Authors: Norman Christof
No one chased after him.
Who knows what they'll do once they start believing their commanding officer just went AWOL
, Sheperd thought. There would not be much chance of court-martialing him these days. That would take a higher authority, and the higher authorities seem to have their hands full. There were a few in the platoon that weren't happy with Colonel Chaz Sheperd. What those disgruntled few would do now was anyone's guess. Chaz wasn't the guessing-game sort.
He drove towards the main road, heading north. The navigational gear in the Humvee directed him east, along the gulf coast, but after six months in the swamps fighting freaks, Chaz had seen enough green water, gators, and swamp grass for a lifetime. He was tired of damp uniforms, and the smell of brackish water. North it was. He'd follow I-50 then pick up some smaller roads east through to Montgomery, and then north again up to Atlanta. Might be worth checking the condition of Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. An update on the current state of the military would be helpful. Some news was better than no news. Either way, Atlanta was his destination. Chaz hated big cities, but he needed information. Hightailing it through a few big cities was the best way to do that. There was always plenty of unrest everywhere. Big cities especially, even at the best of times. They'd been at war for so damn long, some group was always either protesting or blowing things up. Usually, most of the larger cities had enough muscle behind them to maintain civility. Smaller towns were more likely to fall to anarchy, and many did. Civil-minded folks gravitated to the big cities, while smaller areas attracted a more rebellious population. It worked out well. The small-town folks were fighters. They knew how to deal with freaks. The big-city folks had regular police and military forces to rely on. The further he drove, the less thought Chaz gave to the state of the country, and those in it.
A fully loaded Humvee with a crew of four and all their mission gear could top out at fifty-five mph. Chaz roared up I-50 at seventy mph. He had plenty of gas, and at this rate, he'd make Atlanta in six hours. Six hours to think about all the things he'd screwed up in his life. He'd told himself he'd gone back to the army for a higher good. That's what he told everyone, everyone nosy enough to ask. He went to protect his country, his family, his home, and his freedom. Not necessarily in that order. That helped him sleep at night. Someone had to do it. We can't all sit at home babysitting kids or hiding behind a desk. Someone had to be responsible. These bastard freaks were chewing up his country, killing families and friends. Everyone lost someone, or knew someone that had. What was he supposed to do? He wasn't running from his family, even though that's what Abby believed. Abby's beliefs made it easier for her to divorce him. What kind of person served divorce papers to someone fighting for their country? She thought he wanted out, so it just made things easier for her. She couldn't have been more wrong. He loved his kids. He loved his wife. Was it his fault they never saw that?
The hate and the anger he felt for those freaks had torn apart his family. Those freaks that would not die, and came back war after war. Every time it seemed like they were beaten, they'd find a way to survive. The first time, it took almost a year, but the second time, it only took three months. They always came back, and oh how he hated them. He hated that they wouldn't just stay dead. How they mindlessly destroyed everything. And most of all, he hated how they had changed him. They showed him a darker side of himself. They taught him how to kill. They forced him to kill. Taking a life changes people. It doesn't matter if it's a squirrel, a friend, or a rapist. Nobody's born a killer. We're not just animals. Even serial killers don't start off as killers. Something, or someone made them that way. Something dark and sinister and twisted turned them down that path. It put the gun in their hand and gave them a reason to pull the trigger. That reason comes in a variety of forms. Religion, or hatred, or stupidity, or country, or even self-defense have all had their day turning innocents into killers. It doesn't really matter what the reason is. Once you've turned down that path, some part of your heart turns forever black. You'll always have a pit of hatred inside. Inside is a horrible place to store hatred. It's not natural. Love can keep it at bay, and the love of his family, his wife and his kids did that for Chaz. But when the third war started, that black pit inside got bigger. It bubbled so close to the surface, he could barely contain it. Keeping that hatred in check took all he had, and he thanked God for the loves in his life. But how long would he win that fight? How long before it found a way out? He was afraid that one day his hate would find some little unguarded path to wander down. Some path that would lead it to burst into the world. Chaz didn't know when or how, he just knew it would. So, fuck it! He joined the army again. That's where he put his hate. As long as the freaks were back, and bringing despair to the lives of good people, the hate inside of him could never sleep. Abby never understood that. She always thought it was someone else's turn to fight. "You've done your time," she would say. "Let someone else take their turn. Stay with your family." Chaz knew though, that it would always be his turn. Always his turn to fight. At least, it was, until now.
Things were ending. The war was lost. Military command was falling apart, and the government was in disarray. The US was about to become a nation of lost souls. During all the outbreaks and wars, there always remained a sense of control. Some areas fell to ruin, but the big cities survived. Governments, schools and institutions continued to function. Everyone learned to protect themselves.
This time, it was different. Central control and protection was dying. The rural areas were more prepared, but even the rural areas benefited from a central government and military. The infection had forced the Americas to become a police state, but it worked. People still had jobs, and lives, and families. It wasn't easy, in the Americas or anywhere else. Europe, Asia and Africa didn't have zombie freaks to deal with, but they had their own problems. Especially when the US stopped being their biggest trade partner. North America had been quarantined for a while, but the good old U S of A had been an island unto itself for years. Most Americans couldn't care less about the rest of the world. Canada, Mexico and Central America were lumped into the mix once international quarantine laws took effect.
It made for some interesting global politics these days. Pundits had been calling for the fall of the American empire since early in the 21st century. Most assumed that it would come in the form of economic collapse brought on by greedy industrialists, or cyber-attacks from third-world computer hackers. Nobody had predicted this. How could they?
Even to this day, there was still disagreement as to what had brought the freaks about. Generally, scientists were in agreement that it was a genetic mutation. A mutation brought about from decades of messing with the food chain and creating everything from bio-engineered dwarf wheat to cows full of growth hormones. Changing the food supply faster than people's bodies could adapt finally forced Mother Nature's hand. She finally decided to fight back. It started with the cancer and obesity epidemics. When that didn't stop humans in their tracks, she got really serious, and created wave after wave of mutated freaks. Where the scientists disagreed was in how to stop its spread. The government and taxpayers had spent millions on research, with no conclusive solutions.
Which of course gave the conspiracists plenty of ammunition. Half believed that there was a secret cabal of powerful individuals that didn't want a solution to be found. That somehow, these evil individuals were reaping the benefits of a nation running scared. That this mutation kept people too distracted to notice how big business was breaking laws right left and center. They were all too busy fighting the freaks.
The religious factions thought this was the apocalypse. Somehow these freaks were foretold in an ancient calendar or cave drawings eons ago. That apparently they were simply vanguards of the second coming. So, they were all running off, making peace with their maker, asking for absolution, and finding ways to embrace the freaks. "Freak Huggers" they were called in the media. Which was a pretty accurate description of their behaviour. It was not hard to understand why there weren't many of them around. They were forever martyring themselves. They believed it was a path to enlightenment and life eternal if you were eaten by a freak. They believed freaks were God's prophets. What a load of crap! Not that it mattered much anymore, Chaz thought.
With the latest turn of events, we're all going to meet our maker soon.
Outside Montgomery, Chaz saw a herd of zombies moving slowing through a farmer's field. They seemed lost. Some corn grew in the field, but it hadn't been tended to for some time. Half the crop looked like it was dying. Even the healthy stalks were unseasonably short. There were two vans parked to the side between Chaz and the herd. Herds looked harmless, moving slowly from a distance, but became lethal when they got close. What they lacked in speed, they made up for in numbers and persistence. The parked vans were likely full of gawkers, just stopped to watch the freak show. People loved to be entertained by the strange and bizarre.
As Chaz drove by, he realized these weren't just gawkers staring at the less fortunate and feeling smug about their own lives. It was one of those deviant "Freak Hugger" groups. The bumper sticker on the van read "Friends NOT Freaks." The van doors opened, and a bunch of them started walking towards the herd. Chaz hit the brakes hard, and watched for a moment in stunned disbelief. He'd heard of these groups, but had never seen them in action.
The believers stopped just at the edge of the corn field, and made sure the herd took notice. It didn't take much. A few of them were jumping up and down. "Fools! They're gonna get themselves killed." They were waving their hands over their heads, trying to flag down the herd. "Why people do this to themselves, I'll never understand." Chaz , sitting alone, spoke to no one in particular. Just then a couple of little kids came out of the van. Two small girls around eight or nine years old, in long dresses with bows in their hair. They called to the grown-ups. They were frantically trying to motion the adults back to the vans. The tallest man walked over to the girls, and knelt to talk to them. Chaz couldn't hear, but the girls were shaking their heads. The man took each one by the hand and started walking back to the group. The girls adamantly resisted. They dug in their heels, cried and screamed at the man. One fell into the field, covering herself in mud. The man didn't relent. He picked her up and continued walking as the girl squirmed in his arms. The other girl did everything she could, kicking and screaming now to break free, but to no avail.
Normally, Chaz avoided domestic disputes. Military protocol was pretty clear about not interfering with the rights and beliefs of citizens. America was still a free country with liberty for all. Chaz wasn't so sure about that today. Right here, and right now, the hatred inside him needed a release. He was tired of losing. He dropped the Humvee into low gear and made a beeline for the gap between the herd and the believers.
I'm not interfering with anyone's religious belief,
he thought. Just as long as they don't interfere with mine. Today I believe in what I'm about to do. I believe that I am going to rid this country of one large heap of hate in the form of those walking freaks. He stopped the Humvee within firing range of the herd.
Chaz popped open the top hatch, checked the ammunition clips, and manned the turret. A middle-aged red-haired woman with a face full of freckles started yelling at Chaz. "You have no jurisdiction here. Get your war machine out of our field. You're trespassing on private property. This is our farm."
"Yes, ma'am, well I am sorry about that, but presidential orders during wartime supersede all private rights and privileges, I'm afraid. I'm obligated by duty and the orders of my commander in chief to rid this land of any and all freaks I see."
"They're not freaks, we invited them. They're our guests. You're the intruder here; you're not welcome here."
"Guests, oh, OK, that's different. I'll be sure to thank each and every one of them for visiting before I drop them in the dirt."
"You're violating our civil and religious rights, you bastard. We have every right to be here and practice our faith."
"Yes, ma'am, you go right ahead and continue practicing those beliefs. I'm going to do the same. And for the record, here's what I believe. I believe I'm sworn to defend the fine citizens of this great state of Alabama from usurpers both foreign and domestic, and that's exactly what I intent to do."
With that, Chaz turned the turret and opened fire on her 'guests.' The herd numbered well over a hundred, but Chaz's inventory of bullets numbered well over a hundred times that. The screams and banging on the vehicle from the worshipers was drowned out by the gunfire. Shell casings were flying, the turret was kicking like a mule, and freaks were dropping fast. Head shots worked best, but when you're spraying a crowd rapid-fire style, it's tricky to be accurate. Chaz figured if he didn't get a headshot on the first try, the second attempt would work just as well. It was not like they were running away. Before long, the herd was down for the count. Chaz released the turret controls, and stretched his fingers out. He used to be able to fire a weapon forever when he was younger, but today, his hands ached with the stiffness of age.
The taller man who had dragged the two girls spoke to Chaz. "You, sir, have no business here. What you have done is an abomination against God and humanity. The Chosen are his flock, and you massacred them. They are his children the same as you and I. If vengeance were mine to take, I'd send you straight to the fiery pits of hell. But it is not, and I will stay my hand. When your end comes, you'll have to answer for your actions."
Chaz climbed out of the Humvee and walked towards the tall man. As imposing a figure as Chaz was at six plus feet, muscled from years fighting, with a face that showed every minute of his forty-eight years, none of the believers moved from his path. Chaz had to elbow and push his way to the tall man in the back of the group. "You dragged those little girls into this against their will with no regard for their lives. I don't claim to understand what screwed you people up, but that doesn't entitle you to throw away their lives."
The tall man looked down at Chaz, undeterred by his physical presence. "These are our children. They're in our care. It's a free country ..."
Chaz clenched his jaw, and braced himself. "I've had about enough of you and yours."
Squaring himself with his opponent, Chaz doubled him over with a solid right to the midsection. As the man gasped for breath, Chaz clasped both his hands together, and brought them down hard on the back of the man's head, sending him face first into the mud. "Get up, you piece of shit! I don't care who you are, or what you believe. I'm putting an end to you now. Nobody else needs to die for your pathetic beliefs. Those things aren't the Chosen. They're freaks and monsters. They need to be exterminated like the plague they are. Like you are."
Chaz reached down for the man, who was gasping for breath and spitting blood and mud. "Get up and let's finish this. Let's see you stand up for your beliefs like a real man."
A small voice sounded behind Chaz, and he felt a forceful tug on his jacket. "No. Leave him alone. You leave my daddy alone. He didn't do anything to you."
Chaz turned around, and looked into the face of the little girl with the muddy dress. Between her tears she cried, "Please, please don't hurt my daddy. He's all I have left. He promised to take care of me after mommy left. Please, please don't hurt him. He promised."
Chaz dropped his guard, and shook his head. He stared back at the man on his knees in the mud, then the girl. "What's your name?"
"Katie, my name is Katie."
"Katie, you don't have to do this. You don't have to do everything he says. He's sick. Your dad is sick. You can go somewhere else, you can be with others." Chaz looked up, into the faces looking at him. There was no fear, only disgust in their eyes. Every single one of them looked the same.
Katie looked back at the people as well, then back at Chaz. "This is my family, they love me. Leave us alone. Leave my dad alone. Just go."
Chaz let out a deep sigh. He pushed his way back through the group, got into the Humvee, and slammed the door. He hit the gas, showering the group with a spray of mud and dead cornstalks. Back on the main road and heading towards Montgomery, he thought to himself,
What the hell was I thinking? Those weren't my kids, or my family. The world has finally gone to shit. Why should I care? Where has that gotten me?
The exit sign for his intended stop, Maxwell Air Force Base, passed by. Chaz didn't even slow down.
There are only so many things in this world you have control over,
and generally that list doesn't include people. Control over other people is temporary at best. Why would anyone want that kind of power? I'm done fighting. I'm done being a soldier. Maybe Abby was right all along. Maybe this was someone else's fight. Here I am, all alone on the losing side of the biggest war that ever mattered. Hatred is my only companion. My only constant. I can only deal with it one way. There's no coming back from that. But first, I'm going to make my peace. I'm going to see my family one more time ... and say goodbye.