Chapter Two

by Cory Strode

Eddie's memory is spotty at best, but for a zombie, it was amazing

he had a memory at all.

There was a valid scientific explanation for what had happened over time. He was one of the first bodies infected with the experimental virus that was able to reanimate dead bodies. As such, the virus first mutated to be highly infectious and able to use fresh flesh to replenish the body that it used as a host. However, it had been slowly mutating in Eddie's body for seven years to the point where it mimicked the neural pathways of his brain, and the other bodily functions that allowed for breathing and speech. In some ways, it was a symbiote, using Eddie's body as a host.

None of this mattered to Eddie, if he would have been able to understand it anyway. He had been like so many of the others, a shambling dead body craving the flesh of the living, lapsing into a kind of hibernation when it wasn't available. It was during this hibernation that the virus would mutate, change and adapt. He had flashes of memory when he would sense there was flesh nearby, either an animal, or human and come out of the coma. He wasn't able to tell how long he'd been able to think and remember.

It had come to him in bits and pieces over a long period of time, though.

At first he had wandered the countryside, sometimes with other zombies who weren't able to think or remember, but mostly he would hunt humans. He had learned that most of them were lazy about their security. In the years since The Fall, most people had either gathered together in small communities or had put together secure houses, but most of them just had latches keeping their fences in place, since the others couldn't use tool.

He could.

Better than most of the people in the houses.

He was able to clearly recall the first group of people when he was able to open the door to their house quietly and sneak in to the house, attacking them in their sleep. The last one woke up and saw him, reaching for his weapons, and Eddie talked. He didn't remember what he said, but the fact that he could talk caused the man to hesitate just long enough.

It was also at the time he realized that he didn't need to eat the flesh. All the virus needed was the blood now, turning the cells of the blood into small factories for reproducing the virus. Eddie had no idea that was what was happening. He just knew that he didn't need to eat flesh. Just blood. And eating all of the flesh brought him almost as much pain as not having blood to drink.

And all of the people in that house were not infected with the same virus that had created him, so six hours later, they rose and walked, looking to flesh to eat. They couldn't speak yet, but were simply the walking dead. It would take years before the virus in their bodies had twisted and adapted the flesh to work the way the virus had changed Eddie. Most wouldn't make it. But maybe a few would.

Now, Eddie was the only one.

So far.

The morning after Ray had snuck out of the Army Base, Eddie had found another home with complacent people. He had simply taken the latch off of their fence and quietly broken a window to get into the house before the sun came up. He walked through the house, trying to understand the people who were there. There were old pictures on the wall, paintings from before The Fall. One showed quiet people in field harvesting grain. One was Jesus as a bearded white man looking at the sky and enveloped in light. One was a poster in a frame that had been for a movie that came out during World War Two, when people felt they were fighting against the greatest evil to walk the Earth.

The living room was a place filled with books, bullets and scattered pillows and blankets. No one was there, so Eddie crept into the kitchen, which had a table, three chairs, dried foodstuffs and an old oven that could have a fire burning inside to heat the surface. There was a pile of wood next to the oven, and he grabbed a particularly heavy hunk of split wood and carried it as he went upstairs to the bedrooms. At the top of the uncarpeted stairs was a door to his right, a hallway leading to two other doorways on his left, and weapons. Hanging on the wall were a shotgun, a pair of pistols and boxes of ammo strewn about on the floor.

He silently unloaded them and hung them back up, making sure none of the house's inhabitants had heard him. He moved quietly and quickly, unlike the other walking dead. Eddie was able to move with stealth, and if not for his complexion and the look of rigor on his face, could have passed for a normal human in the dark. His clothes weren't tattered, a black pocket t-shirt, loose blue jeans held up with a black leather belt and shoes he had taken from a victim three months previously because he felt that walking around barefoot was too damaging. He didn't feel pain immediately when his body was damaged, but instead the virus would create a kind of pain that let him know that more blood was needed.

He passed back down the hall; a shaft of rising sunlight shining through one of the doors that had been left ajar fell over his face as he peered into the room, looking at the two children sleeping there. He continued to the door that he had first passed by, the one that he been on his right at the top of the stairs and touched the handle. Unlocked. All too easy.

Dead fingers grabbed the door handle, unable to feel the handle the way a live person would, though a system of nerves, but instead communicated by a system of viral communication that would have taken scientists years to comprehend, even though the virus itself had been created in a lab. The door was slowly pushed open, and he could smell the person inside, asleep. The carbon dioxide they were expelling with each breath smelled to him the way a charbroiled steak would smell to a hungry farmhand. He saw the person on the bed, unable to tell if they were male or female, but not caring. The virus communicated pain to his brain, and it was hard not to simply rush forward and kill the pain with blood.

However, in his functioning brain, he was able to reason that if he did so, and the person made any noise at all, the other people in the house would be alerted and attack him, possibly damaging his body to the point where he wouldn't be able to repair it with blood. Or worse, destroy his brain, killing him.

Instead, he crept forward and gazed at the sleeping person, in the dark. The bedroom had no windows, and the door had a crudely built section that would allow for a brace to be placed on it, making the door nearly impregnable from the other side. This had been the safe room at one point, but now it had been converted to a bedroom. The room was relatively uncluttered, with cardboard boxes piled in one corner, and a dresser against the wall. There was also a small basket with discarded clothes.

A woman, young looking, laying on her side on the bed pushed against the wall across from the door. She breathing slowly in sleep, and did not look like she had disturbed the bed in her sleep. She had a gun lying on the floor next to her bed, and she was dressed in a t-shirt similar to his. A thin sheet covered the rest of her body. Her hair was dirty blonde and cut very short.

Maybe somewhere in the deep recesses of his brain, some of the old lust from when he was alive stirred. However, the only lust he felt was for the blood that was flowing in her veins. The wood in his hand went up, and then quickly crashed down on her head, making a loud, sudden thump. Her body convulsed twice and then was still.

Eddie paused, waiting to see if the noise had awoken anyone, and when there was no sound or movement, he knelt by the bed, put the hunk of wood on the floor and fed. It didn't take him long until he had extracted all of the blood he could from the body.

When he was done feeding, he sat by the bed a second longer and closed his eyes, feeling something as close to bliss as he possibly could. The blood entered his body, and instead of traveling through a digestive system as his body used to be set up for, the blood was infected with the virus inside him as it entered, and was being broken down as he was drinking it.

He picked up the gun and emptied the bulled from it. He held them in his hand, six small metal things, round at one end, flat at the other. He lay them around her head, crushed there on the pillow, in a circle. It was an offering of some kind. He picked up the wood and went back down the hall, past the room with the two children and to the door at the end of the hallway. There was an instinct to grab one of the guns off the wall, load it up and take care of whoever was behind the door, but he knew that if he shot the person, blood would be wasted.

And blood was far too precious to be wasted.

The door was unlocked, and inside was a single man, older than the woman in the other room had been. His hair was gray, and he had a short, nicely trimmed beard. He was asleep on his back wearing a flannel shirt with a gun by his side. Eddie entered the room, this one with two large dressers, a gun cabinet and boxes overflowing with books and magazines. The bed was in the center of the room, and flanked by two windows that had no glass in them, long ago broken or shot out. He crept quietly to the bed and pulled the gun out of the man's light grip, putting it softly on the floor.

He could have just bashed the man's head in as he had the younger woman, but he wasn't as hungry now. He was in search of something else, something less primal, but just as important as the blood.

He wanted fear.

He knew that he was stronger than most humans, partly because he didn't feel pain, and partly because the virus had made his flesh harder. It's why the others move so slowly. He stood over the bed for just a moment, savoring the feeling of having his prey so totally at his mercy. His face twitched into a grisly parody of a smile and he savored the moment as if it would last forever.

Then, with a speed that would have prevented any sort of defense, he grabbed the man by the throat.

Eyes snapped open and a face filled with realization and fear. He struggled by grabbing at Eddie's arm, and then tried kicking as Eddie lifted him off the bed to stand next to him.

"Fighting," Eddie said, watching the horror in the man's eyes grow as he realized what he was seeing and hearing. Eddie's voice didn't sound quite human, as it went over restructured vocal cords that weren't used to having air pass through and around him. The only time Eddie really needed to breathe was when he wanted to talk. His voice was deep, almost had an echo as he had two different vocal cords structures that were related. When he spoke, there was also an unintended rumble that was like having the bass of a stereo turned up all the way. "I like it when they try that. Makes it more of a sport. Problem is, you don't know the fight is already over."

The man was started to gasp for air, and was grabbing and tearing at Eddie's hand. Behind him, he heard something going on, must have been the two children waking up. Eddie had made a lot of noise. He smiled, looking into the man's eyes and trying to figure out what he was thinking. He heard footsteps behind him and turned rapidly, still holding onto the man's throat and squeezing a little more. He saw the two children who had been sleep holding the guns from the hallway on him.

"You don't want to shoot me," Eddie said calmly, "You might miss me and hit dear old dad. And if you don't kill me right off, I'll snap his neck before you can reload."

One of the children held the gun out strongly, and the other one was more tentative. They were in loosely fitting shirts and jeans, and their hair was cut short he had no idea what sex they were. Not that it really mattered anymore. They stood there for a second, his squeezing a bit harder until the man's face started turning a dark red. He kept pulling at Eddie's hands, and trying to wheeze something through his crushed throat.

Eddie loosened his grip so he could give a final message to the children, and he was able to get out, "run" between gasps for air.

The child who had been holding the gun strongly turned and ran without looking back, but the one who had been holding the gun less confidently changed their stance and aimed for Eddie's head. Eddie smiled and said, "Better make it good. You only have one shot."

The child pulled the trigger and nothing happened.

"Guess you don't even have that," Eddie said and squeezed as hard as he could, causing the man neck to explode through his grasp. Blood splashed and the man's body fell to the floor as Eddie leaped to the door and grabbed the child. He held the child's arms it its sides as he pulled it face to face with him. The child had a single tear rolling down its face as Eddie said, "I don't play fair. Nothing personal, it's just hunting."

After he had fed, he went downstairs and started a fire in the wood next to the oven. He didn't hurry as he left the house, and paused to watch it burn. He wasn't in any hurry at all, since he would need to feed against for hours, giving him long enough to hunt down the other child who got away.

Besides, hunting would give him something to do for the rest of the day.

* * *

Ray woke with a start, confused by being in the dark and wondering where his bed had gone.

He'd barricaded himself in a mobile home he'd found after walked for over 24 hours straight. He had wanted to get away from the base in case they sent anyone out to look for him. No one had ever been searched for before, but better safe than dead, he had figured. There was another part of him that thought that he had done so because if he stopped during the first day, he may turn around and go back. Since he crawled under the fence, there had been no going back, but it was one of the things your head knows, but your heart doesn't completely believe.

He had dreamed about going home and being welcomed by the other soldiers. In his dream they hailed him as a hero, and then both Sue and Jen had wanted to welcome him back in a more personal way. It had made sense when he was dreaming, but now it faded from his mind.

Dim sunlight came in through the dirty windows that had not been broken out, and peeked around the plywood that had been nailed over the ones that were. He couldn't tell by looking if it was early morning or twilight, but it didn't matter. When he had secured the small metal home the sun had been out, but by the time he collapsed into sleep, he wasn't really sure when it was. He had a vague memory of it being nighttime, but sleep had dulled his senses, and having to say up and walked for so long had blurred his thinking.

He grabbed his backpack after going through the 70 by 12 foot metal box to make sure he was still alone and grabbed an MRE. His canteen was full and he drank greedily from it as he tore open the plastic encased food. He wolfed down the food, barely tasting it as he sucked it from its plastic case. He threw the garbage onto the floor and opened the crackers and squeezed peanut butter onto them. He ate that slower, his immediate hunger sated.

He reached into his backpack and pulled out the small field radio he'd taken. It was a radio that would work for up to 12 hours using the charge from turning a small crank on the side. It was primarily made for Third World countries, but as The Fall was occurring, everyone in the US military was given one. They weren't' used after The Fall since the main bases no longer broadcast on them. Orders were that they were to consider themselves separate entities until they heard from the Commander in Chief.

And that order never came.

He turned the crank until the gauge on the radio showed it was at full change and stopped. Did he really want to hear if they were trying to contact him? Would he respond? If he did, what could he say?

As the sunlight started to get brighter, he realized that if he didn't, he'd spend the rest of the day wondering.

The switch was pressed and the radio hummed quietly to life. It was weird hearing static, since he hadn't heard it in months, possibly years. It was a dull noise that seemed utterly unnatural, filled with the memories of electricity and activity. Radio stations playing the same songs all the time and telling you that they were about to play your favorite hits. Others had people calling in to complain about things that made them feel weak and small. He hadn't paid much attention to radio when it was around him all the time, and he actually enjoyed the quiet once it went away.

He turned the frequency dial to the assigned frequency for his base and waited, not realizing he was holding his breath. Nothing. He propped it up on the floor next to him and finished his peanut butter crackers. Her tore open the brownie and was actually slowed down enough to taste it as he ate. It was really a kind of chocolate paste, but it was sweet, thick and tasted good. He tore open the package to lick the last of the chocolate off of the package when the radio crackled to life.

"Echo base to Baker Three, Echo Base to Baker Three, please come in."

They were calling for him. He didn't know whether to be happy or scared.

"This is Echo Base calling for Baker Three. Baker Three, please come in."

There probably wasn't a person in range with a radio of this type, let alone tuned to that frequency or who would know whom he was, and yet the base kept using code for security reasons. If he had any doubts about leaving, they were immediately erased.

"Echo base to Baker Three. Echo Base to Baker Three, this is an urgent message for Baker Three."

He picked up the radio and almost immediately clicked the talk button but paused. What could be urgent?

The radio was shaped like a large phone, with an extra speaker on the back. A switch if a person using the radio wanted privacy activated the earphone speaker, but it also made it easier to use. He waited a bit longer, weighing the options in his head and wondering it he should answer. There wasn't a way they could triangulate to find him from inside the base, and there wasn't really anything they could say to convince him to come back. What would be the point?

Curiosity. That was the only reason to answer. And apparently, that was enough as he switched the speaker to earpiece only and said, "This is Baker Three, go ahead, over."

There was a pause, and then a different voice came on, "Baker Three, confirm your identity via password."

Jesus Fucking God, he thought, why would anyone want to pretend they were Baker Three? The passwords were changed monthly and used when identity was in doubt. They were supposed to use them when they relived each other from guard duty, but within three months of The Fall, they were routinely ignored by the men and were only used in the monthly briefing and in the mind of Bradley, the Commanding Officer.

He could turn the radio off now and be done with it. They would know that he was alive, which had to be the reason they were trying to contact him.

He could.

But he didn't.

"Baker Three responding, Wally Gator, repeat, Wally Gator."

"Password confirmed," and he finally recognized the voice as that of the CO. Why the hell was he sitting in the radio room to see if they could get in touch with him? "Report your position and condition."

"My condition is fine, but I will not report my position."

The radio was silent for another long pause. Then the voice came back on, "Are you refusing orders, soldier?"

"Yes, sir. I do not think it would be in my best interest to give my location. I will confirm that I am not on base property, and will not be returning to the base, sir."

"Would you care to explain that, Baker Three? There is someone here other than myself who is looking for some answers, and I said I would get them for her."

Shit. Sue. He didn't want to hurt her, but there was no way not to, he guessed. He looked out the window and saw the sun getting brighter. If he wanted to get some decent distance that day, he'd have to get moving soon. He pressed the transmit button again and said, "I understand that, sir. I was unable to remain on the base in a state of lockdown. Not to disparage the base or any of the personnel, I feel that that is not an acceptable plan to aid the country's reconstruction or to face the enemy. I think it is important to see if the other bases have personnel, what their plans of action are and when we will quit hiding like rabbits in cages, sir. Respectfully."

A longer pause. He took the opportunity to start packing his gear into his backpack and preparing to leave. By the time he had put away his field bedding and was checking his weapons, the radio crackled to life again, "I have sent all other personnel from the room, Baker Three, because you need to know some facts. There are no other bases. Communications went down with them years ago, and when we sent scouts on private missions, they did not return. There is nothing out there. Do you understand that? Nothing is left.

"There are groups here and there that are holding on, but eventually they will fall as well. They don't have the discipline and dedication to maintain safety. Entropy has won, soldier, and we are the only hope left, and that isn't a whole lot of hope. I understand what you are feeling, but you are chasing a fantasy. The radios have been silent for three years. No one is talking because no one can. I can bring you back in, but you have to come back on your own, and today. I can't keep a lid on this much longer, and if you don't return soon, my hands are tied."

Ray didn't answer. What could he say?

He looked at his guns on the stained and ruined carpet and then to the window. Outside the grass was waist high, waving in the wind. Birds flew by and in the distance were trees by the bank of a small river.

"Ray," a female voice came from the radio. Sue. "Ray, I know things haven't been good for a while. I know you've been restless and upset, and I'm sorry. I'll change." The voice was broken with sobs, "I swear to God I'll change."

He grabbed the radio and pushed the transmit button, "Sue, don't blame yourself. I couldn't stay trapped in a cage anymore. I was a hamster, running around a cage. You can love the other hamsters in the cage, but at night, you're still in a cage. Maybe there isn't anything out here. If that's true, then I'll have to decide what to do then, but I had to get out of the cage. It's better to die a free man by a river than in a cage as an old man. I know that you don't understand this, but it's how I had to do it. I had to get out of that place before my mind snapped."

He turned the radio off before he could possibly hear a reply and tossed it against the wall as hard as he could. It hit with a loud crack, and shattered the wood paneling, lodged in the wall. He slumped against the wall and slowly slid down, wanting to cry more than he had wanted anything in his life, but unable to do more than just cover his eyes and breathe deeply.

He sat there, his head between his knees breathing slowly, wondering what kind of madness he had been infected by to leave that place and not want to go back. To trade a warm bed and a warmer woman for an abandoned mobile home that smelled like dead animals. He was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn't hear the door at the end of the hallway come open.

The stained shag carpet softened the footsteps in the hallway, and Ray wasn't listening anyway. He was too consumed with his thoughts and wondering just what the hell he would do now. He didn't see the female zombie until it has shambled out of the hallway and was moving toward him.

He saw it out of the corner of his eye, and went to grab his guns on the floor, but the zombie had already gotten close enough that he would have had time to pick them up, aim and fire before it was on him. Ray rolled from his sitting position into what must have been the kitchen at the front of the mobile home and looked rapidly around for a weapon of any kind. The furniture had long ago been removed from the house, as had the appliances, except for the stove. Most of the cabinet doors had been long ago broken off, and the drawers under the counters were gone as well.

He kicked quickly at the inside of one of the cabinets, and heard the wood shatter. He reached in and pulled out a short, jagged piece of wood just as the zombie was close enough to reach for him.

He kicked again, this time at the zombie's leg. He heard a crack, as he connected, not unlike the one he heard from shattering the wood, and the zombie fell to the ground next to him. He was up quickly and kicked again, aiming at the head of the creature. He hit with a satisfying "crunch" and the zombie rolled to the far wall. It was still trying to get up when he used the wood as a spike and jammed it into the zombie's head. No sound came from the open mouth, no shock entered its eyes, not final cry of any kind as a living human would do if he were killed, there was just to way the zombie quit moving and some sort of black liquid poured out of the wound he had made in its head.

He looked quickly to the hallway and seeing three more lumbering toward him, could only mutter, "shit" as he ran through his options quickly.

It was probably smartest to bolt outside, but his guns, food and other equipment was in the living room. He might get away if he ran, but without his equipment, he wouldn't be running for long.

He pulled the three-foot shaft of broken wood from the head of the female zombie, and winced as it made wet, soft sounds while coming out. He felt his full stomach do a slow roll as he felt the black liquid ooze down onto his hand from where it had been in the zombie's head.

There were two male zombies and one female, with the two males leading the way. They were moving toward him, mouths agape and arms outstretched. He held the wood like a baseball bat, holding his ground. He hoped that he could knock them down and out of the way before they overwhelmed him. If he could just get past them, he'd be able to get to his guns. Then, he'd have a good chance.

The first two were side by side as they got close enough for him to hit, and he swung at the one of the right as hard as he could, connecting with its head. He felt the wood break and heard a loud "crack" as he connected, but before he could realize he'd broken his weapon, the other had grabbed him and was pulling his arm toward its mouth.

He took the broken shaft of wood and jabbed it into the zombie's mouth, feeling it dig in to the soft flesh and stick. He didn't even try to pull it out as he made a quick note of the woman zombie coming closer to him. The one he had hit in the head was on the floor, struggling to get up, and the other one was trying to pull the shaft of wood out of its mouth as he kicked the approaching female zombie in the stomach, trying to knock it down.

"Thank God for Army training," he said as he kicked at the female again, knocking it down and clearing a path to his guns. He moved quickly, not looking behind him until he felt something grab his ankle. The next thing he knew, he had fallen face first onto the floor, and was slightly dazed. The hand on his ankle started pulling him and he shook off the shock. It was the female, pulling him toward her, and the other two were recovering as well.

He kicked hard at the female's head rapidly, over and over, his heavy Army boot connecting with a sick thud each time. When she let go, he was able to scramble backward out of her reaching grasp. The one he had knocked down had gotten up and was moving toward him again, while the one with the wood jammed in its mouth was still trying to pull it free. It was almost morbidly fascinating to see it pull it free, bit by bit, with sounds that would have made him sick if he didn't have so much going on around him.

He spun over onto his hands and knees and pushed himself forward toward his guns. They were just barely out of reach when he was grabbed again by the ankle. It was the male zombie, and it was pulling at him again, lifting the leg it had in its hands high in the air, and almost pulling him off the ground. The female was getting up, and the last zombie had finally pulled the wood free and was spewing black liquid from it's mouth, making it look like it had a mouth full of wine and was spilling it down it's face and shirt.

He planted he free foot on the ground and rose almost to a full standing position, still facing away from the zombie that had his ankle. It squeezed, and he could feel the bones in his ankle sliding against each other. The strength of the zombie was incredible, and he had forgotten just how strong the damn things were. He hopped a couple of times to try and work his ankle free a bit, gritting his teeth against the pain.

No good.

He hopped one last time, and then used the momentum he had built up to spin around, and kick the zombie in the face with his free foot. It loosened the grip enough that he broke free and fell to the ground, right next to his two pistols. He grabbed the both of them; one in each hand, and started firing, head shots only. He fired until the clips were empty and the zombies were a crumpled mass of dead flesh on the floor. He quickly grabbed his rifle and was up, looking down the hallway. The door next to what had to have been the bedroom door was wide open, a way for them to have gotten in.

He snuck down the hallway, pausing at each bedroom to make sure there was nothing in them. He shut the door and locked it after seeing that it hadn't been forced open, he'd just never checked to see if it was locked when he looked over the place the night before. A stupid mistake that came close to costing him his life, and could have been far worse if they had come in while he was sleeping.

As he walked back down the hallway, he realized that the adrenaline had kept his ankle from hurting, but now it was almost crippling in the amount of pain he was feeling. He sat next to his backpack and made sure that the zombies hadn't broken the skin.

Standing up gently and checking out the windows, he made sure there were no more zombies on their way. Relatively sure the coast was clear; he took off his boot and checked the ankle closer. He could tell that nothing was broken, but it was starting to swell a bit, making it hard to get the boot back on.

He looked over at the four zombies in the living room and said, "I'd better figure out how to get the swelling down. I'm not spending the night with you staring at me. I have enough shitty dreams."

He had a field first aid kit, but the only thing he could really do was wrap the ankle and hope it wasn't a serious injury. He wrapped it as tight as he could stand and then started to repack his kit. He did it with quiet efficiency, making sure to get everything picked up and put away. Except the radio, which was still lodged in the wall.

He stood, gingerly and tested the ankle. Still hurt, but not so bad he couldn't get around. This house was no good, and while he might not get very far, he had to get a couple of miles away from it, if for no other reason that to get away from the faces of the dead one room away. He looked back at them, one with a crushed head, still oozing black fluid onto the carpet; two others filled with bullet holes in their heads, and the last one still flowing the black fluid out of its mouth where he had jammed his weapon.

He reached into his pack and pulled out another disposable alcohol washcloth and wiped down his hands, face and any other exposed skin. The last thing he wanted was that fluid on him in any way when he ate, or even if it got into his mouth from sweating. He shuddered thinking about it, tossing the used cloth on the closest zombie's face, trying to cover it up. He reloaded his pistols and put them back in his side holsters.

Only one thing left, and he stared at it. The radio, sticking out of the tacky wood paneling.

Why bother taking it, he thought to himself. He didn't want to talk to the base anymore, and there wasn't anyone else around. At least that's what they told him. It was a piece of equipment that was just taking up space and weight.

He pulled the radio out of the wall and looked at it, then quickly turned it on. It crackled with static, and he knew he couldn't leave it behind with the excuse that it was broken.

He went to turn it off and shove it in his backpack when he heard it crackle to life. "Baker Three come in, this is Rogue."

Rogue wasn't a name that anyone at The Base would have used. He didn't recognize the voice either, and he knew everyone on The Base.

He put the radio next to his ear and triggered the transmit switch, "Rogue, this is Baker Three, can you move to a different frequency?" He didn't want the base listening it, which it was sure to be doing.

"Baker Three, I can. If you are worried about unauthorized listeners we can talk at a later time. As any delay would be like days, we should not talk again for two days."

Clever, he thought, but not clever enough. What sort of code could they use to confuse anyone else who could be listening? "Understood Rogue, but that delay would not get rid of prying ears."

"Then we will have to talk again at a later date, Baker Three. Remember that God gave his only son for us to be free."

And the radio went dead. If the base was listening, they weren't responding. But what was the Rogue saying? Was he one of the Jesus freaks who had broadcast on the radio that this was the end of the world? The last broadcasts were religious ones, as anyone with any sense left as The Fall was occurring. The telepreachers wanted to hold on until the last minute, trying to pray the zombies away. He remembered one broadcast where the people in the studio were reading the Bible over the air as the zombies broke in and...

It hit him.

That was the code.

He was quoting a Bible verse, John 3:16, the verse that people used to use at Football games on poster board to try and get people to get into religion. That was the frequency, but which book of the Bible was John?

He tried to remember, but instead decided that it was pointless. There was no way he could remember. The only thing to do was to go for every frequency that ended with 316. He would move the frequency dial and say, "This is Baker Three, Rogue, are you there?" wait a moment, repeat and then move up the dial a click. When he got to the 43rd time, he finally got a response, "This is Rogue, glad you could find me."

Ray smiled, really smiled, and felt good for the first time in a while, "Glad I could find you too Rogue. Baker Three was my name on the Army Base, I'd rather be called Ray."

"So that was an Army base you were talking too. I was sure they had all gone dark. I listen on a scanner from time to time, looking for conversations. My name is Marcus, and I'm in Southern Iowa, holed up in an old farmhouse. What is your location?"

"Arkansas, about 20 miles from the old Army Training base. I'm headed north, maybe I could make that my destination."

There was silence for a bit, long enough to let Ray know that what he'd said hit a nerve with whomever "Marcus" was. The reply came just as he was getting ready to give up and head out, "That might be a good idea. It's been quiet around here, and maybe you could stop on your way to get supplies and trade information. What is your destination?"

Ray smiled again, "I have absolutely no idea. Right now, it's somewhere in southern Iowa, I think."

* * *

Wendy had cleaned the house as well as she could, getting rid of any trace that Tim had ever lived there. She didn't even have a marker for him in the yard. Just a burned patch where she'd covered his body with wood and burned it, making sure it wouldn't come back. The smell had been horrible, so she had locked herself in the basement for a couple of days, not even coming up to check if the fence was secure, or if the fire had finally burned out.

Since then she had pretty much gone day to day in a haze. She couldn't decide if it was because of the death or if she was still suffering from the infection, but her days were a long, slow haze of cleaning, working in the garden, feeding the rabbits they kept as food and checking the fence.

Twice in the week, there had been zombies who had tried to get through the fence. The first one was trying to claw at the fence one morning when she woke up. It was a male (like that mattered) who was wearing army fatigues and had a full head of black, shaggy hair. She watched it before killing it, seeing how it simply repeated the same thing over and over. It grabbed the fence, pulled hard, then tried to climb the fence, but the holes in the mesh were too small for it to get its feet into, and then it hit the fence a few times in frustration. Over and over it did the same thing, as if it was obeying some3 strange programming.

She walked over to the fence with a pistol and looked at the zombie closer. It's skin was a pale gray, and its lips were blue. The eyes were open, wildly and she noticed that it didn't blink for some reason. Just watched her with wide-open eyes and did the same thing over and over, more frantic when she got closer. A single bullet to the head made it drop to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. Black gooey liquid oozed from the bullet wound in the front of its head, and a more messy fluid puddle on the ground under it where it had fallen.

The next one was three days later when she went outside to get one3 of the rabbits for a stew and she saw that behind the house, a zombie had been able to work its arm through the wire mesh. It was a small female, and couldn't have been more than 15 when she turned. She was shocked and stepped back, even though she was quite far from the fence. The zombie was clutching through the fence, trying to grab anything, but nothing was within reach.

She was already carrying the pistol to take care of the rabbit, and she aimed and fired at the zombie, hitting it in the shoulder. It staggered a bit, its arm pulled back through the fence, and then went forward again, this time with more energy and ferocity. She paused and fired twice in rapid succession, causing the zombie to drop to the ground, still and unmoving.

This time she didn't think about how they were machines that couldn't learn, or how they were so much like people she'd known before the fall who kept trying the same thing over wand over to no result. She just was repulsed and ran back in the house to get her tools to fix the hole in the mesh. Tim had taught her how to do it, and she was thinking about him and how he'd taken so much time to teach her things like that when she heard a female voice say, "Hey! I heard gunshots! You OK?"

She looked over where the voice came from and saw two women who had to be in their early 20s walking toward the fence.

"Yeah," she said cautiously, moving her hand toward the pistol she still had shoved in her jeans' waistband.

The two women were about the same height, probably about 5 and a half feet tall. One white, one black, both with short hair. The white one was dressed in a loose fitting jeans, a half shirt and combat boots, and had a large backpack on and was carrying what looked like an army style rifle. She had the kind of rough, weathered face that Wendy always associated with poor southern women, but her body was as muscled as any old fitness model with small breasts, a hard stomach and muscular arms. The black woman wasn't as "hard" and was wearing camouflage pants and a tank top with bra straps askew until the tiny straps. She was bustier, and wearing a similar backpack and carrying a huge pistol that looked like a movie prop, with a laser site attached to the top of the gun. Her boots were pretty much the same as the white woman's, and she was the one who said, "Don't worry, we ain't scavengers. We're just traveling. I'm Angela, and my partner in mayhem here is Alice."

"Yeah," Alice said, her southern drawl harsh and angry instead of warm and inviting as most southern women always seemed to sound to Wendy, "We heard the shots and thought you might need help. It's not like those bastards know how to fire a gun," she finished, indicating the zombie Wendy had just killed.

"No," Wendy said, still cautious, "I can take care of myself."

Angela laughed, "I can see that." She didn't have a southern accent, and sounded like she might have been from New York. She felt horrible when she let it flash through her head that she was surprised that she didn't sound like some rap star. Wendy hadn't known many black people before The Fall, and sure didn't have much human contact since.

Angela holstered her gun and Alice did something to hers that Wendy didn't understand, but thought it probably was setting a safety or something. Wendy relaxed a bit and said, "The gate is around front. You two want to come in for a while?"

"Damn Skippy," Angela said, "We've been on the road for the past couple of days, and haven't found a single safe house. I've had to trust that she doesn't fall asleep on her watch."

Wendy opened the gate and it made a rusty, metal noise, as it swung open. They thanked her for letting them in and made their way into the house. The first room they entered was a large living room with most of its windows replaced with wood, three old, ratty couches and a rug covering a wooden floor.

Angela dropped her backpack on the floor immediately and started going through it while Alice looked in the kitchen and other rooms on the first floor. She called from what had once been the laudry room, "This is a pretty secure place. Been here long?"

"About three years," Wendy said, sitting on one of the couches and watching them both closely. When Tim was here, he wouldn't let travelers stay very long. He never trusted them, and often told her that he was worried they would kill them and take their place. "Truly safe safe houses are rare," he'd say. She could still hear his voice in her memory with the Midwest twang and his way of not putting pauses in his sentences, as if he couldn't say them fast enough.

"All by yourself? Girl, I'm surprised you didn't think we were ghosts. I was solo for about a year, and I thought I was going to crack up before that ugly bitch knocked down my door," Angela said, a huge smile on her face as she pulled out small packages wrapped in cloth. She opened one up and it was filled with something Wendy hadn't seen in years, "Chocolate bar?" Angela said, holding one out.

Wendy took it and muttered thank you quietly as Alice said, "Yeah, she was holed up in a basement full of canned everything and thought she'd come out when the police finally answered her call. They still haven't showed up yet. That's why I quit paying my taxes."

"Bitch, a cracker like you prolly wanted to blow up the tax man's offices. Isn't that what you white trash hillbillies did before the zombies finished it up for you?," Angela said, sitting back down on the floor and eating her own chocolate bar.

"Yeah," Alice said, coming back in the room and sitting on one of the other couches, "And you just keep stealing. You couldn't wait to pocket them damn candy bars we found at the gas station a few miles down the road. Yankees just have to take everything they can from us poor Southern folk."

They both laughed, warmly and Wendy finally relaxed a bit. Tim wasn't right about everything, she thought to herself.

"Three years by yourself," Alice finally said after she'd grabbed another candy bar from Angela's pack without asking. She put her own backpack by her feet and started to take her gun apart, getting ready to clean it, Wendy thought.

"No," Wendy said quietly. She was kind of amazed at how loud and boisterous these two women were. She had talked quietly since The Fall, hoping that if she was quiet enough, none of the zombies would find her. It was irrational to think so, and she knew it was irrational, but it was hard to let it go. "I had someone else here until a couple of weeks ago. He got bit and..." she trailed off, lost in thought about Tim again.

Angela moved over and put a hand on her knee, "I'm sorry, girl. That's got to be pretty bad."

She wiped away the start of tears and said, "It's just so strange. We worked so hard to get this place all together and set up. We made it this far and he dies because some fucking zombie bit him because we weren't paying attention outside the gate. It should have been something big, like fighting off a whole horde of them, not some stupid little mistake."

Angela gave a reassuring smile, "This whole thing is probably because of a stupid little mistake. We're still around though. I saw you had cages of bunnies, want to show us how you turn them into dinner?"

Wendy smiled and felt hungry again, putting Tim's last wheezing breaths out of her mind, "Yeah. It'll be dark soon, and I don't think I want to try to fumble around out there in the dark."

 

The three of them spent the next week together, talking, working the garden to gather up food, and taking care of the rabbits. There were no further zombie attacks on the fence that week, and over time, Wendy felt more relaxed and started speaking louder. By the end of the week, Angela and Alice said that they didn't have to lean in to hear her any more.

The sixth day they were there, Alice and Angela left to go hunting, and came back a few hours later with a pig carcass. They both knew how to render it down and showed Wendy how to prepare it for storage so that they wouldn't have to kill any of the rabbits for a few weeks.

That night, they decided to sit outside by the fire they were using to roast one of the large pork loins into the night. Alice dug a firepit and Angela set everything up for the roast, saying she had been in charge of things like that at her sorority before The Fall. After the meal, they stayed outside, sitting around the fire. When Wendy started to clean things up, Alice said, "Forget that. We'll take care of it tomorrow. The least we can do is clean up from the party, since you provided the house and the food for the last week."

Angela had laid down on the ground and had her sleeping bag as a makeshift backrest as she poked at the dying fire with a long stick, "Yeah, I'm surprised you let us in. Most homers tend to tell travelers to move along. Worried they'll take stuff or worse."

"Tim used to tell me that when people would come by, but I always thought he was just paranoid," Wendy said, sitting on the ground crosslegged. "I mean, we have enough to deal with without having to worry about the living trying to kill us."

Alice laid flat on her back and stared up at the stars. She was quiet for the most part, letting Angela do most of the talking and this time was no different. Angela shifted to be more comfortable before she said anything again, "I think people will always find a reason to hate each other. It's what they do."

"No," Wendy replied, "I think people are basically good."

"People are basically animals," Alice said, not opening her eyes, "If they are hungry, they'll do anything they can to get food. Then they want to be safe. Everything else comes from when they have those two things. I've seen things that made me think that people are no better or worse than a pack of hungry dogs. It's why we don't stay in one place very long."

"I wanted to ask about that," Wendy said, not wanting in argue, "Where are you two headed?"

Angela laughed, "That is a matter of debate. I think we ought to head to Canada. Rumors are that they stuck together up there, and the government killed off the zombies during the winter when they froze. Some people believe that they just cut themselves off from the US so that they wouldn't have a bunch of us flooding the border. Even if it isn't true, it's beautiful up there, and they get 4 months without zombies."

"You are a back-bacon eating psycho," Alice said, "if their government is still around, had the power to do that, and was able to keep it a secret for the past 5 years by telling people not to talk on the radio, do you think they'd let us in? They probably have guards at the border if they are still around. If they don't, its no better than here. I say we keep moving until we find a colony that's not full of whack jobs."

"Colony?" Wendy asked.

"Yeah," Alice continued, her southern drawl stronger than it normally was, a sign she was getting sleepy, "we lived in a place a little outside of Oklahoma City until they started to become convinced that if they just believed in God a lot harder, the zombies would go away. I knew Chocolate Bar over there, but when they started having prayer meetings out by the fences every morning, I made friends with everyone who skipped the meetings. It didn't take them long to start claiming that some people didn't believe enough, and if they just got rid of them, God would resume his protection of them. We took off one night with about five other people and headed North before they decided to start looking for witches.

"Then, we spent another year with a smaller group of people who had taken over a housing development about 100 miles away. They started getting into some weird kind of paganism where they believed in all of these ancient gods because nothing else seemed to work."

"What White Trash is saying is that we don't much fit in anywhere," Angela said, "And I don't much know how to keep my mouth shut. People start talking crazy, I have the poor taste to tell them they are fucked in the head."

"I had no idea people were getting so crazy," Wendy said, "we just set up this place so that we wouldn't have to worry about the outside world. Tim said that if we just took care of ourselves, we wouldn't have to worry about the crap that was happening in cities during The Fall. We'd both been with other people, doing the same sort of thing...and I got sick of running."

"I hear you there," Angela said, "We haven't this much time anywhere in a good, long while. It's nice to relax. But weren't you worried that you might run out of supplies?"

"Nah," Wendy said, getting up to throw another huge piece of wood on the fire to keep it going. The night had a chill to it, and without the fire she would have needed a jacket. But as it was, she liked the mix of the chill night air and the warmth of the fire, "We had this whole area scouted out. Southerners were ready for The Fall. For a lot of them, they wanted it. They liked the idea of civilization going away so they didn't have anyone telling them what to do. They liked the supplies they got from the government, but didn't want to give a damn thing back. This way, they could fill their basements with government food and then lock their doors and shoot anything that came around.

"Anyway, we mapped out all the houses within two days walk and wrote up anything they had in their houses we could use. Some of it wee brought back, the rest we sort to hid near the house to use as caches. That's where we got all the tools, cots and stuff to start the garden."

"What about the bunnies?" Angela said, giving herself rabbit ears with her fingers behind her head.

"That was his idea. He didn't want to have to hunt wild game, so we trapped a bunch of them, built hutches and started breeding. It's a bit sick, but they are pretty easy to take care of. He wanted to try and raise bees for the honey, but we didn't know about them to start a colony," Wendy thought about Tim again, and how much they had gone through. Only a couple of years, but it felt like lifetimes.

"You need to get out of here," Alice said. "Y'all are gonna go nuts here by yourself, and it's gonna be hard finding another man out here in the boonies."

"Yeah," Angela said, "You should come along with us. Fix the house up so all the good stuff is safe in the basement for some other poor bitch who finds it, and come along up North with us."

"Aren't you two..." Wendy trailed off, not wanting to come right out and say what she was thinking.

"You think we're muff divers?" Alice said, laughing. Angela burst out laughing. She was so loud Wendy could hear it echo off of the house. Angela clutched her stomach and rolled onto her back as Alice sat up, "Honey, I don't know how to break it to you, but I'm all about the cock. Pickin's may be slim, but I still got it going on. No man can resist me." She ran her hands through her short, spiky hair, "And if they do, I kick their ass until they think better of it."

"Damn Skippy," Angela added, "that was the worst part of leaving the last place. Those pagan men know how to fuck. I just wish I could have talked a couple of them into coming with us."

Wendy put her head down, blushing. Tim and her had had a very active sex life, but they never talked about it.

Alice stopped laughing, but still had a huge grin on her face, and Wendy realized that if she would have had access to all the things women used to make themselves attractive before The Fall, she would have been a very dangerous knockout. When Alice spoke, her voice was as feminine as Wendy had ever heard it, "Oh, we could tell you stories, girl. Chocolate Bar and I had one guy who we decided we were going to see if we could kill with kindness. She'd get him during the day, and then I'd come around at night and see if I could get him to stay.."

She paused and then her and Angela said it at the same time, "Up! All! Night!"

They collapsed into laughter and shared stories about men until the fire died out, then went into the house to get some sleep.

The next morning, the house felt different to Wendy, more friendly. She was a bit ashamed she had just assumed that when Angela and Alice were together, she assumed they were...well, Together. She was the first one up, and started a fire in the stove to start work on frying the fresh bacon they had put away the night before. Angela was the next one up, and she came up from the basement looking like she'd been up for hours getting perky.

 

"Look at you," Angela said, big smile on her face, "making breakfast and being all domestic. What, are you wanting to be someone's wife?

Wendy put her head down and smiled again, hoping she wasn't blushing, "No, I just though that if I was up early, I might as well...get things going."

"I was serious last night you know," Angela said, grabbing some plates and starting to set the table to help out, "You should come along with us. There's really no reason to stay here."

"Yes there is. It's safe. There aren't a lot of zombies around here anymore, the few that do show up can't get past the fence, and I know where there is more than enough food for the rest of my life."

"I suppose," Angela said, sitting down at the table, "if you want to grow old and die here all alone, hiding from everything. There's aren't a whole lot of zombies anywhere anymore. They stick to the cities for the most part, and a lot of them got killed during the last battles. Alice and I see maybe three or four a week while we travel. Yeah, when we hit cities for supplies, we have to put up a fight, but for the most part, it's a quiet world out there."

"Then why not just settle down?"

"You didn't listen at all last night, did you."

"Of course I did," Wendy said, starting to get angry, "You two are going to wander around, have no idea where you are headed and maybe if you're lucky, find something to do with yourselves."

You heard, but you didn't listen. We're free. We didn't have to stay in the colony that went religious, we didn't have to stay with the people who thought they could use magic, we didn't have to stay with a man just because he was a good lay. We can go anywhere we want, do anything we want, and as long as we deal with the consequences of it, we don't have to answer to anyone. The world is ours. We can either explore it and see all the things we didn't do because we were too busy working, and worrying and trying to get married or hide away in some house and be thankful that no one can find us."

Angela leaned back in her chair and put a foot onto another chair to balance herself, "I don't' know about you, but I want to be free. Maybe we'll find a better place. Maybe Canada does still have civilization. Maybe it'll all suck and we come back here and be rabbit farmers."

"And maybe we die and become one of those things," Wendy said flatly, putting the fried bacon on a plate to cool and grabbing a pair of tomatoes to cut up for sandwiches.

"Maybe," Angela said, "It's hard to say. But at least you get to be free. When civilization fell, it freed us. No more jobs, no more bosses, no more society. We get to decide what we want to do now. I think you should come along with us. You're smart, you're funny and you know your way around a weapon. The more the merrier when you're out there." She paused, and then set the chair back down on the floor, "Besides, how long do you think you can live alone without going nuts. If things don't work out, you can always come back here. And who knows, maybe you'll meet a man you want to drag back here by the hair."

Wendy smiled at that and put the food she'd prepared on the table. Rather than a tradition bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, she had cut up her own food and was eating it putting in on a freshly made biscuit. Angela laughed, "Girl, you're too lazy to make a sandwich? I don't know about you."

They ate quietly, making sure not to wake Alice up, who was always an utter bitch when she got up.

When they finished, Angela started to grab the plates and put them in the sink when Wendy said, "When are you two leaving?"

Angela shrugged, "Not sure. Since Alice was talking about it last night, I'd imagine she wants to be going in the next couple of days. She gets pretty antsy when she starting thinking about going."

"Would you two help me get the house secured and make sure that if things don't work, I could come back?"

Angela nodded and it was decided. Wendy looked around the house for what felt like the last time, hoping that she hadn't done the dumbest thing in her life.

* * *

 

Mark had been walking for over a week when he saw the caravan. He was headed for a house north of where he was staying, hoping to find a place to hold up for the approaching winter, and stayed away from the roads and highways for the most part. He was in Arkansas somewhere and had to cross one of the interstates. Fucking interstates.

Interstates were like cities, without the buildings. People tended to use them for travel, and zombies did the same. Mark tended to go in straight lines through the woods, since it gave him a bit of an advantage. Zombies weren't real big on stealth. They were a lot better at the putting their arms out and walking in the direction of whatever they wanted to kill and eat. Made it hard to sneak about in the woods when you are tramping about on all the underbrush.

He'd found a few houses he was able to secure himself in to sleep at night, but the trip so far had not been a very good one. None of the houses had any supplies in them, and he was going through the food he had in his backpack faster than he wanted. He'd hunted some small game, but for the most part, he was eating MREs and whatever fruit he could find.

He was near the interstate when he heard people. A lot of people off in the distance. Arkansas interstates were flat for the most part, and it was east to see for miles, but since he was sticking to the woods, he wasn't able to see very far, maybe only a half mile. He hid in the woods to watch and wait, and as they approached, it was a caravan, the likes of which he had never seen.

They approached slowly, probably over 100 of them. Some walking, some riding horses, and a few in cars being pulled by horses. They were dressed simply, no rags, but t-shirts and jeans. As they got closer, he saw it was people of all kinds, young, old, black, white...a mix like he'd never seen. The few groups of people he'd seen after The Fall were all racially pure. He always thought it was because the white people didn't want to be around black people, and the blacks didn't mind not having to put up with pissed off white people very much.

The singing continued, and it sounded almost like a hymn. Must be a bunch of Christers, he thought to himself and made sure he couldn't' be seen from the road. Then, as they drew closer, he was able to make out what they were singing. It was the old song "My Way."

They started passing him by and he could hear the lyrics loud and strong, and he couldn't help it. His curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to come out of the woods. He slipped through the fence that had been erected years ago along both sides of the road and started walking up the hill to the interstate.

His feet crunched in the gravel and slowly, the people stopped singing and looked over at him. What they saw probably wasn't very pretty. He hadn't taken a bath in the past three days due to the lack of decent water, and was wearing full out camouflage that he'd picked up in the last safe house he'd been in. He gave up shaving a few years before and his beard was dark, his hair was long and unkempt, and he was about 6 foot tall. He had a backpack slung over both shoulders and was carrying a fully loaded M-16.

One of the ones in the lead of the caravan stepped forward and said, "Hold on, friend." He was older, probably in his 50's, and had dark black hair, a hard face with a prominent nose and an almost kindly look on his face.

Mark stopped and put the nose of the rifle pointing down, making sure to try and look as non-threatening as he could.

"Do you want something from us?" the older man said.

"No," Mark said, loudly so that the people toward the back of the group could hear as well, "I'm just a traveler and wanted to know who you people were and where you were going."

"We're going to Graceland," the man said simply.

"Graceland?" Mark replied.

"Graceland. Graceland, Memphis Tennessee. We're all going to Graceland."

He looked at them, poor boys and pilgrims with families, and they were going to Graceland. "Why Graceland?" he asked.

"Because that's is where the King is from. He rose from the dead before this plague, and we have heard he will return there when it is time for us to be delivered from this plague."

Mark looked up and down the caravan and saw that no one was laughing. They took this seriously. They really thought that Elvis Presley, the man who recorded Hound Dog and made the movie Viva Las Vegas was some sort of religious symbol. He thought about it very hard for a couple of minutes and then said, "I think I'm going to be traveling with you people."

They welcomed him gladly and continued down the interstate, this time singing "Blue Suede Shoes."

Interlude Two

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