Tuesday, June 25, 2013

CORA: Episode 4


"The Forbidden Zone"

Dale’s motorcycle weaved down what had once been called Scottsville road.  Time and dilapidation had left some potholes and cracks that could easily have thrown him to his death, but he had driven the stretch to the old downtown enough times to know where most of the real dangers were.   The junk of five decades slowed him to a crawl in several areas.
Most of the town wouldn’t have wasted precious fuel to drive to the Forbidden Zone, but the risk had paid off many times.  Dale made his living stealing what others worked hard to collect, and he never had any problem trading for fuel or killing for it.
It was pretty rare to see other vehicles on this stretch of road since the work crews hadn’t got around to clearing it.  That made it much more dangerous.  Corpses were drawn to clutter.  It was as if they knew their slow gait and rigor mortis movements made them vulnerable.  Individually, they were easy to avoid, but if Dale was caught off guard by a group in this graveyard of the old order, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
They were totally silent other than what they bumped into or knocked over.  The sound of the motorcycle could conceal them until it was too late.  Since he couldn’t fight and drive, caution was his only defense.  Periodically, he stopped and listened, even turning off the engine at times.
Once Dale reached what used to be called 31 W, the road was clear.  Clean-up crews had been working steadily for the last decade to get rid of the debris.  Nashville and Bowling Green had created a large trade network and used the combined efforts of their inhabitants to maintain a clear route between all the markets and businesses that slowly rebuilt. 
The motorcycle engine revved up on the clean straightaway.  The rumbling engine, smoking from the tailpipe took him to the Forbidden Zone in minutes. 
On a side street next to an abandoned Taco Bell three corpses mindlessly beat at a glass door.  Dale slowed to get a better look as he passed.  The dead were drawn to the sound of his engine and re-routed their drunken stagger toward him.  He noticed they were fresh, not the skeletal amblers with dried leathery skin anchoring their bones together.  They leaked dark ooze from their eyes and mouths.  The shirtless one’s stomach had either been cut open or ruptured from the decaying process, and a mess of intestines slowly dripped out, one ringlet at a time.
He pulled his sawed off shotgun from his saddlebag.  The weapon did more against his human foes, but it would slow the dead down enough that they were no longer a threat. 
Keeping the gun leveled, Dale waited until they were about fifteen feet away.  Their twisted faces twitched in anticipation of the human flesh. 
The first explosion of the shotgun knocked the one with the open stomach down to the ground.  It was on its back missing a leg at the waist, a pool of blood rapidly gathering around it.
The next explosion opened a crater in the center of the other one’s chest, somersaulting it backwards into a mangled heap.
“Somebody must not have put momma and daddy to rest properly.”  He mocked as he watched the corpses struggle to regain their feet.  The legless one was down for the duration, and the other was going to be a while until it could find something to pull on.
All the bodies in the cemeteries had been exhumed and killed properly decades ago.  These pieces of shit either found their way out of the Forbidden Zone or somebody was in too big of a hurry to burn them.  He shoved his shotgun back in his saddlebag and drove off down a dark street.
A few minutes later, Dale killed the engine in the middle of street with ruined houses on both sides.  He was going to need to be quiet to sneak up to the barrier unless he wanted his head blown off.  The guards always shot to kill.
About fifty feet in front of him, the road ended in a chain link fence re-enforced with logs and old lumber.  The barrier enclosed a three mile area of the old downtown shopping area, and its sole purpose was to lock in the dead.  They had been drawn to the clutter of the ruined Greenwood Mall and the shopping centers.  The maze of debris had given them places to hide and wait for looters in the beginning of the chaos.  Their numbers grew as the newly deceased stood up and joined them.  It simply became easier to lock them in.
Putting the kickstand down, he drew his shotgun from the saddlebag as he whipped off the bike.  In his empty hand he drew a large wooden stake from the other saddlebag.
The moon gave some gray to the street before him, but it didn’t do much for the dark buildings.  Fall was weakening to the force of winter, and Dale saw his breath as he stayed in the middle of the asphalt.  Since the corpses moved slowly, he’d have plenty of time to assess his options.
His survival instinct suddenly flashed to life and the cold air against his bare arms was gone.  Adrenaline warmed him instantly.  The yellow dot of a flashlight came into view on his right.  The barrier patrol was headed straight for him.  There was no time to lose.  The patrol didn’t take prisoners.   
He ran for one of the houses missing a front door.  Dale’s map said the bootlegger tunnel started from the basement and ended in the Forbidden Zone. 
Suddenly A voice boomed out in the night with incredible volume.  “Halt!  No one is permitted in the Forbidden Zone!”
Dale ran faster.  There was no longer a choice.  He was running for his life.  He went to the floor and began crawling as fast as he could the moment he entered the house.   
Automatic gun fire blasted through the night.  He could see the glow of a flashlight coming from outside.  Dale backed up against the wall and peeked around the corner.  He saw someone wearing a large backpack lit up from the intersection of several bright lights.  The person was thin with long hair.  Their hands went up to shield their eyes.
Gunfire erupted in the night.  Sprays of meat and blood jumped outward from the twirling, spasming body.  When death settled, the corpse dropped.
Dale readied his shotgun.  He would go down with barrel blazing if they came for him.  Voices came from outside.  They had gotten the one they were chasing.  His heart beat with adrenaline fueled ecstasy when he realized they hadn’t seen him.  The patrol was chasing someone else.
The hallway he was in shown with the faint orange of what he knew was a large fire.  Across from him on the wall was a picture of a family.  Their smiles looked sinister in the glow of a death pyre.
#   #   #

Jimmy stopped running between the ruins of two buildings.  His cold exhausted breath billowed from his lips in visible puffs.  The embrace of night was fully upon the land.  He knew he was pushing his luck being out and unarmed in this part of the old downtown.
His head cocked to the right as he heard a barrage of automatic gunfire.  It wasn’t down the street, but it wasn’t far enough away for comfort either.  For a second his heart lifted.  Maybe they had killed Dale, finally put a bullet in the vicious son-of-a-bitch.  Jimmy’s elation quickly passed.  It was far more likely that they had just sprayed a cluster of walking corpses looking for a way out of the contained area.  Either way, that sound let him know the guards were on alert this evening, and he realized his shortcut through the Forbidden Zone was even less of a good idea than usual.
On nights like tonight his cabin on the outskirts of the settlement seemed so far away.  Dropping to one knee, he pulled a long wooden spear out from behind a pile of rubbish.  The deadly point was the result of someone shaving a tip onto the wood with a very sharp blade.  Rags were wrapped tightly around the shaft just below the point. 
Leaning the spear against the wall next to him, Jimmy grabbed something on the ground.  There was a brief strain in his muscles as he pulled a short length of rope to open a crudely fashioned trapdoor that covered an opening into the old sewage system.
Fetching a lighter from his pocket, he flicked it giving rise to a small flame.  Jimmy had hunted the lighters for years.  An old man had told him what they were called in the old world.  They came apart easily, so Jimmy refilled them with the alcohol fuel people made in their stills.
The cloth easily lit, and with his torch in hand, the teenager climbed below the earth.  The cool metal tingled in his palm as he lowered himself into the darkness.  It felt much cooler down below.  He pulled on the rope, slamming the trapdoor behind him.
The fire revealed he was in a wide stone area with a low ceiling.  Jimmy only had to tilt his head a fraction to be comfortable.  Garbage was everywhere.  The human leg bones in his path were easily kicked out of the way, but when his eyes caught site of the teeth marks on them he felt a slight wave of anxiety.  Being this close to the Forbidden Zone was never without risk.
Hunching slightly, he pointed his weapon into the darkness and moved ahead.  If he moved quickly, he would be through the Forbidden Zone in no time.  He had the shortest route memorized.
The silence in the winding stone tunnels was only broken by the scurrying of rats and the splash of disturbed puddles.  Even though Jimmy had taken the route hundreds of times, he never let complacency set in.  The corpses were usually silent until it was too late. 
Meaningless graffiti scrawled its way along the walls playing tricks in the periphery of the boy’s vision.  He jerked around several times expecting to see an ambling dead man standing with a gaping maw.  Silent zephyrs of foul smelling cavern breath flickered the flaming rags on his spear to the point Jimmy feared he might lose his light.  He would be ready to strip off his shirt and rekindle his torch.  There was no survival in the dark.
In the middle of one of the flickers that nearly returned the sewer to darkness a sound echoed in the distance.  It was a reverberating of sorts.  Jimmy stood perfectly still and listened with his entire body. 
#   #   #

Dale’s directions led him down a tight flight of stairs.  The faint glow of the fire dimmed with each step as he moved into the thickening wall of gloom.  Reaching out into the darkness in front of him with his shotgun and his wooden lance made him uncomfortable.  There was no pretending this little adventure wasn’t stupid.  Corpses lurked in the dark, and if he touched one unsuspectingly, it would be on him and it would all be over.
As the map indicated, he made his way across the room.  The door was in the corner where he expected it.  His fingers found the metal hinges.  The moment he touched the knob, his attention was drawn upstairs.  Voices and boots made their way ungracefully into the house.
“Look around!  Carl said he saw another one run in here!”
The reply was a little irritated.  “Carl drinks more of our fuel than he uses in the jeep.”
Dale got the joke.  The few operating motors in the world had been converted to run on plant and sugar based fuel that doubled as whiskey for someone who didn’t mind walking.  During their conversation he eased open the door and slid into the unseen chamber.  He was crowded against boxes and clothing, but the door shut him inside with little effort.
Suddenly, the stairs came alive with heavy footfalls. 
“It doesn’t look like anyone has been down here in years.”
Dale felt his breathing growing rapid and shallow.  He feared he  would give himself away. 
“The Captain wants everything checked out.  You heard him as well as I did.”
The other voice challenged.  “This mysterious woman sneaking in the Forbidden Zone doesn’t make any sense.”
“Don’t be stupid, Adom.  Why does anyone sneak in this hell hole?  To take shit, weapons, supplies, all kinds of stuff from the old world.”
The one called Adom wasn’t backing down.  “Even the Captain says she just looks around.  Never comes out with anything.  If you ask me, it’s just too many long hours.”
“Shut up and look over there.”
Dale felt his blood run cold.  As quietly as he could he moved back in the depths of the closet.  He pushed himself into the clothes in time to hear the door open.  Perfectly still, he was between packed jackets. There was fire light on the other side of the room.
The voices were so close.  His mouth was dry, and he could feel moisture in his palms.
 “It doesn’t matter if people bring anything out of the Forbidden Zone.  The law says no one goes inside accept on Black Friday.  And that’s how it ought to be.  That place has more zombies crawling around than the whole city of Bowling Green.  We don’t need them getting out.”
Dale’s door closed.  The relief set his knees shaking.  He could hardly hold himself up.  The near miss increased his anxiety.  He gripped his gun thinking his only option was to kill his way out.
Their conversation ended with mutual agreement that no one was in the house.  It was many moments after Dale was sure they were gone that he felt his body relaxing. 
Feeling through the closet he found the loose board in the back.  Just like he expected, three boards lifted out of place.  The passage was barely big enough for him to crawl through if he left his weapons behind.

#  #   #

The weathered boards surrendered to the mass of the living dead.  Skin shredded from decayed hands and arms as they ripped their way past splintered wood.  The dead wave smashed forward into the dark tunnel.
There was no more sound as they ambled, no reveling in their success, no complaints about their ruined flesh and broken bones.  There was no goal, no direction.  The horde walked where there was no barriers preventing their passage.  The once goal-directed impulses that had allowed them to navigate the world as living humans now operated in perversion, propelling them without reason, without volition. 
Darkness meant nothing to them.  Their shuffling gait was unhindered by anxiety.  Dead arms flailed as they squeezed past each other to push through the narrow sewage corridor.  Their efforts to fight past each other left smears of blood on gritty concrete walls.
Jimmy held his flaming spear in front him to illuminate the distant darkness.  It did not reveal the source of the sound.  Something had banged and cracked.  He faced the pile of junk blocking the cylindrical stone passage that headed back toward the surface.
The stack of heavy debris had obviously been placed intentionally.  It had been some time since Jimmy had taken this route home.  Another traveler must have feared pursuit by the living dead.
Keeping his eyes trained on the gloomy passage before him, his free hand groped at an old metal mattress frame.  Thoughtlessly, he flung it away.  He dragged several large flimsy springs out from in front of the metal ladder mounted in the concrete.
Jimmy recognized the approaching footfalls.  His choices battled in his swirling mind.  Run back the way he’d come.  He could move forward and try his luck in battle, but advancing on the dead was as foolish of a move as he could make.  His hand pulled blindly at the waste of the old world to get a path to the exit.
His light cast a sickly glow on a moving blur of pale.  Three bloody-faced, sallow corpses staggered forward with hands outstretched.  Jimmy had to force himself to pull away a wooden box, so he could get closer to the exit.  His legs wanted to run.  His hands wanted to thrust his flaming spear.  He knew it was exit or death. 
Their advance came faster than he suspected.  His spear struck outward, exploding through the rotten skull of the lead corpse.  It fell to its knees when the teenager withdrew his weapon, and then it toppled over perfectly still.
His spear pierced the other in the throat.  Blood spilled down its front, and Jimmy had to shake the weapon violently to get it free.
The bottleneck the three lead zombies had created in the tunnel mouth was now broken, allowing the mass to spill forward.  Jimmy fought their advance with his spear.  His anxiety at being eaten alive rendered his blows ineffective.  His only chance was the exit tunnel. 
The undead bobbed and wobbled around him.  Their hands and snapping teeth reached out for him.  Jimmy moved backwards preventing them from closing the circle around him.  His only chance against these numbers was an exit path. 
His hands released his weapon, and the fire went out when it hit the floor. 
Jimmy threw himself in the last place he recalled seeing the ladder.  His leg hit something sharp, and a fiery pain burned inside him.  The touch of lifeless, fingers thrust against him.  Instinct forced a swing of his arm before he launched himself up the ladder.  It was pure luck he hadn’t been bitten.  Jimmy wasn’t stopping to test his luck.
His arms and legs propelled him up into the darkness.  The zombies were below him moving wildly.  The pain in his leg exploded through his adrenaline, and he lost his grip.  More shooting pain raced through him as his wounded leg smashed against the metal rung.  The surge of agony made him cry out loud.  At the top of the tunnel the cover refused to move against his thrusting arms.  He slammed upward against the cover with his shoulder.  He slammed again keenly aware of the creatures below him slapping at the ladder.

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