The sun's sliding down the sky towards the horizon and the dying husk of the city lies quiet around me. Only the sound of my horse's hooves on the grass of Victory Park breaks the silence. I'm not worried about the noise. They only come out if they hear humans, and they don't stir much during the day.
A shotgun bounces against my back. I don't like to use it because the noise attracts unwanted attention, but it's better safe than sorry. My bespoke holsters on my thighs hold my claw hammer and machete - much better weapons. Silent yet deadly.
I haven't seen another human all afternoon. Cats and dogs wander around, foraging for food. Sometimes we take the animals back into the fortress. Cats keep the rats away from our supplies, and we train the dogs to help out, but they're safe enough outside. The things only want human flesh.
The shadows lengthen across the grass. Dusk is coming, bringing the end of my patrol. I guide my horse around the pond at the far end of the park. Napoleon slows to a trot as we pass the flowerbeds. The flowers are flattened, the colours mashed into one another like someone emptied a paint box. Someone has been here.
Napoleon whinnies and taps on the ground with his hoof. Three taps – the signal that one of the things is near.
Sure enough, twigs snap and the bushes rustle. A man, or at least what used to be a man, lurches out of the undergrowth. Blood foams around his mouth, and his eyes ooze thick white pus. Bite marks run down his forearms. I've seen it before. If they get hungry enough, they sometimes try to eat themselves.
It heads straight for me. I whip the claw hammer from my holster and swing it down in an arc. The claw meets his temple with a sickening crack. I rip the hammer upwards, tearing open his skull. I don't want him going down with my weapon embedded in his brain. That would mean getting off Napoleon, and I have no intention of setting foot on solid ground until I get back to the fortress.
The thing collapses backwards, blood and brains spattering the footpath beneath him. A noxious smell fills the air and I try not to stare at the hole in his head. I pull out a small towel and wipe the hammer before putting it back in the holster. Napoleon whinnies in relief as we head home.
We took over the prison on the edge of town. The prisoners escaped when the plague first took hold, and we moved in shortly after. The Keepers came first, those survivors who stockpiled supplies in strong rooms and taught themselves how to farm, and rear animals. Then came the Finders, the people trained in martial arts, the ones who brave the Outside. Sad thing is, we're rapidly running out of survivors to find.
The prison looms ahead of me. The guards on the gate let me past the outer checkpoint. They check my arms and legs for bites, before letting me inside the fortress.
Keepers are hard at work harvesting potatoes in the prison allotment, while Finders practice their drills in the exercise yard. Finder Scott pauses, his leg in mid kick, frozen an inch before the punch bag. We exchange waves, and he mimes for me to give him a report later. I climb down from Napoleon, and a Keeper runs over to lead him to the stables. I pause to pet the fortress cat who just deposited a mangled rat at my feet.
"Finder Ganz, how was your patrol?" asks Gentleman Rhodes. The gentlemen and women run the fortress. They're the closest thing we have to government.
"Quiet. No survivors, but killed three Things."
"Good work. You may have the evening off from practicing drill."
"May I pay a visit to Professor Bream?" I ask.
Gentleman Rhodes' face softens, and he nods. I salute, and he walks way, heading to the allotment. I turn and walk into the main building. Professor Bream's laboratory is down in the basement, in the maximum security wing. We have doctors here, but no one like our pet geneticist.
Keeper Madison sits in the corner of the lab, practicing the violin. She's good. The concerto lends our fortress an air of class. No world that could produce music like that could truly end.
Professor Bream sits tapping on his laptop. We got a generator going for the electricity. One of the Keepers converted the generator to run on horse manure instead of diesel.
"Ah! Finder Ganz. How was your patrol?" asks Professor Bream.
"Fine. Is it ok to see the specimen?" I ask.
"Indeed, indeed. Go right ahead," he replied.
Professor Bream goes back to his work while Keeper Madison launches into a frenzied fiddle piece. I leave the main lab and go into the cells. Three of them hold Things in various stages of decomposition. Bream's gene therapy mustn't be up to scratch yet.
I stand before the fourth. Another of the Things sits inside. The face may be a bloodied pulp, but the eyes are despondent as it stares at the floor. A mangled chicken carcass lies discarded on the floor. It looks at me. Most Things would rush at the plexiglass, battering their heads in their attempt to reach a human. Not this one. It holds my gaze, and looks away. Tears prick my eyes as I put my hand on the toughened glass.
"We will find a cure, Daddy," I whisper.