged from the house and walked down to greet them. He reminded Nick of a gorilla the way he moved -- rather looked like a gorilla, too, with that grim scowl and hardened demeanor. His entire being just seemed far out of place surrounded by the beauty here.
            Nick and Traig leapt from the jeep and snapped to attention before him. He looked them over, his beady eyes seeming to take them in from head to toe in a mere blink, and grunted, "At ease."
            The two privates relaxed a bit as Staley watched them carefully, his fingers absently toying with a large gold ring on his right hand. "The other men are already callin' this 'Omega Base' so welcome to it. I'm sure you boys gotta lot to do..." The tone he used made it sound like a question, but they all knew there was no request in his words. When Staley said jump you did not bother to ask how high. You just jumped high and hoped for the best.
            "Sir?" Nick asked though Staley had already turned his back on them and was beginning to walk away. He spun on his heels. "What, private?"
            "How long will we be staying here, sir?"
            A muted chuckle escaped Staley's iron lips. "Until They kill us, the food runs out, or we find help."
            "Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!" Nick barked.
            As Staley departed, Traig leaned over and whispered, "Omega base, huh? I guess that's kind of fitting given the circumstances."
            Nick wasn't sure he agreed.
            By the end of the day, every part of Nick's body ached. Unloading the gear from the trucks had proved a back-breaking job and even now, he could not find rest. He and another private named Peter had been assigned first watch on the western wall.
            The night was cold but clear. The moon shone full and bright in the mid-winter sky, washing the grounds around them silver and lending a little extra light to the scene. Anything moving out there would appear to be a shadow, but it would be seen. Nick leaned against the stone wall's edge peering out at the fields below, his M-16 propped beside him. Peter stood behind him flicking a lighter uselessly. A cigarette dangled between Peter's lips.
            "Damned thing!" Peter cursed beating it against the palm of his hand.
            "Could be out of fluid." Nick offered.
            "Don't say that, man. Where the Hell am I gonna get another one?"
            "Does it matter?" Nick shrugged. "How many smokes could you possibly have left anyway?"
            "Shit, man. I got three cartons. Found'em at that last store we ransacked on the way here. Staler than all get out but better than nothing."
            "Why are we doing this?"
            "What?" Peter snapped, still struggling with the lighter and only half listening.
            "This. All this. I mean it's over isn't it, the war. We lost didn't we?"
            "War ain't lost as long as one of us is left breathin', boy."
            "But why do we keep up this pretense that we're still in the army? It died with the rest of the world. We're all just men again. Humans."
            "Army ain't dead as long as Staley's around. He's one tough bastard, ya know? You better be careful. He hears you talkin' like this and you just might find yourself shot."
            "I just don't want to die here. I want to go home."
            "What to kid? Like you said the world is dead. Nothin' left out there but them things, rottin' bodies, and fallin' down buildings."
            Peter's lighter finally caught and he puffed on his cigarette with a smile. "Besides, son, at least with us, you don't have to worry about dyin' alone. These walls will go a far stretch at keepin' them things out and we got enough supplies for a couple of years. You could do a lot worse than bein' in Staley's unit."
            Nick looked back out over the fields and wondered when they would come. The things always found them. It was as if they could smell humans who didn't carry the virus like they did. It was only a matter of time.
            Somewhere close to 3AM, Warren and Traig came bounding up the stairs to the top of the wall. Nick was glad to see them.
            "Jeez, Nick, you look like shit," Traig said cheerfully slapping him on the back.
            "Feel like it too," Nick answered wearily.
            "Go on. Get out of here." Warren urged, taking Nick's place at the wall. "And for God's sake, get some rest."
            Nick found his way down from the wall and headed straight for the makeshift barracks in the main hall of the house. Staley wanted all the men to stay together in case of trouble so individual rooms were out of the question. Nick didn't care if it was a bed or a floor. He just wanted a place to lie down.
            All fifteen members of the 28 man squad, including Staley himself, who were not still working on securing the grounds or on watch were clustered into the hall. Sleeping bags were scattered everywhere and three tables had been set up. One held coffee, another food, and at the third sat Staley with a map spread out before him. Johnson, the squad's communication tech, sat with him.
            The two appeared to be in a heated argument but Nick didn't give a damn. Without a word to anyone, he went over to the pile of gear that was his own and dug through his oversized hiking pack until he found his blanket. Sprawling out on the floor he barely blinked twice before sleep took him.
            Gunfire awakened him. At least he thought it was gunfire. It had the distinct sound of ammunition being expended, but there was an odd, almost hollow ring to it. He was on his feet instantly, gun in hand, back to the wall, breathing slow and controlled though his heart was pounding in his chest. The shots continued, too fast and too numerous to be only the squad doing the shooting. That made no sense. They didn't use guns. They didn't have to.
            They, these -- things -- that hunted humans and ripped them apart, had once been human themselves. The virus began as a form of chemical warfare that was never meant to be used. The scientist who developed it, after seeing what it was capable of, tried to destroy it but the government -- as usual -- thought they knew better. The scientist was killed and the virus used to create an army of creatures they were positive they could control. They discovered pretty damned fast that nothing could control them.
            The beasts were mindless, though at times they showed an intellect that was almost human -- as if they took the knowledge of the people they once were and used it to their own advantage. When the discovery was made, completely by accident, that mercury solidified the blood of the creatures -- a lab technician studying the differences between human blood and that of the animals dropped a tray containing a vial of it and a mercury thermometer -- it wasn't long before they learned to stay out of sight and began hunting mainly at night. The study findings were reported on every television network, as was the fact that the army would now be using incendiary bullets with mercury cores.
            More gunfire sounded, a few errant shots coming seconds apart before all was silent again. Nick could hear nothing now, not a whisper of sound came to his ears. Cautiously, he rose to his feet and looked around.  “Where the Hell was everybody at?” he wondered.
            He saw nothing out of the ordinary until his eyes found the table where Staley and Johnson had been arguing earlier. Papers were strewn about the table and floor and one of the chairs was lying on its side. Nick figured the mess occurred when the two men rushed to see about the gunfire but his opinion changed when he saw the two booted feet under the table.
            Moving slowly around, gun at the ready, he was almost sickened by the sight that met his gaze. Johnson lay on the floor in a growing pool of blood and gore, a bullet hole in his forehead. His glazed eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.
            Nick moved away from the table, his eyes scanning every shadow in the room as his mind worked over the fact that a man had been killed not ten feet from him and he hadn't heard the shot. That could only mean one thing. A silencer had been used. There was only one man in the squad now who had a gun with a silencer on it. It wasn't something anyone ever talked about, but everyone had seen it. "Staley." he whispered to himself. "But why?" Before his mind could find an answer, another gunshot rang out from the back of the house. Nick headed that way, his gun raised and ready to fire. Slowly, keeping his back to the wall he walked from one room to the next until he reached the kitchen where he nearly came out of his skin when Warren plowed around the corner and directly into him. The man screamed in pure terror and shoved Nick away from him, only to yank him right back in a tight embrace when his eyes transmitted Nick's identity to his horrified mind.
            "Nick...holy shit! Thank God!" Warren pushed Nick back again and there was relief written all over his face. "We gotta get the hell outta here. Before it sniffs us out."
            "It. What do you mean, it?" Nick asked. "One of them got in?"
            Warren nodded and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him down the hall. "Johnson found a door in the wall while he was on post. Last I saw him, he was goin' to tell Staley about it."
            "Johnson's dead."
            Warren stopped and turned to face him. "I guess it got him, too...?"

            Nick shook his head. "No. I think Staley did. Johnson was shot in the head right there in the hall where I was sleeping."
            "A silencer. Shit. But Staley? That doesn't make sen..." Warren went silent as a single gunshot sounded, his eyes going wide and blank. "Nick..."
            The moment he opened his mouth, blood poured forth and Nick reached to catch him as he pitched forward. But he didn't hold him long. Instead, he let his friend's body slip to the floor and raised his gun.
            Standing in the doorway, its gun pointed now at Nick, stood the horror they had been fighting for so long, that had killed more than three-quarters of the human race. It was the living embodiment of a truly deadly viral infection with no known cure.
            No matter how many of the beasts Nick saw he was always struck with a sense of astonishment that anything so alien could actually exist on Earth. It had long, almost ape-like arms and legs and was covered with thick, black, wiry hair. The body of the creature was squatty and rounded, a sharp contrast to the sinewy limbs attached to it, and its head sat upon its shoulders with no real semblance of a neck. The mouth gaped open, revealing two-inch-long fangs and a rubbery, swollen tongue that lolled from between the teeth.
            Its entire appearance gave one the idea that it was stupid, slow -- but Nick knew better. The damned things were fast. And there was something about this one's eyes that told Nick it was far from stupid.
            The creature's mouth suddenly opened wider, it's thin, frog-like lips pulling back to reveal more of the long, dangerous teeth, and Nick realized that it was grinning. That was somehow familiar, too, but it wasn't until the animal raised its right hand that he realized why. Glittering on the third finger was a ring that all of the squad had come to recognize without a second glance. Staley's military academy ring.
            Nick fired. Tried to. But the gun only clicked in protest of the empty cartridge locked into it.
            He turned and ran as fast as he could toward the room where the ammunition stores were kept. If he could only make it there he could reload and everything would be fine. Or so he told himself. But what he found when he arrived there left him cold. Now he understood the hollow sound of the gunfire that had awakened him.
            In the center of the room, a patch of the old carpet was blackened and still smoked. The walls and items in the room were riddled with bullet holes and the scent of hot metal and burnt gunpowder hung heavily in the air. Empty shell casings by the dozens littered the floor. Every box of ammunition had been dumped and expended.
            Nick was on his knees in a heartbeat, burning his fingers as he dug through the remnants of what had once been a fairly large store of arms in search of just one round that had escaped detonation. There were none. There were no grenades, no flame throwers, no Stingers. The boxes were all gone. It seemed he was entirely on his own. With hope dwindling in his heart and anger rising, he rose and kicked a nearby box. "Shit! What the hell do I do now?" But as he turned again to look around the room, hoping to find something he could use, something he might have missed, he noticed that the lid had skewed on the box he'd kicked and inside he could just make out a package containing something he hadn't seen in years. A mercury thermometer.
            An idea formed quickly in his mind and he ripped the lid the rest of the way off the medical supply box, snatching up the thermometer and grubbing lower to find several more. Next, he dug for a syringe. When he had that, he turned and headed back toward the hall. He had to find a place to put the first part of his plan into action...and he had to have the time to do it. He had a feeling that time was going to be the bigger problem.
            As he left the room and moved down the hall toward the stairs, he stumbled over something and fell. He was careful not to let the thermometers hit the floor and rolled to his feet almost before he had time to realize he'd fallen. Turning to see what he'd tripped over, he was stunned to find the body of one of the creatures lying on the floor against the wall. It looked as if it had been ripped apart, its chest gaping open as if blown outward -- which was pretty much the only way to actually kill one of them unless one used mercury-core bullets.
            So the Staley-creature had killed the one that infected it. All right. But why? And why was it killing the squad with a gun rather than infecting them? None of it made any sense at all. Not until he considered what he knew about Staley.
            The Captain hated these creatures, had seen them kill his wife and son, and was always looking for a way to destroy them. He had preached incessantly that ammunition ran out eventually so a soldier always had to be able to find another way. That would explain why the store had been destroyed, why the creature was shooting its victims rather than mauling them to death and why the Staley-creature had killed the one that infected it, too. Perhaps there was enough of Staley left in the creature he'd become that he would satisfy the urge to kill, but not infect anyone in the process.
            A loud thump brought his head up and made him catch his breath. It had come from the hall, not far from where he was standing. The beast had finally sniffed him out. He'd expected that, of course, but he'd hoped it would take longer. Unfortunately, those things could smell a non-infected body a mile away. It was then that another idea found its way into his head and he quickly stripped off his shirt to soak it in the blood of the dead creature at his feet. With luck, and if he was right, the scent of the animal's blood would mask his own and give him the time he needed.
            As he turned and hurried toward and up the stairs, he pulled the shirt back on, trying not to think about the blood that covered it. He entered a room about midway down the hall and quickly set to work. Taking the thermometers from their packages, he broke the tips from them and let the mercury empty into a small glass he'd found with a pitcher on a table in the room. It wasn't much, but it was enough to fill the syringe a quarter of the way full. That was enough to start the crystallizing effect in the bloodstream of the creature.
            Now he had to get it into the beast so it could do its job. Getting close to that thing without getting himself killed wasn't going to be easy.

             “Nick?” a voice spoke from behind him.  He jumped and nearly crushed the syringe as every muscle in his body tightened.  He whirled around to see Traig standing in the doorway.  Traig’s uniform was torn and soaked in blood not his own. 

             “Oh, thank God,” Traig sighed, stepping into the room and shutting the door behind him.  “I thought I was the only one left.”

             Nick managed a weak smile as Traig conituned to babble. 

             “One of those things got to Staley, Nick.  It got by us somehow.  I was on watch and we heard gunfire from the house.  We all started inside.  Staley-- or the thing that was Staley met us in the courtyard.  Peter and the guys from the North wall never had a chance.  He opened up on us point blank.  Mowed’em down.  I played dead, Nick.  Their blood. . . all over me. . . and I just layed there, Nick. . . their blood. .”

             Nick watched Traig standing there quietly sobbing. 

             “I’ve got enough mercury to stop the thing.  I just don’t know how.” Nick held up the syringe. At the sight of it, Traig snapped out of his dementia. 

             “You ain’t gonna stop him with that.” Traig reached down and pulled his .45 from the holster on his belt. “With this and a lot of luck, maybe, but not with that.”

             Nick eyed the weapon.  “How many rounds you got?”

             Traig grinned.  “A full clip.”

             The door exploded inward in a shower of splinters flying into the room like shrapnel. Traig made an gurgling noise as Nick looked over to see a fragment of wood protruding from his throat. The gun clattered to the floor as Traig toppled over. 

             The Staley-thing was in the room now, snarling and moving like lightening.  The thing ignored Traig’s thrashing corpse and lunged at Nick.  The young solider didn’t try to dodge instead he met Staley’s pounce swinging the syringe like a dagger.  It imbedded itself into the former Captian’s shoulder, emptying its contents, as the beast lifted Nick off his feet and threw him effortlessly across the room. 

             Nick struck the wall hard, feeling his breath knocked from his body.  He rolled when he hit the floor, gasping and narrowly avoiding the grasping, taloned hands reaching for him.               Nick grabbed up Traig’s pistol and emptied the .45 in series of quick thunder-like shots. The thing that had been Staley howled as its fur erupted into flames.  It tired desperately to flee but only managed a few steps out into the hall before it went down dragging a table over on top of itself.

             Nick sat unmoving, watching the thing burn.

             As the sun rose over the surrounding mountains, Nick found himself sitting atop the eastern wall.  His bare chest glistening with dried blood in the early rays of the dawn.  He still held the now empty .45 in his hands and listened to the howls of the creatures out in the forest as they cursed the sun for its untimely arrival.  Nick didn’t have a clue how many of the things had made their way here during the night, and didn’t care.  For at least a few hours, he would be safe until the nightfall.  He looked up at the sun and began to wonder how he would spend his last day.