Culdesac

The war with no name rages on, setting the world on fire. Humanity faces extinction at the hands of the Colony, a race of intelligent ants seeking to overthrow the humans and establish a new order.

The bobcat Culdesac is among the fiercest warriors fighting for the Colony. Driven by revenge and notorious for his ability to hunt humans in the wild, Culdesac is the perfect leader of the Red Sphinx, an elite unit of feline assassins. With the humans in retreat, the Red Sphinx seizes control of the remote village of Milton. But holding the town soon becomes a bitter struggle of wills. As the humans threaten a massive counterattack, the townsfolk protect a dark secret that could tip the balance of the war. For the brutal Culdesac, violence is the answer to everything. But this time, he’ll need more than his claws and his guns, for what he discovers in Milton will upend everything he believes, everything he fought for, and everything he left behind.

Relentless, bloody, and unforgiving, Robert Repino’s Culdesac—the sequel to Morte—is the story of an antihero with no soul to lose, carving a path of destruction that consumes the innocent and the guilty alike. Available November 15th from Soho Press.

 

 

Introduction

The humans never saw it coming. For thousands of years, the Colony studied their weaknesses, bred an army of soldiers, and planned the exact moment to strike. From her underground lair, the Queen of the ants learned what made the humans afraid. She knew how to break them. And in doing so, she would bring about a new order, a world cleansed of humanity, peaceful and free.

The war with no name began quietly, with a series of distractions. Then the second wave hit: Alpha soldiers, giant ants rising from the earth to devour any human that crossed their path. Governments collapsed in weeks. Entire continents were overrun.

And then, the third wave. Using a mysterious technology, the Queen transformed the surface animals into intelligent beings. A gift that no god could ever bestow upon them. Suddenly, farm animals, ferals, and pets could think and speak. Their bodies changed, allowing them to walk on their hind legs and use their hands like a human. And so a new front in the war opened, pitting slave against master—a final reckoning for the sins of humanity. Fighting for the Queen, the animals would avenge the cruelties inflicted on them and build a new future.

But the humans were stubborn. Unwilling to surrender, they developed a weapon of last resort: the EMSAH Syndrome, a virus with the potential to destroy all life on earth. If the humans could not rule, then no one would.

The bobcat Culdesac has sworn his life to the new order. Favored by the Queen for his bravery and ruthlessness, he leads the Red Sphinx, an elite unit fighting a guerilla war deep in human territory. At his side is Mort(e), his second in command, chosen by the Queen herself to one day defeat the EMSAH scourge. But time is running out. For every day the humans live, the revolution hangs in the balance, and only the cruel, the mad, and the savage will see the war through to final victory.

 

Chapter One
Because the Rabbit

The man fled into the forest with a deep wound torn into his hip that left red droplets in the dirt. Though he ran at first—ran for his life with no regard to where he was going—his gait slowed to a limp after a few miles. His right foot pressed boot prints in the soft mud, revealing him to wear a size nine, or even an eight. A small man, probably driven and stubborn, eager to fight over nothing, like so many other humans his height. His left footprint revealed his dire situation. With the shoe missing, the prints left the formless shape of a damp sock. After four miles of slogging through the hills, a stick or a sharp stone must have punctured the skin, for each print included a diamond-shaped red mark on the ball of the foot, the size of a quarter. The first time Culdesac saw it, he dropped to his stomach and sniffed the patch of glistening crimson. He stuck out his tongue and licked it, enough to pull in the taste of the earth, along with the distinct iron of the blood. He let it sit in his mouth until the fragrance wafted out of his nose with each exhale.

Oh, Culdesac missed the hunt.

Like a good bobcat, he grew up stalking prey in the wilderness. In those days—when he was a mere animal, doomed to die of starvation once he grew too old—Culdesac learned that no prey could cover its tracks forever. Even the cleverest among them—the rabbits, the squirrels—would make a mistake, for no one could tread through the forest without altering it. The forest could hide a person as well as give them away.

This human was definitely clever. After some time, he must have tied a bandage to his injured foot, for the precious red diamonds vanished. Soon after, Culdesac noticed circular indentations, most likely from a cane the human fashioned from a tree branch. The man used the cane to climb the hill, to get to rockier terrain where tracking would rely more on instinct rather than smell. Then again, the mountains provided less cover, and the human moved more slowly by the hour. This path he chose may have provided the best possibility of escape, but it was a gamble, the kind expected of a man bleeding to death.

After a mile, the trail forked in two directions. One path led higher into the rocky area of the hills, the other dropped into the forest. Culdesac imagined the choice before the weary human. Climb the mountain and risk further exhaustion, or take the easier route, where he would continue to leave marks in the dirt, broken twigs, disturbed patches of grass. The forest trail eventually led to farmlands, overgrown and abandoned, the crops choking each other out and congealing into brown mush. According to the latest reports from the Colony, a human army waited nearby, most likely under the command of General Fitzpatrick. Perhaps the human expected to make it all that way—a pure fantasy, judging from his condition.

A scent wafted along, tickling Culdesac’s nose. He crouched and sniffed again. The odor came from the forest. The bobcat smiled before bounding down the trail. The smell grew stron.ger. Definitely urine, very acidic, sticking to the insides of his nostrils. The human finally slipped up and relieved himself out in the open, marking his territory. Perhaps he knew that this would be the last time he would feel the simple pleasure of an empty bladder. When the smell grew even more pungent, Culdesac wondered if the man pissed himself, either out of fear or because he lost control of his functions in his weakened state. Maybe Culdesac would discover his prey slumped against a tree, dead, one last cigarette still smoking in his petrified lips.

At an elbow in the trail, the stink became unbearable. Culdesac spun around, checking behind trees, searching for indentations in the mud. Nothing. He dropped to all fours and sniffed every inch until he came across a canteen wedged between two large rocks. He lifted it from its hiding place and recoiled from the smell inside. Culdesac turned to the hilltop behind him, where the sun prepared to sink behind the ridge.

Very clever, he thought.

The man must have pissed in the canteen, screwed the cap on loosely, and then tossed it from the hilltop. It hit the ground and burst open, releasing its contents. The molecules found their way to Culdesac’s sensitive nose, leading him in the wrong direction. The humans learned to exploit the animals’ sense of smell far too late to win the war, a fact that failed to make Culdesac feel any better.

The bobcat slammed the canteen on the dirt and ran back the way he came, not caring how much noise he made. Only when he returned to the fork in the trail did he try to calculate the time lost. If he wanted to kill this man, it would take him at least another day, maybe more. Culdesac’s troops waited for him at the town he left behind, with orders to secure the area. The envoy from the Colony would arrive in a couple of days to deliver the latest report on the human army. Culdesac had time. And besides, after all the trouble this man caused, Culdesac needed to bring back his head.

On the ridge, the trees gave way to smaller shrubs, and the stony scalp of the mountain broke through the dirt. The scent trail went completely blank, forcing him to crawl with his nose to the ground. He was losing time, but the human left him little choice. He needed only a small hint of where the man went in order to break into a run. If his claws scraping on the rock gave away his position, so be it. Let the human spend his last moments knowing that death could find him even in this peaceful place.

The stink of human sweat popped up again near a thatch of bushes growing stubbornly among the stones. The wind bent them over, forcing them to grow at an angle. Stashed beneath the leaves was a white box, a first aid kit. Both sides in the war hid supplies in the woods for retrieval in situations like this, and the human surely did not come across it by accident. Culdesac noticed gauze, tweezers, thread for stitches, a wrapper for a protein bar, an empty bottle of antibiotics. This tiny supply depot may have even included a fresh pair of boots. The human patched himself together and left these items, maybe to show Culdesac that the game had changed, and that he was now hunting a human who found a way to survive even on the run from death. The man may have enjoyed a brief spell of euphoria as he sealed the wound, filled his belly, gazed out to the countryside dreaming of some nebulous future when this madness would fall behind him. It must have been nice.

Ah, but this human did not know the bobcat who chased him. Culdesac was no mere conscript in the war with no name. He fought it his entire life, long before the Queen uplifted him, changing him from an animal into something more. He knew this forest, having explored it as a cub many summers before. He learned these trails precisely because of what the humans did to his people before the uprising. In those days, the habitats shrank every year, hemmed in by new roads, construction projects, hunters prowling in their obscene orange vests. Culdesac stalked his territory with his mother and brother, always fearful of the unnatural noises that grew louder in the distance, the sound of humans uprooting the forest, severing trees at the root, carving out new paths with their war machines. At first, the arrival of the humans provided a boon to the predators, as it forced the deer to cross through bobcat territory. But this lasted only a season, and soon the bobcats took to fighting one another over the last scraps of wilderness left.

He and his brother did not have names. Culdesac knew his brother by scent, and by the growling noise his mother made when she called him. When something dangerous approached, his mother let out two quick grunts: mer-mer. At night, when they ate from a carcass, Culdesac’s brother would sometimes lick the blood from his mother’s face and paws. In those moments, she would say his name more gently, both a salutation and a thank-you. Years later, after the Change gave Culdesac the ability to speak, he thought of his brother as Murmur. A fitting name for a powerful bobcat who rarely needed to speak.

One morning, Culdesac woke in his hovel to the sound of his brother baying in the early morning light. When he crawled out, he sensed an absence, an emptiness, and knew then why his brother cried. Their mother had gone missing in the night. Perhaps she abandoned them, having gone so many days without eating in order to make sure they were fed. Or maybe someone killed her, or some other male chose her for his own clan. Culdesac would never know, and the forest would never tell.

A few weeks later, while slinking along a well-worn path, a loud clap from somewhere far off made Culdesac jump. Murmur fell to his side with a red wound bubbling on his ribs. Culdesac pawed at him, begging him to get up. But footsteps, and the stink of some unknown animal, sent him running. He took cover in the bushes while a pack of humans surrounded his brother. Each of the men wore clothes that mimicked the surrounding foliage. For the next two hours, Culdesac watched as the humans cut the young bobcat apart. They severed the tail and passed it among themselves. They lopped off the paws before starting on the coat. It took two of the humans to tear the skin from the muscle. Doing so released a horrible scent, a combination of blood and the cloying pheromone of the females with whom Culdesac had mated. He swore that his brother was still breathing. The head came off last, a tedious process that required hacking and sawing. When he became sentient, Culdesac discovered similar animal trophies in the homes that the humans abandoned in the war. He imagined one day coming across a house where his brother’s head would be mounted above the fireplace, the eyes replaced with glass marbles, the mouth propped open, the fangs polished white. He would remove Murmur’s head and replace it with the human’s—after repeating the same process he witnessed here.

When the humans left, Culdesac visited what remained of his brother, a mere pile of flesh with the head and tail removed, the bones exposed, the entrails cast aside and swarmed by flies. From then on, Culdesac was on his own.

So he knew this forest. And he knew where the human was going.

At the foot of the mountain, the river was wide, too wide for a weakened, shivering human with fresh stitches. But backtracking along the riverbed would bring him to a dead tree that lay across the river. Culdesac traversed it many times in his younger days. He did not have a name for it then, though the rough surface of the tree bark made him think of it as a cat’s tongue stretching across the river. In his uplifted state, when he could think abstractly and use words, he could give it a name, the way the humans did with all of this land that they thought they owned. He would call it The Lick, and when he returned to the town with this human’s skull, he would write the new name on a map of the area. It made him smile. Soon all of this would be reclaimed, every last body of water, every last mountain. Not a trace of the human age would remain.

Culdesac made it to the river by nightfall. Sure enough, the desiccated log carried a hint of rubber boots and sweat. A fresh gash in the rotting bark suggested that the man slipped and tore off a piece. If the human found the need to urinate again, he probably did his business in the river to hide both the sound and the smell. But it was too late for that. He could hide no longer. He could only run, and even that would merely delay the inevitable. Satisfied, Culdesac pulled a bottle of water from his backpack and refilled it in the river. He smiled again, knowing that the human could drink the water here only by boiling it, a tedious method that would only waste time, give away his position. The human would quench his thirst while death gained on him.

Culdesac made his way to the other side of the valley before stopping to rest. In his dreamless sleep, he nevertheless could hear his brother crying out, his voice going dead amidst the trees.

A few kilometers from the river, with the sun rising, Culdesac slowed as the scent grew stronger, and the tracks and markings seemed fresher. At this time of day, imperfections in the terrain cast longer shadows. Soon, Culdesac found a broken twig above an uneven patch of grass, still moist to the touch. A muddy boot print on a boulder confirmed that the man traveled in new footwear. And soon, Culdesac could smell food: a granola bar with peanut butter.

On all fours, Culdesac crept through the trees, trying to blend in. He heard the human breathing, the voice low to the ground. A pair of shoes scuffed against the gravel, then stopped. Culdesac spotted him first. Crouched against a tree, about twenty paces away, the man tried to hold his breath as he looked around. Between a thatch of unkempt hair and a filthy beard, two hazel eyes darted about. His machine gun sat propped against the trunk. As Culdesac expected, the man wore the same camou.flaged outfit that the hunters wore when they skinned his brother alive. Culdesac remained still, his charcoal ears and flecked fur indistinguishable amidst the tree branches. When their eyes met, the man still needed some time to get a fix on the demon staring at him through the bush. Culdesac bolted. The branches and leaves brushed his face as he ran. His field of vision shrank to a tunnel, with the hapless man struggling to his feet to get away. As the human tried to barrel roll toward the gun, Culdesac lunged and raked his claw across the man’s ribs and down his waist. Hot blood burst from the three jagged lines cut into the man’s flesh. Grunting, the man kicked Culdesac in the face and snatched the weapon. When he turned and fired, Culdesac slipped behind a tree. The bullets tore through the foliage and ripped out chunks of earth. The noise echoed all the way through the valley. When he stopped, a strange silence descended on the forest.

The man rolled on to his stomach and crawled along a trail that led to a clearing. Culdesac followed, taking cover each time he moved in case the man summoned the energy to take another shot. But this was the end. Culdesac could smell it in the blood. He could hear it in the fluid that rattled in the man’s ribs.

Exhausted, the human propped himself on a log that had fallen across the clearing, his hand sealed to the bloody wound. The stitching from the night before hung in tatters, the twine sticking out from the shredded skin. The bobcat rose to his hind legs, an ability that the humans seemed to fear even more than the animals’ intelligence. There was something about the creatures rising from their savage state that showed the humans that their reign of terror was over, and new masters would have dominion over the earth.

The man kept his cool, though he could not hide the pain from his wound. His lips parted to reveal gritted teeth, painted red with blood. With a shaky hand, he attempted to raise the barrel of his gun. In a blur, Culdesac snatched it away from him. The man did not even have time to blink.

“Gaw ’head and do it,” the man said.

Culdesac tossed the gun aside and put his fingers to his lips. “Shhhhh.” He opened his pack and pulled out a metal flask, filled with whiskey. A gift from the company medic, a housecat named Socks who insisted on renaming himself Tiberius. Culdesac unscrewed the cap and offered the flask to the human.

“For the pain,” the bobcat said.

The man hesitated. He then reached out his blood-soaked hand and took the flask. He sniffed it, raised an eyebrow, and took a long pull. He pressed his thumb to his mouth to hold in a cough. Then he nodded. “It’s good.”

“Take as much as you need.”

Culdesac sat in front of the man and watched as he took a few more sips. The human’s gristly Adam’s apple bobbed with each swallow. By the third or fourth drink, the eyelids fluttered. On an empty stomach, the whiskey acted quickly. The human probably thought of a time before the war, when he could drink this firewater and doze off in front of a television or on a porch swing in the summer.

“What now?” the man asked.

“Do you really want to know?”

The human shrugged.

“I will let you go to sleep. Then I will cook you and eat you. I have developed a taste for barbecued flesh.”

The human rolled his eyes and took his longest sip so far.

“Then I have to bring your head back to the town,” Culdesac continued. “In the firefight, you killed one of my top lieutenants. A cat named Luna. Even though we won the battle, I owed it to her to find you.”

“I’m honored,” the man said.

Culdesac paused. “Why did you attack? We secured the town. We had the high ground, the shooting lines, a base of operations. It was suicide.”

“We got one o’ you, didn’t we?”

“One,” Culdesac said. “Was it worth it?”

“I guess I won’t know. But we did slow you down. Let you know this won’t be an easy war for ya. None of ’em are easy.”

Some real wisdom from a human, Culdesac thought. Impressive. This man would not tell him the real reason his unit attacked, which left Culdesac with the theory that they simply ran out of supplies and needed to raid the town. A plausible if unsatisfying possibility.

“I told my soldiers to take some time off,” Culdesac said bitterly. “Before you came. With the humans pushed back, I thought we could relax.” Culdesac remembered it perfectly: Tiberius leading the cats in drinking games, Jomo and Cromwell performing feats of strength, Bentley insisting that no one disturb him while he slept, Brutal trying to mate with Sugar for the eighth or ninth time, Sugar dropping him with a punch to the face. And then, cutting through the revelry, a gunshot, followed by shouting as the sentries yelled for help. And then the blur of a firefight began, turning these uplifted creatures into animals once more, beasts driven by instinct and fighting for survival.

“I wish you took some time off,” the man said.

“I did. This is how I relax.”

The man tried to laugh, but could only expel a few puffs of air. By then, his face had gone white, and a drop of blood-tinged
saliva hung precariously from his bottom lip.

“Don’t none of this bother you?” the man said.

Culdesac pictured his brother’s mangled corpse again. “Did you ever ask yourself that same question?” he asked. “The method I used to hunt you—following you for days until you grew exhausted—that is exactly how your people learned to do it. That is how you evolved. It helped your brains to grow. It allowed you to think creatively. Abstractly. All your accomplishments come from violence, not inspiration. Not love. Not God.”

“I don’t wanna debate,” the man said. “I just wanna know: Did the Queen give you a conscience? She give you…empathy? There were some animals who had it before the Change. Looks like she took it away.”

“The Queen only gave. She never took.”

“That’s how it starts with dictators. But you’ll see. You’ll see.”

You won’t.”

Culdesac told the man to enjoy the rest of the whiskey while he built a fire. As the bobcat gathered sticks and dug out a pit, the human watched helplessly, his jaw propped on his shoulder as he faded out. The blood pooled at the man’s side, sticky and bright red against the soil. Haltingly, with labored breaths, the man began a story he once heard, a legend of how bobcats got their spots. A hungry bobcat once chased a rabbit up a tree. The rabbit, being the smarter of the two, talked the bobcat into building a fire so he could cook his dinner. But after the bobcat lit the flame, a great wind came along and blew the embers onto his coat, singeing the fur and sending the animal running into the forest.

“That’s how,” the man stammered, “that’s how you got. Your spots. Because the rabbit…”

The flask dropped the ground, letting out a hollow thunk. The man slumped over, his dead eyes twinkling. Culdesac walked over and picked up the flask. He toasted the deceased, both the human and Luna, and took a swig. The whiskey mixed with blood tasted lovely. And now the alcohol would flavor the man’s flesh while he cooked on the spit, a just reward for Culdesac’s hard work.

Excerpted from Culdesac © Robert Repino, 2016

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