Thanks for the kind comments- feedback is what keeps me writing, honestly. Griff, I hope that this is only the start- I've got a lot of plans for this story and some plot twists that I think are fairly unique. The chapter I'm currently working on is kinda, uhm, different- how about "Twilight" meets "Catcher in the Rye"? With zombies. Anyways, the following is the last completed section I have, let me know if you want to see moaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar
I push myself off the floor. It’s swaying back and forth beneath my feet. My head is white hot agony. Warmth is covering the right side of my face.
I see the kevlar helmet I was wearing. It's lying on the floor about six feet from me, split, with a big double-bladed axe stuck in it.
My vision is blurry. I rub the right side of my face. My hand comes away covered in blood. I can feel the gash on my head.
Magnum or Rockford or other TV detectives can take a hit on the head and be fine by the next commercial. In real life, a blow to the head does permanent damage. Words go through my head. Blunt trauma. Embolism. Skull fractures. None of them are good.
Since nothing in the store is rocking back and forth, the rocking motion is all in my head. That's very bad.
Vision focuses, briefly, then it's blurry again as I hear a man bellowing in a powerful voice. "Die, lying priest of your false God! You should have stayed molesting nuns and boys at your church, worshipping your lying roman master!"
Jeez, is this guy Lutheran or what?
No, he's a viking.
Even blurry, he's huge. A coke machine with legs. Wearing chainmail of all things, and a helmet with some kind of shield that guards his eyes too. Swinging a double-bladed axe bigger than the one he hit me with, going after Father Ramos.
Maybe it's the concussion but that little guy is putting on a hell of a show. Saturday chop-sockey martial arts theater had nothing on this. He's ducking and lunging and jumping and I swear once, he even does this incredibly cool move where he crosses the blades above his head and stops the axe inches from his skull. Honest.
Why isn't he cutting at the giant?
Of course. I've only seen him slice zombies. Those already dead. He never strikes the living. He's good, but sooner or later the Viking is gonna score a good one on him.
I pull out my P-38 but I can't aim. They're too close to each other, my vision too bad. I lose the pistol trying to shove it back into the holster. Then the blackness seems to close in around my brain, dragging me down...
Day Five of the Zombie Apocalypse.
She's clinging to me as she sleeps.
It's been a long time since she clung to me. Years. She looked like hell when she came back. She was scary. She hadn't bathed in days. She smelled.
It felt so damn good to hold her.
We've got a shower rigged up in the basement, hot water and everything. She showered until every drop of hot water was gone, then kept scrubbing herself in the cold water until her skin was red and raw. She had me burn her clothes. Then she gave me royal hell for not having brought some of her clothes with us when we came over here.
That's when I knew she was going to make it.
While she showered, Roger and old Joe Czernik and some guy named Treadwell filled me in on what she'd been through. They seemed to be a little bit in awe of her. That's my Carla.
She wolfed down a meal and would have stayed up if I hadn't poured a couple of vodkas into her. Now she's sleeping like the...
We're going to have to change that saying.
Here in my father's house, in the darkness of my old room, only starlight coming in through the windows, for a moment everything is okay.
Gunshots in the distance. Not machine guns, but firing fast. Panic fire. I try to ignore it. Some group of survivors, like us, standing off an attack.
Except the gunshots don't stop. Their pace slows, they come closer, but the gunshots don't stop.
I slowly untangle myself from Carla. She keeps sleeping, utterly exhausted.
A small girl dressed in an oversized T-shirt comes running in, hops into the bed and clutches Carla. Her name is Samantha. Apparently she’s our new daughter. She hasn’t spoken to me yet but she seems like a nice kid. Carla, still sleeping, throws an arm around her.
"Dad! Mom!" Andrew comes in, holding his carbine. It's like the thing has become a part of him. "Somebody's coming closer. Officer Croston wants you. He's at the door."
"Okay. Stay here and guard your mom."
I slip on my clothes quickly in the dark as Andrew goes to the window, looking out. I'm reminded once more of how dark it becomes with no streetlights, no advertising lights, nothing. It's a balmy summer night. I can see the stars outside in the dark. Did it take the end of the world to make us start noticing the stars again?
Downstairs, it smells incongruously good, even with the odor of burning kerosene from the lantern. A dozen loaves of bread dough are rising in the pans, the aroma of baking bread heavy in the air. Mixed with it is the smell of grilled meat. One of the nearby abandoned houses had a freezer full of meat in the basement. It hadn't turned yet, but we had no place to store it so we had a massive cookout to welcome Croston and his people.
Mrs. Bell comes into the kitchen wearing the frowsiest nightgown I've ever seen and holding her .45. "What's going on? I swear, if those things make my bread fall-"
Croston is waiting. He gives her an odd look, then looks at me. "Ted, they're getting closer. Sounds like mixed survivors and Screamers. It's time to try that headlight idea of yours. I've told everyone to bunker up. We don't want anyone wandering around in the dark."
Dale comes in, his bald head shining in the lantern light, two muskets slung over his shoulder while he carries a third. He hands it to me. ".69 caliber loaded with buck and ball. If anything can stop a Screamer with one shot, it's that."
"Where's the shotgun?"
"We're down to our last six rounds of 20 gauge. Officer Croston, are you sure you don't have-"
"Sorry, we only have 12 gauge." Croston leans out the window and shouts. "Light 'em up!"
All the vehicles have been arranged so they face outwards from our buildings. The three houses and two garages that we are all living in, as well as the trucks and bus. Now, all the headlights are switched on, bright beams flashing out into the darkness. We are in a spot of darkness surrounded by glaring light. The first rule of night fighting: Illuminate your enemy, not yourself.
I step out into the night, cocking the musket as I slide against the brick walls of the house. "Remember, keep your backs to the walls."
Dale jams an 18 inch spike of sharpened steel on the end of his musket. "Fix bayonets!"
Croston grips his radio in one hand, his 10mm in the other. He smiles and shakes his head. "Charge."
We hear the howls of mindless hunger. They still give me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. My heart is hammering in my chest. I cock the heavy old blunderbuss.
Leaping, capering figures, screaming hoarsely, throw themselves out of the dark, hurling themselves at us. Each of them catches a few gunshots. Everyone has their section of the perimeter to watch.
Except the three that come in between two areas. Our shooters hesitate just long enough for the small, hurtling forms to jump into the darkness with us. Croston and I both choose the same one, the biggest one. It comes apart under a barrage of bullets. Dale stops his with a blast from his musket.
The third one leaps at me, a mouthful of bloody teeth gaping at me.
A bullet whings past my head from one of the houses. Someone almost hit me shooting at the screamer. I draw my pistol, flick off the safety, not fast enough-
Dale slams it in the chest with his rifle, throwing it back. Pinning it to the ground with his bayonet. Croston puts two slugs into it.
It's only then that I notice the pigtails of dark hair. Some kind of hair beads. The bloody remains of a "My Little Pony" nightshirt.
She’s about the same size as Samantha.
The rest of the face is unrecognizable.
Croston mutters something, then barks into the radio. "Is there anything else out there?"
"We got people coming in!" No radio, just someone yelling. We run over. A dozen people are lit up in the headlights, some of them staggering. Too fast for shamblers, too slow for screamers.
As I watch, the one on the tag end, farthest from us, turns. There is a glint of metal in the air as two screamers leap from the darkness. They're too close for us to shoot. We'd hit the last man. But blades flash in the light. Both of the screamers go down. Rifles fire from the second floor of both our houses, stopping other pursuit. The person with the blades turns and starts walking towards us.
Croston calls out. "Kill the lights! Keep your guard up but kill the lights!"
We're hoping that with the lights out, the screamers will lose interest. The shamblers have about a five minute attention span, the screamers less. But light and movement definitely draw them in.
I walk over to the newcomers. Women, children. No men. No weapons. Wait, one man. Wearing black, a small man with the build of a welterweight boxer, a thick black brushcut of hair on top of his head. He sits on the ground, exhausted, still holding two long, bloody blades.
I think I know him.
"Father Ramos? Is that you?"
He looks up. I've never seen such exhaustion in someone's face, not even Carla's. "Yes. I am here, my son. Please, come closer. Do I know you?"
"It's Ted Simmons, Father. We go to Saint Benedicts. You might remember Andrew?"
There's the shadow of a smile on that face. "He wanted to learn how to box. Is he...?"
"He's alive, Father." I can see the others are being taken into the buildings and treated. Several have bites. Yesterday, that would have meant certain death or infection.. Carla came back with word that an electric shock can cure the bite of a shambler. So far that's worked. It makes the rest of her story easier to accept.
"Father, what happened?"
He leans back. In a distracted manner, he pulls out some rags and begins cleaning blood and gore from the gleaming blade of one of his machetes. It’s stainless steel. There are deep nicks in the blade, the kind of notches made when you chop through heavy bone.
"When Los Muertes rose, we offered sanctuary. That is the role of the church, is it not? We thought we were well off. St. Benedicts had plenty of room. The school, the spare rooms in the rectory, even the old nunnery. It has been empty for years, but we kept it clean. All with a good strong fence around it. We sheltered hundreds who had no place to go. There was food in the food bank and the soup kitchen. A local store owner donated his entire stock to us before he died. We had enough men and guns to stand off los muertes. But people started fighting.
Some of the parishioners said we should put out anyone who wasn't of the parish, to save our supplies for ourselves. These were good people, people who came to mass every Sunday. Other refugees said they should be in charge and demanded that the Monsignor give them control. Some of them were criminals, bandits, who said they would take over and kill anyone who opposed them.”
His eyes are haunted. Filled with the horror he’s seen. I’ve seen that look a lot in the last couple of days.
“We tried to keep the peace, to stop the fighting. It was foolish. Wicked. There was no need. but there was so much fear. So much panic. Tonight, they began to kill each other. I don't know who started it. The criminals, maybe. I know they killed Father Wagner when he tried to stop the fighting. That was when los muertes must have slipped in. And screamers. The fighting drew them, maybe. With no one watching the fences they were among us so fast... Monsignor Gallagher, he- I do not know. A stroke. His heart was broken, I think. He found them looting the altar. Desecration. We were all so tired. His last order to me was to leave him, to get out with those who might escape. By then, there were so few left…"
He's finished cleaning the first blade and starts on the second. I don't know what to say. I don’t know what to say. Curiosity get the better of me. I tape one of the blades. "Father, I'm pretty sure you didn't get those things at the Seminary."
“One of the parishioners made knives. I told him about when I was a boy in the Phillipines. How I worked in the fields, chopping sugar cane and pineapple. He made these for me. I never thought I would actually need them.” He gives a tired shrug as he looks at the blade. “He is dead now.”
I can see a nifty pair of crossed sheaths slung on the Father’s back too. The Church Militant with a vengeance. He offers me the one he has just finished cleaning. It’s high-grade. I can see the feather-brushes of the blacksmiths hammer in the steel. Well made. I almost slice my finger open when I check the edge. “Father! I thought you said you didn’t think you’d ever need these?”
He shrugs again as he takes it back. “You have a blade, you keep it sharp.”
“Ted.” It’s Roger. I leave Father Ramos.
Roger looks worried. “Ted, this isn’t working. We had everyone up and armed and we still had leakers. We have too much perimeter and not enough people. We don’t have enough supplies either.”
Dale and Mrs. Bell come out of our house, walking over. She’s thrown on a housecoat. It makes an odd contrast with her M-16 and ammo bandolier. “I have food back at my tea shop. The generator there had a three day supply of fuel, so even the refrigerated food should still be good. There’s a restaurant supply warehouse a few blocks away from it with bulk foods there too. If we get into there before anyone else, we’d be good.”
“If the fires don’t get it first. Three or four neighborhoods have gone that way.” Roger is looking up, mentally calculating. I think we all are.
My calculations are different. “There are dozens of places we can loot. People lit off from here in such a panic, just in the nearest houses we’ve been able to scavenge a lot of food, fuel, even some weapons. It’s amazing what people will leave behind. But the farther we go from here, the more likely we’ll be jumped by Z’s. Or this place will be hit while all of our armed people are picking up supplies.”
Roger lowers his voice so only we can hear. “We’re burning through our ammo too. We have to think about that. We weren’t loaded up for a war, Ted.”
“I killed a dozen shamblers with a shovel, back at my house.” I try not to sound boastful but it’s the truth. “Just put yourself where they can’t reach you and have a weapon long enough to hit them. That lets us save our ammo for the screamers.”
“And the looters.” Roger nods. “On day two, we lost more men to looters and rioters than to Z’s.”
Dale speaks up, leaning on his musket like he was giving tips to U.S. Grant himself. “Gentlemen, we need a fortress. It doesn’t have to be a castle. Just a solid building, big enough for us to all get inside, barricaded to keep out the Z’s. That lets a handful of us hold off the shamblers and screamers while the rest of us scavenge for supplies. The classic purpose of a fortress.”
Roger speaks. “I think people tried that on Day One at some of the big department stores. We had riots. They turned into full scale battles at three or four places. Most of them burned down in the fighting.”
I look around us, out to the darkness. Constantly watching for the movement I’ve learned to recognize as Shamblers. Once this neighborhood felt like home. I used to love summer nights, when it was quiet. Will I ever feel that way again? Whether or not I will, this place is no longer safe for my family. Time to find a place that is.
“So the best places are probably gone. We need a place that didn’t get looted in the first rush, with good fields of fire. That narrows it down.”
“East Side Middle School, out on Route 62?” Roger speaks up. “They closed it a couple years ago, but the building is still sound. Good road access. Clear fields of fire around it, good solid brick. I think the school board was storing surplus equipment there.”
Time to go back to school.”
"Hey guys, break out the tazer!” Joe Czernik ambles up, shotgun in one hand, the other covered with a fresh, bloody dressing. “I must be slowing down. One of the damned things slipped through and bit me while I was reloading.”
Roger shakes his head as he pulls out a taser and checks the charge. “Dammit Joe, they are gonna eat you one bite at a time if you don’t learn to stay back.”
He gives Joe a shock.
Joe collapses, gasping. Then his gives a strangled moan of pain, clutching his chest.
Mrs. Bell is the first one on him, checking his pulse. She tears open his shirt, listens at his chest. “He’s having a heart attack! Dammit! He’s going cyanotic! I know CPR but we need a doctor for this!”
Roger looks at me. “The doctors we had were all bitten and turned, first day. That was why we were desperate enough to listen to Freakshow.”
I’m running through options in my head. “Dale, where’s that emergency defibrillator we had for mom?”
“I’m on it!” Dale runs for it. Roger and Mrs Bell take turns on CPR.
We lose Joe in the night.
Hot, dry summer breezes flow past us. From the flat roof of the school, we can see for over a mile in some directions. Trees are everywhere, green and beautiful and alive. It seems wrong, somehow, after all the death, all the horror we’ve seen.
We’ve checked out the school we’re standing on. It could be worse. "The building’s solid and no Z’s inside.” Roger is a little out of breath. I’m a lot out of breath. Too much climbing and busting down locked doors. “A lot of junk to throw out. We’ll have to figure out some way to get water up here too.”
“At least it was a quick recon. We’ll be back in time for lunch. Then we get people packing to move over here. Mrs. Bell said we’d have fresh baked bread with lunch.”
Roger takes off his SWAT helmet and scratches his head. “Ted, uh, you know she’s a guy, right?”
I thought that was bugging him. “A Transwoman. That’s the term she used. Hell, I’m still wrapping my head around that one. But she saved my life. She saved my son’s life. Cut her some slack, okay?”
“Okay, just saying. So you’re good for this place?”
I look over at the next couple of buildings, a few hundred yards away. “I’d rather be in there.”
There were two big stores on opposite sides of the highway. The MegaLowMart is a burnt out shell. I can see shamblers moving in the ruins. The closer one, the S-Mart, is intact.
“Claimed on the first day, Ted. Have you ever heard of Reverend Darryl Sexton?”
“Yeah. A whacko preacher, right? His people picketed the funerals of guys who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Said their deaths were God punishing the US and they were burning in hell. If anybody got eaten alive, I hoped it was him.”
“No such luck.” Croston sits down, drinks heavily from his canteen. “Day One, he declared it was the Rapture. He and his whole loony congregation seized that place and killed anyone who tried to get in. We sent a squad car to investigate and they shot it up. We meant to go back, but, well, we had other things to worry about.”
I scan the building. The front windows are all blocked by parked cars and sheets of plywood. No other doors, no windows. The loading dock in back is clear, but I see a big tractor trailer, a refrigerator truck parked to block the back doors. The motor is running. Probably means whatever food that’s inside the reefer truck is still good. “Place looks solid."
“That would be the place to fort up in. Food, clothes, tools, hardware, every day a greenlight special. That was an older place. They built it before the city extended water out this far. I’ll bet they have their own well.”
“That’s probably why he chose it. As a refuge during the zombie apocalypse, it beats the hell out of an abandoned school.” I widen my study. The S-Mart gas station in the parking lot is clear, the windows shot out and a dozen corpses - the non-moving kind- lying around it. That’s when I realize what I’m looking at. “Holy crap. Is he insane?”
Among half a dozen wrecked cars in the big parking lot, hundreds of shamblers are milling around. At least a couple hundred, mostly near the store. “He lets them hang around?”
“They’re part of his defenses. Imagine trying to break into that place while shamblers are swarming all over you.” Roger starts scanning too. “I’ll say this for him, he’s smart. See if it does him any good when he’s burning in hell, the blasphemous bastard. I’m Born Again, but because of nutbags like him, I have to be careful how I testify or people will think I’m some kind of lunatic.”
“You’re Born Again? You were always such a wild man in the Guard. When did you get religion?”
I can actually hear him shrug, with all the gear he’s carrying. “I got cancer a few years back. It made me rethink a lot of things. I got into a prayer group and I asked God into my life.”
“Good for you, Roj. What about the cancer?”
“It went into remission after chemo. I’m leaving it in His hands.”
I scan the top of the store. We have a slight height advantage. “I don’t see anyone up on the roof. They hide that well?”
“They had snipers on the roof before and lots of ammo. We were pretty sure they even had night vision. We noticed that ..hello.”
“Check out the big AC unit on the roof, the one closest to us. Left side, by the air vent. There’s our sentry.”
I look. “Uhm, Roger, you notice anything odd about the sentry?”
“Like the fact that somebody chopped off his head?”
“Yeah, stuff like that.”
“He still has his rifle by him. It’ll get rusty if someone doesn’t take it in out of the weather.”
“That would be a shame.”
I move through the grass as silently as I can. The hill in front of me blocks a direct view to the roof of the S-Mart, but gives a good view of the parking lot. I speak into the throat mike. “Any movement?”
The earphone in my left ear sputters a bit, then “No movement at all in the building. You go about twenty yards further and most of the shamblers can see you.”
“Who came up with this dumbass plan anyways?”
“That would be you, Ted. Want to back out now?”
“I’m not that smart.”
“Shop smart. Shop S-Mart!”
There are a couple of gunshots behind me. “What’s that?”
“Screamer. It came out of the pumphouse. No sweat, we got it.”
One good thing about working with Croston and his bunch, we have commo now. That makes it less like war and more like zombie extermination. Which suits me just fine.
“Stop!” Father Ramos’s voice freezes me. He moves forward quietly and pushes aside a clump of weeds in the meadow. A shambler, destroyed below the waist, is waiting in the deep grass, silent, ready to bite my ankle. He hacks down with one of his blades, cutting deep into the skull. It stops moving with a hiss.
“Thank you Father. You ready to run?”
“Go on your signal, run on your signal. I understand.”
“Father, seriously, you don’t have to do this. I should be enough for this.”
“One piece of bait is good, two is better.” He’s put on a sweatband, though he’s still wearing his priests black shirt and pants. He’s got to be roasting. Then again, he’s from the PI. He’s used to heat. “Besides, I do not have many parishioners left. I need to guard the ones I have.”
The key to this is to draw away the shamblers without exposing myself to rifle fire from the S-Mart. I check the ground for more crawlers, then run forward, yelling. I stop when I’m just by the hill that blocks me from the view of the S-Mart. There have to be a couple hundred shamblers in sight.
I squeeze the air horn.
“Hey! Lunch is served! Come and get it! Meat on the hoof!”
Father Ramos is beside me, singing some song in Tagalog, striking his blades together with a loud ringing clang.
No matter how many times I see it, it still chills me to the bones. Heads turning in perfect unison, some of them bloody, missing eyes, teeth, skin. A second later, they all lurch into motion. Beyond them, other shamblers look my way in a wave that spreads through the crowd. More of them, then all of them begin to move.
I keep yelling, keep drawing them in. Beside me, Father Ramos keeps singing too but I’m getting some nervous looks from him.
When the first ones are twenty yards away, they lunge the way even shamblers can do, for a short distance. I pop the first, then the second. Miss the third. Father Ramos leaps forward nimbly, reaches out with two slashes. One takes off an already-damaged arm. The other goes through the shambler’s neck, taking off his head.
Close enough. “Run!”
We have the attention of over a hundred of the things. The scents of grass, hay and summer weeds fill me with memories of running on these meadows as a child. Then I ran for the sheer joy of running. Now I run with death at my heels, slowing myself because I don’t dare leave it behind. Father Ramos is keeping pace easily. Hell, he’s jogging like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
The hill to my side masks me from view by anyone on top of the S-Mart. What I didn’t anticipate was more shamblers coming up over the hill, guided by noise alone. Flanking me. If they get ahead of me, between me and my goal….
The fence. It’s ahead, a bit ragged, but the chain link fence that once encircled West Side Elementary is still there, with alterations. Behind it wait Roger and a dozen of our people with guns and vehicles. And a ladder.
I run faster.
At the ladder. “Okay father, you go first.”
“No, my son. You go-“
I’m already on the ladder and going. This is not the time to argue.
Father Ramos follows nimbly and we pull the ladder over to our side.
The first Z’s hit the fence a minute later.
I’ve had time to watch them from my house. Facing a mob like this is different. Banks of dead eyes, looking at me, hungry. Accusing. Too many of them are children. We have to wait, as they keep piling against the fence, until the fence posts are groaning, the chain-link bending alarmingly.
Croston makes the call when we have enough. “Hit it!”
The portable generator was already running, a heavy-duty construction model. Somebody clamps the power cables to the fence.
There is a burning noise, like grilling steak. The faces of the dead go blank, losing their rictus of hate and hunger. The steel chain link fence hums. Sparks shoot out at a few spots.
We kill the power. The front ranks collapse, the nanomites that animate them shorted out by the jolt of electricity. A new rank steps up, grips the fence. We turn the power on again.
By the time we’re done, they are an unbroken wall of bodies heaped against the fence. The scent of grilled meat is heavy in the air.
“You gotta be frikkin’ kidding me!”
There’s always an exception.
One corpse in a bloody set of work coveralls, with heavy insulated gloves and protective gear, continues bumping against the fence. His protective gear stops the electricity that fries all the other Z’s.
“There’s one in every crowd. He was probably a power lineman. Probably ran into one of the first shamblers and got bit.”
One of the deputies puts him down with a shot between the eyes.
"Okay, stage one completed. Roger, who's on the roof of the school?"
"I have three men with rifles up there. I just checked. No movement, no one checking on our headless sentry. But, uh, Ted, are you sure you want to do this? I can ask for volunteers."
"Nah, my plan, my ass on the line."
I'm lying. Can't tell him the truth. He'd think I'd gone insane.
I'm having fun.
Not dancing around the maypole fun. Last night, when that screamer leapt at me and I realized I wouldn’t reach my pistol in time, part of me was terrified.
Part of me was riding the adrenaline jolt and thinking "Holy fucking shit, what a rush!"
I've known men who became addicted to that rush. Most of them are dead.
The paralyzing fear of the first few days is gone. I know how to beat these things. My skin still crawls looking at them, thinking about their teeth tearing at my body. But it's the normal fear that keeps you alive. Fear that tells you not to touch live electrical wires, not to step into traffic. Not to let a zombie bite you. It comes with a free shot of adrenaline, mainlined into your heart, better than heroin.
I realize I'm smiling. "Just make sure you keep me covered and haul ass when I give the signal. There's no telling what we find inside."
"Or you could find the place wired to explode. Or nerve gas, like that nutcase cult in Japan."
"Which is why it's only me and the good Father going in."
"Okay, at least take a flak vest. We aren't dealing with just zombies anymore. For that matter, take a gas mask."
That, I couldn't argue with. I traded my heavy leather jacket for a flak vest, my old steel helmet for a kevlar. Father Ramos took one of each as well. Since they were in basic black anyways, they went with his ensemble. I put new filters on the gas mask they hand me, no telling how long these filters have been opened.
Father Ramos and I approach from the west side of the store. There are no windows, no way we can be spotted if they aren't using cameras. I’m humping a folding aluminum ladder. We hit the wall and go up the ladder. My heart pounding in my chest every second, waiting to hear some kind of alert. Nothing.
On the roof, the first thing we do is check the dead sentry. His weapon, his ammunition, everything is there. Including a six pack of cola. Blood sprayed all over everything when his head was taken. Only his head is missing.
Okay, that creeps me out. Big time.
Clouds of flies buzz over it all, feeding. Father Ramos studies the body carefully. ""The flies. They do not go on los muertes. Only on the truly dead. Why is that, do you think?"
"Something about the virus repels them? I hear dogs won't get near them either."
We move to the access hatch that had been used to get onto the roof. Dried blood is spattered on the ladder, going down into the dark. I drop down the ladder quickly, not wanting to be exposed. Damn near sprained my ankle. For nothing. The ladder drops into an empty hallway. Office space on the second floor. Most of the doors are still locked. Somewhere a backup generator must be running, because there were a few lights on. After the daylight outside, the interior seems dark as a tomb.
We pass the break room, more offices, restrooms. Stairs going down to the first floor. Everything is spotless.
It’s quiet as the grave.
When we enter the main store area, it starts getting weird.
There are lights in the center, towards Housewares. Some kind of banners flutter from the roof as voices quietly babble. Half a dozen voices at a time. There is the smell of food, snatches of hymns. We approach slowly.
Have I mentioned that at this point, that paralyzing fear of the unknown started coming back?
We can see the banners now. One is of Jesus- the traditional depiction of the light-brown-hair, blue-eyed Jesus who bears no resemblance to what the guy must have actually looked like. The other 12 banners are all of an older, skinny guy with a long, old-testament prophet style beard. Sexton. Looking out from the posters with an expression of love and sincerity on his face.
The weirdness hits us full bore when we pass all the store shelves that had been pushed back to make room for banquet tables and chairs. Glasses and food and pitchers are set up on the tables, with dozens of bodies in the chairs. Children's bodies, women in dresses, men in jeans and work shirts.
Every one has been beheaded.
A thousand ideas go through my head. I want to shoot myself, to gouge out my eyes, anything to not see this anymore. Every time I think I've seen it all....
This isn't fun any more.
Father Ramos crosses himself and begins praying earnestly, tears running down his face as he blesses the body of a child.
Reflex keep my guns up. The heads are gone. Something took them. I really, really want to kill whatever it is that did that.
The voices and music are coming from half a dozen TV's with DVD players plugged in. They are looping testimonials from people who must have been members of the congregation. All about how Reverend Sexton opened their eyes, saved their lives, how great Reverend Sexton's preachings were.
Father Ramos looks up from his prayers. I'd never seen the little dark priest angry before. "This man did not worship God. He thought that he was God."
I watch one testimonial from a huge guy, with a short beard and ponytail, telling how he'd been into paganism. How the Reverend had saved his wife and his children. How the love of a good woman had brought him to salvation, leading him to turn to the True Faith.
I’m trying to see into the shadowy recesses of the store. To see everything except the headless corpses around us. The jolt hits me over and over- the bodies seeming so normal, so reassuring- until I see that severed neck.
"This is insane." Father Ramos studies the bodies. "These people were dead before they were beheaded."
No more. Please. No more craziness. "Why is that Father?"
"I have seen terrorists behead hostages. In the Phillipines, the Moros beheaded a missionary. The blood sprayed out. It was like a fountain. Like the man on the roof. Here, all these bodies, there is almost no blood."
The radio broke what chain of thought I still had. "Ted! This is Roger! One of our people saw something on the other side of the store. You aren't going to believe this!"
Bruce Willis would have had a snappy line. My mind is totally blown. I manage "What?"
"They have an open air garden center that's fenced in. Somebody's built a big pile of lumber and pallets and there's three bodies on top of it. They must have just set it on fire, like a funeral pyre. But scattered beneath them- you ain't gonna believe this, man, this is some seriously freaky shit."
"Are there a bunch of human heads?"
I think I heard him retching over the radio. Vaguely I heard a "Yes."
That’s when I glimpse a big axe flying end-over-end through the air.
Just before it hits me.
The bellow from the giant seems to drive railroad spikes into my brain.
Oh. Yeah. Me with a concussion, maybe a skull fracture. A berserker with an axe trying to chop up Father Ramos.
No way can I chase this guy. I try to guesstimate where they're moving, hide myself as best I can, hearing him bellow. I pull an object from a pocket on the flak vest, check it. The ready light is on.
"Hah! You are nimble, Priest! You need to worship a true Warrior's god!"
There's an impact. A suppressed shout of pain as Father Ramos goes flying past me, his machetes ringing off the floor. The big guy is on him in a minute, drawing a no-kidding short sword, putting it to his throat. "Ho, priest! I, Ragnar, salute you! You fought a worthy battle. Reject your false god and join me in the worship of Asatru and the All Father. Or die!"
I think he smiled. "Thank you."
"Then you join me in my faith?"
"No. Thank you for letting me choose. I have always wondered if I would have the courage I have seen in others, to cling to my faith in the face of death. Now, I know. Do what you will and God's mercy be upon your soul."
Solid impact into that wall of muscle and chainmail. And a blanket being used as a cloak.
I jam my taser into his neck. His body spasms as the electricity hits him.
"Have a little of Thor's lightning, buddy!" Crazy must be contagious around here because I'm feeling pretty deranged myself. I jam the taser into his neck again and again and it's the funniest thing I've ever done. I'm laughing like a maniac. Maybe that's the concussion too, I don't know.
By the fourth good jolt, he's out on the floor and the taser's batteries are dead. I throw it away and draw my 10mm. I'm seeing in threes right now. I figure I'll put half a clip into the viking in the middle and see how that works. "Okay chuckles, welcome to the 21st century!"
"No! Do not shoot him!" Father Ramos throws himself in front of me.
"Jeez, Father, he just tried to kill you!"
"I forbid you to shoot this man!" The priest is a dark spot in front of me now.
Aw hell. The old altar boy reflexes are kicking in. I slowly put away the pistol. Father Ramos helps me put it back in my holster.
That's when the testimonials stop on all the DVD players. Reverend Sexton is now on each and every one.
"My friends, if you are seeing this, you are no doubt experiencing the horrors of the thousand year rule of the antichrist. I originally believed this to be a plague sent by God to punish sinful mankind. I thought my blessing from the almighty would make me immune. But it has not."
In the video, he holds up a hand wrapped in bloody bandages.
"The taint of the star wormwood is upon me. It is the instrument of the Rapture and we are all being called. To spare the faithful that suffering, I have arranged for all us to have a merciful passing at the same time, so I can lead my faithful to the throne of God and our rightful place. If you would leave behind this suffering world and join us in salvation, drink deep. Not of the wine of sin, which the lying unbelievers would have you poison your body with, but with the true grape juice which our lord made in Gallilee which will bring you to his throne! I will drink it myself as well and then my trusted bodyguards, Nathan Landry and Tom Winger, will behead me so my body will not come back as one of these hell spawned horrors. Be blessed, drink deep and join me!"
Hearing this guy in stereo has me seriously freaked out. Father Ramos pours himself a glass from one of the pitchers of grape kool aid on the tables.
I remember just in time. "Father! Don't drink that!"
"Have you ever heard of Jonestown? Jim Jones? Seems like our Reverend Sexton was following tradition."
He dumps the glass. Then he looks at the Viking.
The viking is wearing jeans. Father Ramos pulls out a wallet on a chain, unclips it. He pulls out a driver's license.
"This is Nathan Landry. He also has a card from something called the Society of Creative Anachronism?"
"That would explain the chainmail. They're a group of people who reenact medieval life. I think I saw him on one of the DVD's. Talking about his wife and kids." I get dizzy for a moment, steady myself. Odd thoughts are bouncing around like ping pong balls in my head. “I knew some SCA types in college. Some of them were a little off, but none of them were full on batshit crazy.”
“We do not know what he has been through.” Father Ramos drops the wallet, grasping one arm. "I think my shoulder is dislocated. Call your friend Officer Croston."
I look for the radio. The earpiece is still in my ear, but the radio was knocked off by the axe. I plug it back it.
"-ever is going on, if you can hear us, Ted, get back by the loading dock! We'll be doing dynamic entry so stand back! Hang on buddy, we're coming in!"
"Roger, roger. Over and done. It's all over in here. Bring in everybody. We'll open the loading dock from the inside." I'm not going to disobey Father Ramos, but Croston and the other cops will have precisely zero patience with battleaxe boy. Let them ventilate him. "If I can't shoot him, then let's get out of here before he wakes up."
Between the two of us, we manage to limp to the loading dock in the warehouse section of the store. There was a big "RZS" spray-painted on it. Father Ramos goes to the door that gives access to the loading bay. I hit the buttons that raise both the outer and inner garage doors.
The inner door starts to rise. A dozen sets of grey-green, bloody hands reach out underneath it.
It turns out "RZS" stands for "Reserve Zombie Storage".
I try to slam the buttons, to reverse them, but a pair of cold hands reaches out and grabs my ankle. Then more hands grip my feet, my legs, pulling me into that room. The fight has taken it all out of me. I have nothing left. I scream and kick.
An arm is thrown around my throat, pulling me, choking me. It's Father Ramos throwing every ounce of his small frame into a tug of war, with me as the rope. I keep kicking. Even as I feel clammy fingers on my leg. Even as I feel the first bite.
I draw my 10mm as I struggle and blast off a clip. By some miracle, I actually hit some of the things without blowing my foot off. Sometime in that process, Father Ramos pulls me free. We try to run. Flopping, pushing, a travesty of walking away, my legs bleeding from multiple bites. Somehow they hadn't hit an artery, but blood streams from a dozen shallow gashes.
They swarm out of the loading docks, moaning their hunger, eager for seconds. I throw my empty pistol at them, struggling, before Father Ramos and I fall over a couple of pallets and slam to the floor. He lands on his bad arm.
It was the only time I heard him scream in pain.
I can hear Croston and his people shooting their way into the loading docks. They aren't going to get to us in time.
Grasping, bloody hands, biting teeth in the mouths of things that used to be human, coming closer. That adrenaline rush? It is gone, used up. All that remains is cold, sick fear.
"HOLD! ALLFATHER, GIVE ME STRENGTH!"
A huge guy in chainmail pitches into them, swinging his axe. He takes one head clean off in his first swing.
"BACK, FIENDS OF NILFHEIM! YOU SHALL NOT HAVE THEM! I SAY THEE NAY!".
Seriously, this guy must have read every "Thor" comic book ever written.
The Father and I are a captive audience, watching as he pitches into them. He's actually pretty good. Bites and clawing hands slide off steel gauntlets and chainmail. I see him kick one zombies chest in and throw one backhanded punch that must have snapped a neck. They try to swarm him and he leaps away to one side, cracking them with the base of the axe handle one second, splitting skulls with the axehead the next.
Turns out Father Ramos carried in a first aid kit. He's rinsing out the bites and scratches on my legs, bandaging them.
My head doesn't hurt anymore.
I suddenly notice the absence of pain in my head. Oh, the bites burn like a sonofabitch. I can feel a burning throughout my body, like my veins are on fire. But I look at some of the blood left on my head. It's stopped flowing. I’m not dizzy.
"Freeze, Conan!" It's Roger, his voice pitched to carry. My vision has cleared. I can see him and a dozen other cops, armed to the teeth and all aiming at Ragnar, who’s standing in the middle of a heap of dismembered zombies. Amazingly, the big guy drops his axe. "Hold, friend! I am an ally!"
I try to shout and I'm amazed that I succeed. It isn't even difficult. "Don't shoot him, Roj! He saved our lives!"
After he almost killed us, granted.....
That's when I realize I'm not seeing in triples anymore.
Roger and his people keep an eye on Ragnar but now they're watching the rest of the store as well. Roger’s in his element. "Split up! Three man teams, sweep the store north to south! Look under every table, behind every door! Shoot any Z's you find, but be careful. There may be survivors hiding out too. If you have any contact, make some noise! Move!"
His people move out through the store. He slings his rifle and breaks out a taser. "Okay Ted, time to get juiced. Those are some fugly looking bites."
"Hang on, Roj." I'm playing a hunch. "Carla said the alien used these things for healing. I think they may be healing something in me too."
"Ted, everybody who's been bitten has turned! No exceptions!"
"Yeah, but Carla walked around for four hours after she got bitten before she started to turn. Give me fifteen more minutes. Unless you can whistle up a brain surgeon and a working ICU."
"Fear not, warrior." Ragnar has cleaned his axe. He throws out his chest. "If the warrior Ted begins to turn, I shall take his head before the shades of Nilfheim possess him."
"Gee, thanks Ragnar, you're a pal." Roger doesn't seem comfortable, but just at that moment his people run into a couple more zombies and he takes off. I hear over the radio. One of the zombies is an old, bearded man, his arms and legs chopped off.
Ragnar broods over his axe, his face set in anger. "Let him rot, trapped in his own foul corpse. The faithless false priest and deceiver, killer of children." .
Father Ramos speaks. "You took his arms and legs. And the heads. Why?"
"Priest, I was called from the feasting halls of the Einherjar, in Valhalla. Called by a mother seeking to save her children, who remembered her Asartu faith too late. I could not save them, but I found their bodies and separated their heads, that they would not be taken over by the shades of the hungry dead. She was a good woman, Inga Landry, a good wife. On top of the pyre, with her two children, the flames will send their spirits to the halls of Frigga and Freya in Valhalla. There they may rest with the souls of other goodwives and children, until Midgard is broken and remade again. Those who failed to protect them, I gave a better fate than they deserved. Their heads burned beneath Inga, so their spirits too will go to the halls of Freya, as their servants. A better fate indeed than that they be trapped inside the bodies of these Nilfheim spawned horrors. Only Sexton did I leave to be taken, after I removed his arms and legs, that he might harm no more innocents."
O-kay. I have to ask. "What about Nathan Landry?"
"A father who did not protect his children and his woman. He is of no consequence. Let him be forgotten."
"Okay, Ragnar, I'd like to talk with Father Ramos for a second." I pull him to one side. He's fingering the edge of his axe, buffing out something. "Father, what are we going to do with this guy?"
The priest shrugs. "He is a good fighter. Perhaps he could show us how to make chainmail. That could be useful."
"Father, he thinks he's possessed by the spirit of a viking warrior who died a thousand years ago! He really believes he's been sent by this Asartu thing."
"Who is to say he is wrong?" Ramos smiles in a thoughtful way. "I believe that, two thousand years ago, a Judean virgin bore the son of God, who became Jesus. I have tried to follow his teachings my whole life. And I have every bit as much evidence for his existence as Ragnar has for his tale of having been sent from Valhalla."
"It is a matter of Faith. I have faith that I am right and he is deluded. But he has faith in what he says. If there is one thing the Holy Mother Church has learned in two thousand years, at great cost, it is that we cannot force our faith on others. Faith must come from within, not without. I will attempt to persuade him of the error of his ways, but I cannot force him to have faith in anything."
"But father, what if he starts going berserk again?"
"Oh, then shoot him. He's dangerous with that axe."
My headache is gone. Of course, it's been replaced by a raging fever and my stomach is starting to churn.
"Where is he?" There's a familiar voice.
Carla is looking a little rumpled in her borrowed clothes. She rushes at me and hugs me. "Honey, when they told me you were going in to this place- Oh lord, you're burning up with fever!"
"I'm okay, honey."
She draws back, furious. "And why were you doing this? There are police officers here, men who are ten years younger than you! Why did they make you go in?"
Ramos pipes up. "He volunteered."
Oh darn. Thanks for nothing, Father. Now Carla has a focus for her anger.
"You volunteered? Are you insane? You are a father! What happens to Andrew and Samantha if you get killed while you're playing hero? I go through hell to get back to you and you're risking your life out here? As if it wasn't bad enough having to put up with those years you were in Afghanistan!"
"Honey, you have my word, never again." Seriously, the bites in my legs start to hurt even worse to remind me. "Besides, I was the first guy in. That gives you first dibs on the clothing department in this place."
"'Tis only fair, I trow." Ragnar speaks up. "He fought most bravely and defeated me in honorable combat."
Carla spares him a glance, then glares back at me. "If you think those tacky S-Mart fashions are going to make me happy about you risking your life-"
"And the shoe department. You get first crack at the shoe department too."
That actually stops her. For nearly a full second. "Well, shoes are fine, but-"
"And the jewelry department."
She gives me a hard look. "The jewelry department?"
"Anything you want, baby. Won it by right of combat."
She looks at me, more exasparated than angry now. "Oh, what did I expect? And I WILL have first pick of those! And thank you for thinking of me. But I'm still very upset with you."
She's holding me again when Roger comes up, taser at the ready. "Okay Ted, time to ride the lightning. Your fifteen minutes are up."
"He's been bitten and you haven't cured him yet?" Carla is ready to go at it again instantly.
"I think those nanomites cured my concussion, honey. They may actually heal some damage. I had to give them time to work."
"Well I'm your wife and it's my job to take care of you. Besides, I'm still very upset with you." She turns to Roger. "Give me the taser, officer Croston."
"Roger, do not give her that. She's not trained."
He hands her the taser. "I never get between a husband and wife. You two can work this out."
She's reading the instructions. "Oh, don't be such a baby. I did this to myself with a light socket. You'll be fine."
I do not like the gleam in her eyes when she says that.