The horrors of the past meet the brutality of the present.
He felt their fear with an intimacy that was all too common in this new age. Stirring memories of his own early childhood, of panicked flight through dark passages that led to a lone house decaying at the edge of an overgrown field that had overwhelmed a once manicured lawn. He moaned as the image of that house flashed through his thoughts and he knelt down to disguise the sudden weakness in his knees. He couldn’t let the others see his fear. He slipped off his battered felt hat and wiped his brow, the sun warm against his closely cropped scalp.
On the ground all around him were the signs of their passage. An overturned rock here, the shaft of a weed bent at an unnatural angle there, a pile of decaying leaves disturbed by hurried steps. Small signs that taken alone meant very little, but when added to the others scattered about wrote a tale of hurried desperation.
The children had been taken in the night, whisked away from the only safety they had ever known, four of them led away by others who had sought refuge in the compound where they lived. Using their young age to gain entry where they would have otherwise been denied. Their story was written in the sign he had been following. Beyond the fence they had been joined by a larger group and together they set out to the East.
What purpose would they serve?
They were reasonable questions that naturally led to the last.
Were they still alive?
The answers lay somewhere to the East, beneath darkening clouds that carried the promise of rain. With the rain their trail would fade, just as they would eventually fade into the mists of obscurity. Forgotten by all but a few who would carry the spark of what they once were to the silent grave of their own death.
Unless they were successful.
He knew none of the children personally, but had seen each of them from time to time in the compound. Quiet and studious, young faces marred by the harsh reality of the times in which they lived. Four young boys with their whole lives ahead of them. They were the hope of man’s future, fulfilling the promise that life would go on, maybe harsh at time, but resolute in its ambition to survive.
What purpose would they serve? The question returned and he pushed it aside, not wanting to follow what it implied to its logical conclusion. The world was a brutal place, and he had experienced that brutality first hand, as a child himself. It was this knowledge that drove him, that and a desire to protect other children from what he had endured. One thing he had learned was it was always the weakest that suffered the most at the hands of those they trusted. Those least able to defend themselves would always be targeted by the stronger. It was the nature of the world in which they lived.
Pushing aside these thoughts, knowing they would lead to a dark and dangerous place, he focused instead on reading the sign that lay around him. Meat knew what to look for. Years of exploring the forests around the compound where he lived, coupled with knowledge gained in the years leading up to his arrival, was now serving him well. His trained eye easily picked out the details of their flight as the group of frightened children struggled to keep up with their captors whose long strides had forced them to practically run. It was easy to differentiate between the two. The captors wore soft soled shoes if they wore anything at all, several were clearly barefoot, while their captives, the children, wore sturdy boots that left clear tracks in the overgrown gravel roadbed.
They weren’t that far behind, and they needed to hurry while the trail was still fresh, but they still had to be cautious. In this new age death lurked at every turn, hidden behind every bend in the trail they followed. For all he knew they were waiting for them ahead, hidden in the shadows of the forest, ready to cut them down as they passed.
His shadow stretched out before him as the sun continued its daily trek to the west, his shadow pointing East, into an unknown world. There were a few hours left before the night forced them to stop and make camp, time better spent closing the distance between them and their quarry.
To his left a riotous explosion of green overwhelmed the chill of winters past with springs promise of rebirth. Confirmation that life would go on no matter what, following the cycles of the seasons that had taken the place of the calendars of old. The days were no longer measured in weeks, or months, but by the coming and going of the sun and moon, and the passing of the seasons.
Standing up Meat brushed off his knees and looked back at the three who had joined him.
Window had settled into a kneeling position, fading as best he could into the trees along his side of the overgrown railroad tracks. His features hidden in the shadows beneath the wide brimmed hat as he watched the trail. All of them wore the same type of hat, a battered felt affair that had seen better days, but just like a favorite shirt, it suited them, and helped keep the sun out of their eyes. It was a part of the uniform they wore, for lack of a better term as they were all dressed alike. Cargo pants for the over sized pockets in which to carry all manner of necessary gadgets, boots with the pants leg bloused above to help protect against snakebites.
Ten yards behind Window, on the opposite side of the railroad tracks, Einstein let his over sized pack fall to the ground with a muted crash before following himself with a loud groan. Meat and the other two were more familiar with being outside the fence and as such they traveled light, carrying just the bare necessities, a sleeping blanket or two, a change of clothes, ammunition, and of course food in the form of deer jerky and several potatoes. The rest they took from the land around them. Supplementing their diet with natures bounty.
This was Einstein’s first trip beyond the fence he had been born behind, and it showed. Not only in the size of the pack he carried, which had been considerably lightened the morning of their second day when he abandoned his tent, but by his very appearance. Where the others were slender from years of doing without as they struggled to survive in this new age, Einstein still carried a bit of the baby fat from his youth, giving him a pudginess the others lacked.
Meat sighed as he shook his head, being the tallest of the four, as well as the oldest, had earned him his place as their leader. He kept his sandy colored hair cropped close just like the others, more a necessity than a choice in this grimy world, as short hair made it more difficult for lice to establish a foothold.
Twenty yards behind Einstein, Billie-Bob, the youngest member of the group, casually strolled along the railroad tracks with practiced, ease. The edge of the long canvas jacket he wore dancing round his legs. His head bouncing up and down to a beat only he could hear, the brim of his hat responding to the movement of his head. He moved with a predatory grace the others lacked. In sharp contrast to this economy of motion his mouth was running a mile a minute as he recited a monologue that only he was privy to, completely unaware that the others had stopped.
“Billie-Bob,” Meat shouted as he walked towards him.
Billie-Bob jumped, startled from his thoughts, his young face breaking into a wide smile when he saw Meat approaching. He was only eleven yet he possessed an ability that by its nature made him a loner. He had proven to be a natural born sniper with a target sense that made hitting practically any target second nature. No matter the distance, whether moving or stationary, he seemed to know right where to place the cross hairs for a kill shot.
It was a talent that had proven quite useful for keeping the meat lockers full of all manner of wild game. But the quarry they sought now was far more dangerous than any of the wildlife they had so far encountered. Meat worried if he was up to the task. It was one thing to drop a fleeing deer, quite another to pull the trigger on a human being, and the walking dead didn’t count as everyone shot at them.
“Kapitan,” Billie-Bob said as he snapped to attention and whipped his hand around into a quick salute. The smile, though open and friendly, failed to reach eyes that carried a preternatural stillness. Eyes that had seen more than a child his age should have witnessed. They all carried that same look, a careworn expression, a thousand yard stare so out of place on faces so young.
“What did I ask you to do?” Meat said, as he got closer.
Billie-Bob’s eyes widened as he quickly looked around, becoming aware of their location, “watch our rear?” he said.
“And what are you doing?”
Billie-Bob rolled his eyes as he looked over Meats shoulder at Einstein who was watching from his reclining position. “I thought I was watching our rear?”
“You have to look behind us every once in a while, make sure no one’s sneaking up on us.”
“Right, got it, I’ll take care of that. Hey did I ever tell you about the zombie that went to the whorehouse?” Billie-Bob said with a snicker.
“Only about a hundred times,” Meat said as he shook his head.
“He wanted his money back because he couldn’t get it up, he had DD, a dead dick.” Billie-Bob finished with a guffaw, “get it? Dead dick.” He slapped Meat on the shoulder as he bent over with a hearty laugh.
Meat shrugged and walked away as Billie-Bob slapped his own knees in merriment. It was the only thing he could do. He’d known Billie-Bob for several years now and if anything could be said about the young man it was he had scripted his own life. Like the rest of them, with the exception of Einstein, Billie-Bob and his twin brother had just shown up outside the fence one morning. No one knew where they came from, or what circumstances had brought them to this isolated place, and they weren’t sharing. Some things were just too painful to talk about and deserved to be left in the desert of the past, to wither away to nothing, unfortunately sometimes the past had a way of suddenly rearing up and biting one on the ass.
Meats own journey to Bremo Bluff, or The Bluff, as they liked to call it, had been one fraught with danger and terror that lurked around every bend in the path that ended at the co-generation plant on the bank of the James River.
“Everything all right?” Meat said as he gave Einstein a hand getting back to his feet.
Einstein nodded; sweat stained the collar of his shirt, darkening the fabric beneath his armpits. He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “How much longer?” he said.
“Another two, three hours before we call it a night,” Meat said, the look of dismay on Einstein’s face telling him all he needed to know. While he had a tremendous amount of respect for what Einstein knew, it was obvious he had spent more time with the books. He was soft, but this little trip would toughen him up.
“Are you getting enough water?”
Einstein nodded as he put his hand on Meat’s shoulder. “I want to thank you for letting me come along, but man, this trip is killing me.
“You’ll be all right,” Meat said as he turned to resume his place at point, stopping briefly next to Window who was watching the trail ahead.
Billie-Bob had resumed his monologue and Window shook his head as the ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of lips not accustomed to any measure of gaiety. “Does he ever shut up?” His hand rested on the butt of the revolver protruding from the leather holster slung low on his hip. He was the quiet one of the group, always watching, aware of his surroundings at all times. The intricately carved .44 resting in the holster a necessary companion.
“Only when he’s sleeping.”
“Well he better, or I’ll make him set up camp a mile away from the rest of us.”
Meat rested his hand on Window’s shoulder. “We’re gonna have to pick up the pace, the sign is still strong but I don’t want to give it a chance to get washed away.” Meat’s gaze drifted to the darkening clouds to the East. A storm was brewing, the dense black clouds piling up in the distance. As if that part of the world was angry at their intrusion.
They set out, Einstein groaning as he shouldered his burden once again, and Meat picked up the pace as he raced the brewing storm ahead of them.
Fourteen years earlier the world had changed when a mutated virus reanimated the recently deceased. Their numbers quickly multiplied as the living population was caught off guard, especially in the cities where the walking dead ruled and the options for those left alive quickly dwindled. When it seemed all hope was lost the process of decay began thinning the ranks of the zombies as muscle and flesh fell prey to the natural process.
Yet even as their ranks thinned death strode among the living, creating reinforcements for the dwindling masses of the undead that had severely cut the world’s population. In this new reality, standard medical care was a thing of the past as hospitals and clinics were quickly overwhelmed in the initial outbreak. Even the simplest of cuts could become a death sentence if not immediately taken care of.
The virus was still present. Where it came from and how it spread were still mysteries as the greatest minds had been overwhelmed in the initial outbreaks. Mankind had been pushed to the brink of extinction, yet he continued the struggle to survive in this new world.
The hordes of the undead had diminished as the process of decay followed its natural course. But new deaths occurred daily, adding to the ranks of the walking dead, unless certain precautions were taken. The recently deceased had to be decapitated, and the brains destroyed to keep the virus from reanimating them. Fire was the preferred method as it served to kill the virus as well, but any means that completely destroyed the brain was acceptable.
They had come from Bremo Bluff. The Bluffs, as it was known, where a coal powered co-generation plant on the north bank of the James River supplied the local population with electricity. Until the outbreak it had been connected to the national electrical grid. In the early days those with foresight had taken charge, cutting the connection with the grid and saving the plant as they established a fenced compound around Bremo Bluff. Two of its four turbines were still coal fired so when the flow of natural gas ended they simply switched to coal.
Knowing that their odds of survival over the long haul were tied to their population they welcomed survivors with open arms. As the population grew, the number of skilled workers increased, adding to the availability of safe housing and hand made products that helped make daily life a little easier. The growing population, while putting a strain on local resources, provided ample manpower to staff scavenger crews who would scour the world beyond the fence, making contact with other camps and establishing trade for those things they lacked. Every direction they explored had proven fruitful with the exception of anything to the East. Over the past four years three crews had vanished into the unknown country that lay between their compound and the Atlantic ocean. An area modern man had inhabited the longest.
Based on the map he carried, the city of Richmond, which had once been the capitol of Virginia, lay to the East. It was the direction the trail they followed ran. Vanishing into the growing night as towering storm clouds piled up in the distance, with brief flashes of lightning illuminating their swollen depths as the scent of freshly fallen rain was carried on a steady breeze. Another smell intruded, teasing him with its familiarity before vanishing completely, only to return stronger than before.
Meat lifted his hand, calling a halt as he slowly lowered himself to a kneeling position. The others stopped in their tracks, with Window slowly dropping into a kneeling position so as to offer as little a target as possible to any potential marksmen hidden ahead of them. Einstein and Billie-Bob stood where they stopped, their heads on a swivel as they looked around.
Meat motioned for them to move up to his position.
Einstein and Window knelt down on either side of Meat as Billie-Bob watched over his shoulder.
“Can you smell that?” Meat said.
The others sniffed at the air.
“Wood smoke,” Window said and Meat nodded in response.
“I’ve been catching whiffs of it for the past half hour, it comes and goes on the breeze, but its growing stronger, so we’re getting closer to whoever it is.”
“Are we catching up with them?” Einstein said.
“Where’s it coming from?” Billie Bob said.
Meat held up his hand and sniffed at the air, his actions reminiscent of a predator searching out its prey. He stood and turned in a slow circle, his eyes closed, as he sampled the air. Fresh and sweet, with just a hint of decay from the nearby river, an ever-present mustiness that accompanied the slow moving waters. The cleansing effects of Mother Nature had washed away the old smells, the ones he had grown up with.
Yet their memory lingered, that ever present stench of rotting flesh, of decay and destruction that had become an integral part of his childhood memories. It was an odor he would never forget. He caught another whiff of the wood smoke filtered through the trees, carried on a gentle breeze that stirred the leaves around them.
“To the North,” he said as he opened his eyes and moved towards the dense forest that crowded close to either side of the old railroad tracks they had been following. It had been fourteen years since they had been last maintained; hell it had been just as long since anything had really been looked after, and Mother Nature was slowly reclaiming what was once hers. Yet even though it was overgrown, with trees sprouting up where once there had been none, the path the old railroad tracks followed was still obvious, a healing scar on a wild world.
“Cover our rear,” Einstein said before he turned and followed Meat into the forest. Billie-Bob glanced left and then right, his mouth working silently as he mimicked Einstein’s words.
“Always telling me what to do,” Billie-Bob said as he gazed at the forest and whispered to himself, “they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” With a final look behind him, he too vanished into the forest.
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