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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 23
“What are you doing?” Benny asked, munching on a slice of apple.
“Making a list.”
“Things I don’t understand about what’s been happening.”
“That’s going to be a long list. What do you have so far?”
She chewed the end of her pencil. “Okay, I get the rhinoceros. Zoos and circuses and all. That one makes sense … but what about the guy we found tied to the truck? Who was he and why was he fed to the zoms? And by whom? And worse … why didn’t he reanimate?”
Benny glumly shook his head.
“What does it mean?” Nix asked. “What could it mean? Is the plague or radiation or whatever it is wearing off? Or are we just now discovering that some people are immune to it?”
“Wouldn’t we know that already?” Benny asked.
“With three hundred million zoms in America? How would anyone know, especially if it was rare?”
“The bounty hunters would know,” insisted Benny. “Tom would have known. He’s all over the place. He hears all sorts of stuff. If that’s been happening, then he knows about it.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding thoughtfully, “I’ll buy that … but wouldn’t that mean the other idea is more likely?”
“That whatever caused the zoms to rise in the first place might be coming to an end?” Benny thought about it. “That would be pretty amazing.”
“If it’s true …,” Nix said dubiously. “Then there’s the big weirdness at the way station. Brother David, Shanti, and Sarah missing. And all the stuff Tom sent for our road trip.”
“And the zoms,” Benny added. “Tom told me that sometimes a bunch of zoms would follow something, like a herd of wild horses or a running bear. He called it ‘flocking.’ Is that what we saw last night?”
“No way,” Nix said firmly. “Last night was no accident. It felt like a planned attack. I think someone drove them down out of the mountains like Lilah did with the zoms from the Hungry Forest.”
They ate their apples in silence for a while.
“Nix,” Benny said tentatively, “there’s … something I have to tell you. Something I didn’t want to say last night.”
“Is it about Lilah?” Nix said quickly.
He turned and looked at her.
“Lilah? What about her? Because she ran off?”
Nix colored. “No, never mind. Go ahead … what were you going to say?”
He took a breath. “Last night … when we were in the field with all those zoms? Before I started the fire? I … um … saw someone.”
Benny cleared his throat. “It was dark. I was scared. There were a million freaking zoms, so I can’t be sure and I’m probably wrong, but … I think I saw Charlie Pink-eye.”
She whipped around and grabbed his sleeve with her small, strong fists. She shook him. “What?”
“Whoa! Ow, you’re banging my head against the stones.”
Nix abruptly stopped shaking him, but her fists stayed knotted in his sleeve. “You saw him?”
“No, I said I wasn’t sure. The dark and the zoms and all—”
“Was he alive or a zom?”
“I … don’t know.”
“Don’t lie to me, Benny Imura!”
“I’m not—I don’t know. It was just a second. I—I think he might have been alive, but the zoms weren’t attacking him.”
“He could have had cadaverine on, Benny, just like we did.”
“I know. But something wasn’t right about it. It might not even have been him.”
Nix stared into his eyes for a long time and then let him go with a little push. She suddenly got up and walked a dozen paces away, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest as if she stood in a cold wind. Benny got up more slowly but stayed by the wall.
He watched her as she worked it through. Every angle of her body seemed jagged and sharp, her posture charged with tension. Benny could only imagine what horrors were playing out in Nix’s mind. The man who had beaten and murdered her mother and then kidnapped her. The thought that somehow Charlie had orchestrated the zombie assault on the way station was horrible. It also made a queer kind of sense, since a swarm of zombies had been used to destroy Charlie’s team. An eye for an eye?
She ignored him, standing stiff and trembling under the unrelenting sun. Benny waited for her. Three minutes passed. Four. Five. Gradually, by slow and painful degrees, the harsh lines of tension drained from Nix’s shoulders and back. When she turned around, Benny could see unshed tears in the corners of her eyes. She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then her eyes snapped wide.
Her warning was a half second too late, as cold hands clamped onto Benny from behind and dragged him backward over the stone wall. Benny twisted wildly around and saw the face of the zom who had him. A tall, thin man dressed in a tunic that looked like it had been made from an old bedsheet.
“No!” Benny cried.
It was Brother David.
FROM NIX’S JOURNAL
Notes from Mrs. Griswold’s science lecture on how cadaverine is made:
The cadaverine used in the Rot and Ruin is actually a mixture of cadaverine, putrescine, spermidine, and other vile ptomaines. The pure compounds are caustic, toxic stuff although they can be easily diluted in water or ethanol (but not really diluting the aroma).
Making these compounds is not a project for a home basement chem lab or even a high school lab. The glassware, equipment, and chemicals are usually found in college level or industrial labs, and that equipment has been scavenged and brought to Mountainside.
The original method comes from a German journal dating back to about 1890. This method for reacting dichloropropane with sodium cyanide (a deadly poison) followed by reaction with zinc powder and hydrochloric acid. This gives cadaverine. Yuck.
TOM KNELT BY A COLD CAMPFIRE AND STUDIED THE GROUND. THIS WAS the second place where he’d found Chong’s footprints and signs of violence. The first time had been the spot where Sally Two-Knives had tried to rescue Chong. There were indeed two dead men there, and Tom recognized them. Denny Spurling and Patch Lewis, bounty hunters of the low-life variety who usually ran with a third man named Stosh Lowinski. These were two of the three men Benny had seen torturing and brutalizing zoms on their first trip into the Ruin. Stosh, a beefy man who used a replica Arabian scimitar to kill zoms, was not here. Sally had given them a little taste of their own medicine. Rough justice, but justice of a kind.
Tom knew Sally’s history. She’d been a rough, hard-edged Roller-Derby blocker with one of the Rat City Rollergirl teams out of Seattle when First Night changed the world. Sally had been the mother of two little kids, and she’d fought her way across Seattle to her small apartment where her mother was minding April and Toby. By the time Sally got to the apartment building, the lobby was splashed with blood. It took her a couple of years to tell Tom the whole story. It came out in broken fragments, and none of it was pretty. There were no happy endings, and when she reached her tenth-floor apartment, all she found was heartbreak.
Broken and more than half-crazy from loss, Sally headed south in a Humvee she took out of a used car lot. The salesmen at the dealership were long past caring. Sally made it as far as Portland before the electromagnetic pulses released by the nukes killed her car. She raided a sporting goods store for weapons. Previous looters had already taken the guns, so she loaded up with knives, including the two bowie knives that eventually became her trademark and her name.
It was nearly two years before she made it into Mariposa County, where she met Tom and discovered that there were towns filled with survivors. Tom remembered the Sally he’d first met: filthy, wild-eyed, almost feral, and more than half-dead from a bacterial infection she’d picked up from drinking bad water. He had gotten her first to Brother David’s and then into town.
Tom knew that Sally felt she owed him a debt, but in his view, if she help
ed someone else, then a different kind of infection would spread. Generosity could be as contagious as the zombie plague as long as enough people were willing to be carriers.
Tom rose from where he’d been crouching as he studied the scene.
The two men had indeed been quieted and left to rot. Tom wasted no sympathy on them. However, something caught his eye, and he parted some weeds and saw Chong’s bokken lying there. He picked it up. It was undamaged. Tom rigged a sling and hung the sword across his chest. As he did so he walked slowly around the clearing, looking at the prints. There were five distinct sets. Chong’s waffle-soled shoes. Sally’s cross-grained hiking boots. Prints that matched the shoes of the two dead men. And a fifth set that entered the camp from upslope. Tom placed his foot into one of the prints, and it dwarfed his. Tom was not a big man, and he wore a size nine-and-a-half shoe. This print had to be at least a fourteen extra wide, and the impression was ground well into the topsoil. A big man. Tall and heavy.
Like Charlie. Charlie Pink-eye had worn size fourteens.
Tom continued to walk the edges of the clearing until he found an even deeper set of footprints leading away. Same shoes, but clearly a heavier footfall. The answer was there to be read. There were no traces of Chong’s waffle soles, which meant that the big man had carried the boy off.
That gave Tom some hope. If Chong was dead, he would have been quieted and left for the crows. If he was alive and being carried, then even a big man could not move at top speed. And it was virtually impossible to cover your tracks while carrying a burden.
Tom was not carrying a burden. He could move very fast, and even a blind man could follow those tracks. He set out, moving quickly. He had the kind of lean and wiry body that was built for running, and he knew how to run. Two hours later he found the remains of a campfire and the clear and distinct marks of Chong’s waffle soles. The campfire was almost cold. Dirt had been kicked over the small blaze, and it had cooled more slowly than if it had been doused with water. Tom judged that he was now no more than four hours behind the big man. He was making up the time he’d lost by tending to Sally last night; and the big man had stopped to rest. When they’d started out again, Chong was walking instead of being carried. Good.
“Hold on, Chong,” he murmured aloud. “I’m coming for you.”
CHONG FLUNG HIMSELF TO ONE SIDE AS THE BIG ZOMBIE LUNGED. He hit the ground in a sloppy roll, coming up too fast, slamming into the opposite wall. He’d tried to snatch the pipe as he rolled, but his fingers merely brushed the cold length of it, sending it rolling away from him.
The crowd cheered, though Chong couldn’t tell if they were in favor of his attempt or its failure.
The zom turned, much faster than Chong thought it could, and instead of a dead moan, the creature hissed at him. The sound was full of hatred. Chong’s mind stalled. Hatred was an emotion. Zoms didn’t have any. But he could see the menace and malevolence etched into the snarling face of the living dead thing.
The crowd must have heard him. They burst into raucous laughter.
“Surprise, surprise, little man!” taunted the Burned Man. “Bet you never seen a freshie like Big Joe.”
The zom—Big Joe—took a lumbering step toward Chong. However, its foot came down on the pipe and it rolled under the creature’s weight. Chong seized the opportunity and jumped forward, trying to land one of the kicks Tom had taught them. A jumping front thrust, intended to slam the flat of the foot against the opponent’s center of mass and knock him backward.
That was the plan.
Chong’s foot missed the big zom’s stomach and struck him in the left hip. Instead of knocking the zombie backward, it spun his mass, and with his weight already unstable from stepping on the pipe, the creature toppled off balance and fell. The pipe went skipping off the ground and struck the wall with a dull thud. Chong fell hard on his butt, and pain shot from his tailbone all the way up his spine and ignited fireworks in his brain. This new hurt, stacked on top of all his other aches, made Chong feel like he was toppling into a world where nothing but hurt existed.
Even through the pain and disorientation, he knew that if he just sat there, he’d be dead. With sparks still flashing in his eyes, he twisted around onto his hands and knees and fished for the pipe.
The roar of the crowd blocked out the moan of the zombie and the sounds it made getting back to its feet. Just as Chong’s fingers closed around the cold iron, the icy hand of Big Joe closed around the back of Chong’s neck. The zom plucked him off the ground as if he weighed nothing. Cold spittle splattered on his naked shoulders as he was pulled toward that awful mouth.
Chong shrieked in pain and fear and swung the pipe with both hands up and over his head. It struck the big zom’s forehead hard enough to send a jarring vibration down through the metal and into Chong’s hands.
The zom did not let go.
“Uh-oh!” jeered the Burned Man, sparking more laughter.
Chong felt the rough edges of the zom’s teeth begin to close around his shoulder. He screamed and swung the pipe again and again and again. The teeth pinched him, and the pain was unbelievable. But with the next swing of the club the zom lost its grip on him, and Chong dropped to the floor. He landed hard and instantly scuttled away like a spider, craning his neck to look over his shoulder as the zombie staggered backward, its eyes becoming dull with confusion. The front of its skull had a grooved look where the pipe had hammered it.
But there was bright, fresh blood on its lips!
Chong went crazy. He rushed the monster, swinging the pipe with so much force that he could feel his own muscles pulling and tearing. Spit flew from his mouth; the world seemed to vanish behind a red haze as he brought the Motor City Hammer’s black pipe club down over and over again.
The zom fell against the wall and still Chong hammered it. The creature’s feet slipped out from under it, and Chong beat on it as it slid down to the dirt floor. Its hands fell limply to the ground, and Chong never let up. Only when the creature slumped and fell sideways, his head a lumpy mass that no longer resembled a skull, did Chong pause, the gory club held high.
Big Joe was dead. The crowd cheered. Chong dropped the pipe and twisted his head to look at his shoulder. The flesh was raw and puckered and torn. Blood poured down his chest and back.
“Oh God,” Chong whispered.
He had been bitten.
BENNY THREW HIS WEIGHT FORWARD JUST AS NIX BROUGHT HER BOKKEN down with all her strength. The white fingers shattered under the impact, and Benny was free. He fell onto hands and knees but got to his feet in a heartbeat and ran.
Nix backed away, still holding the wooden sword out in front of her.
“Come on!” yelled Benny, clumsily snatching up their carpet coats.
Brother David was trying to climb over the broken stone wall. Two other zoms shambled around the sides. Sister Shanti and Sister Sarah.
Nix’s face went pale with horror and grief. “Oh … Benny … no.”
“We can’t help them,” cried Benny. “Nix, come on … there’s nothing we can do.”
“We can’t just leave them.”
“Yes, we can. Come on!”
The zoms were coming toward them, but they were slow and awkward. Nix kept backing up until she stood with Benny near the wall of the old barn, a hundred yards away from the three zoms. Behind them the road unrolled into the distance toward Yosemite. Here … there was nothing left but tragedy.
And more questions.
“Nix,” Benny said softly. “Please …”
She lowered her sword. The zoms were picking their way through tall weeds and stones. The faces of the two young women were empty of all the light and peace that had been there the last time Nix and Benny had seen them. All the vitality and personality and joy that had made these women what they were, that had brought them a measure of contentment even out here in the Rot and Ruin, were gone. Stolen from them.
sp; “Someone did this to them,” Nix said, her eyes fierce with hurt and anger.
“I know.” He handed over her carpet coat. They quickly put them on, looking at each other, their eyes speaking volumes. So much would have to be left unsaid for now. And if they kept going east, so many things might remain unanswered. Unanswered and unpunished.
Tom had said that the Children of God believed that zoms—the Children of Lazarus—were the meek who had been intended to inherit the earth. Benny did not know if that was true. At that moment he hoped so, because at least it meant that Brother David, Sister Shanti, and Sister Sarah were where and what they had always wanted to be.
That did not make the hurt any less for Benny and Nix. It did not make the rage burn any less hot.
The three zoms continued to lumber toward them. Benny and Nix kept backing up, moving past the rust-colored wall of the barn. Then they froze when they heard the squeal of ancient hinges as the barn door swung outward. Benny whirled, but he was a second too late as a zom lunged at him from the shadows. Waxy lips pulled back to reveal rotting teeth. Benny and the monster crashed to the ground, rolling over and over in the weeds. Two more zoms rushed at Nix. She swung her bokken, catching one across the face; but the second crowded past and grabbed Nix’s red hair.
It was all so fast. Even as Benny fought with the zom, a part of his mind was trying to understand what was happening. The zoms weren’t slow. They were rotted and decayed, but they weren’t slow; and the burly creature trying to tear his throat out was strong. Far stronger than any zom Benny had fought; stronger than any zom he had heard about.