Authors: Scott Nicholson
When massive solar flares wipe
out the technological infrastructure and kills billions, Rachel Wheeler sets
out across the Appalachian Mountain wilderness in search of her notorious
grandfather’s survival compound.
By Scott Nicholson
Tao of Boo newsletter
Copyright ©2014 Scott Nicholson
end of the world had taught Rachel Wheeler many lessons, but the most recent
one was this:
for your life was a bitch when you only had one leg.
tightened the moist, stained bandana that kept the worst of the leaking to a
minimum, then hobbled forward another ten feet. The wild dog that had bitten
her could have inflicted any number of infections, but it wasn’t like she could
hobble into the ER and have modern medicine deal with it. In After, there were
no insurance plans.
leaned against a tree, its rough bark rubbing her spine as she sneaked a look
down the forested slope. The Blue Ridge Mountains were sheathed in October’s
mellow gold, but the leaves were steadily raining down in the breeze as the
forest braced for winter’s sleep.
couldn’t see them, but she could hear them. Their footfalls were heavy in the
crisp leaves, as if the Zapheads had no awareness of the noise they were
making. Stephen was higher up the ridge, making better time than she was, but
the boy had stopped to wait for her.
dude better start listening if he wants to make it out of this alive.
she could understand his hesitation. Without her, he’d be all alone, lost in
the woods with no food, no destination, and no way to fend off the Zaps. They’d
made it two weeks since the gas-station explosion, hoping DeVontay Jones would
catch up to them. But now Stephen believed he was dead, and Rachel’s little
motivational speeches were becoming more hollow and halfhearted by the hour.
that it would be a problem for much longer, because this was looking like her
not seen a Zaphead for two days, ever since leaving the highway and taking the Old Turnpike Road, a winding dotted line on the map that promised few houses and even fewer
murderous mutants. The bite wound on Rachel’s left calf had gotten steadily
worse, passing from mere red irritation to a festering purple mess. The stuff
coming out of it now was more pus than blood, and although she’d packed it with
antibiotic ointment she’d found in an abandoned farmhouse, the infection had
now caused a mild fever.
a fiery volcano of agony with each step.
lost the pistol DeVontay had given her, but she’d found another in the house
they’d slept in two nights before. It was heavy and shiny and had probably
never been fired. The bullets in the revolver’s chamber were fatter than what
she was used to, so she assumed it would pack a hefty kick. But she hadn’t had
a chance for target practice.
fished it from her pack and leaned more heavily against the tree, taking some
of the weight off her injured leg. If she fired the gun, Zapheads would come
from miles around. The weapon was a last resort. Five down, and the last bullet
She’d never kill herself. She’d already faced that demon. And she’d promised to
live for Chelsea, the younger sister she’d lost to drowning. Stephen was
counting on her, too.
DeVontay’s out there somewhere…
came an insistent whisper.
squinted through the trees above for Stephen. Finally she spotted him in a
golden copse of poplar saplings, his brown jacket blending in with the fall
foliage. “I told you to keep moving.”
Wheeler’s camp can’t be too far. Find the parkway and walk until you see
scanned the woods below, his face pale. “What if
meant the Zapheads. They didn’t talk of them much, Rachel reinforcing the
idyllic life they’d have once they reached the Wheeler Compound, and Stephen
only too eager to buy into the fantasy after the horrible death of his mother.
she whispered. “I’m coming.”
gave one last glance down the slope. Branches moved, and then a figure shambled
out into the open. It was partially nude, long hair and grime rendering it
sexless. It didn’t seem to be moving toward them, but that didn’t mean
anything. Zapheads had senses that operated beyond the human plane, like a
cat’s range of night vision or a dog’s sense of smell. Rachel had wondered if
Zapheads were telepathic, but she’d been too frightened to test the theory. But
she was positive they were changing—becoming something different with each
slipped her revolver back into the pack, not letting Stephen see it. She left
the pack open in case she needed to retrieve the weapon quickly. The Zaphead
was at least a hundred yards away, already lost among the thick gray trunks of
poplar and birch, as she took a step and grimaced at the pain. Her lips
twitched upward into a faint smile so that Stephen wouldn’t worry.
turned back uphill and started walking. His green backpack was perched high on
his shoulders, the weight adjusted for balance. The boy had toughened up
considerably since his first days with Rachel. Of course, DeVontay deserved a
great deal of the credit for that, but she was proud nonetheless. These days,
you counted whatever small victories you could.
kept moving, only limping when Stephen wasn’t looking, and soon they moved
among large gray boulders pocked with moss. There were fewer trees here, the
rocky soil making a graveyard of the ridge line. Juice leaked from Rachel’s
wound and dripped down her leg, soaking her wool sock. She could smell it—a
rancid, sweet stench that both sickened and scared her.
didn’t talk, Stephen keeping a brisk pace and not letting her lag too far
behind. His backpack bobbed as he marched onward, and he didn’t slow until the
ridge leveled off. A second wave of mountains rose beyond them to the northwest,
grayer from lack of leaves, the evening’s shadow already passing across their
few tin roofs were visible among the trees of the surrounding hillsides, and
the little town of Black Rock lay fifteen miles off their path. There, she
would be able to find antibiotics and proper dressing for her wounds, but she
didn’t want to detour that far from the direct path to Milepost 291.
we stop a sec?” Rachel asked with a gasp, unable to fully hide the whine in her
voice. She realized she’d subconsciously passed the baton of leadership to
Stephen. Considering he was only ten, that was a little pathetic.
studied her and nodded. She bit back a groan as she sat on a rock and
straightened her injured leg.
do we do when it gets dark?” he asked.
can crawl into some of these big rocks, like over there where there’s a cleft.”
sun gilded the clouds and poured red lava over the tops of the mountains as it
set in the west. This was all the sun’s fault in the first place—starting with
its heating of the primordial soup, sparking the bacterial activity that led to
evolution, and then capping off the job by spitting its toxic solar flares
across the sky. Those rays had sent their electromagnetic currents into the
brains of living creatures, disrupting the wiring and killing billions. Those
deaths had been merciful compared to what had happened to the Zapheads, but the
few survivors had it even worse—vastly outnumbered, their world shattered, and
their future offering little hope.
cold isn’t so bad,” she said.
least half an hour of daylight remained, but Rachel needed to take the weight
off her leg. She stooped and picked up a fallen limb, testing its strength. It
bent under her weight but didn’t snap. The makeshift crutch could stand to be a
little shorter, but if she broke it, the noise might alert the Zapheads that
shambled through the forest. So she tucked the thicker end inside her elbow and
angled it against her shoulder and spider-walked forward.
granite shelves were gray-rimmed and smooth, caught in the epochal upheaval and
slide of geology. Seeing the massive rocks as grit in the hourglass of time,
Rachel understood how foolish her perception of Before had been: a world where
school counselors could quietly make a difference in the life of a child, where
the stock market always rose, where civilization marched inexorably toward
enlightenment and peace. The turbulent physics of the universe put that
deception to rest in a flash.
DeVontay going to find us?” Stephen asked. “We’re way far off the map.”
smart. He’ll figure it out.”
we should have left him a trail of breadcrumbs, like in ‘Hansel and Gretel.’”
if Zapheads like bread?”
probably too dumb to walk in a straight line. You saw how they burned
themselves to death at that gas station.”
images had seared themselves into Rachel’s brain forever. After one had touched
the flames, the others followed, eventually immolating themselves in a massive
bonfire of human barbecue. The oily stench still clung to the lining of
Rachel’s nasal passages. They said scent was the most evocative of the senses,
and Rachel wished she could flush that memory out in a trail of snot and
like children,” Rachel said. “Monkey see, monkey do.”
we can teach them to not kill us.”
wanted to lay some counselor hoodoo on him, bullshit phrases like “Celebrate
diversity” and “Live and let live,” but she was too tired. “That might be a big
job. The best thing we can do is get to Milepost 291. Grandpa will know how to
deal with it, and there may be other people there. And DeVontay knows we’re
heading that way.”
of them, so large that it created a clearing, was a massive protrusion of
stone, rising like a temple. The sun spilled across the top of it, where scrub
vegetation and lichen clung in patches. A black shadow beneath it suggested an
opening that might be deep enough to shelter them for the night.
try that,” she said, pointing at the cleft with her crutch.
spooky,” Stephen said. “Why don’t we look for a house?”
about to hit the national park. There won’t be any houses, but we might get
lucky and run into a ranger station or camp site.”
Zapheads are there, and then it won’t be so lucky.”
covey of birds erupted from the nearby treetops, chirping and squawking. As
they fell into a pattern and headed east, their cries were mimicked from the
Zapheads are doing birdcalls
sounds were far enough away to not signal an immediate threat, but they were
chilling nonetheless. Rachel wondered if the birds were in seasonal migration,
or if the electromagnetic storms had disrupted whatever directional sense drove
them to warmer climates each winter.
creepy,” Stephen said as the birds faded into the dusk and the Zapheads fell
least we know where they are,” she said.
slowed as they ascended the hill to the cave, letting Rachel pass him. The bite
wound was leaking more heavily, and the fluid had turned darker. Maybe they
should have risked Black Rock after all. She could have found a pharmacy and
maybe some other survivors. But after their encounter with the rogue soldiers
in Taylorsville, Rachel wasn’t optimistic about the odds of a warm welcome.
Those who’d assumed an idyllic utopia of peaceful co-existence as the fate of
the human race now had evidence of that big fat lie.
of it as camping out,” Rachel said. “Lots of families come to the mountains to get
a taste of the great outdoors.”
we’re not a family.”
thought they were much tighter than a family—they were fellow survivors. “We’re
just happy campers. How’s that?”
tried a smile that wasn’t very happy. “I guess so.”
of the weight, they hadn’t carried any bedding aside from thin blankets wadded
into their packs, along with a few cans of food, energy bars, bottled water, a
few hand tools, and a first-aid kit. Stephen had ditched the comic books for
Lemony Snicket, and Rachel had helped him with some of the longer words. It was
the closest she could get to her old life as a school counselor, although she’d
had plenty of chances to serve as doomsday psychoanalyst.
to the cave, the moist, cool air struck them. It smelled of ancient forest
dirt. Rachel wondered if they would actually get any sleep. They’d have to
huddle together for warmth, and Rachel would drowse restlessly because of the
Zapheads in the forest. But first they would eat their cold rations and she’d tackle
the soggy dressings on her leg.
wait to sit down for a while. This pretending to be brave and strong is getting
cave was only about ten feet deep, the rock sloping back to create a wedge of
dark space. A couple of boulders created a sense of fortifications at the
opening. “Home sweet home,” Rachel said, shucking her backpack and leaning
against one of the boulders.