Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #science fiction, #military, #horror, #action, #post-apocalyptic, #dystopian
(Book #5 in the AFTER series)
A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller
By Scott Nicholson
Copyright ©2015 by Scott Nicholson
Haunted Computer Books
Author Central page
Other books in the After series:
And the exciting new spinoff series ZAPHEADS
(with Joshua Simcox)
Zapheads #2: Scars and Ashes (Coming soon)
Previously, in After #0 through #4:
After a cataclysmic solar storm kills billions and wipes out the technological infrastructure, the few survivors struggle to adapt. But some, known as “Zapheads,” have mutated into violent killers.
Rachel Wheeler and her companions head for her grandfather Franklin’s remote survivalist compound in the mountains of North Carolina. They become separated, discovering that the Zapheads are gathering into large herds, mimicking human behavior. After suffering a severe dog bite that causes a life-threatening infection, Rachel is captured by a group of Zapheads at a farmhouse. The Zapheads heal her wound through a strange ritual that leaves Rachel with some Zaphead traits and impulses.
Meanwhile, Franklin Wheeler and his friend Jorge Jiminez are captured by a rogue military unit occupying a secret bunker. After a daring escape, Franklin returns to his compound while Jorge goes in search of his wife and daughter. Jorge finds them in a small town overrun by Zapheads, who have collected the dead and demand that the few survivors teach them and care for the supremely intelligent Zaphead infants.
Rachel and her companions are reunited at Franklin’s compound, but the rogue soldiers attack them just as a swarm of Zapheads close in. In the ensuing chaos, the group scatters, and Rachel is driven by a compulsion to join the Zapheads at their new town, her humanity slipping away and yielding to the strange urges inside.
The thing that had been Rachel Wheeler approached the football stadium at Newton High School, the smell of death ripe in the December afternoon.
The chants arose from the stands as if heralding a star quarterback. “WHEE-ler! WHEE-ler!”
As she crested the hill between the bare trees that swayed like skeletons in the December wind, waving black arms at the sky, the roar fell away into a muted drone. She didn’t understand that the voices were only half-human.
Or that the thousands of corpses filling one half of the stadium stared in utter silence from rotted eye sockets. The corpses had fallen against each other in various stages of rot and collapse. Some were as desiccated as mummies, the skin of their faces stretched taut around their screaming skulls. Others wept putrescence in great tears that glistened in the sun. Their clothes were tattered and soaked, bits of bone showing here and there.
With a sudden flutter, a flock of ravens erupted from the mass open grave, black chaos rising in the sky like halftime fireworks. A child’s waxen corpse pitched forward in the melee, bouncing against the steel rail that barricaded the concourse from the ragged field.
The sight aroused neither horror nor melancholy in Rachel. Death was just a transformative state, and the world was in transformation. The dead weren’t as important as those on the other side of the stadium, the ones who shouted her name.
The New People.
The savage killers she’d once called “Zapheads.” And now she was one of them, and she understood.
Even with the sun bright in the sky, she could see the wild glittering of their eyes. There were hundreds of them—only a fraction of the number of corpses on the opposite bleachers, and dressed just as shabbily. They varied in age and skin tone and size, but they were united in their fervor.
But not everyone in the crowd was shouting. Along the front row sat some silent people without glittering eyes, and their presence stirred some slumbering memory.
Why haven’t they been killed?
One of them stood, a bronze-skinned woman with coal-black hair, an infant cradled in her arms. The woman worked her way down the row and navigated the concrete steps, descending to the asphalt track that circled the field. Rachel continued toward the crowd that chanted her name, her feet sinking into the soggy, brown turf.
The woman with the baby crossed the track, and the infant writhed in her arms, agitated by the noise.
Or excited by your arrival?
They were twenty feet apart when the baby’s clear, high voice cut through the chanting of the crowd.
“Welcome home, Rachel Wheeler.”
Rachel wasn’t shocked that the baby spoke. The communal energy of the tribe was almost pulsing, and the baby was part of it. In a way, the baby talked for all of them.
“I’m here now,” Rachel said.
The human woman holding the baby twitched with anxiety. No wonder. She should be dead. After all, she was wrong for this world.
But she was trusted to carry the child, so she must have some role here.
She would die when the right time came, when the New People were finished with her. No hurry. They had forever.
?” the human said. “Do you know Franklin?”
The baby glared up at the woman holding it, eyes fierce with inquisitive sparks. Not quite hostility, but with a brightness capable of flaming into destructive anger.
But the human’s words tugged at something deep within Rachel, a part that made her uneasy.
“Franklin?” Rachel said.
The crowd had fallen mostly silent, and aside for the few humans among them, were as still as the dead piled on the opposite side of the field.
“The man on the mountain,” the woman said. “He helped our family, took us in.”
No digas más, mujer
,” the baby demanded. “
But it was too late. Rachel looked to the north where the distant ridges met the blue sky on the horizon. The mountains were iron gray and black with winter, the trees sleeping and the granite enduring whatever changes happened above. Her grandfather’s face flashed across her thoughts, creating discomfort.
“Take me,” the infant said to Rachel, reaching up with two chubby arms. It couldn’t have been more than nine months old.
The old man’s bearded and creased face slipped from her mind and she took the child from the human. Franklin had been from the old days, a past that no longer mattered. Rachel was here now.
With the New People.
“My name is Bryan,” the baby said. “I took it from somebody.”
Rachel hugged the child to her chest. “Hello, Bryan.”
“Go now go back,” the baby commanded the human.
The woman looked at Rachel with wide, unlighted eyes moist with water. They harbored some emotion—many emotions—that irritated Rachel. This woman’s mere presence inflicted a biological response akin to pain.
No wonder humans had to die. They weren’t New.
“Go now go back,” Rachel repeated, and the woman trudged across the sloppy field.
As the distance between them grew, Rachel relaxed.
“It won’t be much longer,” the baby said. “We need them now, to help us. But we’re almost ready. Soon they will have nothing more to offer and we can correct them. Or remove them.”
Rachel glanced at the sightless audience of the dead. “And what of these?”
“We’ll fix them, too. So they can be like new. But we need your help, because you’re the first of them we’ve made New.”
Rachel watched the human return to the stands, where the few of her kind stirred restlessly among the hundreds of New People, who patiently awaited the next task. The human hugged a young girl of about ten, the gesture stirring more unease inside Rachel.
A feeling that something was missing.
But she couldn’t dwell on it, because the first shot rang out from the hill above the stadium.
We could do it.
Jorge Jiminez counted the Zapheads in the gymnasium. The cavernous space was dim because the only light leaked from a series of narrow windows set high on the brick walls. The doors to the outside were open, and two Zapheads stood watch, their silhouettes black and unmoving but their eyes glinting with mutant energy. Jorge counted them again.
Two at the door, four over by the women tending the Zaphead babies, six lined against the far wall with their eyes closed in some bizarre brand of meditation or sleep.
He guessed maybe another half a dozen stood just outside, and several of the smallest babies remained behind, browsing through the piles of books stacked around them as their human carriers turned the pages. The rest had gone off this morning, taking a number of the humans with them, including Rosa and Marina.
He’d heard the multitude of voices in the distance, so he knew they hadn’t left the school grounds. His only comfort was in the notion that whatever his family was facing, they weren’t alone.
But their absence also offered the first real opportunity to escape. He looked around the cluttered corner of the gym where the humans had pitched their makeshift camp. Blankets draped over wires served as tents, the only privacy allowed except for occasional forays to relieve themselves in the bushes outside, always accompanied by at least two adult Zapheads.
Three men sat on plastic five-gallon buckets around a cardboard box that served as their table. They slathered peanut butter from a greasy jar onto some stale crackers taken from the school’s cafeteria, smacking their lips as they chewed.
Jorge walked over to them, acting as if he were joining them in their desperate feast. He knew them, but he didn’t trust two of them—he’d seen them stealing food from some of the others. They also made it clear what they thought of Mexicans. The third man, though, shared Jorge’s anger and disgust at the enforced captivity.
“Hey, Danny,” he said to the man, nodding at the others to blunt their hostility. “Are those crackers any good?”
Danny was bearded, like all of them, and his skin was sallow from poor nutrition and lack of sun. White crumbs flew from his mouth as he spoke. “Tastes like a wad of toilet paper smeared with cold donkey crap.”
His two dining companions laughed and continued eating. Danny rubbed his hands together and said, “I’d offer you some, but that wouldn’t necessarily be good manners, would it? I mean, ‘Have a shit sandwich’? Not cool.”
Jorge smiled. “I have something that may help wash it down.”
All three men perked up. Danny’s eyes narrowed. “The good stuff?”
“I found a bottle in the janitor’s closet when I was looking for soap. The Zapheads must have thought it was some kind of cleaning fluid so they didn’t stop me when I brought it back to our tent.”
Danny stood and said, “Well, what are we waiting for? The day’s not getting any younger.”
“There’s only enough for two,” Jorge said.
The man on the left balled his fists and grimaced. “You fucking beaner. That’s American booze on American public property. You got no right to it.”
Jorge held up his hand in a submissive, placating gesture. One talent he’d mastered since migrating was to always let white people think he was weaker and dumber than they were. Not everyone was a racist, but many people looked for any target for their anger, especially in the post-apocalyptic hell known as After. They were helpless against their real enemies, the Zapheads, but they could always find someone to push to the bottom of the ladder.
“A trade,” Jorge said, looking only at Danny. “Then you can share it however you like.”
Danny slapped one of his mates on the shoulder. “Hear that? He likes me.”
The man on the left said, “Sure, he does. You’re as queer as a pink bunny rabbit. But whatever it takes to get me drunk, you go ahead and roll with it.”
Jorge wondered if the two men would join in if he convinced Danny to attack the Zapheads. He wasn’t counting on it. He was willing to go it alone, get outside, and then find his family and head back to the mountains and Franklin Wheeler’s compound. But even one extra person would help divide the Zapheads’ attention.
Danny followed him to the two blankets draped across classroom desks that served as the Jiminez residence. When they arrived, Danny said, “Okay, cut the bullshit. What’s up?”
“I didn’t want to say this in front of those two, but I’m leaving.”
Danny glanced at the two men, who were out of earshot, and gave them a thumb’s-up. At the same time, he said, “I hate those assholes. But they say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
“Our true enemies have fire in their eyes and they’ve killed our friends as well as our enemies.”
“So you’re just going to walk out of here? La la-la, zippity-doo-dah? And hope the Zapheads don’t notice?”
“They always notice,” Jorge said. “And those babies—it’s as if they can read minds as easily as they read books.”
They both looked over at the section of the gym where women tended and taught the Zaphead infants. Jorge was sickened by Rosa’s and Marina’s pleasure in helping them. Rosa claimed that Zaphead adults had no ability to raise children, which is why the infants had commanded them to round up human survivors for the task. Jorge wondered what the Zapheads would do to their carriers and other slaves once they’d outlived their usefulness.
The sooner he got his wife and daughter away from these murderous mutants, the better.
The muted thunder of the Zapheads’ voices reached them from a distance. Jorge couldn’t make out the words but they seemed to be chanting in unison. He hoped Rosa and Marina were not part of whatever ritual they were performing. His mind summoned several grisly sacrificial scenarios and he forcibly discarded them.
“The week before you got here, some guy cracked and made a run for it,” Danny said, shaking his head as if trying to knock loose the memory. “The Zappers took him down before he even reached the door. Poor guy screamed like a cat in heat while they tore his arms and legs off. Took him all night to die.”
“They’re counting on us not being organized. And they’ve gotten used to us acting like cattle. They know they’ve won.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“That metal locker in the corner.”
Danny started to glance that way, but Jorge nudged him. “Don’t look. They’ll see you and wonder what we’re talking about. The locker contains balls and games, equipment used by physical education students. I saw some baseball bats in it the other day.”
Danny nodded. “Hell, yeah. I used to play a little third base back in the day. Wouldn’t mind upping my batting average against some Zapper skulls.”
“The children could get in there without attracting attention, but if we do it, the Zapheads will follow us. But if someone creates a distraction…”
Jorge felt under the bundle of clothing where he’d stowed the nearly full bottle of vodka. He pulled it out and gave it to Danny. “A trade, like I said. You give this to your two friends there—”
“I told you, they’re not my friends.”
“As long as it’s been since their last drink, I’ll bet it affects them fast. They’ll get loud and obnoxious and probably disturb the Zapheads. Maybe even start a fight.”
“You’re talking about sacrificing them so you can make a play?” Danny’s face curdled. “They’re assholes, but they’re
Jorge locked a firm stare on Danny. “I’ll sacrifice anyone or anything to save my family. Even me, even you.”
“Cool.” Danny grinned. “Better to know the deal up front. I got nobody, so I don’t have nothing to lose. I’m in.”
Jorge nodded, relieved. “I don’t think the two of us can disable all the Zapheads. But if we attack their helpless infants—”
“Holy shit, Jorge, you’re playing for keeps, huh? Do you think you could do that? Bash a baby’s brains in, even if it’s a freaking little Zapper?”
“I will do whatever it takes,” Jorge said. “Besides, it’s not like they’re human. It’s no different than chopping off a chicken’s head or gutting a fish.”
“Too dumb to feel pain. Just keep telling yourself that.” Danny rose and carried the bottle of vodka over to the two men who waited impatiently, barely paying attention to the hands of poker cards they held.
The men immediately began passing the bottle back and forth. Danny only pretended to drink, but the other two seemed to be in a competition to down the largest gulps. Within minutes, their voices rose in alcohol-fueled exuberance.
The voices in the stadium grew louder, too, and Jorge wondered if the Zapheads in the gym would even notice the two men. If necessary, Jorge could stir up trouble with the men, perhaps bait them into shouting racist insults. He couldn’t afford to get in a fight with them, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
The Zapheads at the door drew closer, curious at the two men’s behavior.
Jorge walked toward the physical-education locker as casually as he could, pretending to read the various championship banners and basketball jerseys hanging on the walls. Danny separated from the two men, wobbling unsteadily, exaggerating drunkenness. The two men were happy to lose a drinking buddy. More for them.
Jorge had just reached the locker when the shot rang from somewhere on the school grounds, then another, then a full burst of automatic weapons fire.
The chanting fell away outside and was replaced by human screams.