Authors: J.K. Robinson
For my Grandpa Bob, who never liked Science Fiction, but always had time to read to me.
“It is only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything.”
Ash fell like snow in July, blanketing the highway and trees. But ash, no matter how white never really looks like snow up close. It looks like ash, like the remnants of what once was. In this case, the ash was mostly comprised of the city of St. Louis. Ethan had no idea how many people had lived in St. Louis when the plague reached unmanageable proportions, but now it was likely there was no one now. All the great cities around the world were burning as the living dead rampaged through what had been the greatest civilization in history. The citizens and their governments had tried everything to combat the Undead, including the nuclear option across China and the Middle East. Just like in every other scenario, the roadblock down Interstate 44 just south of St. Louis had been a complete failure, reminiscent of the collective cock-up that was the re-anointed President’s “Comprehensive Defense and Control Bill.” Basically martial law, but without all the pretense of being for the people’s benefit.
A noise to the right
drew Ethan’s attention and his M4. The little day-glow orange arrow from the ACOG sight danced over abandoned minivans and empty Army tents and piles of junk, everything from blankets to gold ingots abandoned by refugees fleeing for their lives lay along the roads in a scene straight from the Polish countryside of 1939. These valuables were just like the trees and the roads and the houses now, all covered in a fine layer of gray death. Keller, the young private who'd been with Ethan in the makeshift lookout tower, that just months earlier had been a theme park ride, started panicking. "They left us? They left us! We radioed in, how could they fucking leave us!?"
Ethan took off his ACH and slapped Keller in the back of his helmet with it, a
in military vernacular. The kid stumbled forward, furious. "Wake the fuck up." Ethan held out the ancient brick sized radio, "If you hadn't been so busy freaking the fuck out you'd have heard me say the battery died almost an hour ago. As far as they know, or care, we're dead. What a fucking tragedy."
"Well… help me get a car started, or something… We can catch up with them at the next town." Keller said, pointing at the car dealership where the Command Post had been. Their unit left the tents and anything that was too big to carry behind, along with some of the unserviceable trucks too. These trucks would all be on empty if they weren’t already rolling down the highway.
"Dude... You need to chillax yourself.” Ethan rolled his eyes. Gesturing back toward the theme park, whose tallest ride had been their lookout post. Ethan started walking. "There are land-lines back at the park's main office. We can use one to call home."
"Home? Home!? What are you talking about Cally? We have to get back to our unit! We can’t go home, they’re everywhere!”
Ethan had had enough. He reached around despite his bulky and mostly useless IOTV body armor and wrapped his hand around Keller's throat. "I'm not going back,
…” Their eyes locked for what seemed an eternity. “And you shouldn't either." Ethan let go and started walking away. The signature clicking of a weapon from safe to semi came from behind. Because Keller was an easy target to pick on Ethan had been somewhat merciful in picking on the younger man, but perhaps this time it wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had. Ethan turned and smiled. “If you strike me down now… I shall become more powerful than you could ever imagine.” His Obi Won Kenobi voice was not convincing.
“We need every soldier on the line." Private Keller said, reciting their E6-posing-as-a-1stSGT’s favorite one-liner.
"Because that's what a slick-sleeve POG-ass motherfucker tells you?" Ethan's tone was pleading for the younger man to not be so stupid. "Look, I get it. You joined the Army just about the time shit got fucked up. I’m sure you miss Jody Rottencrotch back home and football and Twitter and Facebook and all that crap, I’m sure your cell-phone withdrawal is just horrendous... but you have to make a decision. Go chase down our unit and hope rear element snipers don’t shoot you in the face, or come with me.” Ethan gestured broadly to the silent ash falling around them like a gray snow storm. Had no city, no nation survived Judgment Day? “Go back. Fine. Whatever. But one day your number is gonna be up and you’ll either get blown to hell or be eaten alive… slowly from what I’ve seen.”
Keller lowered his rifle, his finger still dangerously on the trigger like the FNG he was, but then he threw it back up to the ready as a figure appeared in the distant fog. Keller stood there in the open, ready to perform more riot control duties while Ethan slipped silently behind a car. He'd been watching the camera feeds from the Tactical Operations Center before he was assigned to the tower. He knew the Antire Hill Checkpoint had been overrun even before he went up there, a punishment from their dickcheese sergeant major for Ethan being a smartass in front of an officer. No one, not even Ethan had expected the inevitable wave of undead to get this far this fast at a shuffling pace. Even the runners would have burned out by now. Thinking quickly Ethan just let Keller’s dumb ass be the bait while he prepared to pick the walkers off. If he was lucky he could butt-stroke the zombie from behind and not attract attention with gunfire, unless of course Keller inevitably forgot his training and opened fire first. Startling the infected during the Rage Phase was generally considered a bad idea, kinda like poking a badger with a spoon.
Keller held up his hand and squared his shoulders like a wall, "Stop. Stay where you are." He said in a sufficiently threatening tone. The shape didn't respond and kept staggering slowly toward them, his footfalls muffled against the soft dusty layer that clung to his boots and lower legs like paste. Ethan listened for breathing, but wasn’t sure if zombies could, or did breath. It was a shot in the dark listening for something that might not even be happening, but whatever compassion Ethan still had in his rendered heart said not to just kill the stranger. Keller repeated the warning even louder this time, which wasn’t very smart. Finally Ethan had had enough and walked from his safe place straight at the person.
"What are you doing!?" Keller shouted
, chasing after Ethan and slipping on the moist ash. He fell on his ass with his gear clattering, finding out the hard way what it felt like to be a turtle on its back.
Ethan got close enough to see the man staggering towards them. He was a Soldier in a medic's short sleeve tunic and regular uniform trousers that were stuffed lazily into his boots. His green and brown mottled uniform had dark red stains all over the knees and most of his chest, but none of it looked like the black bile the Infected would ooze. "Dude, you okay? Ya with me man? Give me a sign or I’ll put you down, man." The medic looked at him. The moment of truth, would he be a zombie, or would he be alive? After an eons’ long moment the medic smiled, something the Undead didn't do. Ethan cursed as he closed the distance between them. On closer inspection the medic was only a little beat up, lots of scratches on this face and forearms from running through God knows what. The medic wasn't all there for sure, asking Ethan repeatedly if he was “that one guy” from
before collapsing in his arms.
“Help me carry him over the barrier, he’s in shock. There’s a medical facility in the park, it might have an IV I can stick him with.”
"What? The park? No, man. Where are you going?" Keller whined as Ethan quickly escorted the medic back the way they'd come, trying to get him to walk on his own as he came too occasionally.
"I just told you what I was doing, fucknuts. Pay attention or go do what you want, but I'm getting me and-" Ethan leaned over and tried to read the medic's nametape. It had fallen off because wet hook & pile tape* doesn’t hold when soaked with semi-washed away blood. "Fuzzy Velcro, here, out of harm’s way." Though he complained to the contrary, Keller wasn't really that upset to be getting away from the road. There were more helicopters, Blackhawks and Chinooks, thundering overhead than even a few minutes before. Like geese fleeing winter they were all flying South. Only mass evacuations warranted that kind of mobilization these days, even the Federal Government couldn’t afford aviation fuel just to rescue a few people.
The walk through the parking lot was long and quiet, the Looney Toons characters that marked the rows a disturbingly upbeat contrast to the end of all things. Keller noticed they were leaving tracks in the ash and whined about that too. Ethan looked back and thought about it for a moment. "Something tells me those shitsacks aren’t that smart. If they were, we’d all be gone now.”
"I hope you're right. We don't have a lot of clips."
"Did you just say '
'?" The medic, who was semi lucid, chuckled through his dry and cracked lips. "What are you, a fuckin’ O.G?"
Ethan laughed too. "Al Capone was an Original Gangster. Those hood-rat retards need to pull their pants up and stop holding their guns sideways.”
"Fuck you." Keller flipped Ethan and the nameless medic off. "I'm just saying, we've got about a hundred and fifty rounds each, plus our 9's. Not to mention, Cally, you can't shoot for shit. I've seen your target scores, you miss twenty nine out of thirty.”
Ethan pointed to the Broken TV combat patch on his right shoulder, which he seldom wore, but had put back on so the other privates wouldn’t mistake him for one of them. “Hero-Patch. If I wanted to hit paper targets, I could and would. Now pull your lip over your head and swallow.”
The medic laughed. "You two are gonna be fun to spend my last moments with."
Dark Side of the Force
kind of guy, huh?” Ethan smirked.
They dragged themselves into the main office, up a precarious and noisy flight of oxidized iron stairs and inside a moldy, warped wooden building. Keller went to get medical supplies from the first aid building next to the log ride, glad to be away from Ethan’s sarcasm for a few minutes. Ethan and the medic watched him through several video links, the power miraculously, and suspiciously still on. "I'm surprised the power is still on." The medic commented as Ethan helped him take the bloodied tunic off. "They were fortifying the power plants when we got stationed out here. So long as we can protect the nuclear plants, the country might still have power. Anything that needs fuel, like the coal plants, they’re never going to be able to maintain indefinitely. Railroad engineers and nuclear physicists alike are being eaten like they mean no more in the grand scheme of things than a cooked chicken.”
“You think the infected would eat a chicken?” Ethan raised an eyebrow, the wheels in his head turning (not necessarily in sync, but more like the doomsday machine in
His new friend sighed, continuing as if he hadn’t be interrupted. "So you're not gonna ask me?" He pointed at the pile of bloody clothes he had discarded, slipping into a
shorts from the gift shop below. He looked ridiculous, but clean clothes can make a real difference to someone who’s been through hell. "About the Hill? Or what my name is? I’m Sergeant Keith Brewer by the way.”
"I wasn’t gonna ask while I wasn’t sure if you were still in shock, but I’m Ethan Cally by the way. We had hoped some of you guys made it, but after we saw the trucks ‘n shit hauling ass away from the roadblock and then the Apaches go in we didn't hold our breath... You must have been running for hours." Ethan dropped his gear and started to relax. It was already clear he wasn’t going to address Keith as Sergeant Brewer. Ethan had popped several Tylenol in the tower, and only just now it was kicking in. He was out of pain meds for his knees now.
"Yeah. I ran for a while, but the wrong way of course. Instead of following the road where I might get picked up I actually got lost in the woods until I ran into the Meramec River. They'd blown both bridges, so I ended up swimming for it. River's fuckin cold, man... But on the other side there was no one. I saw some of the infected trying to cross the river near a private dock, but they just fell in and sank. I guess they can't swim, but that won't stop them for long. They’ll just sink to the bottom and walk across somewhere downriver. That, or they’ll bloat and float.”
"That’s gross. Do you know if they’re still alive when they start raging?" Ethan had to ask, the debate had never made it into
Stars & Stripes,
the only authorized reading material servicemen under Martial Law were allowed to have besides the Army, Marine, Navy or Air Force Times, none of which were still in production.