Jason Mata paced and inspected them as he talked. "This is a small town. We’re searching an area roughly three miles by five. We will stay together, we will find these zombies. We are starting in the south. We’ll run a sweep east to west, looking for any sign that these rat zombies are moving into inhabited areas. Then we’ll turn north and clear the west side. We’ll move over and go south. After that we’ll work back and forth, east to west, shifting north with every sweep. Six squads of four men each. Six cars with an armed driver." He took one last look over them all. "Right. Let’s go."
Les shivered. Half afraid, half still disbelieving. Confused. What happened last night?
He was assigned to drive one of the cars, keeping an eye on the trailing teams, keeping a head count and making sure they didn’t lag behind the others as they leapfrogged down both sides of the street.
Ron was running the team on the north, Hugh on the south. Ron had a taken some kidding over the baseball bat he carried, along with his pistol and shotgun. But the jokes had faded when Hugh strapped on a sword. Big long thing with a two inch wide blade and leather wrapping the hilt. Big knob of metal to counterbalance the blade.
"Present from a lady." Hugh had looked amused. And a bit smug.
Les shook his head. "I suppose chopping their heads off is the traditional method of killing zombies. And that thing looks quite capable of it.
Ron and Jason had looked envious. Especially Ron, as he stuck his bat in a backpack, grip sticking awkwardly out.
Their first run was further south than they’d seen any of the zombie rats. They pushed the pace, depending on their noses for a warning of hidden zombies. Two of the houses were occupied, to the mutual alarm of all parties.
Deputy Goldhammer spoke to both families and walked away shaking his head. "At least they haven’t seen any rats."
Inspector Mata scowled, but turned away to keep pushing the pace. "We want to do the whole town center before nightfall."
Les chivvied his people back into order, bringing up the rear.
Search a house, skip two, search the next . . .
Reality rippled a bit, like a flood of colored lights sweeping across the block. Glass shielded lanterns on front porches illuminated a quiet street, buildings all stone, worn and elderly, but mostly well kept.
Les whispered. "Don’t touch anything. Anyone." The radio returned only static.
The big house to the south was more dilapidated than the rest of the block. An old man reclining on the steps shoved himself erect and stared at Les. He staggered forward. Drunk or old? Both? Les backed away. Female screams from behind him, spun him around. Doors flew open and four men fled the house.
Someone spoke gibberish behind him.
Les threw himself forward, but he was too late, a horrible sucking wrench and he was staggering drunk and this was the strangest hallucination he’d ever . . . he collapsed as the alien thoughts peeled away.
He shoved to his feet, swaying. Hope I’m not still drunk.
Oh God. That man was white. Olive complexioned, perhaps, but . . . Greek? "What weird world had Greeks colonizing the whole world? That’s worse than turning me white."
The four men who’d fled the house to the north were now recognizable as Ron and his crew.
Ron laughed. "Is that your problem? Oh man, just wait till we’re out of this mess. I won’t let you hear the end of it."
"What’s worse is I seem to remember riots in Greece, by a bunch of people who thought they ought to be running the whole world."
"Crap. Yeah, I read something about that. Well, there’s one world for you."
On the other side of the street, another four men staggered out of a house. Two of the men were looking at each other stiffly.
" . . . last time I’ll ever kiss a woman without having a nightmare flash back."
"How do you think I feel?"
Hugh chuckled. "Could have been worse than kissing. So stop it, before this devolves into a bad joke. You know what merges are. Laugh about it later."
Les shuddered. One of them merged with a woman? And the other guy merged with the guy kissing her? Him? Yeesh!
No time for counseling, he needed to get their minds back on the job fast. The least said about that merge, the better. Les braced himself against the car. "Right. We’re at the end of the run, so we’ll move up to the next corner and turn north. Get your minds back to the zombie hunt."
He tried to ignore the muttering behind him as he slipped behind the wheel.
The car radio crackled. Mata, coordinating the turn. No mention of an overlap. Les scowled. They’d been the furthest east, had they been the only group to feel it? He acknowledged the orders as Ron and his team climbed into the car. Hugh’s group moved forward to Samson’s chevy, and they all moved out.
Ron fiddled with his hand held radio and cursed at it. "We didn’t think to replace the radios that had merged multiple times, did we?"
"No. So do any of the other’s work? At all?"
Carl’s worked well, and Larry’s with static.
Les made a note to himself to get new ones during some break.
The search up and back was quick and uneventful. The elementary school, with damaged sheetrock and ceilings had been much easier than they’d feared. They turned east and started down Hamilton, all small older houses. Nothing. They moved a block north and headed west again.
The fourth house Ron’s team checked, a report of rotting odor was followed by static and yelling.
" . . . back fence . . . store . . . rsuit . . ." then even the static died.
Les gunned the car down the side street, jerked the wheel and skidded to a halt, lights shining down the alley behind the store.
His grip on the wheel was painfully tight. "Damn, damn, damn." He switched to Hugh’s channel.
"Get your team over here, stay together. Damn." He dropped the mic as the back door of the store slammed open. He grabbed the shotgun and aimed.
Neil backed out, firing two shots back through the door as he turned to run. Limping badly. Nothing followed him.
Les sprinted forward, supported him back to the car. "Stay here. I’m going in the front."
"Five of them." Neil gasped around his pain.
"Right." Les trotted down the center of the street, clear of potential grabbers. The cross street was empty, the store silent. Door wide open, glass gone.
Les look behind. Hugh’s team rounded the squad car and came on. Excellent. He siddled up to the door, stepped in, sweeping the littered space with the shotgun.
The stench of rotting flesh rolled over him.
There’s a zombie near. He tried to avoid noise and walked deeper into the store. He spotted the hallway to the back of the store and headed for it.
"You three guard the front, I’m with Bishop!"
Hugh’s voice faded from his attention as Les heard a crunch behind him, and turned. The dismal light from the windows silhouetted the big man. Zombie.
Without conscious thought, his shotgun was aimed at the zombie’s head and he pulled the trigger.
Les back pedaled.
Manny stalked forward, moving with easy assurance, so much stronger than the other zombies.
What is the difference? Why is this one so . . . alive?
Les tried to jumpstart his frozen brain. Where was Ron? Larry and Carl, for that matter. He reversed the shotgun. Piss poor club. But it might keep him alive until the others got here.
More zombies shambled in from the shadows. Half rotted skulls grinned. Les darted down an aisle, parallel to the windows, trying to stay in the light. Manny stalked after him. The zombies were following along and he was peripherally aware that they were giving their chief advice, laughing and betting.
He saw just the faintest twitch of movement in the shadows behind them, to the right. Friend or foe? He backed further, more quickly, getting ready to fight for his life, clubbed shotgun ready. Manny followed, trailing his cheering section. And the shadows now behind them reached out and engulfed one of them quickly and almost silently. As the first zombie collapsed to the deck, the nearest turned and was stabbed in turn. He got out the start of a shout, enough for his companions to turn. One died instantly, a sword taking off his head.
Manny whipped around, drawing a pistol with blinding speed and Les swung the shotgun hard. The zombie sidestepped it without looking and took aim at Hugh. Les pounced, trying for one arm around the zombie’s neck, the other grabbing his gun arm. The zombie was greasy and slick. At first touch, the zombie reacted faster than Les could believe but Les’s slipping grab knocked the gun from the zombie’s hand. Manny shoved loose as the pistol clattered to the floor. The zombie master didn't stop to pick it up, but sprinted for the back of the store, quickly outdistancing the only other zombie still on his feet. Les scooped up a can and threw. The other zombie dropped, skull dented. Getting soft. They’ll liquefy soon. Hugh and Les ran to the back of the store. A door slammed. Les crashed into the door, had to stop and work the locks with slippery fingers. Manny was out of sight.
"Stop." Hugh’s voice was quiet, but clear in the suddenly silent night. "Check in, get reinforcements, make sure Manny hasn’t doubled back behind us."
Less nodded. Turned back into the store and stopped suddenly. "The cold room, the freezer."
The dim light from the front windows didn’t help in the store room. Hugh sheathed his sword, shrugged the shotgun sling off his shoulder and produced a small light. It wavered around and fixed on the stainless steel door of the industrial freezer. Les stepped over tumbled boxes and reached for the latch.
"Stand back." He pulled the latch and swung the door wide, retreating to give Hugh a clear shot.
Hugh dropped the muzzle of the shotgun to the floor and started forward. Les looked, lunged forward to grab Ron as he sagged, breathing deep gulps of fresh air. The odor the poured out of the warm compartment was nearly as bad as close contact with a zombie.
Larry and Carl were trying to crawl for the door. Hugh handed Les the shotgun and flashlight and stepped in. He grabbed the two men and heaved them out of the small room.
"Just about out of air in there." Les retreated into inanities as he tucked the flashlight under his arm and used his free hand to help Ron up.
"They’re all breathing." Hugh stepped past him, sword at ready and threw himself through the door of the stockroom. Looked both ways and relaxed.
Ron reached out and propped himself on the doorway. "I can walk. Christ, I didn’t think we’d run out of air so quick, and I thought all freezers could be opened from the inside. And the smell. Holy God."
"That freezer’s probably older than you are." Hugh spoke from the hallway. He might have whispered something else, something that sounded like Delphi’s word of killing. "I think we should get out of here as quickly as possible. I hear squeaks."
A gunshot, muffled by the intervening walls.
That got Carl dragging himself to his feet and reaching to help Larry. Leaning on each other, with Hugh in the lead and Les bringing up the rear, they hustled out the front doors.
Samson has his car’s lights shining along the front of the store, and Michaels pointed down the block and across the street. "He ran out from the far side of the store, across the street and in between the yellow house and that dark brown one. He didn’t move like a zombie, though."
"No. I think he’s what they’re calling a zombie master, in the cities. Pity you didn’t get him."
"I should have gone for him first." Hugh sheathed his sword and took the shotgun back.
The car radios were still working. Les checked in, and they were ordered to hold their position and watch for more movement or rats. The other four teams finished the sweep, moved north and turned back toward them. As soon as they made contact, Ron was ordered to take his team into the hospital. Les took Able and Baker, Hugh kept Michaels and Samson. Two hours later, Ron returned with the car and lunches. And hand units.
"They want to keep Carl and Larry under observation a bit longer, but they’re fine, really. Who’d have thought an old geezer like me could handle bad air better than the young jocks?"
Les felt his shoulders relax. He hadn’t realized how tense he’d been. "It’s probably Suz’s cooking. Vitamins and all that. Us bachelors subsist on Pop Tarts and Fast Food."
"Not my superior physique?" Ron grinned.
"In your dreams."
They gathered in an intersection with clear lines of sight for lunch. They found a house with enough water in the pipes to clean up. Les peeled out of the top half of his slimy overalls and let them dangle behind him while he scrubbed his hands. He still tried to not touch his sandwich with his hands. At least the zombie slime on the coveralls has maintained my lack of scent sensitivity. He noticed that only his own team was sitting near him, and the rest of the hunters were giving them a wide berth.
"Huh. You’d think we smelled or something."
Ron choked. "They’re just respecting our superior zombie hunting ability."
They all relaxed a bit. Hugh laid out flat and appeared to be asleep.
"So. How many merges does a sword have to go through before it gets brittle or rotten or whatever." Ron thumped down beside Hugh.
"Probably three or four at least, and that last one." Hugh shook his head. "Am I doomed to merge with smart ass noble brats? That one was wearing a sword, so maybe they both stayed strong."
"Well, the family mansion was well run down, and the boy was illegitimate, but he had the attitude of privilege."
Les joined them. Not showing his nerves. "And, umm. I looked in a mirror."
"It’ll mostly be gone by tomorrow. I haven’t had time, since this started to check if there are fingerprint changes." Hugh opened one eye, and looked at his watch. Held it to his ear. "Fortunately it’s the cheapest one I could find."
"Christ. Do you know, I think Suz is going to have a lot less trouble dragging me to church, from now on."
Les shook his head. "Just because the scientists haven’t quite caught up with it doesn’t mean it’s anything . . . Holy."
Hugh snorted. "And in the end we all just do the best we can, and hope either Chaos or God doesn’t interest themselves too closely with us."
Les nodded. "Amen." He reached and turned on the car radio. It was dialed into a news station.
"Wheat prices rose over the drop in Australian wheat harvest estimates as scandal over hybrid seeds spread.
"I’m shocked. Just stunned. These plants are clearly not wheat, and the grain heads they are forming are small. Might be usable as cattle feed, assuming the Big Ag Companies will admit to the problem and identify what this is we’re growing."
Les snapped the radio back off. "Anyone want to bet that’s not an Overlap effect?" He got no takers.
Jason came around and rousted the hunters. He shifted Deputy Brandon to Les’ squad. The two squads would be short a man each, but better than one squad down two. They all groaned to their feet and started again.
Search a house, skip the next two that the other teams have already done, search, skip two . . .
Hugh glanced at his next target, and then across the street at the house the opposite team was about to enter. He waved his people in.
"I’ve got a nasty feeling about that one. Let’s just mosey over and see if they need . . . "
"Rats!" The tail man in, turned and yelled, before entering the house.
Hugh charged across the street, and in between houses.
Bishop was yelling at him, or maybe the radio.
Bishop’s voice faded from his consciousness as he saw the zombie master beyond the back fence, pausing in the shadows, apparently counting on the rats to keep the Feds busy and himself unnoticed.
The house backed up on the yard of the construction supply warehouse. Cement culvert pipes in all sizes had been stacked neatly, but successive overlaps and earthquakes had warped and shattered them.Hugh slid past the crumpled wood of the fence, at the end of a row of concrete debris. He hesitated, his attention caught by the sound of squeaking behind him. What? What did I just miss? Michaels trotted up behind him, looking behind and to the left. Hugh led the way across the rubble, trying to get behind the zombie master’s position. Rats boiled up out of the cracks and crevices of the cement wasteland and ran toward them, staggering individually, but pressing on fast, en mass. Hugh climbed over the hanging edge of a broken culvert and surveyed the other sides. Not rat proof, but it limited the directions the swarm could attack from.