Monday, January 19, 2015

Part Three: Desperate Prey

Cold and numbed by wind and rain, I begin squeezing off shots at the ascending figures.

Not enough ammo to fire wild-- every second required to aim seems  to take too long.

But my aim is good after three years of killing.

I aim between their burning by one, my marks scream and release the ladder, tumbling into the seething throng below.

They will be devoured instantly...the Night People, I learned long ago, prefer the uninfected, but any wounded or dying among them are sure prey as well.

The bark of the AR-15 has my ears ringing by the time I am at the end of my clip--  the shadows keep coming, hissing, growling.

Through the slashing rain I see some of them are scrambling over the shoulders of others, leaping from their backs upon the ladder like cats up a tree.

Sometimes they figure things out.

 And I realize that my rifle is spent.

Shaking, repeating the word "calm" in my mind over and over like I always do,   I  fumble for the next is only seconds, but all the time one of the demons needs. 

A grisly, ashen gray arm with a long raking claw flies over the top of the ladder,  seizing my calf in an iron grip, jerking me towards the edge...the magazine slips from my wet fingers, clatters upon the catwalk inches from space.

A deformed and disease ravaged skull with sunken eyes of fire and yellow teeth suddenly confronts me, mouth wide open and reeking of carrion. The skin has shrunken over it's malformed bones until it is little more than a death mask with cat's eyes, thirsting for murder.

He is trying to bite me.

I scream curses at the creature, at Janson, and the old man opens fire.

 Two explosions... I feel the burn of flying lead and I am suddenly thrust into a realm of silence, my head reeling from the pistol's discharge next to my left ear.

But the skull face is suddenly gone, tumbling through the air with the rest of him.

Instinctively, I brush my cheeks with my shirt sleeve, frantically trying to wipe away any of its blood that might have landed on my skin, hoping the rain will keep us clean of Infection.

In the same action my other hand snatches up the wayward clip and I shove it  home.

I jerk the rifle bolt back and resume the deadly business.

One more clip for the rifle, I say to myself...none for the pistol. 

This is probably the end, but we aren't going out until the guns are out...can always jump after that.

I pick off another climber--watch him fall--then suddenly realize there is a commotion below.

Shadows lashing out at shadows on the ground.

I realize that the Night People are suddenly at war among themselves.

I am deaf to their screams, but I know what is happening.

They are fighting over the corpses.

Fighting to see who will feed.

In their sudden stampede, no more jumpers and climbers can get close enough to gain the rungs.

Janson and I are given a brief moment of respite.

You take what you can get.

I yell to him.

“Stay ready! Shoot anything that makes it halfway up!”

He cries out a reply I cannot hear.

I search the catwalk for a way to disengage the ladder. It is attached to the catwalk and the tower supports--not going to happen.

A glance at the catwalk's moorings to the tower brings a sudden rush of adrenaline and hope, however...the walkway is not completely secure.

Here and there, the bolts that hold the catwalk support legs to the tower's outer plates have been pulled halfway out; a couple are even free.

It might have been from long neglect, or it could have have been mig damage from the End

Either way, I realize, the section of the catwalk attached to the ladder is rusty, weakened—it feels secure underfoot but with Janson and I putting our feet on the railing and our backs against the tower, there is a chance that we might be able to pry it free.

A glance at the rest of the catwalk and I realize it is composed of separate segments joined together with bolts—if we can push the loose section outward, it might separate completely and drag a section of the ladder down under it's weight as it falls, isolating us upon the tower.

Or it might start a chain of disintegration that causes the entire scaffold to shred it's moorings and become an elevator to death.

Given a quick fall or confronting Night People on the catwalk, I make up my mind quickly.

Glancing back over the rail, I can see jumpers reappearing, trying to climb up over their fellows now that their dead have been dragged away from the tower base.

 The ringing in my ears is subsiding just slightly and the cries of the Night People are rising to me again.

“This segment is loose!” I yell to Janson, stamping my foot on it. “If we can shove it free with our legs, it might take the ladder down!”

Janson looks at me as if I am a Night Person.

“What!?” he cries. “We'll never jump free in time!”

“Do it!” I bellow, resisting the urge to slug him.

I can see the terror in his eyes as he reluctantly complies.

Putting one foot upon the railing and using it to balance himself, he pushes his back against the tower plates and then sets his other leg in place as I do the same.

Janson is shaking uncontrollably.

Our feet thus planted against the rail, we both begin to strain our every muscle in an effort to send the platform down.

Janson is and old man, out of shape, but adrenaline has seized him—with the two of us shoving, there comes a sound of metal creaking, and the catwalk moves slightly.

A hideous scream drifts up to us, followed by another.

Night People are scaling the ladder again.

I read Janson's mind in his panicked eyes.

“Keep pushing!” I yell over the rain. “The guns aren't going to save us now! This is is it!”

The catwalk is moving further out now, rocking back and forth as we pump our legs against the railing.

I  hear the rending of metal and the popping of moorings—beneath us, the catwalk is stretching away from the tower plates, leaving nothing but air below us.

Two glittering eyes of hatred are fixed on me from the ladder. The beast will be upon us in seconds.

“Push damn you!” I yell, and we give it the last we have.

Miracles happen.

The catwalk lurches slowly away from the tower, pieces of it falling into spaceas I push myself away from the outer plates, pulling Janson with me. 

For brief seconds, the segment hovers, temporarily suspended by the crumpling ladder.

It hangs in space just long enough for us to jump to the closest secure section; a second later, it pitches over and falls away, dragging the service ladder and the Night People clinging to it down with it.

It lands with a deafening crash and an eruption of wails from the pathetic things caught beneath it.

At the same instant, the segment of catwalk Janson and I are perched on shudders. 

Moorings pop.

The section sags outward from the tower for a second as we cling to it helplessly, not daring to move, our hands white knuckled upon the slick rails.

And then it is still again.

We scramble away from the precipice, making our way around the tower to surer footing.

Exhausted and numb, we both collapse, our lungs heaving.

 We lie in the cold rain, listening to raging of the Night People.

“Dear God,” Janson huffs. “If I hadn't met up with you, I would have been out there with...with them."

I do not reply. I only lie exhausted, completely amazed that we are alive.

"You've saved us," Janson says. "But how will we get down?” 

"With rope," I say. "I have one in my pack. When the sun is up...if we don't get hit by lightening."

After letting the strength return to my limbs, I retrieve my pack and fish out my tarp, spreading it over us and wrapping sections of it around the railing in a makeshift shelter.

And under the spattering of the Oklahoma rain, Janson and I lie awake, stiff and cold, listening to the angry calls of the inhuman savages who rage below, incensed at having been cheated of our blood. 

Once or twice I think I hear them trying to climb up the tower supports, but I am not worried about them being able to climb the smooth round columns, slick with rain.

Let them die trying, I pray, and hours later, I somehow fall into a half sleep.

                                                               *     *     *

I awaken to daylight, my limbs stiff, aching, bruised all over.

There is nothing but the sound of silence punctuated by an occasional crow call.

Janson is in even worse shape than me.

He looks pale and spent, and I can see that the ordeal has taken a toll upon him.

I nudge him to waking, and he moans in pain, stirring slowly.

I look down at the earth and see bloody remains lying crushed under the fallen catwalk.

Some of the remains have been gnawed at and devoured in the night.

There is no trace of the Night People other than this.

Once again, dawn has come to deny that they even exist.

I have nothing but two old pieces of jerky and the water in my canteen, but this will have to work for breakfast.

We consume the small meal, and  I set about rigging up the rope.

It isn't going to be easy; balanced on the loosened segment of catwalk, I double the rope up in knots and secure it on the railing in a manner that will allow us to climb down it and swing ourselves over to what is now the top of the service ladder.

We are both weak, Janson especially; the irony of dying trying to get down is suddenly almost funny to me. 

But it's now or never.

I gather up my belongings and secure them, giving Janson instructions on how to negotiate the rope.

Whatever I may think of him, he has proved he is no coward.

"You first," I say. "'ll hold onto you as long as I can while you swing over and try to catch hold of the ladder. From there you're on your own."

Janson nods, and sweating profusely, he begins his descent.

Sliding down from the catwalk, he lets go of it, trading its security for the uncertainty of the rope.

He is suddenly hanging a hundred feet above the earth, his eyes bulging in terror. 

My grip on his collar is nothing more than to steady him...if he gets weak and lets go, I will not be able to save him.

He begins to rock back and forth, slowly at first, his foot in the loop of the doubled rope and one trying to use the tower to push himself towards his goal.

Soon he is swaying to and fro, and in seconds he has swung near the ladder.

He tries to grab it with a hand and nearly falls.

The rope vibrates, taut with his weight as he looks up at me, stricken.

"Try again," I say.

This time, with what is probably the last bit of strength he has, Janson manages to swing over to the ladder and clutches at it wildly, grabbing it as if it were life itself. 

For a second, I think he will die when he tries to disengage from the rope, but somehow, he does so safely.

 Relieved and shaken he begins his descent. 

I follow him with almost no difficulties at all, leaving the rope to hang there forever as I shinny down the ladder.

At last I am on the ground again. It never felt so good.

We have interrupted the meal of the crows.

They perch in trees, cawing at us angrily, wanting to resume their carrion feast, to cleanse the earth of Night People until only innocent white bones remain.

Janson is sitting down, his back against a tree, red faced, panting, looking thin and haggard.

"Get up," I say, checking my rifle to make sure it is ready for action when the time comes. "We can't rest yet. They'll be back out tonite looking for us."

It takes everything he has but Janson is on his feet again, rubbing his bruised arms.

"We've got to find those kids," he says to me.

"Yeah, we do" I reply, "cause you've got one more day. If we don't find them by tonight, we head back to Tinker.  That was the deal."

"I...I understand," he says, grim faced.

"Now c'mon," I say. "They can't be too far ahead of us."

With our weapons ready, we start heading east again, two souls at the gates of the Underworld with the cries of hungry crows at our backs.