Authors: Joseph Talluto
GENERATION DEAD III
Beyond the Gates
Copyright 2015 By Joseph Talluto
“You’re lost, aren’t you?”
“I’m not lost.”
“Just admit it. You’re lost.”
“Are the mountains over there?”
“Were we going to the mountains?”
“Then explain how I could be lost when our vague destination is
“Over there on the
. Should be in front, don’t you think?”
The conversation had been going along these lines for the last three hundred miles. We had started out from our home in Starved Rock, IL and travelled west. We didn’t have any particular destination in mind, we just wanted to get to the mountains and figure out what we were going to do from there. For all I knew, we’d get out of the van, stretch, take in the scenery, and head back home. You never knew what twists my brother would take as his mind slogged to a decision. The good news was his new wife was not above needling him when the chance arose.
new wife Julia was sleeping quietly in the back seat of the van, her light blonde hair falling over her face in errant wisps. Every time I looked at her my heart flipped a little. We had grown up together and had been good friends, but something happened over the last several months that broke the dam of emotions I had been keeping to myself. Once the flood happened it was amazing to find she felt the same way, and after a whirlwind courtship that involved chasing a madman, fighting zombies, and nearly losing her to the bad guys, we got married in record time.
Not to be outdone, my brother got married at the same time, his bride being the daughter of one of the best friends of my father. Somehow that worked out, and I think the only one who wasn’t surprised was her mother.
I decided to play peacekeeper. “Jake, pull over, would you? I need to get out for a minute.”
“Gladly.” Jake shot a look at his wife and slowly eased the van to a stop. I stepped out and stretched my back, taking in the foothills of Nebraska. Spring had come, and a warm breeze was slipping around from the west, stirring the long grass that was greening up from a long winter sleep. I looked to the north and saw several hills of low trees drifting away to the horizon. To the west I could see a few more hills and dark shapes that rose to the sky. The Rocky Mountains were impressive, and I was eager to get a good look at them. They were about two hundred miles away and not easily seen from here, but if we climbed a good hill, I was confident we could see them.
Jake and Kayla got out as well, stretching and twisting the kinks out. Kayla was a well-proportioned blonde who attracted looks wherever we went. She took after her mother, who was still attractive after all these years.
Jake took after
mother, who had been slighter of stature. She died in the early days of the Upheaval, when the Enillo Virus killed millions and refused to let them rest in peace. The undead came for the rest of us, and it was touch and go as to whether or not we would survive as a species. But we managed it, and had some good success in keeping the zombies at bay. Apart from some intentional outbreaks, we’d kept the majority of the ghouls in line.
I stepped away from the van and walked slowly down the back road, looking at where we had been. Our trip west had been largely uneventful, but it was funny how we never could get away from civic duties. Before we’d left, the president of the New United States had asked us to make this an official mission, to survey the land and let him know what was out there still. We agreed, but Jake cynically snorted that being official wouldn’t stop the zombies from biting us.
We’d been through Missouri, which was nice enough, and then travelled north to Omaha. There was a thriving community in that place, set up after the Zombie Wars had cleared out the dead. They used the river for all sorts of trade and transportation and had a great fort to explore near the river. Julia and I had considered staying there after our trip was done; it was that nice.
Jake took over the driving from there, and it had been a trying experience ever since.
I started walking back to the van, and I smiled when I saw Julia had awakened and come outside for a stretch. While she wasn’t as buxom as Kayla, she was still perfectly proportioned, and her looks have been described as “heart-achingly beautiful.” I had to concur, and I wondered every day what she saw in a raw-boned, ugly, son of a buck like me.
I raised a hand in greeting, when my eye caught something out in the grass. It was a dark shape on a hill, and from this distance it could have been anything. But something tickled the back of my neck about this one, and I had a funny feeling come over me.
“Aaron, what’s wrong?” Julia called. She couldn’t see it from where she was standing, and her voice caused Kayla and Jake to look up from the map they were arguing over.
“Hold on,” I yelled. The wind blew in gusts and made talking difficult. I left the road and headed towards the mountains.
The grass was thick and came up to the middle of my thighs. I kept myself oriented in the general direction of the shape, but I kept my eyes on the ground. I was trained to watch for threats, and tall new grass sometimes hid old dangers. I walked carefully, stepping around a few large flagstones that poked out from the ground. The danger there wasn’t the dead, but snakes. Jake once disturbed a den of copperheads when he kicked their stone. I’d never seen that man move so fast, and he was quick to begin with.
“Aaron! Be careful!” Julia’s voice reached me over the wind, and I knew she was nervous. Anyone who had any experience with the dead hated tall grass. In parts of the country we came from, there was prairie grass which grew over six feet tall. Chasing a zombie through that was a sweating nightmare.
I walked steadily on, the ground being spongy from the spring rains, and the old grass gripped my feet. In some places I had to rip my boots away from years of old grass. Anyone watching me would have thought I had been drinking, the way I weaved and struggled.
I looked up after about a hundred steps and found I was about twenty yards away from my goal. A few more details were visible from where I was standing. The dark shape had turned itself into a man lying facedown, and from the looks of things, he had been there a while. His clothes looked like they had been out in the weather, and his skin was pale and turning grey. Once the summer sun started in on him, the skin would turn dark brown and leathery. That is, if he had died uninfected. Infected, he’d stay the color he was. His boots looked like they’d fall off if he got up again, and he lay with his arms outstretched, like he’d tried to fly and landed on his face.
I approached the body with caution since the sound of the rustling grass and the wind masked my approach. If he was a ghoul, then he’d pop up the moment he heard or smelled me. If not, well, there wasn’t any danger.
Holding my knife over the back of his neck, ready to kneel on his back and send him on his way, I yelled over the wind, “Hey!”
Nothing. Trying again achieved the same result. Either this was a deaf zombie, or he was really dead.
I grabbed his arm and flipped him over, keeping my knife pointed at his head. When he was facing the sky I looked him over. One glance showed he was really dead and had been before he hit the ground. I needed someone better at reading signs than I was.
I stood up, knowing Kayla was looking at me through the scope of her rifle. Of the four of us, she was the best with a long gun. I didn’t worry about her shooting me on accident, she was too good for that.
I raised my fist, then two fingers, then four. I didn’t know what had happened here, but I had a man on the ground in front of me that had been shot in the back.
The signal I gave told Kayla there was a possible enemy, the two meant I needed Julia, and the four meant to keep a watch out for any danger. I crouched down where I was and waited. It wouldn’t be long before Julia was here, and she’d be able to tell me more about what had happened. The hillside gave me cover as I crouched, and the tall grass hid me from any long views. If someone had me in their sights they were being damn patient about killing me.
Ten minutes was a long time to wait, and I used the time to look over the dead man. He was about thirty to forty years old, likely on the deeper end, but I was lousy at guessing age. His eyes were open, and his faced still had a shocked look to it. Likely he had been very surprised to discover his chest exploding away from him. His clothes were more of a dark blue than black, and his grey pallor was likely more to blood loss than anything else. No weapons were on him, nor did I see any packs or supplies. Weird.
“Wonder where you came from, friend,” I said softly, glancing around cautiously. A soft curse told me Julia had arrived, and she had discovered the clinging grass.
“Hey, Babe!” I said quietly. “I’ve found a new friend.”
Julia kissed me quickly, and then looked down. She frowned and cocked her head to the side. “Can’t keep him, Aaron. This one definitely didn’t follow you home. Now give me some room.” Julia pushed me back and started her reading.
Julia’s dad, Charlie James, was a woodsman before he became a zombie killer. His skills had helped him survive the Upheaval and make a new life with my father and mother. When we were growing up, he taught us how to live with the land and to read the signs of things that had been. Julia had been an apt student, and her skills had only gotten better with time. I enjoyed watching her work, but then again, I just enjoyed looking at her.
Julia looked at the man, then pushed him onto his side. She glanced briefly at the wound, then his clothes. When she was finished, she stepped to the side and started walking away from the man, peering intently at the ground. She moved slowly, taking in everything.
She was so intent on the ground that I had to get her attention before she skylined herself on the hilltop.
“Julia!” I called. “Julia!”
Julia looked up, irritated. “What? What is it?”
I pointed to the hill. “You’re getting out into the open, and we don’t know if whoever shot this guy is still out there.”
Julia smiled. “Don’t worry. They’re long gone. That guy was dead a week ago.”
Oh. All right then. I raised my hand again for Kayla and circled my hand in the air three times. In a few minutes, she and Jake would be here, and maybe we could all find out what the hell had happened.
Sure enough, Jake and Kayla came quietly into view. Jake was frowning, likely about the grass, and Kayla was looking over the land, keeping an eye out for anything unusual.
“What did you find this time, Aaron?” Jake asked.
“Dead guy,” I said, pointing over my shoulder. Julia’s looking around, maybe give us a picture of what happened.”
“Zombie?” It was a standard question.
“Bullet. This guy was shot in the back.”
“Huh. That’s not normal.”
“You think not?”
Kayla spoke up before it got personal. “Knock it off, you two. Julia’s coming back.”
I watched Julia step back carefully through the grass, picking her feet up to keep from getting tangled or tripped. Somehow, she made it look graceful.
I spoke first. “What do we have?”
Julia crouched down and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a murder, but why is something I couldn’t tell you from what I saw.”
“Start from the beginning then.” Jake suggested.
Julia looked up and shook her head. “I don’t know for sure. I really don’t.”
“Talk to us, honey,” Kayla said. She reached out her free hand and put it on Julia’s shoulder.
Truth be known, this uncertainty of Julia’s was starting to freak me out. Normally she had all the answers she needed, but this particular scene was a mystery. It didn’t make sense, and I was not liking it one bit. I could tell Jake wasn’t liking it, either, for he started scowling and looking around.
Julia took a deep breath. “This man was murdered, there’s no doubt about that,” she said. “But it gets weird in the signs. According to what I saw, he was running very fast. His footprints are about as far apart as he could get without injuring himself. He was just over the hill when he was hit. The bullet launched him forward, so the caliber had to be significant.”
“How significant?” Jake asked.
“He was hit with something heavy. Heavy enough with enough energy to pick him up off his feet.” Julia said.
“How far away?” Kayla asked.
“Not sure yet. But based on the size of the entry, the bullet was at least a forty-five caliber. But that’s not what bugs me,” Julia said.
“What is it?” I asked.
Julia sighed. “This man was to steps away from escaping. Whoever shot him let him get this far before killing him. Whoever shot him wanted him to think he was nearly free before killing him.”
We all let that sink in for a moment. I didn’t like the implication, but thinking it further, what could we possibly do? I put the question to the group.
Jake thought about it for a second then reluctantly nodded. “Not much, I’ll admit. But we do need one more piece of information.”
“What’s that?” Kayla said before anyone else did.
“We need to know where this killer took his shot. Maybe we can get a direction as to where he went,” Jake answered. “And we can find out how good he really was.”
“All right then,” I said. “Let’s get some more gear and go hunting.” All I had on me was my knife and my tomahawk. My guns were back at the van, and I suddenly felt very naked. “And watch yourselves. If this guy is that good, you’d be dead before you heard the shot.”
We made our way back to the van, and I put on my blade and got my rifle ready. I slipped on my vest which held my extra magazines and a few other goodies. Julia outfitted herself similarly and slipped her vest on as well. She asked for a hand adjusting the strap on her pack, and I took the opportunity to kiss the back of her head and give her butt a quick squeeze.
“Not now, you dope.” She giggled, slipping away.
I sighed somewhat ruefully as I looked out over the terrain. I tried to put myself in the place of the shooter and figure out where I would have taken the shot. If I was chasing someone, I would not have been too far behind, and not have taken too much time to line up a shot. Maybe he was closer than I was giving him credit for, and he wasn’t that good, just lucky. I hoped that was the case.
We split into three groups, with Julia and Kayla going back to the dead man to start from there; I was going south, and then circling north. Jake was going to go north, then circle south. Hopefully, we would cross some sign somewhere.
I moved into the tall grass again, but this time I was ready for it. I stepped up and down, keeping my feet clear of clinging grass, and made much better time. My circle was nearly a half-mile in diameter, and I didn’t expect to find much, but every so often I got surprised.
I was three-quarters into my loop when I found the first tracks. They were small, but distinct, and I slowly moved into a small circle until I found another set. They were leading away from the scene of death and heading south. That was odd. I followed them for a minute, and I suddenly realized they were spread out, like someone was running. Whoever was out here, they had been running just like that other man.