Authors: Norman Christof
Road To Chattanooga
Their march northward towards Chattanooga continued in silence for hours. With only two of them, vigilance was important. When Alex had left Atlanta a week ago with his platoon, things had been easier. Bigger groups had benefits. One of those benefits was the pleasure of a full night's sleep every so often. Three people could cover all the watches, while the others slept all night. The three on watch only lost a few hours of sleep. During a march, those that had gotten a full night's sleep kept lookout. The three from the night's watch carried most of the packs, but they didn't have the responsibility of being constantly vigilant. The mental wear and tear of being a lookout was intense. Every second, you were responsible for the lives of your fellow travelers.
Plus, zombie attacks were becoming increasingly unpredictable. They were getting smarter, and more savage. In the early zombie wars, fighting a pack of zombies was like shooting cattle grazing in a field. They were slow, stupid and obvious. You could easily pick them off from a distance. Now, they snuck up on you like big cats hunting in the Serengeti, creeping through the tall grass all stealthy like, or hiding in the shadows until they were close enough to pounce. Once they got close, they made up for their slow movements with incredible strength. Even zombie children were strong enough to flatten a human skull with their bare hands. It was their favorite kill technique. The adults were even stronger. You wanted to pick them off quickly, from a distance. If it did come down to hand-to-hand combat, you had to constantly keep moving. Swing and dodge. Stab and duck. Poke and shoot. Severing the brain from the spine was the only sure kill. Nothing wrong with a bullet through the brain or crushing their skulls either. Crowbars were good for that, especially since they never ran out of ammo or jammed.
Now, with only two of them, no one got a full night's sleep. Plus, they both had to be on lookout during the day. The sooner they got to Fort Knox, the better. Hiking down highways where the woods closed in on the roads was particularly intense. There were too many places to hide. This wooded section seemed to go on for miles. They had been hiking down it for hours. Chaz and Alex kept at least thirty feet between them. Alex was in the rear. Every dozen steps or so, Chaz would turn and walk backwards to check on Alex. Walking a few steps backwards kept up the pace, and broke the monotony. Weapons were always at the ready with safeties off. Pistols and hunting knifes at their sides were unholstered. If they were attacked, they didn't want to be standing side by side. It would be too easy for the enemy. While one could engage the enemy, the other might be able to snipe the zombies from a distance. If they got attacked simultaneously, then it was every sorry bugger for himself. Walking at this distance left every man alone with his thoughts. About a half mile up the road, Alex could see a break in the woods, opening to farm fields. "Finally!" He exhaled. "I've got questions and that man's got answers."
As Chaz cleared the woods into the farmland he turned and walked backwards, facing Alex till Alex was clear. He then turned back and continued his march with vigor. Alex had to practically double his pace till he caught up to Chaz. "Nice to be 'out of the woods' for a while, hey, Colonel?" Alex commented with a half-grin.
"Yes, nice to be out in the open with good visibility," Chaz returned, with no acknowledgment of Alex's attempt at humor.
"Sure would be nice if we could pick up a vehicle somewhere before the city. I wouldn't mind sitting my ass down for a bit."
They'd only seen one vehicle all day, about halfway through the wooded area. Chaz had refused to use it, because he wanted them spread out. That last incident with the zombies and sniper rifles had him concerned. Before the zombies had started shooting at them, taking a vehicle had made perfect sense. With zombie snipers on the loose, the rules had changed.
"If we see one in the open, then the benefit justifies the risks," Chaz stated.
"I gotta say, sir, I've got a whole shitload of questions since that last little skirmish. Since when the hell do zombies shoot sniper rifles and run? I've never seen one of those buggers do anything more than mosey along. And talking! Did I really hear that ... I'm still not sure I believe it talked. Part of me believes that was a dream. Was it a dream? Please tell me it was a dream. And then that little one. You killed it like it was a real person. No blows to the head, no brain damage ... how can that work? It's not possible!" Alex stopped to catch his breath.
The colonel pushed his helmet back a bit and scratched the top of his short crew-cut. Running his open palm down his face, stopping long enough to scratch the beginnings of a beard, he started to speak.
Alex, not really noticing, continued venting. "And wait, how the hell did you stop those two by breathing on them. They just stopped and fell to their knees, and let you decapitate them. No struggle ... nothing ... that makes no friggin' sense. They had us dead in our tracks. Sitting ducks ready to be smoked. But you just blew them over? Since when does breathing on a zombie kill it? None of this makes any sense."
Suddenly, a rustling sound and a cloud of dust from the drainage ditch to their right startled them. They instinctively raised their rifles and fanned out. Slowly they approached the side of the road in a crouch. As they got closer, they both dropped down and crawled to the edge until they could peer under the guardrail into the ditch below. There were two big turkey vultures between some rocks and the water. They were black, with red and scaly skin around their eyes. With them were two seagulls. One alive, one dead.
"Why are there seagulls this far inland?" Alex said quietly.
Chaz shook his head "No idea, but with all the crazy stuff we've seen, that's the least of our worries."
One of the turkey vultures pecked at the dead seagull. The other vulture and seagull just watched. There was no sign of foul play with the dead bird, and the other seagull didn't seem concerned with the vulture dining on his kin. Nor did he seem concerned with his own wellbeing once the vultures finished with the dead one. The second vulture just watched from a distance, as if waiting his turn. The birds noticed the two men, and stopped what they were doing. Eventually, feeling confident that the bigger humans didn't want to share in his prize, the bigger vulture went back to lunch.
Then, the wind blew across the field, pushed the ditch water up over the dead seagull. This flustered the two vultures, who jumped back, flapping their wings. The water surge didn't bother the live seagull, already partially in the water. Seeing an opportunity, he jumped the queue and started pecking at his fallen comrade like the cannibal he was.
The water subsided, and the bigger vulture jumped back into his meal, relegating the seagull to the back of the lunch line again. This went back and forth for a few minutes. Eventually, both men stood and resumed their hike.
"Guess everyone has a weakness," commented Chaz on their little wildlife vignette. "I mean, if those big vultures weren't scared of the water, then the smaller seagull wouldn't get much to eat. But eating his own kind is weird, don't you think? And then the gull just watched the vultures chow down on his own kind. Don't you think that would piss him off a bit? I suppose he couldn't do much about it, even if he cared. He was outnumbered two to one. But still, dining on your own kind ... that's disgusting!"
"They're animals; it's what they do to survive the day. They don't have to think about it. Food is food. Doesn't matter where it comes from when you're a scavenger."
"Yeah, I suppose. Everything wants to survive. It's really no different for us. You said we've lost the war. So, what do we do now? Just scavenge for what we can, even if it means sacrificing our own kind. I can't believe we'd ever resort to that. Human spirit and all. Never say die. Carpe diem. Ooh Rah!
and all that."
"We're all animals, kid; it never surprises me what humans are capable of when pushed past their limits. Let's keep moving; we've got plenty of ground still to cover."
Resuming their walk, Alex waited a bit, and brought up his prior concerns. "So, Colonel, you have any answers for what happened back there with that last bunch of super zombies?"
"Don't call them super. They're not heroes. They're just freaks."
"Sorry, yes, sir."
"Look, kid, I don't know what those things were. I've never seen anything like them myself. I'm used to fighting freaks in swamps, and I can assure you, freaks from swamps don't use sniper rifles."
"How did you disable those two though?"
"That was some experimental freak gas that the science geeks at the CDC in Atlanta were working on. It doesn't always work on freaks. They were starting field testing, and the men in my platoon were the guinea pigs. It's part of the reason I lost so many men. I still had some with me, and I used it. I wasn't sure if it would even work."
"I've heard about the research going on at the CDC."
"How the hell would you know about that, kid? Your clearance doesn't go that high."
"Well, it's sort of a long story. But it's why Brock and I were heading to Fort Knox."
"I ran into some crazy homeless guy in the Atlanta streets who insisted he was a research doctor, and said he could save the world. He actually said quite a few things that didn't make much sense, but now I wonder. He wanted this case delivered to Fort Knox. Since we were heading in that direction anyways, I had no problem delivering it. He said it had medical supplies and research that he had helped develop as a doctor at the CDC. I figured he was just nuts, but the stuff in the case looked important, so I took it. He also went on about the zombie virus, said it was evolving, and that pretty soon, if we didn't stop them, the zombies would start to evolve. Get smarter, stronger, and maybe become like us. That's what really made me think he was nuts.
"I started to wonder after that attack in the farmer's field though. Those bastards snuck up on Brock and me out of nowhere, and they seemed to be coordinating their attacks. That made me think about what the crazy doctor said. That last encounter with the snipers really got me thinking too. I think he was right. I think they may be evolving. And that's scary as shit."
Chaz looked a bit skeptical. "But why Fort Knox?"
"Well, the doctor implied that there was more going on at Fort Knox then just gold storage. I'd heard rumors that a few years back, when the zombie wars started going badly, some secret bases were set up. They were meant to be safe refuges where higher ranking politicians, industrialists, and scientists could retreat to. Kind of like fallout shelters, but designed to hold hundreds of people. They were just supposed to be rumors. From what the crazy doc said, maybe Fort Knox could have been one of those bases. I think the CDC was a base, but something went wrong there and they lost it. That's why the doctor was wandering around with that case. I think he was going to try to make it to Fort Knox on his own. Then he met me, and figured my chances were better."
"You're putting a lot of stock in rumors there, kid. Secret research facilities? There's a lot of risky ground to cover between here and Fort Knox."
"Tell me about it. But at the moment, it seems like our best option. I'm hoping there are some kind of R&D facilities at Fort Knox, and people smart enough to make use of what's in this case. I'm also hoping they'll let us stay. There's a shortage of nice neighborhoods these days."
"It was the CDC that developed that gas I used. Maybe that's what's in your case."
"I'm not too sure, but I think the equipment and research in the case is needed to make more. The doctor said they attempted to share the research with other centers. He couldn't be sure though if the information got through. It was transmitted about the time the CDC was compromised."
"So what you're saying is that this case could be the only way of making more?"
"Pretty much, and it needs to get to Fort Knox. I just hope like hell the fort is in better shape than the CDC. I don't have another plan past that."
"So, maybe the old doc wasn't crazy. That gas worked for me. It's pretty potent stuff, if it can take out a few zombies and not affect me. Let me have a look in that case. If all humanity is riding on it, we should both know exactly what you're carrying."
"I'd like that. Since Brock died, this has been a big responsibility for one person."
After finding an open area, with no woods, buildings or other hiding places, Alex stopped and pulled the case from his pack. He walked over to an old tree stump, opened the case and set it down. Chaz followed close behind. Alex keyed the biometric thumb reader and the locks swung open.
"The doctor added my print to the case's biometric database. I'll add yours once I show you what's inside."
He swung open the case, which revealed the first section. It was one of those cases where foam is custom cut to surround the items inside. There was a notebook, writing utensils, a slide rule, and a bunch of laminated tables with chemical properties and mathematical formulas.