Authors: Mark Terence Chapman
Battle Commander FronCar snapped to attention. “Your orders,
A lesser Drahtch soldier would have been unable to maintain the absolutely motionless pose he held for several long seconds before his superior spoke. FronCar’s golden skin glinted in the filtered yellow sunlight streaming in through the massive viewport to his left.
“At ease, Commander.” Viceroy CresNal, supreme military authority of the massive fleet of Drahtch ships, shifted in his command chair. “What do you make of what you see below?” His dark bronze coloration attested to his great age.
FronCar relaxed slightly, then turned and looked at the deep blue, green, and brown planet below. White fluffy clouds scudded across the large eastern continent; the northern polar ice cap reflected the sunlight; the western land masses were nearly invisible in the dark. The seas were enormous, much larger and deeper than the shallow blue-green seas of the Drahtch homeworld.
To the right of the viewport in the Fleet Control Room, the battle status screen remained dark. To the left, the threat assessment screen showed negative across the board. Between CresNal’s command chair—or throne, as FronCar thought of it—and the viewport sat dozens of people. There were military strategists, analysts, tacticians, senior pilots, troop commanders, and all the other people required to stage an invasion.
“Your Excellency? I see nothing special. No orbital defenses, no surface-to-space missiles approaching, no energy weapons powering up. Everything is quiet.”
“Exactly. We have been transmitting demands for the planetary governments to surrender or be destroyed for a day now, and they have made no attempts to attack us, or even reply. From the long-term reconnaissance of this planet before we left our system, we know the indigenes were beginning to explore their solar system and had missile systems capable of reaching orbit. Surely they have made progress in those areas during the eighteen years since we left. So why haven’t they attempted to attack us?”
FronCar shrugged. “Perhaps they saw the futility of any such action.”
“Why would they? They know nothing of us.”
“They must have high-powered telescopes on the planet, or orbital ones. They can see that our ships are far beyond anything they have. Perhaps they don’t have the will to fight.”
“I doubt that, Commander. From our observations, we know they’re a warlike race. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t at least
to mount an attack, or attempt to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Besides, look again at the planet. There are billions of people living there, so why are there so few lights? The scans show relatively few operating energy sources and almost no transmissions on radio or microwave frequencies.”
FronCar frowned and pursed his lips in thought. “You raise some excellent points, sir. Perhaps an on-site inspection is in order.”
Viceroy CresNal smiled. “My thoughts exactly. Send a flight of attack ships in for a low-altitude flyover of some of the major cities and stream the footage to the viewscreen. Have them use due caution, in case the indigenes are planning something. Let’s see what they’re up to.”
* * * *
A high-speed, high-altitude flight over what appeared to be a military base—judging by the shape and size of the aircraft and ground vehicles and the primitive camouflage coloring—was encouraging. There were people walking around, but no indication of a heightened threat posture. A similar pass over two cities likewise showed no indication of active offensive or defensive measures.
“Attack flight leader to Control.”
“Control to Leader. What’s your status?”
“All go. These people seem to have no idea that we’re here over their planet. Or don’t care. They’re practically begging to be invaded. Their cities don’t even appear to be defended. Request permission to begin mission phase two.”
“Acknowledged, Leader. You are cleared for a low-speed close-observation pass.”
“Acknowledged. Beginning observation pass.”
The flight of three attack ships swung back around. The craft couldn’t hover, but they were capable of traveling at relatively slow speeds. The ships were arranged with the flight leader taking point at low-left, another at medium-right, and the third at high-center providing cover for the other two. Their firing cam images appeared on the darkened viewport-turned-viewscreen of the command ship in orbit as they flew over a major thoroughfare.
“Are you getting this, Control?”
Below was a scene of devastation. Vehicles were abandoned in the middle of the roadway or smashed together. Buildings had broken windows and doors. A small winged aircraft jutted from the side of one of the taller structures. Vegetation grew wild here and there. Smoke drifted above the ashes of what was left of a small building. Nothing living moved, just litter blowing in the breeze.
Still, for the most part the city was intact. It certainly didn’t look as if there had been a civilization-ending war.
“What in MemKar’s name happened here? Where is everyone?”
Passes over other major streets showed more of the same, as did several passes over the next city. Then, on the last pass before the flight was due to return to the command ship, sensors detected motion. The flight slowed to minimal speed to observe.
Below, nearly a dozen indigenes cornered a small animal in a recessed doorway. As the pilots watched, the indigenes caught the creature and passed it around, each tearing out large chunks of flesh with their teeth. None of them seemed to be aware of the invaders overhead.
“Leader to Control. Are you seeing this?”
“One moment, Leader.” After consulting with Viceroy CresNal, Control responded, “Return to ship, Leader.”
“Acknowledged. Flight returning.”
* * * *
Commander FronCar turned to CresNal. “Your Excellency, it would seem that the indigenes have paved the way for our colonization efforts.”
“It certainly does appear so.”
“Pity. Our soldiers have been training for this day for eighteen years. It would be a shame to deny them the opportunity for glorious combat.”
“True. Whatever befell the civilization here—such as it was—there appears to be survivors. That may mean armed resistance at some point. Keep your soldiers at readiness.”
FronCar’s facial expression, despite his control, leaked the barest hint of offense. “Of course, sir! Always.”
“Good, good. Whatever happened, it saved us the trouble of having to bombard the planet from space and reduce it to rubble. It appears that much of the infrastructure is intact. Roads, at least some power plants, dams, perhaps water treatment plants. If so, that will save us much time and effort, and greatly reduce the time needed before we can land the colonists. It looks like this will be a relatively effortless victory.
“This last city looks nearly perfect. Small enough that we can erect a protective barrier around it, moderate climate, adjacent to a navigable waterway, with power in at least parts of the city, and reasonably intact. We should be able to begin colonizing in short order—once you’ve cleared out the indigenous population infesting it.”
* * * *
“Shit. Did you see that, Sarge?” Chrissy Montoni looked back from the window of the aptly named Hungry Shopper supermarket at the man standing behind her munching on a not-quite-stale candy bar.
“Yeah.” Byron “Chick” Daniels craned his neck for a better look before the trio of ships disappeared beyond the window frame. “They sure don’t look like anything we or the Russians or the Chinese have. They don’t
like anything I’ve seen before, either.”
“You don’t suppose E.T. finally came back, do you?” Chrissy said with a smirk.
Daniels chuckled. “If he did, he’ll have a tougher go phoning home this time.”
“Wouldn’t that be a cosmic joke, though? Zoms wipe out almost all of humanity right before an alien invasion?”
Daniels laughed. “When it rains, it pours, right?”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, the way things are, they’re welcome to the planet, as long as they leave us alone. We’ve got bigger problems to worry about. Besides, who knows? Maybe they’ll get rid of the zombie problem for us.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice. I hope they’re friendly.”
“Same here. The last thing we need is to have to fight zombies
“I don’t even want to think about that.”
Daniels peered out the window again. “It looks the Zoms are busy with that poor dog. We should be able to slip out and get back to the others.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
They called them Zoms because they were only half zombie. They were brain-dead man-eaters, but they weren’t “undead.” They lived and had animal cunning. Once, the ferocity with which the Zoms shredded the poor animal would have shocked them. No more. They had seen worse, far worse, many times over in the past year.
The duo approached the duffel bags they’d filled with food, batteries, and first-aid supplies, ran their belts through the duffel grips, and positioned the bags behind them like giant fanny packs to keep their hands free. Then they picked up their rifles and headed for the back door. After checking for movement in the immediate area, they slipped through and ran for the shadows across the alley.
The Zoms were on the prowl. There was no telling how many there might be in the area.
* * * *
Chick Daniels slouched back against the stack of tires with a satisfied sigh. The place smelled of rubber and cat piss, but it was cool and, for the moment at least, free of Zoms.
Although a hot meal would have been better, a fire was out of the question with Zoms in the area. Besides, cold pork and beans and canned Vienna sausages were a huge leap forward from the peanut butter “sandwich” crackers they’d been down to before this sortie. Not really Daniels’ idea of a sandwich, or a meal…
Two of the main items Daniels had been determined to find in the grocery store were a can opener and real peanut butter.
He muttered, “I’ll be damned before I eat any more peanut butter crackers—that’s for sure.”
“What’s that, Sarge”? Hector Villa called over his shoulder from the next stack of tires.
“Nothing, Moose. Just wool-gathering.”
The two, plus Chrissy Montoni standing watch by the front door of Steve’s Tire Palace, and Jesse Jefferson keeping an eye on the side door, were all that remained of the seven that banded together over the past few months.
The first to fall had been Marge Kanakaredes.
* * * *
When the group turned the corner at Fifth and Sweeney, Jesse, on point, spotted a Zom a hundred yards down the street. He ducked back, but not before it spotted him. It bellowed in the combination of grunts and shrieks that the Zoms had developed as a sort of rudimentary language. There didn’t seem to be any actual words, but the others understood the sounds to mean food at hand and they came running.
“Shit!” Jesse immediately began firing at the four Zoms that raced toward the group.
Marge Kanakaredes and “Moose” Villa—came up behind him and fired their shotguns. Nine more Zoms poured out of various doorways and charged the humans. They were too fast, and weaved from side to side to make hitting them harder. Daniels and Chrissy opened up with their rifles as soon as they had a clear shot.
A bullet to the chest dropped one and a shotgun blast blew the leg off another. Blood spurted into the air as he fell. Four more emerged, and then another six. Within seconds, there were far too many to fight off.
Peter DeBerge fired with pistols in each hand. “Man, what I wouldn’t give for some slow, shambling zombies!”
“Shut up and move!” Daniels ordered. The group turned and ran for all they were worth. More Zoms joined the chase from the side streets.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, bricks rained down on the group. Three Zoms were throwing them from a rooftop. One hit Kanakaredes in the head, felling her instantly.
“Grab her other arm,” Daniels yelled to Jerry Lombard. “We have to take her somewhere safe.”
“It’s too late, Sarge. She’s gone.”
Daniels finally noticed the vacant, lifeless stare. “
With more bricks falling, the group had no choice but to leave her and run for their lives. Seconds later, the horde of Zoms pounced on the unfortunate woman, ignoring the rest of the group. It didn’t take long before the Zoms were passing severed arms and legs around like giant Buffalo wings at a party.
That wasn’t the first time nineteen-year-old Chrissy Montoni had ever witnessed such viciousness—and it wouldn’t be the last.