Read Plague of the Undead Online

Authors: Joe McKinney

Tags: #zombies

Plague of the Undead (8 page)

BOOK: Plague of the Undead
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They reached the gas station two hours later.
It was a rundown affair, barely more than a shell of the building it had once been. Grass crowded up against its walls, and trash lay thick on the floor. Shrubs were trying to grow through the broken windows and there was a faint, but noticeable, odor of rot and mildew. But they had just slogged through muddy rivers that had once been roads and had their faces lashed by rain, and they were glad for the shelter.
They tied up the horses under the awning that covered the gas pumps and most of the others went inside to push the trash out of the way so they had someplace to sleep. Jacob climbed on top of one of the gas pumps and scanned the distance. The rain made it impossible to see very far. The sky was so gray as to be almost black, and he could see flashes of lightning sparking on the horizon all around them.
“Looks like we’re not going anywhere for a while,” he said. Taylor was watching him from the doorway. “What do you think? Shall we just call this camp for the night?”
“Might as well,” Taylor said. He gestured toward the garage bays. “We’re blind to the west, though. Anything coming at us from that direction would be on us before we knew it. You’ll need to post extra lookouts to cover that.”
“Agreed,” Jacob said.
“Also, I want you to have everyone turn out their gear and make sure nothing got wet that wasn’t supposed to. That storm came up on us fast and I know some of these folks haven’t been all that careful packing their kits.”
“Okay. Sure.”
Taylor nodded and went inside without saying another word.
Nick came up behind Jacob. “What’s that all about?”
“What’s what all about?”
Nick gestured toward the doorway Taylor had just slipped through. “You and him. Trouble?”
“Why would there be trouble?”
Nick shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Of course you do. You said it. What did you mean? Why would there be trouble?”
“Well, we’ve got two leaders. Supposed to have two, anyway. But from where I’m standing it looks like he’s treating you more like a first officer than a partner.”
“That’s not what’s happening,” Jacob said flatly.
Nick shrugged again.
“It’s not,” Jacob said.
“Okay. I’m just telling you what it looks like from over here.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not.”
Nick looked out across the rain-swept parking lot and sighed. “I just think you need to be careful is all. The whole point of this was to help you transition into the sheriff’s job. You can’t do that if he’s never gonna step down.”
“The point of this is not to make me sheriff.”
“You know what I mean. The point of having you guys share leadership of this expedition. That was a mistake, if you ask me.”
“He either came along or we didn’t go. Both he and the council made that plain.”
“That’s just the council doing what he tells them.”
“Nick, where’s this coming from? If you had all these doubts, why’d you come?”
“Look, I’m not trying to start anything. I’m just thinking out loud. But I will say that you need to start thinking about who’s actually in charge around here. Because so far, it looks like Taylor’s using your opportunity for transition as his last stab at glory.”
“How can you say that? He’s not a glory hound.”
Nick laughed. “Jacob, if you believe that, you don’t know much about leadership. You really think a hero like Taylor over there is gonna sit back, content in his dotage, while some young hotshot steps in and takes all the glory?”
Jacob had no words. He just shook his head in exasperation.
“Just think about it. That’s all I’m saying. Pay attention to what’s coming.”
Nick walked inside and left Jacob feeling angry and defensive, mainly because now that the words had been said out loud he knew them to be true. He’d seen it back in Arbella, during their meetings, and he’d seen it in little exchanges like the one he’d just had, ever since they took to the trail. Nick was right about one thing: Something would have to be done about it.
He sighed and turned to watch the rain sweep in silvery sheets across the road.
Gradually, he became aware of Max and Eli lurking near the door.
“What’s up?” he said over his shoulder.
“Hey, boss, is it true we’re camping here tonight?” Max said.
“You mind if we get the horses cleaned up?”
“Yeah,” Jacob said. “Here, I’ll give you a hand.”
After helping Max and Eli with the horses, Jacob went inside to make himself something to eat. Kelly and Barry were off in a corner, setting up their equipment. Andy Dawson had one of his journals open on his knees and was busy scribbling notes about the ride. And over by the entrance to the garage bays, Bree was giggling at something Frank Hartwell had just told her.
Jacob couldn’t help smiling at that.
A month ago, hell even a few days ago, he would have told Frank he was just a big hairy dog barking up the wrong tree, but to Jacob’s surprise, Bree seemed to enjoy the older man’s attentions. They’d become quite comfortable together, in fact, usually riding side by side on the trail.
The way Jacob figured it he didn’t have much reason to be surprised. Frank was twenty-three years older than Bree, true enough, but that wasn’t that weird. The day-to-day reality of life in Arbella had led to stranger unions, to be sure. If old Frank got cozy with a hot young blonde, more power to him. Plus, it was fun to watch Nick grumble about being cock blocked.
After a meal of peppered beef jerky and dried apricots, he arranged the lookout schedule, found a spot in the corner, pulled his hat down low over his eyes, and drifted toward sleep thinking about what Nick had told him. Maybe it was true what he said about Taylor using this expedition for his own glory, and maybe it was just Nick lashing out in frustration because Frank was taking the woman Nick had wanted for himself. He’d just have to wait and see.
But there was no use trying to worry it all out now. He’d learned back in his days with the salvage teams to get sleep when he could, and so he settled into his corner spot and went to sleep with the music of the rain playing on the roof.
When he woke it was dark and the rain had stopped.
He pushed his hat back in place and listened, straining his senses against the night, unsure exactly what had brought him out of sleep. Outside, the horses were nervous. He could hear them bumping against each other and the gas pumps. A metal sign hanging from a chain by the doorway moved in the breeze and rattled against the wall. He felt an odd humming in his teeth, like a vibration. It was so subtle he thought maybe he was imagining it, or maybe he was getting sick, but then he noticed Andy Dawson’s pen moving across the cover of his notebook. It was turning slightly with the vibration, which was getting stronger.
Not louder, because there was no sound, just stronger.
Soon the others stirred.
“What’s going on?” Kelly asked.
“Shhh,” Taylor said. He was standing near the door, rifle at the ready. He looked back at the others and held up his left fist, the sign to go to hand signals only.
Jacob was on his feet, rifle in hand, in the next instant.
The others followed his lead.
The vibration was growing stronger, and it was starting to hurt. The filling in Jacob’s tooth felt like it was trying to rattle itself loose.
Andy let out a whimper.
The rear windows suddenly filled with four bright white lights. The lights drew up close to the building and stopped. Max took a few steps toward the window, his hands up in front of his face to shield his eyes.
“What in the hell . . . ?”
Jacob grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back. “Get down,” he said. “All of you.”
But before any of them could move, the lights slowly and silently rose into the air and disappeared, dropping them into near darkness again.
Only the vibration remained, and that continued to get stronger and more painful. Andy’s pen was almost dancing on the floor. One window still held a shard of glass in its frame, and that suddenly popped and fell to the floor. The tin cup from somebody’s mess kit rattled on a plywood shelf before it too fell to the floor. A worn metal sign secured to the door to the garage rattled hard against its bolts, then broke them, and flew to the ceiling. So did the tin cup, and forks and spoons and everything metal in the room.
There was a loud click, like heavy gears falling into place, and then a blinding flash of light hit the entire building. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Jacob was so scared he felt like his feet had grown roots, holding him firmly in place. He tried to look out the window, but it hurt too badly and he had to turn away.
Then there came another loud click and the flood of light changed to a softer, but just as brilliant pattern of colored lights that moved away to the south. All the metal that had rushed to the ceiling came crashing back down to the floor.
A moment later, Taylor and Jacob were rushing out the door, pushing their way through the thoroughly terrified horses and out onto the road.
Gliding silently about a hundred feet off the ground was an immense airship. It seemed to take forever to pass overhead. More and more of it came into view. Every inch of it sparkled with colored lights. Jacob thought he saw something black and long and made of metal under the lights, like a long rectangular box, but it was impossible to tell for sure. And then a loud series of pops, like the wind catching a sail, filled the air. The colored lights suddenly went dark, and vast cloth sails, like wings, lowered into place.
Jacob watched it glide away, the only noise the wind popping in its sail-wings as it picked up speed.
Thirty seconds later, it was gone.
From behind him, someone spoke. “What in the hell was that?”
Nobody spoke. Not at first.
Jacob looked around the group, and saw his own shock and terror staring back at him. Even Taylor looked rattled. With the airship gone they seemed to have been consumed in an exhalation of darkness, though enough starlight filled the sky to cast a silvery light over their faces. A breeze gusted in off the grasslands, carrying the scent of rain. Above them, to the east, Orion the hunter was climbing the sky from the horizon, one foot in the vast reaches of space, the other digging for purchase on the edge of the world.
It was almost like nobody wanted to speak, or was afraid to.
And then one of the horses bumped into one of the other horses, and the sudden contact sent a wave of panic through their number. One horse reared and whinnied.
Eli rushed over to calm the animals, and eventually they fell silent again.
But the commotion had loosened everybody’s tongue.
Owen Webb put a hand to his forehead and paced in a circle. “Seriously, what the hell was that?” He’d been sleeping on his windbreaker before the encounter and it had messed up his hair, half of it sticking out every which way and the other half mashed flat against the side of his head. Between his crazy hair and the pacing, he looked like a man about to unhinge.
“I think we all know what that was,” Andy said.
“We do?” Owen snapped back, wheeling around to face him. “Please, enlighten me then, because I have no idea what the hell I just saw.”
Andy said nothing. He looked around at the others for some sign that others were thinking the same thing he was.
“Motherfucking space aliens is what it was,” said Eli.
Andy motioned at him with a
gesture and turned back to Owen.
“That wasn’t a spaceship,” Owen said.
“It wasn’t? You just said you had absolutely no idea what it was. So what was it?”
“I don’t know!” Owen said. His voice had turned shrill and he was near to screaming.
“Quiet!” Jacob barked. He stepped between the two men. “Everybody keep your voices down. That thing made enough light to attract every zombie in the area. I think we need to move out.”
“But . . . to where?” asked Bree. “I mean, shouldn’t we, I don’t know, go back?”
“Why would we do that?” Barry said.
“Well . . . I don’t know, that thing. That was scary. Shouldn’t we tell somebody?”
“Like who?” Barry said. “And what would we tell them? That we saw an alien spaceship?”
“I’m not at all convinced that’s what we saw,” Owen said.
“You have no idea what we just saw,” Andy said.
“Neither do you. But I know it wasn’t space aliens.”
“You saw what it did. The lights. All the metal stuff rising to the ceiling. Those great big sails.”
“What’s a spaceship need cloth sails for?”
“I don’t know,” Andy said. “I didn’t build the damn thing.”
“Enough,” Taylor said. He stepped into the middle of the group. The others fell silent, waiting for him to speak. “I don’t know what that thing was,” he said, and made a point of looking right at Andy and Owen. “None of us knows what that thing was. But I know this. It put out enough light to attract every zombie around here, just like Jacob said. We need to be ready for that. I want everybody to gear up. We’re moving out in ten minutes. If we’re gonna have a fight, I want to be ready for it.”
“But where are we going?” Bree asked. She looked at Frank. “Shouldn’t we go back to Arbella?”
“We’re continuing with the mission,” Taylor said.
“But we don’t know what that thing was,” Owen said. “What if it comes back?”
“That’s exactly the point,” Taylor said. “We don’t know what it was. It could be a threat, or it could be something else. We just don’t know. But if there’s a threat to Arbella out there I damn sure want to know what it is. We’ll head back when we have some answers, not before. Now everybody get ready to move out.”
BOOK: Plague of the Undead
12.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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