"The mighty men, and every bondman,
and every free man, hid themselves in the dens
and in the rocks of the mountains;
16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us,
and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17 For the great day of his wrath is come;
and who shall be able to stand?"
- Revelation -
A shooting star dashed across the sky as a train separated the desert in two. In front of it lay an endless track of steel and wood, and in its wake; a thick cloud of dust and smoke. The colossus roared through the night, battered but still mighty, adorned in heavy metal plates which were crudely welded on in fortification from both man, and beast.
Inside, a posse of 6 guarded its cargo: barrels of oil, clean water, and crates of fresh vegetables for the citizens of the outskirts. The gunmen peered out of the few windows still left open. Gripping their weapons, and scanning the horizon for any signs of the enemy.
The only man who was not, a scruffy, middle-aged fellow by the name of Mark Shelby, sat upright in the corner. His head tilted forward as he slept in one of the many broken seats onboard. The train and its interior had long stopped serving the passengers of old, and rust and decay had taken over.
Oliver! The voices growled.
Shelby awoke with a gasp and sprung his eyes open in terror. Where were they? How long had he been out?
The familiar noise of the cars chugging along eased him out of his groggy state and back to reality. He exhaled and ran his fingers through his greasy gray hair.
Just a nightmare, Shelby, just a nightmare.
Across from him, and separated by a rotting table, she sat. A short, sturdy, teenage girl with red dreads, heavy black eye make-up, and an amused expression on her face. Her name was Strawberries, and she was an ever-loving thorn in his backside.
Long ago, when he rescued her—Rescue being a horrible fairytale-kind-of-word to the whole affair—he had leaned down and asked the child for her name. Strawberries was the only thing she would say for the next 2 days straight.
After their... meeting, he took her in as his partner-in-crime, though of course there were no crimes to be had anymore. For that, you would need the law, and in the barren wasteland the only justice you could hope for was through the Ghede family.
Strawberries and Shelby carried out on many successful jobs together. Hell, everything went swimmingly until at one point, the family, or more precisely; the Baron himself, caught wind of their operations, and requested Shelby come work for them instead.
He had seen no other option but to shake hands and sell his soul to the devil, figuratively. Although, in this day and age, you would be forgiven for taking that statement quite literal.
The Baron put Shelby and most of his men on tedious logistics duties. Strawberries loved it. Watching his crew haul big crates around, and then spending the rest of the day gazing out of train windows. She called it easy money; staying out of trouble and collecting a decent wage. He, however, despised the whole ordeal.
“What you looking at?” He asked.
“What’s the matter, Shelb? Nightmares again?” She crossed her arms and pretended to mope.
In the Old World, people wouldn’t have looked at her twice. She was stocky and tough, wearing battered clothes, ending in a pair of oversized boots. Years of living in the desert had taken its toll on her skin, and they would have called the young girl neglected. But this wasn’t the Old World. Here everyone had gone through the wringer, Shelby included.
“Not that you can relate,” he replied. “But, I need my beauty sleep.”
She let out a defiant sneer, staring at him as he turned his head pretending not to notice.
Strawberries, though gentle, was cunning when required. She was a part of this new generation that had sprung up after the Great Fuck-All. The boys and girls who did not know of a life before the dirt. How lighter they must feel, not being shackled to grief.
Shelby, on the other hand, was a fossil. At the rate the world chewed through its survivors he seldom met anyone who had been present on that day. And whenever he did, they did not talk about silly things like dreams.
“I like talkin’ ‘bout dreams.” She declared. “I reckon it would make you feel a whole lot better, chattin’ ‘bout the terrible stuff in your wrinkled old head.”
“It was a bad dream is all.”
“That seemed like helluva lot more than a bad dream. You look like you saw the King.”
“Thanks, I try my worst.” Shelby replied. “I tell you my dreams, and you’ll want to have me committed.”
“Committed?” she sounded perplexed. She knew what commitment meant, but couldn’t place it in the context of the sentence. “There you go with that Old World talk again.” She spoke with such a mix of pity and genuine compassion in her voice.
“Look, girl,” He said. “I don’t go nagging about all the guys you bone, and you don’t go hassling me for being old.”
He adjusted his vest, secretly giving himself a compliment for being an asshole.
She had learned sex was a tool to get what she wanted, and Shelby knew this was the way society worked now. Most resigned to violence, and to survive they turned to whatever they could. The slave auctions in Babaco, the gladiator den in Le Choix. Either you held the gun, or you were the one getting shot.
Strawberries smile turned into a condemning grimace.
“But you do, Shelb.” She said, “you give me crap ‘bout Oliver plenty.”
“Remind me of firing you when we get back home.” He said.
“Like you’d find anyone better.” She replied.
Shelby straightened his coat and adjusted his firearms. The first, a 357 magnum caliber revolver, dangling from his shoulder holster. More specifically, a 1990 Colt Python, double action trigger, 6 round chamber, 6-inch barrel. Loaded with soft caps. Bartered for the shock and awe it would strike into his enemies’ hearts whenever he raised it. The other was a Beretta with hard caps, chosen ‘cause it would fire fast.
One gunman stood in the former onboard cafe, slouched over, carving curse words into the counter with his knife. His name was Marvin, or Martin, or something like that. Shelby couldn’t be bothered to remember the names of his babysitters. These men were handpicked by the Baron for the supply run.
His crew was back at the 5th, most likely getting drunk by now, eagerly awaiting their return. Jonny, Gavin, and Oliver; those were his own men. Mainly because everyone else was dead or completely useless. He suspected the Baron separated them in a case of paranoia—this was after all a supply train, and they were very much capable of robbing it.
Marvin… or Martin, however, was a simple son of a bitch. He sported a long, scrappy beard. He chewed the disgusting low-grade tobacco they grew in the tunnels, and he would always wear that stupid cowboy hat, regardless if indoors or not. It annoyed Shelby as a matter of principle. Only John Wayne should be allowed to wear a damn cowboy hat inside, and this Marvtin was the furthest thing from the American hero.
He poured himself a cup of water from the drum-barrel next to the counter. They always brought one to share for the trip home. The rest they stored in the third, fourth and last railroad car, alongside the oil and crates of vegetables.
“You suppose we’ll be back at dawn, sir?” Marvtin asked and he stopped carving.
“Looks that way, Mar..” he coughed and tried to muffle the name.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Looks that way... Soldier.”
Shelby rested his arms on the counter, wishing his crew was here instead of these useless clowns. A general should train his men before sending them into war. To gage what he can use them for.
The Ghede’s famous armored train traveled the supply route every month with few incidents; still, it wasn’t a place to teach new recruits. Marvtin had recently begun working for the Baron, and the two men in the corner both shared similar stories. It appeared the fragile peace turned warriors into cardboard cutouts, and he was stuck leading them.
The two greeted him as he walked over. Yankees and Black Metal were their names, or, at least what Shelby called them in the privacy of his own mind.
“Any trouble out there?” He asked and smiled glibly at them.
“No, sir.” Black Metal replied. “Clear skies and a full moon out. If anything wants to attack, we’ll see it coming a mile away.”
Black Metal and Yankees shared similar appearances; both wore dirty caps. One read; Yankees in smooth white curves on blue. The other; Black Metal in jagged white edges on black. He had been in the Baron’s service for a few months, and was perhaps the best gun on the train, whereas Yankees, Shelby reckoned, was in all likelihood just as incompetent as Marvtin. Seeing as he was holding a sawed-off shotgun while wearing sunglasses. As if he could see anything in the dead of night, or if he did, hit it at a distance further away than 2 feet. Shelby doubted they had ever heard of the Yankees, nor Black metal for that matter.
“We saw a shootin’ star.” Yankees burst out. “’bout 15 minutes ago.”
Shelby pretended to be surprised.
“Well, did you wish upon it?”
“What, sir?” Yankees replied, then gawked over to this partner hoping for some clarity.
“I said, did you wish upon it?”
“Eh, no, sir?”
“Then why the fuck are you telling me this?” He replied. “Watch the land, not the skies. And take off those stupid sunglasses, you look like an idiot.” He quickly swung around and walked away, hoping his little spiel made them more alert. Damn rookies would be the end of him.
All of a sudden they heard scraping noises from the roof.
“Shelb…” Strawberries whispered and reached for her rifle.
Shelby nodded and signaled to Marvtin, “Go tell Damphousse to speed up.”
Marvtin sprang out from behind the counter and headed for the control car. The driver, a young man, named Damphousse, was a permanent resident on the train. Shelby was confident he would push the locomotive to the limit.
The scraping and shrieking was increasing, as if giant metal cockroaches were scurrying above their heads. His blood froze to ice. How had they gotten onboard without them noticing?
“Alright, folks.” he announced. “Stay away from the windows, and be cool.”
The train was gradually reaching max speed, the wind howling into the open cracks. It became difficult to keep balance. Marvtin stumbled back, pale as a ghost, as he fumbled to find his rusty revolver.
“Check your ammo!” Shelby yelled out, pretending he was preaching to a group of marines and not the village nut-jobs. “We don’t wanna be firing softs out there!”
The group inspected their weapons, but they all knew what they had boarded the train with. Mortal men weren’t the enemy out in these parts.
Suddenly a black oily hand burst through the wall, its sharp nails clawing the wooden interior, searching for something or someone to grab a hold of. All of its tendons exposed; dark muscles, nerves expanding and retracting, detailing the inner workings of the creature.
Shelby’s heart was racing.
Yankees grabbed his shotgun and pointed it at the black limb squirming to find passage.
“No!” Shelby screamed
A deafening bang rang out.
The arm fell limp onto the ground, profusely spurting an ink-like substance, as its owner vanished back into the night. Yankees fell down, screaming and grabbing his own face.
“Ricochet, Captain!” Black Metal yelled, as he dragged the bleeding man to the middle of the railroad car and cocked his rifle.
“Fucking amateur,” Shelby muttered to himself. The armored plates would not only stop a shotgun blast up front but also deflect it back.
The lights went out, and the train came to a screeching halt, throwing them across the car to land on top of each other.
Nothing but silence and darkness as Shelby clumsily tried to catch his bearings. Above him the lamps flickered before coming back on.
The train stood dead in its tracks.
“Dang it!” Marvtin spat out as he scrambled to find his revolver. “We’re so dead!”
The scraping returned with a vengeance. The creatures gathering outside, hammering to get in. Wet screams on shrieking metal. They were stuck in no-man’s-land and Hell was here to feast.
Shelby picked himself up,
“Stay here!” He shouted. “I’ll check the locomotive.” Then he grabbed the door-handle and slipped inside.
The control car was dark. A lone light source fluttering in front of him. A small fire that had broken out in the electronics. The wind whirled through a shattered window. On the ground laid the mutilated corpse of what once had been Damphousse. From the shadows, two ruby red dots glowed.
It moved slowly forward with intention, hissing as it did so. The shape of an oiled, obsidian figure emerging from the darkness. The flickering flames highlighting its face. Soulless droplets in place of eyes, on a surface burned and disfigured.
A wide grin surfaced, spanning from ear to ear. Saliva dripped down from the sides as its jaws opened and sharp fangs appeared.
Shelby went for his revolver and fired three shots straight through the creature. He was horrified to see the bullets whizzing trough its body as if he shot at clay.
Stupid fool. He had gone for the wrong gun.
The creature leaped forward in response. Shelby fell on his back, crying out.
A loud boom!
The beast exploded, covering the control car along with Shelby in thick, black muck.
He wiped his face, shocked and confused before peeking up at Strawberries standing there in the doorway with Yankees shotgun.
“Get gone!” She grunted.
A still stunned Shelby staggered to his feet whiles trying to mop the muck from his coat.
“I’m never firing you again!” He declared.
She rolled her eyes in return and threw the empty shotgun on the floor.
“This is bad Shelb, we gotta get out of here.”
He gazed out the front window. On the horizon he spotted several silhouettes of large horned figures standing still. He had seen them before. Long ago. The East-Traders told him they were used to herd the mindless creatures. This was a strategic operation. That meant the Banner of Hell.
“I reckon we’re surrounded.” She declared.
She opened the door back to the second car.
There, Black Metal laid bleeding on the floor. Marvtin frantically fired towards the slimy figures clawing their way through an increasing hole in the wall.
“Shit! We’re so fucked!” He cried as he shot into the night. “We need a grenade!”
“Won’t matter, Marv,” Shelby replied as he ran past him. “That’s the King’s own.”
“Who‘s Marv? Where are you guys going? They’re everywhere!”
“Your name’s not Marv?” Shelby said surprised.
Two of the creatures slithered through the opening, foaming at the mouth. Strawberries promptly grabbed Shelby by the shoulder and disappeared into the third car.
“So this is it?” She gave him a pitiful stare as he locked the door, picked up a wooden crate from the corner, and jammed it into the handle. The boxcars had no windows, no cracks. They were designed to be the most fortified part of the train. The recon bike was their best bet, but that was several cars back, and only accessible through the outside.
“You know I used to be a salesman?” Shelby said in a pathetic tone.
She put her hand on his shoulder and smiled sadly,
“I do, Shelb, back in the Old World.”
What a cock-up this turned out to be. They had proven to be useless, and now they would meet their demise at the hands of vicious beasts.
Shelby desperately rummaged through the surrounding cargo. Big drum barrels in front, dozens of them. The other cars would be overrun by now. Nowhere left for them to run.
Strawberries was in the process of checking her ammo when he drew his old revolver. He aimed it at two of the drums, firing a shot into each. They penetrated just beneath the top. Then he holstered his weapon, rushed over to them and cracked the first one open. This was the last water drum they had tapped; those were never full, and this one was almost empty.
“Jump in, girl,” he whispered, as she stared back at him in disbelief.
“But, what ‘bout you?”
He slapped his hand on the other drum.
“I’ll be in here. Now get in.”
“Shelb, it’s full of oil. It’ll kill you.”
A loud bang hit the door. The handles bent down, and the hinges begun to give in. Shelby lied through his teeth.
“The last one is almost empty, I’ll be all right.”
He picked her up and helped her into the barrel. There she crawled up like a ball, with the water reaching up to her waist.
“I hate this.” She sighed as he placed the top over.
A couple gentle pats with his hands, then he bent down to the bullet hole and said,
“This is a great idea, girl. Now shut up and breathe through the hole.”
The cacophony of scratching was almost deafening. Shelby cracked opened his newly formed hideout and peered down into it. It was black and half-filled with thick petroleum. He took a deep breath and quietly cursed to himself,
“Well... this was a brilliant idea..”
The bolts bounced against the walls as they gave in and the door finally flung open. The shadowy figures emerged with terrible intent, hissing at each other.
All this Shelby watched from the hole in the drum. The oil now reaching up to his chest. The fumes so strong that he was already dizzy, as he pressed his lips against the opening to feel the fresh air from outside.
The creatures scoured the car, trying to remember what they’d been searching for in the first place.
He prayed his gods of physics. The ones he’d believed in before the age of demons and angels. The ones who calculated the chance of the beasts finding the holes suspicious, or the probability of dying of asphyxiation while swimming in petroleum. It was almost unbearable now. Shelby drew one big breath of air and then used the hole to peer out.
Their attack was over; in its wake laid 4 murdered men.
The creatures detected a higher presence and stood down as someone else entered through the breach in the train. A tall, broad-shouldered man sauntered in and stood at the center of the car. The long-coat he was wearing appeared to have been a military garment. Now it was moldy, as if rotten bark wood covered him. On top of his slick hair he bore an old navy hat, and on his shoulders, thick fur that did not stem from any earthly animal.
He was a man, yes, but his eyes were white; so were all the dead who were let back into this world. Folks damned to an eternity of punishment, and then when the Great Fuck-All came to pass drafted to serve in the infernal army, under the Banner of Hell. This one must have climbed high in the career ladder of the afterlife.
“Colonel! Colonel!” Another man entered. A thin, raggedy clothed character who ran up to the colonel. “There’s no sign of him, Colonel Francis, sir.” His white eyes nervously drawn to the tall, black creatures now seemingly transfixed.
The shreds hanging onto his body had once been a decent tennis outfit but had deteriorated since then. Few Flatliners ever changed their appearance; some said they wouldn’t, others that they simply couldn’t. Like ghosts of solid matter, they would linger in a state of who they once were. He might have been someone important back when was alive, but now he was nothing more than the Colonel’s lackey.
“The general wants us to march north, sir.” The tennis player said. “They found his… wings.”
“Well then, we mustn’t disappoint our great leader.” Colonel Francis smiled. “Gather the troops.”
Shelby sighed. Half out of relief and the rest in concern. The Banner would soon leave, but mentions of generals and colonels were terrible omens. Decades had passed since Hell or Heaven had bothered with these parts. Not since FarHaven, not since the angels disappeared, and whatever was left was carved up between the merciless.
His thoughts drifted as the fumes grew stronger. He glared into the hole and noticed the men dissolved into shadows and shapes, their voices hushed and incoherent… Then Shelby blacked out. The rest of the night was a blur for him. Locked inside an 85-gallon steel drum. Floating through an eternity of his own memories, hopes, and fears. He would remember only a handful of things; seeing his old girlfriend and her child. They would smile, embrace him, and tell him it was never his fault, although he knew that it was.
And lastly; the nightmare from before returned, taunting him with its cryptic message: someone is looking for Oliver. Someone is coming…