Exit 248. State Highway 67. FM 1776. Alpine. Sul Ross State University. NATS Midland-Odessa Jtn.
There was no relief at seeing it.
Instead of living with his punishment, he was, in his cowardice, bringing the cruel reality of a new world into the tunnel. They would descend the long ladder into the heart of number Two-Forty Eight and overrun it like a swarm of plagued rats. Rats with weapons of terror.
To Nat’s right, the mustachioed Zeeb carried a heavy assault rifle salvaged from some abandoned military armory. To his left marched the vile Janne, cradling a pump-action shotgun to her chest. The other two-dozen jackals were similarly equipped. Clubs, knives, guns, explosives – all that was needed for a quick trip to the tunnel. They talked and laughed, as if invading a peaceful village of hard-working survivors was just another day out. Perhaps it was. Nat would have to get used to the idea.
His boots stomped in the ash, adding to the billowing cloud of gray. Above, the sun was just visible behind a thick layer of amorphous clouds, hanging in the still air to observe the tragedy about to unfold far below. His hand fell to his side. The revolver, cold and reassuring, rested in his jacket pocket. Three bullets left. Three chances to take lives. One of those chances was reserved for Sam. Nat fingered the grip, playing the scene out in his mind again and again. The long barrel, a face gripped with panic, the fall of the hammer – but here, surrounded by humanity’s dregs under the dead, noon-day sky, revenge lost its appeal. His heart pounded in his chest and pinheads of sweat beaded on his forehead. An intense desire to run from this dreadful group and leave them to their hell welled up inside him. All he needed was supplies, enough to get him out of Stock and on the road. None of this mattered. Nothing mattered but his girl, and the gun offered no solutions but death. Maybe there was another way. He glanced at the highway sign as he passed, the seed of a desperate plan taking shape.
Nat guided them off the highway and along a long-unused dirt road marked off by a rusted, steel gate. The gate’s hinges protested from their entry but allowed the jackals to march down the road, past a sign labeled Emergency Use Only. The road ran north and was flanked on all sides by dead desert shrubs, stripped of their leaves by the ravages of sudden and dramatic climate change, but, much like the last remnants of humanity, there were survivors. Amid the colorless tendrils of dead vegetation, pockets of green reached out like beggars hands toward the miserly sun.
Two miles from the highway, the road took a sharp left and dead-ended in the flat of an abandoned oil rig pad. Where the rig once stood was now a tall, rectangular chain link fence tipped with razor wire. A sign on the padlocked gate indicated that only authorized personnel were allowed inside. In the center of fenced-off area was a heavy, steel porthole surrounded by an ochre handrail.
“This is it?” Janne pointed the barrel of the shotgun at the tunnel’s emergency exit. “I thought it’d be more obvious.”
“That’s why it’s never been found,” Nat replied. “Until now.”
Janne licked a chipped tooth and ordered Zeeb to open the gate. The big man took out a pair of bolt cutters and, with a roar of effort, snapped through the padlock. Nat watched it fall to earth in a puff of smoke. His swayed on his feet and clutched at his stomach, moaning in pain. Janne grabbed him by the armpit and shoved him through the open gate. He fell to the ground and watched Janne and the jackals laugh at him through clouded goggles.
“Now what?” a baseball bat wielding jackal asked.
“We go in,” Janne said. “The passage manned?”
Nat forced himself to stand, gripping the rail for support.
“Only when they go on a supply run.”
“Then the passage leads to the settlement?”
“Right behind the old gas station. It’s where they pump the water.”
“How long does it fucking take to get down?” Zeeb scowled at Nat.
“It’s a thousand feet, so about ten minutes. Coming up’s a lot worse.”
“Fuck,” one of the jackals lamented.
“All right!” Janne bellowed. “No point in waiting for them to come up. I’ll go in with Shen and Nina. Half of you come down in five, the other half in ten,” she directed this order to Zeeb who replied with an aggressive nod. “Of course, if you hear gunfire, come down right away. Once we start shooting, we don’t stop until they’re dead or round up. You two,” she pointed at a young man with a baseball bat and another with gas mask. “Stay here. Take out anyone who gets past us.” She scowled at Nat who leaned on the rail, sweaty and pale and ready to be sick at any moment. “Should’ve left you in the cage,” she admonished. She checked her weaponry, ran a nervous hand through her greasy hair, then took a deep breath. “Open it up!
Zeeb placed a booted foot on either side of the porthole and twisted the circular value. It creaked with every turn, but Nat knew no one down below would hear. The old wellbore descended over a thousand feet before meeting with the tunnel and the noise of the entrance could only be heard at the base of the ladder, which was well away from any of the buildings.
After much grunting, the lid of the porthole popped open and a rush of cool air blasted out. The jackals looked down the hole. Beyond the rafter directly below, it was a hole of the purest black.
“There sure as shit better be something down there,” one of them said.
“Send the Gnat down to check,” suggested another.
Nat groaned and hugged his stomach.
“Fucker won’t get past the first ten steps,” Zeeb scoffed.
“We’ll deal with him when we’re done.,” Janne strapped the shotgun to her back.
She grabbed the ladder and started her descent, holding a flashlight between her teeth. Shen and Nina followed after. The rest of the jackals waited in silence, listening to their leader’s diminishing footfalls on each successive rung. A minute passed, then two, and still only the sound of echoing footsteps and whispers could be heard from the darkness. Nat gripped the railing, his heart racing and stomach churning. All he had to do now was shut up and wait.
“Right,” Zeeb commanded. “Down the hole.”
A dozen or so jackals made a neat, single-file line and mounted the ladder. The wellbore, an echo chamber of invaders.
Zeeb leaned over the porthole. Nat wondered how surprised the big man would be if he suddenly found himself in free fall. Down he’d tumble, screaming for a thousand feet, zooming past Janne and the others before crashing face up to the concrete below – his mustache the only recognizable feature left. Their eyes met. Zeeb stared hard into Nat as if reading his thoughts.
“Thinking of coming, little Gnat?”
“I-I-,” he stammered. “Aren’t I supposed to wait here?”
“You spineless shit. Don’t wanna see your friends die? How are you going to make it out here? ‘Cause that shit’s life.”
Nat swallowed. Zeeb scoffed and turned away, ordering the next batch of jackals down the hole. The big man was about to bring up the rear when he looked back. Zeeb studied Nat for a long moment. The mustachio could almost taste the fear beading on his forehead.
“You,” Zeeb said, pointing to the youth with the baseball bat. “Give it to me.”
Zeeb held out his assault rifle. With near-religious awe, the youth traded his mahogany bat for the powerful rifle. The youth thanked Zeeb profoundly and gloried in the idea of using it soon. Zeeb ordered him down the hole. ‘Give a boy a gun to make a man.’ The new coming-of-age was as simple as that.
Zeeb twirled the baseball bat and took a few practice swings, cutting the air with break-neck velocities.
“Never liked tunnels,” Zeeb said. “Dark and musty. I much prefer it out here, under the new sun.” He took another swing, and Nat could easily see a skull shattering under that force. His knuckles were white with tension as he looked down the hole. All of the jackals were out of sight, leaving only a flurry of receding footsteps.
Nat wasn’t really sure what was at the bottom of this tunnel. He had walked by it plenty of times in his youth and figured it was a tunnel entrance, but it had always been padlocked. The most likely thing awaiting the jackals at the end of their thousand foot climb was a pile of rubble, and soon they would learn the truth. If he was going to finish his plan, he needed to get on with it.
He loosened his grip from the railing and took a step back.
“Did you hear something?” he asked.
“What?” the jackals asked in unison. Gas mask ran to look over the railing right in front of Nat. Zeeb joined him, keeping Nat in his periphery. In a motion smoother than he intentioned, Nat reached into his jacket pocket and removed the revolver. A quick glance into the cylinder showed his three bullets were lined up like the good little soldiers they were. He pointed the barrel at gas mask’s leg, after a deep relaxing breath, pulled the trigger.
He felt the hammer fall and the firing pin connect. There was an explosion, a puff of smoke, and the jackal lurched forward as the bullet shredded muscle and splintered bone. Gas mask lurched forward, too shocked to scream, then fell down the hole. Silence. A pause that seemed to last a minute. Zeeb screamed and came at Nat running. Nat cambered the next round and swung the barrel toward his next target, but this target was moving and a terrible rage burned in his eyes. The calm Nat felt a moment before evaporated, leaving him with two bullets and a trembling hand. The baseball bat rose in the air, preparing for a wide arc to crack open his head. Nat pulled the trigger. The gunshot rang out. The swing died. Nat’s breath came in panicked gasps and he saw the big man rise, the red line of a grazed shoulder. Zeeb was very much alive.
The jackal roared and made a short swing that connected with Nat’s right hand. His ring-finger, sandwiched between grip and bat, broke. Nat screamed and let go of the gun and, for the second time in as many days, found himself staring into the crazy eyes of a creature returned to the wild. But Nat didn’t back away. Not this time.
“I knew it! I fucking knew it!” Zeeb hissed. He pulled the bat back for another quick swing. Nat stepped into the arc and took the reduced leverage of the swing on the shoulder. He punched Zeeb in the face. Pain raced through his injured hand, but the big man hardly seemed to feel the blow. Instead, Zeeb sent a left hook into Nat’s side, still sore from his beating the previous day. Nat staggered back with no time to react before Zeeb clubbed him in the arm. Nat howled in pain. He backed into the railing and nearly pitched over the side, right into the hole below.
“Hurry, you fuckers!” Janne’s frantic shout echoed up the well. “Hurry! Beat his fucking ass!”
“You got it!” Zeeb called back, his grin thirsty with bloodlust. “You heard the lady. She’ll have a fine time with you, but only after I’m done.”
Zeeb pulled back the bat for a crippling strike. At the same moment, Nat brought back his leg and, wielding all the force he could muster, kicked. The toe of his boot swung through the air and made a direct connection to the Zeeb’s testicles. Zeeb howled and released the bat, falling to his knees to grip his ruined manhood. Nat took two quick breaths and watched the jackal writhe on the ground before picking up the bat, the wave of calm washing over him once again.
He looked at the jackal, whimpering in the ash like a wounded animal, but unlike a wounded animal, this man made a choice. He chose to return to the wild, chose to inflict pain onto others for his own singular benefit. There were two types of people left in the world: builders and destroyers – those scrapping out a living with the world left them and everyone else. Whatever altruism left in humanity was dead in this man and his kind. Nat was walking on the edge, but unlike these people, he would watch his step.
He swung the bat. It thudded into the jackal’s head with a dull clink like beer bottles toasting. The jackal sprawled on the floor, unconscious, but alive. Nat turned to the porthole. The sounds of hurried footsteps and shouting voices were getting closer. He turned and grabbed the unconscious jackal and dragged him to the tunnel entrance. Grunting with effort and ignoring the pain stabbing his body, Nat dumped Zeeb unceremoniously into the hole. The big man fell to the rafter just three feet down and lay there, sit and quiet, atop the still unconscious jackal. The idiot would have the worst headache imaginable when he woke up.
A face appeared out of the darkness and shouted. Nat grabbed the porthole cover and slammed it too, silencing all the riotous noise in the borehole. Left alone with the eternal gray of the landscape, he twisted the porthole closed. There was a muffled noise below. The jackals were at the rafter, fumbling over bodies in the dark. Nat shoved the business end of the baseball bat between the spokes of the valve and wedged the other end between the railing. He gave the porthole a twist, but the bat, now firmly wedged in place, held and no amount of leverage would break it.
The Non stepped back and listened to the shouting and pounding. The porthole twisting and the bat held, but after enough twists and shakes, they would dislodge it. Once opened, they would storm out, looking for the Non. Perhaps they would continue their search for the entrance to number Two-Forty Eight, but they would never find it. Eventually they would return to Stock only to find most of their food, water, and supplies gone. Blame would circulate. A mutiny lead by Zeeb would rise. Many would die before the jackals went their separate ways. Both factions would search long and hard along the abandoned highways for the lone Gnat, but the Non already started on his long road north, leaving his name and number Two-Forty Eight behind forever.