Authors: Norman Christof
The helicopter landed at Fort Knox and kept its engine idling. The front door of the fort opened, and two people stepped out. Chaz looked to the general, who simply motioned to the helicopter. Chaz walked the fifty yards to the waiting copter and climbed inside. Once the copter was safely in the air with Chaz inside, the general walked back inside and locked the door. He wasn’t one to venture very far from the fort.
The copter flew east from the fort, and that was the last chance Chaz had to get his bearings. They placed a helmet on him that blocked his vision and his hearing. It was wired to the armed guard sitting next to him, but the guard didn’t have much to say after he instructed Chaz to place the helmet on. Chaz’s only indication of where they might have been was the amount of time it took to get there. For all he knew, they could have taken the long route, doubled back and then flown in the opposite direction. He had some sense of the copter turning, but a number of times it just seem to keep going in circles. Wherever they were going, someone was going to great lengths to keep the location secret. The helmet remained on, even while he sat and waited at their destination.
He knew he walked about fifteen minutes after the chopper landed, and felt the sensation of rising in an elevator. He was told to sit through the headphones inside the helmet, and every time he reached for the helmet, someone swatted his hands away. After waiting for another half hour, he heard a voice.
The female voice said, “Hello, Mr. Sheperd. I’ve had your sound dampeners unblocked so you can hear me. I’m afraid I’ll have to keep you in the dark as to what I look like though. I hope your flight wasn’t uncomfortable.”
Chaz reached for his helmet again, but again his hands were swatted away.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Sheperd, but I’m afraid that’s going to have to remain in place. I like my privacy. When you’re in my position, it pays to keep a low profile.”
Chaz shifted in his seat. “You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but what exactly is your position?”
“Oh, they didn’t tell you? That’s kind of amusing. It is interesting how they follow my orders to the letter. Not such a bad thing I suppose. I am your regent. The name is Araya Havelock. Regent of the Americas.”
“Regent? What the hell is a regent?”
“You’ve missed a lot during your absence, Mr. Sheperd. The world is a changed place. Changed for the better I’d say. After things came crashing down at the end of the last war, it became necessary to establish a more honest and efficient government. I am that government.”
“You’re … just you? You’re the government? That makes no sense.”
“Oh, Mr. Sheperd, you’ve missed so much since you’ve been gone. Let me give you a short history lesson. Recent history that is, just the last few years. The last powers that ruled this continent had problems. Lots of problems, the least of which was corruption. The state of decay from the wars hurt not just our infrastructure, but the governing bodies as well.”
“I remember there being attacks on Washington years ago.”
“That was just skimming the surface of the problems. Already by then the government of the time had been infiltrated by self-serving factions. Factions concerned with money, religion, and power. It was never going to survive in this new world. The surviving population was devastated, and our facade of civility was long past worn. It was time for something new. Something that could rebuild our society. So, I was chosen by the people to lead.”
Chaz could smell something sweet as he listened. “What is that smell?” he said. “It smells like honey.”
“Mr Sheperd, please pay attention. My time here is short, and I’m trying to educate you. I do have a continent to get back to running when we’re done here.”
“Hang on a sec. You … just you run the continent? That’s ridiculous. We don’t have dictators here. This is America. We’re a democracy.”
“Why yes, Mr. Sheperd, we have been a democracy, and we are still a democracy. Just a very simplified democracy. Let me explain. I was selected by the people to run things in a very simplistic manner with the help of some very sophisticated technology.
“The zombie population may have devastated our human population, but our technology flourished. Fort Knox wasn’t the only secret facility working towards a solution. There were other centers developing solutions for all possible scenarios.”
“Scenarios. What’s that supposed to mean? This isn’t some sort of computer game you’re playing. These are real people living in a real country.”
“Yes, Mr. Sheperd, of course it is. And it was those same people that picked me to run the country. It’s very simple now. Computers and social networks monitor the country and figure out what the people want. Then, that same network makes suggestions, and I decide which suggestions to follow. We don’t have computers running the place entirely you know. That’s where I come in. I make all the final decisions. Actually, I was the result of one of those decisions. Once the last war was over and we had a solution to the zombie problem, the computers decided that a new leader was required.”
“And what, just like that you’re the new queen of the Americas?”
“Don’t be silly, Mr. Sheperd. The computer simply made some suggestions. It polled the population, measured the feelings of the population through the various social networks, and selected me as the best candidate for the job. No elections, no speeches, no corrupt balloting. It just picked me. Of course, I could have refused the nomination, but why would I? It’s a great job, with lots of perks.” The regent couldn’t hold back her smile. “I was thrilled to be offered the position, and I must admit, I am quite good at it.”
“You’re kidding, right? Is this some kind of a joke? Matt put you up to this. Right? You friends with Matt or something? I always suspected he was a bit of a joker. This is the kind of thing he’d pull.”
“Mr. Sheperd, I assure you, this is no joke. I’m quite serious, and to be honest I find your tone a little insulting. So, before you say something else to upset me, let’s get down to why you’re here.”
“Fine, I’ll play along. Let’s hear it. What did you fly me all the way here blind to hear?”
Chaz heard footsteps walking away and doors closing.
“Mr. Sheperd. The world is a much better place now than it was before your unfortunate coma. The zombie population is now under control. It’s been years since anyone died from a zombie attack. They’re actually quite useful to have around. Ever since the Pacize drug was perfected, the zombie population has become model citizens. They do their jobs, follow the rules, and most importantly they don’t try to eat anyone. It’s part of the reason why we’ve been able to rebuild and advance technology so fast in the last few years. They do all the menial tasks that no one else wants, which allows the human population to focus on the really important things.”
“Whoa, hang on. You’re telling me that freaks are living among us? That they’re actually doing work … real work? Why haven’t I seen any?”
“Well, of course you haven’t seen any yet, Mr. Sheperd, but don’t worry, you will. We don’t allow them into sensitive areas like the Fort Knox facility. There’s nothing they could really contribute to the work going on there.”
“I’m sensing there’s another reason why they’re not in the fort. They have menial low-level jobs like janitors in the fort. Why aren’t the freaks doing that work?”
Clearing her throat, the regent replied, “We don’t call them that anymore. Freaks …it’s not a word we use. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use it either. I still have some concerns over the zombie population, and yes, that’s the reason why they don’t work in the more sensitive areas. It’s also why you’re here. We have some reason to believe that there may be some weaknesses with the Pacize drug’s effectiveness across the population. We think that there may be some of the population that don’t respond to the drug the way we had hoped. It’s a fairly new development, so we suspect that some of them may be changing again. The drug is supposed to prevent that, but we need more information.”
“I’m no scientist, Your Highness. I don’t see where I’d be much help.”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not royalty.” Neither spoke for a moment, and Chaz could sense some frustration coming from the regent. “You’re here because of your connection to the girl Christa. We never found her after all these years. To be honest, we had given up hope of ever recovering her. Things had been progressing so well that after a while she became a low priority. We hoped she had either fallen under the influence of the drug or died.” Chaz bristled at her last remark. “Lately though, we have reason to suspect that she may still be around.”
“All of a sudden now, after all these years, you think she’s still around? And this new way of thinking just happens to coincide with my coming out of a coma? That’s pretty coincidental don’t you think? Pardon me for being skeptical, Your Regentness … can I call you that? It seems to me like this is some sort of make-work project you’ve dreamed up to keep me busy. It sounds like something General Chambers would do just to get me out from under his roof.”
Chaz could hear the regent pacing the floor. “I assure you, Mr. Sheperd, this has nothing to do with the general’s wishes. If he had his way, you’d be standing in front of a firing squad the minute you were able to stand. There have been unverified reports back in the Louisiana swamps of wild zombies. It’s all been from local citizens. None of our official police or military have spotted any. Normally, we’d just write it off as crazy locals. There is some precedent for people in that area being a little unstable.”
Chaz grinned. “You must have something else to go on then? Some other reason for wanting me back there? This isn’t some punishment for leaving my last command to fend for themselves back there, is it?”
“You’re right, Colonel. There are other reasons. First of all, it helps that you’re familiar with the area. The real reason we want you back there is that’s the last place Christa was spotted. It’s been over three years, but with the number of reports coming out of the area, it’s worth a look. The fact that you’ve chosen this time to awaken from your coma seemed too fortunate to pass up. I’m not a believer in fate or kismet, Mr. Sheperd, but I do believe in taking advantage of circumstances. The fact that we may have a situation that needs a strong hand, that you know Christa, that you know the area, and you’ve chosen now to wake up was too good of an opportunity to let slip by.”
Snippets from Chaz’s dream came to mind now. Something about being ready, and a purpose.
Patzy seemed to believe that she woke me now at this time for a reason. That’s probably not something the regent really needs to know. I’m not so sure it makes sense myself. Coincidence? Fate? Kismet? Christa?
“So, Mr. Sheperd, I take it you’re up for the challenge? I understand you’re not one to back down from a fight.”
“Do I really have a choice?”
“Not really. You either work for me or I could let the general have his way with you. Not really a good choice for either of us.”
“Yes, not my favorite choice either. I think the general and I have spent enough time together. I’m going to need some help though.”
“Yes, of course you will, and yes, you can take the boy with you. Don’t look so surprised, Colonel. I told you I’m just the head of a very efficient government. And yes, I can see your face even though you can’t see mine. That’s a one-way visor on your helmet. I’m well aware of your attachment to the boy, and what he means to you. I’m also aware of the conversation you two had recently. I’m very well informed, Colonel. Take the boy with you, and rehabilitate him if you can. We can always use another experienced, strong soldier at our disposal. Rest assured, I’ll be watching. If I believe he’s impeding you for any reason I won’t hesitate to have him removed. Any further questions, Mr. Sheperd?”
“Well, you haven’t really given me a mission directive yet. What exactly is it you want me to do?”
“C’mon, Mr. Sheperd, that should be obvious.” There were a few moments of silence, and Chaz was sure the smell of honey grew stronger. “Find the girl, Mr. Sheperd. Find the girl and bring her back to us. Any way you can.”
Chaz heard shoes walking away and a door opening and closing. He was alone again.
Water and Ash
Even though the zombie wars were officially over, the hatred still remained. People still remembered what the freaks had done to their families, friends, homes and country. It wasn’t that long ago. People died, entire families were displaced, and sections of the country were no longer inhabitable. It takes generations to get over hatred for an enemy, even when you’ve won the war.
The swamps of Louisiana were one of those uninhabitable areas. Not that there was ever a land rush to live there in the past. During the wars, the swamps had seemed a virtual breeding ground for the freaks. No one quite knew why, they just knew enough to stay away from the area. Even those that had eked a living from the swamps for generations had either left or died at the hands of the freaks.
Now, it had become a dumping ground for the truly dead undead. One of the side effects of the Pacize drug was a higher mortality rate amongst the zombie population. A side effect in name only. While the drug was meant to render the zombies docile and harmless, it also caused a higher than normal number of them to die. Not that it caused much concern amongst those administering it, or the human population in general. The lack of concern for the freaks was rarely discussed. What was a concern was what to do with the bodies of the undead. The answer was, of course, to send them back to the swamps they came from.
The south is full of superstition. Pacize kept the walking dead in check, but there were many that believed once the undead were buried in dirt they could rise once again and return to their horrific ways. None of it was substantiated of course. The other problem was where to bury them. No one wanted to live near a zombie graveyard, and no one wanted dead zombies buried next to dearly departed family members. Incinerating just spread zombie dust through the air, so no one wanted that either.
The boat was nearing the end of its regular northern run from Key Largo to New Orleans. It would have been quicker if the route had been straight across the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, but this boat had other stops all along the coast. It stopped at every major port along the gulf side of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It stopped to pick up the bodies no one wanted to bury, and certainly not next to humans.
Captain Willie Molinere was a shrimper before the second big oil spill killed off most of the wildlife in the Gulf, and after that spent time as a gator hunter in the Louisiana Swamps. That was till the zombies took over and the military kicked everyone out of the swamps. The zombie wars weren’t a good time for anyone, but for Willie they were worse. He had nowhere to go and nothing to do. He spent his time either drunk or bitter. Most of the time he was bitter, as he didn’t have the cash for booze. He found the best remedy for bitterness was killing freaks. He did a stint with the military for a while, but even they didn’t want him. He wasn’t so good at following orders when he was drunk, which was as often as he could get his hands on a bottle of liquor. .
Captaining a boat of real zombie corpses was a wet dream for Willie. He got to spend time on the water delivering boatloads of freaks to their true and final resting place, the very freaks that made his life a living hell. To top it off, he got two crew members, doped up on Pacize, to abuse. As long as the freaks were doped up they’d do anything he told them. He could yell at them, call them names, and give them a good kick in the ass if they weren’t moving fast enough. Which was most of the time. The boat wasn’t just a transport, it was also a zombie crematorium. As it picked up bodies along the coast, it cremated them and stored their ashes till it got to New Orleans. The ashes were then trucked to the swamps and buried in the Bayou Corne Sinkhole.
What Willie didn’t know this time around was that he had an extra, live passenger on board.
Christa moved about the boat freely now. Initially she had been concerned about being spotted by the captain. As her ability to send mental suggestions directly to Willie’s mind got stronger, she worried less. He wasn’t the first human she had exerted control over in this manner, but everyone was different and it took practice. He almost caught her the first day on the boat. Willie’s mind wasn’t an easy one to control. The dense ones never were. They were so set in their thinking it was almost impossible to plant a new suggestion.
Hiding in plain sight wasn’t difficult now that she understood Willie’s brain patterns. When he moved towards her, she simply implanted in his mind that she was one of the zombie crew. He’d either ignore her or try to beat her. In the case of the latter, she’d just suggest to him that he’d already beaten her and he had better things to do.
Now that evading Captain Willie was simple, Christa could devote her time to what was really important. She focused on the two zombie crew members. This was an ideal situation, as there were only two of them. She didn’t have to be concerned about others trying to speak to her mind. The Pacize drug rendered every zombie it touched physically docile, like the family dog. What it didn’t do though, was change anything going on in the zombie’s brain. Their minds still raced and hungered and wanted more than anything to rip apart every human they saw. But, they couldn’t. The drug prevented their bodies from acting on their violent thoughts. Their bodies would only react to the most benign of thoughts. When they had violent thoughts, their bodies became paralyzed. The only way they could survive was to control their violent thoughts.
They could control their thoughts, but they never went away and Christa heard every one of them in her head. They all cried out to her. She thought every zombie recognized her for what she was.
The mother of the last great mutation.
They thought she could save them. . They thought she could release them from their prison.
I can’t release them any more then I can release myself from the guilt. It’s because of me that every zombie mind is imprisoned. It’s what they learned from me that allowed Pacize to exist at all.
The years of listening to their anguish took a toll on Christa. At first she was bitter with them, then mostly with herself.
All my brothers and sisters, I am so sorry. If only I could talk to you. Let you know that I’m trying to find a better way. I just need for one of you to hear me. If I can learn how to fix one of you, I’m sure I can fix the others.
Christa tried once again to speak with Andreas, one of the two zombie crew members.
C’mon, Andreas, let me in. I know you want to. I heard you calling from miles away. You’re by far the strongest one I’ve come across. That is except for Patzy, and she’s too far gone to be of any help. You need to respond.
Andreas continued working, paying no heed to Christa. He was working the old winch that hauled corpses from the holds and into the crematorium on deck. At one time the winch was used to haul in the shrimp nets, but that was long ago. No one had fished shrimp in these waters for years.
Christa tried again.
Andreas, look at me. Stop what you’re doing for just a minute and at least look at me. Surely you can do at least that much. I’ve come so far and taken so many chances to talk with you. You’re our best chance. If I can help you come around, I know I can help the others. Please respond. I’ve been at this for almost six years. I’m tired of it. Don’t you realize the risks I’m taking by being here? Keeping that idiot captain distracted is like teaching a wall to play guitar.
Christa watched Andreas perform his work. She was a ghost to him. Just like all the others. He climbed into the hold, laid the old fish nets out, and rolled as many bodies as he could into them. Then he climbed up the single rusted ladder out of the hold and back to the winch controls. The bodies banged against the opening as the winch creaked, straining to lift them out before dropping them into the crematorium hopper. Leekasha, the other crew member, slid open the hopper doors and the bodies dropped below. As she hit the big red button, Christa could hear the whoosh of flames from within. As Andreas began raising the next batch of bodies, Leekasha turned off the flames and collected the steel box of ashes from the bottom of the crematorium. She deposited the ashes into another container at the very bow of the vessel. Captain Willie considered it bad luck to have zombie ash on board, and wanted to keep it as far from his quarters as possible. Once the ash containers were full, they were placed in a small barge and towed by the main ship. Willie figured if anything really weird started happening, he could always cut the line and set the barge adrift.
Christa spent the better part of the afternoon watching this endless cycle take place. At least today Willie stayed up on the bridge and out of the way. The ship was on autopilot while he slept off another hangover. Christa paced back and forth between Andreas and Leekasha. Neither one batted an eye at her. They simply kept working at their assigned tasks.
Let’s try something different.
As Andreas moved to the ladder to descend into the hold, Christa moved to intercept him. She stood directly between him and the ladder. Andreas stopped, looked at her, then moved right to go around her. Christa mimicked his movement. Andreas moved left to go around her. Christa mimicked his movement again. This went on for several minutes with the same results. Finally in frustration, Christa grabbed Andreas by the shoulders and shook him to get his attention. Andreas knocked her hands away and pushed her aside. With his path clear, he descended the ladder and started loading more bodies into the nets.
Christa watched Andreas working below.
Well, at least that was a reaction. Not much, but at least something. At least you know I’m here. That’s a start I suppose. I can hear all your cries of torment and hunger, so why can’t you hear me? Are your own needs that consuming, that you block everything else out? Maybe I need to be more obvious.
As Andreas place his hand on the top rung of the ladder, Christa stepped hard on his fingers. Andreas pulled back his hand.
So, you do feel the pain.
Andreas again reached for the top rung, and Christa again put all her weight on his hand. With his other hand he batted at Christa’s foot. Christa removed her foot, but stepped again on his hand once he stopped trying to bat her away. This time Andreas tried grabbing her ankle and pulling her. Christa wiggled her foot free before she lost her balance. In doing so she stepped back, and Andreas quickly climbed out of the hold. Christa pushed him back as he stepped onto the deck. He looked to Christa.
Yes, here I am, what are you going to do? You know I’m here. Now what are you going to do about it?
Andreas moved towards the winch controls, and Christa intercepted. She pushed back again.
C’mon, do something. Acknowledge me, damn you!
Andreas looked at her and tried moving around her again. Christa pushed harder this time, and Andreas stepped back. Before he regained his footing, she pushed back again, and again, and again. Eventually she pushed back till he was on the edge of the hold. One more final push, and Andreas fell backwards into the open hold, landing with a dull thump on a pile of corpses.
I can’t help you if you don’t let me in! You need to listen to me. You need to acknowledge me. Give me a sign. Just something that lets me know you can hear me. If you can hear me, I can help. We can work together to beat this.
Andreas got to his knees and looked up at Christa. Lifting his arms in her direction, he closed his eyes tight, then lowered his hands to cover his eyes and held that pose.
you don’t have to live like this. Focus on me, focus on what I’m thinking. Give me a way in and I’ll help you. Fight the drug. Don’t let it control you.
Then, like a whisper from another room, Christa heard a voice. So quiet. Gradually it became louder. The voice was coming down the hall and closer. Closer and closer. Eventually, it opened the door and walked right up next to her and spoke. The voice she heard in her head said, “Yes, I hear you. I’ve always heard you, but you were so far away. Now you’re close. Now I can really hear you. Now I can really see you. Now, things will change.”
Caught up in the moment, Christa didn’t notice Captain Willie come down from the bridge. She didn’t hear him yelling at her. She was too busy listening to the voice in her head. She didn’t hear his heavy footsteps across the deck. She never heard him say, “I don’t allow any damn freak stowaways on my boat.” She didn’t see him raise his hand with the heavy bar about to smash down on her skull, but Andreas did.
Andreas saw and heard everything now. He was free from chains, and he could see his tormentor. The one that beat him while he was in his prison. The one that kicked him and dictated his every action. Andreas was no longer a prisoner of his own body, and he moved. He moved faster than any zombie or human Christa had ever seen. Before she knew it, Andreas was at Willie’s throat, ripping and tearing it to shreds. He was like a dog that had been straining for far too long on his chain, and that chain had finally snapped.