The sun hammered away at us like a celestial prize fighter, trying its best to bake us into the jagged blacktop along what used to be one of Alabama’s major thoroughfares. We were the remaining aberrations, points of light in a dim universe growing darker by the day. We were twins to distant stars as we tried to rearrange ourselves into new constellations: Medic, Historian, Farmer, Soldier, and the fading Valkyrie.
But now only that one star burned in the mid-afternoon sky of a scorching Alabama summer. That damned ball of flame blazed away, lifegiver and deathbringer coiled within the same shell.
The breeze was a slight comfort, lazy at forty miles an hour as the F-350 crept along a stretch of the finest interstate Alabama had to offer. Shooter and I rode in the Ford’s bed, and two more Soldiers sat in the cab. A Volvo semi followed, filled with supplies for the Drayton settlement and holding four more Soldiers. The glare of Ford’s white paint would have blinded me if not for my Oakleys. Luxury budgets died with the Fall, and now we all pamper ourselves as we pick through the leftovers.
Shooter looked at me from the other side of the Ford’s bed, a long shock of red hair spilling into the breeze, tied into a neat ponytail. She somehow kept her smile during the Fall and the following years. Smiles seem so strange in this day, but hers was enough for me to occasionally reciprocate. I only saw the corners, though. A mouth guard of porous steel and the high black collar it socketed into covered the lower half of her face. I wore a matching uniform and wondered how much of my own emotion showed through the mask.
“I’m roasting,” she said.
“The sun hates us all this time of year.”
She turned her head to her right, staring off into the distance over a tree line of spruce and pine. I followed her line of sight until I caught the storm clouds some miles southwest, black and angry, yet another force of nature here to simultaneously kill and revive us. The clouds flashed with their own chaotic rhythms, but they were too far away for the resonating booms to fill our ears.
“Maybe that mess will bring a cooler breeze with it.” Shooter is a southern belle, even if she does try to mask her accent in the faces of the nation of outsiders that fled to Atlanta after the Fall.
I nodded and turned back to her. “I hope so.” It was almost hard to notice the feminine form beneath her body armor; we’re all stuck with the same unisex design, the only real difference being that the male model is slightly larger. The suits are all black, held together by buckles around the midriff and adorned with chains of various sizes for utility’s sake. She flexed her hands through thick black gloves. I wished many times that the gloves at least had openings along the knuckles or fingertips to keep sweat from pooling, but we always cover ourselves entirely below the eyes and nose when in the wilds between settlements. Too many mishaps earlier in our efforts, so one of those damned deadheads had better be the reanimated Bruce Banner if they wanted to get to our meatier parts now.
She sat with a PSG1 cradled in her left arm, the barrel pointing over her shoulder towards a thick forest like an accusatory finger. She told me once that German police forces used them–I guess she meant whatever they had as parallel to SWAT units–as well as the FBI in some situations. I don’t know who it belonged to before; things turned up in the strangest places after the Fall. Shooter said she found the rifle behind a gas station counter in Druid Hills, and I had no reason to doubt that.
The Glock hanging on my hip was less thrilling, some discarded police firearm I lifted before I ever made it to Atlanta after the Fall. The sheathed shockblade from my left hip was the greater comfort, one I’d grown used to over the course of several years. Guns never felt right to me even before I took to the sword. I trained with determination until it felt like an extension of myself, a blade of 5160 carbon steel, reforged from a leaf spring because junked cars and trucks may as well have some purpose. It’s much better to gain a little proficiency with a melee weapon than to be one of the many corpses still littering the streets near bent or broken blades of 420 stainless.
How any of us lived is still beyond me.
“You’re quiet today,” she said. I saw concern in her eyes and hoped she couldn’t discern what I felt behind my Oakleys.
“Lot on my mind, I guess.” I flashed my best grin, then remembered she couldn’t see my teeth through the mask.
We sat in silence for a moment and a mile as she abided my unspoken (and unintended) request for silence. I let my mind race through thoughts as I searched to break that void, but nothing seemed relevant. People think the quiet ones want everyone around them to stay quiet, but the truth is that I’ve always preferred listening. It keeps my mind out of the past. When people talk, it keeps me from thinking of death, of killing, of standing by as the world fell apart around me. When everyone I ever knew or loved collapsed or died—some staying dead, others shuffling aimlessly across this great country of ours for eternity—it left me raw and exposed.
When people talked, it kept my mind from wandering towards Karen.
Grief consumed us after the Fall, and some handled it better than others. I’m handling it poorly, I guess.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen anyone die?” I blurted, and immediately regretted the grim question.
Shooter didn’t comment on the morbidity, only lowered her head and studied the truck’s black plastic bed lining. “Four years?” She spoke with a touch of uncertainty, as though she couldn’t believe so much time had passed.
I nodded. I’d seen a death since then, but not by much. Back then, no one expected to be in the same unit for long. We waded our way through the Atlanta bedlam, dying in droves at the Valkyries’ mercy. They tried to keep us close-knit, letting us form tight groups without the thought that we’d ever have to kill our own squadmates. Infection still scrapped us out, making orphans of us again and stitching us back together into bastardized units of strangers. Faces shifted and fell, usually with a bullet in their brains, sometimes with their throats ripped away like a macabre novel, red and grotesque inside. The look of horror in a squadmate’s eyes as the hand goes to the neck, trying to stem the bubbling flow of blood through an ineffective dam. Their eyes dart about, jaws working and dribbling blood as they try to cry out for Valkyrie but only make a wet gurgle.
I looked up, and Shooter’s eyes were already on me, concerned. “Three for me,” I said.
She nodded somberly. That was when she joined our squad, filling the empty spot. I knew it was a conversation we rehashed many times, but she always listened. People still die—flu and heart attacks and everything else that ever killed us—but it really had been three years since I’d seen a human go down before a zombie. Of course, that was after we retired the Valkyries, and, well, sometimes you have to take initiative when dispensing mercy.
The first audible peal of thunder sounded in the distance, straining to be heard over the road noise and rumble of the Ford’s diesel engine. I felt my eyes focus again as I looked over Shooter’s shoulder to slowly advancing clouds on the southwestern tree line. The threat of rain seemed pleasant enough, at least a reprieve from the sun’s brutality—but I knew the deadheads would be more active once the lightning started flashing. One pulse would be enough to stun them for a few seconds, maybe as much as a minute, but prolonged exposure would make them as savage as during the Fall.
Not to mention the shockblade would be mostly useless.
The Glock on my hip felt heavier and even more awkward.
Shooter turned with me to watch the lightning. “Hope we don’t get caught in that,” she said. We would stay dry, of course; the trucks would pull onto the interstate’s gravel shoulder to transfer us to the Volvo’s trailer if needed. Dry, but without the comfort of a truck bed, left to skid around amidst a stock of fruit and vegetables, meat and ammo, probably a few spare barrels of diesel.
Our attention faltered as the F-350 slowed and pulled over anyway. Shooter nearly asked if we were going to the Volvo’s cargo already, but we both looked ahead as Justin and Rob swung the cab doors open and stepped out, weapons at the ready. Shooter and I looked up and saw: a cluster of zombies shuffled towards us, oblivious to the world around them. How many storms did they weather over the years? Clothing hung to them in scraps, fluttering in the fresh breeze. They were haggard things, gaunt, barely recognizable as having ever been human.
Thank God for dehumanization. You can only feel remorse for so many killings.
Justin turned to us, glasses catching and reflecting light as his long brown ponytail blew in the breeze over the back of his collar. He stared down the blacktop, and I noticed the uncertainty of his stance. A few zombies here and there along the interstates were rather uncommon, but a cluster of over forty was a true anomaly.
Shooter took her stance quickly, positioning her rifle on a collapsible tripod resting on the Ford’s cab. She looked down the scope and counted loudly as I hopped out of the truck’s bed. “Three! Two! One!” followed by a report. A zombie’s head sprouted a hole with little other fanfare, collapsing into a heap on the pavement. None of us flinched.
As I made my way to Justin, the Volvo’s cab doors swung open as well. Ghost climbed out, leaving Jason on the inside chattering away into his CB to let Drayton know of the activity. Stargazer and Thorn followed Ghost down, and there we stood on the pavement, black-clad holy knights, a bulwark against the apocalypse.
“Three! Two! One!” Shooter fired again, and another lifeless corpse fell. No grunts, no remorse. One moment it walked towards us, the next it slumped in the middle of the road, blank eyes staring into the sun that tried to bake it into nothingness. The others walked over the fallen, still moving in our direction. They felt no pity for their comrade. They didn’t love, didn’t hope, only marched forward, ever forward. “Three! Two! One!” They kept walking. No shock, no tears. Nightmares wouldn’t keep them awake through the night. Shooter continued her countdown mantra until the dead numbered five greater. We eased our weapons as the woman relaxed. Ammo already wore thin, and she didn’t need to waste more shots than needed.
Ghost, Stargazer, and Thorn stepped before the Ford, aiming down the sights of assault rifles. They didn’t count like Shooter, but I did. One, two, three, four, five loud pops from each of them, and another fifteen zombies collapsed. Bullets whizzed almost in unison. The Soldiers stepped behind the truck again, ready for the others to finish the group off. We all used to see zombies as people on some level, but no more.
I met Justin’s eyes as we stepped forward, drawing our blades simultaneously. “You or me?” he asked.
I always keep the number of my sword’s charges in the forefront of my mind. “I’ve got seven.”
“I’ve only got three.”
“I’ve got it.”
We walked forward slowly, the remaining zombies still some sixty feet away. Spots covered them all, a hell of a skin condition they caught during the end of days. They noticed us and didn’t, staring blankly as they approached. No grief, no pity. I swallowed, but I pressed forward. My boots made satisfying crunches against the accumulation of dirt and gravel. The only maintenance on those roads was to keep the kudzu bound to the ditches.
As we drew closer, I swore I could smell them. Blood rushed in my face, but I raised my blade slightly, thumbed the safety away, and jammed a finger into the sword’s grip, pressing the inset red button. It made a high squeal as the capacitor charged, the sound of memories before humanity swapped photographs from Kodak to Verizon. When the hilt’s green ready light flashed, I leveled the tip against the first zombie, squeezing my index finger against the trigger.
Hail Tesla, lightning discharged free into open air, stabbing forward from emitters on the blade’s crossguard. The thunder was loud in my ears, but that was something else I’d gotten used to since taking to the sword.
The cluster of zombies stood rigid, heads jerking up in their paralysis. Justin and I sprinted, diving into their midst.
I danced, raking my blade over the first zombie, cutting it from left hip to right armpit. It never moved, even as I drew my sword back and thrust it through the thing’s exposed throat. It crumpled, and I moved in, leveling my ire against the next one, lopping the frail head off with a single horizontal stroke. My heart pounded as I stood among them, a forest of undeath. I stabbed and slashed, heard screams from my memories echoing in my ears. Zombies no longer offered even a fleeting resistance against my sword. They took everything from me. My house, my career, my life, my wife. I felt nothing as I cut my way through, not caring if they were defenseless in the face of my electric blast. They took it all.
And what did I do? I cowered in the corner in shock, watching as she screamed that last breath, my eyes locked against hers as her light faded, throat torn away beneath the fingernails and teeth of those damn monsters. She never had time to change; they killed her before the infection could set in. But no, I just sat in that damn corner like a baby, crying as she died. Could I have saved her? Does it make me any less of a person if I couldn’t have? I hammered my sword against them, no longer dancing, butchering instead. They took it all, do you hear me? I brought my blade back, point forward, and rammed it through a milky white eye on the next thrust, shoving it through the wreckage of brains before the tip shattered the skull’s rear plate. Her eyes were blue, deep and so dark you might think they were black. I placed a foot against the thing’s chest, shoving back and letting it fall to the blacktop. That thing was a person once, but so was my dear wife. That thing was no person. I was still a coward, even if I tried not to be seven years later.
A light near awareness sparked in some of their eyes. Hands reached out, and one lunged at me, no slower than during the first days of the Fall. I grunted, ramming my sword through its gut and out the back. It reached forward, trying to grab at me, but I shoved it away again, kicking with my foot as I jerked my steel out again and slashed deep across its throat. It gurgled before I turned the blade point-first, driving it through the zombie’s mouth, shattering vertebrae and puncturing the back of its neck. It fell, and I turned to the next one, first knocking it to the pavement and sweeping my sword like a headsman’s axe. I fell upon it, bringing my weapon down in another arc. The head rolled away, but all I could think of was my wife’s expression as I let her die. She screamed my name with her dying breath. “Dean!” punctuated with an eternal exclamation point, red and dripping against a pale white life of naïvete. They took everything from me, and now I’m going to take it from them! Do you hear me? Do you hear me!
No! No! If I kill more, I can stop her voice, atone for my cowardice, right everything. I can sleep if they’re all dead, can take my life back. I brought my sword down again, over and over and over, sharp edge clanging against the pavement, resonating in my ears. It would wreck the edge, but that was a distant problem. The shockblade could be sharpened again, but Karen . . . I gritted my teeth as though killing one particular zombie would be enough to bring her back. Down, down, down, I swung, hoping just once to see one of them spray blood as my sweet Karen did.
When the hand fell on my right shoulder, I spun away from my assault, standing and swinging my sword in one motion. It was a wild attack. The sound of steel against steel shocked me. I spun and landed on my ass, not believing anything could interrupt my fury.
Justin stood silently, sword angled downward, ready to parry my next savage thrashing. “Dean,” he repeated quietly, and I saw the worry in his eyes. I felt my chest rising and falling with rapid breath. Where were my Oakleys? “You okay, buddy?” Even though he was a tall and lanky white guy, his voice boomed and resonated something like Barry White. I planted a hand on the pavement behind me and tried to steady my breath. If Barry White wasn’t going to get me laid, he could at least make me laugh. I laughed.
“Yeah,” I said, shocked to hear the quiver in my own voice. Justin’s eyes cut to the left, and I blindly followed. Had that pile of organs and gore ever been zombie or human? It was . . . nothing. A pile, nothing more. I turned back to the Ford and Volvo and saw the others in front of the pickup again, all looking at me. The spectacle. “Yeah,” I repeated dumbly. “I’m good.”
Justin sheathed his sword on his left hip, then reached down to help me up. I grabbed his hand, but clung to my blade with the other fist. As I stood, he leaned in close and whispered, “It’s getting worse.” He yanked me up, and I was pleased to see my legs would still support my weight.
“You should get that checked when we get back to Atlanta. I mean it.”
“I like the feeling,” I said. “Helps me pay for my sins.”
I couldn’t see his mouth, but I knew he frowned. It came through his voice more than his expression. “You don’t have anything to pay for.”
Tell that to Karen. I didn’t voice that thought. No one needed to know.
Shade covered us as the sun lost to the cloud cover. Finally. The breeze felt good and made me feel good. Karen wasn’t there to share the breeze. I forced myself to ease the blade back into its sheath. My knuckles creaked in the glove as I let go, and I again wished for a way to let the sweat drain. I appreciated the concerned looks in my family’s eyes back at the trucks; at least someone was alive to care for me. I nodded once, then more emphatically a second time. They dispersed, moving back to their vehicles.
The rain felt good.