THE WEAPONER

By Eric S. Brown

 

 

Prologue

 

Long ago, in the last days of the fall of man, Colonel Hannes Verne stood atop the wall watching as the final convoy of buses and supply trucks drove towards the gates. Verne knew his own supply of mortars, grenades, and the like was nearly exhausted. The dead were pressed hundreds deep against the wall and unless he could come up with a plan to disperse the ones at the gates, opening it would be suicide. Verne rubbed his hands together to warm them in the chill of the morning air. The fate of the people in the approaching convoy rested solely with him and his men. Those civilians were counting on him to save their lives and get them inside.

The near-completed wall stood thirty feet tall and, along its top, Verne’s men were charged with holding back the dead so that its construction could be completed. Verne was reluctant to expend any more of his dwindling firepower. There were already over a thousand civilians inside, sheltered at the makeshift town which was still growing many miles from where he stood. There would be no more supplies coming. The world outside the wall was gone. He wasn’t up to making a call like this one. All the generals were dead and rotting though, and like it or not he was the highest ranking officer left in the United States military.

His men had one advantage over the civilians. Each of them was injected with a vaccine that allowed them to stand against the dead. No bite or scratch would turn them into one of the monsters below. The vaccine was costly and difficult to produce and thus its supply had been limited. There was not enough to inoculate the civilians, thus it was against orders for him to draft help from the town to defend the wall. If one of them became infected and returned undetected, all could be lost. The advantage given to his men by the vaccine was a true blessing but it didn’t make his men invincible. The dead could still rip them to pieces as easy as they could anyone else. Verne shook his head and knew he didn’t have the manpower or firepower left to open the gates this time if he wanted to preserve what was already being built inside the wall’s perimeter. He tapped the comlink he wore. “Keep the gates closed. If they try to ram their way in, take them out, hard and fast.”

Colonel Verne headed for the stairs leading down to the bunker below to oversee the next batch of dead. The creatures were being herded in through the specimen gates for Dr. Watkins to study. A small gate opened to the world beyond the wall through which the dead pressed their way into a holding cell of sorts, where his men drove them on into a more secure sealed-off area that was a part of the wall itself. The order he’d just given was the hardest of his career and he didn’t want to be around to see it carried it out. Helping Dr. Watkins was as good of an excuse as any to get away.

He heard the gunfire begin to tear through the early morning dimness. Screams rose to meet the rising morning sun. 

 

***

 

The sun peaked over the distant hills, spilling in through the window. A rooster crowed as Alan set up in bed. The morning air was touched by a crisp chill. There was a lot of work to be done today, if he had the time to do it. Rumors were flying that they were inside now. Alan didn’t believe the stories but he believed in the power of fear. It could make even the best men do questionable things. With a yawn and a stretch, he plopped his bare feet onto the cold wood of the floor. He shivered and threw on his clothes without pausing to glance in the mirror. The boys would be here soon and this time they’d want more than his normal handiwork. They’d be needing him and the canon.

Alan saw that the fire had died down during the night so he stoked it, stirring up its coals. He lingered by the fresh warmth of the stove. There was some coffee left in the pot from the night before sitting on top of it. He poured himself a cup, took a sip of its bitter blackness. Coffee was a rare thing but his job in Hyattsburg had its perks. He’d convinced the boys he couldn’t work without it so he always had some on hand. Alan was very thankful for Doc West. Without the old man’s green houses and his strange talent to grow almost anything, there might not have been any coffee at all. His own family didn’t have the title of “Doctor” like the Wests, the Camerons, and the Gorios but he and his dad were still considered among the town’s elite. The Wests were crazy. The Gorios were known for their charity and were the only real healers of the bunch. The Camerons caused folks to wonder how they’d ever gotten the title of doctor for their family. Their estate was riddled with odd contraptions, plastic boxes with flat sheets of glass on their fronts like mirrors, and junk that seemed to serve no purpose. The family continued to fall from grace with each passing season. Debt weighed heavily on them and there didn’t seem to be any relief in sight. They were terrible farmers and none of them good, strong men. Alan thanked God his dad had passed down not only his knowledge, but his lessons on being a real man.

The sound of approaching horses told Alan that Zek and the boys had arrived. He shrugged on his coat and fastened his gun belt around his waist, heading out to meet them. Alan stood on his porch as they rode in. Zek, of course, was in the lead with Wike and Mathew at his side. Alan counted a dozen other riders with them. He nodded at Zek as the lawman hopped from his saddle to the dirt and walked towards him.

“Mornin’, Zek. Reckon I don’t have to ask what brings you by.”

“Mornin’, Alan,” Zek said. “So I gather you heard then?”

“Yep,” Alan nodded. “Good old Doctor West dropped in on me last night. Old fella was more than a mite worked up. They really coming?”

“Don’t know for sure. Could have been coyotes that got the Byrnes. Some kind of animal maybe. Doc Gorio swears otherwise but I don’t rightly see how it could be them things. Heck, we ain’t had a problem with ’em since I was born here in Hyattsburg other than the occasional screw up with our own dead.” Zek tugged at his hat and then got out his cigarette case, rolling up a smoke. “We gotta check it out though. Can’t take no chances when it comes to something like this. Gonna need likely everything you got and then some.”

“And then some?” Alan asked, knowing what was coming next.

“Sorry, Alan, I know killin’ ain’t what you do for a living but we’re gonna need your skills and know how out there with us. . .” Zek paused. “We’re gonna need it too, Alan. . .  The canon.”

“Can’t say I am happy to hear that, Zek, but I figured you’d be askin’. I got her ready last night after the Doc left. How much ammo you boys carrying?”

“None of us got more than a handful of rounds apiece except Wike there.”

“There’s plenty in the depot outback. Got enough maybe for I’d say a couple of hundred rounds each. That’s gonna have to be enough. Got no time to make more if you’re gonna drag me out there with ya’ll.”

“It’ll do.” Zek smiled thankful. “You’re a dependable man, Alan, just like your father always was. Boys, go get that ammo loaded up. Make sure to divide it up evenly now. We’re all gonna be watching each other’s backs out there in the sand.”

“You need guns too?” Alan asked reluctantly.

“Some of the boys here got stuff that belonged to their grandpas. You sure know we do if you got something better we can use.”

Alan sighed. “There’s a new cache of rifles I just got done with not too long back, five of them. Take those if you want but don’t touch my other stuff.”

“You heard the man!” Zek yelled at his deputies. “Don’t touch nothin’ less he says it’s alright.”