The search of the junkyard was dangerous, among the teetering piles of crushed cars. And dirty, and unrewarding. And searching the area around the junkyard for car parts, and zombie carcasses. There was no sign of rats, zombie or otherwise. There were no human zombie sightings.
"I really don’t like assuming Manny is dead." Les glared at the scorched junk yard. It was quite visible, the metal sheets of the fence had been blown all over half the surrounding fields.
"And if he’s not, what is he going to do?" Hugh dragged a car door through the trampled weeds, and Les helped him heave it up into the flatbed truck.
"And do we really think no one will notice we blew up the junkyard?"
Hugh grinned. "With luck everyone will think it was the earthquake. Poor Otis, everyone wanted him to go away before the high school was built. Now, it may be more economic to relocate than to rebuild."
Hugh stopped and watched a white pickup drive west on Coyote Bar Road.
Les suppressed envy. At least his girlfriend hasn’t fled across the country. Not that Tasman ever qualified, but . . .
The truck crossed the ridge and disappeared.
"You know how the zombies seemed to be able to follow us, even without eyesight? Could Manny have been steering them magically? Like, from where he could see them?"
Hugh followed his gaze to the ridge and paled. "And where did he go, after?" His voice was husky and he turned and ran for his truck.
Les followed, grabbing a shotgun in passing. He threw himself through the door of the pickup as Hugh gunned it forward. They skidded onto Coyote Bar Road and accelerated up the slope. Hugh barely slowed at the top, but they failed to become airborn and even had a reasonable amount of control as Hugh slid around the corner and landed in the front yard of the first house.
The front door was more than locked, it didn’t even move in its frame.
"Wooden. Nothing’s going to budge." He bolted to the left.
Les ran to the right. He swung wide around the corner and collided with Delphi.
She staggered back and sat down. "Hi. Is this about the zombie in the tree?"
"Yeah." She took his hand to get up off the ground and led the way toward the back of the house.
Hugh was crabbing halfsideways, his eyes on the pasture until he spotted Del. He grabbed her in a bear hug.
Out in the pasture the ragged remains of what had recently been a magnificent oak was surrounded by animals. Four restless reddish cows stared at the tree from uphill. On the right the black and white bull pawed, and tossed his horns, clearly threatening the figure clinging to the main trunk about ten feet up.
Closer to them a big black dog turned his attention from the tree to the approaching people. His ears flattened, and he slunk off and disappeared behind the barn. To the left a big black draft horse perked her ears at them, before turning back to snort at the man up in the tree. She struck out with a front foot in a clear threat.
Les thought about his brief college boxing, and the potential of an arm that long, thrown by that much shoulder muscle, with a big horny hoof at the end of it. He hesitated, then approached the tree carefully, staying equidistant from horse and bull. It would be so embarrassing to get treed with the zombie. He pulled out his phone and called for a live zombie pickup.
"So, Manny, you got enough brains left to be worth curing?" Hugh circled the tree, studying the zombie.
"You! You and your damned spells! Well I know a few as well." Manny voice was thick and gluey with mucus, or perhaps pus. He pointed a finger, not at Hugh, but out at Delphi. "Eyah pash kune!"
"Aee or ko gee." Delphi’s word made no more sense than Manny’s. She looked faintly interested, and not at all worried.
Hugh spoke the word he’d used on the rats. "Zaromuot." He had his hands up, as if indicating a direction. And stepped smartly to the side as Manny sagged and collapsed, fell from the tree. And lay without twitching.
The bull and horse snorted, the cows wheeled away and departed.
Hugh nodded to the Bull. "Excellent job." He looked over at the horse. "Missy, you must have picked up some warhorse merges or something."
Lee shook himself. Looked at his phone. "Derrick, you still there? Forget the net, the zombie fell out of the tree and finished himself off." He clicked off.
Looked at the horse and the bull. "You’re kidding, right?"
Delphi shrugged. "If a person who merges with an animal keeps a few animal traits, does the animal keep a few traits of humanity? Missy and Maverick aren’t the same as they were before the merge. Maybe they’ll lose that extra awareness. Maybe they won’t. In the mean time, I think I’ll be eating a bunch of fish and chicken. Or just give up and go vegetarian."
Les nodded. And looked over at Hugh. For a moment he could see inside the man, see a soul that had layers of arrogance, selfishness, and dominance, recently added, not welcomed, not allowed inside. Caution underneath. But he could see down through that as well, to the underlying foundation of solid, stubborn dependable rock. The worst stains on the top were already fading. I wonder what my soul looks like? And then the inner sight, or perhaps imagination, was gone.
"Well, I wasn’t planning on mentioning killing Manny with a magic word. But I also am not planning on a magic murder spree." Hugh looked down at the crumpled zombie. "But if we’d cured him . . . what do you do with a criminally inclined wizard? That was a word to compel obedience."
Les felt faint. "He could have ordered anyone to do any thing. Including letting him out of jail?"
"I think so. Look at how the zombies acted. Even the rats."
But we can’t just kill them . . . Les crossed his arms and spoke firmly. "Those words are not something that should be spread around. Especially not the killing ones. Let’s not even start down that road – if we can help it."
They both nodded.
Delphi looked away from the body. "I’ll just continue to give out healing and pull, along with specific instructions about treating zombies. And any other healing methods I come up with."
A last zip through town. Because it was impossible to know if they’d really gotten all of them. Les and Michaels both had new shotguns. They were among the last of the Feds. Even Dr. Zealand, reduced to outpatient visits, was sending staff home.
"We’re just going to note anyplace that we even think has zombies. We are not getting out of the . . ."
Two zombies lurched out from a house to the left.
Michaels hit the brakes.
The zombies looked like they were wrestling. No. Fighting. The big one got the little one down on the ground and restrained in a professional manner.
Les stepped out of the car, cautiously. Eyed the bigger zombie in disbelief. "Henry?"
"I got her, Les. I got her. And I killed the other two." His head sagged for a moment, then his shoulders straightened and he looked Les in the eyes. "But there were a couple of merges, and there were dead things . . . Now be honest with me. Is there a cure? Or is it better that you kill me now, cleanly?"
Les gulped. "You don’t look too far gone. They can save you. Don’t know about your girl friend there."
A ghost of a smile. "Yeah, man. I’ll never again give you grief about the women you fall for."
"Ha! Your brain is still working, that’s a good sign."
Michaels was on the radio.
Everyone showed up. The woman’s house and everything around it was searched. They were just a block south of the first search sweep.
But no more zombies were found, and Dr. Zealand was pleased to have one each of the two kinds of zombies locked up for study.
"Two kinds?" Michaels asked.
The nurse, Nikki Something, answered. "A secondary is someone who merged with something dead. A primary is someone who was killed and revived by merging with someone alive. They both run from really awful to barely dead. Red was about as bad as a secondary type can get. Manny – the autopsy is interesting, we’re doing thousands of DNA tests, he must have merged with live persons a dozen times after he was killed. We think maybe he retained an unusually large amount of foreign tissues."
Les nodded. Pretty smart lady. Pretty good looking, too. "That’s going to be very interesting. I just hope we’re out of overlaps. I haven’t heard of one being reported today."
"Oh yes." Fervent tones in her voice. "I hope these are the last two zombies I ever see."
And I will just happen to drop a mention of the new zombie patients to Miss Williams. But God knows what we’ll do with a cured zombie criminal. Secret trials and incarceration are just one step less objectionable than lynchings.
"Have you still got . . . was his name really Skippy?"
"Mark Hastin III. Skippy. Apparently he's the local football star. Yes, we've got him. He’s all healed of his zombie infection, now we’re fighting periotentius. Nasty injury to his abdomen."
Two zombie criminals.
Sunday 13 January 2013
"I saw that the last two zombies are cured." Hugh wandered the house, looking up at the exposed beam ceiling. Squiggly marks like branches, green shapes like leaves, impressed on ceiling and walls. Even patches of bark.
"Yes. I wasn’t sure I ought to cure Dusty . . . but that wasn’t my call." Del joined him in looking up. "I think the whole house has grown together. I had to saw the wooden furniture loose from the floor, and sand the floor and put little castor plates on the chairs and table legs. And my poor bookshelves! Twigs growing from one end to another, right through the books. I had to toss them, books and all. Once I sawed them loose from the wall and floor."
"Ouch. You’re incredibly lucky, with the location of this house so close to the thin spot."
"I know. So, the plumbing is fixed, and the electrician is coming tomorrow. We’re having to completely rewire the house, even the breaker box and the meter are useless. The dairy, the concrete foundation didn't deal with the shifting land underneath at all well. We're going to have to knock down the part that is still standing as a safety hazard. The house is pier and beam, so it did better, but it apparently pulled in and merged with trees for the most part, but for the exotic chemicals, it used any dust and smoke in the air. It smells a bit smoky. How about your apartment building?"
Hugh admired Delphi’s eyes as she talked about the state of the house. "At least the structure is sound. And the electrical system passed a check. Makes me glad I never built on the land I kept from my parent’s ranch. Except I’d have been up north and out of the strongly overlapped area. Some people are having to choose between razing and rebuilding, and extensive repairs to a structure they don’t trust anymore. The Chief for one. He hates the idea of losing all the memories in the house."
"Yeah, I can see that. At least for the school district it isn’t an emotional decision. The old elementary school is iffy. At the high school the gymnasium collapsed altogether. Nothing to dither over. They’re searching for mobile classrooms, and hope to have school back in session by mid January." Del shrugged ruefully. "Half the students may be living out of the district and attending school elsewhere, by then. I’ve heard some people whose houses were totaled are not going to rebuild."
Hugh nodded. "The zombie hunts didn’t help. Policemen running around shooting people on sight. I keep wondering if the police department as a whole isn’t going to get blamed and dissolved. We’ve got to look like a really handy sacrificial goat to the Feds."
She looked at him in alarm. "And trash everyone’s future employment potential as well."
"Yeah. It won’t be pretty if it goes that way. But for now we’ll muddle on through. I didn’t see you at the meeting yesterday."
"Nope. Civilians not allowed. Idiots."
"They said the Federal office here will have a complete library of every report and analysis from everywhere. It will be available to everyone who has been cleared to see it." Hugh paced. "I made sure your name was on the list. Right now they're trying to get us to not talk about the merges with people who weren't here. They want to limit the spread, they think that if it trickles out a bit at a time it'll just be written off as crackpots and drugs. Not a good idea, in my opinion. It'll make dealing with the problems much harder."
"It won't work. It sounds like one merge went world-wide. Deep down, everyone knows something very strange happened that day. Something that hasn’t stopped. Yet."
"Yeah. Harry and I are heading for LA tomorrow, for a big pony and dog show from DC. They’ll have information from around the world. I wish you could come, I could use your analyses of all the big fancy medical and science terms."
She grinned at him. "I’d love to come. But I’m forced by circumstances to resort to under handed methods of information gathering. Do you know anyone who could be bribed to spill the beans with, say, grilled chicken."
"I happen to know a lowlife who could be tempted into loose lipped chatter. What time would you like me to send myself by?"
"Of course I accept, Mr. President. I am both deeply honored by your trust, and deeply excited to be able to direct the research into the genetics and biology of these merged and changed people." Tasman stopped to take a breath.
"Excellent. Now let me turn you over to the Surgeon General, and the Director of Homeland Security. For now we are keeping quiet about the state of our understanding, and especially the number of our people affected. Other countries are doing the same."
The surgeon general was a cheerful old man, and looked bright-eyes and excited. "It didn’t take us long to go from horror to curiosity to delight. And then we started thinking about the potential involved here."
"The potential." She took a deep breath. "Indeed." Oh yes. There is an upside. And . . . there is a New World, no matter how few of us have recognized it.
" . . . setting up field offices in San Francisco, Concord, Visalia, Monterey, Mendocino and Reilly Creek. The people involved in the Yosemite outbreak came from all over, and will use whatever office is nearest their homes. Likewise the other people in remote areas." The speaker glanced at his watch. "We're running short on time. We'll break now for the workshops on specific problems. We'll be answering a lot of your questions in those workshops, or you can ask us later."
Hugh didn't like the idea of being constantly under the government's microscope. Even if they did seem to be reacting rationally. Apart from the continued secrecy. He checked his schedule for the workshops he needed. "At least we don't have inner city gangs added to the mess." The Southern California police would be spending a lot of time dealing with gangs whose members had overlapped with people of the Spanish settlements of the Other World's Southern California. And then there was San Francisco. The Reilly Creek field station might wind up being a one man operation. With luck. He frowned at the list of "workshops" in his hand. A traveling carnie show of supposed experts. The voice in his head sounded rather alarmingly like Demorte's. Why is it that the evil wizard is the one stuck in my head? It's just my subconscious fumbling about trying to integrate the odd memories, right? He tapped a title on the third page. "Belief in Magic should be interesting."
The Chief sniffed. "I think I'll hit the mass hallucinations one first. I swear three quarters of the people want to write it all off to an earthquake that started some fires, and the jail breakers looted and raped."
"Hell. I'd love to be able to do that." Hugh shivered. "If there was ever a mind I'd not want to share head space with, those Russian Nobles are top of the list.". And I haven't heard a thing about dinosaurs from anyone.
"I only merged three times." The Sheriff looked around the full room. "The first time it was with that Gregoryi fellow. What a hideous way to look at other people. The man wasn't normal. I think he was a large part of the reason the weirdness turned so violent. The last two times I merged it was with peasants, and looking at their society from the bottom up wasn't much of an improvement."
The Chief nodded. "I know what you mean." Harry had been honest about his merges on his questionnaire. Hugh supposed he had to be – too many witnesses to his merger with the sheep in the police station. But he wasn't spreading the information around in public. My weather cock as to how the government is going to react to the people with animal merges.
Because when they get around to the more recent reports, my merge with a dinosaur is going to attract all sorts of attention.
The Sheriff tapped his schedule. "I’m going to this one. How many other worlds are there and what are they like?"
Hugh chewed a finger nail. I want to go to about half of them, damn it. Maybe I can pick out the ones I can’t read up on? "How about, ‘If the Mayans knew about it, what else do they predict?’ "
"Lord, do I want to know?" Harry scowled.
Hugh looked over at him. "So, are you going to any of the medical conferences?"
"Ugg. No. Apparently we drank enough water at the PD that we didn't absorb too much inorganic shit from the other worlds. Overlapping on the molecular level, they called it. The people who merged with dead things, well, I know too much about that first hand. Of the survivors, it's the people in the middle, that merged with live plants that are the worse off. Pity the people that hid, never merging and not drinking enough."
Hugh nodded. "There seemed to be a bias toward something as close to your type of living thing as possible. The few times I resisted, I started craving . . . anything. I wanted to touch something from the other world. I was actually wondering if they’d have much information yet on, oh, injured people merging and being healed."
The Chief flexed his right hand. It carried scars and pits, but was fully functional. He had exercises with a squishy ball, to regain strength. He did them whenever reminded.
"Yeah, bad enough animals about the right size could merge with people. Merging with trees and grass . . . Insects." The Chief hunched unhappily. "The people we had locked up got less water. They're showing some medical problems. Joint pain, fevers, whole body infections. Dementia. Death. Probably merged with soil and rock and grass."
"Good thing you moved them out, then."
"Yeah. Better late than too late. Anyway, most of the force is healthy enough."
The Sheriff nodded. "We're back up to strength. The local CHP wasn't affected to mention. Frank says they've had to loan officers to the Bay Area, because of sick troopers."
"I'd hoped those were just rumors. Although if we'd gone outside much we'd have merged with more people. I dunno which possibility is worse."
"Ah ha. Here we go ‘Prosecuting Criminal Actions During and After the Merges.’ " Hugh looked over at the two older men. "Has the DA decided what to do about Dusty MacKinnock and Skippy Hastin?"
The Chief shook his head. "We all got together with the DA, the Judge and the Federal prosecutor they brought in. Basically . . . no. They were sick, they merged with other people, they didn’t even look like themselves. Skippy? It was the dinosaur not Skippy attacking the Feds."
Hugh rubbed his nose, and reluctantly agreed. "And he was under the influence of the zombie master. But Dusty was one of the zombie masters. She instituted the attack on the Agent, and is probably responsible for George Wassermann’s death."
The Chief snorted. "But she was sick, wasn’t looking like herself, had merged with horrible people, was only seventeen, and God help us, is now pregnant."
The Sheriff winced. "That’s bad. I mean, all the merges . . . especially if she had any animal merges . . . can the child possibly be normal? And George . . . Damn it, he was a fine man and a good Deputy, and . . . Damn it! We’ll be keeping an eye on that girl, and I expect the Feds will as well. And now she’ll have a baby. Maybe we can take it away from her, can’t possibly be safe."
Hugh stared blankly at the wall. A baby.
Magic is highly heritable, you and your witch will have powerful babies. She could be pregnant already, although in the multiple merges there were probably too many changes to allow a pregnancy. But since then, she may have recovered enough.
Hugh thought about knocking his head on the wall, but it would probably hurt him worse that it would hurt the wizard. The wizard wasn’t real, anyway.
Del would have an abortion. She’s analytical and smart. Hugh fumbled with his schedule, blinking something suspiciously like tears away. Of course she would. And after all, it wouldn't be my baby. Or, merging with those women in that scrambling tag team orgy in the woods . . . was that really us? Our desires? . . . but we kept merging with other people. I don't really know about female stuff. Did they swap hormones? If they were in different parts of their cycle, what happened? And did sperm go back where it belonged? She could have gotten sperm from the evil wizard who was plaguing me, or the shepherd or the Imperial guard.
"I wonder how many babies will be born about nine months from now?" The Chief flipped through his list of topics. "Ah. Pregnancies from sex during merge. Yuck."
Magic. A generation of magical children. Or a cohort at any rate. If we lose the alien cells over a couple of years, there’s a chance for several years worth of magically inclined babies. Hugh tried to shut up his mental discussion before he started babbling out loud about bring magic back to the world. Because they might just as well be bringing back dinosaurs or giant leeches, for all I know.
"And whether any of the babies will be really strange. I don’t like the idea at all, but there are going to be at least six. The biker chicks, about half of them are preggers and refusing to abort. They keep going on and on about the babies being wizards and witches." The Sheriff scowled around the hallway. "But I’m going to start with this talk about animal merges. Seems like we’re already starting to see problems with that sort of thing." He sniffed. "I wonder if they’ll cover dancing naked in the moonlight?"
The Chief chuckled. "And will they have pictures?"
"Listen, you dirty old man, I’ve been hearing about this for months . . . It isn’t just the weirdness . . . "
Hugh grinned at the old friends’ arguments, browsing further through subjects. Rape counseling, child molestation counseling, morphological changes counseling. "Morphological Changes. Good God."
The Sheriff looked over. "Keep going, they’ve got one on werewolves."
Hugh contemplated the odd actions of the local coyote pack during the Overlap, and decided he’d better catch that one.
Oh. Vampires. Now there was something to have nightmares about.
Mythology. He shrugged. doubtful he’d get anything more out of a two hour lecture than he’d gotten in that one course in college. And he could always buy a book.
"In Europe, a new rage is emerging, like a drug, driving people to lose their grasp on reality and carry on like they were living in a video game."
The picture of the handsome American reporter was replaced with street scene, a dozen men, waving anti-vampire and anti-werewolf posters on sticks. The pictures on the posters looked like they’d been swiped from Hollywood films.
"The police all over Europe are warning people that murder is murder, no matter how certain they are that their victim was a Real Monster."
Les clicked off the TV with a convulsive motion. He shuddered, and forced himself to his feet to pace. I do not believe a person would suck blood. I do not believe people can . . . turn . . . into . . . animals.
His hands lifted to the sides of his skull. Small bumps.
Les sat down abruptly. "Oh. My. God. It’s starting all over again, with all new monsters. And I may be one of them."