Book One: ZONE DEFENSE
CHAPTER 1: BY THE DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT…
Max was at the wheel while I rode shotgun, literally; the 12 gauge pump action nestled in the crook of my arm. Sitting in the rear of the SUV was young Enrique and his girl Lydia; a Canadian refugee. Our Range Rover was at the head of a four vehicle convoy loaded with 15 militia spec ops fighters armed to the teeth and ready to rock. At the GPS' insistence Max took us off-road.
Last night a surveillance drone had spotted a horde numbering at least 50 deep in the swamps just off the Jersey turnpike shuffling it's way east about 50 miles from the Lincoln tunnel. It felt funny calling a few dozen zees a horde with the early days of the Zombie Dawn still fresh on our minds, when hordes a million strong swept over entire states.
The commander of the Manhattan Safe Zone ordered an immediate airstrike; fighter planes out of Laguardia Airport rumbled over midtown. Overnight they lit up nearly a hundred acres of Jersey marshland. At first light we received our orders. The mission was simple; recon the blast zone and terminate any zees still shuffling our way. With the amount of ordinance dropped on them we weren't expecting to find more than some twitching, squirming charred limbs littered across the blast site.
As the convoy approached a clearing the familiar stench of roasted shufflers assailed us and we could see a thick cloud of dust and smoke hanging over the smoldering swamp ahead.
"Let's pull over Max, were gonna troop it from here." I eyed him as he pulled the Rover to the side. He seemed ok even though I could smell the whiskey stink seeping from his pores. Not one for subtlety Max pulled out the flask and took a swig. He noticed me watching him and offered me some, I declined. Max had been drinking way more than usual since losing Connie but I couldn't come down too hard on him; there probably wasn't a survivor on the entire planet who wasn't hitting the bottle, the pills or the harder stuff to help cope with the horrors of our new reality.
We spread out five yards apart from each other and moved forward in a parallel advance over the scorched terrain. The smell was awful as we stepped over chunks of fried zees. Even through the smoke gruesome evidence of last night's carnage was spread out at our feet for hundreds of yards.
"It's like a fucking barbecue pit, Hollywood. Aint nothing living through this shit not even the undead." Enrique told me as he tied a hanky over his mouth. Hollywood was the nickname I picked up more than ten years ago on the morning everything changed.
"Well were about to find out. You getting all this Lydia? I asked her. She nodded affirmative as she recorded the mission with a camcorder for the people back at command. I stopped our advance. "I guess right here's as good a spot as any. Form a perimeter around me while I set up the beat box."
I used my field shovel to dig a two foot deep hole in the dirt. I activated the beat box and buried the football sized device. After a few seconds the box began emitting a steady low percussive tone and we could feel it vibrating beneath us; right through our toes up to the base of the skull. The beat box's pulse had a range of over a mile and was like catnip to zombies. It was said it duplicated the effect of a thousand hearts beating in unison and it could draw zombies out faster than the scent of a bath tub full of fresh blood.
"It looks like the air force did a pretty thorough job. I doubt were going to have much zee activity homing in on the box. So let's get this over with. Lydia, Reek and James hold down the immediate beat box area. As for the rest of you all; pair up, spread out and sweep the blast zone but good. I don't wanna leave one filthy bit of zombie still moving this close to home, not even one twitching little pinky."
Of course Max and I paired up, we'd been bros-in-arms since the opening moments of the Zombie Dawn ten years ago. We were just strangers on a bus back then and so, so young. It's funny after all that's happened how the little details still stick with you. I was on my way to waiting tables at the Chelsea Diner. After my shift I had a callback for a great part in an indie film with really good buzz. I was so psyched for the audition I was acting out my part on the crowded bus ride from Maspeth to the 7 train; caught up in the moment I didn't realize how loud and animated I was performing my lines. After a few minutes I looked around and most of my section was suddenly empty; the other riders jam packing themselves into the front and rear ends of the bus while glancing at me nervously like I was the local psychotic skitzo. Everyone but a young couple sitting right across from me.
"That was so awesome! You're definitely going to get the part." A pretty blonde I would later learn was named Connie complimented me.
"Damn dude now I gotta wait for the movie to come out to find out what happens next. It's a play or movie you're rehearsing right? Aw shit don't tell me you're off your meds or something?" Max asked.
They were just a young couple rushing to Grand Central station to catch the 7:05 to Schnectady to visit her parents for the weekend. In a kinder universe they would have made that train upstate and Max after sharing a few scotches with Connie's old man would ask him for his daughter's hand in marriage. In a kinder universe after an uneventful shift at the diner I would nail my audition and get the role that would launch my career. Then many years later while watching me on some late night talk show promoting my latest release Max and Connie would be sitting on their couch telling their kids how they met me as a young waiter practicing my lines on a city bus.
The last leg of the Q57's route before it reached the 7 train into Manhattan ran right along the length of Calvary Cemetery; unfortunately in the universe we had the misfortune of inhabiting the Q57 would never reach its destination.
The bus riders groaned in annoyance when the traffic stalled ahead of us. In the early morning light it was hard to see what was keeping us but I could see some frustrated commuters getting out of their cars to investigate. In the chorus of blaring car horns and cursing drivers I almost didn't notice the first screams. Suddenly the screaming outside intensified and we could see some sort of commotion out there; figures appeared to be fighting in the low light. Drivers stuck in the traffic ahead abandoned their cars and ran off through the streets. As panic on the bus ensued the couple and I pushed our way to the front to see what was going on. As the day brightened and I looked out the bus' front windshield I saw the world change.
I saw a teenaged girl being dragged to the ground by an elderly woman and a middle-aged Asian man; while a young black man chewed on her arm. The old woman joined in; biting into the girl's face. The Asian gentleman settled for her mid-section and tore into her gut. Everywhere we looked people were being dragged out of their cars and assaulted right outside the cemetery gates but it was much more than a simple mugging; they were being savagely bitten and chewed on, practically devoured alive. Oddly their attackers were well dressed but covered in dirt, their skin ashen-colored and their eyes void of life even as they tore into their victims with their teeth and fingers.
"We have to help that girl!" Max pushed me aside and ran down the steps to the door. "Open the fucking door!"
The obese bus driver just stared at Max in shock; shaking his head no. Two men in uniform appeared at the doors, they banged on them pleading for us to let them on. The terrified bus driver could do nothing but violently shake his head. I reached past the driver's massive gut and pulled the lever opening the doors. The two men wearing jumpsuits identifying them as cemetery workers rushed aboard.
"They just came out of the dirt! I saw them with my own eyes digging themselves out of the ground!" The worker told us.
"They're everywhere, there's like a hundred of them. We gotta get the fuck outta here!" His co-worker behind him added.
Before we could respond as their words were just sinking in, an odor so thick and wretched I gagged involuntarily, enveloped us all.
"Oh my god what's that smell?" A disgusted Connie asked.
Suddenly the second cemetery worker screamed in horror as hands reached into the open doorway and grabbed at him. At least five attackers pulled the struggling man off the bus. As they all collapsed on the ground they began to feast on their screaming victim. Max rushed to help him but the other worker grabbed him and pushed him back up the bus steps.
"It's too late we can't do nothing." He told Max.
"We have to try dammit!" Max tried to push past the bigger man. He hit Max, knocking him down.
"You can't fight them cause they don't feel shit, they're already dead!" He pleaded with Max. I pulled the lever closing the doors.
I looked out again and found the teenaged girl laying on the street staring at me as they feasted on her, one of them was pulling out her intestinal tract chewing on it hungrily. She was no longer screaming, mercifully her body had gone into shock but I could still see her pleading with her eyes, begging me for salvation. I helplessly looked on; maintaining eye contact, hoping it offered some small measure of comfort to her. Then I saw it, the light left her eyes and her head fell back limply. Immediately the monsters dropped her lifeless form and moved towards the bus.
"They're coming! We've gotta get moving!" I yelled at the bus driver. This was too much for him; he clutched at his chest and collapsed on the wheel, dead. We struggled to pull him out of the seat and Max jumped behind the wheel. He rammed the bus into the cars blocking us, pushing them aside, making enough space to drive onto the sidewalk. Max didn't flinch from smashing the bus through the starving dead; they flew in the air like bowling pins. He floored it heading for the highway as they threw themselves at the bus. The sirens of approaching emergency vehicles were a welcome sound but Max didn't slow down as they whizzed by us.
"Hey slow down the police are here." I tried to calm Max as their gunshots rang out behind us.
"Well good luck to them." He said as he sped along.
"Relax man they'll take care of it. Were safe now." I said.
"Bullshit, Hollywood! Did you see that young girl those things slaughtered? I just ran her over back there; she was one of them! She was coming at the bus with her guts hanging out and I plowed right through her. She flew twenty feet in the air; I look in the rear view and she just gets up and keeps coming after us! Those cops aint stopping shit."
"She was one of them?" Then it dawned on me. "Where's the bus driver?!?!"
We had laid the bus driver's body on the back bench. I raced towards it when I heard a scream. The bus driver had latched himself on a business man's back and was chewing through his throat. The other bus riders surged away from them in a panic like I should have; instead I found myself kicking the thing off his dying victim. The bus driver fell back but not for long, he rose up and moved towards me. Immediately I felt a feverish heat radiating off of him. But still his face was void of any emotion while he lunged at me; bits of flesh and meat falling out of his open mouth. I grabbed the business man's brief case and swung it; hitting the bus driver across his shoulder. He staggered for a moment but continued coming for me. Backing away I tripped over the fallen business man. On my back I could only watch the massive dead man about to pounce on me. A gun shot blasted just a few feet from me. The shot striking the monster in his forehead, he stood frozen for a moment before collapsing, he didn't move after that. I looked behind me and a Latino teenager holding a small caliber hand gun looked back at me shaking in his Jordans. He held out a hand and pulled me to my feet. He turned his attention to the gravely wounded business man.
"This dude is fucked up." The kid said. The man was gurgling as the blood pumped from his open jugular like water from a faucet. The kid bent to help him. I held him back.
"You got any more bullets in that gun?" I asked him as we watched the man die. Just as I expected the virus took him less than a minute after he took his last breath. I destroyed the thing with a bullet through the head because Enrique the young Latino couldn't bring himself to shoot again.
So in the opening moments of the greatest threat humanity would ever face strangers on a bus banded together in order to survive. It was a scenario that was repeated a million times over around the world for the next few months as mankind avoided extinction by forming small roving, scavenging packs of survivors. We had been right there at ground zero America; front row seats for Zombie Dawn Eastern Standard Time. Besides extreme solar flare activity in the days leading to the event there had been no warning. As the Earth made it's daily revolution wherever the sun's rays touched ground the dead arose from their graves. Only the recent dead posed a threat but even severely decayed corpses struggled so violently to rise they fell to pieces in their coffins. Ten years later of the 26 bus riders only Max, Enrique and myself had made it; we lost Connie just a few months back. To lose her when the zombie population was being decimated worldwide and the war was winding down was a bitter pill for Max to swallow no matter how much booze he tried to wash it down with.
"Look alive Hollywood you got first, second and third base slithering your way." Max got my attention and I saw the three blown to shit zombie torsos crawling towards us; trails of black gunk oozing behind them. Even these zombies weak from going months without feeding and banged the hell up from the air strike noticeably picked up their pace when they saw us. I pumped the shotgun and pointed it at the nearest zombie. Taking a few steps forward until I was in spitting range; I blasted a load of buckshot into the top of the thing's skull. Its brains blown to chunks the thing ceased to move. I stepped to the next one, pumped the shotgun and repeated the process with another deafening blast. Max holstered his firearm and walked up to the last zee. Max reached behind him for one of the weapons strapped to his back. I wondered which one he would decide on; the bludgeon or the sharp edge. Like I guessed he pulled out the sledgehammer. He held the weapon high above his head and stood right in front of his target and just as the zombie's fingers were reaching for his boots he brought the hammer down. The gory result was very similar to what the comedian Gallagher used to do to watermelons. Max used a hand towel to wipe the mess from his boots.
Shambling out of the charred brush another badly burned zee staggered forward. Max returned the hammer to it's holster across his back and pulled out the sharp edge. The two foot long blade of the machete was stained with the black blood of the countless zombies Max had chopped through over the years. Max with a growl rushed at the zee bringing the machete down with such force on the thing's neck it's head flew loose. The headless zee spun around in circles for a few seconds before keeling over; black gunk erupting out of the stump on it's shoulders like lava from the mouth of a volcano. Max pulled out the flask and took a long swig before kicking the head like a soccer ball down field. In the background we heard sporadic gunfire as the other fighters engaged with the few remaining zees.
"Is that all we get?" Max the former altar boy asked disappointedly, he spat some phlegm on the thing at his feet. "I could've slept walked through that. These chumps don't even get the blood pumping no more."
In less than 20 minutes the area was secured. Our mission accomplished we boarded our vehicles for the trip home.
To be continued in;
Chapter 2: New York, New York it's a hell of a town!