Read After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5) Online

Authors: Scott Nicholson

Tags: #science fiction, #military, #horror, #action, #post-apocalyptic, #dystopian

After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5) (11 page)

BOOK: After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5)
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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Jorge jerked awake, not knowing where he was, his ear throbbing.

He looked up at the sky, numb from cold, his breath building a cloud. The sun was big and low, a bloody yolk scarred with smoke. The coat he’d wrapped himself in was ragged and torn, spattered with dark spots, the hood drawn tight around his face and narrowing his vision. The swatch of cloth he’d clamped to the bloody nub of his ear was stiff with dried blood. In the distance came a muffled, isolated gunshot that echoed across the valley like a message from a foreign land.

And the message was:
This is a time of killing.

He rolled to his feet, muscles screaming with cramps, and found himself alone. After searching most of the night for Rosa and Marina, he’d taken refuge atop the tallest structure in Newton, a four-story office building whose modern steel-and-glass architecture didn’t blend with the brick construction of the town’s manufacturing past. The array of cellular towers, air handling units, and mechanical systems required regular maintenance, and a service ladder leading up from the fourth floor provided roof access—a feature unlikely to be noticed or understood by Zapheads.

The last thing Jorge remembered was looking over the town for any groups that might be Rosa and the others. The only movement was Zapheads collecting bodies and hauling them to a long, squat building that must be the hospital, judging by the parking deck and helicopter pad. He’d fallen asleep without adequately bundling up, and he was fortunate the night had not been colder or he might not have awoken.

Jorge slapped and rubbed his hands together to get blood circulating, then crawled to the nearest parapet and peered over, careful to keep his head low. The Zapheads were going about their work, moving with more coordination and purpose than the day before. They had recovered from the attack already, and Shipley’s attempts to burn them out had already dwindled to nothing more than some scattered conflagrations along a river that marked the town’s southern border.

Jorge pulled his rifle into position and sighted down the barrel. He could take down dozens of Zapheads from this vantage point, knocking them down one at a time until he ran out of ammunition. He’d latched the access door behind him so nobody could reach him, but that didn’t mean he was safe. Even if the Zapheads ignored him, he wouldn’t hold out more than a few days before thirst and hunger claimed him.

If hypothermia didn’t get him first.

No, you don’t want to go out like Wanda.

Until your family is safe, you’re going to survive.

So he wouldn’t die on this tar-coated rooftop. And he couldn’t fight the mutants alone. But maybe he could learn more about the town that would help others.

The courthouse lay in ruins on the hill in the center of town, at an elevation slightly above Jorge. At least the military strike had inflicted some visible damage, although the courthouse had been more symbolic of human civilization than the mutant takeover. The high school was likewise destroyed, which pleased Jorge, but the football stadium stood intact, more bodies packed into the stands.

Most of the roads leading into town were devoid of movement, dotted with vehicles that sat where their engines had died five months ago. Here and there Zapheads picked through houses for more bodies, continuing their gruesome mission. If there was any organized defense against future attacks, Jorge saw no sign of it.

He didn’t spot any figures he could identify as humans. Anyone who had escaped yesterday was now either dead or gone to ground, hiding in any of the numerous buildings or houses. Staying in Newton instead of heading for the surrounding hills was risky, but perhaps like Jorge they thought it safer to stay out of sight.

He was just about to retreat into the building and scrounge for food when he detected several threads of smoke to the northwest. They were too far away to have been collateral damage from the attack and were much smaller and thinner than the ones immediately around town.

Campfires.

Since Zapheads were impervious to cold, that meant humans.

The sight cheered Jorge and drove away the sense of solitude and despair. Perhaps some of the survivors from the school made it to the forest, or Shipley’s troops were still in the area, maybe planning a follow-up attack.

Jorge studied the roads, landmarks, and terrain and resolved to head in that direction rather than waiting here and hoping to catch some sign of Rosa and Marina. He had no doubt the Zaphead infants orchestrated their disappearance. Rosa wasn’t strong enough to resist them, and Marina would go along like a dutiful daughter. Father Casey had fallen under their influence as well, and Cathy was so devoted to her child that she was incapable of questioning the Zapheads’ ambitions of domination.

Jorge shouldered his rifle and descended from the roof, moving through the dark building without checking any of the office suites that lined the halls. Any Zapheads would make themselves known because they had no reason for stealth, and the dead would stay dead whether acknowledged or not.

Kuh-hik.

The soft click of a door latch behind him.

Jorge backtracked, placing each foot with care, until he reached the origin of the noise. He peeled back his jacket hood and put his good ear against the door.

All the doors and half the walls were of glass, although many of them sported blinds or shades to allow privacy. This particular door had nothing to shield his view inside.

Someone was huddled behind a desk, doing a poor job of hiding.

A survivor? Must be.

Who else would bother hiding?

He opened the door a crack. “Hello?”

A bright orb of light exploded, blinding Jorge. The only working flashlights he’d seen in After belonged to Shipley’s unit, shielded from electromagnetic-pulse damage by the underground bunker.

“You’re that Mexican.” The male voice sounded young and full of forced bluster.

“Do I know you?” Jorge wasn’t sure whether he was relieved to have human company or not. The introduction wasn’t very promising.

“Where’s your buddy with the possum-colored beard?”

“I have no buddies here.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. I’m talking about Wheeler. The one you went AWOL with.”

Jorge held up his arm to block the light, squinting at the shape behind it. He wondered if a gun was pointed at him along with the light. “Are you with Sgt. Shipley’s unit?”

“Yeah.” The light abruptly swept downward. “I was out on patrol with you the day Hayes and Patterson bought it. Found them full of bullets in a house up on the mountain.”

Bullets we put in them, because they were trying to rape a young girl.

But Jorge couldn’t say that. Shipley’s fascist influence had infected his soldiers, adding to their natural paranoia and fear in the wake of the apocalypse. If this young man was nervous, he might react without thinking.

“We were attacked,” Jorge lied. “By a civilian group.”

“Then how come you survived?”

“Because we weren’t in uniform. They’d heard of your bunker and planned to seize it by force. Franklin and I refused to join them.”

“Huh. Guess they chickened out, because we haven’t been attacked. Zaps probably got ‘em first. So why didn’t you come back? Sarge needs some numbers since we’ve had a few casualties.”

The light switched off, and as Jorge’s vision adjusted to the scant daylight penetrating the room, he was able to recognize the soldier. Jorge didn’t know his name, and his crewcut had grown shaggy to match a robust growth of beard, but conditions had evidently deteriorated at the bunker, given the shabby state of his uniform and lean, haggard face. His gun was at ease but in such a position that he could bring it to bear quickly if necessary.

“I told Sgt. Shipley my first duty was to my family,” Jorge said. “That’s why I’m here.”

“What about Wheeler?”

“I haven’t seen him in weeks. I assume he’s dead.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me. Have you seen that mountain of bodies they piled up at the football field? Isn’t that some shit?”

“That’s not the worst of it.” Jorge told him about being captured by the Zapheads and how the mutants used the school as a base of operations. He recounted how he’d used Shipley’s attack as an opportunity to burn the school and escape. He was careful to color the tale as an uprising that wouldn’t have been possible without the military, appealing to the soldier’s sense of pride and duty.

Silently, Jorge agreed with Franklin’s assessment that words like “duty, “honor,” and “courage” were used to manipulate egotistical young fools into doing the bidding of control freaks. But in a sense they were all on the same side now, allies in the act of survival. Even if those very same soldiers—and maybe even this one—had killed some innocent people through their recklessness.

Jorge ended his story by telling the soldier about the babies’ intelligence and their bizarre plans to assimilate the remaining survivors and eventually resurrecting the dead.

“That’s some freaky shit,” the soldier said. “What happened to your ear?”

“A Zaphead thought it was candy.”

The soldier pulled a cigarette from a pocket of his tunic and lit it. The lighter flame illuminated his face.

He couldn’t have been much more than twenty, far too young to understand why he should kill foreigners for a government that did nothing to provide for his individual future. But perhaps, if the solar storms hadn’t struck, the United States wouldn’t have required him to kill. Maybe his job was to die.

“I’m going to find them,” Jorge said. “My plan was to use the babies as hostages and negotiate some kind of truce, but that’s impossible now.”

“One of our guys had the same idea,” the soldier said. “Not about the babies, we didn’t know they were running the show here. This guy wanted to waltz in waving a white flag and divide up the territory. Give the Zaps the valleys and leave us with the mountains.”

“I don’t see how that would have worked.”

“Neither did Sarge. He had the guy executed by firing squad for treason.”

If Shipley wins this war, that will be our future. Anyone who says something he disagrees with is erased.

Jorge once listened to an NPR show—out of earshot of his fellow farmhands, of course, who considered NPR a liberal snow job funded by the very same hard-working taxpayers they constantly ridiculed—that discussed the emergence of bloodthirsty totalitarian leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. The prevailing theory held that the seeds of evil were always lying dormant and only needed the right conditions to blossom.

Shipley’s vine had taken root in rich soil, with no one daring to question him.

“Are you here on a scouting mission?” Jorge asked, eager to continue with his own mission.

“No, I got cut off. Been holed up here since yesterday. I heard somebody walking around out here last night but I was afraid to—I mean, I figured it was smarter to lay low until morning.” The soldier looked away in shame at his slip.

Jorge let it pass without comment. If the young man was still capable of fear, perhaps he wasn’t completely corrupted by Shipley’s ideals. “Is anyone else from your unit around?”

“Don’t know. He only sent in six of us. My job was to lay down some cover fire while one guy splashed some accelerant and started fires and another knocked some holes with a grenade launcher. I think they’re both dead.”

“They died as heroes,” Jorge said, and the words didn’t even taste terrible in his mouth. No reason to let this man feel any worse. Besides, Jorge could use his help.

“Well, hero or not, I don’t want to die,” the soldier said.

“I don’t blame you.” Jorge strolled between the desk and a row of filing cabinets to peek out the window, turning his back mostly to reassure the soldier that he was in no danger. “It looks pretty quiet in the area. I’m heading north toward those campfires I spotted.”

“My unit’s probably there. Can I come with you?”

“For a while.” By the time Jorge turned from the window, the soldier was on his feet and waiting by the door. “This grenade launcher? What happened to it?”

“Still there, as far as I know. Cardenelli dropped it when the Zaps closed in.”

“I don’t think he’ll mind, since he won’t be using it. Is it on the way?”

“It can be.”

Jorge rested a comforting hand on the private’s shoulder. “It will be.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

 

Franklin wasn’t much impressed with Brock’s management style.

For one thing, he wasn’t exactly leadership material. Oh, maybe he could have led a sales team back in Before, when just being a tall white male who talked louder than anyone else was enough. Brock even had the wardrobe down: khaki trousers, hiking boots, plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a dark blue vest as if he’d just ordered out of a Land’s End catalog rather than raiding some dead man’s closet. Today he was wearing a floppy leather cowboy hat, and he tugged the brim to secure it every time he gave a command.

“Hilyard could teach this guy a thing or two,” DeVontay said.

“Hell, he even makes Shipley look like Robert E. Lee,” Franklin agreed.

They were in the park, going through some basic maneuvers. Brock had obviously read a military strategy book somewhere, or else—which Franklin considered more likely—he’d played a video game involving armies and shooting. Franklin couldn’t figure out how Brock had risen through the ranks to the top spot of this little outfit. Judging by the two dozen on hand, they’d all been sitting around a country club when the solar storms struck, because not many of them knew their way around a rifle.

“We can’t have target practice,” Brock shouted to the assembly. “That would give away our position. But we need to know how to work together without shooting each other in the back.”

Sierra, who appeared to be Brock’s second-in-command, added, “Those of you who came here with me from Stonewall know the capabilities of your weapons. The rest of you, I hope you’ve had a chance to shoot.”

Franklin stood at the edge of the field, a firm sign that he wasn’t joining their militia. Not as a foot soldier, anyway. He was happy to play a hired mercenary for the moment, even though he’d already accomplished his mission of reuniting with Rachel.

DeVontay did that for you, so don’t take too much of the credit.

Rachel watched alongside DeVontay, occasionally comparing the group’s tactics to those of the Zapheads. She also observed that Brock seemed to be drilling for open-field battles, as if they would be fighting on Confederate farmland rather than the streets of a small town.

When Franklin couldn’t take it anymore, he shouted, “What do we do about the tanks and helicopters?”

Brock scowled as a few of the women giggled. “If you think you can do it any better, you can be an officer. After all, you’re the
legendary
Franklin Wheeler.”

“I didn’t make up the legends. I just minded my own business and the Internet did its bullshit thing where the truth gets all twisted around.”

“Come on, dude. You were part of the militia movement way before it was mainstream. This can’t be much different than smoking out a bunch of federal agents. Tell us how they did old-school.”

“There isn’t any school for this,” DeVontay said, drawing another glare from Brock. If getting taunted by a geezer was bad, a challenge from a black man was apparently downright insulting. But DeVontay didn’t let up. “The mutants don’t play by the rules. They change the rules every minute. Instead of taking orders from the loudest one in their tribe, they operate through the minds of a small group of babies. We’ve seen them in action. We’ve heard them talk.”

“I can do better than that,” Rachel said. “I know how they think, because I’m one of them.”

“Don’t give us that ‘halfling’ horseshit,” Brock said. “You’ve got Zapper eyes, but you don’t act like them at all. And if you’re one of them, what the hell are you doing here instead of there?”

Rachel’s words clearly made the militia members uneasy, because they could all see her eyes sparking even in the morning sunlight. Franklin could only imagine the sorts of rumors that passed around the camp, but based on what he knew of human nature, she was either a demon straight out of hell or else a person of difference, a new kind of thing that bore close watching.

An outsider.

But we’re all outsiders now. By virtue of the fact that we were the one in ten thousand who didn’t mutate or drop dead on that hot August day.

“You can go in like
this
,” Rachel said, grabbing DeVontay’s rifle and strutting around in a mockery of a military parade for a few steps before returning the weapon. “But the ones you’re fighting don’t even understand death, and they certainly don’t fear it. If you want to reach the babies—the Central Committee, if you want to find a historic parallel—then you have to stop thinking of the New People as your enemies.”

Franklin was surprised at this version of Rachel. He wasn’t sure if her brashness was a result of her maturing beyond the child he’d known or if the mysterious electrical changes in her added new dimensions to her personality.

But he also didn’t like her philosophy of appeasement. That had never worked out, from Neville Chamberlain crawling from Munich after licking Hitler’s boots to George W the First fumbling the job in the Middle East. Just because you patted a mad dog on the head didn’t mean it wouldn’t bite you in the ass.


New People
?” Brock said, aware that he was on the spot and that his leadership was in question. “So they’re
people
now?”

One of the middle-aged men in the line laughed uncomfortably and then snorted as if he’d only been clearing his throat. Sierra edged closer to Brock to overtly display that she sided with him.

Franklin didn’t necessarily agree with Rachel’s viewpoint, but goddamn it, family was family. “She knows more about them than you ever will, son. A good general needs a flexible mind to go with a strong will. You’re happy to risk the lives of all these people”—he waved slowly at the slapdash soldiers so they would each have time to contemplate their own mortality—“rather than admit you don’t have a clue what we’re up against.”

“Sure, I do,
Legend
,” Brock countered with a sneer. “All of us have seen what the mutants can do. Anthony, why don’t you tell us what happened to your daughter?”

A bald man in a track suit and trench coat opened his mouth to speak, and then stared at the ground as if reliving some horrible memory.

What an asshole move. Why am I getting involved here anyway? Let them head off to their deaths. Freedom includes the right to royally fuck up, too.

“The New People don’t hate you,” Rachel said. “They just don’t understand you. In the early days, the immediate aftermath, they were reacting out of instinct. They were basically like us, but with all the wiring crossed in their brains. All the layers of evolution and civilization were swept away in one big burp of the sun, and they were stripped down to sheer impulse.”

“And that impulse was to kill and destroy,” Sierra said. “Sure, they’ve changed. We’ve all seen that. But are they really any different on the inside?”

“Doesn’t even matter,” Brock said. “Who cares what they are now? Time for some fucking payback.”

“What about the Central Committee?” Rachel said. “They didn’t hurt anybody, because they can’t even walk.”

“You and your boyfriend said they were the brains of the bunch,” Brock said. “That means they’re responsible for all the killing. And not just killing. They’ve been taking captives, too. A few of them got out, but some are in there lying dead in the streets. That is, if the Zaps haven’t scraped them up for their funeral party at the football field.”

The group which minutes before could have at least passed for a parody of a militia now looked more like a ragtag mob. Franklin suspected a few of them were wondering what they were doing in Newton, North Carolina, when they could be squirreled away in a mountain cabin eating canned food by the fireplace.

Hell, I kinda wonder that myself.

Maybe we should have left during the night. Don’t know why I talked her out of it.

Then he glanced at DeVontay and realized his influence meant far less to Rachel than this new man in her life. And DeVontay either trusted her instincts or else he was so head over heels that he’d let her have her way no matter what.

If it’s that last one, I need to have a talk with that boy. You can’t be happy without mutual respect in a relationship, and I’ve got three divorces to prove it.

He’d not thought of all the people in his life and what might have happened to them, outside of the immediate circle of Rachel and her mother. He hoped two of his ex-wives had died instantly in the solar storms, because they didn’t have the constitution it took to survive in After. The third, though—he’d bet money that bitch had turned into a Zaphead. It wouldn’t have been much of a leap.

But here was Rachel, tainted by the same strange energy. Was the human half strong enough to keep down the monster inside?

“We might have to fight the New People,” Rachel said. “But understand that fighting only makes them more bloodthirsty, because they’re learning from us as they evolve.”

“We’re learning, too,” Brock said. “And we’re a little bloodthirsty ourselves.”

A couple of members of his little band shouted their agreement.

“Like I said, payback.” Brock leveled his rifle at Rachel. “May as well get started.”

Franklin’s own weapon was leaning against a tree ten feet away, and he cursed himself for letting down his guard. He suspected some of the survivors would be wary of her, but aside from her eyes, she seemed as normal as any of them, given the circumstances.

DeVontay was about to swing his own rifle to bear but Sierra and half a dozen others shouldered their weapons and sighted down at Rachel, DeVontay, and Franklin.

“Payback!” Brock shouted.

“Payback,” half the group shouted, and then they echoed it like a chant, louder with every repetition. “
Pay-BACK, pay-BACK, pay-BACK
.”

The first shot caused Franklin to flinch before he realized it had come from across the park, at the edge of the unkempt field.

“Hold it right there,” the male voice boomed. “And be damned glad we’re not Zappers, because you gave away your position half an hour ago. That’s what happens when you let amateurs run the war.”

Lt. Hilyard!

Franklin had never in his life been so glad to see a government employee.

BOOK: After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5)
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