A Town Called Dust: The Territory 1
It was Book’s job to check the fence, this part of it at least. The whole thing was far too big for just one person to manage—the twelve-foot-high barrier bordered the entire Central Territory, after all—but this stretch was Book’s responsibility, just as it had been his father’s and his grandfather’s before that, and Book was proud of his role. This section of fence, known throughout the Territory as the Black Stump due to the large black posts used in its construction, was the most important part of the Territory’s border. Everyone knew what it meant to be “beyond the Black Stump” and everyone was frightened of those words. Out there, on the other side of his fence, lay the worst of the badlands, an empty red landscape stretching out to cover the rest of the world and filled with nothing but wandering ghouls.
Being a boundary rider wasn’t an exciting job, but at least Book got to fly. He spent most of his life floating through the air in the open cabin of his one-man dirigible, flying low enough to examine the fence through the glass floor at his feet. He had long ago mastered the controls and now turned the crank handles mindlessly, the left one for the left propeller, the right one for the right propeller, adjusting his course as the balloon above was caught by random gusts of wind or turning both handles together to propel the dirigible forward.
Book reached for the waterbag beside him, sipping what dregs were left in the bottom. It was an afternoon in the beginning of winter but that didn’t mean a lot out here; the sun was still ferocious during the day. He was glad to be nearing the end of this run up his one hundred and sixty mile section of fence. At this pace he should reach the next boundary rider outpost well before dark and then be home tomorrow.
He rolled his shoulders back and stretched his neck from side to side as he looked down through the glass. His body was beginning to grow sore after several days of being stuck in his seat. It hadn’t bothered him when he was younger, but now, as he approached forty, his bones had begun to creak and complain. His son Brick was turning ten in four days’ time and soon Book would bring him along on his first ever fence inspection. Book was looking forward to having someone to share the journey with, and having another pair of eyes to inspect the fence would certainly give his body a welcome break. He had fond memories of the early flights he’d taken with his own father and was excited about passing the same knowledge on to his son. He would teach him how to spot buckles and bends in the fence, how to recognize loose wires and how to search for early signs of post decay, all while maneuvering the dirigible through the air. Then, of course, he would teach him how to perform the necessary repairs.
Book looked up from the cabin floor. Ahead of him, Watchtower East 7 rose out of the flat red landscape that stretched away in all directions. The tower was a multilevel wooden structure standing almost one hundred feet tall, built just inside the fence line. Book knew the tower would be empty. There weren’t enough Diggers to keep all the watchtowers manned anymore and East 7 was one of the towers that had been abandoned, its thick wooden beams drying out in the relentless sun.
At least, East 7 should have been abandoned. Even at this distance Book could see movement at the base of the tower. He shielded his eyes against the bright afternoon sun. The dirigible’s balloon kept Book shaded for most of the day but the sun had dropped low in the sky now and shone in just below the level of the balloon. He squinted. There were definitely people at the tower, a lot of people, and in the distance a cloud of red dust was rising from the ground. Book felt his chest tighten and his stomach turn over. The people, the rising dust, all this was happening on the wrong side of the fence.
Book reached for his binoculars. His hand instantly found the familiar leather strap hanging from the hook on the back of his seat. He gripped the black metal binoculars and raised them to his eyes. These binoculars were old; they’d been in his family for many generations, even since the time of the Reckoning, his grandfather had said. Book closed his left eye, the lens on that side had cracked long ago, but the right one was still perfectly good, if a little dirty. No green flag flew from the top of the tower to indicate it was manned by Diggers. Book scanned the five levels of the tower; it was definitely empty. He turned the binoculars to the people gathered at the fence, all on the wrong side, desperate to get through. It looked like there were hundreds of them. They couldn’t be ghouls, could they? There were too many. He’d never seen a group that large. But then, if they were people, where had they come from?
Book was still some distance from the tower so he began to turn the crank handles as fast as he could, spinning them around and around so that the propellers behind him gathered speed, forcing the dirigible through the air. He was quite high, so he pushed forward on the controls, easing the dirigible toward the ground. There had been a tailwind all day and now with the propellers spinning quickly Book was moving through the air as fast as he ever had. He was still too high, though. He had to land at the tower and find out what was going on. One by one Book pushed the four handles beside his chair forward. Above him he heard the sound of fabric flapping in the wind and then snapping taut. He had opened the dirigible’s air bladders, which would inflate with air that was heavier than the gas in the balloon, causing the vessel to lose buoyancy and begin to descend.
The dirigible began to drop nose forward in a steep dive. Book pulled back hard on the controls now, turning them all the while, desperately trying to level out his craft. A rapid descent like this was a dangerous maneuver. When he had controlled the dirigible into a steady fall he grabbed at the binoculars again, lifting them to his eyes. He scanned the fence line near the base of the rapidly approaching tower. There were snake-like waves undulating down the fence as it moved rhythmically, rocking back and forth. The crowd of people were pushing and pulling on Book’s fence, trying to tear it down, trying to wreck it.
Book felt a sudden stab of anger. How dare they? Fifteen years he’d been responsible for the Black Stump, and never once had he had a break or a breach anywhere along his stretch. He focused his binoculars on the people trying to destroy his fence and his anger instantly evaporated, replaced instead by a feeling of terrified emptiness. He could see the hundreds of bodies more clearly now. They pushed into each other, piling up against the fence like the sand that had collected against the wall of his house during the bad sandstorm they’d had two years ago. Each of the figures moved in sudden jerks as they approached the fence, trying to clamber over those in front of them. Their movements were short and sharp and so quick that they didn’t seem to move at all. It was as if they instantly transitioned from one position to another, remained still for a fraction of a second, and then moved again. Their heads would be angled to the side and then flick straight, look diagonally upward and then suddenly be facing straight ahead again, seeming to move independently of their bodies. It wasn’t a crowd of people at the fence. At least they weren’t people anymore. They were ghouls.
Book suddenly felt as though he were floating through the air without a dirigible around him. He was frozen. Unable to move and unable to breathe. There were so many of them. So, so many. He’d seen ghouls before, of course. He’d been a boundary rider for long enough. Usually they moved along the fence line in ones or twos, looking for a way through; occasionally the groups were slightly larger. Several years ago he’d seen a group of twenty or more and had promptly reported it to the Diggers, who’d sent out a patrol to deal with them. There’d even been a breach last year sixty miles or so north of his part of the fence where close to fifty ghouls had made it through the fence and into the Territory. But this, this was almost incomprehensible. There were more ghouls moving toward the fence than Book could even count. His best estimate was at least five hundred, maybe closer to a thousand, and the dust rising from the desert in the distance meant there were probably thousands more on the way.
Book’s mind had gone blank with fear. He stared at the ghouls through the binoculars. He was drawing closer to them now, and could make out their tattered clothing and the way their mottled gray skin was falling away from their hideous bodies, turning into ashen dust even before the strips broke free of their flesh. He was close enough to hear them now, too. They were screeching, the sound like the grating of a million fingernails down a chalkboard.
The sound shook Book free of the paralysis that had gripped him, and he dropped the binoculars from his eyes and looked up. Watchtower East 7 loomed ahead of him, right in the path of his fast-moving dirigible. He had been so distracted by the sight of the ghouls that he was about to hit the tower.
“Sin!” Book yelled as he grabbed the crank handles in front of him. He desperately began winding the left handle and pulling the controls over to the right. The dirigible began to veer to the right, rolling as it turned. It was still descending and was now maybe seventy feet off the ground, turning out over the fence and the ghouls that crowded against it. Book wound the propeller as fast as he could. He looked up at the bulge of the balloon above him. He would be cutting it close, but it looked as though the balloon would just miss one of the wooden platforms that protruded from the tower. Book exhaled. For a moment he was relieved—until he felt a gust of wind on the side of his face. It wasn’t much more than a gentle kiss of air, but it was enough to send the side of the balloon into the tower, causing it to catch on the timber of the platform. Book heard the sickening tear of the balloon’s fabric and the rush of escaping gas. Immediately the cabin rolled over and began to fall toward the ground.
Some part of the balloon remained caught on the platform above, and the weight of the falling dirigible tore away a long strip of the light brown fabric. This slowed the drop of the wooden craft. Still, there was nothing Book could do as the dirigible fell. He held on to the base of his chair. He could see the ground rapidly approaching. He squeezed his eyes closed and waited for the impact.
With the sound of splintering wood the cabin landed sideways on the ground, tumbling over as it was smashed to pieces. Disoriented, Book felt his forearm strike something hard as he was propelled clear. Pain exploded up his arm. When he hit the ground he rolled awkwardly and heard a disheartening pop from his shoulder.
When he came to a stop he was lying face down, and the first thing Book noticed, apart from the pain that enveloped his body, was the length of wire pushed into the dirt beneath his nose. Terror and shame bloomed in the pit of Book’s stomach when he realized that his dirigible had landed on the fence, flattening a large section of it. Book had knocked down the Black Stump. He had damaged the fence that his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather had worked so hard to keep safe. But, he thought, he could fix it, he could make it whole again. If he could just get up, then he could fix it.
But as Book tried to move he found it impossible. His right arm was shattered, his left shoulder dislocated and his legs, he couldn’t feel his legs. All around him he heard the screeching of the ghouls. The only thing he could see was the red dirt beneath his face, but he knew the ghouls were everywhere, reaching down for him.
Then their hands were on him, rough dry fingers pulling at his clothes, his hair, his face. Where they touched him he felt his skin wither as if all the moisture were being pulled out of him. Book felt teeth sink into his neck, and then more bit into his back. He screamed. The sound of his voice merged with the sounds of sucking and the screeching of other ghouls fighting to join the feast. They grabbed his arms and legs, the ghouls fighting for a space to latch onto him. They were drinking him, not just the blood in his veins but the water in his skin and muscles, turning him into a husk. As he felt his skin hardening and cracking with dryness Book thought of his son, and this was the last thought he had as the darkness closed in on him.
Less than thirty seconds later the creature who had once been Book the boundary rider clambered to its feet. With arms that hung oddly by its sides and a torso that seemed crooked on its hips it began walking forward with the staccato movement of a ghoul. It opened its mouth and let out a dry hiss, red and gray dust escaping its mouth. Then it turned and joined the shambling mass of ghouls that were making their way over the fallen fence and into the place called the Central Territory.