Authors: Mark Terence Chapman
Chrissy and Moose charged at the Zoms, knives drawn, and attempted to get them off the others. Moose stabbed one in the chest and Chrissy got another in the back.
“How do you like
, you piece of shit?” she yelled.
Daniels gutted his Zom, and Jesse had to kick one in the knee so he had a moment in which to draw his pistol and fire.
Peter was still wrestling with two, having dispatched the other. He stabbed one and Daniels shot the other.
Still panting, Peter dropped his knife and held his right wrist with his left hand. “Goddamn Zom bit me.” His shirtsleeve dripped with blood, and more trickled down his elbow.
Chrissy tried to cover the worry painted on her face. “Jeez, Peter, you’ve lost a lot of blood. You’d better let us take a look at that.”
Peter let go of his wrist just long enough to slide back the sleeve. Even that was too long. Blood spurted from his wrist. He clamped down on it, Blood continued to ooze from beneath his hand.
“Artery!” Daniels shouted. “Quick, someone find something we can use as a tourniquet!”
Everyone dropped their backpacks and rummaged inside.
“Here!” Moose said, holding a sock. “It’s not clean, but it should do until we can find something better.”
“That’s fine.” Daniels wrapped the sock around Peter’s arm, just above the elbow and cinched it tight.
“Over here. Sit.” Chrissy led Peter a few steps to an overturned can.
Peter sat. “I’m okay. Just a little dizzy.”
Chrissy and Daniels exchanged worried glances. They didn’t have a doctor, after all.
“Jus’ gimme a min to catch my breath, and then we can go. We can’ afford to stay here. We’re sittin’ du—” Peter toppled over.
Daniels knelt and checked his pulse. “It’s really weak. He’s lost too much blood.”
“We gotta do somethin’!” Moose said.
“Like what? A transfusion? Surgery?” Daniels sighed. “There’s nothing we can do for him.”
He, Chrissy, Moose, and Jesse, stood or sat, waiting, until Peter DeBerge’s heart stopped beating.
Chrissy dropped to the floor in a heap and sat there hugging her knees. “Shit.” She shook her head and cried softly as the others stood around moping.
After a minute, Daniels sat beside her and put his arm around her.
He sighed. “I know you’re hurting. We all liked Peter. We’ll take him out back and bury him.”
She nodded and wiped her eyes as she stood. They had lost people before, but she’d been close to Peter. He’d been a teen runaway, just as she had. They bonded over that. Now, she had just lost yet another friend. Over the past year, she’d lost way too many friends. Even losing someone she
especially close to was hard. There weren’t all that many humans left alive. Each death brought humanity that much closer to extinction.
She helped carry Peter’s body out the back door and to the dirt yard beyond. Daniels pulled the camp shovel he’d found weeks earlier out of his backpack and began to dig. The shovel was small and the dirt was packed hard. It took a while to make any progress. Sweating profusely, he turned over the chore after ten minutes and the others each took a turn. It took more than an hour just to make a hole three feet deep.
Although Peter deserved a decent burial, that was the best they could do without staying exposed for too long. They placed his body in the hole gently, placed a reasonably clean handkerchief over his face, and then covered him up.
Each spoke at an impromptu funeral ceremony. After more than fourteen months of fighting against the Zoms and losing so many friends, at this point they were emotionally numb. The speeches were short.
Chrissy went first. “Peter, you were a good friend. You had a hard life and deserved a better fate than this. I’ll miss you.”
Moose then said, “Dude, I know you’re in a far better place than this. Go with God.”
Jesse followed with, “If my father were here, he’d have a ready speech about how we deserved all of this. That the apocalypse was a sign of God’s displeasure and this was a means of clearing out the sinners and starting over. I don’t buy all that bullshit. You were a good guy and should have been rewarded with a better life than this. At least you can rest now. Your fight is over.”
Finally, it was Daniels’ turn. “I didn’t know you very long, but you were a hard worker who pulled his weight and rarely felt sorry for himself. It’s all too easy to fall prey to ‘why me?’ syndrome. But you stayed cheerful to the end. We’re better people for having known you.”
And then there were four.
Over the next few weeks, several hundred soldiers entered the city at different points and systematically worked their way from building to building, shooting at anything that moved and was large enough to be a threat.
They killed thousands of Zoms. Many that survived learned to avoid the soldiers, in the same way wild animals learn to hide from the humans that hunt them. Some, because they were hungry, or to protect their territory, continued to attack.
They didn’t all charge the soldiers. Some had just enough brain power to lure a few soldiers into a building or alley, whereupon the rest of the pack would jump out from hiding or drop from above into the midst of the soldiers, where they couldn’t effectively use their guns for fear of shooting one another. It came down to a matter of teeth versus knives.
Many indigenes died that way, as did some soldiers. Still, the Drahtch had millions of soldiers to spare. The Drahtch army was winning, but not quite as easily as they had expected.
Of course, there were more than ten million Zoms still roaming the planet…
* * * *
“Sarge, look at this.” Chrissy pointed at several dead Zoms huddled in a corner of an alley. There was a small amount of red blood near one of them, and a lot of yellowish blood on their clothing and around their mouths.
Chick Daniels took a closer look. “Huh. Clearly they’ve been in a fight with our golden friends.”
“Yeah, but like that other one at the warehouse I don’t see any serious wounds on these guys. So why are they dead? These guys also have a rash on their face, like the other one. I wonder if that’s connected to what killed them.”
Daniels shrugged. “Maybe the aliens have some sort of weapon that doesn’t leave a mark. Poison gas, or sonic, or something.”
Chrissy didn’t looked convinced. “Maybe. That could be bad for us, but I don’t think they’d use gas during a close-in fight. Too dangerous for them.”
“Unless they had gas masks, or are immune to the gas.”
“Yeah, maybe. Or maybe they died of indigestion. Who knows? Look at how they’re positioned. It looks like they crawled here to die.”
“Indigestion. Ha! Good one. Well, we’d better get what we came for and get the hell out of this part of town. There’s a lot more aliens around here than there were a few days ago. It’s getting harder to avoid them, and they seem inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.
“You got it.”
* * * *
Jay watched the small group approach from behind a dumpster at the end of an alley. Others of The Pack awaited on either side of the narrow side street that intersected the alley. Some hid behind closed doors, some behind wrecked cars, a few on a low rooftop.
Operating on little more than instinct and vague shreds of memories, Jay somehow understood that the nine foods approaching from the left were anything but easy targets. His head hurt whenever he tried to think, so he didn’t try. However, sometimes ideas came to him anyway, bubbling up from the depths to what was left of his conscious mind.
He didn’t know why, but he
these foods were dangerous. As the alpha, the rest of The Pack waited for him to give the signal to attack. He hesitated, as the open vehicle approached the alley, then gave the correct shriek and grunt to signal the attack.
Twenty-one pack members swarmed the vehicle. The soldiers opened fire.
The first volley killed four of The Pack outright, and grievously wounded two others. Three of The Pack jumped down on the vehicle from above, knocking four of the soldiers to the bed of the vehicle and disrupting the aim of the ones beside them. The rest of The Pack used the distraction to swarm aboard the vehicle and attack the soldiers.
Two of The Pack tore chunks of flesh from the arms or legs of soldiers with nothing but their teeth before being shot or stabbed. One Pack member attacked the hand of a soldier, biting off two fingers and causing the knife to clatter to the bed of the vehicle.
Jay, running toward the vehicle, saw the knife get kicked to the ground by a soldier struggling for his life. It clattered with a familiar sound. Jay picked up the knife and stared at it.
N— N— Ni—
The word wouldn’t come and the attempt to think of it hurt. No matter. He remembered what it was used for. He grasped the knife in his fist and jumped on the back of the vehicle.
Jay plunged the knife into the arm of a soldier, twisted it and sliced through the flesh. The alien screamed and turned toward Jay. As the soldier kicked Jay from the vehicle, the driver managed to fight off the Pack member lunging for his throat and gunned the vehicle forward.
One of The Pack and a soldier fell off the back as the vehicle darted for safety. The rest of The Pack pounced on the soldier, ripping at his clothing and tearing him to shreds.
While they feasted, Jay continued to stare at the knife. Something about it nagged at him. He forgot he was hungry. However, before the others could eat all the good parts, he took the knife, shouldered the others aside, and sawed through the left elbow of the soldier. The forearm still held a fair amount of meat on the bone.
He let the others eat while he pondered the knife.
When they’d had their fill and picked up the rest of the carcass for later eating, he signaled for them to follow. With the forearm dangling from one hand and the knife in the other, he led the remaining thirteen members of The Pack toward something he had a vague memory of.
Minutes later, they reached the sporting goods store. Jay looked inside and spotted the display case containing knives, and the racks and shelves that held other useful things.
He smiled and picked up a large rock that lay nearby. Then he hurled it at the display window, shattering it.
The Pack entered.
* * * *
That night, as the quartet prepared for sleep in the back of a bakery, Chrissy curled up with her head on a sack of flour as a pillow. After a close brush with Zoms an hour earlier, her nerves were still jangled.
As she drifted toward slumber, she remembered a time when she slept curled up like this with her head on a pillow with XXX embroidered on it. The hunting shack her dad and Uncle Jack owned in the hills of Tennessee had once been used for making moonshine. The XXX was a reference to the hooch they used to drink there on the front porch, rockin’ and smokin’ cigars.
Chrissy had learned to shoot there over the course of several hunting seasons, and had once shot an 8-point buck. Her dad had been so proud that he’d had the head mounted on a plaque and hung in her bedroom so she could see it and be reminded of her great day.
She often fell asleep looking at it and smiling. That is, until the night when she was fourteen and Uncle Jack slipped into her room while Dad was out on a beer run. She focused on that 8-pointer the whole time he raped her. She’d tried her hardest to fight him off, but she was small for her age. He was just too big and too heavy and too strong. If she told anyone, he said, her dad would kick her to the curb for being such a little slut, constantly teasing Uncle Jack with those short-shorts and crop tops and itty-bitty bikinis.
She never told a soul.
After that, Chrissy could never again look at the buck on the wall. She never told her dad why she’d suddenly lost interest in hunting.
The goddamn Zoms weren’t the only monsters in the world.
Afterward, she closed herself off from her friends and withdrew from afterschool activities. Her grades began to suffer and she was moody and prone to angry outbursts. Her parent’s didn’t understand why. She had frequent sexual encounters, but no steady boyfriends—or girlfriends. Her parents attributed it all to hormones, typical teenage angst, and a rebellious phase. She’d grow out of it, they said.
On her seventeenth birthday, she ran away from home with a boy who said he was going to make it big as a musician. Instead, they lived in a rat-infested tenement, panhandling for cash. Before long, he got her hooked on heroin. The next eight months were a blur of drug-induced highs and crashes.
And then, one day she awoke to find Doug dead of the plague. She’d somehow survived the pandemic
The day she had to kill her first Zom, she pictured Uncle Jack when she pulled the trigger.
She found she was good at killing, and even enjoyed it. It was therapeutic. As far as she knew, the real Uncle Jack was long dead of the plague. But each time she killed a Zom, it was like killing a piece of Uncle Jack. Each time, a section of the emotional wall she’d erected around her after “it” happened crumbled away.
It was ironic that whenever she killed one of these inhuman creatures it made her feel more human again.
* * * *
“Permission to speak candidly, Your Excellency?”
Battle Commander FronCar and CresNal were in the latter’s ready room. The ornate splendor of the chamber would have seemed quite at home in the Emperor’s palace on Draht. FronCar stood at attention as CresNal leaned back in his chair.
“Speak, Commander. What’s on your mind?”
“Sir, I know it’s your wish that we take the planet from the ground, rather than from space. I am attempting to comply. However, your desire to preserve the infrastructure at all costs is hampering our efforts and making the entire process take much longer than it could, or should.”
“Really. How so?”
“Sir, if given free rein, we could go in with heavy armament and clear the city and surrounding area of indigenes within a week or two. Level the buildings they are hiding in and around, destroy the food supplies, blow the bridges that allow them to flee from one area to another, and so on. But without that ability, we have to resort to small arms fire and clear thousands of buildings one by one, risking some of the indigenes escaping ahead of us. And we’re taking unnecessary casualties because the indigenes are able to get too close to us. At first, they charged us when we approached and they were easy to kill. But they’ve grown wary. Now they hide until we pass, or wait until the men are in close quarters and then attack. At this rate, it will take us months to clear this one city and generations to clear the entire planet. All of this just to avoid accidentally destroying the water conduits, the power grid, the roads, etc.”
“Commander, we have gone over this before. We need to preserve the infrastructure as much as possible. Once you clear this one city, we can start bringing colonists down and finally begin settling after eighteen years in space. If it takes a few more weeks to do it right and give us a huge head start in colonizing, so be it.”
“Sir, couldn’t we just start from scratch in an unpopulated area? It would be much simpler and quicker to clear such an area, and—”
“Am I not making myself clear, Commander? That’s the last resort and will require the most time to build. By taking advantage of the existing buildings and infrastructure in the city, we can move people in while we take our time to build a model city in an unpopulated area. This approach will allow us to land colonists months earlier. That is my wish. Make it happen. Or do I have to find someone else who can?”
FronCar took a deep breath and let it out. “No, sir. I’ll find a way to get it done.”
CresNal smiled. “Good. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
* * * *
FronCar sighed on the way back to his command station in the Fleet Control Room.
It would be so much simpler the normal way. The men are trained for that. They know how to root armed survivors and civilians out of city rubble. But this— There are too many hidey-holes and ingress/egress paths in an intact city. Buildings, underground transport tunnels, sewer lines. For MemKar’s sake, they can even hide in the treetops or under bridges.
He sighed again. It was time for more aggressive measures—within the ridiculous limits demanded by the Viceroy.
When he arrived, he called for his second-in-command, Commander JesBronn.
“Commander, the viceroy denied my request for aerial bombardment. We’re to keep clearing the city at ground level, doing as little damage as possible. However, we need to be more aggressive in rooting out the indigenes. I want round-the-clock aerial low-altitude surveillance. Thermal imaging scans, motion-detection, the works. Have the flights coordinate with the ground troops to pinpoint group gathering places. Also send in fast-attack vehicles with marksmen. Have them shoot any indigenes they can with tracking darts and then vacate the area. We can follow the indigenes back to whatever holes they crawled out of and root them out that way.”
“Yes, Battle Commander!” JesBronn acknowledged with a sharp head nod.
“Meanwhile, I need to speak with our Commanding Medical Officer.”
* * * *
“Dr. ZemBleth, I’m glad you had a moment to speak with me.”
“Of course, Commander. Any time. How can I help you?”