"Of the eight hundred identified hot spots in the United States, forty-two are in California. We'll be setting up our headquarters in Southern California, where fourteen of California's fifteen urban breakouts occurred."
The men in their FBI business suits looked hot in the over-heated former department store. The seating was rented metal chairs; there’d been no time for anything else.
"We are just beginning to explore, to grasp the existence of other universes separated from ours by dimensions that we can’t see, touch or feel." The Fed was reading a statement from some government scientist. "We were aware that some Universes line up and flow along in synchronicity. And that others had sticky spots that allowed contact, and that sometimes multiple worlds were a bit tangled up, with multiple interconnecting . . . sticky spots. Just in the last year did we realize that our universe is in one of these tangles, and the whole tangle seemed to be compacting down."
Hugh Barclay sat beside the Chief of Police of Reilly Creek, taking the occasional note. It would have been nice if the Feds had either warned us ahead of time what was about to happen, or waited an extra day after, so we could all catch up on our sleep.
An unwanted voice in his head sneered at the possibility of these idiots knowing ahead of time what was going to happen.
Shut up. I don’t hear you.
He studied the visitors. Looks like a dozen Agents, and then six science or medical types. Couple of Admin or IT types. Good. They don’t look like government executioners.
The Fed didn’t look up from his reading. His neck was a bit flushed. Embarrassed? "We had no idea what would happen or when. It took us completely by surprise. We do know, from history, that there have been other times when this has happened. That merges between universes have been complete, right down to merges between people and the nearest chemically similar . . . objects. Usually another person, but sometimes an animal of roughly the same mass. And that sometimes when the universes split, the merged hybrid didn’t always split perfectly, each back to their own universe."
Pretty much what we figured.
"Hence the animal headed gods of Egypt, the Greek, Roman, Norse, American Indian gods and myths of Shape Changers. Stories of Vampires, werewolves and zombies."
Did he just say vampires, werewolves and zombies?
The Fed looked distinctly uncomfortable as he continued. "Which is why we’re in such a hurry. The few previously undiscovered hotspots that were near population centers, were evacuated as soon as we realized what was happening. The Reilly Creek Hot Spot, due to the unique circumstances, was not evacuated as quickly as we could have wished, and thus is at high risk for all these problems. So our first order of business will be to locate people who merged with parasitic animals, predators, and, well, people or animals that had been killed recently enough that their individual cells could be revived by merging with a live person." He cleared his throat nervously. "Our records from smaller instances indicate that some of the problems take time to develop. Our best estimate is that the immediate concern is going to be these . . . zombies." He put the paper down and visibly braced himself.
The Mayor and the five members of the City Council who had been healthy enough to attend the meeting looked incredulous. Boggled.
The ones in the hospital wouldn’t boggle. They would agree with every word of it. And give these Feds an update about what it was all like. Hugh sighed. And I’m not boggled either. Not even by zombies.
The regional head of the CHP who’d been pulled off of Search and Rescue in the wrecked town, scowled. "I do not appreciate my time being used to perpetuate a joke."
Another man who was out of the area during the overlap.
The Sheriff and the Chief of Police swapped glances.
At least the ones I work with the most were inside. Hugh stood. "I need a better explanation of these zombies, a brief on what you are going to do with one when you find him or her, and the legal basis for doing whatever you have in mind. A fair number of us know way too much about merging. The rest don’t believe it. So skip that part and start with a specific definition of zombie, please."
A fair number of the audience turned and stared at him. The Feds were looking over the small crowd. Probably making note of who isn’t baffled by the mention of "merging."
The Head Fed nodded. "Anyone who merged with dead things will soon experience a major medical crisis. The revived cells die—again—at an accelerated rate and cellular death leads inevitably to decomposition. The seriousness of their condition depends on the relative sizes of the dead vs alive person, what percentage of whole cells swapped as the merge fell apart, how long the dead had been dead, whether the dead was human or animal, and how many merges they experienced afterwards with living people or animals, to spread and shed the revived cells. With medical care, some of these people may survive, even recover completely. We don’t have any data recent enough to know how responsive to modern medical care they will be. Some of your citizens may be in the worst case—that is, they may be the one who died. They may have been revived by a merge with a live person, but their mental processes will have suffered badly. Violent rages are not unheard of, but vacant wandering and an insatiable hunger and thirst are the more usual symptoms. I doubt any of these type zombies will survive. But all zombies will be placed in custody and will receive medical care."
The Sheriff braced himself in turn and stood. "In all the movies, vampires, werewolves and zombies are contagious."
"No." The Fed was starting to relax. "There’s no reason to think that—this is all due to overlap, to merging errors, so to speak. No disease, no contagion."
The Chief stood up. "One member of my force is hospitalized in very bad condition. She . . . I was certain she’d been killed. We’ll start a list of everyone we think might have been among the dead, and double check. What else can we do? What are we looking for here?" Harold Vincent looked twice his fifty- nine years.
He’d make a pretty good zombie.
Hugh wondered how he looked, himself. He’d been either busy or asleep for the twenty-four hours since they’d evacuated the last of the citizens. And he’d avoided mirrors. He really didn’t want to search for hints of other people in his own face. At least I only merged with live people and . . . things. And I am not still hearing the voices of the people I merged with. I am not!
"We will be joining your search and rescue efforts, and we want to meet the people in the refugee centers. We have a team already checking hospitals."
The Chief nodded. "If you don’t have anything much more to say, I think we need to get back to town. We appreciate your brief and your assistance."
The Mayor looked around at his Chief of Police and sputtered a bit.
Harry leaned closer to the Mayor, but kept his voice loud enough for the CHP captain to hear. "Just go with whatever insanity they come up with for now. We’ve got to close this meeting and get back in the field."
One of the Feds heard and looked pained. Hugh stepped over to him. "Look, it’s pretty unbelievable even for those of us who were right in the mess the whole time. Don’t worry about talking them into believing. If there are zombies, they’ll start believing really quickly."
The meeting was breaking up of its own accord, and the Feds abandoned any effort to keep them.
The mall had been mostly empty and spiraling down toward bankruptcy. Its location had been inconvenient . . . and outside the heavy overlapping region. It was very nearly the only building within the Reilly Creek city limits without any structural damage. It was already showing signs of a return to life. Speaking of zombies…
Two of the Feds bracketed Hugh as he walked out. "We’d like to talk to you."
"Can you do it while digging through collapsed and burned buildings?"
"Certainly," and "Sounds like fun," were the replies.
"I’m Captain Hugh Barclay. Used to be head of the Traffic Division. Don’t think I’ll be writing many tickets anytime soon."
"Les Bishop and this is Ron Scalzoni. Three days ago we were perfectly normal FBI investigators out of D.C. Then we made the mistake of admitting we’d felt something weird, the day before yesterday and bingo, we’re being read into The Big Secret." Les was tall, thin and very dark. Professional, with a trace of that challenging edge he’d seen before in Blacks who’d had to prove themself over and over.
Ron, the short white one, nodded. "Not that we felt anything close to what the reports say some people felt. For me, it was like there was someone I couldn't quite see, right there, doing everything I did. It was like the scariest slasher flick ever. Then it went away." More mellow outwardly than Bishop, but his eyes roved, alert.
Hugh nodded. "Apparently there was that one complete, worldwide, overlap series, then it all started winding down. I only noticed one brief overlap today, and I managed to stay away from everyone on the other world until it went away." He looked back at where the two Feds had stalled. "Didn’t they warn you this was hazardous duty? This close to the thin spot, we’re still experiencing overlaps. Just, if you feel all twisted and weird, don’t touch anyone. And since we seem to keep a tiny bit of the others . . . if there are so many other world people that you can’t avoid them all, grab a man, preferably young and healthy looking. I don’t want to think about retaining female characteristics, you know?"
Ron cleared his throat. "Thanks, appreciate the advice."
They had a car, generic, white, government issue. Hugh bummed a ride. "We’re down to a single working squad car, and I haven’t gotten home to test my pickup. The Sheriff’s a little better off, as half of his cars were out of the immediate area, and wound up at roadblocks, mostly out of the affected area."
"You’re taking this awfully calmly." Les turned and eyed him.
"Day before yesterday I didn’t think I’d live to see another dawn. Yesterday I knew I was going to die. Today I am all out of adrenaline. I don’t think I could be anything but calm. Even with a bunch of suits telling me the zombie apocalypse is nigh. Really."
Ron laughed. And slammed on the brakes as the town proper came into sight around the corner. Three houses in a row burned to the ground. The fourth, a tile roofed adobe, had a mixture of smoke stains and cracked plaster. The Fed let the car roll forward. They both turned and stared at porch posts warped and crooked, like small tree trunks. The flush of green imprinted across the warped boards of the side wall. It looked as if a tree had been painted on it with translucent paint, making clever use of sprung and warped boards.
They rounded the corner.
"Your City Hall looks all right."
"Yes. They removed a lot of big granite boulders from the site before building it. During the overlaps, the stone walls merged with those boulders still there on the other world. So the building is basically sound. Mind you, it was rough on the furniture, the wiring, the plumbing, the AC and heating equipment . . . but all those had been added to the original old Gold Rush era building. So, hopefully they’ll just have to modernize it all over again."
They didn’t comment on the contorted wrought iron fence. But they parked carefully away from all the other buildings.
Theresa was manning a desk in the middle of the road, a safe distance from any possible collapse of the police station, or the partially burned stores across the street.
She eyed the Feds in the pretty black suits, and a feral grin spread over her face. "I hope you fellows brought some tougher clothes. I’d just hate to see those pretty suits ruined."
Ron just grinned right back.
Les frowned. "Yes . . . Captain?"
"Theresa Hines. Hugh, we’re up to Mimosa street and working south, but no one’s checked Little Valley yet. Why don’t you three start at the north end and work south. Take one of these cellphones, they all work, so far. Report live people needing rescue to the top number, bodies to the second. Stubborn SOBs who seem to be all right to the third. This desk is the fourth speed dial."
"You got it. Anything else going on?" Hugh turned his back on the Feds. They were shedding coats, and stepping modestly around behind the open trunk of the car.
"Water and electric crews are out on the streets. They’re starting in the south and moving north, and cutting off the water valves at every house, so they don’t flood anyone out when they open the mains again. Ditto PG&E. The sewers will be next."
The two Feds emerged in bright orange coveralls with DHS printed on the back.
"I’ll report later, so you’ll know what’s up."
Les took the wheel, and Ron rode shotgun.
Barclay settled back into the back seat and gave directions that had them skirting piles of bricks in the streets, and dead cars everywhere.
"People abandoned their cars?"
"The other worlds had very little refined metal. Certainly not engine block sized chunks laying about ready to merge. By the third overlap, they were snapping rods or just dying and refusing to start." Hugh waved at a parking lot. "Even parked ones. I haven’t tried to check my own apartment yet. It was close enough to the borderline that my truck may still be in working order."
"What happened to all these trees?"
"The same thing that happened to the animals and people—except when a tree tries to move to merge, it tends to break. Every tree inside the area is probably damaged and dying. If you lot need a way to find remote areas with strong effects—look for dying trees."
"Christ. Do you mean to tell me Yosemite is going to loose all its trees?" Les looked seriously disturbed for the first time.
"Not all of it. Unless their stuck spot was a heck of a lot bigger than ours. Probably less damage than a small forest fire. I’ll bet the CIA is watching the satellites for areas with dead trees overseas . . . umm, what happened to the satellites? Anything?"
"There’s been a lot of trouble with some of the communications satellites. But they haven’t quit altogether."
The Coyote Bar Road led over the steep ridge and down into Little Valley. They drove in on the left shoulder, the rest of the road packed with abandoned vehicles. "There are just three houses to the north. The corner house there, I saw all the residents this morning at the Fairgrounds center. House looks sound, they’ll be glad to hear that, but the old dairy barn is history. Horse barn is standing, loose cattle. Oh hell. Look, stop in the driveway, I want to get that bull inside a fence."
"Looks like a Holstein. Dairy bulls are dangerous." Ron eyed the big black and white creature with a knowledgeable eye. "He’s a beauty. But they ought to have dehorned him."
Les snorted. "It looks like an ordinary cow to me. Bull." Size extra large.
"Hopefully he’s interested in going home, not treeing cops." The cop walked casually past the small herd of four reddish cows. The bull raised his head and tracked his movements. The cows shifted nervously, snorting and looking like they might bolt. Had a bad couple of days, ladies? I don't know where you belong, but how about staying here until someone comes looking for you? Hugh opened the gate to the pasture and swung it wide. Stepped away, then kept walking, circling at a distance. The big bull walked past the cows and through the gate. The cows followed in a rush. Hugh walked back and shut the gate.
Ron pulled the car up to him and he climbed in.
"Those cows are pretty wild. Spooky." Ron was frowning.
Hugh nodded. "Who knows what they merged with. At least the bull was reasonable. Now, the next house is a boarding stable. All the police horses live there, and they were all out for those two days."
A middle-aged woman stuck her head out of the barn, then trotted over when she saw Hugh. She looked very relieved. "What on Earth has been happening in town? I’ve been catching loose horses every time I turn around. Half a dozen yearling arabian stallions turned up in the back pasture, and you’d better bet I’m going to give Caroline a piece of my mind if the phones ever start working again! The boarders with mares are going to be furious. I've got Del's old horse, but not that bull!" She heaved out a breath and smiled suddenly. "And I’m glad to see you, even if you do look like hell. What is going on? I’ve tried to stay out of the way, but I’m going to need to make a store run tomorrow."
Hugh looked around at the healthy trees. Les nodded to himself. Out of the area of effect.
"It started with an earthquake, a couple of fires, then the county jail collapsed and all the inmates escaped. A biker gang and a few dozen others decided to stick around and have fun, so it got pretty nasty. Stay here as long as you can, then plan on driving up the park road to Why Joe Drive. The town is completely blocked off. Did the police horses get home? I spotted Tall Boy a couple of times, after I lost him."
"He’s back, and pretty damn proud of himself! Brought in a little herd of mares and carried on worse than those yearlings! Honestly!"
"Heh. That bull was grazing in Sophia's, Del's yard and he walked into the pasture when I opened the gate. Along with four red cows. If anyone comes here asking about them, tell them to beware the bull. Anyhow, I need to get to work, have you seen the Wilsons?"
"Yes, they left a couple of hours ago. They said the town was a wreck and they were going to their daughter’s down in Sacramento until every thing was straightened out."
"Excellent. Stay safe. Gotta go."
So the first house they had to break into was south of Coyote Bar Road. A mini-mansion just a few years old. The door was locked and no one came when Hugh pounded on it. Les eyed the slab of veneered steel and wondered if the backdoor would be easier.
Hugh's hand hovered over the doorknob for a moment, then he tried it.
The latch clicked and door popped open an inch. Hugh eyed it. Pushed it wider. "Hello. Police, anyone home? Mr. Partusi? Kevin? Veronica?" He stepped in. The smell . . . it had been warm for /// August, and two days had been enough to start decomposition of what was spread out over the living room.
Barclay knelt and examined a bit of fur. "Cat. Poor thing merged with something too large for it to maintain integrity."
Ron looked around. "Did it explode? It’s spread out over twenty feet!"
"Dinosaur, maybe. Apparently there’s some point of no return. If the animals merging are different sized." Hugh shrugged.
Ron winced. "I caught something on the internet this morning about voodoo vivisectionists killing small animals in New Orleans, and some people were chiming in to say it happened close to them as well."
Hugh nodded. "Probably this sort of thing. I hope. Something that could pass for a zombie is bad enough, without bringing real Voodoo into it." He headed for the back of the house.
The Feds spread out to search.
Ron called, his voice choked. "In here."
Mr. and Mrs. Partrusi were in bed. A pattern of bark-like roughness cross her left cheek, and his chest had a brown and green tattoo as if a bush had been painted across his body. They were quite dead, Hugh tried for a pulse anyway. Trees could be this cold . . .
Les took the cell phone and called in the bodies.
The next house had a solid wood door, solidly affixed in the frame.
Les traced the faint outline of a small tree or large bush across the door, the frame, the wooden siding. "Did trees merge with lumber?"
Hugh eyed it. "Could be." He led the way around the house, and when the gate refused to budge, climbed the wooden fence with athletic ease.
Ron leaned to peek between boards. "The branches filled in, in between. That’s spooky. Especially if merging with live things brings back dead things."
"I refuse to believe in zombie fence boards." Les boosted Ron over and managed the scramble up and over with minimal damage to overalls or ego. Even if it wasn’t as smooth as the hick cop.
Hugh had the patio sliding door open. The house was empty.
The next three houses were also empty. In the fourth, a woman and her seven year old daughter were in the walk-out basement. Pale and cold, and looking shocky, but alive.
"We didn’t have much food, but there was plenty of water, the basement leaked horribly." Margarite Valaskovich was shivering, and Les called for evac. "Probably we ought not to have drunk the water, but we got so thirsty."
"Mrs. Valaskovich, where’s your husband?"
"I don’t know. Benny had to work late, I hoped he would be able to come home, to get to us." She looked helpless, too cold and numb to even think clearly.
She and the girl, Margarite, sat in the sun and warmed up. The evacuation team wrapped them in fluffy blankets and took them away.
The fifth house had a very hungry dog. The dog food in the house didn’t seem to interest him, and a call to Theresa brought someone with a fresh bag of dog food to feed, water and make note of his location. They kept the bag of dog food, for future need.
The next two were empty, the third had a body, partly eaten by some large animal. They walked back outside, into the fresh air to call it in.
A faint ripple of unease. A tearing sound as a branch wrenched around, breaking further. Tall native grasses faded into sight, taking over the lawn, covering the sidewalk where they stood. Hugh looked around carefully. "Don’t touch anything." He pulled the baton out of his belt and . . . the grass disappeared. The tree limb tumbled to the ground.
"And if, instead of grass, there’d been people, and they touched us?" Les brushed at the yellow brown dried-grass colored streaks on his overall legs and spots of the fabric powdered and blew away."You would have merged with them. Any animals was very attractive. If a merge goes on long enough, you can merge with plants—I recommend finding water and drinking a whole lot of it. Our bodies are supposed to be mostly water, so it seemed to help. I don’t know which world that one was. Eight of the thirteen worlds seemed very similar to ours, as far as plants are concerned. Three were noticeably wetter. One drier. Don’t fire your guns unless you are truly desperate. No telling if they merged with anything. Dirt, sand . . . Not good for the metal."