The apocalypse is winding down. Soon, that singular delicacy will have grown extinct, destroyed at its apex, like a brave butterfly who promised its brethren the stars and found instead only the cold winds of space. I speak, of course, of the human brain and its variegated, infinite texture and taste. The painter’s brain, which tastes of turpentine and pastel and color left too long out in the sun, will be gone. The scientist’s, which tastes sharp, like burnt electronics, and cleaves along well-defined lines, will be gone. The soldier’s, which tastes of fury and adrenaline and is stringy and chewy like muscle, it too will be gone. What, then, will the shambler eat? Or will we, too, perish, the final echo in humanity’s death scream?
I stand atop a smoldering car. Flames kiss my toes, but I feel no pain. My flesh sizzles in the heat. A most tantalizing aroma. Once a fine oak-aged vintage from the vineyards of Bordeaux may have elicited such passion in me, but now it is brain and blood and smoking flesh.
I thoughtfully nibble on a brain and watch my fellow shamblers hammer on the steel shutters protecting Bob’s Smithy and Gunworks. I see faces – living faces – peering from the second floor windows. Silent, waiting, maybe even eager. They are mad. Even now, peering through the fingers of Death’s closing fist, they remain mad for life.
The steel shutters bend inward and then snap. Shots ring out. Shamblers fall. Others simply take their place and the fallen are trampled where they lie.
More shots ring out. Pop, pop from a low caliber handgun. The throaty roar of a twelve gauge. Even, I think, the delicate twang of a bow. These survivors are well-armed.
Luckily, I’ve got a brain already. It’s exquisite. A car mechanic’s, but no mundane grease monkey. He had dreams this one. Aspirations. Hopes. A mind like a clock-work machine, his ideas grinding toward the grand moment when the hand strikes twelve and the cuckoo bird pops out and all his dreams are rewarded, with a fat check or a moment of fame or a beautiful wife and a bushel of children. A fine and glorious vintage, those dreams. Instead he got death, and that final fear granted his brain an aftertaste both coppery and sharp.
A great concussive boom erupts from the first floor of Bob’s Smithy and Gunworks. The windows shatter outwards. The pressure wave sends me flying from the top of the car. The mechanic’s brain falls from my grip and lands in the dirt.
I gain my feet and snap my broken arm back into place. I don’t feel it. But my brain, my precious mechanic’s brain, lies in the dirt. Nothing’s worse than a dirty brain. Taste masked by mud. Texture ruined by dirt – all dry, and matted. Grotesque. Truly grotesque. Worse, even, than the bigot’s brain, which tastes like mercury, or the fool’s, which crumbles and melts like cotton candy.
I’ll need a new one then. I turn to Bob’s Smithy and Gunworks as the first survivors gain the roof. That’s when I see her.
She’s not more than sixteen years old, but she might as well be immortal for the Goddess-like image she cuts. She is Artemis. Artemis of the apocalypse. Black hair flying in the wind. Dirty goggles hanging around her neck. A bandolier of shells strung across her chest. A t-shirt with rainbows just visible beneath the grime. Her flesh smooth and hard and tan. The barrel of a high-powered rifle peeks over her shoulder. She grips a small caliber pistol.
Her lips are set in a grim smile as she aims. She fires three bursts in quick succession. Three shambler heads burst into blood and bone. One’s body tumbles out a second floor window and lands on the ground with a moist thump.
Artemis helps a teenage boy up to the roof and then strolls to the edge to peer over. She sees what I already know. She is surrounded. No escape here but death, and that sort of escape simply isn’t what it used to be.
She finds me. She looks at me. Really looks. She notices me in a way that no one has since I joined the Empire of the Dead. She smiles.
Her gaze is lightning. Her smile, thunder. If my heart still worked, it would have stopped.
She holsters her pistol and unslings her rifle. She means to kill me. I cannot move. Her smile has paralyzed me, like a scorpion’s sting.
She takes aim and pulls the bolt back on the rifle. My hearing is as good as my taste; the brass bullet clicking into the rifle’s chamber is as loud as a church bell on Sunday. She pulls the butt of the rifle against her shoulder, holds her breath to steady the scope sway, and gently, oh so gently, pulls the trigger. As the rifle booms, the boy stumbles into her, fleeing the horrors below.
The bullet zings past me, dings off the burning car. I am released from my paralysis and shamble into the nearby post office, staring out from under cover.
The other shamblers have gained the roof of the Gunworks. The girl opens fire with her handgun. Shamblers fall. More replace them. She reloads and fires. More shamblers fall. More replace them.
The boy attempts to run, trips, and is swarmed.
Artemis cries out for him, but he waves her away. She ignores him, pulls out a machete and begins hacking her way into the shambling swarm. She’s a good fighter, as she must be in this decaying hostile world. But it is no use. It is pointless. Too many, too hungry. A child shambler crawls inside her guard and bites her on the ankle. She falls.
And then, amazingly, the boy surges upward, throwing the weight of ravenous shamblers from him. He is practically dead already. The pale white shock of bone is visible in his leg, his arm. Yet he somehow manages to barrel his way to the girl’s side. He lifts her up and throws her, bodily, from the roof. And then he’s swarmed once more and in seconds devoured.
Even from the safety of the post office, I know that my Artemis lands in a bad way. I can hear the bone break and her cry of agony. But by the time I shamble over, she has already managed to limp some distance away, unfollowed, toward the outskirts of this small Nevada town, beyond which there is only desert, only dunes, hot and dry. A place good, only, for dying.
I set off after her, shambling along.
I am a connoisseur and this brain I must have.
She is wounded. But I am no Olympic sprinter either. I am a shamble. Our speeds are equal and what I thought would have been a short chase extends into hours and then a day. My Artemis does not waver. Though her every step must be agony, she sees me and knows she cannot stop.
I am not more than thirty paces behind her. I walk in her footsteps, before the sand and wind and gravity can erase them. I can hear her breathing, her sharp gasps of pain. I can see the sweat trickling down her back. Her hair sticks to her neck and the muscles in her legs quiver.
I would yell out, if I could, “Stop, dear. Won’t you share a cup of tea with me? Followed, of course, by a fresh platter of your brains? Minimal pain, my dear! Being dead isn’t so bad.”
Which is true. It really isn’t. I have pondered such matters, over many a fresh brain.
Our life is not much different from the life of the living. It is largely a matter of hunger and its consummation. But without the burdensome justifications, the endless mazes the living must tread. Indeed, a shambler’s life is a purer form of living. A life distilled down to the essentials: blood, bone, and brain. No more of the false niceties forced upon us by community and its engine of reproductive thirst. For a shambler, to feed is to reproduce, for it is in the climax of our hunger that we replicate and thereby spread the Empire of the Dead.
I would say all that, if I could. But all that would come out is “Unnrughhuhuuu.” Vocal cords, soft tissues. They’re the first to go. I’m lucky to have my tongue.
Still, I decide to give her a “unnrughhuhuu” for old times’ sake. Her spine stiffens. She hesitates a step before continuing on. Twenty-nine paces behind now.
It goes like this, one inch at a time. The sun beats down on Artemis. She grows drowsy and slows her step. Twenty-five paces. She trips and screams in agony as she forces herself back to her feet. Fifteen paces.
When I am ten paces behind, her canteen runs out of water. She turns and hurls it at my head and misses. She stops and stares at me.
I get close enough to make out the bridge of freckles on her nose, see the dwindling fire in her bright green eyes. I discover that despite the hard living of the apocalypse, her flesh is still as smooth and young as any sixteen-year-old girl’s might have been back when vain luxuries like moisturizer and banana masks still existed. I get close enough to reach out and touch her.
She stumbles back, evading my touch. Not yet ready to die, she continues on.
Soon after, a sandstorm overtakes us. The dunes dissolve, rise up around us as great billowing blankets of sand. I lose sight of her. Even the sound and scent of her.
Many people think shamblers don’t feel fear or love or anything at all. This is false. Our emotions are as strong as any human’s, it is just that our hunger is so much more potent. Such trivial emotions as happiness and sadness can gain no purchase against it. Our hunger pushes everything out, like a baby’s wail shattering the drifting, delicate melodies of a beautiful song.
Yet as I wander the shifting labyrinth of sand, I feel the first edges of panic and terror. Not for myself, but for Artemis. If she falls in this storm, I might never find her. Her brain will go to waste, picked upon by vultures and coyotes. I would not have that for her. So I push forward, pressing against the dust and wind.
The storm lasts for an eternal instant, for minutes or hours or days or millennia, I cannot tell. I fall, briefly, into a strange state of past remembrance. My human memories exist, but they lack context, emotion. As if a human were to gain the memories of an eagle or a tiger. Without the body, the identical sensory apparatus, they have little impact.
So I flip through them, like shuffling through the images of a child’s toy pictograph:
A lovely valley, filled with fat blood-red grapes on curling vines. It extends for miles and then bursts up into mountains wreathed in cloud lace.
A woman with long black hair, hips cocked, eyes lit. She beckons me with a curl of her long fingers, and I go, because I love her.
A dank, dark, dripping, echoing cellar soaked in the aroma of vinegar. We smash bottles over shamblers’ heads. It’s like one of those arcade games, with the gopher and the hammer. We begin laughing, roaring, tears rolling down our faces. In the frivolity, I cut myself on the shards of a priceless vintage.
Finally, we are high up in the air, a burning city underneath. In the distance a red light blinks atop a tower. Blink. Blink. Blink as my heart crawls its last.
With a start, I realize that the light is here, now. Its baleful, hopeful light cuts through the dense sandstorm. It must be a beacon for Artemis, and so it is a beacon for me. Animated by hunger, I shamble toward it.
A shamble horde sounds like nothing else. Not the tearing, cracking, crunching of a tornado though it wreaks as much havoc. Not the heavy, inevitable rumble of a train though it is equally unstoppable. No, it is the haunting, horrifying, pitiful sound of a thousand starving demons willing to chew through miles of rock for a single bite of flesh. It is the baying of a hellhound free of its leash.
I hear it before I see it, and I know that Artemis – now a hundred paces on – must too. Yet she does not hesitate at all. The hope, the will to live, is too great. She increases her speed, limping like a wounded rabbit toward the mountain fortress that she must have known existed here.
The fortress, like a castle, has been carved into the mountain itself. Jagged cliffs serve as its ramparts, while its towers are the peaks of the mountain. The jagged maw of a cave entrance serves as its portcullis.
The shambler horde clusters around this mouth, kept at bay by the jets of flame shot from flamethrowers. Charred shamblers litter the entrance. Artemis does not make for the gate but instead curves around to the side. I watch her intently, but one second she is there, the next she is gone, seemingly melted into the rock face.
I shamble toward the spot that she vanished. Rickety, wooden platforms and walkways have been hammered into the upper walls of the cliff. A tin guard shack rests precariously on one abutment, but it appears abandoned. I gain the cliff face without trouble.
The inlet is so cleverly disguised that I smell it rather than see it. The stench of rotten eggs leads me to the tunnel entrance. The fit is tight, but I sneak in.
Artemis is far ahead, but the tunnel has only one path. As I shuffle along, I notice a trail of red sticks, connected by wires. I pay them no mind, focused as I am on Artemis. What must her brain taste like? Like nothing else. Like hatred and kindness, beauty and power, like a dandelion in a hurricane, refusing to surrender its grip on the earth. Oh I can practically taste it already.
The smell of sulfur grows stronger for a while, but then dissipates as I take an upward turn. Even separated by so much stone and weight, I can still hear the shambler horde, their braying combined with a steady percussion of fists and teeth gnawing upon the mountain.
At one point, I hear a voice and stop. It must be winding down through some vent in the tunnels.
“What about the Oregon group?” asks a female voice.
“Gone,” responds a male voice.
“The Tibetan monks?”
“Surely not so far up in the mountains?”
“Over-run. A month ago at least. Confirmed by a passerby, who sent out the broadcast on the emergency channel. It takes a week or two to propagate here, you know?”
“What else remains?”
“Cuba maybe. But…”
“They’ve been radio dead for a week now. And the last transmission was not good.”
“There could be an island somewhere,” says the woman.
“Yeah. Sure, there certainly could.”
“Sebastian, are we all that’s left?”
“…No. As you said, there’s an island somewhere. Certainly. Or someplace else.”
The voices fade away as I continue on.
I must not be far from the exit because I hear the commotion the other survivors make when Artemis tumbles out. “Julia, Julia,” they say, “are you alright? Where’s Richard? Where’s . . .” Artemis must be looking the worse for wear – indeed I can smell the infection in her ankle even from afar – for a commanding voice shouts down the questions and calls for a Doctor Sebastian.
This Sebastian won’t be able to do much. Not after this lengthy trek through the desert, not with the poison of the dead coursing through her. I don’t have long.
Despite the shambling horde hammering on the walls, the camp seems to have its domestic routine well in order. Shortly after the commanding voice disperses the crowd, I hear the clink of silverware, encounter the charred smell of goat meat flavored with sage and rosemary. I wait until the camp is silent but for the steady crackle of the flamethrowers and the occasional sharp arpeggio of automatic weapons fire. I move in.
A freshly painted red wooden cross marks the doctor’s abode and I stealthily approach, my shambling the mere whisper of wind among rocks. I push the door open and there she is, my Artemis, lying on a cot.
She is dead.
Black lines radiating from her grotesquely swollen ankle reveal the toll of the chase.
Her eyes open as I approach. She emits her own “arraannghhha” a soft moan almost, and I am struck forcefully with the complete loss of beauty in her. This creature bears no resemblance to my Artemis. Her gaze is not thunder, her twisted lips strike me with nothing but pathos.
Here was the last brain worth eating. And I missed it.
A siren begins to scream, and the camp springs into action. Indeed, I can hear men dying and screaming in the far distance, can hear the rumble of the shambling horde coming closer. What was it? The coincidence of multiple malfunctioning weapons? A smarter shambler, like me, pulling some trick? A miscommunication in setting up the watches? It matters not. Death and his minions will always have their way.
I retrace my steps to the back entrance. Zombie Artemis follows me, mewling at me, but I pay her no mind. Instead I study the wires coming out of cave. They lead into a nearby shack whose guard appears to be missing. Must have joined the others attempting to push the horde out of the mountain.
The shack contains a carefully organized mess of wires, leading to a heavy metal detonator, a plunger, like in those cartoons which once had made me laugh so long ago. I stare at it. In the distance, the mad humans are dying, killed by the soldiers of the Empire of the Dead, my brethren. I consider joining them, gaining a new brain to eat. But my appetite is fled. I am not hungry. Not anymore. No, my taste now skews along different lines, rising up from my belly, coursing along my dead flesh, through clogged veins and rusted nerves. I look into the sky, at the stars and feel the final glimmers of a feeling I had once felt, amongst bright pregnant grapes, amongst that labyrinth of wood and vines that would soon be turned into pleasure but more – into escape, into fermented freedom. Yes, now my taste is for that, for nothingness. I look once more at my Artemis, and then I move toward the detonator.
Erik Rollwage writes and teaches in North Carolina. With a background in Physics and Engineering, his writing always contains an element of the mad scientist. When not writing, teaching, or practicing his nefarious cackle, he bakes delicious cupcakes, brews delicious beer, and loses sword-fights to his four year-old nephew.