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As Davey got further from the sanctuary of the Freelands, the sweet smell of the steam and the seemingly-perpetual bonfires faded, replaced with the sickly stench of rotting garbage and decaying flesh.
He’d heard that the city’s outer limits were even worse than its streets, and visiting them alone after nightfall was something that he was already beginning to regret.
Still, it would provide him with a life of luxury when he returned.
If he returned.
He cursed himself for these negative thoughts.
Of course I’ll make it.
If I can survive the cull I can survive anything.
There were flashes off to his right, towards the city.
Gunshots, it seemed.
He longed for the relative safety and comfort of the Freelands.
Shrill screams echoed in the distance.
‘What the hell was I thinking?’ Davey muttered to himself.
The gun felt light and inconsequential in his hand.
He felt something brush against his foot.
Looked down to see a rat that was almost as long as his leg.
Cursing, he lashed out, kicking it onto one of the split bags of rubbish.
It turned and hissed at him.
For a horrible second he thought he was going to be attacked by the horrendous fucking thing, but then it turned tail and ran.
The temperature seemed to drop a few degrees as the wind hit him hard enough to knock him back a few steps.
He could hear something moving in the garbage piles on either side of him.
There were tales of mutations outside the city, caused by the run off from the chemical factories in the industrial sector to the north.
Anything was possible in this world, Davey thought.
He hoped it wasn’t true, but prepared himself for the worst.
His every footstep seemed to squelch and push more stinking liquid into his shoes.
It felt like he was walking through a latrine yet, somehow, the smell was gradually worsening.
His peripheral vision picked up movement on his right hand side and he ducked, fearing attack.
Something landed with a thud on the garbage bags.
‘Piss on my carpet willya,’ a furious voice shouted.
Davey looked up and saw a grimacing city worker, clad in the regulation grey overalls.
He cursed a little more before booting the bag and shuffling off into the gloom.
With a start, Davey realised that something was alive in the bag.
It was writhing and making horrid pained noises.
Though he didn’t really want to see what it was, he felt sorry for it, imprisoned in the plastic tomb like that.
Both oxygen and comfort would be scarce in there.
He gently placed a hand on the top of the bag, his intention to console whatever was inside.
His other hand pulled his knife.
He cut gingerly to avoid accidentally hurting the bag’s occupant.
A hole appeared, instantly filled by the pale, panting head of a Pug dog.
He tore the plastic a bit more, revealing another, smaller, head on the right side of the stubby neck.
The dog jumped onto him, catching him off guard and sending him arse over tit into the rubbish.
The feel of the rotting garbage on his skin made him gag a little.
The dog was on his chest, panting, a glazed look in its eyes.
Its weight crushed the breath from him.
He reckoned it must have weighed at least five stone.
It was muscly, but wasted.
It had a hungry look in its eyes as it bent down.
Its dark jaws opened, revealing twin rows of razor sharp teeth.
The stench of decaying flesh assailed his nostrils.
He did his best to roll it off him, but it was much too heavy, even in its emaciated state.
There was nothing he could do to stop it as its open jaws drew ever closer to his throat.
Davey threw his hands up in a vain attempt to stop the dog’s razor teeth taking out his throat, but there was no need; the dog seemed to give him a smile that went all the way up to its eyes, then a blackened tongue flopped out, flaccid and stinking and dripping with foul-smelling fluids, and rasped up his left cheek.
Before he could do anything – his first reaction was to let out a nervous laugh at the realisation that the dog had wanted to merely thank him for his help – the sorry creature had lifted its weight from him and darted off into the darkness.
He winced as he caught scent of the slaver it had left on his face – it stunk worse than the garbage, arguably worse than an open grave.
‘Hey, wait,’ he called out, temporarily forgetting that he was meant to be creeping his way through the twilight. He whistled. ‘Here, boy. Here, boy.’
But the oversized Pug, with its second head and bizarre, mottled flesh, had disappeared.
Davey continued trudging through the garbage for what felt like an eternity.
He found things more disturbing than ever among the garbage – the remains of a dog, charred and half-eaten, in a burst bin bag.
A few yards later, he found a dead child in the same state.
The world was fucked now, no doubt about it.
Maybe the dead are the lucky ones, he reflected idly.
At least they’re free from this hell now.
A rustling among the garbage jolted him out of his thoughts.
He looked across to see a rat perched on top of a pile of bin bags.
He felt sure it was the same one he had scared off earlier.
It looked pissed, its hackles up, hissing through its curved, knifelike teeth.
Its jaundiced eyes seemed to stare through his skin as if already savouring the delicacies concealed within.
With startling speed, it jumped at him.
He fired, his shot going wild as it hit his chest with the force of a hammer blow.
Razor sharp claws grasped his shirt, easily tearing the thick fabric and scoring bloody furrows in his torso.
Blood plastered the garment to his skin.
The rat seemed to become revitalised by the smell of his blood.
Davey put one hand on its matted, gore-streaked fur and shoved with all his might.
He succeeded only in making its claws skid across his skin, liberating more blood.
It squealed, seemingly in glee, probably at the thought of finally getting a live meal.
As its dirty grey tongue – forked too, he noticed – flicked out, lapping hungrily at the blood on his t-shirt, he found he was suddenly furious.
His right hand came across, slamming the gun butt into the side of its ribs.
It let out a horrid cry that made it seem like his ear drums had been ignited and fell from him, tearing off a few small chunks of flesh as its claws came loose.
It landed hard on its back, hissing and snarling.
Blood sprayed from its jaws in a fine mist.
It rolled onto its belly and reared back, hissing like a hundred snakes.
Before it had chance to pounce, he ran.
He prayed his footsteps were sure, that he didn’t slip and land on his back among the garbage, ready for the rat to dive on him and begin its feast.
His legs and lungs already blazed.
It felt like he’d endured far too much even in this short time.
He was already sick of running.
Sick of fighting.
Sick of being scared and hungry and in danger.
The rat hissed, seemingly only a few feet behind him.
He could hear its claws clacking across the burst garbage bags and the picked-clean carcasses of whatever poor wretches had ended up out here in the wastelands.
He didn’t dare turn round, in case his lead was suddenly gone.
The way the rat was chasing him was beginning to unnerve him.
He tried to veer to the right and found that the rat moved towards him, but when he went left, it didn’t seem to mind.
In his terror-induced state – he had never really been scared of rats, but these things were big and vicious and scared the shit out of him – he didn’t realise what was going on until it was too late.
The rat went for him, knocking him to the left.
And he finally realised that it knew exactly where it wanted him to go.
He was being shepherded.
But by the time he figured this out it was too late as he was already falling down a steep slope of garbage bags.
Davey had no idea how long he fell, but it felt like an eternity.
He landed, stunned and disoriented, in a heap at the bottom.
At least the bags were soft enough to break my fall.
All of the bags around here had been torn open, presumably in a quest for food.
He aimed carefully as the rat raced down the slope towards him.
The bullet thudded into the bin bag just beneath the rat, sending a plume of rotten garbage into the air.
The rat didn’t seem fazed by the gunshot, just hissed again and kept on coming.
He could tell it was thinking about tearing the flesh from his bones and slurping it down.
The thought sickened and terrified him.
He backed away from it until his heels hit something hard.
He looked down to see a human skull.
It was sun-bleached, long picked clean.
A few trails were scored into the bone, making it obvious the rats had dragged their teeth across it in an attempt to remove every scrap of flesh.
Vast piles of bones were scattered all around.
He reckoned there were at least fifty skeletons here.
The sound of bones knocking against each other made him spin and he saw another rat, even bigger than the first, emerging from between the ribs of one of the skeletons.
It was joined by another.
And a fourth.
They kept on coming.
Black, obese things that seemed to melt out of the darkness.
They were foul, stinking creatures, with murder in their eyes and death on their tongues.
Painfully aware of his lack of bullets, he took his time lining up a shot on the nearest one.
He pulled the trigger, blowing a fist-sized portion of its skull away in a dark cloud of blood and splintered bone.
He felt a grim satisfaction but knew that this battle was not going to be won easily, if at all.
Some of the other rats had flinched a little at the gunshot, but they were undeterred.
Hunger was seemingly a greater motivator than fear.
The dying rat fell away, gushing blood all over the bin bags beneath it.
It sounded like heavy rain falling on a window pane.
It slowly fell still, its jaws twitching.
It seemed food was on its mind right up until its dying breath.
While he watched it, the others crept in.
He lined up another shot, but felt a sharp pain behind him.
He looked down to see a rat merrily sinking its teeth into his right calf.
The pain was instantaneous, like having serrated blades thrust deep enough into his flesh to scrape the bone.
He cursed, turned, and whacked down at it with the gun butt.
It fell back, stunned.
Keep attacking while it’s hurt.
He continued hitting it until it fell still, blood pouring from its boil-covered mouth and the rents in its misshapen skull.
But before he could celebrate this small victory, two more of the vile creatures were sinking their teeth into him.
One hit him at groin level, sinking claws and fangs into his right thigh.
The other sucked greedily at his wounded calf.
While he frantically tried to swat them away, a third latched onto his other ankle.
He realised that they were trying to sever his Achilles, so he couldn’t walk.
Despite the horror of the situation, he couldn’t help but marvel at their ingenuity.
He pulled the trigger, sending the one on his chest to rat heaven, and spun to fire at the two on his legs.
One saw his intent and pulled its teeth free.
The teeth must have been barbed, as it tore a large chunk of his calf loose.
The other dived for his gun hand, its teeth seeking to sever his thumb and eliminate the problem of his weapon.
He thought fast, pulling free his knife with his left hand.
His blade opened its throat.
Diseased blood showered him.
It stunk and seemed to cling to him like a shadow.
He shot another point blank in the face, further spraying himself with reeking gore.
It hit the floor with a wet splat, but there were already a dozen more appearing from among the piles of bones.
Next chapter is here