Part 19 — Beholder
Four miles on the road, Jeff learned exactly why they hadn’t seen any sprinters for weeks. The roads east of the mansion were heavily cleared and fortified. Thick residue coated the roadside– quivering and shifting like leftover foam from a bubble bath. They could only be signs of a biological cleansing.
Jeff ran the scanner a few times and found no traces of radiation. Whatever they used to kill the zombies, hadn’t been dangerous for humans– or no more dangerous than cleaning supplies. As long as he didn’t get out and lick the road, the chemicals posed him no threat.
Forty miles in, Harriet took over driving duties, giving herself a break from fiddling with Buzzie. Jeff mulled over the scan data for the umpteenth time.
“This is weird,” Harriet said. “They usually just bomb highways, but I don’t see any scorch marks.”
“This can’t be a coincidence. I mean, if we’re heading to DC there’s only a few ways we can go. Methinks Blackbird is clearing a path for us. It’s pretty annoying actually. I was looking forward to blowing off some steam.”
“The road’s even in good shape. This is almost like a normal road trip– before any of this went–”
Harriet slammed on the brakes and the scanner flew out of his hands and smacked into the windshield.
“What the hell?” He regained his bearings and turned to find she had already left the car. Jeff saw it too, four sprinters lurking on the roadside. He regained his composure and hurried out, with his rifle at the ready. They were ignoring Harriet, and behaved like any sprinter would when no one watched them– dormant and vapid. More importantly a weird cloud of dust blocked visibility to the north.
“This is fucked up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this close.” Harriet raised her rifle. “Hey, wake up!”
None of them reacted, only letting out their dull moans and staggered in place.
Jeff pressed his lips together and stepped forward. “Cover me. I wanna see something.”
Harriet complied, tracing a bead on the closest zombie. The residue lining the roadside separated them like a city border. Jeff poked the nose of his gun against its temple and pulled the trigger, splattering its brains onto the ground.
The others glanced around, reacting to the noise only briefly and went back to the measured lethargy.
Jeff lowered his gun. “Holy crap. This stuff is like… zombie repellant.”
“It’s no fun I they just sit there. Go test the waters.”
He scowled over at her.
“Don’t look at me like that. I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you could handle it. Besides, I can drop two sprinters super easy.”
“One for you. Two for me.”
Jeff followed the path of foam down the road a bit, keeping his eye on the oblivious zombies. After about thirty paces, he turned and shouldered his assault rifle. Here goes nothing.
He hopped over the line and all three zombies perked up, spun towards him and let out a piercing roar. A deadly calm fell over him—this was business as usual.
They ran towards him at full tilt. Harriet took her first shot and the lead zombie’s head exploded into a cloud of red mist and fell over, lifeless.
Jeff held his ground, tightening his focus. The second sprinter stepped over the first body and leapt. He kept cool. More than enough time for Harriet.
He dodged the lunge, shoving it away and lined up his sight on the third sprinter. He squeezed the trigger, pelting the zombie with a three shot burst. Its face shredded and it fell backwards, letting out a piercing death cry.
Harriet’s second shot rang through his ears and putrid blood splattered on the back of his neck. The remaining zombie’s corpse flopped onto his back, its outstretched arms dangled over his shoulders.
Jeff let out an exasperated groan and pushed away the corpse. “Come on… I gave you plenty of time to kill it before it lunged again.”
Harriet approached, setting her rifle lazily on her shoulder. “They’re getting faster. Either that, or we’re getting slower.”
A chorus of roars filled the air. More were on the way.
“So?” Jeff said, grinning. “Want to play a bit? Blow off some steam?”
“I’m game.” Harriet crossed the threshold and walked beside Jeff. The rolling dust clouds ahead stirred and six sprinters broke through. Jeff flipped his rifle to single shot and took aim at the closest assailant. His first shot went wide, grazing its shoulder. Such shots were worthless against them.
Harriet’s first shot tore through the throat of a zombie on her side. Its head lolled to the side and fell off.
He adjusted, landing his next shot in the zombie’s forehead. He took a second shot tearing through the leg of a second, stumbling it.
Harriet cleared her chamber and shot again, this time hitting another sprinter in the eye. Its face blew apart, letting it get a few more steps before it fell limp.
Two shots from Harriet in a row inspired Jeff to show off. He aimed for the remaining zombie’s leg, and hit. It did a decent job of masking his previous misfire. Then, took clean headshots in both of the prone zombies. Both of them fell silent.
Harriet tugged on her rifle but hit a jam. Jeff raised his assault rifle and realized he was dry. Stupid surplus ten shot clips. She calmly pulled out her pistol and finished the last one. “Someone’s been slacking off. Ten shots for five kills? That’s pretty bad considering one was a freebie.”
“Yeah… yeah…” Jeff reloaded his rifle and readied it. “Call it a warm up.”
A low rumble filled the air and ten more sprinters burst through the distant dust.
“Looks like you have a chance to redeem…”
Twenty more followed the initial ten.
“Uh…?” Jeff backpedaled, trading a wary glance with Harriet.
“Let’s back off. No use wasting ammo.”
Together, they backed over the foam line and the sprinters slowed to a stop, the clouds above parted. A huge form pushed through revealing a massive, singular eye set in the middle of a pulsing black mass. Inky goo dripped from it like leaking tears, painting the ground beneath black as pitch.
“What the fuck?” Jeff watched it creep towards them. “Have you ever—”
“Now’s not the time to admire it,” Harriet said. “Think about it. Why are we safe right now?”
“The foam, why?”
“You think that thing is leaking zombie goo randomly? We need to get the hell out of here.” Harriet turned and ran. Jeff followed, entranced by the massive thing floating through the air. A glob of goo landed on one of the Zombies, pinning it to the ground and wrapped around it like an eggshell made of gelatin.
“You drive,” Harriet said, tossing him the keys. “Just stay ahead of it, I’m gonna poke around it with the drone.”
“Got it.” Jeff got in and started up the engine. Harriet grabbed the drone out of the back, set it on the road and hopped into the passenger seat.
He rolled the car forward slow and deliberate, barely faster than a brisk walk. The drone sprung to life and took to the air; Jeff caught a glimpse of it in the rear view mirror.
“That’s one ugly motherfucker,” Harriet said, scowling at the monitor.
A crackling voice came over the transceiver. “We call them Overlords.” IT took Jeff a moment to recognize it as Karen’s voice… or rather ‘Blackbird.’
Harriet flinched at the intrusion. “You’re watching us?”
“Of course,” Karen said. “I knew you wouldn’t resist my little gift and don’t bother trying to scrub it, I have the core programming put into this thing enough that it would take you years to remove it. If you don’t like us watching… just destroy the drone.”
“So what is that thing?”
“A node to something really bad. That foam you see on the ground protects you, makes you invisible to them. You could go outside of the lines… but they could burrow into your head and control you. That is they could, but I gave you two the treatment to protect your minds. If they’re within a few miles you hallucinate, up close they can look into your thoughts, direct eye contact… you’re theirs.”
Harriet went pale. “But the foam stuff stops that, right?”
“Well,” Jeff spoke up. “We were out of the foam for a second there, but we backed off before it came through the dust cloud.”
“I would avoid it, even protected by our treatment. It can still mess with your mind, especially if you’re tired or stressed. The treatment and foam should stop the long ranged effects.”
But Harriet didn’t take the treatment.
“Thank for the data,” Karen said. “I figured you two would wander off the beaten trail, but now you realize it is suicide. So, I assume this will discourage you from making any detours? Those things are everywhere now and we need you to stop them.”
“Yes. You’re not infected with the base infection—the one that turns you into a Zombie. You’re infected with the strain that makes Overlords.”
“Whoa. Hold up. That thing used to be human?”
“Only the core. The rest of it is well… legion. A bunch of human bodies piled up to form what you saw. The eye part is just… grown. It’s complicated.”
The drone landed on the roof of the Humvee and Harriet set the controls on the dashboard. “So, you’re saying we might turn into one of those things?”
“That’s why we sent you treatment. You DID take it, right?”
“Yeah,” Harriet lied.
“Well then, see you in DC. Have a safe drive.” The comm. cut out.
“Where’s the treatment?” Harriet said.
“It should be in the back. I need to take my second dose anyway… so…”
“WHERE in the back.”
“The case the drone came with, the cooled one.”
Harriet paled. “Uh… about that. I sort of stripped it down for parts. It’s no so cooled anymore.”
“What? Why would you do that?”
“The drone would overheat if I didn’t.”
“Harriet, that was hours ago. The medicine probably spoiled by now. It’s like those microbes in yogurt… they’re super delicate. That is not good. Really not good.”
“How often were we supposed to take that stuff?”
“Every four hours.”
“We’re good. We’ll be fine. We still have the foam stuff protecting us… right?”
Jeff gripped the steering wheel and fought back tears of frustration. Karen must have done this on purpose. She must have known they’d try to run—now it wasn’t an option.