Authors: J.W. Vohs,Sandra Vohs
Zombie Crusade VI:
Copyright © 2016 J.W. Vohs
All rights reserved.
Thanks to all the fans of this series – you motivate us to listen to our characters and stay focused on the story on a daily basis. Special thanks to Mr. Gene Harding’s creative writing classes at Northrop High School for their comments, questions, and generational expertise. Extra special thanks to our daughter for many, many hours of all types of assistance. We know we aren’t the easiest people to work with, and we really do understand the definition of procrastination. Finally, we would like to acknowledge the inspiration we get from people who fight in the face of adversity, stand up to tyranny, and take responsibility for promoting the highest possible good in this world—especially the members of our family who embody those characteristics and remind us every day what it means to be a hero.
recap of ZC V:
In the middle of a blizzard, Fort Wayne was unexpectedly attacked by armies of the infected, with the help of a traitor who sabotaged the bridge and then abducted Andi in order to deliver her to “President” Barnes. The survivors evacuated via the freezing river, except for the children and their caregivers who made it to a train headed for Vicksburg. The remaining refugees aimed north, to regroup at Middle Bass Island. Unfortunately, that settlement had not escaped Barnes’ radar.
Hours after a spectacular victory against Barnes’ massive horde of hunters at Vicksburg, Jack and Carter received word of the attack on Fort Wayne. They met the survivors on the Maumee River and led them to Middle Bass in time for Barnes to enjoy playing a sick prank on Jack, leading the resistance leader to believe that he’d just witnessed his fiancé’s murder. Fortunately for the refugees and permanent residents of Middle Bass, before Barnes could finish them off on a frozen Lake Erie, the Canadians from Manitoulin Island roared to the rescue. The army of infected soon retreated, along with their commander in chief. The surviving Americans were escorted back to Manitoulin Island—a safe-haven in northern Lake Huron.
Meanwhile, back in Vicksburg, Luke miraculously recovered from the infection that turns people into flesh-eaters, but he survived as a changed young man. His eyes turned coal black, like the hunters, and his ability to heal was greatly accelerated. He found he had incredible stamina and strength, needed little sleep, and that many people in Vicksburg were actually frightened of him. With his new wife, Gracie, whom he’d married on what they’d thought was his death bed, and their best friends, Zach and Maddy, Luke followed one of his “feelings” to head west before any bad news made it back to Vicksburg about what had transpired in the north . . .
Luke was having trouble sleeping again. He knew he should be tired, but whenever he closed his eyes he became distinctly aware of the nuances of every nearby sound—the rustling of leaves in the wind, a coyote howling in the distance, Gracie’s gentle snoring . . . He tried not to focus on Gracie, but that was impossible with her warm body pressed up against his side. He ached to be closer to her, even though he knew he couldn’t risk the safety of his beautiful new wife. He’d survived a hunter bite, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t transfer the infection; his coal-black eyes and super-healing abilities were a testament to some sort of transformation. Feeling confused and restless, Luke gently extricated himself from Gracie’s embrace and slipped out of the tent. A light layer of frost crunched under his feet, and the branches of the leafless trees at the edge of the campsite waved a gentle greeting.
“You’re not gonna wander off by yourself again, are you?” Zach didn’t look up as he stirred the embers of an unimpressive fire. “I have absolutely no idea where we are, so if you get lost, we’re all screwed.”
Luke sat down next to his best friend and gently punched him in the arm. “I don’t wander off; sometimes I scout ahead, but I don’t get lost.” The Red River meandered so frequently through northern Louisiana that Luke really didn’t know how far they had journeyed from Shreveport before they’d set up camp the night before. His estimate was twelve miles, but with his heightened senses already bombarded with sights, sounds, and smells of such vibrant intensity, he didn’t blame himself for losing track of distance on their first day of travel after saying goodbye to their close friends in Monroe. “And just so you know, I think we’re about ten miles from the Texas border.”
“My uncle lived in Dallas, and he always complained about the heat in Texas.” Zach shivered and flipped up the collar of his jacket. “I sure wouldn’t mind some warm weather for a change.” He eyed Luke and shook his head. “Dude, it’s freezing out here and you’re walking around in a t-shirt. Aren’t you cold?”
“The cold doesn’t really bother me anymore. I guess it’s another side-effect of my condition.”
“Well, do me a favor and go put on a coat, or at least wrap one of these blankets around yourself. Whether you feel it or not, I’m pretty sure you can still get frostbite like any other human.”
Luke reached behind his friend, grabbed a blanket from one of the huge wet-bags they stored their gear in, and begrudgingly wrapped the slightly damp, former Army-issue wool around his shoulders. “OK, Doctor Mom, are you happy now?”
“Maybe,” Zach answered as he gazed up at the stars. “But I have another question. You had the first shift of guard duty tonight, and I relieved you. Do you not sleep anymore either?”
Luke was quiet for a minute; then he sighed before looking into his friend’s eyes. “I wish I could sleep. I may need less than before, but that’s not the issue. I don’t know exactly what I’ve become, but I do know that I’m mostly the same person. At least I think I am. Lying next to Gracie, feeling her warmth, smelling her . . . I can’t help but think about things I shouldn’t.”
“She’s your wife, Luke. Why shouldn’t you?”
“Think about it, Zach. What if I somehow infected her? I could never forgive myself. I survived a hunter bite, probably because Carter and Jack bled me out, but there’s no way to know if I can still pass the virus on to other people.”
“But you survived; you’re not one of the monsters. Maybe your new chemistry can actually immunize people—you’ve always had a bit of a savior complex, maybe the doctors in Utah can use your blood to create a vaccine to save humanity.”
“Or maybe I’m a Typhoid Mary, and I don’t get sick but everybody around me does. If the doctors in Utah could make a vaccine from people who survived a bite, they wouldn’t need me to do it. The whole bleeding thing is called the Utah method—that’s how Carter and Jack knew what to do.” Luke paused and quietly added, “I sure would like to find those other survivors to see if they’re like me.”
Zach chose his words carefully. “I know everybody called it the Utah Method, but nobody from Utah actually knew of a specific survivor. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any, but we’ve all heard lots of different stories since the outbreak began. People want to believe that survival is possible.”
“But it is possible—you’re looking at living proof.”
“You’re right about that. But tell me, how do most folks react to you?”
“You want me to say that I freak people out, and I know that my eyes take some getting used to, but it’s not that big of a deal.”
“I agree with you,” Zach replied, “but I wonder why we never heard about the Utah survivors who healed super-fast and had strange black eyes. I think that’s the sort of stuff people would talk about.”
“Maybe not everybody has the same reaction,” Luke speculated. “And maybe I am the only survivor. That’s all the more reason to be extra cautious around Gracie and the rest of you.”
Zach sat up straight, stung by Luke’s comment. “It’s just Maddy, me, you, and Gracie out here. Do you really think you’re a danger to us? If you think that, you’re wrong.”
“You don’t know that, and Gracie doesn’t know that either. If I get hurt in a fight or accident, nobody touches my blood. You got that?”
“Oh, I get it. You two swap spit, sweat, food, and probably exchange germs a hundred other ways, but you’re worried about infecting her by having sex. C’mon, buddy, we learned how to prevent blood-borne pathogens from spreading through sexual contact in middle school. Gracie isn’t afraid of the whole marital relationship thing, but you can’t stop thinking about the possibility of turning your wife into a pack-running flesh-eater. One moment of weakness—“
“So, smart guy,” Luke interrupted, “what should I do? I feel like I need to stay close to keep her safe, but what if I’m the biggest danger to her?”
“You must be driving yourself crazy if you’re coming to me for relationship advice. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re usually mister know-it-all. The good news is, I got this.” Zach put his hand on Luke’s shoulder. “Dude, Gracie’s a smart girl; she can think for herself and make her own decisions. She’s bad-ass enough to keep herself safe. I know most of the time you’re the guy who makes the decisions and the rest of us just follow along, but you’re here because we’ve backed you up. We’re a team, and we trust each other. Trust Gracie. Don’t assume you’re always right. When it comes to being close with the woman you love, well, there are definitely ways you guys could . . . uh . . . be safe.”
Luke’s blush wasn’t obvious in the dim light. “Yeah, that’s what she says. But it’s not like we have any privacy either. We may have our own tent, but you guys are right next to us, and canvas isn’t exactly soundproof.”
“Just say the word, man, and Maddy and I will make ourselves scarce for a while. You’ll need what, about two or three minutes?”
“Very fun—” Luke stopped mid-word and cocked his head.
“What is it?” Zach whispered.
Luke held up his hand and listened for another minute before he replied, “Nothing to worry about, just some animals in the distance.”
“Animals—you don’t mean flesh-eaters do you? It’s weird how scarce they are around here.”
“Barnes probably did a pretty thorough round-up in this area, and then we finished them off in Vicksburg.” Luke pictured the gore covered battlefields, the piles of dead hunters washing up on the banks of the Mississippi, the hundreds of creatures trapped in razor wire along the defensive perimeter of the camp. The old Luke would have felt nothing but satisfaction at this memory, but a hollow sadness now tempered his dedication to rid the world of the infected. His mission hadn’t changed, but he no longer enjoyed it—now it was just a tragic necessity.
Zach stood up and stretched. “I gotta go take a dump.”
Luke grimaced. “Thanks for the announcement. Am I supposed to give you a cookie when you’re done?”
“Naw, I just thought you should know that I might be gone a while.”
“In that case, why don’t you let me finish your shift? It’s almost sunrise anyway, and I’d like some time to think. I’ll wake everybody up in an hour or so.”
The world, even in its fallen state, was a wonder for Luke to behold. As the days had passed since his reawakening, he’d gradually become aware of the current of energy running through all life and creation. He’d realized that little, if anything, on this planet was truly separate from him. The same force flowed through his mind and body like a gentle electric current, and with that realization his view of life had been irreversibly changed. He would kill to eat. He would kill evil people where he found them. He would kill the infected who threatened humans, especially the humans he loved. But he could no more kill for sport or hatred than he could kill himself.
For perhaps the first time, Luke seriously considered the possibility that humans were going to have to share the planet with a new, quite dangerous species. For at least a hundred thousand years, Homo Sapiens had been spreading across the globe, forcing all of nature to adapt to their presence. As much as possible, humans had killed off the other large predators, and pushed the survivors into regions where people didn’t care to live in large numbers. Wolves and bears and mountain lions had found spaces to thrive in North America in spite of decades of concerted efforts to eradicate them; would the human relationship with hunters turn out any differently? Luke had no reason to believe the flesh-eaters could breed, but they could increase their population by infecting survivors, who, if the history of other apocalyptic disasters offered an accurate glimpse into the future, would soon be breeding with abandon.
Luke thought in the final, flickering light of the dying fire,
I suppose we can worry about those things after we win this war.
As the sun began to rise on the eastern horizon, Luke looked at the faded pink scar on his hand, the exact place where a dying hunter had ripped a chunk of his flesh away. He knew that the healing ability was only part of the physical changes the exposure to the virus had left him with. He was stronger, faster, and more immune to pain than he’d been before the injury, and he’d been a world-class warrior then. He could see better than ever, and his hearing was almost annoying in its clarity.
The scar was a badge that reminded Luke that he was a changed man in another fundamental way; it was a symbol of the moment he’d found out that Jack Smith was his biological father. He’d always think of Jerry Seifert, the man who’d raised him, as “Dad,” but Luke felt a profound connection to Jack. The two had instantly bonded when they’d met in Indiana months earlier, and their relationship had developed into one of mutual respect and love long before that fateful moment when David told them what the secretly-conducted DNA test had revealed. He felt twinges of guilt for heading west when Jack may have needed his help in Indiana, but he had learned to follow his inner compass. Of course, following that compass didn’t mean that Luke’s heart wasn't conflicted; he felt compelled to head west, and he’d learned to trust his “feelings,” but he couldn’t help wondering about what was happening in Fort Wayne.
Luke’s thoughts were interrupted by quiet rustling sounds in the tent behind him. Gracie was waking up, and if he knew his wife, she’d be hungry. He decided that it was useless to worry about things he couldn’t control—he chose to trust that both Jack and Fort Wayne were surviving without him. He still didn’t know what he should or shouldn’t do about transitioning to married life, but right now he was just looking forward to Gracie’s presence by the fire. She emerged yawning from the tent, with her short dark hair sticking up in several directions.
Gracie looked around and grumbled, “I thought Zach was on guard duty.”
Luke pulled her into his lap and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. “He was, but I couldn’t sleep, and we talked for a while. I told him I’d finish his shift.”
“You don’t sleep much anymore.”
Luke shrugged nonchalantly. “And I won’t appreciate a big bowl of oatmeal for breakfast either, but that’s pretty much what we’re stuck with this morning.”
“We should have set some snares for a squirrel or a rabbit. Tonight I won’t forget.” Gracie hopped off Luke but kept the blanket. “You get the water boiling, and I’ll get Zach and Maddy.”
Luke grabbed her arm and pulled her close again. “What’s your hurry?”
Gracie smiled and nuzzled Luke’s neck. “Don’t tease me, Romeo. Especially when it seems like we finally have some time alone.”
“Unfortunately, we’re not alone,” Luke sighed.
“What—” Gracie began before she saw Zach approaching from the direction of the riverbank.
“How does our carnivore feel about fish?” Zach grinned and carefully held out several good-sized catfish. “Dude, I know it’s not steak, but meat is meat, right?”
Gracie was impressed. “You caught those for Luke? Do you know how to clean them?”
“This country boy was fishing long before he learned how to dress a deer—what do you think?” Zach asked rhetorically. “I’m gonna show these off to Maddy; maybe she can help me gut them. That’ll give you two lovebirds some snuggle time.”