Authors: Norman Christof
Chaz couldn’t remember the last time he was this excited and nervous all at the same time. One of the deals he had the regent agree to was a sit-down session with his family. Before he put himself into another potentially life-threatening situation, he wanted to know that his family would be there for him. They didn’t trust him alone yet, so he had a military escort drive him to the prison. He initially asked for Alex to be his escort, but of course that idea got shot down. No big surprise there.
As Chaz went through prison security, he was surprised how empty the facilities were. He still remembered during wartime how popular it was to be incarcerated. Prison was actually one of the safest places to be. Not only were you ineligible for military duty, but prisons were almost as hard to break into as they were to get out of. There had been some political controversy over the spending of money to build new prisons during wartime, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with spin doctors and great speech writers. Politicians were actually selling the public on the angle that the old prisons would be great for herding the growing zombie population into. Humans would of course be kept separate in the new prison facilities. In reality, the government at the time was really building state-of-the-art facilities for themselves and their families in the event of a total catastrophic breakdown. The wanted to be sure that they had a place to go while the rest of the country went to hell and burned around them.
They must have been busted at some point,
Probably one of the excuses they used to justify this whole new regent governing system.
Chaz waited in a very nice room with a comfortable sofa and a coffee table. Pictures of sailboats and sunsets were arranged tastefully on the walls. Initially the prison official had him in a basic interrogation room, until Chaz reminded the official he was here at the special request of the regent.
Sure she may not be royalty, but a little name dropping seemed to get me what I wanted pretty quick. Maybe I should have let them tell Abby who was requesting some time with her. She probably would have outright refused. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take at this point. If I’m doing this, I need to know I’m doing it for all the right reasons. Reconciliation is likely out of the question, but at least a chance to talk with Abby and the kids makes it worthwhile.
Chaz was sitting down when he heard the door open, but quickly got to his feet. The look on Abby’s face when she saw him across the room was almost enough to convince Chaz to do the mission. The initial look of confusion led to tears and eventually laughter after a hug that seemed to go on forever.
“If you’re going to hug me like that, I’ll have to remember to go into a coma more often.”
They both had a good laugh over that before Abby replied, “It’s my turn to go into the next coma, then you can see how it feels. There’s no damn way I’d go through that again. I’d never make it. I barely survived this one. Look at me. I’m a celebrity criminal in prison and my kids hate me. I could use a good long break in a coma for a change.”
“Alright, alright. You get dibs on the next coma,” Chaz answered. “Speaking of the kids, where are they? I specifically asked for them to be here.”
“If we’re going to talk about the kids, you should sit down.” Abby released him from her hug, but held on to Chaz’s hand as they sat down next to each other on the couch. “I don’t know why the kids aren’t here, but I would assume it’s because they want nothing to do with either of us. If they even suspected that this would be a family get-together, they would have downright refused to come.”
“I don’t understand. You guys were always so close, it was me that was the outsider all these years. I was the one that never really fit in.”
“Things change, Chaz. We’ve been through a hell of a lot the last few years. Hiding out on the run was no treat, but it was a picnic compared to being dragged through a public trial. Through most of it, the kids were teenagers. Being teenagers was tough enough, but teenagers from a broken home trying to survive a zombie apocalypse and then being branded cowards in front of the entire country was more than they could take. Sure, we were close when we left, but not anymore.”
“Maybe I can get them in here. Let me explain to them what happened and why. That it wasn’t your fault. I don’t mind taking the fall for this. I know I deserve it. At least you three could be together again.”
Abby sat back on the couch and put both hands on her knees. “Wow, we’re not the only ones that changed a lot. You’re willing to take responsibility for all this? That’s not the same man I remember walking out the door on his way to war with hardly a goodbye for any of us.”
Chaz paused for a moment and looked up. “That’s not a moment I’m particularly proud of. Over the years I’ve learned that there was a better way of handling that. If I can get you all to give me another chance, I won’t walk out on this family ever again. I know that’s a lot to ask, but I really mean it.
“I don’t know if that’s even possible anymore, Chaz. The kids seem so far gone, and Caius keeps pushing me further and further away. He won’t even make the time to talk with Shax and she was the one person I’d always thought he’d stand by. I’m really worried about him. He’s not making the best of choices. He’s associating with that revolutionary faction, the Freeze.”
“I’ve never heard of them, but I’m still catching up on things. You’d be surprised what you miss in six years.”
“I’m serious, Chaz. I’m really worried about him. Someone needs to reach him. Maybe you could. There’s a lot of anger to get through, but so much of that is because he didn’t have a real father growing up. If you’re willing to be patient with his hatred and listen to him, he might just let you in. That would be so great.”
“Yeah, I could do that. Taking abuse is not really my strong suit, but I owe you all at least that much.”
“Wow, this is great. Maybe we do have a chance, and now that you’re not in the military anymore you’ll truly have time for this. The kids hate the military. They don’t know it like we did when we were young. They just blame it for all our problems, and for taking their father away. I can’t say I was too fond of it in the end.”
Chaz sat back and stared at the wall. “OK, um, that might be difficult. I do have one more thing to do, and it’s kind of military related. There’s this one mission they …”
Abby just gave him a blank stare. “You’re kidding, right? You left the military years ago. The last time we talked, you said you were done. Why would you be doing anything with them?”
“They didn’t tell you how I ended up in a coma? After we talked, there was this friend I had to help out, and it kind of ended up being a military sort of thing.”
“Kind of military? If there’s one thing I learned during my stint in the army, it’s that it either is or it isn’t. There’s no in between. There’s no ‘kind of.’”
“You’re right, it was. But, that doesn’t matter now. They told me I could keep you guys out of prison and they’d drop the charges against me if I did this for them.”
“Charges against you? For what?”
“Desertion, mainly. It doesn’t matter now. What’s important is we could have a chance together. All of us.”
“There’s always something with you. I don’t know, Chaz. Maybe this is a bad idea. Some things just aren’t meant to be. It never dawned on me that we wouldn’t be doing prison time. It just didn’t seem possible. Now, with this group showing an interest in Caius, it might be better if he just stayed locked up. At least in here you know who you’re dealing with. Those revolutionaries are scary. If they have their way, we could all be back to war again. Then what?”
Chaz tried to make eye contact with Abby. “It doesn’t have to be that way. If I can just spend some time and talk with him …”
“And how exactly are you going to do that when you’re chasing this one last mission? How do you know they’ll even hold up their part of the bargain? How do you know there won’t be another mission after this one? They could drag this out forever.”
Chaz pleaded, “Abby, they won’t. This comes from high up. I can’t say much, but trust me, they’ll do their part.”
Abby stood up and crossed the room. “Honestly, Chaz, this doesn’t sound right. This is all starting to bring back bad memories. You tried fixing us before and look how that turned out. You do what you think you have to do, and we’ll do what we have to do.”
Abby walked to the door and knocked for the guard.
Chaz asked, “Abby, what does that mean? Don’t leave it like this. We can figure this out.”
The guard opened the door, and Abby rushed out without even looking back.
Chaz was lost in his thoughts on the car ride back to the fort.
I really wish this guy would let me do the driving back to the fort. At least I’d have something to take my mind off things. It was great to see Abby again, at least for the first few minutes. Our conversations always seem to start off great, but then turn to shit at the least little problem. It’s just one more mission, then we can be done with all this and get back together again. Why doesn’t she see it that way? Is it really that difficult? The kids never make anything easy. It’s always some sort of added problem. We’ve always had a hard enough time just working out our issues. Once you throw the kids into the mix, it becomes impossible. I suppose they’re not really kids anymore. They’re practically adults. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that. Maybe once I spend some time with them I’ll be able to look at them that way. Right now, it just seems too strange.
Chaz looked out the window. They were just passing through some farm fields and coming up to a town. He’d missed the name, but he figured they were about halfway there.
“How much further to go?” he asked the driver.
“We’ve got about an hour, but I have to pick up someone else first.”
“Someone else? What are we, the local transit authority? Who are we picking up?”
“No idea, sir. I just have orders to stop at the Hills Motel on the outskirts of town and wait. It’s just up ahead.”
“This ride just keeps getting stranger and stranger.”
They pulled into the parking lot of the motel and waited. No one approached the car right away. They were parked facing the main road, but not much traffic passed by. Five minutes later, a man in dark pants and a golf shirt approached the car. Before he got too close, the driver rolled down his window and said,
“Is there something I can help you with, sir?”
The man kept walking closer and answered in a gravelly voice, “I’ve got a message for Colonel Chaz Sheperd. Any idea where I can find him?”
“Yes, sir,” the driver said as he got out of the car and opened the rear door for the man, motioning him inside.
The man took a seat and told the driver to wait outside as he closed the door. As Chaz and the man shook hands, he said, “My name’s Rabban. I’m the cultural grievances adviser to the regent, but it looks like today I’m just a messenger.”
Chaz smiled and remarked, “I thought the regent got all her advice from a fancy computer. Why would she need you?”
“My position is somewhat unofficial in nature, but quite necessary. Let’s just say computers are great at a lot of things, but when it comes down to people problems they need a little extra help.”
“I see, so you’re a people person.”
“Something like that.” Rabban smiled back.
“So what’s the message, Rabban? What’s so important that you need to meet me in a motel parking lot in the middle of nowhere?”
“There have been some new developments in the mission.”
Chaz turned and looked out the side window. “Yeah, about that mission. I’ve been having some second thoughts, and I’m not so sure I’m the right guy for the job.”
“That would be unfortunate, Colonel. I’m not sure you’re objectively considering the circumstances. After you’ve heard what I have to say, you may change your mind.”
Chaz shrugged. “Go on.”
“It would seem there’s a potential lead on your old girlfriend Christa.”
Chaz rolled his eyes.
Rabban continued, “One of our body disposal ships disappeared in the Gulf of Mexico. It missed its appointed delivery in New Orleans, and the search crews haven’t had any luck finding it. The crews did some digging into satellite surveillance pictures from the area and found some rather disturbing images.” Rabban passed a folder of pictures to Chaz and continued, “You’ll notice some of the images from a few days ago show four people on deck. The crew manifest only lists three individuals working that ship. One human captain, and two zombie workers. We identified the two zombies on board through bio scanning of the images; the fat guy is the captain. The fourth person looks like a young girl. Her face doesn’t match any in our database, but time-phased images of what Christa would look like now match.”
“There are probably thousands of kids that would match that description. Why would you even suggest it could be her?”
“Notice anything in common with all those pictures?”
Chaz flipped through, giving them all a closer look. “The girl seems to have no interaction with the rest of the crew. They all talk or interact with each other, except for the girl. It’s like they’re totally ignoring her. Like she’s not even there. Maybe they don’t like her.”
Rabban pulled at his bottom lip. “The guy running that boat is Captain Willie Molinere. Bit of a hard-luck case. He’s not fond of people in general, but he does have a rap sheet for harassing young girls. Usually just waitresses and strippers. Not likely he’d miss our friend here. At the very least there should be some pictures of him giving her dirty looks from behind. Instead, it’s like he doesn’t even know she’s there.”
Chaz looked more closely at the pictures. “You’re right. She’s standing right next to him. How can he not see her? She’s looking at him, but he’s more concerned with the other two.”
“Exactly. There’s something different about her. We don’t know what, but if it’s Christa we’ve got a really big problem.”
Rabban passed the final picture to Chaz. It showed a gutted Captain Willie sprawled over the deck, with the girl and one of the zombies yelling at each other.
“If this is what we think it is, if one of those zombies killed Willie, their controller, then we have the makings of a major disaster on our hands. Really major. It’s apocalyptic, warmongering, riots in the streets, government toppling shit. We haven’t had a zombie attack in six years. Not since the war ended. This entire country’s economic growth and development is based on a master-slave relationship with these doped-up zombies. The guy on the rescue team that was looking for this boat and his entire department that found this image for us are now in double confinement in that prison you just left. This is serious stuff. We cannot let this get out. We need the people and the zombies that were on that boat, and we need them now.”
Chaz shifted in his seat. “Maybe you need more than just a couple of guys tracking this down.”
Rabban ran his fingers through his hair. “You heard what I just said, right? Nobody else can know about this. If it were up to me, you’d be doing this solo without your sidekick Alex. The regent agreed to you taking him because he has a history with the girl. She thinks he could be helpful once you find her, but he’s a liability in my mind.”
Chaz sighed as Rabban opened the door. “There’s no time for indecision here, Colonel. We’ll need a progress report in twenty-four hours, and every six hours after that.” As Rabban stepped out of the car he said to the driver, “Move your ass, son. That man’s on a mission and he needs to get home.”