Upon a Third Horse
It looked like a museum in there, inside the McDonald's. Austin Vallon stared in the dust-coated windows. Plastic furnishings, plastic floors--hell, food that tasted like plastic; at least, that was how he remembered it, how he used to think of that food and all fast food. Now, post-Blight, his stomach gnawed and his mouth salivated at the distant memory of steaming sesame seed buns, limp lettuce, the coaster-sized patty of chewy uncertain meat.
He took a step back from the deserted eatery, and sunlight fell on him, and he saw himself in those same dusty windows. Face gaunt, the bony orbits of his eyes clearly pressing the skin, limbs scrawny beneath his coat, ribs straining against his shirt.
This is a starving man.
He could handle the reflexive cravings. There was mouth hunger, which was the need for tasting, a luxury. There was stomach hunger, which was your body truly telling you to supply it with fuel. Also, there was head hunger, that dizzy hollow sensation, the brain giving warning of trouble with the whole system.
Austin Vallon experienced all of these hungers. He'd been prepared for them. It was something that had been spoken of in his survivalist cell. But he was beginning to suspect a deeper, more profound need: the hunger of the soul.
Humans were connected to this planet by way of food. Feeding was a more intimate experience than breathing, than procreation, even. The first date dinner, Holy Communion, wedding cakes, the condemned offender's last meal. Eating was life's ongoing sacrament. It was the link between humankind and Mother Earth.
These observations were both more Biblical and hippie-dippy than Austin would have once allowed himself. But detached irony was also a luxury. Ten years ago the Blight was a set of a chemical equations in someone's head. Five years ago crops were inexplicably failing worldwide. Superstition and flower child idealism seemed like viable alternatives to reality.
But you couldn't eat your beliefs.
Austin hefted his assault rifle and turned away from the McDonald's. No sense scavenging the place. This whole region had been long since picked clean, every can opened, every jar of preserves raided. Nothing left. Not a morsel.
He was out here on the hunt. You couldn't grow food, and there were no reserves left to plunder; but there was still prey. And that was, perhaps, a miracle. Or a gift from benevolent Gaia. Take your pick.
Actually it was neither of those, Austin noted as he started down the empty dusty street. He knew where his prey had come from. Science had delivered this bounty. And like most things that arose from science, it was a mixed bag. Useful and dangerous. He could kill the beast, and its meat would feed him and his family. But the beast could kill him first.
By now he was accustomed to deserted places, even towns of this size. It had started to feel normal that such sites were utterly empty of people--living people, anyway. There were still corpse aplenty to find, but you had to go looking for them mostly. And he had no desire to do that. The dead were in their beds. Or under them. Or lying in closets and down in cellars. Starving, it seemed, was a peculiar way of dying. Certainly Americans didn't have a blueprint for it. There was no cultural tradition surrounding the occurrence. So they took themselves off alone, to small spaces, tight corners, like wounded dogs. Maybe it was shame that drove them away from others at the end.
At least the vast die-off of the population was several years in the past by now. The dead were husks, some practically mummified. That meant they didn't stink anymore.
He had left the jeep on the edge of town. Roads weren't impassable, not yet, but there were rough patches and overpasses that had collapsed. Around cities, vehicular jams choked any chance of easy passage. Austin remembered images on television of those seas of stuck cars, people trying to flee, literally going nowhere because there was nowhere to go. He remembered too footage of people trying to eat grass, chewing tree bark. At the end, just before the broadcasts stopped, groups with guns and machetes had fought pitched battles over the recently dead.
His jeep had a solar battery. The house where he'd left Liv and Rhea was also sufficiently powered with such perpetual energy stores. If he could slay the beast and get the carcass back there, they could keep the meat preserved. They could live, all of them.
He had observed this dead town from a distance, atop a hill through binoculars. He'd been tracking the beast for days now. Before all this, in civilized days, he had never hunted; had never imagined himself as a hunter. As a sport it seemed testosteronely insipid, and as a means of acquiring food it was patently unnecessary. Those were supermarket days, pretty packaging, reliable brands.
But he had joined the survivalist cell when things started to look iffy. He'd just been hedging his bet, he had told himself. Learn how to use a gun, acquire some basic skills. Surely the Blight, which wasn't even yet being called by that apocalyptic name, would be brought under control.
Austin Vallon's loyalties had narrowed as the crisis had worsened, had become true catastrophe. First he'd had grave concern for his nation, as the crop failures finally touched North America. Then he'd worried for his quadrant of the country; surely the strange, plant-eating scourge wouldn't reach here. Then his devotion was limited even further, to include only the semirural town where he lived. After that he withdrew into the group of survivalists. At the last, it was just his family, a wife and daughter.
So it stood. A world consisting only of his beloved wife Liv and their cherished child Rhea.
With one other player: the beast.
His hiking boots crunched in the grit. A breeze moved softly among the buildings. He listened carefully. Empty places had a music--the twang of telephone pole cables, the sigh of dust, the odd audible vacantness once filled by people and all their busy mechanized doings.
His ears strained through the blanket of vacuity. On his left, in the street, lay a tiny lump. It took him only a second to recognize it as the long-desiccated body of a crow. The Blight hadn't just wiped out people, of course. He had seen the bleaching bones of dogs, deer, cattle, horses. Everything needed to eat to survive.
Even the beast.
There...against the hushed backdrop. A rustling, a scraping. A sound of movement.
Austin's head whirled as reaction pumped through his veins. He blinked off the dizziness. Head hunger. No time for it. He was weak with lack of food, but he would deal with it. It was only important that he succeed in this hunt, and bring back meat for sweet little Rhea and his long-suffering wife Liv. They must not be left to starve.
He ducked right, under a hardware store's awning. He had a map of the town in his mind, and he was busy putting the sound--that sound of living movement--into a plan of the streets. It had come from the northwest quadrant, up and to his right. He knew how sound carried in a place like this, how walls set up echoes.
It was possible his prey was listening for him as well. Possible? Likely. The creature knew he was after it. He'd come to believe this over these past days of stalking, crossing the landscape in his jeep, spying the beast in the distance, always ahead. A mutual awareness had come to be, a rising certainty. There was a spiritual connectivity between predator and quarry. At least, some in that group of a few dozen survivalists had thought so, the more dedicated members, the ones who halfway seemed to be hoping for an Armageddon so they could put all this prep work to use. Some of those had liked to speak in pseudo-Native American aphorisms or else shapeless Biblical adages.
One guy wouldn't shut up about Famine. The Apocalyptic Horseman; that Famine. Austin had once had to do a paper which tangentially involved the Bible's Book of Revelation. He pointed out that Famine was never explicitly named, that the quartet of riders was more a secular invention. Like Spare the rod and spoil the child or Beam me up, Scotty. Not canon, not appearing anywhere in the source material. There never was a third horse, the one traditionally assigned to Famine.
When the time came, it had been easy to leave behind the survivalist cell. The whole operation had been falling apart by then anyway. And Liv and Rhea had never liked those people much.
He entered the hardware store. Goods were spilled in its aisles. When civilization had truly ended, the looting had begun in earnest. But by then people were looking for only one thing: food. No doubt the snack vending machine in this store's employee break room had been the real prize of all this evident ransacking.
Still, it was nice not to have to pay for anything. He'd just taken that jeep, and he and Liv had simply occupied the upscale ranch house, thinking it a safe place for Rhea. He wanted to get back there.
Stepping around tumbled sledge hammers and scatterings of nails and nuts, he reached the rear of the store. The delivery entrance was unlocked. He peered out onto the new street. The rifle felt heavy, his palms too slick. Adrenaline rattled his too thin frame.
He moved low along a line of parked cars. It was past midday, and shadows were starting to slant. He returned to the sound of rustling in his memory. He had heard that scrape, as of claws on asphalt. Hadn't he? He might be hallucinating. He guessed such things just overtook a person, fantasies springing to life without warning. He knew he was at his physical limits.
Still, if he really had heard noises of movement, then the creature lay this way.
No one knew where the Blight had come from. Or only a select few had ever known. Every terrorist organization on the planet had taken credit for it, especially those with a religious mission statement. The Blight, which targeted edible growing things, certainly felt prophetic and ominous and wrathful.
But science had created the beast Austin was hunting. It was no secret. It had been meant as a super-livestock, something durable and able to supply ample amounts of meat. Of course, it was haywire science, run-amok biological engineering, without safety constraints. By then, with Earth's crops all gone, humankind was faced with the very real question of survival, and the long shadow cast by that concept, which was: extinction. So it was use every means, break every scientific taboo, invent a creature from unholy goo and rapid-grow protoplasmic muck. Set it loose upon the world. The beasts were made to endure, to breed, to feed the hungry humans.
And so it had happened, as if it were a lost sequence from that Book of Revelation deemed too fanciful by the editor. The beast was like fanfic Biblical fare. Humanity had been punished by famine and then, just for laughs, its last chance at salvation had turned on it, becoming a dangerous and predatory animal instead of the docile meat creature it was supposed to be.
That invented beast was tough. It had outlived all the other animals. It was as much of a survivor as Austin Vallon. But Austin had an advantage, and it wasn't even the gun in his hands. There was Liv, there was Rhea; and he would fight for them to his very last breath. And that gave him strength and will.
He stopped suddenly, crouched beside a car with a washed-out blue finish and a seared-looking corpse propped up behind the steering wheel. He'd heard sound again, something that didn't belong in this little necropolis. Not rustling or scraping this time--a growl. Yes. It wasn't a hallucination. The noise had been real.
Checking the street, he watched an actual tumbleweed roll by. Some overworked, semi-hysterical part of him wanted to laugh at that. It was like he'd wandered onto the set of some old-time tv western. Sure. Except he wasn't a sheriff or a cowboy after some dude in a black hat. He was a starving man gunning for the last prey on Earth.
He darted across the street and sidled along the building fronts, stepping carefully around a patch of broken glass fanning the sidewalk. It wouldn't do to give his own position away. But the beast was making noise. If he had it pinpointed correctly, he would find it around the corner at this next intersection. He gripped his weapon tighter, resisting the urge to check its moving parts. He'd kept the rifle scrupulously maintained this entire trip. It would function, and he knew how to use it.
At the corner he halted once more, listening with such intensity he felt his gray matter throbbing in his brainpan. After a moment he edged a look around the brick wall. It was another vacant block lined with small commercial buildings. Everything looked scoured and dead.
A bead of sweat stung Austin's eye as he studied the layout. He'd heard the growl, close by, he was so sure—
There! Movement. His heart leapt. About three quarters down the block something large and living shifted, something on all fours, something with the slinking menacing grace of a big jungle cat. It moved toward an open doorway, what looked like a bank from here. Austin watched it slip inside.
It was his beast. He had spotted the creature and had tracked it diligently, and now he was going to have the damn thing. That was nature. That was life, if life was indeed to go on for any humans in this world. He gathered a long shaky breath and ducked around the corner, moving silently, with grim yet jubilant purpose.
He felt the connectivity between himself and the creature. It hummed like an old phone wire. Here was his attachment to Earth, his physical and spiritual tether. It would not have been enough to eat out of cans for the rest of his life, even if stores of processed food like that still existed. Humans had to consume the living yields of their environment, even if those products had originated in a mad scientist's laboratory.
That crazy plan would work! The last-ditch effort to provide livestock would work, ultimately...at least for a while. Austin would slay this beast and feed his family. And maybe after he could find others. There was, suddenly it seemed, hope. If he could sustain his little family, perhaps it meant other scattered people had survived and would continue to survive. Maybe they would all meet up, somehow. Have children, keep the race alive, find a way to make the future work.
He came up on the bank's open doors. Freezing once again, he heard sounds of movement from within, claws clicking on stone flooring. He thought he even heard the heavy moist breathing of the thing. Even though the creatures had turned on their creators, they were still packed with edible meat. Austin felt his stomach gnawing, his mouth watering again.
There was a single broad marble step leading up to the bank doors. He brought his assault rifle up to a good firing position. The weapon had power, but he could handle it. This was it. He made his move, hopping onto the step, turning, anticipating the interior gloom, searching the cavernous room beyond the doors, picking out every detail. He'd half expected to find the place thoroughly pillaged, with stray bits of money left on the floor. But nobody had bothered with this bank. By the time the looting started, money had been worthless.
The bank had an ostentatious vault, a massive circular thing implanted in the rear wall. It looked like it could hold a modestly sized submarine. The thick door hung open on a huge hinge. The floor of the bank was wide and empty, with desks off to one side where one would go to open an account or get turned down for a loan, and the teller windows along the other side.
Austin gazed at the vault. No back exit out of there. How inviting a lair it must have seemed.
Again it came: the growl, a low guttural breathing sound, more echoing than before, more confined. In the vault. No doubt.
Austin stepped through the doors and started across the floor.
The whisper of sound from his right was somehow enormous, a monster's shadow imprinting itself on the air. He felt the mammoth shape and managed to turn only the tiniest fraction to see the creature which had already launched itself stealthily from atop the row of counters where the tellers had once stood.
The impact was brutal. He was smashed to the ground, skull pounded onto the floor. The rifle clattered far and hit something and stopped.
He tried to breathe. Something seized in his side, like twigs under his flesh. His legs wouldn't work. A vast thundering pain awaited, but it might never reach him through the shock, he realized as he lay there.
The beast loomed over him, staying out of reach. It made a cautious study of him, its eyes large and dark and wily. It was hairless, with a hide almost reptilian, though it was a mammal. Austin saw the bunching muscles of the leopard-sized animal, the fine lines. It was a glorious creation, a being worthy to walk the world. Its meat would have fed his family for a long while. One of its heavy clawed paws was wet with his blood.
He couldn't do much more than wriggle on the ground, and that caused stabbing sensations all over one side of his torso. But he moved his eyes when the second shape appeared. The creature was like the first but not like it, the way an alien species might have looked upon a man and a woman and recognized both the similarities and differences.
The two stood over him. Austin guessed the female had lain in the vault, providing the luring growl. During the days of this hunt Austin had seen only the male, and that male had led him across many miles, to this town, to this derelict bank. The beast had hunted him.
That was nature. That was life.
Austin let thoughts of his wife and daughter rise over him, swallow him. He would not be able to save them, but while they lived, they still had hope. He was the one without hope.
When he heard the soft mewling sound, he did manage to turn his head and pick out the small third shape as it emerged from the shadows. Its ears were triangular, too big as this age for its head. The creatures had been made to be breeding stock. These three, then, were a family.
Eric Del Carlo has been selling his fiction for over two decades. His short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons and many, many other venues. His novels, both solo and collaborative, have been published by Ace Books, DarkStar Books, Loose Id and other houses. His latest book is The Golden Gate Is Empty, written with his father Vic Del Carlo is currently available from White Cat Publishing. Eric is a native Californian and a Hurricane Katrina refugee. Find him on Facebook for comments and questions.