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    All The Dead Are Here - Pete Bevan's zombie tales collection


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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    SERVING HIS COUNTRY FOR THE THIRD TIME by John X. Grey
    September 22, 2011  Longer stories   Tags:   

    How long had it been? He could not wrap his chemically-preserved synapses around the concept, overhearing seals being opened to this special storage pod before cold gasses dissipated around him. There was a hissing as the pod’s front lid raised upward and away, the sleeper’s eyes usually closed when stored here and seeing no reason for opening them yet until addressed by his commanding Lieutenant General Ross Haggard or one of the various Central Intelligence Agency handlers he had come to know while involved as an assassin in the shadowy world of national security.

    I remember the last mission, killing that fanatic to save the king of a small Arab nation vital for our operations in the Middle East, just not every detail now.

    Knowing his mind was sometimes wiped of certain data once a mission had ended, Sergeant Henry Lee ‘Hank’ Peterson formerly of the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division remained relaxed, having little choice inside an electronically-monitored casket leaning at its 45-degree angle against one wall. Known to Army and CIA operatives by the code name Agent Romero since 1969, the single successful subject of the Vietnam War-era Project: Gravedigger, Peterson had been another KIA from South Vietnam’s infamous Iron Triangle during a battle months after 1968’s Tet Offensive.

    With the 3rd Brigade, I earned my stripes and commendations after only nine months in the field, avoiding booze, drugs and whores, keeping my nose clean as a 19-year-old far from home.

    Peterson still remembered the exact date he died at the hands of a young Vietcong rebel whose AK-47 round got through the gap in his loose flak vest and the heart beneath, just as the GI fired one grenade from his M-16’s launcher tube that blew the teenage enemy to bits seconds later – May 28, 1968.

    The next thing I knew was waking up at a lab near Bethesda, Maryland months later.

    Peterson felt latex-gloved hands examining his corpse’s preserved condition as it thawed, two men chatting about his reactivation.

    “So, they think this stiff might solve what’s happened from spreading any further?”

    “I guess,” the other man’s voice huffed, “don’t know, Roy, just doing what the orders say. At least we know he won’t bite us, not like others treated with that alien stuff.”

    “Yeah,” ‘Roy’ replied, “or ones on the news now or in those old horror movies. I still don’t like it, Charlie. This dude is giving me the creeps just seeing him.”

    “Look,” ‘Charlie’ disconnected electrodes from the corpse’s naked trunk, genitals and legs, “he’s not like things killing folks we’ve heard spreading from major cities. Just finish this survey and let the docs start testing him.”

    Oh God, I miss home, Peterson’s still-active consciousness occasionally registered nostalgic thoughts about the life he had once lived on a family farm outside Great Bend in Barton County Kansas, but how long has it been?

    The special agent then felt those men working controls in that capsule around his body, when he concentrated on severing the computer link. Peterson then released his brain from that built-in hard drive regulating the pod, figuring out over the years how to sever an electronic tether and opened glowing, once sky-blue eyes to face two Army technicians in lab coats and khaki utility uniforms surprised by the staring corpse.

    “Oh crap,” the dark-haired balding Sergeant Charlie Porter dropped pen and clipboard checklist, stepping back from Peterson and retrieving them, “he’s not supposed to even do that until the review is over. Should we call Dr. Farnsworth?”

    “I’ll check the connections again,” Specialist Roy Jensen had his hands on an interface keypad to Peterson’s right in that chamber, before the shrugging curly blonde man concluded, “maybe it’s just an autonomic response – or some equipment glitch.”

    The clean-shaven brown-haired former banker’s son realized this was his best chance to return home from where he had been locked away. The reanimated man tore his wrists free of Velcro fabric restraints, grabbed both men before him and smashed their skulls together with enhanced strength. Pulling both legs free of restraints, Peterson stumbled onto hands and knees, muscles soon remembering how to walk after years in storage.

    “I – thin—ach, um,” shaking the head and clearing a throat that had made no sounds for some time, Peterson slowly rose to his feet, disoriented as he looked around this large room having no windows, with a row of hooded lights hanging off the darkened ceiling illuminating two rows of similar thick white cylindrical tubes like one he had just exited. He checked the technicians and found they had died from his sudden, swift attack lying together face-down.

    I never intended that. If this is the usual top secret facility, I’ll need to be smart about escaping here.

    Peterson stuffed the corpses inside other containers and restrained each limb by the Velcro straps, after taking their ID badges, money from the wallets and Sergeant Porter’s lab coat for temporary covering using the other man’s coat for wiping up their blood. He found ID badges opened doors to these rooms with electronic lock boxes when sliding a card’s magnetic strip through, having minor familiarity with that technology. Hearing thumping sounds from inside tubes where he left those dead men, the freed corpse crept through low-lit hallways of a windowless interior and its antiseptic white or gray walls, floor and ceiling tiles, reading signs for directions until he found the nearest changing room with individual locker rows.

    First, I’ll need a disguise to escape undetected before I ever see Kansas again.

    Forcing a few locker doors open with heightened strength from the Project: Gravedigger serum that had replaced his blood long ago, Henry discarded morality for survival, recalling old assassin programming occasionally through partially retained memories from 65 CIA-sponsored missions. He rifled through personal items of soldiers here until finding a set of civilian clothes and Class-A Army uniform (belonging to First Lieutenant Marcus Krebs) that fit closely enough. This officer also had orders for three days of ‘Holiday R&R’ starting in six hours. Peterson donned the dress uniform, overcoat and Special Forces beret, after packing other items in a khaki duffle bag, adding Ray-Ban sunglasses after noticing his shining irises and glowing pupils inside one bathroom mirror.

    Well, it’s about time I got promoted and commissioned after being stuck her so long.

    Peterson was overcome with brief dizziness and held onto a sink as suppressed or partially-erased memories from overseas missions in 1969 to 1975 rushed through his brain. Shaking off that odd sensation, ‘Lieutenant Krebs’ shouldered the duffle bag holding civilian clothes and all cash he had taken from lockers or off those technicians, before leaving when two enlisted men entered while saluting him. Returning that salute and never arousing their suspicions, the Lieutenant hanged a spare badge from the man’s locker on that uniform below the jacket’s upper left side campaign ribbon row and a last name tag.

    “Be careful out there, Sir,” one of two guards at the ground floor’s main exit advised him, when he passed through their checkpoint minutes later, “latest reports say the plague is out of control around Bakersfield.”

    “And there’s been an emergency in the main lab downstairs,” the other guard’s brown skin contrasting to the first’s fairer complexion, “but you have a good leave, Sir.”

    “I’ve seen more death than you can imagine, Son,” Peterson had finally regained his voice to a gravel-like strained level after exercising jaw muscles and vocal chords on the elevator ride from downstairs, “but I’ll keep alert just the same. Carry on.”

    He was out the main gate to this isolated desert military facility hearing more alarms behind him, driving off in Krebs’ white Ford Ranger after having found spare keys in the locker and the officer’s parking spot on this base.

    Well, signing out a Humvee might’ve been suspicious. It’s a shame about Jeeps being replaced. I’ll ditch this later and find lower profile transportation home.

    The man encountered sparse traffic on State Route 58 (the Bakersfield-Barstow Highway), smoke columns rising in his rear-view mirror back at the Lindbergh Special Projects Army Base or possibly neighboring Edwards Air Force Base. His destination on the orders read Bakersfield, but he continued through Barstow, California onto Interstate 15 northeast.

    So, I’m in California, same place as last I remember in ’75. I’ve got quite a trip before seeing Kansas again.

    Peterson viewed time indications from one hanging paper calendar and a few electronic bank clocks. This was apparently Tuesday, July 2nd, 1996.

    Boy, I put in my own twenty years as Rip Van Winkle.

    #

    Hank Peterson bought a Greyhound bus ticket near Las Vegas, Nevada, after abandoning the Ranger and changing into civvies in one bathroom, but kept sunglasses on examining the familiar face in a mirror. The Army maintained his deceased body well enough, suntanned skin looking only slightly greenish in spots easily concealed under makeup, damages by bullets and holes they left all repaired from cosmetic surgery or the Gravedigger serum’s slow regenerative properties. After some 20 years inside the machine, Hank had tapped into a few classified files on the special project spawning one undead CIA assassin.

    Apparently none of the other subjects responded positively to the serum made from reverse-engineered UFO technology. Those men went berserk and attacked Army personnel. Bitten victims soon acted just as homicidal and everyone infected, aside from yours truly, was liquidated. The brass never did figure out why I was their one success.

    Replacing the glasses after glancing at those eyes when no one else was around, Peterson pulled on that leather sheepskin-lined bomber-style jacket over the white shirt, above blue jeans and white sneakers. He exited the bathroom with his duffle bag to board the east-bound bus that would take I-15 toward Utah. Everywhere there were police with semi-automatic and automatic rifles, more than he had seen in rural California, large newer signs warning civilians that certain aspects of martial law were in effect during this national emergency. He never asked too many questions to avoid drawing attention toward self.

    I just want to get home with this Lieutenant’s ID, as I’ll tell anyone asking my business.

    Hank Peterson sat next to a young man about his age when he originally died in Vietnam, the youth with a long ‘mullet’ style haircut dyed bright red, dressed in that black T-shirt with Che Guevara’s face stenciled in red, puffy camouflage pants and Doc Martin brown boots. The zombie had two other complete outfits from Krebs’ possessions for his cross-country trip, but admired this 1990s youth’s aggressive appearance.

    “So, are you in the service too?” Hank resisted using the word ‘son’ at the end of that question, realizing his body also retained its youthful appearance from 1968.

    “Nah, numb nuts,” this brown-eyed frowning man indicated sitting to Peterson’s left at the window on their side of the aisle, “I’m into concert promotion, but had to split LA after the crazy shit going on there. Stinking corpses from Compton, Watts and East LA are taking over. I’m lying low east of the Rockies for a while, somewhere safer.”

    Peterson glimpsed a young short-haired brunette woman in her knitted tank top and cutoff denim shorts seated right on the aisle one row ahead using a device (laptop computer) watching almost real-time news feeds on the ‘Zombie Crisis in America.’ Most major cities in North America were battlegrounds for riot police and special military units against an ever-growing force of walking dead. Some non-mainstream sources were quoted as saying black helicopters and top-secret military operations had caused it all. The government avoided placing blame for this epidemic’s origin, providing public information about defending against undead loved ones and the serious dangers of infection if bitten or scratched.

    Would these folks freak out knowing I’m something similar to those … what was that name – zombies.

    Passing through some guarded toll booths or exits along I- 15 out of Vegas and after switching to Interstate 70 around Cove Fork, Utah for a trip east concluding at Baltimore, Maryland, Peterson could see America crumbling at the margins, the bus’ passengers glimpsing soldiers and law enforcement shooting any walking corpses on sight but always at a safe distance from this vehicle’s route for the most part.

    After I get off in Kansas, it’s a long dangerous walk to Great Bend. I’d better hitchhike or rent a car after the ride is no longer headed my way.

    Departing the bus when it was stopped by traffic west of the I-70/I-135 intersection, Hank wandered down the north-south oriented Interstate 135, despite the driver’s protestations he could not disembark before scheduled stops at Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus. No one picked up hitchhikers in this paranoid climate he discovered, but his reanimated legs got used to marching again. That night approaching a McDonalds in McPherson, Kansas before starting west on US-56 for Great Bend, Hank saw a Golden Arches employee attack one customer in the parking lot beside her blue Ford Taurus.  Breaking up that assault with fists and duffle bag, the ex-soldier was puzzled when the gangly young dark-haired man in his brown uniform and baseball-style cap paused and stared straight at him.

    “I don’t think the lady’s interested,” Peterson glanced at the victim slumped against her opened driver’s side door, the bleeding carotid artery torn at the neck where she was bitten, “back off, Dude.”

    The pale young man with blood on his face and uniform then turned and stumbled toward that restaurant as if going to work. Hank helped the shocked dying woman from her car to lean against some parking lot shrubbery.

    “Thank – thank you,” she gasped as those green eyes stared into his sunglasses-covered ones and he stroked her disheveled brown hair while noting the lime-green tailored jacket and skirt with cream-colored blouse covered by blood, “but I need – need a doctor or an ambulance. Please, call 911.”

    I know enough about battle wounds to see she’s in shock and needs emergency surgery. Sorry, Ma’am.

    Hank sat next to her, pondering why the zombie, whom he now heard causing screams inside the restaurant, had relented from attacking him, before the dying woman stop breathing and fell over. Peterson stood and retrieved his duffle bag, finding she had placed her keys into the ignition but not managed to start that Taurus. Seconds later, Peterson looked over and saw the other dead body begin moving on its own before ignoring him and the car to wander off searching for something.

    Just like that guy, she’s not interested in me. Do they sense I’m different than other people?

    Throwing that duffle bag onto the passenger’s seat and climbing behind the wheel, Peterson soon remembered automatic transmission driving, as with that manual transmission Ranger. Heading onto US-56 west, Hank realized he had not been hungry for food at that restaurant earlier, or the human flesh and brains radio commentators claim zombies preferred (from a late-night AM station conspiracy theory show). He drove below the speed limit, grateful this Ford’s owner had more than half a tank of gas left in it, as there were fewer outward signs here of emergency conditions prevailing near major roads and small cities unlike Peterson’s earlier experiences.

    Wait a second, Hank now realized one pitfall to his plans for returning home, how do I explain this to Ma and Pa or Tina when they see me again? And what about Becky, does she still live there? Did she ever marry someone?

    Regaining inner calm after brief trepidation, Hank realized he needed to check a few things first, soon recalling the family had plots at Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery and presuming his empty casket would have been sent there for burial. Waiting until the cemetery opened after dawn, Peterson stopped at the section called Tranquil Meadow, but only found two markers there for parents George and Naomi.

    Just a damn minute, despite knowing twenty-eight years had passed since he was last home, Hank sank to his knees before the markers, reading father George had died in 1983 and Naomi just last December before this crisis started, where’s my marker? Don’t tell me that empty box was sent off to Arlington.

    Returning to Great Bend, he inquired at the city’s cemetery office about “old friend” Sergeant Peterson’s 1968 burial and learned to some relief it had been at Veterans Memorial Park. The man looked up his own phony resting spot where a white cross confirmed Sergeant Henry Lee Peterson had been killed in action on May 28, 1968 at age 19.

    What happened to Tina or Becky?

    Departing where his body officially rested, Hank looked in a local telephone directory but found no address or number for either kid sister Tina Peterson or former girlfriend Rebecca Travers in the Great Bend area (later realizing both might have different married names by now).

    “So, am I all alone?”

    Leaning against the steering wheel while parked along 10th Street beside a public pay phone, Hank had two last places left to inspect before abandoning his quest.

    #

    No, it’s too late.

    Hank Peterson stood beside the blue Taurus facing that two-story farmhouse where he grew up, removing sunglasses and facing north to behold its peeling white-painted wood and black-painted shutters beneath a gray tile roof, two oak trees at either side of the gravel driveway leading to a barn northeast of the main home. To the left of one oak tree stood some realty company’s billboard-size sign declaring the property had already been sold in April.

    This was my last link to the past. I escaped for nothing.

    Hank strolled around the property the rest of that morning, wandering empty fields where corn or soybeans once grew, his father George a part-time farmer and full-time vice-president at American State Bank & Trust in town. Mother Naomi ran the farm full-time as her husband was the banker paying their bills, Hank recalled. The barn was empty of livestock, of course, and even any junk, so he tried the front door after ascending five wooden steps onto that front porch past the hanging swing stirred by a slight western breeze. Finding the entrance unlocked, Peterson walked in, announcing to no one: “Hey, I’m finally home.”

    Unable to cry since being reanimated, Hank sighed at the empty living room devoid of furnishings and containing only ten cardboard storage boxes filled with old papers or keepsakes near the kitchen’s doorway. He inspected the entire first and second floors and storm cellar, finding only empty space, including his former upstairs corner bedroom looking down on the west fields.

    Maybe it’s just as well Ma died too, he shook his head in replacing those sunglasses from the shirt’s pocket, poor lady might’ve died of fright seeing her boy back from the dead.

    Returning to the dust-covered hardwood floor living room, he began going through boxes for clues to what happened with his sister or other acquaintances. Having stopped by the Travers farmhouse a half-mile further west earlier, Hank met the family named Reese living there. Becky’s parents both had apparently also died since he was last home.

    The new owners didn’t know what had happened to her, all paranoid about this crisis.

    Peterson dug through books, photos and papers as memories returned seeing stored treasures his mother must have kept only for a sister to leave behind and throw out. He flipped through the 1967 yearbook for Great Bend High School, stopping at a rare color photo of the all-state baseball team with Hank as their shortstop. Inside a family album, he found his Great Bend High Senior Prom photo with Rebecca Lynn Travers, the tall brown-haired banker’s son looking handsome in an April 1967 rented blue tuxedo. At his left stood Becky, the apple-cheeked strawberry-blonde farmer’s daughter wearing her strapless peach gown. They were the Midwestern All-American couple before Hank got drafted and headed to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

    I hadn’t even graduated yet when my notice arrived in early May. Becky said she’d wait for me at college.

    Hank could no longer remember if the young woman’s major would be home economics, political science or something else. He planned on seeking a business degree to please George since professional baseball scouts never saw his high school games. Hank had also felt the duty to serve, his World War II veteran father encouraging that sentiment, and never sought a student deferment from the Vietnam War’s adventure.

    I showed a talent for leadership and ambushes and got two stripes within six months in country, before getting killed nine months into my tour as the short-timer.

    Digging through boxes for other papers or memorabilia, Hank never heard one vehicle pull onto the drive and park behind his borrowed Ford, barely noticing footsteps across that porch until the front door’s handle turned announcing a visitor.

    Shoot, someone’s here. How do I explain this?

    Unable to find cover in the empty room while sitting among those boxes, Hank was surprised to see an almost-familiar face step inside. It was his now 44-year-old sister Tina in the red blazer jacket, long blue dress, red pumps and her once dark-blonde hair now ash-tinted with golden highlights styled into a bun. Peterson’s combat reflexes took over in leaping from his seated position, when she gasped with widened blue-green eyes at discovering an unexpected intruder soon grabbing and forcing her onto the floor.

    “NO, don’t touch me – AIEE-MMPH!”

    The 6’ 2” 190-pound zombie restrained that 5’ 6” 124-pound woman as she knocked his glasses away before he clamped a left hand over her mouth.

    I mustn’t hurt her.

    “Tina,” he reassured the squirming, frightened lady, “it’s me, Hank! I finally made it home from the war, Sis. Promise me you won’t scream and I’ll let you up.”

    The bulging eyes studied those facial features preserved by the serum and occasional cosmetic surgery as she was shocked at his cold flesh against her face. Nodding, Tina sat up allowing him to help her stand, the lady lost for words at an unexpected reunion.

    “Oh, my God, it – it is you, Hank. But you look almost the same as when,” she retrieved a photo of Corporal Peterson sent home Christmas 1967 from one box to compare faces, “no, it’s not possible. I saw your sealed casket. The Army said you’d been killed.”

    “I was, or at least that’s what this shows,” he unbuttoned the white shirt’s front to reveal traces of a chest-level bullet entry hole left of the sternum’s center, “when my company swept an Iron Triangle village. This young VC about your age then got me before I blew him to bits with a grenade.”

    Tina saw other small scars from injuries Hank had endured as the CIA’s lone undead assassin, almost crying before allowing this only brother to hold her after he reclosed that shirt.

    “This is incredible. We lived for years believing you were buried in the Veteran cemetery. Pa never recovered from losing you right up to his heart attack. Ma mourned you more quietly and died of cancer.” She broke free of his touch to stare at the man before passing out. “But – how – how did you…?”

    Hank caught Tina and gently stretched her across the floor, feeling a pulse but uncertain if she suffered medical conditions accounting for that fainting. He peered outside the door to see (presumably) her red Ford Bronco parked behind his borrowed blue Taurus.

    No purse on her – maybe she’s got medicine out there in one. I’d better check before I call an ambulance.

    Inspecting her vehicle, he soon found one water bottle and the black handbag, bringing both inside when discovering his sister rising off the floor to face him. Accepting the plastic bottle, she took a few sips before speaking.

    “Sorry, Hank, it’s probably low blood sugar. I skipped breakfast with Alvin and just stopped to collect the last of Ma’s stuff and thought that Ford was the developer’s. There’ll be a new mall built here next year, assuming all this craziness doesn’t crash the entire commercial real estate market.”

    “Imagine my shock at finding out I was the walking dead,” Hank half-joked as Tina’s comments explained that sign in their yard, “waking up back in 1969. But there’s so much we need to catch up on, Sis, I barely know where to start.”

    #

    The reunited siblings carried boxes out to Tina’s Ford, filling each other in on their lives (hers as a living human) since 1968 and abandoning that Taurus. The woman soon acted as though this was perfectly normal, even though her brother’s return had coincided with the recent undead epidemic spreading further across America.

    “After high school, I dropped out of nursing school,” Tina Meyers was still processing the fact her brother had been a CIA assassin until the 1975 Senator Frank Church Committee hearings curtailed covert assassinations, “married Alvin after he’d got back from ’Nam with health problems due to that Agent Orange defoliant. We had two boys, Arthur in ’74 and Wallace in ’76, or Artie and Wally as they liked to be called. Artie’s in the Corps posted with the Moroccan US embassy’s guard detail and Wally still attending Texas A. & M.”

    Getting her realtor’s license by 1978, Tina had become the primary breadwinner, while Hank still found it hard to believe skinny Alvin Meyers had become a Marine after his teenage years being picked on by jocks. As they drove through Great Bend, he told her about Project: Gravedigger reviving his body with some crashed UFO’s technology, and that seven-year career as Agent Romero (named in honor of a zombie horror movie director). He proved impervious to small arms fire and made a perfect assassin for any difficult-to-reach target.

    “I was being considered for a mission against Castro before twenty years in storage, but think they reactivated me because of this zombie plague. I escaped and made it here instead. The Army must’ve thought my condition could solve the plague problem somehow.”

    Tina had stopped to close her realty office in town before heading toward a split-level home five miles east of Great Bend on US-56 where Alvin awaited his wife’s returning that afternoon with take-out dinner.

    “Hank, what are your plans now? I mean you could crash at our place in the boys’ old bedroom once I’ve explained this all to Alvin, but we can’t let the neighbors know you’re a…”

    “Zombie is the word,” Hank then added something else he had heard on a talk radio program earlier, “or the US Census Bureau might classify me an undead-American. I’m probably considered technically AWOL by the Army too.”

    “This isn’t funny, Brother dear.”

    Pondering Tina’s earlier question as they left the downtown portion of Great Bend, Hank later knew there was one thing left he still wanted in this world.

    “I need to see her.”

    “Who else could you possibly-? Oh no, you can’t. She had a hard life after your death. Becky almost quit college in her grief. The poor lady switched to nursing, one hard subject I found out, got her degree, married some jerk doctor who cheated before and after their two kids were born, and left her for his moonlighting stripper receptionist.”

    “Tina, she was one of the few things keeping me going while in country with Easy Company,” Hank reminded her, “if you’d ever read any of my letters home.”

    I would’ve entered the University of Kansas that fall on the G.I. Bill after finishing my tour.

    “Hank,” Tina reached out and took his left hand, despite still being disturbed by its cool temperature, “if my seeing you was a shock today, as if the last twenty-eight years never happened, what’ll it be like for her? Can she accept it?”

    “Tina,” Hank caressed her manicured red-painted nails in his hands until she pulled away, “if you know where Becky is, give me directions and I’ll walk there. You won’t have to be mixed up in this any further.”

    Giggling briefly, Hank recalling the teenager he had known years ago. Pausing once for sighing between sentences, Tina offered: “We’re kin, so I’m already involved. I’ll drive you there.”

    The realtor took the next eastbound lane exit and parked in a restaurant’s lot before using her silver cellular phone from the large black purse between them on the floor.

    “I need to call Alvin and tell him I’ll be late getting home. Becky lives in Topeka.  She’d kept in touch with Ma for years, especially after her parents died while driving back from a visit there three years ago.”

    #

    The drive to Topeka took a few hours and Hank paid for the gasoline with the last $50 he took at that California Army base. They found the highways (US-56 and US-77) adequate for getting from Great Bend to their final destination and saw few hints of the spreading zombie trouble. Toll highway Interstate 335 had more check points and warning signs along its northeast route, seeming worse the closer Tina’s red Bronco came to Topeka. Hank pulled out his Lieutenant Krebs Army ID and an official sounding manner whenever needing to dissuade scrutiny from Kansas state patrolmen and local or county cops along their drive, managing that military bluff well enough every time.

    “In this third month of America’s growing undead crisis, the CDC in Atlanta is dispatching additional personnel to handle processing of recently deceased in preventing further spread of the strange infection and losses in civilian lives. Funeral homes and crematoria nationwide have been given new guide—”

    Tina switched off her car’s FM radio, a public news station she tuned in to settle nerves glimpsing horrors along I-335.

    “Hey, I was listening to that,” Hank mildly protested, but then joked about this situation until seeing Tina’s trepidation behind the wheel, “just getting facts on undead Americans. I can drive if you’re tired.”

    “No, that’s okay,” she laughed before supposing, “I guess you’re never tired after what they did to you, right?”

    “The only rest I ever got was being immobilized inside that storage pod on the base. And even if I did need sleep, I think I’ve slept enough – 20 years as Rip Van Winkle.”

    I love Tina, but how can any living human understand me?

    Tina had revealed to Hank that Becky was a nurse working at Topeka’s Colmery O’Neill VA Medical Center, and lived with her two teenage children in a two-story home on Southwest Prairie Road of West Topeka – December 1984 divorce settlement spoils from ex-husband Theodore K. Hunt, M.D.

    Hank and Tina saw large smoke columns rising from Topeka’s central and eastern neighborhoods. Listening to a local radio station while headed along I-470 after leaving 335, they heard the Governor had fled his residence and was meeting with the state’s legislators and police/highway patrol commanders at some nearby emergency headquarters to review the state’s crisis response plan.

    This might not have been the best idea, the fugitive man realized, using stolen military credentials and keeping those sunglasses on at all times, hauling Tina into this mess.

    They drove east off 470 onto Southwest 21st Street, north at Southwest Crest Drive and parked across from 1728 Southwest Prairie Road facing a corner with Southwest 19th Street.

    “Here comes her car,” Tina noted that vehicle in the early evening’s sunlight, a green Chrysler Town & Country minivan with imitation wood panel trim, “Ted’s receptionist was moonlighting nights as a stripper and it turned on the horny bastard enough he finally left Becky. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

    “So do I,” he kissed her right cheek, the realtor getting used to that cold touch, “wish me luck, Sis.”

    Hank Peterson adjusted his jacket collar and watched Becky Hunt pull her SUV into the attached two-car garage’s left side beside that two-story house. She had raised the door with an automatic opener and stopped next to a black Honda motorcycle as Hank strolled across that road toward her home. The 46-year-old nurse lifted two brown paper grocery sacks from the back seats at the sliding right side door and turned toward that doorway leading inside her kitchen when she finally caught sight of the approaching stranger. Hank decided Becky looked attractive in her blue medical scrubs two-piece uniform with white sneakers, the slightly-graying darker blonde hair in a ponytail.

    “Can I help you?” She then gasped when Hank removed the sunglasses and smiled, dropping her bundle in recognizing that long-dead man. “Hank, oh my God, that’s – you were buried in Great Bend and…”

    One sack containing something glass made the loudest crash when those hit the cement floor beside her shoes.

    “Mom,” a girl’s voice called out from an opened door behind the nurse facing this unexpected visitor, short-haired redheaded 14-year-old Lisa Hunt peering inside to investigate that noise, “did you drop something?”

    “Was that glass?” Bushy brown-haired, lanky 17-year-old Tyler Hunt in the black Metallica T-shirt and blue bike shorts looked over his shorter sister’s head at the stranger with their mother. The teenagers had no idea who this was, as Tyler rudely asked Peterson: “Hey, what do you want, Dude?”

    “Becky,” Hank pleaded as she became used to his glowing eyes, “please, I just wanted to see you again after all these years. Tell them everything is okay and we can talk some more. I’ve missed you so much, Sweetie.”

    “Kids,” never looking back at them, Becky said, “I just got clumsy, had a really rough day at the hospital before my shift ended early. I’ll clean this mess.” She retrieved two white paper sacks from the minivan’s front seat, handing those items off her kids. “This is someone I knew in Great bend. Sorry dinner’s a bit late. I’ll be right in soon.”

    Looking closer, Hank noticed the 5’ 2” Becky appeared a bit heavier after having two kids but still attractive in his sight. Those teens departed with fast food meals after final stares at this acquaintance of their mother’s. Two military helicopters then buzzed over that neighborhood as Hank spoke again.

    “A lot has happened to me since 1968. I just want a chance to explain it all. I never forgot about you, but couldn’t get away from what I did for the CIA back then.”

    Becky laughed and shook her head while salvaging the two grocery bags, setting the one without broken glass and spilled liquid (cooking oil) on that minivan’s floor first.

    “Boy, you’ve got a lot of nerve coming back and giving me a crazy story like that, Hank, the world turning upside down from an unknown pathogen the CDC can’t isolate with all their money and personnel. They’ve taken over the VA hospital where I work, and I was lucky the Independence Day holiday meant working a short shift today. The shopping center and grocery store were insane with people buying everything not nailed down thinking it’s the end of the world as those dead people killing everyone has finally spread to almost every corner of the country.”

    Hank slowly moved beside Becky as she salvaged shopping bags and hugged her once.

    “Oh my God, you’re so cold – just like a dead…”

    Peterson stepped back with both arms spread out to prevent his old girlfriend panicking.

    “I swear I won’t hurt you or your kids, Rebecca.” He used her full first name whenever serious. “Please let me explain it all – how the CIA and US Army treated me with some serum out of a crashed UFO bringing me back from the dead after Vietnam. It was a project code-named Gravedigger.”

    Suddenly, Tina appeared behind them and cleared her throat, nodding at the nurse.

    “Hey, Becky – it’s true. I found him at our old house down the road from yours earlier today.”

    Hank briefly stared at his shoes as Becky became transfixed by the man’s eyes.

    “I’m guessing that’s a side effect of your treatment.”

    The man nodded before Tina explained her joining them now.

    “I just heard on the radio Topeka is being sealed off by the Army and police from across the Kansas River and on every road out of town.”

    So that’s why we had more trouble getting through the last Interstate checkpoint at the 355/470 interchange.

    “Crap,” Becky confirmed, lifting both grocery bags again, despite one being wet on the bottom, “I heard folks at work say we might evacuate patients to a special camp south of here. But they can’t just seal every living person in here, right?”

    “Apparently they can,” Hank replaced the sunglasses in case anyone else saw his unnatural eyes, “like what I heard has been done in New York, LA and other big places under martial law.”

    “We’d better move fast, Brother dear,” Tina insisted as she regretted their trip here for the first time, “before Topeka becomes a zombie concentration camp. We can take Becky, Tyler and Lisa with us.”

    “Could you do that for us, Hank?”

    Considering the matter a moment, they all heard other cars race along streets outside and somewhere beyond as jets roared overhead closely followed by explosions in the distance. Tina jumped slightly before briefly grabbing Hank’s right arm.

    “What’s going on now?”

    “Sounded like a low-level bombing run,” Hank led their way around the garage to look toward the downtown’s skyline and see rising fire plumes, “yeah, just like calling for an air strike on Charlie in the bush. They’re serious.”

    The flames competed with a setting sun’s orange glowing on partly cloudy skies. Minutes later, residual heat from attacks across Topeka added to the sultry summer weather.”

    “Get your kids and dog, Becky, take whatever you’ll need for overnight and pile into my Bronco,” Tina offered before she led that nurse inside her home, “I’ll help organize – I’m good at that.”

    “Yeah,” Hank absentmindedly watched additional bombing runs releasing Napalm or some other explosives on city blocks nearer the Kansas River, “hope I can still talk us out of this with my stolen ID.”

    The unusual zombie also glimpsed signs of distress from one block away on Southwest 17th Terrace to the north and beyond at what Peterson would later learn was Mount Hope Cemetery. Some locals not fleeing their homes fought off strangers or loved ones attacking them. This man recognized the other dead people were slowly winning that ground war.  Low-buzzing jets from the Kansas Air National Guard brought the man back to reality. He raced over to start Tina’s Bronco and pull it beside Becky’s drive, turning west to let her parked vehicle idle. Minutes later, Tina emerged carrying a yellow cooler chest with Becky, each also bringing one bagged clothing bundle. Somewhere behind them Tyler and Lisa were carrying school backpacks with personal items and a small white beagle trailed them, until one of those aircraft flights dropped explosives on this neighborhood. The spreading fireball consumed Becky Hunt’s house, dog Sadie and her kids as they were still inside the garage, the minivan and cycle also exploding. Tina was thrown against the Bronco’s interior and hit her head on the left rear passenger’s door. Hank pulled Becky inside the Bronco’s front seats just as they were hit by burning shrapnel.

    #

    Hank Peterson climbed out of the red Ford Bronco, as it lay on its left side, flipped by the explosion, and righted the car back onto four wheels by himself with serum-generated strength. Finding Tina only had a concussion and remained unconscious, and Becky’s children Tyler and Lisa Hunt were charred bone fragments inside their home’s ruins with Sadie the beagle, the man loaded Becky’s unconscious shrapnel-injured dying body into the Ford’s front seat, leaving Tina resting in back, and raced toward the hospital where Nurse Hunt worked. Using his military ID to gain access inside the Colmery O’Neill VA Center, Peterson found an abandoned examination room for checking all his ex-girlfriend’s blast injuries.

    Her pulse is getting weaker, he then touched a jagged piece of metal in Becky’s left temple that bled badly along with other shrapnel injuries, also noticing her sprained right elbow from its odd angle, and this place is busy evacuating any remaining patients to safety.

    He heard gunshots from rifles and pistols somewhere inside this facility, helicopters landing atop its roof and fighter jets still bombing the greater Topeka area, noting Betty Hunt’s pained features caked with soot and blood. Rubbing her face and noticing the wound on his left forearm that had already started healing with yellow serum from the dead circulatory system dried over that laceration, Peterson knew how he might prevent Becky becoming another mindless walking dead.

    Radio reports said it takes minutes for a new corpse to start moving and attack the living.

    Hank had felt faint hints of that craving for human flesh since his recent awakening, but realized the Gravedigger serum made him distinct from other corpses. Taking one cardiac needle and syringe, he siphoned a few ounces of the yellow-green liquid from his right elbow crook and injected it directly into Becky’s heart as her breathing slowed.

    I know from reviewing computer files while in storage they had replaced all my blood with this stuff. It has to work again now.

    Seconds later Becky Hunt died, but soon sat up on that exam table screaming. Hank restrained her against that gray leather upholstered surface until her thrashing motions ceased and she rested. At that moment, two men in camouflage uniforms wearing Military Police armbands and carrying M-16 rifles burst through the door, both weapons pointed straight ahead.

    “We heard someone screaming,” a swarthy Latino of the duo stared at Peterson with heightened suspicion, “and – hey, what’s going on in here?”

    “Oh my God,” the suntanned MP with red hair and freckles stared at the slow-moving injured Becky through widened eyes, “she’s one of them! Shoot her!”

    “At ease, men,” Peterson kept his sunglasses on and pulled out that pilfered ID, “I’m Lieutenant Krebs temporarily attached to the National Security Agency. This staff nurse is going to be fine. Just leave her to me.”

    “Sorry, Sir,” the first man’s dark eyes showed conviction in standing orders, “they get their freaking heads blown off, no exceptions.”

    Before either man could pull his trigger, Peterson leaped across the exam room and shoved them through that door into the hallway cluttered with abandoned gurneys, IV stands and other discarded equipment or medical garments. His programming taking over, Hank crushed the trigger happy redhead’s throat chopping his trachea, suffering three hits in the left neck and shoulder. The other man’s bullets went through Hank’s right cheek, temple and scalp, but he smashed that rifle in the MP’s face fatally forcing his nose into the brain.

    It didn’t hurt, just like every other time I’ve been shot.

    The MPs both dead, Hank took their rifles and collected Becky, the reanimated woman now calmly allowing this former love to lead their way from this chaos as her eyes also glowed. The men he had killed would soon add to confusion inside this VA center’s deteriorating security situation.

    She’s responded to the injection. Maybe it can help others like us someday become almost normal.

    Peterson loaded Becky into the Bronco wrapped with a white blanket and Tina’s sunglasses over the eyes, and spread another blanket across his sister in the back seat. He reasoned jets would never attack moving ground vehicles as the average zombie lacked intelligence and driving coordination.

    “We might make it, Sweetie,” he reassured the nurse still stirring occasionally as the serum continued affecting her body, “just hold on.”

    He had glimpsed files inside the California base’s computer system about how the alien Gravedigger serum replenished itself by reverse-engineered advanced microorganisms. This innovation prevented dependence on transfusions to maintain any artificial life, and the scientists presumed the UFO ETs used it preserving injured bodies until later medical treatment was received. Hank removed Becky’s larger shrapnel and patched the wounds with some medical supplies from that hospital.

    She might need more injections. We’ll wait out this crisis in Great Bend. It should be safe there for now.

    The man used his Krebs ID to get past check points, guards that allowed him passage from Topeka’s quarantine zone with two wounded women ignoring bullet holes or yellowish residues dried around them on his face and clothes. Peterson used his sister’s gas card to charge fuel for the return drive across Kansas that night, figuring she would not object. They stopped at her house east of Great Bend a half-mile north off US-56 and Hank reunited his semi-conscious sibling with Alvin Meyers, borrowing the Ford taking Tina for medical care before reaching the Peterson farm.

    #

    At first, it was a few wandering by along that road and stopping to remain under the oak trees, but before long the non-living crowd gradually enlarged as this crisis stretched across summer. Hank and Becky heard reports, from the battery-powered radio he found inside an abandoned farm two miles west of here, about America and many other nations where the dead overwhelmed government efforts to control or eliminate them. The US Air Force had sterilized major cities using thermonuclear bombs. The radioactive fallout only served to sicken and kill people for miles around, producing more zombies.

    “Those fools,” he remarked, holding Becky’s hands seated at an old card table, that and chairs found from other homes, “they finally really did it. We’re immune to radiation.”

    “Maybe it’s for the best, darling,” Becky had regained full power of speech after a half-dozen injections, “we’ll manage.”

    Becky’s skin had regained its vigorous tanned appearance, despite her body never being above room temperature. He gave her a dozen injections in all, the serum slowly replacing that lady’s congealed blood and creating an imitation of life.

    “And just what do they want? I never liked crowds.”

    He looked out his living room’s exposed front window at the wandering dead people staring toward their farmhouse, each one seemingly awaiting something.

    “They never attack us,” she noted, as he kissed the spot where shrapnel was once embedded in her skull, “whenever we take walks together. Maybe you should say something to them like a politician. We’ll need to rebuild civilization.”

    Initially scoffing at his lover’s quaint idea, Hank later realized Becky might be correct.

    But do these other zombies even think or understand?

    Days later as leaves began changing color in this part of Kansas, Henry Lee Peterson stood on the front porch’s top step with Rebecca Lynn Travers (she dropped her ex-husband’s name as death now parted them long after divorce). The couple had found some nice clothes resembling their Senior Prom attire for this occasion – Hank an ill-fitting blue suit and Becky a spaghetti-strapped peach bridesmaid’s dress.

    “Maybe I can do this,” he remarked to her as the lady took his right hand, “I have to see it as an opportunity. Hell, I served my country once in Vietnam and again for the CIA after getting killed. Today I’m doing it for the third time.”

    “They say ‘third time’s the charm,’” Becky gave him a small encouraging kiss on the right cheek, “and I believe you’re the one to be their leader, so go knock them dead – sorry, deader.”

    There were a few thousand zombies in the yard and fields, no longer harassed from combat jets seeking targets to strafe by bullets or bomb with ordinance. As if sensing this moment’s importance, the creatures surged closer toward the couple.

    “Hello, my fellow undead Americans,” he felt silly starting with words aping some Presidential State of the Union speech, “we gather here today in the sight of God after our nation has suffered its greatest crisis, as your presence testifies to our resilience against adversity. Now we begin again.”

    Hank enjoyed the zombie spectators staring at him in rapt attention but never reacting otherwise, recalling an old saying appropriate to his nearly-unique (apart from Becky) role within a strange new world.

    In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.

    8 Comments

    1. Quite original, with the army re animmate. Really emjoyed the read.

      Comment by luke on September 22, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

    2. The scale and scope of this story is so wide and broad im surprised you actually got to condense it in short story form.
      From being a Vietnam war vet to ufo tech enhanced assassin to zombie king there were a lot of details packed into a short space.

      The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about it is you leave the readers hanging if the zombies do actually follow their new king.
      The clues laid about at the ending is just too vague and at the same time doesn’t satiate my curiosity if the zombie king premise actually works.

      Comment by bong on September 22, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    3. I thought this was a unique spin on “zombiedom” and found it very interesting. I think it would lend itself to an introspective short film with the zombie protagonist doing a narrative voice-over. Very cool concept. Painted a good picture of the world in which your story takes place.

      Comment by Adam Francis Smith on September 22, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

    4. The story leaps to life. !._!
      Nice bit of work.

      Comment by Paul on September 23, 2011 @ 1:14 am

    5. What disturbed me was this guy seemed to me to be a rather “all american” boy and seemed to be willing to fight and die for America and all it stands for. What is to happen to the remaining living humans? Rolled into concentration camp farms for feeding purposes? It seems to me that the “America” he would be rebuilding would be as much a parody of the old America as these zombies lives are a parody of their former selves. Other than that it was quite imaginative.

      Comment by Patrick Turner on September 23, 2011 @ 6:06 am

    6. I think you guys are doing this tale a disservice. I liked its originality and I thought there was a great tie up to the final line which I didn’t see (in fact I would have called the story ‘One Eyed Man’).

      I agree that bringing in the Alien tech was maybe a step too far and would have left that out.

      I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of action hero coming home after so long. In fact I expected more guns and gore but was glad when it took a gentler turn. I think it really added to the atmosphere. Enjoyable.

      Comment by Pete Bevan on September 23, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    7. Oh don’t take it the wrong way Pete. I thought parts of it were wonderful. The scene of napalm strikes on downtown Topeka was golden.. especially when it they guy followed it up with the thought . “Yup, just like nam” that was extremely memorable.

      Comment by Patrick Turner on September 23, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    8. Great read! Nice twists and turns and huge scope! Would be interesting to see what happens when him and his thousands of “repaired” injected followers start to needle other zombies, and how well “cool” humans and “warm” humans would get along.

      Comment by hijinxjeep on September 29, 2011 @ 1:38 am

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