An excerpt from DEVIL IN THE DOLLHOUSE, a Sandman Slim story available for all ereaders on 7-28-12. —Richard Kadrey
Night and day are kind of abstract concepts out here in the hinterlands. Hell exists in a kind of perpetual bruised twilight, but in Pandemonium and other towns there’s an agreed-upon cycle for morning, noon, and night. Out this far the only difference between 12 A.M. and 12 P.M. is a slight color change in the sky. Still, after eating everyone sacks out. A lot of the troops fall asleep. There are guards posted but this far out all they’ll probably see are desert rats and sand fleas.
Around what I think might be midnight, the trees start to move. It begins with a rustling. It sounds like wind but I don’t feel anything on my skin.
The camp comes awake around me. The troops heard the sound too. Hellions look around for the noise, the breeze, or whatever, as puzzled as I am.
The first scream comes from deep inside the dead grove, followed by another on the edge. One of the guards, a big bastard with a revolver grenade launcher slung over his shoulder, disappears into the trees. Whatever is happening, he doesn’t die all at once. There’s a dull thump and a grenade explodes in the middle of camp, scattering soldiers and weapons high into the air. A second later another grenade goes off right above the treetops, lighting up the grove. That’s when we see the trees moving.
They come apart like ripping cloth and fall to the ground in a tangle of branches and blasted trunks. They writhe and then crawl. A second later they’re on their feet running at us.
Guess what? They aren’t branches and they weren’t trees, thank you very fucking much. They’re bodies, as dry and rotten as week-old roadkill. They were wrapped around each other in a frozen graveyard embrace and we woke them up. There’s hundreds of them closing on us, and more in the distance.
The firing starts before any of them make it into camp. The sound of piss-scared soldiers blowing clip after clip on full auto fractures the air and numbs my ears, but it doesn’t do much else. It sure as hell doesn’t slow the roadkill. They charge into camp like a bone-and-gristle Mack truck, mowing down rows of heavily armed and severely motivated soldiers.
I pull out the na’at. Extend it to its full length. Keep the Freud jokes to yourself. Sometimes a killing stick is just a killing stick.
It doesn’t take much to stop each individual roadkill. They’re not much more than mummies with an attitude. Their teeth are sharp and their talons are long but you can slice them up like buttered toast if you have a sharp blade. I wish I could explain that to the idiots with the guns.
The scene reminds me of LA when a load of High Plains Drifters—that’s zombies to you—were running extremely amok. Bullets didn’t slow them either and even if they did, how do you know which one to shoot when there are six or seven on top of you ripping you to pieces? That’s how these brainless bone sacks win. They wear you down until it doesn’t matter how many of them you kill. All it takes is for a few to swarm you and you’re gone. Short of flamethrowers, nukes, or a bunch of trained Drifter killers, the best strategy is nature’s simplest: run like you’re a zebra at a waterhole and a pride of lions just showed up with ketchup and silverware. But where do we retreat to? No one is going to follow me into the rain ring and there’s no forest to hide in anymore.
I shout, “Up the hill. Get your asses to Henoch Breach.”
I grab Geryon. He’s a scholar, terrified and useless in a fight. I stuff the hem of my coat in his hand.
“Hold on to that. Keep your head down and keep moving. If you fall I’m not coming back for you.”
I circle the long way around the grove, keeping clear of the trucks and the close-in fighting. Anyone penned in there is going to die. At least in the open there’s somewhere to run to. I twist the na’at grip until it’s like an extra-long broadsword and start hacking my way through the roadkill blizzard. The bad part is that there’s a lot of them. The good part is that they’re dumb and the ones I don’t kill forget me as soon as I pass, zeroing in on the doomed assholes playing Last Stand at the Alamo in the trucks.
Groups of soldiers fall in behind us as we work our way up the hill. Now that their ammo is gone, they’re using their rifles like clubs and making a lot more headway than before. Halfway up the hill I look back at the clearing and I can’t even see the trucks. They’re completely covered around and on top by roadkill.
It’s a long way up the hill. Henoch Breach is like a cross between a gothic mansion and an old cavalry fort. The mansion-look fooled me into thinking it was a small place but it turns out it’s more of a fort, which means big and a lot farther away than I thought. With every few yards we gain, we’re losing soldiers. I still feel Geryon hanging on to my coat.
After what feels like an hour, we’re finally at the Breach’s big double front doors. I don’t know how many roadkill bastards we’ve killed on the way up but it isn’t enough. There’s a shuffling mob maybe a minute down the hill from us. I don’t want to kick the door in if I don’t have to. I don’t know if there’s anything inside to barricade it with once we’re in. But the windows are sealed tight behind metal bars. Around the side I find a fire escape leading up to a single door three floors up. I extend the na’at into a billhook and get the curved part of the blade onto the ladder and pull. It swings down in a shower of dirt and rust. I have no idea if it will hold our weight and not a lot of time to do an OSHA inspection. I shove Geryon up the ladder and head up after him.
The door at the top is solid. It takes three good kicks to get it open. Plenty of time for the first of the roadkill to catch up with us. I shove Geryon inside and pull in a couple of soldiers behind me.
It’s dead black inside. I can’t see a thing. The first screams hit us as Henoch’s last booby trap catches up with us. Why didn’t Geryon know about the trees? Is this whole thing a setup? If it is, does that make him a suicide bomber or just another loser caught up in the hit on me? I’m going to hurt a lot of people and ask a lot of questions if we get out of here alive.