Book 1 of the Plagued States of America series
When Tom, the son of a powerful Senator, becomes stranded in the Plagued States while searching for his lost sister, his only hope of survival rests in the hands of a few grizzled veteran zombie hunters and a mysterious half-breed zombie woman he thinks may know where to find his sister.
It took an insane kind of bravery to hunt zombies. For that matter, it took a certain level of insanity to even cross the channel in the first place. Avoiding the cold wind blowing sidelong over the bow, Tom stood at the front of the ferry, just inside the glass. The throb of the ferry engine rattled the windows next to him. Tom looked over his shoulder toward the booths. Several intimidating, grim zombie hunters sat and laughed amongst themselves. They weren't laughing about him, or even at him. Thankfully they ignored him.
Tom wasn't very interested in the goons behind him either, not compared to the sight ahead. For the past five minutes, Biter's Hill split the green edge of forest as though the St. Louis Arch had toppled over, leaving a half-ring wall reaching into the trees. The thought was absurd. St. Louis was a hundred or more miles north. Still, the sight of the semi-circular wall pushing back the depths of the zombie territory was chillingly real. As the ferry continued its course toward what looked like a slum settlement, Tom began to get a real sense of the misery he was inheriting.
"Cheer up," his brother Gary had told him when they first set out on their journey three days ago. "It's only twice a year."
Two journeys every year for the rest of his life. By the looks of Biter's Hill, that wouldn't be long. Gary inherited the responsibility first. He'd been coming out twice a year for the past five while Tom finished school. Now it was going to be Tom's turn, but not a mere five years. Gary wouldn't come back to this willingly. This was going to be a lifetime sentence, and Tom knew it. This was his punishment for letting it happen. He was supposed to protect Larissa.
The fact that after ten years his father still blamed Tom for what happened to his sister was proof of his father's insanity. In the midst of all the chaos during the first outbreak, expecting a frightened twelve-year-old boy to ensure the safety of his eight-year-old sister was outrageous. At the time, Tom didn't have the capacity to think rationally or to carry on like a tested hunter. He wasn't brave or strong enough to shrug off concern in the face of danger, not even today. At the onset of the breakout, the knowledge and experience the zombie hunters, scientists, and people like his father took for granted today, just didn't exist. It seemed that every year, as the understanding of how to control the beasts became commonplace, the accusations of how Tom "should have known" were cast in layer upon layer of woven steel. It felt like a chain shackled to his ankle, put there in that one minute when he left Larissa alone to check the staircase ahead. Because of it, he would suffer the rest of his life on a futile quest to find her.
Smoke rose from at least twenty buildings ahead, if they could be called that. The majority of the hillside was covered in what looked like small corrugated roof huts, formed up so tightly that the crude roads up the hillside looked too thin for vehicles. Only a dozen or so real buildings could be seen, most fronting the channel on a long pier. The enormous wall surrounding the town made it feel like a prison, which, for all intents and purposes, it was. This was, after all, the last foothold of human civilization along this stretch of the Moaning Coast. Beyond those walls were the Plague States, biter territory, or most commonly called hell.
Tom studied the shanties more closely as they crept ever nearer the shore. There was a semblance of order to them. They rose like Chinese rice paddies against the hill, tiered like stairs, the gutters of their rooftops angled to force any rain's run-off ever downward toward the channel to avoid erosion. There was a consistent pattern of rust to everything with only a few patches of shiny newness that assured him at some level there was an attempt being made to adhere to basic civility. At least they hadn't all degraded to the same level of savagery as those outside the walls.
The ferry engines growled, shaking the whole deck. Massive pylons stood sentinel, bumping the ferry to its mooring. Four uniformed guards with assault rifles waited on the pier. Large steel bollards herded the vehicles toward a narrow gate where the guards waited. The smoke from the fires on the hill drifted toward the channel and Tom could smell it over the salty brine of the channel water foaming around the ferry. He expected some pungent smell of decay, but instead it stirred his hunger, giving off the inviting scent of broiling meat.
Gary came up beside Tom and told him it was time to drive off. Tom followed his brother and the hunters heading down to the vehicle deck. Their Jeep felt so small compared with the trucks surrounding them. The hunters drove an assortment of old delivery flat-beds converted to carry cages and equipment, sporting all kinds of survival gear like generators, drums of fuel, lighting systems, canoes, rope webbing, and even a flame thrower. Engines abruptly started, rattling around them as the disembarking process began. It was a slow effort. Each vehicle was inspected by the soldiers and every person was scanned.
When the soldier approached Gary, he held a card out the window. The soldier took the card and read it quickly, then handed it back.
"Class Four," the soldier told his partner on the other side of the Jeep. The soldiers scanned the arms of Gary and Tom for RFID tags to log them as visitors.
"What was that all about?" Tom asked as they drove off.
"They scan us, but the record never leaves the station," Gary told him. "Father doesn't want anyone knowing what we're doing."
"So what's that card?"
"My security clearance. You'll get one too," Gary told him, looking over at his younger brother as if expecting jealousy. "Once Dad thinks you're up to it."
They drove past a line of similarly outfitted oversized trucks waiting to board the ferry back to the Rurals, back to civilization, the difference being that their cages and pens atop their vehicles were filled with zombies. Tom lost count in a hurry. There were fifteen, maybe as many as twenty vehicles in line. At least a hundred zombies heading for the Rurals.
"Just one ferry a day, right?" Tom asked, doing the math. Between Biter's Hill and the other two sanctioned stations, that made a little over 100,000 zombies a year. He was surprised there were any left.
"Just one," Gary confirmed as he pulled the Jeep into an opening alongside the wider lower road. There were no clear demarcations for parking lanes here. Just rows of hunting vehicles.
"Why did we bring the Jeep?" Tom said. They didn't really need a vehicle here. The town was too small to use a vehicle, and he knew they weren't going outside the wall. They certainly weren't going to be buying any zombies today. At least, he hoped they weren't.
"It'd get stolen if we left it on the other side," Gary said. "Come on, we'll have to hoof it from here. The registry is on the other side of the corral." Gary pointed the way. Tom reached for his knapsack, but Gary put a hand on his. "Leave it." Gary gave him a wry smile.
Tom bought the zombie survival kit before they left on this trip. He didn't know what to expect, and even though his brother assured him they wouldn't need anything more than what they carried at home—a wallet and a phone—Tom just didn't trust him.
"You don't want everyone thinking you're a newbie around here."
"Fine," Tom said grudgingly. As his brother slid out of the Jeep, Tom opened a side pocket in the knapsack and pulled out the injection pack. He'd rather be dead than be without an inhibitor. He wondered if Gary was carrying some and just didn't say anything about it.
"Hey," Tom said as they started walking away from the Jeep. "Why are you leaving the keys in the ignition?"
"In case someone needs to move it," Gary said with a grin and a shrug. "Welcome to the wild west, brother."
It was no different than any cattle or horse corral he'd ever seen on a farm with one very obvious exception. Zombies. Not a herd of them as Tom expected at first, but a line of ambivalent, nearly albino men and women packed tightly into an enclosed course made of bars and chain link that circled the corral completely. There was a two-door man-trap at both ends guarded by soldiers wearing black uniforms. A platform above held several men who used long poles with nooses on the end to grab the zombies by the neck and move them along, herd them toward the interior, through a two-stage gate trap. At the trap, one man held back all but one zombie while another man drove it through.
Inside the corral, a doctor wearing thick leather arm-length gloves and what appeared to be a bullet-proof suit with a high neck guard and a helmet was assisted by several other men similarly garbed. A man lassoed the arriving zombie and forced it to a table in the middle of the corral. There the zombie was bent over, strapped in place, and operated on by the doctor. In five or six quick strokes the doctor took out the salivary glands and shoved them into a plastic container marked "toxic." The zombie was then released to the other group of men who continually poked and prodded the zombies in recovery. The operation didn't seem to concern the zombies. They cared more about the huge slab of meat hanging from a hook. Three such scarred beasts already gnawed at the carcass when the fourth joined them. Tom took in the scene all too quickly for his liking. The oozing blood from the zombies' necks as they fed on the carcass was sickening.
Tom looked away. Gary stood above him on the hillside, impassive.
"Disgusting, I know," Gary said. He wore indifference like a badge, like all the hardened hunters around them. "Raw meat helps them heal up quickly, though. It'll take about a day for the wound to heal and one or two more before they aren't contagious anymore. Without their glands, they're just mindless eating machines. No real harm."
"They'll still try to eat you," Tom replied.
"Only if they're hungry."
Gary led the way toward the registrar's office. Tom didn't budge. He looked up the hillside. The shanties weren't homes as he had originally thought. They were cages, and inside each were an assortment of zombies, all standing listlessly or shuffling about. They were on display. For sale.
The cages were made of various materials, almost all being some kind of metal bar or chain-link. Corrugated roof tops not only helped drive the rain down the hill, but kept the sun off the fair-skinned bodies. Zombies didn't like open sunlight, after all. Fine for factory labor, but it didn't help farmers any. Their Jeep was 40% partially assembled by Zombie Labor. What big ticket item wasn't these days?
"Best slaves money can buy, right here. Have a glance, fella!" a leathery old man said, tapping a metal cup onto the bars of the nearest cage. The noise got the attention of two ghoulish women inside who came shuffling slowly across the short space in their pen.
"No thanks," Gary said gravely, holding up a hand to ward off the old slave trader. Tom caught up with his brother, staring in at the two female zombies with the kind of awe he knew he should be hiding in a place like this. They were dressed in the skimpiest of negligee.
The slave trader banged his cup again on the side of the cage, causing the zombie women to turn slightly toward the noise—they had been trained to think of it as a food call, apparently.
"No worries, mister," the old slave trader told Gary, standing more erect, and Tom noticed a missing pinky on the hand he used to wag a finger at Gary. "See here! No salivary glands," the slaver went on. "Gentle as kittens too. No worries over getting infected from these two!"
"No thanks," Gary repeated, pushing past a group of men gawking into another pen. A woman stood in the back, more lifelike and human than these other zombies. It made Tom wonder if she was even infected. She had that distant look to her eyes, the lost remorse and vacancy of any mind-numbed zombie, but there was something about her color.
"Ah, come on and at least take a look! These two aren't communicable anymore," he added, hoping to slow Gary down. "Have a go at them, if you like." The slaver sent Tom a wink. Tom glowered back. It sickened him to think that in a place like this there were probably plenty to take him up on the offer. He'd never seen this kind of debauchery. It gave him chills. "You like them?" the old slaver asked Tom directly. "Take ‘em both for eight thousand. Nice and gentle. They might try to take a bite out of you from time to time, but what woman wouldn't, eh?" He coughed as he laughed heartily.
Tom shook his head in disbelief. These were supposed to be people, or at least they were people once. He couldn't imagine the depravity it took for someone to even suggest it. The only thing he wanted to do with the zombie horde was slaughter every last one of them so this whole nightmare would go away. It was the humane thing to do. Too bad there wasn't any way that would happen. The scientists all agreed. The only way to kill the zombie plague was to cure it.
"Watch out for that one," the old slaver barked. He moved a lot quicker than his old body would suggest, stepping in front of the crowd around the nearly human looking woman's pen. "She's a lot quicker than the others, and she bites!" He emphasized his missing pinky while laughing. A tamed zombie must have taken the old man's finger. The scar looked too old to have come since the discovery of inhibitors.