Authors: David Bernstein
Machines of the Dead
By David Bernstein
“Dammit.” Jack slammed his fist against the outboard motor.
Twenty minutes after escaping New York City
and almost becoming zombie chow, the speedboat’s engine stopped working. Jack looked at Zaun, who was finally waking up. Maria had conked him on the head pretty hard.
“What happened?” he groaned.
Jack came over and knelt next to him. “Maria knocked you out. How are you feeling?”
Zaun put a hand to the back of his neck. “Ouch.”
Jack stood. “You’ll be fine. Maria didn’t want you causing trouble and wasting anymore time
.” Looking back at the engine, he shook his head. “I think we’re screwed.”
grunted as he got to his feet. “Where are we and why aren’t we moving?”
“Engine gave out, and
won’t start back up.”
I guess, out of the three available boats, we picked a dud.”
A strong, cold
gust blew across the craft, causing it to rock wildly.
“Damn, it’s cold out here,” Zaun said.
Jack eyed the river ahead, then pointed. “That’s the Tappan Zee Bridge. We’re only about forty minutes from Cornwall, from Sara.”
Yeah,” Zaun said. “Forty minutes by boat, but if we have to go by foot, it’ll take much longer and be a hell of a lot more dangerous.”
“You’re not wrong about that,” Jack agreed.
“And getting to shore might take a while. The current isn’t looking so strong. For now, we’re stuck in the middle of the Hudson.”
“Could be worse,” Jack said, hearing the negativity in Zaun’s voice. “We could still be in the city, or worse, members of those bot-controlled corpses. Fucking
Memories of their horrible time in the city flooded his mind. He couldn’t believe it had all started only a month ago
with his wife getting infected and dying, then coming back to life. She had been a victim of Dr. Reynolds’ escaped patient. The crazy escapee ran through the city, biting and infecting people. The contagion, tiny microscopic machines, spread like wildfire, animating people’s corpses when they died.
Seemed like only yesterday when Jack and his wife, Jess, were walking down the sidewalk together, getting ready to head home for a relaxing weekend.
And all the time they lived in the apartment, Dr. Reynolds and his secret lab had been right under their building, performing human experiments for the military. It was only for that reason Jack survived. If he’d been in another building, he would have been left topside by Reynolds’ team, to try and survive, or die like most of Manhattan’s residents.
The whole “bot” program seemed like a good idea. Create microscopic robots to aid soldiers in battle
and to help in the healing and regrowth of limbs. But it had first been designed as a weapon—a “bug” that could be sent into an area and spread quickly. The dead would reanimate and infect others, creating extreme chaos and confusion. The infected area would be quarantined. It was the perfect weapon.
When Dr. Reynolds was finally able to use it to try and help soldiers heal, he went about it all wrong. He used human
test subjects, taking the homeless off the streets and promising them money for their time.
After the contagion hit Manhattan and grew out of control, Reynolds’ “test subjects” dried up. Jack, Zaun and a new friend, Maria Lopez
—one of the guards at the bunker, were to become the next subjects of Reynolds’ experiment. From there, Jack and the others had one goal: to escape the city. Maria had a daughter to get home to in North Carolina. Jack had a sister in Cornwall, New York, whom he hadn’t spoken to in over a year. The small group made it out of Manhattan and to a fenced-in area topside where Reynolds’ operation kept speedboats. Jack and Zaun went one way, while Maria went south to get to her little girl.
Jack couldn’t believe what they’d all
been through. They had become like a family, and now Maria was gone, and he and Zaun were stranded.
“So,” Zaun said, “are we
going to try and swim for the shore?”
With the wind gusting and the
temperature around 20 degrees Fahrenheit, feeling more like 10 degrees with the wind, jumping into the water was not going to be an option. And it wasn’t actually being in the water that would be the worst part. It would be when they reached the shore. They’d be frozen in minutes, eternal sleep moments away. There would be no dry clothes to change into. They would have to light a fire quickly before they froze, and there just wasn’t going to be time, at least Jack didn’t imagine so.
“I think it’s best to wait here for now
,” he said. “We’re safe and dry. Hopefully we’ll drift to shore, if not at least get closer to it.”
Jack and Zaun huddled in the
boat’s cramped cabin, leaving the door open to listen for sounds—another boat’s engine or maybe even an airplane. Without the wind blowing on them, both men warmed a bit.
The truth was
that Jack had no idea how far the bot-virus had spread. Maybe it was contained to the Northeast. With no way of knowing, and needing to get to his sister, he had to survive and push on. When nightfall arrived, the temperature was going to drop. He could only hope to reach land by then. He and Zaun could use the boat as shelter and start a fire.
“You shouldn’t have let her go,” Zaun finally said after a bout of silence.
“You’d have stopped her?” Jack said, blowing into his hands.
Zaun opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
Then, “No, but we could’ve figured something out.”
Jack shook his head. “She has a daughter to get to. I have a sister. It sucks, but we have different priorities.”
“We should have stayed together. Figured something out. We’ve got no idea what the rest of the area is like, hell, the country. We were stronger having her with us.”
“I agree. Having us all together would’ve been great. But would it have been right to ask her to delay finding her daughter? Or for me to forget about my sister and go hundreds of miles in another direction? You’re a free agent. You can go anywhere, but she thought it was best that you and
I stay together.”
Zaun sighed. “Well, whatever. It’s done now. She’s gone.”
They sat in silence for
a while, the boat rocking gently as it slowly drifted.
Jack missed Maria already. Knowing he’d probably never see her again was disheartening. She was a great person and a warrior. They’d all been through so much together. They would be bonded for life. He hated seeing her go, but she had loved ones to
He thought about their escape.
In the beginning, the entire island of Manhattan was quarantined. The airways were controlled by aircraft, Black Hawk helicopters, and fighter jets. The waterways were patrolled by military attack boats, armed with machine guns and rocket launchers. Bridges and tunnels were sealed off. So how had the contagion spread? The answer was simple. People must have escaped. Jack and the others had a secret underground tunnel to use, making their exodus easy. He wondered how others made it out. Maybe friends in the army or through tunnels, like old forgotten subway lines and sewers.
So many questions ran through his mind
, but for now, the only thing he cared about was getting to his sister’s house. Like himself, she was a survivor. Her husband, an abusive asshole had been the reason they hadn’t spoken in over a year. She’d needed his help. He should’ve realized it, but instead he let her be. If…no,
he found her, he’d tell her how sorry he was she was trapped in that terrible relationship, and whatever she needed, he would be there for her.
He only prayed she was still alive.
Maria fought back tears as she sped away from Jack and Zaun. She missed them already, and felt as if she were leaving a part of her family. They had been through so much together, and now it was time to go their separate ways. But crying? She wasn’t a crier. Not really anyway. Maybe it was just the unknown she was heading into that was getting to her. She had no clue what to expect with each passing moment. The contagion had spread from Manhattan to the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, which were part of the island of Long Island. But had it spread across the bridges to Upstate New York? To the west, Pennsylvania? South to New Jersey? Maybe it never reached the mainland. Looking around, she didn’t think she’d be that lucky. There were no planes in the air, or boats guarding the waters. Things must have completely collapsed.
had spread fast, killing a human and turning them into an undead corpse within a day. Reynolds had said they were designed to adapt. They could be stronger now and harder to kill.
Maria thought of her daughter and it made heading off alone that much more tolerable. She would face anything and anyone in order to get to her daughter.
Maria had left her little girl in good hands with her brother and mother while she was serving her country. If the contagion had hit North Carolina, her brother, a former marine, would know what to do, know how to survive, and they would all be okay.
What she had gone through in New York City was an anomaly. The rest of the world, having seen what happened, would be more prepared. How could they not be? Her family would be fine.
Jack and Zaun would be too, and she planned on catching up with them again when everything was back to normal, or at least under control. A little voice kept pestering her, asking her
if things would get back to normal. Maybe the world was screwed and things would never be the same again. Maybe Jack and Zaun were as good as dead. Maybe her family . . .
No, she couldn’t let those thoughts overwhelm her. She needed to remain positive, like when she was out on the battlefield and in hostile territory. Worrying was difficult not to do, but ultimately, it didn’t help. She would have to rely on her military training, and keep her emotions from getting the best of her.
She anchored her fears and concentrated on driving the boat, keeping an eye out for whatever may come her way, and how great it would be to have her daughter in her arms.
A thud from below caught her attention. She paused, listening. Then the cabin doors flew open and a man, one of Reynolds’ crew, came charging up the stairs. He was holding a handgun and pointed it at Maria’s face. “Shut the boat down, now.”
Maria froze, completely taken off guard. It didn’t happen often, but this was a shocker.
The man was Mark Saunders, a guard from the bunker. She had talked to him a few times, coming away with the impression that the man was not just an asshole, but certifiable.
Saunders backhanded her, knocking her into the seat behind the wheel. He stepped up, keeping his Px4 Berretta pointed at her. He lowered the throttle, then killed the engine. “Hand me your sidearm, soldier. Slowly.”
Maria glared at him. Her right cheek burned where he hit her. She had been careless in assuming the boat was unoccupied. With everything going on—the undead, being pursued by a madman’s group of soldiers—she should’ve known better. The bastard must have seen them approaching the boathouse, knew he was out-gunned, and hid—not having enough time to start the engine and get away.
“I’m not going to ask again,” Saunders said, shoving the .40 in her face.
Maria reached for her sidearm, a Glock 21. The man’s arm tensed. He took a step back. She held the weapon out like someone might hold a dead rat. Saunders grabbed the gun and tucked it into his pants.
“We’re not enemies. Reynolds is dead. New York has fallen. We should be helping each other get out of here.”
“What’s so funny?” Maria asked.
“New York has fallen?” he asked. “Sweetie, the whole country has fallen, or will be soon enough. Along with Canada and Mexico.”
“What are you talking about? No way this thing spread that fast. The military would never allow it to get that far.”
“Stay there,” he told her and walked toward the back of the boat. She turned and saw him head to the outboard motor. He bent, opened a panel on the side of it, then flipped a red switch. “That ought to do it.”
“Do what? We should be getting the hell out of here.”
He shut the panel and stood. “Believe me, I’d like nothing more than to get out of here, but what’s the rush? A few minutes more and we’d have been blown out of the water. I feel reborn.”
“Blown out of the water? Why?”
“Boat’s rigged with explosives. Engine’s got a failsafe built-in. Someone steals a boat, they go boom!”
Maria’s insides grew cold. Her heart pounded a little harder. Her friends were in trouble. Maybe even dead.
“What’s the matter?”
Saunders asked, smiling. “You worried about your friends?”
Maria glared at him.
“Well, don’t,” he said. “I’m sure they’re long dead by now, or at least on their way to being dead, burning to crispy critters.”
“What do you want from me?”
“The world is going to hell. I figure I better keep you for myself. Can’t be too many good-looking women around.” He grinned. “We’ll find us a nice place and hole up. Live off the land. Have some kids, and stay the hell away from the undead. Now, get up.”
The guy was nuts. Had flipped out. Reynolds’ track record for hiring psychos was spot on. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, Saunders was probably correct; most likely her friends were dead by now, but she still had to try and save them.”
“I said to get up,” he repeated himself, pointing his gun at her.
“Where are we going?”
He motioned to the cabin doors. “Down there. We’re going to make love. Get started on making us a family. Have to start over now, you know?”
The guy was obviously out-of-it, but Maria thought that might be a good thing. He wasn’t thinking clearly, hadn’t patted her down. She still had her knife in her boot.
Saunders grabbed Maria by her hair and yanked her up. He held her close. She felt his warm breath cascade over her ear. He grinned wickedly, then shoved her down the steps. She stumbled and crashed into one of the open doors. Pain radiated in her right shoulder, but she managed to crawl into the cabin. With nowhere else to go, she rolled onto her back.
Saunders came down the stairs, his body all but a shadowy figure. “Time to get naked,” he said.
She saw that he still held the Beretta. “You don’t need the gun. I’ll do whatever you want.”
“That’s because I
the gun.” He laughed. “But in time, that will change. You’ll learn to love me and our children.” He kneeled down, untied his right boot, then his left, and kicked them off.
Maria inched backwards.
“Where are you going?” Saunders asked, as he removed his jacket. His shirt came off next, revealing a muscled hairy chest. Tattoos of a lion’s head and an eagle in flight covered his pectorals.
Maria went to stand, but he cut her short. Shaking his head, he said, “No, no.”
She looked at him. It was so cold and he didn’t seem to care. Maybe he’d get frost bite and become ill. Problem was it wouldn’t be fast enough. She was going to have to fight.
“On your knees,” he said.
Maria did as she was told.
“Now, come to me.”
She knee-crept along the floor until she reached him, her head at crotch level. Saunders placed the barrel of his gun against her temple. “Unzip me.”
Maria’s heart pounded. Anger coursed through her veins like nitrous oxide fueling her with the desire to maim. Her fingers curled into claws. The barrel pressed harder against her skull.
“Try anything stupid and I’ll blow your brains out. Then I’ll fuck your corpse. I’m getting some either way.”
Maria shivered, unsure if it was from the cold or the image of the man violating her dead body. She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t lay with this man. Let him invade her.
But that wasn’t true because she needed to survive, for herself and her daughter. Somehow, she knew her little girl was alive and she could and would do anything to get back to her.
Saunders grabbed onto her hair and shoved her face into his crotch. Maria struggled, inhaling the stench of old urine. She needed to gag. The man let go and she pulled back, gulping fresh air.
Anger continued to course through her body. She looked up at him, her eyes piercing.
“I see how angry you are, but that’ll pass. You’ll see that I’m a good lover and a good man. Just go with it for now.” His expression turned serious. “Now, do your duty as my new wife, or after I’m done with you
, I’ll toss you overboard for the fish.”
Maria reached up, pinched the zipper of his pants between her fingers and pulled down. The sound echoed in her ears for what seemed like an eternity. The acrid smell of urine wafted out, stronger than ever now. She cringed. There was no way she was putting his thing in her, let alone
in her mouth.
Forcing a smile, she looked up at him.
“I haven’t had a chance to wash in awhile, but it’s all good,” he said, grinning.
Maria smiled wider, keeping
eye contact, and slid her left hand into his pants. She rubbed him through his underwear and felt him stiffening. His eyes softened and his lips parted. He let out a groan of pleasure. “That’s nice. Real nice.”
She needed him to close his eyes, if only for a second. Swallowing back the disgust, she slid her hand into his briefs and grabbed his clammy flesh. Though the barrel was still pressed against her head, the pressure had lessened. Saunders let out an “ahhhh” and closed his eyes.
Maria reached down with her right hand and slid the knife from her boot. Saunders opened his eyes and stared at her. “Keep going,” he said, “but do it slow.”
He undid the button on his pants. They slid down, leaving only his briefs as the remaining barrier. Her hand was still inside, holding him. She felt the bile rise in her throat and fought to keep from puking. It was now or never. In one movement, she swatted his gun hand out of the way and brought the knife up, sinking it into his groin. He screamed. The gun went off. She pulled out the blade, her body numb. She had no idea where the bullet went—into her? Into the floor? The wall? It didn’t matter. She stabbed him again, and again and again, watching his underwear turn from white to red.
Saunders continued to wail. He was pushing against her, trying to get her off, but she was strong—unstoppable. The damage was done, but she kept plunging the blade in, blood gushing over her hand. Then he hit her. The side of her head exploded in pain as she was thrown sideways. She hit the side of a seat cushion, the thin foam doing little to soften the blow. The knife fell from her grip as she landed on the floor. Slightly dazed, she glanced up and saw her attacker, his crotch a bleeding mess. But better yet, he was no longer holding the gun. It was on the floor at his feet. She dove, snatched the weapon, rolled backwards, and came up into a crouching position with the gun held out.
Saunders was on his knees, holding his groin. Tears streamed down his face. He started laughing as he stared at her. “Fucking bitch,” he said, spittle flying from his mouth. He put a foot forward, grunting as he stood. Maria’s mouth dropped open. The guy was fierce. She didn’t think he’d be able to stand, but he did. “I’m going to kill you.”
Maria squeezed the trigger on the Beretta. A small hole appeared in the man’s chest. He staggered back, then looked down at the wound. A trickle of blood leaked out. He looked at her as rage enveloped his face. He reached out, then fell forward, crashing to the floor. She wanted to shoot him again, but couldn’t risk putting a hole in the boat’s floor. She quickly felt for a pulse and didn’t find one. The immediate danger was out of the way, but now she had another problem.
She headed out of the cabin and to the steering wheel. Her gun was resting on the chair. The cocky bastard had left it there. She stuffed it into her pants and started the boat, then raced in the opposite direction, hoping to reach Jack and Zaun in time.