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Hungry World

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Keys jangling, Dmitri walked between the rows, watching his charges as they paced relentlessly.

They knew that something was wrong.

He shook his head and absently pulled from the last cigarette, the butt hanging from his lips as he exhaled the final fruit of smoke into the night. He pulled it from his mouth and stared at the cherry absently, the red glow of it the only light. His hands were crimson. With a sigh, he flipped it out through the fence and watched it trail through the air like fireworks, finally striking a small girl in the face, scattering ash on her cheek and falling to the ground.

Not like she cared.

He heard the pained echoes of the great cats, growling with hunger, and the gorillas baying, coughing their odd symphony of grunts. They were anxious and angry, and hungry. The last of the food had run out five days ago. The sound of their desperation had almost penetrated the low moaning, the sad cries from beyond the fence.

He walked over to the gate and stared out, into the darkness. They reached for him, but he was just out of their grasp, skeletal hands grasping, dirty nails raking the air.

He almost laughed. "Everyone's hungry tonight," he whispered.

For two weeks, they had gathered there, numbers growing, but the fences held for now. They were built well. Hundreds of rotten, suppurating bodies pressed against them, but the fence was built of stern wrought iron. The things that pressed in on all sides were just flesh. They always stood strong, these walls against the world, but now the steady press of death pushed them inward and Dmitri knew that it was just a matter of time, days, or even hours until they came crashing down and the last wild and natural things died.

Dmitri had been a keeper for 30 years - just because the world had ended, that was no excuse to let his charges suffer. When the plague started, his friends had left, gone to fulfill the last few things left undone, to see their families. He was the only one that remained. To him, these fine beasts were all the company that he needed; the cats sang to him and the birds told him stories. There was nothing, no one for him out there, outside. Here he was the hand that fed, the voice that soothed. He spoke to the animals, the giraffes, the gators, but most of all the big cats.

There were two lions that he loved the most, a mated pair, and with them he felt a great kinship - he knew that they couldn't return his feelings, that they were alien minds, with their own plans, their own way of thinking, but he felt an ache in his center when he thought of them.

There was a rending sound and Dmitri watched the fence flex. No more days. No more hours. It was done.

Each step that he took back to his office was like walking through a vast and rushing stream. There would be no heroism, no last minute rescues. Outside, the zoo, the world was dead. It just didn't know it. He pulled the door open and slumped down into his chair, running his shaking hands through his hair. Behind his closed eyes, he saw the dead falling on the animals like locusts, tearing them apart. Their screams would be, to him, like the screams of a dying child to its mother. It was inevitable. They would starve in their cages, maddened by the rotting things clawing through the bars, or the things, the world full of monsters, would pull them from their homes and snuff out the last light.

Reaching into the desk drawer, he pulled out his pistol. It shone blue and black in the moonlight through the office window, shining with a sickly deadliness. Placing it on the desk, he pulled out a box of shells. It was full. He placed these things in his pocket, put on his hat, and walked out to see the animals for one last time.

It took him close to an hour to kill them all.

Except the lions.

He sat at the entrance to their pen, great, fat tears streaming down his face. Placing the gun in front of him, he whispered to them.

"You're the only ones that have a chance, but you need to eat. You need to be strong."

He stood, brushing the dust from his hands and the lions went mad with hunger and the smell of blood in the air. They weren't the only ones. All around the zoo, the dead gathered, now in the thousands, drawn by the smell of blood and the popping of his pistol and the fence gave with a sigh, bending inward.

"They'll be here soon."

With shaking hands, he placed the key in the lock and turned it. The great door opened and he saw feline eyes burning in the night.

They were on him in moments.

After they ate their fill, licking his warm blood from their fur, they wandered out to the gate and paced again, waiting for the monsters. Soon they would be free and they would feed at least one last time before they were gone.

The world belonged to the hungry now.

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