Authors: Daniel J. Williams
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
CHAPTER FORTY TWO
CHAPTER FORTY THREE
CHAPTER FORTY FOUR
CHAPTER FORTY FIVE
CHAPTER FORTY SIX
CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN
CHAPTER FORTY EIGHT
CHAPTER FORTY NINE
CHAPTER FIFTY ONE
CHAPTER FIFTY TWO
CHAPTER FIFTY THREE
CHAPTER FIFTY FOUR
CHAPTER FIFTY FIVE
CHAPTER FIFTY SIX
CHAPTER FIFTY SEVEN
CHAPTER FIFTY EIGHT
CHAPTER FIFTY NINE
CHAPTER SIXTY ONE
CHAPTER SIXTY TWO
CHAPTER SIXTY THREE
CHAPTER SIXTY FOUR
CHAPTER SIXTY FIVE
CHAPTER SIXTY SIX
CHAPTER SIXTY SEVEN
CHAPTER SIXTY EIGHT
CHAPTER SIXTY NINE
CHAPTER SEVENTY ONE
CHAPTER SEVENTY TWO
CHAPTER SEVENTY THREE
CHAPTER SEVENTY FOUR
CHAPTER SEVENTY FIVE
CHAPTER SEVENTY SIX
CHAPTER SEVENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER SEVENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER SEVENTY NINE
CHAPTER EIGHTY ONE
CHAPTER EIGHTY TWO
CHAPTER EIGHTY THREE
CHAPTER EIGHTY FOUR
CHAPTER EIGHTY FIVE
CHAPTER EIGHTY SIX
CHAPTER EIGHTY SEVEN
CHAPTER EIGHTY EIGHT
CHAPTER EIGHTY NINE
CHAPTER NINETY ONE
He was a man of many burdens, haunted by the voices of those who had fallen.
In the middle of a dead city, no one witnessed his latest actions. Few survived to witness anything anyway, living or dead. Walking to the edge of a small pond, Mace stared silently at his reflection. The man that gazed back seemed foreign to him: Foreboding, dark.
Gone was the fit, clean look of a few years back. Bending down to rinse the blood off his arms, Mace gazed intently at the figure staring back. Scooping water up with one hand, he let it trickle down his forearm. The blood washed back into the pond and left a slowly spreading blush that made his appearance shimmer and appear more menacing.
In the back of his head, Father McCann’s voice echoed.
“To embrace the darkness only leads to destruction.”
He’d tried to resist it. He’d tried hard. The darkness lived inside him, though, breathed inside him, and there was never any rest for the wicked.
Moving silently to the corpses, Mace bent down to gather their weapons. All three men carried some type of firearm. As he checked them, none were fully loaded, one completely empty. They’d drawn first, though, and left him no choice.
Barely acknowledging the bodies before him, he ticked off a number in his head: 87. Those three brought his kill count up to eighty-seven men or women, taken down by his hand, since leaving Kansas.
A part of him didn’t want to kill. He gave them fair warning. Maybe the look in his eyes spooked them. Maybe his apocalyptic appearance made them edgy. Maybe he goaded them into it. In the end it really didn’t matter. They fired first. One shot. It was the last they would ever take.
After picking through their meager possessions, Mace stuffed their valuables in the saddlebag of his large black Harley Cruiser. Going back to the pond, he slapped cold water on the back of his neck, then on the sides of his head. Two years back he’d shaved his skull into a Mohawk. Not only did it give him a fiercer look, but it kept his head cooler through the hot Texas summer. Maybe it didn’t. He didn’t know. Or really care.
He briefly smirked as he recalled the looks on the kids’ faces when they’d witnessed his new ‘do. A week later over half the boys shaved their own heads. Two weeks later they all did. They started calling themselves the Alamo Ninja Mohawk Warriors, defenders of Apocalyptic Neverland.
He fired up the Cruiser, letting it purr quietly as he scanned the horizon. Fixed with a custom muffler, the noise was soothing to the nerves. Streets that defined death were all that surrounded him.
On an early morning patrol, he’d spotted the men from a distance. They’d pulled their weapons as soon as he approached. He tried to reason, but they wouldn’t stand down. The one dumbass took a shot and it was over.
After Kansas, he spent every waking hour building, planning, scavenging or killing to make sure their compound would never fall. It was
the only thing that kept the darkness in check. He’d gained forty pounds of muscle in the last three years from heavy lifting, yet still couldn’t quench the bloodlust.
Camp life revolved around survival. Serving as camp instructor, Jade taught the kids to fight. She used her own technique for self-defense: a blend of boxing, kenpo and jujitsu. It became a regular part of their training routine. Archery and machetes replaced weaponry because of ammo reserves. Spears and javelins proved as useful as slingshots to the properly-trained warrior. Mace embraced it all.
So far he’d outfought, outshot, and outmaneuvered any poor son-of-a-bitch he'd co
me across. Sooner or later he figured his luck would run out and he’d be forced to meet his maker. It was the one thing he feared.
He looked towards the sky and felt nothing. “I know what I am,” he said without emotion. Bo’s voice whispered inside his head. He heard it often.
“You brought that shit into my camp!”
It was all his fault.
Mace stroked his fingers through his thick black goatee, then took one last glance at the dead men. He’d posted their heads on stakes as a warning to others. He put the bike in gear and rolled the throttle. The bike gunned up the embankment and briefly took air before it hit pavement and rolled fast towards their latest compound.
“Shawn, c’mon, take just one bite.”
Mace walked through the door of their abode as Jade struggled to feed the boys dinner. They’d converted one of the officer’s quarters at the Alamo into their home. As soon as he walked in on his family, Mace felt the darkness ebb, and he longed to experience the love that used to be so easily shared with them. All he could do now was pretend. He felt nothing.
“Everybody being good in here?” he asked, doing his best to appear jovial.
Jason was out of his chair immediately. Running to give him a strong bear-hug around his leg, Jason looked up in adoration. “I’m being good. Shawn’s being a pirate!” He turned towards his brother and pointed. “Watch.” Shawn squirmed in his baby seat and threw a handful of food in their direction. It barely made it past the kitchen table.
“See?” Jason said, sticking his tongue out at the baby. Jade wiped Shawn’s hand and said tiredly, “Little man, you need to settle down and eat.”
Mace tousled Jason’s Mohawk then lifted him up, throwing him on his shoulder. “Shawn is part pirate, Jason. That’s the problem.”
Mace winked at Jade and she looked away. Her greatest fear was that Shawn would have some sort of health or emotional problems. Being born after Mace was poisoned by the toxin, they had no idea how it might affect Shawn’s well being. Now that the infected were dying off, they also weren’t sure if it meant a premature death for Shawn and Mace.
Eyeing the body-armor vest, Jade bit her lip. She could see the mark the bullet left. “You run into trouble?”
He caught her focus on the vest and tried to change the subject. “Nothing too serious. It looks like you had more trouble here.”
“You were shot, Mace,” Jade said as she rose to look at the mark more clearly. “How could that not be serious?”
“I want to see it!” Jason yelled from atop Mace’s shoulder. He tried to scramble down Mace’s body and pressed a foot against the injury. Mace winced and grabbed him around the armpits, placing him squarely on the floor. He tried to hide his anger over the move.
“It’s nothing,” he said tightly to his family. He took a slow, deep breath, trying to keep himself levelheaded.
“Where, Daddy?” Jason yelled excitedly, looking at Mace’s body for some sort of bullet hole. “Where was you shot?”
Mace tried his best to appear calm as he took Jason’s finger and placed it on the bullet-mark. “Right there.”
Jason pushed on it and the pain felt sharp, yet warm and comforting. “Are you okay? Does it hurt?” Jason asked much softer, staring at the mark.
“Only a little.”
“Did you kill the bad guy?” he asked, looking up.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice.”
A wail suddenly filled the room as Shawn got tired of being ignored. Jade moved back towards the baby-chair where Shawn waited with another handful of ammunition. “Bwaaah!” he yelled as he threw food in his mother’s direction. A piece of corn caught her cheek and she drew a frazzled breath as she wiped it off and plucked him out of the high-chair. “Time to get you cleaned up,” she said as he wailed harder. She was three months pregnant with their third child and in need of a vacation.
“I’ll see if Yvette can give you a break,” Mace said as he moved towards the front door. He could only take so much of family life. He wanted to help, but Jade understood his limitations. He’d talk to Yvette then hit the training center.
Walking through the Calvary Courtyard, Mace watched as a dozen kids stopped training to stare. He’d reached a mythical status in many of their eyes. The kid that Woody sparred with stopped to gawk and Woody clobbered him with an elbow to the jaw. The kid dropped.
“Didn’t look fair to me,” Mace said as he passed. The kid on the ground rubbed his chin while keeping his eyes trained on Mace.
“You never drop your guard,” Woody answered with a mischievous grin. “They’ve got to learn that.”
“Just what have I created?” Mace chuckled. Even though it had been over three years, Woody still recalled Jacqueline asking the exact same question. He’d been Peter Pan then. Peter Pan no longer existed. At only eleven, he looked years older. His face grew solemn as he reflected on his past. “A leader,” Woody answered seriously. “One who won’t allow his soldiers to die needlessly.”
Mace nodded in agreement, then continued to his private workout area. He trained alone.
Two hours later he sat down to lunch with Lisa at a picnic table on their grounds. It was their daily ritual. Some days they said nothing at all. It didn’t matter. They suffered the same affliction. After they were bit in Kansas, they witnessed the changes in each other. It gave them a connection, a bond. One that couldn’t be broken.
“There’s a small group headed this way,” Lisa said nonchalantly as she fiddled with something in her hands. Mace immediately perked up.
“I saw at least six.”
“How far out?”
“Maybe ten miles by now. I spotted them about an hour ago.”
“When were you going to tell me?”
“Right now,” she laughed. “They’re on horseback. They spotted my dune-buggy so I’m sure they’re approaching with caution.”
Both Mace and Lisa preferred to patrol alone. It made it easier to dispose of threats without explanation and satisfy their appetite for violence. Plus, it kept the camp free of their stain. Despite the risks, no one could persuade them to do otherwise.
“Saw at least one shotgun,” Lisa replied.
“We could use the ammo.”
“And the horses,” she added before she pulled out a glass pipe and fired it up.
“You sure you want to do that now?” Mace asked.
“It helps kill the edge,” she said as she tried to hold her breath.
“I know. That’s why I’m saying…”
While Mace dealt with his condition by exhausting himself physically, Lisa discovered her inner rage was calmed by marijuana. They kept several plants growing in the garden. She started coughing loudly then said, “It helps me focus,” between coughs.
Mace couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, more like it makes you stupid.”
“At least I have an excuse.”
Mace rolled his eyes. “You ready, or do you want to roll a few more for the road.”
Lisa tapped out the pipe and smiled. “I’m ready. This keeps me from shooting first and asking questions later.”
“That’s not always the best strategy.”
“You’re here. I have nothing to worry about.”
“Glad YOU don’t. I’ve got Courtney Love watching my back.”
Lisa stood and patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, big guy. I’ll kill the bad guys if you want. I don't think we need it, but do you want any backup?”
Mace shook his head. “Nothing we can’t handle. You know how the kids get, anyway.”
“Yeah. Bunch of little savages…”
“Exactly. They’ll want bragging rights. I love being the one with the bounty just to see the looks on their faces.”
Woody heard the dune-buggy and Harley as Mace and Lisa raced out of the compound. He jumped on the Walkie-Talkie. “Follow them, Crockett, and take Bowie and the Rangers with you.” Most of the kids had changed their names, yet again, choosing to be named after defenders of the Alamo.
Mace rode to the right and rear of the dune-buggy as the party on horses slowly appeared in the distance. Lisa slowed the buggy, finally stopping it a hundred yards back. Mace pulled up next to her. They waited silently. Mace casually set the kick-stand and climbed off the bike. His hands clenched as the party drew closer and he prepared himself for bloodshed. Lisa stood next to him, aiming a rifle in their direction. The horses stopped fifty-feet back and two of the riders dismounted.
“We’re not looking for any trouble,” a man shouted at them. Around 40, he held a rifle loosely in his left hand. His shaggy head of graying hair stirred lightly in the Texas breeze. “We just came from Oklahoma City. It got wiped out by a gang of Plaguers.” A girl stood next to him, looking to be around eighteen.
Mace and Lisa exchanged a glance. “Gang of Plaguers?” Mace shouted back. “You mean the infected? The damn zombies?”
“No, they’re dying off. The Plaguers are the ones getting sick.”
Not following the conversation, Mace felt his trigger-finger get itchy. He thought about putting the guy down. “What the hell are you talking about?”
The man stayed silent for a few long seconds. “How many of you are there?”
“Enough to finish you off quickly if need be,” Mace shouted back as he pulled out his weapon and pointed it at the man’s head.
“I’m asking to see if anyone is sick,” the man said as he backed up a few feet. He lifted his hands overhead.
“And why would you care?”
“The plague starts off like the flu. It’s spread by the carcasses. If anyone is sick you need to isolate them immediately.”
Thinking the guy was full of shit, Mace yelled out, “There is no one sick here. And why should we trust or believe you?”
“You don’t have to, but we’re carrying the antidote. This plague moves fast. We could help you.”
“How could there be an antidote?” Mace shouted back.
“It wasn’t made for this outbreak. It was made for the original plague. It was developed in San Francisco. It works, though.”
Mace felt his head spin for a second. He went to his saddlebag and lifted out a pair of binoculars. Adjusting them to zero in on the strangers, he took a long prolonged look before turning to Lisa. “Check them out. See if you recognize anyone.”
Lisa put the field glasses to her eyes. After a few seconds she said, “Damn, I think I do.”
“Me too. Which one?”
“The girl. She’s older now, but she was a smart ass. Hard to forget.”
Dirt-bikes sounded in the background. Mace knew the boys would be appearing any minute. Walking slowly towards the party, Mace shouted again. He kept his pistol aimed in their direction.
“This antidote you are talking about. We were the ones that made it.” Mace felt his stomach turn as the words left his mouth. The antidote was responsible for too much death and suffering. It was responsible for him. “Somebody from your party must have relocated on a caravan. It was distributed from a Kaiser hospital in South San Francisco.”
“I’ll be damned,” the man said as he slowly laid his rifle on the ground. He lifted his hands above his head again as he approached. “Am I glad to meet you, sir.”
Mace thought the title seemed completely out of place, especially considering his appearance. He straightened his gun arm. “That’s far enough,” he said icily as he studied the man carefully.
Raising his hands higher, the stranger said, “I told you, we’re not looking for trouble. Hell, I’d like to shake your hand. You saved a lot of people.”
Mace didn’t flinch. Lisa kept her rifle aimed at the man’s chest. The dirt bikes appeared from different directions. Within a minute they completely surrounded the party on horses. Crockett jumped off his bike and aimed an arrow at one of the men on horseback. The other boys all carried bows and quivers strapped to their backs.
“We’re taking the horses,” Crockett yelled loudly to one of the men. “Get off and put your guns on the ground.”
At the sight of the young boys with Mohawks, the girl piped up in anger, “What is this, some type of mutant-munchkin bullshit?”
Lisa whispered to Mace. “Yep, that’s her.”
The man who approached Mace turned and yelled, “Kelly! Shut up! We’re not looking for any trouble.”
“Hey, I didn’t start it. Look at them! I don’t even think they have hair on their balls, yet!”
Mace couldn’t help but chuckle under his breath.
“Crockett!” he yelled. “We’ve got this under control.”
“We need their horses!” Crockett yelled back.
The man turned back towards Mace with a look of desperation. “Please. We come in peace. We don’t want any trouble.”
Lisa nudged Mace and nodded towards one of the men on horseback. His hand reached slowly for a rifle.
“That’s far enough,” Mace yelled, moving his handgun to zero in on the target. “Crockett, lower your goddamn bow and keep your boys in check. We’re not going to shoot anyone unless they pull a weapon.” His attention turned to the man on horseback, he said, “Throw down your gun and dismount the horse. That goes same for the rest of you. We’re going to take you back to our compound and get this all sorted out.”
Kelly now stared hard at Lisa. “I know you,” she said in shock. “You were there. In Frisco.”
“I remember you, too,” Lisa said dryly. “Especially the cute mouth.” The girl’s parents placed her briefly in Lisa’s hospital daycare center. They all left on one of the caravans shortly after.
“Why do you talk so funny, anyway?” Crockett yelled at the girl.
“I don’t talk funny,” answered Kelly, defensively.
“I never heard nobody talk like you before.”
“I’m from New Jersey. This is just how we talk.”
“You sound like an idiot.”
“Well, you look like a freak!”
“Enough already,” Mace said loudly. “Take your boys and head back to camp,” he ordered Crockett. “We’ll be there shortly.”
Crockett stared at the girl for a second before he spit on the ground. “Stupid bitch,” he muttered under his breath.
Back at the Alamo, half the camp watched as Mace pulled his Harley through the entrance. The horses followed a few seconds later with Lisa bringing up the rear. Word spread quickly through the encampment as they approached. Months passed since their last visitor. Most people ended up dead by the side of the road.
“Holy shit,” said Kelly, getting off her horse. “It’s a whole tribe of munchkins. What the hell is up with the Mohawks?”
“It gives us a mental advantage,” Mace answered in spite of himself. It wasn’t worthy of a response.
“Well, you look mental, I’ll give you that.”
Mace took a few steps towards her, his irritation growing quickly, and fear showed on her face. “I don’t know who you think you are,” he growled, “but I suggest you shut your lip, and fast.”
Lisa grabbed his belt from behind to slow him down. “Easy, big guy. It’s too early to start snapping necks.” Mace gave Kelly a long, hard look. As he analyzed the girl, he recognized a past of privilege and money. Amazed that she’d lasted this long, he studied her more closely. She was the only one with a New Jersey accent, which meant the party most likely took her in.
Even though she was still just a kid, he could only take so much backtalk. He turned his attention to the man who initially approached them. “Why don’t we go talk somewhere. If I were you, I’d make sure Jersey, here, keeps her mouth shut. She could find herself short a tongue.”
The man nodded nervously. “What are you going to do with us?”
Mace pointed towards the others and said, “They stay in the prison until everything checks out. You come with me.”
Chelsea sat by the well under an oak tree as Crockett brought the prisoners through. At only eight years old, she was strong, confident, and as skilled as many of the boys. She surpassed most of them with her archery skills. She and Maya practically lived on the course. They just gotten through tending the garden.
Sitting Indian-style next to her, Maya gently petted Buster as he panted in the heat. His head was somewhat lopsided from the bullet damage, but it barely slowed him down. It was the lack of full vision that kept him close to camp. He had a habit of walking into walls when tired.
“What’s going on?” Maya asked as the five prisoners passed within twenty feet, surrounded by Mohawk warriors.
“I don’t know,” Chelsea answered quietly as she focused on the girl. “I think I know her!” she said in surprise as she concentrated on her face.
“She looks familiar. I know I’ve seen her.”
“Hi Maya,” Travis said, interrupting their conversation. Approaching from behind, he made it a point to seek her out after kitchen duty. He smelled like onions.
Breaking his glasses when the toxin was first released, Travis couldn't see clearly more than ten feet in front of him. It made him unfit for combat.
“But from where?” Maya asked Chelsea, ignoring Travis. She thought he was a dork. She had her eye on Miles, although half the boys in camp secretly had a crush on her.
Chelsea’s eyes grew wide as she remembered where she'd met the girl. “She’s from San Francisco, like me!
She was at the hospital!"
“Really?” Maya said. “That’s crazy. What’s she doing here?”
“I have no idea. She’s a pain in the ass, though. Trust me.”
Inside the chapel, Jim and Yvette were busy arguing over their nuptials. Mace walked in unnoticed with the stranger. Jim and Yvette were faced away and didn’t see them enter.
“All I’m saying is you could at least put a little more thought into this, Jim. ‘I promise to love you and stuff.’ Really? Is that the best you could come up with?”
“Well, you called me a dork in yours!”
“And you have to ask why?”
The stranger laughed, which instantly stopped them. They swung around, guns drawn.
“Whoa,” said Mace as he raised his hands. “We were just looking for a quiet place to talk. Didn’t know we were barging in on anything.”
“Damn, you scared us!” said Yvette. “I didn’t recognize the laugh.”
“Sorry,” the man said. “I couldn’t help myself. My apologies.”
“That’s okay,” Yvette said as she shot a harsh look at Jim. “We’re done in here. You aren’t interrupting anything too important, obviously.”
Jim rolled his eyes and Yvette pinched his arm. “Ow!”
“Cmon, let’s leave them alone. We can work on this someplace else.” She dragged him out by his arm. Jim smiled sheepishly at Mace as he left.
“That looks like a match made in heaven,” the man said cautiously.
“They’re actually good together. It’s a rather unique relationship. Why don’t you sit down.” Mace’s face remained stone cold.
The man nodded nervously and took a seat. “We don’t care much for strangers,” Mace said straight-off. “And we aren’t looking for any to join us. We’ll get you fed and on your way soon if you don’t give us any trouble.”
“We don’t have anywhere to go,” the man said quietly. As unsure as he was of Mace and the crazy kids, the road still posed a greater threat.
“Not my problem. Tell me about the plaguers. What’s been going on out there?”
Lifting his focus to make eye contact, the man’s eye twitched from nerves. Mace looked like a stone-cold killer. He was a truly frightening sight. “It started once the zombies started dropping,” the man said anxiously. “We noticed that anyone that hadn’t been inoculated from the original virus got sick. Soon after, they started going crazy: Violent crazy. Everywhere we’ve traveled we’ve run into the same thing. It started in Arizona and it’s been the same everywhere we’ve gone.”
“How do you know the antidote keeps it from happening?”
“Because we’re still standing. It’s widespread. I’m surprised you haven’t run into anything yet.”
The antidote, developed by a doctor in Cuba alarmed by the powerful effects of the toxin, prevented the zombie virus from spreading. It did, however, come with complications. Created for the original toxin, the antidote lacked a response to the alien amino acids later introduced to the concoction. Those attacked after receiving the antidote became unstable, developing an intense appetite for violence and sexual proclivity. Both Mace and Lisa struggled with the affliction.
“We’ve all received the antidote," Mace replied. "Any threat gets squashed before it even gets close. I’ve run into some crazy shit out there. I thought it was just what this life does to people.”
“Maybe, maybe not. There’s not a whole lot of rational thought once it takes hold, but if you saw it I wouldn’t think you’d mistake it for anything else.”
Mace no longer looked at the man as an enemy. He decided to introduce himself. “I’m Mace. I’m security around here. I’ll introduce you around. If you give me your word your people are safe, I’ll let you all go. There are some of ours you should meet, though. The kid that runs this place is only eleven, but he’s competent.”
“Did you say eleven?” the man asked, completely floored.
“Yeah, he’s some kind of prodigy or something. I got bit a few years back. I don’t know if you’ve come across that complication, but if you have you know it’s not an easy road.”
Tingles ran up the man’s spine. He nodded in understanding. “My name’s Roger. I’ve seen it. It’s not a pretty sight, and all of a sudden I am completely terrified of you.” Roger became silent for a moment. “How are you dealing with it?”
“I’m not going to gut you like a fish, if that’s what you’re asking.” Mace smiled and it looked completely sinister.
Roger stammered slightly. “How, how many others are, uh, like you?”
“One other. She’s discovered the magical bliss of marijuana, though. It keeps her calmer.” Mace smiled menacingly. “She’d still gut you like a fish.”
Roger became fidgety enough for Mace to probe. “What’s the story? Somebody close to you?”
Roger took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “My wife. She committed suicide six months after she was attacked. She became unstable.” The memory still haunted his dreams.
“Yet you want to shake my hand?” Mace leaned in closer and deeply studied Roger's face. “How could that be?
“The antidote saved our lives on more than one occasion. Plus, it gave me six months with my wife I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Roger felt unnerved by the whole situation. He'd failed his wife. He didn't need to drag it all up again.
Reflecting on Roger's words for a few minutes, Mace leaned back and tried to understand the man. Too comfortable with anger and violence, he seldom looked for the good in anything anymore. “What did you do before everything went to shit?”
Roger looked uncomfortable before he said quietly, “I was a minister.”
Mace immediately felt a pit in his stomach and felt like leaving. He remained seated and closed his eyes for a second to quell the uneasy feeling. “I was a spiritual man, once,” Mace said, feeling ice cold inside. “At least I thought I was. Now, I don’t know what the hell I believe in.”
“Once you accept spirituality you can’t just reject it,” Roger replied, instantly regretting his response by Mace’s expression. He spoke quickly, out of nerves. “I mean, if you discovered something greater than yourself once, you will forever question and try to come to terms with it.”
The words swam around in Mace’s head. It actually described him perfectly. As much as he would like to deny the existence of God, he spent more time asking questions than outright rejecting the concept. He’d experienced the light once, and as much as he’d like to, he just couldn’t forget it.
Thinking about the atmosphere around the compound, he knew how much they needed some type of moral compass. The kids were close to savages. They’d been forced to grow up that way. While he tried to live by a certain code, he no longer resembled anything close to a role model. “What are your feelings on hell?” Mace asked as the darkness crept back in. If Roger turned out to be a hell-fire preacher, he might just snuff him out on the spot.
Roger could tell it was a touchy subject. “Just because I have faith in a higher power doesn’t mean I claim to have all the answers. Besides, I would never be arrogant enough to judge anyone. I don’t know what they’ve been through or what’s in their heart.”
Eyeballing him intently, Mace said, “That sounds like a pretty safe answer to me.”
For the first time, Roger spoke with some irritation. “I don’t know if I personally believe in hell, at least a physical one. It is something I won’t know until I die. I just believe that anyone that lives without God is already in hell. It is a spiritual emptiness.”
“What about evil?” Mace asked as he began to enjoy the conversation.
“I told you, I don’t have all the answers, but if everything comes from God then everything returns to God, in one way or the other.”
“Sounds like you’re trying to rewrite the Bible.” Mace’s eyes were cold, yet gleamed with playfulness. He used to love these types of conversations with Father McCann.
“I see the Bible as a guide, not a rulebook. The books in the Bible were chosen at a certain time, for certain purposes. In order to fully understand the Good Book, you would need to view it as a historical document. At the time of its writing, what was the culture of the people who wrote it? What message were they trying to convey? Who were they writing it for?”
Mace looked at him closely. Here was a man who might be able to bring back some of his humanity. A spiritual man with an open mind could lead to some great discussions and a possible change of heart. For an instant he heard Father McCann’s voice. “
Follow your heart, Mace.”
It hardened a long time ago. He wasn’t sure if it could ever soften.
“Trust those that seek the truth and doubt those who claim they found it,” Mace said slowly and reflectively, repeating the spiritual advice of Father McCann, given a long time ago. He felt comfortable as he said the words. A sense of momentary peace passed through him. “I’d like you to stay,” Mace suddenly said directly. Maybe, just maybe, he could become fully human again.
Surprised by the sudden change of heart, Roger couldn’t tell if it was so much a request as an order. “I’d love to," Roger replied, afraid at this point to disagree. "I can’t speak for all the others, but I'm pretty sure Kelly and Tom will want to.” He wasn’t so sure. At the mention of Kelly, Mace needed some questions answered. “How did she end up with you? You’re not related.”
“Her parents brought the antidote. They died in Arizona and we took her in. We couldn’t just leave her to fend for herself. She's been through hell.”
“Well, you must have a lot of patience,” Mace said sarcastically.
“She’s not that bad once you get to know her. She’s just…how should I put it?”
“A fucking pain in the ass?”
Roger couldn’t help but snicker. “Yeah, somewhat. She is just very sarcastic. It’s a protective mechanism. She tries to keep herself from getting hurt. Like I said, she'd been through a lot.”
“Well, I think you should talk to her if she’s going to be around here for any period of time. The kids around here are tough. They’ll knock her on her ass if she pops off too much.”
“Duly noted. Anything else we should know?”
“We’ll just need to keep an eye on you for a while until there is some trust. I’ll let you stay free of the prison, but don’t do anything stupid. The price will be steep.”
The look in Mace’s eyes told Roger all he needed to know. “Don’t worry, we won’t.”
“Don’t take a step out of this compound, either. There are mines and traps all over the place.”
“I was impressed by your moat,” Roger commented. “I’m surprised it’s not filled with oil.”
Mace thought he caught a hint of sarcasm. “I made sure this place is safe, or as safe as can be. We used heavy equipment to dig that trench. No need to keep it filled with oil. If needed, that moat becomes impassable.”
“Don’t you ever get worried about one of the kids getting hurt?”
“The kids sneak out all the time. They don’t know I’m aware of it. It’s good for them, though. It teaches them the terrain and how to steer clear of the mines.”
“How do they sneak out?” Roger grew more interested. Maybe Mace would spill an escape route.
“There’s a hole in the wall. I put it there myself, then covered it with a sheet of plywood. Led them straight to it one day without them knowing, then I left. Made them think it was their discovery.” Mace paused then smiled icily. “I could take you right to it, if you’d like. You wouldn’t make it more than twenty feet without getting blown apart.”
Confused, Roger asked, “Well if that’s the case, why the hell would you leave it for the kids to find?”
“I knew they’d be resourceful enough to discover a path around the mines. It was Woody’s idea. If we ever get overrun, there’s a well-hidden exit.”
To Roger, it still wasn’t making sense. “If you wanted them to know about an escape route, why not just show them?”
“Because they need to be independent thinkers and feel confident in their abilities. Plus, they're all still kids. They need secret passageways and mischief.”
“This was all Woody’s idea?”
“Yeah.” From the beginning, Mace thought it was brilliant.
“Well, what if one of the kids got blown up?”
“Then the others would learn from the mistake.”
Roger didn’t know what to say, so he thought it best to remain silent. Mace was about to get up when he thought of something. “What’s up with the other three? You don’t seem to know them very well.”
“We just met them a few weeks ago. They stay mostly to themselves. We just travel together for safety.”
Mace eyed Roger suspiciously again. “So you’re telling me you can’t vouch for them.”
Feeling the tension rise again in the room, Roger wanted to diffuse it as quickly as possible. “They haven’t done anything so far that would lead me to distrust them, but no, I can’t completely vouch for them. I do not know them.”
The infected were dead. Again.
The laws of nature could only be temporarily postponed. Death progressively stalked like an overly-obsessed lover, refusing to be rejected until the final surrender. The decomposition process was extremely fast. It waited years to finish what it started. Hovering over corrupted bodies, flies laid eggs in rotting crevices. As their offspring squirmed and fed, they absorbed bacteria containing bits of infection. In a drastic increase in growth cycles, three to four days later the transformation from larvae to fly took place. The infection became airborne yet again as the winged insects carried the disease to new locations.
As the infection spread, the effects were noticeably different. In such small amounts, it wasn’t strong enough to kill straight-out and take over the host’s nervous system. It slowly crept into the brain, feasting like a parasite on the cerebrum, targeting the left hemisphere. In some cases it started out like the flu, with very similar symptoms. In others, it remained dormant until the changes in personality started. Within several weeks, paranoia and emotional instability appeared. Before long, violent outbursts turned into murderous rages.
Most alarming was the connection each felt towards another with the same affliction. Gangs formed. With the death of the walking dead, a new danger presented itself. Only this time they could think. And plan. In San Marcos, Texas, a group of survivors started feeling ill. They thought it might be the flu…
Woody was perched on the roof of the Chapel when he spotted Mace across the compound. One of the strangers walked with him and they were actively engaged in conversation.Woody sought refuge on the roof often to keep his eye on camp activities, read anything he could get his hands on, and contemplate daily life. He wore a black wool cowboy hat low over his Mohawk. Popping up swiftly as they moved closer, Woody slid down the crude wooden ladder and landed softly on his feet. He moved to intersect them in the middle of the yard.
“Woody, I thought you should meet Roger. I’ve asked him to stay with us for awhile.” Sticking his hand out, Woody kept his features reserved.
“Hello,” Roger said as he shook Woody’s hand. He wanted to make a good impression. He wasn’t sure what might happen if the kids didn’t take to him.
Directing his attention towards Mace, Woody asked, “You trust him?”
“Too early to say,” replied Mace, checking Roger out. “If it doesn’t work out, we could just do the usual.”
“The usual works for me. Do we still have that good barbecue sauce?”
“Ran out after the last batch of visitors.”
Looking over Roger, Woody shook his head. “Too bad. He looks kinda bland.”
Mace and Woody exchanged a brief chuckle before Mace put his hand on Roger’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We cured them of cannibalism a few years back.”
Momentarily speechless, Roger thought humor might help ease his discomfort. “Well, at least I’m not Chinese. You’d be hungry an hour later.”
Mace erupted with laughter, while Woody didn’t get it. “I think you just might fit in here,” Mace responded with a rare smile.
To Roger, the smile still appeared sinister. Not sure if that was a good thing or not, he replied, “We really want to be able to contribute. It would be nice to have a place to call home again.”
Woody shot a quick glance at Mace. “We need to talk,” Mace said as he noticed Woody’s expression. “There are some developments you need to hear about.” Mace motioned towards the barracks and addressed Roger. “Your friends are at the jail. Go there and tell Crockett I said to let them loose. Stay together and don’t leave the gates. I’ll send somebody to show you to your rooms in a while.”
Looking nervously around the compound, Roger felt suddenly insecure. “Are you sure they’re just going to let me walk around here?”