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. Michaels joined him.
"We’re in trouble. I don’t think your sword can deal with rats by the hundreds."
"Depends on how smart they are. Keep an eye out for the zombie master." Hugh waved a hand at the first wave. "Zaromuot." He fired the shotgun, taking out a few to the side.
Michaels turned back, "Sorry, didn’t catch that."
"Magic spell to kill rats. Zaromuot." His shotgun picked off a clump to the other side.
The deputy snorted. "Right, well, if you need help give a yell. The big guy is on the move." He raised his shotgun, sighed. "And out of sight. Damn it. Now I wish I had a sniper rifle. Or my hunting rifle, come to that. Or even deer shot, not this damned . . ." He dropped the muzzle and fired into the rats trying to stack themselves up and climb the overhang. The pile blew apart in a stinking explosion.
Hugh fired three more times into the mob of rats, murmuring the killing word. The rats flinched back and ran past them, staying behind concrete. The men stayed on their high point and picked off occasional groups that neglected their cover. More rats were leaving the back of the house and crossing to the construction yard. A zombie shambled out. Michaels shot twice and cursed as the creature, man, ignored the pellets hitting him at long range.
Ron and Able galloped after him.
The zombie stepped behind an almost intact culvert, climbing up on the rubble beside it. He reached down and grabbed Ron by the neck as the Fed trotted into range. Hugh threw himself off their prominence and scrambled across the rubble.
Able was pulling on Ron, Ron had his arms braced on the zombie’s shoulders, keeping rotted jaws a few inches from his face. The rats reversed their direction and converged on the tableau.
Hugh gestured well to the side. "Zaromuot." He drew his sword and flipped up the point. Ran it up between man and zombie, in under the jaw and into the zombie’s brain.
Able fell backwards with Ron sandwiched between him and the dead zombie at the apex of their pile. Hugh brought the shotgun around and fired three times into the rats. The fourth trigger pull resulted in a hollow click.
He spun and ripped the sword out of the zombie. Ron was just pulling the dead hands off his neck and hauling in deep breaths of air. Able pulled a box of shells out of his pocket and Hugh dropped the shotgun in his lap.
He turned back to the rats, but they were fleeing again.
They heard gunfire to the north, but could see nothing.
Les drove his car over the fence, and cussed them as the last rats disappeared. Hugh helped Ron up while Able finished loading the shotgun. They kept their eyes open and retreated into the car. Michaels galloped in from the side. Les threw it into reverse. "We’re hot on Manny’s trail, about three blocks north of here. Any places we really don’t want him to get into?"
"The stores four streets up? We’re probably too late to stop him. If he gets across Coyote Bar Road there’s the junk yard. I wonder why they all stay in this area, though? Does the thin spot have a hold on them? Is it strong enough to keep them from being chased out? Because they’ll be out of the region of overlap just north of the junkyard."
"Junked cars? If we get them in there, can we burn it?" Les turned on to Jefferson, hit the brakes, changed his mind and ran over rats, zigging his headlights around.
Michaels flapped his mouth a few times, then shrugged. "I always wanted to be an arsonist. But I suppose if we ask permission it doesn’t count."
"Sorry, your life of crime will have to be postponed." Les grinned.
"Not much wood to speak of, but no doubt plenty of oil and gas. And a good fence, no near neighbors. Bishop, I think you may have a plan." Hugh scratched his chin. "They’ve been towing thousands of cars, the last week. They’ve got them stacked all over the place, waiting for the crusher."
"If it won’t burn, we could try a flame thrower. That’d get all the rats under and in between cars. Any one know how to make a flame thrower?"
Les reached for the radio. "Let’s see what the Boss has to say."
When they reached Coyote Bar Road, they found that it had been cleared, and the dead cars filled the empty lot south of the junkyard proper.
All the hunters were there, with the addition of Schulenburg.
"The situation in SoCal has settled down. We killed the zombie masters, and the rest were easy to track down. The rats were the worst problem, but they are all dying now, naturally." He frowned at Les. "You look awful. But your idea about flamethrowers is sound." He nodded to the north. "In that mess. I’ve got the National Guard moving up to San Francisco. If this doesn’t resolve inside of another few days, I’ll shift some of them over here."
Mata nodded. "We’ve got more sheriff’s deputies north of the junkyard, and they’re reporting no sign of rats. So we’ll tool up, eat and rest before we go in."
"The feed store has insecticide sprayers." Hugh grinned. "And they were outside the overlap area, so they’re reliable." A zombie hunt with flame throwers!
"Sprayers sounds good. Where will we find this place?" Les looked like he was trying hard to not grin.
"Turn right at the next corner, left into the parking lot. Gasoline, or should we see if we can rig something up to spray propane?"
"Kerosene, for god’s sake. Do you really want to die? Would one of those pressurized hand pump ones work?" Ron asked.
Les parked in front of the building.
Hugh jumped out. "Maybe, but there’s a gas engine powered sprayer, on a backpack frame I spotted a few months ago. If they still have it, all you need to do is add a lighter to it."
"Spray . . . You’re going to need one of those long BBQ lighters."
Ron looked around. "The buildings are okay, no overlaps?"
"Yep, we’re just beyond the northwest edge. So everything ought to work." Hugh sauntered up to the doors and used the unlocking word on them. They opened easily.
"Trusting country folk," Ron muttered. "Good. I’m going to hunt down some fire extinguishers. Someone has to show some sense around here."
There was almost no wind. The sun was shining beneath the cloud layer as it sank toward the horizon.
Schulenburg nodded and they started pressurizing their pumps. "Ready?"
They were down to five teams of four people each. With one flame thrower, two shotgunners and someone with a club of some sort in each group. Or sword, in Hugh’s case. Each group had one or two fire extinguishers in backpacks.
John Michaels had won the toss and carried their flamethrower.
Les hefted his shotgun and flanked him to the right.
They walked up on the automobile maze and the rats came out to meet them. The sudden clicking of lighters, the whoosh, the bright light as liquid fire sprayed across the last of the open ground and found the rats. They squeaked and thrashed and burned.
Les swallowed his gorge. He forced himself to remember Jerry. So damned young. Johnson, butchered like a steer.
Flaming rats broke out between groups, little fireballs staggering through the damp grass.
Hugh started cussing, as two headed east, for the ridge. "If they burn down my girlfriend’s house I am dead."
A car drove up to block the rats headed into town. Schulenburg hopped out himself to club the creatures. The two to the east faltered and died before they reached the crest, leaving glowing spots on the slope.
Mata whistled. The groups advanced, spraying fire under cars and lighting the way as they moved toward the fence. This was the easy part. No doubt they were missing rats, inside the engine or passenger compartments. But by the time they reached the fence, there weren’t enough left to be a threat at their backs.
They walked around and approached the gates of the junkyard.
The fence was composed of rusting metal sheets on end. Intended for the sides or roofs of barns, they shielded the eyesore of the piles of crushed cars from the public view. It was often debated whether the wall itself was a greater or lesser eyesore.
Like everything metal, it had suffered in the overlap. But it appeared to be sufficiently intact to give minimal escape routes to any human sized zombies inside. The gates had been open when the first overlap hit, and they’d remained that way since. Looking through them, everything was still. The silence was broken by a wet, gluey cough. A dozen zombies shuffled out of the stacks and faced them. coughs, or perhaps sickly laughter.
One reached out his oozing hands and grinned. "Brainzzzz….."
They all shuffled forward, gaining speed.
"Light ‘er up Michaels."
The zombies were met by a virtual wall of flame. And shuffle-ran right through it. Flaming and burning, they closed on the hunters.
Les threw his shotgun to his shoulder and started firing. "Damn small game cartridges!" He backed away with the others as the loads staggered but failed to stop the zombies.
Hugh stepped in and swung his sword with a will, a flaming head flew, and the body collapsed. Three zombies converged on him and he bolted between two, dodged and cropped another head.
Les put five shells into a zombie’s head before it finally dropped. He’d been backpedaling the whole time, and looking around he saw a chaotic mixture of zombies chasing men and men chasing zombies.
A thud behind him, he spun and dodged a flaming zombie as it sprawled, head caved in. Baker grinned and raised his fire extinguisher in triumph.
Michaels stumped up to join them. "That wasn’t quite how I’d envisioned this going down." He had his sprayer turned off.
Baker reversed his extinguisher and started putting out the fallen zombies. "Yeah. The Charge of the Light Brigade. So to speak."
Michaels shook his head. "Baaad. I’m telling your wife you maligned a brave bunch of idiots that got themselves killed . . . Umm. Never mind."
Les cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should reserve the flamethrowers for the rats, and checking under cars. Let’s load half the shotguns with slugs and go take a look."
They all turned and scrutinized a figure approaching in the twilight. One of the sheriff’s deputies. He sank down and blew out a breath. "Dudes. I didn’t think I could still run that fast. It was, like, real spooky, you know, like they could still see, even when they were burning up."
Another deputy laughed. "And how many of us have sword envy, and want to run out and buy one just like Hugh’s got."
Hugh limped up and laughed. "The baseball bats work just as good, if you have to get that close."
"Radical, but effective." The surfer dude looked over at the junk yard. "Should someone tell Harrison his flame’s out?"
Hugh straightened. "Is that the micro-fine sprayer? If that lights off now it’s going to do a pretty good imitation of a fuel-air bomb."
"Crap!" Les bolted for the sprayer. "Stop it! Which way is the wind blowing? Is there anyone inside the junkyard?" The faint breeze was toward the junkyard, and he hauled the deputy away.
"I just figured we could coat everything, and then light it off." Harrison explained, while trotting to keep up with Les.
They all turned at shouts from behind them. A last zombie, still flickering faintly staggered around from the nearest storage unit. Panting men were loosing ground, but at least they were chasing it, instead of the other way around..
Ron wheezed to a halt beside Les. "Just can’t . . . keep running . . . like those things . . . can."
"Thought you had a superior physique?"
Hugh jumped up, and yelled at the other pursuers. "Let it go. Leave it alone and take cover!"
"Dude, it’s headed right for the junkyard." Deputy Brandon started backing away. "I gotta bad feeling about this."
"Yeah. C’mon, I think it’s time to leave." Les nudged Ron back, away from the junkyard.
"Too late." Hugh threw himself flat in the ditch on the far side of the road and Les hauled Ron over and shoved him down.
There was a tremendous whoosh. Felt more than heard, it sucked the air out of his lungs and then blasted fire over his head.
Les raised his head. Beautiful symmetric glowing arcs crossed the sky. It started raining car parts. Large car parts. Sheets of metal. They picked themselves up and retreated hastily another quarter mile. Not in silence, judging by the moving mouths, but Les couldn’t hear a thing. Damn. Well. That cleared the junk yard. He waved to get everyone’s attention, and started obviously counting on his fingers.
They got the message, and split up for a head count.
To his relief, his hearing started to return about the time Ron reported that everyone was accounted for.
They dragged their asses around putting out fires. They left a smaller crew on duty, to watch for flareups and zombies, and the exhausted hunters piled into the cars.
Dr. Zealand looked pissed. "You released the subjects?"
"Patients." Tasman frowned right back at him. "I think you were starting to forget that they were people. I kept one, the boy with the abdominal injuries. He may be charged with a crime. None of the others were suspects of any sort."
"And what if they have a relapse?"
"Then I’m sure you will treat them as needed. As patients who came to you, not lab rats locked up in those cages." Tasman jabbed a finger down the hall, at the windowed rooms with the locking doors.
"This is a matter of national security. Those people are dangerous."
"This is a matter of Civil Rights, of the Rule of Law. The Constitution." She refused to give an inch. Not on this.
"We are operating under emergency powers, and . . ." he paused when the phone at the nurses station rang.
Nikki picked it up and her eyes grew round. She looked over at them, raising her voice. "The Agents, and police and deputies are all coming in to get a bunch of cuts and burns cleaned up, no major injuries. They want to know if they should come up or just use the ER."
Zealand glared at Tasman. "Since we don’t have any . . . patients, they might as well come up here, so we can justify our exorbitant salaries. Not to mention renting the space."
The scorched zombie hunters piled out of the elevators a few minutes later. She managed to sic Nikki on Les, and debrided the Surfer Dude’s burns herself.
"Like wow, those zombies can really haul ass when they’re burning." His cheerful face fell. "Poor sods. Even zombies, like, deserve better."
"Unfortunately they don’t seem to be giving us an alternatives. Turn around and let me see your back." Nicely muscled.
"I don’t think I burned anything, back there."
"No, you look good."
He blinked at her, and blushed a bit. "Really? I mean . . ."
They kept four men, not that badly injured, but just to be able to treat the worst of their burns in the morning. Tasman suspected a lot of painkillers were going to be needed tonight.
She saw Les looking her way, and ignored him. Set herself to keep watch tonight, and dispense drugs, water, and TLC where needed. Especially if Deputy Surfer Dude Mike Brandon was the man in need.
30 August 2020
They all still looked a bit the worse for wear the next morning. The reddened skin, the little blisters where the burns were worse . . .
Schulenburg finished his breakfast, ditched his tray and stood at the head of the dining room to catch their attention.
"Well. Yesterday we destroyed sixteen zombie humans and infected rats by the hundreds. Thousands." He scowled around at them all. "We managed, barely, to lose no more people. Now the local director in So Cal says the zombies are dying at an increased rate. The ones still on the street look very bad, are barely ambulatory without a master zombie to drive them. Our hospitalized zombies did surprisingly well. Two died, and the rest have been released as cured. A few other hospitals are reporting the same. Despite this, I want to emphasize that zombies are very dangerous and the majority should be killed on sight. We don’t know if our zombie master died in the junk yard or not. Now that we’ve got some light, we’ll search." He cleared his throat. "And clean up some of the mess we made last night."
Ron leaned over and whispered. "They heard the explosion all the way to Sacramento." He clamped his lips shut as the director’s gaze headed his direction.
"On other fronts, some of the other problems we were anticipating have shown up, and faded again. Several people who merged with so-called demons, both during the overlap and since, all over the world, grew small horns, but they regressed and disappeared. We’re releasing those types from the hospitals or custody, as they didn’t seem to become violent. So we aren’t worried about reoccurrences.
"Locally, we had a boy, a teenager, with some canine characteristics who escaped our custody, but he may have been handicapped, not a merge victim. The mother and daughter with metabolic problems have been released, they don’t need hospitalization any longer, and aren’t any sort of threat. The healing zombies will remain under observation for some time, both in and out of the hospital."
He pulled out a card. "In the mean time, we’re going to rotate some people home. If the zombie problem is resolved, we’ll probably release you back to your regular assignments." He rattled off a string of names, including Ron but excluding Les. "As you’ve probably worked out, we’re sending the family men back home first."
He pocketed his card. "I’ll get the tickets printed, and you’ll be out of here about noon to catch a two o’clock flight to DC."
Ron sighed. "I feel like I’m running out on you."
"Think of it as leaving me in a position to continue my pursuit of Dr. Lee." Les smiled wryly. "Although I’m not sure my progress hasn’t been negative."
"Heh. I mentioned to Hugh that you two had gone up to the hot spot and he about had a cow. ‘On the night of the full moon? Are they insane?’ Les, they need to bring in a psychologist to help all the locals. Maybe a battalion of psychologists. They are really, really messed up."
"Yeah. Hugh believes in magic. Or maybe he’s just playing along with his girlfriend."
"I like that idea better. Unfortunately I don’t believe it." Ron glanced past him.
Tasman was walking toward him, towing a suitcase. "I’d like to speak to you. Alone, please."
He followed her to a nook in the lounge.
"I . . . wanted to thank you for not taking advantage of my . . . drugged or hypnotized state . . . when we . . . examined the hot spot."
Les froze. "Well . . . I really don’t know what happened, up there. It could have been a merge. Maybe, when we get our hands on some reports we’ll find out if that sort of . . . hallucination is common around the hot spots. Or if this one is unique."
"That’s a good thought." She fiddled with a pen on the table beside her chair. Pushed the little pad of paper around. "I’m a doctor. I ought to have recognized the symptoms. I ought to have been mature and responsible enough to get myself tested. Then we’d know if it was drugs or something strange that ought to be reported."
Les swallowed. "I didn’t report it."
"I didn’t either. There may have been LSD on . . . something I ate." Tasman tapped the pen nervously on the pad, then started doodling. "Except, I saw . . . or maybe it was just another . . . a flashback. Nobody can heal with a word of power."
Les squeezed his temples. "But I saw the Dance too. And I was dead certain I had horns. Maybe it was a late Overlap effect. Makes me wish I’d studied Physics instead of Law, you know?"
"We were right there on the hot spot." Tasman blushed.
"So close, even a small overlap that wasn’t noticed in town was strong enough for us to overlap with the dancers?" Les leaned back and considered that option. "I know the Research and Response Division keeps people away from the hot spots they know about. I hadn’t thought about small scale events being common, but it makes sense."
Tasman nodded. "Everything is like that. Lots of little storms, fewer large, and even fewer huge storms. Well. I apologize . . . for my attitude."
Les shrugged. "I . . . understand all too well. I’m not the most tolerant person around. Although this has been a real learning experience. I’m almost to the point of admitting that a pale skinned, small town, speed trap operator can be a damn good officer of the law. Even Deputy Surfer Dude was a good one. However jealous I am of the smiles you sent his direction."
She snickered at that. "Oh my, that is going out on a limb, for you. And I’ll have you know the smiles were amusement at his accent, not attraction. Heavens, if my Grandmother ever thinks I’m attracted to a, umm, what was that term? Speed Trap Operator, I’ll never hear the end of it. She is of Chinese ethnicity, and extremely prejudiced. And, well, had a bad marriage to a black man as well. She’s done an excellent job of passing her problems to my mother, and me."
"Ah. Well, I’m beginning to think we’re just going to have to outlive the worse of the old . . . problems. Yeah, well, and we’ve a whole new batch of things to be prejudiced about now. I wonder what your Grandmother would think about you dating a part-bull? Or a werewolf?"
"What I have to do now is ask about things other than zombies. God knows what I’ll be fighting for the next couple of years."
Tasman nodded. "I’ve been boning up on the reports. It seems the longer a merge lasts the closer and closer the match. That is, first the major structures align, then the smaller, down to cells, inter cellular structures, the DNA units start swapping around, atoms match up, or failing that, subatomic particles. Possibly even quarks. At some point though, probably the subatomic, you start getting energy releases."
"Yow! Something akin to cold fusion, or fission?"
"Yes. We don’t have a good handle on that though, since merges long enough to do something like break up or make up things like pigment molecules are rare enough. Any better data we got from this major overlap hasn’t been analyzed yet."
"Heh. I wonder how many surprises there will be?"
She dimpled slightly. "Like shape changing dancers? I want to be as far from any hot spots as possible by the next Full Moon."
Les ran his hands through his hair. No bumps. "They should be able to find all the hot spots. The patches of warped and dead trees should be detectable in satellite images."
"In Atlanta, I barely felt anything."
"In DC I felt the long overlap . . . distantly. Nothing like these overlaps here."
"I don’t know if I’ll have access to any of that information, though. I’m being recalled to Atlanta, probably because one patient escaped, and I released the rest. I . . . thought about it, and the government becoming an instrument of repression and murder is a much larger threat than . . . a few stray genes swapping around among different species."
Les hesitated. Nodded. "A lot of the odd effects are fading fast. Although I’m going to plan on locking myself in on the next full moon."
She paled, her warm cocoa skin looking dry and gray for a moment. "That is an excellent idea. I shall have to think how to implement it." Then the corners of her eyes crinkled a bit. "Do you have any idea who those other . . . dancers were? I mean, were they from our world, or a different one? Someone said something about a Zanadu and dancing . . ."
Les swallowed suddenly. "Uh. I heard something about women who go up there and dance every full moon. I, uh."
"Sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up."
"Well, it’s something I ought to check, in case . . . Well, anyway, good luck in Atlanta. Personally I’d guess there was at least a fifty-fifty chance they want you because of your success in curing the zombies."
Tasman smiled wryly. "If that’s the case, I’ll probably see you at conferences about this, now and again."
"And if not, well." He held out a hand and shook hers. Very professional, lacking all emotion. The emotions were all mine. Better luck next time, Bachelor.
"Yes. Well. I’m going home, and bracing myself for whatever comes next."
Les caught sight of the other Agents walking down the hall, their luggage in tow. "Me too. Soon, I hope."
She picked up her luggage and walked out, hailing a taxi.
Just as well. I’ve always like the bachelor lifestyle. And it’ll be less fraught, if there’s no one missing me when I’m out hunting werewolves.
Or dancing under the full moon.