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 had been 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 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 pulled him out of his groggy state and back to reality. The world had shattered, its cities burned, and yet somehow this tired shell of a man had a job. He exhaled and ran his fingers through his greasy gray hair.
Just another nightmare, Shelby, just another nightmare.
Thankfully, with the men busy on look-out duty, no one noticed his awkward gasp of fear.
That is... Except for her.
Across from him, and separated by a table that had seen better days, 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.
B, as he had affectionately started calling her, had been in his employment for several years. No one knew the young lady’s real name, not even herself.
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 could 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 mighty Ghede family.
Strawberries and Shelby worked on many successful odd-jobs together. Hell, everything had been going swimmingly until at one point, the family, or more precisely; the Baron himself, caught wind of their operations. He requested Shelby come work for them instead—This being gangster jargon for “hostile takeover.”
He had seen no other option but to shake hands and sell his soul to the devil, figuratively. Although, in this day and age, people could be forgiven for taking that statement literally.
The Baron put Shelby and most of his crew on tedious logistics duties. Strawberries loved it. Watching his men haul big crates around, and then spending the rest of the day gazing out of train windows, hoping to see a rare creature in the distance. She called it easy money; staying out of trouble and collecting a decent wage. He, however, despised the whole ordeal.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, annoyed and mildly ashamed of the condition he woke up in.
She smiled and shot him a confused look as if he was tonight’s entertainment, which it appeared he was.
“What’s the matter, Shelb? Nightmares again?” She crossed her arms and pretended to mope like a little child.
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 been through the wringer, Shelby included.
“Not that you can relate,” he said. “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, could be vicious when required. She was a part of this new generation that sprung up after that Great Fuck-All. The boys and girls who did not know of a life before the End. They, who had it easier without being shackled to grief, but strangely, also worse.
Shelby, on the other hand, was a fossil, weighing in at 56 years of age. 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 talking about dreams.” She said. “I reckon it would make you feel a whole lot better, Shelb, chatting about the terrible stuff in your wrinkled old head.”
“It was just a bad dream is all.”
This was their relationship. Her wanting to get under his skin, and him trying to keep her at arm’s length.
“That seemed like hell ´ova lot more than just a bad dream, you looked like you just saw the King.”
“It’s shit. 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. “Is it one of your Old World words again?” She spoke with such a mix of pity and genuine compassion in her voice.
“Look, babe,” He said. “I don’t go nagging about all the guys you fuck, and you don’t go hassling me for being old.”
He adjusted his thick, beaten-down vest, secretly giving himself a compliment for being an asshole.
She figured sex could be used to get what she wanted, and Shelby knew this was the way it worked now. Most had resigned to violence, and to survive they turned whatever they could to their favor. 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 had turned into a condemning grimace.
“But you do, Shelb.” She said, “you nag about me fucking guys all the time.”
He knew she would react this way, It was all right. He would take disgust over apathy any day.
“Remind me of firing you when we get back home.” He said in a light-hearted manner as he stood up.
“You’re a funny old grump,” she replied, having heard his harmless threats a million times before.
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 bullets. He had bartered it for the shock and awe it would strike into his enemies’ hearts whenever he raised it. The other was a Beretta with Hard bullets, chosen ‘cause it would fire fast.
One gunman was in the former onboard cafe, slouched over the counter, carving curse words into it 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 who had been handpicked by the Baron for the supply run.
His posse was back at the 5th, most likely getting drunk by now, 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 split up the boys in a slight 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 scrubby son of a bitch. He had a long, frail beard. He chewed the disgusting low-grade tobacco they grew in the tunnels, and he would always wear a stupid cowboy hat, regardless if he was indoors or not. It annoyed Shelby as a matter of principle. Only John Wayne should be allowed to wear a God damn cowboy hat, and this Marvtin was the furthest thing from an American hero.
“Everything good with the guys?” He cordially asked, while pouring 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 reckon we’ll be back at dawn, sir?” Marvtin said as he stopped carving and looked up at him.
“Looks that way, Mar..” he coughed and tried to muffle the name.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Looks that way... Soldier.” Shelby revised, and rested his arms on the counter, wishing his posse was here instead of these useless clowns. A leader should know his men before sending them into war. Know what he can use them for.
The Ghede’s famous armored train would travel 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 had made cardboard cutouts of warriors, 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.
“See any trouble out there?” He said and smiled glibly at them.
“No, sir.” Black Metal replied. “Clear skies and a full moon out. If anything wants to attack us, we’ll see them 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 shooting star.” Yankees burst out. “about 15 minutes ago.”
Shelby pretended to be surprised, as rookies annoyed the living crap out of him.
“Well, did you wish upon it?”
“I’m sorry, sir?” Yankees replied, then gawked over to this partner hoping for some clarity.
“I said, did you wish upon it?”
“Eh, no, sir?” Yankees scratched his head.
“Then why the fuck are you telling me this?” Shelby said. “Watch the land, not the skies. And take off those stupid sunglasses, you look like a fucking 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 could hear loud 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 in a panic as he headed for the control car. The driver, a young man, named Damphousse, was a permanent resident on the train. Shelby was confident he could push the locomotive to the limit.
The scraping and shrieking was increasing, as if giant metal cockroaches were scurrying above their heads. Shelby had heard them before. How they had gotten onboard without them noticing was beyond him.
“Everybody, stay away from the windows, and be cool,” he said. His blood freezing to ice.
The train was gradually reaching max speed, the wind howling into the open cracks, and it became difficult to keep balance. Marvtin stumbled back, pale as a ghost, as he fumbled to find his rusty revolver.
“Check your ammo, folks!” 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 never ventured out into these parts.
A black oily arm burst through the wall, its sharp nails clawing the wooden interior, searching for something or someone to grab a hold on. All of its tendons exposed; dark muscles, nerves expanding and retracting, detailing the inner workings of the Hell creature.
Shelby’s heart was racing. This didn’t seem to be a mindless attack.
Yankees grabbed his sawed-off shotgun and pointed it at the black arm squirming to find passage.
“No!” Shelby screamed as a deafening bang rang out.
The hand fell limp onto the ground, profusely spurting an ink-like substance, as the owner it belonged to 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 moron,” 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.
“Shit!” Marvtin spat out as he scrambled to find his revolver. “We’re so dead!”
The scratching returned with a vengeance. The creatures gathering outside, hammering to get in. Wet screams on shrieking metal. Stuck in no man’s land and Hell and its demons were here to feast.
Shelby picked himself up,
“Stay here!” He yelled. “I’ll check the locomotive.” Then he grabbed the door-handle and slipped inside.
The control car was pitch black, save a lone light source fluttering in front of him. A small fire 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 fire 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 plopping trough it as if he had shot at sand.
Stupid fool. He had gone for the wrong gun.
The creature leaped forward in response, as Shelby fell on his back, crying out.
A loud boom!
And the beast exploded, covering the control car along with Shelby in thick, black muck.
He wiped his face, shocked and confused before peeking over his shoulder at Strawberries standing there in the doorway with Yankees shotgun.
“Get lost!” She grunted.
A still stunned Shelby staggered to his feet and tried to mop the muck from his coat.
“I’m never firing you again!” he confessed, as she rolled her eyes in return and threw the empty shotgun on the floor.
“This is bad Shelb, we have to get out of here, right now.”
“I know,” He gazed out the front window. On the horizon he could see silhouettes of several large horned figures standing still. He’d seen them before. The East-Traders had once told him they herded the mindless creatures. That could only mean a strategic operation. That could only mean the Banner of Hell.
“I reckon we’re surrounded.” He glanced back at Strawberries who had grabbed her rifle and opened the door to the second car.
Black Metal laid bleeding on the floor as Marvtin frantically fired towards the slimy figures clawing their way through an increasing hole in the wall.
“Shit! We’re so fucking dead!” He cried out as he shot at the creatures. “We need a bomb or something!”
“Won’t matter Marv,” Shelby said 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 looked back at him.
Two of the creatures slithered through the opening, hissing and grinning. Strawberries promptly grabbed him by the shoulder and disappeared into the third car.
“So this is really it, Shelb?” 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 supply cars had no windows, no cracks, and were designed to be the most fortified part of the train.
“You know I used to be a salesman?” Shelby said with a pathetic tone in his voice.
She put her hand on his shoulder and smiled sadly,
“I know Shelb, back in the Old World.”
What a cock-up this had all turned out to be. The crew had proven to be useless, and now they would meet their demise at the hands of vicious beasts.
Shelby desperately rummaged the surrounding cargo. Big drum barrels in front, dozens of them. He knew the fourth and fifth car could be overrun by now. Nowhere 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 both 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 had a fifth of water.
“Jump in, B,” he whispered as she stared back at him in disbelief.
“But, what about you?” she frowned.
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 started to give in. Shelby lied through his teeth.
“The last one is almost empty B, 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.
“This is not a good idea.” 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,
“Sure it is, girl. This is a great idea. Now shut up and breathe through the hole.”
The cacophony of scratching and hissing was almost deafening at this point. 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 while quietly cursing to himself,
“Yeah... this was a brilliant move..”
The nut bolts bounced against the walls as they gave in and the door finally flung open. The dark figures emerged with terrible intent, growling to each other.
All this Shelby could watch 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. Shelby prayed to the gods of nothing. His own little gods of science, physics, and probability. 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 in the drum-barrel suspicious, or the odds of not 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 noticed a higher presence and stopped moving as someone else entered through the gaping side 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 looked 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 brown fur that could not be 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 Francis! Colonel Francis!”
Another man entered. A thin, raggedy clothed character who ran up to Colonel Francis. “There’s no sign of him, Colonel, sir.” He said. His white eyes nervously drawn to the tall, dark 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, but could never be again. He must have been someone important when he had lived, but was now nothing more than the Colonel’s lackey.
“The General wants us to keep moving, Colonel, sir.” He said.
“Well, we mustn’t disappoint our great leader.” Colonel Francis smiled and scratched his chin. “Gather the men.”
Shelby sighed. Half out of relief and the rest out of concern. The Banner would soon be on their way, but any mention of a general was a bad sign. It was even less comforting that it had been uttered by two high standing members. Decades had passed since Hell or Heaven had fought over these parts. Not since FarHaven, not since the angels had disappeared, and whatever was left had been 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, and 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 Cavanaugh. Someone is coming…