By: Alex Claw
I crash through the stands of bamboo and kudzu, the mass tucked in my arms begins to weep, calling for her mother. She’s not fighting me, she’s not struggling for me to let her go, she’s limp and sobbing. They are the tears of a child who knows there is no more hope.
There is rumbling behind me, bamboo stalks crash to the ground and the stench of death and blood is heavy in the air.
My revolver is empty, but I still cling to the weapon. I look down at it, hoping by some miracle of God that it’s chamber is filled with bullets, but God is not smiling down upon mankind this day. He hasn’t been smiling down on mankind for twenty years now.
I shove the weapon back into my holster and then tear through the brush before me. I can feel the hot breath of death on my back, that meaty smell of that terrible beast stalking me. The girl, Emily, is clinging to me, her hot tears running down my shoulder and stinging the cuts along my back.
We have to get somewhere safe, but I fear there is no safe place left anywhere.
I stumble as the bamboo and kudzu vanish before me and enter a wide open clearing. I skid to a stop, frantically looking for a place to hide. If I cross the field I will be dead before I reach the other side.
“I’m sorry, Emily.” There’s nothing else I can say. I tried. We tried, but there is no more luck in the world.
She whispers her mother’s name and clings to me tighter. She knows what’s going to happen next.
I carry her out into the field, no more running, no more hiding. The creature will be upon us soon.
The creature erupts from the forest of bamboo with a terrible roar. It is a hideous chimera of reptile, mammal, and bird. Needle like teeth flash in the watery sunlight and its scales and furred tentacles ripple as it stalks toward us, hungry for blood.
“Close your eyes, baby.” I say, pulling Emily close to me.
That’s when I hear another crash. This one coming from the opposite side of the field, I drop to my knees with Emily, covering her with my body. I don’t need to see what new monster is storming out of the opposite forest. The sight of the one before us is enough for my tired soul.
There’s a sound like a great ripping that fills the air, I know that sound. Covering Emily’s fragile ears, I turn by head and see something that is truly amazing.
Walking across the open field is a mechanical elephant, a massive thing of steel and bronze, glowing in the sunlight like a promise from God. It’s great head faces us and from it’s tusks roar twin gatling guns, spraying the monster with lead.
The two beasts collide, but when the dust settles there is only the mechanical elephant standing over the shredded corpse of the monster.
I join Emily in weeping, but mine are tears of joy.
The great machine is called the Ghost Lizard and the woman who commands it is named Eliza Chen. She is a hard faced woman in a man’s tunic and trousers, twin revolvers on her hip, and a leather vest studded with shotgun shells.
Her grip is firm and she looks at the wretched pair Emily and I make with sorrowful eyes.
“Linus Rodriguez,” I say by way of introduction.
“Emily Greyhorse.” Emily says taking the woman’s hand. Her tears have dried, but there is still a terrible stillness in her movements. She has seen too much to be a child anymore, such is the way of the world.
“Your daughter?” the woman asks.
“Yes,” I say without hesitation. By custom, she is my child and I am her father now. Eliza doesn’t comment, instead she gives me a quick nod and begins relaying orders to the men and women who control the Ghost Lizard.
“We’ve only found a few survivors,” Eliza says, she pulls out a pouch of tobacco and begins rolling a cigarette.
“Where did you come from?” I ask.
“New Charleston. We thought we could make it northward before the crawlers got here,” Eliza looks out upon the forest below her, the Ghost Lizard is clomping through the second growth trees with ease. It’s great metal legs rising and falling, but the howdah upon which we stand barely moves, a testament to the engineering of the walker.
“There was two hundred of us that fled the city when the walls failed,” I tell her, the memory still burns in me. The frantic defense of the city against the monsters and the final heartbreaking decision to abandon the city. I can still see her, Rebecca, her red hair a halo around her as the city burns.
“Were you a soldier?” Eliza asks, taking note of my revolver and the tattered remains of the uniform I wore.
“I had a commission during the War. Lieutenant. I was a Civil Defense Officer in New Charleston.” I tell her. She nods and lights her cigarette.
“Get some rest, Linus. There’s food and water, for however long that will last.” She says and excuses herself from our presence.
The cargo hold of the Ghost Lizard shelters twenty other refugees, from New Charleston and other small fortified towns. They have the same dull eyes as Emily, the memories of what they have seen has yet to give up its hold on them.
I settle down between a softly sobbing woman and a man with two children. The children sleep tuck between his great arms and the man’s head lolls on his chest. The reek of whiskey is heavy from him.
Finding comfort at the bottom of a bottle is a journey I know well. The years after the Great War, when the East fought against the frontier West, the memories of those bloody years had held a tight grip upon me.
If it hadn’t been for Rebecca…
I close my eyes and try to stop myself from feeling anything. Emily falls asleep with her arms wrapped around my chest, I soon join her in a restless oblivion.
The man is named Silas Levitz, he came from a town called New Haven. He is a big man with sorrowful eyes and tells the tale of losing his wife and daughter when New Haven fell. I ask him if he has anymore whiskey, he looks ashamed and says that drink is something he always avoided. He would not be human if he didn’t have weaknesses, that he knows it is a weakness only raises my opinion of him.
He is a good man. He was a cobbler and leather worker, his hands are large and scarred as men of his trade tend to be. He keeps his children close to him and watches them with the fearful eyes of a man with very little left to lose.
The sobbing woman is named Jai Ward, her tales is similar to Mr. Levitz. They were neighbors in New Haven, her husband went to defend the walls and never returned and her children were ripped from her clutches. Mr. Levitz carried her and his children to the safety of the Ghost Lizard.
Emily takes to the woman instantly and Ms. Ward seems calmed by Emily’s grip on her. They hold one another and share the misery of losing mother and child. I take my leave and head to the upper levels of the howdah, hoping to find Eliza and offer my services.
“Where are all the dead?” A crewman of the Ghost Lizard asks.
We are in the town of Hadrian, a town well known by the Ghost Lizard’s crew. A town they had stopped at on many occasions for cargo, repairs, and rest. The wall that protects the town is ripped asunder, the homes are empty, the streets are black with old blood. It was a town of five hundred souls.
Eliza stands on the cobbled streets, her face an emotionless mask.
I whisper my prayers to God, for I have lived through the horror that has befallen Hadrian. I have seen the monsters prowling the streets, the screaming souls trapped in jaws, talons, and claws. I see Rebecca’s face and the horrid creature that had taken her life.
My hand shakes and I wish to be gone from the place, but Eliza has seen fit to add me to her crew, my skills with weapons and command are things she needs now.
The Ghost Lizard has taken losses since it’s travels from beyond New Charleston. I have inherited the dead second in command’s clothing and position. He had been a big man and his clothing hangs loosely on my shoulders.
I fear that the shoes I must fill are equally too large for me.
“What do you think, Linus?” Eliza asks me.
“We must flee.”
“We’re running low on supplies,” another voice says.
There is disagreement on what to do. Leave, stay and collect supplies, find survivors, or stay and rebuild the wall. I carry my rifle and keep an eye upon the eaves and dark alleyways, there are beasts still lurking here, the air is thick with their hidden lurkings.
My ill feelings are proven true as we cross a market square, where the stalls are empty and carts lay turned over in the streets, the wares scattered and windblown. A great and terrible beast claws its way out of an abandoned building.
A dragon is the closest thing that describes the beast, a leathery creature with spikes, dozens of legs like a centipede, and a snarling chomping mouth yearning for our flesh.
The Ghost Lizard’s crew is steadfast and brave, they pull their weapons and fire at the creature. They do not panic, they do not run, they hold their ground. I am filled with the terrible bravery that comes from standing beside staunch individuals as death barrels down upon me.
The parallels of my time as a soldier are many and I feel the sickening joy of the fight and the victory as the beast succumbs to it’s wounds and crashes to the ground. A lifeless puppet, with all its ferocity spent. My heart is pounding in my chest and I join the crew as they slap one another’s backs and laugh at their near death experience.
Only Eliza is quiet. I follow her gaze and see where the beast had made it’s lair. I see the glinting white bones that spill from the building and my own joy dies.
Eliza has made her decision and we begin an orderly withdrawal back to the safety of the Ghost Lizard. Hadrian is dead and there are no survivors, we know that. We gather what little we can from the docks, there is rice, there is coffee, and there is oil. It is enough to sustain us.
Emily is inconsolable as we leave the ruins of Hadrian behind. She looks out upon that town and I know she sees the city we once called home. She sees her parents, their deaths, and I join her in the misery of the sight.
“Is the world nothing but death, Father?” she asks me.
We sit upon the very top of the howdah, the swaying from the Ghost Lizard are magnified up here, but it is nothing we cannot compensate for. The air is brisk and clean, the smoky smell of the diesel engines are blown away from us and I ponder her question.
“No, my child,” I say.
“The others speak of cities and towns destroyed,” she says. Her eyes are small and red. I pull her close.
“Life is ever persistent, child. What you see here is only a bleak interval. The monsters stalk the land, but for all the years you have lived and I have lived, these towns we have passed have been peopled. It is only this instance where the darkness has spread across the land, but life is persistent.
“Do not look on these moments of bleakness as if they are the entirety of the world. We as a people have faced many such adversities and we have always triumphed over them. In a few months or years, people will come back, they will rebuild, and they will spread across this land once more.”
“Will you come back?” she asks.
“Yes.” And I know that I will. “This is my home,” I tell her. “I had a life here, I found love here, and although both have been taken from me. I am still tied to this land with bonds of love and reverence. When we are safe, when the time comes to turn the tide, I shall be there.”
“Will I be there?”
“You are my daughter, child. Where I go, you will go too. We will reclaim this land and rebuild our lives.”
We sit atop the howdah until Hadrian fades in the distance and the sun vanishes in the west.
There is a commotion on the deck of the howdah as a spotter sees an airship in the distance. It is the only sign of life that we have seen in the four days since I have been taken aboard the Ghost Lizard.
“What do you think, Linus?” Eliza asks me as the airship nears.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. She snorts.
I estimate the craft to be twice the size of the Ghost Lizard, although much of that bulk is the great hydrogen bags that hold the ship aloft. It is a beautiful craft, with sleek lines, and bristling with weaponry, but there is something dreadfully wrong with it.
“It’s been in a fight,” Eliza says.
The steel ship that hangs beneath the great bags is dented and scorched, there are trails of something black smeared across portholes and gun ports. Blood. The great bags appear to have been repaired and patched, yet even with my untrained eye they appear less than fully inflated.
“Yet she is still aloft and coming this way.”
“Let’s hope she’s friendly.”
“If they are men at the helm, then I have high hopes.”
Eliza snorts again and orders a crewman to begin flashing signals to the airship.
The crew of the Avenging Margaret are a defeated lot. They consist of Captain Louis Redburn and three crewmen, Sammantha McCay, Diego Sun, and Eli Kim, the rest having perished in a terrible fight.
“There’s a fresh rift out by the Great River,” Captain Redburn informs us. We are locked away in Eliza’s office. He takes a long drink from his cup of tea, his hands are shaking and I can tell he is still reeling from what he has seen.
“How badly,” Eliza asks.
“There are monsters pouring out of it daily, by the score. They march deeper and deeper inland, spreading in all directions.”
“Have more towns fallen?” I ask, remembering New Charleston.
“Several. We don’t know the exact count, but it’s well over a dozen. No survivors.”
“What is the government doing about it?” Eliza asks, her hands are gripping her cup tightly.
“The Margaret’s all they can send,” He says defeatedly. “There are other rifts, other battles that require our attention. The Great Rift in the North has priority over everything.”
“You’re not going to defend this place?” Eliza asks.
Redburn looks helpless as he stares at us. “We can’t,” he says. “We can only strengthen our defenses east of here and hope to hold the monsters there, until we can send a bigger force to destroy them.”
“You’ll be condemning thousands of people to die,” Eliza says. “The entire frontier will be overrun in weeks.”
Redburn sets down his cup and hangs his head. “This is the terrible calculus of war, Ms. Chen. We had hoped the Margaret was enough to close the rift, but we erred there. We were thrown back and I lost more than three in four of my crew. We have been defeated.”
“What can we do?” I ask.
“Take your people east. Get behind the defenses, it’s the only safe thing to do. If you can, warn more towns, help them evacuate. There aren’t many walkers out here in the frontier,” Redburn says.
“We shall endeavor to do our best, Captain,” I say.
Eliza is quiet for a long time, her fingers grip her cup tightly. She looks at me, then Redburn, and I know what she will say before she speaks her words.
“We can close the rift,” she says.
Eliza has a will about her that is hard to stand against. I watch as Redburn tries to dissuade her from the path she has chosen, but nothing will dislodge her.
“The best thing we can do for the frontier is to close that rift,” Eliza says. “The Ghost Lizard is a heavily armored walker. She packs a lot of punch and if we take on your ammunition and some of your guns and explosives, she will be a walking fortress.”
“You’re not obliged to do this, Ms. Chen.” Redburn looks helpless before her. He barely has the heart to stop her from running over him.
“It is the right thing to do, Mr. Redburn,” I say. Eliza stops and stares at me, Redburn looks at me as if suddenly realizing I’m there. “I have seen the destruction of my fair city firsthand. I have spoken with other survivors and it is my deepest wish that others do not suffer the same nightmare. Already thousands have perished to these monsters, I can only hope that we are able to stop them.”
“We?” Eliza asks, her eyes narrowing.
Captain Redburn looks defeated, twice over in fact.
“You’re not going,” Eliza says to me.
“I wish to volunteer for this mission.”
“You have a daughter.”
“And that’s why I want to volunteer.”
Eliza looks at me for the longest time and then she nods. I may not have the same will as Eliza, but I am unmovable in this decision.
The crew takes the news with grim resolve. They are not cowards and they have seen and heard what has been going on in the frontier. The evidence is all before them, the destroyed and gutted towns, the attacks by monsters, and now the news of a new rift giving birth to countless monsters.
One by one, without hesitation, they all volunteer for the mission. Captain Redburn also loses a gunner, Eli Kim, who joins the crew of the Ghost Lizard in the new attack. We welcome him.
There is a lot of work to be done. The twenty survivors that the Ghost Lizard has picked up are to be transferred to the Avenging Margaret and all supplies, weapons, and ammunition are to be transferred to the Ghost Lizard.
It is a lot of work and the weather does not cooperate. A great storm comes out of the south, bringing howling rain and cold blasts of wind. We are forced to wait out the storm and the Avenging Margaret is forced to rise above the storm. There is some concern that the airship may just leave, but we have Redburn’s word as a gentleman that he will return when the storm passes.
“How do you know Mr. Levitz will take care of your daughter? You barely know him.” Eliza asks. We sit in her office, having just completed planning, cargo inventory, and now share a pot of tea.
I find myself oddly enjoying these planning sessions. It occupies and challenges the mind to come up with solutions to the problems we are facing. My previous life as a Civil Defense officer seems distant, I feel as if I have been on the Ghost Lizard since it’s inception.
Eliza seems comfortable with my presence. We regularly spend the evenings sharing her wonderful tea and talking. I suppose she hasn’t had anyone to talk to for a long time. Such are the unfortunate ramifications of command, for although she has the crew standing with her, the command and decisions were hers alone.
“He is human and he has a heart and a soul. Those are the only things that I need to know about him. His heart and soul will guide him and he’ll raise Emily to the best of his ability,” I respond, taking a sip of tea.
“You have a lot of faith in humanity.”
“I have faith in mankind because of people like you, Eliza. People, like you, who will steer their ship into the darkness and defend others who you do not know, who may think ill of you, and who owe you nothing, because it is the right thing to do. The human thing to do.
“You embody the true spirit of humanity, Eliza. Brave, selfless, and unflinching in doing what is right. You could have left us all out there, to the monsters. You could have just kept taking the Ghost Lizard east, but you didn’t. Truly you are the best of mankind and I am honored to serve with you.”
Eliza’s mask cracks just a little and I see a tear roll down her cheek. She quickly wipes it away and then rises to her feet.
“Thank you, Linus,” she says.
I step forward and look her in the eyes. “No, Eliza. Thank you.” I lean forward and hug her, she’s stiff at first, but then she melts into my arms. There’s a sob that escapes her, but it’s reigned back in.
We are all human and although she has chosen to battle the monsters and the rift, and she will face her death bravely and with honor, she doesn’t want to die knowing she’s all alone.
“This is Mr. Levitz and Ms. Ward, they will be your new mother and father. These are their children, Harold Longwater and Saul Levitz.” I tell Emily.
Emily clings to me as I set her down before Mr. Levitz and Ms. Ward.
“I want you to stay my dad,” she says.
“I know, child, but I have my duties.”
“You’re going to die, aren’t you?” she asks.
I smile at her and ease myself down beside her. “We all die, my child.”
“I don’t want you to die. I don’t want new parents.”
“I share those feelings too, Emily. Trust me I do. There is nothing I would rather do than raise you and see a happy life laid out before you. That cannot happen if this rift is not closed. If the monsters are allowed to continue their march, everything will be for naught.”
There are tears in her eyes and I’m unashamed to shed my own. I hold her tight and I can feel her small arms gripping me.
This is the way of the world now, we both know it. It has been the way of the world since the Great War, since the first rifts began to open, and mankind was plagued with monsters. God turned his face away from the horror we committed on his paradise, we brought forth the monsters by unleashing horrible weapons, laying waste to cities, and sowing the world with pain and suffering.
In our arrogance and malevolence we sought to turn the world into a charnel house. We turned the lives of men, women, and children into statistics. If it wasn’t associated with the War Effort, it held no meaning and was cast aside. We lost our humanity.
If it weren’t for the horror the monsters embodied, I would thank them. In the face of true horror we rediscovered what we had lost. We found what truly mattered in the world. Not power. Not control of resources. Not national identity. Not race purity.
What mattered most was love. To find love where you can find it, for how ever briefly, for how ever intensely. Find love, feel love, and love one another. For if there weren’t any love in the world, then God truly had abandoned us.
“Who are your parents?” I ask her when our tears dry.
“Sandra and Emilio Greyhorse, then Angelo Tzu, and then you, Linus Rodriguez, and now Silas Levitz and Jai Ward.” Emily whispers into my ear like a prayer. “They are my parents, they cared for me, they protected me, and I love them all. I love you, Linus.”
“They will raise you and love you. Love them like I love you.”
She hugs me tightly and then Mr. Levitz and Ms. Ward pull her into their embrace. Mr. Levitz shakes my hand and Ms. Ward hugs me. They gather in the corner of the hold, talking softly and introducing Emily to her new brothers.
I take my leave and head to the upper parts of the Ghost Lizard. I curse the howling wind for it dries my tears too quickly.
The Avenging Margaret launches early the next day. She is loaded with the most precious cargo and leaves behind her terrible weaponry. Mr. Kim is knowledgeable and helpful in setting up the defenses of the Ghost Lizard. The crew is hustling and preparing, last minute welding of armor plate taken off the Margaret is going on and I find myself standing at the highest point of the Ghost Lizard watching the Margaret fade in the distance.
Eliza joins me, watching the airship disappear.
“She’ll be safe,” Eliza says.
“You’ll see her soon.”
I turn to Eliza. Her mask is gone now, that hard visage that I first encountered when I was pulled onto the walker all those days ago. She’s watching me and then steps forward.
She smells of fresh flowers, of life, and her warm body envelopes me. We stand there for a long time, holding one another, finding solace in each other’s arms. I remember Rebecca and I think of Emily.
Eliza gives the orders to march to the rift.