Book 1: Zone Defense
CHAPTER 5: THE CODE OF THE PACK
Connie rushed the wall where Max had just exited intent on getting at him. She stood pushing at it confused; I only had moments before she caught the scent of my open wounds. I needed a distraction so I picked up the empty paint can and tossed it towards the far corner. The loud echoing clangs of the can bouncing along the basement floor drew her attention. I dashed as lightly as I could for the machete. I would have made it too if not for the slickness of the floor thanks to Max's perverse hose bath. Once again I fell down hard, belly flopping in the puddle with a loud splash. Connie turned and looked my way and even though her blank expression didn't change she launched herself at me. She was a lot faster than a shuffler but just like any zombie she lacked coordination so her charge was awkward enough to give me time to shake my head clear.
I lashed out with my foot catching her in the shin. I was already rolling out of the way when she fell over nearly on top of me. She landed grasping for me and before I could get clear she grabbed hold of my collar yanking me back down towards her. I screamed out in a panic and reached out for anything to hold onto as she pulled me closer. My fingers found the garden hose and I spun over just as Connie was about to chomp into the back of my skull. I held the hose in front of me and she bit down into it. Water sprayed free where Connie's teeth pierced the hose but it held she didn't bite through it. I pushed her face back and wrapped the loose hose around her neck twice. I bucked her off me while keeping a tight grip on the hose. I got to my feet and dragged her along the floor wishing zees were capable of being strangled but looking at the brick wall something a lot messier came to mind. Although she struggled mightily against me I put my back into it and pulled Connie to her feet.
Then with every bit of strength I had left I held her in front of me and charged us right at the nearest wall. I smashed her headfirst into the bricks, I heard the dull thud and felt the impact up to my armpits. A thick gash right above her hairline opened spewing the thick black odorous gunk that sloshed through zombie veins. I felt her knees buckle but somehow she managed to stay on her feet. She was stunned, her head swaying listlessly, I pulled the hose tight again and dragged her a few steps far enough back to ram her once more with even more momentum. I took a deep breath and ran us towards the wall again. I closed my eyes just before we hit as I imagined the even bigger mess this impact would make but this time the loud thud and the violent shock of collision never came. Instead I heard a sharp slap and felt our momentum suddenly and jarringly halt. I opened my eyes but it took me several moments to really comprehend what the fuck I was looking at. Connie had thrown her hands up in time to brace the wall and stop my charge. She stood there with her arms outstretched and muscles taut pushing against the wall. She turned her head to face me, the black gunk from her head wound having leaked all over her face made the whites of her eyes and the cloudy blue irises staring out of them even more startling. But what really shook me when I met her gaze was the unmistakable fury in that look.
I was so distracted by her behavior she caught me completely off-guard with a savage backhand to the side of the head. The force of the blow lifted me off the ground and flew me back nearly ten feet. Adrenalin and pure terror got me quickly back to my feet as Connie violently shook the hose off her neck. For ten years humanity had fought against these things and what ultimately gave us the upper hand was their predictability. A zombie came straight at you with nothing but the intention of feeding; they were incapable of any defensive moves like ducking or blocking. Offensively their weapons were obvious, teeth to bite with and hands to grab and tear at you. For Connie to stop me from ramming her and then to strike me with a closed fist went against everything I had learned about these monsters since the Zombie Dawn.
I ran with everything I had across the basement for the machete at the other end. I took a moment to look over my shoulder and I saw Connie running right behind me at a full sprint with the agility of the living, her hands outstretched reaching for me. When I felt her heat on my back I dove the last few feet for the weapon and her grasping fingers just missed me. I grabbed the machete's handle and seeing her shadow on the wall in front of me I spun around on my knees and took a desperate slash at her. She ran right into the arc of my swing, the blade tearing through the top of her belly. A thick slab of her stomach flesh opened up like a hatch door, spilling out its contents. Unprocessed pieces of the man she had fed on and her inner guts flowed out of her in a flood of the black gunk. She stood there stunned as a purplish slimy membrane spilled out of her and plopped onto the floor. The throbbing thing was still rooted to her by a thick nervy cord that reached deep inside her. She knelt down and picked the fetus off the ground, cradling it. Finally I understood why she was suddenly capable of performing acts no zombie ever could because just like the urban myth where a mother lifts a car to free her child pinned underneath it Connie was a desperate mother protecting her own.
She looked up at me with a look I'll never forget, the completely human look of utter anguish. So I did the only thing that made any sense and with a second swing of the blade I separated her head from her shoulders granting her the true death she had always deserved. The rest of her body fell back still holding her baby tightly. The machete dropped from my shaking fingers as I watched her child's chest rise and fall with each breath it took as it slept peacefully in its dead mother's arms.
At it's highest point the Harlem Wall rose over 50 feet tall. It overlooked the areas of Upper Manhattan that weren't considered part of Manhattan Safe Zone proper. Army engineers began construction of the barrier the year survivors first returned to the city. It ran across 125th St. dividing Manhattan; anywhere south of the wall fell under the protection of the United States government, areas north of it were on their own. In a way the massive barrier was sadly ironic because many pre Zombie Dawn Harlem residents believed an invisible wall serving that purpose had always been there.
The actual structure stretched from the Harlem River Drive on the west side to the FDR on the east. It was wide enough to support two lanes of traffic, a walkway, numerous guard posts and machine-gun turrets. Our vehicle was headed east on the Harlem Wall Drive. Taylor a young rookie militia officer was behind the wheel of the jeep; I was riding shotgun figuratively speaking this time. But I wasn't entirely unarmed only a fool would be these days. I had a 9mm on my hip and across the rear seats there was an AK-47 just in case we felt inclined to use it. But because it was only a routine patrol I doubted the inclination would arise. Perimeter patrol consisted of making the circuit along the borders of the safe zone. Our patrol run had begun an hour earlier at the Union Square command center and went east on 14th St. to the FDR where we headed south along the East River.
On the drive south along the water we saw the camp fires of the various settlements existing across the river in western Queens. Reports from that region had been coming in about a woman called Velvet Red who had declared herself Queen of the borough and apparently most of the settlements along the Queens waterfront were now under her control. When poorly maintained power grids resulted in widespread power failure on the Queens side of the river rumors swirled that the outages were engineered by an American government displeased by Queen Velvet's upstart regime. Two weeks ago a lone militia man in a guard tower on the 34th St. Helipad just off the pier was shot through the head by sniper fire coming from a riverside condo in Long Island City, Queens.
Queen Velvet Red denied any involvement in the attack but she went on to condemn the Manhattan Safe Zone for withholding the electricity vital to her kingdom. Immediately there was a directive issued by the U.S. government advising Militia Command to treat these settlements as hostile threats to the security of the safe zone. Two days later the order was given to shell Center Boulevard and the entire strip of L.I.C.'s waterfront luxury condos were reduced to rubble. But when the dust settled the iconic Pepsi Cola sign on L.IC.'s pier remained defiantly unscathed for all to see; a modern day Star Spangled Banner yet waving like a middle finger at Manhattan. So every night the Queen of Queens' agents lit torches on the Pepsi Cola sign illuminating it as a reminder to the Manhattan Safe Zone Militia Command that there remained unfinished business between the two boroughs.
Afterwards we exited the FDR on South Street and drove past the seaport where the U.S. Navy was currently docked. The mini-armada consisted of the two warships that laid waste to the L.I.C. waterfront and about a dozen gun-boats. Obviously due to the new tensions they were on high alert but they actually arrived several months ago after rumors surfaced of Somalian pirates reaching the Atlantic. The 21St century Vikings left the African coast after the Zombie Dawn and the breakdown of society that followed it. They took to the high seas in search of human settlements that conveniently tended to form along coastlines. There were said to be dozens of their ships operating in the waters around Latin America and when word reached Command of a Somalian raiding party sacking San Juan, Puerto Rico it stood to reason that the riches found in American safe zones might beckon them to venture into Northern waters.
We continued down Water Street through Manhattan's old Financial District. After the Militia moved into Union Square Park and ran off the criminal element most of the zone's disenfranchised moved further south; ironically into the seat of power of Wall Street's former masters of the universe. While the federal government's plan to turn downtown into a playground for the citizenry was well underway and quickly proving to be a success there was a dangerous radical minority who wanted no part of it and sought refuge below Canal St. As the safe zone's rapid development made it even more desirable to refugees and transplants from the outlying settlements the influx of new arrivals was increasing dramatically. I wondered how long it would be before the need for more real estate would require Command to move the militia down to the Financial District to clear out the riff raff and make it more hospitable for settlers.
The patrol route had led us through the Battery Park Underpass and north on the Westside Highway. Downtown Playground as it was being called encompassed the city's neighborhoods from the West to the East Village and from Soho to the Lower East Side. It was proving to be a rollicking success as thousands of city residents and tourists flooded the areas daily seeking entertainment of the adult variety. All along the Broadway Strip play houses, live music venues, night clubs, casinos and blood sport arenas were generating millions of dollars hourly. The brothels and hooker strolls of the Alphabet City red light district was an insult to the area's recent history as a stronghold of militant feminism but a cash cow for government coffers. On the west side, the Meat Packing District served as the center for the male seeking male sex industry and due to the greatly uneven male to female ratio of the population business was booming there; given that now nearly 1 in 5 men described themselves as gay or bisexual. Also thriving was St. Marks Place, a mecca for those seeking mind altering substances with its multitude of legal recreational drug houses.
The Playground had become a vast colorful anti-disneyland of government sponsored adult themed entertainment that surpassed Vegas, Rome and even Sodom and Gomorrah in its depravity and debauchery. It was a place I had played a large part in shaping when I took charge of the Union Square Militia Command Center two years ago and pushed out the gangs. I accomplished my mission so quickly and completely and the revenue generated by the Playground was so great it overshadowed the negative fallout from the scandalous events of that fateful night in the Lower Side East.
I spent 18 hours in that basement before the militia freed me. As I figured Commander Fuentes had thrown up a net of drones to ensnare the cargo van. Eventually one of the drones came across its smoking ruin. It took the militia several hours to get past the gauntlet of trip wires and booby traps that Max had reactivated before he left. They found the empty home of a mad man long gone and they were unaware I was trapped in a connecting basement next door. It wasn't until they searched Max's basement and heard me digging and hacking at the false wall with the machete that I was discovered. They tore the heavy door off its hinges and I fell out of the storage closet exhausted and dehydrated but with enough presence of mind to bar the officers from entering the dungeon space and with the stink emitting from in there I didn't have to twist anyone's arm. I got Command on the radio and immediately the call went out to intercept the army transport plane taking Max to South Asia. It was learned he had enlisted under an assumed identity and his plane had landed in Mumbai hours earlier. According to area officials he had disappeared into the chaos of the last great battleground of The War on Zombies.
After that I had the entire block sealed off, I only allowed the city's most senior officials including Col. Morton and Cmdr. Fuentes access to the basement crime scene. No one who entered emerged unaffected by what they witnessed in there. They were confused and disturbed, shaken to their core; several vomited uncontrollably. The horror and revulsion quickly turned to outrage and with Max out of their reach I wasn't surprised when Morton ordered me to be handcuffed and taken immediately to Militia Command.
I spent more time at the Garden in an interrogation room being "debriefed" than I did in that basement of horrors. I wasn't fed or allowed to rest and I was kept handcuffed to a chair. I was barraged with questions implying I had prior knowledge of Connie's existence and that I aided Max in his escape. I told them the truth. I told them after viewing the West St. surveillance footage I suspected Max might be the shooter and thought it best I brought him in on my own. I told them I mistakenly thought I owed him that much. I told them I was as surprised as any of them to find Connie and discover the state she was in. I told them Max left me there to die. The lead interrogator laughed and said he didn't buy it. He said I could expect to be stripped of my position and brought up on several charges; the least of which was being an accessory to kidnapping and murder, capital charges. The more serious charge he threatened me with was recognized internationally as a crime against humanity, it was feeding and harboring a zombie and its mandatory sentence was death by public torture.
At that I started to laugh too. The lead interrogator didn't like that and backhanded me across my already swollen face. I spat blood at him and told him to go ahead and charged me; I said I welcomed a trial. The rest of my tirade I directed towards the one way viewing glass. I said I couldn't wait to testify and describe in a court of law what I experienced in that basement. I was sure the public would be fascinated by my discovery and who knew how many sick bastards I might inspire to seek out zombie female companionship. Hell I wondered with the shortage of human females it might spark a brand new trend in dating. Someone summoned the interrogators from the room over an intercom but before they could leave I warned them they better not come back without some dinner for me because I was fucking starving.
An hour later Col. Morton walked in followed by an aide pushing a dinner cart. The aide set the table for us, removed my handcuffs and left the room. The colonel and I ate a meal of steak and potatoes in silence. Afterwards we had a long talk over beers. We came to a mutual understanding. Before he left I asked him for one more favor. I asked if he could send the lead interrogator back in here alone. The Colonel said nothing; he just got up and left. But 5 minutes later the interrogator walked in; he was surprised to find me uncuffed. As exhausted as I was I had no problem beating the shit out of him.
After I proved myself at Union Square I was promoted to the new position of Chief of Special Operations. Along with the promotion my security level increased allowing me to access highly sensitive intelligence reports regarding the defense of the Manhattan Safe Zone. So I became aware of the federal government's campaign to undermine any settlements operating outside of its jurisdiction and then I was informed by the colonel those sorts of dirty tricks, black bag operations was actually expected of me at my new job.
Overseeing the security of Downtown Playground and my position as Spec Ops Chief were tremendous responsibilities that took up nearly all my time; still I made sure I allowed myself to take part in perimeter patrol at least a couple of times a week. My colleagues and subordinates just saw it as another sign that I was an insufferable micro-manager. But I had my reasons. The last leg of the patrol took us up the Harlem River Drive and finally onto the Harlem Wall and its tremendous view.
"Chief do you want me to pull over at the usual spot for your smoke break?" Taylor asked but he was pretty sure what my answer would be.
"I guess it's about that time." I confirmed as I watched the campfires just north of us reaching as far up as The Bronx. I remembered looking north from here a year ago and seeing a hundred different campfires from a hundred different packs spread out across the area. But with its members being depleted by migration to the safe zone the remaining packs' campfires began drawing closer together and they began to form a rather sizeable settlement just beyond the wall.
As we drove east on the wall I looked back at the George Washington Bridge coming out of Jersey and looming in the distance. I thought of Max's threat and how it was no longer looming in the distance; it was actually close to becoming a reality. Last week's news of VZ day (as in Victory over Zombies) was still fresh on everyone's excited minds. The great zombie hordes were no more. The last horde down to only 700,000 zees was finally trapped and decimated in India's Kashmir region along the Pakistani border by a coalition of nearly two million international troops. Across the globe the zombie threat had been reduced to isolated packs of stragglers wandering in abandoned regions being systematically hunted down by search and destroy units. Finally the world could rest easier as zombie extinction was no longer just a hopeful possibility but an impending certainty.
Unfortunately I doubted the global Kumbaya would last for long. Without a zombie menace for humanity to remain united against and with the rule of law already teetering on the brink of collapse the federal government and Militia Command realized how dangerous the situation was. The millions of American servicemen returning to the U.S. after years of warfare overseas became a great cause for concern after reports surfaced of international armies carving up Europe into military fiefdoms. Also most of Latin America's civilian governments were supposedly being strong-armed by the victorious United World Armies which were now practically an occupying force. It was a pattern that Max had threatened would repeat itself on American soil.
At the northeastern end of the Harlem Wall Drive Taylor pulled over underneath the northern walkway. I got out and went up a flight of steps to the walkway; as usual Taylor the non-smoker stayed in the vehicle. There was a two man crew manning a machine gun turret, I approached them pulling out my smokes. I offered them some and lit them up. After some small talk I wandered off to peer over the wall, gazing across the East River I smoked my cigarette. Behind me Taylor's approach surprised me.
"Do you mind Chief? I've never checked out the view from this end of the wall." Taylor asked. "I figure it must be really something considering it's your favorite spot for a cigarette break."
."Actually I used to live in Queens, every once in a while I like to come up here and reminisce." I told him.
"Oh… sorry sir I didn't mean to interrupt." Taylor said.
"Not at all Taylor go ahead, soak it all in." I said. Taylor nodded and leaned over the edge.
"What's that bridge over there? Not the RFK, the smaller one over the park land." Taylor said pointing.
"That's Hell's Gate Bridge, it's a rail line, strictly for government use. I believe it goes upstate."
"Who would want to go up that way, I heard there's nothing up there but straggling zees." Then it caught his eye, the object of my obsession for the last two years. "Hey what's up with that little Island down there, with all those buildings with working lights?"
"That's Ward Island, ever heard of it?"
"Hell's yeah I have. They say the government keeps zees there to experiment on, any of that true?" He wondered.
"All of it, just don't ask me for the details because I don't know any. Even Commander Fuentes doesn't have that kind of clearance; it's strictly federal biz."
"I wonder what kind of shit they're up to down there. They're probably looking for a cure, right chief?" Taylor asked me.
"Kind of late for that now don't you think?" I said. "I mean we've practically wiped out the zombie population across the planet."
"Well whatever they're doing they sure are using a lot of juice." Taylor pointed out as the lights of the central building on Ward Island flickered from the strain to its generators.
"Whatever it is it's none of our concern." I flicked my cigarette over the wall. "Come on Taylor let's wrap this patrol up and get back to Union. I'm sure your wife won't mind if you get home before midnight for once."
On our drive back to Union Square, Taylor the happy newlywed went on and on about the joys of married life in the safe zone. I pretended to listen, occasionally nodding in agreement while tuning him out because my thoughts were still on Ward Island just like the core of me was still trapped in that basement.
I could still see myself raising the machete over my head intending to do what needed to be done, looking down on the breathing, blinking, gory thing resting in Connie's arms. I can still see it's little fluttering eye lids finally opening fully after adjusting to the light and the blueness of its stare on me. In that second I saw its mother's ever hopeful gaze looking back at me and then I heard the clang of the machete dropping on the concrete floor even before I felt it slip from my fingers because I could do it no harm.
I remember picking up the hose and rinsing the thing clean and under all that mess finding a beautiful alert baby boy locking eyes with me. He was big for a human new born and the abnormally thick umbilical cord was still hard at work pumping substance from his mother's gaping gut wound. Over the next several hours while I hacked at the wall in frustration whenever I paused to catch my breath to look back at it, the zombie infant grew before my eyes. When the militia arrived to free me and tore the wall off its hinges Connie's child was 30 lbs. and her corpse, drained of all its nutrients and materials looked like a deflated tire.
After Colonel Morton, Commander Fuentes and the other senior safe zone officials arrived and learned of it's existence their reaction was swift. A hazmat team descended on the scene. A surgeon separated the child from it's mother with a hacksaw because scalpels broke on the umbilical's tough exterior. The child was placed in a toxic materials canister and whisked away in the back of an ambulance, it's destination was obviously Ward Island.
Even after the dinner and beers I shared with Morton and my promotion to spec ops chief information concerning Connie's child was off limits to me. One night over cocktails Commander Fuentes made it clear that even mentioning it's existence was unwise when I tried to steer our conversation in that direction. Finally after I continued pressing him he grew so uncomfortable he exploded, ranting that unsubstantiated rumors were undermining federal authority and a law was presently being processed that would consider them treasonous. Officially I let it go but internally it consumed me.
Every time I went on perimeter patrol I would find myself at that wall staring past the river at Ward Island looking for him. I took to calling him Ward after the place he was confined to, undergoing God knows what on that island. Ward, son of Max and Connie, born of the pack that as pack leader I swore to protect. Ward, a true child of the Zombie Dawn that broke over us a dozen years before and spilled the zees among us like toxic morning dew. Ward as in ward of state, as in property of a government as evil as the unnatural act that spawned him. Ward, my responsibility and according to pack bond the closest thing to kin I had left.
To be continued in;
CHAPTER 6: FIGHT THE POWER!