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Authors: David Bernstein

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic

Machines of the Dead 3 (6 page)

BOOK: Machines of the Dead 3
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Chapter 11

 

After being stripped of his weapons and jacket—Jack wearing it to keep from freezing—Cable’s corpse was dragged outside and laid among the strewn landscape of dead undead. It was Zaun and Maria’s first up-close look at the undead that had been blown from the wall. Some were crispy, but most were still as they had been before the explosion, but in more pieces. Fresh blood stained the snow as if some of the undead had been alive—which was impossible as everyone knew. The more likely scenario was they had been recently turned. Maybe a group of survivors had been hiding in the mall, were overrun and turned before they finally made their way outside. When the zombies spotted the fire, they came over only to meet an early undead death.

Maria mentioned how the two undead she had come across on the strip mall’s roof appeared fresh, too, though their clothes said otherwise. Studying the bodies in front of her, the same thing could be said. Not all the undead were in ‘good’ condition. A few were emaciated, stripped of flesh in areas where bone could be seen. The flesh on those undead was cracked and gray, old-looking. 

“Based on the clothing,” Maria said, “I don’t think many of these undead are newly turned. I think something’s up with the bots.”

“Yeah,” Zaun said, nodding. “Something’s definitely up with them.” He looked at Jack who was feeling hunger pangs again.

“You think they’re keeping them fresh?” he asked. “Maybe even healing them?’

Zaun chuckled. “You’ve got no idea, Jack.”

Maria cleared her throat.

“What aren’t you telling me?” Jack asked.

“It’s better we talk inside where it’s warm, and we’ll be hidden,” Maria said. “There may not be any up and moving undead out here now, but it doesn’t mean more won’t show.”

They headed inside and went back to the office. The heated air was almost overwhelming. Jackets were removed and a sense of security fell over the group. Jack could tell they all felt truly safe for the first time in a while. He ate while Zaun and Maria talked about what happened after Jack had been shot, from Maria hunting down Cable, to Zaun rescuing her, to the blockade they built, to the fire, and then finally to Jack’s condition.

“So, we’re still not sure you’re bot free,” Maria said.

Scraping the MRE bag clean, Jack said, “It makes sense then.”

“What does?” Zaun asked.

“Why I’m so damn hungry.” He went on and told them how he already ate two MREs and had woken ravenous.

“It definitely might explain it,” Maria said. “The bots are working. Healing you. In turn, they need food, or more correctly, your body needs nutrients that the bots are taking.”

“So I’m still infected,” Jack said, crumpling up the bag. “But I feel great. I mean, my wounds, they’re gone.”

“Let’s just hope that once you’re fully healed, not just the outside, but whatever internal injuries you might’ve suffered, that the bots will stop doing whatever they’re doing. Hibernate or something.”

“Yeah, or I’m going to eat us out of everything in no time.”

For the rest of the day, the group talked, rested and ate. Jack’s appetite returned to normal by evening. They kept watch in four-hour shifts, each one as uneventful as the next.

Come morning, the group packed up. Jack felt normal. He wasn’t overly hungry at any time, wasn’t tired or hurting, just his regular old self.

“Should we try something?” Zaun said. “You know, to see if the bots are still in you? See how they operate?”

“What do you mean?” Jack asked.

“Give yourself a small cut on the arm. See if it heals; see how you feel.”

Jack was nervous enough having gone through all that he’d gone through. He didn’t want to test anything. If the bots were hibernating, inactive, whatever, he didn’t want to take a chance and activate them. He feared they were only going to change, further evolve over time. Maybe next time, they’d cause more damage than his body could handle. But he knew he couldn’t go on with the rest of his life not knowing about himself, especially with how things were. Injury was a part of life now, it seemed. 

“So you’re thinking better to test out how I am going to react now while we have shelter and food?”

“Yeah,” Zaun said.

Jack looked at Maria, wanting her input.

She stared at him, then nodded her head and sighed. “As much as I don’t want to treat you like a guinea pig,” she said, “a small incision might not be a bad idea.” 

So it was decided. Jack rolled up his sleeve, and after cauterizing his knife, sliced a two inch cut along his forearm. Blood drew. The group waited, watched. Little by little, the blood dried up, a scab formed. It took about thirty minutes. Jack felt no hunger pangs, nothing unusual. He picked off the scab, which flaked away like nothing more than dried milk, and his flesh was unmarked below.

“Damn, that’s incredible,” Zaun said.

“No, that’s science and a madman’s vision coming true,” Jack said. He was more than glad the wound healed without complications. In a way, he wondered what would happen now. If he was mortally wounded, would he simply heal as long as he had food to keep his body alive? Would the bots stay active inside him forever? If he was repeatedly shocked, would the bots eventually die? Be altered? These were all unanswerable questions, at least for now. Only time would tell, which bothered the hell out of him. He thought about the ‘fresh-looking’ zombies outside and the blood. If the bots healed the living, would they heal the undead?

“Guys, this is scary shit,” Zaun said, then slapped Jack on the shoulder. “But I’ll take it over you being dead, man.”

Jack couldn’t argue with that. He nodded and said, “True enough, but I’m still a little worried about what this means. Not only for me, but for the undead. Will they be harder to kill? Stay around longer? Or in attempting to heal them will the bots inadvertently wither away their bodies to nothing?”

Maria sat behind the desk, feet up. She was bouncing a small rubber ball against the wall. “We’ll just have to wait and see, but for now, we treat everything as usual. Keep you, Jack, from injury. Make sure we have food and kill any undead that come our way.”

After that, the group finished packing and loaded up the snowmobile. Jack knew it was going to be a slow, cramped ride, having only one snowmobile to use. And there was still a ways to travel in harsh conditions, despite the current weather showing clear and sunny skies. 

Loaded down and ready to move out, Jack spotted another sled near a box truck as they were leaving. The only thing he could guess was that the machine had been Cable’s. With another snowmobile to use—the key in the ignition—the gear was evenly distributed between the two machines. They went back inside and gathered extra propane tanks, heaters, some tools and a gasoline can that they filled by siphoning the gas out of an old Mustang parked in the lot. 

They headed up the Thruway. On occasion, they had to go around vehicles in their way or speed past roaming zombies. One time they had to circumvent a small herd by traveling through a field. They saw no people about. The only signs of life came from a few houses in the far distance, smoke billowing from the chimneys.

When they came to the Harriman exit, they got off the highway and headed down route 32, a single-lane road that cut through the wooded area of Central Valley and its small towns. Undead were about in the towns, but nothing they needed to worry about, and they kept on, the hum of the engines a constant, normal sounding part of the journey.

When they reached Angola Road, they went up a steep incline and made their way along the backroad, the heavily wooded area thick with untouched snow. Jack imagined how everything, living and unliving, heard them, with the entire mountainside’s undead population turning their heads and making their way toward the whining engine. It made him want to go faster, but knew it was just his mind playing with him.

They stayed at a steady pace, the speedometer reading forty miles an hour. When they came to Furnhill Road, they turned onto it and traveled a mile up a steep incline before arriving at Jack’s sister’s house.

It was a two story abode with a two-car garage. The house sat on an acre of land and was surrounded by a thick tree line of ferns and oaks—the oaks bare—that separated the neighboring houses. 

Jack hopped off the sled. He tried lifting one of the garage doors, and when it didn’t open, he tried the other, but to no avail. They killed the engines, looked around for any approaching undead. The surrounding snow was undisturbed like a sheet of freshly laid icing.

“This place is like a ghost town,” Zaun said, stating the obvious.

“Good,” Maria said. “Let’s hope it stays that way.”

They went around the right side of the house, the property having a slight incline to it, and found the snow-covered set of stairs that led up to the front door. Finding it locked, Jack wrapped his knuckles on the door. “Sara? Are you in there? It’s Jack.” He knocked again. With no answer, he and the others went around to the back and tried the door there, but it was locked too. Then he saw that one of the den's windows, the room at semi-basement level, had been boarded over.

Movement sounded from the bushes behind them. Jack spun around, M4 ready, and saw a zombie shambling toward them. The knee-deep snow greatly slowed its movement. Zaun pulled his sword and said, “I got it.”

Jack and Maria pried off the piece of plywood from the window.

Darkness filled the den within, and Jack hoped not to smell the putridness of rotting flesh. Instead, he smelled vanilla and felt warm air fall over him. Excited, he called out. “Sara, it’s Jack. Are you in there?” 

The sound of a shotgun being cocked echoed in his ears a moment before he was staring into the barrel of one. “I’d advise you to move on, stranger,” a voice said from the darkness.

Jack didn’t recognize the voice as Carl’s, but asked if it was him anyway.

“No Carl here, young man. Just us armed men.”

“I don’t want any trouble,” Jack said, seeing Maria creeping along the side of the house, making her way to a window. “I’m just looking for my sister, Sara Warren. She lives here.”

“No one here by that name now. In case you haven’t noticed, things have gone and changed quite drastically around here. Found this house after mine burned down. Claimed it as my own, considering it was empty and all.”

The man sounded older and had said he was one of a group of armed men. But Jack didn’t think so, especially after hearing him say he had claimed the house as his own, as in singular. 

“Okay, my friend,” Jack said and backed away, hands up. The M4 hanging off his shoulder slipped and he went to catch it.

The man’s shotgun fired, a flash of light exploding from the darkness.

Jack was thrown backward, pain wracking his side.

Maria returned fire, shattering the glass window adjacent to the one that had been boarded over. A cry from inside the house rang out. Then, another blast from the shotgun sounded.

Jack glanced down at himself and saw a huge hole in his jacket. The snow was speckled with crimson, feathers floating toward the ground like soap bubbles.

“Shit,” he said, going numb. 

Zaun rushed over and dragged him to safety.

Maria tossed a flashbang grenade into the house and covered her ears. 

A few seconds later, the bomb went off and a flash of light brightened the darkened room for an instant. 

“How’s Jack?” she asked.

“I . . . don’t know,” Zaun said.

The snow around Jack was further reddening.

“Good thing I come equipped with my own healing system,” Jack said, coughing up blood.

“You weren’t supposed to be the one who gets hurt,” Zaun said. “Remember? Just in case?”

“Guess we’ll find out what the bots do this time . . . If I’m savable.” He tried to stay awake, to hold on, but suddenly his body teemed with unbelievable pain, as if his insides were being shredded, and he passed out.

Chapter 12

 

“How is he?” Maria asked, keeping an eye on the blown out window.

“Looks bad,” Zaun said.

Knowing Jack would need immediate shelter and food, the house was a must have. If someone—maybe
someone's
—was holing up inside, that meant it was most likely stocked with supplies, including food. Whether or not it was worth risking their lives was another question, but based on what just happened, she didn’t think a group of armed hostiles were inside. 

Maria headed over to the back door, blew its handle out, then kicked it open. She waited for gunfire from whoever was inside, but none came. “Drag Jack over here,” she called to Zaun, and he did, leaving behind a trail of bloody snow. 

“We clear the house, then bring him inside,” Maria said.

Zaun turned around and yanked his sword out. “Just a second,” he said, referring to the zombie still working its way through the snow.

Maria raised her rifle and fired, blowing the bot-controlled brains from its head. There was no need to keep quiet now, guns had been fired. Zaun slid his sword back into the sheath and took up his M4.

They entered the house and were in a short foyer with a washer and dryer set along the left wall. A door was on the right. Maria opened it and saw the front end of a Chevy Blazer shrouded in gloom and knew she’d found the garage. She closed the door and moved into the house. A hallway went left, and she assumed she had thrown the flashbang into that room. To the right were stairs leading up to another level.

Maria paused. The house was still, as quiet as she could remember a place being. She motioned to Zaun that she was going left. Zaun nodded and followed, watching the stairs.

She looked into the room and saw an elderly man on the floor, apparently unconscious. He was wearing black khakis and a tan sweater. A bushy white beard covered his face, his skull bald except for the Caesar crown of long, white hair around his head. A shotgun rested a few feet away from him. The room was warm, and then she saw why—a small wood-burning stove rested in the center of it. Flames danced behind the ceramic window. A pile of logs lay next to smaller pieces of wood, the floor beneath dirty with chips of bark. A collection of water jugs took floor space in front of the television. 

She moved in and quickly saw that no one else was present. Zaun stood by the doorway. “It’s all clear,” Maria whispered as she checked on the elderly man. He was alive. She pulled out a couple of zip ties, secured his wrists together, and then his ankles before dragging him to a corner across from a computer desk. Next to the desk was a door. She shouldered her rifle and pulled her Glock, wanting it for close-quarter action, and yanked the door open. Before her was a closet, the shelves stocked with canned goods.

She closed the door and returned to Zaun’s side and in a whisper, she said, “Let’s bring Jack in here, then search the rest of the house.”

Jack was still bleeding, a pool of red sloshy snow where they’d left him outside. Zaun and Maria carried him inside and to the den where they laid him on the couch.

“This all looks too damn familiar,” Zaun said, shaking his head.

Maria nudged him and held a finger to her lips. Zaun nodded. Jack was stripped of his jacket and shirt. The wound looked like something had taken a large bite out of his side. She didn’t think there were any important organs located there, the wound not quite reaching the liver. She had no idea what body parts the bots needed in order to work at their best, but if they operated the undead, she assumed just the brain.

After bandaging Jack’s side, they checked the rest of the house and found it unoccupied. Nothing was in ruin. One of the bedrooms had its drawers open, a couple of them on the floor as if the person had been in a hurry to leave, but that was all. If this was Jack’s sister’s house, which she had no reason not to think it was, the woman had headed elsewhere. They needed to wake the old man and find out.

Back downstairs in the living room, Zaun set up the portable heaters while Maria found a hammer and nails in the laundry room and boarded up the broken windows. She’d thought about moving to another part of the house, but aside from not wanting to move Jack again, the wood stove could come in handy. For now, though, it would not be used, the remaining fire inside left to burn out. She didn’t need a signal letting others know someone was alive inside. She’d seen and dealt with too much to take a chance that someone might come along and be a problem. At night, they’d use the stove. And if they wound up staying long enough to where they used up all the propane during the day, then they would use the wood stove sparingly. 

Maria stood over the captive. “He’s just a frightened old man. All alone.”

“Yeah, and he shot our friend,” Zaun said.

“I know.” Maria didn’t know if it was the man’s age, that he was alone, or just a culmination of all the violence she’d seen, but she actually felt bad for the guy. At the same time, she wanted to put a bullet into his brain—take no chance of another psycho entering their lives. Old didn’t mean feeble or kind.

Tending to Jack, she didn’t know what to do. Let him be or repeat how they treated him in the Home Depot. His cheeks already appeared sunken in, his flesh paler. The bots worked quickly. It had only been about an hour since he had been shot.

“I think we need to shock him,” she said.

Zaun stood next to her. “Okay.”

“I mean, if the bots did heal him the last time, really healed him, fixed him up to the best Jack he could be, then he should be able to handle the shock better than before.”

“Makes sense.”

Maria took out her Taser and exhaled noisily, not knowing if letting him be was the better course. Maybe he needed more time to mend, and by shocking him she’d hurt his chances at surviving. For all she knew, the bots were even stronger now, and shocking him would be the best thing. She just didn’t know anything for sure. Her only hope was that the little devils were the same, maybe even better, smarter, and would know not to kill their host. Take only enough from Jack to heal him, at least enough so he could wake and consume food so they could continue to heal him.

That was wishful thinking, and she knew it.

Pointing the Taser at him, she fired and held the trigger until the charge died. She checked him for a pulse and found a steady one and breathed easier.

“We’re good,” she said.

“Going to hit him again?”

“No. Let’s wait and see what happens. Keep a close eye on him.”

Zaun nodded. “I’m going to keep a lookout from the upstairs windows. Just in case.”

“Good idea.”

Maria was proud of Zaun, remembering how at one time she hadn’t much cared for him. She had thought he was a loser, a loose cannon that would get them all killed, and almost had. He wasn’t like her or Jack. He was a free-spirit, spoiled, a don’t-take-anything-too-seriously type of guy, and a drug addict. But he’d come a long way, helped her out a lot, became a man, a soldier, so to speak. She never thought she’d see the day he’d know the proper thing to do—and on his own—like keeping watch from the upstairs windows. Normally, that would have been something she had to tell him to do. It was a small thing, but it was nice to witness. If anything good did come from Jack’s out-of-commission status, it was Zaun having to man up and take things more seriously.

Two hours passed by before the old man came to. Maria kneeled in front of him. He stared at her, a confused look on his face. Then recognition set in, fear along with it. His eyes went wide. 

“Where’s my wife?” he asked.

“Wife?”

“Please don’t kill her. You didn’t kill her, did you? Oh, no. Please. No.”

“Quiet,” Maria said, and threateningly raised her hand.

Zaun descended the stairs and came into the room. “Asshole’s awake?”

“Your wife’s not here,” Maria said.

“You didn’t find her?”

“No. Is she hiding in the house?” 

“No. No. Not hiding.” The man seemed relieved. “She’s okay.” He spoke softly, to himself. Then a look of concern crossed his face and he locked eyes with Maria. “Did you go into the garage?”

“No,” Maria said, then wondered why they hadn’t checked it out. Anyone in there would freeze after a time, but still . . .

She got up. “We need to check the garage.”

“No,” the old man shouted. He struggled to get up and wound up falling over. 

Maria helped him to a sitting position. “Is your wife hiding in the garage, because if she is, she’ll freeze to death.”

“This guy’s crazy,” Zaun said. “Or has Alzheimer’s.”

The old man looked up at Zaun. “My name’s Henry and I don’t have Alzheimer’s.”

“You shot our friend, Henry,” Zaun said, angrily. “You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Oh my,” Henry said, his eyes falling to Jack. “I didn’t mean to shoot anyone. I was so scared. Didn’t know who you were. Saw the weapons and I panicked. I only wanted you gone. That man’s sister wasn’t here when my wife and I arrived. The place was empty and had all this food, so we stayed.”

Maria stood and turned to Zaun. “Let’s check the garage for people.”

“No,” Henry said, sounding desperate. “Please don’t go in there.”

“Is your wife in there or not?” Maria asked. “Because she won’t last long, even if she’s wearing a coat. I’m guessing she’s older, like yourself?”

Henry nodded, tears falling down his cheeks.

“Just her?” Maria asked. “Is she armed?”

“It’s only her. She’s not armed. But she needs to eat. She’s turning back. Becoming herself again. Please, don’t hurt her.”

Turning back
, Maria thought, the man’s words striking like a punch to the chest. Zaun must’ve caught on too because he looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

“What are you talking about?” Maria asked, facing the old man again.

He looked at her and exhaled, then explained how his wife had been bitten. The couple knew what that meant as they made it back to their home. He cleaned the wound, singed it with an iron and hoped all the measures would prove different than what they had witnessed. But then she, Mary-Beth, started showing signs. Getting sick. The military came through the area the next day. They were mowing down all the undead they came across and made announcements that survivors should make their way to Stewart Airforce Base, where a walled safe-haven had been erected.

“We couldn’t go,” Henry said. “They’d never let my wife in. They would shoot her as soon as they knew she’d been infected. I couldn’t leave her. Whatever time she had left I was going to spend with her. So I stayed. When she finally passed and came back, I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t kill her. I thought maybe there’d be a cure one day, something. So I kept her in our basement. I knew she was hungry, so I fed her.”

“You what?” Maria asked astonished.

“Not people,” Henry quickly added. “I fed her meat from our freezer. It was spoiled. She wouldn’t touch the stuff at first, but then one day the meat was gone. I figured there had to be plenty of rotten meat in the surrounding houses. So I went out and gathered up as much as I could, and my wife ate everything I gave her. In these frigid temperatures, most of the meat I found was frozen, so there wasn’t much of a stench. A few weeks ago, she started getting better. Her skin color returned, body filled out. Her eyes were clearer. I took care of her, washed her, changed her clothes. She even stopped attacking me.”

“There’s a fucking zombie in the garage?” Zaun asked, eyes wide.

“No,” Henry said. “She’s getting better. Turning back, becoming human again. Whatever this disease is, it’s not permanent. Please, the woman you’re looking for isn’t here. Leave me and my wife alone. We’re not hurting anyone. She’s chained up.”

“How did you come to find this place?” Maria asked.

“When I ran out of food, I went out searching other houses. I found food, of course, but nothing like what was in this place. Like most residences, this one was unoccupied by the living and had no undead in it, so instead of trying to gather the food little by little—I’m no spring chicken—and haul it home, I decided to come here. I wrangled my wife, forced her along and chained her up in the basement here.”

“Watch him,” Maria said. She grabbed a flashlight from her backpack and headed to the garage. The old man called after her, pleading with her not to hurt his wife. She opened the door and shined the light around the front end of the Chevy Blazer. The sound of chain links clinking against each other filled her ears. She moved around the bumper and into the open part of the two-car garage. Her flashlight beam came to rest on the old man’s former wife.

Maria’s mouth dropped open.

The thing didn’t look like a zombie but more like a chained up woman, like some maniac’s captive. A thick leather collar was around her neck, a six-foot chain leading from it to the cinderblock wall behind it. Her hair was full, wavy. Her cheeks weren’t sunken or pasty, but full and lively-looking. There wasn’t a noticeable mark on her. The man said he had taken care of her, which must’ve included changing her clothes, because they were mostly free of stains.

The zombie came forward as far as the chain would allow, arms reaching out. Its face contorted into an angry snarl. This was new, a sign of emotion. The undead had never made facial expressions before. Their faces were always vacant, unmoving and dead looking. They didn’t fear, think or feel. But this one before Maria was proving otherwise.

BOOK: Machines of the Dead 3
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