Monday, February 2, 2009

Rendezvous: Chapter 7

Dee drove the truck carefully down side streets to the country roads that jogged through the cornfields surrounding town. The empty containers she and Seamus had gathered were tied down in the back, inside plastic garbage bags. Seamus was looking around, peering through the binoculars every now and again.
There was no sign of Zed as they approached the power plant, but there was every sign that he had been there. It was a goddamned warzone. The power plant itself was a charred crater. Some trees in the surrounding area had been uprooted; those that hadn’t were blackened on the side facing the plant. In the street, there were severed limbs and blood-stained vehicles. There was even a headless corpse slumped against a police car, a shotgun across his lap. An overturned fire truck gave Dee the opportunity to see how the truck performed off-road.
“Holy shit.” Seamus picked his jaw up from the floor of the cab. “How many people do you think there were?”
“Enough.” Dee was stone-faced, wrestling to maintain her grip on reality. Seamus seemed to be seeing the same things she was, but she could already feel herself slipping.
“Enough for what,” Seamus asked, after a pause.
“To start a zombie apocalypse. Without power, there’s no containing this. We’re too dependent upon our tools.”
“Yeah. Well, at least the mindless hordes are now exactly that.” Seamus chuckled. “And just in time. My license to kill showed up in the mail today.”
“Watch yourself. Gallows humor is one thing, but keep it together. Once the insanity laughter starts, it never stops.”
“Yeah.” The gravity of the situation was sinking in. Under other circumstances, Seamus would have called Dee a spoilsport, but he realized that she was absolutely right. “Hey, stop the truck. Look at that. On the guy.”
“What?” Dee had pulled over and was looking through the binoculars in the direction Seamus was pointing. A decapitated body was at the side of the road several dozen yards ahead.
“That black stuff on his neck. It’s all bubbly an’ shit.”
“Yeah. Huh.” Dee took a look around. No sign of danger. “Let’s go take a look.”
After pulling up a little closer, Dee and Seamus each grabbed a crowbar and got out of the truck. As they approached the corpse, they saw the head in the roadside ditch, with the same black stuff on it. Dee was still wearing her gear from when she was testing the lone zombie earlier, so she pulled the bandana up over her face and her goggles down over her eyes.
“What the fuck,” Seamus murmured, crouched over the neck-stump. “This looks like fungus.”
“Don’t touch it.”
“Do I look retarded? Of course I’m not gonna touch it.”
“Hey, what ought to go without saying usually doesn’t.” Dee stooped down next to him. Sure enough, the “bubbles” were crowded black mushrooms growing on the corpse. The severed head had the same strange organism growing on it.
Still in the clear, Dee and Seamus went to look closer at the wreckage of the power plant itself. Slow as the zombies were, they figured they’d have enough time to get back to the truck if any showed up, so long as they took frequent looks around.
The crater was filled with fungus. One desiccated corpse they found was almost completely covered by it. Growing out of the torso was a colony of bigger mushrooms with caps considerably larger than the thumb-sized ones they had seen before. The centermost one was larger than a man’s fist, and looked ready to burst. Upon closer inspection, they saw that the bloodstains radiating from the corpse had a tough-looking black moss growing over them, with black lichens growing over the farthest parts that had not yet been consumed.
“What the shitting butts, man?” Seamus stood and ran a hand through his hair, looking around for any sign of attack. Finding none, he slumped his shoulders and began to rub his eyes. “The Hell is going on around here?”
“Haven’t the foggiest.” Dee was staring closely at the plant life. To all appearances, the lichen developed first, then gave way to the moss, finally blossoming into the fungus. “That zombie, earlier today - he had some black stuff on him, too. At the time, I thought it was gangrene, but now I think it was this stuff.”
“So - I mean, it just seems really obvious that this is what’s making the zombies. Right?”
“Probably. Look, I think so, but I don’t want to miss something and jump to a hasty conclusion. Things aren’t always what they seem.”
“Yeah, that’s only a saying because usually, they are.”
“Good point. Let’s get back to the truck.”
“Yeah.”
On the way back, they each noticed that the “charred” fence segments and blackened earth were actually thickly covered with the same black lichens. It was even on the trees and in the street, though it was a bit harder to pick it out from the blacktop. Patches of moss were emerging at the centers of the lichen colonies.
Back at the truck, with still no sign of Zed, they drove to the main drag up the East side of town to scope out the other hits on their list. The mall and the Eastern hospital were both well overrun with zombies. Survivors fighting in the parking lots tried to flag them down and gave chase, but Dee gunned the engine and sped away. No rescue missions. The risk of an injured carrier - or, God forbid, a Typhoid Mary - was simply too great.
The grocery stores, including the Eastern Wal-Mart, were well-looted and had a few stray zombies each. Seamus saw through the binoculars that they were picking up a tail, but the truck - even at idling speed - was fast enough to lose them. Menards was barricaded. Good for them, or maybe not. With no food or clean water, a fortress would quickly become a tomb.
“Jesus,” Seamus said at some point. “Wasn’t all this stuff just fine yesterday?”
“There were fights at the hospitals and at the mall, according to Cam and Kevin. And even at a snail’s pace, I think the zombies would be able to cross town in twenty-four hours.”
“Still. Fuck, a week ago, I was preparing for finals. Now -“
“Don’t. The Devil’s in the details, man. This - this is the fucking apocalypse. But it’s too big to swallow all at once. It’s the little things that will get you. Keep your mind off ‘em while you’re outside.”
“Right.” Seamus swallowed hard and began taking deep, slow breaths. He was too focused on maintaining his numbness to notice the familiar ease with which Dee coached him through maintaining a state of productive shock, rather than succumb to panic.
Somehow, The Home Depot was still abandoned. The doors were locked and the lot was empty except for the four rental trucks. Dee counted her lucky stars and pulled right up to the main entrance. No movement inside. Grabbing their crowbars, she and Seamus exited the truck. Dee forced apart the doors with her crowbar, not wanting to have to deal with broken glass or a narrow exit point in case of emergency.
The first thing Dee noticed were the five-gallon barrels of water stacked in racks taller than she was. Seamus caught on in a second, not picking up on the significance right away. Dee grabbed a rolling staircase and a flatbed cart, then the two of them started loading the bed of the truck, discarding the plastic bags full of twenty-ounce bottles and one-gallon jugs. After the truck was loaded, Seamus emptied half of the containers into the sewer in order to make room for the gasoline they wished to pick up. When he asked Dee why they were doing it this way, she explained that they’d be back and didn’t want a wet floor. While Seamus was dumping water, drinking some and using some to take a quick upper-body shower, Dee went to the hardware department to grab rope. She came back with a flatbed carrying a spool of baling twine, a spool of the highest-rated nylon rope she could find, and a spool of heavy-gauge chain. She used the baling twine to tie down their load in the back, and loaded the spools into the back of the cab. After replacing the carts inside, Dee grabbed a display drill and bored a hole in the glass of each door. She threaded twine through the holes, pulled the doors shut, then tied a half-bow and made a mental note of where the loose end of the string fell along the door.
“That’s not going to keep anyone out, you know.”
“I know. Neither will the glass. That’s not the point, though; I want to know if anyone’s been here when we get back.”
“Ah. Gotcha.”
Dee drove to a gas station on the far East side of town to load up, figuring that would be safest if the zombies were sweeping West. They hadn’t seen a zombie for the last three blocks as they pulled in, but Seamus stood lookout just the same, pipe in hand and crowbar in belt, binoculars around his neck. Zed knew they were around, it was now only a matter of time. Dee estimated they had enough.
It took her a while to figure out the manual pumping mechanism, but soon she was pouring gas like it was going out of style - which, in a manner of speaking, it was. She topped off the truck first, then started filling the jugs in the back. Head down, getting light-headed from the fumes as she pumped and pumped, Dee barely noticed the wet thud of a zombie tripping on a curb and falling on her face. She was approaching from the East.
“Kast! Watch our six!”
“Yeah, I’m on it.” A metallic clang rang out. “Shit! These fuckers are dodgy!” Dee looked in the direction Seamus was yelling from. He was already dealing with a fallen zombie from the North, but had apparently missed the limp-hanging head on his first swing. THUCK. “Gotcha, fucker!” Seamus adjusted his grip on the pipe and walked over to the Eastern side of the lot, then swung it like a baseball bat as the zombie got to her feet. Seamus had clocked her good, but didn't quite finish her off. Another wet packing sound punctuated the final blow to the fallen zombie. “And for the record, when we’re out in the open like this and not facing a specific direction for any significant period of time, I think 'six' ought to mean ‘South.’”
“Noted. Good work.” Dee brushed the hair away from her face and kept fueling. The webbing between her thumb and index finger was starting to dry out.
By the time Dee finished, there were zombies coming from every direction, but scattered enough to allow an easy exit. Seamus kept his right arm out the window with the pipe, not wanting to get the black zombie gunk on the rope in the back of the cab. Dee double-checked that the caps were secure on the bottles, then started the truck and took off.
They decided to scout around campus, just to see what they could find out. Every dormitory was under heavy assault; zombies were crowded around the buildings over a hundred yards deep in some places. There were some tight knots around other buildings on campus, as well. Survivors were probably inside - or had been at one point, at any rate. As before, the zombies were too slow to catch the truck, and too thickly-crowded to allow survivors the chance to try.
The West side of town was fairly deserted. There were zombies in the streets, a few homes were being invaded, but for the most part it looked as though this was the leading edge of the swarm, with the main body still on campus. The Western Wal-Mart showed no signs of activity, but there were a few cars parked outside. No zombies had been here yet, though. That was a good sign.
The bad sign came when they got within sight of the Dojo. Zombies were packed around it. The street was full of them, their collective moan and howl sounding more or less as it did in the movies. Dee and Seamus had been gone for about three hours, give or take - but the zombies had likely come from the residential areas surrounding the business district in which the Dojo was situated. If that was so, then of course the Dojo would be in the thick of things, as it was directly South of campus. Seamus radioed in.
“Hey, you guys there?”
“Fuck yes, we’re here,” Cameron answered. “Where the shit have you two been?” He was waving with both arms from the roof.
“Nice to see you too, Cam. I take it you’ve seen the street, then.”
“Goddammit! What the hell are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know quite yet. What have you been up to?”
“Sitting around and panicking. We don’t have anything high enough proof to make Molotov cocktails, it was all used to make jungle juice an’ shit at the parties.”
"OK," Dee chimed in, "Seamus, you drive around in circles. I'll get in the back and pour out some gas, then when the zombies are following us, I'll light it on fire."
"Ehh, I doubt that will kill 'em all, but it's a start. Worth a shot, anyway." He clicked the Talk button. "Here's the plan, Cam. Dee and I are gonna pour out some gas, lure the zombies over it, and then light 'em up."
"Are you assholes crazy? What if the shit in your truck explodes?"
"Liquid gasoline doesn't burn, Cam. Only the vapor does. Explosions are actually very difficult to make, you have to get the right fuel-to-air ratio and - fuck it! Just shut up and watch, this is gonna be awesome!"
Dee got into the bed of the truck and found a place to stand over one of the wheel wells, placing her mask and goggles over her face once more. Some of the zombies had already started heading in their direction, but they were a good twenty feet away yet. As Seamus got into the driver's seat, he called to Dee.
"Look, we only have about three minutes to light this trail before it will be completely evaporated and blown away at the start."
"OK, then let's be quick about this. Just ride the brake and I'll pour out a couple jugs."
"Also, they're definitely gonna be crispy, but I don't know if we'll be able to light them on fire. After melting away the flesh, the oils in the skin have to ignite, and even with their clothes on, this might not be enough fire for that."
"Whatever, let's at least try it, OK?" As Seamus turned the truck around and started steering it down the street, Dee started waving her arms in the air and shouting at the zombies. "Hey! Hey, you! Yeah, you, assholes! C'mere! Fresh meat, right here! Come and get it!" Some of those who had remained focused on the Dojo now turned their attention to the truck, and as they did, more seemed to catch on to the idea that the up-high target wasn't as promising as the ground-level one.
Dee hoisted a jug up on the edge of the gate and popped the cap, then started dumping gasoline out in a wide zig-zag. Let's see, she thought, three minutes to evaporation with a truck moving at ten miles an hour plus a lit gas trail moving back at about half that speed gave her about one minute to spill all the gas she could before she started wasting it. She started a sixty-count as she watched the zombies pursue. It seemed that once they got going, they could actually move pretty fast - for zombies, anyway. They looked more like drunks with gangrene than the hungering dead, staggering after the truck. As one jug ran low, Dee popped another one and hoisted it up as she dropped the empty, keeping the fuel spilling continuously. She had just reached thirty as she started the second jug. Perfect.
When the second jug was empty, Dee hopped out of the truck, pulled down her bandana, and lit a clove.
"What the fuck are you doing?!" Seamus was furious, but kept the truck moving.
"Calm down, I've always wanted to do this." Dee bent down and lit the gas trail with the cherry of her cigarette. Then she stood smoking as she watched the trail light up before her. As the flames reached the zombies, they gradually became aware of it and started moving away. The first few zombies were isolated, and had little trouble getting to one side of the six-foot-wide fire trail. But soon after them, the horde was packed and the zombies toward the center could not escape as their clothing caught on fire and they were engulfed. The inferno raged on, and soon the heat was drying out the clothing of the zombies from a good distance away, making it easier to catch on fire.
Cameron watched the spectacle in awe from the roof of the Dojo. A triangle of zombies was stretching toward the truck as Dee dumped gasoline from the back, then as she hopped out and lit the trail, the peak of the triangle began to split, as a wave upon a rock. As the fire plunged deeper into the swarm, the zombies struggled to get away from their flaming brethren, who themselves were fleeing as well from the center of the blaze. The mob was burning from the inside out. Then, over the sound of Zed's moaning, Cameron heard another sound from the North - was that singing? Oh, shit! The church!
Not one of the faithful, Cameron hadn't expected anything to be going on at the church anyway, since most of his Sunday mornings were spent in drunken slumber. He hadn't even seen the inside of a house of worship since he was a child. But he recognized the Battle Hymn of the Republic as it erupted from the church, its invisible inhabitants jubilant in their defiance while surrounded by the Shadow of Death, as it were. He thought over the previous week's events - Monday night was power-out - Tuesday night was slumber-party - Wednesday was riot day - Thursday was scouting day - today was Friday. When had all the people shown up? He had pulled Crow's Nest duty more than anyone, but never noticed more than a handful at a time trickling into the Gothic Cathedral across the street.
Cameron's reflections were interrupted as he noticed that some of the zombies, in breaking away from the fire, had started shambling toward the church. Looking to the alley behind the Dojo, he saw that those back there were also beginning to get the same idea. Surrounded though the Dojo was, it was impregnable, and it seemed that even the zombies could eventually tire of literally beating their heads against brick walls.
Looking back to the South, Cameron saw that Dee was mopping up those who had escaped the flames. He radioed Seamus.
"Dude, zombies towards the North have started making for the church. Apparently, they decided that now would be a good time to sing about how awesome the end of the world is."
"Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and disagree with them on that one."
"Which, that now's a good time, or that it's awesome?"
"Umm - yes?"
"Ha ha, fair enough!"
Their conversation died a moment later as another sound joined the roar of the fire, the moan of the zombies, and the music from the church.
They heard human screams.

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