This is a story about choices. About the ones you make when there are no good ones left.
About the ones you regret and the ones you wish you could regret.
About the ones that get made for you.
This is the story of a plague. Of a land that was, and then wasn't.
This is the story of a nightmare.
This is just what happens.
They called him the Horseman, the figure behind the wheel of the white Mustang doing ninety out of the ruins of Tulsa, the smoke from the latest fires already fading in his rearview.
He was humming along to a song Woody Guthrie never sang playing on a radio that wasn't a real radio. The car he was driving—or if he was honest with himself, the entity letting him guide it along the road—wasn't a real Mustang, either. Nothing like her had ever been produced in any factory owned by the Ford Motor Company.
It was another day in a life that would never end, running medical supplies stolen from a city that didn't deserve them to a small enclave of survivors who maybe didn't either, but reminded him of a town he used to love once.
He and the Mustang he still called Midnight even though she was no longer the proper color were dodging the rusted corpses of abandoned vehicles still littering this section of the turnpike. Those fortunate enough to be immune to the plague and lucky enough to have so far survived both the undead and everything it turned out the still-living were capable of doing to each other in its aftermath were steadily clearing the clogged arteries of the heartland, but it was slow going, and for now, there were places where debris was still the biggest danger on the road.
He spotted the barricade up ahead in time to stop and, more out of amusement and boredom than anything else, decided to do so rather than plowing right through it. The Mustang screeched to a halt just shy of the young man in uniform who to his credit, held his ground and kept his gun pointed.
These weren't real soldiers. Any idiot could see that. Even if such a thing still existed somewhere guarding what was left of the nation, these weren't them, just a bunch of kids playing dress-up to take what they could from anybody weaker.
As a thief himself, he had some sympathy. Just enough to get out of the car with his hands up when ordered and give them a chance to see what they were dealing with.
They didn't recognize him. More and more people these days didn't.
To their credit, a couple of them had the sense to run when he removed the mirrored shades from what were once his eyes.
The rest of them tried to stand their ground. Even when he brushed the cheek of the toy soldier standing in front him and the kid started to choke. Even when the kid's skin started to whither. A couple of them even fired on him, which upset the Horseman a little. The cream-colored leather jacket he was wearing had been a favorite, and it would have been difficult to find its like again even before the end times.
They ran after that, finally getting the sense that what they were dealing with was neither living nor undead, but something else entirely. Something best left alone.
He took the guns they dropped and what of their supplies he could find, then gave a final death to the reanimating corpse behind him that he had no use for.
This is the story of a plague, but nobody knows where the story started.
Most people blamed the government back in the early days, either theirs or someone else's.
It was a weapon, one that had gotten out of control or had been deliberately released from where it had been not-so-carefully locked up. It was an attack. It was an accident. It was an experiment, the kind of thing that always goes wrong when scientists try to play God.
It was God, finally bringing his wrath down on a prideful nation full of sinners. It was Mother Nature, thinning the population of one particular apex predator that had gotten out of hand.
It was chemicals in the water. It was genetically modified food. Undeath came served with your breakfast. It was the little extra you bought with your tomatoes at the grocery store. It was something in the very air and no one who breathed could escape it…
Hell, nobody really knew what it was or where it came from.
And it turned out that in this plague, death was the easy part.
It was what happened after that nobody was prepared for.
He dropped the new supplies off at an enclave just up the road from a sign reading Welcome to Misery. Cute. It was another place rebuilding, full of survivors banding together to raise the next generation of survivors, assuming things continued to go well.
He didn't actually enter the town proper. He was known there and he found he had no patience these days for the kind of low-level panic that tended to cause. Instead, he met with a few of the leaders at a truck stop just off the highway. He refused payment—the Horseman had no use for anything they could give him—but did break bread with them, even though the eating was mostly for show, and let one of the council members do a scrying for him. Death ahead on the road, she told him.
He almost laughed then. Of course, there was death ahead on the road. It was the fucking road. Still, he thanked her for the warning even as he took it for what it was worth. Not everybody who claimed to have access to the ever-stronger magics in the world these days actually did. At least the weather worker among them seemed to be the real deal and they'd been spared the worst of the storms that ravaged the area the previous weeks. Someone somewhere else had reaped those whirlwinds.
He was out in the parking lot, leaning against Midnight, patting her hood and asking her where she wanted to go next, when the man appeared, carrying a little girl. The...father?…older brother, maybe?…relative of some sort anyway, stopped three spaces away in the parking lot and stood, as if waiting for the Mustang to answer before he interrupted. The Mustang wouldn't. She seldom spoke in a way anybody could understand, and besides, both she and the Horseman already knew they were headed north, toward somewhere that used to be home.
He let the man approach him. The child he held was barely more than a baby, really, no more than two or three, in a yellow shirt that only served to highlight the pallor of its skin. Its eyes were bloodshot. If things took their natural course, it would be gone by morning and turning the next afternoon.
He let the man get as far as, "I'm sorry...I know I shouldn't ask..." before he beckoned him closer and took the child from his arms.
And then he put one hand on the kid's clammy forehead, felt for her death, and stole it from her.
He felt it slip from her, through him, and then out of his grasp back out into the world to be taken by somebody else. Who took it, he didn't know. As long as he didn't have to look in that person's eyes and tell its father or whatever "I'm sorry," he didn't much care, either.
This is the story of a thief, but not a virtuous thief. Not someone stealing only from the undeserving and giving to the deserving.
This story isn't a fairy tale, either, though like those tales, this one also has magic of a sort. And magic, as always, has rules.
He'd accepted the rules when he'd accepted becoming the Horseman.
Death was his to give, freely and without restriction.
Unlife was his to control.
Death of any sort was also his to take, but with one small condition: any death taken was automatically given to someone else.
He'd liked to think it was somebody who deserved it. In the early days, back when there was still television sometimes, he used to watch news of new outbreaks in places like Washington and Atlanta, rumored enclaves of the guilty, and think that just maybe he had something to do with it, but if he was honest with himself, he never had any idea. Maybe the Mustang did. Probably—and this was he thought most likely when he stopped to think about what he was doing at all—there was no morality to any of it. No rhyme or reason of any sort, and all he ever did was make sudden changes in the pattern of an outbreak that didn't take sides, confusing the hell out of the people who were studying and trying to stop it.
Science and the supernatural weren't exactly meant to get along. There'd been a woman he'd debated that with, once upon a time.
But so what? Sooner or later, death happened to everyone, didn't it? And if he preferred it didn't happen sooner to the people right in front of him, the ones he'd taken it upon himself to protect...well, he was only human after all. Or at least, he used to be. Once.
He took his leave while the kid was still gasping for air. She would live. A full, real life, not an unlife, as long as her parent or guardian took proper care of her until she was fully grown. What happened next wasn't his decision.
He started north again, this time abandoning the Interstate for the back roads. It was a dangerous way to travel through this part of this state, one of the places where the undead still outnumbered the living.
There was no telling what you might meet on the roads anymore.
The dead didn't bother him, just shuffled out of his way as he approached, the way he willed it. He could drive straight through them, of course, but he disliked leaving that much of a mess in his wake when he didn't have to. Still, he was hoping for something nasty, for the kind of fight that would ease his mind and clear his head a little.
What he got was a car full of teenagers smashed up against a tree.
Where they'd come from, where they'd found a working vehicle and enough gas to get it this far from civilization, he didn't know, but he suspected the blown front tire and a lack of experience on the road had something to do with their current condition.
The first two were dead. The third, a young woman wearing a University of Kansas sweatshirt though she looked old enough to be in the freshman class now and therefore in no way old enough to have actually attended before the universities shut down, he found a little ways off, thrown from the vehicle.
And that, he thought, was why if you were mortal, you still wore your damned seatbelt. Even, and maybe especially, if you were driving through the end of the world.
He realized with some surprise that she was still alive, though not for long. Immune, but either nature would take its course or something else would find her soon. He brushed her long, dark hair away from her face and was about to grant her the mercy of death and leave her body to fate when she opened her amber eyes. She stared into his for only a moment before losing focus.
It was long enough that he felt a memory stir.
This wasn't something as simple as the plague. This was something else. A multitude of internal injuries, each with its own cost.
If he took this, it would be difficult. And someone else would pay a heavy price.
He rolled up his sleeves.
This is a story about choices. About the ones you make when there are no good ones left.
What kind of a nation turns on its own people?
One that's been overwhelmed and underprepared, maybe. But hell, hindsight's easy and who could have been prepared for something like what happened? Full-on Biblical shit, right out of the Book of Revelations.
What do you do when people not only start dropping dead too fast for you to mourn or bury, but also refuse to stay down? What do you do with something that starts as a fever and ends with a walking corpse?
Maybe you panic.
It had started in the East, and in hindsight, maybe the Midwest should have been prepared for the refugees that came swarming to those states west of the Mississippi as if bodies of water and artificial borders could stop a plague.
Of course, those poor, desperate people had brought their sickness with them, infecting the locals and creating entire armies of animate dead in their wake. And everybody who still could, tried to keep running.
In hindsight, everyone should have been prepared for the pushback they received, too. For the government forces to finally get their act together before the worst of it migrated further west. They should have prepared for the rounding up, for the barricades, for the inevitable armed resistance.
In the early days of this plague, there was a man—let's call him John, after the author of that book in which he would eventually come to suspect he'd become a minor character—who'd tried to help get things under control. A man who was never sure he did very much good as a volunteer with an incomplete EMT certificate, a knack for healing he'd inherited from his father, and some talent for sensing the dead he'd gotten from his mom. A man with an immunity it turned out he didn't share with either parent. And this man had loved a woman with long dark hair and amber eyes.
Okay, maybe love's too strong a word. They were two people who found each other at the end of the world and clung to each other through the disaster, let's put it that way.
She was a doctor or a scientist or something like that, once upon a time. One of those people who hadn't been able to credit that the dead were rising until she'd seen it, but had been on the forefront as soon as she'd recognized the danger. One of those people blamed for the plague, and one of those who was only trying to help in the end. One of those who couldn't understand the lack of sympathy those around her showed for the sick and the desperate.
She had loved John, but then again, she was someone who loved everyone just a little. Who had the same amount of compassion for every single infected refugee who should have done what was best for the human race and died at home as she'd once had for her own family. It was something he'd admired in her, even as it was something they'd fought about.
How she became infected herself, he didn't actually know. There were too many vectors, known and suspected. She was always careful around patients and even more careful around the dead who could turn anyone with a bite. Even if it was ultimately what he suspected, well, back then they were still months away from the first rumors that the plague was also sexually transmitted and that most of the immune were also carriers.
How she'd died...well, that had been her own fault, really. At first, she'd insisted on reporting at the first sign of fever, they way they'd been trained.
He almost talked her out of it then. He'd begged her not to go. She'd told him it was for the best, that maybe it was nothing—only a flu, perhaps; things as mundane as flu season still happened—and that even in a worse case scenario, she'd be allowed to say goodbye before the end.
Both of them probably knew better. They'd both heard the gunfire late at night. They'd both seen the bonfires. They'd both heard stories from the survivors who'd loved ones had done as they were told.
He almost talked her out of it, but then she'd felt what she thought was first pang of a hunger she'd never before experienced. The first clear sign she was going to turn.
She'd left anyway, in the end.
She'd never come home.
He left the girl from the car crash in an abandoned McDonalds about forty miles up the road. There was a pickup truck in the parking lot that had the keys inside and engine that turned over when he gave it a try. He left her with food and water and those keys tucked into her hand. When she woke up, she would either make it or she wouldn't.
He headed back north again, past the signs that still welcomed travelers to Iowa and the armed patrols who didn't. They knew of him here, though, and let him pass without challenge.
The immune were farming again in this part of the world and last time he'd passed this way there'd been tall, healthy fields of corn by the side of the road. This time, it surprised him to see nothing but withered, rotting stalks.
When he stopped, he wasn't surprised when someone was desperate enough to approach and ask him for help.
He did surprise himself by saying yes, though. The death of crops wasn't really his area of expertise, but it was still death. And these people's lives here in these tiny towns in what was left of this part of the country were his responsibility. If he let them starve, that death counted as much as any other.
Besides, it was something he hadn't tried before, and he wanted to see what he could do.
So he walked out into the field, put his hands on some of the stalks and stole death from the corn. He felt each death flow through him, then out of him and into something else. Somewhere in the world no doubt some poor bastards were watching as their food supply inexplicably withered.
That didn't concern him. What did concern him was when something pushed back. Something dark and strong had brought this death here and wanted it to stay. Something almost as powerful as he was. It wasn't easy.
Still, he was here and it wasn't anymore, and in the end, he'd prevailed, standing in the middle of a field of tall, healthy stalks of fine, yellow resurrected corn.
He considered, then left. Drove a little ways up the road, then parked in an empty lot, closed his eyes, and drifted off into the memories that passed for dreams sometimes these days to wait for what the morning would bring.
This is a story about choices. About the ones you make when there are no good ones left.
What kind of a man becomes a nightmare?
Not a good man. Maybe not a particularly bad one, either. Maybe just a man who's been pushed to the edge and beyond.
There would be stories later about the Horseman that would say he did what he did for love, but there were those he loved a lot more than he'd loved the woman with the amber eyes, and he'd lost them already. His mother first, then his father. His best friend. His niece, who'd turned out to be immune to the plague but not to a swarm of corpses hungry for living flesh. Probably his brother, although no one had ever found a body found and therefore nobody could say for sure.
There would be stories that would say he did it for justice. But the utter lack of justice in it all hadn't broken him before then, either. Not the injustice of seeing friends and loved ones turning into something other than human. Not the injustice of seeing old people and little kids shot for having a temperature a few degrees too high or a wound that looked even a little bit like a bite mark, because other lives were at stake and no one could afford to be anything less than sure.
He himself wasn't sure why the woman with the amber eyes had been the last straw, the one thing that broke him. Why he'd left that night on foot, carrying nothing. Why he'd walked until came to the crossroads at midnight and then collapsed, crying the only real tears he'd cried since the whole thing had started.
There would never be any stories saying maybe it was just a matter of convenience. Not convenience for him, of course, but for something that had needed a vessel. The apocalypse had come and already enough of humanity had left the earth to make a bit more room for the powers that wanted to walk it again. He was just the right person in the right place at the right time for God or the Devil or whoever to show up in the form of a black horse and make him an offer.
The right person who was just broken enough to look deep into the horse's eyes, understand what was being offered and what was being asked of him in return, and answer, "Yes."
The man and the horse both looked a little different these days.
She was a horse of a different color, and not even in the shape of a horse at all anymore. Hadn't been in a long time. He was something he could no longer look at in the mirror, even though the sunglasses helped a little.
In the morning, he drove Midnight back to the field to find it was worse than he expected, the corn rotted away altogether in it and the fields on the other sides. The smell was almost unbearable, even for someone who dealt in death on the regular.
He knew then what he'd suspected the night before was true. There was someone or something like him out there. Another power, God alone knew where, that was as strong or stronger. Something else out in the world that could ruin the land and the people he cared for. He couldn't even claim it was unfair, really.
Still, for the first time since he became the Horseman, he was angry. Really angry. And for the first time since, he felt something like despair.
He rode north again, as was his way, but found he couldn't bring himself to stay there for long. And as he rode out again into the world, he began to hear stories. Stories about a figure in mirrored sunglasses who sat behind the wheel of an improbably fast car and dealt death.
They were familiar stories, though some of the major elements were different. The car was always a black Charger and the driver left ruined crops, rotted meat, even leaking and spoiled canned food in his, her, or its wake. It was a judgment or a lesson. It was something about the consequences of letting a stranger near your town or something about the punishment for a lack of hospitality. The stories were as confused in moral as they were sometimes in detail and the tellers were afraid or unreliable or occasionally drunk. But what all of the stories came down to was this: yes, there was another power in the world, and yes, it was somewhere close.
He didn't know how to feel about that.
Midnight didn't like it when the Horseman began hunting down whatever it was instead of resuming his usual route and routine. The Mustang expressed displeasure not so much in words but in hard starts, in random stalling, in a host of mechanical noises that would have been concerning to any driver of any real car. When she did, the Horseman smacked the steering wheel and told her to behave. Only one of them was in charge, and while the Horseman was by no means sure that it was him, it still made sense for him to act like it.
What he was going to do when he found the other, he didn't know. Destroy it if he could, he supposed. But first he wanted to know why. Why had it come to this part of the world and what did it think it was doing.
Maybe he'd offer it a merciful death in exchange for a true answer.
And then one day he caught a glimpse of the black Charger. Not in front of him, but behind him. It came roaring out of the fog, one moment in his rearview, the next, around and ahead of him, dodging and occasionally slamming right on through the debris in the road at speeds no mortal could reach.
He accelerated and followed.
This is a story about choices. About the ones you make when there are no good ones left.
What kind of a people turn on each other?
Maybe the kind backed into a corner.
Maybe an army assembled to rise up and fight back to defend their own lives from the forces stacked against them. Maybe one led by a god or a demon or a kind of damned soul that none of them really trusted, but whose help they would accept when it was clear there was no other help coming.
One led by a Horseman.
It wasn't a decision without consequence for any of them. The Horseman wasn't in full control of his powers then and learning how to do what he could do—how to give death, how to take it, and how to control anything left behind—by trial and error had been messy at times, but it worked. Eventually.
Walking corpses made good cannon fodder. They'd burned the ones left when they were no longer needed.
When the battle was won, or at least mostly won, when the survivors had scattered to do what they could with what was left of their lives and with what was left of their land, the Horseman was still the Horseman.
He'd made a life of sorts in the relative peace since then. He traveled the roads, taking and giving when he thought it was necessary, becoming a protector of sorts to some, even as much as he was a nightmare to all others.
Waiting, maybe, for something else to happen. For the other apocalyptic shoe to drop.
And then it had.
They chased each other through thick fog for days and miles, the black Charger and the white Mustang. The black rider was faster, but the Horseman had more experience with the roads they were on.
He caught up with it again at midnight, just outside of what was left of Minneapolis. Eventually, the rider gave in, let him get right up to the Charger's bumper and then signaled, turning at the crossroads and then turning again into the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.
Midnight whined and rippled under him as he followed, parked, and waited for something to happen.
He wasn't entirely surprised when the door of the Charger opened and she got out.
She still had the long dark hair, but whatever eyes were under the mirrored shades were probably no longer amber.
He laughed. There wasn't anything funny about it, really, but it figured.
He had to wrestle with Midnight's door for a few moments, but it finally opened with a grudging squeak, and he got out and faced her.
He stood, trapped by the gaze she turned toward him. Trapped by his own reflection in her glasses.
He was struck with too many questions at once.
Why? of course. And also, How?
How was she still here? What had changed her so much from the woman he remembered? What could make her into the kind of person who could accept an offer like the one she so obviously had? Into the kind of being who could do what she was doing?
Did her power work like his did? Did the hunger she was already starting to feel when she'd left him factor into it? Was this all some bizarre, hard lesson she was trying to teach them about compassion or hospitality or some shit like that? Was she even sorry?
Or was it just one of those things?
If he asked, would she even answer? And would her answers help him decide what to do next?
Maybe they would fight. It was possible they were the only two beings walking the earth right now capable of destroying each other.
Maybe they would ride together. It was possible he could handle another in his territory, but he didn't know if he could he stand for her to continue to do her thing to what little he still cared about.
It was possible that together they could reshape what was left of the world, but for good or ill?
This a story about nightmares, and here the story comes to an end or maybe just moves to its second act, as they stand facing each other in the damp foggy midnight. The embodied, inevitable consequences of a whole string of bad decisions in a world brought almost to its end.
They've got some decisions of their own to make now.
He asks a single question and waits for her response.
This is a story about choices.
About the ones you make when you don't know if there are any good ones left.