ZOMBIES AT LONG RANGE
Copyright 2013 Scott Moon
MAX AND HER DOG BOOGIE: 2036 A.D. (9 P.S.Y.)
I kneel before the unimaginable metropolis shining on the hill and lean wearily on my helmet. Tungsten steel and gold alloys reinforce the carbon fiber armor, revealing a fraction of the technology that still amazes me. How did we come from a dystopian nightmare to this technological masterpiece? How did we survive the monsters we created?
My name and rank is Sergeant Bingo Morales of the Long Range Rescue Battalion, whose mother named her only son after a dog from a silly children's song. Thanks mom.
I remember the days before a girl, the daughter of a madly brilliant scientist, nearly destroyed the Consortium of Midwestern Powers for the sake of a simple village. She started a chain of events that led to this towering city where the air is pure as a mother's joy. Her story is my story, and I know it well. Yesterday, or years ago, or a billion lifetimes in the past, she stood on the precipice of Armageddon and changed the course of history. At the time, I thought she just wanted me dead.
* * *
Maxine Pendleton strode down the middle of a weed-choked highway, body armor hanging together with duct tape and bailing wire, helmet long gone, and her faithful dog Boogie trotting on her left. At five feet, two inches, she swaggered like her movie hero and namesake, Mad Max. Spiked hair as short as her chances of survival marked her personality.
She was a lot like that fictitious bad ass, the difference being her dog Boogie was smarter than most canines and survived eighteen months of specialized training. He was certified zombie resistant, just like Max. And she was a cute sixteen-year-old who could shoot, talk trash, and smile simultaneously.
Max wished her Controller had taught her to be people resistant. She tried to avoid zombies and people alike, but they always got through. She had a weak spot for lost causes and brave fools. Boogie had more sense. Blue Heelers were the smartest damn animals the rebel knew.
She couldn't prove it, but was convinced Boogie administered first aid on their last mission. Max had been knocked out, vulnerable, and apparently a great target for an unseen sniper.
Forty-five miles north of the Oklahoma state line, heading through the Flint Hills toward Manhattan, Kansas, Max and Boogie had found trouble. Even before the Survival Years, this area lacked anything like population density. Rocky soil prevented farmers from cultivating fields on the rolling landscape. Over time, this resulted in a scenic landscape infrequently bisected by roads and sporadically dotted with windmills pulling water into cattle troughs. Weeds sprouted through cracks made by tracked vehicles too heavy for the highway's intended purpose.
But armies hadn't moved on this highway for years. Not to fight each other, not to fight genetically designed lycanthropes, and definitely not to eradicate reanimated corpses.
Gently sloping hills stretched to the horizon, occasionally crumbling to reveal a few inches of soil-covered limestone and shale. Sunrise painted the land. Morning mist placed delicate beads of moisture on grass and stone. Crows congregated on a lonely tree a quarter mile east complaining about the flavor of rotten meat in their monosyllabic language.
Caw. Caw. Caw.
Somewhere to the west, a zombie caught in a gully had moaned. Sound traveled a long way on the prairie.
The memory was as real as Max's footsteps. Walking could be lonely business, and she never worried much about daydreaming and remembering, as long as sight, sound, and smell served her in the present.
Sight. Sound. Smell. Three of the big five, though to be straight-up honest, taste and touch were less than ideal for zombie detection.
"What do you think, Boogie. Should we put it out of its misery?"
Boogie had stared back, furrowing his brows. Smart dog, almost human.
Max had climbed the cut hillside where the road twisted north and headed west over grassland. The short prairie scrub didn't grow tall, and Max wasn't worried about being ambushed. That didn't mean she sauntered casually into each eroded creek and gully. Bushes and trees grew in the cracks of the landscape. Enemies could hide here. Max's job was to spot them before it became a matter of life and death.
The moaning zombie stood hunchbacked in the bottom of the defile, completely alone, cursing with damaged vocal cords as cognition came and went. Max moved close. The zombie jerked his head up and stared.
Drawing her long gun over her shoulder, Max edged into the draw that had the stupid creature confused. Closer inspection revealed the source of the zombie's dilemma. His hands were mangled beyond repair and one foot dragged a metal trap of some kind. If he could hold rational thought for even a few minutes, the zombie would've figured a way out. It wasn’t exactly rocket science or nanobiology.
Max waited. The reanimated corpse ambled forward, thirsty for death, but stopped and stared at Max in complete confusion and shock as though seeing her for the first time. She hated when the creatures realized what they were, because sorrow always followed.
"Help me," he said.
Damn zombie eyes could break a girl's heart.
Max slung her rifle over one shoulder and drew a knife. Approaching in a combat stance, she took hold of one wrist in case the zombie became vicious as they were prone to do. At the slightest provocation, she would spin the monster away and proceed directly to plan B. The zombie flinched. Max thrust the blade under his chin, aiming for the spine, uncoiling her arm rapidly until the wrist locked behind the hand, the elbow behind the wrist, the shoulder behind the elbow, and her body behind it all.
"Ki-ai!" She held the thrust a full second, then pulled the weapon back as fast as it had gone out. “Sorry, champ, you’re beyond help.”
The undead walker crumpled. The spot he fell was as good as any for a fire, so Max had stacked dry brush on the twitching corpse and set it ablaze. Then she climbed out of the creek bed.
The ascent was tough. She still didn't remember falling or the gunshot that caused her to tumble twenty feet onto the gravelly soil. Who would launch an ambush with a ranged weapon and how Max survived unconsciousness was a mystery. Had the roles been reversed, Max would have finished what she started.
All she could really say is that she awoke in the leeward shelter of a ridge with pressure bandages against a through-and-through gunshot wound to her thigh. Zombies weren’t the only bears in the woods. Some of the bears carried guns, and didn't appreciate heroes, saints, or the daughters of scientists.
Most people treated the walkers as part of the undead horror show that ravaged the Continental United States for 15 years. Personally, Max thought science explained it all. The zombies seemed dead, especially if you held one by the face and looked in its eyes. The first time Max gazed into the half-rotted iris of a walker, she thought she'd lose her mind to grief. There was a person in there, or the shadow of one at least. Her father never meant for this to happen. He had dreamed of the opposite human condition.
She never believed in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Clause, not for one day, and flat out refused to consider the superstitious fearmonger’s conviction that the zombies were a divine punishment directed at mankind's inability to save the whales or whatever. The rabble-rousers had incomplete information, so it wasn’t their fault, but the pitchfork and torch mobs still made her want to leave. Which she always did.
The real story was worse. No prayer could have stopped it, not when humans had world building in their brains.
Well-intentioned scientists, led by her father, authored mankind's destruction in the form of atom sized lifeguards. Nanomachines designed for medical resuscitation caused the plague. Problem was, the rogue devices went out of control. They existed to reanimate human tissue on a cellular level and did an impressive, if random, job. Sometimes, this created the impression of life.
But it's wasn't.
Zombies in Terror Zone Alpha weren't as dumb as Citizens seemed to believe. The walkers took prisoners. Could mindless freaks do that? Max admitted the documented instances of hostage taking were rare, but she'd seen it. She'd been out there. She'd been out there deep. Halfway to Omaha.
That's where she met Dead Fred, two days after Boogie saved her from the ambush in the gully. The poor bastard didn't talk much since his vocal cords had metastasized out of control. Heat and waste products from the nanomachines that had hijacked his body also mutated his flesh internally, including his throat. But all things considered, Fred wasn't as juicy as the worst of them. It's just that when he talked, it sounded like he might have a football stuck in his craw. A pig skin would go with the Denver Broncos ball cap he prized more than what passed for life in a nanite animated corpse. Fred's only consistent memory was his fanatical dedication to a sports team more extinct than his life.
Hard to say what Fred thought, or if he could think at all. Nanomachines attempted to keep his cells alive but without rhyme or reason. Like other members of the ever growing reanimation community, he revived in bits and pieces. His tissue lived, and even his brain…on good days. He was a big glob of cells and stimulus. Nothing ran smoothly in a zombie. They could be unpredictable; slow or fast, immune to pain or suffering constant agony.
Sometimes, a zombie like Fred reached up through the veil of death and remembered better times. Max had seen mystics and artists with missing jaw bones and holes in their heads. Once, she witnessed a zombie struggling to learn what was wrong with him. Self triage in the hell of half life wasn't a pretty picture. The corpse-scientist experimented with stabbing and burning his fingers, wondering aloud why he couldn't feel pain. When the pain did come, Max put him out of his misery. Boogie had glared as though Max betrayed some universal law of kindness and civility.
What did man’s best friend know about sparing a tormented soul from anguish? Even a brave, happy dog could be judgmental at times.
Dead Fred didn't know why he existed. Sometimes Max wondered the same thing. She knew the Consortium of Midwestern Powers was trying to eradicate the zombie herds between the Rockies and the Appalachians. Who was she to argue with that?
The government had a good idea how to do it, since most of Nebraska and Iowa had been cleared using the same technique. But Max also knew that if someone set off the EMP Counter Zombie Bombs here, then Fred's village of live-humans would be destroyed. And Max would lose her special brand of immunity.
The exact mechanism of the electromagnetic pulse devices was top secret. Evidence suggested there was a bit more radiating from EMP blast sites than advertised. The nanomachines didn't run on batteries. Most used strategically placed larger-than-nanite machines to gather electrical energy from a chemical soup that diluted the host body's slowly coagulating blood. Coagulating until the nanomachines broke down the blood and rebuilt it as new blood. But these little fuel miracles were still not batteries, not really. They did, however, manipulate electricity and neurological impulses.
Flipping the world's largest off switch would destroy ninety percent of the nanomachines infecting the bodies roaming the great plains, except the advanced models relying on photosynthesis for power instead of clusters of two-millimeter power plants the atom sized nanomachines built in the host body's lymph nodes.
Ninety percent wasn't a bad kill ratio, not bad at all. Then again, close only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades. That's what Uncle Marty, USMC retired, said near the end of the Survival Years. Max wasn't a math girl, but was sure this equation left ten percent of the walking dead still functional and massed around a village halfway between Omaha and Manhattan that relied on electronic counter measures for protection.
Boogie claimed there would be enough residual charge left in some bodies to keep the tiny machines functional, which meant they would be able to reproduce and spread to corpses recently deposed of the mechanical micro monsters. The EMP bombs also failed to account for the photosynthetic zombies. So Boogie probably had a point.
Okay, Boogie didn't really say anything. He was just a dog, even if he was a Blue Heeler smart enough to put most people Max knew to shame.
"You thinking about the zombie in the creek?"
"Yeah, me too. Someday you'll have to tell me where the rifle shot came from."
Boogie barked twice and wagged his tail.
"Fred, are you out here?"
* * *
Thank you for reading this Chapter of Zombies at Long Range
By Scott Moon
Author of Dragon Badge, Dragon Attack, and Enemy of Man
(Dragon Badge and Dragon Attack are also available in audio book format.)
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.