The Rest of the Mission
A round robin zombie story by the authors of the 2017 Summer of Zombie tour
Oxygen vented into space.
It dissipated fast. Only the water droplets showed the spiral of the space station’s spin for a moment and then they were gone too into the void. The oxygen continued to go and the station was still spiraling toward Earth’s atmosphere.
Captain Fay Stills of the U.S. Army pushed away from the thick plastic of the window and pulled herself along the wall and away from the lab with her feet trailing behind her. The tight braid against her scalp kept her hair out of her face in zero gravity. It wasn’t this long when she got here and she was never supposed to stay, but then the zombies overran Washington, so the last order was for her to oversee the development of the cure and return it to either the CDC in Atlanta or the Russian Health Administration bunker in Siberia. The Russian transport left without her and her hair grew as she waited for the scientists to create something to combat the virus and finally destroy the walking dead across the globe. The CDC and Siberian bunker were both gone now. It was the second one, that isolated bunker being overrun by zombies, which made Captain Stills start to lose hope that a cure mattered any longer.
One of the dead Russians chewed open a respected French virologist’s throat as the men’s locked bodies spun in a counter motion to the death spiral of the station. Red droplets formed perfect orbs which spread out from the wound until they splattered against the clean walls to break into smaller orbs.
Fay Stills sealed the lab behind her and pulled herself through the perimeter corridor between conduits and insulated cords. She did her best to ignore how often and quickly the giant, bright curve of Earth raced by the windows to her right. She clutched the handle to the small case of samples in her left fist and kept going.
One of them came at her in the air through another open passage. Fay released the wall and grabbed the figure’s throat with her free hand before the creature could find flesh with its teeth. She fought the urge to smash its skull with the corner of the case holding the fragile samples.
Dr. Lisel Glass held larger cases in both hands, so she wasn’t free to defend herself from the Captain’s choke. “I’m still alive. Did you get it?”
Fay’s back bounced off the bulkhead and she let go of Doctor Glass to steady herself with a grip on one of the struts. “Yes.”
“The correct case?”
“Yes, Unit 1-32-473A with samples from Batch 19. I checked three times, Doctor.”
Lisel Glass glanced down the passage toward the lab. “Doctor Petit?”
“He didn’t make it. Where’s Martin?”
Lisel turned her head the other direction. “Still in the escape pod guarding the hatch like you told her, I assume. I hope.”
Fay took Dr. Lisel Glass by the collar, using the same hand which held the handle to Unit 1-32-473A with Batch 19 inside. Captain Fay Stills pulled them both along the perimeter wall as fast as she could toward the escape pod’s hatch.
“Can we launch with the station spinning like this, Fay?”
Fay Stills puffed her cheeks out as she exhaled before she answered. “I don’t know if we should, but we sure as hell are going to because staying aboard here is something we most definitely cannot do.”
They had made radio contact with a new lab south of Berlin. They were working on a cure too. They shared information and identified a lake nearby where the pod could land. Then, they were all dead when their “live” specimens escaped containment.
Three weeks ago, on the station, they developed a cure. It was a pathogen harmless to living flesh, but deadly to the transference agent for the zombie virus and 99.7 percent destructive to the virus itself. And it could be breathed in by the zombie’s own dead lungs. Only a couple parts per million would take out the single zombie within a few hours and every other zombie it breathed near in the meantime.
The station put out a general call to any labs in every language of every country they passed over in orbit after orbit. They replicated as much of Batch 19 as they could on the station. Lots of desperate people radioed back, begging for the cure, but with no lab facilities to do the work that needed to be done. Thousands more probably received the message, but had no capability to respond to the station.
Then, a lab on the east coast of Florida a few miles south of Jacksonville radioed back. They were active, secure, and working on a cure. They had not developed one of their own, but they had an aerosol delivery system which could be developed into small handheld units or large scale delivery from ground vehicles or from the sky.
The crew took three orbits to communicate and verify the identities of scientists and engineers in the lab, their scientific knowledge, and the specifications of their equipment. Dr. Hellen Martin and the now late Dr. Petit had discovered the Florida lab possessed the necessary equipment, power, and raw materials to replicate Batch 19 on a mass scale.
They planned to launch one pod with Glass, Martin, Petit, Stills, and four of the Russian officers to see about the safe delivery of Batch 19. Others would follow on later orbits once the location and the cure was secured. Things got heated among a few of those being left behind. Things turned violent. Infected blood was accidentally released from storage and then ingested. Russian officers began delivering the virus with their undead teeth and the station lost integrity in the chaos which followed. They were now about to tumble past their drop window and burn up somewhere over the Midwest.
Fay thought, If we don’t launch now …
Dr. Hellen Martin whipped her head around where she stuck it out through the hatch of the escape pod airlock. “Oh, Jesus, I thought you’d never come back. Do you have it all?”
Fay shoved Lisel past Hellen Martin in the airlock. The Captain handed Hellen the smaller case.
“Oh, thank, God.” Hellen stared down at the unit number as she clutched the samples in her hands. “Where’s Dr. Petit?”
Fay pushed Hellen into the pod and took hold of the hatch from the inside. “Secure everything. We have to launch soon. Probably now, if we want a chance in hell of any of this mattering.”
Hellen went to comply as Lisel Glass finished locking down the cases of enzymes and DNA strands next to the bag containing all the disks and data.
“Put on the pressure suits and helmets too and strap into the seats. Doesn’t matter which ones.”
She seized the hatch and then heard him screaming from up the corridor. One of the Russians, Roman was his name, clawed his way along the perimeter from the other direction. Mangled bodies still snapping their teeth followed in their uncoordinated fashion. Fluids in red, green, and black as deep as the void between the stars swirled around the undead and spewed from their wounded bodies.
Roman’s endless string of curses in Russian broke to English when he spotted Captain Stills. “Wait. Don’t leave me. I’m alive. No bites. Wait!”
“Hurry up, Roman. We have to launch now. Move your ass, if you want to live.”
Stills looked up into the ceiling of the pod. The readouts were only in Russian and she missed most, but not all of the scrawl, as readings in orange ran past the map of Florida creeping by in green. She had learned to speak some Russian, but read very little. She wasn’t supposed to be here that long. The window for splash down was closing, even if they didn’t get smashed open upon separation from the station or burned up in the pod spinning out of control back into the sky.
The scientists buckled in and twisted their helmets closed on the rubber ring around the suits’ necklines.
She stuck her head back out of the hatch. “Toropit’sya, Roman! Move your ass!”
Fay tried to tell herself she wasn’t seeing the beginnings of reentry flames gathering outside the windows.
Roman reached a hand out as he pushed off from the wall and soared toward the hatch. “Save me, please.”
Fay seized his forearm and jerked him bodily into the escape pod. “Strap in or you’ll bash your damn brains out when we hit the atmosphere. Remen’ vee! Teper’.”
“Okay.” Roman pulled himself into a seat among the many empty spots in the escape pod.
Fay slammed the hatch and sealed the airlock. The dead dragged their hands across the window in silent growls. Filth smeared the inside of the station’s airlock. She struck the red button with the heel of her hand and the seals blew outside. The pod rocked through its metal hull, but did not rupture. As the vibration went deceptively still, she saw the station whip out view and the stars streaked space in white lines.
She dragged an orange suit out from under a seat and pulled it on in record time. She swept the multi-point harness into place and twisted on the helmet until it sealed and the oxygen supply hissed on. They were not attached to the backup floatation devices under the seat and their suits had not been harnessed to the secondary chutes. This would have to do though because time had run out.
As the pressure bladders around her legs inflated, Fay saw Roman had strapped in without putting on a suit or helmet. He could not hear her through her helmet now because none of the radios were connected or activated. If the pod didn’t split open or he didn’t suffer an aneurism from reentering unprotected, he was going to pass out without the pressure bladders on his legs.
Too late now. Maybe too late for all of them.
She looked up through her visor. The Russian scrawl was in red and the map of Florida was in orange now. The coast was so close to the edge of the screen it hardly seemed possible to land in water now. If they survived hitting solid ground with the parachutes, they were likely to break a few bones at least. Maybe a leg or two. There would be no hobbling away from the zombie infested landscapes between them and the lab.
She dropped her eyes to Roman across from her. His eyes were wide and darting. Maybe he realized he was the only one not suited up. Lisel and Hellen were breathing hard, but didn’t seem to be in full panic. The extra oxygen was probably making them lightheaded.
Eyes up again. Scrawl in red and map in red too. Shit. They were tumbling. If the pod didn’t right itself like it was designed to do as the air began to thicken with the belly shield down, they would be a fireball in seconds. If they came in too sharp, they’d bounce right off the atmosphere and spin away into space. To shallow and they were going to crack open like an egg – a very, very flat egg. All automated and out of their hands at this point.
The ship shuddered and rocked hard from side to side. Fay started to feel the light pull of gravity again. It was both familiar and oppressive.
It steadied, but the vibration increased. Flames washed out the view on all sides. The pod was belly down at least for now. They were coming in. But where?
“The wrong place.” Her voice echoed inside her helmet as she watched the scrawl. “We’re coming down inland. Shit. We waited too damn long.”
She looked across. Roman’s eyes rolled up. Blood filled the whites. He closed his eyes and his head lulled to the side and bounced with the bucking of the pod.
Two cracking explosions shook them. The chutes deployed and their craft jolted into a slower rocking descent. Fay felt pressed by the pull of gravity. It was tough to draw air. She had warned the scientists earlier they had been in space a long time and their muscles would give them trouble, but she wasn’t sure they remembered after all the recent commotion.
They landed to the sound and spongy feel of water. Splash down? Fay looked up as the craft bobbed on water, but the screens had gone black.
Captain Fay Stills unbuckled herself and twisted off her helmet with shaky hands. Her knees and back screamed at her as she forced herself to her feet. The scientists unbuckled and removed their helmets, but did not attempt to get up yet.
“I can’t move.” Hellen groaned.
“Gravity.” Fay heaved for air with her heartbeat pounding in her skull. “We can’t do the usual R&R or tickertape parades, I’m afraid. We’ll have to fight through the weakness and get moving.”
Fay pulled two black, squared bags out from under the seats. “Put all the important gear into here. Strap everything in tight, so it doesn’t jostle around. Seal the top well, so no water gets in. These will float, if we need them to, and help us to get to shore. Leave your suits on for now. The bladders will help us float too.”
Fay knelt and wrestled open another cabinet. One of the hinges had broken during the reentry. She dragged out a yellow cube of folded rubber. She felt along the sides and found the inflator and cord were broken. Her gloved fingers discovered a deep tear in the material. “Shit.”
Lisel and Hellen fought their way up from their seats onto shaky legs.
Lisel said, “I feel like I have lead weights around my arms and legs.”
“It will get easier.” Fay crawled over to Roman’s seat. “It’ll feel better once we get in the water. I promise.”
She slapped his cheek a couple times and his head rolled from one side to the other. His chest still rose and fell, so that was something. “Roman, open your eyes. Vistavay, Roman. Come on. Wake up. We have to go, man. Otkroy svoi glaza, Roman. Toropit’sya. Zombies s’yest tebya, poka ty spish’.”
She unbuckled him and left him propped in his seat with his eyes closed for the time being. Fay took to her feet and climbed out of the hatch onto the wide lip around the base of the escape pod. The bright sunshine and humidity hit her like a wave, but no actual waves nor sea spray caught her face like she expected. There was a weird smell.
Her eyes adjusted and she saw low trees with black roots along the shore. The water was calm, flat, and greenish black. She could not see more than a foot down into it. Fay leaned out on her shaky arms and tracked the tight curve of the land around them. The chutes floated on the surface a few yards away to the northeast.
It wasn’t a shore; it was a bank. This was a small inland lake or pond. Maybe a lucky break compared to hitting solid ground. But …
“We’re in the wrong place.”
She heard the scientists banging around inside. They weren’t being careful with their precious cargo. Maybe dropping things from the weight of full gravity again.
She started to turn toward the hatch, but then motion on the far western bank caught her eye. She froze and stared. Bodies. Human forms stepped out of the trees and waded into the water. One fell face down and sunk into the murk. More emerged. Dozens. Then, maybe a hundred or more by the time the front zombies were waist deep a few feet from the bank.
“We need to go. Hurry up.”
One of the women yelled something inside, but Fay couldn’t make it out. She turned away from the zombies toward the hatch and spotted something toward the south in the water. The shapes were big and drifted toward the pod in the water. Crocodiles.
“Son of a bitch.”
Fay tilted her head toward the blue sky she had thought she would never see again. White streaks spread from the apex of the dome of sky toward the ocean they should have landed in some unknown distance to the east. It was the burning pieces of the station where the cure for zombies had been invented three weeks ago. Batch 19 and all the building blocks bound for the Baxter-Sutton Bioengineering Institute campus a few miles south of Jacksonville, Florida. A sprawling city probably sick with hordes of the undead. But they had to avoid these zombies and reptiles and who knew what else first. “Doctors, we need to get the hell out of here. What’s the hold up?”
Roman lunged out of the hatch sideways. His eyes were blood red and he growled as he spotted Captain Stills. Roman clawed at her and Fay scrambled away along the ledge.
His shirt caught on a bolt and tore. He thrashed around halfway out of the hatch and Fay saw two half circles of crusted bite marks around one of his shoulder blades.
“Not bitten, you said, you lying sack of shit.” Fay pulled herself to her feet. She kicked him in the face twice as he grabbed at her suit. She stomped the side of his head and Roman snapped his teeth at her ankle.
Roman tipped out of the hatch and spilled over the edge upside down. Lisel and Hellen leaned out each holding one of his legs as they dumped Roman into the water. He twisted around as bubbles rose from his mouth. Then, he sunk below the surface and vanished.
“Good work, but why didn’t you tell me sooner that he had turned?”
Lisel cut her eyes at Fay. “We can barely lift our arms and we had to fight off a zombie in a tight space. I think we did all right.”
Fay smiled and nodded. “Get the bags out. We have more zombies swimming out from the west and crocodiles investigating from the south.”
“Oh, superb,” Lisel said.
They hauled the bags up and Fay took them by the straps. She dragged both bags out of the hatch onto the ledge. The doctors climbed out next.
“Is this a lake?” Hellen said as she shielded her eyes.
“Yes, we need to find a town, a sign, or a highway once we get to land to figure out where we are and how far we need to go.” Fay looked around past the reptiles and the bobbing undead. The northern bank appeared closest with the reeds growing a few feet out in the water and sawgrass beyond that. “We need to swim this way and then keep moving.”
“We have to get Batch 19 to the facility,” Lisel said. “It’s more important than anything, Captain.”
“We will,” Fay said. “We have to.”
Fay shoved the bags off the north side of the floating pod. They splashed, but floated on the surface.
We reentered and landed alive. Mostly, Fay thought. And the bags float. At least some things are working out.
“Get ready to jump and swim for shore, Doctors.”
Lisel and Hellen nodded.
Roman burst to the surface underneath where they stood. Brackish water poured out over his lips and out of his nostrils. He held the side of the pod and grabbed for their feet.
Just keep swimming, Fay thought, as she struck out towards shore. Every muscle in her body screamed in protest, but she kept moving.
She was fully aware of the fact that Roman was following them. Luckily his zombie brain didn’t make him a good swimmer. He floundered around, growling at his prey, but unable to catch them. He was the least of her worries right now.
Stay focused on the mission. One step at a time.
When she dragged herself through the mud to the shore, she wanted nothing more than to collapse. Instead, she got to her feet and turned to help Hellen who was right behind her.
“Come on,” she called to Lisel who had fallen behind.
The zombies on shore had spotted them and were now shambling towards them.
“Shit! Move your ass, soldier,” Fay barked.
She tore open one of the zipper seals of the flight suit and opened the small pouch of gear she had strapped to her side when they prepared for an emergency launch. It wasn’t much. A few food pastes. A knife. It wasn’t even hers and it wasn’t even supposed to be on the station. No sharp objects which could tear lines or pierce seals allowed. Lord knows we don’t want to have the station fall apart, do we? It was more of a utility knife than any sort of real weapon, but it would have to do until she found something better. Whoever had brought it on had just burned up in the atmosphere, so no more harm done.
A gun would be better. Captain Stills scanned the shoreline again. “Lisel?”
Finally, all three of them reached land. There was nowhere to go except into the trees. They plowed forward, pursued by the undead.
“We need to find a car,” Hellen said. Her face was red and she was sweating like crazy.
Lisel trudged behind them. The zombies drew too close for Fay’s liking. She was on high alert, aware of every movement and every sound. The world was so loud compared to months in space. A car would be great, but she imagined that most of the roads would be impassable.
“Help me,” the panicked cries of a man cut through the air. Captain Fay Stills glanced back at her companions who wore the same expressions of unease that she did.
“Help, I can’t move,” the man cried again.
How stupid is he? Fay wondered. He was going to draw every zombie in the vicinity to him. How had he survived this long down here, if he didn’t know that? Or it was a trap.
“Should we help him?” Lisel asked.
“We can’t afford to be ambushed,” Fay replied. They kept walking, deeper into the trees.
“There can’t be many survivors left on this God forsaken planet. Can we really afford to leave one behind?” Hellen said. “I mean, we are trying to save the human race.”
Fay sighed. They had enough to contend with, right now, but even she couldn’t ignore a cry for help and not have it haunt her. Worked out great with Roman, didn’t it?
“Fine, I’ll go back and check it out, you two keep moving,” she ordered. She handed Hellen the bag she was carrying and jogged off through the trees. She gave the zombies a wide berth. She didn’t know whether it was the heat or the decompensation, but they were moving really slowly. Not that she was complaining. The smell of decomposition in this humidity was something else entirely.
Up ahead, she could hear grunts and when she emerged in a clearing, she found a man fighting off one of the zombies. A bear trap clenched his right leg.
The zombie kept snapping its jaws at him and the best he could do was to keep pushing it away, but Fay could tell he was tiring quickly. She stepped up behind the zombie and drove her knife into its temple. She worried it wasn’t deep enough, but the body collapsed in a heap at her feet.
“Who the hell are you?” the man asked. He appeared to be in his late twenties, early thirties. A scraggly beard covered his face and looked as though he hadn’t bathed in weeks. She could not from smell due to the corpse at her feet.
“I’m the woman who’s saving your ass.”
She crouched beside the trap. As a kid, her grandfather would let her go on hunting trips, so she knew how to release the trap. She always hated these things.
The man pulled his leg free and fell to the ground moaning. He reached for a backpack that was lying nearby. She raised the bloody utility knife ready for this bear to try to bite her. He took out a water bottle. He took a long drink from it. Fay relaxed her grip.
“What’s your name?” Fay asked.
“Tom.” His right calf and shin glistened through rips in his jeans where the metal teeth chewed into skin, muscle, and bone.
“Well, Tom, I’m Captain Fay Stills. You should get that leg strapped up.”
She got to her feet. “Sorry I can’t stick around, I’m on a mission. Good luck.”
As she turned her back on him, he said, “You’re not going anywhere.”
She glanced back to find he had a gun pointed at her.
“You have a funny way of thanking me for saving your life,” Fay muttered, staring down the dark barrel.
“It’s not exactly saving my life if you leave me here to bleed to death or get attacked again, is it?” Tom groaned.
His face had taken on a pallid, sweaty quality and she could see the slowly spreading pool of blood mingling amidst the dust. It was deeper than she had first thought.
Why didn’t you just keep walking? she thought, shaking her head.
In the surrounding woodland, the disturbances of the approaching dead grew, drawn by the careless cries.
“If you shoot me, you’re dead anyway,” she said, nodding toward the cracking twigs and gurgling moans.
“Or I could just shoot you in the leg and use you as bait while I try and escape?” Tom warned.
Fay could see from the way his eyes darted between the shadowy recesses of the trees it was just bravado. His arm started to waver as the adrenaline wore off, leaving only the blood loss and pain. He knew it was all over if she left.
“You’ll only slow me down, I’m sorry. I have to get somewhere urgently. All I can tell you is that it’s a national security concern and a lot of lives are counting on it.”
Over his right shoulder, but concealed by the growing din, Hellen stepped out into the clearing. Wielding a stubby branch, she carefully tiptoed towards the young man.
“There’s no such thing as national security anymore, the country’s gone!” He spat, voice rising in panic. “Listen, my guys are about half a mile away to the west. We’ve been scouting for a more remote base away from the population centers. If you…”
The first blow knocked the gun from his weakened grip and it spun away into the brush. Fay was actually surprised it worked. Before Hellen or Fay could finish him off, he passed out from the added pain of a potentially broken arm. Fay rushed over and retrieved the weapon, ejecting the magazine and saying a silent prayer to whatever remained in the sky that the thing was fully loaded.
“Why was he going to shoot you?”
Lisel broke cover and hurried over, glancing at the prone figure. “What happened to him?”
“Bear trap, bad judgement, and worse luck.” Fay stared at him for a moment, deciding who she wanted to be. She gritted her teeth. “Help me to get a tourniquet around his leg before he bleeds out.”
Pulling Tom’s own belt taut around his leg, the crimson torrent was slowed to a trickle.
“What are we going to do? They’re coming!”
Fay held a finger to her lips and surveyed the treeline. It was only a matter of minutes before the undead would come crashing from the darkness, eager to feast. They had two choices; either leave the unconscious man to his fate, or try and overcome their own atrophied muscles and drag him to safety. By leaving him, they would be faster and less visible, yet blind in the endeavour. By helping, they could make a judgement call on his waiting group and potentially reveal a wealth of knowledge of the local threats. Maybe help … maybe not. Neither option was able to guarantee mission success, but the irresistible pull of the Earth was sapping her energy rapidly and they needed a place to rest. An armed group could prove to be their best chance at respite, so the decision was made. Checking the time and angle of the sun, Fay passed the pistol to Hellen and crouched by Tom’s side.
“What’re you doing?” Hellen whispered in disbelief as the captain manhandled the body onto her shoulders.
“Roman,” groaned Lisel, stopping them in their tracks.
Turning, the three women watched as their fellow cosmonaut stumbled into view. His ghastly, undead visage hadn’t been aided by the furious kicks of their earlier struggle. The nose was a twisted mess of broken bone and exposed cartilage. His mouth was a ragged wound of torn lips and shattered teeth, but no less deadly for the injury. The water from the marshy lake left his dead skin with a greasy sheen.
“Put him out of his misery,” Fay said in a flat tone. “We owe him that much.”
Hellen raised the pistol and took aim just above the bloodshot eyes. In her wasted arms, the weapon seemed to weigh a hundred pounds as she carefully squeezed the trigger. Tearing through the forehead, the back of Roman’s skull exploded in a red mist and he collapsed to the ground. Hellen had nearly been knocked flat by the recoil and it further reinforced their debilitated state.
Captain Fay Stills considered Dr. Hellen Martin for a second. She had done well wielding a branch against an armed man and had just landed a headshot in one. More to her than test tubes …
“Move!” Fay grunted.
“Are you going to be okay with him?” Lisel asked. The clenched teeth and look of determination was her only answer from the captain.
They quickly retrieved the priceless cases from their hiding place among the roots of a bald cypress and headed deeper into the dark grove. From all directions came the thrashing passage of their enemy and Hellen found herself spinning in circles looking for targets because of the strange acoustics. Fay was only concerned with placing one foot in front of the other, selfishly thanking her lucky stars that the man was partly starved. If he had been at a healthy weight, she would already have collapsed. In her periphery, she could see the blood as it slowly seeped from the dangling leg. Time was running out.
“Look out!” Hellen cried.
The creature lumbering toward them had been shielded from view by a dense thicket and the first shot went wide by inches. Twisting her body, Fay used the injured legs to strike out and knock the monster to the ground. Raising her boot, Lisel stamped down on the rotten skull. Instead of cracking, the head sunk into the moist, loamy soil. Hellen sidestepped them and fired two shots into the back of its cranium. Wisps of smoke rose from the entry wounds and were swiftly snatched away by the humid breeze.
“How much farther?” Lisel gasped. She was faltering.
“Not far now,” Fay croaked, trying to ignore her own agonies. “You can see the trees thinning out.”
“Is that a good thing?” Hellen asked.
Ahead, the sun was forcing its way into the gloom, banishing most of the concealing shadows and showing the way was clear of danger. As they neared the trail, the chatter of automatic gunfire and yells of anger erupted from farther to the north. With Lisel and Hellen’s aid, Tom was laid gently to the ground and he started to writhe and groan.
“He’s turned; shoot him!” Lisel pointed.
“No, wait!” Fay pulled the gun down within Hellen’s grasp.
The moaning subsided and he fell back into unconsciousness once more, the lure of waking held at bay by the injuries. More gunfire flared and the unmistakable staccato of a heavy machine gun was added to the mix.
“That’ll bring every walking corpse for miles.” Hellen tapped the barrel of the gun against the case slung on her shoulder.
Fay nodded in agreement. “Let’s hope to God they’re friendly then, or we’ll be slap bang in the middle of it.”
Moving around the thick trunk, they stared down the trail at the convoy of vehicles.
Twenty military issued jeeps lined the trail. Beyond that, fences cut through the trees and across three roads Captain Stills could see from the hill. One road was paved, but not a highway and not marked by any signs she could see. Armed men milled about outside the expanse of fence line. She could see the tops of brick buildings inside and above the trees. That had to be the compound.
We are not making good progress, Fay thought. We’re not making any progress.
Tom’s breathing grew shallow.
“Let’s just take one and go,” Lisel said, keeping her voice low.
Fay sniffed and shook her head. Just take one, she says …
“We need supplies,” Fay argued, peering through the trees for a better view of the gunfire. From where they crouched, nothing much could be seen of the compound beyond the fences or of the action outside it. Some of the men below seemed to be wearing fatigues. They could be military or they could be some apocalyptic militia.
“We need to stay alive and complete this mission,” Lisel said.
“Exactly why we need to enter this compound, I think,” Fay argued. “We have no map, no real weapons, not much food…”
“It’s a gang war,” Lisel said. “We have no idea what’s in there.”
“Are you afraid, Dr. Glass?” Fay said. “It’s understandable, but we have to make–”
“We’re scientists, Captain,” Lisel said. “We’re not trained for any of this.”
The pepper of bullets ceased and an unnatural silence instantly settled over the forest.
“I’m your captain for this mission, Doctor, and at the moment I’m an escort force of one. We haven’t made it a mile yet,” Fay said, making a strong effort to keep her voice low. She shook her head. “They all saw our pod come down like a fiery meteor.”
“Meteorite.” Hellen adjusted the strap for the case over her shoulder. “Once it enters an atmosphere, it’s called a meteorite. Although, I’m not sure our pod counts as …”
Fay held up a hand without looking in Hellen’s direction. “Regardless. They all saw us, I’m sure. The zombies and the people behind those fences. That’s probably why all those vehicles are out here. I’m guessing the gunfire is about killing the zombies we stirred up. If we try to grab a vehicle, we’ll end up shot or chased down and shot before we make it another mile. Their fences cross the roads out there. Even if we find a way around, I’m sure the fences are monitored. I think we either walk in on our own or we get caught and then have to explain what happened to Tom after we left him.”
Dr. Hellen Martin said, “Oh, no.”
“It’s your mission to get us and Batch 19 to the facility which can do something with it,” Lisel said.
“It was supposed to be a team of soldiers moving you over a short distance. Not an army of one trying to take on every zombie in America. We need someone …” Fay lowered her head and took a deep breath. “And what is your opinion on this matter, Dr. Martin?”
There was no answer.
“Dr. Martin,” Fay said, turning to look at Hellen.
Frozen, Hellen sat stiffly on her knees, arms raised at the barrel of a pistol digging into the back of her head. Holding the pistol was a boy no more than fifteen. His last outbreak of acne was clearing up on his filthy, pock-covered face. Based on the state of his hair, he had been eating as poorly as Tom and had been running Lord of the Flies style for at least three months.
More militia than military, I guess, Fay thought. This day …
“Hello,” Fay said, forcing kindness to steady her shaky voice.
“Captain,” the boy said. “Dr. Glass. Right?”
Lisel exchanged a look with Fay.
“You know us,” Lisel said.
“I watched your launch in science class,” he said, “right before everything went to Hell. You gave a speech about how everything was going to be okay, Doctor.”
“Science class,” Glass muttered. “So, you kn—”
“What did you do to Tom?” the boy said.
“He stepped in a trap,” Fay said. “There was a bear trap… and I helped him get out of it.”
“His face is bloody,” the boy said. “Did he fall face first into the trap?”
“Would you please let Dr. Martin go?” Fay asked.
The boy cocked the gun. “I can’t do that, Captain.”
“What’s your name?” Lisel asked.
“Dan,” the boy said.
“Dan.” Lisel gave a nervous smile. “That’s my son’s name. He would be about your age.” Lisel fumbled with her jacket, and Dan pressed the pistol harder into Hellen’s head. Hellen inhaled, arching her back under the pain.
“It’s okay,” Lisel said. “It’s okay, look.”
“That’s what you said in your speech before the launch. Right?”
Lisel withdrew a wallet. Worn to a single photo, the wallet fell open to the image of her son. “He’s waiting for me.”
Dan peered down at the photo of a boy just a year older than he.
“Dan.” A young man emerged from the forest behind Dan. He looked to be barely seventeen. In one hand, he carried a .40 mm pistol with a silencer. In the other, he carried an apple as if he were on a leisure stroll. A machete was tied to his leg and he was dressed from head to toe in military issued fatigues. The name “Johnson” was etched on the label sewn to the left side of his jacket.
I didn’t know apples grew down here, Fay thought. And I don’t know that this particular “soldier” has official enlistment papers.
“They’re the astronauts,” Dan said. “The ones that launched nine months ago over in Russia on the livestream back when there was still Internet.”
“Hmm.” The man with ‘Johnson’ on his jacket grunted, then bit into the apple. “I missed that show.”
“Tom,” Dan said, nodding to heap on the ground that was Tom. “Tom’s injured.”
“I saved him,” Fay said. “He stepped on a bear trap and I saved him. Carried him back to your base.”
Johnson looked down at Tom, took another bite from his apple, aimed the pistol, and fired a shot into Tom’s head. Even with the suppressor, Lisel, Hellen, and Fay jumped at the shot.
“Tom always fell behind,” Johnson said. “Bring ‘em.”
Dan waved his gun at them. “Up. Hands behind your backs,” he said, his voice cracking. Fay folded her hands behind her back, and Dan withdrew a large zip tie.
Dan tightened the zip tie around Fay’s wrists as Johnson nudged Tom’s corpse with his boot.
“Hey!” Fay said.
Johnson looked Fay dead in the eye and took another bite from the apple.
“I’m a captain of the United States Army,” she said. “We have a mission to complete.”
Johnson walked up to Fay until his nose was inches from hers. “Not anymore,” he said, and dropped the apple core at Fay’s feet. He turned to the trees.
“You’re a military man, aren’t you?” Fay shouted to Johnson. “This isn’t what you do.”
“I’m not military,” Johnson said. “These were my father’s fatigues. When he turned, I cleared out his office.” He smiled. “I’m just a spoiled army brat, shoved one too many times into military school far from the love of a mother and father. Any more assumptions, Captain? Threats? Promises?”
Dan secured Hellen’s wrists behind her back, then moved on to Lisel’s bonds. Johnson stepped over Tom’s body. He lifted the cases of Batch 19 and their other gear before looping the straps over his shoulder.
“Be careful with that,” Fay said.
“Be careful with your mouth.” Johnson knelt to go through Tom’s pockets and pack.
Maybe we should have taken a jeep and tried to get away, Fay thought.
“Please, Dan,” Lisel whispered as Dan tightened the zip ties around her wrists. “My boy is waiting for me… and Dr. Martin,” Lisel said. “She has two girls waiting at home for her. We have what we need to make good on our promises. Do you know where the Baxter-Sutton facility is?”
Dan shook his head. “They’re not waiting,” he said. “No one’s waiting for anyone anymore.”
He’s lying, Fay thought. There was something in the way Johnson carried himself that tipped her off. She wasn’t sure if it was his army brat comments that gave him away or the fact he wouldn’t look her in the face when he told her nobody manned the Baxter-Sutton facility any longer.
He’s not an army brat.
Dan held Lisel and Hellen by their shoulders as he walked between, trying to carry the cases Johnson had handed off to him. Johnson turned to see how Dan was handling the walk and he didn’t feel comfortable with how much the man slowed the group up. Dan continued to glance over at the hill where they had left Tom. Johnson rolled his eyes. He had just shot and killed Tom for dragging them all down. He couldn’t watch the three captives and look out for zombies too, if he had to worry about if Dan was keeping his own. Johnson hadn’t had an opportune time to tell Dan the three bullets he left in the .40’s clip was it for their ammo. The patrols had wasted more than their share and the compound was now desperately low on ammo and other supplies. He didn’t know what Batch 19 was, but it didn’t sound like anything useful in the real world.
“You know what you need to do if you want to live,” Fay said.
Johnson snapped around from Dan and the other captives and got in her face. “Shut up, bitch.”
“You try to keep us from our mission, you kill us all. Let me out of these cuffs and I can help you,” she pleaded.
“What’s supposed to make me think I can trust you?”
“You see those two doctors?” Fay nodded to Lisel and Hellen. “We have the cure and we have to, no we need to, get it to the Baxter-Sutton facility. Think of how the world would reward the men who helped us get the cure to the right people,” Fay replied.
Johnson thought about it for a moment. Thoughts of fame, fortune, and women danced in his head. Supplies and weapons from the place these women were going might be available for the taking too. A bunch of women and scientists guarding it all might make for easy pickings. Maybe a better place to live with power and running water away from the musty, dark halls of the compound. A smile crossed his lips. “Dan, get them up here. We might be making a detour.”
Dan pushed the women forward and adjusted the cases over his shoulder. “What are you talking about a detour?”
Johnson aimed into the trees and fired through the skull of a zombie staggering toward them. Its brains splattered the tree behind it.
“We have a better offer,” Johnson said. He holstered his pistol and began to cut the bindings on Fay, Lisel, and Hellen.
“What kind of deal is that?” Dan turned in a circle, scanning the trees around them.
“Fame and fortune,” Johnson answered with a snake-like grin. “Maybe more.”
Dan looked at the three women and thought about Tom on the ground behind them. Johnson had shot Tom in the head as easily as he had the zombie just now. Dan saw no difference or hesitation in Johnson between capping the living or the undead. He began to wonder if Johnson would kill him too if it suited him. He had thought he could trust the older teen. They were all in the shit together, but after Tom’s execution, he didn’t know any more.
Fay rubbed her wrists from where the plastic bindings had cut into her flesh. The skin was red and small slices covered her wrists. She watched the two doctors wince in pain as they touched the tender flesh where they were bound. In the past few minutes, Fay took note of two things; she couldn’t trust Johnson and Dan might flip on Johnson to save his own ass. At least he would, if he was smart. She didn’t blame Dan; she felt he’d drop the psycho boy in a heartbeat as he should. Now, she had to use it to her advantage.
Johnson waved his arms in the air and motioned them to follow him. “Let’s get moving. We’re burning valuable daylight and the shots may draw more zombies out. Maybe they’ll chew on Tom’s corpse a while and buy us some time to slip away.” He laughed out loud at his own joke.
Fay held close to the back and let Lisel and Hellen pass her by. Dan walked up next to her and she held her arm out to delay him for a moment. Dan stopped and looked at her funny.
“Do you trust him with your life?” Fay asked him.
“Good, I could use you then if need be? I don’t trust he has our best interests at heart,” Fay added.
Fay motioned with her head for them to catch up with the others. The silence from her wards didn’t bother her. Most people who’d never seen combat or been close to a gun being discharged would feel skittish. She was proud of Lisel and Hellen for making it this far though. When they were first trying to escape the station, she secretly worried she’d have to leave them behind before it was all over to complete the mission. Now, she was glad she didn’t have to put the Harbinger Protocol into motion.
She hoped she’d never have to tell them about what the Harbinger Protocol was.
Fay hated keeping secrets from them, but they were under her protection and some things were better left unsaid.
Johnson screamed and Fay snapped back from her thoughts. Lisel yelled and ran back to her and Dan.
“What?” Fay asked.
“They’re here,” Lisel stammered.
Fay grabbed Lisel’s arm. “Who?”
“The zombies…” Lisel whispered.
The dead moved between the trees and the vehicles ahead of them. Men ran along the fences without trying for the jeeps again. Gunfire snapped off deeper in the woods, but the bodies kept coming, filling up the trails ahead of them. They were closing in.
Johnson shoved the dead away from him as he clutched for his gun in its holster. Hellen backed away from Johnson and the approaching dead. Fay needed to get them together, get Batch 19 away from Dan, and get away.
The ensuing chaos came as a gift to the scientists. While the unhinged teens were busy fighting back the damned, Fay managed to gather Lisel and Hellen far enough away from the blood bath as they could manage, while keeping a keen eye on the cases containing Batch 19. It wasn’t coincidence the six walls surrounding the cure were capable of enduring a battle royale; it had, after all, traveled to space and back.
Equally enduring were the astronauts who brought it back to Earth. In this instance, however, any strength, stamina, or agility were set aside so that intellect and strategy would win the day.
Fay grabbed Lisel and Hellen by the sleeves and dragged them into a copse of thick foliage. Their location made this move a bit of a risk. The bite of a zombie sent a flood of pathogens racing through the system. Conversely, should the jaws of a gator clamp down on a leg, they’d be first taken down by unendurable pain, which would, most likely, be followed by a horde of nearby zombies clamoring to dine on the freshest of meats to be had.
To that end, caution was to be exorcised at all times.
The women stared on through the thicket of brush. Fay tensed, her fingers digging into the flesh of Hellen and Lisel’s arms.
“You okay?” Lisel asked in a near-silent whisper.
Fay nodded and answered under her breath. “The mother in me wants so badly to feel for those kids and the sight unfolding before them—two young boys standing against a dozen or so flesh sacks with a very singular purpose.”
“They threatened to kill us,” Hellen hissed.
“I said wants,” Fay answered.
The chilling chorus of moans from the beasts had the added effect of drowning out any other nearby sound, making it possible for the women to, momentarily, communicate without concern of their location being discovered by the monsters.
“What do we do?” Lisel asked.
Fay closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. As she exhaled, she unbuttoned the cargo pocket on her right leg and withdrew two small titanium cylinders. With her other hand she carefully unscrewed the caps on each and slipped out small glass ampules into her palm. Fay let slip the containers and held one of the glass containers in each hand.
“Forgive me,” Fay whispered before snapping off the tips of the ampules and, with the speed of a striking snake, pressed the sharp end of the glass into the neck of each woman.
“Wh-what the hell?” Lisel jumped back, slapping the palm of her hand to her neck.
“What did you do, Fay?” Hellen hissed.
“I did what had to be done. Batch 19 has to reach that base, at all costs. To that end, a protocol was put in place to ensure this mission would succeed.” The words spilled mechanically from Fay’s lips. “The Harbinger protocol is a serem designed to temporarily protect you from the infectious bite of the undead, while dosing your system with enough adrenaline so that…” Fay’s voice faded to silence.
“So that what?” Lisel shouted with zero care or caution for the living death that surrounded them.
Fay swallowed before answering. “So that you could protect me until we deliver the cure.”
Hellen and Lisel began to sweat profusely, their skin blistering red. Lisel was the first to shift; the veins and tendons in her near threatened to lose integrity under the strain of her growing rage. “Why?” Hellen growled.
“You know the answer to that question,” Lisel snapped as she began the change as well.
“I’m so sorry,” Fay nodded her head repeatedly, “but you must escort me and Batch 19 to the base at any and all costs.”
Both women coughed a pinkish foam from their mouths as the vessels in their eyes burst until the whites turned crimson. Fay knew time was of the essence; the Harbinger Protocol was finite and there was no knowing how long the effect would hold. After another swallow, she pointed toward the case. Hellen and Lisel did their best to fight the edict, but quickly capitulated. Lisel was the first to rise and enter the clearing. The undead turned on her, sniffing greedily of her scent. One by one the zombies shuffled toward Lisel and, one by one, they were taken down for their effort. The Harbingered Lisel ripped limbs from bodies, shredding flesh and shattering bone with ease. Hellen joined in the fray and, together, they made short shrift of the small horde.
Once the danger was cleared, Fay stepped into the clearing and pointed toward Batch 19. The case was too heavy for her to carry, so she’d make due with her super soldiers while she could. After a quick scan of the area, she spotted Dan’s gun and snatched it up. The Harbinger Protocol had been thoroughly tested, but those tests were not in the field—so there was no knowing if Lisel and Hellen could, any second, turn on their Alpha.
Fay wasn’t about to take a chance; not when they were so close to delivering the one thing that stood between the human race and absolute extinction. She raised the gun and aimed it directly at Lisel’s head and then, with her free hand, pointed in the direction of the base.
Lisel and Hellen understood the command perfectly and, as one, picked up the case. Together, the three women made their way from the clearing, stepping over the bloodied corpses of the undead and their teenaged feast.
Fay stood on the edge of the highway with the cases for Batch 19 over her shoulders. Hellen and Lisel lay in the brush behind as Fay stared at the divided highway with two lanes going each direction through the grass. She supposed if there were no cars, then the lanes actually went no directions.
Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was a series of mistakes. Trying to come here at all. Launching with the station spinning out of control. Waiting for Roman. Going for Tom. Using Harbinger. All of it.
The other women coughed and choked on the ground. It had been too much. They might have survived it, if they were in prime health. They had been in space and they came back without any recovery time. It was a full press in three G’s. They might have busted their brains anyway even without Harbinger.
Fay drew the stolen weapon and aimed on the doctors on the ground. They bled from their eyes and their faces turned blue. Fay opened the gun to see it was empty. They had made it this far without firing a shot which was good, since apparently there wasn’t a shot to fire. She fought the urge to throw the weapon and pocketed it instead. She doubted she would stumble across bullets, but she might.
She considered taking the utility knife to them, but it was a shallow stab and there wasn’t much mercy in being butchered to death.
Fay turned away. “I’m sorry, but we had barely made it a mile yet. It had to be done. No one is waiting for us anymore, but the world is waiting for Batch 19.”
She did not feel convinced of it herself, but followed the barren highway mostly northeast. Backroads with numbers passed under her feet one after another between fields and past neighborhoods. She paid little attention to the numbers, but replayed missteps in her head – some of which went back deep into her life long before going into space. She thought mostly about leaving two women dying from bleeds in their brains on the side of a road. She betrayed them so that she could make more miles alone to complete the rest of the mission. She walked on looking for signs that told her where she was and where she was going.
Roads grew thicker with abandoned cars which wouldn’t start. Then, signs for Jacksonville. The dead passed in larger herds and she hid for long hours waiting for breaks to move again.
It took days to move miles and she scrounged food from cans in abandoned houses. She found no bullets for her gun or any other, but she did find the sharp end of a broken mop handle quite handy, so she carried that too.
Jacksonville was massive. It covered an ungodly amount of acres and she was only searching the southern stretches below the city. None of the maps seemed to know Baxter-Sutton. She began a grid search which was not assisted by the roving zombies from the city’s population center.
Then, she found it. After a week and a half of searching, there it was. The campus occupied a wide stretch of fenced-in grassland in the bend of a marshy river without a name. She saw it from the wrong side and had to work her way around to a bridge. Then, she had to wait for the bridge to clear of wandering bodies long enough for her to slip across and work her way back to the facility.
The view from the front was not as good. The unmanned gate and guardhouses still stood, but the fences lay collapsed on both sides. The left wing of the complex in the distance lay collapsed and scorched black. The dead with charred flesh wandered in and out of the opening in the side of the remaining structure. Windows on that end were scarred purple from the heat of the fire. Slender trees growing out of the rubble on the left of the Baxter-Sutton facility told her this incident was an older one and not a recent fire which had just burned.
She turned her eyes to the blue sky for a moment and felt the weight of the cases on her shoulders. “It’s tough as hell to keep things from filling up with zombies, catching on fire, and falling back to Earth these days.”
Maybe I should have just stayed on the station and come back to Earth as stardust with everyone else. Fay brought her eyes back down from the sky.
She considered leaving Batch 19 sitting on the concrete outside the gate to slowly go bad in the sun. She completed the mission as well as she could. Leave it laying here to spoil the way you left Hellen and Lisel? She could make better time without hauling this stuff. “Better time to where exactly?”
The growl rose behind her and she came around on it with the blood-stained pike of a mop handle. The zombie was a woman twisted up in the wreckage of a station wagon and a crew cab truck in the ditch across the road. The vehicles were so mangled it was impossible to tell which vehicle the undead lady had been in before the crash. She pulled and clawed, but her stretched flesh and the metal through her belly held.
“Sorry.” Fay turned her back. “Leaving people behind is what I do now.”
If we found this place, she thought, we … I could find another. There might be others that can use this. My mission was to deliver it to people who could do something with it. Maybe that is still the mission. Just a longer walk now …
She stared at the building a while longer. “There might be something useful in there.” Or a clue as to where might be the next place to look. Other facilities in communication …
The dead woman growled behind her in response.
Fay walked over the chain link and across the high grass of the campus. She swept her mop handle through the grasses, looking for anything which might bite.
A few of the dead spotted her and walked out to greet her. She speared them through their skulls and left them on the ground as she continued. More met her in the rubble and it took a while to put them all down.
Damage and darkness inside made it difficult to get past debris into intact hallways. She clicked on a flashlight and three more rounded a corner to reach for her. She held the flashlight and the spear as she put them down one by one. She listened, but no more footsteps or growls could be heard.
Fay moved from room to room, seeing more classrooms, conference rooms, and offices. None of the surviving equipment was on. None of the scattered papers meant anything to her. Chewed bodies on the ground stayed there. A few bodies lay in hallways with their dry brains stuck to the wall behind them from gunshots.
None of this means anything to me. I shouldn’t have broken and used the Harbinger Protocol. If I couldn’t have gotten them out, I didn’t deserve to make it out either.
She reached the doors to the right wing of the building. Maybe the western side of the facility? Fay pulled the doors and rattled them on their locks. The growls rose from the alcove behind her. She set her flashlight down, aiming into their dead faces and set the Batch 19 cases by the doors. The spear came up and drove into one head after another. She circled around with her back to the walls as the dead closed on her. Soon they were silhouettes with the light behind them. They kept coming and she kept stabbing.
The doors to the wing burst open as she withdrew her mop handle from the last skull on the ground. Four men in body armor with automatic weapons flanked the cases on the floor. The bodies lay on the ground between her and them.
She looked down at Batch 19 and back up at them as she held her mop handle. “You guys could have come sooner before I did this all myself.”
“Who are you and why are you here?” one of the men asked. The chin strap caused his helmet to bob as he talked.
“I’m Captain Fay Stills. I was assigned to …” Fay shook her head. She pointed with her spear at the cases. “This is Batch 19. It was developed on the space station and could be a cure. We were supposed to bring it to the Baxter-Sutton facility. They were going to make it work. Now my mission is to find where it goes next. You need to let me go to do that. Too much and too many people have been lost for this all to be for nothing.”
“We sent men to meet you at the drop site on the coast,” he said. “You weren’t there and we saw the station burn up in the atmosphere. We lost people on that little trip. Where were you?”
“We lost people too,” she said. “We were off course after the station was compromised. We ran into real trouble, living and dead trouble, south of here.”
“Did any of the scientists make it? The ones who developed this?”
Fay shook her head. “Not this far. Only me”
The men gathered the cases. “Come on, Captain.”
She stepped around the bodies and they closed the doors after her. Electric lights glowed weakly from above as they turned a corner. Another set of doors opened ahead of them. More armed men stepped out and a woman with her face framed in a blue cover-all clean suit which made her form appear amorphous.
“I’m Doctor Caroline Sutton. Who am I speaking to?”
The first set of armed men carried the cases deeper into the wing with brighter lights in the hallway beyond.
“Captain Fay Stills, Doctor. I’m the last one left from the mission.”
“We’ll have to work to figure out this research then,” Dr. Sutton said, “but you did a great thing getting here and not giving up once you saw how the place looked. We had our own setbacks as you can see. I’m sorry for your losses. The team that developed this was a once-in-a-lifetime level of genius. It will be a shame they will not be here to see their work completed.”
Fay fought to keep eye contact. “Yes, a loss for all of us.”
“I’m sure you did everything you could, Captain.”
Fay cleared her throat. “Will you be able to make it work.”
“We will in time. You and everyone you worked with will be looked on as saviors of humanity once the world comes back from this. Founders of a new world in a new era.”
“I just don’t want it all to have been for nothing.”
Dr. Sutton patted Fay’s shoulder. “It won’t be. It won’t be. Let’s get you set up with quarters, a hot shower, and a meal. It’s the least we can do for someone who might have saved the world.”
Fay nodded and stepped forward.
One of the soldiers said, “You’ll have to leave that out here.”
Fay looked down at the mop handle spear in her grasp. They know what I did. I don’t know how they could, but they must be able to smell it on me. The betrayal … She allowed the spear to clatter to the tile.
“Once we get Batch 19 into production and delivery, Captain Stills,” Caroline said, “then the real mission will begin. You saved countless lives and generations to come. It all meant something, I promise.”
They entered the functioning portion of the facility before the soldiers closed and locked the doors behind them.
If you liked what you read, check out Zombie Radio 3 by Jack Wallen.
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And Before from the After Zombie series by S. K. Gregory.